SPARK – the original first chapter

I had second thoughts about posting this. Some of the writing makes me cringe. I originally wrote the entire book in Third Person Omniscient – as told by the all-knowing, all-seeing narrator. It allowed me to do some simultaneous perspectives and foreshadowing that I enjoyed. My publisher didn’t. She wanted a POV (Point Of View) story, so I labored through the changes and like the end result better. This is a long post – all of the first chapter – with warts and all. I hope you enjoy it.

An early view of the overall park setting.

Chapter One

William Arthur Kim – Billy to his family and friends – bounced in his seat with excitement. He was in Row 23, Seat A of an aging United Airlines Boeing 737-900 on its final approach into Barstow International Airport, California. His parents might have chastised him, but they were bouncing with excitement as well. Yul Kim and his wife, Kathy had met at Baylor University. Yul was working on his Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and Kathy was pursuing her BA in Psychology. Both needed another English credit and signed up for “Tropes in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Gaming.” The course was ho-hum, but the romance became real, particularly after they learned that they had been questing together online for two years. Billy was born five years after Yul and Kathy graduated. 

Friends joked that some kids were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but Billy was born holding an controller. Now the entire Kim gaming clan was flying into a quester’s paradise: Solar Prime Augmented Reality Park – Spark for short. Spark had been open for a year, but gamers needed to be a certain height in order to play all of the Quests, and Billy had just cleared the magic threshold. It was one of those birthday presents that everyone enjoyed. Billy had turned seven, and as soon as they were able to mutually arrange time off from work and school, they made reservations. His parents let him have the window seat. His dad, explained things as soon as they could see the black smudge of Solar Prime out the window.

“What you’re seeing, or really not seeing,” Yul began, “is actually Solar Prime. It’s a solar energy project that Hecker Van Horne launched. For years, large scale solar projects relied on mirrors to concentrate the sun’s light on a central point. That light would heat up a reservoir of some kind material – usually molten salts – that could hold a lot of heat.  That heat would be used to create steam. Steam powered generators, and, voila, electricity.”

Billy nodded as if he understood it all. He felt his dad’s enthusiasm and was just as enthusiastic. His dad continued.

“The problem with that method is that it’s terribly inefficient, and not too environmentally friendly. Before Solar Prime, there were several projects. They all got gradually better but were still lucky to get much more than 20% efficiency. They reflected and scattered a lot of light – and killed a lot of birds. A bird flying through one of the reflected beams would suddenly be at the focus of a couple hundred square meters of sunlight. Intensely concentrated energy that would literally set their feathers on fire. The workers called them “smokers” because they would trail smoke as they fell to earth.”

“Cool!”

“Yul!” scolded Kathy. “He doesn’t need to hear all the gory side details.” 

“Okay,” Yul apologized, but he gave Billy a wink and Billy grinned. His dad knew everything!

“Anyway, absorbing solar panels – the kind that try to directly convert solar power to electricity – like the ones on the International Space Station – eventually got to where they were over 40% efficient, but that’s still a lot of waste. Then came the breakthrough. Solar Prime – the solar power farm, not the park, uses something that’s called Black Grass.”

Yul was in full Engineer lecture mode, but Billy kept nodding. 

“Instead of large flat panels, Solar Prime uses very small blades,” Yul said, holding his thumb and forefinger about 5 centimeters apart, “that orient themselves toward the greatest energy source.”

“Like sunflowers, right?” interjected Billy.

“Just like sunflowers, Sport,” Yul said smiling. It was, so cool, he thought, to see Billy’s mind making those kinds of connections. 

“Even better,” Yul continued, “since the Black Grass absorbs all along the spectrum, Solar Prime produces power around the clock – way less at night, but there’s still plenty of IR and UV bouncing around to keep some power flowing. I’ve read that it’s even sensitive enough to absorb the IR that a person radiates from up to 50 meters away.” Yul talked and thought in metric units – it was what he had grown up with in South Korea and was the language of science and engineering.

