Scout died again.
She was supposed to hack open a supine Drone’s abdomen with a few strokes of her ion blade. But she couldn’t help but stop to admire the creature’s beauty—the way its exoskeleton shimmered, the Starry Night whorls on its belly that showed where its weak points were.
She hesitated a moment. It was a moment too long. The Drone righted itself, pinning her underneath itself, crushing her legs, and as she tried to drag herself away the creature spread its mandibles and swallowed her face-first.
“The Bugs are a lot more aggressive in this game,” Scout said. “I used to be able to sneak past them. Now they just annihilate me every time.”
Ms. Yue’s voice cut in. “The new A.I. is more sophisticated. The enemies are smarter. They’re better at detecting you and tracking your movements. You’re going to have to be a little more confrontational than usual.”
“No stealth missions?”
“Not many of our players really like those, to be honest.”
Still, Scout tried to play her own way. She crept slowly along the walls to take advantage of the Bugs’ poor vision. But they found her and tore her apart. A Harvester hacked her head clean off with a single swipe of its scythe. A Carpenter spat resin into her face, blinding her, then snapped her in half. A party of Handmaids dragged her off as food for the Queen.
Before the day was done, Scout was decapitated, smothered, dissolved, dismembered, bludgeoned, eviscerated, entombed, strangled, ripped in half lengthwise and widthwise, and eaten.
And she still wasn’t finished. She hadn’t even beaten the tutorial yet.
Scout had never spent a whole day on a tutorial. Still, she was far from bored. The virtual world of Drone Warfare captivated her in ways no game ever had before.
But she was exhausted and hungry, and she’d been at it for hours, so even without Auriana’s approval she turned off the game.
“Is this a rage quit?” Ms. Yue asked over the comlink.
“This is an ‘oh my God I’m tired’ quit,” Scout replied with a yawn.
“Fair enough,” Ms. Yue said.
Scout took off her visor and re-entered the real world. Here was her Pod, just as she’d left it, ragged and run-down, with furniture carefully sanded and scratched by IG employees to look used. Her Pod was so drab compared to the vivid colors of Hive.
The artificial light through her window was dying. She checked the clock on the wall. 7 p.m. She’d been at it for nearly 11 hours, with only a brief bathroom break in the middle.
She smacked her lips. They were dry. She had barely had anything to eat or drink that day.
Scout ordered a sandwich and a few bottles of water via room service. While waiting for the food to arrive, she ventured out of her Pod for a walk around the enrichment center. The corridors were empty. So was the café. Everyone must have been busy in their rooms.
She glanced out the little café windows, but she could only see streetlights illuminating an empty courtyard below. She stopped by the medical center and found it closed with a sign: The doctor is out. In case of emergencies, message @p.parikh.
So Scout returned to her Pod alone.
She ate and slept and woke the next morning and drank coffee and put on her VR rig to play Hive again. She lowered her head and plowed forward through the tutorial this time. No more stopping to admire the flawless textures or the detailed walk cycles of the Bugs. Instead she killed them, one after the other. She could admire them when they were dead.
“Get tough, soldier!” Auriana barked every time Scout tried to flee an enemy encounter.
Scout found that she could not slip by her enemies. She could, however, sneak up on them. Bugs have poor eyesight and don’t pay much attention to stationary objects. Scout learned to use this to her advantage, playing a game of Red Light Green Light with an injured Harvester in a corridor. She crept nearer and nearer in little bursts of movement until she was close enough to blast its neck apart with one shot of her rifle.
“Fantastic!” Ms. Yue cheered. “You’re like a ninja!”
“Thanks,” Scout replied.
“You sound a little disappointed. Are you enjoying the game?”
“I like it,” Scout said. “It’s just… I’m used to being able to play without fighting. That’s sort of my thing, you know?”
“Oh yes. You’re the Queen of the Pacifist Run, weren’t you?”
“I’m not the queen,” Scout said. “Like, a Baroness at best. But I’m not used to being forced to fight. It feels limiting.”
“Well,” Ms. Yue said, “what would you have done in that last scene? You can’t reason with a Harvester. And you couldn’t sneak by it.”
“No,” Scout said. “But if I was stuck in a narrow hallway with a Harvester at the other end, I’d probably pick another hallway.”
“What if you needed what was on the other side of that hallway?”
“I’d go outside and look for a back door.”
“Well,” Ms. Yue said, “you’d better keep gaming. I think you’ll like what comes next.”
Having beaten the tutorial level, Scout was finally ready to enter the world of Hive: Drone Warfare. She fired up a new game on the only difficulty setting available to her: easy mode.
Then began the opening cinematic. It was a flashback to the player character’s sixth birthday party. There was a cake on the table, and electric candles, and a mother and father saying, “Come on, honey. Make a wish.”
And then, through the eyes of a child, Scout watched a Drone smash through the wall and kill the loving parents. The Drone slowly crept toward her, gnashing its mandibles, but before it could swallow the orphan it was blasted to pieces by a heroic space marine whose armor bore the name Lt. Hawks.
