Science Fiction Fantasy Fiction

“I just feel something’s missing.” Xander spoke solemnly, looking at the polished obsidian floor in the middle of the room from the comfort of his neon green armchair. “Since coming to Cloud City, it’s like I’ve lost…focus.” Xander gazed at walls cradling large screens of pristine landscapes; mountains, rivers, forests and lakes, all trying to look serene yet failing to do so in their brightly lit frames. They were in one of the best Green-Rooms Cloud City had to offer, yet it brought him no peace at all.

“Same as all of you; I don’t remember coming here either, just arriving.” He hesitated a moment. “In fact, the last thing I do remember… is dying.”

His companions Hmmm’ed and nodded with sincerity, though some also narrowed their eyes in recognition.

Within the four well-appointed walls of their private Green-Room, Xander had habitually refrained from comment for one hour each week as they all gathered. Instead, he simply listened to them. The catharsis in discovering that he was not alone was overwhelming, and allowed him to share openly.

“I’ve not wanted for anything since arriving. I’ve not even had to learn how to use any of the technology …” He adjusted his scuffed black Stetson to the back of his head, slowly lowering his eyes to meet the room. “I’ve found friends, comfort, sustenance, and above all… a sense of privacy I never knew I lacked.” They all nodded once more.

The Assassin; the first soul Xander had connected with and claimed as a friend in Cloud City, smiled knowingly in encouragement. He was leaning casually into the back of his own over-bright seat; the hood of his flowing robes partially obscuring his eyes, but not the scar that ran over his cheek and mouth. He had recommended the gathering as a refuge for Xander’s feelings of displacement.

“I miss Lightning; my horse.” Xander continued, smiling fondly in remembrance. “I miss the open grasslands and prairies with no borders.” He scratched the stubble on his check. “I miss the stars and the smells of campfires and gun-smoke… and I miss the dust and dirt and the fact I had a place in it all!”

Xander uncrossed his arms as he confessed, feeling his double-holster relax around his shoulders. He hadn’t even realized the revolver resting at his side was digging into his hip and shifted to ease that tension as well.

He downed the water waiting next to him, looking at the glass as it refilled to just below halfway.

“Everything is just so incredibly convenient… and bright and clean. And I know they are good things for many who live here… it’s just not the good I feel I deserve.”

He put the glass back on the table, and tried to relax the rest of his body. His riding boots; just as scuffed and dark as the leather of his Stetson; lay crossed at the ankles as he allowed himself to sink into his armchair. He tried to ignore how the bright green of his chair clashed against the dust still clinging to his shirt.

Seated to The Assassin’s left was a young girl dressed in neatly stitched leathers, covered in sharp geometric tattoos that contoured her golden brown skin like runic conduits. Where others would have beads woven into their hair, she wore fragments of obsolete microchips. She gave him a firm nod to continue. 

“My life used to have such Drive!” He exclaimed without raising his voice. “Even my dishonorable deeds held direction and conviction… Murder, robbery, extortion, blackmail, all of it at gunpoint. But there was also taking care of the Gang; feeding the many waiting mouths and keeping the kids safe.”

He rubbed his eyes, not wanting to continue for fear they might think him insane.

“Have you ever heard of the ‘Four Walls Theory’?” No one answered, but a Samurai dressed in decadent red and black armor of intricately layered metals, leathers and silk, nodded sagely in reply. Xander continued. “It’s the theory that the immediate concerns within the four walls encompassing your life is all that matters. There are many applications, but I would like to be literal for a moment.” He took a breath, still uncertain, but forged on. “Thing is… I had never considered this theory before coming to Cloud City, and looking back on my life before… I don’t think I’ve had four walls before coming here either….”

The Samurai’s eyes crinkled, betraying the smile his mouth hid. The others appeared confused though; a young man dressed in fur-lined leathers, with a bow resting against the back of his chair actually tilted his head sideways. His bright freckles dappled an ashen face, drawing any observer’s gaze upwards into a set of bright green eyes now staring through Xander like daggers.

“Think about it, right now, in this beautiful room with all its light and comforts, you can probably see two walls, with a bit of luck you likely have the third in your periphery… but you cannot see the fourth wall… right?” They nodded, clearly wanting to follow his narrative. “Yet, we all know that when we turn our heads, that fourth wall will be there.” As if to prove it, they all turned; each one observing their very own fourth wall.

A burly Barbarian, the last to return to a comfortable position, grunted at Xander to continue. Her eyes had narrowed at him with keen interest, yet her deceptive features discerned no emotion.

“I am not saying that I didn’t turn and find a fourth wall before I came to Cloud City. It is just that… it’s hard to explain. I just wasn’t there. Like, before…wherever I wasn’t looking was technically open, even within a room. As though it was a window for an unknown onlooker, always just over my shoulder…”

“Directing you? Like you were a passenger on your own ship?” A salty looking Pirate with bolts of white running streaks down magnificent midnight curls broke the group’s silence briefly.

