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A Very Persistent Illusion

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Dust lays heavy in the air, and your tongue is thick with it. You swallow, throat clicking-dry, and wish you’d had the foresight to carry a canteen. Unfortunately, you can only carry so much, and the knife strapped to your leg is nonnegotiable. The desert heat may be unforgiving, but it won’t kill you as fast as a bullet.

“See anything?” asks a voice through the static in your ear.

You take a silent breath, eyes darting to several likely spots for enemy cover, but see no one.

“Nothing yet,” you murmur. “Approaching now.”

You duck behind a crumbling wall, knees bent, finger trigger-ready. There’s an alley to your left, but you know better than to take the shortcut; you remember the map indicating a taller residential building a street over, and if there’s a sniper, they’ll be there. You edge forward instead, keeping a gutted storefront between yourself and the roost.

Mortars have left the pavement cracked and uneven, but you can’t afford to watch your feet, your gaze instead darting between windows, doorways, and rooftops, ever wary. Except for the occasional tap of loose shutters against darkened windows, the town appears deserted.

Sweat gathers in your palms.

“Almost to the objective,” says the voice in your ear, and only long practice keeps you from jumping at the sudden noise. “You still there, Dee?”

Your third teammate has been unusually quiet over the comms.

“Dee?” your leader repeats after a long moment.

There’s a popping sound, and it’s not coming from your earpiece.

Sniper.

Instinct has you rolling behind the blackened husk of a car, covering your head and shrinking into yourself before you realize the gunshots are too far away to be a danger to you. It sounds like it’s a street or so away—the tall building, you knew it—and there’s a burst of static and a garble of swears in your ear.

Fuck—shit—‘e clipped me,” pants a new voice.

“You good, man?”

Fuck—no, I’m not good. I gotta hole in my shoulder and a sniper takin’ pot shots at my ass.

The pop of bullets continues intermittently.

“Need backup?” your leader prompts over the crackling connection.

Silence wavers uncertainly after the question, and you can only hope that you’re not down a teammate. You also hope that Dee doesn’t need assistance; you know you’re the closest to his location, and you don’t want to double back.

There’s a grunt and he finally responds. “I got this, keep movin.’”

You hear the rapid fire of an automatic weapon.

“Don’t waste ammo,” you advise, unsure if he can even hear you. The enemy sniper is hardly your biggest concern, and you doubt Dee’s at an angle to do anything but spray bullets at the wall.

A muffled curse. “Jus’ get the fuckin’ beacon and lessgo, kid.”

You grit your teeth, but otherwise give no response.

“They’re right, Dee. Keep to the plan.”

“Fuck you,” Dee says, but there’s no more gunfire.

You break from your cover, staying low. Every abandoned building is a potential ambush, and the tension in your shoulders and trigger finger winds tighter with every blown-out opening that you pass.

Your visor pings a proximity warning; you’re close.

Your leader is even closer.

“Beacon’s in my sights,” he says. “Either of you close enough to give cover?”

You lick your lips and taste blood. You were ambushed just outside of the drop zone, and though you took your attacker out, they got a few good hits in. Still, that’s one down, and with the sniper’s position known, that should leave just one enemy between your group and the objective.

There are a lot of empty doorways between you and the courtyard.

“Coming up on you now,” you say lowly. You take the next left, knowing it’ll put you in sight of the sniper, but also knowing that it’s your best bet of making it to him before the inevitable confrontation with the final enemy—wherever they are.

“Make it fast,” he says. “I’m going for it.”

A bullet pings the ground by your right foot and you nearly stumble. A fine spray of asphalt hits your calf.

Dee!” you hiss, breaking into a sprint.

Go, go, go,” Dee says in your ear. “I’ve got this asshole.”

Gunfire picks up again behind you, and though you think his efforts pointless, you save your breath for running.

You round the last corner and see the objective: an energy beacon mounted in the center of the courtyard. You only need a few seconds to disable the sensors around it, but you’d be a fool to think it’s that simple.

Another figure darts from cover opposite you, visored helmet glinting in the sun.

“Very nice.” He nods to you, approaching the beacon. “I’ll get the sensor, you—"

You barely see the grenade before it detonates.

There’s no cursing to accompany the flash-bang, and no sound after the knockback. There’s only a ringing in your ears, and a burning sensation in your left leg.

Damage sustained, your visor tells you helpfully.

You roll to your side, an unheard wheeze parting your lips.

The dingy tan of the courtyard and the pale, cloudless sky fracture before you like you’re seeing it through a prism. The whole world tilts around you, and you want to close your eyes against the hot nausea in your stomach.

Enemy spotted.

The words are beyond your comprehension, but the red of them triggers a battle-honed response, and you’re heaving yourself to your knees, listing and gagging against the shock-dulled pain.

“—erce? MERCE!” The voice blares through your earpiece, loud and grating.

You grit your teeth and focus.

There’s a shadow in the courtyard with you, across and to your right. You can’t quite see the details, but they’re clearly facing you—watching. Waiting.

There’s no hurry when the battle’s all but won.

“Dammit kid, gimme a sign. A grunt.” Dee knows from his vital readouts that you’re still breathing.

The same can’t be said of your leader.

You choose not to look at the splatter.

“So you’re Mercy, huh?”

Your struggle to focus on the speaker, your head lolling on your neck. She sounds very far away despite moving closer. There are two of her, then one, a kaleidoscope in tactical gear.

There’s something in her hand.

“I admit, I was nervous going into this. Saw your name on the readout and almost rabbited.”

The unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked, distant and tinny to your buzzing ears.

“Reality is always so... disappointing.”

You can’t speak for your assailant, but you didn’t get to this point by being dimwitted. Or slow.

