FFFF #8: Dangerous Thoughts 1.2

I’ve spent so much time working on the Dangerous Thoughts series that I have had zero time to come up with new stories for First Friday Free Fiction. Instead, I’m going spend the next five consecutive Fridays serializing the first volume of the series.

One chapter every Friday for five Fridays. Or if you get impatient you can go here and buy Volume 1 for all of 99 cents.

What follows is Chapter 2 of Volume 1: Hive from the series Dangerous Thoughts. If you haven’t read Chapter 1 yet, go here and do so first or you’re going to be really confused.

As usual, all of this is my intellectual property so don’t reproduce this without attribution.

Text Copyright © 2015 Jake MacMillan

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 2.

1. Swords were better tools for killing, but the hammer dealt more damage to armor. Paul’s Warhammer of Righteous Smiting could shatter the armor of a demon knight with as little as three blows if they were squarely landed. And once their armor was gone, he could easily finish them off with his Flaming Sword of Redemption.

Gringolet was not a small horse nor a stealthy one. He was a massive battle steed whose thundering hooves alerted the demon knights to his approach from a good thirty yards away. Caught by surprise, they quickly turned in the three separate directions while drawing their weapons and lowering their visors. Just for a moment before their visors slammed shut, he had been able to see the twisted, festering countenances that passed for faces among the damned. It was a sight that gave him no comfort.

Though large, Gringolet was both fast and nimble. He lowered his head to gain as much speed as possible and then, at the slightest touch of the reins, brought himself to a near stop, turned at right angles, and galloped off in a dead run so quickly he was able to vacate the space through which the lances of the demon knights passed as they attempted a clumsy counterattack. Then he turned again and came up behind them just as they were pulling on their reins to halt their own mounts.

Paul swung the hammer in a circle over his head like a helicopter blade using the leather strap threaded through the handle to get as much velocity as he could manage. When he was in range, he brought it down in a whistling blow that landed squarely on the back of the knight closest to him, obliterating most of the armor that covered his body.

Still looping the hammer over his head, Paul jerked on Gringolet’s reins to pull him into a tight circle, and clouted the lead knight with a blow that shattered his helmet.

By this time, the shock of his surprise attack had worn off and the three demon knights decided to close ranks for a united front, one that would be too strong for Paul to attack straight on without taking heavy damage himself. But Paul was already riding off at a full gallop, his leather clad hindquarters bobbing above the saddle, a mad cackle left tauntingly on the air behind him.

They hadn’t laid a hand on him so he didn’t need time to heal, but they were ready for him now and there was no way he could attack them straight on when they were waiting for him. He would have to wait until they relaxed and then mount another surprise attack. He had damaged the armor of two of the knights, but the third was still fully intact, a situation that would have to be dealt with before he could attack them in a final showdown.

He shortcut the trip back to the stables, a broad, satisfied smile on his face. Maybe it was a way of harmlessly feeding the gremlin inside him that so craved violence, a thing he had surely inherited from his father, but smiting evil with a wild, unrepentant glee gave him a thrill, one that was a little scary in its intensity.

 

2. His visor hissed and recoiled into the ceiling like an angry snake when he dropped out of the Main Street simulation. He lay there on his back and wondered at his situation. When he boiled it down to its essential elements, he was a potential suicide who was living at T-minus fourteen days and counting. Two weeks from this moment, he would receive his rejection from Intra-Galactic and after that he would climb to the top of the tube wall and jump.

What would the pious members of the hive say about him? There was no doubt they would be less than charitable, dabbling in victim shaming as they were so happy to do when the occasion rose. Suicide was banned by their dogma. What better way to trap their victims than to make sure they had no recourse or escape? He knew all of that and didn’t care about it. He only cared about two things: would they torture his father for being sire to a suicide and what would become of his sister?

On the first point, it was hard to say. James Corday was a Blackleg Master who trained up young brutes in the art of street fighting and his righteous temper was legendary. People would definitely be afraid to speak judgment to his face, but Paul was fairly sure they would whisper behind his back. And that might just be good enough for what little comeuppance he could muster for the man who had made his life a waking nightmare.

But what about Mary? She was sixteen and the sharks were already circling even though she couldn’t be married off for another two years. What would happen after he was gone? Once he was gone there wouldn’t even be a small deterrent. James Corday would make the first marriage deal he could get and she would disappear into the abyss of the hive, never to be seen again.

This was the world he would be abandoning his sister to once he took his final leap. Could he do that to her? Could he leave Mary to be broken down into the same grist of servile meal that their mother had become?

“Hey,” she said, pushing her visor away as she jacked out of school for lunch. “Did you put in your application?”

“I did,” Paul said. “But now I’m wondering if that was a good idea.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I can’t leave you to deal with all of this by yourself. If they pick me I’m going to be gone and you’ll be here all by yourself.”

