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Science Un-Fiction


I'm a cofounder of for ThinkTank Mathematics, but moonlight as a science fiction writer. Here are three pieces of futuristic fiction to inspire discussion about the future of cross-media and pervasive games.


Notes on the discussion to follow! Others present at the session, feel free to write up your notes here...


-- Hannu



Date of the Dead


Chris is going on a date. The cologne from the bottle he hasn't opened for three years burns on his cheeks in the cool summer breeze as he walks down Princes Street.


He is giddy and a little nervous. His date is a ghost called Mary.


Chris hasn't felt a tingle like this for a long time. Life has become routine: long days at work, gym, then takeaway meals and sitting at home watching DVDs. Nights out at Tiger Lily don't really do it for him anymore. It's nice to feel like one of the lads, but he is painfully conscious that 30 came and went. He's still single and being an estate agent is not everything he thought it would be---bloody students.


He first got a message from Mary at Infectious.com. At first he thought it was an online dating site, except that all the profiles were ... dead. In a few days, they developed a ... relationship. He found out about her life in 17th Century Edinburgh, and downloaded her on his phone.


She asked him to visit her in the place where she died. "Somewhere in the shadow of the Castle," she said. And that's why he is walking down Princes Street, anxiously peeking at his phone.


"It would be nice if you could pick me some flowers," Mary says suddenly. For Mary, picking means taking pictures. Across Princes Street, the Gardens are blazing with yellow and blue flowers and in a minute he has a decent shot of a bunch of begonias.


"Thank you," Mary says. "They are beautiful. Now go to the place where the iron road ends!"


Chris blinks and starts heading towards the West End of the Gardens. After a couple of minutes Mary speaks again. "The other way!" she says. "I'm waiting!" Chris looks around. Of course. The Waverley Station!


Four minutes later, Chris is standing in the pre-Festival passenger bustle. And then he sees her, a ghostly pale woman on the screen of his phone, superimposed on a deserted station.


"Thank you for coming," she says. "My brother Cameron's spirit is here too. Please find him. A woman in red carries him."


Nervously, Chris looks around. Near the Costa coffee stand is a dark-haired woman wearing a red jacket. And she, too, seems to be looking for something...


The Great Sky Cow Hunt



The first thing Junko does before going hunting with her monster is buy a coffee from the Starbucks on Brandenburger Tor.


It is a relief to walk in to the air-conditioned cafe from the hot midday sun and the sickly sweet smell that has been everywhere in the city for the past three days. It makes Junko think of the day she tried her mom’s perfume for the first time and couldn’t get the smell out of her hair for ages. No one seems to know what causes it, and it gives her a headache.


She walks to the counter and hears her monster whisper faintly in her earbuds. The Frapuccinos and lattes and Blueberry blends disappear from the billboard, replaced by hunt drinks. The cute Turkish boy in the green mermaid apron stares at the board, eyes wide.


“I’ll have a stealth mochachino to go, please.”




She drinks the coffee in the sun out in the square, sipping the scalding liquid carefully. The taste and the thick aroma cover up the city smell nicely.


“Hungry,” growls the monster, and she looks at it on her screensleeve: a dark, lean Gothic horse with protruding ribs, sharp, sharp teeth and red eyes that match her Tartan skirt. She flips the QR code on the cardboard cup past it. The monster lets out a satisfied whinny, fading instantly from sight like a Cheshire cat until only the eyes remain.


“That’s my boy,” Junko tells it. “Quiet and deadly.” Then she tosses the rest of the coffee into a bin, tweets that she is going hunting and goes into full game mode. The screensleeve shows her tiny locust-like dufflepuds (green and crunchy, says the monster) hopping between the tourist clusters on the Pariser Platz: those should take the edge off the monster’s hunger.


She is just about to catch the first one unawares in the shadow of a fat American with a digital camera the size of a bazooka when Paolo catches up with her.


“J!” he shouts over the screeching of his mountain bike’s brakes. “I need your help!”


The monster makes annoyed noises as she turns away from the prey. The pudgy boy is out of breath and his green T-shirt with a Metaverse video stream is stained with sweat. She gives him a suspicious look: he’s a rogue, with no tribe, and they’ve been rival hunters in the past.


“What?” she asks, crossing her arms.


“Sky cows,” he says.


