Maximus returned to his pod, put the VR rig back on, and found himself once again at the edge of a gorge on Tithoria. The group had made no progress. Something was blurring his vision—he guessed he’d damaged his visor when he threw it earlier. His hand instinctively went for the helmet. He rubbed something, and the dark smudge over his vision spread and thinned.
“You drew a dick on my helmet, didn’t you?” Maximus asked.
Dave-O’s response was full-throated laughter. The others joined in—Comrade Ogilvy, Angela, Terrence, Scout, even Fredi, who failed to suppress a giggle as she said, “That’s sexual harassment, guys. It’s inappropriate.”
The only person who wasn’t laughing was Rico, who was busy tossing stones at the other side of the gorge.
Then Angela screamed.
“What’s wrong?” Scout asked.
“Oh, that’s my dog. She just jumped up on me. I didn’t see her coming,” Angela said. “Stop it, Fluffinator. I’m playing a very exciting game.”
“Can I take care of your dog?” Comrade Ogilvy asked. “I could use a break. And I really want to pet that dog.”
“Sure,” Angela said. “She’s been driving me crazy lately. Just bring her back when she needs to poop.”
“Where does she poop?” asked Comrade Ogilvy.
“You know, I’ve been wondering that too,” Scout said.
“There’s this patch of fake grass in my little bathroom,” Angela replied. “Like a doggie litter box. Mystery solved.”
Comrade Ogilvy’s red armor went motionless. The face in the visor disappeared as the player left his pod in the real world to go retrieve the corgi from Angela’s room. He must have arrived, for the other players got to enjoy the unsettling spectacle of watching Angela have a conversation with someone who wasn’t there.
“Come in. Thanks for taking her. No, it’s no problem. Here, take her rope bone. She loves tug-of-war. Bye, Fluffinator. Have fun with the nice communist.”
Dave-O seized the opportunity to sketch a penis across the armor’s back.
Then Maximus saw his chance. He ran up and gave the empty red armor a good solid shove. It rolled over the edge of the cliff and slammed onto the rocks below with a heavy crunch.
“My art!” Dave-O cried.
Maximus heard Auriana’s voice in his ear. “Do not destroy valuable UFSS property,” she said.
“But he was empty,” Maximus protested.
“Any future act of property damage will be subject to a fine or community service totaling the cost of the equipment. Based on the current legal minimum wage in your sector of the galaxy, your sentence will amount to approximately 12,372 years, five months, three days and seven hours of labor,” Auriana said. And then she was gone.
Meanwhile, Rico held his spawn point in his hands, weighing it carefully, glancing at the gorge.
Finally, he said, “We can throw it.”
“Hm?” Terrence asked.
“The spawn point,” he said. “We can just throw it to the other side of the gorge and respawn over there. As long as it doesn’t break.”
“Can we do that?” Fredi asked. “Is that cheating? Will we get in trouble?”
“If it’s a hack or a cheat, then the devs will probably want us to find it before they release the game,” said Dave-O.
“Let’s try it,” Terrence said.
It was decided that Dave-O should be the one to do it, as he’d excelled at the shotput event back when he played track and field. He spun around three times and released the metal cube, which sailed across the gorge, bounced upon the dirt on the other side, then unfolded itself.
“Slow 80s clap,” Angela said, sluggishly smacking her hands together, and soon the rest of the group was applauding and congratulating Rico’s cleverness.
One by one, they saved and quit the game, re-loading at the spawn point on the other side of the gorge. Angela went first. Her face disappeared from her avatar, and her bulky armor slumped to the ground as though deflating. There it remained on a patch of rocky dirt by the edge of a cliff.
Heeding Auriana’s warning, Maximus left her body alone. Dave-O did not. He scrawled his signature artwork across Crushinator’s unmoving back and stood up, dusting off his hands in satisfaction.
It wasn’t fair. Dave-O had gotten himself killed and wasted time on stupid jokes, but no one got mad at him. If Maximus did something like that, he thought, Auriana surely would have punished him, or the other LPers would have called him misogynistic or phallocentric or something like that. But Dave-O could get away with it because he was tall and muscular, while Maximus had nearly lost his career over one little Holocaust joke.
Scout followed Angela’s path. Then Terrence.
Maximus kept his complaints to himself. He exited his game, returning to the teleporter room. On the panel, he pressed, ELITE MODE, then LOAD GAME. The selection brought up a rough topographical map of the ground they’d covered on Tithoria with two potential spawn points. Maximus picked the one they’d planted more recently, entered the gate, and soon found himself standing beside Space Marine, Crushinator and Scout.
