Short Story: Immortalized

She didn’t know how to say it. Writing it was easier, but speaking it was difficult. A few days ago, she couldn’t have even done that. Thinking of it was still painful, but before– in the first moments following it– even thoughts had failed her. Now, here she sat, staring at the log-in screen of her own computer, in her own gaming chair. Beside her, his empty chair and blank screen inflected a terrible grief on her heart. It choked her up, what needed to be done, but she had to do it.

It was like that old adage of “the show must go on.” Only it wasn’t a show. For her, it was life. Life had to go on. Most people found comfort in that, solace in the idea that it’d one day end. They held vain hopes of reunions. She didn’t. She had only the grim reality of the lonely present. They’d met through a screen, just like the one she watched now. The character had been different then; blue-gray skin in place of the pasty white. Black hair where it was now bright red. The bright palettes of high-level armor had adorned the elf-body though, as it did now. She remembered the first time she ever saw him, in-game. Love at first sight didn’t exist for her. It wasn’t going to either. Through avatars of druid bulls, archer-orks, or anything else the game manifested, it simply couldn’t.

His words, those were real. His actions, by proxy at first, were real too. The twelve years of love, happiness, and marriage since were even more real.

All of it had come from a raid night. she’d been invited to join his guild for the chance of epic loot and hordes of XP, in exchange for healing magic. No-one had any idea what they’d started. Before long, she was up all night with him, playing after the rest of the Guild had retired. She’d always been his support, his crutch. Even after things had gone from game-life to real-life. His upbringing had left him with more emotional baggage, but he managed it with a rogue-like agility that defied the tank-builds he played.

She understood that paradox better than anyone: He’d always thrown himself into the thick of things to save others. The scars on his face and back said so. They were small, subtle, but there. She remembered them as well as the earthen hair and eyes she’d caress and stare into. Most of all, she remembered how he’d gotten them, a story he’d only told once. It was all the times she’d needed.

He’d been quiet, voice softer than a mouse’s. He’d come home from work one night as a teen, later than usual. His father had decided to take out his pink-slip on his sister. He fought back for the first time that night. His sister cowered, bloody and bruised in a corner, as he was beaten almost to death that night. His parents told the paramedics he’d fallen down the stairs. They’d hid the little sister in her room. Everyone knew the lie, but Martin kept quiet for his mother’s sake. The belt marks were too distinct. The scars from the buckle obvious. It had gouged skin like a garden rake to chaff.

A friend of his informed the police soon after. They raced over and caught Martin’s father in the act. As far as she knew, he still hadn’t shown his face. More than two decades had passed. But Martin held no grudges, especially at the end. That he was gone now was unbearable.

She took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and keyed in her password. A prompt flashed for a secondary authentication, and she typed in a pass-code sent to her phone via text. The loading screen with its mini-game about cute elves went untouched. It dissolved to the field where she’d last logged out beside him. They’d played for hours and hours together, expecting an end. Yet somehow, they both knew when it was the last time. They’d returned to the field where they’d first met, where she’d first joined the guild to raid, and stood beside one another to watch the animated landscape.

There was a resignation in Martin then. He just held her hand, in game and out, and stared into the distance. It was as if things had come full circle. Only Martin could say what or how. Even now, her eyes leaked to think of that sad despair in his ailing grip.

She wiped an eye, keyed in a command to pull up the guild-chat menu. All but a couple of the regulars were on. It didn’t surprise her. It was prime farming time. After-work hours were guaranteed to find the full-Guild in voice chat. The couple that weren’t there were still friends. She had to wait. It was only a few minutes before they appeared, almost in tandem. She cleared her throat, wiped away a few more tears, and slipped on her headset. She sent invites to join a party, at her location, to everyone. Another few minutes passed before the twenty-odd people had assembled before her in-game.

Like Martin before, she felt something had come full-circle. She stood in the same field where she and Martin had first met. Where she and everyone had first met. The assembly armored creatures stood in two lines before her, sensing what was to be said. They felt no need to rush her, nor could have for anything in the world.

