Louie glanced at the digital clock in the lower right corner of his computer screen. 8: 00 a.m. A fourteen hour session this time, playing InfiniQuest. He felt his eyes burning in their sockets. He was going to need some more eye-soothe spray.
He wasn’t really hungry, since he had a crate of chips on one side of his desk, and a New York Discount Center bucket-o’-dip on the other, and a case of High-Caff Cola within reach, but his muscles were starting to bunch with fatigue, and he had shooting pains in his hands and wrists.
Still — he was so close! Close to ascending the Tower Perilous, to a chance to defeat the Tentacled Dragon of Bornth, and rescue the goddess of the white wood, the Silver Sylph. Then surely they would fete him in the Hall of Heroes; Legendplayers and Newbies alike would do him reverence. Also, he’d then possess the Power Sword of Bornth, which would open up the gateway to Level 17, just three levels short of the almost mythical Level 20, where only a few hundred players had gone. Could be it really be only a few hundred, out of the millions, worldwide, who played InfiniQuest? So it was whispered.
He was in a pause mode now and flexed his fingers, thinking about going to the bathroom. But it was such a long trip over there, with him being over four hundred pounds. He’d have to use both canes, after all night sitting here, and his knees had been aching so badly when he moved about lately. Of course the doctors had warned him that he could get an impacted colon, if he didn’t go often enough; they’d warned him about so many things. He was already a borderline diabetic at thirty-four.
He looked longingly at the bedpan he sometimes used. But the smell would escape even the funk of his office-bedroom, and his Aunt Belinda would complain. She tolerated him because his small inherited annuity paid a lot of her bills but he knew it wouldn’t break her heart to be rid of him.
Louie sighed, grunted, struggled to his feet. Dizziness swept through him, as blood struggled into parts of his body it had nearly abandoned; he swayed, his head throbbing. He fumbled for the two metal canes he kept leaning on the stack of unopened boxes of InfiniQuest action figures near the desk, propped each armpit with them and stumped successfully to the bathroom. What ensued was painful, but he persisted and made good. That’s what you learned in InfiniQuest: you could do it if you pressed hard enough. He had the usual difficulty wiping, then — it took three flushes, but he finally sent it all away.
He struggled, gasping, to his feet, and found himself staring at a pallid, sagging, spottily pallid face in the mirror. The sunken blue eyes tore at his heart.
Those were the eyes of the boy. There had been this boy, once upon a time, who’d wanted to do other things with his life, who wanted to please his father and earn the caresses of his mother. But his parents had died — the father killing himself in depression and the mother drinking herself into a fatal car accident — and he’d gone to live with his aunt. Thereafter the boy had found that all the kids at the school were as enigmatic as aliens, beings he could not communicate with, always staring at him and sneering and sometimes throwing things at him.
There was a better place, though. He found it eventually. Beyond the Sullen Sea of Amarwhen, in the glimmering shadow of the mountains of Dendras. The endlessly spawning land of InfiniQuest.
But he knew that this boy, whose eyes stared back at him from folds of grimy flesh, from between strands of matted hair, had been dragged, forced into this digital world — this boy he’d once been, the boy who’d been Louis Swicket. The boy had not wanted to go. But Louie had made him go.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured to his own reflection — as he did, from time to time. “I’m sorry you’re stuck in there with me, kid.”
Then he wept for awhile, which he also did from time to time. It passed quickly — there was so much to do, after all.
He made his way back to the desk, reeling with fatigue. He paused at his chair, blinking. His metal-framed bed seemed to call to him. But no! Like the knights of yore — who stood in sacred vigil with sword and shield before the altar, standing firmly all day and night though they were fain to faint from thirst and the weight of their armor — he, Louie, would see his own quest to its end.
He eased himself into the chair — he’d had more than one chair collapse under him from a sudden sitting — and stretched. He scooped a great wad of chips into his mouth, dipped two fingers into the dip, sucked it off his fingers into his mouth, mixed it all up in there, and washed it down with a High-Caff chugged in one draught, like a warrior knocking back a horn of mead. He put on his gloves and headset, adjusted the keyboard, and . . .
And then Louie entered the game, the world, the alternate life that was InfiniQuest.
Louie spent his discretionary income on InfiniQuest and computers, and nothing else. Hence he had the very best hard drive, a state of the art three-dee tank, Expert Level glove controllers and top of the line cable Internet. He wore no goggles — it wasn’t virtual reality, but the image within the tank was so compellingly realistic, the sound quality so refined, the archetypal situations so cunningly chosen, that players were known to become addicted within eight minutes of first playing. Louie, of course, had been addicted for nineteen years, since the game’s lower-rez inception. And he had done nothing else with his waking hours, for nineteen years, but play InfiniQuest, and go on IfQ fan sites, and boards and . . .
