David hit the dirt, which saved them from dying in a shower of shrapnel. He rose and sprinted as another shell shrieked by. He dived into a shallow crater as the shell landed.
Jeb didn’t dare break David’s concentration. What the hell had they ported into? Was this an alternate pleasurebox set up to discourage unexpected visitors to Dust?
David was up after the shell landed, charging a soldier in bright red armor. The spectral nametag floating above his head read “Recoil”. Recoil was currently crawling out a foxhole, and David caught him from behind before he could turn around.
David slammed one hand into Recoil’s spine, forcing his whole body straight, then grabbed Recoil’s chin with his other hand. He snapped his neck with a loud pop. Jeb had forgotten how lethal David Forrester was when behavioral algorithms weren’t in play.
Recoil’s body derezzed as David seized his rifle — an AK-47, Jeb recognized now — and jogged forward at a brisk but steady pace. When David glanced down, Jeb noticed his husband’s armor was tinted blue. They’d landed in a Capture the Flag match!
A staccato of shots rang out as David slammed his back into the wall of a burned out building. Cover. David peeked around the corner, taking in two red soldiers advancing on a pinned down blue. Jeb didn’t have time to read their nametags.
David popped out and put a shot into one red soldier’s head. He dropped back into cover before the other fired back, sprinting to the building’s far side. He rounded it just in time to catch another red soldier flat-footed, one with “sn0wing” floating above her head. She had her weapon strapped to her back and carried a giant blue flag.
sn0wing’s green-painted eyes went wide. “You can’t be—”
David shot her in the face. He shouldered his rifle and picked up the flag, which turned red the moment he touched it. “Carrier at center base!” David shouted. “Need an assist!”
Another red soldier sprinted around the corner just before his chest exploded. Blue soldiers charged into view and stumbled to a halt, nametags bouncing as they stumbled to a stop. They gaped at the blue Army Ranger holding the red flag.
“No freaking way!” NumAngel, a woman wearing white and blue armor, literally hopped up and down as she pointed at David. “It’s him! It’s Major F’ing Hero!” Phantasmal wings sprouted from her back, drifting as she hopped.
The second soldier, MatterRat, saluted. “Sir!” His armor sported a glowing taegeuk — a red and blue circle similar to a Yin Yang symbol — on its chest plate. “Welcome to Dust!”
David grinned at them. “You here to cover me?”
“My God, yes!” NumAngel dashed past David, onto open ground, and dropped. “Clear!”
“Move on, sir,” MatterRat said. “The enemy team is respawning.”
“Understood.” David jogged off.
Jeb marveled at the instantaneous respect in the voices of these two pros. These men and women got paid obscene amounts of money to shoot at each other in the Sim, yet just the sight of David — or MajorHero, a legendary avatar that still sold plenty of sports drinks — left them in awe. No wonder David still had so many sponsorships.
David spoke as they ran, breathing easy despite the flagpole’s weight. “I was the commentator on your match against TrollStompers. Shame about that last shot.”
“It sure was, sir.” MatterRat grimaced. “Still say that was some bullshit, sir.”
A rifle shot cracked. Someone screamed in the distance.
“Lin just dropped their scout.” MatterRat stopped running. “But Grim bought herself a gunboat. She’s heading this way with Maidferno and Garnet on the guns.”
David slowed. “Can’t outrun a gunboat.”
“Keep running, sir,” MatterRat said. “Team Kudzu’s got you covered.”
“You sure about that, son?”
“Fuck yeah I’m sure.”
“Good hunting.” David clutched the giant red flag and ran. Another rifle shot echoed through the rolling desert, but Jeb didn’t hear anyone scream.
“Why are they playing CTF?” Jeb asked, as David’s boots thumped and his chest heaved.
“It’s One Flag CTF,” David said. “And this is how SFGo players commemorate a fallen friend. By doing what we love.”
Jeb could feel the exertion David felt, pushing his body as hard in the Sim as he would in the real world. This flagpole was heavy, and running felt real. In professional StrikeForceGo, every sensation save wounds approximated meatspace. Shouting and gunshots rang out, and then the shockwave from an explosion sent them stumbling.
David grinned. “Thank you, MatterRat.”
“What happened?” Jeb asked.
“MatterRat dived under Grim[Kin]’s Crawler and detonated himself. Triple kill.”
