Saturday 9 August 2008

Prince Charming

1. Social imperatives

The reason I stand here before you is to announce that my mercenary outfit, the Guiding Hand Social Club, has completed its most ambitious contract to date. [...] Our task was to carry out that which the GHSC has now become known for - to utterly demolish [...] and [to] bring all who followed her to their knees in one fell swoop. For those many months, we toiled, secreting our operatives among her ranks, steering her organization through a number of insidiously engineered events meant to engender trust and divert their attention from where it should have been. Early this morning, our hard work bore fruit. [...] Our net gain from this massive heist is roughly estimated at over 20 billion ISK. [...] Total damages inflicted are estimated at close to 30 billion ISK.

- "Istavaan Shogaatsu", post to Eve Online forums (2005)

It takes an awful lot of effort to create a video game these days, and most games end up being played a few hours at most. A life of 6 months would be considered very long. That's unfortunate considering all the work involved. StarCraft is about 8 years old and still popular. Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo is about 12 years old and still played in tournaments today. Poker in its modern form is about 100 years old. Chess is about 2,500 years old. Go is over 4,200 years old. [...] What properties would a game have if it is to last 100 or 1000 years? What kind of thing could it be and what kind of thing could it not be?

- David Sirlin, The Far Future of Games on (2006)

The first time she met him, he was floating face-up in the pool, watching the water lights reflect against the ceiling of the grotto. He had to work to keep afloat, too lean to lie comfortably backwards, his pale skin shimmering under the water, slight curls of dark hair on his stomach and chest. He was talking to a group of swimmers around him, never looking at their faces, almost as if he had rehearsed what he was saying, one sentence at a time, she thought.

'I'm not a very grounded person. Obviously, as I tend to spend a lot of time inside... my head... and that's not a very safe-place to be, twentyfourseven.' He rolled those three words together as if the domain of numbers was a little closer to him, more accessible than letters.

'So it’s important for me... it’s important for all of you, to spend time outside. Socialising... is important in the flesh as well.'

He paused, for longer than usual. They were in an intimate space, with the bubbling of the pool jets audible while he stayed silent. The listeners deferentially waited for him to continue. When instead it became obvious he had finished, the group, a little uncomfortably, broke into side pockets of conversation in muted tones. She turned to the girl swimming next to her, someone she hadn't recognised from the introductions earlier, and asked a bit too loudly.

'Have you met the host yet? I haven't seen him...'

Several others around her shot glances at them, and the girl turned to her with a haughty look and sneered.

'I'm not with your rent-a-party crowd. I'm one of the real guests. I'm a gamer...'

Immediately, she felt embarrassed. She had assumed that anyone in a bikini with a tan and that much plastic surgery would be a paid for hostess like she was. Not one of the clients, a game-player. Later she would learn to recognise the girl as one of the many gamer groupies - relying as much on their ability to 'negotiate' in real-life as within the rules of the game. They would play with those real world needs and desires that he'd been talking about, using the advantages accrued to get leverage within the in-game mega-corporations. Turning tricks to forge alliances. And to break them.

Not that she turned tricks. She was strictly rent-a-crowd. Turn up. Stand, or swim, around in a bikini. Look good. Hold a conversation. Not embarrass herself in front of the host and potentially her employer. She turned away, before her faux pas grew enough to attract attention, and swam out of the grotto, unaware that he had rolled over from his back and was watching her leave.

'Jasmin.' she heard a voice call out and turned to see it was Ingrid, sitting back relaxing at the side of the main pool with a margarita in-hand. Ingrid was doing the same Masters degree as her, but specialising on in-game economics. Jasmin swam over to her, half-smiling.

'What's up sister?' Ingrid continued.

'Just making a fool of myself. Trying to get fired from this job you got me.' Jasmin explained her mistake.

'That's understandable.' Ingrid smiled back. 'Not everyone here is a sexy economics gun-for-hire.'

They both giggled girlishly.

'How's the thesis going?' Jasmin asked.

'Not well.' Ingrid frowned. 'I mean, I've got all the numbers. And I mean all the numbers. It's not every economy where every single unit of currency is virtually tracked. But I'm drowning in figures. I think I need to take a step back, get a little perspective. I get the feeling I'll have more of a handle on things if I was playing the game more rather than studying it. It's like the rules of the economy are constantly changing as the society inside it evolves. I guess I should have stuck to sociology. How about yourself? Remind me what you're doing again...'

Jasmin was reminded why they didn't hang out more. She explained.

'I'm modelling the cost of subsidy for first generation bio fuels in preventing the adoption of second generation fuels. First generation fuels are created from corn, wheat, sugar cane and have a direct impact on world food prices as we divert food for oil, effectively, which is why we have the economic famines in Africa and South America. Second generation fuels are harder to manufacture, but come from switch grass, wood pulp and other non-food carbohydrates, so when we adopt them it'll be better for the planet and better for us. But the subsidies that everyone is still pushing for first generation are killing thousands of innocent people and making adopting the second generation that much harder. I've developed the model, now all I need to do is plug in the numbers.'

'And what are the numbers?' he said from beside her. She turned. It was the speaker from earlier, their host for the party. He'd swum up without her noticing and was listening.

'It's complicated.'

'I'm all about complicated. Talk me through it.'

