“Anarchy” Chapter 11 – Every Frame Counts

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M-80’s vague philosophical agenda was doing nothing to console my salty nerves.  Sure, he’d beaten me fair and square, but the added course of arbitrary advice sort of ruined the entrée.  Still, there was nothing I could do about it, so I holstered my controller and bowed out of the tournament, having officially been axed.

But I had no interest in leaving.  No, there were still teammates to support and opponents to study.  Plus a shallow side of my human heart really anticipated M-80 getting his butt rolled by the next opponent.

Perry was in the midst of taking Skullfoot’s final stock and what I believed was his second set of the match.  I observed as his opponent shuffled Lynx around the stage, applying a lot of pressure, but in the wrong ways, leaving too many opportunities for Perry to avoid with Lady Thrice and make distance between the characters.

I moved away from Perry to assess the others.  Jordan was locked in mortal combat with Miikii, but seemed to have an upper-hand.  Honestly, it could still be anybody’s game.  I made a quick mental note that Jordan was using Brave again, suggesting that even among his top seven, Brave was one of the favored.  Davis ‘Merc’ was putting the final nail in Yugi-ah!’s coffin when I passed by, though that was also a close match.  I grimaced, feeling the weight of my defeat more intimately as my comrades continued to succeed where I had failed.

But in the larger scheme of the tournament, the match I wanted to see most was GG’s struggle against R3M1X.  I shuffled to their station and tried to flick the switch in my brain that allowed it to analytically record every minor detail of the fight.  I’d nearly taken out my phone to record the match, but it struck me as a gaudy thing to do.  I mean, nobody else was recording anything.  They were simply tracking it in their heads.

By the time I’d settled into a sublime state of focus, the set they’d been playing ended and GG was left to soak in defeat.  The Riotwing Vice-Captain steadily released air and drew it back in, opening his lungs, peeling the anxiety off his nerves.  Was that the last set?  Had GG lost?

R3M1X licked his lips and smiled with something I could only label as obnoxious self-satisfaction.  The man behind the tag was nothing remarkable, but nonetheless was immediately carved into the halls of my memory.  Five-o’clock shadow, lip stud, low-caliber gauges in each ear, some lighter strain of Aryan descent, and grey eyes with the menace of a wolf’s coat.  He was slouching forward, but I could still make out the words on his shirt when he braced his chair to twist and crack his back: Eat ‘em Alive.

He looked at me and promptly dismissed my existence.

“Okay, let’s go,” GG said, coals of resolve cooking beneath his voice, adding a subtle harmonic.  R3M1X turned back to the screen and idly rubbed his mouth.  He nodded.

My fists tethered into fine coils, strands of electricity jumping around my heart.  GG had claimed the first set!

I blinked.  So they were entering their tie-breaker.

Excitement, misery and anticipation flooded through my core, and I could only pity GG, who I’m sure had the same symptoms plaguing him ten-fold as he began that final set.

Right as the game started to load, the rest of the Riotwings siphoned into place, having completed their matches or, in the case of Comet, finished watching from the sidelines.

“Joel?” Perry said, looking back at the tournament roster projected onto the wall, “You lost?”

“Yeah,” I swallowed.

“M-80 must have been good,” Perry bit his lip.

R3M1X cast a moment’s glance at us, “Yeah,” he nodded, turning back to the screen, “He is pretty good.”

Both R3M1X and M-80 were in cahoots with the crew known as Hour of Helix.  They refined one another, made their independent cutting power stronger through sharpening each other’s edges.  I couldn’t argue with the effectiveness of having strong teammates to push you towards further growth, but that couldn’t have been the only reason they were so good.  There must have been something more.

Solar & Luna, GG’s character of choice, breathed onto the stage with a tide of perfect angel-light, dancing around, announcing their entrance: ‘Brother’ one said, ‘Sister’, reflected the other, and then together, ‘Let’s show ‘em what we’ve got!’  GG settled into the zone and I grinned, knowing I’d been forgotten for the time, a victim of superior focus.

As for R3M1X, he’d started some music for himself and placed in a pair of earbuds, shoving off the world around him.  He closed his eyes and rocked quietly as his character formed upon the stage.  His main of choice was a notoriously formidable one, a breakdancing monk named Tu’Vashi.

Tu’Vashi was the protagonist of one of RequiaTek’s most popular franchises, a side-scrolling platformer called Ravios Drive.  In Ravios Drive, the player was charged with ‘restoring all music to the world’, accomplished only by traversing various musically-inspired levels and defeating the ‘Genres’, boss-monsters with the ability to eat the essence of music.  Student of all music’s and a breakdancing extraordinaire, Tu’Vashi wields a wild fighting style and gloriously braided goatee in his efforts to save the world from those who’d otherwise try to burn away the soul of music.

I freaking loved that game.  Platformers have always had a home in my heart.  They practically owned the keys.

But who would win in Anarchy?  Both Solar & Luna (remember, these two are technically ‘one’ character, like Dax & Petre) and Tu’Vashi are some of the strongest characters in the game.  It wasn’t as if one player was using Arakid, who had been established as relatively inferior choices and thus more likely to lose.  No, both of these characters were good, and the hands behind the controllers were exemplary in skill.

The in-game countdown sounded and they were off.  Solar & Luna made first contact, but could not finish their combo before Tu’Vashi maneuvered into splits, which functioned as a kick in Anarchy, separating the twins.

GG’s expression was firm and unrelenting like a mask of tungsten metal, eyes thrashing across the television screen like a rodeo bull kicking up dirt.  R3M1X was much the same, a focus staining his features so strongly you’d swear the sheer force of it would somehow make him bleed if he held it long enough.

Their game was a marvel.  It was neck-and-neck the entire way, each of them trading stocks until only their final lives remained.  I knew in my heart of hearts that I could be as good at Anarchy as these two, given enough time, but watching their adeptness in its fullness, there were moments of doubt.

Solar & Luna: 14DD

Tu’Vashi: 18DD

Trace sweat had compromised GG’s temple, entrenched at the roots of his curly hair.  R3M1X was leaning so far forward I imagined he might assimilate straight into the TV screen.

Solar & Luna played off one another, throwing around their opponent, throttling him with a miasma of psychic powers, carving damage debt into his digital body…32…38…43…51.

Tu’Vashi swam, dunked, and played with his footwork in a stream of seamless fury.  Grapple Luna, jab her in the gut, throw the weight into Solar when he approached for the rescue and windmill kick them both to high heavens as the debt grew ever higher…39…42…50…60.

I found myself mindlessly pressing my teeth into one knuckle, stomach forming knots.

GG made an excellent play off one of the platforms, Solar trumping Tu’Vashi straight into a consecutive side-buster provided by Luna, launching the monk horizontally off the stage and into the borderlands.  He quickly made it back to the ledge, where GG went for the kill.  If he timed it perfectly, GG could attack at the tail end of R3M1X’s moment of invincibility which came with grabbing the ledge.

Solar fell and thrust out his arm like a spear, misty with telekinetic force.  But the attack passed through Tu’Vashi, who released the edge and back-aired the brother into oblivion.  If Luna had died, the match would continue without the twin, but Solar was the primary character and thus, with his destruction, Luna burst into colors as well, a signal flare of mutual defeat.

Winner! The screen lauded, Tu’Vashi spinning around the victory screen, hurling kicks with the ferocity of a tornado.  Tu’Vashi!

GG leaned back in his chair, golden hair pulled by gravity, eyes burning into the ceiling, “Dang.”

“Dang,” I parroted, spittle forming on my knuckle as I finally thought to be mindful of my hands.

“Aw,” Comet groaned, “You were so close, too!”  She scuffed at the floor with the heel of her boot.  I watched as her eyebrows tented and then furrowed, upset at GG’s demise and entry into the team of Riotwing losers.  That was half of our squad, now.  The only ones left were Perry, Davis, and Jordan.

Jordan exhaled, smiling.

GG’s eyes navigated to our captain and back to the ceiling, “Every frame counts,” he said, as if reciting an old pledge.

Jordan nodded, “Every frame counts.”

Anarchy was a game designed to run at sixty frames-per-second.  This meant at high-level competitive play, if you made even slight mistakes in timing such as when GG attacked maybe one or two frames too early for R3M1X’s ledge invulnerability to have worn off (read: possibly less than one-thirtieth of a second), you could open yourself to punishment afterwards.  This is why Anarchy is so heated and considered a video game of such demanding skill.  That sort of reflex, precision, and intuition are paramount to separating yourself from the crumbs of the scene and actually being a feared opponent.

R3M1X wrapped up his controller and took to his feet.  He reached out a hand to GG, “Insane sets, man.”

GG laughed softly, “You’re one crazy good player, Scott.”

R3M1X shrugged, “You’ve come a long way since your first weekly.  I was actually really scared there for a minute,” he scratched his eyebrow, one earbud still in, “Especially with that nasty trump into buster combo you pulled at the end.  Where did that come from?”

“I’ve been practicing it for a while.  It’s tricky because I need Solar to be at the bottom, so I can only use it when my opponent has sent Luna skyward.”

