Dave-O was up well before 0800 hours. He usually went on early morning runs anyway, and his excitement would not let him sleep in.
The feeling of giddiness had not left him yet. Every step he took bounced; every stride stretched long. He felt strangely light as he jogged through the corridors of the Enrichment Center—so light that he misjudged a corner and ended up crashing into a wall once.
Dave-O ran from the end of the Pod hall, past the café, around to the little medical center, then back again. Everything else was locked behind heavy doors. So Dave-O jogged back and forth through what little space was available to him, feeling a bit like a hamster in a cage. He was sure that if he looked at his contract, he’d find a provision about how his movement would be limited to the Enrichment Center during his time at IG. He must have skimmed over that part before he signed it.
As he jogged, Dave-O scanned the Enrichment Center for windows. There were a few in the café, narrow slits of tinted glass through which he could see a dim impression of the courtyard below. That was all.
He showered and dressed. When he was finished, he still had time to kill before 8 a.m. He checked his phone, but quickly he remembered he couldn’t contact anyone. And everybody else was still asleep in their pods. So he headed back to the café, hoping it was open.
The café was in service, but there was no one there. No cute, tattooed barista. No smiling waitress. Not even a surly lunch lady. Instead, there was an automatic dispenser with a touchscreen on which he could order whatever he wanted, and a little panel beneath it where his food appeared when it was ready. He had coffee and a rubbery spinach egg white omelet, which he ate alone in the empty café.
Dave-O returned to his room and waited to be summoned to a presentation or a test chamber or wherever he was supposed to go next.
At 8 a.m., his door chimed. He opened it. There was a box waiting for him. It was cardboard, big and heavy, covered in a dark honeycomb pattern with the words, HIVE: DRONE WARFARE. He carried it inside.
There was a Post-It attached to the box that said only:
- Unboxing video.
- Let’s Play.
- For further assistance, contact @l.yue on the Big Box intranet messenger.
That was all.
He decided to contact Ms. Yue.
She responded immediately via text. “Did you receive the package?”
He wrote, “Yes. Will there be an orientation or training or something like that?”
“We’d like to let our play testers explore the game individually at their own pace, just like you would at home.”
“We’d like you to make a video of the unboxing and your reactions setting up the game. Then a Let’s Play. Your system comes complete with a capture card, so you don’t need to worry about recording any gameplay footage. We’ll take care of that. But we’d like you to do a facecam for us.”
“Any more questions?”
“Then I’ll see you in the Hive, soldier.”
He logged off.
With nothing else to do, he switched on his camera and began to open the box.
“I knew it,” he said. He pulled a helmet and some gloves out of the box. “To those of you who said the new Hive game was going to be VR, you were right. But where’s the console? And where’s the disk?”
He carefully dumped the contents of the box into the floor. There were other little wires and nodes and straps, but no console, no disk, not even download instructions.
“Maybe it’s built into the suit,” he said. “Or it’s cloud computing or something.”
So he put it all on: the leg straps, the gloves, and finally the helmet, whose visor utterly blackened the outside world. After a few moments of poking at his head, he found the helmet’s power button and pressed it.
A new universe opened before him, gleaming and clear: a sky with billions of shimmering stars, billowing nebulae, a pale, wispy arm of the Milky Way. Dave-O stumbled on the carpet, unable to lose the sense that he was floating. He realized he looking out the window of a space station gently tumbling in orbit over a planet whose surface was pock-marked with Hives.
“Dude,” was all he said.
Dave-O turned to examine his environment. He was in a teleporter room, sleek and gray. He leaned close to a wall.
“The textures are amazing,” he said. “Absolutely perfect.”
He lifted his hand. A digital recreation of his hand in a heavy metal glove rose into his vision. He flexed his fingers; his in-game digits moved exactly the same way, with perfect accuracy.
“Duuuude,” he said in drawn-out stoner cadence. “Have you ever really looked at your hands?”
He took a few steps, heard the sound of his boots on the metal floor, looked down and saw something extraordinary.
“Oh my God. I have feet.”
Most FPS protagonists have no bodies. They are floating cameras who run across miles of terrain without feet and carry guns without hands. But wearing the VR suit, when Dave-O looked down he saw digitally-rendered boots and legs and a torso that moved exactly like his, only they were clad in heavy armor. He side-stepped and crouched and twisted his body and looked up and down and marveled at how faithfully the game reproduced his movements.
“I have hands and feet,” he said again. “And a pretty great codpiece. That’s so awesome.”
Dave-O stepped toward the other side of the room to examine a wall of plaques and anti-Bug propaganda posters. Halfway to his destination, something struck his knee and he flopped forward onto something soft. His bed. He lifted the visor to find himself back in his Pod at the Enrichment Center.
“I’m gonna need a multi-directional treadmill,” he said. “Or a bigger room.”
He put his visor back on and re-entered the universe of Hive. Then he walked slowly and carefully back to the teleporter, keeping his hands out in front of him to avoid slamming face-first into a real-world wall.
The teleporter alcove had a touchscreen beside it showing his options: TUTORIAL, ENTER THE HIVE (faded with a line through it to indicate that it was not yet available), SETTINGS, and QUIT. He played with the settings a bit, though there wasn’t much to adjust. His movements were motion-controlled, so there were no key bindings to alter, and graphical settings were largely automatic, with no option to remove shadows or change the resolution.
Dave-O hit TUTORIAL. The teleporter hummed. He stepped inside.