“When the scale of SP became known, there were even some doomsday theorists who claimed that it would disrupt the local climate to the point of creating a stationary cold front. In practice, it’s turned out that it’s not really a big deal. SP is measurably cooler than the surrounding area, but not to the point that anything catastrophic happens.” Yul laughed. “It’s kind of funny. Some of the same panic merchants that had historically claimed that everything that produced or used power was causing global warming, were now claiming that black grass would cause world-ending global cooling. Some people just seem to prefer to be contrary. They don’t make anything but seem to live by tearing others down.”

“They’re not happy, until you’re not happy. Right, Dad?” It was something their family said a way for them to shortcut and encapsulate one of the truly puzzling aspects of the world – that people who had no vested interested in the process or outcome of work would nonetheless weigh in to a discussion about how flawed that work was.

“Always,” chimed in Kathy. She was smiling. Watching the two men in her life always brought her joy. She had a clear view of their future together. They all loved each other, and they all loved gaming. It was going to be wonderful life.

Billy barely slept that night, and, in the way of kids everywhere on the night before Christmas, he made sure that his parents didn’t oversleep in the morning. When the gates opened, they were among the first through them.

Spark wasn’t a traditional theme park where you just paid your entry fee and then took whatever the park had to offer. Instead, your day in the park could start weeks or even months before you walked through the gates. You entered the park virtually well before you got there corporally. Online tours familiarized guests with the layout and the “anchor” quests.

For HVH and his designers, engineers, and writers, the first harsh reality that they ran in to was that of flow. If the park’s central quest required a rigid linearity, where guests had to finish attractions in an ABCD order, that would create chokepoints. Chokepoints created long lines. Long lines made for frustrated guests, and frustrated guests left early and didn’t come back. They talked about a lot of options. In the end, they decided that they were trying to control chaos and human nature. They finally settled on a central underground entry point in the middle of the park, and an “open world” system that would allow the guests to progress through the major quests. The central entry was equidistant from each of seven starting points or “major” quests. That forced an early decision since there was no easy, lazy, route. “Hey, let’s just start at the closest one, the kids are already restless.”

To further ease the strain (and bring additional money into the park’s coffers), guests that stayed at one of the hotel’s properties, could access the park an hour earlier, and stay 30 minutes later than those coming through the General Admission gates at the numerous parking lots around the park. Yul and Kathy hadn’t been able to afford this perk. They arrived via a bus from an off-property motel. They stood in line and then were ushered into a small room after being asked how many were in their party.

Kathy and Yul put Billy in the seat between them. The seats were individual and nearly enclosed – egg shaped and reclined enough to make you automatically grab the armrests. That’s when the biometric data collection began. Grasping the armrests gave the park your palm prints for both hands. Reflexively your eyes opened wider as you nearly fell into the seats. That gave them your retinal scan. At that point, signing in on the screen in front of you was almost unnecessary. It did, however, allow the park to confirm your profile with the one you had setup prior to arrival (if you had). Nerds all, Kathy, Yul, and Billy had completed profiles that allowed them to customize their experience. Yul was a bit of a privacy freak, but even he didn’t realize the extent of the covert data collection that was going on. He was more concerned with the credit card and personal info that was part of their profile.

“What if I refuse to create or complete this profile?” he demanded, even though he had completed the profile online weeks prior.

The young lady behind the window in front of them replied “I’m so sorry sir. The park requires this information for a couple of reasons. The first is safety. The wristbands allow us to immediately locate any member of your party and guide him (here the woman looked at Billy) to you. Or, we will be able to guide you to your party (here the woman seemed to make eye contact with both Yul and Kathy) in the unlikely event that you make a wrong turn somewhere. It’s a big park. We don’t want anyone worrying where the rest of their party is.” At this point the woman seemed to Billy to simply smile at him. Yul and Kathy saw and heard her say “The wristbands also allow us to provide privacy and security should you elect to take advantage of the park’s “Adults Only” attractions.” To all she continued, “The second is simply financial: we want to make sure that your purchases within the park are paid for and will be waiting for you when you leave the park.”

