“You’re kidding. Thirty-five fucking dollars?” Valerie snarled.
The cat at the ticket window blinked through the glass at the rat girl. Val stood barely five feet high, built less like a fashion model than a toothpick. He probably outmassed her by a good sixty pounds, but the ticket-taker looked taken aback. Maybe the spiked leather collar made her look more intimidating, or the butch cropped hair cut, or the tongue stud that flashed when she spoke.
“Ah…thirty-four ninety-five, so with tax, that’s thirty-eight dollars and ten cents,” he said, flashing a weak smile.
“Christ.” She slid a credit card through the window, keeping nail claws a quarter-inch long and filed like stake points on the plastic surface, as if daring the cashier to touch them. The cat extricated the card delicately and swiped it through the register.
“Don’t mind Val,” the vixen standing behind her said, putting a hand on the shorter rat’s shoulder. “She’s always like this if she’s going to a place that doesn’t have drinks.”
“That’s another thing,” the rat snapped. “GameWorks has drinks, Debbie. They’re owned by fucking Sega, and they have alcohol.”
“Enjoy your adventure,” the cat said, sliding the credit card and a paper ticket back under the glass. Val reached for it just fast enough so one of her clawtips brushed the cashier’s finger, and he jerked his hand back as if he’d been burned. She sneered as she stalked away.
“Honestly,” Debbie said, rolling her eyes and sliding her own credit card to the cashier without further comment. Then she hurried after the rat.
While they weren’t a completely mismatched couple, they looked like they’d come from different subcultures. Both wore black, but Debbie’s look was fashion-goth: black jeans, black T-shirt, black eyeshadow and an oversized cross, silver with copper trim, on a chain around her neck. Val’s T-shirt was faded and ripped, from use rather than conscious aesthetics, matching black denim shorts ending just past her thighs. From appearances, they’d been fashioned by having the legs chewed off by a goat. A wide studded leather belt echoed the look of her spiked collar.
She’d stopped just inside the building’s entrance. A long metal-grill catwalk led guests over a room full of tall computer cabinets, lit theatrically by floor-level blue spots. “All off the shelf hardware,” she said critically to the vixen, without looking up. “They went with these rackmounts just because they look cool. If they’d used generic blades they wouldn’t be charging thirty—”
“Lighten up,” Debbie said, giving the rat a shove on the shoulder. “Earth to Val? You’re a millionaire? Hello?”
Valerie grunted. The vixen was right; the rat had been as smart in knowing when to cash in her stock options as she’d been in writing the software she earned them with.
The catwalk ended in a wide, high room with dark blue carpeting and matching walls, accented by superfluous girders, each one lit from the inside and slowly shifting hue. The wall ahead sported an interlocking puzzle-piece logo in glittering fiber-optics, foot-high copper letters reading IMAGINA seeming to float in front of the design. Six doorways, all with glowing doorframes, opened at even paces, three to each side of the logo, each with a ticket-taker standing in front of them. Ambient techno music played at a non-threatening volume.
“This is so touristy,” Val whispered to the vixen. “Some goddamn little purple dragon thing is about to jump out and screech Imaaaaagination, Imaaa—”
Deb elbowed her sharply, and led her toward one of the doorways. Beyond it lay another long hall, smaller doors that looked like airplane hatches on either side. Glowing LCD monitors were embedded in the walls by each hatch. The attendant, a perky collie girl, smiled brightly, taking both tickets. “Welcome to Imagina. Have you been here before?”
“Yes, but my friend here hasn’t.”
“Well,” the collie said as she took the rat’s ticket, too, “You’ll go down to booth B15, and Fred will assist you.” She continued to Val, “And you’ll go to booth B22, about halfway down, and James will assist you.”
The vixen headed into her own booth. Val walked on down to B22, where a strapping wolf, at least six feet high, waited. He looked like he’d rip the company-issue polo shirt if he flexed his biceps. His oval nametag proclaimed him, as promised, to be James.
James opened the booth’s door for her. “Have you ever been here before?”
“No. Shouldn’t you be out lifting weights?”
The wolf grinned. “I have to do something to pay for the weights, right?” He motioned her into the booth.
As she stepped through, she realized “booth” was a misnomer—it was a small round room, about six feet across and all black, lit by a single dim recessed bulb above. A nylon harness that looked like a prop from a cyberpunk sex club hung opposite the door. “You’re going to tell me I have to wear that, aren’t you?”
