by Chris

Saturday. 21:35

The arcade smelled like cigarette smoke and human sweat. The air conditioning has probably been FUBAR for ages. Music, and the sounds of explosions, squeezed the remainder of thoughts from the brain. I struggled my way through the crowd forming next to the cabinets. Some tweaked out teen dirtied my jacket with phosphorescent, carmine lipstick. This stuff never improves one's mood. "Arena" has always been crowded, but tonight is probably going to leave a mark in history. A display lit up with garish yellow, a bang silenced the crowd's turmoil briefly - somebody hit the mothership in "Martian Soldier". That's decent - two hundred bucks, at least. For a moment, the winner's orange bangs shined in front of me - a very happy bunch moved him towards the bar above everyone's heads. He'll take his reward soon, and then either lose it, smoke it, or drink it all with his lot in two hours, tops. That's just a punk - the professionals don't play on Saturdays.

The bartender recognized me and waved at me. "Is Grandpa there?" I moved my lips silently. Got a nod. Turned by 90 degrees. A few steps towards the door to the break room. A struggle at the console. Two drunken teenagers fighting for the last chip. A glance at "Tekken 4". A kid kicking ass well, but he's far from the best. Really shouldn't be playing Jurgen.

I exhaled in relief when the soundproof doors released me from the uproar. I took a look around, squinting my eyes. The darkness of the arcade was pleasant in comparison to the stark brightness of the break room. Grandpa, facing the back, was tampering with an Optimus cabinet.


Surprised, he jumped a bit, toppled a box of pirated CDs over. Silver disks fell on the floor with a clang.

"When will you stop sneaking up? You scared me." He growled, wiping his hands in a dirty towel.

"You'll stop being so nervous when you get rid of that fake shit," I pointed at the disks and reached my hand out for a hello.

"When did you become such a goody? Too much money, or something?" He tried to gather the strewn CDs. "Doubt that, otherwise you wouldn't be here. How is the hunt going?"

"Poorly! Nothing for two months. Literally nothing! Ever since Zoe stole that babe playing the races from me, I can't find anything. Damn it, I had a contract with Metropolis waiting for her."

"I heard, I heard… she was a real talent. He trained her a bit and put her in IPS. She does well in the League, she's been in the top 20 for a week. And watch out, people from Sierra are getting interested in her."

"So I felt… I sense money when it's there. You see, I followed her gaming for three months. She played in such shitholes, that I didn't think anybody else would find her. You know, Russian and Croatian servers…"


"And there's that," I smoked a cigarette. Grandpa made me realise what has been in the back of my head for months. I'm ending. I haven't brought anybody into the League for months, or at least anybody successful. That few shitheads whom I placed in local playoffs were just shit. And shit money. The rules are simple in this business - no results, no money. No money - no hardware, and no connections, you slowly start becoming nobody. Sometimes I regretted going independent. When I look in the mirror, I can hardly believe I was a hunter for Microsoft.

"Don't worry. I think I have somebody that can help you bounce back." Grandpa, seeing my interest, squinted his eyes. "When I saw him playing, I thought, I might try selling him myself. But, well, I'm too weak. Sooner or later someone would have fucked me over. You might manage. But… this time you give me twenty percent."

Grandpa returned to work. Despite employing a few service guys, he loved tinkering with the hardware himself. He didn't hurry with an explanation.

"Give me the hammer," he growled from behind the gutted console. He pulled a braid of wires, "Such a pile of shit… I'll never get this done. One is breaking after another…"

"Do I look like somebody who's got time for this bollocks? What's the guy good at?"

"Everything. Especially in first person shooters. The name's Magnus - he comes every night and plays for money. To be honest, he's wasting his time for only a couple of bucks. Here, have his match results. Quake. Monitorin from last week."

He handed a crumbled printout to me. One look at it was enough.

"I'm taking him."

