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Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Random Title writing contest. The category I chose was 'Video Games'.

I’m a whale. Don’t worry, I don’t mean I’m a large sea mammal, I’m as human as you. In video game terms, a “whale” is a person that spends a relatively large amount of real money in video games. I buy “microtransactions” which is part of a brilliant marketing strategy where the user downloads a game for free, but is encouraged to spend money on in-game items. These microtransactions could be anything, from a T-shirt for your in-game character, all the way up to game-breaking cheat codes. I see people argue about which games are “pay-to-win” all over the internet, and I don’t really pay them any attention. All I have to do is see my username on the top of the leaderboards each week to know the answers to those seemingly elusive questions.

Perhaps it’s more honorable to grind out hours and hours of mundane, mind-numbingly boring game content to get the “free-to-play” prizes, but why would I do that when I could just drop a couple grand on the game and have the coolest stuff right now? Do people just not value their time?

Before you ask, I wasn’t born into wealth. I earned it fair and square through hard work, dedication, and selling out. I was apparently a pretty smart kid, and took a liking to computer programming. Originally, I wanted to learn to make video games, but found out that programming skills didn’t lead directly to good game design skills.

The part I was best at was the back-end design. That’s the stuff you don’t get to see on the screen while a program is running. Turns out, while working on how my game handles file management, I had invented a method of data writing that was around 3% more efficient than the then-current methods.

Three percent may not sound like a very big deal, but it was enough. I was soon able to sell my tech to a huge corporation (you know the one) for a substantial payout.

It was a life-changing amount of money, and I’m sure you’d love to hear all the details, but to make a long story short, I became a whale as a hobby. There were a number of games I liked to play on my smartphone, so I figured I’d show the developers some love in the form of monetary gain. Having some of the most obscenely powerful in-game characters was a nice bonus.

One cursed day, I logged into one of my favorite fantasy role-playing games to find the developers had made an announcement. They had begun a Kickstarter campaign for their next game. Kickstarter is a website that allows people to have their projects “crowdfunded”, meaning “paid for collectively by fans”.

I was instantly excited by the project. I was already a fan of Humans Entertainment. I had been a frequent player of their mobile phone game for years, and their next project looked impressive and ambitious. The videos one the site showed very early footage of the game, but it looked like it was already in a playable state. They even had realistic interactions with non-player characters by using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. I had enough confidence in the studio and their ability to produce a quality game that I immediately knew I had to pledge my money.

When you choose to fund a Kickstarter project, you often get the choice of earning goodies based on the amount of money you pledge. Of course, I scrolled past the lower tiers to see what could be earned by giving the largest amount of money. For the sum of ten thousand dollars, I was given the option to “Become an NPC”. I loved the idea. The developers would create a customized non-playable character in the finished game in my own likeness to interact with other players.

There was only one available slot on the “Become an NPC” tier, so I spent my $10,000 and snapped it up without a second thought. Like an idiot.

It wasn’t long after the campaign ended and the check had cleared that I was contacted by Humans Entertainment by email. They thanked me for my generosity and for helping them reach their goal, which I expected and appreciated. What I didn’t expect was the invitation for an expenses-paid visit to the company HQ for a tour and a meet-and-greet.

After a short flight and a long cab ride, I finally arrived at a surprisingly opulent three-story building, complete with a well-groomed lawn and several meticulously manicured hedges in the shape of people in various poses. This seemed fitting for a company named Humans Entertainment, though it seemed unnecessarily posh for a relatively small indie studio. Being dropped off at the end of the driveway and walking up the path to the front door was a surreal feeling, like something out of the movie Edward Scissorhands.

I strode into the lobby and looked up at its three-story-high ceiling, simultaneously feeling impressed and getting the sense that the studio has not been very frugal with their budget. Why would a company headquartered in such a building have to fund their projects with Kickstarter? Maybe it's hypocritical of me to judge them, considering my own spending habits, but I'm not trying to run a company.

"Ah, welcome, Mr. Franklin." A surprisingly attractive woman rose from behind a curved desk to greet me. She immediately caught me off guard, and the moment I saw her flawless, perfectly symmetrical face, her piercing light-blue eyes, and her wide, pearly white smile, I instinctively averted my eyes because, rich or not, I never stopped being a complete autist.

She maneuvered around the desk to greet me personally. She touched me lightly on the shoulder and gestured toward the door to an elevator. "Right this way, please. We've been eagerly awaiting your arrival." She never broke eye contact and her smile never wavered. I thanked her and entered the elevator, which she followed me into.

