Now there were two empty suits of armor: Dave-O’s curled up on its side, and Angela’s kneeling over it.
“Shit,” Terrence said. Over the comlink, he called out, “Ms. Yue? Are you listening? We’ve got a situation here.”
After a long pause, Ms. Yue’s voice came back, hurried and patchy. “We know. We’re sending –elp. I want you all to keep c-lm and stay in your pods.”
Rico knew there was nothing he could do. So he played on, trudging forward, toward the Hive. He hopped off the edge of the cliff, landing with a squish on the belly of a dead Drone, and descended the slope of the valley.
No one noticed he was gone.
He heard the others’ voices over his headset.
“My door’s locked,” Scout said. “I can’t get out.”
“I need you to stay put right now,” Ms. Yue insisted. “Just stay p—”
Rico’s vision rippled and darkened, and the HUD spewed incoherent symbols again. He looked around for a Queen or a Maiden, but found nothing. Just dead terrain.
His HUD cleared up, and now he was left with a new objective:
PLANT SPAWN POINT
Not knowing what else to do, he followed the directions, placing his spawn point at the center of what had once been a vibrant tree grove, now dry and gray.
When the spawn point opened, Rico saw a new objective:
He’d never gotten an objective like that before in any Hive game. He wondered if it was a glitch. He listened carefully to his headset to hear if the other players had gotten a similar message. But they were all still busy shouting about Dave-O and the doors.
Rico exited. He found himself at the menu environment, a teleporter room aboard a UFSS vessel. But it was different now. The window through which he’d formerly seen a view of an alien world was dark, covered by a metal shutter. The room was lit by the dim red glow of emergency lights running along the floor. And something had torn a hole through a meter-thick metal wall as though it were made of paper.
His HUD flickered again. There was a Bug here.
He stepped through the hole in the wall.
Rico knew this place. He had been here before. But now everything was a mess. The red bed spread was shredded, and the bust of Lenin lay on its side on the floor, and the antique desk had been torn into splinters, and there was blood on the outdated classroom wall map that still showed the USSR. There were bodies here, though they were in such a state that Rico could not determine how many or what they were. Just chunks of flesh and shards of bone.
Rico didn’t know why the developers had chosen to take the time to craft a perfect replica of Comrade Ogilvy’s pod. It was a lot of work for a reference that only a handful of people would get. But knowing that he was one of those chosen few made Rico beam with pride.
“Anybody else see this?” he called to the others over his headset. “Space Marine? Crushinator?” But there was no response. Auriana had chosen Rico to see this, and no one else.
He tried the door, but it would not open. The only available exit was through a low gash in the wall. So Rico laid down on his belly and shimmied through to the next pod.
He had only seen glimpses of the room in videos, but he assumed the game developers’ recreation of it was accurate. Here was Dave-O’s weight bench, his chin-up bar, his shelves of games and movies: Conan the Barbarian, all the Rocky films, dozens of sports games Rico had never played, and, for some reason, Purple Rain.
There was a little bit more of a body here. Rico found an arm with a VR glove attached. Spatters of blood ran up the walls, painting a Top Gun poster.
The door was dented and ajar. Rico pushed it the rest of the way open. He saw another soldier run past, heavy footsteps echoing down the corridor, disappearing into Pod 1. This character didn’t have customized armor. It must have been an NPC.
The game’s version of the Enrichment Center was dark, lit only from below by gleaming red LED arrows all pointing down the hall to the exit. But that wasn’t Rico’s destination. He made his way down the corridor toward Pod 6.
The lock on the door failed at the second blast of his rifle, and the glorious sound rang so loudly his feet shook. Rico opened the door to find a room lined with endless shelves of Hive figurines–including one entire case completely devoted to statuettes of Auriana–and posters from each Hive game and printouts of concept art taped to the walls. This was his room, and in the center of it, next to the twin bed, there he stood, wearing his VR rig, off in another world.
“He looks really lifelike,” Rico murmured.
He raised his right hand, and the in-game version of him raised its right hand in synch. He leaned left, and his avatar leaned left too.
And then, for curiosity’s sake, he raised his gun. The game didn’t stop him the way it had when he’d set his sights on the other players. He could kill himself–this digital version of himself–if he wanted to.
He took aim.
A stun blast slammed into him from behind, hurling him forward, and the force felt so real Rico soon found himself on his back on the floor. Something was weighing him down, something hard and metal and insurmountably heavy that he could not see. He tried to lift it off himself, but he couldn’t.
He heard the sound of metal striking metal, and soon Rico was looking up at his ceiling. There was a man standing over him in green armor. Rico saw a familiar face through the helmet: long salt-and-pepper hair, a dark complexion, a brow carved from granite.
“Hawks?” Rico wondered aloud.
“You dumb kids.” Major Hawks shook his head. “You dumb goddamn kids.”
Hive is a sci-fi serial updated every Thursday. The rest is here.