Liquid Reign Excerpt (Welcome to the Galaxy)

The following post is an excerpt from my new novel Liquid Reign.

https://liquid-reign.com/access-the-book

Welcome to the Galaxy

Ana’s just seen Phil in the cafeteria. He saw her, too, but didn’t come over when she waved at him.

His heart froze the moment he saw her. Phil will be moving to Uruguay in a week. And he can’t even explain to her why this is the most important thing in his life. His contact was uncompromising about it — nobody can know, not even if they’re Green Army Fraction sympathizers. They had also made it very clear that anyone close to him might be in danger if they knew. So he just pretends he didn’t see Ana and walks out. He needs to think it through first, and if they’re going talk, it certainly won’t be in a public place like this.

He’s not responding to any of Ana’s twenty messages, either. The tears burst out the moment she closes the door to her room. What the fuck is wrong with that guy? They hardly knew each other before, but he can’t just pretend that night by the waterfall was nothing… Sad and angry, she decides to take the edge off by killing some stuff. In VR, obviously. The “reality first” spiel may have sounded convincing in the forest, but honestly, fuck Realigans. Fuck Phil. She logs in.

First things first: Ana calls Sue, her best friend back in Venezuela. They meet on the rim of their favorite volcano. They first talk about Phil for a couple of minutes — but there is only so much to say about boys, so Sue calls it Bechtel time and they change to their favorite topic — their biggest idol. Sue and Ana have both been huge fans ever since they heard about Helen in their primary school cryptography class. Sue wants to hear everything about Ana’s Pseudonymous adventure searching for her. Ana gladly elaborates:

She’d followed the lead discovered by her thesis to a point where it started to scare her — the Pseudonymus archive requested her geolocation at entry. Feeling like a proper spy, she had even printed a set of fingerprint modifiers before she left home. Later that evening, she’d driven to Pium, a mosquito-invested village two hours west of Palmas. Pium has a reputation as a location for anonymous VR porn dumb holes, making it ideal for undercover investigations. She had found a place accepting cash payments and requiring no TrueName login, entering Galaxycraft there.

The archive had requested her geolocation, permission granted — located in Pium — and she was in. The full list of Pseudonymous members was right there, if outdated — from 2043, but still. She remembers holding her breath, searching for Helen’s name.

Ana had barely managed to copy the profile data before her access shut down and Pseudonymous fighters appeared. After logoff, she’d printed the info on a sheet of paper from the IA suit’s memory and got out of town as fast as she could, taking a detour via an unmarked forest track, just in case they had a real world agent going after her. The downer came when she reached home: The contact details turned out to be invalid.

After a few very soothing hours with Sue, Ana curls up on her home screen sofa, cuddling her bunny prince. That’s when she gets the message from Daniel. She opens a voice channel.

“Daniel! I wanted to write you earlier, sorry. I was really close! I found Helen’s nym, name and her address in Nevada in an old database by this spy organization… But they kicked me out before I could contact her. And the nym came up invalid when I pinged it. But at least that’s a starting point…”

Daniel is alarmed — Ana sounds troubled: “Anything wrong?”

She swallows a lump in her throat. “Yes. No. I mean, I’m OK.” A tear rolls down Ana’s cheek inside the VR suit. “I saw the data two days ago. But it took a while to get in and safely out again, sorry I meant to write you earlier… I… I was distracted. By this guy. Anyway, I guess I’ve played all my cards now regarding Helen… Any more luck on site in Nevada?”

Daniel notes ‘this guy’ with curiosity. But first: “Helen left Gerlach in a chopper. Day before yesterday. I guess she got scared… At least she’s alive and still interacts with the world. No idea where she might have gone.”

Oh no, this day is just pure misery. Now she’s also fucked up Daniel’s love life. Ana briefly thinks about a quiet existence in a nunnery somewhere: “Oh no, don’t tell me it was my fault! I’m so sorry!”

Daniel still feels empty, but he’d never blame Ana for what happened. “Don’t worry. After all, I asked you to look for her… I guess I could have expected her reaction to any attempt, but… “

Ana’s voice is trembling, she’s feeling terrible. “I’m so sorry I scared her! Is there anything I can do to make up for it?”

