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“Cheats” by Ann Halam

“Cheats” by Ann Halam 

This story comes from the anthology “The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows” edited by Jonathan Strahan. 

This story went way down the rabbit hole.  Layer upon layer of mind-bending twists and stuff that hurts to wrap my mind around.  I loved it all.  It was a very intricately woven plot and every time I thought I had something figured out a new layer of “Holy Shit” would expand the concept.  This is a very concept driven story. 

A sister and brother are introduced kayaking and pretending to be “lost”.  The sister’s name is Sylvie and the brother’s name is Dev.  The POV for this story is coming from Sylvie.  They are paddling along hoping not to get caught being outside of the range for the kayaks they are renting which is kept track of by GPS.  While moving through the river they spot a “cheat”.   

Add extra layer here.  They are in a full body immersion simulation.  The cheat is someone who goes out of the boundaries of the “game”.  Who codes on the fly and can do some fantastic stuff while in-game.  Sylvie and Dev decide to chase the cheat and possibly turn him in for cheating.  In the process of chasing down the cheat they end up finding a cheat, or a hack, themselves in the game they are playing.  This limits their ability to turn someone in for cheating when they themselves just cheated. 

As time goes on they notice the same "cheats" playing the same games as they are.  They start to suspect they are being followed.  Deciding to kill off the cheat they are following in one of the snowboarding games they are playing, the ground opens up and swallows them whole.  They wake up in a sunny mountain range, with no snow in sight.  No cheat in sight either.  They get up and start looking around to see if they can find anything out.  The only thing they do find out is that they no longer have the ability to code and all the stuff they had in the snowboarding game is gone. 

Soon they find all three cheats that have been following them at a campsite down a mountainside.  Deciding to kill them off to get them out of the game, they setup a strategy for ambushing the cheats.  They devise a plan to pick them off one by one.  When the first one comes walking down the path Sylvie jumps down to close a wire around his neck, but is grabbed from behind instead.  They have been bested by the cheats.  They are taken down to camp and tied up. 

The cheats think they are adults playing the game and are surprised that they are still children after falling through the hole.  After a little discussion with Sylvie and Dev the cheats figure out they really are children and things get a little bit more interesting. 

Add extra layer here of mind fuckery with a dollop of didn't see that coming and you have the end of the story.  A fantastic concept.  This story had me working overtime to keep up and it was fantastic storytelling.  Wouldn't it be cool if we created a world where you could go into and code on the fly creating your existence as necessary.  A world where you just dive into a full body simulation of whatever it is you want to do.  That is a world I could live with.  I enjoyed this story.

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