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For a Love of History and Glory!

142232MAY05

 

Wargaming, World War Two, and Evil

 

What is it with some people?  Why is it that the concept of “evil” just does not exist in their world?  How did morality become such a gray area for them?  Questions such these began unexpectedly popping into my head after reading about a new World War Two simulation from Relic, a producer of many popular PC real-time strategy titles.  Usually war, especially World War Two, has a way of putting morality into focus.  But such does not seem to be the case over at Relic where their new game project seems to be muddled in moral relativism.

 Let me explain.

In a recent Gamespot.com interview (http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/companyofheroes/preview_6124417.html), Relic producer John Johnson described Company of Heroes, a real-time strategy (RTS) game that looks to be visually spectacular.  The game’s engine plans to make use of cutting-edge graphics technology that will serve to raise the bar of visual realism to lofty heights.  In addition to visual FX trailblazing, the game will also incorporate a set of novel RTS features, such as semi-autonomous soldiers, that Mr. Johnson hopes will revolutionize the tired RTS genre.

In all honesty, the game sounds good.  Unfortunately, the game is not the problem---the Gamespot preview is the problem. 

As a wargamer, I take issue with the following statement made by the writer of the Gamespot preview: 

 

But why World War II? Isn't ‘World War II strategy game’ a synonym for ‘slow-paced, overly complicated game where you fight drawn-out battles by crunching numbers and moving tiny chits on an abstract-looking board’?”

 

Um, no.  In fact, after reading this statement, one is hard pressed to discern whether the article is referring to paper wargames or antiquated PC wargames.  Regardless of which mode of wargaming is actually being referred to, the statement is still simply wrong.  Many exciting and easy to learn WWII strategy games, on the PC and off, have been released in recent years.  From the much-lauded board wargame Ardennes '44, to the devilishly addictive PC title Panzer General of 1995, World War Two wargaming has long since removed itself from the realm of “slow-paced, overly complicated” gaming.  The truth of the matter is that a straw-man argument is being made here.  Relic has decided to release yet another World War Two RTS game into an already dangerously bloated market.  So, I suspect, in seeking justification for their efforts, an argument is put forth whereby Company of Heroes is contrasted against imaginary opponents of inferior quality.  The truth of the matter is that, based upon information so far released, Company of Heroes seems little more than Battlefront’s Combat Mission series with wickedly enhanced graphics set in a RTS environment.  There is nothing wrong with this, but do not try to make the game into something it clearly is not.    

            I do question the wisdom of adding another World War Two title to the market.  Since the release of Saving Private Ryan, it would seem that every game producer who has seen the movie is hell-bent on releasing his own game version.  As a result, there have been a veritable flood of titles that run the gamut of every conceivable style of gaming, from RTS to FPS.  Now, as a wargamer and military history enthusiast, I enjoy World War Two as much as the next guy, after all, it was the largest, most destructive conflict in human history.   But enough already!!!  You know, there are other wars to explore! 

            But my purpose here is not to attack a game that, in all fairness, is only in a pre-alpha release stage.  Nor is my purpose to disparage a period of history that has offered much fodder for compelling gaming experiences.  I needed to speak out because the aforementioned example of corporate bombast rankled my sensibilities as a grognard.  However, the following statements rankled my sensibilities as an American.

            During the interview, John Johnson stated that "World War II is modern mythology".  World War Two as “modern mythology”?  This is a questionable observation.  Perhaps World War Two as legend would be a more accurate comment as the deeds of the Greatest Generation have been welcomed with worldwide fame and recognition.  World War Two as mythology would suggest that Mr. Johnson questions the reality of those larger-than-life heroes and epic battles against malevolence that shaped the world in which we live.   Surely he doesn’t believe that? 

            But perhaps he does.  Read on:

 

"Unlike something like Star Wars, the war doesn't have clear-cut good and evil sides. This is what makes the war interesting."

 

I had to read that twice the first time I came across it.  “The war doesn't have clear-cut good and evil sides”?  Could he possibly be suggesting that the Nazis occupied a moral gray area?  That the Imperial Japanese were misunderstood?  That Hitler did not butcher over six million Jews, and countless millions of Russians?  That the Rape of Nanking never occurred?  How can anyone believe that World War Two lacked clear-cut heroes and villains, that there was a moral equivalence between the Axis and Allies?  I would expect such a statement from a public school student who has had his mind muddled by years of a politically correct curriculum, not by an adult who is presumably well-educated and, based upon the nature of his latest project, well-versed in World War Two history.  

            World War Two was the last “good war” whereby everyone knew, at least then if not now, why the war was necessary.  England and America were fighting to put an end to specific forces of tyranny that, for all intents and purposes, was the closest this world has ever seen to the massed forces of Hell being unleashed upon the globe. Our foes sought to conquer, we sought to liberate.  Our foes gleefully bathed in the blood of their victims, we sought to heal their wounds.  Our foes fought for plunder and pillage; we fought for a better world.  

            Now, now, I can hear many of you protesting that not every German or Japanese soldier was evil, that not every Allied soldier was virtuous.  Of course, such a point is obvious.  But when examining the nature and motivations of our Axis enemies vis--vis those of the Allies, a clear distinction can be made (with the exception of the pitiful Russian people who suffered evil from within and without):  the Allies sought peace and self-determination, the Axis sought war and subjugation. 

            Statements of moral ambiguity greatly concern me, especially when the ambiguity concerns an issue of manifest clarity.  If we are not able to say with confidence that something is “good” or something “bad”, that something is “right” and something else “wrong”, then we are truly lost souls, forever inhabiting a shadow-realm of moral relativism where the meaning of “virtue” shifts like sand, and “right reason” becomes a meaningless contradiction of terms.  Evil beckons to all of us from the dark corners of our world and when we are unable to use God-given Reason and Natural Law, when we become morally vacuous, then Evil fills that void and a Hitler or a Tojo rise to power, a Buchenwald is built, or a Nanking is destroyed. And that must never be allowed to happen again otherwise the massive sacrifices of the Greatest Generation were truly in vain, a thought too disturbing to even contemplate.  No clear-cut good and evil sides, Mr. Johnson?  Nothing could be further from the truth, and as wargamers, we are honor-bound to remember that.  So continue to push your Tigers and your Shermans on the simulated battlefield, but remember: which side you’re on in real life makes for all the difference in the world.

 

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Greetings!  What follows is a short story inspired by the great (and, I believe, revolutionary) wargame Rome: Total War.  Hope you enjoy it!  And if you have any wargame-related stories / essays you would like to post on my website, feel free to drop me a line!

Blood on Simulated Blades

 

By Wargamer Scott

 

Attica

 

 

The legatus rode his horse with all the ease of a man who had spent many hours in the saddle.  Ahead of him, the units of his XXX Legion stirred up dust on the warm June day as they strode and rode toward their common destination of Athens.

            The year: 210 B.C.

            The legatus’, or general’s, name was Appius Bruttius Carius, but his friends simply called him ‘Letters.’   He was one of the most feared sons of Rome, and today he was out to cement his reputation.  Of course, his Greek opponent, known simply as Antigonus, was going to do his best to stop him.  Carius smiled at the thought.  Antigonus was crafty and capable, but he lacked the passion to be the best of the best, to truly have the right to be called the Legatus.  For Antigonus, it was all a game, nothing more.  For Carius, it was his life.

            “Hey, Letters,” a femine voice called at his side, “why so quiet?”

            Carius looked to his left and was greeted with the broad smile of his Master of Horse, or cavalry commander, trotting alongside him on her black warhorse.  Her name was Helvia, but Carius’ staff simply liked to refer to her as ‘Hell.”  It was a fitting nickname as the athletic brunette knew how to unleash Hades upon an enemy with her attached cavalry.  “No reason, just thinking,” Carius responded.

            Helvia gazed at him with bemusement in her eyes.  She often thought that he cut the figure of a most unlikely general.  He resembled not so much a warrior as a philosopher, one who would be more at home in a dusty library than on a field of battle.  He was not particularly athletic, nor handsome, and was most definitely of the shy variety.  Yet, he always did get results for the Consul when he did his bidding.  To each his own, she supposed.  Heck, what must he think of me?, she thought.  A silly girl trying to muscle in on a game for men?  Carius started to shift uncomfortably on his horse and tug at his body armor.  She realized she was making him uncomfortable by staring.  “You’re not worried, are you?” she asked to break the unease of the moment.

            Carius laughed.  “Worried?  Because of Antigonus?”  Carius’ one dominant physical feature, his ice blue eyes, fixed on Helvia.  “He is good, but no match for us.  As long as we don’t get cocky, we’ll do just fine.” 

            From up ahead, a horse came galloping towards Carius and Helvia.  The form of Carius’ Master of Foot, or infantry commander, was clearly discernable even at moderate distance.  Manius Nipius Rectus, or “Wrecker,” was all warrior---some said a latter-day Hector. He was often mistaken as the legatus for the XXX Legion, something that chagrined Carius, even though he was too much of a gentleman to say anything.   “Sir, the gates of Athens approach!” he shouted as he drew up alongside Helvia.  “Shall I deploy the legion?” 

            “Are the gates open?”  Helvia asked excitedly.

            “You would like that Hell, wouldn’t you?”  asked Rectus.  “You could rush ahead with your cavalry and steal all the glory.”  Helvia just grinned.  “Well, not this time.  Looks like somebody sounded the alarm.  The last of the villagers are rushing to enter Athens. The gates will be closed before you can even get there.”

            “We’ll see about that!”  Helvia kicked her horse and raced off to rejoin her horsemen who were screening the advance of the legion.

            Carius groaned.  “Tell me who commands this legion again?” he asked as he rubbed his eyes with his right hand out of frustration.  “What is it with cavalry commanders?  Why have they always been so impetuous?”

            Rectus smiled.  “You picked her.  You should have known she would be trouble!  Girls and war don’t mix.”  After a few moments of thought, he added “She does cut a nice figure in her armor, though.”

            Carius just shook his head at Rectus. 

 

* * * *

 

Rome

 

            Consul Tiberius Pontidius Ursus hunched over the large, table-sized map of Europe.  A warm breeze gusted through the sizable chamber that served as his strategy room, making the map flutter upon the table.  With impatience, he held down the corners and positioned a few unused legion markers, simple wooden blocks, to pin the map to the table.  The war to subdue the Greek cities-states was reaching a climax, and Ursus was nervous.  Much depended upon the successful conclusion of the campaign.  As he attempted to divine the future, his aide approached.

            “Sir, Carius has reached the gates of Athens.” 

            Ursus glanced at his aide with both appreciation and agitation at the news.  “So now we learn what is to become of my beloved Brutii faction.”  He ran his hand over the region of the map that depicted Epirus, hoping to mystically convey his consular strength to XXX Legion. 

            His aide cleared his throat as he searched for words to put his superior at ease.  “Sir, Carius is a competent commander.  The Greek armies have been put on the defensive for some time now.  Surely, you don’t fear the outcome of the battle?” he asked with genuine concern.

            Ursus stood erect and directly faced his aide.  “I fear the outcome of every battle.”  The consul walked around to the far side of the table and added, “All it takes is one defeat to change the nature of a campaign.  If Carius fails to take Athens quickly, a fortified city, he will not have sufficient supplies to maintain a siege of adequate length. He will have to withdraw, ceding the initiative to the enemy.  This will give the Greeks an opportunity to muster their navy and raise havoc throughout the Republic.  Worse, it will allow Athens time to call upon their Thracian allies and destroy XXX Legion, our soul defender in the region, and recapture Thermon, our sin quo non for further conquest.”

            His aide starred at the map with a new-found respect for the delicateness of the situation.  Ursus smiled to himself and mused at how war is so simple to those who don’t know its crushing responsibilities. 

 

* * * *

Attica

 

            Carius, along with his accompanying bodyguard cavalry, nicknamed The Elysium Elders, crested the hill that rose before Athens.  To his front he saw the white stone gates of the great city itself, now sealed against any attempt to gain entry.  He also saw the cavalry auxillia of Helvia, riding in a cantabrian circle, throwing javelins at the defenders of Athen’s walls.  Somewhat surprisingly, more than a few scored a hit, knocking Greeks from the walls with spears lodged in chests and legs.  “Call them back,” Carius ordered.  One of his aides blew a horn.  Quickly, Helvia’s cavalry broke formation and rode up to Carius’ position on the hill. 

            “You always spoil our fun, Letters!” she complained in a joking fashion.

            “There’ll be plenty of time for spilling blood later.  Keep your horses fresh for when we need them!”  he barked.  Helvia was taken aback by his chastisement.  But she quickly brushed it off because she knew how high-strung he became when a decision point had been reached.  “Where is Wrecker?” he demanded next.