When she steps in, intending to make a dramatic, execution-style headshot—a waste, you think, of the two grenades still attached to her hip—you swallow hard and lunge, overcompensating for your injured leg, but still managing to hit one of her knees. A gunshot rings out next to your ear, and any hope of regaining your hearing for this confrontation dies.

The resulting scramble is a quick and dirty, the other woman going down, hard, your lower center of gravity winning out. She fumbles, her ranged weapon suddenly hemmed in by your close proximity, and you don’t need a second chance, your fingers already gripping the knife at your leg, yanking it from its sheath and bringing it up in deadly, practiced accuracy.

If you were one for dramatics and speeches, you’d remind your writhing enemy that your name isn’t Mercy.

The blade sinks in once, twice, rapid messy gut-wounds to subdue the grappling woman. It’s the third stab that’s fatal, a quick, angry jerk up through the ribs and a wetness on your hands. You don’t need to hear to know that the gurgling breaths have stopped.

You leave the knife when you limp to disable the sensors.

In blue, your visor announces your victory.

Objective complete

Congratulations, MercyKiller.

 

 

 

“I’m cuttin’ ya off, Frisk.”

The transition from one reality to another is jarring as ever. One moment, your teammates are crowing over making it to the ranked semifinals, the next, you are blinking up at The Hub’s proprietor, Kit. Tattooed hands deftly reach behind you to unplug your VR cord.

“I’ve been closed for thirty minutes, kid,” Kit says when you only blink up at her owlishly, still reclined in your pod.

Your mouth tastes like ash and hot metal, a side effect of both the port in your neck and your brain’s own imaginings. The sudden lack of stimuli always feels like meeting the ground after a long fall, like your mind is still speeding forward (down down down), but your body has jerked to a stop. Despite (or perhaps due to) the disconnect, your leg and ribs throb with phantom pain. Your body remembers your battles better than you, sometimes.

“Sorry,” your mouth says on instinct, though you don’t move.

“S’okay, get your bearings,” the older woman says, not unkindly. She fiddles with some of the cords in your pod, having nothing to do now that you’re disconnected. “Was keeping up with the fight,” she continues, unprompted. “Boss got sloppy there at the end, but you sure made up for it. Congrats on making semifinals.”

“Yeah,” you say vaguely. You rub your leg. Sometimes the ghosts of imagined injuries haunt you for days, aching like old scars in a storm.

“You gonna take some time off until the matches start next week?” Kit prods your shoulder and you flinch. Her eyes narrow. “You need it.”

“Maybe.” Even you can hear the lack of conviction in your voice.

“Hm,” Kit grunts, and you can still feel her eyes, even when you tip your head to stare at the ceiling.

She doesn’t press.

When you finally regain enough of yourself to stumble out of The Hub, it’s sometime around two in the morning. If you had the presence of mind, you’d feel bad about making Kit stay an hour past close, but as it is you just want to sleep.

For all that being linked up to a VR pod isn’t physically taxing—muscle atrophy is actually a documented issue—your mind is forever tired. Your head pounds with the beat of your heart, too full and only half present. Every sound of the urban nightlife has you flinching for cover, despite the fact that this street is dim and smells of recent rain rather than the hard, dry heat of a desert town.

There’s a blinking light on your tablet when you stumble into your flat, winded despite the short walk from the metro. The Hub isn’t the closest VR facility, but it’s clean and up to code. Your bar is low enough to trip over, but some places in the city still manage to burrow beneath it. It helps that Kit has a soft spot for you and bends the rules a bit if you need some extra time in the pod. If inspectors were to examine your logged time instead of Kit’s records, you know she’d be in hot water, but she doesn’t seem concerned, and you know not to question a good thing when you manage to stumble into it.

You swipe an unlabeled packet off your nightstand and sit heavily on the bed, eyeing the tablet with trepidation.

Five unread messages.

The pouch of meal replacement powder crinkles in your hand. You focus on the smooth foil, the sharp edges, the barely-there weight of it.

One of the many side effects of too much VR, you’re told, is a heightened sense of unreality.

Do you ever feel like a balloon about to float away, Frisk?

You tether yourself to the gritty taste of artificial strawberry, dry and nearly choking. It reminds you of dust and the desert that never was.

You tap the screen.

Join us for our fifth annual donation drive—

Delete.

Updates to our Terms of Service and Privacy—

Delete.

Thank you for expressing interest in UNDERTALE: Remastered, MercyKiller.

Dele—

Wait.

You pull up the full message.

 

Thank you for expressing interest in UNDERTALE: Remastered, MercyKiller. Here at X-IST, we strive to create a personal experience for each player, and we are happy to hear that the original game has had such a profound and positive influence on your life.

For your continued support and visibility, we are offering an exclusive beta key, and a sponsorship to stream your experience. To collect on this offer, you need only respond with the address of your preferred simulation facility.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon,

Lori Walden

X-IST Communications Advisor

 

The powder in your mouth is forgotten until a wet clump makes a bid for the wrong pipe. You bend forward, heaving, reaching for a glass of water that isn’t there.

Oh, right. You’re supposed to mix the powder with liquid.

When you sent your message out into the digital void, you never expected a response. You only sent it out of bittersweet nostalgia, seeing the announcement scrolling on one of your gaming feeds.

UNDERTALE: Remastered – Revisit your childhood in an all new VR experience!

You’re not sure you can agree that the game has had a ‘positive’ influence on your life, as it was probably the first step on the path you’re sleepwalking through now, dull-eyed and gray, but you owe it some gratitude as well. It was a companion when you had no other, a measure of certainty against the unknown.

In any case, your response is so inevitable that it could have been coded into you.

You flex your fingers.

Lori—

I am thrilled to accept your generous offer…