Charles Yu won us over with his weird, melancholy novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and now he's back on July 24 with a collection of short stories called Sorry Please Thank You. Like his novel, these stories are psychological studies of neurotic nerds, struggling to stay alive as they fight liches and loneliness. They're beautiful, strange, and funny. Want to know more? We've got a full short story from the collection right here. It's called "Hero Absorbs Major Damage," and it's about gamers on a campaign — or maybe it's about people trying to form relationships under extremely odd circumstances. Either way, there's a lot of hacking and slashing . . . and thinking about the nature of existence.
Hero Absorbs Major Damage
I could definitely use a whole chicken right now. But I keep it to myself. I don't want to alarm anyone in the group. They're all busy fighting demon dogs. These guys are literally killing themselves for what? Fifty points a dog is what. It breaks my heart. When I think of everything the group has been through together, the early days grinding it out in the coin farms, to where we are now, I get a little blue in the aura, I do.
I can still remember the morning I found Fjoork in that wooded area near the Portal of Start. He was just a teenager then, nothing on his back but a thin piece of leather armor, standing there like he'd been waiting since time immemorial. Like if I hadn't come along, he might have been waiting there forever.
I'll never forget what he said to me, there at the place where the road splits off into three paths.
One leading into the forest. A second path across the great river and into the valley. The third toward the north, up into the foothills and
over the mountain pass, on the other side of which, as told in legend, lies the Eternal Coast of Pause.
And then Fjoork, all of three foot six, turns to me like he's known me all my life and says, without a hint of emotion
Select Your Path. I Shall Follow You.
The "shall" is what got me. I still love it when Fjoork goes all shall on me. To have someone believe in me like that. I was what, twenty-two? And here was this sweet little guy all noble with his I Shall Follow You, as if I were some- one, as if he knew I was destined for something good.
And now to see Fjoork like this, it just kills me, just makes me wish I'd made better choices, makes me wish I could take him to get an ice cream and wash off all that blood.
Trin and Byr are out in front of him, casting Small Area Fire over and over again. They aren't going to be able to keep that up for long, but they'll drain everything they have trying. That's how we are. We stuck together when everyone said we were all wrong for this quest, that we were a team built for flat-ground battles, that we'd never make it this far north, this close to the place without pixels.
There were growing pains, for sure. We had to learn every- one's strengths and styles and weaknesses, had to learn to stop getting in the way of one another's semicircles of damage. More than once I got thwacked to the tune of 2d6 by someone's +1 Staff. There were days when it just seemed like the world was nothing but fields and fields of blue demon dogs, each one needing three stabs before it would disintegrate into a pile of sulfurous ash. So gross. Not to mention brutal on Trin's allergies. We learned and improved, and there was a point, not long ago, when it felt like we'd been through just about everything there was to go through.
And then word spread: an uncharted land to the west. An entirely new continent had opened up.
That's when things started to get bad. Fjoork said, We Must Go! It Is Our Destiny! Trin and Byr suggested marshaling resources. Rostejn, being Rostejn, said to follow the action. That made it two against two. And I said, what are you all looking at? Then my POV shifted. And that's when I realized everyone was looking right
at me. As in: We Shall Follow You. You. As in, me. Me. As in, the Hero. It all made sense after that. The odd feeling I'd always
had, some kind of fixed radius around my position. If I moved left, the group moved left. Actually, if I moved left, the whole battlefield moved left. No matter what I did, I always seemed to find myself in the center of the action. Here. I am Here.
Because the center of the action was defined as: wherever I was. The way they were all looking at me, I didn't have the heart to tell them the truth. Maybe later, I thought, when the time is right.
So yeah, I led them in here. I led a thief (Fjoork), two mages (Trin and Byr), and a swordsman (Rostejn) into a devastated wasteland: brutal terrain, limitless bad guys, and, as far as I can tell, pretty much no chicken.
Fjoork is still getting hammered on. Trin and Byr have run out of magic for at least two rounds and now each of them is just randomly stabbing with Ordinary Daggers.
