"Check." Ralph leaned forward, licking his lips. "I have you now, you bastard. Lila is mine."
"That will be eighty dollars," George said placidly, as if this were just an ordinary game, as if his future happiness were not at stake. But that was George. If he were about to be executed, he would remember to tip the hangman.
"Sixty," Ralph grated. "Three squares." The holographic version of the game calculated everything flawlessly, but Ralph much preferred to play with real game pieces on a real game board. The resulting arguments were just as entertaining as the game itself. There was nothing like satisfaction of forcing his own viewpoint down someone else's throat.
"But the second square is mine," George pointed out gently, with a just a trace of superciliousness. "Sixty dollars to the bank, and twenty to me."
Ralph peeled the bills from his stack of twenties and handed them over, grinning hungrily. "Three more moves, and the game will be over.
He leaned back in his chair, twitching imperceptibly while George considered his move. Putting Lila into the pot had been a brilliant idea. Not that Ralph had any doubts whom she would ultimately prefer: George was overweight and geeky, not the type of guy a woman would want to be seen at a party with, let alone in her wedding pictures. George had never provided Ralph with much competition - not at school, not on the playing field, not in the games of monopoly chess they played every Thursday night, and certainly not in the pursuit of females. Not until now. George seemed to be really smitten with Lila. He had even cancelled a couple of games to spend time with her.
At first, Ralph had refused to take it seriously. After all, Lila was a very average sort, not a looker at all, and George had never had a girl friend before. Ralph had set about wooing her, partly from the compulsion to compete, partly to prove to George that a woman was a nice side-line, but could not be allowed to take center stage in any man's life. One gaming night, after Ralph subtly manipulated the game to let George win and then encourgaged him to celebrate with too many drinks, Ralph had challenged George to a tournament of hearts. Best two games out of three. The loser would agree never to see Lila again.
Ralph had won the first game, and fully expected to win the second. But George, his stupid smile never wavering, had tricked Ralph into self-destruction in the fifteenth move. They had been playing the tie-breaker for almost four sweaty hours. It had to be over soon. Winner take all - money, glory, and adoring female. Just like the inappropriate olden days.
Ralph would have given anything to be alive 60 years ago, before the Great Treaty that banned war forever. Certainly, something had to be done about the chaos that the ever-escalating, hi-tech, "limited wars" were leaving in their wake, disrupting trade and communications, destroying habitats, and directly or indirectly exterminating over 93% of earth's population. But surely the leaders had over-reacted in their determination to eradicate all manifestations of violence from human society forever. Where was a man supposed to unearth a little excitement in this perfectly civil world?
There were illegal outlets, of course. But there were also the Helpers, who scrutinized everything so meticulously for any and all vestiges of inappropriate behaviour. Anyone the least bit suspect was reconditioned. And he had seen what reconditioning did to a person. The only alternative was to take refuge somewhere outside the service zones and live without the amenities of technology.
George's hand hovered over the second level of the board. At last! Ralph's breath quivered as George interposed a tank between his queen and Ralph's threatening squadron. George deposited the required money in the bank, smiled sweetly, and turned the gun turrets on his enemy.
"That square is mined, remember?" Ralph purred, removing the tank. George advanced a heavily-armed infantry unit into the same square. Too late, Ralph realized the tank had been sacrificed to deactivate the mines. In the next move, Ralph's squadron would be cut to pieces.
Ralph chewed on his lip. George was not given to brilliant moves, but he seemed to have discovered one this time. Monopoly chess was a game of concentration and anticipation, keeping track of all options on the six-level board, measuring probabilities, and counting the cost of every move. He and George had been honing their skills since elementary school, and yet no two games were ever the same. They had become less thrilling over the years - George had mellowed, lost his appetite for winning. He often said the pleasure of playing was all he needed.
But tonight was different. Excitement flushed through Ralph. He felt alive and powerful, the way he did when he was a college champion gamer.
