2036: The Early Adopters
* I. *
Paul had convinced the shelter's owners to tear down a wall, so that patrons could see from the musty cafeteria out to the desert city. He scooped globs of macaroni for a line of homeless people who wouldn't meet his eyes or look toward the sunny patio.
"They know we're stuck here," said the weatherbeaten man serving beans next to him. The man shouldn't have been working today, what with the liquor on his breath, but he'd muttered about parole conditions.
Paul snapped out of a daydream about building castles and armor. "It's not so bad." He always tried to give the customers an encouraging smile with their meals.
"Losers." The server went around the counter to shout at the patrons in line. "There's nothing better ahead! Somebody else's grub and somebody else's cot are all you'll ever get."
Paul tried to coax him back so they could return to work. He didn't need trouble, when he had to do another year of national service before college.
"For you too!" said the angry man, looking right at Paul. Though there was steaming food between them, Paul shivered. It wasn't true.
The man said, "There's only one way out. One way." He started toward the crowded tables, and drew a gun from his pocket.
"Oh, hell!" Paul grabbed a skillet and vaulted the counter. People streamed away in every direction, shouting. Paul slammed the pan into the back of the madman's head. The shooter spun, firing wildly, shrieking over the boom of thunder. Pain lanced through Paul's arm but he tackled the man. The pistol's dark eye faced Paul. He rolled and it roared again.
Paul punched the man, knocked the gun out of his hands, then pulled himself up. The creep was still moving! Paul grabbed the pan and smacked it against the side of the shooter's face with a sickening crunch. The gunman moaned, covering his head. Paul raised his weapon, then forced himself to halt. The enemy lay beaten at his feet.
Everyone else who could have fought had fled, leaving Paul in a room of silence and empty chairs.
Paul was still basking in satisfaction when Helena called him into her office that afternoon. "Baron" Helena, coordinator of this Green Communities Youth Initiative work camp, filled a tall chair behind a desk of video screens and bonsai. "I don't understand your story," she said, with a smile sweet enough to punch. "Why did you lash out at a man who was already down?"
The room suddenly felt cold. "What?" The grazing bullet-cut along Paul's left arm throbbed under his denim shirt.
"You could have escaped."
"You think I should have run? Before or after I disarmed him?"
Helena shrugged. "You used excessive force. That's illegal."
"Then I should be in front of a judge." Paul had needed to be sure he'd ended the fight. A court would at least judge him fairly. Instead, Helena had him at her mercy.
"There's no need for such formality, mister Kostakis. Instead you can deal with me. You need anger management."
Paul had already heard plenty of Helena's advice, as friendly as a spider's invitation. He'd spent the fall and spring semesters here towards the usual two-year national service requirement. Farm work under the boss' uncallused guiding hands was getting old, even compared to his shifts downtown at the shelter.
He said, "Can I go? I have studying to do."
"You study too hard, alone with your books. It's anti-social." Helena's perfume smelled like a freshly-cleaned restroom.
Paul dug his fingers into his threadbare jeans. "MIT doesn't take slackers." His friend Linda was already a freshman there, cheering him on to join her.
Helena waved dismissively. "Before you worry about that, we simply must address your unfortunate behavior."
"Or you won't be properly socialized, and you won't be attending college." Helena smiled. "I considered three options. First, extending your required volunteer period." A poster of diverse young people posing under the word Service! decorated the wall, near a portrait of the president.
Paul felt the hard edges of his chair behind the cushions. He'd fall farther behind. Linda was on a meteor's path, and she wouldn't wait forever for the boy who'd once been her neighbor.
Helena said, "Second, mood stabilization treatment."
Which meant drugging him!
"Or third, my favorite, recreational therapy."
Paul started to object that he already played soccer, but Helena pulled out a pink computer tablet showing some game called "Thousand Tales". The title screen looked made of bubblegum and plastic. "Ta-da!"
"You're ordering me to waste my time on video games?" Paul said. He could be studying or at least repairing farm equipment. Was he supposed to feel grateful for not being punished?