They crested a hill and approached a tall, empty flag well. A slim woman in bright blue armor camped in a nearby tower, aiming a sniper rifle as long as David. The name above her head read “LinSpork”, which made her the sniper who’d had a rivalry with Nemoset.
Someone else materialized in the tower, a ninja in spiky red armor. He impaled LinSpork with his laser sword, elicited a pained cry. The ninja leapt off her derezzing body and landed between them and the flag pole. His nametag read “Hampline.”
“Holy shit!” A horizontal glowing visor covered Hampline’s eyes. “It’s a goddamn honor, sir.” He raised his sword in salute and advanced. “Sorry to cut you down.”
“Don’t apologize, son.” David charged. “Just get out of my way!”
Hampline brought his laser sword down right into the flagpole, which David raised like a staff. The ninja’s sword didn’t split it. It bounced off instead.
“The fuck—?” Hampline started, before David planted the spiked tip in his neck. There was a sucking gurgle. David heaved the red ninja aside and stomped to the goal post.
David slammed the flag into the well. The desert, sand, and sky flickered as fireworks exploded as the flag turned white. The words “Blue Team Wins” displayed in the sky.
* * *
“So then he spikes me,” Hampline tapped his finger on his neck, “right here. With the fucking flagpole!”
The rest of the pros — MatterRat, LinSpork, NumAngel and half a dozen others — chuckled and nodded at Hampline’s tale. David sat at a wooden table inside a large canvas mess tent. Pro players clustered around them, staring with wide eyes.
“You’re enjoying this.” Jeb grinned back in meatspace. “Don’t forget why we’re here.”
“I won’t,” David thought back. “And I am.” Once they’d officially broken the ice, they both hoped to learn as much as they can about Nemoset and his (possible) enemies.
MajorHero, Rifleman for the DeathKittens, had returned to StrikeForceGo. He had taken down four pros in a CTF match he wasn’t even supposed to play, and now the pros in this pleasurebox were lined up to get his friend link. True StrikeForceGo players didn’t hold grudges.
From what Jeb gathered, David had been drafted into the game upon entry because a blue player had previously disconnected during the match, leaving Blue Team one soldier down. David immediately took that slot. Too bad for red team.
“Sir, I have to ask.” Hampline still had his visor on, which made it part of his actual avatar, not a helmet. “How did you know the flagpole would block my sword?”
David glanced at him. “You played in Dust before, son?”
“No sir. Never had the opportunity.”
“Well, Dust runs SFGo Classic, has for as long as I recall. In classic, the flagpole’s invulnerable.”
NumAngel smacked the table. “That’s right! DeathKittens versus BloodyBrawl! Snakeoil used the flagpole to block Logic’s plasma rounds and plant the flag.”
“Snakeoil was always doing things like that,” David said. “One creative son of a bitch.”
LinSpork stepped closer. “So you know Hardcase?” With her helmet off, she had a brown pixie face and a short black Mohawk. “You’ve met him?”
“Hardcase?” Jeb asked.
“Dust’s admin. He’s a former pro who played with Chinese Hell.”
“We used to scrimmage all the time,” David said aloud. “After the league retired us, Snakeoil suggested we pitch in to cover his pleasurebox. Technically, we’re co-owners.”
“Cool.” LinSpork stomped her foot, and dust drifted up. “Think you can buy us a goddamn floor?”
The other pros laughed, and David chuckled with them. The laughter ended as an older black man with an eyepatch approached. He led two pros, sn0wing — the green-haired woman David had shot when he stole the flag — and a heavyset white man with a thick red beard and red hair. His tag read “Peachrind”.
The other pros parted. The remaining members of Team Grindhouse had arrived. They wanted to speak with MajorHero.
“This is it,” David said. “We’re on.”
The man with the eyepatch bowed his head. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” This was DNF, leader of Team Grindhouse.
“Pleasure’s all mine,” David said, nodding to DNF. “I’ve watched your matches, son, and you do good work.” He looked to the others. “You all do good work.”
sn0wing smiled wide, and Peachrind actually blushed. Jeb remembered David shooting sn0wing right in her pale face, but she looked honored, not pissed. Funny.
DNF didn’t smile or blush. “Sir, can I ask why you’re here tonight?”
“Why I’m here?”
“Yes sir. It’s unexpected.”
“You’re asking if I’m here about [N]moset.” David thumped a fist to his chest. “He was a good sniper, and a good player. I came to pay my respects.”
