Ghosts in the Machine
A story by Maddy Myers
The short story you’re about to read—“Unto Dust,” by Maddy Myers—is a free excerpt from the recently-released anthology, Ghosts in the Machine, edited by myself and Brendan Keogh (Killing is Harmless). The thirteen stories in this book look at the imperfections of life through the imperfections found in video games, be they bugs, exploits or design flaws, love, loss or death.
Jackpot and I duck behind the pile of crates before the shots fire. I see him go down before I hear the guns. Safe.
“Raven,” he chokes out. “I’ve been hit.”
“How?” I whisper to myself.
“What the fuck?” he says. “I’m at 45% now. What the fuck happened?”
I stand up and throw a grenade. Then I duck back down again. My body starts shaking. I grasp a crate’s edge and push myself back deeper into the pile. Pain begins to waver around the edges of my eyes. I look around in a panic.
“Jackpot?!” I wail. I can’t see him. Has he already evaporated? Against my will and my better judgment, my body collapses to the ground. 5%. My arm, strong enough only to hold a pistol, shakes as I raise it. A figure rounds the pile of crates and stands over me. I hear his laughter through a hazy, thick buzzing in my ears. I aim the pistol at his head.
I fire. I watch the bullet go through his eyes.
And still, he laughs. Still, he stands. “Fucking noob,” I hear him say, as I fade away. “Noob got pwned.”
I spawn back at the base. Jackpot pats my back. “Hey, good work back there,” he says. “I watched you on the camera feed before re-spawn.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I thought I got him.”
“You didn’t,” he says. “No one can get him.”
“He’s using some sort of … I don’t know, he’s hacking. He’s cheating.” Jackpot straps on some armor. “It’s not allowed on this server. He’ll get booted.”
“Are you sure?” I ask. “He’s been top stats every time. I thought he was just good.”
Jackpot stares at me. “We both watched you shoot him in the head,” he says. “We both felt his bullets go through the crates. No one’s that good. What, you’ve never seen a hacker before?”
“I have, once or twice, but what kind of hack makes it so that if someone shoots you, you live?”
“I don’t know, invisible armor? I don’t fucking know.” Jackpot seems annoyed, all of a sudden. “What makes you think I know anything about how it works? I’ve never got one done. How should I know?”
“You said he was cheating, that’s the only reason why I asked. Why are you mad?”
By the time I’ve finished the question, Jackpot has his back to me and he’s twenty yards out. The round began a few seconds ago; the rest of the terrorists have made it halfway to the bomb by now.
I shuffle after Jackpot. I forgot to buy armor, but the shop has closed. I’ve got to run. I feel like taking out my knife and just waving its useless short range flash at enemies until the hacker gets the boot, but I don’t. I’m too angry to fight and too angry for jokes. Usually, a hacker doesn’t last this long. This all doesn’t sit right with me.
I keep my sniper rifle out. I’ll just play the turtle for now, hunched back in my shell and lining up shots from afar.
In the corner of my eye, I can see kill notifications blurring the top corner of my visor. The hacker is on the move. Headshot, headshot, headshot.
I stay where I am.
Headshot. This time, next to Jackpot’s name.
I shift my weight. Jackpot is watching me on his retinal cameras before re-spawn, by now. He must be wondering why I’m still camping at the base. He must be grumbling that he taught me better than that.
I leap in the air, whirling until I feel dizzy, until I can’t tell sand from crates from sky. I wait until the shot comes out of the air. Not a headshot, at least—I wouldn’t give them that pleasure. I jump and jump again and make the process as trying as I can for the counter-terrorist cyborg.
The shot hits my leg first. I try to jump again, but my leg gives out, and a second shot hammers into my shoulder as I collapse. 2% health.
I can hardly see through the thick red haze. But, oh, that same voice in my ear again. That same laugh. He stands over me and takes out his knife. He crouches, again and again. He slices. He laughs.
“I can tell something’s wrong,” Jackpot says, “Because I can’t feel a difference in the code.”
The code. Always the code. He can feel it every time we boot up, he says. Scrolling through his brain.
“Can you feel anything?” he asks.
I shake my head. He was only posturing. He knows I can’t feel the code, or at least, not enough to matter. I’m not an old enough model. Just DLC. A special addition. The latecomer. The noob.
Jackpot’s memory contains bits and pieces of the earliest forms of the world. He was the first model made. He tells us stories of running through the streets of this city as it grew around him. He remembers and compares each update to the one before it, on and on until all the other teammates sigh, “Shut up, old man.” I like his stories. He can always tell me how a map has been altered, even though the rest of us can only feel our memories clipping and blurring.
In the past, I’ve tried to watch the scrolling numbers behind my eyes during the world’s occasional jumps and pauses. During updates, I can feel stops and starts twitching through my muscles, driving my blood in circles. But I can’t tell the difference, in the end. I can never remember it, once the world comes back into focus and the round begins.
“Of course you can’t,” Jackpot spits. “You’re still a nonbeliever, aren’t you?”