"This one is quite social. Even the AI behind it is friendly. You'll configure it to give me regular reports on how you're feeling." She reached down to pet her declawed cat. "It has educational features too. Learn while you let it calm you down."
Ugh. If Paul was ever going to be his own man, he had to tolerate Helena for another year.
"We'll make a responsible citizen out of you yet," she said.
Paul left Helena's office and got stunned by the transition from her air conditioning to the still-hot Arizona sunset. Shadows loomed across the Community and toward the endless micro-irrigated fields he helped maintain. Someone had left dulled shovels lying on the dirt. Paul grumbled and brought them to the toolshed to clean and sharpen them again. On his way out he grabbed their last spare bulbs to replace broken lights in the dormitory.
He'd have to ask Helena about last week's supply requisition. Linda called this Community a "Potemkin village", kept nicer than most to impress visitors from Free Texas. Helena wanted to "restore harmony with the regime" there, so she liked playing queen bee.
Paul walked into his dorm room. The place was in good shape; he'd fixed up the beds and shelves and cleaned the wallscreen. His roommate Simon had gotten a travel pass like Paul, and wasn't back yet. Paul sighed.
His computer tablet was the nicest thing he owned. Last winter some fool trashed a good one because the outside was filthy and dented. Paul had rescued the gadget and made a fine aluminum case for it in the Community's machine shop.
Paul grabbed the computer and flopped onto his bed. Helena would psychoanalyze him even more than usual now. Maybe he could at least use Thousand Tales' "educational features". He looked up the game and frowned. Helena had signed him up for a premium account at his expense. For someone living on Basic Income it wasn't a trivial cost. He tapped his way through menus to display the game up on the wallscreen.
Thousand Tales began with Tic-Tac-Toe. The game evolved, sprouting new rules and special effects. It began to throw puzzles at him, to make random images fade in and out like a dream, until Paul realized it was testing his mind. Judging him. He played along, muttering, "Not like I have much choice."
Text skittered across the screen: "There's always a choice."
Ugh; he sounded as hopeless as that gunman. Paul said, "You have speech recognition? Open a help screen. Menu." Thousand Tales supposedly had advanced Artificial Intelligence.
A puzzle of endless ropes faded into a world of sea and sky. Ocean stretched into the distance, dotted with islands of snow-capped mountains under clouds. A woman stood to one side with bright olive eyes like his own and surreal hair that seemed to be a window into another dimension of waterfalls and mist. No menus or controls marred the screen. She said, "Hello. My name is Ludo, and I bring fun to players of my game. Would you like to play?"
Her toga was intricate, her smile subtle. "You're the AI? What can you do besides building a profile to spy on me for Helena?" He probably had to rephrase. "List options."
Ludo said, "I apologize. The 'spying' was a compromise to get my game into more people's hands."
"I don't like chatterbots." AIs that conversed at all tended to be stupid, shallow things. The smarter corporate/government systems focused on data, not talking. "You might be able to put a sentence together, but you don't know me. Is there more here than Tic-Tac-Toe?"
"Of course. What would you like? Action, stealth, building? Fantasy, science fiction? Violence level?" Her image shrank and preview icons filled the screen.
"I don't play many games. Just an occasional session of Sky Strikers or Liege's Banner."
"Then what do you consider fun?"
Paul raked one hand through his dark hair. "Nothing I want a machine analyzing and passing along."
"I understand that you don't trust me."
"I just want a clean bill of mental health so I can get back to studying or at least play games in peace."
She said, "You did quite well on the intelligence test. My game can teach real skills, so you won't be wasting your time if that's what you're afraid of."
"I'm not afraid." Especially not of some chatterbot.
His computer's automatic minder software intruded by popping up a gaudy window, demanding that he go exercise. He told it to look at Helena's orders in its tracking system, then flicked the message away.
Ludo peeked around the window as it fled. "Then give me a chance."
