He was on the frozen rutted road through the loading yard of the bomb-shattered factory. The perimeter fence was on his left; beyond, the bleak moorland stretched forever. The wind slowly sculpted the drifting snow.
Cautiously, he advanced. On his right the factory loomed. As he approached the doorway, he scanned the snow for footprints.
He glanced inside. The room had been a workshop once, but its contents had been salvaged or looted; there was nowhere to hide. At the far end, an untouched snowdrift fanned in through the door.
Somewhere an automatic rifle rattled. He ducked into the room and scuttled along the wall to the other door. Murphy and Angel-of-Death were already in the courtyard, rifles at the ready.
“Lynx calling Murphy. I’m coming in from just south of you. Over and out.”
Murphy glanced toward him and nodded. Recognized, he entered the courtyard; Ratsbane, Dax, and Yakuza were also waiting.
“He’s down, over by the storage sheds. Angel got the bastard who did it. C’mon, let’s move! They’ll want to capture the guard tower: we need to get there first. We’re going between the dorm blocks.” They moved swiftly across the courtyard, taking positions as they went, and entered the narrow zig-zag alley between the low brick buildings.
At the far end there was a figure silhouetted against the snow. He took aim and fired, BAP-BAP, BAP-BAP. Bullets ripped into flesh, with a spray of redness; the figure – a girl, he could see despite the heavy winter combat gear – convulsed and dropped to the ground.
But her comrades were waiting. Ratsbane got two of them before he died. Angel was hit and fell back, her long hair flying. And then came the bullet with his name on it. The world somersaulted, turned red, and then black.
He was on the frozen rutted road through the loading yard of the bomb-shattered factory. If anybody was still alive up there, they needed him. He crossed the workshop without looking and approached the far door. Three hostiles were fanning into the courtyard; and they had not seen him. Exulting, he held the trigger down, sweeping from left to right, BAP-BAP-BAP-BAP-BAP-BAP. Blood fountained, staining the snow. He leapt over the bodies and ran into the alley. And the universe vanished.
“Mom! What did you do that for?” He waved his hand at the black screen.
Jenna bristled. “Martin, you have done nothing –- nothing — since Wednesday but play that awful game.”
“But we knew nothing was going to happen at school on Thursday, Mom! They don’t do anything but make announcements and have free periods, and maybe hand out really lame candy. At least they don’t try to make us sing dumb Christmas carols any more…” He realized, mortified, that although the TV had been switched off, the microphone was still live. He yanked the cord from the PS-V. “Look what you did! My squad were relying on me and you made me let them down!”
“Don’t blow things out of proportion, Martin. It’s only a game. And it’s time for us to get changed for the carol service.”
“I don’t want to go. You go if you want to.”
“You spend entirely too much time playing that violent game!”
“It’s called FireForce, and it’s none of your damn business what I play!” he barked.
Her voice rose to match his. “You think you’re going to get a job this way? You keep on this way and you’ll end up just like your useless father!”
“Well, you were the one who married him!” Martin shouted, his voice cracking. He stripped off the data gloves, threw them to the floor and slammed off to his bedroom, microphone cord still hanging from his neck. Jenna sat down on the sofa and buried her face in her hands.
After a few minutes, calmer, she went to Martin’s door and knocked. There was no answer. “Martin, dear –- I’m sorry.” Silence. “I’m going off to the service now. If you want to come you can, we won’t bother to change.”
Reluctantly, she turned toward the apartment door. She rummaged in her handbag for a package of Nicorette gum, popped a piece in her mouth, and left the apartment.
There was so much about Martin that she didn’t know any more. For years after Shane had drained their bank account and fled the country, it had been her and Martin against the world. It had been Martin who had made her cups of tea after the endless interviews by police officers who wouldn’t believe how little about Shane’s “business deals” she actually knew; and Martin who had made her get a tree for that first Christmas, then hugged her and said solemnly that it would be OK if there wasn’t any money for presents. But Martin’s adolescence had been a slow parting of ways, a journey to somewhere where she could not follow.
