Jacob Riley had his head inside a world which bore some resemblance to times past – specifically the year 1814. It was here, having assumed the guise of Simon Bolivar, that he stood on the verge – after several hundred playing hours – of uniting South America under a single righteous flag. As such, it was a process which had consumed Riley for the past two months, travelling such a very long way from the original source materials that it now resembled a fever dream.
Stood inside a large canvas tent, Riley found himself surrounded by men who had followed him to all four corners of this convulsive continent in an attempt to kick out all the tyrants and initiate an epoch of natural justice. Actions which had earned him – as commander in chief – the nickname El Libertador.
Now a sudden gust of wind perturbed the tent’s main flaps like a small premonition of violence; one that Riley considered for a moment before turning back to that group of senior officers waiting upon his speech. It had always been these flights of oratory on the eve of battle that pleased him the most, even more than any enactment of daring. To this end he’d cribbed not only from Bolivar’s own words, culled from the history books, but also those of other great leaders who’d made a heroic stand against unlikely odds. Patterning all these valiant sentiments and phrases into one resounding proclamation after another. Using a rhetorical sub-routine to smooth over any inconsistencies or anachronisms and make his delivery compatible with the proper demotic of the age. In this way he would pace back and forth, hands behind his back, seizing on all that was rotten in the world only to suggest its days were numbered at long last. It was a good, good feeling. And yet this cherished dynamic had changed eight days ago, and Riley’s own wilful perversity accounted for the sudden switch.
This was because, during their last engagement with the enemy, he had taken the fateful decision to summon a drone attack rather than accept that military defeat which was clearly his due: the result of a gross tactical blunder. As a consequence, Riley’s standing as a great military leader was in pieces, and his men now deferred to him as a space oddity – hailing from another planet – or else feared him as a great mage. It did not matter that this same conjuration had benefited them all enormously by sparing their lives: alarm was much in evidence throughout the camp and showed no sign of abating, although the number of outright desertions, so far, was surprisingly few.
Nothing had prevented him from meddling with the game’s parameters in a far more subtle way. Employing a provident tempest or tornado which his men might have attributed to the Gods (and they were certainly religious enough to entertain such a possibility); but instead he’d called down an air cavalry which clearly did not belong to the century (being consistent with the city state of Zona Quelle and the year 2021). Doing violence to the fiction itself and his own position within it. And so, rather than escaping from his real world troubles – Riley’s original intention – he’d created a vivid parable of these same failures, writ-large.
Since then all historical accuracy had continued to unravel, making way for a counter-factual mess. Turning this campaign into a narrative which owed as much to the Steampunk novels of his youth as the tides of history. But Riley did not spare himself these contradictions, or even seek to learn from them strategically (which was, after everything, why this environment had been designed). Rather he punished himself in the process and accepted the distress of his virtual soldiery as one more fitting price to pay.
Now Gomez, his second in command, approached Riley with graphic reluctance, holding a communication in his right hand, as if to excuse the interruption in advance. Maybe fearing that “Bolivar” would call down a lightning bolt or turn him into a frog.
“Commandante – an amber alert from the great beyond.”
Riley bit his lip and stared back at the lieutenant.
“You’re sure it’s amber?”
“I am.” He nodded with painstaking certainty.
“Then you’d better give it here.”
Riley placed the envelope on his makeshift table, undid its wax seal with a trusty knife, and ignored the growing unease of his one time comrades.
This is not easy to write, given how we left things, but I thought you would want to hear what I’ve just been told. We’re being offered up to 19 million to regroup for a single task.
Call me now. Please. We need to consider this offer carefully.
Riley’s first inclination was to turn her down flat and let his silence speak volumes, irrespective of the proposed sum. But this feeling did not last long. Soon it was replaced by a second, more commonplace urge: to get back in touch immediately, whatever the pretext, and open up all their old wounds together.
“What does it say, Commandante?” Gomez asked. “Is it bad news?”
