In the year 2304, people spent their lives trying to live as little as possible.
The physical planet people inhabited – or the Physworld, as it was known – had been ruined hundreds of years before this date; now, it was just a vandalised heirloom, a second-hand pair of shoes with the soles ripped out. However, what had been left to the people of this generation was a vast quantity of advanced technology, and it was this that the people turned to for salvation. With the Physworld offering more hardships than solutions, they retreated into a succession of hyper-realistic simulations and became ever-more dependent on their false realities until, eventually, they lost themselves to the machines.
Doctors stopped practising, opting instead to tend to their virtual gardens; and teachers abandoned their students, to work on their virtual golf swing; and governments began to dissolve, as politicians left parliament to look after their virtual pets. In every country across the planet, humans were disregarding their duties in the Physworld; everything was easier, more controllable, in the worlds they could make for themselves.
The only problem was that food could not be virtual. With all the farmers strapped into their VR headsets, the crops withered, the animals starved – and gradually, the populace became angry. They lingered in their virtual utopias for as long as they could, golfing and gardening and petting. Then, when the stomach cramps finally became unbearable, they spilled out onto the streets and rioted. Someone was at fault, was the general sentiment, someone must be to blame for the anarchic, desolate state of disarray they had come to be living in. And so, they took out their frustration on this unseen someone, through the only means they knew. Buildings were torn down, fires were set, and from hunger, stampedes or disease, people started to die. The governments had no answers; there was barely anybody left in power.
Humanity looked set for a flailing, undignified death. Though fortunately, it transpired that not everyone had been unprepared.
There had long been a plan to evacuate the Earth: back in the twenty-third century, during a prolonged and intense period of solar flares, a number of global powers had diverted considerable resources into a program called Space Exploration for Planet Habitability (SEPH). To the amazement of everyone involved, the operation had been a success – an ideal planet, assigned the value 2F3G, had been discovered, and all the collected data pointed towards optimum conditions for human life.
While the rest of the world had been languishing in their VR headsets, SEPH was preparing 2F3G for a mass exodus. A hardy core of scientists had resisted the urge to escape into their own games and had predicted the inevitable food shortages. They knew that this planet might be humanity’s only salvation, and in anticipation they had gathered a diverse group of humans to send first: they recruited fellow scientists, doctors, soldiers, teachers, and kept them occupied in the Physworld, and prevented them from degrading along with the rest of humankind into simulations.
From preliminary scans, the planet was red and dusty, with a dense atmosphere and moderate cloud coverage. Liquid water had been detected only a few metres beneath the surface, and although it would require energy to extract, it was remarkably similar in composition to that found on Earth. Everything was looking promising. Until they spotted the life forms inhabiting it.
The initial reports described the lifeforms as indistinct, but did not rule them out as a threat. The organisers of SEPH were not prepared to take risks with the fate of their species and gave an immediate order requesting armed support.
In time, a convoy of young soldiers was shuttled to 2F3G, and specially trained to fight for their planet against whatever creature they came across. They were equipped with the latest virtual headsets (the organisers had retained some, for military purposes), and were accompanied by state-of-the-art battle pods for commanding their combat drones. Among these soldiers was twenty-two-year-old man, named Pat Higgins.
For the most part, Pat’s day had been the same as any other since they had arrived at planet 2F3G. Pat’s mission, as his commander reminded the soldiers regularly via audio-link, was to eliminate hostile life forms in order to clear the way for the imminent arrival of the first civilian convoy. Each soldier, stationed individually at their drone control base, was to neutralise a minimum of twenty hostile forms – known simply as “targets” among the soldiers – per day in order to keep on track. Any less, and the drone package containing their rations would be halved in size; Any more, and they’d receive a small chunk of chocolate wrapped in their breakfast flatbread. Respect (envy) among their comrades was also a benefit. Moreover, they were told that everyone stationed on 2F3G were privileged to be working on behalf of their planet and once the rest of humanity joined them, there would definitely be rewards for their service. And so, in the back of their minds, every one of these ambitious, young soldiers were primed for personal and intergalactic glory.
