Taking a potshot from his vantage point overlooking the map and the few other players running around, the Arbiter brought one hard plastic hand away from the controller and pressed at his forehead- a gesture that came naturally at his frustration of missing his target, and an attempt to ease the splitting headache he had woken up with. If action figures could sweat, he would be wiping that off of his brow too. He had returned to the land of the waking some twenty minutes ago and he could still feel his heart pounding, hear the nonexistent blood rushing through his ears. Despite himself, flashes of his nightmare forced their way into his mind’s eye again. It was like the more he tried to suppress it, the more violently it attacked his mind at his most vulnerable, when he couldn’t distract himself.
The recurring nightmare always started with him in Jon’s old apartment, overlooking the drab city of Vancouver at the most dreary time of day, everything a muddy grey mess, and could hear nothing but the excruciatingly loud dance music, his breaths fast and shallow, his heart feeling like it was punching its way out of his chest Alien style in time to the fast music. So he jumped, but no matter how long he fell for the music would only get louder, until the deafening pitch started to make his head hurt so much he felt blood seeping out of his ears, and he would hear Eugene’s gunshot and the sickening silence drowned out the music for only a moment. Then suddenly, he would sit up and be resting against the door with Tyler’s fresh blood slowly coating his head and rolling down his face, leaving a slimy and still warm trail of what was closer to an ugly black than crimson. He would claw at his face in a panic, and then he would be standing over Chief’s remains and Cortana’s base as the music grew ever louder, the sensation of sticky blood starting to cover his entire body, and the falling never, ever stopped. Chief would start trying to talk at him in meaningless gibberish, he would scream but either he couldn’t make any sound or the cacophonous assault on his ears reached an unintelligible screech of noise, and then he would wake up with the headache. He had been having it less frequently as time stretched the gap between his present moment and the day he died, but ‘less frequently’ meant nothing when he still saw it often enough to fear going to sleep every night. Tonight- Arbiter glanced at Chief’s sleeping form, then the digital clock on Jon’s bedside- well, this morning, the feeling he would not be able to shake for the rest of the day was loneliness. Sometimes it was anger, sadness, or just a numbing despair, but today loneliness burned the brightest and the most painfully.
Against his own volition, he recalled his own words from the depths of that nightmare accompanied by the drop he felt in his stomach when it dawned on him where Cortana had really gone- “Why would she willingly part from who are quite possibly the only other talking toys in existence and run the risk of never engaging in conversation again?” The irony of his concerns for her, when he bitterly realized she was free of that and more while he was trapped in a hell arguably worse, was never lost on him. It came back to bite him in the ass every time he thought about her, even. He shuddered. He needed another smoke.
Just as he was about to leave the match and slip out of the headset, a voice came through- the first voice activity since the game had started, incidentally.
“God damn it,” a robotic voice muttered.
“Wow, so not only are you shit at this game but you’re a troll too, huh? You’re not kidding anyone with that voice, asshole, that hasn’t even been funny since like 2013.” Arbiter caught himself from replying out of instinct. Not just because he had encountered that exact response so many times upon talking in VC with his Microsoft Mike voice, but he had been about to comment that it was still 2013. How many months had it been since he had broken out of that weird dream and awoke in 2017 again? He no longer bothered to keep track of time.
“Fuck you,” the robot person retorted without missing a beat. “That’s rich, coming from someone who’s spent the match being dead more than actually playing. I don’t have a choice, this is just how I talk, okay, fuckface?” If Arbiter could make facial expressions, he would have cocked an eyebrow.
“Weak ass troll, it’s annoying as hell. Can you turn it off?” came another irritated player.
“No. But I’ll stop talking, if that shuts your sensitive pussy ass up.”
And the guy with the robot voice did. So did everyone else. But Arbiter was intrigued. Troll or no troll, maybe some freakish Stephen Hawking style health problems- an excuse he himself had tried to use in the past- here was one person with something so obscure in common he thought he’d never find another, apart from the other toys. His interest, piqued, managed to suppress the dull ache of needing another nicotine rush, and he slipped back into the groove of the seat in front of his controller. It wouldn’t hurt to see this game out to the end, at least, if anything more interesting happened.
