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Play by the Rules

by Mike Nelson

Shadrach Kogleogu stumbled down the steps of his apartment building and into the bright, shiny new day. Late again, he thought as he blinked into the sun, Dave's gonna fuckin yell at me for sure. Too damn many hours spent online the night before, and the night before that, and before that. Too few hours in the rack. He yawned and made his way crookedly down the street.

The streets of the city echoed with the usual bleating of Flagstaff morning. He stopped at a local mocha cart and grabbed a styro of cappuccino. He yawned before sipping the scalding drink, and progressing towards Bookman's. He flipped his long hair back constantly, and adjusted the waistband of his loose green pants. Dave hated it when his workers didn't dress 'professional.' 'This is retail!' He would yell. 'You are on sale as much as our merchandise!'

Dave could stick it up his ass.

He rounded the corner, and saw the storefront of the large used book store. BOOKMAN'S USED BOOKS, SOFTWARE, MUSIC AND GAMES, the new sign beckoned in liquid neon red. Shad shook his head. The store had once been a pretty cool place to be, but ever since Dave took over things had been going to hell. Neon, he thought ruefully. Next thing you know we'll have a lime green canopy like every other bullshit place on this block.

He pulled the glass door open quickly, and started for his usual corner behind the software counter. Dave spotted him immediately.

"Welcome to our store, Mr. Kogleogu, is there anything I might be able to help you find?"

Dave always thought he was funny. He was actually a piece of shit.

"Sorry Dave, rough night last night." Shadrach moved behind the software counter and started going through the software that had come in while he had been gone.

"I'm sorry," Dave said, moving closer. Shad could smell the vile stench of his cologne. "Only employees are supposed to be behind the counter, I'm going to have to ask you to leave.:"

"Knock it off Dave. Look I'm sorry, it won't happen again, OK?"

"Your right about that, Shad. Your fired."

"Come on Dave! You know Frank won't let you fire me. I'm the Software part of the BOOKMAN"S BOOKS, SOFTWARE, and MUSIC. You fire me, this place goes in the toilet."

Dave's face suddenly flushed a bright shade of red. "Frank has placed me in charge of his business! He has entrusted me with overseeing employment and severance. I therefore sever you Shadrach, now get out!"

Shad stood, knowing how he should react, but resisted. He could feel the need to yell back in the guys face, tell him what a dick he was, and storm out. But he had done that on the three previous jobs before this, and he was sick of the feeling. He needed this job, needed to get himself going, make something of himself.

"Look Dave, I know that I haven't been your best worker, been late, don't dress right, wear my hair long, all that. But if you give me another chance, I'll show you. I'll get my hair cut, wear the right clothes, and I'll come in on time. You can't afford to be with out a software expert, and I know all the routines." He went around the corner and stuck out his hand. "Look I'll even take the day off to do it, come in tomorrow morning completely different, whattaya say?" Shad gritted his teeth against what he was doing.

Dave looked at him in amazement, jaw open, face back to normal. He frowned, squinting as if he were confused by something. He took the offered hand. "Uh . . .ok." He walked away, shaking his head.

Dave smiled, and went out the door, and back onto the street. He'd broken the pattern! Cut-n-Locks was just down the street, he would stop there, shed his scraggly hair, and stop by the thrift store for a more appropriate set of clothes. He whistled as he walked, noticing a young girl on a tricycle.

"Your not playing right." She said as he passed by.

Shadrach paused, struck. "What?" he turned, facing her. She had shoulder length brown hair, a red dress, and black patent leather shoes. She stared at him, blankly.

"Have you seen my mommy?" She asked, a tear starting to form in one eye.

"Jessica!" A voice sounded beside him, "I've been looking all over for you!"

A pretty woman dressed in slacks and a grey blouse rushed towards the little girl. "This man hasn't hurt you has he?" She looked at Shad with a frown.

"No." The girl held her arms out, allowed herself to be lifted.

Shad turned, "Sorry." He began walking down the street.

"You're not playing right." A male voice sounded behind him, where the girl and mother stood together.

Shad spun. "What?"

"I beg your pardon?" The woman asked, holding the little girl tightly.

"Did you say something?"

