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Saving Throw

This is all there is, there isn't any more.

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"C'mon, guys, have a little mercy here," said John.

Gary laughed and took a drag of his cigarette.

"You failed your saving throw," he said.

Brett swung his legs back and forth over the porch banister, kicking the peeling blue wood with his heels.

"Dude, I've been playing Logarth since we switched to Advanced," said John. He squinted in the sun, ran the back of his arm across his forehead, wiped his arm on the side of his shirt.

Brett smiled absently. "Acid trap mashed you good, man," he said. "Spike pit didn't help much, either." The smell of warm leaves and stagnant water leaked downwards from the eavestroughs.

"Who put that pit there, anyway?" asked John.

"Wizard," said Gary.

"That's bullshit. Fighters aren't supposed to just open a box and die!" Said John. "Can't you even give me a chance at death in battle?"

"Sorry, man. We agreed, remember? No resurrection," said Gary. Grubber sauntered up, panting; pressed his nose into Gary's hand. Gary took another drag and scratched the retriever's head with long fingernails.

"I seem to remember a pretty specific quote," said Brett, looking up from his sneakers. "After I had my run-in with that Beholder. What was it, again?"

John frowned, looked away. "Second chances are for pussies," he said.

"It's all fun and games until a trap sprays acid in your face and you fall down a pit and die," said Brett, smiling.

Gary pitched the butt of his smoke over the railing, onto the driveway. It bounced a bit, sprayed sparks.

"Careful where you put those things," said John. "You'll set the lawn on fire, man." John started a sweeping motion aimed at the close-cut scrub of yellow grass, aborted it. Birds chatted each other up drunkenly in the heat. Grubber padded off to poop somewhere.

"You guys hungry? Want to walk downtown?" asked Gary.

"I could eat," said Brett, chipping at a flake of paint with his thumb.

"I don't want to fill in another character sheet right now," said John. "Hotdogs? There's a stand. Just opened."

"Barrie has a hotdog stand? We are catching up with the real world," said Brett. Dominic opened up the screen door and stepped onto the porch.

"Took you long enough," said John. "What the hell were you doing in there, anyway?"

"You want me to take a picture next time?" said Dom.

"We're getting hotdogs," said Gary. He slipped a hand into his pocket. "Lemme go find my wallet." They followed him inside, into a warm fug of stale cigarette smoke and old cooking smells, and stayed on the threshold.

Brett looked through the kitchen into the living room. Gary's mom was asleep on the couch, the TV turned down to a mumble. The news was on, a piece on China or Korea. The camera panned slowly over a huge blackened plain, lakes of ice-bright glass; curly rebar and concrete chunks in piles like golem vomit. The sky was navy, black, grey. Bruised. Not healing well.

Gary ran back up the basement steps in twos, prying his pocket open with one hand, cramming the wallet in with the other.

"Time for some animal parts," he said. They left.
Saturday traffic windshields shot focused beams of nauseatingly bright late-June sunlight. The heat pressurised the air, squeezing their voices flat.

"So, long live Logarth," said Dom.

"Shut up."

"Bravely he fought, bravely he fell. Into a hole."

"Shut up," said John.

"You should play a girl next," said Brett. "We could use a cleric, or something." They passed a beat-up van idling
by the curb. Its 8-track switched loudly, ka-chunk, krrr... chunk.

"Dudes can be clerics," said John, kicking an empty Cplus can onto the road. A car passed, its wheels missing the can by a little.

"Yeah, but who'd you rather have applying a salve to your scorched groin?" asked Dominic.

They thought on this in meditative silence, turned the corner.

The cart was silver, with a grimy red-and-yellow umbrella. "Stavropoulos" was printed in black lettering on the side. Stavropoulos fiddled with the grill and mopped the sweat off of his sunburned forehead with a tea towel.

"Hot dogs, fifty cents. What you want?" He said. They dug for quarters, farted mustard and ketchup from garishly crusted pumps.

"Kev Mason says they're getting a new game in at Happy Man this week. From Japan, really strange spacey stuff," said Dom, ladling relish.

"Kev Mason is a total jerk-off and he'd better give me back all of the books I lent him," said Gary.

"What's it called?" asked John.

"I don't even know, I haven't seen them for forever. Err, I Will Fear No Evil, Stranger In A Strange Land, and Vonnegut's Slapstick, I think. That's his newest, isn't—"

"The game, I meant. What's the game called?" asked John.

