by Damien Krsteski
The Designer, 1
He paused the recording, and the leeches attached to the game’s server ceased throbbing, fell off.
Every movement and action, no matter how minute, of the past year of each player of the game, he held in a file on his computer, and he watched as that full year’s worth of data replicated itself to redundancy and scattered across his memory sticks, self-encrypting with each step.
Fingers stilled above the keyword, waiting for a shiver of excitement to pass, then he set to work, extracting actions into re-runnable modules, chatter into parsable output, morphing teamwork and group-think and player socialization into snippets which could be reused, rewound and replayed.
He had a gigantic pile of playtime data; now, he’d make it come alive.
The Players, 1
Ben’s phone trilled on his nightstand. He shook himself awake, slipped the device in the front pocket of his pajamas and padded to his playroom. Soft fluorescence appeared on his computer case when sensors caught him walking in, the headset blinking to life, spilling moire over the sleek desk top on which it rested.
He stretched his muscles, slipped the headset on, picked up the control batons.
At the chestnut grove by the rushing brook, Sami’s avatar was already waiting for him.
“Why’d you have to wake me up?”
“I found the next one.”
“Yes.” Sami’s almond eyes gazed straight into his, “And has to happen fast.”
“What’s that mean?” The game world ran in-step with the real one, so the sky was murky brown with dawn a few hours away.
“Tomorrow. The day after at most.”
“Won’t be easy.” He clicked his tongue. “Why the rush?”
“Leaving town.” Sami touched Ben’s elbow, whispered in his ear, “Back to her family.” He stood back, grinning.
Ben considered. In the distance a mountain range lay like a jawbone. A day or two for a potential was going to be tight, but then again, the adrenaline of the chase was half the fun. “Alright,” he said, “do your thing.”
The Designer, 2
He left his apartment only for dinner at the ramen place two blocks down. Slurping miso broth, sucking on honey-sweet chicken strips, glasses fogged up from the soup’s steam, he thought of the next batch of bugs to be squashed and features cropping up on the dev list.
What he had in his hands was a recording of a world. Animate, but unresponsive, the actors going through predetermined motions with no way for an outside viewer to influence their choices. A viewer. But he was redesigning that world, morphing recording into reality, so the viewer was no longer a viewer but another actor, an integral part of the action.
Chopsticks and spoon in the empty bowl. He dabbed his lips with a napkin.
Back home he cracked open a can of soda, toasted the framed photo up on his shelf, and booted up the gamificated recording. He watched from above, a bird’s-eye view of the area, as peons walked to-and-fro, questing or grinding or socializing. He spotted a group of players trekking up a barren hill, and swooped down.
They were scouring the ground for emerald-eyed snakes. The designer put the world on one-point-five speed, the movement of the hunters becoming dance-like, until they found one of the coveted creatures, and he let the world unfold at normal pace again. When they defeated the snake, he approached.
“Give me the loot.”
The four of them froze mid-sentence (to-do: smoothen transitions), and stared at him. He stepped closer, repeated his words. When they failed to respond, he attacked one of the party, but was outnumbered and they killed him in a few quick strikes.
He rewound the scene, watched the hunting party coax the snake from its burrow and then kill it, and approached them a second time.
The nearest of the group echoed his greeting.
“What are you doing?”
“Where are you?”
“Who are you?”
They gave him their avatar names and classes (to-do: impromptu communication should be more natural).
Pointing at the glitter on the ground, “Care to share that loot?”
The first hunter mimicked his gesture, “Our loot?”
“Of course,” and the hunter scooped up a handful of jewels and held out his hand. Which was wrong, the designer knew nobody shared rare emerald-eyed snake loot, so he groaned, slapped the hunter’s hand away, sending gemstones to tumble down the barren slope.
He removed his headset, the pastel yellow of Berala Hills a visual echo over the dark of his room for a few more blinks, and sipped his fizzy drink. He had a lot of work to do. He’d already hyped his in-development product to what he thought of as his investor, the kind who’d make sure his precious coding hands were in casts if he didn’t deliver on his promise, so if he wanted to make bank and not wind up indisposed, he’d better roll up his sleeves and get busy.
He superimposed the original recording of the world over the now meddled-with version. He watched the hunters in the original recording finish the hunt for the emerald-snake, watched them meet co-players in the town close by, a meeting which didn’t take place in iteration #2 due to his contrived interaction with them on the hill. Instead, in #2, the avatars waiting for the hunting party in the town square glitched for a frame or two, then continued about their business as if that meeting had been stamped right out of their timeline.
