The Black Rock Cafe was a prime example of the techno-bars that had started popping up with the digital revolution. Mid-air projections were all over the place, showing everything from talk shows to phys-sports to the latest E-Sports tournaments. The entire décor was sleek blue and black, soothing colors to the stereotypical shut-in gamer who was used to hiding from the sun. The windows were screened to let in less light, making it a dim habitat that was oddly soothing.
Every table was fitted with various dive devices, making it part meeting place and part cyber-cafe, similar to the phenomenon that had started popping up thirty years before. As long as you had a memory stick with your data downloaded, you were good to go.
Dallas toyed with a slice of cake while Kerry nursed a vanilla milkshake, watching the Air Attack tournament that had just ended the day before before. Air Attack was a very popular game in E-Sports, the parkour sim allowing for fierce, spectacular battles that used every inch of the arenas. Fighters moved through the air, flipping and turning as bullets ripped by, barely missing them.
As he watched, Kerry ran through the conversation he'd had with the real ForSaken just half an hour before.
What kind of help are you offering? Frosty had asked.
The good kind. The kind you'd be foolish to turn down.
Mind being a little more clear? Kerry had replied.
I know a guy. He was one of the guiding hands in the beta world. He comes from the PvP circuit like me, except he's actually good at this stuff. He's one of the few players I know can take me down.
Then send him in. Kerry said, beginning to lose patience.
That's the thing. He has no attachment to UO anymore. And he's a busy guy. He doesn't want to come back for nothing. Which is where you come in.
Well, we don't exactly have anything to give this guy. Frosty replied.
No, no. Nothing like that. He wants to meet the guys who are trying to take me down before he steps in. “I don't want to waste my time.” -His words.
He wants to meet us? In what app?
“And no apps.” -His next words. He doesn't think he can catch your real character in digi-space. You're both in the City, right?
Yeah. They both replied.
Have you heard of the Black Rock Cafe?
Then look it up. He'll be there in half an hour.
Are you kidding? You want us to meet some guy we don't even know? How do we know he's not some kind of creep? Frosty reached for the exit button, but Carrion held up his hand.
Who is this guy?
When the reply came, it sounded like it was weighed carefully.
His name's Ben Carel. He spent four years on the PvP circuit, six months of it kicking my face in. And he's the best gamer I know. Trust me, if I thought you could take me down, I wouldn't be bringing him in. He doesn't have... The best memories of UO.
Frosty and Carrion looked at each other. It seemed like an entire conversation was carried in that glance. Frosty shrugged. It's up to you.
Carrion typed the fateful words. We'll do it.
Kerry was broken out of his thoughts by the opening of the door. It admitted an unremarkable man in his mid twenties. Clean shaved, rich brown hair to his shoulders, a forgettable but somehow aged face, plain t-shirt and jeans. Kerry's eyes drifted away. He didn't look like someone who could do the things ForSaken had said he could. Which was why Kerry was surprised when he sat at the other end of their table.
The newcomer scrolled through a menu displayed on a screen laid into the table itself, selecting coffee, black, with no sugar. While he waited, he turned to watch the same screen that Kerry had been. No one said anything for a minute. Then he sighed.
“It's a shame.”
“What is?” Frosty asked.
“Flea always loses. She's good, but she just can't pull it off.” The player in question, an abnormally young girl, was flipping and twirling through the air in her match. She seemed very strong, a long bladed knife in one hand.
“What do you mean? She's kicking butt. Thirty to one odds.”
“She's no match. She's fighting Skullsad. There's no way. Watch. She'll throw the knife, then draw her pistol. She'll fire twice, but miss left. And that's all Skull needs.”
The battle reached a peak, Flea fighting exactly as he had said she would. She flung the knife, then pulled her pistol in a flash. The two shots came. And just like that, she missed and it was over. She fell to the ground, hit in the head.
Kerry's eyes slid sideways, settling on the newcomer. “She missed right, not left.”
The older man smiled. “Are you sure? Watch the replay when you get home. Okay, I think we've broken the ice. My name's Ben Carel. Seiji contacted me.”
“Kerry. Kerry Ascher.” Kerry tried not to fidget in his seat.
“Dallas.” His brother extended his hand. Ben met it, giving it a firm shake.
“So you're the guys who are trying to take on a Pro?”
“Seems like it.” Dallas replied.
Ben settled back in his seat as a waitress brought his coffee. He thanked her as she left, then sighed as he took a sip. “PvP guys like me and Seiji tip the scales in the favor of the Devs. We're nearly unstoppable in skirmishes with Hunters, but a lot of the time we don't have the skills to fight in a horde. So, we get turned and everyone suffers for it. In the end, the game gets harder and harder the more we take part.”
“That goes without saying. I doubt Chariot intended it to be like this, but it's as close to true PvP as Undead Online gets. The game's really only as hard as the players make it. Which means it's difficult, to say the least.”
Ben took another sip of his coffee as he examined the two of them. Then he settled on Kerry. His gaze felt like it was piercing straight through him. “You.”
Kerry stiffened. “Yeah?”
“Just how hard are you willing to fight for this?”
Kerry thought for a second, glancing around the entire cafe. A goofy smile crossed his face. “Um, well, I...”
His eyes snapped back to Ben's, holding the withering gaze. “I don't really have any friends in real life. I just never made any. My only friends are the ones that I've made in games, like this one. So, I fight really hard because I don't want to let down the only friends I have. So, in answer to your question, it doesn't matter how hard I'm willing to fight. Because I'm not going to lose. No matter what.”
The three were silent for a second as the speech sank in. Slowly, Ben smiled, then it grew into a full grin. He glanced at his watch, then drained the last of his coffee. “I like that conviction. You've won me over. Very well. Meet me in the starting town by six. Do you know where Seiji's going?”
The two brothers glanced at each other. “Yeah, we think so.”
“Good. I'll see you then.” Ben stood up and walked away, paying off his tab at the counter. Then he was gone. After a minute, Kerry and Dallas did the same.
While riding the bus back home, Kerry was consumed by his phone. Halfway there, he suddenly sighed and leaned back, eyes boring into the metal of the bus roof.
“What?” Dallas asked.
“She missed left.”
As soon as they walked through the door, they could tell something was up. The air itself seemed full of tension. Or maybe it was just the fact that their parents were sitting in the kitchen, waiting for them. In general, that's not a good thing.
“Hey guys, come sit down for a minute.” Their dad called as they walked in. They all sat down in the soft kitchen chairs their parents loved.
For a second no one said anything, then their mother, Ellen, started it off. “We need to talk about the games.”
