The bushes behind her shook.
With a puzzled expression she watched a man roll into view.
Lasers seared the bush, setting it on fire.
The man stood up and brushed the dirt away. He looked… wholesome.
Andrea tried to find another word. Crazy, maybe, he only had a small destabilizer, no armor, no vanguard of cohorts.
“Hello.” He smiled.
Andrea smiled back. “All alone?”
“No one else could play today. You?”
“Flying solo,” Andrea confirmed.
“Can’t figure out how to get past?” the man asked.
“I can’t figure out how to get past without cheating,” she corrected. “This is only level seven, I’ve gone past a dozen times. But I always cheat.”
“You can’t cheat the game.”
“You can,” Andrea said. “You aren’t supposed to, but you can.”
“How?” He looked over the massed infantry of death in confusion.
She knew what he was thinking. The gate leading to level eight was plain to see. All you had to do was charge in, kill all of the killerbots in your way, and run through the level gate.
“If you’re very fast…” he began.
“No. Just lazy. Watch.” Andrea lifted a small stone; she weighed it in her hand. “Watch.” She threw the rock, arcing it into the center of the killerbots.
As a unit the droids turned and opened fire on each other. Within seconds there was nothing left of the wall of death but the hiss of cooling metal.
“Impossible. It must be a system glitch. They are programmed so they can’t attack each other.”
“They each attack the rock and most of them miss,” Andrea said. “If the rock shatters it gets even better. Then they start shooting at the fragments.”
“And they don’t reset?” Intrigue and respect were written on the man’s face.
“No,” Andrea said. “It really is cheating though. I feel guilty just walking past their charred corpses.”
“Is a melted droid really a corpse?” he asked.
Andrea punched a code into the controller at her wrist and the level reset.
The bushes shook again.
This time an entire band of warriors rushed in, armed to the teeth and yelling.
“You need to go through?” one the adrenaline junkies asked.
Andrea looked at the first stranger; he shook his head. “We just reset the level to try a different tactic, not enough challenge the first time,” she said.
“Mind if we charge through?” one of the heavily-armed men asked.
“Go for it.” Andrea and the wholesome man with the charming smile watched as the band of berserkers rushed the killerbots.
“We could try that,” he suggested.
“They lost two people.”
“Ah, good point, the odds aren’t in our favor.”
“Any suggestions?” Andrea asked as the level reset again.
The man picked up a rock.
They stepped through the level eight gate casually, almost to casually. Andrea had to grab the man by his shirt to keep him from making a fatal mistake.
“Trip wires under the leaves on the path,” she explained.
“Ah,” he looked down at the jungle path in front of them. “How do we avoid the trip wires?”
“See the wood planks outlining the path?”
He looked at the narrow span of wood. “Yes.”
“Stay on that until we hit the clearing.” Andrea balanced easily on the beam and waited for him to follow before she began moving. “The wires trigger the killerbots and skydroids on the other end. If you don’t trigger the wires the ‘bots don’t come out.”
“I thought the rules said you had to stay on the path,” the man said.
“The rules were written by the same people who designed the killerbots. Think about it.”
“Good point. I suppose they aren’t rooting for the gamers.”
“If they are, I’ve never noticed.”
They moved through the artificial jungle, listening to the sounds ahead. A battle raged and fell suddenly silent.
“Do you think the berserkers died?”
“This isn’t a level that charging works on. I’ve seen lots of groups try that and it never works. Level seven is the last one you can survive on just charging. By eight you need tactics.”
“Do you play a lot?” the man asked politely.
Andrea looked at him, weighing her possible responses. “I play when I can but it isn’t often.”
“Do you always come alone?”
The man laughed. “I’m not trying to pry. I’m harmless. Really. And yes, I usually play alone.”
“But you pick up the odd damsel in distress if you happen on them?”
“Nope. Never met one. Although I don’t mind picking up beautiful women who know how to cheat two levels in a row.”
