Short story: Dark mechanics of the game


The eigenball sailed above, a shimmering image-enhanced comet emitting a slipstream of sub-nuclear data.By Robert HoodIllustration by Dean Falsify Cook


DEAN FALSIFY COOK

TWO MONTHS BEFORE

They say sport creates gods.

Crystal Tomasi hurried from the arena floor, ignoring the thousands of fans in the tiers above – still screaming and waving banners carrying her name. Spotlights splashed off the domed roof, music blared, SportView cameras transmitted their digitally enhanced images to billions of viewers worldwide. That once again her team had won hardly mattered. Her temples throbbed. It felt as though an eigenball had slipped through the bone and was even now ricocheting around in her skull.

What had gone wrong? In the midst of play, the arena often became a moshpit of sub-real artifacts. The ball itself was actual and virtual both – augmented reality at its most sophisticated. Players fought for and controlled the eigenball with their tech-enhanced perceptions, opening short-lived “pocket” dimensions to keep the ball’s defining spatial and temporal data from their opponents. The game took place in both real and quantum spaces, dataflow and cross-spatial interaction visible only to audiences paying the POV Attachment Tax. Those who paid experienced the game viscerally through the players’ minds and bodies. Those who didn’t saw only the Prime Space interaction – 40% of the play, along with computer-interpreted visuals that filled in the gaps. But what she’d experienced tonight went way beyond the norm: indistinct shadow figures gliding around the edges, weaving through the players, touching them, flickering in and out of existence. Image glitches? The fans didn’t seem to notice them. Yet once, just before scoring, one of those “glitches” had reached out and touched her. She felt it like cold spiders running across her skin. Energy had drained from her in that instant. Shocked and distracted, she’d missed the shot. The eigenball should have sped into the virtual Blindbox to be intercepted by her catcher. Instead the Box became unstable, her Audience Involvement flow dissipated and the Schrödinger matrix didn’t activate. Probability dropped. The cat failed to meow.

Now, eyes blurred, she led her team through the arena exit, hoping for a moment of peace to get her head together. Instead she found herself fighting through a sea of screaming fans. They reached out, touched her, waved pictures, autograph e-books and promo eigenballs at her. She shoved them aside, barely acknowledging them as she concentrated on reaching the secured entrance to the locker rooms. Huge guards let her through, holding the fans back with arms like steel girders.

Hero worship scared her. Crystal had always loved the game’s transcendent nature, but hated being a conduit through which fans gave meaning to their lives. She didn’t want to be a god. Sometimes she could barely resist grabbing them by their collective throats and yelling, “It’s just a game. A game based on voyeuristic sub-dimensional manipulation and weird science! It doesn’t matter.”

Yet that attitude worried her. If the game became meaningless to her, would she completely lose her grip on the real Crystal Tomasi?

Sagan Dallas, the on-field captain, strode past, sweaty from exertion but unflustered by the crush. He nodded a stern recognition of her role in the win, but said nothing as he went through to the general change area. He wasn’t pleased. Crystal sighed and ducked into her private suite before she had to interact with other team members. All she wanted was to take some headache drugs, lie down and try to think things through.

No chance. Her coach was waiting for her. Short and bull-like, with spiky black hair and monotone tracksuit, Reilly-Three looked out of place in the swank modernity of her dressing-room.

“It’s no good, Crystal,” he said. “Tech-sync was 20.65% below average.”

“20.65% below? Can’t be right.”

Stats beetled across Crystal’s visual field. “Verified,” Reilly said.

“Don’t do that!”

She slumped onto a bench, feeling his virtual hardware/software bots skittering through her system like a horde of tiny, velvet spiders. She glared at him.

“You’re not escalating the game,” he said.

“So you tell me. Often.”

“Only because I expect more from you, Crystal, as do the fans. You’re becoming outmoded and it’s more than the game can tolerate.”

“People don’t become ‘outmoded’. Cyborgs do.” Short-tempered and still freaked by the hallucinations she had experienced, she shot him a snarky look.

He ignored it. “You have the highest Audience Involvement factor of anyone, ever, Crystal.” His features approximated a frown. “But increasingly it’s not enough. What’s more, I’ve had word from the EIG Gaming Authority that ManyWorlds, one of our major sponsors, are set to pull funding.”

“That’s absurd. The stats don’t show an overall slide --”

“They believe your impact has stagnated. With no improvement in AI figures, they may very well move their attention to someone else.”

