A sneak peek at Chapter 5 of my virtual reality novella, Presence (first draft)

Note: This is actually a fan made image for No Man’s Sky, but it looks close to how I imagine the world in my story looking, specifically when the player is playing a space-shooter VR game called The Last Galaxy, and I just thought a pic would be nice. 🙂

Chapter 5

You maniacs. You blew it up!

I hadn’t touched the computer since the previous afternoon. Maybe the random crashes I’d been experiencing throughout the week had something to do with Polybius—I was seriously beginning to suspect that was the case—or maybe the machine really was on the fritz. Either way, I didn’t want to jinx it. It was twenty past five, however, and it was nearing the time that Polybius had said he would contact me again. I pressed the power button on the computer. At the very least, I wanted to make sure everything was ready and waiting—because I wasn’t going to miss that particular message.

While the computer was warming up I took a routine look out the window, just to make sure the world outside was still ticking along. I looked up at the sky. It was dull and grey, as though it was about to rain. I looked down at the street. The same old—wait . . . what was that? A police car was parked on the road below, positioned right in front of the flat. My heart skipped a beat. Could the police be here because of—

The car drove off and disappeared around the corner of the building. I scanned my eyes across the rest of the block, not really sure what I might be looking for, but nothing else unusual caught my attention. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then immediately felt a little silly. It was foolish of me to be so paranoid.

I turned my gaze back to the monitor. There was still plenty of time until Polybius was due to get in touch, so I decided to try out a new VR game while I waited.

I plugged the headset into the computer and strapped it on, leaving the visor up so I could see around me for the moment, and then I reached forward and picked up the gamepad from the desk. I decided to go with a standard controller for this game, which I knew upfront was a space shooter, as a traditional gamepad was generally better suited for these types of games than full motion controllers. A bunch of the VR games I’d played had been typical space shooters, set up so the player was sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet or giant mech, or some similar situation where their movement would be naturally restricted. And that was perfectly fine with me, seeing as no one had developed the perfect solution for moving and walking about freely in VR anyway—yet.

I pulled the headset down over my eyes, adjusting it for a second to make sure it was sitting comfortably on my face and the headphones were lined up correctly. The Game Selection menu floated in the centre of the display with the new game I’d recently downloaded highlighted at the top of the list. It was a game I hadn’t played before and didn’t know too much about it other than its name, The Last Galaxy, and that it was a space shooter with a little bit of a twist, apparently. I tried not to read or watch too much upfront about any VR games I hadn’t tried yet, so the potential thrill of discovering something totally new in VR wouldn’t be ruined. But the general gossip around the Internet and VR forums was that it was extremely cool and definitely worth trying. That was a good enough excuse for me to give it a go. I hit the Start button on the controller and the screen faded out.

#

An emergency siren blasted out from the headphones, followed by a computer voice:

“Emergency. Emergency. Incoming enemy attack wave. All V-Tech fighters prepare for launch.”

The scene faded into view. I was sitting in the cockpit of a single-seater spacecraft. Various display screens and buttons lit up one after the other on the main control panel in front of me, illuminating the cockpit in a spectrum of glowing and blinking lights. The ship’s boot sequence automatically initiated and a female computer voice announced that navigation was now online, followed by weapons, and then the engines, which powered up with a satisfying and appropriately sci-fi sounding hum of pulsating energy. The computer announced the ship was ready for launch.

So, as expected, The Last Galaxy was indeed another space shooting game where I was going to be stuck inside a virtual cockpit again. I really shouldn’t have been surprised. VR was custom made for this kind of experience—well, at least VR in terms of its current control and movement limitations.

I looked down at my virtual body and legs, which were in the standard seated position for a space shooter. I was wearing a dull green pilot’s suit and matching flight cloves. My left hand rested on the throttle control and my right hand gripped a black flight stick. I gently pushed the controller’s analogue sticks around, watching as the in-game throttle and flight stick matched their positions. The in-game 3D representation of me wasn’t matched perfectly with how I was sitting and holding the controller in real life, which wasn’t an uncommon issue in current-gen VR, but it was still close enough to create a convincing illusion. Although, I probably didn’t want to take my hands off the analogue sticks and freely wave them around, as the illusion would immediately be broken when the in-game hands didn’t do similarly. However, looking around and seeing the entire cockpit modelled in great detail, with multiple glowing monitors, rows of flip switches, and various indicator lights flashing on and off all around me, really helped solidify the sense of immersion in the world.

I looked beyond the cockpit window and saw a series of white strip lights lighting up one after the other in two parallel lines along the ground. It was then that I realised my ship was sitting in the hanger bay of a huge spacecraft carrier floating in space. The carrier was filled with hundreds of single-seater spaceships that were a mix of a Star Wars snowspeeder and the narrow, glowing ion thruster on the backend of the Millennium Falcon. And I could see that my ship was similarly fashioned via the 3D render of it slowly rotating on one of the cockpit display panels.