“It’s much lighter than it looks. You have to take off your sandals, though.” She did, and he showed her how to get into it. It was less a suit than a series of pieces—over the forearms, forelegs, light mesh gloves and socks, a cap with a chinstrap and goggles.
“I feel like I’m going on a fucking diving exhibition. This is the only headgear?”
James laughed again. “It’s tracking your eye movement, and giving you feedback.”
“Feedback? Like biofeedback, or thump thump feedback?”
“Both. And more. I have to say it’s pretty impressive hardware here. Better than what I’m studying with, I can tell you.” He pulled cables down from the ceiling and hooked them up to her arms and legs. They remained taut.
“So you’re studying computer engineering in college.”
The wolf nodded. “Yeah, and interning at VirtuaEngine.”
Val laughed. “Shit.”
James furrowed his brow. “Is that bad?”
She shook her head. “No, no. I used to be the director of engineering there. So this is better, huh?”
“Really.” The wolf blinked a couple times, clearly realizing who his flippant customer was. His ears grew red. “You’re—I—well, maybe not much. The engine here is a modified version of Synvatec’s—”
Val put a hand to her throat and made a gagging sound. “Fuck, VE’s rendering is leagues ahead of that. And Synvatec’s controller layer is buggier than an ant farm.”
“They’re open source and about a tenth the price of VE. Their I/O system’s also got a higher level of abstraction—”
“—which let them do all the funky wire shit in the booth here much faster. Yeah yeah yeah.” She looked at the gadgetry she wore, then at the harnesses. “So what happens if I rip these out?”
“I get to follow your stretcher and point and laugh. It’s in my employment contract.” He grinned and stepped back outside.
“I like you,” Val called after him as he closed the door.
The door sealed with the sound of solenoids locking and relays firing, and the floor—a platform, she realized—shook as machinery sprang to life. The lights dimmed to blackness, and then the puzzle-piece logo faded into view hanging in the air, floating ten feet away. Orchestral music swelled around her on God knew how many discrete audio channels.
“Welcome to Imagina,” a deep leonine voice sounded from somewhere behind the logo. “The theme park of the future!”
The puzzle pieces glowed like jewels, and the logo tilted on its horizontal axis and transformed to a circular map of—yes—a theme park. Different areas glowed with different names: Tumbleweed Prairie, Harare Veldt, Spaceport Terra. The center section was labeled “The Nexus.” As the map unfolded in front of the rat, a female voice recited basic game instructions. “To move in the game, simply move normally. While you can’t be physically hurt, in-game events can seem extremely realistic, and physical stress can be high. If you have heart problems, we advise against experiencing areas marked with the red ‘X’ for ‘Extreme.’” A floating red X appeared in front of her for a second, spinning around like a neon sign.
“To access in-game commands, including changing your appearance, talking to a friend you’ve exchanged chat tokens with, and returning to the nexus at any time, clench both your hands and say ‘menu.’”
“What a lame safeword,” she muttered.
“And now, prepare for teleportation!” As soon as the words were spoken, sparkling multicolored lights encircled Val in wide rings, then constricted. She could feel them against her skin like static electricity. Then the floor dropped out from beneath her feet, and she went into freefall. Not zero-gee, but her feet weren’t touching the ground.
“Fuck,” she said loudly.
Then the lights slowed down and she could feel herself decelerate, then land, roughly, on something solid—the floor again, of course. As the tube of light sparkled away, she was standing on a carpeted floor, surrouded by other people. It looked like an airport, with signs pointing in the direction of the different “lands” within Imagina. She walked up and put her hand on the closest wall. Her fingers stopped in the right place, although she didn’t feel texture against them—just a sense of something solid.
Her inner engineer had already started dissecting it: they’d tied the virtual world engine to not only a holography system but a motion simulator and some scarily good tactile feedback gear. This didn’t just cross the perceptual threshhold past which you reacted to it as if it were real, it blew the door off its hinges.
“Val!” Debbie ran up to her. The vixen was wearing a Victorian-era light beige ruffled dress, complete with hoop skirt. “I want to go to the frontier town!”
“To be a damsel in distress?” Val grabbed the vixen and spun her around.
“Hey!” Deb wobbled, trying to keep her balance.
