Giving a Gamer Fangirl What She Wants

 [The Grammarian, lexicographical superhero, is in his civilian guise of Alex Graham, rare book dealer. The scene opens as Alex is wrapping up a visit to the research facility of Prof. Kate Hunter, materials scientist. During his visit, he met Dr. Angela Fong, a postdoc in Kate's program.]

As they were leaving the section of labs, a voice called from behind.

“Um, excuse me, Mr. Graham?” Alex and Kate turned toward the stairs.

Angela Fong was running to catch up with them. Since she’d left the lab coat behind, Alex could see that she was wearing an orange T-shirt that read “Gordon Freeman Lives”.

He groaned inwardly, then squared his shoulders for the inevitable. He hated being recognized this way. Usually, being out of context was almost as good as being invisible.

“Mr. Graham? You are A.I. Graham, aren’t you?” she said, her voice hopeful.

“In the flesh.”

“Oh my God, I can’t believe this! Mr. Graham, I am a huge fan, just a huge, huge fan! I knew you lived here in town, but I never thought I’d meet you in person. God, this is so random! I saw you in Montreal last year, at WorldCon? You would never believe how many hours I spent playing your games. Mine Strike and Laser Colony Assault and -”

Alex cut her off. “I’m glad you liked them. But they weren’t just mine, of course. A lot of great designers worked on those.”

“This is a huge honor, Mr. Graham. Really. I can’t tell you. I grew up playing your games. They must have cost me a full point off my GPA back in high school!”

“Well, I’m glad I didn’t do you any permanent damage. It’s nice to meet you, Angela.” Alex turned to go, but Kate, missing the cue, scuppered his attempted escape.

“So, Angela, how do you know Alex?” she said. “Do you collect first editions?”

“First editions?” Angela’s face screwed up in confusion. “Uh, no. I’m not really into the retro gaming scene. No offense, Mr. Graham. They were great games, fantastic for the time. I’ve got a few of them on emulators, but I don’t collect the old first edition cartridges.”

She grew visibly more uncertain as she spoke. Kate’s look of confusion had deepened into complete mystification. Alex just hoped that his growing irritation wasn’t showing the same way.

“I meant rare books,” Kate said. “Do you collect rare books?”

It was Angela’s turn to be mystified. “Um... no. Why would I be interested in rare books?”

They looked at each other uncomprehendingly for a moment, before simultaneously turning to Alex for help. He made a show of checking his watch.

“Oops, look at the time. I’m afraid I’ve got an afternoon appointment, going to have to run soon.”

“Hey, are you going to be working with us?” Angela said. Her face lit up like a kid promised a pony for Christmas. “That would be fantastic! I’m sorry I didn’t really get a chance to talk to you upstairs and show you my work. But I was just so, you know, flustered! I mean, my God, it’s just a regular day in the lab and to see A.I. Graham himself come walking in. Talk about things being out of context! It’s like getting dumped into a boss fight on the first screen...” She smiled and leaned forward, inviting Alex to share the joke.

Reluctantly, he gave the expected response: “... armed with just a crowbar.”

Angela dissolved into delighted giggles while Kate stared at them, completely at a loss. Alex laughed politely while he tried to work out a good way to detach himself. In some ways, gamer fangirls were worse than fanboys.

Thrown off-balance by the entire interaction, Kate tried to regain some footing in the conversation. “I don’t understand what you mean, Angela. Working with us? Alex was here for an informal tour, a social call. There’s no professional involvement.”

“Oh.” Angela’s disappointment was clear. “That’s too bad. Still, I guess it doesn’t make very much sense, does it? I mean, the work we’re doing in Dr. Hunter’s lab is all about stabilizing charge displacement of quantum tunneling effects, and isometric boson vector alignments, physical stuff like that. I wasn’t aware of any direct applications to the video game industry.” Her face brightened again. “Unless it’s some kind of adaptation of your on-the-fly polygon frame-rate substitution algorithms to advanced computer simulations? Like maybe of that venturi modeling you used for Blades of the Assassins?”

What a typical gamer, he thought. The young woman just would NOT take a hint!

“No, I’m afraid not,” said Alex. This was really not a conversation he wanted to be having, not in front of Kate. He very pointedly looked at his watch and said, “Hey, I’m really going to have to run if -”

Oblivious, Angela said, “I mean, the algorithm modeling in those games were fantastic. The blood spatter effects alone meant I had to buy a new video card. It cost me a fortune, but it was... worth it...” She trailed off, finally becoming aware of the social cues in front of her. She blushed again, an even deeper shade of red than in the lab. They stood in an awkward silence: Alex anxious to be rid of his admirer, Angela’s sudden embarrassment finally overcoming her excitement, and Kate looking back and forth between them, trying unsuccessfully to understand their conversation.

