Escapism

by William J. Piovano


part 1 of 3

A polygon can’t bleed, just as a wire-frame mesh can’t die. But a triangle can crunch through two polygons like any axe into a plate of steel, and death need not be organic. In the maddening combat of Camelot, the threat was always real.

The gargantuan sword swerved down, leaving an arc of particle flame in the wake of its sweep which aimed to cleave Jenjis from forehead to groin. He swatted it wide with his usual pre-animated parry. The arena drew a collective gasp (that, too, pre-programmed) then exploded into a cheer as the last desperate attempt slid harmlessly by.

Jenjis wheeled his rapier, skipping left with speed only his Elvish boots could grant him. His opponent, Urud, was a hulking seven-foot, russet-bronze armored orc with tusked jaw, howling at him from inside a skull-shaped helm. Twice Jenjis’ size, but Jenjis’ soul had no fear. He had killed Urud before. He would do it again, for nobody had ever killed Jenjis.

In four years, nobody had ever so much as grazed him.

It was a complex affair, dueling in Camelot. As complex as anything in real life — not only a sequence of mechanical actions, but true tactical violence. It involved the most subtle physical suggestions, spurred by decisions rash or cautious, elaborated by a strategic mind and much experience, all geared to the kill.

The killing blow was Jenjis’ favorite part of the duel. He had programmed it himself, spent two full weeks honing the lunge. Rapier point skewered the air with a spectacular purple trail, impaled the orc, and Urud toppled over with a roar of anguish and disapproval. Victory.

Somewhere around the globe, the real Urud would soon be cursing in real air; here he was only a silent heap. Jenjis would have frowned, had his face polygons been capable of it. It bothered him how Camelot, despite its enormous popularity, still lacked appropriate sounds.

Meanwhile the arena exploded in standing ovation. True ovation, for the most part. Jenjis recognized his team clapping in one corner, mouthing silent compliments. Narnon, the dancing minotaur (often hard to spot, since he made use of the default animations like many others) he noticed first; and there was Yelena in her star-studded wizard’s robes, Antis the Fair who was Jenjis’ fellow competitor, and of course Timsio, Jenjis’ manager. Timsio’s face could not change, of course, but Jenjis knew there was ecstasy in that soul right there and then.

Jenjis made formal bow and welcomed the glow of artificial light which marked him as the tourney winner. Again. He should have been ecstatic, too. Money and fame — more than he already had — were on their way to him. But Jenjis wanted something else, he felt, something he could not pinpoint. With a final cheering animation, he took his leave from the Camelot Arena.

Life’s drab problems of motion (which Jenjis had experienced all too well in his alter-persona) did not exist in Camelot. Walking back through the archway took him instantaneously to the inn where Timsio and the rest of his friends waited for him. They greeted him with cheers, the audio channel filling up suddenly as voice chat re-enabled itself after the fight.

“Congratulations!” said Timsio, wrapping a hug around Jenjis (the hug was an addition of the latest patch, and Timsio enjoyed overusing it).

Timsio dressed in commoner’s garb, to avoid being challenged to duels in the streets of Camelot. Jenjis thought him as something of a loser, a coward, for living in that world but not competing in combat. That was its main purpose, its only true attraction. Why play Camelot if not for the thrill of being a great warrior, be it tournament fighter or a highway brigand?

The fact remained, however, that Timsio had devoured — and continued to devour — all strategy compendiums written by Camelot experts, including every combat detail disclosed by the virtua-world’s developers. He knew his trade when it came to items, updates and tweaks, and Jenjis needed him for that, needed him direly to maintain his supremacy. Such counsel outweighed the pain of hanging out with him.

Meanwhile, the other friends added their cheer to the victory. Yelena even deigned to perform a complex dancing animation for him, one she saved for rare occasions. Jenjis dispensed thank-you’s and modesty before seating himself at a table and ordering ale which materialized in his hands.

The drink did nothing to him, of course. Nothing really did anything in Camelot. What it did do was decorate that mask of world illusion. Illusion, that is Camelot. Like a movie, it did not taste good; it was not hot or cold or sexy or smelly. But the fifth sense, the dreaming mind, appreciated.

The developers had thought it appropriate to implement some meaning into such a popular yet useless action, however. So was it decided that ale replenished health points. Lacking thirst, what does one drink for? The developers had posed themselves that question. The answer was as good as any, Jenjis supposed.

“So, Camelot Champion four straight years, eh?” Antis said through his closed helm. “I can’t say I’m not envious!” The blue steel matched the rest of his armor. It had taken him months to discover a complementary set — the man was aware of polygon fashion. Antis’ attention to his equipment aesthetics — hence lack of sparring practice — was one of the main reasons he did not fare as well Jenjis in the tourneys.

