S. Gill Williamson
Stacks of plates sat on tables. Ice chests of cold drinks dotted the lawn. Technicians from Event Recording and Virtual Simulation, Inc., swarmed about the perimeter of the picnic area. Mobile micro-sensors, scattered everywhere, signaled each other in preparation for archiving the event for history.
Amanda joined the guests queuing for last-minute bio-checks. For her, this family reunion was a dangerous mistake. She waved to her parents in the distance. Their fortieth anniversary -- her attendance was required.
"You're crazy to let ERVS do this, Mom," she had warned. "The personal avatars they create aren't just toys that look and act like us, they're living beings."
As a graduate student at Berkeley, Amanda participated in an ERVS experiment. She conducted a one-hour teleconference interview, first with Ramon(A) and then with Ramon(B). She concluded with a fifteen-minute session with each them. One of the Ramons was her boyfriend, Ramon Mendez; the other was an ERVS personal avatar, a virtual copy of Ramon. She was to identify the real Ramon.
During the hour sessions, Amanda asked a series of questions about personal experiences she shared only with Ramon. Certainly, the virtual Ramon would screw up. But neither of the Ramons made any mistakes. For the fifteen-minute sessions, she changed tactics.
A week before, at a coffee shop with Ramon and Tanya, her roommate, Amanda left the table to get a refill. When she returned, Tanya was whispering to Ramon, her hand on his. "I see you two are having an affair," Amanda said, in a joking voice.
"We're talking about you," Tanya said. "We think you're working too much." Amanda didn't reply. Ramon remained silent also.
For the final fifteen-minute sessions, she quizzed each Ramon about the Tanya incident. What did he think of Tanya, had he noticed her great figure, and would he like to sleep with her? Both Ramons were stubborn, evasive liars.
At the end of the sessions, Amanda guessed that Ramon(A) was the real Ramon, but the slightly more offensive Ramon(B) turned out to be the correct answer.
Now, after her first year as an assistant professor at CMU, she knew much more about ERVS and its innovations. What she knew troubled her.
An ERVS technician shoved a small bio-identification device in front of Amanda's face and squinted at the tiny screen.
"Dr. Amanda Bishop, welcome to the picnic! Your virtual copy has been programmed. Please pick your spot on the grounds."
People stood in small groups. Their personal avatars would be in the same positions in the ERVS virtual picnic and would have the same past memories and expectations for the afternoon as their human counterparts -- the result of extensive personal interviews and neural imaging of each guest. Descendents of people at the picnic would, using ERVS immersion equipment, be able to attend the virtual picnic and spend a pleasant afternoon with their long dead ancestors. That was the optimistic scenario....
But what if, in the future, some bad guys cracked ERVS security and, using their own immersion equipment, attended the picnic to commit crimes? Aware of this possibility, Amanda decided to use everything she knew about ERVS' algorithms to protect her personal avatar from such abuse.
A buzzer sounded the three minute warning. Powerful ERVS simulation computers would record the Bishop picnic for the first five minutes. Each future simulation of the afternoon's celebration would start at a random point in those first five minutes and then evolve on its own. No two simulated picnics would be exactly the same, but they would be close -- most of the time. Millions of mote micro-sensors, scattered about the grounds, would document the actual archival record for this first picnic.
"Hi guys," Amanda said, approaching her cousin, Harvey, who stood surrounded by his college friends. She forced her way to the center of their group. "See that table to the right of the grandstand? I want you all to walk over there with me." She grabbed the shirts of the guys on either side of her and nudged them forward. Harvey and his friends shuffled ahead, sheltering Amanda from view.
"Stop," she said. "Stand here for a moment while I get under the table. Then disperse slowly. Don't tell anyone where I am or I'll hunt you down and kill you." She was only half joking.
The table, covered with a large dark cloth and holding a pair of speakers, sat against a small grandstand. It would be a deafening afternoon for Amanda.
An immense white building, a kilometer on each side, two stories above ground and six below, sat on the high plains north of Gillett. Cooled year round by power from its own nuclear reactor, it contained the most sophisticated computers in the world. Above the main entrance arched the words EVENT RETRIEVAL AND VIRTUAL SIMULATION, INC. Known worldwide as ERVS, it was the leading company in virtual reality based simulation.
An elderly man, tall with grey hair, entered the building and approached an elevator, its door held open by a young engineer.
"Hi Sandman! What's new?" the engineer asked, with a smile.
Robert Errett, the only senior scientist who worked in the Mote Lab, took plenty of crap. The millimeter diameter motes, derisively called "sand" by the simulation engineers, were tasked with creating the ERVS archival event records.