            With his usual impeccable timing, Rectus galloped up to their position.   He brought his horse to a rearing stop, and calmly glanced at the closed gates of Athens.  “I see you captured the city single-handedly again, huh, Hell?”

            Helvia whipped her spatha out of its scabbard and pointed it at Rectus in a flash.  “Insult me again, and I’ll take your head off before your leaden infantry brain knows what happened.”  She said this with a smile, but with one of her special smiles that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

            “Will you two knock it off!”  Carius shouted with impatience.  He dismounted his horse and examined the scene before him.  The gates of Athens were formidable, and clearly, well defended by Greek hoplites.  He had really hoped that by some miracle, surprise would have been on his side, and a forced entry into the city would not be necessary.  He knew that many men of XXX Legion would not be going home before his business was done here and that saddened him as he desperately wanted to preserve the strength of his units.  Carius began to pace, lost in thought. 

            Rectus dismounted and deferentially approached his commander.  “What are your orders, sir?”

            Carius did not say anything at first, but continued to pace in ever-shrinking loops.  Finally, he seemed to have reached a decision and his blue eyes focused on Rectus.  “Halt the legion behind this hill and put the men to work building siege equipment.”  A few more paces.  “Bring up the onagers and archers and start harassing the wall defenders---but DO NOT use flame!  We want to capture Athens, not burn it down.”

            “Speak for yourself, Letters,” quipped Helvia.

            Carius now focused on her.  “And you,” he pointed up at her on her warhorse, “put your cavalry to good use by sealing off the city.  No one is to get in or out of there from this moment on.  Kill anyone who tries.”  Helvia smiled and nodded her head.

            “Oh, and Wrecker, bring up the I, VI, VIII, and X cohorts.  Tell them they will be assaulting the walls and see to it that they know exactly what that means.  I’m sure they do, but go over it just the same.”  Those were the most elite units in the legion and it was during such critical times that Carius needed them most.  “Otherwise, get the rest of the legion encamped.” 

            “Sir!” acknowledged Rectus.  He turned and marched to the rear to start the process of forming his men for the siege. He didn’t like sieges.  They were too slow, too passive.  It was open battle that he relished.

            Helvia dismounted her horse and approached Carius closely as he continued to pace in little loops, desperately trying to foresee every possible eventuality in the coming battle.  “You know, it’s no longer a game if it starts giving you ulcers,” she whispered in his ear. 

            Carius stopped his pacing and faced Helvia.  It always surprised him how tall she was, almost his height exactly.  “When was this ever a game?” he asked as he put a little distance between himself and her.   “This was never a game.”

            Helvia raised an eyebrow.  “You know, sometime you worry me, you really do.”  She turned and led her horse down the hill. 

 

* * * *

 

            Carius, Helvia, and Rectus sat around the campfire, eating a light dinner of bread and wine.  It was a subdued affair.  For the last week, the XXX Legion had been preparing to attack Athens, and now all was ready.  If tomorrow’s diplomacy failed, and it most likely would, Carius would be forced to attack without hesitation. 

Carius was particularly quiet, more so than usual.  He ate his meal without so much as a comment, while Helvia and Rectus continued to pursue their favorite past time of endless squabbling.  Every now and then, Carius would glance up at them and offer a weak smile at a particularly snide remark made by one at the expense of the other.  But then he would return to his meal as if he ate all alone.

Helvia and Rectus tired of filleting each other and an uneasy quiet descended upon the trio.  Finally, Rectus, tired of Carius’ self-imposed isolation, spoke up to his general.  “Letters, with all due respect, what the hell’s wrong?” 

“Don’t bring me into this!” remarked Helvia with a wry grin.  Rectus slapped her on the shoulder, getting a wine-induced giggle in return.

“I mean, you are always tense before a big battle, but not like this.” 

Carius continued to eat without the slightest indication that he heard the comment. 

Rectus, undeterred, persisted in his quest to get to the heart of the matter, and he did so in the only way he knew would guarantee a response.  “The men are starting to talk.  They say you have no confidence in our victory tomorrow.”  Carius stopped chewing and looked up at Rectus.  Bingo.  “I mean, if you are expecting the worst, I would like to know about it,” Rectus added. 

Carius sighed, took a long sip of wine from his flagon, and stood, wiping breadcrumbs from his lap.  “Tomorrow is my birthday, and I will be 34,” he uttered without emotion. 

Rectus and Helvia glanced at each other, not quite sure if he had answered the question or merely changed the subject.  As Carius was not providing any clues, both Rectus and Helvia did the natural thing and started to congratulate him.  “We will slaughter many bulls…,”

“And Greeks!” interjected Helvia.

“…In your honor tomorrow!” Rectus added with a smile.

Carius sat down again and unsheathed his gladius from its scabbard.  He slowly rotated it in the glare of the campfire, examing the blade as it glinted, much to the discomfiture of his companions.  “Did you ever wonder what the heck we are doing?” he asked.  “Did you ever stop and think what a hopeless waste of time and effort this all has been?” Carius suddenly thrust the point of the gladius into the earth, making the blade quietly ring from its penetration of rock and soil.  Carius removed his hand from it and admired its somber, campfire-backed silhouette.  “We wage war, we spill blood, we sack cities, over and over again.  And yet we ultimately accomplish nothing.”

Helvia gasped, as if a great heresy had been uttered.  “That is so much bleeding heart bullsh….” Helvia cut herself off and regained her composure.  She stood and faced Carius.  “What we do here is important!  We are NOT wasting time, we ARE accomplishing something!”

“What?” asked Carius with genuine curiosity.  “I’ve seem to have forgotten,” he added with all seriousness.

Helvia put her hands upon her hips, her raven hair partly obscuring her face as she glanced about trying to put into words everything she was feeling.  Eventually, out of exasperation, she looked up at the starry night sky.  And then it occurred to her.  “Stars, Carius. Stars.”

Carius and Rectus both looked up and then down at Helvia with a quizzical expression upon their faces.  ‘I don’t…I don’t understand,” mumbled Carius. 

Helvia sat down again and brushed the hair from her face, facing her companions.  “Men spend their entire lives studying those stars.  They know that they will never even get close to them, yet they continue to do it.  Why?  What possible reason could they have for doing it?”

Carius attempted to answer. “Eventually, it will lead to navigation, the origins of manki…,”

“Those are all rationalizations, not motivations,” retorted Helvia.  “Men study the stars because they want to.  Because they need to. There is no other explanation.  It is just a calling that must be obeyed---something from deep within the soul.  It is who they are at a fundamental level.”  Helvia stood and walked over to the ersatz grave marker Carius had inadvertently created and pulled the gladius from the ground. She carefully wiped the blade free of soil with her hands and then presented the sword, pummel first, to Carius. “This is who you are…who we are.  There is no right or wrong in it.”  Helvia allowed a smile to creep across her face.  “We are accomplishing our particular journey in the footsteps of Achilles, of Hector.  Towards the attainment of uncommon excellence in a much maligned field of human endeavor.”

Carius grasped the hilt of his gladius and placed it carefully across his lap.  He let his fingers play across the blade as he considered what Helvia had said. 

“So stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You are doing what you have been called to do.  You are not privy as to why.  Just accept it.”  She bent over and kissed Carius on the cheek.  “Happy birthday.”  With that, she retired to her tent.

 

* * * *

 

The noon Sun hung like a flaming arrow in the sky.  Carius, mounted on his horse, surveyed the field.  To his left, I and VI Cohorts were manning their siege towers, preparing to push them against the walls of Athens upon his command.  To his right, VIII and X Cohorts had their scaling ladders at the ready.  Onagers, along with his archers, were cresting the hill, the best position for long-range artillery.  And his single ram was out in front, prepared to batter down the gates of Athens.  Behind him, shielded from view by the bulk of the hill was the remainder of his XXX Legion.  It was deployed in classic Roman formation:  a line of velites, followed lines of hastati, principes, and triarii.   Finally, far to his right and out of sight, were his sappers who had been quietly digging an underground tunnel to weaken the walls of Athens from below. 

            All was ready.

But there was one more formality to accomplish.  Carius had his horse trot up to the city’s main gates as both Helvia and Rectus watched with great unease.  There was some danger in this; even a casually-loosed arrow could end the life of their legatus in seconds.  But both understood the requirement for at least an attempt at diplomacy.  A bloodless surrender of Athens would help them preserve the legion’s strength for further campaigning in the region.  It was a forlorn hope, but a hope nonetheless. 

Carius passed piles of rubble and decomposing bodies from the legion’s harassing fire of bowmen and onagers.  He also sadly noted discarded weapons and armor from Carius’ own legionnaires who were felled by Greek missiles in return.  The main battle had not even begun, and both sides had losses to mourn. 

He finally stopped some distance from the gates and called out.  “Antigonus!  I am Carius, legatus of the XXX Legion!  I request a parley!”   Then he waited, but not for long.

At the top of the main gate, a tall, blonde man in his late twenties leaned over the gate’s upper stone wall.  “You have found him!  I am Antigonus, commander of the defenses of Athens,” came the flat, unremarkable voice.  “Leave here at once, or face the wrath of Aries!”

Carius laughed.  “I hear these days Aries prefers to be known as Mars!  Like all the gods, he is a proper Roman!” 

Antigonus’ face flushed red.  “You dare insult the god of war?!?”

“You insult me!  yelled Carius.  “Surrender now and we will spare the populace.  Defy me, and all will die!”  Carius’ horse was getting skittish from all the yelling, forcing Letters to bring him under control while he awaited Antingonus’ reply.  It was not long in coming.  A spear, thrown by Antigonus himself, raced towards him.  Carius kicked his horse, allowing him to race underneath the throw.  The spear struck at an angle in the ground, but remained upright.  Carius wheeled his horse around, raced towards the spear and grabbed it at a gallop.  He stopped his steed and turned the horse to face Antigonus.  “I will keep this spear as a memento of your death at my hands!”  With that he raced back towards his own lines, a new determination in his blood. 

“The dye is cast,” Carius shouted as he took his position upon the hill.  He dismounted his horse and thrust Antigonus’ spear into the ground. 

Rectus who, along with Helvia, awaited his return from the parley, grabbed Carius by both shoulders.  “The gods protect you from harm this day.”

“Well, it is his birthday,” added Helvia from horseback. 

“I think you are both wrong,” Carius answered.  “I think only one god protected me this day.  And that was Mars, the god of war.  He saves me not because it is my birthday, but because he needs the skins of men to blanket his bed.  Especially Greek skins!”

Both his companions laughed.  “Now that is the Letters we all know and love!” quipped Helvia. 

Carius looked up at Helvia.  “Hell, go to your cavalry.  Stand ready.  When the gates are opened, you will lead the attack.  Go now!”

Helvia beamed, and galloped towards her horsemen.

Carius now turned towards Rectus.  “Wrecker, get your men onto the walls quickly and in unison.  If the siege towers and the scaling ladders can attack as one, we will have the defenders of the southern wall in a vice!  Attack when I let the arrows fly!” 

“I will lead them myself!”  Rectus drew his gladius and ran to join the I Cohort. 

Carius was all alone now.  He closest companions were off to see to their own personal part in the coming battle.  Now all he could do was give the order to attack.  He summoned an aide and instructed him to inform the sappers to complete the undermining of the walls at once.   He then drew his gladius and raised it in the air.  “Archers!” He glanced at their long row behind him as they pulled on their bow strings.  “Onagers!” His men manning the powerful catapults cheered.  “Attack!” he shouted with all the strength his lungs could muster.

With a whoosh, the bowmen let their arrows fly.  A virtual hailstorm of wooden arrow shafts, tipped by deadly iron arrowheads, rained down upon the hoplites manning the walls of Athens.  Many were deflected by the large shields they carried.  But many also struck home, dispatching men to either a sudden or lingering death.  The onagers added their wrath, the terrible machines releasing their load with a groan and a wooden bang that alone, was often enough to strike fear into the hearts of men.  Their projectiles smashed into the stone walls of the city, doing little damage.  His onager masters adjusted their aim accordingly, seeking to swipe the defenders from the high stone wall.

The ram, siege towers, and scaling ladders approached the gates, coming under Athenian arrows in short order.  His ram was having a particularly hard time, as the Athenians were using flaming arrows to destroy it.  His men began to drop with arrows burrowed in their flesh. The ram itself caught fire and began to burn.  With the device only halfway to the gates, it was totally consumed by fire.  His men abandoned the gate-crushing machine and ran towards their own lines and safety. 

Now it was up to the towers and ladders.

They were having better success.  The Greeks, as Carius had hoped, had focused their wrath on the immediate threat of the ram, while the towers and ladders approached on the flanks.  The ram had purchased just enough time for Rectus’ infantry to assault the walls.  As he hoped, both ladders and towers reached the wall simultaneously.  Rectus led his I Cohort up the tower and onto the wall to the left of the main gate.  The VI Cohort followed closely behind.  The VIII and X cohorts were also busy scrambling up their ladders.  Unfortunately many fell to Greek spears and arrows as ladders lacked the protection of a siege tower. 

