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An Italian restaurant in New Zealand, the air heavy with the scent of pasta sauce and scheming.

“Well, well, well, WELL, wifey, look who we’ve run into here. What a surprising coincidence!”’

The intruder was a tall man in his early twenties with a long face and small eyes. He wore a Mafioso-like pinstripe suit. A meticulously-sculpted mullet, gelled thickly and dyed with streaks of brown and blonde, resembled a wet beaver humping his skull.

Behind him was a dainty woman wearing a qipao that fell softly over a pregnant belly. She gave Henry an apologetic wave.

“Henry, mon ami,” continued the arrogant beaver-head, “why aren’t you introducing us to your little buddies?”

Henry sighed again. He was doomed. Would he only find rest in death? “Everyone, this is Alex, my...”

How was he supposed to introduce Alex? Torturer? Antagonist? Leech?

“...my business associate, and his lovely partner, Victoria.”

Hearing the phrase ‘business associate’, the newly-arrived couple gave each other a subtle look of amusement.

“Oh, we already know him,” said Cathy, who leapt out of her chair to shake their hands.

Henry swore internally. Of course, if they played Saana Online they’d recognise Alex, better known as Mayonnaise. Alex was the public face of their guild. He was so arrogant that he didn’t alter the appearance of his in-game avatar, claiming it was already perfect.

And didn’t Henry just introduce him as his business associate?

“Aha,” announced Anderson, seeming to recognise Alex as well.

Henry wondered if there weren’t a way to salvage this situation.

“Alex Wong, wasn’t it,” said Anderson. “You ran the school club our H. was in for that year, correct? What was it called again?”

Henry did a double take.

“It had that funny name. What was it...”

The fragments of the earlier conversation about the game returned to Henry’s mind.

The level of the monsters Anderson had been describing...

the battle strategies they’d employed...

Of course, his friends were social gamers! They were noobs, normies, filthy casuals! Someone in their position would never pay attention to happenings at the upper level of the game. Hahahahaha!

While Henry was nervously chuckling away inside his head, he missed a more serious look on one of his friend’s faces, as she seemed to recognise Alex in a different way.

“The Digital Justice Club!” laughed the arrogant, beaver-headed man. “Boy, that sure brings back fond memories. How long ago was that?”

The Digital Justice Club, this could be called the first form of their guild. After some guy had been mean to Alex on the internet, he'd set up a club at his guild to recruit impressionable juniors into a stupidly elaborate plan for revenge. Henry had been one of the unfortunate fools. The story of how this small club had morphed into the behemoth that was their guild today was dull. Suffice to say, it was just your usual case of lucky timing and a leader who refuses to listen to logic or the wishes of his underlings.

“About five years,” said Henry.

Five miserable years.

“Five years! Five years of beautiful, sumptuous memories, a perfect accompaniment to a sumptuous feast, don’t you think? You kids ordered yet?”

“We have."

“But it looks like you’re just finishing your appetisers. Vicky and I can make up for that with dessert later. Why don’t we link tables, make it a group date?”

Alex seemed insistent, but Henry wanted him gone. His annoying presence always signalled misfortune.

He mentally tested a few excuses.

‘The restaurant might be annoyed with us scraping up their floors.’

A smug grin. ‘I’m sure I could grease the palms of the owner.’

‘The alcohol fumes might damage the development of the fetus in your wife’s stomach.’

Stupid, conceited, overly-superior, mocking grin. ‘I’ve never cared much for kids anyway.’

Before Henry could think of an answer, a dagger was plunged into his soft, unguarded belly.

"The more the merrier!" said Cathy.

Then another dagger.

“By all means,” added Anderson, raising a glass of white wine in salute. “Any compadres of our H. are compadres of ours.”

Then another.

“I love hanging out with strangers,” said Brian.

Then another, sort of.

Abigail shrugged nonchalantly.

Henry keeled over in pain.

“Great!” said Alex, who immediately began bossing the waiter around.

As the tables were being shifted together, Henry sent Alex a frustrated text.

‘Can you not do whatever the hell it is you’re trying to do here?”

A few seconds later, the e-assistant on Henry’s wrist vibrated.

‘why so worried? don’t be so pessimistic mate Wink

Henry sent a flurry of angry texts, which Alex ignored.

*

Since most present were part of that alien race known as the socially well-adjusted, they were all chummy by the time they’d finished ordering the first course. What small bumps remained in the conversation were soon ironed out by the arrival of their meal.

