Three thousand years had passed.
The inevitable war came to pass. Not with the High Score Table, as was predicted, but with Completion - over the fate of the High Score Table. After gaining full control of the High Score Table, Hal attempted to turn it into a rival Game Over screen, a venture that failed, leaving massive trouble with incorrectly handled dead souls lying around everywhere and even smaller and less competent organisations trying to copy him. Both Game Over and Completion immediately laid claim to it. Neither could leave it in the hands of the other – Completion were convinced that Game Over would simply disband the facility, deleting everyone within, thereby taking out the top one million people most likely to attain Perfect Clear, the ultimate goal of the Completion facility. Game Over, likewise, could not trust Completion to handle the power they would gain by full control of the High Score Table and would inadvertently cause a bad ending by refusing to let Game Over delete something they found untoward there – the High Score Table was a breeding ground for corruption, due to the competitive nature and sheer predatory prowess of the individuals residing there. The war eventually ended when the casualty count became so high that both sides realised the futility of it all and agreed that the High Score would be something they jointly had no power over but would both fulfil their responsibility to maintain it until it had a proper Director.
The war had been the first inevitable mistake.
A long time afterwards, the position of Number One on the High Score Table was settled and, when it was realised that he was unusually responsible and lacking in short-sighted one-upmanship (which didn't mean making 1-Ups, as Lunarian was disappointed to hear) he also became its Director. He was Ikarus Wor, the only survivor of the Gynoug Plague, Lunarian's second mistake, as foretold by Polyanna von Jagen.
After the war, all interplanetary facilities disbanded their military forces and interplanetary war was declared illegal, a deletory offense. Lunarian turned her attentions to quelling the plague, which she eventually achieved, but not long before she unknowingly began to sow the seeds of the third mistake she made, this time with Polyanna as the personal vessel of tragedy. Each mistake had thrown Game Over into chaos, almost closing it down, turning everyone in the Universe against them. Game Over was always feared and hated but just then, there was a legitimate reason.
It was at site of the fourth that she stood now. Stood in the ruins of the RRB Office.
"You made the mess, you can sort it out."
Those were the last words she ever remembered saying to him. It was only this morning she had sent him away in disgust. He had looked so strong, as always, built like an iron wall, about a foot shorter than her but twice as wide. He was balding now – it had upset him to realise that he no longer had enough hair to tie up in his tribal warrior's braid - but she thought it gave him a certain military air of command. He had never stopped rising up the ranks and now the clipboard was his weapon of choice, not the gauss saber. Not that he couldn't stave in someone's skull with a clipboard but he found it more efficient to order entire planets to be sterilised with one instead. Now she saw him lying there on top of the pile of rubble that had once been the far wall of his office on the top floor of RRB Central, unmoving, bleeding from his chest, black sparks of energy dancing over his broken body as he was already starting to succumb to data damage. It reminded her that he was mortal, that they all were, to differing degrees. Game Over's entire medical team had already arrived on the spot and were strapping him to several machines.
"We can't bring him with us, ma'am."
"Explain to me exactly why." she ordered, her eyes red, like the lights on a bulk deletion machine about to be activated. Most of the staff would have run screaming in terror from that look, the look that said nobody was going to survive her wrath, except that nobody else in the room was alive. Those that hadn't been instantly disintegrated from data damage or torn apart by paradox were unmoving, their readings already showing that they were little more than blank slates already. Their corpses were strewn around the ruins of the building haphazardly, as though hit by an earthquake.
"He's not dead, ma'am." said the medic, "He's only in a coma. It should be impossible to survive this much damage. He must have the constitution of an an... of two androids."
"Are you sure this isn't a hologram of him? Or one of his doubles?" He had about twenty-seven.
"Ma'am, everyone else in the blast radius was completely erased. Kobryn's the only person who could have possibly survived."
"Where are the best medical facilities down here?"
Lunarian knew nothing of the world of the living. This was the first time she had been there in person – she had seen what most of the Universe looked like, now, through video-conferencing with departments all over the Universe. RRB Central, unlike the Game Over Screen, was slap bang in the middle of the mundane world. It was mostly made up of an enormous transport interchange, for travel both voluntary and involuntary, with around fifty train platforms, a space port and ten teleport bays, including one to the Game Over Screen. It was still bustling with activity, even with the entire senior management dead. They simply couldn't afford to let the public know what had happened, it would cause Universe-wide chaos. RRB was almost as important as Game Over, now, with just as much news coverage. She prayed to the Machine that no investigative journalists were watching.
"Well, that Kevorkian guy's still in jail..."
"Where's the best non-euthanasist?"