Red emergency lights flashed across everything in the hanger. A couple of large mechs stomped across my view, carrying man-sized missiles in their metallic claws, followed by a group of pilots frantically rushing to their ships and clambering inside. One after the other they fired up their engines, lined up their ships with the white guide lines on the bay floor, and then launched at blistering speed out into the darkness. Beyond the exit to the launch bay and off into the distance, multiple broken streams of blue, green, and red laser-fire danced around the black canvas of space and mixed in amongst a display of mini explosions at the heart of where our ships were engaging hostile enemy forces in an all-out space war.

A huge, fiery blast suddenly erupted from the side wall of the carrier with a boom so loud the shockwave shook the entire bay. Nearby ships caught in its blast radius exploded into a hundred fractured pieces, sending a couple of the pilots flying through the air like ragdolls. Debris from the bay roof crashed down onto the floor around my ship. The display panels in front of me flickered on and off from the force of the impact.

“Warning! Incoming debris. Proximity alert!”

Large chunks of metal crashed onto the top of the cockpit with a heavy thud, and a thick crack tore across the glass roof like a bolt of lightning. I instinctively raised my hands above my head to protect myself, and then, feeling the plastic of the game controller in my sweaty grip, I remembered that it was just a simulation.

I quietly chuckled to myself, knowing how silly I must have looked. Other people always looked stupid when I saw them doing stuff like this in VR; ducking out of the way of things shooting at them, or reaching out their hands as though they could actually touch whatever object was floating in front of their view. This was, however, a clear sign that the immersion was convincing—a small taste of the presence that all good VR experiences were aiming for. I wondered just how realistic and convincing virtual reality was going to get in the future if it was already this good. Would this Presence device, the one I was about to try shortly, actually give me a proper taste of that future?

The female computer voice announced that the ship’s ion engine had suffered critical damage and I needed to exit the craft immediately, and a couple of flashing warning lights on the control panel indicated similarly.

Well, it looked like I wasn’t going to be flying around in a spaceship after all—a rather surprising turn of events. Maybe there was more to this game than I first gave it credit for.

I looked at the cockpit release lever and pressed the corresponding button on the gamepad. Nothing happened. I pushed it again. There was a loud crackle, and a spark of electricity jumped past my head as the circuit shorted out. A small fire erupted behind my shoulder, lighting up the cockpit in an orange glow. Puffs of smoke filled the interior. The computer called out in its digital voice:

“Warning! Warning! Interior explosion imminent.”

I furiously thumbed the button on the gamepad, hoping that if I pressed it enough times it would eventually work.

A defining bang blasted out of the headphones. Roaring flames rushed through the cockpit and engulfed my entire view. The screen flashed red and then faded to black, and the two most dreaded words in gaming appeared in the centre of the screen:

GAME OVER

The screen faded out.

#

The Start menu popped up in the centre of the display.

Well, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I thought there was a chance I might actually get to go outside the spaceship. What had I done wrong? Surely it hadn’t been because I’d spent too long looking around and admiring the game’s graphics. It seemed a little harsh and unfair, punishing me when I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong. But I guess it was a good way to create a genuine sense of danger and emergency, and maybe heighten the feeling of immersion in the world too. The game’s designer obviously expected me to think fast and act faster, as I would if I found myself in a similar situation in real life.

Maybe there was a quick time event I hadn’t noticed . . . or I’d missed a bunch of obvious cues. . . .

Right, I’ll give it another go. I selected Restart and pressed the button on the controller.

#

I was sitting in the cockpit again, with the emergency siren wailing in my ear. The ship completed its boot sequence, again. This time around I immediately looked at the control panel to see if there was an indicator of what I was supposed to do next. The Auto-Launch button was flashing, which I hadn’t noticed the last time, and it was waiting for my command. OK, this time I’m not going to—

A loud ringing joined the ongoing wail of the siren.

Had I set off an alarm or failed to do something critical to completing this part of the game already? I’d only been in the game for a few seconds this time around. How was that even possible? I looked around but couldn’t see where the noise was coming from.

The ringing sounded again.

It was then I realised that the noise wasn’t coming from inside the simulation; it was coming from my computer. No way—it was an incoming video call.

Could it be Polybius calling me? Surely I couldn’t have been in the simulation for half an hour already. Was Polybius also really about to have a proper face to face video call with me?

I immediately paused the game, dropped the controller on my lap, and then grabbed the headset and yanked it off my head.

#

The ringing sounded once more, and a notification window displaying the caller’s ID popped up on the monitor.

Thank God—it was only Peter.

The time on the corner of the screen read 17:25. I’d only been playing for five minutes, which left more than enough time for a quick chat. I clicked to accept the call, and Peter’s head appeared in the video window.

