Arthur sits in an oversize beanbag opposite Eric. Three RPG books are spread across the small table: Skylands, Derelict, and The Shrunken World. “What do you wanna play today?”
Eric disguises his cough with a throat-clear, giving Arthur a sheepish glance while examining the books. Arthur ignores these. He studies the session notes in his binder instead of the way Eric checks for a nosebleed as he reads the back cover of Derelict.
Eric was part of Arthur’s tabletop RPG group, a friend of a friend who filled an open slot in their ongoing campaign. Arthur liked him well enough, but they never hung out beyond game night.
When Eric got sick and had to stop attending, he reached out to set up weekly one-on-one sessions. “I know it means extra prep, but don’t worry,” he’d said on the phone, close to either laughter or tears. “If my doctors are right, you won’t have to do it for long.” That was a month ago.
Eric shrugged. “I love RPGs. Being someone else, exploring a different world, coming up with a collaborative story—it’s real, actual magic. And you’re the best dungeon master I’ve ever had, so…”
Arthur always made an effort to impress him after that.
“Let’s check out this one.” Eric puts Derelict on the table.
“Cool, I was kind of hoping for this one. Character creation is super easy, too. I already did the tedious bits.” Arthur hands over a partially complete character sheet.
Eric suppresses three coughing fits as he finishes his character.
“You alright?” Arthur asks.
Eric adds his usual character name, Flash Crusher, and nods. “Yeah, all good.” He never discusses his health.
Arthur suspects he’s the only friend visiting Eric regularly, so he feels obligated to allow space for discussion. “I just… You know, when my dad got sick—”
“Here, all done.” Eric holds the character sheet to Arthur’s face. “Let’s roll some dice.”
Arthur takes the hint and the character sheet, opens his notes, and begins the game.
‘Space station’ is generous for an asteroid chunk trapping atmo this dirty with sealant this cheap, Flash Crusher thinks as he enters the space station’s bar, still wearing his suit. He notes the corners and exits before spotting Porcupine. His contact sits with his back to the room’s only porthole, his unshaven face and messy hair framed by the pinprick light of stars.
“Goddamnit, Porcupine, you’re gonna get me killed.”
“You say that every time you take a salvage job, but this one’s easy money.” Porcupine, like the other scattered patrons, doesn’t wear a suit. Neither does the bartender, but then, a robot doesn’t need one.
“Easy for you to say—you’re staying here. Anyway, I don’t say that about all salvage jobs, only the ones with Precursor Fleshships.” Flash sits as Porcupine pulls up footage from his drone.
The derelict’s chitinous shell extends from bow to stern, wrapping underneath the main bulk of the hull like a cooked shrimp. A soft, blue glow pulses along the bottom. The ship is intact, still alive.
Porcupine opens a small case on the table. “Gland gun. Use it on the antennae to open the sodium channels. Once the pheromone gel does its job, that blue glow,” Porcupine points to the hologram, “will shift color and you can enter. Be careful not to trip the—”
Flash holds up a hand. “I remember from last time. I’m more worried about why it hasn’t been salvaged yet.”
Porcupine shrugs. “No one else can find ‘em like I can.”
Flash frowns and studies the layout as Porcupine readies the euphoria pheromones and the acid pistol. Float to the brain bridge through the venous system, unlock the cargo bay, grab the Precursor flesh tech, and move them through the anus to his freighter, Hair of the Dog. He sighs. I can smell it through my suit already.
“Listen, Flash, don’t be afraid to voice your concerns. Help me help you, okay?”
Flash glances up from the layout, eyes narrowed. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Porcupine hesitates. “We both know Baron Von Nucleus’s clone army and the Pharmaceutical Cartel are after you for that last job. Ignoring your problems won’t get rid of them. I’m here if you need to talk.”
Flash blinks before holding the ship layout up to Porcupine’s face. “I’ll always roll the dice.” He gives Porcupine a look that says We’re not talking about this.
Flash gathers the supplies and stands. “Porcupine, you’re a dumb asshole, but you pay well.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Porcupine raises his glass and downs the content in one swig.
Arthur notes the increased number of pill bottles on Eric’s nightstand. “What do you wanna play today? Continue where we left off on Blood Magic last week, or start a new game?”
Six months in, Arthur looks forward to their weekly sessions. Unlike the regular group, Eric always wants to try different games and settings. Arthur can indulge his creativity. They sometimes continue an adventure for several weeks, but Eric often prefers one-and-done sessions before moving to the next game. It is extra prep, but Arthur still manages to come up with something fun.