Rostejn and I are the only ones who are doing any kind of real damage, but neither of us is feeling exactly Thor-like at the moment.
I'm not going to die or anything, feeling about thirty- five, maybe forty percent health. Rostejn looks like he's worse off than that.
We're finishing off a cluster of these hellhounds, hoping against hope we're close to a resting point, when a fresh wave of murderous dogs comes rushing in from the north. The worst part is their breath. Dog breath is one thing. And demons are generally pretty good about dental hygiene. But for some reason when you put the two together, it's like, oh boy, now, that's not fresh breath. Definitely not my favorite smell out here.
Rostejn's a couple of feet in front of me, and when the new batch shows up, I see his shoulders slump. He slashes a demon dog in the throat and cuts another one's legs off in two clean and efficient motions, then turns to look at me as if to say, chicken sure would be good right now.
I grunt in agreement.
Then it's just there. I don't know if it's the prayers to the deity that worked or we just lucked out, but there it is. A whole delicious chicken, cooked and on a platter, just sit- ting there under a tree.
Go for it, Rostejn says. No you, I say. Eat it, he says. This is what it's all about. These guys, they all freaking
love one another. And by guys, I am including Trin and Byr, who are like sisters, but also guys, but also, I might be slightly in love with Trin, like slightly and maybe also totally in love, like maybe ever since that double full moon in Oondar, when we spent a night flank to flank for warmth, but other than that, we are all like brothers, like chicken-sharing brothers.
Eat it, Rosti, I finally say, with authority. I tell him I feel great, only half lying. He needs it more, but even if he didn't, this is what a hero does, right? Right?
No really, right? I am really asking. I wish there were someone who could answer.
We set up camp for the night. Everyone is demoralized. Turns out that chicken Rostejn and I kept offering each other wasn't a chicken after all, just one of those smooth, chicken-looking-kind-of-rock mounds that stick out of the ground around these parts, so when Rostejn got nipped on the arm by one of those canine hell spawn, it took him down to twenty percent life bar and I'm sitting not so pretty myself at thirty-two, I just said to hell with it and used the Power Move I'd been saving for the last nine rounds. Lucky for everyone, it worked. But just barely. We all scrambled to this saving place, a little clearing near a cave. A place to hide out and heal our wounds, before setting out again in the morning.
We take stock of our equipment before dinner. A lot of it's pretty banged up. Byr has the whole mess laid out in front of her and Fjoork is reading off the scroll of items.
Shield of the righteous. Check.
+1 short sword. Check.
+1 long sword. Check.
+1 medium sword. Check.
+1 medium long sword. Check.
"Jesus," someone mumbles. "No wonder my back hurts," Trin says. "Do we really need Blade of Slashing and Blade of Slicing?" Fjoork asks. Everyone knows it's directed at Rostejn. This is a thing with us. Too much baggage.
Darts of Severe Pain. Check. Darts of Moderate Pain. Check. Dagger of Nothing in Particular. Check. Chain mail's one thing, and everyone knows you can never really have enough Heal Wounds, or Elixir of Potency, but yeah, it's getting to the point where we need to make some changes.
Fjoork and Rostejn cook a meal together without saying a word. Afterward, we all pass around a wineskin and look up at the night sky.
Byr says, "Have you ever wanted to be something else?"
I want so bad to say yes. To tell them, I don't want to be the Hero.
"Probably a bard, I guess," Rostejn says. "I'm told I have a good singing voice. "
"No," Byr says. "Not a different class. What if there were no classes? What if there were something, other than ranger or thief, paladin or mage? Something else. What if you could be anything?"
Fjoork says, "I'd change my name to something cool. Like Vengor, or Caldor. Or Steve. I mean, why do we all have to have weird names? Does that really help our quest?"
The fire burns down and the group drifts off to sleep.
I watch them all snoring, Trin the loudest. She's a single mother. Who is taking care of her kid at home? I don't even know. I am in love with her, and I don't even know who takes care of her kid.
