2306 words (9 minute read)

2 Players

The clouds rolled over Dunam, and the wind picked up. It howled up from the Skookullom gorge, and blew over the town, bending trees and breaking off branches in the forest. As Jay zipped down side streets, he saw the trees in his neighbors houses undulating rhythmically. His heart pounded. What if he’d been wrong? What if Jeremy wasn’t the second player?

He was two blocks from Liz’s house, when John Warner’s truck pulled out in front of him. Jay slammed on the brakes of his Miata, and screeched to a halt. He stared at the truck sitting sideways in the road, not comprehending. Then more screams of vehicles. He turned around to see more trucks peeling out of alleys, and burning down gravel roads. Surrounding him, blocking him. Hunting him. By the time Jay realized what was happening, it was too late. He tried to reverse and spin around, but there was nowhere to go. He was trapped in a circle of vehicles. He heard doors open, and then footsteps. His heart was pounding in his ears.

He flung open his door and ran. The Johns were instantly on him. He felt their rough hands grabbing his arms, and pulling him up. John Warner gave a whistle and the trucks disappeared. He saw someone get in his Miata, and drive it over there too. They all pulled into the empty Hunsaker Oil lot, behind the old abandoned building, in the small slice of gravel hidden from the main road. They dragged him across the gravel, his knees scraping on the little rocks, past the wooden tower and the abandoned logging truck.

Jeremy stepped out from John Warner’s truck. He wasn’t smiling. The Johns threw Jay down at Jeremy’s feet. Jay tried to scoot back, but Jeremy pushed him backwards, and Jay landed on his butt in the gravel.

“J— Jeremy. Look. Mistakes were made, man.”

“You’re damn right they were.”

Jeremy dropped down onto Jay, pinching his chest with his knees. He pulled back a fist and slammed it into Jay’s face.

Jay’s vision erupted into light. His head jerked with the blow, falling to the side. From his sideways glance, he saw the Johns turn his backpack upside down. He watched his Trapper Keeper, books, pens, dump out. The wind caught a lone Turtle Pie wrapper and whisked it away. One of the Johns picked up the Krave III box and dumped the disks onto the ground.


The John looked gleefully at Jay and then smashed his foot down, grinding the disks into the gravel. Jeremy grabbed Jay’s face, and jerked it back forward. Jay watched Jeremy’s fist cock back like a hammer, big and filling the sky. He closed his eyes and waited for the blow to fall. But it didn’t. All the Johns’ jeering had stopped. The wind had stopped too. Jay cautiously opened one eye. Jeremy’s face remained twisted in a sneer. His fist was poised in the air like a hammer waiting to fall. But it hung there, indefinitely. Jay noted with curiosity the red blotches around the knuckles. Is that my blood?

He looked around. The Johns were frozen. Some smiling, some mid-shout. Others just watched. John Warner was stopped in a half-sneeze, his foot mid-grind into the Krave III disks. Behind them, the trees were pressed to one side, locked in the ruffles of wind. Directly above him, a bird hung in mid-flight, its wings outstretched. Jay could see a small, white blotch hanging in the air above him. Bird shit. Stopped in the path down towards his face. Of course.

He tried lifting his arms, but Jeremy’s weight made it impossible. He looked for any sign of help. It was then he saw the little figure strolling over the gravel. He was short, about Jay’s height. Jay’s arms pinned down, Jeremy’s leg partially blocking his view, and Jay strained to sit up. The figure wore pants and wind breaker his same color, and a fanny pack. It was him. An exact replica, except this Jay wore a fanny pack.

“Looks like you could use a hand.”

He leaned over Jay’s body and shoved Jeremy’s shoulders. Jeremy slowly lifted up, like a statue, until his legs were off Jay’s arms. Jay climbed out, and then the man gently let Jeremy fall back to the ground. He stood, beaming at Jay, clearly pleased with himself. Everything else was still frozen. The other Jay shook his head.

“You had a good run.”