After the service there was hot apple cider. She was just about to reach for a cup when a man beside her said “Here you go!” and passed her one.
She turned to thank him. He was around her age, tall, with straight hair the color of oak leaves in autumn, soft brown eyes, and a warm smile. He wore crisp blue jeans, a tan sweater over a white dress shirt, and a maroon tie. “Do you need more than one cup, or are you here on your own?” he asked.
“Oh, just on my own. How about you?”
“I’m here with my mother. You probably know her, Marilyn Diamond?”
Jenna laughed. “Oh, I’m strictly Christmas-and-Easter. I don’t know very many people here.” She surreptitiously swallowed her gum, hoping that there was no nicotine left in it.
She inhaled the odor of apple and cinnamon, then took a cautious sip. “I’m Jenna MacDonald. And you?”
He deadpanned: “The name’s Diamond. Curtis Diamond”
“And how about you, Mr `Diamond Curtis Diamond’? Are you a regular here?”
“Well, not really. I drive Mom in most weeks –- that’s her over there — now that she can’t drive anymore; but most times I go off for a coffee and come back to collect her afterwards. But tonight I stayed, and I’m glad I did.” His eyes met hers, and he smiled. “So, do you have a family you couldn’t drag along, or what?” He lifted his mug and drank, assessing her over the rim of the cup.
She could look into those eyes for a long, long time, she decided. “Only my son, who had a prior engagement with a computer game.” She tried to keep her voice light. If kids were a dealbreaker, better find out before she got in any deeper. “And you?”
“Nobody at the moment. Single, no kids, one crazy dog.” He grinned. “And just in case you were wondering, I don’t live in Mom’s basement — she has a condo, and I have a house of my own. Not big, but enough space for me and my toys.”
“Oh, a garage to work on my motorbike, a workshop, a room for my computers –- well, it’s an office, really. I work from home a lot.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a programmer. How about you?”
“By day a mild-mannered secretary, by night… well, I sing with a choir, mainly jazz and showtunes. I volunteer once a week at the evening blood donor clinic. And I live up near Long Lake Park, all that forest only a few blocks away, so I often hike there after work when the weather’s warmer – swim sometimes, too.” She felt herself blushing as she remembered her last swim of the season, a reckless impromptu skinny-dip one September evening in a secluded cove.
“Does your son like hiking too?”
“Sometimes I can get Martin to join me.”
“Does he have a lot of interests of his own?”
“Hah! He’s pretty centered on his online games.”
“Well, that’s fairly normal these days, isn’t it? What grade is he in?”
“Does he have a lot of friends?”
“Well, there’s DeeDee. I’m not sure if you’d call her a girlfriend or not. You know how it is? She’s really sweet. And I guess there’s Jason Murphy. They used to play street hockey and things, but now they mainly just play together online. I can always tell when it’s Jason on the phone for Martin these days, he asks for ‘Lynx.’”
“What games do they play? Professional interest, I’m in that line of work. I do scenarios for a first person shooter called FireForce.”
Her eyes blazed. “Well, congratulations; he’s one of your best customers. Since school stopped, my apartment’s been like living on a goddamn shooting range. And I know it’s only a game, but I just hate that the only thing my sixteen-year-old son wants to do on his Christmas holidays is killing people.”
Curtis took a slow breath, then another, and looked at his watch. “It’s been really nice to meet you, Jenna. But I have to drive Mom home now. I hope we meet again.” His voice and handshake were formally polite.
Jenna walked back to her car, kicking viciously at the deepening snowdrifts. How could she have been so stupid? Those dreamy eyes, that soft strong voice –- and she had to go and pick a fight with him. No wonder she was still single after eight years.
She looked in her bag for the Nicorettes, but every blister in the pack was empty. Cursing under her breath, she threw the empty package into the snowbank. She reached her car, cleared the snow off her windows roughly with the sleeve of her coat, and drove away, spinning the wheels.
When she got home and called hello to Martin, the only answer was a burst of gunfire. She walked quickly past him to her bedroom, closed the door, threw herself down on the bed, and wept silently into her pillow.