“Keep it up, at this rate, you’ll be one of the best in the state in no time.”

“What are you sitting at right now?  Fifth or something?”

R3M1X paused for a second to think, “Technically, I’m not even in the top ten anymore since I haven’t been on the scene for a few months, but once I’m done here and with the next couple weeklies, I’ll probably be sitting around seventh.”

GG nodded.  “I appreciate your faith in my ability to grow.”

R3M1X shrugged again, “I appreciate that you actually try,” he looked at Jordan, straightening his back a little, “Burndaddy.”

“R3M1X,” Jordan acknowledged.

“Are we going to be duking it out in the finals?  Not gonna let little ol’ iso stand in your way, are ya?”

The tournament roster glowed against the wall, a master of fate overseeing its subjects.  Jordan huffed and shed a toothy smile, “Yeah, and when was the last time you beat him?”

“Outside of friendlies?”  R3M1X looked around the room, as if dodging a question, “Ehhh, never.  I do believe it was never.”

Davis chuckled, “I almost beat him a couple weeks ago.”

“We’ve all almost beaten him,” R3M1X smiled and clenched his open fist, “It’s that last push nobody ever seems to reach.”

“Wait, none of you have ever won against iso?”  I said, aghast, “At any point?”

R3M1X looked at me and I couldn’t help but feel like he thought I was an idiot, “Have you played the guy?”

“Well, no.”

“He trades back-and-forth for best player in Nebraska.  He beat Phaaroh once, in pools for last year’s Western Grand Rally,” he paused, “Who are you?”

The way he asked the question irked me.  It wasn’t a ‘hello, what’s your name’ or ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.’  The tonality of his voice was more severe, a jeering ‘What significance do you have?’  Considering the casual way he’d been talking with the others –I mean, GG even knew his first name– I thought he’d be less…scalding.

“New recruit,” Jordan placed a hand on my shoulder, “This is Myth.  OD!N is also one of ours.  You’ll be facing him in the next match.”

If I’d thought being in Jordan’s good graces would garner me some respect, I was wrong.  Perry got the same stink eye I’d been receiving, too, so at least I wasn’t alone.  What was this guy’s deal?

“Don’t mind me if I put them through the grinder,” R3M1X said to Jordan, glaring at Perry.

“Do it,” Jordan said, “You have my permission to give them both hell.”

“You seem like a bit of a selective prick, you know that?”  Perry said to R3M1X, irreverent.

R3M1X smiled, “You’d be right.  I’m not like these other guys.  I’m not a Burndaddy or an M-80 or Zinky or Longsword.  I don’t really get along with people for the sake of it.”

At long last, GG checked out of the tournament, withdrawing his controller and slowly winding the cord, “No, you definitely do not.”

“But then,” I tried to cut in.

“Earn it, kid,” R3M1X held a flat expression of superiority, “Earn respect.  Fight for it,” he made a passive gesture pointing at Perry, “This one will have a chance in a couple of minutes.”

“I don’t want the respect of somebody like you,” Perry said plainly, “I’m not very fond of people who arbitrarily demand respect and give it prerequisites.”

“And I don’t care if you want my respect,” R3M1X redoubled, “I don’t care at all.  That’s not the point.”

The T.O. found us in the middle of our conversation, which was rapidly growing too molten for my taste.  He was a stocky fellow, with a patchy beard and collared shirt.  “R3M1X, you’re going to be at station four against Od!n.  Burndaddy, you’ll be facing iso on one.  Merc, I’ll be your opponent on three once I’m done letting everyone know where they’re going.”

“Thanks, Jahn,” R3M1X said politely as the tournament organizer shuffled off.

“What is the point, then?”  Perry asked, jaded.

“You’re thinking too small,” R3M1X ushered Perry move to station four, “Not everyone is going to be your friend just because, or rely on you out of good faith. Might as well get used to it as soon as possible, it’s an important lesson.”

“You know, I kind of hate you,” Perry looked down his nose at the man.

I swallowed.

“Guys,” Comet skirted into the conversation, “Are you really making this big a deal of this?”

“I’m the enemy.  I’m the bad guy.  Do you understand?” R3M1X traded glances between Perry and myself, “Now sit down so I can teach you another lesson, one I learned a long time ago.  The difference between being a hammer and being a nail.”

“Anarchy” Chapter 9: Mind Games 101

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First understand, I was still pretty confident I was the better player.  My precision and adeptness with Brave outclassed Dougie’s skill with Wingull, his charged-shot gimmicks aside. But I walked head-first into a very gutsy snare as soon as that second set started and ended up losing all three of my stocks, putting us at an even 1-1 score for our match-up.

You see, this punk had baited me into adapting to the wrong playstyle. He made it seem in the first set that he was overly reliant on Wingull’s charged blast, and considering the nearly two dozen times he fired the attack, I was inclined to believe him. But once that second set started, he charged the attack once and held it.  Not unusual. He often held the attack for a few seconds before launching it, so I waited for the discharge.

Still I waited, and of course I waited some more.

Next thing I knew, I was down a stock and he hadn’t yet fired the attack.  But the mere anticipation of the action was making me antsy and defensive, especially once my DD rose above 50 from taking Dougie’s sudden pressure. Brave and Wingull are both offense-oriented characters which thrive on close-combat maneuvers, but Dougie had made my offense leak out through anxiety and thus opened several windows for him to punish my reluctance to get near him and risk taking the full force of his charge attack to my face.  I was eventually able to start adapting, but by then, it was too late. He had enough of an upper-hand that it was a smooth rest of the set for him and our playing field was levelled. What’s more, he took my final stock by at long last blasting the move into my core, completely dismantling Brave and shooting me into oblivion.

Out of good sport, I forced myself to compliment Dougie, while the gremlins in the back of my mind wished him twelve shades of death.

“Holy crap,” Dougie said, “You were coming back hard.”

“Thanks,” I said, tasting the fake crook of my smile.

Somehow it’d escaped me before, but Jordan, Comet, and Davis were all watching my game, as well as a few others.  Davis consoled me and I took a moment to gather myself. I really  didn’t want to be put on the chopping block so early in the tourney. Plus, what if I was the one who lost, while Perry advanced? I couldn’t let him go alone. That would be boring.

I nodded to Dougie, “Ready?”

The hulk wiped his hands across the knees of his khakis, “Let’s go.”

“Good luck,” Jordan said quietly from my flank and we began.

I lost the previous set, so I was allowed the counter-pick for the stage choice. I went with a completely flat playing field and bossed up, tightening my focus to hairpin.

Brave drew his swords as he materialized from flakes of light on the stage, declaring, “It will end.”

Wingull stood in opposition, taking form from light and beating together his vambraces, “None shall be spared.”

3…2…1…Begin.

I’d faced harder opponents. My sanity clung to that fact as anxiety started encroaching upon my mind and sweat glossed over both palms. The world plunged into a strange pseudo-silence, all irrelevant noise falling out of existence. There was only the game, the clicking of the controllers, and the firing of my synapses as I braced myself for each second of adaptation to who was at the very least a worthy opponent.

The two of us were dead-even by the time we reached our final stocks. He’d killed me first, but I took advantage of the momentary invincibility which lasts a few seconds after respawning to deliver a fatal blow and shred his second stock, leaving us each with one remaining at zero DD.

“Oh my god,” I heard Davis chuckle lightly over my shoulder. I took the couple of free seconds as Wingull rematerialized to settle the quake in my thumbs and breathe deep.  The first match of my first tourney should not be so close.  I’s bad for the nerves.

Still, I pressed forward, leaning into the game, being absorbed by Anarchy. Dougie was switching up his attitude with the charged blast, keeping me forever on my toes, but I managed to dodge all of them through the entire match. I was about ready to Trump his final stock, that is to say, hit his character with the sweet-spot of my down-air. Not every character has a Trump, but many do, and Brave was one of them. It was one of my favorite ways to eliminate people, but proved risky. It wasn’t a Trump with a large sweet-spot like the character Commando had. If I missed, I would be incredibly vulnerable. As it stood, I was at 75 DD and Dougie was at 83.

I swept in for the kill move when a clamor blew up from the station three to my right. Perry stood and screamed.  I didn’t even spare a fleeting thought as to the circumstance for the interruption, because now I’d missed my chance.

Then his Wingull back-kicked Brave off the screen, into the borderlands. The ‘borderlands’ was a term for the small gap of space between where a character could die and where the player could see them on the screen. If a character stayed more than five seconds within the borderlands, they died instantly, but that rarely happened. The true problem was the requisition of Damage Debt in this twilight zone of the stage. It only took me one second to exit the borderlands, but it was enough when combined with Wingulls attack to put me suddenly above 100 DD.

Dougie swore swiftly beneath his breath and tried to push me past the borderlands and into the blast zone where my stock would be taken. I managed to avoid this and reclaim some space on the plateau of the stage, but now my nerves were brittle as the crumble from a dry cupcake.

