After that first mission, Matt displayed his cunning time and again, granting him permanent membership in the clan before Inferno got the chance to return. For the first few days, Matt brooded about kicking a friendly out of his own clan, but the surreal experience of fighting side-by-side with Echo and Martyr quickly drowned out the sourness.
Within a month, Lawless’ player ranking spiked due to frequent wins against high ranking enemies, and among worldwide ranks, their clan earned the name Bruiser. They were promoted out of player-on-player combat into advanced cooperative missions--deadly, high-stakes operations for only the best performing clans.
Special operations missions made the real money, but success or payment was never guaranteed. If Matt wanted to keep playing, he had to quit his real-world job. Each mission required valuable time and critical mental effort in order to dissect the complex nature of the task and discuss the best way to succeed. If Matt didn’t dedicate the necessary time to the clan, they’d find another player who would.
The two versions of Matt’s identity beckoned equally, though, it became clear to him that they called for different reasons. On one hand, society told him to get a traditional job and contribute, but in the game, during those missions, he lived his passion. He found his purpose there, fighting in a body that was fit for the task. In the game, he could do everything he wanted to, and more.
He knew he was late to make the jump, but at twenty-seven, after years of idling in a godforsaken world, he finally discovered that the intensity of virtual combat was all he needed to be calm. It wasn’t his fault that he was given a body in the real world that cried against physical labor.
Within three months of joining the Bruiser clan, Matt gave up employment in the outside world for his dream. He left a shitty job selling insurance, though his girlfriend remained employed. For a while, she supported them both. After the decision to drop his real life like an old phone, he never looked back, and thus never witnessed it drip away.
He did not know how he made it here, where every gamer dreams of being.
None of his actions felt substantial enough to put him above anyone else. Matt simply did as he should, all the time, sacrificing every moment of experience and pleasure in the outside world, except for booze and food, for success inside the game.
The time he dedicated accrued a form of wealth, it was a healthy obsession. On top of that, every moment he spent in the real world seemed gray and less right, almost dumbed down, as if he’d been dropped in a clunkier, spoon-fed body that wasn’t his, with play-doh muscles and unusually desperate cravings. In the game, he proved tough as nails, able to bash an enemy through a wall with one fell swoop, but what powers does the real Matt have?
According to his relatives and lost friends, who viewed not his strapping avatar but the real-world wormishness of Matt’s physique, he’d thrown away any chance at a good life.
In a strange twist of the universe, two viewpoints from completely opposite origins somehow overlapped, and Matt agreed with his parents, who said that he gave away a perfectly good corporate job.
Fuck corporate everything.
Matt often lay awake in bed, a forearm’s length away from Sophia who lay under a separate blanket, staring at the popcorn ceiling and searching for random shapes like clouds within the shadows. He wondered what purpose a life like this serves. In a world like this, where too much is given and humans find themselves coasting through, aboard a train without a conductor, speeding ahead toward a cliff, toward a fall, ignored willingly by hypnotized passengers. Everyone wanted him to live in a world where the main goal was to be socially accepted, and every action simply a means to acquire fake friends.
He’d be damned if he met better friends than Echo and Martyr somewhere in this messed up reality.
He yearned for the land of the warriors, where success is the hardest way, and most importantly, given only to those who earned it; he wanted to be around people who relived the excitement experienced by their hunting ancestors, be it however primal and gruesome.
Even in his dreams, he’d fight valiantly until the morning light seeped through his blinds and he woke from the illusion.
Time moved too slowly outside of the game and ultimately lacked meaning. Whereas when he played the game, all concepts of time faded to the background except for the mission timer and the reliably harsh feeling of reality, which crept back through his awareness during the post-mission debriefs, a few minutes prior to log-off.
Time in the game equaled time well spent. His clan agreed, obviously. Each of them honed their passion and used the skill as a form of escape from the cruel caricature of life they’d been dealt.
This is why we dominate, he thought. We don’t know when to quit. Every one of us gave our lives to this game. We’ve given everything we had. That’s why we’re here.
In Sophia’s opinion, Matt’s devotion to the game should’ve been directed toward her, and she threatened to leave him when he spoke of his decision to play professionally. She actually left for a certain number of days too, but however long it was Matt didn’t know or care. At some point, she returned.
What Sophia didn’t know was that this little act of leaving marked the swift cut of the last strings that held their relationship together.
An effortless removal of their relationship’s foundation came in the form of a vodka-fueled episode, revealing hidden snakes inside of an endless pit, into which he and Sophia glanced only once, suspended in the air and helpless like Wile E. Coyote, before falling at a rate they’ve somehow maintained.
