The Court of the Laughing Dragon

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Robin was mapping the virtual island of Nedisoba when a soft bloop in his headset announced the arrival of another party to his Discord channel.

Assuming it was his colleague Barrett, Robin said, “Hey, hey.”

“Hey, yourself. What are you doing on so early? Did you work through the night again?” Barrett asked.

Robin rolled his shoulders, which had the effect of setting off a million firecrackers in his upper back and neck. “No. I slept some.” In his chair.

After parking his virtual self on a cliff overlooking a serene blue ocean, Robin turned to face the next monitor over. The ultra-wide screen was filled with overlapping windows, including a local news stream, social media feeds, and the Discord interface. Behind all of it sat a spreadsheet. Clicking it to front and center, he made a new entry, speaking into his headset at the same time.

“I’m logging a clipping issue on the northeast coast of Nedisoba. I’ve been walking through the cliff rather than on it. Also, the edge isn’t in the right place. You can walk on air for about three steps before falling to your death.”

“Perfect.”

Music blasted through his headset from a bot app Barrett had programmed to respond to his commands only. Knowing what the tunes meant, Robin glanced back at his game screen to see Barnett’s virtual self gyrating in the air over the edge of the cliff. Robin chuckled, and the fatigue pinching his shoulders relaxed for a few seconds before rolling back over him in a thick wave.

Robin loved his job as an environment architect for an indie game studio. He basically got to play for a living—not that the design part often resembled play. The testing phase, though? Nothing quite compared to a day spent cruising a virtual world of his own making. Robin knew game designers who rarely spent time playing their own product. They conceptualized and coded and moved on. Robin liked to linger in a world. He liked to play with the alpha testers and beta testers to see how his environments held up to the daily grind.

He also loved having dozens of virtual environments at his fingertips. Outdoor spaces he could explore on a whim. Online, he could be anyone. Do anything. Go anywhere. Interact. Form relationships. Be a truer Robin than the bland person sitting in his chair.

But even without Barrett’s weekly scheduled rants on the amount of time Robin spent online doing virtual things, Robin understood that he spent too much time online doing virtual things. That was why he’d signed up for Let’s Connect.

Unlike Dan, Robin wasn’t secretly in love with his best friend.

Firstly, Barrett was straight and married to a lovely person named Kim. They had three kids and would be one of those couples who lived happily ever after surrounded by the progeny of their progeny—as long as Barrett remembered to keep the schedule of a partner and father and not a gamer.

Secondly… Barrett was Barrett. He was as outgoing offline as he was online. As uninhibited, brash, and rash. He was everything Robin wasn’t—which was why Robin loved him as a friend. Robin had never wanted to date him, though. He liked quieter men. He liked guys who weren’t the type to strip naked while dancing in unintentional space next to a sheer cliff face.

“For God’s sake, put your clothes back on. It’s too early to expose me to… is that a body mod?”

Cackling wildly, Barrett dressed his character—a humanoid wizard with an uncanny resemblance to Legolas—with an audible click, indicating he’d mapped the action to a keystroke. Awesome. “Okay, what’s on the agenda for today?”

“The Court of the Laughing Dragon.”

Legolas stepped back onto the cliff and turned to face Robin’s character. Robin had opted for one of Wyrmkind’s fantasy races, meaning his virtual self was an upright lizardman with a long, thick tail and the face of a dragon.

“Let’s do it.” Barrett started running his wizard toward the sprawl of buildings at the center of the island, and Robin attached himself to Barrett’s path so he could follow without having to actually do anything. This freed him to share the latest version of his bug report with central command (Barrett’s term, not his) and open a fresh log.

“So,” Robin began, “I need you to explore the landscape inside the walls. Make sure everything’s where it should be. Comment on the décor if you must.” Barrett loved making interior design decisions. “I’m going to check the outside of the wall. Make sure someone can’t climb over it or under it or walk through it.” They had alpha testers for the grunt work, but Robin was proud of this island. He wanted to wander it himself first. “Then we can load up the story and see how it functions in the environment.”

“Sounds good.”

For a while, they worked in companionable quiet, Barrett curating the soundtrack to their exploration, both of them adding lines to the error report—bugs for the programmers to fix, or suggestions for how a certain element might work or look better.

Robin had barely settled into the mental space of not being in touch with reality when Barrett asked, “How’re things with Dan the Man?”

“Dan has moved on.”

“Dude. Really? I thought you two were going somewhere.”

As did I… sort of.

If pressed, at length and in cruel and ingenious ways, Robin might admit that he and Dan probably wouldn’t have gone much of anywhere. He’d liked Dan. A lot. The end of their fledgling relationship had left a wound. Not because of the like part. The lot of like. It was the rejection part. And the loss of a tangible reason to do more than gaze out of his front window.

His sigh fuzzed through his headset, filling the channel with static.

“That was a heavy one,” Barrett said.

“Yep.”

