A/N: This is now officially rated "T" for fantasy violence, innuendos, and language. Shouldn't be anything you can't handle, I'm just throwing the disclaimer out there.
Mel was yawning on his way to work the next day. He'd stayed up too late, as usual, but that was a task he'd been meaning to get done for a while now. Good intentions aside, though, it was more than a little inconvenient when he nearly dozed of on the Mag-Lev on his way to work. Especially since the trip only took about five minutes.
Squeezing his way out of the crowded train, Mel glanced around; good, he hadn't actually fallen asleep and missed his station. He licked his lips and set off, out of the station and into Business Sector. His movements seemed designed to avoid notice: he walked briskly, eyes on the ground, free hand twisting and rubbing his fingertips against his thumb nervously. No one stopped to say hello to him; few, it would seem, even saw him. He was a small and slight man with a thin face and close-cropped brown hair, every inch an office worker. Even the briefcase he carried with him seemed to belong in an office; it was perfectly rectangular, black, and completely without adornment. Mel had chosen it for that precise reason. It was nothing anyone could remark at.
He crossed the spacious, if bare, lobby of Lariko Enterprises without incident and descended the four floors to his office in a beautifully empty elevator. He had just begun to hope that he might make it to his cubicle without anything happening when—
Mel winced. Larry Berges, another programmer, was striding up to him, wearing a broad—Mel's first thought was shark-like—grin and extending a hand. Larry was almost the polar opposite of Mel: tall, broad-shouldered, with thick and wavy blond hair and a square, firm jaw. When he smiled the women swooned and the bosses swelled with pride.
It was, Mel thought, typical of his luck that this should be the very man who would decide to embark on an office-wide vendetta against him.
Seeing no way out of it, Mel took the proffered hand. "H-hi, Berges," he managed in a quavery voice before the big man's hand crushed his in a death grip. Mel gasped faintly. God, he hated Berges.
"Good to see you, good to see you!" his tormentor was exclaiming, enthusiastically pumping Mel's hand. He let go and Mel made the mistake of thinking he had gained a brief reprieve. Then Berges clapped him on the back, almost sending him staggering to the floor. "Why," the man continued, "I feel sometimes as if I don't see you around here at all, most days. I said to myself just the other day, I said, 'I haven't seen that Fairy for a while. Mel Fairy, wonder what ever happened to him.' And here you are! Fantastic, man, truly fantastic!" He clapped Mel on the shoulder again, with the same results. "Good to see you, truly. Although I'm sure your social schedule prevents us from seeing each other more often—you look tired. Got some lady friend?" An extraordinarily hard elbow to the ribs. Mel blushed a fiery red. "No," he mumbled.
"Ah, c'mon, buddy, you can tell me. Yeah, I know your type all right: act all modest at the office and in public, but then at home they got some lady waiting for them that they like to get…y'know, 'down' with as the saying goes. Yeah, that's where you've been all right, I can tell just by lookin' at you. C'mon, Fairy, you got some fox at home you've been gettin' it down with?" Berges's voice was pitched to carry; Mel could tell that most of the office was listening in now. His only chance to come away from this conversation with any dignity at all was to try to laugh it off. "Oh," he said, trying to make himself heard, "n-no, nothing that exciting, Berges." Then he made the mistake of trying for a laugh, and instantly hated himself for it. He hated his laugh; it was like his voice, high, tremulous, and weak. He was so nervous his voice cracked at the end, which only made matters worse.
Berges shook his head with mock sadness as he saw an even deeper blush spread across Mel's features. "Ahhh, don't worry about that, Fairy; you'll get through puberty, all the rest of us did. Just hang tough and you'll make it through." That elicited a laugh from his audience at last, and Berges wandered away, clearly feeling that his mission—namely, humiliating Mel—was complete.
Mel moved quickly to his cubicle, his colleagues' laughter still ringing in his ears. Huddling down over his desk, he tried to ignore the snide remarks of his neighbors as he organized his things. "To do" pile over here, computer in the center, "completed" pile on this side. Computer connecting to local network, check… Mel took the minute to sigh, massaging his face. He rubbed his hands together, preparing them for work.
Mel liked his hands. They were, in fact, about the only part of his body that he did like. Mel was skinny, small, and weak, but his hands… his hands were real programmer's hands. Artist's hands, he liked to think. They had long fingers, sturdy but dexterous, and belied their strength by looking as slim and pale as all the rest of him. They were, in Mel's opinion, the most important tools he had as a programmer.
Mel inhaled once, to get himself ready to go into simple work mode, then picked up the first sheet of programs he had and began to type. His mind wandered almost immediately. There were, after all, only about a hundred and sixty programming pieces that a grunt programmer like himself was ever asked to do, put together and switched around various ways. Most veterans had every one of these down in their fingers' muscle memory. Mel, on the other hand, simply loved programming. It was not only his job and his forte, it was his passion.