“That’s a great digitization of you, considering they got it that fast.” The vixen looked furry, but felt like the wall—just something solid under Val’s fingers. “Ha! Texture seam. Look.” She touched Debbie’s cheek ruff.
“Cut it out, dammit!” Deb said, slapping Val’s hand away.
“I just can’t believe they put a system like this on a game engine like that, that’s all. That probably means most of the bugs I knew are still there.”
Deb started dragging Val down one of the halls. “We only have ninety minutes. I want to go rob a bank or something!” The rat could tell the floor was moving under her as she walked, keeping in perfect step. She wasn’t sure how it managed the impression of being physically dragged, but it was convincing.
“Rob a bank? That’s a relief.”
“I was worried the next generation of video games would shirk the duty to morally corrupt youth. But this could take it to a whole new level. Can I pick up a virtual crack whore?”
“Maybe in Cyberpunk Land. But look, you live there already. Here, take this token.” She handed Val a golden coin, which disappeared when Val took it.
“Arr, matey. Where are my doubloons?”
“That’s a chat token,” the vixen sighed. “We can talk to one another from a distance now.”
As they walked through the archway for Tumbleweed Prairie, everything changed. The rat and vixen stood in the middle of a dirt street, wooden buildings to either side. A stagecoach rattled past, being drawn at a slow clopping pace. Music from a slightly out-of-tune piano came from a saloon a block away. Val could feel the hot breeze blowing toward her, carrying the scent of hay. An old drunk sitting on the nearest porch stared at Val with an incredulous, hostile expression.
“You’re still in street clothes,” Debbie hissed.
“Whatever.” Val clenched her fists and said, “Menu.”
The street scene became hazy, and a window appeared floating in front of her, listing actions: costuming, makeup, chat, make a chat token, map, superpowers, support. She squinted, and reached out to touch the word costuming. It felt solid to her finger, and the window’s display changed to pictures of costumes.
Val pressed back and went through other displays. The intriguing “superpowers” simply showed “not available at this time.” The support screen let her ask for detailed help or talk to one of the operators outside the booth. And it had an “about” command.
She pressed that, and a new window appeared, listing Imagina’s copyright, followed by Synvatec’s and a few other companies. She reached for back on that screen, but on an impulse touched the tiny version number in the upper right hand corner. The screen display changed to a list of programmers’ names.
Debbie’s voice sounded in her left ear. “Come on, Val.”
“Can you hear me?”
“Yes, we’re chatting, duh.”
“Don’t go goddamn valley girl on me.” She narrowed her eyes, studying the programmers’ names. “I’m checking something. This is an easter egg in Synvatec’s engine itself…ah, there you are.” One of the names scrolling by was “E. R. Bunny.” She reached for that, and the window cleared, save for a solitary asterisk in the upper left corner.
“What the fuck?” she muttered.
The words WHAT THE FUCK appeared after a moment in front of the asterisk, followed by the message %INVALID COMMAND and another asterisk.
Val’s eyes narrowed farther. “Continue,” she said after a second.
The window disappeared.
“What are you babbling about?” Debbie said exasperatedly. The vixen had her hands on her hips.
“They broke something when they grafted all this onto that crappy engine, Deb,” Val said, her voice betraying an excitement that the vixen associated with impending vandalism. “I can get into Synvatec’s debugging console. Can you see my windows from where you are?”
Debbie stepped right up next to the rat, looking dubious. She nodded.
Val went through the easter egg sequence quickly, getting back to the asterisk prompt. She grinned at her friend.
“Okay,” Debbie said, tone as dubious as her expression. “And this gets us what?”
“Show object for me,” Val said. She raised her hand to stall the vixen’s response, as the command SHOW OBJECT ME appeared, followed by the line ME.ID = 4704.
The rat grinned. “Change z-position of object 4704 by –10.” Abruptly, she was floating ten feet in the air. The cables lifted her up slightly off the ground. “Whoa.”
Debbie stared up. “Damn.”
“Change z-position of object 4704 by +10,” Val said. She appeared on the ground almost instantly visually, the cables dropping her back down with just enough of a bang to feel it. “I have to give them credit for the tactile feedback,” she muttered under her breath. “Damn thing’ll probably try to push me through the floor if I asked it to move me down ten feet.”
“Okay,” Debbie said slowly, “So you can teleport.”
“I can change any property on any object on this server, if I know the reference number.” She scratched her ear, looking thoughtful, then grinned. “Scale object 4704 by 20.”