From his distance, Carius could not see the battle upon the city’s walls with any clarity.  Every now and then, a man would fall to his death, but to which side he belonged was unknown.  Carius hoped to God that it wasn’t Rectus who fell. 

He began to pace.  There was little he could do at this stage of the battle.  It was in the hands of his subordinates.  His job became one of reaction, to adjust his strategy as the situation dictated.  But to be passive on a battlefield was, surprisingly, the most difficult task of all.

Carius stopped his pacing and examined the walls once again.  Romans and Greeks were locked in a deadly duel, seemingly neither side strong enough to force the other from the walls.  Such a stalemate was death to the Romans as anything short of a complete victory was a decisive defeat.  Frustrated with the waiting, Carius mounted his horse and summoned his Elysium Elders.  He would ride out to the towers and join the assault on the walls.  It was reckless, but….  It was reckless.  But he didn’t care anymore.

With a deep rumble, the eastern Athenian walls crumbled without warning.  Stone blocks collapsed and tumbled across the landscape in a cloud of dust and debris.  He realized that his sappers had done it, they had undermined and collapsed the walls!  “Sound the signal!”  he cried! A horn blared and within seconds, Helvia was leading her cavalry towards the eastern breach from behind the hill.  “Men!” shouted Carius, “this day we attack with the forces of Hell!”  The Elysium Elders shouted as one, drew their spathas, and followed Helvia and Carius into the breach.

 

* * * *

Carius and his Elders galloped east, following the dust trail left behind Helvia’s cavalry, always being careful to give the Athenian walls a wide berth so as not to come under defensive missile fire.  As they rounded the southeastern corner of the city, Carius could see the last of Helvia’s horsemen enter the breach in the wall.  Swinging his gladius in a circular motion over his head with his left hand, he signaled his men to enter the breach without halting. 

Inside, all was chaos.

To his front, he could see Helvia’s horsemen throw the last of their javelins into the flank of a Greek phalanx guarding the main gates.  The cohesion of the enemy, which was essential to any phalanx formation, started to break up as the unit desperately tried to reorient itself on the new threat from the eastern flank.  As men fell with wooden shafts lodged in their bodies, causing gaps in the formation, even more destructive chaos resulted.  Carius knew Helvia would take deadly advantage of the enemy’s plight and destroy the unit in detail.  As he watched, Helvia’s men, veterans all, drew their spathas as a unit and launched a final, crushing charge upon the enemy.

Above, Carius carefully scrutinized the situation on the wall.  He could see the broad, round shields of the hoplites smash against the smaller, rectangular shields of his VIII and X Cohort legionnaires.  From both sides, spear and sword probed from the clashing front lines, looking to strike at any unguarded body part, to cut down another enemy.   Roman arrows continued to lance into the Greeks, cutting their strength further.  Carius knew the enemy could not hold out for long; it was too much to ask any soldier to defend from the front and the flank simultaneously.  Nonetheless, the hoplites continued to give as good as they got, falling back slowly over the blood-slicked stonework. 

A crash summoned Carius’ attention further down the wall.  One of the onagers had succeeded in smashing a unit of defending Greeks from the wall.  Bodies fell thick upon the pavement below.  Above, Carius could discern the war cry of Rectus as he led him men in a renewed infantry charge against the defending hoplites.  Panicked, the Greeks fled from his men, seeking to get off the wall and away from what they knew to be a hopeless situation.  Some even jumped to their deaths. 

The walls would soon belong to the Romans.  Carius halted his horsemen to formulate what to do next.

One of Carius’ Elders galloped up alongside him and grabbed his shoulder.  “Sir, another phalanx is approaching.”  He pointed up a wide lane to their right.  Carius could see the distinctive porcupine-like formation marching in lockstep towards them, a virtual wall of shields and long, deadly spears ready to mow-down anything in their path.  Even the heavy cavalry of the Elysium Elders could not break such a unit with a frontal charge.   

Simultaneously, the front gates of Athens were forced open, the last defenders being dispatched with the lethal combination of muscle and blade.  Rectus and Heliva had done it.  Athens could no longer hide from XXX Legion.  Outside he could hear Roman horns blow, signaling his exterior units to enter the city. 

“Come, we ride on the central plaza!” shouted Carius.  “Leave the phalanx for the legionnaires.  Rectus will cut them down, or our bowmen will shoot them down.  But neither will be necessary if we can force Antigonus to surrender.”  “Follow me!”

Carius wheeled his horse around and headed down the eastern most street at a fast gallop.  It was largely deserted, most of the citizens of Athens had wisely locked themselves behind the closed doors of their homes and shops.  However, up ahead about 100 feet, he could see a rabble of citizens forming up for a fight.  Town watch.  “Ride them down!” 

The Elysium Elders, with Carius at their lead, charged them.  The mostly untrained, last-ditch defense of Athens was ridden down almost without effort.  The Elders, using the long spatha, sliced at the townsfolk as they galloped through them.  Carius happened to glance one of his retinue remove the head of a peasant as easily as a man pops a cork from a bottle of red wine.  Carius tried no such swordsmanship.  With his shorter gladius, he knew that most targets were out of reach.  He also understood that he wasn’t a skillful enough rider to attempt the very difficult task of horseback combat without putting himself in serious risk of injury. 

They rode on and reached the plaza without further incident.  Carius dismounted, along with about half of his Elders for protection.  Greeks, many richly adorned, were scampering about, panic stricken.  A few noticed the presence of Carius and his bodyguards; ashen-faced, they quickly ran away.  In the distance, Greek screams could be heard as the XXX Legion began to spread throughout the city, cutting down the last of the defenders, pillaging as they went---it was a Roman prerogative. 

“Is this what you call Roman rule of law?” cried a voice from between the marble columns fronting a large building. “The senseless murder of innocent Greeks?”  Antigonus stepped from the shadows.

Carius strode towards the defender of Athens, gladius tightly gripped in his hand.  “You murdered these people.  You and your damned democracy.  Rome only sought security, not conquest,” he seethed.

Antigonus smirked, but not with humor.  “Ah, the perennial excuse of tyrants everywhere.  Why is it then that conquest always follows the quest for security?  It is but a ruse.”

“I will not deny that conquest often goes hand and hand with defense,” Carius replied.  “But that is the result of obstinate fools who value neither security nor the civilized order that flowers in its radiance.  It is the result of self-serving, politically blind men, such as yourself, that assure the inevitable flow of blood.”

Antigonus approached Carius, causing the Elders to bristle. “Hah!  ‘Civilized order’.  Your mean Roman order.  Tell me, how long would it have been before Greece became a provincia?  How long before Roman merchants flooded our cities, our towns?  No, one way or the other, Rome would have conquered us, either economically, culturally, or militarily.  To say otherwise is a lie.”  Antigonus turned his back on Carius.  “Death is preferred to such a fate.”

“Spoken like a true demagogue, easily spending the lives of other men, but never his own,” replied Carius. 

Antigonus turned.  He brought a vile, filed with a cloudy liquid, to his lips with his left hand and drank deeply.

“No!” cried Carius.  He raised his gladius and brought it down on Antigonus’ shoulder, severing the left arm in a spurt of blood. 

Antigonus fell to his knees, laughing through the pain that contorted his face.  “You see, a Greek always is in control of his own destiny.”

Carius was enraged.  He so wanted to bring Antigonus back as a slave, as a warning to others, perhaps preventing further attacks on other Greek cities.  In his fury, Carius swung his gladius, removing the head of Antigonus in a single blow.  The body fell forward, lifeless.

Helvia, battered and bloody, rode up with some of her cavalry.  She quickly dismounted and discovered the headless body of Antigonus, as well as her legatus swearing to himself nearby.  “So much for the great Antigonus!” she laughed, triumph animating her sharp facial features.

“How dare he…!” stammered Carius, ‘…How dare he rob me of my total victory!”

“No need to lose you head over this, Letters,” replied Helvia with a grin.

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” asked Carius, to which he only got a broader smile.

Rectus, nursing a bloody and crudely bandaged right arm, while gripping his gladius in his left, arrived with some of his I Cohort.  He quickly took in the grisly scene.  “So, it looks like Antigonus blew his top in defeat.”

Carius just rolled his eyes.  “Shouldn’t you be getting yourself to the chirugeon?” he asked.

“Not until I helped myself to my fair share of the loot,” replied Rectus.

A messenger rode up. ‘Sir, there is a situation developing on the western end of the decamanus.”

Carius was beginning to feel a bit exasperated.  “Now what?” he demanded.

“Some of our hastati have surrounded a fleeing Greek noble.   He has a hostage,” replied the messenger.  “He won’t release the hostage unless he is guaranteed safe passage from the city,” he added. 

“Just kill them both,” offered Rectus.  “What do we care about Greeks taking Greeks hostage?”

“The hostage is Roman, sir,” added the messenger.

Rectus pondered this and added “So what?  Kill them both.” 

  “We cannot do that.  Every Roman life has value.  We must try to secure his release,” replied Carius.  He sighed, sheathed his gladius, and mounted his horse. “Rectus, stay here and see that the city is secured while I take care of this.” 

“As you wish, Letters,” replied Rectus. 

“Helvia, you’re with me.”  Carius, along with his cavalry and the horses of Helvia, departed down the decamanus, the main east-west traffic artery for the city.

 

* * **

 

Not far down the decamanus, Carius and his escorts found the obstinate Greek.  Partially surrounded by a throng of angry hastati, a wild-eyed man with shoulder-length auburn hair had a short sword against the throat of a dark-featured middle aged man. The Greek was slowly being backed up against the wall of a nearby shop from the constricting presence of the pilum-armed hastati.  “I’ll kill this Roman spy if anyone touches me!” he shouted.  

Carius dismounted and made his way through to the front of the throng with Helvia.  He examined the hostage and knew at once that he was, in fact, a Roman spy.  Despite the danger of the situation, the hostage was quite calm; the mark of a person who deals with danger on a routine basis.  “I am Carius, legatus of the XXX Legion.  Release your hostage at once and you may yet survive this.”  Carius made it sound not so much as a demand, as a simple statement of fact.  “What is your name?” he asked.

The Greek focused on Carius.  “I am Theodotus, and I won’t release this Roman brigand until I am given a horse and safe passage from this dying city.” 

“I see no Roman, only one Greek holding another hostage,” Carius bluffed.

Theodotus laughed.  “Don’t try to fool me.  I am, was, responsible for the security of Athens.  I know a Roman spy when I see one.”

Carius was losing his patience quickly.  He had a city to subdue and did not have time for the desperate antics of a Greek bureaucrat. Behind him there was some commotion and the crowd parted to make way for Rectus.  Now what? 

Rectus leaned close to Carius, a less than promising signal.  “Sir, our men on the wall have spotted a large dust cloud to the north.  It might be the Thracian relief force,” he whispered.

“How long before they get here?” asked Helvia, who had moved close to hear the news that Rectus had brought.   

“Late afternoon, maybe dusk.” he replied.

Carius nodded in acknowledgment.  This was bad.  His legion was in disarray as it tried to secure the city.  Now it might have another fresh enemy bearing down on it.  Worse, the eastern wall of Athens was breached, while the south gate was damaged from their forced entry.  In short, the city was not defensible from a determined attacker.

“Maybe we should just take what we can and pull out?” asked Rectus.

“Never!” answered Carius without so much as a thought.  “Not after we bled for this city.  No, this is what we are going to do,” he replied after a few seconds of contemplation.  “Leave a small force in the city to secure it.  Take the rest of the legion and form a perimeter blocking any approach to the city from the east or south, say, about two miles from the city itself.  Have the men immediately setup camp, as if they are planning to stay for awhile.  But do it casually, like they have all the time in the world.  And when dusk arrives, light many campfires, lots of them.  All over the place, especially behind your legionnaires, all the way back to the northern gates themselves.”

Rectus started to grin, renewed appreciation for his commander glowing in his eyes.  “Sir!” he replied.

“And I want you to be my representative to the Thracians.  If they arrive before night falls, request a parlay.  Stall for time.  Tell them I need to be summoned from the city.  Darkness is our ally for a change.  Go!” ordered Carius.

Rectus hurried off.

 “Heliva, do what you do best, screen our forces.  Keep the Thracians from getting past the perimeter and close to the city.”

“As you wish, legatus.  But what about him,” she asked, nodding with her chin towards the Greek and his hostage.  “We can’t let him go, not now.  He’ll run to the Thracians.”

  Carius turned back to the Greek and drew his gladius with his left hand. “Bad news my friend, you just ran out of time.  Decide now: release your hostage and get a cell, or resist and get a pyre.” 

