I died once. For the most part, I’m certain it wasn’t on purpose. However, after a bottle of cough syrup no one’s sense of reality is absolute. It’s entirely possible some evil intention notion crept into my head while I taped 500 sparklers to a leaky jerry can full of gasoline. The resulting explosion sent a piece of metal straight at my skull. Fortunately it only gave me a severe concussion. Complications ensured, yadda yadda yadda, I was clinically dead for three minutes. Yes, the doctors said I was lucky to survive, yet the odds of survival were better than if, say, a shard went into me. Any part of me. The point is I’ve been dead.
It isn’t pleasant. Riding a golden escalator into the sky seems all well and good until Motley Crue’s Home Sweet Home starts playing. While I’m entirely willing to believe it may have just been a Crue fan’s day to pick the afterlife’s soundtrack – fair is fair – I still worry what that implies: decadal spans of country western music, disco, and jazz fusion passing before anything decent like Smokahontas Jones or Godflesh played. Eternity doesn’t have to feel like a long time.
That said, I understand, perhaps better than most, the hesitation that creeps in at the thought of dying. Sure, I wanted to stay alive for spite, as good a reason as any; however, knowing what lurks in the hereafter is the best motivation to stay alive. What I’m getting at is I completely understood when, after telling her my plan, Joyce said:
“That’s a tall glass of nope.”
I asked why.
“It just is.”
Batting my way through dense foliage I told her I’d need a little more than that.
She shook her head, “Motherfucker is here two days, and thinks he knows it all.”
“I prefer to think of it as motherfucker is here two days, and hasn’t given up.”
“Either way.” – she stopped dead in her tracks, and turned to face me, halting me with a firm hand before I bumped into her – “You’re a fucking idiot.”
“If you tell me why I’m wrong, maybe I can revise the plan.”
“This from the guy who thought he could just walk out of the Raider’s camp.”
“Hey! That almost worked.”
She frowned, though something in her eyes said perhaps any hope is better than none. Still, she was right. I hadn’t been here long enough to know all the ins and outs. What I devised might not have been original, may have even been suicidal, but I wouldn’t know better until she told me otherwise. And the possibility existed I could always build on the failures of others.
Sighing, Joyce said, “It’s been tried before, and it failed.”
We returned to the trudge, our slow steady march to anywhere but here. I wondered how long to wait before needling her for details. Just because a plan fails doesn’t make it wrong. I once knew a guy named Phil Vickers. He believed it was possible to skateboard the length of a moving freight train. Long story short, he fell and lost a leg, but six months later we got someone who actually knew how to ride a skateboard to try it. The rest is internet gold.
Without prompting Joyce said, “When I first got here I hooked up with five strangers. We were all terrified, no idea what was going on. Though, in a way, we were all lucky. We found each other. For a while, we kept one another safe and going. One of us, Lisa, she came up with the same idea as you.”
I didn’t push. Joyce stopped walking. Leaning against a tree she folded her arms across her chest. Some memories are hard to voice. It makes them real.
Joyce said, “We shot one of the camera drones down. And you’re right. A repair crew shows up. Only they show up five seconds after the drone crashes. Flash! They teleport in the same way players arrive. The crew slaps a beacon on the drone, and” – she snapped her fingers – “Gone. Just like that. Whole thing takes like fifteen seconds.”
I said, “What if we…”
“Lisa suggested we try it again, only this time be ready and attack the crew. Bought more time, but we never even got close to the drone. One of the collectors had a device that shot out dinosaurs.”
Despite what I’d seen so far I found that hard to believe.
Joyce ground her teeth together, “It launches beacons, and things like velociraptors are teleported to the beacons.”
That sounded plausible.
Joyce said, “Lisa got ripped to pieces.”
It didn’t take a genius to tell this was a rough memory. How could it not be? A chance at freedom within arm’s reach snatched away as a good friend is devoured by prehistoric predators. Not many people ask for such experiences outside of digital realities.
Joyce went on, “The whole time I could hear that hum. Those fucking cameras -- we were the hotspot, where all the action was going down…”
“So the viewers came.”
Joyce started marching again, “They came to watch us fail; to see a woman ripped apart by dinosaurs.”
I thought people pay for less at the movies, but kept it to myself. There’s a time and a place for snark. It isn’t when someone is remembering the lost. So, for the time being, I changed gears:
“Where are we going?”
At long last our march brought us to an artificial clearing in which stood a small village. I was hesitant at first, but Joyce assured me not everyone in the Game was out for blood. At the village entrance a group of men carrying farming tools greeted us. Joyce swapped a few odd phrases with them that I took to be some kind of code.
Joyce: We keep the ice ready.
Brawny Farmer: Too bad it’s always ready to melt.
Joyce: Not our brand. Solid cold three days running.
Following this exchange the villagers appeared to relax. It only then dawned on me their tools could readily do double duty, farming and killing. Thankfully, Joyce knew to introduce us as friendlies.
