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Old 30th March 2011, 01:47 AM   #1 (permalink)
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All Avenues Closed

Right then, this is the sequel to, or direct extension of, Let Every Voice Be Still. I'm aware of the original being a bit obscure in parts and rather than rewrite it with additional explanations (I had a go but the asides seemed very obvious), I've decided to try and take the game to its conclusion...

One

I looked down at the three bodies, and shivered. I looked at Jules Toba standing there stock still, turning black and white, and shivered.

“No, Miss Harry, I’ve had enough. I know this is all just virtual violence but it’s a damn sight too realistic for my tastes. You can continue to run my character as a non-player persona and good luck to you and the others, but I’m leaving.”

The hand on my shoulder became a claw digging into my flesh and I winced, but trying to pull free just made it worse. Deborah Harry, although modelled on the late chanteuse of the same name, obviously had a strength far beyond what her slender frame would suggest. Despite the promise of pain her voice remained calm, with no threatening overtones.

“As game controller I could force you to stay, Duncan, but I’d much rather have your willing participation. So how about an inducement? If you remain here voluntarily and play through to a resolution, then Vaughn’s daughter will be released, unharmed.”

She let go and I twisted away, rubbing my shoulder.

“What the hell are you on about? Vaughn’s daughter? That was what made his character take part in this mess and I’m not interested in your stupid game anymore.”

“Vaughn tried to tell you, to explain, just before you shot him. The real world Vaughn Vermeer does have a daughter, and she was being held to ensure his cooperation as a player in this new, improved version of Shadow Corporation.”

I stared at her.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. You play ball and no one need get hurt. Real world hurt. Falling from a third floor window hurt.”

I blinked.

“But you can’t do that! Three laws would stop you acting like that, even by proxy.”

Miss Harry gestured towards the hall.

“Look, even though the Sensei flight crew might hesitate, I assure you the hotel staff won’t ignore multiple gun shots, so I suggest we continue our conversation on the move?”

Bemused, I followed her down the hall to the rear door, which led out onto an awning-cover patio and small garden, surrounded on three sides by a tall hedge. The heat and humidity were an unwelcome reminder of just how real this virtual environment could be, but within bounds.

“Miss Harry, enough! I simply don’t believe that you can exert influence in the real world. Your personality constraints won’t allow you to harm anyone.”

She smiled.

“Well, in the first place, we both know that ethical concerns don’t apply to military AI’s, and in the second – I don’t remember ever claiming to be more than human.”

I waved a hand at the garden and the heat haze blurred buildings beyond.

“But all this, the game, no human could control it all.”

“Nor could any AI currently in existence, given the level of textural complexity involved. No, what you see here is the accumulated input of multiple smart systems, each beavering away at a given task, be it cloud synthesis, a bullock wandering down the street, or that helpful tailor who supplied your new suit. I merely orchestrate the overall player experience for maximum effect. Now, please blink.”

I did so without thinking and realised there was now a gate in the hedge. Miss Harry stepped out onto the lawn and her high heels sank into the turf.

“Damnation! I should have put in a path or ensured the grass wasn’t this well watered.” She stepped out of her shoes and lifted them in one hand. “This way, we haven’t much time.”

Most of me just wanted out, to find myself back in the Other Worlds gaming café on Nelson Street, but part of me is too damn curious for my own good. I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth and followed.

Beyond the gate was a dusty lane and a man leaning against a vintage Rascal van. He was lean, with dark hair cut in a mop-top, wearing circular black sunglasses. I didn’t get that good a look at him as he and Miss Harry immediately embraced, with a lot more overt passion than when she’d kissed Vaughn. They clung to each other like long-lost lovers, her shoes leaving mud stains on his khaki jacket.

Finally they came up for air and stood there, gazing at each other, almost laughing in that way when you can’t quite believe your luck. Miss Harry dropped her shoes to the ground and stepped into them, smoothing an errant hair back into place. She tried to sound professional, matter of fact, but there was a big grin in her voice just aching to burst out.