I should be dead, I should be dead’ pummeled my brain as Wingull returned to the stage and began gathering energy for his strongest attack. Torrential blue fire came together between Wingull’s fingers and after a few seconds the character settled into his usual stance, hands saturated with azure power.

“Good job, Perry,” I heard Jordan compliment from my back, “Clutch win at the end, hm?”

“It was freaking nuts,” Perry answered, relief as clear as black paint on white canvas.

Then my anticipation began to burn into something new. My brows furrowed, I leaned in just a little bit closer, a hard line taking my lips. Dougie leaned in as well, preparing himself for what would likely be the last minute of our bout.

I took the gutsy route and sprinted straight toward Wingull, expecting Dougie to back off and make distance. He did, but avoided my follow-up aerial combo. I dodged his retaliation. He dodged mine.

Teeth set like a dam holding water, I wheeled around the stage and dove straight in for the kill again. But instead of attacking when Wingull retreated, I had Brave slide underneath and use his up-buster in the moment after Dougie had anticipated my attack. Wingull shot up into the atmosphere, but did not have enough Debt to be K.O.’d. I followed in force, jumping to the furthest reach of Brave’s ability. When I’d exhausted his second of two jumps, Dougie did something called ‘fast-falling’ in which he snapped the analog stick to prompt his character to plummet downwards at twice the normal rate. When he appeared in front of Brave, his character was already beginning the animation to fire his charged attack.

I couldn’t dodge. So I died.

No. I didn’t die. I…countered?

Without consciously processing the thought, my hands moved in the only way that could have saved me. Down-special. Brave’s counter-attack which absorbed any harm taken and dealt it back with 1.3x the damage and knockback. Wingull launched the fiery cannon point-blank into Brave’s chest. Brave absorbed the attack with a click and twisted his core, slinging blades of metal in a vertical arc, upwards, connecting with his opponent.

Instantly and without doubt, Wingull erupted into color and smoke, final stock terminated.

I was too drained to be excited at my clutch win, so I just fell back into my chair and stared blankly at the screen.

Winner, it read as Brave maneuvered around into a victory pose on the end-game screen, Brave!

A series of windows popped up to show us the statistics of our match. Who dealt and received how much damage, how many air vs. ground techniques were used, etc. I didn’t care about any of that right now, though.

In the corner of my vision I saw Dougie holding out his hand, “Killer game.”

I took it loosely, “Thanks. You too.”

Dougie unplugged his personal controller from the game console, got up, and walked away. In the meantime, I tried to jump-start my heart again with thoughts of excitement and victory, but a cruel outlier shot down all of my good feelings. A lone idea, crippling my aspirations.

I took to my feet sluggishly.

Hell, I was as close to defeat as one could come.  And that was only round one.

“Anarchy” Chapter 7 – I Want to Be the Very Best

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As reward to myself for dutifully slaughtering all of my weekend homework in a single, three-hour sitting, I called over Perry, and instead of playing Anarchy, we decided to spend our Friday catching up on the newest episode of BBC’s Sherlock, which had been long in the rafters, awaiting completion. We started it twice, but had to stop for reasons unrelated to the show. Once it was because Serah had pulled away Perry, the other was thanks to my internet gloriously turning into a potato and deciding to crap out for the rest of the evening. Hopefully, neither of those were destined to be problems this time around.

As is most appropriate for such occasions, we made up some pizzas, because the best compliment to extended television-viewing is clogged arteries. About half-way through the episode, there was a knock at my bedroom door. I paused the show and beckoned entrance.

My dad opened the door, “Am I interrupting anything?”

“Nope. What’s up?”

“Oh, hello Perry. So you are here. I thought that was your car across the street.”

“Good evening, Joe.”

“Do either of you guys know a couple of girls named Serah and Jasmine?”

We collectively sighed, “Yes,” I dragged the word across nails and tacks, “What does she want?”

“I don’t know,” dad shrugged, “They’re at the front door asking for you.”

Perry took to full stature, some of his pudginess bouncing, “Hold on. I’ll be back in a second.” Perry shimmied past my dad and started down the stairs to our front door.

“They’re cute,” dad said.

Predictable father thing to say. “I know. One of them is Perry’s girlfriend. The Vietnamese one.”

“Are you kidding?” He reeled, and I wondered what exactly was crossing his mind to make him jerk back with such fervor.

“Seriously.”

“Huh. How about that.”

Perry returned with Serah and Jasmine at his back. Jasmine was one of our schoolmates. Perry and I had little actual interaction with her, but she spent a decent amount of time with Serah, so some encounters were unavoidable. She wasn’t particularly pleasant to be around. Not as accepting of nerd culture as Serah had been.

“I thought you said you were going to take care of it?” I said, annoyed that we might not finish this episode yet again.

Perry’s brow tented, “I never once spoke anything like that. I said ‘Hold on. I’ll be back in a second.’ No allusion to me kicking them off the premises or exiling them to another kingdom.”

“Dang.”

My dad took the liberty of removing himself from a situation he knew he didn’t belong in, which I appreciated. Not that I wanted to exclude him, but what could he contribute at this moment other than an awkward presence?

“So what do you want?” I snapped, slightly peeved.

“Okay, firstly,” Perry cut in, “I know you guys roast each other all the time. That’s fine. In fact, I encourage that, as it’s great entertainment. But Joel, please watch the tone. She’s just stopping by for a bit.”

A sweep of indignation lit up my chest like a Christmas tree, but turned to ash in the next breath, “Sorry.” I said, tingling at the wash of sudden humility. “How can we help you?”

“Oh my goodness, it can learn!” Serah said.

I thrust out my hands like a bridge to guide the bullet train of See-She’s-Mean-Too-Look-Look! right at Serah’s face. Perry turned and gave her an expression, “Really? I was trying to make this a good moment. You couldn’t have saved the comeback for at least thirty seconds?”

This time it was Serah’s turn to look humbled, and I’ll admit, a human part of my heart enjoyed it.

She sighed. “Okay. Sorry, Joel. We have thirty seconds and then everything is fair game.”

“Deal.”

“You’re not playing Anarchy?” Serah asked, “Even with the tournament tomorrow morning?”

Perry sat down on the futon (yes, I had one in my room) and started tugging free another slice of his hamburger pizza, “Nah. We’ve been playing all week. Rest is important, too.”

“What are you ladies up to this evening?” I asked again, the still bitter part of me noting it to be the third time I’d asked a question of this nature.

Serah bounced to a rhythm alive only inside her head, “Karaoke at Carmen’s.”

I did not know this Carmen person, but was willing to bet she wasn’t very good at singing. At least, not as good as Serah. “Nice.” I was acutely aware that Jasmine was estranged in my room, trapped in a conversation with people she didn’t like or even know. Sudden curiosity as to the natural odor of my room also began to plague me. Not often did girls breach the doorway to my living quarters. I showered daily and kept things tidy, so it shouldn’t be too bad. Right?

“Your place was along the way, so I decided we’d stop by for a minute to see how practice was going, but instead you’re doing what? Watchin– Oh my god, Benedict Cumberbatch!” Serah disregarded all social protocols and thrust her entirety towards my television, stuck on a still of Sherlock himself, played by the talented mister Cumberbatch. She was practically, no wait, literally hugging my screen.

“Marry me, Benedict,” she said, purring, “You suave, gorgeous hunk of man.”

I was waiting for her to actually kiss my television screen. Thankfully, she never did.

“I love you too, hon,” Perry said, taking a bite of pizza.

“You’re allowed to be jealous.”

Perry smiled, “That’s alright, as long as you understand you have no chance against Demi Lovato.”

“Really?” I pursed my lips and sat back in my chair, “Demi Lovato?”

Sacrificing the hand which was supporting the tip of his pizza, Perry thrust an indignant finger in my direction, “You have no room to talk, sir. Need I bring up your closet crush on Paramore’s Hayley Williams? Or T-Swift before that? Or, oh, who was the one before Taylor – OH YEAH, Misty from Pokemon.”

My dad’s laugh could be heard from downstairs. A flash of red went through my cheeks as both of the girls and Perry turned to look out the hallway of my door, following the noise.

With the scraps of my dignity, I tried to compose myself, “Hey now, that was a long time ago. And you liked Misty too, don’t give me that crap.”

If Jasmine had felt out-of-place before, now she’d become lost in enemy territory, which also happened to be as disquieting and bizarre as Alice’s Wonderland. Discomfort crept through her face and I couldn’t help but notice the nervousness in how she kept crossing and uncrossing her arms. Poor girl. She’d underestimated us.

“Awww,” Serah pulled herself away from Sherlock and bit her tongue lightly through a smile, much like a child with a joyful secret, “You liked Misty, Pear? That’s adorable.”

Perry stopped chewing mid-bite, “Um, okay.”

Serah walked by and rustled Perry’s tangled mop of hair, “So you wanna be the very best, too? Just like all of the Pokemon trainers?”

Oh, great. I knew where this was going.

“Wait,” Perry’s eyes widened, “Don’t-”

Serah bolted down into a flaring stance, craning her voice into the sky, “I WANNA BE THE VERY BEST, LIKE NO ONE EVER WAS!”

