By George Holm
© 2015 George Holm. All rights reserved.
For the Olivers, who created and foster my madness – G.H.
Billy Baxter shifted anxiously in the swivel chair of his computer station. He glanced at the wall clock, chewed a fingernail, spit it out and moved onto the next finger. His feet were a blur of restless motion beneath the desk. He looked again at the clock, sighed, spotted another substantial crescent of healthy fingernail and went after it. At the front of the room, his computer teacher continued to drone on about something or another. Billy was generally an enthusiastic student, particularly of all things computational, but today he had bigger, more immediate concerns. Today was finally the day. Minutes earlier – at 2.37PM to be precise – his excitement had been kindled. As he utilized deft keystrokes to cycle between the open windows on his computer desktop a long awaited e-mail had arrived in his account. It was a delivery confirmation. He had opened the mail, eyes wide, heart pounding. A package had arrived at his home. Fearing it might have been left unattended on his porch he had scoured the e-mail for a confirmation of acceptance. A digital image of his Sally Baxter’s unmistakable signature had greeted him, confirming his mother had received his goods safely. The knowledge had done little to settle him though; the feeling was reminiscent of Christmas morning as a kid, more intense even. School could not end soon enough. The seconds took on a cruel, stretched feeling. He spit another fingernail floorward. The wall clock now displayed 2.57PM. Only three more minutes.
Billy tossed his bike aside, leapt onto the paved driveway and bolted along it in long strides. He bounded up the steps to his front door and twisted the handle but the door was locked. He hammered his fist on the door briefly, then turned and leapt back down the steps without awaiting a response. He rounded the corner of the house, sprinted along its side, through the back gates and toward the house’s back entrance.
The back door lay open, the scent of freshly baked bread migrating outward and onto the breeze of the spring day. The rich aroma sent his mouth watering, but ultimately Billy had no time for grazing. He tossed the school rucksack off his shoulders, discarding it by the kitchen door. “Mom?!” He shouted. “Mom, where are you?! Where is it?!”
He charged between rooms, but there was no sign of his mother. The excitement that had been swelling in him was now in danger of overflowing. He bolted up the stairs three at a time and flung open the door to his mother’s room, too excited to show consideration to either the structure itself or any privacy it may have offered.
Sally Baxter lay atop the bed beside a discarded novel. A sleep mask concealed her eyes and she was snoring gently. “Mom!” She sprung awake like a marionette jerked harshly on its strings, then appeared to recall the mask on her face and fumbled for it. She missed it once before finding purchase on its side and pulling it free. “Billy, what the hell? Are you trying to give me a damned heart attack?” Billy failed to register either her displeasure or her question. “Where is it?! Where’s my package?! Please Mom!” His mother’s face brightened in a wide grin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Bill.” she teased. Billy almost hopped on the spot from infantile excitement. “I know it’s here. You signed for it! I got the delivery notice in school!” Billy’s mother was up now, ruffling her boy’s unkempt red hair. “It’s in your room Bill. Have fun.”
Billy turned with feline verve and continued his charge through the upper half of the house, headed now for the bedroom door at the end of the hall. A large metal road sign had been fixed to the door. “No Entry,” it declared.
As the sign began to loom large in view, Billy’s little sister Emily emerged from the door one before his own. “Hi Bill!” she smiled, the white grin broken by a single missing tooth. He lifted her aloft, kissed her on the cheek. “Can’t talk now Teethless. We can play later!” Billy dropped Emily back to the floor, her rubbing to erase the kiss from her cheek with mock disgust. Billy pushed open the door to his bedroom, crossed the threshold and flung it closed behind him, sending the road sign rattling a metallic tune in his wake.
Billy immediately spotted the package nestled amongst his bedcovers. He ran to the window, pulling the curtains closed firmly, then flicked on the ceiling light. He dropped to his knees and regarded the thing atop his bed with wide eyes and an expression of legitimate wonder. After all the waiting it was finally here. The light hanging above the box illuminated its paper-clad sides. Billy ran his eager hands across the surface of the package.
It was larger than he had expected, a rectangular thing of perhaps three feet by two. He smiled, closed his eyes and allowed his hands to rest upon its surface, savoring the moment. He began to inspect the packaging. The smudged ink postmark read Moscow, Russia. Billy’s name and address were stenciled in official lettering that reminded him of an old military foHow long had he waited for this day? Too long, this was certain. He turned the package, looking for some purchase on the brown paper wrapping, then pried a finger beneath a triangle of taped and folded paper on its side and gently began to pull.
The paper tore back in a wide grin, revealing the solid black packaging beneath. Billy gripped the paper on either side of the opening and pulled forcefully, removing the postal wrap in a large sheet that made a dry crinkling sound as he cast it aside. He regarded the sleek, glossy package within. It was an unbroken, deep black, entirely featureless but for an embossed logo in the center of the top surface. It read ‘VRX-8’.
