Authors: Lev Grossman
“Kind of like a steganogram,” said Edward.
“In some respects, yes,” said the Artiste. If he was surprised that Edward knew what a steganogram was, he didn't show it. “Now you have found an Easter Egg in MOMUS. The entire virtual environment you're exploringâthe cold, the starvation, the wolvesâis like that hidden room in
something secret that most people who play MOMUS never see.”
“But I don't see how I could have discovered anything secret,” Edward said patiently. “I didn't do anything special. I barely did anything at all.”
“I can only surmise that you must have stumbled into it by accident. But to me the real question is, why would somebody go through the trouble of building an Easter Egg of such size and complexity in the first place?”
The Artiste paused and coughed once discreetly into his fist. He got up and went into the apartment's small kitchen, where he removed a disposable paper cup from a sealed plastic package and filled it with tap water. The kitchen faucet was fitted with a large and expensive-looking water filter. Edward hadn't noticed before that he wore an artsy-craftsy embroidered-leather carpal tunnel brace on his right wrist.
“Was it for his or her own private amusement?” Somewhere beneath his blank exterior the Artiste was obviously enjoying playing the shrewd Sherlock Holmes to Edward's witless Watson. “Perhaps. But would such private amusement really be worth all the work necessary to create such a detailed virtual environment?” The Artiste's diction had an overly rhetorical, almost scripted quality, as if he'd learned to talk from listening to TV news anchormen. “Might there have been another motive? Is there a message here, and if so, how can we read it? And how can we get you out of the Easter Egg, so you can go on and finish the game?”
“Right,” Edward said. “All good questions.”
He waited, but the Artiste didn't respond immediately. His train of thought had evidently veered off into its own private tunnel. He sat glassy-eyed in his desk chair, occasionally taking quick, rabbitlike sips from his paper cup. Edward noticed that one of the windows on his desktop was a Web page with plane reservations to London. Another one showed a grainy real-time view from the security camera in the foyer. It added to the Artiste's weirdly omniscient quality.
“This is a nice building,” Edward prompted.
“Thank you,” the Artiste replied absently. “I own it. I was employee number seven at Yahoo!”
He put down the cup and gazed up at the image on the monitor, tapping fitfully at one of his keyboards.
“Well,” he said, “you can still win. If you want to. Slow down the flow of time again. Defeat the aliens.”
Edward sat up, surprised.
“Quite easily. Look, I'll show you.”
One hand began to play over the keyboard while he kept the other on the mouse. It was a fancy wireless model, streamlined and studded with silvery buttons. On top of the monitor rested a pink piece of tissue paper, an invoice, with a tree at the top.
Something clicked in Edward's mind.
“Holy shit,” he said. “You're Alberto Hidalgo.”
“Yes. I don't understand why Zeph uses my name when I prefer to be called âthe Artiste.' It may reflect his sense of humor.”
“But you're the Alberto who used to work for a family called the Wents.”
There was no discernible pause in the rhythm of the Artiste's keystrokes, and he kept his eyes unwaveringly on the screen. Things were connecting in Edward's mind, almost against his will, things that had no business connecting with each other.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“I work for them now.”
Edward watched the Artiste carefully.
“They contracted with me to design some custom software for them,” the Artiste volunteered. “A database for a library catalog. I fulfilled my contract to their satisfaction.”
“I know. I'm using it now. They hired me to catalog their library.”
“I see.” The Artiste adjusted a dial on the monitor with exaggerated care. “I hope you're finding my software to be adequate for your purposes.”
“It's fine.” Edward's heart beat deafeningly; he felt like it must be visible through his shirt. The Artiste swung his short legs rapidly as he worked.
“Let me ask you something,” Edward said, trying to keep his voice casual. “Did the Wents ever talk to you about an old codex they were looking for?”
“Codecs,” said the Artiste. “Plural of codec, an abbreviation for âcompression/decompression,' which refers to an algorithmic process for reducing file size by eliminating redundancies...”
