This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “A Game of Contact.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook from Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story was first published in the mixed-media, mixed-genre anthology “Exquisite Corpuscle” in November 2008.
NOTE: F-bomb warning in the story below. You’ve been warned!
A Game of Contact
Andy was DM again, and the stupid spaz couldn’t stop using the word to describe everything. Exquisite this, exquisite that. It was getting to the point where Mark wanted to blast him with a Magic Missile for a massive hit-point loss until he had no choice but to curl up behind his folded cardboard screen. Even the two Chrises, one on each side of Mark, were getting restless, waiting for Andy to finish his endless descriptions and get to the combat. But of course, Dungeon Masters were impervious—see, Mark wanted to say, I know fancy words too! —to any form of damage. They were untouchable, separate from both worlds, the real and the imagined.
“The first painting you come across in the ancient gallery on the other side of the secret door is also the largest, and it is exquisite.” Andy continued reading from his notebook as Mark rolled his eyes. “The fifteen-by-twelve-foot painting is painted in gilt, um, paint, with exquisite lapis lazuli borders. It’s a map of the island continent of Darcovia, with Castle Deepmoat at its center.”
Three sets of eleven-year-old eyes scrunched up in concentration as they listened to the description. The air of the cramped dining room was filled with the plastic-cheese smell of cooling Tombstone pizzas, the last few triangles forgotten on the Formica counter. Kennedy pushed Play on the stereo next to the kitchen table. Tinny, familiar music began pouring from the speakers suspended from macramé hangers on either side of the dining room table.
“Turn it up!” Lucas shouted, getting to his feet to dance, knocking over the pair of tiny, two-inch-high pewter figures in front of him in the process. “I love this damn song. ‘Do ya come from-a Land-a Down-a Undah?'”
“Come on!” Andy said, freezing Lucas in mid-shimmy. Mark almost laughed out loud as Andy gave his round, thick glasses an authoritative tweak. “There’s no freakin’ music in Dungeons and Dragons, and if there was, it wouldn’t be that crap.”
“Okay, so what else is on the map?” Mark said, trying to focus on the task at hand. Kennedy was losing interest, gazing over at the TV, probably thinking about the start of “The Incredible Hulk” at eight. Mark didn’t want the party to be over so soon, because could mean he’d end up back home. With Mom’s nagging and Dad’s drinking, it was like a war zone there, and he’d end up hiding out in his room again, alone.
“Is there anything interesting on the map?” Mark tried again, in a louder voice. Determined to make this campaign work, he turned to his right. He wanted this game to work. “Kennedy, have your thief check it for traps, why don’tcha?”
“Who died and made you leader?” The other Chris glared at Mark from above his character sheets and unpainted figures. His dark eyes were barely visible over the lank bangs of his bad comb-forward haircut.
“Ummmm, gee, let me think,” Mark said in his most sarcastic, pre-adolescent voice, leaning back and staring at the swirls plastered into the Kennedy’s kitchen ceiling as if trying to figure out the world’s trickiest sixth-grade spelling word. “Your fighter did, last weekend. Like, when he used his head to stop the club the orc king was swinging? Making my magic-user the leader, ’cause of his experience. He’s at the third level already, right, Andy?”
“Roll,” Andy growled from behind his DM screen as Men at Work embarked on a flute solo. This was the deepest into a game of D&D the four boys had ever gotten, and Mark could tell Andy had been afraid things were going to disintegrate like this at any moment. In their two months of weekly D&D get-togethers, they had yet to finish a single campaign. The siren song of the Atari 2600 and the fifteen channels of freshly installed cable TV were hard to ignore.
“Who rolls?” Kennedy said. The song had ended, and he turned down the boxy stereo a notch or two. Kennedy’s parents were out bowling, and wouldn’t be in until midnight.
“The thief rolls the eight-sided die three times, to see if he hits any traps while he’s examining the map.”
“‘Do ya come from-a Land-a Down-a Undah?'”
“Come on, Lucas,” Mark said. “Zip the lip.”
As Kennedy’s blue die rattled three times across the fake wood of the table, Mark peeked at his own poor attempt at a map. He was on his fifth sheet of graph paper, the blue-on-white squares refusing to cooperate with Mark’s number two pencil and Andy’s garbled descriptions. They were in one of the many towers of Castle Deepmoat, or they were two levels deep into the castle dungeons, depending on which map Mark pulled from the pile.
“Twelve,” Kennedy said, his chubby hands hovering over the die. To ensure there was no cheating, Andy demanded he be able to see every roll. Taped to his DM’s screen was the reminder: Touch the dice, pay the price.