Then, mompoly chess was simply called "The Game." Everyone was still obsessed with being the best, and this was one of the few approved outlets for the competitive spirit. There was always a game on television, with audiences of millions arguing every move. Gaming schools abounded, and every bookstore boasted shelf upon shelf of gaming manuals. Premier gamers played for fabulous prizes on the international circuit, and patriots considered them national heroes if they won.
Gradually, The Game had given way to more cooperative entertainment. The next generation was less prone to the craving to outdo all comers. Ralph and George played in secret now.
George was a model citizen in every way except one: he still owned a set of the old-style playing pieces. The fierce warriors with machine guns and grenade launchers made no secret of their blood-stained origins. The Helpers would not hesitate to confiscate them. Worse, they would confiscate the minds of anyone found playing with them, and sequester them in a mental health centre until no trace of aggression remained.
When Ralph was in the third grade, he had seen the results of reconditioning for the first time. Harvey had been Ralph's best friend and hero then - where was he now?
Harvey had been a non-conformist, challenging everything and mocking what he was powerless to change. One day, he had punched Ralph during an argument over a piece of chalk.
The Helpers had gently removed him. He was absent for two weeks. The teacher took advantage of the opportunity to explain, yet again, that inappropriate behaviour had almost destroyed the human race. Now humanity had evolved to a higher level, and the Helpers could keep everyone safe. Thanks to the miracle of reconditioning, all citizens lived together in harmony, with no need for courts or jails.
When Harvey came back, he no longer stood out from the crowd. Ralph had already bonded with George. Uncharismatic, reliable George, too placid to ever require reconditioning. Under the enlightened tutelage of their teachers, they grew into upstanding and cooperative citizens who supported the ideals of their society. Almost.
"Nice move," Ralph conceded, moving a personnel carrier into position to retaliate. If I can keep him distracted until I bring my bombers down and finish off his queen, Lila will be hailing her conquering hero tonight. George drew a sharp breath. Trembling with excitement, he carefully checked each level of the board before placing a Ninja beside Ralph's undefended queen on the second level.
Ralph stared. It was a mate all right - the Ninja was covered by two cannons. But where had that Ninja come from?
"Illegal move," he said flatly.
"No." George pointed at a square in the top level. "He came from here."
"He couldn't have." Ralph's voice rose. "That square was declared a lethal radiation hazard."
"Not that one," George said. "The one beside it. See, there's the marker."
Ralph felt his face and neck flush. He surged to his feet, upending his chair. "You moved the marker, you inappropriate suck." He strained to remain calm, to marshal his arguments, to recall the board as it had been eight moves ago. His memory blurred in a haze of outrage.
"Remember," George said, "appropriate words beget constructive relationships." He sounded just like their kindergarten teacher, who used to drive Ralph to distraction with her sing-song recitation of the elements of social interaction.
"I'll show you what's inappropriate, you double-dealing crook," Ralph snarled, smashing his fist on the playing board. The plexiglass shattered, and playing pieces flew in all directions.
"For Peace's sake, Ralph--" George admonished just as Ralph's fist slammed into his gut. He fell back, hitting the corner of a bookshelf. Blood welled from a scalp wound. He flailed his arms uselessly as Ralph hit him again and again.
It was over too soon. Ralph paced restlessly, his shoes crunching the warriors littering the carpet, willing George to get up, to hit back, to give him the opportunity to purge his rage. George did not move.
Finally, Ralph hunkered beside the body and prodded it tentatively. George was not breathing.
Ralph knew the right thing to do, what everyone who exhibited inappropriate behaviour was required by law to do: call the Helper Hotline. They would rush solicitously to his side, and everything would be all right. No one would blame him, any more than they would blame a cancer victim. An occasional anomaly was unavoidable in the great march of evolution. A few dozen hours of reconditioning, and the torn fabric of society would be whole again. Ralph would fit in without a ripple.
Ralph tore a sleeve off his shirt, carefully wiped the playing pieces, and replaced them in their case. He took his jacket off its hanger, put it on, picked up the scattered money and stuffed it into his pockets along with the bloody rag. No one saw him slip out of the building.