Crystal felt the fear in her turning to desperation.

“What do they expect of me?”

“To take the game further.” He paused, studying her face with a stoic calmness that infuriated her. “You’re highly thought of and very popular still but you can’t rely on genetic uniqueness alone. Tech upgrades are essential.”

“How can I upgrade? My tech and wetware are already state-of-the-art.”

“Ah,” he said, “That’s where you’re wrong.”

Her heart sank.

“You’re not suggesting black market mods, are you?”

He stared at her.

“No, no way.” She stood as if to leave the room, but merely circled him nervously.

“I have contacts,” he said. “Certain components may be as yet unapproved, but specs have been leaked offering considerable progress in –“

“What are you talking about, Reilly! Remember what happened to Chadron and Sylvi. How did it work out for them? He’s dead and she can’t even feed herself.”

“I’m assured –“

“No!”

DEAN FALSIFY COOK

How could he do this to her? Reilly-Three had become cold and dogmatic lately. Gruff cyborg or not, he’d been for several years the closest thing she had to family. She’d trusted him. Friends were few and far between, and none in close enough proximity for her to turn to. Her team-mates? Resentment and sometimes awe kept them away from her emotional life.

“I’m going to forget you even mentioned this, Reilly,” she said and stalked from the room.

Later, in the wake of her team’s narrow, undeserved win, the atmosphere in the scheduled post-game Meet ‘n’ Greet was uncharacteristically muted. Fans seemed to pick up on her mood. Their disquiet reflected her own.

During a lull between souvenir e-Ball signings and idle chatter, she found herself standing beside team-mate Manara Khouri, a quiet and somewhat deferential player, exceptional enough not to appear redundant on a team that included the Crystal Goddess.

“Not our best game,” Manara said cautiously.

“Wasn’t too bad.”

“We’re all getting a little concerned.”

For a moment Crystal’s back began to bristle, but before she could respond a crowd of fans thrust eigenball replicas at her to sign. She did so, answering their shouted, whispered, reverential questions in monosyllables.

“Manara! Wait!” She pushed passed a big guy in a faux team uniform that really didn’t quite fit, and gripped Manara’s wrist. Manara looked at her, surprised. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Did you notice anything odd during today’s match?”

“Odd?”

“Phantom images. Anything like that?”

Manara looked sheepish. “No, no. Look, I hope you don’t mind me saying…“ She stared up into Crystal’s eyes, hoping for a signal.

“Go on, Manara. We’re a team, even if I don’t always act like it.”

“It seemed to me… to all of us… that you weren’t really trying.”

“What?”

“You know, like your mind was elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere?”

Taken aback, Crystal imagined herself in a distorted, shadowy place, hands against a moist, skin-like barrier. This was how she pictured M-branes whenever the mechanics of quantum field propagation came up during training. A metaphor – she knew branes didn’t have this kind of physical reality. In her imagining, however, the membrane stretched against the pressure exerted by her fingers. She pushed until it reached the limits of flexibility. The barrier tautened and began to split. Gasping, she snapped back, and was aware of Manara’s puzzled stare.

“Sorry,” Crystal said. “I was just –.”

A tall, thin man, dressed in a severe black business suit, white shirt and light blue tie stepped between them. Speckled eyes stared at her from an overly smooth face. He seemed unfinished. Manara slipped away into the ever-shifting crowd.

“Can I help you?” Crystal snapped.

The man’s lips barely moved as he spoke. “Crystal Tomasi?”

He had to know who she was, so she didn’t bother answering.

The eigenball sailed above, a shimmering image-enhanced comet
emitting a slipstream of sub-nuclear data.

“My name is Reesman Katyln. I represent important business interests.” His ID details beetled across her visual field and loaded into permanent memory. How did he do that? She hadn’t given him access. A sudden empty ache bloomed in Crystal’s stomach. She couldn’t speak.

“I have an important matter to discuss,” he went on. Crystal felt a moment of panic. She had many skills, but diplomacy wasn’t one of them. Who was this guy anyway?

“You need to strengthen your game,” he said. “Many within the relevant sectors are concerned. Your career, and much more, is on the line.”

“I hardly think this is an appropriate place for a discussion –“

DEAN FALSIFY COOK

“I’m here to offer you more than standard upgrades. We have access to experimental enhancement paradigms that can push your abilities to a level unparalleled in the history of Eigenball. These enhancements will escalate your abilities, and allow for unlimited Audience POV-involvement in future. This is vital for business.”

