“I don’t understand why this consent form has so many paragraphs about dismemberment,” Jianyu said.
The technician who was taking his blood pressure gave him a reassuring smile. “That’s just standard boilerplate. Our legal department puts it in all the playtesting contracts. Have you picked your role in the game yet?”
Jianyu finished signing the consent form on the com screen the technician had given him, then clicked back to the list of options. He didn’t understand why, given an entire universe of scenarios to choose from, anyone would want to play a game about working in a twenty-first century coffee shop. “What’s everyone else going with?” he asked.
“Manager,” Captain Dysart said from the next chair over.
“Barista,” said Sera. “I don’t know what it is, but it sounds cool.”
Xrrt rubbed her forelimbs together, producing a scraping whine. Her translator said, “Customer.”
“Food safety inspector,” said Weyland. He curled up in his chair to adjust one of the straps on his walking boot. His broken leg was still healing.
The rest of the crew stared at him. “That’s an option?” Jianyu asked.
“One of our experimental classes,” the technician said. “The developers are still playing around with it.”
Jianyu scrolled through the list of options. Each job had a little cartoon character beside the description. They were supposed to match an avatar created just for him, but the program wasn’t built to handle green skin, and had defaulted instead to a neon yellow. He paused at one with a welcoming smile and a red apron. “I guess I’ll be an assistant manager.”
“Excellent choice,” said the technician, removing the medical sensor from Jianyu’s arm. She checked her own com screen. “It looks like you’ve all signed your consent forms, so why don’t you follow me into the game room?”
The room was a rectangle, perhaps one thousand square feet, with windowless walls painted a flat grey. The ceiling was high and studded with a complicated network of machinery. There was nothing inside the room, not even a chair, and the floor had been cleaned so recently that there were still wet patches. The place smelled slightly of disinfectant.
“The game you’ll be testing today uses solid state holograms,” the technician said. “That means that the things you’ll see inside this room won’t just look real, they’ll feel real. You can sit in the chairs, smell the coffee beans, even eat and drink anything in the restaurant–although for legal reasons, I must inform you that consuming more than ten ounces of simulated matter in a twenty-four hour period has not been approved by the Intragalactic Consumable Products Commision and Hermes Entertainment, Inc. cannot be held legally responsible for any negative consequences resulting from excessive contact with solid state holographic material. The game will last four hours. Your goal is to get the best possible reviews from your satisfied customers. As playtesters, you are welcome to test the limits of game mechanics, although once again, Hermes Entertainment, Inc. cannot be held legally responsible for any injuries, up to and including dismemberment and death, caused by pre-programmed game mechanics. Just totally standard boilerplate,” she added, smiling broadly. “Are you ready to begin?”
“I guess,” said Jianyu, eyeing the machinery on the ceiling.
“Hey, what’s a barista?” Sera asked. “I didn’t read the description.”
“We’re ready,” said Captain Dysart.
“All right,” said the technician, already heading for the exit. “Enjoy your interactive experience.”
The door slammed shut behind her. Above their heads, the machines began to shift and blink. Jianyu noticed the change first in the quality of light in the room. The blue-white glare of the artificial lights shifted and softened into the yellow of afternoon sunlight on a spring day.
The coffee shop blinked into existence. Jianyu found himself standing behind a high counter. The feeling of his clothing shifted, and he looked down to find himself wearing a bright red apron. Next to him, Sera was lounging with her elbows on the countertop. Captain Dysart picked up a bag of coffee beans and tossed it from hand to hand. “It feels real,” she said.
Sera looked down at her own apron with evident disgust. “And what’s this supposed to be?”
“I think it means you work in the coffee shop,” Jianyu said, examining the machines in front of him. They were made of gleaming metal and strangely bulbous. He wondered if there was some instruction manual inside the simulation for them, or if he was just supposed to press a button and coffee would come out.
“I thought I was going to be something cooler,” Sera said. “Who wants to play a game with no shooting in it? This blows.”
“It’s supposed to be relaxing,” Captain Dysart said.
Xrrt approached the counter. Her head swung up, compound eyes focusing on something above Jianyu’s head. Jianyu turned around and found a menu written in chalk behind him. “Do you have anything with fungal proteins?” Xrrt asked.
