These long, straight stretches were the most dangerous of all.
An inexperienced racer would have seen them as the easiest. They were the least complicated, there were no difficult turns, no walls to crash into, the spheres were laid out in front of you like a bountiful harvest. This made it all the more tempting to accelerate, faster and faster until you could feel the wind on your face and your hair streamed out behind you and it felt like you were flying. It made you forget that, inevitably, walls existed at the very end of long, straight stretches, walls that you couldn't slow down in time for if your pyramid was hurtling towards them at one hundred miles per hour. Sometimes – no, most of the time – those walls were also tight-angled turns with no space to manoeuvre. Sometimes a bountiful harvest was really a faerie feast, tempting you to partake and be condemned to wander the Kingdom of the Fey, with all its false glories, until you die.
Complacency was the enemy of a Love Love Mini Racer, as was rashness. Still, it was tempting to speed up when you saw DeBose overtaking you in that way he does, like his feet don't touch the ground. Like he was part of the track, something born of its light, existing only to melt into its shadows...
“What's the emergency?”
“Well, it's not an emergency, but...”
“Don't call me unless it's an emergency! We're both on the clock!” Kaiser fluffed up his feathers irritably.
“Actually, we finished our mission half an hour ago. You're the one who's behind on the programme for once,” Jack preened the underside of his wing, pleased with the small victory, “Garian's busy, so I thought I'd take a break and ask you about something that's been worrying me.”
“You left Garian alone? You should never leave Garian alone! Not for five seconds! He's like a small child!”
“He won't go anywhere. He's on the arcade box. You can't do a thing with him when he's on the arcade box.”
“What you mean is, you had to fly away before you started playing it as well!”
“They're designed to be addictive. I can't help looking at it, and then I can't help playing it if I look at it, and then I lose track of time. Those things just suck you in...”
“Just tell me what's got your feathers ruffled this time!”
“Well, it's about the cages...”
DeBose Schumizer. Undefeated champion of the Love Love Mini Racer track. As a child, he had been Garian's role model. It had been his dream to compete against him one day on the track. Now it was a realistically achievable goal to beat him, to become world champion himself, DeBose was a source of constant irritation, a living symbol of everything that was almost within reach. DeBose did that to people. He wasn't corrupt like most sports heroes. He wasn't even egotistical. He didn't give a damn about the world. He looked at it with the same frown of concentration as the spheres before him and the pyramid behind him, or as though he was looking for them in the darkness of the track.
Garian pushed the frustration, a deadly distraction, to the back of his mind. He checked his harness again, looked up at the timer. That big old clock, always ticking down like a bad moon. Everything was go. He picked up speed a little, yanked one rope to the left and the other to the right, then turned that corner.
The counter on his wrist blipped to confirm his collection of three more spheres. Two more glimmered seductively before him. He knew this track; they were hiding another sudden sharp turn. With a flick of the cables, he skirted the outer wall. Dammit, that was too close…
“What about them? Apart from that they're not Bilan-proof. I already raised that with the Agency.”
“They're not in the prison section of the ship,” said Jack, “The prison just has Bilan in it. The room with the cages says 'Economy Class' on the door.”
“I know we've a seating shortage, but we can't put the Economy Class passengers in the cages! That's a Health and Safety risk! We'll get sued!”
“Oh, is that all? Let me see, how to explain this...” Kaiser tilted his head, “Normally, all the rooms are for putting prisoners in. The Mobile Prison is just a specialist containment unit for dangerous prisoners. There were special arrangements because Bilan needed a team of Bounty Hunters guarding him at all times, even with the Mobile Prison. We can't put other prisoners anywhere near him in case someone lets him out. The prison staff would be put with the crew, I think. But obviously we can't have Garian that close to the Captain's Cabin. That far away from Bilan, I mean.”
“Does that mean there are prisoners in First Class and Business Class too? What kind of prisoner gets to go in First Class?”
“Trusted prisoners, I think, or the ones that can bribe people.”
“That still makes no sense...”
“Neither does putting Bilan on a rustbucket death-trap like this. It's probably a massive Government conspiracy!”
“You're saying it as though you aren't in on it!”
“Don't you go accusing me of things, you...” Kaiser's wings began to flap erratically as he became more and more flustered, but he suddenly stopped mid-flap, like a falcon about to swoop except with a lot more panic involved, “Data Memory just went offline! The sensors are picking up a burst of massive paradox! Jack, are you definitely sure Garian locked the door to the Cabin properly?”
“I saw him do it. I swear I...”
“Go and find him! Now!”
One more sphere. The last one. An uproarious cheer from the crowd filled the stadium. He looked up and saw the camera angles rotate around the now-empty labyrinth. The crowd wanted drama and he didn't want to lose ratings, so he threw his arms up and let out a victory roar. All he wanted to do was drop the reins for the precious few seconds' pause he would be allowed while the scenery changed. His arms and legs felt as though their veins were filled with fire instead of blood.
“And Stage Twenty is cleared!” announced the commentator, J.J. Banana – or rather, his virtual avatar, an animated banana in a blue baseball cap who danced around the screen while waving a pair of maracas – one of the inanities of the game's showmanship that irritated DeBose, “Let's look at who we have left. Of our fifteen surviving contestants, ten of them hit the wall and three of them ran out of time! The only two who are still in the game, ladies and gentlemen, running head to head, its DeBose Schumizer and Garian! And that really was a tight one, Garian!”
