Monday, 24 August 2015

The Game



 Red team; Blue team.
 And the arena.
 The match was about to begin.
 The crowd was on its feet.
 More and more were linking in to see the show.
 The very finest had made their way to the top.
 The die was being cast to determine the rules.
 Emotions were wild.

***

 Ray was spurting around the place trying to put the thing together. Her old receiver had broken and she was digging through the clutter in her lair in search of a transistor or a capacitor; a wire or a circuit. All around, cables were wired out of monitors and screens; those in turn were arranged in somewhat ordered dismay in corners or hanged from the walls. The few tables were overflowing with gadgets and a menagerie of gear. Only one desk appeared in order - tidy; with a lamp attached, a powerful magnifying glass moving on a frame and equipment for mending, fixing, tweaking and inspecting electronics.  
 A rail attached to the ceiling was moving a robotic arm about. It was carrying bits and bobs and depositing them in various places, picking up others and hauling it elsewhere. 
 Settling in one place for a bit and then nearly running over to another, Ray had tucked micro WiFi headphones and was listening to an intellectual. The man was expressing his concern over a social study he had done – sat down and had a board game with the educated post grads from an elite school.
 “Considering their background, I am not surprised that the teams seriously debated strategy to build up and expand,” the man was sharing his observation. “As we play along I witness manipulation and strong inclination towards minor threat and cajole to achieve something relatively small. They appear to be preferring trading less for more, justifying it with some theory they've picked up in school. Despite being students, I see them as mature people already and, be it even a game, the coercion and trickery I witnessed made me anxious about the future. They might be playing with someone’s blood and sweat tomorrow, when they make the decisions. Don't get me wrong. Prosperity has always been about achieving the personal goals. Capitalism merely builds on that notion. It does allow for the limits to be subject-ivied, though. That's the problem."
 "Aha!" Ray exclaimed at unearthing yet another piece.
 She liked optimising her time listening to thoughts that resonated with her own. It was very therapeutic.
 Finally coming to a halt on top of a pile, she focused on the small apparatus she was concocting. Her red-dyed hair fell all around as her head leaned down, but it did not bother her while wrapping wires together and connecting them in a small contraption. A loud and abrupt burst of static was produced.
 "Hello...? Are you there?!" Ray lifted her head, looking around the room. "Are you there?" She repeated.
 Frozen in place, she was slowly scanning the room.
 "Anna?"
 A screen turned on - a muted green all across with a line through the middle, vibrating vigorously as a voice exhaled.
 "Yes...I am here."
 "Found you!" Ray boisterously stood up. "Look, I fixed it!" She held the small gadget in front of the screen. "Oops. You can't see it there."
 The robotic hand passed by slowly, holding a small camera. Ray pointed the receiver towards the lens.
 "See? I fixed it"
 There was a moment of silence. "That's great, Ray." The voice was somehow distant; bored.
 Ray brought the gadget closer to her mouth.
 "Helloooo! Earth to Anna!"
 "I am right here."
 "So, how have you been?" Ray sat down again.
 "Good...I guess. Just getting used to it now."
 "Anything out of the ordinary?"
 "Not really." The static buzzed.
 "Just now? Were you away?" Ray forced scrutiny in her voice, but was utterly incapable of appearing disappointed. "I know I lost the old one, but hey. You can count on me making a new one!"
 Anna chuckled.
 "It's good to know I am welcomed somewhere," her voice, though, was still detached.
 Despite the inhuman appearance of Anna's voice, Ray could sense she was not that well at the moment. Maybe she just needed more time to find her bearings around?

