Hola. Currently my e-novella Beta Commando is going for a dollar on Smashwords and Amazon, to celebrate the anniversary of a bunch of things that didn’t actually happen. What things? Things in the book itself! That’s right, it’s set fourteen years ago to this day, and you can read the first part right here:
1: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER
“Do you believe in destiny?” Alphonse asks me, as he slides rounds into one of his clips.
I’ve got a lot of bullets in me at this point, so I don’t answer. No, I don’t believe in destiny, not the way everyone talks about it, where life just fits together like a movie and you’re the star. That’s just stupid. But yes, I kind of do. I mean—
Three shots slap into the door-jamb next to Alphonse’s head. He slides his sunglasses down his nose, looks at the little stars in the grey painted wood and blinks once. That’s usually how Alphonse feels about people shooting at us. He pushes his sunglasses back up his nose and goes back to reloading.
I scoot my ass back against the skirting board. I’d be more comfortable if I crossed my legs, but that’s a bit beyond me right now.
Where was I? Destiny. Yes, I do think everything is… predestined, I guess. I mean, everything happens the way it was always going to, is what I’m trying to say. It’s just maths, you put X into Y, you get Z. Maybe that doesn’t help you…
“James?” Alphonse is talking to me as he slides the clip into one of his Desert Eagles. “James, try to concentrate.” He doesn’t sound concerned. I mean, he’s not, not the way you or I might be. But for him, casually asking me to concentrate is as close as it gets. I nod.
It hurts to nod.
“Did you hear what I said?” he asks, and holsters both pistols. You might think two Desert Eagles firing bullets half an inch in diameter is a bit much for a third option weapon, but Alphonse would disagree.
Anyway, destiny. Let me put it another way. Every effect is the sum of a whole lot of causes. Billions of billions. Infinite, almost. All those things in the future, that look like they’re not fixed, are tethered to a nearly infinite amount of things in the past, that are definitely fixed. Unless you want to get all quantum, in which case you can ask Mark. Or you could’ve, if they hadn’t shot him.
They shot Mark.
I’m sorry, I’m rambling. Anyway, everyone always says “well, what about free will?” And yeah, of course free will. Will’s a great guy, and I’m sure he’s got shit to do…
A metal cylinder bounces through the door and past me, hissing gas. Without looking, Alphonse hooks his foot around it and kicks it back the way it came. He finishes with the clip he’s loading, slides it into his first submachine gun, and starts on another. Not clip, clip’s not the word. Magazine, that’s what George says it’s called. I’d be helping, but I’m not feeling too good right now. I’m not planning any holidays, is what I’m saying.
Maybe it’s the morphine. I can’t concentrate on what’s important. I keep getting distracted. The point is, free will doesn’t change anything. We still do the things we do because of things that have already happened. I mean, you make the choices that you make because you’re you and you’re you because…
By now Alphonse is fairly set. He’s got that damn trenchcoat he picked up after he watched The Matrix, its pockets weighed down with magazines. There are three diagonal stripes of dried blood soaked through his black muscle shirt. Then there’s the two submachine guns, the second of which he’s just finished reloading, hanging by shoulder-straps. He kneels to scoop up an M60 light machine gun and an ammunition belt. It’s the same gun from the end of Rambo. He opens the breech, feeds the belt in, shuts it and flicks his wrist so the belt wraps itself around his arm.
“James,” he says, “this is destiny.”
I shouldn’t have let him watch The Matrix.
I guess I should start at the beginning. You know, put all this in some sort of context. So, the beginning… The beginning was probably Thursday, when George said “Dude, we should take it down to the Tech.”
I put my beer on the kitchen table and looked at him. “Beta Commando?”
“Well, yeah Beta Commando. What did you think I meant, cross-stitch?”
George was on his third beer.
I shrugged. “I guess. I mean, it could be fun.”
“Of course it’d be fun.”
Mark frowned. “I dunno, guys. I’m not sure the public is ready for augmented reality Beta Commando.”
