This chapter is dedicated to Vancouver's multilingual Sophia Books, a diverse and exciting store filled with the best of the strange and exciting pop culture worlds of many lands. Sophia was around the corner from my hotel when I went to Van to give a talk at Simon Fraser University, and the Sophia folks emailed me in advance to ask me to drop in and sign their stock while I was in the neighborhood. When I got there, I discovered a treasure-trove of never-before-seen works in a dizzying array of languages, from graphic novels to thick academic treatises, presided over by good-natured (even slapstick) staff who so palpably enjoyed their jobs that it spread to every customer who stepped through the door.
Sophia Books: 450 West Hastings St., Vancouver, BC Canada V6B1L1 +1 604 684 0484
There was a time when my favorite thing in the world was putting on a cape and hanging out in hotels, pretending to be an invisible vampire whom everyone stared at.
It's complicated, and not nearly as weird as it sounds. The Live Action Role Playing scene combines the best aspects of D&D with drama club with going to sci-fi cons.
I understand that this might not make it sound as appealing to you as it was to me when I was 14.
The best games were the ones at the Scout Camps out of town: a hundred teenagers, boys and girls, fighting the Friday night traffic, swapping stories, playing handheld games, showing off for hours. Then debarking to stand in the grass before a group of older men and women in bad-ass, home-made armor, dented and scarred, like armor must have been in the old days, not like it's portrayed in the movies, but like a soldier's uniform after a month in the bush.
These people were nominally paid to run the games, but you didn't get the job unless you were the kind of person who'd do it for free. They'd have already divided us into teams based on the questionnaires we'd filled in beforehand, and we'd get our team assignments then, like being called up for baseball sides.
Then you'd get your briefing packages. These were like the briefings the spies get in the movies: here's your identity, here's your mission, here's the secrets you know about the group.
From there, it was time for dinner: roaring fires, meat popping on spits, tofu sizzling on skillets (it's northern California, a vegetarian option is not optional), and a style of eating and drinking that can only be described as quaffing.
Already, the keen kids would be getting into character. My first game, I was a wizard. I had a bag of beanbags that represented spells — when I threw one, I would shout the name of the spell I was casting — fireball, magic missile, cone of light — and the player or "monster" I threw it at would keel over if I connected. Or not — sometimes we had to call in a ref to mediate, but for the most part, we were all pretty good about playing fair. No one liked a dice lawyer.
By bedtime, we were all in character. At 14, I wasn't super-sure what a wizard was supposed to sound like, but I could take my cues from the movies and novels. I spoke in slow, measured tones, keeping my face composed in a suitably mystical expression, and thinking mystical thoughts.
The mission was complicated, retrieving a sacred relic that had been stolen by an ogre who was bent on subjugating the people of the land to his will. It didn't really matter a whole lot. What mattered was that I had a private mission, to capture a certain kind of imp to serve as my familiar, and that I had a secret nemesis, another player on the team who had taken part in a raid that killed my family when I was a boy, a player who didn't know that I'd come back, bent on revenge. Somewhere, of course, there was another player with a similar grudge against me, so that even as I was enjoying the camaraderie of the team, I'd always have to keep an eye open for a knife in the back, poison in the food.
For the next two days, we played it out. There were parts of the weekend that were like hide-and-seek, some that were like wilderness survival exercises, some that were like solving crossword puzzles. The game-masters had done a great job. And you really got to be friends with the other people on the mission. Darryl was the target of my first murder, and I put my back into it, even though he was my pal. Nice guy. Shame I'd have to kill him.
I fireballed him as he was seeking out treasure after we wiped out a band of orcs, playing rock-papers-scissors with each orc to determine who would prevail in combat. This is a lot more exciting than it sounds.
It was like summer camp for drama geeks. We talked until late at night in tents, looked at the stars, jumped in the river when we got hot, slapped away mosquitos. Became best friends, or lifelong enemies.
I don't know why Charles's parents sent him LARPing. He wasn't the kind of kid who really enjoyed that kind of thing. He was more the pulling-wings-off-flies type. Oh, maybe not. But he just was not into being in costume in the woods. He spent the whole time mooching around, sneering at everyone and everything, trying to convince us all that we weren't having the good time we all felt like we were having. You've no doubt found that kind of person before, the kind of person who is compelled to ensure that everyone else has a rotten time.