Pat’s job was, for him, simple. His holoscreen received a live feed from the combat drones, which automatically marked all targets with a glowing crimson figure; all he had to do was fire at these figures until they turned green. Each green target counted towards his twenty-a-day total, something Pat found very achievable.
He just had a natural instinct, he explained to his jealous comrades. There was a tingle, a sixth sense, whatever you wanted to call it, that came to him when the targets were close. Even through the digitised feed of the drones, he could feel the slightest irregularity or see the subtlest ripple in the sand and know, without thinking, exactly when a life-form had passed and that’s why Pat always had chocolate for breakfast.
That day, 2200hrs Earth equivalent.
The holoscreen pulsed blue and Patrick slid the control stick in a wide arc, scanning for remnant figures. His pod swivelled to match the movement, with a soft metallic whir. Through his headset, he could see the vast plains of 2F3G widening into the distance, silver light from three of the moons spilling over the scene. The evening was silent, empty. Pat applied pressure to the top of the control stick, and one of his drones rose seamlessly from the pack, providing a wider viewpoint. There was almost no sound on this part of the planet and the drone’s audio feed was silent, as it swept upwards over the boulders, into the darkening sky.
Pat knew there was probably little point in continuing the hunt. Night was approaching, and he’d already finished thirty targets in this sector. Any remaining life forms would be gone by now, or at the very least, have been warned off by the drone fire. And yet, he still felt on edge. He wondered if it was paranoia – it happened, occasionally, after a bad night’s sleep, or when he’d forgotten to take his vitamin supplements.
A bright red claw darted behind a boulder, and Patrick swung his fleet of drones into action. Hands flying across the control panel, he rapidly calibrated the movements; two kilometres away, on the planet surface, his drones began to close in. In his pod, a familiar stony focus had set in his face.
The game had begun.
The exposed claw began to glow in that tantalising crimson he had seen so often – the drones had locked their target. Now, all he needed was a clear shot. The figure seemed oblivious to the danger, and Patrick had enough experience to know that a hurried approach could all too easily lead to the loss of a drone when the target panicked. Patience was vital. He sat with his eyes fixed to the screen and waited tensely for his moment.
After a short while, the claw began to inch around the boulder, searching for a pocket for leverage to stand up. Pat noticed a slight tremor in its movements. Injured, maybe. That would make this easier – less chance of a struggle, a more efficient reward. A shaking crimson leg emerged into view. If he waited any longer then the target would notice his drones.
He made the move. And everything happened in milliseconds.
The button on the underside of the control stick lit up green. A rush sounded on the planet’s surface, as the drones opened throttle and closed in. Jet black missiles unfolded from their rotors and screeched through the air with horrifying speed.
They impacted. The boulder shattered deafeningly into countless rocky fragments, sending a cloud of scorched dust ballooning towards the drones. A low hiss sounded from the falling shrapnel. Then, for a moment, all was still.
Back in the battle pod, Pat’s muscles relaxed as he waited for the dust to clear. He peeled his hands from the control stick and smiled. He was going to have an enjoyable meeting tomorrow, he thought, imagining his comrades’ strained voices congratulating him on yet another set of flawless statistics.
The last of the dust settled, and Patrick returned his attention to the drone feed to double-check the target was fully green. A formality, really, but he needed an image in order for the hit to count towards his total. He slid his fingers across the control panel to activate the camera. Then, halfway there, they stopped.
The target had disappeared. Patrick felt a wave of nausea wash over him. It hadn’t been injured at all…
Without warning, a glowing crimson claw slashed across one of his screens, and the drone’s feed cut out. There was an awful grunting sound from the creature, followed by the shriek of tearing metal, and one by one Patrick’s other screens went dark. He scrambled around the control panel, trying to salvage any machines he could, but his efforts were futile. The inside of his headset went entirely blank and the speakers buzzed ominously in his ears.
He wrenched off the headset and sat, panting, in the pod. Patrick had never seen a target set a trap like that before – maybe the things were adapting, he thought. And seven drones, gone! He was set to be a laughingstock tomorrow, not a hero, and furthermore, the commander was not going to take the equipment loss kindly.