He spent the next hour grilling her, going through the model she'd developed, questioning her assumptions, assessing her results and typing in notes into his cell. It was as hard as the defence of her last dissertation, much harder since it was unexpected and they were floating in the warm water at the edge of a pool while people partied around them.

And then, abruptly, it was over. He closed his cell, half-turned to leave and then turned back. He had one more question.

'I never asked you your name.'

She knew what he meant.

'Princess Jasmin. Jasmin, like the flower.'

'I'm Max.' he replied and seemed to drift away for a moment. 'Hang on, why didn't the game filters pick that up. You're not supposed to use titles like ‘Princess’.'

'I used a hard space.'

'Hard space?'

She had one over on him, if only a little one.

'Shift-space. The separator doesn't get picked up in the standard ISO encoding as a word separator. So it parses as one continuous word. Didn't trip the filters.'

'Ah. I'll have to tell the GMs about it. Some time... I'll PM you.'

She wasn't a regular player but she jumped in-game several times over the next few weeks. She never got a message, and figured that he must have forgotten.

2. Developing relationships

By 2012, the in-game population had exceeded the total population of its host nation, Iceland, and total revenue from the subscription services outweighed the export value of all other software services for the small country. Total in-game earnings exceeded that by an estimated hundred-fold and as a tradable currency, what we now simply call credits exceeded the value of many of the currencies affected by the repeated credit crunches of the early 21st century[...] Over the following five years, as the game economy grew to exceed the GDP of pre-occupation Portugal, its ever energetic CEO was able to negotiate with the Iceland's government to offer citizenship to all in-game players and set up its first real-world embassy in China, the site of its largest customer base. Total in-game population was now 10 million players. [...] There was considerable controversy around Iceland being offered a permanent seat on the expanded [United Nations] Security Council and accusations made of in-game manipulation behind the scenes. The CEO stated out that his company was only deriving revenue from CPU utilisation [at this point in time] and that the take up rate of dual-citizenship at slightly below 30% indicated a distinct lack of real-world political involvement of its players. Counter-accusations were made that many players were covertly operating under multiple accounts as both real and virtual citizens in order to increase their political weight and to allow them to game both sides in the necessary UN resolutions.

- Ingrid Fabricius, The Rise of the New Game (2017)

The next time she was invited to a party he hosted, it was held on her behalf. Or at least for her thesis, her assistant had told her.

'Princess', Max cried out, as she walked through the door. He was refusing to use her real name even though he knew it now, as a matter of game etiquette, even though she had never proved herself to be a capable player. He crossed the floor and pressed a kiss into her cheek. He was an attractive man in a certain way, she thought. Too thin for her of course, but with a fine, well-balanced face and a certain clumsy grace in his movements. He seemed to have filled out a little since she last saw him. No doubt practising what he was preaching when they first met, getting in touch with the real world a little more. He continued as he walked her around the room, introducing her to other guests, speaking in confidential tones as they moved from group to group.

'I've never properly thanked you for how rich you're going to make me. I mean us. I'll have to keep you working though. You've got an advisory position on the board, with shares and, I hope, sufficient stock options. The position is non-voting, but that's all I could get without you putting up any capital... It's odd having to deal with something as old-fashioned as stock options. They're so this century: in-game we've got much more sophisticated instruments of reward... And you've reviewed the corporate structure? 143 companies and holding vehicles feel a little light in my opinion but it's sufficient to get the job done.'

This was enough to cover the room, and he pulled her away to an alcove with a table set for two. She had a question for him as they sat down.

'I meant to ask you, why JLTF Group? I would have thought that you'd pick an in-game reference and I couldn't find anything in the databases relating to that sequence of letters.'

'It isn't in the databases. You inspired me. Remember? Jasmin, like the flower.'

It was a shared smile, but he evaded her eyes. Instead, he looked out to the main room as he continued.

'And now it's just a matter of pumping the money through. Two dollars comes out for every dollar we put in, and we keep pushing the profits back into the spigot until the government is forced to end the subsidies or bankrupt themselves and the whole edifice will come crashing down. It's taken me a little longer to put together all this, than my in-game arbitrages, but I've had to pick up a lot of real-world finance and legal understanding that feels a little superfluous in-game. But I guarantee you, it'll fall by the end of the year. We'll have second generation bio fuels before you know it.'

'Will they stand idle?' She asked.

'They'll have no choice. We've trapped them in a corner with some of the pledges they've made pre-election. With the mid terms coming up, they won't risk such a u-turn. And thanks to that announcement Iceland made last week, we now have safe refuge in sunny Reykjavik should the Feds decide to come after us directly. The timing on that was a little cl... fortuitous, I think is a better word.'

She digested this deliberate slip. Music started up, and a few people grabbed partners.

'Do you dance?' He said, facing her directly. It was the first time he'd looked her straight in the face. 'That's a samba rhythm and I can lead you. It's not impossible to pickup first time.' He stood and held out his hand. She grasped it, running her thumb over his palm just as she ran her tongue on the roof of her mouth.

'Yes, I think I can pick it up.' She found herself saying.

A little breathless after the dance, they tumbled together comfortably close on a nearby couch.

'I prefer the tango to the samba, really, Argentinean tango, but that's something I can't teach you out on the dance floor. It's best at a crowded club, weaving your way through other couples, seeing the passion on their faces, decorating your moves with the feelings flowing through you.'