Theodotus began to bluster when Carius raised his gladius and swung at the Greek’s exposed right shoulder.  Theodotus twisted out of the way and shoved the Roman spy into the Carius, knocking him off balance.  The Greek adjusted his grip on his short sword and ran at Carius, swinging from left to right, catching the still off-balance Carius on his right side with the edge of the blade.

Carius felt the edge of the sword bite deep, through the leather that protected his side and into his flesh, making him cry out in pain.  Through blinding pain, Carius grabbed the sword arm of Theodutus with is right arm, preventing him from removing the blade and swinging again, and brought his gladius up with his left.  “You struck the scorpion, but missed the tail,” and with all the strength he could muster, shoved the point of his weapon deep into Theodotus’ chest, halfway to the hilt.  The surrounding hastati closed in, each jabbing the Greek with their pilums, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. 

 Helvia rushed to Carius’ side and began removing his body armor.  “Somebody get the chirguon!” she yelled.  Underneath his armor, she found his blouse soaked red with a deep slice wound into his right side.

Carius fell to his knees.  “Just wrap it tight, I will be fine,” he uttered, breathless.

Helvia looked around for a place that her legatus could lay down until the chirugeon arrived and picked the nearest door on the street.  “Help me carry him into that shop.” 

Three hastati and Helvia grabbed Carius’ shoulders and legs, but he began to protest.  “I will not be carried!  Leave me some dignity!” barked Carius. “Get me on my feet….” 

Helvia smiled with tears in her eyes.

 

* * * *

 

 

The cool, nighttime breeze refreshed Carius as he stood before the Thracian commander, a big, brutish fellow with a long, red beard and bushy eyebrows.  Carius was flanked on both sides, with Helvia on his left, and Rectus on his right.  Ostensibly, they were there as his aides, in reality he needed them more for their unobtrusive physical support.  He had spent the majority of the day on his back, carefully tended to by the legion’s chirugeon and Helvia.  The wound was deep, but with enough rest, it should heal without too much difficulty.  His leather cuirass had provided just enough resistance to the blade to save his life.  Now he had one last mission to accomplish---hopefully without fainting from pain.  Carius suppressed a chuckle as he imagined himself falling on his face while Helvia and Rectus tried to explain to the Thracian that nothing was amiss. 

 But even without fainting, things were amiss.  He now faced a Thracian army twice his number with a legion worn out from the siege and assault of Athens.  If he was forced to fight, he could not hope to win the field.  He also could not hope to retreat and defend from within Athens, not with the damage to the eastern wall and southern gate.  The only good news was that the Thracians, moving cautiously, did not reach Rectus’ defensive perimenter until dusk, allowing them plenty of time to finalize their subterfuge.  Fortunately, darkness now cloaked the fields in front of Athens.  The only chance he had was to bluff the Thracians.  It was an all or nothing gamble. 

            The Thracian, bathed in the reddish-orange glow of a nearby campfire, was blunt and to the point. “We are here because of the Greeks.  Remove your army or be destroyed.”

Carius considered his reply carefully.  “You are here to defend the Greeks?”

The Thracian grunted.

“Honorable.  But this does not mean you are here to make war on Rome.”

No comment from his counterpart. 

“I requested this parlay,” stated Carius, “with the hope that war could be averted between our peoples.  It has been the Romans and Greeks who have been doing the fighting, not Romans and Thracians. Greece is at an end,” Carius started to raise his arm towards Athens but, feeling lightheaded, quickly lowered it when he began to wobble on his feet.  He soon felt the steadying hand of Helvia’s on his back.  “But Thrace remains unspoiled by war….”

The Thracian interrupted him.  “And her might is now before you,” he said as swung his arm in an expansive gesture towards his troops.

“Impressive,” replied Carius.  “But before you are two of Rome’s finest legions, battle-hardened and ready for a fight.”  Carius now indicated his troops, busy about the area, as well as the numerous campfires that spread to the very gates of Athen’s itself-campfires for men that did not exist.  Beads of sweat were forming on his brow from exhaustion…and anxiety.  He hoped the Thracian would not notice.  Carius forced jovial laughter, despite the burning pain in his side.  “This is as fine a place as any to test Roman mettle, but I would much rather have you test Roman friendship.”

The Thracian did not laugh, but just gazed impassively.

Carius kept pushing.  “And if you take my arm, in friendship, Rome will be grateful.”  Carius offered his left arm, and, going for broke, added “Only the foolish refuse such an offer.”  Carius held his breath.

The Thracian turned and called to one of his soldiers. “My horse. Now!” he yelled.  Then he turned to face Carius once more.  “Roman, our business here is not finished.  Not yet.”  A Thracian soldier, horse in tow, arrived wordlessly.  His commander mounted the steed with ease, despite his bulk.  With one more glance at Carius, he turned and rode off into the night.

 

* * * *

Suddenly the harsh glare of fluorescent lighting filled his eyes.  Two attendants were pulling sensors from his NOMEX bodysuit, while others were carefully supporting his weight as they helped him into a nearby leather futon.  More attendants began toweling him off, drying his wet body and hair.  He began to shiver.

“Never gets any easier, does it, Will?” asked a silver-haired man in an expensive three piece suit.  He smiled, revealing a set of perfect teeth.  In his hands he held an elaborate helmet be studded with sensor points and fronted by an opaque visor.  It was beaded by water from the sensory depravation chamber.

William’s sense of bewilderment and orientation made his head swim, but with the practiced use of bio-feedback techniques, he quickly regained his mental footing.  In a few seconds, he felt strong enough to answer through chattering teeth. “Coming out of the pot…is like being born all over again.  It hurts, Chase.”  The mention of pain reflexively brought his hand to his right side, but instead of a deep wound, he found just wet NOMEX.  “Did the Thracians swallow my bluff?”

Chase, William’s agent, just shrugged his shoulders.  “Don’t know.  The Battlemaster pulled the plug.  I guess they had enough material for next week’s episode.”  Chase thought a little more.   “Also, your stand-off with the Thracians makes for a great cliffhanger.”  The ivory smile flashed again.  He picked up a red housecoat and threw it on Williams lap.  “Get dressed and let’s head over for the hot wash-up.”

 

* * * *

 

William entered the conference room adorned in the official Wargamer’s Master Guild post-game uniform which consisted of a red sweatshirt and olive sweatpants combo.  The center of the sweatshirt was emblazoned with the Guild’s emblem---a black chess king centered in a red-shaded hex surrounded by the motto “For a Love of History and Glory”.  To his left was a large presentation screen mounted high on the wall.  Below it was a podium for a speaker, with a series of tables and chairs spread throughout the room.  Along the back wall was a hot and cold buffet, staffed by smiling servers.  Hung high, on three of the four walls, were the ornate banners commemorating victorious factions in various international wargame competitions. 

 

William realized that, in addition to feeling weak, he also felt hungry and made a beeline for some food.  Before long, he had a heaping plate full of food and quickly found an empty table near the back of the room.  While he ate, the presentation screen flickered to life with the Guild’s logo initially filling the sharp, plasma image. It then was replaced by a live feed of The Situation Report, the Guild’s own news service.  As William ate, the news presenter, Bettie Diamond, a redheaded women donning a fashionable blue blouse, began to summarize the deeping crisis between the Western Conference of Nations, and the Persian League.  Like any wargamer, William was a news-junky and listened as intensely as his fatigued allowed.  However, his eyes kept drifting to her hair and his mind started recalling images of red campfires and red warlords….

A hand grabbed his shoulder and William nearly jumped out of his seat.

“How ya doing, Letters?” It was Hel…Vivian.  She sat down next to him, balancing a plate of food and a bottle of water.  ‘Jeez, calm down.  We’re not on the battlefield any more, you know!”

“Yeah, relax,” added the masculine voice of Mark, a.k.a., Rectus, who started shoveling food into his mouth as soon as he sat down, only pausing to look at the news.  “I wonder how long before the missiles start flying?”

“That’s not funny, Mark,” she quipped.  “I have family in Illyria…I mean Croatia.”

William laughed.  “Snap out of it, we’re in the real world now.”

Mark started snapping his fingers in front of her face. 

“Quit it,” ordered William.

Both Mark and Vivian looked at him.

“I’m sorry,” he answered red-faced and laughing.  “Looks like I have to snap out of it as well,” to which both his companions started snapping their fingers in his face, laughing the whole time.

Chase showed up and sat down in the only empty chair left at the table. “He handed each of them the Post-Game Report, or PGR, which summarized the just concluded wargame session.  “Bad news, William.  The CRE ruled you combat ineffective for over a month because of that wound.  Page 15.”

“What?!?” gasped William, quickly flipping to the appropriate page and reading the text. 

Vivian read it aloud.  “’The CRE concludes that a deep penetration wound of the serratus anterior and external oblique muscles will require 57 days of enforced recuperation, given the Roman medical limitations of 210 B.C.’  Yup, you’re out of the game for a while, son.” 

“Damn it,” uttered William, pounding the table with his fist.  “I think the CRE is being way too pessimistic.”

“The Combat Results Engine doesn’t lie, Will,” said Mark. “Just be glad you’re not dead and out of the game for good.”

“Chase, do you know if the Greek that did this to me was a wargamer or AIP? 

Chase shook his head.  “You know that type of information is not released publicly, not until the game is over.” 

“What difference does it make anyway?” asked Vivian. 

“Are you going to reprogram the CRE with a large axe if it is an Artificially Intelligent Player?” asked Mark, laughing.

William didn’t answer, he just continued to stare at the PGR.  Eventually he closed it and shoved it away from himself as if he suddenly found it too odious to have in his presence.  “Eh, you’re right, what difference does it make.” 

“Don’t worry William,” offered Chase, “I have something to keep you busy.  I just learned that there is going to be an opening in a new modern wargame.  The details haven’t been released, but it is going to be sponsored internationally at the governmetal level.” 

“Ah, you know I don’t like modern warfare.  Where’s the skill in that?” asked William.

“I’m telling you William, don’t pass this up.  It is going to be big.”  After a few moments reflection, he whispered “I hear Peter Hood has taken a personal interest in the match.” 

Peter Hood was the creator and president of the Wargamer’s Master Guild.  He was the man who authored the original software and launched the newest craze in reality entertainment---virtual wargaming.  His company, Imaginative Congress, was one of the most powerful business entities in the modern world, some even said it wielded more power on the global stage than many nation-states.  The reason was not just because of the global popularity of his Wargamer’s Guild and wargaming, but because the software he used to run the simulations, Virtual Militaria IX, was also utilized by nations to train their armies with a degree of realism never possible before.  Peter Hood had done what no one else had managed to accomplish---the creation of an entertainment & warfare conglomerate, creating in the process a new industry known as “war-tainment”.

Will, Vivian, and Mark all looked at him with keen interest in their eyes.

“It’s true.  Think it over carefully, Will,” added Chase.

The lights dimmed, the wall screen went black, and the conference room, now filled with wargamers, their agents, and the press, hushed.  A man wearing a white blazer, with a Wargamer’s Master Guild patch upon the right side, strode to the podium.  He was in his mid-forties, sported a white beard, and spoke with all the polish of a practiced PR-man.  His name was Gavin Redling, and he was one of a select few of Guild Battlemasters. “Good evening.  Welcome to the WMG’s beautiful Raleigh, North Carolina Battle HQ.  Tonight I will be reviewing the recently concluded Roman battle session.  But I also have a surprise.  Peter Hood will be making an historic announcement tonight, via the 8pm edition of the Situation Report, concerning the latest version of the VM software….”

 Immediately the room was abuzz with many speculating on whether or not this would be the announcement that Virtual Militaria version 10.0, or VMX for short, was ready to be released.  Like kids at Christmas, the assembled Guild members were atwitter with expectation. 

William glanced at Chase.  The only reaction he got was a smile….

Chapter Two

 

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “The Wargamer’s Master Guild is on top of the world.  WMG commands a dominate share of the weekend viewing audience, both for television and the hypernet.  WMG has just accepted its 50th member nation into its competitive fold, and WMG-JUNIOR is proving to be a big hit with kids.  Why such success?”

 

WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:  “I guess people just like watching a good fight!”

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “Surely there is more to it than that?”

 

WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:    “<laughing> Of course there is.    I suspect that like many things, the timing was just right.  Wargaming had the excitement and intellect people were looking for---and, I suspect, the sense of a shared enthusiast community that has proven so elusive in the modern world.”

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “Yet professional athletic sports have similar strengths but suffer from declining interest. What is different about wargaming?”

 

 WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:    “Nothing compares to war! <laughing> Sports are just a primitive attempt at imitating the core elements of a real battle.  With today’s technology, people are no longer satisfied with, say, blitzing a quarterback, they want the real deal---they want to see an actual blitzkrieg!  And today, with computer AI, we can give it to them!”

