Monday, October 12, 2009
"It happens!" Chris thought. "Girl leaves you, dog dies, Feds take your last payday for back taxes--you want to go on a bender!" And Neverland's dark corners and corridors were always an invitation to the lamentable soul looking to squeeze out the bad joo joo that might linger back in the real world for him. Neal was just the sort of fellow to get out of sorts over a bad death in-game, so Christian figured he was hanging out in there somewhere, easing his troubles with some new digital diversion.
The... fear in Michael's voice, though, had given Christian some pause and reason for, maybe not alarm, but concern at the very least. It was like Michael to overreact. But it wasn't like him to show or admit fear. For this very reason, on a rainy Saturday, Christian exited the station, walked up the block to Neal's apartment at #14 Old Bridge Street, licked his lips, and rang the buzzer. He'd go in, pacify Michael, see to Neal's vitals, and get the fuck back to his warm home.
Christian thought it odd to be reminded of nature by something that seemed to be the very antithesis of anything natural. Anachronistic or not, he appreciated the calm the sound brought after the argument with Michael.
Argument! Christian thought. Huh! For crying out loud, that wasn't an argument! You just stood there, as always, and took your licks. If you can't stand up for yourself in Neverland, how are you ever going to do it in the real world? You should have told him to go to hell!
It was the other Christian speaking in his head. It was the little devil with the pitchfork that sits on your right shoulder encouraging you to ignore the angel on your left. Real World Christian kept this mischievous Internal Christian shackled under heavy lock and key. Real World Christian couldn't begin to guess what would happen if he even loosened the chains on Internal Christian, but Loki and Ragnarök came to mind. And somehow that made Real World Christian chuckle a little.
Wincing a bit as he withdrew the catheter, he stood up and began the laborious task of getting out of the bag. There was no throw up this time, and Christian was glad. He'd had a bad bit of lasagna from a cheap, take-out Italian restaurant down in the Palladium earlier in the day. He was in no mood to revisit it.
He reached up to eject the neural feeds from their external ports on the hood, pulled the hood and the imaging cowl up and over his head, and fitted the clumsy piece of hardware down onto the head of the mannequin that served as the hood's cradle. Wires and connection ends slapped and rattled against the desk as the cowl settled into place, and a long peal of thunder boomed angrily in the distance.
Christian walked to the window, tapped a switch on the sill, and watched the reflective shutters peel away from the glass. Outside the city was wreathed in the steel-gray of an industrial rain storm. Buildings of all shapes and sizes stretched out away and down from him to the south and west towards the heart of the city, but all of the details and intricacies of the buildings ran together beneath the gloom of the storm. Christian hmpffed softly to himself in surprise.
Rare, he thought, to unplug and find the same weather in the real world that you had in the simworld. Rare enough to note, but not rare enough to call a press conference over.
Michael's face purpled a little, and a vein above his left eyebrow seemed like it might push itself right up and out of the skin. "Chris! He. Is. Your. Friend!" Michael stressed each word equally, and threw his hands up in the air with a flourish. "And you hung 'im out to dry! He might've had a bleedin' chance if you hadn't turned your back on 'im! But you were thinking of dollar signs, as usual, and now our friend is dead." Michael's somewhat muted English accent was making a comeback the way it always did when he got excited or passionate about something. Or pissed (the angry or drunk variety).
"But, Michael, Neal isn't actually dead. Aren..."
"But that's not the fucking point, is it, Chris?" Michael was stamping around the battlefield now, his fists shaking and pumping in the air, exaggerating his point. "No! Once again, Christian the Greedy, Christian the Rapacious, Christian the Gluttonous, the Grasping, Gulping, Guzzling, Insatiable fool misses the point! GOD SAVE THE QUEEN, but you Americans are a thick lot aren't you?"
Christian didn't think it was the appropriate time to remind Michael that his parents were natural American citizens, which, technically speaking, made him just as much the thick American that he was accusing Christian of being. So he just nodded and stayed silent. Sometimes it was best to let his fiery friend bark until he'd exhausted himself. Or until he felt like he'd made his point. Whichever came first. So Christian stood there, head down, hands laced in front of him like a school boy receiving an admonishment from his teacher.
"You really don't get it, do you?" It wasn't a question. "Neal's out of the bloody game for 4 weeks. 4 weeks!" Michael held four fingers up as though Christian might have forgotten what the word "four" meant. "That's a whole fucking month, Chris! What's he supposed to do for a whole fucking month? Forget the fact that we lost a good man for a solid month until his avatar can respawn. Forget the fact that once he does respawn, he'll have to spend months rehabbing all of the skills that he'll have lost because he died in game! And why? Because you were too bloody stingy to give him a weapon!"
