Fractal Myth

dUTy bound or UNREALly yours.

[Michelle Chapman ©2001]

Diana entered the lounge room just in time to see her fiancé Charlie's feet vanishing into an electric blue vortex on his computer screen. She dived into the monitor after him without stopping to think. During the whirling, swirling minutes that followed, however, there was plenty of time for reflection.

She and Charlie had been engaged for eighteen months, and both were eagerly looking forward to their forthcoming wedding, and even more eagerly anticipating their romantic honeymoon. Then, six months ago, Charlie had developed an obsessive interest in a computer game. 'Unreal', it was called, but there were times Charlie seemed much more involved in Unreal than he was in the real world. He certainly seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time there. Not that he neglected her, or that there had been any change in their relationship. On the contrary, they were as much in love as ever. They had always tolerated each other's interests, and there were times when she could get rather obsessive herself. Just look at all the weeks she had spent hand-sewing the perfect wedding dress for herself. Charlie hadn't complained once, even when he trod on that pin she'd accidentally dropped. It was the least she could do, to try and take an interest in his new enthusiasm, especially when he'd been so nice about hers.

Things had continued as usual, with Charlie spending up to sixteen hours a day playing Unreal Tournament or interacting with the online Unreal community. He met many new people on message boards and in chat rooms, and at the end of his day, he would relax with Diana and tell her all the new things he had discovered about the game. These included the problems other people were having with their computers, ongoing complaints about servers and service providers, descriptions of fantastic and inspirational maps he had downloaded, hints and tips for using the mapping editor ... the list was endless. Almost despite herself, Diana found that she was developing a wide-ranging knowledge of Unreal, without ever having played the game.

Then, early this morning Charlie had called her at work, bubbling over with excitement about a new web-site that someone in a chat room had directed him to. Apparently, a group of die-hard Unreal fans had discovered a way to enter the Unreal Tournament for real. This was exactly what Charlie had been waiting for - a chance to use his knowledge and skill with computers on the absolute cutting edge of new technology. A chance to push the frustrating tools with which he worked further towards the impossible. Charlie had always wanted to achieve the impossible. That's how he had won Diana. He had walked up to her in a crowded bar where she was surrounded by friends, and had said, "I know that it is absolutely impossible for a beautiful lady like you to be seriously interested in a computer geek like me, but I thought I would give it a go anyway. What d'ya reckon?". To the utter dismay and amazement of her trendy friends, Diana had looked deep into his brown eyes, and melted into his arms. Charlie was like that. Once he had decided to do something, telling him it couldn't be done only made him more determined.

As a result, Diana had been very careful not to suggest that Charlie was crazy for even contemplating claims made by what sounded like a very fishy web-site. Instead, she had begged him not to do anything drastic before she got there, and, leaving a note that said she had gone home feeling sick, she had grabbed her car keys and raced home faster than she had ever driven before. It wasn't that she didn't trust Charlie to do the right thing, it was just that his habit of chasing after extremes sometimes led him into situations that she preferred he not face alone. The day he had asked her to marry him, she had been delighted to say YES immediately, knowing that the promise she had sensed in him on that first night had stood firm through all the trials she had put him to. He was sympathetic and caring when she was sad, shared gleefully in her cheerful moods, and was always ready with a new idea when she was bored. The last thing she was going to do now was let him go into a potentially dangerous situation without her.

Thus Diana found herself falling endlessly like Alice into Wonderland, surrounded on all sides by a whirling swirl of glittering clouds coloured every possible shade of blue (though she was somehow sure there were a couple of impossible shades in the mix as well). Her journey ended with a sudden jolt, and she found herself standing in a dark, deserted alleyway in an alien but strangely familiar city. There was no sign of Charlie, so she picked her way around the debris towards the light at the end of the alley. Concentrating on her feet, she didn't notice the two shadowy shapes that were watching her until she almost tripped over the smallest one.

"Watch where you're going! You won't get far in the Tournament with reflexes like that!"

The figure that spoke was a quadruped about the size of a large dog, made slightly larger by the backpack of armaments he carried. Diana looked at him twice and rubbed her eyes.

"But ... but ..." she stuttered, "you're a War Cow!"

"What else did you expect to find wandering around in Unreal?" the second figure asked, stepping out from the shadows and revealing a tall, thin torso, with four arms, walking on two legs like a human. Diana gasped.

"A Nali!"

