Game Masters, Chapter One
One. Those Above.
She almost never did that.
Her “friendly” smile was on full display, but she didn’t really think it was necessary. Her host, Winton Classen, was famously among the calmest men in the public eye.
“Thank you for agreeing to an interview, Mr. Classen. My producer and your PR people will put together all the introductions and pleasantries, so we can skip right to the meat of what people want to know. Are you ready for that?”
Winton gave an easy smile in return, no less practiced or perfect than her own.
“Of course, Ms. Delores. I’m delighted to proceed however you feel is best. You’re the tastemaker, after all.”
“Thank you. All right, let’s get right into it. Your company offers vacations to the masses using ‘manufactured reality.’ So the difference between the neural virtual reality we’re all familiar with and manufactured reality is…?”
Winton’s voice broke into the easy, regular rhythm of someone who had practiced saying something a hundred times. “Manufactured reality is literally adjusting the reality you, personally, are experiencing. You can see, hear, even taste and feel an entirely new world we create for your entertainment. And you can do so entirely by yourself, or with a group of family, friends, co co-workers.”
Maise nodded, as much to show Winton she wanted to interject something as to indicate she understood. “Okay, but how do you do that? How is it possible for someone to experience a different reality other than broadcasting electrical impulses into their brain, the way modern VR parlors do?”
Winton’s smile grew in a way Maise thought looked a bit predatory. “VR is just as you say, an illusion of senses sent to your brain. But you only experience what the VR system is programmed for you to experience. It’s no more than a game, or a movie.
“Manufactured reality actually creates a new set of physical laws, which act and react to whatever you do within that reality. We set up those rules, but don’t control the outcome of how you interact with them.”
Maise switched her smile from “friendly” to “slightly bemused,” one of her trademarked moves. “How does that work? At a layman’s level, I mean?”
Winton spoke energetically, his hands moving to punctuate specific words. “We’ve known that perception influences reality since the old double-slit experiments of the early 2000s. It took time for that to be well-excepted, but the sciences of quantum attunement and quantum frequency grew out of that. In short, at it’s most basic level, reality is just a state of energy, and conscious minds can impact the form that energy takes. Because we are all at the same quantum frequency, we all experience the same reality, on a macro-scale.
“But it is possible to adjust that quantum frequency, temporarily, attuning a person and their perception to a new energy state. With the right equipment, such as our extreme comfortable q-couches, your entire body can be placed slightly out of attunement with the reality we all perceive around us, and attuned with a manufactured reality, created by a q-bit cogitator that can emulate a new set of physical laws. That creates the framework of a new energy state that an individual can perceive as real.
“Once the framework of a manufactured reality is set up, a visitor’s quantum frequency is attuned, through entanglement, to a master oscillation which serves as a common reference point. Everyone attuned to the same oscillation experiences one, shared, manufactured reality we design and oversee, but do not control. When something happens in VR, it’s part of a script. When it happens in our manufactured reality, it’s because of cause-and-effect beyond anyone’s control or ability to predict.”
Maise jumped on that. “So, it’s real, not artificial experiences? Then why are people’s bodies still here, sitting in high-tech sofas? If you manufacture a new reality, why are they still present in our reality?”
Winton looked unsurprised. “We keep the quantum amplitude low enough to only impact each individual’s experience of the manufactured reality. It isn’t some naturally occurring alternate universe, though we now know those exist. It is a framework of reality, built to be real enough to enjoy and have largely-consistent rules, but not real enough to impact our perception of guest’s bodies. So as soon as their quantum attunement stops being maintained, they snap back to our perception of them, no worse for wear.”
“But to the guests, their experiences are entirely real-feeling?”
Winton allowed his smile to fade to a friendly grin. The kind of grin your grandfather had just before telling you a bad joke. “Only within the rules of the manufactured realities they visit. We keep some sensations, such as taste, touch, and smell, at full strength. But we have adjusted each manufactured reality to have different expressions of pain, for example. So while being stabbed in the manufactured HeroLand reality hurts, it hurts like a bruise or cramp. Typical sport-activity level pain. Nothing traumatic, for obvious reasons. And we ensure that the bandwidth of the quantum amplitude is taken up with enough other feedback that even the most horrific experiences in our manufactured realities are perceived more like watching them in a movie, rather than experiencing them. We make worlds better than real – nothing too bad is capable of happening within them.”