“You’re shitting me.” There hasn’t been a sighting in the city for weeks since the Beholder tribe hunted the last herd to extinction.


“I’m not shitting you,” Paolo says. Junko cannot help taking a quick look at his monster through her sleeve. It’s a Lepidoptera beast: a giant butterfly with a pair of iridescent wings and a very un-butterflylike grin full of teeth. Paolo looks small and drab next to it.


He holds up a small black disc emblazoned with a white Scope logo, a stylised eye. “There was an update this morning. I’ve got a backpack full of these. Cowpat sniffers, fresh out of my printer. I’ve already picked up a trail, but I can’t corral them by myself. I need you guys.”


“What’s the catch? What’s in this for you?”


“Sex,” he says.




“I need to mate Lepi. It’s getting old.” He spreads his arms, and on her screen the butterfly opens its wings. “Yours is a perfect mate. Can you imagine a badass horse with wings? We let them make a killer litter, I lead your tribe to the cows. How does that sound?”


Junko hesitates. The monster is still pretty young, but she has suffered a couple of embarrassing defeats in the tournaments against the young Turks of her tribe. They use fancy genetic algorithms to design their beasts. It took the Monster days to heal from the gash it got from a eight-year-old’s familiar that looked like a pile of matchsticks with eyes. She hates the Metaverse and just doesn’t have the energy to spend hours and hours with the creature editor, especially with all the exams coming up.


“Deal,” she says. “But don’t get any ideas. Monster gets to be on top.”




It takes her an hour to mobilise the tribe, but a dozen angry tweets and a few voice calls later the plaza is swarming with almost all of the two hundred members of the Boojum tribe, on bikes, on foot, on rollerblades: and flying through the air on Powerskip boots in six-foot leaps. Their beasts flutter around them: boojums, firedogs, bangaas and the nameless insectoid things from the genetic algorithm gardens. Other tribes have caught scent of the game as well, and similar colourful congregations are gathering further along the plaza, almost outnumbering the tourists.


“I didn’t tell anyone else, I swear,” says Paolo, when Junko glares at her. “It must be a game-wide event.”


It takes chaos and shouting and all of Junko’s authority as an Elder to get the Scopes distributed. Junko fingers her own: suddenly, game trails appear all over the augmented image of the square on her sleeve, and she feels the tense, coiled spring of a big-game hunt in her belly.


She holds on to the shoulder of Marco, another Elder with Powerskip boots and a flying Pterodactyl beast and points at the sky. He gets it, grabs a hold of her waist and makes a six-foot leap into the air.


“BOOJUMS MOVE OUT,” she screams at the top of her lungs at the top of the arc, the sun making her almost blind. And then the hunt is underway, the eager beasts pulling their owners in all directions into the city, after the virtual scent, the thunder of footsteps singing in Junko’s ears as she runs after her tribe.




It is almost sundown when the trail starts drying up, by the river in Treptow.


Junko’s legs ache from a full day of running and public transport, and there is an acid taste in her mouth from energy drinks. Paolo -- who insisted on pairing up with her -- looks almost dead in spite of having cycled all the way. Too many tweets from Junko’s tribe during the past hour have been about giving up and going home. The monster is not looking all that healthy either. In spite of the stealth mochachino, it got hurt in a fight with a raptor from a rival tribe. And there have been no shops with Orange Juice of Healing since they left the centre.


She sits down on a bench and lets the dying sunlight past the Treptow twin towers warm her aching limbs.


“That’s it,” she says. “Doesn’t look like we’re going to make a beast with two backs.”


“You can’t give up now!” Paolo looks like he’s about to cry. “The trail led right here.”


“Whatever,” Junko says, getting up. “This thing was useless. Cowpat sniffer, my ass.” She walks to the railing and throws the Scope into the river, as far as she can. As she looks for the splash, she sees something bopping on the waves, deep blue in the dimming sun. “Whoa.”


They are gigantic: lumbering blue things with wide arching wings like giant sails, floating in the river. It takes her a moment to realise she is not seeing them through her screensleeve -- they are really there, inflated plastic or styrofoam, it does not matter: they are real.


Then she hears them as well: the unmistakable deep moo of the sky cows, grazing on the waters of the river Spree. When Junko finally lifts up her sleeve, she can see the skycow calves in flight as well, darting back and forth above their mothers, a swarm of tiny winged bovines.


