Rice field

Latest update: April 2019

Illegal Game, by Hana Aianhanma, March 2019.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The story is made up. Any similarities with real events, persons and/or beings are coincidental.

Prologue

It was, in the player's considered opinion, quite the experience. There's hunting game and there's The Hunting Game, and the latter was incomparable. He had scored 82 so far. A new record, he was sure. He still had a week to fully establish the high score to virtually unreachable levels. He would become a legend in the Hunting Scene. Still, you shouldn't celebrate a scalp before it was cut, so he had carefully checked his next target's habits. This one was a bodyguard in what was called a syndicate by some of the locals. Some kind of criminal organisation. He did not really care. What he did care about was that the man in question was armed and dangerous. This would be quite a challenge.

The game's difficulty had started quite low. Those firemen, construction workers and the like, were much too easy. The only problems they caused were by attracting the attention from the authorities. Luckily, the game moved him to a new city after each few kills. He didn't recall that feature being there before. The devs must have gotten complaints about the police being overpowered and put in a corrected mission structure in that last update. The targets quickly moved to harder ones, like gang members. People who led more violent lives, more alert, more trained and dangerous.

There was his target, he really should stop daydreaming. He checked his knife, cutting a small branch with its edge. Excellent. The bodyguard had just finished the routine checking of his car for trackers and explosives. The player quickly walked up to the car, cut the throat, and walked on. By now he knew by feel whether some extra action was required to complete the kill. Eighty-three. He relaxed as he walked up to his own car. Quite satisfying.

He frowned when he received the next target briefing. Another bodyguard? True, killing those only went so smooth thanks to his skill, but he had expected the game to select a higher level enemy by now. What the hell did presidential mean? He read on, wondering again why the game used paper for the briefings. Even the natives used portable electronics by now. Weapon of choice: a ricin pellet? He could see that he had some more research to do.

Illegal Game

Sleeth had celebrated its promotion with a good, long sleep in its comfortable nest. It had expended all its energy in reaching the Slothainian ideal state of a completely emptied mind, to better let in the dreams. Sleeth was about to start on its second helping of me-doree leaves, the mild narcotic its species used for exactly that purpose, when the room signalled the arrival of a priority call. The leaves were well on their way to Sleeth's mouth, neatly impaled on one of its claws. It kept them ascending slowly as it briefly considered ignoring the call. The lighting turned an alarming shade of lilac. The Slothainian sighed a long, deep, sigh. He had disabled autorun scripts for normal messages, which meant that ... “Sleeths,” this was a message from the central office.

“Sleeths, Contact has received a tip that a new species is being exploited at this very moment.” The captain still extended her s'. “Apparently, the chief caught it while browsing the new live stream channels.” Sleeth was not aware that the chief was into such things. “At first, it looked like one of those new virtual reality game streams, but rumours have been going around that you can strike out the virtual part in that description, as it were. You are hereby tasked with investigating The Hunting Game. By virtue of the authority vested in me as Representative of the Office of the Triumvirate, you are granted Class One privileges, to be used exclusively for investigating and judging all actors involved.” Class One meant no restrictions. It also meant a full personal report to the entire Triumvirate. How tiresome. “I know we are interrupting your holiday, Sleeths, but this cannot wait. When you see the recording of one of the streams, you will understand.” Sleeths jaws gaped in a lazy yawn as it signalled for the room to display the attached video.

The wall sprang to life, a mass of foliage curtained to display the moving images. Sleeth silently watched the bipedal alien preparing and using its knife to efficiently slice into its victim. If this was the real deal, then it was, indeed, very serious. This sort of thing tends to spoil first contact and that did not even mention that this was obviously murder. It looked like the perpetrators would verily deserve their punishment for interrupting Sleeth's rest when it found them. Another huge yawn as it looked at the moss that had grown on its fur. First, though, Sleeth would need to visit the barber.

After a thorough grooming of its long fur, Sleeth felt it and its fur could handle just about anything the galaxy would throw at it. It was time to leave for the local Contact branch for a fresh outfit. This would be the first opportunity to use whatever The Triumvirate's Research and Engineering gave to Contact for a Class One. Good. It would save it from expending any more energy than strictly necessary.

