Terrence spent days like this: waking in the artificial morning light, having a quick cup of coffee and a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, playing Hive until evening, then eating dinner in bed as a movie played. He could not call his son from within the Big Box, so instead Terrence wrote him letters, illustrated with hand-drawn cartoons of himself in Space Marine armor blowing up aliens. IG would read these letters before he could send them out, he knew, so he tried not to say too much about the game.
But that left little to talk about. All Terrence did these days was play Hive. Sometimes he left his pod to go to the café, but it was always empty. Once, he visited Dr. Parikh’s office just to say hello to another adult, but the doctor was out.
And because the Enrichment Center was dull and void, and looking around the room-that-wasn’t-really-his-room gave him an unsettling feeling, Terrence always went back to the Hive. What else was there to do?
After five days without face-to-face contact with another human being, Terrence received a message over the intranet from @c.collins, addressed to @all. It read:
Hi, everyone. Seeing as we’re all here together, do you want to hang out? We could share candy (and maybe I could pet that dog if that’s okay)?
There followed a message from @h.wentworth:
Come to Pod 1 at 2100 hours tonight for a COMMUNIST PARTY. Bring your snack box. We will all redistribute our wealth—from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
It was nearly 2000 hours by then, according to the analog clock on the wall. Terrence milled over the invitation.
He wanted to see other people, but he always felt out of place around the other LPers, like an adult surrounded by kids. He was older than the rest of them, the only one with a child, the only one to have seen combat in real life, and the only black member of the group as well.
Plus, he didn’t want to give away his peanut butter cups.
But the promise of companionship won out, and so Terrence picked up his goodie box—a heavy-looking crate of faux metal modeled after a care package from one of the Call of Duty games—and left his pod.
The door to Pod 1 was silent. No hint of music or the sound of human voices. Terrence hoped he wouldn’t be the only person to accept the invitation. But still, he pressed the buzzer.
The door slid open. Light and an unsettling vaporware tune spilled into the hall. Terrence realized that the pods were completely soundproof.
“Come on in,” Henry said. He was still wearing that fur hat with the red star. “Put your box over there with the others.”
Terrence found a row of packages lined up on Henry’s desk, a battered antique that needed a new coat of polish but still looked solid. Each goodie box came from a different franchise. There was Rico’s Hive supply crate, Fredi’s Zelda treasure box, Angela’s Hellraiser puzzle box, Henry’s mini replica of the Ark of the Covenant, Scout’s Super Mario question box, and Dave-O’s giant canister of what looked like protein powder, only the label bore a picture of a Harvester with the words “Bug Bulk! WARNING: Dangerously delicious!”
In a room full of socially stunted video game addicts with no internet access, Fluffinator was the life of the party. The dog lay on her back, tail wagging, as Fredi and Dave-O rubbed her belly and scratched her head and told her what a good girl she was.
The dog yawned, and Terrence couldn’t stifle a yawn in response.
“I’m gonna order some sodas,” Scout said, poking the touch screen on the panel by the pod door. “We’re gamers and there’s no Mountain Dew. It’s, like, illegal or something. You want some coffee, Terrence?”
Scout finished putting in the order, but instead of returning to the party, she opened the door and peered down the hall.
“What are you looking for?” Terrence asked.
“Room service,” she said. “I’ve never actually seen one of them. Food and stuff just arrives at the door and you never see who brought it.”
“It’s the erasure of the working class,” Henry said.
“We’re gamers,” Angela quipped. “We can’t handle human contact.”
“Social anxiety is a serious condition,” Fredi said.
The open door began to emit an ear-piercing beep as a robotic voice chanted, “The door is open. The door is open. The door is open.” Fluffinator barked and whined.
“Ugh. Shut the door,” Angela said.
Scout stepped back into the room. The door closed automatically. The irritating sound went quiet.
“Have you guys you seen anybody else besides us?” Scout asked.
“I saw Dr. Parikh on the first day,” Henry said. “He gave me something for dizzy spells.”
“And since then?” Scout asked.
One by one, the other players shook their heads. No, they hadn’t seen anybody except Dr. Parikh. And they’d all seen Dr. Parikh on that first day. For headaches. For nausea. For excessive fatigue. For insomnia. He’d given all of them medication.
