Short Story: “Levels of the Game”

Some cries for help come from unexpected sources. (This story takes place between the end of my second novel, “Deadly Attractor”, which is available for the Nook reader and app, and the beginning of my first one, “The Shoals of Time”.)

“Levels of the Game”
by P. Orin Zack

TPC Agent Ernie Vacca lowered his thumb towards the bisected sunrise design on the shiny device in his palm, and slowly exhaled. If he weren’t paranoid, he reminded himself, he would have been crazy. Or dead.

Working in the Global Directorate’s so-called ‘peace-keeping’ agency may have gotten him access to the world’s most secret tech, but because of what the gadget cradled in his hand could do, it wasn’t safe for him to even think about shutting down the Temporal Planning Commission. After all, the Synergizer he was fingering not only made it possible to see conflicts before they happened, it was also how agents like him hacked reality, how they had kept the peace for a hundred years.

Planning the agency’s demise was just like any other potential conflict. If his colleagues understood the pattern his planned actions made in the TimeStream, they would foil him, just as he had foiled so many other potential conflicts, and make sure he couldn’t try it again. Yet that was exactly what he had resolved to do.

Fortunately, he was assigned to an outpost station. With all of the important work being done back at GD Headquarters in Nullarbor City, he was able to set up the subterfuge without being noticed here in Los Angeles. It was just as well. He didn’t much like the hospitality in Australia. MexAmerica’s capital city was plenty good enough for him. It suited his needs just fine. Especially now.

He finished his coffee, rose, and walked towards the window. It was mid-morning, and the commuter flyways close to ground level were starting to empty of their inbound traffic. He’d rented the suite because it had a good view of the Suarez Hotel, the glitzy palace where the MexAmerican trade bureau was hosting a system-wide import-export conference, and of the western sky. And that made it just perfect for the incident he had arranged. It had already been set in motion. He was just here for the show, and to add the finishing touches. He glanced again at the Synergizer in trepidation. All he could risk was one quick nudge of the TimeStream, and only at the right moment.

Somewhere overhead, he knew, a de-orbiting passenger transport was being hijacked by a pair of barely-competent field techs returning from their first deployment to the GD’s Earthwatch station on the moon. A highly improbable string of coincidence and accident had enabled them to seize control of the ship and aim it at the Suarez, events that he had arranged with the same disregard for collateral damage the TPC had embraced in its efforts to avoid conflict ever since the Global Directorate was first formed.

Vacca smiled as he raised his eyes towards where the ship would first appear. Right on cue, a tiny shape emerged from the hazed-out sky over the Pacific Ocean, dropped into the approach path for Columbia Spaceport out in the Mohavi Desert, and then veered off course for its final descent into the Suarez’s upper floors. It was moving too fast to be heard until the final few seconds, so there wouldn’t be any chance for those in or near the hotel to escape.

He raised his hand as the ship closed on the nearby hotel. He squeezed the logo when the sonic boom rattled past, activating the Synergizer’s combination psychic shield and destabilizer. A wave of nausea tore at him, as if he had awakened into a dream he’d just left, as a bubble of energy swelled, twisting his little bit of space, so that now, overlaying the horrendous collision, he saw what looked like a rocky stream. The ‘water’ was the flow of probable events; the ‘rocks’ were the people and events that influenced the flow. If he reached downstream — towards the future — and touched the flow, he would see the world through the eyes of someone living in that time, in that choice of possible futures.

If it did nothing else, the Synergizer afforded its user a glimpse of what lay ahead. Knowing the range of possible futures, and the results of choosing them, governance could be transformed dramatically. Offering such advice had been the chartered purpose of the TPC. But the gift of the Synergizer didn’t stop there, because it was also possible to affect the flow, to guide it, even to cause it to act erratically. This was the deepest secret of the planetary government, a secret known only to agents of the Temporal Planning Commission. They used it to keep the peace. Vacca was about to use it to expose the agency’s hand, because that was the only way to escape the trap that mankind had snared itself in, the only way to free humanity from an eternity of avoiding the risks that make life worth living.

That it was also the only way to quit his job and live had not escaped his notice either.

