A very contemptible line of life,
with a premium at a high rate.
—Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance, Act I
“You know what your problem is?”
I waited for the rumble from a distant clap of thunder to fade away into nothing before answering. “Yes. We can’t get the legislature to understand why their repeal of the roadless act is going to devastate this country’s wild forests to the point where they will never recover.”
Tara sighed. “No, that’s not it.”
“Ah, then it must be the blatant disregard of the Clean Water Act by the cement industry, and the subsequent poisoning of several hundred streams and the countless generations of salmon who spawn there.”
Another sigh, drawn out and martyred as only a sixteen-year-old could make it, followed. “No, not that either.”
I frowned at the computer screen, giving Tara only part of my attention as I typed up a press release that would be sent out the following day. It sounded like a storm was coming, and I wanted to finish before I had to turn off the electronic equipment. “No? Hmm. Well, you must be talking about the fact that our state legislature took a step into the dark ages when they caved to the pesticide industry’s pressure by removing hazardous pesticides from the program to eliminate toxic chemicals from the environment.”
“No! I’m not talking about that! And you’re not even listening to me.”
Another rumble of thunder stopped conversation for the count of five. “You wouldn’t by any chance be referring to the fact that I have a daughter who doesn’t understand the concept of not disturbing her mother while she’s working?”
“N-O spells no. Besides, you’re always working.”
“Pays the bills, pays the mortgage, and pays for you to hang out at the mall rather than working at a local McDonalds. Hand me that paper, honey. No, the Indigenous Streams of the Pacific Northwest one. Are the stereo and TV off? It sounds like that storm is heading right for us.”
“Yes, and you didn’t answer my question,” the spawn of my loins answered after she passed me a bound collection of environmental position papers, hands on her hips, thick straight brown brow, so much like my own, furrowed as she glared at me.
“I did. Four times, in fact.”
“Hmm?” I double checked a couple of statistics in the fact sheet, adding them to the press release in hopes they would be quoted verbatim.
“I asked you a question.”
“And I answered it.” The silence that followed, pregnant and pointed, chafed at me enough to disrupt my train of thought. I took my hands off the keyboard and swiveled in my chair to face Tara. “All right. You have my undivided attention. For…er…” I glanced at the clock. “Forty five seconds.”
The blue flash of lightening and a subsequent loud crack of thunder were perfectly timed with Tara’s “Mom!”
I heaved a martyred sigh that rivaled hers, fighting to keep the smile from my lips at her look of righteous indignation. She might have my eyebrows, but her flair for dramatics came straight from her actor father. “Very well. I’m prepared to be generous. You have two minutes. Use them as you will.”
“Your problem,” she said, following me into the kitchen as I refilled my jumbo coffee mug with Espresso Roast, “is that you don’t know how to play.”
I gave in to the urge for a little eyeroll, and made sure everything that safely could be was unplugged. Another blue-white flash illuminating our tiny back yard heralded the onslaught of the storm.
“I’m serious, Mom. Free Spirit says that people like you use the excuse of work to compensate for the things that are lacking in their lives.”
“Free Spirit?” I leaned my hip against the counter and sipped at my coffee, watching my daughter as she stood in front of me. She was looking more and more like me, her thick strawberry blonde hair just as unruly as my own, defying all attempts by hair spray, styling mousse, and industrial strength hair gel to form it into something other than a wild tangle of curls. Her blue eyes were a shade darker than my own, but those straight brows that refused to arch no matter how many trips to the beauty salon she made were all mine.
“Free Spirit Blue. Hello, she’s just my counselor! The one you talked to last month?”
“Oh, right, the one who wants to start her own commune, and thinks I should encourage you to express yourself in artistic media rather than apply yourself to your schoolwork. Rather an interesting attitude to find in a school counselor.”
“Everyone loves her,” Tara protested, her hands gesticulating at she talked. That was another trait she got from her emotional father—generations of phlegmatic Scandinavian ancestors who preferred to keep their emotions tightly reined did much to give me control over mine. “She’s all that, and she knows the coolest people. She got me an interview with PC Monroe. The PC Monroe—I’m going to meet him next week. Sarah promised she’d give me the front page of the school paper for the interview.”
“Ah. Good. Er…who’s the PC Monroe? Singer? Actor? One of those guys on the reality shows who eat insects for insane amounts of money?”
She gave me a look that wouldn’t have been out of place had I been a five headed alien that popped suddenly out of a potato. “He’s only the hottest thing online in the whole world!”
“Internet boy toy?” I asked, sidling toward the door. Although writing press releases for the conservancy organization I worked for wasn’t part of my job description as a financial analyst, I had volunteered to do it, and it irked me to leave any task undone.
“Try millionaire software genius,” she answered swiftly moving to block my retreat from the kitchen. “He lives here, right here in Merida. He’s only created an inexpensive virtual reality unit that will revolutionize the Internet world by making fantasy real, and bring the unbelievable to the grasp of everyone with a computer and Internet connection.”
I cocked an eyebrow at her. “Get that from a press release, did you?”
“Yeah.” She had the grace to look a little embarrassed, but quickly covered it up with antagonism. “PC Monroe and his VR game is the hottest thing on the whole planet! He sent me a beta version of his new VR simulation. Everyone is talking about it. It’s due to be released in two months, and it’s going to totally blow every other online game out of the water. Don’t you pay attention to anything?”
“I’ve been busy trying to set up our lives.” By dint of a slight feint to the left, I managed to squeeze around her and out the door. She followed me down the hallway.
“You’re always busy, that’s my point!”
