Partway through his fourth successful playthrough of badass mode, Dave-O was jerked out of a battle with a swarm of Harvesters. Idyia disappeared into darkness. He found himself in the teleporter room that served as the game’s menu screen.
“What happened?” he asked. “Did the game crash? Shit, dude. I was so close to the end.”
Dave-O looked at the panel beside the teleportation pad. He jabbed the words ENTER THE HIVE, and because LOAD was not available, he picked NEW GAME. The menu offered different modes: EASY, NORMAL, HARD, EXPERT, BADASS.
But now there was a new option, one he’d never seen before: ELITE.
“Elite mode?” Dave-O wondered aloud. “What’s elite mode? Is that like new game plus?”
As if she’d heard his words, Auriana materialized beside him in the form of a shimmering hologram. Dave-O didn’t know why the UFSS had chosen to give its A.I. the form of a mostly-naked hot chick, but he was glad they did.
“Elite mode is for soldiers who have proven themselves in battle,” Auriana purred. “Only the greatest warriors in the galaxy know of its existence. In elite mode, you will fight alongside UFSS soldiers in ever-changing, unpredictable sprawling worlds all over the galaxy.”
“So it’s online multiplayer?” Dave-O asked. “And sort of a roguelike?”
“Elite mode is the ultimate Hive experience,” Auriana continued. “But be warned, soldier. If you disobey an order from a commanding officer or commit a severe offense, there will be consequences.”
“Is this one of those things where if you die in the game, you die in real life?” he joked.
“You may face demotion,” Auriana said. “You could be banned from elite mode permanently. So fight well, and fight with honor. Make Earth proud. Do you accept this mission?”
“Yes,” Dave-O said.
Auriana raised a translucent hand in a salute. “It is time to enter the Hive.”
Dave-O stepped into the teleporter. The world around him faded.
After a brief loading screen, he found himself standing by a spawn point on a patch of scorched ground at the center of an alien thicket. By the gauzy blue haze that hung over everything, he knew he was on Tithoria. But it was clearer and more vivid than he’d ever experienced it before.
Dave-O could see every blade of grass swaying individually in the breeze, every leaf quivering on the branches. He plucked one. It left a space behind it. Through a gap in the forest canopy, he could a great red blotch in the sky. It was the gas giant around which Tithoria orbited.
All he could say was, “Dude.”
He was not alone. There were already a few other players with him. They were wearing space marine armor like his, with slight variations. Each player’s name appeared above them in floating text, and a flat, bluish image of their face was projected onto the visors of their helmets.
Angela was already there in full Crushinator regalia, wearing black-and-purple armor and carrying her beloved shotgun. Rico’s armor bore no unique markings or features: just the generic gray space marine metal found on the default setting. Maximus popped in next, wearing a breastplate sculpted to show ripped pecs and a six pack, like what the Romans wore.
“What am I wearing?” Dave-O asked. “I always just hit random.”
“A rainbow clown wig and a purple thong,” Angela said.
Terrence teleported in at the spawn point. He wore dark green armor. “Nice outfit,” he said, glancing at Dave-O.
Then came Fredi, dressed in medieval-style platemail, followed by Comrade Ogilvy, all in red. He looked around at the other players and said, “I’m not sure about the face projection thing. It’s a little uncanny valley.”
“Plus, some players might not want to show their faces,” Fredi said.
“Especially if you’re a girl,” Angela said. “Less internet creepiness that way.”
Scout arrived last. She wore armor that was almost entirely standard except for a pink bow on her head.
“Perfect target,” Maximus said. He raised his rifle and aimed for the bow. “Damn it.”
“Hm?” Angela pointed her shotgun at him. “Ah. I guess we can’t shoot each other.”
Dave-O tested the theory out. He pointed his flamethrower at Maximus and tried to fire. Nothing happened.
Comrade Ogilvy tried slashing Rico with his ion blade, but the weapon resheathed itself as it drew near the other player. “Melee doesn’t work either,” he said.
“Well, we can’t kill each other,” Terrence said.
Auriana spoke over the comlink. “Your first mission is very simple,” she said. “Head to the next checkpoint. Your destination will appear on your GPS.”
“That’s it?” Dave-O asked.
“That’s all for now,” Auriana said.
The group set off walking through the alien foliage. They came to a river.
“Will water kill us?” Scout asked.
“We swam around in Idyia,” Maximus said.
“That was a special suit,” Terrence said. “In this armor, I wouldn’t go deeper than the knees.”
“Only one way to find out,” Dave-O said. He leapt forward and belly flopped into the water. His vision fizzled before him and the world faded.
Angela’s voice came over the comlink. “That answers that question, I guess.”
Dave-O respawned at the starting point and jogged over to rejoin the group. He found them again by the banks of the river, where his old body was caught face-down in the current against some rocks. It did, in fact, have a purple thong and rainbow wig on.
“Be careful, soldier,” Auriana said. “Your elite status is currently questionable.”
Dave-O picked a stone off the shore and tossed it at his body. It bounced off his helmet. “Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself,” he chanted.
“We need to find a way across,” Terrence said.
“Elite mode’s boring,” Maximus complained. “It’s been ten minutes now and we haven’t killed anything.”
“Dave-O did,” Scout said.
“Yeah, himself. That doesn’t count,” Maximus said. “This is just a walking simulator.”
“I can’t really see where we’re supposed to go,” Angela said. “There’s no path.”
“Scout, Rico. I want you two to take point,” Terrence ordered. “See if you can find a place to cross.”
“Who put you in charge? You weren’t elected,” said Comrade Ogilvy.
But Scout and Rico were already headed off, one going upstream and one going down.
“I’m going to check out that big-ass tree,” Dave-O said, pointing to a towering oak-like plant looming in the blue mist.
