I FIND MYSELF OUTSIDE MY CELL, INSIDE THE GAME, ON THE BANKS OF DEAD SIR, TAKING MY PLACE AMONG THE REBELS. We wait by the inky black waters from which the Pussygrab Regime emerged last fall, just in time to steal the election from Dalton, watching as more and more rebels, armed with pitchforks and clubs, fire pokers and bats, come out of the woodwork to join our ranks. Those on the front lines have distinct faces and bodies, but those behind them look like hastily-rendered clones.

 

“We’re playing on Easy, right?” someone asks.

 

No one answers, though I’m probably not alone in wondering the same thing. The power structure within our little Rebel Faction, if that’s not too grandiose a name for ourselves at this point, is still too nascent to tell if anyone here is qualified to determine what level we’re playing on. Still, I hope we make at least some progress before the Swamp Creatures — played, perhaps, by the Basement Boys — annihilate us. It’d be nice to take a few of Pussygrab’s goons out first, assuming, of course, that we’re not already dead in the Quantum Holocaust, which I know is more than I can assume.

 

Still, I’m ready to skip this cut-scene and get straight to the fighting.

 

Ask and ye shall receive: next thing I know, we’re hoisting our weapons high, ready to begin our raid on the Palace.

 

*****

WE MARCH ACROSS THE MIDDLE GROUND — the abandoned midnight streets of Dodge City, the theater where Blut Branson’s films are shown, and the lobby of what used to be the Hotel — and find ourselves on the ground floor of the Palace, hacking guards to bits with pitchforks, axes, and machetes, peeling off their pasty New Aryan skin to slash into the green viscera below, clotting the walls green as we force our way upward, level by level, toward the uppermost floor where, we imagine, Pussygrab himself, the Ultimate Boss, is waiting.

 

It’s easier than I thought possible — we must indeed be playing on Easy — and more gratifying. Soon, the thrill of dicing up goons is so overwhelming I find myself forgetting that it’s just a Game. Maybe it’s real, I start thinking, as I puncture a goon artery with an awl I picked up off the ground. Maybe the fake part of the story was the idea that it was just pretend, and the real part, the one in which we topple the Regime and restore liberty to Dodge City, has now officially begun!

 

Who’s to say the Pussygrab Era doesn’t end like this? Why can’t it be this easy?

 

I’m on a blood-rush, willfully suppressing the last remnants of my doubt, turning into a berserker as I hack apart one goon after another, jamming my awl into one set of eyes after another, eyes that have looked favorably upon Pussygrab and Paul Sweetie throughout this entire awful year … whatever world I’m killing you in, I think, my foot on the neck of a goon bleeding out on the rug beneath me, all I can say is I’m glad you’re dying.

 

The goon winks up at me and whispers, “But I’m not really dying … you’re just a loser playing a PS4 Game that lets you pretend I am, and you know it,” so I kick his teeth in and run to catch up with the other Rebels, who are already onto the next floor, one level closer to the ultimate showdown.

 

*****

WE FIGHT THROUGH SEVERAL MORE SUCH FLOORS, like in that movie The Raid, forcing our way upward, until a glimpse into a side room catches my attention. I let the others go on ahead as I peer through a half-open set of doors, where, if I’m not mistaken, Big Pharmakos is rehearsing his comedy routine.

 

I tiptoe into the room, unsure if my footsteps make any sound outside of the main levels of the Game (it seems clear that this room is a non-narrative space, beyond the purview of the Game Designer’s vision, though of course I can’t rule out the possibility that this very thought is an absolutely integral part of that vision).

 

In any case, I lean against the wall and watch Big Pharmakos strut around the stage, quipping about Pussygrab’s largesse, his disavowal of good taste, his manly hatred of shrinking violets, warming up an imaginary crowd for the Colonel, who’s supposedly “Gonna be out in a sec guys, I swear!”

 

As I watch him mock-perform, a memory of my very first morning in Dodge City, years and years ago, a lifetime ago, comes flying back into me. It was in a room just like this, the Hotel Function Room, and I was new in town, still a Drifter, lost, confused, in need of a friend … and there Big Pharmakos was, rehearsing his routine then as now, in a rhinestone suit and white studded boots, then as now, choking the mic in his fist then as now, looking over at me then as now … the jokes the same, then as now.

 

My thinking freezes as I feel the moment when I could have repressed the malignant spread of deja vu disappear. Now I’m lost in it, drenched in the feeling that this — all of it, in its exact dimensions — has happened before, or even that it’s happening now for the first and only time, reverting me back to the very beginning of the entire Dodge City saga, Day One of Book One, Big Pharmakos choking the mic and staring at me from the stage, an evil glint in his eye, not hiding the fact that he knows exactly what I’m thinking.

 

My knees go rubbery and I swoon, thinking, as I fall, please, let this all be part of the Game. I’m willing to lose the Game, I think, as my head smacks against the edge of a table, anything to reboot the level and play it again. Just give me one more chance, I think, beseeching the Game Designer, and I promise I won’t leave the main storyline. I won’t wander into this side room again.

 

“You hear that, folks?” Big Pharmakos simpers. “He wants to play again! He wants one more chance at the main storyline!”

 

The room, though empty, explodes in laughter.

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