In an instant, Kerry's heart dropped. “Mom-”
“Now, hear me out.” Ellen cut him off, holding up her hands. “We have a good reason for doing this. You guys are spending way too much time on those games, and stuff's startin' to suffer for it. Kerry, your grades have been dropping for a while now. And Dallas, when was the last time you studied for college like you said you would? Tuition's free as long as you pass the entrance exam. It's not like back when we were trying to get in, when you had to pay for everything. It's a great time for education. It'd really suck to waste it just for games.”
She paused, letting them get a word in. She was good about that, and it kept these discussions from turning into arguments where everyone was fighting to talk at the same time, but this time neither of them knew what to say. Kerry glanced at his room, feeling time passing by. Dallas just stared at his feet. “Umm.”
“Look.” Their mom grinned. “I get it. Games are fun. I'd rather spend my time blasting heads than studying or getting a job or stuff like that too. But if you do that, in ten years you'll still be living in the same house as your parents. Do you want that? Trust me, I understand. I grew up during the console wars, spent a couple thousand dollars shopping around myself. I know how much fun it is to stay up all night with friends, shooting zombies and clashing swords. But you got to have moderation. And you have, have, have to make sure your life doesn't suffer for it. Now, we don't mind you playing them. But the next time you spend eight hours inside those things, your butts are mine. And God help you if your grades keep slipping. Got it?”
Kerry and Dallas both sheepishly said yes, then filed up to their rooms.
But rather than putting on their TruDives and logging in to start walking, they sat around texting back and forth on WiBoards about what had just happened. Finally Kerry looked at the clock.
I'm gonna log in and start walking. You coming? He typed the last words with some fear. His heart seemed to stop as the reply took a few seconds to come.
Uhh. Nah. You go on ahead. I'm gonna... Do something else.
You sure man? His head swirled as he thought about meeting Ben and taking on ForSaken without Dallas, who'd been his shooting buddy for, well, forever.
Yeah. Tell Ben something came up and I couldn't make it.
Okay. See you later, I guess.
Kerry laid in bed for another minute, listless. Finally he put on his TruDive. When it came, the darkness felt comforting.
The world came back up dim. They were still in the cave they'd logged out in, except for Sader,who'd gotten a head start when they'd messaged him about Ben. Dallas, or, Frosty's body was still laying where he'd left it. They didn't disappear upon logging out. This meant you had to find a safe spot every time you needed a bathroom break, otherwise a passing zombie could find the body and kill you without you even knowing. For a second, he watched, half-expecting the eyes to open, Dallas having logged in anyway. But nothing happened. He sighed and left the cave. After taking a second to orient himself, he started walking.
Carrion picked his way over hills, through valleys, and between trees, in a daze the whole time, thinking about, well, everything that had happened. But when the walls of Ashville, the town that players first loaded into, came into view, he forced himself to snap out of it.
He passed through the gates easily. There must have been no zombie sightings for miles, otherwise he'd have had a harder time of it. The walls were nearly unbreakable, but if a Rogue got through the gates it would mean almost nothing. Ashville had the highest number of Sleepers in the game, players who logged out and never signed back in. Their bodies would disappear in four months, to keep the population numbers from being skewed in the favor of the living, but until then they were here. Ashville technically had the highest population in the game, but most discounted it because of all the Sleepers. Nonetheless, if the walls were breached, it would be a disaster, several thousand players getting turned without so much as a fight, and several thousand more dying in the battle.
Carrion wound his way through the winding streets. In terms of sprawl, Ashville was actually larger than Outway, since Sleepers and new players took up so much space. But every town has a center, and eventually Carrion found his way to Ashville's. It took him a couple minutes, but finally he spotted Ben sitting on a bench, toying with a pistol.
“Ben!” He called out, making his way across the open square. The older gamer stood to meet him.
Contrary to Carrion's first impression of him, Ben was actually pretty imposing when he was standing up straight. The little flab he had smoothed out to become lean muscle, and his current getup didn't help the matter. Ben had apparently had the time – Of course he had, Carrion was nearly twenty minutes late – to browse the shops. The stores in Ashville were mostly stocked with easily made, reliable weapons and gear. They could be mass produced easily, which made it easy for them to give away stuff to beginners without the need for trading.
Ben had managed to find a leather coat, brown and nicely weathered, that hung down to his knees. It was clearly easy to move in. Apart from that, he was in what could probably be called street clothes, a plain wool shirt and jeans. With his shoulder length brown hair and somehow-sad expression, he looked like a cowboy who was used to living in the City but missed his ranch. The two pistols hanging from his hips inside the coat did nothing to lighten the illusion.
Ben gave him the once over, then chuckled at the name floating over Carrion's head. “Funny. Kerry, Carrion.”
Carrion smiled, trying to hide the fact that he was suddenly sweating under the steady gaze. “And you're... Rake Mikealis?”
“Hard A-sound. Mikaelis.” He glanced around. “Where's your brother?”
“Uh.” Carrion scrambled. “Something came up, and he couldn't make it.”
“I see.” Rake gave him a knowing look. Then it turned to one of unease. He mumbled something. It sounded like, “Forgive me-”
In a smoothly practiced flash, he pulled a pistol from its holster, centering it on Carrion's head. The young gamer ducked immediately, letting out a shout. But Rake calmly placed the pistol back in its place.
“Sorry, I had to check. Your reaction time is about three hundred milliseconds. About a third of a second.”
“Oh. Well, that's not much.” Carrion said, relieved.
“Not much?” Rake asked. “In a firefight, it's everything. You have a pistol?”
“What?” Carrion stared at the clearly insane man.
“Draw your gun and shoot me.”
“If I shoot you, you'll die. There are no zombies nearby to kill the friendly fire.” Carrion explained.
“If, being the key word there.” Rake replied.
“Fine.” Carrion agreed. He was curious to see what Rake was planning, what kind of things a pro PvP guy was capable of.
Cariall stood stock still for a second. Then, in one movement, he drew his pistol, took a split second aim, and pulled the trigger. In his mind, he saw the bullet leave the barrel, slice through the space between them, and nail Rake in the right temple, exactly where he'd aimed.
But what happened instead, happened extremely quickly. It was like a frog snatching a fly with its tongue. If you blinked, you would have missed it. In a smooth jerking motion, Rake snapped his head to the side. The bullet went just wide, coming so close that it actually parted his hair with the shockwave.
Carrion stood there for a long second, stunned. His aim had been perfect. There was no way he could miss at this distance. So there was no way to say he'd missed. Rake had literally dodged the bullet, in the space of a dozen feet.
“How did you do that?” He asked.
“First, my reaction time, under pressure, is about a hundred and fifty milliseconds. But more than that, I can read your movements and predict where you're aiming. But the real kicker comes from how I can manipulate the game's own mechanics.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“In this case, it comes down to one system. When a gun is fired, the game instantly runs a check on who's firing it, in what direction, and who's being fired at. And if the game finds that someone is looking at the person firing and would be hit, it actually slows down the bullet's speed, by about two hundred feet per second. It encourages longer, more enjoyable battles, as well as giving some more power to out-of-the-way snipers, reducing the difficulty of the art. All these things combined, I can pretty easily dodge a bullet fired by someone who doesn't know how to overcome the systems.”