He'd been working at Lariko Enterprises for thirteen months and hadn't needed to refer to the step-by-step instructions on his programming sheets for the past twelve and a half.
As the programs whirred, tested themselves, registered, and executed, Mel's consciousness idled. He wondered briefly what was being served for lunch, then turned his thoughts to Olden World. Hertan, resting, would be in top shape by the time Mel got home from work, as usual. What to do tonight…? Well, there was Caergeth's head to return to that merchant. That should be worth a pretty penny—merchants usually paid well. But then he would have to go looking for employment again, unless he wanted to spend the better part of the night trawling aimlessly through some keep. He'd have to go to Jurinoth. That was where most of the action was.
Mel spent most of his morning fantasizing about Olden World, as around him his fellow programmers consulted, typed, yawned, and griped. When the lunch bell rang, he moved with them to the cafeteria, unseeing, ignoring the few comments that came his way. Most of them were derogatory in any case. During his lunch, he ate in his usual corner, alone. Some of the programmers left for lunch, went down to Food Sector to snag a meal at one of Deussen's cheaper eateries, but Mel had never seen the point in that. He had no one to go with, in any case.
Lunchtime was always hard. Mel tried to keep stolidly shoveling spoonfuls of the cafeteria's mushroom soup into his mouth, but he couldn't help being aware of the snide comments and half-concealed snickers of his co-workers. A few of them made him blush—then he hated himself for blushing. The worst part of it was, most of the things they said were true. He was scrawny, and weak, and tight-lipped, and undersexed. He knew he was.
Larry, as usual, was the worst. He walked out of the building with his arm around the waist of Camilla DeGregour, a tall and curvaceous blonde that was a constant distraction—and object of lust—to all but the most devout of the male programmers in the department. As the pair walked out, Larry turned and mouthed, "Where's your fox?" at Mel. Camilla saw him and grinned, arching an eyebrow and smirking at Mel. Mel was terrible at dealing with innuendos like that, and Larry knew it. Mel realized with a glum acceptance that he was bound to spend the rest of the afternoon quietly hating his co-workers in general, and Larry in particular.
Mel's thoughts refused to settle that afternoon. He tried to keep himself distracted with thoughts of Olden World, but visions of terribly wonderful things happening to Larry kept popping into his head. Or visions of Camilla, wrapped in bed sheets, beckoning him closer. Or, most often, visions of Larry caressing a Camilla wrapped in bed sheets, shortly followed by visions of terrible things happening to Larry. His hands slipped and the computer tried to code a string of gibberish. Mel swore and backed up. Closing his eyes, he tried to focus, breathing in and out slowly. Focus. Focus. The code is the only important thing. Forget Larry. He doesn't matter. Forget Camilla. She doesn't matter. Even if she does have the biggest, firmest… Stop! Focus. Focus…
In all, it was a discouraged and world-weary Mel Ferron that emerged from Lariko Enterprises at 1630. In that much, then, this day was simply like any other.
Mel paused for just a few moments on his way to Business Station, as was his ritual, to gaze up at Dazzlers Inc.'s building. Naturally, of course, only one floor could be seen—the great high-rise buildings that Mel's parents remembered were gone, presumably forever. But what a floor that was! The door was surrounded by a huge façade of holographic imaging, of which the door itself was a part. The door constantly flashed the company logo, followed by moving, action-packed clips of some of the best Gamers from each genre. Around the door, spanning full twenty feet, was a huge screen divided into smaller squares, each advertising a different game made by Dazzlers. Every once in a while, one square would expand to fill a good quarter of the screen, showing gameplay from some particularly popular game. Now two fleets of starships maneuvered for position; on the other side, a teenage girl in a lavender tunic and tights fought a lion in an arena, to the applause and jeers of a crowd. Suddenly, one particular clip filled almost the entire screen, one of a man in dark, rough clothing hurling treasure into a sack while a spike covered roller ground slowly towards him. The clip changed and shrank away just as the man looked back, eyes fearful; the spikes were barely five inches behind him.
"Oh, I've been to that one!" Mel heard a passerby comment to his friend. "Nasty business, but there's a trick to it—if you time it right, you can jam the spikes with a rock, take as much as you want…"
Unconsciously, Mel's lips twitched into a smirk. The game that the man was referring to was called Temple Runs, and was a game that revolved around trying to become the richest member of the criminal underworld—eventually the crime boss, for a time—by robbing ancient tombs, temples, and other sites around the world, while competing with other players for the riches. It was one of Dazzlers's more popular games, but Mel thought of it rather disparagingly. He was of the opinion, like many of the players in Olden World, that Olden World was the only game that true Gamers would spend their time on. Where, after all, was the glory in a game like Temple Runs? Thievery from booby-trapped tombs was all very well, but the game lacked the high degree and variety of skill needed for a game like Olden World. You didn't get the satisfaction in a game like that that came from destroying an opponent, or freeing a prisoner, or exploring an entire world like you did in Olden World. Temple Runs just didn't cut it.
