Chapter 20 - Francine - Present


“I made an error,” I say to Dan, rubbing my face and looking down at the yellow roughly hewn pine table. The whiskey and pine resin scents contribute to my headache. I shouldn’t be surprised that the baby table, only a few days into its life time of service at the Don’t Mess With Texas Saloon, already sports several gouges and golden brown stains. Bar tables develop character over time -- dark brown sticky patinas of wild spirits and regrets hugging the marred material beneath.

Looking up, I make eye contact with Dan, the realism of Incrementum astounding me as I see the tightness of his face. Somehow, the stress lines and tension from an hour of arguing, fifty-nine minutes longer than he has ever dared disagree with me before, are perfectly displayed on his face. I wonder if the game interface just mimics the physical reactions of his real body. That would mean sending certain neural impulses from his brain to his body and mirroring them in Incrementum. Perhaps the interface allows neural messages about tensing facial muscles and release of stress hormones, but not others, like moving legs and arms. Stop, Francine, I tell myself, this is not the rabbit hole you are looking for.

“You’re right. She’s a viable candidate for the team. I’m unconvinced she’s the tank we need. The promising in-game developments, and her excellent real life track record are not enough to make up for lack of experience, knowledge, and reckless impulses, in my opinion. But even then, she is at least a candidate. I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did. I apologize for my hasty actions and words. Null Division’s ultimatum has me on edge. We can’t afford to give into his demands Dan, you get that don’t you?”

“I understand, but you can’t chase away our only hope at a functioning tank. You know what I went through over the last week. We don’t have access to a global talent pool, we have access to the players that show up in my tutorial zone. She is by far the best one -- possibly a gift if you’d spend more than five seconds assessing her.”

Dan’s face loses a bit of its tension. That will have to do for now. There is only so much apologizing I am comfortable with. Once. I am comfortable with apologizing once. I see notifications in the corner of my vision but wait to inspect them.

“I know, I know, let’s not repeat the last hour. What can be done to remedy this situation, Dan?” I ask.

The silence in the room feels heavy as I wait for Dan’s response. At this time of day, when the light leaves Incrementum and most of the villagers are done with their work, Dan and I should be struggling to hear each other over the laughter and boasting. Yesterday, Von and Jorg tried settling a long-running dispute over who could throw an axe better by throwing axes the length of the Saloon, splitting potatoes pinned to the wall by Doc and Carl Calderson -- ignoring the boos and catcalls coming from their lumberjack wives. I expected coins to change hands as the rest of the town’s men and women looked on, but I realized we didn’t have a currency. It’s on the list to remedy that situation, but it will have to wait for the current emergency.  

Dan says, “We need to start with you, Francine. Did you eat today? When did you sleep last?”

I look down again at my folded hands in my lap. I hadn’t expected Dan to question me. I can’t remember the last time I ate. Eating doesn’t seem important. There are things to do. Dan continues, taking my silence for confirmation of his fears.

“Just because your body is in a VR pod doesn’t mean you can work all day and night!” His raised voice surprises me. He has never raised his voice to me.

“You’ve done so much for me. Stop, no interruptions, “ he says as I open my mouth to cut off this unnecessarily emotional conversation. “I love you. I’m doing everything I can to make your plan come to fruition, to make James’s dream come true, but I can’t do it if you slide back to that dark place. I’m hurting, we’re all hurting, but we have to keep taking care of ourselves. You have to take care of yourself. This town is you, Francine, it all disappears if you break down. The villagers do not exist without you, think about that.”

I can’t see the newborn table or my folded hands through my eyelids. I feel the hot tears sliding down my face and dripping off my chin and imagine the table absorbing my liquid pain like the roots of its mother tree. I refuse to make any noise forcing the squalling newborn sounds down into the bottom of my stomach. I’m so sick of crying. Damn Dan for bringing it all up again. I feel his hands grab mine off my face, pulling them onto the table between us. I look up through the swirls of liquid and think I make out wetness on Dan’s cheeks too.

“It’s ok, Francine. It is going to keep hurting. We’ll make it through.” He smiles and says “, Do you remember last year, when James sent me to pick up his suit for the New Year’s Galla at Sak’s? What he didn’t say was that he paid for me to get fitted for a half dozen suits and as many pairs of shoes as I wanted. That was my nirvana. There are very few times in life where I have ever been that happy. Six hours with a personal stylist and an unlimited budget, divine.” Dan stops momentarily, re-living his little slice of perfection.