Junko’s monster lets out a hungry howl, and suddenly all her fatigue is gone. Her hands shake as she sends out a triumphant tweet to her tribe. Then she looks at Paolo.


“All right, butterfly boy,” she says. “I hope you know how to swim.”




Much later, Junko sits in a tram, on her way home. She is soaked, but happy, listening to the music the monster makes out of the genomes of the sky calves it has eaten. There is a lot of chatter on the Tribe channels, and she could happily watch her reputation points go up with a tinkle. But for the moment she is so tired that just being content is enough.


Eyes half-closed, she watches a newsfeed on the tram’s screen absently. There is a map mashup, commented by talking heads, orange circles on superimposed on the city like spots on the hide of a sky cow. A MALFUNCTIONING INCINERATOR CAUSES SMELL, it says. She perks up when she sees the Scope logo flash on the screen briefly, but loses interest when her sleeve rings.


Paolo’s face appears on the screen: he is also wet and miserable, but has a fresh confident look that is actually sort of cute.


“Hey,” he says. “We forgot to set up our mating.”


Not quite believing herself, Junko decides to give him half a smile. “What did you have in mind?”


“Well, Kuriositätencafé does a great Strawberry Cremé of Love -- ”


“Sure,” Junko says, cutting him short. “See you there after school.”


“Great!” Paolo says. “Good night!”


Junko grins and brings up Monster’s new power list, bought with all the juicy experience points. Acquire Enemy’s Powers through Eating their Flesh glows comfortably on top.


She wonders what butterflies taste like.


The Rhizome Pirates



The first time Bosworth fails Adam is when he tries to sell the Rhizome design solution to God.


It’s supposed to be easy. Go through nine boxes. Get the customer to express their pain. It’s all in the bible, Selling Solutions to Difficult Markets. And there is no market more difficult than trying to tell the largest synthetic life manufacturer in the world that you’re better than their army of wannabe Frankensteins.


“Really,” says God (that’s what Adam calls the old man: he has power over life and death), his manicured fingers forming a neat cathedral. “I would really prefer to see something concrete after fifteen minutes, Mr. Kidd. I thought you would at the very least have prepared a PowerPoint presentation.”


The boardroom overlooking the Thames feels very hot, suddenly, and Adam can feel the sweat building up in his armpits and blossoming into dark circles on his Hawaiian shirt. He pushes his glasses up his nose and tries to smile confidently.


“Mr. Kidd never does PowerPoint,” says the Angel enthusiastically. “He is famous for it, they say.” Angel has an Armani model’s cheekbones and a rainbow of Twitter feeds, lifecasts and emails scrolling down the right lens of his rimless designer glasses. Angel also has an agenda to get God to give his department the budget to purchase a farm of quantum computers that would compete directly with the Rhizome approach.


The Angel gives Adam a porcelain smile.


“I was merely trying to understand,” Adam says slowly, his throat dry, “how our technology could help take your business to the next level.”


God leans back and scratches his head. “What I was trying to understand,” he says, “is what your Rhizome thing can do that we already can’t. We’re not big on outsourcing or crowdsourcing or whateversourching here at Genesis Technologies.” There is a hint of a smile that makes the fat jowls twitch. “People loved it until the Indians became more expensive than the Cambridge boffins. But us, we’ve always been built on top of solid IP and research and,” God grins the self-satisfied grin that only old men are allowed to, “plain old-fashioned Hard Work, Mr. Kidd. We don’t like cutting corners here.”


The nine boxes tumble all over each other in Adam’s mind.


Okay, he thinks. It’s time to open the boxes and let the pirates out.




He spreads his forced smile wider and peeks at his sleevescreen. Except that the pirates are late. The Rhizome puppet masters are doing the best they can, but there is only so much you can do with these things. Have to play for time.


“I see,” he says. “Currently it takes you close to three years just to develop the design for a new organism, right? The Carbovore took something like seven?”


“It’s a big search space,” says the Angel eagerly. “Lots and lots of potential chemical structures that you can build living things out of. The container, the genome, the operational structures. That’s exactly why my technical team feels that a Grover QC-cluster is exactly what we need to get the search time down to O(N1/2) --”




Something bounces off the window with a resounding crash. God almost falls backwards in his chair. The window shudders and rings again and again, hammered by black round objects that bounce off it.


