Fear and Loathing in the Wizards of the Coast Game Center
We were three hundred yards from a barstool when the sobriety began to kick in. All the signs were there: the giant woolly minotaur head braying over a stairwell that descended into some infernal nightmare; the fork-tongued flying serpent above our heads; the scuttling figures in dark clothing with freakishly white faces and plastic fangs. Then the BO hit us like a Wall of Fog and the Marlin screamed: "Fie on the immortality of cast-iron lawn deer!" We had entered the Wizards of the Coast Game Center, and all hope was lost.
The Marlin was in a dangerous state. The innermost coil of his gray matter---the notorious Lizard Brain wanted in seven counties and the Kurile Islands---had been kept in a constant state of intoxication since the Marlin was twelve. But today had been rough. We'd had errands to run, boxes to pack, books to ship out, and the sweet, sweet booze was pouring as thinly and sporadically as the omnipresent Seattle drizzle. We'd fortified ourselves at a hot wings & beer joint up the street of this shantytown known as the University District, and even passed the time agreeably in the presence of a strikingly attractive waitress. But the three hundred yards from there to here had come slow, and at great cost: a side trip to the Marlin's bank had been fraught with peril, as the lovely teller Sindy Louvre Rickets had filed a restraining order against the Marlin that afternoon. Our luck held, however---one look at her scowling, angelic face told us that the city hadn't processed the paperwork yet. The Marlin could bank. As he did so I amused myself in my customary fashion, typing 666 into the displays of all the customer-counter calculators and leaving them that way to annoy and unsettle the faint of heart.
At last we had staggered into the game center, and that was when those horrific visions kicked loose. We were suffering from the STs---Soberium Tremens---and had to get some alcohol into our bloodstream, but fast. Looking over our shoulders at a man who appeared---but only appeared; it had to be the damned sobriety playing tricks with our minds---to be wearing a Doctor Who t-shirt, we reached the front desk and asked for our guest passes. We'd been down this road before. An hour earlier we'd come in here for the same thing, only to be told the guest list was still being worked on. Bastards! Clearly they'd gotten wind of our planned participation in the evening's festivities and were scouring the guest list for whatever outlandish pseudonyms we'd registered under. This time, we'd beaten them. The guest list was ready, our names were still there, and in short order we were putting tags around our necks like sea lions on the Discovery Channel. A helpful but furry young man gave us a sack of complementary arcade tokens and informed us that we had free access to the Battletech Simulators, whatever those were. The Marlin and I clutched the tokens greedily and tumbled down the stairs, keeping our eyes low to avoid being caught in the gaze of that awful minotaur, sentry to secrets.
Emerging into the restricted downstairs "event area" I boggled. The place was full of beautiful people. The men were handsome. The women were stunning. Everyone was young, fit, groomed, showered, coiffed, and dressed to the nines. "Impossible!" I sputtered, tripping over the elfin Leonardo DeCaprio. "This can't be happening!" The Marlin placed one meaty fin on my shoulder. "Steady, Reverend. It's the damned STs. There's the bar. Move!" The Marlin parted the crowd like his namesake's wicked silver-blue fin, slashing past the startled partygoers and dragging me to the bar by my lapels. "Dos cervesas!" he cried to the goateed bartender. "Mach schnell, garcon!" His voice was little more than a strangled cry; his Lizard Brain had been pierced by the tendrils of the damned sobriety and any moment now all would be lost. Sensing danger, the bartender handed the Marlin the closest bottle of beer. The Marlin smashed the neck on the table's edge and plunged the broken end against his trembling lips; blood and foam ran down the front of his sweater and his adam's apple did backflips as the beer ran down his three-lane gullet. I could see his eyes---his dead black eyes, like a doll's eyes---roll back in his head and knew all was well. The Lizard Brain was sated once more. The Marlin was once again swimming in his beloved amber waters.
Aghast, the bartender pressed a beer into my hands and hid under the table. I pried off the cap and was about to take a swig when I read the label: "HEMPEN ALE---BREWED WITH HEMP SEEDS FOR MELLOW FLAVOR."
"GEEE-YAW!" I wailed, an atavistic squeal torn from the moonshine-roughened throats of my hillbilly forebears. "Marlin! This beer is made from dope! Wacky weed! They're trying to drug us! Piss test! Piss test!"
The Marlin dropped his empty bottle to the floor and spat out bits of broken glass and shredded gum. "It's all right, Reverend," he assured me, once again the cool and confident Marlin of old. "As your lawyer, I advise you to just drink up and make the best of it."
I looked around for Feds, but I was still surrounded by the beautiful people. At last I took a deep breath and slammed the beer home. It tasted like ambrosia. And sure enough, it did the trick: with the damned sobriety banished, I could at last look around the party and see it as it was, free of hallucinations.