When one glanced at me, a small Mexican like a bundle of wires ready to snap, I looked at the scythes in his hands, and immediately said, “The ice is ready. We keep it ready. We cool.”
Joyce said, “Relax.”
It was the first time I’d heard any softness to her voice. Every word between us so far always came with an edge, subtle on occasion, other times obvious as a razorblade. The softness felt like a gift, so I took it.
The farmhand militia led us to a small building that made me think of a tropical bothy. Inside we found an electric fan, a small gas powered generator, a few chairs, and a mattresses.
The Brawny Farmer said, “Feel free to take it easy for a while. Someone will be along with food.”
Joyce got the generator going, and the two of us sat in a steady stream of cool air blown by the fan. It felt like heaven’s own touch. A few people brought us bowls of rice and cuts of grilled meat along with a clay pitcher of water. I devoured my bowl in seconds. It reminded me of fried rice with teriyaki duck. Though she dug in as voraciously as me, Joyce soon slowed to enjoy the meal.
Afterwards, lounging in the artificial breeze, I asked, “What is this place?”
Joyce said, “Not everyone survives by blood. Some people scratch out a living providing food. When factions like the Oakland Raiders or the Gypsy Jesters want food they come here.”
Made sense. Foraging for food in the Game probably took a lot of time and effort with no guarantee of results. The less aggressive players figured out they could survive by farming, and simply giving up a portion of their crops to the more bloodthirsty devils.
Joyce said, “Every few days they leave a portion of whatever they’ve harvested or foraged in the middle of town. Any faction who flies a flag here can take what they want so long as they leave the village alone.”
“I figured as much. So this is like a neutral zone. We’re safe here.”
Grimacing Joyce said, “Not exactly. Caliban doesn’t care. He’ll burn this place down.”
I gritted my teeth for a moment, not relishing having to leave this rapturous rest stop. Still, that was the only thing to do. I said, “Then we can’t stay.”
Joyce got up, “I’ll tell them everything. If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll let us spend the night, but yeah, we have to leave as soon as possible.”
She headed out the door. I watched her through the window. She talked to the Brawny Farmer for a moment. He didn’t look happy when he heard the news. But the fact he hugged Joyce suggested he wasn’t mad at us.
When Joyce came back she said, “We can stay until morning. At first light, we’re gone.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to find out there are mattresses made of futuristic materials which allow for a person to feel as if they’re sleeping on a soft layer of purring kittens, but I doubt I’d sleep any better on one of those than I did on the thin uneven mattress in that tropical bothy. My mind sank into a peaceful oblivion some only find in heroin. That peace let me dream wondrous thoughts such as returning to the Oakland Raiders camp carrying a Vulcan cannon, and cutting through those jungle pirates with a stream of high caliber bullets; their own rounds plinking off my impervious skin as I marched with a flamethrower through the wreckage, incinerating survivors to the cheers of the freed human cattle; and in the end, throwing Black Mix Hendricks into the arms of that tentacle nightmare lurking in the river. We all sat delighted – George, Nigel, Joyce, and me – eating popcorn as tentacles probed Mix Hendricks’ every orifice with savage violent lust. It was a good dream. Part of me even wonders if perhaps it’s possible for two people to share a dream, and that wonder makes me hope Mix Hendricks and I shared this vision.
At first I thought I Joyce was merely calling to me in my dream. I saw her shouting from the middle of the camp. I suspected she wanted me to help bury Lenny the dwarf alive. Then a pair of vice like hands ripped me out of the dream and out of bed simultaneously.
I found myself back in the bothy, two men throwing me on the ground. Before I could make sense of the situation, let alone react, ropes were wrapped around my wrists. The Brawny Farmer stood in one corner holding Joyce firmly in his arms. She struggled, but it was no use. She might as well as have been a paper doll batting at a mountain.
“Goddammit Reese,” she said, “What are you doing?”
“I’m sorry Joyce. We can’t take any chances with Caliban. He wants you. He’s getting you.”
I said, “I get that Caliban is apparently the most terrifying person in the world, but you don’t want to see what I’m like when I bust out of these ropes.”
I then proceeded to thrash widely in my restraints – “Any second now.” -- After a minute it became clear I wasn’t going to break free – “You’re going to regret fucking with me.”
The two men who’d bound me picked me bodily. I kicked backwards, managing to nail one square in the nuts and the other in the knee. They dropped me. The impact knocked the wind out of me. I was just managing to get my feet when Reese the brawny farmer put a foot in the middle of my back. He held me down until his buddies recovered enough to pick me up again.
Reese said, “I really am sorry.”
I said, “After I die, my ghost is coming back to haunt you.”
Without another word the trio carried us to the center of town. There stood five shadowy figures carrying torches. Light didn’t seem to want to touch them. I could see the white paint striping their grimy bodies making them appear more like skeletons than people. So we were delivered into the arms of Hell.
Part 10: Caliban