Alex spoke at length about their recent trip to China. The three of them, along with Alex’s firstborn, had gone over to visit Alex’s extended family in Harbin. The plan was for Alex and Henry to then head off on their own to Vladivostok, from which they would have ridden the historical trans-Siberian railway to Moscow, before messing around in Europe. But the trip had been cut short to handle some unexpected problems with their ‘business’.

Although Henry’s friends themselves travelled a lot, they were surprised that he could afford such a luxury. This made them even more curious about his work, which he’d described to them earlier vaguely as ‘investing’.

“It’s complicated, but I’m filthy rich now,” said Henry offhandedly.

His friends assumed he was joking, but the guild was a cash cow. For the moment, though, he couldn’t be bothered correcting their misconception, preoccupied as he was with thoughts of impending doom.

He was trying to fit together the six pieces of the puzzle he'd found so far.

One, he’d retired from the guild two weeks earlier.

Two, the ‘unexpected problem’ with their ‘business’ was a competing guild in the game conquering a territory earlier than their analysts had predicted. Even though this issue could have easily been resolved on the road, Alex had thrown a fit insisting they return to the country to coordinate a response in person.

Three, barely after stepping back on his native soil, Henry received a call from Cathy, who had also, coincidentally, arrived back in the country with the others and wanted to catch up over dinner.

Four, of all the restaurants in the city, Cathy suggested coming to this one, which was popular enough that bookings needed to be made weeks in advance. This restaurant also happened to be affiliated with one of Henry and Alex’s subsidiary guilds, Flaming Sun, as could be seen by the logo hanging outside the entrance, the sun which had jokingly been set extra on fire.

Five, his friends had started playing Saana a little over a week ago.

Six, Alex turned up for dinner almost at same time as them, despite supposedly being so worried about dealing with the opposition guild.

From this, it was obvious that Alex was using his friends for something related to the game. The questions were in what way and why? History might suggest that Alex was setting him up for another childish prank. For example, earlier that same day, Henry had been tricked into appearing in the middle of an interview that was being broadcast live over the in-game television network.

Before Henry could solve the puzzle and prepare a defence, there was an ear-piercing clap.

“Oh, you play too!”

Cathy, clasping her hands in joy, had emitted a screech so loud it even drew the attention of a middle-aged couple a table down from them. The husband looked at his wife and shook his head, mouthing, 'Kids these days, back in the 20s, we were taught manners’.

Cathy's remark was directed at Alex.

Time seemed to slow down as Henry's gaze zoomed in on every muscle of the treacherous slavemaster's face, awaiting the first movement of the death blow to come.

But Alex was never one to throw the shot directly.

Alex's wife chuckled. “I sometimes wish they didn’t."

“They?”

A hand, slightly bloated from extra water weight, was raised into the air, a single incriminating red-nail-polished index finger thrust accusingly in Henry’s direction.

“Henry! You’re playing too? Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

The pace of this...it was all happening too quickly for his brain to process.

“I don’t...uh...really...uh...play the game. Some of the investments our company makes are in the...uh...online space, which requires me to have a small degree of presence there.”

Phew. He’d saved himself for the time being with a white lie. For the past few months leading up to his retirement, he’d been performing mostly administrative duties in order to get the guild functioning autonomously. Normal people wouldn't call that playing the game.

“Oh my god—apologies for my language—Henry, you’re playing too? That’s awesome! You’re on holiday, right? That means you can group, right?”

You’re playing...holiday...group...where was the logical progression in this? Where was the opportunity for give and take?

Grouping, he could imagine it now. A small band of chums travelling the wide world of Saana, experiencing the romance of adventure. Sleeping under the digital stars. Overcoming challenges slightly beyond their capabilities on paper using the power of friendship. The constantly shifting cast of newcomers attracted by his friends’ overly social tendencies.

His whole body shivered in disgust.

Luckily, her asking to group was a ridiculous question, one which reflected the folly of the noob.

Saana had about thirty starting zones, spread around a planet an eighth the size of the earth. As of yet, there were no methods for instantaneous transport, so travelling from zone to zone would take weeks in-game. Thus, where you started determined who you played with.

As for his location, the guild’s base was on an isolated island off the coast of the game’s central continent. The only nearby starting zone was a low-population trash zone called Suchi, which had unnecessary play restrictions like no fire spells and the inability to own property. Only masochists and idiots began the game there.

Henry lowered his head in fake regret. “I’d love to play with you guys, but, unfortunately, at the moment, my character’s logged off in a little island out of the way called Chayoka.”

