Part II - Invincible Beneath The Sun
2050. San Jose, California. A dog park on a Friday afternoon, the sun descending into the Pacific and tossing its dying rays upon the tan November undulations of the Diablo mountains.
It may have been the far distant year 2050, an era of self-driving vehicles and hyper-realistic VR, but not everything had been altered by the seismic technological upheavals. Humankind still ate, for example - at least for now. And in some regions—although not all—to earn the bread consumed people had to work according to the antiquated week-weekend paradigm.
America represented one such backwaters. In ordinary circumstances, a tourist visiting its west coast parks around this hour, late on a Friday afternoon, could marvel at the fascinating phenomenon of the labourer in transition. What a sight they made, these tired city folk pausing to sample nature on their homeward journey - how they gobbled tacos on benches before the dinner with their vegan spouses, how they squeezed in a calculated splash of exercise to nullify the binge drinking ahead.
Today, however, this one park provided little for the tourist's pleasure. Most of the locals were, mysteriously, absent.
A few dog owners—distinctly old—were playing with their pooches. A couple couples—also old—strolled about while babbling of bygone decades. Of those still young and fit enough to jog, there were precisely four - rare, inexplicable beasts.
The largest group out, a flock of a dozen grandmas with yoga mats, were scratching their confused noggins. Where, they wondered, had the rest of their class fled? Or Isabella, their instructor (who'd forgotten to send out a notice of cancellation)? Beneath these questions, the elderly ladies probed nervously at a more alarming one: this sudden emptiness…had they failed to catch a forecast? Had the swarms returned?
Elsewhere around planet Earth, the deserted public spaces were hosting variations of these inquiries from an ignorant offline minority.
Somehow, they'd missed the leadup to this weekend’s people-snatching spectacle. All that previous videogame buzz—the leaking of secretive identities, the debut of a revolutionary martial technique, the heavy foreshadowings of conspiracy and murder, and, of course, the arena tournament hours from beginning—all this had somehow flown above their heads. It'd passed over them like rain clouds in the nighttime, noticed only indirectly in the morning by the droplets on the soil.
Amongst these Californian park-goers, one woman, alone, stood between the two extremes of past and future, of grass-touching ignorance and digital obsession.
Utilising the empty grounds was Grandma Ruru, a grey-haired 60-something and, once upon a time, a professional e-sports gamer. The retired lady had been hurling a tennis ball for her Pomeranian while chatting via messenger with her two best friends about their recent adventures in the decade's hottest VRMMORPG: Saana Online.
“...I didn’t expect Cass at the finale." Her ex-husband Pete phoning from New York was saying.
"Yeah?" Ruru replied.
"I've tried, but I can’t get any extra tickets in our section. Nobody's selling.”
“Aha." She gave another dismissive answer, barely listening.
Ruru and her two amigos had been discussing the weekend tournament, whose grand opening ceremony started shortly.
They'd been trying to map a coherent path through the whirlwind of events ahead. The two-day festival crammed in too much for any individual to see. In addition to the main combat attractions, hundreds of crafting tournaments ran parallel, plus concerts, parties, live theatre, magic shows, etc. The combined scale was overwhelmingly colossal. For the 1v1 arena tournaments alone, over two million players had registered. The number who'd relish and wager over their gory deaths was multiple that - millions more in-game, hundreds of millions tuning in from home.
But Grandma Ru didn't care what her friends planned. Her own schedule was pretty much fixed.
“Since we know grandma’s not going to negotiate on the 1v1s,” continued Pete over the phone, “we might have to trade down for the nosebleeds to get Cass in. You alright with that, Ru? Don’t be a bitch about it. She is our daughter. A view is not more important than your daughter.”
“Have we considered the solution of crime?” asked their friend Jorge, listening from inside the game, where he'd been strolling through a dingy slum alleyway. “Let’s mug some sweaty dweebs for tickets.”
Grandma Ru stooped for the slobber-lathered tennis ball. While picking it up, she frowned at the gross texture and her ex’s equally gross insinuation.
She sent her frustration flying with the ball. “Cass can just use my ticket."
“You’re not going to watch?” asked Pete in astonishment, each of the past days witnessing his ex-wife’s rapid spiral further and further into the rabbit hole of duelling.
Ruru didn’t answer his question.
Whoops, she thought. The 1v1 finals that they'd been talking about, she would definitely be watching …
Their friend Jorge’s goblin-esque laughter rattled in her earpiece.
“Oh no…oh no…” Her ex-husband Pete followed tauntingly. “Don’t tell me that you intend to spectate from the arena? You wouldn’t be under an embarrassing, deranged, narcissistic, out-of-touch, senile delusion like that, would you, Ru?”
