New Beginnings

I was born at the dawn of time, or at least as far back as anyone thinks is important these days. Forty years ago we lived in a different world. Not a better one, for all that people are eager to make that mistake of nostalgia, just different.

Some of those differences were subtle – the food we eat doesn’t taste quite the same because more and more natural ingredients have been replaced by synthetic ones. On the other hand the air is cleaner and our water more pure so in some sense there’s a balance there..

Those kinds of differences don’t tend to get much of the spotlight though. They’re overshadowed by the big differences. The ones that people have to deal with every day. Like the stampeding unicorns that were trying to trample me.

There were about a dozen of the brilliant white beasts in the herd that was chasing me and each and every one of them had murder in their eyes. Fortunately, as a gifted and talented native of the new world of magic, I had the answer to my impending demise at my fingertips. I had an app for that!

Sadly, working a smartphone while running is tricky under the best of circumstances. Managing it while equines with spears on their foreheads are doing their level best to shishkabob you takes real skill. Real skill that, as it turned out, I lacked.

I felt the first unicorn’s horn puncture my back just in time to catch me as tripped. Unicorn horns have magical properties, one of which, I observed, was that they were amazing sharp and shed blood shockingly well.

“Cancel simulation.” I heard Carl, my self defense instructor say. The unicorn horde vanished instantly and a moment later the plain I was running on did as well. It peeled away to reveal one of the city’s Programagical Administration’s  training rooms.

“What did I do wrong this time?” I asked, fumbling for my dropped phone. Stupid thing didn’t have an app for combating clumsiness it looked like.

“I have no idea.” Carl replied.

“Why would a unicorn illusion even be configured to allow them to attack? They’re supposed to be shy, elusive creatures right?” I said as I massaged my chest. The illusion hadn’t actually punctured any vital organs but it carried enough of a charge that I felt a little woozy.

“They’re shy and elusive to a point,” my Dad corrected me. He’d tagged along with me for my yearly self-defense certification test. All active programmers were required to keep their certification in good standing. Dad, despite being a retiree, kept his up to date as well, so he was familiar with the headaches involved.

“To a point?” I asked, trying to determine if he just making a joke at my perforated expense.

“Yeah. They’re soft and cuddly right up until the moment they smell dark magic on you. Then they get a whole lot less elusive. Ever wonder why dragons went extinct? The Unicorns got them.” Dad pointed out.

“So whoever setup this training simulation spell…?” I started to ask.

“Went the extra mile for realism it looks like.” Dad finished for me.

Dad was one of the early programmers. Back at the “dawn of time”, he’d been one of the people who’d seen the possibility of the information technology that was being developed.

Programmers back then were an esoteric lot. At first people thought that all they were doing were simple computations. It didn’t take long to see that the machines, huge and ungainly as they might have been, were capable of far more than adding up two plus two and arriving at a value that approximated four.

In manipulating information on a scale that humans had never before imagined and at speeds that couldn’t be matched, the early programmers found that they were able to affect the very informational understructure of the universe. In layman’s terms, that meant they could work magic.

Though they worked with little more than simple circuits, the early programmers were able to bring about an age of wonders. It took a whole lot of sweat and long hours fixing the kind of problems that we wouldn’t have names for until a decade or more had passed, but in every way that was meaningful they changed the world.

Over time our machines got faster and better and more powerful, and the problems that go along with them did as well. Humans are a clever lot. We can find innumerable ways to screw things up when we put our minds to it. It was guys like Dad who had to invent ways to deal with the fact that they were being asked to do the impossible and at least half the time they were able to pull it off.

The other half of the time? Well, that’s why to be a programmer you needed self defense certification (among other things). See, with magic, sometimes you pull a rabbit out your hat, other times it’s a tiger and then there are the really bad days when the rabbit pulls you into the hat.

Want to write a program to create a new form of wheat that’s self replicating and can feed a thousand people from a handful of flour? You can do it (assuming it’s not already patented) but there’s a decent chance, especially the first few times you run the spell in a real environment, that you’re going to get a plague of locusts instead.

The self-defense courses are there to ensure you can buy yourself time to get your “debuggers” up and running. Good programmers never write buggy code of course. We always pre-design and recheck and fully comment everything we do.

