A metallic voice spoke. “Welcome user GR8N3557083…”
She pressed the small hexagonal jack into the shadow blue hole in the left side of her head. Although the hole was coated in thick alloy, the moistness rang in her ear as her skull was penetrated. A shudder ran down her spine, spreading out along her limbs like iced electricity seeking somewhere to ground. Leaning back onto the worn faux leather table, its top half raised to a thirty degree angle, she closed her eyes, focusing on her smooth, deep breathing. Once feeling completely relaxed she slid on a primitive looking mask knitted with electrodes and conductive pin tips. She pressed her face firmly against the mask, securing it in place, allowing the intercourse of skin and metal to begin. As she entered the mainframe, light began to fill the dark void before her eyes, transforming into a vivid evening cityscape.
Her fingers flexed and stretched as if awakening from a long slumber, gaze sweeping across the landscape now spreading into distant reaches. This place had only been entered by her once before, and even that was an impossible feat for most. But she was not like most. She had a natural ability to hook-in – synchronise her mind with the game and learn its ways. This along with being able to spend hours a day within the musty confides of the room where her body lay. And the money… Sqyid’s, the lowest class of society, the peasants and poor, the people to whom she had belonged, were unlikely to ever receive real work. They would live day to day on government coupons and small change gathered from the occasional market stalls set up in the Communal Hub. However, if you were able to secure an entry into the game, and could hook-in, then you would have a chance to win real money; a chance to escape the Sqyid slums and divide.
The landscape for the final level before Cephas’ Gate, a mythical passageway to what was rumoured to be “the ultimate freedom”, had now loaded. She patted down various parts of her body, ensuring all weapons of choice were strapped to her. Looking down at her hands, first one then the other, she spread each digit, adjusting the leather fingerless-gloves embalming her palms. A strange nervousness made her skin tingle and twitch in anticipation. It was dreamlike to be standing in a place whose electric earth had barely been trodden. Very few people managed to come this far, and of those none had gone further. This time, however, she knew what to do; she would not allow herself to fail like last time. She quickly looked up at the dusty yellow sky, squinting to ensure there were no Glider Jets darting through the high crimson clouds, which gathered like blood clots.
The advanced artillery fitted to Glider Jets and their ability to literally glide with stealth to just above tree line are what brought death last time; shredding both armour and flesh as if flimsy tissue paper. Satisfied, she dove behind a half demolished wall, fresh burn marks from near-by explosions and a network of cracks caused by heavy grain slugs clung to the stonework. The ruined city looked European, perhaps twentieth century.
Sounds of gun fire danced around her, carrying through the empty street she stood in. The sky and sun bathed everything in a glow, adding to the vibrancy washing the street. Tags of colored fabric, spread across two rows of string, reached from a glassless window in a building almost entirely caved into itself, to a rustic timber pergola. Further across another line of string hung between houses. This time it bore blue light globes, the remaining glass hanging like tiny inverted tulips. Below was a different tale. Rubble, twisted remains of cars and uprooted lamp posts strewn across the road. Charred remains of trees loomed over the carnage. Strips of corrugated iron and shell casing could be seen in all directions. She smiled slightly at the irony.
The wall she sought shelter behind vibrated violently as more slugs pelted against it. As if subconscious reaction, she reached for the M2040 bolt action rifle slung across her back. Faithful and accurate with a steady hand and keen eye, she knew this gun could be trusted. Leaning around the remnants of wall she eyed five uniform clad men 45 feet off and heading her way. They were shouting something, though it was inaudible under their gun fire. Lining each shot in without break, the five men shattered, imploding wildly, as bullets thrust into their skulls. There was something comforting about the feel of the gun’s fine grain fore-end as she slid her grip over it. Purpose and drive seemed to stem from the weapon.
With the gun still firmly in hand, she began running toward the city outskirts where fields containing nodes of sturdy flowering grass clambered upward. Lavish homesteads and gravel paths speckled the open countryside. Beneath, mazes of war trenches and bunkers wove themselves in a tangled mess, occasionally splitting the ground as they surfaced.
Dropping into a ditch, she reloaded, checking the firearm mechanics during the process, and then continued her sprint after letting off another four, lethally accurate shots. Ahead she spotted the hollow tree stump, a lone sapling sprouting from its base the distinguishing marker, which formed a gaping mouth into an east bound tunnel. She knew following it would lead to her desired destination. In one swift, continuous movement she hurled over the stump’s outer edge, landing with a solid thump below, dust eddies hovering around her steel capped boots. She looked ahead then above, tensing around the gun. Clear, but not releasing the tension, she began running again; the thud of each step along with explosions and crossfire above gave the tunnel an exhilarating rhythm.
