Rico didn’t go out much.
Why would he? He had already seen every accessible inch of the Enrichment Center, and it was all pale and dull and empty. Sometimes the other LPers met for dinner or parties, but Rico always got anxious at social gatherings, and when they met all anyone ever talked about was Hive. There was nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, so Rico stayed in his pod and played.
He beat Drone Warfare on badass mode before anybody else did.
The world around him darkened and the credits scrolled by. “The last Hive has fallen. Your parents are avenged. The galaxy is at peace,” Auriana said. “For now.”
“Great job!” Ms. Yue cheered over the headset. She even clapped. “You’re a real badass!”
But the exhilaration of victory soon faded and a sense of nausea began to set in.
He was finished. He had beaten the game on every possible difficulty setting. He had stomped out every Larva, eviscerated every Drone, burned every Hive. There was nothing left to do.
Nothing except go home, where his mother nagged him to get a job and her boyfriend teased him for being single and bad at sports.
No more Enrichment Center. No more Big Box. No more Palace. No more marathons of Hive.
Worst of all, no more Ms. Yue.
Rico liked Ms. Yue. She didn’t criticize him for eating Fritos all day or staying up late to play video games. She listened to him talk about gaming strategy and told him how smart and talented he was. She was beautiful and kind and wanted only for him to be happy. Even though Rico never actually saw her in the Enrichment Center, he was glad just to know he and Ms. Yue were under the same roof.
When his time in the Big Box was finished, Rico would have to say goodbye to Ms. Yue forever.
He knew that when IG finally let him release his Hive LP, he’d get a chance at internet fame, but the thought didn’t make him any happier. He’d be competing with the seven other LPers for views, and all of them had a more colorful screen presence than he did. Terrence had his military background. Angela had a goth look and a cute dog. Dave-O had biceps. Maximus had a bigger following. Fredi had cleavage. Comrade Ogilvy had his communist gimmick. Scout had her pacifist runs. But Rico had only his scrawny, silent self. He couldn’t compete. He knew he was the best player of the group, but audiences didn’t care. They wanted to be entertained.
And even if he did get a healthy number of views, he’d trade it all in for more time with Ms. Yue.
As the credits finished, Rico waited, silently, for the terrible dismissal. For the soul-crushing goodbye.
But nothing happened.
And so, not knowing what else to do, Rico started a new game.
He beat Drone Warfare in badass mode again and again. He got better each time, and within a few days he had managed to rack up a flawless seven-game winning streak. But every time the credits rolled, Rico felt queasier and queasier, knowing that each victory brought him closer to that unscheduled end when he would have to return to the real world.
He didn’t ask when that time would come, afraid that the response would be, “Whoops! Looks like you’re overdue. We were supposed to kick you out weeks ago. Time to pack your bags.” Like when a student asks the teacher, “Didn’t you forget to assign homework?”
But every day his stomach churned a little worse and he ate a little less until finally a dizzy spell got him killed by a Handmaid, and as the world faded out and words GAME OVER faded in, Ms. Yue’s voice came over the headset:
“Are you feeling okay?”
“A little dizzy,” he said.
“I’d like you to go visit Dr. Parikh. Okay? He’s in his office right now.”
So Rico trudged to the medical office, where the doctor examined him with funny-looking instruments he’d never seen before.
“You’re malnourished,” Dr. Parikh said. “And you’re malnourished because you’re nauseous. And it looks like you’re nauseous because of anxiety. Are you enjoying the game?”
“Yes,” Rico said.
“Good.” Dr. Parikh poured pills into a two little plastic jars and gave them to him. “This is a vitamin and this is for nausea. Take one of each every day. And remember to eat. Now go have fun.”
“You’re not sending me home?”
“I see no reason to,” the doctor replied. “Do you want to leave?”
“Good. Then go to back to your room and get gaming.”
And so Rico returned to his pod, but on the way over he heard the click-clack of stiletto heels on the floor. He chased the sound to its source and found Ms. Yue in the café leaning over to retrieve a latte and a mini muffin from the food dispenser.
She turned around and smiled. She had a headset in her ear. “You caught me,” she said. “I’m playing hooky for a minute. I had to get out of the office. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
He shook his head.
“Anyway, I’m grabbing a bite to eat. Want to join me?”
Rico got a burrito from the dispenser and sat across the table from her. He immediately regretted his choice; as he bit into it, a glob of refried beans oozed out of the other end and plopped onto the surface of the table. “Sorry,” he said, awkwardly wiping it up with a paper napkin.
“No problem,” Ms. Yue replied. She picked daintily at her muffin. “So how are you enjoying the game?”
“It’s great,” he said.
“Any thoughts, questions, comments, areas where you see room for improvement?”
“I can’t think of anything,” he said.
“That’s good to hear,” she said. “No news is good news.”
“How long…?” he began. Asking the question could be dangerous. But somehow, he knew he could trust her. “How long do they plan to keep me here?”
“After you’ve beaten every mode of the game.”
“Is there another mode?” he asked.
Ms. Yue grinned. Her slender fingers plucked out another morsel of the pastry, which she popped between her pink lips.
“Is that a yes?” he asked.
“Let’s keep it between you and me,” she whispered.
“Why haven’t I seen it yet?” he asked. “What do I have to do?”
“I thought you didn’t use walkthroughs,” Ms. Yue teased. “Keep playing. You’ll get there. Sooner or later.”
“What is it?” he asked. “A new difficulty setting or some kind of mod?”
“Just keep playing,” she said again. The last bits of the muffin disintegrated within her perfectly manicured fingers and disappeared into her mouth. She crumpled up the wrapper and tossed it into the trash. “Well, I’ve got to go. Got to get back to work.”
“Okay,” Rico said. He wasn’t very good at goodbyes. Or hellos. Or any other part of the conversation process, really.
Before she clicked away, Ms. Yue paused and glanced back over one shoulder to say, “See you in the Hive, soldier.”