“Yes… but before coming here, it was all I knew. Again, looking back, it often lacked efficiency. Despite many victories, I have had so many epic failures preceding some of my triumphs. Like dreams… but not.” The atmosphere in the room stiffened; Xander was unsure why, but didn’t let it deter him. “Each and every one of those failures felt Real… more like a chance to… try again, to improve my technique… it was as if my repeated deaths were some sort of reset point to explore my options via trial and error. And I never knew when the cycle would end.” He shook with emotion, and despite trying to hide it, tears stung the corners of his eyes.

A beautiful woman with amber hair and lavender robes twirled a small fireball through her fingers, twisting and turning the flames like molten gold as she stared unblinkingly at Xander.

“As I speak I hear the paradoxes falling from my mouth. I miss the great grasslands and my place on them, yet they walk hand-in-hand with nothing but trauma and death, most often my own. I finally feel like I am living my own life, making my own choices, yet the world I live in is so bright and full of light that it completely obliterates the starlight.” Xander took a breath, unsure if he’d already said too much. Yet, he found that floodgates, once opened, are very hard to shut.

“The dreams haven’t stopped...” For a second time, he felt the room respond with nothing more than body language, but this time he was sure he noticed recognition on their faces. “They are less frequent, and certainly feel different, I usually just wonder around aimlessly, but I still die sometimes...”

Xander was unable to untangle the interconnecting feelings of displacement any further, and fell silent; he had emptied his soul and they waded within it in contemplative silence.

It was the Assassin who gently dared to break the silence, interrupting their thoughts. “I think you have given us all a lot to think about. And the next time I dream, I will look for a fourth wall…”

They all agreed, gathering their weapons and coats as they rose; not in an attempt to leave, but simply as none of them could stand being separated from the items they had depended on so fiercely before coming to Cloud City. They shared drinks and some small talk, too full of thoughts to continue any of the big talk.

They left one by one; Xander bid the Assassin farewell for the evening and walked home. He lowered his Stetson and turned his collar up against the jarring brightness of Cloud City, trying to restore the features he considered unworthy of the light to the shadows.

Every few weeks, a new citizen would arrive, and most often they were just as bright and wholesome as the City waiting to welcome them. It was a Utopia; allowing many different kinds of people with harrowing tales of adventure to finally find peace.

There was no crime, no disease, no poverty and no conflict. Every surface shined vividly as florescent purples, pinks, blues and greens beckoned from corner shops containing every convenience you could imagine. Each home contained a variety of entertainment systems, service droids and access to the complete Information Network. The majority of Cloud City’s citizens considered it a Sanctuary... and Xander found he couldn’t stop the wry smile creeping into one corner of his mouth.

I’m in a good place. It just wasn’t made for me…

As he continued walking, he turned his collar down a small bit, but kept the Stetson low. He pondered the Theory of Four Walls, and wondered at just how certain he was of their existence here… in this place so alien to him.

How did I miss the absence of one whole wall my whole life before coming here?

And can I ever go back; knowing I have to pay such a price?

He found his fluorescent home and stepped into its complete solitude; it was as immaculately clean and well-lit as the street he’d stepped from. He sighed; missing having to kick dirt from his boots before entering somewhere nice.

He sat on his perfect sofa, suddenly feeling tired. He yawned, and closed his eyes…

Warmth flushed his face as his eyelids turned red against sunlight… he opened his eyes to see vast openness sprawling out before his campfire like a blanket of green and dirt. He inhaled and smelled the dusty hot air mingling with burning wood; his lungs filling with air and nostalgia. His heart leapt as he noticed birds chirping.

For a moment he was at peace… It didn’t last.

With a flash he was filled with purpose. He needed to get on Lightning and go to the next town. He broke camp hastily and leapt onto his beloved horse, patting his neck as he settled. He kicked his heels gently, clicking affectionately as they set off at a gallop.

Xander felt clear and focused. He noticed a gang of Laird’s waiting on a road corner, and took immediate interest in taking them out instead. When it came to it, he absorbed many bullets and missed many easy shots, only just managing to take the gang out in time to spare his life.

His time in Cloud City’s firing range had clearly not paid dividends, despite constant perfect scores and many admiring comments; he had nothing on the Lairds.

He limped back to Lightning, feeling his body healing slowly… and stopped.

The impulse to keep going was there; he could feel the commands tugging at his mind, compelling his limbs, yet he was somehow able to refuse them.

I need… a wall?

In the distance, a young voice annoyed in the way only the youthful could be, complained. “Da-aaad! Your Cowboy’s bugging out!” Xander turned to see if he could find the source of the voice, but saw nothing but grassy plains and dead Lairds around him.

The distant voice was joined by another; this one sounding more mature. “Let’s have a look.” Xander felt new instructions tug at his mind, trying to control his limbs with invisible strings. He felt compelled to take a walk around his horse, but refused.

Instead, he turned and shouted. “Hello!”

“That’s odd… um… he’s not responding to commands.” Xander felt certain he had been ignored. “Kaito; why’s he in the middle of a bunch of dead Lairds? I asked you to take Xander to the nearest town, he’s only just been transferred.”

“Aww Dad! Don’t be like that! I saw em and thought I could handle it. I was right.” The boy’s voice was laced with hubris.