“Who the hell are you?”

His voice became even flatter. “We want you to beta test these bleeding-edge technologies.”

Bleeding-edge? Illegal, unapproved modifications more like. Had he been talking to Reilly-Three?

“I’m not interested –“

She glanced around for a security guard. The man’s outlines blurred in her peripheral vision. She looked back.

“If you don’t agree to this, you will not remain on the Game roster. I can guarantee that,” the man said.

Over his shoulder she spotted a guard. She raised her hand to signal, but Reesman Katyln grabbed it. His touch seemed to drain the strength from her.

“There is nothing to fear,” he said. The corners of his mouth twitched. He seemed to darken. She blinked to clear her sight.

“You will no longer need to pretend to be a god,” he added. “You will become the real thing.”

NOW

Crystal leaned toward the mirror. Was that shadow in the darkness of her pupil a glimpse of the biomech implants ManyWorlds Corp had inserted in her? Not according to their chief mechanic. “The eye isn’t a window to the soul,” he said slyly. “The tech is both microscopic and dimensionally entangled. Even if you could see it, to do so would change its quantum state and it’d be rendered useless!” He grinned at the joke.

“Should be some sign of it,” Crystal muttered to her mirror-double. It didn’t reply. From beyond the walls of her sanctuary the noise of the crowd became the inevitable chant. “Crystal! Crystal!”

This was the first time she would be using the new tech to its full capacity. Would she regret her decision?

No use procrastinating. Now was the time to find out.

At first, average audience POV-attachment trickled into her muscles like a watered-down drug. Though team dynamics were tight, Crystal needed to up the ante. The audience was ready to be impressed; she could feel their insipient excitement. For the first time ever the Attachment Tariff had been removed, so record numbers of viewers worldwide would experience the victory through her eyes and sensory responses.

A shadow moved across her visual field. She blinked it away.

"You’re on, Cris," said a voice. "Thrill ‘em!"

She focused on the play code embedded in Sagan’s audio. Her team began scattering psychic distractions across the arena.

“Crystal! Crystal!” screamed scattered sections of the in-house crowd. She felt them in her bones. It was a start but she’d need higher AI levels before the game was over. She glanced around, mind suddenly awash with doubt.

A proximity beacon flashed. The eigenball sailed above, a shimmering image-enhanced comet emitting a constant slipstream of sub-nuclear data. Nearly out of reach. But if the tech upgrades were all they claimed to be, it wouldn’t matter. Crystal made a desperate, imprecise grab into the Space it occupied, and impossibly intersected with its trail. Her personal data-stream entangled with it, slipped, re-joined. She collapsed a linked opposition tag. A move that should have been impossible.

Tweaking the e-Ball’s spatial orientation, she dragged it cross-brane into a controlled Space of her own, simultaneously mind-nudging a Runner who’d left a door open in his shield barrier. He lost control. Crystal leapt. A corporeal elbow-thrust in the ribs tumbled him into the virtual No-Man’s Land. So far, no one had found a way to enter her newly made Space. With a bit of luck she could extend it closer toward the Blindbox area.

The crowd roared and Crystal felt an upsurge in audience linkage.

Instinct told her to go real-world. She cross-slid, stuck the e-Ball and realigned its coordinates. While a hundred factors flashed in her mind, she placed herself in prime position for a final entry. From there, she created a Bosonic corridor, bound the e-Ball’s course into its parameters and opened a Blindbox.

Humanoid shadows flowed into the sub-spaces around her, twittering and jerking like unstable signals on a computer screen.

She rolled groundward, tracking the ball closely as it hit her Blindbox coordinates mid-centre, with the precise spin needed to penetrate the entanglement barrier. Instantly it was absorbed into the Box’s theoretical surface and disappeared. A Schrödinger matrix popped into existence.

High above the Play area shimmered a three-dimensional holographic visualization of the Box. SportWorld’s banks of cameras and the thousands of eyes in the auditorium focused on it.

Time to meow. Crystal concentrated on a single possibility from thousands, shepherding her attached audience along for the ride. Through her strengthening psy-levels, she further empowered the ball’s run-Space.

<Evy,> she instructed her catcher via Sportcom, <10 degrees left of the key radial.>

When it burst through the inner barrier, appearing from nowhere as it were, the angle was perfect. Evy caught the ball, no deflection and no rebound off the virtual walls. Grinning, the catcher stared straight at the Visualiser. She held the e-Ball high in triumph.

