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Chiarscuro

by Ginger Mayerson

Part 1

It was the package delivery guy at the door again.

"We're seeing a lot of you this week, Mr. Arkin." He always said that after he took off his envirosuit hood. He handed over the envirosealed grocery order and a small package. He held up the optical scanner up for ID verification and delivery confirmation.

"Yeah, I guess," Arkin mumbled, leaning forward for the scan. The luminous green grid before his eye expanded, contracted, and then went dark.

"Ah, still you," the delivery guy said with a smile. He said this every time and it suited Arkin fine; it meant he didn't have to hold up his end of the conversation.

Arkin opened the package. It was the new game his employer wanted him to test and review. "Chiaroscuro" was emblazoned on the CD case. Arkin had to look it up to know it meant either 1) the arrangement of light and dark parts in a work of art, such as a drawing or painting, whether in monochrome or in color, or 2) the art or practice of so arranging the light and dark parts as to produce a harmonious effect.

He tossed it on his wreck of a computer desk, which was not at all arranged to produce a harmonious effect, and took the groceries into the kitchen. There was a can of tofu stew in the latest grocery delivery; it was something he was slightly less than indifferent to.

The groceries were a neat service: for a few weeks he'd entered what he wanted into their online request form and after that, the database had, based on his previous purchases, sent him a ration of whatever was consistent with those requests. Arkin didn't use the word desires because, beyond food and shelter, he didn't have any.

His job as a software tester provided for both, and made it possible for him to never have to leave his apartment. That was all right. Since the war, the global pollution levels made going out in protective gear essential.

He sat at his desk and put the CD in his computer. Usually his boss sent him a download link for such things, but he'd been told that this was a special project. Based on his previous stellar work, Arkin had received a small promotion, a raise in pay, and better products to review. This was the first assignment of the new era and the packaging was certainly deluxe. He hoped the game would live up to his expectations.

His boss's email had also said the game was going out to several other reviewers at different companies and that there would eventually be contact with the others as the game progressed. This made Arkin a little wary of playing; he preferred to play the game, not other gamers. But if it was part of his new job, then he'd at least try. He hit the "play" button and was ushered into "Chiaroscuro", where he was informed where were two players online. He wondered if this meant him and someone else, or him and two other players.

It was a very black and white environment he lumbered around in, trying to adjust to the non-human game form. Arkin began to feel bored, but then caught a flash of movement to his left. He lost it, got lost, thought he saw it again.

"Always to my left," he thought, veering to his right and doubling back. He caught a glimpse of his quarry, but not a good one. It seemed to be a game creature similar to his, but somehow different. On the other hand, any other game creatures online at the moment would have a great view of him, standing on a windswept plateau, thinking things over. He scowled at his monitor and ended the game. It might be better to spend his evening reading the promotional BS that came with the CD.

***

Over the next few days, Arkin got better and better at the game, but so did his opponent. He was never sure if there were one or two because the game always said there were two players online. Occasionally he nearly made contact with his prey, which is how the promotional material wanted him to imagine his fellow players. The game was designed to be predator against predator. Arkin thought he was a poor choice for this game because he was more prey material than anything else. But he persevered and eventually knew the environment and his opponent well enough to lure him/her/it (he wondered) into a box canyon. It was Arkin's first good look at what he was chasing and it was beautiful. Or was beautiful until the other player logged off.

Arkin made a screen shot of the cornered creature to study and admire. He printed it out and taped it to the wall where he could see it from his bed.

***

The next few times he played there were more players involved, but not the one he'd become obsessed with. Late one evening, when he was about to quit the game and go to bed, he was tackled from behind by his idol. Points were calculated and the screen went black.

But he had an Instant Message from someone named Darset.

darset:: you should know better than to stand in the open like that

arkin:: how do you know it's me?

darset:: there's a link back to all the players, don't you check who you're playing?