Saturday. 23:55

"You can be a rich man. Very rich. It depends on you, only. I can push you very high. On the top! You can wait for another Gambleriad, Techmeeting or Labirynth. For whatever. Maybe someone's gonna notice you, maybe not. If you come into play with me, you're gonna have all that shit behind you. You told me that yourself, you tried. With me, you don't need to try. You go directly to the top. What Grandpa said is the truth. I've still got some contacts left…"

I was lying, lying like a dog. My "contacts" have long since left. At least the ones that mattered did. I might as well not show up on any larger parties. Plenty of hunters from the business and freelancers, like me. Ever since every company that mattered had a team for their own, everybody became a head hunter. All that was left for me was searching in the Internet and arcades. But what that kid showed me was worth any lie. Worth fifthy thousand, at the very least.

I was still shaking after the game. My helmet was sweaty like a virgin's body after her first time. I must have been twitching in the harness, because my back hurt like hell. I felt like I was about to vomit. I barely held a bottle of Grolsch in my bony hand. The kid hasn't even unclasped the harness, he was rocking about like a clock's pendulum, grinning a mocking grin. He had his reasons. On muny04, I was without a chance. He was spamming rockets like mad. I felt like a housefly in molasses trying to dodge. Didn't take long: 100-32. On ds5 - by the way, what idiot named it "Dog fields" - I did a bit better. He was jumping like an ape on the tiles sunken in lava. That's where I got him most of the times. He wasn't as confident in open areas… but that didn't help. 100-56 this time. Betox - if you understand me well, I didn't go on top once. Not once! Zero. I may as well have been a toddler, he would have beaten me just as easily. I've never seen somebody play like that, and I've seen a lot. When we put him in the arcade, he finished the next two games in the top five. That's decent, especially because I saw from the start that he was high on proheptazine. Knee deep in it.

"If you agree, we sign a paper and within 24 hours, you're playing on the best training servers in the country. With the best booths. With the ability to simulate the best opponents. Oh, and," I searched my pockets, "two grand, to start. You in?"

He bounced from the cabinet and reached for the money.

Three weeks later

He got the best hardware and the best programs. He trained 10-12 hours daily, and the results exceeded my expectations by far. He hasn't lost a match with an amateur for a week. I bribed an IPS admin and gave him a full training cycle with their team. They're from the country's top five, after all. And? Magnus kicked their asses so hard, that the guy gave me my money back. "He's too good, they'll find out and fire me," he said. Seriously. The backbench from Multitech squad were shot like ducks. Eventually, their trainer - my good friend - told me to fuck off, since I was "destroying his boys' morale". That was enough, to make me feel like the owner of a golden duck. I sent his demos to all more important clubs. Put up an ad in the official League bulletin. Despite the dead season (you know, summer break) offers started coming in instantly. But why bother, if nobody was feeling too generous. I invested way too much in the kid, to sell him for pennies. I waited… and then that guy came. A short guy with a ratty face, and a brown, shabby briefcase. He represented a company that I've never heard of. He said, they've got a third league team advertising their stuff. That business is going bad, and they decided to invest in their own team. Bullshit as usual. They needed a fighter, and my kid popped up on their radar. I'll admit it, I wanted to blow off the guy. Magnus was way too good to begin in some shit, third league team. I told the man to leave, and on my doormat, he stuffed a leaflet in my hand, asking me to reconsider. I took a look, and reconsidered. Instantly. Never before in my life have I seen so many zeros in an offer for a player. And there was a two in the front. Jesus! I could buy half a team of any company for this price. I was too blinded with money to notice that the deal seemed off. Way off. I got the money the same night. Half of it in cash, half in unregistered bio-RAM. Magnus drove away with "Ratty", and I began planning the biggest shopping of my life. There's nothing that gets me off as much as spending money. I quickly forgot everything. Too quickly. Especially since I've never seen any sort of proof that Magnus is, actually, playing in the League.

Sunday. A few minutes before midnight

A strong punt woke me up. A second got me off my bed, and a third pushed me under the window. When I got myself together enough to raise my head, I saw that there were two of them. And a barrel, aimed at me. It was rifled. And it was close. And that meant trouble?

"Have I been naughty?" The offender wasn't in the mood for jokes, apparently. I regretted my sarcasm as another kick sent me towards the door.

I wiped blood off my broken lip. I was up against someone who liked American, military boots. I only knew one person like that.