Anxiety was already rippling through the tent, spreading through the senior ranks, but rather than dignify their concerns with an answer, Riley chose this moment to return to his senses and that room he’d vacated mentally nine hours before. Taking off the glasses, he placed them on the nearby table and pinched the bridge of his nose. Leaned forward half an inch, sucked hard on the straw and downed the last of the tailored juice. Then he disentangled himself from the Stoyle apparatus and stopped with that procedural physio which had been kneading him constantly, stretching out his limbs, construing its ambient aerobics. At the same time Riley bent down and took off the Bynce pipeline. That glorified colostomy bag. The gamer’s waste system of choice. It was only then he clocked the length of his overall absence and allowed himself a single shake of the head.
Nineteen million? Deborah was not a woman given to exaggeration, but the figure was still hard to credit. Then there was the Kluk Kluk injunction to disentangle – that legalistic choke-hold which was squeezing the very solvency from their lives. How did that figure in the equation, if at all?
Now Riley stared at his immediate environs, considering this actual living space for the first time in a month. His claim on it was good for six weeks more. After that, any continuation was dependent on a timely legal outcome which appeared ever more remote. Basically he was looking at a return to the districts if things didn’t change. Dropping down into regular society. Taking his chances among the ill-informed.
Riley read the message again, zeroing in on its use of “we”. A pronoun which, however casually employed, struck him as a travesty given how estranged the two of them now were. Every last trace of unity blown away.
Then his eyes dropped down the screen and returned to the proposed figure, with all of those millions attached. Over and above these extraordinary riches, he knew what the prospect would mean to Deborah. Another chance to throw herself into work and lose herself in the process. More egoless mania. The same shit which had done for their marriage in the first place. Tendencies he had argued against time and again. First with patience and later with ferocity, cut to the core.
Allowing himself one last shake of the head, Riley committed himself to making contact, and Deborah answered on the second ring.
“So, 19 million?”
“That’s what’s on the table, yes. I wouldn’t have troubled you if the incentives weren’t so great, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I don’t think that’s overstating the case.”
Riley laughed bitterly. “You sound like a figment.”
“Do you want to hear this or don’t you?”
“Go on. Amaze me.”
“First off, if we agree to this proposal, it means we’re being released from all contractual obligations in relation to Kluk Kluk.”
“Just like that.”
“No, not just like that. Cuneiform will wave their magic Cuneiform wand and make this happen.”
“Yep. The task is to be performed on their behalf. Starting this very moment. At least that’s the idea.”
He paused, trying to put his thoughts in their proper order. “A narrative gig?”
“Yep. They’ve got a patient at The Mandrake. Need us to restore him in order to locate a workflow he’s just devised. Something known as Pushback.
“So it’s all about the data retrieval. Now how did I know that healing the poor bastard wouldn’t be their first order of business.”
“We’ll help him in the process, like we’ve done before.”
“There you go again – justifying your dubious stances.”
“OK Riley, if this is going to descend into yet more recriminations, we should probably call this off right now. Of course they want us as a team, working on the correct premise that we’re the best in the business, but if you’d prefer not to dirty your hands then I’ll try and hire Jenna Tyler instead. Propose this alternative link-up to the powers that be.”
“What else can I do? I’m not in a position to discount 19 Million out of hand.”
“It’s a big payment.”
“Yep. A lot of freedom to be had for that kind of money.”
“And freedom is what you’ve always wanted, I guess.”
“Look, if nothing else the divorce proved we can reach an amicable settlement. I see this as an extension of that principle. There’s no reason why we can’t work in concert now.”
Riley paused for more thoughts which failed to turn up.
“One other thing you might want to know – the patient is Piotr Jancis,” Deborah said.
“Jancis. What happened?”
“He orchestrated a SwanSong against himself.”
“That’s what I’ve been told.”
“But he’s stable now?”
“They’ve secured him in a category 3 coma. I’ve got all the details here.”
“Then you’d better send me everything you’ve got.”
“You’re sure? I can’t have you bailing on me a way down the line.”
“Listen, I’m not the resident expert when it comes to walking away.”
“Fine. I’ve got the working details, along with the contract. I’ll mail them both over.”
“And this starts now. There are added bonus payments for a swift resolution. All of which you can see for yourself.”
“OK. I get it. I’ll take to my monastery. Let’s see what we can do.”