We crawl the last few meters through the tunnel, and finally, we’re out. We’re still shivering from the cold and covered with dirt, but the hard part is behind us. The Wand is in our possession, and nobody in the castle noticed that it’s missing – otherwise, it would have been a much livelier place than the one we just left.
I take a look at the watchtowers along the castle walls above us. We still aren’t completely out of harm’s way – the Nephilim, infamous for their acute hearing and long-range bows, are patrolling up there. We’ll have to keep quiet while-
I see Janel’s expression change from relief to horror, something I got used to, and this time around, am also ready for. I quickly grab her by the shoulder and put my palm on her mouth before she has the opportunity to scream. Her teeth dig into my flesh, and the pain is almost unbearable, but I manage to keep her quiet. It takes almost half a minute before the large rat gets out of sight, and I can feel the tension slowly disappearing from her body.
It’s been over three years since her family was dethroned and she was forced to escape, hide, and get intimately familiar with the gutters of every major city in the kingdom. But she still hasn’t managed to overcome her rodent phobia.
I let her go. My hand still hurts like hell, but I sigh in relief, and so does she. She then gives me an apologetic look, which I dismiss with a hand-gesture. We start moving slowly away from the castle, and two minutes later, there are dozens of small eyes staring at us from the wet grass.
More rats. The place is infested with them. I can’t stop her from screaming this time around, and soon enough I feel the poisonous arrows piercing my back.
The machine shuts down brutally, like all machines produced in that era, once I “die”. Light in the real world is always stronger than that in the game – even if it comes from a single bulb in the library’s back-room – and my eyes need a few seconds to adjust. I consider reconnecting and trying again, for the fifth time today, but then I check my watch. They’re about to close down here.
I slowly get up from the chair and tilt my limbs a little to give some activity for my aching muscles. Then I eject the cartridge out of the machine and go back to the main hall. The librarian doesn’t even bother looking at me when I put the cartridge on her counter.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but could you help me with something?”
She raises her head from the terminal. It’s the same librarian who’s been working here all throughout the week, a rather cute brunette in her early 20s. But the way she looks at me now, the same way she looked at me every other day, makes it clear that she’s not a bit happy to see me. “What do you want?”
“You know I work with the old machine there, and every time the game is over, it kicks me out. Getting used to the light is a pain whenever this happens, so I was wondering if it’s possible to turn off the lights there-”
“Look, nobody else uses that room and-”
“I said no.”
“But it’s stupid – I’m sure you have no regulations against turning off the lights-”
“I’ll check it out with my boss,” she says in a voice that clarifies she has no intention of doing so. “Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to close down here.”
I just don’t have the time or strength to start arguing with her now, so I leave the library. On the way to the station, my phone rings. I see who it is and let out a long sigh before answering.
“Hi there! Made any progress today?”
“Not really. Still stuck with that screaming bimbo.”
He laughs. “Say, maybe a simpler solution would be to just kill her.”
“Right. And what exactly am I supposed to tell the Rebel Army once I get back?”
“Make something up. You’re good at that.”
I sigh again. “You wanted something?”
“Yes, did you have a chance to think about what I asked you?”
“No. It’s not going to happen.”
“Look, we’re one member short. If you get elected to the Students’ Council, we can change-”
“I told you, Mark, I don’t have the time for this. I’m too busy with the research and my job.”
“Just think about it, will you? The elections are next month. We could really use someone like you there.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” I hang up on him and put an end to another meaningless conversation.
The next day goes surprisingly well. The hours go by fast at work, and when I get back to my apartment I find out that Casey finally dropped by and took away her stuff – three months after we broke up. She left her key at the building’s management office.
I take the bus to the campus, and just like yesterday, there are few people in the library – not unusual during the semester’s break. The machine is hooked up and ready, but the light is on. I sigh, sit down and dive back into the game.
“Days of Glory” only allows the player to save the game in specific designated points, and for some reason, none of them is during the escape through the tunnels or immediately afterwards. So I’m forced to play through it again, up to the exact same spot where Janel’s rodent-phobia is about to kill both of us. And just as it’s about to happen, I recall my conversation with Mark yesterday, and get an idea. Killing her may be a bit too extreme, but…
“Look out,” I whisper in Janel’s ear, and point at the direction opposite to the location of the rat. Her attention is diverted, and I take the opportunity to hit her on the head, hard. She falls unconscious on the ground, the wet thick grass softening the noise. Hopefully, I didn’t do any permanent damage.
