The words echoed eerily in the empty gym. They smarted worse than the cuts lacerating my skin between its battered safety pads. Worse still, they came from a stranger: one of those guys from another guild, I guessed, who joined our practice while he was passing through.
“Thanks, Captain Obvious,” I muttered, gripping the hilt of my longsword and swinging the flat of its blade against my shoulder. “Geez, you sure know how to make a guy feel like trying again.”
I headed for the locker room like a dog slinking away from the fight to lick his wounds. Footsteps warned that my assailant had followed.
“I know what it is,” he said. “With your type, it’s always the same.”You got into this for the high. The thrill. Mental games keep you on the edge or your seat—or should I say, in proper form?”
I walked faster.
“You’re sick of these four concrete walls,” the stranger continued. “There’s no real glory here, not like in the old manuals, or even the movies. Parsing German verbs and practicing your four guards and six hews isn’t going to cut it anymore for you, buddy. And it shows.”
I stopped short, measuring my voice. “So what if that’s true?” I swept my free hand back at the gym. “In the 21st century, this is all we sword fighters get. There’s no . . .” I faltered. “No . . .”
“Danger.” He slipped it in, liquid smooth. “No killing. No death. What good is a blade without any blood on it?”
My breath came in spurts. When I gathered the courage to glance back, he was standing too close for comfort, his taunting face split by the lengthening shadows. One hand lifted. Dangling from the tips of his fingers was something boxy and black, with a strap on the back.
“Oculus Rift!” I burst out. “You brought a virtual reality headset to fencing practice?”
A satisfied smile seared his face. “So you’ve seen it before.”
“Seen it? I tried it at the science convention a few moths back. Shit’s cool, man, but it makes me more nauseous than the Tilt-O-Whirl at the fair.”
“Then you’re lucky it’s not Oculus Rift.” He held the set out a little further. A sliver of light fell across the front of the box. Only then did I realize that it was not, in fact, a polished commercial product but a homemade gimcrack of wires, a motherboard and God-knew-what-else, encased in a 3d-printed compartment and painted a rather ominous shade of black.
I stepped closer and peered at it, wondering. “You made this?”
“For fencers like you,” he nodded. “People who need a little reality to shock them out of their fantasy footwork.”
Fantasy? I wondered. You mean the fantasy where I sweat on a mat for three hours, calves burning from sheer poise, hands clenched around the sword, waiting to get brained with a two foot-long sword? Yeah, man, that sure feels like a fantasy all right . . .
But no matter how loud my brain protested, I knew he was right. Once, I had ruled the floor in every renaissance fencing gym in a two hundred-mile radius. Now, I could barely keep my feet against the first-year upstarts. The decline had been slow. And steady. And . . . deadly.
“You’re not going to psych yourself into being good again,” the stranger was saying just then. “Because deep down inside, you know this is all fake. It’s an exercise, with no point except the end of the session. Winning a match solves nothing at all—except, perhaps, five minutes of your endless, insatiable boredom.” He held the goggles out, tantalizingly close now. “I’m offering you a chance to get back in the game.”
I knew I shouldn’t. Not from any sense of true moral danger, of course, but from that itchy sense, deep in your gut. The one you can’t scratch away no matter how hard you try. This guy was trouble with a capital”T” fancy enough for one of those illuminated medieval manuscripts.
Yet I could not stop my hand from reaching out to take the device. “I’m fighting you, I expect.”
He nodded, producing a second pair of goggles, identical. I set my sword down gingerly and fiddled with the straps.
“Some reality,” I complained as the device settled against my nose. “You expect me to move properly with a pitch-black brick on my face?”
His reaction was hidden behind blackness. “At least its cordless. Even Oculus hasn’t managed that.”
I groped for my sword again and swung it up. The blade graze off something—a cement block, maybe—and echoed with an eerie thwang. “Any time now,” I muttered, assuming my best stance. “You got me into this so, you’d better get me out of it.” My calves felt like an inferno, but I forced them to hold their pose.
A few more footsteps echoed, muffled now. Something rattled. Then the sound of old-time switches clicked from off to on: one . . . two . . . three of them.
The last thing I remember was his scratchy voice, stretched out over the final moment of blackness. “Better watch yourself, fencer. There are few things more real than dying at the edge of a sword.”
To be continued next week
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