Joachim Heijndermans“Ok, Charlie, we’re ready for you,” said Camilla as she typed and swiped away on her tablet. “Is your suit charged enough? Got the right setting and everything?”
“It’s fine, ‘Mil. I’m ready,” Charlie said. “Who am I playing against?”
“FuneralRose53, A.K.A Karen Donner. You’ve gone up against her before.”
“Right. She plays Li Ru.”
“On Wednesdays she does. On Tuesdays, she’s Kagemura, the Demon from 30,000 fathoms.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.”
“She’s great. You should check her out sometime. Didn’t you play a Kaiju once? Or was it a Mech warrior?”
“I don’t play on Tuesdays,” mumbled Charlie.
Camilla chuckled. “You should. There’s nothing funnier than seeing two people slap each other silly in big rubber costumes. Or at least, as close to rubber as the system gets. I heard that tokusatsu mode is a great workout, even if you end up looking like a pudgy baby rasslin’ another pudgy baby.”
“Eh, not my thing,” Charlie shrugged. “There’s no sport to it. No art.”
Camilla rolled her eyes. “’No art’, he says. Coming from the guy who keeps bugging me for a raise, that’s rich.”
“I have rent and loans to pay,” Charlie grunted.
“Is there a challenger for today’s wild card mode?” Charlie asked.
“The mode is open, but I’m not sure anyone is gonna enter. Most of the regulars are preparing for next month. The Kendō sims have been booked full for nearly six whole weeks.”
“Is it almost July again? Jeez, wasn’t it X-maze season like a few weeks back?”
“More than five months ago, Charlie-boy. Tempis fugit. And speaking of time flying, you ready yet? We’ve got a schedule to keep.”
“Yeah, I’m on my way,” Charlie grunted, snapping the last of the straps on his interface helmet shut.
“Good luck on the show. You’ll do great,” Camilla assured him.
“Don’t you mean: break a—,”
“Nope,” she interrupted. “Legal says we can’t use that anymore. New mandate because of what happened last Friday.”
“What happened—?” Charlie tried to ask, but she’d already vanished down the hall, so he committed himself to doing one more calibration check, before picking up his Jian sword and leaving the changing rooms toward the performance dome.
Lin Siniang, the woman of the garden, softly played her Guqin zither as the red petal leaves fell from the trees, dancing their melancholy dance in the wind to the tune of her music. The summer was to end soon, and the fall would make way for the white coat of winter. Lin Siniang enjoyed these last warms days before the fall in serenity when she would read poetry and play the Guqin in relative peace, no matter how short-lived said peace would eventually be. For those who seek out battle and conflict, would find Lin Siniang at the end of their path. Today would be no different.
A change in the wind. Lin Siniang was not alone. The soft steps of a warrior came from the rear, betrayed only by the cracking of the leaves beneath his feet. Or in this case, her feet.
“May I offer you tea?” she asked her assassin. “You must be in need of some refreshments after your long journey from the north, Li Ru.”
“Whore of the king. You dare and sit here in leisure, while the souls of those you murdered waste away in hell, screaming out your name?” hissed the woman in white and blue silk, raising her guandao poleax toward the woman of the garden, the sun’s light gleaming from its sharpened edge as the red tassels bound to the hilt fluttered in the gentle breeze..
“They were traitors to the crown. I did my duty as a warrior of the king. Their deaths were swift and merciful. They did not suffer. Lay down your blade, and perhaps your own death will be just as quick and painless.”
“Witch!” snapped Li Ru as she leaped into the air with enough force to propel a sea of leaves behind her.
The assassin swung her moon blade down, but the king’s consort was quick to dodge the blow by jolting upward and spinning through the air, like a kite dancing in a whirlwind. With a flick of the wrist, Lin Siniang released her thin Jian sword from its scabbard. The light reflected from its metal blinded Li Ru, but many years of battle experience taught her not to rely on her eyes when engaged in combat. She bent backward, avoiding Lin Siniang’s forward thrust, then countered with a swing of her guandao poleax. The king’s consort withdrew with a dash, leaping into the air with each step, barely touching the ground. While her Jian was sharp and could easily pierce between an enemy’s ribs, Li Ru’s guandao was strong and heavy enough to snap the thin sword in two with a direct strike. She could not afford to lose her weapon so early in the game. Direct contact with the poleax could mean a death sentence, but the guandao’s greater weight made Li Ru’s strikes slow and predictable. Speed was Lin Siniang’s advantage in this game.
The two women engaged in their elegant dance of death with both grace and fury, parrying their blows whilst leaping through the air. Every thrust, swing, punch and kick caused the winds to bend to their will, blowing thousands upon thousands of leaves through the air. In any other world, they would seem like witches, doing the impossible whilst dueling for their lives. But for Lin Siniang and Li Ru, this was their way of battle. Thus all the more frustrating when a voice from the heavens cried down to them.
“And we are off! Recess for five minutes. Powering sim down.”
