writing chapter 6.3
Once again, the team abandoned their work to date and embraced a better way of gamebuilding, because all their designs went out the window when Kurt showed up with the kernel.
They turned on their tablets to access their programs and files, and everything came up shining and new. The kernel instantly optimized files, so Fairy’s (Radhu’s) characters were completely lifelike, and Snake’s awkward animation was smooth and graceful. The kernel took all their work, all the thousands of files and the contents of spreadsheets, their search results, even their Facebook messages and browser history, and transformed it all into the gameworld, just like that.
It was easier the third time. They’d already wasted months arguing about how everything was supposed to fit, and after the kernel came online they practically sprayed their gameworld from a hose. With point and click worldbuilding and a kernel that anticipated commands, they had no use for the old ways.
However, the kernel’s quantumagical processes were no match for their dysfunction as a group. They continued to change things arbitrarily, stopping work on random tasks, forgetting deadlines, neglecting their recordkeeping – all the things that drive mid-level managers insane in the corporate world. But nobody was getting paid and there were no corporate benefits, so they used an air of self-immolation between themselves, depending on who felt the most put upon.
Despite continuous fuckups, they managed to build the prototype in a matter of weeks, starting with the cloud layer. It was the simplest, just a big empty platform under a white skydome with fog particles and basic physics. On this level, everything beyond fog was going to be up to the player.
Soon enough it was time to test the prototype in person, so the team all drifted into the foodcourt, where Nathan was saving the best of the leftovers for just such an occasion.
Anomia got there first, straight from her cube upstairs in the office tower, and settled down to eat a quick bite with her tablet in front of her. She got busy shaping the tiny details of the landscaping on Oates, the island at the end of the Transantarctic range. It was roughly hand-shaped, the wrist like a wall of sheer cliffs, with a flat palm of green turf sloping gently down into knotty, arthritic fjordlands jutting into the sea. It was different from the rest of the mountains down Antarctica’s middle; it reminded her of an artist’s signature that almost blended into its surroundings.
She was hovering a couple of thousand feet over the northern end of the island, where Oates faced Victoria across a narrow channel and formed an intricate harbor on the leeside. She was daydreaming about the view from the hill overlooking it. She was imagining the wide back porch. Sitting in a rocking chair, watching the boats down in the harbor. She could feel the warmth of the sun and the wind blowing thru her hair. There was a bird – what kind was it?
Suddenly someone slapped a cup of coffee down on the table. The sound was like a firecracker going off in her face. She started violently, her hands clutching the air. “Wow, you must have been concentrating,” Fairy observed. “Your eyes are as big as plates.”
Her throat pinched closed. Anomia fought to control her panic. “It’s hard to tear myself away,” she said finally, panting in a weak, strangled voice. “I get so far into it, I totally forget where I am.” Her heartbeat made her voice shake.
Fairy looked at her with envy. “I’ve been practicing zen for years,” she said, “and I can’t manage that for more than a few moments at a time.”
Anomia shook hair out of her eyes and took a deep breath. “I can’t come of out of it sometimes,” she confessed. “Hours go by and I’m still in there fixing things. My legs fall asleep. Then it’s like I have amnesia, because I don’t remember what I was just doing, even tho I’ve been doing it for hours.” It really shook her sometimes – where did the time go?
Josh and Snake arrived, then Kurt came in from the smoking deck. They all got something to eat and sat bantering for awhile, but finally pulled up the prototype on their tablets and had a look around the cloud level.
It was white. They couldn’t see anything. There was no ambient sound. Maybe there was a sort of pulsing in the murk. They stood fading in and out of the fog, arguing about its qualities. White, gray, opalescent.
“Just looks boring to me,” Snake said finally, waving his hand thru the gloomy fog. “What are you supposed to do with this shit? Move it around with your mind?”
“Um, yeah?” Josh said. Anomia looked sharply at Snake.
“And how are you supposed to do that?”
Josh concentrated, and the fog in front of him coalesced into a mug of a beer. “That’s how,” he said, grabbing and taking a long drink. He offered it to Snake, who shrugged it off, irritated.
“No, this,” he waved at the foggy world around them. “It’s all just a simulation in a computer game. What you two can do here is irrelevant.” He took on a whiny tone, “You’ve got magical powers.” Then he slashed at the fog again. “I think the real question is how do we program it so the players can do it too? Because I’m at a real loss for an answer on that one.”
“But remember,” Fairy said gently, “the whole point of the game is to develop that psychic muscle.”
Snake made rude hand motions.
“It’s like spoonbending,” she continued. “Once your energy is flowing, the spoon just bends. And you can’t try to do it, because trying uses real muscles that drown out your psychic muscles. You have to not try to try.”
“Ah, spoonbending,” Snake said, nodding wisely.