Alex cleared his throat. “Well, it was nice to meet you.” He put a hand on Kate’s arm and guided her toward the hallway door.

Angela stuck out her hand for another shake. “Oh God, the pleasure was all mine, all mine!” She pumped Alex’s hand, hesitated for a moment, then leaned in. In a conspiratorial voice, she said, “I know this is TOTALLY none of my business and you can absolutely tell me to buzz off, but just between you and me... is ‘Blood Lance: Halls of the Damned’ gonna have cloud-independent NPC controlling intelligence, or is it gonna be parallel behavior isoforms?”

Alex gritted his teeth. Clearly, he wasn’t going to get out of this without throwing her a bone of some kind. He leaned in close and spoke in a voice that was melodramatically low and confidential.

“Well, the NDAs with Lighting Stryke Entertainment mean I have to be pretty tight-lipped. I’ll tell you this much, though: when you fill out your party roster, you’re going to need a necromancer. And keep at least two equipment slots open when you go into the Caves of Ice.” Alex made a dramatic gesture of sealing his lips. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

Angela threw up her hands. “OH, MAN!” she shouted. “Oh, man! I knew it! I knew it! The boss fight is the Frost King, isn’t it? Back from the Pit of Stygian Fire, and thirsting for vengeance? I knew it!”

“Remember, you can’t breathe a word about this. It’s still in final development.”

“Oh, no worries, Mr. Graham. I’m great at keeping secrets.”

Kate laughed. “Angela here is one of the co-investigators on some of our privately funded research grants. She’s excellent with confidential information.” Angela blushed again at this praise.

“Is that right?” Alex said. He considered for a moment. “Listen, we’re going to be releasing a limited beta of the Caves of Ice level. It sounds as though you’d be the kind of person who could really put it through its paces. You’d have to sign an NDA, but if your gaming rig is up to it, I’ll see if I can get you in the pool of beta testers. Interested?”

“Are you kidding? I’d love that!” Hardly able to contain her excitement, Angela scribbled her name and e-mail address into a small notebook from her pocket, tore out the page and thrust it at Alex. With many more protestations of disbelief and delight, she finally left them, fairly dancing down the hallway.

Alex and Kate watched her go. After a moment’s awkward silence, Alex turned and went quickly through the doorway that led to the foyer. Kate ran after him.

“What the heck was that all about?” she said.

“Nothing. Just some pre-release viral marketing,” Alex said, not stopping to explain.

“Viral what? Alex, I mean.... THAT. The whole thing. That was as excited as I’ve ever seen her get. I thought she was going to ask you for your autograph. What in the world were you two talking about?”

He limped down the stairs toward his car. “It’s not important, Kate. Come on, I’ll take you to lunch.”

“Well, it might not be important, but it’s surprising as hell, and it’s too early for lunch. How did she know you? And what was all that about video games?”

Alex sighed. “That’s just another line of work I do. More of a hobby, really.”

“Oh. OK.” She blinked, then frowned. “Wait, no. Not OK. From the way Angela was acting, I got the distinct impression that you’re practically a rock star. That doesn’t sound like some little hobby for when you’re not running your bookstore.”

He shrugged. “I just take on assignments from the video game companies as I want to. Only the stuff that interests me.”

“You design video games?” Her voice was incredulous. “When you’re not locating first editions and restoring old manuscripts, you design video games?” She looked him up and down. “You don’t look like a computer nerd.”

“I am a computer GEEK, thank you very much, despite my normal human appearance. And no, I don’t design the games themselves. I’m a consultant, contributing plot ideas and occasionally assisting with the scripts. Mostly, though, I work with the programming team to polish the physics code.”

“The what?”

“It’s the software that drives the way the players and characters move on-screen. A lot of games have characters that look wooden or jerky. Mine move more naturally, more believably.”

She looked at him in silence for a long time. Finally, she said, “You’re kidding, right?”

Alex’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “I admit, it doesn’t really go with the rare manuscripts dealer image, does it?”

“But how did you get started doing it? Was it just a slow day at a book auction and you decided to start writing computer code?”

He frowned a bit, until he realized that she was teasing him. A bright twinkle had come to her eye that made his heart kick in his chest. It was an unfamiliar sensation. Not at all unpleasant, just... unfamiliar.

“No, the other way around,” he said. “I used to be a serious code monkey. I had a flair for writing code that made things move on-screen with terrific effect. Games that had my code looked better and sold more copies than games that didn’t. I worked on a lot of projects for a lot of different people, including some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.”

“So if you were so good at it, why’d you quit?”

“Oh, there are lots of reasons to quit a job.” Such as the death of everyone you ever cared about. Images of smoking blood and charred metal forced their way into his mind. He forced them back out. “Sometimes you just get... burned out.”

Read more in Verbosity's Vengeance

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