Whenever any of the other survivors ask how you’ve racked up so many victories, you point to single-mindedness as the secret to your success. “I’m hungry. Like the Unliving, I want it more.”
Usually, you mean “hungry” in a “for victory” sense. Your undefeated streak is proof-positive of that. But right now, with your stomach growling like a wild beast rooting through overturned garbage cans in a woodsy part of the suburbs, you mean it in an “I wanna eat toaster waffles” kind of way.
Lucky for you, the approach of a drone delivering your grocery rewards is what woke you from your post-victory nap.
How’s that for timing?
(You sparred earlier. That opponent controlled a girl-shaped Unliving with pigtails and a loop of intestines that doubled as a squishier noose, and you controlled a sweater-clad grandma-shaped one with rotten eyes, which meant limited visual input. And yet, you still won. The handicap from your host provided a nice bonus when final scores got added up, too.)
The incoming drone moves from a red dot above a sea of black and green forms on your pod security monitor to a real-life machine zooming over the steel-plated barrier around your fortified living pod. The drone slips inside via the laser-guarded opening high in the structure, bypassing sensors keyed to eliminate any breaching Unliving. It rattles the unwashed dishes in your sink as it lands.
Working quickly, you remove the delivery from the drone’s carrier hooks, avoiding the black spittle of the Unliving that’s still drying on the machine’s chrome encasement. Even the latest studies differ on the dwell time for the saliva-transferred virus. But you’re not going to take chances when it comes to your own life and body. Risk-taking’s reserved for those activities where you know the rewards will be worth it. Not to mention those where you have a proxy to bear the consequences of a mistake or miscalculation.
And even then…
Toaster waffle consumed, you turn on your pod’s entertainment unit. You’re at the log-in screen for the Game. Same as ever.
The Game’s all that’s left now. For you, for anyone. So when it’s time to play, that’s exactly what you do.
Prep begins when you drop one of two neural-link headbands into the drone’s waiting arm. Before it flies away, you lean in close and inhale the scents of the world outdoors.
Spoiled meat. Again.
The drone takes off and you put on the second headband. The magnetized connectors on either side of the band tap against the metal input holes a med-drone drilled into your skull back when you first signed up for the Game. Yellow light blinks in your periphery, awaiting connection. After a brief delay, you’re synced up. The drone’s feed appears on-screen. It zips past a tall Unliving, basketball shorts worn to ragged, with rat-nibbled kneecaps exposed.
Not that one. It’ll crumble with a stiff breeze.
Spectators are logging in now. Never names you recognize though. Before the Unliving took over the outside, you never cared too much about anyone but your fellow gamers. Co-op or melee modes, voices coming through headset microphones. When the Unliving came, the voices that were egging you on, trying out curse words for the first time, and occasionally celebrating victory, all went silent. One by one, then more and more together, until you realized the ringing in your ears came from the quiet. You don’t talk to your fellow Game Players now. There’s no multiplayer options, no need to discuss strategy like you would for a good old-fashioned first-person shooter.
The Game is just single combat, one battle after another.
Spectators are a whole other matter, of course. You still can’t believe there are so many people out there willing to pay credits to watch you and the others play the Game. But then again, you’re an in-demand product and capitalism’s its own undying monster, isn’t it? The spectators pay quite well to follow the fight streams, and those payments go to keep you well-stocked in toaster waffles. So who are you to complain? In the chat, they greet each other like long-lost acquaintances.
Just imagine if WATCHING was all you had to live for…
“Romero’s gonna kick some @ss.”
“Love when zombies [censored] each other up.”
“Ugh. The correct term’s ‘Unliving.’ Show some respect.”
On and on…
A voice booms from your entertainment unit and from those of everyone watching—wherever they might be. “The Challenger has selected their host.” Dressed in scrubs with a surgical mask chewed through by its black saliva-drenched maw, the Challenger’s host staggers forward in a new feed that’s gone live.
Time to get serious.
Multitasking is an essential part of an effective fight strategy. You have to trust your body, follow its lead rather than try to lead it. Something catches your eye on the drone tracker at the upper-right corner of your screen. A promising lead at the on-ramp to the highway out of town, the one crowded with all those long-abandoned automobiles. Spilled gasoline gives the crumbling asphalt a slimy, tarry sheen.
Your target sits buckled behind the wheel of an old beat-up station wagon colored a dull blue-gray like dryer lint. The smashed-in driver’s side window provides a direct path for establishing a connection. The potential host strains against its seatbelt. Nylon filament’s worn canyons across its chest and around its side, exposing ribs and rotten organs.
Of course, you’ve won fights with much worse before. You issue the command and the drone makes the drop. The neural-link headband adjusts to fit the lumpy shape of the Unliving’s head.
Inside the headband, needles unfold and plunge their electrified tips through skin and skull. You check the screen for spectator comments one last time.
“Like a dumpy math teacher.”
“Romero loosing his touch?”
“WOW DEADCOIN CHANGED MY LIFE. CHECK OUT THIS LINK FOR MORE INFO AND HOW YOU CAN TOO…”
When the connection’s finalized, everything goes white. At first.
Then, your senses return, and “you” are outside. After all this time, a period of adjustment still follows after the connection is made. Inhabiting an Unliving’s like wearing a new pair of shoes. You’ve gotta move around before you’re sure they’re a good fit.