The other thing about Charles was that he couldn't get the hang of simulated combat. Once you start running around the woods and playing these elaborate, semi-military games, it's easy to get totally adrenalized to the point where you're ready to tear out someone's throat. This is not a good state to be in when you're carrying a prop sword, club, pike or other utensil. This is why no one is ever allowed to hit anyone, under any circumstances, in these games. Instead, when you get close enough to someone to fight, you play a quick couple rounds of rock-paper-scissors, with modifiers based on your experience, armaments, and condition. The referees mediate disputes. It's quite civilized, and a little weird. You go running after someone through the woods, catch up with him, bare your teeth, and sit down to play a little roshambo. But it works — and it keeps everything safe and fun.
Charles couldn't really get the hang of this. I think he was perfectly capable of understanding that the rule was no contact, but he was simultaneously capable of deciding that the rule didn't matter, and that he wasn't going to abide by it. The refs called him on it a bunch of times over the weekend, and he kept on promising to stick by it, and kept on going back. He was one of the bigger kids there already, and he was fond of "accidentally" tackling you at the end of a chase. Not fun when you get tackled into the rocky forest floor.
I had just mightily smote Darryl in a little clearing where he'd been treasure-hunting, and we were having a little laugh over my extreme sneakiness. He was going to go monstering — killed players could switch to playing monsters, which meant that the longer the game wore on, the more monsters there were coming after you, meaning that everyone got to keep on playing and the game's battles just got more and more epic.
That was when Charles came out of the woods behind me and tackled me, throwing me to the ground so hard that I couldn't breathe for a moment. "Gotcha!" he yelled. I only knew him slightly before this, and I'd never thought much of him, but now I was ready for murder. I climbed slowly to my feet and looked at him, his chest heaving, grinning. "You're so dead," he said. "I totally got you."
I smiled and something felt wrong and sore in my face. I touched my upper lip. It was bloody. My nose was bleeding and my lip was split, cut on a root I'd face-planted into when he tackled me.
I wiped the blood on my pants-leg and smiled. I made like I thought that it was all in fun. I laughed a little. I moved towards him.
Charles wasn't fooled. He was already backing away, trying to fade into the woods. Darryl moved to flank him. I took the other flank. Abruptly, he turned and ran. Darryl's foot hooked his ankle and sent him sprawling. We rushed him, just in time to hear a ref's whistle.
The ref hadn't seen Charles foul me, but he'd seen Charles's play that weekend. He sent Charles back to the camp entrance and told him he was out of the game. Charles complained mightily, but to our satisfaction, the ref wasn't having any of it. Once Charles had gone, he gave us both a lecture, too, telling us that our retaliation was no more justified than Charles's attack.
It was OK. That night, once the games had ended, we all got hot showers in the scout dorms. Darryl and I stole Charles's clothes and towel. We tied them in knots and dropped them in the urinal. A lot of the boys were happy to contribute to the effort of soaking them. Charles had been very enthusiastic about his tackles.
I wish I could have watched him when he got out of his shower and discovered his clothes. It's a hard decision: do you run naked across the camp, or pick apart the tight, piss-soaked knots in your clothes and then put them on?
He chose nudity. I probably would have chosen the same. We lined up along the route from the showers to the shed where the packs were stored and applauded him. I was at the front of the line, leading the applause.
The Scout Camp weekends only came three or four times a year, which left Darryl and me — and lots of other LARPers — with a serious LARP deficiency in our lives.
Luckily, there were the Wretched Daylight games in the city hotels. Wretched Daylight is another LARP, rival vampire clans and vampire hunters, and it's got its own quirky rules. Players get cards to help them resolve combat skirmishes, so each skirmish involves playing a little hand of a strategic card game. Vampires can become invisible by cloaking themselves, crossing their arms over their chests, and all the other players have to pretend they don't see them, continuing on with their conversations about their plans and so on. The true test of a good player is whether you're honest enough to go on spilling your secrets in front of an "invisible" rival without acting as though he was in the room.
There were a couple of big Wretched Daylight games every month. The organizers of the games had a good relationship with the city's hotels and they let it be known that they'd take ten unbooked rooms on Friday night and fill them with players who'd run around the hotel, playing low-key Wretched Daylight in the corridors, around the pool, and so on, eating at the hotel restaurant and paying for the hotel WiFi. They'd close the booking on Friday afternoon, email us, and we'd go straight from school to whichever hotel it was, bringing our knapsacks, sleeping six or eight to a room for the weekend, living on junk-food, playing until three AM. It was good, safe fun that our parents could get behind.
The organizers were a well-known literacy charity that ran kids' writing workshops, drama workshops and so on. They had been running the games for ten years without incident. Everything was strictly booze- and drug-free, to keep the organizers from getting busted on some kind of corruption of minors rap. We'd draw between ten and a hundred players, depending on the weekend, and for the cost of a couple movies, you could have two and a half days' worth of solid fun.
