©2006 Richard Scrimger
and used with permission of the author
The other side's Creeper Robots are hiding behind the trees. They're not a serious threat. I order a troop of my knights out to get them. I don't want to be distracted. I want to turn my Martello tower into a proper fortress. The transformation takes tons of ore, and my mining dwarves are busy. I can hear them chanting,
Dig dig dig for ore.
We've found a lot, let's find some more.
They always talk in rhymes, the dwarves.
My knights kill the Creepers, and return. My supplies of ore keep coming in.
The game is just starting. We're all sort of circling around, getting our bases organized, waiting and wondering. Will they attack first, or will we?
I get a flash message from Plazmic: Help, Drakkir!
I guess they attacked first.
I flash back: How? Plazmic is my partner. He's a Warrior, and he's won way more battles than me. I've been playing with him for the past month or so, and we've done well together. I only know him by his Questcon name, but I trust him. If Plazmic says he's in trouble, I'd better help. I move away from the building site.
Come to Q 7, flashes Plazmic... I'm wounded.
Quadrant 7 is down in the south east. I set my compass and hurry. I'm a Magus, meaning I can heal Plazmic.
I wonder if I should bring some knights as well, and finally decide to go by myself. If he wanted troops he'd have asked. Besides, I need someone to guard my building site in case more Creeper Robots come by.
I'm dashing through a densely wooded area on my way to Q7 when I hear the voice.
No words on the screen, so it's not a message from Plazmic. It comes through my speakers, along with the sound effects and music.
I don't know what the voice is getting at. Questcon is a war game. No point to peace. You might as well shout, 'Obey the Speed Limit' in a road racing game.
There it is again. "Peace!"
I ignore it. I can see the fight now. Plazmic and his knights are being attacked by basilisks - evil birds with eyes of ice that freeze you. Plazmic has traded his great sword for a bow and arrows, but the basilisks are ganging up on him and he's wounded.
He needs a healer. I rush forward.
The voice shouts again. It calls my human name.
"Peas, Gordon!" said his father, from the head of the table. "Pass the dish, boy! Didn't you hear me calling? What's wrong with you?"
Gordon looked up blankly. The old man was pointing with a fork. The white serving bowl, full of shriveled peas, sat beside Gordon's place.
He'd done it again. Disappeared. Opened the door of his imagination, let himself in, and forgotten the time. How long had he been away?
Gordon grunted an apology, but he wasn't really sorry. In fact, he wished he could have stayed away longer. He hated Sunday dinner. Mom at one end of the table, with her glass of wine, Dad at the other end with his clashing cutlery and his frown, and Gordon in the middle. He could hardly wait until the meal was over, when his folks would go off to the movies and leave him alone in the house.
"Did you hear me ask for the peas?"
Gordon shrugged, reached for the bowl.
"I guess I was talking too quietly. Did you hear me, Mary Lee? Was I talking too quietly for you to hear?"
"Now now, dear," said his mother.
"Boy should see a doctor," said his father, with a sarcastic smile, "only I can't decide between a brain specialist and a hearing specialist. I don't know if he's stupid or just deaf."
His mother took a sip of wine. "He's just a teenager. I'm sure he was thinking. Weren't you, Gordon, dear."
He ducked his head.
"Thinking!" His father made that Pah sound, like spitting, only nothing came out. "You're as stupid as he is, if you think he was using his brain. What were you thinking about, Einstein?"
Gordon shrugged again. He'd been replaying this afternoon's game of Questcon. He'd won again, he and Plazmic. They were going to play together again this evening.
"In other words, nothing. That's my point."
"Now now, you two," said his mother. "Thank you, Gordon," she went on, "for passing the peas to your father." She finished her glass of wine.
Gordon believed that his father loved him, but in a special way that Gordon didn't understand, a kind of love that expressed itself in insults and anger. It was love, because he wanted Gordon to be better than he was, not for his sake, but for Gordon's own sake. That's what he said. Once, just once, Gordon had tried to tell him how bad he felt, being criticized, but the sneering expression on his father's face had made the words stick in his throat like chicken bones.
These days he didn't care so much. When Dad started criticizing, Gordon went off into Questcon. He became Drakkir the Magus, replaying old games, devising new strategies.