“That's amazing. I never knew that. Where'd you learn it?”
“I didn't learn it.” Rake scoffed. “I figured it out. I spent several years as a professional PvP guy, as you know. This was back during the first wave of full-dive games. Then, when the VR revolution happened, I moved into beta testing. I managed to figure out how to game the games by watching the glitches. This system was a lot of fun to mess around with back before it became standard. In one game, they forgot to code a downward limit, so if you got enough people lined up and had someone fire at them, the bullets would actually move at walking speed. You could catch them in your hands, although you'd take the hit.”
“Wow. So, you're really that good, huh?” A sense of relief came over Carrion. If Rake was this strong, ForSaken didn't stand a chance.
“Seiji said he was no match for me. He was speaking from experience. We spent a few months on the PvP circuit together before I got off. He never beat me.”
“It's not that amazing, really. I was in the upper end of the spectrum, he was in the lower. We faced off a lot because we specialized in the same game, but no one really expected him to beat me. I was a foot soldier, anyway, while his skills were more in the planning side of things.”
“So, you were a beta tester for UO too, right?” Carrion asked, curious about the previous world.
But he soon regretted his curiosity when a dark cloud passed over Rake's face. “Yeah. I was a linesman and Hunter. One of the best of both.”
“So, why'd you stop playing? What happened?” Carrion pushed.
“Kerry, you know the rules. Once that population counter hits thirty, it's over. And in the end, it did. Partly because I messed up, partly because I was betrayed. And after I watched the world I'd spent two years building from the ground up get destroyed over the course of a couple hours, I didn't want to play anymore. None of us did. That's why there aren't anymore beta testers playing.”
“Oh.” Carrion paused. “You said you got betrayed. What do you mean?”
“I...” The somehow-sad expression turned to definitely-sad. “I don't want to talk about it. Hey, is that the third guy?” He pointed at a post board, where Sader was leaning. He'd apparently browsed the shops himself, finding a ridiculous wide brimmed fedora with a feather through the center.
“We should get him and go then. We've lost a lot of time, and ForSaken's a fast mover, if nothing else.”
“Got it.” Carrion started crossing toward the other Hunter. “Sader! What on earth is that hat!?”
The office was kept dim. The soft light of the lamp and soft glow of the computer screen was comforting to his eyes. He slouched in the desk chair, bored. In the years he'd had as a hiatus from hard play, paperwork seemed like it had taken over as his occupation. As he clicked an icon, bringing up yet another form, the screen suddenly changed. A list of names appeared. Most were dim and gray – It hurt him to see this – but the name at the top, the most important one. It was blinking, glowing in orange phosphorescence. He had to stare for a minute to comprehend it. Slowly, he smiled. He opened a mail client, life gradually coming back to his limbs. Things were beginning to look up for the first time since he was transferred to a desk job.
It had taken an hour's hard march to get to Caster Call. Now, crouching on a hill overlooking the small village, all Rake could think that it wasn't much to look at.
“It's a hole in the ground.”
“It's a mine.” Carrion replied.
“It's a hole in the ground with a couple huts around it.”
“What do you expect? It's not exactly the biggest operation ever.”
“Back in the beta world, there was only a single mine. It was hundreds of feet across. Every scrap of metal in the game came from that mine.”
Carrion glanced over at Rake. “It was also a massive liability. The fact that it was the only mine in the world meant taking it out would cripple you. It would be like the City. You had to pour so many resources into it, if it went down you lost nearly everything. Between the workers turning into Rogues and production of, well, everything, coming to a halt, there was almost no coming back. I don't know a whole lot about the beta world, but I know that mine was the end of you. And I know it can't happen this time around.”
“Well said, Carrion. If only we'd had you back then. None of us thought it was much of a flaw, since we could just defend it. And then we lost it, and it was all over. It was just convenient for us to use the rich veins of ore in the middle of the map rather than go searching for it elsewhere.”
“Really? You didn't see it coming?”
Rake sighed. “I was... Different back then. A little more naive. After spending so long on the Circuit, then in hardcore beta testing, I wanted UO to just be a game I could have fun with. Something to play around with pals in. And now, here we are.”
He stood up, drawing his guns and running a final check on them. Not for the first time, Carrion was a little mystified by his choice of weapons. All he had were the two pistols.
“Hey, do you need a gun? All you have are those pistols.”
Rake continued his examination, toying with the safeties. “All I've ever used in Undead Online is pistols. I mean, it's not like they shoot back, right? Long as you can kite well enough, you can use anything.”
“Well, some of them do shoot back.” Carrion pointed out.
“Not well enough to hit me. Trust me, I prefer it this way. It turns it into an actual challenge.” Rake slotted the pistols back into their holsters.
“Ballsy son of a gun.” Sader muttered. “So, we're here. What now? No one's alive. I can tell that much.”
They all looked down at the village. Nothing had moved since they got there.
“We'll check around, make sure he actually left.” Rake replied.
“What are the odds he'd still be here?” Carrion asked.
“Low. But Seiji was always a strategist. It's where he shines. He knows we're, or at least, you're after him. He also knows he has a better chance of beating you if he ambushes you in a place he knows the layout of.” Rake stared down at the village for a long second. “He'd wait here. Three hours at the most. Just long enough for you to show up. We'll check. But be careful.”
“This would be a lot easier if we had Frosty.” Sader grumbled.
“Frosty?” Rake asked.
“Dallas.” Carrion answered. His brother's absence was like a hole in the air. Even if Frosty was already in position and out of sight, Carrion knew he'd feel more comfortable knowing he had the fire support.
“Ah.” Rake continued staring at the village. The wheels were beginning to turn in his head. “He's a sniper, right?”
“Then we have the same hand of cards whether he's here or not. Like I said, Seiji's smart. And he's from the Circuit too. He's used to dealing with snipers. We are currently standing on the highest spot with sight of the village. Anywhere we can see from here, he'll try to stay away from. Which is actually...” He trailed off. His gaze down at Caster Call continued for a second longer, then he turned away. “Which is actually something we can use. Lets go.”
It took them a few minutes to pick their way down from the hill. As they made their way into Caster Call, Carrion and Sader followed Rake's path exactly, moving through the spots that would be covered by sniper fire, which were safer for them. Finally, they stopped behind a house. Rake placed a hand on it, then turned toward them.
“Why this one?” Carrion asked. Rake opened his mouth to answer, but Sader spoke first.
“There are no windows. Plus, the only door faces away from the hill, so he can enter and exit without being seen by a sniper. Also, all the other houses are wood. This one's brick, so even if a sniper were to somehow know where he is inside, he wouldn't be able to shoot through the house itself.”