“Um.” Jianyu scanned the list. “Pumpkin’s a plant, not a fungus, right?”
Sera found some jugs of flavoring and began playing with the pumps on top of them, squirting lines of bright red and viscous brown liquid onto the countertop.
“Almond’s not a fungus either, I think,” Jianyu continued.
“Sera, clean that up,” said the captain.
Sera continued making a mess. “Says who?”
“Says the manager of this coffee shop, which is called–” the captain glanced at the menu too “–The Life of the Grind.”
“I’ll have a cup of sugar syrup,” said Xrrt.
“Would you like that in, um, the big, alto, lungo, or troppo-sized cup?”
Xrrt craned her neck over the countertop and examined the array of cups in front of Jianyu. “The big one,” she said.
Jianyu picked up a cup. The logo was a red harpy, her lips stretched around a sharp-toothed smile and her cartoon wings bracketing her feathered torso. He handed the cup to Sera, who squirted goopy green liquid into it. The pump was slow and they all watched her work. It took a long time to fill the cup.
“I’m pretty sure that’s more than ten ounces,” Jianyu said. He put the cup on the counter. Xrrt tried to pick it up with her more delicate pair of forelimbs. She squeezed the thin cardboard too hard and her claw punctured the side. “Thank you,” she said, shaking her claw free. “I will enjoy consuming this beverage.”
She made her way to one of the tables, leaving a sticky green trail on the floor behind her.
“Sera, go get a mop,” Captain Dysart said.
“This is the worst game ever,” Sera said.
Nyx opened a bag of coffee beans and inhaled deeply. The game developers had captured the rich, organic smell of it. Coffee had been a rare treat when she was growing up in a domed city on Mars, and she remembered the smell of roasting beans fondly. Ships usually only carried tea, which was far easier to grow hydroponically and pack in bricks, and caffeine pills.
She picked a handful of beans out and rolled them around in her palm. On closer inspection she realized that they were too perfect to be real, each an exact replica of the same code.
Weyland approached the counter. The game had given him a dark blue uniform shirt with the logo of some long-defunct government organization stitched in yellow over the left breast. He was carrying an object like a com screen, but made of wood with a metal clip at the top. A clipboard, Nyx thought. She’d seen them in period pieces about the late twentieth century.
“This is your annual sanitary inspection,” said Weyland, tapping a pen on the clipboard. “You have to give me full access to the serving area, the kitchen, and the freezer.”
“We have a kitchen?” Nyx turned around and found a door she hadn’t noticed behind her. When she turned back, Sera was squirting another line of syrup onto the counter. “Mop, now.”
“Countertops not cleaned,” said Weyland. He ticked something off on the top sheet of paper.
Jianyu leaned over and whispered to Nyx, “Are we supposed to serve him a drink?”
“Just let him do the inspection,” Nyx said.
The next hour passed uneventfully. Jianyu found a manual for one of the mysterious machines behind the counter. Sera did a half-hearted job of mopping the floor, then grabbed a fistful of napkins and helped Xrrt clean the rest of the sticky syrup off her forelimbs. Outside the windows the program had designated as the boundary of the game’s world, a street scene was taking place. A dog was taking a nap on the sidewalk. The same two men strolled past over and over again, always headed in the same direction, always making the same hand gestures as they talked. An intersection was visible and a crowd of people kept crossing the street, turning around, and waiting to cross again.
At random, a customer would come into the shop. They were well-modelled, very nearly human. Each had a different sort of drink they wanted, and Nyx and Jianyu puzzled over the machines until they could produce drinks that sounded like what the customers asked for.
Sera developed a game of pushing chairs randomly around the room and found out that the holograms couldn’t figure out how to get around them. They would just stand there, blinking and occasionally crossing their arms over their chests, until Sera got bored and removed the chair again.
“This fridge isn’t cold enough,” Weyland said, coming up to her with a bottle of iced coffee in his hand. “There’s a risk of contamination.”
Condensation was already filming on the side of the bottle. “Looks pretty cold to me,” Nyx said.
“The bottles are cold, but the fridge isn’t. The microwave doesn’t get hot enough, either. The food just becomes the right temperature. I recorded everything.” Weyland waved the clipboard and a thermometer the game had rendered for him.
“I don’t think you can dock us for game glitches,” Jianyu said.
