Chapter 01 – The mundane side of the Portal
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I began typing this as some kind of self-therapy, and planning to go deep in wish-fulfilment and self-indulgence, as a way to fight depression. But before I could even finish this Chapter, I felt like I had grown so much that I could barely recognize myself in it anymore. I am still publishing this, because I hope that it may help others recognize themselves through my experiences, or at the very least, that they enjoy trying to follow the way my confusing mind works.


      My name is Philippe. I’m a 40 year-old shameless geek, weeb and professional developer for a triple-A international video-game company. At work, I mostly go by the monosyllabic monicker “Flip”, given to me by one of my favourite leads. We clicked in less than 5 minutes during the interview. I really like that nickname. As an aside, old video game consoles had very little real estate for names on screen, so most of the time they limited you to four characters, if you could name your character or save game at all. Because of that, I tend to like using 4-letter names whenever I can. (Bonus nerd points, in languages that use syllabaries, that would usually means 4 syllables instead, not letters as in the Latin Alphabet)


      I actually hate being called “Phil”, because of its association with highschool bullying. Just imagine every 12 to 17 year-old snarkily asking “Hey Phil, how you feel?” (and all possible permutations) as if they were the first one to come up with that joke. Highschool years were hell for me. I was very different, a loner. Tall. Big. Socially inept. Top of the class grades. Due to terrible eyesight, I sat in the front row to be able to read the chalkboard (Back then we didn’t have whiteboards). Even then, I had to squint to read everything properly. It took a while before I learned I needed glasses. I’m grateful that I’m way more auditory than visual, I could usually follow just by listening to the teacher.


      To my peers, I was an obvious target, and I may as well have painted a bullseye on my back. And since I was, at the time, rather hyper sensitive, they probably liked getting easy and quick reactions to anything and everything they did. I don’t understand why or how they could be jealous of my life or resent me -- my life SUCKED. But hey, they probably assumed things about me, and never asked me if that was the truth. But that’s rather hypocritical of me, since I never asked anything and just assumed instead. Hurt me? Well, you’re a monster. Other students weren’t humans anymore in my eyes. They were dead to me. Aggressors, and I had to survive.


      Sadly, the solution my mother provided, after she probably picked herself the same 40 or so years before, was to build walls. Impenetrable walls. Don’t strike back, that’s not the way of our Lord. No. Just endure, and protect your heart. Show the other cheek if they hit you. Stop crying and reacting, they’ll lose interest. I realize this, because I’m writing this now. It took me 30 years at least to get here. I don’t blame her. I am somewhat curious about what the trigger event was. The straw that broke the camel’s back. But it’s not super important. I have a lot of work ahead to fix myself, and the past can just fuck off, along with anyone who doesn’t like the present me.


      So the story begins as I leave the office, it’s close to 6:40 PM, the sky is already completely dark, the temperature is slightly below freezing. Innumerable snowflakes are slowly floating down from beyond the skyscrapers, catching beautifully the cones of light casted by the many street lamps. I have always liked snowflakes, and how they dance in the sky, but now that I'm an adult, I started hating them. They slow down traffic, and force me to shovel my driveway. After adjusting my scarf and company-issued beanie, I start the first leg of my return trip routine, the twenty-minutes walk to the bus station, the sound of the city and the crushing snow alone keeping me company. My first destination is the nearest entrance to the underground tunnels known here as the Jungle Urbaine (That’s french for “Urban Jungle”). 


      This allows me to avoid Montréal’s cold snow-, slush- and sleet-filled streets, trading them instead for suffocating, sweat-, crap- and urine-smelling corridors. In this season, many homeless and beggars hide here from the cold. Occasionally, small groups of police officers can be seen surrounding one of them and having loud arguments. And then on the next day, I recognize the same faces around, which always makes me wonder what the fuss was all about. I don’t want to meddle, though, so I just keep walking. During the rest of the year, it’s easier to avoid them by navigating the streets above. As there are only a few paths across the Jungle, I do my best not to feel too awful when I walk past them -- I don’t generally give money away to strangers -- finances are pretty tight as a bachelor living on their own.


      If someone asked, I would honestly say I consider myself a very generous person, but I keep my generosity to those close to me; friends, family, my employees, colleagues. Unfortunately, I also acquired an extremely negative vision of charities. My dad had been on friendly terms with someone pretty high up in one of them. The man was a total garbage of a human being, and my disgust at parasites like him has probably irrevocably tainted my opinion of all other such entities. I suppose it’s unfair to all those that try and do good, but trust once broken is hard to regain, as they say. I turn at the end of a long corridor, going through glass doors and enter one of the many underground shopping malls that form this chaotic network.


