A Letter From an Editor
by Bill McCormick
Brad Jacobs, a ruthless corporate manager, seizes an opportunity to exploit workers of below-average intelligence by employing them as miners on a distant planet. He persuades them that they are embarking on a kind of video-game adventure. However, he forgets the law of unintended consequences, which is summed up in many proverbs such as “Look before you leap” and “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley.”
At the beginning, an unpardonably snarky letter from an editor begs the question: Who really are the “stunted” in all this?
Above them, not taking the test, behind a two-way mirror, Brad Jacobs, the new assistant vice-president of Off-World Manufacturing, sat carefully watching the proceedings below. His staff was milling around, pouring coffee and waiting for the meeting to start but Brad just kept looking out the window.
Finally he picked up a folder full of papers and began looking at page after page of numbers. A slow smile crossed his lips and he closed the folder and went to get himself a cup of coffee. His staff quickly took their seats but Brad just kept smiling.
Finally he spoke. “Bob, you’re in Legal. What’re the rules about what we can and can’t do with the stunts?”
Bob looked stunned at being noticed at all but quickly answered. “Well, anyone with an IQ under 86 is sent to one of our retraining camps and learns how to perform simple manufacturing tasks. Those that can’t handle those responsibilities are put to sleep for their own good.”
“What about off-world uses?”
Bob blanched. “Off-world? It’s never come up.”
“So,” he smiled again, “there’s no clear law about that? That’s good to hear.”
“The reason it’s never come up,” interrupted Janice Chang, his new assistant, “is that the stunts would be useless as spacers.”
“Of course,” agreed Brad, “but I was thinking more along the lines of cargo, not spacers.”
“Cargo?” was universally echoed around the table.
“We get, what, about 500 credits a week for each of these stunts that we get to accomplish something useful? It costs us about 250 credits a week to keep them housed and fed and so on. It’s profitable, but not nearly as much as any of our other lines. Plus, let’s face it, they’re a bitch to maintain. They’re too stupid to follow any new directions, too scared of their own shadows to be given any useful work. They’re just a waste of skin.”
He paused to sip his coffee. “Eric, what do we spend on mining bots?”
Eric Spears, assistant head of Engineering wasn’t sure where this was going, but was sure he knew the answer to this.
“Each bot costs 250,000 credits to manufacture and then another 100,000 credits to program and test before being deployed. Of course that does not include any transportation costs.”
“What skill level does each bot have?”
“Skill level. Could, say, a normal 5-year old handle their tasks?”
“Oh sure, but we use the bots in very dangerous environments, the fatality rate would be enormous and the newsies would crucify us for killing kids.”
“We don’t need kids, we have lots of stunts. Too damn many if you ask me.”
With that he walked out of the meeting room and into the testing area. All the stunts looked up when he walked in. He idly thought of eager puppies. “Stop the timer please and, guests, please put down your pencils.”
The stunts did as they were told and turned their full attention to him. He had to admit, he did like obedience. He also liked the fact that his guards were better at gathering intel than he’d hoped.
He’d spent all night researching Epic Dungeon Quest. He’d never played as a kid, but could easily see the appeal to 5- and 6-year olds. That’s all these stunts were when you broke it all down. Sure, they were big 5- and 6-year olds, but they were still just useless kids.
“I’d like to apologize if we scared you getting you all together.”
The stunts looked mildly suspicious. He figured no one had ever apologized to them for anything.
“We brought you here to ask you to help your families, your country and your planet.”
He had their rapt attention now. “Have any of you, by show of hands, ever played Epic Dungeon Quest?”
Every hand in the room went up and waved at him. Well, not his guards, of course.
“How many of you think that Epic Dungeon Quest is real?”
The hands stayed up, but less surely.
“Not to worry, no one will make fun of you for believing that while you’re here. Especially because this whole place exists because Epic Dungeon Quest is real. Let me tell you a story.”
He sat on the edge of a desk and did his best to look non-threatening. “Once upon a time there was an evil wizard called Parazin...”
The whole room gasped at that. They’d heard that name on the vid shows.
“I see you recognize the name. Good. That just proves that you’re as smart as we hoped you were.” He managed that with a straight face. “Well, the evil wizard Parazin wants to steal all the trinamium in the universe and make it his. Without trinamium people won’t be able to have the cars that fly or supplies for schools or anything else. He would rule the world.”
