Monday, February 16, 2015

The Last Smartphone in John Stoian's Front Closet, Part IV

This is the final part of the first of two short stories I've written which take place in the same "universe": one possible near future, in which a collective consisting of technologists and creatives has carved out a niche for themselves in a world of diminishing opportunity.

The screen flashed and a bright, busy background appeared. Geometric shapes floated into the framed, then zoomed past. Chaotic text said, "PLAY ICE. PRESS ANY KEY TO BEGIN." Never mind that the keyboard wasn't displayed. Lucy tapped the screen, and that was good enough. A bubbly pop up window gave instructions.

"So you've decided to risk it all to play a game you've never heard of to access a phone you've never used before. Brilliant. Please insert the headband jack into the bottom of the phone and place the headband on your head."

Nonsense, thought Lucy. She tapped the screen.

"No, really, do it. It will be fun, promise."

"I can't believe I'm taking orders from a phone."

"Audio sensors indicate that you just expressed your frustration. If you wear the headband, you will be better equipped to vent in the future."

"Fine! Gah!"

Lucy fished the device from the cardboard box in her bag, inserted the headband jack into the long thin slot at the base of the phone, then fitted the vinyl band on her head, from ear to ear.

"Thank you. For best results, use headphones. Tap the screen when ready."

Lucy grabbed her earbuds from the computer desk. She plopped them into her ears and thrust her thumb at the screen.

"Welcome to the tutorial. Pay attention or bad things will happen."

"Clear a space on a wall or a floor that is roughly one meter by one meter, and stand back. Focus your mind on the center of this space."

The screen blanked again and white text slowly appeared. "Good." An arrow cursor emerged in the center of the screen.

"Now focus on the upper left corner of your cleared space."

Lucy looked at that corner of the cleared floor, and the arrow obediently jumped and skittered to the corresponding space on the screen. As she moved her gaze back to the center of the space, the cursor obediently followed.

"That's incredible," Lucy said aloud.

The tutorial continued. Apparently, the goal of the game was to break through a landscape of multicolored, neon ice. Mountains of it rose from the black ground. Glaciers rolled, huge bergs calved. The tutorial had given way to the full game seamlessly. Lucy quickly learned to position the phone in front of her—she set it on the back of Chungy’s cardboard chair—and look past it (a gesture which quickly turned into the simple act of thinking past it) as she navigated through the jagged landscape. She soon learned how to break into the ice with a certain looping mental gesture.

She continued to fly, and eventually the scope of her vision was confined to a tiny screen, as if the world were a vessel and the only porthole were two inches by three. She gasped as sheer walls rose up, and twitched her head when the gap between her and a virtual trauma was too small. The room closed in around her, then faded out of existence. Occasionally, as the game permitted small stretches off calm, she darted her eyes to each side to be sure the real world was still a thing.

Soon, she mastered looming landscapes and glistening cliffs, gaining access to incredible secret areas, and, frankly, racking up the points. Soon, a tremendous, ornate ice castle appeared, unlike the smooth, simple forms the game had thus far offered. Lucy sensed this would be the final level, and that it would present a challenge otherwise unknown in the game. She approached a brilliant alcove near the center, above the drawbridge. She entered it and the phone gave a small buzz of haptic vibration. Something was approaching on screen. A human figure, proportionally a giant, considering the castle walls. Perhaps this was a boss?

Lucy hesitated, then bored on into the castle space, toward the giant. It was a featureless mannequin of a monster, male and without a face. The beast whipped its arm from behind its back to reveal a glowing, outsized sword. The monster slashed a few times for show. Lucy very briefly registered fear of the creature, then remembered she was playing a simple game, then remembered yet again that if she lost to this beast, she might lose her navigator and fail to impress her two potential clients and one potential partner tomorrow. With a burst of adrenaline, she surged for the monster, and saw the screen go white for a moment. She was sure she was dead.

In fact, the whiteout was one part latency, one part time dilation due to nervousness, and one part the slash of the glowing sword. She thought a hard right, then turned around and barreled into the figure again. She was again bathed in light as she passed through him. She whipped around another time, and saw the monster still slashing and prowling. It hadn't even been damaged. Time to regroup, thought Lucy. The one time I wish I had played more of Chung's stupid retro games.

As the enemy reared up once more, Lucy caught a glimpse of something dark on its wrists: deep blue diamond shapes that appeared to serve no purpose, and that absorbed the light as well as its skin reflected it. She pointed herself back toward the creature, who for a brief moment faced off to Lucy's side. Catching the wrist of its empty hand, she bored with her mind into that diamond. The hand shot off and disappeared in a puff of smoke. The sword flashed over her head again, and again Lucy thought it was all over. The spinning room jarred her back into action, and she managed a long dive away from the beast, spun around, and fired off toward the enemy's blade, breaking toward its feet, then rising to the target. She swerved into the diamond, the sword rebounded off of the floor, and the beast entered overdramatic, programmed death throes.