Yul huffed. “Seems pretty darned intrusive to me. Privacy ought to be sacred.” This was another mantra of the family – no one outside the family should have any information that was not absolutely necessary. He and Kathy had had a few intense discussions about it before even committing to the trip. Eventually they had agreed that the risk was worth the opportunity to experience Spark.

“What happens if we refuse to give you all the information you want for our profiles?” Yul asked. He knew the answer. It had appeared online shortly after the park opened, and later was clearly shown in the park’s guidelines: 

Guests who prefer not to complete profiles, or who remove their wristbands prior to exiting the park will be escorted to the park exit and given a full refund, plus 10% for the inconvenience.

Initially, less scrupulous guests had taken advantage of this, and tried to use it as a money-making endeavor. Some had tried to milk out a nearly full day, yank their wristbands, and leave with a refund. They had all been successful once. It had even worked a second time, although when they exited the second time, they were met in person by a large, imposing member of the security team who would somberly inform them that their park entrance privileges had been suspended for a year. Three attempts meant three strikes. You were out. The park was no longer open to you – ever.

People tried to game the system and had found out that it didn’t work. The internet was full of stories of people who had been “screwed by the park.” Unjustly banned for life. No successful legal challenges had been brought to court, and the park itself remained silent other than to confirm its policy. There were lots of theories, but no one outside of park management knew exactly how they decided who to ban.

The slightly Asian looking woman told them “Please be assured that your data goes no further than Spark. We do not, and will not ever, sell it or provide it in any way to outsiders. If you elect not to complete your profiles, you will be returned to the park entrance and your full fee, plus 10%, will be credited to your form of payment.”

“Dad!” Billy cried.

“Easy, Sport,” Yul replied. “Just checking.” The family completed their profiles. Yul was officially linked to his profile and became “K-Zap” in park records. Kathy was “Hornet Chick,” – a shout out to her high school mascot. She had been dismayed to learn that all variants of “Super Mom” (1-1272) had already been taken. Billy got his first choice: “WonderBoy.” It directly related to his recent viewing of “The Natural,” and had the approval of both of his parents. Choices such as “Viper,” “Killer 6,” and “Ninja Assassin,” had already been taken, or nixed by his parents.

When they had completed their profiles, their wristbands and Augmented Reality Glasses (“Args” as they had already become known to park enthusiasts). These goggles were transparent but had the ability to project images visible only to the wearer. Some images were the same for all viewers. “Sparky,” the ubiquitous park mascot was always seen the same by everyone – a large, yellow, spark of energy that managed to also have arms, legs, and facial features (available as a plush souvenir at park stores, online, and via retail outlets everywhere…) Other images would change based on profile preferences, quest locations, and quest status. When Billy looked at his mom, he saw her physically through the transparent glasses, but he also saw her costumed as a Viking Shield Maiden complete with virtual sword and shield. Yul appeared to be wearing well-traveled leather armor with small spikes on the shoulders and elbows and twin swords strapped to his back. Billy appeared to his parents as if clad in futuristic dark armor that managed to also give the impression of a baseball uniform with the number 9 barely visible on his back. A blaster was at his side. They had all taken the time before arriving to design their own appearances. Nearly 100 standard outfits such as Cowboy, Rogue, Wizard, or Warrior Princess were available for those who hadn’t taken the time, or simply didn’t care enough to customize their park persona. Billy and his family stood out as serious gamers and scorned standard persona as for the “noobs” and the lazy.

With that transaction completed, the door opened again and they emerged into The Hub. The entire process of getting registered and paying admission was actually the first “ride” at Spark. Each “room” was actually a people mover that very slowly accelerated and brought them inward from the parking lot to The Hub. Later, when they left, they would use these same people movers to exit the park. The attendant in the room was a computer-generated image – an image selected just for them based on a quick visual scan as they had entered the room. Their reactions and interactions had been monitored and deemed positive overall. From this point forward, this face – a young mixed-race woman with slightly Asian features – would be their primary interface with park systems. When they exited, their wristbands would identify them to the interface and the same face, would usher them out of the park. Billy and his family had already knew about this feature, but it would still personalize their visit. It was simple programming, but that didn’t diminish the pleasure of being recognized. When they re-entered the park tomorrow morning, facial recognition software would identify their family and the same face would welcome them back. Years later, when Billy returned without his parents, she would be there and call him by name again.

