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Companions

by Miriam English

3 - Michael

Thursday

As usual, Michael woke before dawn. He rolled out of bed and did a few calisthenic exercises before going into the kitchen to make himself some breakfast, then returned to his room to eat while checking the latest happenings online. Wearing his castAR, standing in the middle of his room in his shorts with both his hands full — bowl in one hand, spoon in the other — his mobility on the net was limited to speech commands, softly spoken so his Mum in her room wouldn't be woken.

When he'd finished breakfast he threw on a shirt and pants, took the empty bowl back to the kitchen and washed it and the previous night's dishes. His Mum would be up soon so he tapped a mugful of hot water from the solar heater's tank, still piping hot from yesterday. He lifted the trapdoor in the floor of the larder, went down a few steps to grab a lemon from one of the shelves, then back up, pulling the door to let it fall gently back into place. He sqeezed some of the lemon into the drink, then put a saucer over the top to keep the vapor in.

Soon his Mum came in to the kitchen and sat at the little table.

"Hey Mum." He set the mug of hot water on the table before her and turned back to putting away the dishes. When he'd finished, he said, "Gotta run. Big day today," and went back to his room.

Standing in the middle of his room again, his castAR on, Michael spoke the shortcut for the address of the giant games project he and his friends had been collaborating on the past several months. A few windows seemed to appear in the air before him. He grabbed each by its top bar as it appeared and arranged them around him. One was a 3D view of the world they were building. He grabbed that window and pinched its maximise symbol between thumb and forefinger. That window suddenly opened up and spread all around him, making it appear that he was standing in a yellow-green field surrounded by woodland, faded purple mountains in the distance, and a clear blue sky above set with a few wispy white clouds. The other windows were still arranged around him, seeming to float in the air.

He had stretched one of the windows so that he could carefully examine some of the auto-generation code that made the landscape. It was supposed to create landscapes from pseudorandom numbers so that the world was infinite in size and had infinite variability, but let any particular spot remain unchanging. The problem was that after several thousand kilometers it had begun producing places that were repeats of others. This wasn't supposed to happen and he wasn't sure what was going wrong. Gan had suggested it had something to do with number size, but Michael was pretty certain it wasn't.

Soon some of his friends started to appear in the world too. First Mi-Yung and In-Su in Korea. Mi-Yung wrote most of the networking code. She was the one who came up with the whole distributed world thing. In-Su handled the physics. He was a student in Pusan University. He liked to joke that he was a career student.

Next Gan in Hong Kong entered. He was the son of very wealthy parents and seemed to have unlimited knowledge of most aspects of computing, having grown up with always the very best equipment.

Not long afterward Chris in Tasmania came in. She worked mostly on texturing.

Finally Taffy in Western Australia showed up. She handled the sounds.

Each greeted Michael and the others as they entered, then got to work on their own parts of the project. The six of them stood in a rough circle in this glade in an idyllic world, speaking only occasionally. Little chattering virtual birds would flit around from time to time in small, fast, loose flocks. High, puffy clouds drifted slowly across the sky.

They'd been working for perhaps an hour when Gan yawned and stretched and said he was up for a quick game. He was always the first to get bored with working. It used to annoy Michael, but he now realised the breaks kept the others fresh and interested, especially Taffy who was the youngest.

Everybody except Michael and Mi-Yung "suited up" to become a giant dog, or dragon, or armoured warrior and went off into the landscape to play something they'd made that was a combination capture-the-flag and last-man-standing game. Gan kept adding new complications to it each time they played it so it never got old.

Michael wanted to fix the bug with the landscape and Mi-Yung was impatient to get the whole thing online and released for general use. She was a bit of a perfectionist and considered the networking unacceptably laggy. It seemed okay to Michael, but he bowed to her superior knowledge on the subject. They were getting very close to release.

Mi-Yung said, "Michael, do you know Gan still want to use this system to make money?"

Michael thought her accent was charming. He laughed, "What? He doesn't have enough already?"

She smiled. "The way he said is, why do we have no income even when people would be happy to spend little to play in here? Some millions people spending little adds up to lot of money."

"Except there's no way to charge money for a distributed system like this. He knows that. I mean, that's one of the things I like about it. Nobody can collect a toll, nobody can shut it down. Once this is released, it's completely free — it lives on everybody's computer instead of a centralised server."

Mi-Yung nodded, "Yes, I like that too. Perhaps we ask Chris to make a sign near ground-zero request donations."

"Okay. Sounds like a good compromise. That should keep Gan happy."