I grab her body, and discover that I can drag her with me, but I’m gonna have to lose some baggage. The Wand, of course, is out of the question, which means most of the rations in my bag are going to stay here. This can prove to be a problem later, but I can’t see any other option. I start dragging Janel with me, and I try to do it gently, slowly and silently enough. It’s a nerve wracking experience, but just as the sun is dawning, we’re far enough from the castle and the Nephilim’s arrows’ reach. And judging by the lack of commotion from the castle, they still haven’t noticed that The Wand is missing, which is nothing short of a miracle.
I lean Janel’s body against a small tree, and bring a water-can to her mouth. She coughs, slowly opening her eyes. “What happened?” she asks.
“Some wandering guard in The Overlord’s army went out to take a leak and found us. He managed to hit you in the head before I took him down.”
Her eyes widen. “And the Nephilim did not hear you?”
“I managed to be fast and silent enough about it.” I smile. “Carrying you all the way here was the hard part.”
She smiles back. “My hero.”
A pop-up message informs me that I can now save the game.
Again, my eyes need a few seconds to get used to the light once I’m out of the game, but there’s an annoying glitter at the corner of my vision even after I seem to see everything else normally. I finally get what it is – a small metal key on one of the desks. I take it, and head to the reception counter. That unfriendly librarian from yesterday is also here tonight, moving stuff around furiously, looking under shelves.
“Looking for something?”
She gives me an angry look. “Mind your own business.”
“Come on, it’s late, you’ll have to close down soon, and if you’ve lost something, you have a much better chance finding with me helping you.”
She hesitates for a second, and then lets me in behind the counter. “It’s a key to one of our rare collections. The boss is going to kill me if he finds out that I lost it.”
She goes back to searching the shelves and I pretend to do the same for about a minute before making sure she’s not looking at my direction, taking the key out of my pocket, and saying “Wait – is it this one?”
She gives a very loud sigh of relief as she takes the key from me. “Thanks. You saved my life here.”
“Oh, it was nothing.”
“I mean it, the boss was after my job here for a long time – wants to give it to some relative of his, and looking for a reason to get rid of me.”
“Well, I’m glad I could help.”
“Look, I’m sorry about being such a bitch. It’s just that the game you’re playing with there…”
“That’s ok. Lots of people give me trouble about it. Even those who know that I do it for research.”
“Well, you won’t get any trouble about it from me. Not anymore.”
I smile. “Thanks.”
The next day, when I get to the machine, the lights are off.
We’ve been living like beggars in the streets of Gambis for a week now, trying to collect money with which we can buy enough food for the rest of the journey. It turns out to be a zero-sum game: whatever little money we earn, if it’s not stolen by pickpockets, buys us just enough food to keep going for another day, not even close to the three weeks trip back to Evergreen Forest. Trying to find work anywhere in the city is just too dangerous – The Overlord has ears and eyes everywhere. I knew dropping the rations outside the castle was going to cause us trouble.
I look at the fat, well-dressed man who gets into the restaurant through the alley for the fifth time today. Obviously, the game designers meant for some kind of interaction with him, because otherwise they wouldn’t make this alley the most comfortable spot for us to beg for money and spend the night, and then have him go through it so often. Janel, of course, doesn’t know that.
“Do not even consider it.”
“Look, if you have any better idea, I’m listening. But we’ll never make enough money to…”
“It does not matter. My family lost the throne to a thief. I am not going to reclaim the throne by becoming one.”
“Then let’s at least see if we can beg for some money from him.”
“We tried. He just ignores us.”
“So perhaps we need to be more insistent about it.”
We follow him through the deserted alley. I motion Janel with my head – she’s far more convincing in these matters than I am. She moves in front of him.
“Excuse me, good sire, we are both poor and hungry. Could you please…”
He ignores her. She insists. “Please, I beg of you, we do not ask for much…”
“Move out of my way, filthy whore, or I’ll call the city guard,” he says as he begins to walk faster. To my big surprise, Janel actually tries to stand before him and block his way. “I know you are a kind and…” Her sentence is cut short when he punches her in the face, and she’s thrown to the side of the alley.