"No." She turned, gripping the trike with one hand. "Come on Jesse." She hurried away.

Shadrach shook his head. Way too late last night.

Shadrach Kogleogu awoke before the alarm. He switched it off before it could ring, got up, and took a shower. His now short hair cleaned much faster than previously. He sang in the shower.

After dressing in pants, long sleeved denim shirt, and carefully placing a tie, Shadrach poured a bowl of Wheaties and sat down to eat and read a paper. He didn't notice that he was whistling the entire time.

After eating, he snagged a Danish and exited the apartment building, his new-- well, new used-- leather shoes clicked smartly on the pavement. The street bleated the morning rush.

A stray dog wagged its tail at his approach. Normally he would have tossed the mutt a bit of his Danish, but today he passed by without pause.

"Your not playing right." The dog said as he passed by.

"I don't hear that!" Shadrach said to himself as he continued towards Bookman's. The bright neon signed beckoned too him. Attractive, he thought suddenly, and noticed they were installing an awning over the business. Be much cooler in the summer, he thought as he opened the door.

Dave gaped at him from the desk behind the book counter.

"Good morning Mr. Patterson." Shad called as he progressed towards the software area. Dave stood and came towards him.

"Shad?" Dave stared at him from the opposite end of the software counter.

"Like it?" Shad opened his arms to give him the full view. "And I didn't go on-line at all last night, got a good night's sleep. Ready and willing to work hard for you, Mr. Patterson!"

"I'm impressed, but . . ." The man seemed at a loss for words.

"Do I get to keep my job?" Shad asked, as he sorted through the now towering pile of software that had come in the previous day.

Dave stared at him, and something passed before his face, something alien. It contorted into a grimace, as if the mouth speaking was too small for the being who spoke with it.

"Penalty!" The voice said, and it pressed something at its side.

Shadrach blinked, as the store, the street, the new awning construction, and the face of Dave quickly dissolved in a ripple. He stood facing a creature with a wide tooth filled mouth, large bulbous eyes, and grey pebbly skin.

"Penalty." The creature said again. Blackness engulfed Shadrach. He passed out.

Guttural speech awoke Chris Whitton. He opened his eyes, and looked about. He was seated in a chair in the middle of a blank room. Sterile grey metal walls met a sterile grey metal floor. One of the aliens stood, back facing Chris as it bent over a worktable. The creature turned, some type of object glittered in its hand.

The creature's voice rasped deeply. "Ah, I see your awake. You received a Penalty in your Game Mr. Whitton. You will be processed accordingly."

"What penalty?" Chris could feel the adrenalin pumping through his veins, his heart tripping in his chest. "What game are you talking about? Where am I?"

"Here, this should help. Your suffering under the personality overlay."

The creature bent towards him and sprayed a mist in his face with gnarled bumpy fingers. "You should remember your default personality now."

Memory came flooding back.

"The game!" His voice echoed strangely in the small room. He lived other lives, other people, he had to . . . .

"How the heck do we win this game, anyway?"

The creature grinned. "There is no 'winning' or 'losing.' Just the game. At the end you will be rewarded. For now, you will be reduced one level and play a supporting role in your next scenario."

Supporting! That meant he would be working for someone else, someone who was also in the game! He had been a primary so far, lived three lives and been penalized three times!

"Why the demotion?" He asked, heart hammering in his chest, knowing the reason.

"Shadrach should have screamed at Dave and stomped out. Dave would have felt empowered, he'd practiced good management techniques and been able to face Frank the owner of the business. Dave would have sought you out, and hired you back after you apologized, but Dave would have been much more in control, learning good management practices in the process. That's the Game, Mr. Whitton. You have to play by the rules or suffer the consequences."

"But I don't want to play by the rules! Shad was bright, intelligent! He could master any computer program thrown at him, and fix them like a pro! I wanted to have him go to college, found his own corporation . . . ."

"Exactly." The creature said, pulling out a strange clear device. It seemed to read something from the surface. "You would have made Shadrach into yourself. That is against the rules. You must follow out the Personality Matrix as it is enabled, you can't change it midstream. These are other peoples lives you are working with Mr. Whitton not your own."

"But I want to live my own life!" Chris said, yelling now. "I don't want to live someone else's! Can't you just erase my memory of this whole thing, and set me back down?"