"In the flesh!" the Nali replied with a smile. "I am Vigil. This is Kajan. Grand Champions of proven skill and valour, at your service, my lady. Come. We had better walk as we talk. It is not safe to hang around the alleys of a mining town for too long. Your friend obviously knew that. He headed straight for the Unreal Tournament Stadium."

"Can you take me there?" Diana asked. "Wherever he goes, I go."

"It's like that is it?" Kajan growled. "It's a good thing for you that we found you. Without us the pair of you loons would be trapped in this city forever. You humans are mad - leaping through your computer screen at the slightest excuse, and never thinking of the consequences."

"I entirely agree with you," Diana said. "Believe me, I am not here for my own amusement." Her vehemence startled the unlikely pair who walked beside her.

"What's your problem?" Kajan grunted, skipping nimbly round a puddle of ooze that lay in his path.

"No offence," Diana replied, "It's just that I personally have never been able to see the appeal of running around a map trying to shoot people. I must admit I am more of a 'Creatures' fan myself. You know - hatching little baby creatures from eggs and teaching them how to survive and communicate. Now there's a game with real purpose! If someone found me a way to enter their world, then I'd be really interested. As it is, my fiancé Charlie is the Unreal fanatic, and although I'm perfectly willing to let him have his fun, I'm here to make sure that ... Hey! ... What did you mean when you said 'trapped in this city forever'? According to the web-site Charlie found you can just enter, play a game, and leave, no matter who you are or where you came from."

"Well," Vigil answered slowly, twiddling all four of his thumbs as he walked, "It's not quite that simple. You see when the Mining Corporation started Unreal Tournament in this city, there were lots of contenders waiting to fight all the time, then one by one they became injured, dead, or otherwise lost interest. As a result, the Corporation rewrote the rules and began drafting 'bots' from the indigenous populations. Once you have been drafted, you join the 'bot' pool, and every time someone from the real world logs on to play in the Tournament, one of us becomes his or her Unreal body. We surrender control over our bodies to the user, who then controls us in the game through their mouse and keyboard, or whatever they're using. Once you have played under human control and won, you are allowed to choose which human will control you, and every time they come online for a game, you have to be ready to play for them. Then, if you continue winning (having made a good choice of human) you earn the right to fight in the tournament on your own, without a controlling user. If you are good enough, you fight your way right through the tournament and out the other side to become Grand Champion. Then you are allowed to join any game, whenever you want, however you want. Kajan and I have almost total freedom in the Tournament, having proved our skills many times over. That is only the situation for indigenous inhabitants of Unreal. You humans are a different case. You see, not all of those drafted are as successful as Kajan and me. Many of the Skaj and other warrior classes are very skilled fighters in their own right, and they get terribly frustrated when their human user does something stupid or careless so they lose a battle they think they should have won. They then refuse to obey orders properly, and the whole game starts going chaotic. In order to defuse this tension, the Tournament committee decided to open the competition to 'real' players, under certain conditions which they were not to be told about, until after their first fight, when it would probably be too late. Now, listen carefully, so that you at least know what you are up against.

First, you have to register. Your Charlie is probably doing that right now. Once you have registered, you choose your game, and you play in that game under your own control. If you win, everything is fine, and you return to the registration area, where you can choose either to leave, or to play again. If you lose any game, however, the penalty requires you to play as a 'bot', surrendering control of your body to a human player in the outside world. You have to stay as a 'bot' until your human wins. Then, like the rest of us, you get to choose your human and, hopefully, continue winning. Every time you lose, you start again as a controlled 'bot', with no choice about who controls you. And then there's the final catch. If any human enters the Unreal Tournament as a competitor, and either fails to win, or wins and chooses to play again, they have exactly twelve hours to qualify to leave, counting from the time of their entrance. After twelve hours your real bodies begin to adapt to the Unreal environment, and you lose your ability to return home. Within the Tournament, everything functions exactly as it seems to when you're playing Unreal in the real world. You cannot actually be killed while in the arena, because every time you are shot, you simply respawn. However, if you do stay here longer than twelve hours, the consequences are permanent. You will feel as though your life is continuing, but you will never return to the life you used to know. Once you become Unreal, you can have no further existence in the real world."

"If they have gone to so much trouble to trap us here, why are you telling me all this?" Diana wondered. Vigil smiled gently, and floated cross-legged in the air like the four-armed meditating alien that he was. "I mean," Diana continued, "won't you get into trouble for helping me?"