“Isn’t that weird that we’re all on meds?” Scout asked. “I mean, for some of us it makes sense. But Dave-O, you’re really healthy.”
Dave-O shrugged. “It’s free,” he said. “I’m not gonna say no to free shit.”
“That was one hell of an elevator ride if we all needed a doctor’s visit afterward,” Terrence remarked.
“Maybe there was something in that Bug Fuel,” Henry said.
“What, do you think they’re drugging us? Come on, man,” said Terrence. “This isn’t a sci-fi movie.”
“Maybe it was just really expired,” Dave-O said, “and the juice in it fermented.”
“No way. There’s not a single drop of actual fruit juice in that stuff,” Angela said.
Dave-O checked his phone, then frowned. “I keep forgetting,” he said. “About the internet. And cell phone service.”
“I’m already going through withdrawal,” Terrence said.
“Seriously,” Angela groaned. “Like any minute now I’m gonna see a baby on the ceiling.”
The door buzzed. Scout leapt to answer it. But instead of the expected room service worker, it was Maximus, wearing a cheap smoking jacket paired with cargo shorts and white sneakers.
“I have decided to suppress my natural disinclination for human interaction in order to grace this soiree with my presence,” he said.
Terrence laughed until he realized the boy was serious. He truly thought he was some kind of sophisticate.
“I have brought my allotment of edible lucre, as mandated,” Maximus said. He held up a plastic bag containing yellow Starbursts, banana Runts, black licorice jelly beans, rye chips from a container of Chex Mix, and all the non-marshmallow pieces from a box of Lucky Charms.
“Oh, how generous of you,” Angela said.
“You’re welcome,” replied Maximus, failing to hear the note of sarcasm in her voice.
“Who invited you?” Henry asked.
“You didn’t?” Terrence asked.
“No,” Henry said. “No room for fascists at this party.”
“I wasn’t invited?” Maximus asked. For a moment, his dollar-store gentleman façade fell from him, and under an ill-groomed beard his face took on an expression of genuine hurt. But then he pulled an unlit pipe from his pocket and sucked on it and said, “My—my self-esteemed colleague GenericSilentProtagonist noticed your biased, participian error and corrected it.”
Rico, who had been keeping to himself standing quietly in a corner, looked down at his shoes. His shoulders hunched.
“Vichy scum,” Henry said.
“Dude, he was just trying to have a good time,” Dave-O said.
“Let’s not reenact World War II right now,” Angela said.
“There’s room for everyone,” Fredi said.
“This fat asshole’s friends doxed you,” Henry replied. “The only space he deserves is the gulag.”
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill your enemy,” Fredi said.
“Letting go of anger is like eating a bag of yellow Starbursts,” Angela replied.
Maximus took a deep drag of his unlit pipe. Waving it for emphasis as he talked, he stuttered, “I have t—tired of this gathering of reta—fools, and shall pence—uh—henceforth retire to my own c—abode.”
But before he was gone, Scout stopped him.
“Wait. Have you seen anyone else in the Enrichment Center? Anyone besides us?”
“Don’t you think that’s weird?”
He shrugged and said, “I’m a proud misanthrope.” And then he was gone.
“That went well,” Angela drawled.
“The Battle of Kursk,” Henry said, clenching his fist.
“I should go too,” Rico said.
“No, dude, it was an honest mistake,” said Dave-O. “It’s okay.”
“You won’t get any candy if you leave,” Fredi said. “There’s some seriously good candy here.”
But Rico was already out the door, clutching his supply crate to his chest.
“Maybe we should do the snack exchange before anybody else flees in despair,” Angela said.
“The commie cosplay is getting a little too serious,” Terrence said.
But before Henry could argue, the door chimed. He opened it. There was a cart with drinks. Scout dashed out to look down the hall.
“No room service people,” she said. “We’re all alone in the Enrichment Center and the doors are locked.”
“This is the part of the horror movie where you start screaming at the characters, ‘Get out, you idiots!’” Angela said.
“You’re not thinking of leaving, are you?” Terrence asked, scratching the dog’s head.
“Fuck no,” said Angela. “The new game’s awesome.”