      The crowd density is thankfully sparser than during rush hour, which is a relief. Still, people are walking around in all directions, some shopping, others just using the mall to get to their destinations, like me. This isn’t a big surprise, seeing as there are multiple food courts, shops, subway stations and movie theaters all connected through this maze. As usual, I walk with my head strictly downwards, watching my feet and avoiding any eye contact. I only occasionally take quick glances to allow for micro-adjustments on my pathfinding. I pretty much pay no attention to any advertisements, stands, banners, posters and electronic billboards. Sometimes, however, I catch my gaze lingering on one of the many mannequins wearing anything from winter coats to lingerie or classy- stylish- and casual-outfits in the various shops’ displays. Whenever my brain catches on and realizes what I am doing, I quickly turn my eyes away, hoping nobody noticed anything, and I keep walking.


      As I step on a narrow escalator, I sigh in frustration. Before me, an inconsiderate stranger decided to lazily let the snail-paced machine take them to the next floor, and there is no room to allow anyone to squeeze past. After chastising myself for not predicting this outcome and veering to the nearby stairs before the split, I use that forced downtime to reflect on an event that occurred a few days earlier... At lunchtime, a few coworkers and myself were heading to a nearby restaurant, chatting about geek stuff, work, games and tv shows. Without warning, the conversation paused, and a few moments later, the others all started commenting about some hot girl who allegedly just walked past us. I hesitated a moment, wondering if I should turn around to find who they were talking about -- but obviously I would never do that, too afraid that people may notice me doing so, especially the girl. So I just kept walking and stayed silent, smiling awkwardly. If prompted to participate in the discussion, I’d just shake my head, hoping they’d understand to let me out of it.


      As soon as I’m free from my self-inflicted time-out, I accelerate and quickly circle around the traffic-jam obstacle and start twisting through narrow side corridors. The unfortunate random-encounter reminds me of something that happened a few months ago... One of those friends wisely declared that when I’m walking “Philippe doesn’t see people, he sees collision boxes.” I still think that’s a fairly accurate statement of what goes on inside my head, especially when I am in “Mission mode.” In this state, I become laser-focused on whatever is my current objective, and almost nothing in the world can distract me from it. There could be a store I like, filled with 90% off merchandise that happens to be on my wishlist a foot away from me, and I wouldn’t even register it.


      The escalators and twisting tunnels eventually lead to a very wide open space -- Montreal’s Central Train Station. My destination, however, lies beyond still, and I simply cut through to another tunnel, similar to the one I just came from. As I walk on autopilot, I find myself reflecting on the things I did at work today. Working in games, especially triple-As, isn’t always fun. Getting over 200 people to collaborate isn’t easy. To make things worse, IT companies tend to attract difficult personality types, such as introverts, geniuses and people on the Autism spectrum.


      I should know, as I am myself recently officially diagnosed as “Twice Exceptional” (a term for people with unique abilities/gifts, and unique disabilities/needs). In my case, it translates to high-functioning Autism along with Giftedness, which used to be known pretty much as Asperger’s. On top of that, I’m also an Introvert with Schizoid-like tendencies. Despite all these, I miraculously managed to find myself a position as Technological Director, which means that I’m the lead of a team of ten experts. Together, we support about sixty content creators spread across five different departments.


      As is usual for Little Friday, I got very little actual work done. Instead I spent most of it answering questions and running around trying to extinguish metaphorical fires, running dangerously late to the many meetings that keep appearing on my calendar throughout the week and day. Once again, I totally skipped lunch and spent the hour working at my desk, the only time where I managed to stay in front of my computer monitor uninterrupted. Later in the afternoon, when an all-too-familiar headache signaled me how hungry I was, it was so close to the time to head home and eat supper that I grabbed and snacked on a Pumpkin-N-Spice breakfast bar from the box I keep at work for such emergencies. 


      As it happens rather often, the 30 minute break I had scheduled in the afternoon to get some much-needed sunlight and VitaminD was double-booked by a product coordinator. Ever since I added this recurring event in my schedule at the recommendation of my dietitian, I have never been able to actually make use of it. Every single day, I see its reminder window pop and I end up having to ignore it, instantly wracked by guilt for not taking better care of myself. Not quite enough guilt to actually do something about it -- just enough to stack on the self-hatred. That’s not too different from people who keep paying their monthly fee for the gym, and the guilt they feel about cancelling the subscription.


      When I finally arrive at my bus station, Terminus Centre-Ville (Translation: “Downtown Terminus”), my bus is already backing away, just as I reach the threshold of gate fifteen. I stop in front and stare through the closed automated glass doors at the driver, who obviously notices me. I let out a long sigh of defeat. I don’t blame them, but I do wish that people would sometimes be nicer. I’m sure it’s against some rules or security protocol --the terminus, the bus company, insurance?--, to stop and let me board. But at this hour, seeing as it’s the only bus presently in the garage, it would be totally safe. Can’t let a random act of kindness mess with their schedule this way, especially on a snowy day like today. 