Byr wakes up and catches me staring at Trin. "She loves you, you know. " "Did she actually say that?" I ask her. "Yeah," Byr says, throwing a stick into the fire. "But she
thinks you'd be a shitty dad. " Eventually, I drift off into a restless sleep of my own.
I dream the ancient dream, the immense dream of the ancients, I am looking out across the gray timeless expanse of Evermoor, having the greatest of all dreams, until just before dawn, when I wake to the sound of Rostejn relieving himself in the wooded area.
In the morning we set out for Argoq. Fjoork, who always seems to have a sense of these things, says he knows a guy who knows an elf who says to take the long way around, steering clear of the Lake of Sensual Pleasures. The group sort of grumbles, but everyone knows they have to stay focused on the mission, relentlessly scrolling toward the right.
We stop into a shop run by an old druid friend of Trin's. Trin greets him with a peck on the cheek. Seeing her kiss him slays me. I need to make a small saving throw just to avoid getting dizzy.
The druid shows off his new wares. Boots of speed, harp of discord, bag of merry diversion. The usual clatter thrown off by the steady flow of questers along the Silvan Route.
"How much," asks Trin, "for that Ring of Regeneration?"
"Fifty," the shopkeeper says, "but for you, twenty-five. " I fish coins out of my pouch and drop them in the keeper's hand. He gives me the ring, which I nonchalantly
pass over to Trin, trying to be cool about it. Byr raises her eyebrows at Fjoork, as in, hey, get a load
of Grenner the Romantic over here. Trin refuses it. "You need this a lot more than I do," she
says. I take it back, pretending not to care, and notice that
Byr is suppressing a smile. OMG: how have I never realized this before? Byr is in love with Trin. She can barely contain herself.
I'm staring at Byr who is staring at Trin who is trying to pretend that this triangle of unrequited staring is not happening. Lucky for me, Rostejn breaks up the tension.
"Check this out," he says, holding up a vial of something yellow and bubbly.
"Oil of Reciprocated Feelings," the shopkeeper says.
"We'll take two," Rostejn says, flinging the coins onto the counter. I shoot him a look.
"What?" he says. "You never know when this might come in handy. You just never know. "
It is a half moon later when Krugnor joins our group. We'd spent several days slashing through wave after wave of dumb meat, orcs and ogres. Toward the end, we were barely talking to one another, just carving up bodies, leaving them in piles. Green flesh hacked up everywhere.
Krugnor isn't any of the classic types. Krugnor is special, and everyone can see it right away.
It used to be there were only four kinds of people: fighters, mages, clerics, and thieves. What someone did for a living said something about who they were, what they thought of themselves, how they approached the world: strength, intelligence, wisdom, or charisma.
Krugnor, on the other hand, is part of the new generation.
"I'm a warrior-mystic," he says. That's how he introduces himself, when we find him by a babbling brook, doing yoga. "But I'm really not into labels. We're all just people, you know?"
I try to roll my eyes at Trin, but she's not looking at me. She likes him. I can tell right away. I look over at Byr, to see if she's noticing this, but even she seems to be in some kind of trance.
Even my own disciple is smitten. "We need that guy," Fjoork says.
So I put it to a vote.
Trin votes yes, tries to not look excited. "He'll help with hit points," Byr says. "We could take on
a thousand-ogre wave, if we had to. Brute-force our way through. Just plain outslug the monsters. "
Rostejn votes yes, too, although I get the sense that he just wants to get at some of the hardware Krugnor is toting in his equipment sack.
And Fjoork looks head over heels for the new guy already.
No need for me to even weigh in.
Krugnor joins the group. "Shall we make it official?" he asks.
I say, uh, sure, what does he have in mind? "Stare into one another's souls, of course," he says. "Isn't
that how you guys do it?" I say, yeah, sure, okay. Krugnor starts with Trin, big surprise, takes her head
in his large, callused hands. They lock eyes and she seems to melt.