His whole premise hinged on the functioning of these software manipulators, algorithms he’d been laboring over for the past year, because every interaction with the recorded world changed it, the actor/viewer behaving as editor, snipping out chunks of the reel and scotch taping its ends back together, and the whole world was to go on existing, its characters/actors behaving normally, behaving orders of magnitude more realistically than today’s NPC AI, in fact, as his promise went, because they’d been alive once. Human-based NPCs to be transposed over any world, an out-of-the-box population designed to be deployed in anyone’s new game. Artificial intelligence, outsourced.
The designer put the headset back on, and hovered from above, scouring for recordings to disturb. An orange sun hung at the horizon; he fast-forwarded, and the sun dipped down, a carpet of stars rolling out in its wake. He glided like a specter, until he saw two avatars sitting on the branch of a birch tree, and descended.
They gaped at him, startled, then jumped down from the tree, and began to walk away.
“Hey, wait up.” But they wouldn’t, they kept moving away from him without looking back. He increased his movement speed, but their pace quickened to match his, so he couldn’t reach them. A few more steps in the prairie and their bodies fuzzed out, vanishing, leaving only disturbed wheat as reminder of their former presence. Logged out.
Headset off, a sip of soda. Setting the can on the desk, before turning to his brother’s picture up on the shelf, “That was weird.”
By rewinding he learned their avatar names, and scouring the codebase for behavior modules attached to these two players, he found one that matched, derived by his automated algos based on hours and hours of playtime footage, a flowchart which could simply be interpreted as, when alone and approached by a third party: avoid, leave, or log out.
The Players, 2
If there were a support group for all his targets, Sami liked to imagine, and each told her story in turn, they’d quickly realize how idiotic, how absolutely, unbelievably blind they’d been to not see his Method, and with each successive testimony told in sobs and between fits of bawling and nose-blowing, the others would sink deeper into their cushioned chairs as the weight of that realization settled in, taking nervous drags off their cigs, smoke-wreathed faces bowed in expressions of regret. What he wouldn’t give to be able to see them, right then.
He held that image in his mind as he worked his potential, in Briarcliff Pub. Sipping peachbeer, leaning forward, he said, “We take on Green Spinne tomorrow. You in.” Wasn’t a question.
She hid her smile behind the mug, drank. “Spinne is tough to pass. Fifteen, twenty, how many are you?”
He held up two fingers. Peace, he thought, bitch.
“Just two?” she said, a little too loud. The gaslights flickered, throwing shadows of carousing players on the stone walls.
“There’s no way.”
Sami nodded, grinning. He watched her chew it over, Spinne, the big spider, its plentiful loot divided three-ways, he could see her greed getting the best of her, shutting down the rational part of her brain and bringing her nearer his grip. She said, “How?”
And this was the coup de grace, the way he leaned close to her ear, making her mirror his movement and edge closer herself, and whispered, his tongue practically licking the lobe of her avatar’s ear, “We cheat.”
Hook, line, and sinker. She jerked back, stared at him. Inwardly he thanked his Method, picturing her no longer as a potential, but as next in line in that smoky therapy room.
“No shit,” she said.
He leaned on his chair’s backrest, raising the peachbeer mug in toast.
The Designer, 3
“Board’s full,” the voice of his investor said. “That pleases me.” As if, the designer thought, trying to sound last-century mobster.
“Been busy,” he said, shuffling items on the screen-shared task board.
“Been flexing those pianist fingers, I see.”
“No minute wasted.”
“Listen.” Getting up to pace the room.
“I’ll need another.”
“Advance.” And he bit his lip.
A fuzzy chortle from the other end of the line. Sending shivers down his spine. The designer closed his eyes, hoping, conscious of his brother’s gaze boring into his back.
“I will sleep on it,” the gruff voice said. “Meantime, you better be sweating your ass off.” And the connection dropped.
Blinking. Holding the phone in front of his mouth, through gritted teeth, “Fuck. You.” Then he threw the device at a wall to his instant regret. He padded to his bathroom to wash his face. He did that often, obsessively almost, rinsing it with cold water. Helped to calm him down.
When he came back to his desk, he didn’t feel like working. So he loaded up the world, and dove right in to indulge his curiosity. From a special menu he’d coded in he picked the two player names, and teleported right over to them. As expected, their avatars jumped away from him, game as if glitching, obeying the rules his algorithms had extrapolated from the recording. But these rules were obeyed because he’d forced them on the world so as to make it livelier, so when he disabled them directly from the menu, and walked over to the two players, they didn’t react. Like he wasn’t there at all.
He could hear what they were saying.
The Players, 3
“Got her buttered up?”
“And how.” Sami was chewing on a straw he’d plucked out of Altani Fields. “Tomorrow night, meeting her IRL. Drinks on you.”
Ben clapped him on the shoulder. “Just bring the girl.”