Olden World! Mel's thoughts grouped again around his most constant obsession. He was focused now, the stunning visual presence of the gaming network bringing his thoughts finally away from Larry, Camilla, and all the other tormentors he called his co-workers. Olden World was the biggest and most popular game ever released by Dazzlers, and Mel prided himself for being a player of some worth inside it. It was a highly competitive game, and gave an amazing amount of freedom to the character in terms of actual activities. Once you were immersed in the game, you could be and do anything you wanted to. Shopkeep, adventurer, soldier, thief, hunter—they were all possibilities in that vast, virtual world. Aside from the change in their world, players were given more or less as much freedom as they had in real life.
And what a world it was! Olden World was a fantasy game, a world of epic proportions and grave dangers. In one of the areas that Mel, as Hertan, had traveled there were ancient forests, with huge trees dominating the landscape and casting all into a green shadow. In one region there was a vast desert, fraught with vicious creatures that fed off each other to survive. In still more places there were murky, misty swamps, home to crocodiles and the strange Mirefolk—the fish-people who were sometimes willing to befriend, but all too often met an adventurer with spears. It was a land of blue skies, white wispy clouds, scorching sun, and cooling rain. It was a land with lakes, rivers, even vast and impassable oceans, a land where grass grew and was soft and springy to the touch. The air was sharp and cool—or hot and damp—or dry and acrid. The sun shone on all, and all was life and livelihood and nature.
It was, in short, a world wholly alien to Mel and his generation.
Mel sighed and began to wander away from the bright, vivid game displays. That, of course, was Olden World's main draw, the reason for why so many people from all walks of life and all ages—including Mel's parents and their generation—spent huge chunks of time immersed in the game. It was a taste of a world now gone, a world that would never come back. Mel pursed his lips. It must have been amazing indeed, in his parents' heyday, to live in a world like that, filled with wild growing things. And how strange it must have been at first, to transition to the tunnel-cities they lived in now, when the governments around the world had ordered all their people into hermetically sealed tunnels in huge, sprawling networks built for precisely that purpose. How cold and empty they had seemed then! He had been nine at the time, and could recall the vague feeling of dread and unease with which he had first entered the tunnels with his parents. If he truly pushed his memory, he could even recall the true texture of grass beneath his bare feet. The memory was faint, but it was his feeling that Dazzlers's programming, though excellent, paled in comparison.
But there was no more grass now, except in specially cared for greenhouses where you could—for an almost prohibitive fee—wander the lost world of wild and untamed botany, museums to the age when plants grew wild over the earth. The attack that put an end to that age—a powerful gaseous bio-weapon launched by the terrorists who had seized control of the UAAC—had been expected, but due to a miscalculation and mechanical failure, several billion times the necessary amount of gas had been spewed into Earth's atmosphere. Widespread destruction reigned: some areas wiped out entirely, others with only some of the population surviving, fleeing into the tunnels their leaders had had built for them. Hundreds of billions of animals died over the next week or two; only those that had been transported to the tunnels for the zoos survived. Plants withered and the ground was blighted. On its surface, the Earth was now a dead planet.
But beneath the surface, humanity survived. Shattered and disorganized, they eventually pulled together in their individual cities and elected new leaders. Work was resumed; factories began to churn again, and the economy had, over the course of several years, more or less stabilized. Contact was re-established with other cities, and nations were quickly re-formed on the basis of social, philosophical, and economic similarities. The world now ran much the same way as it always did; the only difference was that it now did so underground.
Mel shook himself awake abruptly. Introspection, he decided, did not suit him. It only served as a distraction, and it always left him gloomy. He shook his head sadly. It didn't truly matter whether he was gloomy or not—enough people avoided him that he shouldn't infect anyone with his misery.
Returning to his apartment, Mel went through his customary routine. Quick supper, light snack in hand, work jacket and briefcase in closet, tie in drawer. Hands and face washed. Hair inspected (he was certain that his hairline was receding). Finally, he smiled for the first time all day and moved to his Game Room.
The Game Room wasn't much to look at, but it was the hub of Mel's life. A small, square room, it had blank walls and only one piece of furniture: a chair similar to that seen in a dentist's office. The difference was that affixed near the headrest of this chair on filigree wires were three electrode-like devices and a set of nose-plugs filled with a drug tailored to induce semi-consciousness. It was a Net Chair, commonly known as an NC. It was the latest in personal communications and data exchange technology, and it was the only way to access the TunnelNet, the web of virtual information that extended throughout every tunnel on the planet. It was, among other things, the only way to play Dazzlers Inc.'s games.
With a contented sigh, Mel placed his snack bar on a table beside the chair, and hooked himself up.