The Game: Chapter 8

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Chapter 8

Sunday got off to a bad start.

The casino tour and the pint with August relaxed James enough to get back to sleep—but not until so late that he slept through his alarm, which made him half an hour late to the arena. The manager made him stay an extra half an hour, which made him late to the library. To make up for that, the head librarian blackmailed him into an extra shift for Tuesday after closing. Thankfully, the dominoes ended there.

From the library, James moved to yet another job: an hour transcribing the minutes for a local Neighborhood Watch chapter populated exclusively with septuagenarians, the only people with nothing to do but watch the neighborhood. Why they thought anything said in the session was important enough for posterity, James didn't know, but he wasn't going to complain. At the end of the night, he saved all the information to a file that they probably couldn't even access without his help, and left.

His final stint of the day was the billiard club. The pay was terrible because business was always slow, but that meant James could eat a hamburger right at the front desk—and that of the four hours he was on duty, three were downtime. He used them to sit in front of the pool hall's ancient computer, surfing the net for information ... starting with Shattered Land.

It just seemed too amazing to be real. James surely would have gotten more involved in games if anything as incredible as Shattered Land had been around before. How had the industry changed so dramatically when he wasn't paying attention? All he knew was that Donald was at the root of it. The internet was happy to fill in the details.

December, 2009: Donald C. Marsh completes the Columbia University four year computing program at the age of 17.

June, 2012: Donald receives his Ph.D. and transitions directly into R&D with the Universe Creation Corporation. Accusations of nepotism are quashed by his talent and fierce work ethic.

February, 2014: The Alpha build of Shattered Land comes online.

September, 2015: Shattered Land enters the Closed Beta stage, participationby invitation only. The first neutral observer impressions are lukewarm at best.

November, 2015: Donald Marsh takes charge of development of the game's physics and mechanics. With the aid of an unspecified team of programmers, quick and massive changes are made. Shattered Land transitions toward a fully immersive experience.

July, 2016: The first functioning virtual-reality headset is constructed.

January, 2017: Shattered Land enters Open Beta. Volunteer testers are required to attend UCC's proprietary game center to play the game. Reports suggest an astonishing, almost otherworldly change in the nature and quality of the game compared with previous incarnations.

June, 2017: The official launch of Shattered Land is achieved with the opening of one hundred game centers in the United States and one hundred abroad. Within a year, five hundred more centers open.

And in the three years since, the meteoric rise never slowed.

James traced the timeline with interest. The jump in quality and speed of production clearly coincided with the introduction of Donald and his team. Multiple articles also mentioned that no other company had created a competing technology, even when allowed to reverse-engineer the UCC VR rig. They could replicate the hardware, but couldn't get it to function. No one could write software to run it.

Rival companies—former rival companies who could no longer compete—leaked discontented mutterings to the effect that what UCC had done was impossible; that the level of generational advance was like no jump in the history of computing, or even of science. In response, UCC pointed to Donald and his team and collectively shrugged.

It was amusing, in a way. The naysayers could cry impossible until they were blue in the face, but James had played the game himself. UCC's world was as believable and seamless as the real one, only instead of fiscal and jaded, it was magical. They had taken reality and done it one better.

No wonder everyone else was jealous.

Having satisfied some of his curiosity, James switched from the macro to the micro.

Mentalism. What was it? How did it work?

No one seemed to know. Passing mention of the term was made in discussions on forums and blogs, but there were never any details, just speculation.

James dug into the origins of all the abilities in Shattered Land. When he first entered the game, it hadn't occurred to him to wonder how or why people gained their specific powers. His own had fascinated him so much that questioning its provenance was relegated to a day-later afterthought. But that was interesting in its own right. How did a person who had logged in for the first time discover that, before any choices had been made, he was already a mentalist? Not a warrior, mage or alchemist, but a mentalist and only a mentalist?

According to the available literature, which wasn't nearly as voluminous as expected, the game seemed to choose your class based on your thought patterns and tendencies. Very few people questioned this supposition, and part of the reason why was that no one was dissatisfied with their in-game abilities. Whatever was choosing the powers people would receive, it was doing a good job.

James closed up the hall, drove home, and walked in the door of his apartment. He stood for a few long seconds, one foot pointing to the couch and its Shattered Land headset, one foot pointing to the computer room and its budget spreadsheets.

With an inaudible exhalation that was not quite a sigh, James made the decision to do some work. Games were too time consuming. If he made enough progress on the business plan, he might have some free time tomorrow—though even if so, he should go visit his mother to make up for the Tuesday visit he would miss.

Had it really been seven years like this already?

Not that time mattered. James didn't live in the past or the future. Today was all there ever was, and today, he had work to do.

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