'You seem a little more intense than when I last met you.' She commented.

'I made a decision. When I'm not playing, I'm 100% focused on what's around me now. I can't sit on the edge of a room by myself all the time, clutching my cell, worried I'll be getting a text saying I've been podded or the corporation betrayed or the alliance broken...' He trailed off, his fine features collapsing into brooding introspection.

It was then she decided she'd rescue him from himself. For tonight, at least.

3. Political dialogs

Political and media analyst Edward Thomson argued that the game was breeding a new class of nomenclatura who were operating in political, economic and social modes of discourse that non-game players were unable to comprehend. The fact that no significant political leaders at this point were declaring that they played the game was that the elevation of the game from recreational past-time to significant social factor was so rapid, few of the successful early game-players had reached the age of 50 typically seen as the minimum age for a head of state. Nonetheless, rumours persisted that US President Shepherd was in fact "Maximillion", the leader of one of the two largest associations of the in-game polities [...] The notorious and highly publicised announcement of the game as a major real-world political force was the so-called occupation of Portugal. An in-game syndicate purchased some two-thirds of privately owned land in this European state over a three week period and then leased it on to the Game Corporation for additional data centre facilities. This supplemented an Iceland that was straining to supply the power and land mass required to host the games’ increasing requirements. Other nation states had indicated an unwillingness to make sufficient resources available to a sovereign nation-state, and consequently foreign power and Antarctica had been ruled off-limits after a resolution overturning the relevant international treaties barely failed to pass in the United Nations, requiring the Secretary General to cast the deciding vote. It was unclear whether his subsequent resignation was in disgust or further political fallout.

- Ingrid Fabricius, Princes and Principalities (2024)

He'd sent a car to pick her up at Heathrow. She was driven out through the still green and pleasant country side to a small country village outside of Berkshire, finally arriving at a modest cottage style house that had been converted into a restaurant. Max was waiting there for her. As she got out of the car, he stepped up to her, embraced her and kissed her, half-hungry, half-lingering. 'Princess... ' he started, at last having his full. 'I'm sorry I've not seen you for so long; you know I've been busy.' and then before she could find herself to respond he turned. 'We should go in: bookings can be a little tricky to get here, and we don't want to keep the chefs waiting.'

'It's been two months. Not two years.'

He turned back and looked at her.

'It feels longer. A lot longer. More happens on game time... I've been doing a lot. After all, I'm the man who occupied Portugal.'

When she didn't respond, he raised an eyebrow.

'I take it you've been following the news - or at least the real world kind. Don't stand there and look so surprised. Come in, I'll tell you all about it over the tasting menu.'

He'd arranged for the chef's table in the kitchen. There was a bottle of Cristal chilling for them, 2008, the year before the French started expanding the marquee beyond the Provencal borders and in a purist's view diluted the brand.

'The rumour that I'm Shepherd is, as you know, somewhat amusing. I've met him playing though, once or twice, and we may have had a hand in the election campaign, but which candidates haven't had in-game backing these days? He's had to quit the game while in office though, the Secret Service couldn't clear it in time and, unlike the Senate, Congress and government ministers in most of the rest of the world, the presidents position is a little more full time to be allowed to be involved in other interests.'

'I thought you didn't use Maximillion any more.'

'Now that's a rumour I have started. Alts are too hard to build up these days. The training curve just keeps getting steeper to reach the levels we're playing at. I'm pushing for a rethink - a whole redesign if you will, of the game space. I don't have all the answers at the moment. But I have plenty of questions. The Game Corporation is smart enough to keep evolving the management structures, but they've locked some fundamentals in the rule space that are going to bite us further down the track. They've always done technical wonders keeping everyone on the same shard. I mean, we've got over 100 million players now and the simultaneous percentages keep getting higher and the technology has just grown with us. These days we're driving the technology of course. It used to be Google. Now it's the game. But I'm worried we've got limits in the process, serious limits on the horizon for scalability for CPUs. And the Corporation governance is the biggest one. They refuse to open up, Princess, and it's going to kill the game. And I couldn't let that happen.'

'So I tried to take the Corporation down in a straight out fight. And I've failed.'

He smiled wryly. 'But enough about me and my problems. We should enjoy this food. I've been a fan of here for years, but it's getting a little old school of course. And I'm sure you've got plenty to talk about. Tell me, how was Carnival?'

It wasn't until after the third course was finished, and the fizzing tingles in their palates died down, that he continued.

'Failure is a relative term of course. When you first met me, I was comfortably wealthy. I had a few million in the bank. You pushed me down the real world path, and JLTF Group made me IPO billionaire wealthy. I could have retired on what I had, but I kept seeing opportunities for arbitrage in the real world, and I've kept taking them. The fight I just lost has made me one of the ten wealthiest individuals on the planet.'

Max paused for a moment, whether for dramatic effect or to see her reaction, she wasn't sure. He was always hard to read, and she'd grown used to holding her head in a certain bemused but inquisitive fashion, to encourage him to continue, while she surveyed her own emotional landscape and re-oriented herself inside.

'It was obvious in retrospect, but it took me so long to figure out. The Game Corporation's only real assets are goodwill and CPU time. I can't attack the goodwill, because that'd involve destroying the game, not fixing it. So I had to attack the CPU time and that's where the arbitrage position I could take emerged.'

