#1 of Virtually Unreal
"Yeah, sure, let me just get dressed, and we'll be over there in a few!" Aislin sets down the reciever and looks back at the bathroom door, which is standing ajar. "Honey, everyone's getting together to play, let's get ready and go meet them!" The young and fluffy ewe peeks her smiling face around the door frame, to find her boyfriend standing over the toilet relieving himself. "Oh Tex, close the door when you're peeing, please?" She puts her hands on her hips, her wool giving slightly, showing that she's not quite as pudgy as she looks.
"Ahm sorry hunny, ah forgot." The thick Texas drawl flows through the door, followed by its owner, a heavily muscled steer. His long horns graze the widened door frame as he steps through, still nude from their escapades earlier that morning. His muscular body still glistening slightly from the shower. He leans down and kisses Aislin more gently than should be possible for a furson of his size. She smiles, and bounces on her hooves quickly, causing her breasts to jiggle ever so slightly, as they are contained beneath her shirt. "When are we s'posed to meet 'em?" He asks as he dries his chest with the towel.
"Well, I told them we'd leave as soon as we get dressed, so, really we need to hurry. I think Hank got us reservations. Sunny wasn't really all that forthcoming." Her slight Irish accent slips through in a few words, but is quickly and deliberately corrected.
"All righty then...ya just cover up that cute lil heiny, an ah'll put away the monster and we can leave." He grins and lightly smacks her on the bottom. She returns the favor by giving 'the monster' a little smack as well.
Hank and Sunny sit at a small table underneath a shade umbrella in front of a strip of large, dark, dome-like buildings. The Atlantic Ocean crashes in the distance, sending a steady and fresh stream of sea air all over the beach. They converse boredly over an order of chili and cheese drowned fries. All around, furs in their beach wear go about their business. The pair look as out of place with the hard bodies and surgically altered chests of the usual Miami Beach patrons as a green thumb in a hand full of blue fingers. Hank looks up at Sunny through his yellow tinted glasses. His attraction to her is strong, and obvious as he gazes longingly at her. Sunny's panther mouth idly sucks the chili-cheese off of one of her fingers. She looks extremely uncomfortable around so many furs who look nothing like her. She resembles someone who couldn't decide if they wanted to look like a punk or a goth, so decided to split the difference. The left side of her face is painted with black eyeliner and lipstick, and her long, silky black hair falls slightly over her face. Her eyebrow is pierced in the middle, on each side, and each of her pointed feline ears sag lightly from the weight of their three piercings each, but there the similarities end. Her right side is free of any makeup or extra adornment, save for her hair, which is cut significantly shorter on this side, spiked and dyed a bright vibrant green. Hanks eyes pause for a few seconds on Sunny's ample breasts, which strain against the black cloth of her shirt. He takes in every curve of her breasts, and licks his muzzle lightly as he sees her right nipple's ring pressing against the fabric. She has foregone a bra today, having had an unpleasant experience before involving the bra's strap ripping through her VR suit.
"They're late, as usual." Her voice is slightly gruff, yet still wholely feminine. "I swear, if those two weren't attached at the crotch, they'd lose each other." She glances at Hank for approval on what she thought to be a very humorous quip.
Hank snickers, more from a desire to please than any real humor. "Yeah, I hear ya." Hank stands and begins stretching out. The "mutt" is wearing his usual atire, an old-school Nintendo shirt, and a pair of loose fitting jeans with the heels worn out from being stepped on, and the knees worn out from crawling around between his computers. Which breed of canine he descends from is impossible to determine because his heritage is so mixed. He looks inside the building which houses the VR game "Fantastic Realm" an interactive virtual reality fantasy role-playing game, or VRPG, as the users commonly call it. There are many different "temples" along the strip here, each catering to a different type of game. The other two most popular games flank the "FR" temple. The one on the right, a shooting game, is currently closed because of the real death of a user while in game. The other, a VR football game, caters more to the wannabe jocks who cruise the beach, scoping out the chicks, and stopping at the many different workout areas to build their bodies. Both games that remain open have had a severe increase in membership since the incident with the death, though there is talk that the hacker that caused the neural 'safety net' to fail, is still at large. This safety net exists to keep the brain from thinking that the VR world is the actual world, thereby preventing the brain from having any negative effects should the character die in-game.