"Boy's deaf and dumb." Mr. Jackson scooped harshly, so that the metal spoon screeched against the side of the serving bowl. Gordon and his mother winced.
His father ate like that too, stabbing at his plate with his cutlery.
The raiders come at us out of the woods, taking us by surprise. My frog knights fight back, but their spear guns don't work well on land. We're in trouble. I cast a spell over us which makes us invisible for ten seconds. Then I hurry my knights towards the water.
I've organized my army for underwater attack. All the knights have flippers and spear guns. They'll need them — the opposing castle is defended by a mile-wide moat full of sharks. I can see their triangle fins poking above the choppy water.
Plazmic flashes me: Drakkir, watch out behind you.
I flash back: What now? I've already got raiders.
He flashes: A roc killed half my army. I barely got away myself. Now he's heading your way.
Uh oh. A roc is like a huge eagle, big enough to pick up huge boulders and drop them on your troops, flattening them. The best defense is to... well, to run away, like Plazmic did. Or if you have any catapults, you can use them. I don't have any anti-air attack weapons. My knights are amphibious.
Ten seconds are up. The raiders see my knights again. They come charging. I send everyone into the water. The raiders can't swim very well, and the roc isn't going to bomb its own moat.
I'm a magus, so I can't swim. But I can make myself invisible again. I do that.
The roc heaves into view, giant wings flapping slowly, like an overloaded transport plane. It's carrying a boulder in its talons. I'm still invisible, so I should be safe.
"Hey!" calls a familiar voice. "Hey, is anyone there?"
I shiver. I know that voice. I'd know it anywhere.
Gordon looked up from his computer. "Dad?" he called.
His parents were supposed to be at the movies. Had they come home early?
"Dad, is that you?"
He listened for a moment. He could hear the old maple tree outside his window creaking in the wind. He could hear the traffic in the main street a block away. Was that rumbling noise thunder in the distance, or an airplane? Hard to say, but it wasn't his father's voice.
Huh, thought Gordon. Must have been a what-do-you-call-it - a hallucination.
Another rumble. Thunder for sure.
On an impulse, he ran to his window. It was raining now. The maple was swaying back and forth like a hula dancer. The family car was not in the driveway, though. His parents were out.
Weird, all right.
The frog knights are doing great. They've killed the sharks, and are starting to climb out on the far shore of the moat. The roc is still flying overhead, but he can't drop his bomb without hitting his own castle.
"Hey, where am I? Where is everyone?"
That really is Dad's voice. I hear it, the way I hear the dwarves chanting their songs. Where is it coming from?
The roc flies closer. I peer up. That's not a boulder in its talons. It's a living thing, a hideous bloated creature, hairless and angry. Its limbs move jerkily. The top half of its body is covered in a rough gray fabric garment with... are they buttons? I click on the creature to bring it into view.
Yes, buttons. I can see them clearly. The garment is a cardigan. Dad's cardigan. And Dad is in it. Those are his limbs moving around, his face staring angrily at me.
My father is in the roc's talons.
He's in my game. He's part of Questcon.
He's not a hero character, like a Magus or a Warrior or a Troll. That means he isn't online, somewhere, playing the game against me. He's himself, cardigan and all. Besides, I can hear his voice. You never hear the voices from the other players. You have to type to communicate with them.
Somehow, some strange how, my dad has become part of the game's software.
What on earth is going on?
I type: Dad?
Plazmic sees my message. He flashes back:
What's up, Drakkir?
I flash: Sorry. The roc is carrying my dad around.
Plazmic flashes: What????
I don't blame him. I'm confused too. I flash: Forget it.
"Put me down! I said put me down! Help, dammit! Help!" calls Dad.
A word I'd never thought to hear on his lips. It sounds like a foreign language. He has never asked my help before. Not even to move a bookshelf. No one helps anyone in our house.
Mind you, he's still himself. Even though he's asking for help, he's mad.
I wonder what I can do to help Dad. I can't kill the roc. But maybe I can get it to let go of him.
What I don't want is for the roc to drop Dad into the shark-infested moat. I decide to make myself a target on land. I cast a spell to double my size, and make myself visible. This is usually a bad idea, because if you're twice as big, you're twice as easy to hit. I'm hoping the roc will think so.