Lying on her back, her blonde hair pooling around her shoulders on the thin foam pad that was her bed, she said, “I’m a girl, Paul. Whatever is going to happen to me is going to happen to me. There’s nothing you or I can do about it. What’s important here is what’s going to happen to you. There’s a chance you can get free and if you do that, if you get free, you can take my heart with you when you go.”

“Why can’t I just take you with me when I go?” he asked. It was a foolish question. He was the older brother. She was just a girl. But he was suddenly feeling like he would be lost without her if he tried to escape on his own.

“My life is a given. There’s no reason to waste your time thinking about it,” she said. “Did you really file your application?”

“Yes,” he said, annoyed at her and feeling lonely at the same time. “Why are you trying to get rid of me?”

“We go together,” she said, smiling. “If I can just get you to leave this planet, you can take me with you in your heart. That’s enough for me. It’s all I really want.” She lifted a hand to sign in their secret language and said, “Every day I can look up and know that you’re out there somewhere living a real life, that will be enough for me.”

It was a nice thought but he knew that she would never look up and see those stars. She would never see anything except the darkness at the top of the hive and after a while she would simply stop looking up. “What if it’s not enough for me?”

She smirked at him. “Boys are so complicated and fragile.”

“Sure, right,” he said.

“What did they say about your application?”

“Two weeks. I’ll know in two weeks.”

“You’ll get in.” She said it with the kind of absolute finality that made him envy the faith that the other members of the hive used to shore up their own leaky souls.

“I hope so.”

They ejected themselves from the tube and made their way down to the facilities for lunch and training and elimination, but Paul couldn’t stop wondering what was going to happen when that inevitable rejection letter came in two weeks. He had a plan but he had no idea if he possessed the courage to go through with it. He was about half sure he would simply knuckle under and spend the rest of his life as another browbeaten cog in the pointless wheelhouse of the hive.

 

3. Something odd happened during lunch that day. Rev Chapman, who was monitoring the lines leading into the combat training room, put a hand on Paul’s chest so he could let several other boys go in front of him. Then, at some unseen signal, he finally allowed Paul to proceed to the next open boxing ring.

Normally, James Corday refused to teach his own son how to fight, superficially declaring it a conflict of interest but truthfully not wanting to have to see how pitiful his son performed under pressure. But today, Paul climbed through the ropes into the ring and saw that his father had had Rev Chapman direct him to his ring for some personal training time.

James Corday was a man with a wiry body and a loveless face. He had the lifeless eyes of someone who hated without need for reason and the mouth of a man who judged everything and approved of nothing. Sandwiched between his leathery flesh and steel bones was a layer of muscle so dense it was nearly bulletproof. Even in the hive, a place filled with scary men, he was someone no one wanted to have trouble with.

Paul, dressed only a loincloth over a hard plastic cup to protect his testicles, took in the sight of what was waiting for him in the ring: His father, who, like him, was also dressed only in a loincloth, was flanked by two bruisers wearing neck protectors and body armor. One had a wooden baseball bat and the other was cutting the air with a hatchet.

“Father,” Paul said, trying to maintain the dead monotone that Primitives confused with respect. “I am glad to see you.”

“You’re going to be of age soon,” James Corday said, the bitter disappointment seeping through every word like radioactive gas. “I want to be reassured you won’t embarrass me when we get out there.”

The disenfranchised multitudes had a way of getting uppity every now and then when they ran out of food or tired of living on the hand-me-downs from decent church-going society. When the church didn’t want to be seen directly suppressing its less fortunate subjects, they called on the true believers in the hives to spill out into the streets and quell these terroristic uprisings. This was called blacklegging and its ignoble history stretched back farther than the church’s censors would allow books to keep track of it.

“The redlegs are out there,” James Corday said, using the church vernacular for those who refused to be saved. “They’re burning down the city, depriving good, God fearing people of their right to exercise their faith. The war on Christendom is in full swing. You are called upon to defend the church, its beliefs and America, but when you get out on the street, you discover you’re outnumbered three to one. What do you do?”

Seeing that his father was standing there completely unprotected, a dangerous thought leapt into his mind. Was there a way he could get past the bruisers just long enough to land a killing blow on James Corday’s throat? He wouldn’t get away with it, of course, and if the bruisers didn’t kill him right there they would have him sent to Central Inquisition where he would disappear among the nameless corridors and disavowed jail cells, but it would be worth it.

He reminded himself not to tip his hand, to follow the course of the normal training session until he was able to maneuver himself into a position from which he might quickly snap his father’s neck. “I would identify the weakest targets and eliminate them before going after the strongest.”

James Corday simply flicked his hand in a “come and get it” motion.

Paul could tell from the kind of armor they were wearing which weak spots on the bruisers he was supposed to attack. The throat, the solar plexus, and the short ribs were all covered by thick synthetic plates over padding. If he hit them in one of those spots, they would go down, pretending to be temporarily disabled but that would just be pretense as a part of playing the game. In fact, they would be ready to defend James Corday if Paul tried to break routine. He wouldn’t be able to get a clean shot at his father unless he could somehow remove these two from the conflict.

