When the shot comes, it's no surprise. I hear a few quick steps behind me, then feel the Super Soaker blast hit me square in the back, before I can react. I've just been knocked out of Street Wars, a month-long, 24/7 game of assassination.
I'm a little disappointed, but mostly what I feel is relief. I've known this was coming. Normally I'm a hard target, with an irregular schedule, a fast-moving bike, entering and leaving my secure flat wearing a wig, a hoodie, and oversized sunglasses. But running the trivially-googleable Citydash street game, wearing no disguise and a high-visibility vest, walking the streets in broad daylight, I was always going to be vulnerable.
That's not to deny my assassins credit. They'd only picked up my target card a few hours ago, moving fast to get into position before the event ended. They found me by spotting some of the Citydash players, showing them my photo, and asking which way I'd headed.
So I shake their hands, hand over my killcode, and watch them run off to research their next target. It's over.
I was only playing for five days, but that was already long enough for it to feel a little odd to return to my flat without circling the block first. Paranoia had very quickly become a lifestyle; I'd been skipping morning yoga (too dangerous) and answering the door to Amazon deliveries slowly, with a water pistol in my back pocket. I received faux-threatening text messages.
I discussed this way of living with a friend, a young, diminutive woman who constantly watches her surroundings in a way that I've never had to. I hadn't realised how much I like being able to assume, all the time, that everyone around me wishes me no ill. Being able to quit this game is an incredible luxury that many, perhaps the majority, of people don't have.
But though it was stressful, it wasn't the defense that was really chewing up my mind, costing me sleep, making work difficult and meditation impossible. It was the offense.
The opportunities for creativity in this game are amazing, the best I've ever seen. It's a true open-world game. The high-stakes nature of the game (not only are you being hunted, but if you don't kill your own target quickly, you're eliminated for failure), plus this incredible complexity, meant I found myself thinking about it all the time. Across the three targets I had time to research, starting with only a photo, name, and home and work addresses, here are some things I considered, planned, or actually did:
* Purchase the plans to my mark's apartment complex from the Lands Title Office, in order to locate his flat precisely.
* Suit up and print out a modified page from RightMove, faking a viewing, in order to infiltrate the building.
* Tailgate cleaning teams through locked doors.
* Quick-change from suit to overalls, in order to have an excuse to hang around.
* Drain a window-cleaning spray bottle and refill it with water, making a concealable but game-legal weapon.
* Post misleading tweets, knowing that my assassin is reading them.
* Call my mark's work number, purely to find out if he's there and what his working hours are.
* Tailgate into the underground carpark at my mark's home and wait by his bike in the morning - or do the same thing at his office, gaining entry to the secure carpark by dressing as a cycle courier.
* Since firing on a moving target is disallowed (for safety), tail my target on a bike, overtake him, and then deliberately crash, hoping that he'll dismount to help me.
* Bang on my target's door, claiming to be "estate security" worried about "a suspicious person hanging around". Shoot him when he opens the door.
* Deliver fake fliers offering a free lunch at a non-existent nearby restaurant to my target's entire office. Shoot him when he leaves for lunch.
* Climb the spiked fence at the back corner of the estate.
* Build an actual straight-up booby-trapped package that bursts a water balloon when opened. Mail it. (discarded: I'd have no way of knowing who or what he was standing next to when he opened it).
* Use an old android phone running video chat software to live-monitor his door, then wait well out of sight watching the feed.
* Lure him onto a lawn somewhere and turn on the sprinklers remotely.
* Look up the Residents' Association details, find the managing agent, and call them to get information on the building layout and cleaning schedule.
* Leave an old phone outside my mark's flat, hoping that he'll find it and contact me to return it.
* Set up a surveillance camera outside the front door of my target's office, while staking out the back door.
* Recruit eliminated assassins to form a surveillance tag-team.
* Locate his bike and flatten the tires, forcing him to take public transit, where he’d be vulnerable.
* Set up a fake recruitment agency, with phone lines and website. Figure out his work email address, send a headhunting email, conduct a full-on phone interview, then invite him for an in-person interview.
* Pose as a former professor (since I'd learned his university and course via LinkedIn) wanting to interview highly successful graduates.
* Pose as an intern asking for a job.
* Locate the garage entrance to his work building and wait outside for hours, checking every cyclist that leaves and hoping that he hasn't shaved off his beard.
* Deliver a mobile phone "from the Shadow Government" (the game-runners), with a note saying "Keep this with you. We will call with information". Then use SeekDroid, surreptitiously installed on the phone, to GPS-locate it remotely.
* Find a mutual friend, fake an introduction from her about our mutual business interests, and set up an after-work meeting in a nearby pub.
The last one is how I killed my first target.
Coming up with a crazy, complex idea, implementing it, and having it actually work is one of the best rushes there is. My heart was pounding just writing the emails, let alone on the way to the pub for the meeting.
But there is a downside. This game has the strongest Player Thirteen effect I've ever seen. My target was - well, is, because it's only a game and he's actually still alive - a really nice guy. I'd really gotten to know him, memorising his face, learning his history, his interests, seeing our mutual friends. In order to get to know someone well enough to predict their movements, you have to empathise with them. Once you do that, you don't really want to shoot them any more.
I didn't want it to be like this. I'd intended to exploit my athleticism, not my cunning, running down my targets and eliminating them in street battles, always outnumbered but never outgunned. That's the assassin I'd wanted to be, but that's not how Street Wars works.
And at the pub, after shaking his hand and spending an hour in a fast-moving discussion about our shared passions, I actually, genuinely, nearly didn't do it. Of the two stories I could tell afterwards, I'm not sure which one I preferred.
But you don't break someone else's game. And as it turned out, after I hit him center-mass with a single shot from a concealed Micro Burst, he was expecting it. He'd rumbled me halfway through our meeting, but knew that he had no escape. We hugged. We shook hands. He seemed happy that it was over.
I'm glad that I played Street Wars. But I'm glad I didn't win.