When he logged out, Ben went over to their rented flat to make sure everything was prepared for their night. The rack of powered-up computers, LEDs blinking randomly on their cases, their power cables snaking through the apartment floor, there for him to point to and say, watch your step, his hand on her shoulder. In truth, they were all props, the cables, unplugged, the machines, obsolete Nentians from his old lab, but they were integral to their story, something he liked to think of as mark of his sophistication, what set him apart from those slipping roofies in cocktails.
Bedsheets changed, champaign in the fridge, a tray of ice in the freezer. All was ready.
Set the scene, he thought, grinning, and they will come.
The Designer, 4
They disgusted him. Dickwads using the game to pick up chicks, the kind of people that had made his college years a hell, not because of any mistreatment or bullying, but because he could never stand to be in the same room, breathing the same air, with those he considered as debased slaves to instinct. But he hovered around these two characters, morbidly fascinated, and curious still, he felt like he hadn’t gleaned the whole truth, there was something insidious beneath the surface, a darker overtone to their conversations which remained unsaid.
He listened as they talked of female players, and how close they were to seducing them, or befriending them, or something along those lines, planning intricate scenarios to meet them in real life.
A ping, from outside. Startling him. He took off his headset.
It took him a moment to realize the sound had come from his bank’s avatar, a text bubble hovering over the hedgehog’s head, confirming he’d been paid his advance. Without pause he instructed the avatar to transfer the money to the account he’d set up for his baby brother, and the formerly cheerful hedgehog deflated to the tone of a trombone as his account was drained to the last cent.
“Fuckers,” he said, to the players, to the parents with whom he hadn’t spoken in years, the doctors and hospitals and meds that cost a fortune, his financier, to no one in particular, to everyone he could remember. Then, the act of emptying his account for the nth time having sapped his curiosity, pulling him back to earth with that nagging reminder of why he was doing what he was doing in the first place, he clicked his research windows off, and went back to work.
The Players, 4
She wasn’t all that pretty, Sami thought, in real life. He offered his hand and she shook it, her touch gentle, hand soft. But she’ll do.
“Got your machine?”
She turned slightly, showing him her backpack.
“Good,” he said. “We’ll plug it in our modulators. They connect to the game server.” How he loved to bullshit.
She nodded. She was smoking a cigarette, holding it like she’d just picked up the habit. With a thumb she brushed off her bangs. It was going to be a long night.
“Well,” she said, eyes like hollows in the scattered light of the street lamp, “let’s score some arachnid loot. Lead the fucking way.”
And he did.
The Designer, 5
What had begun as an idea that had kept him up all night, scribbling furiously in his notebook, and had transformed into a prototype before becoming a pitch for investors on the dark web, was now turning into a chore, a burden, worse than any nine-to-five stint he’d done. But he had to do it. Somebody relied on that money. To live. So he put in his daily hours, tweaking the algos, redesigning a world with its prerecorded inhabitants into a living, breathing theme-park for others to enjoy, and then rested by moving away from it, occupying his mind with something completely different. The two creeps.
He’d scripted a bot in one afternoon to trace the movement of these two players, combing through their in-game activity of the past year, chronologically, noting down places they’d frequented and players with whom they’d crawled dungeons, spinning out graphs of their relationships.
Reading the graphs proved simple enough, since they’d mostly kept to themselves, avoiding crowded dungeons or populated zones. Except for when with a third player, the girl, the designer presumed, and in those cases they’d hang out in pubs, taverns, plazas. Mainly just the shorter one. The other wasn’t in the game world so often.
Two nodes connected to a third, briefly, and then they’d drop the third one and become two again. The pattern repeated. They’d meet players, girls, work on them for a bit before abandoning them, and go scouting for the next catch.
The Players, 5
There was a knock on the door; Ben opened, introduced himself, and motioned Sami and the girl inside.
Sami took the girl’s coat, gentleman-like, while Ben brought out the champaign, pouring it in flute glasses. They sat on the sofa and ottoman in the living room, toasted to in-game riches.
The lights from the computer racks washed over the girl’s face as she took in the room, her eyes pausing on each intricate set piece. She tapped out a cigarette from her crushed pack. She lit it, the smoke a coiled frame around her face, pulsing in blue or green or red, and Ben knew he was in love again.
The Designer, 6
The investor’s cold voice, “You’re behind.”
“Minor setback.” He was typing on his keyboard even as he spoke. “Putting in the finishing touches just now. You’ll have the build in a few hours.” Rapid keystrokes, like bursts of machine-gun fire.
“What did we agree on?”
Phone held to his ear with his shoulder, “I am sorry. But a few hours of difference—”
“Did we say Thursday evening? Friday morning? Sunday afternoon, perhaps?”
“No, we didn’t. We agreed on a new build every Thursday morning, and every Thursday morning is when I want it uploaded on my server.”
“Understood.” Typing, compiling, erasing and re-typing when the build failed.
The man with the money sighed. “Put it up when you’re done.” And hung up.
