writing chapter 7.1
They had the carnival levels down and more or less complete – the sets were all dressed, the rides were all running. It was only once everything was ready for testing that they discovered their real problem. Something made by committee satisfies nobody. The game was a compromise the whole away thru, useless as a teaching tool and unplayable as a game.
Anomia certainly wasn’t satisfied. All their hard work and so many months of labor, to make a digital amusement park. They’d done everything except what the angel had asked for. She was more than frustrated. She knew in her bones what had to be done, but had no idea how to do it, and didn’t have the words to get it across to the team. The harder she tried to direct their work, the more wayward they became. Worse, she kept losing sight of the big picture and getting involved in the petty squabbles that hijacked whole areas of the game for pissing rights. They were farther from their vision than ever.
Everyone seemed to think there was a real possibility the angel wasn’t real, and their vision wasn’t true, and their last almost year was a complete waste of time.
Maybe Snake was right, God forbid. Maybe the angel was on the wrong side.
Dragoncon was coming up real soon now. They didn’t have a complete game, but they’d been talking it up, and their friends (and their friends’ friends, and their Facebook friends) all expected something wonderful. And they had nothing. A carnival shaped like Antarctica, where one side played hapless riders and the other side played cheats and tricks. What happened to all her efforts to save this bit of their vision, and that bit?
She’d thought she was building remedial levels, bringing the players up to speed with the physics of everyday life before introducing them to quantum reality. Because the little taste they had of quantum fog left them all floundering, she’d agreed that they had to work up to that, and let them distract her with workarounds that turned out to be the same shootemup game the boys wanted in the first place. As if they’d planned it.
It was her fault.
If people couldn’t handle quantum reality, the answer was total immersion. The same way it worked in their vision. Bam, you’re in another world, with special powers. Get to know them, have a nice day. It worked in Minecraft.
Josh felt the pressure of his friends and their expectations. Her pressure was the chance they were making an irrevocable mistake, creating something that was not just a waste of time but poisoned the well, so that nothing useful could be gotten, and she’d be sorry she ever did it, and close herself off from the meaning of the vision. Like swallowing a tumor.
She began to get headaches, and felt a constant sense of impending doom. She sighed a lot, and if you caught her in the middle of something, she would look at you with an aggrieved, lost look in her eyes. She began to feel the same way she felt about her job, like it was distracting her from realizing she was wasting her life.
But where was there to go if she couldn’t move in the direction of their vision, where she had control over her life and what she did was important and made sense? She couldn’t really stop, she had to keep trying to wrench and nudge the game. There was an internal pressure, a bubbling proto-optimism, that wouldn’t let her sink into despair, wouldn’t let her go on automatic and just finish the fucking game and move on. There was no moving on, her life was in the game.
So she continued sneaking in the important bits the boys had already thrown out.
Without asking permission, Anomia turned her back on the carnival levels, with their antarctic-themed sets, and built the real Antarctica level that was based on their vision, just her and the kernel. She zoomed the gameworld all the way in, and filled it with the elements of their vision, starting at the isolated western fringe and going all the way across the continent to Prydz Bay, laying out the forests and towns and great cities.
Kurt knew what she was doing. He kept an eye on everything thru the kernel. He’d developed a relationship with the kernel early on, and it told him what the others were doing as if he’d programmed it to. It never occurred to him to snoop, but he was always worried that someone would fuck with his baby, and the kernel picked up on his concern and kept him aware of everything, like an itch at the back of his mind.
Kurt worked on what was supposed to be his final contribution to the game, the haptic interface. It was the most important part of a videogame, as far as he was concerned. He didn’t care what a gameworld looked like, or how it played – every game was different. He wanted the feeling of being inside the game, no matter what the setting. But he’d always been too conscious of the control device. There were only keystroke commands back when he was a kid, and it made it hard to lose himself in the game. Every improvement was a little farther away from what he wanted. Joysticks were too limiting, no matter how sophisticated. Never mind consoles. And wii was just silly. His version was going to be like breathing. Like thinking.
So there was another meeting in the foodcourt, and Nathan got to watch it all unfold without being able to hear much of anything.