I jump up and down, making a small earthquake and a thunderclap. I wave my hands over my head. The roc sees me, and wheels around in the sky. He's heading towards me.
Dad sees me too. "Hey, you!" he calls. "Stupid old man! Help! Help, old man!"
Of course, he doesn't recognize me. As Drakkir the Magus I am tall, thin, and ancient. I wear a cloak with a hood, and carry a staff. I have a gray beard and yellow glinting eyes. My fingers are long and crooked, like tree branches. I guess I don't look much like Gordon.
I flash: Dad, I'm here!
He can't see the words, of course.
Plazmic can, though. He flashes me: What are you doing, Drakkir? I can see you on my screen. Why are you so large? The roc is right overhead.
I ignore him. I jump up and down, and make another thunderclap. It sounds different, louder than usual. The roc screams and lets go of Dad, dropping him like a bomb, right on me.
Now Dad screams.
And the screen freezes.
Gordon pushed his chair away from the computer. He was shaken. The image of his father, face distorted by fear and bad graphics, was in front of him, and he couldn't change it. The screen was frozen. Too much data, probably. Or maybe some kind of power surge. It was really storming outside. Rain pelted against the window. Lightning flashed. The thunderclap that followed closely on the lightning was the same kind he'd just heard in the game.
Gordon couldn't bear to look at his father's face any more. He switched off the computer manually, heaving a sigh of relief when the screen went blank. What a strange thing! What the hell was going on in there? What did it mean? Was he going crazy?
He felt bad about his computer freezing in the middle of his game, leaving Plazmic to fight alone. But he didn't know if he was ready to turn the machine back on. What if he saw his father again?
The phone rang. Gordon went to his parents' room to pick up the extension.
It was his mom. She sounded calm, like always.
"I'm afraid," she said, "there's been an accident. You'd better get a cab and come quickly."
"Where are you?" he said. She told him.
All the lights were out downtown. The traffic signals flashed yellow. A power blackout, the cab driver said. He blamed the storm. "But you should be okay," he said, letting Gordon off at the hospital. "They got back-up generators inside."
Gordon's dad was hooked up to four machines that wheezed and clacked and gave graphic read-outs. He looked small in the big bed, with all the tubes and wires coming out of him. His bald forehead was wrinkled and pinched by the turban bandage. His eyes were closed.
Gordon and his mother stood side by side, staring down at him.
"We were on our way to the car, after the movie," Mom whispered. "Your dad was hurrying because of the rain, running down the street, and I was trying to keep up, but I couldn't. And then there was this great snapping noise, and a power line fell on your father. Hit him right in the head. He was thrown from the sidewalk right over the parked car and onto the road. And that's when the car hit him."
Mom sounded very calm, relating these events. Her eyes wore their usual faraway stare. Maybe she was in shock, thought Gordon. But, honestly, she looked like this most of the time.
"There were sparks everywhere," she said, "and people were shouting and crying. The ambulance got there awfully fast. I was beside your father. His eyes were closed, and he was talking to someone only he could see. 'Help, old man!' he said. And then he went all rigid. I wonder who he was talking to. He sounded upset."
His mom patted him on the shoulder. "Now now," she said. "I know how you feel."
He thought about touching his father. A natural gesture, reach out and pat the old man on the shoulder. A way of connecting, of saying, We're on your side. He was all set to do it, and then he saw his dad in mid-air, yelling down at him. And so Gordon kept his hands clasped together.
Call me a stupid old man? he thought. Who's the stupid old man now?
The nurse watched the four machines constantly, sliding her eyes from one to the other in a steady pattern. The one on the far left, the long one like the headline ticker underneath CNN, started beeping, and she asked them to leave.
The doctor met them in the interview room. He wore a white coat and a solemn expression. He shrugged his shoulders heavily. He said he didn't know what to tell them about Dad. "Your husband might wake up in an hour," he said. "And he might never wake at all. I'm sorry I can't be more definite." He shook his head, looking even more solemn than before.
Mom said she understood. The overhead lights were out. A back-up light shone from one ceiling corner.
"It's difficult to know what to do in these circumstances," the doctor went on. "I don't know what quality of life your husband can look forward to, even if he does wake up. If only there was a way of communicating with him..."