Kajan laughed as only an Unreal War Cow could. "Trouble? Bring it on. Be nice to have a bit of excitement for a change. Once you've made Grand Champion, and been given the freedom of the city, there's really not that much to do. Besides, Vigil and I don't agree with you humans coming in here. You should stay in the real world where users like you belong."

"Fine." Diana snapped. "It's obvious you resent my being here, so why don't we just work on finding Charlie and getting the two of us out of here before the twelve hours are up? I want to get out of here just as much as you want to get rid of me."

"Now, please don't get upset," Vigil soothed, laying one arm gently across her shoulders. She was slightly surprised to find how warm his skin was. "It's not that we don't want you here. It's just that we're worried about you. We fought long and hard to get that web-site your fiancé found taken down, but there was nothing we could do against a Corporate decision. Therefore we decided, with a group of other concerned Grand Champions, that we would form a team who would monitor all the human entrants to our world, and help them, as much as we can, to return to the world that is their home."

"I am very grateful," Diana said. "Please don't think that I'm not. It's just that I'm scared. I've always been a total failure at this sort of thing in the real world, and I somehow don't think that's suddenly changed."

"That's where we come in." Kajan seemed a little more friendly to her now. "Follow me."

They had been walking for several minutes and had passed from a dark and dirty network of alleys onto a broad thoroughfare, lined on each side by towering buildings, and lit by flashing neon signs everywhere. Diana stumbled, for the sickly glare of the coloured lights only made the shadows darker. Vigil supported her with a spare arm under her elbow. An air car whizzed over their heads, leaving a puffy white trail of smoke behind it. Suddenly Kajan ducked inside one of the buildings, with Vigil and Diana close behind him.

"The first thing we need to do is get you a new skin." Kajan announced. "Charlie doesn't know you followed him does he?" Diana shook her head. "And he does know that you're not exactly perfect Unreal material?" She blushed and nodded. "Then we are going to have to disguise you so you don't distract him. We'd have to anyway, because no one plays in their own skin these days except lunatics like Vigil and me." He chuckled to himself, then stopped suddenly and looked at her. "That's a point. I hope you're going to be able to recognise this hero of yours once he's suited up for the Tournament."

"That's easy," Diana said. "He calls himself Malachite, and he wears a default skin, because he got sick of trying out a nice new outfit only to find that the servers he was playing on didn't support that mod, and no one could see what he was talking about. He prefers to guarantee that he looks the same wherever he goes, so these days he always plays with a Necris skin and a Malakai face."

"What about you? What sort of skin do you want?" Vigil asked, showing her into a large room, hung from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling with Unreal skins. Diana shuddered. They looked a bit too much like uninhabited bodies for her taste.

"I think I'd better let the experts advise me, in this case," she replied. "Maybe something with lots of armour?"

"Too heavy," Kajan grunted. "You wouldn't be able to move fast enough. Here, try this on."

The skin he handed her was gorgeous, but it looked like it had been designed with an orgy in mind, rather than a battle!

"I can't show myself to Charlie looking like this. He'll fall in love with the skin and want to stay here." Diana giggled, and Kajan snorted dismissively.

"Put it on. He's seen it thousands of times before and he'll probably think you're some fat, pimply kid whose only physical exercise involves dodging the bullets coming at him through the screen when he gets really involved in the game."

"Gee, thanks. You're all heart." Diana went behind a curtain and shrugged into the skin. When she emerged even Kajan whistled under his breath. The skin subtly augmented her natural shape in a way that would have made a human male's eyes pop.

"Perhaps you're right," Vigil murmured. "No one is going to be able to concentrate on the game if you're wearing that!" He flipped quickly through a few more racks of costumes. "How about this? Or this?" As he spoke, he tossed the relevant skins at her feet. One by one she tried them on, until finally she found one that provided the perfect mix of sex appeal and bullet protection. From the moment she put it on, Diana noticed her confidence increase. She was beginning to feel like an Amazon armed for war. There was no way Charlie would be able to recognise her. She could hardly recognise herself!

"Now it is time for us to work out a plan, and this is as good a place as any." Vigil sounded very businesslike, but Diana couldn't suppress the nagging worry at the back of her mind any longer.

"Look," she asked, "aren't we wasting too much time? What happens if Charlie is in a game and losing, right now? Shouldn't we be there?"