If you believe that (or if you believe that pre-designs, code checks and detailed comments can prevent all bugs) I have several bridges I would be interested in selling you.

In reality, you learn early on that no matter how hard you try, there will be always bugs in your code. In fact the absolute scariest thing that can happen is that you write a new routine, compile it and it runs flawlessly the first time. It’s terrifying because a “flawless run” doesn’t mean there’s no bugs in your code – that’s an impossibility – it means that whatever bugs are in the code are ones you can’t see. That’s the kind of code you run through the automated tests a hundred times and then a hundred times more before handing it over to your testing staff with an apology and a note that they might want to update their wills and inform their next of kin.

“We still have the room for fifteen minutes. Do you want me to queue up another run?” Carl asked.

“Nah, I’ll reschedule. Last time it took me twenty five minutes to finish the full test. No sense keeping the next guy waiting.” I said.

“I’m the next guy,” Dad said. “Go ahead and run another round. I need to reschedule my testing till next week anyways.”

“We’re not running Standard Programmer Certification next week.” Carl said.

“I know.” Dad said and offered no other explanation.

“You sure?” I asked him.

He just nodded and waved me back onto the testing circle.

Standard Programmer Certification tests came in a few thousand different flavors. That meant we couldn’t come in with the magical answer to them prepared and ready to fire. Instead, the tests measured and ensured that we had the presence of mind and reaction speed to assemble a working defense and get a “random bug” under control before it became a problem.

For actual coding work it was rare to be surprised by a bug. Or at least to be surprised by the appearance of a bug. As long as a new bit of spell code was under development you always proceeded with the idea that whenever it was executed you’d have to deal with some bugs. The usual routine was write code, compile code, invoke Avatar, run code, kill one or more hostile magical manifestations, find source of hostile magical manifestations in code, fix mistake, repeat process.

For the certification testing we weren’t allowed to pre-deploy Avatars, which always struck me as a little unfair. The whole point of Avatars was that they were defensive programs that gave us a fighting chance against the magical manifestations we came up against. If I’d had any of my favorite Avatars running even the horde of enraged unicorns wouldn’t have been a serious threat.

“Starting simulation in five…four…three…” Carl called out as the lights in the testing room dimmed to darkness. The last thing I saw before the simulated environment wrapped itself around me was Dad giving me a thumbs up of encouragement.

When the lights came back up I was standing in a wind scoured desert. I knew that the tableau before me wasn’t real. I was still inside a simulation circle at the testing center, in some sense safe and sound. Whatever sense that was though it wasn’t one of my five normal senses.

The searing heat of the sun combined with its dazzling brightness to produce an instantly disorienting effect. The intense light reflected off the polished obsidian rocks that adorned the alien landscape and gave everything a weird shimmering quality.

Around me, the gusting wind undulated in a way that no earthly wind ever could. Worse than the bodiless screams on the wind though was the dust that it carried. Dry and bitter, it made me sneeze instantly. Breathing through my mouth didn’t help either, it just allowed the dust to cover my lips and tongue with the flavor of burnt tea leaves.

“Load: Wei Shift Prime.” I said as I thumbed my smartphone to life. Never let it be said that I can’t learn from past mistakes. Last time, I’d tried to conserve my magic useage with an eye towards getting an Advanced Commendation on the test. This time I just wanted to pass.

In response to my load command, the smartphone deployed one of my best Avatars. I felt the magics settle over me, transforming me into a slim figure in knight’s armor, armed with a sword of golden light. Farther out around me, I felt the boundaries of  the Avatar field settle into place as well. The field size varies due to the conditions when it’s invoked but I could tell I had about a fifty yard radius from where I cast the Avatar spell before I left the area and transformed back.

Avatars aren’t like other programs. By their nature they are singular works of art rather than easily copyable spells like a normal program is. It takes time and dedication to build an Avatar up from its initial “Level 0”, or prototype form, up to its “Level Cap”, or the maximum capabilities it can possess. An Avatar is also different from a regular program spell in that it’s not directly coded. Instead the programmer creates an adaptive spell matrix, basically the blueprints or skeleton for the Avatar, and then puts it through trial after trial to “teach” the spell matrix how to assemble the complete web of spells that make up the final Avatar form.