She was getting louder and though I’m relatively immune to embarrassment, the horror in Jasmine’s eyes told me we’d breached some sort of social wall. I started to cringe.

“TO CATCH THEM IS MY REAL TEST! TO TRAIN THEM IS MY CAUU-AH!” I launched from my chair and throttled Serah in the back, ushering her towards the door and cutting off the song.

“What?” Serah grinned over her shoulder, “Am I embarrassing you guys?”

“No,” I pushed harder and she leaned against my force, “You’re embarrassing yourself,” I looked at Jasmine, “I’m sorry she’s your friend.”

Jasmine was still in shock when Serah freed herself from my expulsion and playfully glared at me, “Uh, rude.”

“At least you aren’t stuck with her,” Perry said as though the floor was his only audience. It was meant to be heard, though, and I grinned at the indignation of Serah’s curling lip.
“Hon, I hope you die tomorrow,” Serah said as she stepped out of the door, Jasmine skirting around us slowly.

“You’re the best. Love you,” Perry lifted a soda can to her in respect and took a swig.

“I can’t believe we’re somehow all friends,” I said, “Thanks for coming over guys, have fun at karaoke.” I smiled a true smile and closed the door on them.

“Anarchy” Chapter 6 – Remember, Remember

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In a gesture of almost divine coincidence, my Advanced European History class was just beginning our unit on the Gunpowder Plot in London. You know, V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes blows up everything. “Remember, remember the fifth of November”? Yeah, that Gunpowder Plot. The one meant to assassinate King James I of England. There were far more people in on the ordeal than just Fawkes, but thanks to Hollywood and that infamous white mask, he’s the only man people ever associate with the fiasco.

Anyways, this is appropriate, as these people are some of the most quintessential, real-world anarchists in recent history. Or, relatively recent. While I abide by the identifier of ‘anarchist’, these guys were serious about the term.

Though, Batman’s ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ still has them beat. The Joker is straight up loco.

Since I’m already talking about history (sort of), now is probably the best opportunity to enlighten you as to some historic details that will help in the long run. Is that alright? I’m not going to get stoned or whipped am I? Nobody will threaten to blow up my house?

Okay, cool.

Let’s start with me. This shouldn’t take very long, as there’s not much to talk about. Perhaps the most worthwhile segment of my personal story revolves around the absence of my mother, so I’ll begin there. Her name was Karin, and she was a suicide hotline specialist through the first six years of my childhood. I remember her being gentle and loving, but always with reservation. My father said she had issues in connecting with others and forming relationships. I guess her own son was not exempt from that problem. But she tried, so I cannot fault her for the handicap.

Somewhere around the time I was entering the second grade, she bore witness to a violent crime coming home from work after the evening shift. As I understand it (meaning, from what the authorities hypothesize), she somehow alerted the criminals to her presence. Probably yelped or cried for help or something. The two perpetrators gave chase. She ran, as we didn’t own a car, and only made it a block and a half before they caught her. They bludgeoned her to death.

Both of the culprits were caught on the camera of a gas station across the street and eventually drawn into the iron law. Both men belonged to a local gang and were tying up a loose end in their family. A snitch. Karin was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She needed to be silenced for witnessing an event she never wanted to see. Each of the convicted criminals are now serving time. Life, I believe. For whatever that’s worth.
Worst part? They were no older than I was in the course of this story. A sixteen and seventeen-year-old. I hate that. I hate that for so many reasons.

So for the majority of my life, I didn’t have a mom. Didn’t have a mother-figure of any sort. It was just me and padre, double-teaming the world. Wasn’t so bad after the first couple of years. Financially, we’re actually better off, because he’s since completed the degree he was going back to school for and found work as an accountant. More than enough to support himself and a single child. I adopted his love for hiking and camping when I was young, but steadily grew out of the activity with age. Mostly because I was being indoctrinated by a culture that kept me indoors, but also because my father had a bad back from sitting all day and it started to wear on his health. Just couldn’t make the climb so much after he hit forty. Still, we got along well, and I’d considered him one of my best friends, even if he wasn’t a “friend”, if you hear me.

Next up to bat, RequiaTek. The notorious company which dressed the events of this tale. Originally, RequiaTek manufactured only televisions, radios and other simple electronic products, circa the 60’s. They were known by a different name back then, however I neither know, nor care what it was. Dawning upon the early 90’s, they armed themselves with a new name to address the changing of the times, but had been in the business of producing and developing video games for over a decade by that point. Their oldest intellectual property was a modest (read: awful) little title called Arakid, which followed the titular character, a cartoonish, spider-child, as he tried to find his parents. The gameplay was appalling at best, even for its age, and the graphics could only be cured with fire and holy water. But it was enough to spring-load a new team into better projects, which eventually generated the momentum RequiaTek sees on the gaming scene today.

As I’ve said before, the game of Anarchy is something of a nexus for all of RequiaTek’s established franchises to date. More than twenty IP’s are represented, and as far as marketing is concerned, this move was brilliant. In the first year of Anarchy’s commercial release, it received gratuitous amounts of critical and fan acclaim as a family video game. Not until the initial hype settled did this new franchise pick up steam as a tournament-capable arena fighter like Street Fighter II. This has led its many loyal fans to consider Anarchy a ‘beautiful accident’.

The first Western Grand Rally tournament, largest Anarchy tourney in America, was held in 2009, with Styx as the first reigning champion. Styx mained Brave, by the way. Just throwing that out there. Ever since, the tournament had become a mecca for anarchists and grows in participants with every succeeding year. Nowadays they have to rent out stadiums to fit the masses who come to watch, not even accounting for the live stream of the tournament which draws in countless others to view online. Only one other tournament can compete with the WGR, and that’s all the way over in Japan, from where RequiaTek heralds. Sticking to typical Japanese peculiarity, that tourney was coined ‘Four Corners: The Elite and Thunderous!’ Exclamation mark officially included, of course.

Ready for everything to come full-circle? The WGR is traditionally held on the same day every year. Any guesses as to which day that is? Okay, well technically it’s two days, but it starts on November 5. “Remember, remember the fifth of November. The Gunpowder Treason and Plot.” The largest Anarchy showdown in the country takes place the same day as one of the most prominent acts of literal anarchy in history.

Don’t you just love it when things come together?

“Anarchy” Chapter 5 – Weird is Weird

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“Hello, I’m Comet.”

“Hi, I’m Perry. Holy crap your eyes are really blue.”

“Thank you. I get that a lot.”

There was a notable absence from the session today. ‘Extremely-Dangerous-Keep-Out-Of-Reach-Of-Children’ Sid had bailed on practice. I sensed something stirring under Jordan’s glances that meant more than they spoke. This last weekend held secrets I needed to uncover.

Perry was making the rounds, introducing himself and prostrating all of his Anarchy identifiers to the team, at Jordan’s subtly commanding request. “My tag is ‘Od!n’. Like the Norse god, but with an exclamation mark instead of an ‘I’. My main is Lady Thrice, but I’ve recently been experimenting with Shiner for the sake of diversity. I’m not bad with Shiner, but Thrice is definitely still my top pick.”

“Weird combination of characters,” GG reclined at one of the desks against the wall, “Not bad, just weird.”

“I’m a weird guy,” Perry said with no particular inflection.

After explaining how the crew was ranked, Soldiers beneath Corporals, beneath the Vice Captain and then the Captain on top, Perry sat down to run the same gauntlet I had the Friday before.

Unlike my trial, he had the advantage of an info dump I’d provided on Sunday. This gave him a distinct leg-up, and he knew what sort of mess to expect from each member.
He lost to Comet.

“What in the name of lord Helix,” he said, not really angry, but instead devastatingly confused, as if he’d believed he’d found the answer to a challenging puzzle, only to be proven wrong and left without an idea of how to proceed. In his defense, Comet’s game seemed to be on today, as she performed significantly better than when I’d traded blows with her.

Comet stood from her seat, brushing aside a swathe of chestnut hair and flooding air through her loose t-shirt. Marvel’s Carnage was emblazoned on the front of the shirt, surrounded by the shadows of a bloody crucible he’d just finished slaughtering. Hindsight, she’d been wearing another Spider-Man related top on Friday. Interesting.

Handing off the controller to Davis, Comet tried to play the loss as no big deal. Which it wasn’t really, but after appealing to Perry’s ego earlier and telling him he’d probably beat Comet, I felt like the frustration was going to taint every remaining matchup.

As Davis sat down – his red jacket a flare among the white of the room – I noticed a small thing. He wasn’t half as perky as last I’d seen him. There was definitely a degree of tension tip-toeing around, but it was largely ignored for the sake of not making things awkward. Not with Davis. Davis was so indifferent and mentally distant that it was like finding shadows in Heaven. Alien and disconcerting.

