The Waiting Game

The Rundown

In the arbitrarily-far future, humanity's spread out and colonized enough planets to call its empire the Thousand Worlds. We've got superluminal spaceflight via metagravity, and communication that's at least as fast. In fact, it's what holds the race together, bringing government (and therefore relative justice and peace, since it's a pretty good autocracy), entertainment (and therefore common language and learning), and a massive, super-futuristic combination of television and the Internet. And – why not? – let's put it all in the hands of one corporate entity: The Network.

Much like our modern government allows networks broadcasting rights so long as they provide citizens with news and information, so does the Thousand Worlds Government* permit The Network to bring its programming to all planets and colonies of the empire. It maintains humanity's ansibles and keeps everyone so engaged that the TWG saves a lot of money on infrastructure, communication, and even peacekeeping. The Network is very good at what it does, but a while back (maybe three or four generations), they got a lot better.

That's when The Network's representatives made this proposition to all humanity's planetary governments: "You know all those people who've been sentenced to life (or death) in prison? That system must cost a lot to maintain, what with the Imperial laws concerning the treatment of prisoners. Here, tell you what. The Network will buy the prisonership of all these people who, one way or another, you don't want in your society anymore, and we'll ship them off your planet so you'll never have to deal with them again. Instead of paying for them to live or die, we'll pay you and take your problems away. Whaddaya think?" One planet said no – it's programming options and bandwidth are currently the lowest in the empire – but the rest knew a great deal when they heard it.

Hundreds of thousands of ships flew hundreds of millions of the empire's worst criminals off to the planet Inevitable. Once there, prisoners were given gray jumpsuits and shown to their very own windowless, doorless, soundproof three-meter cube of a cell with a bed, a toilet, and a sink. Each inmate would be fed and cleaned in their cells by unanthropic robots while experiencing perfect solitary boredom for the rest of their natural lives.

Or, they could play the Waiting Game.

What crime did you commit to get you locked away? We want you to commit it again and again competitively. You killed some people? We'll put you in an arena with a knife and a couple of similarly-armed thugs. You stole some priceless artifacts? We'll put you in a catacomb and let you find your way past traps to extract a McGuffin of our own. Maybe you tricked people into thinking you were a powerful leader? We'll put you in a room full of hundreds of high society simulacra and a couple of people just like you, and see who can schmooze their way to favor fastest. In short, you'll fight other prisoners in whatever way you've proven you'll be most entertaining.

Because entertainment is the reason you're still alive. The air is full of these little holocorder spheres, each about the size of a marble. Housing tiny nuclear metagrav reactors, they constantly levitate and reorient their positions to observe you every moment. Even in your cell, there are a dozen or so of these little guys broadcasting your life (such as it is) to every part of the Thousand Worlds. They do double duty as guards, their gravity-lacing protocols allowing them to restrain or cage rogue inmates when they get out of hand, or even quietly detonate in an size-appropriate atomic fireball should push come to shove.

Most prisoners play the Game, but they don't have to do it empty-handed. The Network has eschewed advertistments in favor of sponsorship of individual prisoners. An inmate can take advantage her sponsor's products (genetic alterations, cybernetic prosthetics, powerful equipment, performance-enhancing drugs, even psionic or magical training), serving as walking and breathing ad space for as long as she survives. To maintain a power balance, The Network regulates these enhancements via a simple ladder system and a form of virtual chips – not real currency, of course, but better than cigarettes and chocolate. The more games an inmate wins, the more vchips she earns, so the more help and enhancements she can "buy" from her sponsor.

The populace of the Thousand Worlds has loved the Waiting Game for almost as long as its been around; mundane sports and contests pale in comparison. The sponsors are usually very satisfied, since they look at the investment as another kind of stock exchange. The Network is, of course, making money hand over fist, so it's happy as a titanic corporate juggernaut can be. And, despite their imprisonment, inmates are given hope in the form of the Olympics: every standard year, the greatest and best-loved players of the Game compete in a pair of double-elimination tournaments – one for individual competitors and one for groups – which end in a final round of battle between the winning group and individual. To the victor, the President of The Network appears and grants one favor; considering her clout, this offer is essentially a wish. Most winners ask that their case be reopened; if it works (and by this point public opinion in their favor is tremendous), they're often pardoned or given a reduced sentence, allowing them to return to their home world. It's a long shot, but considering the alternative, it's worth it.

And hey, it beats life in a cell.

*Hey, that's the same initials as the game.

What is this?

The Waiting Game is about how perception shapes the course of a person's life. What's a crime on one world may make you a criminal, but your choices are what make you a good person. You can't just opt out of your culture's mores, however, so the game forces you define yourself by your actions and defend the statements those actions make.