Monster Hunting

Shauna wakes up with a start. It’s dark in the cell-like dorm room. She hears her roommate snoring in the bunk above her and realizes it must still be the middle of the night. She raises her head and looks for her phone. It sits charging at the foot of the bed. Its diffuse screen is the only light she can see. Shauna is sure something just bit her. She brushes a hand down her leg. She feels a welt, but no bug. She listens in the dark for the whine of a mosquito, but all she hears is Kara snoring above her. Maybe she dreamed it, she thinks. She spent all day outside playing “GO Monster Hunting.” She must’ve gotten bit by something earlier and just noticed it now.
“GO Monster Hunting” is the hottest Augmented Reality game out there, and Shauna is addicted. So is the rest of the zoology department. So is half of campus, from what she can see. What she really likes about it is the game’s sense of realism. Not the monsters themselves, of course. They’re all Saturday-morning-cartoon kid friendly, with big, glassy eyes and toothy smiles. But the behavior and physiology of the monsters is actually quite advanced. Every kind of monster has its own territory, its own preferred food, its own habits. And they were getting more refined and realistic with every update.
She feels another bite. This one is sharper, more painful. She draws her leg up and grabs it. She doesn’t feel anything, but something’s there. Maybe a spider or an ant got in. She reaches for her phone to use as a flashlight. She prays that the dorm hasn’t been infested with bedbugs.
In the harsh glare of the flash, she sees a pair of small, circular welts above her left ankle. There is no sign of what made them, though. She moves to get up see if she can’t flush the thing out by shaking out the covers. She’s bit again before she can stand up. There is a stab of needle-sharp pain on her right thigh. She’s instantly on it with the phone, but there simply isn’t anything there. She doesn’t see anything, doesn’t feel anything but the sting. She watches as the welt rises as if by magic. And then she notices the flashing green light and the forgotten notification.
‘An app has just updated! Tap here for more information!’ She taps.
‘GO Monster Hunting Update #13!’ the update reads. A tiny blurb underneath brags that the engineers have added ‘a whole new level of realism to the game. Interact with your favorite monsters in all new ways!’ She knows she should be getting up, running all her bedclothes through the wash, and try and find the bedbugs or whatever it is, but Shauna decides to load the app first, just for a second.
The camera activates the second it loads. There’s a monster nearby. There’s another little bite on her leg, and as she’s trying to find it, she lets the phone fall on her leg. Which is when she sees it.
“Mos-ki-ki!” A synthesized voice chirps from her phone speaker. There’s a monster on her leg. It looks like a mosquito, although it has a pair of huge anime eyes and an improbable, goofy grin. She almost thinks it’s looking at her. “Mos-ki-ki!” It calls again, and cheerily plunges a needle-tipped proboscis into her thigh.
She feels the bite.
Shauna shrieks, brushes her hand down both legs in panic, but there’s nothing there. Not in the real world, anyway. Onscreen, the monster chirps again.
“Mos-ki-ki!” She backs away from it, and nearly falls off of the bed in her panic. A day-lit, rational part of her brain is screaming that it can’t be real. That the game has no way of hurting her in the real world. The cartoon bug turns and looks at her, the big compound eyes furrowed in animated annoyance. It hops towards her. Her thumb accidentally clicks on it, bringing up a helpful description from the game.
“Moskiki. Insect Group. This small, blood-sucking monster is easily defeated individually, but known to travel in swarms.” It hovers towards her, undeterred by the bed’s topography, and settles somewhere offscreen. She feels a bite on her arm and finds it again.
Shauna knows this can’t be real, is sure that she must still be dreaming, but can think of only one solution. She pulls up her inventory screen and selects a net. Drawing a quick circle around the monster with her finger, the net appears over it, and it cries out before being engulfed. The net shakes a few times in cartoon struggle before a tinny fanfare plays. ‘You captured a Moskiki! Battle Power 16!’ A text box informs her. She breathes a sigh of relief. The thing is gone.
She tenses again when her phone beeps with a new notification. There is another monster nearby. She recalls the behavior tip the game just gave her. Moskiki move in swarms.
Trying to remain calm, still hearing nothing but her roommate’s snores, she raises her camera phone and sweeps it across the dark room. Over the bed, the two matching desks, the closets, the knee-high brown dorm fridge. Dozens of cartoon eyes stare back at her through the screen. She sees a whole microcosm of small monsters: Insects, mice, plants. They are all newbie fodder; low-level and hardly threatening. But they are all carnivores, and they can all see her.
She spends the next hour defending her position. She runs out of nets twice, but makes use of the handy online store until it stops accepting her credit card. Finally, with all her in-game resources exhausted, the tide of tiny, biting monsters subsides. She is covered in welts, scratches, bites and sores, but none of them are life-threatening. The first rays of dawn peek in through the gap between the dorm blinds. The nocturnal creatures retreat. She heaves an exhausted sigh. Maybe now she’ll have a chance to figure out how this happened, and if she can stop it.
And then her phone beeps excitedly. EPIC MONSTER DETECTED! It exclaims. The speaker lets out a digitized roar.
It stomps in through the wall. The game runs off of GPS data. Construction means very little to it. The dragon is huge. It takes up the entire screen no matter how she retreats. There is something decidedly cute about the design, but the zoology student is more worried about the massive horn, huge fangs, and wicked talons reaching out for her.
Shauna is out of nets.
Shauna’s roommate Kara wakes up around ten. She pulls off her sleep mask, takes out her earbuds, (she can’t sleep a wink without the sound of ocean waves cranked up to eleven) and climbs down from the top bunk. She looks around for her roommate, but doesn’t see a sign of her. They usually catch a late brunch on Sundays at the good dining hall on the other side of campus. Her area of the dorm room looks a bit more rumpled than usual, but there is no sign of her.
“Must be off chasing monsters in that dumb game of hers again,” she mutters as she gathers her towel and supplies to take a morning shower. She doesn’t notice Shauna’s phone, still nestled half-hidden in the covers of the lower bunk. Onscreen, a huge, full-bellied dragon snoozes happily on top of the satellite map outline of their dorm building. She doesn’t see it open a single red eye and follow her out of the room.

Cover image by Faris Algosaibi, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License.