The rocket hit me in the face dead on. My teeth shattered, pieces of bone shearing the soft tissues of my tongue and mouth. My nose hollowed out and everything from its bridge down became pulp. The faceplate I wore saved my eyes, though it cracked and the display disappeared in a flicker of red. I wavered between consciousness and darkness as blood loss took its toll.
I respawned back at home base, my new body buzzing with fresh energy. This was my third death this game; my K/D ratio was going to go to shit if I kept this up. I grabbed an Energy Aid Cola from the drink machine — the price automatically deducted from the game’s winnings — and downed the methamphetamine laced drink.
My name is Lady Death and this is the life I was cloned for.
We were down two lane lengths, the enemy team’s crawlers pounding at our door, and I was playing like a newbie-clone who still needed her training bot to function. If we didn’t get a grip on this game then the Sunbros could say goodbye to our place at Superchamp stadium, and we might as well stop playing if it came to that. I grabbed a Lady Death Soul Reaper Scythe™ from the rack and breached the base’s doors to once again join the fight.
Big Johnny Four was waiting at the entrance, his black and gold exosuit glinting in the noon sun.
“Saw the replay of that hit, you okay Lady D?”
His immense frame towered over me, his right arm encased in a massive gatling gun.
“I’m fine. It’s just the crowd today. They seem more hostile than normal,” I said.
I could see small wars breaking out where the Sunbro fans met the Battering Bruiser fans. There was more gunfire going on in the bleachers than on the actual field. The Game Devs would have to step in if it escalated any more.
“Don’t let it get to you. The Devs just decided to make today free Battle Bright Taco Tuesday. I think they spike that shit with speed.”
Johnny patted my shoulder with his huge hand, his touch soft through my skin-tight armour.
“Come on, we have the the left lane to cover. Silvia’s all by herself and they’re pushing hard.”
I nodded and engaged my cloak, leaving his hand sitting on my ghostly shoulder. He hefted his gun and trundled toward left lane as I took my own, faster route. I ran toward the nearest wall, took a step up it, and flipped on top of it.
The entire field spread out before me, maze like halls with open tops and two uncluttered lanes winding their way through them. Above all was the multifaced big-screens that currently showed Deadringer Silvia holding off two enemy champions. I couldn’t tell which, but I thought I could see the tell-tale shimmer of one of my clone sisters weaving between the crawlers.
I jumped from one wall to the next, making time faster than Johnny who had to traverse the maze on foot. I knew every inch of this course, had been running through it and four others since I was barely out of the clone tubes. I’d run through it blind more than once.
I made my way to Silvia’s perch and tapped on the back of her helmet.
She nodded and continued firing at the enemy crawlers. Each one she hit exploded in blue flame before disappearing in a mess of metal.
“Big J is on his way, it’s gonna take him a minute or two. I’m going to hit the crawlers on the back line, just keep our own in good shape.”
She nodded again as I jumped down to the lane and headed behind the enemy champs.
I hit a wall and ran on it, the sound of my boosters matching the whine of the crowd. There was the opening: the enemy’s Dirty Harriet was reloading and the blue clad Big Johnny was focused on a crawler that had made it past their defensive line. I slipped between them and toward the stream of crawlers behind.
The edge of my scythe cut through the ribbed bots like they were melting snow. Each one seemed to look around for whatever had hit it before puffing into a fireball. I swept through the advancing crawlers, taking them out two at a time.
Then I heard it: the mechanical trill of my sister Lady Death coming to stop me. I turned toward the sound, trying to spot her before she could close in. She was in-lane, a shimmering blue ghost heading directly toward me. I opened my booster’s throttle to full and jumped over her, her scythe missing me by inches. I rapped her on the back of her helmet with the hilt of my scythe and dropped my cloak before leaping over the wall into the maze.
She followed, still cloaked and probably mad as hell. If she was following me it meant that she wasn’t bugging someone who could do some real damage. I was done sweeping the oncoming crawler wave anyway, enough that Johnny and Silvia could gain ground.