A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. “Mom?” came Martin’s voice. “I made dinner for us while you were out, KD and smokies. I waited for you to get back. I didn’t hear you come in. Well, I sort of did but I was in the middle of something. Shall I put it on the table now?”
She stood up, wiped her eyes, and blew her nose. Then she opened the bedroom door, and threw her arms around Martin. After a few seconds he wriggled free. “Mom! If you’re going to get all emotional when I cook, you can send out next time!”
On Christmas morning, Jenna got up late and put on coffee and the Joan Baez Christmas album. Half an hour later, Martin emerged from his room, licking a glossy red reindeer lollipop, only slightly self-consciously. “Merry Christmas, Mom!”
“Merry Christmas!” she responded. She almost asked him what else Santa had put in his stocking, but decided not to push her luck.
During breakfast, she noticed his furtive glances toward the tree, and waited for him to suggest that it was time to open presents. By her second cup of coffee, she decided it was time to break the standoff.
“Ready to open presents, Martin?”
He stood up, almost knocking his chair over.
Six large rectangular parcels, all addressed to Martin, all identically wrapped and about the same size, turned out to be the six volumes of Churchill’s History of the Second World War, picked up at a garage sale. She had bought them on a hunch; to her relief, Martin was delighted. Thank God he still likes to read, she thought.
There were also a couple of sweatshirts in the style he liked, and a CD from her parents in Vancouver (the Bee Gees? Where did anybody find a Bee Gees recording these days?) To be on the safe side, she had also put a fifty-dollar bill into a card: Martin was saving for a full-immersion VR headset. At least the apartment would be quieter.
Finally, Martin reached behind the tree, and took out an envelope that had arrived in the mail several days before. An entire quarter of the front was covered by a mosaic of low-denomination Bolivian stamps. He opened it with difficulty, because of the Scotch tape holding it closed, and took out a flimsy card, with the words “Feliz Navidad” and a nativity scene drawn in a folk-art style. He opened it; nothing was written in it but his name, but it contained two creased bills, limp with age: twenty and fifty Bolivianos, less than a dollar. He put them in his pocket, wordlessly, and retired to the sofa with The Gathering Storm.
Jenna opened her mouth to speak, and thought better of it. For a minute she sat immobile; finally she stood up, crossed the room to where her handbag sat, and took out a Nicorette. Only after it was chewed soft and tucked into her cheek did she turn to opening her own presents.
Her parents had sent her a hand-knitted Christmas sweater, all reindeer and bells. Martin had bought her a box of chocolates, and had painstakingly knotted for her a macrame necklace with hemp string and alternating blue and gold beads, separated by square knots. The knotting was precise and even. Where had he learned how to do that? She put it on, walked over to the sofa, and hugged him. He returned the hug and went back to his book.
For an hour or so Martin read. After a while Jenna went back to her room and got dressed. What would go well with the necklace? She picked out a gray-blue silk blouse with a scooped neckline, pulled it over her head, and checked in the mirror.
What would Curtis think, she wondered? She let herself daydream for a moment, then raised her forefinger and gave the figure in the mirror a severe look: don’t be silly! She smiled wryly, and turned away from the mirror.
Martin was still reading when she came back to the living room. “See, Martin, that necklace looks great. Thanks!”
He surveyed his creation critically, and decided he was satisfied. “You’re welcome, Mom.” He paused. “Can I go out to DeeDee’s place? I have something to give her, and she’ll be out later at the soup kitchen.”
“Sure. Can you be back by one?”
He went to his room and returned carrying a little parcel hidden under his sweatshirt, between his left arm and body. Jenna obligingly ignored it, as if he were ten years younger and they were playing a pretending game.
Martin stepped up to the porch, rang the bell, and waited, tapping his fingers on the doorframe. There was movement behind the rippled glass, and DeeDee opened the door. She was wearing a loose black knit dress from Frenchy’s that came to her knees, mismatched stockings in red and green, and high-ankle sneakers decorated with a purple Sharpie. He brushed snow out of his hair with his fingers and stepped inside.