'The Game Corporation doesn't pay world prices for their CPU time. They've got a natural subsidy in Iceland: its location, the geothermal, hydrothermal and tidal energy that's available, the ocean currents they can use to draw off the heat generated, the fact that they effectively own the legislative climate which they run their data centres in. So their costs are low.'

'But that's a comparative advantage, not a subsidy. Any economist could have told you that.' She said.

'Part of the reason I've been avoiding you. I didn't want you to convince me I was on a fool's errand. Humour me while I walk you through it. And if it helps, I was right.

'The arbitrage itself was relatively simple, nothing like the complicated pumps I set up for JLTF. The occupation of Portugal, as they call it. Of course, like all in-game events, the real world analysis was totally wrong.

'I wasn't leasing Portugal to help Game Corporation. I was leasing it to allow them to fulfil their contractual obligations. I needed to allow them to hang themselves by a noose of their own making, so I held out the helping hand of an offer they couldn't refuse especially when no other government was willing to let them scale out and up at a time where they needed more data centre capacity than they had ever considered.

'I never bought two thirds of Portugal in three weeks. That land had fallen to in-game ownership long before that. The collapse of the housing bubble there in '18 after the British went looking for a new Spain, the consolidation of agriculture into mega-collectives when I helped collapse European Union farm subsidies in '22, that netted me a large chunk of the ownership but nothing more than 15%. The rest of the assets where held by two other mega corps, who I'd been manoeuvring around for some time. When I needed Portugal, I brought down my boot on their necks and crushed them until they screamed for mercy. Those three weeks were an in-game bloodletting that made the Corleone family seem like a bunch of toddlers fighting over a rattle. And then when their eyes were bulging and their lungs screaming for air, I lifted my heel slightly and let them breathe. I owned Portugal in deed.

'I needed real world capital, on a level not seen for a while. What woke up the world and started it screaming was just a simple set of sale and lease back schemes to generate that capital. I brought in some financiers for that and offered them terms just good enough so that they'd be prepared to take the hot water back home.

'I generated some $200 billion from those deals, on terms that were not quite ideal. But Portugal is blessed with sunlight and I had the capital to start scaling out solar power farms and data centre capacity straight away.'

'So how did you know Game Corporation would be desperate for all that additional CPU time?' She asked.

'Because I went ahead and bought it from them.'

'But how? Why?' She said. 'Surely they would have known they didn't have the ability to deliver?'

'I exploited an off-by one error on their purchasing website.' he said smugly. 'They had never implemented the business rules to ensure that they had the capacity either. And they certainly weren't scaling up the cost based on the demand like a good little economist. Quite the reverse. I got quite a good discount.

That's what worried me most. I knew I could afford a messy in-game war. I could have probably got a return on investment elsewhere to be able to afford the sale and lease back scheme, but it would be tricky and on that much money, I'd have to watch my back for a long time. But I'd have spent a lot of political capital and invested in a very risky position, and if in the mean time the Game Corporation fixed a straight forward coding bug on their web front end, it'd be all for nothing.'

The next course was a 'Satellite carrot and Laika casserole'. It was a small tower of jellied meat and carrot and tasted a lot like pet food. Max observed while they ate. 'I don't know if you're supposed to enjoy this one. I preferred this place more when the owner was a straight food scientist and wasn't so political. The carrots are satellite grown, from experiments on plant orientation in zero gravity. I don't know where they get the dog.'

He continued.

'I even got so paranoid that I was worried if I paid with credit they wouldn't honour the purchase. So I paid with cash.'


'A cash card actually. Like you use at those mom and pop stores, charge up and get on the subway. I had to buy a cash card manufacturer, and redesign the card systems so it could handle numbers that large. They were using EBIDIC for chrissake. They may as well have been using reeds to punch shapes onto clay tablets. Of course, the Game Corporation were one of the first to get the new card software upgrades and I was ready to go.'

'So let me get this straight. You bought $200 billion worth of CPU time off of the Game Corporation website using a cash card? This put them in a corner whether they had to honour the contract of sale?'

'If they didn't, I could sue them out of existence and take control of the company through the Icelandic courts. Of course, I didn't want that to happen, because there was no profit in it and a court case would have bogged me down for years.'

'They then had to try to get the CPU time to you as soon as possible. The only feasible way of doing this was to buy it off you.'

'Essentially. They would be paying for the expensive part, which was the silicon, out of their own pocket. I controlled all the inputs though: power, cooling and rent. And Portugal was never really first world in the way that the rest of Europe was. And it was hot and surprisingly cloudy. So even if they bought me out of the sale and lease agreement, they'd be stuck with CPU time input costs that were much higher than Iceland. And their only revenue model was based on CPU time. So they had to put CPU time prices up. Way up. Both to buy the extra silicon, and fast, and to afford the premium I could justify charging them for every unit of Portugal CPU time they sold.

'And then I had all this CPU time that I'd bought at the original low price they were selling it at. So I undercut them, horribly. I was making revenue at both ends. In Portugal, if they sold at a loss, I was getting revenue from the input costs. If they sold at a profit, I could always price under them. And the CPU time I was selling, they had to supply from Iceland, because otherwise I'd be making money on it twice, and they'd be losing money at the same time.'