Five minutes passed until she emerged from beneath a rocky incline. Before her a neon blue stream flowed, void of life, bubbles rising occasionally from somewhere beneath the opaque surface. Giant pine trees huddled around the body of water, each whispering their secrets in a language ancient and pure. One of the pines wept long amber tears from a wound filled with fungi she had never seen. The fungi’s porous mottled-grey form blossomed from the tree, the centre resembling a mushroom turned inside-out, gills pulsating. Here, by the infected tree, is where she first found the glitch and where she now stood. She touched the rubbery gills, trying to ignore the pungent bite of sulphur they released. Everything around her froze as she did so, stuttering, stopping. The tear in the games fabric threw her into darkness for a few fleeting moments followed by the progressive load of a new map in fragmented pixels; taking her to the place in which she knew she would find Cephas’ Gate.
Upon the map completing its slow load, a cacophony of noises bombarded her. She darted toward the back of the building she now stood in, knowing too well a Glider Jet would be waiting outside the leadlight arch near Spawn Point. The building, a majestic church, grand on every scale, was filled with rows of lacklustre pews, towering columns, statues etched with solemn faces, and sweeping floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows. Red carpet burnt its way through the centre to a large, raised platform holding a lectern, more statues and a stone alter. Dropping to one knee, back pressed against a pew, she turned just as the window she had fled from exploded inward with a barrage of bullets; chips of stone and wood flying into the air.
She pushed the M2040 back into her inventory, choosing another gun, this time an automatic loaded with explosive shells. Seising the moment, she slank low through the rows of benches then stood as she continued along a clammy wall, pausing inches from the erupting window. She breathed in, holding it, pushing the gun butt under her shoulder. She continued to hold her breath, listing intently to the whirring clicks of spinning barrels from the weapons mounted to the Glider. Suddenly the clicking stopped, the projectile of bullets ceasing briefly. Breathing hard she swung herself around to face straight into the black eyes of the Gilder; its pilots hidden behind tinted glass. She pulled the trigger, smashing through the glass, a crimson mist forming within the cockpit. With her finger still on the trigger she began to sprint back toward the rear of the building, lowering the gun once clear of the Glider.
A series of blasts shook behind her, heat from multiple fireballs stalking every step. Collapsing in front of the final pew, she buried her head between her knees and hands, waiting for the furious detonation to subside. After a few moments she allowed herself to inspect the chaotic slaughter, gun still poised. She traced a circle around the church with the weapon to ensure no other enemies lay hidden, finishing with her face toward the church’s alter. Reluctantly she began to lower her guard, somewhat contented, somewhat overwhelmed by what was before her.
A man, naked and wounded, stared at her with piercing eyes from upon a massive wooden cross. She could not tell if he had been carved from the same wood or added later, but either way he seemed disturbingly real. His hands and feet were nailed in place to the planks, a tiny trickle of blood lining the wounds. A slash had parted the flesh along one rib cage from his heart to his waist. Atop his head sat a ring of dried thorns, as if carnivorous teeth were clamping down. But his eyes are what hacked into her mind. They were sad, distant, cold, but did not plead nor cry out for help. She slid onto the pew, sitting, watching, and trying to work out who he was. A sound stirred behind her, breaking all thought process. She stood, spun around and lined the gun in almost one fluid movement. A short, stocky man froze, raising his empty hands.
‘I mean ye no harm, child…’ His thick accent quivered around each word.
She studied him and the strange black uniform he wore from a distance, finger tightening around the trigger. This game had a way of trying to play tricks on people’s minds and she was not going to let some ploy destroy her hard work.
He continued. ‘Please, I mean no harm. Though am confused as to how ye got ere – what are ye doin in this place?’
She refused to let go of the trigger, ensuring her guard was completely aware of every minuscule nook and crevice. Steady, measured words soon responded. ‘I seek the truth, to find freedom, to uncover a way out from this life.’ Pausing, she watched his facial detail. ‘What can you tell me about Cephas’ Gate?’
The man lowered his head slightly, forehead furrowing. A silence settled between the two people and she could see the man delve into deep thought. She knew she should have been encased by uneasy feelings by now. Instead an eerie calm gathered. When he finally lifted his head, the same piercing look from earlier locked with her eyes.
‘Ye should not be ere. I cannot tell you anything… To want…’
The click of a bullet being chambered interrupted him. She took a step closer.
‘Really, ye aren’t meant to be ere. And if I were to tell…’
She took another step forward. He sighed in response, paranoia coating his face in the first signs of emotion.
‘Fine, if ye wish to seek that freedom so badly… Listen well, child…’
He looked behind her, any vague form of emotion gone. A deep sinking sensation rose within her guts as she swung to face the other way. The man from upon the cross now stood behind her, his expression unchanged, wounds filling the air with the smell of fresh bodily fluids, an old Desert Eagle pistol in one hand. He pressed the pistol hard against her head, his crown of thorns shifting slightly.
This time it felt different. It threw her body into shock and a sharp chill struck through to her core. The screen faded to black, her thoughts and breath becoming tepid; pain overwhelming every nerve. And then it stopped, abrupt but welcome. The body upon the worn faux leather table went limp, a viscous flow of blood sliding from her ears down the half raised table surface.