This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on June 15th 2014.
by Richard Holliday
A stiff breeze rippled through the impressive sails of the Royale Cross as it slipped elegantly through the clear blue seawater around the city of Port Royale. Peering through a looking-glass, Commander Alton scouted the sapphire-tinted horizon. It was a completely clear and beautiful day in this region, with favourable winds predicted all afternoon. Walking down from the stern-castle the commander walked slowly toward the prow of his ship, along the deck. It was busy, with deckhands and sailors running about their business. The hubbub of activity was only muted by the strong wind and creak of wooden timbers.
Snapping his leather boots together, Alton prepared to turn about and proceed back along the deck after peering across the bows. His hat ruffled in the gentle winds. It had been encouragingly strong and consistent; the Royale Cross would make good headway today toward Port Royale, the coastal city it called home.
Just as he turned to face the stern a loud whistling penetrated the booming sounds that had already dominated the aural landscape. Alton’s eyes narrowed quizzically as the unfamiliar and unwelcome sound pirouetted around his very being before the orange flash of a cannon filled his glare.
“Get down!” Alton shouted, losing his tricorn in the frenzy. A hearty, thudding explosion tore up the sea directly in front of the Royale Cross, drenching its commander with salty wash. “What on earth was that?!”
Alton was disoriented after being knocked to the deck and struggled to regain his footing for a few moments; when he did he saw a great ship off the port bow that was bearing down fast on the Royale Cross’s bow. With a knowing look he saw the black flag at the top of the mainmast – that of pirates. With a gulp the shaken commander gave his men the orders to prepare for a broadside.
How had that ship appeared out of nowhere? Alton thought. Nothing made sense. Why had there been no lookout alert?
There wasn’t time to ponder further. A series of punctuated thuds along the hull below the main deck indicated the deployment of the ‘teeth’ that gave the Royale Cross it’s bite; two rows of cast-iron cannons ready with solid shot.
Alton scrambled back to his command post at the rear. The other ship, a fully-armed man ‘o war of worrisome ferocity, sailed ever-near with an incredible speed. Looking across his deck, Alton could see the hostile ship was no smaller than his own command. How was such a vessel moving so much faster than his own?
“Enemy ship coming alongside now, sir,” the first mate reported. Alton looked absently for a moment before responding.
“Prepare to fire. Full volley. Blast it out of the water.”
“Aye, captain,” the first mate concurred. He scurried below decks.
The hectoring of a hundred voices filled the deck, reverberating from below. The Royale Cross creaked in horror at its mystery adversary. Alton winced a little, knowing what was about to happen. The dark ship began to roll up alongside, it’s own gunports wide open and cannons ready to engage.
In these situations the ship that fired first usually won. Alton held his breath, hoping to feel his own ship’s guns roar with explosive force before he saw dozens of muzzle flares from the other, unidentified, ship’s respective weaponry.
Alton’s crew was clearly better prepared. The first volley from the Royale Cross’s guns ripped into the hostile vessel nearby with a great flash of exploding black powder. There was no counter-volley and the smoke began to clear. Alton smiled weakly, expecting and hoping to see the other ship reduced to a smouldering mass of wood setting by the bow.
The cloud dissipated and Alton was horrified. The enemy ship was completely undamaged! How could this be? This is impossible! The firepower levelled against it at such short range should’ve without question demolished the wooden hull to sodden splinters.
Finally the enemy ship fired its response to Alton’s defensive volley. Forty guns exploded simultaneously, sending tons of red-hot iron into the very heart of the Royale Cross. One of the projectiles smashed the stern-castle to smithereens; Alton diving out of the way onto the incandescent main deck just in time to see the mainmast collapse, leaving the great Naval ship decapitated and unable to move. The bowsprit of the enemy ship, adorned with a massive bronze dragon figurehead smashed into the Royale Cross and jammed into the side of the Royale Cross, tearing the side apart.
Looking across, Alton watched the other ship loom over the burning hulk of his own command. How had this happened? And how had it happened so quickly? The only thing that made sense was that his command was lost and his life was almost certainly extinguished. Alton tried to move from the deck but found it impossible amongst the rubble and flames that had taken hold.