“Well done.” Rake said, impressed. “This man deserves a cookie.”
Kerry looked at the house. Thirty feet square, it was indeed brick. And homey, at that. A chimney extended from the side. Recognition dawned on him. “Hey. This is Kard's house.”
“Kard?” Rake's ears seemed to twitch at the sound of important information.
“Yeah, yeah. Kard. He's a guy who signed on to protect Caster Call.”
“Well, I think he failed.” Sader replied sardonically.
“Yeah.” Carrion couldn't help chuckling.
“How good is he? I'm not familiar with the name, so I'm not expecting a lot.”
“Well, you should. Kard is the only guy in the game who fights without a weapon.”
“He... He fights barehanded?” Rake asked. He seemed disturbed by this.
“Yeah. He uses some Chinese style. It's been a while since I've seen him fight, but he was a pretty good linesman a while back. He cut back on how much he plays though, so he took on a job that isn't so demanding.”
“Hence why he's in this place.” Sader said.
“Go back to the part where he fights barehanded. He never uses weapons?”
“He doesn't have any.”
“So... I'm fighting someone who's unarmed.” Rake seemed extremely unhappy at the thought.
“Yeah. Is that a problem?” Carrion asked.
“I don't like fighting people who are unarmed.” Rake crossed his arms.
“Why? It's like you said, most zombies don't shoot back anyway. Why are you worried about this one?”
“Because Rogues aren't zombies. They think, breathe, act, and fight like real people. Fighting someone who doesn't have any weapons is.... Dishonorable.” The word seemed to burn his mouth as it kicked off his tongue.
“That's a weird attitude for a Pro Gamer to have.”
“I guess so.” Rake sighed. “I'll bear with it.”
Suddenly he went stiff. His eyes slunk toward the corner of the building as the scratching noise came again. A moan cut through the air. He crept toward the brick edge and peered around it. A group of regulars were making their way from the building. Sader reached for his gun as they came into view of them, but Rake held up his hand. He put a finger to his lips, then started creeping toward the zombies. Somehow, he went unnoticed right up until he was a few feet from them. Then, like setting off a firecracker, he exploded into action.
He sprinted the last few feet, sliding to a stop inside the group of zombies. With well placed kicks, he snapped the legs of two as if they were twigs. He picked up one of the fallen zombies and tossed it into a third, bowling it over. Swiping a knife from inside his jacket, he slung it underhand into the forehead of a fourth. But as he turned to the last one, it started running away, an unearthly scream filling the air.
Rake cursed and drew a pistol, silencing the runner in one shot before, brutally, finishing off the others as well, the gunshots booming in the still night air. He slid the knife out of its victim and back into its hidden sheathe. He made his way back to Carrion and Sader. The whole thing couldn't have taken more than six seconds.
“Wow.” Carrion said, staring at the wreckage.
“That was... Impressive.” Sader had to admit.
“Not really. It's been too long since I've played UO.” Rake grimaced. “I didn't realize the last one was a Rogue. And now they know we're here.”
“Should we fall back, wait for ForSaken to leave before ambushing him?” Sader asked.
“No.” Rake sounded utterly convicted. “We go in anyway. But first, I need info. Who all lives in this village?”
Carrion had to count on his fingers. “Six, including Kard.”
“Six people to work an entire mine?” Rake asked incredulously. “Never mind. So, one Rogue down. That means, with Seiji, we have six more to go. Now, what we have to ask ourselves is, where are they?”
“In the house?” Carrion asked.
“All of them? Not likely.”
“Well, that makes our job easier, doesn't it? Since we don't have to deal with all of them?”
“You'd think so, but say there are only three in there. What if we head in and the other three move in behind us? We'd be trapped.”
“That would be bad.” Sader said sarcastically.
“Could be.” Rake corrected. “That Rogue was unarmed. Who knows how many weapons this village has on hand?”
“No idea.” Carrion answered.
Rake sighed. “I hate going in there without knowing what I'm up against, but we don't have much choice. The longer we wait, the longer Seiji has to try something clever. Lets go.”
He led the way around the house, creeping along the brick wall. He stepped carefully, wary of traps. But the trip went smoothly, and soon they were in front of the doorway leading inside. The door was closed. Rake took up a position left of the door, waving the others to the other side. Slowly he reached in and tapped the door open. He jerked his hand back as they all shrank away, expecting a storm of bullets to rip through the open space. But nothing happened. Rake peered into the house.
A spartan living room met his gaze. Chairs were set up around the periphery and a mantle took up the opposite wall. Candles burned on several surfaces, casting flickering light. Similar light filtered through two doorways leading deeper into the house. Shadows danced in these doorways. He sighed, then straightened.
“They're in there.”
“All of them?” Carrion whispered.
“Two, judging from the shadows.”
“You sure?” Sader asked. “This could be another kind of ambush.”
“No. The shadows are moving. They're in there. We're going in.”
Without another word and with a devil-may-care attitude, he walked through the doorway, leaving the others to follow.
The room was comfortable to be in. A woven rug scrunched under their feet, until Rake waved them off of it, wary of giving away their positions. Someone like ForSaken could easily use the sound to track them. Carrion could easily imagine living in a house such as this. The brick was soft red, easy on the eyes in the candlelight. As usual for homes, the floor was dirt, hard packed during construction and tread smooth from hours of use.
The two doors loomed like a crossroads, as if begging them to choose one. Rake started toward the left, signaling them to take the right. Sader looked at him, as if asking if the older gamer was sure. Splitting up could easily be the wrong choice.
“Judging from the shadows, there's only one in each room. Do it. If you need help, yell.” Rake whispered. He hated to speak at all. He didn't know if the AI would recognize his voice, since ForSaken had never seen him in Undead Online. He didn't want to risk it, though.
They split without another word, creeping through their respective doorways.
Sader and Carrion found themselves in a kitchen. It was well stocked with jars of herbs and picked spices. A hook hung from the ceiling in the corner, waiting for some sort of meat. There's no hunger system in UO, but apparently Kard enjoyed cooking. A wood countertop jutted from the left wall, while a wood-fuel oven was in the middle of the right, the source of the chimney visible outside. A door winked at them from across the room, leading farther into the house. As they started for it, a single gunshot echoed from the other room, startling them.
They glanced toward Rake's room, but they couldn't access it from here. They continued toward the last room. As they walked, their gazes swept around the kitchen, wary for movement. As the other side of the oven came into view, Carrion caught sight of something. He started toward it, the dim light hiding its form. It looked like... He shouted.
Instantly, Kard leaped out of the chair. The two Hunters brought their guns up, gunfire exploding like thunder in the tight space. The chair splintered under the onslaught, but Kard wasn't there. Moving like lightning, he crossed the gap in less than half a second. His fist caught Sader in the face, driving him into the brick wall with a wham! Carrion tried to bring his gun back around, but the Rogue was so fast he was like a blur. Picking up a second chair, he threw it into the Hunter, knocking him over with a crash of breaking wood.