“Hey, Peter.”

“Hey, Jobe. How’s things? I couldn’t give you a shout yesterday because Claire took me to her parents for their anniversary. I forgot she’d told me about it last week.”

“It’s no problem, Peter.”

“So, catch me up with the latest news. Is your computer still playing up?”

“It’s still bugging out every now and then but it’s OK.”

“What did you get up to yesterday?”

“I was just messing around, checking out some games and stuff. How are Claire’s parents?”

“Yeah, they’re good. Her mum was asking how you were getting on. I told her you were working on a new VR device. . . .” Peter then asked the one question I knew he really wanted to know the answer to. “So . . . did you hear anything further from that Polybius guy?”

I didn’t want to say too much, in case Peter decided to go digging for more details and Polybius found out about it somehow. I knew it would probably come back to bite me in the ass.

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I had a short message chat with him the other day, but I can’t really talk about it. The guy’s a bit paranoid, and I think he’s tracking my communications. I don’t want to tempt fate and land myself in the deep end.”

“That sounds a bit ominous.”

“It’s all a bit mental. But, I’m just going with the flow and seeing where it takes me.”

“Well, just be careful, Jobe. Don’t do anything stupid or dangerous.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t go getting myself involved in anything crazy.”

“Good. So, are there any cool new VR games we can check out, or something?”

“Actually, I was just in the middle of playing one called The Last Galaxy when you called. Have your heard of it?”

“I’ve got it here. I downloaded it to my computer a couple of days ago but I’ve not had a chance to play it yet.”

“Well, now is the perfect time to give it a go. And it’s got a co-op multiplayer mode so that should be ideal.”

“OK, Jobby. Let’s do it. . . .”

“Great. I’ll give you a buzz once I’m in and ready, and you can join my game. See you in a sec. . . .”

I strapped on the headset, grabbed the controller, and unpaused the game.

#

I was instantly transported back inside the cockpit again, right in the thick of it. The emergency siren was still sounding loudly, and various lights were flashing on and off around me. I immediately looked down at the panel and pressed the Auto-Launch button. The ship jerked into motion. It edged forward, slowly turning until it was in correct alignment with the strip of white lights along the bay floor.

OK, here we go. . . .

The engines powered up with a loud electric hum and the ship burst forward, heading straight toward the exit of the launch bay. The interior structure of the hanger sped past the cockpit, strobing rapidly between the shiny metal of the walls and the red emergency lights that were flashing all around me. A split-second later I was floating in the vastness of space.

A blue radar blip lit up in the centre of one of the cockpit display panels. It was tagged with my default username, Job38_4, as a simple representation of my ship’s position in 3D space. Multiple additional red blips appeared on the radar, each one indicating an enemy craft’s position relative to my own ship. Most of them were located a short distance away directly in front of me. They were from the epic space battle I’d seen earlier, which was still raging on, high above the atmosphere of a large sandy coloured planet that I hadn’t been able to see from my previous position inside the hanger bay.

But, more impressive than an epic space battle above a large desert-like planet, was the enormous star that I noticed when I glanced over my shoulder and looked out the cockpit of the craft—a red giant. It must have been a hundred times the size of our own sun, this bright red sphere of pure fire and brimstone that engulfed most of the view in its magnificence. Yes, I was definitely right to be impressed with these graphics.

I looked around the cockpit. One of the buttons on the control panel was tagged “Add Squad Members”, which I presumed was how I invited other people to join my game. I pressed the button and a list of my gamer friends materialised on the headset display, floating a few inches in front of my face. I selected Parkette and pressed the Call button.

After a second of ringing, a small speaker icon popped up in the right corner of my headset display and I heard Peter’s voice in my ear, “Hey, Jobe. I’ve just started the game and it seems that I’m already in some kind of emergency situation. I’m inside a spaceship that’s docked in a large space hanger. There’s a really loud emergency siren ringing in my ear, and—”

“Peter, press the Auto-Launch button on the control panel in front of you, quickly. If you don’t you’ll die and get a Game Over message, before you’ve even figured out what the hell is going on.

“Oh, OK. . . . Done. The Auto-Launch sequence has initiated.”

“Great. Now all you have to do is wait for the ship to do its thing, and once you’re outside the carrier I presume you’ll show up on my radar.

“OK, Jobe. . . . I’ll tell you this though while I’m sitting here: I’m impressed with the graphics right out the gate.”

“I know. They’re pretty sweet. Although, I think spending too long admiring the graphics was what got me killed almost immediately the first time I played the game.”

“That’s funny. Usually, it’s bad graphics that are more likely to result in you dying in VR—or maybe experiencing motion sickness at least, if they aren’t running smoothly.”

“Yeah, well this time I got so distracted looking around and checking out all the little details that I didn’t realise I had to press that Auto-Launch button, and the next thing I knew it was Game Over.”