"Don't remember," said Dominic. "Invader- something. You play as a Shrike, shoot down Soviets."

"Wanna go check it out?" asked John, looking down the street to the arcade. Grunts of assent pushed their way through bread and meat.

They made their way into the cathode twilight. It was busy and hot. The owner eyeballed them momentarily and went back to watching baseball on the portable TV behind his desk. The machines were in attract mode, and a free-jazz/musique concrete beep medley blasting from a legion of Tournament Tables, Avalanches, Western-Guns, Breakouts, Dark Flights, and Spacewar!s, accompanied by sharp pinball percussion. Except for a few diehards slapping paddles along the walls, all the attention was focused on a single cabinet.

"Space Invaders. Right," said Dominic. "I knew 'invader' was in there somewhere."

Not much was visible through the crowd of jostling shoulders. John and Dominic elbowed closer. A young kid in a striped shirt was at the controls, mashing the forward and back buttons, sweating, unfamiliar with the game. A crash of synthesized noise, and the crowd broke into short cheers or heckling. Gary lit a cigarette, inhaled.

A K-4 Shrike, rough hewn in pixels but recognizable, slid through the starless vacuum, ducking behind a set of rapidly disintegrating shields. Above it, crude Soviet craft jerked downward in regiments; four lines of MiG 278s and 444s with a line of Sukhoi Su-90HBs at the top. A strip of coloured film was pasted to the display, giving the Shrike a greenish cast. The music, or whatever it was, thudded loudly.

Some Soviet satellite, an LPlat or something—whichever one the UN had made such a big stink about—appeared at the top of the screen, whizzed left and right, sprayed missiles downwards. A missile raced through a corridor in a damaged shield, hit the Shrike on the nose, popped it like a soap bubble.

"Game Over," said the machine in bright lettering.

"Fuck!" said the kid at the controls, drumming buttons in post-death nervous spasm. He fumbled for a quarter.

"C'mon, man, let someone else have a turn!" said a voice from the crowd.

"Fuck off! I've only been on for like five minutes!" the kid said. He plugged a coin into the slot, tapped nervously. The heckling grew louder.

The cycle began again. The mass of Russian spaceships teleporting from nowhere, beginning their lurch to the bottom of the screen like shuttles on a loom. The Shrike lanced out with thin white missiles, tore openings through shuffling MiGs, stirred the rest up like kicked hornets. They swooped fast toward the bottom of the screen. Brett and Gary leaned against the counter, talked swords, monsters, girls, dice.

Bowie from the radio, suddenly, muddied and filthy from the ambient crash. Something from Stars..., maybe. The owner changed the channel.

“Faggy keyboard shit,” he said.

An explosion from the game; another from the kid. He moved from foot to foot, rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck. The crowd jeered, pushed closer.

On the TV, the baseball game was interrupted by some kind of news-preamble. Lloyd Robertson focused on his hands and tapped papers at his desk, adjusted his glasses. Fatherly lips flapped mutely. The owner lit a cigarette, unfolded a paper, clipped coupons with bent scissors.

GAME OVER. The action paused, a MiG in coitus with the bottom of the screen, then everything dissolved in a single-line shockwave, flashed white, flashed black. A scream of pure noise cut over the din and made everyone jump. Hands from the crowd pried the kid away from the stick.

John was a head taller than anyone else in line, maybe a year or two older. He pushed his way to the front, wedged himself between Space Invaders and a grasping hopeful.

“Lemme have a turn, man,” he said.

“Hey! Don’t butt in line!”

“Just lemme try it for five minutes. Just for five minutes,” he said, not looking away from the screen. His hands magnetised themselves to the controls, wrists bent at uncomfortable angles.

“Hey! Hey!” the kid said, and was sucked back into the crowd. Dom leaned in, both elbows on the console. The Russians rallied for another charge.

The footage on the TV was monochrome and blurry, the action unclear, the cuts and pans nauseous. The camera seemed unhinged, scanning pointlessly through blackness, white lines streaking quick in all directions like sun-trails behind eyelids. Something triangular flickered momentarily at a corner, burnt in for a second.

The shot changed; a cramped cockpit. A helmet bumped against a seat, shadows growing and shrinking in a wide circle as the light moved. Earth above the pilot’s head, moving fast, then gone.