It was a short, but awkwardly silent, elevator ride down to a lower floor, where the door opened up to a large sign on the wall with an arrow pointing right. "This way, please, Mr. Franklin."

I walked slightly behind the woman, allowing her to lead the way down a long hallway. I looked away from her brisk, swaying stride as much as possible, but she was still doing things to me mentally that it would be impolite to describe. Instead, I looked to the walls of the hallway, which were lined with framed portraits, each illuminated by its own overhead light.

At first, they looked like perfectly normal pictures, but the more closely I examined them, the more oddities I noticed. A portrait of a lady with too many fingers. A picture of a car whose make and model I didn't recognize, and with no apparent doors. And in every picture, there was no legible text, and in its place was a strangle jumbled mass that looked like it was pretending to be text.

"What's up with these pictures?" I finally inquired.

"All these pictures have been generated by artificial intelligence."

"You mean like CGI?"

"AI-generated images. It's an exciting new technology that we hope to use extensively in our products. It will soon save humans countless years of work." She smiled back at me, either not noticing, or ignoring that I had briefly glanced at her rear.

The only experience I had had with AI was the rudimentary behavior of computer-controlled opponents in video games, deciding when to attack or run for cover, for example. The idea of a computer being able to generate entire images was fascinating and troubling to me. "Well, it isn't perfect just yet, is it? There's something uncanny about them."

The woman never broke her exact, uniform stride. "You may have already come across AI-generated content and not even realized it. Some websites have been using sophisticated AI algorithms for years already to generate top-ten list articles."

This made perfect sense to me. The implications of AI still disturbed me greatly, so I kept to my own thoughts for a few more moments.

We soon arrived at the door marked with a symbol I didn't recognize. I wondered if it was in some foreign language The woman grabbed a card that was hanging from a lanyard around her neck, and swiped it across a card-reading device. She opened the door and let us both into a large, wide-open room full of dozens of people. I was suddenly caught off-guard by a round of applause.

I scanned the room of people, and one of the first thing I noticed was that they were all young and attractive, with perfect white smiles. In fact, most of the women looked like slight variations of the woman at the front desk, as if they came from the same family. The whole situation felt so strange. I found myself staring at their hands, counting their fingers.

An older gentleman stepped out of the crowd toward me. His complexion was darker and more aged than everyone else in the room, a bit shorter, but more stout. His features were distinctly Asian. He approached me with a warm, toothy smile, yellowed and slightly crooked, but not not so much to be off-putting.

I recognized him immediately as Mr. Bong Ngo, the president of Humans Entertainment. He grasped me tightly by the hand with both of his hands. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Franklin," he said in a heavy accent.

I gave a nervous chuckle. "Do you give all of your guests such treatment?"

"Just you, Mr. Franklin." He gestured for me to follow him. I did. "I wish to thank you personally for your generosity," Mr. Ngo nodded his head toward the grinning employees in the room. "By the way, how do you like them?"

I honestly did not feel completely comfortable around them, but I replied, "They seem like a nice bunch to me."

"They are running the latest version of my constantly iterative AI! Bet you couldn't tell!"

My eyes grew to the size of golf balls as I took another look at the smiling faces surrounding me. "These are AI? You mean they aren't human? They're like... robots?"

Mr. Ngo said, "Not robots... It's a bit hard to explain."

"To be completely honest, I did detect something off about them..." I reached out to touch one of them, but it scowled, yelped in protest, and backed away quickly.

"Like I said, they aren't robots. They think for themselves. Expect them to react more or less like humans. They even have extensive memories, all uniquely AI-generated. I believe they have more vivid, lifelike memories than even we do."

Warily, I asked, “You implanted memories into them? Do they even know they are AI?”

Mr. Ngo cocked his head to one side. “I’m fairly certain they are aware.”

As I pondered the ethical implications of what he had just said, Mr. Ngo reached a long black curtain and pulled it back.

Behind the curtain was revealed a huge electronic machine that looked like a glossy black iron maiden with hundreds of cables protruding from the top and more flashing lights than an entire rack of server computers.

My face fell. "What in the world is this monstrosity?"

Mr. Ngo guffawed heartily. "It's a 3D scanner for digitizing a person's likeness. It's perfectly harmless, despite looking like a medieval torture device."

I inspected the interior of the device. There was minimal worn padding where one's head and neck is supposed to rest, and straps thicker than seatbelts, presumably to restrain the subject.