Unlike our duel, Davis went straight for the throat instead of falling back on his bogus, bag of crude tricks. Perry fell apart the first stock, but managed to pull everything back in the second stock, taking both of Davis’ initial two stocks before being levelled at the beginning of Davis’s last life, equalizing the game at zero damage debt for each player’s final stock.
Then Davis whipped out the inner prick. So heavily he relied on hit-and-run and spamming projectiles that I was starting to itch just watching the match unfold. Fortunately, unlike Brave, Lady Thrice could counter Shiva’s range game with some distance techniques of her own. In the end, Perry handled the heat far better than myself, but still lost by a hairline margin. They were both sitting above 170 DD by the time the match ended. More than high enough for either player to take the cake.

Perry started laughing, and then kept on laughing well past the point of social acceptance or good reason.

“Hey, Perry, settle down man. You’re not a hyena.”

It took a few more, slightly more aggressive prompts from yours truly before he finally dialed it back. “Sorry, that was just…something else. I was so conflicted that laughing felt oddly relaxing. Again, sorry,” he shook his head, “Good match.”

“You too,” Davis said, but that was all. No fist bump, no bleeding bro-savvy aura. It made me sad, because whatever happened, regardless of its magnitude, was obviously affecting him. Unless it was something completely unrelated, but I somehow knew it wasn’t.

GG profoundly destroyed Perry with such pants-wetting efficiency that it was impossible to be upset at the loss. It was beautiful and almost artistic in execution. Perry and GG seemed to be developing a solid bond, though, despite the obliteration. GG made an off-hand reference to some science fiction show I didn’t recognize, but Perry clearly did, and returned a similar, slightly different line of dialogue. Then I found out they are both figurine collectors, and GG’s repertoire apparently has some obscenely rare stuff I know nothing about. That’s okay. I was just satisfied they were getting along.

Finally Jordan took up the mantle. I waited for him to pick Brave, but he didn’t. He selected Thrice, to copy Perry.

My mind imploded.

“Wait,” I interrupted, “I thought you mained Brave?”

He looked at me with knowing and a hidden well of satisfaction, “I wonder.”

“You wonder?” I grew indignant.

No. Was Jordan seriously prepared to play against whatever choice of character Perry had in store, using that character himself? Was he actually good with all of them? The mental deception and illusions he cast threw off my temperament. I wasn’t upset, just so flabbergasted that I had no words.

So instead of talking, I watched. If he really was good with all of the characters, or at least most of them, he’d prove it with skill. And so it was, Jordan came out the victor, though the win wasn’t as clean as against me. He was better with Brave, but was no layman with Lady Thrice. Both had considerable time logged into his copy of Anarchy, I was sure. That was bad enough, but it turned my stomach to possibly see how large his roster of elite characters reached.

And if Jordan was this good with two different characters, and truly was just toying with us, then how good was his real main? The character he would choose if there was money or a title on the line.

I didn’t cast Jordan as much for the theatrical type, but he decided then would be the best time to hint at a shocking bit of knowledge he knew would evoke reactions among us newcomers. Mister captain fancied himself as proficient with as many as seven characters, with three ‘projects’ who were almost within the range of being used in higher-level competition. Even worse?

Lady Thrice wasn’t even one of those seven. She was a project.

At this point, it seemed like bragging, but I think that was the point.

“Good job not getting pissy,” Jordan said after letting a little time melt away, “While everything I said was true, I was intentionally trying to get under your skin, Perry. Sorry if I upset you. You honestly did very well. Though I thought it was weird how you kept cutting your over-special short. You know that attack can carry almost twice as far, right?”

Perry nodded, “At risk of additional lag after the move is performed. Not worth it, especially when I’m already losing the match. Can’t make the windows too large for you or I’d be no competition at all,” Perry looked around, “So where is the last one? The kid from Toy Story? I wanted to take on his Bluffy.”

A half-snort came from Comet’s direction, though she looked around the room as if she somehow wasn’t obviously the culprit, “Sorry,” she said, turning back, “He totally does look like the Sid from Toy Story. Come on, that’s funny!”

Davis was supremely unamused, “We had a bit of a falling out.”

I blinked, “Which means?”

Jordan held up a hand at Davis, as if to ward off a demonic chant, “Do you want to join our crew? Both of you? Right now we have two openings. We could make due with one empty spot, but two is too many. I ask that you are able to attend at least two practices a week, and every competitive event unless notified in advance.”

“Sure, sure,” I waved it off, “But why is Sid not on the team anymore? What happened?”

A mask of equal parts calculation and stagnation effused Jordan’s every feature and fidget. The duration of this pause was deeply unsettling. It was even getting to the point that it seemed one of his own teammates was going to prod further, but finally the mask collapsed in a larger-than-life sigh of exhaustion, “Sorry, it’s been a long weekend and I still don’t know everything that happened. I’ll try to keep things digestible,” he cleared his throat and reached one lanky arm up to scratch at the crown of his head, “Sid is no longer part of the crew because of a number of internal complications. He proved unstable in a tournament setting, becoming overly aggressive when defeated. The proctors and myself gave him a number of chances to tone down his behaviors over the last couple months, but he never could.

“He also didn’t get along with Davis very well, and spoke some less-than-kind things which breached into personal, familial matters. Poor conduct and bad character, basically. Then there’s you two.”

“Us?” Perry said, moving to my side, making me feel like Batman and he was my Robin.

Jordan nodded and sighed again, “First, he didn’t seem very fond of you in the first place, Joel. I still don’t know why. But when you mentioned you were bringing Perry,” Jordan spread a fractional, open hand towards Perry, “Well, he went livid. Called both of you a bunch of names I’d rather not repeat. I don’t know the reason for this either, unfortunately. After you left on Friday, he exited soon after, in a tantrum. Sorry, but I don’t know any more than that. I’ve tried talking with him about it, but I fear he’s blocked my number or something,” he shrugged with the weight of a hopeless struggle, “Oh well.”

“Huh,” I said, out-of-body, “That’s weird.”

“Yeah.”

Perry seemed especially concerned, to the point of being rid of speech. He opened his mouth a few times, raised his hands in protest against something, and always withdrew before making the plunge. He settled for a resounding, “Us?”

“Like I said, I don’t know,” Jordan clapped his hands together softly, “Sorry.”

“No, it’s okay,” I dispelled the tension, “Thanks for letting us know.”

“So?”

“So what?”

“You said you were in, right?” He gazed at both of us with a sense of desperate curiosity.
In perfect harmony, both Perry and I locked glances and examined Jordan with the rest of his team. It would be the first step in a dream. I’d never had an actual crew, not even on the horizon. This could change things.

“I’m game,” I said, not giving myself an opportunity to overthink things.

“No offense,” Perry pursed his lips and wrung his hands as if applying hand sanitizer or foam soap, “But do you think that’s a good idea? I just lost to all of you.”

Jordan waved off this comment, “Your performance was more than good enough. I would like to judge you for consistency, but I don’t really have the convenience to make that call anymore. You’ll improve with time.”

A few beats passed, blood flowing through our veins almost louder than our own breathing, “I hope so,” Perry said, a smile breaking onto his cheeks and injecting morale into the room, “Okay, let’s do it.”

“Awesome,” GG chewed on his lower lip, cheeks pulled into a tight grin, “Welcome to the Riotwings.”

Jordan gave us a sideways nod, “Glad to have you aboard. Truly.”

“Ah,” Perry said, “I like it.”

“Riotwings?” I licked my lips, “I can roll with that.”

“You free to do a small tourney this weekend? Nothing major, just a local at Jade Gaming on 30th and Tribune. They hold a competition every other week. The turnout is small, but it’ll get you adjusted to the scheme of the official MLG setup for tournaments. Plus, you’ll be able to meet some of your rivals and hopefully find a few friends. If we’re lucky, Zinky will attend. Though, that usually means none of our crew stands a chance of winning, it’s still good to face people above our caliber. You learn a lot.”

“Zinky?” I said, eyes wide, “The same guy who held his own against Double J in the last Western Grand Rally? He’s from around here?”

“Childhood friends with Comet,” Jordan threw a thumb over his shoulder towards Comet, “Lives in the rural area south of the city, now. Pretty sure he’s homeschooled.”

“He’s a bit weird,” Comet said.

“We can both make it,” Perry answered, already knowing my schedule was clear.

“Good,” Jordan answered.

“Sorry for the trouble we’ve caused,” I said, apologetically, though I had a hard time actually feeling bad. I mean, I was part of a team now. An Anarchy crew. The Riotwings.

“No big deal. Your priority is to get ready for this weekend. Here’s my number. Trade with everyone else before you go. For now…”

“More Anarchy?” I answered, already making moves to take hold of the controller, “I can bring a second set on Wednesday,” I said, “We’ll need it if we want to train more fluidly. One set is too restrictive.” I scanned the character selection screen and landed on Brave.

“Thank goodness!” Comet said, “They almost had me bring mine. Wouldn’t have been fun dragging that thing here all of the time.”

“It’s fine,” I shrugged, “Now, I need to go super-saiyan if I want to stand a chance against some of the people I hope to face, so some serious training is in order.”

I grabbed the idle controller of Player 2 and stretched it out to the open crowd, “Who’s first?”

