"Gypsy Jesters seem to be well armed."
There was no doubt in my or Nigel's mind about her real intentions. As much as Joyce wanted to escape she craved a little payback on the way out. I didn't see any reason to deny her.
It wasn't hard to find a Jesters' outpost, though coming up with a strategy other than Joyce's Go-In-N-Blow-They're-Balls-Off stratagem proved difficult. She stuck doggedly to her desire to chase a cloud of bullets into the camp, and run out behind a similar screen. No matter what logical rebuttal Nigel or I made she insisted on admonishing us as pussies. Our debate went on longer than I care to admit, thanks in no small part to several rounds of exchanges such as:
"I may be a cunt, but at least I'm not a coward."
"Actually, sir, I dare say you're both."
"Please don't agree with me Joyce, it makes me feel wrong."
By the time the three us got close to anything resembling a compromise our plans needed to change. A small flock of cameras went humming by overhead, and settled in a holding pattern over the Jester compound. Everyone knew that could only mean one thing. Even the Jesters appeared to be running around, preparing for any kind of an assault.
We waited... waited... the sun started to set. Scanning the distant tree line with a set of binoculars, Nigel nudged me with his elbow. Passing the spy glass to me, I followed where he pointed to a lone figure perched in the trees. It was difficult to spot the person, though once I saw them -- a breeze moved the leaves just enough to give a peek -- my heart skipped. The longer I looked, hoping some trick of the light inspired the sight, the more certain it became Caliban's people lurked in the nearby jungle, waiting for darkness to attack.
I whispered to Nigel, "You think they're here for us?"
Nigel shook his head, "I don't see how."
"What is it?"
I didn't want to say anything, but Nigel gave me a grim nod suggesting I let Joyce in. Handing her the binoculars I said, "Caliban is here."
She snatched them, and strained to see through the dying light. When her nut brown tan faded noticeably, I knew she'd seen them.
Swallowing hard Joyce said, "This is it."
"Not if we keep on moving," I said. I figured we could always try again later, but only if we were alive.
Joyce said, "No. Now or never."
Nigel cocked an eyebrow, "The lady has a point."
I grumbled in opposition, though part of me knew they were right. There would never be a better time than that moment. The chaos of the ensuing battle, the presence of the drones, night, all would combine to increase the odds in our favor. So I said, "Fine. Yeah. Now."
Having seen, roughly, the position of Caliban's people we were able to watch the scene unfold. Caliban's devils crept through the tall grass like skilled predators. Unconcerned with however long it took them, they slunk closer and closer to the camp. Any Jesters they encountered on patrol disappeared as if they'd been swallowed up by the earth. By the time the rest of the camp realized anyone was missing, it was too late. Caliban's onslaught began.
With the Jester's surrounded, Caliban's people burst from the grass, appearing as if out of nowhere, a howling horde of naked people painted to look like skeletons. Several of the Jesters froze at the sight. Savages yes, but by no means primitives, Caliban's devils traded in silent knives for the all out frenzy of flying teeth, tearing through the camp with assault rifles. But once the Jesters recovered from the initial shock, they returned fire with zeal. This wasn't just a skirmish between rival factions, this was a fight to either stop Hell or unleash it. The Gypsy Jesters knew what losing meant all too well, while Caliban's people were ravenous for a fresh blood orgy.
At the first crack of gunfire Nigel, Joyce, and I ran towards the camp. An explosion lit up the night. We stayed focused, charging straight towards the fray. A Jester began firing a weapon like an automatic flare gun, popping off several red sizzling dots in a row. Anything organic the flares hit burst into flame, while anything metal soon glowed red and melted. We plunged into the heart of the conflict. Clack-clattering of rifle fire all around, hissing of energy weapons, screams of the dying, howling and snarling from Caliban's devils, explosions -- I felt terrified beyond reason.
I know that isn't the heroic thing to say. In fact, one would suspect that by this point I'd overcome such reactions to The Game. However, the exact opposite is true. I learned that surviving didn't always mean thinking. Thoughts can lead to second guesses, seconds guesses to hesitation, and surviving this kind of chaos meant reacting at a moment's notice -- don't think, do. I saw a Jester, I fired. I saw one of Caliban's skeletons, I fired. Fear overrode reason, killing the ability to remember simple facts like no one can outrun a bullet, the odds of survival in this particular situation are against you, and the notion you've lived enough do you really want more? Sometimes fear is the greatest motivator of all because it stops a person from thinking there is another choice, a more sane route. So I plunged into the nightmare.
I caught up to Nigel and Joyce behind a shed.
Joyce said, "I saw a guy run into that building, and come out with, I dunno what. It looked wicked."
Nigel took the lead without another word. There was no time to spare. We followed him to the haphazard building Joyce indicated. Inside brought tears to my eyes. Everything we could have ever needed resided within. From booze to bullets, the Jesters' warehouse held it all.
We loaded up. At one point I actually had to ditch a few weapons as I lost the ability to walk properly -- guns are heavy. But eventually I balanced things out.
"Stick to the plan," I said, and led us back out into the fracas.
While the Jesters continued fighting Caliban, our trio took aim at the sky. RPGS on hand, we fired at the camera-drones. As soon as one dropped, we reloaded and fired again, and again, knocking drones out of the air one after the other. It wasn't long before teleport modules began blinking into sight and spitting out the recovery crew. The team found themselves in the middle of the carnage, yet barely batted an eye. Clad in heavy black and red armor, they mowed down anything that stepped near them or the downed drones. However, I couldn't help thinking some of their weapons were designed more for intimidation than practicality like the gun that appeared to generate as well as launch growling chainsaws.