“Just let me get this straight… Did you say Helen is in a spy group?”

“Yes. The database archive I found was eight years old and no longer in use, but the group only became a powerful player more recently.” Ana checks out her printed notes “So, Helen was a galactic admiral with them in Version 21.83.”

“Is that good news? I guess high ranking Pseudonymous agents are not simply hyperstim freaks pushing their nucleus accumbens all day long, right?” That would at least confirm that she’s not just an addict.

Ana confirms: “Definitely not. They’re the best spec ops team out there and Helen holds a top strategic rank among them.”

Daniel has a lump in the throat, his eyes filling up. “There must be a way to contact her… through Galaxycraft maybe?”

Ana hears his voice change. He seems hurt, but unfortunately she has no good answer for him: “We should certainly try. But it won’t be that easy. The new Pseudonymous system is a lot more complex, there’s no central member database any more. Rumor has it that classic secret services used them as a recruitment pool, so as a galactic admiral Helen probably worked with a lot of people who now are higher-ups at regular security agencies. The difference between real world and game gets blurry there.” She has to think of Phil again for a moment. Realigans are just stupid, virtual and solid world are so mixed up, there’s no point in just ignoring half the world. Her disappointment with him is slowly turning into anger and contempt. How could she have a crush on such a douche?

Daniel thinks back of Claire’s description of her falling out with Helen. She said something about real meaning in VR and that she wouldn’t tell Claire for safety reasons. It starts to make sense. “The secret service is recruiting gamers?”

“Sure. Esport skills show up on most job requirements. Especially Galaxycraft.” And being in masters league definitely helped Ana get admitted to university.

Daniel remembers “Mh, they used to recruit gamers as drone pilots back in the day.” And putting it in the bigger picture “And generals in ancient China had to be Dan-Level Go players…” He pauses for a moment, thinking: “Sirvi, can you give me a short summary of the Pseudonymous wiki article?”

Sirvi cites: “They are a decentral autonomous secret service cooperative. The organization is based on a short codex, around the principle ‘No power for nobody’. As soon as they finish an operation, they publish all data and the details of how they got it. Their funding comes from an anonymous crowd, and sometimes even includes public service contracts.”

“Oh, I see.” So Helen found a place where she can do her spy agency stuff without compromising on her ethics, great for her. “Mh, so, I guess it’s time for me to play some Galaxycraft, too… How does the gameplay work?”

Ana falls back into her role from their first interactions — explaining the noob how to play a game: “It’s a multi-level galaxy simulation, so the type of play depends on your position in society — it can be a spy game, a solider game, a strategy game, a political simulation — you chose which job you take on in the game. And it encourages you to play jointly with your operating system in Archon mode, so you can train it to complement your play style. Maybe we should just start with a training round, that should help… Any preferences?”

“Great idea. Let me try the strategy part first.” Gaming would at least get his mind off this mess.

Galaxycraft. Action 7 of 10, Thrill, 10 of 10, Exploration 8 of 10, Realism 2 of 10, Sex 3 of 10, Altered States 3 of 10, Addiction Risk 7 of 10;

Ana is confused for a moment — the Addiction Risk rating is new, and she never thought of Galaxycraft of all games as addictive. There is so little sensual pleasure stimulation in it!

Launch Training Round… Matchmaking — as a team between a noob and a Master, they are placed in Gold League… Starting Game…

It takes a couple of seconds to load. A thought crosses Ana’s mind, she could make the enemy units look like Phil… No, that’s too much. But she definitely wants to kill some stuff.

Daniel is standing in a dark room with fifteen other… worms. “I’ll do the harvesting.” “Attack squad over here.” “Defense here.” The worms split up throughout the room

Lights go on and the games begin. They stand in a hall with several exits, and the other worms disappear. As the highest ranking player, Ana takes command: “Put your head in this hole here, it links you directly to the central system.”

He does so, and now sees a pile of dirt from above. Worms crawling around it, and there are also some ants gathering blue crystals. Daniel can order them around with his hands. “This feels like an old real time strategy game. Gathering resources, building troops and smashing the opponents?”

