Saturday, March 20, 2021

Big Papa: Gray Power (Part IV)

Needless to say, changing everything about how the afterlife simulation works by going back in time and rescuing the exceptions isn’t actually my first act as keeper. A lot that happens in this place is automated, and these people are pretty self-sufficient, but they don’t do everything. The job demands I spend a pretty significant amount of time managing the higher level residents. They ask a lot of the program, and while it’s not my responsibility to approve—or even acknowledge—every alteration to the code, I do have to make sure it doesn’t get too crazy. Technically, the Level Tens are Unrestricted, and can do whatever they want, but not all of them can be trusted. Back on Earth, there is and was a group of special choosing ones called the Springfield Nine. Or maybe they’re chosen ones; the truth is unclear. A man by the name of Rothko Ladhiffe was dangerous when he was alive, and he’s dangerous now. He wields far too much power than he deserves, and he’s constantly trying to tear down the establishment. The problem is that he’s capable of realizing his dreams, so I have to combat him at every turn. I’m apparently not allowed to demote him, but I’m seriously considering breaking that rule. They’re my rules now, and though I’ve not changed anything yet, I reserve that right.
The residents accept me as their new leader with no fuss. They’re not particularly ecstatic about it either. I kind of thought they would become joyful—and maybe even start singing—as people did when Dorothy killed the two witches. They don’t seem to be giving it much thought. Like I said, the place pretty much runs itself. As far as I know, it’s the longest-running civilization in history, outlasting all others by an order of magnitude. So it’s no surprise they have it fairly well figured out.
The code automatically has me wearing rainbow-colored clothes. I can change the design and accessories all I want, but I can’t wear fewer than six colors at a time. People want to know who you are, and what you can do. It’s as much for safety as it is for status. Many avoid interacting too much with anyone they see wearing violet, since the Unrestricteds are the only ones capable of killing someone permanently. They don’t want to piss them off, and any experience can take a turn, even if it starts out innocuous or pleasant. For this reason, the Violets are powerful, but generally alone, which probably diminishes the fun of being a Violet in the first place.
Lowell is the only one wearing white, as he is the only person who was resurrected, but has since returned, except for me. Unlike their regard for me, which lacks excitement, they are in such awe of him. They treat him like a king, who can help them, and change their lot in life. He could give them anything. He could upgrade them. Of course Unrestricted people could help them too, but people assume Lowell is better at it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Manipulating the code doesn’t require an advanced computer science degree, but it does demand a level of understanding of how computers work. As a nomadic serial killer in life, who chose his victims by literally looking at them, he never needed a computer. He only ever had a flip phone, and in fact, never figured out how to turn it off. He could never keep track of the charger either, so whenever one died, he would just take another one out of his trunk. They were all burners, so he bought them in bulk, and only used them to order delivery.
Today, he tried to upgrade someone from Yellow to Green, so she could have her own place to live, but he accidentally downgraded her to Orange. It’s taken an executive order from me to get her out of Hock. “Again, please accept my deepest apologies for what you’ve endured.”
“It’s fine,” the victim, Paisley assures me.
“Still, in recompense for your troubles, please allow me to convert you to Level Seven, Elite. I promise you, nothing will go wrong this time. Since I’m new here, I’ll conscript an Unrestricted to do it for me, just to make sure it works.”
“No, really,” Paisley continues. “I can just go back to Limited. It’s fine.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” I say. “It would reflect too poorly on me. I have to do something to remedy this error, so people don’t lose faith in me.”
She smiles kindly. “Okay.”
I look over my shoulder. “Gilbert.”
“Yes, madam, I’m ready.” Gilbert Boyce was a spawn before death, which means he wasn’t born with time powers, but was accidentally transformed by his enemy when that enemy tried to kill him the first time. That moment was so powerful that it actually rewrote Gilbert’s neurology, and turned him into the rarest kind of temporal manipulator. Pryce felt this entitled Gilbert to be an Unrestricted without earning it. The irony is that Gilbert used his power to operate against Pryce by coding a special section of the simulation where Pryce couldn’t detect him. My friends and I used this to formulate our escape plan. Well, they mostly used it. It was my job at the time to stay in the main simulation so I could spoof their respective individual codes, and prevent Pryce from getting suspicious.
“As you wish,” Paisley says respectfully.
Gilbert approaches her, and opens up the virtual toolbox. From there, he simply has to move a slider up or down. He could send her down to Black if he wanted, or even all the way up to his own level. He can’t resurrect her, which is one of the few restrictions that people like him have. He’s only supposed to make her Pink, but instead makes her Level Nine, World-Builder, which is only one level below him. “Whoopsie-doodles,” he says before closing the toolbox, and stepping back. “That can’t be undone.”
Paisley’s clothes turn from orange to gray.
“Yes, it can,” I contend.
“Oh, it can?” He asks, pretending not to know. “Hmm...weird.” He looks over into the aether. “What was that? Yes, I’ll be there right away. Sorry, gotta go. Sorry for my mistake.” He teleports away.
It was absolutely not a mistake, but I feel like it would be even shittier for me to downgrade her yet again, even though Elite is a perfectly acceptable level. Plenty of people here have been living as Elites for thousands of years with no complaints. Not everyone wants to alter the code, and build their own things. I’m not sure whether Paisley is one of these people, or if she’s more like Gilbert, who enjoys having the control.
Paisley looks nervous. “Okay, go ahead, put me right.”
“No,” I determine. “This is what’s happened, and this is how we’ll keep it. You are a world-builder now. I pull up a fake holographic tablet. “Here are the directions to Siva University, where experts will teach you how to code new simulations.”
“I don’t know if I want this.”
“Yes you do.” Lowell steps forward. “I’m good at reading people. You’re thrilled. It’s okay, you don’t have to feel bad about your ambition. I screwed up, and this is for your pain and suffering. Now, go to school so you can do something good with it.”
“Okay,” Paisley says. “Thank you.” She teleports away.
Lowell chuckles. “I can’t wait.”
“For what? To see what worlds she designs?”
“No, for the consequences. When people find out they can be upgraded just for being wrongfully downgraded, they’re gonna start looking for ways to be wrongfully downgraded.”
“Oh shit, I didn’t think of that.” I release a virtual sigh, and massage my virtual forehead. “Call a meeting. Mandatory. I need to speak with all the Unrestricteds. We have to make sure this doesn’t get out of control.”
“Let’s set up the meeting for later today,” Lowell counters. “There’s someone you should speak to first. I think you know who.”
Yes, I do.