Why was it now taking so long for the final, ignoble end to come about? Alton dejectedly watched his enemy sail slowly past. It was taunting him. Oddly, Alton thought, there were no seamen on the main deck, and no soldiers to form a boarding party. The guns of the ship remained silent after that initial devastating volley of fiery iron but did not retract. The ship dislodged itself and the Royale Cross settled back and started to break up.
A lone, shrouded figure stood on the rear fantail of the enemy ship, one hand on the wheel and another cradling a flintlock. Through the smoke and dust of the wrecked ship the figure was hard to discern, but the tricorn hat gave away their identity as captain.
“Well come on, then!” Alton shouted hoarsely with desperation, wanting this to end. The deck wobbled as the Royale Cross began to settle into the foaming seawater. “Finish it!”
The cloud blew away on a mischievous gust of wind. Alton’s eyes popped out in horror as the lone figure raised his flintlock in an instant.
The captain of the pirate vessel looked just like Alton.
“Just be yourself, Captain,” the mysterious man grunted before a final burst of gunpowder from the pistol he held flashed. Alton’s vision fell to the deck as his body fell against the force of the shot. Breathing rapidly, Alton looked frantically around for the impossible impostor, but as he finally fixed a view on the departing pirate ship his vision clouded over with a red haze before sinking into nothingness.
“The fuck was all that?!” the young man swore loudly, tossing his immersion helmet from his matted hair to the floor of the plain, grey Holohall before climbing out of the rig he’d been attached to. He said this to nobody in particular; the other occupants of the Holohall still enjoying their games in their rigs and Alton’s expletive blotted out by noise-cancelling headphones.
Alton found the episode he had experienced deeply concerning. How had his avatar been so completely cloned? It was a bespoke digital equivalent of his physical self, designed to mirror his very appearance and, bar a few skins depending on the experience being entered into, totally unique and protected. The Connected World built itself on the core notion of giving each user a complete experience of blending their real-world selves with out-worldly situations. It couldn’t be copied.
Heading toward the exit, Alton pondered intensely. There’d never been any reports of cloned avatars or even system glitches allowing puppeting like he’d seen in the game a moment ago. Alton felt confused at such a fundamental flaw being so open and also for losing his game. A month’s hard gaming had won him the Royale Cross and he’d not let it be for nothing!
The door to Alton’s apartment flung open and the young man flocked into his room.
“Don’t you want anything to eat?” his mother asked airily, but Alton was too preoccupied.
“Later, mom!” he called, and the door to his room thudded shut again.
Alton’s computer burst into life. With horror Alton eyed his list of notifications. Payments to illegal firearms dealers, online casinos chasing payments for e-roulette games shamelessly lost, and worse was to come.
“The hell did… I didn’t do…” Alton sighed incredulously. He kept reading, checking any and all things he could think of that were connected to his Connected World online avatar.
Alton was confused. How has all his online accounts been broken into and used for such nefarious purposes? Credit cards in his name had debts of tens of thousands of credits to organisations that had varying degrees of legality and illegality.
Alton hadn’t done any of this, but someone in his name had. Perusing a forums somewhere on the darker side of the net, a user by the name of _lupo_cw popped up over and over again, discussing cracking the Connected World. Was this an inside job? The name was familiar to Alton through his recent battle on the virtual seas against a ship with that very name – the Soul Sand. Alton read on. The poster purported to have found an exploit in the Connected World that allowed the extraction of biometrically-encoded avatar information. That alone was meant to be impossible, but the evidence posted here suggested otherwise. On the next ten pages _lupo_cw claimed to have used his proof-of-concept to steal a user’s entire identity and inhabit a cracked version of it for his own activity, bankrolled by Alton’s good name.
Alton gasped. His very identity had been stolen… and pirated. There were links to the code package all over this forum, available for anyone to download and use for illegal ends.
