The songline led her away from the main track that bisected the forest and guided her down a twisting, bark-strewn track. She adjusted her pace to the new rhythm and paid close attention to the earth born music that flowed up through the souls of her manticore skin boots. Listen, it sang, listen child of the deep wood. Listen to me as I tell you that the prize you seek lies in a glade beyond the clearing ahead. Listen – now a deep bass chant of caution – five undead brigands bound by the shadowed enchantments of Dular await. They only wish to be free of their servitude, but the music in their frozen blood compels them to protect that which they care nothing for. Free them, daughter, and claim what is rightfully yours.

      Elouise, realising that she was already well into her brief time, called a minor ward of tempo and felt a surge of energy as the songline introduced a signature combat reel. Her perceptions broke into a series of grasped images as the path blurred around her, her focus half internalised as she drew the ancestor spirits close. Instantly the faces of her dryad forefathers budded and shrank back in the knotty bark of the passing trees. Their transient acknowledgements told her she was as prepared as any of her species had been before. At least the landscape played to her favour, unlike the salt temples of the Hydrien Basin. The earth music was weak in that place, a place where she could only rely on her wits and her weapons.

      She burst into the clearing, slowed and surveyed its shadowed and brambled boundaries. There, five figures creeping into view, the faded colours of their armour made all the more unremarkable by the uniform light of this autumnal day. The tarnished silver and green of her supple skin was dulled too, but she was a veritable riot of colour compared to the dour appearance of her foes. She swept back her emerald cape and revealed a bodice and kilt armoured with cockatrice scales alongside her ghost-like leg guards made of scintillating webweave.

      Weighing her battle staff in her hands, she braced one foot lightly behind her and adopted a favoured combat stance. In this she poised slightly forward on the leading foot, her mental focus quickly drawing the energy up from beneath her and feeding its rooted power into the spirit wood core of her weapon. The brigand corpses ran, knowing somewhere in their muddied and enchanted minds that if they struck quickly her magic wouldn’t help. But the warning, graciously given by the songline, meant she already had the advantage.

      Her staff glowed and a root ensnared the leading enemy. Immediately he began to hack wildly at the binding, a dark disregard for his own flesh as he did so. The remaining four seemed oblivious of their companion’s plight and continued to advance, their battle cries silenced on empty lungs and rotted vocal chords, their scimitars held aloft with bloody intent.

      Her expert hand span the staff in a blur as she carved a circular path through the air, discharging a wave of spirit energy as she curled. A jade tinted shock wave distorted the air around her and the four assailants were knocked from their feet. Before the closest could recover she was upon him, the ebon tempered end of her staff driving into the brigand’s gaping maw, splintering twig brittle teeth, pushing through and pounding down against its spine. A sickening crunch released his spirit from bondage, his soul finding voice in a whisper of gratitude. Elouise span like a dancer and faced the next assault.

      Three came as a group and she skipped backwards to give herself room for defence, a scimitar whistling through the air inches in front her. In one fluid movement she unclasped her cloak and, shouting a word of command that ignited the boji stones in its hem, she began to twirl it above her head. A quick flick of her wrist and the charged garment billowed in front of the group and released another punch of spirit energy. Buckles fractured on their armour. While mortal men would have be left floundering, these shades merely regrouped and advanced again.

      A smarting clash against her scaled armour left her shocked and unbalanced, a seeping gash drawn across her exposed forearm. This was proving to be harder than she had anticipated. Perhaps she was distracted? Unfocused? She knew she had to translocate to the hub and meet with Harry shortly, but she had time. She could do this.

      Suddenly dropping into a crouch she punched hard at a nearby knee and stamped a kick out at another. Both connected with satisfying thuds leaving her free to roll and leap backwards once again. That was the only real problem she found in her favouring the staff, she was always fighting for the space she required to use it to full effect. Hard won space she found now and the next arc of her weapon snapped the shoulder of the nearest adversary. Even with his sword arm disabled he charged on, mindlessly intent on destroying her. Now she charged too – lancing him through the chest and pushing downwards, his body dropping, becoming a fulcrum for a vaulting kick. A rusted face guard crumpled under the force of her foot and immediately only one opponent remained standing.

      The end of the struggle, if it could be termed such a thing, was a piteous affair as she dispatched the final threat – a hail of combined blows left him little more than a twitching wreck of disjointed limbs. In the space that came after, she moved around the stricken ensuring they were no longer a threat, encountering only minor resistance as she passed. The brigand with the crushed face flailed in blind disorientation whereas the one she had first snared merely heaved himself through the leaves, the shattered remains of his legs dragging behind him.

