Short Story: These Damn Games

Keith Munson was dreaming. He knew it. The only other explanation was… There wasn’t one. None. Any were too fantastic, too impossible to be real. He’d fallen asleep at his computer again, that was it. Head on the keyboard, drool at the corner of his mouth. The sounds of chaos caused by random key presses interfered with his sleep, guided his dreams. That had to be it. All he had to do was wake up. Close his eyes. Open them. Be awake.

He closed his eyes, opened them…

And was still staring through the cock-pit of a single-seat fighter. Beyond the glowing, holo-HUD and the transparent view-port was the most immense blackness he’d ever seen; space. Space was a never-ending black fabric; eternally unrolling around him. He was alone amid it, joined only by pinpricks letting through some other, more ethereal universe’s light.

But it couldn’t be real. There was no way. He was a small-town kid from a flyover state. He lived and worked on O’Doyle’s farm, shoveling horse and cow shit or hefting bales of hay. In winter, he plowed rural roads for odd cash, tided himself over on money squirreled away from warm months. He lived in one of O’Doyle’s retrofitted pole-barns; a loft apartment roughly the size of a usual master bedroom. The only difference was an attached bathroom and a few, simplified essentials like a gas stove and small fridge-freezer combo. Often enough, they were stocked with overflow produce from O’Doyle’s across the farm.

The only other things Keith owned were a computer, some clothes, and a bed.

The computer was hooked to a fiber-line net-connection he and O’Doyle had installed at great expense and effort. It connected them to a nearby city’s telecom infrastructure, granting net-access at the highest possible speeds. Combined with his gaming rig, Keith was his own sort of rocketeer each time he sat down.

None of that explained this though. People had barely breached space. There were still problems with the real rocketeers. They hadn’t figured out the math or tech on the fighters he knew as sci-fi. More importantly, this fighter was his. It was the same fighter he logged into every time he booted Galactic Conquest. How he was in it,he didn’t know. He didn’t want to know. He just wanted it to end.

He stared vacantly; nothing around him. Not immediately, anyhow. His first instinct was to run, flee. Then, he remembered where he was; where he’d been. The crushing reality of a warzone and possible death terrified him into a caution that replaced his outright disbelief.

He had to know where to go. Somewhere safe. Somewhere no-one could harm him. A medical ship! Neutral ground.

But the nearest one was light hours away. Would take days unless he engaged his jump drive. His jump drive could be easily tracked though, identify him as a hostile invader. A jump drive could be easily destroyed until it leapt away.

But he had no choice. Jump, or sub-light assurances of capture or death… or drifting forever, until his O2 ran out with his life– and his ship became a tomb for some scavver to pick clean. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d do what he could to get to safety, then figure the rest out.

He gripped the controls, recalled watching his avatar do it. There was significantly less confidence in the act. Still, the sticks felt right in his hands.His left-hand throttled up. G-forces slammed him back before his inertial dampeners kicked in andgravity released him. The stars moved now, slowly but with a definite certainty.

His right hand pitched, rolled. Artificial gravity kept him in place, left him feeling small but powerful. He throttled up, felt the blast of Gs, the release of compensating dampeners. The stars were coming faster now, cantering at him with a ready, dead stare.Keith breathed deep, mimed the button presses used to engage the jump drive. The growl of the drive core rippled through the ship.

Screams pierced his eardrums. His whole body trembled. Adrenaline flooded his veins. The three-hundred sixty degree sensors HUD lit up before him. Six targets had dropped from jump-speeds and were closing.

Keith choked for breath, mind fumbling for action. His left hand drove the throttle up fully on instinct. The G-forces were tenfold before the dampeners compensated again. The only thing that kept his insides from exploding in the split-second before compensation was the ultra-advanced G-suit. It could protect him from just about everything but explosions and the vacuum of space; two things greatly concerning at the moment.

Translating from keyboard keys to throttle and stick was less difficult each second, but Keith needed time. Time he didn’t have. The piercing alerts meant charged weapons. His hand instinctively flicked a button, shut off the alert.

The first impact came; a glancing blow. He barely felt it. Nonetheless, the transparent field of blue appeared over his cock-pit, dissipating absorbed energy. It was good; energy weapons were manageable so long as they didn’t hit too hard all at once. Missiles and Rail-guns were a different story altogether.

Another hit; stronger, direct. The shield lit up. The ship choked from the power required. A few switches diverted all power from weapons into shields and engines. The jump-drive rattled his teeth, spurned forward by the increase.

A third hit. Direct, not as jarring. Either he was getting used to it or the shield had strengthened. It wouldn’t last. He had only one chance to escape. With a breath, and an instinctive set of movements, Keith hit the afterburner for a boost. He spiraled up, back, toward the onslaught of ships. Instinct and tactics would force the pilots to break formation, split apart for fear of weapons fire.

They did just that, splitting down the middle. Three broke left, three right. Keith blasted through their former center. The jump-drive charged. His left hand thumbed “engage.” The ship blasted into FTL, disappeared from known space.

In a blink, he emerged outside the medical ship, throttled down to cruise, and engaged the automated docking procedures. His heart raced, body sweat beneath the G-suit. Whatever the hell had brought him here, the fight was too real. Then again, it was just real enough. Realer than any game could be. He wasn’t sure how to get home, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know just yet.

O’Doyle himself stood before Keith’s computer, hand at his chin. Beside him, the local Sheriff took down everything he’d said. Everyone knew everyone in O’Doyle’s area. Everyone knew him, knew Keith, knew of their friendship, work, and living arrangements. Nonetheless, O’Doyle couldn’t help but fear for suspicion to turn on him.

The Sheriff patted his shoulder, “Don’t let it get to you, O-D. From what I hear, there’s been six or so cases like this. Kids just disappearing. All that’s left’s a running video-game. There’s no evidence of foul play. No notes of running away. One girl even had a cup of tea next to an open tea-packet– hadn’t even put it in to steep yet. It’s these damn games, O-D, they do weird shit. We’ll figure it out eventually, get Keith back home.”

O’Doyle sighed with a deep sadness, “I hope so.”

The Sheriff led him out, hand on his shoulder.

Somewhere no one was certain existed, Keith stepped down from his ship and into a universe entirely new, yet undeniably familiar. He’d make the most of it… for now.

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