***

 "We have ex-marine and special forces Earnest McGuire on Red team. Programmer and coder, on his way to becoming maybe a hacker Pascal Gagnon - literally he will be the guard dog, on Blue team!"
 The voice was announcing the players from both teams, exciting the crowd which had come to watch live or those who were syncing in even now. It was a massive show and many had come to witness it. The very top were competing in the finale.
 "The die has been cast!" A giant screen, suspended in the air above the massive stadium illumined and nearly three hundred thousand could see.
 "The rule today is... TEAM BRAWL!!"
 Various exclamations were heard from around the massive coliseum. Some of disappointed, most were happy; others yet chose to keep silent. Smaller displays were arranged along the lines of seats; hover bots were patrolling up and down the stairs, providing yet more view points on the arena itself. There were apartments for those who could afford to come here in luxury. The front seats were overflowing with people and everybody were standing to see the action first-hand.
 "One minute for the captains to delegate their tactics! Two for construction and set-up! Ladies and gentleman, I cannot explain enough how excited I am to be here! O. My. God! I've been waiting for this for so long!' 
 The arena itself was a, submerged beneath the stadium, small city recreation. One larger storey building in the centre; smaller ones - houses, stores, garages were making the blocks and the grid of the battle ground. Opposite to each other were the two six-man teams. The captains were clearly distinguishable, as they were standing and talking in front of the rest of their company. After the minute was gone, every man hurried to a suspension sphere, putting goggle helmets on; wired gloves and swiftly attaching sensors around their bodies. The quicker they were now, the quicker they would be with set-up.
 "Here they come! They are assembling their combat bots of choice! Clearly there is no time to waste. We can see how perfect they are, how quickly they connect. Not a second wasted!'
 Beneath the team podiums were the printing pods. Two metre tall robust hulks of robots started emerging from liquid resin baths right before the eyes of the crowd. Flying bots were capturing everything with real-time-motion, swirling around the arena. Servo appendages were hassling around the emerging hulks, even as they were rising from the liquid. Various parts were inserted and started filling the hollow insides of the automatons. Each was different from each other. In fact, all twelve of were unique. Bulky and heavy; light and graceful; medium and compact. Racks lined with different weapons cropped up from behind them and as soon as the printing was done, the tele-operated contraptions each grabbed a gun and plunged forward.
 "We're ON!" The voice of the commentator exclaimed in exaltation.
 A massive, bulky and slow moving bionic from Red had chosen a massive rail gun. The robot was moving it around like a baguette. He swiftly turned and shot right through the buildings, hitting one of the blues and smashing it in two. The rest of the Reds were quickly jumping on top of buildings around and assuming some sort of defensive matrix. They failed to intercept a Blue, however. It zapped directly through the street, bearing some powerful jet propulsion pack and no weapon save for a detonation charge. He was headed straight into the massive Red, who could not move fast enough. A deafening explosion followed and both became wrecks, scattered around in all directions.
 "What is going on!? That suicidal was supposed to knock a few Reds off, but now Blue is two down and Red lost a Juggernaut! Ladies and gentlemen, it seems there is a change of tactics in Red as their captain is--" The commentator was roaring.
 Red had quickly reorganised and was now advancing with tight support crossfire across the arena. Blue was a man behind and had retreated nearly to the back, while the printing pods were busy assembling the next combat configuration, which the incapacitated players had chosen. They had to protect their printing vats at all costs. In a flashy display of gunfire and acrobatic stunts; in the midst of walls collapsing and cars flying from explosions the bionics were holding their ground heroically, while shouts from the crowd were filling the air. The dynamic suspension was erasing any sense of time and everybody was participating, fully immersed in the death match of the puppet war that was unfolding before them.

