a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

The Horse Armor Retraction

A man sits alone in front of a computer in an office in Bethesda, Maryland. His hand is on the mouse. The cursor hovers over a button on the screen marked Deploy.

"Once I click this button," he says aloud to himself, "Horse Armor will be available around the world. The future of video games is here." He takes his thumb off a button on the little digital recorder he uses for his audiologs. The red light on the recorder goes dark.

There's a sudden green flash of light and a whooshing noise just outside his office. He recognizes it as the teleportation effect from the 1993 video game Doom, a favorite of his from college. He presses the record button. "Someone just teleported outside my office," he says. He lets off the button. Click.

I look at my phone. It's 11:41 PM local time, April 5, 2006. I quickly pocket it. I'm standing in a dimly-lit hallway. A janitor with big dark-rimmed glasses and a thick red beard stands by his utility cart. He takes the white buds out of his ears and places them in his front shirt pocket. He looks puzzled, and a little sleepy.

"Just need to give Todd something real quick," I say quickly, holding up the sturdy metal clipboard I brought to look more authoritative. He nods, and I put it back in my satchel.

I knock on the door. "Come in?" says a confused voice from inside. I step inside and close the door. He sets down the recorder and swivels to look at me, eyebrows raised.

"Todd, I'm from the year 2022. You can't release Horse Armor," I say, my voice strong and steady. The lines I had practiced so many times. I mentally pump my fist. Nailed it!

"Huh? Who told you about that? You don't work here." Good, I think, he's willing to hear me out.

"I came back from the year 2022," I repeat. "It's vitally important that you not release Horse Armor. I know it sounds crazy, but this will have ripple effects that lead to the end of civilization. Not the Sid Meier one," I add.

He snort-laughs. "You sound like a programmer," he says. "Everything's the end of the world. Look, I know it's weird, but if people don't like it, they just won't buy it, right? There's not gonna be riots."

I shake my head. "That's not enough. If you give me some time, I can explain why."

He crosses his left leg over his right, leans back a few degrees in his Herman Miller Aeron chair, size B, black. He smirks. "Okay, tell me."

I tell him. I tell him everything he needs to know. I tell him everything I can get away with telling: The initial backlash against Horse Armor. The gradual acclimation of the public to downloadable content. The memes. The iphone. The app store. The free-to-play model. Juicero. Lootboxes. Energy meters. The latest climate change projections. Eve Online. Gold farming. Bitcoin. Then, finally, NFTs and the financialization of video game items. I feel my heart trying to beat out of my chest. I glance at the clock on the wall. I've been talking for almost an hour. I barely needed to look at my notes.

Todd is very quiet for a very long time. I fight the urge to keep talking. I know he needs time to process it. His expression is unreadable. I have no idea if I got through to him.

"Tha-" he starts, his voice breaking. He takes a sip of Mountain Dew Code Red from the can on his desk. He grimaces at the lukewarm temperature of the liquid, the flat taste. He swallows.

"That's a cool story. Seriously. I wish we could do something with it. But I don't know why you're pitching it to me. We can't take on a new project out of the blue."

"It's not a pitch," I say. "Swear to god. You delete Horse Armor, I walk out of here. That's all I'm asking." He looks into my eyes. I feel them shining. I look into his. "This isn't a story, Todd. This is my future. This is both of our futures."

He swivels back and forth in his chair. He uncrosses his leg, crosses the other one, bounces his knee up and down nervously.

"I wouldn't believe me either," I say, reaching into my satchel. "That's why I brought this." I pull out a softball-sized slab of blue and yellow plastic.

He puts both feet on the floor and leans forward to get a better look, his expression blank. "What is it," he says flatly.

"You know what it is."

"It looks like vault boy, but. Why does he look... like that," he finishes, voice dripping with contempt.

"It's called a Funko Pop." He wrinkles his nose. "Here, look at the back," I urge, handing it to him.

He reaches out to take it, turns it over, and his eyes go wide. "Vault 101," he says softly. The color drains from his face. "That's... that's the number I was going to..." He blinks.

"You can still make Fallout 3, Todd," I say. "People will love it. It's going to be a big deal. I can't tell you any more than that. But unless you delete Horse Armor, that," I say, pointing at the plastic slab, "isn't going to be the worst of it. You can't imagine how much worse it gets."

