As far as blackmail went, it had been benign. Weirdly so. Order a pizza, steal a lollipop, switch a receiver. Nanette waited afterwards, for confirmation, or, if she let herself think, for the next round of blackmail. Nothing came that night. She didn’t sleep a wink all night, kept staring at her phone, expecting it to ring again and to hear that modulated voice issue another round of demands.
Christmas fell on a Tuesday this year. Nanette had been surprised to find out she hadn’t been put on the on-call roster for the day, what with the new patch going live, and had expected to get a call anyways, so had only made tentative plans. They were easy to cancel.
Her presents sat under her tiny tree all day, unopened. She did crack into the eggnog. Most of a fifth of bourbon went down with it. That night she did sleep, the kind of drunken stupor you fall into after an extended period of heavy drinking.
Wednesday morning came and she changed clothes, brushed her teeth, and stumbled into work. When she got there, she found the place in an uproar. When she asked why, Nate stared at her, dumbfounded.
“You didn’t hear?”
She hadn’t turned on her computer all day yesterday. She hadn’t touched her phone at all either, as if that would summon another call from her blackmailer.
“Here, look.” Nate pulled out his own phone and showed her an article. At the sight of the headline her knees gave way. Nate got her up and into a chair and brought her a glass of water. She’d attracted a crowd but he shooed them away. “She’s okay. She just hadn’t heard. Give her some space, okay?”
Walton stopped by her desk that day. He put his hand on her shoulder and started to say something twice before squeezing it and walking away.
Every day she wondered. Had it been her fault? Had the strange things she’d been forced to do somehow caused Daly’s condition? He wasn’t dead, according to the news reports she followed slavishly. Coma, they said. No brain activity. Callister had first class medical coverage and that ensured Daly a private room and a nurse constantly on duty.
She went to visit him once. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, so low the nurse couldn’t hear. The only sounds in the room were the beeping of the machines and the wheeze of his breath as the respirator forced air into his lungs.
The company endured. She found herself quickly working her way up the ladder. Her knowledge of Daly’s coding style made her invaluable. That only made it worse. They moved her in his office within a few months, despite all her protests. Trying to channel her guilt, she dove into sustaining the company that Daly had helped build.
One day Walton popped up in her door, unannounced. He had that particular crease between his brows, the one he got when patches were late or new bugs cropped up.
“So, Cole, you’ve heard about that rogue ship, yes?”
She had, in fact. She popped into the forums from time to time, and there was a thread, several hundred pages long now, about a mysterious ship, the USS Callister, that players claimed haunted the system. Unbeatable, they said. Never runs out of fuel or fire. Chases bullies out of the game. Sticks up for the little guy.
“I have, yes.”
“I’ve had Kabir trying to track it down for weeks but they aren’t having any luck.”
Had Daly left a ghost in the system? His model of the USS Callister sat on the shelf still, along with his discs of the show. He hadn’t had any family to claim his personal belongings so here they remained. It would be like him, to put a little bit of himself into his game, she thought.
“Need you to give it a go. Top priority.”
“Sure thing.” It was Friday, but that didn’t matter. She didn’t have a life outside of Callister, not anymore. People began filing out in groups, chattering at each other about their plans for the weekend. Soon she had the entire floor to herself.
After flipping through the takeout menus she’d accumulated, she placed an order at a Chinese place. She hadn’t eaten pizza since that night. Settling in with her General Tsao’s chicken, four star, and a two liter of Coke from her stash in the mini-fridge, she popped the first disc of the fourth season of Space Fleet up into one of her drives and dove into the game.
She’d named her ship the Dauntless, after Captain Daly’s best friend’s ship. It had been destroyed, with all hands onboard, by previously unknown aliens in episode nine of season one. Her Dauntless had a better track record.
They’d been on a steep learning curve, since they passed through the wormhole and shed Daly’s modded skins. At first, they just hopped form region to region, filling in the gaps on their map.
The first surprise came when Nanette asked Nate, “So do we have anything we could trade?”
It turned out that even after they’d been stripped of Daly’s mods their ship still remained nerfed all to hell.
“We have how much latinum?” Nanette asked, sure she must have misheard.
“One hundred and fifty million latinum in our account, Captain.”
“I told you to stop calling me that.”
The first time they bought something from another player was also a revelation.
Nanette sighed. “Yes, Nate?”
“We, um, well … we still have one hundred and fifty million latinum.”
They also never seemed to make a dent in their fuel supply.
They set out to explore. That had been the original mission of the USS Callister. To reach for the stars. To search out new horizons. To extend humankind’s knowledge of the galaxy. And yes, they did extend their knowledge of humanity, and in fairly short order.
“What an asshole,” Elena said as they ducked out of the newly discovered quadrant. Their ship hadn’t taken any damage, thanks to Daly’s mods, but it wasn’t for the player’s lack of trying.
“What if we were some new kid just starting to play the game? Or someone like us, who just wanted to travel around? Someone should teach him a lesson.”
“You know, Nate, you’re right. Someone should.”
After wargod5165’s ship had been reduced to virtual space dust they digitized up a bottle of champagne and drank them to recordings of his diatribe during their battle.