He decided to use the Pacify & Strike technique that was so popular among the blacklegs. He walked toward the three men at a brisk pace, waving his hands in a reassuring way while saying, “I don’t want this to get out of hand…” And then sprang into action, leaping into the air so he could kick the man on the left in the unprotected side of his head, a blow that sent him wheeling onto the narrow verge of unconsciousness. He then dropped to a crouch, ducking under a baseball the second flanker sent whistling over his head.

He popped up, took three steps backward to make sure he was out of his father’s reach, and then launched himself forward and landed a mind numbing headbutt. The remaining wingman blinked twice and tottered for a moment before his eyes rolled up into his head and he dropped onto his face like a sock full of marbles.

Paul didn’t even bother to pretend like he wasn’t coming for his father next. He launched himself to the side, tackling James Corday in the ribs and driving him to the mat before quickly scrambling to get on top while his father was still disoriented. Paul pressed his father’s face to the mat with his left hand and pistoned his right fist down at his Adam’s apple in what should have been a quick coup de grace.

A split second before his knuckles would have made fatal contact, he felt something strike him on the side of the head hard enough to knock him clear of the fray. He landed on the mat awkwardly, painfully rolling his shoulder and banging his head on the vinyl padding, and rolled onto his back just in time to see his father coming out of the air. The elder Corday landed with his knee on Paul’s solar plexus. a blow that knocked the wind completely out of Paul’s lungs, and then scrambled to use his legs to pin Paul’s arms to the mat.

James Corday was a man who didn’t even have a nodding acquaintance with mercy. He wrapped his fingers around his son’s throat and began to choke the life out of him. The rage flickering in his eyes as he did this clearly stated his intention to kill his son. Paul’s vision began to blacken at the edges. As his panicked lungs struggled for air, he thrashed like a lunatic seeking any chance for escape but his father had him pinned perfectly.

“Rev Corday!” someone called but the sound reached Paul’s ears as little more than bubbles through wet concrete, thudding against his head like nonsense speech of a hundred marching boots on clay.

“Rev Corday! The boy will not be of much service if he is dead!”

The darkness closed in as his brain struggled for oxygen and he teetered on the edge of blacking out. He thought to himself, “This is how I die. Not by my own hand. Not by jumping off the tube wall. I die the way I was always meant to die. My father kills me.” It made a bloody kind of sense, the man who had never wanted a wife or children killing his own son and marrying off his daughter to whichever brute was handy.

But then the pressure on his throat eased slightly and air came whistling back into his lungs and he could see again. One of the armored bruisers Paul had knocked down was pulling his father away. James Corday was red in the face, literally spitting out his words, and driven by an insensate desire to complete the work he had started as he struggled to get free.

Paul rolled onto his side and vomited out his lunchtime serving of porry onto the vinyl. He chuffed out a halfhearted laugh as he struggled to get his wind back and looked over his shoulder at the men streaming into the ring to subdue his father. It was funny. He hadn’t managed to kill his father but he had managed to embarrass him and that was almost good enough.

And then Rev Chapman was there, helping him to his feet, asking if he needed to visit the medical facility for a prayer circle. Paul shook his head. It was hard to talk, hard to get words past the bruises on his larynx but he was able to say, “No, I’m fine. Thank you, Rev Chapman.”

 

4. When Paul dropped back onto Main Street, he brought a terrible sensation of doom with him. His ability to follow through with his planned swan dive off the tube wall was looking more and more iffy. He had experienced something like a near death experience at the hands of his father during the training session earlier that day and in those moments before death would have claimed him, he found himself wanting to live with a panicked intensity.

That base desire to live despite all good reason to do otherwise might trip him up when the time came to put all this behind him. He didn’t know what to do about it. There was no one else he could count on to urge him onward when the time came and it was apparent now that he couldn’t rely on himself either. It was a depressing thought, one that nearly broke the back of his hope. If no one, not even he, brought his measly life to an end, he would live it out as yet another hive functionary, a piece of human logic fitted into the meat puzzle of the church’s clockwork monstrosity.

He stopped in front of the drawbridge that led into the Demon Hunter castle and wondered if he had the energy to even bother riding out on another quest today. He had come to Demon Hunter with renewed vigor because he had been facing his last two weeks of gameplay, but now he was questioning whether that was true. If he didn’t kill himself when the rejection letter from Intra-Galactic reached him, he’d have another four years to play the game before aging out at twenty-one. Seeing it in that light made it seem like a stupid game that kids played until they were too old to have fun anymore.

Then, standing there staring at the castle that housed his favorite pastime, it occurred to him that if he didn’t have the courage to end his own life he knew someone who would be more than glad to do it for him. He had even tried to do it today.

His father was his safety valve. All it would talk was to say the wrong thing at the right time and in the right place.

He smiled and shortcut his way back into the game.

