Where Things May Lead
Caitlyn was a morning person. She’d be in the office by 6 a.m., with a large coffee and a couple of doughnuts. This gave her an early start, and she could claim a workstation in a quiet corner.
This also gave her time to spend on her own projects. This morning she tried out a virtual reality “Put Yourself In The Movies” game, pulled from an open-source site. She could choose the avatar of an old-time movie star and take them through the process of making a film, from auditions to opening nights.
Within an hour, though, she’d lost interest. It needed something more imaginative, she thought. She pulled up the code and started looking through it.
A couple of hours later, she stopped, stared at her screen, added a couple of lines, and stared again. Okay, she thought, I can do this.
Caitlyn worked through the day, pausing after lunch to do enough company work to hopefully satisfy her boss. About 5 pm, she put in an order at her favorite Afghan takeout, picked it up on her way home, and gulped it down as she set back to work.
The next morning, Caitlyn triumphantly spilled her finished code into a developers’ forum for open-source VR. Gamers, she announced, would be bouncing off the walls for this. Yet it was so simple — that was the brilliance of it. It pulled the code for a 3D avatar off the game and recreated it as a single standard unit that could be used with any other game or site. And compatible with the latest projection phones so anyone could bring their avatar right into their own living room, “Not just on the screen,” she crowed, “but projected! In virtual 3D. Without a viewer!”
The response was wild, mixed with a little envy. Caitlyn was lauded as that week’s thing (except, of course, by the nothing-female-could-be-good gamesters, whom she ignored), and got enough egoboo she didn’t mind her boss docking her a day’s pay for being late on her assigned project.
“You think I should patent it?” she asked her friend Juan in the coffee room.
Juan shrugged. “It’s out in the wild,” he said. “Let it run free.”
“Hey, Michael! Come see this!” Stacy Lu called out as her partner zipped past her office.
He stopped, and sipped his fifth double espresso of the day. “What? I’ve got a meeting with a possible investor in ten minutes and if he doesn’t go for the project, we’ll be back waiting tables.”
“This’ll just take a minute.” She impatiently motioned him into the room. “This app from some coder at a gamer forum. They isolated the code for a 3D avatar and standardized it so it could work as an independent unit with any program — or by itself. Watch.”
She tapped her phone and aimed it at the wall. A small warrior type in a metal jockstrap appeared, seemingly about a foot in front of the wall. “Now…”. Stacy moved her finger. The warrior raised his arms above his head and spun slowly.
Michael shrugged. ” It’s good, but it’s just a projection,”
“No. Watch and be amazed.” Stacy tapped again and the warrior grew to life size.
“It’s too dim,” said Michael.
“Shut the lights.” Stacy propped her phone on a table and walked over to the image.
Michael stared — when she stood in front of the projection, there was an eerie melding of Stacy with the warrior. He saw Stacy only as an indistinct form within the warrior image.
“Nice party trick.”
“Oh, come on!” Stacy bounced on her toes. “Think! If we can hone the controls so the image follows your movements… Remember the whole Wii thing when you were a kid? This could be even better!”
Michael blinked, the wheels turning now. “We’d have to really up the resolution — most phones couldn’t handle that. And we’d need a separate device. And matching player movement to the avatar will be a bear.”
Stacy shrugged. “So we come up with a device that hooks onto your phone. In the long term, maybe work down the hardware to a few sensors we sell to phone manufacturers. And it could make us a lot of money!”
The partners grinned at each other.
“Hell.” Stefan hit a button on his tablet. The startled face of his assistant popped up on one of the five monitors on Stefan’s antique oak desk. “Yuri Abramovitch, get my daughter online. Now!”
Yuri nodded, and tapped at his offscreen keyboard. “You want video, Mr. Krasulka?” he asked hesitantly.
“Of course. And I don’t care how kids dress these days — button your shirt. “
From the second monitor: “Dad, I’m in the middle of lunch. What is it?”
“Sorry, baby.” Stefan’s voice lowered to a tender basso. “But I need to know something, and I think you can help me. Have you got a moment?”
The girl’s face popped up. “Okay, dad. But I’ve got a class in five minutes.”
