Friday, April 13, 2007

The Trooper

The trooper was pissing him off. The workhorse of the game. The plasma trooper.

The cubicle was a pool of lamplight in the darkness, amidst a small labyrinth of other "cubes". Don was the last one there. In "design-crunch", cranking in extra hours on the design to deliver to the team, so it could get to work Monday without confusion or delays. He was tired. The others had gone to see the new movie that was the buzz there, but he had opted out. He was sucking it up, as he had done before. That's what it took.

He had defined the unit properties days ago. Starting with the "workhorse" - the plasma infantry. Now he was on the advanced units - anti-grav tanks, heavy walkers, psion floaters. Giving special attacks, special powers. Making them unique to their factions. Now coming back to the plasma troopers he realized he had defined the properties in a way that wouldn't work.

They were trying a new combat feature, one mainly relevant to the advanced units. But he built the unit properties starting from this workhorse unit the plasma infantry, and working out to where he was now - adding the desired features to the advanced units one at a time. He realized this now made plasma infantry untenable. It wasn't just a data balancing issue - the key combat ability depended on how they deployed, but they weren't supposed to deploy this way. Anyway it now looked like he had to rip them apart and rebuild, but in so doing he was going to have to rip apart all the units and start over. Now he was trying to figure out if there was a cheat, some way he could use to utilized the existing unit data structure and just append a new property so he didn't have to go back and rebuild it all. He tried one, but he knew it would have this weird effect that the plasma infantry would be more powerful than some of the advanced units, throwing everything off.

Whose idea was this goddamn new feature anyway? Oh, that's right: it was his. Well, it was, originally... in a different form, based on an idea he got from a story he read. But it somehow got changed when he talked to the producer. Got really changed to something... unrecognizable now, really. But they were there committed to doing it. So here he was... Ah, shit. That's right. Get it done. Suck it up.

He was hashing things in his mind. He pushed the chair back from his workstation. Closed his eyes and rubbed them. Turned his brain off for a moment.

This sort of thing was par for the course in design.

What's the time? God, it's past midnight.

He hadn't slept much the prior night either. Lately, sometimes when he stood the ground would spin. He thought it might go away, it was just fatigue, but maybe he should see a doctor.

"Hey, Don."

He recognized the voice of Chris, the receptionist. He looked up, but didn't see her. What was she doing here? He knew they had given her a task, but the receptionists never crunched like the rest of them. (They were sane.) Maybe she was playing solitaire and lost track of time.

"What's up?" he asking, standing up. She must be in the front room.

Chris was nice. Had a warm smile, and a good sense of humour though stuck admist a crew of mostly male geeks who lived in odd sand castle worlds. Sometimes when he passed by her in the morning and said hello he got this vague feeling she was looking around the place in a kind of disbelief - like it was some kind of a trick being played on her. That she was an ordinary person who went to work in a strange Neverworld Disneyland. Her eyes seemed to betray a feeling that at any moment someone would point out the hidden camera trained on her, but that she was going along with it anyway, staying in on the joke, even though no one would admit to it. After all, it was a good job.

He remembered one time, working on a title similar to this, Chris walked by his cube and saw a grunt unit on the screen like the one Don was working on now. The walking animation attracted her it seemed, and she looked down and started to ask about the little trooper, who he was, what he was doing, what his name was, what his dreams and ambitions were. It seemed an odd thing to ask, Don thought.

"There's someone here for you," Chris said.

What? At this time?

"Who is it?"

"I really think you need to come here."

Don got up, walked toward the reception. As he turned the corner something struck him as odd. From here, across the cube farm, he could always see clear through to reception at the other end of the studio. But it was empty.

"He's waiting."

Chris again. From somewhere else. Maybe she went to get this person a soda.

He shrugged. "Okay." Walked to reception.

He looked at the floor, the carpet sliding by, as he walked. Rubbed his forehead. It was probably someone back from the movie; maybe they left something. But why would they...?

Into reception and-

Dead stop.

He stared, and the breath rushed out of his lungs.

"Reporting in," it said.

What the fuck? "Ummm... What are you?"

"Five Delta, reporting in."