The Hub was already crowded, cacophonous, and visually stunning. They were now outdoors, and the central mall was lined with retail opportunities skillfully designed to separate guests from their money.  In exchange, they got souvenirs, character upgrades, and occasional quest items that might come in handy, or lead them off on a tangent away from a major quest. Yul looked up and saw nothing but clear sky and a single cloud wafting gently across his view. He pulled his Args off and looked again. There it was. The famous sunscreen. Black grass mesh was suspended high over the large open areas of Spark. It allowed ample sunlight to penetrate, but had been tuned to absorb the majority of the UV and IR. This kept the temperature pleasant and also allowed the park to brag that, in the park itself, no sunscreen was required. The mesh and supporting poles and wires were clearly visible to the naked eye but were edited out by the Args. Yul pointed this out to Kathy and Billy, and they all spent a few minutes alternating between Args on and off. They called out to each other what was virtual, and what was real. The actual sky was cloudless, but the rendering in the Args was stunning. Spark artists liked to claim that they only way to tell the difference between one of their clouds, and one created by the atmosphere was to take off your Args. Kathy and Yul had to agree. Billy was riveted by the entire concept and spent a good part of the day comparing scenes as viewed through his Args, and with his unfiltered sight.

As a family, they had agreed to not do any shopping their first two days. If they had to bring a souvenir home, they would choose it on their last day. This agreement didn’t mean that they ignored the shops. Rather, they did a quick survey of what vendors carried what, and what items might have quest tie-ins. These may be actual physical items, or completely virtual. Physical items were yours to keep – and haul around – and had to be purchased with actual money. Virtual artifacts, or “Virts,” could only be purchased or bartered for with virtual currency – something that you found, earned, or looted from a park quest. Billy and his family had an advantage here – they had completed every possible online quest that earned them Virtual currency before they had flown to Spark. Between them that had 120 units of Park Gold that they could spend individually, or pool together for a more major purchase. 

Even though it was technically Park Gold and appeared virtually as a coin about the size and shape of an old silver dollar, Park Gold was usually referred to simply as Gold. Instead of saying “I have 120 units of Park Gold,” a player simply said, “I have 120 Gold.” One side of each coin had a stylized Sparky, the other had a simple numeral indicating its denomination: 1. Some trolls had argued that there should be various denominations. Spark simply said, “Why? They don’t weigh anything. You can carry as many as you want, and you don’t have to count them out. We take care of that.” Eventually the grumbling stopped

Since Billy and his parents were dedicated gamers and planners, they had searched online for a suggested plan of attack: What was best to do first? What got crowded after lunch? Were there any perks that you could earn in one of the major quests that was a big benefit in another? The park was still new, and no one had anything other than a vague opinion (or a very strong opinion, just lacking any kind of data to support it) for what was the best place to start. They had decided to go with a chronological plan. They would start in Pre-History, a place of dread beasts and inhospitable terrain.

The premise for the Pre-History central quest was simple: You were sucked into a wormhole that ended up dumping you and your party in a distant past before humans dominated the planet. You and your party (and other parties tracking the same quest) were the only “homo sapiens” in the central quest arena. There were cast members, but their makeup and projected personae were distinctly non-human. Many acted as non-playing characters, human-sized beasts, designed to be somewhat realistic in terms of what was believed to be true at the very end of the Cretaceous period. For the most part, the designers tried to be as faithful to the historical record and current theory as possible. As HVH had pointed out: “People will accept a giant yellow spark that walks, talks and smiles, but if you put an extra toe on a velociraptor, they want to burn you at the stake.” The quest was set to take place right around the time of the cometary/meteroid impact that was theorized to trigger the cataclysmic events that ended the reign of the dinosaurs and had changed Earth forever. Days and nights were artificially fast to allow guests to experience the flora and fauna in both settings. The wormhole dropped you in a tropical jungle, so the flooring was soft and somewhat irregular to simulate a jungle floor. The heat and humidity were significant but deemed “safe” for vigorous activity by the park’s medical staff. 

