Scout didn’t know why she was chosen.
She wasn’t the best Hive player. Not even in the top twenty. She’d beaten every installment in the series, even on Badass mode, even on pacifist runs, even on a single clip of ammo. But she couldn’t compete with players who beat the game blindfolded, or holding the controllers with their toes, or slogging through 72-hour marathons with a piss jar at their feet.
Scout wasn’t the best Hive let’s player, either. Her LP videos, in which she played through the game with a camera pointed at her face, drew a modest few thousand views. Her monthly Patreon wasn’t enough to live on, but at least it patched in the holes between her temp gigs and her part-time job at the café.
She wasn’t Hive’s biggest fan, either. She owned every incarnation of the game, from the original 1985 DOS floppy disk to 2014’s Hive: Bug Hunt. She even had a copy of Arnold Salt’s post-Born Again mod in which the player character converts the insects to Christianity instead of killing them. But still, the title of Biggest Hive fan probably belonged to that guy who tattooed his entire body to look like Space Marine armor, or that couple who held a Hive-themed wedding with the bride dressed as a Bug Queen and the groomsmen dressed as Drones.
But, for whatever reason, a knock came at Scout’s front door right when she was in the middle of an unboxing video. A company called CheezMonkey had sent her what it referred to as a Big Box o’ Randomness for free under the condition that she opened it on camera and gave it a positive review.
Scout ignored the first knock. She had her hands full with a pink T-shirt, which she unfolded to show off for her webcam. “It says ‘Chew-bacca,’” she explained to the eventual audience, “and it has a picture of a wookie chewing gum. That’s a pun.” She put the shirt on.
There was a second knock, too loud to be ignored, so Scout said, “Sorry, hold on a sec,” and hit pause. She hoped CheezMonkey wouldn’t be angry at the interruption. These boxes usually just had misfit toys, but on occasion one could get a few semi-useful housewares, like a coffee mug or some socks. Scout planned to stitch her collection of terrible T-shirts into a patchwork dress or a quilt some day.
There was a woman in a black blazer and matching pencil skirt standing at the door. “Chelsea Collins?” she asked. And then, “Scout_Finch?”
“Yes?” Scout replied, hoping she hadn’t been doxed again. It’s never a good sign when an in-real-life person knows your internet name.
The woman introduced herself with a firm handshake. “I’m Lara Yue. I work for IG. Can I come in?”
Scout looked around for a hidden camera. Was this a prank? There was a black Lexus with tinted windows parked by the side of the road. Nothing particularly suspicious—it looked professional enough.
“Sure,” Scout said. “Sorry about the mess.”
Scout offered Ms. Yue a seat at the kitchen table. It was a cheap aluminum thing her roommate found on the sidewalk, but Scout managed to hide the ugliness under a tablecloth she’d picked up at a garage sale. Still, it wobbled.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Scout asked. “We’ve got water and tea.”
“Just water, thanks.”
“It’s my roommate’s turn to do the dishes,” Scout explained, “but he hasn’t done them, and there’s only two clean cups left. So would you like the Big Gulp cup or the poop emoji mug?”
Ms. Yue thought carefully. “I’ll go with the poop emoji.”
Scout sat down across from Ms. Yue. The woman was beautiful in that muted, corporate way. She was lean and tall, with a perfect manicure in a neutral shade of pink. Her black hair was arranged in one of those haircuts that look simple enough but somehow cost well over a hundred dollars at a salon.
Scout knew she looked a mess. She’d put on makeup for the camera, but her eye bags must have been obvious, and her roots were growing in dark in her short, blue hair. She was embarrassingly pale. And, on top of all of it, she was now acutely aware of the fact that she was wearing an ill-fitting T-shirt with a picture of a Wookie eating bubble gum on it.
It occurred to Scout that her guest was probably only a few years older than her—early 30s at most—but the fact that Ms. Yue had a real, grown-up job that involved a suit and a briefcase and never, ever uttering the words “Can I interest you in a customer loyalty card?” made Scout feel like a kid in comparison.