At least this one’s brain activity’s so minor that it doesn’t interfere. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Spit. Spit. Spit. Go. Go…. On and on. Nothing you haven’t “heard” before.
Glass crunches behind your host. Its swollen hands flop while you assert control. The Challenger-controlled host appears in the driver’s side mirror. Closer than they appear. The phrase is a memory ripped from an abandoned world. It catches you by surprise and wrenches laughter up from your guts.
Your host shudders and shakes producing a sound less like a chuckle and more like a cockroach’s chirping shriek.
The Challenger’s host lifts a chunk of asphalt from the ground. Here it comes!
There goes the mirror.
The Unliving’s clumsy hands tighten under your control. Dexterity and coordination returned temporarily, your host presses its seatbelt release. The momentum from its near-constant straining against the belt sends your host forward. The taut textured fiber of the belt slices deeper into the chest. Heart and lung are perforated. Not that it matters.
Of course, it’s wrong what they say about the Unliving not experiencing pain. They experience plenty. But their hunger and other unnatural drives win the day. You’ve learned how to harness those simultaneous sensations of endless aching and animalistic determination, treating the combo as a force multiplier in your fights. Too many other players fail to understand this strategy. The symbiotic relationship between you and the Unliving—each brings a set of “talents” to winning. These other players would rather get frustrated and act like they’ve been given faulty equipment.
But you understand: each member of the Unliving truly is a unique snowflake. None is like the other. Find what makes them special and you find the path to victory.
The Challenger’s host is at the station wagon now, pulling hard on the locked door with one bruised corpse hand, reaching through the window with the other. Back in your home pod, you bend to the side, away from the driver’s side door, and your host follows suit. Those watching probably can’t even tell there’s a miniscule delay between your action and the host’s mirroring. The Game’s makers and their sponsors have really gone above and beyond when it comes to IT and server upgrades. You saw one of the spectators in the chat mention all the old military satellites were repurposed for maintaining the links between player and hosts. You suppose it’s for the best.
After all, it’s a fat lot of good the military and the secret space lasers did when the Unliving started their spread.
Back in the present, back on the outside, the Challenger’s host continues its berserker-style onslaught, landing the occasional blow on your host and making escape seemingly impossible.
It’s easy enough to imagine what they’re saying in the chat about the fight.
“Game over, man. Game over.”
But you’re not finished. Your hand shoots forward and your host follows, moving in the opposite direction of its nearest exit. Click. The glove compartment opens. Your host’s blackened teeth reproduce your grin.
This sad-looking man? Had to carry one, right?
The Challenger’s host takes the handle in both hands. It pulls hard on the door and your host kicks back at the interior side. As a result, the driver’s side pops open like a overwound jack-in-the-box sprung too soon. The Challenger’s host stumbles from the car. Your host lurches forward with your glovebox “surprise” in its hand.
GoGoGoGo HungryHungryHungry GoHungryGoHungry Hungry.
Fingers slick with blood slide across the handgun’s exterior, fumbling for the weapon’s safety. The Challenger’s host sways in place, stunned as the person at its controls must be back in their pod. Back on your end, you crouch and then straighten. Your host stands. Everyone’s in their own little pods, hiding away in the remains of a dead world, watching you aim through your host. With a level of control amassed through hours, days, lifetimes of practice, you’re able to make your host fire at the ground, bullet striking against a rainbow-tinted puddle of gasoline.
The other host mouths the Challenger’s expletive like a pantomime performer.
That single bullet heads for the ground. A mini-explosion against the gasoline-covered asphalt triggers a chain reaction. The Challenger’s host is engulfed in flames, the crowded ramp’s next. Your host walks through the fire. It’s not left unscathed.
But that’s not a problem when the fight’s already over.
You steer it back to town. The drone drops and removes the neural-link headband. There’s no gentle removal of the needles plunged into its brain. Your former host will wear the deep scratches around their head until its inevitable destruction.
Maybe if it keeps moving the fire dancing across its limbs will go out. Eventually. But a charred skeleton won’t make for much of a fighter afterwards. Not enough mass for a well-thrown punch or kick. This one will be a one-and-done. Like the special single-use skins for your video game avatars back in the old days.
Back in the days of the living.
The Unliving you won with stumbles ahead. Go go go hungry hungry hungry spit spit hungry hngry spt gggg… At least it didn’t head deeper into the flames. There’s always a good chance that’ll happen.
This one doesn’t lift its head to follow the arcing path of your drone whirring overhead. None of them ever look at the sky.
“I won,” you say.
Back in the chat, the spectators are going crazy, debating whether firearms are legal, whether you cheated, and so on. But you know the rules better than most. You’ve played the Game since beta-testing after all.
“I won,” you say again. To no one.
A message appears on-screen: “Play again?”
Patrick Barb is an author of weird, dark, and horrifying tales, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of the novellas Gargantuana’s Ghost (Grey Matter Press), Turn (Alien Buddha Press), and The Nut House (serialized in Cosmic Horror Monthly), as well as the novelette Helicopter Parenting in the Age of Drone Warfare (Spooky House Press) and the forthcoming dark fiction collection Pre-Approved for Haunting and Other Stories (Keylight Books / Turner Publishing, October 2023). Visit him at patrickbarb.com.