The chamber transformed before Lucy's eyes, elongating and becoming brighter and more crystalline, glassier, simpler. A full-length mirror appeared at the end of this new, live great hall. Lucy's modest gaming experience told her this was the end reward. She approached it, and saw a short, black-haired, olive-skinned woman in its reflection. When the image finally came into focus, Lucy stopped thinking directionally altogether. It was her, in a mirror inside a smartphone, inside a game she had only just started playing. She covered the front camera on the phone, but her image still stared back. The hell, she half-thought, half-muttered. She pulled out the headphones.

She looked at the clock. Well, maybe not "just started", she thought. Tinkling music came from the phone, and a message flashed. A slow, soothing chiptune melody played as a victory message displayed on the screen. Lucy shrugged off her tension like a cloak. Then, a voice came. It jarred Lucy, but gently, and at first she didn't understand it. Mercifully, it didn't mind repeating itself. It was clearly not the miserable 1980s synth voice from earlier. It was almost human.

"Hi, Lucy. You did a great job there."

"Hi. I'm really not sure what's going on here, but I'm clearly in over my head. So forgive me when I ask: Who in the actual hell are you?"

"My name is Spearmint, and I'm a friend of John's."

"Are you some kind of intelligent agent?"

"Uh...well...something like that. I will tell you that I reside on a neuromorphic architecture at John's house."

"Wait, do you know my boyfriend, José Chung? He'd flip if he knew John had a neuromorph."

"I know of Chung, but he doesn't know me. John's keeping me secret until he can fully vet members of the society and get permission from the team that programmed me."

"Should I not be asking questions?"

"No, you absolutely should. I'll let you know if there's something I shouldn't answer."

"What's the point of the game? Sorry to be all business, but that's the biggest question."

"Ok, except that question."

Lucy looked thoughtful. "Why not?"

"I was planning my, 'You lose, Charlie, you lose' speech. You don't happen to have half a top hat on you, do you?"

"I'm not sure I get that, but it sounds like you're behind all those crappy retro references."

"Guilty as charged. What can I say? I have an old soul."

"So, how'd I do?"

"Let's just leave it at 'well enough to talk to me'. That's pretty good."

"So, why are you talking to me?"

"You've heard of the Society, I take it?"

"Chungy won't stop talking about it. It's like his Promised Land. He says they're going to buy some land in the Valley and build houses for everyone."

"Hopefully we can get some good plagues going before that happens. Gotta love the locusts.

"Anyhow, enough beating around the burning bush. We have identified you as a potential recruit for the Society. You have the right connections, you're in a field that isn't already overrepresented, and you're plucky.

"Here is the offer: you join us, we essentially ensure that you get work. Resources, internal contacts, technical shortcuts..."

"Shortcuts? You mean, like cheating?"

"I mean, like, competitive advantage. If you feel uncomfortable with illegal advantages, we won't offer them. If you don't feel good about damaging the prospects of little guys and freelancers, we'll focus on wrangling work from the big fish. The point is you get first dibs on opportunities that you want."

"Whoa whoa whoa, there. Hold on, Robot Dude. I got here from hard work. I got here from starting from scratch. I didn't get here from cheating, or hacking or short cuts. If that's what you're offering, then thanks but no thanks."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I'm not ready to make a deal with the robot devil in order to kick start my career. That's like baseball guys taking steroids, or doctors cheating on their med school exams."

"I'm not sure I understand, Ms. Fernandez. I told you we wouldn't do anything illegal if you didn't want to. Are you saying you don't want every rational and ethical economic advantage available?"

"Well, Mr. Spearmint, maybe you're used to dealing with buck-the-system hacker types, but I'm perhaps a little more old fashioned. I play in the system, sometimes I just play the system, but I don't cheat the system. It's just not who I am."

"Everything you said is acceptable, except one thing."

"What's that?"

"You put a little 'a' in Spearmint. Spear-a-mint. Makes me wanna vomit, which as you can imagine is a problem on account of I don't have a corporeal form."

"Gee, thanks for the life tip, Professor Higgins. I'll tell you what you can do for me. I've got a big day tomorrow. Can you tell me how to get to my appointments and keep track of my docs for me?"

"Like a normal, dumb old smartphone?"

"Seems like a perfect fit."



"Has anyone ever told you you're a smartass?"

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