Her breath shook. Her voice warbled and wobbled. “You are mine and Martin’s best friends. He loved you. As I do. Like f-family.” She involuntarily sucked air through her teeth. It rip the hearts from every guild member. “That is why, I feel it my duty to…”

She sucked air again. No one moved. The avatars merely watched, awaiting the inevitable words. Not even they wished to sully the moment with idly animated movement. It was obvious the group was as heart-sick and grieving as she was.

“I feel it my duty to… tell you Martin’s battle with cancer ended this week.” A near-imperceptible slump of shoulders appeared from the assembled creatures– or the players’ grief was so thick in the air, it felt that way. “He w-wanted me to th-thank you for everything you’ve done. If it were not for your kindness, the last few months would’ve been unbearable. I f-feel the same. You’re the family neither of us has had but wished for. I can only thank you for that, for me and for Martin.”

The field sank once more into silence. It lasted a long moment before a character suddenly materialized from thin air. Judging by the rare, exclusive armor, and the lone markings of “GM” and a single name, it was one of the game’s admins– the big wigs that worked on it, and whose power in this place exceeded a God’s.

He looked to the assembled characters. “Forgive my interruption. I understand this is a time of great pain, but my presence was requested by Mr.Fluffers.” He said as a random guild-member bowed amid the assembly. “You’ve lost a member of your guild. I understand the depth of that bond. So in your friend’s honor, I give you this.”

With a flashing spell-cast, a statue in the place where Martin would have stood beside her– where he had stood, time and time again. Cast in bronze, and identical to his character, his name was inscribed on its base– the ultimate honor any player could ever hope for. The GM turned to eye Martin’s wife and friends.

“I didn’t know him, but seeing his friends– his family– here today, I know he was a good man that kept good company. I am truly sorry for your loss. I dedicate this field in his honor, to be known as Martin’s field. It cannot remove your loss, but it can assure you he will be forever remembered.”

With that, the GM knelt, and placed a glowing, golden flower at the base of Martin’s statue. The rest shuffled over to do the same. She cried openly on the voice chat, more from gratitude than grief. She knew some bonds could not be broken. Death only made them stronger. But so too, it seemed, some people transcended death itself. Their spirit was so powerful a force as to become immortalized in ways man could never have imagined. For her part, she was just glad to have known him. To have loved him. Even if their time together was shorter than she’d have liked.

Short Story: Triggermen

Spotlights threw their beams and heat across two-rows of computers, situated back-to-back before pinstriped Racer chairs. The high-power LAN was accented by LED peripherals that inflected slight hints of color over the otherwise bright white. Beyond them, along the three sides of the arena, the crowd roared in, riled by the convention taking place outside. They sat in their seats as restless and bloodthirsty as any crowd could be. Cube-like displays of flat-screen televisions hanged scatter-shot from the ceiling, ensuring no-one missed a second of the mayhem about to commence.

Slideshow of teams about to enter the arena with short bios and photographs flickered past. Digital banners ceremoniously proclaimed, “Triggermen World-Champion Clan Match: Icewind [ICWND] vs Phantom Cobra [PCBRA].” Triggermen, arguably the greatest E-Sports title ever created, had grown from a few groups of fanatical fans to millions of players, and countless clans, in only a few short years. The first Triggermen championships forever changed competitive gaming.

Mechanically, the game was nothing special; simple team or free-for-all game modes, and a few others more cult-favorites than competitive. The real prize was the immersion. Triggermen managed to suck a player in, as if they were really there, fighting for base-rights, hostages, or bombs. Either from the expertly crafted-atmosphere, the absorbing environments, or the pitch-perfect sound effects, there was something about Triggermen that had captured every player and transported them to a new world.

The two teams filed in. Cheers nearly staggered them. Some players waved or made vague gestures of gratitude or love. Others remained straight-faced, unaffected, too focus to let the crowd gain purchase in their minds. They took their seats, fitted their headsets, and keyed in their credentials. With their profiles loaded, each player chose their load-out and prepped for game-play. The start counter began at 10, prompted hands to make their last, minute adjustments.

