A Quiet and Lonely Town
Chapter 1 — The Last Train to Rallsburg
On the last train to Rallsburg, a god and his lover were having a friendly debate.
"Okay, so, check it out. You've got a bunch of people thrown into a game, right? And they have different backgrounds, different nationalities, everything—but once they're playing the game, they're all identical to start. There's no real threat to these people; they all know it's a game. In the game there are tools to work together, and by everyone working together across the entire system they can progress faster and unlock more parts of the game together. The most efficient method is always working together."
"But they don't."
"They don't, yeah, and here's why: they always flock together. They form groups. The groups might be based on what language they speak or they might have a shared history outside the game, or it's none of the above. But it's still inevitable that every single player—to some degree—will associate themselves with a group. There are no exceptions, except to quit playing the game entirely. You either join a side or you're forced out."
"The groups could still cooperate though."
"Once you're part of a group, anyone not part of your group is a threat. That's buried deep in the lizard brain of humanity. It's pure tribalism, and this particular game showed a perfect analogy. Allegory?"
"Sure, that. Anyway, logical friendly people who might have seen through the prisoner's dilemma showed overwhelming loyalty to their group instead of to the collective whole."
"Surely someone found a way to collaborate."
"No! That's what's crazy about it. The tribes had spies and informants. They would cannibalize their own members long before giving an inch, despite virtually nothing separating them in the eyes of the game. If you even talked to the enemy, you would be tracked down and kicked out."
"How could they get anything done if they were that paranoid?"
"Well, it was still a game. The mechanics allowed them to make progress because it was a fair system. In the real world it falls apart. Tribes like that don't survive without trade and cooperation. They die off one way or another. Maybe it's revolution, maybe it's war, or maybe it's just high-minded protest rhetoric, but they stop being tribes. It's all individuals again, but then they build up a new community—now with the faces they excluded from the last time around."
"Maybe at first, but there's always more groups. Layers of groups."
"Yeah, but can you ever really trust someone outside that closest circle?"
"Well, when it's someone you love—"
"That's the greatest folly of the human race. Chemicals in our brains that make emotional connections to outsiders and fool us into trusting them beyond all logical reasoning."
"So you're saying there's no hope."
"I'm saying that if you can detach yourself from all that, you can finally start to see the big picture. Problem is, no one ever can. We're all lonely and desperate to attach ourselves to the first thing that comes along with a smile."
"Speak for yourself."
"Or maybe I'm just the lonely detached soul and I was lucky enough to find you."
"That's cute. Thank god, there's the train station ahead."
Alden Bensen was only moments away from sleeping through the most important encounter of his entire life.
Alden groaned, turning over in his seat. He just wanted to sleep a little longer. A couple other passengers had been keeping him drifting in and out during the trip, never quite making it past snoozing.
"Aren't you getting off here? We're in Rallsburg." The voice broke through his lethargy, ending any hope of resting further.
He spluttered awake. What if the train started off with him still on board? It could take hours and hours to get back here—if he even could. This was the last train out to Rallsburg for the day, if not the next couple. He'd end up at some dead-end motel out on the coast for the night. Probably infested with insects, too, and with an owner that was either uncomfortably cheerful or just likely to be an axe murderer.
As his eyes slid open, Alden was greeted by an attractive young Japanese woman, raven haired but with a bright streak of electric blue framing the right side of her face. She looked bored and impatient—but then again, she had just taken the time to make sure a complete stranger didn't miss his stop. She was probably worth talking to.
"Thanks," he mumbled, struggling to his feet. He felt exhausted, not having slept more than a couple hours in the past day, and those on a rumbling Amtrak through Tacoma to get here. Not the best for relaxation, and Alden had a hard time sleeping under normal conditions.
He glanced out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the town, but all he could see was the small train station. A single employee manned the platform outside, helping the few passengers debarking with their luggage. It was a heavily overcast evening in May, the sun peeking through the clouds at odd intervals but never long enough to really brighten the day at all.
The station—if he could even call it that—was a single building with a gate on one side, squat and unremarkable. Beyond it grew the trees, state forests that would stretch north all the way to the ocean. Already he found them foreboding. Deep thickets of evergreens infested with who knew how many species of insect, how many other predatory creatures that wouldn't have a second thought about eating him alive.
