The God Game by Danny Tobey: New Excerpt

A technological thriller with an all-too-believable premise, following five teenagers obsessed with an online video game that connects them to their worst impulses and most dangerous desires... From award-winning author Danny Tobey—this is The God Game.

1 THE GAME

The blue light of the computer screen was flickering on Charlie’s and Peter’s faces, making them look like astronauts lit by the cosmos.

“Say something.”

“No.”

“Seriously. Go for it.”

“This is stupid.”

“Don’t you want to meet God?”

There was a knock on the door. Charlie’s father.

Peter rushed to snub out the joint. He blew a tuft of smoke out the window.

“Tell him to go away,” Peter said.

“You’re the idiot who brought pot.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll go down, too, if he catches me.”

Another knock.

“Tell him you’re masturbating. That always gets my dad to leave.”

“You’re insane. You know that?”

In a way, it was true. Peter was smart, handsome, charming, and had been thrown out of the most expensive private school in town, meaning he was both rich and reckless. But there was something more. A dangerousness was just below the surface. Almost a nihilism, and more than the usual teenage morbid curiosities. It was what drew Charlie to him, but enough of the honor student was still left in Charlie to listen to that voice in the back of his head saying, Get into trouble, sure, but do you really want to go there? Charlie’s father hated Peter and had no idea Peter was here now.

“Charlie, come on, I want to talk to you.”

“Not now, Dad.”

“Come on. Open up.” He tried the doorknob.

“Dad, we can talk later. Okay?”

“I got a call from the school.”

“Later. I promise. I’m busy.”

Charlie could imagine his dad weighing his next moves. The shadow shifted under the door.

“Fine. Tonight, okay? Not tomorrow. Tonight.”

“Okay. I promise.”

Charlie held his breath and watched the shadow under the door. It hesitated, then moved away.

Charlie let out a breath. He gave Peter a harsh look and said, glancing at the half-smoked joint, “Throw that thing away.”

“Um, nope.” Peter tucked it into his shirt pocket. They looked back at the computer screen.

The same prompt was there, flashing, alone on the black screen.

Hello.

“Say something,” Peter barked.

Charlie shook his head. Finally, he typed:

Hello.

No response. The cursor just blinked.

They gave it a while. Nothing.

Peter said, “Try something else.” Charlie shrugged.

Who is this?

The cursor blinked a few times, then the letters tapped out:

This is God.

Peter laughed. “This is awesome.”

“Awesome? Huh.”

“You can ask it anything. Watch.”

Peter grabbed the keyboard.

Are you a man or a woman?

After a moment, it said:

I am what I am.

“Wow,” Charlie said sarcastically.

“Don’t blame the machine. Ask better questions.”

Charlie knew what question he wanted to ask:

Why did my mom die?

But there was no way he was going to ask a stupid computer program that, even one that claimed to be God.

Charlie sighed and typed:

Why is there war?

A pause, then:

Because killing feels good.

Well, that was charming. Charlie asked:

To whom?

Another pause. Charlie figured he was about to get a lecture about man’s dark desires, the hidden death urge, humanity’s subconscious bloodlust under the thin veneer of civilization. Then the program said:

To me.

So said God, or at least the first artificial intelligence bot claiming to inhabit the persona of God. That was the story anyway. According to Peter, who had his share of crazy stories from 4chan and other bizarre corners of the Web, computer scientists had loaded up an AI with every religious text known to man, from antiquity to the present day, weighted by number of adherents, donations, historical longevity, and every other factoid they could pour in, all coursing through a deep-learning neural network. What came out, on the other end, was supposedly the sum total of human conceptions of the divine come alive, able to express itself and answer questions and spout new proverbs and instructions. It was a joke. A lark, by a bunch of overbright CS guys. Yet another time-wasting diversion on the internet, like cat videos and MMOs. But this was interesting now, to Charlie. Apparently the meta-god was an angry one. Old Testament–style.

You like killing?

Yes.

But you’re God.

Yes.

Aren’t you supposed to be kind and loving?

Yes.

So . . . isn’t that a contradiction?

Charlie let that hang. Then God answered.

Anyone is a murderer under the right conditions.

Peter was watching, his dangerous eyes twinkling. “I told you this was cool.”

Charlie shivered, despite himself. “What should I say?”

“Tell it to go fuck itself.”

“Um, no. I’m not looking to get struck by lightning.”

“It’s just a chatbot. Don’t get all superstitious on me.”

“I’m not, but, you know. Even if it’s a chatbot, what’s the point of being a dick?”

“Well, for one thing, it’s fun. For another,  it’s funny.  And where else do you get to tell God to go fuck himself? Like, via direct message? What could be more daring? Feel like rolling the dice?”

The idea did send a thrill down Charlie’s spine. He wasn’t religious. He was an atheist or at best a serious agnostic. When his mom died, he buried any religious sentiment he’d had in the ground with her. Those prayers were not answered. They withered, with great suffering, and then one day . . . poof. So the idea of telling God—or even his computer surrogate—to take a long walk off a short plank was titillating and intriguing. But it still felt wrong to him. Reckless.