Seconds later, now in full battle dress, he was climbing into Gringolet’s saddle while his squire handed him the reins and repeated his warning about rogue knights terrorizing the countryside.

Paul took the reins, turned his mount toward the back gate, and immediately initiated a shortcut to take him directly to the edge of the field outside the village where he had first spotted the three black knights. Once there, he reined in Gringolet to reconnoiter before charging in. The village was the same ramshackle collection of huts and the knights were in the same place, but as he watched, they turned as a group to raise their arms in salute to someone unseen.

A moment later, a strange new knight rode up to join them. This new arrival wore an impressive set of armor that was like nothing Paul had ever seen. For one thing, it was green instead of black. Not the color of corroded copper, more like metal dyed the color of emeralds. It was a magnificent thing to behold as was the broadsword on his hip. Paul quickly brought up the Green Knight’s stats and saw that his armor was +5, one better than Paul’s own, and his sword was a +4 blade of abomination – a sword made from cursed metal that had the same effect on human flesh that Paul’s sword of righteousness had on the flesh of demons. One touch from that abominable blade and his body would leave his armor as billows of white smoke.

Now the three black knights seemed to receive orders from the newcomer. They saluted again and rode off the way the Green Knight had come. Paul followed them with his eyes until the oaks blocked his view. The game was adaptive – he knew that from experience. It had continually created new challenges as he had climbed the ladder – but this thing, this Green Knight, was so new he wasn’t sure how to handle it.

Just then, the Green Knight turned to face him – it was if he knew Paul was there and was looking right at him from a hundred yards away – and raised his green gauntleted hand to make a beckoning motion. Paul didn’t move. He was coming to the conclusion that Demon Hunter had really upped its game this time. He had probably tripped some sort of secret trigger when he achieved 13th ranking on his previous mission that had caused the game to jump him up into a whole new category of difficulty and he knew better than to ride blindly into a new situation. This was, essentially, a new level of boss, one that he would have to come up with a special strategy for.

He was on the verge of turning Gringolet to go, but the Green Knight tied a white girdle, really just a long scarf knights used to bind their muscles beneath their armor, to the tip of his sword and waved it overhead. This was a universal sign of treaty, one that guaranteed no violence would come to Paul if he rode up to have speaks with the Green Knight. Still, he was hesitant. He preferred to assess situations before he confronted them, a tactic that had served him well while others were re-spawning their characters and starting over from scratch.

The Green Knight continued to beckon for him to come. It was oddly compelling. How dangerous could it be under a flag of truce? He decided that understanding how to handle the new challenges being set before him could only be helped by talking to this new adversary. He kicked Gringolet into a trot and made his way slowly, casually across the distance until he was just ten yards from his new opponent.

“What do you want?” he asked.

The Green Knight put his gauntlet to the side of his helmet as if he couldn’t hear.

Paul kicked his horse to close the distance between them. “What do you want?” he repeated.

“I want to make a deal with you,” the Green Knight said, his baritone voice slightly muffled behind his helmet’s dogface visor. It gave him the look of a snarling animal banged together from steel parts.

“I don’t make deals with demons.”

“And yet I am not a demon.”

“I don’t make deals with possessed knights,” Paul corrected himself. This much interaction with an NPC was completely unheard of. Deals? Forget deals, a possessed knight had never said more to him than the words it took to beg for his life.

“You left demons and possessed knights behind when you crossed into my territory. The days of easy victories are long past, I’m afraid. From now on, if you want to play in this space you’ll have to deal with me.”

“Deal,” Paul said. “You’ve used that word twice now.”

“As a matter of fact, that’s why I’m here,” the Green Knight said. “I come to offer you, a player above 14th rank, a deal.”

“Name it.”

“Defeat me four times, lastly in my own Green Chapel, and I will open up worlds to you far greater than what you have so far known in this game.”

Paul had heard rumors that the game’s terrain was actually much larger than what most players ever experienced. Some said that when you reached a certain level, you broke through into a world that was completely different from anything seen before but they also said that no vector had ever survived long enough to get there.

“And if I fail?”

The Green Knight’s visor stared blankly at him. “You die. I take from you everything you own. Your wonderful weapons, that magnificent horse, all your experience points, and all your gold. Oh, and your name. I bankrupt you so completely that you must enter the game again as a completely new player.”

It had occurred to Paul that, for the first time ever, an NPC in the game had referred to the game. The Green Knight had dispensed with acting like a real medieval robber knight to admit he was part of a game. This was shocking to the point that Paul had to pretend to think about “the deal” for a moment just to gather his wits.

The game was changing again and this time it was becoming more self-aware. Could he measure up to a challenge that didn’t involve brain dead, pattern based opponents? Or would he succumb early because he was so obviously out of his league? On the other hand, what else was he going to do? There was the game and then there was everything else and the everything else was awful.

