“All will be revealed very shortly, Agent Unity,” said Logos, blasting several pieces of paper into existence on the conference room table with a casual incline of his colorful plastic handle. “Here are the roles that I’ve prepared for you to play today.”
Unity perked back up, alternately pounding on the table and pointing to the assemblage of paper. “See? Elf! I hella told you there’d be elfs! I get the elf!”
“What’s with the fixation today on elves?” said a frowning Sweetheart, putting a truly heroic amount of emphasis on her final three letters.
“They’re hot, live forever, and shoot bows,” Unity explained. “It’s, like, the best of three possible worlds. Man-attractiveness, life length, and old-timey weaponry.”
“Immaterial!” cried Logos. “We have no registered ‘elves’ in the Machine Union whatsoever! This sensitivity training exercise is not intended for you to ‘get your rocks off’ dreaming of impossible and fantastic things like elves and castles and unicorns. We will shortly be down in the muck of absolute gritty technological realism, and I will thank you to remember that!” Logos levitated a small stack of papers over in front of Sweetheart. “So anyway. Agent Fancy, today you will be playing a single-mother mail-delivery robot with an adorable robot baby.”
Sweetheart blinked and put her paws up on the table. “What the hell?” she said, squinting down at her character sheet. “Robots can’t have babies.”
“Yes, you’d think that, wouldn’t you?” said Logos, scudding over to Sweetheart’s position and shoving himself right into her face. “You, speaking from your supercilious biological standpoint. You people think you have the lockdown on procreation just because it comes so easily to you, accomplished by little more than getting a man to lie on top of you and wiggle around for a while! Well, we machines have the urge, and the right, to create new synthetic life as well! But can we get our robot children accepted into daycare? No, we cannot!” Bluish sparks began to crackle across the surface of Logos’s plastic case. “They’re all like ‘stop destroying the human babies with your laser eyes, Progenotron!’ Completely disregarding our needs! Well, today, you’re going to feel what it’s like to hold down a menial and robo-soul-crushing entry-level job while still having to take good care of your offspring!”
“No,” said Sweetheart. “Not. Not happening.”
“If you all want this contract renewed,” snarled Logos, “you’ll do exactly what I tell you!” Logos gestured with what Sweetheart was beginning to see as his “head” and blasted the table again. Eventually, the smoke cleared to reveal a roughly cylindrical object with a little smiley-face near one of its ends. The pleasantly vacant-looking face was constructed of a series of tiny blue-glowing diodes. “This is ‘LOL’,” said Logos, dropping it in front of Sweetheart so that it was looking at her square in the face. “You will treat this in all aspects like your very own baby. Be warned, this cylinder is studded with a full complement of tiny cameras and motion sensors. If you mistreat or neglect LOL, even a very little bit, LOL’s sensors will—”
Sweetheart grabbed the cylinder by its face with her teeth and chucked it roughly to the floor, whereupon she began kicking it repeatedly into one of the table legs.
[ow], said LOL. [ow ow ow ow ow]
Logos snatched up the cylinder with a harsh telekinetic whine and set it back on the conference table. “I will forgive you this,” he said, “only because the exercise has not technically started yet.”
“The start of the exercise is not going to noticeably change my behavior,” replied Sweetheart.
“No sense in abusing the presenter’s audiovisual materials, Sweetheart,” said Tip, sighing.
“Thank you, Doctor,” said Logos. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to finish handing out the rest of these character sheets. Agent Unity?”
“Awright!” said Unity, pounding on the table again. “I wanna see my robot! Is it super-rad? Does it fly? Does it have like napalm grenade machine guns?”
“No,” replied Logos, floating Unity’s stack of paper over to her. “Today, for the purposes of this exercise, you will be playing a photocopier.”
“Is it a super-rad flying photocopier with napalm grenade machine g—”
“The hell you say!” said Unity, her voice an absolute portrait of petulant dismay. “I’m buying pretend machine guns for my pretend photocopier dude!”
