The next day Earl was eating lunch after his presentation. It had gone about the same as always, dull eyed plant personnel required by corporate to sit through his dull pitch. He shook hands all around, collected business cards and gave out his in the weird ritual all salesman know too well. Everyone lied and promised to call and check in later in the year. It was all bullshit.
He told Joshua to pull over at a diner and ate while it recharged at the pillar. When electric cars finally replaced petroleum cars, the civil engineers tasked with creating the new electric infrastructure were at a loss on where to put the millions of charging stations needed to keep the cars charged. The solution struck one of them when he was driving by a gas station that was being demolished in his neighborhood: put them where the gas stations are.
So that’s what they did. The pumps were torn out and replaced with a row of fast-charging stations. The gas stations initially didn’t change much: they still sold stale food, pre-packaged snacks, and bottled soft drinks and beer. Most eventually installed a robo-chef and a food counter, as some cars took a half-hour or more to charge and the owners found that bored travelers usually eat to stave off boredom.
It was in one of these little restaurants that Earl was eating. Always nostalgic, he usually didn’t care for robot-prepared food, although he admitted that it really tasted the same, or maybe better. He missed the human interaction of purchasing, fake smiling at the worker who, equally falsely, said “thank you sir” with the tone that said she couldn’t think of anything better than to be the one to hand you your food. There was one, he remembered, a chicken place, where the workers were so cheery he always suspected they were on drugs as part of their work training.
He chewed his food mechanically, not really tasting it, lost in his thoughts, when the UniNet panel on the wall suddenly punctured his mental balloon.
“Olympus Online Trials start in one week! Apply now for the chance of a lifetime! Do you have what it takes to be Chosen?” The announcer, a bubbly blonde in a V-neck sweater that Earl appreciated (sex sells) said the words in a tone that was meant to be serious, but came across as just bad acting. She was not picked for her talent, it was evident.
“What are the trials?” Earl thought. “It says ‘Apply now’, how do you apply? Online?”
Quickly Earl pulled up the Olympus Online website. Sure enough, the ubiquitous single page with the Olympus logo, a mountain that looked kind of like Devil’s Tower in Wyoming with a lightning bolt on either side of it that had been the face of the game for 2 years, had changed to a giant link.
Earl clicked the button, which dissolved into a page warning Earl that the application process was lengthy, would require several hours, and he needed to be in a place with a stable UniNet connection and his terminal plugged in to avoid dying.
Reading further, he was unsettled when it said that “all questions must be answered in full, with no exceptions” and that “only one attempt per person was possible” – if you didn’t finish the application, in full, you could not apply again. Ever. It was quite clear on this point.
Earl sat back; his lunch forgotten. Weirder and weirder. It was the most extraordinary requirements he had ever seen for a game.
That evening, at his next hotel, he settled in for the process. Clicking the button, he read and agreed to half a dozen EULA and Terms of Service agreements, stubbornly taking the time to read all of them. Pretty hefty civil penalties for violating the terms, but nothing out of the ordinary. He clicked “I Accept” to them all and the next part loaded.
For the next 3 hours, he answered all kinds of questions that made no sense.
“What smell do you think of when you see your favorite color?”
“If you were a dwarf, would you think height jokes are funny?”
“If you grew up eating garbage, would flowers be repugnant to you?”
Shit like that. And on and on. Along the way were normal stuff, questions about his gaming history, character names, achievements from older games, clans and guilds he’d been involved with.
More than once he was tempted to quit, but the warnings that he would never again be allowed to apply and thus, be locked out of the hottest game he’d heard about forever, kept him at it.
Finally, he reached the end. “Thank you for applying to Olympus Online. Are you Chosen? We shall see.”
That was it. Once he finished the application, the website went back to its normal appearance – the Apply Now button was gone.
Feeling a bit let down, he turned off the lights and crawled into bed. Oddly, he slept better than usual, falling asleep quickly and easily.
Halfway across the country, a brightly lit building hummed with activity. Anonymous, white robed scientists scurried about like mice in a maze.
The man in the dark room heard a beep from the terminal and looked up. The applications had been coming in by the millions, but the vast majority were reviewed and discarded by the AI. The man wasn’t sure how it was determining who to discard and who not to – the test was designed by the AI, after all. Its name was Kronus, and it was devilishly hard to pin down when it didn’t want to be.
“Do we have a match?” the man asked?
Kronus waited a few seconds, then answered, “Yes.” It was a cold, metallic voice, a voice that both indicated the fact that Kronus both acknowledged your presence, and utterly dismissed you at the same time. It was oddly humbling.
“How many more do we need,” asked the man. No answer came from the AI. The man repeated his question and again Kronus ignored him.
No helping it. The man settled down to wait.
Early the next morning, Earl was awakened by the buzzing of his com device. He shook his head, groggily and with surprise. Very few people knew his com code, and even fewer used it. He picked it up and answered it, careful to display no video.
“Hello,” he said.
“EARL,” came the ear-splitting reply. It was his boss, Frank.
“Yeah, Frank, what’s up?” Frank rarely called. He seemed to care about Earl’s job less than Earl did, which was an achievement in itself.
“Heard you did great at…… (a rustling of paper) …. Platte Station. Real good.”
“Thanks. Routine,” Earl said.
