Miller smelled her before he raised his eyes from the computer screen; spring flowers wafting through the usual miasma of stale food, coffee, and adolescent male body odor.
He half stood up from his chair and peered towards the entrance of the internet cafe; he saw her as she was moving towards the sandwich bar. Around him, the entire place became quiet as astonished boys and young men one by one noted the female-intruder’s presence.
She arrived at the counter and immediately engaged the wide-eyed manager in a muffled conversation. Then she turned, smiled at Miller, and made direct eye-contact with him.
It felt like an electric shock; Miller stared back, feeling the flush blotch his neck and face, the sweat dot his forehead. He came all the way to his feet, unable to break free of her gaze. She began to walk in his direction.
Miller sank into his chair as she approached.
“Hi,” she said, “I’m Frances Choi.”
Miller felt her presence like a burst of energy, her face hanging over his as he peered up from under his brows and clutched his chair-arms. “I’m … I’m,…” he attempted to say.
“I need someone here to test-ride a new game,” she said. “I think you’ll do.”
“I … uh …. what?” he sputtered.
She laughed. “Do you mind if I take your place for a moment?”
“Uh … no … no, I guess,” and he jumped to his feet, nearly bumping her. “I’m Miller Shapiro,” he said as he stumbled out of her way and rotated the chair so she could sit down.
“Thank you Miller!” She folded herself neatly into the seat, one knee draped over the other, one high-heeled pump glinting as it hung in the air. “I’m going to show you where you can find what you need in order to play our new game.”
He watched over her shoulder as she typed an address and then entered a password. “Uh, is this going to cost me anything?” he asked. “Do I have to do anything besides try the game?”
She continued watching the monitor. “Of course not! Our developer is a renowned sculptor and artist — he’s also a mathematician and philosopher. He taught for years at a major university in South Korea.”
South Korea? Miller wondered what she was doing in Philadelphia, in the Star and Sword.
“I’ve been dispatched around the world, to visit different PC Bangs — Pissibangs — cybercafes — and find people willing to play our game.” She rose and gestured gracefully. “Okay, Miller, you can sit again.” She stepped to the side. “Now listen,” she said, bending over and setting a small, dark-green, domed device on the table next to his right hand ”This is a new kind of controller; note the options are omni-directional and the increments of virtual change, infinite. Our game is called ‘Evolution’ and it is unlike anything you’ve played before.” She straightened and folded her arms. “Are you following me?”
“Uh, yeah,” he answered. On the screen before him was a pdf file — some kind of manual with a detailed index.
“You have an almost unlimited ability to reshape environments, choose time-lines, epochs, dimensions, and create your own identity, including clothing, appearance, history, and skills….”
“But what is the game about? What are my goals?” Miller asked, trying to make sense of the chapter titles that read, “Violence will not be rewarded. If you have to fight, you will lose.” And, “Progress depends on wit and heart, not weapons.” He felt dizzy.
“I am not permitted to tell you too much,” Frances Choi said. “Here….” She held out a small square of folded paper.
Miller squinted at it as she pinched it by a corner above his head. He wondered where she’d gotten it from, since she didn’t appear to be carrying a purse or briefcase and didn’t have pockets that he could see.
“This is your password. Guard it well. With this, you can access ‘Evolution’ and the Rules of the Game from any location.” She reached down and grasped his left hand, turned it over, pushed the folded paper into the cup of his palm and firmly pressed his fingers over it.
“Who’s playing with me? Other people around the world?” Miller asked.
“This is massively multiplayer — all your choices, changes, customizations will be subject to the whims of others, just as their worlds can be appended by you.”
“But, what is the goal? What is the purpose of our progress?” Miller Shapiro asked, his face puckering with frustration.
“This is a new way of looking at the universe,” she answered. ”The gamer network, the connections are like neurons of a species-wide mind. Step back and observe — what is the current paradigm? Compete, fight, defeat, kill, and advance. You are about to undergo a paradigm shift.”
“But … but it’s just a game, right?”
“Of course,” Frances Choi answered. ”That’s all it ever was.” She walked a few feet into the aisle, then turned. “You’ll find everything you need to know in your Rules of the Game. Good luck.”