Well, this is awkward.
I'm sorry for making you all wait so atrociously long for this chapter. And you're probably going to hate me even more because Ralph and Nora aren't in it...*dodges flying tomatoes* Please read it anyways, because it was a real bitch to write. I've been going through really bad writer's block lately. I blame school and all of its creativity-sucking powers. This is just a short chapter to kick off a sub-plot for the story. I'm...sorry.
(An extra note: Red is the Crowdie from the first chapter who counted how many times Nora was picked as an avatar during Brawl Nation's first day in the arcade. Just to let you know.)
Chapter Six: Meanwhile, In Brawl Nation...
With his hands placed firmly on his hips, Red stood peering into the bleak emptiness that surrounded the Brawl Nation community, with its arenas and houses clustered together like a pack of mice cowering from predators. Behind him, Harvey Stormer and a few of Red's fellow Crowdies sat around a cook fire, roasting sausages and onions and swapping banter and stories. Usually Red was at the very centre of these after-hour hangouts, filling everyone's mugs with their game's good beer and making them squirt it out through their noses with his jokes, but not even the mouth-watering smell of the food could snap him out of his current daze.
"There's too much empty space in our game," he thought, watching the breeze pick up the gray dust and making it clumsily dance above the ground. One of the things that many visitors found disconcerting about Brawl Nation was its breeze. There was always a light wind, tickling the skin of the game's inhabitants, whispering in their ears like a needy lover. While he and the Brawl Nation characters were used to it, outsiders were not, and he remembered with a small grin how Mr. Hot Dog, Mr. Pickle, and Mr. Egg from BurgerTime had squirmed and shivered when they first felt its presence during their one field trip to Brawl Nation (though that was nothing compared how Mr. Hot Dog had sobbed when he saw some Crowdies cooking sausages, which was a popular dinner food in the game). Other characters found it unsettling, even unnecessary, but to Red it was the game's pulse. Without it they—the Brawl Nation citizens—would be breathing and walking in air that was too unnatural, too still.
Red was a man who liked and appreciated the simpler things in life, such as the gentle breeze. As the Head Crowdie in Brawl Nation he was often so busy that he had to snatch up pleasures wherever he could find them. To him a day that included at least one hearty meal and someone choking up with laughter at one of his witticisms was a day well-spent. But today the wheels in his head were turning and churning out thoughts about something that had been bothering him ever since the game had been plugged in two weeks ago, which had nothing to do with food or jokes.
"All of this empty space…just for a landscape shot in the opening video," he observed with mild annoyance. "What a waste. But I guess that's why they're called wastelands."
He briefly turned around and looked up, coming face-to-face with the outside wall of the Ballistic Blasters arena. Three days ago the gamers had done a number on it, making their avatars spin and activate the cannons so often that the arena would've been blown to smithereens if the programming of the place hadn't been made to endure being hit with the worst of everything. The gamers loved the fact that their avatars could actually interact with the arenas they fought in. In the Fatal Factory Arena the Brawlers could jump on the equipment to dodge an attack (though not for very long, since the faulty equipment exploded at random. It was a fatal factory, after all). In the Manic Mirrors Arena the gamers had to navigate their avatars through a maze of spinning, moving mirrors that made multiple reflections of the Brawlers that confused their players. But that was the charm of it, of course; to confuse, to challenge, and if there was one thing players loved, it was a challenge.
But what concerned Red was that the gamers were getting good at the challenges, perhaps a little too good. There were only six arenas—six deadly battlegrounds—for them to master. As thrilling as the arenas were, it was all Brawl Nation had to offer its gamers. What would happen if, or when, the thrill wore off? What if the gamers got bored? What if their measly six arenas weren't enough to earn their keep at Litwak's? Directing his gaze back out into the wastelands, Red couldn't help but wonder if perhaps filling in the shamefully empty space would prevent Brawl Nation from losing its shine…
Of course, he was currently the only one whose mind was preoccupied with this issue. The others were busy indulging in a deep, meaningful conversation.