Maise knew there was no chance of catching Winton off-guard, but there were certain questions her fanbase expected her to ask. “And no one can get stuck in a manufactured reality? I understand there were some incidents during early human trials.”
Winton choose to look more somber. “When the technology was young and all the applications being explored were military-focused, yes there were cases where it was not possible to detune a subject from their manufactured reality without bringing back the physical effects of their experiences. And some people were allowed to experience manufactured realities for much longer than current best practices dictate. But our systems literally can’t do either of those things.” The big smile returned. “Our quantum cores can’t generate manufactured worlds with the amplitude needed to overwrite physical reality, and our transmitters overheat after 40 continuous hours, well short of the 150-hour duration that has been shown to potentially cause physiological distress. We built systems that break before they can put anyone in actual danger.”
Maise had one shot at getting a good sound bite, and she took it. “But the system could, theoretically, be repurposed to create more dangerous manufactured realities?”
Winton laughed. “In the same way you could strap a jet engine to a ferris wheel to make it less safe, yes. But no one in their right mind would do such a thing, and it would take hundreds of millions to design and build such modifications in any case. Guests to any of our Manufactured Marvels sites have nothing to worry about.”
Maise was prepared to push the point—less because she thought Winton actually ran secret off-the-books manufactured deathsport reality, but more because such conspiracy theories were good for clicks and views—but the magnate lifted a finger to forestall her as she took in a breath.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Dolores.” There was no humor in Winton’s expression now, and Maise could just barely see a tiny flashing red light in the corner of his right pupil. “I’m afraid one of those ‘unexpected emergencies’ my staff must have warned you might crop up has, in fact, raised it’s ugly head. Could we have my staff arrange for a virtual interview to answer any more questions? We have, in fact, had an in-person interview now, so your claim of an exclusive remains legally valid.”
Maise smiled and stood, putting out a hand as she did so. “Of course, Mr. Classen. I appreciate you making any time at all for me.”
Winton stood and clasped her hand firmly. A tiny series of hums Maise felt in the bone of her skull, inaudible to anyone else even if they were adjacent to her, confirmed what she suspected. Winton was receiving a stream of wireless data. Her bootjack system probably couldn’t record it, and even if it managed to she’d likely never break the encryption. But even just knowing how much data he was getting could help her figure out what part of his vast empire was under threat serious enough for hum to cut HER short, in person.
His voice remained eminently calm was he walked her to the door of his office. “Perhaps we can make it up to you? Allow you to run a stream from one of our Manufactured Marvel facilities?”
Now Maise was surprised. “I… was under the impression that was never allowed?”
“Not while guests are present—privacy concerns and such, of course. But we often have previews for VIPs before we open a facility to the public, I would imagine we could let you stream from one of those before anyone else was allowed to use it.”
“That would be lovely.” Maise let real excitement leak into her voice. “I can guarantee that would get fifty million live views.”
Winton’s very-practiced smile returned. “With you as the streamer, I’m sure it will. My staff will contact you to set something up.”
And then Maise was in the waiting room again, and Winton has smoothly closed the door, blocking her access to whatever emergency had his attention.
Winton Classen tensed his jaw in exactly the way needed to bring up his personal HUD, and a list of options popped into his view, though the ‘URGENT’ light flashing in his peripheral vision remained bright and obvious. He focused his vision on “Lockdown,” and as that option was picked heard the hum of antispying devices turning his office into the next-best thing to espionage-proof.
Not that he believed someone couldn’t break those protections, if they really wanted to. Winton just wanted to make sure such an effort would be so expensive no one would ever bother.
Winton moved past the cozy sitting area he and Ms. Dolores had been at, where he interviewed people he wanted to put at ease, to sit in the massive leather chair behind his immense oak desk. Where he interviewed people he wanted to frighten. With a wave of his hand he brought a section of the wall to light and the image of Cory Mai, his chief of operations, took form on it.
“Who is it, and how badly did they screw up?” Winton’s voice was terse, but not angry. If Cory thought he needed to be interrupted, he assumed she was right. He trusted her judgment.
Her face was calm, but the slightest crinkle by her left eye worried him more than most people would have if they’d been spitting in rage.
“It’s the Morgan brothers. Both of them, at once, I’ll note. And they screwed it about as badly as possible.”
Winton signed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can we get them out alive?”
Cory shook her head. “I’m not sure we can get them out at all. They’re Gamma-7.”