George snorted. “Chicken. Whatever happened to ‘Hang Brains’? It’s not like classes are even on at the moment.”
Mark had learned back in high school not to let George get at him. Or anything much, really. He just frowned a little and picked up the headset from the kitchen table. “Do you actually want to wear this in public, George?” The headset was two chunky black screens made into a set of goggles. I wouldn’t call it haute couture.
“Careful with that.” George leaned back against the apple-green laminate counter and spread his hands wide. “Maybe I would. Maybe I don’t care about what people think of me as much as you long-hairs.” He pushed up the sleeves of his shiny black bomber jacket. That wasn’t entirely fair. I mean, it’s Mark who could apply for the three musketeers. My hair was regulation length in high school and it hasn’t changed.
Mark raised both eyebrows and put the headset down. “You’d run around MIT shooting at virtual demons that only you can see, in full view of every cleaner, blow-in and hacker that passes by?”
I should clarify. When someone from MIT says ‘hacker,’ they mean practical joker, not data thief. Like the guy who conditioned Harvard’s pigeons to mob football referees.
George sniffed. “Well, let’s put it to James. What do you think, James? Game enough?”
I looked at the scuffed tan lino of our kitchen floor. “Shit man, I dunno…”
Back in high school, George would’ve just glared at me until I caved in. He’s always been bigger than us. But he’d changed since then. Mark, too. So George turned around, reached up to the top cupboard, and took out a beer from his special stash. Locking eyes with me, he pulled out his keychain and cracked the bottle open with his dad’s can opener from Vietnam. George’s dad went to Vietnam, and all that came back was a P-38 can opener.
I took the beer, even though my first was still half full.
“Well, I guess it is the holidays.”
Mark shrugged. “Screw it, alright. You wanna wake up Ralph?” I nodded and made my way into the lounge room.
The light was off, the TV on. The glow of the infomercials played across Ralph, asleep on our couch, and Ralph’s crappy moustache. Ralph is the kind of guy who can find infomercials at four in the afternoon and fall asleep in front of them, palms clasped under his head like he’s in a nursery rhyme. There was just a little spot of drool on his pillow. I shook his shoulder gently.
“Ralph, get up. You wanna go play Beta Commando on campus?”
He opened one eye “Wha? You wanna wha?”
I gave him some space. He promptly closed his eye and rolled over.
“Damnit, Ralph. Get up.”
I switched the TV off and his eyes flicked wide open.
“Dude? What is it?”
“We’re gonna go play Beta Commando on campus.”
“Sweet. Let’s go.” He unfolded from the couch in one movement, smoothed down his purple striped polar fleece and ambled into the kitchen.
George scooped up the headset and hip unit. “Let’s kick some ass.”
Ralph nodded. “Yeah. Let’s do that.”
I took my beers, one in each hand, and followed them out to the car.
I’ve started too late. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to go over it in order. I didn’t want things to be confusing.
It began with me running down a corridor. That’s the beginning, months before George decided we should play Beta Commando at MIT. Before four-star generals, before Duck Hunt, before Mr Bridge and Mr Chapel. Me running down a corridor of dark metal plating.
I could hear growling in the distance, or maybe up close. It was hard to tell. I checked the rounds left in my shotgun. Thirteen.
“Dude, this game came out in 1995. It’s four years old.” said George over my shoulder.
“Yeah. It’s a classic.” I shrugged.
“I mean it’s four years old and you still suck at it.”
“I’m rusty,” I said.
“Dude, you are fucked. This next bit is insane.”
I knew. I knew I was screwed, and George wasn’t helping, but I didn’t tell him that. The mouse was sweaty under my palm.
At the bottom right of my screen was a little picture of Beta Commando, the title character. It showed him from the waist up, all veins, crew-cut and bulging muscles. Every few seconds he would grimace in pain. His black singlet was ripped, and three huge slashes crossed his chest. Chunky orange numbers below the picture read “39%.” I was screwed.
The corridor began to brighten with a white fluorescent glow. The floor clanged softly under my combat boots. Now, the growls were one long low sound.
