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the NPC,used%20to%20advance%20the%20storyline.

By P. D. MurrayPublished 8 months ago Updated 8 months ago 10 min read
"mitochondria in search of a self" P.D Murray Mixed media, 2017

Even before I start counting the corpses in the aisle, I smell them. Bloody, coppery, urine-scented, and fresh. I inhale nitro and graphite.

I sigh and open my eyes. Outside the train window, the endless jungle blurs past. We’ve now gathered so much speed that it’s impossible to see any details, just an unbroken streak of stochastic emerald leaves, with occasional blips of a rainforest’s sky.

I do not know my name.

I do not know how I got here.

I do not know where I’m going.

That’s the trifecta of existential questions, amirite? For an instant, a painting flashes in my mind. It’s a Gaugin.

D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?

In my lap, there’s an open book, written in a language I do not know. Mandarin? Japanese? I wonder, panning for nuggets in the broken stream of my memory. I don’t have an answer. I look at the cover. There’s no clue there: just a pixelated praying mantis with a grinning smiley face for its head. I’m wearing a bright yellow miniskirt and a black t-shirt that says NOBU Tokyo. My boots are clearly expensive; their leather is both exotic and real. Ostrich? Boa? I start to take off my headphones but suddenly come to realize the truly relevant part of my wardrobe: fuzzy handcuffs. Which are interlocked securely through the arm of the tray table.

Kinky? No. Terrifying. My breathing grows panicky and shallow and shallower still. I am trapped like—what’s the metaphor?—a rat in a maze.

I lean out and look up the corridor. There’s some kind of cop in uniform there, splayed out ridiculously on the carpet, as if caught in a jumping jack at the very exact second his skull was shattered. Two blonde children in raincoats, slumped together, slick with spilled brains. A stuffed Paddington bear. A woman’s legs. An incongruous juice box. A gun, which is — and here my fragmented memory tries to assist again — yes, an Uzi.

Other than the frantic chatter and screech of the rails, and the slight buzz in my headphones, I hear nothing. Certainly no signs of life.


“Okay,” says Owen in the large conference room. The floor is glass, which affords a spectacular view of the rainforest arboretum below. The video is frozen in crystal hi-rez on the wall behind him. It shows the young woman on the train, handcuffed to her tray table. But Owen doesn’t want his audience distracted by any of this; he needs them riveted by his every word.

“What’s the worst part of any role-playing video game, the ultimate deal-breaker?” He takes off his Warby Parkers, twirling the eyewear by a stem, and waits.

It’s pitch drama.

“Limited haptics?” says a guy to his right, one of the Redmond crowd. The guy’s no alpha but he has to prove himself smart and capable so he’s ventured an opinion even before the real muckety-mucks weigh in.

“A great answer,” Owen says, throwing him a bone. “And I want to get to our new tactile enhancements in a hot minute. But thousands of hours of focus groups identified something else for us.”

“Texture repetition in open world systems?”

“Genre tropes?”

Then the Israeli investor leans forward. Owen already knows she’s stiletto sharp. She’s dressed in a simple black linen dress, with an ivory bangle on her arm that contrasts with her olive skin. For a fleeting second Owen can’t help but imagine her naked, that long ponytail snaking and whipping over her spine like a rattlesnake. Her muscled ass.

“The NPC,” she says.

“Exactly,” he says. “The NPC. Now, I’m sure you all know the acronym, but here’s a quick refresher. The NPC is the non-playing character. You know, that one ugly, missing-toothed miner that you approach in-game that keeps saying shit like: ‘Rumor is, there’s a cave near here.’ And: ‘Folks say ole man Shaughnessy found a mother vein to the south.’ Or: the sexy flight attendant on the Ganymede shuttle that says: ‘I’ve heard there’s a big Jovian storm right now. There may be some turbulence ahead.’ Or— well, I could go on and on.

“The NPC is the character created simply to fill out the world, highlight the side mission, or provide exposition for the main narrative. No original thought. No unpredictability. No self, shall we say? And, of course, before you jump in to point out that recent AI chatbots can easily fool the average (ahem, Catholic priest) user into thinking they’re conversing with a sentient being, thereby prompting them to sue the afore-mentioned being’s corporate owners for air quote spiritual emancipation end air quote— ”

Owen waits for the laugh, and gets it, as his audience unpacks the topical reference.

“Before you do that,” he continues, “Let me stress the distinction between speech and action. You might say that deeds speak louder than words. And to date, no one has ever cracked the code for allowing the NPC to perform, to act, to engage with the same weird, totally unpredictable actions of a real in-life player. Until. Now.” He hits the play button.


I sigh and open my eyes. A man has opened the door to the car ahead of me and approaches.

“Hey, are you ok?” he says. “You’re one of the lucky ones.”

His words are pheromones and I whiff them up. One part friend. A soupçon of frenemy. Maybe some Sauvage cologne.

“Well, I’m alive,” I say. I rattle my handcuffs. “But that’s the good news. On the other hand.”

“Shit,” he says. “Good thing I came prepared.” He holds up a fire ax. I hadn’t noticed it before. Mainly, because I didn’t know they had fire axes on trains. Mainly, because I was performing a self-focused sitrep. Mainly, because I was busy studying his chiseled torso, his Adonis eyes, his Saville Row suit worn ironically with a Modern Lovers tour t-shirt, the tantalizing four o’clock shadow colonizing his impeccable jaw, his Nordic grey wolf eyes, and his bare feet. If a man’s feet can be hot, let me tell you.

Mainly, hold my beer.

“Let’s get you out of here,” he says. “Pull your hands back.” He readies the ax. Kinky? Nope. There’s an anticlimactic thud and he severs the arm of the tray table.

Little grey plastic stubs fall to the floor. My hand are free but still tethered together.

