“This one knows, Ms. Yue.”
Lara Yue took a sip of her coffee before she acknowledged the observer. “Ugh,” she said. “This is weak as hell. Did they even heat the water?” Smacking her tongue with distaste, she asked, “Sorry, which one knows what now?”
“Chelsea Collins,” the observer said. “The one called Scout. Here, take a look at this.”
The observer replayed footage from the night before. He paused it and zoomed in on Scout’s face as she walked back to her pod after her encounter with the fake custodian.
“A clear look of suspicion,” the observer said. “And check this out.” He pulled up more footage. In infrared and night vision, they watched Scout toss and turn and stare at the ceiling in the darkness. “She’s been doing some thinking. She knows something’s up.”
“Of course she does,” Lara said. “The company’s not exactly being subtle. That custodian was way too obvious. You didn’t even put soap in that bucket. The water’s crystal clear. Sloppy work. You should have waited for me or called Parikh.”
IG’s employees and executives were brilliant with hardware and code, but utterly lost when it came to matters of the heart. Lara tried her best to smooth out their blunders and offer guidance, but the tech moguls didn’t much like taking advice from a woman with a B.A. in Communications whose entryway into the company was modeling as a booth babe at a convention.
“You were asleep and the doctor was busy,” the observer said. “We panicked.”
“You sure did.” Lara took another sip of her coffee and grimaced. “What’s she up to now?”
He pulled up the footage. Scout, still in her pajamas, was pawing through the room, eyeing the walls, examining every object on the shelves. “Hunting for bugs,” the observer said.
“Well, I wouldn’t worry about that,” said Lara. “There’s no way she’ll find them all.”
On the monitor, Scout’s attention turned to the VR rig sitting on her chair.
“She’s figuring it out,” the observer said.
“Clever girl,” said Lara. “But she’s not going to find everything.”
Scout put the VR rig away in a desk drawer and stuck a piece of tape over the lens of her laptop’s webcam. She stood a moment, then peered at the analog clock on the wall.
“What if she tries to leave?” the observer asked.
“She won’t,” Lara said. She finally gave up on her coffee and handed the mug off to a passing assistant. “Could you bring me another cup? An actually good one this time, please? Thanks.”
“How do you know?” the observer asked.
“Because I’ve stayed in some bad jobs and bad relationships way past their expiration date, and so have you,” Lara said. “That girl has come too far to quit now. She had to leave her job. Hive is all she has.”
On the monitor, Scout changed into sweatpants and a tank top.
“Either she’s an exhibitionist,” Lara said, “or she thinks she’s solved her problem.”
The observer covered his eyes and turned his head away. “I feel like a creep doing this sometimes,” he said.
“Could be worse,” said the observer next to him. “You could be on Maximus duty. Do you have any idea how much time I’ve spent watching that guy on the toilet? I can still see it when I close my eyes.”
“That’s enough, Jerry,” Lara said.
“He just poops so much. So much.”
“If you’d rather watch Rico jerk it,” another observer said, “I’d be happy to switch places.”
“That’s enough, guys,” Lara said. Someone brought her a fresh cup of coffee. She took a sip. Better, but still not great.
Despite the unsavory activities that took place there, the Observation Room looked like any other corporate office: beige walls, fluorescent lights, and an open floor plan that allowed Lara, from her standing desk at the rear of the room, to look over her subordinates’ shoulders. There was no giant screen on the wall, no big board with a sinister bullet list, no diabolical map. Just tables with computers on them and bored office workers trying not to doze off.
Lara took off her shoes and stood behind her desk. A triptych of monitors stretched before her. One served as her workspace, where she handled forms, navigated the intranet and sent messages. Another offered thumbnail views of all the players’ video feeds, from their screencasts to their facecams to the security feeds they didn’t know about. The third monitor allowed her to watch and manipulate footage from every video source she had access to.
Lara pulled up the feed from Scout’s monitor. The subject was in the hall now, stretching her legs with Dave-O in preparation for a morning jog.