Among the teams was Brandon Dodgson, also known as BurntVenom, or just Venom. It was only luck that his gamer-tag had slotted him a place on a team where Venom actually made sense, though he hated the first part of the ages-old gamertag. None of that fronted Venom’s mind though. Like always, Triggermen had completely taken over. He sat amid the rest of Phantom Cobra, taunted by into a rabid fury by a downward tick of a digital clock; “3” coursed fresh adrenaline through Cobra. “2” readied them for bloody gun battles, flowing improv-strategy, and hostage rescue. “1” poised them forward, ready to beat Icewind to their hostages and back to base first.

The teams found themselves at opposite sides of a large map, lined up like their seats in the long dissolved area. “0” flashed as boots hit dirt and beat a cloud of dust with headlong-sprints, Venom among them. He knew the map well, better than most; three, main paths were laid out between the two bases. Cobra’s hostages were sequestered inside the opposing base, just behind Icewind’s spawn. A few shortcuts here and there cut diagonal paths between main through-ways to give players ambushing options– or ambushee options.

Venom knew the cuts well, but he wasn’t about to start the shit-storm of close-quarters fighting. He kept his sights forward, broke into pairs to assault the three, main paths. Slicer was with him; the only girl on the team, and more ballsy than most of the other guys. She insisted on being called a tomboy, wearing the label as something of an achievement. When Slicer’d joined Cobra, Venom cared less about her genitals than if she’d be an asset. A few matches later, she’d smoked the rest of Cobra in 1-vs-1s– Venom hadn’t let anyone else cover him since. She was always at his side, he at hers, and this championship wasn’t going to be any different.

They sprinted through the foliage of the first path, followed its decline, and slowed near its mid-point. They vaulted over a fallen tree, dropped into cover between it another, knowing the play. They’d run it more times than they cared to count. Venom covered slicer with his rifle as she slipped over the tree beside him, shouldered her way along a ruin’s to the short-cut’s opening. She crouched at the passage’s mouth jutting from the jungle around them, and slapped down a proximity explosive.

The first sounds of gunfire erupted in the distance. Slicer hopped back into place beside Venom. Someone on Cobra radioed “C” was breached.” Venom ignored it, B-route was his. So long as they did their job, everyone else would do theirs. He vaulted over the tree as Slicer had, repeated her actions at the mouth of the passage’s opposite side, then knelt to cover Slicer’s advance.

She sprinted past the passages, Venom on her tail. The sloping ground continued for a quarter Klick, leveled out in a low brook gurgling with a shallow current. A few tall stones and toppled trees scattered around the area provided cover. Venom dropped into a crouch behind a stone, angled sideways to see the path forward. Slicer threw herself to her belly, crawled for the cover of tall reeds along the brook’s far-edge.

Rifle fire chattered over the low booms of explosives and shotguns. “A” was being fought for, hard, “B” seemed desolate. There was no way to be certain I-W wasn’t lying in wait, or worse, causing a distraction to extract their hostages. Venom and Slicer could only wait so long before forced to advance on I-W’s base, and their own hostages. When that time passed, they knew of only one way to play it.

Venom was out of cover in his crouch, weaving a random zig-zag to keep anyone watching from predicting his movements or hitting him with gunfire. When he reached the far-side of the brook’s clearing, Slicer jumped up and sprinted for his side. She crouched again beside him, followed in-step to begin the forward advance toward IW’s base.

The ground sloped up, a perfect place for an ambushing sniper to wait for them to appear. Slicer dropped prone, inched upward along the left side of the trail. Venom mirrored the movements at the opposite side of the path. Slicer’s head peeked over the rise. A distant rifle barked. Debris dusted the air a few feet forward. Slicer inched back down, heart racing. Venom knew what to do: it had to be him. The only way to force the sniper to shift his aim would be for him to run– without that split second misdirection, Slicer couldn’t get a shot off.

“On three,” she whispered. “One.”

“Two.”

“Three!”

Venom was sprinting in his zig-zag. Erratic barks traced his path forward. He bobbed and weaved in the open, no cover in sight. A lone shot rang out and the sniper-fire went quiet. A kill fed over the reel of player names above an audible rise in the crowd’s roar. The pair regrouped, went in guns blazing. Muzzle flashes lit darkened corners of I-W’s bunker-base. The crowd’s din rose with each animated spray of blood or sound effect of death. The pair littered a pair of bodies with lead, and with a quick command, the hostages ran for Cobra’s base.