That does it. I take The Wand out of the bag, and point it to him. “Anselo,” I whisper, and he freezes in his spot. It’s a little too close to the street, where others can see him, so I drag him deep into the alley and start taking away his possessions.
As it turns, he didn’t hit Janel very hard – she’s already back on her feet and to her usual self. “What are you doing?”
“What we should have done in the first place.”
“I commanded you not to-”
“The man called you a whore. He hit you. Have you gotten so used to this kind of living that you’re willing to let yourself be humiliated like this?”
Her face twist in anger. “What you did had nothing to do with defending my honor.”
“Well, it was about other things as well – like finally getting enough money, or preventing this man from calling the city guard, which he threatened to do. But it was also about defending your honor.” I point at her filthy clothes. “Just because you are not dressed like a princess, doesn’t mean you should forget that you are one.”
Her expression softens. “I think I already forgot. Sometimes I think that all these efforts we do are for nothing.”
“You shouldn’t think so.” I show her the fat man’s heavy purse. “There’s enough money here to buy food that will keep us going for the rest of the journey. But we need to get on the way – by nightfall, this man here will come back to his senses, and will have some interesting stories to tell the city guard.”
She nods, and we leave the alley.
“So, why are you doing your research about that awful game?”
The question catches me by surprise. After I finished playing today, I went to thank the librarian about the whole lights thing. As usual, she was about to close down, and since I already missed the bus back to the apartment and had an hour to wait until the next one, I asked her if she’d like to join me for a cup of coffee in the campus’ cafeteria.
We’ve been talking about all kinds of things for twenty minutes now. Her name is Dana. She’s still doing her BA. Like me, she relies on the Survivors’ Relatives’ Fund for tuition fee and rent. It’s not much, but in today’s living and education standards, it’s passable.
And now, she brings up the game. “Well, you know how popular it was before the war, among many people…”
“Yes, including one very famous person.”
“That’s part of my research too, yes.”
She frowns. “Isn’t it a little sick? Trying to get into the head of a person like that?”
“I’m not ‘getting into’ anyone’s head here. Like I said, the game was popular among many, many people – most of them didn’t do what he did.”
“But it was still his favorite game.”
“One of many. And like I said, it didn’t exactly make him stand out.”
“Come on. You seriously don’t think there’s a connection between what he did and that game?”
“Of course there is. This game – and it’s something that I understand even better now, after playing it for a while – reflects many ideas that fit very well with the ideology of the Superiority Movement which he set up, and the popularity of the game shows that these ideas also had a large public support. This could go a long way to explain how this public brought such a man to power.”
“So, you’re trying to prove that the world’s population was just as sick as he was? Isn’t that like being an apologist for what he did?”
I shake my head. “You got it wrong. Blaming this game for what happened – his rise to power, the war – that’s being an apologist.”
She seems genuinely offended. “For your information, my parents were in the camps, and my mother didn’t make it. It took my father three years to find me again after the war – they did a really good job at the re-education facilities with the whole new-name-new-life thing. I needed a year of therapy before I could remember again who he was, who I was. How exactly am I being an apologist here?”
“So, you’re saying that if the game didn’t exist, all of this – what happened to you – wouldn’t have happened? That the game alone should be blamed for everything that happened?”
She’s about to answer, but then appears to understand my argument and falls silent.
“Well, of course I’m not blaming just the game,” she finally says. “But can you really say that the people who made the game bear no responsibility?”
“No, I don’t think they bear any responsibility – and I don’t know if you heard, but the CEO of the company that made the game was actually one of the first people to be executed in the camps, after he refused to register with Superiority’s propaganda department. In any case, we know that Superiority had its ideology and agenda long before the game was developed, and was already a leading political power by the time it shipped. It didn’t make people into something they weren’t already.”
“I still don’t understand. Why are you researching that game?”
I sigh. “I suppose I was wrong when I said that I don’t get into people’s heads. I do. Playing this game is a good way to understand what they were thinking, what made them do what they did. Even if it wasn’t the reason for what they did, it’s a very good reflection of their state of mind.” I hesitate before I put my hand on the top of hers. “I’m sorry about what you’ve been through – but you know better than anyone else how difficult it is for people to talk about what happened back then. Most of the people who survived weren’t victims like you, they were collaborators. Unlike them, this game doesn’t lie. It’s the best testament for what they did.”