When the Drone was dead, the young player character crawled to the smashed remains of the cake and leaned in close to the candles that were somehow still gleaming. As six little electric lights fizzled out, Auriana whispered:
“On that day, you wished for revenge. You vowed to liberate the galaxy from the insect menace. You enrolled in the UFSS Military Academy and were among the top of your class. Now it’s time for your first mission. I’ll see you in the Hive, soldier.”
The game dropped Scout on the burnt surface of Pitys, a world once lush with greenery. The previous game, 2014’s Bug Hunt had ended with an all-out assault on the planet after the Bugs refused to surrender. Now there was nothing left but ash.
And yet, under the surface, shielded from the blast and the fallout by a layer of dirt and stone, a few Bugs still scuttled about in little burrows. It was Scout’s job to clean up these last lingering remnants of insect life before they could breed and re-conquer the planet.
There wasn’t much left of Pitys, but Bugs were hardy. They would find a way to survive.
Unless someone stopped them.
Scout ran across barren plains, chasing the spots where her map marked burrows. She crept down the entrance to a cave, found evidence of life, and retreated to the surface. After planting mines around the mouth of the cavern, she tossed a gas grenade down the hole, drew back and waited.
The Drones came first. They always did. Despite their strength, they were expendable, useless to the Hive except when it was time for mating. So when a creature was needed to plow on ahead, into danger, it was usually a Drone.
The mines claimed the Drones, mangled their legs, so that they could only twitch upon the ground.
Then was the Queen, borne on the backs of her Handmaids. The Queen was most precious, especially to a new Hive like this one. She was their mother. So the Handmaids carried her, even as her bulk nearly crushed them, even as the gas weakened them with every step, and all the Carpenters and all the Harvesters followed like courtiers in a hideous procession.
Scout took aim with her sniper rifle.
A rocket was more powerful, she knew, but it was slower, and any member of the Hive would gladly throw itself in front of the missile’s path to save the Queen. But a well-aimed piercing round from a rifle, striking just where the thorax met the swollen abdomen, would not be stopped.
The queen lumbered off of her collapsing Handmaids and dragged her hulking body across the sand.
A hit. The Queen shrieked. The digital map on Scout’s visor flickered. Her comlink chirped and crackled.
Then the Queen’s body buckled. Though Carpenters tried to hold her in place, the connective exoskeleton between her thorax and abdomen bent and then snapped. Premature eggs, thousands of them, each a new Bug, each a new chance to rebuild the Hive, spilled out onto the radioactive dirt.
They were finished now. Their Queen was dying, her eggs were soaking up radiation, and the Larva in the Hive below were all suffocating in the gas.
But the Bugs carried on like automatons, unable to feel the emotion humans call despair. They took up eggs to carry them to a refuge that did not exist. They slathered their Queen in Honey in a vain attempt to fix her. They even crawled into her mandibles in the hopes that she would eat them and grow strong again.
“Good work, soldier,” came Auriana’s breathy voice once the Queen’s death throes quieted and the comlink could function again. “Efficient use of ammunition. One-hit kill.”
Scout waited until it was safe before she approached the remnants of the fledgling Hive. She equipped her flamethrower and sprayed a blast of heat across the procession, slowly and carefully, as though watering the lawn.
Ms. Yue cut in. “Looks like you’re starting to like combat,” she said.
“I’m not fighting,” Scout said. “I’m putting them out of their misery.”
Scout moved on to the next dot on her map.
She cleared out a half-dozen burrows that day, each one bigger and more complex than the last. Sometimes she had to go inside and chase the Bugs through snaking tunnels in the darkness. She died down there a few times, as cornered Drones charged through her wall of fire, and clever Harvesters looped back and sneaked up behind her in the tunnels. Once, a Carpenter laid a sticky trap that immobilized her and let the Larvae eat her bit by bit.
Scout played until her hands shook with hunger. It was evening when she finally took off her VR helmet. Dim artificial light glowed through her fake window. Scout grabbed a chicken sandwich from the café and ate it watching a movie in bed.
The next day, Scout stamped out the last few Hives on Pitys. Then the United Federation of Solar Systems sent her to fertile Nomia, where the pastures were pock-marked with Hives and Harvesters razed fields of grain to feed their Queen. Scout crept into their Hives and planted bombs in the Queen’s chamber. When she found an insect colony too populous to fight on her own, she burned the fields for miles in every direction and waited for the Bugs to starve.
When she was finished there, Auriana briefed her in the teleportation room. “The UFSS has received reports of a Bug infestation on the floating cities of Idyia. You must root out this infestation while causing minimal damage to the planet’s commercial and industrial centers. Do you accept this mission?”
As a joke, Scout shook her head and said no.
What followed was an alternate ending cutscene in which the player character is teleported to a UFSS detention center and court martialed for dereliction of duties. The credits rolled across the walls of Scout’s solitary confinement cell. She reloaded her saved game and accepted the mission.
Now she was on watery Idyia. She inspected ships suspected of contamination and tortured passengers accused of smuggling Eggs. She guarded checkpoints, shooting anyone who attempted to cross them without authorization. She skimmed across the endless ocean in a speed boat to quarantine zones and cleared infestations. And when a city was too badly infected, she helped the Idyian Navy plant demolition charges in its foundation to sink the forsaken platform to the bottom of the sea.