The final two members of the team arrived together, about three days later. Jared and Ray met them in the lounge, one boy and one girl. Jared was excited, though he wasn’t sure whether it was because they were finally all there, which meant their mysterious mission could begin, or because four people playing Battlefield Heroes would be way more fun than two. Though he felt a little guilty about it, Jared was pretty sure that the second reason was behind his excitement.
If Battlefield Heroes was fun with one person, it was a blast with two. Some of the missions required a set number of people to complete, and with Ray by his side, they had finished no less than fifteen in three days. The virtual war kept them supplied with more tasks, but without more people, they couldn’t expect to complete many of them. Jared sure hoped these newcomers were gamers as well. In fact, it was the first thing he asked as soon as they were left alone.
“So you guys play many computer games?” Jared asked, trying to keep his tone casual. Though Ray was as quiet as he usually was off-screen, he looked interested in their answer as well.
“Sure,” the girl named Alena replied. She had stringy brown hair, and was tall and strong. Alena seemed like the fighting type, pretty and fierce, and Jared was surprised that they hadn’t put her on active duty.
“I do too,” the other kid agreed. Jared looked him over. Max was short, skinny and young-looking. If he had to guess, Jared wouldn’t have put him at a day over fifteen, but eighteen was the cut off for the draft, so he had to be older. “Do you?”
“Yeah,” Jared replied for both him and Ray. “They have a really cool game installed on the computers. It’s kind of different from normal, though.”
Alena raised a brow. “In what way?”
“Well, it’s super realistic,” Jared explained. “Sometimes too realistic. When you die, you don’t re-spawn right away. You have to be rescued by someone else, either another player or one of the NPC teams and taken back to camp. Then you have to have to wait real-time depending on your injuries. Like, if you get blown up, it’s usually at least twelve hours before you can play again. Kind of annoying, really.”
Max looked really interested. “Sounds awesome, though. What’s the premise?”
“It’s called Battlefield Heroes, so it’s a war game. You have missions like assassinations or recon, and for every mission you complete, you get more of your own troops sent back home. If you complete all the missions, send all your troops home, you win the war,” Jared explained. “You guys want to play? Ray and I have knocked out most of the one or two person missions, but some require three or four.”
Alena and Max looked at each other. “Sure,” Alena agreed, speaking for both of them. “I mean, it’s not like we have anything else to do while we wait for… whatever it is we’re here for.”
“They didn’t tell you either, I take it?” Jared asked. They both shook their heads. “Well, here, let me show you to your rooms. There’s a computer in there and it’s already hooked up.”
Jared led them down the hallway and pointed out the empty rooms on each side. Alena took the one next to Ray’s, and Max took the one next to Jared’s. In only twenty minutes, they were all online, standing in the center of the camp.
“This is Jared,” Jared said, making his green character step forward. “I’m Falcon in here.”
The avatar with the glowing red accents stepped forward next. “I’m Alena, or Hawk.”
“I’m Max, AKA Eagle,” the white avatar said.
“Chameleon,” was Ray contributed in way of introduction. His blue character stood still and silent. No one seemed to know what to do, so Jared took charge.
“Come on, I’ll show you guys around. You can get used to the controls, then we’ll go have some real fun,” he said. Jared smiled at his screen, thoughts of their real-life predicament forgotten. They were going to have some real fun indeed.
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“Hawk! Stop!” Chameleon cried urgently. She came to a halting stop just in time, and he let out a breath of relief. “Don’t move,” he instructed. He carefully approached her, kneeling in the dirt just inches away from her foot. “There’s a land mine here.”
“My sensors didn’t detect one…” Hawk trailed off, sounding a little shaken.
“Your sensors aren’t calibrated like mine,” Chameleon replied, removing some tools from his belt and carefully uncovering the mine.
“Uh, can I step back?” she asked.
“No. Taking weight off of it might make it go off. I’ve seen these kinds of mines before; I can disable it,” Chameleon said with certainty. He carefully dug further into the dirt until he revealed a mess of metal and wires. After a few seconds of fiddling with the tools, he sat back. “Okay. It’s disarmed.”
Hawk didn’t move. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” he replied. She still didn’t move, and the silence hung in the air. Chameleon sighed. “Trust me.”
“I’ve known you for a week.”
“And in that week, have I ever let you get blown up?”
Hawk gave in and took a step back. No one blew up. Chameleon sounded triumphant when he said, “See?”
“I’m rolling my eyes at you, just so you know,” Hawk commented as Falcon and Eagle approached from over the hill.
“I think we’re all ready,” Falcon said. “If we finish this, we’ll have completed twenty five top-priority missions in only a week. That’s pretty damn good if you ask me.”
“How close will that get us to winning the war?” Eagle asked.
Falcon thought for a moment. “Maybe a quarter of the way?”
“Not too bad,” Hawk admitted. “I wonder if we’ll be here waiting long enough for us to finish.”
“We’ll just have to work fast then, won’t we?” Falcon said, the smile coming through in his voice. “But for now, let’s break for dinner. Since you have to be back in camp in order to log off, it’d be stupid to start the mission now. Let’s head back.”
“I’m on board with that,” Eagle agreed. “Dinner sounds great.”
They turned and headed back down the hill to the camp, which was a little ways away. Their avatars moved more quickly than a normal person would be able to walk, so they reached it in just a few minutes. Upon arrival, they each checked into their individual stations where general maintenance was performed while they were offline. It was better to heal, so to speak, on their own terms rather than be injured and kicked off.
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Jared logged off, and set his headphones on his desk. He stretched, then headed for the door, opening it to find Ray just about to knock. “Can… Can I talk to you?”
“Of course,” Jared said. “Come on in.” Ray stepped hesitantly inside the room, hands in his pockets. “What’s up?”
Ray spoke slowly, “Well, you know I’ve been hacking the game to enhance my parameters in terms of sensor ability and such?”
“Yeah.” Jared sat on the edge of the bed and waited for him to go on.
“Well, I tried to increase some things such as healing time, and strength, but I can’t,” he said with a frown.
Jared shrugged. “Maybe there are some things you can’t hack. It’s okay, you know.”
Ray shook his head in frustration. “No, that’s not it. I hacked it, but I… It’s like I can’t change them because they’re physically impossible, but in a virtual world, I should be able to increase whatever I like.”
“So…. what’s that mean?”
“It means it’s an interesting game,” Ray said, gaining confidence as he spoke. “That’s all,” he said, his tone dismissive, but his eyes said otherwise. He scanned the room, then stepped forward and grabbed Jared’s arm. “Hey, on an unrelated note, I found something in my bathroom. Does yours have it too?”
Jared was really, really confused at this point. He scowled. “Have what?”
“Let’s go see,” Ray said, acting completely unlike his normal self.
Leading Jared by the arm, Ray pulled him into the tiny bathroom. Jared wasn’t sure what to think when he closed the door and started water running in the shower. “Uh…you’re kind of freaking me out,” he admitted. “What’s going on?”
“They have the rooms bugged and taped,” Ray whispered, too low to hear over the water. “But not the bathrooms, and I really need to tell you this.”
“Tell me what?”
“I don’t think Battlefield Heroes is just a game,” Ray said, his face as serious as Jared had ever seen it. “I think it’s real.”