      Isn’t it somewhat funny how when you arrive on time at the bus stop, you end up waiting 15 minutes because they’re running late? But if dare you show up with some tardiness? Oh, then the bus leaves as soon as the seconds hit double zeroes, thank you very much. Finally done backing away, the bus driver changes gears and slowly accelerates away. The vehicle starts its escape route, running slalom between concrete pillars, and finally disappearing, turning into an adjoining street. The garage now completely dark, the glass door in front of me starts acting as some kind of mirror, and after catching my reflection, I cowardly turn away, and start looking for the bus’ schedule.


      The monitor above me indicates that the next bus on Circuit 321 is going to be here in 40 minutes. I try to review if I left a few minutes later than usual, walked slower than usual, or if this was caused by the escalator-incident, but really, it doesn’t change the fact I have to add an extra 40 minutes to today’s commute, which means I’ll be home in about 1h20 -- so around 8:20pm. By the time I’m done with supper, dishes, and taking care of my cat it’ll be close to 9:00pm. It’s Thursday and I have work tomorrow. I suppose for normal people, that meant they would start their routine to get ready to head to bed. In my case, my lifelong friend Insomnia-chan probably has other plans for me. And because we know each other so well, I tend to plan around her whims. What I mean here is that ever since I was a kid, the only surefire way for me to manage to fall asleep has been to go to bed only after I am dropping dead tired. Therefore, there will be a lot of gaming later tonight!


      I pull out my cell from my jeans pocket and swiftly enter my passcode. After swiping through the recent apps to find Google Hangout, I start typing a message to my long-distance friend Chris, “Pyon~? What’s the Ry up to? Just missed the bus, so I won’t be home for quite a while still.” I lock the screen and stow the phone in my coat’s pocket, for easier access once I feel the phone’s rumble. “Ry”, “Ryt” and/or “The Rytheas” are some of the variations I usually call him, instead of his real name. They’re all based on one of the names he commonly uses in the games we play online together -- MMORPGs, or Coop RPGs, mostly. When talking over Discord with guildmates or guest players, we instinctively chose to use the name of our characters. That way when new players join us, they don’t have to learn what’s the player name behind each character’s name, or vice versa. And I guess we got so used to it, even outside of the game, we just kept using them.


      After a short while, the silent buzzing brings a smile to my face. I check my messages, and discover, as I expected, a rather classic Ry-answer to my current situation: “Oh noes! Rescue cheering cat, then!”. Attached with the message is a rather cute picture of lion-girl Atalanta from the Nasuverse (Fate/Apocrypha, specifically). In this picture, she is dressed in a cheerleader outfit, and her facial expression indicates she is not too fond of it, either. I really like that character, even though she wasn’t very strong in my teams on the Mobile Gacha game Fate/GO. Her blond-to-green mane of hair, her cute lion ears and tail, and her general posture makes her an instant win in my book. She is one of the characters that the game developers actually kept the “real” gender. The Nasuverse seems to genderbend historical figures quite a bit. So what if King Arthur(ia) is a cute little blonde girl with a badass invisible sword and dress-plate-mail?


     Genderbent characters are cool enough. But I’ve always had a thing for Role-Reversal instead. One of the best-known duo of such character is the cyber-bodyguard Molly Williams and the hacker Case, in William Gibson's Neuromancer. Molly pretty much is the character that defines the term "Razorgirl", used in Sci-Fi for deadly women (often with chrome and sharp nails). My first introduction to a "Razorgirl", however, was far from the classic Silicon-and-steel worlds of Cyberpunk. Instead, it happened in the Space Opera of the Phantasy Star series, a JRPG that blatantly ripped off Star Wars. In the second title of that series, the main character Rolf saves a young biomonster who looked surprinsingly human. He takes her home and named her Nei -- Nearly-Human. In the year she spent under his care, she grew from a small child all the way to adulthood. And the start of the game, Rolf receives a dangerous mission, Nei insists that she will accompany him. She becomes a forced party member for the first third of the game. 


      She is by far the strongest and most versatile character in the team, eclipsing everyone in leveling speed, faithful to her accelerated growth. High damage, High Agility, Healing magic, Double Attacks. All of that, however, crumbles after her heroic solo-battle against her twin-sister Nei-First. No matter if Nei wins or loses, the death of one leads to the death of the other, as they are intrinsically linked. Not only is that loss a turning point in the story (and pretty much where Rolf turns rogue and starts getting attacked by his own employer), it is also a huge loss for the Player. You simply cannot replace her by another member that will manage to fill her shoes quite as well as she did. Nei’s purple-pink hair and outfit, laser-bladed claw/fist-weapons and self-sacrifice are forever rooted in my mind as the ultimate heroine. Fate/GO’s Atalanta isn’t quite there, but she’d be close behind in the ranking.