“No,” I say, avoiding his eyes, scrolling through armor upgrades. “I told you. I believe in the users now.”
“Well, you don’t believe in the developers,” Jackpot shoots back. “You don’t believe in our creators.”
“It just seems … disorganized,” I say. “How could they let all of this happen? Users aren’t just modifying maps anymore, they’re modifying us.”
“That’s right, and we have no power to stop it,” says Jackpot, his eyes narrowing to surly slits. “Not that we ever did. It’s not our place. We have no power over anything we do here. You think you decide where to point your gun? They just pull our strings.”
“See, that never made any sense to me,” I say. “The users, the developers—which is it? Which one matters?”
“None of it matters anymore, apparently,” Jackpot says, his voice low. He’s throwing half his ammo on the ground, now. “In a just world, that hacker wouldn't be allowed to live. That asshole deserves a bolt of lightning from the sky. He doesn't belong here.”
He runs ahead. I pick up the ammo he dropped. “I don’t know about you,” I call after him. “I control myself. I can control myself.”
He grunts an inaudible reply.
“What?” I say.
The shots have begun. We've hung around the base too long. The counter-terrorists are already here.
I see Jackpot’s body twitching, coiling into a fetal circle as he falls, too fast, to the ground.
For the first time since I ever spawned in the world, I close my eyes. I run back and forth in the darkness. I imagine the sound of bees in my ears, buzzing, blaring out the laughing cyborgs.
This isn't fun anymore.
His arm is moving.
“I’m not doing it,” he screams at me. “I’m not doing this!”
The arm draws his gun, points it.
I try to speak. My voice crackles like a rusted can. “What?!”
“I've been hacked! I've been hacked!”
He sounds on the edge of tears, his stony, square face stricken with shock.
“Do something,” he says, shaking me with his good arm. “This thing…this isn't me. I didn't do this. I didn't put this in me!”
He pulls away, paces.
“This must be a test of faith,” he says, after a while.
I can hear the shots coming. Not far away now.
“We’re camping,” I say. “We can’t stay here.”
“I will overcome this,” Jackpot says. “This is my choice. This is what I will do.”
His arm raises and shoots through the wall. A headshot notification blares on my visor. His arm jerks left. Right. Headshot. Headshot.
He shoots through my body.
No friendly fire.
I fall to my knees.
“You’re not hurt!” he cries. “I saw it! I saw it go…through.”
I lie on the ground anyway. “Jackpot,” I say. “I can’t do this. I can’t deal with this.”
“What are you saying?” says Jackpot. Headshot. Headshot. His eyes focus on me, his arm moving without him needing to see where it goes.
The victory screen appears.
“What are you trying to say?” I hear his voice fade in and out as the kill counts display on the insides of my eyelids. Jackpot’s arm killed them all. Every last one.
“Tell them to take me,” I say, as the round restarts. I don’t buy ammo. I take out my knife.
“Tell who?” says Jackpot. He looks afraid. I am afraid, too. My chest hurts from where the bullet went through it. An invisible, leftover pain.
“Tell the developers,” I say. “Tell them to take my body. Make it into a different person. Tell them to take me out. Either that or give me the upgrade.”
“I can’t talk to them,” says Jackpot, his voice cracking.
“You’re a man of faith,” I say. “You told me you knew them.”
“Just the text,” he says. “I've only studied the symbols. I don’t know how to make them hear me.”
“But they changed people here,” I say. “The world changed us. I have to change, too. I can’t keep up, anymore.”
Jackpot can’t hear me now. He’s shooting through the wall again. I lie on the ground. I wait for him to finish beating everyone.
“Why is your hack so much better?” I shout over the shots. “Why are we winning?”
“I don’t know,” he shouts back. “Maybe I’m just that good?”
In the next round, Jackpot’s legs are gone. The world has replaced them with sparkly sticks that hurt my eyes to look at directly. He clips the air as he jumps, too high to see. The world shatters around him into pieces. I blink and blink again as he jumps, my eyes unable to focus on him.
“Come back,” I say, my voice feeble. But I don’t mean it. I feel jealousy grow in the pit of my stomach.
He calls something from high above me.
“I can’t hear you,” I say.
The victory screen appears. I begin to understand.
He doesn't need me anymore.
I run ahead. I want to die. I want to watch the world through Jackpot’s eyes, through the re-spawn camera feed. I have to be dead to see it.
I am tired of being alive, being safe, just sitting by as the world burns down and reconstructs again and again and again, so fast that it makes me sick.
I make it up to the crates and I wait. I hear shots, but far away, and behind me. Is Jackpot jumping and shooting? I won’t be able to die and watch the world if he kills everyone too fast. The rounds go by so quickly now, I’ll barely have a chance to see through his eyes before he ends it all and I’m jolted back to the spawn point again.
I run further ahead. Finally, I hear footsteps, but still no shots.
Why haven’t they tried to kill me? Do they see me on their visor maps? They must know I’m not Jackpot. After all, they’re still alive.
I pause. I take out my knife to show I’m not a threat, and I strafe around the corner.
