Chapter 4: When Everything They Know Is Threatened

…Resume.

Europa Dohan watched her Paladin, Lexter Adept, tear the head off the no fat, no carb, nutritionized and flavorful Everything muffin.  Crumbs escaped the pastry bag he used as a placemat and littered the compressed ash, Zero Waste table.

Her muffin remained in its bag.  She lacked his habit of consuming anxiety with muffin.  Loss of appetite was her affliction in this regard.  Nervousness filled her stomach, causing her expression to sour.

“Sorry,” he said through the quarter of muffin top in his mouth.

“What?” she asked.

“You’re watching me chew,” he replied.  “Too much, too fast.”  Then, a bit defensively, “It’s been a long time since it mattered, you know.  Since anyone watched.”

Thus, the conversation commenced in a direction Europa did not care to follow.  Yet, she found herself saying, “We could share one.”

“I’ve been off them for days,” he said, cringing at his own whiny tone.

“No fat, no carb,” she continued.  “Ridiculous.  We really should just share.”

He hesitated.

“My network set off fireworks in my head when you arrived.”

“You have it set for fireworks?” she wondered.

“Only for you.”

“That’s sweet,” she said.

“Sweet like a muffin, yeah?” he joked.  “Something to celebrate with.”

“Celebrate?” she brightened.

“I haven’t seen you in a couple of days,” he said.  “Not here, anyway.”

She smiled.  “Last night was lovely,”

He tore off a large portion of muffin body and pushed it in his mouth.

“Why do you get so uncomfortable when I mention Lopex Minor?” she asked, her brightness dimming at his reaction.

The pace of his chewing increased.  He brought the grande cup to his lips.  Warm, milky liquid eased the effort and he swallowed the food.

“There’s an old saying, Europa.  What you are in the game stays in the game,” he stated with proper gravitas.

“Obviously,” she said.  “I mean, you’re the Paladin, right, Keeper of the 6th order.  Your eyes can see all false magic in the 7 Worlds, but here you can’t even see the lies of a NO FAT, NO CARB, EVERYTHING MUFFIN!!!”

She tried to hide her hurt, but did so poorly.

“Managing untruths is the nature of retail,” he replied.  Weak, flippant, it was all he could marshal while defiantly placing muffin top on his tongue.

Despite his chewing, they sat in awkward silence until he pointed at her pastry bag.

“You gonna eat that?”

She laughed.

“What? No?” he continued, but could not hold his serious face.

“Lex, you’re an asshole,” she chuckled.

“True…an ancient one.”

“That’s it,” she shook her head.  “You have to break that old saying.  I need a little more Paladin around here.  Just a microbit more confidence.”

He removed a joint from the pack in his apron pocket.

“I’ll try.”

She reached across the table, holding his wrist, and keeping the weed from his lips.

“Please, don’t do that,” she said.  “Don’t numb yourself to me now.”

Surprised, he lowered his arm to the tabletop.  Her hand remained on his wrist.

“Europa, you have to understand,” he entreated.  “This is the Sad Reality.  Numb’s the only way I can function here.”

“No.”  She shook her head.  “You have to be better than that.”

He watched her without the interruptions of newsfeeds, windows, or open portals.  It was a quiet courtesy that suffered one blemish:  the seconds of his break counted down in the right corner of his field of vision.

“The game is changing, Lex,” she continued.  “We’re expanding.  New players.  New adventures.  There may even be new worlds and crossovers coming soon.”

“Crossovers never work,” he replied.

“No.  They didn’t work at the beginning.  And no one really cared to leave their game of choice in the decades the games developed.  But, a whole generation is looking for something new.”

“Your generation,” he said while rolling the unlit joint between his thumb and forefinger.

The seconds of his freedom ticked away.

“Yep, my generation wants to make our mark on the Gamesphere.  We’re anxious for adventure,” she said.

“So, petition the High Overlords.”

“We did,” she said, her voice tainted by a hint of disdain.  “The High Overlords have forgotten their sense of wonder.  They try to oppress our instinct so we rebel.  We know this is how things work between youth and age.  It’s disappointing really.  We thought it might be different with us.”

