11/23/22 – 2am. Farm 18.
The familiar rapid scrolling of chat to the right of the screen stream was filled with brightly colored names, emoji, and of course the occasional lewd comment. Eddie Cross’ camera was positioned just so as it captured the intensity of his sharp facial features between bursts of fire from his sidearm into the back of a hapless opponent.
RzR 4nikate has been killed by n1ghtcraw1er.
The stream chat lit up like a burst of fire from a minigun.
boxCar Nice Kill! CRAWLIN ON YA
LordL 😉 😉 😉
N1ghtcraw1er had been holding the Mechanic’s Shop hardpoint for forty-five seconds. He had been the only member of his team to stay upright for the span, and they needed the full minute hold to score enough points to win the round. He sprinted through two dilapidated buildings with blown out windows and vines creeping all around. A nearly dead tree grew through the roof.
He had been the second team member to make it to the designated scoring site, and when his teammates arrived, there was enough room to slip outside of the hardpoint scoring zone and defend from the outside while they stood inside the hold point.
Twenty seconds left.
VenoMamba has been sniped by RzR H3LLFIR3.
N1ghtcraw1er took a shot from behind, and spun, crouching and sliding behind a crate. He took a split second to see the enemies movement direction, threw a flashbang grenade, sprinted out and put two shots through their head.
RzR w!ckedPETE has been killed by n1ghtcraw1er.
FPSDOUG BOOM! HEADSHOT!
Of course, the call was followed by a response.
DlishousBASS has been sniped by RzR H3LLFIR3.
Punusher1337 has been sniped by RzR H3LLFIR3.
Thirteen seconds left.
He sprinted to a familiar set of boxes and jumped over to a ledge, barely getting a grip before he climbed up into a little known entrance to a favorite defensive position for snipers.
Nothing. Where are they?
Helix_LZ has been sniped by RzR H3LLFIR3.
Eight seconds left.
His avatar galloped across the screen like a goblin from Lord of The Rings on all fours as he G-Walked through a window and across a fire zone, narrowly avoiding a burst from a submachine gun before turning and returning with one of his own from his favorite primary weapon, an M4 with every mod available for an aggressive loadout.
Freeloder_z has been sniped by RzR H3LLFIR3.
Four seconds left.
The team was about to win and he would secure a spot in the upcoming Black Friday Showdown with a $25,000 grand prize. The stream was lighting up with assorted emoji’s and compliments when n1ghtcraw1er saw flicker of movement and, not being able to resist one more kill, slowed ever so slightly to adjust the aim through his Cronen Mini Red Dot optic. He caught a distant burst of flash followed by a red screen as his soldier avatar fell to the ground.
You have been sniped by RzR H3LLFIR3.
AlphaSimp rofl caught u looking
SPRmario MAMA MIA BUH-BYE!
“GOD DAMNIT!” he exclaimed as he watched his team fail two seconds from their objective through the eyes of a dead avatar.
Lately, gaming has taken a back seat to his wrestling training and he couldn’t help but feel he let his team down. Sure, he had been on a kill streak, and he had held the hardpoint longer than any of them but another two seconds… a couple dolphin jumps, a crate, a smoke bomb, anything would have spared the match. Instead, he played aggressively and got killed.
Eddie walked into Dave Gibson’s gym and threw his backpack down with a booming thud. Gibson was already in the ring practicing single leg takedowns on a dummy. He started and turned at the sound and looked down at his student. Eddie was still in his jeans, he looked like he had been up all night, and most importantly, he was not paying proper attention to his mentor.
“Nope. You walk out that door right now, think about where you are and what you are doing, and you walk back in here and give me what I’ve earned.” Dave ordered, strictly pointing his finger at the door to the gym.
“Did I stutter?”
“No, si… I mean no, Dave.”
Dave said nothing. He didn’t need to say anything. That is what respect buys you. Eddie trundled back to the door and walked outside to clear his mind. The Carolina skyline was beautiful this morning. The sun sneaked over the foothills and shot rays into the sky like searchlights. A Northern Cardinal sat in a tree singing a bluegrass gospel tune. It was peaceful.
When E.C. was ready, he made his way back inside the gym through a door that needed oil in the hinges at least five years ago. It snapped behind him with a sharp rap and Eddie walked back inside, focused, and ready to get in the ring. To his surprise, however, Dave wasn’t in the ring.
“Sit down with me, Eddie.” Gibson had pulled a couple folding chairs out and was sitting on one holding an open bottle of lime green gatorade. As Eddie did so, Gibson screwed the cap back on his drink and put it on the floor. “Okay, what’s going on?”