“That's not what I meant. I meant a codex, singular. A codex with an
As in a book.”
“I know what you meant,” the Artiste said quietly.
Edward sensed that suddenly, unbelievably, hidden in this shabby Lower East Side apartment with its eccentric technophile shut-in, he had found something. He didn't know what it was, except that it was fragile, and that he would have to play things perfectly or lose it forever. The hair was standing up on his forearmsâhe felt like a man on the verge of being struck by lightning, invisible thunderbolts gathering in the air over his head and massing in the ground beneath his feet.
“But you worked with their library.”
“With Laura Crowlyk.”
“And the Duchess.”
“And the Duchess,” the Artiste agreed. He whacked an arcane key combination using both hands. He'd somehow increased the clock speed in the game so that events inside its tiny world unfolded at a frantically accelerated pace. The tiny figures leaped around spastically like jitterbugging dancers in an old newsreel.
“Soâdid you get to know her at all?” Edward asked, circling his prey.
“A little. Not much. They say I don't work well with other people.”
The Artiste stopped typing, and the screen was still again. The disk drive whined and grated as it wrote to the disc, then spat it out.
He took it and turned to Edward.
“You should be all set. I've put you in the headquarters of the human resistance movement,” he explained, rapid-fire, “and I've activated the emergency generators, so you should be able to get the subways running. Visit Bulgari on Fifth Avenue and take the diamonds that are in the safe. The combination is in the clerk's pocket, though you may have to kill him to get it. Don't worry, he's a collaborator. Once you have the diamonds, take the subway to the airport. Use the diamonds to pay a flight crew to repair a plane and fly it to Cape Canaveral in Florida. From there you can ride the space shuttle into orbit. It should be self-explanatory after that.”
The Artiste held out the disc. Edward eyed it warily without taking it. He sensed that the Artiste wanted him to leave. The audience was over.
“What more were you expecting?” the Artiste asked reasonably.
“Well, but you still haven't answered those questions. Like where does all this stuff come from? And who put it there? And why?”
For an instant the Artiste registered something like impatience.
“Why does it matter? I told you how to get out of it.” The Artiste gazed at the screen, his face pale in the monitor's light. “Though I don't know why you would want to. The snow. The empty streets. The silence. It's beautiful in its own way, don't you think?” For a moment he looked like a beneficent princeling showing off the view from the window of his mansion. “You can see the stars from the middle of Times Square. I doubt anybody has done that in 150 years.”
“Why let yourself be trapped by conventional notions of âvictory' and âdefeat'? Would you really win by repelling the aliens and saving the world? Why not just let it go? Let the humans die out. Give the wolves a shot at running things for a change. And the narwhalsâthe narwhals are coming south with the cold. Did you see them? You know they're one of the only whales that lack a dorsal fin? Along with beluga? They would have been here soon. They like the cold vestibulary currents.”
Edward looked at the monitor screen. He saw, to his surprise, that something about the “headquarters” the Artiste mentioned looked familiar. The distinctive molding, the high ceilings, the leather chairsâit looked like the Wents' apartment. In fact, that's exactly what it was: a virtual replica of the Wents' apartment.
“You made this,” he said.
He was starting to get it now. The similarities, the echoes, the connections between the game and his life and the codex. The ruins where the Chenoweth library should have been. The landscape outside the Annex building in Old Forge. The man with the antlers he'd seen at the LAN party. Something, a shape, was emerging out of the darkness. He shook his head, torn between anger and exasperation and sheer admiration.
“It was youâyou made this whole thing. You made it, you put it in the game, and I got trapped in it. My God. You complete fucking bastard.”
The Artiste watched him impassively, but he was blinking a little too frequently.
“Why?” Edward wanted to shake him. “Do have any idea how much time I wasted on this thing?”
“Nobody was holding a gun to your head.”
That was true. “But why? Why even bother? What's wrong with you?”
“I had my reasons.”