"I guess you could say I'm a collector of sorts," Mr. Ngo continued, unprompted. "Some people collect stamps, or cards, or Funko Pops. I collect people." He chuckled. "Or at least their exact dimensions down to the most minuscule detail. Terabytes of data for each and every human. It's fascinating how different people can be from one another."

"So you've built up quite a catalog by now, eh?" My eyes wandered to the three computer screens near the machine, each one manned by an employee with perfectly symmetrical features and perfect teeth.

"One day, each and every non-playable character will be based on a hyper-realistic scan of an actual human being and run by sophisticated AI behaviors." He looked me deeply in the eyes. "It is an exciting time to be living in. Don't you agree?"

I was having some serious misgivings, and felt my fight-or-flight response kick in, but as a lifelong introvert, it was nothing I hadn't already felt in normal conversational situations. "It... it's certainly something I'm trying to wrap my head around." I grinned and used my weird sense of humor as a defense mechanism. "If that doesn't work out, you can always use the technology to write top-ten list articles, right?"

Mr. Ngo simply clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Yes, well," he gestured broadly to the machine. "Shall we begin?"

We started with a questionnaire to determine what my in-game NPC would be like. I don't know why, but I simply ended up describing my NPC as exactly like myself. Maybe it's some kind of ego thing. I made him wealthy, semi-famous, handsome, exactly the same age as me, same life situation, everything. Mr. Ngo took copious notes on the side as well. I tried to read his writing, but it may as well have been chicken scratch.

After all the preparations had been made, two employees helped to load me into the scanning machine. I saw some symbols I didn’t recognize printed on the exterior of the machine, probably the same language as the symbols I had encountered before. Off-handedly, I inquired about the symbols to the AI woman that was helping to strap me in securely.

The woman just stared unblinkingly into my eyes. She calmly responded in a deadly serious but soft tone: “Do you remember what the alphabet looks like?”

I don’t know why that question sent chills up and down my spine. I don’t know why, out of everything that had happened, this was the sentence that filled me with horror. Of course I know what the alphabet looks like! I know how to read! I have read before! I have vivid memories of having had read before… right?

As the two employees backed away and closed the chamber on me, I desperately tried to count their fingers. I know how to count! Why is it so difficult?

Mr. Ngo told me to remain perfectly still, but I began yelling and thrashing about as the machine whirred to life, blinding white lights flashing, photographing my every angle, lasers measuring me down to the last detail. There was some kind of extremely high-pitched sound at the very top of my ability to hear coming from all directions. It didn’t take long for it to become too much for me, and I passed out.

I have no idea how long I had been out when I finally woke up in a wheelchair in a dark, musty room with only one lit lightbulb dangling from the ceiling over a hospital bed.

“Ah, you’re awake. Good!” The echoing sound of Bong Ngo’s voice rattled my aching head.

I peered over to the hospital bed and saw the face of a man resting in it. I slowly wheeled myself closer to the bed to get a better look. My eyes finally focused on… my own face. The man in the hospital bed… was me.

I gasped and almost fell over backward in my chair. “What have you done! This is sick!”

“I told you,” said Mr. Ngo, “I collect people.” He walked over to the side of the bed and ran his fingers through the other me’s hair. “Another one for the collection.”

“What are those things? What is this?”

Mr. Ngo sighed. “I told you, it’s difficult to explain. I think you’ll be better off discovering that on your own.” He grabbed the handle of the hospital bed with both hands and started slowly wheeling it away. “You may go now.” Without another word, he and the other me had vanished into the darkness.

Confused and weak, I tried standing up, my knees wobbling as I made my way to the door. Gone were the AI employees, the well-lit hallways, the framed artwork. Gone was the massive lobby area. I was instead in an old, dilapidated warehouse. The floor was covered in dust, dirt, and broken glass, and the wind blew through the hundreds of broken windows.

I checked my pocket for my phone and was surprised to actually find it there, but when I opened my contact list, it was empty. I tried to log in to my email, but it told me my account doesn’t exist. It doesn’t make any sense. I had to re-download my banking app, only to find my bank account doesn’t even exist. How is that possible? How can they just take away everything at once?

I called the police and even the FBI, but they couldn’t help me retrieve my stolen accounts. They claimed that Humans Entertainment LLC wasn’t even a real company. I can’t find any trace of their games on the internet or their Kickstarter campaign. My username has been scrubbed from all leaderboards of my favorite games.

I even gave the police my list of top ten grievances, but they would not listen.

I’m still trying to make sense of it all. They can’t just take my life away and pretend it never existed.

Can they?

Written by Glisario
Content is available under CC BY-SA