You don’t know my company. Don’t bother looking it up. It never made many waves while it was around, and after it folded two months ago, what little info there was got scrubbed, which is a shame, because the reason why it closed should have made the news, but didn’t.
It was a place in the Midwest run by this wannabe entrepreneur. I can’t really give out his real name, so let’s just call him Nate. Nate was a trust fund baby who thought he would be the next Elon Musk, except in the IT realm instead of automobiles and aeronautics. He knew almost nothing about IT itself, he just enjoyed being the kind of boss everyone wanted to hang out with, and in that way he was pretty good. He was always riding a Segway around the office and trying to see what everyone was up to.
I was hired in as an entry-level software programmer, which I was actually overqualified for. What made up for it were the advancement opportunities and the fact that the company actually provided housing. Another of Nate’s projects was real estate, and he was instrumental in the development of a neighborhood where all his tech people could live and interact, if they so desired. I still had to cover utilities, but having a little place all to myself was way better than any apartment I would have found in the area in my pay grade. And the arrangements allowed me to get to know the people I worked with outside of working with code all day, which was a plus. Granted, our hobbies usually revolved around multiplayer shoot-a-thons, and our newest obsession was Fortnite.
For those of you not in the know, Fortnite is one of the bigger online shooters at the moment, with two different games you can play, one a co-op mode and one a 100-player Battle Royale. One life, one constantly shrinking area of play, tons of firearms, and the ability to smash buildings to build barricades and other useful stuff, all starting from a drop-in from a flying bus.
There are much worse ways to spend a weekend.
Of course, sometimes we couldn’t save it for the weekends, and we found ourselves playing it after-hours on the company servers, where the IT department oftentimes teamed up to take out the finance guys.
It was all good until the day Nate came up behind me on his Segway and I didn’t see him. And he asked me what I was playing.
Caught red-handed, I couldn’t help but tell him what it was. I was shaking, waiting for the worst to happen, for the hammer to drop and for me to be fired on the spot. Instead, something even worse happened.
Nate got interested.
First, he just joined in on the weekend games occasionally. And then he’d come on at lunchtime and play with us there. And then he started buying the merchandise. He’d call us into his office and show us what new keychain he bought, or the teddy bear helmet he’d gotten from an online auction. Sometimes he wore it, just to show how hip and with it he was.
But the real problem was that he was good. Very good. I’d been one of the top players in the game, but whenever he hopped in my rank immediately dropped 4-5 spots. He took first place, almost every time. It was astounding. He didn’t even game regularly, and he was laying waste to just about everyone.
And then he called me into his office. He’d had an idea, you see. He thought it would be a great team-building exercise if we all competed at Fortnite. For real.
I remember chuckling and saying, sure, I’d go get the flying bus and we could get everyone to jump out of it straight away. He waved his hand, saying he wasn’t going to go that far (though for a minute I could tell he seriously considered what it would take to make it happen). He just wanted to make it like a laser tag game, with chest sensors and plastic terrain, the whole nine yards. He’d cordon off the neighborhood and make an event out of it, finance versus IT, with him as a wild card in the mix. 31 people, one afternoon.
I still thought he was joking until he gave me the company card and told me to go nuts. I was the one who introduced him to it, he told me, so I ought to be the one to order the stuff.
So I did. I couldn’t actually believe that stuff for a Fortnite LARP existed, but it did. I scoured local dealers and got fake wall and bridge pieces, plastic power-ups, and even a couple extra posters for Nate’s office, just to suck up a little bit. Hey, I had the company card, and he certainly didn’t mind.
The weapons, on the other hand, were a little trickier. Nobody had anything that looked like the weapons in the game that could be used alongside laser tag gear. At least, nobody on the main web. Then I remembered that I had a Tor package on my browser, which I’d used back in my younger years, when I became concerned about government invasions of privacy, and I wondered if I might be able to find something that way.
Well, it didn’t take long. I stumbled across a .biz site that was loaded with all kinds of novelties. A lot of it looked like bootleg Japanese merchandise, which probably explained why it was hiding outside of the bounds of the regular internet, but I did locate what appeared to be, wonder of wonders, a Fortnite-inspired laser tag weapon set. Put in the batteries, point and shoot. I wondered for a moment if I should be using the company card on the dark web, but the stuff I was buying didn’t look illegal, and hey, if the worst came to worst, I’m sure Nate would have come up with a good story.
Two weeks later, after Nate went ecstatic over the boxes and boxes of crap that we were loading into his office, he gave us a few extra days off to get the neighborhood set up, and provided us a hand-drawn map of how it should go down. According to it, Nate had set aside his own house as the “Dead Zone,” where people who’d been eliminated could hang out and eat snacks while everyone else kept playing. Aside from this, it was off limits. I almost wanted to lose just to get my hands on what were sure to be amazing snacks.
So, it began: IT nerds versus finance geeks. 15 per side, with our boss on his own team.
