by Howard Cincotta
Despite my diplomatic immunity, and my well-known connection to Raven, they killed me again.
Bone Thugs this time. Tall skeletal creatures with muscles so sharply defined that they looked deformed. Not that you first noticed their bodies particularly, because their heads were, in fact, skulls, lit from the interior with virtual torches. They carried shields on one splintered arm and combination swords and heavy-caliber laser rifles on the otherand although they could be hired for modest price, I had neither the funds nor the authorization.
They surrounded me, chattering in their hip-hop, pseudo-Creole patois, ridiculing my identification as an official diplomatic representative and therefore immune to attack, deception, and games. I explained that it was urgent that I find Raven, so that we could begin the peace process and end this cycle of violence.
They shrieked in delight as they closed like ravenous hyenas, and all I could hear was their high-pitched laughter as first they blasted off my legs, and then with a shouted prayer to their gods of darkness, beheaded me.
The last time I had been roasted to death by fire-breathing pterodactyls, who then picked at my blackened flesh for hours.
Enough was enough.
I ripped off my goggles and gloves, kicked the computer keyboard to the floor and called the Everland headquarters in Redwood City, California.
After the usual runaround, I said: “Listen to me carefully. I know you work for the largest online, broadband, multiplayer, interactive, role-playing game in the world.
“I know your membership is larger than the states of Iowa, Nebraska, and both Dakotas combined.
“But I'm from the government, and I'm not here to help you. I'm telling you that if I don't speak to the director of operations in the next 30 seconds, a large group of anonymous federal agents will descend on your building from black helicopters. They will conduct a full search-and-confiscate operation — all in full view of news media, which will have been alerted well ahead of time. Are we clear now?”
I waited while my old antagonist clicked onto the line. “Mr. Ambassador, an honor, as always to hear from you.”
“Equally a pleasure for me,” I said. “Please convey my greetings and highest regards to your president.”
“I will. I'm looking at the report now, Mr. Ambassador. The Bone Thug element of the Automaton movement again. I'm so sorry. We're having great difficulty even communicating with them, much less keeping them under control.”
“What about exile?” I asked. “Banishment from Everland entirely as set forth in our Departmental White Paper as a necessary first step to a durable peace?”
“As you know, Mr. Ambassador, the issue of banishment from Everland is highly controversial, especially among the libertarian movement that is now the dominant coalition in the parliament.”
I sighed and found myself missing Raven more than usual. The time for diplomatic fencing was past.
“At this point, the internal political balance in Everland is not my chief concern,” I said. “Appropriately so, I might add.”
However dysfunctional its politics, Everland had achieved semi-sovereignty status similar to that of Native American tribes along with observer status at the United Nations. As a result, I had been duly accredited as the first Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Everland, subject to the same privileges and immunities enjoyed by diplomats anywhere in the world.
“What, then, are your chief concerns, Mr. Ambassador?” said the Director.
“Our mutual concerns,” I reminded him. “I have been sent, at the request of your president to try and mediate a peaceful settlement to the civil war that has broken out in your virtual entity.”
“So what happens? You provide me no protection, weaponry, or special attributes. As a result, you allow me to be murdered by a collection of rapper skeletons that are the avatars for a collection of dysfunctional teenagers from Lawrence, Kansas, to Seoul, Korea all, no doubt, antisocial jerks with bad skin as well as bad attitudes.” I caught my breath.
“I understand your situation.” The Director’s tone was equal parts honey and poison. “But as you know, your mission is very controversial despite the current disorder in Everland. It is a fantasy world, after all, and although we campaigned for political recognition, the prospect of federal intrusion is very troubling to many of us, not just the libertarians and unauthorized militias. And while Raven is a very powerful force in Everland, she, too, has become very controversial. In part through her connection to you, I might add.”
“I'm not here to discuss Raven,” I said. “And again, your internal politics are your own business. But when thousands of constituents called their congressional representatives and demand action, it becomes a federal matter. A matter of state.”
I paused to downshift into a calmer, more dispassionate mode. “Now listen. I am a peaceful man. Truly. I am a diplomat who first and always asks the question, 'Why can't we all get along?'
“But there is a major general who works in the Pentagon's Office of Virtual and Asymmetrical Warfare. If I am killed or harmed again, I will call him. He is neither a peaceful nor a particularly patient man. He will not talk to, nor negotiate with the Bone Thugs and the like. He will simply deploy certain software programs that will unleash a virtual variation of the seven plagues, from hellfire to incurable skin diseases.
I wanted. Silence. “Am I clear?”
A pause. “Yes.”
“Am I crystal clear?”
Another pause. “Yes. What do you want?”
I must say that I liked my new avatar, that of a large catlike creature a cross between a cougar and a jaguar. I hoped Raven would be impressed.
My weaponry was limited, but I now had options for short bursts of speed and invisibility to evade the assorted collections of rogue knights, carnivorous trolls, and other violence-prone outlaws as I made my way from the Desert of the Golden Horde to the Seven Cities of the Crimson King. Twice I got caught in the middle of ambushes involving neo-Maoist anarchists and a zombie cult out of south Florida and the New Congo, but without any apparent damage. After that, word got around fast that I not only couldn't I be robbed or killed, but that messing with me could bring the feds down on their heads.
Still, everyone still complained about the freelance violence, mutating viruses, malicious worms, and illegal software that were slowly destroying the multiplayer Everland universe. I could see evidence of the destruction everywhere mostly in swatches of virtual real estate populated with nothing but aimless bands of Bone Thugs, assassin cults, and reptilian flying creatures that refused to remain confined to their designated free-fire zones.
I didn't find Raven until I had been online for three days, traveling toward a ruined castle that that looked as though it had been created in Everland's early days.