“I guess that will teach you to pay attention.”

“Indeed. And it did. . . .”

A new blue blip appeared on the radar with Parkette displayed above it. As I expected, the game automatically merged players seamlessly onto the same server whenever someone invited a friend to join them for a multiplayer session.

“OK, Peter, I can see your ship on my Radar. Can you see mine?”

“Yes, you’re not that far from me. I’ll fly over to you.”

“Great.” I looked outside the cockpit window and saw Peter’s spaceship slowly moving closer. He was in the same type of craft as me but his username was displayed above it, which was obviously to make it easy to tell his ship apart from all the others at a glance. “So . . . there’s no in-game indicator of what we’re supposed to do or where we’re supposed to go next, which is actually kind of refreshing. I think we’re meant to head straight into the battle and basically blow away the alien bad guys.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me, Jobe.”

“OK then . . . once more unto the breach.” I aimed the ship in the direction of the lasers and explosions, pushed the throttle fully forward, and zoomed toward the fireworks.

As I moved closer to the skirmish, with Peter flying close by my side as wingman, I suddenly realised the true scale of the battle. Literally hundreds of fighters were engaged in all-out war just above the planet’s atmosphere. And there were thousands of asteroids orbiting the planet too, like a giant ring made of chalky rocks. Multiple blue and red lasers shot past my ship in all directions. I furiously pulled and pushed on the stick in an effort to avoid being blown to smithereens. Allied and enemy ships violently exploded all around me. Their shattered and burning remains floated past my hull, crashing into other broken ship fragments and sometimes smashing directly into nearby asteroids or other fighters, which resulted in yet more chunks of rock and sparking metal littering the scene.

I was slap bang in the middle of fiery death and explosive chaos.

An enemy ship zoomed past my view, lasers blasting. I pushed hard on the stick in an attempt to pursue it. The alien fighter gracefully danced around, winding in and out through the dead ship carcases, and then it disappeared out of sight.

It would have been hard enough steering the ship around and avoiding all the debris, let alone trying to engage any enemy fighters, but I found it a task simply keeping my ship oriented in what seemed like the correct direction. Hitting anything with an actual shot was nearly impossible.

I aimlessly blasted my laser into the junkyard of ship remains, hoping to catch any enemy fighters that might cross my path, but I mostly hit empty space.
Peter called out, “Jobe, there’s a fighter on your tail.”

I looked over my shoulder, trying to get a decent view of the enemy ship, but I couldn’t see anything other than space, rocks, and debris. The radar, however, clearly showed two approaching blips. One was Peter’s ship and the other was obviously the enemy craft.

I pushed hard on the stick and the ship dived down. The red blip stayed with me. A series of laser blasts shot across the top of my ship, their bright red glow illuminating the inside of the cockpit briefly as they flew past. I pulled the stick to the right and the ship banked sharply. The blip followed closely. “Damn. I can’t shake this guy.”

“Hang in there,” Peter said, “I’m coming in behind you on the right side. When I say so, I want you to pull hard to the left, and I’ll nail this sucker with a missile.”

A stream of red laser blasts flew past my cockpit.

“Now,” Peter shouted.

I slammed left on the stick and the ship banked so hard it almost went into an unintended roll. Multiple enemy shots whisked past the cockpit on my right hand side, and then they abruptly stopped. An explosion erupted off to my right. Large chunks of sparking and burning metal floated past the cockpit window.

“Got him,” Peter said.

“Nice one, Peter.” I levelled out the ship. “Hey man, are you having any issues flying at all? My ship doesn’t feel like it’s turning fast enough to follow the enemy fighters closely.”

“Remember, you need to use the headset’s head tracking at the same time as steering and flying. . . . Look all around and get a bearing on the enemy’s position first, and then you can easily manoeuvre your ship into their flight path. It’s much better than using only the analogue stick to try and instantly turn the ship on a dime when they zip past your window.”

“Ah, of course, that’s what I’m doing wrong. What a stupid noob error.” After so long using VR, I was amazed I could make such a rookie mistake. But at the same time, I was prone to motion sickness in the early days of VR—this was back when developers were still inexperienced at making games built properly around the strengths and weakness of the technology—and these days I usually tried to avoid aimlessly looking around in VR just for the sake of it, especially during hectic action moments. But that really wasn’t a great excuse; I really should have known better. “Christ, it’s not like I’ve not played enough VR games . . . but I guess I just got distracted in all the excite—”

A barrage of enemy lasers shot past my head. One hit the side of my ship. There was a loud metallic thud and the ship rattled. “Damn.” The computer ordered me to take evasive action. I frantically looked over my shoulder and saw two enemy fighters approaching at high speed. “Peter, I’ve been hit.” The display in front of me flashed red, showing where I’d taken damage. It didn’t seem to be too critical. Everything was still functioning properly at least.