Most people have neither the talent nor the time to make well developed Avatars, which is fine. There’s a thriving App Store market for second hand Avatars. A store bought Avatar will never have the response times of a custom developed one, but for most people that’s not an issue. For a programmer though? While most of us own some second hand Avatars, either gifts from friends or bought from other developers whose artistic sense that we find appealing, when it comes time to do real work, the one’s we’ve made ourselves come out.

The transformation to Avatar form had just finished when I found myself diving into a rolling dodge. At first I wasn’t sure why I had done that but then I saw the flying scimitar that had almost taken off my (virtual) head. It was spinning back to it’s master hand as another scimitar was flung at my new position. I dodged again and rolled behind a boulder for cover.

“You gotta be kidding me!” I yelled. I’d gotten another aberrant test scenario. Two air spirits stood before me. Only the blowing sand helped me make out their forms. Their torsos and upper bodies looked vaguely humanoid, but where they should have had legs all I could see was the spiral of miniature tornadoes.

Even one air spirit could be deadly. Invisible foes were a nightmare to fight, and Air Spirits of the class before me were strong enough that they didn’t need to resort to anything as subtle as suffocating you. Their tornados were powerful enough to tear you apart if you got too close to them. Not to mention the fact that their swords were essentially long range weapons given how far they could throw and retrieve them.

As if spurred by that observation, both air spirits hurled their weapons at me with a crack that said the blades had broken the sound barrier. This is where having a real Avatar paid off. I raised a shield of golden force as an automatic reaction. When the swords hit it, the shield exploded outward, using the energy it had absorbed from the attack to blast the swords back at the air spirits as a hail of deadly shards.

I cursed as the shards passed harmless through the air spirits. Physical attacks weren’t going to disrupt them. The shards did wind up endangering the simulated hostage that lay on the ground behind the air spirits though.

“Oh, seriously? This is a safeguard test too?” I screamed.

All of the self-defense tests have specific win conditions. For the simpler ones it’s “stay alive for a set time period”. Slightly more difficult were the ones that required you to defeat a particular foe or defeat a foe in a particular way (“with your bare hands” was always fun). The very worst tests though were the ones where you had to protect some other person. Invariably the person to be protected would have the survival instincts of a cartoon lemming and the resilency of tissue paper.

Overall it seemed pretty unfair. Fighting two air spirits while protecting an already downed hostage that I started out separated from was the kind of test that a system architect could expect, not a general developer like me. I’d have to screw up really badly for one of my bugs to spawn even one air spirit. For a bug that generated two of them, I’d have to be working on a project where we’d have at least another programmer and a software tester with pre-deployed Avatars on deck every time the program was executed.

Today was not my day.

Which wasn’t to say I wasn’t up to the challenge. I’d taken notes from my Dad since I was kid and while his Avatars were incredible, mine were at least pretty damn good.

Since losing the hostage was a failure condition I made protecting him my first priority. Though it left me open to attack and was easy for the air spirits to dodge, I wove my free hand in a  complex pattern that called down a rain of lances in the area.

Predictably the air spirits dodged out of the way of the attack but that was the point. It forced them away from the hostage. I threw a persistent thunderbolt at them next and they dodged again. The lances that were embedded in the ground did not dodge however. That left the weapons I’d conjured wreathed in lightning in a wide ring around hostage. Two spells and I had both the air spirits dancing to my tune and a giant air spirit bug zapper set up in case they attempted to go after the hostage.

The screaming wind shifted and became a deep bellow as the two spirits closed in on me. Physical force couldn’t affect them and most magical forces wouldn’t bother them either. Air’s not particularly upset by being hit by lightning bolts or fire balls for example. Being the clever coder that I am however I noticed the underlying weakness in their code. They were incredibly powerful because they were at their maximum sustainable force.

So I buffed them.

“Buffs” are spells that enhance existing properties of an item or process. In this case I cast a spell to add to the strength of their tornados. It ramped the sheering force that they could exert well past the limits of what my Avatar could sustain if they touched me. That was fine since it also ramped the force past what they could sustain if they tried to move. Such a shame for them that they were already in motion.

One second the air spirits were flying towards me and the next they were flying apart like balloons that had been hit with a fragmentation grenade.