As I approached, it morphed into large stone bird. An understated but effective example of her network power.
“Raven,” I said, trying not to let any hint of gladness leak into my voice.
“Mr. Ambassador,” the stone bird said. Always a quiet female voice, sometimes with a variation in accents. But almost machine-line this time. Raven was one of the two or three most powerful figures in Everland, with a large following, an equally large but disorganized opposition. She had access to as many avatars as she desired. Most often, however, she appeared as a beautiful black bird hawk or raven. Today, however, it looked as though I would be dealing with an image of stone, an avian Ozymandias. Not a good sign for the business I hoped to conclude, both official and personal.
“I hope we can resolve these political matters quickly,” I said.
The stone bird tilted her head. “Quickly then.”
I arched my furred back and flicked my tail.
“I have been instructed to convene a conference in Everland of all the sanctioned political parties, cults, and officially recognized virtual life forms. At that time, in my capacity as U.S. ambassador, I will present a roadmap for peace. It will be open for discussion and debate, but it is the expectation of my government that it will be signed and adhered to without substantial change.”
“Done,” said Raven. “I will ensure that the conference takes place. Whether all parties sign the roadmap is another matter.”
“Done,” I repeated. “Just like that? The opposition is strong, I’ve been told. The libertarian parties have suggested that they might boycott any conference sponsored by the federal government.”
“So I have been led to understand.”
“Aren't you concerned, Raven? After all, you're one of the founders of Everland. If your position were to be threatened …”
“That is not my chief worry at the moment,” Raven said. “The conference will take place. That is all I can confirm, or promise.”
“Very well.” I sat on my haunches, glossy black and statue-like in my own way.
“I think it is time to talk about us,” Raven said.
The vista of rock outcroppings and scudding clouds flickered slightly, and I suspected that Raven had made an adjustment to encrypt our conversation. But I no longer really cared whether we were overheard or not.
I fiddled with the joystick to extend my claws. “Have you thought about what I said?”
“I have.” She fell silent
“Raven,” I said finally. “I have been traveling to Everland and negotiating with you for almost a year. We have talked of many things. Whether it's fair to kill orcs with bouquets of poison flowers. How a futures market in an Everland real estate might function. That pernicious Bitcoin business. And other things — books we have read and done and dreamed when we're not in this non-place.”
Silence, so I continued.
“I don't know how to describe the feelings that have grown inside me. Perhaps they are simply the same mechanism of transference that occurs with a therapist. I don't know. But I do know that when I think of you, it is like a stake through my heart and I am in pain, and I tried hard to pluck it from my body but so far I have failed.”
Statues don't move or display emotion and neither did Raven. “Then turn the stake into an icicle and let it melt away,” she said, still with little inflection in her voice.
“My heart is not virtual enough for such transformations,” I answered. “My heart is wounded, and all I ask is that we meet each other. In person. Somewhere. Just once.”
“And what do you imagine would happen?”
“I would see you as a real person. We would eat something together, laugh, tell stories. I could even touch your physical body, a mere handshake, perhaps, and then, yes, this stake in my heart might indeed become ice and melt away. Melt away in your heat.”
“And what, then? What then would happen to us?”
“What do you mean?”
“What would happen to you and me you, the ambassador who appears before me as this great cat, and me, as Raven?”
“We could continue to meet as always, here in Everland.”
“Really? Let us think about that for a moment. First of all, the likelihood that ... in the real world as you say ... the possibility that I am the woman of your dreams is surpassingly small.”
“Raven, I understand that. I never suggested .”
“I might not even be a woman.”
“What? You have never presented yourself as anything other than female. You talked sometimes about your memories as a young girl even if you were a little vague on time and place.”
“Come, come, my sweet ambassador. I know that you are now alone. I also know that you are a lonely man who loves his work but suspects it it’s no longer enough. What better negotiating tactic than taking on the persona of a sympathetic female?”
I said nothing.
“Think how hard and disillusioning such an actual meeting might be,” Raven said.
I dropped to all fours, silently bared my large, quite impressive canines, and paced back and forth in front of the stone Raven.
“After all this time,” I said, “I do know a few things to be true. I do know that you are someone of great heart and imagination and caring.”
“But if we met, whom could I be?” Raven said. “Think of the possibilities. A gay man running a gift shop on the Outer Banks. A woman in her '50s with cerebral palsy, housebound in a wheelchair in Lake Charles, Louisiana. A software developer in Bangalore, India, with a wife, a mother-in-law, three children, and eight cousins. A forty-something computer salesman in LA with a beer gut and a Harley. A supermodel in Milan. A transgendered Unitarian minister is Vermont. I might not even be an individual, but a collective living on a techno-commune is rural Oregon.”
“Could I choose the supermodel option?”
“Of course. Choose anything. Imagine anything. Just stay. Stay here in Everland.”
“Raven, I just want to meet you. To know who you really are, to know … you. To be less alone.”
“And if we did meet, what would happen to Raven? What would happen to Raven in your eyes?”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. The moment we meet, whether with delight or disillusion, Raven would disappear. Raven would die.”
“No. That would never happen.”
The great stone bird unfurled its wings and lifted ponderously into the sky as the stones beneath her claws broke away and tumbled down a hillside. Purple rain clouds congealed in the sky and thunder coughed in such a low register. I felt as though I was listening to a crack in the universe.
You needed a lot of software power and graphics skill to pull off a sequence like that.
Raven circled my whiskered jaguar head, the weight of her stone wings beating down on me. Her words fell upon me like rain.
“My heart has been wounded too,” Raven said. “Like yours. We would meet and I would lose you forever and I love you and I want you to stay. To stay with me. Here.”Raven spiraled high into Everland's cloudless virtual sky and disappeared.