“Wait…who the hell fed you when I was in a coma?” Pat was in the midst of recording his new video when a hard knock came at his door. “God damnit,” he growled, his Chicago accent coming through. Pat set down his camera, his green eyes narrowed in irritation. It had taken him all morning to get his cat to behave long enough for him to film the scene.
The knock insisted, rattling the door of his apartment he shared with his mother and brother. Pat glanced around seeing they still weren’t back from work. Again the knocks came, announcing the presence of a stranger.
“I’m coming,” Pat muttered opening the door.
“Pat Strikes Back!” greeted a tall wiry man. He had salt and pepper colored hair with a matching goatee, round glasses sitting on his nose, and a large silver suitcase in his hand. “Great to meet ya, mind if I come in?”
Pat stumbled back as the man pushed his way into the box filled living room. They were in the middle of packing for a pending move. Pat glared at the man’s finely tailored suit, grumbling a number of curses at him. “Who the hell are you?” Pat demanded holding the door open watching the man look around the room.
The stranger looked back to Pat and smiled, his gray eyes piercing into Pat’s. “Call me Superior, I hear you’re in need of some money,” he grinned.
“That’s not important,” Superior cut in, raising a hand. He dropped the suitcase onto the couch. “I have an offer for you, Kid. A fantastic opportunity to earn some cash to move,” his eyes flickered around the room, his nose wrinkling, “out of this charming place.”
Pat stood frowning at the man, wondering what kind of scam he was running.
“Well come now, no need to leave that open,” Superior said giving a lazy wave of his hand.
The handle was torn from Pat’s hand, the door slamming making him jump. Pat’s eyes snapped to Superior as he started opening the suitcase.
“As I was saying; I have a great offer for you that can make you a very rich man. All you have to do is what you do best.” Superior turned holding a piece of equipment.
“Is that an Oculus Rift?” Pat asked moving closer to the man, getting a better look. The Rift was a head mounted display gaming system. A thin black rectangle was set over the eyes that served as the screen with heavy bands to keep it in place. This one also had head phones connected to it and was sleeker than any of the models Pat had seen. Glancing down in the case he saw there was more equipment.
“Something like that,” Superior said seeing Pat’s interest. “This system is completely wireless and gives the player a more realistic experience. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”
“How’s this going to earn me money? Are you offering some kind of sponsorship?”
Superior shook his head still grinning. “Not a sponsorship but an invitation to enter into a tournament. If you beat the game you’ll be awarded three million dollars.”
Pat’s brows popped, his eyes looking to the Oculus Rift. “What’s the catch?”
“There is none, you either win or you lose. The equipment is yours to keep once you’ve completed the game.” Superior put the headset back in the case, closing it. “So what do you think, Pat? I’d say you have a fantastic chance at winning the tournament.”
“What kind of game is it exactly?”
Superior scratched at his goatee then shrugged. “It’s around the area of Crash Bandicoot.”
That sold it; the Crash games had been Pat’s favorite series since he was a kid. He knew he’d be able to win this thing now. “All right, how do I get started?”
Superior smiled, sticking out a hand. “A shake of the hand is all it takes.”
Pat’s brow furrowed, but he put aside his uneasy feeling and grasped the other man’s hand. A small pin prick hit him in the palm. On reflex Pat tried pulling his hand away, but Superior’s fingers kept it firmly in place.
“A piece of advice, my friend,” Superior drawled, his eyes studying Pat. “Don’t use up all your lives.” Then he released Pat’s hand and swiftly left the room.
Pat looked at his hand finding a black mark the size of a dime. It started pulsing slightly. “What the hell?” he stammered going to the door. He looked up and down the hall then raced down the stairs. He wanted to know what that thing was, but the strange man was already gone.
Pat grumbled out a few more curses then stomped back up the stairs. The case was moved to his room where he could spread it out to get a better look at everything.
There were eleven pieces in total and a simple instruction manual telling where to place the equipment and how it turns on, but nothing about the tournament or what the game was about. The pieces included the headset, a pair of gloves, bands that went around his biceps, waist, and thighs, along with a pair of boots that looked to be made from black silicon. There was also a small patch that the manual said went over his heart. Pat examined each piece in turn, feeling the majority were made from a light metal.
The prick in his hand was still aching. He tried picking at it only to be rewarded with a shock that ran up his entire arm. The spot glowed red for a minute before going back to black again.
A cigarette craving hit him as his irritation grew. He sat with a lit smoke staring at the gear sitting before him. Doubt was taking over making him regret the deal with Superior. He replayed their meeting in his head, getting a chill before turning to his computer to try and find something out about the system.