“Ok,” Frank replied, “Well, keep up the good work. Talk to you later.” And hung up.
Earl hung up and tossed the com unit on the bed. Frank was predictable, once a month or so he would call to talk to him briefly. He probably had a reminder to call him once a month. Earl imagined Frank checking it off his sparse list, CALL EARL, and then going back to his VirNet pursuits. Frank was a big man, that type of muscular that was more genetic than gym. He had white hair and a white beard, and glowered a lot when he was forced to interact with anyone. He was also a serial philanderer, and spent a lot of time in the VirPorn world. God knows why his wife put up with it.
Putting Frank out of his mind, he was heading into the bathroom when his com beeped again. Odd. He answered while aiming at the toilet.
“Earl Brooks?” The voice was oddly monotone, obviously either a recording or, even more creepy, an AI.
“Congratulations – you have been selected for Olympus Online. Please indicate your acceptance. Be advised your verbal agreement is legally binding and this call is being monitored by legal personnel as required by law.”
What the hell? He had to agree now? He caught himself pissing onto the toilet seat. He finished and went back into the room.
“What is your response?”
He was torn. He didn’t like being rushed into it, but he didn’t want….no, he couldn’t miss this opportunity. Little in his life mattered to him as much as this chance to get into this game – the ramifications of that thought he chose not to pursue.
“Attention – this is the last chance to accept- “
“I accept,” Earl said.
The voice clicked in satisfaction. Earl imagined a computer somewhere flashing its lights in pleasure.
“Details will be emailed to you. Please follow the instructions exactly. Any deviation will count as a breach of contract and will be pursued legally. Good day.” At the perfunctory platitude, the robotic voice was gone.
Earl sat down, overwhelmed. This was so strange! He had never heard of this happening before.
Just then, his terminal beeped indicating a new email. He opened it, unsurprised to see it was from Olympus.
He opened the email and then shot straight to his feet in surprise. “What the fuck?” This had to be a joke. He read it again. Nope, there it was in plain black and white. He had to get himself to California, to the Olympus headquarters, within 3 days. He also, apparently, was going to be on lockdown for an “undetermined time”, whatever that meant, which meant that Earl had to quit his job, or at least take a leave of absence. He doubted he would get it. His job was on the edge anyway, he knew. Very soon, within a year or two, and he would be shuffled off into “retirement”, which meant a life living off the dole. Eat, sleep, shit, fuck if you’re lucky, and be entertained by the UniNet. For the rest of his life. Perhaps this thought….no, this reality, was the source of his melancholy lately. That sense that no matter what, you can’t escape entropy.
But he felt that Olympus Online offered something else: what, he didn’t and couldn’t know for sure. It was just a feeling, like that time when he walked up to the door of his first blind date. The hope that something was there, just out of sight, that held the prospect of being wonderful. It made him excited: it made him HOPE. And hope was something that the human race held little of nowadays: there was nothing to hope FOR.
Still feeling the giddiness of a kid about to go down a waterslide, he reasoned with himself.
“Okay,” he thought. “I have to get to California. How?” There was really only one way. Joshua. His robot van. But he would have to play this right, because usually the company set Joshua’s itinerary: in a large way, he was just a passenger.
He called Frank back. Frank answered, a surprised tone in his voice. “Earl? What’s up? I didn’t expect to hear from you?” Frank was right to be surprised: in 5 years, Earl can’t remember the last time he’d initiated a conversation with his titular boss.
“I just got a call from a client in California, near Oakland. He wants me to come do a presentation.”
“Who?” Frank asked, a puzzled tone in his voice. I didn’t blame him for being confused – this was such an unlikely scenario that I knew he would buy it – it was too crazy to make up.
“Guy named Gary Adams. He saw one of my talks at his old station and wants me to come do it at the new one that he moved to.” Smooth, Earl. Frank won’t know anything about my actual customers.
“Well, okay, I guess.” I could still hear the confusion in Frank’s voice. Earl knew why – in 5 years, he had never shown this much initiative in his work. “Where exactly is it? I’ll need to program your van.”
I gave Frank the address of a power plant close to the Olympus building in San Francisco. I knew I could either get Joshua to stop there or simply walk the distance if he wouldn’t. No telling how an AI will react when you go outside his guidelines. I had never felt the need before and had no clue what Joshua would do when asked.
Frank promised to load the address into Joshua’s navigation and authorized the expenses. Earl felt a little bad – Frank had always been decent to him and he hoped Frank didn’t get in trouble for this.
With the details taken care of, Earl packed up his stuff and loaded it in Joshua. He felt strange – for the first time in a long time, Earl was looking forward to something. He got in, verified that the van had the desired address, and then he was off. He felt strangely free, in the way that you feel when you make a large decision. Buying a house or a car, something like that. He was committed now, in more ways than one, but he didn’t feel anything but excitement. The anticipation made the gray cloud of his world disappear a little, like the way a sunbeam shines through the clouds to illuminate a small patch of ground. Eventually, the sunbeam grows until the gray clouds are gone.
- United States
- Aspiring Author
Bio: I've read science fiction and fantasy all of my life. For a long time I've thought about writing my own, but never could get up the time and motivation. This past year I've found a few moments with which to put my idea down on paper, and am currently working on my next book.