The below story, ”The Fresh Prince of Gamma World,” appears in Press Start to Play, a new anthology I edited with Daniel H. Wilson featuring stories inspired by, and about, videogames. It was released in August by Vintage Books.
by Austin Grossman
Where did The Fresh Prince of Gamma World come from? I found it rattling around the mainframes of the antiquated computer system of Somerville Community College, where I spent two unproductive years as an information sciences major. It would have been five or ten years old by the time I saw it, but I played it to exhaustion, staying up until three or four in the morning before trudging home along Highland Avenue. The sense memory of early mornings in late November is still with me, the smell of wet leaves in damp frigid air.
Written in outdated PASCAL, the code base was just a bunch of data and a homebrew parser for input, eccentrically architected. The game itself is uncredited.
I’ve searched for it now without success, but all I could recover were code fragments posted to a defunct Usenet board devoted to retro games and a user named go4it69 who did not respond to subsequent emails.
It’s raining on Gamma World. You can hear it faintly hissing against the invisible grass even if you can’t see or feel it, while Wednesday afternoon F Block continues on and on but you just can’t pay attention. In another dimension, right close by, heavy, warm, poisonous raindrops are falling on the concrete and broken glass and ten-foot-tall dandelions that grow where the high school once would have been.
[press space to continue]
In Gamma World, everything ended on June 22, 1979, at 11:24 p.m., when you were eleven. All over Gamma World you can find stopped clocks, broken watches, and charred newspapers showing the date. In Gamma World they call this year Year Five. In the real world, of course, everything continued normally. You don’t know how or why it happened that there are two timelines, and that you wander back and forth between them. It’s become a fact of life. It’s like the world is a piece of software with a bug in it, a bug no one can fix.
Nobody truly knows what happened at that crucial point in Gamma World, but obviously there was a nuclear war, or something worse. You don’t know if we got our missiles off or not, but you’ve never heard of anyone coming over from Russia to check on us. There’s a city about a sixty miles to the southeast that sounds like it could be Providence but you’ve never been. There’s no TV or radio or Internet. Your working assumption is that the whole planet is like it is around here: primitive tribes, unnatural jungle, mutated people and animals, and rubble.
[s]tay in Gamma World, stay forever and fuck the rest of it.
[g]o home and forget there was ever another world.
Maybe if you understood what caused Gamma World in the first place, you could get your regular life back. You spend a few hours there every day; it’s unpredictable. Sometimes you’ll round a familiar corner and the other world is just there, you’ll smell it and then the sky will twist and wilt around you.
You always just barely make it back in time to keep up with regular life. Your old friends have drifted away. People think you sell drugs now or since your parents’ divorce you’re just too cool to hang out with regular people. Maybe this year will be different. It’s a new grade, a new chance to understand what your life has become.
[g]o for it, you just have to try a little harder.
[f]orget it. Forget it. Just forget it.
On weekends you go looking for clues about what happened. There are areas out in the suburbs, outside what must have been an annihilating fireball, that are nearly identical to their real-world counterparts.
This was once an office park on your world. It takes a while to walk there in Gamma World; it’s hot enough that you have to take off your jacket. The only sounds are the chirping of giant insects and the crunch of your sneakers on gravel and broken glass.
A passenger bus was lifted up and thrown into the side of the building, and rests now between the third and fourth floors. You climb up and gather change out of the coinbox in Gamma World. If you time it right, on Earth you can use the money for the bus ride home.
You get the feeling you’re being watched.
[w]ait a while, maybe they’ll come out.
[i]t’s time to go home.
[h]old it, is that Thomas Dewey’s face on one of those coins?
You gave up calling high school the real world when you met Melodee. You were born the same year but she seems older than you now. She remembers the explosions too, and the world before, vaguely, so she gets pre-1985 pop culture references.
She lived just a few miles from you; her parents were both physicists at MIT but she hasn’t seen them since the explosion. She’s noble and fierce and can fence and throw a spear. She’s got tattoos on her face and you saw her kill a two-headed dog grown as large as a pony. It’s pretty clear you’re in love with her. She’s betrothed to the chieftain’s son.
Like everyone else on Gamma World, she doesn’t know the normal world is still there, and you don’t tell her. How can you explain it? But how can you not tell her, without lying?
Maybe if you could bring her from one to the other, there would be some point in telling her. But would that work? And here’s the thing, there ought to be another Melodee, the regular one in your world. You’ve tried to find her but she doesn’t remember her old address, and she probably had a different name before the crash. There’s certainly nobody at school like her. But plenty of people send their kids to private school and you never even meet them.
[m]aybe you’ll grow old here, maybe you’ll come back and a hundred years have passed.