I ran on the maze’s walls and boosted around corners, my mobility easily keeping my doppelganger behind me. She was just boosting along the ground; that meant she was still wet behind the ears with amniotic gel. That meant I could have some fun.
I jumped vertically off the wall I was on, tucked in my legs cannonball style, and boosted high into the air. As the ground fell away behind me I switched on my cloak. Between my golden armour and my cloak, the sunny sky would make me completely invisible. I swung myself around till I pointed at the ground and revved my jets. I came down right on top of her, scythe ready to cut her head open like an avocado.
Then I saw her face. She’d noticed that I was coming down on her and that there was nothing she could do. Her faceplate was just clear enough that I could see her wide, terrified eyes and her mouth hung open, twitching at the corners.
I had a wave of utter horror come over me then, remembering my first few matches when I still felt scared to die. Her face was so much like my own, a few less scars but still as beautiful. I hesitated and she cut me in half.
We won, somehow. Silvia and Big Johnny managed to beat back their lane till it was at the Battering’s base, then Warhammer — a guy on our team with so much armour a tank shell could hit him and he would still be standing — walked our crawlers in. The base exploded, fans cheered, and my ranking dropped six places.
I was still in the top ten rankings for Lady Deaths but it hurt my sponsorships. I lost my contract with Burger Boys and Ooze Energy drinks which meant I would have to start downgrading my equipment. Goodbye steel bones, I knew the well.
Back at the Sunbros’ group home. I sat on the floor of my shower and bit my nails till they bled. I could hear the rest of my team talking about today’s game in the living room.
“What the fuck was up with Lady D today? She was playin’ like a kid in a barfight!” Harriet grumbled, her southern drawl stinging my ears with every twang.
“It was the crowd. The Devs are going crazy with the sponsors lately and it’s getting to her.” Johnny Four said, “They’re getting to me too. Some of our fans had a higher kill count than us today.”
“Bullshit,” Harriet slammed her fist on to the table, “That stuff ain’t more’n a little more noise than normal, it ain’t worth losin’ a lane over. She’s goin’ soft. I watched the replays of that fight with the Batterin’ bitch, I know she hesitated. She’s gonna run soon and you know it.”
Silence came from the other room and tears mingled with my shower water. She was right, maybe I was getting too old for this shit. Maybe I’d overdosed on Energy Aid one too many times and finally snapped, my brain rewiring itself into an emotional stupor. Maybe running was a good idea. At least I’d get to die on my feet.
Johnny caught me leaving that night, his muscled body blocking the doorway out of the apartment.
“You don’t have to do this.” His hands shook at his sides.
“I can’t stay here. Harriet’s right, I’ve gone soft.”
“What about Sylvia?”
Just minutes before, I’d snuck into her room, leaving a note saying “Goodbye, thanks for all the fun times. I’m sorry it had to end like this.” I should have written more but there wasn’t enough time. I looked at Johnny’s feet.
“What about me?” he said.
I hoisted my scythe to hide myself behind bravado. “It wouldn’t have worked out. I like the ladies too much.”
I pushed him aside with it so I could leave. He let me pass and closed the door behind me.
I switched on my visor and the night vision painted the rooftop in sharp green. The Sunbros’ headquarters were on the edge of the mega city Keres — the Devs wanted to keep us as separate from the general population as possible and not even the most avid fans want to risk getting caught in The Taint beyond.
I walked to the edge of the building and looped a rope. As I descended down the building, I began flipping through TV channels on my HUD. Jack Flack’s face filled my vision and the Superchamp theme music began to play.
“Welcome y’all to this special edition of Superchamp, the game that keeps y’all’s blood running hot. As you know, when a Champ gets all cowardly and such, they have a tendency to run like cattle from a bonfire. When that happens, we gotta hunt ’em down like the dogs they are.
“Tonight, we got a little clone who’s a running, the woman in the black and gold, LADY DEATH OF THE SUNBROS!”
The crowd in the background screamed, their voices too loud in my helmet earbuds.