“In principle, yes. This training round just covers the basic fighting simulation. I just made three scouting Zerglings, can you take command of them? Go out and scout for the enemy base, it must be somewhere in the north.”

Daniel enters the Zergling’s mind and rushes through the forest in first person view, followed by two EI-controlled bugs. He has claws and jaws and can run incredibly fast — but as he follows the blinking green lights indicating the way Ana wants him to go, he finds a bunker, and heavy machine gun fire is raining down on him. He’s hurt, draws back, and waits for new instructions.

As the scouting info comes in, Ana realizes they’re in an asymmetric scenario — she immediately calls for backup and considers her options. The enemy will be too strong for a straight up fight, but then, the best defense is an attack: “Hide in the forest. Morph yourself into an baneling there. Just go into child’s pose, kneel down, forehead on the ground. When you’re done, go in through the back door and try to blow up as many of those space construction vehicles as you can.”

“At your command.” He feels his body swell, and, looking at himself, he notes that it is now a swollen green sack full of acid, ready to burst. The green dots lead him through the bushes and turn red between the blue mineral patches, indicating Ana’s attack order.

Ana had miscalculated the timing — the dropship is already here, and without baneling support in the defense, all they can hope to do is evacuate: “Dropship with hellbats! They’re already inside our hatchery!” Ana runs — or rather crawls rapidly — to the back exit. Infernally blue flames light up behind her, the heat burning. She made a flying Mutalisk, her last hope of escape… If Daniel does enough damage, then maybe, just maybe they still have a chance. She swings her arms up and down, the suit amplifying her movements into a rapid, insect-wing like swirl, but she’s too slow! A few marines arrive to support the hellbats, their machine gun fire gunning her down.

Daniel explodes in a rain of acid in the worker line and respawns in the base, surrounded by fire and fury.

Ana takes a look at the map while respawning — Daniel’s baneling counter attack did some good damage, but the hellbats are still wreaking havoc in their main base — it’s over. She just says GG, and they find themselves in the main menu again.

“Oh well, that was that. Sorry, I should have gotten those flyers out a little earlier — I’d hoped to catch that dropship before it could unload. They must have proxied it.”

Daniel doesn’t understand her explanation, but greatly enjoyed the experience: “That was incredible!” He’s covered in sweat and exhausted…”What a flash, that’s a thousand times cooler than Confedwars…” It was also a bit too bloody for his taste.

Ana brings Daniel into her new living room. She just finished it last week — it’s a floating castle, neon-violet lasers marking the edges and see-through force fields forming the walls, floating high above a volcanic planet, with great views on a landscape of constant eruptions, magma-flows and acid clouds sparkling with lightning all around them. She’s kept her old furniture though, so the corner of her high tech castle still features the décor of an antique punk squat.

Daniel takes a moment to understand where he’s ended up, looks around confused: “Is this part of Galaxycraft?”

“No, that’s just my homescreen. Welcome.” Ana puts on the latest Sidana Witus LP on her Gramophone, and the lead guitarist starts performing on her table, shirtless. She was really into him a few years ago, but now, slightly ashamed, snaps him away and lets herself fall into her sofa.

Cheap pop melodies fill the room, C-G-F accords, and a gentle female voice singing of an unreachable loved one. Cheap pop melodies fill the room, C-G-F accords, and a gentle female voice singing of an unreachable loved one. Daniel makes himself comfortable on the graffiti covered lounge chair opposite Ana, still fascinated by the fractal explosions of lightning and magma all around them.

“Coffee?” Ana summons two cups of cappuccino: “Sorry, yours probably doesn’t taste very good — can’t help with the public suits.” She had modded her own IA suit with a proper Bodum coffee maker. Taking a sip, she looks up and can’t help laughing. Daniel looks totally ridiculous in his druid-dress walking on the force fields.

He holds the cup with both hands, sips, and feels a straw between his lips, squirting a little coffee into his mouth. It’s drinkable. Daniel smiles back at Ana and asks: “So, about that guy…? What was his name?”