"Hey, Sun, do you think those rumors about the hacker are true?" He slides his hand up his arm, as he looks on the shooter's temple. "How do we know if we're safe in-game?" His voice is slow and careful, with just a hint of bass.
"Well, from what I've heard, the hacker hasn't been caught, but I don't think we need to worry about getting hurt while in-game...we'll take it easy, and with Aislin's heals and Tex tanking, all you and I will have to worry about is making sure the monsters die quickly." She grins over at Hank. She idly thinks how nice he is, he's always doing things for her. He even let her stay with him without rent after she lost her last apartment. And not once did he come on to her or make her feel uncomfortable. If she wasn't so strapped for cash at the time, she could have paid for her appointment today with her own money, but Hank insisted she let him pay. Her smile widens. "Thanks again for spotting me Hank."
"No problem...hey, you bought the fries."
"Guess that makes us even, then?"
"Not a chance in Hell, Sun...Hank's going to start charging you kisses from now on, ain't ya?" The Texas accent from behind her was unmistakable. Sunny was always surprised at how those two walk so softly with their hooves. "Howdy"
"Hey guys." Aislin waves lightly from underneath Tex's arm. "Don't mind him, Sunny, he's just being stupid as usual." She grins and ribs her man.
"Don't worry, Ash...I am used to the big lug by now." She stands and moves to the late arrivals. "We knew you'd be late, so we told you to be here a half hour before we needed to be." She grins and gives each of them a hug in turn.
Hank moves over to them, and greets Tex with their own handshake that just occured one day, and gives Aislin a little hug. "But you know, Sun...I do like Tex's idea. How about it?"
Sunny grins and gives him a friendly little peck on the cheek. "I think it sucks." She playfully pinches his cheek where she kissed him. "We're even...or have you forgotten the fries already?" She pokes him in the ribs and sticks out her tongue as they head indoors.
Tex looks around at the closed building. "Still haven't caught the bastard, eh?" Sunny and Hank shake their heads together. "Damn. How cowardly is that? To hide behind a computer screen while you're killing someone in reality? I'd love to meet up with that damn hacker one day, in a nice dark alley where no one can see." He punches the palm of his hand, and flares his nostrils in anger.
Hank pats him on the shoulder. "Down boy...don't worry the cops will get him, and soon, I bet. This is too big not to make priority number one." They step inside and look around.
A few people from the beach have wandered in, and are complaining to the manager about needing an appointment. After a threat to take their business elsewhere, and being told they were welcome to, but the only place they would be able to get in without scheduling ahead of time is the "Happy Fun Land" temple, they storm out angrily.
"Talk about stupid...they really thought they were going to get in here without an appointment." The parrot receptionist says from behind the circular black registration desk. "And speaking of stupidity...Heya, Hank." She chuckles lightly to herself, and waves her feathered hand towards the group. "I'm just kidding with ya, you know that." The reception hall is relatively small, just enough room for the receptionists desk and room to walk around it. Five doors lead off from the main room, the largest one in the center is marked "Authorized Personnel ONLY! Trespassers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law." Another large sign hangs from the desk with a few quick and dirty rules for the building.
| ALL RULES MUST BE FOLLOWED! |
| 1. NO UNAUTHORIZED ELECTRONIC DEVICES. |
| 2. DAMAGE TO VR SUITS IS PROHIBITED. |
| (REPAIR COSTS WILL BE CHARGED TO USER) |
| 3. FULL COMPLIANCE TO ALL RULES AND |
| REGULATIONS IS REQUIRED AT ALL TIMES. |
| (SEE APPENDIX 4A OF SERVICE AGREEMENT FOR |
| FULL LIST OF RULES.) |
| 4. INTERFERENCE WITH THE GAME WILL RESULT IN |
| ARREST AND PROSECUTION IN ACCORDANCE WITH |
| FEDERAL STATUTE 34A OF THE VR REGULATION |
| COMMISSION. |
"Sure you are, Polly..." Tex replies. "We know how you really feel about us. You just hate it when we come in here and drop a ton of cash." He winks at her and drops his credit card on the desk. "Me and Ash today, Hank's got Sunny."
Hank nods, and places his own card on the desk, sliding it to Polly. "Say, did you do something different with your crest? I don't remember it having so much blue in it last time." He winks to her.