“Imagine that,” Jorge joined the ribbing, “a literal grandmother clobbering the kids on the big stage.”
“With her walking cane!” said Pete. “’Out of the way, young sprats! Grandma’s hobbling back to form!’”
Listening close, one could hear the swish of a toilet plunger, Pete calling from a bathroom in New York.
Ruru groaned. “My extra ticket. Just because you can't get one, doesn't mean no one can.”
Grandma had connections now. Her final days of duelling practice had brought her close to the event’s epicentre. She’d yet to meet the head honcho, 'The Tyrant', in the sand. Her climb of the regional 1v1 ladder had however paired her against some of his genius teammates. They’d found her old lady ‘gimmick’ comical, and they'd accepted her into the fold.
She fired off a message in a chatgroup for Suchi's elite duellists. Her e-assistant beeped almost instantly, Saana’s time-dilation allowing the recipients to ponder and answer in seconds.
A short exchange later, she’d done much better than scoring Cass a ticket. Her whole group had been upgraded to the luxury comforts of a private box - courtesy of a Slovenian Crusader in The Tyrant’s 6v6 team.
Despite her solving their problem, Ruru's buddies did not stop their banter. They took her reaction for a confirmation.
Not in the mood for their jokes, she exited the call and told them they’d reunite in Saana. They'd planned to attend the opening ceremony, although she might skip it for sparring out some last minute ideas.
Ruru had an urge to speed straight back home, but she repressed it.
Entertaining her dog a while longer, she continued to exercise her body and absorb these outside sensations, knowing that they’d soon be replaced by an unhealthy degree of immersion into those of a simulated landscape.
Despite a growing game addiction, these offline hours weren't insufferable.
Saana, strange to say, had heightened her appreciation for the outside world. Or maybe revived was the more accurate framing. It felt as if she were regaining a portion of her youthful spirit, that vital capacity of the young to be awed by open spaces, to pluck any tree leaf and fall entranced into its manifold shades of green.
Around her, elements of this dog park that her gaze had skimmed for years without interest were gaining depth and colour from new possibilities of interaction. In the park’s rolling slopes, her legs—conditioned to movement drills—anticipated the deceleration and acceleration of her stride. After her grappling training, her shoulders sensed the softness in the stretches of surrounding grass capable of cushioning a fall, while the hard concrete paths emitted warnings of cracking spines and smashed noses. The young joggers passing by, as well. She had to resist a constant invitation in their relaxed, unguarded postures to punish with a takedown.
Of course, trying any of these moves with this real-life grandma body would only injure herself.
Conscious of her weakness, Ruru coiled back her arm for another ball toss and attempted to activate all the strength in her muscles.
The ball, leaving her clasp, gained barely enough momentum to resist the afternoon breeze.
It landed pitifully close.
She observed its descent with a knotted, lurching disappointment. Some part of her had been utterly convinced that the ball would fly several times the distance, and the observation of this discrepancy induced a pang of dread and sinking turmoil.
This discomfort originated from over-adjusting her in-game avatar.
Although she’d retained her elderly appearance copied from herself, she’d maxed out the athletic qualities of the body. She’d strengthened the lungs and muscles, repaired her cellular metabolism, fixed her vision, and reinforced her fragile cartilage. The resulting mutant looked like an Olympian version of herself, jacked up on designer PEDs.
Operating this fitter body created a lingering dysphoria, both in and out of Saana. However, most top duellists took these measures. Ruru had to do likewise if she wanted to compete.
And she did want to compete.
Her buddies' jokes had not been wrong. She wouldn't need a ticket for the finale. She'd be down in the arena, with a shield and dagger in her grandmotherly mittens.
In being convinced of this, was she experiencing a senile episode, some kind of three-quarters-life crisis? Maybe. Maybe not.
Assessed dispassionately, her chances seemed OK.
At this week’s tail end, she’d cracked the top 100 of her category's solo arena rankings - the top 100 after the migratory flood that’d transferred her and the millions of others to the game’s one zone, the top 100 of millions.
While she’d undeniably fallen off from her pro career, it seemed an ounce of gas still sloshed inside the rusty engine. Fortune had also favoured her with Saana's current duelling metagame. Designed by a figure known, amongst other titles, as 'The Cripple', the latest techniques accommodated those with slow reflexes and other physical impairments.