Sader, on his back, tried to sight upside down, but Kard just grabbed him by the shirt and tossed him across the room. There was a nasty crunch as Sader smashed into the oven. This time, he stopped moving.
By now, Carrion was back on his feet. His submachine gun had slid across the floor when he fell. Thinking fast, he pulled his pistol from its holster, bringing that up to bear. But it was no use. Already Kard was grabbing him by the arm, twisting and throwing him onto the oven next to Sader. Twisting in midair with the force of the throw, his arm slapped against the unforgiving brick. Instantly, he felt the numb tingle of a broken arm. He tumbled onto the floor.
Dazed, he wasted a precious second looking for his pistol. He didn't see it. Panting and queasy from the flight, he glanced back up, expecting Kard to be there to end it. But instead, the older man was waiting. Carrion realized he was waiting for him to get up to continue the fight. He glanced at Sader. If he was going to turn, it would have happened by now. He must have broken enough bones that he couldn't move. He had at least a minute before the dynamic healing could bring him back into the fight. Carrion looked back at Kard. He knew he couldn't fight him hand to hand. He lowered his head.
Kard began to move in, drawing back for the kill blow.
A few minutes earlier
Rake took in the room in an instant as he passed the threshold. A dining room, there was a table and chairs inside. These had been pushed to the side in preparation. More candles – What's with this guy and candles? So many. Rake thought. - lined outcroppings in the brick. A final door was set in the opposite wall. And between him and it was a Rogue. It wasn't ForSaken. He didn't recognize him.
Without hesitating, he dropped the Rogue with a single shot. Holding his pistols with a relaxed grip, he slowly made his way into the room, checking the corners. He knelt by the Rogue.
ForSaken watched the unfamiliar Hunter kill his ally. This wasn't a problem. The lesser Rogue was just a ruse, bait to draw him in. ForSaken slowly lowered himself from where he'd been hiding above the doorway, withdrawing his arms and legs from where they'd anchored hih against the brick. He hit the ground and raised his gun...
And Rake spun, sighting instantly!
“Perhaps if you remembered me, you wouldn't have used the same tired trick that nearly beat me in the second World Championship. It is your signature. They didn't call you the Spider of the City for nothing.”
He pulled the trigger, but ForSaken dropped at the same time, rolling toward him. In the same moment, a burst of gunfire sounded from the other room, distracting Rake just long enough for ForSaken to close in. The Rogue swung with his off-hand and Rake dodged the first swipe, but stayed close, moving just ahead of the Rogue's gun as it spat fire and lead from the other hand.
As the gun clicked dry, Rake raised both pistols. But ForSaken dropped his gun and grabbed Rake by the wrists, forcing his guns back down. They strained against each other for a minute, neither able to overpower the other.
“You've been working out.” Rake grunted. “The last time we were in this position, you barely lasted five seconds.”
The Rogue grinned, just in time for Rake the slam the top of his head into his mouth. Finally ForSaken broke away, a hand to his jaw as blood dripped from his mouth. He zig zagged away as Rake opened up with both pistols, splinters of brick flying everywhere as he tried to pin down the slippery Rogue. The fallen gamer escaped through the door leading back into the living room. Cursing, Rake gave chase, catching sight of ForSaken as he sprinted through the front door. He started to follow but then he heard Carrion call for him from the other room.
He gritted his teeth, giving one last glance toward the doorway and the fleeing Rogue, then he turned and ran into the other room.
In half a second, he saw the situation. Sader was lying on a brick outcropping, beaten and broken, while Carrion was on his hands and knees. A lean, tall Rogue stood over him, hand raised to strike.
“Both of them!?” Rake yelled as he raised his guns. The Rogue, who must have been Kard, had amazing reflexes, spinning away as Rake opened fire. He ran through a door, the kitchen falling still. The air was tense as Rake slowly edged toward his fallen allies, eyes locked on the doorway.
“Sorry.” Carrion croaked. Rake just shook his head, gaze never leaving Kard's escape route.
The doorway remained empty... Then suddenly something moved. That single movement was all Rake wanted before letting loose, emptying both pistols in seconds. But for some reason, he was missing. Rather than the bullets sailing through the empty door, they slammed into the brick, over and over until finally a cascade of brick shards sailed into the room beyond. Instantly, an agonized scream ripped through the air, raising the hairs on Rake's neck.
A series of crashes came from the dining room as the Rogue tore through it, knocking things over in its pained dash. Rake spun to follow, reloading on the run. He hit the doorway a few seconds behind Kard and stopped for a second before catching the sound of footsteps. He gave chase.
He found himself in the midst of the village as the footsteps stopped. He was breathing hard from the run, and now his eyes skated wildly over the houses all around, looking for his prey. No, he realized. He was the prey now. He spun as Kard sprinted from behind one house to behind the next. Waiting. Watching.
Well, fine then. I prefer it this way. Rake slowly knelt, gently placing his pistols onto the cold ground. The shadows were growing longer as the sun fell, night taking hold. He pushed the guns away with his foot.
“Well? We can have an honest fight now.” He said, watching the shadows flit around. “So come at me!”
Another second passed, than Kard laughed. Rake grinned, sharing the joke. And then the Rogue burst from behind a house, and the battle began.
Kard's arm was extended in a blow that could easily end his life. Rake grabbed the Rogue by the hand and twisted, throwing him, then followed. Kard twisted in the air, landing on his feet. He blocked Rake's first attack, then the second, and then neither could tell where attack ended and defense began. The fight traveled back and forth across the open area. Kard was incredibly strong, and soon Rake couldn't feel his arms where the punches and kicks were rattling his bones as he blocked them. He felt himself wearing down, slowing down.
And in an instant, it was over. Rake overextended on a punch and Kard punished him swiftly, ducking low and slamming both hands into his chest. It was like being hit with a sledgehammer. Rake flew back, crashing into a building. He fell to his knees, chest enveloped in a mad tingle. He coughed and put a hand to his ribs. “Three gone. Damn.” He wheezed.
Kard slowly made his way over. Rake barely managed to stand, every movement and breath driving another spike of numbness into him. He was shaking as he tried to raise his arms. He still had the strength for a one-liner, though. “You're not bad.”
Kard smiled at him, acknowledging the compliment. He brought his arm back, muscles rippling as he built up the last punch. Rake couldn't move...
Kard let fly...
