Freya Campbell / @spdrcstl

Calm Futures

Death Lessons

I shot Johnny in the face, the bullet punching a neat hole below his left eye. His head cracked back and a spray of blood arced out of him. I found him later after class.
“Dude, that was incredible.”
“Yeah, you got me good. I could see the bullet coming in like, slow motion or something.”
We walked down the corridor towards the next class. Around us other kids scurried back and forth, some of them wearing their VR gear hung around their necks, some carrying it in their arms. I had my setup in a bag slung over my back, whilst Johnny’s own was perched on top of his head, the goggles and electrodes bouncing with every step.
“What’s the next one?”
“I think it was 22nd century mechs.”
“Oh, cool.”
We turned the corner and let ourselves in to the classroom. A row of chairs faced the far side of the room, each one displaying a name on a little screen on the back. Johnny and I bumped fists before climbing in to our assigned seats; his readJohnny 2x-41, my own Isabel 4y-12. All the students in the room bar one had the same names, the same serial number identifying us to the creche of our birth. The odd one out was an outsider, not from the Jupiter system but from further out.Yktcckyck came from beyond the portal, somewhere lightyears away in a separate spiral arm entirely. They -- for I did not know their gender, or whether they even had one -- creeped me out in a way I couldn’t quite process. I didn’t understand their reactions to anything we covered.
As the rest of the students filtered in and climbed into their seats, Yktcckyck entered on their own. They ambulated on two appendages, each clothed in a coloured weave of strands that covered them from head to just inches above the ground. They wore some strange kind of pouch on the end of each, hard and rubbery against the ground. They turned to look at me as they entered, and cocked their head, their two eyes opening wider. Their mouth stretched to the sides and upwards, baring stumps of bone pushing through their mouth. I tried not shudder and extended an arm in greeting.
“Hello,” said Yktc, and went to touch my arm. I drew it back instinctively before they responded.
“Oh, apologies,” they said. “I forgot you do not touch.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, weirded out but trying not to show it. Yktcckyck bared their teeth again before climbing in to their VR chair. They lowered the bubble around them and sealed themselves off from the rest of the room. I breathed lighter again once they could not see me, and sealed myself in to my own VR bubble.
Isabel 4y-12: Yktkykyc’s weird
Johnny 2x-41: I know right. They touched my arm yesterday. I had to wash it off when I got home.
Isabel 4y-12: Ewwwww
The teacher’s avatar appeared in the corner of my vision. They nodded at me sternly.
Teacher: Make sure you keep these comments to yourself.
I forgot that the teacher could read our discussion. I apologised and double-checked the privacy settings, making sure Yktcckyck could not read our messages.
Once everyone was wired in, the simulation booted up. My previously green screen warped and flickered in to a new image. Around me was a cockpit, the many buttons and switches not unlike the VR bubble’s own. In front of me and on either side, great glass windows opened up the world me. I saw great banks of sand around me, stretching out as far as I could see. A short distance to my left, I spotted another mech, and saw what I must look like from the outside. A rhomboid metal box, perched on two skinny legs, a pair of huge barrels mounted to either side, presumably weapons of some form.
The teacher’s voice crackled through a speaker. It must have been diegetic; usually they sounded crystal clear through the VR headset.
“Okay kids. Today we’re at the battle of Tekl Bridge. Class are split in to the two sides; the Artolian rebels on the one and the Tekl Republic on the other.”
I looked around the cockpit for an indicator of my side; I saw an instruction manual for the mech, the cover written in jagged Artolian script. I sent send a message over to Johnny.
Isabel 4y-12: Yo what side you on? I’m Artolian.
Johnny 2x-41: My mech’s full of Tekl incense. Take a guess. This stuff reeks.
Isabel 4y-12: hahahahahaha
Johnny 2x-41: guess who’s on my side tho. Two mechs to my right
Isabel 4y-12: Ykykktkt?
Johnny 2x-41: yeahhh. They really don’t like the incense. They opened the hood and chucked it out.
I laughed, completely missing the last 30 seconds of whatever the teacher was saying. I tried to tune back in as they explained the scenario.
“...Artolians, you first. You are to attempt to seize control of the bridge from the Tekl Republic forces, who are encamped around either side. They have superior armament, but their energy weapons are suffering from high the desert heat. When it originally played out, the Artolians managed to avoid the first few barrages and timed their strike for when the Tekl weapons had started to overheat.”
I skimmed the manual quick; my own weapons were ballistic, firing huge great slugs of metal via electromagnetic coil. They would pack a huge punch, but ammunition was limited, and I’d have to track my targets carefully. I preferred playing with ballistic weapons, though; they were far more satisfying when they connected.
 