This late at night- or early in the morning, as the sun was beginning to rise already- there weren’t many players on the NA servers, so the match progressed slowly without much fanfare nor any more trash talk. The silence was companionable almost, in a way. Arbiter enjoyed getting right into the heart of the fight as much as anyone else, but with a match up as small as this one, everyone would be either sniping or trying to stealth, so he returned to his vantage point spot with the nice view. Settling down, he angled his scope to take a sweeping close up view on the search for any movement, only to be suddenly interrupted before he even realized what was happening by his character getting taken out in one hit with a clean headshot.
“That was a damn good shot, nice work.” He knew it was an odd thing to do, but the outlandish concept of complimenting people who killed him skillfully was Arbiter’s little way of trying to contribute positively to changing the toxicity of online gaming. And to be fair, it really was a nice shot.
“Oh Jesus fucking Christ, another one of these idiots who thinks they’re so funny and clever.”
“Like one of these retards wasn’t already enough. For fuck’s sake.’
And amidst the standard complaints, “Thanks. You’re not half bad yourse-”
“Can you guys just please shut the fuck up and go make out in private voice instead of raping our ears with this? Thanks.”
“Fuck you,” the other robot voice guy spat. No more came out of him after that, nor any of the other players. Just silence again, interrupted only by the tell tale ping of a friend request on Xbox Live. The game was rounding up and the timer nearly up anyway, so Arbiter figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a look before he either tried to go back to bed, or- … Well, it wasn’t like he had anything better to do anyway.
You seem like an interesting guy, fellow ‘voice troll’. Wouldn’t mind playing with you more, maybe with less easily triggered morons breathing down our necks. Let me know. -R
Arbiter peeked at the gamertag of the message’s sender. YiminsKujo42069 certainly had no R’s in it, but he knew it had always been common online etiquette to be using pseudonymous names.
Of course, he was a little wary- only a natural reaction, after the number of times he had thought he found a real friend through the miracle of internet connections all ending in disaster, most recently someone’s real life death… He shuddered again. His own words from the nightmare day that never strayed too far from his mind echoed in his thoughts- “ We were never meant to make friends.” His finger hovered over the confirm invite button.
“This is the price we pay for trying .”
He felt his chest tighten up, under its hard plastic shell. Arbiter made a silent vow to himself- that he would never again let himself become so attached to a faceless stranger he met online playing video games. He was too tired. This would be nothing more than a very casual acquaintance to play matches with in the early hours, a distant friendship at most. It couldn’t be anything more. With a deep breath, he accepted the invite.
For all of his complaining before waking up in the future- now present- about how his brittle body was so easily liable to just falling apart, it was a cruel twist of fate for his fresh, new, plastic figure body to house his same battered and exhausted mind. If he had to go through anything like that even one more time, he was certain he would break. Hell, maybe he had already been broken, if he had already resigned himself to having Chief as his only “real” “friend” for the rest of his life. But protecting himself was the natural thing to do, wasn’t it? He had no choice. It was simply self preservation at work. Arbiter shook his head. Well, it certainly wouldn’t do to have such depressive thoughts if he was about to try and be distant yet totally cool with this new guy.
He joined the game ‘R’ was in, and spawned in a desolate map. Grey panels of forerunner design seemed to compose every bit of the claustrophobic architecture. No motion sensor, no armor abilities, and no loadouts. Just a DMR.
“Hello?” he ventured. It felt oddly intimate, if they were in fact the only two in the session, just to talk, but he supposed it was a step up from constantly being interrupted by people complaining about the voices.
“Hey.” It was then Arbiter realized he had never actually seen the guy’s avatar in the last game, since everybody had been sniping each other. Another Elite, clad in brilliantly white Field Marshal armor, sauntered out into the open. Arbiter paused, glancing at the sniper rifle in the other’s hands. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m no MLG vape trix god.”
“I mean, a 1v1 with someone at my skill level probably wouldn’t be fun for you.” He gestured at the rifle.
“Hey, I’m no montage making fucker either.” The white Elite turned to the left and Arbiter followed his gaze. There, another sniper rifle was resting against a pillar not too far from where he spawned. “Just thought you’d be up for a few rounds without mouthbreathers shitting on our-”
“Voices?” Arbiter quipped. The other player chuckled to the best of the text to speech voice’s ability, but his frustration was still apparent.