One day, though, they lucked into a block of rooms at the Monaco, a hotel in the Tenderloin that catered to arty older tourists, the kind of place where every room came with a goldfish bowl, where the lobby was full of beautiful old people in fine clothes, showing off their plastic surgery results.
Normally, the mundanes — our word for non-players — just ignored us, figuring that we were skylarking kids. But that weekend there happened to be an editor for an Italian travel magazine staying, and he took an interest in things. He cornered me as I skulked in the lobby, hoping to spot the clan-master of my rivals and swoop in on him and draw his blood. I was standing against the wall with my arms folded over my chest, being invisible, when he came up to me and asked me, in accented English, what me and my friends were doing in the hotel that weekend?
I tried to brush him off, but he wouldn't be put off. So I figured I'd just make something up and he'd go away.
I didn't imagine that he'd print it. I really didn't imagine that it would get picked up by the American press.
"We're here because our prince has died, and so we've had to come in search of a new ruler."
"Yes," I said, getting into it. "We're the Old People. We came to America in the 16th Century and have had our own royal family in the wilds of Pennsylvania ever since. We live simply in the woods. We don't use modern technology. But the prince was the last of the line and he died last week. Some terrible wasting disease took him. The young men of my clan have left to find the descendants of his great-uncle, who went away to join the modern people in the time of my grandfather. He is said to have multiplied, and we will find the last of his bloodline and bring them back to their rightful home."
I read a lot of fantasy novels. This kind of thing came easily to me.
"We found a woman who knew of these descendants. She told us one was staying in this hotel, and we've come to find him. But we've been tracked here by a rival clan who would keep us from bringing home our prince, to keep us weak and easy to dominate. Thus it is vital we keep to ourselves. We do not talk to the New People when we can help it. Talking to you now causes me great discomfort."
He was watching me shrewdly. I had uncrossed my arms, which meant that I was now "visible" to rival vampires, one of whom had been slowly sneaking up on us. At the last moment, I turned and saw her, arms spread, hissing at us, vamping it up in high style.
I threw my arms wide and hissed back at her, then pelted through the lobby, hopping over a leather sofa and deking around a potted plant, making her chase me. I'd scouted an escape route down through the stairwell to the basement health-club and I took it, shaking her off.
I didn't see him again that weekend, but I did relate the story to some of my fellow LARPers, who embroidered the tale and found lots of opportunities to tell it over the weekend.
The Italian magazine had a staffer who'd done her master's degree on Amish anti-technology communities in rural Pennsylvania, and she thought we sounded awfully interesting. Based on the notes and taped interviews of her boss from his trip to San Francisco, she wrote a fascinating, heart-wrenching article about these weird, juvenile cultists who were crisscrossing America in search of their "prince." Hell, people will print anything these days.
But the thing was, stories like that get picked up and republished. First it was Italian bloggers, then a few American bloggers. People across the country reported "sightings" of the Old People, though whether they were making it up, or whether others were playing the same game, I didn't know.
It worked its way up the media food-chain all the way to the New York Times, who, unfortunately, have an unhealthy appetite for fact-checking. The reporter they put on the story eventually tracked it down to the Monaco Hotel, who put them in touch with the LARP organizers, who laughingly spilled the whole story.
Well, at that point, LARPing got a lot less cool. We became known as the nation's foremost hoaxers, as weird, pathological liars. The press who we'd inadvertently tricked into covering the story of the Old People were now interested in redeeming themselves by reporting on how unbelievably weird we LARPers were, and that was when Charles let everyone in school know that Darryl and I were the biggest LARPing weenies in the city.
That was not a good season. Some of the gang didn't mind, but we did. The teasing was merciless. Charles led it. I'd find plastic fangs in my bag, and kids I passed in the hall would go "bleh, bleh" like a cartoon vampire, or they'd talk with fake Transylvanian accents when I was around.
We switched to ARGing pretty soon afterwards. It was more fun in some ways, and it was a lot less weird. Every now and again, though, I missed my cape and those weekends in the hotel.
The opposite of esprit d'escalier is the way that life's embarrassments come back to haunt us even after they're long past. I could remember every stupid thing I'd ever said or done, recall them with picture-perfect clarity. Any time I was feeling low, I'd naturally start to remember other times I felt that way, a hit-parade of humiliations coming one after another to my mind.
As I tried to concentrate on Masha and my impending doom, the Old People incident kept coming back to haunt me. There'd been a similar, sick, sinking doomed feeling then, as more and more press outlets picked up the story, as the likelihood of someone figuring out that it had been me who'd sprung the story on the stupid Italian editor in the designer jeans with crooked seams, the starched collarless shirt, and the oversized metal-rimmed glasses.