Dan continues. “James told me afterward, sitting in a hospital bed, wearing that horrific hospital gown, after going through who knows how many tests and procedures, he said, ‘Dan, you’re a damn peacock.’” We both laugh through our tears before Dan keeps speaking, mimicking my James’s gruff voice.

“‘But you’re our peacock. I’m not going to be here soon. It’s just the way it is. I need you to look out for Francine. You know how she gets.’” Dan smiles at me. Yes, we both know how I get.

He says, still in James’s voice, “‘Even if she tries to fire you, you stick with her. There’s a checking account I’ve set up for you just in case, you know where I keep my account information, this one’s labeled Dan’s retainer -- and that credit line at Sak’s will be good as long as you’re alive. I need you to stick to her Dan, can you do that for me?”

I can taste the salt as my lips crack open in a smile. I say “, That’s how you’ve been wearing a new suit every day since his passing. I’ve been grieving Dan but I’m not blind.”

I take a deep breath. Another.

“Thank you, Dan. I’m not pleasant. I know that. It’s your turn to stop.” I stare him down and he closes his mouth, thinking better of interrupting me with useless reassurances.  “I’m not good with people, I never have been. James was. It worked. That’s why I asked you to recruit people. I would fail at that task. It took me a long time to accept it, but I’m bad at managing people. I disagreed with so many of James’s decision and he was almost always right. Remember when he fired our top sales director? What was his name...Gregory, Gregory Perth. James fired him for some minor ethical breach, a misappropriation of petty cash of some inconsequential amount...thirteen hundred and seven dollars and fifty-three cents. I didn’t speak to James for three months after that. We missed an earnings projection mostly because of that decision. Three fiscal quarters later, the man James promoted to take Gregory’s place, Jamal Roth, doubled Gregory’s sales numbers. Two months after that, Gregory was in jail, bending the rules at his next company.” I look down at my hands and sigh.

“James knew people. He knew Jamal could do it, especially after we put faith in him, and he knew poor ethics in one place meant poor ethics in other places. I don’t have those instincts. People don’t love me like they did James. They may come to respect or trust me with time, but they won’t be persuaded by my words. They would not have, perhaps Speak to Them will keep progressing and change all that...” I realize I’m staring off into the distance and shake my head.

“I digress. Thank you for respecting James’s wishes. Thank you for helping me. And I’m sorry, again. That is now twice the amount I have ever thanked or apologized to anyone. You should feel honored.” Dan laughs, understanding my dry humor.

“I will step out of this pod, sleep and eat after we are done speaking. But before I can do so, I need to know the plan. What can we do to fix this?”

“I’m already working on it. I let Doc know what happened before we came in here. He went after Samantha with Leonard. Hopefully, he can convince her to come back, or at least group up with her. If not, I’ll meet up with him, and we’ll trail her together. I also sent you an e-mail with details on something we can do back home. Are you capable of apologizing to her?”

Time to eat some humble pie, as my mom would have said. “Yes, I can do that. Get to it Dan, retrieve our tank, do what you have to do. I’ll keep building Athens.” I hold up my hand as Dan moves to interrupt me. “After sleeping and eating.”

Dan’s eyes seem to go out of focus. “Hey, check this out,” he says.

Retrieve Your Wayward Ally

Samantha has fled Athens. Lady Francine The Sharp bids you to locate and persuade her to return to the city.

10,000 Experience

+1 Charisma

I close my eyes before saying, “Our ray of light. I suspected I could issue players quests as a Homesteader, confirmation is quite welcome. Do you know how important this is Dan?”

“Yes. This should be massive for improving players we choose to help. It also seems the nature of the task can influence the reward. I’ll need all of my considerable natural charisma to make up for your tantrum, seems fair I should get even more Charisma as a reward.”

I narrow my eyes at Dan. “It wasn’t a tantrum. It was a calculated display of displeasure. Let me try another.”

I think about Dan, and Mary and her safe return.

“Ha, it worked!” Dan says, before he sends a prompt for my inspection.

Rescue Mary Jorgdaughter

Lady Francine the Sharp’s cowardice and selfish desires forfeited Mary Jorgdaughter to Decrepit’s pawn, Null Division. Secure her safe return.

15,000 experience

Jorgdaughter Family Skill

I understand why the game doesn’t let me define quests for other players exactly as I wish -- players like myself would abuse it -- but I don’t understand why the AIs that generate these quest descriptions are so harsh.

“Very funny. Get out of here Dan, go get our candidate.”


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