“Do you know Pascal’s Wager?” Charlie asked.

“Is that when you bet against a triangle?”

“You smoke too much weed.”

“Probably.” Peter fingered the joint in his pocket longingly.

“Pascal’s Wager. You should believe in God because if you’re wrong, nothing happens. But if you bet against his existence and you’re wrong, you go to hell—infinite loss. So the smart bet is to believe.”

“Right. Okay. That assumes you can fake belief and fool the guy.”

“Fine. But think about that here. You want to tell a computer program that thinks it’s God to fuck off.”

“Yeah.”

“And what if there’s a real God, watching?”

“Um, there’s not.”

“Okay, but say there’s a one-in-a-billion chance there is. If so, he’s probably going to be pissed. If it’s just a computer program, you don’t gain anything by cursing it. But if there is something more . . .”

“I think you sound like the pothead.” Peter snatched the keyboard and typed in:

Go fuck yourself.

Charlie tried to grab his hand, but Peter hit Enter, laughing and stiff-arming Charlie.

Once the horse was out of the barn, they both stopped fighting and watched. A sense of excitement filled Charlie. He couldn’t stop the message now, and he wouldn’t have said it himself, but, hey. What’s done is done. He was curious what the sum total of all human religious information, dumped into a neural net, would come up with in response.

The cursor blinked for a long time.

God didn’t answer.

 

2  THE VINDICATORS

Charlie’s mom died when he was almost seventeen, after a long battle with cancer that left the rest of his small family—Dad, Charlie, that’s it—ragged. Picturing his dad alone in that master bedroom, pressing his face into Mom’s old pillow, it was too much to bear. So when Charlie came downstairs, dressed for school, and noticed his dad was cooking, something he hadn’t done in a long time—bacon and eggs sizzling on the stove—Charlie couldn’t believe it. A stack of pancakes was ready, soaked with butter.

Charlie’s dad used to cook. He was an accountant, but his passion had always been cooking. He’d make huge dinners and delicious breakfasts while Mom played with Charlie or read curled up in an overstuffed chair. When she got sick, all that had stopped.

But now, nearly a year after her death, Dad was hovering over the stove, the smell of pancakes and bacon wafting through the house.

“Hungry?” Dad asked. It was jovial, but cautiously so. Almost as if he were trying on a new shirt for the first time and didn’t know whether people would laugh.

Charlie realized he felt torn. Deep down, there was something—a burst of hope. Charlie’s father had fallen apart over the last couple years. He’d tried to shield Charlie from everything. The lab tests, the surgeries, the chemo, the false hopes. It worked for a while, but then his dad had broken down, and his mom was too weak, and no one was left but Charlie to hold her while she puked or to bring her cool washcloths for her forehead. As he reflected on that, the old anger surged and stamped out the hope, and a voice in his head said, Why does he get to feel better when I still feel like I’m in a billion pieces scattered on the floor?

“No,” Charlie said, walking to the door and grabbing his backpack off the hook. “Not hungry.” He felt awful as soon as he said it,   but also a little powerful, in a world where he had no power left, not to save his mom, not to do anything.

When he saw the smile drop a little on his dad’s face, still there but not real now, just fake for Charlie’s benefit, his heart broke again, but it was too late to fix it, so he left.

 

Charlie parked in the student lot and passed the cliques of jocks and rich kids hanging out, passed the gym, where students congregated like cattle packed into a pen before first period, and headed to the basement to the Tech Lab, where his real friends were, the small group of bright misfits who called themselves the Vindicators.

The Tech Lab was a treasure trove for young gamers and gear- heads: sixteen networked computers they could play on at lunch, a 3-D printer, a robotics station, a circuit lab. Charlie had kick-started their group one day freshman year when he noticed the same three students were showing up at lunch to play vintage Bolo with each other—Vanhi, Kenny, Alex. He invited them over to his house to watch Blade Runner and play a little Cyberpunk. After another all-night marathon of polyhedral dice and tabletop gaming at Kenny’s house, they pulled their first prank, putting the anatomy skeleton in the cafeteria with a sign that read I ate the food. Bleary-eyed and laughing at 7:00 a.m., someone said, “We need a name.” With zero hours of sleep, this made a lot of sense to everyone, even if it was ridiculous. They didn’t care.

“What should it be?” Kenny asked.

“Something tight, we’re a tight group,” Charlie said.

“Something fierce,” Vanhi said. “We watch each other’s backs.”

Her name meant “fire” in Hindi, and that was appropriate, because she was full of a burning intellect, and charm, and goodness. She stood up to bullies and didn’t take shit from anyone. She was fierce.

“It’s us against the world,” Kenny added. “One for all, and all for one.”

Kenny was the most tightly wound of the group. He was a state-ranked cellist and vice editor of the school paper. His parents were both doctors. They told him being black was a gift, and the gift was he’d always have to work twice as hard for the same respect. No pressure. The Vindicators were his little secret from his parents, from his church—it was his escape valve.