Billy let his fingers glide over the logo like a man reading braille, savoring each gentle groove of the font. The VRX-8. This was the very latest in personal Virtual Reality electronics technology. It was pure innovation, a series of bounds ahead of its competitors in every awe-inspiring technical specification. The thing had left an entire industry reeling in shock as it pushed every competitor product into obsolescence in a single product release. Optics, processing power, sound, weight, durability, performance, immersion all so far ahead of the previous state-of-the art that many had assumed it was an oversell, a joke, perhaps vaporware which would never see the light of day. It had turned out to be very real however. The initial product reviews by the industry’s experts had set the tech world alight. The culmination of innovation in multiple fields now rested before Billy, separated from him by only a layer of cardboard.
Obtaining his VRX-8 had been an endeavor that was far from trivial. The initial production run of one hundred thousand units had sold out twice over while still in pre-release. Its creators struggled to remain abreast of their manufacturing commitments. One of the core components in its revolutionary glove-based control system had become back-ordered while the Chinese supplier struggled to create enough pieces. The laws of supply and demand saw unscrupulous online marketers acquiring multiple units and reselling them at huge markups, some as high as $30,000.
At 16 years old, still in school and with only a part-time job, Billy was never going to manage to procure a unit while markups like these were the norm. With production stalling and the company overwhelmed with delivery of existing units, the consensus in the industry was that it might take 15 months for full normalization of operations and the neutralization of the online scalpers. Billy could not wait 15 months; that would mean more than a year of watching an elite group of smug assholes posting, blogging, live-streaming and vlogging their unpackaging ceremonies, product reviews and play-throughs. If Billy had to endure this he figured there was a reasonable chance he implode.
Billy was resourceful when it came to the acquisition of latest technology. In the past he had mowed lawns, tutored kids in computers, done anything he could to scrape the necessary cash together to feed his hobby. The VRX-8 was a unique problem however. This was not just a matter of identifying common items at minimal prices and working the hours necessary to buy them; the VRX-8 was a pink diamond and simply finding one that cost less that a new car was going to be tough, if not impossible.
Billy had developed a strong handle on software and programming as well as his passion for hardware. He had begun as an avid and highly skilled gamer. This had seen him immersed in online worlds and forums where he had interacted widely with technical experts and eventually begun to dabble in hacking. Over time he developed a reasonable skillset and was consequently aware of many of the hidden possibilities personal computing offered the advanced user. It was this that led him to his VRX-8.
When Billy realized that the big online vendors had run dry and that electronic auctioneers were selling at huge mark-ups, he knew he must move beyond these usual sources. He had first gone about disguising his location. The online world he was headed for was home to both the normal and the extreme. Some of the resources he would undoubtedly encounter in his quest would be under watch by authorities and he could not allow himself to fall afoul of the law.
Thus, he began his work with a specially rerouted and encrypted browsing system that would keep his activities disguised from prying eyes, hiding both their nature and geographical source. He was essentially unleashing flocks of electronic crows to feast upon any trail of breadcrumbs he might inadvertently leave. Satisfied with his security measures, he had entered a subterranean region of the Internet to conduct his search. These were not the sunny meadows of online life in which the bulk of activity occurred. This was another world entirely; a normally invisible place commonly known as the Dark Web.
This was the underbelly of the Internet, where users from the most wide-eyed and curious to the most dull-eyed and hideously corrupt browsed, bought or sold items that titillated and terrified. This was home to a black market, a source for services that one might not dare to pursue in the flesh. Billy had searched deep and wide, skirting around vendors offering murder for hire, untraceable weapons, false documents, illegal drugs and pornography whose mere descriptions would nauseate the average man.
After a week of moving between vendors, chat-rooms and bulletin boards he finally got a lead in a lightly attended chat forum where users discussed the potential for the implementation of Dark Web technologies on new VR hardware. The technologies implemented within the Dark Web were traditionally less polished than those existing in the mainstream. This was often by necessity, owing to the need for encryption and redirection to ensure privacy. The majority of participants in the discussion were mostly skeptical of the need or potential for VR based program deployment.
One individual under the moniker Solonik claimed to be experiencing some success in developing low weight VR applications suited to Dark Web deployment. He offered scant details, but stated that he had a small number of VRX-8 headsets whose internal software he had modified to permit access to his early development programs, as well as the manufacturer’s own online VR world. He was willing to sell at minimal markup in exchange for independent testing of his software.
Most participants were concerned about the modifications invalidating warranty on an expensive piece of tech, but Billy was ready to take the risk. He identified Solonik as a well-regarded Russian-based vendor on a number of Dark Web auction sites. With this information in hand, Billy did not hesitate. He contacted Solonik privately and struck the deal. He made payment in electronic currency and Solonik provided tracking information within hours. The vendor assured him everything would arrive safely, in mint condition with all components fully charged and ready for use. The two-week wait had been a painful one, but it was over now.
Billy placed a gentle hand on each side of the box and lifted it slowly off the bed. The inner compartment of the box slid smoothly out, with a faint sighing sound as the air rushed into it. The inner case came to rest on the bed, and Billy set the lid aside. The interior of the box and the components it contained were as uniform and black as the exterior had been. Each component had its own little nest amongst a stenciled foam casing. Billy removed the pieces one by one.