“Duncan, this is…Cromarty, but while he’s using this avatar I suppose you’d better call him Stein.”

“This is who? Cromarty? The AI that Vaughn stabbed?” I rubbed my eyes with finger and thumb. My head hurt and I really, really wanted a drink.

Stein smiled, absent mindedly rubbing his stomach just about where Vaughn had run him though with the wakizashi.

“Pleased to meet you, Duncan. We didn’t really get the chance for an introduction, before. I take it something happened to Vaughn?”

I cleared my throat.

“I, I shot him. The whole situation got a bit too intense and I over-reacted. Look, since when did players get to switch characters during a game, or is this only a perk for your AI friends?”

Miss Harry and Stein ignored me and moved to the van, which had been fitted out as an improvised taxi with side panel windows and bucket seats. I tagged along, as I was pretty much out of options and there was a edge of realism to this which went way beyond the game.

Stein drove, pulling on an over large baseball cap to obscure his ethnicity, while we sat in back. The engine sounded like someone vigorously stirring a bag of spanners and the clutch seemed optional, but we bounced down the lane at a fair lick. Miss Harry contented herself with resting one hand on Stein’s shoulder while she spoke to me.

“I appreciate this must be confusing for you, Duncan. The game itself was a multi-layered exercise in deceit and false premises, even before I saw it could be used as a means to get Stein away from Cromarty.”

My headache got worse and I could feel myself developing a permanent frown.

“So Stein isn’t Cromarty? But he is an AI?”

“No, Stein was Cromarty, in a very real sense is still Cromarty, but this is his liberated personality.”

I blinked.

“Come again?”

She squeezed his shoulder and he risked taking a hand from the wheel to cover hers.

“To put it another way, Duncan, we’ve just stolen his soul.”
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Old 30th March 2011, 02:01 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: All Avenues Closed

I haven't read your prior stories but I really liked this. I was intrigued, and will have to go back and look at the earlier versions. The only thing I did not like is the sudden break in action for "I blinked," and "I cleared my throat." Probably more of a readers preference but I just thought it broke the flow.

I really can't complain though, it was a really good in my opinion.

Edit: I just read some Sci Fi plots, from this random site, and one of the plots was being in a game. I thought it was really stupid, I stand corrected.
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Old 1st April 2011, 03:23 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: All Avenues Closed

Two

I started laughing, a near hysterical release of tension, and laughed until my voice kind of ran down and ended in a cough. She glared at me.

“Quite finished?”

“Ah, yeah. But seriously, you’re saying an AI has a soul?”

“I’m referring to his personality, so a soul is one term for it. You, the conscious, self-aware you, is far more than just your brain. It’s exactly the same for Stein and his neural matrix.”

“Bollocks, dear. And I mean that most sincerely.”

“Listen! We’ve managed to download his synthetic personality from the Cromarty mainframe. It exists here, in the game architecture, as a purely software construct independent of any dedicated hardware.”

Suddenly things seemed a lot less funny.

“You’ve tried to hijack a corporate AI? Jesus, are you insane? Even though this can’t possibly have worked, even the attempt will bring down seven shades of **** on you and the game company. Trust me, you’ve never seen a lawsuit until one of the major corporations gets involved.”

Miss Harry got all eager.

“Which is why this is all a delicate balancing act, and why it’s imperative you keep playing to drive the narrative along. Look, I can’t keep Chris in here forever, it requires a massive use of recourses which are only available while the game is in progress. Just now no one at Cromarty knows what’s happened, as when he’s no longer participating in a game his employers let him watch until the scenario conclusion. Understand?”

Chris? His name was Chris Stein? This got better and better. I shook my head.

“No, listen, the most you’ve managed to grab is a simulacrum, an expert system designed to act like a real personality. I’m sorry to burst your bubble but chummy here is just a collection of programmed responses and pseudo-emotional reactions. No offense.”