Abruptly, her perspective changed, as if she were looking out from a high tower.
“Holy shit!” Debbie squealed from somewhere far below.
Val looked down, then crouched carefully, looming over the vixen. “Hey,” she said, “It’s the hundred-foot punk rat girl!”
“Jesus, Val, I don’t think the game’s remotely made for this.” Debbie glanced around. The computer-controlled avatars were looking at the height Val should have been still, completely unaware of her giant status. The avatars of other players were gaping up and pointing, some grinning.
“Show objects of chat connections to object 4704,” Val said. Then she realized the window had stayed at her original eye level. “Fuck. Debbie, what number did it just print?”
“Scale object 7941 by 20.”
Debbie pinwheeled her arms as she became an instant giantess. The hoop skirt abruptly tried to occupy the virtual space Val was in, and the rat girl flew backward, landing on her butt.
Wincing, Val reached back to rub her rump. The damnable cables had yanked back on her in just the right way to make her really fall. “This place is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” she muttered. Then her eyes widened as she realized she was sitting in a block of buildings. She hadn’t “felt” anything but the real floor, but it looked for all the world like she was sitting in a pile of rubble. The avatars nearby—both players and computer characters—were running away.
“That’s some pretty good collision detection,” she said absently. Then, in a louder voice she commanded, “Continue.” The now tiny debug window disappeared.
“For Christ’s sake, Val, we can’t just go around being giants now just ’cause you screwed with the database!”
The rat pushed herself up to stand, and looked down at the destruction she’d caused. Several avatars had been crushed, all bloodlessly. She wondered if any of them were players. “On the contrary, I do believe we can,” she said cheerfully.
“Hold it right there, missy,” a voice said by Val’s foot. She looked down. A sheriff figure, a tough-looking bear, stood across the street, with a gun leveled at her ankle.
“I’m up here,” she said, sounding amused.
“You just step away nice and easy and I won’t have to shoot you,” the sheriff said, keeping the gun level and staring straight ahead. “Count of five. One.”
“If he shoots you, you go back to the nexus,” Debbie said.
“Even if he shoots me in the ankle?”
The vixen giggled. “I have no idea.”
Val crossed her arms and waited.
“Three. Four. Five,” Sheriff Bear said, and shot her ankle point-blank. She felt a buzz and a pressure point on her foot, but nothing else.
“I guess not,” she said.
Sheriff Bear unloaded five more rounds at her, then paused to reload.
Val leaned over and picked the bear up.
“Hold it right there, missy,” Sheriff Bear repeated. “You just step away nice and easy—”
She squeezed her hand into a fist.
“—and I won’t have to shoot you,” the bear finished, looking unharmed. “Count of five.”
“Okay, the collision detection isn’t perfect,” she said. “How about this.” She threw the bear down on the ground and stomped on him.
Sheriff Bear went silent.
Deb leaned over. “Wow, I guess it detected that.”
Val turned around and looked at the gathered crowd of player and non-player avatars. “All right!” she screamed. “This town’s ours, and there’s not enough room for the rest of you because we’re really fucking big!” She started running toward the crowd. They backed up, but most of them didn’t start running until she was literally on top of them.
“Val!” Debbie yelled, sounding half amused and half cross. “What the hell—oh my God!” She gasped as the rat girl started energetically kicking her feet through the crowd and buildings, sending hapless avatars flying hundreds of feet away.
“They’re just going back to the nexus, right?” Val said, a hand on her hip.
Both of them heard the same voice, from no specific direction, made to sound as if it came over a radio or cell phone. “This is Imagina Customer Service. Is everything all right?”
Val watched about a half-dozen people clamber into a stagecoach leaving town and strode after it. “Oh, things are peachy,” she said cheerily. Only one of the players was smart enough to get out of the coach before Val stomped it. “Your programmers were really good at having the world react to unplanned events, you know?”
“Uh, yes,” the customer service rep said doubtfully. It was clear Val might as well have been speaking Chinese. “So there aren’t any…problems either of you are having?”
Val looked at Debbie.
The vixen chewed her lip for a half-second, then grinned. “No, not at all. This is my seventh visit here and you know, it’s different every time. Sometimes really, really different.”
“Uh, good, good.” The rep’s voice sounded even more doubtful. “Okay. Have fun.” A synthesized crackle heralded the end of the interruption.
