Without warning the jungle burst wide open. We screamed down a dirt road for a minute before Nigel patted Joyce on the shoulder.
"Madam, if you'd please turn us around."
"Hell no!" Joyce said.
"We need to go south," Nigel said.
"That's back to the Raiders' camp," Joyce said, more to let me in on the situation than to argue with Nigel.
At which point I felt compelled to chime in, "We are not going anywhere near the Oakland Raiders."
"I can assure you both, there's nothing more to fear. The Raiders are all dead."
It looked like god put her cigarette out on the Raiders' camp. Stubbed the smoldering cherry right down on the center of the compound, and just ground away till nothing was left except charred ruins. Pieces of bodies strewn the grounds. Not a single building remained intact. Everything had been torn apart then set ablaze. Charred skeletons, their fingers dug into the earth telling the grim fact of those burnt alive crawling desperately towards the river. Shell casings littered the area. The lingering smell of ozone suggested an energy discharge.
Kicking aside a hand clutching a knife, Nigel remarked, "Gypsy Jesters. They came a few hours after you left."
Joyce furrowed her brow, "That doesn't make any sense. The Jesters don't have the firepower for this."
Angling up a car door with a 4 inch hole scorched through it I said, "I beg to differ."
Nigel said, "Joyce, however, is still correct. Something's shifted, and that's never good, sir."
Joyce eyed the smoldering wreckage of the shack where the Raiders kept human cattle. She wanted to ask, yet didn't want to hear the answer. Still, she found the strength if not the words: "What about..." -- she pointed.
Nigel said, "Some escaped, but not everyone. The Gypsies were savage. I dare say mad."
Joyce nodded, "Gypsies always hated the Raiders."
Hate didn't feel like a strong enough word. Dresden got less demolished than this. However, like there innocent people got caught in the crossfire.
Nigel told us how he went straight for the jungle. There he hid until the sound of fighting stopped. For several hours afterward he heard the occasional bullet, or spine freezing scream as the Gypsies took their time exterminating the remnants of the Oakland Raiders. When it finally seemed safe he crept back to see what he could scavenge. He found the key for his radio collar in the wreckage of Black Mix Hendrick's double wide.
"What happened to Mix Hendrick's?" I asked.
Nigel smiled, "This way."
He led us to the cemetery at the back of the compound. Amidst the dozens of crude metal markers stood a pile of metal. Beneath the mound lay Black Mix Hendricks. According to Nigel, he watched them drag him kicking and screaming to this spot. They beat him, pissed on him, and eventually someone got the idea to start piling metal and rocks on him until the weight crushed him. It felt like too good of an end, though it was nice to know he was dead. One less nightmare in the world.
Joyce went off to explore the ruins. Nigel started to follow her. I stopped him.
"She needs a minute."
A thought occurred to me, "Do you know what happened to the doctor?"
"Elsa? Yes. Yes, I do."
"Was it bad?"
"Horrible, but what does it matter? She was a Raider."
I told him not to tell Joyce; how the doc helped us escape because she and Joyce were secretly lovers. The fact Joyce hadn't asked about Elsa already spoke volumes. Joyce assumed the worst. If he felt compelled to say something, I told to Nigel to leave out the hideous details. Nigel promised as much. He saw no sense in making things even more awful.
A short while later Joyce came back. The look on her face said too much. No one said anything. We spent the next few hours scavenging whatever we could.
As we scrounged Nigel told us about finding our boat, how he hoped something fortuitous had occurred allowing us to escape. Knowing the area well enough, and assuming Joyce did as well, he set off towards the small village where Joyce and I'd spent the night. He saw us get turned over to Caliban's people. He stole a motorcycle from the farmers who betrayed us, and that brought us to now.
At one point a camera-drone hovered over us. Quickly realizing we weren't up to anything exciting the ship flew off.
"Funny thing," Nigel remarked off hand.
"What?" Joyce asked, the only real word she'd said in the last several hours.