With that unsettling notion, he decided he could use some friends local to the area.
"What's your name?" Alden started, turning back to the girl, but he was unsurprised to find she was long gone. He'd taken too long to speak up. Still, her face was etched permanently in his mind. He was pretty good with faces, and hers was particularly memorable. He sighed, pulled his bag out of the overhead compartments, and made his way off the train.
What am I supposed to do now?
Alden had arrived in town with only a single clue. A single scrap of paper that pointed him back here to Rallsburg, Washington. He took it out and examined the front once more. He'd kept it in the inside pocket of his coat, not trusting it to leave his side at any time. In his hands he flipped it over, closely scanning every inch of it again just in case he'd missed something—though of course he hadn't. The rumpled envelope was exactly the same as he'd originally found it, plus or minus a few wrinkles from the number of times it had creased within his pocket.
Alden had a purpose for being in a small, out-of-the-way town like Rallsburg. There was someone he had to find, though he had no idea who that person might be. The only clue was the envelope he now held, with the return address and crest of the local Rallsburg University stamped on the front, along with a cheerful, handwritten "Congratulations!"
He sighed again and put the envelope away. Alden had inspected every inch without any revelations so far; he wasn't likely to discover anything standing around in the train station. On top of which, the tall, thick-muscled and thick-bearded man swathed in a deep coat with his hood drawn currently occupying the bench across the empty street was setting him ill at ease. He could have sworn the man's eyes were following his every step. With great reluctance, Alden approached the clerk working the station counter.
"Excuse me," Alden mumbled.
"Can I help you?" he asked brightly. Alden recoiled momentarily at the energetic response before gathering his composure. He wasn't awake enough for this yet.
"Can you tell me how to get to the college campus?"
"I'm sorry, I couldn't quite understand you."
Alden cleared his throat and tried to enunciate more clearly. "How can I get to the college from here?"
"Oh, it's just two blocks west and two blocks south. Can't miss it. If you look it up on your phone you should get directions from the first result."
"My phone's dead," Alden said, glancing away embarrassed.
"Oh! Sorry. Well, like I said, just two blocks west and then south."
"Thanks." Having suffered through a conversation with someone far too energetic for his current state, Alden turned and headed out into the town, his bag slung over his shoulder. As he stepped into the street, he turned right and started down the road.
Four intersections later, Alden felt completely lost. There wasn't anything around him that looked like a college campus. He was still in town, so he wasn't completely off the map, but most of the buildings around him were shops of some kind.
The town seemed deserted. It wasn't that the buildings were falling apart or that he hadn't seen a single person. There were a few large men in thick plaid jackets walking down the street toward him at that moment, though they paid Alden no mind. It was more a faint air of decay that permeated the place. The few proper asphalt streets were cracked, and off them were ill-maintained rocky roads that looked like they'd been clamoring to be paved but had long-since been forgotten. Quite a few of the commercial buildings were empty and dusty, looking as though they'd never seen an owner. There was a restaurant or two dotted among them, with scents wafting out that sent his mouth salivating. His stomach chose that moment to painfully remind him how little he'd eaten since leaving home that morning.
Since I couldn't find the university anyway, why not get a bite to eat? Might clear my head. Alden closed his eyes and found whichever smell was most appetizing. The scent of french fries was the first to catch his nostrils. He followed it to a single door set into the corner of the next street over, with an old-fashioned wooden sign hanging above the door, a skull and crossbones emblazoned underneath a black kettle.
Next to the door sat a sign in bold red, declaring it off limits to minors.
Crestfallen, Alden was about to turn away when he heard shouting from just inside the door. He stepped forward, curiosity getting the better of him. A dark shape started to form through the frosted glass inside the door frame.
The shape was moving toward the door.
He threw himself aside at the last second. The wood cracked against the wall as the door swung wide. Someone burst through, crashing to the ground and rolling a few feet before springing to life. In the doorway, a heavyset bouncer stared down at the pair of them with a scowl that could make children weep. He cracked his knuckles threateningly.