"I'm afraid not." The creature reached to the side of Chris' head and made an adjustment. "If you can complete this scenario without breaking the rules you will be rewarded. If not, you will be further reduced."

"Reduced to what?"

The creature glanced at its apparatus. "Non-Human player.:"

Chris groaned. Darkness descended.

Fletcher Highcastle was the best assassin in the galaxy. He'd knocked off more than two hundred targets in his lifetime, a feat no other assassin could even come close too. He'd defeated the mighty One-shot Harlan in his fortress of solitude, bagged the President of New Kentucky without a scratch, and blasted through the Warriors of the Path by laying waste to generals, colonels, and even the great Anthony himself when the Path raided Loras IV.

Fletcher had earned the praise of half the galaxy, and the condemnation of the other half. He was a very rich man.

And I'm his Pilot, thought Dim Jenkins as he guided the large BattleScout through the usual gauntlet of asteroids. I'm the Pilot of the most notorious outlaw in space.

"How much longer." Fletcher's voice intruded from the intercom system directly wired into Dim's brain. They had to have lightening fast communication, never knew when the boss would need a quick escape.

"Almost there now", Dim responded accessing the time recorder within his data banks. "We'll be back home in exactly 7 minutes, 34.628 seconds unless something unusual comes up."

"Let me know if it does, I think Center has learned of my hideout. We may be in for an ambush."

"Understood." Dim closed the link with a thought.

Dim allowed the Navicom hardwired into his system to take over for a time. His biological systems would need full sensor access. He must remain on alert for anything out of the ordinary. Fletcher had been hiding in this Asteroid belt for too long.

Asteroids flew through the inky blackness of space, from all directions. The ship dodged in and around the asteroids, sometimes within ten feet of a collision. Dim had plotted the navigation of this field hundreds of times, and knew intuitively where an asteroid would be at any given moment. He wondered what color they were.

"Any sign of ambush?" Fletcher inquired.

"None, boss. Everything quiet as usual."

"Good." The line fell silent for a time. "Reminds me of old times, Dim."

Dim didn't respond. His biological thought processors started spinning with memories.

"Remember when you and I fell into that ambush around Donato?"

"Yes." Dim had been human at that time, and piloting the ship manually; Center agents had encamped around the planet, and attacked as soon as they entered orbit. Donato had an elliptical orbit, and Dim used it to escape the Center Agents at a speed almost approaching light.

"We're not going to have any elliptical slingshots this time Fletch." Dim answered. "We'll have to dart back into the asteroid field."

"You'll lose them, I'm sure." Fletcher said, a note of confidence in his voice. "You always get me out of these scrapes."

Dim laughed, a strange sound to hear from internal circuit boards. "I suppose that is true."

Fletcher didn't respond for awhile.

"Do you ever miss being human?" Fletcher asked in a quiet voice.

Must be really drunk, Fletch had never asked that before. "Yes."

The silence was broken by the sound of the Proximity Klaxon. Immediately Dim accessed scanners. "Center ScoutShips-about a hundred of them!"

He could sense the ships laying in wait for them, a cloud of blips clustered around the welcoming asteroid of home. As soon as he noticed it the cloud dissipated, as the ships scattered towards them.

"They're flanking." Dim took immediate action before Fletcher could even respond.

"Back into the field!" Fletcher manned the gunpost and started firing.

Dim darted back into the field. Unfortunately the Center ships were also BattleScouts and could maneuver quickly and easily through the field.

But they weren't ships with human biogenics, Dim thought. If he could just figure out a way to use it.

He dove and wove through the asteroid field, flew behind large ones, hid behind smaller ones to no avail. Too many Center ships fluttered after them, hunting them through the field. He wove in and out for the better part of an hour, but the Center Agents continued to close on them. He angled sideways through the band of asteroids, and headed out into space.

Almost immediately thirty ships encircled them.

"You are surrounded. Give yourselves up or be destroyed." The voice echoed from subspace.

"Don't let them take us alive." Fletcher said. "They'll execute me on sight. All they want to do is take you apart bolt by bolt and see how you're put together."

