The Games People Play
Sheppard was falling from a great height, his body bouncing off the protruding ledges of the tower. There was nothing he could do to save himself. His leg exploded in a burst of blood. His arm fell off just before he hit the ground. He landed in fragments, just a blue flag lying in a pile of bloody meat. The last thing he saw before everything went black was a pair of triumphant boots running over the flag and claiming it.
"Happens every time," he complained. He grabbed a quick bite of chocolate cake as he clicked the button to respawn. No matter what name he went by, no matter what avatar he used, they always got him. He died twice as often as anyone else. They always seemed to know it was him. There was gloating, too; he knew it. You could tell when a man was gloating, even when he looked impassive and called you 'sir'.
Ronon didn't take his eyes off the screen. His cake was untouched beside him, turning dry at the edges. His mouse hand was swooping across the mousemat, the index finger clicking madly. "Who wouldn't take the chance to kill his commanding officer?"
"When it's only a game of let's pretend." Sheppard looked at him pointedly. "You meant to qualify your statement, but didn't."
He looked back at the screen in time to see his lifeless corpse falling to the ground in slow motion. He appeared to have mislaid his head. Faintly across the mess hall he heard a distant, "Yes!" He glowered. Maybe the whole lot of them could have extra duties – something unpleasant, involving toilets. You never could trust the blue team. He would be protecting Atlantis, really, if he sent them away.
Ronon is godlike, the screen informed him, helpfully. In capitals.
"At least he's on my side," Sheppard muttered. He had made it to "unstoppable" once. A second later, he had died. The whoop when he had died had been unmistakeable, but when he had glowered across the hall, all the faces had been as blank and innocent as a constipated lamb.
"Die!" Carson screamed suddenly from Sheppard's other side. "Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!" He twisted from side to side, his face contorted. "Yessss! Got him!" He looked at Sheppard, grinning. It would not have surprised Sheppard to see that he had sprouted blood-stained fangs. In fact, the chocolate at the sides of his mouth made it look somewhat as if he had. "Head shot," Carson informed him gleefully. "I blew his brains out."
"And this is the man who stands over our helpless bodies with knives," Sheppard said. "I want a different doctor."
"Doctors make good killers," Ronon remarked. The words sounded as if they were pushed out of the side of his mouth, allocated a mere fraction of his brain power. "They know about pain."
"Oh, this is not like me at all. I've never played anything violent before. I think…" Carson looked anxious, then he leant forward sharply, as if pinned by the screen. "He's back again! Die! Die, damn you!"
Perhaps Carson had developed some freaky Ancient power of ill-wishing. Sheppard had died again. It was green slime this time. "I so did not kill my own dumb self," he protested, as the screen announced that he had. "I was pushed. They fired a rocket at me." He was sure they were sniggering now. Oh yes, it would definitely be something with toilets. Native toilets. On a planet that was hot. Populated by amorous toad people. All of them male.
He respawned. As he did so, an alarm started to sound, loud in his ear piece. "They've got our flag," he told the others.
"I have my enemy cornered." Ronon's voice was pure menace. "I have hunted him down like the beast that he is. He killed me, and now he will die."
"Ronon," Sheppard hissed through gritted teeth. "How many times do I have to tell you? Forget the vengeance thing. Capture the flag, remember? The name of the game? The bad guys have our flag. You help get it back. I've only got a pistol, and..." And I'm dead again. He decided not to say that out loud.
"Die! D… Ach! Now I'm dead." Carson thumped the table with his fist, sending coffee mugs rattling and cake crumbs leaping into the air. "I've respawned back at base."
"You’re on your own, big guy." Sheppard had found a sniper rifle. He killed one of them, but the flag carrier was out of range. "Get him, Ronon," he urged. "They're going to win!"
With a growl, Ronon stood up, sending the chair flying. He was across the room in a few swift strides, his gun already out. He felled them - one, two, three, four – then turned back with a look of grim triumph.
