After the group recovered from the initial shock, Ms. Yue led them all down the stairs, through the hall, past a series of doors, and back to the café, where they all drank weak tea and talked. Hawks plopped Rico into his seat, but the weary youth simply leaned forward, put his chin in his hands, and fell asleep face-first on the table.
“What did you do to him?” Scout asked.
“Just a stunner,” Hawks said. “He’ll be fine. He’s just going to take a nap for a while.”
“Stunner,” Maximus repeated. “The same weapon they used in that stealth level on Idyia in Extermination?”
Hawks shrugged. “Sure.”
Maximus grinned, evidently very proud of himself.
“Nice callback,” Terrence said. He took another sip of tea. It was tasteless, and barely warm, despite being boiling just moments before.
Clearly, the company had put immense effort into all this. That window Ms. Yue showed them looked startlingly real.
Terrence looked around for cameras. They were everywhere, all over the walls and ceiling, encased in black globes. He supposed there were other hidden cameras about the Enrichment Center, too. They must have been recording him, and were probably planning to turn it all into one of those found footage films for the internet.
When Terrence signed up, he had no idea just how far IG was willing to go to promote their new product. He thought he’d be playing the game, and that was it. But this whole experience, with the emergency lights and the dramatic acting and the perfect Tithorian landscape and the disappearance of two other players and the screaming—it was far beyond his expectations. He felt giddy, like a kid in a carnival haunted house.
“So.” Ms. Yue patted her pockets until she found the right one and pulled out a vape pen.
“You vape?” Maximus asked. “The perfect woman.”
“I smoke,” Ms. Yue replied. “But that’s not allowed here.” She pulled in a drag of vapor and sighed it out. “So you probably have some questions. I’ll answer what I can. To tell you the truth, I don’t know everything.”
“Was that up there…” Fredi swallowed, hard. “Was that real?”
Ms. Yue nodded.
Terrence smiled to himself. Fredi was a consummate performer. In her videos, she screamed at all the scares, and squealed with delight at all the fun bits. This, Terrence figured, was why IG picked her. She wasn’t a great gamer, but she knew how to play along with the act. The fact that she was cute didn’t hurt either.
“That’s why we’ve felt so strange all this time,” Scout said. “Lower gravity.”
“It’s also why you can’t get a decent cup of coffee around here,” Ms. Yue said. “Lower boiling point. Makes it nearly impossible to cook.”
“So there’s no artificial gravity within the base?” Maximus asked.
“Too expensive, I guess,” Ms. Yue said. “Or not scientifically possible. I don’t know. I just work here.” She paused a moment to listen to something on her headset.
Stage directions, Terrence suspected, from some hidden director.
“Why can’t we leave?” Scout asked.
“Our base was attacked,” Ms. Yue said. “A Maiden got in. Those things wreak havoc with the electronics. We just weren’t prepared for it. It’s done some damage.”
“There’s a reason the games stopped asking you to kidnap Maidens,” Hawks said, “and it isn’t feminism.”
Ms. Yue continued, “They’re working on repairing the elevator, but it’s going to take some time.”
“That’s not really an elevator, is it?” Scout asked.
Ms. Yue shook her head. “It’s a portal.”
“And you drugged us before we went in?”
Ms. Yue nodded.
Terrence distinctly remembered a feeling of fatigue on that day. But, he knew, there were other explanations. A food coma after a massive meal. Sleep deprivation. Not to mention the standard side effects of the various antidepressants he took. He was always tired these days.
“That’s dangerous,” Fredi said. “Someone could have gotten sick.”
“Going through a portal conscious is… not pleasant,” Ms. Yue said.
“Like barfing yourself inside-out,” Hawks added.
“Did Henry and Dave-O get through?” Scout asked.
The look on Ms. Yue’s face said it all.
Scout covered her mouth with both hands and whispered a muffled, “Jesus.” Angela sniffled and said nothing. Maximus stifled some expression or another by jamming his lips into the back of his pudgy fist.
