Preview of Marsh
…We stood in silence, then, saying nothing and letting the sun warm the backs of our necks. A few people poked their heads out of various shops, looked around sullenly, and then disappeared. Everyone who passed us did so in a cone of silence, and most of those opaqued from the outside, hard-edged cones of darkened and blurred background gliding down the sidewalk, hiding faces and silencing words.
“Why do you think they’re out?” I asked, nodding towards one such cone.
Dry Grass clutched her coffee to her chest, both hands wrapped around it as though to draw warmth through the paper cup. “Why are we out, Reed?”
I blinked, then shrugged. “You asked to meet up in person, didn’t you?”
“Of course, yes. And you agreed, did you not?”
“Well, yes.” I hastened to add, preempting her point, “I guess there is a lot to get out of interacting in person.”
“So why here, then?” I asked.
“Good coffee,” she said, lifting her cup. “Good weather. Good memories. Some of them really good. This place is comforting to me. It is comforting to a good many people. I suspect that those who are out are doing much as we are. They are talking about the difficult things in a place that at least makes them feel a little better.”
“I suppose it is nicer than moping at home.”
“It is, is it not?”
“Is she talking your ear off, Reed?” came a familiar voice from behind us.
“Oh, absolutely,” Dry Grass replied, turning and leaning over to give Cress a kiss on its cheek. “How are you feeling, loves?”
“Terrible,” Tule said cheerfully. They had apparently collected Rush and Sedge before arriving, as all four of stood in almost identical postures, each holding their coffees in their right hand — just, I realized, as I was doing. “All my emotions are wrong. I’m jittery and tired and I want to get another few hours of sleep but feel guilty every time I lay down.”
I laughed. “Yeah, that sounds about right. I keep feeling like I’m having the wrong sort of reaction to all of this.”
“When was the last true trauma that befell the Marshans?” Dry Grass asked, smiling gently. “I imagine it was before you uploaded, yes?”
A moment of silence followed.
“We as people have fallen out of the habit of dealing with crises,” she continued when we all averted our gazes. “Do not be hard on yourselves. We — the Ode clade — have more experience with crises than the vast, vast majority of the System, and even we are reeling. We are struggling to internalize something this big.”
“Have you lost any?” Cress asked, and I thanked it silently for getting to the question before I worked up the courage to do so myself.
Hesitating, Dry Grass’s confident mien fell. Eventually, she reached out to take each of her partners by the hand, both of theirs in one of hers, then nodded to me. “Come. Let us walk, yes? We will talk as we hop sims. I have more places full of comforting memories to show you.”
While I mulled over her focus on comfort and memory, we linked up hands, Tule and Cress with their partner, and me with Cress, Rush, and Sedge.
We stepped from the quaint small town sim and directly into warmth and sunlight, into the salt-tang of sea air and the low rush of waves against a beach. We stood atop a stone walkway of sorts, which seemed to run along the edge of a town. On further inspection, it appeared to be a retaining wall of a sort, holding up the town that meandered up a hill to keep it from sliding inexorably down into a bay.
Between the wall and the water was a sandy beach, partially obscured by intricate and crazed markings in the sand. It took some time of peering at them for me to make out just what they were: it seemed as though, throughout the tail end of New Year’s Eve, dozens or hundreds of people had been drawing in the sand using, I assumed, the sticks that were leaned against the wall.
All of the designs seemed to feature the New Year, now that I was able to pick them apart. Visions of fireworks, scratched over mentions of the year, scrawled names of, I guessed, couples who had met up on the beach.
I turned away with a hollow feeling in my chest, wondering just how many of those couples were still couples.
The town, while no less visually chaotic than the beach, was at least more heartening to look at. Everything — everything; the walls of buildings, the roofs, doors and window shutters, even the roads — was covered with a blindingly colorful mosaic of tiles.
“It is nearly two centuries old,” Dry Grass explained as we started trudging up one of those streets. When you enter, you are given a single tile — if you check your pockets, it should be in there."
Sure enough, when I dug my hand into my pocket, I found a cerulean tile, a little square of porcelain about three centimeters on a side. The rest of the Marshans dug in their pockets and pulled out tiles of their own, all one shade or another of blue.
“Unless you hold a color in your mind when you enter, you are provided with your favorite,” Dry Grass explained. She pulled a golden yellow tile out of her own pocket and flipped it up in the air like a coin. “All of this — all of the mosaic — has been placed by visitors.
“Set No Stones told me about this place.” She smiled wryly. “Because of course she did. We are consummate pros at living up to our names. You may place your tile wherever you would like, and so long as it is touching the edge of another, it will stick. You will not be able to remove it after, so make sure to place it carefully.”