With a smug and happy feeling in my heart, I let my Avatar fade away to save energy for the next test and started walking over to the hostage so that I could tag him and move on. A moment later I felt the simulated pain of a serious wound and looked down to see a scimitar emerging from my chest.

“End simulation.” Carl called out.

“What the hell?” I moaned.

“Didn’t notice the one behind you did you?” Carl asked.

“There were *three* in there? Really?” I blinked.

“Yeah, I’m afraid so.” Carl said.

“How is that even possible?”

“You know how this works. The tests are randomly generated. Guess you just hit the high end there. Still time for another run, want to go again?”

I shook my head.

“Nah, the Random Number Gods clearly hate me today. I’ll definitely reschedule.” I said. The Random Number Gods are a boogeyman for programmers the world over, mostly invoked when processes that should be random aren’t.

“That was pretty good work on those two air spirits.” my Dad said as we got out to the car.

“Just can’t believe I missed the third one. That was a rookie mistake.” I said.

“A rookie wouldn’t have thought to deal with the two you saw the way you did. They wouldn’t have seen the third one coming either.”

“Maybe. Still a stupid mistake to make.”

“Want to have lunch?” Dad asked.

“Sure. I took the day off for testing since I scheduled it late. I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to get in today.” I said.

I pondered my dual failures as we drove to a nearby diner. The unicorns were just ridiculous. Granted I’d had a program hit some really harsh bugs the day before so it kind of made sense that I was still bearing an aura from the dark magic debugging spell I’d had to use to put the rogue application down. Even given that though, I still should have passed that one. Unicorns are never just scenery. They’re too expensive, in terms of processing cycles, to put in a simulation as background. I’d assumed they were harmless and paid the price for it, but I should have at least  assumed they were the targets/hostages that I would have to protect. If I’d been thinking like that I would have noticed when they started to get irritable and I could have fired off an Avatar then, rather than when they were stampeding on me.

In a sense the air spirits were just as bad. Turning off my Avatar to save energy? Why did I do that? I’d just failed a test because I was being overly miserly with my energy. If I’d stayed transformed I would have had a better chance at noticing the impending attack and it probably wouldn’t have dropped me even if the air spirit landed the blow thanks to having armor in the way to absorb the hit.

I mentally kicked myself the whole way to the diner.

“So how’s work going?” Dad asked, after the waitress seated us and took our drink orders.

“Same old grind. Too many things to do, not enough time to do them in.” I grumbled.

“Ah, the old universal constant.” Dad mused.

“How are things going for you? Are you still working on that new plant form Avatar that you were telling me about?” I asked. In the app store for Avatars, two types tended to sell well. The first were the artistically appealing ones. Even people who had perfectly solid Avatars for self-defense would invest in other, prettier or more “cool” looking Avatars for general usage.

The second kind of Avatar that sold well were “fully capped” Avatars. Building an Avatar takes time and there are diminishing rates of return. At somewhere between sixty to eighty percent of an Avatar’s full capabilities further development on it slows way down. By general estimates it take around ten times as long to attain the full capabilities of an Avatar as it does to get to the point of serious diminishing returns.

While he’s not officially employed as a programmer anymore, Dad keeps his hand in and funds his retirement by building up those finished Avatars and selling them on the app store.

“Not anymore. I capped it a couple of days ago.”

“Damn you’re fast.”

“I’ve been doing this for forty plus years now. You learn a few tricks as you go.”

“I’m curious to see how that one works. Plant Avatars are new for you right?”

“Yeah, hadn’t made one before this. Turned out beautiful though. Plants are a lot more flexible than people realize.”

“Interesting. Got any time after this to show me?” I asked.

“Can’t. Sold it.”

“Already? Wow, that was quick. Did you have a buyer already lined up?”

“No,” he stirred his coffee and smiled at me.

“Is everything ok?” I asked, wondering if a financial crisis had hit that he hadn’t told me about yet.

“Just fine actually. Maybe never better in fact.”

“Ok. So what are you working on now?”

“Say, would you like to come along for my appointment next week?” Dad asked, changing the subject.