“Honey, do you know anything about this game ‘KnowMe’?”
“Oh, dad!” The exasperated tone so beloved by adolescents hadn’t changed in generations. “It’s not a game. It’s a way to honestly speak to each other.”
Stefan scrunched up his face trying to get it. “How can you be honest with each other by talking through an avatar?”
“Because your real self is completely different from the looks you were born with. If you speak to each other through avatars they have to judge you on what you say and do, rather than on some superficial ‘looks’ thing, right? Everybody loves it.”
“Everybody loves it… Hold on, please.” He muted her feed and glared at his assistant.
“You see? The tiny, no-account startup that produced this game, that last month we could have bought six times over if somebody had told me about this trend, now all the young people are using their product!”
Yuri nodded dejectedly, sure that he was about to lose his job.
Stefan opened the feed back to his daughter. “Fascinating. So you phone using these avatars?”
“No!” she said. “Who would want to do that? We project our avatars to each other over the game network.”
“Into your rooms?” Stefan’s brows came down. “Are you joking?”
A sigh. “No Dad. Everybody’s doing it. Can I go now? If I’m late for class mom will kill us both.”
“Of course, dear. Have a good day.”
Stefan stared off. “It’s always the children. They aren’t held back by preconceptions. They just go ahead and talk to projected avatars in real time and in three dimensions over a game network. Yuri Abramovitch!”
“I want you to…”
“Go into negotiations with the company?” Yuri whispered carefully.
Stefan smiled broadly. “Negotiations. Yes.” He nodded slowly. “Give them a fair price — we want to be the good guys here. We’re going to give them lots of money, and we’re going to take their product, and turn it into something huge.”
He looked at his assistant, who obviously didn’t get it. “This, Yuri Abramovitch, is why I am the boss. Pull the avatar out of the game, and you’ve got a skin you can pull over yourself any time you like. You don’t like your shirt, change it. You don’t like your hair, change it. You don’t like your face, change it. You can be anyone you like. Anywhere.”
“But it’s not fully mobile,” said Yuri. “It needs so much power, the kids run it with their phones plugged into the wall.”
Stefan shrugged. “That’s our job,” he said. “To make it so goddamned mobile that you can go out and take a stroll and make people believe you’re Bugs Bunny.” He raised an eyebrow. “Well? Go and buy that company so we can get started.”
Yuri Abramovitich went.
There were six Bugs Bunnies sitting in the small cafe, at least two of them probably under six years old. There were also three Shakespeares, two Barack Obamas, a couple of Bart Simpsons, one rather undersized Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a Donald Trump in a gold silk evening gown.
If two or more people accidentally touched in the crowd, there’d be a shimmering where they intersected, as though two beams of light were trying to cancel each other out.
“Hey, Liz,” yelled the Rex, whose green hide glittered as no real lizard’s ever had. The Rex was calling to a large mustachioed cavalier in a bright red uniform. “You’re late.”
“Sorry about that,” said the cavalier. “My vocals were on the blink.”
Watching the conversation between the dinosaur and the cavalier, David Mitali wondered if he was the only person sitting there in his own skin. Twice that evening, somebody had stopped him and asked him who he was supposed to be, and the second time, he just replied, “Paul Robeson.” He looked about as much like Robeson as he did Mae West, but the answer seemed to satisfy them.
David sipped his coffee, and read the morning news off his feed until someone dropped heavily into the chair opposite — a Tinkerbell, who smiled at him with a sickening Old Disney toothiness. David glanced at the small ID pop-up on his wrist.
“Anahita, is this really what you want to wear to a business meeting?” he asked.
The Tinkerbell shrugged. “I felt a bit fantastical this morning,” they said in a high, sweet voice. “Is it a problem?”
David raised an eyebrow. “If you don’t mind looking like a golden burlesque queen,” he said.
“Well, then.” The Tinkerbell put a small backpack on the table and began rifling through it. “Remember you said avatars were only putrid entertainment people used to hide themselves? If I could find a useful application you’d pay for a meal at my favorite restaurant wearing any avatar I chose?” Anahita pulled something out of the pack with a fluorish. “Here it is.”