“Yes, I know, you think I need to play. I heard you the first time. Hold on a sec.” We paused to count between the flash of lightening and sound of thunder. “Five miles. It’s getting closer. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to get this press release done before the storm hits, then I think I’ll do a little research for Robert. He’s never as prepared as he should be for staff meetings.”
“Free Spirit says people who work all the time and don’t give their inner child time to play die of heart attacks before they’re forty.”
“Ah?” I asked, sitting down at the computer.
“You’re almost forty,” she pointed out.
I shot her a narrow-eyed look. “I’m thirty-six, missy. That’s not even close to forty.”
The little rat smirked. “Four years, Mom. Four years, then ziiiiiiiip!” She made a gesture symbolic of imminent death. “Dead as road kill.”
The press release nagged at me, but behind Tara’s flip tone, I sensed real concern. I was well aware that I hadn’t been spending as much time with her as I want to, but starting a new life and a new job in a new town took a lot of work. “Point taken—you believe I need a few more leisure activities in my life.”
“Any leisure activities. You don’t do anything but work.”
I let that slide. “What would you suggest?
She took a deep breath. “Buckling Swashes.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Buckling Swashes. It’s the online game PC Monroe created, the one he’s converting over to a VR world. I told you that he sent me a beta VR unit. It’s part of the next generation release, and I got to see it months before it’ll be made public.”
I frowned, absently counting the time between lightening and thunder, a horrible suspicion coming to my mind. “You wouldn’t be referring to that RPH that you were so addicted to during the summer?”
“RPG, not RPH. It stands for role playing game and technically it’s MMORPG—massive multiplayer online role playing game.”
The way she avoided my eye said a lot. “I see. That would be the same online game that I forbid you to continue playing because you did nothing else but pretend you were a pirate for three solid months?”
Belligerent blue eyes suddenly met mine. “You didn’t forbid me to play. You just stopped paying for it.”
I thought for a moment, mentally reviewing the latest credit card statement. “Ah. That would explain the rash of phone calls to your father when we moved here last month. You talked him into paying for that game.”
“It’s not just a game,” she said, her hands on her hips. “It has layers. And it’s about to become virtual reality.”
“Uh huh.” I turned back to my desk. “As I recall from what you showed me, it was simply a simulation of some vaguely Caribbean pirate setting with a lot of murder and mayhem.”
“That’s only one part of it. Most players think that the goal of the game is to go pillaging—that’s attacking other ships to take their money and goods—but really the game is a complex social infrastructure of colonization and world-building. Right now my crew is about to go into defense mode to protect our island from the evil Black Corbin, who wants to take it from us.”
“Your crew?” I asked, making a mental note to talk to Bill about feeding Tara’s unhealthy addiction to online games.
“Yeah, I’m the crew Wench.”
My eyebrows rose as I envisioned the letter I’d send to the game’s creator about putting a minor in an adult situation.
“You can just stop with the Mom Brows. It’s nothing like that,” Tara said, the disgusted tone in her voice doing much to reassure me. She hadn’t yet discovered the opposite sex, something I was all too happy about. “Our crew is lead by Bartholomew Portuguese. He’s based on a real pirate, by the way. The guy playing Bart did tons and tons of research on him.”
“I see. Still, I told you two months ago that school work took precedence over world building. Playing a pirate won’t get you into college—”
“Bart says the says the economical model that the game is based on is a sound one, and that to understand and be successful at it means I have a good head for business. I have a weaving shop. I sell cloth. I make money at it, Mom.”
Her calculated dig hit pay dirt, despite my better intentions. “What sort of economic model? How much profit do you make?”
“A lot.” The smile that blazed across her face was rife with pure satisfaction. “Enough to buy me three sloops. I even have a spreadsheet that I use to keep track of costs and profits.”
I narrowed my eyes at her again. “That was a low blow. You are an evil child to use my love of spreadsheets against me like that.”
Her grin turned up a notch. “You always say you have to be ruthless in business, and this is all economics. Buying and selling and profit margins and supply and demand. Only it’s set in a pirate world rather than this one.”
“Hmm.” I wondered for a moment what pirate finances would look like. How much would monthly grog expenditures run, and could you depreciate the costs of storing it?
“You’d make a killing there,” my little rat-in-child-form added in a persuasive tone of voice. “With your business degree and stuff, you’d be rich in no time. I bet you could even have your own crew.”
For a moment an image flashed on my mind’s eye of myself standing at the helm of a tall ship, the sails fully rigged, the bow of the ship cutting through the azure waters, salty sea air brushing my face as I ordered the cannons to fire on some helpless ship. A little voice deep inside of me let out a cheer, but it was quickly squelched as another rumble brought me back to the present and reality. I turned back to my computer. “Good try, Tara, but not quite good enough.”
The teasing light in her eyes died. “Dad would do it.”
I flipped a couple of pages of the symposium paper to find a quote I needed. “I’m sure he would. He has little else to do with his time while he is between acting jobs.”
“At least he spends time with me! At least he’s interested in the things I’m interested in! All you want to do is work, work, work. You don’t care about me or anything I want to do. I wish I was living with Dad instead of you!”
“I refuse to get into a comparison argument of my parenting skills versus your father’s,” I answered, quickly typing up a couple more sentences. “And I hardly see how my lack of participation in a silly game can be thrown in my face as depriving you of attention.”
“Because! If you were playing it too, we could be on the same crew. And you could help me with my weaving shop, and I could teach you how to sail a ship.”
“I don’t have time to learn how to sail a ship, and besides, I get seasick easily.”
“You won’t even try! You won’t even look at it!” she wailed, throwing her hands in the air in a gesture of sheer frustration.