She nods slowly. “I think I see where you’re going.”
“But you disagree.”
“Well, like I said, I can’t exactly be neutral on the subject.”
“Nobody’s asking you to.”
We keep talking for another ten minutes, and then I’m off to catch my ride. I ask her if she wants to meet again, and she says yes.
We spend the next day killing goblins. At first I thought that they set an ambush for us, but no – they just stormed on us, in waves, for no apparent reason. Believe me that after spending two weeks of sleeping in the alleys of Gambis, we didn’t give the impression of having anything worth stealing.
And still, they come. One core concept in every fantasy game of that era was that goblins never learn: they attack you, no matter how poor you look, and they keep coming at you, no matter how painfully you kill them, until there’s none left. They barely manage to scratch me with their rusty daggers as I cut them half, behead them, and pierce their heart (or whatever it is they have there). Janel uses The Wand to make them burn, explode and melt – her fearlessness seems odd, considering how smaller creatures like rodents made her so hysteric. When we kill the last one, the pile of dead goblins makes the hill a few feet higher, and we need to move a mile away, since we don’t want to spend the night within that stench. The sad, though not really unexpected part of all this, is that they didn’t even carry enough treasure to make it worth all the trouble.
But the day’s activity seems to have kept Janel’s spirit up. I realize that I may have hit upon something significant for my research here.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I ask her when we sit near the fire.
“Killing all those goblins like this.”
She gives me a puzzled look. “Of course it does not bother me. They are goblins.”
“In the city, you gave me such a hard time about robbing that man. Now you have no reservations about…”
“It’s different. They are goblins.”
“Still, you spoke of how you intend to rule when you take back the crown, not wanting to become a thief while doing so. But there’s nothing morally wrong with killing goblins?”
The question obviously frustrates her – because I don’t seem to get the idea. “Of course there is nothing morally wrong with that. They are goblins.”
I give up. The AI programmers obviously didn’t think ethical discussions are a worthy feature. I feed the fire with some more wood as I prepare for a night’s sleep (and a saved game, before I unplug). To my surprise, Janel grabs me by the shoulder, and pulls me toward her. “Come,” she whispers as she presses her lips to mine.
When I go out with Dana, we go killing Superiority soldiers. It happens in what used to be a small peaceful suburb, and is now an urban wasteland of ruined buildings, the kind that I (and I assume that Dana too) still remember from the war. The soldiers hide and leap on us from dark corners – they’re smarter than goblins, that’s for sure – but armed with surprisingly lightweight machine guns, we manage to take them down one by one. And yet they keep coming. When we finally finish the level, we can’t move without stepping on a dead soldier’s body. Dana waves her gun in the air and gives a primal scream of victory before we unplug.
“You seem exhausted,” she remarks with an amused smile as we move away from the machines toward one of the dinner tables at the mall.
“It was intense. And I already had my share of virtual-fighting today, before you suggested we come here. To be honest, I didn’t think you were into gaming.”
She shrugs. “I don’t like that game you’re researching, because it was the favorite game of the greatest killer in human history. I don’t like most games of that era, or fantasy-gaming in general. But killing Superiority bastards is always fun.”
“And it doesn’t bother you?”
“Before we came here, I spent the day killing goblins. I don’t think… I mean, you don’t have any goblins in the real world, but there are still plenty of people who served in the Superiority Forces running around. After the general pardon…”
Her face darkens when I mention the general pardon. “These people are no better than your goblins. They’re worse, because what they did happened in the real world. Believe me, if it was legal, I would have taken a gun and personally shot these people for real.”
“So, you play this game because you can’t kill them in the real world?”
“Look, I’m not a test subject in your stupid research, ok? Just leave this alone.”
I try to apologize, but the rest of the evening goes in awkward silence. We finish dinner, and take the bus back. To my surprise, just as the bus approaches her apartment, she pulls me toward her and kisses me. The bus stops, and she pulls me out with her, toward her apartment. “Come,” she whispers.