“My go next, man,” said George.
I turned a corner and emerged into a cafeteria. The tables were smashed into uniform little piles, gore spattered across everything. I’d come through here in the game’s opening sequence, walked past soldiers and workers eating their meals. Now, I could see a spinal cord, maybe some entrails, and brains smeared across the floor. The notice board on one wall had been nearly ripped in half by a claw. The growls erupted into roars. All three doors slid open at once, letting in a horde of demonic beasts. They loped on all fours toward me. I pulled out my heavy machine gun and held the trigger down. Muzzle flare danced in front of me as the gun chattered. Hide ripped and fur tore, gobbets of blood burst from the wounds. Suddenly, the screen flashed red and the Commando grunted.
Spinning, I faced a zombie soldier firing down the corridor. My last two rounds ploughed into him and he jerked in pain, but stayed standing. I pulled out my shotgun and blew him away, already spinning back to the room full of beasts. They were almost on me, claws reaching, as I opened fire. The shotgun boomed again and again, bursting demons into chunks of gore. Eight shells left. Seven. My health was at twelve percent; playing on Hard, one claw-swipe would kill me. The last beast sank to the floor. Four shells left. The cafeteria was silent. There was a whiff of herbs in the air, probably because my office used to be a pantry.
“Which bit’s he at?” asked Mark, coming in.
“Right before Omega Commando,” said George.
“Omega Commando?” I was not ready for Omega Commando. “Tell me there’s a health pack around here.”
“Up that way, man. Through the door,” said Mark.
I glided out of the room, the Commando moving like he was on skates because that’s how games worked back then. Through the door was another corridor, then a room with a deep lava pit. On the other side of the pit was a ledge, and on the ledge, a large white box with a red cross. I pulled a lever on the wall and a pair of platforms rose from the pit. I jumped across them one, two, onto the health pack. As it popped into my inventory I was already mashing the ‘Enter’ key. The screen flashed blue and in the bottom corner, Beta Commando made the gesture for ‘go fuck your mother’. His wounds vanished. “100%” read the orange numbers. I could do this. I could take Omega Commando.
Four sections of wall slid open, revealing more zombie soldiers. “Monster closet!” said George with glee.
I dodged by reflex and the soldiers’ shots whizzed past me. Suddenly the walls were rushing up past me. I’d dodged off the ledge. As the screen filled with lava, George barked his laughter. “Better luck next time, man. My turn.”
I got up from my chair, grimaced at Mark and followed him from the dark little room that had become my office. When George, Mark and I had moved into the house in Cambridge’s Louisberg Square, it was a large pantry. We weren’t really pantry people, and I’d got the smaller bedroom in the house, so I put a desk and my Pentium in there and it became my office.
I went to the fridge and got some bread out. “You want some toast?” I asked Mark.
“Nah,” he shook his head, but grabbed some seed mustard and sliced salmon. I opened the top cupboard and found peanut butter and jelly for myself and watertable crackers for Mark, because I could see where he was going with the salmon. God knows how the lucky bastard could afford salmon.
“So, how’d it go with…? Crap. Black hair, really nice waist.” I sculpted a woman with my hands.
“So you noticed her waist? Thanks,” said Mark, taking the crackers. “I believe you’re referring to Trish.”
I put my bread in the toaster. “Yeah. How was Trish?”
“No casualties,” he said. It was our thing. “Trish was good. We had Italian.”
“Well, she’s smart. Fairly smart. And pretty.”
“Pretty is good.”
“Yeah, pretty is good. But there’s no chemistry. I don’t think I’ll call her again.” Mark said, casually tearing the salmon into neat scraps and placing them on crackers.
“No chemistry? When was the last time that stopped you?”
“Ha. Nah, man. She wasn’t looking for a romp. She wanted a boyfriend.”
Girls Mark didn’t want a relationship with. I would’ve given my left arm for dinner with any of them. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I pulled a butter knife from the cutlery drawer.
“What about you, James? How’s Lisa?”