Shortly after their fight, clan Bruiser shot up the rankings and broke the record for money earned by any clan in gaming history. More than enough to pay for that trip to Europe Sophia had always wanted. He basked in the pleasure of not taking her. He didn’t see a reason to share his wealth with those who weren’t supportive of the way he earned it. Matt deposited the money into a bank account, inaccessible to Sophia, and in the meantime, his player ranking soared at a rate that defied all dynamic laws of the game.
The Bruiser clan became an unstoppable force, known in gaming circles worldwide as capable of completing any special ops mission they were thrown. After three years of multiple wins and a steady home at the top of the leaderboard, they found themselves at their first loss ever; Satan’s Crater.
If the Bruiser clan failed the mission of Satan’s Crater again, they would slide out of first place and the opportunity would be presented to the second-place clan. Moreover, Bruiser would be stripped of all royalties and thrown to the bottom of the pile, back to player-vs-player, and forced to work their way back up through the muck.
None of them had the humility to return to the amateur arena, not after everything they’d been through. He swore to himself that he’d always be honest if the time came to quit, but if that time came today, the act of leaving the game forever seemed like too much to endure.
A loss today meant the end of Bruiser’s reign.
He rejected the prospect of a permanent return to the outside world. He’d rather not return at all.
As the prospect of defeat festered inside of him, someone gently rested their hand on his shoulder, and Matt looked up to see the black, skull-patterned cloth covering the face of Martyr. A holographic eyeglass was propped over the lens of his goggles.
“It’s good to see you,” Matt said.
“You as well, brother. If the mission is anything like last time, we may never get the chance again.” Martyr took his hand off Matt and walked to the open side of the helicopter. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the side door, too close to the edge. Nothing was ever dangerous enough for him. “Not here, at least.”
Matt didn’t know what to say. They hadn’t spoken since yesterday’s loss and the air felt heavy from the suspense of the upcoming mission. He wanted to snap at Martyr for being so negative, but he preferred not to address the topic of losing again. He feared the negative thought would somehow morph and grow in their minds, making the loss a reality--a phenomenon he’d read about in some old, mumbo-jumbo journal that touted 2000’s pop psychology.
The more precautions they took, the better. In response to Martyr, he gave a loud, mouthy sigh.
“I had nightmares,” Martyr said. “Last night.” He turned back from the door. The wind blew his jacket in all directions.
Matt knew Martyr wanted to see his reaction. That’s why he turned. He wanted to see how the cold brute, the savage that’s tough as nails, deals with bouts of psychological turmoil, ever more present in the last mission’s wake.
“Jesus Martyr, can you--”
“My wife says I screamed in my sleep. For the salvation of the Lord.” Martyr kept his gaze fixed on Matt, and for the first time ever, flipped up the holographic device and removed his goggles, then his mask, revealing his face.
Martyr’s face wasn’t what Matt had pictured, though prompt and defined, as it was an avatar. High cheekbones pronounced his skinny face, and his white hair lay in flat wires all the way down his neck, feeding into the collar of his suit. His lips pursed thin and curved downward, twitching at the corners. Above Martyr’s hooked nose, a glossy film of tears covered squinted eyes.
“Do you know why I chose to remove my mask today?” he asked.
Matt shook his head.
“Because I don’t have the words to say it, but I want you to know… I want you to know that I’ve got your back. You see that, right?”
His eyes never left Matt’s, and Matt didn’t dare look away. Blown by the tormenting wind, strands of his snowy hair came untucked and waved in the sunlight like the trails of a ghost.
“You see in my eyes, that I will be here for you? Even though I had a family, even though I had friends out there... I’ve given it all away for you. For Bruiser. And I would not hesitate to do it again. No matter what. I’m ready to win. That’s why I did this,” he held out the black cloth and dangled it in mid-air. “That’s why I’m looking at you like this, brother. So you know.”
Martyr turned and donned his mask and goggles once more.
“The truth is, words don’t need to be spoken,” he said, his voice a gloomy addition to the drum of the blades. “Because there are no words, but you know. And I know that when the time comes, I’ll do whatever it takes… whatever it takes.”
Martyr sat at the gunner’s seat and opened the feed tray. He placed the ammo in and slapped it home. The gun was ready. “No matter what.” He looked back over his shoulder and gave the nod.
A fire lit in Matt’s stomach. “I’m ready.”
Echo materialized in the pilot seat, wearing her usual spangled headband, this one black as night. She pulled the mic down to her chin. “Ready,” she said.
The helicopter’s nose dipped and sped faster over the plain. As Matt made his way to the open door, a looming black hole came into view amidst the clay orange landscape about a few miles ahead. Despite the distance, the hole seemed large enough to fit at least ten of their choppers lined up nose to tail.