I’m not a monster. I might admit to being a bit more caught up in my job than was normal, but I took pride in the fact that I had a solid work ethic, and took responsibility for making sure that my job, and those I could help around me, was done to the best of my ability. Despite all that, the underlying plea in Tara’s voice generated an unpleasant ripple of guilt within me. I had no intention of wasting my time playing a nerdy online game, but if it would make her feel I was more involved in her life, it wouldn’t hurt me to at least see what it was about.
“All right,” I said, forestalling the emotional eruption I knew that was soon to follow. “If it will make you happier, I’ll take a look at the game.”
She was silent for a moment. “You will? You’ll sign on? The whole thing, the VR unit version? It’s majorly cool.”
I frowned. “How much does it cost?”
Her stormy brow cleared like magic. “You can use my account. We get three characters per account, and I’ve only made one. You can make one, just to see if you like it. It won’t cost you anything. Here, I’ll write down my password and username.” She snatched up a sticky note pad and scribbled out the name Terrible Tara and the name of our deceased dog. “Later on you can get your own account so we can play together at the same time. Maybe I can get a second VR unit.”
“Whoa, I just said I’d take a look. I have no intention of doing anything more—”
She stopped in the doorway, her eyes dark with mutiny. “I knew it! You won’t go into it with an open mind! You’ll just look and say it’s a silly time waster!”
“Hey, now. I am just as capable as the next person in keeping an open mind,” I said, giving her my best quelling look. It didn’t do any good (it seldom did).
“You will not. Your mind is already made up to think it’s silly.”
I held up my hand to stop her. “I admit to being a bit biased, but I will promise to give the game every chance. Happy now?”
“No,” she answered, her face still stormy.
“Are you questioning my word of honor?” I asked, frowning.
“Yes. No. Maybe. It’s just that you are so…so…”
“Dedicated to my job?”
“Dead,” she answered, throwing her hands up in a frustrated gesture. “Honestly, Mom, you don’t do anything fun! This VR game has all sorts of things that you’ll like, if you just give it a chance. There’s tons of economy stuff.”
“I do have interests beyond those of a fiduciary nature,” I pointed out, vaguely insulted.
“Name one,” she countered.
I glared at her and ignored the challenge. “I have said I would give the game a fair chance. That’s as good as I can do.”
Her eyes narrowed as she chewed on her lower lip for a moment. “I know! You have to make officer.”
“I what?” My gaze strayed back toward the computer screen and my work.
“You have to make officer. It’s a goal. You like goals, you’re always telling me to have them.” She hurried on before I could point out the two things weren’t the same. “If you advance in the game to officer status, I’ll know you really kept an open mind.”
“How hard is achieving officerhood?” I asked, flipping to a spreadsheet of the current year’s budget.
“Piece of cake. I was an officer in like…well…really quickly.”
I knew how those computer games worked—to advance you had to open a secret passageway or collect some object or run over a magic spot or something silly like that. It shouldn’t be much of a challenge, and if it kept the peace, it would be worth the sacrifice of my time. “Hmm. All right, since it means so much to you, I will give the game an hour or so and become an officer.”
“Woohoo! You can use my laptop—it has the game client on it already. I’ll bring it and the VR parts down here right now. You can play on the battery so you don’t have to be plugged into the wall in case the power goes out. Thanks, Mom!” She gave me a quick hug before running out of the room. “I’m going to go tell my captain really quickly that you’re logging on later, so if he sees you he’ll be nice to you and stuff.”
“Wait. Tara, I didn’t mean this second—oy.” The door to her bedroom upstairs slammed. I started to roll my eyes again, but switched to a flinch with another loud peal of thunder and gust of wind made the windows rattle. As quickly as I could I finished typing up the press release, e-mailed copies of it to the organization’s director, the media contacts, and my work e- mail address, then made a quick backup of all my recent work.
“You are so anal it’s not even funny,” Tara said fifteen minutes later as she deposited her laptop on my desk, plugging the power cord in to the wall. On top of it sat a pair of thick black wraparound glasses.
I filed the CDs I’d burned with the week’s work away with the other backups, one in the collection organized by date, the other by subject. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth having backed up. Why are you plugging that in? The storm is almost on top of us.”
We both were silent while the another flash-boom! shook the house.
“I don’t get a good connection to log onto the system on the battery. It’s just to log on. Once you’re into the game, you can unplug it. Here is the VR unit. Cool, huh? Looks just like a pair of shades. There’re speakers built into the part of the glasses that sit behind your ears, so you hear everything, and here—” She flipped down a fiber optic-sized black extension from the sides of the glasses. “—here is your microphone. The software has speech recognition capabilities, so you can talk to other characters just like you normally would. It’s so totally cool.”
“Uh huh,” I said, trying to avoid her as she shoved the glassed toward my face, but it was useless. A few seconds later I was wearing the VR glasses. “I can’t see anything.”
“They’re not turned on. Here, let me do it. OK, you’re set. Gotta go do the rest of my homework before we lose the lights,” Tara called over her shoulder as she hurried out of the room. “It’s all set up for you to log on with a new name, and I told Bart to watch out for you. Oh, and I put you on the list of owners at my weavery, so you can look around there. Have fun!”
“Hey! Don’t think I don’t see through your hit-and-run tactics! I know full well what you’re doing!” I sighed as her laughter spilled down the stairs after her. “Manipulative little so-and-so,” I muttered as I turned my attention to the colorful screen that seemed to float in the air before me.
A game client screen that read “Welcome to Buckling Swashes. Please log in or create a new pirate to enter the game” blinked slowly at me.