"What's the problem, Magnus? Having a bad day and wanted to talk with an old friend? Okay, okay…" I stretched my arms out to shield myself from another kick. He changed his mind. Instead, he turned the light on. He was more pissed than I thought. Madness and drugs made him vibrate, which yet didn't give him trouble aiming.

"I should blow your head up! You goddamn son of a bitch! You forgot to tell me that people die there!"

"Are you mad? The fuck you on about?" The situation was becoming dangerous. Any moment now, and that drugged idiot will shoot me. I was scared. And I would have been scared for longer, had the second guy not interfered. He calmly walked throug the room, took the gun off Magnus' hand, and put it in the pocket.

"That won't be necessary," he smiled at me. "Not now. You're a reasonable man, after all. Please get dressed and don't do anything stupid. In the car downstairs, there's somebody who doesn't like to wait. And he's been doing it for five minutes now."

If he tried to calm me down, that failed. I dressed myself slowly, while he searched every fragment of my clothing. He didn't let me put a belt on. He ran his fingertip over a comb found in a pocket of a shirt.

"You won't believe me, but I know people, who could slit a throat with this." The comb flew into a corner, and the stranger started investigating bottoms of my shoes next. "And we don't like the sight of blood. Right?"

When we went downstairs, he pointed to a classy limo. He and Magnus got into the car behind. I stood helplessly in the middle of the street and wondered if an escape attempt had any chance of being successful. I took wing. Needlessly. I must have looked like an idiot when I was pushed into the Lincoln with one slipper, a torn shirt and pants hanging loose.

Half an hour later

"We don't kill people. They kill themselves for us… or for money, rather. A business like any other, except we take the word "deathmatch" very seriously. If there are people who can pay a fortune for this sort of performance, then performers are found too. We, too, have our head hunters, and our methods. And besides, we pay very well. Our, hmm, league, needs stars, too, Until now, they were just degenerates. Psychopaths, junkies, or losers, who fell into money troubles and deluded themselves that after one game, their life will turn around. Well, the last kind is one that we've buried the most. Of course, I realise that your case is something exceptional. But, well, I can't help it. Magnus is a very prized possession for us, he generates plenty of income and you realise, that sometimes we have to indulge him. And he wants you to take part in tonight's meeting. Besides, we can't disappoint our guests. Some really important guests. Guests, who love Magnus, and are ready to pay any money to see him do his work. You must understand that because of, hmm, the delicateness of this matter, organising a session like this takes a lot of work and money. Your refusal would expose us to big losses, so it is not upon discussion."

He bent down, to fill his glass with champagne. He invited me to do the same, with a gesture of his hand. I shook my head. What a scummy son of a bitch! Polite, nice, pretentiously friendly. He knew, that I have no choice, and was very amused by that.

"Maybe some caviar? Don't feel uncomfortable. Fine… I understand." A silver spoon clinked. As he was enjoying the taste, he stared beyond the window. I did the same, though I don't know what's so fascinating about the monotonous blackness of the woods, rarely interspersed with lights.

He looked at this watch. "Yes… we'll be there in a couple minutes. I hope you won't disappoint us."

"How are you so sure?"

"Everybody wants to live."

Monday. 01:55

The building seemed to be an old, abandoned warehouse. The air was heavy with the smell of washing powder and some disinfectant. Apparently, this used to be a wholesale store. A circle of floodlights lit up the middle of the room. Four NEC consoles stood there, models from last month, if I were to guess. Somewhat similar to IBM's Vikings, but more solid and in nice colors, stylized after last year's classic model TravelStar. Suspended OSA helmets drawing directly to the retinas, active Nintendo suits, chromed railings, and harness from genuine leather. In short, very good hardware, on a global level. The server machine was an old, long-serving Genesis, but if I had as many enhancements as it did, I could have flown straight into space. Strings of optical fibre slithered from the case and ran towards the darkness of the room. From the dark, I could hear quiet conversations and the clinking of glass. "My audience," I thought.

We passed the consoles, ignoring the technicians fiddling with them. They were all wearing balaclavas - full anonymity. One of the bouncers pushed me towards the ajar door with the butt of a rifle.

"Careful there. Your boss wants me in top form."