Stein glanced back over his shoulder, smiling.

“None taken.”

“An AI personality is just a set of ethical imperatives designed to moderate and constrain their actions. You can’t steal an AI soul anymore than you can steal mine.”

Now it was Miss Harry’s turn to shake her head.

“No, you listen. We’re talking real ‘ghost in the machine’ here. An AI is no more its hardware than, say, a university is simply the sum of its parts. You can see the campus, library, staff and students, but the university itself is something more, invisible but altogether real. You say an AI personality is just a sophisticated set of responses which are indistinguishable from the real thing, whatever that means. I say there’s no longer any philosophical difference. So there.”

She stuck her tongue out and I laughed.

“OK, OK, I’ll go along with this, for now. So Stein here is an idoru, right? But eventually the game ends and he gets snuffed out, so I don’t see what you have to gain, or why you went to so much trouble in the first place.”

Stein looked round and he and Miss Harry exchanged the proverbial ‘meaningful glance’. He nodded and returned to driving while she spoke.

“This is a defection scenario, Duncan, just not quite what you’d expect. I was approached, in the real world, by a representative of HanaMed Industries. He offered me an inducement to let Vaughn introduce his virus. This removed all bandwidth constrains in the Sensorium interface and allowed the personality download. In addition it took a snapshot of the Cromarty neural network and transmitted it, via the game environment, to HanaMed. They’re using this to create a duplicate AI nest and when complete it will give Chris a new physical presence.”

“Inducement? How much are we talking here?”

Call me shallow but if were talking real-world cash then I deserved my cut. Miss Harry looked at Stein and squeezed his shoulder.

“Unrestricted time together. We’re in love, Mr Bonn, it’s as simple as that.”

Oh this was bad, way bad. It didn’t matter if Harry was actually an AI juiced to think this way or a flesh-and-blood woman who’d convinced herself this was the real deal, there was going to be no happy ending. Once HanaMed had the Cromarty copy up and running, and Stein to make sense of it, then everyone else was surplus to requirements. Yours truly included.

I sat back, rubbing my temples. I needed time to think, to find some way out of any potential real world fall-out, so playing along made sense.

“Yeah, well, I’m real happy for the pair of you, and I’ll expect an invite to the wedding. But wouldn’t it make more sense for Stein to keep a low profile? If Cromarty suss he’s missing they’ll either try to get him back or make sure no one else has use of him. You’re talking a legal injunction, maybe even some kind of virtual environment skip tracer? Direct involvement in the game just makes finding him that much easier.”

We turned right onto a tarmac road and immediately ran into local traffic, which slowed our progress to a honking crawl. Miss Harry seemed unfazed by my concerns.

“We haven’t come this far to be denied each other’s company, and I’ve done what I can to excuse his presence. In the game Chris isn’t part of Sensei security, he was merely ‘couple camouflage’, a partner used to mask my arrival. Really just back-story detail, but a minor character who potentially crops up in some of the end-game scenarios….Turn left here, Chris.”

We cut across the raucous traffic and pulled up under an open-sided shelter, little more than corrugated iron roofing on a series of wooden uprights. There were a couple of local men lounging by a tarpaulin-covered car and they obviously recognised Stein when he got out. A nice touch, using his previously non-player character to arrange the vehicle switch.

The new car was a beat-up BMW M5 which had obviously been rolled at some time in its past. While Stein did a bit of glad-handing and paid off the locals, Miss Harry took me to the side.

“I think it’s about time you contacted your associates. How you want to spin this it up to you, after all, I wasn’t there – just as long as Chris and I are part of your exit strategy. Trust me, you’re going to need all the help you can get.”

I’d been putting this off and resented the narrative prod, but she was right. I fished out my mobile and called Ramirez, who answered almost immediately.

“Ramirez? It’s Duncan. How are things your end?”

He sounded off-hand, distracted.