“Anarchy” Chapter 4 – A Girl Who Understands

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Confession time, baby. I don’t drive. Not that I can’t. I just choose not to…

This is important, because Perry didn’t live very far away from the school, so I needed to walk to his house after leaving Jordan and company. Perry had a car, so I usually had to lean on him or my dad to service my sorry butt any great distance, and because I live not so far from the school either (albeit in a completely different direction), I walked to most destinations. Helped keep me in shape, I suppose. God knows I needed it, else I ran the risk of transmuting into a pile of porridge.

I should mention some geographical details for your convenience. I became a thought in my parents’ mind in Malcolm, Nebraska, and that is where my story finds root. Challenger Incoming! Joel enters the battlefield!

Malcolm is where I was born and reared, and it’s one of the only noteworthy cities in this otherwise profoundly depressing part of the country. I lived in the suburbs, and had only stepped foot on a farm a handful of times in my life, even if I was familiar with our countryside locale and produce. But Perry’s residence was a beautiful, if not cookie-cutter townhome that camped on the south rim of a small lake. His family made residence on the third floor, and I already knew what to expect when I reached their front door.

I knocked twice and heard a girl’s voice penetrate through the door, fluting like a song. Literally, she sang the words. “Come in!”

Serah. Perry’s ladylove of providence.

Opening the door, Perry and Serah were the only two people in the home, both of his parents still at work until later that evening. It smelled of clashing scents. Some aerosol fragrance in the vein of cinnamon, and the crisp, bubbling stir fry that Perry was cooking up at the oven. Staves of light burned from the window, illuminating an army of lazy dustlings. Dustlings. That’s a word as of this moment.

Music fed out of Perry’s father’s sound system in the living room, from beneath the television. Some temperamental and bouncy techno-pop something or other. Serah’s choice of tunes. She was lounging in the years-old loveseat under the window, quietly jamming to the sound waves, fluttering her bare feet off the edge of the sofa.

I’d actually known Serah long before she met Perry. We shared mathematics classes for two years, and talked on occasion. A rare thing, me talking to a girl, let alone one as attractive as this. Small frame, hair as smooth and pitch as ink, and gentle skin of Eurasian descent. Large influence of Vietnamese blood, if I recall. Yeah, that’s right, Perry got himself an exotic sort of gal. That’s special to some people.

Serah truly was a nice. Incredibly obnoxious habit of “unce, unce”ing with any bass drop she could get her ears on, but outside of that, nearly perfect, especially for Perry. I say that, because she did what most girls did not. She tolerated his hobbies, and not just video games and Anarchy. You see, Perry was a figurine collector. You know, one of the stereotypically textbook “look at me, I’m destined to live in my mother’s basement” sort of nerds, too. The shelf looming over his bed was littered with wonderfully cultured items. Most impressive was his twelve-inch model of Halo’s ‘The Arbiter’, reigning over all. These weren’t even counting the figures that lined his closet or windowsill.

She loved it.

Perry on the other hand didn’t seem to be overly receptive towards this divine gift. He was fond of Serah for all of the obvious reasons, and none of the special ones. She was exceedingly attractive, had an older brother that wasn’t at Perry’s throat for dating his sister, kept in good shape from soccer season, chambered a kind heart, an honest tongue, and possessed a voice granted by God himself.

Eh, I guess some of those are pretty legitimate.

Then there was Perry, as righteous a nerd-tastrophe as one could ever find. Fingers which had never seen a day of serious work in their life, a peppering of cushion around the edges (mostly Taco Bell, which he ate with near-religious frequency and fervor), and glasses that he needed to constantly realign or press up to the bridge of his nose. Perry was clean-skinned though, somehow, with a knockout smile and his father’s rich, chocolate melanin flowing through the veins.

Basically the opposite of myself, whose smile was a little crooked, had some splotches that formed on the neck when I got nervous, and in the winter was white enough to shame Count Tepes. Thankfully, once I burned a few times in the summer, I could usually requisition a decent tan, so not all hope was lost.

“Hey Pear,” Serah said, rocking to the beat, “Do we have an ETA on that stir fry? The rumblies are hitting me pretty hard right now.”

“Depends,” Perry sprinkled some sort of garlic seasoning into the mix, “How done do you want the peppers?”

I liberated an open seat of its vacancy, and tried not to look like the universe was pulling me apart with pliers at my excitement. That is to say, I gazed with excessive intensity at Perry until somebody said something.

“Yo, Joel. Sorry I didn’t say hi when you came in,” Perry said without looking up.

“Hon,” Serah said, “I think he wants to tell you something.” She grinned at my slashing, shark-like expression.

Perry pursed his lips and noticed my irreverent attention, “Okay, yeah, that’s not normal. What’s up?”

He said the words with kind interest, but didn’t seem to pick up on my ‘holy crap this is the best thing since the Roman Coliseum’ vibes, yet. “Perry, do you know Jordan from school?”

Scraping and sizzling erupted from the pan as Perry shuffled a wooden spoon through its contents. “Joel, there are several Jordans in our school.”

“THE Jordan. Two lockers.”

“The two lockers thing isn’t as special as you make it sound,” Perry said, “But I know who you’re talking about. What about him?”

“He’s an Anarchist.”

“Okay,” Perry said with paper-thin disappointment, as if he was expecting something more.

“And also the crew captain of a team that frequents tournaments.”

This actually jostled him away from his task. Perry spun out of the kitchen area, abandoning the meal for a moment before retaining his composure and going back to finish the job, “Woah, woah, what?”

I reveled in the unique satisfaction that came from blowing somebody’s mind. My slanted smile permeated the room with thicker potency than a kick of wine.

Not that I knew how wine tasted back then, of course. I was a teenager, we don’t drink. Duh.

“Who are the other members?”

“Comet, Davis, Sid and GG– erm, Garrison. I don’t know their last names. I played all of them. They’re good, each in their own way.”

“Played them?” Perry was basically salivating, and not because of the food, “Where?”

“At school. They practice after classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

“Were you invited to come back?!”

Hook, line, and sinker, “And you can come, too.”

“You know,” Serah cut in, “He’s trying to do something important, Joel. Why must you distract him?”

Playful exasperation hit my eyes, “You can starve, Serah.”

“Already working on it,” she grinned, “Seriously though, leave him alone. He might burn himself or something.”

“I’m basically done anyways,” Perry snapped off the heat of the stovetop and started scooping the stir onto a couple of plates, “Come get it, dearie.”

The endearment was so casual that it almost sounded like a jab at them actually being a couple.

Serah swung her legs off the sofa and onto the floor in such a blur that I might have actually been a little startled. Not my most impressive moment.

“Did you want any, Joel?” Perry asked, nodding to the Mediterranean chicken on the dish, diced with assorted peppers, onions and string beans.

Tempting. “I’ll pass, thank you though.”

“Woo!” Serah bounced with fresh animation as a new track came on over the speakers, “More for me.”

“Serah, most girls aren’t excited to eat more food. Usually they’re in business to cut down. You know, maintain their curves.”

Simply put, I was no savant with words, especially regarding the ladies. I rightfully deserved a slap upside the head for that one, but she took it in merciful stride.
“Not too worried about it,” she said, “I can still outrace you, and school you in arm-wrestling ten out of ten times.”

Tested and proven. I sighed.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” She said, shoveling chicken into her mouth.

Perry made up a plate for himself, but lacked any interest in actually eating it. He set the dish aside and took a seat next to me, thumbing his wide-rimmed glasses back into place, “So tell me more about these Anarchists. Are they looking for teammates?”

I bit my lip and decided to keep the whole truth to myself about their open position. Position. Singular. “Yep.”

“Oh man,” he cupped his hands behind his head, “We’ve gotta get in on that.”

“I know you’ve always wanted to play Anarchy a little more seriously,” Serah said, chomping on food from her stool at the kitchen counter, “Sounds like fun.”

“It would be,” I said slowly, “I’m still perplexed you’re like this.”

“Like what?” Serah took another bite, examining herself to make certain she hadn’t accidentally spilled on herself in her mad frenzy to consume every last morsel.

My tongue explored my cheek, “You know. Um. Understanding, I guess,” I grasped at words like they were whispers in a heavy crowd, “Not many girls are so encouraging of their boyfriend’s pursuit of video game-related interests.”

She shrugged, “I don’t see the problem. He gets a kick out of it, and I like the fire in his eyes when he’s desperately trying to win. It’s cute.”

“Cute?” Perry parroted the word, uncertain, “Not exactly what I strive to be.”

“Dude, shut up,” I told him, “If she likes you as cute, be freaking cute, man. Channel your inner Hello Kitty or whatever you need to do. Be adorable.”

He rolled his eyes at me and Serah laughed, her athlete’s belly flattening like a sheet of metal beneath her blouse.

“But seriously,” I turned the conversation back, “She’s a girl who understands. Even if it’s not the ‘best’ hobby or whatever, she knows you love it, and has no problem with that. As long as she’s still the number one priority, of course.”

“Of course,” Perry answered.