“Yes? Such as?”
Instead of answering the Artiste stood up and walked over to a window, where he pretended to study the spines of the paperback books stacked up there. Edward noted with surprise that they all, without exception, had the pink and blue spines and swirly gold lettering of mass-market romance novels.
“Because I wanted to,” said the Artiste, with an air of childish sincerity. “I thought one day maybe I would show it to her. She might like it. There were things I always wanted to tell her. But after a while she stopped coming to the office, and I didn't see her anymore. I never knew why she didn't come. And anyway I thought better of it.”
“You made this for Blanche.”
Edward's anger was starting to fade. It was too pathetic, too funny. He tried to imagine the Artiste demonstrating his computer game for the Duchess.
“You said you wanted to tell her things. Like what?”
“Like where the codex is.”
Time, which had been rushing ahead uncontrollably for the past minute, froze abruptly in place. Its engine seized and melted. Edward's mind felt very clear. He held consciously still, afraid he would startle the Artiste like a rare bird, scare him out of saying what he was about to say next. On the wall opposite the Artiste's desk hung a vast whiteboard covered with illegible scribbles and diagrams and flow charts and symbols written in red, green, and blue marker. A humidifier stood in one corner, noiselessly breathing out puffs of white mist, one after the other, miniature clouds that dissolved into the air in slow motion.
“It didn't take me that long to find it,” the Artiste went on. “I'm very good at puzzles. This wasn't even an especially hard one.”
Edward could barely speak.
“It wasn't?” he croaked.
“No. Not really.” The Artiste sounded neither proud nor boastful, just honest.
“So youâyou have it?” Edward said.
“I said I found it. I didn't say I have it.”
“Where is it?”
“You don't know?”
“Jesus Christ.” Edward clutched his head frantically. He was going insane. He didn't know whether to strangle the Artiste or beg him for mercy. “Just tell me where it is!”
The little man smiled sadly and shook his head. “I've already said too much.”
“You haven't said anything!”
“I wish I hadn't.”
Abruptly the Artiste sat down on the carpet, which was the pale blue of a lightly chlorinated swimming pool, and leaned back against the bare white wall. The strength seemed to leave his tiny body. He looked like a magically animated doll whose enchantment was fading, Pinocchio in reverse.
“The Duchess hired me to work on their computers, but Laura told me all about the codex. Or enough, anyway, and I guessed the rest. I've been everywhere you've been. I shouldn't have done it. At first I thought I'd be doing the Duchess a favorâshe likes having young men do her favors. You found that out. I thought I'd be her hero, but I was wrong. I realized that just in time. It was almost too late. Maybe it was too late.” He sighed, and Edward was surprised to hear a trace of unsteadiness, a telltale shudder in his voice. The Artiste was trying not to cry. “It took me so long to make it. I used climate patterns from the Ice Age as a model. The Wisconsin Era.”
“Incidentally,” he said, “I think you're the only one who ever found it. You have to be very, very bad at MOMUS to find my Easter Egg.”
“Thanks a lot.”
The Artiste began to describe the lengths he'd gone to accurately model the effects of the alien sun filter on the earth's biosphere. It made senseâEdward remembered what Zeph had said about the Artiste's day job, something to do with the National Weather Serviceâbut he was only half listening. Something else was nagging at him, and he leaned down to look at the Artiste's monitor again. The re-creation of the Wents' apartment was amazingly detailed. Tapping at the keyboard, he guided himself down the corridor, opened the half-sized door, climbed the spiral staircaseâwhich took some tricky mouseworkâand up into the Wents' library. It was there, just like in real life, but empty, stripped: no crates, no table, no lamp, no curtains. Just bare floor, walls, ceiling, windows, though all meticulously drawn. The only furniture was the bookshelves, which were themselves vacant. A virtual bee buzzed and beat itself impotently against the virtual window. Why a bee?
“But I don't understand,” he interrupted. “Why didn't you tell the Duchess you found it?”