“It’s nothing.” And after a few seconds of silence she adds: “OK — I had a date. With the teaching assistant from the micro-biotic programming class, his name is Phil, and we ended up talking all night long. Just talking, but I found him really interesting and cute. Turns out he’s just a dick. He was out of town for a while, but I saw him again today and he just ignores me. Doesn’t even reply to my messages. I should have known he’s a weirdo — I mean, who calls himself a Realigan and makes a huge deal of never using VR suits?”

“Well, maybe he was addicted at some point.” He remembers how Willi went zero alcohol in his senior year. “Sometimes total withdrawal is the only option to deal with an addiction problem.”

“Maybe. I don’t care. I’m over it. And anyway, I don’t want a boyfriend right now.” She’d rather not talk about it anymore, actually. But Daniel’s remark reminds her of her worries about her own habitual use and she’s curious to hear her friend’s views on addiction: “Were there already game addicts back in your youth?”

“Absolutely.” And, deconstructing the concept a little further Daniel adds: “Media addiction has been with us forever, there were even TV addicts, as absurd as it sounds. A predetermined schedule, no interaction, extremely repetitive, and yet lots of people would watch for hours nonstop.”

“Fortunately Galaxycraft design is not optimized for addiction.” At least that’s what they keep telling each other in Ana’s sports club. The 7 out of 10 warning made her doubt that collective opinion though. “I mean, yes, it has an incredible immersion factor, the social thing about working in teams and the continuous improvement of your mastery in collaboration with custom EI helpers, but it doesn’t have level-and-loot mechanics and only very mild sensual pleasure neurostim.”

They are both silent for a moment, drinking real coffee from virtual cups, both thinking about their own risk of addiction.

“I must admit that I’m a little lost in this day and age…” Daniel bites his lips. “My curiosity should save me from getting hooked on anything, there are too many new frontiers to explore.” At least he hopes so.

“Maybe. I don’t care. I’m over it. And anyway, I don’t want a boyfriend right now.” She’d rather not talk about it anymore, actually. But Daniel’s remark reminds her of her worries about her own habitual use and she’s curious to hear her friend’s views on addiction: “Were there already game addicts back in your youth?”

“Absolutely.” And, deconstructing the concept a little further Daniel adds: “Media addiction has been with us forever, there were even TV addicts, as absurd as it sounds. A predetermined schedule, no interaction, extremely repetitive, and yet lots of people would watch for hours nonstop.”

“Fortunately Galaxycraft design is not optimized for addiction.” At least that’s what they keep telling each other in Ana’s sports club. The 7 out of 10 warning made her doubt that collective opinion though. “I mean, yes, it has an incredible immersion factor, the social thing about working in teams and the continuous improvement of your mastery in collaboration with custom EI helpers, but it doesn’t have level-and-loot mechanics and only very mild sensual pleasure neurostim.”

They are both silent for a moment, drinking real coffee from virtual cups, both thinking about their own risk of addiction.

“I must admit that I’m a little lost in this day and age…” Daniel bites his lips. “My curiosity should save me from getting hooked on anything, there are too many new frontiers to explore.” At least he hopes so.

doubt that collective opinion though. “I mean, yes, it has an incredible immersion factor, the social thing about working in teams and the continuous improvement of your mastery in collaboration with custom EI helpers, but it doesn’t have level-and-loot mechanics and only very mild sensual pleasure neurostim.”

They are both silent for a moment, drinking real coffee from virtual cups, both thinking about their own risk of addiction.

“I must admit that I’m a little lost in this day and age…” Daniel bites his lips. “My curiosity should save me from getting hooked on anything, there are too many new frontiers to explore.” At least he hopes so.


“Same for me. I mean, I’ve got another month in college and no idea what comes next. But definitely an adventure.” At that moment the bunny prince hops through just behind Daniel. Ana gives it a sharp look, she doesn’t want Daniel to see her thesis. The bunny nibbles some celery and fades out.

Daniel smiles. He always enjoyed hanging out with smart kids, Ana reminds him of his first semester students back in Berkeley: “I did dream of those pink pills from True Soldier last night, though. Ah, but no worries, I’ll manage. I tried a whole lot of stupid hedonistic stuff in my old life, most of it considered highly addictive. Shouldn’t be a big deal. As long as you’re in for the adventure and not the repeated kicks, it’s all good.”