First came the headset itself. It was surprisingly compact, large enough to cover the eyes and not much more. It felt light enough as to be imperceptible when worn. An adjustable, lightweight leather strap formed a loop at its rear. On each side, a liminal flexible stalk protruded, carrying noise cancelling, full surround sound ear buds. Inside, behind eggshell-thin lenses lay twin ultra-high resolution screens, each driven by a powerful, miniaturized on-board computer with data stored on a microdrive. The device’s connectivity was completely wireless.
A tracking obelisk sat in the box beside the headset. This would map any room with a matrix of complex lasers, tracking its contours and his every move within it.
And then, perhaps the greatest innovation of the VRX-8; its gloves. Traditional handheld controllers were replaced by lightweight gloves that offered complete control via tracking of the hand movements. The gloves offered advanced tactile feedback to simulate the sense of grasping and manipulating objects. Advanced microfibers extended throughout the gloves offering simulation of a wide and finely tuned spectrum of heat, moisture and pain, if desired.
Motion sickness was eliminated by the inclusion of epidermal microprobes within the gloves and headset. These collectively emulated the physical sensation of movement in tune with the visual display. The result was the most seamless and immersive virtual reality experience attained in the history of the technology.
Billy absorbed the sight of the sleek and revolutionary devices before him, his excitement rising to crescendo. He could bear to wait no longer. He placed the obelisk sensor on a high armoire, offering it an unencumbered view of the room. Carefully, he pushed his hands into the gloves, feeling them stretch easily and produce a skintight fit. He flexed two fists, nerve-endings barely registering the presence of the gloves upon him. He pulled the headset onto his face, positioned the ear buds within his ears and traced a finger across a barely visible power switch on its right side. There was a brief moment of nothingness, and he began to fear a fault, or even just the need to charge the components with one of the many cables nested in the box. Then, the components of the technology sprung simultaneously to life.
The gloves gave a brief pulse then cycled from hot to cold, arid to moist. There was a feeling of having each of his hands simultaneously squeezed gently, akin to a welcoming handshake. Atop the armoire, Billy heard the obelisk emit a brief electronic tone, and suddenly the room tracking began to. Unfold before his eyes.
First his view contained only blackness, and then pulsing movements spread across his vision, oscillating rapidly from left to right and ceiling to floor of the room. The pulsing waves left a vectorized lattice of contours in their wake. With each cycle of the lasers across the room, further levels of detail appeared in the lattice, until it was dense and solid.
Next, the contours and objects were processed and colored with red appearing to demarcate areas of potential tripping or collision hazards and safe areas being colored in green. Billy himself was cast in black, standing amongst the landscape of reds and greens. Then, his vision again became black. There was a moment of nothingness, then a vague falling sensation. The gloves produced rapid signals beginning in the fingertips and pulsing upward to the wrist that seemed to emulate the passage of air over Billy’s hands. Then, his vision jolted and darkness slowly began to take on shape and movement, like a man regaining sight after temporary blindness.
Billy watched in wonder as the scene before him unfolded. What looked like ghosts moving out of dark ether before him became diverse living forms. He saw user avatars milling around a vast pedestrianized thoroughfare with tall buildings stretching for as far as he could see on both sides of the wide street. The buildings took on colors and character as he watched. Many of the structures were gaudy and covered in neon signs, light and sound emanating through open doors and windows. The sounds of the place seemed to come from all around him, the chatter within the crowds rising and falling as figures passed him.
The avatars he saw had a diversity of shapes, sizes and fashions. Here walked a figure with the head of an elephant and the body of a diapered, barefoot baby, looking through windows and talking with an accomplice who looked like a 50s movie star. On the far side of the street, a cluster of assorted alien races recognizable from the back catalog of Hollywood sci-fi stood in a circle conversing and laughing amongst themselves.
He avatars in the shape of barbarians and dragons, ninjas and soldiers, angels and vamps; it was like the Las Vegas of a madman. Billy regarded his own reflection in the window of a virtual movie theater that advertised access to one million movies in theater settings from the Earth and beyond. He was disappointed to see that he appeared featureless and small. He turned his eyes toward a small glowing icon in the periphery of his vision. Turning his gaze to it caused it to explode into an overlay of options that sat above the scenes of the street. Using the movement of his eyes and hands, he was able to quickly customize many of the options about his appearance.
He turned again to the theater window and gazed upon the reflection of his alter ego. Very quickly he had become an imposing, heavily muscled figure with an assortment of tattoos, piercings and shaven head. He flexed his biceps, and grimaced, watching the reflection mirror him perfectly. The sense of self and presence was incredible. Every movement of his body was perfectly reproduced in the virtual world. Every head movement translated seamlessly to a shifting of his vision. His hand movements were perfectly reproduced and the gloves convincingly portrayed the feeling of objects within his hands. The rise and fall of his feet within his room translated to forward movement in his vision.
He began to walk on the spot within his bedroom and simultaneously began to stroll along the street of the virtual world, moving amongst the crowds and past the many buildings. Some of the avatars he saw walked alone, looking for their own virtual needs but many walked socially in groups. He overheard pieces of their conversations as the passed him, many remarking enthusiastically on the wonder of the sights before them and the seamless realism with which they experienced them.