“Good idea,” Terrence said. “Climb it and see if you can get a better view of the river. Find us somewhere to cross.”
Auriana cooed in his ear, “Visibility under current atmospheric conditions: low.”
“I’m gonna climb the hell out of that tree,” Dave-O said, cheerfully trotting to his chosen destination. As he walked, the auto map on his visor filled out with greater details: elevation lines and color-coded terrain markers.
“Dave-O, remember: this is elite mode,” Ms. Yue cut in over the comlink. “The ammo you carry with you is all you’ve got. You’re probably not gonna find caches or anything like that.”
“The devs wouldn’t have put this thing here if they didn’t want us to find it,” Dave-O reasoned. “So I’m going to check it out. I’m tired of looking at my dead body. It’s boring.”
Dave-O came to a curtain of strangle-vines at the edge of a copse. He would have walked right into them, but just before he reached the deadly tangle of plants he paused to listen to the wildlife—birds or insects or some species of tree frog he’d never heard before—and a single green tendril quivered toward him unnaturally. He considered leaping face-first into the vines anyway, just to see how the game would render his death, but he didn’t want to risk getting booted out of elite mode any more than he already had. There was too much at stake.
So he sliced his way through and pushed onward. The vines screamed as he cut them, and they curled up like pillbugs after they hit the ground.
“I guess the blue fog is to hide the draw distance,” he heard Angela say to the others over the comlink. “Like in Silent Hill.”
“Sucks to be a sniper right now,” Comrade Ogilvy replied.
“Rico,” Terrence called over the comlink. “Status report.”
“Going uphill,” Rico replied. “I can’t see anything through the trees. No evidence of infestation so far.”
“Scout?” Terrence asked.
“I saw a bird,” she said. “It was real pretty.”
“Thank you, Scout.”
“It was swimming in the river.”
“Like a duck?” Angela asked. “A space duck?”
“More like a swan,” Scout replied.
“Nice,” Angela said. “I should get a VR helmet for Fluffinator so he can chase it. He’s going stir crazy right now.”
“That sounds like a very good, very adorable idea,” said Scout. “Um, over and out.”
“Dave-O,” Terrence called. “Any new suicide attempts?”
Dave-O was drawing nearer to the base of the tree. “Not yet,” he said. “Jesus, it’s huge. Like the Washington Monument. I’ve seen some purple lizardy things, but no space swans.”
“Are the lizards bitey?” Angela asked.
“I think they’re just ambient life. They’re just kind of looking at me,” Dave-O said. “Ah, I made it.”
At last he stood at the foot of the massive tree, where meter-thick roots plunged into the ground. There, face-down in the dirt, was a body. A human body.
“I found another dead guy,” Dave-O announced. “It’s not me this time. He’s wearing space marine armor, like the rest of us. I will now poke him with a stick.”
As promised, Dave-O picked up a stick and jabbed it into the shoulder of the corpse.
“Can you tell what killed him?” Terrence asked.
Dave-O knelt beside the body. Closer examination revealed the injury that had ended the soldier’s life: a deep laceration at the rear base of the neck where there was a weak point in the armor. The spine was severed. “Looks like a Harvester got him from behind,” Dave-O told the other players.
“Twenty minutes in,” Maximus complained over the comlink, “and we still haven’t seen a Bug yet. Just his leftovers.”
“Her, technically,” Fredi said. “Bugs are nearly all female. Except the Drones.”
“How’d he let a Harvester sneak up behind him?” Terrence asked. “Those things aren’t real quiet.”
Dave-O looked up and saw a crude unfinished image carved into the wood of the enormous trunk. “Looks like our guy was busy drawing a dick on this tree,” he said.
“Too bad,” Angela tut-tutted. “You try to introduce some culture to a new world and that’s the thanks you get.”
“Search him for ammo and items,” Terrence ordered.
“Aye-aye, cap’n,” Dave-O replied with a salute. He knew the other players couldn’t see him, but his audience would when they finally watched his LP.
Dave-O rolled the corpse onto its back. A familiar face stared up at him through a shattered visor. Purple hair, a thin beard, glasses. The skin had gone green but was mostly intact.
“Oh, shit,” Dave-O said. “It’s Marco Trollo. That’s awesome.”
“Who?” Terrence asked.
“You don’t know Marco Trollo? He’s another LPer,” Dave-O said. “Really funny guy. Too bad he’s not part of the project. I guess this little Easter egg is the devs’ tribute to him.”
“How’s he doing?” Scout asked.
“Not great,” Dave-O said. “He’s pretty dead.”
“In real life, I mean,” Scout said.
“He’s fine,” Maximus answered. “He just did a marathon of Bacon Simulator. What, are you worried?” He snorted. “This isn’t the Matrix.”
“No, I mean,” Scout stammered, “Why wasn’t he here with us in alive form?”
“Probably couldn’t handle the confidentiality clause,” Comrade Ogilvy said. “Keeping quiet isn’t his thing. All he does in his videos is scream.”
Through the shattered helmet, Dave-O saw teeth, a mouth stretched as far as it could go, empty eye sockets open wide. A look of utter terror, frozen in death.
The body still had a few shotgun rounds on it and what had once been an ion blade whose battery was long dead. That was all.
“I got a little ammo off him,” Dave-O said. “I don’t think I can climb this tree, though. There’s no branches I can reach. It’s like a wall.”
“Well, then you might as well head on back before you manage to kill yourself again,” Terrence said.
“Hold on a minute,” Dave-O replied. With a few quick strokes of his ion blade, he finished his fallen comrade’s obscene graffiti. He then added the following inscription:
Died as he lived
Drawing dicks on stuff
Dave-O stepped back to admire his handiwork and let the audience get a good look at it for screencaps and animated gifs. “R.I.P.,” he said. “Rest in penis.”