Nigel said, "Nothing really, I suppose, only the cameras. I hadn't thought of it until just now, but a whole swarm of them arrived before the Gypsy Jesters."
Odd, perhaps, but none of us gave it much thought for the next several weeks.
"Got a hundred million ways to make you bleed, gonna show you number 1 right now."
Have you ever been chased by a pack of velociraptors through a minefield?
Did you ever have to perform emergency surgery on a friend to dislodge a device before it turned into a buzzsaw in her abdomen?
When was the last time you killed a man with his own foot?
At least in the camp the cattle are protected from the dangers outside; and in the end that makes the horrors inhabiting The Game all the more unsettling. They made me prefer being with the Oakland Raiders. But oddly enough, it's amazing how malleable human beings are. We can adapt to most anything provided we don't just sit down and die.
Battling Martian juggernauts, evading rusty mechanical knights, going toe to toe with jungle pirates, punching an anaconda in the face, reloading a shotgun on the run, driving a jeep through a burning field, by my third week in I felt like a pro. Thank god the occasional close shave kept my ego in check. Nothing deters arrogance like a run in with an anthropomorphic zombie saber-tooth tiger.
We traveled in a tight formation. Nigel kept to the trees, and acted as a scout. Joyce and I marched roughly parallel to one another. We barely spoke when on the go. At night, however, we chatted about anything, everything to keep from having to think about where we were. Food wasn't always easy to come by, but fortunately, some of those beasties who tried to kill us turned out to be pretty tasty themselves. Say what you will, there's something incredibly satisfying about eating the animal that just tried to eat you.
From time to time we came across a friendly village, though we never lingered. Rumors abounded that Caliban and his people had turned into nomads, wandering The Game in search of something, spreading their Stygian mark everywhere. I always insisted we trade for supplies then move on. None of my companions disagreed. It was best to stay ahead of Caliban and his devils.
But even more disturbing rumors caught my attention.
Word had it fighting had kicked up in The Game. In the past epic battles had been on the decline. Now it seemed like every other day one group was attacking another. No one knew what caused the sudden blood lust, but everybody was certain of one thing. Whenever a massive conflict broke out camera-drones arrived in the sky before the fighting ever started.
The inhabitants of a village to the northeast said the drones arrived shortly before a herd of zombies came tearing through. Some said the animals even appeared to be getting more vicious, prompting Nigel to admit something in the air felt off, left him on edge, though none of us humans seemed to feel it. Others mentioned it wasn't all bad. From time to time people stumbled on caches of weapons and supplies laid out in the jungle as if left behind for anyone to grab. Need a shotgun and some whiskey? Well, here you go.
We stumbled on one such depot late in the day. Taking everything we could carry we kept on till after dark then set up camp. Around the fire we passed a bottle of whiskey, my first drink in over three months. The others felt great like we'd lucked into something spectacular. I just got more paranoid. A notion had been creeping into my head. Now, thanks to liquor lubrication, I was getting comfortable with it. Comfortable enough to say:
"You guys told me it used to be relatively quiet around here."
Nigel said, "I'd be willing to say the regular violence subsided until recently of course."
Joyce agreed, adding, "The craziest players all got killed off leaving the ones with enough sense to know it's better not to be fighting every day."
Made sense. The blood thirsty is still ruled, but with the lunatics dead or resigned to the corner like Caliban, able to be placated with the occasional offering, society was taking hold. A kind of social entropy took over The Game. It was no longer a daily struggle of kill or be killed.
"Sounds boring," I said.
Nigel snorted, "Perhaps to someone on the outside looking in."
"Exactly," I said.
He opened his mouth to say something then clapped it shut with a frown, "I don't like where this is going."
I said, "It's where it's already gone."
In the distance we could hear the sound of energy weapons crackling, explosions, and gunfire. A beast roared. It sounded alien. Or I should say, once upon a time I'd've found it alien.
I said, "Ratings are down. Time to crank up the crazy, and get people watching again."
And that's when it hit me. We had a chance to escape now.
Part 12: For Your Viewing Entertainment.