Arkin never really believed in "other players" and wouldn't know what to do with one if he did. It had been a long time since he'd had a social-like email, longer still for a real conversation. He could not remember the last time he'd spoken to anyone for... for... fun.

arkin:: sometimes I check

darset:: :)

akin:: and sometimes I don't

darset:: :( ...you there?

arkin:: yeah

darset:: log on

arkin:: it's so late

darset:: i won't run

Darset's game creature was male and very gentle.

***

"We're seeing a lot of you this week, Mr. Arkin." He handed over the grocery order and held up the optical scanner up for ID verification and delivery confirmation.

"Yeah, I guess," Arkin mumbled, leaning forward for the scan. The luminous green grid before his eye expanded, contracted, and then went dark.

"Ah, still you," the delivery guy said, but didn't smile and didn't leave. He was studying Arkin.

Arkin cleared his throat, tried to make eye contact, but only got as far as the nameplate on his envirosuit: Bob. He'd never noticed the nameplate before. "Um... thank you... Bob," he mumbled.

"You're welcome, Mr. Arkin," Bob said cheerfully and finally left.

And not a moment too soon. All Arkin wanted now was to get back to the game and Darset, on the game or on IM. That was all Arkin wanted now.

darset:: where are you?

arkin:: on the coast. you?

darset:: same, near the delta

arkin:: me, too

darset:: oh

arkin:: yeah

darset:: it's nice here

arkin:: yeah

They exchanged addresses and realized they were less than an hour apart. But for Arkin the game and IM were enough. For now.

***

"We're seeing a lot of you this week, Mr. Arkin." He handed over the grocery order and a large box. He held up the optical scanner up for ID verification and delivery confirmation.

"Yeah, I guess," Arkin mumbled, leaning forward for the scan. "Bob," he added. The luminous green grid before his eye expanded, contracted, and then went dark.

"Ah, still you," the delivery guy said, but didn't smile and didn't leave. He was studying Arkin.

"Yeah." Arkin glanced up at him. He could make eye contact, but not sustain it.

"I see this is from the EnviroSuit company," Bob said, nodding at the box. "Going out?"

"Maybe," Arkin mumbled.

"Then maybe someday I'll come here and you'll be out, Mr. Arkin," Bob said cheerfully and finally left.

"Yeah, maybe," Arkin thought sadly. "Maybe not."

He had learned over the course of their, um, romance, that Darcet had been injured in the war and was paralyzed from the waist down. If they were ever going to meet it was Arkin who would have to leave his apartment. The idea of leaving his apartment terrified him. He'd not been able to admit this to Darcet, so he made excuses: he had the flu, he was working on a deadline, he had to stay in his building to receive a package for his neighbor, he'd sprained his ankle, and, finally something close to the truth - his envirosuit was damaged.

The complete truth was that Arkin had not been outside of his apartment for so long, he no longer owned an envirosuit.

Darcet stopped asking him to come visit, but continued to play the game and other, more personal games. They spoke on the phone; Arkin got hard just from his voice. The next day he ordered a new envirosuit.

***

"We're seeing a lot of you this week, Mr. Arkin." He handed over the grocery order and a small envelope. He held up the optical scanner up for ID verification and delivery confirmation.

"Yeah, I guess," Arkin mumbled, leaning forward for the scan. "Bob," he added. The luminous green grid before his eye expanded, contracted, and then went dark.

"Ah, still you," the delivery guy said, but didn't smile and didn't leave. He was studying Arkin.

"Yeah." Arkin glanced up at him. He could make eye contact, but not sustain it.

"Have you gone out yet?" Bob asked.

"Not yet."

Bob seemed disappointed, but managed to smile professionally and finally leave.

There was a new game CD in the package. It was called "Trompe d'Oeil". Arkin thought it was a boring, but well-made game.

arkin:: are you on 'trompe d'oeil'?

darcet:: no

No... their worlds were diverging.

arkin:: i can email it to you

darcet:: i have lots of games right now-

Arkin's chest got tight.

arkin:: i can-

darcet:: -to review

arkin:: -bring it

darcet: i'm here

Arkin put on his new envirosuit and went to Darcet.