      It was only when the clearing was quiet again and the sap of her spirit magic had seeped back to her core, that she was able to attend to her wound. A light dressing of fallow leaf would suffice but she had no time for that now. She became still, her head cocked like a bird’s, listening once more.

      She moved with haste to the quietened pace of the songline, a pre-ordained sense of materialism counterpointing its fading rhythm. Another, smaller, clearing opened before her, a saturated cliff face exposed at its rear. Against this, feeding off the moisture of a struggling spring, sat the imposing bulk of the Moss Lord.

      Elouise hardly registered its verdant presence as she loped towards it, her eyes fixed upon the circlet she was here for. The translocation process was starting already, her legs transmitting an electric sparkle as they began to fade. She deftly plucked the head piece from the gnarled hands of the old wood spirit and immediately it stirred.

      “Ahhhhh…” The filigreed tendrils around its ancient eyes slowly fluttered opened, “Daughter of the deep wood. Welcome.” The whispering voice lifted as did its ancient face which squashed into an approximation of open joy. “It is good to see you. Know that it has…”

      “Forgive me.” Elouise said smiling, knowing that it would. “I… The songlines…, “she shrugged, “They are calling me elsewhere.” And with that she finally disintegrated, a cloud of twinkling motes the only evidence that she had ever existed. The Moss Lord raised its brows in what seemed to be a mixture of surprise and mild consternation, and then promptly went back to sleep.

*****

      Harry took three ragged breaths, braced himself and leapt around the corner of the ruined building. He was met by a rattle of targeted fire. A tight pattern of automatic rounds smacked him square in the chest. Mounted weapon, he thought. He staggered back, alarms chirping angrily in his helmet as the projectile energy dissipated through the suit’s dampeners. He let the servos take the strain as he scissored his legs, planted his feet and weathered the remaining aftershocks of the impact.

      The smashed layer of ablative particles on his surface armour inherited the remaining kinetic energy of the bullets, and instantly erupted into a chalky cloud large enough to obscure his attacker’s view. Harry dropped to a low crouch and double blinked his visor to infrared. Now, where are you?

      Comets of pixelated yellow flew over his head as the attacker opened fire once again. He tracked them to their source; a bulbous amber glow above a red hot barrel. The gunman was dug-in behind a low wall, but had lost Harry and was probing the cloud at random. Ordnance as reconnaissance, eh? Way too high.

      “Ablative pattern restored,” chimed his suit.

      Harry grinned.

      He bunched his leg muscles and sprang, the suit responding with an appropriate amplification of force. Suddenly he was arcing ten feet above the smokescreen of the occluding cloud, a puffed vapour trail at its top the only evidence of his departure. He twisted sidewards mid-air and dropped like a brick towards the gunman. Two hundred and thirty kilos of augmented battle suit tended to bring enemies down pretty quickly, especially from this height.

      If there were any windows left in the ruined houses, they would’ve shaken with the impact as Harry hit the ground. His left foot crushed the mounted gun’s barrel like a toothpaste tube, his right collapsing the shooter into something that resembled a broken puppet.

      The infrared showed a flowing red ghost rising in front of him and Harry blinked his visor back into the visual spectrum. Exploded debris from his landing was still dropping all around, but through it he was able to recognise the shock on the face on the man in front of him. He must have been linking ammunition belts together, feeding the gun. Now one dirty hand had already grasped the stock of a plasma pistol and was pulling it free of its holster.

      The weapon is the man, not the tool he uses… The voice of Harry’s virtual drill sergeant barking through his inaction. He immediately ducked, rolled and punched while simultaneously the fat maw of the plasma pistol spat above him. Harry felt a searing heat across one shoulder and then the weight of the man as he folded briefly around his armoured fist. It was an overpowered response, but the way his victim flew backwards was satisfying in the extreme.

      Harry stood again and glanced briefly at the section of rent carapace where the plasma blast had caught him and dismissed it. He’d worry about how to manage this vulnerability later. For now all he needed to know that the area was secure.

      He checked his cover options while jogging towards an unrecognisable lump of reinforced plasticrete, and dropped into a low crouch beside it. Telemetry poured into his data feed as soon as he paid attention to it – topographic details from the war orbitals, scans from those drones that were still operational, filtered broadcasts from the brass encrypted channel. It only took a second to distil everything into the simple message ‘safe, for now’, before his attention was drawn to a flashing icon in the bottom left of his visor’s display. There, amid the insistent combat reticules, flashed a simplified clock face and a tiny picture of an attractive woman. Her chin tilted slightly upwards in a approximation of regal self-confidence.