“Right. Let’s get this over with.” I reached out somewhat blindly for the keyboard, able to see only dark, vague shapes of the computer and desk behind the virtual images that danced before my eyes. “Name…Amy Stewart.”
“That’s supposed to be your pirate name, not your real name,” came a slightly tinny, ethereal voice drifting from the heating duct in the wall.
“Do your homework and stop listening at the heater,” I yelled, backspacing over my name. “Pirate name. I don’t have a pirate name. Um…” I tipped the glasses down my nose and looked around the room for inspiration, my eyes lighting on a Van Gogh print. “Earless…er…Erika. That sounds very piratical.”
I typed in the pirate name, picked a few character traits (female, blonde, with a short bob, and a Rubenesque, curvy body type that most closely matched my own). As I was about to click the Create Pirate button, a tremendous crash of thunder hit simultaneously with a blinding flash of lightning. Upstairs, Tara shrieked as a second crash rocked the house. The lights flickered into a brown-out. Mindful of the cost of her laptop, I leaned across the computer and grabbed the power cord at the same time another flash of lightning struck. As I pulled the plug free, a blue arc of electricity shot from the outlet, connecting with me at the same time another deafening roar of thunder shook the house.
I must have hit the return button as I jerked with the flow of electricity through my body, because the last thing I remember seeing before I sank into an abyss of darkness was a little spinning sign on the game screen saying “Entering Buckling Swashes…”
* * * *
Here we live and reign alone
In a world that’s all our own. —Ibid
It was the sheep snuffling my face that woke me up. I didn’t realize it was a sheep at first, not having the habit of keeping sheep in my house, where my last conscious moment was, but when something moistly warm blew on my face, followed by a horrible stinky scent of wet wool, my eyes popped open and I beheld the unlovely face of a sheep staring down at me.
“T’hell?” I said groggily, pushing the sheep face out of mine as I sat up, immediately regretting the latter action when the world spun around dizzily for a few seconds. As it settled into place I blinked at the hand I’d used to shove away the sheep—it tingled faintly, as if I had whacked my funny bone. I shook it a couple of times, the pins-and-needles feeling quickly fading…but that’s when my wits returned.
“What the hell?” I said again, a growing sense of disbelief and horror welling within me until I thought my head was going to explode.
I used the rough wood wall behind me to help me get to my feet, my head still spinning a little as I looked around. I was in a short alley between two buildings, half-hidden behind a stack of what looked like whiskey barrels, the sheep who’d been snuffling me now engaged in rooting around through some garbage that slopped over from a wooden box. Sunlight filtered down through the overhang of the two buildings, spilling onto a lumpy cobblestone street behind the alley. Vague blurs resolved themselves into the images of people passing back and forth past the opening of the alley.
The game…the virtual reality game. I was seeing images from the game. I put my hand up to my face to pull off the VR glasses, but all my fingers found were my glasses-less face. Had they gotten knocked off when I got the shock from the computer? If so, why was I still seeing the virtual world? I lurched my way forward down the alley, stumbling once or twice as my legs seemed to relearn how to walk.
“What the…hell?” As I burst out into the open, I staggered to a stop.
Two men in what I though of as typical pirate outfits—breeches, jerkin, swords strapped to their hips, and bandanas on their heads—walked by, one giving me a leer as I clutched the corner of the nearest building.
Beyond them, a wooden well served as a gathering place for several women in long skirts and leather bodices, each armed with a wooden bucket or two. Pigs, sheep, chicken, dogs…they all wandered around the square adding to the general sense of confusion and (at least on my part) disbelief.
A couple of children clad in what could only be described as rags ran past me, each clutching an armful of apples. A shout at the far end of the square pierced the general babble, what appeared to be a greengrocer in breeches and a long apron evidently just noticing the theft of some apples.
It was like something out of a movie. A period movie. One of those big MGM costume movies of the 1950s where everything was brightly colored and quasi-authentic. I expected Gene Kelly to burst singing from a building at any minute.
Instead of Gene, two men emerged from a one story building across the square, both staggering and yelling slurred curses. One man shoved the other one. The second man shoved the first one back. Both pulled out swords and commenced fighting. The first man lunged. The second screamed, clutched his chest, and fell over backward into a stack of grain sacks. The first man yanked his sword out, spit on his downed opponent, and staggered away around the back of the building wiping his bloody sword on the hem of his filthy-open necked shirt. A wooden sign hanging over the door he passed waved gently in the wind—a sign depicting a couple of mugs being knocked together beneath the words Inn Cognito printed in blocky letters.
No one bustling around the square gave the dead man so much as a second look.
“WHAT THE HELL?” I shouted, goose bumps of sheer, unadulterated horror rippling along my arms and legs as I ran toward the body lying sprawled on the dirty grain sacks. I was about to go into serious freak- out mode when I remembered that none of this was real—it might look real, and sound real, but it was just a game. No one had actually been murdered in front of me. It was just a bunch of computer sprites and sprockets and all those other techno-geeky things that I didn’t understand. “OK, stay calm Amy. This is not a real emergency. However, I’m not willing to lose points or bonus power chips or whatever this game hands out for acts above and beyond the norm. Let’s approach this as a non-life- threatening emergency, and go for the next power level. Yeargh. How on earth did they manage that?”
As I squatted next to the dead man, the stench from his unwashed body hit me. I pushed down the skitter of repugnance as it rippled down my back, and rummaged around the dusty recesses of my brain for any knowledge of first aid techniques. “Thank god for all of those first aid classes I arranged when Tara was in middle school. Let me think—a sword wound. CPR?”
A glance at the sluggishly seeping hole in his chest had me eliminating that option. There was no way putting pressure on that would help matters. “Mouth-to-mouth?”