“Damn,” LinSpork whispered. Everyone got quiet, people who suddenly remembered they weren’t soldiers in meatspace. They were gamers, and they’d lost one of their own. sn0wing nodded as, beside her, Peachrind dabbed at what might be a real tear.
“Thank you, sir,” DNF said, for all of them. “I know Nemo would appreciate that.”
“Oh, come on!” someone shouted. “Who else wants to suck his dick?”
DNF stiffened, but he didn’t turn around. David watched as another soldier strolled into their canvas tent, a bronze man with a huge spike of purple hair. He had a classic troll face painted on his flak jacket, a distorted white cartoon face with an oversized grin.
“Who’s that asshole?” Jeb asked.
“That would be LuckyBro,” David said. “The blue player who dropped last match.”
LuckyBro scoffed as he approached. “Some old-timer walks in here after a five year ban, and all the sudden it’s Beatlemania?” He pointed. “You took my spot, old man.”
“I pulled your weight,” David said. “Were you busy?”
Another pro with spiky black armor and albino skin approached LuckyBro, the man David had killed at the foxhole. “This isn’t the time,” Recoil said. “Knock it off.”
LuckyBro snorted and shoved him aside. “You know what I think?” He stopped in front of David and leaned in, hands on hips. “You’re aimbotting, old man. You knew you couldn’t keep up with us, so you scripted your way to a cheap win.”
David narrowed his eyes. “I don’t cheat.”
“You just admitted you know Hardcase!” LuckyBro spread his arms. “Don’t you noobs see it? He cheated. The old man just wants you to gobble his nob for old time’s sake.”
MatterRat’s glowing taegeuk flared, but David touched his arm. “I don’t cheat.”
“So prove it. Get the DeathKittens and meet the TrollStompers on a public sim. We’ll whomp you back in the Stone Age.”
Recoil forcefully gripped LuckyBro’s arm and tugged, to no avail. “Jesus, Lucky, that’s too far. Get out of here before he bans you.”
“What?” Lucky spread his arms. “You scared, old man?”
David frowned. “Tonight isn’t about you, son. It’s about your comrade and friend.”
“So you are scared.”
“You can’t bait me. All you’re doing is being an asshole, on a night when you should be honoring [N]moset’s memory. The DeathKittens will never step into a box with you.”
“Then you’re chick—”
“Even if we stomped you into the ground, the viewstream hits would put a finals game to shame. You think I don’t know what you’re trying to do?”
LuckyBro tried to speak again, but David raised his hand and shut them up. He shut them all up. “Now. You’re going to walk out of this tent, log off, and decompress.”
“Hey.” LuckyBro smiled wide. “Fuck you.”
“Asshole!” Recoil tore off LuckyBro’s shoulderpad. Light flashed as the pad evaporated.
LuckyBro stepped back and stared at his albino teammate. “The fuck, Recoil?” He blinked. “You’re kicking me?”
“Should have kicked you weeks ago.” It seemed Recoil led the TrollStompers. “There’s a time to talk shit, and a time to shut your goddamn mouth. You never got that.”
“You think I can’t play as a free agent?” LuckyBro flipped them off with both middle fingers as he backed away from the table. “Fuck ya’ll. Fuck all ya’ll. And you know what?” His maniacal grin widened. “Fuck that dipshit [N]m-”
LuckyBro froze, legs walking in place as if sliding on wet floor. He kept taking the same two steps, swinging the same two arms, taking the same two breaths. Lagged out.
Jeb had an aching premonition they were already too late. “David, touch his neck.”
David hurried over, grabbed LuckyBro’s twitching arm, and pressed his palm to LuckyBro’s now cold neck. Jeb ran the CID’s tracing protocol and got his address, a house in Des Moines, Iowa. Then he sent an emergency alert to the Iowa VCD.
“Idiot pulled his own hardlink,” Recoil said.
“He didn’t,” Jeb said.
“He didn’t,” David said. “Someone pulled it for him.”
“Why would anyone do that?” Hampline asked. He sounded confused.
“I’m disconnecting,” Jeb said. “I have to ping the CID from a clean line. See what else you can get out of the other pros, and warn them to lock up their housesynths.”
David glanced at the crowd of confused faces. “You think the same person who killed [N]moset came after LuckyBro?”
Jeb remembered Leroy Keller’s splayed out body, crushed and covered in gore, and shuddered back in meatspace. “We’ll know in a few minutes.”
* * *
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