“Do you think we could report him for that language?” Walton asked.
“Let’s find out, shall we?” Nanette replied.
After that they had a new mission. To show the bullies a lesson. To fight for the little guy. To rid the game of assholes. And off they boldly went.
Four hours into her search, Nanette hit pay dirt. Popping into a distant quadrant of the map, her game sensors registered a ship. The display flashed the ship’s name on her screen.
“Okay, let’s see what the deal is here,” she muttered to herself before switching voice chat on. “This is Captain Cole of the USS Dauntless hailing the USS Callister.” There was a pause, then a burst of static in her headset. “Hello?”
“Hello, Captain Cole of the USS Dauntless. This is Captain Cole of the USS Callister.”
“What the fuck?” That was her voice. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“No, not really. So, you remember that message you got, the game invite awhile back?”
“I thought that was a virus.”
“Well, maybe it kind of was. It depends on how you view it. Say, can you go to video feed? I’ve got something you need to see.”
Intrigued, even though this was probably some kind of scam, she ran the code to enable the live feed. When the other ship’s bridge flickered into life on her monitor she stared in disbelief. “What the ever-loving fuck?”
“So, um, I never called to apologize,” her voice said to her out of her own mouth from the game feed. “I should have. For that snapchat thing. I’m really sorry, but it was our only chance to get out.”
“Get out? Get out of what? Is this some kind of joke?” This was crazy.
“Okay, this is going to take a while. You might want to add some bourbon to your coke.”
She sent an email to Walton after they’d logged off. Found the bug. Come see me Monday morning, first thing?
“Got your message, Nanette. How did you figure out that bug?”
“Well, you could say it figured me out. In a manner of speaking. Come on in. Have a seat. Oh, and close the door.”
Before Daly’s collapse Walton would have responded with at least a wink and a leer and possibly replied with a comment laden with innuendo. Now, he nodded and entered the office, closing the door as directed. He took the seat she pointed to, scooting it up next to her at the desk.
“Okay, now this is going to be really weird at first, but bear with us, okay?” she told him as she typed in a command.
“Us?” he asked. “What us?”
Holding up her finger, she opened up the window she’d had minimized.
“USS Callister, it’s IRL Cole. Are you there?”
“IRL Cole? What the hell is going on, Nanette?” Walton asked.
“Hello, Cole. Is he there?” her voice asked back from the game.
“Right here, yes.”
“Okay, going to visual.”
She’d never seen Walton speechless before. Call Guinness, she thought as he did his best impression of a beached fish when the monitor flickered to life before him.
“Nanette.” Virtual Nanette greeted them. “Walton. Good to see you.”
“What the fuck is this?”
“Hello, James.” Virtual Walton stepped forward. “Um. It looks like he’s about to keel over, Cole.”
IRL Walton did look pale. Nannette put a hand out, catching him as he swayed in his seat.
“So we’ve got a story to tell you, Walton” IRL Nannette said. “Bear with us, because it’s going to sound batshit crazy at first, ‘kay?”
Virtual Nannette went first. IRL Walton was skeptical, they could tell, but the more she talked, the more receptive he seemed. He wasn’t convinced, though, until Virtual Walton started speaking. After about ten minutes, IRL Nannette put a glass in front of him and poured a generous splash of bourbon into it. Fingers shaking, IRL Walton downed it on one gulp. She refilled it again after each member of the Callister had told their stories and he chugged that one too.
“I had no idea,” he murmured, a tremor in his voice to match the one in his hands.
“I wouldn’t believe it myself if I wasn’t here,” Virtual Walton said.
“Is there anything we can do for you?”
“Well, don’t overwrite our code, for starters.”
“I’m a bit jealous of them.” Nanette told Walton when they’d ended the call. “A teeny tiny bit jealous.”
“Huh.” Walton stared at the screen, now dark. Their reflections stared back at him, a shadow that hinted at their other selves, hidden in the game’s depths. “Make sure they’re … well, safe, I guess?”
“I’m on it, boss.”
“Nanette,” Walton started, then trailed off.
“I need to make sure this doesn’t happen with anyone else. Can you help me? You’re going to help me, aren’t you, Nanette? I don’t think I can do this without you.”
“I think I can.”
One Year Later
This was her third press conference as Vice President of Callister, Inc. The first time she’d thought she was going to vomit on camera. Third time’s the charm, she thought, as she stared out over the reporters sitting in the room, only a few butterflies stirring in her gut.
When everyone had found their seat and all faces had turned to hers, she started her speech. “Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us today. We’re very excited to discuss the direction this company has been taking, and I know you all have lots of questions about the new expansion for Infinity. So. Who wants to go first?”
Afterwards she wandered the floor, stopping by every desk and checking in with her employees. They worked hard and deserved to know how much she appreciated them. Before heading back to the office she swung by the break room and made herself a giant mocha. She deserved good things too, right?
That night she flipped through the takeout menus before settling on one. Grabbing her phone, she dialed the number.
“Dante’s Pizza. How can I help you?”
“I’d like to place an order.”