“Even then,” Serah stirred some noodles with the teeth of her fork, “I know I’m not the girl who understands him best,” she shook her head, “Lady Thrice has that one advantage.”

“Yeah, but you’re a real person,” Perry defended, “Though you’re right. Nothing beats that relationship. I love me some Thrice.”

Lady Thrice was Perry’s main. She was a sort of zombie-empress from a game called Tales of Otherland. Her character was the benevolent ruler of loyal subjects, but fate would have her assassinated at the end of the antagonist’s knife. However, her son managed to resurrect the lingering soul, where the empress dragged supernatural powers back into her cold corpse, now resurrected. At the end of the game, she would die again, though only metaphorically, as she gave up her aspiration for revenge. Without that burden, her lens on life was transformed again. So it was, she was thrice alive. Horray for narrative theming.

“To be fair, she got you first,” false resignation crept through Serah’s shoulders, “What’s little old me to do against an empress?”

“Sit and wallow in her place,” I said, pointedly, “Peasant.”

“You know,” she aimed the fork at me, still chewing, “You’re stepping dangerously close to the realm of Smacktown, kid.”

“Kid? We’re the same age.”

“All that more embarrassing that I am your superior in nearly every way.”

“Except being awesome.”

She raised an eyebrow at me, “Is that what we’re resorting to? Cheap playground nonsense?”

“Your mom.”

Serah snorted and turned the brunt of her attention back to the plate, nearly cleared, “Yeah, I’ll chalk this up as my win.”

“Your face is a win.”

“Joel, stop. I’m in pain watching you struggle,” Perry said as he turned to his food and began to eat right as Serah finished slurping down her last pepper.

So it went that the evening passed in a sheathe of warm company. We hung around, throttled to music (which I eventually hijacked so I needn’t endure an endless stream of techno-pop), went some rounds through our homework, and fantasized over what it would be like to be at the Western Grand Rally, the largest Anarchy tournament in the Americas. Perry dropped the news that he’d gotten a job at a nearby hamburger joint, where he’d be picking up some part time hours after school. Mostly Thursday and Friday, thankfully. Can’t have stuff like ‘work’ and ‘money’ and ‘responsibility’ get in the way of our fun.

Eventually Perry’s mother and father came home from work and his dad shuttled me back to my house at the crack of dusk. He didn’t mind the trip, usually. Gave him and my father time to catch up on their one, mutual hobby. Something, something football drafts and seasonal something, somethings.

It might seem like a boring and predictable thing, but my first order of business was to cut straight to my bedroom, where I promptly locked the door and fired up Anarchy. I wasn’t a part of Jordan’s crew yet (which I realized I still I didn’t know the team name, so I’d have to figure that out), but if I were to be a prospective member, I needed to up my ante. I mean, I’d almost lost to Dax and Petre, for heaven’s sake.

Hours and hours of further training would be required if I were to enter tournaments, and when I started to grow weary or bored, a quick thought of clashing with an established Anarchy personality on a stage to be seen by tens of thousands of people live and on the internet revitalized my passion. I could do it. I might lose, but I could take up arms against the best of the best, and that alone would be worth the time and experience.

So I played all night. I did homework on Saturday, and attended to the obligatory things, like lunch with my grandmother and donating blood. I did that sometimes. But afterwards I came back to my hyperbolic time chamber of a room and put the pedal to the metal, churning out hours slaughtering AI’s and defeating people in the often (but not always) lagged online feature of the game. I might have rage quit a couple times that weekend, but even in those three days alone, I felt a change in my performance.

Because of Jordan and his crew, I was preparing for war.

“Anarchy” Chapter 3 – Brave

anarchy c 3

Now, I’m not the most easily insulted person…okay, I lied, I’m offended rather easily, but I did not like the fact that Jordan, the crew captain, invited me to a battle and then shoved me off on this Comet girl. I mean, I’d already read her play-style from across the room, so why was she the first to sit down and challenge me? Besides, if I was picking up on the hierarchy correctly, she was a ‘soldier’ or whatever. In other words, the lowest rung of their arbitrary ladder.

“Don’t underestimate her,” GG grinned, clearly reading the trace irritation in my eyes.
A fair request, though it may have been a little difficult to actually follow through on. Comet sat in the hard, industrial chair beside me and took ownership of her controller. Anarchy’s patented orchestral rock theme played through the crappy television speakers as we navigated menus. When the character selection screen appeared, I shot straight to Brave, my main and character of choice. Comet already had Dax and Petre selected from the previous match, with her tag keyed in under the second player’s slot. I followed suit and added Myth under player one.

Comet thumbed a scythe of brown hair from her eyes, “Ready?”

But I had already moved on to the stage selection screen. Now, a brief 101 on the layout of Anarchy matches, if you’re a layman. Each match takes place on a two-dimensional arena, which is usually floating in the center of the screen. A character icon floats at the bottom of the screen so players may track the condition of their character at all times. Each round begins with the combatants appearing on the field in a course of light. Unlike most arcade fighters, there are not health bars which deplete as characters are attacked, but a number which floats over the character icon to represent how much damage they’ve received. This is referred to as ‘Damage Debt’, ‘Debt’, or simply ‘DD’. Debt increases with every consecutive strike against your character, starting at zero, and can go all the way up to one thousand, though it practically never reaches so high in casual or tournament play. The higher the debt you rack up on your opponent, the further their character is propelled with every attack they receive. Eventually, they start picking up enough Debt that they fly off the arena. The purpose of Anarchy is to increase the Debt enough so you may kill your opponent by knocking them outside any four sides of the screen (a.k.a. the “Blast Zone”), losing them a life, or ‘stock’. Tournament matches generally run you at three stock per standard play.

As for the arenas themselves, RequiaTek created Anarchy with over twenty-five maps, featuring iconic locations from all of their represented franchises. But some of the maps have natural setups, interrupters, or design schemes which notoriously disturb the flow of battle, or arbitrarily do harm to certain players, rendering the stages useless in tournaments, where an individual’s skill should not be hindered by luck-based hazards. Consequently, there are only eight stages allowed in competitive play, and among those, the only stage props are some organization of platforms strewn about the arena. Sometimes the platforms move or change shape, but nothing actively tries to hurt you.

We selected one of these stages. A strictly bare-bones sort of arena with only a main plateau and a couple platforms idly strewn above it, equidistant from each other in a triangular shape.

Ushering in the start of the match was an enthusiastic, reverberating tenor voice: “3, 2, 1…” As the countdown made its course, our characters glowed into existence on the stage, the background filling in with the cosmetic of a war-torn forest, blood-red banners flapping in the light of a broken dawn, “…Begin!

I sunk into the zone and engaged Comet. We played in relative silence, and it was impossible not to feel the gaze of onlookers as the match pressed on. I knew some of them were watching for fun, but others were judging me, weighing my performance against predisposed standards. As such, I didn’t pull any punches.

But this Comet girl…she was better than anticipated. There was something odd about her play-style I couldn’t quite pin down. My damage debt clocked in at 77 by the time I stole her first stock. Dax and Petre, the boomerang-wielding monkey and his kooky bird compadre, rematerialized in light above the stage and dropped, beginning their second stock back at 0 debt.

I was clearly winning, I thought, but it didn’t feel like it, even as I applied pressure and continued to increase the gap between our scores. Able to afford a few glances to check on small things, I cut my attention towards Comet herself. Hair had fallen back in front of her eyes, but she hadn’t brushed it aside, attention full-bore on defeating me. The way she held the controller was correct, but somehow wrong, like she wasn’t used to it, yet.

I’d racked up over a hundred debt on Dax and Petre when I misread the trajectory of the ape’s boomerang and it dragged my character off into the abyss, costing me a stock. No big deal, really. I still possessed a tremendous advantage.

Sweat gathered like a mantle near the roots of my hairline. When I finally took Comet’s second stock, I was aptly in kill range for my second as well. One strong hit and Brave would be off the screen.

GG and Davis were both chuckling at my flank, practically eating my frustration like candy. They knew I knew something was wrong, and that I hadn’t figured it out yet.

“You’re not even,” I whispered mindlessly under my breath. I was going to say ‘good’, but caught myself before speaking something offensive. It was true though. Comet wasn’t good. In fact, she kind of sucked. The way she maneuvered her character was extremely amateur, and she failed to utilize any of Dax and Petre’s few decent combos.

I blinked as our characters clashed mid-air and hers came out on top. A proverbial potato sack of bricks hit me in the skull at thirty miles an hour as I drowned in sudden revelation. Comet wasn’t good at the game. She couldn’t capitalize on the physics-based engine, couldn’t predict where I’d go or what I’d do, and had no idea how to fight my character or use her own. But she did have something.

Nervous laughter chuckled out of my throat, “Your timing is ungodly.”

Her only answer was a half-smile.

Comet was a new player, so she didn’t understand the idiosyncrasies of Anarchy or the particulars about each character, but her ability to time attacks so they’d connect perfectly was uncanny. All of the best ways to execute offensive combinations and strategies were still a mystery she needed to unravel, but she made up for the handicap by having a master’s level skill with a single, fine detail of the game: precision and hitboxes (the range a character’s attack can cover). This point is something that professionals are always working to refine, and she already had it down. Like being able to disassemble, rebuild, load, and cock a gun, but never having learned how to fire it.