      “Argh…” Harry groaned. He could try and bury himself in the twitch reactions of battle, but there was no way he could avoid this confrontation.

      He blinked open the coms link and drew a reluctant breath.

      “Sorry folks, I’m going to have to warp out.”

      “What?!” The expected incredulous shout from Keyops.

      “I know, I know…”

      “You said you had time. You said you were in for all of this!” Keyops’ rage seemed magnified by this fractured English.

      “I was when this was a two hour operation. We’re looking at three plus now. Look…” Harry quickly scanned the displays on the map view. “Push Maxley and Gappa over to me then drop a fresh unit in at the edge of our lines. Three minutes and you’ve lost nothing.”

      “But… What the…”

      “Hey come on Keyops, take command.”

      The tirade of expletives were in Keyops’ native tongue and all but lost on Harry. Finally, though, his commander regained some form of composure.”

      “OK… OK. Yes, that works. Maxley, Gappa converge on Harry. He’s right, it is a good position.”

      “Cool. I’ll wait till they arrive and then…”

      “Damn right you wait! And recon the whole area while you do.”

      “But…”

      “Hey Harry. Do it. You’re the one fucking us here!”

      A combination of obligation and guilt propelled Harry away from the conversation and out into a wide arc around the control point he had just captured. At regular intervals he threw sticky sensors against dead buildings, wrecked vehicles and natural rock formations until, by the time he returned to the wrecked gun emplacement, the whole area was wired for detection down to an insectoidal level. Maxley and Gappa were waiting for him when he returned. They both knuckled bumped Harry as he let his suit’s recall warp kick in.

      “OK,” Harry said, his voice heavy with the task ahead. “I’m out of here.”

      “Make sure you update the combat diary Harry.” Was all Keyops said.

      Then with suitably stylish lightning discharge and crack of localised thunder Harry dematerialised.

*****

      The gamespace hub was as overcrowded as ever, although Elouise recognised this as an illusion. Servers shared zones until they reached capacity so that the populace would never warp into an empty city and feel the harrowing tendrils of isolation. Wherever she looked it was all one seething mass of digital humanity.

      She sat on one of the street-facing chairs that set this particular trade store among her favourites, her eyes constantly scanning the crowd as they scampered, stomped or floated past, her well-trained appreciation picking up on the tell-tale confusion of those new to these streets. She made a half-hearted note of their character names as they rotated in gentle befuddlement while ignoring the directional dashing of the old hands.

      The time on the local hub clock showed that Harry was late. Elouise quickly meditated a terse request to find where he was. The telepathic response from his suit had all the hard, metallic taint of hi-tech, but she didn’t mind. He was on his way.

      His appearance across the plaza was comical. He could have changed into day-ware in an instant, but instead he kept to the angular plating of his bulky combat suit. He was in a hurry or otherwise preoccupied, she’d soon find out. The incongruity of his appearance was suddenly made all the more acute as Harry became engulfed in a gang of chattering sprites all heading off on some racial, city-wide quest. He stopped, taken aback by the swam of tiny bodies that obscured his view as they flowed around him.

      From Elouise’s perspective, the passing throng made Harry look like some form of avant-garde sculpture assailed by tourist group on a very tight schedule. She stifled a giggle and smoothed the material on the simple green dress she had chosen for their meeting.

      “Fucking sprites,” he said when he finally made it to the store front. There was a smile in his voice, but something else was hidden there as well. Resignation?

      “Well hello,” Elouise smiled looking up at the hulk planted next to her table, “I’d hug you but I might dislocate something.”

      Harry looked down, realising for the first time that he was still combat ready.

      “Oh crap. Sorry,” he spluttered and the suit glowed briefly before folding away into its undersized backpack. He was still in his regulation fatigues underneath, but it was still an improvement.

      They hugged briefly and Elouise planted a chaste kiss lightly upon his rugged cheek. Harry didn’t return the gesture and it was then that Elouise realised something was properly wrong. She paused, considering. It was important not to rush him. She knew what he was actually like under all the ‘call to action’ and barked orders. If she broached the subject head-on. Well… She had learned that in confrontation of an emotional kind, Harry showed all the signs of a perpetual retreat. So, instead, she indicated the seat next to her and showed no surprise or annoyance that he chose to sit opposite.

