Shadows flank me as I march down Jamestown Avenue toward the short, squat building in the distance. The sun's last few rays are off in the distance, casting a lavender twilight into the sky that would be beautiful if I had the time to admire it. Night will soon blanket the campus, punctured only by the streetlamps and the lights of other students' rooms as they cram for finals. That's where I should be, studying, but I can't focus anymore.
My phone begins to beep, slowly at first, then more and more rapidly. There's another one in the area. As I keep walking, the beeping increases, gradually becoming a constant drone before a little blue beetle appears on my HUD. Gotcha!
I tap on the beetle, and its face fills my viewscreen. Two little options appear in the lower corners of the screen, "invoke" and "leave". I tap on "invoke" and a set of tiny spinners pops up, showing the potential inputs. I select a couple at random and hit "fire!". The blue insect stumbles but doesn't fall; I got at least one of the inputs right, just not all of them. I switch the left input to the next option, attempt the invocation again, and this time the little blue beetle falls to the ground and fades away. As I unconsciously relax my grip on my phone, the streetlamp next to me flickers and dies.
A little counter on the application heads-up display goes up by 15 points. 15 points?! That's barely worth the effort! The bug report appears, showing that this particular bug caused the light to turn off when it should have stayed lit. Ugh. That's all it did? I tap the little "report" button, and the app beeps once to let me know my bug report has been sent to the correct authority.
Looking up from my dim screen, I locate my destination in the distance: a brick two-story building at the end of the road. That building is a data center, and data centers are gold mines for us hunters. I can make out a few flickering screens in the distance; there's some hunters there already, so perhaps they found something worth catching. Unlike that blue beetle.
I glance down at the app again, pondering that name they gave it: BugCatcher. Well, that's original, isn't it? But don't let the stupid name fool you: this thing is the biggest multiplayer game on campus. Every day, every night and into the early morning, there will be people walking around staring at their phones to catch these little auto-generated bugs. I swear, people who didn't know about the app would think we were zombies.
The app finds real-world software bugs, and represents them as little insect and arachnid avatars on our phones. Each software bug is different, and so each avatar is different; the more critical the bug, the more dangerous its avatar becomes.
We hunters try to "invoke" these bugs by flinging inputs at them; only the correct inputs will trigger the bug and kill the avatar. Once triggered, we get to keep the little insect avatar in our collection and can show off what we collected to our friends. Plus, the app tells us what the bug did, and lets us report the bug to the proper organization so that they can fix it. Of course, the only way the app can know what the bug did is to actually invoke it, so once the bug is invoked, we can report it.
My roommate Jeshi and I are dedicated hunters, and normally he'd be out here with me, except that he's got some big physics final tomorrow that he's freaking out about. I mean, I've got the same final, but you don't see me all frantic. I hate physics, might as well accept that tomorrow is going to suck.
I keep walking down the street, sliding my phone back into my jeans pocket. That data center I'm heading toward tends to be a gold mine for bugs. Banks, office buildings, government buildings; all these places have loads of bugs that hunters like me can invoke and report. But data centers top them all due to the sheer concentration of software in the area. My school's data center is the perfect example: I regularly find several bugs a minute when I'm out there.
The bug I invoked last week is still my favorite: a vicious pink mantis-like thing I found at the campus credit union which, when invoked, caused something like $10,000 to disappear from a bank account. Poof. Vanished into thin air. Of course I reported it, and the bank restored the poor guy's money. But I still get to keep the avatar, and since it's fixed now, no one will ever see that exact avatar again. It's all mine.
That's the funny thing about this game: you don't have to report the bugs. There's tons of hunters that walk around invoking bugs and never reporting them. We call those guys "burners"; they just like to watch the world burn. Last week a burner made all our student records disappear, and the uni's tech support team didn't notice until Jeshi told them the next morning; they spent all night restoring the records from backups. Me, I always report the bugs I find. After all, we're causing things to break in the real world and the real world should know about it.
I'm almost to the data center when my phone starts to beep again. As I keep walking, the beeping gets louder until the constant whine bores into my ears from my pocket. I pull my phone out of my jeans and flick on the screen. The bug that greets me is something straight out of my worst nightmare.
It's a horrid cross between a tarantula and a scorpion and according to my app it's the size of a small house. Its fangs are dripping something (saliva maybe) and the six red eyes have deep dark pupils that are boring their way into my skull. For a brief second I consider closing the app and moving along, as this thing clearly hasn't been here long and I don't know if I can find the right inputs to invoke it. But I need it for my collection! No one in my building has any bug even remotely close to this one. Tentatively, I slide the input selection screen up and begin turning the dials.