The dormant potential was astonishing.

Nevertheless, I eventually changed tact and came out the victor, if only by a small margin. Only about ten seconds after the match ended did I realize how much I was trembling.
“Davis,” Jordan said, with no particular inflection.

Suddenly Comet was out of her seat and Davis filled the absence, lifting the controller.

“Any feedback?” I asked.

“Not yet,” Jordan said.

Davis and I repeated the ritual of selecting our characters and stage, with him making a modification so the tag of player two read ‘Merc’. We picked a completely flat arena, with no additional platforms in any capacity.

My main, Brave, burst into life upon the screen, facing down Shiva, the moon maiden.
Shiva was tricky because she was a very range-oriented character, while Brave’s best utilization was through aggressive, in-your-face battle tactics. This meant that by nature, we were bound to completely contradictory play styles.

Davis offered up a fist-bump as the countdown dwindled, and I hit it, maybe a little too hard.

The match began and lord on high, if Davis was not one of the most flighty players in existence, then dip me in molasses and call me Juniper. He took the ‘range-oriented’ strategy to an obnoxious extreme and my respect for him was falling like an anchor through the Marianas Trench. You’d swear it’s like he was paranoid of taking any debt at all, even if it meant ultimately giving him the advantage. He just ran and ran and ran. In the meantime, he took pot shots at Brave until I’d accumulated over sixty debt.

“Is it irritating?” Davis asked, continuing to rain shards of ice and light on my character as I desperately tried to close the gap and volley some swordsplay into his overly-defensive, teeth-grinding retreat.

My fury must not have been hidden very well. “Nope, we’re good,” I lied, feeling the red flush through my face.

When at last I predicted his movements enough to land a blow, he used Shiva’s up-special, which is basically Anarchy jargon for the recovery technique most characters use to try and return to stage after being knocked off. But he used it while still on the stage, warping him to the other side, further away from me.

“Oh my god!” I ached to stand in protest, but restrained myself. Shiva warped beside me again and aptly propelled me off the side with her strongest melee move. Brave died and returned to the stage with his debt back at zero.

Clutching the controller, I was afraid I might break it, as Davis showed no remorse in recycling the same unholy strategy until I’d lost my second stock, him still sitting at thirty debt on his first.

However, during my final stock, he abandoned nearly all of the strategies (or lack thereof) that he’d fallen back on to that point, and intentionally made a push towards Brave. When I approached, ready to rip his phony crap to pieces, I found that, while I was able to connect a few swift strikes, he had me completely outmatched. I lost the set without taking a single one of his stocks.

But my initial rage had been diffused. “Why,” I sat dumbly, “Why were you playing in such a disrespectful way if you could overcome me in my own element?”

Davis grinned, “I didn’t know I could beat you, but I wanted to see how you’d react. You don’t handle stress or spammers very well. I didn’t mean anything mean by it, but you should probably work on that.”

An exasperated sigh fled from over my shoulder, Jordan rocking his head back and forth, weighing my performance, “Sid.”

I do not want to burden you with the details of my matchup against Sid, but there are some items worth mentioning. Firstly, he was the most evenly matched opponent so far, which was a great relief after I nearly went nuclear on Davis. Second, he had an incredibly vocal act of self-deprecation if he made any mistakes, which according to his incessant complaining was apparently every three seconds or so. Third, I’m pretty sure he hated me, as he kept muttering vulgarities about Brave which were too low for ears not attuned to small things.

Some details on my main. Brave was the hero character from RequiaTek’s arguably second-largest franchise, Seeds of Victory. It was a turn-based, tactical role-playing game, where the player directed various units around a battlefield to try and outwit the cunning and strength of the opposing army. It was set in various sci-fi inspired landscapes, but the storytelling mirrored more classic fantasy narratives. The game was family-friendly and would never use such language, but Brave was basically the bastard son of an elite galaxy official, cast aside at a young age. Growing up on the bloodless, evil planet of Victory, Brave grows into a capable and rebellious swordsman ready to fight against the oppressive government. But things go awry, and Brave’s lifestrings are cut, landing him at the brink of death, where his comrades resurrect him through the magic of technology. In so doing, Brave becomes a scientifically-augmented creature of miracles, where he leads the resistance to cut down Victory’s sinister rulers.

Brave’s model in Anarchy is a high-definition rehash of the original SoV model. Young, sharp male face. A singular blood-red eye, compliments of a robotic friend who was felled in battle. An artful splash of anime-inspired white hair. A few mechanical limbs where the old ones had been destroyed. Twice-plated black and silver armor with a Japanese haramaki wrapped about his waist. And lastly, two katanas of cybernetic makeup, each ebbing with an ephemeral red glow along their edges.
He was the quintessential hero character. None of this weird crap like Bluffy, who was a demented clown spawned from a clan of shinobi, or Dax and Petre which were little more than children’s cartoons. No, Brave was a man. An android-man. And he was a freaking baller.

Brave was also a rather high-standing character in Anarchy, sitting somewhere in the top tier of the pantheon.

So, despite being a great player, arguably even better than myself, I defeated Sid with one stock remaining. If we’d had a second match, I might have lost, but Jordan called up GG before we ever had the chance.

GG turned my face into pudding. The pinpoint accuracy of his every move combined with his ability to anticipate my actions made it look like I was a fledgling player, an infant who was neither potty-trained, nor understood why I should care about this mystical thing called a toilet. He was the vice-captain of the team, I supposed. If he weren’t good, it would have been disappointing.

“You rely too much on Brave’s counter when your debt goes above one hundred,” GG stated flatly, as if he were reading me a homework assignment, “It’s not very useful in the first place, and you become easy to telegraph the more you do it.”

“I know,” I said, remembering Perry’s feedback about my overabundance of countering.
It didn’t help that GG mained Solar and Luna, a duality of psychic twins which had some of the best combos available in the game. And by god, did GG knew how to use them, too. Solar and Luna are obscenely difficult to master on a technical level, but to those who put the time into learning the twins, you were automatically slated as a more than formidable opponent. Together, they were considered one of the top three characters in Anarchy.

Our match ended with me having only taken one of his stocks.

Lastly, Jordan took up arms against me. That matchup went surprisingly well, actually. Being that he was the captain, I expected to get my butt hammered pretty badly, but I didn’t. I mean, I lost. Like, I got freaking destroyed, but it wasn’t too bad. And I finally learned his main and game tag.

His tag was “Burndaddy”, and he mained Brave, albeit a different skin of the character. ‘Skin’ being a term for a different color scheme. I’ll be the first to admit, he was a long shot better than me as well. He knew all of the staple technique combinations any serious Brave player should be familiar with, and was fluid with all of them. Perhaps the only reason I did as well against Jordan as I did, was because I knew my opponent. Sure, his skills were more fine-tuned, and his cunning a little more intuitive than my own, but I still understood the best ways to use Brave, and could predict many of his actions through my own hours of hard work. I lost, but I’d cost Jordan two stock, and that made me proud.
Licking his lips, Jordan dipped his head with a smile, “Good games, Joel. How long have you been playing?”

“A couple years,” I answered.

“Have you ever been to a tournament before?”

I paused. “Yes,” I answered, “Only a couple, and in a remote part of Colorado when I spent a summer with my grandparents.” That was sort of true. I’d gone to tournaments to watch, but they weren’t in Colorado and I never spent a summer away from home. It just seemed more credible and impressive if I had some sort of history on the tournament scene. Suffer me to not only be a complete noob, but look like one, too.

“You’re pretty good,” Jordan continued, “How would you feel coming back here Monday after school and playing some more? As I was saying, we have an opening on the team,” his eyes cut away quickly and then back, “Sorry. I’m not saying the spot is immediately available just like that, but you have potential and I want to get a feel for your worth. You are good. I just want to see if you’re consistent.”

Perry jumped on my brain like a trampoline. I started to retrieve my backpack from the desk where I’d laid it down, “I am interested. I can do that,” I looked at each of them for a moment, “Would it be alright if I brought someone with me?”

Jordan and Sid’s eyes narrowed like they were on the same wavelength, but Sid remained quiet. Jordan’s jaw flexed with a light grinding, “That,” he worked to excavate the proper words, “should be fine. I cannot promise anything will come of it, but if you’d like to bring someone else, you may.”

The captain’s hesitation drummed at my chest with unexpected intensity. They only had one open spot on the team. Would I have to compete with Perry if I brought him?
I still needed to let him know. He would love to meet these people and play with them.
“That’s understandable. Thank you.”

I opened the classroom door to leave.

“Peace man,” Davis said, pocketing his hands in his scarlet jacket, “See you in the halls.”

“Bye, Joel,” Comet smiled.

GG nodded at me, his golden hair bouncing.

And Sid…Sid just…glared.

I decided not to pay it much mind, and shut the door firmly in my wake.