An hour long search looking for any connection between the Oculus Rift, a tournament, and this Superior character gave him nothing.
“Damnit,” he growled rubbing at his five o’clock shadow, “might as well try it out.”
The gloves and boots fit like they were made for him, which threw him a bit. After strapping on the bands and placing the patch over his heart, Pat grabbed the headset. He took a deep breath before putting it over his blond hair, feeling it was lighter than expected and a bit uncomfortable; the screen cutting into his forehead as the headphones squeezed his head.
The system switched on automatically as the manual said it would once all the pieces were in place. The screen flickered to life; white at first then the pixels fell into place to create the scene of a jungle. A moment later the sounds of the forest filled his ears. He heard the buzzing of insects, rushing water, birds, and the growl of wild life. When he turned his head, he could see the moss covered trees towering over head, a stream was at his left, vines, rocks, and fallen trees littered the ground. But that’s not what impressed him, it was that he could feel and smell everything: the moisture in the air, the sun on top of his head, and the bugs flying around his ears.
“This is awesome,” he smiled raising a hand to swat at bug. It was bare, free of the gloves he had just put on. He looked down to see he was dressed in black army fatigues, t-shirt, and boots with a machete hanging off his belt. He touched his face, the headset was gone. His heart rate sped up; this game was getting a little too real for his liking.
“Welcome Pat Strikes Back,” Superior’s voice boomed from behind, making Pat jump.
Pat whirred glaring at him. “What the hell is going on?” he demanded, his fists clenched.
Superior smiled; his suit was replaced by black fatigues and a trim white jacket. “You’ve entered the game. Your goal is to now survive and gather the crystals.”
“How do I get out of it?” Pat snapped.
“The only way out is to finish the game,” Superior’s voice was dark. “And remember: don’t use all your lives.” Then he vanished, leaving Pat alone in the jungle.
“God damnit,” Pat rattled off a full line of curses ripping a hand through his hair. Then he noticed a heavy watch was strapped to his wrist. The screen reflected the sunlight blinding him for a second. He tapped at the screen and it came to life showing a map of the area. Small blue dots were scattered around the forest, and in the right hand corner were five red check marks. Pat could zoom in and out of the screen like his smart phone. He figured out the checks were his lives and the blue dots were the crystals he was supposed to find.
“Just like Crash,” he scoffed, shaking his head before setting off to the nearest one. It was a few feet into the trees.
The forest was dark and dense, the bugs attacking him left and right. Pat easily found the metallic colored crystal mounted at shoulder level to a tree. It hummed with power, completely lighting up the area around it. He reached out the hand Superior had marked to grab the thing, but when his palm was an inch away from the crystal, it flashed before disappearing. His watch beeped, new marks appearing on the bottom left corner.
“One down, nineteen to go,” he sighed setting off to the next one. Along the way he found boxes that were familiar to him. They looked like cargo boxes; some with X’s on them other were just blank. He avoided the X marked boxes and cracked open the blank one, earning him what he knew were Wumpa fruit. By heart and years of playing Crash Bandicoot, Pat knew that once he collected one hundred of them he would earn an extra life. The red and orange strawberry shaped Wumpa acted just like the crystals and became new marks on the screen of his watch.
After collecting five more crystals he started wondering what was going on back in the real world. Was his mom and brother home wondering what the hell he was doing in his room? Was he stomping around destroying everything? He still couldn’t wrap his mind around this whole thing.
He moved deeper into the jungle, the crystals becoming more difficult to find. They were higher up in the trees or surrounded by vines that were as thick as his arm, taking him what seemed like hours to cut through. Bugs would dive bomb him as he tried to get the crystals as well.
At the tenth crystal an anaconda was coiled around it. Pat thought it was just another vine, raising his machete to swing when its jaws snapped at his hand.
Pat yelped stumbling back as its fangs grazed his wrist. “Damnit,” he growled surprised at the throbbing pain as blood trickled from the shallow cut. “He didn’t say anything about it being this real.”
The anaconda stared at him, its beady eyes sizing him up. It hissed, daring him to try again, coiling tighter around the crystal. The head of the twenty foot long beast was ready to strike at the slightest movement.
Pat stood watching the snake, rubbing at his wrist. “How the hell am I supposed to get past that thing,” he muttered looking around the jungle for something, keeping one eye on the snake.
He found a few rocks, thinking he could knock the snake out of the tree so he could get the crystal. His first shot missed, flying off to the left. The second rock nailed the snake on the head making it lose its grip on the tree and fall to the ground with a thud.
Pat ran up to the tree, collecting the crystal quickly then turned to run.