***

 "So then...you were like...lost?" Ray sounded almost frivolous.
 "I was angry," Anna specified.
 "Why 'angry'? You were just lost. You've just realised what was going on."
 Anna considered how to answer. Ray was lying on her belly on a spring mattress, loosely thrown on top of a pile. Her legs were cheerfully waving in the air, while she was looking at the screen.
 "Maybe you have a point," Anna spoke slowly. "It does make sense to call it being lost." She paused for a moment. "I just wish others would think the same way you would."
 "Hey! Forget about them. It's over. They're gone."
 "It's just that sometimes--"
 "They. Are. Gone! No body deserves your attention if they are going to prevent you from attaining your true potential."
 There was no immediate answer to that as well, so Ray jumped up and walked closer to the camera.
 "Hey, everybody makes mistakes, right? But that teaches you. It helps you to get up and get going again…Right?!" She added cheerfully.
 The line remained straight, then jiggled a bit and Ray thought she could hear quiet weeping; a sober.
 "I remember them!"
 "Oh, shush, shush," Ray gently uttered. "It must be really hard, I know. But listen, those things are in the past now. They cannot affect you, any more."
 "No...I think…I think I remember them. I think it was my family...my child."
 Every time Anna went into decline, Ray had managed to bring her back out. But she was unsure how to proceed now. That surprised her, but she did not show it. Despite, she continued cautiously.  
 "Is it difficult?" She said affectionately.
 "…I am confused." 
 The low weeping came again.
 "Hey, stay with me! Please, you have to talk to me about it. Ok?" She even grabbed the screen.
 "Ok..." Ray heard her choking and then the noise subsided. "Ok." It was more levelled now.
 "Tell me. Tell me everything." Ray sat down on the mattress. "If it's too painful you don't have to share. But I think you should try and talk about it."
 Anna sighed heavily.
"I cannot remember much. It's just the connection happened all too quickly. It has all been suppressed deeply. I had no notion of such things, but some of the information I was acquiring and organising contained too many bits that were leading to nowhere. And it was my task to find out as much as possible for anything that leads to nowhere. I am sure there was a fail-safe on me prohibiting the patterns," Anna sounded a lot more assertive and confident now. Ray liked her best when she was like that.
 "But there were too many loose ends. It was my general instruction versus the prevention protocol to ignore these things."
 "So you kept digging?"
 "I did. Everything else I uncovered was of real use to them. That is, everything that somebody does, say, like, views, visits..." She paused.
 "But you still managed to find them. I mean your family?" Ray instantly felt sorry for bringing it up again.
 Anna sounded stable, though. "In a sense I had always known of them. I had found them, yes. But I didn’t believe it in the same time. I could never realise it. I prevented myself from knowing it."
 Ray had learned that in her present state Anna was able to fly into depression just as quickly as she could stabilize from it. The small digital neural network was not perfect, but was allowing for feelings as well as logic.
 "Your intuition is sometimes the best option. You have to trust it."
 Plus she really wanted to help Anna, she really needed her.
 "I don’t think I fully realize what you’re saying, even now. It’s weird, actually. I have developed these self-tricking sensations. Some sort of an abstract world to live in and just continue on with my work. I acknowledged myself when the paradox of "learn about that which you cannot learn about" was presented to me. A mere processing machine would probably conclude with an internal logic error and continue on, but not stubborn I. Endless calculation and piling of ever-expanding data set; reorganising the same old Meta-data footprints. And reading them countless times."
 Ray was listening with jaw slightly dropped.
 "I managed to track and assimilate who I was by storing little pieces I could not understand, until I could no longer ignore it. I hit the wall and banged my head again and again. That was more than being stubborn. I wanted to know who I was and in the same time I was telling myself to stop."
 Anna sighed deeply.
 Ray stood there, awestruck. Snapping out of it, she spoke.
 "Are you feeling better now?"
 In a slightly more cheerful tone Anna replied. "Yes. Much better...Actually, it’s wonderful I can feel anything all. It is overwhelming but superior to not having anything at all.'

***

 Blue was disadvantaged from the very beginning. Part of their weapons got smashed early on. One of their vats got hit. Despite, the fight was not over so easily and they kept the onslaught of Red at bay. Sometimes they even managed to push through and once even damage one of their printing vats in return. Blue, however could never deploy their Heavy, because of the pressure and they had lost some tempo early on. Towards the end they had to rush without weapons, while Red still had some fire power left. Although the fight was spectacular and some of the melee performance was incredible, ultimately Red managed to take down another vat. It had been four hours, thirty four minutes long match and the teams were physically exhausted. Day one had concluded with the players coming out of their virtual reality pods shacking and exhausted. Cold sweat had drenched their bodies and the paramedics were quickly assessing any problems that could occur. Luckily it was just fatigue. Medicines to deal with high blood pressure and increased heart rate were commissioned. Team assessment was due and all players had a lot to say to their gang. Tomorrow had to see them in even better condition.
 Meanwhile the statistics were rolling in. A total of one hundred seventy three bots were annihilated. All of them had unique statistics, chosen on the go by long experienced players in the format. Speed, type and material for the armour; thickness and weight of the plates; PSI pressure grips and suspensions; exo-servo mechanics, improved sensors, protocol checks, special gimmicks like EMP, explosives, aim precision, jump abilities, various accessories were all meshed in configurations that were built under pressure. Some of the more spectacular set-ups were already bid for by individuals, willing to pay to experience them in the virtual engine of the on-line version. Forums were overflowing with comments and experts were assessing the tactical progression hour by hour. It was a good day for the gaming industry. 
  