There's an alternative to dwelling on your mistakes. You can learn from them.
It's a good theory, anyway. Maybe the reason your subconscious dredges up all these miserable ghosts is that they need to get closure before they can rest peacefully in humiliation afterlife. My subconscious kept visiting me with ghosts in the hopes that I would do something to let them rest in peace.
All the way home, I turned over this memory and the thought of what I would do about "Masha," in case she was playing me. I needed some insurance.
And by the time I reached my house — to be swept up into melancholy hugs from Mom and Dad — I had it.
The trick was to time this so that it happened fast enough that the DHS couldn't prepare for it, but with a long enough lead time that the Xnet would have time to turn out in force.
The trick was to stage this so that there were too many present to arrest us all, but to put it somewhere that the press could see it and the grownups, so the DHS wouldn't just gas us again.
The trick was to come up with something with the media friendliness of the levitation of the Pentagon. The trick was to to stage something that we could rally around, like 3,000 Berkeley students refusing to let one of their number be taken away in a police van.
The trick was to put the press there, ready to say what the police did, the way they had in 1968 in Chicago.
It was going to be some trick.
I cut out of school an hour early the next day, using my customary techniques for getting out, not caring if it would trigger some kind of new DHS checker that would result in my parents getting a note.
One way or another, my parents' last problem after tomorrow would be whether I was in trouble at school.
I met Ange at her place. She'd had to cut out of school even earlier, but she'd just made a big deal out of her cramps and pretended she was going to keel over and they sent her home.
We started to spread the word on Xnet. We sent it in email to trusted friends, and IMmed it to our buddy lists. We roamed the decks and towns of Clockwork Plunder and told our team-mates. Giving everyone enough information to get them to show up but not so much as to tip our hand to the DHS was tricky, but I thought I had just the right balance:
If you're a goth, dress to impress. If you're not a goth, find a goth and borrow some clothes. Think vampire.
The game starts at 8:00AM sharp. SHARP. Be there and ready to be divided into teams. The game lasts 30 minutes, so you'll have plenty of time to get to school afterward.
Location will be revealed tomorrow. Email your public key to email@example.com and check your messages at 7AM for the update. If that's too early for you, stay up all night. That's what we're going to do.
This is the most fun you will have all year, guaranteed.
Then I sent a short message to Masha.
A minute later, she emailed back:
I thought so. VampMob, huh? You work fast. Wear a red hat. Travel light.
What do you bring along when you go fugitive? I'd carried enough heavy packs around enough scout camps to know that every ounce you add cuts into your shoulders with all the crushing force of gravity with every step you take — it's not just one ounce, it's one ounce that you carry for a million steps. It's a ton.
"Right," Ange said. "Smart. And you never take more than three days' worth of clothes, either. You can rinse stuff out in the sink. Better to have a spot on your t-shirt than a suitcase that's too big and heavy to stash under a plane-seat."
She'd pulled out a ballistic nylon courier bag that went across her chest, between her breasts — something that made me get a little sweaty — and slung diagonally across her back. It was roomy inside, and she'd set it down on the bed. Now she was piling clothes next to it.
"I figure that three t-shirts, a pair of pants, a pair of shorts, three changes of underwear, three pairs of socks and a sweater will do it."
She dumped out her gym bag and picked out her toiletries. "I'll have to remember to stick my toothbrush in tomorrow morning before I head down to Civic Center."
Watching her pack was impressive. She was ruthless about it all. It was also freaky — it made me realize that the next day, I was going to go away. Maybe for a long time. Maybe forever.
"Do I bring my Xbox?" she asked. "I've got a ton of stuff on the hard-drive, notes and sketches and email. I wouldn't want it to fall into the wrong hands."
"It's all encrypted," I said. "That's standard with ParanoidXbox. But leave the Xbox behind, there'll be plenty of them in LA. Just create a Pirate Party account and email an image of your hard-drive to yourself. I'm going to do the same when I get home."
She did so, and queued up the email. It was going to take a couple hours for all the data to squeeze through her neighbor's WiFi network and wing its way to Sweden.
Then she closed the flap on the bag and tightened the compression straps. She had something the size of a soccer-ball slung over her back now, and I stared admiringly at it. She could walk down the street with that under her shoulder and no one would look twice — she looked like she was on her way to school.
"One more thing," she said, and went to her bedside table and took out the condoms. She took the strips of rubbers out of the box and opened the bag and stuck them inside, then gave me a slap on the ass.
