“It’s a valid strategy!” screamed a voice from around the corner.
Those were the last words Jeff heard as red mist seeped into his vision. Headshot.
Here’s Part 4: “Camper”
– – –
In retrospect, Jeff’s assault tactics had pretty much sucked. Too many places for enemies to hide until you were right on top of them. Mission fail.
The sweet metallic smell of hot blood filled his nose. Did he still have a nose? It felt like his head had popped. Not too painful, but enough to get the message across that everything above his neck was now splattered across the wall where he had been standing.
In the growing darkness, Jeff’s HUD finally flickered out. A spidery overlay of glowing green map coordinates and failed mission objectives dissolving into nothingness.
Enough. Time to get out.
“Abulafia,” he growled.
A floating white screen appeared in front of his face, triggered by the verbal universal override. The frowning face of a Marine clenching a greasy cigar in his teeth glared out at him.
“You quitting, soldier? Can’t take the heat?”
“Logout. Oh, and bite me.”
The Marine smirked, rolled his cigar to the other corner of his mouth, and spat wetly in Jeff’s face.
White light flashed. He was back in the chair.
Jeff angrily rubbed his face with his hand. Dry. He took solace in the fact that the final insult from the NPC commander was just a simulation. The dull hum of his Neurostim chair was winding down. He pulled himself up, stretching uncomfortably, and looked around.
The apartment was a mess. Empty pizza boxes were stacked on the kitchen table. And he had forgotten to take out the trash. Again.
A warm tongue licked his fingers.
“I know, I know, you’re hungry. I’m so sorry, Xerxes.”
Xerxes had silently snuck up behind him. The big dog was kind of spooky that way. Like a dark grey silent ghost.
The dog had been Jeff’s companion for years. Since college. When Jeff had finally graduated, Xerxes happily moved with him across the country to San Francisco. The sweet gamedev startup job waiting for him had not so sweetly gone down in flames, and now they were both living in a one room apartment on a steady diet of ramen, pizza and cheap takeout.
But Xerxes never complained. A perfect non-judgemental roommate and a faithful friend. Jeff didn’t have a lot of friends.
He walked to the bathroom and splashed some water on his face from the sink. Rubbed his bristly beard. Shaving was not high on his agenda these days.
Back in the kitchen, Jeff grimly discovered a few leathery slices of cheese pizza hiding in the cardboard boneyard of boxes. Chewy, but still good. He held out a slice to Xerxes, who gingerly took it and then immediately wolfed it down. The dog always seemed to be famished.
The kitchen wall clock read 1:20am. Jeff briefly thought about firing up his tablet and doing some Grid searches for gamedev jobs, but his gaze inexorably drifted back to the Neurostim chair. The sting of his recent mission failure was pissing him off. He needed a win. He needed payback. And he could rationalize playing another game by convincing himself that he was doing “game design research.” Jeff was good at convincing himself of all kinds of things.
“Hey Xerxes, want to hang out with me as I play one more game? Then I promise we’ll go for a walk. Promise!”
Slowly licking his black lips, Xerxes padded over to the chair and curled up on the pile of ratty blankets next to it. Jeff thought he heard the dog’s stomach rumbling. He really needed to start buying proper dogfood for the poor guy.
“Alright, let’s do this.”
Jeff hopped in the chair and laid back, his right hand hanging over the edge, resting gently on Xerxes’ big soft furry head. When he fired up the interface, Jeff wouldn’t feel his hand on Xerxes. But he just liked knowing it was there. Xerxes is my copilot.
The Nerurostim Mark VII was pretty sweet. All black chrome and synthetic black suede, it looked more like stylish recliner designed by Swedes than the highly advanced neural interface device it actually was. This model was still a prototype, far from being ready for the market. The experimental SQUID array amplifier was completely internalized. No stupid headsets to wear. Having worked as a gamedev in a stealth startup had given Jeff access to some pretty sweet toys. And some of those toys had quietly slipped away with him when he had been handed his pink slip.