Alden held up his hands in surrender. He wasn't part of this fight. More to the point, he was a lanky kid without the muscle to stand his ground. As he glanced over, he recognized the ejected patron. Now that he could see her more clearly (and being much more awake than on the train), she was barely older than he was.
"What gives?" she shot at the bouncer. Her fierce voice was slightly undermined by the rather plain gray hooded jacket and black denim jeans she was wearing. She didn't look remotely threatening to Alden. The only thing about her clothes that stood out was a curious brown leather bag fastened at her waist, with multiple small, secure pouches and a gold buckle holding the entire thing together. The bouncer—a heavyset man with broad shoulders, rough hands and a cleanly trimmed beard—seemed to agree with Alden's assessment.
"Your ID's a fake," he replied, quite calmly. Alden was taken aback by how soft his voice was.
"Bullshit. I'm old enough. Get me something to drink," the girl snapped.
"Just be glad I'm not turning you in. Grow up and come back." The bouncer went back inside, letting the door slam shut. A string of violent epithets followed him inside. Alden ignored her, busy staring pointedly at the sign above them. As her curses died off, he began walking away to find another place to sit down.
Alden stopped walking, against his better judgment.
"Didn't I just see you on the train?"
"Huh. So your first thought was to get drunk too? Good call."
"I'm not—" Alden started, but she interrupted him.
"Come on, we can do better than this hole in the wall." She took his arm in a gloved hand and started pulling him down the street. Alden dug his heels into the road and managed to hold his place.
He summoned up whatever courage he could muster. "I need to get to the university."
She looked at him curiously. "New student? In May? Everybody's already gone home for summer."
"No. I just need to get there."
"Oookay, fine. It's like four blocks that way." She pointed back toward the train station. Alden glanced down the street back the way he'd come.
"But, at the train station, they said to go west."
She cocked her head slightly. "Yeah, west is that way. Towards the sun." Her brow creased slightly. "You okay?"
Alden shook his head in dismay. Of course he'd turned the wrong direction. He was terrible with directions. Also the outdoors, and a great long list of things he maintained in his mind. People too, if his life were anything to judge by.
"Look, what's your name?"
"Ald—" he started, but cut himself off. "Zack."
"AldZack, eh?" she grinned. A hint of an accent poked through her lips.
"Canadian?" he asked, trying to deflect attention from his slip-up.
"Something like that."
A verbal fencing match seemed like a waste of Alden's time. She seemed too actively hostile to strike up a real conversation with. "Well, thanks," he muttered, turning to head down the street to the university.
"Hey, wait up." The girl fell in step next to him.
"I think I can find it," he said, as kindly as he could. He didn't want to sound rude, not when he still had no clue who she was.
"Just so happens I've got business at the university," she retorted. "Don't worry, kid, you don't have to put up with me long. In the meantime, why don't we walk together? I could use the company."
Alden hesitated, then nodded assent, once more against his instincts. She was too intriguing to pass up. Hadn't he come here seeking an adventure? Plus, he was eighteen, and a guy, and she was hot. He was doomed by hormones the moment she said a nice word to him, and he knew it.
"Kid?" he asked, feeling a little indignant.
"You're what, eighteen? Makes you three years younger than me," she guessed. He nodded. "So you're definitely a kid to me."
"Thought you weren't old enough to drink," Alden pointed out.
"I am, but I gave him the wrong ID."
"Why have a fake ID if you're already twenty one?"
"Why'd you give me a fake name a few minutes ago?" she shot back. He grinned in spite of his earlier mistake. He hadn't managed to hold a conversation with anyone outside his family for this long in ages, and the resurgence of social connection was a grateful reprieve from the headache pounding in his skull and the exhaustion seeping through his muscles.
"So we've both got secrets. I'm gonna do you one better though, no bullshit. My name is Rika," she said. She took off her glove and offered a hand. He shook it gingerly. Her hand felt like it was buzzing, as if an electric charge surged through her skin. The brief contact made him feel more alive than he had all day.
Rika grinned as he quickly let go. "Well, Zack," she started exaggeratedly. "I dunno about you, but I'm starving. Want to grab a bite to eat before we hit the campus?" She pointed at a little diner across the street, a low-key place with one blinded window and a sign that had seen better days. He didn't even bother to answer. Rika bolted across the street without even bothering to look for cars—not that Alden had heard a single one since the train pulled away—and through the front door. Alden followed only a few steps behind.