"Calm down, and have some faith in us. You are going to have to trust us implicitly if this is to work. First of all, there is no need to worry. Initial registration of a human player can take a very long time. Right now, he's probably standing in a crowded room full of 'bots', and the occasional free player of whichever race, staring up at screen after screen of Tournament information and challenges, trying to make sense of the selection process so he can choose which game he wants to play. Then he's got to start filling in the enrolment forms, and there's a pile of those to get through, especially if you try to read the fine print. Besides that, Kajan's cousin Janak is also a member of our group, and he is watching Charlie as we speak. If Charlie makes any unexpected moves, we will know immediately." Vigil's voice betrayed a strange mixture of impatience and reassurance, but when he began to set out the strategy they were to follow, all evidence of short temper disappeared from his tone, and he delivered his lecture with the cool, calm efficiency of a highly trained soldier. "As Grand Champions, Kajan and I have certain advantages, which we can use to assist you. For example, we are able to bypass the enrolment procedure on your behalf, which is why we are not so worried about time. Also, we can arrange for you to have some artificial assistance. Since you are not a very good Unreal player in your own right, we are going to contact one of our agents in the real world, and we are going to ask you to surrender control over your movement in the game to her. This is quite a risk for you, but I can see no other way out. We must ensure that Charlie chooses to play a team game - Capture the Flag would probably be best, and then we must provide him with the best team possible. Luckily, we can limit the size of the teams to four, but then we have to convince him that he should join on our side. It shouldn't be too hard, because he has played on Topaz's team before and done well. Topaz is the Unreal name of the human girl we have asked to help us. She is one of the few humans who has come here and physically entered the Unreal Tournament, and won her first game, and chose to leave immediately after. As she is one of the few survivors of the real Unreal Tournament, she has a unique appreciation of the dangers you are facing, and has actually volunteered, like Kajan and me, to help those humans who come here without the skills they will need if they are to survive."

"Thank you, Topaz." Diana said, looking up to the bleak grey sky above her. "I certainly don't want to spend eternity here. Now that you mention it, though, I do remember Charlie mentioning a player named Topaz who seemed to have severe problems with her Internet connections, but who nevertheless managed to be practically unbeatable. He thought she was using some sort of aim-bot or something, but she confused him because she would continue to win even on servers that didn't allow such cheats."

"Yes, Topaz is quite amazing, but it seems to be natural ability, because she did just as well when she played in the Tournament here. She chose a DeathMatch, and obliterated all her opposition without getting fragged more than once herself. It was a new record. I can't think of anyone else that I would rather have controlling my body, if I had to have a human user. Anyway, if all that is settled, we'd better get moving. According to Janak, Charlie is getting ready to make his choice. Janak is going to go up and talk to him about this brilliant team that needs a fourth. You and Kajan must go and make the arrangements for you to surrender control to Topaz, and I have to go and organise the game. The next time we all meet, it will be just before we enter the arena. Good luck." Before Diana had a chance to wonder how Vigil had received the warning from Janak, he turned and was gone. She was about to ask Kajan, but he, too, seemed to be suddenly in a terrific hurry, butting his head against the back of her knees to get her moving.

"What on earth am I doing here?" she wondered to herself. Stranded in a computer game with a War Cow for an escort, about to surrender control over her body to a girl she had never met, so that she could go out and try to shoot other people she had never met, all in the name of entertainment. It was all simply, and ironically, Unreal. Surely no man could be worth this much effort. The moment she thought the words, an image of Charlie's face overflowed her heart and filled her mind. Of course - Charlie was no ordinary man. He was her man, and whatever it took to bring him home safely, she was determined to do.

Lost in her own thoughts, Diana didn't notice when Kajan stopped in front of her, and she almost tripped over him as gracelessly as she had done at their first meeting.

"Will you knock that off?" he grumbled. "If you break my weaponry, you may as well quit now, because you won't have a chance without me."

By this stage Diana was getting a little tired of the small, sturdy creature's criticism.

"Oh yeah?" she asked. "What makes you so special?"

The War Cow turned and studied her for a moment.

"Oh well," he said, in a resigned voice. "I don't like to talk about it, but I suppose since we are going to fight on the same team, it's better that you do know, so you don't get distracted. Of course, Topaz will be controlling your movements, but if you start asserting your own will and turning to watch something there is nothing she can do, and you will be slaughtered, probably several times in a row, each time you respawn. In the worst case scenario, we will lose the game, which will mean you and Charlie will be stuck here forever, and Vigil and I will have to start again working our way back up the ladder to become Grand Champion from scratch."