The man’s smell took care of that as a choice. “Hmm. Maybe I should apply a split?”
I looked around for something to act as a splint, but didn’t see any handy splint-like boards, not to mention I wasn’t absolutely certain that a splint was a suitable treatment for a sword wound. “OK. What’s left? Er…raise his feet higher than his head? Yeah, that sounds good. That should stop the flow of blood or something. Inhibits shock, I think.”
I scooted down to grab the man’s mud-encrusted tattered boots, intending on swinging them around to a stack of grain bags, but was more than a little disconcerted when one of his legs separated from the rest of his body.
“Aieeeeeeeee,” I screamed, staring in horror at the limb that hung stiffly from my hands.
Just as it was dawning on me that the leg was a crudely fashioned wooden prosthetic and not the ghoulish severed limb I had first imagined, a whoosh of air behind me accompanied the loud slam of a wooden door being thrown open. Before I could do so much as flail the false leg, a steel-like arm wrapped around my waist and hauled me backwards into the inn.
Air, warm and thick and scented heavily with beer and unwashed male bodies, folded me in its embrace as I was dragged into a murky open-beamed room.
“Found me a wench, Cap’n,” a voice rumbled behind me. “Toothsome one, too, ain’t she? Don’t look like she’s been used overly much. Can I keep her?”
Now, this was taking virtual realism a bit too far. I pushed aside the issue of how a game could make me smell things and feel the touch of another person, and beat the hand that clutched me with the booted end of my fake leg. “Hey! I am not a wench, and I am not a puppy to be kept, and how dare you invade my personal space in such a manner! Do it again, and I’ll have you up on charges of sexual harassment and physical assault so fast, your…er…hook will spin.”
The man whom I’d surprised into releasing me stood frowning at me for a second before glancing to the right where tables—some broken into kindling, others rickety, but mostly whole—lurked in a shadowed corner. The dull rumble of masculine voices broke off as the man asked loudly, “I don’t have no hook, do I, Cap’n?”
“Nay, lad, ye don’t,” a deep voice answered. One of the darker shadows separated itself from the others and stepped into the faint sunlight that bullied its way through two tiny, begrimed windows. The man who swaggered forward was an arrogant-looking devil, with thick shoulder-length blond hair, a short-cropped goatee and mustache, and dark eyes that even across the dimly-lit room I could see were cast with a roguish light.
He was a charmer through and through—I knew his kind. I’d married one.
“I believe the lass was being facetious, Barn. As for yer request—we’ve no need for a female on the Squirrel. Grab yer things, and we’ll be off, mates. We’ve pillagin’ to do.”
The man who’d grabbed me—a blocky giant with black hair and a huge beard—frowned even harder. “What be facetious then?”
The behemoth named Barn looked back at me, disappointment written all over his unlovely face. “But the wench—she’s mine. I found her. Ye’ve said we could keep what we pillaged.”
“She’s probably got the French pox,” the arrogant blond said as he started for the door, giving me nothing more than a disinterested glance. “We’ll find ye a woman a little less tartish at Mongoose.”
“Oh!” I gasped, outraged at the slur. I wasn’t going to stand around and let some cyber gigolo insult me. “I will repeat myself for those of you with hearing problems or general mental incapacity—I am not a wench, nor am I a tart. I do not have the pox, French or any other sort. And I would rather go without my PDA for an entire year than be with that man.”
The blond captain paused in the act of following Barn out the door, slowly turning to face me. “What did you say?”
“I said that I am not a wench nor do I have any sexually transmitted diseases. And I’m not, in case you’re interested, and I know you are because I know your sort, looking to acquire any. Now if you don’t mind, I have a leg to reattach to a dead man. If you will please stand aside, I will go and take care of that.”
“PDA?” the pirate asked, an odd look of speculation on his face. “You said PDA?”
“Yes, I did. And that’s a very big sacrifice, considering.”
“You’re a player,” he said, starting toward me in a long-legged stride that I refused to notice on the grounds that I would not allow myself to respond to another love-‘em-and- leave-‘em charmer.
“I most certainly am not! I’m a woman, in case it escaped your attention, and even if I was a man, I’m not at all the sort to cruise the meat market for a little companionship. I enjoy meaningful relationships with men, not one night stands.”
“Are you?” he asked, a slight smile quirky one side of his mouth.
“Am I what?”
“Are you enjoying a meaningful relationship with a man right now?”
“No, not that it’s any of your business. And don’t you come any nearer, ” I answered, backing up a couple of paces and leveling my wooden leg at him. “I have a leg, and I’m not afraid to use it!”
“My sort?” he drawled, interest dawning in those dark eyes as he continued to stroll toward me. “You know my sort? I am a sort?”
I backed up a couple of more steps until I bumped into the rough wall of the inn. I could have kicked myself with the fake leg. Everyone knew the thing a charmer loved most was a challenge, and I’d just presented myself as one. Still, he was a virtual Lothario, not a real one, so I could handle him. I’d just do a little defusing, and be on my way.
“Yes, you are a sort. You’re a charmer, a man who thinks he can sweet-talk the pants off a nun. Well, I’m immune to your brand of charm, buster. So you can just take your sexy walk and those tight leather pants and the really cool pirate boots of yours—wow, is that a rapier? Very nice. I used to fence in college—and trot off to harass some other unpoxed, tartless un-wench, because I’m not buying any of it.”
“Unless you belong to the Sisters of Harlotry, you’re not a nun,” he said, stopping just beyond reach of my fake leg. “And you’re not wearing pants.”