“Wh— who are you?”

The other Jay grinned. “I’ll give you three guesses.”

“You look like… me.”

“Bravo.” He pointed to the frozen Jeremy. “You know, that used to be me, sitting under those legs. Gosh, it feels like a long time ago.” He giggled. “Except not really. It never goes away.”

Jay slowly nodded, realizing.

“Wait… you’re the second player?”

“Uh, player one, actually.”

Jay 1.0 walked over to John Warner, and picked up The Build disk. The green plastic was ripped and covered in dust. The black magnetic tape underneath was crinkled and dirty.

“Uh oh.” He tossed the disk onto the ground. “Look, uh, I’m gonna step in for a bit, k? Don’t take it the wrong way; you’ve been doing great. But I’ve spent a lot of time building all of this.” He gestured to the world. “And we’re just getting to the fun part.”

This other Jay unzipped his fanny pack, pulling out what looked like a black, plastic wand. A bright screen shone in its center. He hit a few buttons, then held it up to Jay’s face. Jay blinked. There were no lights on it, and it was dull and silent. Then, this other Jay turned the device back on himself. As he did, his face shifted a little. Cuts and bruises grew into his skin. Jay realized that’s how his own face must look, after Jeremy’s blows.

“I don’t understand. What am I? What are you? If this is a simulation of Dunam…”

The other Jay giggled again. “...you’re a simulation of me.”

“There are three types of people in this game, Jay. There are the players: Liz and myself. There’s everyone else—your friend Colin, your parents, Stevie, Jeremy. They’re the most advanced non-player characters in gaming history. With A.I. so sophisticated, ninety-five percent of players can’t tell the difference between them and real players. But, still with limitations.”

The other Jay clamped a hand down on Jay’s shoulder. “Then there’s you. You, my friend, are special. These NPCs, I had to build their personalities from scratch. I made them as close to high school as I could remember but…” He shrugged,“...memory is a faulty thing.”

“But you… I needed you to make the same decisions I would make. You are me. Or as close to me as ones and zeroes can simulate. There’s this new capability we developed at Pantheon Games—”

“Pantheon Games?” Jay startled. They were the parent company that made the Krave series.

Jay’s doppelganger grinned. “I work there as a lead developer. Pretty cool, huh? I’m building Krave Prime now, the twelfth Krave game. All this is a sideproject; a custom mod I’ve been working on in my spare time, using the Krave Prime engine. One of the new features of Krave Prime is the ability to scan, upload and convert one’s neural pathways to digital.”

This was far beyond Jay’s understanding of computer science.

“Quite simply, I scanned and uploaded my consciousness into the game. You’re the first application of this new feature, ever. I couldn’t play this mod 24 hours a day—Pantheon demands long hours, after all, then there’s grocery shopping, the occasional shower, and so on. So I needed someone to push the narrative along while I was away from keyboard. So who better than me? Of course, I had to tweak a few of your parameters. Upped your dopamine potential and risk threshold, lowered your impulse control. Made you back into a teenager. But otherwise, yeah. You’re my spitting image. Although I go by Hal now. A little more professional.”

Jay thought of his own name, Jay Harold Banksman. So this was him. The real him. Who he would grow up to be, if he were a real person, instead of some digital copy. His head swam and he felt sick. He stumbled back, moving away from Hal who stood too close, grinned too heavily.

“So this world is fake? None of it means anything?”

Hal’s smile faded and he shook his head. “No. It means a lot. It means everything, really. People tell you that ‘it’s just high school.’ That you should just get over it. But you don’t. Not really, it never leaves. So now I’m back, you could say. Determined to do it right. Are you familiar with EMDR therapy?”

Jay shook his head.

“No, it wasn’t popular back in 1993. Especially not in Dunam. It’s a way of forcing the body to re-live trauma, in an effort to excise it. I’ve been trying that therapy for years, now. But the best way to confront trauma…” Hal brushed past Jay, and climbed onto his back, taking Jay’s spot under Jeremy’s frozen body,“...is to face it head on.”

