It is a golden day, soft-focus idyllic afternoon in a peaceful neighborhood where pretty aunts live. Green grass and white picket fences, flower boxes, lace curtains. And everywhere, gauzy early summer seen through a softly falling veil of pale pink cherry blossoms. The air feels like cotton candy on my skin.
A small engine breaks the silence: a scooter; it must be a Vespa; it buzzes like a wasp. On the high discordant sound rides a clean, tailored charcoal suit with impeccable white cuffs, fitted soft black leather gloves, a black rubber mask rising smoothly from the neck, shrouding the head; red-orange plastic car-reflector disks rising shallow-domed, rimmed in chrome, over where eyes might be.
One quiet motor, followed by a few more ones. I've been walking along the road, and duck back instinctively. Petals softly falling. Petals softly flattened by unnoticing tires. Quiet buzzing.
There's a certain kind of fear that you learn as a grown-up. When you're young, there are lots of things you don't understand, and some are frightening, but that's just how the world is. As you age, you find coping methods, learn to rationalize, acclimate to bumps in the night.
But one day, something incomprehensible happens and it stings you with this new fear that paralyzes. You can't pigeonhole it; it cuts your rope, it dilates your pupils and trashes your worldframe... That's how it feels with the hollow men.
They don't turn.
I'm crouched low in a damp alley, shoulder to shoulder with garbage cans, beading cold dream-sweat.
They don't stop.
But I was right there, which means they've seen me. These must be drones. They spool up recordings behind those domed arachnoid eyes, carry them back on their quiet journey, and they'll spool them back out into a repository somewhere that informs their controller. Their job done, until they are sent back for me.
I wake as from every nightmare, washed over by waves of freedom and relief...
We're running through pillars in the great hall when I sight the cave entrance. At long last: the cradle of destiny! Our sorrows and wounds will be redeemed. I raise the call; we converge upon the massive door.
We are five now, down half in ranks but still mighty. I take pride in our show as we power-kick through the old locks. Above the dais looms a pterodactyl. I know without a doubt that it breathes fire, and also that it’s named Hedwig.
Her feral scream is my cue to steal the medallion while my comrades distract the beast. So I creep up, tuck the secret brightness in my pocket while she wheels, reels from sting to sting, angry and confused, intact but too distracted to burn. With a touch of lucidity, I expect the medallion to grant me invisibility – a page from Tolkien's book. It works. And the cave begins to slowly implode. Still, no trouble – I drop my invisi-mode, and we regroup and head for the door.
Out of nowhere, players six through eight enter the game.
Lethally fast, they flare-bomb the immense space. While I collect my senses, two of ours fall. We split. They rally. They harry our fighters, one lofted on wings - clumsy in this cavern, but still brutally strong. Hedwig, unpaired, makes for me. I slide behind a column as she spews a plume of fire at my freaked-out little ass.
Now I hear her pacing, circling the pillar. I circle away; just in time, I dodge left - gouts of flame singe my sleeve. I make right - I meet her baleful eye. I hesitate, breathless-still, freezing despite the heat… I realize my posse is down to one. Whittled to shreds like so much tinder.
"This is such a tired cliché!" I yell. If the end is nigh, spare me this gratuitous ring-around-the-rosy. I’ll sit down here and take it.
Closing my eyes doesn't make it hurt any less; I'm seared like family dinner.
I'm dead, and Hedwig flap-ambles away. Interlopers move in and loot the medallion from my body.
"Leave me alone!" Respawning, I, righteously indignant, skip a piece of rubble off their leader – a reedy blonde, all steampunked out.
In an second they're all up in my face, all eyes and ears, scrutinizing. I bat them away. Who do they think they are?
Mr. Reedy, staring with watery blue eyes, he casually shoves me down: like, who do you think you are?
The visceral roughness grounds me, full lucid: I snap. "What are you doing here? Fuck off! FUCK OFF! Fuckofffuckoff!!" I grab the whip off my corpse and lash at him. He backs off.
"Haven't seen this one around." Another one speaks.
From his attitude, I guess that this one is really the leader. He's a blue-limned cyborg, streaks of glow emanating from his eyes and solar plexus. Then, to me: "Cute place... is it yours?"
"You think it's a PC?" The third one says this, the winged one, a long-haired lady in white gossamer. She pokes me again; I toss an elbow at her jaw, which she dodges easily. Spinning back, I rub my hands together and glance down at them. Squiggly fingers.
"Oh yeah. Grounding techniques. What's your name, dreamer?”