“Ah, it’s more than I deserve,” Jenjis said, waving him off. He did not really believe it, but modesty came easier in this world. Even when his real self blushed, Jenjis could stare back mono-expressive.

“Four straight wins. Nobody’s ever done it five years in a row,” Timsio said. A greedy rubbing of hands would have been an appropriate animation for him, but the man was not so self-conscious. “We have to start preparing now, get you up to date with the latest moves. Next year’s opponent might not be as easy as Urud...”

“Easy?” Jenjis said. “Did it look easy to you from up there?” Timsio had never fought because his reflexes were nowhere good enough. He had taken a pupil instead, and sometimes Jenjis wondered whether Timsio resented him for a stolen life.

“Aww come on, you creamed him!” Narnon roared with bullish accent (voice distortion was one of Camelot’s success features). “He never touched you! You destroyed him!”

Jenjis triggered the ale-drinking animation. “It’s hard work not getting touched.”

“Well, it’s safe to say Urdu is probably never coming back,” said Yelena with a chuckle. She was beautiful, tanned skin and green doe-eyes, like the cartoon drawings on the Camelot retail posters. A pity her real self was a seventeen-year old boy, lost to sunlight like the basement nerds of old. Jenjis didn’t care beyond polygon lust, though. Yelena was one of his best friends, ever since his creation five years ago.

Antis barked a laugh. “Yeah, Urdu got dominated by you three years in a row now. He’ll probably disconnect the next time he sees you.”

Laughs mingled in the audio channel, as did Jenjis’, but Narnon forgot to trigger the animation. After a moment his shoulders too began to rock with glee, but by then the audio channel had fallen silent, leaving him a shrugging mute.

“So how do you plan on celebrating?” Yelena asked.

Jenjis shrugged his own animation. “Dunno.” He grew pensive for a moment. Minotaur, warrior, wizard and manager stared fixedly forward, each into its own space like faceted busts. It was a peculiarity it had taken a long time for Jenjis to get over. “I need a vacation,” he said. “I got to blow off some steam.”

“What, now?!” Tamsio choked.

“There’s no better time than now,” Jenjis said. “I just won the final, remember?”

Tamsio grumbled something, out of sync with his lips.

“I need some time off work, to relax,” Jenjis said. “Antis, Narnon. You two live close, how about we go watch a movie on Friday?”

“Geez, I hope I remember how to drive,” said Narnon.

“Same,” said Antis. It was only half a joke.

“Just walk it,” Jenjis said, with a touch of bitterness, “at least you can.”

A moment of quiet, then Narnon’s voice over the audio channel, “Yeah, we’ll keep in touch. I have to refill before I log back in. Want to go hunt for some better weapons, make myself the new Champion next year!”

“Be my guest,” said Jenjis. “I think I’ll disconnect now, too. Not sure how long I’ll be.”

Tamsio’s figure, unmoving but for the slow breathing animation, was a display of apathetic opposite to the voice which crackled over the audio channel. “I expect to be paid for your leaving hours, Jenjis! I’m doing constant work here to keep you on top, and not for your vacation days! You’re abandoning me for leisure!”

Jenjis had never met Tamsio in the ‘World’, and wondered what the man must be like. A lawyer, or a manager? Probably not, considering the time he spent in Camelot. Retired, then, like Jenjis? Jenjis’ friends had never warmed to the manager. They suffered the annoyance, but got nothing for it.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pay you your rate,” Jenjis said. “All right, I’m out.”

He did not wait for replies, disconnecting immediately.

The world was black and soundless. Genesis again, for a moment. Transition. Rebirth. Back into an aged body. The pixels of sight filled slowly, with a million more colors than Camelot could ever display, smooth and un-faceted, so subtly complex.

And the noises. The tapping of rain on the window sill, the leaves brushing into each other on the tree just outside, the creaking of the table as Alan shifted his weight, and the low hum of the computer like someone meditating with infinite breath.

It took him a few moments of awe, every time, to blink back into this other existence. A world different, so different, from being a duelist champion. Not solely, perhaps, in a negative way.

Alan allowed himself a few seconds to sensitize, for his muscles to pry the cramped fingers — cramped like his buttocks and his neck — from the dual-joysticks. After a tentative flex and an unsuccessful attempt at cracking his knuckles, he plucked the suction cups from his temples and dropped them to hang from the silver Camelot play-box which stood upright beside the monitor. Two of its three neon green lights glowed, giving state indication: game connected, game active, but player not logged in.

