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March 20, 2023

Gamble 01

By Sailor Jim Johnston

The maniac's blade made a barely audible hiss as it sliced through the air, its anti-matter edge destroying air molecules as it went. The visual effect was quite stunning, but of limited appeal, considering it was aimed at my neck.

Not my best day . . . not that the week which preceded it was anything to write home about, either. Let's just say that if the day I accepted this particular assignment was considered to be a good day, the five days that followed formed an almost perfect downward spiral that would naturally, obviously, cumulate with being hacked into chunky, bite-sized, pieces by a homicidal lunatic with an unstoppable weapon. Frankly, I wasn't looking forward to writing up this report.

As I started to react, I used the pending report to work myself into a seriously peeved attitude. Not that it would do the least bit of good against said maniac, admittedly, but it would ensure that I was in the right frame of mind to bitch about it afterwards.

I threw myself backwards as hard as possible, landing on my shoulders and twisting to the side. The sword sizzled as it plunged into the earth behind me. I kept rolling, glimpsing the enraged killer as my head snapped around each roll. After the fourth roll, she stopped slashing at me and, instead, invested her energy into a quick sprint to get ahead of me . . . so I immediately arrested my roll, using my arms and legs to hurl myself back towards her, catching her by surprise and knocking her off her feet.

We went down in a tangle, but I managed to get to my feet first and turned to run. Prone, she flicked out her arm and, just like that, I had no legs to run with. I crumbled to the ground and watched as she calmly stood, walked over, and neatly quartered my torso with two effortless twists of her slender wrist.

The scene went blood red and a majestically evil voice intoned sculpturally, "Do you wish to throw your life away . . . ahem . . . I mean, try again?" Then it gleefully laughed at subterranean levels. I leaned back and wiped a tired hand across my lower face before muttering a curt negative into my mouthpiece, noting that the onboard timer showed that I'd lasted just a tattle past five minutes into the second level this time. I jotted down my time as the screen returned to desktop. I noticed that my email icon was flashing.

With a much stronger mutter, I reached out a virtual hand and tapped the icon. Fifteen messages had queued up while I was testing the game. I deleted the eleven office junk messages (unhelpful announcements of birthdays/showers/retirement parties, unfunny collections of jokes, and unwanted inspirational/religious tracts) before opening the letter from my father.

Since the Supreme Court had upheld the federal spam laws as constitutional, computer advertisements had become an adventure in legal hair splinting. At present, the loophole de jour was offering free email access, provided that the customer didn't mind having a small advertisement added to all outgoing mail.

When various legal organizations (both governmental and private) investigated the current practice, it was determined to be only a slight extension of what had been going on for decades. Most e-mail programs used to add a line or two, just to show that their e-mail program had been used to create the message one was reading. After a bit, several of the old national net providers did the same, to show that the originator of the message used their service. Fast-forward to the current era and the practice, in main part because it was historically accepted (and never seriously bitched about or challenged by the users at the time), was officially accepted as a legal way around the Supreme Court decision.

Before the ink dried on this little sidebar decision, some clever corporate lawyer type realized that any company could invest in a couple of thousand bucks worth of servers, register as a legal net provider, and offer their own free email access to a gullible public. The resulting feeding frenzy was predicable and, at this point, there were over a million providers offering free or inexpensive access and better than a thousand legal challenges raging, the crux of which was precise legal definition of "a small advertisement".

Pop was hooked up with FizzyGulp.Com and their "small advertisement" was a fifteen second, full-screen, full-volume, version of their latest special effect and star packed television ad immediately preceding the letter. I read the first paragraph of dad's letter before phase two kicked in, consisting of a window opening up in the middle of the letter and flashing the words "DRINK FIZZYGULP!!" at me in day glow colors before I reached over to tap the delete box . . . which playfully dodged about for a few extra flashing seconds of advertisement life.

Unwilling to deal with the rest of the standard legal FizzyGulp assault, I sent dad's letter to the printer. Three pages of FizzyGulp ads spit out, followed by dad's letter, and I quickly purged the print file before the rest of the ads could follow. A brief glance was all it took to confirm that the rest of Dad's letter was his standard combination of regretful accusation, panicked reminder, and - ultimately - reluctant forgiveness.

I sighed and slipped it into my plastic briefcase. Either the bank would accept the money I'd been able to save towards this months' mortgage payment, around sixty percent, or it wouldn't; no sense in fretting about it at work. Since my part-time night job had been Bush'd across the border last month, there was no way for me to come up with the entire amount. Well, no way except . . . I looked at the playing card I'd thumb tacked to my cubicle wall.

