As I track the sapphire stag, I try to banish the haunting images of Frid from my mind. I kick off a tree and leap into a somersault, swinging over a thorny bush and shooting bullets at the deer. It dodges them with ease and ducks under a braided tunnel of roots supported by a boulder. I follow it without slowing down. I can feel my heartbeat align with my heavy breathing. Sweat trails down my forehead and burns my eyes as I sprint.
The forest is a blur around me as my tears streak across my eyes. Even as I aim my blaster at the stag’s thigh, Frid’s face is still carved in my mind. His reddened arm flashes in my mind. My breathing quickens, and the rising panic makes me miss. The stag gets away and dashes, blending into the thicket.
My breath clogs my throat and I wheeze, my muscles coursing with an ache. One whole hour of tracking the beast, and not a single bit of profit. It is now a sapphire blur in the distance, a white wisp of a cloud in a storm.
The stag suddenly let’s out a call that seems to shake the air. It jolts me to my senses. What happened to it? I tread closer, hiding behind the thick oak trees that surround me. It screeches again in alert. Suddenly I see the slender deer bounding toward me, blue eyes glowing in fear. Without a wasted moment, I lock my gun’s aim on the stag’s stomach. The bullet cuts the air and slices the deer. It limply falls to its side, blood spilling on the damp moss sheeting the forest. I stare blankly.
The image of Frid comes to me again, flashing in my mind. Scars, bone-white eyes, limp limbs. My head throbs with pain, and I sway. I support my weight with a tree as the world teeters. My five friends in the forest are cheering, rushing toward me to congratulate me for my successful hunt. I thank them for chasing the deer toward me. They are decked in mobile fighter suits, full with metal straps that protect them, a mask that shows them information on a screen, and two jet black gloves perfect for grabbing slippery trees. Their powerful looking suits don’t make me feel safe. I don’t feel like cheering. In fact, their joy makes me want to vomit.
We are all virtual, in a virtual world. We are controlling our virtual avatars from our local holocenters, buildings designed to provide everything vital for an optimal experience. This is a game. A hunting game, designed to entertain and also to equip possible future candidates for our prodigious army. That’s what makes me sick.
I am playing a game on the day that my friend died.
I had fun just now. For one second. One fleeting second. It felt wonderful to down that stag after an hour of fruitless pursuit. But I should not feel happy today.
“Grats, Andri,” a tall boy with shoulder length hair and a lip ring says. He’s Jordan. Jokester, prankster, Holo-band fanatic. He is decked out in the same tight, military-style attire as everyone, with pockets full of grenades and blasters, boots with sharp spikes, and a helmet with a visor displaying information vital for hunting. “You downed a flipping saph-stag! Go gather the loot.”
“One-point-two mil,” mumbles a girl with rich dark brown skin and shimmering turquoise eyes. “Now the total credits are sufficient for a brand new hoverstinger… 1.2K horsepower, blue with 4 zappers. Twenty-mil credits. They’ll have to add an extension to your holoroom.”
“Hoverstingers aren’t for me,” I say to her, and she jumps a little, surprised that I noticed her. “They’re the kind of things that league captains ride. Rich soldiers. Commanders. I’m not any of those.”
“Oh, you will be though.” I turn my eyes to a pretty, thin girl with wavy brown hair that weaves from under her helmet. Her name is Trayna. She’s my best friend. “You are on your way to be the best soldier in all of Tersha, Andri. I can just picture the headlines. Teen girl takes platinum army award, saves millions. Defends Tersha from the hands of evil alien army. Single-handedly destroys the enemy ship.”
“I could never,” I tell her, my eyes traveling into the sky. Violet clouds sheet it like embroidered knitwork. “Those people are strong. Smart. Talented. I’m fine with keeping hunting a hobby. I don’t have what it takes.”