by Fred Warren -
The velociraptor tore Melanie’s leg from her body, showering her in blood, heedless of her screams. Her finger convulsed on the trigger of her submachine gun, but the bullets found no purchase on the dino’s armored hide.
“Should have loaded AP rounds, Mouse. Maybe next time you’ll listen to your big brother.”
“Shut up, Carson. And quit calling me Mouse.”
“That’s Rhino to you, Mouse. Would you please hurry up and die so we can restart the level? Man, I hate team survival criteria. I could have plowed solo through this lame scenario in five minutes, tops.”
“Stupid lizard’s still chewing on my leg. Aaagh, why does it have to hurt so much? If you’d laid down some covering fire, genius, I might have made it across the clearing. Using your teammates as bait…Ouch! Ouch, ouch, ouch…doesn’t inspire confidence in your leadership.”
“Not a scratch on me. Maybe if you could learn to follow orders, you’d live longer.”
“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ Carson. Ohmigosh…here it comes again.”
“Heh. Nope, no ‘I,’ just ‘meat.’”
The raptor’s jagged teeth ripped into Melanie’s torso, causing her simsuit to generate a convincing impression of her body being chewed in half. Her vision went full red, then black. “All right, that’s it. I’m logging, if only to reassure myself that all my parts are where they belong.”
“Aw, c’mon, Sis! One more run, please! I promise I’ll watch your back this time, and I’ll let you have your pick of the loot.”
“Okay, okay. 60-40, you harpy. I should have locked you out of my circle when I had the chance.”
“Yeah, right. Who else would get your hardware upgrades for half-price and install them for free? Well, mostly free.”
“I love you too, big brother. Give me five minutes…it still feels like my guts are hanging out somewhere.”
“Your guts are right where they belong, Mel. See you in five.”
Melanie smiled. He was a jerk, but he could be so sweet, when he wanted to.
She groped around with her right hand, found the bailout switch, and slapped it. After her visor cleared to pink translucence, she pulled off the tri-D helmet and ran her fingers through her hair. She hurt all over. The games were fun—when she wasn’t getting stabbed, shot, torched, or eaten—but she didn’t share her brother’s obsession. There were too many interesting things to do in the real world, and there was no way she’d ever let her body degenerate into a flabby sack of lard like Carson and his pals. Slugs, everyone called them. Carson wore the name like a badge of honor.
She sighed, levered herself up from the gaming couch, and staggered to a basin set into the wall where she could take a drink and splash water on her face.
Carson was the only reason she played at all. She’d promised their mother she’d look after him the day he’d filed his Writ of Independence, after he’d locked himself into a gaming suite with two caretaker cyborgs. Now, she was his only contact with the world beyond the game servers. It helped being a computer tech. She understood the games and could do depot-level maintenance on his simsuit and interface hardware. He couldn’t dismiss her along with the rest of Avenir Eclectia as an irrelevant distraction from the virtual world he loved.
So he wasn’t lost to her. Not yet.
Melanie stretched her cramped muscles, luxuriating in the relief it granted from the ache and burn of the simsuit’s lingering effects. She owed herself a hot bath later, and that thought was incentive enough to hop back on the couch and don her helmet one last time for the day. She checked her chronograph and swore—eight minutes since she’d logged out. She swatted the login switch, steeling herself for a lecture.
Her vision tunneled, expanded, and refocused, and a flood of sensations from the simsuit rushed through her body. She was back at the rally point for Chrono Marines, surrounded by leafy, steamy jungle, the air alive with the calls of exotic wildlife and insects. A dino roared in the distance—probably a tyrannosaur. She gripped her weapon tightly and scanned the undergrowth. She was safe from attack here, but the sensory immersion was so complete, she couldn’t help feeling as if something might pounce on her at any moment.
She checked her ammo, then swapped the default magazine for a clip of armor-piercing bullets. It stung her pride, but she wasn’t going to be some overgrown lizard’s chew toy twice in one day.
Where was Carson? By now, he should have been giving her an earful for being late. Melanie keyed her mic. “Car…Rhino, this is Mouse, in position at the rally point. Do you copy? Over.”
There was no response, just a faint static crackle in her headset. “Rhino, Mouse. I’m at the rally point, awaiting orders. Please respond.”
There were two short beeps, indicating a connection from outside the game. “Mel, something’s come up. Log out of CM and jump to Conference Room Seven.” Carson’s voice was strained and shaky.
“What’s the matter? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Better than fine. I got a call from Orca a couple of minutes ago. Jumbo’s Folly just went hot.”