“I’m amazed he didn’t just zap us back to normal size,” Debbie said.
Grinning, the rat started walking to the edge of town, over some of the still-intact buildings. “They’ll need an on-call engineer to do that, and they probably have to send someone into the world to see what’s going on here based on reports from players whining to customer service. I bet we’re not causing any errors—the game’s doing just what it’s supposed to. But we need to get going so we’re not here when they do look in.”
“Okay.” Debbie waved and dashed off toward the mountains. “Follow me.”
They raced out of town, past a railroad, easily outracing the steam locomotive when they passed it. “You know they’re looking up your skirt,” Val called. “Does the system show panties?”
“In this outfit, bloomers,” Deb called back. “Follow the train tracks to the mine.”
Val shook her head. “These people have paid money to ride a virtual railroad. We should give ’em a ride they can’t get in the real world,” she said solemnly, spinning around and grabbing the locomotive. Then she ran after Debbie, dragging the train behind her—now going twice the speed it had been, and no longer on the track.
“Oh, we are so going to be banned,” the vixen muttered.
The railroad headed up into the mountains, across rickety bridges and through tunnels, over chasms that the two giantesses simply stepped over. Abruptly the mining town appeared over a ridge, their arrival announced by Debbie crunching her foot down on the rail station before she even noticed it. “Oops.”
“Well, here you are,” Val said, swinging the train around and setting it down on the track. Mostly. It wobbled a moment, then fell over. Passengers started to climb out of it, some limping. “Now, see,” she continued, “here, you can not only be dragged over a mountain by a giant rat, you can survive! Virtual reality’s some cool shit, huh?”
The people hurried away, except for one, who stalked toward them from within the town. He had a sheriff’s hat on, but this time he was clearly not a computer-controlled avatar. “Ladies, we’re going to have to teleport you back to—”
Val stomped on the avatar as he spoke. She thought she heard a muffled curse.
Debbie pointed. “Hey, what’s that?”
From where they stood, they could see over the tops of the mountains on the town’s opposite side, and the mountains there just stopped like cardboard stage props. Beyond that lay a glittering nighttime cityscape.
“It’s the world boundary! Come on.”
The sheriff avatar reappeared near the body of the first one. “Ladies—” He stopped and stared at his own body for a moment.
Both giantesses took off at full speed, heedless of the town they ran over. The computer-generated destruction at their paws became jerky as the servers tried to keep up with the flying debris and flying players.
“Hey!” the sheriff shouted, running after them. Val distinctly caught a curse before they left him behind.
At the town’s other side, they scrabbled up the mountains like climbing a short hill. The sheriff had reappeared, riding a horse, which kept up with them—almost—until the mountains, which had been designed to be impassable. QA hadn’t tested them against giants, though. Vixen and rat reached the top and vaulted over.
Both giantesses landed in a tumble, after a fall of, to them, a good ten feet. The motion simulator booth threw Val to the ground, the cables catching her in such a way that she didn’t quite get the full force, but it was enough to make it her turn to curse. A little red meter floated in the corner of her vision for a moment, dropping from the 100% point to the 90% point.
“Hey, it’s just karma,” Debbie grumbled as she stood, shaking out her hair reflexively. It had remained perfectly arrayed through the fall. “Think about how your little stunt with the train must have made the passengers bounce around.”
“That was a health meter, wasn’t it?” Val said. She laughed.
A new voice sounded in both their ears, with the same simulation of the tinny radio as the earlier customer service representative. “This is Imagina Engineering,” the voice said, male, feline and distinctly displeased. “We’re sending a shutdown signal now to your booths, and we’re going to—uh.”
“You’re going to uh?” Val said, putting her hands on her hips.
The voice faded, and she could hear other voices speaking in agitated tones, farther away from the microphone. “The process isn’t responding,” the feline voice said. “I typed that and nothing fucking—” Abruptly the mike cut off.
Debbie looked at Val. Val burst out laughing.
“Okay, geek girl, what’s it mean?” the vixen said.
“It sounds like the processes that are running our avatars aren’t responding to the shutdown signal. A wild guess is that when we leapt across world boundaries, our processes got zombied.”
“We’re gonna be a lot harder to stop now.”
A wide grin spread over Debbie’s face, and she strode on toward the city.