Schrödinger’s cat lived. Meow.

mustCrystal’s victory shout was interrupted by the appearance of human shadows across the game-field. They shimmered toward existence, fading, jumping into a micro-second of clarity, breaking up, disappearing. Audience diagnostics showed aberrant readings. Crystal guessed that whatever the shadows were, this time she wasn’t the only one seeing them. What the hell were they? Audience curiosity led to others linking in. Instead of diminishing, POV-attachment skyrocketed.

Her coach’s voice cut across the ambient noises of the crowd. <Crystal. I need you to pull back.>

<Did you see those shadow forms, Reilly?>

<I need you to pull back. Something is wrong–>

<Wrong? Look at the numbers. Isn’t this what you wanted?>

<I’ve detected cracklehiss… sign of… code interference… hiss… in… crackle…>

<Reilly, you’re breaking up.>

Crystal had never known the link between them to act like this. Apprehension welled in the pit of her stomach.

<I have been… cracklehiss… compromised – used against my will…>

<What are you saying, Reilly?>

<I… can’t… You mustn’t let crackle continue… hiss>

The link went silent, an anticipatory stillness like the moment before a change in the weather.

Mustn’t let what continue?

The referee called for play to resume, Crystal’s advantage. The stats told her more audience members were coming online by the second. Whatever Reilly’s problem, it could wait. Audience attachment numbers already exceeded her personal best by over 200 percent. Her AI levels were phenomenal. She felt the power of their attention like an escalating rush of adrenalin.

A new-round eigenball appeared mid-field, surrounded, both physically and metaphysically, by opposing defenders. A grab under these conditions needed to be precise. Typically an originating M-brane Space lasted only a few micro-seconds. Movement through the trap needed to be fast.

Crystal could be fast – and today she was faster than ever. A Corridor shot the ball through several quadrants before her opponents could get to it. The field had become a tangle of interconnected, interwoven branes that might re-attach anywhere; she quickly calculated what route the ball needed to take to reach prime Blindbox orientation. Audience engagement burgeoned, escalating toward infinity.

“I was compromised.”

Reilly’s voice echoed in her head, causing her to lose hold on the e-Ball. Shadows flickered chaotically around her, a sense of panic palpable through the Space.

Compromised?

In her mind, he looked at her, his eyes cyborg-blank.

“To help goad you into accepting the extreme upgrades. Denizens of a parallel universe fractured into existence in one of the Spaces you created have contrived to syphon energy from ours. That Space will become a Primary Space. Ours will drain to feed it into existence…”

Is that even possible?

“In a Schrödinger system all possibilities exist simultaneously.”

The world was about to go non-Prime. Humanoid shadows flowed into the sub-spaces around her, twittering and jerking like unstable signals on a computer screen. They stretched and distorted. Her team and their opponents played on, oblivious, though she sensed AI-audience members were aware of the alien shapes, and were waiting for her to act. She began to feel the tug of unseen currents.

Crys! Sagan remained in the flow of the game, sending out strategy code, oblivious to what was really going on.

Fear knotted in Crystal’s stomach. Automatically she tried to latch onto
the e-Ball –

I need you to pull it all back! Close the system!

Another inner voice, neither Reilly’s nor her own, drowned out her thoughts. <Crystal! Do not let your AI levels diminish! We’re close to apogee…>

She glanced around – and was shocked by the shadow-presence beside her, so close she could make out its features. Reesman Katyln, the ManyWorlds representative who had brokered her upgrade. He looked like an echo, a scrap of mist solidifying as she watched. Doppelgänger?
She sensed he didn’t belong anywhere –

<This is your purpose, Crystal. It’s why you were born. A new world, a universe you created… This is where your life leads.>

“I never wanted to be a god,” she said.

As her words echoed around her, the shadows gathered, chittering, chiding, pleading with her.

“Stay away!” she screamed.

The current pulled at her. She pulled back with all her strength.

“Stop! It’s just a game. A dangerous game. I won’t let this happen.”

The Audience heard.

“It’s a game!”

They began to unlink. Observational quantum energy dwindled, and as the cross-dimensional flow reverted, the shadows melted away. Crystal watched them go.

“Just a game!” she whispered.

The last thing she saw before the nu-Space collapsed into itself was the face of the final shadow to fade.

It was her own face. And it was screaming.

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