Ana has finished her cup now: “Given that we’re both doing just fine, shall we get revenge and kill a bunch of Terrans?”

Sirvi checks noted Daniel’s dislike of bloody graphics and throws a carbot filter over the game. It is all in bright comic graphics now.

The second round goes better, Ana stays back in the command quarters again, while Daniel guides a roach squad through a tunnel, deep into the enemy base.

“Wait, three more seconds, then strike…” Ana has this all set, multipronging the hell out of her opponent right now. “Banelings are incoming… 2… 1… GOGOGO!”

Daniel and his roach gang unburrow and start tearing apart helpless harvest robots, just as he gets going, bright green bug start falling from the sky — as soon as they hit the ground, they explode into a splash of acid, dissolving the remaining workers. He looks up and spots some more banelings falling from a floating slime balloon, between a bunch of filthy filaments reaching down to the ground.

“And retreat, come up!” Ana is in her element, this attack is just going perfect.

Daniel follows the green dots, to one of the filaments and is catapulted up into the slime balloon.

They won’t recover any time soon. Now Ana just needs a clean defense and the game should be theirs.

Daniel’s roach drops off in their main base: “I love those banelings! Can I play more of those?”

Ana sends him over to the baneling nest and he leaves his roach body to take control of them. His view changes to a commander’s perspective.

He can control a group of banelings with each finger, they can not only drop from the flying balloons, but also burrow themselves and act as mines! So Daniel puts some below ground at the chokepoint between the rocks, and packs a few more into a balloon, heading back to that juicy worker line in the enemy base… The best defense has always been an attack, right?

And here they come, a huge clunk of marines with tank support is moving towards them, and they’re starting to squeeze through the rocks! As they start walking over his burrowed banelings, he lifts the fingers on his left hand and all the marines dissolve in green acid in a funky carbot comic animation.

The balloon has reached the enemy base at the same time, and as Daniel fails to release them, Ana takes over, more banelings falling into the freshly rebuilt worker line. And that was that, they hear a “gg well played” echoing over the landscape, they won!

“Good job! It’s worth focusing on a specific unit initially, and it seems you have a hand for banelings.” Thinking of his delayed drop, she adds: “You can also teach your operating system to make sure they unburrow in the right moment, doing as much damage as possible even if you’re not paying attention. Also, there’s a lot of learning material, I’ll link you up to our sports club teacher if you want.”

“I’m not much of a club person. Especially competitive sports clubs, this whole us versus them culture never made sense to me.” As much as Daniel prefers aggressive youngsters to play out their fights in VR over real world conflicts, the entire concept of competitive fighting just isn’t part of his mindset. His favorite game mode had always been free-for-all, where alliances between different players are shaped and broken on the go.

Ana actually loves the competitive tournaments. Nothing quite like the kick of merging herself with her team and fighting it out against the others. The in-game sports tournaments get a bit repetitive over time, but there’s a lot more to Galaxycraft than the symmetric competitions in the galactic star league: “Sure, your choice. You’ll probably enjoy the galactic politics simulation more then. That’s where the decisions are made that determine these little skirmishes.”

“What about playing as a spy with no clear team alignment?” That would be Helen’s style — interacting with all sides of a conflict, committed to her ethics, not her tribe.

“Sure, that’s possible. But you should bring at least some battle experience to such a role…” Ana could imagine that kind of role for herself at some point, but normally you want to be at grand masters level before going solo. “I’m sure there is some playstyle you’ll find enjoyable, there are almost unlimited options of character development trajectories you can take in the role playing part of the game.”

* * *

The difference between interesting and happy lives

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U88jj6PSD7w

Tool assisted human play in strategy games

https://deepmind.com/blog/deepmind-and-blizzard-open-starcraft-ii-ai-research-environment/

Starcraft

https://wcs.starcraft2.com/en-us/

The story of GG

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Es1Td_jqcZI

Proxy Hellbat drops

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKZg55vcXvM&t=4m28s

My favorite E-sport teacher

https://www.twitch.tv/x5_pig

My own masterful baneling control

https://clips.twitch.tv/PiliableEnticingStinkbugFutureMan