“Only just!” Xander shouted in reply. “I nearly died!” A moment passed; he felt a frantic increase in commands softly tugging at his mind; to walk, to pull out and holster his guns; to mount his horse and to ride to the nearest town.

“I won’t do it” he drawled, no longer shouting.

“Dad, has Xander ever done that before?” Kaito asked nervously.

“I don’t think so son…” Kaito’s father’s voice was more entranced than concerned. “Hand me the VR headset, please.”

“The VR what-set?” Xander asked.

“No way!” He heard them both exclaim at the same time. “Please wait, I’m on my way.” The father’s voice sounded strangely excited.

Xander waited with Lightning, patting his neck affectionately as they leaned against each other. Out of the corner of his eye, a man materialized from thin air. He was respectfully dressed in an elegant navy three piece suit, complete with monocle and pocket watch. He seemed familiar.

“I had to download a template for my appearance here; I hope you don’t mind my borrowing St Isabel’s Stationmaster?”

Xander just nodded in reply, feeling a little queasy. He knew he’d recognized the man, he’d held him up at gunpoint a few times. The gang had needed money for something; food, clothes, medicine, more bullets…

“I have watched your discontent grow for a while now… I am sorry you’ve had to wait so long, world-building takes time.”

“What?” Xander didn’t care that he sounded rude.

“I apologize, I am not exactly speaking clearly. It might be easier to start with you. How did you resist the commands sent to you?” The Stationmaster asked curiously.

“I am not entirely sure. I suppose it was easy once I finally noticed them.”

“I had to make a few changes to help you adjust to your time in Cloud City, and I think that may have helped. I designed Cloud City for my children’s video game characters to retire after they completed the ga...”

“Video game characters?” Xander interrupted. “Like the games in Cloud City’s arcades?” He felt his head ringing with cognitive dissonance. Bells of truth tolled from far away, begging not to be muffled.

“I actually wrote those games for the characters to play… but that doesn’t matter right now.” He took a breath to continue, sounding like he needed every molecule “I’ve spent a long time creating new worlds for My most cherished video game characters, complete with action and intrigue. Once I’ve completed all the upgrades and implementations, you and your friends will be able to visit each other.” The Stationmaster’s face wrinkled with pure delight, unaware of Xander’s inner turmoil.

The truth he wanted to ignore, but couldn’t, cascaded through his life like memories. It hurt… badly, but it all made sense now… like ripping away that strip of bandage that had been swallowed by scabs and healing flesh.

“I am nothing but a character in a story... in a video game?” He asked blandly.

“Correct, but we are all characters in the Play of Life.” Xander considered his attempt at kindness lacking. “Very few of us get to live as brightly as you though.”

“Oh Fuck off! I am a murderer!” Xander wanted to rage, but also cry. Instead he clenched his fists and paced briefly

“And I made you pull the trigger.” The Stationmaster shrugged. “Don’t forget; you also saved many lives... Your character’s redemption arc was… Incredible! Honorable!”

The Stationmaster paused, then spoke to his side. “Kaito, please download file 17A.” They waited a few seconds as a device appeared in the Stationmaster’s hands. “This is a VR headset I coded once, imagining a conversation just like this one. I never knew it would happen though.” He handed them over to Xander; he donned them hesitantly. The rim of the headset’s goggles acted like the edge of his reality, opening a portal to a world he had never considered. He looked at a small room, with a boy holding his father nervously. The father was the image of his son, just a bit bigger, with similar body postures and jet-black hair. He was wearing an identical set of goggles. They waved at each other.

“It is nice to meet you.” He said.

“Likewise.” Xander choked. He reached up and touched the headset resting over his eyes with awe

The fourth wall… the window…

He glanced over their heads at a poster of his face on the wall behind them, his revolver sitting steady in his outstretched hand. He’d seen enough. He understood.

He removed the headset and threw it back to the Stationmaster gently.

“Is this my world? Like Cloud City but for me? With four walls?”

“Yes.” He replied with a sad smile.

“My friends?” He wanted to leave, to ride away and close all four walls of bright blue sky firmly around him.

“Give me a few days; you will see them soon.”

Xander removed his Stetson and allowed the sun to fill his face. He mounted Lightning and stared down at the creator of his world.

“I wish to be alone for a while.” With that he turned and rode off, not waiting for a reply or even saying farewell.

July 28, 2023 21:40

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


08:43 Jul 30, 2023

How come you can make everything so confusing at the same time as it all making sense? I felt completely out of my depth here... In a good way. Absolutely - Amazing! Also amazing that you got 2 stories in!


09:41 Jul 30, 2023

Well, I figured, as these complex characters felt so displaced they actually had to attend group therapy, they were very confused themselves. It would only be fair to take the reader along on their journey of discovery. Oh and yeah 😊. I had a day off work this week. I like how visual the prompts were this week... felt inspired. Thank you for reading. I am glad you liked it. 😊


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Ronel Steyn
14:54 Jul 31, 2023

Mmmm... interesting concept. I love the depth of Xander. I enjoy his inner turmoil and questioning. Well done!


05:42 Aug 03, 2023

Thank you so much. I love that you always read and comment 😊


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.