 

* * * *

 

            If there had been a clock on William’s wall, it would have been audibly ticking away the awkward moments between the reporter’s question and William’s brief, tongue-tied answers.  Unfortunately, there was no such clock, and William was forced to bear the silent moments between with only the nervous throbbing of his heart resounding in his head and the occasional fidgeting with his tie that seemed determined to choke him.

            “Is wargaming growing in popularity?” asked Lorena Franici, the very comely blonde reporter sent by the Raleigh Observer newspaper. 

            “Yes,” answered William, “it is.  It is growing, that is, increasing in people…I mean members….”  He smiled weakly and then began to nervously twiddle his thumbs, glancing about his living room as if it was the first time he had seen it. 

            “Um, I, ah, see,” replied Lorena, returning his weak smile.  She started shuffling the papers held on her lap, looking for another pre-written question.  “Do you, ah, do you think that...,” she paused to briefly glance at her notes, “…do you think that Virtual Military Ten will be a hit with the community?” she asked on a hopeful note.

            William stopped his wandering eyes and looked at her with a quizzical expression.  “Virtual Militaria Ten?  We just call it VMX for short.”

            A pained expression crossed the girl’s face as she quickly glanced at her notes.  “Oh, yes, you are right, of course…sorry.”  She glanced at William expectantly, but he just stared back.  “So, do you?”

            “Do I…what?” he asked.

            “Do you think it will be a hit?”

              “Oh! Ah, yeah, I mean yes it will,” he replied with an embarrassed smile. 

Lorena huffed and started to crinkle her notes.  She suddenly sat back in her chair and asked “Can I be honest with you?”

            William, glad that this question involved an easy answer nodded with enthusiasm. “Sure.”

            “This is not my usual beat,” she laughed in reply.  “I do the entertainment column normally---you know Hollywood gossip, that sort of thing.”  Sheepishly, “You can probably tell I’m out of my element here with my silly questions.”  She laughed again.  “Truth be told, I didn’t even write these!  I had someone else write up some questions for me.  You probably think I am terrible interviewer,” she added with a frown.  For the first time, William noticed that she had more than a touch of a North Carolinian accent in her voice.

            William the wargamer sensed vulnerability and reflexively took control of the situation.  “To be honest, I haven’t been too helpful either.  I, well, I hate giving interviews, but my agent insists that they are good for my career,” he answered with a smile.  “Tell you what, why don’t we start over?” 

            Lorena smiled.  “I would like that very much!”

            “Great,” replied Will as he stood.  “How about this?  Why don’t you ask me the questions you would like to know the answers to?  Even if it is basic stuff?” he suggested.

            “Okay, that would be wonderful!”  she replied.  “How about this one:  what is a wargame?  Is that basic enough?”  she asked with a smile.  “I mean, I know it’s an electronic game….”

            “Yes and no,” William interrupted as he returned from the adjoining kitchen with a can of soda and two glasses in his hand.  “Wargames are often run using computers and the hypernet, but many are still played without electronics.”  He poured soda into each glass, spilling some as his hand shook from being nervous.  “I would venture to say that most wargaming is done without electronics today, especially in the poorer nations.  Even in the wealthy U.S. of A., there is still a large group of wargamers who eschew computerized combat.  Call them wargaming luddites, I suppose.”  He hurried over to a nearby display case and carefully removed a small, lead figurine.  He brought it over and gently handed it to Lorena.  “That’s a miniature of a Confederate sniper from the Stonewall Brigade to be exact.  I painted it myself,” he added with self-satisfaction. 

            Lorena handled the figure gingerly.  “How cute!  It’s a little toy soldier.”

            William wrinkled his nose at her choice of words.  “It’s a 24mm miniature soldier,” he firmly corrected her, his pride bruised a bit.  “It’s used as a playing piece in tabletop wargames.”  He carefully took the lead soldier and put it back, with military precision, in its appointed position on the shelf.  “Although I confess I don’t have much time for miniatures anymore….”

            “Why do you wargame?” she asked, after taking a sip of soda.

            “Funny you should ask that.  My friends and I were just discussing that very question not too long ago….”  William sat down and stared at the ceiling.  “Did you know H. G. Wells was a wargamer?” he asked.

            “The famous sci-fi author?”

            William nodded.  “Yes.  He loved it so much, he actually wrote a book called Little Wars.  In it, he explored his own motivations for wargaming.  It is sort of like a psychological post-mortem,” he added with a grin. He stood again, hurried over to his well-stocked bookcase and pulled a battered volume from the shelf.  He walked back and handed it to her.  “In there, you can read his thoughts on the matter.  Basically, he said that wargaming allows someone to experience history, rather than be a bystander to it.  He also said that it allowed ‘glory without gore’.”  William laughed.  “Of course, through computers, we put some of the gore back in.” 

            Lorena leafed through the book.  “So is that why you play?”

            William thought about it for a few seconds.  “Yes, that pretty much sums up my motivation.  Just like the WMG’s motto: ‘For a love of history and glory’.”  He smiled slyly. 

            She closed the book and placed it on the coffee table.  “I don’t know.  I like history and all, but I honestly don’t see the fascination.”

            “Have you played?” William asked with real interest.

            “No, never,” she replied.

            William stood.  “Time for a field trip.  Come on.”

            “Where are we going?” she asked.

            “You are going to get your baptism of fire,” he replied with an eagerness in his eyes.

 

           

Chapter Two

 

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “The Wargamer’s Master Guild is on top of the world.  WMG commands a dominate share of the weekend viewing audience, both for television and the hypernet.  WMG has just accepted its 50th member nation into its competitive fold, and WMG-JUNIOR is proving to be a big hit with kids.  Why such success?”

 

WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:  “I guess people just like watching a good fight!”

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “Surely there is more to it than that?”

 

WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:    “<laughing> Of course there is.    I suspect that like many things, the timing was just right.  Wargaming had the excitement and intellect people were looking for---and, I suspect, the sense of a shared enthusiast community that has proven so elusive in the modern world.”

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “Yet professional athletic sports have similar strengths but suffer from declining interest. What is different about wargaming?”

 

 WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:    “Nothing compares to war! <laughing> Sports are just a primitive attempt at imitating the core elements of a real battle.  With today’s technology, people are no longer satisfied with, say, blitzing a quarterback, they want the real deal---they want to see an actual blitzkrieg!  And today, with computer AI, we can give it to them!”

 

* * * *

 

            If there had been a clock on William’s wall, it would have been audibly ticking away the awkward moments between the reporter’s question and William’s brief, tongue-tied answers.  Unfortunately, there was no such clock, and William was forced to bear the silent moments between with only the nervous throbbing of his heart resounding in his head and the occasional fidgeting with his tie that seemed determined to choke him.

            “Is wargaming growing in popularity?” asked Lorena Franici, the very comely blonde reporter sent by the Raleigh Observer newspaper. 

            “Yes,” answered William, “it is.  It is growing, that is, increasing in people…I mean members….”  He smiled weakly and then began to nervously twiddle his thumbs, glancing about his living room as if it was the first time he had seen it. 

            “Um, I, ah, see,” replied Lorena, returning his weak smile.  She started shuffling the papers held on her lap, looking for another pre-written question.  “Do you, ah, do you think that...,” she paused to briefly glance at her notes, “…do you think that Virtual Military Ten will be a hit with the community?” she asked on a hopeful note.

            William stopped his wandering eyes and looked at her with a quizzical expression.  “Virtual Militaria Ten?  We just call it VMX for short.”

            A pained expression crossed the girl’s face as she quickly glanced at her notes.  “Oh, yes, you are right, of course…sorry.”  She glanced at William expectantly, but he just stared back.  “So, do you?”

            “Do I…what?” he asked.

            “Do you think it will be a hit?”

              “Oh! Ah, yeah, I mean yes it will,” he replied with an embarrassed smile. 

Lorena huffed and started to crinkle her notes.  She suddenly sat back in her chair and asked “Can I be honest with you?”

            William, glad that this question involved an easy answer nodded with enthusiasm. “Sure.”

            “This is not my usual beat,” she laughed in reply.  “I do the entertainment column normally---you know Hollywood gossip, that sort of thing.”  Sheepishly, “You can probably tell I’m out of my element here with my silly questions.”  She laughed again.  “Truth be told, I didn’t even write these!  I had someone else write up some questions for me.  You probably think I am terrible interviewer,” she added with a frown.  For the first time, William noticed that she had more than a touch of a North Carolinian accent in her voice.

            William the wargamer sensed vulnerability and reflexively took control of the situation.  “To be honest, I haven’t been too helpful either.  I, well, I hate giving interviews, but my agent insists that they are good for my career,” he answered with a smile.  “Tell you what, why don’t we start over?” 

            Lorena smiled.  “I would like that very much!”

            “Great,” replied Will as he stood.  “How about this?  Why don’t you ask me the questions you would like to know the answers to?  Even if it is basic stuff?” he suggested.

            “Okay, that would be wonderful!”  she replied.  “How about this one:  what is a wargame?  Is that basic enough?”  she asked with a smile.  “I mean, I know it’s an electronic game….”

            “Yes and no,” William interrupted as he returned from the adjoining kitchen with a can of soda and two glasses in his hand.  “Wargames are often run using computers and the hypernet, but many are still played without electronics.”  He poured soda into each glass, spilling some as his hand shook from being nervous.  “I would venture to say that most wargaming is done without electronics today, especially in the poorer nations.  Even in the wealthy U.S. of A., there is still a large group of wargamers who eschew computerized combat.  Call them wargaming luddites, I suppose.”  He hurried over to a nearby display case and carefully removed a small, lead figurine.  He brought it over and gently handed it to Lorena.  “That’s a miniature of a Confederate sniper from the Stonewall Brigade to be exact.  I painted it myself,” he added with self-satisfaction. 

            Lorena handled the figure gingerly.  “How cute!  It’s a little toy soldier.”

            William wrinkled his nose at her choice of words.  “It’s a 24mm miniature soldier,” he firmly corrected her, his pride bruised a bit.  “It’s used as a playing piece in tabletop wargames.”  He carefully took the lead soldier and put it back, with military precision, in its appointed position on the shelf.  “Although I confess I don’t have much time for miniatures anymore….”

            “Why do you wargame?” she asked, after taking a sip of soda.

            “Funny you should ask that.  My friends and I were just discussing that very question not too long ago….”  William sat down and stared at the ceiling.  “Did you know H. G. Wells was a wargamer?” he asked.

            “The famous sci-fi author?”

            William nodded.  “Yes.  He loved it so much, he actually wrote a book called Little Wars.  In it, he explored his own motivations for wargaming.  It is sort of like a psychological post-mortem,” he added with a grin. He stood again, hurried over to his well-stocked bookcase and pulled a battered volume from the shelf.  He walked back and handed it to her.  “In there, you can read his thoughts on the matter.  Basically, he said that wargaming allows someone to experience history, rather than be a bystander to it.  He also said that it allowed ‘glory without gore’.”  William laughed.  “Of course, through computers, we put some of the gore back in.” 

            Lorena leafed through the book.  “So is that why you play?”

            William thought about it for a few seconds.  “Yes, that pretty much sums up my motivation.  Just like the WMG’s motto: ‘For a love of history and glory’.”  He smiled slyly. 

            She closed the book and placed it on the coffee table.  “I don’t know.  I like history and all, but I honestly don’t see the fascination.”

            “Have you played?” William asked with real interest.

            “No, never,” she replied.

            William stood.  “Time for a field trip.  Come on.”

            “Where are we going?” she asked.

            “You are going to get your baptism of fire,” he replied with an eagerness in his eyes.

 

            * * * *

 

            The professional wargamers each had an apartment at the WMG facility.  Located adjacent to the main building, the trip was only a few minutes by foot.  As they walked, the heavy gray sky started to drizzle a little.  “Rain and more rain, this April,” remarked William to no one in particular.

            “You know how it goes, ‘April showers bring May flowers’,” she intoned with a smile.  Her Southern accent was more pronounced than ever. 

            William could not but help smile at her girlishness.  “Call me crazy, but I like rainy days.  They don’t make me feel bad for spending my life indoors reading old military journals.” 

            “I like them too,” she replied.  “I’d rather be indoors any day of the week.” 

            William cocked an eyebrow.  “Would you be interested…,” William started to ask when he heard Mark and Vivian call his name.  

            The pair came jogging over from the main facility and stopped in front of William and Lorena.  Mark was clad in his usual blue jeans and WMG sweatshirt combo, while Vivian wore a green sleeveless blouse and a pair of black jeans. 

            “Hey Letters, how ya doing?” asked Vivien. 