“Sure, we can do more Blood Magic.” Eric studies the posters on his wall, biting the nails on his left hand.
“Yeah, I guess. I have this blood transfusion tomorrow I’m kind of nervous about. I don’t know, it’s dumb. At this point, I’ve had plenty of shots, plenty of IVs—needles don’t bother me.”
“So what does bother you?”
Eric meets Arthur’s gaze, shrugging. “I’m warning you: dumb.”
Arthur reclines in the beanbag. “I’m waiting.”
“The thought of someone else’s blood…inside me…freaks me out. Is it going to change who I am, somehow? I mean obviously, it won’t, but…it’s dumb.”
“That’s not dumb. My dad had to get a bone graft. I was maybe seven? They explained the procedure to me, and all I could think was that the new bones were going to change my dad. They did a bunch of spinal cord stimulation afterward, and he told me he was turning into a porcupine. I believed him.
“Anyway, he definitely didn’t transform into a porcupine, which was disappointing. The point is, nervousness is normal because none of this is normal.”
Eric considers. “Thanks, Arthur.”
Arthur nods before handing Eric the character sheet for his barbarian. After a swig of Coke, he begins the game.
Crusher the Uncultured moves through the jungle, hacking at the vampire vines with his parasite blade. The sword drinks the essence of the vines as it does, nutrients passing into his veins where the sword connects with his arm.
You better be right about this wizard tower, Porcupine, or I’ll wring your scrawny thief’s neck. Crusher listens for the calls of the frog vultures as they track him through the trees. As long as they’re still following him, nothing larger has scared them away.
He hacks into a clearing. In the center sit the ruins of a squat stone tower, crumbling with age, pieces of rubble surrounding the base. Crusher smiles. This is not my first time, wizard.
He pulls out a clay jar, glowing with preservation runes. Crusher pours the contents—the prince’s stolen blood—over his blade, passing it into his veins. The royal essence strengthens him, fills him with vigor. He rubs some on his face and eyes.
Through the haze of royal blood, the tower transforms to reveal its true form—that of a massive creature. The crumbling stone ruins are the head. The true tower is a constructed growth sprouting from its back. The gaunt creature hunches over, resting on toes and the fingertips of one of its four arms. Another arm reaches into the trees, grabbing handfuls of bloodfruit from the restless vines. The remaining two dig through the dirt, adding handfuls of jungle soil and organic matter to the tower.
It swings its stone head towards him as he approaches, pausing its resource gathering to study him. The royal blood’s magic does its job, and the thing lays flat for Crusher. He’s careful not to stab it as he climbs its coarse fur. The thing straightens, resuming its work.
Crusher reaches its back and kneels to stay balanced, gazing up at the tower. The structure is impossibly thin, its walls always on the verge of toppling, made of soil, plant matter, rocks, water, bloodfruit. Animals still squirm and writhe after being added to the walls, alive but forever trapped. Each handful of material is applied to the base, stretching the tower that much higher.
Crusher approaches with caution. Can’t be too careful with a wizard. The last magic user he tangled with, Orwen Bonesucker, had been a nasty piece of work. Sometimes he still hears the screams of her victims, people whose bones were removed to build her tower. Orwen kept them alive, saggy bags of flesh used as carpeting for the Bone Spire.
He reaches the entrance, a hand-sized hole, and peers inside. The interior is vast and lavish, filled with artifacts from the Age of Refinement. Between the ornate furniture and intricate architecture are the wizard’s ichor pools, where Crusher will gather more royal blood.
He reaches inside and the opening expands, irising outwards until it becomes his exact size. The air crackles as he steps through, his sword hungry…
Arthur puts his bag and the Coke Mr. Kirsch insistently provides on Eric’s table. Today is the first of many days Eric’s hooked up to an IV while at home, a machine monitoring his vitals. The pills on his nightstand have expanded outwards. “What do you want to play today?”
“Welcome to The Clinic.” Eric gives a thin smile, spreading his arms like a tour guide.
“Wow, this is hardcore.” Arthur isn’t sure what to say.
Eric shrugs. “They’re accelerating my treatment. I guess things are moving faster than they expected.”
“How do you feel about…all this?” Arthur says, sitting in his usual beanbag.
“How do you feel about it? The IVs, I mean.” Eric’s words drip with acid. They’re accusatory, but Arthur doesn’t know why.
“Well, I’m concerned,” he says, his voice diplomatic.
“Right, thanks for your concern. I’ll tell you how I’m feeling—I’m scared, man. I’m fucking scared. This,” he lifts the arm with the IV, “isn’t normal in my bedroom. And my parents don’t want to discuss it, because they’re afraid they’ll upset me or get upset in front of me, so I’m having to take care of them. I realize that sounds like, an asshole thing to say or whatever, but…let’s just play.”