"So that's what a hero looks like," Byr says. I tell Byr to shut up. Each member of the group gets their own turn. When
it comes to me, I take a pass, but Krugnor's not having any of it.
"If we are going to be brothers-in-arms," he says, "we will need to touch souls. "
I tell him I'm getting over a cold. "It was really a nasty bug. For your own good. " "Okay," he says. "But don't think you're off the hook. "
After he's done with all the soul-staring, Krugnor asks me for a copy of the battle plan. I say, uh, yeah, I'll get that right to you.
It is foretold that there will be two hundred fifty-five battles in our path to destiny.
In the Final Battle, Battle 256, we will face the final boss. Sounds pretty exciting.
And it was, for a while. Today is Battle 253. I think. Hard to tell, though. To be honest, epic battles of good and evil, they're
pretty epic, but after about the first two hundred, they all start to kind of blur together.
Before setting out to the battlefield, we pray to our god, Frëd. He's a minor deity, but sort of an up-and-comer. At least that's what he tells us.
We get a lot of shit from other groups for worshipping him, but he's really Byr's deity. Now that I think about it, she's partly responsible for this mess we're in. Before we became acolytes of Frëd, we all kind of did our own thing.
And we definitely never talked about it, it was just sort of no one else's business who or what you worshipped or sacrificed poultry for, so long as you pulled your weight and your deity wasn't some imp who was going to screw with everyone or make us give up gold coins for safe passage or cause us to suffer ordeals. But then Byr went away to the north over summer vacation and when she came back she had that look like someone had cast Slightly Crazy on her, and she was all Frëd this, Frëd that, she couldn't stop talking about the guy, and we were all like, okay, cool, but you're not going to go all druid on us, are you?
"Frëd," Byr prays, "O Sort-of-Omnipotent One, protect us today. Keep us safe, body and soul. Let us fight without fear, and vanquish our enemies. "
"Or at least let us not get our asses kicked like last time," Rostejn adds.
"Goddammit, Rostejn," Byr says.
"No, no, fair enough," Frëd says, from wherever he is. We can't see him but his voice booms from on high. "I have to apologize for not doing such a great job the last few moons. I have gotten all of your prayers. Honestly, I've just been going through kind of a weird time. "
Byr reassures Frëd. "You're fine. Seriously. You know we love you," she says, and everyone murmurs in agreement, but it's not the most reassuring thing to realize that the god you worship actually just wants you to believe in him.
Krugnor turns out to be an absolute beast on the battle- field. Not that anyone is surprised. He's ripped.
"Has to be at least Sixteen Strength," Rostejn says, watching him tear through some bad elves.
Byr's like, "Nuh uh. Seventeen, man. Easy. "
Trin isn't even fighting, she's just standing there staring at the dude's muscles while he brandishes his +3 broad- sword. I'm not even sure I could pick that thing up.
"Does he really have to fight with his shirt off?" I ask, but no one's listening. He flexes a lot, even when it doesn't seem necessary, and he can do that back-and-forth thing with his pecs. Ugh, look at him, just standing there in the river as it rushes by and splashes on his hardened body.
Even Fjoork gets in on the love fest. "Did you see what he did to that kobold?" he says. "Split
him clean in half, one-handed, with his short sword. " If I didn't know better, I'd think Krugnor had cast Infat
uation on everyone. The guy is a totally cheeseball beefcake brooding sulking warrior type. Such a cliche. Although, I have to admit, I do feel safer with him out there in front.
Maybe that's what a hero looks like.
And for the first time since the quest began, I start to feel a little wobbly, as if my POV isn't so stable. As if the center of things is moving. As if the frame is unsure of who to follow, whose story it is. As if, maybe, I'm not so des- tined for my destiny after all.
We cross the highlands and come to a ridge, on the other side of which is the Valley of Aaaa.
"I've always wondered how that's pronounced," Rostejn says.
