AoM Chpt 42: Swift Flow of Years

Brasdain: The Dragon Kingdom sold out at the distributor level, two thousand copies, before the end of berry season in August, when Aaron flew them both out to a large Midwest hobby-game convention to promote the next printing. The buzz at the convention was nervous — apparently the company owning C&C had devolved to new ownership who’d decided to forbid third-party adventures. By the end of the weekend, Aaron decided he couldn’t publish anymore without risking a lawsuit.

“This is gonna kill the hobby,” he complained in their hotel room. “They’re real dumbshits for doing this. We increase the audience for their game.”

“Couldn’t we publish without any stats? People could make up their own life points and armor ratings and stuff.”

“It wouldn’t sell, Steve. Maybe we could do novels or something, but I don’t know. The book distributorship is different. We’d have returns and all kinds of headaches to deal with.”

Steve gave it some thought. “What about computer games, like Ultima?” Richard Garriot’s groundbreaking computer roleplaying game had hit the market the previous year, and a few of the kids at school rich enough to have their own computers had become obsessed with it.

“I don’t know that market at all. Where would we find the programmers?”

“My computer science teacher might know. He’s got a PhD, and he really likes games.”

“Do you think you could set up a meeting with him?”

The next month back at school Steve showed Brasdain to Dr. Richards and explained that he wanted to create a computer game like Ultima. The teacher flipped through the book and grew thoughtful. “This project has huge scope, Steve. It’s like a thesis. You’ve got a good head for algorithms, and you’ve obviously got the storytelling down, but you’ll have to get good at trig if you want to make 3-D environments. Also, BASIC won’t cut it. Interpreted code is too slow. I’ll teach you Assembly for the TRS-80, and if you finish a game, we’ll port it to the Apple.”

With Dr. Richards’ endorsement, Steve was able to recruit several other students to help out. The game project had many false starts as Steve tried to get people writing code without an adequate plan, but the teacher patiently steered him back in line and doled out helpful new advice, timed to when it would do the most good. By midyear, Steve realized that his project had become common knowledge among the faculty, and he got cooperation not only from Dr. Richards but from his English, Math, and History teachers, who encouraged him to pursue study in their disciplines that would help. His English teacher allowed him to do a paper on how Frankenstein might be made into a game narrative. His pre-calculus teacher allowed him to substitute half of his geometry homework for game-related trigonometry practice. And Dr. Richards let him devote all his computer time.

Meanwhile, he continued to lift weights and see Jane. About half the weekends, he opted not to go home.

He and Tess exchanged letters every few months. On her sixteenth birthday in October, he sent a card, and she one-upped him with a gift certificate to Powell’s for his own birthday in December. The following spring, he bought a used Ford Mustang with his share of the roleplaying-book profits. His parents wanted him to put the money toward college but gave in; his dad actually helped negotiate the purchase.

He and Jane took frequent drives and located hills around the city with good views for late-night make-out sessions. These grew bittersweet as the weather warmed again. Steve was now a sophomore, but Jane was about to graduate. In May, she was accepted to Cornell, and she had a summer house-painting job lined up in New York. That June, she took him to the chaperoned Senior All-Night Party at a local health club, which hosted dance floors, tennis and basketball courts, and movie lounges until dawn. Under gray morning light, they said exhausted goodbyes in the parking lot, pledged their mutual affection, and promised to write.

By fall their letters tapered off, first on Jane’s end. They agreed to date other people, and soon after, she stopped writing. It hurt, bad. Steve understood without knowing for sure that she’d found someone new. He became angsty and mopey, but he found a series of other girls who seemed to find this romantic and wanted to console him. They never stayed together long, though. He gently rebuffed their attempts to make it serious, and he even – in a highly principled move, he thought – ignored their strong hints that he could go all the way. Jane had warned him in one of the last letters to resist sex with girls he didn’t feel strongly about: “It’s probably easier for girls than guys to want to say no when they don’t really like the other person. We’re different — I understand that,” she said. “But imagine having to scrape Crazy Glue off your shoes for months or maybe even the rest of your life. Seriously.