“Uh, sure. I can lend moral support at least.” I said. I knew  Dad wasn’t telling me something but I couldn’t guess what. Past experience told me that pressing him for it was going to be pointless though. Fortunately, that’s what Mom is for.

 

A week later, I still had no clue. Mom was off on a spiritual retreat and therefore incommunicado. By itself that wasn’t unusual or surprising, but the timing was a bit suspect.

I rolled up to their house and found Dad waiting in his car. After a brief debate about who should drive, I eventually settled into the passenger seat of his car with the promise that I would get to pay for gas for the day.

We rolled out towards the testing center and, even with the inevitable traffic, we were poised to make it in time for his 8:00am appointment. I could tell Dad was irritated by the delay though and clearly worried since he kept checking the dashboard clock as we crept along.

By the time we got off the highway, there was a lot of pent up “need for speed” and by the blessing of St. Road Runner no cops managed to stop us (or perhaps “catch us” would be the more accurate term) before we reached the Programmer Testing building.

And then we drove right past it.

“Umm, where are we going?” I asked.

“To my appointment.” Dad said.

“Didn’t we just miss the parking lot for it?”

“Nope. It’s up ahead here.”

I looked forward and noticed that we were heading towards the city’s football stadium. It was still offline after it had suffered damage over the winter but there was a sign up beside the entrance to the parking lot.

“Cloud Corp Aptitude Tests: Today! Walk-Ins Welcome!” the sign announced.

“Wait? You’re going here?” I asked him, my eyebrows doing their best to meet my receding hairline.

“Yep.”

“You can’t though!” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because you’re…you’re an application developer!” I stammered out.

The Cloud Corp used a new form of magic. One neither of us knew or had any business messing with.

The information technology that we were familiar with was run on the physical machines we chose. From simple devices like wrist watches to bleeding edge server farms, the only programs that ran on them were running because a human had set them up. Forty years of discipline and experimentation had produced a magic system that, while still prone to errors, was solid and well understood.

Cloud magic was nothing like that. Rather than running on a dedicated device, cloud magics were executed in a distributed fashion across whatever “devices” were available. On the plus side Cloud magics had far fewer limitations than traditional programs did. On the minus side, that meant that people had far less idea what the spell programs were actually doing.

Oh, and where traditional programs ran on the processors that you loaded them into, Cloud magics would run on any sufficiently advanced information processing medium they could find. You know, like your car’s onboard computer, or your neighbor’s game console, or YOUR BRAIN!

The thought of having a program running off my central cortex was almost enough to make me leap out of the car right there, while we were still traveling at full speed. Recruits to Cloud magic programs were almost entirely young kids looking to get into the programming industry. I’d always attributed that to the notion that once you knew enough about real programming you wouldn’t go near Cloud programming with a thousand foot pole. Catch ‘em young while they’re too stupid to know any better seemed to be the way Cloud magic worked.

I looked over at Dad as we entered the parking lot and tried for the life of me to understand how someone could have suckered him into this.

“Wait, I don’t get it. Are you really doing this or are you just trying to scare me?” I asked him.

“I’m really doing it. And I think you should too.” Dad said.

“What? How could I…?” I broke off unable to complete the thought.

“How could you start over? How could you try something new?” Dad said.

“No. I mean, how could I throw away what I have? How can you throw away what you’ve got? Why would you want to?”

“I’ve been asking myself that for a while now.” my Dad said.

“And what did you come up with?” I asked.

“Why’d you fail your certification tests last week?” he replied.

“Because I’m an idiot.”

“No, you’re not. I’ve seen you work. You’re not dumb and you’re not slow.”

“You think I wanted to fail those tests?” I asked.

“Not exactly. I think you were tired. I think you didn’t have the drive to win them. I think a part of you is fed up with doing the same thing, every day and needs a change.”

“This would be a pretty radical change wouldn’t it?”

“Yep. No guarantee you’d succeed. You’d have to start learning again from scratch. No resting on your laurels, no more knowing all the answers before people even think to ask the questions.” Dad confirmed.

“That sounds horrible.” I said, picturing being back in my freshman programming courses. A little voice in the back of my head reminded me that I actually had a lot of fun in those but my mental goon squad beat him down. This was a terrible, awful plan, there would be no disagreement in my mental ranks on that subject.

“It might be.”

“So why are you doing this then?”

