I’d been watching the news for almost an hour. It seemed as if there was nothing else I could do but sit and watch. There was a strange fascination in it, seeing different cities all over the world and the exact same scene in all of them. People, mostly young, some middle-aged, in orderly lines, streaming into abandoned buildings - burned-out warehouses, tumbledown khrushchyovky, dead malls, whatever was nearby - and then…nobody knew. Reporters had tried to get their attention. Nothing had worked. A few, especially intrepid, had tried to join the lines, tried to sneak in alongside them, tried to drag people out of them. The news channels weren’t running live feeds any more.
It was almost a relief when my issue phone buzzed, as if I’d been waiting for some distraction to let me look away. “Talk to me, Annelle.”
“Kind of a good-news, bad-news situation here, boss.”
My hand tightened, making the phone’s cheap plastic bumper creak. “Speak up, it’s a bad connection. You’ve worked out what it’s targeting?”
“Yes, I think so. A game.”
“Not that one we just finished checking out -“
“No, not Fortnite. This one’s a series, going all the way back to third-generation consoles. Lots of fast action, grabs the attention well. Slumped in the 2000s, recently had a renaissance with new titles getting back to the roots.”
“You don’t mean -“
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Good news: it can’t target casual interest. See an ad with a few seconds of gameplay, hear the soundtrack, read the Wikipedia page - none of that will do it. You have to have completed at least one game in the series for the incantation to latch on.”
“That’s the good news? How many millions of people do you think - the first one was a huge hit when I was in primary school! What’s the bad news?”
“Boss, what does it mean to ‘complete’ a game any more?”
“Game over? True ending? 100%? I don’t have time for riddles, Annelle -“
“It’s not targeting a, a mechanical interest - you don’t have to have a controller in your hand and your focus on the game for it to work. That will work, but…I’m not sure, but some of this reads like it will affect anyone with enough narrative interest to attend any single playthrough from beginning to end. So…”
“Let’s Plays?” I scrabbled with my free hand for the cheap membrane keyboard of my desk PC.
“That, yes. And streams and speedruns, too.”
“Jesus. Any game in the series - oh. Oh.”
“Checking the fan forums, right? I did that half an hour ago. You’re seeing it?”
“Oh yes. Listen, I have some calls to make. My boss, her boss, then probably the PM…this is good work you’ve done, we may still have caught this thing in time. How are your wards, Annelle?”
“This series, boss. You know the fan base is…diverse.”
“You mean fucking weird.”
“It’s a matter of perspective, really. Which forums are you looking at right now?”
“Stadium, Blast, Fan Games HQ, why?”
“I already said I don’t have time for -“ I almost said ‘games’, and found myself smothering a totally inappropriate laugh. The giggle from the other end of the line said Annelle was ahead of me on that.
“Yes, well, you should probably take a look at e621. I won’t text you what I’ve already found, I know how you are about that sort of thing.”
She didn’t have to. Most MoD machines had the legally mandated filters, but the nature of our section’s research merited an exception, and it didn’t take long to see what she meant.
“My God. There’s a whole incantation woven through this - through all of these.” I clicked through to a few of the images. “All posted in the last…three days, so far. Is this where you got the source?”
“Boss, I think this is where it started. There’s a side clause that -“
“Yes, I see it. It’s - what do you think? For R0?”
“4, 5 at least. Probably higher. It needs the same focused attention to take effect, but it’s porn.”
“So of course it will work, and spread, and anyone who’s played a game in the series will - whoever’s done this is brilliant. I hope I get a chance at an interview before we shoot him. But what’s this other codicil? Just here…”
“Oh, I wondered if you’d find that!” Speaking of inappropriate laughter - but I had more important concerns.
“Yes, it’s a…a ward pass, I think Grade Three? No more than that?”
“How many times have I told you to brush up on your Keys, boss?” Annelle asked, through the sudden crackling buzz in the background of the phone connection. “You really should have listened. It can pass a Grade Five at least.”
“A - hold on, you’ve only got Grade Four -“
“Had, boss! Had a Grade Four ward. Now -“ The buzzing crackle was louder, and I suddenly realized the growing pressure at the edges of all my thoughts. Something was making my hand hurt. The phone, cracking in my fist. Screen blank, speaker silent. Annelle was still talking, but I wasn’t hearing her from there. “All those OCs of yours, years and years ago. Probably a mistake, in hindsight!” I dropped the phone before the battery started smoking. The ruins of the Shard. That was closest, wasn’t it? I could - “And I never did mention, boss, I always had a thing for -“