A highly intelligent group of video game enemy non-player characters (NPC) begins to doubt they are merely codes in a machine. Their search for answers leads them to a gruesome discovery.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Game Slaves shows a world where video games are the only refuge from the toils of everyday life. Infused with the adrenaline rush of a first-person shooter and the character manipulation of a role player, it's a mind-bending, reality-shifting science fiction thrill ride.
Our first war with Dakota she was wetting her pants, pinned down by laser-machine-gun fire, explosions everywhere, missiles screaming, star fighters diving, cannons thumping . . . The girl was terrified, spouting gibberish, but, OK, not really condition yellow.
Sure, she was redlining. We all were. It was an inferno out there. But to be fair, her army-issue trousers were not pee-stained. Or two-stained.
Was she brave that day? Not a bit. All huddled in a ball, a teddybear clutch on her weapon, cringing at every blast as Planet LB-427 was reduced to ash.
A seven-hour battle. She didn’t fire a single shot at the enemy. But at least she could still move and speak, which counts for something when you’re dropped dead center in the most intense firefight ever spawned by bloodsucking alien invaders.
In the distance a chrome skyscraper erupted in flames and toppled over, crushing half our regiment. Two orbiting star destroyers collided and rained razor-sharp chunks into our foxhole. Smoke billowed from a crashed troop crawler while a monstrous spider-bot lost three legs and rolled on its back, squirming, helpless, just a countdown away from its atomic core going auto-destruct.
It wasn’t a totally unusual situation—another day on the front lines, another hopeless battle. Our side was defending the last bridge to the Lair of Ultimate Doom as the enemy advanced on our position and tried to wipe us out. Before night fell, they hoped to storm the fortress gates and have it out with our boss, King Necramoid.
Typical intergalactic war. The noise. The smoke. The burn. The death.
Pure slaughter. Blood frosted the ruins. Severed body parts entangled our feet as we struggled to move. There were just a few dozen of us left, all wearing the slime-green Nec uniform, armed with single-burst blasters, and while we had the numbers, the gamer out there was mowing us down like he was cutting grass. This one was a good shot. Quick with his weapon switches. Flawless ammo management. Relentless power-ups.
Over to my right, by the concrete barriers, Third Platoon caught a full wave of Dicer fire. They were sliced neatly in two, all right at the waist. A med-bot tried to revive the top halves but lost both arms to a frag grenade for the effort. All the dying bodies squirmed, bled, and finally went still.
But that day, Dakota—man, she was not with the program.
“I don’t wanna die!” she screamed, cradling her cold rifle, all curled up in a spot where the gamer had no angle to snipe her in the helmet or toss a betty in her lap.
“It’s your job to die!” I argued. “Now get out there, expose yourself, fire off a few random shots, and let the enemy rip you to pieces! At least we can use you as a distraction so the rest of us can take him out!”
“Why can’t we reason with him? I’m sure he’s just a normal person like the rest of us! Let’s wave a white flag and sit down to discuss a peace treaty!”
KABOOOOOOM! The gamer blew up our force field generator with a Quasi-Burst Rocket Launcher. Those babies are lethal. Downside: they take forever to reload.
Dakota jumped to her feet. Out there in the clearing, the gamer was reaching for another shell for his QBRL. She had a moment to do something. Anything. She might have even taken him out with her weapon, but instead, she waved and screamed, “Hey! You!”
The gamer looked up. Wow, they never look up. Not even when one of us emits a truly beautiful death howl or dying scream or some kind of agonized shriek. Gamers refuse to pay attention to the NPC hordes. They just kill us over and over and over again.
But this one did pause. He stopped loading. He looked right at Dakota as she hopped over the low wall, tossing her weapon aside.
“I’m not going to hurt you!” she promised, removing her battle helmet, blond locks tumbling out. “Really! Trust me! I just want to talk. You look like a reasonable person . . .”
The gamer shrugged.
She rambled on. “So have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we have to fight and why we have to die and what’s the point of—” The gamer holstered the rocket launcher and quickly drew a pair of hand cannons. KERPOWWWWW! They looked to be the .46-caliber upgrades. Both glowed gold and packed armor-piercing ammo. Bad spot for Dakota to be in, but she dove quickly into a bomb crater, her hands still stretched up in surrender.
“You don’t have to kill me!” she yelled. “And we don’t have to kill you either! There can be peace between our species!”
Strange moment. The gamer paused. Why would he pause? He had a lot of work to do before finally reaching Necramoid’s war chamber. These guys don’t stop for anything when a boss battle is so close they can smell it on their progress bar.
But Dakota was having an effect. There was no doubt. The gamer lifted his weapons, taking harmless aim at a blank wall in the distance.
Dakota peeked her head over the edge of the crater. Realizing the gamer was not going to sizzle it off, she clambered across the bloodstained dirt.
“Who are you?” she asked him. “What’s your name?”
The gamer pointed to a readout over his head. His tag, God_ of_Destruktion glowed green.
Then she let him have it, like a dozen questions all at once. “So, how old are you? Where are you from? How did you get here? And who am I? How did I get here? What time is it? What day is it? What year is it? What is this place? Why all the anger and hostility? What did I ever do to you?”
God_of_Destruktion tilted his head. He looked confused. Heavy metal armor shrugged again, the dents and scars moving like skin over a massive frame. His facemask, dark as a sith helmet, began to pan around.
He sensed something. It made him nervous. But he wasn’t sure what it was.
Dakota pressed, moving forward a bit, “Really, tell me, who am I?” she pleaded. “Why am I here? Part of this madness? Help me, G-O-D, please . . .”
But something set God_of_Destruktion off. He jumped back a step, boot rockets popping on, catapulting him a dozen yards away from the approaching girl. A trap! That must be it! He seemed to puzzle it out very quickly . . . Had the NPCs in this level sent a pretty girl as a . . .
“Suicide bomber,” I heard him mutter over the radio. “Nice work. Clever game.”
Yes. That had to be why this enemy soldier had approached him. Unarmed. So gorgeous. So vulnerable . . .
Dakota froze, and I watched the whole thing unfold. Honestly, I’d never seen anything like it in all my years in the muck. Nothing even close. And I’ve sent millions to die. Maybe the gamer was right to be afraid. What if Dakota was some kind of self-destruct bomb? I’d only met her that morning while getting suited up. For all I knew, she might be the next generation of NPC soldier.
* "The novel’s use of gaming parlance, from worlds to weapons to modes of game play, rings true throughout and is sure to gratify gamers. Readers looking for smart, original sci-fi and gamers who wish they could live in a virtual world will happily immerse themselves in this story and hope for possible sequels."
—Bulletin, starred review
"A delightful final twist hits a perfect note. . . Skinner's debut pairs authentic gaming with old-school, sophisticated science-fiction concepts to create a twisty, reality-warping ride."
"A Matrix-like spin on the world of online gaming. . . Geared toward teens with an interest in gaming, this should still appeal to those seeking stories about the intersection of technology and humanity, ethics and profit, and reality and fantasy."
"In his smart debut, Skinner embraces SF genre conventions but keeps things entertaining with well-crafted dialogue and action sequences."
"Game Slaves is an intriguing entry packed with action set in between layers and levels of video games."
—School Library Journal
"Game Slaves pulls the reader in right from the start of this action-packed adventure"
—VOYA, Teen Review
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