“For those of you who may have forgotten since our last runner, we got a bit of a reminder. When a Champ is cloned in game, they keep the core memories of the previous version. That’s so we get all the different kinds a personalities that y’all enjoy in the games. So the Warhammer from the Glass Cannons won’t act like the Warhammer from the Silverados.”
“But, we don’t keep those memories around after the games: they go right back into a Champ clone for storage. If a champ gets killed outside of a game, they’re gone for good.
“This Lady D has decided to leave her coop and bring all those cowardly memories with her, which is good for us. We have to get rid of em but why leave out all you people from the fun of it.”
Jack turned to the camera and gave the audience a wink.
“We’ve set up another, randomly picked, champ with their own cameras and we’re sending them after her into the wastes. Tonight’s hunter will be…” He turned to a screen at the center of the stage and swept his hand toward the flickering name, “Lady Death from the Battering Bruisers!”
I shut the feed down. Of course they had to bring that Battering Bitch in. I rappelled down the side of the wall as fast as I could. If I was going to get through this, I would have to put some distance between us before they released the hunter. As soon as I hit the ground I ran off into The Taint.
Two hours later, I was running along the edge of a cliff face with the last dregs of a can of Energy Aid flowing through my system. There hadn’t been much excitement other than the occasional man-eating plant. Games never lasted this long, and without the soothing life of a new clone body, the new sensation of sore muscles was wearing me down.
I slid down the steep cliff face, vines making the boost-assisted climb a nightmare. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep this up before I had to find somewhere to hide and let my poor muscles rest. My foot caught an outcropping of rock and I almost fell, just managing to hold on with my fingertips. Then an explosion thrummed through me.
To my right, a chunk of the wall fell to the ground seventy feet below. The explosion shook me off of the rock face and I plummeted along with the rubble. With help from my booster my fall slowed but I felt a deep crack as I threw my arm between my face and the ground.
Pain crested from my shoulder to my elbow. My ribs burned every time I took in a whistling breath. I reached into the pack I’d taken when I left and grabbed a Bingo Bandage (“With child friendly morphine!”) to slap on my neck. With the drug seething through my body, I grabbed my scythe from my back and stood to face whatever had knocked me from my perch.
“Whoa there D,” someone said from the edge of the rubble-filled clearing. “Don’t move or I’ll actually hit you this time.”
From the shadowed treeline stepped Big Johnny Four, his armour overgrown with moss but still showing the lime green underneath. He hoisted a golf club onto his left shoulder and smiled at me.
“You the runner or the hunter?” he asked.
I put my scythe away with my good arm and lifted my faceplate. “I’m running. They have Newbie after me though.”
“Good,” he said, shrugging his shoulder in a beckoning gesture, “We’ve got time to talk before she gets here.”
He walked into the forest and I followed after him.
“Greenskin Johnny, huh? You ran two years ago, right?”
“Yeah. I was slowing down too much in-game. They were about to retire me. So I ran.”
“I thought they’d killed you, though. Sylvia shot you in the heart. They got the vitals and everything.”
He raised his right arm as we walked. Where the chain gun should have been was a healed over stump poking out of the armour.
“She shot me all right. I lost the arm but she just missed my heart. It’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you too.”
We walked and the silence between us filled with the sounds of The Taint. Birds chirped as the crunch of the leaves beneath our feet fell into a rhythm. I took a deep breath and felt the cool air soothe my broken body. The morphine was beginning to wear off, the silver chill of it dissipating.
Johnny stopped, looking back toward the way we’d come.
“She’s coming. The shit around us just got too quiet. There’s a clearing not too far from here and my house is just beyond that. We can make a stand there.”
We ran together as I fumbled in my pack for another round of Bingo and Energy. We breached the clearing. Vine covered cliffs fed in and out between too tall trees. It was a fun place for a battle and I was pretty sure I could outmaneuver a Lady D who hadn’t figured out wall-crawling yet.