      “Everything OK on the front lines?” She opened knowing that he found few other places to bitch about his platoon. Harry didn’t take the bait.

      “Look,” he leant forward, his bulky and careworn hands sitting at odds against the bright mosaic of the table top. “We need…”

      Suddenly one of the store’s broker drones bobbed out of the doorway with a cheery “You need to trade folks?”

      “Not now.” Harry dismissed the unit with an irritated wave of his hand.

      “How about a drink?” The drone continued, its upbeat approach undented.

      “No!” Harry hissed, a seething over reaction to the innocuous request.

      “Yes. I’d like a drink” Elouise saw his confusion and annoyance immediately melt beneath impeccable manners.

      “Yes.” He said, “Of course. My apologies.”

      Elouise, not wanting to draw things out any longer, quickly ordered for both of them. The drinks materialised with a soft checkout desk bleep that indicated that Elouise had paid and the drone, happy to have served, whistled its way back into the store.

      “They’re on me.” Elouise said into an instantaneous and hanging silence. It was a mistake, a natural slip of the tongue but one that bridged straight into a shared joke of theirs. An early sexual encounter in one of the hub’s bars flashed between them, a ghost recollection that usually brought pleasure but this time… Pain?

      That was it. She’d had enough dancing around this, “What’s up Harry?”

      He looked down at his drink, up at a passing flock of moth men and finally back to her with a sigh. “I…”

      “You don’t know where to start? Is that it?”

      Harry sank even further into himself and nodded.

      “It’s OK,” Elouise said, reaching out a reassuring hand. “But you are scaring me with all of these… this conflicted stuff.”

      “It’s over.” He blurted, his jaw clenching and reclenching as soon as the words were out.

      “What’s over? Your tour of duty with the outfit? Your…” She paused, the revelation sinking in. “You’re breaking up with me?”

      Elouise sensed the truth in her words as she said them. He was already gone, she knew. He had been for a while now. Distracted and preoccupied. He just wanted to do the decent thing and explain his reasons to her face to face. She had to give it to him, he was brave. It would have been so easy to switch locations, re-route contacts lists, block communications from her… She knew. She had seen it all before. But not this one. Not Harry.

      He nodded, and then seemed to find conviction in the acknowledgement. “I…,” he paused, framing and rejecting a list of responses. Then everything tumbled out at once, “There’s someone else. There always has been. A partner, long term. But that’s not to belittle what we had between us. It was different, new… Hanging out with you has been some much fun…”

      “A lot more than ‘fun’ for me.” Elouise considered her options. Indignant? Weak and pleading? Angry? Accepting…? “You don’t do those sorts of things, share such things with someone you’re just ‘hanging out’ with. I thought this was more than just a friendship.”

      “It is. It was, which is why this isn’t easy for me at all. There’s a part of me that wants to stay here with you, but that’s already more than this should really be.”

      “And what should this be Harry? I’m genuinely curious. A flirtation? A fling? An affair?”

      “Yes,” Harry hung his head. “An affair. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to go on, but I just can’t justify it within myself. I’ve spent ages arguing, considering, reconsidering. And I can’t… I can’t…”

      “Can’t what?” Despite herself and all of her experience, she was finding this difficult. Harry was right, this had been genuinely fun.

      “I can’t go on with the deception. This… All of this… It’s a wonderful dream. But real life doesn’t just vanish out there.”

      The initial momentum of their discussion ran aground, stalled by the sheer weight of what was now being hauled between them. Harry felt it like a stone sinking through the viscous mess of his heart, settling somewhere in the pit of his stomach.

      “You’re not going to leave gamespace are you? I don’t think I could handle that. I’m sure your brothers in arms would think so too.”

      “That’s different.”

      “Is it?”

      “Well, yeah. Keyops is a monumental tool, but the squad have never been tighter. We’re doing some interesting stuff at the moment.”

      “More interesting than what we were up to?” Elouise bit her tongue again, but she simply couldn’t help herself. “OK, I’m sorry. That was a cheap shot. I’m glad you’re not leaving gamespace. Really I am. Having you not being a part of my life…”

      “But I will be. Not be a part of your life that is. I’m staying with the outfit but jumping hub servers. You’ll be able to find me if you really want to, but I’d prefer it if you didn’t.” He looked down to the untouched drink clasped between his hands.

      “Oh.” Was all Elouise could think to say.

      Silence then. Wordless, dumb space with just the ambient noises of the crowded, yet muted, world passing by.