Sheppard swallowed. Carson's mouth had fallen open, though his mouse hand was still moving, controlling a character he was no longer aware of.
"That's one way of winning a game, I guess," Sheppard said weakly. Ronon returned and sat down with a grunt. Sheppard looked at him. "Please tell me that was set on stun."
"Of course," Ronon said, as he returned the flag from the corpse of his unresisting enemy. He had still not touched his cake. "It's only a game."
"No, Teyla," Radek said, as patiently as he could manage. "I am Dungeon Master. You tell me what you want to do."
"I understand," Teyla said. "You create a challenging situation, like storytellers amongst my people. We then decide how the story will end."
"Yes." He really was not good at being patient. His dice – his beautiful, rose-coloured polyhedral dice – were nestled in their open box, begging him to roll them in his palms, to feel their soft smoothness, their planes, their curves. The others rattled their own dice with an air of hopeful warning. "I create situation, yes. Now you tell me how you are going to react."
Teyla seemed to be thinking – eyes closed, face serene. Radek bit his lip anxiously. Maybe she was asleep. Or meditating. Or sensing Wraith.
"You're a mage," he reminded her, his voice only rising slightly. "You have Magic Missile memorised?"
She opened her eyes. "I wish to talk to them. I wish to offer trade. My people have many things we can trade. You said they were wearing dirty rags. We can trade soft linen. Can they trade anything in return?"
Radek rolled his eyes heavenwards. "You don't trade with goblins."
"Maybe that is where past adventurers have gone wrong. We can do a… what is it that Doctor Weir calls it? A cultural exchange?"
"They are not Wraith," Teyla said. "Perhaps they, too, fear the Wraith. Their appearance is alarming, but I have often found that the most unlikely people can become allies, if trust is offered."
The dice sighed sadly, their glow slowly fading. It didn't even have to be goblins. It was just a random wilderness encounter that led into the proper plot. There were dragons in the plot, and beautiful shapely elf women without many clothes on. He knew that Teyla's character was wearing lots of clothes. She had told him this quite firmly when he had asked her about chainmail bikinis – after one of the others had told her what a bikini was, that is. Radek had pretended that his English had become confused. "Shirt," he had insisted. "I meant shirt."
"You're supposed to fight them," he said limply, flapping his hands, then pressing them to his face. He eyed the various tins and boxes sitting so innocently beside the other players, and his stomach rumbled. He had somehow let slip that he was the sort of Dungeon Master who might be willing to overlook a die roll of certain death if lemon cake was in the offing. He laid particular stress on the lemon. Rodney could scent food at two hundred paces, and launch raids disguised under casual pretences. Bribery required battles, though. Battles required…
"I do not understand." Teyla frowned. "I thought you were the Dungeon Master. I thought you…"
"Just fight them," Radek pleaded. "Then Captain Garrick can come up, drawn by the noise, and you will be arrested and charged with brawling and then the gorgeous elf who's really a witch rescues you from prison and tells you about her stolen robes and you don't know whether to help her or not, until… Oh." He clapped his hands to his mouth, too late.
He heard the sound of dice cast down disgustedly on the table.
"I prefer to talk," Teyla said calmly. "Perhaps their aggression can be calmed with meditation. I will offer to teach them."
That’s it, Radek thought, letting his head sag back in the chair. This is the last time I DM ever. Next time, I'm playing.
He thought of his beautiful twentieth level warrior, whose curves were never hampered with clothes. Perhaps a beautiful thief next. She would not look like Teyla.
"We can also trade root vegetables," Teyla's voice said, from the sweet, soft darkness. "I can show them how to make a nourishing broth."
Elizabeth settled down in the hard chair, well padded with cushions. A frothy cup of coffee sat near her left hand, an over-large slice of carrot cake beside it. Soft music played from her old-fashioned portable cassette player. She curled her legs beneath her, and settled her laptop on her knees. With a firm mousemat, the mouse just managed to balance on the arm of the chair, and be useable.