"Mmmmm," Rika sighed contentedly, leaning back in the corner booth.
Alden had to agree with the sentiment. It was a greasy place, sure, but Alden couldn't deny the excellent taste of the burgers and fries. He wasn't normally partial to fast food either. Whether it was the exhaustion or the company, it felt like divine cuisine.
The place was so small he was surprised it even had booths, but there were four lined up along the side, with red vinyl cushions slowly decaying from years of overuse. The main counter was only a few steps away, so close that it was practically impossible to get up when anyone was walking down the aisle. Behind the counter, the proprietor was busy grilling the next few burgers for a family of three that had walked in not long after Rika and Alden. From their friendly conversation with the genial balding man, Alden judged the place a local favorite.
"You've been here before," he stated, looking back at Rika. She frowned.
"No way you picked this place at random. The guy sounded like he knew your order too."
"You got me," Rika brushed her hair out of her face. "I've been to Rallsburg a few times before, to visit a friend. I met Dan around that time. We hit it off pretty well." The man behind the counter glanced up as he heard his name. Rika waved him off, before munching down a fry. "Why so suspicious, Zack?"
Alden took a sidelong glance at the family seated at the counter, far down at the opposite end of the tiny restaurant. He lowered his voice. "Can I trust you?"
"Is it possible to answer that question usefully?" Rika raised an eyebrow, chewing on a fry in the corner of her mouth while she spoke. "Either I say yes and I'm a great liar, or I say no and you're out of luck anyway. You gotta decide that one yourself."
"Well, uh, but…" he spluttered. He wasn't sure what answer he'd expected, but to hear her so frankly point out the flaw in his question broke his concentration. He took a moment to gather his thoughts. "Why did you ask me to join you?" he finally settled on.
"Because I don't believe in coincidence. Not anymore," Rika said calmly. "Look, Zack. You seem like an okay guy. You're clearly on a mission. And for whatever reason, you've shown up here in this dead end college town. And you ran into me. Twice." Rika munched down another fry. "Trust me on this though: the shit that goes down here, it's hardcore. You'd better be ready to commit if you're gonna head down this road any further."
Alden swallowed hard. He glanced at the envelope inside his coat pocket once again. Was he ready for whatever Rika was describing?
"Let me put it this way, kid. Have you read from the book?"
"Have I what?" Alden repeated, confused.
She shook her head. "Forget it. Nevermind."
"No, what does that mean?"
"I said forget it." Rika looked over at Dan. "Hey, can we get some more fries?"
"You got it, flower," Dan's deep voice rumbled from behind the counter.
Alden's mind was too easily sidetracked. "Flower?"
"It's one of the kanji of my name," Rika explained. "The second character means flower. Dan thinks he's super clever for knowing that, but he doesn't know a lick of Japanese otherwise. Anata wa bakadesu," she called to Dan, who just waved cheerily in return as he focused on his cooking.
Alden cleared his throat again, trying to get back on topic. "What did you mean by the book?"
Rika sighed. "Look, I'm probably not the one you want explaining that to you, okay? You could do a lot better than me if you really want to awaken."
"If I want to what?" Alden asked, even more confused. The family of three at the bar stood to leave. Alden glanced at them involuntarily as the door opened, feeling a compulsion to keep track of them at all times.
"You're paranoid as shit, aren't you?" she noted. "Probably smart, 'specially these days."
"Give me a straight answer," Alden asked impatiently.
Rika started to answer, but the door to the place suddenly burst open, slamming hard against the wall. Three guys walked in clearly looking for trouble. They were college age, probably late college by Alden's estimate. The leader was remarkably handsome and well-built—a typical good-looking college guy. Blonde hair, tall and strong figure, and warm, large brown eyes. Alden was surprised he wasn't perpetually wearing a polo shirt and khakis with the physique and complexion he had going on. His friends had the look down, but instead he seemed to be sporting the same basic attire as Rika—dark hooded sweatshirt and jeans, with a pouch fastened at his waist. His was much less elaborate than Rika's, consisting of a single black velvety bag with a white string holding it tightly closed.