“Now, Scout,” Ms. Yue said. “Scout or Chelsea? Which do you prefer?”
“Either one.” Scout smiled. She was glad that those were the only two names Ms. Yue offered.
“Let’s stick with your screen name, then. That’s how I know you,” Ms. Yue said. “Scout, I work for a company called IG. Imperial Games. You’re no doubt familiar with their work.”
“Well, Hive is pretty much the center of my entire life, so yeah,” Scout said. Her toes twitched in excitement. She hoped Ms. Yue didn’t notice.
“You’ve probably heard we’re working on a new game. A new Hive game.”
Scout smiled. IG was always working on a new Hive game. They hardly did anything else. “Drone Warfare,” she said.
“That’s the working title, anyway,” Ms. Yue replied. “We’re past the playtesting phase. The game’s pretty much finished, except for a few little tweaks. We’re looking for people to help promote it. Influencers. Thought leaders.”
Scout adjusted her glasses.
“Does that sound like something you’d be interested in?” Ms. Yue asked.
Scout opened her mouth. Nothing came out but a reedy squeak, so she nodded instead.
Ms. Yue laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes. Okay. Here’s the drill. You and a bunch of other LPers will get an exclusive look at the game. You play it. You post it on your channels before anyone else does.”
Scout realized her mouth had fallen open. To preview the next Hive game wasn’t just a joy. It was a potential money maker. If she did an LP before anyone else—before the game was even out—she was guaranteed a boost in views, subscribers, ad revenue and monthly donations. She could leave the temp agency, quit the café, and LP full time. She could move into her own apartment, maybe in the city, and buy a car whose muffler wasn’t attached with a bent coat hanger.
“There are rules, of course,” Ms. Yue said. “We’re not going to just send you the game. Too risky. You’ve got to come to the IG office. You’ll probably spend a month or two there. We’ll provide you with accommodations.”
Scout nodded again, grinning like a jack-o’-lantern.
“Love the name, by the way,” Ms. Yue added. “To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books.”
“Thank you,” Scout said at last. “Is there a catch?”
“There are certain requirements,” Ms. Yue replied. “You’re sworn to secrecy, first of all. There’s an NDA—a non-disclosure agreement. And we’re going to edit your videos to make sure there’s nothing off-brand in them. And there are a couple of medical exams you have to pass. It’s just a corporate policy. Nothing to worry about.”
“That’s fine,” Scout said. Her mind was already whirling, planning the arrangements. How could she miss a month of work and still manage to pay rent? Was there anything she could sell? Would anyone donate to a GoFundMe? “I don’t know what to say. I’m a little overwhelmed.”
Ms. Yue whipped out a thick stack of waivers and questionnaires for Scout to sign. The process took a little under an hour. Scout found herself reading the same page two or three times without understanding a word of it, too delirious with excitement to absorb any of the legalese. She signed anyway.
“That should be everything,” Ms. Yue said at last. “You’ll be hearing from us again in a few weeks. In the meantime, keep this quiet, or you’re out half a million dollars, as per the NDA. Okay?”
Scout stood on the crumbling stoop of the duplex she lived in and watched Lara drive away. If not for the pink lipstick print on the poop emoji mug at the kitchen table, Scout might have thought the whole afternoon had been a hallucination.
Her first impulse was to grab her smartphone and post about it—on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr. But no. There was the NDA. Which meant she couldn’t tell her friends, either.
Knowing not what else to do, she returned to her bedroom, where the CheezMonkey Box o’ Randomness waited for her.
She switched her webcam back on.
“I’m back,” she said, digging her hand into the box once again. She pulled out a piece of candy and read the label. “It’s a ‘Dal-y pop.’ Oh, it’s a lollypop shaped like a Dalek! That’s wonderful! This is the greatest thing I’ve ever received in my entire life!”