“Before you decide, I should add that I omitted something important,” the Green Knight said. “The new lands I will open to you have no age limit. You can play in them at 21 or 31 or 61.”

“Agreed,” Paul said.

“It won’t be easy, squire,” the Green Knight said, a taunting threaded through his otherwise mild tone. “I have more intelligence than the foes you are used to dealing with.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Paul said, though this was a lie. Thrilled as he was with the anticipation of a new challenge, he was quite aware that he was standing on the edge of destruction.

“Let’s shake on it,” the Green Knight said and offered his gauntleted hand.

A handshake between knights was no flimsy affair. They grasped each other by the forearm and shook three times before breaking free. But as Paul released his grip and began to retrieve his arm, the Green Knight clamped down harder and jerked him forward with enough force that their helmets collided. Then he held Paul in a death embrace with his right hand while he drew a bodkin with the left. It was a classic move of chivalric betrayal. A knight pulled forward like that exposed the joint at the back of his head where the helmet overlapped the steel collar. The bodkin’s slim blade, wielded by a competent hand, could easily slip through that opening and sever the spine at the nape.

It was Gringolet who saved Paul’s vector that day. When the Green Knight pulled Paul into him, Gringolet was pulled into contact with the Green Knight’s horse. This was unacceptable for such a proud steed. He head butted the Green Knight’s horse in the jaw and then threw his body into him, bouncing off long enough to kick out blindly with his hind hooves, one of which caught the Green Knight beneath his left arm and drove him from his saddle.

He landed in a clanking, clattering mess where he rolled around awkwardly for a moment until he was able to struggle to his feet. He flipped up his visor, laughing, and called out to Paul as Gringolet carried him away at full gallop. “Good thing you have such a magnificent horse. You’re going to be running away a lot!”

Holding onto the pommel with both hands, the reins dragging on the ground, Paul looked over his shoulder at the cackling madman from whom he had just barely escaped. The most disconcerting thing wasn’t the cackle, it was the sight of what lay behind the visor when it was raised: Nothing. There was no face there. The Green Knight’s helmet was full of shadow.

He managed to scoop up the reins once they were fully free of the Green Knight and take control of Gringolet. Then, once they were officially out of danger, he shortcut his way back to the stables and jacked out.

 

5. He must have made some odd sound when his visor released him because Mary turned to him and said, “What? Are you okay?”

“I just barely escaped with my life,” he replied.

“What…? Really? Good grief, Paul. It’s just a game.” Then she donned her visor and was gone.

Was it just a game? It hadn’t felt like a game when the Green Knight had him in that killer embrace. It had felt like he was fighting for his actual life. This made him wonder if the hive was involved. Was his father somehow infiltrating the game to teach him more bitter, dispiriting lessons? It was a paranoid idea but one that had merit. The church owned the game. If his father couldn’t break him in the real world, maybe he would try to do it in the virtual one.

No. The Green Knight had been duplicitous and untrustworthy and vicious and cruel but he had lacked James Corday’s particular brand of rage. His father was fueled by a fire that never needed stoking and couldn’t be quenched. He raged and he hated and the more he did so the more things he found to rage and hate about. The Green Knight had been evil, yes, but he wasn’t a Primitive. He had taken his defeat with too much joy. Primitives were legendary for being poor losers.

So what did that leave? The Missionary? Were they using the game to manipulate malcontents like him into compromising situations? Or was it really just the game upping the ante, making it more difficult for him to win? He hoped that was it. If he could truly play the game for the rest of his life by defeating the Green Knight, then there might be hope for him yet.

His father’s face suddenly hove into view at the end of their tube. Paul rolled onto his side and arched his back to face him. It was uncomfortable to be that close. He didn’t like being blocked from an exit when his father was around.

“Didn’t you hear the claxon?”

Now that his father brought it up, Paul did hear the claxon sounding. Men from all of the tube walls were skittering down ladders and across the catwalks, streaming toward the doors that led out to the street.

“There’s trouble,” his father said. “The church needs its right arm.”

America was highly overpopulated – hence living arrangements like the hive – and there were many people who had become disenfranchised. It only made sense that jobs went to good churchgoing folk, but that meant the redlegs – atheists, Islamists, Jews, Scientologists, Mormons, Catholics and the like – were eternally shut out of the ranks of the employed. They created and lived in their own gray market, a separate economy that existed in spite of police corruption and dispiriting physical abuse at the hands of the Missionary but, every now and then, they reached their breaking point and started acting out. That was when the blacklegs from the local hive were called out to put them down.

Paul thought about the women handing out baseball bats, axe handles and crowbars as the men streamed through the front doors and all he had to say was, “I’m only seventeen.”

His father’s expression managed to sour and harden at the same time. “Which means you’re old enough to choose to participate. You just aren’t required.”

Paul lowered his eyes and said nothing.

His father nodded bitterly to himself, his worst fears about his son once again confirmed, and then disappeared to join the others. Paul rolled onto his back and dragged the visor down to his face – he still had several hours before dinner – and went directly to the great hall.

