2054 APRIL 28 11:15 AM
Lawrence was hesitant to walk into the office. He could see the occupants of the room through the glass walls of the office and he could see the intense expressions on all of their faces. There were a dozen individuals sitting around the table, all wearing very serious skins for their avatars. Like every meeting, this one took place in the Massively Multiplayer Online Virtual Reality realm of the EmVee; it was a lot less expensive and easier to schedule than trying to fly everyone out to the same location, and no one even had to put their pants on for the meeting. Lawrence himself was sitting in his living room in Oregon, while his Avatar was standing in a replication of the EmVee headquarters in Southern California.
Despite the fact that he, and the occupants of the office, weren’t really there, Lawrence was still uncomfortable about the idea of having to walk into the room. Inside the office were all the big investors of the EmVee, and the current head of the department, Brad Lee. The thought of entering that room and trying to speak in front of that group made his chest tight with anxiety.
Brad Lee was something of an enigma amongst the community; he was a genius programmer, but he was also very handsome, and very fit. If the office building allowed for custom avatars, Lawrence would have never believed that Brad Lee looked anything like that in real life. As it stood, however, everyone had to use their default avatar which was based on their real-life physique. The only thing anyone could customize was their hair and clothing.
Brad Lee sat at the head of the table, silently listening to the words of the much thinner man at the other end of the table as his finely tailored suit struggled to restrain his biceps. The thinner man, Lawrence recognized him as Terrance, the head of the cybersecurity department, was very animated in his speech. Though he couldn’t hear a word being spoken through the glass, Terrance’s actions and expressions made it clear that he was angry and passionate about what he was saying. He clearly had his immersion rig set to display his real emotions. The other faces in the room were harder to read as they either had their emotions turned off, or they have very good poker faces.
“Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Appledehli,” the receptionist called from behind Lawrence. He looked back over his shoulder at the young, red-headed man. He nodded his head several times, trying to psyche himself up. He then took a deep breath and reached out to wrap his fingers around the polished handle of the glass door.
“-ajor disaster!” Terrance was halfway through a sentence when Lawrence pulled open the door. “Five people. Five! Dead! And dozens of others are infected, that we KNOW of, all trapped inside, and we still have no clue what is happening!”
“But,” the investor sitting beside Brad Lee on the opposite end of the table from Terrance spoke. The man was almost six foot tall but sitting beside Brad Lee make him look like a child. “You are suggesting that we shut down the EmVee. You are suggesting that we forfeit hundreds of thousands in revenue a day until your team figures out what’s going on and how to resolve it. We’re not saying no, we’re saying we’re not going to do anything until you tell us how long it will take.”
“People are dying,” Terrance said. Lawrence had the distinct impression from his tone that it wasn’t the first time he had said it, either. “The users need to know that they are potentially in danger. We need to minimize exposure until we resolve this.”
“You have no time frame. You have no estimations. You don’t even have anything suggesting we can fix this. Do you have any idea how much this will cost us?” George said.
“Stop,” Brad Lee said, raising a hand to silence the room. Terrance had opened his mouth to respond to George, but hesitated when Brad Lee spoke. He closed his mouth and rest his hands on the tabletop, leaning his weight on them. Brad Lee allowed the silence to settle into the room for several seconds before he said anything further.
“We’re just chasing tails, here. I understand your enthusiasm for the safety and well being of our clients, and for the public health, Terrance, but it is clear that our friends do not share the same passion.” Brad Lee raised his hand again to silence the room as nearly everyone at the table began to protest. “So,” he continued, raising his voice. “Let’s discuss public relations, media coverage, and lawsuits; subjects that may take their interest as they will have a strong effect on their monetary gain. If information leaks out that we were aware of this problem and we did nothing to alert our users and protect them, that could be catastrophic, right?”
Brad Lee looked to George first, who nodded, then looked around the table letting his gaze settle on each member. Everyone agreed with a nod of their head.
“Terrance,” Brad Lee shifted in his seat. “In theory, as I know we’ve never had to do this before since we launched over a decade ago… how long would it take to shut down and do a complete reset?”
“We can’t do that,” Lawrence found himself speaking before he even thought about what he was going to say. This brought the attention of the entire room to him as every head turned to look at him. His stomach churned and Lawrence fought back the urge to vomit. “Uh, sir,” he added after a pause.
“Oh?” Brad Lee raised a brow at Lawrence as he sat back in his seat. “Please, explain.”
Lawrence switched off his emotional expressions to hide the anxiety he was feeling. Although he often spent time giving speeches and speaking to groups, they were always under his role-playing persona as a level 23 magic-wielder named Nomra. He found it was easier to be his character than to be himself. As himself, he could barely stand being the center of attention at his own birthday parties. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he asked himself, what would Nomra do?