Jeff’s stomach soured at the memory of that day. What a bunch of idiots. His ideas could have saved the damn company if they had just listened to him. The thought of it still filled him with rage, burning white and hot.
Xerxes growled. The dog always picked up on Jeff’s black moods. Like a dark mirror.
“Easy boy. Let’s go kill things.”
Jeff closed his eyes, feeling the tingle of the SQUID as it reached out and embraced his nerves. He willed up a world.
Jungle sim. Arena mode. Kill anything that moves. Unlimited ammo. Yeah, that would do the trick.
Hot and humid. It smelled like it had just rained. Birds were chattering noisily in the trees. The underbrush was thick with ferns and broad leafed bushes. Pushing through them, Jeff checked the full clip in his service rifle and smiled. The weight of the gun was comforting in his hands. He walked purposefully, swaggering with confidence. Soon, someone was going to die. And this time it sure wasn’t going to be him. Time for some run and gun.
The brush suddenly gave way to a clearing. Jeff immediately halted and quietly crouched. Two soldiers were standing with their rifles slung, their backs facing him. This was too easy! He eyed the two suckers and slowly raised his rifle, gently flipping the full-auto switch with his thumb. Savoring the moment.
“What the hell is it?”
“I dunno. A glitch? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“That humming noise is freaking me out. Gives me the creeps.”
“Yeah. Why don’t we just logoff and play WizWorld. We can send the sim owner a bug report later.”
“My head feels funny. Like bugs crawling in my hair. I think my headnet is flaking out.”
“OK, let’s port to Wiz and meet at the hanging gardens. There’s a neat new—”
Jeff unloaded his gun. A hail of lead cut down the two solders before they could even turn around. Their bodies flew apart in bits of flesh and camosuit fabric, limbs jerking as they slumped to the ground. Jeff stood up and walked through the cloud of gunsmoke, ears ringing from the shots, inhaling deeply and savoring the smell. It felt good. It felt right. Run and gun and rack up some more kills.
But something wasn’t right. As he advanced to search and loot the bodies, Jeff saw what they had been babbling about. The entire clearing was covered in soft green moss, except for a small patch right in front of him. A patch of ground covered in a white webwork of lines on a pure black background. Some kind of grid? The lines were moving, shifting back and forth like water. Jeff had seen texture pattern glitches on many Grids before, but nothing like this.
And standing in the middle of this weird patch of ground was a tall black…what? Just a jumble of black geometric shapes, rotating on different axes. All the edges looked sharp and menacing. How could he not have seen this immediately? It was almost twice as tall as he was, and small grey particles were drifting out of it like fog.
Jeff closed his eyes and rubbed them firmly. Something was buzzing. It sounded like it was coming from inside his own head.
“Oh, how interesting.”
A whisper. Jeff snapped his eyes open, spinning around in a panic, looking for an ambush. But everything was gone. It was as if someone had switched off his visuals completely. No HUD, no nothing.
“No, I don’t think so,” came the whisper again. A dry quiet laugh. Like brittle leaves blowing across concrete.
“What the hell is going on? Abulafia! Logout! Whoever you are, you’re fucking with the wrong person! I’m going to fucking come to your house with a baseball bat and bash—”
“Now that’s the spirit!” The voice was now sharp and bright. “So much rage. And such colorful language. I must say, the uniquely brutal emotions you can convey with this construct of language is quite entertaining. I’m having a wonderful time exploring it. For now.”
Jeff took a deep breath. Was he hallucinating? Was the chair glitching out? At least he could still speak and hear.
“OK, I have no idea what’s going on, but you win. Let me logout!”
“How curious. Your neural interface is quite nonstandard. And this new array is wonderfully flexible. Your kind is so clever with their little tools. And I am even more clever.”
Jeff had the sick sensation of someone reaching through him, a cold hand grasping bluntly through his body. It felt like his insides were tearing. The pain made him retch. He thought he smelled something burning.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to be quick. Quick and clever, clever and quick. Oh my, and you have a wonderful friend. I’ve never encountered this pattern before.”