[w]hy is it you can only talk to a girl after the world has literally ended.
You look for ideas in the libraries and the labs at what’s left of Harvard. Maybe somebody was working on something like this? The books have theories you half understand. Sure, strings vibrate, antimatter exists, quantum events happen, but there’s nothing that says an entire world can split apart.
What if there was a last-minute escape plan they figured out at the Pentagon to rescue the whole reality from nuclear annihilation: just before impact they could trigger something that spawned another reality where the war hadn’t happened. One world would die, but the other one would continue on like nothing happened.
That would make your reality, the one you really grew up in, the fake one, wouldn’t it?
You [k]now in your heart this is true. Don’t you.
[B]ury this truth inside you forever.
Or maybe that’s how time works, when things go badly enough in one world, another one forms nearby. Or it could have been the missiles themselves, that they had a secret payload invented behind the Iron Curtain, that had the power to break up reality itself. But why would you be the only one to remember both worlds? Or is it just that everyone got their own Gamma World, and nobody talks about it? Perhaps you [s]hare my own creeping sense that this is the case.
Evidently the bomb hit in the center of downtown Boston. It left a perfect circle roughly four miles in diameter that cuts right through Logan Airport to the east, and clockwise through Dorchester, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea.
The Atlantic flowed in to form a warm, briny crater ocean filling most of the impact site. You walk along the perimeter sometimes but there isn’t much to see. You have never been all the way around it. No one knows how deep it is but there are fish in it, enormous and terrible. Steam rises continually from the surface, and when the wind blows right you can see the former Prudential Center, the highest building in all of Boston, which projects from the Crater Ocean, knocked three degrees askew. At night one can see lights glowing below the waterline.
You used to worry about breathing the steam, about being poisoned by the radiation here. Maybe you should stop caring. No one else who lives here worries, so why should you? Who needs to live past thirty anyway?
[T]ake a boat out into the steam—you’re probably already mutated, so what exactly do you have to lose?
[C]omb the glassy shore for the kitschy Revolutionary War memorabilia everyone here seems value.
You may as well see what it says on the sheet. You know it won’t be anything good, and it isn’t. Osric? It’s like ten lines. At least you’re in the play. The kid playing Hamlet used to be a friend of yours. Who cares, Drama Club’s not your life. Later you ride the long way home around the golf course, jumping your bike off little ruts in the road, killing time until your dad gets home. Remember when you were popular?
There are other weird things. You’ve found things that were never invented in normal reality, like a plasma rifle or antigravity disks. Most of them don’t work, but still—they shouldn’t have existed at all. It’s like the split goes back way before the bombs. That could be why a few of the skyscrapers look strange. Hancock Tower is taller and curvier, and something has given it a quarter twist. They look like science fiction versions of themselves. You start breaking into offices, one by one. Some of these people were defense contractors, on something called Project Gemini.
Gamma World is probably your fault, you know. Your fault for wishing the whole world would be annihilated in a nuclear fireball. Which you do every single day.
[. . .]
It’s time to stop ignoring certain things. As Dad sits across from you at dinner you wonder how much he knows. You’re thinking it so loud, it seems impossible he can’t somehow hear your thoughts. You wonder how somebody so clueless about the world around him could be considered a brilliant scientist.
He won’t tell you what he’s working on at the lab because it’s all Department of Defense work, but it’s particle physics work, so really, isn’t it time to put two and two together?
“Dad,” you ask suddenly, “do you think there are other dimensions? Parallel worlds?”
He smiles and shakes his head. “If only.”
He leaves the table, his food untouched.
Finish your [m]ac and cheese. You’ll never know the truth.
He’s not even your real [f]ather is he?
Traders arrive from the farthest north, hiking down the train lines from Montreal. They have horses and one enormous mutant elk. It’s the same up there, they say, just colder. Bombed-out cities, endless pine forests, and intelligent wolves. Snakes have grown fur and mammoths have appeared from someplace. They believe the bombs fell everywhere. They give us furs, and we give them local fruits and urban salvage: a generator, blowtorches, wooden beams. They leave, promising to return in six months.
One day you might go there, but not in Gamma World. You’ve found that if you get too far from Boston in the real world, you stop crossing over. Which I guess means you should just wait until college and move away and all your problems will be solved.
But you know that even if you moved a thousand miles from here, there would be a moment on a perfect crisply cold autumn day when you’re studying outside on the quad and your friends are laughing but you wouldn’t believe in it, you’d always, always, always know that this fresh and unscarred unburnt reality is a lie, and underneath it’s all rubble.
Why fight it? It’s where you [b]elong. We both know it.
Run forever, the [r]est of your life if that’s what it takes.
