Zero Ping

by Bill Bowler

Part 2, Part 3 appear
in this issue.
part 1 of 3

“Ping” is the amount of time (in milliseconds) it takes for a packet of data to make a round trip between two computers on the Internet.

I play, I don’t know, four to five hours a night, more or less? Maybe more sometimes. I know, I know. If I’d spent that much time studying economics or something, I’d be head of the World Bank by now, pulling out of the driveway in my new Jag with reporters chasing me down the street shouting out questions. But screw that. Who needs it? You live. You die. You don’t take it with you.

My, um, “career” had kind of gone down the tubes. Of course, I never had any career but, by this time, I should have had something to show or been on track or something. But there was nothing I could think of that I wanted to do. Lying and cheating and selling people stuff or forcing people to do stuff to get more money and power was just not appealing. I was stalled out, in a deep rut. It’s true, people were looking at me a little funny lately, like they knew something I didn’t know, but who cares? They’re next in line; they just don’t know it.

Things were not exactly going according to plan. I was forty years old, divorced, and back living at home with Ma temporarily until I got back on my feet.

People tended not to like me or, at least, to find me boring. They talk and talk about the sex crime of the week or what moron is running for governor, or who’s got what disease, or how much they made or lost in the stock market in the last 5 seconds.

On those rare instances when they stop for a breath and I open my mouth to get a word in about the game, their eyes glaze over. “Oh, grow up,” they say, “that’s so childish. But did you hear what the President said about blah blah blah?” Makes me laugh. Like I should waste my time with the lies that fool puts out to justify his crimes?

The day job was unbelievably dull. Excruciating. The mere thought of it makes my head throb. A complete and utter waste of time. And I had nothing to do. Nothing. The hours just dragged by, day after day. I tried to get into it, to imagine some aspect of the work that might be interesting, some part of it that somebody did that seemed worthwhile or might lead to something somewhere at some point. Nothing. Just killing time till the cows come home.

Yet other people at work were all stressed to the limit, running around screaming hysterically, chasing someone else’s fantasies and swallowing everything they dished out. Climbing up the ladder; clawing their way to the middle; squashing and getting squashed; pushing people out of the way; getting rid of people; being gotten rid of; all the while putting out non-stop made-up baloney so deep and thick they actually started to believe it. And some of them making serious money, too.

At the job, sitting at my desk, staring off into space, I would wonder, how much time can one person kill in a single lifetime? Sometimes the phone would ring. Somebody wanting his signed contract or his invoice paid or something. What a pain. I would just transfer them to another line or dump the calls off into voicemail. Who can concentrate on that nonsense?

All the other drones stayed late every day in their little cubicles demonstrating their sincerity while the big wigs in the corner offices kept working and working, on what I don’t know, nursing their income streams and pushing for that big bonus and promotion, more money, more power, swinging that big deal, or maybe they were here hiding from something or just had empty lives and nowhere else to go?

Didn’t matter to me. Couldn’t care less. Let those suckers work around the clock. Stack bananas till de mornin’ come. Work till you drop and nobody will even notice; they’ll just step over your body until Human Resources finds a replacement at half the rate and minus benefits. Not me, thank you very much.

But Friday afternoon, getting out of work, the vast expanse of an endless weekend opened before me. World without end. And free at last! I raced home, wolfed down some left over macaroni and cheese that Ma had warmed up, ran up to my room, closed the door, hit the button and powered up the rig. The screen glowed blue and my heart began to race. I settled into the chair, slid the disc into the drive, the screen flickered. Click, click, click...

I pulled up the list of servers. Well, hel-lo! 6,514 players currently on line. A lot of people with no lives and nowhere to go tonight. The Giblet Brothers clan server had nine players in a Team Death Match. That could be amusing. Shoot everything that moves; most kills wins. Just like Real Life. Two more clicks and I spawned into Blue Team Base, a hazy industrial interior, as time stood still and the sound of my own footsteps was drowned in the crackle of gunfire and the screams of the wounded.

I sprinted down between two rows of turbines and leapt from a platform to the floor below. Two hostiles came out of the shadows. I ducked behind a generator, leveled my rail gun, blasted both of them to bloody pieces, and ran down a side corridor to reload. Blue Team went up 2-0 and I was feeling good.

With the base interior secured, I opened a side door and stepped out into a charred and smoking war-torn landscape of bomb craters and hollow shells of blown up buildings. Zing. Zing. Little puffs of dust popped around my feet and I dove for cover behind a boulder.

I pulled up the scope and scanned the horizon. Gunfire crackled as Red Team Leader MrPoopiePantS came over the crest of the hill. A glistening metallic cyborg with a human head. I zoomed the scope and could see his black eyepatch and the deep red scar that ran from the missing eye, sliced through the bridge of his nose and cut down across his right cheek. I had him dead in my crosshairs. A sweet and delicious moment with no time to be savored. My right index finger was pressing down left mouse when a shot rang out from a high-powered rifle and my screen grayed out.

I heard maniacal laughter, an all too familiar voice. It was Count_RAMdacula. I trembled in frustration but I had to admit, he was a crack shot. A killing machine. You had to respect that. God knows how many hours he had to log to get that good. Practice practice practice. And he wasn’t even human! An alien reptile hybrid! Ugly, too, with his smirking skull face and big fangs and little green lizard tail waggin’ through his pants. Revolting.

I respawned behind the base and raced around to the front again, but it was too late. PoopiePantS had 15 kills; Red Team won the match and the round re-set.

That fateful night, which had seemed insignificant, like any other, was, I now know, a turning point, a fork in the road towards alternate futures. It was that night, when spawning into round 2 on the Giblet Brothers server, that I first caught sight of N4$TyGrrl and my life changed forever.

