Chad stood before a massive boat, full of men and women clad in armor: real chainmail, not some dinky knock-off, he would often remind his investors. His insistence on genuine armor was partly out of a desire for historical accuracy, and he allowed both his lenders and his soldiers to believe that was the only reason one might need protective gear to safely participate in his simulation. He hated that word, especially when he caught himself using it. So belittling. This wasn’t Model UN.
He situated his hand on the intricate dragon’s head adorning the bow, and looked at the faces before him. Some nervous, sweaty, fidgety, some almost frighteningly still, all rapt in anticipation. Finally, he spoke. “Why are you here?”
The group stared forward without a word.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing. You’re not here to row a boat.”
A few listeners looked confused, glancing down at the oars in their hands as they sat in what certainly appeared to be a boat. No one was confident answering, so he did for them.
“You’re here to live.”
The rowers relaxed, issuing a collective expression of Ah, very well then.
“You’re here to live,” he repeated, with some fire to it. “You’re here to live!” more impassioned still.
He let the bewilderment and excitement in the room intermingle for a few moments before announcing: “This is VYK! Now let’s...” he bellowed, motioning to his group, who eagerly joined him to finish the battle cry: “Rock! The! Boat!”
The wall-sized screen facing the boat repeated the message in big, bold Helvetica letters. Every surface in the room was a screen. The floor they had walked on to reach the boat gave way to a violent sea, owing to a top layer of convertible synthetic that took on distinctly fluid properties once Chad entered the command. Unseen fans pushed buffeting winds against the boat’s way forward. A thunderous drum sounded at a militant cadence, as the boat indeed began to rock with the shifting floor. It lurched violently from side to side as some of its unprepared crew had to tightly grasp the gunwale to stay aboard. The sensory overload was entirely by design, and Chad proudly admired it doing its work. The uninitiated, as Chad had concerningly taken to calling the general public, were crossing over.
“Row,” he calmly said; not even ordered, so much as advised them for their own good. And so they rowed.
He heard his voice echo through the speakers in each corner of the dimly lit studio as he spoke into his headset. His was a job for a man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice and obnoxious, bordering on uncomfortable, tight clothing. But even his biggest detractors would privately concede that Chad did have a vision and did his damndest to see it realized. He had made what he set out to make, however unlikely on paper (napkin, in his case), and that was worth something. The thing that concerned his funders was whether it was worth a [redacted] lot. Chad had made his stance on this matter offensively clear.
There was a certain drama to him, an artful flourish accentuating his nouveau-douchebag aesthetic. He did look the part of a trainer, with his expertly-manicured blonde fauxhawk and thick, steel-wool goatee. But he bristled at comparisons to his so-called colleagues who pushed all those poor miserable sheeple into their narrow, derivative little gyms. Cross this fit, cycle that soul, fly those wheels, waste your time. Anyone could stand over some spray-tanned musclehead and challenge him to pump out another frivolous repetition of a useless motion. Chad saw this, and himself, as something bigger: a maestro at the helm of a grand operatic piece of transformative performance art that challenged its participants in ways they could not expect. One got the sense that he embraced captaining his ship to a degree of seriousness that was not, strictly speaking, healthy.
A great deal of effort went into properly simulating the choppy waters without making them too realistically unpleasant. It had to toe that line between physically taxing and utterly soul-crushing. The first few test groups were quick to call it the latter, so R&D had scaled things back a bit. But Chad was not huge on compromise, and there were certain things on which he would not budge. Not today.
The boat crashed over fierce swells, which he had quietly programmed to well above their usual strength levels the night prior. The real ocean was unpredictable; so too was his. He could hear the assessment booth in his ear, asking if the wave system might be malfunctioning. He turned his back to his crew to more covertly instruct his onlookers to shut up and watch.
“You’ll see,” he muttered into his headset, more ominously than he might have intended.
The boat bucked like a rodeo horse, launching one of the rowers overboard. They had engineered a splash system in the floor, with sensors that assessed the variables at play and spouted forth the corresponding amount of water at the precisely calculated angle and velocity. Chad’s sense of achievement in the system nearly eclipsed his disappointment in his soon-to-drown pupil. Someone was designed to go over, but he still harbored an irrational disdain for who that turned out to be. Many of his crew members paused, waiting to retrieve their lost comrade. Chad quickly corrected them.
“War waits for no man, soldiers! The only path is forward.”
The helpless idiot in the water protested. “Hey! I signed up for the full thing! Let me back in!”