Anomia got there first, and was still talking to him at the counter when Josh arrived. He looked at the salads and decided to get a pizza across the concourse, but doubled back when he remembered something he wanted to tell her. Snake got another new replacement tablet, but Kurt had thrown a fit.
She shook her head. “Kurt’s right. He doesn’t deserve another one.” Nathan rang up the total.
Josh shifted from one foot to another. “He blames Kurt. He keeps giving him these shitty devices that don’t work right.”
She paid Nathan wearily, feeling the energy draining out of her. She sighed. “What was it, a wristwatch? How’d he kill it this time?”
It got confiscated at the airport. He said it set off all the alarms.”
She laughed at the thought of cool Snake, caught in the spotlight. “Did they arrest him?”
“No, but they grilled him for hours. He didn’t say anything, tho,” he added hastily, and mused, “I wonder what Kurt’ll give him this time.”
She frowned. “Why would Snake say anything? It’s just a DIY computer.”
Josh looked at her. “Yeah, a DIY quantum computer with brand new quantum technology that people would kill for.”
She glanced at him. “Don’t be silly.”
He shrugged. “You know, corporate espionage, tech rivals squelching the competition, enemy operatives, that kind of thing.” He winked at Nathan.
Anomia took her lunch and turned away. “Maybe Kurt should patent his code.”
Snake arrived, and the boys went across the foodcourt for pizza. Fairy came running up all out of breath, but relaxed when she saw that Kurt wasn’t there, and got some chinese. They all sat in the usual spot, working on the game while they ate, their tablets beside them.
Except for Snake, who reluctantly brought out a Tamagotchi, which ran the software as well as everything else he’d been given, but also needed constant feeding and toilet training. “Asshole,” he muttered when they laughed.
Kurt continued being late, so Fairy took them to task for being so sloppy about recordkeeping and schedules, and Josh tried to persuade her that they were so strong with the force that they were guaranteed to make a perfect game.
“You’re hoping to make another Minecraft,” Snake observed sourly.
Anomia looked at him briefly and returned to her lunch.
“Right,” Josh agreed. “The dude wrote his game on the fly, released it for free, and the fan buzz made it huge.”
“Yeah,” Snake leaned back, “he did everything wrong, just like we’re doing, starting with trying to do it on our own. I mean, you don’t release a game in the early alpha stages, and you don’t give it away for nothing, or donate years of updates to the fans.”
“But it’s the true Dragoncon spirit,” Fairy reminded him.
“And that’s what the angel told us to do,” Anomia added.
Snake pointedly ignored them. “You don’t change things just because the fans want you to, and you don’t let absolutely anybody make a mod without paying for the privilege.” He crumpled a napkin and tossed it into the pizza box. “He could have made millions.”
“He did make millions, if you’ll notice,” Fairy said. “It’s one of the most popular games around. So, rogue works.”
“No, see, what I’m trying to tell you is that rogue doesn’t work. That’s why God invented venture capitalists.”
Fairy finished her drink, loudly sucking air thru the straw. Snake grabbed her tablet and looked at the edge. “Look,” he waved it at Josh, “it’s the same with hers.” He thumped the tablet back onto the table. “That oozing from the instabuttons. I hate Do It Yourself,” he said in a lowered voice, as Kurt came from the hamster tunnel and headed their way.
Fairy inspected the sides of her tablet. “It’s not nano, is it? Will it get in your bloodstream?”
Kurt heard Josh as he approached the table. “Stop that,” he said. Laymen. He picked up Fairy’s tablet and looked at it, then wiped the edge with his finger and tasted it. “It’s silicone oil. Wonder how that happened.” He put the tablet down and wiped his hand on his jeans. “The kernel’s not a nano swarm,” he said, sitting down. “It doesn’t invade your body or grow in your brain.” It did a job on his nervous system, tho; he tingled all over like he was plugged into the wall, and heard voices in his tooth fillings.
Snake turned to him, whining. “I’m serious, why can’t I have it on my laptop?” He could hack into anything running Windows. “I’ve got a kickass gaming desktop at home.”
“I use a Mac at work,” Anomia said.