Quests were designed to work for any sized group up to twenty. A hard-core gamer might be able to make it solo, and the in-game payoff was huge. Larger groups would have a better chance of success against larger targets, such as the T-Rex, but then the payoff would be diluted according to whatever agreement the group had made for sharing. Arguments were circumvented by the park simply allocating resources based on the group’s profile. Single items, such as a special weapon, shield, or amulet had to be allocated by the group and agreed upon by a simple majority. Groups that got stuck arguing found that the items faded after one minute and disappeared if they were still unallocated after two. Spark considered it a path to greater group harmony.

Billy’s family chose to go with just the three of them rather than trying to join a larger group. Families tended to follow this strategy unless there were other families with them on vacation, in which case they banded together. Groups were fluid, forming and folding even in the line. As guests waited in line, their Args provided both distraction from the wait as well as helpful back-story and context for the world they were about to enter. At a level so subtle as to be unnoticed by most park guests, they were being educated. Elementary math, physics, history, paleontology, geology, and dozens of other specialties were woven into every narrative. Spark was a place where you couldn’t help but learn. The cool thing was that it was unnoticeable, and you enjoyed it in the process. Learning was the reason HVH had built the park, he just never told anyone, and kept the breadth and depth of targeted learning a complete secret. He didn’t really care if someone left knowing all about the KT Boundary and could name every dinosaur represented in that part of the park. He did care that they left curious and thinking differently about thinking, learning, and knowledge itself. He wanted to change every guest that came into the park, and every employee who worked there. He was not short on ambition.

Park designers had a 90 second rule: Never leave a guest waiting and idle for longer than 90 seconds. To that end, anytime and anywhere a line was anticipated, edutainment was required – even in food service areas. Mostly the edutainment was pumped through the Args and their attached earbuds. Where that wasn’t practical or desired, flat screens or holographic displays were used. Occasionally, even live entertainers appeared. As Billy and his parents waited their turn to enter the launch zone, they were provided with a tutorial. 

Some of the information was frustratingly basic: Challenges or targets were always labeled in red or underscored for those guests that had indicated some level of color blindness. If a target was well above your level it was marked with a red skull. Allies and friendlies were green and overscored. Neutrals – characters that could become either allies or enemies – were gray. A player’s actions dictated the outcome and eventual color. Labeling was small and unobtrusive to avoid visual clutter. Nobody needed to know that a T-Rex was an unfriendly badass. Within a week of opening, social media has become overrun with stories of T-Rex encounters. Mostly the guests “died” – their profiles and skills were returned to Level One and they moved on. If they wanted another crack at the T-Rex, they were directed to rejoin the line and consider leveling up or joining a larger party before attempting another encounter.

This pissed off a lot of guests since the first T-Rex encounter happened immediately upon leaving the launch zone in KT Crossing – the major quest in the PreHistory sector of the park. Nobody wanted to have their character wiped within 60 seconds of beginning a quest. Park designers had argued long into the night for several nights over the T-Rex encounter. It had been deliberately placed where it was to force guests to move out of the immediate area of the launch zone into the more open and adaptable areas of the quest enclosure – a vast, mostly empty structure that covered close to 20 acres in a rectangular floor plan. Ten launch areas were spaced evenly along one of the short sides of the rectangle. The quest itself ran the 200-meter length of the rectangle with subtle barriers preventing parties from crossing lanes or simply running the length of the building and claiming victory. The arguments between designers fell into two camps:

  1. Those that thought that anyone so stupid as to try to engage and kill a T-Rex as soon as they entered the quest as a Level One Noob, were simply too stupid to live and should have to ponder the demise of their character while they stood in line again, or advanced to a more benign challenge.
  2. Those that thought this was unnecessarily harsh and favored a simpler challenge like a picnic with Smurfs – a derogatory nickname for a class of fuzzy, cuddly proto mammals that appeared in the quest. They were given an almost imperceptible blue tint in their rendering to subliminally push guests to see them as friendlies, but in actuality they were grays, and could become either enemies or friendlies.