"Oh no, mister...no more buttering me up for discounts, Joe almost flipped when he found out about last time." She puts her hands on her hips, and jerks her head birdlike as she admonishes Hank. "Now, as I recall, we've got a special on today, just for cute little pups, how old are you again?" She smiles sweetly, and leans her elbows on the desk, while cradling her chin with her hands.
"Twelve" He jokes.
"That'll do." Her crest rises happily as he gives her a kiss of thanks. "You're incorrigible." She shakes her head and hands them back their cards, as well as the keys to their personal lockers. "Your stuff is still here, upstairs and..."
"...to the left" They all finish for her.
"Thanks Polly." Sunny waves to her. As they all file through one of the doors, and into the heart of the building.
The four of them meet up once again after suiting up in the loose-fitting VR suits. The hall is full of other furs walking around wearing the same loose VR suits. Rows of pods line the wide hall, most of them occupied by someone with a large mask over their eyes, and many different cords snaking forth from their suits. A few rows of pods lie in the center of the wide hall, with breaks every four or five pods to allow easier movement. Emergency exits and water coolers are scattered along the wall, where a few furs gather, talking about their in-game experiences. This is just the lower level, however. A set of stairs leading up to a door with a card reader sits along the interior wall. The four head immediately for it, and slide a card attached to their suit's arm down the reader, opening the door. Inside is a large room, not just a hallway like downstairs. The pods are the same, though instead of just emergency exits and water coolers lining the wall, a concession stand beckons the hungry and thirsty regulars towards it. Access to this room isn't for everyone, only the elite players and the extended membership holders are allowed in here. Another set of stairs lead up to another "Restricted Access" door, where the mainframe levels lie. All of the pods in this building are inter-linked to one gigantic mainframe computer which controls the game, allowing everyone in the game to play together. They wave to a few of the other regulars and compliment one particularly happy player in a suit with red, rather than blue, connectors, identifying him as one of the game's champions. Each of the players in this room have their names on a patch connected to the suits, unlike the other players downstairs.
"So, you four are back again? I swear, you're all more addicted to this game than I am." A young male monitor in a suit with gold connectors and a name tag reading "Master Andrakesh" greets them as he idly eats a few fries from a cardboard boat.
"Howdy Andy...How's the day been, any trouble makers?" Tex inquires.
"One or two, but a simple warning set 'em straight." He chomps down another fry, with ketchup and mustard dripping from it in thick globs.
Sunny shudders "You know, it'd just be cheaper to put the ketchup and mustard in the bowl and not bother with the fries."
Andy laughs "You're right, but then what would I use to eat the ketchup and mustard. You know how I hate spoons." He chomps down another one. "Oh yeah, there's a warning up, but just in case you miss it, I'll tell ya. The caves in Kuil Forest are acting a bit wonky, not sure what it is, but I'd stay out of 'em in case you get stuck or something. Don't need anyone getting caught in a data burp. Oh, and Tex, your body file got corrupted again, you'll have to rescan yourself to get in game...again."
"Still no idea why it keeps doing that?" Tex scratches his temple.
Andy tosses the empty boat into a nearby garbage bin. "We've got a programer testing it, but no luck with it yet."
Aislin grins and gives Tex a big kiss. "I know what's doing it...you're just too damn pretty, the game can't handle it."
Andy fakes howling in laughter. "Yeah, right...more like's he's too damn--" He is interrupted by a blinking light on the arm of his suit. "Arrgh! Damn newbies! I told him to stay away from there unless he had a healer!" He shakes his head and kicks off from the wall, heading quickly to the restricted door. "Good luck in game, I gotta go and do another emergency resurrection! I hope he knows there's a charge for this."
The four of them walk around, and find four empty pods side by side. The press the release on the outside, and enter the pod. They proceed hooking their connectors to the wires before closing the pods. "Engaging card scan, please insert your datacard." They insert the cards into the provided slot, and relax, waiting patiently for the read.
"Go ahead and enter the game while I get scanned again, ok? I'll meet you in Kuil Courtyard, that's where I last logged out." Tex calls to his partners.
"I'll have to catch a transport there, I was doing a little solo farming yesterday, plus I needed more supplies for arrows, and you know I like to find the cheapest spot." Hank answers.
Aislin and Sunny both call out at the same time, "And you boys complain about having to wait for US?"