Sera poked one of the stuck customers with the handle of her mop. This one had blonde hair and a sweatshirt with a college logo, although all the customers looked pretty similar if you studied their faces up close. It didn’t react, just stood still and moved its eyelids rapidly. She kicked the chair away. The customer ambled to the counter. “I’ll have a half-decaf alto peppermint caramel macchiato,” it said. Jianyu scrambled to fill the order.
It wasn’t much of a game, Nyx thought, but it was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. And Hermes Entertainment, Inc. was paying generously for their time. She watched Xrrt trying to spread a newspaper out on the sticky table, her claws tearing at the sports section, and thought that she wouldn’t mind spending a while in such a pleasant little universe.
Jianyu counted out the customer’s change. The hologram turned, clutching its bright red cup, and began its path back to the door. “I wonder happens if you do this,” Sera said, bringing her mop handle around. She caught the cup squarely on its white plastic lid and slammed it into the floor. Heavily flavored coffee splashed everywhere.
“I just made that,” Jianyu said.
Nyx said, “You know you’re going to be the one cleaning that up, right?”
The customer stood frozen, arm still outstretched and fingers curled around a cup it was no longer holding. It turned and walked back to the counter, its hand still raised, and then pivoted again so it was facing away from the register. “I’ll have a two percent white chocolate parmesan iced tea,” it announced, waited for a moment, and then resumed its path to the door with its hand still gripping an invisible cup.
“Could I have some coffee?” Weyland asked. “Just the regular drip.”
Jianyu said, “What, are you going to take its temperature?”
“I just want to know what it tastes like,” Weyland said. “I won’t drink ten ounces.”
Jianyu sighed, but got a cup and poured some coffee into it. Weyland took it, sipped, and looked thoughtful. Sera threw a bunch of napkins over the mess she’d made on the floor, then sat down in one of the chairs and put her feet up on a table. Xrrt slowly turned the style section into confetti. Nyx leaned on the counter, feeling something very close to contentment.
Something flashed outside the window. Nyx straightened. “Hey, did you see that?”
“It looked like lightning,” Jianyu said.
Outside the window, the street scene was changing. The sky, once a light blue with wisps of white clouds, was darkening and turning an ugly shade of red. The two men walked past again, only this time one was limping and the other was clutching his side and grimacing. The little crowd at the intersection had sprouted more horns and tails than she remembered.
“Is coffee supposed to be this bitter?” Weyland asked.
The dog that had been napping outside on the sidewalk stood up. It had grown since the last time Nyx had noticed it. Now its muzzle was wrinkling in a snarl and its fur was standing up in stiff ridges along its grey back.
“Has that dog always been a wolf?” Nyx asked.
Sera dragged a chair to the front of the shop and climbed onto it. “I see a castle in the distance,” she said, leaning against the window and fogging the plate glass. “And now there’s a bunch of bats.”
Jianyu left his station at the counter and examined the scene up close. The cute little town had taken a pretty sharp downward plunge in the last few minutes. The buildings were still where he remembered them, but their corners had softened and the roofs were caving in. “It’s just a bunch of ruins out there,” he said.
He examined the inside of the shop. It looked the same as it always had. Xrrt rose, bits of paper still clinging to her claws. “Stay back. I don’t want my maggots getting hurt.”
The door opened. Sera stumbled off her chair and scrambled backwards. Jianyu retreated behind the counter again. The customer that walked in looked more or less like the last one, except it was wearing a scaly suit of armor and its hair was matted with blood. It lurched toward the counter, stopped in front of Jianyu, and blinked rapidly.
“I’ll have a half chocolate dark sun latte,” it said.
Jianyu checked the jugs of syrup in case they’d changed too. No, they were the same as before. “I’ve got, um, strawberry flavoring with guaranteed real berry concentrate,” he said. “Will that do?”
The customer reached behind its back, retrieved a rusty axe, and slammed it into the countertop. Jianyu covered his face as stone chips flew. “I’ll have a sour cream blueberry cup of acid,” it said.
“Just give it something,” Captain Dysart said, shoving a cup into his hand. Jianyu filled it with more drip coffee and pushed it across the counter. The customer dropped the axe, picked up the cup, and turned back to the door.
“What did you do?” he asked Sera.