A man has his back to me and his knife out.
I jump up and down, hoping he will hear me, but something feels wrong. He is too still, and he won’t turn. And then, without warning, he runs. I watch a bullet zigzag through the wall and clip his shoulder.
I run past him, throwing my body in front of his knife. He backs away from me in a panic, slicing wildly. It’s over fast.
I’m in the air, with Jackpot, soaring. The world looks like shimmery steel; buildings and walls waver, flickering in and out of being. The sand-swept inclined planes. The low rock walls. The pyramid of crates by the bomb site. The tiny counter-terrorists stumbling on their well-worn pathways, the old routes that made sense back when all of their enemies fought on foot. They are like mice in a maze now, or ants in a farm, trapped but still going through the motions. What else can they do?
I watch Jackpot’s aim-assisted arm blast them out with slick precision. Headshot, headshot, headshot.
The victory screen feels too fast.
I want to stay up there with him forever.
“Jackpot, I don’t think anyone is hacking anymore,” I say.
“I don’t think so either,” he admits. I strap on armor. Jackpot goes bare-chested, now.
“You could stop using your powers,” I say, a little too quiet.
Jackpot gives me a hard look. “What makes you think I can?”
“I don’t know,” I shrug. “I just mean, you don’t have to jump all the time.”
“We’re winning, aren't we?” Jackpot says, his voice tight. “And anyway, I didn't ask for this. I can’t control my arm anyway. I mean…it’s not my arm. I didn't put this on. I was chosen.”
“Chosen,” I say, at last.
Jackpot won’t look at me.
“You really can’t control it?” Jackpot shakes his head.
“When you see the code,” I say, “what does it look like?”
He meets my gaze. His eyes look tired. “It gives me a headache, now,” he admits. “I can’t look at it anymore.”
“That can’t be good,” I say. “That can’t be the developers.”
“It could be,” he says. But I can hear the doubt in his voice.
“It’s the users,” I affirm. “If this were the developers, if this was an update, then why can’t the rest of us jump like that? This doesn't seem fair, you have to stop—”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Jackpot has begun shooting. “I can’t stop it. You can’t stop it. We can’t control anything here!”
I pause for a while, then I crouch and stand up again. I try to sense whether I am standing up, or whether someone else is standing up. I wave my knife in front of my face. Am I doing this? I feel a dull panic rising in my throat. Am I the only one in my head? How would I know if I weren't?
I try to think back to my first day, meeting the team, hearing Jackpot’s gruff swears for the first time. He told me where to hide, when to strafe, how to jump. I didn't always do it right, and I still don’t. I have good days and bad days. But everyone does, don’t they? Or are my good and bad days the fault of someone else, some higher power that decides how well I fight?
My kill counts, my deaths, my stats—I see the numbers, I know they’re real, I lived those experiences. I earn my victories, and when I have a rough day and feel too dizzy to aim straight, that’s on me. Believing otherwise sounds like a cop-out, like making excuses. I own my mistakes.
Yet here was Jackpot, whose body had changed before my eyes, against his will. Or so he said. Did he really not choose this path? Could I get modified, too—cursed with powers by some unseen demigod?
I flash back to that sensation of floating in the air with Jackpot, seeing far-away dots moving on the ground. We didn't deserve that feeling. And yet no one had taken this power away from him. The world around us had broken, and no one had fixed it. How long could this go on?
I have to pray now for a miracle, even though that miracle would confirm my fear that I am not alone. This world has rules, rules that I had followed in spite of myself, all along. There are higher powers here. My victories are mine, but they are not only mine.
“I can hardly believe all of this,” I say.
I wipe my eyes. Where is he?
I walk out of the base.
I can’t see a victory screen yet. Someone is still out there.
I walk slowly through the crate maze. I take my knife out.
In the hallway, I hear a soft rustle of movement. I move towards the noise.
Three men with knives have lined up at the end of the hall. They stare at me. I edge ever closer.
“Hello?” I call out.
I bounce in the air slightly.
“Hello,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
The one in the middle bounces back but remains silent.
“Let’s just be normal,” I say. Can they hear me?
The one on the left takes out his gun.
“Let’s just be normal,” I say again, more to myself. “There are no hacks on this server. Hackers get booted.”
The pain comes slow and thick, in bursts. All three men have drawn and begun to fire. My eyes fill with blood. The world goes red, then black, then white, then the gold of stretching sand. I’m back at my camp again.
I close my eyes and let my body go still. I can almost feel the code. It feels safe. It feels balanced.
If you like what you've read, please check out our website here. Ghosts in the Machine is available for purchase as a paperback ($6.66 via Lulu), a zip containing EPUB, MOBI, PDF and AZW3 formats ($1.99 via Gumroad), and may be purchased from Amazon and downloaded straight to your Kindle for just under $3.00. Ghosts in the Machine is also pending distribution for its paperback version on Amazon, and is scheduled to appear on their virtual shelves in the coming weeks. Be sure to follow Maddy Myers on Twitter @samusclone.