“Merry Christmas, DeeDee. This is for you.” She opened the package, and uncoiled a hemp-and-bead bracelet.
“Oh, I love it! They’re such a pretty green! Did you make it yourself?”
“They sorta match your eyes. And yeah.”
“Aww… Could you be sweet and help me put it on?”
He was not used to the clasp, and his fingers were trembling slightly; she would have been faster doing it herself.
She gave Martin a pocket-sized edition of Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. “It’s hard to shop for a warrior like you, Martin,” she said. “I hope you like it.”
“I heard somewhere it’s the greatest book on combat ever written.” He put his arms around her, and she hugged him back, her arms high around his neck. He closed his eyes, living through touch, his hands exquisitely aware of the warm feminine contours of her back under the thin loose fabric. He stroked her tentatively, his fingers hardly moving, trying to keep away from her bra straps, afraid that she might pull away and end the moment. Through his winter coat, he could just feel her breasts pressing against his body; he wished he had taken the coat off when he came in. He pulled his head back and tried to kiss her lips. She turned her head away just a little and his lips met the softness of her cheek. “Merry Christmas, DeeDee.”
Her lips were on his cheek now, her kiss firm but brief. He was glad that he had remembered to shave. “Merry Christmas, Martin,” she murmured in his ear, and her hug grew a little tighter.
“Are you… are you disappointed that I’m not coming with you to help at the Hearth today?”
Her embrace slackened. “No, it’s different for me, my parents are volunteers there too. You were right, your mom would be disappointed if you weren’t with her.”
“I suppose I could ask her…”
“Oh, Martin! That would be totally great! But – she’s already cooking Christmas dinner for both of you, isn’t she?”
“So… I guess it really wouldn’t be fair to ask her now. Maybe next year we could arrange it earlier?”
“OK, let’s do that.” Slightly awkwardly they separated. “G’bye, DeeDee.”
He started home through the snow. He was the one who had offered to go with her to help out at the Hearth, wasn’t he? And wasn’t she the one who had pointed out that it wasn’t a good idea? Sometimes DeeDee seemed to be surrounded by a mysterious field within which logic did not apply.
After a while he gave up. He took the little book from his pocket and opened it, holding it close and bending over it to protect it from the wind and snow that hissed against his nylon jacket.
Letting Go Of The Sword
There are various different spirits involved in letting go of the sword. There is the spirit of winning with no sword. There is also the spirit of holding the sword but not winning. These methods cannot be expressed in writing. You must train yourself well.
What did that mean? It seemed that he was not going to gain Musashi’s wisdom lightly.
For Christmas dinner, Jenna had roasted their usual turkey breast. The promising aroma of roast turkey filled the little apartment; a whole bird could not have done better.
Martin was setting the table with the best china and cutlery. He had put a wine glass by her place; she glanced over from the stove where she was finishing the gravy, approving his work.
“You might as well put a wine glass out for yourself, too, dear.”
“Oh, all right.”
She came out of the kitchen with two glasses of egg nog, and handed one to Martin. He sipped it, and looked up. “Is there something in this, Mom?”
“Not much. I can get you a plain one if you prefer.”
“No, this is OK. Just a bit different.”
When the egg nog was finished, Jenna stood up. ”Ready to eat?”
Before Martin could sit down, she slid the carving knife and fork towards him. “Do you think you could carve this year? It is traditionally the man’s job, after all.”
“I don’t know how. Perhaps you’d better.”
“It’s not hard with a turkey breast. Just cut down in slices, then sideways underneath.” She took the wine bottle, half-filled each glass, and sat down, watching him carve. The first few slices were a bit uneven, but he caught on quickly.
Jenna started the dishwasher; Martin went over to the television, and picked up the data gloves. He looked at her inquiringly, as if expecting to be forbidden. She said nothing; he had been offline all day, after all.
He switched on the set, and immediately turned the volume down to half its usual level. She smiled and busied herself in the kitchen, as he started his game.