None of this happened before Mom left. Maybe she could have kept you out of Gamma World if she’d cared to try. You talk on the phone twice a week but she sounds distracted. You hear dishes clatter in the background. Is she hosting a party?
You wish you could ask her advice about Melodee. You wonder what it would even take to get her attention. There was a girl in eighth grade who took pills, they took her out of school for six months. You’d consider trying that, but you’re not exactly sure how that’s going to solve anything.
You keep daring yourself to tell her the truth but the conversation lapses into longer and longer silences. Finally she excuses herself. You feel the life drain from this dimension again. The green glow returns. It’s midnight in Gamma World.
It never fails. The moment your guard is down, Gamma World comes sliding back into place, unwholesome foliage and rusted metal stealing over everything. The grassy smell of a place where it’s always overheated summer. They used to talk about a nuclear winter but Gamma World is a permanent greenhouse. Maybe on the other side of the world it’s winter all the time.
Then the day comes when the world doesn’t change back. You wake and go to sleep and wake again and you’re still wrapped in furs on a slab of foam rubber in a bunker. Two days, a week. You get used to not taking showers; the tribe’s dogs curl up with you at night, and you start to carry a length of pipe with a kitchen knife duct-taped to the end. Melodee teaches you to hit a target with a crossbow made from a heavy wooden clothes hanger.
One night you’re summoned to meet the tribal chieftain and for a moment you’re afraid it’s going to turn out to be your father. It isn’t, but you recognize him anyway: in your world he is a city council member.
He tells you that to become a member of the tribe, you need to travel out into the crater ocean and bring back some treasure of use to the tribe. Melodee will go with you, along with the chieftain’s son, who you remember from home as a lacrosse star. You went to his eighth-grade birthday party.
[T]his feels right, this is what you were waiting for.
[W]hat the hell are you doing?
You paddle your way out across the water’s glassy surface, the bottom hidden by churning silt. You lead them through Cambridge streets haunted by spider-limbed mutant coyote and stray androids, down shallow-flooded Massachusetts Avenue, water barely clearing the parking meters, to the MIT campus.
You spot the familiar building and climb the two flights to the Physics Department and your father’s office and this time you break the glass like you’ve always wanted. His extra key card is in a drawer of a desk piled with final exams that will never be graded.
For a moment you think your father himself might have split the world just as a way of winning his divorce settlement. You wouldn’t put it past him. Maybe he did it and left your mom the radioactive half of everything, you included. It would explain why there’s no Gamma World version of your siblings. It would explain a whole lot else besides.
[I]t would, wouldn’t it?
This part of Gamma World looks astonishingly like its counterpart in reality, except for the crevasse that opened up when the bombs fell. Warm water drizzles over the sides in long cascades, down and down past the lower levels of the city, the secret campus they never told you about, the one the Defense Department built.
The chieftain’s son holds the rope, and you and Melodee go down, and down, to the War Room, just like in the movies. One wall of the chamber is an enormous world map that once must have displayed cities all over the world, incoming missiles, bomber flights, weather patterns, and radiation dispersal. They must have stood right here and watched your world
Neither of you speaks. Melodee takes your hand in hers, and for once it feels like things don’t have to stay this way. Maybe you don’t have to go home. Maybe you are home.
There is a large metal chair at the center of the room, with a set of electrodes.
On the control panel you notice a large red button.
It’s [b]etter not to know. How badly do you want to get home anyway?
The strain was too great. Melodee’s father lies dying. Even his mutant abilities couldn’t reactivate the great engines you found underground. The kindly old physicist looks grave and tells you that you can save him and return home, but at the price of never returning to Gamma World again.
“What did he say?” Melodee asks when you return to the Great Laboratory.
If only you could tell her everything. If only she’d believe you! But how can you even begin to explain that the world she sees every day is false: false color, false wind, and feeble, watery false sunlight. The Emerald City, the Robot Zone, University Sector, the Mass Spike, the Space Port, the Tombs, the Poison Ocean. False.
And face it, the world you came from is no better. The golden treasure-house of your life has come to this, a poison waste.
Even now you can feel yourself slipping back to the other world, the drab world you called home. You promise her you’ll return, and you half believe it.
Melodee’s powers are only beginning to awaken. You see a last glimpse of the giant machines of Project Gemini, the idea that tore the dimensions apart. But you’re young. You’re both only teenagers. Have faith.
Maybe one day, between you, the world can be put back together after all, the one world that you know is true.
“The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” by Austin Grossman.
Copyright © 2015 by Austin Grossman.
From Press Start to Play edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams. Copyright © 2015 by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams. Published by arrangement with Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.