Dave-O was the final player to cross, staying behind to leave his crude signature on everybody’s discarded armor. Then, at last, they moved on.
Their trek took them up a slope where the soil grew rockier and the trees thinned until they were gone. Maximus’s feet hurt. In real life, he was only leaning forward instead of actually walking, but navigating the rocks and fallen logs and other difficulties of the terrain still required footwork, so he had been standing for hours, and now he felt his ankles swelling and his heels blistering.
The group kept going, climbing higher and higher until at last they reached the mountain’s peak.
A valley yawned beneath them, veiled in mist, but through the haze they could see that something was wrong.
The trees below were desiccated and all the grass had shriveled up. Even the strangle-vines were gone. A river, noxious and foamy, ran thick with sludge. One large area—the place the Harvester had taken pains to circumvent, the place marked on their map with a black spot—had nothing there at all. It was smooth as glass. And as the mountains plunged into the depths of the valley, the mist turned from blue to pale green to a sickly sepia color.
“Did the Harvesters do this?” Fredi wondered aloud.
“I don’t think so. All they do is eat. Not this,” Scout said. “This looks like it was burned or bombed or something.”
“New feature,” Dave-O said with a shrug.
“But they never did that before,” Maximus said. “Are we supposed to believe that they suddenly evolved that ability with no explanation?” He snorted.
Rico said nothing. Instead, he pointed to the valley below.
The group looked down to see shapes moving through the mist. Maximus peered through his binoculars to find a small company of broad-backed Bugs scurrying after something small and white. “They’re honeymooning,” he said. “That’s when a young Maiden takes off to start a new Hive.”
“We know,” Angela said. “We’ve played the game before.”
“They’re coming this way,” Terrence said. “Positions, now, like we talked about. Rico, you’re going to snipe from over there. Try to knock them down for extra fall damage.”
Rico nodded, found a perch on an overhang and peered through his sniper rifle.
“The Maiden takes off running as fast as she can, and the Drones—the only male members of the Hive—chase her,” Maximus continued. “Playing hard to get. No worries about affirmative consent.”
“Maximus, two things,” Fredi said. “One: gross. Two: we know. We’ve all played the game.”
“Where are my tanks?” Terrence asked. “Okay, Crushinator, Maximus, you two know what to do. When he gets here, soften him up. Engineers—Fredi, Dave-O. Dave-O, no flamethrowers. Sticky bombs. You know the drill.”
“The female deliberately picks the most exhausting path she can,” Maximus continued, moving into formation. “This is to ensure that only the strongest Drone will survive.”
“Dude, we know,” Dave-O said.
Rico took a shot. He hit the biggest, strongest of the Drones in the neck just as it was climbing over the edge of a cliff. The Drone tumbled backwards, smashing onto the rocks below, where it lay still.
“That’s weird,” Scout said. “That shouldn’t be enough to kill a Drone. Not in Elite mode.”
“Naturally, the strongest Drone will then mate with the Maiden, thereby fathering her offspring for the next colony,” Maximus continued.
“You can call your LP, ‘Let’s Mainsplain Hive: Elite Mode,’” Fredi replied.
“And look: a couple more Drones have just collapsed,” Scout said, pointing to two red-speckled hulks that lay in the valley. “They haven’t come that far. They’re supposed to be stronger than this.”
Their numbers were fewer, but the Drones that still approached—swiftly, relentlessly—were enormous. Elephant-sized, almost. And yet, somehow, they hauled themselves up sheer rock walls and sped across the barren dirt as fast as racehorses. This was going to be an epic fight, Maximus knew. He couldn’t wait. He hoped Fredi died. No—he hoped Fredi begged him for help so that he could look down and whisper, “No.”
“Once the mating has completed,” Maximus carried on, “the Drone dies, and the Maiden eats him, as all females do to their mates.”
“Why are you still talking?” Angela groaned.
The Maiden ignored the rifle blasts falling like lightning around her. She kept running. She moved so fast her legs could not be seen, flying up the ruined slope like a dove.
She wasn’t attractive in this iteration of the game. From what Maximus could see, her features were barely humanoid. No red lips or eyelashes like in the old DOS floppies. But still, there was something cute about her—she was pale and soft with a slim body and a delicate waist.
Auriana’s voice came in Maximus’s ear. “If she lives, the Maiden will start a new Hive and produce thousands of Bugs. She must be destroyed.”
“Here they come,” Scout murmured, at last taking aim.
Rico fired again. A blast of plasma caught another Drone right through its great compound eye. It stumbled on the ground below as half its body went limp.
“Nice shot,” Terrence said.