I laughed, hoping it didn’t sound too bitter. “Way out of my league, I’m realising. Way out. You know she got into Harvard on a cello scholarship?”
“Cello, huh? Cello is a sexy instrument.”
“Dammit, Mark, no. No.” I pointed at him with my butter knife. “I’m gonna need at least a year to get over this one. Then maybe you can have a crack.”
Mark laughed. “You know I wouldn’t, man.”
“I don’t know any such thing. It’s like that Dr. Hook song. When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, you’ve got no friends.”
“Dr. Hook fans have friends?”
“Ha. Seriously, though. She was telling me once, she sat on the John Harvard statue’s lap and made out with it. At about lunch-time. Stone-cold sober. Made the guy who dared her hit on a security guard.”
Mark pursed his lips. “Hang Brains.” Mark and I appreciate girls with a certain kind of flair. Appreciated. Well, I still appreciate, but—
“Exactly. Yep, she’s got balls. Not that I’ll ever see them.” I sat myself up on the bench to wait for my toast. In my office, George was swearing at the computer.
“Not if you don’t make a move, you won’t.”
It was a conversation we’d had a few times. “What if it goes badly? I’d feel pretty rare.”
Mark sighed through his nose, dug a knife into the seed mustard and changed the subject. “I’ve been thinking.”
“Yeah. I think we could get Beta Commando to work with the goggles.”
“The AugR goggles? What, like a really big screen?”
“Not quite. I mean, we could play it in the real world.”
I furrowed my brow. “Dude, if you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about…”
“Why not? What we have in the AugR goggles is the first step towards virtual reality. They’re at the point where they can detect your location and which way you’re facing, and superimpose text over the real world using that data. There’s no reason we can’t adapt that code to show sprites instead. Suspend your disbelief a little and there you go.”
“I dunno, I’d feel pretty rare playing Beta Commando in public.”
Mark stopped spreading mustard to shrug. “Well, there’s plenty of quieter places we can test it. Come on, man. We’re young. Live dangerous for once. Hang Brains”
“Dude…” My toast popped up. I sighed. “Maybe you’re right. But no-one hears about this, okay?”
So, it was Mark’s idea we adapted the AugR system to play Beta Commando on it, and it was George’s fault we wound up playing at the Tech. The whole time, I was pushing against it. I just want to be clear about that.
Alphonse has just made his exit, leaving me with my bullet-holes. I can hear screams, which means he’s doing what comes naturally. Screams, and the low thud-thudding of the M60. I breathe as deeply as I can and hope none of my wounds are getting worse. When do I use the next shot of morphine? Fuck, I hope I can find the vein. I hope Ralph and George find me. I know I bailed on them, but maybe they figured it out. Maybe they’re coming for me. I hope… but that’s all bullshit. I’m not fooling anyone.
Probably it doesn’t matter if they find me.
So it was the four of us in an empty classroom just off the Infinite Corridor, a thoroughfare that runs straight for eight hundred and twenty-five feet through the main buildings of MIT. The Corridor is actually five corridors stacked atop each other on five floors; we were on the fourth.
We clustered around the PC we technically shouldn’t have been accessing out of hours. A single window of code dominated the screen.
“Guys, I’m sorry,” I said, looking blankly at it. “I don’t know which one of you wrote this, but I have no idea what you were doing.”
“Dude,” said Ralph, “I think you wrote that bit.”
Mark leaned over my shoulder. “Mind if I…?”
“Sure, man.” I let him take the keyboard and make some corrections. Quite a few corrections.
“Anyone else see any glitches? Speak now or forever hold your peace.”
“Except for James, he has to hold his piece anyway,” said George. Everyone chuckled.
“No? Here we go, then.” Mark hit ‘Compile.’
Sitting next to the computer was a small beige box. A tangle of cables connected it to the back of the PC tower. Lights flashed as the hip unit spun up its hard drive, writing the code update. Ten minutes later I was standing in another classroom a few floors down with my AugR goggles on, clutching the repurposed joystick that was my weapon.