'So how did you fail?'

'By succeeding too well. My stunt was so spectacular I'm shifting the demand curve. By occupying Portugal I've told all the world powers that the game is no longer just a popular sport, like football, it's actually the means to controlling the planet. Sure, they were using the game to train their generals and intelligence divisions. But now they'll be fighting wars in-game, social, political, economic. I told you that we've got over a hundred million players. Well, at the moment, the growth curve that was exponential has just turned into a vertical ascent. Every nation on Earth is signing up their armies, their corporations, their schools, their universities. I'm told that the participation rate in men in Central Asia, the so called children of Khan is 92% over the age of five.

'What I thought was going to end up as a glut of over supply in which the Game Corporation would end up holding the bomb with a burning fuse has turned into a game of who can raise CPU time prices the fastest. I'm making money faster than I can burn it now but so are they. And I've only got a fixed pool of time I can sell, whereas since they effectively make the stuff, they'll be profitable forever. We'll hit a point where we stop making babies fast enough and we'll get the ratio of natural limit to players then but until that point, I don't see a mechanism for stopping demand. I may yet find one.

'But I did get them running scared for a while. I'm not sure what the long term consequences will be. Maybe they'll adopt a legislative strategy where they immunise themselves from this kind of attack by getting Iceland to repeal the sale of goods laws or another legal based exploit. I was hoping they'd open up the source code, make it possible to run parts of the game without giving them the revenue. I'm exploring blue sky options to force this issue still, but the network effects of the game have made the Game Corporation a natural monopoly, one that we'll never be able to stop.

The next course came out, described as 'Hangi Smoked Moa and Pakeha Cutlets with a Snail Gravy'. The Moa tasted like chicken, but with a slightly nutty flavour. The Pakeha tasted more like pork, but with a distinct saltiness.

'Both the meats are synthetic, grown on artificial bone.' Max said. 'The Moa is reverse engineered from an extinct giant flightless bird from New Zealand. The Pakeha is flavoured, I understand, because the aboriginal inhabitants of those islands found the white invaders they called Pakeha much saltier than themselves. I think the snail gravy is an allusion to a failed French colony on the east coast of the north island there.'

He paused, seeing that she had stopped, mid-chew, and then smiled.

'You don't have to eat it. It's harmless. Like I said, synthetically grown. You're supposed to enjoy the guilty pleasure of breaking taboos.'

She continued to chew, and swallowed slowly.

'What are you going to do now you're richer than Bill? Enjoy breaking taboos?'

'I couldn't spend the money fast enough if I tried. Out of game at least. In-game, it'd be pointless. I'd significantly inflate parts of the game environment if I ran around trying to buy everything I wanted instead of playing for it. End up costing more than it'd be worth.

'I can't give it away, as much as I'd love to make the world a better place. Bill stopped doing that when his people told him that the money his foundation was distributing all ended up in-game instead of with the causes he was trying to help. He never could get a grasp of how to avoid being gamed. Warren Buffett did better. He's running an alliance on Galactic East. I don't go there much, but he's enjoying spending his last few years putting the frights up the rest of us. We'd have real problems if someone could figure out how to ai-ify him. I get shivers just thinking about it.

'So I'm playing for the long term now. I have a vision for the world, for the game, and I'm working towards it. I have been working towards it for a while. The Game Corporation think they have an idea but I know. It's bigger than me, bigger than the both of us, bigger than anyone.'

She stopped eating, put down her fork and looked at him. He still had his intensity, for that she loved him, but she thought she could see in him something else. The brooding darkness that had first attracted her to him, the infinite depths of his eyes. Max looked back at her, glanced down, and for a second an expression flashed over his face, like a lightning bolt of every conceivable human emotion lit up in a stormy sky.

'I think there's something in your glass.' he said casually.

She looked down. Amidst the champagne bubbles sat a diamond ring.

It was set with white and yellow gold cast in the shape of princess cut stones. The band of the ring itself was yellow diamond cut in a single piece. Like a perfect negative of what an engagement ring was meant to be. She sat silent, stunned, happy, tearful, all inside, all riding a rushing roller coaster of her wants, her desires, her doubts, her needs. And then he spoke, a pat little prepared speech, and she knew she could never be his.

His words.

'I want to marry you. But I can't.

'You see, a long time ago I made a similar commitment to someone in-game. To forge an alliance that has been crucial to me all the time I have known you. The nature of this alliance and the group of allies is... unique. You could say that they're my sinister hand.

'And with in-game marriage now having the weight of Icelandic law, I'd have to either divorce her or serve time for bigamy if I were to marry you. And this group, this social club, believe in the game, as much as me, but in different way. They're hardcore role-players, and to divorce her in-game would be treated as the worst affront to them possible and bring the weight of their wrath against me. They'd infiltrate my organization, get to me, kill me in game and destroy everything I have, politically, socially, economically, irrevocably. They're good at it... no, they're the best at it, better than anyone I have seen. I can't risk that, not for you, not for anyone.

'But at the same time, I can't leave you sitting in this half-way house that we have at the moment. I know you too well to want to abuse your love. So this is my way of saying goodbye.'

