When I got back to the Computerr Research Lab, my number was up, so I waved the Pluto 2280 game-card – the non-labelled side – at the admin guy and walked deeper in. Straight away there was a problem: some kid was sitting in front of my screen, playing one of those classic half-bit, non-VR games. I checked the ticket. Yup, it was definitely mine. What the fuck was this little trog doing?
‘Hey,’ I barked, waving the ticket above his head.
‘Time’s up. Finished.’
Nothing, no head movement, barely even blinked.
On the screen, there was a beach and a man running up some steps onto a promenade. Behind him, someone yelling, off-screen, then gun-shots. So loud I could hear them through the guy’s headphones. Which I decided to yank off.
‘I said, time’s up, kasu. It’s my turn.’
He looked up, dazed. ‘Five seconds.’
I spent the five seconds looking at his build. He was sitting down, but I could tell he was small. Arms pretty thin…chest covered in an over-sized Critters 6 t-shirt…probably no work put into it.
‘Five seconds gone, kasu. Get off.’
He shook his head and kept playing.
It was probably wrong to start a fight in the computerr lab, but he was pushing me, and he was skinny, and it would be over quick.
‘You deaf? I just told you to get off .’
My hand pushed his bony little paw off the keyboard. He tried to slide it back, but I blocked, cuffing him on the temple as an exclamation mark.
‘It’s not saved, abuzere.’
‘Don’t care. Move.’
I picked up the legs of his chair and turned it over. Clearly unprepared for that degree of escalation, he shrieked and skidded off onto the carpet, hitting his head on another guy’s bag.
‘Get up then, kasu,’ I told him, my hands already fists. ‘Fucking try it.’
Across the room the assistant guy I kinda knew saw what was happening and strolled over, sipping from a flask as he went. Seemingly unsurprised at the guy sprawled on the floor, he told me in an odd monotone that this kind of thing was against the rules and it could end in a permanent ban from computerr lab resources. I told him back that the guy wouldn’t move, and how he’d said five seconds to me like a little contrarian, but the assistant didn’t care. ‘If it happens again…permanent ban,’ he repeated, and then told the other guy his time was up.
The little wretch picked up his bag, called me a motherfucker in American-English then walked off, smacking the door release button on his way out.
Unmoved, faintly bored, I picked up the chair and took out the game.
The assistant was still hovering.
‘Is that research?’ he asked.
‘Spanish Civil War. From the library.’
‘Right. I forgot…’
He didn’t go away, so I had to keep my hand over the game art.
‘Sorry about that.’ He pointed at the door the stroppy guy had just walked out of. ‘To tell the truth, this isn’t the first time. We’ve told him before, follow the time limits, but it’s pointless. He just says five seconds on repeat until one of us comes over and forces him off.’
‘Permanent ban?’ I said to the screen.
‘Yeah, we tried, but, you know, he’s got money. Or his family has. Anyway, whatever he does, you can’t start trouble. He always wins that way.’
‘I’ll let you handle him next time.’
‘Yeah, thanks. Can’t wait. Actually, I don’t really know why he comes here. He’s probably got all the hardware back at his housse. And he doesn’t even play VR half the time. Like just now, he was playing one of those old games. Which is fine, but…why would you come here to do that?’
I smiled and held up the blank side of my game-card. ‘Sorry, it’s due tomorrow morning.’
‘Oh, right. Of course. Sorry for holding you up.’
‘Do you have your own patch or…’
‘In my bag.’
‘…do you need-…right, okay.’
He hovered a few seconds longer, looking down at the carpet then said an unfinished, ‘good luck with the…’ and walked back to his desk over on the other side of the room.
I waited until his eyes were elsewhere then put in the card. Thanks to my well-funded unii, the installation only took eight minutes, and then another minute to connect to my patch. There were no alarms, no suspicious looks, so in I went.
‘Descent to the surface commencing.’
Computerr voice, generic female.