Charlie wiped the sweat from his brow, as the clothes of Lin Siniang vanished from his body, revealing his blue-grey projector suit. He put his Jian sword by his feet while he stretched his legs. The garden had vanished, leaving the empty dome in its place. Gone were the oak trees and the sea of fallen leaves.
“Hey, Chuck. Great thrust, earlier,” Karen said, resting herself against her guandao. The projection of Li Ru now long gone, leaving an average looking woman with her curled ginger hair tied back under her helmet. “But could you try not to take my head off so early in the show next time?”
“The Jian is too thin to do that,” Charlie sighed. “It would break apart on your neck on the first strike.”
“Lighten up, dude. I’m just saying you don’t have to be so intense from the start.”
“Sorry. I’m just on edge,” Charlie sighed, as he leaned back, his vertebrae cracking loudly.
“Still stuck with your loans?” Karen asked.
“You got it.”
“I hear that,” she sighed, no stranger herself to steep payments and final notices. “Listen, the tokusatsu people are always looking for new players. I could hook you up—,”
“I’m not gonna play Gorgothka or whatever just to pay the bills.”
“You wouldn’t be,” Karen said. “Gorgothka is on another network.
“It’s not what I trained for. I’m a wuxia player. I’m the best wuxia player. I’m not going to debase myself pretending to be a rubber monster so the network can sell more ‘Plea-z-e meal’ toys.”
“Is that what you think I do?” Karen said, her voice now lowered to a deep pitch.
He gulped, realizing his error. “No, no! Not at all. I mean, I didn’t mean to imply—,”
“No, I get it. I’m just wasting my time, entertaining kids and paying the rent with a decent paycheck. I’m sorry we can’t all be the starving creative on top the mountain screaming “aaaaaarrrttt” at the heavens,” Karen grunted, muttering ‘douchebag’ under her breath.
“Crap. No, Karen, what I meant was—,”
“One minute to showtime, kids,” blared Camilla’s voice over the com. Around them, the stark gray walls and blue floors vanished, as the emperor’s garden reappeared as they’d left it.
Karen pressed the blue keys on her wrist, enveloping herself once more in the identity of Li Ru. She spun her guandao in the air, taking a battle stance.
“Karen. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—,”
“Take your place, and turn on your suit,” she grunted.
Charlie did that, vanishing underneath the photon particles that made the image of Lin Siniang. “I just want to apologize. I didn’t mean to say what you do isn’t worthwhile. It’s just not what I want to do.”
“I know that. But we all have bills to pay. Just think it over, ok?” Karen said.
Charlie nodded. He thought back to the number on his bank account earlier this week. That number that’d been haunting him all week. Running it over through his head, it didn’t even occur to him what he said until he’d said it. “Just mail me their number, all right?”
“Will do. Now, prepare for combat,” Li Ru roared.
Above them, the voice counted down. “Round two. This is the wild card round, so prepare for a surprise challenger. We are live in three…two…one…action!”
The two women bolted toward each other. With lighting speed, they slashed and parried their weapons together. Lin Siniang would use the weight of Li Ru’s guandao against its wielder, balancing herself on the shaft of the pole and kicking herself into the air from it, planting two swift kicks against Li Ru’s face. The assassin would retaliate by heaving the heavy poleax around, creating a flurry of dead leaves that nearly blinded the emperor’s consort, masking her thrusts and incoming slashes.
The two warriors, both artists in the use of their respective weapons, continued their deadly battle. Several times, Li Ru came close to striking down her target, who seemed to be distracted by other matters, despite engaging in a battle of life and death, allowing Li Ru to spot a gap in her enemy’s defense; a chance for a finishing blow. She swung her guandao up, bringing it down with all her might. The impact cracked the earth itself, while a maelstrom of leaves burst into the air.
Li Ru looked to the right. Once again, Lin Siniang managed to dodge her attack. The consort smiled, taking another bold stance, goading her adversary. The battle was far from over.
Suddenly, both of them heard the snapping of a bowstring. In a sudden reflex, Lin Siniang swung her arms. Wood splintered underneath the strength of her block, shattering the arrow to pieces.
“What? Where did that—?” gasped Li Ru, turning toward the arrow’s point of origin. They saw a man standing there. A challenger to their duel. But something was wrong with his demeanor and way of dress. This one did not belong in the emperor’s garden.
“Women! Prepare to die at my sword, Masamune!” roared a samurai in red and orange ō-yoroi armor, as he threw down his bow and unsheathed his katana, before lunging at the two warrior women.
“Hey, wait a minute! You’re in the wrong—,” Li Ru protested, but her sentence was cut as short as the sleeve of her gown, after the samurai swung his sword and sliced through her silk robes, missing her skin by a hair.
“Dude!” gasped Lin Siniang. “What is wrong with you! You’re not supposed to—!”