In the moment that he had on this side of reality, Vacca needed to trigger the more mundane part of his scheme. If he did nothing further, the fireball that engulfed the upper floors of the Suarez would consume the fog of fuel scattered in the impact and go out. But the destruction he had already caused could not be the end of it. He also needed to bring down the building, and in as puzzling a manner as he could muster. It wasn’t impossible, after all, for someone to have coincidentally arranged for demolition charges to be planted at critical places around the building, or for any number of other unlikely events to have come to a head at exactly the same time. Not impossible. Simply very unlikely. And that was the beauty of the Synergizer, because with a deft touch it was possible to stir the flow of events in just the right way, to stitch into the current scheme of things past events which hadn’t previously occurred. Events like weeks of covert placement of explosives, exotic weapon tests, or any of the other bits of nonsense he now shunted towards the explosion that had added enough chaos to the TimeStream to hide his handiwork.

Weeks of practice in the simulator paid off. In moments, he was done. Flicking off the field, he re-emerged into the waking dream he had transformed into a nightmare for so many, and closed his eyes to the carnage he had caused. The past he had just grafted was now everyone’s past. There would be no way to disprove it, just as there was no way to disprove any of the countless acts of cold cunning the agency had employed over the years to keep the peace.

The fire raged for another twenty minutes, attracting gawkers and newsgatherers of all kinds. Rescue workers swarmed to evacuate guests who survived the impact, treat the wounded and identify the dead. And then, with a flurry of explosions, the hotel dissolved from the top down, a wave of expulsions preceding the rapidly disappearing building towards the ground, setting off a ricochet of echoes through the increasingly dusty air of Central L.A. The newly-grafted demolition thread ensured that the building fell into its own basement, limiting damage to the hotel itself. The weapons test he grafted in vaporized the debris before it hit the ground, keeping cleanup costs low. If the attack on New York City at the dawn of the 21st century had not been expunged from reality by Vacca’s predecessors, he might have noticed a few similarities. As it was, that version of the past was not merely dead and gone, in this part of the TimeStream, it never even happened.

* * *

“To be honest, Ernie,” the Director snapped, “I don’t care if you let it happen or made it happen. Either way, you’re responsible for putting Los Angeles and the rest of MexAmerica into shock.”

It hadn’t taken long for Lara Everett Stinner, current head of the TPC, to call Vacca back to Australia for a tongue-lashing. He was ready.

“Oh, right,” he said, snidely. “And how is this different from any of the other major paths we’ve had to purge? People die. So what? You said yourself that heading off the alternative – uncontrolled warfare – was worth the cost.”

“How dare you throw that back in my face,” she shouted. “I was talking about calculated trade-offs that we spent months planning. Your incompetence is utterly stupefying. If it wasn’t for the fact that you’re a brilliant operative, I’d have stitched you out of all our lives years ago.”

Vacca raised a finger. “Look. We both know that the pair I used to down that ship were part of a group you wanted marginalized. And setting the Lunar trade embargo back by getting rid of the entire committee doesn’t exactly hurt your standing in the GD Council, either. The Directorate can’t afford to let the colonies get the upper hand, and you’ve been tasked with keeping them down. So fine. They’re down. What’s your beef?”

Stinner glared at him. He’d been a thorn in her side ever since she first set foot in Dobrin Center. It was one reason she’d kept him on assignment in the field. “Okay. Here’s the deal. Get back to your beat. Keep things quiet in your district, and I’ll stay out of your face.”

“That’s fine with me.”

Her eyes narrowed. “But the moment I get wind of you screwing off with our tech again, I pull your credentials, assign you to something harmless like playing tag with some mid-level diplomat, and have you transferred off the planet. Maybe even out of the system. Got that?”

* * *

Vacca spent his spare time during the next several months monitoring the spurious virtual discussions about his handiwork that traced across the net. Most people didn’t see any reason to look further than the officially sanctioned narrative about suicide bombers from space. The MexAmerican government, at the GD’s direction, assured everyone that the organization that planned the hijacking had been eliminated, and most of the popular news aggregators ran with it.

There were others, though, who didn’t accept the official explanation, and these were the people that interested Vacca the most, and in fact were the target audience for the reality mashup he had assembled in the chaos of the crash.