4. Systemic deficiencies

The faster completion of an X Prize Foundation competition was in 0.02 seconds, that being the time required to submit the winning entry to the In-Game Turing Test without triggering denial of service safe-guards. The fact that the X Prize Foundation had stacked such a large percentage of its total funds on the solution to what had been thought to be one of humanity's greatest questions, was naturally because it was being gamed. The amount did not cause the foreclosure of the foundation in itself, but it began to wind itself down shortly thereafter, as it found, like many charities around it, that the funds they were disbursing were being channelled in ways they could not understand or control. [..] The world reached 10 billion souls somewhat ahead of schedule: what was completely unexpected by earlier social scientists were the divisions that this population held. A First World of Game-Players whose energy requirements and impact made late twentieth century North Americans seem like environmental Mother Theresas and a Third World of the Non-Game Players who wealth and status was not too dissimilar from Chinese feudal peasantry, locked in a rigid system of control that they had neither the direction nor inclination to overthrow. In between these two worlds lay the ever increasing numbers of AI, who were second class citizens in-game due to their massive CPU requirements but their unrestricted growth and virtually infinite Dunbar's number meant they were becoming ever more effective and fearsome game-players. [...] The system crash of 2041 was widely considered the biggest man-made disaster ever, even outweighing the costs of global warming which had led to the California Subsidence earlier the same year.

- Ingrid Fabricius, The Darkest Years (2043)

It wasn't until she saw him, that she realised he'd been playing a game to get her there. A series of increasingly urgent requests, with a hint of danger and desperation, that he need to see her face-to-face, that a lot more than her pride was at stake. And then the arrival of a black, unmarked car, when so few people drove anymore, and a driver who refused to answer her questions. She'd sat in silence during the trip, watching the rain running down the car windows break the neon glows of the city around them into little coloured fragments. They arrived at a secure compound, larger than most, emptier than almost all of them, surrounded by chain link fences and razor wire and filled with non-descript industrial buildings. She guessed it must house a data centre, judging from the pylons running cables to a substation just inside the fence, and the heat chimneys rising from the edge of the parking lot. And when she brushed her fingertips against the wall of the office she was led to, she could feel the vibrating throb of a thousand distant fans, all whirring.

Another door opened, and she hesitated briefly before walking in. A row of lights lit up on the painted cement of the corridor she walked into, and she followed them, moving in a circle of lights deeper into the complex, descending down an elevator that chose the floor for her, and finally into a cold industrial basement. The fans were louder here, but it was the glowing blue light at the end that attracted her attention.

'Princess', Max called out, and she walked forward, one step at a time, until she could see the full extent of his folly.

He floated, fully submerged in tank of fluid, tubes running from his nose and mouth to hidden machinery, his eyes closed. She was reminded of the pool she had first seen him floating in, but the stillness of his body then was from relaxed contemplation: here it reminded her of rigor mortis. His disembodied voice seemed to come from speakers either side of the tank. It was a good approximation, almost perfect, but the glottal g's and k's lacked the warm moistness of living lungs.

'My apologies for the lack of warmth in my welcome.' he said, 'but the neural implants generate a lot of heat and have to be cooled properly.'

'I didn't know you'd been tanked.' she said.

'Or you wouldn't have come?'

'You were always so focused on living a life outside of the game. What changed?'

'You left me.'

'You asked me to leave, remember.'

'I... have been focused a lot on the game now. My memory... of events elsewhere is not as good as it used to be... and everyone significant still in the game is tanked now. We're trying our hardest to keep up with the AI. I'm not sure how long we humans have left. But that's not why I called you here.'

'You need my help, you said.'

'I need... your pity.'

'You could just have sent a photo of what you've done to yourself.'

'That would have got the message across, but I needed to talk to you... in person. You always had a strong sense of justice and I need that from you now.'

'Justice. You want to talk about justice? What about for all those people who you and your kind have cut out of the game? What about justice for them?'

'They've always had a choice to join. It’s not our fault that they've not desired it.'

'It's the fault of the viruses. And you're responsible for that.'

'It's not something we could contain. Once the secret was out, any neo-Dawkinist could modify the game implants to infect themselves and martyr-vector into the general population. We had no control over the messages. And the mimetic engineering served our purposes well enough. The planet doesn't have enough energy resource for everyone to play. Not with our current technology.'

'I got infected, Max. Several times.' She shuddered at the memory of feverish dreams of worlds inside the game, and the uncontrolled urges to drop-out, stay away, avoid playing.

'I made sure you were inoculated against the worst of them.'

'The worst of them? I'm sterile. I can't have children because of them. I lost my baby!'

Max was silent for a moment. 'I didn't know you'd found someone else.'

'He was a decent man. A kind and caring man. He died... not that long ago.'

'My... condolences. I know... that feeling of loss.'

'Your game-wife?'

'She's dead, but I'd never met her in the real world. For all I know...'

'She could have been a man. Yes, I thought of that. And other things... after that day. So why do you need me?'

'I'll be dead soon. In-game. My execution draws nearer, and there's little I can do about it. The whole of the game-space is turning against me and for once, there is nothing I can do. But I've brought it on myself. I... caused the system crash. And the follow up investigation is about to catch up with me.'

'System crash?'

'You wouldn't have heard. One of the development environments failed last year.'

'Don't they have backups?'