And Rake fell! The impact of his chest on the ground reduced the edges of his vision to blurry outlines, but he still struck out, grabbing Kard by the foot and jerking him off his feet. The Rogue growled and tried to get back up, but Rake moved relentlessly. He slammed his hand into Kard's knee, snapping it backward. The Rogue cried out in pain, then it went on and on as Rake snapped both his arms before disentangling himself. Kard growled again through gritted teeth, slapping at the ground with broken arms, trying to give chase, make an escape, anything. But he was completely immobile, a captive audience as Rake forced himself up. The Hunter stumbled over to his pistols, still laying where he'd left them.
Kard could only watch, eyes wide as, with a practiced move of his foot, Rake tossed one of the guns into the air, catching it and firing a single shot in the same motion. The shattered Rogue's head jerked back, then Kard lay still.
Rake stared at the body for a long moment, wincing as his ribs flexed back into place, the game mending his body. Then he shook his head. “You should be a Pro. If you came at me with a gun, I think you might actually be a match for me.”
He retrieved his other gun and slotted both into their holsters. The entire time, he was cursing himself. He turned back to Kard's house and started running.
“Six. Six Rogues. I've only seen three.”
Rake entered the kitchen at a breakneck pace, guns already up and looking for targets.
But instead of targets, he found Carrion and Sader standing over the bodies of the last three Rogues. One had a steak knife embedded in the back of its head, while the other two had just been shot. Rake slid to a stop and ran a hand through his hair, sliding his pistols back into their holsters.
“Well, I guess you two aren't useless after all.” He said.
“We came back up just in time to fight them off.” Carrion said.
“Dynamic healing, huh?” Sader grinned. “Kard?”
“Dead.” Rake replied briefly.
“And ForSaken?” Carrion asked hopefully.
“He got away. Escaped while I was helping you two.”
“Oh.” Carrion seemed crestfallen. “Sorry.”
“Don't worry about it. He's off tilt and running away. He's going to have to come up with a new plan to take over the world.”
“What do you think he'll do?” Carrion asked. If anyone would know, it would be Rake. He'd gotten them this far.
Rake glanced at his clock. 8 PM. “Well, he's got about twenty-six hours left on his Grace Period. That's not enough time to start something small then try to snowball it. He's gotta go big. What towns are near here?”
“Nothing big. The edges of the map are pretty barren, so we don't really build anything in them.”
“Except random mining towns.” Rake corrected.
“Except random mining towns.” Carrion admitted. He thought for a second. “So, he's traveling. Twenty-six hours is long enough to get pretty much anywhere. You have any ideas?”
“I don't know this world, Carriall. I'm like any alien here.” Rake replied.
“Okay, then I guess there's nothing more we can do. I hate to say it, but I guess we'll just have to sound an alarm and hope he attacks some town that can fight him off. Or gets sighted by someone who doesn't get themselves killed.”
Rake and Sader nodded.
“So, I guess there's nothing more we can.. Do... Here...” Carrion trailed off as an icon began blinking in his IHD.
“What is it?” Rake asked.
“Oh, nothing. Someone sent me a message.” He started messing with his menus. “Dang it Ash, what are you doing.”
And then his expression turned to one of pure shock.
“What?!” Rake asked, his heart rate doubling.
“Outway went down.” Carrion said, dazed.
“What do you mean Outway went down? There's like six thousand Hunters and linesmen there!” Sader exclaimed.
“That's what Ashfiell says.” Carrion replied.
“Ashfiell? Isn't he that weirdo with a scythe? You're taking his word for it?” Sader argued. But Rake could tell he was grasping at straws.
“Hey, Ash is a damned genius.” Carrion snapped back.
“A scythe.” Rake shook his head in bewilderment. “Never had one of those in the beta world. Hey, hold up you two. What is this Outway thing?”
“How familiar are you with the current world?” Carrion asked.
“Well, the gist of it is there's this giant river running through the middle, dividing it in half, and keeping us on one side. I mean, there's the mountain, but we don't go there. It's too hard to climb. So, we built a bridge across. On both sides of the bridge, there's a town. The one on the Starter side is Bridgehaven, and the other one is Outway. It's like a staging post for all our operations on the other side. And it's also the safest place across the river, because so many linesmen and Hunters use it as a second home. It hasn't gone under since Kiari was turned, more than a year ago.”
“And now it has?” Rake asked.
“Yeah. Ash says it was the most zombies he'd ever seen in one group. And there was one in particular that was just unstoppable.”
“One in... Particular?” Rake's eye seemed to twitch, but it could have just been a trick of the light.
“I... I'm not sure. He says it had to be a Rogue, because it was killing players and turning them, but it didn't fight like any Rogue he'd ever seen. Or anyone he's seen, for that matter.”
“This is...” Rake ran his hands through his hair again. “Not good.”
“It's not too bad though.” Sader said, grasping at straws again. “They still have to get across the bridge without being torn to pieces.”
“Well, this was an hour ago so.....” Carrion just stopped. Not a single part of him moved as suddenly his IHD went crazy.
“What now?” Rake asked. He started cleaning his guns, seemingly more interested in the dirt that had gotten into the action of one than what was going on now.
“I... I don't know.” Carrion said. He started hitting the buttons only he could see, bringing up message after message, more coming through even as he read the old ones. “I... I just..”
“Dammit Kerry.” Sader said, poking him in the shoulder.
“Sorry.” Carrion shook himself out of it. “Bridelle in Bridgehaven, Ken in Winter Watch. I'm getting messages from like half the people I know in the entire game. Oh... Oh God...”
“What is it?” Rake asked, having moved onto the other pistol now.
“Bridgehaven, Winter Watch, Armistice, Downfire. They've all gone down. In an hour.” Carrion settled back against the wall, suddenly dizzy. Sader's already pale face drained of color. He pawed at his IHD, scrolling through menus until he found the one he wanted. He sat down, just plopped straight down.
“We've hit forty-five percent. Just like that.” He said. “It happened without us even noticing.”
“Yep.” Rake finally put his guns away, crossing his arms.
“You seem awfully calm!” Carrion sputtered.
“Calm of the damned, Carrion. I've seen this before.”
“What do you mean you've seen it before?” Carrion asked. “When?!”
“That odd Rogue this Ash guy talked about. Do you have any pictures of him?”
“Uh, sure. I think Bridelle sent me one. She said he was at the front of the pack as they crossed the bridge.” He pulled it up and swiped it across, sending it to Rake.
The older Hunter pulled it up with an app, the picture filling the air in the kitchen. In it, a stream of zombies the length of the entire bridge, and more, were filing across it. And at their head, a single person. He was wearing a rust-red jumpsuit and a silver glass helmet that covered his entire head, reflecting the light and hiding his face. If he was worried about the coming battles, he didn't look it.
“This guy.” Rake said with conviction. “I don't know how bad you think things were with ForSaken, but they're worse now. A lot worse.”
“What do you mean?” Carrion asked. He stared at the picture. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. It wasn't a burning plain, and it wasn't ForSaken at their head, but the resemblance to his earlier image of the end of the world was uncanny. “Rake. What am I looking at?”