John died, swore, began again.

A clear shot, for a moment. A fighter outlined against the Indian Ocean, fingers of shadow on the wings, recoiling from a point of light. The two intersected, exploded. Then back to Lloyd Robertson, swallowing visibly.

John died, swore, began again. The owner put down his paper.

A picture of the Hammer and Sickle, then a MiG. Lloyd removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. More footage, unedited, too fast and blurred to follow.

Then, a steady shot. Earth rotated in a slow circle around the corners of the screen, followed by a satellite. Something poked a pinprick of light into the centre of the screen, then tore the darkness violently open. The footage jerked, went grey, ended.

“Everyone out,” mouthed the owner. Brett and Gary stared at the screen. The owner’s voice rose. “Everyone out! Everyone out! We’re closed!” He flicked a switch, and the screens went dark. A sudden bomb of silence.

Complaints started out from the crowd, rising in pitch and volume. The owner pointed a finger at the television.

WAR, it said. Lloyd spoke softly.

--condition 1, and a State of Emergency has been declared. No announcement has been made from behind the Iron Curtain. The government has advised Canadians to stay indoors or at home until further information is available. All of our regular programming has been suspended, and we’ll be bringing you updates as soon--

He finished his speech and slumped in his chair before the station cut to standby.

They left, and walked back to Gary’s house in the deepening sun. There was no car in the driveway, and the doors were unlocked. Gary’s mom had gone. A cold pan of half-cooked onions was on the stove, surrounded by little points of thrown oil. The television was on, an American channel. Reagan was sweating in a choke of lights and flashbulbs. The blue curtains behind him did not move.

--a firm hand--

--cannot allow--

--are prepared, we are trained, we have--

--if not now, then inevitably in the--

Gary lit a cigarette, sat down on the couch. Brett and Dom fell into chairs. John stood, mouth open slightly.

--even now, the brave--

--limited exchange--

Grubber barked from the back door.

--all costs--

--of the shadow of death, I fear no--

--bless America.

The presenter afterward had nothing to say. He smoothed his desk out, straightened things. The footage came back, colour on the ground and from the air; marching, crawling, flying in crowds and regiments and squadrons. Black and white footage from space, abrupt and grainy and crowded, filled with flashes and sudden blanks.

“I’m going to let the dog in,” said John, walking from the room. Gary finished his cigarette, lit another.

Maps arrayed and discussed in babble, pundit eyes glassed over and staring, fumbling with teleprompted lines. Numbers rattled off without meaning, minor skirmishes.

“Shouldn’t we be in the basement or something?” asked Dom. No-one looked away from the TV.

John cracked the back door, and tried to coax Grubber inside. The dog whined, shied away from his hands. He stepped outside, into evening. The east was dark, the stars visible there.

Grubber snarled and jumped off the porch, his tail between his legs.

“C’mon, boy. C’mon back inside.” Grubber barked loudly, ran towards the end of the yard, and dipped under the fence. John saw him vignetted momentarily between two houses across the street, then he was gone. The streetlamps had turned on, buzzing against a carless void of summer silence. John sat down on the deck, flakes of blue paint scratching against his bare legs.

He looked out over the pines at the stationary stars, and waited for something-- a saving throw, a Game Over.

Thanks

Thanks for the suggestions; I'm doing some tuning right now, fixing things that need to be fixed.

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kelson.philo's picture

It reads really, really

It reads really, really well. I can see the setting, feel the atmosphere. The only thing i would suggest is perhaps enhancing the two major aspects of the story, namely Saving Throw vs. Game Over. Right now as you have it, I'm seeing the events as Lose (d&d), Lose (spaced invaders), Big Lose (WAR). What if you went for a Win, Lose, Big Maybe?

Have john pull out some modifier bag of tricks thingee that gets logarth off the hook, much to the annoyance of his friends. Then have him get creamed with invaders. Or vice versa. A little bit of hope, even if it's false hope, is better than none at all.

Your best story yet, I'd

Your best story yet, I'd say. I like the opening contrast between AD&D-speak and the outside world of screen doors and hot dogs. And how the description of the arcade and of an alternate-world Space Invaders quickly establishes an early-1980s timeframe.

I did have a little trouble following the transitions back-and-forth between the footage on TV and the descriptions of the video game. But the mood of sadness and resignation at the end of the story really worked for me.