Byr says a prayer to Frëd as we begin our descent into the valley. We trudge through the Bog of Uncertainty. Trin reminds everyone to be careful of what we eat or even look at. Last time we were in the bog, Rostejn fell under the sphere of influence of a powerful mage in the Abjuration school and almost got everyone turned into black pudding.
Now we're in a dead zone for magic. Alteration prevails on one side, and Necromancy on the other. Neither one can practice in the other's region, as they are mutually for- bidden schools. We walk the tightrope in between, maneuvering carefully, taking the narrow path, as shown on our scrolling map.
Krugnor follows my lead. Everyone else does, too. I try not to look too happy about it.
At one point we encounter some halflings, a quiet, intelligent people who live around these parts. One of their young has disappeared. The boy's mother is sobbing. Trin goes to comfort her. The mother explains that her son had fallen asleep on what he thought was a nice soft pile of leaves.
"Shambling mound," Byr says. The mother looks at us, unsure.
"A creature that looks like a heap of rotting vegetation," Byr explains. "But is actually a flesh eater. "
"Yuck," Rostejn says. "That is nasty. " Byr shoots Rostejn a look like real nice, idiot, and the
mother starts her crying again, even harder this time, and everyone is looking at me to do something, so without a word I leap straight into the mound, diving into the creature's body to grab the halfling kid, and then hacking my way out with a scythe. Which is messy, to say the least, and costs me about eight hit points, but in doing so, I level up. Everyone congratulates me, and I'm feeling pretty good. Even Trin looks impressed, and for a moment it doesn't seem so impossible that she might be in love with me after all.
The good feeling doesn't last long, though. The next battle is Battle 254 and we just aren't quite ready for this kind of onslaught yet, not tactically, not in terms of speed or weapons or as a team. Byr nearly dies, Rostejn nearly dies. Even my health dips down into the red zone.
I start to flicker in and out, a warning that my existence on this plane is in danger.
I know what I should do, but I can't bring myself to do it.
Another hit, direct to my torso, and that's it, my health is critical. My soul starts to tug itself out of its mortal coil, and my POV is floating up toward the clouds. I watch my body down there, fighting without spirit.
Frëd help us, I cry out, in a moment of desperation.
I can't see him, but I feel Frëd's presence next to me. "I thought you didn't believe in me," he says.
"Really? That's what you're going to say right now?" I say. "Seems sort of petty. "
"Um, yeah," Frëd says. "Do you know anything about gods?"
He's got a point, I suppose, although really what I'm thinking is how come I've never noticed how high Frëd's voice is. I can't quite put my finger on it, but for the first time I realize there's something off about him.
"Byr's down there," I say. "She prays to you all the time. "
"Yeah, but you're the one that's asking for help," he says. "Get on your knees. "
"You can't be serious. " "For real, dude. I want you to pray to me. "
So I start. "O Sort-of-Great One. O Exalted Mediocre One, Frëd. "
"Get on your knees. " "You're pushing your luck. "
Frëd uses some kind of POV shift power to direct my attention back down to the earthly battlefield, where my team is getting slaughtered. "I don't think you're in a posi- tion to be talking about luck right now. "
I sort of get on one knee, like I'm going to ask him to marry me. Then I hear a woman's voice.
"Frëëëëëëëëëëëëëëëd," she yells. She sounds angry. Great, now there are two gods, one petty, one angry, and I'm still floating in the sky, getting farther from life with every passing moment. "You are in big trouble, mister. "
Wait a minute. Is she? No. She can't be. "Um, Frëd?" I say. "I think your mom's calling you. " "Not a word," he says. "To anyone. " "Sure, sure. Just kill those monsters for us. " "I, uh, I can't do that. Sort of used up all my juice for
a while. But here's a chicken leg," he says, and disappears. "Sorry, gotta go. "
I eat the food and gain just enough health to return to the plane of the living, where I see that Krugnor and Trin are in berserker rages and Rostejn has just used his Daily Power Move. The battle's pretty much over. The mini-boss, a frost giant, is on the ground, and one more thrusting attack by Krugnor does the trick.