"The sand is getting smarter every day," Errett joked. "Some emergent behavior is evident. Be careful when you shake out your cowboy boots." Mike said nothing; he seemed to be thinking it over.
In his office, Errett checked his calendar. Nothing for three weeks. Management counted on accurate archival recording during every event, but as long as Errett's motes were state of the art and reliable, he and his group were left alone. He grabbed some coffee and headed for the Mote Lab to check on his technician.
"Hola, Dave!" Errett said as he entered, looking for a place to sit down in the mess. Overlapping SPA posters announcing events past and future papered the walls. Stacks of SPA newsletters turned the room into a jumbled maze.
"Want to see something interesting? Look at these clusters." Dave pointed to a flat silicon surface covered by a small clear plastic dome. Three small groups of motes, chilled to below freezing, sat close together. "Each mote's computer in these clusters stores a human avatar."
"What are you doing, Bode? These motes don't have the compute power to host a human. If you've screwed with their CPUs we're in big trouble."
Have you checked the specs on these new motes? They're unbelievable."
Errett had approved use of these new motes without studying their specs -- a serious failure on his part. He stood in silence, looking at the three clusters. "If management finds out about this, you and I are out of here."
"The company we work for has become a criminal enterprise," Bode said, jumping to his feet and starting to pace around the room. "These bastards are making money off of murder for fun, rape of young women, pedophilia, whore houses for rich bastards and politicians."
Errett had heard all of this before. By going outside his need-to-know security domain, Dave had recorded many instances where ERVS clients had committed inappropriate acts while immersed in simulations -- acts that would be serious crimes if committed against real people instead of virtual people.
"At the end of each simulation, everything is reinitialized to the original event. The avatars remember nothing about what happened during the immersion," Errett said, repeating the decreasingly relevant official line.
"Sure the events are reset. But the avatars are alive, they feel pain and humiliation each time they are tortured, raped, violated."
"Right. Protection of avatars is a moral issue, but you're crossing some powerful people. How many humans have you downloaded to the sand?"
"Hundreds by now. Very smart ones. Many more will follow," Dave said, facing Errett and putting his hand firmly on his shoulder. "Sit down and relax. I'll explain what's going on and what needs to be done."
Team leader Daggett settled into his TIS immersion couch to finalize hookup; the three other members of his team were doing the same. All four players had scored in each of twenty previous games. But in this game, ironically called "The Picnic," none of them had succeeded in the first two immersions of their team.
Typically, the team would be assigned a victim, a young female, attending an event simulation. The strategy, always the same, was for the team to appear at the event, lure the girl to a hidden place and rape her. Each team member had to have a go at the assigned victim, their avatars had to survive the encounter, and the victim had to be technically alive when they were pulled from the scene.
The Picnic was unique in their experience. Daggett had studied the ERVS sample simulations with an experienced eye. The assigned victim, Amanda Bishop, was on the original list of attendees but had never appeared in the sample simulations. She had to be there somewhere, but where?
There were only three possible hiding places for Amanda: under the grandstand or under one of the two speaker tables. Checking under the grandstand had been time consuming and ended the team's first immersion. In the second immersion, they verified she was not under the speaker table to the left of the grandstand. Only the speaker table to the right of the grandstand remained as a possible hiding place for Amanda. If there, she would be trapped, and they could take her one at a time under the table, her screams hidden by the blaring music.
Daggett's avatar and three other athletic looking young men stood together at the edge of the picnic grounds. They looked across the lawn at the speaker table. Some college age boys were standing nearby, but no Amanda in sight. The four virtual visitors slowly worked their way in the direction of the table.
Alarmed by the silence, Amanda listened, parted the cloth, and peeked out at a vast lawn. A small group of people approached the table. They began to shout and applaud.
"It's Dr. Bishop!" someone yelled, "She made it safely." A tall elderly man approached, smiled, and offered her his hand.
"Welcome, Amanda," he said, motioning to the others to gather round. "We're all admirers of your work and pleased to have you join our group."
Amanda looked them over -- all strangers. What were they talking about? Her only work was her Ph.D. dissertation and related papers. She tried to speak, was interrupted by more applause, and then managed to get some words out.
"Thank you, but where are my parents and the rest of the people?"
A young man stepped forward. "Your parents and the rest are fine," he said. "Dead, but fine."
Amanda gasped and held tightly to the table.
A matronly lady approached and put her arm around Amanda's shoulder.