“What you're looking at, Carrion Carriall, is the end of the world. Yours. And mine.” As Rake gazed at the picture, the helmeted warrior seemed to gaze back. “That is Pioneer. The first player ever. And the last.”
Carrion and Sader stared at Rake. They were certain he'd just dropped a bombshell of information, but they just couldn't understand it. For his part, the Hunter continued looking at the warrior called Pioneer, as if he were searching for something. A muscle in his jaw worked back and forth.
“What do you mean? The first and the last?” Carrion asked finally.
Rake sighed and reached out, his fingers going straight through the picture, right through the helmeted gamer's head. “Pioneer is... Well, he's Pioneer. He was the sole alpha tester for Undead Online. The first person to ever load in.”
“Okay, so he's the first player ever. Why is he the last? And why is he here now as a Rogue? I've never seen him playing before.”
“Pioneer is the ace in the sleeve, the raid boss, if you want to look at it like that. The reason you've never seen him before is because he never played again after the beta world went under.”
“Would you mind explaining this a bit more clearly?” Sader asked, impatient. They were slowly getting the pieces of the picture, but he wanted the whole thing.
“Fine. Pioneer is the best player to ever load into Undead Online. Better than ForSaken. Better than me. He was the driving force behind the beta testers, the one-man-army that saved our butts more times than I could remember. But in the end, he still worked for Chariot. And they had plans. Look at it like this. Imagine an incredibly hard game. One so hard, players can barely get a foothold. But, time goes by, and it slowly gets easier and easier. Players figure out how to play, high level gear gets passed around, guides get published and people figure out how to get high level stuff more easily. And pretty soon, you have newbs walking around soloing dungeons. In these cases, games have to stay interesting through updates. New bosses, harder dungeons, fresh rotations of enemies. But UO doesn't have that. They can't just load up a new boss every time it gets boring. So, what they do instead is send in the strongest player they have. He rampages through town after town, tearing everything down until either the game's over or the players manage to stop him. Pioneer is that player. He's the reason the beta world ended.” Rake's next words were barely audible. “He was also my best friend.”
“What happens if we beat him?” Carrion asked.
“I don't know.” Rake answered. “Clearly, he won last time.”
“Okay, let me rephrase that. Can we beat him?”
Rake thought for a long minute. It went on so long, Carrion nearly lost hope. The answer, when it came, was spoken low. “I don't know. Not you two, no. Me? Maybe.”
Rake leaned his head back, sighing. “Me and Pioneer, we go way back, all the way back when he was still Brick Storm, before he became Pioneer. We got onto the PvP Circuit at the same time. Literally. We were auditioning at the same tournament, and we came up against each other in the final match. He beat me, and I nearly didn't get in because of it. But when he got picked up, a rival team recruited me, thinking I'd be the best way to beat him. Everyone thought he was going to be unstoppable, you see. I was supposed to be the foil, the counter. After that, we were rivals. We fought constantly. And I lost pretty regularly. He's just... Special, I guess.”
“I swear, if he were to get mugged in real life, the mugger's gun would jam, his shoe laces would come untied, and he'd trip and bang his head on a stop sign. And Pioneer would just watch it all, grinning because somehow he planned it. It's like he can't lose. The stars align every time he puts on his TruDive.”
Carrion and Sader could only look at each other, taking in the praise Rake had given their villain. Finally Carrion looked back at the older gamer.
“So, what, we're dead?”
“Maybe.” Rake replied. “I've had a lot of practice since we last fought. And as far as I'm aware, he's had a desk job. If we can stop him, we should be fine hiding anyone left alive and waiting it out.”
Rake swiped the air and the picture disappeared, as if he were banishing Pioneer to cyberspace. “But first, we have to know where he's going. What towns are left?”
Carrion thought. “Several. Ashville's still up. Kade, across the river, unless that's gone down in the last ten minutes. Lake Mile.”
“Terrace, River Top and River Base.” Sader added. River Top and River Base were towns at the North-West and South-East corners of the map, placed alongside the river. One of the few physics-breaking aspects the world possessed was that anything that floated down the river and off the map reappeared on the other side, still floating down. This meant the river was pretty good for transporting things long distances. So the two towns were there as sort of river-side mailing posts.
“So, we have quite a few options.” Rake observed.
“Yeah, but I think I know where he's going.” Carrion said. “Ashville's got over ten thousand people in it. That would be enough to end it right then and there.”
“Are you sure? I don't want to get there and find out he's attacked somewhere else.” Rake replied.
“I'm pretty sure. It's full of new players and homesteaders, and it's a common place for people to log out for long periods of time, so there's a lot of Sleepers too. He wouldn't have a whole lot of resistance.”
Rake nodded thoughtfully. “You make a good point. How long will he take to get there, I wonder?”
Carrion scrolled back through his messages. “Armistice was the last one to go down, and that's north-west of the bridge, so he'll have at least two hours of marching ahead of him.”
“Okay, now I have to ask.” Sader said. Are you sure he's heading to Ashville? It would be a lot easier to hit a couple other towns.”
Carrion thought for a long second. He knew that if he messed up here, it would spell the end of the game. There were a lot of towns still on the map, and there were a couple that, in two hours, Pioneer could hit one after the other. But at the same time, something was wriggling in the back of his head. It took him a second, but he managed to bring it to words.
“Rake, you said Pioneer was your best friend, right?” Carrion asked.
“Yeah.” Rake answered, surprised.
“Do you think there is any chance he chose this time to strike by accident, when you've suddenly reappeared?”
Rake had to think for a moment. “If he decided to attack because I logged back in, it would be exactly the kind of thing he'd do. We met on the battlefield, and if he still wants to rekindle our friendship, he'd do it on a battlefield. He's not entirely right in the head, but it's kind of admirable, actually. So, no, there's no chance this was random.”
“Then there's also no chance he'll attack somewhere other than Ashville. If you look at Caster Call and the last town to go under, Ashville's actually closer to Caster Call than Armistice. If he wanted to meet you in-game, there's no other place he could do it. It's just the only place we can get to before him, besides River Base. And why would he attack there? There's less than a thousand people there.”
Rake took it in for a few seconds. “Well played, Carriall. You've hit it right on the head.”
He started pacing, seeming to break into action with a fervor. Could it be, he's looking forward to fighting Pioneer as well? Carrion wondered. Then Rake spoke, talking with a conviction that was inspiring and refreshing.
“Okay. It will take us an hour to reach Ashville. We'll log out here in Kard's house. Get some food, grab a shower or a couple minutes rest. We'll meet back here in forty-five minutes and start walking. Got it?”
“Got it!” The two Hunters answered, their own eagerness rising to match Rake's. There was a storm rising, but they would be there for it. Whether they would ride it or go down in it, they didn't know. But they would be there anyway. Without another word, they all logged out.