Not that she planned to use it much. A few clicks here and there, when necessary. Eyes drifting closed, and mind softly dreaming. She did not believe in controlling her people too closely. She issued orders when she had to, but mostly let them get on with it. It had occasionally been disastrous. Usually, it turned out okay.
The woman on the screen was sitting on the couch, flicking through a celebrity magazine. The children were playing in the garden, their voices filtering through the window. Soon it would be time to start preparing the dinner. Then there would be a glass of red wine, and perhaps some ironing in front of the television.
The next day would be the same, and then the next.
She had never been one for computer games. Did people play games, she wondered, so they could dream of people they could not be? They could be thieves and warriors, wizards or warriors. They could be beautiful, when in real life they were plain. They could be feared, when in real life they were fearful. They could kill, when in real life they did not dream to. They could fight for the survival of the world, and bear the fate on whole people on their shoulders. They could see horrors that chilled the heart. They could save the life of a friend, or lose one.
What could a woman play when she lived that life through every waking day?
Normal, she thought, contentedly. Routine. Boring. With nothing more urgent to think about than what to buy for dinner tomorrow, and whether to wash the whites or the colours.
Smiling, drifting, she let herself dream.
A knock at the door jolted her awake. "Come in."
"Oh. Elizabeth." It was Rodney. He gestured at the laptop. "You're at it, too, I see." She looked disappointed, as if she had fallen somehow in his estimation.
She supposed she could pretend it was work, but had no real desire to do so. "I can't exempt myself, after all."
Encouraged by Dr Heightmeyer, she had declared a day of games. Her people had been through Hell and back, and they were all exhausted. Games, Kate said, encouraged team bonding, and could be an outlet for fears and frustrations. New friendships could be forged, and relationships strengthened. Rodney had protested loudly until Elizabeth had promised cake. Wholesome games and decadent food products… What could possibly go wrong?
"Where are the others?" she asked, with a smile.
"Colonel Sheppard is leading Ronon and Carson astray with first person shooters," Rodney said disapprovingly. "Zelenka's running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and Teyla was intending to join in. From the noise, I'd say that half the soldiery of Atlantis are currently indulging in sweaty male bonding with a football. Thankfully at least some of the scientists are playing chess. There is hope for us yet."
"And you?" She arched her eyebrow.
"I have better things to do," Rodney said stiffly. "Genius, remember?"
"Well, then." She smiled, making a few clicks with her mouse. "I'll leave you to your genius." She gestured at her screen, carefully keeping it hidden so he couldn't see what she was playing. "The world won't save itself."
He left, but she did not miss the way he rolled his eyes, and if the whole world had gone crazy, except for him.
Rodney stood stiffly until the door had swished shut behind him, then hastened to the bed. Sitting down, he reached underneath it, and pulled out a box. He looked over his shoulders, left then right then left again, and then reached lovingly for the lid.
Inside was a rectangular machine, covered with keys. It was his first computer, comprehensibly taken apart, rebuilt and improved over the years.
He switched it on. There was no flashy sound in this – no brainless shooting, no lurid colours. No, this was computer gaming as it was meant to be.
"RUN," he typed, when it was ready. Just 16k, he thought happily. Hours of educational fun for just 16k. Those were the days…
The cassette player whirred. Blocky writing on the screen informed him that he was standing at a crossroads outside a crumbling ruin. A cottage stood to the east. To the north was a dark and blood-stained entrance, labelled, "Here be monsters." The west held only an empty, open field.
"Here be monsters," he muttered. "If only the Pegasus Galaxy went in for such signs. 'Here be Wraith. Stay away.'" Not that the idiots on his team would take any notice. Sheppard and Ronon would charge straight in, probably jostling with each other over who was going to face an irritatingly heroic death first. Rodney was the only one of them with any sense. Rodney would, of course, go the other way.