The snake regained its senses, wrapping around Pat’s leg before he could even take a step. Swiftly it climbed up his body, squeezing tighter as it went. Pat gasped, struggling to no avail as the snake crushed him. Black spots took over his vision; his breathes coming out in short rasps until his lungs stopped completely.
He opened his eyes, his body aching. When he sat up he found himself back at the stream where he’d started. The watch was beeping at him, a message scrolled across the screen telling him he was down a life. Uneasiness took over causing a shiver to go down his spine.
“You better be careful,” Superior said from across the stream. “If you use all your lives here you won’t make it back home.”
“You asshole!” Pat snapped, “You didn’t tell me I could get killed in this game.”
“If I did you never would have taken my offer,” Superior chuckled. “Keep up the good work, Pat. There are only ten more crystals to go.” Then he was gone again.
Pat pulled in a shaking breath, calming his nerves, fighting back his agitation. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Thankfully he didn’t have to recollect the crystals he already found. More crates filled with Wumpa fruit crossed his path, giving him a chance to relive some of his anger.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Pat groaned wiping sweat from his forehead. There was a stocky guard standing at the next crystal. In its hands he held a mean looking axe.
“You will not pass,” it boomed, his voice like gravel. As a warning he swung his weapon, grazing past Pat’s face. “Leave.”
Pat grit his teeth, raising his machete, a string of curses falling from his lips. Before he lost his courage he started swinging at the guard. The plan was to just get close enough to snatch the crystal and run like hell.
The guard easily swatted away his attack, laughing at him. “I will crush you.”
The machete swept under the guards legs, cutting open this calves. The guard hollered in pain, falling to the jungle floor.
Pat grabbed the crystal and ran like a bat out of hell. He didn’t stop until his smoker lungs were screaming in agony. Then slumped against a tree and closed his eyes to rest.
“That was a lucky shot,” Superior mused standing on a branch over Pat’s head. “Usually it takes a few lives before anyone can get past the guard.”
Pat’s eyes snapped open to glare at him.
“Don’t look so sour, Pat. You’re doing-”
He was cut off as Pat hurled a rock at him, missing by a few inches. “Are you going to keep showing up like this?” he demanded his cheeks flushed. “Unless you’re going to tell me more about this game, you can just stay the hell away from me.”
Superior narrowed his eyes, irritation crossing his face. “As you wish.” Then was gone.
Pat threw out a few more curses then went back to work, bashing boxes and collecting four more crystals. He had to outwit a second guard and play whack-a-mole with a large lizard, clubbing it until it rolled over, never to move again.
“Five more to go,” he breathed checking his watch, giving himself a minute to catch his breath. They were farther out, closer to the mountains that surrounded the jungle. The very last one looked to be located in the mountains. “That figures,” he muttered then turned when he heard snorting coming from the bushes.
He froze; heart racing as he strained his eyes to see what was making that noise. A bore the size of a calf came charging out of the underbrush, thick yellowed tusks aimed for Pat’s legs.
Pat snapped out of his surprise, dodging the bore’s first attack by diving behind a tree covered with moss and vines. The boar reared up for another shot a few yards away, stomping at the dirt and flaring its nostrils.
Pat wasn’t as lucky the second time. When he went to run he tripped over a root, falling face first into the wet ground. He rolled over in time to see the boar lower its deadly tusks. It hit like a bull dozer, knocking the wind from Pat’s lungs, and throwing him back against a tree. His head hit with a hard smack, his eyes staying closed as the boar attacked again.
This time he awoke where he’d stopped to rest after getting past the first guard. New pains wracked his body; some of the wounds remained unhealed. The cut from the snake was swollen and throbbing, small punctures from the boar covered his abdomen, and dried blood caked his shirt.
“That bastard is gonna pay for this,” he wheezed getting to his feet. He only had five crystals left before he could get the hell out of this place. He just hoped he made it out alive.
The next target was mounted on a rock in the middle of a soft flowing stream. It was about six feet across, so clear Pat could see the rocky bottom, but he frowned at it then picked up a stick, tossing it into the water. The rocks at the bottom swarmed around the stock in a mad frenzy. A few seconds later they returned to the bottom of the stream, the stick gone.
“Figures,” Pat sighed looking around, his eyes stopped on a tree not far from where he was standing. It was at least nine feet tall and a foot in diameter. Pat studied it, testing its stability, thinking it would work if he was fast enough.
Half an hour later he finished hacking away, toppling it over the stream. He rolled the tree to where the crystal was and secured it. Pat forced himself to take deep breathes, calming his nerves before crawling into the tree. It bowed slightly, but held.