In any event, the plan was working. Although the crews merely needed to slap a transponder tag onto a downed camera, thereafter the damaged machine almost immediately being teleported away, Joyce, Nigel, and I shot so many down the crews couldn't keep up. The recovery team was soon stuck just trying to stay alive in the midst of the fight let alone get their job done.
The remaining cameras soon lifted to greater heights -- out of range. Through the burning night I caught sight of someone from the recovery team, alone, hurrying back to a teleport module.
This was our chance, possibly the only one we'd get.
I took off running, the others following close behind me. Joyce fired as she ran, taking out Gypsy Jesters and Caliban's devil all along the way. I focused on the distance to the module. It felt like trying to run to the Moon. But then I was shouldering the armored figure into the module. Soon enough, Nigel and Joyce crammed themselves in behind me.
I jammed a gun into the throat of the recovery crewman, shouting, "Take us out of here! Take us out now!"
"All right, all right," the crewman replied then added, "Retrieval this is Echo 7 requesting return."
Through the crewman's helmet I heard a crackle of static then a voice muttered, "Roger that Echo 7. Prepare for return."
Everything started to flicker like a sputtering film reel. I felt that head over heels tumbling, and splashed into peaceful darkness for the blink of eye. The first time it'd been an unsettling experience, but now it was wonderful. I didn't care what happened next.
The world snapped back to solidity. The hiss of the door behind us caused our trio to pour out of the module, dragging the crewman as a human shield. We expected resistance, an armed guard of some kind. What we got was a lone man in a three piece suit applauding. He smiled in a way that although friendly made me uncomfortable.
He said, "Well done. Haven't seen anything this exciting in a long, long time." -- he held out his hand, but kept his distance -- "How you doing? Peter Winters."
I said, "Hi, Peter. I'm Fuck, this is You, and she's Asshole."
Peter lowered his hand, but his smile didn't diminished. He said, "I'd like to congratulate you on being one of the very few people to ever escape The Game."
"Right-o, though I don't think this qualifies as escape until we're actually free," Nigel said.
"Look," Peter said, shaking his head, "Let's get one thing clear. We teleported you up here. If we wanted to we could've sent you right back down, or out into the ocean. So please, calm down. We're bringing you out."
None of us relaxed our position. Meanwhile, dozens of technicians hurried about around us, ignoring the standoff, as they rushed to repair the damaged drones.
Joyce pointed her gun at Peter, "Let us go, or I'll shoot you."
Peter said, "I don't doubt it. But I need you to understand something: I want you to get out."
"Then open the doors, and let us out," I said.
Peter shook his head, "It's not that simple."
I said, "It never is. Joyce, shoot him."
"Hold on! Hold on!" -- Peter threw up his hands -- "We're in the middle of the ocean."
"Which ocean?" Nigel asked.
"Atlantic," Peter replied, "So even if I open the doors, you aren't going to get far... until I give you the keys to a boat."
Very slowly he reached into a pocket and pulled out a set of keys. He pointed out there were no guards, and though the impulse not to trust him persisted, a part of me wanted to hear what he had to say. So one might say we listened to his pitch.
We'd been right. The ratings were in decline, and a program like The Game couldn't survive a ratings dip considering its expense. Even one cancelation threatened to shut the whole operation down. In order to bring viewers back, General Global Consumption brought in a new producer. Enter Peter Winters.
Peter stepped away from the full on reality aspect, and started aiming the program more towards behind the scenes manipulation of events. They pumped in chemicals to make the animals more hostile, started dumping weapons caches in random locations, they even coaxed Caliban towards the Jester outpost in the hopes quote "you or Joyce would square off against him, but sadly, you can only control so much."
When he proposed sending us back, teleporting us into the heart of Caliban's tribe, I shot him in the knee.
Twenty minutes later a medical team had him bandaged and sufficiently pumped full of painkillers to get back on track:
"I've been following you three. In fact a lot of our viewers have. See the problem the last few years is that all the players settled in. You three are the first in way too long to try outright escaping. And that's when I got a brainwave."
I said, "You're going to let us go to imply escape is possible."
Peter clapped his hands together, "Precisely. You three will become myths within The Game, inspiring others to attempt the same."
He went on about a series of necessary nondisclosure contracts we'd have to sign first, alongside a mind boggling amount of money we'd be paid over the next several years to stay silent, but the gears in my head wouldn't get away from one or two sticky notions about morality. The so-called players were people snatched off the streets, plunged into a blood drenched asylum where they could die in minutes, or spend years staggering through brutality in the hope of dying quickly, all the while on display for secret audiences around the world. If I got out, took the money, then I'd be a part of that system.
Taking a stand, turning down the offer felt like the right thing to do. Yet, how long could I actually expect to survive in The Game? There was no doubt in my mind I'd be dumped back into the jungle the second I refused. Plus, if I turned him down, Peter Winters sounded like the kind of person who'd douse me in T-Rex pheromones and leave me to get raped to death by the king of dinosaurs, all on live pay-per-view -- order now!
And where the hell was Nigel, an anthropomorphized baboon going to live in the outside world?
Still, survival isn't always about doing the right thing, although being human is. Either way, no one knows what they're going to do in a particular situation until they have to actually do it. Take the deal, or return to The Game.
Joyce and Nigel could decide however they wanted. As for me, I said...