“The Disrupters,” Alex said.

“Too dark,” Charlie answered.

“The Terminators!” Kenny tried.

“Jesus, we’re not murderers.” Vanhi laughed.

Charlie snapped his fingers. “The Vindicators.”

It fit. They swore on it.

Only Peter transcended their social status. He’d come sophomore year, with his blond hair and sparkling blue eyes, after getting expelled from St. Luke’s, an exclusive private school in Austin. The FBI had busted him for hacking into phone companies and creating free cell accounts for his friends. With his good looks and money, Peter could’ve been elite, rolling with the high caste in khakis and salmon shirts. He was naturally athletic and ran track, so he was okay with the jocks, too. His dark side also made him popular with the burners and Goths, yet he chose to hang out in the computer lab, and while the other Vindicators wouldn’t admit it out loud, it secretly delighted them. That great enigma, Peter Quine, chose us!

“Where’s Alex?” Charlie asked, setting his bag on the table. But he knew what the answer would be.

“He’s not here,” Vanhi said.

“Again,” Kenny added.

“Maybe he’s got new friends,” Peter said not unkindly. Only Peter could imagine friendships outside the safe space of the Vindicators.

“I saw him sitting by himself by the portables the other day,” Charlie said.

“Hmm,” Vanhi said. “I don’t like it.”

Alex Dinh had always been an odd duck, with a  flop of hair over his eyes and a goofy grin that seemed mischievous and yet halfway in another world, daydreaming. In middle school, he hung out by himself, telling people he was from Mars. By freshman year, he’d grown out of that into a lanky, soft-spoken kid who lit up when pulling pranks. They’d all been affable goofs back then, the tricksters the teachers liked because they were smart and good-natured at heart. But as time went on, Alex had gone down a different path, so slowly they barely noticed at first. Once, when they were leaving a convenience store, a security guard came running out after them. They were baffled when he told them to empty their pockets—theft wasn’t exactly in the Vindicators’ repertoire—but sure enough, Alex had slipped a deck of cards into his back pocket on the way out, for no reason at all. He spent the night in jail over $2.08. The whole experience had just made him squirrelier, as if jail had suited him.

“Give him some space,” Kenny said. “Maybe he just needs some time alone.”

“You don’t want him in the group anymore,” Vanhi snapped.

“I didn’t say that.” But then Kenny complained, “He nearly got us all arrested.”

“That’s when he needs us most,” Vanhi shot back. “Charlie, what do you think?”

Charlie looked at them, but no words came out. He shrugged.

A moment later, the door to the Tech Lab swung open, and Alex came in. He looked tired, with circles under his eyes and his hair a little more tussled than usual. The conversation came to a dead stop, and everyone was looking at him.

“What?” He had a hand still on his backpack, as if he hadn’t decided whether to stay.

“Nothing,” Peter said affably, always the one to smooth the situation. “Just sittin’ here pulling our dicks.”

“Yep,” Vanhi said sarcastically, “just people with dicks, pulling them. Story of my life.”

Alex looked them over skeptically, then threw his bag down and walked to the back row of terminals. When the first bell rang, Charlie realized he hadn’t finished his calculus homework and cursed under his breath.

On the way out, Vanhi caught his arm. “What’s the matter with you? I remember when you would have gone ballistic if someone talked about kicking one of us out.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“That’s my point. You didn’t say anything.”

“Sorry.”

“Charlie, I get it. You’ve had the shit kicked out of you slowly for two long years. But it’s a new start. Senior year. You have to come back. You were class president! You had straight A’s. Look at  you now. I want the old Charlie back. My best friend.”

Charlie put a hand on her shoulders. “I’m afraid you’re stuck with this guy.”

He knew she was trying to help. Everyone tried to help. But none of them had experienced what he had, except Peter, whose own mother died long ago. Peter was the only one who didn’t treat him like a delicate freak. Peter understood: compassion was a reminder.

“Vanhi, I’m okay. I promise.”

As she left, frowning, Charlie felt his phone buzz in his pocket. A strange text was waiting for him:

GFY!

Charlie knew what that could mean. It was code for “good for you.” Or “go fuck yourself.”

There was no return number.

He remembered his and Peter’s exchange with the chatbot last night, the so-called God AI.

Tell it to go fuck itself.

And so they had.

And now this back: Go fuck yourself!

But they’d been surfing anonymously, through Tor. There was no way that site knew Charlie’s name, much less his cell phone. So it had to be a coincidence.

Charlie typed back:

Who is this?

This time, there was no pause. He phone buzzed almost instantly, a fraction of a second after he hit Send. There wasn’t even time for a person to type.

It’s your Daddy, God.

Mommy says hi.

I have a job for you.

Copyright © 2020 Danny Tobey.

More: Danny Tobey’s Guest Post Introducing AI: Master Criminal, Super Sleuth

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