Happy Birthday to Me
It was my fourteenth birthday, and I was arguing with a bus. How pathetic is that?
Even before the bus had started in on me, my mood wasn't exactly the best it's ever been. Birthdays do that to me. This year I didn't even have a good excuse: I had actually received my birthday gift from my father on time, which might have been a sign he was making an effort to be a more considerate and involved dad. Of course, if he was really considerate and involved, he wouldn't have had his secretary call to ask me what kind of gift certificate I wanted for my birthday.
Whatever. Birthday = don't-mess-with-me mood.
So there I was, on my way to cash in my gift certificate, riding on a bus powered by artificial intelligence-emphasis on the artificial.
I saw the picketers just as the bus paged me: "Passenger Giannine Bellisario, you asked to disembark at the Rasmussem Gaming Center, but there is a civil disturbance at your stop. Do you wish to continue to another destination, or would you prefer to be returned to the location at which you boarded?" The voice was kind and polite and only slightly metallic.
I was not polite. I sighed. Loudly. "Are they on strike?" I asked into the speaker embedded in the armrest.
There was a brief pause while the bus's computer brain accessed Central Information. "Rasmussem employees are not on strike," the bus reassured me, at just about the same time that I could make out the picketers' signs. "The demonstration is by members of CPOC."
I sighed even louder. They pronounce it, C pock. It stands for Citizens to Protect Our Children. As a fourteen-year-old, I qualify-by society's definition-as a child. I am willing to accept protection from stray meteors, ecoterrorists, and my seven-year-old cousin, Todd. But I don't feel in need of protecting by CPOC, which strongly believes that only G-rated movies should be made and that libraries should stock only nice, uplifting books that promote solid family values-nice being defined as nothing supernatural, nothing violent, nothing scary. That about kills my entire reading list. I think there are a couple alphabet books they approve of. Still, as far as I knew, this was the first time they'd ever come after Rasmussem.
I have excellent timing like that.
As the bus passed by the patch of sidewalk the picketers had claimed, I could read their signs: MAGIC = SATANISM and VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE and INAPPROPRIATE FOR OUR CHILDREN.
"Why can't you drop me off?" I asked. "Legally, they aren't allowed to obstruct anyone from going in." I'd learned that in Participation in Government class.
"Rochester Transit Authority is prohibited from letting a minor disembark into a situation that might be hazardous," the bus told me.
A little bit of artificial intelligence can be an annoying thing. "What are they going to do: smack me on the head with a pamphlet?" I asked.
The bus didn't answer and kept on moving. I was not going to win an argument, I could tell.
"Well, then," I said, "let me off at the next stop."
"Not if you intend to return to the Rasmussem Gaming Center stop," the bus responded.
I checked our progress on the real-time electronic route map displayed on the back of the seat in front of me and told the bus, "Of course not. I want to be dropped off at the art museum."
"That is on this vehicle's route and is only one block away," the bus told me. "Estimated time of arrival, thirty seconds."
So much for artificial intelligence. A human bus driver could have guessed that I had not developed a sudden craving for culture. Then again, a human bus driver probably wouldn't have cared, any more than the other passengers did.
The bus stopped in front of the museum. "Have a nice day, Giannine Bellisario," the bus told me.
I smiled and gave a Queen Victoria wave, and muttered under my breath, "Your mother was a toaster oven."
AS I APPROACHED the gaming center, I could see the picketers were quiet and orderly; so using my human intelligence, I deduced they weren't dangerous. Once I got in front of the building, I sprinted for the doorway. It was beneath a large red-and-gold sign flanked by rearing dragons: RASMUSSEM GAMING CENTER.
At least one of the picketers realized my intent and started quoting some Bible verse at me, complete with yeas and thous and wicked ones.
I started walking faster, and he started quoting faster, which would have been fine except he was also moving to cut me off. I reached the door and a Rasmussem employee opened it for me, which was better service than they'd ever provided before. He was probably set there to make sure the picketers didn't physically interfere with the customers. Once the door was shut behind me, that blocked out road noise and protester noise alike.
The lobby of a Rasmussem Gaming Center looks pretty much like the lobby of a movie theater. Lots of slick posters advertising the latest games, a concession stand, booths where you can feed in tokens and play some of the older virtual reality arcade-type games. For a Saturday on a nice May afternoon, the place looked dead, though the popcorn machine was going, wafting the enticing smell of fresh popcorn all the way down to the doors where I'd come in.
But I was self-disciplined and resisted. I went up to the reception desk in the waiting area. The total immersion gaming rooms were beyond, where they hook you up to the computer-as an individual or with a group-to experience a role-playing fantasy.
There were a pair of older boys, late high school or maybe even college age, sprawled in the comfy chairs in the waiting area, looking as though they'd been there awhile. They glanced up hopefully when they spotted me, then returned to leafing through their catalogs and poking at each other and trying to look cool for the receptionist, who was tapping her computer keys with the speed, concentration, and fervor of someone who had to be playing Tetris instead of working.
She must have made a game-ending mistake for she scowled and looked up. "Welcome to Rasmussem Gaming Center," she said. She wore a gown that was a medieval style but that shimmered and slowly shifted color, going from pink to lavender to deep purple to blue. I knew that if I watched long enough, it would cycle through the rainbow. There was one of those new genetically engineered dragons on her desk, hamster-sized and unpleasant: It had been trying to tip over the receptionist's nameplate, and when I placed my gift certificate on the desk, the little beast lunged at me. "He's just playing," the receptionist assured me as I snatched my hand back. "It's his way of greeting you."