      They looked away from each other and watched the flow of passing characters. A male humanoid in a trilby and rain coat paused in front of them, his stationary form quickly dropping into its idle animation. He tipped the brim of his hat back, lit a cigarette and snatched glances at everything around him. Watching, analysing, deducing… Strange to think that this avatar, just like Elouise’s, continued doing its thing regardless of what had drawn the operator away from their interface in the real world. They were all definitely involved in something bigger and wilder here. Some more so than others she realised and sighed.

      “So this is it, I guess.” She said. The presence of the detective avatar near them making her words seem all the more gauche. A cheesy Hollywood moment, strangely suited to this Wonderland. “You go back to playing soldier boy and I return to the deep wood. Perhaps that’s the real reason you’re ditching me.”

      “No,” Harry said, pulling himself to his feet. “This is about the real world and what happens there, not here. I’m sorry Elouise. Really I am.”

      He hauled himself to his feet and was about to turn, to just walk away.

      “Well say goodbye.” Elouise insisted, resignation heavy in her voice.

      “I’m sorry?” Harry glanced back, surprised that there was more to say.

      “I know you’re sorry Harry, so am I. But at least have the decency to say goodbye. Don’t just walk away.”

      “Of course. I’m sorry. I was… Distracted. Goodbye.”

      “Goodbye Harry. Take care.”

      The big, brutish avatar just stood there for a while and then dropped into his own downtime animation. He snapped to attention, clicking his heels together and saluting. It would have been tragically funny if Elouise didn’t know that Harry’s operator had already logged off. Slowly this tall, strong representation dwindled and faded away. A ghost. A formative memory.

      Elouise, sensing that she had overstayed her welcome on this server, quickly followed suit. A while after the bot, sensing a vacated table, floated out of his store and cleared the rendered crockery away.

*****

      “No, I am not playing *that* game again. Just ordering some groceries. Is there anything you’d like?”

      Harriott Horton’s teenage son lurked in the doorway, suspicion written throughout his habitual sneer. Thankfully the console screen had most of its back to him, but it would only take a few steps for him to witness the fading image of Elouise still sitting at the store’s table.

      Years of experience had taught Harriott how to mask the thudding pace of her heart, to subdue the instant blush of being caught. She forced herself to relax into the panic even as the image of Harry in his full battle gear suddenly resolved itself in front of her. Three carefully executed selections and the log-in/log-out screen was deftly replaced with the banal adverts of a shopping site. She mimicked an easy smile towards her son. Mumbling a trinity of his favourite fizzy drinks, he shambled away appeased if not exactly happy.

      It was only then that she felt free to let out a breath, to wonder at the enormity of what she had just done. It had always been her way, to choose compliance and negotiation over what she really wanted. To bury herself somewhere private, away from obligation. Surely that was the whole point of her involvement in the games hub. It was the one place where she wasn’t driven by a constant sense of duty. She let out a small, mournful laugh at the thought. Perhaps that’s why she’d opted for the role of a space trooper. Her life had always been duty full. She rubbed her reddening eyes, looked to the screen and tried not to think about the feisty wood nymph as she browsed the comparative prices of toilet rolls.

*****

      Later that day Blaze Lang read through the response to her report. The operators were more than happy with her handling of ‘Harry’ and the closure of the relationship. She, in the guise of Elouise, had thought on her feet – especially regarding her decision to linger with Harry knowing full well that her following paramour would happily reschedule and that he would, perhaps, be even further enticed by being stood up.

      It was also noted that she’d worked to confirm Harry’s intention to continue involvement with his platoon. A commendable additional touch that would add credence to the 2.5% increase in patron retention levels. Levels that were already proving a healthy return on investment for the department that had colloquially become known as the Fluff Division. Ultimately, Elouise had conducted herself professionally throughout and the additional hub credits she had earned would be communicated to the other girls and boys in her subgroup.

      The report closed with the reassurance that Harry’s current level of guilt and regret would slowly fade into a nostalgic afterglow. After all, it wasn’t as if any real taboos or hearts had been broken.

      A delighted Blaze closed the report down and flung herself back into Elouise’s virtual world. She hit the ground running and almost felt the backwash of earth magic course through her avatar, spilling out of the interface and inwards, electrifying her network of nerves and senses in the real world. She still couldn’t believe she was being paid to play the games she loved. It was a miraculous piece of knowing that made her heart sing with every single step.

— THE END —
(Copyright © 2013 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)