Venom slapped in a new mag as someone spawned before him. His pistol out, murdered the guy before he could react. Sweat beaded on Venom’s brow as he sprinted after the hostages, pulled ahead to clear the path. They made for C, trampling over bodies of both sides for the narrow short-cut back to B. Slicer ran Vanguard, Venom one-shotting an I-W rifleman with his back turned. The darkened passage gleamed at both ends from the daylight scattered over the jungle and its ruins.

“They’re on our tail,” Slicer said, hustling out onto B route.

A burst of fire swallowed her words. She dropped prone, rolled sideways. Venom wanted to stop, knew he couldn’t. He led the hostages nearer toward Cobra’s base– almost there. Slicer was up, rocketing after him. The first proximity explosive went off. A pair of names popped up on the kill-feed. Slicer swiveled, laid suppressing fire on the path’s center. Another pair of I-W troops appeared. Their fire whizzed past Slicer, aimed at Venom’s hostages. She growled, tossed a grenade.

Venom stopped at the doorway to their base, heart pounding. Slicer back-stepped toward him, firing. The first hostage hit the rescue threshold and the first I-W soldier appeared. Venom splattered his digital blood across foliage. The second hostage hit the rescue zone, Venom forced to reload. Slicer kept her eyes forward, blasted the last I-W that tried to take advantage of Venom’s state.

The last hostage hit the rescue zone and the screen popped up with “Mission complete.” Cobra were instantly on their feet, headsets off. The crowd roared, “Co-bra! Co-bra!” Slicer and Venom leapt, hugged. She kissed his cheek with a giddy laugh, and hugged another team-mate. Cobra shook random hands with I-W between monitors, now world champions with more than a few grand to remember the win by. Venom didn’t care so much for the money or the title, he was in it for the game– though he wasn’t sure he’d ever wash his cheek again.

Short Story: Too Real

She’d be at it near-on forty hours by the time it was over. She knew it ahead of time. Weekends like this weren’t uncommon for the chronically unemployed Sonia Rakes. She’d settle in on Friday night, greasy crap-food on one side of the desk, soda and water on the other with a bottle of Jack chilling beneath it in the mini-fridge. While her marathon choice of game booted, she rolled fat joints and blunts to pass the time, mind racing in anticipation of the glory ahead.

To say she was a burn-out would require ignoring the intense passion she wrangled out of herself for each and every imaginary world she eventually conquered. Sure, she was a little overweight, but the chair-sized ass she sat on made her all the more comfortable during the marathon sessions. Even if her pudge spilled over her waist-line, stuck out nearly as far as her free-bagging double-Ds, that just meant there was more of her to love. Besides, she’d long ago abandoned the realm of such social pressures in favor of the confined, fantastical ones she occupied for days at a time.

She sparked up a blunt, took a deep hit, and swigged down some cola home-run style. The cola was swallowed away to allow a plume of smoke emerging from her nose and mouth. Her lungs re-inflated with fresh air and the high trickled in through the back of her brain. The slow immersion of brain into cannabis relaxed her shoulders and chest. She sank into her gaming chair with a deflation that would’ve made “truth” ads jealous.

But this was no ordinary immobilization of inebriated limbs. In fact, it was just the beginning of what had always been the ultimate in relaxation and comfort. Contrary to some opinions, that were no longer popular, getting high only enhanced most things. One of them, at least for Sonia, was the imagination. Gaming was nothing if not stimulating for the imagination.

She booted up, set the blunt aside for a minute, and made the momentary keyboard clacks to put her in-game. With the blunt hanging from a corner of her mouth, she plunged into the post-apocalyptic world of her now-favorite title.

Her avatar was made to look like her; long brown hair, big boobs, and slightly pudgy with green eyes. Most of that pudge had been lost during gameplay by the game’s now-famous strength building system. Many of the game’s mechanics were touted as revolutionary. For an RPG, they were somewhat ahead of their time, even if most had been explored before. Everything had a modifier to it, and every modifier affected a stat; every stat, in turn, gained XP each time it’s level changed, and those experience points then went into an overall character level.

