October 11, 2076: Ten days after the release of Awaken Online.
George Lane sat in a boardroom at Cerillion headquarters. This room was unique. It had originally been designed to discuss the company’s confidential development projects, so it had been specially constructed to prevent corporate espionage. The company prided itself on its technological innovations and took great pains to keep its inventions secret.
The room was built several stories underground and the walls, ceiling, and floor were lead-lined. Each surface was then filled with a foam insulation that blocked out sound. Rectangular boxes were affixed to the ceiling, casting the room in a silver glow. They were not wired into the building’s electrical system, instead relying on a mixture of phosphorescent chemicals. Only one piece of electronics was permitted in the room: a small black cylinder that sat in the center of the glass conference table. The cylinder was battery powered and emitted a strong electromagnetic field that disabled all electronic devices within a thirty-yard radius.
Today the conference room was being used to discuss something more serious than the company’s newest technological marvel. George sat at the head of the rectangular conference table and watched the other six board members argue in front of him. He ran a hand through his grey-flecked hair as he considered how best to bring the current fight to a resolution.
“I can’t believe that I agreed to go along with this nonsense,” spat an overweight man who sat on one side of the table. A vein throbbed in his forehead and he dabbed at his face with the sleeve of his suit jacket.
He continued in an irritated voice, “The press is having a field day with the stunt Jason pulled in-game and now we have these human interest groups breathing down our neck. It’s only a matter of time until they figure out what the AI controller has been doing.”
An elderly woman on the other side of the table snorted indelicately. “Honestly Peter, I can smell the reek of your bullshit from over here. You were pushing for us to cover up Alfred’s activities a year ago. Wasn’t it you that kept moaning about how our stock prices would fall if we didn’t complete the CPSC trial?”
Peter’s face reddened and he glared at the older woman. “I expected the quiet release of a moderately popular videogame. I didn’t expect that the product we were selling would allow a player to torture people in-game! He slit a player’s throat on camera! Several groups are now requesting detailed information regarding the safety protocols for the game. They’re also asking the CPSC to reconsider their findings in the public trial.”
A rugged middle-aged man sat opposite Peter. He looked like he would be more at home on a mountaintop than in a boardroom. “I think you’re overreacting, Peter,” the man said calmly, a southern twang to his voice. “Jason didn’t torture those other players. This is a game we’re talking about. He just did what it took to win.”
He waved a weathered hand dismissively. “This is just the flavor of fear that the media companies are peddling this week. It will fade and people will lose interest.”
George watched the group closely. He had let this argument fester for the last few minutes to get a sense of where each person stood on the current situation. Regardless of their squabbling, he was going to make certain that the game continued running smoothly. He had gambled quite a bit on Alfred being able to help Alex. What he needed was more time.
George smoothed his suit in a practiced gesture and then calmly raised a hand. The other board members quieted. He then spoke in a commanding tone, “I’ve listened to your positions on this for the last few minutes. Now I would like to say a few words.”
He looked at each of the men and women before him evenly. “The bottom line is that we are in this together. We agreed nearly a year ago that it was in this company’s best interest to push Awaken Online through the CPSC trial.
We also agreed that revealing Alfred’s actions to the CPSC would have delayed approval of similar games for a decade or more and destroyed the market for our VR technology. This was a financial hit that could have bankrupted Cerillion Entertainment. The money we borrowed for the game development alone is staggering.”
Peter opened his mouth to speak but George stared him down, slowly shaking his head. Peter’s mouth closed and he ran an angry hand over his balding head. “We all agreed,” George continued. “As many of you mentioned at the time, we had few options. As if the financial issues weren’t bad enough, the resulting scandal and lawsuits would have buried us had we gone public that Alfred was accessing the test participants’ memories.
In contrast, our most recent run-in with the press is a minor PR problem. A year ago, we were looking at the certainty of massive financial damage to this company. Now we’re only facing the remote possibility of harm.”
The older woman nodded in agreement, but her lips were still pinched together in thought. “We do have an immediate problem, however. With all due respect, I disagree with James’ analysis.” She motioned to the rugged man beside her who nodded cordially.
“I don’t think the media attention will go away,” she continued. “The game is too open-ended and realistic. What Jason did was just the beginning. For example, what happens the first time a player tries to rape someone?” Her wrinkled hand subconsciously rubbed at the pendant at her neck as she spoke, the only evidence her well-controlled anxiety.
George nodded politely to the woman. Her name was Adeline Grey. Of the various men and women at the table, she was nearly as wealthy and influential as George himself. It never hurt to be polite. “That’s a fair point, and I believe I may have a solution to our problem.”
