Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part IV, Chapter 13
Standing before Brahman at long last, Hasta faces her greatest challenge yet—convincing the creator that her world is worth saving.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
They hiked the winding gravel path in silence, Hasta scurrying to keep up with Axil’s long, easy strides. Sweat filmed her body by the time Axil stopped. The path widened here, and a stone viewing bench sat off to one side. Axil faced the same direction as the bench and motioned for Hasta to stand beside her.
“You seek an audience with Brahman, Little Hand?” she said, laying a palm on Hasta’s shoulder. “I am authorized to ping him when I believe there’s sufficient cause, and have just done so. I’ve expanded your security authorization so you can speak to him. Whether or not he’ll speak back is another question entirely.”
Axil waved her hand. The mist parted before them and sunshine poured in. Hasta faced a long slope of gray rock fragments. At the top loomed four stone faces more colossal than she could have imagined, two hundred feet or more above her, each one six stories high—Abe Lincoln on the right, then Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson, and finally on the left, as if shouldering his mighty way out of the mountain, George Washington. The heads gazed blindly into empty air, flanked by craggy crenellations of granite.
“How do I talk to them?” Hasta asked. “What do I even say?”
“Just wait,” Axil said, squeezing her shoulder.
After a minute or more of watching, Hasta heard a deep, distant rumble, as of stone cracking. Washington’s head seemed to wrinkle its brow slightly. Chunks of rock fell from the grooves and tumbled down the scree slope. The head raised its eyebrows and more rocks fell. Hasta jumped back.
“Steady,” Axil said, pushing her gently forward again. “We’re quite far away. You’ll be fine.”
Soon all four heads had begun to waggle and grimace themselves free of the stone. A terrifying avalanche of rock rained down the slope, raising a cloud of gray dust that obscured the entire mountain and rolled close enough to make Hasta cough.
After the cracks and crashes faded away and the dust had cleared a little, Hasta could see four giant blue heads peering down at her. Four titanic voices spoke in unison, as if from the depths of the mountain:
“Good goop, I’m so crashed. What’s the problem now?”
Hasta felt as tiny as a bug before them. She turned to seek guidance from Axil, but the daemon had vanished. Hasta was alone.
She straightened her shoulders and clenching her hands to keep from wringing them together. “Um, I beg your pardon,” she said, “but my name is Hasta Veeramachaneni. My world is ending, and I need you to save it.”
The heads furrowed their eyebrows as one. “Excuse me?” they said. “Do I know you?”
Hasta let out an impatient breath. “Obviously you’re not the personal, Christian kind of God.” With exaggerated slowness, she said, “My name is Hasta Veermachaneni. I live in Chicago. I go to Amundsen High School? And I guess our world is shutting down. I need—”
“Wait, Amundsen?” said the heads, looking confused.
“Yes, Amundsen.” Talking to gods was even more frustrating than trying to talk to boys. “The stupid school where you can’t ask questions! Since you’re, like, supposed to be the creator, Vishnu told me to come ask you for help. Should I get down on my knees or something? I will if I have to.”
The mountain was beginning to fade from Hasta’s view, even as the heads morphed and merged into one. The blue tinge of the skin faded, too, as the one big head shook itself back and forth in firm negation.
“First Nelson tries to four-one-nine me, and now this?” The head narrowed its bloodshot blue eyes. “I know you’re not from Amundsen High School because Amundsen High School is part of my thesis project. Which you dirty mules keep wrecking.”
Everything was black now but for a dim circle containing the head. The head moved back and behind it she could see a distorted bedroom. It was like looking into a fisheye lens.
“It was kind of funny at first, but now it’s totally out of hand,” said the head, folding spindly, crooked arms across a tiny, pale chest. “So before I track you down and set the campus mercs on you, tell me—who are you, really?”
Hasta stood gaping. She couldn’t get enough air. Thesis project?
Stay cool, she told herself. So your whole world is nothing more than someone’s schoolwork. Things could be worse.
No, things could not be worse.
But she had to talk this guy down. He was her only hope—her purported creator. Her world’s only hope.
“Okay, I get why you think what you’re thinking,” Hasta said, raising her palms. “We know, my friends and I, that people have been hacking into your system. One called himself Hanuman Six Nine. I heard the other one’s name, I think, but I don’t remember it. But that’s not us. That’s not me. This is my world, and it’s ending. Everyone I know is about to die. You have to help us, please.”
“Mm-hmm, right,” said the face, frowning. It leaned in again toward the lens. It—he—was older than Hasta, but not by much. He had disheveled straw-colored hair, a scraggly Fu Manchu mustache, and a patchy goatee. A circuit diagram was drawn or tattooed on his forehead, and part of his right earlobe appeared to be made from, or overlaid with, shiny metal. His eyes were red and watery, heavy-lidded, with deep, almost bruised hollows. He blinked a lot, and seemed to have trouble focusing his eyes. A hand reached forward and fiddled with something outside the scope of the circular image. It then reached behind its ear and pressed or twisted something.
“I have to admit,” he said, “you’ve outdone yourselves this time. This is a new and altogether impressive technique for making me look like an asshole. Very convincing. But what you probably don’t realize is that Environment Whatever-Number-It-Is is so close to reclamation that there can only be one or two nervepaths even serving it at this point, so if you’re piping yourself through it you’re going to be so easy to trap and trace you should be embarrassed.”