"So apparently this Zangief guy was so smashed that he actually walked right out of Tapper without his speedo," Harvey Stormer was telling the others behind him. "Walked right through the Station too, with his bits floppin' everywhere."
"And he got away with it?" Angela asked, licking meat grease off her fingers. She was a Crowdie, with a shaved head and half a dozen silver rings in each ear. She was known for sleeping in a hammock in her room rather than a normal bed, and for regularly sneaking into Medieval Mayhem to swim naked in the castle moat. "Nice. Was he big?"
Harvey held up the palms of his hands. His wrists were tightly wrapped in black leather arm bands. "How am I supposed to know?! I heard this from Thomas Rogan, and I didn't ask that."
Red rolled his eyes and turned back to the group. "Obviously your priorities are out of whack, Stormer," he said. "That's supposed to be the first thing you ask."
Angela, Lars, and Dave laughed. Harvey indulged the red-haired Head Crowdie with a little smirk, never losing for a second that cool, relaxed air that made the female gamers swoon over him. "Oh, sorry. Do you want me to go find out for you and Angie?"
"I have my own ways of finding out," Angela spoke up. She took a long swing of beer as her bright silver rings twinkled in her ears, catching bits of light from the fire. After her thirst was quenched, she smacked her lips. "Hey, Reddy Boy, what's up with you today? You've been staring out into the abyss for twenty minutes straight now."
"I'm soul-searching," Red joked. But with a more serious tone he added, "And brainstorming."
"Huh. Multitasking. Good for you."
"Eat it, Stormer," Red shot back at the blue-haired Brawler. Harvey only smirked again and dug a toothpick into his top row of pearly whites. Turning back to Angela, Red explained, "I'm brainstorming ways to make Brawl Nation more...expanded."
Angela raised a plucked eyebrow at him. "Expanded? What's that supposed to mean?"
Red swept his arm out in the direction of the wastelands, which lay before them like a vacant, windy stage. "Look out there. What do you see?"
"Is this a trick question?" Harvey asked. "Or have you been breathing in too much of the dust? There's nothing out there, buddy."
"Exactly!" Red cried. "There's nothing out there!"
"There's rubble," Lars, a Crowdie with a stocky build, pointed out. "From the abandoned cities. And those mountains out west."
"But there's nothing for us out there," Red said. "Nothing for the gamers either."
"I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark here and say that you're about to come to some sort of point with this," Harvey spoke up sarcastically. Like the rest of the Brawlers, thick sarcasm was in his code. Stormer in particular could shoot sharp remarks from his mouth like he shot bolts of lightning from his fingertips, while remaining as cool as a cucumber and unmoving as the mountains that lay beyond the bleak wastelands.
"As a matter of fact, I do have a point," Red replied. "In our backstory, we built this city and its arenas, out of the scraps left behind by the war. I know it's just a backstory, but the programmers made us capable of building and inventing. They also gave us all of this freaking space, right at our disposal. I say we put two and two together and make something of it."
"Like?" Angela asked curiously.
"Another arena!" Red stated excitedly, his face glowing as he finally announced the idea that had been simmering in his mind and was now boiling hot. "A seventh arena! One so awesome it'll make the other six look like children's playgrounds! It could be a bonus level...or better yet, the final level! The gamers won't get bored, and we won't—"
"You're worried about the gamers getting bored?" Harvey interrupted. "Where have you been the last two weeks? The gamers love us! They went nuts over us the day we were plugged in!" He spoke with all the arrogance and confidence that came with being a video game character who was safe and content in their place.
"Stormer, wait," Angela spoke up, setting her beer mug aside. "I think Reddy might be on to something. It's happened before."
Harvey stared at her. "What's happened before?"
"Gamers losing interest," Angela replied. "And shoving their quarters into some other game's hole."