“Do you meet many?” Andrea asked.
“Nope. But after I met you, who else could I need?”
Andrea snorted. “Nice line. But what you’re going to want is someone who knows how to get past level nine, because I don’t.”
They stepped into an empty clearing with monumental buildings on each side. The doors to the building were closed, locking in the hordes of death.
The level gate loomed ahead of them.
“Suggestions?” the man asked.
“Level nine is dark, pitch black. Outside light sources don’t work. The level gate is to the left but there’s a cliff and a river between you and the gate. I’ve died in each of them. And there’s a couple of killerbots. It never seems like a huge number but there are enough.”
“Maybe we should try splitting up? One go left the other go right?” he suggested.
“Bad plan. There are synergy bombs. If you and your buddy stand on the corresponding demolition plants at the same time everyone in the level dies.”
“Great.” He checked his charge. “So, want to try again if we die?”
Andrea blinked at the thought. “I’ve got to get to work soon.”
“Maybe we can meet up later this weekend. Where are you at?”
“Tetraterren, Alpha Side,” Andrea said. “You?”
“Homely,” he named a planet on the far side of the system.
“Thank goodness for faster than light relays, right?”
“Our best bet is to try not to die,” Andrea said. “Failing that, remember every detail you can so you can map the level when you die.”
“When are you coming to play next?” the man asked.
Andrea shrugged. “I don’t know.” She stepped into the darkness of level nine.
Five minutes later, simulated leg broken, a killerbots honed in on Andrea. She shot out its sensors, trying to buy herself a few more seconds in the game.
Light flashed, a fire flare. “I’ll find you!” the stranger shouted as he died.
The killerbots fired.
The black and green grid of the ten by ten game room replaced the encircling dark of level nine.
Andrea checked her watch. “Flippers!” Her shuttle for the space station took off in ten minutes.
She raced out the door stripping her game suit as she went. She tossed the controls to the tech outside with a smile and grabbed her raincoat from the hangar.
“Good game?” the tech asked as she pushed herself out the door.
Andrea looked away from her computer screen to finish her sketch. It showed level seven in detail, with one minor new addition, a handsome man crouched and smiling. He looked predator, devilish, intelligent.
“How were the lectures?”
Andrea slammed her notebook closed. She looked up into the round, banal, face of Dave Sumners with a smile.
“The lectures? I enjoyed them very much,” she lied. “I especially enjoyed the series on Intrinsic Energies and Met Forces.”
“I knew you would.” Dave always knew what people liked. “Did you get to listen to Doctor Carores lecture on Forward Math’s?”
“No,” Andrea said regretfully, “that lecture was all sold out.”
“He usually is. I told you to buy the tickets earlier.”
“I know. I was really upset I had to miss his lecture. Everyone was talking about his ideas. I understand his new formula for to replace the Commonplace Theorem is quite revolutionary.”
“He just published a journal article on it, I’m expecting my copy to arrive any day now. Once I’ve read it I’d be happy to lend you my copy.”
“Would you really? That’s so sweet of you, Dave.”
Andrea looked at her desk, rolling her eyes. Her computer monitor pinged to get her attention. “Oh!” She looked at Dave with what she hoped was a regret-laced smile. “My equations are done running. I better get back to work. Being away for three days, well, I feel like I’m so behind in everything.”
“I know just how you feel,” Dave said. “I can’t stand vacation myself. All the free time? Ugh. I’d rather be doing something productive.”
Andrea made an appreciative noise. “There just aren’t many men like you anymore, Dave. You’re a rare breed.”
Dave laughed. “Rare breed? Ha! And I’m not even a biologist. Ha! Funny!” He walked away chortling.
Andrea assessed the readout from her computer and sent it to run another set of complicated variables. The number twelve solar array wasn’t getting optimal efficiency and she was trying to find the perfect angle for efficiency. The array would adjust to one one-hundredth of a nanometer, that gave her lots of variables to run, and lots of time to sketch game levels.