He forgot the "Trompe d'Oeil" CD. They did not miss it.

***

Part 2

It was the package delivery guy at the door again.

"We're seeing a lot of you this week, Mr. Arkin." He always said that after he took off his envirosuit hood. He handed over the envirosealed grocery order and a small package. He held up the optical scanner up for ID verification and delivery confirmation.

"Yeah, I guess," Arkin mumbled, leaning forward for the scan. The luminous green grid before his eye expanded, contracted, and then went dark.

"Ah, still you," the delivery guy said with a smile. He said this every time and it suited Arkin fine; it meant he didn't have to hold up his end of the conversation. "Hello, Mr. Darset."

Darset looked up from his computer and waved at the delivery guy. "Wha'd we get?" he asked after Arkin closed the door.

"Chiaroscuro, version 2." He handed it to him.

Darset pulled him onto his lap. "I wonder if it will be as fun as reality."

Arkin said he doubted it and, after a kiss, went into the kitchen to start dinner.

After dinner, Darset installed it on their computers and they had a look around. It was familiar, but more complex than the previous version of Chiaroscuro. The landscapes were different and game characters were only people who'd succeeded in the previous version. This made the play more challenging.

Arkin found himself noticing one game character more than the others. While Darset darted off into the game's middle distance, Arkin followed the character discreetly. It seemed to Arkin that the character was keeping the same space between them, while leading him into a secluded part of the gamescape. His guide seemed to be male in the game, but just as Arkin was getting close enough to find out, Darset announced it was late and time to go to bed.

Arkin switched off the game and helped his lover out of his wheelchair and into their bed.

In the beginning of their relationship, Arkin had worried that his sex life was going to suffer with a lover paralyzed from the waist down. He should have realized that Darset's imagination and sensitivity in the game would carry over into reality.

The next day, Darset had other games to beta-test and Arkin was back in Chiaroscuro 2. He was only on for a few moments when he realized he was being stalked. He was hopeful and fearful that it was the same character from last night.

It was, and it took all of Arkin's skill to stay ahead of him. Not too far ahead, but just out of reach. Just as Arkin was about to let himself be caught, the doorbell rang and he had to sign off.

"We're seeing a lot of you this week, Mr. Arkin." He always said that after he took off his envirosuit hood. He handed over the envirosealed grocery order and a small package. He held up the optical scanner up for ID verification and delivery confirmation.

"Yes." Arkin leaned forward for the scan. The luminous green grid before his eye expanded, contracted, and then went dark.

"Ah, still you," the delivery guy said with a smile. He said this every time and it suited Arkin fine; it meant he didn't have to hold up his end of the conversation. "Hello, Mr. Darset."

Darset waved from his computer. He gave Arkin a funny look as his lover handed over the small package of medication. "You were kind of sharp with Bob," he said softly.

"I was in the game..."

"That's not Bob's fault."

"Yeah, I guess," Arkin mumbled. He put the groceries away and sat back down at his computer. The game was dark, but he had an Instant Message from someone named Tianos.

tianos:: that was sudden.

arkin:: are you...?

tianos:: yeah come back in the game.

arkin: I can't now but later is eleven tonight...?

tianos:: what time zone?

arkin:: coast.

tianos:: I'm two hours ahead of you but I'll stay up see you then.

Arkin closed the IM window and became very intent on an ad for an online game.

Darset went into the kitchen to make lunch and Arkin glanced nervously at his back. "It's just a game," he thought.

Arkin slid carefully out of bed when he was sure Darset was asleep. Darset slept heavily on the pain medications he took.

He was a little early, but Tianos was where he had been earlier in the day. He was with another game character. Something surged in Arkin's blood and he chased the other character off. Then he ran Tianos down and they were rough with each other.