"That would be the Algol System, ma'am."
"Get him there now." she said.
"Ma'am, you need to leave, the paradox backlash could cause a spatiotemporal distortion and we think the local gravity's failing." said one of the RRB Officials. The building had taken massive structural damage. Its glass front had been shattered and one of the major railway lines was a twisted lump of metal hanging down from its supports. Around fifty more had been killed while trying to work on the line. Travel would be delayed for years to come.
"I want to see you take him to safety first." she said.
Under her supervision, the medics carefully strapped him to a stretcher and the RRB Officials opened up a portal. The second they disappeared through it, Lunarian also left.
She was surprised to find herself looking at the clock. Half because she had almost forgotten what one was, half because she was concerned about how long it was taking for any of the medics to get back to her. Was she worried about Kobryn? That implied that she cared about him. She wasn't sure what it meant to care about someone, or how one would even tell. Maybe she just didn't want to lose such a valuable and loyal second-in-command.
She still wasn't entirely clear what had happened at the RRB Office. The half-exile had been there. Kobryn had been refusing to acknowledge his existence and he was protesting this, saying that he was dying due to sheer lack of existence in the future. He was linked to the third great mistake – the spontaneous involuntary teleportation of the same exile to an area of the Universe that was completely closed off and that nobody in the RRB Office could get them out of. There had been other mistakes since then, the hiring of the exile as an RRB Official, the lack of a post for the exile to fill, their inability to finalise his status as an RRB Official, their hiring of everyone around the exile. The whole thing had gone out of proportion and everyone was suffering from sanity damage and ever more intricate loops of paradox. It was said that the exile himself had now originally sent himself into exile. Lunarian had been angry with Kobryn for not just hiring him, giving him the authority to bring himself out of exile again, deleting the entire sector of the world and closing the case for good.
Then some tiny spark must have ignited the whole death trap that was the local space time continuum in RRB Central. Everyone who had brought in as the exile's replacement was now dead, as was everyone at the top of RRB management. The Director had been replaced 27 times and all of them had died, as had their under-assistants and the people directly below them – anyone with any authority whatsoever in the case of the half-exile. The half-exile was dying too but had supragodlike levels of resistance to paradox and fate degeneration due to dealing with it his entire existence. Kobryn had been brought down to the world of the living to personally take over the running of the RRB Office – it was thought that maybe demoting downwards, rather than promoting upwards, might meet with better success, if only because a more experienced man might be able to withstand whatever was killing everyone off.
Then the building literally exploded.
She blinked and looked up at the medic who addressed her.
"Ma'am, I'm afraid we can't let you visit Mr. Kobryn for the moment. We believe the paradox he incurred may be contagious."
She nodded, "You have Game Over's entire medical budget at your disposal. Please concentrate on saving his life."
"Understood, ma'am." the doctor saluted, then walked back through the door into the surgery.
Lunarian's pager beeped. The message was from the security team.
We've got the half-exile. Please come. The Acting Head of Security's down.
Is he properly restrained now?
He didn't attack us. It just happened. Please come.
She teleported back onto the Game Over Screen. Everything was very quiet. A lot of systems weren't working lately, the lighting in the Expedition Bay included. There were no guards. There was always at least one guard in each sector except now – they had all been sent to apprehend the half-exile. She ran down the corridor, past the Continue Shop and the Chaplaincy, took an elevator down.
A strange light in the corner of her eye, a pale ghostly blue and yellow, made her turn her head. She took one look at them and hit the emergency button on the elevator controls. It had no effect. The lift kept going down, no longer responding to any input, going further down than there were floors.
"Director." said the figure in the lead.
They were relatively small and slight. Their short-cropped hair was neatly combed away from their foreheads and they wore well-pressed military-style uniforms with epaulettes. Their faces were filled with serene impassivity, perhaps a hint of sadness, their eyes closed in a manner that suggested they could see everything exactly as it was. The leader had blonde hair and wore a green uniform. There were two other ranks, one with magenta hair, like herself, with copper skin and a black uniform, the other with silver hair, blue skin and a red uniform. They reminded her a lot of the people she had met, that day in the abandoned Bin with the legacy version of the Machine. These were a people who hadn't changed since those days.
"Director, do you understand who we are and why we are here?"
She shook her head.
"We are of the Tribe of Supervisor."
"Supervisor?" she asked, "I have a Supervisor already. He's dying, though."
"The man you refer to is not a Supervisor. A Supervisor does not protect the Game Over Screen. A Supervisor watches over the Game Over Screen that they may not cause harm to the Universe." he said, "We are referred to as the Eternal Ombudsmen. We sleep eternally, until something happens that is caused by the Game Over Screen to endanger the Universe so much that we are needed to prevent it, at which time we are automatically summoned."