“What would you rather hear? That if you give me his address, I’ll head right over and emasculate him, or that there are other fish in the sea, meaning guys. For you. I never liked the fish thing, by the way. I mean, fish? What the fuck? Who wants to date a fish?”

“There’s an amphibious race in Wyrmkind. Dating a fish will be possible in this world.”

“There you go. Whoa!”

“What?”

“Huge hole in the floor— Oh, neat. This is the basement. Loving it. Could use a more dungeon-y vibe down here, though. Some chains on the wall. I mean, what is this? Baskets? Crates? You really think they’re going to use the basement for storage?”

Robin snorted with amusement. “Um, yeah? The Laughing Dragon clan are supposed to be with the good guys. They store supplies to feed people, not torture them.”

He’d been trying to jump a cascade of rocks near the wall to check whether or not player characters could use the terrain to break into the compound without using an official entrance. When his lizardman rolled over the top of the wall, Robin made another note in his error report and moved on.

Barrett, meanwhile, was still talking. “If we’re having fish people, maybe you should consider torture ponds.”

“What is it with you and torture?”

“Nothing. Just feel like you need to set the mood.”

“For torture. Is everything okay at home?”

Barrett’s laugh filled the channel. “Dude. You do not want to know how okay everything is over here. Kim got this outfit—”

“Yeah, I don’t want to know.”

“Sorry. Let’s get back to you and Dan the Slam. His loss, right? Or am I cutting off his balls? Making it his loss?”

“You’re not cutting off his balls.”

“That means we’re talking next on the list. Who else are you chatting with?”

“Eh, no one.” Despite the influx of new connection requests after Robin had uploaded his photo. He didn’t have the energy. “I’m thinking of deleting my profile.”

“That’s not very fishy of you.”

“Jesus, God. Why do you have to be like you?”

Barrett’s answer was a manic cackle. “The grate at the end of this basement tunnel is secure. Did you test it from your side?”

“Not yet. Nearly there.”

“Heading back to the main floor to try the stairs.”

“Good luck.”

They didn’t take screenshots of every clipping error—there would be too many of them and they got old after a while. Even the funny ones. But stairs were notorious traps. Either a character’s boots didn’t lift realistically off the risers, causing them to swim into the stairs rather than climb them, or they collided with and/or got stuck in whatever was over the stairs. Some designers forgot about things like headspace for all the races. Robin’s lizardman was supposed to be eight feet tall.

He’d check the stairs after Legolas.

Again, they worked in silence for a while. Again, it was Barrett who interrupted the golden quiet. “Should I be worried about you? Do you want to talk about it? When we’re not testing or gaming? I could drive up for the weekend. We could hang out. Head out? Are you…?”

Robin licked his lips in anticipation of Barrett’s hanging question. The one he’d finish any second now.

“Have you been outside lately?”

“Yesterday,” Robin lied. “I had to shovel the snow off my walk.”

“Okay.”

“Going to head out for groceries later, and my neighbor’s kid wants to pick up some drums after that, so I might drive him over there.”

“Kaleb?”

Robin could hear the smile in Barrett’s voice. Barrett loved kids and was always interested in what Kaleb was up to. He seemed to enjoy the fact Robin had a young person to hang out with. The young can teach us the stuff we missed out on when we were growing up, he always said.

“Yep,” Robin said, his stomach only a tad queasy after his epic string of falsehoods.

“As long as you’re getting out.” A pause. “Seen Kaleb’s dad any?”

Sean.

Robin closed his eyes and lifted his chin, breathing out quietly so his sigh wouldn’t fuzz the channel. When he opened his eyes again, he kept his gaze pointed at the wall over his monitor, at the framed print of the award-winning environment he’d designed five years ago, and was still one of his favorites. A sand-swept desert world—one of his hallmarks. He loved working with grit and grain and monochrome landscapes, where architecture stood out.

“Not recently,” he said in reply to Barrett’s question.

“Maybe—”

“I don’t know if he’s still single.”

“You could ask,” Barrett said.

“I could.”

“And the reason you haven’t is…?”

“It’s easier online. You know I’m not great offline.”

“If you’re going to delete your profile, then offline is where you’ll be. Besides, that’s where you live, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Yep.”

“Robin?”

“Hmm?”

“Don’t hide yourself away forever. Take a day or two to get over Dan the Spam. Then get back out there. I know you think you’re fine alone, but—”

“Don’t say it.”

“Say what?”

Robin halted, leaving his lizardman staring at a knotted face inside the trunk of a tree. “I think we’ve talked enough about fish and islands. Life isn’t one big metaphor.”

“I wasn’t going to say that.”

Through his headset, the sound of footsteps squelched over gravel behind him. Robin turned his lizardman around to find Barrett’s Legolas-lookalike perched on a rock, dancing. At least he was dressed.

“What were you going to say?” Robin asked.

“I want for you to have what I have. A partner who makes it all worthwhile.”

Despite the dig of pain inside, Robin smiled. “I want that too.”

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