Looking over, Alton’s phone buzzed incessantly. Payments made. Accounts opened. Demands made. Alton’s weak smile fell as he read the screen.
The screen had turned red, and black letters appeared rhythmically, one by one.
I am you, Alton. I see what you see, and decide what you see now. You don’t see no evidence, captain. Maybe the cell walls of the Port Royale gaol will be better. I fought you at sea and lost. Now I fight you with waves of data. _lupo_cw
The name was familiar to Alton, but his mind cast itself back to his early days in the Connected World. Many had seen his impressive skills and wanted to emulate them, but a few took it too far, wanting to cash in the fame and prowess at the online game Alton had managed to monetise. Alton remembered in European forums a wolf-like avatar that had stalked him, insulted him and mocked him for simply being better.
Returning to his room dejected and feeling defeated, Alton knew there was only one course of action. He had to face off against this pirate and reclaim his very identity before it turned from his greatest asset into his greatest liability. Further messages confirmed this, and _lupo_cw was waiting. He had until the end of the next virtual day to reclaim his prize.
Grabbing his bag once again, Alton ventured into the moonlit streets outside. They were dark; it had recently rained in the interim and drops of latent rain fell from ledges of concrete roofs into puddles in the dimpled and uneven asphalt. The low moon shone a spooky shadow through metal pylons across the deserted streets.
The Holohall arcade was very quiet at this time of night but not completely empty. A few known ghouls lurked and haunted some of the immersion devices, seemingly never leaving. The real world was a bitter and hard place whereas the Holohall gave the false illusion of another life. Sometimes even that false sense of bliss was enough to lure those whose proper lives were too bland to consider in for a virtual thrill.
Alton duly logged into his account and climbed into the spindly metal of one of the immersion machines, applying the goggles tightly to his head. The view was absolutely dark for a second before the familiar sights of Alton’s alternative buccaneer lifestyle returned to him once again…
Waking up from an apparently deep sleep, Alton found himself in a sparsely-decorated room with brown wooden walls. This was his room in the Leaky Bilge inn on the boardwalk of Port Royale. It was as close to a ship on land as Alton could have wished for. Seagulls hectored nearby. The familiarity reassured the young captain, but the mission loomed overhead. A storm was coming and he had until sundown that day to come out the other side and see Port Royale, or his real-life room, again.
Alton dressed into his immaculate uniform and left the room. The lock on the door clicked by itself – he’d be unable to return here to fetch any personal belongings, and if the lost the day’s inevitable challenge they’d be lost forever, along with his liberty.
The boardwalk outside the inn trembled underfoot. Alton sighed and looked towards ships lined up at the dock, forming a forest of masts and flags. The sky wasn’t brilliant blue like before, and there was no gentle breeze lapping at loose clothing; the sky was a dark, moody grey and the wind bitter and spiteful in its intermittent gusts. The darkest clouds appeared over the horizon where the open sea met the sky. Alton deemed the weather inhospitable but appropriate for what would transpire.
Not far from the inn stood the Royale Cross, bobbing gently at anchor with pennants fluttering, the gangway waiting patiently for its commander. Alton stepped, nervously at first, onto his command for it’s most important mission but was reassured to see his crew lined up, saluting ceremonially, upon the main deck awaiting his orders. Alton climbed the steps to the wheel platform and embraced the ornamental balustrade looking over the main deck.
“Do your duty today, crew,” Alton began hoarsely but gained confidence, “and we will see another fine day. The enemy is well prepared and has an ungodly advantage but counts not on our own advantage – the finest crew in Port Royale. Set to and prepare to sail – the enemy awaits!”
With a whoop of cheer the crew did so. Their commander’s words had inspired them. These men were Alton’s friends, and it was Alton’s job to protect and save them from the ignoble and deeply troubling fate that awaited.
Chains rattled as the main anchor was cast upon the deck and the sails unfurled to reveal their great majesty.
The waves turned foamy and effervescent, crashing against the oak of the slender vessel. Alton grimaced as the sky turned utterly black, the only bright lights coming from the flashes of lightning that perforated the cloud and punched into the water.