“Microsoft and Apple are evil,” Fairy said firmly. “I use Linux,” she beamed at Kurt.
Kurt shrugged. “Sorry, it’s really a no brainer. Android is open source, iOS is overrated, Windows sucks.” He shook his head impatiently. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter what it runs on,” he gestured at Snake’s Tamagotchi. “It all comes down to the kernel.”
Looking on, Nathan had Windows on his school laptop but installed a partition and was running Ubuntu on the other side. Caroline, lurking around the trash cans, didn’t even know how to open a laptop, and on the other side of the world, Radhu’s used his parents’ ancient PC, running Windows 2000 with all-illegal software.
“I just don’t see why we have to put up with duct tape and goopy shit,” Snake growled.
“People who buy things are suckers,” Kurt replied. He rummaged in his messenger bag, which was looking remarkably beat up, then reached over and stuck a clear dot onto the bridge of Anomia’s nose. It pinched a little and she squinted and wrinkled her nose to see it.
“This is your eye tracker,” he explained, “for navigation, zooming, and selecting. It also picks up muscle tension in your face, so it reads expressions and silent speech. Plus it reads your body’s weak magnetic fields, including brainwaves. Yeah, and I put in a bone induction sound system.”
Josh peered closely at Anomia’s nose, crosseyed. “This is the haptic gear? Wow, pretty fucking amazing.”
“It communicates wirelessly with the kernel,” Kurt added.
“Wireless?” Fairy drew back. “Will I get cancer?”
“Well, no, it’s not that kind of wireless. There’s no radiation. It’s entangled.”
Anomia picked at the dot on her nose. “Does it come off?”
“Yeah, you can peel it off. but don’t, because you’ll never find it again.” He reached up to touch his own nose dot. “You can shower and everything, it’ll stay on.”
He passed out dots to the team and the boys put theirs on. Fairy decided to wait until she could have a good look at it in the mirror, without makeup.
Then Kurt handed out silicone wristbands. “There’s your gesture control and wearable mouse and keyboard,” he announced. Anomia turned her wrist over and back, looking at it. “I’ve got it rigged for feedback,” Kurt said. He held his palm toward hers. “Feel that pressure on your hands when you push? It can tell how your fingers and hands are positioned, and it’s capacitive, so it knows whatever object you’re touching. It also picks up muscle tension, which means it reads the intensity of your gestures. So again, emotions and intentions. And oh yeah, it’s also wireless, uh, entangled.”
“How is it powered?” Snake asked.
“There’s an induction coil inside that uses your movements to power itself, and a nano heat converter that projects a dashboard screen in front of you, and since it generates more power than it uses, it also runs the nose dot.”
Snake was skeptical. “And this is all going thru the kernel?”
“Sure. The gamegear communicates everything to the kernel. The game itself is routed thru the kernel.”
Snake stroked his chin. “Which makes the kernel a pretty damned important little invisible speck of dust, doesn’t it?”
“The quantum kernel has depths I’m only beginning to be aware of.” Kurt shook his head in awe.
“If the military ever got their hands on it,” Snake began.
“I’ve made sure they won’t,” Kurt replied shortly.
Snake looked at him and said nothing.
Fairy put her wristband together with her dot on the table in front of her, and pushed them around with her finger. The band clashed with her bangles. “Can you change the color?”
Kurt looked puzzled.
She rattled her jewelry. “Fashion?”
“Oh, right, you can have it any way you like. I can make it out of pixie dust.”
She smiled fetchingly.
Anomia fiddled with hers, turning it around and around on her arm. “How will this help players to learn superpowers?”
“When you imagine doing something, the same areas in your brain fire up as if you were actually doing it. And this effects your whole body – your heartrate, your hormones and brain chemicals, your digestion. Everything. The more intensity and emotional involvement you can bring to it, the stronger the effect. The kernel establishes a feedback loop, so you can learn how to control your energy, and the exercises in the game give you lots of opportunities to practice with various energy centers.”
Fairy started to get interested, and wanted to know if the gamegear could read auras, so Kurt made his excuses and escaped, his spirits oppressed by their silly questions. But he stopped to talk to Nathan, who always appreciated his genius.