“Kirai!” roared the samurai, as he swung his blade wildly. His technique was sloppy and uncontrolled, but the power behind his swing combined with the sharpness of the blade made him a force to be reckoned with. Lin Siniang dodged as nimbly as she could, dancing through the air like a silk ribbon.
Li Ru lunged at the challenger, but the samurai blocked her attack and struck back, nearly cutting her arm.
“Karen!” gasped Lin Siniang. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” muttered Li Ru. “That’s a level 4 weapon. This idiot is gonna get us both killed. How’d he even get in here?”
“I don’t know. But he’s too dangerous. Can you distract him while I take him down?”
“On it,” Li Ru said. Both women propelled themselves up, with Li Ru jumping around the samurai and dodging his blows, while Lin Siniang flew onto the branches of an old daimyo oak. She waited patiently for the opportunity to strike. One hit with the katana would be fatal, but the samurai’s guard was down. All she needed was a perfect moment to strike his most vulnerable spot.
There it was! His leg was unguarded. Lin Siniang pushed against the trunk of the tree, propelling her forward at blinding speed. Fallen leaves circled around her in a vortex, like a cavalry of red joining her in battle. She rerouted all of her strength into a mighty fist, turning herself into a ram that could split the earth in two. The samurai saw the woman fly at him and attempted to block her strike with his blade. But he was too slow, and before he could even bring his weapon down, Lin Siniang blew past him and struck her fist against his lower leg.
The sound of shattered bone echoed throughout the valley, like a branch breaking underneath a heavy foot. The samurai fell to the dirt, screaming in pain. The sky suddenly turned red, with white letters blinking frantically.
“Warning! Performer injured!” blared the alarm system. “Wuxia simulation mode: terminated. Live feed: terminated. Deactivating all enhancement suits and environment projections. The use of weapons of all levels is now prohibited.”
Around them, the autumn scene of the Chinese garden disintegrated, returning the arena to its basic state of dark gray metal and a projection floor of blue light. The camera bots retreated into their compartments, while the players powered down their performance suits. Lin Shiniang’s image faded into the air, and her performer Charlie Devon reappeared underneath, his suit ending the projection.
“My leg! You broke my leg you asshole! Arrgh!” screamed SytherSlash80085, A.K.A Allen Schimanski, as he laid on the cold metal floor of Arena 08, the Chinese romantic battle environment.
“Gross, I can see the bone!” gasped Karen.
The lights in the arena flared on, followed by Camilla stomping towards the three performers with a righteous fury plastered all over her face.
“What the hell happened?” she shouted. “You can’t use moves like that on another performer. Now look at him!”
“Hey, we weren’t the idiots that let a level 4 weapon inside a level 2 sim! We didn’t have the weapons to counter that, or the armor level to block it when we need to jump and flip like this. We could’ve been killed. He’s lucky that his leg is the only thing we broke!” Charlie shouted.
“I want my mom!” Allen shrieked, cradling his legs as he cried in pain.
“Oh, shut up, Mr. die-at-my sword. Freakin’ hax!” Karen grunted.
“Why was he even here?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah, what’s a samurai player-system doing in the arena on Wuxia Wednesdays? C’mon, dumbass, why’d you challenge us?”
Schimanski groaned. “I’m in competition for the Jidaigeki championships. I’ll never win with my leg all busted up.”
“Jidai—? The samurai thing? That’s four weeks from now!” snapped Charlie. “You’re a month early!”
“No, I’m not!” Allan snapped. “I checked my pass. The second Jidaigeki June!”
“Jidaigeki July, dumbass! It’s in July!” groaned Karen. “You’re a month early. You nearly got us killed because you can’t read a calendar!”
“I told the producers their obsession with alliteration would bite them in the ass,” Charlie sighed. “I just hoped it wouldn’t get me killed in the process.”
Camilla pulled out her tablet and called up the medical unit, who rushed in and heaved Allan recklessly onto their stretcher. “Get him outta here. Now!” Camilla snapped.
“Dumbass!” Karen shouted, throwing her helmet after them as the med team left the arena. She then turned to Camilla, waving her finger in the supervisor’s face. “You let him enter the arena without doing a check on his gear? I could sue!”
Camilla rubbed the bridge of her nose, trying to remain calm and choose her next words carefully. “Look,” she addressed the two veteran performers. “Can I convince you two not to press charges against the network if I give you passes to the Holo-Game Seven awards next January?”
“I think we’d rather be nominated than just attend,” said Charlie.
“Ok, sure. We can do that. Start up a campaign. Create some buzz, like ‘Best Wuxia Sim performers’ or ‘Best Sim Warrior Duo’. No win guarantee, but you’ll get your names in the feeds.”
“Also, I think we deserve a raise to help us deal with the trauma,” he said determinedly.
“Oh, come on! You’re killing me here,” Camilla sighed, shaking her head. “How does twelve percent sound?” she relented.
Charlie looked at Karen, who threw him a thumbs up. He then turned back to Camilla. “See you next Wednesday.”