He began to wander aimlessly through the neighborhood. No one seemed to notice that there was something different about him, that he had done the unthinkable. The hormones coursing through his bloodstream ebbed, and he felt cold and alone.
George loved his privacy: it would be several days before the body was found. But it would be found, and it would not take the Helpers long to determine a probable culprit. They did not waste time determining innocence or guilt these days: all suspects were reconditioned.
He would have to take his chances in the unserviced zone, learn how to live as an animal lives, by strength and cunning. But first, Lila.
Her greeting on the intercom was eager. But when Ralph identified himself, her voice sagged. There was a long pause before the door release buzzed.
"Have you seen George?" she asked anxiously as soon as she opened the door of her apartment. "He was supposed to drop over tonight."
"He won't be coming," Ralph said, starting to slip off his jacket.
"Ralph! What happened to your sleeve?"
"My sleeve?" Startled, Ralph shrugged his jacket back on. "Nothing - an accident."
Lila was staring at the floor. Ralph looked down. Two blood-stained twenties lay at his feet. He picked them up hastily and jammed them back into his pocket.
"Where is George?" Lila asked again.
"Never mind George," he said angrily. "He can't come tonight." Things were not progressing as he planned.
Lila came closer, her face inches from his. "What happened? Is he injured?"
Ralph kissed her. When she struggled, he held her more tightly, the way men did in the inappropriate movies he had seen. He continued kissing her, waiting for the excitement of the moment to make her willing and pliable, but her body remained rigid. She squirmed out of his grasp and bolted for the door. He caught her just before she could open it and slammed her against the wall.
Lila stared at him, tears in her eyes. "You hurt me! Why did you hurt me?"
"I want you to come with me," Ralph said. "To the unserviced zone. I've had enough of all this appropriate crap."
She smiled placatingly, her lip trembling. "I can't go anywhere. I have to wait for George."
"Forget George. You're mine now." Why did this moronic woman not have the foggiest notion how to behave?
She laughed nervously. "Silly. You can't own people."
He wanted to slap her until she understood. He punched the wall instead.
"Ralph, we'd better talk," she said seriously. She drew him into the living room and pushed him backwards onto his favourite overstuffed chair. "You just sit here and relax while I make you some tea."
He closed his eyes and tried to figure out what he had overlooked. Love, he thought suddenly. That's it! I haven't told her that I love her.
He tiptoed to the kitchen, planning the right tender and romantic words in his head. She was whispering into the telephone.
"Who's that?" he asked. But he knew. The Helper Hotline.
He snatched the receiver from her hand, pulled the cord out of the wall, and smashed the instrument on the floor with a soul-satisfying crash. "You bitch!" he shouted. "How could you betray me?"
She shrank back, smiling deprecatingly. "Ralph - you need help. Please let me help you." She steeled herself and held out a trembling hand. "Let's sit down quietly and have some tea."
"I love you," Ralph said desperately.
"Of course," she crooned. "I love you too. You're a wonderful friend, and I want to help you."
He kissed her savagely before he stormed out the door. There was no way he could take her along: she would hamper every move.
Three service vehicles with the Community Helpers logo were converging on the building before he had gone half a block. He forced himself to walk steadily.
He could not go home now. The Helpers would have the building surrounded before he arrived. All that was left was the freedom of the unserviced area.
Perhaps it's best this way. No luggage, no careful planning. Just me and my strength and my ingenuity. His jacket was made of waterproof synthetic leather. He could use the sleeves to carry water ... He tried to remember what he had learned about primitive methods of food-acquisition. There was a safety pin replacing one of his shirt buttons ...that would make a fish-hook. Could he unravel the double knit of his pants to manufacture a line?
There was no fence at the service perimeter. No guards. Just a simple sign: BEWARE! NO SERVICES BEYOND THIS POINT.
He tried to uproot the sign as he went by, hoping to use the metal shaft as a weapon. But it would not budge.
He kept looking behind him as he loped towards the nearby hills. Nobody seemed to care that he was defecting. He would show them! When he had become an invincible warlord, he would come back and make them care. Lila would be grateful for his attention then.