Thing. Chad just about went over and artificially drowned the weakling himself, but he restrained himself at the behest of the booth as the ocean slowly pulled the diminutive ‘man’ back out toward the exit. Once the session began, only Chad’s proprietary footwear was suitable for the floor; anyone else felt a forgiving surface reminiscent of a waterbed.
“You are hers now, my brother.”
Chad thought this incredibly poignant, befitting a burial at sea for an honorable man. This little twerp didn’t deserve such eloquence, but now was not the time for bitterness. Admiring his turn of phrase, Chad released his manual remote lock, and watched a few assistants rush in and grab hold of the human flotsam. He had taken aside these low-level staffers on several occasions to make especially clear that speed was to be their top priority. They had ten seconds, no more. Chad would open the door at the very last moment, and try his best not to look. The spell could be broken for him as well, despite his commitment to his craft, but it was the crew who was most important. They could not be allowed to see and thus remember the outer world, to which that undeserving fool had just been ushered back. That was not their realm anymore. This was.
As Chad hiked a leg up on the bow to rally his remaining troops, he reflected on the war he had waged to even get here, spreading his leg impressively wide. The uniforms were a notable early struggle: those of the students were hard enough, and the negotiations over his own took months. He wore a tighter than skin-tight singlet, which he meticulously designed to produce an augmentative effect on his front and center bulge. To underline its all-purpose wearability, he wore it to all meetings about its future role in their operation. This thing could have plausibly been grafted on, in some twisted experiment to create the supersoldier equivalent of the niche-market fitness instructor; and make no mistake, that was an only slightly uncharitable description of his overarching ambition.
The color, in particular, became a sticking point of the early talks. Gunmetal gray. “You just don’t understand the emotional resonance of color,” he scolded the suits sitting around the table, “But I do, and that’s why, quick reminder, I’m running the show here.” That was supposed to shut them up right then and there, but they had the nerve to push back, something about how “Vikings didn’t have guns, so why would we use gunmetal when battleship gray isn’t even that different, and Vikings did have battleships, so to speak, kinda like the [redacted] one we’re using for this [redacted] workout class.” Chad removed disagreeable words from the conversations he memorized, through a complex and tireless process of hippocampal restructuring. He probably would’ve wiped the whole exchange had they not given in. But he did get his way, as he liked to remind the initial doubters. Fittingly, he did this with what he considered, but was objectively not, a subtle flaunting of his aforementioned bulge.
Chad was no more understated in his capacity as an ocean faring marauder. He stood before his troops, ushering instructions foreign to most spin classes, let alone modern societies. “Remember your P’s, soldiers. We Persist, to Pillage!” he cried in all seriousness. He circled the boat, delivering some more remarks. “Over the roofs of the world, I say! For the Allfather!” His references to Whitman and Odin were lost on his observers, but one thing was so on-the-nose as to be unmissable: he was, after all, walking on water.
Chad checked his watch: they were eighteen minutes and twenty-three seconds into their journey. He was leading the group to an impressive session -- the best yet, he was sure. He knew that before he even reviewed the logs. At the points when he matched that hypnotic drum beat with exaggerated swings of his arms, pretending to vigorously play, he predicted significant spikes in collective exertional output (CEO, as he liked to call both that metric and himself, standing in the latter case not for Chief Executive Officer but Captain [of the] Endless Ocean). His hypothesis went that any reasonable opportunity to flex would be of benefit to the group, aspirational figure that he was.
“Land ho!” he exclaimed, signaling the home stretch. This would be his crowning moment, as it would be theirs. It was to be the culmination of what they had crafted together, but like anything worth having, it would not come easy.
“Archers ahead, my children! Defend your brothers and sisters!”
The rowers were too exhausted to remember if they had missed this part in the fine print; if they might have done themselves a disservice by skimming the terms and conditions of all that paperwork. Chad took their lack of protest to mean they were ready. They were one now.
“Shields up,” he urged, as a few of them traded their oars for the shields off the side of the boat, raising them above their heads. Their tired arms wiggled under the wooden circles’ modest weight, presenting a fairly unconvincing defensive front. But the effort was there, and that was enough for Chad. The question, of course, was if it would be enough for them.
Alerting no one but the user experience engineer with whom he had secretly conspired to design it, Chad had rigged up something of a final act. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission,” he had repeatedly told his well-compensated accomplice. It was not a trick; he truly believed that, much like he truly believed this would enhance what he was trying to accomplish. Those suits were too small-minded, so lacking in vision that it offended his grandiose sensibilities. “You want disruption, disruption you shall receive,” he had proclaimed to himself in the mirror that morning, beaming. It was all coming together, but it had to be torn apart first.