The flickering grey light of the screen was reflected in his eyes; his body was motionless, except for his fingers in the black data gloves, twitching with a life of their own. Every so often he said something into the headmike. She sighed, and put on another pot of coffee.
He was on the frozen rutted road through the loading yard of the bomb-shattered factory. As usual, he entered the door and turned right, following the wall. Suddenly he stopped. In the shadows ahead of him, rusty iron rungs on the wall led up to a trapdoor in the ceiling.
Ice water trickled down his spine. There had never before been any way to get to the workshop roof. If the enemy had a sniper up there already, the whole squad would be slaughtered at their rendezvous point. He would have to secure the roof, even if it cost him his life.
“Lynx calling Murphy. There’s been a download, there’s access to a roof overlooking rendezvous. Keep the squad back, I’m going to clear it. Over.” He started to climb.
“Oh, shit. Murphy to Lynx. Keep yourself safe, buddy. Over and out.”
It was not a roof, but a ruined second story, open to the sky, shattered by bombing. Nobody was in sight, but the remains of an interior wall cut across the middle of the bare floor. Was anybody hiding on the other side? He wished he had a grenade.
The broken exterior wall might afford a little extra cover. He inched along beside it; after an eternal minute, he reached the central wall. There was nobody behind it.
“Lynx to Murphy. Roof secured. Out.”
When he reached the courtyard, Murphy, Angel-of-Death, and a stranger were standing guard. Dax and Yakuza were AWOL; the sign-up screen had identified their replacements as Ender157 and Tron285. He identified himself and moved in between Angel and the new guy;
“I’m Lynx. You?”
“Hi, Lynx. I’m Tron.”
He almost replied “Merry Christmas,” but didn’t.. Here on the battlefield it was just another day, always winter and never Christmas. Finally the other three appeared.
Murphy briefed them. “I don’t know how much has changed. Lynx tells me there’s access to at least one roof that didn’t have it before. Ratsbane says the wall along the railroad track is down in some places, and some of the yards behind have a lot of cover. If the rest’s like that, the usual route would be suicide. Any ideas?”
There was a pause. Finally, Angel spoke. “How about we try the route over there between the dormitories? You know, where we got creamed a few days ago? Then we can head east from there.”
“That’s what I thought too. It’s our best chance,” said Murphy. “Just wanted to hear somebody else say it.”
They crept up the alley. Ender, Angel, and Murphy kept their rifles pointed ahead; Pierre checked the doors and windows on the left, Ratsbane did the same on the right. He and Tron covered the rear. Eventually, they were at the far end, looking out between high walls into an open space.
Pierre dropped, inched forward, and stuck his head out, very low, beyond the walls. Instantly he was on his feet, beckoning them on.
The guard tower and perimeter fence were gone. The path they were on curved to the left and faded into the drifting snow over a long, low ridge. Beyond the ridge, something unfamiliar moved, flickering white against the white sky. A flag.
The unexpected object fluttered higher; beneath it appeared six soldiers in ragged enemy uniforms, rifles slung. Their empty hands were raised, yet they marched as proudly as if they were on parade. Nobody fired, though they kept their rifles trained.
The leader, lean and middle-aged with a few days’ growth of beard, came forward, smiling confidently: “A truce, my friends? It is Christmas.” His accent was faintly exotic and hard to place. After a moment, Murphy lowered his rifle. The rest followed him.
“I do not suppose that you were expecting us.”
“No shit, buddy.”
“Karl… my name is Karl. These are Valkyrie, Arrow,” (he indicated the women, then the men), ”Lancelot, Chaka, and Shadow. We lost our camp to shelling a few days ago. We need to get back to our rear base. We have been marching for two days. In a few more hours we ought to be back home. So, a truce?”
Soon the rifles were stacked against walls, and the thirteen were standing around in small groups, talking. Angel was chatting with Valkyrie and Arrow. Murphy and Karl were talking, slightly reservedly; the others were clustered around their leaders. It was just like the beginning of a party, Martin thought, before the guys and girls start mingling.
