It took the others a while to notice that Maximus had gone.
He hadn’t contributed much to the fight. He spent his ammo quickly, with little effect. And before that, all he’d done was complain.
And beyond all that, the team was locked in battle with a Drone who simply wouldn’t die. And there were more on the way, stragglers limping behind at the end of an arduous journey, but still big enough to cause trouble, and willing to fight to the death for a chance to father the next colony.
“Incoming!” Terrence shouted as another Drone scaled the cliff, undaunted by the blast from Rico’s rifle. The shot missed the Bug’s head and neck, and hit into the creature’s thorax, leaving a round scorch mark. The Drone paused a moment, shaken by the impact, but kept going.
Terrence rolled a grenade at the Drone. The explosion knocked it back, off the cliff, to fall belly-up on the rocks below. But more would come soon enough.
The heat of Dave-O’s flamethrower finally blew the sticky bomb embedded in the bull Drone’s side. The Bug’s exoskeleton shattered on the left half of its body, hurling chunks of chitin and flesh. Fredi got hit and tried to wipe the blood off her visor, succeeding only in smearing a red streak across her field of vision.
She didn’t need clear sight now. She had done this thousands of times before, in two dimensions and three, on a PC and on a console. Now that the Drone’s armor had been blasted off, it would roll onto its back to show its weak points, like any video game boss. Fredi smiled to herself. Even after thirty years of technological advances, in a VR simulator with hyper-realistic graphics, video game NPCs still followed the hoary old tropes.
Just as Crushinator was about to mount the prone bull Drone, another elephantine figure crawled over the rim and charged into her, snapping her in half at the waist with its mandibles.
So it fell to Fredi to do the work before the bull Drone got back up and they all lost their chance. She climbed onto the behemoth’s body and looked down. There were no flashing red targets in Elite mode, but Fredi knew where the Bug’s weak points were by heart. There, two of them, in the lower quadrant of the abdomen, a pair of whorls connected by a crease in the chiton plates.
Fredi made quick work of it with her ion blade. She shoved it into the left point and sliced rightward, easy as halving a potato.
As the Drone shrieked and began to rise, Fredi leapt back out of reach to where she could safely watch the insect’s entrails spill out into the dirt as it righted itself. The Drone staggered, legs shaking, head drooping in beautifully rendered agony.
But Fredi couldn’t stand and gawk for long. There was another one coming. And another. And another. They weren’t as big or strong, but there were so many of them, and the team was running out of ammunition. They were missing a player, since Comrade Ogilvy had decided to take a corgi break, and now, quickly, one after another, they were dropping dead, leaving their mangled avatars behind.
Rico died in a murder-suicide jumping down a cliff blade-first to meet a rising Drone’s mouth. Terrence was outmaneuvered by a Bug who slammed him to the ground, then crushed his body with its enormous bulk. They died, they respawned, they lived again, but they needed time to return to the scene of battle, and Fredi found herself more and more alone.
She looked around for allies. Scout seemed to be in a staring contest with an insect. Dave-O was attempting to arrange a few fallen players’ bodies in funny poses.
Amid the chaos, Fredi heard Ms. Yue’s voice, patchy over a disrupted connection. “Fr—” she said. “F—i, can you h— -e?”
“I can sort of hear you,” Fredi replied.
“Fre–,” Ms. Yue said, “Chase Max—-. He’s going after that —-den. Don’t let him—” and the rest was unintelligible.
That’s when Fredi saw Maximus run full-tilt to the edge of the cliff and leap off. He broke his fall on the belly of a dead Drone. The creature’s exoskeleton crunched under the impact, pushing out bits of mashed innards.
The Maiden was down there, hiding somewhere amid the rocks. There was a Drone hunched in place, unmoving, refusing to go over the wall to join its comrades, and Fredi understood: this one was guarding his bride.
As Crushinator returned to the fray above, shotgun blasting in all directions, Fredi leapt down onto the belly of her fallen enemy and scrambled to her feet. Her vision flickered, and the HUD displayed a distracting mess of random symbols and diagrams. Her instruments were malfunctioning; that meant she was getting closer.
“Maximus,” Fredi called over the voice chat. “Hey, Ms. Yue says she wants you to leave that Maiden alone.”
But he kept moving. Maybe he hadn’t heard her. Maybe the link was disrupted.
Not far from the sentry Drone, Fredi spied a crack between two boulders. Maximus saw it too, and ran recklessly straight for it. The sentry Drone lifted its head. Its antennae curled for safety. This was its fighting stance.