“Enemy ship approaching!” the lookout atop the mainmast called heartily against the din of the sea. Alton’s shoulders pricked up. This was the place.
“Prepare for battle!” the commander called emphatically from his bridge. The thuds of gunports rattled the lower lines of the ship as they had done before.
Quickly the imposing and unmistakeable silhouette of the Soul Sand appeared, cresting the waves as it approached the Royale Cross. It turned slightly, increasing the distance between it and the Royale Cross. Alton knew that this was how it planned to open it’s most powerful guns against his own ship and ordered his helmsman to steer toward the enemy ship, keeping them close. Neither ship fired as the distance closed to mere dozens of feet. Alton could see every man on the Soul Sand staring down his own crew.
“Don’t break heart,” Alton hectored across the deck. “Bring your guns to bear and await my command!”
“Aye,” the gunnery commander replied with a croak before heading back down below. “Waiting on your command.”
Alton watched his ship circle about its adversary, which was as perfect a likeness of the Royale Cross as was feasibly possible, bar the colour scheme. Whereas the Royale Cross was resplendent in its black-and-yellow bumblebee pattern this impostor was grey and uninviting. This was no ordinary ship in the true sense; it was a ghost ship that needed exorcising from reality.
“Enough theatrics, captain!” a voice called from across the froth, carried by the wind. It was the doppelgänger himself, Lupo, taunting Alton with a perfect replication of his own tones. “The time is tidal, and you haven’t much left!”
“Oh, you’ll see!” Alton thundered, “I can be more than theatrical!”
The Royale Cross began another orbit around the Soul Sand, which watched with bemusement and confusion, this time the circular path was much tighter and eccentric. This was not the tactic Lupo had apparently been expecting. Alton waited until the prowl of his ship’s ghoulish twin was abreast his guns when…
“Fire!” Alton cried to all that could hear. “Blast the bows off!”
The starboard side of the Royale Cross lit up in an expulsion of orange and yellow gun-flare that sent red-hot iron shot into the wooden frontage of the Soul Sand, imploding it into a mass of projected splinters. The ship stopped dead, settled a little and began to list.
“Bring about port side guns while starboard reloads!” Alton commanded. The helm responded sluggishly – the wind was not favourable to such a sudden and unnatural manoeuvre and slowly the two ships came alongside once again.
“Get down!” Alton hissed to his bridge crew. The Soul Sand illuminated in a similar incandescence that demolished the port side of the Royale Cross. This situation was beginning to look very familiar, but the advantage remained Alton’s. His ship kept turning in the wind, heaving mightily in the stormy waves, until it faced it’s target.
“Fire the cannons!”
Battered and nearly beaten, the Royale Cross unleashed another broadside directly into the listing rival’s seething heart. Just as the sustained volley left the muzzles of the cannons a wild bolt of the enraged lighting struck the Royale Cross and sent the mainmast tumbling across the deck, crushing the transom and steering area.
The crashing mast would’ve easily killed Alton… if he’d been standing where it had impacted upon the deck. Feeling his ship begin to slip beneath the waves he had ditched his command post and ducked behind the wooden bulwark that lined the edge. The Royale Cross’s waterlogged hulk rammed into the sinking remnants of the Soul Sand with the help of the tide. Alton peeked up, seeing the wrecked ship alongside, burning and sinking. The transom there was ablaze and it was here that Alton presumed that the vessel’s commander would make his last stand.
With a walloping creak another mast fell from the Royale Cross’ disintegrating hulk to create a handy bridge. This wasn’t fate, this was pre-ordained.
Staggering to his feet, Alton climbed onto the fallen mast and tiptoed across. A few times he fell but the wind picked him back up, confirming what he already thought – this event had, too, been pre-planned. It would end this way whatever happened.
The top deck of the Soul Sand was crushed and ablaze in multiple places, sheets of fire and splintered wood leading to one place only – the transom that encompassed the captain’s cabin. With a gulp, Alton opened the door with a boot shove and stepped inside.