I looked down to protest that I was so wearing pants, but the gauzy wisps of cloth that clung to my body in a very revealing fashion could be termed anything but sensible clothing. They were literally rags, exposing far more of me than I was comfortable with—although really, what did it matter? These were computer people, not living, breathing human beings. Tara had said no one but the developers and occasional press representatives had access to the beta virtual version.
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” I answered, deciding to go with the flow.
“You certainly do it well,” the pirate said, giving me a leer that I could swear was almost human. The lascivious way his gaze caressed my scantily clad breasts clearly indicated the origins of a male, rather than female, software developer.
“Just because I’m flaunting doesn’t mean you can stare for hours on end. A polite ogle is appreciated and suitable for a flaunt. Slobbering is not. Eyes up here,” I said, using the leg’s foot to indicate my face. “Look, Mr. Pirate—”
“Corbin,” he said, interrupting me before I could get into a really quality lecture.
“I beg your pardon?”
“My name is Corbin. Captain Corbin, at your service, ma’am.”
“Hello,” I said politely, wondering if the program gave out bonus points for adroit handling of a lecher. “I’m…er…drat, I’ve forgotten. Earless someone. Um…Erika! That’s it.”
Corbin the pirate considered me. “You don’t look like an Erika.”
“Well, I am.”
“Is that your real name?”
“My real name?”
“Yes, your real name as opposed to your username. Is Erika your real name?”
I frowned. Where computer generated people supposed to be so nosy? “Maybe. Is Corbin your real name?”
“Yes, it is. What are you doing here?”
“What is this, twenty questions?” I gave him a quelling glare, but he totally disregarded it.
“No, just a simple question. Answer it. What are you doing here?”
He stood just beyond reach of the leg, his hands on his hips, the loose white pirate shirt open to his waist, exposing almost the whole of his six-pack abs and manly chest dusted with golden hair. For some reason it irritated me that his character was nicer to look at than mine. Clearly the game designer had issues.
“That, sir, is none of your business. Now kindly take your seductive self off and let me go achieve whatever goal I’m supposed to do to get to the next level. I think it has something to do with collecting prosthetic legs, but I’m not quite sure. Are yours real?”
He laughed. I gritted my teeth. He even laughed nicer than me. “Yes, they are. I’d be happy to show them to you if you want to verify that.”
“Think I’ll pass. Now if you don’t mind…”
He didn’t move despite my “please get out of the way” shooing gesture. “You think I’m seductive?”
“Of course I do,” I answered before I realized what I was saying. I clamped down for a moment on the rest of my thoughts, then figured what the hell. It was just a game. Maybe chit-chatty interaction with the natives was part of the scoring process.
That didn’t mean my chit-chat couldn’t be of the speak your mind variety, however. “You’re clearly the fulfillment of the game designer’s most fervent fantasy—the dashing pirate lord handsome enough to sweep any woman off her feet.”
He smirked. “Shall I sweep you, then?”
“No thank you. I’ve never been one for men who are prettier than me.”
I tried to brush past him, but he stopped me, his hand on my arm keeping me from leaving. “I’m confused—you think I’m handsome and seductive and sweepish, but you don’t want me?”
“Surprised?” I smiled. “This game has a logging function, doesn’t it? Something so the programming types can look at the beta tests and see what’s happening?”
He looked startled for a moment before nodding. “It does.”
“Good. Then let me clue you and the issue-laden programmers in on a few things, Corbin the arrogant—when it comes to men, women don’t want Lotharios. Handsome looks are fleeting; women like me prefer substance over appearance. A romantic nature is good—a tom cat personality isn’t.”
“We’ve only just met. How can you make any judgments about my personality?”
I waved the leg at him. “Just look at you! Tom Jones shirt, tight leather pants, that long gorgeous hair, not to mention the hip action in your swagger…you just reek studly sex machine.”
“So it’s my appearance you object to?” he asked, frowning. Behind him a couple of men emerged from the shadows. Both of them were dressed in blue and white striped pants that ended just below the knee, striped shirts, and leather jerkins over which swords and pistols had been strapped to their waists.
“Look, I don’t object to anything. I’m just saying that no, I don’t care for a little virtual nookie with a man ten times prettier than me.”
“How about if I looked like this?”
Corbin’s image flickered for a moment, then melted into that of a man only slightly taller than me, a man with short, dark curly hair. He was clean- shaven, and bore little other resemblance to his previous self. His face was rounder, his eyes were warmer, and he wasn’t built along the lines of a male underwear model. He looked…nice.
“What do you think? Would you consider virtual nookie with someone who looked like this?”
I opened my mouth to tell him I wasn’t looking for nookie with anyone, but a brief flash of insecurity in this Corbin’s dark grey eyes had me blurting out, “Yeah, I would.”
“Captain? We leavin’ now?” one of the two men asked, giving me a less than curious glance.
“You would?” Corbin ignored his men, his brow furrowed as he watched me. I got the impression he was searching my face for signs I was lying to him. I wondered if this form—which I honestly did prefer—was based on a programmer’s real self rather than his fantasies.
“Well…yes. I mean, I don’t want to wrestle you to the ground and have my wicked way with you, but if I was looking to have a virtual…er…boyfriend, then yes, I’d prefer someone who looks like you do now to the previous incarnation. You look real. He looked fake.”
“Captain? Bart and his men’ll sure to be returnin’ any time now. Be we leavin’ or be we stayin’ to fight?”
“Bart?” Hadn’t Tara mentioned something about a Bart?
“Bartholomew Portuguese,” Corbin answered, taking a step closer. “He and his motley crew are currently running this island into the ocean.”
“Har har,” the pirate behind Corbin laughed, nudging his boss with his elbow. “We be takin’ care of that problem soon, eh, Captain?”