“Nobody smiles when everything they know is threatened,” he said.  “The 7 Worlds has seen its share of rebellions.  It adapted every time.  That’s what’s so beautiful about it.  Every bit of anarchy has made it a better place.”

Longing tormented him.  This was a conversation meant for fields and unicorn herds and not the 4th floor food court.  He wanted to walk with her without small red numbers taxing his joy.

“We do want guidance from one of the elders of the game,” she stated, cautiously.  “Whether you believe this or accept it, you are a hero, Lex, to millions.  Even though you choose to walk alone, they follow you.  The Paladin teaches the way of justice and tolerance in peace and battle.  You are beloved.”

She hesitated.

“I love you, Lex.”

His eyes wandered as if answers existed in the gaudiness of the Mall.  He spied the Welcome Eagle and that strange little man looking his way.

“The Sad Reality gets too much of you.  We need our Paladin in the game, full time.”

The numbers began to flash.  His break had entered its final two minutes.  He had so many questions, but one stepped forth.

“What’s been going on between us, is it real, or do you just want me onboard for your revolution?”

The question felt reasonable when he gave it voice, but her reaction made him reconsider.  Age forms callouses over vital organs.  It becomes hard to recall the courage it takes to offer one’s heart.  Europa Dohan had an unprotected, romantic heart.  His question had pierced it for the first time.

“Oh, god,” he said.  “Europa, I’m sorry.”

“How could you ask me that?  Not when…” she battled her tears.  “You said you loved me last night.”

He reached for her hand and held it.

“Europa,” he began, gently.  “You have to understand…”

“No!  You have to understand something.  I am smart, clever, but unfortunately I’m just not that conniving.  I researched you before I made contact.  I knew you were deep in this rut so many old gamers fall into.  I even ran an extrapolation based on your personality to see if you’d change if given the chance and you almost never did.  ALMOST.”

His face went grim.  Unexpectedly, he began to shudder.

“I’m sorry, Lex, but I have to hear you love me.  You need to find the guts to say it or I’m gone.  We can start there and move slowly.  But, I’m not taking this chance until you say it.”  She waited.  “Well?”

He pounced.  As large as he was, he moved with great speed.  He was around the table, one hand wrapped around her waist, the other holding her head.  Relentless, he pushed her toward the floor beneath the table and did not stop when her forehead scraped against its side, stealing flesh and tech.

Dazed, she watched him flee while she huddled in safety.

{fragment}

“No!  You have to understand something.  I am smart, clever, but unfortunately I’m just not that conniving.  I researched you before I made contact.”

Lexter Adept knew that this was the moment that would change his life.  It defied so many moments in the procession since he last felt hope.  But, here it was.  She embodied it, and, despite the cynicism and caution, he knew his heart.  It swelled in his chest and thundered with a truth that needed release.

“I knew you were deep in this rut so many old gamers fall into.  I even ran an extrapolation based on your personality to see if you’d change if given the chance and you almost never did.  ALMOST.”

The weight of a lifetime’s pain lifted.  He was healed.  A vision of this new life with her infected him.  Joy.  Oh, joy,  He fucking swooned.  All this priced with the words “I love you.”

Then…

A window popped into his field of vision, municipal and without filter.  A woman appeared; her gray skin marked her as a One-Racer, a social movement the world consumed and confined its survivors to civil service.  She wore the requisite smile, but her dark eyes looked dire.

“Lexter Adept,” she intoned.  “In accordance with the codes of personal protection, the trigger laws, and the transportation of firearms in public domains, a warrant has been purchased for your execution.  The Mall has been informed, of course.”

His face went grim.

“All insurance documentation pertaining to this action are attached with this file.  Firing will begin in 30-29-28…”

He shuddered.  Europa Dohan spoke.

“I’m sorry, Lex, but I have to hear you love me.  You need to find the guts to say it or I’m gone.  We can start there and move slowly.  But, I’m not taking this chance until you say it.”  She waited.  “Well?”

He pounced.

{endfragment}