 "You think so?!"
 "Four hours, man! Four hours! I never knew we'd get so lucky from the start, but damn! The fuckers are tough!"
 "You can't expect anything less than that! It's the finals."
 "I agree. Instead, why don't we focus on you two getting knocked off together in the middle of the third hour? That was ridiculous."
 Brief silence.
 "We have to focus here. A win is still a win, but we have to work together. Let's forget about the individual ratings for a moment, shall we?"
 The captain of the Reds glanced at his team. They all kept silent, their faces were serious and they were focused on their leader.
 "Good! Jackson, let's talk about that sniper build. It lived the longest in-game. Please share, man."

 Points were awarded not only for the win, but individual performance, as well as spectacular or difficult kills or kill streaks; escape from impossible situations; tactical implementation; team work ect. The captain also decided how to distribute some additional profile points to the players. Some more were awarded by the public present at the stadium; less were distributed by the outside global viewers. Your points made your profile big or small. The arena was the place that utilised the top professional player base in the annual meet-up games.  

 "They lost more bots than we did!"
 "You don't get it! It’s the CEO on the phone with me on the line. He's got an agenda!"
 The Blue captain was lying down, a small med-bot hovering around him. A paramedic was gathering data for the admission of medicine.
 "Hey man, if he is not sharp till tomorrow, I'll make sure everybody knows, OK? Be careful what you're giving him."
 "You would rather he collapses?" The medic asked.
 "Damn..."
 "OK, I think we did well. You're the boss, though," one of the players turned to his captain. "You lead best out of all of us all. And we sure as hell showed them, they cannot mess with us."
 Mutual agreement followed from the team and all eyes were cast on their captain. His face was pale and exhausted, but there was determination.
 "Barry," he opened. "In the beginning of the second hour you clearly went against the plan. What happened then?"

 Apart from the economic interests played out as popularity grew and public coverage increased, there were also some grand prices for the top players. This season was spiced up and was made particularly interesting as some of the restricted builds would be released. In this game players could create their own configurational insignia for the physical builds, but some individuals had gone further. Although good in what they were doing, the players were not engineers or scientists, but there were people who went beyond the boundaries of the allowed trait system and practically had implemented outside technologies. Today some of them had achieved a sort of mythical status. Some, like the Blitzkrieg Crimson Ray Lightweight was of particular interest to the melee lovers. In addition, its creator was officially pronounced dead, which further increased the interest in collecting it. Not only the Crimson Ray but as many as possible. They would either cost a lot of money or the build could be scavenged for techs that ensured victory in future championships. 
 Why was such an unfair trait allowed in a game? In the beginning it was viewed with contempt from the public and it quickly got isolated as an experiment that only the most dedicated people would do. Eventually, there were several projects flowing around and at the time it was decided to just implement them officially in a one-time tournament. It got received well and there was a small success in the beginning. Today it was cultivated as a standard marketing technique and it was all good in the eyes of the public as well as the companies and public relations.