“Aye, we will. These are two of my crew—Bald Bob,” Corbin answered by way of an introduction, gesturing toward a man with waist-length black hair, “and this is Leeward Tom. Loo is my bosun.”
“Looward?” I asked, wondering why that word sounded familiar.
“Aye. It’s spelled leeward. It means the side of the ship protected from the weather,” Corbin answered.
Leeward Tom pulled a ragged kerchief off and ducked his head at me before turning back to Corbin. “Be we leavin’ or stayin’?”
The new and (to my mind) improved Corbin waved a dismissive hand. “We’ll leave in a moment. I want to talk to this charming lady another minute or two.”
“Flattered as I am to be promoted from tartish, pox-riddled wench to a charming lady, I must insist that you let me pass. I promised my daughter I’d try out this game and advance a level or two. I’ll start by hunting down some extra legs.”
Tom looked confused. “What be the wench talkin’ about?” he asked Corbin in a loud whisper. “What game? Think ye she has the fever?”
“No,” Corbin answered, a smile curling his lips as Tom unobtrusively crossed himself. “So you’d like to advance beyond newbie level, would you, Erika? There’s one sure-fire way to do that.”
“Really? Something beyond collecting wooden limbs?”
His smile turned into an outright grin, a grin that had me responding with a smile of my own despite my better intentions. The blond Corbin was a devilishly handsome rogue, but this one was a hundred times more dangerous with his playful smile and warm, humor- filled eyes. “Swordplay advances your skills. You said you fenced?”
“Yes, for three years. I was on my college’s fencing team. Er…you want me to fight you?”
“Afraid?” he asked, offering me his rapier with a fancy scrollwork hilt.
“Me?” I wondered if I remembered anything from my fencing days. I set down my spare leg and took the rapier, trying my best to summon up a sneer. Never letting them see you’re insecure is the key to staying in control had always been my motto. “Ha. I am Earless Erika! I laugh in the face of danger. Or…er…in the face of deranged pirates.”
His grin got even bigger as he accepted a rapier handed to him by Leeward Tom. “So I’ve moved down from seductive to deranged, eh?”
“That’s actually an upward move,” I pointed out, testing the weight of the rapier. It was nicely balanced. Although I was more proficient with a foil, I had used a rapier once or twice. “Shall we go with the first one who makes a fatal touch the winner? Jugular or heart?”
“Oh, jugular, don’t you think?” he said. “No blood, just a touch.”
“Good enough. Prepare to be humiliated. En garde.”
Both of his men snickered to themselves at my false bravado.
“Eh…” Corbin dropped the point of his sword, his eyes speculative as they swept my rag-clag self. “Why don’t we make this a bit more interesting?”
“Interesting? Interesting how? That’s the same lascivious look the blond you was making. I objected to it then, too.”
His teeth flashed in a grin that made something in my stomach flutter. “Interesting as in a wager. If I beat you, you have to give me something.”
“Like what?” I asked, waggling the tip of my sword in a meaningful way at him.
“Yourself,” he answered, his eyebrows bobbing up and down. I raised the rapier so it was pointed at his throat. “Er…all right, how about dinner then?”
“Dinner?” My sword point fell as I gawked at him. Was he asking me out on a date? A computer character? He wanted to date me? How pathetic was that, and worse, why was I even considering it?
“Yes, dinner. It’s the meal that comes just after lunch.” I gave him a look. He smiled. “If I beat you, you agree to have dinner with me.”
“Just dinner?” I asked suspiciously.
“Just dinner…unless there is something else you’d like to do.”
“Not likely, computer boy.”
“We will see. Shall we get on with the duel? I have dinner to order and a ship full of mates to clean up.”
He raised his sword in the traditional starting position but it was my turn to stop him. “Not so fast—what do I get if I beat you?”
His two crewmates laughed, unnecessarily long and hard, to my mind. I wasn’t a total idiot with a sword.
“That won’t be likely, lass,” Leeward Tom said. “Our captain here, he be the best swordsman in all of the Seventh Sea.”
“Be he?” I said, entering into the whole pirate spirit thing. “Then he shouldn’t mind at all putting his money where his mouth is. What will you give me if I win?”
Corbin looked thoughtful, but I could see a wicked twinkle in his eyes. “Dinner with me?”
I raised my eyebrows. He heaved an exaggerated sigh. “What would you like?”
“Well…I don’t know. What do you have? No, wait, let me rephrase that—what tangible things other than yourself do you have to offer?”
“Ships, money, fine jewels, rare cloths—”
“Ships, that sounds good,” I said, picking the biggest-sounding item from his list. “If I win, you give me ships.”
“Ship,” he countered, his eyes narrowing speculatively. “A ship. A sloop.”
I had no idea what a sloop was, but so long as it wasn’t a rowboat, it sounded like a good bet. “You’re on. En garde again, Captain Corbin.”
He was surprisingly good, light on his feet, his ripostes following lightening fast after his parries. Although I hadn’t fenced in years, the muscles in my quadriceps complainingly obliged when I assumed the correct fencing stance—elbows in, knees bent, wrist straight, toes slightly turned out, back straight. The rhythm of advance, retreat, advance, retreat—with occasional lunges thrown in to try to score a point—quickly returned, as did the reason I quit fencing.
I really, really disliked it.
“Tiring already?” Corbin asked as I sluggishly parried a particularly quick lunge.