He's quiet for a moment, turning the object over in his hands. He looks at the date stamped into the bottom of the stand. He sets it on his desk. He stares at it thoughtfully, then looks back up at me. "Can you tell me the metascore?" he says.

I cross my arms. "You know I can't."

He shrugs. "Okay, okay. If this is some sort of weird hoax, I swear to god..." He trails off, swivels his chair so he's facing his computer again. Behind him, I notice the voice recorder he had set on the far end of his desk when I walked in. The red light is on. Shit.

He clicks his mouse, closes the window with the Deploy button. He clicks a Delete button. A confirmation window pops up. He clicks Yes. Another window pops up, asking if he's sure he wanted to do what he just did. He clicks Yes again, then again, then clicks I'm sure. A final window pops up to inform him as kindly as possible that he had seriously, truly done what he just did.

"Hi-ho Silver, away."

I breathe. "You're a hero, Todd. No exaggeration. You just saved my life. You just saved your—" I pause. I can't remember if he has kids yet. "your future," I finish quietly.

"I wasn't looking forward to the hate mail, anyway." He smiles a little. "Does this mean no expansion packs either?"

I shake my head. "X-packs are okay. It's just gotta be more than armor, or a fancy weapon, or a new character skin. It has to be something the player does, not just something they have. Oh, and make sure nothing from the DLC is hidden on the disc," I add. "People will find out and—well, you know how gamers are."

He nods. "You bet I do. Hey, if Fallout gets above an 85, don't say anything."

I grimace. Oh, what the hell. I shrug. His eyes light up.

I point at the Funko Pop. He picks it up gingerly between thumb and forefinger like someone handling a dead animal. He drops it into my open palm. I put it back in my satchel. "I'm going to need that too," I say, pointing to the recorder.

"Huh?" he swivels around. "Oh. I, uh, it couldn't pick up your voice from over there."

"Todd." I glare.

He sighs. "Look, I believe you. I haven't told anyone about Vault 101. I dunno how else..." He shakes his head. "But the investors are gonna be pissed. I need proof this really happened. Just for me. I won't let anyone else hear it, I promise."

I think for a beat. "I'll send you a message as soon as I'm back in my own time. Give me some paper and a pen." He looks around his desk for a moment, opens a drawer, pulls out a pad of yellow post-it notes and a blue papermate flair. He hands them to me. I hold it against my clipboard and write. I hand the pad back to him. It reads:

June 7, 2022. "I used to be a time traveler."

Innocent enough, I think.

He reads it, furrows his brow. "Uh... okay?"

"You'll get it."

He puts the pad back in his desk, closes the drawer. He picks up the voice recorder, pulls the batteries out, and hands it to me. "Can I get it back later?"

"Yeah. I'll just delete the file with my voice. Won't even listen to the other ones. You have my word."

"Okay. Thanks." We look at each other. Neither of us knows quite what to say. "See you in Daggerfall," I offer. He grins. "Say hi to Sheogorath for me."

I open the door. "You can't know how much this means to me." I step out. I look back at him. "I hope you never have to find out." I close the door.

I wave at the janitor. He waves back, earbuds back in place. I point behind him and scream. He turns to look. I pull my phone out of my pocket. I tap an icon. The screen lights up. The janitor sees the green flash behind him. Todd hears the "whoosh" again.

As far as the people milling about in the hallway are concerned, I just stopped to look at my phone. No one pays me any mind: I'm carrying a clipboard.

I open the wikipedia app. I type "non f". The search results appear. The first result is "Non-fungible token". Fuck.

I type "DLC". Disambiguation page. I scroll down. There's still an article. I tap it, and scan the first few paragraphs:

"In May of 2006, Microsoft released Master Chief's Cowboy Hat for $2.50. Widely considered to be the first paid cosmetic item in a mainstream..." I groan. A couple people stop to look at me.

"Sorry," I say. "Clipboard," I explain, pointing at it. They murmur assent and continue on their way.

I press the home button. I open the protonmail app. I compose a new message to todd@bethesdasoft.com. "I used to be a time traveler" in the subject line. Message blank. I tap send. The throbber throbs.

The reply comes nineteen seconds later.

re: I used to be a time traveler

Hall of Fame Todd Howard funkopop

what's our next move?