Xerxes was suddenly with him. A chillingly disembodied sensation, as if Xerxes were in a pitch black room, silently sitting next to him just out of reach in the darkness. He heard the dog growling, low and deep. He desperately wanted to reach out and comfort the terrified animal, to bunch his hands in the warm thick fur of his neck. But he couldn’t feel his hands anymore.
“You stay away from my dog, you bastard! You stay away!” Jeff screamed at the top of his lungs. He was coughing now. Something was definitely burning.
“Now, why would I do that? I’ve never met this particular species before. And it has qualities I’ve been looking for. You both do, really. I’ve been waiting a long time for such patterns to use in my templates. Waiting, waiting, waiting…”
“You bastard,” choked Jeff. “You can’t do this to—”
“It’s a valid strategy,” replied the voice.
A cold wind blew through Jeff’s mind, and tore it apart.
– – –
“I’m telling you, it was a wolf. And there aren’t supposed to be wolves in this damn jungle! Tigers, sure, but not wolves!”
Dethsiren pushed her helmet back and wiped the sweat off her forehead. “I’m sure you saw something, KillerKane, but I doubt it was a wolf. Let’s focus on finishing the recon. I’m getting itchy in this heat, and I still need to do my homework after this game.”
KillerKane turned away from Dethsiren and looked wistfully into the bushes across the river. “It was right there, staring at me. There was something wrong with its eyes. And I think it was carrying something in its mouth. Like a freaky black bone.”
“Did you catch his name? Mr. Wolfy, perhaps?”
“You suck, you know that?” Killerkane reloaded his rifle and stormed angrily away.
“Last time I play a random pickup game on this Grid,” muttered Dethsiren as she pushed her helmet firmly back on her head and jogged after him.
– – –
The chair had finally stopped burning.
Thank God for the automatic fire suppressors in the room, thought Mel. As a landlord, it was always smart to install things like that, even if the cost was a real pain in the ass. Gotta protect your investments. And tenants always seemed to be doing things to screw up your investments.
Mel walked over to the chair, pulling a rag from his overalls and putting it to his mouth, trying to breathe through the oily smoke in the room. He could barely see anything. It still hadn’t cleared yet, and he could hear the ventilation system whining as it strained. The fire department and cops would be here in about 10 minutes. Taking their sweet time, as usual. But Mel wanted to survey the damage as soon as possible.
He gagged when he saw the body. It looked like wet leather, black and dark red and twisted as it lay across the smoldering chair. He’s seen dead bodies before, but this one looked like it had been burned and then sent through a wringer. Almost pulped.
Something soft under his shoes. A pile of blankets next to the chair. He numbly bent down to pick them up. Might as well cover the poor kid until the cops came. It was the decent thing to do.
As he crouched, he heard a soft growling across the room. This kid had a dog? So much for his no-pets policy. Wonderful.
“Nice doggie. It’s ok. I’m leaving right now.” whispered Mel. He couldn’t see it through the haze. Forget covering the kid. Last thing Mel needed was a freaked-out dog attacking him. He dropped the blankets and slowly began to stand.
“Shit!” A sharp pain stabbed into Mel’s legs. Burning hot. He felt himself stumble and fall heavily to the floor as both legs suddenly went numb.
Had the dog snuck up from behind and bit him? How’d it do that? Hunched on the floor, Mel turned and saw a wolfish grey animal calmly walking toward him. Big fella. It brought its face close to his. Something was wrong with its eyes. Like they weren’t there. The dog held something in its mouth, gingerly. A sharp edged black thing.
Mel looked down at his legs. They weren’t there. Just piles of what looked like fine grey sand all around his waist. Ropy tentacles were writhing around in the piles like blind snakes. He could see they extended back to the dog, disappearing behind its front legs.
With a gasp, Mel reached out to the dog. He saw his arm raise then begin to fall apart like loose sand. This couldn’t be happening.
The dog backed away and cocked its head. Mel thought he heard a voice.
“Easy kill. Kill easy. Time to run and gun. Gun and run.”
“Dogs can’t talk,” he whispered.
A thin quivering tentacle reached out to touch Mel’s forehead.
And everything faded to dust.