            “Fine, Viv, how are you?” he replied.  But he never got an answer because Vivien was too busy giving Lorena the once-over to hear the question.

            “Who are you?” Vivian asked Lorena. 

            “Yeah, who are you,” repeated Mark with earnestness, offering his hand.

            “Guys, this is Lorena Fra, ah, Fran…yeah, this is Lorena.  She’s a reporter over at the Observer,” answered William.  “Lorena, this is Vivian and Mark, my two trusted co-conspirators.” 

             “I’m pleased to meet you both.” She replied with a big smile while grabbing Mark’s hand.  “Will is showing me around the campus.  Maybe I’ll get a chance to see you play as a team later?”  she asked the three wargamers. 

            Vivian gave her a blank look.  “Anyway Will, Mark and I are brainstorming tonight for the play testing of VMX.  Why don’t you come on by my apartment around 21:30?”

            “Okay, sounds good.  I will see you then,” he answered.

            “Great!” she replied. Then she turned to Mark.  “Come on, I don’t want to miss the start of the movie,” she told him and pulled on his arm.

            “Okay, we got to hurry along Will,” stated Mark.  “I’ll see you tonight.”  He turned to Lorena.  “It was a pleasure meeting you, madam,” gushed Mark as he reached to take Lorena’s hand. He didn’t have it long as Vivian gave him a sharp tug that almost pulled him off his feet. 

            The two hurried away, with Vivian occasionally looking over her shoulder at William and Lorena. 

            “Oh, Will, you started to ask me something,” stated Lorena.

            “What?  Oh, yeah.  Um, never mind.”  William ushered her along.  “Come on, let’s get inside before it rains harder.”   

 

* * * *

 

            After showing his WMG identification card to the security guard in the lobby, William and Lorena wound their way into bowels of the complex.  After a few twisting hallways, the pair found themselves in a part of the facility affectionately called The Study Hall.  It was a long, red-carpeted hallway with doors lining both sides.  Over each door was a red and green light, usually one of the pair being lit.  William led them to the nearest door with a green light and swiped his card in the scanner next to the door frame.  It opened and revealed a small, well-lit chamber filled with a desk and two chairs.  He closed the door behind them and told Lorena to have a seat.

            Before them were a specialized keyboard and a large monitor built into the gray desk.  At the moment the monitor only displayed the WMG’s logo.  The room was completely silent, except for the quiet breath of the air conditioning and the soft buzz of the fluorescent lighting.  

            ‘This,” stated William, breaking the tranquility of the room, “is where we practice our VM tactics and stratagems. He typed a few keys, bringing the monitor to life with a series of menus the purpose of which Lorena could only guess at.  ‘Of course, this doesn’t offer the realism that our televised games offer---for that you need to enter the sensory depravation chamber and jack directly into the WMG’s battle computer.    For a variety of reasons, we are not allowed to do that just for practice sessions.  But we can use the same battle software via an ordinary PC networked into the battle computer.”  A highly realistic pseudo-3D terrain map filled the 23” monitor.  A variety of units appeared near the bottom of the screen.  William began explaining the various keyboard commands necessary to wage virtual warfare when Lorena interrupted with a question.

            “Um, you aren’t expecting me to play this, are you?” she asked.

            “Of course,” he replied.  “It’s easy and I’ll be here to help you.”

            “I can’t!” she protested.  “Besides, don’t you guys get rated or something for every game you play?  I wouldn’t want to mess up your rating,” she added as a defense.

            William smiled.  “See, you do know something about wargaming after all.”  William earned a smile from Lorena in return for his observation.  “Anyway, this is an unrated, double-blind, practice session.  You won’t screw up my rating even if you lose.”

            “Double-blind?” she asked.

            “Yes.  In order to prevent a wargamer from gaining an unfair advantage by deliberating practicing with a particular player, the computer pairs-up practicing Guild members randomly as well as anonymously.  See?”  William pointed at the monitor.  At the top right of the screen was the number ‘139924’.  “That is the only bit of information made known to the participants and it is nothing more than a game identification number so, if I want, I can download the game at a later time and replay it for analysis.”

            “Every game is recorded then?” asked Lorena.

            “Practice games are retained for six months on the main server.  Rated games from official matches are retained permanently.  They become part of the WMG’s official library.  There are literally two hundred bound volumes in the library that contain nothing but page after page of match information and game ID numbers for Guild members to reference.  With the ID number any WMG member can download the game and re-watch it or feed it into his favorite assaying program for analysis.”

            Lorena thought for a few moments.  “I guess that ability really ratchets-up the quality of the competition, huh?”

            “Sure does.  You really have to prepare for a match when you know every game you ever played is being analyzed for a weakness.  Of course, that works both ways,” he added.

            “What’s your rating?” she asked.

            William furrowed his brow, “Um, around 2100…I think,” he replied.

            “You don’t know?” Lorena asked incredulously with a laugh.

            “It was never really important to me.  I play because...well, because I want to.”

            “You don’t say that like you really mean it,” Lorena replied.

            “I guess you can say that it is a love-hate relationship,” William replied.  “I enjoy the gaming, cannot resist it, but the pressure is really starting to get to me.  The more popular wargaming becomes, the more the Guild demands from its warrior class, so to speak.”  William leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temple.  “I guess you could call the whole sorry situation punishment for my sins,” he added with a laugh. 

            Lorena leaned forward.  “I doubt you have very many sins.”

            William avoided her gaze.  “Are we going to talk or fight?  Come on, let’s start this battle.”  His fingers flew across the keyboard.  “Okay, I selected an easy scenario for you.  The Battle of Sterling Bridge.”

            “The Battle of what-Bridge?” she asked with a laugh.

            “Have you seen the old movie Braveheart?” he asked.  She nodded.  “Well, the first major battle William Wallace fought actually took place at a bridge, not on a grassy field.”

            “Really?” she asked.  “I thought that movie was historically accurate,” she added.

            “Hah!” William exclaimed.  ‘Maybe for Hollywood it is! But in reality, that movie got more things wrong than right.  That is what happens when the script writer researched his subject after he had already written the story!  Only in Hollywood….” William added.  Lorena was frowning a little, so he thought he better change the subject.  “Wallace’s first major battle did not take place on a grassy field but at a bridge.  In reality, William Wallace waited for his opponent, John de Warenne, to start crossing the bridge so that he could deploy his men on the same side as Wallace. It was considered a polite courtesy to allow you opponent to get into position before molesting him.”

            “Ah, the good old days,” quipped Lorena.

            “Yeah, but Wallace helped end ‘em.  As Warenne‘s troops were in the process of crossing, Wallace attacked.  The English, now bottled-up on the bridge, unable to maneuver, were massacred.” 

            “He cheated?” she asked.

            “There is no ‘cheating’ in war.  All’s fair.  Or as General Patton remarked,” William closed his eyes in recitation, “victory is obtained by using the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wounds, death, and destruction upon the enemy in the shortest amount of time.”  William took a deep breath. 

            “You know, some people quote Shakespeare,” she smiled, chin in her hand as she leaned on the desk.

            “Welcome to the wonderful world of wargaming,” he retorted with a smile.  William glanced at the screen and typed a few more keystrokes.  “Okay, as soon as the computer finds an opponent for this scenario, the game will start.”

            Lorena pulled herself closer to the keyboard, recalling the brief instructions William had given her.  Suddenly, the units on the far side of the bridge started moving.  Lorena was amazed at how realistic everything looked.  Banners fluttered in the breeze, sunlight glinted off armor, even the river seemed to eddy in a realistic fashion.  The game looked magnificent.  It also sounded so, she suddenly realized.  The cry of orders, the clopity-clop of the enemy cavalry, even the slight whisper of the breeze through the grass of the field all surrounded her with complete verisimilitude. 

            “Pretty magnificent, isn’t it?” asked William, to which he only got a fascinated nod.  “Nowhere near the hyper-realistic experience of the full-blown virtual reality version we use for prime time, but not bad at all.”  He reached over and typed a few keys, bringing up an information-dense screen that obscured Lorena’s view of the battlefield.  She started to give a sharp protest, but William cut her off.  “Don’t worry, it will take your opponent a few moments to get his troops in order.  I just wanted to show you something,” he said as he pointed at the screen.  “See all these factors?”

            Lorena followed his finger.  On the left was a long laundry list of items such as fatigue, weapon metallurgy, panic tendency, bravery, intelligence, and on and on.  “What are they?”

            “VM in not some shallow beauty, but has real depth.  Every conceivable element in a battle is modeled down to the individual soldier.  Some are just best-guesses, other factors are assigned randomly, but, such as in the case of commanders, are modeled according to the evidence historians and archeologists have uncovered.”

            “Wow!”

            “To say the least.   Now you know why the VM series has been used for training purposes by military organizations around the world.”

            William closed the unit statistics screen and scanned the battlefield.  From the speakers mounted around the room, he could hear the metallic clank of armored medieval units on the march.  “Okay, quickly move your pikemen to the base of the bridge!”

            Lorena used the mouse to give orders to the unit to which William had pointed.  A few seconds after she indicated the move, she heard commands being issued by her avatar on the screen, William Wallace, who was mounted upon a magnificently rendered warhorse.  Her men rushed to the base of the bridge and set up a defensive position.

            “Remember,” William admonished, “that we must set-up an effective barricade against the English.  If they can get across the bridge, your position will become untenable and you will be overwhelmed.  Now, order your archers and crossbow men to flanking positions.  As the English begin to cross, we can bury them in a crossfire of arrows and bolts!” 

Lorena noticed that William’s eyes were aflame with intense emotion.  She did what she was told and was rewarded with some on-screen action.  Her archers and crossbowmen began releasing volley after volley of missiles, resulting in more than a few Englishmen falling off the bridge.

“Here,” William uttered as he pushed her hand from the mouse and took control, “you can zoom in and see the action up close.”  Using the mouse wheel, he zoomed in on the action. 

Lorena was repulsed by what she saw.  Arrows lanced into bodies, generating all too real spurts of blood and cries of pain.  As she watched, William ordered a unit of Highland Clansmen into the fray.  With a yell, they ran to support the pikemen who were just beginning to engage a foray of English men-at-arms. Still zoomed in, Lorena could see limbs being hacked off by Highlander swords, their victim’s faces anguished by pain, and even one English soldier clinging to his entrails as a comrade tried to drag him from the battle.  “Please, zoom out.”

William could barely pull his eyes from the screen.  “What, huh?” he asked. 

‘I don’t need to see all the…detail,” she added.

Red-faced, he zoomed out to a more tactical picture.  “It can get intense,” he added.

Lorena smiled politely.  “What next?” she added.

“Just keep reinforcing the bridge.  When you see our opponent commit his royal knights, send your own in to counter.  If we can beat them, the battle will be ours.”

The battle was unrelenting for the next few minutes---Lorena was surprised by the fact that she was actually breaking a sweat!  After the bridge was literally awash with the blood of both Scotsmen and English, her opponent committed his (her?) royal knights to break the deadlock at the end of her side of the bridge. 

“Okay, now ride into that mess and send your foe to hell!” exclaimed William.  Lorena made a few mouse clicks and sent her own royal knights into battle at a trot.  “No!” exclaimed William, “charge!” he clarified.  He took the mouse from her hand and set her knights on a swift collision course with the enemy.  With a teeth-chattering impact, Lorena’s knights smashed into their English counterparts.  Armor-piecing lances skewered many a horse-borne rider at the midpoint of Sterling Bridge.  Both Scotsman and English fell from their warhorses---one unfortunate virtual Englishman actually had his head removed from his torso by the impact of a lance into his face.  Lorena felt both revulsion and exaltation at the sight.  Before long, the Scots began to gain the upper hand.  Dropping their lances and removing their swords from their scabbards, the battle became a melee of knight versus knight both on horseback and off.  But the Scots had the advantage.  At the advice of William, Lorena had instructed her crossbowmen to conserve their bolts and now, also at the urging of William, unleashed them once again upon the English.  The forces of John de Warenne, assailed by bolt and sword, broke.  Even better, to the triumph of both William and Lorena, the fleeing personage of de Warenne himself was struck from his horse and skewered by the sword of a Highlander as he attempted to flee the battlefield.  His troops, now leaderless, began to take flight en masse.  “Okay, pursue them to the far end of the bridge, but only that far.  We don’t want to get caught by a counter-ambush,” he added.  In a few moments, the battle was over.  The screen displayed the final statistics, and Lorena sighed with relief. 

“Fun, no?” asked William as he began fishing in his pockets.

Lorena thought for a few moments.  “Yeah, it was,” she replied with a giggle. 

William found what he was looking for in his pockets, and removed a small bottle of pills.  Unscrewing the top, he quickly swallowed two. “Best game in the world,” he stated with a grin.

“Aspirin?” she asked.

