Chapter 23: New Game Plus

Sam was last to arrive to the control room, groggy from missing sleep the previous night. But his chair wasn’t the only empty one in the observers’ row. There were two more.

“What happened to Cassie?” Sam asked his neighbor, inquiring as to the whereabouts of Dave-O’s monitor.

Jenna, who sat beside him, gave a grave look. “She needed a break,” she said quietly, adding, “There’s not much left for her to do right now, anyway.”

Sam didn’t ask about Stephen, who watched Comrade Ogilvy. He’d been the first to run to the teleporter. And now his bunk in the four-person room he shared with the other male observers was empty, and whatever was left of him was in one of Dr. Parikh’s cabinets.

But for the remaining six, there was still work to be done. This shift was a very important one.

“Is everyone ready?”

Lara Yue stood at her desk behind them, a steaming cup of coffee sitting in wait for her. At the end of the previous shift, she’d been so overwhelmed with emotion that Hawks had nearly had to carry her back to her room. But there was no trace of it now–no redness around her eyes, no smudges in her mascara, and no apparently grogginess from whatever sedative she’d needed to take to calm her down. Her posture was straight, her head was high, her hair was perfectly coiffed, and her pencil skirt didn’t have a single wrinkle in it.

The observers turned around to face her and nodded.

“Good,” she said, and they all turned back to their screens and donned their headphones.

Sam’s monitor showed a live feed from Scout’s room from the three cameras she hadn’t managed to get rid of. It was dark, so Sam switched between night vision and infrared. There were two bodies on the mattress, tangled together.

“I can’t find Angela,” Jenna said.

“She’s on mine,” said Sam.

Jenna leaned to look. “Nice,” she said.

Ty, who sat to his left, slid rightward to see, and soon the other observers were gawking at Sam’s screen, chuckling to themselves.

“I totally thought it was gonna be Fredi and Terrence,” said Lucia, who watched Rico’s monitor.

“Aw, not your boy?” Ty joked. They all laughed.

“Dark horse candidate,” said Aaron, who watched Maximus.

“The darkest,” Lucia replied.

“Have you finished your banter?” Lara asked.

Aaron saluted. “Bantz complete.”

“Are you listening, Hawks?”

“Always,” came a reply over the headphones.

“Excellent. Please turn to your monitors. We are about to have a very important discussion, and I want you to carefully study the players’ emotional responses very carefully. Don’t hesitate to flag anything you think could be a concern. Jenna, I’m patching you in to Scout’s feed so you can keep an eye on Crushinator, but I want you to focus on your assignment only. Don’t worry about Scout.”

“Got it,” Jenna said.

“All right everyone. Let’s begin.” Lara punched a command into her touchscreen. “Setting time to 10 a.m.”

On his monitor, Sam watched as the light outside the window swelled and the little hand on the analog clock on Scout’s wall whirled around to 10. He wondered why the company had gone with analog instead of digital. Digital seemed easier to control. Maybe it was just one of those sentimental decisions the executives liked to make without a logical reason.

Lara sent out another command. Scout’s laptop booted up and began to chime. It was an invitation to a group chat.

Sam’s second monitor showed a view of the chat. Lara was already there, along with an audio-only feed from Hawks’s helmet. One by one, new windows popped open as the players answered the call on their webcams. There were seven windows in all: one each for Lara and Hawks, and only five for the remaining players.

“Crushinator,” Lara said, “why aren’t you in your own room?”

The other players replied with a smattering of giggles and hoots, except for Maximus, who silently mouthed the word “slut.”

“We were having a slumber party,” Scout said. “Hair-braiding, taffy pulling–it was wild.”

Sam flagged the footage with a comment: Likely romantic relationship between Scout and Crushinator.

“Can we go home now?” Angela asked.

“All questions will be answered in a moment,” Lara said. “Now, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that the portal generator has been repaired.”

“So we can go,” Angela interrupted.

“The bad news is that we don’t have enough energy to run it,” Lara said. “It needs tremendous resources. That little Maiden nearly destroyed our reserves. We have enough to keep the base running more or less normally, but not enough to leave.”

Scout’s jaw sank. She swallowed hard. Sam flagged it. Strong emotional response: agitation, dread.

“Good job, Maximus,” Fredi said. “A++. S-rank.” She clapped slowly and loudly. “Your stupid white cishet male pride ruined everything.”

“Can they send a rescue ship?” Scout asked.

Sam flagged that, too. Attempt at problem-solving. Constructive thinking.

“It would take years for it to get here,” Lara said. “We’re a very long way from home.”

“Are we going to die here?” Angela asked.

“We do have one option left,” Lara said. “This planet has an abundant energy resource that requires very little processing.”

The players leaned forward to peer at their monitors more closely.

And after a pregnant pause, Rico whispered the words, “Space honey.”

Scout pressed her lips together. Sam flagged it: Suppressed amusement. Angela shook with silent laughter. Fredi snorted. Terrence pressed his knuckles against his lips and said, “We still calling it that?”

“It’s sounds a little silly when you say it out loud,” Scout said.

“It’s goofy as hell,” Angela agreed.

“Space honey,” Terrence said. “Honey… from spaaaaaace.”

“Well, that’s what it is,” Jeffrey protested. “It’s not stupid.”

“It’s kinda stupid, man.”