“Yeah.” He switched to his DMR. “Name’s Rtas, spelled R-T-A-S. Hold the cringe, it really is, before you ask.”
“Like the…Isn’t that the Shipmaster guy from-”
“I already said, yes, it really is, before you asked.”
“H- Ha ha, very funny.” An odd feeling was starting to grow in the pit of Arbiter’s stomach. “Well, I respect the choice to go by a character’s name, given that I’m the Arbiter.”
“You’re fucking with me, right?”
“I don’t know, are you?”
“Fair point, I guess.” Rtas dashed off somewhere into the shadows. “Feel free to start playing anytime, by the way. This is supposed to be a 1v1, after all.”
“Right, right.” Arbiter ran off in the other direction, remembering the sniper rifle from earlier. “So, this voice thing.”
“Yep. Like I said, it’s the only way I can talk.”
“Health problems?” He rushed past his spawn point, making sure to pick up the power weapon before jumping to a small clearing of rocks below.
“Something like that. What about yours, though?”
“A remarkably similar story to yours, actually.” Arbiter thought he saw some tiny movement, switched back to his DMR, and pulled the trigger, but his shot seemed to make no contact. “I usually try not to talk about it, it’s really weird.”
“Fancy that.” He heard the muffled sound of a distant shot and the telltale ricochet of a bullet zipping uncomfortably near his in game ears caught him off guard. “Aw, nearly got ya.”
“So, Asylum?” Arbiter scampered behind one of the out-of-place boulders for cover, another two white trails biting at his heels.
Rtas nonchalantly threw a frag grenade into the clearing below and reloaded as he surveyed the custom map before him. “Sanctuary, yeah. Hope you’re not a diehard Bungie fan because I’m-- Shit!” The white Elite’s shields shattered and purple stained the pristine grey floor. He quickly stepped back from the edge and retreated to the bluish glow of the room behind him.
“You were saying?” Arbiter smirked internally, reloading his own sniper rifle. He wasn’t too familiar with this version of Sanctuary but he assumed that the overall placement of equipment, weapons, and spawns were still the same. That meant-
Arbiter switched to his DMR, reticule trained at the small gap he believed Rtas was last. That meant his first priority should be the active camo in the center of the map. “I was saying, Arbiter, that I think Bungie dropped the ball on their map design in Reach.”
He began to move, winding between the rocks before the familiar scream of sniper rifle fire stopped him in his tracks. He twisted around, the map blurring into a single mass of grey but without a single trace of white. The first shot downed Arbiter’s shields, piercing his left shoulder, and the second hit him between the eyes while he was stumbling back.
“Shit,” Arbiter exhaled sharply. He watched, slightly shocked, as his hapless corpse tumbled backwards from the force of the last bullet. He didn't notice that he had been holding his breath.
“Exactly. Just utter shit. What the fuck were they smoking when they made Swordbase, huh?” Rtas’s avatar emerged from the shadows under the bridge to the right, jogging over to the discarded weapons by Arbiter's body. “And don't even get me started on The Cage, man,” he scoffed.
“Huh.” Arbiter watched his grey avatar materialise in a different area than when he first joined the game. “Miss Lockout that much?” He looked around, getting his bearings for a moment then ran towards the circular structure in the centre of the map. “I’m guessing forcing sprint upon the masses was an atrocity on par with the Armenian genocide too?”
Arbiter peered through the doorway and froze. There was nothing else inside besides more bland grey architecture, the blue glow of the active camo powerup was nowhere to be seen. No energy sword either. He stepped back. Was the central power-up or weapon missing entirely? Or perhaps already taken. He’d have two minutes before it respawned again if that was the case.
“Yeah dude. Us gamers, truly the most oppressed race, am I right?” Arbiter rolled his eyes at that, hoping to God it was a joke.
Suddenly, light seemed to bend slightly at the periphery of his vision. One, two, three shots were fired and the air seem to spark angrily in response. The white Elite was already mid air, jumping from the bridge when Arbiter had unloaded his DMR into his shields. Rtas hit the ground ungracefully before staggering back, active camo broken and element of surprise lost, as Arbiter followed up with another, then a final fifth shot to the head.
“Oof,” his opponent huffed.
“Ow,” Arbiter huffed back.
Then a laugh from them both.