“Not even,” I answered, rallying a riposte that had him stumbling backwards. His men sat on nearby tables, yelling encouragement as we danced the peculiar advance, retreat fencing dance. After about five minutes of traditional fencing, he suddenly went Errol Flynn on me, leaping onto a nearby table and yelling a war cry as he flung himself off it. I, having had a fencing instructor who was also an expert in self-defense, stuck my foot out and tripped him. Yes, it was a move clearly against the rules of classical fencing, but so were wild leaps off tavern tables.
Stunned silence filled the room as his two henchman sat in disbelieving horror.
“I’d like my ship delivered now, please,” I said as Corbin rolled himself over onto his back. His entire front size was coated with dirt from the unfinished floor, a tiny trickle of blood from his nose indicating he’d hit the ground harder than I’d anticipated. The tip of my rapier pressed against the flesh of his neck, right next to where his pulse beat strong in his jugular vein.
He spoke very carefully, without moving a single muscle. “If you reach into the leather pouch hanging from my belt, you’ll find a deed to a ship named the Saucy Wench.”
“The Saucy Wench,” I said happily, pulling a battered bit of parchment from the pouch strapped to his hip. The handwriting was difficult to make out, but the name of the ship and a pen and ink sketch of her were legible. “I like it.”
“It suits you,” he answered, still not moving. “You cheated.”
“So did you, Errol.”
He started to protest but I added the tiniest addition of pressure to the tip of the blade. His eyes opened wide. I enjoyed the moment for as long as I thought prudent, then swept the blade from his neck with a grand gesture.
“Well, this has been fun. Am I an officer now?” I asked the two still-silent crewmen. They stared from the sword I held to their captain, who had risen from his prone position and was dusting himself off.
“Eh…ye beat the Cap’n,” the one who was grossly misnamed Bald Bob said, blinking in surprise. “None has ever done that afore.”
Behind me, a rush of air swished around me as someone flung open the door. “Hoy, Corb, scrape the barnacles off yer ass and let’s get crackin’. Bart and his crew will be back…well, hello there, m’lady.”
The man in the doorway had shoulder-length curly brown hair, an eye patch, and wore long brown monk’s robes. He bowed to me, sweeping hand in an elegant gesture that wasn’t at all matched by the lascivious grin on his face. “First mate Holder McReady at yer delectable service, ye toothsome beauty. I did particularly well with the rags, yes, yes, I did. Don’t you think I did well, Corb?”
“No. Go away, Holder.”
“Your first mate is a priest?” I asked Corbin.
“No, he’s not. He’s mad. Ignore him.”
“Oy!” the monkish mate protested. “Don’t be mockin’ the monk’s robes. I’m thinkin’ this is the best outfit yet. Ye wouldn’t believe the sense of freedom it gives ye to have yer block and tackle right out in the open—”
“Yarr. Me apologies. Now then, what’s been goin’ on here while I’ve been out stockin’ the ship?”
“An omen as black as the inside of the devil’s belly is what’s been happenin’,” Leeward Tom said. His eyes narrowed on Corbin. “The Cap’n has been beaten in a duel. Never has a wench done such a thing. It fair boggles the mind. Ye be soft on the lass, Cap’n? Ye be letting’ her win?”
Holder’s dark eyes widened as he looked from me to Corbin. “What? Someone beat the Cap?”
“Aye, Mr. Holder, the wench there,” Tom said, turning his gaze on me. “Be she a witch, do ye think?”
“You know, I really dislike being talked about like I’m not here,” I said. “And for the record, I am perfectly capable of winning on my own. I was the alternate for the college fencing team three years in a row, and you don’t get that unless you’re a pretty darn…sufficient…fencer. So let’s have none of that be lettin’ her win crap, and more telling Erika if she’s now an officer.”
“Nay, ye’re not,” Tom said, back to watching Corbin.
Holder blew a low whistle, his eyes also on Corbin. The two seemed to be exchanging some sort of meaningful glances, the translation of which I wasn’t privy to. Fine. Let them gaze at each other all they wanted. I had things to do, people to see, legs to hoard. “Oh. Pooh. I suppose I have to do the leg collecting before I reach that level?” I asked, setting the sword on the table before retrieving my wooden leg. “Well then, I’d best get to it. Later, gentlemen.”
As I strolled to the door, Holder said, “Ye just goin’ to let her go?”
“Holder, keep out of this,” Corbin snapped.
“No one is letting me do anything,” I tossed over my shoulder. “I make my own destiny, thank you.”
Holder gave his captain a not very subordinate shove. “Go on, ye great lug, say something before ye blow it.”
“Will you stop it? I do not need your help—”
“Hoy, lass? Erika, was it?” I paused at the door and looked back to where Holder was standing. “Ye wouldn’t happen to fancy our Cappy here, now would ye?”
I rolled my eyes. “What I fancy is a couple more legs.”
“Eh,” he said, glancing at the leg in my hands. “Kind of an odd hobby, but we can work with it.”
“It’s not a hobby,” I said at the same time Corbin snarled to his mate, “No we can’t. Now go away, ye rat-infested bilge bucket.”
“Whatever,” I said, and opened the door, intending to go find myself some more legs, but Corbin’s voice stopped me.
“Don’t make yourself too comfortable on my ship, lass. I’ll be wanting her back…as well as a few other things.”
Holder slapped a hand to his forehead and shook his head in mock sorrow. “No style. I’ve tried to teach him, but he remains utterly clueless.”
“Pricked your pride, did I?” I grinned, ignoring Holder to salute Corbin with the leg, a tiny bit surprised at how much I’d enjoyed the encounter with the computer pirate. “I think you’ll survive the blow to your ego, Corbin. It’s a game, after all. None of this really matters. It’s all just pretend.”
“Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not,” he said mysteriously as I marched out the door into the bright tropical sunshine.