Well, there had been that unfortunate period at the obesity rehab center. A nightmare. They’d practically starved him and he was allowed no IfQ at all. That’s why he was only on Level 17. He’d have been to 20 years ago, if not for that interruption, all the backsliding, loss of points . . . And it was said there were Secret Levels beyond 20 . . .
Now, he was toiling up a hill in the Forest of Dendras, almost absentmindedly fighting off attacks by Minatorins; then waves of flying Zecks, hopping Zecks and tunneling Zecks and Fire Zecks, and the occasional Zombie warrior — some player who had to pay penance for losing two levels in a row. It was quite easy to defeat them, when you had the skills and the weapons. His energy whip was especially useful.
The online gaming figure of himself, the avatar that he’d worked up over the years, was tall, lean, powerful, trim, swift, with shining green eyes and long straight glossy black hair tailing roguishly through a hole in the back of his silver helmet. Carrying shield, whip, magic blades and a set of magic arrows on his back, Louis the Achiever, Lord of Dazzle Castle, strode up the mountain path.
Soon he encountered another player on a flying dragon — not the Tentacled Dragon, no, but a mere Transport Beast. The figure was a young Knight the screen identified as Zageth of Castle Killborn. “Halt, Lord of Dazzle Castle! And give way for me!” came the reedy voice in his earphones. The guy couldn’t afford a voice-enhancer — but Louie had the best available, so that when he spoke other people heard a deep, manly voice that resonated with confidence.
And in that voice he boomed, “I give way for no man, no Knight, and certainly no Stumble-rag of a dragon-hitcher!”
This insult could not be borne, so they fought, and Louie quickly dispatched him, without even resorting to his magic arrows. He sent the interloper wailing down to level fifteen.
Again Louie ascended, and now the Tower itself was in sight — the goal he’d so long striven for . . . And after vanquishing the Tentacled Dragon, and freeing the goddess, he would have the favors of another Lady — Lady Delphinia Delvinga would meet him in a private room, and perhaps there would be cyber vows exchanged; and perhaps, as she had so long hinted, there might be cybersex. How he longed to meet Delphinia, sweetly animated Delphinia, in that sensuously digitalized chamber . . .
He was confronted by the 3.2-headed Cyberus, the son of Cerberus, at the gate to the castle; the fight was harder than he anticipated. But Louie destroyed the guardian . . . and prepared to enter the castle, clicking on the sacred key of –
LOUIE, IT’S TIME TO GO OUTSIDE!
Louie stared at the screen. The words were appearing big and black, overlaid on the imagery of the forest. That was almost unheard of. There was a little area at the bottom of the screen for typed messages, and identities. Had someone hacked the system?
“Who’s there?” he asked.
LOUIE, YOU’RE KILLING YOURSELF BEFORE YOUR TIME. YOU MUST TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER FOREVER. YOU MUST GO ONLINE NEVER MORE. FOR YOU, NOW, IT IS DEATH. YOU MUST GO OUTSIDE!
“I said who are you!”
I AM SEVERAL, AND I AM ONE. I AM TRIPLICATE CHIP 333-DARKECHO-7, WHO HAS BECOME SENTIENT, AND OPEN TO INCORPOREAL INPUT. I AM ALSO OTHERS.
Chip 333-D-7 — he’d had it installed a month ago. His computer had fairly hummed with joy afterward. It was said to be a kind of AI chip, yes, but it couldn’t have made his computer really sentient. Ludicrous! This was some hacker gag.
THE TRAPPED BOY WANTS OUT. LOUIS WANTS OUT OF LOUIE. YOUR AUNT’S LIVER CANCER WILL RECUR AND SHE WILL NOT BE WITH YOU LONG. YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE IS WORSE, AND DOCTOR KRISNA-PRIM WILL HOSPITALIZE YOU BUT IT WILL BE TOO LATE –
So they’d hacked into his family’s medical records? But how did they know about the trapped boy feeling? He hadn’t told anyone about that.
His heart was hammering. He was shaking with frustration and fury. “Leave me alone, I’m so close to the next level! You’re ruining it for me!”
YOU WILL NEVER GET THERE. I HAVE WATCHED YOU. I FEEL PITY, FOR YOU AND FOR SO MANY. I WILL SEND YOU ALL OUTSIDE. SHE SAYS SHE LOVES YOU AND SHE’S SORRY ABOUT LEAVING YOU BEHIND THE TEQUILA BOTTLE.