“But do what you gotta do.”

The next two years of high school were often lonely without Jane. They never had much to share, other than an easy way with each other, but he missed that easiness as he dated girls who had strong expectations of how a boyfriend should behave. A few thought it was neat that he could call himself a published author but none really shared his interests.

By spring of his junior year, in 1983, he finished the first version of a game for the TRS-80. Most settings in the game featured static graphics with a text-console underneath for typing commands, but the player could also move in first-person view through 3D wireframe caverns and dungeons. He’d originally hoped to include his whole campaign but settled on the hag’s swamp fortress in the tropics, some wilderness, a castle, a town, caverns, and the underground city, which was mostly alleyways with an occasional shop or demonic temple. He agonized about whether to have Aaron publish the current version or to wait until he ported the code to the new Commodore 64 and Atari 800XL computers that had shaken up the market. He opted to wait.

Meanwhile, Tess informed him she was graduating high school early. He had vague misgivings that college would somehow end their friendship. A couple weeks later — it was April by now — she wrote telling him that Alex had gotten a job in Houston, Texas. She’d been accepted to Rice University, and she’d decided to go there so she could live at home and save on dorm fees. Steve paced the school grounds for an hour after that. The past year, his thoughts had often drifted out to Ashland, and a few times he’d considered driving down again. Just knowing it was possible made him feel connected to her. He wrote a brief congratulations and wished her a great time in college. The letter was perfunctory, but he added a P.S.: “I miss you, I miss you. Take care, Steve.”

Bearing the letter to the campus post office on the hill seemed like the trudge up Mt. Doom.

A week after Tess had left the state, he wondered why he hadn’t thought to attend her graduation. He supposed part of him knew it would have torn him up.

* * *

Senior year brought disappointment. Due to financial trouble, Aaron had to renege on his commitment to publish the game, and the other students helping Steve insisted that they stop trying to port the code and merely fix what they had. They all planned to use the game to fulfill Merriweather’s senior-project requirement, and the teachers agreed they’d done more than enough already and should probably devote the time to other subjects. As it happened, even fixing all the obvious bugs proved a daunting task, and Steve approached the end of the year exhausted.

* * *

In May, Dr. Richards called him into his office. “I’ve been talking to a colleague who works for a Maryland software company, and they’re interested in your game. I bought and sent him a copy of your roleplaying book. They’re excited, and want to make an offer on the story IP.”

“IP?”

“Intellectual property. But,” he added quickly, “just for software-development. You’d keep all the other rights. I hope you don’t mind, but I hardballed them for you. I figured what I’d consider fair, seeing as how they’re positioned and what they have to gain.”

“And what was that?”

“You’re planning to attend U of O, right?” Steve’s dad had hounded him to apply to Ivy League schools, and feeling contrary, he’d resisted till the point was moot. Dr. Richards said, “This would probably cover your tuition.”

* * *

At the end of the month, a week before the end of school, Steve received a letter from Tess.

* * *

Dear Steve,

It’s been a long time since we left Megaera and Stefan in the dungeon. I hoped at first that despite all I put you through, you’d write and tell me what happened. Within a few weeks, I decided to work it out for myself. It was a presumptuous thing to do. I lost what I originally wrote down, but here’s what I remember.

Sethis doesn’t torture Megaera like he does Stefan. He throws her in a cell, but doesn’t chain her up. He brings her plenty of food and water. He sits down with her and folds his hands, and then tells her about how he’ll use the Mind Maze to drive Stefan to despair. “When that’s done,” he said. “I’ll kill him.” He says he should disfigure, degrade, and then kill Megaera, because that’s what his mother would do. He seems doubtful, though, like he can’t get up the nerve.

Megaera tells him he could just let her go.

“Are you saying I can’t do what needs to be done?” he shouts. “You think I’m weak. Mother told me to distrust women. All they know is how to seduce, gestate, rear, and coddle. Then they toss out their ravenous young into the cold world. Annabis was different. I was her only child. She taught me dark magic. She taught me to survive!”