She was the most breathtakingly beautiful girl, or should I say female commando, I had ever seen. In some ways, it was an unearthly, heavenly kind of beauty; like a vision from beyond, like a lost memory. She had long, silken blond hair that fell to her shoulders and you just wanted to run your fingers through and die; dimpled cheeks, a little puckered mouth, full red lips, pouting, moist for kissing; a round face, radiant like an angel with big eyes full of wonderment and naiveté with maybe just a hint of depravity, and a body that wouldn’t quit.

Warm, satin smooth skin, soft rounded curves and hidden recesses, untouched, an uncharted world full of mystery. And she was standing there half naked, right in front of me, close enough to touch, to caress and cherish, hanging out of a brief little bikini that didn’t hide anything, her body just pushing out through the flimsy fabric and showing itself to the unbelieving world; mesh stockings on long slender shapely legs, stiletto heels, and carrying a huge flak cannon cradled on one arm.

While I stood there gawking, she crouched, took aim, and shot the leg off an alien approaching the base and then swiveled, switched weapons, locked on and fired off a heat-seeking missile at a cyborg coming over the hill, splattering him into bloody chunks of flesh and steel which littered the slope.

Even with the suppressor, her rounds were loud enough to draw attention. She came under heavy fire and was forced to take cover behind a rock with her back to a wall. I caught a glimpse of PoopiePantS circling around to flank her. He opened fire and pinned her down. I heard the roar of a chainsaw as RAMdacula closed in.

“Cover me!” I heard a lilting but icy cold female voice say.

I came out of my trance. There was literally not a second to lose. I tossed a grenade and fragged PoopiePants. The explosion blew him through the air like a rag doll smack into a tree, and what was left of him crumpled to the ground a bloody mess.

I swung around towards the Count. He was bearing down on N4$TyGrrl with the chainsaw. She had backed up against the wall and the Count was almost on top of her. She screamed.

I locked on target and pulled the trigger. Click. Nothing. What the...?! No ammo! I was out of freakin’ ammo!! There wasn’t time to re-load. There wasn’t time for anything. My heart throbbed. I heard the roar of the chainsaw and thought N4$TyGrrl was through. In desperation, with aching heart and love stronger than death, I threw myself between her and RAMdacula and took the hit. My screen went gray.

The next day at so-called work, it was impossible to focus. It was completely impossible to deal with the mundane job. The thought of contracts or invoices was beyond my brain’s capacity to absorb. No room on my hard drive for that trash. Meaningless phone calls; bureaucratic garbage; filing and paperwork. Man oh man! I just zoned out.

But I had kind of an empty feeling, in the pit of my stomach, worse than usual. The certainty that nothing mattered was suffocating. I shuffled through some files, moved some stuff around on my desk, glanced at a pile of paper collecting dust in my in-box. What’s the point?

I stared down the hall at the row of office doors and cubicles. Everybody else looked busy, typing away, gabbing on the phone, chatting, giggling. How come everyone is busy but me and I’m the only one not busy?

A quick survey of the visible computer screens indicated that at least some of the secretaries were instant messaging and surfing the web, God bless ‘em. After my own heart. I stood up and stretched, leaned out and peered across the hall into Bossman’s office. His back was to me and I could see his computer screen over his shoulder. Green. He was playing solitaire. Heh. May have to revise some of my theories.

I sat back down, sighed, and an image of N4$TyGrrl came into my mind. N4$TyGrrl! Oh, baby! When I saved her life last night, she must have been impressed, though getting sliced up by a chain saw like a piece of salami is not aesthetically my first choice of self-sacrifice. But still, it was, come on, heroic.

I had to smile. She must have felt something. Gratitude? Attraction? It was hard to tell. It all happened so fast. When the Count took me out, she was behind me and I couldn’t see her face. She hadn’t said anything, but I could feel it. I could feel her emotions coming through the modem. No matter what happens, when I’m in a game with her, I’ll protect her, no matter what. As long as I’m there, she’ll be safe.

And maybe eventually we can meet, you know, outside the game, maybe in a chat room or at one of the forums? We could post a few comments, get to know each other a little better. Then we could trade e-mails. We could instant message. All she knows about me so far is I’m an expert marksman, but that’s a start.

Walled in by my cubicle, the phone blinking and ringing incessantly, people walking up and bothering me about unbelievable nonsense, my mind refused to budge; it had locked on to a maddening, hypnotic image of N4$TyGrrl’s body. I was starting to feel kind of warm. Couldn’t concentrate and decided to take a little break to pace myself.

With a quick look around, I forwarded the line into voicemail and launched the browser. I don’t know where the idea came from but just for kicks or something, I don’t know why, I ran a search on key words “hot babes,” you know, just for laughs. 500 pages of links came up. Heh.

I glanced around. Coast was clear. I swallowed and clicked on a link and Oh my God, Jesus F. Christ, who ever could have imagined the sight of such... magnificence! I almost fell out of my chair. I surveilled the hallway again. Still clear. I clicked on another image. Full screen. Yowser! I’ll take two. Maybe I should save a couple of picture files to the hard drive for future reference?

“Walter?”

Uh oh. Bossman. In a flash, I minimized the screen but it was too late. I faked it, anyway, but feeling sheepish,

“Yeah?”

“What are you doing now?”

“I’m, uh, just about to do some filing in a moment.”

“I see. Were there any calls?”

I glanced at the red flashing light on my phone. Couple of calls must have rolled into voicemail.

“I’ll check right away.”

“And Walter...”

“Yes?”

“Please try to exercise some restraint in your internet habits on company equipment. This is a professional environment. It reflects badly.”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bowler

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