“Easy…easy,” he chanted, slowing crawling forward inch by inch. Sweat dripped down his forehead, twice he had to stop just to wipe the sweat away before it could get into his eyes.
When he was in reach of the crystal, he faltered; his leg slipped into the water. As he pulled it back out onto the tree, the rocks at the bottom shot up to the surface. Pat could hear chattering as they started eating away at the tree. It started vibrating and bowed closer to the water.
He quickly reached out collecting the crystal nearly losing his balance, then shimmied to the shore four feet away. The tree cracked as it was eaten away, struggling to hold his weight.
He was inches from the shore when the tree fell out from under him, plunging his legs into the water. Pat caught onto the edge of the grass to keep from going further into the water. Sharp pains started building in his lower half, the rocks swarming around him.
Pat screamed, forcing himself to crawl onto the shore. He dragged his legs on the grass, furiously kicking and swatting the little bugs off. They started hopping off him, going back into the stream. Within minutes they were gone, leaving Pat panting as his legs throbbed. He passed out waking an hour later.
His eyes snapped open, checking the screen of his watch; he hadn’t lost any lives. Pat sighed in relief then looked down at his still aching legs. He saw his pants looked like a mesh laundry bag. Reluctantly, he sat up to examine the damage finding his legs were covered in red welts the size of pennies.
“God damnit,” Pat growled forcing himself to his feet. His legs wobbled, making him lose his balance and fall to the ground. It took three tries before he could move forward to the next crystal. He had the uneasy feeling he’d need his last three lives to get the final four crystals.
Back in the forest the sky started darkening, clouds drifting across to block out the sun. Cracks of thunder echoed in the mountains. It didn’t take long before Pat was getting hammered by rain even with the jungle’s heavy canopy overhead. But it didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would as he dug up another crystal. It was actually refreshing, helping him clear his head and reflect.
It seemed strange that he could feel the intense pain from every wound, but simple things like hunger, thirst, and fatigue didn’t bother him. He hadn’t even considered these things until now, and even with noticing it he didn’t feel hungry or thirsty. His body was aching and tired but his mind was active, watching the forest around him, his ears tuned into his surroundings.
Bugs buzzed around his matted hair as the birds sang from their hiding places in the trees. Animals he couldn’t even identify crossed his path seeking shelter from the storm.
Pat picked his way to the base of the mountain to a cave. He groaned looking at the location of the crystal. “It just had to be inside the damn cave, didn’t it?” he said to his empty surroundings. He steeled his nerves again, reminding himself that he was close and would be able to go home soon. If he survived.
The cave was cold, a draft flowing through past the dripping walls. Pat found the watch had a light built into it. It was only strong enough to light a foot in front of him, but he’d take what he could get. With the machete held tight in his hand, he slowly made his way deeper into the cave.
Pat’s footsteps echoed around him, his pulse pounding in his ears. The watch beeped, making him jump almost to the ceiling when he was half way in. It told him there was a second crystal within the cave.
“What the hell?” he wondered then a shimmering on the wall caught his attention. He thought his eyes were playing tricks on him at first and ignored it, but as he walked farther into the cave it started happening at a constant rate.
Pat stepped up to the wall to get a closer look, seeing it wasn’t his eyes at all. The walls were made up of shimmering pixels, shifting and waving like they were unstable. Pat reached out a hand, being met with a smooth surface instead of rough rocks. It was like someone had forgotten to finish this part of where ever he was.
A smirk came to his lips as he prayed that his assumption was right. He picked up the pace; reaching the back of the cave where two crystals were mounted a few minutes later. This too was unfinished; its pixels shifting furiously. He stayed put for a while, waiting for something to attack but no challenge met him as he collected both crystals and raced out of the cave.
“No good dummy,” he snickered at the cave once he reached the open air and still falling rain. “Hey Superior, maybe you should finish your game before sending suckers into to play!” he yelled at the sky. A new determination flowed over him. He was only one crystal away from beating this game. With the knowledge that some parts of this world were unfinished, he set off to the last location.
It was up the mountain on a plateau. More boxes littered the path, enough so that he earned an extra life. A confident stride took him up the path, breaking boxes as he went.
The rain eased up, letting the sun come out to warm his back as he walked. Pat started wondering how long he’s been in this game. As far as he could tell then was no concept of day or night here. The sun stayed in one place, straight over head of the forest, every hour or so a cloud passed over it throwing off shadows.
Further up the mountain he saw more unstable pixels and in some places it was just dead space. He ran his hand over them, feeling the smooth blank surface. Whoever had created this mountain had the texturing completely wrong. Rocks shinned and were flat instead of rough and ragged. The more he saw, the more his confidence grew. This crystal would be an easy grab.