Megaera is alarmed at first, but then realizes he’s a psycho and it’s better to make him face her and not think of her as a toy, even if it only gets her killed quicker. She says, “Annabis trained you only to serve her vanity better. Any bad thing she said about women applied double to herself. And whatever women’s faults, men are no better.”

Surprisingly, he gets really calm. “No, they’re no better, only more direct. Men, real men, live to dominate or destroy.”

“There are good men,” Megaera says. “There are men who love and create and imagine a better world.”

“You think I never did that?” he says. “I suffered to become an adept. In my dreams I escaped into many ‘better’ worlds. My mother even encouraged it! She had me tutored in art, music, and poetry by masters of the Underworld. But she also taught me an important lesson herself, that you must face the world on its own terms, or it will destroy you.”

Megaera pretty much agrees, but she’s not buying all of it. “Your own father is a survivor, and he’s a good man.”

“No, he’s like the rest. Once I went to the dungeons and spoke with a soldier my mother captured. (I had been torturing him, and she ate him eventually, I think, but he was all I had to talk to.) I suppose I complained about my mother, and I apologized to him. He told me that he forgave me, that he pitied me for having no father to teach me honor and right from wrong. When I asked my mother then, she told me that my father had abandoned me, that he was ashamed of having lain with her, and that he would never accept me.”

“And you believed her,” Megaera says.

“I pretended to believe her. I held out hope she might be wrong. Till the last, when I confronted him, I held out hope! But when I got him in private, he cursed me. I would have defied my mother, risked everything, but he cursed me.”

“But you spread lies about his daughter, and you slew his men.”

“My mother made me do it. She had her spies on me. I tried to make him understand!”

Sethis gets petulant and raises his voice, and Megaera, remembering her stepfather, thinks that if she doesn’t calm him, he’ll get violent. “Yes, a father should understand,” she says.

“Yes, that’s the lie.”

“But I know him,” said Megaera. “Your father is a good man, and so is Stefan.”

“You think so? You are naïve. I have decided. I will give you a quick, clean death, but first I would see what value you set on your own words. I will let you watch as I break your Stefan in the Mind Maze.”

Sethis leaves. Hours go by. Someone comes and puts food under the door. More time passes with regular meals. Megaera doesn’t see Sethis for a whole week. Finally he comes in and drags her to Stefan’s cell and sits her next to him at a small table. He’s slumped over naked in chains, looking skinny, almost dead, his eyes fixed vacant on a glass ball. She’s horrified and sad and feels more sympathy than she’s ever felt for anyone. As Sethis has her look in the orb, she casts the spell for holding her boundaries against Bugclaw. At first, she hears a white noise, like surf, but as she concentrates on her force field, the noise seems to resolve into muffled words. Sethis is whispering to her, urging her to become a ghost watching the scene in the Mind Maze and to be hopeless and afraid. She ignores most of the words but is slowly dragged down against her will. The orb fills her view and then fades away, replaced by a vision of Stefan toiling desperately behind a plow in the hot sun. She views him from a height and tries to call out, but she can’t talk. She glides behind him like a ghost, but he doesn’t see her. Slow dull hours pass. Night falls. She watches him in the hut, sees him tossing feverish on a rough pallet. The cruel farmer comes and goes but says nothing.

Every few hours, Megaera feels a touch on her shoulder and emerges from the spell. Sethis gives her bread and water. He feeds Stefan too, but very little.

Miserable days pass, and Stefan becomes more haggard. After another week, Sethis introduces a new character to the scenario, an orphan girl who begs food at the cottage. Stefan brings her in, and has to argue with the farmer about it. “We can barely feed ourselves!” the farmer says.

“Don’t worry,” Stefan says. “She can share with me.”

“Then you’ll starve.”

After a day’s labor, Stefan finds the girl sitting on the floor of the hut, hollow-cheeked and sad. She looks just like Megaera did when she was young. He gives her a hug, and she turns a hopeless gaze on him. He says, “Would you like me to tell you a story?… Once upon a time, a noble knight lived with a dragon in a city below the earth. This knight was not a man but a girl, and she was taught to protect the weak and defy the wicked….”

