Book excerpt

World Leader Pretend

A Novel

James Bernard Frost

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One Book I: The Twins RL Time: June 20-26, 2000 Realm Time: YR 1 I sit at my table And wage war on myself It seems like it's all, it's all for nothing --r.e.m., "world leader pretend" 1. Have Patience. Xerxes Meticula is playing a game. The game he is playing is not a 2-person game; it is not chess or checkers or Connect Four, although it has a similarly complicated strategy; nor is the game he is playing a 4-person game, like bridge or poker, or a 6-person game, or even a game for 8. The game Xerxes Meticula is playing is a game being played simultaneously by 60,000 people, people representing hundreds of countries and all seven continents on the 3rd planet from the sun. It is a game unlike any other played by the human race in recorded history, unless you consider the act of waging war a game. The players of the game of which we are speaking are much more humble about their game. They see nothing particularly extraordinary about it. They have no perception of the man-hours, the acts of manipulation and persuasion, the mental energy, and the physical labor that it took for an entire species to string long strands of copper wire from one end of each continent to the other and then to hurl objects through their planet's atmosphere to connect these continents all so that they could play their game. These players, in fact, perceive themselves and are perceived by others as some sort of subclass, as losers. They do not have the respect of their peers. They are not presented with garlands or roses when they are victorious. These players--these players connected to each other by copper strands of varying widths, widths that, as they increase, increase the speed at which each player can play the game; widths which correspond in modern terminology to standard telephone wires, DSL lines, cable connections, T1's and T3's--as a group tend to be very dedicated to their game. They train for their game, do research, strategize. They play their game every day. They play for hours on end--2, 4, 8, 16, 24. They sneak out in the middle of the night, leaving their husbands, wives, children, or lovers alone in their beds. Xerxes Meticula, lying as he is in the bed of a bedroom whose walls are plastered with pictures that he long ago cut out of old Dungeons & Dragons guidebooks; pictures of what are called, by those familiar with fantasy novels and games, orcs; pictures of blue, bulky half-giants who rarely bother to clothe themselves; pictures of slobbering beasts with disfigured faces who carry maces and pole arms and are always threatening to kill; Xerxes Meticula knows, at this moment, as he stares at the screen of the laptop perched in front of him on his bed, exactly what he is getting himself into, but he is trying to forget, trying to forget that today is his 32nd birthday and that he has managed in one way or another to lose most of the things and people that he cares for.  Unlike her brother, Gabriella Meticula is not interested in games. She is concerned only with the words of the cross-stitching that her mother has given her, the one which hangs over her bed on her bedroom wall, the one which reads: Lo, I am sending my messenger To prepare the way before me. Gabriella gets out of her single bed and makes her way to her bathroom mirror. She stares longer into the mirror than a normal person would, her arms dangling uselessly at her sides. She does not wash her hands or apply makeup. She does not brush her teeth or floss. She isn't even really looking into the mirror, but rather at some empty point in front of it. She doesn't do any of these things, because she is thinking, and thinking is more important to Gabriella Meticula than anything else. What Gabriella Meticula is thinking about is this: she and her brother are in grave danger. As the last of the Great American Dreamers, as the last of the Great American Thinkers, as the last of Those Who Will Rebel, as the Duke and Duchess of the Arizonan Desert, they are in exile. Fraternal twins born under the sun and moon of Gemini in any other day and age, in any place other than 21st century America, would have been treated with great respect: their births would have heralded years of tremendously fertile crops; they would have been considered soothsayers, prophets, or perhaps even royalty. They would have been protected. As it stands, here in 21st century America, royalty is disdained. A person like Gabriella who considers herself unique, different, gifted, or special, is labeled an egotist or worse. In 21st century America it is important to bury your talents, to not show too much intelligence or creativity or verve. The intelligent child is chastised by his peers, and oftentimes by his teachers, for being stuck up, for being too good for everyone. The creative child, the one who sits in the corner with her stack of blocks, who wants to build her towers in peace, is told to join the group, to share. The child with verve, the one that runs yelling and screaming in mad circles around the classroom, is dosed with Ritalin. In the eyes of 21st century America, Xerxes and Gabriella, a pair of twins with untold powers, have caused nothing but drought. Xerxes is a failed entrepreneur who, at the age of 32, returned from San Francisco to the house of his parents, returned after wasting billions of dollars of someone else's money, and Gabriella is not even that, she is nothing but an ex-high school valedictorian who was found one night by her friends at Mills wandering the streets of Oakland in a pair of pin-striped pajamas, wandering the streets at 3 a.m. looking up at the stars and conversing with them, telling the stars that she knew who she was, and that she was awaiting the message they would surely send. These friends who she thought were her friends but were obviously not, admitted her to a mental institution where she was wrongfully accused of being diseased, where she was wrongfully accused of being diseased and where she began a pharmaceutical imprisonment that she has yet to figure out how to escape. The people here, the people in America, they don't understand destiny. Gabriella reaches a hand to the mirror and pulls on it, revealing a small cabinet. She takes out four small amber plastic pill jars. She opens the childproof caps and places one pill from each jar into the palm of her hand. She thinks for a moment, no, today is my birthday, I can do without the pills. She places the pills back in their jars.  