“Because we won’t know unless we try it.” Dad said.

“But…” I started to object. My Dad interrupted me.

“Tell you what, just come along with me for the tryouts. If we fail horribly then we’ll be out of the running for the next training program anyways. If we pass, then we’ll at least have a better sense of what we’re looking at.”

I looked at him and saw that this wasn’t necessarily easy for him either but at the same time there was an eagerness there I hadn’t seen in a long time.

“This is the craziest idea I’ve ever said yes to.” I told him.

 

We entered the queue for processing and, as I’d expected, it felt like we were in a sea of pre-schoolers. Given that most of them were high school seniors or college students, that perception spoke more to my age and biases than anything else, but dear god they all looked so young.

When we got to the registration desk there was another surprise waiting for me.

“Do you have any terrestrial Avatars on you sir?” the friendly young kid who was filling out my paperwork asked.

“Yes, is that a problem?”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to check them here.” he said

“All of them?” I asked incredulously. Nearly everyone carried at least a simple Avatar program at all times. Cheap ones weren’t all that powerful but as long as you were transformed you didn’t have to worry about your actual body being hurt since damage to the Avatar didn’t transfer over.

“I’m afraid so. You’ll be issued new ones for duration of the test and Cloud Avatars are incompatible with terrestrial ones as you know.”

Actually, embarrassingly, I hadn’t known that. Chalk it up to professional snobbery. Why research cloud magics once I’d written them off as a terrible fad that would pass in time? Why move out of my comfy little world or pay any attention to the great big world beyond it? I tried to believe that I hadn’t been doing that but the echoes of my father’s words drowned out the lies I wanted to tell myself.

“I’m all set here, meet you on the field ok?” my Dad said.

“Sounds good.” I replied, wondering how he’d gotten through so quickly. The answer hit me and I popped up my smartphone to check. Sure enough, there were all of Dad’s Avatars up to for sale on the app store. He didn’t have to spend time downloading them here. He’d gone all in on this already.

The rest of the paperwork held no further surprises or revelations. That left me free to trundle on to the field where the tryouts were taking place.

The stadium had three simulation circles set up in it. I found my Dad near the center one already beginning to gear up.

“What’s all that for?” I asked him as he noticed me.

“That’s recording gear.” a woman in a tracksuit told me. She had a clipboard in one hand, a whistle hanging on a string around her neck and a fairly sophisticated visor that I could see was presenting her with multiple readouts at once. “Are you two here together?”

“Yeah, he’s my son.” my Dad said.

“Here to cheer for him or are your trying out too?” she asked.

“Trying out too.” I admitted.

“Best of luck. My name is Sasha. If you can both get ready, I’ll find a third for you and you can have the next run in this circle.” she said.

“Thanks.” I said, not sure if I was happy to have my waiting cut short or terrified at the thought of being kicked into the ring so quickly.

By the time I had the various recording widgets strapped on and hooked up, Sasha had returned with a kid young enough that I had to wonder if he was out of diapers yet.

“Oh god. I’m stuck with the gimpy old guys? This sucks!” he complained.

“Nice to meet you too.” Dad said affably, his smile free from sarcasm.

“Fine. I get another run if these guys blow it right?” the kid asked.

“Applicants will be allowed to retake the test a minimum of three times if need be. If we have time we’ll offer additional testing opportunities beyond that as well.” Sasha said. She looked at me and offered a grimace and a shrug by way of apology.

“Just stay out of my way old guys. I know what I’m doing!” the kid said as Sasha escorted us into the simulation circle.

Once we were inside, she handed us each a ring.

“These have your Avatars loaded onto them. Put them on your ring finger and then touch the ring with your thumb and issue the command ‘transform’ either vocally or by tapping the ring three times.” Sasha explained.

“Do we need to wait for the simulation to begin?” my Dad asked.

“No you can activate them now.” Sasha replied.

“What’s the energy drain like?” I asked.

“Lighter than a comparable terrestrial Avatar, so if you’re used to supporting those these will last a lot longer.” Sasha said.

“Can we get going?” the kid demanded.

“Starting simulation in five…four…three…”

Given my lack of faith in Cloud magic, I both tapped my ring three times and said “Transform”. No sense taking chances. To my right and left I saw my Dad and the kid transforming as well as the simulation billowed up around us.