Aislin shakes her head and chuckles, then speaks clearly: Player ID: Aislin O. Password: Valkyrie. Login character: Cleric." The computerized voice confirms this. 'Player Aislin O, Character Aislin - Cleric confirmed, enjoy the game.' A visor drops down over her eyes and a microphone and headphones settle over her face. 'Entering world, good luck.'
Sunny follows suit. "Player ID: Sunspot. Password: Moonlight. Login character: Arcanist." Once again the computer answers and lowers the visor and headphones.
Hank speaks next "Player ID: Dogeatdog. Password: Kibble. Login Character: Archer."
"Player ID: Rodeo. Password: Bullshit. Login Character: Warrior." Tex sighs heavily. 'Error: Player body datafile corrupted, please wait for scan.' "Yeah yeah, get on with it already." 'Body scan commencing, please remain as still as possible.' A series of lasers begin coursing over every inch of Tex's body, as a small screen above shows the detailed wireframe model being created for Tex. 'Frontal body datascan complete, please remain still for back scan.' A wide light on the pod where Tex lies begins slowly scanning, completing the rear portion of the wirescan detail. 'Full body datascan complete, you may now relax and enjoy the game.' "Finally, sheesh."
Tex pops into the game world suddenly, and is greeted by the smiling faces of Aislin and Sunny, though they look much different now. Aislin is wearing a set of tight light brown leather armor, over which a chainmail shirt lays loosely. A tiara sits atop her head, and a calf-length white cloak with lavendar trimmings hangs from her shoulders. Her wooly bosom is pushed up nicely by the tight leather, making her breasts seem even larger than in reality. In her hands, she holds a small shield with a cross design on it, and a intricately jeweled scepter. Sunny is the most strikingly different, however. She no longer is adorned with piercings and green hair. Instead, she now wears a piece of thin and light plate armor on her chest, onto which, a cloak the same length as the one Aislin wears, but black rather than white, and without trim. A long black skirt with red runes and stars printed onto the material is wrapped around her waist. Her hair is now all black, and one length, however the top of her head is covered by a thin plate skullplate. She wields no shield, just a gnarled and charred looking staff, atop which a dragon's eye emerald is grasped by a set of four claws.
Tex waves and gives Aislin a hug as he speaks. "Not a lot of people in the city today, it must be because of the thing with the caves." He looks around at the lush town, carved into an enormous tree. Very few people walk the plank roads. The electronic din of a nonexistant crowd flows into the ears of the three as a whoosh and pop nearby signals the arrival of Hank.
"Hey guys, hope I'm not too late." Hank's true body shape can finally be seen. His wiry frame is lightly muscled, but still strong. He wears a simple cloth tunic, green like the summer leaves of the forest. His full length pants are a simple light brown, much like the shade of the treebark. The hood of his cloak hangs down his back, the print having an astonishing resemblance to leaves. At his side hangs a quiver of arrows with a reddish hue and a warm look, and a simple leather scabbard for his simple looking longsword. In his hands, however is a beautiful ivory longbow, about five feet in length with amazingly intricate designs on it. Its string is nearly invisible, but unbreakable. He looks at his friends, and pats Tex on the back again. "Well, let's get going...no need to waste any time, We've got a full 8 hours today, though if we want it."
Everyone agrees, and they set out, Tex leading them. Tex resembles a heavily armored version of the old minotaurs of legend. His thick and heavy plate armor covers his entire chest and back. A few swirling designs appear on the front of the armor. His arms are armored as well, thick plates overlapping each other flow the length of his arms to his wrists where they meet his gauntlets covering his thick hands. His lower body is covered only by a simple chainmail skirt covering a loose loincloth made from the hide of some unknown beast. His long horns are decorated with golden rings that fit tightly. His only visible weapon is his impressively large double-bladed battle axe. His nose ring is no longer plain gold, but rather shimmering moonsilver, the most beautiful and precious of metals.
The party steps past the large wooden doors that protect the city from the assaults of the evil forest creatures, as well as from the assaults of players who have become unwelcome in this city. As the large doors shut behind them, the party takes a quick survey of the nearby forest, and seeing no visible threats, continue on. They agree, that since the caves are too dangerous, to head towards the Ruins of Hrungtheft, a nice challenge for their current levels, also an area where they may be able to find a nice quest weapon for Aislin that would increase the power of her healing magic. The forest has few challenges for the party as they advance, the only things they truly fear in this forest are the corrupted ents, and they had the displeasure of running into one. However, with the new added damage from Hank's fire arrows, the ent was felled in a blaze of fire. Finally they arrived safely at the entrance to the ruins.