The part of Dim that was Chris Whitton considered this. He didn't want to die, and figured Center would probably be reasonable about the whole affair. If he talked to them, reasoned with them, they wouldn't take him apart bolt by bolt.

"Can't do that boss. We might be able to reason with them, be able to work something out. I'm sure Center can be reasonable."

"No!" Fletcher tried to send a bombardment of energy towards the nearest ship. "I don't want to be taken!"

"Won't work boss." Dim switched on the subspace transmitter. "Center ScoutShip, we are ready for boarding."

"Your not playing right." The sound came from the intercom. "Do as I say Dim!"

"What did you say boss?"

"Do as I say!" Fletcher roared into the communicator, but it was too late. Dim could feel the hermetic seal of the docking bay lock into place as he first of the Center agents boarded the ship.

"It's not too late, Dim Blow us Up! Blow up the ship and we'll take everyone in this sector. We can't let them get away with this, we're dead meat already! Don't let my life go for nothing, don't let me be humiliated! Blow us up, NOW!"

"Fletcher Highcastle I charge you with Murder, Treason, inciting conflict and about a billion other offenses I wont bother to mention." Dim could feel the words through the intercom. "You are under arrest."

Dim accessed the interior sensors and could feel Fletcher being taken away in energy cuffs.

"Your not playing right." The words tasted strange, alien. If Dim had adrenalin, or a heart he realized it would be fluttering right now.

He could see the logarithms needed to complete the task, overload the engine input while firing the breaking engines on full. The sudden impact would cause the ship to tear itself apart, destroying everything nearby.

He waited.

"Dim Jenkins you are accused of aiding and abetting a known felon." The words came through subspace and smelled official. "You are hereby taken into custody."

"Wait let me explain!" Dim started, but an invisible hand reached within him, shutting off his engines. A traction beam gripped him within a viselike hold. He allowed himself to be sucked into the transport ship that had materialized off the portside.

I'm not going to do it. There has to be a way out of this, they wouldn't really kill Fletcher, after all they are the government.

The bay doors of the transport closed over him.

"Penalty!" A voice said.

Blackness descended.

"You are starting to try our patience, Mr. Whitton." The creature said as Chris awakened slowly. The beast examined him in the chair, glancing back to the apparatus in its hand.

"You have persisted in not complying with the rules of the game. You have caused faults four times now, and have refused to complete your scenarios appropriately. You must successfully complete the scenario in order to achieve your reward! How can you possibly accomplish this if you continue to cause penalties?"

"I told you. I don't want to play by your rules, I play by my own. Why don't you just kick me out of your stupid game and let me get on with my life!"

The creature looked at him, white light glinting off sharp teeth. "I'm afraid that is impossible Mr. Whitton. You will comply with the rules in one way or another."

The creature glanced at his board. "You will be reduced one more step. I caution you Mr. Whitton, if this continues you will not like the scenarios in which you are placed. You have been relegated to a non-human character this time, governed by instinct. Maybe this will force you to comply with the rules."

"I'll find a way. I refuse to play." Chris crossed his arms defiantly.

The creature shook its head in response. "Not a good answer, Mr. Whitton."

The being reached to the side of of Chris' head and made an adjustment.

Blackness descended.

Dawn broke the horizon with pine trees whispering the promise of winter. The smell of the Man approached, and food.

"Good morning Elvis, morning Fireball, how ya doing Tornado," The man moved from stall to stall calling each by name. The animals shuffled forward to eat, tails swishing flies away from backsides.

"Good morning Jake. The man stopped at his stall, and threw a large flake of hay into the feedbox. "How's that ankle holding?"

The Man entered his pen, and bent towards his left forehoof. The Man patted his flank firmly and Jake lifted his hoof.

"Much better. I think you'll be able to join us on the trail today Jake, what do you think?"

The mule remained silent, moving forward to the feedbin.

"That's what I thought, too boring around here during the day, eh Jake! We'll give you a nice light rider today, give a chance for that ankle to heal properly."

The mule munched its hay. The Man left the stall.

The feel of a horse blanket startled Jake from his doze. "Easy Jake, just getting you ready."

The Man piled two blankets across his back, followed by a saddle.

"Breathe out Jake, come on." The man struggled to get the cinch tightened. Jake refused to exhale.