Kerry slipped the TruDive off his head, rubbing his temples where the supports came to rest. After a few hours in the helmet, it wasn't uncommon to have small bruises. Because of these, you could usually pick out the hardcore gamers. He laid there for a minute, resting his mind. Then he got up. He needed to talk to Dallas.
He found his brother in his room, playing an old console game. His mom had a stack of them, games and consoles both, leftover from her own long gaming days. Every now and then, she'd break them out and sink a couple hours into them, longing for a “blast from the past”, as she put it. The things had aged surprisingly well, and still had a devoted fanbase. He knew why Dallas was playing it. It was the kind of game you can play without getting lost in.
It took him a few minutes to explain the situation. When he did, his brother paused the game, chewing the explanation over. “So, there's this guy rampaging through the game, threatening to force a game over?”
“Yeah, we really need you.” For some reason, Kerry's heart was fluttering in his chest. The longer Dallas sat without answering, the bigger the flutters got, until it felt like his whole body was vibrating with them.
Finally his brother spoke. “No.”
Kerry's heart dropped in an instant, seeming to settle in his socks. “What?” He asked, dumbfounded.
“I'm not... I'm not logging back in to help.”
“But... But we need you! This is like, the biggest thing to happen since Kiari! You could be the difference between winning and game over!” Kerry's mind whirled, trying to figure out what was going on.
“And what if I am? Maybe UO dying is just what I need.”
“What are you talking about?!” Kerry half-shouted.
“I don't want to let this game rule my life, that's what! I don't want to be just a gamer. I want to have a dream that doesn't involve putting on a helmet and blasting zombies! Besides, I'm not even good at Undead Online.”
“What are you talking about, Dallas? You have a hundred more Rogue kills than me, and half the deaths!”
Dallas seemed to break. He tossed the controller down and turned in his chair. “Because I'm a sniper! I have to rely on being as far from the action as I can get. I have to pad my KDA out with a frigging gimmick, because I can't do it like you! When I first started playing, I tried to go out there with a machine gun and blast heads like you. And I died. Every. Single. Time. And yet you do it right. Every. Single. Time.”
Kerry shook his head wildly. “Because that's my thing! I'm the frontline guy, you're the sniper, we do it like that because it works! I'm the warrior protecting the mage, the bodyguard guarding his client. You're a better sniper than I'll ever be. It doesn't matter that you can't hold a frontline, because you don't have to! That's my job! And I still can't do it without you!” As he talked, his voice got louder and louder. Finally he finished, panting as he waited for a response.
After a minute, Dallas turned back to his game. When they came, there was a finality to his words. “My answer's still no.”
Kerry left his brother's room. His head was swirling. He walked in a daze, muscle memory guiding him back to his room. As he crossed the hallway, he saw his father leaving his room, carrying something. He was so out of it, he barely noticed. But then, like a lightning bolt, a terrible thought struck him, clearing his head. He froze for half a second before giving chase.
“Daaaad!” He yelled as he scrambled down the stairs.
In the Ascher family kitchen, there is a cupboard with a stronglock on it. This cupboard has existed as long as the Ascher boys have, and was called the lockbox. Throughout Kerry's life, it had housed anything from game systems to toys to, for one strange summer, a pair of pink sunglasses. And it was into the lockbox that his father was now putting his TruDive.
“Dad! What are you doing!?” Kerry shouted.
His mother shushed him from the table, waving him over. His father took his place beside her.
“Kerry, you know we warned you.” She said. “We said no more spending hours at a time playing.”
“No buts.” His father cut him off. “We warned you, and you didn't listen.”
“Look, this is a really bad time! My friends really need me right now!”
“Well, that's too bad. Tell them you'll have to play some other time.” His mother continued sipping at her smoothie.
“There is no other time!” His voice reached a squeak.
“Kerry, I'm beginning to lose patience.” His father injected a bit of steel into his voice. “This conversation ends in five seconds, or you're grounded. One.”
Kerry tried to think, the last five minutes rising up to drown him. It felt like the entire world was fighting him. It felt like steam was pouring from his ears.
Finally, he lost it. He sprinted for the front door, grabbing his jacket as he ran.
“I'm going out!” He shouted over his shoulder. And then he was gone.
Whenever Kerry had a problem, he liked to ride buses. It was a quirky attribute, but it worked. Somehow, as he watched the world pass by, the City living its life all around, he managed to find an answer to whatever was bothering him. Which was why he found himself on a late-run bus now.
The City was falling into its night cycle. Lights snapped on as the throngs of people thinned. The bus hit a pothole and he jerked in his seat. He didn't even notice, still lost in thought.
How could they do that? Not just Dallas, but everyone? My own brother turned his back on me. But a voice nagged at him from the back of his mind.
No, he turned his back on the game. He has his reasons. And they're good reasons.
But why now? He knows how important this is.
Is it important though? It's a game.
Well, yeah, but... He tried to find the conviction he once had. It was just a game. He shook his head. But more than that, my friends!
They can move on too. There will be other games. But my life is here and now.
No. He told himself. My life is my friends. Dallas and my parents might not be able to see that, but it's the way it is. I can't turn my back on them now. Why can't they see it?
But it's not like they're in danger. Game over isn't death.
Well, yeah, but...
And so his inner turmoil raged.
After a few minutes, the bus rolled to a stop. He didn't notice the stop itself, only that the world was taking longer to pass by than it should. Absentmindedly, he glanced around, still arguing with himself. A stream of kids and parents got on the bus, heading home from a soccer match that ran way overtime.
Kerry watched the children playing around. It reminded him of how he would pal around with his own friends. After a minute, he realized one of the kids was staring back at him. Suddenly self-conscious, he looked away, back out the window. But it was too late. The kid made his way over to Kerry.
“Hey mister.” The boy must have been about twelve. He jumped onto the seat next to Kerry. His legs were so short, they couldn't even reach the floor.
“Um. Hi.” Kerry forced a smile. Outside the virtual world, he could feel his awkwardness coming back to him. This is why I need the games.
The kid started talking about his day. Kerry barely noticed, hmming and hawing whenever the notion came over him, already pulled back into his own problems. So when he spoke, it was a surprise, even to him.
“Hey, if one of your friends was in trouble, but your parents told you not to help, what would you do?” Kerry asked. Then he realized what he'd said and scrambled to cover himself. “Um, I mean...”
“That's a stupid question.” The boy answered. “I'd help them anyway.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a mother detach from the pack and make her way over to them.
“I'm terribly sorry. He must have really been bothering you.” She said, pulling the kid away.
“Oh, no, it's fine. He actually really helped me.” Kerry replied as they walked away. He looked back out the window. He felt himself come to the conclusion, as if something just clicked. He sighed.
And got out his phone.