"We are authorised, in an emergency, to override the authority of the Game Over Screen in many ways, including to indefinitely halt all activities of the Game Over Screen."
"You're closing us down?"
"We will see. First, we must know why we were summoned. For ten generations of Director, we have never been summoned. We are not supposed to be needed. We are needed, which is why the Computer created, but we should not be."
"A lot of things are going wrong." she admitted.
"Explain what." the elevator must have passed three hundred floors by now, she thought, we only have 25, "You will not be able to leave this elevator until you do. The laws of reality have been suspended at our command. The elevator will cycle infinitely."
She sighed and began telling the alien figures the story of the prophecy and the four disasters.
"There have been smaller such incidents as well - viruses, incidents involving the half-exile, smaller departmental conflicts, especially with the Warden of the major interplanetary prison..." she sighed, "Many people, especially in the Chaplaincy, worry that the bad ending is coming. But... every vision of the Bad Ending has involved Game Over shutting down. If you shut us down, you will be causing it to happen. The Machine must never turn off. It is very faulty, it needs fixing, maybe overhauling from the ground up, but never turning off."
"We understand your concerns. If we were required to shut Game Over down, we would most probably reset the Universe."
"You have such power?"
"We are not like Game Over. We have a lot more power spread over fewer people, we do not make mistakes, yet we will never grow or thrive, we do not have a society, we merely sleep in stasis, beyond the flow of time, awaiting a summons. There are hardly ever new Ombudsmen, and only when one of us dies are they replaced."
"You do not change."
"We cannot change."
"Then you are truly magnificent people."
"We are not as great as Operator was. We are merely here to protect Operator. He is close to the Computer, we must stand back from its glare."
"Operator is still alive? You have seen him?"
"Not any more. We must watch from a distance now. The place where we exist... you cannot go there."
"What are you going to do?" she asked, "You know, now, what's been happening. Can you fix it?"
"We can try. But we cannot guarantee that Game Over, or the Universe, will be the same as it was. It has gone a long way off the track of its fate."
"I didn't know we really had a fate." she said, "I thought we were in the background of fate, performing administrative functions, behind the scenes."
"But you have not done so."
"I'm sorry. I've been a terrible Director. I've made all the wrong decisions." it was difficult for her to say that, "What will be my punishment? I don't want to be deleted."
"We are not here to punish. We are here to repay debts and balance that which is out of balance. If your sacrifice will fulfil this function, we will delete you."
"I won't allow you to delete me."
"You said you were prepared to do penance."
"Penance is one thing but unnecessary punishment is another. I am not the problem itself, but one who should be fixing the problem. I cannot fix the problem if you delete me. I will allow myself to be deleted only if the Computer itself wills it. Not you. Not Game Over. The Computer."
"We could delete you anyway, if we wanted to."
"If you do so, then find the renegade ex-official Polyanna von Jagen. Tell her she's Director now."
"She was responsible for the third disaster. Accidentally, but it is still enough to warrant expulsion. I believe this emergency warrants her return and promotion."
"If that is what you think is right for Game Over." their leader said, "If she causes more such problems, she will be answerable as you are."
"Of course." she said, "But deleting us will not solve the problem."
"We must speak with the half-exile."
"I was going to find him myself. The security guards said they apprehended him. He'll probably go back to the prison. They have a way to quarantine him so that he isn't being futurekilled as quickly. He's in less pain, so its a mercy for him to be there."
"That isn't his correct fate." said the Ombudsman. Then one of them held up a hand and the elevator stopped. They walked out and they were not where the elevator usually stopped at that floor, but directly where they needed to be. Floating in a tractor beam inside a screen-glass isolation tank was the half-exile, a young man with unkempt brown hair. He was naked. His eyes stared right at Lunarian, a hawk's gaze, seeing beyond the private world of paradox, polarity and madness he was locked in, towards some goal so integral that it kept him going no matter what. This was a boy who ran Gynoug for fun, who tested the strength of interplanetary borders by throwing himself bodily at them or, occasionally, off them. A boy for whom anywhere and anything was better than the place he had been exiled to.
"Diggory." said the lead Ombudsman. A tiny flicker of recognition flashed across his face, "Diggory Half-Exile."
"The Warden renamed him last month. He thought it might help..."
"Half-Exile." the Ombudsman pressed his hand against the glass, which flared up into darkness. The hand passed through and the ancient sentinel placed his hand on the young man's forehead. His gaze snapped onto the Ombudsman. Something about him had interested the half-exile more than the pain he was in, "Half-Exile, we can give you the rest you need. A place where time can't touch you."