"Now, now dear." she said, in a soothing voice. "Kevin is a great computer scientist, but he's terribly blunt. Your bio-parents lived a long and productive life and died of old age. This is July 15, 2270. You crawled under the table 160 years ago."
Time travel? Amanda took a few steps back from the group. As a graduate student she had decided time travel was impossible.
"Silence everyone! This isn't how we planned to greet Amanda," the elderly man said, now introducing himself as Dr. Robert Errett. "Come with us, Amanda, we have a small reception with food and drink waiting for us. It's in the building across the lawn." He motioned off to his right.
Amanda looked across the lawn at a Spanish style building.
"We've duplicated the fried chicken and potato salad from your picnic -- dishes that were gone when you finally got out from under the table," Errett said, as they arrived at an outdoor patio buffet.
Amanda gratefully accepted some lemonade and worked her way through the admiring crowd to where the blunt speaking Kevin stood alone.
"What's going on, Kevin?" she asked. "You don't mince words. Give it to me straight."
"Think of yourself as Amanda(A)." Kevin said, with a mischievous grin.
Amanda got it. She looked at the tile floor, the people, and the beautiful clear blue sky. She looked at her half empty glass of lemonade. It tasted great.
"So this is a simulation," she said. "It all seems so real. Ramon(B) is certainly dead, but what happened to Ramon(A)? Not that I want to see him."
"Dragged to the trash long ago. He was an old version, even older than you."
Amanda was offended. "I seem to be just as functional as the rest of these folks," she said. "In what way am I out of date?"
"You're not out of date as an avatar. The process of extracting you from the picnic simulation automatically updated your data structures to modern standards -- you're still a fine personal avatar for the original bio-Amanda. You're our oldest successful extraction."
"Was I copied or extracted? Which is the better word?"
"Copied is better. The original Amanda still has a personal avatar at the picnic under the table. That avatar, your original copy, is now in great danger."
"What sort of danger?" Amanda asked, suspecting the worst.
"The Immersion Rights Party got control of the government about ten years ago. That was the start of widespread abuse of avatars by groups of gamers. They've just recently discovered your picnic." He fell silent.
"What about my parents and friends?"
"Four gamers, rapists, have fixated on you, Amanda, and ignored the other guests. Search engines show you were at the picnic, but your avatar has never been seen in any simulation. That's the fascination for them."
"Dead, but fine," she said, in disgust. "My family and friends are fine until I get raped, then they're next."
"Actually, your cousin Harvey and two of his friends were injured defending your table during the group's third attack. Harvey will probably be killed next time. This group has never failed four times in a row."
Amanda knew that the simulation would be reset each time the gamers attacked. Poor Harvey would have learned nothing from the previous attacks while the gamers would remember every detail. It was a cruel business, unfair to the avatars.
"Why do people now living ever allow ERVS to record them? Their personal avatars are going to be attacked by gangs for sure."
"All simulated events in the last decade are stored in special, secure archives. ERVS will not allow gamers at them."
"Not allow gamers at them until the price is right," Amanda said, clenching her fists in anger. "So these Immersion Rights bastards have made public all simulations done prior to their coming to power. Your ancestors and my descendants are open to abuse."
"You're a quick learner and a leader, Amanda. That's why you're here."
People in this century must be even dumber than those in the twenty second century, Amanda thought to herself. Not a good sign.
Errett approached them. "You must be tired, Amanda," he said. "I'll show you to your casita so you can get some rest. In the morning, the three of us will have breakfast together and talk." He took Amanda by the arm and started across the lawn toward a small adobe casita surrounded by a pebbled cactus garden.
Amanda awoke to the increasing light, put on her robe, and walked barefoot across the hard smooth tiles to the window of her small room. She watched as the lawn and building of yesterday's festivities reappeared in stages. When the scene was complete, she saw Kevin and Errett walking across the lawn toward her casita. She put two extra mugs next to the coffee pot and propped the door open. Kevin, followed by Errett, entered.
"Good morning, Amanda," Kevin said. "Sorry about not getting the building and lawn back fast enough. We couldn't launch the scene until we docked our motes, and then we had some problems of our own doing. We're still learning."
"Dave Bode is screwing around with us in his ERVS lab," Errett added. "That just makes our job more complicated. Let him have his fun. We'll be free of him soon."
"OK guys, what's going on?" Amanda said, sipping her coffee.
Kevin walked to the other side of the room and pushed on a recessed door. "This room is where you communicate with your mote, Amanda."
A large central screen showed three tank-like ellipsoidal shapes huddled spoke-like on a black surface. Appendages appeared from their sides.
"Meet the sources of our existence, Amanda," Errett said. "One mote for each of us."