Once leveled, a player could immediately boost stats instead of working them up, and gain new perks that allowed them to take on new challenges or better overcome older ones. It was, for all intents and purposes, a game with refined mechanics that flowed beautifully, to say nothing of its atmosphere, characters, or narrative.

But what set it apart, Sonia knew, was its Artificial Intelligence. She’d barely seen a third of the game, but her awe of the AI was unsurpassed. Whomever programmed the game certainly had the chops to pull off the best work she’d ever seen. Most games’ characters were like cardboard cutouts; at a distance they appeared real, their “lives” full, but the closer you got, the more you noticed they merely wandered along set routes, repeated a few lines of dialogue, and were otherwise one-dimensional.

This game was different, and she’d only begun to scratch the surface of how. Her inebriated mind wandered, wanting to immerse itself deeper in the game’s world before fully committing to a quest that might forward any progress and inch her nearer its conclusion.

She found herself in the center of a small town. It was hardly a town by any standard, really, merely a few buildings forming a three-sided rectangle around a large well. Small shacks and lean-tos kissed the horizon around it, built scatter-shot across fields of mutated corn, tomatoes, and wheat. She aimed for the old-style saloon in the center of the open rectangle.

The whole place was an anachronism, a sort of wild-west area built up along a bombed-out, rural highway neglected into disrepair since the bombs. She liked it for that alone. It was rare to find such attention to detail that even the Non-playable characters’ cultures differed from settlement to settlement.

With that in mind, she sauntered up to the saloon’s swinging doors, but hesitated. An NPC down the wrap-around porch mentioned something about needing to “head ‘cross the wastes for Ban’oover.” Something about his twang intrigued her. He had that friendly sort of sound that put her at ease, made him seem either an easy target, or possibly, a new companion, if she found him to her liking. It was an instantaneous decision to follow him.

She whirled to follow the NPC’s ratty flannel and cowboy boots, gave him a good head-start, then passed by the other NPC he’d been speaking to. It uttered a “howdy” with a slight head tilt as she crouched at the edge of a corn-field, and began to track the NPC. Her stealth skills were only high enough to keep him unaware of her at larger distances, but she could easily keep to the cover of cornfields and rocky, desert roads that would lead to Banhoover.

She kept him at the extreme edge of her visual field, then knowing his intended target, fell back to bask in the world around her. Through the haze of caffeine, liquor, and weed, the hot sun kissed her skin while arid winds carried dust across her path.

A sudden screeching shattered her serenity. She froze, terrified. Her big, anaconda revolver was out, sweeping the horizon for threats. She crouched low to steady her aim, circled in place. The screech sounded again; metal nails on a chalkboard. Her teeth rattled, nerves stabbed by the sound. Something small staggered and swayed onto the road ahead. It weaved left, then right, fell forward. Her weapon sank at the pitiful sight of a massive crow with a bloody puncture in its torso. She swallowed her fears and approached carefully. The screeching sounds came louder, faster with each step.

She crouched again by the bird, examined it carefully. It was easily the size of her torso, and given the wound, near death. Her med-skills weren’t great, but might be enough to help. These types of random events weren’t uncommon. She’d yet to see one in this game, but so much of it was unexplored such an event didn’t surprise her.

The way she saw it, there were two options; try to heal the bird, or put it out of its misery. She’d gotten lucky a few hours into the game, and had been healed by a passerby on a similar road to this. Like the bird, she’d been bleeding out, the world phasing in and out of blackness. She saw no reason not to try and repay the debt to the collective gaming Gods.

With a few hotkeys and clicks, she’d drugged the bird with painkillers, and did her best to patch the wound. A quick flicker of XP, and the sound of a leveled stat told her the action succeeded. The bird hopped up, swayed a little, then examined her with a few tilts of its head. With a running start, it took flight and soared off into the distance. She chuckled, continued along the road.

