Friday, March 7, 2014

Short Story - Project Petman Avenger

I wrote this in the fall of 2013 as part of a writing challenge with Adam Sherwood.

Project Petman Avenger

Kyle knocked on the thin plywood-covered plank that served as a door in his dorm. Three seconds of silence prompted him to repeat his knock, pounding four swift hits that shook the door. Being this loud at home at two in the morning would have woken up his dad and gotten him grounded from something but here at school there were plenty of people still up and no one seemed to notice, especially on a nice Texas night light tonight. “YO!” came from inside the room, enough of a response that Kyle entered. His long-time friend, Duke, a nickname earned in fifth grade from constantly playing Duke Nukem, sat bathed in the glow of his laptop. So everything was right with the world.

“I got your text. What’s up?”

“I got another e-mail. About that new game, Project Petman Avenger? Stupid name… sounds like a kid’s game. I hope that’s just a working title while it’s in beta.”

“Oh, the shooter game?”

“Not just ANY shooter… wait ‘til you see this. It’s amazing! When this game hits the market, assuming they change the name, it’s gonna blow everything away. Here’s the e-mail that showed up a few minutes ago. It’s just like the last two.”


You are invited to test Project Petman Avenger, the latest in gaming technology. The below link will be will be active tonight only between the hours of 2:00 AM and 3:00 AM.

“That’s it?”

“Well, and the link.”

“Who’s it from? ID? GT?”

“Not a clue. The e-mail address is faked. I was able to trace it to a government domain but I’m sure that’s faked too. But enough talk, it’s already after two and I don’t want to waste any time on this engine.”

Duke double clicked the link, the browser churned for a few seconds and the screen flickered once, now reflecting the interior of a parked car. The view through the windshield revealed a typical residential subdivision street at night, though it seemed unusually due to the streetlights immediately fore and aft of the care being out. “The controls seem to be standard,” said Duke as he turned his character to the left and opened the door by pressing the Enter key.

Kyle leaned his lanky frame over Duke’s shoulder, his face about a foot away from the screen. “It’s pretty good but nothing mind-blowing.” He sat down on a padded chair next to Duke, wincing as various rancid odors perfumed the room.

“That’s because it’s dark and we’re not close to anything.”

A generic female voice came over the speakers: “Your mission for tonight: Eliminate the drug dealer at 8481 Walnut Mist Drive. Male, age sixty-eight.” A semi-transparent map appeared in the upper right-hand corner showing Duke’s location and 8481 Walnut Mist Drive, a couple of blocks away.

“That’s it for a story? How original,” complained Kyle.

“Yeah, I assume it’s because they’re still working on it. There’s also a pretty limited selection of weapons, pistols and stuff. No rocket launchers or pulse weapons. But… well, wait until you see it for yourself.”

Once Duke’s character started moving Kyle began to get more interested. “I’ll admit that the lighting effects are pretty good. Realistic bob in the walk algorithm.”

“And they’ve got water down perfectly. The stuff looks absolutely real instead of plastic. I’ll show you when we get inside unless I can find a puddle or something. And check this out,” he said, toggling to a diagnostic view. “It’s all happening on whatever server they’re running and then they stream it to me. My CPU is barely awake.”

By this time they were outside of a typical suburban house. “Some fancy drug lord house… You’d think that the designers would have had more imagination but it gets the job done.”

“So how do you get in,” asked Kyle. “Can you kick the door in or use a bomb?”

“It’s more of a stealth game, like Thief. I found out the first time that I played that the entire neighborhood is wired for sound. Make too much noise and lights start going on in houses, dogs bark and, I guess it was game over because my connection got dropped and I couldn’t get back on. The next time I was quieter. It’s also best to stay in the shadows as much as possible. Lemma take a look around.”

Dukes pudgy fingers maneuvered his character to the front door and deftly pressed a couple of keys. The camera moved naturally as his characters hand moved into view, gently trying the front door. Locked.

“Even in the darkness I can tell there’s a lot of textures. And the details are amazing, the worn door knob, a spot on the siding where it looks like it got hit by a baseball. The last house I was in even had bad paint jobs on the walls. But, yeah, there are a few drawbacks. Like you can’t switch to third person view, just first. But it’s a really good first. It almost looks like a real camera is mounted on your head!” Duke just smiled and made his character creep around the side of the house to the back door which was also locked.

“Can you pick the lock?”

“Not that I’ve found. All I have are my hands and a handgun with a silencer. The games pretty light on weapons. No rocket launchers or gas grenades or futuristic pulse weapons but since we’re here in the dark back yard let me show you something else. Everything, and I mean everything, is usable.” He turned his view to take in a typical suburban back yard, lit only by the moon and a bit of lights from the street in front of the house. “Like this.” We walked over to a two foot tall pot filled with small white flowers and pushed it over. The dirt spilled out onto the ground. He then reached forward and grabbed some of the flowers and shook them. “See the roots? And how the dirt clings to them? And how it falls off the roots?”