The cabin was trashed with ruined furniture but easily still recognisable as a complete clone of Alton’s own quarters on the Royale Cross. A figure stood alone, staring at the sea through the great windows that formed the stern of the ship.
“Who are you?” Alton called across angrily. “Who are you? Really?”
The figure turned slowly, tossing it’s hat away. Alton expected to see his own avatar looking back but did not. The face was meek and scared, and it took a few moments for him to recognise it. “Lupo…”
“If you want congratulations you’ve come to the wrong place,” Lupo murmured, his voice still filled with seething anguish and hatred of what stood before him. “You may have bested your own ship but I’m still in control of you and I still set the rules. And the sun sets ever more…”
“Why are you doing this?” Alton asked coolly. “Why are you destroying me like this?”
Lupo turned to finally face Alton. He stepped forward until the smashed charting table was all that stood between him and Alton. His breath was laboured and his thoughts clearly collecting. A final breath entered but didn’t exit. “Because I wanted to be you! Everything about you was what I shoulda had! But I never could do it! So I just used a bit of skill to take what you had and lived the life I deserved! I got notoriety like you, but better!”
Alton’s eyes opened wide. “”Notoriety amongst pirates is worthless. Anyway, this… this is just a game, though. Fantasy. All my gold, ships and treasures are just ones and zeroes somewhere. You could’ve done this all yourself. What you did is lunacy.”
“Not to me! They’re what I lived for!” Lupo cried. Alton realised how obsessed the young man had become. Clearly a lost cause.
“It’s really not worth all this. It’s a game, nothing more. Nothing worth risking real life for. Don’t you understand?”
Lupo’s eyes filled with rage once more. “You still don’t get it! A game to you is a life to me! And I want yours, damnit!”
Lupo lunged with a rapier he had hidden in his longcoat, slashing at Alton. A few rivulets of blood tricked down Alton’s uniform and onto the slanting deck.
“Jesus, what the hell are you… stop it, you’re insane!”
“No, I’m alive,” Lupo cried with a madness tinging every syllable. “If I live and you die, right here and right now, all that was yours becomes mine. It’s how I set it up. You spent your time killing pirates on the high seas. I’m a pirate on the high-network!”
Alton despaired. Out of the window he saw the orange and ochre glow of the setting sun transform into a deathly blackness. He had to end this now. There was no more time left.
“I don’t much like pirates!” he squawked, and lunged toward Lupo mid-sentence, catching him off guard and tearing his vest with the pointed edge of his own rapier. Blood stained the steel and Lupo stomped forward, taken by the motion of his rapidly-foundering command. Grasping him by the neck, Alton raised his blade to his throat as he pushed him through the door and back onto the burning deck.
Golden sparks of fire leapt from the masts and down rigging that was incandescent. There were no sails left, just blackened fabric.
“You took a lot from me, kid,” Alton growled as he prepared to throw this pirate over the edge of his own ship. “All for a stupid game you thought you were crap at. How pathetic does that make you?”
“I, uh…” Lupo gurgled, blood seeping from his lips. Alton looked around.
Outside the Holohall the sounds of approaching sirens grew louder and nearer. This was the time, here and nod.
“It never had to be this way…” Alton said sadly. “Time to end this.” He raised a flintlock pistol from his belt and clicked the hammer back, holding it aloft in his blackened hand.
A high-pitched squeal pierced the storm, catching both figures off guard. Alton jumped back impressively to see the final mast of the Soul Sand crash down and smack Lupo into the very deck itself, causing it to collapse inward. The sea swelled harder than it had ever done before just as an intense flash of lightning engulfed the ruined ships.
It was done. Alton was on the boardwalk where this had all started, looking wistfully along the line of ships before turning away.
Alton climbed from the immersion rig and sighed, taking his electronic token out. He said nothing and left, facing the rainy streets outside, looking down at the plastic token.
Had it been worth it?
Tossing it aside, Alton decided that the real pirates were in this world, and the make-believe ones he’d been so prized about eliminating didn’t matter. Time to focus on what mattered.
© Richard Holliday, 2014