That had passed a huge stretch after the first syllable but he was pretty sure none of the stunts were lawyers.
“We have asked you here — okay, ‘dragged’ would be more accurate — to join us on our quest to stop the evil wizard Parazin and save the world.”
A hand went up. He had nothing to lose at this point so he motioned in the direction of the stunt.
“Quentin Oglethorpe, sir. Will we have to fight dragons?”
It took him a few seconds to keep himself from laughing. “That’s a very good question, Mr. Oglethorpe. But the answer is no. The place you’re going to be is a place called Wonderia.”
He’d have to apologize to marketing if that mess of a name for WHX-131-L ever got out. “And there are no dragons there. What is there is trinamium, and it would be your job to protect it and collect it. As you all know wizards like to use wraiths to steal stuff and cause harm.”
A collective breath was taken. He had them on the edge of their seats.
“It will be your job to keep the wraiths from stealing the trinamium.”
They all considered that for a minute. Another hand went up. He motioned to it.
“Melissa Thompson, sir. I have a globe at home and can’t remember any place called Wonderia.”
This smile was genuine, but not for the reasons the stunts thought.
“That’s because Wonderia is a different planet. It is far, far, away from here. It is on alien planets that all the parts of Epic Dungeon Quest were discovered. That’s why the game seems so real.”
That got a mixed reaction. They seemed excited and scared all at once. He wondered what it would be like to be so simple but then dismissed the thought since he didn’t really want to know. He waited for them to calm down before he proceeded.
“Of course, because this is dangerous, you’ll have to volunteer. If you do you’ll get money, of your very own. Your families will get credit with Amalgamated Conglomerated to buy anything they want” — assuming they would want cheap junk — “and you’ll earn benefits that will help you throughout your entire lives.”
They seemed more excited than scared. They began politely asking questions and seemed eager to know how they could stop the wraiths. He could see that some of them were not going to go along. That was okay, he could save the camps some trouble and just have them put to sleep here at the main office. They had facilities in the basement that would do the job just fine.
By rough guess he figured he would get a hundred of them to save the sacred land of Wonderia from wraiths. The fact that they would save the company millions and begin shipping home trinamium three years before he could even remotely get bots in place was just a happy coincidence.
Bob, clearly bucking for a promotion, entered the room with very official-looking permission letters for the stunts to sign. Brad glanced at one and had to turn his back on the room to stifle the laugh. He decided he had to buy Bob a drink as he read the preamble again.
I _____________ (print name) do hereby solemnly swear to uphold the values of Amalgamated Conglomerated, which are the values of my family, my country and my planet....
He couldn’t get past that.
The guards quietly separated the ones who didn’t want to sign and Brad quickly gave instructions for their termination. Those stunts were led out the back door while the rest eagerly filled in the blanks with help from his staff. A quick count later showed that he had 126 recruits. More than enough for a trial run.
WHX-131-L wasn’t bad as planets went. It had breathable atmosphere and the climate where the trinanium was located was reasonably moderate. But it had some bizarre microbe that the labs had determined was a major problem for the human genome. They weren’t sure what the long-term effects would be but they were very sure that humans shouldn’t be anywhere near it. Well, stunts weren’t legally humans, so he was okay there.
He issued brief instructions to fit them with spacer uniforms with some sort of stupid badge. They decided on a version of the wraith hunter badge, and then left to find Milton.
A/C owned many interesting things and one was the rights to Epic Dungeon Quest. That wasn’t widely known, since the game was technically the “property of the people.” But “the people” had defaulted on a loan and some things the public was better off not knowing got moved around. Brad shrugged. Such was life.
Milton, the lead designer for Epic Dungeon Quest was right where Brad expected him to be. Sitting in his office, eating a doughnut and sipping a coffee with extra sugar. Milton was, to be polite, a fat, lazy slob.
He was also a brilliant programmer. However he had no initiative. He sat where he was as others passed him by. Milton never seemed to care about that. Milton barely glanced up when Brad entered the room.
“I need a new version of Epic Dungeon Quest and I need it in four days.”
“Sure, not a problem,” mumbled Milton, “right after I get done learning how to walk on water.”
“Your messianic attributes can wait. I need this or you’ll end up working at that doughnut shop you frequent.”
