Chapter 2: Man-Eater

A microsecond before Q identified the conflict as far beyond Aeon’s current rank, Aeon’s brain stem screamed, “RUN!” Neither Aeon nor Q’s databases had ever seen players with these power levels. The opponents seemed to be 2 wolves and a tiger, the first terms of an ancient infinite series that quickly summed to 100% probability of death. They were somehow all in a network together controlling the game environment, rendering Aeon’s cloaks useless, something he had always assumed impossible.

After recognizing the opponents as unbeatable, Q had become unresponsive- what could even cause that? Alpha ejected Q from the game. He tried to access his other panels and get information on where to run, but nothing was responding. How were they coordinating their reality field? Were they all controlled by 1 intelligence? That amount of processing would be mind-boggling- few players had the ability to dexterously control a non-humanoid shape, and to control several at once- or were they all in a workup together?

Blindly, Aeon ran. Without knowing where he was or where he was going, helpless and exposed in the dark forest, he stumbled between the trees, tripping, his feet awkwardly twisting on roots, branches flipping into his face, heedless of the branches whipping his body, ripping through his suit.

The forest filled with the sound of a deep, terrible purr. This was the noise of a tiger anticipating toying with its prey. The hum seemed to make Aeon’s bones vibrate and his heart lose rhythm, the purr stroking the hairs of his neck until they stood upright.

Aeon had no idea where he was, where the creatures were, where to go. Though unable to think of anything, his brain relentlessly bent towards the terrifying fact that they knew where he was. They knew exactly where he was, and they were all around him. The purr grew louder, but otherwise the forest was silent except for his gasps, his own heart thumping in his ears.

Aeon felt the environment around him change. Suddenly, the space around him became rich with information. He almost couldn’t breathe- it was like getting air that was too thick, the environment feed was too information dense for his systems to process. Engulfed in their network, blown about by a million communications, Aeon felt like he was drowning, unable to escape.

“Don’t tell me you believe the old myth, that man-eaters become mangy and lose all their teeth.”

“Myth or no, why take such a small one?”

Then without warning, without air to scream, his breath dead inside him, Aeon was on the ground, the tiger over him. Its great paw batted him into the forest floor, a punch to his entire body. Stones, branches, and his own bones cracked beneath him. The tiger must’ve weighed thousands of pounds. Its paw was the size of Aeon’s entire torso and covered him so that his arms and legs poked out. With the tiger came a rich smell, of black wet caves, hot blood, death, teeth, dirt, flesh- a host of smells Aeon had never smelled before, neither inside the game world nor outside of it.

The tiger growled with pleasure and desire. “Though it is so weak and stupid, we have this in common: it and I both kill for choice- not for food.”

As wolves bounded silently in his periphery, the tiger purred, this time a sound so low and loud Aeon’s ears popped and his teeth rattled. He felt his brain and soft organs getting shaken into a jelly. Leaning gently on its huge paw, the tiger flexed its claws one by one, digging each through Aeon’s suit and entering his flesh 1 centimeter deep.

“It is so small and soft- I can kill it with one touch.”

The tiger retracted its nails completely before digging them back in an inch deep. As the beast’s great tail twitched, its claws flexed against the Aeon’s suit. Aeon had stopped even hoping to breathe.

“Cease,” came the mind of a wolf. “Thy play offends the Free People.”

The tiger dug its nails an inch deeper in response, then Aeon felt the tiger initiate the work up state. The world around them dissolved as the tiger plunged into his drives. All the blocks generated, everything needed to build and operate Q, all his tools, the tiger plundered Aeon’s NP-hard data currency with a speed and ruthlessness Aeon had never felt before.

This was not the first workup where Aeon was close to losing. All those times before, especially in that battle with Hive House, it wasn’t until afterwards, when he had won, when he had allowed himself to contemplate death. Afterwards, filled by joy, he would allow himself to briefly consider the possibility of losing, and then he had felt how tragic it would be when all the wealth of this world lay waste, had wondered how much work it would take to get Q to load in a new world, how much work it would take to start all over, and then he had pushed those thoughts from his mind, because look: he had gotten out of it. So far he had evaded death- he had always won or escaped.

This time his mind was where he had never let it go during a game before. But he wasn’t thinking of losing Q, of starting over. Instead, mind blank with shock, he fleetingly wondered if it was true that he would lose Bossy. Experiencing a state he had never approached before in his life, this time Aeon knew death would be real, real in a way he’d never understood before. He knew that if this continued he would really be gone, not just in the game, but completely. He didn’t know what death this total could really mean. Part of his brain said it was impossible, that death just meant you had to go into another game- some players went on from game death to be truly brilliant in new worlds- and he knew Q would say total death was impossible, but he knew suddenly for the first time that death was a real thing and that it was going to happen to him, for real. He would lose everything- not just in the game, but everything, even Bossy.

Suddenly it stopped. A moment passed before Aeon realized they had entered another workup within the workup. Why? So a copy of the creature could scan a copy of his data before scanning it into the game? Did the tiger detect a deep corruption?

Suddenly Aeon felt a searing pain as the workups abruptly ended and he was dragged from beneath the tiger’s paw, its claws raking over him. A giant wolf had tugged him from the tiger while another wolf had knocked the tiger back.

“Give it to me!” the tiger roared from behind a wolf. It lept strongly and fluidly forward, but for some invisible reason changed its mind and twisted in midair so that it sprang into a frenzied pacing, tail lashing.

Aeon’s head, neck, and shoulder was held hard inside the mouth of a wolf. The teeth were not piercing the skin but the great jaws held him tightly. He felt sure his whole body was broken. His suit was destroyed and the flesh around his torso torn open from where the tiger’s claws had been ripped away.

A wolf said, “Thou saw what it saw. Look well, O Wolves- ye know the Law.”

At this point, gripped tightly in the mouth of the wolf and enveloped in its hot stink, Aeon lost consciousness.