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A Glitch in the (Ray Tracing) Matrix

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Tony, Peter and Clint were enjoying a rainy Sunday afternoon of chips, beer (soda for Peter) and Super Mariokart, when Bruce entered the common area to find a snack before returning to his lab.

“What are you guys playing?” he asked, approaching the seating area and opening a bag of freeze-dried blueberries that he’d taken a liking to since Tony had introduced him to them.

‘What are we playing’?” Peter was incredulous. “Dr. Banner, you don’t know about Super Mariokart?”

Bruce observed the TV for a moment. “Looks like just a racing game.”

“I mean yeah, it basically is. But it’s so much more! Check this out.” Peter launched a red shell at Tony’s character, knocking him off the side of the track. Tony swore loudly.

“Why don’t you take a break, Bruce?” said Clint. “We’ll teach you to play.”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so. I’ll probably just embarrass myself.”

All three of them started encouraging him to join them.

“No, it’ll be fun!”

“Come on, take a break for a bit.”

“I bet you can learn to kick Mr. Stark and Mr. Barton’s butts in no time.”

“Now hold up, kid.” Clint looked mock-serious. “Bruce is good at a lot of things. He’s the smartest person I know—”

“Hey!” Tony protested.

“But this game isn’t about brains. It’s about wit, and skill. You and Tony almost never beat me. What makes you think Bruce will?”

Peter shrugged. “He’s a fast learner.”

Tony turned to Bruce. “Whaddya say, Bruce? Care to give it a shot?”

Bruce looked noncommittal. “I don’t know, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do in my lab.”

“It’s Sunday!” Tony beckoned him over to the couch. “Live a little.”

Bruce hesitated, but finally gave in. “Alright. But you guys have to be patient with me until I get the hang of it.”

“Fine.” Tony moved over to make room for Bruce, and handed him his own controller. “You versus Clint.”

“Alright! This should be easy.” Clint looked rather smug. “Fifty bucks says I can lap him by the end of the race.”

“You’re on,” Tony readily replied. “I’ve got a little more faith in him than that. I say you beat him by less than half a lap.” He turned to Peter. “You want in? You can bet five bucks or something. How much do you think Clint will beat Banner by?”

Peter thought a moment. “My money’s on Dr. Banner.”

Tony and Clint burst out laughing. Bruce just looked uncomfortable.

“Someone has to put a bet on him. It would be mean not to.”

“Thanks, Peter,” Bruce said with a kind smile. “I’ll pay you back any money you lose.”

Clint shrugged at Peter’s reckless bet. “Alright, your loss. Pony up, you two, let’s see it.”

Peter and Tony opened up their wallets and pulled out five and fifty dollars, respectively. Clint added his fifty dollars to theirs and put it on the table.

“OK, Peter, how does this work?”

Peter gave him a quick rundown of the controls, and explained the most common items. “Other than that, just go fast! And don’t fall off the edge of the track.”

Clint brought up the screen for him and Bruce to choose their characters and karts. Peter walked Bruce through it, advising him to pick the Tanooki Mario character. Clint chose his trusty favourite, Yoshi.

The intro music to the race began playing, the camera panning around to show off the features of the track.

“This looks…complicated.” Bruce seemed even more uncertain than before. “Sorry, Peter. You probably should have bet against me.”

“It’s alright, it’s only five bucks. But I have faith in you!”

Tony snorted.

The starting signal sounded, and the race began. Yoshi shot forward in a rocket start. Bruce pressed the wrong button and Tanooki Mario started driving backward.

“No, no, press Y to go forward! Y!” shouted Peter.

“Right. Sorry!” Bruce finally started driving in the right direction, but was swerving badly. Clint was already very far ahead. Peter groaned.

By the top of the second lap, Bruce was still in last place, and Clint in first.

“Dr. Banner, you’re supposed to hit the question blocks, not avoid them! That’s where the items are!”

“Hey, no helping him, kid, that’s cheating,” said Tony.

“Bah, let him,” said Clint. “He could use the help.”

But halfway through the second lap, something strange happened.

Tony blinked. “Wait—Banner, did I just see you do a power glide? Pete, you didn’t tell him about that.”

“Yes he did.” Bruce spoke up for the first time since the start of the race. “Last week. The same day he showed me how to draft.” Suddenly, Tanooki Mario sped forward in a burst of speed after drafting behind Dry Bones, the computer character in second last place. “But I found this glitch in the track on my own when we were playing two days ago.”

“Glitch?” both Tony and Clint asked at once.

Suddenly Tanooki Mario did a hard skid around a corner, but just before spinning out, he veered toward the edge of the track, falling off toward the water. But instead of being rescued by Lakitu’s fishing line, he fell into the water…and materialized on the track in sixth place, up from eleventh place a second ago.