Milton finally looked up and stared at Brad. “What are you talking about? How new a version?”
“I need it to teach basic mining skills. Maybe add in some prizes for getting them right.”
“I need it to run on a stand-alone server on a different planet.”
Milton’s eye brows arched. “And...”
“That’s about it, but we may need upgrades as we go on.”
“Go on with what? There aren’t any kids on our off-world facilities.”
“No, but there will be stunts.”
Milton would have been less surprised to wake up with a supermodel and it showed.
“Relax Milton, we aren’t making them spacers, we’re just using them for a mining experiment.”
“And the board signed off on this?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Okay, that was a lie, but he was pretty sure he could get the board to go along once they saw the potential savings. If all the stunts died the bots were still on pace, there’d be no harm to the schedule. It was a no-lose situation.
Milton began scribbling numbers and looking at programming diagrams. A few minutes later he looked up and smiled. “I can do it. All I have to do is take the programming we put into the bots and ascribe it to characters. Then add a couple of easy scenarios and you’re good to go. Is there any theme I should know?”
Brad thought about that for a second and smiled. “Yes, as a matter of fact there is, they have to fight off wraiths to save the trinamium from the evil wizard Parazin.”
Milton lacked Brad’s self-control and burst out laughing.
Brad left Milton to his chore and headed for his office. He was stopped outside his door by Maggie Johnson, the board’s primary secretary. She looked at him and, as was her wont, didn’t smile. “They wish to see you now.”
He didn’t need to ask any questions. He followed her down the many halls and up the two elevators to the private penthouse that housed A/C’s three board members.
Alexander M’tembe, Esmeralda Rodriguez and Mark White were the current members of the board. They held unlimited power in the company. They served for 20 years and then were replaced by their handpicked choices. The board had run A/C for over 200 years without a single problem besides the usual lawsuits and silly stuff. Brad never concerned himself with those things since that’s why A/C had an in-house Legal department.
They motioned for him to sit and a waiter brought him a double scotch on the rocks, just the way he liked it. How they knew that eluded him, but he decided not to ask.
“You’ve been a very busy boy,” began Mrs. Rodriguez. Although barely entering middle age at 70 she still looked good enough to sleep with even if he was sober, “do you mind telling us why you’re sending over 30,000 of our weekly credits into space?”
He didn’t know how they knew about this either but now was not the time to hesitate.
“It’s a prudent investment. We can jump the claim on WHX-131-L and force Parazin into a defensive posture. Our lawyers have already filed a suit against their claim anyway. This just reinforces our position that possession must accompany any claim. Not just a marker slammed into the ground from a satellite.
“Second, even if the stunts all die we’re protected by so many levels of laws that they’re not even worth mentioning. But even so, they reinforce our claim and our legal position.
“Third, we have a ship going to WHX-131-L to drop cargo containers for ‘on-planet’ storage in four days. Instead of sending empty containers, I’m just filling them up with inexpensive cargo. The extra fuel required to move the stunts is negligible, and we can keep them out of the crew’s way by simply posting ‘do not enter’ signs for the crew section.
“As to food and stuff for the stunts, all we need to do is add some extra rations and bunks. Minor technical issues at best.”
“What about bathrooms?” asked Mr. M’tembe. At 113 he was the oldest board member and still looked like he could go a few rounds in the ring as he had as a youth.
“There are ten on every cargo carrier, which leaves extras for spacers when they land. That should be more than enough for 126 stunts.”
“Very well,” continued Mr. M’tembe, “what about housing when they land?”
Brad hadn’t even considered this, but he thought quickly. “We have all those tents left over from my predecessor’s ‘Campaign for Camping.’ They’re just sitting in a warehouse collecting dust. We can throw a couple hundred of them on the ship with no problem. The climate on WHX-131-L is temperate; there aren’t any major storms and the tents should do just fine.”
Mark White rose and smiled. At 6 feet tall with 200 pounds of rippling muscle he was the second most imposing board member after M’tembe. “Very well, I can see there are some minor details to be worked out, but you have everything well in hand. Should this not go well, please be reminded that you, like your predecessor, could find yourself at 5,000 feet in your car with no navigation or lift. That would be very tragic.”
Well, now he knew what happened to his predecessor. That was okay, the guy had been a tree-hugging prick. The meeting concluded and he left without finishing his scotch.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Bill McCormick