Now clad in the tunic and breeches he thought of as his knightly lounge clothes, he stormed through the hall bathed in a furious anger, pushing between other similarly dressed vectors, headed for the stables. It probably wasn’t a good idea this soon after barely escaping with his life, but he needed violence to resolve the feelings left over from his conflict with his father. He was going out to find the Green Knight and beat him until he looked like bloody mulch.

“Hey, hold on,” a voice said as a hand reached out and grabbed his vector’s arm. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Paul stopped and turned to look at the person who had dared touch him. The player, whose vector indicated his character name was Bertilak, was represented as a tall man with broad shoulders and thick biceps. His face was adorned with the manliest handlebar mustache Paul had ever seen.

“What can I do for you?” Paul asked.

Bertilak released his arm, smiled broadly under his mustache and spoke in an accent that was unfamiliar to Paul. It wasn’t British or Australian but something similar. “Sorry to be rude, my friend, but I’ve been looking for you.”

“Why?”

“You’ve just reached the 13th spot on the ladder.”

“So?”

“So your video ride-along has been shut down.”

Anyone could watch the replay of another player’s mission by choosing to “ride along” on the video replay. This gave the viewer a first person experience of exactly what the original player had gone through. It was a technique widely used to gain insight on challenges another player had already overcome. It was only marginally useful, however, because if one player figured out a trick to beating a certain situation and other players started using the same trick, the game quickly shifted strategies. For that reason, it had become more a mode of entertainment than a way to beat the game. Players chose rivals they knew were doing particularly well and rode along with them in the playbacks just to enjoy the display of their skill.

“I’m sorry?” Paul said.

“Ever since you reached 13, when I choose VRA for you, I get your last mission at 14th rank.” He winked at Paul knowingly. “I know something is going on. I’ve tried asking the boys above you on the leader board but they pretend ignorance.”

“So why talk to me?” Paul was ready to be free of this blowhard. He wanted to be in the saddle heading out to find the Green Knight, not wasting time in conversation.

“I’m hoping you’ll clue me in,” Bertilak said as if it were obvious. “I want to know what’s behind door number two.”

“The game is like life,” Paul said. “All that’s behind the door is more doors. There aren’t any secrets there. It’s just one more challenge, one after another until you die.” He turned and started walking away.

“I’ll give you $50,000 for your vector,” Bertilak said.

Paul stopped and turned back to look at him. “What? Why would you say something like that?”

“I’m curious,” Bertilak said and then shrugged and added, “And rich. I want to know what goes on after level 14.”

“That’s illegal,” Paul said.

Bertilak shook his head. “There is no law or technical issue that prevents one player from selling and/or transferring his vector to another player. I’ve looked into it.”

Fifty thousand dollars was a number he couldn’t quite comprehend. What would it mean to have that much money? For that matter, what would it mean to have any money? As a Primitive, possession of anything of value was strictly proscribed. His clothes, such as they were, belonged to the hive. As did his tube and his visor. Were he to be forcefully ejected from the hive today, he would have nothing he could sell for food.

But he did sort of own one thing: Gawain. He owned the right to go into the great hall as Sir Gawain and to ride out into the brutal countryside and clear it of demonic threats as Gawain. If he traded that for money he would literally be left with nothing but the money. What would he do with fifty thousand dollars? Would it be enough to rent an apartment outside the hive? Could he even live outside the hive? He didn’t think so. He would probably end up in the street with the rest of the redlegs.

“No,” he said. All I have is the game, he thought. Stripped bare of the rest of my life I still have the game. If I sell that, I am giving up the only thing that is truly mine. “But thank you for your offer.” Then he turned away and headed out to the stables.

 

6. As he climbed into the saddle, he asked his squire, “What news?”

“The Green Knight awaits you.”

“What other news?” He was in no mood to deal with the Green Knight just now. Their last encounter had been so bizarre and treacherous that he had decided it would better to take on another quest as a way to clear his mind.

He needed time to think about how to deal with this new threat. The game engine had obviously worked out some quite ingenious strategy to mess with him now that he had cleared the 14th position on the leader board and he would be stupid to blunder forward without thinking.

He wished he had someone to talk to about this. He especially wished he could talk to the players in the twelve positions above him on the scoreboard – but even if they could offer him insight into what was going on, they would never choose to do so. There was no camaraderie at the top of the leader board. Top Demon Hunters survived by their own cunning and ability. They never shared their experiences.

The squire blinked at him for a moment while the game generated a new quest. “In the dale called Wormelow Tump there is a village called Dineault. It is rumored that the entire population there is beset by demons.”

“Very well,” he said, officially accepting the mission. He then noted the location on his map and shortcut his way there.

His first thought when he walked Gringolet out of the shimmering portal of dislocated space was that there had been a mistake. There was no village here. Rather, he found himself at the edge of a massive graveyard that extended into the visible distance. Darkness had claimed the day by that time and heavy banks of mist clung to the ancient sod covering the last resting places of the departed.