"Shut up! You're already dead. I wouldn't bet even a hundred on you."

"Maybe try, though." I took a bunch of banknotes from my pocket and passed them behind me. "Just share whatever you win."

"You're fucked up!" He grabbed the money and laughed idiotically. "I'll buy flowers for your grave."

We walked into a small cell. The man standing in the middle stared at me, with curiosity. He pointed at a chair. I sat down.

"We need to get you ready."

An electric shaver buzzed. With a skilled move, he shaved my hair off. A long stripe across the head and two flat spots, one per temple.

"Electrodes?" I asked, choking on my own flocks.

"No. The helmets are converted for direct contacts."

"Then shave all of it. I don't wanna look like an ape."

"Dandy!" They erupted with laughter, but soon the shaver's work was finished. I ran my hand over my head. Smooth. Like a baby's butt.

"How do I look?"

"Like a nutsack!"

Their laughs could be heard long after they left, slamming the door shut. There was no handle from my side. I got up and took a look around the room. No windows. Nothing. Bare walls and a chair. And a lightbulb, protected by a frame of wire. And behind the wall was the most modern hardware, and two desperados like me, not counting Magnus. I couldn't concieve of what I just got myself into. Had I had hair, it would stand on end. Only now I've began to understand what the man told me in the car. An illegal league, bets. An underworld of politicians, gangsters, and deviants. A mob from virtual worlds. In a moment, to appease those perverted, rich shits I'll be playing for my own life. One bad move and an electrical impulse will fry my brain. Great. Fucking great!


Zipping my suit, I teetered on the unstable floor of the console. Somebody's hand supported me, and another tried to give me a handful of drugs. "Fuck off," I snarled, regulating the harness. A while later, they put on my helmet, isolating me from everything around me. Quiet. Dark. I found the control panel. A control screen lit up. I set it to automatic tuning. Then a short, manual correction. My headphones cracked. "One! One, respond." An electrical impulse ran over my skull. I yelped. "You hear me now? Configure yourself." Menu. Customize. A short series of commands. Confirmation. Ready! "Alright, test it. You get 30 seconds of DM4. Go!" I fell onto the floor. Pain in the knees. I hit a wall, my arm went numb for a short moment. Jesus, how real it is! For a while I stood and looked around the familiar map. A nice heat emanated from the lava. A few steps, then a jump. Sprinted sharply for the nailgun. I fired at the wall for warmup. OK. Everything's fine, can't be better. "Okay, over! You're starting soon." Darkness, and a squeeze in my throat. Fear? Yes. It hit me and paralysed me, drenching me in sweat. Digits appeared in the corner of my eye. 5… 4… My legs trembled. 3… Idiotic, niggling itching on the neck. 2… 1… Go!

I landed knee deep in water. I saw stairs in the dim light of a torch. 0, 100, and 20 ammo on the counter. I ran upwards. A couple steps. A low corridoor curved lightly, leading to a narrow gallery. A muddle of multileveled catwalks. Medkits! Two, no - three. Need to remember that, but right now, a weapon is the top priority. Any weapon! A glance downward. A small room, with a well, filled with several clips of nails. A door on the left, stairs on the right. Armor! Stuffed in the corner, almost invisible. I reached it with one jump, and… bent over its weight. Damn! Slows movement. I ran towards the well, when Blue came through the door. He didn't expect me and shot too late. I jumped. The smoke trail of a rocket flew over my head. When it exploded, I was already at the bottom. I knew that I have three seconds, tops, before he gets on my back again. I can't make it to the door. I ran towards the shadow - backwards, with my gut - not losing sight of the well. Fate gave me more time.

The cannonade upwards sounded like Blue had trouble. The clatter of a nailgun interspersed with rocket explosions. A yell! One, then a second… Someone's getting owned. Suddenly I saw a grenade launcher, in a small, dimly lit recess. I collected it at the same time, when Yellow fell down the well. He shot upwards in short burts. Didn't notice me. I sent him two grenades in full speed. One bounced off the wall and landed on his chest. Nothing can be compared to the dull thud and the crackling of tearing flesh. Somewhere, in a far away reality, mad electrons burned somebody's brain to ash. Here, bloody gibs dirtied the walls. Instinctively, I grabbed his backpack and the gun. I jumped over the remains and ran towards the door. Blue knows what happened - if he's not too weak, he'll show up shortly. I was afraid of his rockets. In this small room, they could raise hell. For security, I fired grenades behind. The key thing is to keep moving, always change the position. That's what they teach in the League… and the army. It saved many asses both there and here.