“Well,” Lawrence began as he straightened his neck and back. “We can’t shut down the EmVee world while infected minds are trapped inside. Recent reports seem to suggest that the people infected, when removed from the game, fall into a comatose state and do not respond until returned to their immersion rigs and logged back in. But, their Toons-” Lawrence paused for a moment as he used an unofficial slang term. He was sure Brad Lee and Terrance would be aware of the term, but most of the investors were more than likely only business users of the EmVee and probably didn’t venture into the gaming world. “Their avatars remain active, even after the player has been removed. The reports seem to suggest that their conscious minds have been absorbed into the game- downloaded, possibly, and that shutting down could delete their consciousness and potentially render the infected players brain dead.”
The room was silent.
“Fuck,” Brad Lee finally broke the silence of the room after several long seconds, voicing the shock that everyone in the room felt. He turned his palms up and raised his shoulders as he shook his head, gesturing to the office that he was at a loss for words and wasn’t sure what to think.
“So-,” George stretched the word to a full second as he collected his thoughts. “We can’t shut it down or delete content without potentially killing people, and we can’t leave the EmVee running without exposing people to- whatever the hell it is inside that’s spreading this… is infection the right word?”
“It’s the only word we have, right now, until we know more,” Terrance answered.
“So, what are our options?” George asked.
“Everything inside the EmVee,” Terrance leaned forward in his seat to rest his elbows on the table. “Every file, every program, everything, exists as an interactive object inside the game; nobody programs like they used to.” He took a deep breath and sighed. “Whatever this virus is, it has to have an in-world avatar of sorts; no program or file will run in the EmVee without an associated graphics file. We can gather a team together to find the person, object, whatever it is, and-”
“We can’t send players to go find and fix this code, anyone who confronts the virus risks infection, and we don’t know if fixing the virus will cure the people,” Lawrence said, interrupting Terrance. He gulped as Terrance looked at him. “Sorry.”
“No,” Terrance shook his head. “No, you’re right. We can’t risk more people trying to fight this. We don’t even know what this is yet.” Terrance sat back in his seat, sinking into the cushions. He presses his fingertips to his brows.
“I,” Lawrence began to speak, reconsidered, then pushed on. “I might have an idea.”
Every eye in the room turned to look at Lawrence again. His stomach sank as they watched him. He felt his heart racing as he second-guessed his plan.
“Out with it,” Brad Lee said when Lawrence failed to continue.
“We give the SAAI to an NPC.”
Lawrence’s words had no immediate effect, but slowly it came to settle in the minds of Brad Lee and Terrance. Terrance pushed his seat away from the table, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees and set his chin in his palms. Brad Lee’s brow knotted as he thought and considered the possibilities of Lawrence’s idea. The others in the room gradually seemed more and more confused as the silence built.
“Intriguing,” Brad Lee said as he entwined his fingers together and poked his forefingers against his chin.
“What?” George said, shaking his head. “What does that even mean? What’s an NPC?”
“It’s a Non-Player Character, George, shut the fuck up,” Terrance said as he jumped up from his seat. He looked at Lawrence. “Fucking genius.”
George was taken aback by Terrance’s demand. His eyes went wide and his jaw went slack. He looked back and forth between Terrance and Brad Lee sever times as if expecting Brad Lee to leap to his defense.
“You’re just going to le-” George began but Brad Lee raised a hand and silently shooshed him.
“Elaborate,” Brad Lee said, looking to Lawrence. “For our less technically informed friends.”
“Oh, okay. Yes, well,” Lawrence shifted on his feet. He was thrown off by Terrance’s outburst, but his approval bolstered Lawrence’s courage. “We have the SAAI program,” he noticed the expression on George and the other investor’s faces and stopped for a second. “We have the Self Aware Artificial Intelligence program. It’s currently in testing stages. We can,” Lawrence paused for a moment. His eyes darted from side to side as though reading something only he could see. “We can introduce it to some of the NPCs already inside the EmVee. Grant a few of them artificial awareness and consciousness, then-”
“Then,” Terrance jumped in, speaking faster than Lawrence. Either excited by the idea or too impatient. “We would have people inside the EmVee who can get close to this virus, investigate it, fix it, and who are incapable of being infected themselves.”
“With no real-world controller that could die should anything go wrong,” Brad Lee adds.
“Yeah,” Lawrence concluded.
A second of silence passed before Brad Lee spoke.
“Can we do that?” Brad Lee looked to Terrance for an answer. Terrance shrugged and looked at Lawrence. Lawrence looked from Terrance to Brad Lee.
“Uh, I think so? The SAAI program has been in development for a future update to improve NPCs in the EmVee, to introduce a massive boost to their intelligence and personalities to make them more realistic than they already are. I think we can connect a prototype of it to an NPC by transferring a file to them with a command to load it into their personality.
“Alright,” Brad Lee nodded. “Do it… But, only one. Until we know they react to this I don’t want more than one. The last thing we need is an NPC uprising on top of our current issues.”