When most people go looking for answers, as these folks did, they eventually find one. If there’s something hidden in the noise, they’ll pull it out, polish it up, and show it around. Their answer might even attract a following. Which, of course, was exactly what happened in the aftermath of Vacca’s hit on the Suarez Hotel. The trick, though, was that he’d buried a number of mysteries in that noise. So, what started as an undifferentiated mass of people dissatisfied with the official version began to split apart.

There were those who insisted that the only way that transport could have entered the airspace over L.A. was if someone had ordered the military forces that patrolled the Global Defense Zone circling the Earth to stand down. They offered no explanation for why this might have been done. Others focused their attention on how the hotel was destroyed, which of course instigated further fragmentation over the exact method. Some said it was a controlled demolition, others insisted that the building was turned to dust with some kind of exotic weapon. The various groups even started to attack one another, which prevented all of them from getting any further.

Then, one day, another kind of challenge was offered, one that stopped Vacca cold in the midst of planning ways to dissuade a promising musician from mounting an opera which looked to have a chance at strengthening the on-again-off-again union movement.

It was a small group, probably less than a dozen people. They’d started comparing all of the recordings of the event – pictures, sound, transmission – and discovered some anomalies that defied explanation, at least for the moment. Of course, Vacca knew exactly what they’d discovered, because he wanted someone to find it, just not anyone in the TPC. They’d captured the moment at which he’d performed the reality mashup. What remained was finding out what they’d do about it, whether they’d write it off as nonsense, or accept the absurdity as a premise just to see where it led.

He didn’t have long to wait. One of them managed to track him down. A bear of a man named Lasky. The guy’s face was staring at him from the comm display. And he was waiting for an answer.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Vacca tossed off casually. “I don’t know anything about demolitions. So how could I have done it?”

“I didn’t say you did.”

“What then?”

“I think you’re some kind of government intelligence agent. The recordings we’ve found couldn’t be real. They contradict one another too much.”

Vacca studied Lasky for a moment. He wondered at the man’s archaic choice of clothes and hairstyle, and whether the lenses in his ancient glassframes served any useful purpose other than to disguise his appearance. Not that it mattered, really. He could trace anything he wanted. Still… “An intelligence agent. And if I were, what would my game be?”

Lasky chuckled. “To play games, of course. Mind games. Psychological diversions to keep everyone so busy diving down rat-holes that they don’t catch on to what’s really going on.”

“And that is…?”

“Don’t patronize me, Mr. Vacca. It wasn’t too difficult to track you down, once I caught on to the propaganda that’s been layered over the destruction of the Suarez. Everyone leaves a trail. Even you.”

“Okay. So let’s assume for the moment that I’m a disinformation artist. That I set up contradictory explanations for what happened in Los Angeles that day. Even that I somehow managed to fake up those recordings you keep coming back to. What then? What do you want? Why did you call me?”

“To call you out on it. To expose you and the spy shop you work for.”

“As I told you before, Mr. Lasky, I don’t work for an espionage agency. So, if you’re finished wasting my time, I’d like to–.”

“No! I don’t buy it. There’s no other explanation for all of the obviously faked recordings. None of that stuff even makes the least bit of sense.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Lasky.” Vacca sighed heavily and killed the connection. It seemed that nothing he could do would entice anyone to take that huge leap of faith, to accept as possible the impossible that the Synergizer made so easy. It was just too much to ask of people who’d been raised in a world devoid of the kind of risks and uncertainties that a century of tinkering with the TimeStream had wrought.

The world desperately needed a revolution, needed to cast off the self-imposed shackles that humanity had taken up when it delegated the job of keeping the peace to a technology that was so good at avoiding conflict. Damn hard to get a revolution started against those odds.

He’d just have to keep trying. Maybe next time…


Afterward: I started writing “The Shoals of Time” in 1983, and posted a submission of an early version in 1986. I dusted it off, made some revisions and pitched it again around 1990. From there, it ended up on the web, as an eBook, and in print-on-demand paperback. The tech I envisioned which enabled the government to pre-emptively act against threats has gotten a lot scarier as I consider how it might be used by administrations of the current day.

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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