It was late when they got home and went to bed. Gordon slept through his alarm clock, and had to run to catch the school bus.
Plazmic is upset with me. He flashes: Hey, Drakkir. What happened? Where'd you go last game! You disappeared right in the middle of the attack. Never said good bye or sorry or anything. You rat!
Right now it's afternoon, after school. I explain this to Plazmic about my computer freezing, and he flashes: Oh. Sorry.
And we go back to building our bases. This is the maze level. The two sides start at opposite ends of the maze, and meet somewhere in the middle.
Dig dig dig for wondrous ore, sing my dwarves.
Digging is our favourite chore.
Got to love those guys.
Ten minutes later, we're in the middle of the maze. Every corridor looks the same. Lots of smooth stone walls, dark corners, and flickering torches. It's hard to see in the dimness. Every turn looks like the last turn. My knights and I are creeping forward slowly. I'm trying to keep us heading in an easterly direction, but that's all I can do. East and a bit north. I'm using a spell for seeing around corners. I don't want to be surprised by the enemy.
The next left turn is clear. I take it. And the next. Then I stop. My round-the-corner spell isn't working. There are no corners ahead of me. I've found a wide open area, like a giant field. Like a battleground.
I flash Plazmic: I think I'm at the arena. What now?
He and his troops are right behind me. It's good strategy to stay close together in a maze. You want to make sure anyone you meet is the enemy.
Plazmic flashes: Wait one minute. I'm coming.
I wish I could see better. I cast a spell for a glow globe. These are great for night fighting — you throw them like baseballs, they burst into flame, and float gently to the ground, burning as bright as a flare.
Here's Plazmic now. His bulky body and giant sword show he's a master warrior. Beside him, I look frail, like an old reed about to blow over in the wind. He lines up his troops beside mine.
I flash: I've got a glow globe. You ready?
He waves his sword.
I toss the globe. It bursts into bright flame, illuminating a giant dome of a place, with a single tree in the middle, a giant pillar of a hardwood that reaches all the way to the roof, spreading out its boughs there like support beams. It looks alive. The branches begin a hundred feet up, but they look green. I don't know how it gets water.
There's no one in sight.
Or is there? Something's moving at the base of the tree. A single figure waves at us. "Help!" he cries again. It's Dad. I recognize the cardigan sweater, and the voice, before my glow globe burns out.
Dad! I act instinctively, lobbing another glow globe, running forward.
Plazmic flashes: Careful, Drakkir!
"Help me, old man!" cries Dad. I wave at him. It's all I can think to do. He waves back. He doesn't run towards me though. When I get closer, I see why. He can't run. He's chained to the tree.
Plazmic flashes: Careful! My sword tells me the enemy is near.
This is his sword of power, one of my favorite weapons. It bursts into flame when the enemy is close to it, and points at the nearest enemy leader, like a magnet towards north.
I flash: Where is the sword pointing?
He flashes: Sword is pointing down. I don't understand.
I flash: Keep watching.
I run towards my dad. His clothes are torn. His face is dirty. He glares at me.
"You again!" he cries. "You were there when the bird dropped me. I recognize you! Untie this chain! Get me out of this! Hurry!"
I take a step forward, and then stop. I don't know how to help my dad. Drakkir the Magus throws fire, and casts spells. He turns people invisible. But he doesn't untie knots.
"Can you understand me?" asks Dad.
I wave my hand, and nod. That's two other things I can do.
"But you can't talk."
I nod again.
It occurs to me that I can't talk to my dad at home, either. I've never been able to talk to him. Waving and nodding is actually pretty good, for us.
The globe burns out. I make another one, throw it straight up. Now I can see again.
"Well, isn't that great!" says Dad sarcastically. "You can't help me, and you can't talk. That's wonderful! I might as well be talking to my son Gordon. That kid's as useless as you are."
I'm stunned. I don't know what to do. When Dad starts talking like this at home, I can retreat inside my mind. I can go to Questcon. Where do I go now? I flash: Hey!
I forget that he can't read what I say.
He goes on. "I hate this awful place. I hate all the monsters here. I hate being chained up like a criminal. I hate you!"