As much as Fredi disliked Maximus, she didn’t want to lose an ally who had a fresh clip of ammunition. So she tossed her last grenade at the Drone, who, strangely, did not dodge it but leapt upon the explosive, letting the blast tear it apart.
Frightened by the impact, something small and sleek and white slipped out from a hiding place beneath a boulder and rushed down into the valley.
Maximus took off running, and Fredi followed.
The immature Queen sprinted as fast as she could, deftly leaping over rocky terrain that the human players stumbled upon, but she could not keep her pace for long. She had traveled far, down one mountain and up another. As a Maiden on her honeymoon, she had only just emerged from her cocoon of royal jelly that day, with new legs she’d never used before. And she was hungry, too. After a Maiden mated with the strongest Drone, he died of exhaustion, and she consumed him to regain her strength. But this one was still a virgin running on an empty stomach.
“Maximus,” Fredi said, “Ms. Yue wanted you to leave the Maiden alone.”
“I heard you the first time,” came the response.
As they descended, the fog grew thicker and took on a yellowish tinge. The ground was softer and less rocky, but all the vegetation was dead; dried grass carpeted the ground and skeletal trees stood with rotten leaves strewn about their roots. This place had been a forest, once.
“But Ms. Yue said—” Fredi began.
“Auriana said something different,” Maximus interrupted.
“Auriana’s not real,” Fredi said.
“Not on Earth, maybe. But on Tithoria, she is,” Maximus replied.
Fredi knew what Maximus was planning. He was going to try to kidnap the Maiden, like in the old games. The thought disgusted her. Villains kidnap maidens, not heroes. And Fredi was one of the good guys. She was sure of it.
“How are you even going to drag her back?” Fredi asked. “There’s no base to take her to.”
Maximus said nothing for a moment. He just kept running. Up ahead, the Maiden was slowing down.
“I’m going to use my spawn point,” he said. “You can exit a game through one of them, right? So maybe I can bring her back to the teleporter room that way. And from there…”
At last they were upon her. Maximus got there first. The Maiden was exhausted, trying to crawl into a hollow log to hide. But they found her anyway. Her pale body gleamed like a pearl upon the dead forest floor.
Nonsensical letters and numbers, diagrams of impossible structures spread across Fredi’s HUD. Her ears began to ache from a high-frequency howl. Maximus’s character model began to glitch. For a moment, his face disappeared, along with the fake Roman abs, leaving nothing but dull gray metal.
Maximus grabbed the Maiden from behind, circling one arm around her delicate waist. In that position, she was helpless; she could only attack what lay before or beneath her. A Maiden was built for endurance, not combat. She flailed uselessly. He lifted her as though she were as light as a bag of feathers.
“Max,” Fredi said. “Stop it. Come on.”
“She was disrupting our frequencies,” Maximus said.
“So shoot her and move on.”
“How is shooting her any better than capturing her?” Maximus asked.
“Because she suffers a lot before she dies,” Fredi said. “And something about kidnapping females is really creepy.”
Fredi raised her gun, preparing to put the Maiden out of its misery. But the game’s programming forbid her from shooting a fellow player, and because the Bug was in Maximus’s arms, she could not fire.
Then the Maiden started screaming.
The sound had been a minor annoyance in earlier games. But in this installment, with its hyper realism, the noise hurt. Fredi tried to cover her ears, but the helmet stopped her hands.
“This is awful,” she complained. “Ms. Yue, if you’re listening, you have to ask the devs to change this. You could damage someone’s hearing.”
Nothing came from Ms. Yue but an occasional burst of static.
Maximus fumbled with the Maiden. Judging by the look on his face, the sound was causing him pain, but he kept an arm around her tight.
“Let her go,” Fredi said. “That sound is horrible.”
But Maximus was busy. He dropped his spawn point on the ground and held fast to the squirming, shrieking Maiden as the device unfolded.
“Maximus,” Fredi protested. “I don’t think this is a good idea. The game could glitch out.”
“So?” he replied. “If there are glitches in the game, then the devs should know about them.”
The spawn point’s antennae emerged like a pistil from the head of a flower.
“Ms. Yue didn’t want you to do this. You could get kicked off the team,” Fredi argued.
“That would be foolish of them,” Maximus replied. “I’m the most popular LPer of this whole group. And honestly I don’t care if I get kicked out. Elite Mode is boring.”
“But Ms. Yue said—”
“I don’t care,” Maximus yelled. “I’m sick of being told what to do. I’m going to listen to Auriana.”
The spawn point was ready now. As Maximus stepped onto it, Fredi warned him one last time:
“I don’t think this is a good idea.”
Hive is a serial novel updated every Thursday. The rest of it can be found here.