"Come on Jake." The man punched him solidly in the flank, and Jake exhaled. At the moment all the air was gone, the Man cinched the belt tight.

"There you go Jake all ready. The Man forced his fingers into the empty slot between his teeth and pulled open Jake's mouth. He stuck a gentle bit between his teeth.

"Let's go, we got a crowd already waiting." He led the animal to the back of a line of mules, saddlepacks hung from their flanks. Jake didn't wear a pack today.

The Man loosely tied the reins of Jake's bridle to the pack of the mule at the end of the line. He then went to the front, and made a clicking sound. The mule train started in the direction of the Canyon.

Smells greeted Jake. The gunpowder stench of the steam locomotive that pulled the Grand Canyon Train turned his stomach. The smell of pine below that, and the earthy wet smell of the Canyon, beckoned Jake to follow.

Jake came awake with the sound of the Man again. "Here you go! This is Jake, one of our most gentle mules on the team. He'll be just perfect for you little lady." The Man lifted a little girl into the saddle on Jake's back. He could feel the slight increase in weight, but not much.

"Now, don't bother trying to guide your mule anywheres, you'll just mess 'em up. These old critters have been on this trail everyday of their life, and they know it better than you know your own bedroom." "Ho!" The Man called and they started down the side of the canyon.

The team began the long journey down the trail. At first the climb was steep, every step carefully placed by each hoof. Later the trail leveled off and widened, and the stepping was much easier.

Jake pressed his nose into the rear of the mule in front of him. Light with the weight of the girl, he was impatient to get to the ranch and wanted the other Trainmates to move faster. He nipped lightly at the mules tail, urging it forward.

"Mister!" The girl yelled from atop his back. "My mule's biting this one in front!"

The Man was suddenly at their side. "Jake! Knock it off!"

Jake felt a gentle flick of the Man's bat on his flank as he was reminded to stay in line. "Your not playing right." The Man said, in a quiet voice.

Jake put his ears back, and followed obediently.

The canyon walls passed beside him as they walked, pebbles and sandstone crunched under his hooves. He'd made this trip so many times, but food waited for him at the ranch near the bottom. He started lifting his hooves higher, impatient.

The mule in front of him suddenly kicked slightly. Jake saw his opportunity, and passed the other mule.

"Mommy! My mules going faster than that one!" The girl called suddenly.

"Knock it off Jake!" The man yelled.

Jake passed two more mules, and then two more. Soon he walked right behind the Man. "What is it with you Jake?"

Jake nipped the backside of the lead mule. He wanted to pass, wanted to be first.

"Halt!" The Man called, and forced them to a stop.

"Jake's acting mighty strange Becky." The Man dismounted and lifted Jake's head. He stared right into his eyes, "though I don't know why. He's usually one of the best on the team. I think I'll have you ride behind me on Fireball."

The Man helped the little girl down. She stood in front of Jake and patted his muzzle. Jake could see the girl, a sad expression on her face.

"What's wrong Jake?" She rubbed his muzzle. "Why are you being so naughty? I want to get to Phantom Ranch on my own mule, not riding behind someone like a little kid."

The part of Jake that was Chris Whitton listened, and stopped screaming. He thought about the game, thought about all the lives he had led. Jeff Betson growing corn in Idaho, listening to his wife as she tried to explain why they shouldn't sell the farm to the government even though they stood to make over a quarter of a million dollars. Mary Kootshongsie staring down at her daughter on the reservation in Oregon, as she cried and wanted to be nursed. Shadrach Kogleogu listening to his boss tell him how to dress, how to act-stifling his creativity. Dim Jenkins listening to Fletcher as he told him to blow up the ship, that death would be preferable to any kind of imprisonment.

All these people had depended on him, wanted him to do something that he didn't want to do, and he had gone ahead and done his own thing, lived life the way he wanted, on his own grounds. He really hadn't cared how others felt, if they cared. His life was his life and no one would get in his way.

Until now.

This girl wasn't asking his to save her home, nurse her, work her business, blow her up. All she wanted to do was get to the ranch, see the Grand Canyon, have a good time.

Be a big girl.

Jake allowed his muzzle to be rubbed, and lowered his head so she could scratch between his ears, his favorite place.