As the last word was exiting his mouth, however, he tried to suck it back in, as he realised–masochists and idiots—this would exactly describe the way his noob friends would play the game!

He’d stumbled head first into the trap!

“Chayoka!” said Cathy, clapping her hands again in joy. “Brian, isn’t that the place right beside where we are?”

“Basically next door.”

Henry cringed.

“Wow! What a coincidence! You should hop on over to where we are. Right now, we’re doing something prettttty big. You wouldn't want to miss out.”

“Yeah?”

What could possibly be big by the standards of a casual gamer?

Anderson answered. “At the moment, we’re testing our mettle in a battle of the body, a tournament to stand the ages.”

Henry’s voice rose half an octave. “What kind of tournament?”

They couldn’t be referring to...no...

“Some recruitment thing,” said Brian.

“We’re not doing it to be recruited, though,” said Cathy. “We’re doing it just for fun. So what do you think? Are you in?”

Henry’s eye twitched. To cut down on time spent interviewing recruits, he’d set up a monthly tournament in each starting zone for people wishing to join the guild. Every month, a few noobs with no chance of succeeding would also join ‘just for fun’.

Signing up for his own recruitment tournament...could there be anything more ludicrous than this?

However...

Henry donned another look of regret. “Man, that sounds like a ton of fun. And it’s so great that we’re so close. But, you know, unfortunately, if you’re just starting off, whatever tournament you’re doing, I’m probably too high a level for it.”

“Oh?” Cathy looked very surprised to hear this.

“You might still be able to enter, mate.”

‘You might still be able to enter, mate.’

‘You might still be able to enter, mate.’

‘You might still be able to enter, mate.’

‘You might still be able to enter, mate.’

As the sentence echoed again and again in Henry’s mind, he turned to Alex, who was giving him a shameless, arrogant look, much like that of an alcoholic son demanding his father's last kidney.

“Well, at the moment, I have a tier-5 character.”

Simultaneously, Henry typed out a text. ‘Don't do it.’

Reading the message, Alex smiled even more arrogantly. “You’re a tier-5 Scholar, but what about your Martial class? What level was that exactly?”

In this, Alex, the shameless beaver-headed disloyal oaf, was referring to the fact that Henry had only levelled his production skills. In two years of playing, he’d avoided choosing one of the ‘Martial classes’ that about 95% of the player base picked, such as a Cutthroat or a Shaman.

His reason for avoiding doing so was simple: he didn’t want to. Saana was tiring, time-wasting, hard, overly-competitive, and stressful. In all its facets, it was directly counter to his life philosophy of taking it easy.

He’d been sick of the game before the servers even opened. This was the third version of Saana. In the previous version, which Alex had hoodwinked him into playing during high-school, their guild had also lucked its way into moderate success. At the start of the most recent version of the game, the developers had sent Henry a free VR set, as they did most notable players who were too poor to afford one. Henry, however, having seen the peak, had no interest to undergo the ordeal again. His only reason for creating a character this time around was to due to one of Saana’s new features, a time-dilation effect that made time in the game last four times longer than reality. He’d wanted to exploit this effect to have more time to read and work on his hobby of writing in between shifts at his parents’ fast food restaurant.

If it weren’t for Alex catching wind of him making a character and pressuring him to start another guild, Henry would still be in his in-game bookstore happily drowning in a sea of comfy novels.

Gradually, a picture of Alex’s motivation was taking form.

Alex wanted him...to start levelling a Martial class with his friends...using this tournament as an excuse...in order to make him more involved in the game...and to stop his retirement and continue being a slave to the guild.

“So does that mean you can group with us?” asked Cathy.

Henry could produce many excuses, but if Alex were motivated, they would all be refuted. Technically, there was nothing stopping him from participating in the tournament...his own tournament.

How tiresome.

When he turned to face Cathy, he released an audible gasp. In her eyes too, there was also a shameless, arrogant look, like a grandmother blackmailing her grandchild into giving a loan she has no realistic means of repaying.

‘Et tu, Cathe?’

Anyone but her. Wasn’t she supposed to be his most trusted friend, the mother hen of the group who was always looking out for their best interests?

Come to think of it, in one of her many nagging monologues that he’d ignored, had she perhaps hinted at this restaurant being recommended by ‘a friend’? And the way she’d shaken Alex’s hand earlier, it was out of character, Cathy usually not being so forward with strangers. And the way she’d steered the conversation so awkwardly in this direction.

He was starting to feel dizzy.