“I’ll go set up behind the bush over there,” Johnny said and pointed his club across the clearing. He ran toward his hiding spot, his breath coming out in jagged gasps, and leaned on his club.
A camera drone roared into the clearing and began circling around me, its engine spitting up dirt and leaves around the clearing. Then came the hum of my pursuer’s cloak, so familiar even through the buzzing of the camera drone.
She came and I ran. I activated my own cloak and burst away from her. We moved through the clearing together, dancing around each other in playful arcs. Even through the adrenalin and knowledge of perma-death, it was still nice to be back doing what I was made for.
She finally attacked me and her blade slid across mine as I blocked. I felt the sting of my injured arm worsen and heard another crack, the limb falling from my scythe to hang by my side. I boosted away from her and toward the wall. She followed behind, the shimmer of her cloak drawing lines of sunlight behind her.
Johnny started hitting grenades then and the forest floor was torn apart. His signature move and the reason for his nickname lit the clearing up, the whack of “golf balls” preceding it. The Blue Bitch sped up.
I hit the cliff face and stepped up it with ease. Behind me followed the newbie and explosions. She’d apparently practiced after the last match; her wall-crawl was sloppy but existent. Behind us the cliff shed rock as Johnny put the heat to her heels.
I twirled and shifted back toward her. The dust from the grenades had overwhelmed her cloak and I could see her face again, just as scared as before. I hung in the air for a moment as my momentum fought my boosters.
“Fuck it.” I said to myself and tackled her, carrying us both into a grenade blast.
The pain in my shoulder flared brighter than the sun as the concussion hit me. I lost my breath and what was left of the two of us fell. I looked down at the ground coming to meet me through a broken visor and closed my eyes.
Johnny rested on his golf club and stared down at me.
“That was stupid, D,” he said.
I tried to push myself up but my arms refused to move.
“Just stay there, If you wiggle it’ll make you bleed worse. I wrapped it up as best I could, but…”
“Where’s the other one?” I felt blood flow from the split in my lip.
“Still in the pile of rocks. The cam’s gone so she’s probably dead,” Johnny pointed his club in line with my legs.
I flexed my arms again and felt my palms clench. I took two deep breaths, put my arm out to catch myself, rolled onto my right side, and kept rolling as my elbow never met ground. Blood smeared across the grass and pain punched through my morphine haze as the thing that used to be my shoulder hit the ground.
“That’s what I was talking about, D. Stay down.”
“She’s just a kid.”
I lifted myself to my knees and static filled the edges of my vision.
“I’ll get her D. Just lay down,” Johnny said.
The dirt tasted just about as good as I imagined it would. As I heard Johnny stomp off to the pile of rubble under the cliff, I enjoyed the feeling of grass on my cheeks. I turned my head and looked at the clearing around me.
Without the visor the world was closer, the light more severe. Glowing flowers lit the clearing and through the break in the trees, I could see tiny lights dancing in the sky. Something big moved far into the foliage around me.
“She’s still breathing,” Johnny said, dragging my clone’s Blue clad body behind him.
Her faceplate was cracked, the flashing light from the broken screen inside illuminating her eyes. I reached over and slid the useless tech off her. Her face was unbroken, except for a small cut under her left eye. Something was wrong, so similar but dissonant to the face I saw in the mirror. I reached out and stroked her short, black hair.
“She’s got a few ribs broken at least and there’s a rock sticking out of her leg that’s like two feet long. I don’t want to take it out ’til I have a proper setup though. There’s no telling how much blood she’s lost.”
Johnny started tearing apart cloth from a bag on his hip and wrapping them around Battering’s chest. She coughed and her eyes fluttered.
“It’s okay. Shhh, just rest,” I said. I grabbed her hand with mine and squeezed it.
She squeezed back. “They’re going to send another one.”
The lights in the sky shrank away as the twilight of dawn rolled across them. I squeezed Big J’s knee as he worked and then slid my hand back to Lady D’s.
“We’ll be ready.”
If you liked this, then you can read more from Holly here.