Eddie knew better than to play games. If he stalled, Dave would just send him back outside again and make him do the walk of atonement all over again. “I lost a big game this morning and missed out on qualifying for a tournament on Friday.”
“What do you mean is that all?”
“Well, it isn’t about your match, or your training, or your career, so I don’t see why it matters?”
“It matters because I could have won twenty-five thousand dollars and an invite to a professional eSports team.”
“You’re a wrestler,” came the cold reply.
“I know that, but this is imp… “
“You are a wrestler.” This time it was slower, menacing.
“Dave, I could have… “
“You. Are. A. Wrestler.” There is finality in this one.
Dave let the silence sink in and shrunk his eyes to a glare. “Let me tell you a story. You see, a long time ago, a lot of men and women thought they were wrestlers too and they couldn’t decide if they wanted to be that, or vampires, or mafia members, or whatever made up shit came through their tiny, misguided, minds. Look around you, Eddie. Who do you see that is still around?”
Eddie shrugged. “I don’t know, Dave. You. Ivan, I think the Berry Guy and Luchador have been around a while. I guess Youngblood and Dusk and Nova.”
“Wrestlers. We’re all wrestlers, Eddie.” He stopped to let that point sink in. “Not Fuckin’ Mayor McCheese or whoever the guy is you’re wrestling again this next show.”
“Mike McGee.” Eddie corrected Dave.
“I know who he is, I’m just being an asshole.” Through the particles of dust floating through the sunlight that crept through the curtains, Dave’s eyes twinkled. “He ain’t like you, Eddie. He aint a wrestler. He’s just playin’ at it.”
He promised his friend he would get his son ready. He promised him he would do what needed to be done. The kid is good. The kid has everything you want in a prospect, but the kid just can’t keep his eyes on the prize. “This is what matters: You might only have one more shot to win before the break. One shot to make a good impression that people will remember… leave them wanting more when you come back.”
Dave leveled with his student. He knows Eddie trusts him and will listen. He just needs to get him dialed in.
“Look, Mike, he is probably going to talk his little talk about his Kia, and he is going to preach about management strategies, hell he might even write one of those Lincoln things he is always going on about.” Dave looked into the youth’s viper green eyes even as he mispronounced the app’s name. “None of that matters, Eddie. He ain’t as good as you in that ring. He knows it. Everyone watching last week knows it.”
“So what’s the big deal? If he isn’t as good as me, then why all this talk?”
“Because he’s still dangerous, Eddie. He’s a trap.”
Eddie looked confused. “A trap? What’s your problem today, Dave?”
“That’s right, a trap; a guy you’re supposed to beat, but you don’t respect him enough and he catches you in some cockamamie roll up or some bullshit. And the problem I got is I saw it on your face last week. Oh sure, you were nervous about Larry; but you didn’t take Mike very seriously and he caught you in a few bad situations.”
Eddie bristled. “But I won.”
“Sure, you won last week. That was good, but it doesn’t mean shit.”
Dave reached down and grabbed his drink before standing up. He unscrewed the top and looked back into his decrepit ring. “And two other guys lost just the same. Mike also didn’t take the loss well and he didn’t take that cheap shot you laid into him very well. You’d know that if you listened to him instead of worrying about your game. You gotta be careful, Eddie, in his mind, you losing this match might be redemption.”
Dave started for the ring and Eddie stood up to follow him.
“Nah, take the day off. Get your head right. We’ll do drills tomorrow and go for a run up the mountain.”
“Dave, I am… “
“Go on now. I aint got time for half-assed.”
Fresh from a lesson in humility, Eddie slowly walked to his late model Aegean Blue Metallic Honda Civic, and he blew in exasperation out of his lips. Sure, it’s no “Cherry Red” Kia Sorrento, but then again Mike’s isn’t really either because Kia doesn’t make a “Cherry Red” Sorrento. They do make a “Passion Red” Sorrento, but Mike didn’t seem to care about getting all the details right, so why get this one right too?
Digital buttons beeped slowly followed by trilling. Two rings later, and a deep voice resembling Eddie’s grandfather, Rufan picked up. “Talofa, Uso!”
“Ey bro, much love. How is the baby?”
“She’s coming along just fine, Uncle. Be here before we know it!”