Terrence suppressed a smile. IG had planned the whole scenario carefully. This, he understood, was what screenwriters called the point of no return. It’s the end of Act One, where the stakes deepen, and the protagonist must make the choice to become an active participant in the narrative rather than a passive object moved by fate.
Terrence looked around the room for the protagonist. It probably wasn’t him. He always figured himself as more of a supporting character. He was just happy to have survived the initial attack. The black character is usually the first to go in these things.
Fredi seemed a likely candidate. She was pretty, and animated, and knew how to deliver what her patrons wanted. Angela was less likely—more of a sarcastic sidekick. Rico? Definitely not. And Scout? Terrence didn’t quite know what role she was supposed to play.
He just hoped Maximus didn’t get to be the hero.
“I’m sorry,” Ms. Yue said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. You were supposed to just play, record your videos, and go home safe and sound.” A few very convincing tears rolled down her cheek.
“Marco Trollo,” Scout said. “Was that real too?”
“That was before I got involved,” Ms. Yue said. “I can’t say either way.”
“Why did you even bring us here?” Scout asked. “This is insane. Why couldn’t we just do this from an office on Earth?”
“It doesn’t work at that range,” Ms. Yue said. “And on Tithoria, with all that fog, your base needs to be close to your avatar. Otherwise we’d just do it from a satellite in orbit.”
“This isn’t happening,” Angela muttered. “This is all just some fucked-up game.”
Terrence smiled. How meta.
“By the way,” Hawks said. “As long as we’re doing confessions, my name’s not really Hawks. It’s Thomas LaJoie. My white grandpa was French-Canadian. But the producers wanted something a little more Hollywood.”
The rest of them stared at him quietly. The editors would probably cut this bit from the scene.
Ms. Yue had her hand on her ear again. Realizing he hadn’t said anything yet, Terrence asked, “Who are you talking to?”
“You might as well show yourself,” Ms. Yue said quietly to no one in particular.
There was a shimmer, and among the vapor a shape began to form. Lines and curves. The figure of a woman.
Terrence clapped. “Auriana!” he cried with a laugh. “Beautiful. Amazing.”
She was a perfect hologram, just like in the games. Same skimpy costume, too.
“This information session is highly inappropriate,” the hologram said. Somehow, her voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, as though every surface in the room were gently vibrating. “I strongly suggest you return to your pods and wait until the repairs are complete.”
“Oh God, shut up,” Ms. Yue replied.
Maximus thrust his hand into the hologram up to his wrist. “I’m fisting Auriana,” he announced proudly. “Living out a lifelong dream.”
“That’s gross, Max,” Fredi said.
“Well, you heard the glowing virtual woman,” Hawks said. “Better get back to your rooms and rest up. Any last questions before we go?”
“Where’s my dog?” Angela asked.
Ms. Yue put her face into her hands and began to cry.
Terrence gaped. He had watched hundreds of adventure movies, and they never killed the cute dog.
That went a little too far. Grim, edgy plots with brooding anti-heroes were back in vogue these days, but audiences might not respond well to the death of a loveable animal. It seemed like a mistake. Maybe IG had made an error. Maybe he had gotten into a complete disaster.
No. He took a deep breath and counted his senses. Five sights: Auriana, Ms. Yue, Scout’s blue hair, the table, the broken false windows. Four sounds: Ms. Yue sobbing, Rico snoring, Max slurping his tea, the ambient electronic hum of artificial light. Three touches: his seat on the hard bench, the sleeve over his leg stump, the sudden dryness of his tongue. Two smells: disinfectant, Max’s body odor. One taste: weak tea.
He knew where he was. This wasn’t the war: that was long ago for him, and far away. He was safe now, here in the heart of the Big Box at the center of IG’s Palace. It was a very elaborate simulation, but that was all it was. A simulation. Everything would be fine.
It was all just a game.
Everything would be fine.
Updated Thursdays. The rest is here.