This must be some joke. The guys were back, yah... But that costume! My god, it looked real! They must've had it custom built. It looked just like-

"Wow, that's good, guys," Don said as he looked around to see where the others were hiding. He walked over to get a closeup look, to touch the battle armor.

The trooper stood rock still.

Don touched the costume and stopped dead. He was expecting to feel vacuum-formed plastic or styrofoam or something. That's not what it felt like.

It was metal. He looked closely at the details on the equipment belt. Holy shit that looks real. The trooper's... plasma rifle: it was radiating heat! The visor covering his helmet: pocked and scratched from shrapnel. He looked at the visor, could not see the face, the eyes behind it. But vaguely he sensed it... looking at him.

"No fucking joke, sir," the trooper said.

What the hell was this?, Don wondered. This is impossible.

"Who are you?"

The trooper slung the plasma rifle over his shoulder. "I already told you, sir. Five Delta reporting in."

Don didn't know what to say.

"The situation is this," said the trooper. "Our platoon is holed up in an outpost waiting for reinforcements. They are going to get overrun if they don't get help. The commander sent me because all the guys in my squad are dead anyway..."

Don rubbed his heys. The room started to spin slightly.

"I don't want to lose those men, sir. The commander told me you would know what to do."

Don looked away, then at the trooper. This wasn't happening.

The trooper walked up to him. "You know who I am right?"

Don stared at him.

The trooper took his mask off. A face emerged from behind, looking at Don in the eyes. It scared the game designer.

"You know who I am don't you."

Don was freaking. "Fuck! Yah, I know who you are. I made you!"

The trooper's eyes narrowed. "You telling me you've got nothing for me? No orders? No reinforcements? Nothing to bring my men?"

"Your men! What men? Hell, I spawned your men! If they all die I'll just respawn them again. They're just a class. A type. An entity declaration. A property set, nothing more."

The trooper looked steadily at Don. Don didn't like the feeling the look gave him.

"What the fuck do you want with me?," he yelled at the trooper.

The trooper took a step back and looked up at the ceiling toward nothing in particular. Don saw his whole expression change for a moment. For the barest moment. As if a stone cracking into softness, if that could happen - he saw it in his eyes.

Then the hardness swept back over his face. The trooper dropped the plasma gun. He dropped his helmet. He took off his equipment belt. Next his chest armor. The rest of it. All clattering off, lying in a big heap on the ground. Stripping down to basic fatigues. He stood over it, looking at Don now.

"This is yours," the trooper said. "This pile of junk."

Don said nothing.

"It's useless without me, but it's what you know."

Suddenly the trooper turned, sharply, with honed reflexes. Slid out the door.

"Wait," Don said, running after him. Running out, he caught a glimpse of the trooper, flying silently down the stairwell. Moving fast, as if on some secret mission. Don ran after him. The trooper went past the ground floor. He went down into the basement. Don found himself underground somehow, the plasma trooper ahead moving as a shadow through the chambers and tunnels. But he couldn't keep up. The trooper slipped away, disappeared from view.

* * * * *

Don sat in his cube. The spinning had faded.

What happened? God, he needed rest.

He looked again at the spreadsheet. At the logic sequence for the current cell. He knew he had a long way to go. Needed to soldier on to get it done - brute force, power his way through this design.

The numbers looked back at him. The mechanism and matrix he made. Something about it seemed confused. He thought again about soldiering through. And he felt confused.

He didn't like that feeling.

He thought of the trooper.

He thought of the game. What were they trying to do with it?

He thought long and hard, but it seemed the more he thought the less he could see.

What time was it? My God it's late. He needed to sleep.

Still he couldn't shake this. What happened? What did he see?

Somehow, this didn't bode well.

He looked at the calender on his cube wall. He saw the days til the next milestone. But then he flipped through the months. And in his mind he flipped through the years. The years ahead. They looked grey.

He thought of the trooper, the real one he met for a moment - slipping out, away from his life. Suddenly he longed to speak to the trooper. Questions came, flooding, but knew he couldn't ask them. Because he was gone. Because he missed the chance.

And for a moment, for a second, it scared him. Something about the years ahead of him. It scared him. Just for a second...

It didn't bode well, and he knew it.

It did not bode well.