As the Maiden drew nearer, Maximus’s vision rippled and stuttered. His HUD display spewed long strings of ones and zeroes.
“En—y appr—“ Auriana said, her voice choppy. A full-grown Queen’s battle shriek could serve as an EMP attack, disabling electronic equipment. This little Maiden couldn’t do all that, but her presence was enough to disrupt Auriana’s connection.
Rico fired at the Maiden, missed, fired again. His shots seemed to bend around her somehow.
“There’s a goddamn glitch in the Matrix,” Maximus said. He thought it was a clever reference, but no one laughed, so he repeated himself. “A glitch in the Matrix.” Again, there was no response.
A sleek, white shape zipped toward them, darted left, darted right, and then, just a dozen feet beneath their vantage point, it slipped between two boulders and disappeared.
“Aw, shit, she’s being smart,” Terrence said. “She’s going to let the Drones take care of us while she hides and messes with our electronics.”
“Last one standing gets laid, I guess,” Dave-O said.
“Auto aim’s down,” Fredi reported. “So much for targeted missiles.”
Maximus’s vision flickered and flashed. He blinked and shook his head. The world around him seemed to be illuminated with a strobe light.
“I hope nobody’s got epilepsy,” Scout said.
The fastest of the living Drones was finally drawing near. It was an immense bull, larger than a rhinoceros, but just as hard and much faster. Maximus scanned for a target. The bull Drone’s forehead and body were covered with a thick layer of red-speckled armor–too thick to shoot through. Not enough ammo. Not enough time. It was darting and weaving to make a clean shot impossible. Tired as it was, the Drone was still terrifyingly fast.
But Maximus knew how it worked. He’d done this hundreds, maybe thousands of time since he was a kid, on every computer and every console he’d ever owned. A spray of machine gun fire to form pits in the armor. A blast from a concussive grenade to shatter it.
Dave-O provide distraction with a long stream of fire from his flamethrower. The creature leapt aside, out of the heat, lunged for its attacker, and as it did Maximus emptied half a machine gun clip into its carapace.
“Don’t waste your ammo,” Terrence yelled over the sound of shouts and insect hisses and gunfire.
“I’m softening it up,” Maximus yelled back. “You’re welcome!”
He raised his gun again, but it would not fire. There was something in his way.
“Scout!” he shouted. “God damn it, Scout! I can’t shoot with you right there, you asshole!”
But Scout stalked, cat-like, behind the bull, right into Maximus’s line of fire. The creature did not see her, too focused on a blast of suppressive fire from Terrence. In the chaos, Scout managed to pull out a sticky bomb and jam the striker into a pit Maximus had blown into the Drone’s armor.
The Drone darted left, slamming Scout a good fifteen feet back, ass over teakettle on the rocky ground.
“Detonate it,” Terrence commanded.
“It’s not working!” Scout yelled, scrambling away from the melee. “The signal’s up.”
Maximus painted the Drone’s side with the rest of his ammo, trying to set off the bomb. But his visor’s screen was a mess as the HUD generated pages and pages worth of random characters, blocking his view. He missed. His movements felt slow and wrong. “This is bullshit!” he yelled. “This thing’s hitbox is totally wrong and the controls are all screwed up!”
Fredi tossed a grenade in the Drone’s path, but it easily swerved aside, and the explosion hit nothing but dirt.
“There’s two more coming,” Terrence said. “Hold onto your hats. Crushinator, try and knock him down.”
An explosion tore a hole in the Drone’s carapace as Dave-O’s flamethrower finally cooked the sticky bomb enough to set it off. Now they could see pink flesh beneath, bleeding and oozing. The Drone shrieked. But he kept fighting.
Maximus squeezed the trigger, but nothing came from his gun but a click. He was out of ammo. The Drone must have heard, because it took a sideways leap into him. Maximus whipped out his blade, but the drone slammed him with its good side, and Maximus could only dig a useless scratch into the Bug’s armor before one of six powerful legs thrust straight into his face, crushing his skull.
Tithoria disappeared. With a scream of frustration, Maximus found himself in the teleporter room again. He returned to elite mode. He found the most recent spawn point and leapt back into Tithoria.
The gibberish across his HUD was gone, and now he could think. In badass mode, he’d taken down a gang of Drones single-handedly. Now his entire squad was struggling to handle just one of the things. What had gone wrong? Why was it so hard?
As though reading his mind, Auriana spoke to him, her words choppy:
“That Maiden is disrupting many of your e—tronic functions. I cannot com—icate with you when she is nearby. If you w— to win this fight, you’ll have to neutralize her.”
At last, he had a real mission.