They look quite a lot like cannonballs.


“What the fuck is this?” exclaims Angel, tapping up the magnification on the curving window. “Not another bloody hippie flash mob --” A grinning gap-toothed brown face, with an eyepatch and quite liberally applied eye make up stares at them, blown up thirty times, mouth twisted in a silent ARRRRRRRR. Angel zooms out, showing a crowd of perhaps forty people, dressed in frilly shirts, tricorn hats and pointing cannon-like cylinders up straight at them.


“Not hippies. Pirates, actually,” says Adam. “And don’t worry about the cannonballs, they’re unstable aerogel, with metal flakes. They’ll evaporate before they hit the ground.”


“They’re yours?” asks God incredulously. The bombardment continues. “Lucien, get the security out there, the fuckers have weapons --”


“They’re not exactly ours, but yes, this is a demonstration of Rhizome technology” says Adam. “I can get rid of them in a second, just a moment --”




“The security will get rid of them,” says Younger Guy, staring at Adam, face filled with a strange mixture of terror and triumph. Adam looks at the pirates running in all directions and the uniformed security officers after them. Thank God for the Pervasive Games and Public Performances Act of 2014, he thinks. And thank God they’re not using drones.


“Mr. Kidd, this meeting is over. I don’t know what you’re playing at but --” God’s face is looking dangerously purple.


“Did you know that there is no commercially available electromagnetic launcher that would throw a one-kilogram object this high?”


God blinks.


Got you, Adam thinks.




“Our clients in Singapore -- I’m sure you’ve heard of the Beanstalk project -- wanted one, or its equivalent. Except that their cannonballs weigh more than a hundred tons and need to go to geostationary orbit. We signed the contract three days ago.” He grabs an object from his sleevescreen like a magician and tosses it at the boardroom wall. It explodes into a tracery of chalk lines on blue, showing the intricate design of a cylinder. “And now we’ve got one. Or a scale model and a proof of concept, anyway.”


Adam takes a deep breath. Time for the spiel. It feels like reciting a poem.


“Our game engine and puppet master systems are used to run more than four thousand pervasive and alternate reality games under various license agreements all over the world -- that’s approximately three hundred million players, with high student demographics -- penetration close to 70% in some universities. The average player spends between ten and 21 hours a week on game-related activities, most of which involve social interaction and collaborative puzzle solving. That’s about a hundred million person-years every year, almost all of it high-quality brainpower.”


“The engine allows us to embed obfuscated problems into the games, ranging from design and optimisation problems to --” Adam lets the mounting courage in his chest bloom into a grin for a split second -- “dealing with large molecular shape spaces. We can embed such structures in content pervasive game players see on their sleeves and have to sort. We can make them build castles out of them in the Metaverse. And we almost always find that they do something crazy, something unexpected. We can trace the collabrorative design process pretty well -- 3D model wikis, physics forums, but we didn’t know that the solution would turn up in the Spanish Main game. It just did.”


“We’ll have 300 million people building the next Carbovore for you, without knowing it. And having fun. Can quantum computers do that?”


There is a moment of silence and tension. The only sound is God’s fingers tapping on the surface of the table, echoing the earlier staccato of cannonballs. Then God raises his eyebrows.


“Interesting,” he says. “I suppose we can find some funding for a pilot project at least. Lucien will sort it out, won’t you?” Then he gets up and looks at the river, face unreadable. “Although perhaps you can find something less metaphorical for your next demonstration, Mr. Kidd.”


The Angel’s farewell handshake almost crushes Adam’s fingers.






The man who sometimes calls himself Adam Kidd (sometimes just Kidd and sometimes the Captain) looks back at the Genesis headquarters through the slow afternoon drizzle and grins like a pirate.


He strolls along the riverbank until he finds a red phone booth: he is a traditionalist. Inside, he opens his suitcase and puts on his uniform -- a tricorn hat, a velvet jacket, a torn, frilly shirt and an eyepatch. The embedded processors whisper to his screen, and suddenly all his shipmates are with him.


“Ahoy there, messmates,” he says. “The lubbers fell for it. The booty’s ours.”


A collective cheer echoes under the skin of the world, and Adam the pirate knows that somewhere, deep in the Rhizome, another game is afoot.

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