“Can you really make it yourself, like you said before?” Nathan asked, staring at Kurt’s wristband.
“Yeah, well, that’s kind of a problem at this point,” Kurt replied, gazing into space, his fingers twitching madly as he raised the subject with the kernel. “I’ll have to work on a DIY dot. I’m not sure how I came up with it at all.”
It was, in fact, another session of chemically enhanced somnolent creation (sleep-inventing), this time using ramen noodle starch, Kurt cooties, MSG and who knows what nanosubstances floating around in the dream-Airstream.
Fairy got up for a refill on her drink, and to sashay past Kurt. He checked the time on his wristphone and had to go, and when she came back to the table she noticed that the table was cleared off and her dot and bracelet were gone. They must have been tossed into the trash while she was up. She texted Kurt right away, hoping she could get him to meet her somewhere private, like her place. But he was nearby, having a cigarette, and came back to give her a new set.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said to Nathan, turning away from Fairy. “You can replicate both the dot and the wristband. I’ll go back to the van and post the code for them, and then it’ll just take a simple mod of your inkjet printer.”
He leaned over and spat into a cup. “Here,” he said, handing it to Nathan. “Use this, it’s concentrated.” Nathan tilted the cup to look inside. Spit mingled with the ice like an oil slick, faintly iridescent, with tiny particles of smoke-stained lung jelly.
“Nano backwash,” he said. “Open up a Coke can and pour this in, and let it sit until it goes flat. Then inject it into your ink cartridges, and you’re good to go.” He thought about it for a moment. “You should save a little in the fridge. As a starter. That way you can make more.”
Nathan said thanks, and eyed the cup, feeling like a freak.
Caroline came up as Kurt walked away, having witnessed his donation of precious bodily fluids. “He’s just fucking weird, that’s all,” she commented, sitting across from Nathan and wrenching off her shoes for a quick foot rub. She glared into the cup, and handed it back. He carefully put the lid on and moved it out of reach, thinking he should stash it in the back of the cold box and hope there were no surprise health inspections.
“You know,” she began expansively, leaning back and sticking her thumbs into her chest, “this old girl’s a fucking security genius. Let me tell you, I personally foiled a terrorist plot yesterday. Myself.” She looked around and said in a whisper, “Right here in Atlanta.” Nathan closed his notebook. “Yep,” she contorted to pat herself on the back, “the old bitch has life in her yet.”
She returned to her massage, stabbing her thumb into the bottom of her foot and letting out a big groan. “I was following behind these criminal types. You know.” Nathan wasn’t sure which minority she was referring to, but nodded to keep her on track. “Yeah, and they were talking some evil shit. It was so Iron Man. So I fell back, and contacted HQ to advise my situation and request backup. And then I trailed them to the exit, where the big boys took over.”
She cracked her big toe with a vicious snap, and switched to the other foot. The air smelled like rising yeast. “I followed them right outside to make damned sure the boys had them, but I couldn’t join in on the kill. I had to come back in after pointing them out. My asthma, you know. I can’t take that dirty street air.”
She put her feet on the ground and stretched in her seat. “Didn’t they get hold of me later on to tell me what a fine job I done. Too bad I’m retiring, right?”
Nathan had to know. “Were they terrorists?”
Caroline put her shoes back on. “Nah, turns out they was just foreigners in town for some convention. But boy, that was exciting. I creamed in my pants when they called to commend my perspicacity.”
Nathan was impressed.
She rubbed her hands. “You know, I been thinking about keeping my hand in after I retire. I might get bored sitting at home all day doing nothing. I’ve got too much experience to just fade away. It’s the call of adventure, don’t you think? The lure of riches?”
She looked all around and then leaned in. “See, there’s this outfit that’s been sniffing around, a real modern security bunch with … military connections. Gray ops kinda folks. I’d get to wear a taser and carry tear gas.”
Nathan looked around at the corporate environment. “In here? To catch shoplifters?”
“To apprehend potential terrorists. And I am allowed to tell you that they’re looking at me for the job. At a substantial pay increase.” If you could swagger sitting down, Caroline would look cool. But it’s hard to do, so she looked drunk instead. Maybe it was the pain pills.