“Maybe you could spell it all cool,” Fredi suggested. “Like, h0ney with a zero instead of an O.”

“Throw in a couple of apostrophes,” Terrence said. “Add an umlaut.”

“Put it in Latin,” Angela said. “Everything sounds cooler in Latin.”

“It’s a noble language,” Jeffrey agreed.

“Maybe H-U-N-I,” Fredi said.

“Isn’t that how Winnie the Pooh spells it?” Scout asked.

Space honey (which was in fact what they called it) was the Bugs’ primary food source, which they synthesized from the raw materials of their environments. It was also an incredibly potent biofuel highly sought by members of the UFSS for military and civilian use.

Lara said, “I don’t think I have to tell you how valuable space honey is.”

“Space honey,” Terrence chortled, shaking his head.

“A small quantity of space honey–“

“Spaaaaace honey!” Terrence thundered.

“–will be enough to get the portal generator up and running again, and we’ll all be able to leave.”

Lara’s expression of placid competence did not falter as the players interrupted her and cracked jokes. Sam expected annoyance or, perhaps, a smile; he had heard his boss mutter, “God, that’s a stupid name” in reference to space honey more than once. Maybe she had gone emotionally numb after the night before. Maybe Dr. Parikh had given her something to smooth out all the jagged edges.

“Now, you’ve all done these missions before in the game. It’s the same thing–only a little more intense, as you’ve learned in the field.”

“Wait,” Scout said. “Are you saying we’re going to get it?”

“That’s right,” Lara replied. “You’re going into the Hive.”

“Oh my God,” Angela groaned. “This is insane.”

“This is awesome!” Jeffrey exclaimed.

“This is real, Jeff,” Scout replied. “This isn’t just a game anymore. Two people–three people and a very cute dog are dead.”

Sam’s fingers paused a half-second before he flagged the remark: Fixation on death. It was absurd to frame Scout’s comment as morbid or a sign of some sort of pathology. But the company wanted boundless optimism and joy, and anything else must be marked, and until he got home and put in his two-weeks’ notice, he belonged to IG.

“We’ll be heroes,” Rico mumbled.

“That’s right,” Lara said.

“We’ll save the world,” he said.

“Well, you’ll save the base, anyway.” Gazing authoritatively into the distance, she said, “You’ve been training for this your whole lives, ever since you picked up that first 3-1/2 inch floppy back in the 90s. You’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours gaming, training, preparing for this moment. Your parents said you were wasting your lives. Your teachers said you were rotting your brain. Society said you were losers. But they were wrong. All of them. You’re heroes, all of you. You just haven’t had a chance to prove it. Until now. Now is the time for each one of you to become who you were truly meant to be.”

Jeffrey pumped his fists and cheered. Rico grinned and let fall a single tear. Fredi smiled. Lara’s speech hadn’t had the desired effect on Scout. The girl sat with her brows gently furrowed. Sam flagged that as well.

“Major. Hawks will fill you in with the details,” Lara said.

Finally, the major’s voice finally came in over the chat. “Now that you’ve all had smoke blown up your ass, here’s the situation.” In recent years, Hawks had shown increasing disinterest in maintaining the Hive brand’s corporate image. IG stopped bringing him to public promotional events after he insulted a professional Hive player. But Hawks was still the face of the brand and, even at his age, indispensable in combat operations dealing with the Bugs.

“Now. You kids know how every single game of Hive ends with you running alone into the Queen’s chamber and killing her?” Hawks asked them.

“Yeah,” was the response.

“That literally never happens,” Hawks said. “A Hive has hundreds of Bugs in them, and as you learned yesterday, they’re a hell of a lot tougher in real life than they are in the games, even on badass mode. You are not going to march in there, kill everything and grab some space honey. You don’t have infinite respawns. Those combat suits you’ve been controlling aren’t cheap, and you’ve burned through a lot more of them than we were expecting. You’ve only got fourteen left, between the six of you.”

Sam studied Scout’s face and flagged it. Fear. Dread.

“Your job is to soften up the Bugs so that my team will have an easier time collecting that…” he sighed, “space honey.”

“Spaaaaaaace honey!” Terrence shouted.

“Look, I didn’t come up with the name,” Hawks replied. “Now, I want you all suited up and in-game by 0800 hours. No more goofing off. Over and out.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Lara asked.

“Right,” he sighed. “I’ll see you in the Hive. Signing off.”

The major’s audio feed died as he left the chat.

“Now, soldiers,” Lara said, “I want you to know that we’re going to take very good care of you while you’re busy saving us from the Bugs. You’ll stay comfy in your rooms with a steady supply of your favorite snacks.”

“Meanwhile, we’re all living on liquid meal replacers,” Jenna grumbled.

“Treat it like you would any gaming session, and try not to worry too much,” Lara said. “I know you can do it. I believe in you.”

Sam flagged Scout’s lack of response: Flat affect.

“That’s all for now, soldiers. Hoo-rah!”

And they all signed off.

Lara took off her headset. Under normal circumstances, she would have made a snide remark, or complained about the bad coffee. But instead she looked utterly confident and serene.

Sam glanced at the other observers. None of them seemed afraid. It was just another day at the office. Lara’s demeanor had instilled in them a sense of normalcy and optimism.

It wasn’t working on Sam.

He found it utterly terrifying.

Hive is a sci-fi serial updated Thursdays. The rest can be found here.

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