“Okay, this is epic,” Rtas chuckled. Arbiter shook his head with a wry smile, internally. “Probably should’ve waited for you to get in the ring first.”
“Yeah. I think I was just lucky though.” Arbiter picked up the dropped sniper rifle and rushed towards the safety of the bases once again. Two bullets left. “Just happened to be looking to the left there.”
“Modest, are you?” he purred. “No need for that, it’s been a pleasure playing with someone who’s actually not total ass at this game and also pretty cool to talk to, fellow Windows voice person.”
Arbiter stepped up the ramp cautiously, bathing in the red glow of the room. “That makes two of us.” Wait, did I just-
“Hm,” his opponent followed up with a hint of amusement. Arbiter laughed nervously.
Great. Like he didn’t spend enough time mocking the kids who roleplayed Halo on Halo. The irony of the situation didn’t escape either of them.
“But anyway, I gotta get going after the next kill, my roommates are nearly finished with making dinner and I’m pretty famished.”
“Yeah, you too, it was nice-- wait, dinner?” Arbiter gave himself a mental slap in an attempt to calm himself down, then stole a glance at Jon’s bedside clock, and one more time at Chief’s snoring figure. Okay, so his sense of time was fine, it was in fact now approaching half past 5am. “It’s like 5 something AM, at least here in Canada. I know North America has its own time differences but that seems a bit much.”
“Ah, yeah. It’s kind of a long story.” Another shot from the distance hit Arbiter’s leg. “Fuck, so close! The short version is I live in Hong Kong.”
Arbiter shot back, missing entirely. “You live in Asia but speak English and play on English speaking servers?” One bullet left.
“Like I said, long story. I can’t speak any Chinese though, so here I am. And time zones are a bitch, so either I play with people including my team who only speak Chinese loudly and angrily at me with an Xbox locale I can’t even read, or sad empty matches like that last one.”
“Unfortunate. I can’t imagine the ping.” Arbiter steadied his scope, at last locating the bright white armor plating and centering it in his sights.
“Rtas!” a distinctly feminine voice called from a distance through Rtas’s mic, just as Arbiter took the shot and hitting at last, piercing the shield with a headshot that swiftly brought the Elite down. “I suppose that’s your cue?”
“Nice shot, dude. And yeah, it is. I better get going. Feel free to ask or join a game if you ever catch me on again, though! We should talk more, I’m pretty interested to get to know more about you.”
Before Arbiter could reply, the guy had signed off. He took a last moment to overlook the custom map before signing off himself and heading straight to Jon’s computer to Google.
His suspicions were confirmed. “No. Fucking. Way.” The weird feeling he had earlier grew in intensity. Don’t get your hopes up, Arbiter. He held his head with his hands. He’s probably just a weird kid who likes roleplaying, like all those lobbies dedicated solely to roleplay.
A sufficient explanation now satisfying him, despite the nagging irony from what he had let slip earlier lingering, he closed the tab and began the climb of descent down the desk and towards the bed.
Some kid who likes roleplaying as Halo characters and just so happened to use a Microsoft text to speech voice that can converse freely without any latency whatsoever. Arbiter walked towards the bed faster.
I mean, for an Rtas roleplayer he didn’t seem to be roleplaying the character at all, but maybe he only started talking to me because I might seem like an Arbiter roleplayer? But there’s no way he would have known until-
He was making a mad scramble to scale the bed now, like a panicked animal.
Don’t get your hopes up, retard! Don’t!
The action figure leapt- made a swan dive, if you will- under the covers and hid his head under the pillow.
Don’t start imagining and fantasizing that he’s another one of you, and you’ve finally found one, maybe even by some fucking miracle of miracles befriended him and it’s not all lost for you after all! He was shivering a little- not because of the biting Vancouver chill, but out of a very cautious excitement.
What if you get hurt again?
Arbiter swallowed and pulled his head slowly out from under the pillow, then made himself comfy in the bed. It was true. Had he not made a vow to himself to do literally the opposite of all this just seconds before their talks had kicked off? He had to control himself. He had to protect himself.
As he pulled the covers up to his mandibles, he tried to still his heart as he prepared to return to sleep, this time for reasons wildly different, even opposite, to when he was in this exact position just an hour ago. For the first time in a very, very long time, Arbiter had a peaceful, dreamless sleep.