The first several invocations, predictably, do not go well. The bug doesn't so much as blink as my panicked offensive goes unheeded. The tarantula-scorpion's mandibles clack and my terrified brain fills in the appropriate, awful sound. It is glaring at me, daring me to make a move, knowing that all my invocations so far have failed. I...I know it's not real, and yet I'm having to fight my own instincts, to keep my feet in place and not flee back to my dorm. It continues to gnash and swagger and glare, and my invocations are each no more effective than the last.
I figured playing this game would help me get over my fear of bugs. I'm no longer sure that this is a good plan.
On the fifteenth attempt, the monster's left side stumbles. I've found something! One of the inputs was correct, and now I've got a much bigger chance of completing a successful invocation. I spin the inputs again, hoping for a bigger effect, and by some miracle the colossus trips and falls to its knees (or whatever it has for knees). I'm so close to capturing this thing!
I spin the last two inputs to new values; the monster buckles but gets up again. No new effect. I spin several more times, until finally the bug stumbles backward and falls on its segmented tail. Now I'm close. I give the last input another spin and another and another, the spinner whirling so fast that I'm not sure how my fingers are keeping up. I'm running on instinct now, on hundreds of hours played and hundreds of bugs invoked. But nothing's happening. It's laughing at me, I can hear it, I need to make it stop. I will make it stop.
The bug stumbles, falls, goes cross-eyed, and finally melts into the virtual ground it had been standing on. That last input spin must have been right! I wasn't even conscious of my invocations, but I must have figured it out.
I caught the bug!
I pump my fist into the air, shout "Yes!" and scare the pants off a poor alley cat nearby who immediately careens into a trash can. BANG! I've been holding my breath this entire time, so I exhale, slowly, the trapped air whistling as it leaves my lungs. In the next instant, my phone is ringing, and a quick glance at it tells me that Jeshi is calling. I answer, and he informs me that our chemistry final has been moved up to tomorrow afternoon.
Dammit. I say thanks, hang up, and start the long walk back to my apartment. I enjoy chemistry, and I want to do well on that final, so it looks like I'm going to go study some more. The data center will have to wait.
As the last of the sunlight fades, I reach my apartment, open my books, and start reading. Jeshi, my roomate, has made us coffee. It'll be a long night, and we need to get started. At least I caught that bug!
Just a few hundred feet from where the broken streetlamp towered in the darkness, another student was diligently reading his textbooks. Ethan had a philosophy final in the morning, and while all the other students in his class said it would be a simple thing to ace, he didn't want to take any chances. He was here to study, not party.
As the night engulfed the campus, he started to feel sweaty, tired, just not quite himself. He filled a small plastic glass with some orange juice and fingered his insulin pump to make sure it was still working. He felt the familiar hum, knew that it was doing its job and that his type-1 diabetes was under control, and returned to his books.
Just after midnight Ethan began to feel lightheaded. He could no longer concentrate, and ascribed his creeping tiredness to the immense amount of studying he'd been doing. The philosophy final tomorrow worried him now more than ever, and he couldn't quite place why.
He pushed his chair back from the desk and stood, tried to flick the overhead light's switch off but missed, then slowly tried again and succeeded. As his eyes adjusted, he groped his way toward the tiny bed lurking in the opposite corner of the room. In the darkness, the insulin pump continued its task, sensing that Ethan had high blood sugar and pumping more insulin into him. It had no way of knowing that its sensor was malfunctioning, and that Ethan's blood sugar levels were well within normal range.
Ethan flopped face-down onto his mattress and immediately fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Two hours later he awoke, drenched in sweat and cold from the sudden realization that he knew what was happening, and it wasn't simple lethargy.
He sat up and reflexively checked the insulin pump's history on its tiny yellow screen, finding that he'd been given 20 units earlier that evening, 20 units that his body didn't need. He was overdosing. He carefully removed the pump and stumbled to his refrigerator, where he'd stashed an emergency glucagon shot for just this kind of situation.
Opening the fridge door and fumbling around on the shelf, his fingers finally brushed the small red case containing the one-use shot. He flipped open the case, picked up the syringe placed inside, injected it into his left thigh, placed the now-empty syringe back into the case and latched it closed before dialing 911 on his cell phone. As he tried to make coherent sentences, tried to tell the operator what was wrong, he haphazardly slid into the desk chair.
A few minutes later, as the sirens sounded in the distance, his rational brain cut through the insulin-induced fog, wondering what could have possibly happened that made his pump deliver way more insulin than he'd needed. He glared at the little silver box now resting on his desk; a glint of moonlight reflected off of the shiny casing. He'd need a new one, that much was clear, and he could get one as soon as tomorrow, but still...
What if it happened again?
As dawn approached, with the first rays of the sun climbing over the eastern horizon, on the other end of Jamestown Avenue a hunter proudly revealed the new, terrifying member of his impressive collection.
Special thanks to Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) for help on what an insulin overdose does to a type-1 diabetic.