Rush laughed. “Holy shit. This place is amazing.”
“It’s a bit hard to look at in some places,” Sedge added, nodding towards a few buildings whose walls were covered in a rainbow static of tiles. “But yeah, this is wild.”
“It really is, yes,” Dry Grass said, grinning. “Used to be, you would get one tile per day to place, but as the popularity grew, that was slowly reduced to one tile every six weeks. Still, whole fandoms have sprung up around this place among a certain type of individual. Set No Stones started organizing groups of fifty to a hundred instances to plan out images. They would meet up once a week to go build their pictures. That is where we are going now.”
The street was steep, but, despite the glossy look of the tiles that paved the road, none of us slipped.
We walked past buildings that depicted animals, some that depicted people, some that had words set in porcelain. There were scenes of nature and of cities. Even one that Cress spotted which appeared to be a building in the process of being covered by tiles exactly the same color as the stucco beneath it. The slow shift into square tiles led to a sense of the structure dissolving into pixels, or perhaps voxels.
If the small town sim had been relatively quiet, this one felt all but abandoned. Perhaps all such sims with a singular purpose would be like this today: if your friends are missing, if other versions of you were missing, then an attraction would doubtless lose some of its draw. We passed only a few tilers tramping up the hill with determination, ready to place their colors for the day.
Finally, Dry Grass led us down an alleyway, dim and cool, and gestured to a wall. The scene was of two figures sitting at a bar. Given the scale, it was impossible to make out any detail on the figures, though they seemed to be furries of some sort — one tan and one black and white. Each had a drink, and before them, a wall of bottles stood, still in the process of being built. Dry Grass stood up on her tiptoes and touched her tile to the edge of a bottle, adding a bright glow to a fledgling bottle of whiskey.
“Here,” she said, gesturing us to grab a crate that had been stacked nearby. “All of these are just props to help people reach higher. You can probably add your blues to the edge of the lamp. They are not quite the right color for green lamps, but I do not care.”
One by one, we took our turns standing on that box and setting our tiles into place. I reached up as high as I could to flesh out the glowing rim of the green glass-shaded lamp. As soon as my tile touched the edge of the tile Tule had placed, it snapped into place with a satisfying click. It was completely immobile after that. No amount of nudging could get it to slide more perfectly into alignment.
As she helped Cress, the smallest of them, up onto the crate to place her tile, Dry Grass said, “Thank you for coming with me on this little jaunt. If I spent any more time at my desk, I was sure that I would lose my mind. That I still have forks doing so is unavoidable, but at least I can get out of the house, yes?”
Tule nodded, kissed her on the cheek. “For which I’m glad. I’ve never met anyone more prone to overworking themselves than you.”
She laughed. “Yes, yes. The whole of the clade is like this, I can promise you that.”
“Are you ready to talk about what you’ve learned?” I asked. “If you need a bit more time, that’s fine, of course.”
“I am ready. Thank you for giving me a bit of space.” Once Cress had finished setting its tile and hopped back down to the ground, we all walked back out into the street, back out where the sun shone down on us. “We have passed one billion reported missing instances.” She held her hand up to forestall the comments that were already coming. “That is instances, to be clear, not individuals, and certainly not clades. Many of those who are reported missing were ephemeral; they are one-offs created here and there. The number is high, but I did want to provide that caveat.”
“Hanne said that one of her friends, Shu, was missing entirely,” I said, once the words had sunk in. “Similar to Marsh, I mean. It wasn’t just that she wasn’t responding, it’s like she was just never there, like the System didn’t know about her.”
“I have not come across that name off the top of my head, but one of my instances will do a search to confirm and get in touch with Hanne directly, if she would like.”
I shrugged. “It might be worth asking, at least.”
She nodded and gestured us back down to the beach. “I will.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “Now, the current population in terms of instances is something like 2.3 trillion. A billion is a very small fraction of the System in terms of numbers, but it is what we are working with. A billion instances appear to have been…ah, lost, along with thirteen months, ten days, seventeen minutes, and some seconds. On speaking with Günay, this downtime was observed phys-side, though she was not able to tell me much about it besides that. I have the sense that there is more that she could have said, but that she was not able to for whatever reason.”
This had apparently been the first that Rush and Sedge had heard about this, so a few minutes were spent bringing them up to speed as we walked down the hill to the shore once more. I took the opportunity to focus at something far off, something further ahead of me than my own two feet. The horizon, the dark ocean breaking against the shore in a rush of white out where the arms of the bay projected into the water.
We passed only one more person. They were rushing up the hill, breathing coming in quick puffs, a white tile clutched in their hand, tears streaming down their face.
We said nothing until after they had passed…
Marsh will be out in mid to late 2024!