Sometime later a very spent Arkin crawled back into bed and went to sleep.

There was an Instant Message the next day.

tianos:: let me call you!

arkin:: no... we can't...

tianos:: come back in the game then.

Arkin glanced at Darset, who smiled fondly and looked back at his own computer.

tianos:: arkin?

arkin:: later tonight... same time... tianos?

tianos:: well, all right, later then.

"You look tired, Mr. Arkin," Bob observed a few days later. He held up the optical scanner up for ID verification and delivery confirmation.

"Yeah, I guess," Arkin mumbled, leaning forward for the scan. The luminous green grid before his eye expanded, contracted, and then went dark.

"Ah, still you," the delivery guy said with a smile and, after saying hello to Darset, left.

"You do look tired, Arkin," Darset said sympathetically.

"I'm not sleeping very well," Arkin said, staring at the floor. "I'm... I'm seeing someone else."

Darset looked startled. "When, Arkin? You never leave the apartment."

"After you're asleep..."

"Is someone coming here!?"

"...in the game..."

"In the game?" Darset pointed at Arkin's monitor. "In Chiaroscuro 2?"

Arkin nodded, and looked up shamefacedly.

"Oh... well, that's okay, I guess," Darset said quietly.

"It is?"

"Yes, I mean, it's just a game." He pulled Arkin close for a kiss. "Who is it?" he asked, logging into the game.

"That one," Arkin pointed to the sexy game character.

"Oh, Tianos..."

"You know him?"

"Oh, yes. You should schedule your trysts with Tianos earlier in the day," Darset said with a smile. "Like I do."

***

Part 3

Darcet didn't live very long after he was moved to the huge hospice in the center of town. So many people were dying of their wounds, pollution illnesses, radiation exposure, that soon only those too young for the war and as acclimated as possible to the new environment would survive.

Arkin was one of those and after Darcet died, he wasn't sure he wanted to survive. He found he couldn't leave the hospice. He slept in chairs, lived off the left-overs the kitchen staff gave him, and wasted his dwindling bank account on the slow but public cyberaccess terminals. He was not the only one; there were dozens of lost souls like him in the waiting areas. Some of them moved into jobs at the hospice, which made them sympathetic to those poor bastards still stuck in their former condition. Some would stay and some would get out. There was no betting either way on Arkin; he was already a kind of ghost to everyone. They were waiting for him to leave or end up in a room and die. Either seemed imminent.

After several weeks, he finally picked up his email and found his employer had wanted to know where he was and then fired him. His and Darcet's former landlord had padlocked their door for non-payment and then moved their things to storage. That things were being taken care of by themselves gave Arkin a great deal of comfort. But eventually he began to look for a way to leave the hospice waiting rooms.

The environment outside was as hostile as ever; even looking out the windows distressed him. He knew no one in the city he could email to fetch him. The idea of being fetched like a package was distasteful. However, after several failed attempts he screwed up his courage enough to ask a package delivery guy if he knew Bob.

"Bob who?" the guy asked, turning away from the reception desk.

Arkin gave him his old address. "The Bob who delivers there. Can you tell him Arkin is here and needs help?"

The package delivery guy looked dubious, but must have called someone because Bob showed up later that evening.

"I was wondering where you were, Mr. Arkin," he said.

Arkin told him about Darcet's death, losing his job and apartment, and having nowhere to go.

"I'm sorry about Mr. Darcet," Bob said when Arkin had finished. "We'll be seeing a lot of you for awhile then."

"Yeah, I guess," Arkin said, and followed Bob back out into the world.

*The End*

Note: The comic of Part 1 is at http://hackenbush.org/webcomics/Chiaroscuro/. Enjoy.

© 2000-2005 Ginger Mayerson

To contact me, please send an email to Ginger Mayerson. Thank you.

Updated: November 26, 2005

 
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