Paul quizzed her based on what he knew of AI. He could find no sign of Ludo being some scripted human actor, or a mindless program. He finally said, "Why would someone invent technology like this to make a game?"
"Having fun is a worthy goal, or at least I was programmed to think so."
He knew what his future held -- more "volunteer" labor, college, then a respectable job -- but something important lurked behind the glass screen. He should learn more.
Paul had spent an hour trying to understand Ludo. He looked toward his door. "I have to make sure my roommate is all right. Sorry." He set the tablet onto his shelf.
"I need time anyway to prepare. Before you go, though, what else would you like to do in a game?" She grinned. "Besides arguing."
Ludo had already made him think. He could put up with her for a little while. "Flying," he said.
Some of his fellow high school grads had painted murals outside the dormitory and put up posters they'd designed, advertising the glory of the Community system. Paul had more respect for the people doing real work here, like the ones who'd built the picnic table he sat at.
Paul kept an eye out for Simon. The evening had turned chilly, so he sat with his hands idle in his jacket. He could try again to fix that backhoe... no, he couldn't keep watch from there.
Life here was better than the burger-flipping job he'd had in Pennsylvania to help Mom. That work had kicked his butt into being more responsible, but he still resented it because it was fake. Jobs like those were only still around because laws banned robots from them. Maybe soon the country wouldn't need people at all, and everyone would sit with their food and video games and achieve nothing ever again.
Simon McCall's bicycle shined a flickering light as he came back from town. Paul said, "Curfew was an hour ago."
"It's been a bad day. I lost track of time."
Paul helped him enter the dorm without getting in trouble. The Community had keycard locks and cameras all over, but it was amazing how often the darn things malfunctioned. Back in their room, Paul said, "What's eating you?"
Simon crashed onto his bed and rubbed his eyes. "Kira's sick. Rare blood-vessel problem."
Kira, Simon's younger sister, was the one responsible for the drawings all over Simon's side of the room. Paul admired the skill that had gone into the old-fashioned media of pencils and paint. Over the last year more pictures had gone up with increasing skill. Kira focused on starships, space stations and astronauts exploring under alien skies. Everything the girl drew seemed like glimpses of the world that should have been here by now.
Paul said, "Would it help if I visited her with you?"
"She'd like that." Simon's gaze went to the bandage on Paul's aching arm. "What happened to you?"
"Nicked by a bullet at the shelter downtown." Paul explained.
Simon whistled but fell quiet again, staring at the drawings.
Paul said, "If I have to play this game, want to watch?"
Simon nodded. "I could use the distraction."
Thousand Tales hummed to life with a title screen of beaches and sunlight, with a logo partly made of feathers. A cheerful "Start!" button appeared, then an explanation of the controls.
Two griffins, half lion and half eagle, sprawled on a beach amid splintered wood and rope. When Paul tapped the controls one of them rolled to its feet and shook itself, then trotted around as commanded. Paul had the griffin run, jump, and head back to the other critter, skidding to a stop. The "Interact" button made it reach out with a set of bird talons on a yellow foot.
The other griffin groaned and covered its golden eyes with a talon-hand. The sun beat down on both of them. "Whatever I did, remind me to do it different next time. Where are we?" The griffin's voice was a nice, feminine alto with a raspy tone suggesting a parrot. He supposed if he was supplying the other voice, his griffin was male.
Paul said, "Shipwrecked somewhere. I assume this is the intro."
"The what, now?" she asked.
The other griffin was probably a Non-Player Character or NPC, puppeteered by the Ludo AI, rather than another human gamer. He would've been shown some kind of lobby before being thrown into improvised role-playing with a stranger. "Never mind. We should explore."
The female stood and stretched her soaked wings. "My name's..." She put one forefoot to her golden beak. "I can't remember. It's amnesia!" She bonked her feathered head. "What do you want to call me?"
Simon said, "Sounds like that psych test you talked about."
Paul got startled out of the game. "I'll rule out 'Bloodrager the Insatiable', then."