Arthur nods, pulling the rulebooks out of his bag. He studies the cover of Divine Apocalypse. “Okay, let’s say you’re not Eric anymore. You’re Crusher the Uncultured, barbarian blood mage of the Dying Lands. How would he handle your situation?”
Eric thinks. “I’d find a way to go in there myself and tear out the destroyer. Shrink down, or astral project, or whatever.”
“Hey, as a blood mage, the specifics are beneath me.” Eric smiles.
“Let’s do Divine Apocalypse today. I have an idea.” Arthur hands Eric his character sheet.
“Sure, why not? I haven’t played as Captain Kirsh since we made him.”
Arthur jots down a few quick notes, grabs his dice bag, and begins the game.
Captain Eric “Crusher” Kirsh, field commander and acting chaplain of the Wasteland Paladin Militia, enters the chest cavity of the fungus god’s corpse. The neon green, red, and purple muscle tissue create a patchwork map to the small organ he seeks. Captain Kirsh already performed the necessary blessings to remove it for the settlement’s medicine.
Second Lieutenant Arthur “Porcupine” Molina comes over the radio in a burst of static. “Captain Kirsh, Crusher, are you there? Do you copy?”
Captain Kirsh rolls his eyes at the urgency in Porcupine’s voice. “I copy, Lieutenant Molina, go ahead. Is the sky falling? Over.”
“Sir, Piss Lizard’s warband is a diversion. He’s leading an advanced force through the corpse. They’re tearing it apart, sir. Their path of desecration heads straight to your position, over!” Porcupine’s voice echoes in the chest cavity.
Captain Kirsh listens. Overtop the chittering of mutated wildlife and the steady click of his Geiger counter, the rumble of antigrav generators grows louder. Piss Lizard is on his way, alright. I probably led them straight here.
He studies his surroundings for anything he can use to tear Piss Lizard from this body. Acid rain has eaten holes in the ceiling of pectoral muscles. Through this, he sees the thick mushroom forest growing from the dead god. Radioactive spores float on atmospheric smoke beneath the permanently overcast sky.
He grabs the plasma coil from his hoverbike and makes incisions around the chamber, exposing fresh meat that drips with melted divine flesh. Inside each incision he plants a digestion mine before hiding behind a bone fragment.
The rumble of approaching vehicles becomes a roar. As he hoped, the fresh cuts attract wildlife from the forest above—three-headed birds, deers with clusters of legs, badgers that slither like snakes. A large bear swivels its stalk eyes, surveying the chamber.
C’mon, just a little closer, you sons-of-bitches. He unholsters his spore rifle and waits for the ambush…
Arthur takes deep breaths as he navigates the hospital corridor, his bag slung over his shoulder. For all the months he’s been running RPG sessions for Eric, this is the first one in the hospital. Arthur hates hospitals.
Two opposite associations are true at the same time for Arthur. Hospitals are where he watched his father gradually wither away until he was gone forever. Hospitals are also he spent countless hours playing RPGs with him. He’d climb on the bed, his dad handing over both his dice and the characters he made for Arthur. Then they’d play. Arthur’s memories of those imaginary spaces are as vivid and real as the memories of his dying father.
Arthur had his dad in mind when Eric first requested the one-on-one sessions, remembering how much they both loved those visits. How could he say no?
When he gets to the room, Eric is watching Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, his dad asleep on the couch.
Arthur wheels over a plastic recliner, giving Mr. Kirsch a glance before sitting. “Hey Eric, how’s it going?” What a stupid question.
“I’m okay. Been better. Been worse.” He shrugs. “You know—okay.” Eric’s taken a matter-of-fact attitude towards his illness lately, and Arthur hasn’t figured out how to respond. Instead, he nods and opens his bag, taking out the books.
“I’m taking a turn for the worse. They want to operate in the morning.” His eyes are still on the TV.
He glances at Arthur with a half-smile. “They were saying the same thing a year ago. I’ll believe it when I see it. I’m not sure what a turn for the worse would even look like at this point.”
Arthur sighs. “Man, that sucks.” He fights the deja vu and changes the subject. “So, what do you wanna play today? I brought Skylands for you to try, but I also have Divine Apocalypse and Derelict if you want to jump back into those. I wanna find out if Flash escapes that fleshship.” He holds the books up like a game show host presenting prizes.
Eric finally faces Arthur, a child waking from a bad dream. “What do you think happens? When we die, I mean.”