Nagleen, the High Priest of Evergreen Forest, looks a lot less impressive in the comfort of his own tent than he does while preaching to his followers. Standing close to him, it’s easy to notice how fat he is, fatter than any other member of the Rebel Army, and my guess would be that he’s been eating large portions of the food given to him by the commoners as an offering to The Gods (though I’m not sure if the game’s programmers actually went this far in rationalizing just how repulsive he looks). When not standing on a stage, he seems sickeningly lazy – especially for someone like me, who spent the last month (several months in game-time) running for his life all over the kingdom.
But I try the civilized approach first. We need this man’s influence. “I am sorry to bother you with such matters, High Priest, but The Princess is worried. Ever since we returned with The Wand, you have denied her any contact with her army or her people. In fact, your guard only allows her to get out of her tent we you need her to stand beside you during your preachings – and even then she’s not allowed to say anything.”
The mocking smile on his thick lips makes me want to strangle him on the spot.
“She forgot her place.”
“What ‘place’? She works her ass off here in the library for a miserable salary. You should really pick another victim for you leadership-practice.”
That annoying smile on Dana’s boss’ face widens. “All your girlfriend needs to do is apologize, and I’ll give her the job back.”
“Come on. After the way you treated her, she had every right to talk to you like she did.”
“I treat her like I treat all the other folk of Evergreen – like someone who should always remember that she is, after all, merely a subject of The Gods. I am afraid that The Princess is in need of stronger reminders, since she is so used to people being her subjects.”
“You are aware, of course, that The Princess has spent several years running and hiding. The people of Evergreen are not her ‘subjects’ and she doesn’t treat them like they are. They are her followers, and she has the right to approach them in person.”
“I do not think little of what The Princess has been through, and I recognize her… symbolic value to the people. But the principal is the same. The people should follow The Gods, not other people, even ones as noble as The Princess.”
“I am sure The Gods do not fear the competition. Maybe you do?”
The smile suddenly vanishes from his face.
“Get out of my office.”
“Or else? You’ll fire Dana? Oh, I forgot, you already did that.”
“You know that you’re proving my point? She sent you here to try to talk me into giving her the job back instead of coming herself. This just goes to prove I was right to fire her.”
I lean on his desk. “Dana doesn’t know I’m here. She doesn’t think you can be persuaded, so she didn’t bother coming. This says more about you than it does about her.” I bring my face very close to his. “But I’m not here to persuade you.”
For the first time, fear shows on the High Priest’s face. “As I am sure you noticed, there are guards standing outside my tent.”
“I noticed. I have also sent them away to join The Princess’ guards. I started a rumor about an assassin sent by The Overlord to the forest, to kill The Princess. Your guards were very quick to go to The Princess’ tent. I suppose they value her life much more than yours.” I pull out a dagger that bears the insignia of The Overlord. The High Priest opens his mouth to scream, but I move faster, putting my hand around his mouth.
Then I stab him in the chest.
A week later, while the police are still investigating the disappearance of her boss, the newly appointed library manager is quick to recognize Dana for the talented, hard worker she is, and gives her a promotion. I suggest we celebrate, and she invites me to her apartment, but it’s clear that she isn’t about to celebrate anything. Not with me.
“You have served me well, mercenary,” she says while sipping from her glass. “And be assured that you will be rewarded for your efforts. But the time has come for you to leave my court.”
“You’re dumping me.”
Janel sighs. “Surely you can see my position here. I am now queen of this land, and I cannot be seen in the company of a mercenary and a killer.”
“Oh come on, say it already. What’s the name of that guy you’ve been hanging out with?”
She blushes. “It’s true that the Royal Heir of Ogden has asked for my hand, and I am about to accept. It is for the benefit of our people.”
“So you’re saying that what we had – that’s nothing to you.”
“It was a mistake. I was alone, frightened. I…” her expression suddenly changes, and she begins to cough, choking. She falls down on the floor, her fingers twist, and she gives me a last desperate look before her face turns lifeless.
I find myself wondering if I was too generous with the amount of pills I put in her drink. Or maybe I wasn’t generous enough? Nah, the bitch deserved to suffer. I pull out a fancy pen – a memento I took from her former boss, and drop it in an obvious enough but not too obvious spot. Now the police can have their suspect.
As I head back to my place, feeling better than ever, I call Mark on the phone. “Say, is it too late for me to run for the seat at the Students’ Council?”