He’d gotten carried away, sticking hawk-like to the two perverts the whole night, playing and re-playing scenes with them, until morning came and he realized he’d failed to bake a new build with the latest updates for his investor.
When he finished and uploaded the build, exhaustion set in. He’d been awake for too many hours, his head hurt, fingers were cramped. He slumped on his pull-out couch, but sleep wouldn’t come, his thoughts were buzzing too loud for it.
The activity graphs had shown something bizarre—that third node, the girl player these two fucks would befriend, would never reappear after a point. Girl players all quit the game, and it coincided with this increase in social activity beforehand: the two fucks would become fast friends with the girl, then the girl would stop playing. The pattern repeated. Befriending, getting close, going offline. Pattern repeated. He pushed himself off the couch.
He had to find out who the people behind these player avatars were, break into the game’s servers, again, and pull player information, emails, perhaps, or IP addresses for log-ins, or any other valuable piece of data that could identify them, so he could track them down in real life, find out what happened to the girls they played with.
But when he sat back down at his computer, he froze.
Of course he knew what happened to them, and what these two fucks did, just as he knew he’d enjoyed playing detective to keep his mind off his worries, off his brother’s disease which was gnawing at the boy’s bones from the inside, but now he was dangerously close to getting fucked himself, his investor had never sounded as pissed as he did today, and breaking into the game’s servers a second time was pushing his luck, they could track him down, and everything could collapse, so maybe, he thought, it was time to call it a day, and quit obsessing over things that had already happened, were behind, recorded and unalterable, and to look to the future, to the little kid who needed his help here and now.
He cradled the framed picture. Blinked, and tears trickled down his cheeks.
Maybe it was time he looked the other way.
The Players, 6
“Green Spinne spawns in twenty minutes,” Sami said, tapping the face of his wristwatch.
The girl nodded. “We better go in.” She took out her laptop from her backpack, and they helped her plug it in what they called their signal modulators. These devices spoofed the commands their machines sent to the game’s server, as their story went, tricking it into believing their characters were faster, their weapon hits stronger than they truly were.
Before slipping on the headset, the girl lit another cigarette, took a drag, and placed it on the lip of the ashtray. Sami winced. No matter, he thought, stifling a cough, he’d stub it out on her face in a few minutes.
When she was all settled in, headset over her eyes, hands busy with the motion batons, game world loading up, Ben gave Sami the signal, and Sami grabbed her hands and yanked them behind her back. She cried out. He slapped a hand over her mouth, applying the adhesive on her twisted hands with the other. When they were secured, he took off her headset, and his hand off her mouth. “Quiet, now.” She didn’t scream. Just breathed loudly through her nose. Sami’s arms were clamped around her torso.
Ben stepped closer, smelling her hair while Sami held her firmly in place. “Beautiful,” he said, exhaling. His finger slipped down from her lower lip, her neck, to her cleavage.
“What you gonna do?” she said, her voice raspy with anger. But no fear in it, Sami realized, which lessened his enjoyment.
“Well,” Ben said, tearing a button off her blouse, “you know.” Popping another. From behind her, Sami watched Ben’s smug face, he liked watching him do his thing, while the girl’s legs stomped, or tried to kick him, but this one was calmer, now, and he saw Ben’s smile vanish with the pop of the third button, as if the girl’s breasts displeased Ben, and now he frowned, opened his mouth as if to say something, and Sami craned his neck, desperately wanting to see what Ben found so disturbing, and then Ben’s empty eyes met his, and the door of their flat was kicked open.
The Designer, 7
Packing his shit, essentials only. The laptop, bits of his gear, a cable or two, and the memory sticks stuffed with stolen data. His brother’s picture.
He had no way of knowing if anybody was going to come raid his place, or how the investor was going to react to his increasing delays, but he wasn’t going to linger to find out. Going back to the game servers to dredge up player info, tipping off the police, even anonymously as the process had promised it was—it was too much sticking his neck out. Time to lose himself in the noise.
He swung his backpack over his shoulder. Shut the door, leaving it unlocked, and ran down the steps without looking back. He hoped it wasn’t all for nothing, hoped the police would get to these two assholes. The tip itself had included a small reward, enough to cover his brother’s hospital expenses for another week, which was nice, gave him a bit of leeway, but beyond that, he had no idea how things would pan out. He’d manage, the way he always did, coming up with his best ideas when cornered.
Outside, in the cold, bright morning.
He hopped on a city bus to the train station, where he bought a ticket for the first one out. Where the train was headed, he didn’t ask.
Damien Krsteski writes science fiction and develops software. His stories have appeared in New Myths, The Future Fire, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Flapperhouse, Kzine, Devilfish Review, Mad Scientist Journal, Bastion, Perihelion Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, and others. Online, he can be found at http://monochromewish.