On the 32-inch flatscreen monitor, the frustum of vision within the tavern was drawn in two dimensions. Narnon continued his steady stare into space, the light playing mathematically on his features as his head swayed ever so gently into different patches of light. So peculiar, to regard it as such, like the painting of a sculpture of colored triangular plates. It was distant, and unreal. Breathing in the dank air — as fresh as mountain wind, to Alan — he thought that it was good to get some time off.

Confident his arms had blooded themselves back to useful strength, Alan slipped the flebo syringe from his arm and pushed back on his wheelchair. One of them jammed into something. An old carton of fruit juice. What a mess, he thought. Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — there were no relatives or close friends to visit his home and stir into him shame of his rotted apartment.

The waste bin in the corner was surrounded by a blast zone of imprecise garbage tosses, sitting half-full and more of a suggestion than a container. To the left of the desk a crooked pile of books paid homage to the Tower of Pisa, though some of it had collapsed already, joining numerous ring binders and sheets of papers scattered across the floor.

Alan had moved the bed out of the room three years ago, to create more space for himself. He hardly ever slept in it anyway — the brain could sleep and wake in Camelot as easily as it did here (another outstanding feature) so why waste precious training time? Should he be reminded of being a lonely cripple every single night, just because of sleep?

The room’s walls, low and white, boasted of the least free space. Their clutter was more organized — for a reason. Cut-outs and print-outs of magazines hung from pins and shreds of tape. Newspapers and e-mails. Fan e-mails, congratulating, praising and adulating the great “Jenjis, Champion of Camelot”. He had received mail — still did — from all over the world.

One article read “Gaming Today: Top Virtua-World Camelot Crowns a New Champion. Record 23 million view final bout.” That had been Alan’s first victory within Camelot. The report of every successive event hung beside the greatest rants of praise, with some e-mails spanning several pages of miniscule cluttered font. All gushing about Jenjis, Jenjis the untouchable rapier master. Not one of them mentioned the name Alan.

Switching on the lights injected some life into the room. Alan squinted, having sat with closed eyes for what... three days? A long time. And even then, that break had consisted of a five-minute disconnect to stretch and re-fill his flebo bag.

More like six days, then, he thought. He slapped his belly. With such iron diet, fluid and supplement based, he was back in decent shape. Better than the ball of lard he had inhabited five years ago, at start of retirement.

But tonight was a night for real food, real light and those things which touch the flesh, not the dreams. A brief vacation into a more gritty reality. He maneuvered his wheelchair around — and over — some of the obstacles, grabbed his keys from where he had left them on the small table, and rolled his way into the corridor.

The porter was there to help, as usual, holding the multitude of emergency fire doors open. Alan always felt at ease with the porter. The dwarfish, chubby man knew nothing of Jenjis and the warrior’s outstanding achievement. To the porter, Alan was Alan, a reclusive hermit. His bald head also hovered not much taller than Alan’s despite the wheelchair — a rare boost to self-esteem — and he did not speak beyond the most basic courtesies. He was a gateway, one might say, from the darkness and silence of the room to the mayhem of the city, a tool of gentle transition.

Past the last fire-proof door, Alan wondered what he would do in case of a real fire. Would the porter stand around and keep them open? If not, what would he do? Truth of the matter was, in fire’s case, Alan would probably roast alive in all oblivion as his Jenjis continued fighting in Camelot, bashing and slashing poly-to-poly.

He had heard of some fatal heart attacks killing Camelot warriors, of how their stricken bodies had been discovered in the World weeks or months after the mysterious ‘disconnected disappearance’ in the other. A software patch was being worked on, Alan knew, for the control box to monitor nerve receptors of pain and not only the motor functions.

Outside the air blew cold and crisp, biting at his face. He thanked the porter and wheeled his way down the sidewalk, drinking in the details of the world. Run-down buildings of red brick, with their parasites of fire-escape ladders and drainage pipes, could never be as awesome as the crenellated walls of Camelot.

But there was much, so much, the developers of Camelot had yet to work on to eclipse their main competitor, the ‘World’. The houses so detailed, the reflections of light on water so perfect, and all the subtle movements of branches and tablecloths and hair; a myriad of genius strokes on reality’s canvas. And never two things the same. God was an amazing programmer.

Reaching a café by a nearby park, he let a waiter push him to a table and sat there with eyes closed, feeling the breeze and the warmth of the sunlight tingle his skin. When he opened his eyes again he saw a woman in red dress and matching wide-brimmed hat, walking into a pharmacy across the street. Her pace was brisk, her gaze detached. He wondered if she played Camelot, if she was the soul behind one of the many stunning Elvish sorceresses.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by William J. Piovano

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