Trin spots me reappearing and says, welcome back, nice of you to join us.
The mood at dinner is somber. No one's much inclined to be bawdy, or even merry. We chew on chicken in silence.
After dinner, I find Fjoork over by a stream, washing his face.
"Hey buddy," I say. "Hey. " "Tell me again why you think I'm destined for greatness?"
Fjoork gazes off to the north, stands there just looking at nothing for a long time before answering.
"I never said that. " "You didn't?" "No man. I said, I Shall Follow You. " "Oh," I say. "Yeah, you did. Huh. "
Fjoork wipes his face, rubs the back of his neck. "Well," he says. "This is awkward. " "Don't I feel a bit silly. All this time, I thought. " "Yeah, I know what you thought. And that's okay. It got
us this far, didn't it?" "I guess you're right. " "Who knows?" Fjoork says. "You might rise to the occa-
sion. " And if not, maybe Krugnor will do it for me.
When I get back to the campfire, I see Trin and Krugnor sitting together on a fallen tree. Trin has her hands under her thighs, which she only does when she's feeling a little red in the aura. Now she's looking at him in a way I have never seen her look at anyone. She's definitely never looked at me that way, not even in Oondar.
Charisma's good for a few things. Bluff, Disguise, Han- dle Animals, Intimidate, Perform. But it's not so good when things get real. It's not so good heading into Battle 256 with a group of tired, beaten-down warriors. Right now, I'd trade half of my Charisma points for some Wis- dom. I've always been a couple of points on the low side in that department. I think about gathering everyone around, to rally their spirits a bit. If only I could say something wise right now, or at least something wise sounding. Even that might not work. But I can't come up with anything decent, so I keep my mouth shut. Everyone's a little tired of me anyway, I think.
In the middle of the night, I wake up to Byr and Rostejn whispering in the darkness.
Krugnor knows where the map doesn't go. Krugnor could lead us to The End. We keep moving. We fight everything: deathknells,
bugbears, carrion crawlers, lesser devils. We fight a small band of ghouls, and the ghoul queen. We get attacked by a gray ooze, waking up one morning to find the creature all over us, our camp, in our hair, covering our food. We lose almost an entire day cleaning up, not to mention using up several minor enchantments plus a Cure Light Wounds. We keep moving, to the right, slashing and stabbing, jump- ing and charging, dragging ourselves onward.
Then Rostejn quits. He comes to me and says, "You've been good to me, this
has been good, but I gotta say, where is this all going? What are we doing? I don't know. I don't know anymore. I used to know. Now I don't. "
"Ros," I say. "You are killing me. You are absolutely freaking killing me here. "
How can I explain to him that I've been asking myself the same questions for the last ten moons? I can't say any of that. It will make me sound weak.
"Don't think this means I'm not grateful. Don't think this means, in any way whatsoever, that I don't appreciate everything. "
"Yeah," I say.
"Yeah. Yeah, man. Yeah to all of it, all of our good times. You used to be such a great leader. We took down a gold dragon. A gold freaking dragon, man! We were the toast of the Forgotten Village. Free mead and game bird until we all got fat and out of shape and our Dexterity scores started
going down and we had to quit that place and move on. You gave me my first blade. You taught me how to blud-
geon. I won't forget any of that. It's just. " "I know. "
"No, no, for real. There's something else," Rostejn says.
He cracks a smile, something I haven't seen for a long time. "I've got a girl now, boss. Met her right before we started this campaign. We've got a kid on the way. Gonna ask her
to marry me. " "Wow, Rostejn," I say. "Wow. That's just, that's great. " "Yeah. I know. I know. Hopefully the kid'll take after his
mother and be a peaceful law-abiding villager. Be more than I am. More than a sword for hire. "
I tell him he's going to be a great father. "I just don't know. I don't know what we stand for any-
more. Byr's gone all churchy on us, Fjoork hasn't bathed in a moon and a half. "
"That's not fair. "
"It's not just you. It's all of us. Anyway, that's not the point. I've given up on the Path of the Immortal Hero. That's a young man's dream. I just want to get back to what I'm good at, basic stuff, level up every few years. Maybe go out and pick up a few skills along the way. I've always wanted to get into Animal Empathy. "
"You?" "Yeah, yeah," Rostejn says.