Eddie smiled to himself. Even in today’s age when kids prefer to text one another, he and Junior’s bond was special, as all twins are. Eddie needed to hear his voice some days to feel ok with the world. He was certain the feeling was mutual. The fact remained, though, that ever since Mandy came along, less and less of his brother’s time was spent on Eddie. Yet he was fine with that. She seemed like a good person, and Junior deserved a good person.
“Ey, I saw your match last Friday! You kicked ass bro!” Junior’s voice was full of excitement.
“Thanks, Junior. Truth is, I feel like somehow I am letting Dave down. He doesn’t understand me very well.”
“Eh, Uncle Dave is Old School. You know that,” came the response. “Remember the time he made me do up-downs until I puked because I hadn’t done my homework on leg locks?”
“Yeah. I still smell all the chocolate chip pancakes you ate that morning.”
“That’s what I am saying, Uce. He loves you in his own way.”
Eddie knew that already. However, it didn’t help make the feeling of being caught in two worlds any easier. Dave would never understand that side of him, and no matter how much Eddie tried to explain his other life, there are just some things you cannot teach an old dog.
“Junior, I am worried that I am not good enough.”
“Good enough at what, bro?”
“I don’t know. Wrestling, gaming, good enough for Dave.” Eddie’s voice, normally gravel laced and somewhat full of malice was soft, unguarded. His brother may well be the only person on this Earth who truly gets him, and may be the only one who has seen this side of him.
“Oh Eddie. You’re the best gamer I’ve ever met,” Junior gently replied. “I’ve seen you do things that no other man alive could do. And what’s more, you were better than me in the ring too. I know it, Dave knows it. He knows how good you could become, but he is worried you will always live in two worlds.”
“I don’t want to live in just one world, Junior.”
Junior didn’t respond right away. He always took his time whenever he intended to say something that was meaningful… to let it breathe before drinking… as he would say. “I think that you don’t have a choice, Uce. If you want to be a gamer, you will be one of the best. If you want to be a wrestler, you will be one of the best. If you want to be both, you will never be one of the best at either.”
“How the hell are you the same age as me and have all this perspective I don’t?” Eddie asked.
“I came out first, Uce! You’re my baby bro!”
“It was like fifteen minutes!”
A deep, robust, Rufan Bolamba laugh was his answer. “The world has changed in less time, Uso!”
“I guess you are right, Junior.”
“Hey I gotta go Eddie, Mandy just got back from the grocery store and I have to help her bring in the groceries and put them away.”
“Of course, say hello to her for me.”
“Nah I can’t do that, Uce. I have to tell her that you send love.”
“Hah, OK my brother, you do that.”
Eddie hit the button to hang up the call and leaned back in his car seat. Maybe Dave was right. Junior almost certainly was. Either way he had a whole day to kill now and nothing to do now that Dave had banished him from the gym. He leaned forward and hit the button to start his car, knowing exactly where he wanted to go next and what he intended to do.
11/23/22 – 2:38pm – Al Bagra Fortress
N1ghtcraw1er’s eyes darted back and forth through yellow tinted lenses as the images on his screen shot rapidly past him. He had trained himself to see movement, even at the high resolutions and refresh rates of top end gaming peripherals. He fluidly strafed through a hall, throwing a grenade around as he has done a million times.
There is no stream. He didn’t want the distraction. The stream was for vanity. This was for him. After all, N1ghtcraw1er is not just a name, it is a statement to everyone that sees his gamertag. Run; it won’t matter.
An explosion rocked the next room, dust fell from the ceiling and smoke mixed with mortar billowed out of the area he had sent the grenade to do its dirty work. He peek-strafed into the lavish palace room, the walls adorned with art and gold furniture so bourgeois that Ivan Stanislav would try to revolt against them. He stopped cold when he saw the name above the avatar standing in front of him. RzR H3LLFIR3.
A professional gamer’s mind has milliseconds, maybe even microseconds, to decide what to do in these situations. Some actions are trained, some are muscle memory, some are even involuntary like breathing. Eddie chose to do nothing.
He watched his screen go red. He saw his n1ghtcraw1er avatar fall to the ground in a lifeless heap. He watched his enemy run past his corpse and on to their next objective, pausing only slightly in non-movement before running out of the room.
A message popped up on his screen.
[RzR H3LLFIR3 #7763452] sent friend request
N1ghtcraw1er optioned out to the accept screen and hovered over the button for several seconds before pushing down his left mouse button with a click that broke the silence like a gunshot. He wondered to himself what this person could want from him?
He didn’t need to wait long.
[RzR H3LLFIR3] What the fuck was that?