As for why Alex would coordinate with her, in the past, Henry had been weak to her requests, as she was an overly sensitive person who took all rejections personally. Alex, aware of this weakness through Henry’s complaints, would have approached her with some sob story about how Henry was experiencing burn-out or depressed and suggested that nothing would brighten his mood more than a two-week long dose of social gaming.

But Alex should also be aware that this trick would not be enough to convince him anymore. Sure, it would be awkward, especially after having said he'd love to play with them. However, in comparison to the issues he'd dealt with managing the millions of people involved with their guild, this was a joke.

Henry suddenly felt the vibration of a text. "One second,” he said, excusing himself.

Few at this dinner would realise the gravity of what he was about to read.

‘holy crap just agree already!!!! what's taking so long!! here’s the deal: if u get 1st, i won’t pull that card again.’

So there it was, the real incentive: freedom. For how long had Henry been getting pressed into adventures using the ‘card’?

What was the card? Long ago, or at least what felt like long ago, Alex had helped his family out in a massive way when Henry's mother had fallen ill.

This favour was the last thing binding them together. Once it was removed, it was over.

Across from him, Alex was feigning indifference as he sawed through a tough piece of pork.

‘6v6?’ Henry texted back.

Their recruitment tournament had multiple sub-tournaments. Considering how trash most of the players in Suchi would be, he could probably scrape together a team to win the 6v6 component. Although Henry didn’t play a Martial class, he had organised the occasional battle. The fundamentals of group combat were somewhat transferable between scales.

‘u think i'm running a charity? hahahahahaha. 1v1’

Henry frowned. He was well aware of his own status as a luck magnet. He also knew that his successes tended to be a function of how many variables were available to him, with more variables providing him with a greater chance of stumbling across a lucky solution. In a fight between two tier-0 classes, there weren't that many factors, each fighter would only have four or five spells to work with and most fights would boil down to pure brawling ability. In this respect, his fighting skills were average to bad, especially after not playing a Martial class at all for two years.

Moreover, by his estimate, there'd be around 5000 recruits in the 1v1 for him to surpass. Given the shitty state of Suchi, he could reach the top 10 by exploiting guild resources, but anything above the top 5 would be extremely difficult. That level was usually dominated by that freakish breed of person who spends their spare time—their leisure hours—beating their body up as part of a martial art.

To defeat these mutants, it would take a lot of work...work he wasn't willing to do.

But he was still feeling tempted. Maybe he'd get lucky again. Worst comes to worst, he would only lose two weeks of his life, right? But if he succeeded...wouldn’t he gain the rest of it?

‘Impossible.’ he texted back, attempting to draw out better conditions.

Alex read and answered the text while chewing with the slow, exaggerated jaw movements of a cow eating grass.

‘top 20 then, use anything u want, but if fail u promise to run 500 & 6 ’

Top 20, using guild resources, Henry had a solid chance of achieving this, but the cost of failure would be even more years of misery managing Alex’s 500 man raiding team and 6-man e-sports team.

‘Top 100, no guild resources, no promises on my end.’

According to Henry’s deduction, Alex would consider just getting him to a roll a Martial class a minor success.

‘top 50 no guild , no promise, empty your inventory before u go & u have to group with these kiddos when they’re on’

In a week, a player could only play Saana for an average of 12 hours a day. The time with his friends would severely handicap him. Still...

‘Top 5, all the rest you said, except the inventory. I don't want to waste time levelling.’

In his inventory were items that would make the grind to level 20, the max of tier-0 where all tournament participants would be, pass in a day rather than the week it normally took. This was necessary, but the request was also a cover for something even more critical to his plans.

In his inventory, there was also a Legendary-quality cheat ring that allowed him to assume multiple identities, the only one of its kind in the game. One of these identities was used to maintain an informal network between NPC kings, which only a handful of people were aware of and which wasn't technically a part of the guild. With this network and a bit of cash, he could build a cheat scouting system to have elaborate dossiers written on all his competitors, giving him a huge leg up. Every fight, the little noobs of Suchi would feel like they were going insane as their trap cards were exposed time and time again. Hopefully, Alex would miss this part.

Chewing idly away, Alex was weighing the offer seriously, poking at it from different angles to see what his deceptive little friend was trying to pull. In less than fifteen seconds, he'd found it, his face contorting into a sinister, arrogant smirk.