Jay stared at the small, bleeding cuts on Hal’s face. His hand reflexively went to his own head. When he pulled his hand away, there was blood.

“And Liz? Who is she to you?”

Hal chuckled darkly. “If high school’s just a game, then I lost very badly to her a long time ago. So this is something of a re-match.”

“But she doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t want to play.”

“I didn’t want to play back then. Sometimes you pick the game, sometimes the game picks you. Some people—like us, Jay—when we lose, we get stuck playing that hand over and over again. You know what I mean. You’ve been doing it for years. It doesn’t stop in Dunam, Jay. It goes on and on and on. Until you take the initiative to stop it.”

“What did Liz do?”

Hal’s face darkened. “Why don’t you ask her?”

Jay remembered the prom dream with Liz. The anger and anxiety and illness he felt, whenever the music came to the B-52s. If he were an upload of Hal’s consciousness, he would have access to Hal’s memories. So it wasn’t just a dream. Something had happened between Hal and Liz at Hal’s senior prom. Something terrible. It had got stuck deep in his brain, and Jay, a manifestation of Hal, could still feel the effects of it. Jay didn’t know what it was yet—he always woke up before that part of the dream. But if he were feeling such strong tremors of it, he knew that Hal was, too.

Hal lay on the ground, back flat, staring up at the sky and gripped his plastic wand.

“Are you familiar with ghosting? I don’t remember if it would be in your games. But it’s common in modern games, especially multiplayer games. After a player dies, ghosting lets them stick around as observers. They can’t interact with the game’s physics, characters, or other players, but they get to watch the excitement of play.”

Hal pressed a button. Jay felt a tingling sensation and looked down at his hands. They were fading. He turned invisible. His whole body grew lighter, and he felt himself lifting off the ground. He grabbed desperately for something to hold onto, reaching for Jeremy’s shoulder.  But his hands passed right through. From the ground, Hal smiled.

“I appreciate all you’ve done for me, Jay. I know you’ve had a shitty time of it here. Stick around, though. You’re going to enjoy this next part, I promise.”

Hal squinted up at the sky and his eyes fell on the frozen bird poop in the air above him. He held up the wand and sighed.

“Ah, shit...”

Then the bird was moving again. A white blotch splattered Hal’s face. The wind was howling, the John’s were shouting, and Jeremy’s fists rained down. Jay, floating, invisible, watched Hal’s head turn and the blows. Hal moaned. Jay stepped in to intervene, trying to place a hand on Jeremy’s arm. It passed right through. He screamed at the John’s.

“Stop it!”


Then, suddenly, Jeremy’s punches stopped. Jay looked over. Hal had his arms free from Jeremy’s legs. He held Jeremy’s hands in his. Jeremy struggled, but Hal’s grip was like a vice.

Hal moaned and protested, “No, please, stop,” but there was mockery in his voice, now. He shoved Jeremy’s hands to the sides, and Jeremy toppled over, rolling across the ground with a grunt. The Johns stared as Hal jumped up took off running. Jeremy leaned up on his elbow.

“Stop him!”

The Johns darted after Hal, but Hal dodged them as he ran, stepping nimbly out of their way. Jay watched him go; he was faster than Buster Alcock, the school’s top sprinter. He reached the sidewalk at a clip, leaving the Johns behind. Jeremy shouted after.

“If I see you again, you’re dead!”

Jay couldn’t be certain, but he thought he heard Hal laughing into the wind. Then he was gone. Jeremy sulked across the empty lot, spitting down into the gravel. The Johns stared in silence.

John Warner offered cautiously:

“Take his car, Jerm.”

He spat on Hal’s back.

“Fuck green.”

Jeremy stomped across the gravel, jumped into the passenger seat and slammed the door. The Johns dispersed, moving to their own trucks. One by one, they pulled out of the lot, disappearing in a cloud of dust.

Next Chapter: The Dark World