The world he found himself in appeared to offer something of everything to the VR enthusiast. He passed bowling alleys, pool halls, and tennis clubs and squash courts, all haphazardly juxtaposed in the street. He heard cheering from within a virtual baseball stadium and watched a ball sail over the top of the place and drop amongst the milling crowds further along the street before him.
There were banks where electronic currencies could be deposited, or traded. There were travel experiences that offered virtual tours of exotic Africa, or perhaps just an opportunity to sunbathe on the French Riviera. White knuckle and daredevil experiences were offered. A virtual theme park towered above the other buildings offering a selection of the world’s most famous roller coasters in a single location. A virtual biplane landed on a raised landing strip above the street and its pilot began to shout offers of plane trips and sky-dives (parachute optional) through a megaphone.
Billy passed noisy bars inside which revelers conversed, threw darts or danced to techno music. It seemed that the further he moved along the street, the more raucous the activities became. He passed a wide side street in which a group of spectators cheered on two drag racers while a bookie took wagers in electronic currency. The window of a bar exploded outwards before Billy as a barstool crashed through it. The stool was shortly followed by two avatars who threw wild punches at one another and bobbed and weaved, laughing hysterically and shouting obscenities.
He passed a casino where an avatar leapt from the rooftop, splattered on the ground in an explosion of gore, and then regenerated afresh. The reincarnated avatar appeared dazed and confused, looked about him dreamily as if he may have expected to in fact be dead. He cursed loudly, kicked the air, put a finger to the right side of his head and disappeared, perhaps to reattempt suicide in reality.
In time the nature of the conversations Billy overheard began to undergo changes in theme. The avatars around him increasingly discussed subjects of sexuality, desire and sometimes violence. Billy was surprised by the candor of the chatter around him. People openly traded descriptions of fetishes and fantasies that seemed to him inappropriate, shocking, and sometimes sinister or illegal.
The nature of the establishments lining the street underwent change also. Now he passed windows where scantily clad persons of male, female or ambiguous gender danced to hypnotic electronic tunes. One great neon sign lit the front of a building in which photorealistic ladies stood in windows, nude figures beckoning would-be customers inside. A mechanical sounding voice trickled from the direction of a single speaker above the place’s front door, jovial and sinister. “Don’t be shy, cum inside! Don’t be wussy, let your glove be the pussy! The most realistic VR fuck you’ve ever experienced! Shoot your load and hit the road!” Billy watched the ladies gyrate in the windows, beckoning him inside. He elected to keep moving, maybe circle back by the place later when his family was in bed and he was less likely to be discovered in his bedroom obliviously humping a glove that faked hot and wet.
He passed places where the avatars in the windows catered to more esoteric audiences. Two men in full body black rubber suits stood in one window. Black masks concealed their features and they held their lips to close to one another’s ears whispering. The intimate words were transmitted into Billy’s earpieces, breathy and unsettling. The men mutually grasped the exposed genitals of the other in gloved hands. Their forearms jerked furiously while their black bodies remained otherwise still, glistening like some perverse onyx statue. Billy recoiled from the unfamiliarity and frankness of the scene and dropped his head to hide it from vision. To his relief the sound of the men’s whispers gradually dropped beyond his levels of perception as he jogged away from the window.
It was easy to forget that he was actually standing within his own home. Regardless of appearance, these were real people he was seeing and hearing; who were seeing and hearing him. In some respects the virtual world afforded these people the ability to be more real than reality, for here their inhibitions could be cast off and their honest desires uttered aloud. There seemed to be a safety to this place that could not exist in the world of flesh and bone. In this place users could pursue their needs without affecting their real world lives and without hurting their families or friends.
Eventually, crowds, impressively lit buildings and bold advertisement gave way to shadowy structures, isolated figures and ambiguous function. Here the textures and smoothing of the visuals became less ornate and more hurried in their design. The howling groups were gone and the few visible avatars had become unsophisticated and plain. Frowning avatars in nondescript outfits wandered gloomy streets, occasionally disappearing inside the arcane establishments. Building signs were either absent, or understated; a stark contrast to the neon back up the street.
Billy felt slight unease. Had he unknowingly passed some hidden threshold? He felt an impulse to turn and return along the path he had came, but reminded himself of where he really was; he was standing in his bedroom, wearing a piece of consumer technology, safe. For the first time since entering the virtual world, he recalled the sole request of the vendor who had provided his VRX-8. He had likely now entered the region of the world programmed by Solonik, and was expected to provide feedback.
As if on cue, a delicate electronic chime escaped one of the buildings. Billy stepped toward the building and examined the exterior. A seemingly hand-painted sign was mounted subtly above a single, poorly lit doorway. In large black lettering, the sign read ‘Solonik’s Game’. Beneath this there was a symbol incorporating twin pistols whose handles were adorned with a coiled serpent. The place was intriguing; like the other buildings in this region of the world it was understated and bathed in shadow, but it was also carefully rendered, and portrayed with a certain sophistication.