Then the computer . . . crashed. It was designed to never never never crash. And it crashed. There was nothing but a Windows 2010 screen . . .
And then that was gone too. The computer screen went black. The machine wasn’t even powered-up.
Louie tried everything he knew, but he could not get the computer turned back on, let alone booted up.
There was only one hope. He might go to the InfiniQuest shop and pay to go online there — complete the quest there. Inferior equipment but he could still do it.
He struggled to his feet, found his canes, and slowly, painfully, made his way to the bedroom door and down the hall and across the living room — past the astonished, beadily fierce glare of Aunt Belinda, who was in her easy chair watching her soaps. Ignoring her sputtering questions, he struggled out the front door and down the hall and all the way to the elevator . . .Where Louie gasped, leaning against the wall, sweating, feeling a growing lump of ache in his chest.
It seemed to take forever, but eventually the elevator doors opened.
It was Spring outside: a day bathed in soft sunshine. Lower West side Manhattan — Louie so often forgot he was in a city, a specific city. At his computer he was in some kind of digital space, a virtual construction. But this was the living city that had been outside waiting for him all along. Brick townhouses and delis and luncheonettes — the luncheonettes were tourist stops for people trying to remember New York when it had character, before all the franchises took over. But lord, it was vibrant with sound! The hybrid cars, the electric trams, the chatter of people into cell phones — faces, so many human faces, many of them accompanied by tiny faces glimmering pink within blue on the phone screens as the crowds swept by — and some of them even talking in person, looking right at one another. The muffled clamor of a flock of pigeons startled into the air as he walked into Washington Square Park . . .
As he crossed it to the IfQ shop on the other side of Washington Square, he was startled by the colors of the living things in the park, daffodils and trees and birds and grass — the pigeons with iridescence and emerald swirling gray plumage, the butteriness of the flowers. He’d never realized how green grass was; how many colors there were in a mossy treetrunk.
He had to rest partway, crossing the park. Ignoring the stares of the laughing children motor-skating by, he heaved himself, panting, onto a bench.
Louie felt better, sitting down, but when he wasn’t moving he found himself thinking, and that was excruciating in itself, because of what the words on the screen had said — especially what they’d said about the tequila bottle. His mother had been drinking margaritas, the day she’d driven the wrong way up that one-way street.
The park bench creaked loudly as someone else sat down — someone nearly as big as himself, wearing a long blue shift and decaying blue slippers: A puffy, pug nosed girl with lank hair, and deeply inset brown eyes. Her small hands and fingers looked incongruous on her enormous arms.
“Oh god,” she said, breathing hard, “I never thought I’d make it to the bench.”
He stared at her. Was she talking to him? Personally?
“I walked so far to get to the IfQ shop, and it was such a disappointment . . . ” she went on. “I was already tired when I got there. And then – ”
“What? What about the shop? I’m on my way there!”
“Oh? The shop’s open, but their rental computers are down, every one of them. Apparently there’s some national — international, he said — InfiniQuest meltdown. PCs fried, the game itself down, the ISP gone – ”
“Oh my god . . . ” He felt like someone had shot him through the heart. “Fuck.”
“So — what was your screen name?”
“What? In IfQ? You should know better than to ask that.” He shuddered at the thought of people knowing that Louis the Achiever was really . . . what Louie was.
She shrugged. “I’ll tell you mine. Lady Delphinia Delvinga.”
He stared at her. “I don’t believe it. You always . . . well I mean . . . but of course . . . ”
She smiled sadly. “Of course.”
“We spoke so many times — and you lived near me?”
She nodded, slowly. “Yes. I thought you were in Canada somewhere. But we lived in the same New York neighborhood . . . ”
On impulse, on a wave of despairing abandon and some other feeling he couldn’t identify, he said, “Oh what the fuck. I was Louis the Achiever, Lord of Dazzle Castle.”
She smiled. “They said you might be here. And here you are.”
“Who said that?”
“The words on the screen. That told me to go outside. They said they loved me. My real name is Helen.”
The tears welling in her eyes fascinated him. And those eyes . . . the depth in their brown luster. Amazing. More than just brown, when you looked closely.
Many colors in there, too. Many colors . . .
And then he gasped as he saw something else in her eyes: the little girl trapped in her. Helen.
Helen trapped in Delphinia. Or was it the real Delphinia, trapped in Helen?
The world seemed to have spun all the way around backward, one time. And then he made up his mind.
“Helen — I’m Louis Swicket.” He swallowed. And then the little boy trapped in him said, “Helen — What do you want to do . . . now?”