He looked up at the night sky and saw no moon sailing there. The only light came from the faint twinkling of the stars overhead and the flames licking out of the iron sconces on either side of the entrance to the graveyard. He leaned forward in his saddle and stared into the fog, just barely able to make out shapes moving in it like the luminous threads of jellyfish drifting in the sea.

“Hello?” he called.

“Please don’t leave us,” a young girl called out. He couldn’t tell which shape might belong to that voice. Sound seemed to emanate from all directions in the heavy air. “We have waited so long for a hero.”

“I shall not abandon you,” he said, mustering his best faux medieval accent. “I am here to save you.”

“Oh, thank you, good sir knight,” the disembodied voice of an old man said.

The shapes, made indistinct by the ground fog, continued to move toward him as gray wraiths until they were all gathered near the entrance. Then they stopped.

“Come with me,” he called. “I shall lead you from this place.”

“We cannot,” a little boy’s voice said.

“You must come to us,” a woman said.

He spurred Gringolet forward but the horse balked, rearing a little and whinnying with discomfort. “Whoa, boy,” Paul said, leaning down to pat his mount on the side of the neck. “We need to help these people.”

Gringolet was having none of it. He backed away from the graveyard and turned to run for home. Paul dropped from the saddle, took the reins and led the horse back to the entrance. “Fine, just stay here while I bring them out.”

Gringolet shook his head and snorted.

“Just wait here,” he snapped, inadvertently dropping his ridiculous attempt at an accent. “I’ll be right back. Okay?” He turned and pushed into the fog, passing through the mossy stone arch into the graveyard, and called out, “I’m here. Come to me.”

As the two dozen shapes hanging back in the mist surged forward, Gringolet reared and kicked at the air and whinnied so loudly it sounded as though he were screaming in terror. The things that lunged at Paul with their bony hands outstretched weren’t human and they didn’t seem like demons. Instead, they appeared to be corpses fresh from the grave animated by some unknown force. This made no sense. Only God could raise the dead and even if He did so, He certainly wouldn’t raise them as hungry, devouring monsters.

Paul stepped back and drew his sword of righteousness, whipping it around in figure eights in front of him. This attempt to ward off the wraiths had no effect as they simply walked into the teeth of his attack.

It was telling that they went down with injuries consistent with a blade wound rather than bursting into flame when struck. This meant they were something other than demons. But what? There had never been a “something else” in the game before. There had been only demons and possessed knights until he had made it to thirteenth rank and had suddenly been faced with the Green Knight. And now what? Reanimated corpses?

Luckily, they were easy to kill. They were unarmed and had no plus defenses. He simply had to keep cutting them down until there was a pile of rotting carcasses strewn about in front of him.

But when he finished with them, he found he was tired without feeling fulfilled. This had not been the distraction he had been looking for. Cutting them down had been work, like reaping wheat, and nothing more. He sheathed his sword and stalked out of the graveyard. Swinging himself into the saddle, he took one last look at the cemetery before heading for home, but nothing he saw was right.

It was now daylight and he was no longer outside a graveyard. He was, instead, at the edge of a small village whose inhabitants lay butchered in the street in front of their houses. Their skulls had been split open and their bodies hacked apart. The corpses of old men, women, and children splayed there looked to have been preserved in the grisly last moments of their death throes.

A red-on-yellow warning sign blinked urgently in the lower right hand corner of his vision. NONCOMBATANT VIOLATION. RETURN TO GREAT HALL.

“Noncombatant?” he said, still trying to figure out what had just happened. Where was the graveyard? The hungry corpses? Where was the night? Why was he here at this innocent seeming village in the middle of the day when he had just a moment ago been fighting for his life in a midnight cemetery?

Hearing laughter made familiar by its arrogance, he turned to find the Green Knight astride his horse not fifty yards away. “I told you that you have to deal with me from now on. Try to go around me again and things will go even worse for you.” Then he turned his mount and rode off toward the tree line.

The message blinking in the corner of his vision changed into giant red letters that flashed in front of his eyes. RETURN TO GREAT HALL FOR DISCIPLINARY ACTION. YOU HAVE 30 SECONDS.

Stunned, his mind swimming in confusion, Paul shortcut his way back to the stables and then bolted into the hall at a dead run, a clock counting down the seconds in his peripheral vision. He had only fifteen of them left. The place was as packed as always and every single player down to the last man stood agape as they watched him bolt through the great hall. He looked around for some clue and then yelled, “Where do I go for disciplinary action?”

No one knew. No one had ever had to be disciplined before.

Bertilak edged his way through the crowd of gawkers and said, “Through those doors, my friend. Better hurry.”

Paul followed his gaze to a pair of heavy wooden doors he had never noticed before. Had they always been there? It didn’t matter. He had six seconds left to get wherever he was supposed to go.