“What?!” Winton rarely lost his reserve, and was immediately annoyed. If anyone but Cory was claiming that…
“Okay, Cory. Explain to me why that’s not impossible. My last briefing said Gamma-4 is still as deep as even DARPA has gotten. And we only recently proved Gamma-5 as even theoretically possible. How the hell did a couple of rich idiots get themselves attuned more deeply than any other manufactured reality system in the world can even get close to?”
Cory visibly shrugged. “We don’t know. David Morgan is a hell of a quantum engineer, even if he’s refused to ever do much with his talent. We’ve just gotten on-site, and it’s obvious he’s made extensive modifications to his oscillator. And as far as we can tell, he hasn’t documented any of it. We’re analyzing it now, but we have to do that while it’s running, which complicates things. We can’t shut it down without losing both Morgans, given the state of their quantum signatures, and David may be the only person who has never managed a G-7 attunement.”
Winton released the bridge of his nose, and let his mind float for a minute. Cory knew he was thinking, but also knew she wouldn’t interrupt him just by giving him more facts.
“Their overwatch team got worried 12 hours ago, when the Morgans’ bodies began to show visible, meatspace signs of severe trauma. The Morgans don’t let their overwatch monitor or record their manufactured experiences, but there is a tandem rig for each of them. Two security experts settled in and got attuned, with a 5-minute timer. Both came back into native attunement with enough trauma on their bodies to die within seconds. The Morgan’s chief of staff freaked out, ignored house policy, and called me directly. It took time to get here with a team…”
“You’re there, yourself, in person?” Winton interrupted.
“I am,” Cory confirmed. “The Morgans are huge donors and investors in many of our concerns, and we supplied them with the original private oscillator they’ve since modified. Given their influence, and that we already had two dead, I wanted to assess the situation directly.”
Winton waved a hand to indicate he understood. It was an unusual step, but Cory had always proven to have good reason to take unusual steps.
“The Morgans’ oscillation system shows them at Gamma-4, but I wanted to confirm that, so I had our people do an independent sampling. When that came in at G-7, I had them run it again. And again. But it turns out the Morgan’s system simply isn’t set up to show any attunement deeper than Gamma-4, and our results are consistent. I can’t tell you how they managed it, but I can tell you what David Morgan thought he’d done.”
Winton raised an eyebrow, an affectation he’d developed as a child but also an effective way to let people know they had his attention.
“His diary entries are clear.” Cory’s voice was carefully neutral. Unjudgmental. “He thought he’d found an actual alternate reality, which just happened to have magic and dragons and evil tyrants.”
Winton’s eyebrow stayed elevated. “Do you believe that?”
“I…” Cory rarely paused. She was silent for a full two seconds. Then:
“No, I don’t believe it. But I can’t disprove it either. And whatever they’ve done, it’s going to radically change some dearly held belief of our experts. So as ridiculous as that sounds, I’m not ruling it out of the list of possibilities, though I’m not basing decisions on it, either.”
Winton nodded to himself. That kind of risk-management, and willingness to accept facts over her own view of what ought to be true, was a big part of why he trusted her judgement. “So…,” he let the word linger for a moment. “”What do you recommend?”
“Now Cory didn’t hesitate.” “We need to send a team in after them. If nothing else, we need to talk to David Morgan and learn how he did this, even if we can’t extract him alive. I already have new attunement couches being set up. The Morgans only designed their system for the two of them and the two emergency tandem rigs, but the quantum oscillator has the same standard 32-output connections as our standard models. Even so, I don’t think we can afford to send more than 12 people – there’s a limited about of power available, and while the Morgans’ couches are normal, I don’t know what might happen if we overload their oscillator’s output. It looks like the system can handle 12 more without any issue, but after that it might start throttling back the among of energy used for each couch, and since I don’t know how they got to Gamma-7, I don’t know if reducing total power available might impact it.
“As for who to send, obviously we have a number of qualified teams for most of this. But the manufactured reality the Morgans are in was… custom. It’s not based on any of our Manufactured Marvel settings, or any of the common tropes we have explored and trained in for possible setting expansion later. That means we don’t have any internal setting experts. I recommend we hire some from… unorthodox… sources.”
Winton nodded. “Approved. What is the setting based on, and where are you going to get experts?”
Cory sighed. “It’s something called the Grimdarque Roleplaying Game. It’s a paper-and-pencil tabletop game, not computer or VR, with origins in the 1980s. And… there’s a fan convention… “