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SYNTHETIC SERENDIPITY

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PHOTO CREDITMay 2004 | IEEE Spectrum | NA 35Illustrations by Peter BollingerYEARS AGO, GAMES AND MOVIESwere for indoors, for couch potatoes and kids withovertrained trigger fingers. Now they were on theoutside. They were the world. That was the main reason Mike Villas liked towalk to school with the Radner twins. Fred andJerry were a Bad Influence, but they were the bestgamers Mike knew in person.“We got a new scam, Mike,” said Fred.“Yeah,” said Jerry, smiling the way he did whensomething extreme was in the works.The three followed the usual path along theflood-control channel. The trough was dry andgray, winding its way through the canyon behindLas Mesitas subdivision. The hills above themwere covered with ice plant and manzanita; ahead,there was a patch of scrub oaks. What do youexpect of San Diego North County in early May?At least in the real world.The canyon was not a dead zone. Not at all.County Flood Control kept the whole areaimproved, and the public layer was just as fine ason city streets. As they walked along, Mike gavea shrug and a twitch just so. That was enough cuefor his Epiphany wearable. Its overlay imagingshifted into classic manga/anime: the manzanitabranches morphed into scaly tentacles. Now thehouses that edged the canyon were heavily tim-bered, with pennants flying. High ahead was a cas-tle, the home of Grand Duke Hwa Feen—in fact,In this futuristic tale, Mike Villas is good at playing games. He’s about to find out if he’s any good at playing peopleBY VERNOR VINGEJuly 2004 | IEEE Spectrum | NA 35SENSORNATION>>>FICTIONSYNTHETICSERENDIPITY36 IEEE Spectrum | July 2004 | NAthe local kid who did the most to maintain this belief circle.Mike tricked out the twins in manga costume, and spiky hair,and classic big-eyed, small-mouthed features.“Hey, Jerry, look.” Mike radiated, and waited for the twinsto slide into consensus with his view. He’d been practicing allweek to get these visuals.Fred looked up, accepting the imagery that Mike had con-jured. “That’s old stuff, Mike, my man.” He glanced at the cas-tle on the hill. “Besides, Howie Fein is a nitwit.”“Oh.” Mike released the vision in an untidy cascade. The realworld took back its own, first the sky, then the landscape, thenthe creatures and costumes. “But you liked it last week.” Backwhen, Mike now remembered, Fred and Jerry had been maneu-vering to oust the Grand Duke.The twins looked at each other. Mike could tell they weresilent messaging. “We told you today would be different. We’reonto something special.” They were partway through the scruboaks now. From here you could see ocean haze; on a clear day—or if you bought in to clear vision—you could see all the wayto the ocean. On the south were more subdivisions, and a patchof green that was Fairmont High School. On the north was themost interesting place in Mike Villas’s neighborhood.Pyramid Hill Park dominated the little valley that surroundedit. Once upon a time avocado orchards had covered the hill. Youcould still see them if you used the park’s logo view. But tothe naked eye, there were other kinds of trees. There were alsolawns, and real mansions, and a looping structure that flew aparabolic arc hundreds of feet above the top of the hill. Thatwas the longest free-fall ride in California.The twins were grinning at him. Jerry waved at the hill.“How would you like to playCretaceous Returns, but with realfeeling?”Pyramid Hill had free entrances, but they were just for visu-als. “That’s too expensive.”“Sure it is. If you pay.” “And, um, don’t you have a project to set up before class?”The twins had shop class first thing in the morning.“That’s still in Vancouver,” said Jerry.“But don’t worry about us.” Fred looked upward, somehowprayerful and smug at the same time. “‘FedEx will provide,and just in time.’”“Well, okay. Just so we don’t get into trouble.” Getting intotrouble was the major downside of hanging with the Radners.“Don’t worry about it.” The three left the edge of the floodchannel and climbed a narrow trail along the east edge ofPyramid Hill. This was far from any entrance, but the twins’uncle worked for County Flood Control and they had accessto CFC utilities support imagery—which just now they sharedwith Mike. The dirt beneath their feet became faintly translu-cent. Fifteen feet down, Mike could see graphics representinga 10-inch runoff tunnel. Here and there were pointers to localmaintenance records. Jerry and Fred had used the CFC viewbefore and not been caught. Today they blended it with a mapof the local nodes. The overlay was faintly violet against thesunlit day, showing comm shadows and active high-rate links.The two stopped at the edge of a clearing. Fred looked atJerry. “Tsk. Flood Control should be ashamed. There’s not alocalizer node within 30 feet.”“Yeah, Jer. Almost anything could happen here.” Without acomplete localizer mesh, nodes could not know precisely whereJuly 2004 | IEEE Spectrum | NA 37they and their neighbors were. High-rate laser comm could notbe established, and low-rate sensor output was smeared acrossthe landscape. The outside world knew only mushy vaguenessabout this area.They walked into the clearing. They were deep in comm shade,but from here they had a naked-eye view up the hillside. If theycontinued that way, Pyramid Hill would start charging them.The twins were not looking at the Hill. Jerry walked to asmall tree and squinted up. “See? They tried to patch the cov-erage with an air ball.” He pointed into the branches and pinged.The utility view showed only a faint return, an error message.“It’s almost purely net guano at this point.”Mike shrugged. “The gap will be fixed by tonight”…aroundtwilight, when maintenance UAVs flitted like bats around thecanyons, popping out nodes here and there.“Heh. Well, why don’t we help the county by patching thingsright now?” Jerry held up a thumb-sized greenish object. Hehanded it to Mike.Three antenna fins sprouted from the top, a typical ad hocnode. The dead ones were more trouble than bird poop. “You’veperv’d this thing?” The node had BreakIns-R-Us written all overit, but perverting networks was harder in real life than in games.“Where did you get the access codes?”“Uncle Don gets careless.” Jerry pointed at the device. “Allthe permissions are loaded. Unfortunately, the bottleneck nodeis still alive.” He pointed upward,


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