“Yeah…I am prone to migraines,” he answered with a dismissive shrug.  

“Could it be the….” Lorena started to ask, but William cut her off.

“So now what do you think of my little hobby?” he asked. 

‘It is certainly…diverting,” she answered.

William grunted.  “To say the least,” he retorted. 

Lorena ran her fingers through her blonde hair. “How does VM Ten figure into this?” she asked.

“VMX?” William asked.  “How do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, Peter Hood announced VMX a few nights ago, right?  How is it different from…” she gestured towards the display screen, “from this?” she asked.

“Ask me tomorrow,” answered William.  “Other than some superficial descriptions, we really do not know.  It is all very hush-hush.  Tomorrow, my team and I will get a chance to try out the new software.  From what I understand, most of the changes will be below the surface.”

“Huh?” asked Lorena.

“A lot of the modifications have to do with the security protocol the software uses to encrypt the game information.  From what I hear, it has been improved by a factor of ten.” 

Lorena pondered that.  “Have there been problems with data security?”

William shook his head.  “No.  I’m not quite sure why so much effort went into this aspect of the program.”  William ran his fingers over the keyboard of the console with great delicateness.  “I also understand that there is a ‘new and improved’,” William smiled, “modern combat engine included in VMX.

“Oh, you mean this version….”

“….VMIX,.” interjected William.

“VMIX could not fight modern battles?” Lorena asked.

“No, it can.  But the heart and soul of the engine has always been ancient and medieval warfare---a reflection of the early prejudices of Peter Hood. But this new version is supposed to have a new kick-ass,” William started to stutter, “ah, if you pardon the expression,” he added with an embarrassed smile, “modern combat engine.”

Lorena studied William.  “You don’t care for that, do you?” she asked.

William stood.  “I am a wargamer---all of military history interests me.  But modern combat lacks the honor of ancient and medieval warfare.  Nowadays, you lead troops via virtual reality links from the safety of a battle bunker a hundred miles away from the FEBA…er, ‘Forward Edge of the Battle Area’.”  Lorena nodded at the explanation.  “Back then,” William indicated the final statistics screen of the recently concluded virtual battle, “you led from the front.  To go to war was to put your very life on the line.  Alas,” he added, “this has not been the way of the world for some time,” he concluded with a frown, “at least, not since the American Civil War.” 

“And the world is worse for it,” added Lorena, her gaze steady upon William. 

William met her eyes.  “Yes…exactly.” 

“So why did they pick you and your friends to test VMX?  Why not someone more enamored with modern warfare?” she asked. 

“I do not know,” he replied with all candor.  ‘Maybe they wanted a critical eye?” he asked Lorena.

She just shrugged.  “I guess you will find out tomorrow.”

“I guess I will,” he replied.

 

* * * *

Chapter Two

 

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “The Wargamer’s Master Guild is on top of the world.  WMG commands a dominate share of the weekend viewing audience, both for television and the hypernet.  WMG has just accepted its 50th member nation into its competitive fold, and WMG-JUNIOR is proving to be a big hit with kids.  Why such success?”

 

WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:  “I guess people just like watching a good fight!”

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “Surely there is more to it than that?”

 

WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:    “<laughing> Of course there is.    I suspect that like many things, the timing was just right.  Wargaming had the excitement and intellect people were looking for---and, I suspect, the sense of a shared enthusiast community that has proven so elusive in the modern world.”

 

The Situation Report’s Saul Herzog:   “Yet professional athletic sports have similar strengths but suffer from declining interest. What is different about wargaming?”

 

 WMG’s Chief Officer Peter Hood:    “Nothing compares to war! <laughing> Sports are just a primitive attempt at imitating the core elements of a real battle.  With today’s technology, people are no longer satisfied with, say, blitzing a quarterback, they want the real deal---they want to see an actual blitzkrieg!  And today, with computer AI, we can give it to them!”

 

* * * *

 

            If there had been a clock on William’s wall, it would have been audibly ticking away the awkward moments between the reporter’s question and William’s brief, tongue-tied answers.  Unfortunately, there was no such clock, and William was forced to bear the silent moments between with only the nervous throbbing of his heart resounding in his head and the occasional fidgeting with his tie that seemed determined to choke him.

            “Is wargaming growing in popularity?” asked Lorena Franici, the very comely blonde reporter sent by the Raleigh Observer newspaper. 

            “Yes,” answered William, “it is.  It is growing, that is, increasing in people…I mean members….”  He smiled weakly and then began to nervously twiddle his thumbs, glancing about his living room as if it was the first time he had seen it. 

            “Um, I, ah, see,” replied Lorena, returning his weak smile.  She started shuffling the papers held on her lap, looking for another pre-written question.  “Do you, ah, do you think that...,” she paused to briefly glance at her notes, “…do you think that Virtual Military Ten will be a hit with the community?” she asked on a hopeful note.

            William stopped his wandering eyes and looked at her with a quizzical expression.  “Virtual Militaria Ten?  We just call it VMX for short.”

            A pained expression crossed the girl’s face as she quickly glanced at her notes.  “Oh, yes, you are right, of course…sorry.”  She glanced at William expectantly, but he just stared back.  “So, do you?”

            “Do I…what?” he asked.

            “Do you think it will be a hit?”

              “Oh! Ah, yeah, I mean yes it will,” he replied with an embarrassed smile. 

Lorena huffed and started to crinkle her notes.  She suddenly sat back in her chair and asked “Can I be honest with you?”

            William, glad that this question involved an easy answer nodded with enthusiasm. “Sure.”

            “This is not my usual beat,” she laughed in reply.  “I do the entertainment column normally---you know Hollywood gossip, that sort of thing.”  Sheepishly, “You can probably tell I’m out of my element here with my silly questions.”  She laughed again.  “Truth be told, I didn’t even write these!  I had someone else write up some questions for me.  You probably think I am terrible interviewer,” she added with a frown.  For the first time, William noticed that she had more than a touch of a North Carolinian accent in her voice.

            William the wargamer sensed vulnerability and reflexively took control of the situation.  “To be honest, I haven’t been too helpful either.  I, well, I hate giving interviews, but my agent insists that they are good for my career,” he answered with a smile.  “Tell you what, why don’t we start over?” 

            Lorena smiled.  “I would like that very much!”

            “Great,” replied Will as he stood.  “How about this?  Why don’t you ask me the questions you would like to know the answers to?  Even if it is basic stuff?” he suggested.

            “Okay, that would be wonderful!”  she replied.  “How about this one:  what is a wargame?  Is that basic enough?”  she asked with a smile.  “I mean, I know it’s an electronic game….”

            “Yes and no,” William interrupted as he returned from the adjoining kitchen with a can of soda and two glasses in his hand.  “Wargames are often run using computers and the hypernet, but many are still played without electronics.”  He poured soda into each glass, spilling some as his hand shook from being nervous.  “I would venture to say that most wargaming is done without electronics today, especially in the poorer nations.  Even in the wealthy U.S. of A., there is still a large group of wargamers who eschew computerized combat.  Call them wargaming luddites, I suppose.”  He hurried over to a nearby display case and carefully removed a small, lead figurine.  He brought it over and gently handed it to Lorena.  “That’s a miniature of a Confederate sniper from the Stonewall Brigade to be exact.  I painted it myself,” he added with self-satisfaction. 

            Lorena handled the figure gingerly.  “How cute!  It’s a little toy soldier.”

            William wrinkled his nose at her choice of words.  “It’s a 24mm miniature soldier,” he firmly corrected her, his pride bruised a bit.  “It’s used as a playing piece in tabletop wargames.”  He carefully took the lead soldier and put it back, with military precision, in its appointed position on the shelf.  “Although I confess I don’t have much time for miniatures anymore….”

            “Why do you wargame?” she asked, after taking a sip of soda.

            “Funny you should ask that.  My friends and I were just discussing that very question not too long ago….”  William sat down and stared at the ceiling.  “Did you know H. G. Wells was a wargamer?” he asked.

            “The famous sci-fi author?”

            William nodded.  “Yes.  He loved it so much, he actually wrote a book called Little Wars.  In it, he explored his own motivations for wargaming.  It is sort of like a psychological post-mortem,” he added with a grin. He stood again, hurried over to his well-stocked bookcase and pulled a battered volume from the shelf.  He walked back and handed it to her.  “In there, you can read his thoughts on the matter.  Basically, he said that wargaming allows someone to experience history, rather than be a bystander to it.  He also said that it allowed ‘glory without gore’.”  William laughed.  “Of course, through computers, we put some of the gore back in.” 

            Lorena leafed through the book.  “So is that why you play?”

            William thought about it for a few seconds.  “Yes, that pretty much sums up my motivation.  Just like the WMG’s motto: ‘For a love of history and glory’.”  He smiled slyly. 

            She closed the book and placed it on the coffee table.  “I don’t know.  I like history and all, but I honestly don’t see the fascination.”

            “Have you played?” William asked with real interest.

            “No, never,” she replied.

            William stood.  “Time for a field trip.  Come on.”

            “Where are we going?” she asked.

            “You are going to get your baptism of fire,” he replied with an eagerness in his eyes.

 

            * * * *

 

            The professional wargamers each had an apartment at the WMG facility.  Located adjacent to the main building, the trip was only a few minutes by foot.  As they walked, the heavy gray sky started to drizzle a little.  “Rain and more rain, this April,” remarked William to no one in particular.

            “You know how it goes, ‘April showers bring May flowers’,” she intoned with a smile.  Her Southern accent was more pronounced than ever. 

            William could not but help smile at her girlishness.  “Call me crazy, but I like rainy days.  They don’t make me feel bad for spending my life indoors reading old military journals.” 

            “I like them too,” she replied.  “I’d rather be indoors any day of the week.” 

            William cocked an eyebrow.  “Would you be interested…,” William started to ask when he heard Mark and Vivian call his name.  

            The pair came jogging over from the main facility and stopped in front of William and Lorena.  Mark was clad in his usual blue jeans and WMG sweatshirt combo, while Vivian wore a green sleeveless blouse and a pair of black jeans. 

            “Hey Letters, how ya doing?” asked Vivien. 

            “Fine, Viv, how are you?” he replied.  But he never got an answer because Vivien was too busy giving Lorena the once-over to hear the question.

            “Who are you?” Vivian asked Lorena. 

            “Yeah, who are you,” repeated Mark with earnestness, offering his hand.

            “Guys, this is Lorena Fra, ah, Fran…yeah, this is Lorena.  She’s a reporter over at the Observer,” answered William.  “Lorena, this is Vivian and Mark, my two trusted co-conspirators.” 

             “I’m pleased to meet you both.” She replied with a big smile while grabbing Mark’s hand.  “Will is showing me around the campus.  Maybe I’ll get a chance to see you play as a team later?”  she asked the three wargamers. 

            Vivian gave her a blank look.  “Anyway Will, Mark and I are brainstorming tonight for the play testing of VMX.  Why don’t you come on by my apartment around 21:30?”

            “Okay, sounds good.  I will see you then,” he answered.

            “Great!” she replied. Then she turned to Mark.  “Come on, I don’t want to miss the start of the movie,” she told him and pulled on his arm.

            “Okay, we got to hurry along Will,” stated Mark.  “I’ll see you tonight.”  He turned to Lorena.  “It was a pleasure meeting you, madam,” gushed Mark as he reached to take Lorena’s hand. He didn’t have it long as Vivian gave him a sharp tug that almost pulled him off his feet. 

            The two hurried away, with Vivian occasionally looking over her shoulder at William and Lorena. 

            “Oh, Will, you started to ask me something,” stated Lorena.

            “What?  Oh, yeah.  Um, never mind.”  William ushered her along.  “Come on, let’s get inside before it rains harder.”   

 

* * * *

 

            After showing his WMG identification card to the security guard in the lobby, William and Lorena wound their way into bowels of the complex.  After a few twisting hallways, the pair found themselves in a part of the facility affectionately called The Study Hall.  It was a long, red-carpeted hallway with doors lining both sides.  Over each door was a red and green light, usually one of the pair being lit.  William led them to the nearest door with a green light and swiped his card in the scanner next to the door frame.  It opened and revealed a small, well-lit chamber filled with a desk and two chairs.  He closed the door behind them and told Lorena to have a seat.

            Before them were a specialized keyboard and a large monitor built into the gray desk.  At the moment the monitor only displayed the WMG’s logo.  The room was completely silent, except for the quiet breath of the air conditioning and the soft buzz of the fluorescent lighting.  