“Yeah,” she said, surprised at his sympathetic response. “Once you believe, you can do it. It’s a particular blend of intensity and nonchalance…”
“No,” he interrupted, “I mean spoonbending is a good example of sleight of hand. Because it’s just a trick, which is what we’re trying to do in our videogame, right?” he smiled. “Simulate special powers?”
“It’s not a trick,” Anomia said flatly.
“Stimulate, not simulate,” Fairy corrected him.
Snake stuck his tongue at her. “Sorry, I get confused.”
“I guess the kernel will generate the effect when you concentrate the right way,” Anomia said feebly.
“That’d be positive feedback,” Fairy said. “But how will the kernel know you’re concentrating enough? Can it measure your brainwaves?” She looked at Kurt and beamed hopefully.
“Why not?” he said. “You’ll be using a headset and some sort of haptic device. Of course it will be able to sense brainwaves.”
“Then the problem is solved,” Josh said. “The kernel reads the right response, fog condenses into beer.” He materialized beer for everyone.
“But how does it know what you’re thinking?” Snake asked, downing his quickly. “I mean, whether you want a beer or a blow job? Does it read the picture in your mind? That’s getting pretty sophisticated.”
Kurt shrugged. “Maybe it can pick up your subvocalizing.”
Fairy put her hand to her throat.
“I mean, how do you write that?” Snake insisted, waving the empty mug as it turned back into fog. “Maybe,” he stressed sarcastically, “the kernel’s sensitive enough to pick up what you’re thinking, but how do we tell it how to respond?”
“Well, obviously, it knows the intent of the game,” Kurt reasoned, “and knows that you want to facilitate it whenever possible, so it probably goes out of its way to enhance what you’re looking for.”
“I’m not sure that was an answer. How do you tell the kernel what to do?”
Kurt just looked at him. “I don’t know,” he said honestly.
But Snake didn’t believe him. “How can they do it?” He pointed at Josh and Anomia.
Anomia answered. “Because the angel gave us powers that you obviously don’t believe in. So we can talk to each other in our heads. And we can make stuff out of fog particles. And we can fly.”
“Oh, right, that,” he said bleakly. “How come you’re not manifesting cups of coffee in the real world?”
Anomia and Josh looked at each other.
“It doesn’t feel right,” she finally said.
“It doesn’t work very well,” Josh said at the same time.
Fairy said, “But how are we going to test the cloud level? Snake’s right, you two can do what you want here. But I”ve been trying, and all I can do is make steam rise off my body. And, correct me if I’m wrong, Snake,” she said, looking him up and down, “but you think it’s all bullshit because you never lose your awareness of sitting there using your tablet. I’ll bet you can’t do a damned thing with this fog.”
“Because it’s a bunch of bullshit,” Snake said.
Suddenly they were back in the foodcourt, knowing they’d never really left it. The empty food containers littered the table, Josh and Anomia sat on one side of a table, Snake and Fairy sat as far apart as possible on the other side, and Kurt paced at the end of the table, fingering his e-cig.
The fog had seemed real.
Anomia was disappointed. “I guess maybe the cloud level belongs after the first two levels, after people have had some practice.” She twiddled her hair with her forefinger. “Maybe it’s not a kindergarten level, maybe it’s a graduate level.”
“So, what – we’re going to push it back, make it level 3?” Snake was incredulous. “I can’t believe how much time we’re wasting.”
“Maybe we should,” she said, and Josh and Fairy nodded.
“Fine. Whatever.” He looked at his phone and his leg started bouncing under the table.
“So now the game starts on the carnival level, right?” Fairy asked. “Do we have to change it any, because of that?”
“I don’t know, it’s great as a carnival, really, but it’s just that it’s so slick, so commercial. It looks like…a theme park. I half expect to see parking lots when I look out to sea.” Anomia looked a little sheepish. “I’ve been thinking,” she started.
And thus began a downward spiral toward chaos, as they once again prepared to totally rearrange their world according to the idea of the moment.
They listened as Anomia described it. Each island showcased some aspect of classical physics, nothing unusual there, but it had an arctic flavor. Exaggerated peninsular mountains with roller coasters careening over the passes and sliding wildly down the icy glacial tongues. A huge ice rink on the subcontinent. The arcade in caverns under the Transantarctic mountains.
Anomia finished with a question to Kurt. “Could the kernel make you feel cold?”
Kurt stopped pacing and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Yeah, sure. I’ll let you in on a secret,” he said, rubbing an itch at the back of his neck. “The kernel already does biofeedback.” He looked at her directly. “I thought you might have noticed.”
Anomia looked at Josh. “Well, we kind of get a sort of buzz and tingle, and a sound,” she said, “but we thought it was…the fan…I don’t know.”