"Now what?" I said.
"Now we go to your place and do your stuff. It's time I met your parents, no?"
She left the bag amid the piles of clothes and junk all over the floor. She was ready to turn her back on all of it, walk away, just to be with me. Just to support the cause. It made me feel brave, too.
Mom was already home when I got there. She had her laptop open on the kitchen table and was answering email while talking into a headset connected to it, helping some poor Yorkshireman and his family acclimate to living in Louisiana.
I came through the door and Ange followed, grinning like mad, but holding my hand so tight I could feel the bones grinding together. I didn't know what she was so worried about. It wasn't like she was going to end up spending a lot of time hanging around with my parents after this, even if it went badly.
Mom hung up on the Yorkshireman when we got in.
"Hello, Marcus," she said, giving me a kiss on the cheek. "And who is this?"
"Mom, meet Ange. Ange, this is my Mom, Lillian." Mom stood up and gave Ange a hug.
"It's very good to meet you, darling," she said, looking her over from top to bottom. Ange looked pretty acceptable, I think. She dressed well, and low-key, and you could tell how smart she was just by looking at her.
"A pleasure to meet you, Mrs Yallow," she said. She sounded very confident and self-assured. Much better than I had when I'd met her mom.
"It's Lillian, love," she said. She was taking in every detail. "Are you staying for dinner?"
"I'd love that," she said.
"Do you eat meat?" Mom's pretty acclimated to living in California.
"I eat anything that doesn't eat me first," she said.
"She's a hot-sauce junkie," I said. "You could serve her old tires and she'd eat 'em if she could smother them in salsa."
Ange socked me gently in the shoulder.
"I was going to order Thai," Mom said. "I'll add a couple of their five-chili dishes to the order."
Ange thanked her politely and Mom bustled around the kitchen, getting us glasses of juice and a plate of biscuits and asking three times if we wanted any tea. I squirmed a little.
"Thanks, Mom," I said. "We're going to go upstairs for a while."
Mom's eyes narrowed for a second, then she smiled again. "Of course," she said. "Your father will be home in an hour, we'll eat then."
I had my vampire stuff all stashed in the back of my closet. I let Ange sort through it while I went through my clothes. I was only going as far as LA. They had stores there, all the clothing I could need. I just needed to get together three or four favorite tees and a favorite pair of jeans, a tube of deodorant, a roll of dental floss.
"Money!" I said.
"Yeah," she said. "I was going to clean out my bank account on the way home at an ATM. I've got maybe five hundred saved up."
"What am I going to spend it on?" she said. "Ever since the Xnet, I haven't had to even pay any service charges."
"I think I've got three hundred or so."
"Well, there you go. Grab it on the way to Civic Center in the morning."
I had a big book-bag I used when I was hauling lots of gear around town. It was less conspicuous than my camping pack. Ange went through my piles mercilessly and culled them down to her favorites.
Once it was packed and under my bed, we both sat down.
"We're going to have to get up really early tomorrow," she said.
"Yeah, big day."
The plan was to get messages out with a bunch of fake VampMob locations tomorrow, sending people out to secluded spots within a few minutes' walk of Civic Center. We'd cut out a spray-paint stencil that just said VAMPMOB CIVIC CENTER -> -> that I we would spray-paint at those spots around 5AM. That would keep the DHS from locking down the Civic Center before we got there. I had the mailbot ready to send out the messages at 7AM — I'd just leave my Xbox running when I went out.
"How long… " She trailed off.
"That's what I've been wondering, too," I said. "It could be a long time, I suppose. But who knows? With Barbara's article coming out —" I'd queued an email to her for the next morning, too — "and all, maybe we'll be heroes in two weeks."
"Maybe," she said and sighed.
I put my arm around her. Her shoulders were shaking.
"I'm terrified," I said. "I think that it would be crazy not to be terrified."
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah."
Mom called us to dinner. Dad shook Ange's hand. He looked unshaved and worried, the way he had since we'd gone to see Barbara, but on meeting Ange, a little of the old Dad came back. She kissed him on the cheek and he insisted that she call him Drew.
Dinner was actually really good. The ice broke when Ange took out her hot-sauce mister and treated her plate, and explained about Scoville units. Dad tried a forkful of her food and went reeling into the kitchen to drink a gallon of milk. Believe it or not, Mom still tried it after that and gave every impression of loving it. Mom, it turned out, was an undiscovered spicy food prodigy, a natural.
Before she left, Ange pressed the hot-sauce mister on Mom. "I have a spare at home," she said. I'd watched her pack it in her backpack. "You seem like the kind of woman who should have one of these."