Swearing, he opened the pod and clambered out into his control base, cracking his knee against the edge as he did so. Greed, that’s what it was, he thought. He couldn’t have just left it at thirty, he had to push for the high score. Pat tugged off his haptic suit and, rubbing his kneecap, stumbled towards the water dispenser to brush his teeth.
Never mind, he told himself. It was late, he wasn’t thinking clearly; he’d assess the situation properly in the morning. And with that, he settled into his standard-issue bed and closed his eyes.
0230hrs Earth Equivalent
Pat wasn’t sure if he was awake when, just a few hours later, he heard a noise coming from outside the control base. It was a kind of scratching, probing sound, a slow scraping perhaps. He sat up and checked the time – surely not a drone, at this hour? The scraping intensified, following the perimeter of the base and drawing closer to the entry hatch. Pat felt a tremor of uneasiness scurry down his arms.
The sound stopped abruptly. Trying to control his breath, Patrick eased his torso upwards and peeked out of the small viewing aperture beside the bed. The night was inky black. No signs of movement apart from a small amount of dust, swirling gently by the windowsill: nothing out of the ordinary. He sighed and steadied his heartbeat.
He was just lowering his head when the opening hatch started to shake.
Pat bolted upright, eyes gleaming in the darkness. He fumbled blindly at the desk by his bed – he had a weapon here, he remembered wildly, a parting precaution from an old soldier, where was it? There. Hands twitching, he pulled a semi-automatic pistol from the top drawer and released the safety catch. He pointed it at the shaking door.
As a last precaution, he grabbed his battle headset from on top of the desk and jammed it on, setting the screen to neutral. The thick plastic would provide some protection, he hoped.
The handle was wrenched downwards. And slowly, dreadfully, a crimson limb snaked around the door. Pat’s breath caught inside the headset.
It couldn’t be the target, it couldn’t be. But it was.
He saw the creature emerge into the room, vast limbs casting a shadow across his bed. The face was brutal, misshapen, with vicious fangs protruding like daggers from every corner of its snarling mouth. The gun almost fell from Pat’s grip. He prepared for the worst.
Then, unexpectedly, a voice sounded in his mind. It sounded tinny, like someone talking from inside a deep cavern. He looked at the monster, the target, in front of him and noticed an odd concentration in the black eyes; despite his fear, he realised that it was trying to communicate.
The mouth was still snarling, the face still contorted with primal rage, but words were entering Patrick’s mind, words that he had not put there.
Don’t… Hurt me.
Pat swallowed and placed his finger on the trigger of his gun. Whatever this was, it was not going to get him killed.
“We… Need food. Please… Don’t hurt us”.
The creature still loomed over his bed. He tightened his grip on the pistol and took aim at the crimson torso.
“They can… Have the planet. But they do not… Need to… kill us to take it”.
The voice had more urgency to it now, a strained quality.
“You see… what they want… you to see. Your helmet… hides us”.
The creature made a slow approach towards him, until the crimson face was just two feet from his.
We… Are not… The enemy.
Its eyes were black, unreadable. Pat’s instincts tugged his finger slightly on the trigger, every muscle in his body tensing, driving him to kill.
“You will… see. Take off the helmet”.
It was a target.
“Take off the helmet”.
It was lying.
“Take off the helmet”.
Pat pulled the trigger.
A violent puff erupted from the creature’s chest, sending it reeling backwards. It hit the far wall and collapsed. A green tinge spread across it; the target was neutralised.
Pat listened to its last breaths. They were smaller, shallower than he had imagined.
He realised, of all the targets he had killed, he had not seen one of them in person. He had not heard them die. It was always through the drones – through his headset.
“Take off the helmet”.
A sick feeling rose up in his stomach. With a sense of dread, he reached his hands up to his neck and released the strap. The helmet emitted a soft rush of air as he lifted it from his head.
Lying on the floor across the room was something very different to the crimson monster that had stood there only moments before. It was small, emaciated, yellowed with dirt. It had broken fingernails, hollowed cheeks. Its eyes were brown and intelligent. And it was awfully, unmistakably human.
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