The cab, basically, looked like a clothes rack on wheels. Instead of coats, there was a first class Contact agent dangling from the bar, firmly holding on, using the claws on all fours. Sleeth swung outwards when the cab took a turn, keeping its nose firmly pointed forwards. Unlike many of its compatriots, Sleeth loved to feel the strong breeze blowing through its fur. Sleeth imagined it to be quite an undignified sight, which may have had something to do with the others' professed dislike of windy conditions. The other advantage of this cab was that it could easily snake through the busy traffic, which contained a wide assortment of vehicles to accommodate the different species of The Triumvirate. From the little bowl-shaped carts for Itsumboes here, right up to a huge mobile aquarium for a Kujillian zooming past at break-fin speed. The cab easily evaded all to arrive well on time for its appointment at the lab. Sleeth crossed over to the branch favoured by most arboreal species, letting it rise majestically to the building's 26th floor before entering. It was, so Sleeth thought, a fine day to rest. Or would be, if there didn't happen to be a job which needed doing.

The team of Meercians was excited when he entered the meeting room. Meercians are almost always excited, moving on all fours, tails straight up in the air and chattering with their characteristic energy. Something to do with being small and growing up in a predator rich environment. One head raised itself. “Hey Sleeth, come over!” He blinked, looked around, then crossed over to hang nearby, head at the level of those of the gang. “So you're the one being sent to handle that nasty hunting business.”

“It's for real, then?” Sleeth inquired.

“Yesyes, definitely not VR, too flavourful for that.”

Many an experienced peruser of VR could distinguish a created world, or that of a game, from that of a recording of a real physical environment. Computer generated VR in The Triumvirate was good, the best known amongst the different known intelligences, in fact. It still was far from perfect, with its flaws obvious for most of those who could experience it. Sleeth itself got too nauseous with both to tell the difference. Of course, those hyperactive black-eyed, short furred, long nosed, little beasts got to enjoy it all, regardless of how artificial it was. They even enjoyed the more abstract stuff. “Absolutely horrible!” another one of the Meercians barked. Naturally, their sympathies would lie with the prey. “It's got to be stopped, and it's got to be stopped yesterday.” They all barked their agreements, and even Sleeth nodded at that.

“Any clues to where?”

“We got a good view of the star-scape from most streams.”

“And?”

“We have a star system,”

“Hit me.”

“It's close to the Empire.” One of the gang directed the meeting room to display a map of their common border. “Over there,” she pointed to the purple mark.

Sleeth considered in silence for a while. “You know what that means don't you?”

The mob looked confused until Sleeth clarified, “Everything related to this is now classified to an even-if-you-need-to-know-you-won't.” It silenced the protests before they even started. “Not even the Triumvirates get to hear about this until my official report.” Sleeth would need to move fast before the Empire claimed this new species' world “for their protection”. “I won't depend on them not knowing about it until it's too late, but ...” it pierced the team with a sharp glance, “... we, most certainly, should not help the Empire find out before.”

This new species' location meant that they would either have to get on track to be incorporated into The Triumvirate or gobbled up by the Empire. Sleeth intended to make sure they would get the time to have a say in whichever outcome they got. On top of that, it needed to tiptoe around that new touchy foreign minister of theirs. It would not be the first, or the last, war sparked by the fight over a species' future. This job was getting more interesting by the minute. Sleeth glanced at the excited faces. Oh dear.

“I will also require,” it put it delicately, “that this entire research team,” meaning every single last one of these gossipers, “will join me in the expedition to prepare for this species' first contact.” That should keep them silent for long enough. Big stunned eyes answered this pronouncement. Great. Now Sleeth would have to endure their hyperactivity.

Sleeth considered the message it would leave behind. The disappearance of one The Triumvirate's foremost research and development teams might cause some consternation. Sleeth had better make it clear that they were not kidnapped or such.

“Record, please.” The room sprang to life. “Captain, Sorry to be borrowing team thirteen. I promise to return all of them in one piece.” Sleeth displayed one of its slow smiles. “Most of them, anyway.”

That should do the trick. “Send message.”

They were in orbit around the natives' star.

Sleeth's new personal team had done an admirable job outfitting the expedition with their gadgets and taping together an excellent experimental hull with the latest in battle analysers, cannons and launch tubes. During the preparations they had all moved to one of the “abandoned” wharves, despite them being a public secret. Security was top-notch and they could easily be mistaken for yet another one of the many “black” research projects.

Hidden in plain sight.

Sleeth had also taken along some of that excellent security. No point in leaving behind the risk for accidental leaks. The researchers had monitored the comments on the hunting streams. It seemed that word of the reality of those streams had gone out, though the consensus seemed to be that they were mise-en-scènes. Sleeth had made sure to have those rumours reinforced before they left.

The star was fairly unremarkable. The admiral he had grabbed along still had not lost his air of disapproval, though Sleeth suspected his Ursian bellows were more out of habit by now. The admiral had always performed his job perfectly before and he seemed genuinely interested by now.

