The Kibohn - Chapter 1
Minjun Lee raised his hands off the keyboard and closed his eyes. The 10 pips that counted down to the beginning of the game were the last chance he had to center himself. Each terse, evenly-spaced beep now spoke to Minjun in a language that he had created during his years on the circuit. A language only he understood.
Pip. Pip. Pip. The first three beeps reminded him to take a long inhale through his nose. He let his eyes roll back in his head and consciously slackened his jaw and tongue.
Pip. Pip. Pip. Pip. The four sounds in the middle were his call to relax, each carrying a specific command. “Minjun.” they cooed. “Melt your neck and shoulders into your ribcage. Curl your fingers and feel the tips press tight against your palms. Slide your nervous energy down your legs and over your kneecaps, then feel is run down your shins and dissipate into the floor.”
But even after speaking the language of the pips for decades, he still lost touch sometimes. Barely fluent, he sometimes thought. Better players than he had already fallen to the hands of the beasts on the other side of the game. A kibohn like him would begin the game thousands of clock cycles behind whatever monstrosity had been thrown at him this time around. He would be lucky to get his opening gambit in place before some humanly-impossible attack wiped the floor with him.
Pip. Pip. Pip. The final pips were the drums of war that brought him back. Open your eyes. Ready your fingers. Jiggle the mouse. Think through your opening moves. Exhale through your mouth. Schwoooom. Even as the final sound effect started, Minjun was already tapping and clicking faster than anyone else like him possibly could.
His speed was still admirable, though now that he was in his early forties, his body was beginning to show the first signs of fraying. In the early days of the circuit, his opponents had feared Minjun’s fast reaction times and his incredible ability to make three or four simultaneous plays against his hapless opponents. Nowadays, those skills weren’t valued anymore. What was once mechanically improbable had become truly mechanized by the conjoins, and kibohn like Minjun weren’t kept on the scene because of their speed. That’s not why he was here. He was getting paid solely for his creativity these days.
The game started rather slowly. His opponent this time had a barcode instead of a name. This meant he was a conjoin-sponsored player who had hidden his identity to prevent someone from guessing his style. That meant Minjun had no clues as to what to expect, so he played it safe, opening with a standard build order. He commanded his little buggy aliens to harvest some minerals and built his first research building later than usual so that he could establish a second base a few seconds earlier. Every click counted.
Since he had practiced this particular opening thousands of times, Minjun had enough brain space to consider who he might be up against. The bounty for tonight’s match was small. That usually meant that the company who had sponsored the match was testing out a new player. Minjun hadn’t kept up with all the new trades and acquisitions very well this season, and he unsuccessfully racked his brain trying to recall any new names he had seen on the circuit listing this season.
Unable to come up with any ideas about who his opponent might be, Minjun just hatched a handful of cheap, half-bug/half-dog army units from their eggs and sent them on a patrol path across the map, hoping to catch the other player off-guard with an early attack. Minjun sent one scout out ahead of the pack and caught a flash of red on the minimap. Game on.
He’d sighted a marine, which is a weak, run-and-gun type unit. If he could get his vicious bug army close to it, he may have a chance to outmaneuver his opponent and surround the marine to pick it off. Back home, he cancelled plans to build his second mining base and immediately began to hatch extra attacking units. He sent his scouts back to join his little strike group and arranged them into an attacking formation: two speedy flanking units each on the left and right, with a core of four units in the middle. The goal would be to close the distance quickly and then back the red marine into a corner.
Once the flanking play was set, Minjun pushed his V-shaped attack into his opponent’s base and caught sight of the single marine, who was hustling back to safety. As long as he controlled his attacking units very carefully, Minjun was certain he could take out the single defender and take a quick advantage in the match. After assigning his flanking groups to different keys on his keyboard, Minjun charged forward, his eyes narrowing as he focussed in on the single lynchpin unit his opponent had created.
His left flankers on the low ground were the first to come under fire. They’d been spotted. Damn it. The marine started raining hollow-point rounds down on their light, speedy frames, and they darted in, trying to get close enough to begin ripping at the marine’s heavy armor with their scythed claws. Now that he’d been revealed, Minjun knew it was too late to back out of his all-in strategy. He sent the right flankers in and ordered his middle group to start closing the distance as well. For a second, he took his eye off the battle to look back home. He commanded a few more attacking units to hatch from his eggs, hoping that his gamble on the front lines would pay off.
The squealing sound of one of his flanking units dying snapped his attention back to the battle at his opponent’s gates. He needed to act fast, but his opponent was wise to his plan. With inhuman consistency and perfect rhythm, the marine was stutter-stepping backward. Minjun had to admire the mechanical precision of the unit: fire 7 rounds from his C-14, turn and step back while it cools for a fraction of a second, then turn, fire another burst, and repeat. One firing cycle took maybe an eighth of a second, and like clockwork, the conjoin-sponsored player on the other end of the line was executing precisely eight cycles each time the in-game clock flinched. This was no ordinary human player: he must have been a gaeseon.
Minjun wondered who it was. It took most conjoins about six months to finalize the hardware upgrades to their new gaeseons, so once a kibohn signed their first gaeseon contract, they went off the circuit for two seasons or so as they completed the procedure and their bodies healed up.
During his long career, Minjun had played against plenty of gaeseons from every single conjoin, so he’d been faced with their dual threat of AI decision-making and biological enhancements before. In fact, kibohns who signed with conjoins often posted photos of their hands to their social media accounts with the caption “안녕, 내 친구들,” or “Goodbye, my friends.” At this point, it was practically common knowledge that the carpal augmentations that the bigger conjoins were able to fabricate and install were miles ahead of the competition. In fact, Minjun had even heard rumours that the LG conjoin’s carpal software was being investigated by the gaming commission - if the electrical signals from the carpal augments didn’t make a round trip to the brain and back, the players using them would be certainly be disqualified, or at least relegated to the AI circuit, which was much less lucrative. Fewer spectators wanted to watch computers playing each other.
But circuit-legal or not, Minjun had signed up for this bounty. It was his job to bravely fight against whatever he was up against. During the attack, one of his flankers had been able to pin the marine against a building and damage it down to half health before it was blasted away. The time to strike was now. The marine had pushed away from the metal structure and immediately began its clockwork firing routine again. One C-14 burst, half turn, one step, half turn. Eight cycles a second for the digital marine; 1,920 specific key-presses and mouse clicks per minute for the gaeseon.
Two more of Minjun’s attacking units exploded into a red pile of goo before the distance between the two parties was even halfway closed. He hated competing against this kind of precision. As a last-ditch effort, Minjun split his last four units into two groups, sending one forward into the base and the others off to the side.
As the marine reached the back corner of a red steel building, the mechanical stutter-stepping stopped, and the gaeseon briefly turned his attention to his workers, commanding construction to begin on a few more buildings. With only two of Minjun’s units visible, the AI-enhanced player must have calculated that he was safe.
Minjun’s two remaining units charged straight at the corner of the shining building, inexorably leaping headlong into their digital doom. After gunning the two sacrificial aliens down, the gaeseon allowed his marine to take its finger off the trigger and then moved it forward, past the front corner of the building.
Right into the two units Minjun had hidden around the side of the building. The aliens’ claws quickly connected, shredded through the marine’s armor before it exploded into red pixels. With the rally of Minjun’s reinforcements arriving from across the map, the conjoin did the math, realized the chances of winning from this position were less than 0.5%, and sent the signal from HQ. The gaeseon’s mechanical fingers typed out a quick “GG,” admitting defeat.