It is 6 in the morning in Rest Stop, Arizona, where Xerxes is lying on his bed interfacing with his computer. Outside his bedroom, behind a window whose shades have not been drawn, whose shades, in fact, have not been drawn since Xerxes arrived here a few weeks ago, the sun is rising. It rises alone and unnoticed like a red Wham-O Frisbee unearthed by a dog in a suburban backyard. In his bed, Xerxes is wearing a chocolate brown T-shirt with the Cocoa Puffs bird printed on it; the word bubble above the bird reads: I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. This is one of the three T-shirts that Xerxes has been wearing since he arrived here in Rest Stop, since he became an exile from San Francisco. His other shirts include a blue T-shirt with white block letters that reads Uncle Jeffrey, which he wears although he is not an uncle and his name is not Jeffrey, and a mustard yellow T-shirt with the outline of the state of Mississippi on it and the words We've Come This Far by Faith: The Barksfield/Lyon Reunion 1981, which he wears despite not being a Barksfield, a Lyon, a member of either extended family, nor religious. In addition to the T-shirt, Xerxes is wearing a pair of Chuck Taylor high-tops, a pair of shoes which he doesn't bother to remove before getting into bed and with which he has managed to track into his bed a good deal of sand. Next to his laptop on the bed is a yellow notepad filled with algebraic formulas scribbled wildly on its pages. On the screen in front of him are the following words: The Lords of the Realm have awarded you 200 acres of land and 250,000 gold coins to build your province. You have been assigned to Kingdom 12, Continent 5. The name you have chosen for your province is The Strangely Peaceful Citadel of Blue Orcs. The persona you have chosen is Lady Peace & Love but Mostly Love. Welcome to The Realm. Today is the first day of the new age.  In the terminology of gamers, the game Xerxes plays is a browser-based, multiplayer, resource management, team fantasy game. This is not the type of game that most mothers of preteen males are familiar with. It does not involve the firing of virtual artillery or the amazing abilities of Barbie-shaped, sports bra-confined, virtual women. In other words, it is not a game that introduces military tactics and sexual desire to small children. It is, in fact, a game that the mothers of preteen males, were they to take the time to understand it, would fully approve of. It is a game of math, patience, imagination, and most importantly, partnership. The primary objective of the game is for the 20 players who are members of one's kingdom to attain a net worth that is greater than the net worths of the 3,000 other kingdoms involved in the game. Net worth is the sum of all of one's possessions. This includes the land that one has obtained through exploration or battle, the population of one's province, the soldiers that one has trained, and the gold that one has generated through one's internal economy, traded for, stolen from one's enemies, or looted during battle. One's net worth appears as a figure at the top of the screen. It changes every hour, every hour being considered a day in the time of The Realm. It is his net worth that Xerxes Meticula obsesses over, that he will stay up deep into the night calculating permutations of. Because today is only the first day, there is little Xerxes can do. He and the 60,000 other provinces are all under protection, that is, they cannot attack, steal from, trade with, or otherwise affect each other's provinces for 72 hours according to the bylaws of the Lords of The Realm. Xerxes consults a yellow notepad. He has written very neatly on the top, • 50% of your buildings are available after building the necessary housing, farms, wizard towers, and guilds. • Banks have no maximum and increase the wealth generated by your peasants by *1.5. • Armories have a maximum of 30%. They decrease your military costs by *2. In the early stages of the game you will spend approximately 50% of your wealth on your military. • Universities have a maximum of 20%. They decrease your science-related costs by *3. In the early stages of the game you will spend approximately 10% of your wealth on developing the sciences. • Once you go OOP your thieves will account for approximately 50% of your income. (This is theoretical. Thieving, of course, increases the chances of counter-attack. The gains, however, seem to outweigh the risks.) Banks do not increase wealth generated in this fashion. • Q: What percentage of banks/armories/universities is the most efficient? • A: Build 30% banks/20% armories until 500 acres. These numbers make no sense to you, but they make great sense to Xerxes. He plugs in his numbers. Xerxes thinks to himself: have patience; follow the rules. Xerxes logs out. The screen reads: Lady Peace & Love but Mostly Love, thank you for visiting The Realm. Remember, the Lords of The Realm appreciate your time away and will reward you with a bonus if you stay away for more than 24 hours. Xerxes needs the bonus that the Lords of the Realm will give him. He must find something else to do with his day.  Copyright © 2007 by James Bernard Frost. All rights reserved.
  JAMES BERNARD FROST received his MFA in fiction from the University of San Francisco. He worked as a journalist for Wired magazine.  He lives in Portland, Oregon.  This is his first novel.