Geez, thanks for the vote of confidence, Garian thought to himself. Things will be different soon. I'll prove myself. Prove that the world of Love Love Mini Racer can change too, that even the greatest sportsman suffers defeat eventually. Well… it'll probably be me that old Banana is horribly biased towards in the commentary instead but at least things will be different. Just for a few seconds.
I can't just go round and round the same track forever…
Musashi wasn't in his cage as he flew past. Jack had been thinking so hard about the odd wording of the signs on the doors that he hadn't even noticed Musashi was loose. No, he had been in his cage when Jack looked! Jack had been checking the lock on his cage and looking for other surviving prisoners... that was what he was doing when he noticed the sign on the door... Musashi hadn't even been close to breaking out! But that had been five seconds ago. A lot could change in five seconds when the local space-time continuum was being brutally torn apart by paradox backlash. Jack could see the ripples now, like the surface of a lake disturbed - the calm stillness of the time that humans could comprehend without going insane had been disturbed by the tiniest of movements and was refracting into a chaos of millions of possibilities. Every time he looked at something that seemed to glow and shift like the movement of a wild animal in the corner of his eye, it was completely different and he was beginning to forget what it used to look like. It was like flying through you craziest dream. A lesser bird would have cracked but Jack was used to this. He was the Time-Bird. He knew about dreams, about eternal nightmares, about dreams that were too lucid not to be real, about dreams that recurred again and again...
He shook his head, losing a few feathers in the process and praying that Kaiser didn't notice that he was shedding. He would be teased mercilessly for weeks. Don't think about that. Garian. He had to get to Garian. Musashi was probably going to go straight to the Bounty Hunter who had imprisoned him and enact his revenge, and Garian would be too involved in the arcade game to react in time, or maybe even to want to save himself. When it came to that arcade game, Garian was serious in a terrifying way that humans could be, way beyond the capacity of birds, who at least aimed for something until they got it, but didn't care so much about things that kept going away again and you could never keep a grip on with your talons.
Or maybe it was something else, and the thing with Garian and that arcade machine went beyond anything a human was capable of. It was only when Jack kicked open the door with his feet just in time to see the bright white light, not of his own doing, envelop the entire boat, maybe the entire Universe, that he realised he should have said something earlier. It wasn't that he hadn't noticed. He just stored it in the back of his mind. He thought it was trivial, because he thought that the arcade game was trivial. He should have asked why the title screen of the game said 'Love Love Mini Racer - by Garian'.
“Hey, Jack! Don't just hover there looking like a moron! Come over here and help!”
The bird blinked. All-consuming white light was replaced again by the glaring industrial neon lighting of the ship and he could see that everything around him was the way he had left it. Garian leaned against the machine, one hand still at the controls, giving Jack an impatient glare. The cheap faux-leather sofas and chairs were there, the bookshelf full of a random selection of donated books, the unrealistic plastic potted plants, the creaky window, all of them were there.
“Bring my timetable up, I need to run through everything again before breakfast!” ordered Garian. He wasn't wearing his battle leathers; he wore a slightly faded pair of jeans and a white t-shirt with what Jack recognised as the Love Love Mini Racer logo on it. He looked way too relaxed, not paranoid or pessimistic or in a constant process of trying to work out something that was on the very edge of his capacity for thinking. There were Love Love Mini Racer posters and banners strewn across every available surface in the room, and he could spot more hanging in the corridor, and hear the loud banter of workmen putting more posters up in the distance. No, Jack realised, nothing is the way I left it. Not a single thing.
“I've got a busy day ahead of me today, so you need to be there for me!” said Garian, “I think I said I'd meet someone at breakfast to talk business. Then I've got to go to the preliminary meeting. Then I've got to come back here and make extra sure I've caught all the bugs in this thing. Then I've got to rehearse my speech again. Then I've got to... have I missed anything out?”
“Calm down and start from the beginning like a normal person!” ordered Jack, realising how stupid this piece of advice sounded seconds after it came out of his beak.
“Sorry, sorry. It's final release day! What do you expect? I heard Senator Kurtliegen is gonna be there personally to declare the game open!" Oh great, thought Jack privately, I pushed it too far and I'm in Hell again, “I keep worrying about the decision... you know... that we did the wrong thing... I know it's way too late to go back, and I followed my heart, but I'm worried it wasn't the right choice...”
“To give the game an ending,” said Garian, “A lot of the design team wanted it to be infinite, randomly generated, so the fans can keep on playing. Mr. Dunbar and even Kubota-san are still yelling at me about it. But I honestly don't think the fans wanted it. Nobody wants to keep hanging on forever, never knowing when things are going to end, never having any kind of reward, afraid to take a break in case the real peace is just around the corner.”
“... So that's what this is about,” said Jack, flapping his wings in an avian shrug.
“It's all about the Love Love, man,” said Garian. Then he walked off, talking to himself about breakfast and business meetings and quality control.
Jack knew that this future had never been one of the possibilities, and he had always been pretty sure it was impossible to import more from anywhere. That was the whole point of a closed loop. But making more from inside, from what you had lying around, well, he hadn't even considered the possibility. He supposed that it was the sort of thing that became possible when you had all the time in the world.