Rika had to twist around to see them. "Shit," she murmured.
"What?" Alden asked in a low voice.
"Let's just say I know them," Rika whispered back. She sank low in the booth, and slowly began to put the hood over her head to hide the distinctive blue streak in her hair. It was too late.
"Hey, bitch!" The lead man's eyes locked on their booth. Alden could have sworn he grew a few inches as he approached, and not just from perspective.
"Hi Ryan. How's life?" Rika asked brightly, turning to face him. As she did, she sniffled a bit, and grabbed a napkin to wipe at her nose.
"Better than yours," Ryan glowered down at them. "You owe me. Time to pay up."
"For what?" she asked innocently.
"Two dozen shards of topaz that you bought off me at the market. You never delivered your end before you bailed. Who's this guy?" Ryan added, nodding at Alden.
"He's not awakened." Ryan seemed to take this odd statement without question, and didn't give Alden so much as a second glance. "Where the hell am I supposed to find nature-laid twin lizard eggs?" Rika added.
"Internet?" Ryan suggested, half-sarcastically.
"Screw that, I'm not ordering that shit online. Get them yourself."
"So use bitcoin or something. I don't care, but you're not leaving this dump until I get what's mine."
Alden didn't dare move a muscle. He was completely out of his depth in this confrontation, whatever it was about. Out of the corner of his eye, Alden saw Rika's hand gently unclasp one of the pouches on her belt, out of sight for Ryan or his cronies.
"Bitcoin's traceable as fuck, and besides, how am I supposed to get it to you when I can't leave this dump?" Rika asked pointedly.
"So give me my gems back."
"How'd you know I was back in town, anyway?" Rika deflected.
"We've got a guy," one of Ryan's guys piped up. Ryan shot him a look and he fell silent.
"Ooh. Ryan's moving up in the world. Got himself a reader," she taunted. Ryan glowered at his companion.
"Look, I—" Alden started. He wasn't sure why he was inserting himself into a heated and suddenly quite vulgar argument for the sake of a girl he'd just met, but he couldn't help himself.
"Stay out of this," Rika and Ryan said in unison. Alden quickly fell silent.
"Give me the eggs, or give me the topaz back. Simple as that," Ryan said.
"Oh Ryan. Is this because I stopped sleeping with you?" Rika teased.
"Why would you bang a board that flat anyway?" one of Ryan's cronies sneered, which quickly devolved into a back-and-forth about Rika's physical appearance between his minions.
"Maybe he's more of an ass-man."
"She doesn't got that either! Maybe he's a weeb."
Alden half-expected Rika to jump him then and there. She seemed like the quick-to-violence type. To his surprise, she ignored the jabs entirely, her eyes still locked on Ryan.
Ryan shook his head. "Just want the topaz," he grunted. Alden thought he detected a bit more anger in his voice after Rika's last comment, or maybe it was the catcalls from his friends. He couldn't help but think Rika was deliberately antagonising them and it couldn't be going anywhere healthy.
Still, what on earth were they arguing over? That was the weirdest part for Alden. The conversation and tone was clear, but the subjects made no sense. Gemstones and lizard eggs? What the hell was this? Alden was beyond confused. He decided to just stay silent. Hopefully it would end up making sense before much longer.
He was about to be very, very wrong.
Rika's hand began to move down to her belt, presumably to grab the topaz.
"Shit!" One of Ryan's guys reacted. Ryan began lifting a hand to stop him, but it was too late. The guy reached into his pocket and tossed something into the air. A few tiny rocks that glinted as they caught the light hanging above them.
Alden watched the crony's hand make a small gesture in midair, but it was too fast for him to see from a distance. More importantly, as the guy's fingers moved, the tiny objects he'd hurled started glowing.
Not just glowing. They were on fire. More importantly, they were hurtling right at Alden and Rika.
Alden froze in place. There were actual fireballs flying at him. Tiny, bright orange fireballs whizzing through midair at his chest.
Am I that tired?
Just as suddenly, he felt his hair stand on end. A blur of motion across from him and Rika's hand had flown up to point at the licks of flame. Alden would have sworn her hand teleported from the pouch on her belt, it moved so fast. The tiny fireballs were only halfway to his face when Rika made her move.