Arthur’s eyes go wide. How the hell was he supposed to answer that question? To someone facing the definitive answer to the question? To narrow down the possibilities for his own father?
He sighs and leans forward, putting the books on the recliner’s built-in tray. “What are you asking? Do you want to know what I hope is real, what I hope isn’t real, or what I suspect is real. I’m not sure what to say.”
“Go through them all. I’m curious.”
Arthur shrugs. “Yeah, alright. What I hope for is reincarnation.”
Eric nods but doesn’t say anything.
“What I hope isn’t true is Heaven and Hell, because I don’t think I’m making it to Heaven.” He pauses, reluctant to say the next part out loud.
“And what do you suspect?” Eric prompts.
“That nothing happens—this is all we get.” He shrugs. “It requires the least suspension of disbelief.”
Eric turns back to the TV for a moment, and Arthur follows his gaze. Guy Fieri is shoving a beef brisket sandwich into his mouth.
“I know this isn’t easy to talk about with someone who’s in their hospital bed. Thanks.”
They look at each other.
“Yeah, no problem.” Arthur glances down at the books, ready to start Skylands, when he turns back to Eric. “What would you hope for, if you could pick?”
Eric appears momentarily surprised before answering. “Death is the last great adventure—the true, genuine unknown. Something wondrous and terrifying.” A slow grin spreads across his face. “I think it’d be cool to live out these RPGs.”
“You mean spend eternity adventuring?”
Eric puts his hands behind his head. “Yeah, but only if I have as good a dungeon master as you.”
“Thanks,” Arthur says. “Could my dad come, too? He kinda taught me everything. About dungeon mastering, I mean.”
Eric smiles at his friend. “I can’t wait to meet the real Porcupine.”
“So, Skylands?” Arthur almost forgets they’re at the hospital. He dries his eyes and begins the game.
Captain Reginald Crush, feared sky pirate of the Cumulonimbus Seas, grips the rope dangling from the helium bladder as it bucks against turbulence waves. They’re approaching the port of Ice Float, seat of the Rebellion, returning from the most successful mission of his life.
After a Troplodyte shaman guided them to the surface world, Captain Crush successfully merged with the Sleeping Giant. Piloting the ancient superweapon to the Commonwealth’s supply line, the tyrannical forces of oppression made their last stand. They lost, their navy scattered and broken, but not before dealing a critical blow to the Sleeping Giant. Captain Crush managed to escape with Lightblade, the phase-shifted sword housing the Giant’s consciousness.
Everything he and the Rebellion fought to achieve has come to pass. So why the diminished feeling? “Take us to port, Porcupine.”
First Mate Porcupine swallows hard. “Aye aye, Cap’n.”
“Don’t be so nervous, good sir Porcupine. The Rebellion has a welcoming spirit. Our new friends will fit in fine.” He smiles as he indicates the surrounding Troplodytes, their hastily constructed ships fastened to the helium bladders that secured their loyalty. The air vibrates with the screaming laughter of the cycloptian tribe enjoying their first trip to the Mesosphere.
“But Cap’n…how many Mesovessels have fallen victim to their raids? And now we’ve unleashed them on the one place they’ve always wanted to reach…”
Captain Crush grows serious. “Dear Porcupine, they have just as much right to the Mesosphere as us. And besides, we owe them our success. Now the real work begins—we must create an equitable social order for everyone under the sky, not just the Commonwealth elites. You have a critical role in the weeks and months to come, my friend. I’m counting on you.”
“Why do you sound like you won’t be there, Cap’n?”
He draws Lightblade from its scabbard, holding the swirling, amorphous sword above his head to catch the sun. A beam of light shoots from the blade, plunging towards the depths of the clouds.
Captain Crush hides his weakness behind a mischievous grin before answering Porcupine’s question. “This mission is complete, my friend. Enjoy your time at port. I can’t stay. Merging with the Sleeping Giant changed something in me. I’m not sure what, but I sense it. I must move on.” He places a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m certain we’ll meet again, Porcupine. Look for me in the strange places of the world—the Living Islands of the Thermosphere, the Great Bone Storm, the God Fires of the Exosphere.”
Porcupine gasps, comprehending. “Cap’n, you’re setting off on your own? Surely you don’t intend to take that kind of risk?”
“It’s about more than the risk, First Mate Porcupine.” Still holding Lightblade aloft, Captain Crush crosses the deck. “It’s about the adventure.”
Lightblade’s radiance travels onwards towards the unknown, places wondrous and terrifying in equal measure. I can’t wait to see what they hold.