“Steel yourselves,” he ordered, as they approached what he knew to be the point of no return.
The ceiling opened, letting loose a volley of rubber arrows. The feebly hoisted shields did their part, deflecting the projectiles into the ocean. The splash simulator adjusted perfectly to the smaller objects, something only Chad noticed at this tense juncture. It soon became clear to his rowers, however, that their test had barely started. The arrows were coming faster and harder. It knocked one girl’s shield clean out of her hands, prompting a panicked yelp.
“Get that back up,” he instructed, with such a look of intensity that he may well have willed it above her head. This had to work. He could not accept failure, not now.
They kept coming, and what had been a delightfully silent and focused group was beginning to unravel before him. “Is this supposed to happen?” one asked. “This doesn’t seem very safe,” another lamented. “[Redacted] this!” one rather excitable man yelled.
“Press on!” Chad said, sure that he could bring them through. He removed his headset to tune out the frantic calls from the booth to shut it down. But he wasn’t quitting on this; no one was getting in or out until he saw this through.
The arrows kept coming down, striking his crew with unsettling thuds. The poorly-rigged turrets spewed forth an unrelenting stream of synthetic rubber hellfire. The shields were faltering, and they could not adequately defend the whole surface area of the boat to begin with. The ship was taking serious heat, and they still had a way to go to reach the imaginary shore.
“Stop it, you lunatic!” one woman screamed. “Please, make it stop!” she repeated, seeing no recognition in Chad’s eyes. She let her shield down to get up and leave, only to be pegged right in the temple. She went down in a hurry, a surefire concussion on the fall if not initial contact. Everyone stopped what they were doing, which was a major tactical error, in that the arrows did not let up for the occasion. This was utter chaos, along the lines of how this kind of warfare might actually look and feel. The resemblance did not escape Chad, who perversely concluded that a truly fallen comrade, not just some loser lost at sea, might have been the push they needed all along.
“The only path is forward,” he said to his horrified listeners. He saw troubling weakness in them, as they now appeared ill-prepared for the trial before them. He would have to push as well.
“Forward!” he ordered, physically placing oars back in the hands of his strongest-looking men. “Forward,” he repeated more quietly, mostly to himself. This, this here, this was war. Most people thought they knew what that meant, when in fact they knew nothing of struggle, comradery, desperation, God, life, death. And yet, they were so close. The frantic participants’ protests grew louder, but he had stopped listening to them or anyone else some time ago. He took the arrow fire with immense pride, unflinching in his leadership. He would bleed for them, as they would for him.
The wounded woman slouched over in her quadrant needed immediate medical attention. This would be clear to anyone who looked at her. Chad, however, was not looking at her. He was looking past them now, into the horizon he had designed himself, the deep expanse they had crossed to get here. Her blood had run onto the floor where it danced on the surface. He observed his hand was bleeding too and bit into the backside of his palm to widen the cut and pour forth what he could. He bent down to deliver his offering, in what was a religious moment for Chad; he had willed this creation into being and was now elevating it to a higher plane. He watched his blood dye the floor a brilliant shade of red, shifting with the rhythm of the waves, and he was absolutely certain he had never seen anything more real in his entire life.
He lifted his head, watching his crew cower beneath the barrage. There was a palpable terror among them, a mortal fear in a constructed world. He couldn’t abide their lack of bravery. Their total absence of valor was an unconscionable disgrace, and it reflected poorly on his leadership. He would have to draw it out, so he began unleashing a booming roar, a ferocious battle cry that would surely rouse them to victory. But he was cut short by a rogue missile plunging into his left eye. His strength immediately wilted as his legs went from under him. He was gone before he hit the ground, leaving behind nothing more than the brief echo of a promising shout.
With the doors sealed from the inside, those still breathing found themselves lacking an exit strategy. This wasn’t one of those “no one can hear you scream” type situations; in fact, everyone in the assessment booth was listening intently, as they each silently realized their inability to override Chad’s manual lock. To his credit, he had succeeded again in his particular brand of chilling realism. It was an ambush, and there would be no survivors.
Michael Hendricks is a long-lost Midwesterner who does in fact remain both young and restless. He's currently based in London, working as a jaded journalist and studying for an even more jaded Master's. This is his first published piece.