"But you still haven't told me why I might be distracted by you." Diana reminded him.

"I go berserk." he said, and stopped as if no further explanation was necessary.

"Say what?" Diana certainly hadn't a clue what he was talking about.

"It's very rare. Haven't you ever heard stories about ancient human warriors who turned into a bear or a wolf or some other fierce and dangerous beast, whenever their lives were threatened, or the bloodlust came upon them? I'm the same thing. In the arena, when things become hectic and the bullets start flying, something happens to me. I am overcome by this overwhelming red rage, and I become unstoppable. Those who have seen me say that I turn into a glowing gold human, armed to the teeth, but I'm not sure I believe them. Either way, it seems to work pretty effectively, so long as the people on my team are expecting it, and don't freeze from shock, leaving me to do all the work. Satisfied now?"

"Wow! Sounds like a useful skill to have!"

"A human would say that! Personally I'd be happier if I could just stay a plain, ordinary War Cow, able to win on my own merits, without frightening the opposition to death before I even get the chance to fire at them. It's just not sporting. But then, what can I do? I'm stuck with this condition, so I decided to at least use it to help others as much as I could. None of the other War Cows will talk to me except Janak, and he has mutations of his own to worry about. In Janak's case he's telepathic, which can be very useful when it comes to private communication over distances." Diana suddenly felt sorry for the tough but lonely little Cow, and bent down to pat his head. "Back off, sister," he rumbled. "I'm not a pet, and if you want me to keep helping you, you'd better not treat me like one. You've wasted enough time chatting. Come in here and prepare to surrender control to Topaz."

"This surrender of control is reversible, isn't it?" Diana asked nervously.

"It is if we win," Kajan replied, "which we will." His confidence made her feel better, as she allowed herself to be nudged into a glowing green chamber, and following Kajan's instructions, lowered a huge dome-shaped helmet over her eyes.

Seconds later the helmet automatically rose and Diana opened her eyes.

"Oh," she exclaimed in disappointment. "It didn't work. I'm still me." Kajan looked at her closely.

"Are you sure?" he asked. "She is not in control yet. She won't take control until you enter the arena, but she is there. You should be able to feel her, if you search around a bit." Diana gingerly explored the corners of her mind, feeling for anything that was different, something that hadn't been there before. When she found it, it was a shock.

"Hallo Diana", said the voice in her head. Topaz's voice, she supposed. "Of course it's Topaz," the voice replied. "How many other people have you invited inside your head lately? Most people who play in Unreal as a 'bot' never get to talk to their users, but you are something of a special case, and Vigil thought it would reassure you, if you got to meet me in advance. Have you any questions?" Diana's head was pounding with doubts and queries, but she realised Topaz probably already knew this, so she forced herself to focus on the question that was uppermost on the pile, threatening to eclipse all others with the weight of apprehension it carried.

"Do you really think we can do this? You are a human, right - not another of these computer generated characters? No offence meant" she added, looking at Kajan.

"None taken." he replied.

"Yes to both your questions." said Topaz. "I am as human as you and Charlie, and I'm actually typing this on a keyboard as we speak, and yes, with Vigil and Kajan on our side, I think we can win. Besides, your Charlie's very good in his own right. Even without us on his side he has a fair chance of winning his first match, but when the stakes are so high, there's no harm in helping him out a bit. And as for you - well, if you are going to enter the arena regardless of your inexperience, then you need the sort of protection that I can provide. Don't worry. We'll get you both home safely before the twelve hours are up."

"I wish I believed that too," Diana's voice wavered. "But then, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let's get on with this. The waiting is making me nervous."

"Fine." Kajan set off again through the streets towards the Unreal Tournament Stadium, and Diana followed him, mentally poking at the new presence in her head as though she were exploring a loose tooth with her tongue. It felt somehow comfortable to have Topaz riding along with her, and it was reassuring to know that she was not going to have to rely on her own meagre fighting skills.

Before she knew it, Diana found herself staring up at the high, imposing walls of the huge Stadium. Inscribed over the door through which they entered were the words:

"For those willing to stake their lives
In the pursuit of VICTORY ...
We Salute You."