Aislin suggests they wait here and rest. "We really should before we go inside, no telling what is waiting for us behind that door, and your camoflauge wouldn't work there, Hank." Everyone agrees, and sits down on a fallen column. "It sure is nice for us all to be able to get together and play like this, don't ya think?"
Tex nods and pulls her closer to him. "And the thing is, we wouldn't be half as successful if even one of us were missing."
Hank smiles and nods, but remains somewhat silent, ever listening for danger. An arrow sits already nocked on the thin string of his magical bow. "Guys...did you see that?" He stands up slowly, his gaze piercing off into the forest, a look of worry furrowing his brow. "I could have sworn..." His words are cut short as a flaming thorn-like projectile zooms past him, and buries itself into a nearby pillar. "I knew it!"
Before even this short sentence has ended, Tex has leapt to his feet, and readied his axe. He gazes into the forest, but can see nothing. "Hank, where is it? Mark it for us."
Hank is way ahead of him, and releases the arrow. As the arrow flies, quickly enough to cause a whistle, it ignites. Its target cannot move quickly enough, and is struck, but the target still cannot be seen. "It's camoflauged, Ash, strip its enchantments!" He calls back to the two women who are standing, looking at the arrow that seems to be sticking out of mid-air.
"Right." Aislin stands, and closes her eyes. As she speaks a secret prayer in an uknown language, their target's magical concealment drops. Tex wastes no time, and rushes towards the creature that resembles a living tree. Aislin begins another prayer that will give Tex a protective aura. A beam of light appears over Tex, which appears to be absorbed by him. He reaches the creature, and swings his massive axe, chipping a piece of its bark and the underlying wood away.
"Tex, move." Sunny moves forward, her eyes glow blindingly white as she speaks the incantation. Tex takes the advice, and dives to the side, just in time to miss the huge spear of ice, though their foe is not so quick to react. On contact, it freezes the creature solid, ceasing all movement from within its icy tomb. Tex continues hacking away at the frozen creature with his axe, each swing chipping at the ice and wood. Movement stirs again within the ice as the spell begins to lose its effect. "Just a few more hacks, Tex, it should drop fairly quick."
"I won't give it the chance." Hank pulls his bowstring back as if there were an arrow in his hand. He looses the string, and magically, a light green arrow appears out of nowhere and streams for the creature. As the arrow strikes, it splinters and embeds itself deeper within. The foe is beaten, it flails its branches as it falls, and a single flaming thorn like the previous one flies out, but much weaker and slower.
Tex leans against his axe, breathing heavily. "Well, that was easy...thanks for the heads up, Hank." He turns to look at his friend, but his face twists in horror. Instead of finding Hank smiling and giving him a thumbs up, he sees him kneeling over Sunny, with a flaming thorn protruding from her breastplate. "What the hell? That attack shouldn't have hurt her that bad!" He rushes over, and tosses his axe down on the ground with a loud clang. "What's going on here!? Aislin hurry over here, and heal Sunny." But his shout was not needed, as Aislin was already deep in prayer.
Hank grabs the thorn, and quickly recoils looking at the burn on his hand. "Ouch! Shit!" He looks around the forest again. "This isn't right...Something very wrong is going on here."
Tex grabs the thorn and pulls it out, quickly tossing it aside. "Dammit! That hurts!" He looks down at his burnt hands. Ok, this is getting weird." Sunny coughs weakly as a blue light descends upon them all, warming them from the inside out. "Hank...you're the expert on this game, what the hell is going on?" Tex looks on his hands as they begin to heal.
"I...I don't know, we're not supposed to feel pain, that's what the safety net.....Oh no." Hank's eyes fill with the most fear he's ever felt in his life. "It can't be." He reaches inside his cloak, and pulls out a piece of paper and a quill. He quickly writes something, and tosses the paper into the air. It falls harmlessly to the ground. "We're alone..." He falls to his rear, and cups his head in his hands. "She was right. Sunny was right...he's still on the loose and now he's doing the same thing to this game."