They put the small flat device on the table. A six-inch tall clown appeared and began dancing on the surface.
David stared at it. “Are you going to start peddling a new kind of greeting card?”
Tinkerbell handed David a set of rather old-fashioned eyeglasses. “Just put these on.”
“So now we’re going to play old 3D games?”
“I’m serious. Put on the lousy glasses.”
David, a bit taken aback by his friend’s insistence, took the glasses and put them on. He snorted. “All I see is some blurry blue thing.”
“Hold on,” Anahita reached over and touched the side of the glasses. “The focus is here.”
David played with it a bit. “Okay, so now I’m looking at some clearer blue thing. What is it?”
“It’s your shirt. That’s the clown’s viewpoint you’re seeing. You’re basically seeing through its ‘eyes.’”
David pulled the glasses down over his nose and stared at Tinkerbell distrustfully. “You’re kidding.”
“No.” Anahita sat back triumphantly. “You see, we were able to adjust the particles that make up the avatars into arrays that can receive and transmit light and sound. It’s still pretty crude — we have to pre-program where the avatar will be ‘looking’ currently, which is pretty useless — but we’ll get that fixed. A year or two, tops, they think.”
“Ah.” David sat back, already thinking of possibilities.
“Yes. Ah. And now,” Anahita grinned, pulling an avatar belt out of the bag, “I thought that a fuzzy teddy bear ballerina was about your speed…”
Caitlyn Williams usually sent her avatar to the park in the morning — these days, her real self just hobbled across the living room — to see what was to be seen and exchange some face-to-face gossip with her neighbors.
But today was different. Applications for the Saturn run were due by midnight, and she was checking hers over one final time.
Caitlyn knew the competition was incredibly high, but despite her age — she was hitting 110 in a few weeks — she knew the latest protocols and had done some pretty amazing work over the years.
She watched her pre-recorded avatar go through its presentation, trying to catch the least flicker, the tiniest problem. Caitlyn had been careful to design an avatar that was different but conservative; no fake alien insects or old radio stars. A slightly younger version of herself — good-looking but distinguished, with a subtle purple tint added to the skin to bring out the natural brown tones, and something resembling a spiral galaxy in the eyes, for her sense of humor.
It had to be perfect because this was the big one. A couple of hundred avatars going out to explore Saturn’s moon Enceladus, running a lightweight ship faster than any ship weighed down with “real” people or robots could be. It would be an incredibly intensive — and expensive — run, and only the best people would be chosen as the primaries, or even the backups.
Caitlyn didn’t intend to be a backup.
“Hey, auntie Caitlyn!” The blue-and-green plaid gnome who popped up was fiercely ugly in a way only a 12-year-old boy would see as cool. “Have you sent your application off yet?”
Caitlyn smiled. “I was just about to.”
“Well, when you’re finished, can I have a copy of the avatar you made for it?”
The smile broadened. “Sure, kid, but you know you’re not going to be able to use it to fake your way into that advanced physics seminar. They’ll stop you the moment they catch your ID tell-tale.”
The gnome shrugged. “It’s worth a try.”
Caitlyn laughed. “I suppose so. Okay, I’ll send you the copy as soon as it’s finished.”
The gnome showed his teeth in a cute smile that was supposed to be an evil grin, and signed off.
Caitlyn went back to her application. Along with her avatar’s code, she’d listed all the important projects she’d worked on over the years. At the end she’d included that old bit of code she’d created, what, 80 or more years ago? The one that pulled the avatar out of the game. She mulled over deleting it. After all, it had only been a cool little trick.
But no. That hadn’t been a bad bit of programming. And it showed how imaginative she’d been even as a kid. And after all, she thought, you never know where things may lead.
“Where Things May Lead”, © Barbara Krasnoff. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, November 24, 2022
Barbara Krasnoff’s short stories have appeared in a wide variety of publications. Her story “Sabbath Wine,” was a finalist for the 2016 Nebula Award; it is also part of her mosaic novel, The History of Soul 2065, published by Mythic Delirium Books. She earns her living writing how-tos for The Verge, and her website is at BrooklynWriter.com.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann, using stock from NASA and Omni.
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