It wasn’t long before she found the NPC she’d been tailing. More accurately, he found her. He’d hidden in the bushes a mile or so down from the bird. Five minutes of walking were interrupted by him leaping from the bushes. He held a big revolver like hers, trained for her head. A flicker of her HUD said he had a head-shot trained on her.

His shouts affirmed it with the addition of a demand, “Gimme all yer guns, clothes, and cash.” She remained silent, wondering how best to play it. He started shouting again, demanding, “Quit wastin’ time, there ain’t no other way out!”

A shiver shot along her spine as he cocked the hammer on his revolver. It was too real.

“Yeh, you best be shakin’,” he shouted from the beyond the revolver’s business end.

The revolver barked. A bullet whizzed past her ear. She felt it slice the air, buzz in her head. Her stomach dropped. Hairs on her neck stood on end. It was too real.

“I ain’t gonna ask again.” She hit the hotkey to drop her gun. He took a few steps forward, both hands on his gun. “Good. Now the rest.”

Her inventory menu appeared, and emptied at the “drop all” command. A moment later she was standing stark-naked in the middle of a desert road. He approached, licked his lips, chuckled to himself, then knelt to collect the gear in an arm. It disappeared into his hidden inventory as he stepped back again.

“Thank ye, kindly,” he said with a roaring laugh.

Something black flashed past, left him stunned. He growled, swirled around. She stepped back, terrified. Another flicker of black. Then again. More now. A shroud of black encircled him as he swatted at it. The revolver barked until it was empty. The NPC began to scream, flee. Sonia stood, petrified and dumbfounded.

It took a moment for her mind to comprehend the Murder of Crows attacking the NPC. It was almost a full minute before she could move again. By then, they’d brought the NPC down, had him in pieces on the ground. He let out a blood-curdling scream that upturned her stomach, then went silent, still.

A lone crow hopped over, its abdomen recently bandaged. It dropped something on the ground. She picked up a note that read; The crows will remember your kindness. She shivered.

Out of game her breath trembled, “Jesus christ, this is too real.” She stared at the crow, muttered, “Thank you.”

In-game the crow squawked. Sonia’s eyes bulged. It immediately took flight. The Murder followed in sync.

Whatever the hell had just happened, she was certain that bird had spoken to her. More importantly, even if she couldn’t understand how, it heard her. How? She collected her clothes and swallowed the ill feeling in her gut. She redressed, began to follow the road aimlessly, hoping to make sense of what the hell’d just happened.

Bonus Poem: Named Her…

Mythos of war,
cries out for more,
with a viral pathogen,
that afflicts all that’s human.

It is not of this earth,
but sours its worth,
a genocidal concoction,
the worst man-made toxin.

There are but a few,
to save me and you,
but brow-beaten, betrayed,
their world’s been frayed.

With one foot in the grave,
they fight to save,
even hatred’s ferocity,
from unthinkable atrocity.

Fight for what’s right,
but know now their plight,
for we’ve no hope unless,
upon them freedom we bless.

It is a weapon,
insidious to threaten,
the curious nature,
of our genetic paper.

A drop of blood,
with science-like mud,
a dash of forethought,
and by death you are caught.

You need not inject it,
nor take a hot hit,
just breathe in,
or absorb through skin,

And you’ll be brought down.
Your genetics a clown.
For mad-men hath built her,
named her Syphon Filter.

Bonus Poem: You Died!

Skulls and torture,
blisters of pain,
boils on hollows,
that cry out your name.

Dark is the soul,
of the undead laid claim,
to the slaughtered foul,
in the wrath of rain.

Rank, rotten teeth,
in a smile from hell,
mired in the meek,
what bloody secrets you tell.

From the edge of a blade made of scorn,
to the tip of the tooth,
blows the war’s hallowed horn,
while in fire is the truth,
e’er to be reborn.

Seek out the sisters,
alone in the mists,
comfort the statues,
fallen amid trysts

And when from the edges of hell you return,
remember the souls of the wanton, forlorn,
For these are the creatures that like you will burn,
in the pits and fires, your souls to be torn.

Seek out the knowledge,
It cleverly fits,
in a narrative fashion,
that requires wits.

Remember to roll,
the dice to one side,
lest you see the toll,
once more; “You died!”