            ‘This,” stated William, breaking the tranquility of the room, “is where we practice our VM tactics and stratagems. He typed a few keys, bringing the monitor to life with a series of menus the purpose of which Lorena could only guess at.  ‘Of course, this doesn’t offer the realism that our televised games offer---for that you need to enter the sensory depravation chamber and jack directly into the WMG’s battle computer.    For a variety of reasons, we are not allowed to do that just for practice sessions.  But we can use the same battle software via an ordinary PC networked into the battle computer.”  A highly realistic pseudo-3D terrain map filled the 23” monitor.  A variety of units appeared near the bottom of the screen.  William began explaining the various keyboard commands necessary to wage virtual warfare when Lorena interrupted with a question.

            “Um, you aren’t expecting me to play this, are you?” she asked.

            “Of course,” he replied.  “It’s easy and I’ll be here to help you.”

            “I can’t!” she protested.  “Besides, don’t you guys get rated or something for every game you play?  I wouldn’t want to mess up your rating,” she added as a defense.

            William smiled.  “See, you do know something about wargaming after all.”  William earned a smile from Lorena in return for his observation.  “Anyway, this is an unrated, double-blind, practice session.  You won’t screw up my rating even if you lose.”

            “Double-blind?” she asked.

            “Yes.  In order to prevent a wargamer from gaining an unfair advantage by deliberating practicing with a particular player, the computer pairs-up practicing Guild members randomly as well as anonymously.  See?”  William pointed at the monitor.  At the top right of the screen was the number ‘139924’.  “That is the only bit of information made known to the participants and it is nothing more than a game identification number so, if I want, I can download the game at a later time and replay it for analysis.”

            “Every game is recorded then?” asked Lorena.

            “Practice games are retained for six months on the main server.  Rated games from official matches are retained permanently.  They become part of the WMG’s official library.  There are literally two hundred bound volumes in the library that contain nothing but page after page of match information and game ID numbers for Guild members to reference.  With the ID number any WMG member can download the game and re-watch it or feed it into his favorite assaying program for analysis.”

            Lorena thought for a few moments.  “I guess that ability really ratchets-up the quality of the competition, huh?”

            “Sure does.  You really have to prepare for a match when you know every game you ever played is being analyzed for a weakness.  Of course, that works both ways,” he added.

            “What’s your rating?” she asked.

            William furrowed his brow, “Um, around 2100…I think,” he replied.

            “You don’t know?” Lorena asked incredulously with a laugh.

            “It was never really important to me.  I play because...well, because I want to.”

            “You don’t say that like you really mean it,” Lorena replied.

            “I guess you can say that it is a love-hate relationship,” William replied.  “I enjoy the gaming, cannot resist it, but the pressure is really starting to get to me.  The more popular wargaming becomes, the more the Guild demands from its warrior class, so to speak.”  William leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temple.  “I guess you could call the whole sorry situation punishment for my sins,” he added with a laugh. 

            Lorena leaned forward.  “I doubt you have very many sins.”

            William avoided her gaze.  “Are we going to talk or fight?  Come on, let’s start this battle.”  His fingers flew across the keyboard.  “Okay, I selected an easy scenario for you.  The Battle of Sterling Bridge.”

            “The Battle of what-Bridge?” she asked with a laugh.

            “Have you seen the old movie Braveheart?” he asked.  She nodded.  “Well, the first major battle William Wallace fought actually took place at a bridge, not on a grassy field.”

            “Really?” she asked.  “I thought that movie was historically accurate,” she added.

            “Hah!” William exclaimed.  ‘Maybe for Hollywood it is! But in reality, that movie got more things wrong than right.  That is what happens when the script writer researched his subject after he had already written the story!  Only in Hollywood….” William added.  Lorena was frowning a little, so he thought he better change the subject.  “Wallace’s first major battle did not take place on a grassy field but at a bridge.  In reality, William Wallace waited for his opponent, John de Warenne, to start crossing the bridge so that he could deploy his men on the same side as Wallace. It was considered a polite courtesy to allow you opponent to get into position before molesting him.”

            “Ah, the good old days,” quipped Lorena.

            “Yeah, but Wallace helped end ‘em.  As Warenne‘s troops were in the process of crossing, Wallace attacked.  The English, now bottled-up on the bridge, unable to maneuver, were massacred.” 

            “He cheated?” she asked.

            “There is no ‘cheating’ in war.  All’s fair.  Or as General Patton remarked,” William closed his eyes in recitation, “victory is obtained by using the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wounds, death, and destruction upon the enemy in the shortest amount of time.”  William took a deep breath. 

            “You know, some people quote Shakespeare,” she smiled, chin in her hand as she leaned on the desk.

            “Welcome to the wonderful world of wargaming,” he retorted with a smile.  William glanced at the screen and typed a few more keystrokes.  “Okay, as soon as the computer finds an opponent for this scenario, the game will start.”

            Lorena pulled herself closer to the keyboard, recalling the brief instructions William had given her.  Suddenly, the units on the far side of the bridge started moving.  Lorena was amazed at how realistic everything looked.  Banners fluttered in the breeze, sunlight glinted off armor, even the river seemed to eddy in a realistic fashion.  The game looked magnificent.  It also sounded so, she suddenly realized.  The cry of orders, the clopity-clop of the enemy cavalry, even the slight whisper of the breeze through the grass of the field all surrounded her with complete verisimilitude. 

            “Pretty magnificent, isn’t it?” asked William, to which he only got a fascinated nod.  “Nowhere near the hyper-realistic experience of the full-blown virtual reality version we use for prime time, but not bad at all.”  He reached over and typed a few keys, bringing up an information-dense screen that obscured Lorena’s view of the battlefield.  She started to give a sharp protest, but William cut her off.  “Don’t worry, it will take your opponent a few moments to get his troops in order.  I just wanted to show you something,” he said as he pointed at the screen.  “See all these factors?”

            Lorena followed his finger.  On the left was a long laundry list of items such as fatigue, weapon metallurgy, panic tendency, bravery, intelligence, and on and on.  “What are they?”

            “VM in not some shallow beauty, but has real depth.  Every conceivable element in a battle is modeled down to the individual soldier.  Some are just best-guesses, other factors are assigned randomly, but, such as in the case of commanders, are modeled according to the evidence historians and archeologists have uncovered.”

            “Wow!”

            “To say the least.   Now you know why the VM series has been used for training purposes by military organizations around the world.”

            William closed the unit statistics screen and scanned the battlefield.  From the speakers mounted around the room, he could hear the metallic clank of armored medieval units on the march.  “Okay, quickly move your pikemen to the base of the bridge!”

            Lorena used the mouse to give orders to the unit to which William had pointed.  A few seconds after she indicated the move, she heard commands being issued by her avatar on the screen, William Wallace, who was mounted upon a magnificently rendered warhorse.  Her men rushed to the base of the bridge and set up a defensive position.

            “Remember,” William admonished, “that we must set-up an effective barricade against the English.  If they can get across the bridge, your position will become untenable and you will be overwhelmed.  Now, order your archers and crossbow men to flanking positions.  As the English begin to cross, we can bury them in a crossfire of arrows and bolts!” 

Lorena noticed that William’s eyes were aflame with intense emotion.  She did what she was told and was rewarded with some on-screen action.  Her archers and crossbowmen began releasing volley after volley of missiles, resulting in more than a few Englishmen falling off the bridge.

“Here,” William uttered as he pushed her hand from the mouse and took control, “you can zoom in and see the action up close.”  Using the mouse wheel, he zoomed in on the action. 

Lorena was repulsed by what she saw.  Arrows lanced into bodies, generating all too real spurts of blood and cries of pain.  As she watched, William ordered a unit of Highland Clansmen into the fray.  With a yell, they ran to support the pikemen who were just beginning to engage a foray of English men-at-arms. Still zoomed in, Lorena could see limbs being hacked off by Highlander swords, their victim’s faces anguished by pain, and even one English soldier clinging to his entrails as a comrade tried to drag him from the battle.  “Please, zoom out.”

William could barely pull his eyes from the screen.  “What, huh?” he asked. 

‘I don’t need to see all the…detail,” she added.

Red-faced, he zoomed out to a more tactical picture.  “It can get intense,” he added.

Lorena smiled politely.  “What next?” she added.

“Just keep reinforcing the bridge.  When you see our opponent commit his royal knights, send your own in to counter.  If we can beat them, the battle will be ours.”

The battle was unrelenting for the next few minutes---Lorena was surprised by the fact that she was actually breaking a sweat!  After the bridge was literally awash with the blood of both Scotsmen and English, her opponent committed his (her?) royal knights to break the deadlock at the end of her side of the bridge. 

“Okay, now ride into that mess and send your foe to hell!” exclaimed William.  Lorena made a few mouse clicks and sent her own royal knights into battle at a trot.  “No!” exclaimed William, “charge!” he clarified.  He took the mouse from her hand and set her knights on a swift collision course with the enemy.  With a teeth-chattering impact, Lorena’s knights smashed into their English counterparts.  Armor-piecing lances skewered many a horse-borne rider at the midpoint of Sterling Bridge.  Both Scotsman and English fell from their warhorses---one unfortunate virtual Englishman actually had his head removed from his torso by the impact of a lance into his face.  Lorena felt both revulsion and exaltation at the sight.  Before long, the Scots began to gain the upper hand.  Dropping their lances and removing their swords from their scabbards, the battle became a melee of knight versus knight both on horseback and off.  But the Scots had the advantage.  At the advice of William, Lorena had instructed her crossbowmen to conserve their bolts and now, also at the urging of William, unleashed them once again upon the English.  The forces of John de Warenne, assailed by bolt and sword, broke.  Even better, to the triumph of both William and Lorena, the fleeing personage of de Warenne himself was struck from his horse and skewered by the sword of a Highlander as he attempted to flee the battlefield.  His troops, now leaderless, began to take flight en masse.  “Okay, pursue them to the far end of the bridge, but only that far.  We don’t want to get caught by a counter-ambush,” he added.  In a few moments, the battle was over.  The screen displayed the final statistics, and Lorena sighed with relief. 

“Fun, no?” asked William as he began fishing in his pockets.

Lorena thought for a few moments.  “Yeah, it was,” she replied with a giggle. 

William found what he was looking for in his pockets, and removed a small bottle of pills.  Unscrewing the top, he quickly swallowed two. “Best game in the world,” he stated with a grin.

“Aspirin?” she asked.

“Yeah…I am prone to migraines,” he answered with a dismissive shrug.  

“Could it be the….” Lorena started to ask, but William cut her off.

“So now what do you think of my little hobby?” he asked. 

‘It is certainly…diverting,” she answered.

William grunted.  “To say the least,” he retorted. 

Lorena ran her fingers through her blonde hair. “How does VM Ten figure into this?” she asked.

“VMX?” William asked.  “How do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, Peter Hood announced VMX a few nights ago, right?  How is it different from…” she gestured towards the display screen, “from this?” she asked.

“Ask me tomorrow,” answered William.  “Other than some superficial descriptions, we really do not know.  It is all very hush-hush.  Tomorrow, my team and I will get a chance to try out the new software.  From what I understand, most of the changes will be below the surface.”

“Huh?” asked Lorena.

“A lot of the modifications have to do with the security protocol the software uses to encrypt the game information.  From what I hear, it has been improved by a factor of ten.” 

Lorena pondered that.  “Have there been problems with data security?”

William shook his head.  “No.  I’m not quite sure why so much effort went into this aspect of the program.”  William ran his fingers over the keyboard of the console with great delicateness.  “I also understand that there is a ‘new and improved’,” William smiled, “modern combat engine included in VMX.

“Oh, you mean this version….”

“….VMIX,.” interjected William.

“VMIX could not fight modern battles?” Lorena asked.

“No, it can.  But the heart and soul of the engine has always been ancient and medieval warfare---a reflection of the early prejudices of Peter Hood. But this new version is supposed to have a new kick-ass,” William started to stutter, “ah, if you pardon the expression,” he added with an embarrassed smile, “modern combat engine.”

Lorena studied William.  “You don’t care for that, do you?” she asked.

William stood.  “I am a wargamer---all of military history interests me.  But modern combat lacks the honor of ancient and medieval warfare.  Nowadays, you lead troops via virtual reality links from the safety of a battle bunker a hundred miles away from the FEBA…er, ‘Forward Edge of the Battle Area’.”  Lorena nodded at the explanation.  “Back then,” William indicated the final statistics screen of the recently concluded virtual battle, “you led from the front.  To go to war was to put your very life on the line.  Alas,” he added, “this has not been the way of the world for some time,” he concluded with a frown, “at least, not since the American Civil War.” 

“And the world is worse for it,” added Lorena, her gaze steady upon William. 

William met her eyes.  “Yes…exactly.” 

“So why did they pick you and your friends to test VMX?  Why not someone more enamored with modern warfare?” she asked. 

“I do not know,” he replied with all candor.  ‘Maybe they wanted a critical eye?” he asked Lorena.

She just shrugged.  “I guess you will find out tomorrow.”

“I guess I will,” he replied.

 

* * * *