Some would have used the Ace of Spades, the death card, as a reminder of what gambling could lead to, or perhaps a Joker, to remind themselves of the sheer stupidity of gambling. Shunning these melodramatic clich├ęs, I used that little advertisement card that came with every deck. An ace would have aggrandized my quest for effortless riches, a wild card would have should that it was a matter of chance. The advertisement card showed the truth.

Gambling existed to separate people from their money, like ads. Weak willed morons bought whatever ads made sound essential; I bought into the advertised easy riches of gambling. Same difference. It took me the better part of a decade to learn this and the lesson had cost me everything I owned (and might, ultimately, do the same for Dad).

No, I'd find a new part-time position, maybe get promoted here, and there'd be no problem. Until then, I still had to figure out how to get the bank to work with me. Maybe they'd accept the partial payment and give me an extension for the remainder. If they would just wait until next payday, I could cover the remaining amount. Of course, it meant another two weeks of peanut butter sandwiches, three times a day, but I was getting used to that.

I carefully checked the 'From' lines of the rest of my personal mail. My sister was with MajorSnackies.Com and my daughter used FlashRun.Net. (My ex-wife, with a current address at DykeLife.Org, never wrote me, praise Murphy.) I forwarded their notes to my home computer, where a simple, yet technically illegal, program would strip away the unwanted advertising, and opened an in-house message from one of our managers (and my current headache), Joshua Boggs.

Josh had a minor in art to accompany his degree in marketing, so he tended towards visual messages. This one was a brief animated cartoon, where he was riding a lawnmower under a bright sun. The sun turned into a stopwatch and the picture slowly panned back to show that the grass he was happily mowing happened to be growing on my butt. Clever guy.

I wrote a reply, reminding him that "CyberPsycho" was officially his baby and personal responsibility, that he'd only brought me in after it was already several months overdue, and that there were many, many really huge lawnmowers lined up to roll over his managerial buttocks, so back off and let me work, Bogghole! I enjoyed it for a moment, changing the odd phrase or word choice to make it all the more cutting . . . then blanked the screen and sent a realistic reply, telling him I'd be done by the end of the week, maybe sooner. Pride was fine, but a paycheck is a holy relic; priorities must be observed.

The last message was from Gloria (who'd I been half-heartedly pursuing for the better part of a month), canceling our lunch date. Turns out she was testing "WereRobot" and was going to have to order in. I almost went limp with relief; I'd forgotten about the date and didn't have the money for it, anyway. I wrote her back, telling her we'd reschedule for sometime soon and suggesting we simply introduce my psycho to her robot and only market the survivor.

My mail break over, I ran through the "CyberPsycho" menu options and selected a different combination of skills, weaponry, and armor. When the deep laughter died away this time, I'd managed to last a full eight minutes into the third level. I checked my running score and sighed.

Nobody was going to play a game where they couldn't get further than the third level in better than fifty tries! I opened my official report and made a quick note, writing that there had to be closer parity until at least the tenth level, or else the youth of today would simply walk away. The program was bug free, but way too hard, which was easily the equivalent of a bug. Perhaps some well-placed Easter Eggs might do it. Hmmm . . . I shut the report and returned to the game.

I tapped the new game icon and, using a program code to halt hostilities, started looking for places for the software engineers to hide Easter Eggs, those lovely little undocumented surprises gamers loved so much. Done correctly, these sly aides could mean a few thousand more players. A sixty second invulnerability, a weapon ten times as powerful as the psycho's, a hidden door that automatically transports the player to a hidden training center or skips over several levels; these are the hidden bric-a-brac which players would spend an extra ten bucks for "How to" manuals in order to find, then trade between themselves. Toss in a few "accidental" cheat codes (such as the one I was currently using) and the multitudes would play until they were ready for the update (buying the update manuals), then keep playing until the extension pack (buying the extension pack manuals), then keep playing until we were ready for "CyberPsycho II." (Provided, of course, we actually got "CyberPsycho" onto the shelves in the first place.)

I made screen prints everywhere I thought a good egg would fit and was getting ready to start documenting exactly where our little psycho needed to be toned down, when something buzzed nearby. I scanned the screen, but nothing was active. The buzzing continued, so I took off my headset and looked around my cubby in annoyance.

It took me a few buzzes to identify just what the hell was making that noise and another entire buzz to locate the silly thing. I'd worked at Millennium Madness Mall for almost three years and this was the first phone call I'd received. (What can I say, technoclowns tend to e-mail or flash . . . and we were all bozos on this bus.) The buzzing stopped when I picked up the handset.

"Ahem . . . Yes? Hello?" Nobody replied, and then I noticed that a very faint voice was speaking to my lips. So I turned the handset around and spoke into the other end. "Hello?"

To be continued...

Article © Sailor Jim Johnston. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-04-24
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