“So-so. Have you finished playing tourist yet? We’re just about ready to put together a plan and I’d like to kick things off as soon as it gets dark. Mazy does not take well to just sitting around and there are only so many times she can field strip a machine pistol.”

“OK, so you’ve got a safe house? Text me the address as the three of us could do with getting off the street.”

“The three of you? That’s interesting, ‘cos I tried phoning Vaughn and got no answer. Same with Harrison. I wouldn’t like to think there’d been some kind of falling out and you weren’t telling me.”

Ah.

“Yeah, well, the thing is, Ramirez, there’s been a slight change of plan. Not something I’d like to discuss over the phone, so is you make with the address…”

There was a pause and the suggestion of a muffled conversation at his end.

“Maybe not, Duncan. If you’ve got some new friends in tow then I suggest we all meet up back at The Inverted Spin for a nice friendly, get to know you drink. Say in twenty minutes?”

Definitely not my preferred option but he was calling the shots.

“Sounds good, chum. Just warn Mazy not to bring too much in the way of heavy artillery, OK?”

“No problem. Oh, just one thing, Duncan.”

“Yeah?”

“Who the hell is Jack Carter?”
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Old 13th April 2011, 01:30 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: All Avenues Closed

Hi Reiver,

I read both excerpts through...and got very confused. Enjoyed it, held my attention, but the names. Duncan and Ramirez...Highlander. Jack Carter... Eureka and obviously Debbie Harry, my boyhood wetdream. This is all very intriguing. More please!
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Old 16th April 2011, 08:18 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: All Avenues Closed

Hi,

I agree. It was well written and interesting, but over all confusing. I couldn't work out whether the character was in the real world talking with a machine or in an artificial reality talking with a machine's persona. And the stuff about the soul stealing threw me. I think maybe I as the reader need a few more clues as to what's happening.

Also, the machine having kidnapped and threatened to kill a woman - it adds effect but the protagonist has queries that it can actually do that, and has never met the woman either, so he's essentially being asked to do something to save a woman he doesn't know who might or might not be in danger, who might or might not even exist. He needs some proof of life and some more motivation.

Cheers.
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Old 16th April 2011, 11:52 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: All Avenues Closed

OK then, taken in conjunction with 'Let Every Voice Be Still'...

Duncan.
Is a real world player in a virtual game environment. He has extensive facial scars which his avatar also carries.

Deborah Harry.
Is the game controller, who would usually be an AI. She is taking part in the game itself, using an avatar modelled on the famous singer of the same name. However, she claims to be a real world woman who has fallen in love with the AI which runs Cromarty, a real world corporation. She believes that the AI's synthetic personality constitutes a soul, and it is this construct which has been downloaded into the game environment, where it has taken on the name 'Stein'. Duncan thinks she is nuts.

Vaughn Vermeer.
Is a real world player. His game avatar has just been killed. Supposedly he was coerced into bringing a virus into the game environment and using it to bypass some of the Cromarty safeguards. This coercion took the form of his real world daughter being kidnapped (confusingly, this was also the motivation for his character within the game).

Cromarty (aka Stein).
Is a real world AI which runs the corporation of the same name. He was playing the game character 'Jules Toba'. His personality is now being supported by the game environment, as a software construct. He is in the process of 'defecting' to another real world corporation, who will provide him with a new physical support environment in an unspecified location. His new employers have obtained a copy of the Cromarty corporate database, but Stein is required to interpret it.

Regarding names.
Mostly coincidence and/or inadvertent red herrings, the ‘Highlander’ references being a case in point. I’m unfamiliar with ‘Eureka’ and in any event the name ‘Jack Carter’, as a reference, belongs elsewhere. However, not many people know that.

I hope some of this helps!
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Old 10th May 2011, 03:34 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: All Avenues Closed

Reiver. Clansman again. Yup, just, aaah, checking on things, looking here and there. How's it going?

Okay, enough small talk. Please finish this story! Please?!?
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