Bonus Poem: 200 and Counting

200 and counting, human years do I mean.
Awakened half-dead to a world once seen,
as progress and virtue now contaminated, unclean.
Where is the hope which we all wish to glean?

Poisoned by radiation, a cry-ogenic dream,
I search for gradation in what ominous I deem;
to follow the dog or to leave it I seem,
to recall that a fall was lonely downstream.

A world once burned up in lust,
from a greater than great, quite dismal distrust,
it cost us a fortune greater when lost,
but the masters have gone, are now turned to dust.

Now minutes between men and women adorned,
by the punctual gun-fire of early morn,
but battles to wage are an acceptable thorn,
for part of a world that is bred but not born.

And when night-fall comes with a beacon of light,
ahead a dominating, large diamond site.
A green jewel of modern, machined upper-class,
that to decayed folks is a pain in their ass.

Is it a friend or foe, a lover or tribal,
that I meet just upon my arrival,
for I know the Piper of the marble,
papers are often on the lips as a garble.

Japanese robots and synthetic fear,
swirl ironically in the air,
while no-one else is really quite clear,
of what it is that’s in the water ’round here.

Mutated husks from captives retrieved,
stolen at night, just like the thieved,
whose hounds howled with greatness but weaved,
alerted that others were madly aggrieved.

To run or to fight, the eternal questions,
when faced with this world’s endless distractions,
To wish or to hope are both useless abstractions,
when cog and sword form metal contraptions.

A final repose is all that there be,
when the fires of synthetics are all that you see,
For the Railroad is hidden and so is its plea,
And they’re simply of no further uses to me.

So after 200 years and some change,
We’re back to warm fires and home on the range,
while around us doth nuclear fission estrange,
the past and the future from the present’s dog-mange.

Bonus Short Story: One May Change Everything

He was stoned– baked out of his mind actually. He’d been smoking weed for near on four-hours straight from a two-foot water bong. It gurgled every few seconds with heady hits. The stink of skunk was as pungent as the smoke was visible. He’d chonged out the room long ago, was only keeping the rhythm going now so as not to dissipate the fish-bowl haze that had replaced the room’s O2 content.

Most would have said he was a burn-out; that living on a modest inheritance and legal settlement from a hit and run wasn’t living at all. He disagreed. He’d been run over by a car, had all of his ribs broken, both his legs, and one of his wrists. At the time he was nineteen. By twenty, he’d been in traction six weeks, spent another year learning to write, walk, and jerk-off again. The only thing that had gotten him through the boredom was the legal work and bowlfuls of grass. He’d had it hard, and defied anyone whom said otherwise.

He liked his life, enjoyed what he had, and never took more than he needed. He was grateful for all he was given, wanted only to get baked, play video games, and “keep on keepin’ on.”

He was at his latest boss-fight when the air around him began to stir. He didn’t notice it under the darkened lights that kept his aching eyes from throbbing; he’d beaten the game three times already– a seventy-hour epic saga of the life of a former bounty-hunter turned vigilante– but he’d also played his entire library two and three times over too. With a minute budget that only allowed for one game a month around necessities like rent, food, and an ounce of Hawaiian Green, he had to stretch each game as far as it would go, and did.

But he was content in the notion– even as the smoke swirled and a shadow began to encroach on his vision. His mind was focused, mouth-half open and droopy eyes centered ahead. The smoke snaked in front of him from the ingress of something through its presence. He swatted the thickest puffs away with a quick dismissal, unaware of the shadow that phased in and out beside him.

The faint flicker of a reflection caught his eye. Had his head not turned to see himself flicker in and out of form on the adjacent couch, he might not have believed it was real. Instead, his doppelganger solidified with a curious look at his hands. His mouth fell open as the “You Are Dead” screen appeared beside him.

His doppelganger relaxed back into the couch with a heavy sniff of the air, “Wow. Man, I haven’t smelled that in years.”

His eyes focused through the smoke at himself while he involuntarily swallowed, “Wh-what the fuck?” The continue screen appeared but he was too focused on himself, “Ar-are you… me?”