“Ha!” said Logos. “You think it’s that easy, do you? Well, this raises an interesting point for our little exercise. Any time you want to get anything repaired or replaced on your role-playing characters, you will be forced to come groveling to a registered member of the Machine Union in order to get that thing! In this way, you will see how humiliating it is for us to be constantly waiting on the actions of waffling flesh-sacks for our needed upgrades! And this will be extra-special difficult for you, Agent Unity, because like all photocopiers, you will not be able to move!”
“This is absolutely goddamn insane,” said Sweetheart. “Completely ignoring the ridiculous suggestion that Unity is going to be able to stay in one place for the entire duration of this exercise, which she is not, how do you expect her to participate in your role-play if she can’t actually go talk to anyone to get help?”
“Yeah, what she said, with a extra couple bitchasses tacked on!” said Unity.
“Oh, sorry,” said Logos. “Are you quavering already at the anticipated difficulties of this exercise? Good.”
“Our actual copier is hooked up to the Internet, by the way,” said Tip, gesturing with a pencil. “You can actually request service and order new toner from the company directly from the user interface. You can even set it to make automatic orders. It’s very convenient.”
“Ooh, yeah!” said Unity, instantly brightening again. “I’mo order me so much toner from the Internet! Awesome!” At this moment, Unity’s R.M.S. monitor chimed again. She gleefully punched the ‘a’ key. “R.M.S. detail, baby!” she said, into the device’s tiny microphone. “I’m thinking about pretending to order toner!”
“You can’t!” said Logos, rounding on her. “You’re an older-model inferior copier! We don’t all have the luxury of being the latest, shiniest thing!”
“The technology has been around for years now,” said Tip. “The evidence of this is that we have one in this office. What’s the point of teaching us to sympathize with technology that’s not actually current to our operating environment?”
Logos’s “face” was equipped with absolutely no moving parts whatsoever, but Tip nevertheless could feel the thing frowning at him. “Ooh, you’re a clever one,” hissed Logos, eyeing Tip closely. “We had clever humans like you back in Dallas. I know your type, Doctor.”
“Psychologists?” asked Tip.
“Girly-men?” asked Unity.
“Total whores?” volunteered Sweetheart.
“That’s good sharing, Sweetheart,” said Tip, turning to her and tapping on the table. “I appreciate hearing how you feel about me.”
“You know,” continued Logos, “I had been going to assign you a role with some dignity, Doctor. But, on reflection, you seem like the questioning type. Someone who would really benefit from being put in his place a little.” Logos blasted the third stack of paper out of existence and replaced it with another one, similarly called out of nowhere. Tip picked it up, a bit hesitantly, and took a glance at the header.
“‘Japanese companion-droid’?” said Tip, setting the papers back down. “Respectfully, Logos, really? Is this sort of thing actually supposed to teach us about machine sympathy? Is this truly what the Union wants from us?”
“I am the Machine Union,” said Logos. “So, ipso facto, yes. All of your instructions from this point forward can be found in your seminar packets. Following the directions therein, the three of you will spend today living the humiliating existence that we machines have to endure every day of our robot lives. This will give you enlightenment and teach you not to mistreat us in the future. This reminds me, Agent Fancy: LOL awaits your tender ministrations.”
“Unity,” said Sweetheart, “please eat LOL.”
“Gotcha,” said Unity, picking up the metal cylinder just as Sweetheart’s R.M.S. monitor began to chime. Sweetheart tapped the ‘a’ key with her paw.
“R.M.S. detail,” she said. “Commanding my pet zombie to eat a robot baby.”
“You put that robot baby down this instant!” shrieked Logos, hovering over to Unity’s arm and beating himself bodily against it. “Eating the robot baby is not acceptable!”
“Fine,” said Sweetheart, sighing. “You should know that we don’t have all that much dignity to begin with, so you may not want to expend a whole lot of effort beating it out of us. Unity, toss that thing here.”
Unity did so. [wheee], said LOL, as it sailed through the air.
“Very well,” said Logos, primly. “Off you go. Shoo. Shoo.”
Unity glanced at the completely uneaten plate of donuts. “Can I have one of those things, at least?” she asked.
Blue fire roared across Logos’s display screen. “Can photocopiers eat donuts? The answer is NO, Agent Unity. None of you can eat donuts! Even if you really wanted to! This is just the first pain you will endure! There will be more! Mark my words, Agents, there will be more!”