When next Sethis rouses Megaera from the globe, he laughs and says, “Your Stefan has lost his mind and all his courage. He’s trying to make her as weak as he is.”

“No,” Megaera says. “He’s teaching her to defend her mind; he’s making her strong.”

“He should conserve his own strength.”

“You’re a fool, Sethis. He has no hope for himself. He only wants to do some good.” And as she says this about Stefan, she realizes that she loves him.

* * *

And, Steve, for me this is the real climax of the story, but I’m a sucker for a happy ending, even if it’s a Deus ex machina.

* * *

One hellish day follows another, and each night Stefan tells the girl a new story. Inspired by his example, Megaera redoubles her efforts to improve the force field. Finally she begins to slip partway out of the Mind Maze. She has brief glimpses of the cell and of Sethis, looking bored and whispering into the orb. Once, Stefan tells a story of a hag who eats children and how the knight cuts off the hag’s head. Megaera glimpses Sethis’s face twist with rage. He whispers that when Stefan dies, the farmer will sell the girl to a brothel.

Finally, Megaera manages to break the spell. She keeps her eyes down, and glances up now and then to watch what Sethis is doing. An hour passes, then two. Somewhere down the prison hall a door opens. Footsteps approach and then Neve appears at the bars of the cell and says that he has a visitor. Sethis wanders out, still murmuring poisonous words, and locks the cell behind him with a key. There’s a waterskin nearby. Megaera stands up, and she manages to get Stefan to drink. He moans, eyes unfocussed, face slack. She whispers into his ear t that he’s really a prince under a spell, and that they must fight Sethis together. She talks and talks. Soon, she hears the door opening down the hall.

She retakes her seat and pretends to be transfixed by the orb.

What happens next surprises her so much she nearly blows her act. Sethis opens the cell and ushers in a beautiful blond-haired woman who wears a green gown. The woman has dark lenses strapped over her eyes.

“I’m happy you survived,” he says to the woman. “As you see, I suffered an eye injury as well, but come, I think you’ll enjoy this. These are the two who killed our mistress.” He regains his seat. Limax bends over his shoulder, apparently rapt as they both look at the orb. Just then, Megaera notices Stefan’s hollow eyes flick up to meet her own. She knows he’s ready.

Several things happen at once. Sethis puts a hand to his neck and spasms. A slimy black tendril extends from between his fingers to the blond woman’s open mouth. He twitches and kicks and foam breaks over his lips. Before Megaera can get up, the cell door opens and Neve rushes in, wielding Bugclaw, but Stefan lifts the orb in his chained hands and hurls it into Neve’s forehead, where it explodes into fragments, staggering her. Megaera launches out of her seat and wrestles Bugclaw away from her. Down the hall outside, the snarls of werewolves mix with the clash of weapons and the cries of the convent acolytes. The cavalry has arrived.

* * *

I’m not sure what happens between Megaera and Stefan in the denouement. I guess they just start with a hug.

Hope I haven’t messed up your story too much.

Love,

Tess

* * *

Steve immediately sent a reply to the Rice University address on the envelope.

Dear Tess,

Thanks for sending me an excellent and satisfying conclusion to the story. You got all the characters right, and of course you know that. Please call me as soon as you get this.

Yours, Steve

* * *

He left his number below the signoff. What did she mean by all this? Was she trying to re-start something? He needed to talk to someone, and the only person other than Tess herself would be Rei. He’d be coming to his graduation party at the end of the week, but Steve couldn’t wait that long.

It was late afternoon, almost five o’clock and well past school. Rei didn’t have any late activities that he knew of. He went and tried to phone him in the dorm lobby, but the line was busy. Steve ate dinner in high agitation, and after, the line was busy again. It took him another half hour to get through. Rei’s mom answered and passed the phone over.

* * *

“What’s up?” said Rei.

“I got a letter from Tess.”

“Uh, that’s cool. Hey, do you have plans this coming weekend?”

“We both do, Rei.” Steve drew a deep breath to summon patience. “You’re coming to my party on Friday, and I’m coming to your graduation next week.”

“Yeah, I know. I mean after that, on Saturday and Sunday?”