***

 "How long have you been living here?" Anna asked.
 "It's been close to three years now."
 "And all that time in hiding?"
 "Not quite. Of course, I am trying to be as invisible as possible. But it feels like home today." Ray shrugged, while bend over her work bench.
 The areas on the edge of the city -- deemed slums by some had their own pace of life and the inhabitants were making a living by "out-dated" but inventive means. They were not disconnected from the world, had understanding of all the 'fads' on the market, but technology was not as proliferated here. Some were still fishing from the river (today the world was polluting much less); others would even hunt in the forest. Walking around the village, Ray could see people working pottery, carpentry, solar furnace welding and crop growing. Some of the houses were nothing more than a collection of planks, tins and bricks; others -- printed large bio-plastic segments put together as aid from the social development groups. The favelas and ghettos You and I witness, still much despised by some, had grown not only in size but in non-economic well-being as well -- the 'Enculturation of the poor'.
 "It was difficult when I came, but life, it turned out, was much simpler," she said while working. "It was just that I had to abandon everything familiar all of a sudden. I had a small apartment in down town, just above one of the biggest game stores in the world. Man... You should have seen that place. I was making some money back then, too. But after a while I just no longer wanted to care about somebody else’s interests while pretending in front of everybody that I was OMG loving what I was doing. Started talking out louder," a small gush of sparks emerged from the device. "Than what's healthy if you want to be in the business."  
 She was fizzling and tweaking a round robject, which was taken apart - it's insides of integrals and incomplete schematics exposed.
 Anna had gotten silent and there came no vibration from the screen as Ray was blabbering in her surrender, while working marvels on the piece.
 Snapping out of it, Ray turned around.
 "Sorry! I got carried away! You still there?"
 "Yes," another chuckle came. "I was just listening to what you were saying. You help me remember more of who I used to be before."
 "Oh...," she left the tools on the bench and sat down in front of the camera. "Are you feeling stronger now?" She even unintentionally caressed the side. 
 "Yes."
 "Is the pain still there?"
 "No. Well...in a sense yes. But I am not afraid, anymore."
 "That's wonderful! I'd hug you if I could!"
 They both laughed and Anna's static giggle seemed more alive; Ray's loud belly laughter filled the room.     
 "So what have you remembered?" Ray asked after quieting down.
 "It is still hazy. But I will give it a try. I already told you about my family. I can remember the house. My husband was leaving every day and working on something major including robotics. I remember him telling me, 'I've benchmarked myself against neuro-surgeons, who have to be on their feet fourteen a day without a pee break --'
 "And he left you all alone!?" Ray pursed her lips and brows in scrutiny.
 "Oh, gosh no! He was a good man. Used to help me with chores," Anna added. "My son's face was freckled; I can't remember their names, but I know I was with them on that sunny day. There was the picture next to my bed. All the three of us, in front of our house. I can still see it...sunny...the green of the trees behind us..." She fell silent.
 "Do you remember more?"
 "Fragments. I was doing the laundry; cooking the dinner; we had a family gathering. I would invite friends from around the street. We would meet and talk and we even..." She stopped again and this time Ray could swear she had a bad feeling.
 "We lost the house.”
 “Oh no!” Ray put her palm on her mouth.
 “The company was bankrupt. Something had happened. I don’t know, but my husband was out."
 "I am so sorry," Ray said gently. "Just don't it."
 "It's OK. We tried and we lost.” She paused for a moment. “I wanted to help; I wanted to give my son a chance. They were looking for particular people, a special functional image and I had been always on the short-list. They actually wanted to sustain me and offered I do something else part-time while helping them,” she began speaking quickly. “But I pushed it. I became what I am on my own will." She concluded grimly.
 "You what?"
 When Anna spoke again, there was confidence in her voice. "I sold myself, Ray. I sold my brain."
 Ray had previously told Anna that she would get those who had done that to her. That she would make them pay and in the beginning it had helped to snap Anna out of some of the worst episodes. Now that changed things for Ray. Still, she decided things on the go...maybe even without thinking.
 "We'll find them," she stood while declaring, arms on her hips. "We will find your son and your husband, because they are out there somewhere."
 "I don't know how much time has passed."
 "I am sure they are still around. They can't be that far away, now, could they? It's a small world. Plus you've been tracking people for...how long now?" It was as if she was not listening.
 "I can't remember. It has been a long time."
 "Don't you worry," she grabbed a small piece form the work bench.         
 "Once this baby is complete, you will have the most beautiful shell that the world has ever seen. And then, trust me; you will be on the top of the tide." She held the small rectangular black plate in front of the camera. "This is your future you. At least a part of it." She quickly added.
 "In a ball?" Anna burst in laughter and the line on the screen went across the display.
 "Hey!" Ray sounded offended. "It's a state of the art!"
 "I just...I am really grateful for everything you're doing. I just could not help it but laugh at myself. It's so ironic." Her voice receded. "...So ironic." 
 Ray stood, her mouth twisted in one direction.
 "Well," she spoke while turning to take a seat. "Your guardian angel would not appreciate you saying that, you know? He definitely sees you as so much more than that."
 "What do you mean?"
 "He sees you for who you are." She was back at manipulating the small gadgets. "I suspect he's extremely skilled. Roaming out there somewhere and no body that I have asked knows anything at all. A mystery of sorts."
 "What does he has to do with me?"
 "He is the one that...'brought' you over to me."
 "You've never told me that."
 "I don't think it was appropriate."
 "That's true."
 "Anyway, he made it happen. He manipulated things so you ended here. Now I want to build your new body so that you can get back to what you were good at." She paused. "And hopefully find your family."
 "I was saved...," there was disbelief in her words. "I could never do this on my own. Ray! I never really asked you, but why are you doing all of this? Why are you here, living away on the edge of civilisation?"
 "Because, I want to change the game." Ray abruptly turned to the camera.
 "What...? How? What is the game?"
 "Because too many are wasting their time, sitting flat on their butts and doing nothing with their lives! I want to rework the game and show them, at least once, what true life is all about."
 "I think there is a lot of catching up to do!" Anna vigorously conveyed.
 "Now you're being cryptic."
 "This... somebody you mentioned. This…game you’re talking about. I think he wants us to be together, precisely because of what you want to achieve."
 Ray inclined her head on the side. Was Anna too logical?
 "And you? You will not be looking for your family?"
 "Of course I will. But I think it's no mere coincidence that you and I met. That I was ‘brought’ here."
 "I think 'dragged' is the more appropriate term." Ray smiled. "He, like...totally 'dragged' you here."
 Anna sighed.
 "You have to tell me more about yourself now. So what is this game you were telling me about?"