"Go west," he typed.
A knife was lying on the ground in the middle of the field. "Pick up knife," he typed. There were no more warning signs.
He thought of empty planets, where sad ruins told the tale of shattered lives. Here be Wraith, he thought. There would have to be so many signs that you wouldn't be able to move for them. There was never anywhere to run away, except for… "Oh! Cake!" he exclaimed, remembering the slices he had pilfered from the mess hall earlier. He stuffed as much into his mouth as he could manage, and told the computer to go west. Chocolate smeared on the keyboard, adding another stratum to the rich fossil record that was his childhood computer.
"A gargoyle leaps out at you!" the computer told him, cruel glee evident in the solid letters.
"What?" he shouted. "A gargoyle? They're made of stone. They live on churches. They haven't got legs. I went west. I went away from the sign."
The cursor blinked at him, awaiting his response. He imagined the gargoyle crouched on its non-existent haunches. It wouldn't do anything until he typed something. If he didn't acknowledge it, it would crouch there for all eternity. "Shame it doesn't work like this in real life," he muttered.
"Run away," he typed.
Escape was not an option, the computer told him. The gargoyle blocked every exit.
"I'm in the middle of an open field, for crying out loud!" Rodney protested. "It can't block every exit." He let out a long-suffering breath. "Fine. I'll stand and fight it. Once again, violence is the only answer. Who wrote this thing? Sheppard?" Stabbing each key pointedly, he typed, "Kill gargoyle."
The computer didn't know what the word "kill" meant. He suspected it was lying.
Rodney ate some cake, and carried on typing one handed. Before the second slice was finished, he was shouting at the screen. "Throw the knife. Drop the knife. No! No! Pick up the knife. Thrust with the knife." He typed furiously. "Stab it with the knife. Come on! How many synonyms are there for 'kill it.' Oh! Murder it? Smite it? Agh. No. What word do they want me to type?"
The computer was silent. The winking cursor had taken on a look of definite evil.
"Kill yourself," he typed. "No. Not me. You. I'm talking to you, computer. Kill. The. Gargoyle. Slice your own wires. Blow up your screen. Just… stop… the… gargoyle."
Ten minutes later, the computer was under the bed again. "Stupid game, anyway," Rodney said. "Games are for losers. I'll be… I'll be in the lab, doing geniusy things." He said it hopefully, but no-one was listening.
He moved to the door, and paused in the silent corridors. "But perhaps I'll drop by and see what Sheppard and the others are up to. They're my team. It doesn't hurt to feign interest."
"But I won't play," he told himself, as he neared the mess hall. "I'm only going for the cake."
There was still plenty of cake. Rodney had every intention of torturing everyone involved until he found out how they had obtained the chocolate, and had secured his own supply. The flour, milk and butter came from Teyla's people, he knew that. He preferred not to think about the Athosian version of a cow.
Seeing Sheppard sitting alone, Rodney walked over to his table, carefully balancing four plates of cake. "Why, thank you, Rodney." Sheppard helped himself to the plate with the biggest slice. Rodney was magnanimous enough to refrain from comment. Perhaps he was growing up. Perhaps it was just that he had come to learn that protests only encouraged the man. There were many other ways a scientist could get revenge, after all.
"What's happening?" Rodney asked, through a mouthful.
"Mindless slaughter." Sheppard gestured at the tables of computers. "Carson's turned into a monster. Ronon's in disgrace. We've got four Marines in the infirmary - Carson got one of his minions to deal with them because he couldn't bear to be dragged away from the slaying. Kolya's got nothing on Carson. I think he's our new nemesis."
Rodney's mouth fell open. He filled it with cake instead.
"I've died a million times. The nasty boys keep picking on me, sir." Sheppard looked sulky. "And tomorrow I expect I'll be facing a delegation sent to inform me that Ronon is too dangerous to be let out and should be kept on a leash."