As a competitive gamer, the potential connotations of ‘Solonik’s Game’ seduced Billy. He looked around him, and found the place was deserted but for the occasional streetlamp offering gently fluctuating illumination. He again found himself questioning the safety of the place but reminded himself that this was a virtual world and nothing more.
He walked to the door and reached for a doorknob that appeared brass, ornately carved and highly polished. He took the knob in his avatar’s hand and felt the glove accurately communicate its bulk and heft. He turned the handle, feeling and hearing it creak and then pushed the door open. It swung smoothly inward revealing a short hall lit by Edison bulbs that were dotted along its length. The outlines of their glowing filaments were clearly visible as he passed them. Polished wooden flooring was partially covered by a long green rug with ornate gold trim that led to a single door at the end of the hall. There was no sound in here, but for the faint electronic chime that sounded occasionally from behind the door.
Billy stepped cautiously along the hall, turning every so often to reassure himself that nothing was approaching him from behind. Each time he checked however, the hall was empty and quiet. As he gained proximity to the door he could make out the reflection of the hallway’s bulbs on the surface of the highly glossed mahogany door. It had the look of an old, handcrafted piece with carvings of shields and swords and knights. Billy reached out to turn the handle, and something about the atmosphere of the place stopped him. His hand hovered for a moment and then he instead raised it and knocked on the door three times.
The sound of bone drumming on heavy wood seemed to fill the hallway, and was followed by brief silence. Billy waited and presently a foreign sounding voice called a single word “Enter.” Billy turned the handle now, pushing the door open before him. The door opened onto a scene that had the appearance of a study. Books lined bookcases against three of the small room’s walls. Before Billy was a large desk, with nothing between it and himself. Atop the desk was a single, unopened tome of some kind. Behind the desk in huge old leather chair sat a figure. The figure’s face was hidden in shadow, but two huge hands were folded atop the desk in the light. Unsure how to proceed, Billy stood silent and contemplated.
After a few moments of silence, the two hands on the desk unknotted themselves, and one hand gestured toward the unopened book on the desk. The figure waited silently, its face still concealed in the gloom. Billy stepped forward, regarding the leather-bound volume. Like the building itself, the book was marked with only two words ‘Solonik’s Game’, this time in gilded-effect lettering. Billy reached out a hand, grasped the cover, felt it between his fingers. He turned it and it fell open on the desk with a disproportionately weighty thud.
On the open page appeared a list of the world’s geographical regions in font resembling handwritten ink. “Choose your desired mission setting,” the figure instructed. Billy extended a finger to select the option for North America. The page content disappeared briefly and then what looked like a list of potential tasks took its place. Billy surveyed the list in silence, a sense of excitement growing in him. The tasks were numbered from 1 to 5. They resembled missions from any number of games that Billy had encountered in the past, but with a certain real-world grittiness. This was going to be fun.
The first option said “Kill a woman walking in the park with her baby. She cheats on her husband.” Billy reached out a finger in curiosity, and attempted to touch the option. Before he was able to make contact, the chiming sound he had registered in the hallway sounded again and a strikethrough appeared through the text before it faded from the page.
He lifted his eyes to the figure behind the desk, who spoke again. “Choose quickly. Each game is unique. Once a player completes a mission, it is gone forever.” Billy regarded the page before him again. Four options remained.
2) Kill a priest as he delivers mass. He is a pedophile who has escaped the law.
3) Kill a college lecturer who invents grades in exchange for sex and penalizes those who resist him.
4) Kill the father who abused four of his children.
The fifth option stood out as possessing an extra challenge. It read, “Kill the crooked politician. He steals from his community and destroys the lives of the poor to increase his own wealth. Kill family members for bonus points.” Billy reached a finger toward the option, watched it illuminate and then saw his vision go black. “Good luck” called the voice of the figure behind the desk. “Execute the target and escape the scene to succeed.”
For a few moments Billy neither saw nor heard anything. Then, his vision blinked to life like an old CRT monitor. The picture was hazy and static to begin with. He heard a mechanical humming and then the picture took on form.
Billy found himself in a landscape similar to that of his own reality. He was on the corner of a residential street at dusk. Kids played basketball in a court across the street. Cars passed him as he took in his surroundings. Most were manned, while others were self-driven, some carrying passengers in their rear. Occasionally an overhead drone passed by, barely noticed, carrying home deliveries, likely coffees and consumer goods. Kids zoomed to and fro on two-wheeled hover boards.
This was markedly different to the eclectic, interactive bedlam of the first street he had walked. There was a disparity to this setting. On one hand, all of the people appeared to share identical, genericized facial features and barely appeared to notice his presence. Distinguishing marks were also limited within the geography; street signs were blank, house numbers absent. Despite this, the place had a convincing feel to it. Geography felt accurate and both pedestrians and traffic moved with an impressive realism; it could have been a location anywhere in the US. He wondered how much time the developer had spent to perfect such a sense of setting, for the work showed.
Mission objectives flashed in the corner of his vision. A picture identified the appearance of his primary target, the crooked politician. His face was identical to that of the pedestrians milling around in the streets but he was identifiable by a white shirt, black trousers and bright red tie. His only means of identifying his target’s location was a flashing arrow in his view that appeared to direct him. Billy followed the direction of the pointer, moving smoothly along the streets as the evening began to grow dark around him.
