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Wasteland

Andy Nielsen

Featured In Print Edition

This is it. The moment I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been wandering this barren post-apocalyptic wasteland for what feels like days. The air is so thick with pollution I can barely see more than a few hundred yards ahead of me. Not that there’s much of a view out here anyway. If you’ve seen one broken-down, rusted car, you’ve seen them all. At least I haven’t run into any giant, radioactive scorpions lately. I’ve spent most of my day moving from one dilapidated, barely standing, half-burned house to the next. All of which are long-since abandoned and most reek of rotten wood and animal urine. I have to tread carefully. The floors are littered with the broken, charred remains of what used to be a roof.

I go from room to room searching every cabinet, dresser, and broken fridge for useful items. Sometimes I find good stuff like ammo, edible food, or parts I can use to mod my weapons. Sadly, most of the things I find are junk. I can’t count how many empty bottles and bobby pins I’ve picked up. I grab everything in sight, collecting useless crap like it’s going out of style. I can only carry so much. Why bother with stuff I can’t use, scrap, or sell?

If it was up to me, I’d leave most of this junk behind, or better yet, skip over most of these houses entirely. But sadly, it’s not up to me. Nothing is, but that’s the life of a video game star.

It’s a good job, but it’s not as glamorous as it sounds—especially on days like this—scavenging empty houses. There has to be an achievement for collecting this crap. I never understood that term, “Achievement.” My player hasn’t achieved anything. I haven’t achieved anything. Sure, I might be the star of my own game, but my life has no meaning.

I just go through the motions, doing as I’m told. Never getting a say in where I go or what I do. That honor goes to my player, a foul mouthed 13-year-old named GregerMeister87. Humans have such weird names.

He decides everything. Even the little things, like what I wear. His latest “gift” is an oversized purple fedora with a zebra print band and a big green feather hanging off the side. I look ridiculous. Do humans actually dress like that or is this guy just messing with me? My player also has a say over my basic needs. He decides where or if I sleep, what and when I eat, and even when I’m allowed to attend to my wounds. He usually waits until I’m on death’s door before letting me crack open a med kit. Does he think I like getting shot? That shit hurts. I’m a slave to my player’s every whim. Hell, he doesn’t even let me use my real name. My friends call me Shawn, but GregerMeister87 named me “Assface”. I’m not sure what was wrong with Shawn. Maybe it isn’t human enough.

I’m just rambling now. I’ve been bored so long I almost forgot why I was getting excited in the first place. Finally, all this walking is going somewhere. We’re closing in on a known Raiders’ nest, and with any luck, the first bit of action I’ve seen in hours.

The mundane scavenging is done for now. We left the barely standing houses behind a while ago. I can see the Raiders’ nest at the end of the street. It’s much more intact than most of the buildings that fill this shithole I call home. It’s tall, spacious, and made of solid concrete. I think it used to be a factory of some kind. It’s the perfect place for a pack of Raiders to hang their heads.

We step inside. The room is practically empty. I look around the room, waiting for danger to jump out at me. I see old boxes and a few broken-down forklifts. There’s a rusted metal staircase, and a floor littered with empty bullet casings, but not a soul in sight. Suddenly I hear gunfire. I’m under attack from several direction. I still can’t see the shooters. It’s amazing I haven’t been hit yet. Then I see one of the Raiders in the shadowy area across the room. I raise my trusty assault rifle and begin to take aim…

PAUSE

“Come on!” I exclaim in frustration. “We were just getting to the good part. Does he have any idea how bored I’ve been?”

“Hear that, you guys?” cries a familiar voice from across the room. “Mr. Action Hero over here is bored.” One of the Raiders steps out of the shadows and starts walking toward me.

“Larry? Is that you?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Were you expecting Donkey Kong?” That’s Larry, always a joker. “Mark and Roxy are here too.” Roxy comes out of the shadows to greet me with a smile on her face. Mark isn’t far behind her, but he doesn’t look as happy to see me.

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize this is their place. Sure, I’ve been wandering around on autopilot not paying much attention to where my player is taking me, but it’s not like I haven’t been here before.

“It’s good to see you guys. What have you guys been up to? Rob any farmers lately?” I ask jokingly.

Roxy’s smile quickly turns into an eye-roll, “God Shawn, do you ever drop character?” I guess my joke didn’t land like I thought it would.

“You know I’m just yanking your chain. Seriously though, what have you guys been up to? I haven’t seen any of you in days.” It’s been even longer since I’ve run into them during a pause when we can be ourselves.

“Pretty much just hangin’ out here.” Mark chimes in. “Think we get to go off n’ explore like you?”

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” I explain with a sigh. “I’ve been rummaging through old busted-up houses all day. My player has me looking through dressers and shit trying to find loot. How many wrenches does a guy need? God, I could use a beer. Got any?”

“Really dude?” Larry replies. “We’ve been trapped here for days waiting for you to come along so we have something to do and the first thing you do is complain?”