"Don't try using him for anything, you don't know his power!" yelled Lunarian, suddenly panicked, "You can't control him!"
"He is not responding to our attempts to teleport him." reported one of the Ombudsmen to the other.
"Please come with us. Only for a while." repeated the first Ombudsman softly, "While we fix this Universe. It will be fixed. I assure you. We think its a fault in the Control Systems. We're going to go deep into them. We will let you watch."
"You're going INSIDE the Control Systems?" yelled Lunarian.
"It will be risky. We have lost people before now. We have no more power over the Control Systems than you do, but we can survive contact with them. We do not have to worry about them destroying our minds, because we do not perceive them. We simply are. We simply do. We simply repair."
Suddenly, Diggory's lips moved without talking, he closed his eyes and simply wasn't there any more.
"Where did he go?" asked Lunarian.
"Somewhere else, of his own will."
"You had better get him back. Its so easy to lose track of him. He knows of your existence now, he might decide to take exception to you. For all I know, he could be able to access your realm. If he can't go where he's supposed to, he goes where he likes."
They did not answer. The darkness thickened and engulfed the Ombudsmen until they were gone. Lunarian left down the corridor in the opposite direction.
She walked to her penance. The penance she had spent her entire life avoiding. It had caught up with her at last.
Jack and Zack were gone by now. They hadn't been granted much life extension and didn't believe in prolonging life unnecessarily anyway. Their line extended many generations and they had founded a religion large enough to have a shrine in the Chaplaincy, next to Saint Kevorkian. It had its own cadre of assassins. Anna was in exile on her home planet, where she had been sent to the Game Over Screen from as a baby. She never was sure how one was banished to where one originally came from. She was starting to like it there now. As for Hal, Wor eventually hired the Zacharias Death Dolls to assassinate him when he realised just how corrupt the man was. Hylian was gone now, too, her descendants now Governors of a small island that was just discovering steam power. The island was actually on top of a smaller interplanetary Control System, of which she was Operator, although nobody ever found this out except the half-exile, who teleported there by accident once when he was playing with his new-found powers of banishment.
As for Zado, her existence was immortalised forever in a series of pamphlets:
Let's Buy a 1-Up!
Burt's Bin's Broken – A Your Helpful Staff Adventure.
Where Is My Cat Now?
Jakob's Big Bulk Departure Adventure.
All Aboard the Soul Train!
Mummy Ran Out Of Continues.
Dirk the Dog Bites the Director – A Your Helpful Staff Adventure.
Waiting Is Boring!
Grandma's New Job - A Your Helpful Staff Adventure.
Gertrude the Ghost Gets Stuck.
Ding-Dong Goes Death's Doorbell! (Starring Zack and Jack the Friendly Euthanasists)
Other Places We Go (In Collaboration With the High Score Table and the Completion Screen)
My Grandad's A Zombie!
And for anyone interested, 'Mummy Ran Out Of Continues' reads as follows:
This is Anne.
This is Anne's mummy.
Anne is waiting.
She is waiting in the waiting room.
Mummy is not in the waiting room.
Mummy was in the waiting room.
Now she is not.
Where is Anne's mummy now?
"Where is my mummy?"
Anne is talking to Zado.
Zado helps Anne.
Zado is very helpful.
"Look on the sign!"
The sign says 0.
0 is a zero.
Zero means none.
None at all.
"Your mummy has run out of Continues!"
See the bulk erase machine.
It is black.
It is very shiny.
Mummy is in the bulk erase machine.
Now she is not.
No-one is in the bulk erase machine.
Zado shows Anne the Continue Shop.
"You have 1 Continue.
If you do not buy a Continue
You will have 0 Continues.
Zado buys Anne a Continue
"Now you have 2 Continues."
"But you will have to spend one to leave.
Then you will have 1 Continue again."
I will come and see you
When I run out of Continues.
Director. A Director who wasn't really a Director, just something put in place until the real Director came back, like a coin only represented a promise to pay the bearer that sum.
Supervisor. There was a real Supervisor out there somewhere. It was the most terrifying thing she had ever encountered.
Operator. Nobody was sure about the Operator any more.
Computer. The Computer is.
The story was not over, as it encompassed the entirety of existence, an existence that hadn't reached its ending, whichever ending that would turn out to be. Whatever happened, there would always be entities to witness it who saw time too differently from us to see a beginning, middle and end. They would just see nodes in a network that passed information back and forth, places they could visit any time they liked. However, the rest of fate hasn't been written yet.