As the illusionary fighting stage settled into view, the stadium transformed into an all too familiar desert plain strewn with polished, obsidian rocks. At the edge of the simulation I could see the other two testing circles. In them, two other teams fought against a group of Earth elementals and a group of Fire Elementals, respectively. By contrast, our circle was seemingly free of foes.

I checked myself over and found to my dismay that I was tiny. The Cloud Avatar they’d given me was a weak one. Just a starter it looked like, and an abnormally small one at that. I was maybe a foot tall at best with no offensive capabilities that I could see. No attack spells, no shields, nothing. The only spell the Avatar had on tap was “Glow”.

The kid had fared somewhat better. He hadn’t lost much height and he’d gained a fair amount of girth. Also his Avatar was made of living stone.

Dad, meanwhile, had transformed into a bird and was hopping around on the ground trying to figure out how to move properly still.

A movement from the other side of our simulation circle caught my eye and I saw a blade flash out from an invisible attacker.

One advantage to being tiny revealed itself in that it came with more speed that I usually possessed. I tumbled away from the flying blade and was on my feet before it started its return arc to the Air spirit that had thrown it.

“Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam!” the kid yelled and dashed forward.

“Klingon? Freaking Klingon?” I screamed in my helium sounding voice.

“What’d he say?” my Dad asked.

“It’s a good day to die.” I responded.

We both started moving to assist him but it was too late. We weren’t facing just one air spirit. We weren’t even facing three. There were seven of them and with their combined tornados they were able to erode the kid’s Earth Avatar to dust in seconds.

With his Avatar dispelled the kid was ejected from the testing circle. I saw him screaming in rage and banging his fist on the ground but thanks to the simulation barrier I couldn’t hear whatever insults he was hurling our way.

“Still think this was a good idea?” I asked my Dad. I could feel my blood pounding and my brain shifting into overdrive. Seven of them vs. two of us. Those weren’t great odds if we’d been in our real Avatars. These puny ones wouldn’t be able to do anything against that kind of opposition.

I checked the extent of the Avatar field to see what kind of movement options I had and almost screamed in shock. The Avatar field was nearly skin tight. It was no wonder this form used hardly any energy!

I froze, knowing that if I moved at all I would be out of the field’s effect area. That would disperse the transformation and I would fail the test. Then I noticed my Dad hopping around again and remembered that I had just dodged and rolled away from an attack.  Something was wrong.

The air spirits didn’t give me time to think on that. Instead, they sent a half dozen blades flying at me before I could blink. My Avatar’s reflexes took over and I spun, rolled and leaped out of the way of the incoming attacks, all without transforming back.

“Cloud Avatar fields can move??” I asked in amazement.

“Guess so. Neat trick you’re doing there.” Dad said.

I looked down. The ground wasn’t under my feet. Or technically it was, but there was a gap of about three feet that was just staying there. My jaw dropped open.

“I’m flying?”

Avatars didn’t fly. They can run, they can jump, but true flight costs far too much energy to be sustained and with their movement area being limited to within their Avatar field there’s no point to paying that cost even if you were willing to waste the spell resources on building flight into an Avatar.

The swords returned for another pass and Dad and I scattered to the wind. It felt like I was swimming through the air. I only partially noticed that sensation though since the rush of dodging the deadly attacks that were raining down upon us had captured most of my attention.

“We need a plan!” I yelled at my Dad as our flight paths crossed within a few inches of each other. “I don’t have any way to buff them like last time!”

We both changed course instantly and shot upwards together. Down below us I noticed the air spirits that had been chasing us slid past the spot where we’d changed course and then had to fight their inertia to get back on our tails.

“Toss them out of the fighting ring!” Dad yelled in his bird voice, nodding towards the side of the simulation circle. As ideas went, that sounded excellent to me.

The trick proved to be getting them to chase me rather than Dad. He was more agile that I was. Also as a bird he was even smaller and could tuck in tight enough that he could afford to fly right through them. That seemed to slow them down but it also enraged them and left them all focused on him.

He took a few runs at the edge of the simulation circle but they’d given up trying to catch him and were focusing on using their swords to knock him out of the sky. I looked over my options to see what I could do about that and noticed the Glow spell.