Spaceport Terra was the antithesis of Tumbleweed Prairie, all glittering skyscrapers and flying cars, neon tubes against black glass, a Hollywood melange of cyberpunk and “Star Trek” and a smattering of Jules Verne for good measure. Even from the vantage point the giantesses had, the Disney influence was unmistakable. “Damn, this place really is a theme park ride,” Val said. She adjusted her path so she was on the main highway. Debbie followed.
The flying cars scattered to get out of their way; earthbound cars had a harder time of it. The honking and crashing of a sudden traffic jam had begun even before the vixen responded. “Don’t tell me, let me guess. ‘It’s a Small World?’”
Val grinned. “Or The Cyclone.” She took a deep breath, leaned forward slightly, and blew out a hard puff of air between pursed lips. The closest flying cars tumbled off course in the unexpected gale, colliding with others which in turn spun out of control. In short order the air in front of the rat was filled with small explosions and collisions. “And it’s the fireworks display!”
Debbie laughed, then yelped, whirling around. Her foot took out part of a crowd—no doubt player avatars—who’d apparently gathered to look up her dress, but her attention had locked on a much faster vehicle, high above, strafing her with lasers.
“Geeze, does that really hurt?” Val said.
“It—buzzes,” the vixen said. “It’s not really painful, but do I look like I’m actually getting wounds?” The flyer wheeled around in midair, travelling away from them now.
“You’re kinda smoldering in a couple places.”
The vixen stomped her foot with a growl. “If I get enough damage, I bet it’ll reset me, giantess or not.”
Val grinned as the vehicle wheeled around again, this time strafing at the rat. “Well, like the bumper sticker says, what would Godzilla do?” She leapt to the side, and kept herself a moving target. The lasers didn’t do as much collateral damage as her feet did.
Debbie flapped her arms. “He’d confuse them with bad Japanese dubbing. I’ve never seen a Godzilla movie!”
“He’d breathe flame or something radioactive, I think. But I can—damn.” She leap to the side in a roll, and when she hit the ground the world bounced as if it’d lost vertical hold for a second. The rat rolled back into a crouch to face the sky with a handful of cars clutched between her fingers—most undoubtedly occupied—and charged with a snarl, hurling them at the flyer overhand. Only one hit, but one was enough.
“Those flyers are used for fighting space pirates or something, I think. Or used by the pirates.”
“They have anything more serious?”
“Some of them have missiles and bombs and stuff. I think. I haven’t played here.”
Nodding, Val brushed off her fur. “Well, Synvatec’s engine computes damage to objects by area, and we have a lot of area. It’s gonna take a while to whack us.” She grinned. “Hey, stand by that building and swing your hips.”
“Stand by that building,” she pointed at a five-story office building, “and swing your hips.”
Debbie stood by it—the roof not quite at her hip level—and did an exaggerated bump-and-grind move, tail swishing in counterpoint. The hoop of her dress smashed into the second floor of the building on the upswing, and as it swung out, the building collapsed in slow motion.
“That’s great!” the vixen said delightedly.
Val leaned over the building’s rubble. “Aw, that particle motion was pathetic,” she said in disgust. “It just looked like a bunch of a little triangles falling apart.”
“Oh, stop it,” Debbie said, swatting Val on the rump.
Jumping, the rat shook her head. “But Studwolf was right, they’ve nailed the tactile feedback. I’d really like to know how they’re managing that with so few contact points.”
Val waved a hand, stepping over the rubble. “James, the surfer dude engineer.”
Debbie grinned. “Ooh, you have a crush!”
Snorting, the rat stomped a paw down on a maglev train going past. “Not a great choice of words here—hmm?”
The vixen had turned, squinting up at a skyscraper. Abruptly she punched the skyscraper’s glass with her fist, then reached into the hole and brought out a wriggling cat. “You were staring down into my dress!” she said accusingly.
The cat squirmed frantically, tail puffed out to twice normal size—another nice touch, Val thought, no doubt monitoring the players’ real expressions and conditions, updating the avatars in real time. “I’m sorry! You’ve got such big—uh—” the cat said, then realized what he was saying, and stopped with a horrified expression.
“Big polygons,” Val supplied.
Debbie shot her a dirty look, then looked back at the cat. “Big teeth?”
He blinked and shook his head, going almost limp.
“But I do have big teeth, right?” She tilted her head back and dangled him over her mouth.