I found myself in a torchlit grotto. The raw, stone walls emanated coldness. The walkway diverged and disappeared in the darkness. Water soughed in the middle. For a while I thought to jump in, but no - better to penetrate the corridors. I went left. The corridor, slowly turning into a tunnel, curved gently - at the end was a cylinder-shaped recess. A Quad shined behind a grate. Above, symmetrically on two sides, two switches were burning with red. My shotgun fired. One! Two! Wrong order! The ceiling went down with a screech. I jumped back at the last moment - fell on my back. You can fall down here! I bounced back from the ground like ball when I heard a charge fire behind the wall. The scream of a burned man. Thunderbolt! Magnus' favorite weapon. I wouldn't want to meet him now, with one grenade and a couple nails. I ran to the right. An escape. Several gray packs loaded up my nailgun's chambler with a click. 200. Full! Health not doing as well - only 75.

It was getting hotter with every step. Suddenly, the path ended with an abyss. Lava! A massive lava lake, several meters beneath. Straight ahead, above the ocean of heat, held by an invisible force was a teleporter. The heat was repelling me from this way, but a sound from behind resolved any doubts. He found me quickly. Too quickly. His weapon sent a burst of steel stings to my back. My body painfully twitched. This is what death looks like! With the rest of my powers, I bounced for the mad jump. The portal accepted my tortured body with coldness and indifference - sent me to a huge hall. Straight ahead, an elevator filled to the brim with medkits.

Healed, I went upward. The teleporter crackled below. I had the man. Black! All black. Like the devil! He glanced around nervously and ran towards the nearest medkit. I sent two grenades after him. He responded with a rocket. The shockwave threw me onto the wall, which was enough to make me lose sight of him. I carefully slided downward. He could be hiding in any dark corner. And he did. Jumped out of the shadows as soon as I was on the bottom. The lightning missed me by a hair's length. In response, two of my grenades exploded. But he was already in the corner opposite. He camped in the dark, disgustingly. I fired a long burst of nails. He yelped. Got the bastard! Followed him when he ran towards the nearest door. I had the upper hand now. We both jumped over Blue's corpse in the run. It was just me and him, at this point. He was slowing down the chase with rockets, but I fired the nailgun relentlessly. He zigzagged, spun pirouettes. If he's running, he's got to be very weak. My confidence almost killed me.

A rocket hit me in the chest, and the terrible pain brought me to my knees. The counter fired with red. Critical level. He had me on a plate, now! I waited for the final shot. It didn't come. Black disappeared in the mess of corridors.

We couldn't find ourselves for long. Sometimes we only heard far echoes of our footsteps. I collected every possible item. Judging from the noise, so did he. A mutual wait is more exhausting than direct combat. Dulls the senses. I almost got him. He ran towards the teleport - he didn't see me. I forced myself not to fire. I counted his steps. I ran after him when he disappeared in the sparkling, black mosaic. A terrible crack! A long screech combined with the feeling of struggling through a thicket. Invisible branches held and stopped me. Telefragged!! For a while, my mind was flooded with a wave of hatred, madness, and an animalistic desire to kill. His thoughts. And that was the end.


That is how the gates of my own hell opened. I know that what I do is evil, but I don't want to - I can't stop it. I'm playing in the Black League for three months. Some say it's a long time. Too long! Don't write to me anymore - I have no address. I have no home. You'll never see me. My world is elsewhere. The death dance absorbs fully. Nobody, who hasn't experienced it, will understand. Today, I know only one thing. I couldn't live differently and I don't want to die differently!

Text Š Copyright 1997 Krzysztof Arkuszewski

2013 translation by onetruepurple

Originally at http://riad.pk.edu.pl/~pmj/quake/stories10.html