I got my first strike against Joe, a guy I saw occasionally on my lunch breaks. I got him right in the chest. His sensors went off. He gave me a salute, then told me he was off to enjoy bacon-wrapped scallops. Lucky bastard.
A little while after that I ran into Fred and Janet, who were arguing about who shot who first. The two of them were in kind of an off-again / on-again sort of relationship outside of work, and it looked like they might have been off again. Fred kept firing his submachine gun at Janet’s vest. She kept pointing at his head and pulling the trigger on her shotgun. Both of their vests were going nuts. I told them to cool off and go to the loser’s banquet at Nate’s.
I didn’t see anyone else for awhile, until I managed to sneak up on Nate from behind, while he crouched behind a plastic wall. I was about to end him when he turned, saw me, and pulled the wall around between us. He was about to fire when his cell phone went off. He looked at the number.
“Dammit! I told them not to call me this weekend!” He waved at me to hold, and answered his phone. It sounded like he had a client on the line.
While he wandered, I asked him how many he had so far. He mouthed “nine.” I made as impressed a face as I could as I held up one finger. He nodded, then sat down behind the wall again, talking as loudly and as obviously as he could to let everyone else know he was on the phone, so no one got any ideas to execute him while he was distracted.
I decided to go back on the hunt, but in all honesty, I was getting bored. Everyone else was either hiding really well, or had already given up to go get food. I could smell the mouth-watering hors d’ oeuvres from the street, and for a moment I seriously considered taking myself out. Curious, I went behind Nate’s house, not to go in, but just to peek in and see what everyone was doing.
I barely got to his back deck when I heard the coughing. Really, really awful coughing. I had a neighbor when I was a kid who had coughed like that; he later died of emphysema, or something similar. Nobody at work smoked or had any kind of lung problems, so far as I knew. Even as an active contestant, I had to see what was going on. It could have been an emergency.
I opened the back sliding door and saw Joe sitting on Nate’s living room couch, with a few others. They were all coughing badly.
“Joe?” I inquired. “What’s going on?”
“I think the scallops have glass in them or something. God, my throat hu…” Joe didn’t finish, as he suddenly threw up. Or, I should say, I wish he had thrown up. Nothing came up but blood and something that looked an awful lot it belonged inside him. He fell to the floor, twitching.
The others on the couch looked disgusted and horrified, until they, too, started coughing up blood and going into convulsions. And then from upstairs I heard terrified, bloodcurdling screams.
In a terrified daze, I ran up the stairs. I heard a woman first, from the guest bedroom, the door to which was shut. I opened it and discovered Janet laid out on the bed, also seizing and foaming at the mouth.
I thought about what first aid I could provide when she screamed one last time… and her chest erupted. I backed out of the room, gagging. I heard more screaming coming from the bathroom. This time, I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t help myself.
I opened the bathroom door. And there was Fred, staring into the mirror and holding his face, shrieking uncontrollably. He turned to me, and in that moment, I saw what was the matter.
His face was cracked and blistering, and when he turned to me… it came off. In his hands. He reached for me, skin and muscle sloughing off of him. Involuntarily, I recoiled in horror, and moved just out of his reach. He collapsed, gurgling, to the floor. As he lay there lifelessly, a bubbling sound emanated from somewhere other than his mouth.
I must have passed out. I vaguely recall someone carrying me out of the house, and being laid on the lawn, surrounded by vans painted solid black, as all of the gear I’d purchased was quickly confiscated.
Nineteen people. Nineteen out of thirty-one. The authorities questioned the twelve of us who survived, but Nate got the worst of it. An investigator with a clipboard grilled Nate about the source of the weapons. He never mentioned me. He said it was all ordered on the company card. I sighed in relief, and would have thanked Nate later, if I’d ever gotten the chance.
I never saw Nate again.
I simply assumed he went off with the police, and probably ended up filing for bankruptcy following then inevitable wrongful-death lawsuits which resulted from his “team-building” event. After a week or so of taking time to mourn and recover, we returned to work to find our offices gutted, and some guy in a suit informed us that a larger firm had bought us out, that we were no longer needed, and that we would be given a proper severance and counseling, if we still needed it.
It all sounded reasonable at the time, except that I was out of a job and I would never see nineteen of my former co-workers ever again. And that’s not even the end of it.
A few weeks later, I received an e-mail. The sender’s address was gibberish, encrypted beyond comprehension. All that was in it was an invoice, from the .biz company I’d purchased the laser tag gear from. It listed one set of Fortnite-inspired weaponry. The price? $0.00.
Below it was the following message:
“Thank you for your patronage. Due to the high entertainment value received, there is no charge for these items. Thank you for the pleasure of your business.”
I went to look up their website. It no longer existed.
I thought back to the day I’d made the purchase and tried to recall what happened to all the guns. I remember them being loaded into one of the nearby vans. I thought it was a police van at the time. Now, I’m not so sure. And now I’m thinking Nate may not have gone with the police after all.