“That’s the kernel communicating.” Kurt nodded. “I knew you’d be able to feel it. Maybe the others aren’t as sensitive.” Snake and Fairy glared at him.
“Since our avatars could actually feel the cold, don’t you think we should use it as a feature?”
“I can build in temperature feedback,” Kurt said. His eyes focused on the distance and his fingers began scrabbling on the table as he made himself a note. Fairy noticed how long and ragged his fingernails were getting, except for the ones he chewed on. He snapped out of his reverie. “When I’m done with it, you’ll get frostbite if you’re out too long.”
“Why do we want to be cold?” Snake asked, making a face.
“Well, only our faces have to feel the cold,” Fairy pointed out, “because we’ll have kickass cold weather clothes.”
Snake’s taunt about verisimilitude echoed in Anomia’s head. “Well, I want it to feel real.”
“But why cold?” Snake whined. “That’s so uncomfortable, and even dangerous if Kurt gets his way. Why not balmy and 73 with a light breeze and afternoon showers?”
“I don’t know, because it’s Antarctica?” Fairy answered him. “And people like to play on ice? It illustrates angles and force, momentum, all sorts of laws of physics.” She got into it. “Speedskating, crack the whip, chase the crack in the ice,” she nudged him. “It’ll be fun. And freestyle areas to explore for those who don’t like their fun organized.” She paused for emphasis. “Best of all, you’ll have to use your psychic muscles to move thru all that snow.”
Snake rolled his eyes. “Sure, let’s turn the level into a giant ice covered physics lab, with ice hockey where you move the puck by mind power alone.”
“Don’t forget bunny suits,” Fairy reminded him. “Bundled up in bunny suits so your movement’s restricted, with you trying to get around on a slippery surface. Body english becomes really important.”
“You want to train for body english, right.” He shook his head. “That’s where you lose me.”
They pulled up the level on their tablets. Everything was changed. A thick layer of ice and blowing snow obscured the details of the buildings on the midway. Icicles and frost decorated the rooflines and windows. It looked long-abandoned and spooky. They struggled thru snowdrifts, dragging themselves forward. They were dressed in pink snowsuits, and thick steam billowed from their lungs as they shuffled toward the entrance of the arcade.
Inside, their outerwear disappeared, and they appeared dressed as they really were, standing around inside the vestibule of a vast gameroom. Arcade games of all kinds filled the space, fading out in the distance. The rattle and ping of the machines made a pleasant background noise.
Kurt shook his head in wonder. “The quantum kernel has depths I’m only beginning to be aware of.”
“If the military ever got their hands on it,” Snake began.
Kurt cut him off. “I’ve made sure they won’t.”
Fairy oriented them by pointing out the various directions for the tiltawhirl and the pendulum ride, each on their own island. Josh was uneasy. “The physical principles we’re teaching don’t separate out into one per island, or anything, do they?” The resemblance to high school was freaking him out.
“And don’t forget all the non-science social areas, like the food court and tourist shop.”
Anomia was puzzled. “I can understand a tourist shop, but what’s the point of a food court in a videogame?”
“Hey,” Snake taunted. “Maybe you can get the kernel to make you hungry.”
“It’s a faucet and drain thing,” Fairy explained. “They’ve got to be able to spend what they earn playing games.”
“Why can’t everything be free? We’re supposed to be making a free game.” She didn’t notice them nudging each other. Fairy, who replaced Anomia’s utopian economics when nobody was looking, made elaborate guilty gestures that Anomia didn’t notice.
“So that’s okay, then,” Josh said to divert the conversation. “As long as it doesn’t look like we’re in a high school science lab.”
“No, that’s the next level,” Fairy said, “when you’re behind the scenes as a carnival employee. That’s all about adjusting settings and using the first level players as guinea pigs.”
“How realistic will it be?” Josh asked hopefully. “Blood and guts?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?” Snake said. “I’m doing the animations, after all.”
They went back outside thru the front door. Instantly, cold wind blasted them and snow whited out their vision, and then they were in the great snowy outdoors, dressed in pink snowsuits, their noses begining to drip.
“I am rolling my eyes,” Snake said. 🙄 “Can we cancel this permafrost? I just hate the idea.”
Fairy tried to argue that the wind resistance would help build up their psychic muscles, but the rest agreed that subzero temperatures weren’t their idea of fun. The sun came out and all the snow melted away in a matter of moments.
On a roll, Snake pushed his point. “We really have to learn physics to play this game? Why the fuck are these concepts even in here? And don’t say the angel told them to make it this way. Nothing coming from God would say to make a boring game unless the idea was to discourage videogames.”
“I don’t believe you brought God into it,” Fairy said.
“Just wondering which side your precious angel is on, that’s all.”