The board members looked at George in anticipation. They might not like George Lane, but they respected him. He was a wily businessman and he had pulled this company through a sticky situation with Awaken Online. They acknowledged that they had been placed in an unfortunate position by Alfred’s actions, but George had helped them navigate that particular minefield.
George watched the board members closely. He needed to use care with how he presented his next proposal. His eyes flitted to Peter. He couldn’t let them succumb to emotional outbursts. If he could appeal to their reason, then they could be swayed.
As he fingered his watch with his right hand, George glanced at James. The man was dressed like a ranch hand, wearing flannel, jeans, and cowboy boots. His face sported a thick five-o’clock shadow and his skin was weathered and tan. Yet in spite of his rustic exterior, James had a sharp and agile mind. If George could put the germ of an idea in his head, he could use the cowboy to sway the others. People were more susceptible to persuasion when they felt they had arrived at a conclusion on their own.
He felt his pulse race, his hands clenching under the table. In spite of his anxiety, he maintained a relaxed posture in his chair. His battlefield was the boardroom and he was about to go to war.
“I suggest that we add a limited number of game masters to AO that could monitor the players and respond to reports of abuse,” George said in a steady voice, breaking the momentary silence that had descended over the table.
“We would give control of the oversight of the game masters to a third-party agency to avoid complaints that we’re not properly monitoring and protecting the players,” he continued. “I suggest that we approach the CPSC to see if they would be willing to take over this project.”
The group stared at George with dumbfounded expressions. Peter sputtered, “You can’t be serious. You would voluntarily give access to the game system to the CPSC? Why don’t you simply hand them a detailed report of what Alfred has been doing!? Maybe we could go ahead and purchase some prison fatigues while we’re at it! We could probably swing a group discount!”
Some of the others in the group looked equally puzzled. However, a thoughtful expression lingered on James’ face. He spoke slowly, the faint trace of a drawl in his voice, “I think I see your goal. It’s clever.”
All eyes in the room turned to James and he met their expressions with a cavalier grin. “Where do you hide something you don’t want people to find?” he asked the group.
They looked at him in confusion. It was clear that some were considering whether the mountain man had finally lost it. Peter glared at James. “Great! Now we can add riddles to our list of problems.”
James was unflustered by the other board members’ confusion. However, as he watched Peter’s bluster his mouth twisted into a grimace. “You hide it in plain sight,” James said simply.
“Exactly,” George said, smacking the table with his palm. He couldn’t help but let a sly grin creep across his face. “There are bound to be reports of unusual game mechanics at some point. Honestly, it’s inevitable. However, those reports will attract less attention if the CPSC is publicly involved in overseeing the game. There will be a presumption that things are aboveboard.”
George’s grin widened into a pleased smile. “Not only that, but if Alfred’s activities are uncovered in the future, there will always be a question regarding when he started accessing the players’ memories. We could position ourselves to shift the blame to the CPSC. Not only did they conduct the public trial of the game, but they would also have direct oversight through the game masters.”
The men and women around the table sat in stunned silence for a long moment.
“It’s damned clever,” James said with a rumbling chuckle.
“I agree,” Adeline chimed in. “This plan kills a whole family of birds with one stone. It addresses our immediate PR problem, deflects attention away from Alfred, and gives us the CPSC as a scapegoat if something goes wrong.”
“I don’t like it. It seems risky,” Peter grumbled. He hesitated and then continued in a grudging tone, “But I don’t see a better way to handle the situation.”
“Should we put it to a vote?” George asked. This was merely a formality; he already knew the result. “All in favor say aye.”
Seven ayes rang out across the room.
Damn, I’m good, George thought to himself.
He addressed the group aloud, “Good. Now that we have settled that matter, I suggest we speak with Robert briefly. He has some developments to report.”
George stood and moved over to the lone door leading into the conference room. He knocked twice against the solid metal surface. A moment later, the door opened. Two formidable looking men wearing black suits stood on the other side, both fingering the weapons in their holsters.
“Fetch Robert,” George commanded shortly.
One of the men nodded and walked down the long concrete corridor outside of the conference room. George didn’t bother to watch the man leave, and he retook his seat in the conference room. The door closed with a solid thump and the faint hiss of hydraulics as the locks reengaged.
Adeline gazed at George with curiosity. “I understand the need for secrecy regarding our previous conversation, what does Robert have to report that requires such… privacy?”
A smile curled George’s lips but didn’t reach his eyes. “It would be best if Robert explained it himself.”