‘nice try hahahaha. ur too predictable. top 10, no guild, no promises, take care of the kids, keep all ur inventory EXCEPT connections. hahahaha no more negotiations mate. take it or leave it you sneaky rat idiot hahaha’

Henry sat back in his seat and took a long breath. Brian beside him was pushing a meatball with his fork around a racecourse of pasta. Anderson was filling another glass, the stream of honey-coloured wine twisting in sync with a subtle tremor in his hand. The waiter was asking a table if they were enjoying their meal, a forced smile failing to cover the exhaustion of a long shift, made evident by a thick, oily line of shimmering sweat along his brow. Abigail, who’d been staring at Henry mysteriously like he was a zoo animal, quickly turned away. Outside on the street, a waitress from a nearby restaurant was resting against a lamppost with her eyes closed as she awaited her cab. Cathy was still awaiting a reply.

This whole situation was ridiculous.

Wasn't it too exaggerated?

Like, what kind of mentally deranged psycho creates such an emotionally manipulative set up just for a little extra bargaining power?

What ever happened to direct communication? Why must such a simple request be so twisted, combative, calculative, and transactional?

And was it really too much to ask for a seventeen-year-old man to retire quietly in peace? Had he not put in enough work yet?

Henry stole a glance at Cathy and felt a great resentment at her too.

Does it make any logical sense that a person who’s burned-out would want to relax by doing more of the thing that burned them out?

He felt a surging desire to...a raging need to...

The mental him firmly asked the waiter to remove the dishes. Once they were cleared, he groaned as he lifted himself up on the table, then coughed into a clenched fist to signal the beginning of an oration capable of piercing even the most hardened soul.

‘Friends, Alex, the bearded philosophers of ancient China captured the essence of things perfectly with the principle of Wu Wei, or non-doing. Non-doing, I would argue, this is the lifeblood of all human advancement. Just as the life of an individual requires offsetting its more active, doing parts with more restful, non-doing parts, so too does this greater life which we call society require offsetting its more active, doing parts i.e. people with more restful, non-doing parts i.e. people. Man is a creature of comparison, and without the low achiever, can anyone be called a high achiever? Behind every great man of action, I wager that there is another man—much less great but no less important—a man of inaction, a man whose pathetic example terrifies the great man and drives him to strive ever onward. I don’t know about you, my friends, but who am I to strip this great man of his motivation? If Einstein walked through the door right now, would you deny him his potential? Me, I could never be so selfish. In fact, I am willing to step up to the plate right now! For the greater good of society, I will leap in front of the bullet! I will be that man who does nothing! And my great man, why of course, he will be all of you!'

Moved by his stirring rhetoric, all his mental friends, along with the old couple and the waiter and the chef and even the waitress awaiting her cab, rushed forward to help lower him from the table. Their eyes brimming with tears, they all cried out in unison: ‘You’re god-damned right, Henry! Go home! Go home immediately to your bed! Don’t worry about destroying your VR equipment; it’s already done! Farewell, we're off to invent things!’

(AN: I am aware that this is a total misreading of Wu Wei)

As for the real him...

“Sorry about the delay there, Cathy. Some psychopath had gotten a hold of my number. Anyway, this tournament thing, do you have any info on it, just so I can double check my eligibility? I wouldn’t want to waste a boat ride.”

Cathy clapped her hands in joy. “Sure, let me bring up the website." She got up, grabbed her chair, hobbled over, and squeezed in between Henry and Brian.

Meanwhile, Anderson, who was absolutely hammered, started reciting an awful poem about combat.

Alex and Victoria gave each other another subtle look of amusement.

Abigail suddenly burst out laughing, making Henry wonder if she was also a part of the conspiracy.

Cathy, not knowing what had made Abby laugh either, ignored her and began putting on a show of helping this pale, malnourished, depressed, slow-to-respond friend of hers. She felt some reluctance in acting so deceitful in consort with Henry's friend—as is said in Proverbs, the Lord detests lying lips—but she believed that God would understand the greater need to help one of his flock in suffering. Plus, to tell the truth, the deception was a bit exciting—it felt like she was in a spy movie! “Alright, Henry,” she said, concealing a devilish smile, “so you don’t have to be embarrassed if you’re not the best at fighting right now, because we’ve got the greatest trainer in all of Suchi—of course, you shouldn’t be intimidated by that title, I’ll put in a good word for, and besides, there’s no winners or losers, only participants and non-...”

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AsparagusEnchilada

  • Somewhere between Venus and Mars

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Steve Moss @Steve Moss ago

I thought this line was hilarious:

“And was it really too much to ask for a seventeen-year-old man to retire quietly in peace? Had he not put in enough work yet?“

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