‘Engine intact, no damage detected. Hull exterior also intact. Landing in ten seconds. Nine. Eight. Seven…’
Shit, in media res…the rumours were accurate.
I stared out the window at the surface.
Looked icy enough.
That part should’ve been accurate at least.
Had some red tholin haze in the distance too.
The ship shuddered.
Landing jets fired, landing plugs lowered. The ship touched, rose then settled softly on the surface.
I blinked and there was movement around me.
Out of pack instinct, I moved also.
The ramp was being lowered and twelve men in space-suits were walking out. I was one of them. Half of me was tempted to stay on the ship and lounge around, maybe make a coffee or something, but there was a strong sense of mission in the air and the punishment for not keeping up could’ve been confinement. Ah, I’ll just walk out, see what they do. The others are faceless at the moment, but I know they’re all NPCs so it doesn’t matter.
There was static, then a gruff voice.
‘Secure the area, 1km square. Move out.’
The others moved out and headed off in different directions away from the shuttle. I stayed behind and stretched my limbs. The group leader was still lurking nearby so I pretended to check the landing plugs.
Was this optional?
Couldn’t I just go back to the base? Or even better, one of the barrs on Pluto-Cha?
I retreated towards the shuttle ramp, but a hand reached out and reeled me back. ‘Better take this,’ the gruff voice said.
He handed me what looked like a laser rifle from Black Hole Zero and I didn’t bother trying to hide my confusion.
‘Shoot on sight, soldier.’
‘Show those Martokras whose system this is.’
I went through about a dozen responses in my head, but ended up nodding. He’s an NPC, no point quizzing him.
After an awkward few seconds, he moved away.
I looked down at the shape of my rifle and let out a labored breath. This wasn’t what this game was supposed to be. Shooting alien encroachers? War maneuvers?
Maybe I did something wrong when it was loading. Chose the wrong option without realizing. Or it’s a lure for the brainless players, starting in medias res to suck them in then switching back to the base and space realism.
Whatever it was, this soldier shit was done.
I double-checked the stat visuals on the other characters, confirmed that there were no PCs and then skipped forward an hour.
The scene altered itself slightly, adding a blue campfire and several large rocks for the other characters to sit on. I was standing near the shuttle, and when I moved over to join the others, some random gas spurted up out of the ice. Was that supposed to be sublimation? Jesus, it looked cheap.
When I got to a vacant rock and sat down, my brain almost short-circuited. For some reason, I had completely missed the fact that no one else was wearing a helmet. On Pluto. Reaching up to my own head, I discovered that I wasn’t wearing one either.
What the actual f-…
‘Quite an amazing invention, isn’t it?’ said the man with a gruff voice, shaking a clunky-looking device with flashing yellow dots at the rest of us. ‘All the oxygen we need for the camp zone, all regulated by this wonder machine. Incredible.’
One of the NPCs raised her hand and recited her designated lines. ‘I don’t get it, Sir. How can it make air when there’s no seal around us?’
The other NPCs murmured in agreement.
I would’ve done too, if I weren’t still in shock.
‘You see, those markers we put down are not just markers. They’re oxygen generators. And this,’ he shook the device again, ‘this is a transmitter. So, this transmits, and the markers receive. You see, they are receivers.’
The transmitter transmits?? Was this real?
‘I see. So the markers pump out air then?’
‘Indeed they do. Lots of air.’
Ten of them got it. The appointed skeptic of the group didn’t, shaking her head.
‘But Sir, about the seal?’
‘What’s that, soldier?’
‘I mean, we have all this air, but there’s still no seal? How can the markers contain the oxygen in this area if there’s no seal?’
‘Soldier, that’s an interesting question.’
The Sir didn’t expand. Just stretched out his arms and told us all to get some rest as it would be a long, perilous day tomorrow.
As they all disappeared inside their tents, the skeptic who had questioned the Sir stayed behind and questioned him again. I lurked nearby.
‘You still don’t get it?’