He shoved his way through the assembled knights until he reached the doors. He leaned his shoulder into them, not even wanting to waste the time it would take to see if they were unlocked, and forced them open with such ease that he fell forward into a kind of courtroom.

It wasn’t a wood paneled palace of justice. Instead, he found himself in a lodge of some kind. The walls were made of stacked logs and the ceiling from thatch and mud. Chickens made their oblivious way around the straw covered floor pecking at everything that might be food. Three grizzled old men in cloaks seated at a long, roughhewn table at one end of the room held sway over various villager types who filled the rest of the space.

“Murder of civilians,” the middle judge of the tribunal said in a deep, phlegmy voice. “A knight, bound by the code of chivalry, who commits such an offense is to be commanded into our incarceration. Pending a guilty verdict, his armor, weapons and chattels are to be impounded. Death is the only punishment.”

“I didn’t kill any innocents,” Paul said as a feeling of being trapped crawled over his skin like a carpet of cockroaches. Whatever had just happened – and he didn’t kid himself that he had any idea what that had been – he was now on the verge of losing the only thing of value he had left in the world. “I killed revenants in a cursed graveyard.”

The judge stood and opened a scroll upon which was projected the image of the dead villagers. “This evidence argues otherwise.”

Paul’s thoughts raced in a thousand different directions in search of an idea. They had video of the result of his raid on the graveyard. He was there and dead bodies were there. What defense could he mount that he had not been the one who had killed them? Then he remembered the Green Knight. He took a breath and said, “I didn’t do that.”

“Prove it,” the judge said.

“The burden of proof is on you,” he responded. “All you have is a picture of something that happened. Show the video of me actually doing it.”

The NPC judges locked up for a moment while they conferred. Eventually, the middle judge dropped his phony accent, probably because his vector had been taken over by a human technician, and said, “Your ride along video is corrupt.”

“Corrupt?” Paul asked.

“The ride along video for your latest mission shows a previous 14th rank mission.”

“And?”

“You are docked 156 experience points. If something like this happens again, your vector will be denuded and decommissioned.”

Paul looked at the scoreboard and realized that this deduction would allow him to remain in 13th place by exactly one point. It was an obvious threat to remove him from the leader board if he strayed again.

 

7. He left the castle and went wandering down Main Street with his hands shoved in his pockets. He wasn’t sure, but he had a theory about what had happened. Maybe not the particulars, but in a broad sense the Green Knight had explained it to him. Essentially, the game had punished him for trying to avoid his true mission. It was now clear to him that if he were to attempt another end run around the Green Knight, the game would engineer his vector’s destruction, effectively forcing him to start over from scratch.

On the other hand, if he challenged the Green Knight without being prepared, his vector would almost surely die in combat. For all intents and purposes, the same result. There was no way to research the Green Knight because there was nothing in the Demon Hunter Wiki or on Trinity about him. And even if there had been piles of information, the Green Knight had been dynamically generated by the game for Paul’s specific capabilities. He probably wasn’t meant to be defeated lightly.

His only option was to probe and withdraw. Take as much damage as he dared and then run away to heal. Thinking of this, the Green Knight’s words came back to him: “Good thing you have such a magnificent horse. You’re going to be running away a lot!” Had that been the game giving him a hint?

An NPC character, a boy in shorts, a jacket and knee stockings came up to him and doffed his cap. “Message for you, Mr. Corday.”

Paul took the letter from him with some trepidation. He rarely got mail inside the simulation as the only people who would communicate with him lived in the hive and were prevented from doing so by dogma and rhetoric.

The letter was from Intra-Galactic Corporation.

Applicant,

This message is to inform you that your application has been received. Automatic testing will begin upon your authorization. Please select the appropriate option to indicate your preference in the matter.

The two link buttons at the bottom of the message were labeled “No, I wish to continue” and “Yes, I wish to terminate.” Without thinking, he almost clicked the “Yes” button but caught himself and read the link text again. That didn’t seem right. He reached to tap the “No” button but stopped himself again. The links were very poorly worded. They didn’t even indicate what was to be continued or terminated.

He decided to open the message’s source code and look at the markup language. Here he found that both the “Yes” and “No” buttons linked to the same Trinity address and each passed the same parameter: response=FAIL. It didn’t matter which button he clicked, the result would be the same. Was this a trap of some kind? The man who had taken his application had said that they wouldn’t seriously consider him as a candidate. Maybe this was their way of wiggling out of having to test him at all.

He scanned the message’s source code again, this time carefully moving from top to bottom looking for anything out of the ordinary. He didn’t have to go far. There was a third link hidden in the word Intra-Galactic embedded in the heading text. It was the same address but the parameter was a long string of letters and numbers – most likely his applicant ID. He closed the source, reopened the message, and clicked on the hidden Intra-Galactic link at the top of the page. Once the message flashed to indicate the data had been sent, he moved it to his vector’s mail system so he could have another look at it later.

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