Just as he remembered.
After their failure, Matt had reexamined the mission’s task sheet. As they approached ?, he ran the prompt over once more in his head.
Inhabitants that don’t belong infest this barren scape, the debriefing read, without a map of the crater or essential identity of the inhabitants. They burrow deep to build their home. Eliminate the beasts, gain control of the gem, and beware.
Ego caused the failure of their first attempt at Satan Crater’s. Bruiser had slipped into a bad winner’s habit of ignoring task sheets--except for the money part, they checked that without fail--and their carelessness cost them their lives in a quicker fashion than any of them would like to admit.
The nose of the chopper lifted as it came to a stop, hovering well above the crater. Matt cleared his throat and strapped the tiger camo LMG across his back.
“Is this where you want me to stop?” Echo asked on the com.
Matt leaned over the edge and stared at bright green words floating directly above the pit--Satan’s Crater--then past them and into the endless black void. “Perfect,” he said. “No movement. You think they’re asleep?”
“Not asleep,” Martyr replied. “Waiting for us.”
“Well, I appreciate the hospitality.” Matt stepped back from the open door and checked his equipment one last time, shaking out his legs and arms, loosening the joints and muscles. Go time.
“Not waiting for us, either,” Echo said from her seat. “We have a visitor.”
Martyr tilted the gun down and it slid effortlessly on its stand, a slow whistle picking up within its inner workings, which meant two things--death and destruction.
“Wait,” Matt shouted, lumbering up to the open side. “We need a good visual of this thing. We still don’t quite know what we’re facing.”
As he reached the opening and gazed down upon the crater’s spawn, their visitor, Matt almost regretted his decision to keep it alive. Ice-pick legs lifted it out of the darkness, appearing as moving sticks near the edge of the black. As it reached the crater’s edge and the sun shone on its body, the creature screeched and shied mechanically away from the light. After a few moments, the inhabitant somehow found the will to rise again, revealing prickly hairs on six legs as the foremost pair swatted at their helicopter above.
The inhabitant of Satan’s Crater emerged fully. It reminded Matt of Venom from the old Spider-man movies, its body unrealistically adapted to severing and disassembling human skin and muscle. A display of glossy slime stretched across its hunched back, and it glared at the sky, and a clicking began in the back of its throat. The sound was more lonely than the entire desert.
“Huh,” Matt grunted. “Damn thing thinks it's about to feast.”
“Let me shoot it now. Let me get the taste of revenge on my tongue.”
Matt waved an open hand in front of Martyr. “Not yet. I want to see what this fucker is up to.”
The clicking ceased, but its echo continued on until it fed into the lengths of the desert, where Matt imagined it carried on. The creature’s head twitched as it stared upward, inspecting the belly of the ship.
“Does it think we’re one large entity?” Echo asked.
“Perhaps,” Martyr said. “If so, it's even more deadly for thinking it can take us alone.”
“Or stupid,” Matt said.
The creature retreated into the dark but continued searching through its reflective red eyes, moving like dwarf stars in the pit. Matt suspected the light limited its vision in some way.
Then the creature’s clicking began again.
Teeth appeared in the darkness.
“Let me shoot it,” Martyr said, looking at Matt.
“I think he’s going to jump,” Echo said.
Within the clicking, there was a sudden grunt, and the sound drew closer as the creature rose up through the air, defying gravity.
Martyr squeezed and directed the gun down. The whistling began and the creature climbed up, up, the strength of its bound allowing it to disregard gravity for the few moments it needed.
The clicking sound drew louder. The whining gun reached its peak just as the inhabitant’s gaze connected with Matt’s, close enough to see little black pupils amid the red, and bullets sprang from the gun as Martyr screamed.
The stream of bullets blasted into and through the creature. They shredded the filmy skin like butter, splashing green ichor throughout the air. Its momentum spent, the creature plummeted back into the crater. A tired scream followed the inhabitant.
The gun’s whistle slowed and stopped. The chopping blades sounded wrong, like a quiet river on a battlefield after war.
“Too close,” Martyr said.
Matt gulped. Too close indeed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. His voice sounded confident and rushed. “We have a mission to complete. There’s a lot more where that came from. Echo, you got the plan?”
“I come in after you, when the gem is secure and you’re ready for extraction.”
“And you?” Matt asked, turning toward Martyr at the door.
The reliable warrior stood from his gunner’s seat and removed twin Uzis, twirling them in place. “Kill.”
Matt took a deep, struggling breath. “You’re goddamn right.” Another breath, and he grasped the airframe. He jumped from the edge.
The sun warmed his skin as he exited, and he fell through the blue letters hanging in place above the crater, away from the sound of the chopper’s blade, toward darkness.