The goggles were an exercise in augmented reality, which isn’t quite the same as virtual reality. Looking through them, I could see the desks and chairs of the classroom clearly. But when they were switched on, they superimposed a blockily rendered shotgun over my field of vision. It swayed gently as I moved forward. My armpits were sweaty by now. Through my headphones I could hear the rest of the guys, gathered around the PC upstairs.
“Alright, send him another two zombies.” It sounded like Mark.
Two zombie soldiers came lumbering through the door. To be more accurate, two blocky sprites of zombies blinked into existence on my side of the door, which was closed. Virtual reality had to start somewhere.
I clicked the joystick’s plastic trigger twice. The shotgun roared in my headphones, splattering both zombies. I walked forward and over the ammo boxes they’d dropped. With a clunk my ammo count rose to twenty-two shells. I opened the door to the next classroom.
“Shit, he’s moving too fast… Here we go”
A demon beast blinked into the room, raised its arms in three frames of motion and howled. I blasted it across the room, heard footsteps and spun around. The room I’d left was empty. The footsteps again, and a growl. I tried to spin back, but one foot got caught in the other and I tumbled down.
The floor was hard.
I heard George laughing. Mark asked “Are you alright?” but I had no time to switch on my microphone to tell him yes. A horde of beasts poured straight through the whiteboard like Casper and Friends. From the floor, I clicked the plastic trigger again and again. Pixels splattered across the room. I pulled myself up by a nearby chair, still firing. A demon loomed large and blocky in front of me, almost filling the goggles. It swiped at me and my vision flashed bright red before I emptied a shell into the beast.
“What’s the odds George wrote the map,” I grumbled to myself, “the jerk. And no-one told him that a whiteboard is a fricking whiteboard. As in, you can’t fricking walk through it.”
Someone inhaled sharply. “Dude. Your mike’s on.”
Crap. I could hear George muttering something in the background, then the sound cut off. He hadn’t changed that much since high school.
I pumped a volley of shotgun rounds into the last few beasts. As they collapsed into familiar piles of gore, I stepped forward to collect the ammunition scattered on the ground.
All of it vanished.
The headphones were still silent. Then, sounding very loud to me, a throaty purr.
I backed towards the nearest wall. Facing me from the opposite corner was a pixelated pale beast. A Mourner. Very not good.
The white beast reared jerkily onto its hind legs, exposing its soft underbelly, and shrieked. The sound distorted painfully in my headphones. Then the creature was down on all fours, loping toward me. I blasted it with my shotgun, but it left no mark on the filthy armoured plates. I ran for the door.
“Damnit guys, I only have a shotgun.” I didn’t know if they could hear me. “And four shells left.” I dodged around chairs, leapt over a desk and headed for the next door. I could hear the panting of the Mourner, close and getting closer.
Then I was out into the Infinite Corridor, sprinting past darkened classrooms and noticeboards awash with paper. The white beast’s paws drummed louder.
It shrieked again, and now the shriek was not in my headphones. I turned.
The Mourner was silhouetted in the sun streaming down the length of the corridor, a completely black figure on its hind legs. That shouldn’t be possible, I thought. It’s a sprite, a graphic. It shouldn’t block the sun. Then it dropped to all fours again in one fluid movement. That wasn’t right. Everything the monsters of Beta Commando did, they did in four frames at the most. Not like this.
I pushed the AugR goggles up onto my forehead. The shotgun went with them. The beast stayed where it was.
I began to back away. The Mourner padded toward me. I could smell it now. Sulphur and old meat. I could make out every hair on its snout, every scuff on its hide. I turned to run—
And collided with a man’s chest. His chest was level with my head. He hefted a huge, familiar gun. I ducked.
The gun began to hum, then shifted up to a whine. The air grew charged, I could feel the hairs behind my neck stand up. One single CRACK, and green light flooded the corridor for a moment. I heard the wreckage of the white beast rain down.
Slowly, I raised my head. I took in the camouflage pants, the black singlet, the muscle-corded arms. The gun had vanished.
The man looked down at me, grinned, and made the gesture for ‘go fuck your mother’.