Sure. I have an uncle who'll tell you the same thing about his rottweiler.
The receptionist looked at the gift certificate. "This will get you half an hour of total immersion game time or forty-five tokens for the arcade games up front. You can play your own module, or you can join other players." She pointed toward the older boys. Her desk dragon dove and nipped at the trailing edge of her sleeve. The tiny chain that tethered him to her pen holder yanked him up short, and he hovered, his leathery wings fluttering. The receptionist ignored him. "They're trying to form up a foursome to play Dragons Doom. Interested?"
I don't like to play role-playing games with people I don't know, and besides, I figured an eighth-grade girl with a seventh-grader's figure probably wasn't exactly what they'd been hoping for, either.
"No, I'll play with computer-generated characters," I said.
The receptionist nodded. I could see her set herself on automatic pilot. "Because the computer directly stimulates your brain, you will feel as though you're actually experiencing the adventure." She must have said this about a million times a day, because she spoke quickly and without inflection, so that if I hadn't known what she was talking about, I wouldn't have known what she was talking about. "Half an hour of game time will take you through the three days of your chosen computer adventure. You will smell the smells, taste the tastes, feel the texture of the clothes you're wearing and the things you touch. You will experience cold if your computer persona is in a situation where he or she would feel cold, just as you will feel hunger and you might feel pain. If your persona is killed off, you will not, of course, feel that pain. You are guaranteed at least thirty minutes of playtime. If you get killed before your thirty minutes have been used up, you will be given another life and the adventure will automatically restart. Once you have started a life, you will be able to continue until you successfully finish or until you are killed, even if your thirty minutes runs out partway through. Any questions?"
I shook my head.
"Want to check out the promos?" She pointed to the alcoves, and her dragon once again lunged and missed.
At the promo station, the computer recognized my handprint and showed the names of the games I'd played the other times I'd been here, as well as the game I'd played when I'd visited my cousins in Baltimore and we'd gone to the Rasmussem Center there. The screen showed the dates I'd played and the scores I'd received. I pressed the button indicating I wanted to view the trailers for games that could be played in half an hour or under.
Alien Conflict I didn't even bother with, nor Dinosaur Safari. I watched the promo for Lost in Time and decided it looked too complicated. It was probably the kind of game where you had to come back four or five times before you got anywhere. Weatherly Manor was a haunted-house game that looked like a possibility, though the computer knew my birth date, which meant I would get the toned-down version for those under sixteen. A Witch's Stew sounded too young even though this list was supposed to be age specific. Sword of Talla looked interesting, and I was thinking I'd probably go with that, when I pressed the button for Heir Apparent.
The voice-over described Heir Apparent as a game of strategy and shifting alliances. "The king has died," the voice said. "Are you next in line for the throne, or next in line to die?" There was a flurry of quick scenes: a castle on a hill, an army assembling, a dragon, someone being pursued through the woods, a wizard tossing powder into the air, and an eagle forming from the powder and lunging-talons outstretched-so that he looked about to come straight out of the screen, and I instinctively jerked back. "Who can you trust?" the voice asked. The screen went dark with an ominous thud like a dungeon door slamming. A child's voice whispered, "Bad choice," and cackling laughter echoed while the name Heir Apparent flashed on the screen, then slowly faded.
I found myself more inclined toward Heir Apparent than Sword of Talla, and knew myself well enough to know why. In the montage of scenes, there had been some really good-looking guys. Probably not the smartest way to choose a game. On the other hand, it made no sense to pick a game specifically because it had nobody interesting-looking.
I went back to the receptionist. "Heir Apparent for girls as well as boys?"
The receptionist had been filing her nails while waiting, and now that she paused, the desk dragon leaped and clung on to the emery board, gnawing at the edge. She shook him off. "Yes," she told me, "a female character can inherit the throne and become king if she makes the right decisions."
"Is there only one set of right decisions?" I asked. That could make for a frustrating game, the kind you have to play over and over.
"Heir Apparent," she said, "is like bean soup."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Playing Heir Apparent," she explained, "is like making bean soup, whereas Dragons Doom is more like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
I had no idea what she was talking about.
"With Dragons Doom, all you've got to do is remember you're making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and you'll end up with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Barring, of course, dropping the bread, peanut-butter-side down, onto the floor."
"Of course," I agreed, just to humor her.
She continued, "But with Heir Apparent, you can approach in any one of several ways, and still end up with bean soup. You can use pinto beans or black beans or navy beans. You could maybe add macaroni, or not, and you'd still end up with bean soup. But there're all sorts of dangers-if you do decide to use macaroni but you add it too late, it's undercooked, maybe even crunchy. Add it too early, and it becomes mushy. You can have too much salt, not enough pepper. Tarragon might help, or it might make the whole thing bitter." She leaned forward confidentially. "And that's not even getting into the question of boil or simmer."
Just my luck to get an explanation from someone who didn't know when to give up a bad metaphor. "Not just one set of right decisions?" I interpreted. "Okay, I'll go for it."
Just then her desk dragon pooped on the desk.
I should have taken it as an omen.
Copyright © 2002 by Vande Velde, Vivian
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