“Don’t worry,” said Britta, “there’s nothing to be frightened of, he won’t hurt you, he’s just a spell.”
“Just a spell?” said the shade. “How charming.”
“He doesn’t sound like a spell,” said Owen.
“No, he doesn’t,” said Gabba. She edged closer to the tall plume of black smoke, an intense look on her face. “What does it do?”
“What do you do?” the shade asked back, lowering his head to meet hers.
Gabba jumped back, startled by the shade’s sudden interest in her. Then she collected herself, but Britta could see her veneer of calmness wasn’t as effortless as it had first appeared. She was putting on an act, which was actually a bit reassuring. Britta was self-aware enough to know finding comfort in the fact other people weren’t perfect was an issue of her own insecurities, but it still made her feel better.
“Oh,” said Gabba, “he can talk like a real person.”
“I know,” said the shade, “amazing isn’t it?”
MrKappa came forward as the other two backed off. “How does it work? Is there an actor on the other end? Can’t be. You couldn’t have an actual person operating each NPC, but the processing power to create something this complex, that isn’t feasible either, is it?”
“I don’t get it,” said Owen.
“No? It’s really quite straightforward,” said MrKappa. “They’ve created an AI that can mimic human behaviour beyond anything that’s been managed before. This would retire the Turing test and start a revolution, hopefully not one where humans are hunted by robots.” He chuckled to himself. “What have you got yourself mixed up with here, you lucky boy.”
“No,” said Owen, “I mean I don’t get how he can float about like that. Where are his legs?”
The shade turned to Britta. “Was there an actual reason for calling me? And where are we?”
“You don’t know?” said Britta. It was usually the shade’s job to tell her things like geographical locations.
The shade lifted its head up and looked around. “Wait… Oh, no. You didn’t...” There was a change in tone in the shade’s voice. The mild sarcasm had been replaced with mild fear.
“Didn’t what?” said Britta.
“The mines? We’re down in the depths of the mines? You have to go back. I have to go back.”
“Why?” asked Gabba. “What’s down here?”
“Nothing good. Not everyone’s as friendly as me,” said the shade. He turned back to Britta. “I told you before, this place is dangerous.”
Britta did recall the shade acting oddly when the lower level of the mine became available, but what reason did he have to be scared? It wasn’t like monsters could do anything to him. Nothing permanent, anyway.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said. “Can you do a quick scan of the place? Map it out?”
“No,” said the shade.
“Did your spell just refuse to do what you asked?” said Gabba, her expression a mix of astonishment and amusement.
“Hard to fathom, I know,” said the shade, his contrary attitude finding its way back to the surface. “Almost like I have a mind of my own.”
“Come on,” said Britta, not liking how whiny she was sounding. She had only just met these people, was it too much to expect the shade not to embarrass her in front of them? “Use stealth mode. No one will even know you were ever here.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” said the shade. “There are things down here that you don’t want to meet.”
“What things?” said Gabba.
“Yeah, what things?” echoed MrKappa.
“I don’t get it,” said Owen. “What’s the spell afraid of?”
It was a good question. “If you tell me what you’re worried about,” said Britta, “maybe I can help.”
The shade looked at her with what Britta assumed was a slightly condescending expression — it was hard to tell when there was no actual face.
“There are beings.”
“What kind of beings?” asked Britta.
“Ones you shouldn’t talk about. If they get upset, they can be very unpleasant. Best to avoid them completely. We should leave before they notice us.”
“Beings like you?” asked Gabba.
“No,” said the shade, sounding a little offended.
“Like N-28?” said Britta.
The shade didn’t say anything, but Britta sensed he was nodding. Also hard to tell without a face.
Was there another AI down here? Was that what had broken off communications?
“Okay, I understand,” said Britta.
“You do?” said Gabba. “You want to explain it to the rest of us? What does N-28 mean?”
“It’s the game AI.”
“The game…” Gabba’s eyes slowly widened. “The game’s controlled by an AI? Wait, there’s more than one? There’s twenty-eight?”
MrKappa began laughing. “They did it, they actually did it. They created the singularity.”
“I don’t get how it can be a singularity,” said Owen, “if there’s twenty-eight of them.”
“Ah, don’t you see it now?” said MrKappa. “This is the real game, this is where the fun starts. I can’t believe it.” He put both hands in the air, striking some kind of victory pose. A bit early for that. “This is so awesome.”
“Look,” Britta said to the shade, “there are some people down here we need to find. We aren’t going to disturb anyone, just find them and get out. Can you help me with that?” It was a simple request and one that would only require the shade to do a minimal amount of work, a few minutes at the most. “Please?”
“No,” said the shade, and then he disappeared.