Angela lumbered out of her pod, her corgi at her heels. “I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going stir crazy,” she said. “And Fluffinator really needs this. She’s been acting weird lately.”
Lara watched as the crew jogged awkwardly through the halls. Dave-O outpaced the others, running circles around them, jogging backwards to say words of encouragement.
“Oh my God,” Angela gasped. “I’m dying. This is terrible. Running is terrible. We should ban running.”
“Save your breath,” said Dave-O.
“Go on without me,” Angela said. “I’m dead.”
“Walk a bit and we’ll catch up with you on the way back,” Dave-O told her as he left her behind.
When he and Scout were alone, the girl began to ask questions. Lara put on her headphones and listened carefully.
“Do you remember that elevator ride?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Do you remember all of it?” Scout asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, do you remember getting off the elevator?”
Dave-O was quiet for a moment. “No,” he said. “But I don’t remember brushing my teeth yesterday, either. I forget boring stuff.”
“But wouldn’t you remember…” Scout paused to catch her breath. “…the first time you saw the Enrichment Center? Isn’t it…” She panted. “Isn’t it kind of a big deal?”
The pair of them made their way back to Angela, who took off running with them. The dog bounded happily beside them on stubby legs.
“I hope you’re happy,” Angela gasped to Fluffinator. “I’m doing this for you, you bitch.”
“Don’t you think it’s weird,” Scout said between labored breaths, “that you got so tired that day, even though you’re in good shape?”
Dave-O only shrugged and kept jogging.
Lara frowned at the monitor. She knew Scout was going to be trouble. It hadn’t been easy coaxing the girl into playing the game properly. She was dragging behind all the other players: the last to finish the tutorial, the last to beat the game in easy mode.
In the beginning, Lara didn’t know why the company chose Scout for this assignment. But she was starting to understand. Noncompliant subjects like Scout were necessary to test the limits of IG’s system. She would find flaws that a normal player wouldn’t.
And as recalcitrant as Scout was, she was shaping up to be a talented player. Her years of pacifist runs had taught her how to exploit the limits of her enemies’ perception and how to save ammunition. When she tried, she could be a brutally efficient exterminator.
But Lara knew she had to be gentle with the girl. The days of blunt instruction, of “Hey, listen!” and “Rise from your grave and rescue my daughter” and “Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?” were over. Players were more sophisticated now. They wanted vast, open worlds to explore. They wanted choices and free will.
But there were still ways to get them to obey: landmarks, light sources, level geometry. And for all the freedom Hive offered, a player still could not advance without doing what Auriana demanded.
Scout’s observer leaned over to his neighbor and whispered something in her ear. Lara kept an eye on Scout’s camera but switched the audio feed to listen in on the observer’s headset. His name was Samuel Halcombe, but Lara had been instructed to address him as Sam, because IG was a casual, friendly company, according to the two-inch thick employee manual.
Lara didn’t catch Sam’s remark, but she heard his neighbor’s response: “They signed up for it. It’s in the contract.”
“But we’re spying on them,” Sam whispered.
“So? Privacy is dead. Everybody spies on you,” she whispered back. “Your ISP and your web browser sell your info to advertisers. Your boss checks your social media profile. Our supervisor records our conversations. Speaking of which–hi, Lara.”
Sam looked over his shoulder to see Lara smile and wave at him.
He went back to work in silence.
When Scout was in the shower, Lara called Sam over for a discussion. He stood before her, cringing.
“Hey,” Lara said. “Let’s have a little chat just to work through some of these reservations you’re having.”
“I’m sorry,” said Sam. “I’m just worried. That’s all.”
“That she’ll find out. She knows something’s up. And that Henry kid… I think he suspects something, too.”
“What do you think they suspect?”
“That they’re being watched.”
“Do you think they know the full truth?” Lara asked.
“Well, no,” Sam answered.
“Right. We went over this in orientation, remember? They’re not going to find out. And even if they do, they can’t tell anyone. And even if they tell someone, no one will believe them. And even in the very unlikely event that somebody believes them…” Lara took another sip of coffee. “We’re prepared for that, too.”