“We can leave, according to the contract,” Henry said. “But if we do, we lose all our footage, and we lose the right to talk about Drone Warfare until after it comes out, and we get hit with a huge fine. Like, crazy amounts of money.”
“They can do that?” Fredi asked. “Is that legal?”
Dave-O picked a framed portrait off of Henry’s desk and looked at it. “Are these your folks?” he asked.
“Yes,” Henry replied. “Let me show you something.” He pulled his suitcase out from under the bed and unzipped it. “I brought this one from home.” He drew out a little framed photograph and held it up next to the one in Dave-O’s hands. “Look! They’re exactly the same. Same photo. Same frame. It’s even got the same scratch on it right here.”
“Dude,” Dave-O said.
“I don’t even know how they saw it,” Henry said.
“They watch our videos,” Terrence replied.
“I never showed this picture in my videos,” Henry said. “It’s on my desk, next to my computer, where the webcam can’t catch it.”
“Ms. Yue probably saw it when she came to visit,” Terrence suggested.
“She’d need a photographic memory,” Henry said. “I mean, they got it perfect.”
“Well, I’m thoroughly creeped out,” said Scout.
“Your voice is pretty calm,” Fredi said.
“I’m from Minnesota,” Scout replied. “We’re really good at emotional repression.”
“I think they’re trying to make the experience as realistic as possible,” Fredi said. “They’re trying to make it look like we’re all playing at home. Seeing room service people would break the illusion.”
“Then why not just let us play at home?” Scout asked. “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just send us the equipment instead of building these fake rooms?”
“They want to control all the information,” said Henry. “They really don’t want their competitors to know what they’re working on.”
“This is next generation tech,” Dave-O said. “I’ve played VR games before, but this is way beyond everything else. It’s unreal.”
“But why build fake rooms?” Scout asked. “Why not just put us in a dorm?”
“They want everything to look natural and relatable,” Fredi said. “So we don’t look like we’re being paid to say we like the game.”
“Fake authenticity,” said Angela.
“Like political astroturfing,” said Henry.
“People get wise to marketing tactics, so you have to be sneakier,” Dave-O said. “And Hive’s not doing so great right now. The games aren’t selling like they used to. So they’re throwing everything they’ve got into it.”
“Okay,” Terrence said. “So there’s a rational explanation to everything.”
“I guess,” Angela said.
“This might sound a little dorky,” Scout said, “but I think it might be a good idea if we made plans to get out of our rooms and socialize with each other in real life every day. For our mental health.”
“Face-to-face contact might be a little problematic for those of us who are introverted,” Fredi said.
“Oh my God,” Angela groaned. “Stop talking.”
“Growing up, my mother never let us eat in front of the TV,” Terrence said. “We always had to sit down at the table together for dinner. If we were playing video games, she’d just rip the controller out of our hands and drag us to the table.”
“Mine did the same thing,” Scout said. “I hated it.”
“She was right, though,” Terrence said. “I think we should start having dinner together. Every day. Maybe lunch, too.”
“And if anyone wants a jogging partner…” Dave-O pointed at himself. “Tomorrow morning. Six a.m.”
“And if you want a walking partner,” Terrence added, waving his hand. “My jogging days are over until I get a sport blade.
After they hashed out the details and shared snacks, Henry declared the meeting adjourned. The gamers left Pod 1 to return to their own rooms. But there, in the hall, they found something entirely unexpected.
It was a man they had never seen before. He was short, wearing a faded uniform with a blue cap. “Careful,” he said, dunking a mop into a bucket. “Floor’s wet.”
Dave-O gestured to the man like a game show model letting the guests know what they’d won. “There he is!” he exclaimed, opening the door to Pod 2. “Good night, ninja janitor dude.”
The man smiled. “You caught me,” he said. “I came in a little early today. Usually, we work the graveyard shift. They want us to keep out of your hair.”
Fluffinator sniffed at the man before following Angela into Pod 3.
“Evening,” Terrence said to the maintenance man, who gave a smile and a nod in return.
“That explains why we haven’t seen anyone,” Fredi said, walking with Terrence and Scout toward their end of the hall.
“Perfect timing,” Terrence said.
“Too perfect,” Scout said. As she opened the door to Pod 4, she leaned in close and whispered to her companions:
“They’re listening to us.”