The cat began kicking and tried to hang onto her finger. “Yes, very big!” he said.
“Wanna feel them?” She arched her back, thrusting out her cleavage.
The cat let his eyes drop down to her breasts again. “Uh—”
She brought the hand holding him right down over her right breast. “Yes or no.”
“Yes!” he squeaked.
Debbie lifted him up and put him in her mouth.
With a yowl, the cat tried to get to his feet, but only got to his knees. “Hey!” he shrieked. “You can’t do this in this game! I’ve played it before and you can’t get eaten except by dragons or something!”
Val looked into the vixen’s mouth, and grinned. “So the game has a routine for being eaten already. Wonder if avatars can call that, huh?”
The cat gave the rat a stricken look, staring out until the vixen closed her mouth. Then he shrieked again, the yowl cut off by Debbie’s swallow.
“You didn’t feel him going down, did you?”
Debbie shook her head. “Nah, he pretty much disappeared when he left my mouth.” Then she giggled. “It’s kinda cool anyway.” She abruptly leapt over a block into a park—her skirt taking out another building and an elevated railway—and leaned over an already-scattering crowd. “You’re all popcorn!” she cried, and started picking people out of the group at random, tossing them between her jaws.
A painfully loud burst of static hit both giantesses, and they winced simultaneously. The engineer’s voice came through again, sounding even more displeased than before. “Both of you return to the nexus, now.”
“I don’t think we’ll fit,” Val said dryly.
“We can—uh. Just head back there. And stop eating the other players! You’re scaring them!”
Val dropped to all fours, starting to stalk the crowd Debbie was terrorizing from the other direction. More screams started as dozens of people found themselves under the looming rat.
“Stop it!” the engineer said.
Val slid all four limbs out to her sides, coming to rest on top of the crowd. The screaming grew a lot more frantic, then tortured, then mostly silent. “You just said don’t eat anyone,” she replied.
“I meant—you know—goddammit—” The speaker cut off again.
Val rolled onto her back. A collection of broken-looking avatars faded out as they reset. She laughed, then realized she was looking up at a squadron of the flying fighters. The rat had enough time to count five before all of them opened fire.
She rolled to the side, but it wasn’t fast enough to keep from getting hit in a half-dozen places by the lasers. Debbie was right—it didn’t hurt, but it tingled. The health meter appeared again, ticking off small wounds.
Her attention got pulled away by the vixen’s shriek, a rain of bombs falling down toward her. Val tackled her friend, throwing them out of the way. The giantesses rolled in a tumble, right into a delicate-looking space needle structure that towered even over them. It creaked and started to tilt.
Val grinned nastily, scrambling to her feet and pulling the tower down more, two of the three spires that held it up snapping. With both hands, she ripped off the top, then wielded it like a fifty-foot long staff.
Debbie pointed at the round saucer-like top. “They must…be getting…a ride,” she said between pants.
“It’s an educational game. If a giantess ever attacks their city in real life, they’ll know not to escape by going to the top of a fucking observation deck.” The rat charged forward and swung the observation tower up in a wide arc, screaming like a crazed viking. It didn’t hit the lead fighter, but he overreacted to the swing. His ship spun out of control, clipping his port-side wingman. Both flyers arced down into the city.
The observation deck crashed into a blue neon-lined building at the bottom of its arc, and both crumbled in a shower of sparks rather than rendered dust. The other three fighter craft launched missiles — one set aimed at Val, and two sets aimed at Debbie. Val leapt to the side, but the explosions where she’d been standing were enough to knock her off her feet and cause her health meter to drop by a good fifteen percent.
Shaking off some rubble, the rat lifted her head to see how Debbie fared. The vixen had taken damage, with more smoldering spots on her (each one using an identical texture map, Val noted disapprovingly), but she charged after the fighters with a snarl, pelting rubble at them. Another ship exploded in midair. “Good shot!” Val called.
“I think that’s about enough,” a voice boomed down from above. This time it wasn’t on the radio. Both giantesses looked up.
It took a moment to recognize just what stood on the edge of the city. A giant—not at their scale, but as big to them as they were to the normal avatars, at least two thousand feet tall. A giant wolf. A strapping—
“James?” Val said, voice nearly squeaking.
The wolf grinned, although his arms remained crossed over his chest. His outfit looked like an island police officer’s—khaki shorts and a tan short-sleeved shirt, the top buttons open, his Imagina name badge now silver.