Diana swallowed her fear, and walked boldly through the opening in the wall as though she did it every day. 'If we don't win, I will have to do this every day,' was the sobering thought that filled her mind.

"Just relax," Topaz murmured. "It's time for me to take over. We have to find Charlie and convince him to join us now, and you still act too much like you, even in the new skin. If you talk to him, he will recognise you instantly." Diana obediently tried to relax her hold on her personality. There was an almost imperceptible shift, and she suddenly found herself occupying the role of passenger in her own body. "Careful," Topaz warned her, as she tested the limits of her new confines. "Remember, you still have the potential to take back control, but your will isn't as strong as the chemicals which allowed my presence to be introduced into your skull. If we start fighting for dominance between us, neither of us will win. Both our minds will be lost, and your body will become just another 'bot' waiting to be used, while mine will stare vacantly at the monitor in front of it until the men in clean white coats come to carry me away. I'm sure you agree with me that it is vitally important for you to remain passive until we are out of danger, and I can return control to you properly."

"Of course." Diana had never been a very passive person, despite her preference for peaceful occupations. At first it took all her willpower to remain quiet, and not try to turn her head around looking for Charlie, but rather to wait and watch, as though she had the perfect hiding place in a life-threatening game of hide-and-seek where her survival depended on her not revealing her presence to anyone. Then, as Topaz's control grew stronger, Diana began to enjoy the luxury of her new perspective, intimately involved in the action, but unable to act herself - the ultimate spectator. She had watched so many games of Unreal Tournament played from the outside, she found herself unexpectedly looking forward to watching one played from inside, despite the heavy consequences which would result if they lost.

Suddenly Vigil appeared out of the crowd.

"I've found Charlie, and he's almost agreed to join us, but he wants to see the rest of our team first."

"No problem. We're all here." said Kajan. Vigil looked quizzically at Diana.

"Yes. It's Topaz." It felt even more strange to Diana to hear someone else's voice coming out of her mouth, but she was firmly locked into passenger mode by now, and she was quickly getting used to it. Then she saw Charlie, and almost lost control in her desire to wrap her arms around him. "Easy now," Topaz muttered inside her head. "Remember, to him your body is a computer generated character, being controlled by me from my computer desk. He's not interested in us at all. He's much more curious about Kajan, because Vigil has told him about Kajan's berserker skills." Diana suppressed her emotions, and forced herself to sit back and listen to the conversation, as though she were reading over Charlie's shoulder while he was typing in a chat room.

It didn't take Charlie long to agree to join them for a game of Capture the Flag, especially once Vigil had dropped the names of a couple of Charlie's favourite maps, including one he had designed himself, and which was being featured on a server for the first time. Diana wondered vaguely how Vigil had managed it. Charlie had been trying to get that map on a server for months. Now they were bound to win. The only problem was, what if he liked the map so much that he wanted to keep playing it, and decided not to come back? She didn't think she could bear that after all she'd been through, but there was no time to worry about it right now. The number of their team was being called. Everyone wished each other luck, then moved off to their assigned starting places. With Topaz in control, there was nothing for Diana to do but watch. Her only problem was that she had never before found it so hard to resist the urge to cross her fingers.

"Good luck", she said to Topaz, as they waited for the 'ker-chunk' sound that would signal their entry to the game.

"Please stop worrying." Topaz replied. "This is going to be fun! You'll see."

'Ker-chunk-clink'. They had spawned, and the game had begun. For several seconds Topaz (and Diana) ran through empty corridors, collecting weapons and ammunition, without seeing anyone else from either team. Then Vigil ran past them, carrying the opposition team's flag, with two of the opposition team in close pursuit. Topaz immediately spun into action, wiping out the players on Vigil's tail with a quick volley from her Minigun. At the same time, Charlie appeared and took out a third opposition player, hitherto unnoticed by Topaz. He then leapt in front of Vigil and ran forward, filling the tunnel between them and their home base with ricocheting blades from the Ripper, while Topaz continued running backwards, carefully watching the path behind them for any sign of the enemy. Just as they were about to enter the room where Kajan was defending their own flag, they received the message that he had been killed, and their flag stolen. Topaz remained as Vigil's backup, while Charlie sped off to reclaim their flag. Diana was exhilarated. She had never moved so fast before in her life. Everything kept turning into a bewildering blur with bullets flying around on every side. She was rather glad she didn't have to rely on her own reactions, because she hardly even had time to notice someone move near her before Topaz had fired and blown the other away. At times the four of them seemed to cluster together and work as a team. At others, they scattered to different ends of the map, running fast and furiously from base to base through the intricate network of tunnels that Charlie had designed.

