Finish The Game

“Didn’t I kill you last year?”

Danny let his mind settle into the avatar and ignored the taunts. His rig was cobbled together from whatever he could find. He could still feel the sheets of his bed wrap around him even as the rig tried to shunt into his skull and take over his senses. The uplink he’d slinked from his school was better than most though. The extra few milliseconds gave him all the edge he needed.

His avatar finally settled and the shunt took hold. The drab walls of his room fell away and he was there. Standing in the hangar with a dozen others.

They all wore APAC uniforms. They would be playing the bad guys in this fight. Somewhere out across the battlefield a dozen Russians were waking up in a hangar of their own. The league was almost at it’s end, the final battle was coming up, and they were all pumped.

“Yeah I did. You were the idiot in the trench!”

The girl gave him a thump on the chest and the shunt in Danny’s head translated it into signals his body could understand. High limiters on this game meant he felt the jab. If they got shot, when they got shot, it would hurt until they shunted out.

“Don’t remember,” Danny said.

His avatar only half looked like himself. The same sandy-blond hair that peaked out from beneath his helmet. The eyes were different though. Someone else’s eyes.

The girl punching him had hair that shifted from electric-blue to bubblegum-pink and back again. Cosmetic mods were allowed, if you had the credits. Besides, the rifle cradled in her arms dwarfed anything she could spend on her looks and Danny’s own meagre inventory.

She went to poke Danny again and he stepped back.

“You gonna run off again?” she asked.

“I just wanna play.”

“Sure. You play. But if I see you sneaking off when you’re on my team,” and she jabbed her finger against the heart stencilled onto the breast plate of her own armour, “I’m gonna shoot you myself.”

“And take two-K penalty?”

She got up close and the shunt let Danny feel her breath.

“It’ll be worth it.”

“Okay maggots, our netrunner is online. Watch the tacmap, he’s our eyes and ears,” a new voice called out. A big brutish avatar. The kind who came on and didn’t care about capturing a flag or running gates. They just liked making another living thing twitch.

That’s why they played the authentic servers. Replaying real battles with real weapons. None of this simulacrum of fantasy elves or alien invaders crap. They wanted to kill other men.

Danny felt a ping and looked at the small tacmap in his vision. Somewhere, it could be in the apartment below him or Korvus station in high orbit, someone was playing as overwatch. The netrunner had the full battle map and would direct their little squad into combat.

“I’m watching you,” the girl said as they stood ready for the hangar doors to open.

A waypoint appeared in Danny’s vision. Two klicks north. He knew this map. From the final years of the war, when the tide was finally turning. He’d seen it before. Someone else’s war.

The hangar door rolled open and the war rushed inside.

It was chaos. A Russian stealth drone had been waiting. Someone on the opposite team had paid an awful lot of money to get a head start and as soon as the drone locked onto a squad member it went into full onslaught-mode.

The tri-rotors of the drone tore through two of the team almost immediately and their screams were real until the game ejected them and their shunts shut down. They’d feel the wounds for weeks to come though, like a phantom pain every time they took a breath.

A couple of the others turned and opened fire on the drone and Danny took the opportunity to make his break. Outside the hangar door, the landscape was exactly as it had been fifteen years before when the real war took place.

The neutron bombs had wiped out most of the organic matter. A nice euphemism for saying the bodies of the civvies were still fresh. Any bacteria that would decompose them had been killed off and so Danny got to see the look of terror on each and everyone of their faces.

His tacmap was pinging at him. The netrunner was trying to regroup and pull the squad together so they could hold off the expected follow-up attack by the Russians.

Danny shut the map off. He knew where he was going. He’d been here, always pushing to reach the same spot before the game ended. He’d carved out the area, slowly scouted it out. He was looking for something. Someone else’s goal.

“You goddam coward!”

The rifle burst barely missed his legs as Danny dived over an upturned flyer. The small vehicle had crunched to the ground when it’s repulsers had died and the fusion core in it’s engine block offered the only protection Danny could see.

“Oh I’m gonna enjoy this,” the bubblegum girl said. “Netrunner says the whole team has been KOd. Just you and me and I am not gonna go out without making you pay for this! Do you know how much this round cost me?”

“Please leave me alone,” Danny shouted from his cover.

“Stand up, I promise I won’t hurt you.”

“You don’t sound very sincere.”

He looked around. They were in a small market area. Upturned flyers dotted the sidewalks but they were all too far to make a break for. He had a gun, a little Halon-4 pistol with a single cell pack. It was all he had been able to afford.

“I can explain,” he tried.

“Explain what coward?”

“Just come with me. Please.”

“Like hell. Stand up and let me shoot you. Do it now and I’ll make it quick. Beam through the skull. Otherwise I’m gonna leave you to bleed until you get shunted.”

“I know where an orb is.”

She was silent for a while and Danny feared she was just getting into position to shoot him.

“They’re a myth.”

“It’s real. I promise.”

“What does it do?”

“Taps the Ruskie netrunner.”

She laughed and sent another volley into the flyer. Danny heard the bang, pop and crack as a round passed through the shell of the flyer and into his leg. The shunt redlined but it didn’t kick him. That was all part of the thrill of the big leagues.

He rolled to the ground and clutched at the wounded leg.