Billy raised his hands in front of him and saw that he now carried dual silenced pistols. The things looked powerful and sleek, reflecting the lights of the scene he found himself immersed in. He pointed the pistols at a group of nearby pedestrians and made trigger-pulling motions with his fingers to test them. The pistols remained lifeless and his display turned red. A warning message flashed “Civilian casualties not permitted. Target identified individuals only.” The warning was followed by images of the politician and his family, all sharing the generic faces and distinguishing clothing.
He dropped the pistols to his sides again and continued to pass through the scene. He felt artificially tall as he travelled through the streets and alleys, seemingly head and shoulders above the other inhabitants of the game. He was disappointed by the level of interactivity between himself and the other inhabitants of the game. He felt free to move through the streets unnoticed, and without attempting stealth. He figured that this might be improved by further development and made a mental note to feed this back to Solonik. What might the element of strategy be in this game, he wondered. Would it be the targets themselves? Might they possess some advanced movement patterns, or speed or agility that world challenge his marksmanship? He could only continue on his way to find out. The mission pointer began to blink now, bleeping in his ears to indicate the proximity of his target. Billy followed the directions for what looked like a real-world mile but felt much faster.
Eventually he reached a dead end, ascended a fence and dropped on the other side in the shadows of a residential garden. By the light of a street lamp before him he watched a man walk to his mailbox, open it and retrieve a handful of envelopes. As the figure turned and walked beneath the lamp, sifting through mail, Billy saw that he was dressed in distinguishing white shirt, black trousers and red tie of his target. Anticipation began to swell in him. Billy remained back in the shadows, and cautiously began to pursue the figure only when he turned his back and commenced his walk up a driveway towards a house, opening mail as he walked.
The house appeared occupied. Billy made out lights illuminating at least five windows in the place. He saw the silhouette of a woman moving about the kitchen, perhaps preparing dinner. He saw the shadow of what might be a young man gesticulating or dancing in an upstairs bedroom. The fourth target was not visible currently but he was sure he would locate her. Billy was confident of his skills in such games of stealth and death, for he had been playing them since childhood. His mother had objected at one time but eventually had accepted that despite their realism and polish the games were nothing more than the modern incarnation of Cowboys and Indians.
Billy judged the speed of the man as he proceeded up the driveway, and equated that to his own speed, making small movements back and forth in the shadows to gauge it. He watched the man approach the front door, using his free hand to pull a set of keys from a pocket and begin to unlock the door.
Billy began to move forward now at pace, gliding through the shadows of the adjacent garden, past the mailbox the man had stood at moments earlier and then charging up the driveway, dual pistols outstretched and primed. He timed his approach to ensure the man in the red tie would be in the open doorway when he reached him. He feared the man might hear his footsteps, turn at the final moment and perhaps surprise him with some form of fight, but the man was oblivious. As Billy emerged into the narrow light streaming through the front door and silhouetting the man, he pointed both pistols at the back of the man’s head and fired.
The silencing of the pistols was almost flawless. The muzzle flashes were blinding but all that reached Billy’s ears was a low double ‘whoosh’. The visuals effects of his work were altogether more dramatic. The man’s head erupted in an explosion of red pixels that looked almost volcanic. The handful of mail he had carried fanned into the air, dancing on the night air and cascading downwards onto the cartoonishly bloody porch. The remains of the man’s head jerked forward, the neck bending over the chest at an unnatural angle, pulling the body downward and forward. The man’s legs kicked out violently behind him and he lay halfway through the door, the puddle of cartoon blood spreading outward about his head and seeping onto the carpet beyond the porch.
Billy whooped. The physics of the violence within the game were extremely convincing; probably better than anything he had ever played before. The blood could likely be improved upon though. He would be sure to let Solonik know this. Despite the artificial quality of the blood, the experience was exhilarating. He considered firing a victory shot into the corpse’s back, to see what effect it might have on the scene, but he was interrupted by the sound of a female voice from within the house. “Karl?” the alarmed voice called. “Karl, is that you?” The voice sounded closer with each word. Billy’s goal pointer flashed violently indicating the proximity of the target. He rushed forward and rounded the door toward the direction of the kitchen he had observed the silhouette within. A woman ran toward him, but seemed to ignore him, eyes fixed on the corpse on the floor. She carried some form of food on a tray but sent it flying now as her hands went to the sides of her head, mouth open as if to scream.
Billy acted quickly. He fired one shot into the figure’s breast that sent her stumbling backwards toward the open kitchen door, pixelated blood jetting from the wound. Before she could reach the door or fall, he fired three more well timed shots, one catching her in the shoulder, the other two catching her in the face. She dropped to the floor, still. The artificial gore from her head began to pool and spread outward, puddling on the kitchen floor.
Billy’s display alerted him that two more targets remained. Time was short. To be successful he must either vacate the scene now, or execute the remaining targets. His target identifier directed him up the stairs by the kitchen. Billy held the pistols before him and pushed onward and onto the second floor. He charged along the hallway, heard the voice of a child call “Mommy?” before its owner appeared through a bedroom door, rubbing her eyes as if awoken from sleep. A teddy bear dangled from one hand.