Sera sidled behind the counter. She dropped her mop and grabbed the axe the customer had left behind. “I don’t know, but this game’s finally getting interesting.”
The door swung open. This customer had short grey hair, glowing red eyes, and batlike wings protruding from her back. They hung low, slithering on the floor, and a few coffee-soaked napkins caught on the tips and were dragged along behind her.
“I’ll have a yellow bile iced espresso with almond screams, leave room for cream,” it said.
Jianyu handed a cup of hot water over the shattered countertop. This time, the customer turned its head and peered into the drink, then crushed the cardboard cup in its fist. “I said leave room for cream,” it shrieked. A clawed hand shot out and grabbed the front of Jianyu’s red apron. The hologram was stronger than he’d expected. It had dragged him half over the counter before Sera stepped forward and swung her axe. The customer’s head parted neatly from its neck and rolled under a table, trailing dark blood but still screaming.
“Everyone behind the counter,” Nyx said. “Does anyone remember how to turn this game off?”
“The technicians said we wouldn’t need to.” Sera ducked around Xrrt, who was trying to herd her into an easily defensible corner.
Jianyu’s side hurt where he’d been slammed into the unforgiving stone countertop. “They also said all that language about dismemberment was just standard boilerplate.”
“I can’t find anything here about this,” Weyland said, flipping through the papers on his clipboard. “Maybe something about biological fluid cleanup–”
“The chairs,” Jianyu said. “We can build a barricade. The customers can’t get around them”
They all scrambled for the chairs. They were spindly, made of light wood, but the crew placed them in as tight a half circle as they could manage around the door. They tipped some tables over for good measure, and Sera took the jugs of syrup and poured them inside the semicircle to make a sticky moat.
The door opened. A customer entered. This one had brown braided hair, four horns growing out of its forehead, and cloven hooves. It walked forward, stopped at the chair, and stood blinking and staring straight ahead.
“Got you,” Jianyu told it.
It put out a hand. “I’ll have,” it said. “I’ll have, I’ll have.”
The door swung open again. Another customer walked in. Half its head was a bare skull, and the other half had a red pigtail draped over its shoulder. It walked along the same path, stopping only when it had run into the horned customer’s back.
“Creepy,” said Sera.
“I think it’s working,” said the captain.
A third customer came through the doorway, travelled the same unfortunate path, and slammed into its’ fellows backs. The force of the collision was enough to knock the first two forward half a step. The door opened, and there was a fourth customer. A fifth. They seemed to be spawning more quickly now. Each one muttered a fragment of an order.
“I think we should get back behind the counter,” the captain said.
Ten customers filled the semicircle. Jianyu thought that might be enough to stop more from coming in, but the door kept swinging open, pushing the press of bodies to the side. Eleven. Twelve. At thirteen, the chairs began to scrape forward on the floor as customers were pushed into them.
At fifteen, the circle broke.
The press of customers finally pushed a chair out of the way. They stumbled forward, slipping on the syrup moat. Several fell heavily in a tangle of wings and scaly limbs, but the pile-up wasn’t enough to stop them all.
Xrrt took point at one open end of the counter, both of her clawed forelimbs raised. Nyx plucked the axe out of Sera’s hands and covered the other open end. Weyland disappeared through the door to the kitchen.
“There’s got to be some way to end the simulation,” said Jianyu.
Sera leaned over the counter as the first customer approached. This one had a piggish snout and long yellow fangs. She poked it in the center of its chainmail-covered chest. “I mean, can those things really hurt us?”
The customer’s hand shot out and grabbed a fistful of Sera’s red apron. It dragged her over the countertop with startling speed. Nyx stepped in and swung her axe down. The customer’s forehead parted cleanly, but the axe stuck in it, and as the body fell it was wrenched out of her hands.
Sera scrambled up onto the countertop. “This game sucks,” she said. Jianyu reached over to help pull her to safety as another customer swiped at her legs.
Weyland returned from the kitchen with his arms full of glass bottles. “Projectiles,” he said, passing them out. Xrrt sprang toward the customer that had been pawing at Sera and severed its legs with a quick strike.
The door opened again. “They’re not stopping,” Nyx said. She pulled on the axe, but couldn’t get it loose from the customer’s head. “Does anything back there look like a weapon?”
“There’s some glass, I guess,” said Jianyu. “And the espresso machine, and a milk steamer.”