He stepped forward, and in two steps was nearly on top of Val. The rat scrambled back through buildings as he leaned forward, grabbing Debbie. The vixen shrieked, kicking as she was lifted up, looking for all the world like Fay Wray in the grip of King Kong, if King Kong had been a hot young college guy.
“Your shorts have very nice modelling,” Val called.
James waggled his free finger at her. “Don’t make me think about things that are going to get me in trouble.” He looked at Debbie. “Now, you’re the one who was going around eating people.”
He parted his jaws widely and lifted her up to them.
Debbie screamed frantically, facing into the wolf’s muzzle. “No! No-no-no—”
The wolf closed his jaws around her front, letting her legs kick a few seconds, then tilted his head back and swallowed.
“I didn’t eat anyone,” Val said quickly.
James looked down and put his hands on his hips. “No, you were stomping on them, right?”
“Well, if you want to get technical—”
He raised one foot high.
The rat stared up, eyes widening. “You wouldn’t dare!”
James grinned and waggled his fingers at her in a goodbye wave, then stomped down.
The world went grey for a fraction of a second, then black. She’d already been prone, but the cables pulled her down flat against the floor hard at the same time the floor bucked up with an audible servo kick. It squeezed the wind out of her.
When she caught her breath, the lights had come on, and two unsmiling rent-a-cops were pulling her out of the game harness.
“Easy there, Stallone,” she wheezed, getting to her feet on her own. “Fuck, I think even my nose is sprained.”
The security guards scowled, motioning her forward without speaking. Val cursed under her breath, but headed out, one in front of her and one behind.
Debbie had already been escorted to the lobby, where a portly raccoon in a business suit was loudly berating her. The vixen stood with her ears back, flanked by her own security guards. When Val appeared, the raccoon wheeled on her. “And you’re the real criminal. You—”
“Bullshit,” Val said.
The raccoon stopped as if he’d been slapped, then narrowed his eyes. “You think hacking is ‘bullshit?’ Do you know—”
“What hacking is?” she cut him off. “Yes, and having your about window crash because you morons broke a goddamn easter egg isn’t it.”
“Unauthorized access to our production network—”
“That you gave me. Which, I might note, I used only to modify my avatar and my friend’s, so you can’t say anybody else’s data was compromised.”
He glowered. “People didn’t pay to be chased around by—”
Val rolled her eyes. “Forty-six times six, that’s at most two hundred seventy-six people here, five Imagina locations—that’s about $40–50K worth of admission. I doubt we fucked with more than ten percent of them, and you’re not going to refund any of that five grand unless people won’t accept coupons for a free hour later.”
“You’re the monster!” a cat passing by exclaimed to Debbie.
The vixen’s ears folded back. “I—”
“That rocked!” he said, giving her both thumbs up. “They should keep doing this! Attack of the Giant Vixen Thursdays!” He high-fived the bewildered fox girl. “And nice bloomers.”
Debbie’s ears colored more.
“Hey.” A bear stopped and scowled at Val. "
The manager looked apoplectic.
Val leaned toward the raccoon and flashed a huge grin. “We’ll do it for free.”
“Guh—” He spluttered, then waved frantically at the door. “Get both of them out!”
The guards motioned at the exit, although two of them had slight smirks.
As the two “giantesses” made their way out, herded by the guards, they passed by James, who stood with his arms crossed and a slight grin. Debbie made a whimpering noise and hurried past. Val said, “I either want your blood or your number. I’m not sure which yet.”
His grin grew. “I can give you the one if you promise not to take the other.”
When Val caught up with Debbie outside, the vixen gave her a reproachful look. “You know we’ll never be allowed back there.”
She shrugged. “So we’ll have to start a competitor. One of the lands can be a monster movie.”
Debbie laughed, although more weakly than earlier in the evening. “Could you program something like that?”
“The hard part’s the modeling. I already have the engine, and it wouldn’t have stupid-ass loopholes.”
“Good. No mile-high wolves to threaten the giantesses.”
“I wouldn’t mind having him rampage on me, for certain values of ‘rampage.’”
Debbie shook her head and giggled. “Christ, Val, you’re making that sound like the porno version of Godzilla.”
“Giant porn? Hmm.” She shrugged as she got into the car. “It’s gotta be on the internet somewhere already.”