The black space around Hasta changed to a bare, rectangular green room that opened onto what looked like a futuristic college dorm room. A rumpled twin bed sat in one corner. A plaid pattern covered the walls, on which various moving images appeared to be directly printed—a weather forecast, a calendar dotted with animated sports icons, three naked women laughing in a hot tub, and a logo of two red interlocked U’s. Exactly three books shared a shelf with a clear bag of crumbled leaves, a set of complicated-looking goggles, and a rolled-up scroll with an Apple logo on the cap at the end. A glass globe painted like Jupiter shed yellowish light from atop a lamp stand.
The owner of the face stood up from a black swivel chair studded with nubby protuberances. He had on a pair of shorts and nothing else. He was in okay shape, with the start of a little gut down which ran a thin, sweat-slicked line of hair. Hasta felt a little relieved when he pulled on a collared, short-sleeved shirt that sealed up the front with a touch. He grabbed the goggles from the shelf, slipped them over his head, and stepped from his room into Hasta’s green space. The goggles—bug-like things with opaque blue lenses—vanished as he crossed the threshold.
“Listen, I’m not a hacker,” Hasta said, raising her hands. “Don’t you understand what I’m saying? I’m from that world. I live there.”
The guy stalked around her in a circle, peering at her like a microbe on a slide. “‘Hacker’?” he said. “You don’t hear that word much from anyone under sixty.”
“Okay, then I’m not a ‘mule,’ whatever that means.”
“If you don’t know what it means, then how do you know you’re not one?”
“I’m extrapolating from context!” Hasta said. “That’s what people do.”
“People, exactly,” he said. “Which, if you are one, you’re not from that environment. QED.”
Him looking her up and down from every angle like a piece of meat made Hasta feel slimy. She folded her arms over her chest, turning to stay facing him as he circled her. His eyes, creepily, were no longer bloodshot.
Could Ivan’s hypothesis be right? “Then am I really somewhere outside it?” she asked. “You know, jacked in while my body hibernates?”
He snorted. “You’d obviously know it if you were, and you’d still be intruding. I’m the only authorized user.”
“Then we’re back where we started,” Hasta said, “because that’s where I live.”
“You can’t. There’s nothing there but software—corrupted software.”
“That corrupted software is my home!” she protested. “Don’t you realize you’re killing a whole world full of people?”
He stabbed a finger at her. “I’m killing it? It’s you mules killing it, destabilizing everything I do. Do I screw around with your projects? No.” Blinking hard, he stepped back and rubbed his face several times. “Except I can’t trace any synaptic lines going in. You’re definitely projecting out, but you do appear to originate there. Come on. Out of academic courtesy at the very least, tell me how you’re doing it.”
A hollow feeling suffused Hasta from the prickling outer layers of her skin to the hot depths of her heart. “I’m a piece of software, okay?” Hasta shouted, pounding the guy’s chest with her fist. “And everyone I love is software too, and they’re all about to die! Are you happy now?”
“Whoa, hey, relax,” he said, raising his arms to ward off her blows. He felt as solid as she did. “They’re not real, okay? And if what you’re telling me is true . . . well, neither are you, I guess.”
His arms were hunched in front of his chest, so Hasta leveled one more hard blow at his upper arm.
“I might be a program,” she said, “but you’d better believe I’m real, buddy.”
The guy winced and retreated to the edge of the green space, rubbing his arm. “I can’t believe my own software’s attacking me now.”
“I can’t believe a jerk like you created my world!”
“Okay, fine, fine,” the guy said, raising placating hands. “I’m a jerk, great. Is that what you want to hear? There it is. But I’m still eighty percent sure you’re one of those jackwad undergrads.”
Hasta tried to remember the name LaVell’s occupier had mentioned. “Zach?” she said. “I think that was the first one. Yeah, that’s what Hanuman said. Zach.”
The guy looked up, startled and interested. “Zachary Hull? The first one to what?”
Was he finally starting to believe her? “The first one I met from outside!” she said. “He’d taken over this kid LaVell’s body, and I think he was planning to, you know, have his way with me. But I crunched him in the nards instead.”
“He is a little turd,” the guy muttered. “You wouldn’t have done any actual damage, but I sure hope it hurt.” His right hand was typing in midair as he stared down at something Hasta couldn’t see. “What did you say your name was again?”
“Hasta,” she said, trying not to sound too eager. “Like ‘pasta’ with an H. Last name, Veeramachaneni. What’s your name?”
The guy looked at her hard. “Donald,” he said, his demeanor softening a little.
Donald? Hasta thought, feeling a weird sense of dislocation. God’s name is Donald?
Donald looked back down at his invisible display. He seemed a little less like a meathead and a little more like a doofus when he wasn’t acting all wounded and suspicious.
“Well, the name checks out,” he said with a glimmer of excitement. “You’re on the rolls at Amundsen High. I also have a LaVell Rigby listed. Do you have other friends there?”
“Ivan Babich,” said Hasta quickly. “Juan Riefkohl. Um, Kylie Von Davis, Frida Sandstrom. Gillian Smart. Bobby Kimball, too, I guess.”
Donald shook his head. “No Kimball, but I’ve got everybody else.” He took a deep breath and seemed to come to a decision. “Okay, I’m going to assume for a minute that you’re being straight with me. Two things if that’s true. First—” He spread his arms, and his face lit up with amazement. “—this level of interaction with a construct would be unprecedented, a breakthrough of epic proportions. Saving you would have to be my highest priority.”
Hasta grinned and pumped her fist. “This is good, Donald, this is good,” she said. Relief flooded her with a feeling better than any drug could offer. “The situation really is urgent. What’s second?”
“Second.” Donald winced a little and his eyes slid away from hers. “I’m glad you’re here where I can save you. Because honestly? By now your environment is completely unsalvageable.” √
To be continued…