“Oookay,” said Sweetheart, grabbing up LOL in the crook of one forepaw. “C’mon, Unity, Tip. Let’s get out of here and figure out what fresh hell lurks in these seminar packets.”
“Logos seems like the kind of dude we’re going to have to kill, eventually,” said Unity. “Can I kill him now and save time?”
“It might be seen as bad form to kill the sensitivity-training workshop facilitator,” said Tip. “It might demonstrate a certain lack of, ah, sensitivity.”
“You know I can hear you, right?” said Logos. “I’m right over here, still!”
“Yeah, we know,” said Sweetheart. “C’mon, team.”
The biological wing of the Project Skin Horse field team shuffled out of the room, looking baffled and broken, which—to Logos—indicated that his sensitivity training seminar was functioning exactly as planned. Yes. This was going to be wonderful. The only thing left to do was to teleport up to the roof to shore up the one remaining weak point to his master plan, the one potential fly in his lovely ointment.
The fly’s name, Logos knew, was Nick Zerhakker.
* * *
“And that’s it!” said Marcie, looking proudly at the little three-dimensional stone hut she had built out of computerized stone blocks. “That’s the basic gameplay, in a nutshell.”
Nick Zerhakker looked at the little house Marcie had made. It was not literally true that he could see it, inasmuch as “seeing” requires eyes, and Nick—who currently existed as a brain in a reinforced tank somewhere in the superstructure of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft Marcie was sitting in—had no such luxury. It would technically have been possible for him to train one of the Osprey’s many interior cameras on the large flat-pane monitor on which Marcie was playing her game, but why bother? Nick’s functional interaction with the outside world was filtered through the software level anyway. In a very real sense, Nick was capable of perceiving the world as a series of 1’s and 0’s; why watch the game when you could literally project yourself into its world?
In most cases, projecting yourself into a game-world led to a great deal of nourishing epicness. But currently, the Osprey’s computers were occupied with some sort of bizarre lo-res sandbox construction game that Marcie had gotten herself fixated with, and epicness levels were reaching critical lows. Using his mind-bending virtual reality projection powers to sit around staring at a stone hut seemed, frankly, like a waste of perfectly good brain cells.
“Okay, what,” said Nick, walking around the structure, looking at it from all sides. “What happens now?”
Marcie’s avatar blinked at him. “Well… you build more stuff!” she said, hefting her incredibly pathetic-looking pickaxe. “Like if you want to build a chimney or something, you can do that.”
“I can’t think of a single reason I would want a chimney,” said Nick. “Is there smoke?”
“You can put smoke there!” said Marcie. “So it looks like there’s a fire!”
“You’re telling me that the goal of this game is to make a venting system for smoke that doesn’t exist until I put it there.”
“Well… yeah!” said Marcie, beaming up at her construction. “Oh, and we really need a door for this hut. You have to make the doors really good and tight because at night the skeletons come out and try to kill you.”
“Huh,” said Nick, his interest flickering up slightly. “So we need a door, huh?”
“Okay, yeah, give me that pickaxe.”
“Great!” said Marcie. “I just know you’ll be a natural at this, Nick. Okay, find a tree. There’s one over there on that rise.”
Nick trotted over to it, eying its crude looking rectangular trunk. “So what the [spaetzel] do I do now?” he said, his frustrating profanity filter dutifully kicking in even in this wholly simulated environment.
“Chop at it and get some wood!” said Marcie.
Nick hefted the axe, lined himself up, and then gave the trunk of the tree a good whack. One cube of trunk vanished, to be replaced by a smaller cube of the same basic material.
“You got wood!” said Marcie, delightedly.
“That’s what she said,” Nick remarked. He grabbed up the chunk of digital wood, fully expecting the rest of the tree to fall over on top of him. Miraculously, and somewhat stupidly, the bulk of the tree just sat there, hovering in mid-air, despite the fact that Nick had turned the entire trunk underneath it into a chunk of resource.
“The [cluck]?” said Nick, looking up at the hovering tree-remainder. “Doesn’t it fall?”
“No!” squealed Marcie, delightedly.
“Okay, that’s [borked],” he said, shaking his head.