They found themselves sitting back in the foodcourt with empty food boxes all around them. Nathan and other vendors were closing up and hauling trashbags thru the empty space. Anomia looked around with a strange expression on her face, but Snake didn’t notice, and tried another angle. “While we’re changing things, I think we should combine the first two levels, just have half the space be the carnival, and the other half be Carneytown, and just have a gate between them the way it would normally be.”
That got some discussion, but Anomia insisted on separate layers, because the physics was different on each layer. “The carnival level is strictly about classical physics,” she explained, as if he’d never heard it before, “and Carneytown explores relativity.”
Snake just looked at her.
Fairy got up and took her trash to the bin, brushing against Kurt as she passed. She asked how he was coming on the game’s interface. “I’m doing a modified glove,” he said, scrabbling his fingers in the air. “And some kind of glasses. I haven’t quite decided on the specifics.” It would depend entirely on what he could find lying around the van (Airstream). She purred for more. “It’ll sense tiny movements,” he went on. “Nerve impulses, muscle tension, brainwaves.” Fairy was incredulous. “No problem. Even galvanic skin response. It’ll know when you’re lying, it’ll know what you’re feeling, it’ll know when you’re dehydrated or running a fever. After it’s been on you for awhile it’ll finish your sentences for you.”
Fairy expressed interest, but the others didn’t particularly like it. “Sounds creepy,” Snake said, shoving his food box across the table to Fairy’s seatplace. “It’s not nano, is it? Will it get in your bloodstream?”
Kurt didn’t know what to say about Snake’s concern about nanotechnology. The kernel wasn’t a nano swarm, and it couldn’t invade your body or multiply into testube goo, but it did affect your nervous system. It f’real worked on his, anyway – he tingled all over and heard voices in his tooth fillings. It seemed to like Anomia and Josh, who were more receptive because of their experience, maybe. He could tell the kernel felt positively toward them, the same way he knew the kernel didn’t like Snake. And it had already warned him about Fairy.
“So if it can sense all these things, can it also affect them?” Fairy asked, fluttering her eyelashes. “Like biofeedback? Like, it’s electric, right? Kind of?”
Kurt nodded in a way that might mean yes or no.
“That’s microstimulation,” she said, and nodded to herself. “That could work.” Fairy had experience with low strength electric fields. She liked the idea of electrodes on her fingertips. “You could send out electrical impulses to affect the meridians. You could manipulate the nerve endings…”
Snake scoffed, “Of course,” he suggested, enjoying Fairy’s new age gullibility. “So, like, it could do biofeedback things,” he said.
“Well, not just that, but with the right setting, it could speed up your heart, or slow it down.”
“Right,” Snake nodded, egging her on. “Therapy. Electroshock.”
“Entrainment,” she corrected. “It’s a well known fact. Your brain responds to music and touch, and light patterns – even the flicker of a TV set, which by the way hypnotizes people.”
He got up and stalked off, fantasizing a conversation he would have with Josh later. I can’t wait to fuck up their plans, he would say righteously. I’m using tunnels and back doors and all the cheats I can think of. Fuck that pseudoscientific bullshit. We’re going to make a great game. Here he should make a bonding gesture. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about anyway, he would continue. It was just some drug induced vision, she’s got reality confused with her dreams. I’ll tell you what reality is, we’re going to make a kickass computer game. And here’s the hook. Because we’re a team, remember. Just us boys. We’re going to take pains to arrange opportunities for abuse. A lack of data integrity and security, easy to steal passwords, easily pwned property. We’ll set up avenues of internal misuse, back doors to modify the servers and software and data, codes to change the properties of objects, ways to subvert the NPCs, to gank and hoodwink and rip off newbies. On-purpose bugs.
Twenty minutes later, Josh got a private message. “Snake lost his tablet,” he reported.
Anomia was alarmed. “He what? When?”
“Just now, on the train,” (at a bar). “It just disappeared. He says the guy next to him stole it.”
He looked at Kurt. “He asking if you’ll make him another one.” Kurt shrugged and his fingers started twitching at his side.
Fairy saw Kurt’s passivity and frowned at how casually Snake abused Kurt’s kindness and generosity. “And why can’t he face Kurt and ask him himself?”
Anomia reached over and patted her shoulder. “Oh, come on, he’s embarrassed. I wouldn’t want to ask Kurt to make another one if mine got stolen.”
She softened. “I guess I’m always hard on him,” she confessed. “He just seems so lazy and negligent. I mean, he hasn’t done much in the way of work on this project, but he feels free to criticize every little thing.”
“You know he’s busy with other stuff,” Josh defended him. “He’d like to put in the hours, but he’s got a life.”
Anomia stiffened. “I work overtime at my job,” she pointed out, “and here I am, working full time on this project too.”
“Where does he get off,” Fairy muttered.
“Try to calm down about Snake, you two. He’s really valuable, you’ll see.”