“Can’t hurt right?” I said to no one in particular as I started to glow.

That really aggravated the Air spirits. Instantly and as one they all turned to me. Their swords were off pursuing Dad so the spirits came for me themselves. Dodging all seven of them was screamingly hard, but terror sharpened my wits enough that I just barely managed to pull it off. My flight had put me right against the edge of the simulation circle with the Air spirits barreling down on me. My back was to the circle’s edge so I flew forward, towards the center of the fighting circle, pushing through the nearest Air spirit as it raced towards me. That hurt but as I sprawled on the sand behind them I had to suppress a chuckle of glee. We’d won!

The Air spirits were travelling too fast at that point to avoid exiting the circle and all seven of them burst out of its border. They’d fallen out of the ring! Test done!

Then they came right back in.

“What the hell?” I demanded. That wasn’t fair! But no one had said that leaving the circle was against the rules. We’d just assumed that it was because it was impossible in our regular programming tests. Cloud programs didn’t have the same limits though.

The thought made my head spin. If they could leave the circle then…

The same idea hit Dad and I at the same instant.

“Lure them over to the other circle!” my Dad called.

“On it!” I agreed.

Like a shot, I burst towards the side of the testing circle that was joined to the one where the Earth elementals were fighting. The Air spirits followed me, gaining ground as they came.

“Heads up!” I shouted as I intruded on the other team’s match. I would have felt bad about that but they were being brutalized by the Earth elementals.

I dove between the Earth critters and the Air spirits followed me, plowing right into them as well. Seven Air Spirits and five Earth Elementals became four Air Spirits and a giant cloud of dust over the testing grounds in about ten seconds.

“Guess Air beats Rock.” I observed. That left me fairly sure of what to do next.

Doubling back, I raced out of the Earth circle and back into my starting circle. I was halfway across it when the lead Air spirit caught me. With all the bits of rock it had picked up it felt like I’d been grabbed by a guy with chainsaws for hands.

“Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam!” Dad yelled as he plowed through the Air spirit, slicing off its hands with a sword that he was holding in his beak via some magic or other. He looked ungainly as hell, little birds shouldn’t be able to fly while carrying swords that big. It hit me that he’d modified the Cloud Avatar on the fly to add a spell to it for that purpose. I guess forty plus years of experience really did teach you a few tricks.

With my freedom restored I shot forward again, sparing a glance back to see Dad drop the sword and swoop high into the air behind me. I still had the attention of three of the Air spirits but the one he’d chopped up was interested only in him.

The Fire Elementals on the other side of the testing area had all joined together into one giant conflagration that was being held at bay, barely, by a bright blue shield of water cast by one of the other applicants. The rest of her team was missing, probably smoked by the giant tower of flame.

I knew getting close to the Fire Elemental wasn’t going to be pleasant, but I amped up the glow spell and and raced towards it. The heat was ridiculous and I completely misjudged the distance as a result. On the upside splashing into the Fire Elemental left me very motivated to get the hell out of there and my Avatar’s reflexes were good enough that I only wound up with the equivalent of second degree burns everywhere before I was able to escape the reach of the flames.

The Air spirits weren’t as lucky as I had been. They slammed into the elemental, feeding it power as they were consumed by its blaze.

I’d hoped that would overload the Fire Elemental but three of them weren’t quite enough to detonate it.  They just made it even bigger and nastier. That was unfortunate because I was out of tricks and too damaged to fly, or even walk really.

I was pretty sure I was going to be smoked by the Fire Elemental just like the team that had been fighting it when I saw a small bird shoot right through it.

“Dad!” I cried, a second before the Air spirit that was following him hit the Elemental and pushed it past its maximum strength and into “instant explosion” range.

 

The beautiful thing about Avatars is that no matter how bad the Avatar gets mashed, smashed or (in this case) burned, the person wearing the Avatar is fine. My Dad spent the next hour teasing me about forgetting that as we filled out the paperwork to officially join the Cloud Corp.

It would mean starting over. It would mean being just as clueless as all of the “diaper baby kids” that were in class with us. That’s the way new beginnings are though, and no matter how old you are, they’re more precious than you can imagine.

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