Nyx accepted a bottle from Weyland and threw it at the horde. It broke on a customer’s head, but didn’t stop it from shambling forward. The floor was getting slick with spilled liquid and syrup. She kicked the body of the customer she’d killed away from her and hoped that one of the others might trip on it.
“Hang on,” said Sera. “Is the espresso machine pressurized?”
“Now’s not the time to make yourself a cup of coffee,” Jianyu said.
“Wait, let’s hear her out,” Nyx said. “If it’s pressurized, it can be overpressurized, right?”
Sera slapped her hand down on the metal. “And that means I can turn it into a bomb. I love this game. Can you keep them off me while I work?”
“On it,” said Nyx. Jianyu handed her the mop and she used the fuzzy head to push one of the customers back. Xrrt scuttled forward, her claws a blur as she cut into the holograms with surgical precision. Weyland kept up a steady stream of bottles while Jianyu stood guard over Sera.
The door kept opening, again and again. The pile of bodies grew, but not fast enough. Nyx could only keep the space in front of her clear, and soon she was stumbling on the limbs Xrrt had cast aside and slipping on the slick mess of syrup and coffee on the floor.
“We can’t keep this up much longer,” Nyx yelled, pushing a customer into Xrrt’s sharp embrace.
“Working on it!” Sera replied.
They were pushed back nearly to the counter by the press of the crowd. Jianyu grabbed a customer that was leaning over the counter and flung it into two others, sending them all toppling.
“And I’m done.” Sera stood up. “We should get in the kitchen and bar the door.”
The crew ran for the back room. The kitchen was cramped, full of metal appliances that buzzed and hummed. Jianyu and Xrrt leaned up against the door. Sera counted under her breath. Nyx found a long serrated knife and held it by her side, just in case.
There was a muffled thump, a screech from the crowd, and then silence.
“I think it worked,” Sera said.
“I’ll go check.” Nyx motioned Jianyu aside and cracked the door. The space just in front of it was clear. She opened it all the way. There was coffee splashed over every surface of the shop. Half the counter had been blown away, leaving behind a twisted pile of metal. Customers were sprawled across toppled chairs, some still twitching. At the epicenter of the blast, all that remained of the crowd was meat and the occasional horn.
The door started to swing open, but caught on a body and stuck with its bell tingling a forlorn song.
The knife felt lighter in Nyx’s hand, and then her fingers closed on empty air. The coffee shop was dissolving around her. The smell of beans and blood became a lemony antiseptic. The light in the room became brighter and harsher. The mess on the floor faded away, leaving behind a dull grey surface without a trace of wetness. She felt a weight lift from the back of her neck as the apron disappeared, leaving her regular clothes in its place.
The door–plain, utilitarian, set in a blank expanse of wall–opened. When the technician walked in, she was smiling, although this time her expression looked a little strained. “Well, that was certainly an interesting playthrough,” she said. “You’ve just been given a look at Legend of Demons’ Keep, one of our games that’s still in very early development.”
“It could use some work,” said Jianyu, poking at his side. “I think this is going to bruise.”
“Since this wasn’t part of our initial plan for your interactive user experience, I’m going to have to ask all of you to sign non-disclosure agreements.” The technician already had the com screens ready to go.
Nyx took the com screen she was offered, signed her name, and pressed her thumb to the screen. “So, that means my team found some pretty good bugs, right?”
“Oh, we got some great data. Excellent work, you guys.” The technician turned to Weyland. “I’m very interested to hear more about the glitches you found with food storage temperatures. That’s a crucial element of gameplay.”
“You don’t want to hear more about how all the customers turned into demons?” Nyx asked.
“I’m sure the dev team is already working on a patch.” The technician blinked rapidly, looking for a moment just like one of the malfunctioning customers. “Now, about that refrigerator temperature. Did you notice anything else unusual in that game element? Any random objects spawning or visible respawns in the freezer section?”
Nyx sighed and headed toward the exit. Sera paced her, still walking gingerly but grinning. “What an awesome game! We should see if they have more jobs for us.”
“I have a better idea,” said Jianyu. “Let’s get out of here and never speak of this again.”
Nyx closed her eyes and tried to fix in her memory the smell of coffee and the buttery shine of real sunlight falling across a table.