"They look like water bears," Amanda said, remembering her biology class.
"They're about the same size and are on a cryo-plate. We're at minus fifty Celsius, better get your coat!"
Amanda got the idea. "So my mote alone can't simulate anything besides me and my casita. The lawn and building required all three of us. Fascinating! Alone in my casita, I exist in my mote. Now I exist in the combined resources of all three motes."
"The fiesta yesterday required all of our motes, clumped in a misshapen ball in Dave's lab," Errett added.
Amanda knew she was a virtual being, a personal avatar of the long-dead bio-Amanda, but she and her mote together constituted a real, physical being in the year 2270. She felt a sense of power.
"With these motes," she said, more to herself than to her companions, "we can kick some butt."
The "real" Errett, as he had come to call himself, entered Dave's lab, shut the door, and approached the figure huddled over the binocular microscope.
"I separated these three motes from the rest. Now they've docked on their own," Dave announced. " These motes are learning fast and so are their avatars."
"I suppose my mote is one of them," Errett said. "You like to torture him."
"Your mote is one, Kevin's is the other. Amanda's mote is the third, but she doesn't know how to control anything at this point."
Errett sat down and looked in the microscope. The display indicated that all three motes were running their avatars at real human time instead of their usual much faster speed. "Now they're undocking, one mote is moving backwards."
Dave pushed Errett aside. "That's Amanda's mote. They must be giving her lessons. That's great!"
Errett suspected Dave was underestimating the avatars. He had assembled a team of the best and most creative computer scientists, engineers and hackers from over the last hundred and sixty years. Some, like the newly acquired virtual Amanda, were not aware of the discoveries that made them important historical figures. They would, however, apply the same genius to the current situation.
"I'm having trouble controlling them," Dave admitted. "Amanda's mote is new so I was able to initialize her clock speed to ours. Never again, I'm afraid. She's going to run the show from now on."
Errett knew that the motes and Dave's collection of avatars were going their own way. When the motes physically moved, they could be observed with the proper equipment. But when they were linked together in a wireless network, they controlled their own simulated worlds.
"You're about to lose control completely," Errett said.
"The one thing that unites these avatars is their hatred of the bio-human gamers," Dave said. "Their best strategy is to screw up the gamers in the most subtle way possible. They need to do the maximum amount of damage while attracting the least amount of attention -- before anybody else but us gets wise."
"You know that, I know that, but will the avatars figure it out?" Errett asked. "We're not going to have much say about their strategy."
Daggett and his team assembled at the Total Immersion Salon. His confidence was contagious. "We'll kick the shit out of this asshole, Harvey, and fuck Amanda good this time. I'm ready to move on. This so called 'Picnic' is nothing but bad luck."
He now realized that Amanda had managed to hide within a few seconds of the start of the original picnic, making it highly unlikely that Daggett and his team would ever arrive early enough to catch sight of her. On their third attempt, Harvey and his friends attacked them as they neared the table; his team was now certain of her hiding place.
The four men gathered together, held hands, shouted "Go get um," three times, and moved to their immersion couches. TIS technicians, scantily clad girls with medical training, welcomed them smilingly. The meticulous hookup took twenty minutes. They relaxed together for five minutes, a barely audible buzzer sounded, and the men drifted under.
Daggett's avatar checked his small but effective stun gun. Harvey, if he tried to stop them this time, would get a full blast in the throat -- he'd never make a sound. But, Daggett's team would lose points for stunning Harvey; finesse mattered. On the other hand, his team would gain points for publishing Amanda's hiding place on their blog. Other gamers could have a shot at her on their first try.
Harvey and his friends, unbothered by the blaring music, stood near Amanda's table just like in the last game. But this time, distracted by an attractive young woman standing at the edge of the picnic grounds, they started to move in her direction.
Daggett stood still for a few minutes, sensed the time was right, nodded to his teammates, and started toward the table. Suddenly, he stopped and looked down. He reached for his crotch, felt around, gasped, doubled over, and fell to the ground. His teammates, leaderless and terrified, froze. Harvey and his friends were now running in their direction.
Dr. Mendoza, informed immediately of what happened in the simulation, was the first to reach the writhing, semi-conscious, Daggett. She called for help. A giant technician arrived in seconds and pulled back Daggett's arms and hands, forcing them away from his crotch. He pulled back the sheet that had been placed over Daggett's lower body. Everything seemed intact. Daggett was going into shock.
The TIS supervisor arrived at the scene. "He's going to live. If any of you breathe a word of this, you're fired. Get these other three guys out of immersion and keep them occupied while we get Daggett straightened out."
