Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Wheel in the Sky Keeps Turning

My lovely friend Liz clearly looked at her bookshelf to generate this list of words. As such, it's a fabulous list for our purposes:

Dune, game, code, hunger, wheel, wizard, stranger

I'm trying to avoid pulling any of the original titles in as inspiration, which is harder than you might think. The obvious answer is to go for a super-shiny sci-fi setting, like you'd frequently see in the 80s, but still avoid Dune. Fortunately, "game" took me to a different bit of 80s fiction, and I totally stole a piece that I love from Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series.

Deep in the Beta Quadrant lies a rich but violently inhospitable star system. One that happens to include an easily accessible jumpgate point. But the planets are simply unsuitable for human life, even with terraforming. Dune Exochemicals, however, saw potential here. Since humans could not live on any of the land, the answer was to build a home in space. Thus was the Wheel born.

The Wheel is a massive space station, easily twice the size of any previous human creation. The Rim rotates at a speed useful for generating artificial gravity. The Hub is physically disconnected from the Rim, and does not rotate. This makes it an ideal environment for farming a variety of xenocrystals, crucial to a number of important industries, including building quantum computers and jump drives. The raw materials for the xenocrystals are mined from nearby planets, moons, and asteroids using remotely controlled "waldo" robots. The operators of the robots are safely and comfortably seated on the Wheel.

Keeping over ten thousand Dune Exochemicals employees and their families entertained and happy is no mean feat. There are the usual pastimes of cinema, music, and other media. But given that space was at a premium, large open areas for pursuits such as sports were not possible. To answer this need, 64 units of Nintendo EVRE-ware (Enhanced Virtual Reality Environment) rooms were installed. Operating much like any holodeck system you may be familiar with, they use a variety of methods to instantly immerse the users in nearly any situation imaginable. These EVRE-ware units were then additionally programmed with a feature that really took advantage of their flexibility: The Game.

The Game is not a single simple interaction. Rather, it is every game that humankind has ever conceived of rolled into one. Two competitors enter an EVRE-ware unit and are presented with a grid. Across the top are four column headings: NAKED, TOOL, MACHINE, ANIMAL. Down the side are four row headings: PHYSICAL, MENTAL, CHANCE, ARTS. One competitor secretly chooses a column while the other secretly chooses a row. They are then taken to a similar sub-grid, dependent on their initial choice. For instance, if the initial choices were NAKED and PHYSICAL, the sub-grid might have NO CONTACT, LIGHT CONTACT, FULL CONTACT, and COMBAT as columns, with SPEED, STRENGTH, ENDURANCE, AGILITY as rows. Once a choice is made on this grid, a third grid appears along with a list of games that fit the choices made. The competitors take turn choosing games and entering them on the grid. They then choose a column and row. The intersection determines the game to be played.

Given the vast array of possible combinations, two competitors could end up in a marathon, an archery competition, a poker game, or an interpretive dance competition. It all depends on the choices made on the grid. Making choices that play to your strengths while also leaning on your opponent's weaknesses is crucial. The psychology of handling the grid is almost as important as the ability in the actual competition. However, the competition cannot be ignored. Any serious Gamer must have at least basic familiarity with a staggering variety of pursuits. Dune Exochemicals is very pleased by this result, as it creates very well rounded employees.

In order to encourage participation in The Game, Dune hosts a Tourney every year. The top performers in The Game are invited to participate, in order of ranking. Each competitor must put forth an entry fee, so not every gamer chooses to participate, though the prizes are set such that winning at least two rounds will recoup the entry fee plus a tidy profit. Once 128 competitors are chosen, they compete in a double-elimination tourney. The winner of the Tourney is declared the Wizard for the year. Wizards are barred from competing in future Tourneys, but are rewarded with a sizable purse, Dune Exochemicals stock, and celebrity status. They will spend the rest of their lives functioning as judges of Game sessions in which there is a dispute, and are granted exceptional leave from their normal jobs to do this. There are whispers that the Wizards also function as a de facto ruling council of the Wheel, but that's just crazy conspiracy talk.

The Wheel is an idyllic world of happy, white collar workers who have all of their needs and many of their wants met. In fact, there are some who say that it is TOO idyllic. A secret group of rabble-rousers known as the Mollies claim that the entire population of the Wheel is being secretly manipulated. They say that they have a journal from one of the EVRE-ware developers that proves that there is subliminal messaging in the code, encouraging tranquility and productivity. Others say that similar code exists in the life support and environmental systems. It constantly makes minor changes to things like the day-night cycle of the lights, the mix of the atmosphere, and even the color of the walls. Psychiatrists are monitoring everyone all the time, noting which changes make things better, and which make them worse. It's all one big experiment, and all the workers are clueless guinea pigs.

Oddly enough, there have been two recent developments that are either further evidence that this is all an experiment, or are evidence that the utopia is beginning to break down. The first is the arrival of The Stranger. This person is not an employee of Dune. He (or is it she?) does not even have a record of entering the station. He simply appeared on the Promenade one day, dressed in a cloak, and began preaching. The Stranger's message is mostly a simple variant on Buddhism, stressing mindfulness and compassion. But it also claims that a dependence on technology is destroying our souls. This is, needless to say, a controversial stance to take on a space station. And yet, he already has hundreds of followers. These are people who have begun to avoid the EVRE-ware units, log off from their social media accounts, and spend their time in quiet conversation with each other. It is frankly unsettling to the other residents. And yet Dune security forces seem unable (or unwilling?) to stop it.

Of course, they are concerned with something much more serious right now: hunger. While the Wheel does have hydroponic gardens, they don't produce nearly enough to feed the entire population. The station mostly relies on monthly supply ships to fill their larders. The most recent supply ship, though, was the third one in a row to be sabotaged. The entire shipment of food was rendered inedible. The next ship isn't due for another three weeks. Rationing has already been instituted, and all restaurants have been closed. The normally placid natives are growing restless. The disruptive messages of the Mollies and The Stranger are taking hold. If the next ship's cargo is similarly denied them, the Wheel could go off the rails.

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