“Okay… So there were no traps.” Andy disappeared behind his screen, and Mark could hear the mad flipping of pages. Andy wrote all his campaigns himself, unable to lower himself to actually buy an already-written module like “The Keep on the Borderlands” at the Dubuque Waldenbooks.
“But,” Andy continued with a sudden burst of drama the made his voice crack, stopping Lucas before he could creep around the table toward the stereo, “you have awakened… something.”
“Oh shit,” Mark said, a wide grin crossing his round face. Combat was the best part of the game. “Here we go!”
The two Chrises grabbed for their character sheets and dice, sending the last few half-painted pewter figurines in the middle of the table flying. Andy ignored the chaos and waited until all movement stopped, and even the Men at Work cassette cooperated, going silent at the end of Side One. Then, as if on cue, the night sky rumbled with distant thunder. Andy inhaled.
“From the far corner of the room comes a slithering sound, the likes of which none of the heroes of the party have ever heard, except in nightmares, the kind that wake you up screaming except you can’t really scream because you’re too damn scared. Like a hissing mixed in with an angry, gasping sound. Anyway, the shadows part, and the exquisitely voluptuous figure of a semi-naked woman—Lucas, don’t say a word!—creeps forward. The air is filled with exquisite hissing sounds. Your eyes are drawn to her. Now, everybody roll!”
“Oh,” Mark said, his voice lost in another roll of thunder. “Shit.”
“Ten-sided die, four times each,” Andy called out. The bang and clatter of a dozen dice rolls were accompanied by two back-to-back flashes of lightning. Behind his thick glasses, Andy’s faded blue eyes watched the brown dice like a hawk spying on three mice far below him. “Anyone below 15…”
“Anyone below 15 what?” Kennedy said, a hint of warning in his voice, as if to say: This is my house, don’t kill all of us here, especially not my characters.
“Anyone below 15 is turned to stone by the medusa! No saving throw.”
“Yes!” Lucas shouted. “Gimme a vegemite sandwich, cuz Clubber Lang the barbarian was able to avert his gaze in time. And so was Balrog the cleric.”
Mark threw four times for his first character, Sir Elliot, totaling an easy twenty-five. “Our paladin is safe.”
“Sneaky Sol already had his mirror out,” Kennedy said with triumph in his voice. “He’s safe.”
“And I’m…” Mark said at the start of his last set of rolls. “I mean, Greybeard the magic-user rolls a… Fourteen.” Something went cold at the base of his stomach. “Fourteen?”
Andy was staring at Mark from over his DM screen, surprise in his eyes along with a hint of victory. Mark’s hands felt heavy as he picked up his pencil and tried to think of something to write on Greybeard’s character sheet. He felt like he’d just been screamed at by his mother after being read the drunken riot act by his dad. And, to make matters worse, according to Andy had said, there was no saving throw for being turned to stone.
Greybeard was dead.
“Oh man,” Lucas said. “That’s totally uncool.”
“No saving throw at all?” Kennedy said. “Are you sure that’s what the ruled book says about medusas?”
The sting of the sudden turn of events was lessened partially by the concern of his two buddies, but Mark still wasn’t able to talk.
“Okay,” Andy said at last. “We’ve got a battle here, guys! Exquisite! Now, the four, um, remaining characters against the medusa. The party has the element of surprise still, and Sol has the highest dexterity, so he gets to start the attack.”
“All right, let’s rumble,” Kennedy said, already rolling as Mark tried to pick up his orange six-sided die. His fingers didn’t seem to want to cooperate. He’d taken to thinking more and more about Greybeard’s history, fleshing it out during his long summer days in his small Iowa hometown, riding his bike around town or skipping Little League practice, avoiding going home to be with his parents. He enjoyed pretending to be Sir Elliot, his paladin character, but most of the time he felt like he was Greybeard, wizard from the Darkening Swamps.
And now, he thought as rain began to spatter against the sliding glass door leading out to Kennedy’s back deck, Greybeard had been turned to stone.
And there was no saving throw.
Mark finally gathered up all of his multi-colored dice in one chubby hand and waited his turn. Hopefully Mark would let him roll a new character that could join the party, somehow.
Turned to damn stone.
Mark vowed not to make the mistake of getting so close again, in a game or anywhere else. Not if it stung like this.
The rain outside was falling like machine-gun fire by the time it was Mark’s turn to roll for Sir Elliot’s turn in combat. His friends turned to look at him. Mark shook all seven of his multi-sided dice in both hands, and then he flung them onto the table as hard as he could, knocking over Andy’s DM screen, crashing into the miniature figures still left standing, and scattering pages and dice across the room.
The game was over.
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