      “That’s, hmm… Quite the revealing top, she got there, no?”, I type back after managing to shake myself out of my errant thoughts. I instantly see the blinking icon noticing me that Ry is about to answer something. The message takes a bit to come, which means it probably will contain another picture, if I am guessing right. “Oh? Does the Cloes prefers this one then?” This time, the attached image is Atalanta-Alter, which is another version of the same character. In case you were wondering, “Clo”, “Cloe”, “The Cloes” are the names that Rythea uses to refer to me, for the reasons I explained above. 


      Atalanta is normally an archer, and a lion-girl hybrid, as a nod to the curse she and her husband Hippomenes suffer at the end of that story. Atalanta-Alter, however, is a berserker version of the character. Her outfit is usually not much more than black and purple fur covering her arms and legs, some white underwear, and a dismembered boar head serving as shoulder pad (Indicating her link to the Calydonian Boar from myths). While Atalanta-Alter certainly wins a ton of points of kickassery and badassness, her primary outfit is certainly not something that I want to be seen staring at publicly. “That’s pretty badass, but also a bit revealing! Poor girl is fighting monsters in a bra, pretty much.” I know, however, that this isn’t something that really bothers him, as he had dressed his tall amazonian lady tank in bikini often enough when running dungeons together.


      “BTW, did the Cloe hears? There’s a new FF MMO coming out?” I do a triple-take, and reread the message, puzzled. FinalFantasy XIV wasn’t very old yet, and I had heard no news about a new expansion, let alone a new MMO title to compete with it. “Huh? How, and when? I should have heard of this…” My cell phone email alarm goes off and I check the pop notification “From Chris, Subject: FW: Welcome to Final Fantasy 14pointXI.” FF 14.11? What does that even mean? I mean, it’s not quite “Dissidia Duodecim” level of confusing, but it’s close to “Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days”

“I got two keys for the closed beta. It’s all very hush hush, it seems. I figured the Cloes would be happy to give it a shot tonight.” Chris has always been following beta invites, the reddits and all sorts of news websites. I didn’t really spend much time doing that, especially when work was getting overwhelming. And hell, have it been a rough ride these last two years to me.  
  “Hell yeah! Do you know anything about it? I guess there’s no wikipedia yet, since it’s all probably under NDA.”
“I only know what’s in the email, and the title of the project. We’ll just have to figure it out as we go!”  
  “Cool! Do you have any idea what you’ll want to play? A Rythea-style tank, or maybe more a return to Kaestra and all her fire explosions?”
“I don’t know. What will the Cloe do?”  
  “If there’s a monk class, that for sure. Especially if they’re kinda tanky. And crafting, of course. Crafting ALL THE THINGS. But mostly pretty clothes for you and I.”

      The forty minute wait and twenty minute ride felt almost instantaneous, as me and Chris kept talking and trying to figure out where we’ll start, what races to pick, which job we’ll play. Obviously, that wasn’t very easy when we didn’t even know what the options were. But we managed to nail a few things: Ry was going to be a tall tanned red-headed again (and probably going by that name again, since his names were often based on specific visuals) Anything fire-based or spear-related was going to be considered. I would pick whatever is closest to a catgirl or elf I could find, and use fist weapons / martial-arts / monk class. We also agreed that if there was a nation that started in snowy areas, we would pick that one, because we are both proud Canadian, and snow is pretty. Our guild, usually, went by the name [A Mari Usque Ad Mare], taken from our country’s motto (From sea to sea)

“Is the Cloes still going to be a Cloe?”  
  “I don’t know, I think I want to try something else. She got a good run for the last, what, four years? I was thinking of something different like ‘Neva’.”

      That name had come up randomly in my head just now. It’s based on the Neva river in northwestern Russia flowing from Lake Ladoga. My cat is a nice tabby Siberian, but the Siberians are mostly known for the Neva Masquerade coloring -- snow white hair, and bright blue eyes. They often have darker hair around their eyes and feet, giving the impression they are wearing a mask like at a masquerade. If there’s a way to pull off a fluffy cat girl with their striking blue eyes and white hair, I was going to pick that name. Otherwise, Cloe usually uses whatever cute short black hair that is kinda tomboyish, and I’m fairly sure that would be a safe backup plan.


      Once the bus arrives in my suburb, I text one quick message to Ry, putting our conversation on hold. I’m pretty much jumping for joy, skipping all the way to my car in the parking lot. I still have 20 minutes of driving to get back to my place, the last leg of the journey home. My plan is to start downloading the client as soon as I get in, and then I’ll take care of supper and Rune. Hopefully they have a lightweight version of the client where users can start character-generation before all the rest of data is downloaded!

      “Oh man, this is going to be so awesome.” I repeated to myself aloud.