Invasive

Reality bites back

Image via James Vaughan

The Martian invaders charged from the spaceship. They kept coming as Sam Scott sprayed their green brains over the city streets. They ran towards him, shooting ray guns in his general direction. He killed them by the dozen. Sam swapped out a plasma rifle for the rocket launcher. Another battleship landed, spewing out more creatures. He fired, sending the dirty bug creatures through the air. He laughed hard as they exploded. One missile after another he launched until there was nothing but a burnt-out wasteland.

As the smoke cleared around him, Sam caught his breath, wiping sweat off his face with his t-shirt. He looked skyward. A massive spaceship rumbled into view and landed in front of him. The doors flung open. A ten-legged creature, taller than the burning buildings, marched towards him, breathing fire. With the rocket launcher depleted, and the plasma rifle ineffective, he knew it was time to die. He discharged the weapon regardless. A barrage of fire balls threw Sam to the ground, splitting his head open. The whole left side of his body was burt and a sharp pain shot through his skull. He lost his arm too, blood spurting out of the severed black stump. Status lights in his shattered helmet turned from green to red, flashed for a moment, then become dark. The scream of gunfire and roaring aliens came to a stop.

Sam couldn't wait to tell his mum. He had achieved his highest score on Martian Invasion. The virtual reality game arcade at the mall boasted Halovision X1 technology. A technology so real kids soiled their pants, crying for their parents. The computer system, debated at P&C meetings and on daytime chat shows, became a concern for many parents and doctors. Several kids had died from heart attacks, fighting off pirates and zombies. Many children ended up in Mental Health Zones, away from the general population. They never returned. This meant nothing to Sam or to the millions of other kids who played virtual reality Halovision games.

"Those dumb kids." Sam had said to friends once. "Are so stupid. It's just a game. It's just pretend. How could they think it was real?"

On the Ziptrain home he played WarZone against others online. The laptop vibrated, indicating it was his stop. Without moving his eyes from the screen, he ascended and walked into the house. He didn't acknowledge the warm sun or see the family dog, Jax, laying on the lawn looking up at him. He didn't notice the breeze smelt of jasmine or the sound of sprinklers hitting grass next door.

Chainsaw-wielding skeletons and fast-moving zombies were no match for Sam's skill. On his first birthday he received a computer tablet, on his second a laptop, by the time Sam was ten he had every electronic gadget imaginable. He had every gaming device, including several virtual reality systems. Sam woke up to gaming on the computer before school, played games on his mobile phone during the day, before returning home to play some more. Gaming was a way to connect with friends and prove his worth in the world.

Sam grabbed an energy drink from the fridge. Mum and Dad were not home. He went to his room, closed the door and touched the computer screen. Sam looked at the score. Fifteen-hundred points below high score of Generalissimo. Sam hated him despite having never meet him. He saw the name and the high score he had to beat. The virtual reality headset slipped over his head and there he stayed for the rest of the evening. Nothing mattered except that high score. Killing the 'other' his goal.

If injured or hit an electric pulse from the headgear, sent to the back of the head, caused mild pain. The shock from the helmet was small, but a major source of concern to academics. Doctors warned the tiny shocks over a long period may have a major effect on the brain and nervous system. Children, and many adults, craved the disconnect from real life. Parents purchased them for their demanding children. Warning labels are easy to remove and even easier to ignore.

Sam's parents knew he'd emerge from the bedroom as hunger set in. They both sat at the kitchen table, laptops open, typing. They said little. Sometimes they sent web links to each other-a funny dog video or something interesting from the news. James Scott, Sam's father, opened a packet of pre-heated hamburgers. They ate the bite-sized burgers without looking up from their screens. James gave two or three to the dog, whose drooling made little puddles on the kitchen floor. They went to bed around midnight without seeing Sam for dinner. Neither of them checked to see if he was okay.

In the morning, Sam's mother, Gloria, knocked on Sam's door.

"Time for school." She called out through the glass.

Her hand hovered over the door activation switch. The door didn't move. She shrugged and kept walking, tapping at the screen in her hand. In the kitchen, James typed a work document in the air while he drank coffee in his pinstripe suit.

Sam emerged from his room with dark lines under his eyes from an 'all-nighter' of game-play. After pressing several buttons on the fridge, a muesli bar and juice emerged. Sam drank the green high protein and high sugar liquid while staring at the animated screen displaying the contents of the fridge. He grunted something to his father. His father grumbled something in return.

The laptop and muesli bar were the only contents in the school bag as he walked out the door. On the way to the Ziptrain he messaged friends to discuss last night's online battle. A warm spring breeze blew and chicks squawked from a nest, hungry for breakfast. Someone had cut their grass nearby and the rich, sweet smell travelled across the neighbourhood. Sam played with his phone, fingers moving over the screen. He played his game while oblivious to world around him.

On the way home from school Sam stopped by the arcade, determined to finish Martian Invasion. Inside the bubble room, alone, he put on the headset and pressed buttons in air in front of himself. I will get high score this time, he thought. He enjoyed the low shock he received when hit in the game. He imagined the feeling the zap. Sam considered allowing himself to get struck by alien fire, just to get the sharp, short shock at the back of his head. For a moment Sam daydreamed of the electric buzz. It was a strange sensation to be thinking something other than destroying robots or invading aliens. A moment of personal, creative thought. The feeling passed. He shook it off with a shiver and began the game.

Emerging three hours later, Sam took the travelator through the empty mall, without noticing it was much quieter than normal. Engrossed in a portable 3D gaming device, Sam's fingers moved over the buttons in a blur. He hadn't achieved high score, and it angered him.

There was a loud crashing sound behind him. The mall's ceiling caved in by the weight of an enormous steel spider. A beam of light raged from the creature's mouth, destroying everything in an arc of fire and explosions. Sam dropped the gaming console, grabbed the plasma rifle and took aim at the robotic beast. He fired round after round at the spider's body. It had no effect. The creature turned to him and sprayed its own deadly inferno. Sam leapt away and rolled into a stairway. His heart was beating hard and he had urinated in his pants. He swung the grenade launcher around the corner and fired at the approaching monster. The gun emptied without effect. It kept coming and Sam grabbed another weapon-a plasma bazooka with only five rounds in it. He shot two into its head, causing it to roar and launch a counter-attack of missiles.

It is happening, Sam thought, as he fired at the thing. We are being invaded. Kill them. Kill them all.

The doctor looked at Sam's twitching body. Drool and urine soaking the hospital sheets. His grieving parents held each other. Gloria Scott cried for her child.

"There is nothing we can do." The soft-spoken doctor said. "Sam will never recover. He is in another world now. There is only one place left for him."

Sam awoke a week later in the Mental Health Zone laboratory strapped to machinery, hands meshed to a joystick, his brain wired to a computer. I front of him stood a group of people, begging for their lives. Some were kneeling in prayer, others clutching their children. He fired a weapon upon his thought. The crowd of civilians fell before him. He finished them with a flame-thrower. A sharp jolt of electricity stimulating and rewarding his brain.

"Damn!" The excited technician watching him said.

A smiling, tall man in a military uniform agreed. "He's going to be our best drone soldier ever."

Don Urban
Don Urban

As a child I slept with my head in a box.  Powered by plant-based food and music by Glass Candy. Loves dogs. Lives in Sydney, Australia. 

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Invasive