The Palantir of Josef Betz, part 1
The tap-tap-tap of shell upon stone was barely audible. Nevertheless, as the man emerged from the trees he halted mid-stride, glancing about him to locate the source of the sound. Then he smiled and bowed his head to acknowledge both the message and the messenger. The thrush dropped the snail shell upon its anvil. Giving voice to one throaty trill it vanished beneath the trees in sudden flight. As such things went, Josef Betz's alarm-call had a certain charm.
The interruption to his vacation was disappointing. He stood for a moment, squinting against the pale autumn sun. He could just detect the distant rush of water at the falls, though these were still a mile off to the east and more than a thousand feet below him. He had planned to camp here tonight under the eaves of the beechwood then continue down into the valley in the morning. Now that would have to wait.
It had better be important.
With the forefinger and thumb of his left hand Josef tapped the familiar cadence and the scene about him - trees, grass, sky and sun - faded to semi-transparency; much as the reflection in a window fades if the light is increased in the room beyond.
In Josef's case the room beyond was a large, whitewashed space illuminated from above by lamps automated to mimic the rhythms of natural daylight. The room was sparsely but tastefully accoutred.
The polished flooring had added a year's salary to the cost of the apartment but at the time Josef had considered it worth the expense. No-one, not even Tolkorp's Ranger elite, could afford to floor a room this size with genuine wooden tiles but the lab-grown cellular surfacing was of the very best.
Nevertheless, Josef had grown to regret the purchase. Ironically, it was the clinical accuracy of the wooden reproduction that dispirited him. These days only the borders of the flooring were visible, the rest of its expensive surface hidden lay beneath a cheap carpet of mottled browns.
The only other objects in the room were the bed upon which he was lying, his Palantir on its turned stand of (genuine) Mallorn wood and a heavily embroidered wall hanging. There in a thousand shades of green and gold a tree rose from floor to ceiling. A beech tree in a glory of summertime.
Another thumb-tap and the forest faded into total transparency. Josef retained the slender hope that whatever it was could be dealt with promptly, leaving him free to resume his vacation. It wasn't very likely.
Five minutes later he was sitting at the keyboard in the temperature-controlled room that served him as office and computer hall. Here everything was functional. Stainless steel shelving. The hum of the AC. Cables snaked everywhere; rainbow threads that linked the frosted glass bricks in multiparallel configurations.
In contrast, the IBM keyboard and 3d display were antiques: literally so, artefacts of an age when computing was linear. Pre-Q. Before MicroSoft developed the mind-up interface that had consigned such things as keyboards, mice and monitors to the scrap heap or the museum.
Josef Betz was neither scrap dealer nor historian of technology. He was a Ranger: arguably the best Ranger Tolkorp had ever run. Seven years patrolling the borders of ReMe. Mediating. Sealing the gaps. But Josef also considered himself a romantic and it appealed to his sense of romance to operate this bleeding-edge kit with the artefacts of a bygone age.
Before him a blocky kaleidoscope of colours resolved themselves into a clumsy three-dimensional Mallorn: the globally familiar logo of the Tolkorp Foundation and the best image this ancient monitor could support.
Josef logged in (the inappropriateness of the term never failed to give him pause). Moments later he was through. Expecting one of the usual Logix support team, it took him a moment to recognise the face that appeared, spectre-like, before him.
"This better be good, Davidson."
"Trust me, Josef. It's not."
"What's up - another BT?"
Don't tell me you interrupted my vacation for a lousy Breakthrough.
"Surely we wouldn't have recalled our number one Ranger for something as mundane as that." Josef wondered, and not for the first time, if his thought-train was being monitored by his employer.
"As a matter of fact, Josef ..." The voice paused for effect. "As a matter of fact, we're not at all sure what it is."
Great. "Symptoms, then."
"Logix report massive substratum displacement. Coherence overload. 'Off the dial', I believe was the term used. Quaint, wouldn't you say?"
"Sorry, dear boy, didn't I say? The Rivendell valley."
"Precisely, Davidson. Where precisely in the Rivendell valley?"
"Not in the valley, dear boy. The valley. The entire valley."
"That's - interesting ..."
Josef thought quickly. Despite what Davidson had said, the symptoms could indicate a Breakthrough. A big one. They had become more frequent in the last year. They were mostly small affairs, though. Easily - almost routinely - sealed. And accidental, at least that was the official line.
But a Breakthrough that large would have to be one hell of an accident. Shit, the Rivendell valley was more than forty-five miles long!
"Josef. Are you still there?"
"- sorry. Look, are you sure about this?"
"As you might imagine, Josef, we verified the data before recalling you. Loved the thrush, by the way. Very - subtle."
My arse. But behind the familiar dry humour he sensed something new. An edge of tension in Davidson's voice that he had not heard before. There was more going on here than a Breakthrough, even a large one. It came to Josef suddenly that the Tolkorp Chairman was afraid.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Go in there. Sort it out. Find whoever is responsible."
"Team?" He normally preferred working alone but this was unprecedented and he would need companions he could rely upon. Two or three names sprang to mind.
"No team, Josef. Just you. Go in. Sort it out. Find whoever is responsible. Report back."
They don't want witnesses. Or too many casualties.
"Okay, Davison. Have it your way. I go in. Let's just suppose I can sort out this mess. Alone. What makes you think anyone's responsible? It could be natural. A flux of some kind."
"It's not, Josef. Trust me on that."
"Okay. I find him. Or her. Report back. Then what?"
"Then you can finish your holiday."
Whatever it turned out to be, Josef wasn't about to go in there until he had more information. He wanted to see the damage for himself. The antique kit would be no use here. He left the Mallorn spinning forlornly in space over the keyboard and returned to the rest-room within range of his Palantir MUI controller.