“I’m Byron,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of time.”


D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?

“—Sam,” I say. And just like that, I know who I am. This time, anyway. “SAIC Samantha Choi.”

“Byron Henessesy,” he says.

His name. I roll it over my mental tongue, tasting. His syllables, honey, nitro, phero, feelers, frenemy, frisk. Death and sex have always been neighbors.

I am Sam. Who is Byron?


“Meet Sam,” Owen says. “She (or he) would be an NPC, except for the fact that she (or he) isn’t. Ladies and gentlemen and everything in-between, Sam is what we here at Simperb Labs have dubbed a bio-tar. Actually, marketing hates that coined word and it’s just a working term still. But the meaning is baked in. Sam is an AI coupled with a biologically viable actor. A bio-tar. The AI provides her with speech. But biologic agents provide her with motivation.”

The Israeli leans in. This is the good part, she knows.

And Owen knows she knows.

“This is the good part,” Owen says.

His words are pheromones and I whiff them up. One part friend. A soupçon of frenemy. Maybe some Sauvage.

“Look down,” Owen continues. “Below us is an atrium. Within it, you’ll discern four mature acacia trees, each of which hosts a colony of— wait for it!— acacia ants.

“Acacia ants are unique, not simply because of myrmecophytism, but because, of all the ants that fight for terrain, the acacia ant is able to recruit members of a defeated colony. So, if you were to translate their behavior into human narratives, that would yield nuanced relational states: conflict, alliance, empathy, and all the shades in-between.

“And that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve translated their behavior into real-time gameplay. Our micro-cams capture the IRL actions of these ants and their colonies and codify them into multiplayer mode. Each colony's individual behavior is mapped onto any given NPC. Better yet, every virtual human player is spawned into a real-life colony. His or her role may be a drone, a warrior, or even a queen. And those roles can shift. Everything is fluid. No one is an NPC. Scripts don’t exist; only alliance or belligerence or mating.”

Owen’s personal assistant Lena starts to applaud, as was planned, but his audience is still processing. Lena stops and catches Owen’s eye. More Perrier? More croissants? Caviar?

He knows what she is thinking but gives a discrete shrug.


I sigh and open my eyes. Outside the train window, the endless jungle blurs past. The trees are burning. Mauve smoke chokes out the blips of sky. Inside the train, there is a smell of charred plastic and flesh. Bodies soaked in napalm that are half-burning and half-melting, an acrid stench. Speed travels from the wheels up into my bones.

Byron and I are French-kissing.

Byron and I are staring at each other, weighing our options.

Byron pulls a Glock out of his shoulder holster and places the muzzle gently on my forehead.

Byron lies sprawled over my lap. I have driven a long shard of grey plastic into his eye and his blood is seeping through my skirt into my crotch. I need to find my colony, my peeps. I need to stop the train.

I sigh and open my eyes.

We’ve stalled. On my lap is an open book. It’s written in Mandarin. I read a sentence: The best way to tell if your life is a simulacrum is to kill your lover. On the cover is a praying mantis, pixelated, with a bright smiley-faced emoticon for its head.

Byron and I are fucking.


“Words are cheap,” Owen says. “So I’d like to take a minute to invite you all to taste the proof in the pudding, as it were. In front of each of you, you’ll find a set of our proprietary AR shades. Mayas, as marketing currently calls them, although if you ask me, that may change still because of cultural sensitivities. Also a patch. You peel off the backing and apply it to your arm. Which circles back to the question of haptics, but I’ll let you be the judge.”

He pauses; sips water. His audience inspects the minimalist frames, each feather-light and sleek. Also the patches, small black dots with a stylized ant logo. The Redmond crowd quickly applies both, eager for the experience. Others are more cautious, glancing around the room to pre-gauge reactions.

“This will be gentle,” Owen says to overcome any hesitation. “I promise. We just want you to know first-hand how it feels to spawn into our world.


I sigh and open my eyes. Outside the maglev, the bleak moonscape blurs past. We’ve now gathered so much speed that Gaussian waves sweep the windows, in pulses of psychedelic color. My personal Northern Lights.

I sigh and open my eyes. The ship is foundering. I’m wearing a leather utility kilt. My hands are bound with rough rope. I reach for my talismans, Yrec and Arada, carved from whalebone, but they’re gone.

I sigh and open my eyes. I’m smoking a cheroot. A woman’s approaching me. She’s wearing a fuzzy orange jumpsuit with a cat tail. She’s holding a syringe.

I do not know my name.

I do not know how I got here.

I do not know where I’m going.


“And we’re back,” Owen says. “Remove your Mayas and patches, please.”

Most of his audience complies. Some look sheepish and/or shocked. They blink in the stark, real light of the auditorium. Owen has them now. He knows it.

“What you just experienced,” he says, “Was not a simulation. You were coupled, however briefly, with an actual living being. One with its own will, desires, and hunger. And the avatars you encountered were no NPCs. They were also independent biological agents, bent on survival, sure, but free to jump script. They were adversaries or lovers or neutral parties. They did what they wanted.”

Lena is frantically gesturing to him from the back. He feels a surge of anger and contempt. Contempt for her Lululemons, her cheap bling, her stupid tat of Charles Schultz’ Pigpen. He’s on a roll but she’s flailing around back there like a manatee.

Then Owen sees the Israeli is still wearing her Mayas. She’s staring into another world. Her dominant hand is twitching.


I sigh and open my eyes.

After I left the kibbutz, I learned how to kill.

And that's exactly what I plan on doing now.

Sci Fi

About the Creator

P. D. Murray

Murray is an accomplished painter and writer.

Through 2010, he was shown exclusively by Treehouse Studio Galleries. His work hangs in private collections around the world. He's also published 5 books. You can see more at

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