Bubblegum appeared before him, taking her time walking around the flyer, rifle slung casually across her arms.

“Time to die newbie,” she said, slowly pulling out a serrated combat knife.

“Don’t,” Danny gasped.

“I’ll make it quick.”

“No.”

Bubblegum paused. Danny was in pain, more pain than he’d been in any of the games he’d ever played, but he couldn’t quit now. The avatar was pretty smart. The sweat ran in rivulets down his digital face.

“Why the hell do you wanna stay here?” Bubblegum finally asked.

“I need to get somewhere. It takes me a year to scrape together enough creds to buy my way into this league. I’ll never make it this far again.”

“What the hell is so important you’re gonna risk shunt-burn for it?”

“I told you. The…”

“Orb. Yeah, I know. And I know you’re talking bullshit.”

“It’s real.”

“I’m a GM. I know it’s not real.”

“It is to me.”

Danny had never met a GM, the staff members of the game builders who patrolled the world. Everyone had heard the stories. The things they could do to players. Most of the time they just played like normal folk. Kept the balance. But they had the power of god when you were in their world.

And he’d just pissed a god off.

Bubblegum looked at him. She looked at the pitiful pistol he hadn’t even reached for. He had no medkits or even bandages to patch himself up with. But he had something else. Someone else’s determination.

She pulled out a can of biofoam and jammed it into Danny’s leg. It hurt like hell. It cost more than his pistol. But damn it felt good as Danny felt his skin go numb.

“Where is it?” Bubblegum asked.

Danny pointed out past the market square with a shaking hand. The opposite direction to the fight.

“Nothing out there,” she said.

“It’s there.”

He stood shakily and tried putting weight on his leg, but it folded almost instantly. Bubblegum was there, supporting him under one arm, and she kept pace with him as they walked.

“Our netrunner just rage quit,” she said after they’d been walking for a few minutes.

“Figured.”

“Most of your teammates have blackballed you. I could kick you now. Wouldn’t even need to shoot you.”

Danny looked up at her as he limped alongside and she saw fear in the boys face.

“How much further?” she asked instead and he raised the hand again, pointing to the wreckage of a Ruskie chopper.

“They built this map from the war records,” Danny said. He didn’t know why he wanted to talk. He just knew he had to say something before she grew tired and kicked him. “They’re all gone now, the records. The last president thought they showed the country in a bad light.”

“Not telling me anything new kid,” Bubblegum said. “That’s why you gotta pay the big bucks for the real thing. I don’t know why you don’t just play in the ‘crumbs. You would have been a baby when this war finished.”

“I was. Born nine months after the last deployment.”

They reached the chopper and Danny stood on his own. His search overcame whatever pain his leg felt. Either that or the biofoam was just really good. He began searching through the wreckage.

Bubblegum just watched.

The soldiers who had been in the chopper when it crashed lay on the ground, spread out in the same position they’d been when the nukes went off. Each of them still looked like they had when they’d fallen, only the scratches from the impact marring their faces.

Bubblegum walked around, letting Danny continue his search. The men here were commandos. If you played the game and got good, real good, you could load out as a commando. She knelt by one of the men. He still held his rifle.

“Hmmm,” she said and Danny paused his hunt.

“What?”

“Nothing. This guy just looks like you.”

It was a good thing she wasn’t a violent person, because as Danny knocked her aside she could feel the urge to kick the kid come surging back. She grabbed her rifle and levelled it at Danny, ready to finally put an end to this charade.

Danny was crying.

They weren’t real tears. Not in the game. But back home, sitting on his bed, the tears were real. They felt hot on his face as he clutched at the body.

“Kid?” Bubblegum asked quietly.

Danny was holding the dead man with a grip that turned the knuckles of his avatar’s hands white. He shook with each sob.

“Dad.”

Bubblegum watched and waited. Danny said the single word and sat back, his hand holding the cold hand of his dead father’s avatar.

“He’s not real,” Bubblegum said and instantly she felt like an asshole.

Danny had a half-smile on his face. He didn’t look at her. He didn’t look at the battlefield or the tacmap or feel the pain in his leg. He just looked at his old man.

“He died before I was born,” he said after a while. “He left my mom and didn’t come home. Then the Euro-raids started and we were moved to a camp and all the photos I had were left behind. I forgot what he looked like.”

Danny sat back and fixed her with a gaze. He wasn’t crying anymore.

“I tried to get my Dad’s war records but they were gone, part of the purge. Then I saw the game and I knew there was a chance. I just had to get this far.”

“You could have asked,” Bubblegum said.

“I did. Over and over, but no one cares about a trade-rat. I started playing in the lower leagues, saving my credits. I’ve made it to this level three times. It gets harder every time. So many people.”

Danny’s avatar knelt beside his father’s. He was recording every facet he could. This wouldn’t be some kill-compilation video uploaded to the wire.

This wouldn’t be someone else’s solace.

Bubblegum just watched. And when the enemy team found them she froze their weapons and kicked them off the map and she let Danny spend all the time he needed with his dad.

Finally Danny stood. The pain had returned. It was too deep now. The shunt in his spine was leaking and he knew he’d walk with a limp for the next few months. But he looked at his dad and smiled.

“Love you pa,” he said.

The rig felt heavy as Danny lifted it from his head. He didn’t need to play again.

He’d finished the game.

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