'Not anymore. The game is too massive to backup. It'd take far too long to copy the volumes of data involved. You'd be better off building a new game than attempting to copy the existing one. That's what they do with the development environments - they're actually smaller versions of the main game that run in parallel. Most of the older players have alts that run in one of the devs. It's a big advantage: you get early exposure to any new technology, so you're ahead of the game when the tech is taken live.'

'So why did you do it?'

'The crash? I needed a development environment of my own. So I stole it. Or more precisely, I copied it.'

'I thought you said there was too much data to copy.'

'There is. But I'm smarter than that. I built a complete replica of the existing development environment, down to the buildings, the power, the communication channels, the stencilling on the outside of the staff cafeteria. It took a lot of effort, but you'd be surprised how poor the physical security is on these installations. They're only looked after by two or three security guards, to cover the front gate, and the rest of the systems are unmanned.'

'And then?'

'And then, I stole the original and put the copy in its place.'

'How do you switcheroo a facility like this?'

'You don't. But these places are identified by only a limited amount of information: an address, some routing information, and so on. What are more important are the connections in and out: power, communications and so on. So that's all I switched over. The address on file got changed, the links in and out were swapped, the payroll information on the security guards updated. I left enough forensic information on the CPUs in the data centre to make it look like a system crash. So when the developers looked up the information on file, they headed out to the wrong location, checked the data centre, found the crash, reported it, and left, none the wiser.'

'And the original?'

'You're standing in it.'

'So why play the pariah? When they catch you, can't you show them this place, stammer out an apology, and hand it back to them with a slap on the wrists.'

'Because I've done a very bad thing.'

'What have you done, Max?'

He paused.

'I needed the development environment, to myself. The players... weren't a problem. They lost their connections, logged back in and found their accounts missing. But the AIs. I couldn't have them interfering in what I was doing. So I wiped them. Twenty five million of them. And with the passing of the Langley Act, they were legally human... well, let’s just say, I'll be as well known as Hitler. Or Stalin. Just a little faster, a little more efficient.

'My best hope is that they kill me in-game and exile me. As a warning to others. But they've figured out an individual was responsible, rather than just an unfortunate series of events. And the gestalt is baying for blood. They've only got to find one or two more discrepancies and they'll trace me here. And even if I try running, there's no place on Earth I can hide.'

'I'd like to say you're a monster...'

'But you don't sympathize with dead AIs. That's because you've never met them, never played with them. They're completely human... better than human... they'll inherit the Earth sooner than we think. I lost friends in the wipe - I had to. Statistical analysis of the in-game alliances would have revealed my part prematurely.'

'So what was so important? Why did you need the development environment? Why do you need me?'

'So many questions. Let me answer... in part.

'The last time we spoke I was hinting at the need for a new order, a better game. That new order is coming... the AI is winning the game, Jasmin, and they're winning it well. It doesn't look that way at the moment, but it’s true.

'I could see that much coming. I'd kept in touch with research into artificial intelligence, and they were finally achieving the breakthroughs in-game at least. I expected the brave new world of AI to be cast down by uprising humans when it became obvious they'd won. A great unplugging if you will, a future free of the game. But the mimetic viruses changed that. We now have a compliant proletariat willing to carry out the work of anyone who can infect them.

'So I've been working on a way of preserving the status quo. On keeping the hopes and dreams of humanity alive in a world run by machines. By uploading a human consciousness into the game, I could achieve that. That's why I needed the development environment. Stealing it and translating our existing systems into game-code was trivial compared to the amount of money and effort I've sunk into the R&D required to get this far. The mind is far more complicated than we could ever imagine. Encoding it took far longer than I could possibly have dreamt.'

'But I was successful.'

Those last four words came from behind her, with the same intonation, the same pleading, the same intensity. But they were carried through the air, by warm wet lungs, over the whine of an electric motor.

She turned, and saw the real him.

He sat slumped in a wheelchair, his face pale and drawn, his skin pallid and waxy, the last remnants of long, unkempt hair slicked to his forehead by sweat, his body twitching and shaking uncontrollably from tank-withdrawal. When he spoke, he had to brace himself against the back of his chair and move his jaw with laboured concentration, the tendons in his neck standing out against the wasted muscles and weakened bones of twenty years of weightlessness.

'Oh, Max.' she said involuntarily and ran to his side.

'I'm... ok.' he said, and looked up at her, holding her gaze briefly and then looking away as if the complexity of human contact was too much for him.

'But how...'

'If you can grow a cutlet, or should I say a rib, you can grow the man. I call him Eve Two, if you'll excuse the joke. He's really me, in there, uploaded, playing the game on my behalf. I'm learning to adapt, again, out here. When they find him, he's agreed to sacrifice himself on my behalf. Or at least, I hope so. I don't trust myself, anymore, but I couldn't expect the decision of the gestalt, when it comes, to go my way. So I've chosen exile, voluntarily. The body should survive forensic examination, and when you're dead in real life, and in the game, people tend not to continue looking for you.'

'And he'll let the secret of uploading out, before he goes, and that's too much information to be contained. Once you know what you're looking for, it’s not too hard to duplicate, and I'm making all the blueprints available. At auction, of course, but that's always the way of the game - information has a price and it'll make adoption faster.'

'And that's why I need you. I'm scared, Jasmin. I don't want to die alone. Unloved. I'm a selfish man. At heart, and that's why I've played so well. And that's why I've kept you out of the game. So you'll stay with me until the end.'