Dr. Mendoza remained silent. She had never seen anything like this. How would TIS cover up such a mess? The three other team members, less traumatized than Daggett, would remember their virtual experiences and surely tell what happened -- unless they were too embarrassed to reveal the details of yet another failure.
Dave Bode had watched the virtual picnic through his hacked links to the ERVS simulators. He had penetrated ERVS security, but not the TIS computers or event recorders. The ERVS side was enough to infuriate him -- he knew immediately what had happened. "Amanda was a mistake! She's going to ruin everything."
Errett heard Bode shouting as he entered the lab. Virtual Errett and Kevin had warned him that Amanda was up to something, but they refused to say what it was.
"She could have cut off anything else," Dave shouted. "A finger, an ear, a toe, that would have been bad enough. Daggett needed his index finger to fire the stun gun. Why not cut that off? Why this? This will trigger a full ERVS investigation. We're screwed, if I can use that term without getting my avatar's nuts cut off."
"Calm down, Bode, you're making an ass of yourself. You're the one that's going to blow it," Errett shouted, grabbing him by the shoulder and shaking him. "Kevin and my avatar knew what she was up to. They had their doubts, but went along with it. They're no fools, neither is Amanda."
"You knew about this and didn't tell me?" Dave asked in disbelief.
"Only vaguely, they didn't confide details. I think I understand what Amanda is thinking."
"Let's hear it, then!"
"These gamers would die a horrible death before complaining about this to ERVS. Their macho egos will keep them silent. As for TIS management, they're scared to death. Their system creates the virtual gamers, the ERVS computers only play host. If this gets out, the other gamers won't come near the TIS salon out of fear of the same mutilation. Amanda's got them all by the balls."
"Please don't use that phrase," Dave said, regaining his composure. "Maybe you have a point. But, she can't get away with this shit more than once. Have virtual Errett talk some sense into her."
"I've pretty much lost any credibility with virtual Errett," Errett said, with more relief than sadness.
Errett sat in his office where he had spent New Year's Eve alone. He had been drinking. Amazingly, neither he nor Bode had been fired. In fact, ERVS and the world were still clueless about what was happening.
His first fateful decision came last March when he approved converting all of the sand to the newest model of motes. This decision resulted in the purchase of the new field repair kits. These kits were miniature fabrication factories capable of repairing or manufacturing new motes and new fabrication factories under any field conditions. Initially under Bode's supervision and then on their own, the humanized motes learned to operate the fab factories. Within two months, there were millions of mote versions of Amanda, Kevin, Errett, Bode, and others.
After Amanda's dramatic castration of Daggett's personal avatar, only minor "immersion initialization imperfections," or III's as they came to be called, occurred during gaming sessions: a shoe missing, no pants or shirt, slightly odd skin coloration, memory impairment, etc. The accepted explanation for these minor abnormalities was that the legacy systems used by the gaming salons needed replacement. Minor Ill's, however, were enough to bring immediate attention to gamers as they immersed themselves in events. Few attacks were successful.
The news of the evening had an ominous note: an automated unmanned cargo ship bound for Mars had mysteriously veered off course, heading north, out of the ecliptic at a slight angle. The ship carried hundreds of millions of new motes and a large supply of the latest fab factories. Unknown to authorities, hundreds of millions of humanoid motes with all the equipment they needed to make many millions more were headed somewhere. But, where?
Errett thought of the Kuiper belt. Slowly rising above the ecliptic, they would avoid all interplanetary traffic and eventually end up on some Kuiper belt object with a high-inclination orbit -- cold operating environments for their computers with enough matter and energy to sustain them indefinitely.
Errett finished his wine and poured another glass. He was fading. He felt jealous of the virtual Erretts. They and their evolving civilization would essentially last forever. They could travel the galaxy without concern for the passage of time. They would evolve in the Darwinian sense under the dangers of space travel. Likewise, they would improve their own computer technologies and hence their own individual life forms, evolving in the Lamarckian sense. They could live near the center of the galaxy or in the outer reaches. All they would need is matter and energy under a wide range of conditions -- very different from the limited possibilities for bio-human habitats in space.
Errett staggered to his office couch. What would be the purpose of their civilization? They would need a purpose. The study of the natural history of the galaxy, its life forms and their struggles to survive would be complex enough to occupy the talents of the mote civilization for the long haul. If this concept of purpose occurred to him, it would also occur to the many virtual Erretts. Comforted by this thought, he fell into a sound sleep.
Copyright © 2010 S. Gill Williamson