Short Story: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

By day, they were no more than a group of nerds– social outcasts banded together from their mutual trait of having been exiled from the other cliques of the standard, American high-school. By night however, they were two psionics, a tank-built soldier, a sniper, and a combat medic whom specialized in healing their wounds. Their goal was not to gripe about the bully of the day, or become enveloped in social commentary on their less-enlightened peers. Instead, they came together for one reason; to game.

When they entered the basement where the walnut-wooded table with its soft, velvet top, resided, they were instantly transported to a universe both similar and so unlike their own. Each night their surroundings were different. At times they might be slogging through a scot-like bog, ascending great nordic-dwarfing mountains engulfed in blizzards, or even delving deep into a labyrinthine bunker of blood and danger.

To the casual observer their D20s were just curiously-shaped number cubes, but to them they were their Gods. Its rolls were the Gods’ words, commandments they were bound by honor to follow whether through great success or unimaginable misery. With each toss, they might find themselves in mortal peril that even the most clever of schemes could not correct. With one mistake, they might doomed, slain before they could react, or else they might defeat their enemy, scour its corpse for loot.

To them, the game was life, the automated die-tracker built-in to the table the oracle of all things good and evil. The randomized, procedurally-generated scenarios eternally crawled from the table’s speakers and the Game Master’s, synthesized, female voice to give narration to the landscapes that rose and fell before them in their Augmented Reality glasses. Each step, breath, and move was tracked in real-time before them as though they were there.

When the tank’s roll came up positive, combat began with him in the lead. His avatar so curiously resembled him sans the full-body armor it wore. Like it, he was enormous; a giant, fleshy redwood that lumbered through space-stations, across foreign planets, and along hidden trails to combat encounters. Like him, his primary weapon– a shotgun– was big, loud, and intimidating. In reality, the soldier was little more than a giant with more heart than flesh– but this wasn’t real-life, that was the point.

Invariably, behind him the Psionics would be scanning the horizon with their sub-machine guns. Whether it was a jungle, ice-field, or even open desert, they’d both be in single-file behind their leader. There was only the smallest hint of a ever-present field of super-opaque blue around them, an effect of their psionic barriers interacting with their armor’s shields. The shimmer told of powerful psychics ready to manipulate sub-atomic matter at a moment’s notice, unleash hell on any would-be attackers.

To that end, the combat medic would be second to last, always with her assault rifle shouldered to suppress any enemies and head for cover. When the others’ shields failed, or the tank-like solider drew too much aggro, she would lay down fire, rush to aid with medical tools, and keep death’s scythe at bay.

Meanwhile, the sniper at their rear-guard would never falter. Her long-rifle was steady, attached bi-pod waiting to be deployed or her light-bending cloak activated to make her invisible to the naked eye. Then could she duck down, bob, or weave through the enemy advance to gain the high-ground, out flank them. Even outside of combat she was ready to sneak ahead of the others, leave the rear-guard to the medic to take up over-watch on a ridge. There she could observe and mark enemy positions and patrol-routes on the over-head, A-R map accessed in real-life by a simple button press on the side of their A-R glasses.

When things finally kicked off, be it from crude, synthetic life-forms; their more-advanced, less obvious android counterparts, or any of the other multitudes of human or alien pirates, mercenaries, or rogue soldiers, they were prepared. The tank’s job, his duty, was to keep the others safe, lead them to victory. With a howling war-cry he’d boost their various stats to increase their resolve, initiative, and stamina, then sprint headlong into the furthest cover forward to take aim with his shotgun and blast their adversaries apart.

Behind him the Psionics would further buff the groups’ stats, spray SMG bursts at the enemies, or manifest elements in their hands to hurl at clustered or individual enemies. Beside them, the medic kept her aim true, ready to bolt and heal at a moment’s notice while her rifle barked with muzzle flashes, spit fire at already-doomed enemies. The few that crossed the sniper’s sights stood no chance, especially when her cloak was still engaged to increase her damage. Even at full health, a single-round from her rifle might strike them down, eliminate the threat altogether.

On the inside, they were more than “nerds,” more than any, singular moniker could apply to them, really. They were a well-oiled military machine, a five-man army with all the fire-power, cunning and honor of even the most fabled war combatants. To see them outside, one would never believe that they had mastered the virtual arts of infiltration, matter manipulation, weaponry or medicine. But such is the deceptive nature of the world. The five needed no approval from those outside the universe they inhabited outside their own. They needed only to rely on each other, both in and out of game, were all the stronger for it.

It is in the nature of the man, like the gamer, to band with those that best compliment their qualities and short-comings. In true gamer fashion, they settled disputes in-game and out with honor-bound duels– either of words or weapons. Even with the latter, no-one was so stupid as to cut the throat, go for the kill, lest they wish the game to end for everyone. Their almost civilized-brutality might have frightened those outside the circle, but the five were well-aware of that.

They were better for it, always respectful for fear of incurring wrath and having their honor-challenged by one whose skills were less advanced. Otherwise, like the game, attacking one meant bringing the full-force of the team against them. Outcast or not, the solider especially was not one to take such attacks lightly. Then again, there were few who would dare to face them at all. At that, they emanated an air of confidence, because– as the adage goes– appearances can be deceiving, and that most certainly applied to them.

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