Michael seemed to be tiring himself out, finally.
"Forget those two things. But remember: He's a friend. And a teammate."
Michael stood staring at Christian for a few tense seconds, then began to walk away.
Christian held up his hands in treaty. "Michael. Look, I never..."
But Michael just kept walking, plodding carelessly over impaled and bludgeoned corpses. His long, red, braided pony tail swishing back and forth behind him.
He never stopped to look back.
Christian raised his shield and took a hard blow from a short sword across the metal boss at its center. The clang of metal on metal brought his mind back to the battle at hand. He shoved the shield hard at his attacker, pushing the opponent’s sword arm up and out of harm’s way. He felt the boss connect with something solid, and then the tell-tale cushioned give that meant the blow had done its job. Christian peered over the rim of his shield and caught a quick view of the man’s bloodied mouth and cracked, crumbling teeth before his line mate stabbed the stunned foe in the belly. He watched as the man fell backward into his own line, and heard Michael’s bass voice yell “Push!”
There was no time for anything else, and before he knew it, he was stepping on the corpse that he had just maimed. And then it was time to move on to the next threat.
He ducked the swipe of a morning star delivered by the straw bearded man that had taken the place of the one that had just fallen, tried not to slip on the hot intestines of the dead man beneath his feet, and felt the swish as the spikes of the club went slashing over his head. Thought too late of the man to his left. The spikes had driven themselves deep into his friend Neal’s cheek, right eye and temple. Christian was already bringing up the heavy battle axe when the bearded man realized that his spike was stuck in the cheekbone of the man he had just killed. Christian’s enemy reacted quickly and tried to pull away from the axe blow, but the wide blade took the man hard in the neck and shoulder, cleaving the collar bone, and causing him to drop his shield. One quick chop to the middle of the man’s skull and Christian was pushing forward with his line mates again.
The warm spray of Neal’s blood on his face and shoulder mimicked the warmth spreading in his belly. Christian could feel the joy of battle overtaking him. His mind seemed to focus to a sharp point, and the battle raging all around him suddenly seemed to be playing out in slow motion. Men moved as if suspended in the sap of a tree.
The next hour was a frenzy of hacking, slashing, clubbing, and blocking. Men stabbed and parried, shoved and blocked, and swung their maces, swords, and axes at one another. Blood flowed upon the field and coated the bright green blades with sticky red.
The wounded were being taken away on stretchers, but the dead lay sprawled and heaped upon themselves where they had fallen. The battle had lasted the better part of two hours, but the Saxon team’s line had wrapped around and folded on itself when the Irish cavalry took the field to their rear.
Christian watched as the Picts crisscrossed the field, looting the weapons left there by the vanquished German team. Part of the agreement between the two Celtic tribes had been the Pict’s rights to the battlefield loot, and their right to call upon the Irish team in battle against any opponent. That last part could be a bit tricky, Christian thought. But Graham, the team’s chief, and its elected war council decided strategy and battlefield policy. Christian was just a simple tech-smith and a line warrior. He did what he was told, and tried to make a profit in the meantime.
He stepped over a blood splashed halberd, kicked it from the hand that gripped it even in death, and turned it over with his foot. The letters on the shaft of the spear head were the maker’s mark. The capital “C” curled around the letters “m-a-c”, and ended in an exaggerated capital “V” to form the refrain CmacV. Christian smirked to himself. He loved finding his own weapons on the battlefield, especially when they were in perfect condition like the poleaxe currently at his feet. He thought momentarily about stooping to pick the spear-like weapon up and secret it away to his tent on the hill. He could resell it later and turn a profit twice as he had done many times before after battles. But a deal’s a deal, and it was the painted folk's field to loot as they saw fit. Christian sighed.
The sound of his name being bellowed across the battlefield woke him from his thoughts of profiteering, and Christian looked up to see his friend Michael striding swiftly in his direction. Christian sighed again. He knew what was coming, and he didn’t have the energy to deal with it. He considered punching out of the game before his friend could walk the distance across the corpse strewn field, but he knew Michael would just come knocking on his door in the morning. He’d have to deal with him sooner or later. The way Christian saw it, sooner was better than later. Christian shrugged his shoulders and sighed for the third time. And began to walk across the field to meet Michael, and the accusations that would surely accompany him.