I heard Peter in my ear. “You’d best get out of there quick-time, Jobe.”

The two alien craft flew across the nose of my ship, their engines humming as they zoomed past, and then they started banking around for a second run at me. I steered the ship toward a large asteroid that was floating nearby and swooped in behind it. A quick glance at the radar showed two blips heading in my direction. I looked over my shoulder and saw the ships tailing me closely, blasting away chunks of the asteroid until it broke apart into smaller pieces that they effortlessly rammed their way through. It was clear these guys weren’t going to give up that easily. I zigged and zagged my way in and out and around a few more asteroids and large pieces of ship debris. The fighters stuck with me.

OK, it was time to properly test my flying skills. . . . I pulled back on the throttle and slowed the ship down to a near crawl. The enemy craft rapidly approached from behind and started firing their lasers.

Get ready. . . .

Shots ripped past on either side of my ship.

OK, be patient. Wait. . . .

The blips on the radar moved closer. I looked over my shoulder and saw the two ships closing in fast.

Now!

I rammed the throttle forward and pulled back hard on the flight stick. The ship tilted up sharply and went into a full loop manoeuvre. I watched out the top of the cockpit as both enemy fighters sailed by a short distance above my head, where I tracked them visually until I’d completed the loop. Now I was on their tails and they were directly in my sights. I pulled the trigger and fired a burst of laser shots at the ship on the left. One of the blasts struck its engine and it went up in a burst of flames, exploding into a hundred metal shards that shot off in all directions. The second fighter banked sharply to the right, quickly moving to the edge of my direct line of sight. This time I tracked it with my head and smoothly turned the ship into the correct alignment. A new icon flashed up on my head-up display that indicated I was now locked onto the ship. I pressed the corresponding button and fired off a homing missile, guiding it toward the target by keeping the enemy ship centred in my line of sight at all times. A huge explosion briefly lit up the darkness of space, and then it was gone.

“Woohoo,” I shouted out in excitement.

“Nice one, Jobe,” Peter said—obviously acknowledging my flying prowess. “Now, how about you focus on those other six fighters approaching us from the right—the ones in front of that giant mother ship. . . .” His ship zoomed across my view, guns blazing with blue lasers of death as he headed straight into the fray.

I looked to the right and caught sight of a city sized spacecraft in the distance. It was an odd alien vessel, a colossal black pyramid, with a surface that looked like a patchwork quilt made up of thousands of glowing red, triangular outlines. And each one of those triangles was firing its own string of red laser blasts at the space station orbiting the planet. A station I presumed we were meant to protect.

My hands suddenly felt sweaty from gripping tightly on the controller. I rubbed them on my legs to dry them off and then returned my attention to the game.

The space station would have to wait. I had a more immediate and pressing issue to deal with. Two enemy fighters rushed toward my ship and then rocketed past at close range, guns ablaze. A third fighter abruptly exploded a few metres ahead, erupting in a ball of fire. Peter’s ship burst out through the centre of the smoke and flames in hot pursuit of the fleeing fighters, lasers blasting.

“Great shot, Peter.”

Red and blue lasers flashed and danced around in front of my view, humming like a chorus of electric bees. I focused my attention, swinging the ship around until it was in line with a trio of nearby enemy fighters, and then fired off a series of shots. One of the ships immediately exploded into a thousand pieces. A second one went into a rapid spin as a laser blast hit it directly on the wing, followed by a plume of black smoke. The remaining enemy ship dived down below my sight line in an attempt to move out of the line of fire. I pushed forward on the control stick in pursuit, chasing it through a cluster of asteroids until I was in just the right position for a shot. I pulled the trigger and fired off a short controlled burst. The engines on the enemy ship ignited and exploded in a ball of flames.

The radar showed Peter’s blue blip chasing the two remaining red blips—and then they were gone. He’d blasted them out of existence.

Peter’s ship pulled up next to mine and hovered by my wing. “Nice shootin’, Tex,” he said, in his best impression of a space cowboy.

“You too, Ace.” I steered the ship back in the direction of the main battle. The space station in the distance was still under attack from the mother ship. It had suffered heavy damage. Smoke and flames spewed out from multiple sections of the hull. A module at the rear of the station was in the process of tearing away from the main structure, venting gas and junk into space. The station was on its last legs, and if we didn’t get there soon it was—

There was a huge explosion followed by an even bigger shockwave that tore across the void of space, catching my ship directly in its path. The cockpit rattled violently around me. I felt a moment of motion sickness as the scene juddered and shook about—possibly caused more by the headset struggling to track the rapid motion than the simulation being really convincing—and then the station was gone.

“Damn, Jobe, we didn’t get there fast enough. The station’s been obliterated.” There was a slight air of sadness and disappointment in Peter’s voice.