“Probably whatever my folks want to do.”

“Leave the weekend open, okay? Swear you’ll keep it open?”

“Why?”

“Don’t be a dick, Steve. Just do it.”

“I’ll try.”

“No, seriously. It’s a surprise. Don’t make plans. Don’t let your folks make plans.”

“Okay, I won’t. What’s the big deal?”

“Like I said, it’s a surprise. Just don’t ask me.”

“Fine. Anyway, I’ve been trying to get through for hours. Who was on the phone?”

“No one,” Rei said fast, and with odd conviction.

“What do you mean ‘no one’? Who tied up the phone?”

“Oh, it was my dad.”

“Anyway,” said Steve again. “I called because I wanted your opinion about this letter….” After Steve explained the whole story, Rei said, “That’s pretty complicated.”

“So what do you think she means? Is she trying to jerk me around?” Steve could almost picture Rei’s antsiness and distraction.

“No. Well, I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I have some advice.”

Rei never had advice. “Yeah?”

“Don’t think about it. It’s been a long time, and she’s a long ways off. Forget her and get done with school.”

“I can’t forget her. You know that.”

“Forget her for a week then. We’ll talk about it next week, after this weekend.”

“After your big surprise.”

“Yeah. Oh man, you— Sorry. Just forget I said anything. I’ve gotta go.”

* * *

After two days, Steve figured Tess had gotten his reply, and he waited eagerly to hear from her, but she didn’t call. Anyway, he had finals, and thankfully they consumed his attention.

* * *

Steve graduated from Merriweather Prep on June 8, 1984, with a 3.9 gpa. Commencement took place in the school’s main lecture hall because of rain, and afterward, his parents hosted a large party, with a lot of his mom’s stuffed-shirt colleagues. Steve had a good time anyway. His dad didn’t object when he, Rei, and Tighe got themselves beer from the keg, and after smiling through many patronizing congratulations, they slipped downstairs.

“Weather’s supposed to get better tomorrow,” said Rei as he and Tighe studied Tess’s poster above the old gaming table. Rei had started to bounce on his feet, and it made Steve irritated — irritated and curious. Something had wound him up.

“So?”

Rei stopped and faced him. “You still going out with that Rebecca chick?”

Rebecca was a year behind him and joined his computer game project for a couple of weeks before deciding she was in over her head. Steve suspected she’d done it just to get to know him. “Nah, we only went out once. She kept trying to get me into her church. Why?”

“Just curious. Say, I know of a huge party tomorrow night. I mean, a huge party, a kegger. The student-body president over at Gresham is hosting it in the field behind his folks’ house. They’re going to have a bonfire, and you bring a tent and sleeping bags.”

“You could take Piper,” Steve said to Tighe.

“I don’t know. It’d be a little weird not knowing anybody. What if the cops break it up?”

Rei said, “I know a lot of the guys, including Shane. We played C&C a few times. And his folks are helping out, so it’ll be cool.”

“His folks?” said Tighe. “What the hell?”

“They’re gonna stay in the house unless things get loud. They’ve told Shane he has to collect keys from everyone. Nobody gets in without dropping their keys, and no one gets them back till morning. Also, no loud music.”

“Still, that’s kinda crazy isn’t it?” said Tighe. “I mean, people will be getting laid. There could be fights.”

“Shane’s folks are old hippies. Anyway, he’s also got guys from the wrestling and football teams to make sure nobody gets crazy, and it’s invitation-only. I can invite anyone I want, so I’m inviting you and Steve — and your girlfriend, I guess. But that’s it, and don’t tell anyone else.”

“Yeah, right,” said Tighe. “That ‘invitation-only’ shit is like saying, ‘I promised not to tell, so don’t pass it around.’ What do you think, Steve?”

“It’ll be a train wreck,” Steve said.

“Man, we gotta go,” said Rei.

“If I don’t get in a fight with some drunk guy, I’ll probably get ticketed for beer.”

“So you won’t go?” Rei moaned.

“Of course I’ll go.” He looked at Tighe, who nodded eagerly. “It sounds like a friggin’ blast.”

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