He spent the first night huddled on a pebble beach beside a sizable river. Even though he could see moving shadows in the shallows, his attempts at fishing had been fruitless.
He woke up stiff and sore. His stomach growled. Time to move on. Maybe he would be more successful hunting.
He tore one sleeve off his jacket. After many attempts, he managed to trap a little bit of liquid, secured by his belt. If only he had a pocket knife!
"Whatchadoin'?" a voice asked. Ralph dropped his improvised water bag. He had made first contact with the inhabitants of the unserviced zone.
He stood up, trying to smile. There were a dozen or so, showing no sign of congeniality. They did not look particularly impressive in their dirty rags. Their bodies smelled of campfires and sweat.
"I want to join you," he said. He needed food and weapons now. Later, he would look for a group more worthy of his membership.
The bear-like man who had accosted him grinned. There was a nasty scar on his cheek, and his front teeth were missing. "What can you share?"
"I have money," Ralph said, pulling out some of the bills. "Over twelve hundred dollars."
They all laughed. "Makes good toilet paper," the bear-man said. "What else?"
Ralph hesitated. He had always thought of his money as a hedge between himself and difficulties. It had never occurred to him that it would be worthless outside the serviced zone.
"I know about technology," he said. "I'm an electrical engineer. I can show you how to make power plants...."
"Can you, now," one of the women mocked. "An' I s'poze you can make me a washing machine?"
"Enough foolin' now," the bear-man commanded. "You can join us. But y'ave to fight yer way in."
"Fight?" Ralph echoed stupidly.
"We don't have much, and we can't afford to share. Choose the one whose place you want, and kill 'em."
"Kill?" Ralph looked helplessly around the semi- circle. They were all tough and strong, even the women.
He glanced over his shoulder at the savage current of the river. Before he could decide whether his swimming skills were up to the challenge, the bear-man tripped him, grabbed one of his feet, and dragged him away from the water's edge. The group tightened around him.
Ralph got to his feet slowly, spitting dust. He was experiencing a different kind of hormonal surge now.
"I don't want to kill anybody," he said. His voice was thin and trembling. He held out his hand. "Can't we just co-operate?"
None of the faces around him softened. "Nice shoes you got there," the bear-man said. "What size?"
"Ten and a half." He wondered if he should offer them in exchange for his life. But how could he cope in his bare feet?
"Ten and a half, eh? Harvey, that's your size, ain't it?"
"Yessir," one of the men said. For a moment, Ralph thought this was the Harvey he had known in third grade. But this one was much younger than Harvey would be, barely out of childhood. He stepped forward, smiling, keeping his eyes on Ralph.
Ralph fumbled with his shoelace. "Here - take them!"
"Never mind," Harvey said, pulling a wicked- looking hunting knife from his belt. "I'll get them myself." He crouched into an unmistakeable fighting pose.
"It's not fair!" Ralph protested. "I don't have a weapon!"
"You came out here, and didn't think to bring a weapon?" the bear-man said, shaking his head.
"Give me yours! Play fair!"
"Play? We don't play games out here. This is the real world, son."
Ralph managed to twist aside and evade Harvey's first slashing blow. The next one caught him high in the chest. He made a desperate grab for Harvey's arm. He felt a sudden thrill of hope as his hand closed around the base of the knife handle. Harvey kneed him in the groin and kicked him until he lay still.
They did not bother to finish him off. Harvey stripped the body and ran to catch up with the rest of the group. He blushed proudly when they teased him about his one-armed jacket and his beautiful new designer shoes.
It took Ralph several hours to die. His final thoughts centered on the possibility of life after death. He had a lot to say to George.
Christine writes and surfs the Internet in the logging country of Northern Ontario. She made her fiction debut December '97 in Eternity On-Line, and has appeared in a modest number of pulp and electronic publications since. To see more of her work, visit "The Ponderings of Dancing Bear". http://www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Bayou/4814/writing/db.html