But we didn’t have time to stop and mourn the loss of those digital lives. The mother ship continued onward, now heading directly toward the planet. A barrage of red laser blasts fired out from across the front face of the huge floating pyramid, aiming straight for the planet’s surface, along with a spread of shots from some of the smaller fighters that were flying alongside it.

A small squadron of ally pilots were engaging the enemy fighters but were having little effect. They were outnumbered and vastly outgunned by the wall of shots coming from mother ship.

The laser fire from the mother ship reached the planet’s atmosphere and then abruptly stopped, petering out in small circular ripples. Shot after shot halted, as they slammed into a shimmering force field that was being projected across the entire planet’s surface.

“Peter, can you see where the mother ship’s lasers are hitting the force field on the planet’s surface?”

“I see it.”

“There’s got to be an alien civilisation under there. Maybe the enemy is heading for their capital city, and that force field is the last line of defence protecting it from the invading forces.”

Peter’s voice crackled in my ear, “Or there could be an important ally base at the particular location the mother ship is targeting, which we are supposed to be defending. Whatever is the case, I think we need to try to stop the mother ship before it reaches the surface.”

“I agree. We need to get in there and the join the rest of our ships, and blow away as much of that huge hulk as humanly possible. Unleash everything we have at it.”

”I’m on it.” Peter’s craft sped off toward the mother ship at full speed.

I pushed the throttle all the way forward and followed closely behind him.

As we moved closer, dodging around floating debris and blasting our way past a bunch of rogue enemy fighters, I noticed tens of smaller fighters spewing out of the mother ship and heading towards the planet’s atmosphere. “Hey, Peter. We’re going to have to be quick about this.” I pressed my finger on the trigger and kept it held down, sending out a stream of blue shots that tore through a bunch of the enemy fighters and drew a line of mini impact explosions across the surface of the larger craft. But when the dust settled the mother ship looked largely unscathed.

Out of the window I saw Peter launch a series of missiles at a flashing section of the mother ship. A new button lit up on the control panel. It was labelled Concentrate Attack. I quickly pressed it and a flurry of missiles and laser shots flew out of my ship, winding and twisting their way to the target.

A group of allied mechs suddenly swarmed on my position and started firing at the same point where Peter and I were concentrating our shots. They were using much larger and more powerful ion cannons that blasted out thick green laser beams, and these beams were finally doing some damage to the mother ship.

A shock wave of green and blue energy rippled across the surface of the alien ship and tore a large hole through its middle.

“Yes, take that you alien scum.” I shook my fist in the air, almost dropping the controller in the excitement.

“Nice,” Peter said. “If we can blast away a few thousand more chunks like that, these guys are going to be in serious trouble.”

The blast had caused some damage but it wasn’t enough to stop the ship. Still, it was a victory—a small victory but a victory nonetheless—and at least we now knew for sure that we could damage the beast. That was a start. That gave us a fighting chance.

More fighters spewed out from the mother ship and headed toward the planet. I suddenly realised that the smaller craft weren’t coming from inside the structure; they actually were the structure. The huge pyramid was made up of literally tens of thousands of smaller ships, all joined together in formation to form a superstructure that was vastly superior in defence to the individual craft, and capable of firing off thousands of shots simultaneously. One by one the smaller ships were breaking away from the larger structure and swarming toward the planet.

“Peter, keep your attack focused on the mother ship. I’m going to engage those enemy fighters in the upper atmosphere of the planet and try to stop them before they reach the surface.”

“Got it. Good luck, Jobe.”

I set the ship into a high speed dive toward the planet where the enemy fighters were concentrating together. Luckily I was in the faster ship so I reached the edge of the atmosphere before the enemy got there. I pointed in the direction of a cluster of approaching ships and launched a couple of missiles. The first ship exploded and took out two more in the blast, and temporarily disabled another one. The remaining ships turned around and sped in my direction. They twisted and winded around me, firing their lasers widely in all directions. I pushed hard left on the control stick and rolled out of the way of a stream of red shots. The radar was a flashing pitri dish of red blips. I slammed hard right on the stick and rolled back in the other direction, performing and barrel roll across the top of one of the alien craft. Our ships passed close enough together that I could see the alien pilot inside his cockpit, tracking my ship as it rolled on by. I looped around and brought my ship in line with his rear thrusters. A burst of laser fire later and his ship was a cloud of smoke, fire, and debris floating in space. “I am a space warrior.”

Peter shouted in my ear. “Don’t get cocky, kid.”