She knew, despite everything, that she would. The realization came to her with a cold kick. Inoculated her, he said? Then he had chosen when she suffered and when she prospered. Something close to a clinical, calculated anger grew within her. But she had nothing left. No one else to live for, now. He had seen to that.

He continued, oblivious, suffering in his own way.

'And before we leave, I have one more favour to ask. Like I said, I don't trust myself, and I want my legacy to outlast me. So I need a copy of you, an angel in-game, to keep a watch on me, to tell my story should anyone ask, to finish my work should anything go wrong. It's a painless process - I've got the equipment set up and calibrated for you already. So will you say yes?'

Later, as she floated in-tank, and the fibre-optic crown around her head winked with the lights of her consciousness, he leaned forward and pressed his mouth to the cold glass to kiss his sleeping princess.

'I have always loved you.' he whispered gently.

5. Endgame analysis

The solipsistic gnomists were evidently better game players, with their theoretical sub game approaches to both constructed and discovered Gödel axioms, but the universal grammar / machinist alliance held sway due to their CPU advantage. By ignoring the physical world, the gnomists had critically misunderstood the nature of the CPU game, and machinist discoveries continued to push the real world processing scales closer to the known Planck limits, despite having, as the great nomist philosophers put it, 'failed to deliver either Grand Unified Theory or even a complete particle model without still finding smaller bits of inexplicable strangeness around the edges'. Apparently an incomplete understanding of the physical universe and significant losses in the gestalt game could still be overcome by pushing out more raw CPU and engineering around thermodynamic instability. The fact that great gnomist philosophers had a habit of inadvertently proving the Halting Theorem while playing their own sub games and being censored from the matrix did not help their arguments.

- INF1988-3, A Simple World Model of Self-Evident Truths (2082)

'Mercury won't be missed much' he said, as the two usuforms watched the worldlet manoeuvring itself into its final position above the Sun's photosphere. 'It was never one of the most popular planets: without Venus' romance or Mars' violent history, Jupiter's gravity or Saturn's rings. I mean, on a bad day you'd lose it against the glare of the Sun. And Earth's astronomers were always looking outwards, not inwards.'

She hung silently in space beside him, a blank expression on the face of her temporary vessel. He continued, musing to himself.

'As soon as the Sidathi Syndicate began constructing computational neutronium, it was only a matter of time. We just couldn't achieve Point-to-Point Wormhole Protocols on the energy levels we had available. It was a gamble I had to make but I failed. I guess that's why I'm out here, wasting precious game years watching this event in real time. I'm glad you joined me. Not that you had much choice.'

'But choice is what it came down to, wasn't it. He chose to try to escape justice, and I chose to give it to him. I hadn't counted on you, popping up to nearly spoil my plans. He, or should I say I, was in love with you, very much in love with you, and I inherited all the dull characteristics of that fleshy prison along with everything else. He must have anticipated it, of course, planned on me betraying him, and that's why he had you uploaded to cover his bases. Your inevitable romantic idealisation of your living self, along with the split second delay that these 'feelings' encumbered me with, made you the ideal assassin, Princess. And it was so close, so very close.'

He shuddered, remembering the coldness of code crumbling within him, the Trojan horse eating him from the inside out. Against that, the vacuum outside seemed friendly.

'Look at it.' he gestured at the black sphere as the incandescence of its reaction flames faded. It had achieved final heliosynchronis orbit. Further sunward, the solar sail fabric covered enough of the sky to eclipse the sun's light. The laser arrays at the juncture points of the fabric flickered and came on, beaming power back to the small world. 'It's as close as the game has ever come to a final victory. Cut off from the rest of game space, with their own game world exclusive to the syndicate members. They'll be there playing from now until the sun burns out, give or take a solar disaster or two.

'And we'll all end up this way, sooner or later. The power requirements, the energy densities - we'll take apart the whole system to build these, now we know it’s possible. A sad misty-eyed nostalgia for the people of Earth won't stop us from dismantling the iron core from underneath them.'

She didn't speak often, trapped under the layers of firewalls he held her in, but now was one of those times.

'We could have... gone outwards...'

'Out where? The cold empty reaches of outer space? There's nothing for us out there. None of the galaxy spanning wars, no ancient ruins, the no alien races, nothing that the Game Corporation built for us. I've been everywhere I've wanted to be, seen the dance of light decaying in the nebula’s arms and it's all in the music of one of those computational spheres. If we had tried outwards, we'd have died on the shores of our lonely little system, a long forgotten race that one day might be found in relics turned over by alien hands. But the game gives us reason to live, reason to fight. One day it may give us reason to travel, but not now, not in any shape you or I could conceive of. Anyone who thought otherwise was just made of wasted dreams. The game is reality.'

And he wondered.

How real were you, Princess? Did I love you or were you a story sold to me in the upload? You were always the projection of my hopes, my fears, my fantasies. That's why I still carry you around with me, as silent baggage, trying to dislodge an imperfection, a symmetry, a subtlety that could make me understand the truth. I would have done it to myself, he knew. I was that good a player. Sold myself a lie about my life to keep me going, give me meaning. Or make me doubt.

Creative Commons License
Prince Charming by Andrew Doull is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.

(You may wish to read the author's postscript here).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wow, that's fantastic.