Now, winning the competition was a goal she'd already conceded. As most had. One couldn’t ignore the monster amongst them. Eventually, any victory-seeker would have to face The Tyrant himself. In terms of Ruru’s odds in that showdown, she lacked the skills to fully imitate his avant-garde duelling tactics, let alone improve or innovate them. However, any match against the freaks before that doomed climax should be possible. That was to say, possible in a lottery or astrological sense, if the stars, the moon, the sun, and every sandy grain of the arena fell into perfect celestial alignment.
Her current sights were thus focused on a humbler target than victory. She’d be happy to survive until tomorrow’s finals bracket. That, in and of itself, would be a respectable achievement. 1.5 million had entered today’s preliminary Swiss-format stage; of these, a fractional 64 would progress, would have their necks glide past the mass guillotine dumping head after head into the trash basket.
Top 64 out of 1.5 million - impossible for some. However, she was—presently, after only one week—ranked 47th. So, her surviving the initial culling was an entirely rational assumption and her friends were just being clowns.
And beyond that, beyond the rational, who yet could predict her fate? She might get eliminated in the first bracket round, terrible luck assigning her the kid himself for an opener. Or she might sneak, on hand and arthritic knees, to touch the podium.
Her Pomeranian interrupted Ruru's thoughts.
It'd been headbutting her shin. It was gesturing at the ball sitting on her shoe unthrown too long.
She stared down at her tiny animal friend, its beady black eyes peering out from the fluff with great excitement for the next pointless circuit. An irrational spike of embarrassment and irritation seized the old woman but vanished quickly.
She kneeled and gave the mutt a vigorous rub of apology. “I guess I’m no less silly."
The dog responded with a cheerful bark into which one could’ve projected any positive meaning.
Ruru agreed with her pet’s agreement. “No mind for what’s beyond. We're both just creatures chasing things…chasing balls.”
She picked up the ball, and she felt through the slobber its synthetic fibres and its hollow plastic weight.
To her dog, this object must’ve presented an even more apparent artifice, its machine-produced design devoid of all the earthy tastes and smells for which canines had a sharper sense. Nevertheless, did any of this fakeness negate the excitement of her dog to chase the thing, as it might some rat or other ball-sized quarry in the wild?
Giving another throw, Ruru watched her Pomeranian in the undeniable ecstasy of its pursuit, and she continued to meditate on their similarity.
Yes, objectively speaking, she had nothing more to gain or lose than her dog sprinting after this stupid plastic object.
The duelling tournament she’d signed up for was but one of several categories this weekend. In fact, although she tended to forget, it wasn’t the main duelling tournament. While it had the most competitors, it was officially a recruitment event for the sorting of rookie players before their admission into the high-end guilds. Any attention or status granted to it came from The Tyrant's absurdist ultra-flex, from his simultaneous participation in it and the pro-leagues using a starter character.
Within the surrounding layers of abstraction and comedy, how could Ruru’s run obtain any meaningful significance?
If she were eliminated early, who would tease her but her friends? Nobody. Nobody would notice her failure. She and her pro-career had been forgotten. Roboboomers viewed pre-VR as a millennial herself had arcade gaming, a scene existing before genuine competition. 2050's gamers were on another scale. They were A-list celebrities - Justin Bieber or Kobe famous.
Conversely, if some cosmological error took Ruru to the end, if she managed to wall glitch through the big bad boss and steal number one, then this best-case outcome would likewise grant her nothing. Winning a rookie duelling competition wouldn’t reverse the clock. It wouldn't cancel the accumulating debilitations, many of which were not simply physical but cognitive. She could, never, revive her career.
Analysed thus, this tournament carried no objective stakes, win or lose.
Still—although she’d never admit this to Pete or Jorge—Ruru couldn't deny the internal conviction that the event did have stakes. Summoning her to duel was an irresistible force, one of a substance and gravity defying any sane explanation.
Was it the call from something old? With memories of competition stored inside her bones, maybe they were being released back into the bloodstream along with the minerals dissolved by her osteoporosis.
Or was it something new? By stepping into the arena, did she wish for her own sample of this future epoch, when—after that interval of trouble—the once shiny promises of technology were beginning to emerge? Maybe she wanted only that, a proof of the digital infinity touched with her own fingers?
Might it be a yearning for the conflict between these two, to bring to bear upon this era a glory long forgotten?
Or it could be none of this. Her motivation might be nothing but the eternal silliness, that same creature instinct of her dog to recognise the game represented by a ball and to lose all notion of time and other issues chasing it once thrown.
Ruru for now would go with that last, silliest explanation.
There was a ball: a duelling tournament, a rookie duelling tournament, one dimly observed on the shadowy edge of 2050’s grander online conflicts. This ball, in approximately 5 hours and 11 minutes, would be taking flight. And amongst the million-strong pack of hounds running after that ball would be her, a dying mutt coughing and wheezing as she used her dwindling gaming talents to bite the leaders’ ankles.