“What are the locals like?”

One of the gang answered, “Barely space faring. They seem to be using radio waves for much of their communications.”

“Messy radio waves.”

“Omnidirectional.”

“Wasteful,” Sleeth commented.

“Tell them, not us,” answered the admiral.

“I'd better not.” Sleeth examined the image of the home world. “In all our experience with newly contacted species,” he rotated it to study the social map, “Contact has yet to find one that doesn't get touchy at comments on how they're running things.”

“There.” Another one from the mob pointed at the continent. “The latest streams seem to originate from there.”

“How do you know?” A curious admiral.

“Day-night patterns, local architecture, comparing them to those messy broadcasts of theirs.”

“Doesn't really matter.” Sleeth ordered, “Find the relay station they're likely to be using.”

Aye's answered it from different directions. That gang had taken a fancy to some of the sailors' language, though they skipped most of the formalities.

It took a while, but they found it, and something else.

“A fleet, are you sure?”

“Eleven ships, yes. We have visual confirmation.”

“What!” The admiral exclaimed, “Are you crazy?”

“Don't worry.” The Meercian winked, “We put a bit of special sauce in the drone's stealth systems.” “Almost bumped into them, they did,” chuckled another, “Luckily the AI wasn't taking a nap at the time.” A third one added, “They're frigates.”

The admiral looked suitably impressed, but his expression changed. “It seems,” he looked very disappointed, “that we're going to need reinforcements if we want to catch them.”

“Are we?” Sleeth disagreed.

The admirals eyes widened at that.

“Any markings?” The question was directed to the research gang. The answer was prompt. “Only the streamers' branding.”

An incredulous “You can see those?” from the admiral was answered with, “Mentioned almost bumping into them, didn't I?”

“Didn't think you meant it literally.” Good Ursian, that admiral. He took the Meercians' non-military lack of discipline in stride.

Which still left the problem of dealing with that little fleet. “Admiral, you forget what sort of beings we're dealing with here, hence ...”

The admiral started a scary grin at that.

“... you are authorised to include lethal force in the options for dealing with them.”

A very scary grin. The Meercians all stopped chattering and retreated a step.

The admiral turned to Sleeth. “So it's time to take out the experimentals. You said you great faith in overkill?”

This resulted in a bridge full of excited Meercians. It was not often that they got to directly experience the results of their work. The chattering increased as they found that they could not deny a certain nervousness, now that their own lives depended on their marvels working properly.

“Launch.”

They all felt the recoil from the launches. “Move us in.” Not much else to do, after all. “If the drones could bump into those ships,” again that feeling of almost taking a jump backwards, “without them noticing, let's test how close we can get.” Some more recoil. “Prepare for boarding, Sergeant,” at one of the screens. Another smooth interruption of the ship's acceleration. “Though I suspect,” and another, “that the preparation may be,” and another, “superfluous.” He got answering grins all around as those launches kept their pace.

The Triumvirate could, as of yet, not mass produce those specially stealthed torpedoes. When they could, they would shift the power balance in their corner of the galaxy for a while. A short while, Sleeth suspected as he studied that cloud moving on the display. The competition likely had something equally nasty in the works to balance things out.

Preparing for boarding was, indeed, superfluous for those ships.

The base itself surrendered immediately. When it was secured the research mob joined Sleeth to get a good look inside. They chattered quietly as they examined the cabins. Each held an unconscious being.

“Report.”

“We've been monitoring these beings' mind activity.”

“And?”

“The minds in there are not native to those bodies.”

“Explain.”

“The minds are all from the same species. These bodies are not.”

“You mean?”

“They have swapped minds with the locals for their sick games.”

The admiral asked, “How is that possible?”

“We haven't got a clue.”

He looked horrified. “Can't you swap them back?”

“Nope.”

Sleeth interjected, “They're not likely to thank us if we did.” He looked cheerful. One from the gang agreed, “As far as the natives are concerned, these are all criminals of the worst kind.”

Much better to leave them as is.

“Take them all.” Sleeth looked around. “They'll have to build new lives.”

As for the minds swapped down to the planet ... who cared?

Epilogue

Well, that went worse than expected.

He didn't even get a chance to implement the planning for this new target. Somehow, his searches in the library must have triggered an alarm. There was a team of grim natives in his room now. Did they have to be so rough? Those kicks were really unnecessary, and that gun against his head really hurt! Ah, well. At least he had his high score to celebrate.

Any minute now, the game would return him to his own body.

Any minute now...

*****

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