Mi-Yung stopped her work on the window before her and looked over to Michael. "Do you know that Gan does not want money for himself? He worry about all of us. Powerful people have push to stop social security payments to poor people in Korea and China."

"Yeah, in Australia too."

"Gan has plenty money enough. He has many rich friends. He hear how they talk — like poor people deserve starving. He want us safe."

Michael looked glum. "Yeah, sorry. I shouldn't joke about Gan. I know he's a good guy."

They both went back to working on their code.

After a while Machael said, "What I don't understand is why some people even want to stop social security. I mean, they're still wealthy. How does it hurt them? It doesn't make any sense."

Mi-Yung said, "Logic is not part of the reason. Morality is why. They think they deserve money and poor people not. They are born to privilege, so deserve it. Not born to privilege, so not deserve any thing. I understand why they think that way. It is wrong, but I undertand. The idea is order — not upset order."

Michael shook his head. "But that's what is so strange about it. Don't they see what has happened to places that have got rid of social security? The rich people can't live free; they're fenced in behind walls and can't go out without bodyguards. The economy collapses because of riots and damage to automated factories. Innovation and creativity stagnate because a lot of that always came from the poor. It actually upsets order to get rid of it."

Mi-Yung nodded. "Yes. We could not do this. Gan could. You could. Maybe In-Su. Not Chris, Taffy, me."

"And we couldn't do it without you programming the network code."

"Not so. Someone else can do it. This is mostly old peer-to-peer stuff. Build it slower, but you would succeed."

They worked silently again for a while.

Michael said, "No company will ever make something like this. There's no profit in it."

Mi-Yung said, "Redhat, Mandriva, SUSE profit from free software. Free Apache webservers are most of the web and many people make money from it."

"That's true, though what surprises me is, I'm not a network programmer like you, but the advantages of distributed VR are pretty obvious to me: it avoids network bottlenecks, it's infinitely scalable, being decentralised makes it very reliable... I mean, I wonder why nobody has done it before."

"They have. Hyperverse, Solipsis, VAST, Metaverse and more... many projects tried some kind. All fail."

Michael was surprised. "Really? I didn't know that. I thought we were the first to do this. Why did they fail?"

Mi-Yung shrugged, "I do not know. Technology works. Maybe when companies see they can not make money by restriction, they stop funding. Or maybe when they see they can not control it. I don't know. Maybe publicity — nobody know about them. I don't know." She laughed. "Maybe we find out soon."

Michael smiled. There was no way he was going to let this fail. Even if it lived on in just his computer, it would survive. Michael suspected all six of them felt the same. But he didn't think this would live only on their six machines. Who wouldn't want a free virtual world which could never be shut down and which was infinite in size?

Soon the other four returned, three of them blackened and trailing smoke, and the dragon with a few marks.

Michael and Mi-Yung laughed. Michael said, "I don't think I need to ask who won."

The dragon raised one clawed fist in the air and Taffy's young voice was triumphant, "Woo-hoo! Dragons rule!"

Their gaming avatars were replaced by their standard avatars and they each got back to working on their bits of code.

They took a few more breaks during the day, but got a lot of work done. By mid-afternoon they were all tired, and one by one, each of them quit for the day.

When Michael decided to quit for the day, Taffy was the only one remaining. She was experimenting with a very fast procedural pattern that was like a fractal, but altered structure as it changed scale. When she'd tried to explain it to him Michael couldn't understand what she meant. He desperately needed to have a nap.

Michael apologised, waved goodbye, and closed the connection, then crashed out on his bed for a couple of hours.

By the time his Mum returned home Michael was up and alert again. He'd begun preparing dinner.

She entered the kitchen sniffing, "Mmmm. That smells delicious."

"Have a good day, Mum?"

"Yes, I did. An especially interesting one." She sat at the table. "Mickey, there was something I meant to ask you earlier, but it slipped my mind. We're having a picnic in the park on Saturday. Would you like to come?"

He pulled down some plates from the cupboards. "Who is 'we'?"

"Let's see, Oliver and Navid from work, Navid's daughter, Trixie. An AI friend of Navid's, Aimee. Lucy, her cycle, and her Dad."

"Lucy is the courier, right?"

"Yes. She reminded me to ask you."

The corners of Michael's mouth twitched up slightly. Keeping his back to his Mum, he tried to affect an air of nonchalance, "Yeah, sure. Why not? I probably need to get out more often anyway."

Sylvia grinned. "Yes, that's what I said."

Michael scraped the cooked veges onto the plates, gave a squeeze of lemon on each, and brought the plates over to the table. "Dinner is served."

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