He took a moment to appreciate the view of the jungle once he reached the plateau before turning to see the last crystal mounted on the mountain wall. The only thing blocking his way was Superior, dressed in only a pair of loose fitting slacks.
Pat was surprised to see how built the man really was. When they first met Pat took him for a scrawny guy, but now he saw the suit had hid everything he saw now.
“Congratulations Pat,” Superior said easily, crossing his arms. “You made it to the last crystal. I have to say I’m surprised, no one has ever made it this far.”
“Is that why you just slapped together the texturing?” Pat smirked, raising his brow. “Getting a closer look at the mountain you can see how half assed it is.”
Superior’s brows frowned, narrowing his cold eyes. “Careful, boy. You aren’t done with this game yet. There is still one last challenge.”
Pat gulped as Superior dropped his arms from his chest. Superior lunged, catching Pat off guard. A powerful fist slammed into Pat’s stomach forcing him over the edge, plunging him down into the jungle below. Pat didn’t feel the trees as they snapped under him, escorting him to the ground below.
Pat awoke to Superior standing over him.
“Down another life,” he smirked raising his foot.
Pat rolled away feeling Superior’s foot miss his head by inches. He hopped to his feet, machete raised, held tight in both hands. His heart pounded in his ears, cursing heavily under his panting breath. He glanced at the crystal, by his estimate it was about eight feet away. If he could just grab it, it might end this whole thing…he hoped.
Superior saw Pat’s eyes moved to the crystal and laughed, “It won’t be that easy,” before lunging into another attack.
Pat was ready this time; he stayed focused on Superior, side stepping as his fist flew past. Pat swept the machete down across Superior’s side, feeling the metal blade cut through skin. Superior faltered for only a second then brought his arm up, crashing it into Pat’s temple sending him sprawling.
Pat shook the stars from his vision in time to dodge another blow. He hopped to his feet again, back pedaling to avoid Superior’s fists. But he ran out of space; Pat’s back met the rocky wall before he was pummeled and dropped to the ground, losing another life.
Every attempt to grab the crystal was blocked by Superior. He wore Pat down with every shot, toying with him as well. He’d let Pat get within reach before jerking him back by the collar. Superior even used Pat’s own weapon to take his last spare life.
“One last chance,” Superior smirked as Pat reluctantly pushed himself off the ground. “If you lose this life, you won’t be coming back.”
“I’m sure you won’t have a problem with that,” Pat growled, his voice horse. His body was screaming at him to just stay down and give up. But he swore off that train of thought. He was getting the hell out of here. His weapon was back in hand, its handle slick with blood and sweat. Pat grit his teeth then turned in a dead run for the crystal.
Superior laughed gaining on Pat with little effort. “Again with this?” he howled at Pat’s back. “You’re just asking to die.” He was right on top of Pat, one strike from beating him.
But Pat struck first. He planted a foot, whirling on Superior with the machete gripped tight in his hands. Using the full force of his weight and Superior’s momentum, the machete cut cleanly through Superior’s neck. Pat didn’t hesitate and went straight for the crystal.
It disappeared under his hand before the watch started ringing, flashing “YOU WIN!” across the screen. The world started breaking away from him, the pixels shattering to reveal a black screen.
“This little thing did all that?” Pat’s friend, Kaela, asked after he told her about his adventure a few days later. Her blue eyes only went wider when he showed her the still healing wounds the game left him with.
Pat had woken up on his floor, still wearing the Oculus Rift gear after the world had broken around him.
“Unless I got my ass kicked by something else,” he shrugged glaring at the headset in her hands. Pat decided to tell her only because he knew there was a good chance she would actually believe him. Kaela was a fiction writer by heart, and had the most open mind of all of his friends.
“Did you get paid at least?” she frowned, setting the headset back in the case beside her.
Pat sighed shaking his head. “The bastard sent me this later that night,” he growled handing her a single sheet of paper from his desk.
It was a typed letter.
Pat Strikes Back-
It looks like there was an error in our program. We are working on getting the issue resolved and will contact you when we are able to provide you with a full payment. For now, please enjoy another game that had been uploaded onto your equipment.
Kaela raised a brow looking back to Pat. “So in other words, they’re not going to pay you.”
“Not a damn thing,” Pat answered lighting a cigarette looking around his room. That money would have gone a long way to help his family. They could have actually bought a house instead of moving into another apartment and a hell of a lot more.
“What are you going to do with it?” Kaela asked pulling him out of his thoughts.
Pat looked at the case of equipment then smirked, “Let’s go see if it floats.”
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