I walk into the prison alone. The guards nod cordially as I pass through the barriers like they aren’t even there. I don’t even have to ask for visitation, because they know who I’m here to see. I just walk into the room, and find him waiting there with his personal security detail. “Here so soon?” he asks. “You must be desperate.”
“I just need some advice,” I tell him. “Nothing’s wrong yet, but I’m worried.”
“What have you done?”
“First, how are you doing?”
Pryce leans his head back, but not the rest of his body. “Well, it’s a whole lot less fun in here. Boring, I would say. I’m surviving, though.”
“I can give you pain patches,” I promise, “if you would just accept them.”
“You could also just turn on the violence inhibitors,” he argues.
“I can’t make too many changes too fast. You know this. It would cause psychological problems, even if the changes are objectively superior.”
“I like the pain,” he says. “And I kind of like being in here. Ya know, I spent decades in a real prison before I became the foremost expert in mind transference. It feels a little like home.”
I look over at his guard. Like Gilbert, Nerakali Preston was also a time traveler who was immediately assigned Unrestricted privileges upon her death. Her road to redemption was a long one, and she’s improved so much that she wants to complete some penance to make up for some of the things that she did while she was alive. This is her way of accomplishing that. She shares the cell with Pryce, and can’t leave unless she asks to be released permanently. Until then, she does wear pain patches so she can’t be harmed, and she keeps a close eye on Pryce for me. He’s obviously here for a reason, and I need to know what that reason is before it’s too late. “Report.”
“He doesn’t need pain patches either way,” she explains. “Nobody would dare hurt him. They think this is just some kind of publicity stunt, and that he can walk out of here just as easily as you walked in. They call him Hancock now, like that superhero-angel movie where the titular character does the same thing.”
“Is this true?” I ask him. “Are you Hancocking us?”
“As I recall, he didn’t get out until they let him out. But regardless, no.” He snaps the chest of his shirt. “These are real.” He pounds his fist on the table twice, demonstratively, and not violently. “And I can’t walk through walls.”
I don’t entirely believe him, but I move on. “Did you hear about the woman who was accidentally oranged?”
“Yeah, I saw her. She was only in here for, like, an hour.”
“It was thirty minutes at most,” I correct. “Anyway, I obviously had to fix it, so I called in a favor.”
“Lemme guess...Gilbert Boyce.”
He’s too smart. He’s literally too smart, I wish he were dumber. “Yes. He slid her all the way up to World-Builder.”
“And you’re worried that this is gonna start some trend, where people will find ways to game the system.” Yeah, way too smart.
“Yes, I’m meeting with the Unrestricted people to warn and prepare them for it.”
“Yeah, don’t do that.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“People don’t like to be told what to do, especially people with the power to reject the advice. You’re only gonna remind them just how powerful they are. The entire population is in the hands of a few hundred people. A few hundred people that you can’t control. Do you really want to talk to them about their power? Most are content just making goats that walk upside down midair, and undenary star systems. Don’t be putting ideas in their heads. When Alexander the Great reached Level Ten 700 years ago, I made an off-handed comment about how he could once more destroy civilizations. Asshole went to war, and took down four simulations before MacBeth managed to kill him with Alexander’s own zeroblade. That wasn’t even the worst thing that an Unrestricted has done.”
“What would you do? What would you do with another Alexander the Great if you didn’t have another MacBeth?”
Pryce narrows his eyes. “I told MacBeth how to steal the zeroblade. I had Alexander killed, to protect everyone else from him...and I had someone else do it to protect the system from the inevitable chaos that would result from me doing it myself.”
What he said before was right. Rules are necessary, even when they seem cruel or wrong. I don’t think I misjudged his character, but I’m already starting to see the reasoning behind some of his decisions. The crown is on my head now...and it’s heavy. Maybe I shouldn’t go back in time and save the exceptions. Maybe the consequences are worse than I can fathom now. “I’ve already called the meeting. It would be more suspicious if I cancelled it now.”
Pryce shrugs. “Hold the meeting then. Just say you wanted to acknowledge their status, and assure them that nothing will change. Or promise that the only changes will be better, I guess, I dunno. You can let them ask questions, but steer the conversation away from the incident, if you can. Be careful, though. Some of them are real smart.”
“Are you helping me?” I don’t ask him why are you helping me?, because I don’t know if that’s the case. What I do know is that he’s up to something.”
“I am,” Pryce says. “I want this place to succeed. I want you to succeed. I also want to be part of it, and if that means I have to spend a few centuries in here, I think it’s worth it.”
I leave him to be happy with being in prison, and head towards a special simulation that was designed specifically for Level Tens. No one else can access it, and it’s a cleanroom, where they can’t make alterations to the code. I stop at the entrance, and check my watch. There’s still time, which I should be using to come up with a good opening speech. No, instead of coming up with my own speech, how about I just have Abraham Lincoln write it for me?

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