They played six games, with each game lasting for around twenty minutes, and the flag being captured roughly eight times per game. The players had a short break while each new map loaded, and a few seconds rest every time they were killed, while they were waiting to respawn, but otherwise they played continuously for more than three hours. They didn't win every game, and they didn't always have the highest frag rate, because the advantages they gained from their perfect connection speed were offset by the greater physical fatigue that came from being really present in the Unreal world. They did maintain a respectable average, however, and when Kajan went berserk in the fourth game and transformed from a skilled War Cow into a super-skilled humanoid in glowing gold armour, their team's success was assured.

The only hitch came in the last ten minutes of the final game. Without warning, in the middle of a particularly ferocious battle, Topaz's computer stalled, severing the connection between her and Diana, who was suddenly left in complete control of her own body. Within seconds she had been killed, but she had been playing under Topaz's control for nearly three hours, and she had learnt several new tricks in that time. There was no way she could tell Vigil or Kajan what had happened without also letting Charlie know who she was, so she would just have to do her best to help out until the game finished. She was not used to concentrating so intensely for so long, and she felt the grey, woolly clouds of exhaustion eating into her muscles, slowing down her every move.

As soon as she respawned, Diana made her way directly to the sniper rifle, making sure she picked up as much ammunition as she could. In the distance she could hear the raging firefight that had killed her, still continuing in the opposition team's base. Moving cautiously, she crept along the deserted tunnels to her own team's base. It, too, was deserted, and she was able to take up the safest, most useful position she could think of, camped just behind her flag with a clear shot at anyone coming through the door. Here she spent the longest ten minutes of her life, desperately straining to keep her attention on the door, with only a split second every time it opened to decide whether the figure entering was friend or foe. Despite her inexperience she acquitted herself quite respectably, managing to kill almost as many times as she herself was killed. She even began to enjoy the challenge, realising the level of skill required to compete successfully was much higher than she had previously assumed. She still didn't want to spend the rest of her life playing shoot-em-up, but she had a much clearer understanding of Unreal's appeal. She just hoped that Charlie still remembered that their own life was really good, too.

Just then he came flying into the base with the flag, rocket-jumping over an enemy player in the process. He delivered the flag with a flourish and as the game ended, he danced around the room in a triumphant jig. There was no doubt that Charlie's team had won, and he had fulfilled the Mining Company's requirements. In the darkness before the next map was loaded, a booming voice rang out.

"You have a choice," it announced. "Do you wish to continue playing, or do you wish to return to your previous, boring existence?" Diana bit her lip as she waited for his answer. He hesitated, and she dug her fingernails into her palm, determined not to influence his decision in any way. If he was going to come back to her, it had to be of his own free will.

"It's sure been a lot of fun," he began, and Diana involuntarily closed her eyes, "but ..." She opened them again, and found that he was looking directly at her, as he finished his sentence. "... there's someone who loves me, and that's even more fun. Besides, it's time I took her home." He winked directly at Diana, who went white and then blushed, despite the artificial skin she wore.

"How ... how did you know?" she asked in bewilderment.

"Easy." he replied. "I love you." As he put his arms around her, the world began to shimmer and turn every glittering shade of blue. Then everything around them began to swirl, and she only had time to wave a quick and grateful goodbye to Vigil and Kajan before the vortex that had brought them into Unreal swept them up and whirled them back through Charlie's computer monitor, and into their own lounge room.

Looking back at the screen, Diana saw that the vortex had vanished, and in its place was a message from Topaz in the form of a short poem. It took a moment for Diana's eyes to focus, and then she burst into laughter.

"If life were Unreal
Then you'd quickly discover
That a Nali or Skaj
Doesn't make a good lover!"

Charlie turned to see what had amused Diana so much, and quickly read the words that were fading from his monitor. "Ain't that the truth?" he chuckled, taking Diana in his arms. But then he looked down at her quizzically. "Does this mean you'll finally play Unreal with me across our LAN?" Diana hit him with the first cushion that came to hand, but she couldn't help admitting to herself that, despite everything, it had all been a lot of fun. If she was truly honest with herself, it was an experience she wouldn't mind repeating, especially with Charlie on her team!

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5  License God bless! God bless!