We have a warriors' embrace. "If you're ever in the area," he says, "Jenny makes a mean
boar pie. " "Sounds good," I say, sure that I'll never see him again.
Krugnor finds me as I'm walking back to camp and pulls me aside. "There is something we should talk about," he says. "Man-to-man. "
Here it comes. "Yeah, yeah. I know. Go for it. " "Go for it?" he says. He looks surprised that it was so
easy. "Yeah, be my guest. "
Krugnor lunges forward and I am expecting him to knock me to the ground in some kind of display of alpha- male dominance, but instead he grabs the back of my head and shoves his tongue into my mouth. Way, way into my mouth.
It takes all of my strength to push him off me. "What the hell was that, Krugnor?" "You said go for it. " "That's what you thought I meant?"
"Wait, what did you mean?" "I thought you were taking control of the group?" "Why would I want to do that?" "Um, I dunno, because look at you? You're this super-
buff warrior-mystic who crushes evil and likes to aggres- sively shove your tongue down all of our souls? Because everyone thinks you are Frëd's gift to us?"
I hear some murmuring and that's when Krugnor and I both look over and see the whole group watching.
Trin's mouth is wide open. Rostejn looks actually sort of hurt, like if Krugnor was going to have a thing for one of the guys, it should have been him. Fjoork appears to be rapidly and violently recalibrating his view of everything that has happened for the last several weeks. Nobody speaks.
"Don't mind us," Byr finally says. Krugnor turns back to me. "This is your group," he says.
"Always has been. " "Then what the hell was with all of that flexing and
showboating and stuff?" "I was trying to impress you," he says. I look over at
the group, and I can see it in all of their eyes. They're like, really? Trying to impress him? I know I've let them down, but it's not too late. If this new guy, this super-strong, super-charming new guy is willing to follow me, maybe they can find it in themselves to remember why they fol- lowed me in the first place. Maybe I can find it in myself to remember. Just maybe.
Or not. It's the day of the final battle, Battle 256. The first wave is lichs, and immediately we're in trouble. Then the rocs start in from the sky. Byr is praying her ass off, but Frëd seems to be doing whatever gods do when they decide to ignore us down here, because about ten minutes into the fight I hear those dreaded words.
Byr absorbs major damage.
I do my Power Move, but it's a drop in the bucket. We're in a sea of enemy hit points here. A fresh wave of monsters comes over the top of the hill.
Trin absorbs major damage. Rostejn absorbs major damage. Fjoork absorbs major damage. This couldn't get any worse. Then it gets worse.
Krugnor absorbs major damage.
It isn't long before we are all exhausted, overwhelmed by the power and the sheer number of the enemy.
Hero absorbs major damage.
It can't be.
I am drifting off to The Place Where You Go Between Lives. I go through heaven, through hell, through an inter- dimensional nether region.
In the midst of the carnage, my soul lifts out of my corpse and toward a great expanse of light, the eternal horizon, the edge of the world, that final screen, how beau- tiful and peaceful it looks.
I have failed in my quest, and as surprised as I am that the story is ending this way, what is really unexpected is how okay I am with it, with all of it.
Really? Is it really going to end like that?
I Am Here.
When I wake up in the sky, I am two hundred feet above the battlefield.
It is not pretty.
But on this side of The End, everything looks slow motion, almost like a choreographed dance, or perhaps a game, played by people that don't quite seem real any- more. Even my lifeless body down there looks like some kind of puppet, something to be pulled along, controlled and manipulated. The fighting goes on in silence, this gorgeous ballet of carnage, and I start to wonder, did it matter? Did any of it ever matter? I tried. I gave it my best. That's as much as anyone can say, right? So there. So that's that. And now, I find myself floating up to my eternal reward.