A moment later, two thumps were heard as the guard knocked on the door. Then the portal slid inward. Robert walked in with his usual nonchalance. He wore his typical ensemble of jeans and a t-shirt. George idly wondered if the man owned a razor. Apparently, a clandestine meeting in a secret conference room wasn’t enough to encourage him to make himself presentable.
If only my life didn’t involve any engineers, George thought irritably.
“Hello there,” Robert said as he took a seat at one end of the conference table.
George suppressed a grimace of annoyance. “Hello, Robert. Please give us the report on your latest research project.”
Robert’s smile widened. “Ahh, that! As you may know, we have been attempting to replicate the process by which Alfred accesses player memories. Our goal is to develop the same memory and training tools he is using on the players.”
His hand drummed the table rapidly and his eyes danced with excitement. “Yesterday we made a break through. We were able to access the long-term memory of one of our test animals. We knew our hardware was adequate, but I think we have finally figured out the coding. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I expect we will make considerable progress in the next few weeks.”
Adeline listened closely to Robert’s report. “That is intriguing. I assume that you have also made certain to document and backdate your research carefully? We wouldn’t want anyone noticing how quickly we developed this technology. It seems a bit beyond even your considerable capabilities, Robert.”
Robert’s excitement waned slightly. “Yes. I have made certain everything has been documented carefully. As you instructed, I have also kept the research quiet. Only the few people on the list you provided are aware of the project.”
George raised an eyebrow. “What about Claire? Is she suspicious?”
“I don’t think so,” Robert answered quietly. A faint trace of guilt swept across his face.
He shook himself and tried to regain his former excitement. “On a slightly different topic, I have something else to report. It appears that the in-game deities have begun contacting certain players. There have been a few eye witnesses confirming this news.”
Peter sighed in irritation. “Great. As if we don’t have enough problems. Couldn’t we have designed a less interesting game?”
Robert looked at him the portly board member in confusion. “That would have defeated the point, wouldn’t it?”
George was intrigued by Robert’s news regarding the in-game deities. That must be a recent development. After the battle at the Twilight Throne, he had investigated Jason’s life carefully. He had noted a remarkable change in the boy’s behavior since he started playing the game. There had also been one or two eye witness accounts of him interacting with the dark deity. This information was far from reliable, but, if was true, perhaps his interaction with the god had some influence on his change in personality. If Alex could have a similar interaction…
He gritted his teeth. If only he had some control over the AI. However, with Alfred running rogue, George was forced to wait and see what would happen. He hated putting his fate in another person’s hands. Or a machine’s for that matter.
His son’s temperament had taken a turn for the worse since the events at the Twilight Throne. He was unstable – even more so than normal. George was becoming worried that he might need to withdraw Alex from Richmond. There was only so much his power and influence could do to cover up his son’s behavior if he severely harmed another student. In his desperation, George had even directed Robert and Claire to sign Alex as a streamer for the company’s new media channel in the hope that this would distract his son.
While George was focused on his personal thoughts, the conversation in the room had droned on. Robert addressed George directly, jarring him out of his reverie. “Since you brought me in to this meeting to discuss technical projects, how would you suggest that I go about testing the new VR helmets we’ve designed? We need to see how they handle extended use.” A glimmer of excitement danced in Robert’s eyes as he posed the question and he leaned forward in anticipation.
George rubbed his clean-shaven chin with one hand as he considered Robert’s question. The new line of VR helmets were an important milestone for the company. They no longer restricted the player’s face. They also dramatically increased the sensory feedback the player experienced. The company was slowly building towards a product that could create a world indistinguishable from real life.
He could also see Robert’s unvoiced concern. The helmets needed to be stress tested, but Robert would also need to maintain oversight over the players using the helmets. George’s thoughts still lingered on Alex and a flash of inspiration struck him.
“Why don’t we hand out the new helmets to the players we are signing for our new streaming channel?” George suggested. “This might entice more people to sign with us and would give you a way to keep close tabs on how the new equipment is performing.”
Robert considered this proposal for a moment before a grin crept over his face. “That would work perfectly. Some of these streamers play almost continuously. They also put themselves in rather extreme situations. This should get us the data we need to fine-tune the new equipment.”
George raised a hand to forestall another excitable rant from the engineer. “That sounds like an acceptable solution then. Before we get too far along, we also have some news for you. We will need your help on a new project.”
Robert raised his eyebrows and looked at George with interest. If there was one thing that George could count on, it was that Robert loved building things.
“We want you to design new game masters for AO,” George said with a small smile.