Half an hour later, the party had come alive. The taboo on real-world talk had not entirely disappeared, but if somebody had a story to tell, a transparent “Last time I was home on leave…” satisfied protocol. Somebody had found a soccer ball, which was being kicked around an irregular ring that grew or shrank as players joined and left. The unfamiliar control mappings made the game tricky, and wild shots were greeted with laughter.
At one point, Karl, Chaka, and Martin were sitting out, backs against the wall of one of the brick buildings, watching the game and swapping war stories. Karl took out a steel thermos bottle. “Lynx, would you perhaps like a cup of coffee?” He poured out a cup and handed it to Martin, then turned to Chaka, who produced a battered mug of his own to be filled. From his own webbing he unsnapped a third.
Martin could see the steam rising from below his field of vision, translucent white in the frigid air. Suddenly it seemed that he could actually smell it; he realized that his mother had made coffee, and put a mug on the end table beside him. He paused his left data glove and picked up the cup. The warmth of the mug in his gloved hand, the smell of the coffee, and its smooth, bitter flavor made the illusion almost overpowering.
Chaka, sitting on the far side, took out a worn wallet. He opened it, cradled it in his hand, and held it in front of Martin and Karl. The photograph was a head-and-shoulder shot of a beautiful young woman with high cheekbones, skin the color of dark chocolate, and elaborately braided hair. “This my girlfriend, Shantelle. How about you, you got a photo?”
Even in real life, the only photographs that Martin carried with him were on his cell phone, and he had no idea what to do. But Chaka laughed. “Hey, bro, you can get to Flickr and Facebook from here.” A small floating browser window appeared. Martin put down his mug, reactivated the glove, and ran his left index finger along the row of options, quickly reaching his Facebook picture collection. Which picture of DeeDee to show Chaka and Karl? After a moment’s indecision, he chose one from last summer at Rainbow Haven Beach, with DeeDee in her cutoff jeans and Deadmau5 T-shirt, tanned and smiling, holding up a sand dollar by the edges, her dark hair unruly in the sea breeze. As he selected the picture, the thumbnail menu disappeared and was replaced by a slightly creased photograph in his avatar’s hand. He showed it to them. “This is DeeDee.”
“She’s very pretty.” said Karl, softly.
“She gave me a book today. There was a bit in it
about letting go of the sword. I didn’t understand it, but I think I do now.”
“The Book of Five Rings?” asked Chaka. “Musashi-sensei, he was one wise man. And your friend, she sounds like a pretty smart gal.”
“How about you, Karl?” asked Martin. After several seconds, Karl produced a worn photograph in a cracked plastic envelope. The redheaded woman in the dark green motorcycle jacket looked a lot younger than Karl. Martin was about to say something, but Karl spoke first. “Lara and I were going to be married, but she died in a motor bicycle accident. She was thirty years old. I was twenty-seven; I used to tease her about that.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“That is all right. You could not be expected to.”
A few minutes later, Karl looked at his wristwatch and said “I am sorry, but we must go now. We have several kilometers left to go before nightfall, and our route lies through dangerous country.” The other squad stood up and started to say their goodbyes.
On an impulse, Martin brought up his inventory menu. Most of the items did not seem helpful, but… there. “Karl! Do any of you have a compass?” He slid the cursor frame to surround the little icon.
“No, we lost a lot of our equipment in the shelling.”
“Well –- Merry Christmas!” He made the snapping, twisting finger gesture to transfer the item, hoping that it would work outside his own team. Apparently it did; the compass vanished and the other icons slid in to fill the gap.
Karl smiled, and extended his left arm beyond the field of view as if to clasp Martin’s shoulder, while his right upper arm moved forward. Martin found himself extending his own arm, as if to return the handshake.
“Thank you, Lynx, my friend. This gift could not have come at a better time. Merry Christmas –- and when we meet again, may it be in peace. Oh, and, by the way, when you are next home on leave, tell your mother that Curtis sends his greetings.”
The quiet gasp to his left startled Martin. He turned away from the screen. His mother was standing a meter or so away; her eyes were so bright that at first he thought she was about to cry. But that didn’t make sense; she was smiling.