“Yeah . . . watch this. . . .” I smiled and quickly swept the ship around so that I was heading straight towards the last two blips on the radar. The two enemy fighters were dead ahead of me, coming in fast with guns blazing. I set the ship into an aileron roll and spun directly through the hail of laser shots, which narrowly missed the wings of my ship on either side, and then fired off a stream of laser blasts and missiles in the direction of the rapidly approaching enemy fighters. Barely a few metres in front of my ship, two loud explosions erupted as the enemy craft went up in smoke and flames. Chunks of sparking metal flew off in all directions. I steered the ship straight through the centre of the black cloud left in the wake of their destruction, and then aileron rolled out the other side just for show. “Woohoo!” With a small adjustment I was skimming across the planet’s atmosphere, watching the front of my ship glowing red hot. This was my victory dance. I felt like Tom Cruise in Top Gun. “What do you think of that, Peter? How do you like them—”

A deafening explosion went off a few feet to the right of my ship, lighting up the entire cockpit bright white for a moment. The ship shook violently as the cockpit rattled all around me. A plume of fire and smoke floated past the window. It was coming from my wing.

“Emergency! Emergency! Critical damage to right wing detected. Prepare for emergency landing.”

A red blip popped up on the radar. It must have been a random enemy ship that was out of range a moment earlier, and it had tagged me with a sneaky missile that I didn’t see coming in my moment of celebration and excitement. Maybe Peter was right about me being too cocky.

“Peter, I’ve been hit.”

The enemy ship was approaching fast and firing its lasers directly at me. I made a desperate dive for the atmosphere. It was the only thing I could think to do in the heat of the moment. Hopefully the alien pilot would see my ship was out of commission and burning up in the atmosphere, and he’d cut off his attack. . . .

It worked. The enemy fighter turned around and headed back toward his squadron. I had been bested by the computer AI—and my own arrogance.

My ship tumbled downward, flames roaring over the top of the cockpit as it sped through the atmosphere towards the planet’s surface. The metal fixtures of the cockpit rattled and clattered around me.

The sandy ground approached rapidly. I pulled back hard on the flight stick, trying to control the approach angle and slow down the ship as much as I could. It had minimal effect. I was coming in fast. “I’m going down.” Well, at least I will be able to see the planet close up. . . .

The ship crashed into the surface of the planet. Glass flew everywhere as the cockpit shattered into a million pieces. The control panel lit up in a series of crackling electric sparks and mini-explosions. I physically jump back in my wheelchair, instinctively throwing my hands up in front of my face and accidentally bumping the gamepad against the headset in the process. The display on the headset flickered for a second and then returned to normal. I couldn’t tell if the flickering was an intended part of the game or an unintentional glitch caused by my wild jumping around, but it pulled me out the experience slightly. Yet, it was the in-game hands not following my own hands in the real world that ultimately broke the illusion for a moment, more so than clumsily smashing the controller against my head. For a brief moment, however, it was real. I’d experienced another instance of genuine presence—and another example of me looking like an idiot, had anyone actually been there to observe me freaking out at something happening inside this virtual simulation.

I heard Peter’s voice in my ear, “Jobe, can you hear me?”

“Yes, I can hear you.”

“Are you still in one piece? I saw your tumbling toward the planet and then it disappeared off my radar. For a second I thought it might have been Game Over for you.”

“No, I’m still here. But my ship is totalled.”

“What does that mean? Can you still move around in the game?”

“I’m not sure.” I pushed the analogue stick on the controller. Nothing happened, which wasn’t entirely surprising. “I can look around normally,”—I tilted my head up to the sky and saw the domed force field lighting up far above me as enemy fire continued to strike its surface, but the planet beneath was quiet and peaceful, apart from the burning remains of my ship—“but obviously I can’t steer the ship or anything like that. I’m not quite sure if I’m supposed to find some way to exit the wreckage or just stay here until the game resets.”

“Well, give me a shout when you figure out what’s up. Right now . . . I’ve got a bogey on my tail. . . .”

“I will do.”

I waited. . . .

My in-game character slowly started to remove the space helmet and flight gloves. It was then that I got the first glimpse of what I looked like, beyond just a generic space suit—and what I saw was rather surprising. I couldn’t see my own head but my hands clearly weren’t those of a human. My skin was pale blue and the top of my hands were covered in a layer of velvety fur. When I thought about it, there wasn’t any reason that I should be human, other than a lack of imagination on my part.

The Cockpit Release button lit up on the control panel. I gave it a press and the broken remains of the ship’s roof slowly flipped up, giving me a wider view of the area. I looked beyond the broken shell of the ship. A vast alien desert stretched out before me in all directions, as far as the eye could see. A light fog of sand-dust a metre high blew gently across the surface. And the entire scene, reaching far off into the distant horizon, was shimmering and glowing beneath the brightest of blue skies. It was almost Earth-like—apart from a bunch of strange red roots, three metres thick, which reached up from the surface of the sand and toward the sky.

A giant worm creature burst out of the ground a few metres in front of me, causing a violent storm of sand to sweep across my view and obscuring everything in sight for a second, and then it came crashing back down into the ground with a loud and heavy thud before disappearing beneath the surface again. The dust settled and my view cleared once more.