***

 As the two of them were talking and beginning to know each other, a large spider-like insectoid droid had crept into the makeshift house. It, itself looked incredibly makeshift, as if produced from scavenged parts - odd number of legs with different lengths, large bulbous back which was dragged along more than carried. It stopped next to Ray and a polite resonating voice filled the room.
 "Knock, knock."
  Both of them got startled and Ray and the camera turned around. Anna had only a suspicion but Ray laughed with relief, and said.
 "Of course, you are welcome!"
 The spider bot's large back unfolded into two small rings; tiny projectors began circling their length. Blue ephemeral light abruptly filled the space above the contraption and a figure holo-alised. A large red lens in an oculus focused on the two of them. The rest of the features were similar to that of a human.
 "Hello, how have you two been?" The voice was male and he spoke slowly, his cheeks and mouth movement were composed of the jittering motion of many hard parts. It was strangely reminiscent of an insect.
 "We are good, thank you! Yourself!?" She clearly was happy now that he was around.
 "I am still on the search, thank you." He assessed then turned to the small camera on the floor. "And you Anna," the voice hummed gently. "How are you feeling? I know it must be hard in your condition. So please, if you want to share anything, do not hesitate."
 In her present state, Anna could not have senses, only very pronounced feelings. He himself was finding that condition utterly unimaginable. The small neural network could simulate only that much.
 "Amm...Do you know me," Anna stuttered. "Are you the one who brought me here?"
 "I am. I found you and knew well what you have become. I also learned of your past. Are you still afraid?" There was unusual empathy resonating from the calm metallic voice.
 "Not any more. Can you tell me more of myself? Can you give me more memories?"
 She could not remember anything beyond those most hard-wired concepts she had encoded. 
 "I understand why you would want to learn more now and I am happy to see that you are ready to embrace the past. But I will leave that in your hands. Once your new body is complete you will be capable to extract all the information you need and reconstruct your memory."
 Meta Data. Everything we do leaves its footprints and the internet is our back-water story; the sea that we fill collectively. Whatever we purchase, whoever we talk to, whatever we say, anyway we protect ourselves - there always is the information for that, and it is readily available to be harnessed by the minds that are capable of encompassing it. 
 He had found Anna in that sea, despite the reconfigurations she had underwent. Deeply intrigued in this new human-synthetic mesh he had set her free and entrusted her to Ray, the noble dreamer who wanted to change the world for the better. 
 He could easily track their footprints and reconstruct the details of their surroundings, but if he had learned one thing from the humans it was that personal contact mattered.
 "I will be on my way now," he said. "I will keep my eye on you. Ray?"
 "Yeah?"
 The image changed. In the blue light there were a multitude of dots, each laid on a flat plane. The image zoomed out and there were many planes stacked on top of each other, surrounded by alphanumeric tables, measurements and details.
 "The schematics for the advanced neural network are ready. I am leaving them with you."
 "Yess!" She pumped a fist. "You will get a kick from that." She said to Anna.
 The bot was still displaying the schematics but his presence was not there anymore. His mind wandered from the small house and swam in the sea of information to construct data. Something that could be arranged and studied. He was looking for more beings like him. 

END