It was more than ten years since Josef had worked FirstLine, hacking it on nightshift with the best of them. When he left Logix for a life on the wildside his access had been revoked. Immediately and totally, it was standard practice. But there were ways for a gifted child. Ways that had saved his skin on a number of occasions, both before and after he sold his soul to Tolkorp as a ReMe Ranger.
He suspected his illicit incursions were known to Davidson, to the inner elite - what wasn't? - but nothing had ever been said. No doubt Tolkorp considered it to their advantage to have an avenue into what Logix did in support of their systems. Davidson and his White Council cronies were hardly known for their coding skills.
Josef's fingers flashed the complex routing and verification sequences that enabled him to navigate the Logix firewalls. Moments later aRda appeared before and about him, superimposed upon his surroundings like the ghost of a bygone Age. Which of course, if the hype was to be believed, it was.
Visually the display was something like a hi-resolution satellite image, except that it rotated and resized itself to follow the operator's thoughts. And overlaid upon the shifting landscape a dizzying array of statistics could be called up: anything from climate and temperature to population, geology and vegetation.
Whatever the problems, the Game was still up. Davidson might be scared but Real Middle-earth was big business. One of the biggest. From what Josef could see, the machine was running close to half a million players. Five hundred thousand overlapping, interactive, interacting versions of Middle-earth maintained in real-time by the unfathomable complexity of the Quantum Correspondence Engine.
The Engine buffered differences in the overlapping universes of individual players. Differences in logic, strategy, even in the topography, climate and populations of the region.
Tolkorp sold the idea that each player was maintained in their own quantum universe. In practice this was necessary only where two neighbouring games differed in some fundamental way. Then ReMe divided, two universes branched out. Each player became a character in the other's game, the Engine taking their parts until either the differences were resolved - in which cases the universes merged again - or the characters separated, each going their own way.
Of course, few players knew or cared how the thing worked. That was the whole point about Virtual Middle-earth: the Game was seamless. The per-session subscription was one of the highest around but what you got for your money was, simply, your own Middle-earth.
Within certain limits - and the tolerance was much wider now than in the early days - you could have the Middle-earth you wanted. Green orcs or yellow, elves with pointy ears or no clothes, Balrogs avec ou sans ailes ... If you could imagine it and had the money, Tolkorp could take you there. And beneath it all, at the very heart of the Game, the stable substratum of aRda itself.
Not that it was looking particularly stable at the moment. Davidson certainly hadn't oversold the situation. A ragged line of Breakthrough warning lights flashed yellow through amber to crimson along almost the entire length of the Rivendell valley.
Josef surfed in closer, simultaneously calling up a bank of statistics. There were seven hundred and fifty-seven players inside the unstable region. The QCE itself appeared uncompromised, so for the time being at least there was a good chance none of them had noticed anything was wrong.
A wave of Josef's hand dismissed the statistical overlays and dimmed the warning lights for a better view of the game itself. Before him - around him as he zoomed in closer - ranged the Rivendell valley. Of all the vast expanses of Middle-earth, Josef knew this region best. He swept upstream, no more than fifty feet above the surface of the Merrill stream.
The Greenway hugged the contours of the lower slopes to his right as he passed over the Long Lake. There were about two hundred people on the road and Josef veered aside to observe them. He passed unnoticed above their heads as the avatars shimmered in and out of their respective quantum universes. Meeting. Greeting. Interacting. Playing the game.
He allowed his attention to rest for a moment upon one and an array of data presented itself. From England someone logged in as "goldman" was playing Aldo Truly, nomad Hobbit and self-styled "Ranger of the Northern Marches". He appeared lost, unless that was a deliberate part of the game he was playing. In any event, he was wandering aimlessly along the road oblivious to the myriad others who walked the same path but inhabited different - and for the time non-interacting - universes.
Everything seemed normal. And yet upon either hand the warning lights blazed like beacon fires.
What the hell was going on?
Josef moved on again, his practised senses strained for evidence, for the Eureka! moment when he would detect the pattern. There was always a pattern. Pattern recognition was what being a Ranger was about and Josef was one of the best Tolkorp had ever fielded. But he couldn't see it. Not yet.
He left Elrond's Halls and the fabled Rainbow Bridge behind him and passed on into the Middle Valley. The valley floor opened out in a series of shallow terraces. Here were the pastures and gardens of the Merrill valley. Josef knew this land better than any other in Middle-earth. If there was something wrong, surely he would spot it here.
Where was it?
Moving on slowly he swept the valley from side to side. The majority of the players were behind him now, in the vicinity of Elrond's House or the principal "tourist" areas of the lower valley.
A band of five - three Hobbits, a Man and a Dwarf, for the moment all sharing the same gaming universe - were arguing in a clearing away to his left. Two female Elves, both nude, wandered hand-in-hand along the riverside path in the direction of Rivendell.
Josef pulled back, zooming out until he was hovering at the level of the surrounding plateau. He called up the population stats again. He was too high now to see the players but the overlay clearly indicated their positions.
The argument in the woods seemed to have ended and the party were now hurrying east on a track that would soon bring them within correspondence range of the two Elves. That will be a merry meeting, Josef thought with a smile. Almost he was tempted to stay and watch. But he was still no nearer an understanding of what was going on.
Seven players were hardly enough to be causing the kind of disruption he was seeing in the underlying stratum. The overlaid Breakthrough lights appeared brighter and closer together as the valley stretched away towards the semi-subterranean world of the Merrill Gorge.
There was nothing for it. He was going to have to go in there.
To be continued ...