"Lovely image there, Angie" Harvey said. "But not grounds for panicking like rats. We've had more gamers than we know what to do with. We don't need another arena to keep them entertained. They're having a jolly enough old time making Bladefury stick knives in us...or making Speedslam knock us out with his hammers...or making Crater set us on fire..."
"What's this 'us' bullshit? It's only you Brawlers who go through that. The rest of us chillax in the stands, from a safe distance," Angela cut in. But then she smirked knowingly. "Ooooh, I think I get it now! You don't want another arena because it'll be just another place that you get your ass kicked in!"
Harvey's shot her an irritated look, but did not lose his composure. "Not even close. And did you even see me fry Sparks like an onion ring today? She's the one who should be worried about getting her ass kicked in arena number seven...if, under any circumstances, it comes to exist." Harvey hardly ever bothered to disguise his jealousy towards Nora's popularity with the gamers. He thought the general fascination with her disability was ridiculous, and whenever she sent a giant chunk of earth or metal hurling in his direction while standing on the other side of the arena he couldn't help but wonder how much of a disability it really was. Needless to say, he got quite a lot of lip from the others for his attitude. Like everyone else, he was supposed to feel sorry for her. He didn't, though. Not really. And his opposition to a new arena was mostly laziness, though he didn't want to admit it. He didn't want to slave away on building and learning his way around a new fighting ring. There were already six others standing strong. Why did Brawl Nation need a seventh? The way Red was selling the idea, one would think that they were desperate.
"I think another arena would be cool," Dave spoke up timidly. He was a scrawny Crowdie, with most of his body weight being his own various piercings. He was a bit on the quiet side, but was well-liked by everyone for his honest nature. "How far out into the wastelands would we built it, though?"
"Far enough so the gamers won't see it until it's finished," Red concluded. He looked out again into the wastelands, considering the space, considering the endless possibilities. They could build it anywhere, really.
"If we could find a destroyed building that can be patched up..." Angela began thoughtfully. She hadn't paid any heed to Harvey's diss of Nora. She knew that it was the jealousy talking, because that day Nora had give him a smackdown in the arenas that more than made up for his frying. A seventh arena wouldn't change anything. Nora would always be Brawl Nation's best fighter, because that's how the programmers intended it. "You know, Reddy, this idea of yours is actually sort of fucking brilliant."
"If 'brilliant' is the new word for 'totally nuts'," Harvey said, his tone dripping his skepticism. "How many people in this game do you think are going to be willing to put in so much time and effort to build this little science project of yours?"
"Ooooh, we'll see, Stormer. I'm going to call for a game meeting tomorrow," Red announced decisively. "We'll ask everyone what they're willing to contribute to this idea. We'll put it to a vote."
"You've already got my vote," Angela told him, shooting him a dazzling comrade's smile. "My tool box is at your disposal."
"And mine," Lars said. "I'm in."
"Same here," Dave said. They all looked at Harvey, who gave them all an indifferent glare.
"You kids do what you want," Harvey said dismissively. "But don't say I didn't warn you." He brought his beer mug to his lips and drank deeply.
Red's mouth curved into a victorious smile. "Tomorrow, then. Right after the arcade closes. We'll get everyone in the Amphi Arena and hold a mass conference. And you don't have to show up if you don't want to, Stormer. You can go off and scare some small children or something while the rest of us are planning to improve our game."
Harvey said nothing, merely reaching for another sausage while Red, Angela, Lars and Dave broke into a long, enthusiastic discussion about what the new arena would be like, what theme it would be, what dangerous surprises it would have. In the wastelands, the wind picked up and began to make the dust dance again. If one listened closely, they could hear the wind singing with joy as she and the dust moved about in a graceful waltz. If the new arena came to pass, there would soon be others dancing in the terrain as well. Dancing...and brawling.
End of Chapter
Again, I'm super sorry about this cheap bullshit. I'll stuff the next chapter with Nora/Ralph fluff if it makes you all feel better. Please review!