Then Frëd appears, sticking his big face through the clouds. I was right: he's a child. Hasn't hit puberty yet. A god-child. Even gods have to grow up, I guess.
"Hey Frëd," I say. "Actually, no umlaut," he says. "It's just plain Fred. " "Well, good to finally meet you face-to-face, Fred. " "Things aren't looking too good for you," he says. "I'm
sorry about all of this. " "Why are you sorry?"
He looks at me like, you don't know? "What?" I say. "This world, all of this, all of your world," he says, try-
ing to find the words. The tingling gooseflesh of compre- hension starts to creep up my arms and the back of my neck. My mind strains for a grasp of what it is he is getting at, like trying to visualize higher dimensions. Fred either can't say or doesn't want to say.
"I'm just sorry to have put you guys in this position," he says. "And now I have to go. "
"So, that's it? That's all we get? No proper ending? The forces of good and evil, geography, history, destiny, when you have to go, you just pull the plug and all of this just goes away?"
"Let me ask you a question," Fred says. "What do you believe in? Do you believe in yourself? In your team? In heroism? In good? Do you believe in anything?"
"That was more than one question," I say. "I want to believe. I believe I am capable of believing. "
"I guess that will have to do," Fred says, and with a wave of his hand the clouds part and projected onto the sky are two paths, two alternate futures for me.
In one direction is The Path of Legends:
You have fought enough battles. Your record, while imper- fect, is enough to earn you a place in the Hall of Eternity. Choose this path and you can vanish from the ordinary world. Perhaps you watch over the ongoing struggle, content in the knowledge that you have played your part. Perhaps you leave your plane of existence and become a minor deity yourself.
In the other direction is Honorable Death:
On the field of the most gruesome battle in history, you shall meet your foes and do battle. You may prevail. You may be defeated. You may prevail even as you are defeated.
You may end up killing your enemy and, in the process, kill- ing yourself. Rejoin your team now and find out.
"Select Your Path," Frëd says, resuming his god voice. Trin is bleeding from her eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. Byr has lost an arm. Rostejn has lost both arms.
Fjoork is in the process of being eaten by an orc.
Krugnor is looking up at the sky. He seems to have given up.
Maybe Frëd is just Fred. Maybe we have been pray- ing to a nine-year-old whose mom keeps yelling at him to clean up his room. Maybe this is all just a game, an elabo- rate architecture created by some intelligent designer, out of what, boredom? Grace? Perverse curiosity? Some kind of controlled experiment or attempt to reconcile deter- minism and free will? What is my score? What is a health bar? Here I am, outside my own story, no longer moving to the right, or to the left. On the other side of the edge of the screen, off screen. After the end of the game, I can see it for what it was. You know what? I can know all that and still care. I can know all that and at the same time know that it matters. It has to matter. So our deity might have to leave for a while. So he may or may not have meant to make things this way. So we might be left on our own down there. So maybe he never meant for any of this to happen, this wasn't the story at all, he wishes he could just hit the button and start all over.
That doesn't make it any less real. That doesn't mean we should give up down here.
"I really gotta go," Fred says. "It's your story now. " He looks at me like, I'm sorry, but what am I supposed to do? And he's right. He's a minor power at best. He can't get us out of this. He's a nice guy, good at what he's good at, but this is our problem.
I can see Trin and Krugnor down there getting their asses kicked. Things will suck if I go back down there. All of my friends might get killed. And even if they live, they will be horribly maimed and probably blame me forever for this shit that I got them into. But still. No one said it would be easy, or fun, or good, or clean, or that I would have any glory or comfort or a moment of rest in all of my days. But if I have anything at all I am still the Hero. I am here. This was my story. This is my problem. I'm going back down there to fix it.
Want more? You can pre-order Sorry Please Thank You via Amazon.
From the forthcoming coming book SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU by Charles Yu (c) 2012 Charles Yu
To be published this month by Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Random House, Inc.