“What the hell?” Clint shouted.

Tony’s jaw dropped. “What in god’s name just happened? Banner, what the hell did you do?”

“Well,” began Bruce, maddeningly calm despite the sudden turn in his fortune, “when I was playing this course with Peter the other day, I noticed that the way the ray tracing was done in that section of the track had light rays from two origin points intersecting.” Tanooki Mario picked up a Torpedo Ted item, which, well, torpedoed him from sixth place to fourth. “I hazarded a guess that it was a transition point between two consecutive sections of the course. These kinds of video game levels are usually coded in section blocks.” A carefully-aimed green shell from Tanooki Mario sent Bowser spinning out of control, bringing Bruce to third place. (“How did he do that with a green shell?” shouted an incredulous Clint.) Bruce continued: “A bit of reading showed me that programmers will often optimize a game by leaving those transition points empty, meaning the regular game physics don’t apply.” Tanooki Mario was rapidly gaining on Waluigi, the character in second place, and soon he was the perfect distance away for drafting. “With a bit of practice, I figured out how to aim at the invisible line separating the two sections of the course, which teleported me about a quarter of the way around the track. To the beginning of the next section block.” Tanooki Mario blasted past Waluigi thanks to his well-timed drafting. Bruce was now in second place. “Really, it was just observation, and a cursory knowledge of physics and linear algebra. No wit required.” He gave Clint a brief sidelong look.

Tony nudged Peter on the shoulder a little harder than necessary. “You guys hustled us!”

“I beg to differ,” said Peter. He smiled deviously. “I don’t recall Dr. Banner actually saying he didn’t know how to play. You two just assumed he couldn’t.”

Tony frowned, clearly dissatisfied with that answer. He turned back to the race. It was close, but Clint was still ahead.

“You’re still in first place, Barton. It’s too late to lap him. But if you win by less than half a lap, I win my bet. Don’t screw it up, and I’ll give you twenty bucks back from your bet.”

“Deal.”

But two thirds of the way through the third lap, Bruce landed three red shells from an item block. As both Tony and Clint emitted a long, comical “Nooooooo!” at the same time as Peter's "Yeeeeeesss!" Bruce released the shells with perfect timing, sending Yoshi skidding off a ramp and into the water as Tanooki Mario glided past him and crossed the finish line in first place with an easy lead.

Bruce dropped his controller like a mic and held one hand out to the side, high-fiving Peter without even looking. He and Peter stood up, gathering the $105 from the coffee table.

“Your original five back,” said Bruce, handing the bill to Peter, “and your half of the spoils.” He gave him one of the fifty dollar bills.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Peter replied.

Tony hadn’t spoken yet. He was giving Clint a murderous stare. Clint was still staring at the TV screen in disbelief, his mouth agape.

“Pizza?” Bruce asked Peter, waving his fifty in an offer to pay.

“Pizza,” echoed Peter. They left the room together.

The click of the door closing snapped Clint out of his daze. He turned and pointed an accusatory finger at Tony.

You.”

“Excuse me?” Tony batted Clint’s finger away from his face. “ You were playing. Where was your ‘wit’ and ‘skill’?”

“He’s your best friend. How could you not tell he was hustling you?”

“Hustling us,” Tony was quick to clarify. “And anyway, I had the most reasonable bet. You only had to beat him by a second, tops, and I would’ve won!”

“No one can dodge three red shells in a row, Tony.”

“Hnh,” was Tony’s noncommittal reply.

“That Peter,” began Clint. “He’s having a bad influence on Banner. I’m sure this whole hustle was his idea.”

Tony gave him a sidelong look. “I think you’re right. We should keep an eye on them when they’re together.”

“Or they’ll have more laughs at our expense.”

“Right.” Tony looked back at the door through which Bruce and Peter had just left.

“I’m also a little hungry…” Clint began.

“We should start keeping an eye on them right away. You never know what they might get up to without supervision.”

“Think we can catch them before they leave for pizza?”

“You just want pizza,” Tony accused.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

They looked at each other for a second. Then without warning, they both jumped up from the couch at exactly the same time and headed for the door.

“Fri, tell our scammers to wait in the lobby.”

“So how are we going to get them back?” asked Clint as they stepped into the elevator.

“I’m working on it.” Tony crossed his arms and regarded Clint with narrowed eyes. “I’m thinking physics lessons. For you.”

“Excuse me?”

“If you had more knowledge of video game physics and less of that ‘wit’ you were going on about, you would’ve won. You have only yourself to blame, really. First lesson tomorrow, nine a.m.? Linear algebra refresher.”

“Stark, I swear to god,” Clint threatened as the elevator doors closed.