For starters, the crowd was a quarter the size I'd first thought. And it was an ugly crowd. Ugly? My god, it was hideous! The Great Howard ne'er dreamed a scene half so ghastly as this. I reached out before me, just to ensure that my trembling fingers would not find an unyielding surface of polished glass. There was none. I was safe.
The Marlin looked positively jovial. I immediately suspected him of some indeterminate yet sinister scheme. I wanted in.
"Now what?" I asked. The Marlin looked around, towering over the heads of the jubilant Morlocks, and spotted Operative One. He nodded in that direction. We headed off.
Operative One was responsible for our presence there. He worked for the Brainiac X-9000, my term for a certain moptop billionaire---"Rich! Rich beyond the dreams of avarice!" bellowed the Marlin---and the mammoth Redmond-based software company he owned, whose true identity I am unable to reveal on pain of beta testing. Operative One was a mercenary, a gun for hire, one of the BX-9's legions of not-quite-employed workers operating under the radar of the IRS and the ATF. Tonight, the BX-9 and the owners of this squalid playground, Wizards of the Coast, were throwing a party and hosting the world championship competition in one of the BX-9's better-selling computer-game titles. (Rather than reveal the true title and play into the BX-9's hands, we'll call it Agog at Umpires.) Operative One was responsible for doing an online play-by-play of this contest.
When we found him, One was typing furiously, responding to someone with the unlikely name of TermiteAtorZ_2. He looked up at us plaintively. No words were exchanged. I handed him a beer.
"Poor bastard," I muttered to the Marlin as we strode away. "That crazy maryjane beer is going to do a number on his ass." The Marlin nodded sagely and then looked up at the crowd.
A podium was set up across the room, and the crowd had gathered before it. I looked around wildly for abattoir shunts and stun prods, but they seemed in short supply. Good thing; I'd feared the worst.
Some lackey of the BX-9 took the podium and began gargling into the microphone. I soon deciphered his crazy moon language and realized he was introducing the four contestants in tonight's event. One by one they came forward, slack-jawed cretins all, and said a few words. I was pleased to hear that one such cretin was from my home state of Tennessee. True to our no-doubt illegally and unadvisedly intermingled roots, the first six words out of his mouth included the term "gangbang," followed by a sweaty shotgun pass at every woman in the crowd. It brought a tear to my eye and I placed my hand over my heart. It was still beating. I smiled.
My smile faded as I took a read on the Marlin. The Marlin was my three-hundred-pound Cracker attorney who I'd pulled from the waters of Florida some years ago. (His true name was indefinitely redacted by the National Security Agency ever since the Hinckley-Reagan shooting.) A man of fierce appetites and sudden, inexplicable forays into brutal violence, the Marlin had one hand on his hip and I grew alarmed. I knew that beneath his jaunty sweater lay the concealed snub-nosed .357 magnum revolver that he carried with him to all social events and snake-handling tent revivals. He often praised its "small frame" and ease of concealment, though he also confided that owing to the weapon's poor accuracy he'd be forced to "just totally unload on the poor fucker" should he ever have to use it in anger. Anger! God save us. I saw the look on his face. The trembling lip. Those black eyes. I followed his line of sight and fainted dead away.
I came to moments later, attended by a comely camerawoman with a pixie haircut wearing what appeared to be a tartan kilt. I feigned a seizure and attempted to position myself in such a way as to look under her kilt, but she was smart as a whip and stepped on my face in warranted disgust.
When I came to again, moments later, I saw the Marlin moving off towards the podium. I bellowed---to myself, evidently, as no one reacted, the blinkered fools---and lumbered after him unsteadily. This crazy beer was making it hard to walk; I think the bartender was cutting it with formaldehyde.
The Marlin's gaze was fixed on a massive Roman shield that sat atop a table by the podium. It was the grand prize for this ridiculous contest; no doubt it was made of chocolate.
The Marlin wanted that shield. He was walking up there to take it, and I just knew that anyone who protested would find themselves cast as the aforementioned poor fucker who the Marlin would just totally unload on. Things were spiraling into a black hole of insanity. I was having a good time.
"No, man!" I whispered fiercely. "Not now! Bide your time! These fuckers will swarm you like maggots on meat! Don't let them drag you down to their level!" The Marlin slowed his godlike tread and looked over his shoulder at me. He seemed skeptical. Desperate, I glanced around the room and spotted the hors d'oeuvres table. "Watercress!" I screeched. "Watercress wrapped in bacon!" Confusion passed over the Marlin's face like confusion passing over the Marlin's face, and at last his doll's eyes cleared. I steered him in the direction of what was to comprise our dinner---we hadn't eaten for three days in preparation for this bounty of free eats---and soon we were safely away from the podium and the shield that had spurred such desire in the Marlin's cold fish heart.