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Christian had just donned the imaging cowl, was rigging the neural feed to the external ports on the hood, and had his finger on the jump switch. He licked his lips, tasted the salt of the sweat that had gathered there, that always gathered there before a freewalk, and reached down to double check his catheter. He never liked going into the bag. The closeness and heat of his breath inside the cowl dredged up the claustrophobia that earlier genetic treatments had failed to completely excise. The gene jockeys had made several important discoveries in the area of DNA sequencing in the nearly 30 years since his birth, but Christian wasn’t bitter about it. It was simply a matter of timing, and he’d been born a little shy of several breakthroughs that had given many of his contemporaries an edge in the real world. In Neverland, though, things were different.
Christian tapped a series of keys with his left hand and hit Enter to prime the system. The oil cooled processor made no sound. With a flick of the wrist he threw the jump switch, and the world opened up behind his eyes. The "jump" from real world to sim-world was nearly instantaneous. For the first time user, it seemed that way, anyhow. But for someone like Christian who spent nearly all of his time in the artificial world, the split second that it took to connect was enough time to see stars twist into spiral shaped galaxies. Electric-purple mushroom clouds rose up from the void and swallowed crystal mountains of information that, in turn, dissolved into a swirling, color-filled maelstrom of sharply contrasting light currents. It was like standing beneath a shower head spewing light and information instead of droplets of water. Christian didn’t care for the sensation and, in the early days, often vomited shortly after connection to the sim-world was fully realized. His dislike for the bag was further encouraged by those early occasions of sickness, as he awoke into the real world, and the realization that he had been practically swimming in his last meal for the hours that he had been logged into Neverland.
The ground sprang up at Christian, and he felt the soles of his shoes dig into the soft, wet turf. The sky above was gray and blue with hateful rain clouds, and the green landscape below seemed in such sharp contrast to the sky that it might have been painted that way by a child. Christian had landed atop a large hill that overlooked a great swath of green land that rolled away to the east. Behind him, and to the west, lay a vale tucked between his hill and another verdant peak. And there, in the vale, lay an encampment. Tents of green and red were pitched here and there, and pennants hung on thin twine strung between them. The triangle shaped flags flew the symbol of the Morrigan, the tribal Chief’s battle standard. For war is what had brought the bustling throng of people that moved amongst the campfires and tents staked in the meadow below. War and entertainment.
By the time Christian hiked the distance into the camp a fine, silvery rain had begun to fall. He made his way through clumps of people huddled around fires and kettles. The smell of roasting game, bits of conversation, and sudden bursts of laughter drifted to him on the wind. He navigated easily between tents, and finally caught sight of a particularly large and animated group of people. They were gathered round a tent that stood at least the height of a man above the rest of the cloth dwellings, and Christian knew it was the one he was looking for. As he approached, a wiry man with rust colored hair detached himself from the throng and began to make his way in Christian’s direction.
“Chris, you bastard! You’re late. Again!” His friend laughed a deep, belly laugh that seemed too robust for a man his size. The men met and embraced.
“How does the planning go, my friend?” Christian asked, avoiding the accusation.
The other man smirked and shrugged. “Shit, Chris, all we’ve gotta do is wait for them to attack. They’ll be attacking uphill, and they have no idea that we’ve brought the painted ones into the fold. They presume that their numbers are superior to ours and that they’ll outlast us in a battle of attrition, but what they don’t know will surely hurt them. The picts will reinforce our left and right flanks, but more importantly, there’s enough of us now that we were able to send the horses miles around these damned seaxa. The horsemen will hit them from the rear at just the right time. They’ll be caught between a rock and a very hard place. It will be sweet slaughter!” The man stood back with his hands on his hips looking quite satisfied with himself. “That sound good to you, cousin?”
Cousin, as it were, was a term of endearment. The two men obviously didn’t have a thread of familial relation between them, but had known each other so long that the nickname fit.
“Should I log out, then? It sounds like you’ve got the battle won already. Cousin.” Christian’s tone was sarcastic, but jovial.
“You fucker. You couldn’t walk away from a battle if you had to. But wait. Maybe you should log out. I think I hear your mom calling you to take out the trash.” The man laughed the hearty laugh again, but Christian’s face betrayed irritation.
Once again ignoring the dig, Christian shouldered past his whimsical friend. “Michael, I need to get to the Chief’s tent. They’re gonna attack any time now, and I need to make sure everyone is outfitted and ready to go.”
“Fucking opportunist. With your skill, you should be donating the weapons you make.”
Christian shrugged. “Hey, man. I’m just a guy trying to make a living in this crazy world. You coming?”
With that, Christian stalked off towards the tallest tent.
Until next time, Kirk out.