Aislin looks over at him "What are you talking about Hank?"
"He's talking about the hacker that crashed the safety net in the game "Fatal Fire" next door." Sunny sits up, still holding her side and coughing lightly. She reaches inside her armor, and sighs with relief that her wound has healed. "While we're in this game, the Neural Safety Net can't save us. We're going to feel pain, our minds think this is real, no matter what we do now. We're really in this game now, not just playing it, but living it." She coughs again lightly, and loosens the strap on her chestplate. "I won't be able to wear this until I get that hole repaired, it's pressing against my chest and I can't breathe."
"Sunny, are..." Hank starts.
"Yea, I'm fine. Thanks for being so worried about me, you guys." She stands slowly, still checking her side. "I wonder if my body is bleeding in real life?"
"Well, if the game is real for us, let's get the hell out of the game." Aislin looks up to the sky. "Emergency Logout, Character Aislin, Password Valkyrie!" Nothing happens. Aislin clears her throat as the others sit down, having accepted their fate. She repeats the phrase that should immediately log her out of the game, and again nothing happens. "Why can't we get out?" She shouts the phrase again, as tears well up in her eyes, but she remains where she is. "We're stuck in here, and you mean we can really die now, Hank?" She turns to him with tears streaming from her eyes.
Hank can do nothing but nod in confirmation.
The four of them sit silent for a while, trying to come to grips with what this means.
Hank breaks the silence finally. "We should try to get back to the city, maybe we can be safe there."
Suddenly, Sunny perks, her face splits in a wide grin. "Hank...you're a genius. We're not the only ones in-game right now...we may be the only ones in this area, but what about everyone else who was playing...they've got to be stuck too, and maybe one of them might have an idea on how to get out!"
"You have a point, Sunny, but how do we know it's safe?" Tex asks.
"How do we know it's not?" She stands, and looks in the direction of the city. "Look, we know we can handle everything out here, with few exceptions, and I'll be damned if I let anything else hurt me like that tree did. We have to try, we really have no choice. The forest isn't safe, neither are the ruins. The caves are down...The caves...what about Andy, he should be able to get us out of here, right!?"
"Andy isn't on..." Hank hands Sunny the piece of paper that he threw into the air earlier. "I'm not sure if any of the GMs are on."
She lowers the paper after reading it. "Well, have we tried any of the other commands?" She reaches inside her skirt's pocket, and removes another piece of paper and her own quill. After scribbling her command on it, she tosses it into the air. The paper falls to the ground, just like the other. "Ok, so the commands aren't working, that doesn't mean we're helpless, dammit!"
Tex stands up. "You know, she does have a point. Sittin here ain't doin us any good. And arguin about it is doin even less, so let's go ahead and head back to the city." He picks up his axe and takes Aislin by the hand. "So, let's not hang out here any longer, let's go!" He starts walking off in the direction of the city.
"Tex, Sunny and I will catch up, I need to talk to her." Hank calls after. He turns to Sunny and smiles gently.
Tex nods, and continues on with Aislin.
Sunny looks at him curiously. "What's up?"
Hank kneels down before her and takes her hand gently. "Listen, Sunny...I don't want to scare you, but you have to understand exactly what's going on. The safety net saves lives, without it, we can die here. And if our mind thinks we're dead, not even a resurrection spell can save us."
Sunny nods slowly. "I know, you really won't have to worry about me." She smiles sweetly.
"That's not all. When you were hurt, it really drove home how serious this situation is for us. I almost lost you, and I don't want that." Sunny begins to speak, but is interupted. "Listen, Sunny. I have to tell you this now, because if I don't do it now, then I may never get the chance." Hank swallows deeply, and looks up into her eyes. "Sunny, I've loved you since--" His whole world becomes darkness and searing pain.
Tex comes trotting back towards the gates of the city. "I can't find them. I went all the way back to the ruins, but I didn't see them at all. All I found was this." He holds out Sunny's chestplate, the dried blood and soot from her flaming wound still remained around the puncture. "Ash, something's definately happened to them."
She sits down, sulking. "I...." She cannot finish her sentence, she breaks down into tears.
Tex bends down and pulls her to his shoulder. "I know, I know. Don't worry, they're smart, they're clever, and they're both still alive." He kisses the side of her face, and wonders which of them believes him less.