>>> Alan’s loft loaded into his view, rendered at first only in dozens of pixels but scaled to millions rapidly and exponentially. For an almost imperceptibly brief moment his world was a mosaic of 1024 large panels colored to represent an imprecise image of the artwork, plants, and furniture that made up his home. The panels grew in numbers and shrunk in size such that in an instant Alan no longer saw a mosaic but his living room: his alice blue couch on the concrete floor; a bookshelf along the wall to the left filled with links to acquantainces; a trio of plants on a chest along the right. The furthest wall was made of glass with a view of the New Dallas skyline. He stumbled from the loading pad onto his couch and slumped into it. He covered his eyes with his right arm and waited for the loading sickness to subside. Alan usually got hit by the loading sickness, and this time it was pretty bad. Piper waddled towards him from the kitchen on his hind legs, carefully balancing a glass of cold water in his furry forepaws.

“Here you go Al,” Piper said as he handed him the cup.

Alan took a long gulp from it. He inhaled deeply and let out his breath.

“Thanks Piper,” he said. He sat upright and scratched Piper behind the ears.

“Sure,” Piper said and leaped onto the couch next to him. He rested his graying chin on Alan’s lap. “You couldn’t wait any longer to hear more about Ed’s contract, eh?” he asked.

“No I couldn’t. It’s been, what, five years since the last time he got ahold of me?”

“Six. He contacted you roughly one year after you purchased me, and that was five years, four months, and seven days ago.

“You’re really keeping track of the days, huh?” Alan said. “I guess I missed our five year anniversary.” He laughed.

“It’s okay Al. All is forgiven. For our tenth I expect a cake,” Piper guffawed and wagged his tail.

They both laughed.

“So, what did he say about the gig? Did he say what the reward was?”

“He mentioned there are multiple rounds of payouts, and they’d be higher than what you received for the Streams feature. From what I gather this is an important project for MRT.”

Bigger than Streams? Alan thought. He earned a lot for that work–so much he could have added a multiplayer slot to his world. He ended up unlocking new countries instead, including China. He salivated at the thought of sharing his world with another person. “That’s a lot of moolah,” he finally replied.

“Indeed. He said he can share more details once you’ve finished your current contract. He suggested you hurry while there are still beta tester slots left.”

“Back us out of the last job,” Alan moaned, “let someone else pick it up. I wanna work this new one.”

“We could have done that Al, except you already backed out of two other contracts this quarter. You’ve hit your limit.”

“Fine,” Alan grunted. “Can you bring up the details? I need a refresher.”

“Sure Al, sure,” Piper said. He leaped off the couch onto the rug and sat towards Alan on his hind legs, and raised his right paw. From it projected a hologram of a document interpolated with 3D images and blocks of text. It was titled “APGS-2077.” Below that were two red labels with the words “defect” and “breaking.”

“A-P-G-S,” Alan spelled aloud. “That’s Artificial Population Generation Service, I think. This bug’s got something to do with bots.”

“Correct,” Piper replied. “MRT recently began offering new ways to upgrade experiences across New Horizons. One of those upgrades is smarter AI for simulated humans.”

“How smart?” Alan asked, “like digipal smart?”

“Not quite. That would require too much processing power for how many simulated people populate a given world. Besides, MRT would simply not allow your favorite digital companions to become so replaceable,” Piper said smugly and let out of Woof!

Alan rolled his eyes. “Alright, so what’s the bug then?”

“When these simulated humans are alone they consume the expected level of resources from the system’s CPU. When they interact with each other in some unquantified but presumably large number, however, they consume a dangerously high amount,” Piper said.

“How high?” Alan asked.

“High enough that it caused the worlds of a dozen citizens to reboot before they caught and pulled it.”

“So, pretty high,” Alan said coolly.

“Yes Al, ‘pretty high,’” Piper huffed.

“What’s MRT want?”

“A bug report,” Piper said. “Reproduce the issue, record the steps you took, and gather as much data you can.”

“Is that all? Easy money,” Alan grinned. “When can I start?”

“Right now, if you’d like,” Piper replied. The hologram cut off from his paw. “I’ve added the upgrade to your world. There is a new setting in on your watch to enable it. You can turn it on and start any time.”

No reason to wait, Alan thought. He tapped his watch till he found the setting: Smarter Simulated People, and enabled it. He shuddered. Did he just feel the physical changes that must have taken place outside his world when he switched on the feature? Perhaps a system process restarting with new configurations, or more CPU servers attaching to his world to handle the new load?

“Thanks Piper,” Alan said. He reached over and rubbed his dog’s head affectionately.

“No problem Al. Best of luck to you,” Piper replied. He trotted out of the living room, down the hall into his bedroom, and nudged the door closed with his head.

Alan looked out the glass wall onto the contours of his city: the imposing black silhouettes of the windowless server farms that towered brightly lit industrial corridors; the night sky bathed in a buzzy white; a drone flying quietly between two high rises. This was the newer part of Dallas, purpose-built for computing and designed around machines. He had his loft set here to remind him of his youth. Fresh out of technical school, he worked for a few years as a data center operator. Life was simplicity itself: he had but one responsibility–take care of the growing army of computers slowly replacing human work–and zero ambitions.

He was one step closer to getting into the beta test, and if the payout was as big as he hoped, he could add one or maybe even two multiplayer slots. He could even have a slot installed before this year’s First New Dawn party, depending on the timing. He’d really stand out at the party.

Alan turned his thoughts to the current job. He had to round up a bunch of bots in one place and do some debugging. He needed a place with a high population density during a large event, like a festival. For his own amusement it wouldn’t hurt going somewhere he hadn’t been to in awhile. After some pondering, he used his watch to set the date of his world to November 1st and loaded into Mexico City.

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