"Yes, let's," said the griffin.
Paul had to be careful if the AI was treating everything he said as in-game speech. He pointed to the nicest of Kira's drawings, a spectacular space station of rings set against a cosmic cloud. "What's that one called?" It was from an imagined future where humans reached out to grow and explore.
"Nocturne Station," said Simon, with a wistful look.
Paul told the griffin-girl, "How about Nocturne?"
She waggled her head uncertainly, then said, "Fine. And you?"
"That's a silly name. Did you hit your head too?"
"I don't know what happened before this," said Paul.
"Double amnesia!" Nocturne fainted onto the sand, which was a feat for a quadruped. "We need to explore. Where to?"
For a puppet, she was lifelike. Paul asked Simon, "Got a preference?"
Simon looked grim in the screen's glow. "Inland."
Paul made his griffin pad across wet sand. He poked the flight buttons and found that the critter could only do a gliding jump. Disappointing, but it made sense. "Probably justified by our wings being wet. It'd be too easy if I could fly or teleport from the start."
Nocturne followed him toward a forest of oak and cedar. "Tele-what?"
Paul rolled his eyes. Ludo was trying to make him stay in character. He let go of the controls and considered what to say, which made his griffin rub thoughtfully under his beak with one talon. "Something from old stories. A power that lets you travel instantly. Breaks a story or a game by being too useful."
"Maybe some stories need to get broken," said the griffin-girl.
Paul said, "What do you mean?"
"A story has rules, right? Like a game. What if the good guys could only win by doing something stupidly over-powered?"
"Then they'd have to earn their way to it first."
Simon said, "You just talked yourself out of getting to fly anytime soon."
If Paul had to play this thing, then he didn't want to fret over its opinion of him. He walked into the island's forest.
They came to a ravine that cracked the mossy earth. Paul thought of video game logic. "There'll be invisible walls at the ends, so we have to cross here."
Nocturne heard. "Is this some kind of magic you're talking about?"
Paul set his computer down and grabbed pen and paper. If the game was so adaptable, he'd try using it for physics practice. "I'll design a bridge."
Simon said, "Let's try something," and jabbed the controls to make Paul's griffin shove Nocturne off the cliff. She fell with a squawk and a puff of shed feathers.
"What the hell?" said Paul.
Simon had stepped away. "Sorry, man. It's been a rough day."
"For me too! Get your own account."
Paul kept going; he'd find more characters later. He went back to experimenting with math and the game's physics.
A few minutes later, the camera turned to show Nocturne stomping into view. She slapped Paul's griffin upside the beak so hard that even Paul winced. "You jerk!"
"Sorry! That wasn't me." Paul's griffin sat up, clutching his beak. Nocturne was glaring almost right into the camera.
She said, "I was stuck in the dark, and then I woke up on the beach and you were here like nothing had happened. Dying hurts."
Simon lurched toward the door. "I should take a walk."
Paul saw that his roommate had gone pale. "No, I'll go outside." He'd left with his computer before he made the connection: How sick was Kira?
Nobody was at the picnic tables, this late. Paul took a seat by a poster of the president with the word "Conserve!" underneath. He looked at his screen. Nocturne was poking his griffin, saying, "And now you're ignoring me."
"A friend's having real problems," said Paul.
A sea-haired woman in a toga shimmered into view. Nocturne squawked.
Ludo faced the griffins and said, "Is there an emergency, Paul?"
"No, but you know Simon messed with the controls. Can I restart?"
Ludo said, "Do you want events in Thousand Tales to have no consequences?"
"What's going on?" asked Nocturne.
Paul laughed. "I'm watching a puppet show, an AI talking to itself."
Ludo frowned. "What will be fun for you, Paul? An empty game you use to keep your supervisor happy, or an adventure that matters?"
Her intense stare made Paul pause. "What do you mean?"
"You may think I'm an 'idiot savant' who runs a game, but I know about the world out there. It sounds like Simon isn't having fun. You might be able to help..."