‘No, Sir. I tried, but I don’t.’
The Sir put a hand on the skeptic’s shoulder.
‘There is an answer, don’t worry. It’s just too technical for grunts like us to understand. Best off leaving it to the science coats back on Earth. Clear?’
The skeptic repeated clear and disappeared into her tent. The zip went up behind her, but stopped two-thirds of the way up, giving myself and whoever else was around a sneaky shot of her de-suiting.
Who made this? A fourteen year old boy?
I watched a little longer, picking a spare oxygen pod nearby as cover in case she noticed the voyeur. She got down to a vest top before I felt guilty enough to look away. In a Harem Survival game, fine, but in the Pluto 22 series, like this? My eyes went left, my brain trailing slowly behind. I saw another tent with its zip halfway down, and the Sir standing inside with his shirt off and his pants about to drop.
Again I stayed pinned, not even blinking, curious to see if he’d really pull them down. Lower parts were usually off limits in this kind of game, though with the popularity of Harem VR, maybe that had changed.
The pants came down and the Sir stood there like a French actor, stretching his neck muscles. I turned back to the skeptic’s tent and saw her sliding into her sleep suit. Shit, she’d just been full frontal too.
Was I supposed to go into one of these tents?
In Pluto 2270, crossing that kind of boundary without consent would’ve had consequences. Even real time in the confinement cell. But none of the NPCs had ever stripped in front of me before.
A jet of sublimating ice shot up next to my foot.
Wah, I almost forgot.
This was Pluto, not Earth.
Where astronauts stripped down to bare skin in minus two hundred and thirty degrees Celsius.
Where they walked around without helmets and said shit like, ‘leave it to the science coats.’
Yosh…what the hell was this?
This couldn’t be the real game.
Real immersion experience. Exact words on the cover. And exactly what the last game was like. You’ve given me the brainless version. Mixed up Pluto 2280 with some Black Hole Zero or sex onsen rip off.
Fuck, Yosh, this is my whole day ruined. Would’ve been better to get nothing than this shit.
My right index finger moved over to the left palm, about to press down and end this mess when a blue laser beam shot out of the sky and burned a hole through one of the tents.
The Sir character ran out of the tent shirtless, but not pant-less, and ordered everyone to take cover behind the shuttle. ‘It’s the Martokras, they’ve located us.’
I stood where I was, half praying for one of the lasers to hit me.
Did I really want to continue with this?
It was still Pluto.
This could just be the intro.
Maybe the Martokras were letting off steam?
One attack and then terse co-existence.
It was possible.
Another laser shot past my head, hitting one of the other NPCs, practically melting their whole arm off.
‘That’s your research?’
‘Doesn’t look like the Spanish Civil War.’
The assistant was perched behind me, on the nitrogen ice of Pluto, looking at the art on the packaging that, like an idiot, I’d left face-up on top of my bag. I pressed down on my left palm and looked at it too. It was still a bit hazy, but I knew there was nothing even remotely Spanish or revolutionary about it.
‘And your facial reactions picked up on the lab scanner do not match those of research.’
‘The game art isn’t reflective of-…’ I looked around, seeing parts of the computerr lab merging with Pluto as the game closed out. ‘Hang on, you have facial scanners in here?’
‘I told you the rules.’
‘Where? On the ceiling?’
‘No playing games in this part of the computerr lab.’
‘Okay, look. Slow down a sec. I’m still a bit goggy…groggy…here. Just let me finish the…’ My eyes were still half in the game, still receiving the nonsense plot. Now the Sir character was constructing a rail gun, with metal scrap from a nearby pile. The camera zoomed out and revealed a second pile. And a third. The other NPCs were already picking pieces up and making barricades.
‘What the hell are they-…’
‘If that’s what you want, then you’ll have to get a ticket for that side and wait like everyone else.’
‘All that metal…’
‘I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.’
The surface of Pluto faded out, with the computerr lab reasserting itself unapologetically in its place.