No shame in that, right? It was one ball, one throw, one final chase.
In such a mood, imagining herself forced to improvise a speech after an astonishing win, Ruru left the park and waited by the roadside.
A pet-sitting service had been hired to remove her dog. On the horizon, she sensed that total, zombie-esque concentration of the struggle. In that state, she'd probably neglect to feed it.
When the company's van rolled up, its doors opened automatically and presented a carrier for her to slot her dog alongside several others unattended barking in the vehicle’s rear. A voice recording apologised for the lack of human pick-up. Like many businesses, they were experiencing a temporary staff shortage due to an anomalous number of sick employees.
Ruru shrugged, whispered sorry to her pet, and shoved it in against its whiny protests.
Her home was within easy walking distance. She hailed a cab.
It sped her to a house already prepped for the weekend marathon. Her fridge had been stocked with liquids, her delivery meals pre-ordered. Her non-gamer grandma friends had been informed about her absence and uncontactability for a ‘family trip’. The last was technically truthful - in addition to the grandkid she’d been playing with since starting, her daughter, Cass, and her son-in-law had hired VR units to hang out at the gala festivities. Ruru had neglected to ask what’d caused this change of heart - her daughter detested videogames.
Through the car window, the orange evening shades of the city were blurring past. The flashing speed hurting Grandma Ru’s eyes, she removed a pair of glasses and rubbed away the forming pain.
This action reminded her of a disturbing nightmare from that day's siesta.
A dream had transported her back to a LAN event. A pro once more, with her friends, she’d been competing in that ancient mode of gaming, with LCD screens, with brand-sponsored keyboards and tacky neon-stripped chairs, with an audience metres away whose shouts infiltrated their headset coms. Mid-match, her character had suddenly begun responding erratically. Some of her inputs were ignored. Others triggered incorrect abilities. As her team struggled without her, she’d screamed at the refs, demanding the round be cancelled and her bugging computer fixed. The officiator that’d responded had been a kid her own age - none other than The Tyrant. With his flat, peculiarly-mature expression, this god gamer had shrugged at Ruru’s demands. “It’s not the hardware,” he'd assessed. “It’s you. You're old now. You’re visibly decaying.” He’d then gestured at her hands. To her horror, she'd found them gnarled and skeletal. The fingers—attached to her but not her own—were so decrepit that the mere percussion of typing was dislodging fragments. Pieces of chalk-textured flesh were splintering off and clogging the gaps between the keys of her keyboard. Down to the joints, they were rapidly disintegrating, down to her knuckles. The nightmare finished when she slammed the stumps of her wrists against the table and The Tyrant, exploiting her distraction, wrenched back her head and shoved the point of a knife into her eye socket.
Ruru, placing her glasses back on, could almost feel the throb of the weapon.
Another unexpected consequence of Saana—aside from learning what getting stabbed in the eyeball feels like—had been a return to the vividness of her dreams. She’d discovered that a person’s dreams also dulled with age. This one symptom of the decline had been far too gradual for her notice until now.
For this one weird dream, you didn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to decipher the symbolism or the figures. Beyond the worries, she’d marathoned a crazy amount of The Tyrant’s workshop lectures during her training. As his drills had been burned into her brain, so had his apathetic face and abrupt dagger finishers.
Back home, Ruru’s neighbour had been loitering in his yard, inspecting the concrete eyesore of a drone bunker.
When she alighted from her taxi and hobbled past the guy, his muttered greetings carried over the picket fence. He was considering getting the ugly thing removed, he explained. Construction services were discounted for the weekend. Apparently, there’d been a sudden drop in demand.
Ruru did not believe her neighbour would make the call. He was actually senile - a Gen-X-er. He’d been contemplating the bunker’s removal for half a decade.
Despite this prediction, after entering her house, she reappeared streetside a few minutes later. In tow, she lugged two changes of clothing, her most comfortable bedding, and—of course—her VR unit. Her earlier taxi had reversed to the curb, ready to transport her to a nearby hotel.
Best to be safe, she thought. Time-zone differences with the tournament would require her to fit any sleep within the daytime.
On her way out, Ruru's senile neighbour repeated himself verbatim regarding the bunker. She replied with earnest encouragement. It occurred to her that their street might contain some other holed-up competitors, who might have their rest disrupted, who might—should Ruru meet them later in the sand—react a few decisive milliseconds slower.
Such was this grandma duellist’s mindset going forward. For the next 48 hours, every soul on the planet was her enemy.