Author: Jacob Bentzen
The blonde beard iXi had commissioned dripped with dew as he flowed through the misty forests of New Norway. He leapt over the moss-covered rock and landed on the animal trail without breaking momentum, his naked body covered in sweat and thin lines of pink skin left by branches and bushes.
iXi’s eyes did not analyse any of the startled critters or birds. A scent had caught his nose and something drove him to follow it, to chase it, an incredible urge he had never felt before. The black market software was already worth the risk.
A haunting call made him reel, skidding to a halt. iXi jumped onto a boulder and crouched, eyes darting between the surrounding pines whose sharp branches were draped with greenery as if someone had hung their ragged moss to dry. He closed his eyes and steadied his breath. Birds chirping, trees rustling in the breeze, a small creek somewhere below.
Then the call.
His body tensed, and he could feel the software tearing down firewalls in his system. A sudden hunger twisted in his gut, followed by a rush of adrenaline and euphoria that sent him darting off the boulder. His surroundings became a blur; only ahead was clear, only the scent of fur flowed through his nostrils, and all he could taste was blood.
The call sounded again, closer this time. iXi ran faster.
A flicker of brown in the distance. A short white tail. Antlers.
Resisting the urge to enhance his vision, iXi broke into a full sprint, flying through the greenery, panting hard while straining to keep as stealthy as possible.
A loud crack ruptured the silence as iXi snapped a branch off a tree. 50 feet. The beast—a young stag—whirled, preparing to bolt.
15 feet. iXi broke his stalk and dug his toes into the forest floor with a last effort, pulse hammering in his ears and muscles screaming. Then he was airborne.
His free hand reached out for the stag’s tail while the sharp branch tore through the air aimed at its hind leg.
The beast bolted out of reach in the last second.
iXi spun out of balance from the strike and crashed neck first into a thicket of damp, sharp brush, knocking the breath from his body. Gasping and thrashing, swiping wildly with his bleeding arms, he floundered out of the broken undergrowth and collapsed on the spot of moss where the stag had been feeding.
He rolled onto his back and swallowed deep lungfuls of the crisp forest air.
The sensations of the hunt—the drive, the hunger—left him like a snapping twig as the software reverted to the main game menu. A flash image crossed his mind: He was back at the ship, connecting to the EMO-Sim and seeing R34 and C-Polo’s grins as they realised he’d caught more scrapes than stags.
iXi rose. His body tensed as he unlocked all his inhibitors, roaring as the thin Blacksteel blades sliced out through the flesh of his forearms and slid into his palms—nano-bots wrapping the wound shut as he gripped the blood-soaked metal. Like spider legs, thin black rods of steel burst from his ankles to ensure his balance. He eyed the stag’s trail with a fury.
It was time for a new game.