Tiny arcs of electricity crackled around her fingertips. Their appearance sounded a whipcrack echoing through the entire restaurant. Alden instinctively flinched, as did the trio opposite.
A brilliant blue arc spiked through the air, forming tiny connections with anything nearby as it whipped across the table to impact on the fireballs. The bolt crackled and split into three. Each branch struck a fireball directly, a strange mixture of glowing red and sharp blue.
It felt like slow motion as the three flecks of flame were pushed aside. Alden saw the sparkle of what looked like dust fall from Rika's hand. The orbs knocked into the wall all around them both, tiny impacts that quickly dissipated into small blackened rocks.
All of it happened in only a second, but Alden still felt the wash of heat and the rush of adrenaline in his head.
"Seth, what the fuck?" Ryan shouted at his companion, but they were both staring at Rika in terror, who had stood up. Even though he was presumably on her side, Alden was scared—but also thrilled. There was a low crackle of electricity, tiny arcs whipping along the streak of blue in her hair, like a cloudless storm hovering on the side of her face. He could feel the air around them energized from the activity, as the smell of ozone drifted past his nostrils, intoxicating and foreboding.
With her right hand still outstretched and her jacket sleeve having fallen away, Alden could see an intricate tattoo adorning her wrist. Two flowers, one black and one light pink sat on the back of her hand, with their stems intertwined and stretching back up her forearm a short distance. As he stared, another crackle accompanied a small brilliant bolt of lightning curling and snapping between two of her fingers.
"Get the hell out before I throw you out," Rika growled with such fury that Alden recoiled involuntarily in his seat.
Ryan didn't need to be told twice. He grabbed the arm of the guy who had fired at Rika and dragged him out of the restaurant, their other companion following. Dan stood stock still at the grill, his eyes wide. Alden would never forget the look on Rika's face at that moment—utterly suffused with fury. She was breathing heavily, as if she'd just run a fair distance.
"Zack, toss me those rubies," she said calmly, returning to her seat. She tried to relax into the chair, though it was obvious she was still worked up.
Alden spluttered back to life. With what he'd just witnessed, there was no way he was going to refuse anything she asked. He looked around and grabbed up the three blackened stones set into the wall, shaking the ash off of them before setting them on the table.
"Thanks." Rika picked them up, looking at them closely. "Nope." She tossed the first into one pouch. "Nope. Well, this one's not bad. Eh, one's better than nothing." She took out a small cloth from another pouch on her bag and started on the rock, wiping away the blackened edges as best she could. "Gonna have to get this a real polishing later. Hey Dan," she called out without looking.
"...Yeah?" Dan asked nervously.
"Those fries ready yet?"
"Oh. Yeah, one sec." Dan looked enormously relieved to have something normal to focus on. He turned around and busied himself with his cooking.
"Hope this is obvious, Dan, but please don't say anything about what you just saw. Yeah?" Rika said matter-of-factly.
"No shit," Dan muttered.
Rika grinned at Alden. "You good there, Zack?"
"...What are you?" Alden asked.
"I'm human, idiot." Rika looked back at the gem, which was beginning to show small shades of red again, though many of the charred portions were clearly too much for her simple cloth to remove.
"That's the best I'm going to get." Rika tossed the ruby into another pouch, then began looking around the table for something. Alden didn't know how to react to her statement. A few moments of silence passed before he finally spoke up again.
"What are you looking for?"
"I was hoping some of that topaz hadn't cracked, but it's all dust. Waste of perfectly good shards," Rika sighed.
"Are you going to give me a straight answer?" Alden asked angrily.
"You gonna tell me your real name?" Rika shot back.
He cleared his throat. Screw it, he decided. Better her than anyone else I've seen so far. "Alden. Alden Bensen."
She held out her hand. "Rika Nishimura. Pleasure." He shook it, and distinctly felt the electricity coursing through her body. It felt like her skin was thrumming with movement and energy. He grasped it firmly this time, and felt the current weave its way through him.
"How did you do that?" Alden asked, excitement and fear mixing pleasantly in his chest.
Rika grinned. "Short answer? Magic is real."