The scenario started and my squadron set off. The eight of us climbed the hill and peeked over with our periscopes; the bridge was close enough to be within firing range as soon as we crested the ridge. We discussed amongst ourselves quickly the best tactic; whether to go over guns blazing, or split into two and flank them around the sides. I voted for the latter, and so did enough others to agree it. I joined the left team and we made our way fast around the sand dune.
As the mech in front of me stepped in to the open, four beams of energy fired out, arcing their way through the air with a terrible crackle. They fizzed as they passed by, and one grazed the boy in front, cracking the screen and half-blinding him. He yelled over the comms and kept moving fast, zig-zagging to avoid any more shots.
I darted out from the dune and turned to fire, spotting the enemy mechs in position by the bridge. The lead vehicle fired, two beams burning towards me. Before I could react they pierced the glass, and one of them struck my shoulder, burning the flesh and exposing tendon and bone. I yelled and laughed, shielding my eyes from broken glass as pain exploded across my chest. I aimed at the mech, trying to guide the shots, and let loose four shots in succession. A fraction of a second passed before they landed, punching into the torso, knocking the mech off its feet. My left arm hung useless at my side, the muscles disconnected and spasming. I tried to turn the mech away, but the controls were confusing with one arm, and I stalled the engine. I kicked it in frustration as the enemy mechs closed on me. Two of them aimed and fired, and beams tore into my mech and body, burning away my flesh.
 
Yktcckyck came up to me after class, and bowed.
“I’m sorry for today. It looked horrible.”
“No way. What do you mean?”
They hesitated, looking away for a moment, holding one of their arms with the other. Their face flesh turned red and I felt bile in my throat.
“I saw the energy beams hit you. I saw it melt away your skin and muscle. Did it not hurt? The simulations are so... realistic.”
I shrugged. “Sure, it hurt. I just got on with it.”
They looked completely shocked, eyes open wide, mouth open but hiding the bone this time. “How can you... just get on with it? Every time I enter the simulations...”
They shudder. I tried to remember if I’d ever killed them in VR. I would have saved the memory away, surely; it would have been so inappropriate, so fun.
“The pain is too much. I came here to understand, but... I cannot grasp why you enjoy it.”
I nodded to them. “I don’t know, dude, it’s just fun. You never wanted to shoot your friend in the face?”
They shook their head, but jarringly said no out loud, and my brain ticked over for a second trying to understand what they meant. Truly, Yktcckyck was from a very different culture to my own.
 
We returned to the simulation for the next class, on 17th-Century archery. We stepped in to the upright booths instead, attaching the harness to each of our arms, standing on the gyroscope and getting balance. I didn’t like these simulations as much; they made me dizzy when I couldn’t balance right.Yktcckyck, the freak, they were a natural, and stepped on to the gyro with ease, holding their two arms out to either side.
I put my VR visor over my head, and the headphones to my ears, blocking out the world around me. This time the sim started as soon as I was connected, and I stood in a field under the sun. Around me, other group members popped in to existence, their avatars looking prim and orderly. Each of us wore impressive red uniform, covered in buttons and sashes. Everyone and myself carried a large wooden bow, and I felt my back for a quiver of arrows, the feathers white and straight.
“Okay, kids,” I heard, and turned to see the teacher holding a bow of their own. “Today we’re going to learn archery.”
They ran through the basics with all of us, and I tried out pulling the string of my bow back. It was tough, but after a few tries I got used to the strength required. The teacher showed how to hold an arrow, and what grip to use as we drew it back. They guided us to a row of targets set further down the field, and we set up in a row, each with our own target. I stood near the end at the penultimate target; Yktcckyck had the target next to me at the end, and glanced at me as they prepared their bow. I think they were trying to be friendly, but it looked awful, and I couldn’t look at the bone protruding through their mouth.
The teacher set us to practice, and I lined up with the target, firing arrow after arrow. After twenty minutes, I  started to get the hang of it, and could hit the target every few tries. Once most of the class had used up all their arrows, the teacher instructed everyone to stop firing and to let others collect theirs in safety. I still had one in my quiver.
As Yktcckyck walked over to the target to pick up their arrows, a message from Johnny showed in my vision.
Johnny 2x-41: Hey, it’d be funny if someone got hit right now, huh?
I glanced over. Johnny still had an arrow left, too, and nocked it in his bow. He looked over at the teacher, who stood with their back to us temporarily. I grinned and nodded at him, and he quickly drew it back and fired.
“Woops, I missed.”
We watched the arrow fly through the air and strikeYktcckyck in the side. The force knocked them forward and they staggered on their feet. We giggled together, then burst in to laughter as they started to scream in pain.

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