"I think Jake likes you now." The Man slapped his flank with affection.

Something wordless passed between Jake and the little girl. "Jake will be good now, can I try him again?"

The man sighed, staring into Jake's eyes. "What do ya think Jake, you gonna behave yourself?"

Jake stared back, solemnly.

"Ok Becky, if you want trust this old fool we'll give him a second chance." He lifted the girl into the saddle. "Up you go."

Jake felt the slight weight increase, and adjusted his footing accordingly.

"Ho!" The man called after leading Jake back to the end of the team.

The pack started moving again, and this time Jake followed.

"Well Mr. Whitton, you passed your scenario. Congratulations, you played by the rules."

Chris looked up into the face of the alien standing over him. "What now?

The alien didn't respond, but made an adjustment near his head. "Who are you? Why are you doing all this to me?"

"We are the Vreen, Mr. Whitton. We've been studying you and your kind for a very long time. We decided to make some . . ." the alien paused, staring at him with that awful pebble skin face, " . . .adjustments. Goodbye Mr. Whitton."

"Wait! Where am I going now?" Chris' heart started thumping in response as darkness started to settle over him.

"Your reward, of course." He heard the voice distantly, as he opened his eyes . . .

"Chris?" David said beside him. "You OK? You spaced out there for a minute."

Chris saw the board room, the people sitting in their chairs along the conference table directly in front of him. All stared at him expectantly.

Shelley, from Marketing suddenly flipped her hair, glancing at the report in front of her. "If you need more time to decide, Mr. Whitton, we can call you tomorrow."

Chris looked at the packet. It had an attractive cover, glossy with a raised emblem of golden trees and green grass. 'FOREST LAKES' scrolled across the top, in gold foil print.

Chris opened the document, read the first lines.

Forest Lakes, where tall pines stand outside your front window, a lake just around the corner, and a shopping mall within walking distance. All the comforts of Nature and Man at your beck and call. A new Development by Whitton Enterprises. Chris Whitton CEO.

Chris stared at the words, his words, the company's words. They had worked a long time on this, but had they worked enough?

Chris remembered his experience with the Vreen. "Have there been any environmental or archeological impact studies done on these sites? Have we examined what the effect to the watertable will be if we damn up that stream? Examined the habitat?"

Everyone at the table continued to stare at him in complete silence. Jaws dropped.

Laughter erupted, loud and brash.

"You really had me going there for a minute Chris!" Dave slapped him on the back.

"Don't scare us like that, Mr. Whitton," Shelley continued to chuckle, "we thought you might be serious."

Chris stared at his people gathered around the table. The Rules. He hadn't played by the Rules since founding this company, making his fortune. He had broken the Rules, hell broken laws, but hadn't worried about it if it made good money and he could get out of it. Now he realized his mistakes.

Breaking the rules affected people, good people. He thought of the little girl standing in front of him, wanting her ride so she good be a 'big girl.'

"Sometimes it's hard to play by the Rules." Everyone fell silent, staring at him.

"But this company is going to start."

"But Chris!" David said. "Think of the investment for those studies, and their impact. If we start doing archeological and environmental studies of every site, we're in for a pack of trouble. You've never done them in the past, ,and we've prospered, why the change?"

Chris considered this statement carefully before answering with a smile.

"I haven't been playing right. And I'm a little stubborn at times."

David frowned.

"Don't worry. If the archeological and conservation studies come out ok, I'll give you my rubber stamp, but until then we're going to take this thing one step at a time." Chris looked to all those gathered in the room.

"Any questions?"

The room remained silent.

"Good." Chris stood, ready to go back to his office. "From now on I expect everyone to proceed with these developments by the book. I want no unexpected surprises, no little girls without a mule to ride. Is that clear?"

Everyone gaped at him, eyebrows raised, brows furrowed.

"Agreed." He finished and strode from the room.

"What was that all about?" Shelley asked, as she and David gathered the reports into large boxes.

"I have absolutely no idea. But we better do what he says." David considered for a moment.

"Mules?" He said.

Shelley shrugged.

Copyright 1997: Mike Nelson <espaught@rocketmail.com> . If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask the author for permission first.       Thank you

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