It was then that I noticed something truly shocking poking out of the sand: It was the crumbled remains of a toppled skyscraper. I’d thought it was simply a large dune previously, before the worm creature smashing into the ground had shaken the sand from its surface and revealed it in more detail. But the remains of a building weren’t particularly shocking to see; it was the inscription on the face of the stone slab sitting in front of the building that startled me: Twin Towers II.

I was on Earth—but Earth as the game designer imagined it looking in the distant future. Set some time long after the planet had been reclaimed by nature, and possibly after some future world war had destroyed human civilisation as we know it. And the force field wasn’t protecting a city full of humans or even alien civilians. It was protecting the planet’s natural ecosystem from outside invaders and other dangers, including our very own sun—the red giant that loomed large over the planet—giving nature a chance to reclaim the Earth so it could start afresh.

Maybe it was a war against some all-conquering alien overlords that had wiped out the human population. Or perhaps we’d simply fled the planet once the sun had grown so large that the slowly roasting Earth could no longer comfortably support human life. More likely, it was just another pointless war we’d fought among ourselves that had brought an end to the time of man’s dominion over the Earth. . . . Regardless, it was a stunning revelation.

What a beautiful almost alien world, an alternate version of the birth planet of all mankind, ripe for new exploration and discovery. And now I was actually about to get out of the ship and freely—

A loud buzzing sounded. It seemed to be coming from the atmosphere of the planet, from all around me. Was it some kind of planetary warning beacon?

The buzzing sounded again.

There didn’t appear to be any immediate danger. Maybe it was one of the ship’s alarms warning me of an imminent explosion, which didn’t sound correct because I’d accidentally knocked the headset’s 3D sound off slightly when I was erratically jumping around. I tried to focus on precisely where the sound was coming from—

The buzzing wasn’t coming from inside the game. It was coming from my computer. Damn! Not again. This time it had to be Polybius trying to message me. How could I let myself get so distracted—again?

“Hey, Peter. I’ve got to go, OK,” I said in a panic.

“Oh, OK, Jobe. No problem,” Peter said, slightly taken aback by the sudden interruption.

“Sorry, man. You know what it’s like . . . business and all that.”

“It’s fine, Jobe. I get it. We can pick up where we left off again tomorrow or something, I guess. . . . And remember, nothing stupid.”

“I will remember. I’ll catch you later,” I said apologetically. I knew Peter could tell I was lying to him, but he was being totally understanding about it.

“OK, Jobe. Later—”

I whipped off the headset.

#

The computer buzzed again and a message box popped up on the screen. It was Polybius requesting a private chat. I couldn’t believe it was six o’clock already. It really didn’t feel like I’d been in the game that long.

I paused for a second to calm myself and then pressed the Accept button.

Polybius: Hi, Jobe.

Job38_4: Hi, Polybius.

Polybius: First: Is it safe?

Job38_4: Yes, it’s safe.

Polybius: Good, Jobe. So, have you come to a decision regarding helping reveal the truth about my company’s unholy virtual reality work?

Job38_4: Yes, I’m definitely in.

Polybius: Great, then we had better get to work. We do not have a lot of time. I would like to send you the headset as soon as possible, so you can try it out first-hand and verify the various claims I am making, and then we can move to figuring out the best way to disseminate the information.

Job38_4: OK. So, how do we go about arranging for me to get the headset? Do I need to meet you somewhere secret or something? Will you be the guy hiding in the shadows and smoking a cigarette?

Polybius: Nothing quite that exciting, Jobe. I am going to arrange a special recorded delivery. Although, Ideally, I would not want to involve any more middlemen than I have to, but I think this will be the best way to get the headset to you safely.

I will label the package as “Spectacle Parts”, so you will recognise it. When it arrives you will be asked for your signature to confirm delivery of the parcel. Sign your name as Stanley G. Weinbaum. That is how I will know it got delivered to you specifically.

Job38_4: Do you want my address and postal details?

Polybius: I already have them, Jobe. Thank you.

It was a bit disconcerting that this stranger knew so much about me, and I knew almost nothing about him, but not entirely unexpected.

Job38_4: OK. So, is there anything else we need to get sorted out?

Polybius: No, I think that is all for now, Jobe. It will probably take me a day or so to figure out how to sneak the headset out of the lab and make all the arrangements, but be prepared for a parcel delivery over the next few days.

Job38_4: Great. Once I’ve tried the headset, how will I get back in touch with you?

Polybius: Do not worry about that, Jobe. I will contact you when the time is right. I had better go now. It is not safe to chat for too long, as they have recently ramped up security in the lab due to some trouble with one of the test subjects. You will not hear from me again for a few days. Good luck, Jobe.

Job38_4: OK. Bye for now.

Polybius’ name disappeared from the message window.

Well that’s that then. I shut down the message program. I guess now I just have to wait patiently for the headset to arrive.

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