She turned to him, face as generic as all the others he had seen. “Mommy?” she called again and then she turned her gaze upwards. Billy’s display continued to pulse and urge him to either proceed or escape. He did not hesitate. He fired into the head and body of the child repeatedly. She hit the floor and skidded along the carpet before coming to rest. Billy towered over the tiny corpse and fired a shot into the toy bear just for sport. Fluffy stuffing spouted from the wound and floated on the air. Billy was surprised by how realistic it appeared. Why would Solonik perfect this effect before that of the human injuries? Regardless, it was a sign of just how well he could program an effect if he wished to; this boded well for the blood effects in the next version of the game.
Billy’s target identifier blinked frantically, pulsing and urging him forward through a final upstairs door. He held the pistols before him and awaited the emergence of the final target through the door. He waited a second, then ten. The door did not open; no confused calls emerged from within. This was the room with the dancing figure. Was it possible the inhabitant of the room had heard none of the disturbance? Billy waited another few moments and then approached the door cautiously.
He grasped the door handle, twisting it slowly. His tactile feedback registered the clicking of the bolt and the door began to arc open. It swung fully open and struck the wall with an odd metallic clatter, but Billy had no time to analyze the noise.
A figure stood centrally inside the room, facing him. This individual looked different than the others, for the visuals of the generic face appeared to malfunction. While the generic haircut and jaw appeared normal, the eyes and ears were pixelated, blurry and indecipherable. Billy’s display pulsed wildly. A warning flashed, “Neutralize the final target or escape to succeed in your mission.” Billy acted on instinct. He fired a shot into the figure’s flank at the same moment as he registered its outstretched hand, making trigger-pulling motions like a child playing cowboys.
A searing pain tore through Billy, and he felt himself propelled backwards. Pain exploded in his back and his vision jerked violently upward, coming to rest focused on the room’s ceiling. The pain was as overwhelming as the sense of confusion, his mind temporarily oblivious to the whats and wheres of his consciousness. He placed a gloved hand on source of the pain and looked downward toward expecting to see the hand upon himself. Instead, what he saw from a distance was the figure with the concealed eyes, splayed on the floor, hand to his ribs, cartoon blood beginning to pool around him. It felt like his senses were undergoing some wild circular aberration, some hallucinogenic feedback loop that caused him to feel the scene rather than himself.
“What the fuck?” his confused mind mustered. He looked up and saw the ceiling. He looked down and saw the apparently wounded figure. He felt warmth above the pain now, spreading about him. He regarded the bloody figure again from his vantage point and held a hand aloft. The figure mimicked his action, in reverse, like an inverted reflection. Now he held two hands aloft and the figure did the same.
He recalled the headset he wore, reached a hand to it and watched the inverted figure mimic the movement, the hand touching the concealed region of its face. He felt weak. Nausea began to wash over him, his breathing beginning to labor. Sweat pricked him, and this was no creation of the technology he wore. He lifted the headset from his eyes, and battled to reorient himself to the world around him. He lay on the floor of his bedroom, aching back against his armoire. He faced the open door of his bedroom and blood was pooling all around him.
He cast his eyes about the room but saw no one. How could it be? He raised the headpiece to his eyes again and found he was regarding a wall with an armoire and a felled figure at its base. The image was not fully faithful to the actual room. Like the figures in this game, the furniture and structures appeared through a filter, just manipulated sufficiently to make them unrecognizable as their normal counterparts.
He dropped the headset from his eyes once more and lifted his gaze upwards. Now the dawning of realization took hold, and confusion began to metamorphose into the vague beginnings of understanding. There was no one in the room but him, no one standing in the doorway. Rather, hovering silently like a grotesque mechanized insect was a rotor driven drone. It hung in the air, seemingly blind now, regarding the room with silent indifference.
The thing was little more advanced than the models he had seen being flown to capture aerial photographs or deliver small goods. The structure was triangular, each point of the triangle giving rise to rotors that turned with silent and invisible speed. It hung there steadily, just slim enough to pass through the doorway. Beneath the twin rotors at it rear hung two miniaturized gun fixings. At the front, a narrow, lightweight arm with a basic claw mounted at its end.
Billy tilted the headset in his weakening hand, watched the thing pitch forward, then backward in time with the movements of his hand. With the drone facing the wall high above him he made the shape of a gun with his free hand, mimicked the pulling of a trigger. The action was remarkably silent, but the rear left muzzle flashed light and something struck the wall behind Billy, sending plasterboard and paint flecks showering his shoulders and clammy hair.
He tore the gloves from his hands now, began to crawl toward the door of his room, painting the carpet with a broad stroke of crimson as he moved. The insectile thing hovered impersonally above him as he edged beneath it and into the horror of the hall.
Feet from his own door lay Emily, her body lifeless and mutilated. The filter that had turned the people of this world to generic sprites and converted blood to pixels was gone now. Blood coated the walls, the carpets, Emily’s tattered skin and nightdress. An outstretched hand gripped a teddy bear grimly, the hand locked and lifeless and white. He began to scream now but his shouts held little momentum, his life pouring from him through the wound in his side.