It was muffled by cake, but Sheppard seemed to understand it. "Of course he's dangerous. That's why I keep him. He's not a tame lion, Rodney."
Some things, Rodney decided, were best not asked about.
Zelenka bustled in, his hair wild, and his hands even wilder. "That woman!" he cried, as he bore down on them. "How do you stand it? Trading this and trading that. She wouldn't let us fight. All that cake. All that lovely, lovely cake…"
Sheppard reached for another of Rodney's stash and offered it wordlessly to Zelenka. Rodney's protest was ignored by both of them.
"Don't let her know I have it." Zelenka looked round anxiously, holding his plate close to his body as if he was starving child. "She'd want to trade with it."
He scurried off. Rodney and Sheppard exchanged a look. Rodney was just about to speak, when Sheppard grinned. "Watch this." He snatched up the final plate of cake - "Hey!" cried Rodney - and took it over to Carson. "Here you are," Rodney heard him say. "Specially for you. It's delicious."
Still grinning, Sheppard returned to the table. The two of them watched as Carson began to fight a terrible battle. Every few seconds, his hand would rise from the keyboard, begin to edge towards the cake, then get snatched back to the keyboard again. Carson's tongue snaked out, licking his lips. Once he managed to pick the cake up, only to shout out in fury and frustration. "He's just died," Sheppard whispered gleefully. "It's the age-old battle between killing and cake."
Carson lost. With a cry of defeat, he reached for the cake. Taking his first mouthful, he left the computer and came over to them. "I hate you," he told Sheppard quite calmly.
Sheppard wasn't listening. "That gives me an idea…"
Carson and Rodney watched as Sheppard trotted over to the server and flirted her into giving him four slice of cake. (Rodney had almost made her cry in order to achieve the same result.) Balancing them deftly, he made his way to the far table where Lorne and three pilots were intent on their game. To each one of them Sheppard spoke a few easy words. To each one of them Sheppard gave cake.
"Oh, the evil bastard," Carson exclaimed, shaking his head. "Look, they actually think he's doing it to be nice."
"This is immoral," Rodney agreed. "They'll probably go and die for him now, blinded by hero worship for the first commanding officer who's ever cared enough to give them cake."
His face blank with innocence, Sheppard returned to their side of the room, and took his place at an empty computer.
From the smile that soon took residence on his face, Rodney could only assume that he was finally winning.
"Idiots, the lot of them." Rodney rolled his eyes. "We've got cake here. What sort of a person would chose the blow out the brains of the colleagues and subordinates when they could be sitting here eating cake?"
But Carson had already returned to the game.
"Oh well." Rodney shrugged, putting his feet up on the chair Sheppard had vacated, and watching the server come near with a towering trolley of succulent goodies. "All the more for me."
Note: This is based on experience. Well, except for the Ronon incident. I attend several LAN parties a year, all of them also attended by an excellent cake-maker. There is that constant battle between wanting to carry on murdering your friends, and wanting to eat that tempting morsel that's sitting so innocently beside the computer. Hasty strikes on the cake do have a tendency to lead to death.
I'm not sure how they got all these Earth computer games onto Atlantis, but hey… Best not ask. I can only hope that Sheppard made sure all the soldiers had their own copies of the game, rather than copying his own game multiple times. Though does Earth copyright still stand in the Pegasus Galaxy? I'd like to see what would happen if someone came to enforce copyright. On one side, we have Mr Copyright Lawyer with an injunction; on the other, we have Ronon. Hmm…
McKay actually wanted to play City of Heroes, but unfortunately the massively multiplayer element of it didn't really work out so far away from home. He played it quite a bit in the year before coming to Atlantis. Radium Rod, his superhero, had got all the way to level 3 after 10 months. Rodney could have got him to level 50, easy, but he was too busy doing important genius stuff.
By the way, I never did find out how to kill the gargoyle. 25 years on, it still rankles.