“Yeah n’ ya think we’ll just be cool with ya drinking all our beer again? Oh n’ nice hat by the way. Do they make a men’s version?” That’s Mark for ya. He thinks he’s hilarious, but he’s really just annoying. I imagine everyone has at least one co-worker they can’t stand but have to put up with. He’s not wrong about the hat though. This thing sucks. Why can’t I dress like these guys? They all wear normal stuff like leather jackets and makeshift armor pieced together out of old car parts. I look like a dork compared to them.

“Funny dude,” I reply, hoping he’ll drop it. “By the way, where’s Jimmy?”

“Jimmy hasn’t re-spawned yet” Roxy answers. “We’re still scraping pieces of his face out of the air duct.”

She seems to have more to say, but Mark interrupts. “Yeah, thanks for that. It’s starting to smell in here, ya prick. It’s cool though. Dude’s always wastin’ our ammo. Screw him!” There he goes again. Classic Mark.

“Don’t give me that crap.” Roxy adds. “You miss him as much as the rest of us.”

“Speak for yourself, cutie. Just cause ya got a thing for him doesn’t mean the rest of us want him around.”

“You can’t be serious” she replies with a huff.

“Na, I’m just jokin bout you actually likin’ him. We all know you’re just tryin’ to get ahead by gettin’ with the boss.”

“Oh god. Just give it a rest,” Roxy replies, clearly exasperated. “Can you believe this guy, Shawn? Like it’s not hard enough for women to break into this industry without having to deal with misogynistic douchebags like him.”

“Just don’t listen to him,” I reply. “He has a screw loose. I think his source code is missing a few zeros.”

“What did you just say to me?” Mark screams. “You’re lucky we can’t shoot right now, pal.”

“Ok guys, let’s just change the subject,” Larry chimed in. He’s a good friend. I don’t know if I could put up with Mark if he wasn’t around, and I know Roxy couldn’t. “Shawn, ya see the game last week?”

“You mean the other day when GregerMeister87 was getting his ass handed to him in Madden? Yeah, that was great.”

“That’s the one. What was that other players name again?”

“Baghdad_AssUp”

“Haha, what?!” Roxy chuckled. “Why don’t they ever have normal names?”

“What can I say? Humans are weird. So you didn’t watch? I don’t imagine there’s much else to do around here.”

“You can say that again, but as boring as it is around here I just can’t get into football.” Roxy pauses and lets out a slow breath. “God, I’d give anything to be out there going on adventures like you.”

“Be careful what you wish for. I might see more action than you guys but it’s mostly tedious. Sure, I get to explore our world but not on my own terms. My player calls all the shots. At least you guys have each other. Most of the time my only companion is that freakin’ puppet master GregerMeister87. My life is literally a game to him.”

“Ok dude, I’ve heard enough.” Larry chimes in. “Just shut up and listen to me for a second. We’ve been friends for a long time. It used to be fun when you came around, and I want to go back to that, so you need to get over this. ‘My life is a game to him.’ No shit man, we’re in a game! Jesus dude, you’re the star of the game! You think you have it so rough, like you’re the only one of us with any problems. We all get bored, Shawn, it comes with the territory.”

“Yeah! Think we wanted to hear this whiny crap today?”

“Shut up, Mark. You’re not helping. Anyway, like I was saying, I know I’m just a small cog in the gears that run this world, but you don’t hear me complaining. I’ve accepted my lot in life. At least we aren’t working behind the scenes. There are teams of guys like us who do nothing but run calculations all day. Talk about tedious. But your life sucks, right? You act like you’re somehow superior to the race that created us. Yeah, we exist to serve the humans. So what? At least we got to have some fun along the way. Especially you. You aren’t confined to just a few blocks like us.” Larry pauses for a second.

“Just look at Roxy. Think she wouldn’t trade places with you in a second? We all would.”

I do look over at Roxy and suddenly it hits me. The longing look on her face says it all. Everything Larry said was right. All this time I’ve been complaining that I don’t get a say in where GregerMeister87 takes me, not realizing that I actually have it pretty good. I might not be the one calling the shots, but I still get to go out and experience all that this expansive open-world environment has to offer. For every empty house I search, there’s something more interesting waiting for me. She doesn’t have that opportunity, and likely never will. Maybe I should stop focusing on the mundane and learn to enjoy the little things.

I didn’t have time to express my newfound optimism, though. Just as I was coming to this minor epiphany, my player comes back and the game resumes.

In the blink of an eye, we’re all standing back where we started, and I’m back in the thick of things. Bullets zipping past my head. The deafening sound of a grenade going off just behind me. The transition is disorienting. Just seconds ago, I was chatting with my friends, and now I have to get back into combat mode. Just as I was about to concede, preparing myself to take a bullet to the head and have to start this campaign over again, I see Mark in the corner of my eye. As luck would have it, GregerMeister87 sees him too and starts to point me in his direction. I lift my rifle, put Mark in my sights, and squeeze the trigger. My bullet enters straight through Mark’s eye and I can’t help but imagine that Roxy is smiling inside as much as I am.

Screw you, Mark.