The air of the arcade was filled with the dull hum of cooling fans and the smell of sweat. It was early in the morning, and the last of that night's patrons had finally gone home to sleep. The janitorial staff moved slowly between the machines, sweeping up debris with the joy one might expect if were they cleaning up the fictitious battlefields the machines regularly simulated. As the staff worked, the hum would grow quieter as the machines cooled and then shut themselves off.
The smell, unlike the hum or the customers, never seemed to leave.
Before the sims would go dark to conserve power for the few hours the arcade was closed, their recordings of the day were sent away to be analysed, scoured for anything of worth, and only then could the machines then drift off to sleep peacefully.
A voice breaks the relative silence, weary with age and heavily accented, "Get to work. Don't play with machines. If you want to play, do on your own time."
The voice was met with the rolling of young eyes, and a softer voice with much less baggage, coming from behind one of the machines, where cables came out and snaked elsewhere.
"Don't you get tired of saying that every night? I will do what I've been paid to do in the time I'm expected to do it. What I else I do is my own time."
The older voice responded with a small grin and a playful chide, "You should enjoy tradition. Sometimes all we have to enjoy."
"An old man who squandered his life may only have tradition, but I am not you," the younger man responded as he crawled into the simulator.
"You are not old, little Neno, but your life has been squandered," the older man replied.
The retort of the older was not heard by the younger over the sound of the doors into the machine closing and the machine coming to life.
Screens displayed charts of various kinds. Technicians sorted and shaped the data to suit their fancy, each set of data coming from a location they lived near. A whole planet's worth of data funneled into one location to be reviewed, digested, and regurgitated to generate the metrics that someone somewhere still wanted. Their computers did most of the work, but the computers were still bad at recognizing anything but the most glaring of oddities and patterns. Reading the subtleties of the data was still an art, even if nothing came of it.
Data came in, data was processed, data was sent out. They were a bowel, a stop on the process from start to finish, nothing more and nothing less.
In an environment like this, even the people begin acting like the computers. When the data showed something unique, it always ended up being a flaw in the data. It never resulted in a need for further research. It never resulted in the need for real attention.
Jasna was predictably bored, and a little tired from a lack of sleep, but she mechanically started her review of the connection report summaries for the day.
She found everything she expected. A few machines reporting faster and a few reporting slower. Some machines dropping information from their uploaded memories. Some machines disconnecting at infrequent intervals, but reconnecting before the next reports would be expected.
It seemed off, as it always had, that machines which were functionally identical could behave so differently. It is not unique when machines happen to produce unique results. That's what she'd been told in training. It still felt wrong, but she knew that it was true. Uniqueness always provided some glimmer of enticement, and yet was always followed by the same boring explanations.
Until she started finding the same unique thing again.
She had pulled up the data regarding specific machine usage and overlaid it with the connection reports for those same machines. The simulators report before shutdown, they shut down after they've cooled down, and so machines which took longer to report should also have seen higher usage during the day, right?
Except that, over the past month, even some machines with high usage were sometimes reporting out earlier than ones which had little usage at all. It wasn't regular, and seemed to jump from machine to machine. She had then wondered whether there were any peculiarities in the service reports.
Pulling them up, she had overlaid the data again specific to each machine. The reports shuffled on-screen to their respective machine and, yet again, what could have been unique showed to not be so unique after all. There had been a pattern in the service reports where some of the machines that had reported early the night before were found to have been disconnected when data was not properly downloading to them in the morning. Others showed records of manual shutdowns, but not much before they would have been expected to report out anyway.
She knew the data was weak. The machines status, reporting, and even frequency of repairs was all still within expected limits. But it was interesting. And it had been a month. Nobody else cared. The arcade was near her way to the office.
She set up an alert to inform her directly of the machines that reported early that night, or were shut down manually. She went home, ate food, watched a show, checked her social, and then went to sleep early.
When she also woke up early per her plans, she found she had received the date she wanted while she had slept. She made the small detour to stop by the arcade, using her badge to get in. She loaded up a holomap of the arcade and started checking the machines. After a few, and not noticing someone coming up behind her, she was startled by the thickly accented voice.
"Arcade not open, what are you doing here?" asked an older man.
"Oh, uh, um, I am just checking the machines," she replied a little flustered as she showed her corporate badge and diagnostic equipment.
"Ah, sorry I scare. I am old Jakša , if you need help let me know," the man offered before turning back to his broom and dustbin.
"Thanks," she replied, before moving to the next machine.
Each simulator offered a glimmer, and each predictably let her down. The machines were still connected. None failed any diagnostics. She was growing despondent when she only a couple left to check.
Until she found one that was partially disconnected.
Until she found one that was still being used.
Until she froze as she tried to decide what to do next.
The old voice behind her seemed to notice her and the machine she was responding to and called out, "I told little Neno not to keep playing with machines."