At the snack table, we discovered that the BX-9 and WotC had spared only some expenses. It was a truly impressive spread, a spread bigger than that of the fabled Whore of Babylon. Besides the aforementioned watercress and bacon, there were miniature quiches; chicken drumettes; pita triangles; hummous; diced-olive spread; slabs of some glistening feta-like cheese; a variety of olives including some stuffed with garlic cloves; a bowl of either salmon mousse, herbed butter, or goat cheese, I couldn't be sure which; roast beef and horseradish on toasted peasant bread; and the usual assortment of crackers, vegetables, and dips. The table groaned with food. Or perhaps it was us.
A mob of doughy game designers had beat us to the punch---and drank it. Representatives from WotC's crack R&D division, they swarmed on the food like vultures on . . . on . . . on that guy whose liver kept growing back, whatever his name was. Remember?
Nodding respectfully at us, they stepped back from the salt lick---fat lick is probably a better term---to give us room to maneuver. The Marlin and I hit the table, and hard.
Hours passed in a daze of free food and free beer . . . it all blurs together . . . I can only conjure up certain disjointed images as if from a stone soup of brothy memory:
. . . I'm seated in a cockpit, piloting a giant armored robot in bloody combat against other giant armored robots. The screams of the damned come through on headphones; I'm wired in to Hell. There are veins in my teeth as I kill and kill and kill again. I hear the Marlin calling out in pidgin whalesong as his smoking hull collapses on the battlefield. Then---there---dancing like a fawn! A giant armored robot whose pilot is using the unlikely moniker of Buttercup skates across the arena. I lock on and press the button. LRMs are out! Blast! I put my fist through the viewscreen . . .
. . . The Marlin and I stand in a throng of onlookers watching the competition. Seasian's catapults have withdrawn from a village, fleeing the onslaught of Matty's war chariots. Just then another band of chariots pours out right in front of Seasian, and he's caught in the bull's horns. My god! The carnage! People are screaming, ranting, fists in the air, I hear the distant echo of jackboots. Horses collapse, foaming from the mouth. Drivers are sent airborne, their necks snapping on impact with the ground. Operative One is in front of me, typing in the play-by-play: "Seasian's catapults fold like origami!" . . .
. . . A flashback. New York City, 1995. WotC is sponsoring a Magic: The Gathering tournament. Operative Two, then a WotC employee like myself, is in charge of the decor. He has arranged for the tournament staff to wear brown shirts and black pants, and has black and red banners hanging from the ceiling. The combined effect is shocking, and works exactly as planned: the tournament looks just like a Nazi rally . . .
. . . The Marlin and I aim our plastic guns at the screen of the video game and fire until our fingers are sore. Free tokens jingling holes in our pockets, we try every game that uses plastic guns as controllers. Finally, after a game with plastic pump-action shotguns where you work the action to reload, we admit defeat. We've only used half the tokens they've given us, but we can't take any more. "My gawd," the Marlin bawls, "we're getting old!" . . .
. . . I scan the crowd, hoping for a sight of Operative Three. Operative Three is a compadre of mine, a surly dyke who, like Operative One, also works for the BX-9. The BX-9 offers an "email Santa" service, and Operative Three, the surly dyke, has been assigned the horrifying chore of answering the hundreds of "Dear Santa" emails that the BX-9 is receiving. Requests from cancer-ridden children for cures, requests from bulging adults asking to lose fifty pounds: it's all too much for her. Little do those poor fools know who is answering their plaintive letters of hope and misery. But the psychic toll on Operative Three is tremendous, and she isn't here tonight; no doubt she's convalescing at home, getting drunk. "Idiot!" I think to myself. "Here the beer is free!" . . .
Finally, exhaustedly, the Marlin and I flee. We can't take it anymore. The BX-9 and WotC have beaten us. Finally---but wait! There, lurking in a corner, is The Man. Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu, contributing designer to Doom, Quake, and Agog at Umpires. The Marlin and I collar the poor man and assault him mercilessly with anecdotes and bon mots. But The Man is not so easily defeated. He proves to be a voluble soul, and out-talks us both. We all laugh loud and long, and before we depart we present him with two of our books. He accepts them graciously, and then gets into a limo with God. I think.
At last, we are gone. Gone into that dark American night. That dark American night in which we are blind, blind gasping cave fish, blind to everything but our awful geek souls, subordinate clauses spilling out of us like wounded similes, and finally and mercifully I seek oblivion in the great twin legacies of our civilization here at the cusp of the new millennium: Gin and the Sony Playstation. Good Night and Good God.