A bright flash of light. He was at a spawn point in what looked like a derelict industrial complex, alien factories rotting under a hazy yellow sky. There must have been a fire there, for everything looked scorched, and there wasn’t a single blade of grass growing on the ground.
Dave-O stepped forward, his feet crunching in gravel and bits of discarded machinery. He heard a smooth feminine voice in his ear purr, “Welcome to basic training, soldier.” This was Auriana, the disembodied female A.I. who guided Hive players through their games.
He recognized the actress through a layer of autotune. “Is that Ms. Yue?”
A clearer, but less melodious voice came through his headphones. It her. “You caught me,” she said. “I’m playing Auriana—for now, anyway. They might replace me with another voice actor in the completed version.”
“Are you going to wear the outfit?” he asked.
“What, microchip pasties?” she replied, referring to the revealing costume Auriana wore. “Nah. I don’t do casual Fridays. Anyway, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m listening in on your feeds and I’ll be popping in every now and then as needed. Now get to work, soldier.”
Then she went silent.
Auriana gently guided Dave-O as he learned to navigate this virtual world: how to walk without moving in real life, how to jump, how to crouch, how to handle a gun.
Once he had his basic movements under control, he angled his rifle down, took aim and deliberately shot himself in the boot. He felt a spasm in his own foot and yelped. An image on his HUD showed a diagram of armor with damage to the corresponding limb in gleaming red.
Ms. Yue’s voice came over the comlink again. “The apparatus can vibrate or give you a little squeeze every now and then to simulate external stimuli, like injuries or heavy resistance or something like that.”
“It vibrates?” Dave-O asked.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Ms. Yue said. “Try and keep this video PG-13, okay?”
Dave-O tried to take a step forward, but his injured foot dragged.
“That’s why you don’t shoot yourself in the foot, I guess,” he said.
He respawned. The world around him faded and came back again, and now he had a working foot once more.
Beating the tutorial level took much longer than he’d anticipated. Dave-O had spent hundreds of hours playing Hive, but he had never played with his entire body before. He wasn’t used to turning his neck to look around, having to raise his arms and steady his aim whenever he wanted to fire a gun. He couldn’t move fast enough. He missed his targets. He got killed by a lunging Larva.
But he played on, joyfully, without rage quitting. His second attempt at dealing with the Larva, he ducked. It missed him and hit the ground, and then he was upon it, stomping it into a paste.
The game rendered a white goo on his boots that did not dissolve with time.
Next was a melee combat tutorial with a wounded Harvester. The thing only had three working limbs, but they were enough. Dave-O approached the creature, but when it limped near him, he froze in terror.
He had faced thousands of Harvesters before. But never like this.
Dave-O had only ever seen Bugs housed safely within a flat computer screen. But here, in the virtual world of Hive: Drone Warfare, the Harvester loomed over him like an elephant, heavy and powerful. It looked so real that his hands trembled and his knees knocked and shivers ran up and down his back. Panic glued his feet to the floor. He could not move or even speak.
Then the Harvester struck, one wide slash from a scythe-shape foreleg evolved to fell trees.
Dave-O looked down and saw digitally-rendered blood gushing from a gash in his throat. Everything went black.
In the darkness, he heard Auriana’s voice: “Try again, soldier?” They were the words of the original game over screen in the first four Hive games.
“Yes,” he said.
The world reappeared around him, and with it the injured Harvester, twitching on its three good legs. This time, Dave-O charged straight at the creature, hoping to outrun his fear. He was rewarded with impalement. The world faded once more.
“Try again, soldier?”
“Yes,” he said. “I wonder if I can get cut in half.” He trotted up to the Harvester, threw a rock at it, and earned a sideways sweep of the scythe. He watched the ground rush up to meet his torso and saw his severed legs fly across the room and bounce off a wall. “Dude,” he said.
“This is the part where I lecture you,” Ms. Yue cut in. “You’ve got to be more careful. Use strategy. Don’t just Leroy Jenkins it, okay?”
Dave-O nodded, panting in his suit. The world came to life again.
He moved more slowly this time. Crippled, the Harvester could attack, but it couldn’t move very well. In this condition, a Bug didn’t travel far, though it would fight to the death against any enemy that came near.
They were in a narrow hallway, so Dave-O knew he didn’t have a chance to sneak up on the Harvester. He picked up a stone and tossed it behind the creature, hoping to distract it. It didn’t take the bait.
“Either it’s too dumb to notice the rock or too smart to fall for it,” Dave-O said.
He approached slowly, carefully.
He watched the Harvester raise its remaining front leg. Dave-O moved left. The creature swiveled to face him. He strafed right, and again the creature mirrored his movements. He noticed then that the Harvester’s injuries had left it just slightly off-balance. He noticed, too that the back legs moved before the foreleg, just as they did in previous games. Now he could anticipate his enemy’s movements.
Dave-O feigned left. The Harvester turned, realized its mistake too late and tried to turn back. But Dave-O was faster. The scythe-leg shot out, and the Bug was off-balance. Dave-O darted again as quick as he could, out of the scythe’s reach, and with a slash of his ion blade he severed the leg at the joint. As the Bug screamed and flailed Dave-O drew his arm back and plunged his shimmering brand deep into the creature’s mandibles, splitting its face in half.
The Harvester fell with a heavy thud, its back legs twitching as it expired.
“This is awesome,” said Dave-O. “It feels so real, like I’m really stabbing something.”