The doppelganger laughed, “You wish.” He took another deep whiff of the air, “Or maybe I do… Anyway, we’re not the same person, not really.”

“B-but, you’re… me, right?”

The doppelganger, “In blood and name– Curtis J–”

“Porter,” he said with a breathless finish.

He replied with a nod, “Right, but you should know better than anyone, a person’s more than their name and DNA.” The double sensed perplexity across the television’s beam of light. “That’s just where we start. We’re all born ninety-percent the same, but our experiences as we grow are what define us.”

The real Curtis’ eyes glazed over. He blinked hard, unstuck his tongue from his dry mouth. “S-sorry, I’m not… what’s this all about? Why am I– we, here?”

His doppelganger leaned toward him across the coffee table, “Because something went wrong in this place. Here and now. Something inside us changed. And with it, the world changed too. Now, I’m here to ensure things go as they’re supposed to.”

He shook off his dull ardor for complete disbelief, “You’re nuts. What could I possibly do, or not do, that would change the world?”

He watched himself from across the table as his left eye squinted with familiar skepticism, “There are people and places that rely on you to be present in order to nudge future events toward their destined path.”

Real Curtis’ eyes were flat-out wild now, “You’re nuts.” He stood to piss, followed by his phantom self toward the bathroom. It stood in the door jamb as he relieved himself, “Christ dude, invade privacy much?”

“You don’t understand,” he said with a shake of his head. “But how could you? You’re baked out of your fucking mind all the time and all you think about’s fucking video-games.”

He shook out the last few drops, flushed the toilet, “Hey man, fuck you. Don’t go blaming me for your nut-job fantasies.”

He made to walk past himself, was frozen by a cold hand that clasped his shoulder. His own eyes looked at him with a fury he wasn’t sure he’d ever possessed. “You have no fucking idea how important you are.”

Curtis’ vision suddenly went black. Images of rallies and protests outside corporate buildings and state houses appeared.

His doppelganger growled through his teeth, “You’re supposed to be there when it starts to crumble.” Crowds marched, pumped fists in the air rhythmically with distorted chants. “You’re meant to be on the front-fucking-line of a war for freedom– the final war.” Tanks began to roll forward from close, wide angles along city streets packed with protesters. “You’re supposed to be the voice of logic and reason in a new world.”

Curtis was ready to pass out. His head swam as names and dates, and countless vids and images flooded his brain from places and events that had yet to take place. He swayed on his feet.

His own voice was muddy through waters of confusion, “You are meant to be the General in a war that will end with one side eradicated or the other enslaved, forever.”

People rioted in the streets, attacked the tanks en-masse. Their guns smoked. Explosions shook the silent movie-reel. Some people managed to climb atop a tank, wrench its hatch open to drag out its crew. The vehicle turned on the others. More explosions, shaking scenery. Jets rocketed past over head.

“You’re meant to be there,” he said as his vision went black. “To lead the free against their oppressors and take the world back.”

He fell backward, head spinning. His head hit the floor as his vision narrowed to a black cone. His face loomed over him from his doppelganger. Its last words struggled to breach the static of his waning consciousness, “You cannot fail. A thousand men may never change a thing, while one may change everything. You are one.”

His vision went black. Silence engulfed him. In a blink he was once more awake, face hovering over the bong for another hit as the boss-battle began again. He swallowed hard, hit pause to slide the bong across the table. After a moment of aimless steps he found himself before the sliding glass doors of his twelfth floor apartment. They opened, gave passage to his balcony in the sun of a rising morning he once more saw from the wrong side.

He stepped to the balcony’s edge, breathless. Beneath him, the city sprawled outward like a patchwork quilt of humanity composed of all grays and whites. The bits of color were few, far between.

He wasn’t sure what the hell had happened. He’d been baked before, but somehow this was different, more than just a stoned daydream. He felt a tickle at the back of his skull, pulled his hand away to see blood.

“One may change everything,” echoed through his head like a whisper on wind.

But where to begin, and how?

He looked from the crimson on his finger-tips to the drab city. Color seemed as good a start as any. However he was meant to change the world it would start there. He swallowed hard, relaxed, and turned away to begin.