His strength was rapidly failing but he crawled onward through the warm red spillage, mind still desperately hopeful for some revelation other than the inevitable. The blood beneath his hands squelched between his fingers as he moved. He thought back to the darkened room in the building that had been named ‘Solonik’s Game’ and of the dark figure in the back room.
“Each game is unique.”
He reached the head of the stairs, attempted to crawl downward but his arms buckled and he was sent down them violently, snapping a wrist as he went. He landed hard at the foot of the steps but the landing was partially softened by something beneath his screaming body. He lifted his head and stared into the lifeless face of his mother, her features hopelessly broken and disfigured, the contents of her skull pooling about her, matting her hair, soaking into the freshly sliced homemade bread beside her. A grotesque death sound transpired through the corpse’s devastated face. Billy fell to his side by his mother and vomited the scant content of his stomach weakly upon himself and the floor.
“Bonus points for family members.”
He forced himself to his elbows, the broken wrist blazing pain through his arm as it dangled limp, flopping with every movement. He plowed further through the carnage, tears streaming down his face and choking in his throat. Here now by the front door was the game’s primary target, his head now little more than a loose flap of grotesque, glistening topology. Blood trickled down the front door, pooling at its base along with that that oozed from the corpse. The body on the floor continued to jerk unpredictably. It lay face down, the porch lamp casting him in a merciless fluorescent light. Every detail of the carnage was evident and amplified here, accentuated and undeniable like a grisly display of morbid art. His father’s arm lay outstretched, the hand still grasping a single piece of blood speckled paper that undulated gently in the breeze carried in by the night air. Billy looked at it dreamily and blinked tears out of his eyes, temporarily correcting his kaleidoscopic vision.
“Kill the crooked politician.”
With trembling arm Billy reached for the letter, barely managing to free it from his father’s dead grasp. He rolled onto his back now, feeling the hecatomb beneath and all around him. His breathing was shallow now, his vision wavering. He pulled the paper close to his face, blinked hard, fought to focus. “Dear Congressman,” it began. “The time of you and your corrupt cronies is coming to an end…”
“…escape the scene to succeed.”
Upstairs, unseen to anyone, the display within the headset flashed violently. A message appeared in the center of what should have been Billy’s vision. “Scene must be evacuated. Mission failure in ten seconds…” Silently, the drone rotors slowed, bringing the contraption to a silent landing within the doorway of Billy’s bedroom.
Billy breathed a hitching breath; the fragments of the terrible puzzle only beginning to come together in his fading mind.
Upstairs, the thing’s internal mechanisms began to divert their energy into a series of highly conductive heating coils that surrounded a reactive metal powder.
Billy Baxter closed his eyes for a final time, lying amongst the remains of his parents. By the time that his last breath expelled, leaving his chest flat and motionless and silencing the panic and confusion of his dying mind, the hovering thing upstairs was no more than a scorch mark on a bloody floor.
Moments later, in a room that resembled a study, in a rarely trodden and experimental region of the nascent virtual Dark Web, a faint electronic chime sounded and an option disappeared from the list of available North American levels within an under-construction virtual reality title called Solonik’s Game. A handsome and untraceable payment of electronic currency was transferred from an anonymous customer to the account of the user known as Solonik. Behind his computer, monitoring the testing of his software, the man behind the Solonik moniker nodded in silent satisfaction. He drummed his heavy fingers on the desk as he regarded the progress of the testers he had recruited.
User feedback so far had been positive, and the filters he had programmed left players oblivious to the true nature of the game. The rudimentary blood effects and lack of interactivity with non-targets was frustrating to some users but he could likely program something to alleviate both, while maintaining the integrity of the illusion. Of course, if any of the initial testers had any cause for suspicion, they could easily be dealt with. He had their home addresses, and the GPS coordinates necessary to turn them into a mission themselves if necessary.
The ability to operate worldwide without ever pulling a trigger in either the real or virtual world was going to make him even wealthier. The levels of encryption and redirection he employed would keep him ahead of any authorities for many years to come, he estimated. Even the drones were untraceable. The level of technology available to the public in this age was quite remarkable. It was a brave new world. This was an era of brain over brawn and fortunately he had both.
It was a shame he had lost a drone on the last mission, but the cost was low relative to the reward. Why had Baxter not escaped the building, he wondered? He had passed every other mission element with finesse. Clearly he was an experienced gamer. With players like Baxter available, who knew what kind of future customers he would be able to cater to?
He would await Baxter’s feedback and then make the next round of improvements to Solonik’s Game. In the meantime, he would listen to the chimes as his contracts continued to be paid.
Young Billy Baxter is about to take a step into a bristling world where possibilities seem endless. In this virtual land of wonder, Billy can be anyone he wants to be and experience great beauty and horror without leaving the safety of his home. The price of admission seems small, but in this place where even a person's darkest desires can be realized electronically, is there a line that should not be crossed? In an age when technology increasingly turns science-fiction to science-fact, Solonik's Game provides a sobering reminder of the danger that can lurk in the unlikeliest of places.