Both groups mocked each other and, in the end, HVH mediated a compromise that allowed both groups to “win.” The T-Rex encounter would stand, but clues would be provided to gamers below level 20 that they should run and seek shelter. The designated shelter areas would contain two Smurfs, a mother and infant. Treated properly this pair would guide parties through the first “day” of KT Crossing. If they were treated improperly, they fled and left gamers on their own.

Kathy looked around as they stood in line, paying only partial attention to the tutorial, and more attention to other gamers in line. Some stood placidly, chatting quietly with each other. Some appeared to be completely mesmerized by the tutorial. A third group stretched and appeared to be trying to either warm their muscles up, or keep them warm while they waited. She was not the athlete that either her husband or son were, so she tried to subtly warm up as they waited. Yul noticed and gave her a smile. Billy was too busy bouncing around to have any need to warm up his muscles. Abruptly he said, “We’re going to run, right? I mean we’re not going to try to take on the T-Rex right away, are we?” They had discussed this at length both at home and on the flight here. Kathy knew that it was just nerves.

“That’s right honey. We’re going to give him a pass. Maybe we can bag him tomorrow.” 

“Yeah! We’ll come back for him tomorrow!” Yul smiled. He and Kathy knew that was wishful thinking. It was unlikely that they would be able to tackle the T-Rex at all on this trip. He was considered a Level 50 Enemy. The Unofficial Guide to Spark suggested that you be Level 30 or higher before taking on the T-Rex as a solo or have at least four Level 20 gamers in your squad before you engaged him. The Guide also likened Leveling Up to being given free samples of crack from your neighborhood crack dealer. Small, frequent tastes early on quickly built addicts. Levels 1-10 came fairly quickly. Quickly enough to get you hooked. After that, every set of ten levels became more difficult. A year after opening, some serious gamers were approaching Level 30. Yul thought, if this place lives up to the hype, he thought, we’ll be back every year. Maybe we’ll get a timeshare here, he mused.

Suddenly they were next in line. A park guide wearing a costume reminiscent of safari gear ushered them into their launch area, gave them a quick reminder of how to locate emergency and regular exits, cautioned them to be careful about their footing, made sure they had their Args on and earbuds in, and wished them luck.

The room and their Args went dark. Later they would talk nonstop about the graphics of the launch. Two heartbeats of darkness – long enough to begin to form the thought “Is something wrong?” and then they were barraged by a disorienting blast of light and sound. The Guide called it “an experience as near cyclonic as we ever hope to encounter.” As soon as it had begun, it ended, and Billy and his family found themselves in a warm, muggy, tropical jungle. Another two heartbeats and sound began to filter into their minds, including the growing sound of the approaching T-Rex. 

“Run!” screamed Billy as their Args began to flash that same message. Billy took off with Kathy and Yul behind. In ten seconds, a very fast human could cover 100 meters at full speed. It felt much longer, but in truth was much shorter. Twists and turns led them to a sanctuary less than 10 meters from where they had begun.

They high-fived as they realized they were safe and had passed the first test. Then they heard the Smurfs. The baby was mewing at first but then began to wail. The T-Rex had passed them by, but turned at the sound. The Unofficial Guide said that the best way to survive the encounter was to befriend the Smurfs by offering them food, or by cooing gibberish to them. Either seemed to quiet the baby Smurf. With Baby Smurf quiet, the T-Rex would wander off and you could begin your quest in earnest. Kathy started to pull some virtual fruit from her inventory. Yul began saying “Now, now. It’s okay, little guy.” Billy drew his blaster.

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