I stare at him, as though seeing him for the first time. In a way that's what I'm doing. He's more clearly himself in Questcon than he is at the dinner table. He's a mean old man. He's selfish and scared and mad. And he really does hate me. There's no special kind of love. He despises me.
What an awful person. I would never talk about my son the way he talks about me. I would never call anyone useless.
I flash: Shut up!
Plazmic flashes back: What did you say?
I flash: Sorry — not you. I'm talking to my dad here.
Plazmic: He doesn't understand you.
The glow globe casts a harsh yellow light as it falls. Shadows move uneasily around the domed arena. I stare at my dad, an angry man, out of place in Questcon. As Drakkir, I belong here. I have friends. I am a winner. My dad does not belong. He is not a winner. I can not recall a nice thing he has ever said to me.
Wait. I wonder if I can heal him. A Magus has the power to heal his team. I should have thought of that before. It's one of my most important powers. I can't release him from his chains, but I can improve his health. Maybe even make him happier.
I take a deep breath, and cast a healing spell. I aim it at Dad, but it falls to the ground between us.
I'm not surprised. The thing is, he's not on my team.
I flash: Good-bye, Dad.
He doesn't reply, of course.
I turn to go, but he won't let me. "Wait!" he calls. "Wait, stupid! I order you to stay. You must help me. You must!"
And I lose it. I type an obscenity. I tell my father that he is in the hospital, dying, and that I'm glad. I tell him to leave me alone, that I never want to see him again. And, as my glow globe dies, I jump high in the air, landing with a thunderclap so the ground shakes and then, surprisingly, crumbles beneath my feet.
I fall through the floor onto the head of an enemy miner. I'm surrounded by the other side. I throw a fireball, my only real weapon, and scramble away.
Plazmic flashes: Charge!
That's why his magic sword was pointing down: the enemy is underneath us. They've been tunneling under the floor, an army of moles and miners. Their leaders are two Trolls, powerful but short-sighted dark warriors, armed with saw-swords, a freaky combination sword and buzz saw.
The arena floor is honeycombed and rotten. Beams of light from the miners' headlamps cut through the darkness. There are hundreds of them. I can see clearly.
I wonder how deep the other side has dug. One of the trolls makes a cut in the ground with his saw-sword. He cuts all the way around the base of the giant tree, which trembles, and then, before my wondering eyes, sinks into the ground like a straw into a milkshake. The branches, which had traced a pattern across the domed ceiling, are spread along the sunken floor.
My father is gone.
Plazmic flashes: Heal me!
I feel guilty — I've forgotten all about my partner. His sword is trembling. He is bent over, weak, surrounded by miners with axes. I rush to him and cast my healing spell. He revives, and starts swinging his sword. The miners fall like September rain.
I start to cry.
I throw my fireballs, and cry. I cast a spell on Plazmic to make him invisible, so that he can sneak up on the trolls, and I keep crying. We win the game, and I exit, tears rolling down my cheeks and onto the keyboard.
"There, there," said Gordon's mother. It was five o'clock — almost dinner time. She had just come back from the hospital, and broken the news to Gordon. She was frowning into the mirror on his dresser while he lay on the bed. "It's natural to cry. Your father's dead, and you're saying good-bye to him."
"I thought he was in a coma," sniffed Gordon. "I thought he could live a long time."
"Yes, dear." His mother spoke gravely. "The doctor gave me a choice, and I made it. We took your father off life support, and he died. I watched him."
She pulled the pins from her hair, releasing it to fall onto her shoulders. She had remarkable dark brown hair, with a slight wave. It shimmered in the light.
"It was a release," she said.
Gordon started crying again.
Richard Scrimger, the award-winning Canadian Children's and Young Adult's author, won a Mr.Christie's Book Award in 1999 for Nose from Jupiter. It was the birth of a series of delightful children's books featuring the affable alien Norbert and his peculiar habit of taking up residence in the noses of children whose lives need a turn for the better. The Norbert series, including A Nose for Adventure and the latest installment Noses Are Red, has taken children's literature by storm. Richard is also the author of two adult novels, Crosstown and Mystical Rose, and a new book for young children, Princess Bun Bun. His latest YA novel, From Charlie's Point of View is told from the perspective of its blind young hero.
Read more by Richard Scrimger
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