“Incredible! That’s a great physics engine!”

Then flowers were dropped, replaced by a handful of dirt. A squeeze and release revealed that the hand in the video was now dirty. Walking to the house Duke was able to make his character wipe his hand on the grey siding, leaving a realistic smudge. “You see? EVERYTHING is modeled. And if you shoot a wall, it stays there. If you break two dishes, each one breaks differently. It’s insane how much detail has been built into this thing. But now how to get in? Ah, a keypad lock! These things usually give you at least two tries before they go off.” He tried 1-2-3-4. Nothing. “What was the address on this place?”

“8481,” offered Kyle.

8481 did the trick as the lock snicked open. “Not very bright, are they?” Duke entered the house, leaving the door open a crack, and found he was in a laundry room where he picked up a handful of laundry and slowly dropped them back. “Everything is completely photorealistic. And I see the man of the house prefers boxers.“ He picked up a box of laundry soap and held it up to where you could read the warning, all without any kind of pixilation. “And it’s not just laundry. In the last house you could look at family photo albums, pick up and read books, open containers of food… anything and it’s all rendered perfectly!”

Duke turned the corner and saw a half bath, complete with poorly chosen floral wallpaper. He turned on the light, revealing the avatar in the mirror, covered head to toe in futuristic black military garb. The face was dominated by large goggles, the mouth by some kind of respirator or gas mask, leaving not a centimeter of flesh showing. The designers even incorporated the camera into the helmet design. “Watch this water simulation,” said Duke as he turned on the faucet, placing his hand under the water. “It’s almost like virtual reality! Once they wrap a proper game around this it’s going to be killer!” He lifted the lid of the toilet and flushed it, the water swirling convincingly, ending in a triple glug and slow refill.

A voice came over the speakers, male, older, slightly afraid. “You there! Is there someone down there?”

“Crap! I woke him up with the toilet. But I’m still connected so I haven’t lost yet.”

A short, horrible silence and then a woman’s voice. “Harold? What is it?”

“Shhh.” More silence. Meanwhile Duke slowly backed his character out of the bathroom, leaving the light on, and hid on the other side of the wall in the laundry room. A few hesitant creaks on the stairs told of Harold coming to investigate. Duke waited in the darkness.

The women spoke again, now closer, at the top of the stairs. “Harold? I probably just forgot to turn off the light. You’ve been so jumpy these last few months. I wish you’d just retire from that place.”

Silence from Harold but Duke and Lyle could almost feel him on the other side of the wall, straining to hear any wayward sound, their own hearts beating strongly in their chests. The light clicked off in the bathroom. “I guess you’re right.”

“Now watch this.” Duke stepped out from the laundry room in front of a short hallway, the stairs just to his left and a man in a bathrobe in front of him walking away. He must have made some sound in moving because Harold began to turn around. But Duke already had his gun out, squeezing off three well-aimed rounds, Harold making more noise than the gun itself, half in surprise, half in pain. The screen convincingly showed dark splatters of blood hitting the wall and begin to travel down. “That’s some detail!”

“Harold?! Are you okay?” said, Duke presumed, his wife as she scrambled down the stairs.

Kyle was impressed. “Characters on stairs are hard and this one has it down!”

“Check out her face! Realistic in every way. And the AI is, well, it’s like they’re real.”

By now the wife was down the stairs and running to her husband who was crumpled on the floor. In the darkness she couldn’t see the bullet wounds but as soon as she reached Harold she could feel their sticky moisture and smell the iron at which she looked up and saw Duke, her face, a wretched combination of fear and anguish. Duke didn’t give her a chance, using her face as a target.

“Not much of a challenge,” offered Kyle.

“Yeah, like I said, it’s all environment right now. Not much game play.”

The former generic female voiceover started up. “Exit the building and return to your car as quickly as possible.” “See? Not even a timer?” Duke obeyed, closing the door behind him quietly and making the round trip to his car at which time the screen faded to black and the connection dropped. “Would it have hurt them to add a few Dobermans or newspaper delivery guys?”

“All they need is to make some better scenarios. And that guy was just some old guy. He didn’t even look like a drug king pin. But yeah, they’ve got that world down! ”


“Thanks for joining us tonight on WANE TV Evening News. The city is still in shock over the double homicide of Harold and Marcy Dunaway which occurred last night. Police believe the couple interrupted a break in at their home but are currently without a suspect. Harold was an outspoken member of our community and a Vice President at Raytheon. Very sad. And speaking of defense contractors, a little bit later we’ll get a look at a project called Petman from Boston Dynamics, the latest in robot technology. But first, Peter, what kind of weather are you giving Fort Wayne this next week?”

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