At CONvergence, the weird gets weirder

The cast party for <i>X-Men 4: The Last Call</i>

The cast party for X-Men 4: The Last Call

Thursday, 5:35 p.m.

Over a vast Bloomington parking lot, the Sheraton looms like a citadel. Klingons mingle with Storm Troopers, bumming cigs. A witch shades herself under an ornate parasol, her flesh spilling from her corset like poorly poured draft beer.

This is CONvergence, the annual locus of Minnesota geek culture. Here, the awkwardness and eccentricity that condemn geeks to popular ridicule are points of pride.

The takeover is absolute—the atriums of the north tower are booked with panel discussions on hypnosis in role-playing and the science of comedy. In a pair of conjoined poolside cabanas, a committee discusses Barack Obama's geek cred. At the easternmost entrance, Cinema Rex screens Pee Wee's Big Adventure to a rapt crowd. And all along the halls of the second floor, preparations for the dozens of room parties are underway.

Outlandish predictions swirl—some expect 3,000 people to attend, others 4,000. Out in the courtyard, the tables are already swarmed, and games like Killer Bunnies and Settlers of Catan are underway. Above, the balconies are festooned with flags and streamers, overlooking the square like bleachers of the Roman senate, flaunting the names of themed rooms—"Assassin's Guild" and "the Mos Icee Cantina."

The second floor is the stuff of gossip—there are whispers of past S&M parties, of massive orgies. By nightfall, the rooms will erupt in music and free booze, in costume contests and cuddle piles. But now, they stand dark and quiet with the ominous bearing of an approaching thunderhead.

Thursday, 11:59 p.m.

In the plaza, a sword fight involving dozens of knights is in full pitch, and the rules are simple: Get hit in the arm, put it behind your back. In the leg, take a knee. Three hits and you're out.

The combatants wield hand-built foam weapons of stunning design—swords, axes, maces, and morning stars. Some carry shields adorned with their personal coats of arms. The battlefield is a menagerie of the robed and the masked, the horned and the painted, and in minutes, it is strewn with their bodies. They kneel, lie prostrate, and collapse, dutifully playing dead. From the second-story cabanas, cheers and jeers go up as observers take sides.

Not far away, cans of beer clutter the floor. The drinking began early, and by midnight a state of subdued mania is in full effect. The hotel pool is bursting with the green-haired, the pale, the tattooed. The more austere sit on the curb of the hot tub with their pants rolled. From somewhere on the second floor, Thriller booms in an endless loop.

At last, the battle is over, and the dead arise and regroup, like Valhalla's warriors. Then, at the command of the referee, who strides among them in a white Jedi's robe, their battle cry lifts once more, and they advance at each other bearing arms and fierce grins.

Saturday, 12:45 a.m.

Madness is taking hold. The drinking from the previous night has spilled through the afternoon, in a 24-hour celebration the likes of which hasn't been seen since the mead hall after Beowulf vanquished Grendel. At the east entrance, the trash is overflowing with Mountain Dew bottles and crushed cans of Guinness. On the bridge, Klingons wait in line at the lost and found.

Krushenko's is the safe harbor, the last refuge, the Alamo. Boxes of Connect Four and Guess Who? sit stacked and waiting, as in a perfectly preserved living room from 1988. Platters of egg rolls and wontons provide nourishment. Behind the soda fountain, empty carafes lie strewn like spent bullets.

In Karaoke Joe's lounge, a Klingon croons into a wireless microphone before a dozen seated spectators. At Vice City, gamers crowd the kiosks, playing River City Ransom and Ghouls n' Ghosts, gulping Bloody Marys. In the Romulan Consulate, strippers in Vulcan ears writhe on a short aluminum pole, the cramped cabana a deafening din of Rammstein and Marilyn Manson.

These are not the geeks who cowered in the shadows of adolescence. Walk to the balcony, and you'll be mixed a dirty gin martini without having to ask. In the hallways, convention-goers embrace one another deeply. Between stripteases, they lift keg cups to the ceiling and whoop like wolves.

Sunday, 8:31 p.m.

It's late in the final day of the convention, and the crowds have thinned. The Sheraton plaza has become a bleary span of desolation.

The night before, a cosplay girl in a white smock lay passed out among dozens of fellow attendees, who attended to her like Cleopatra, dutifully fanning her with programming guides. Plastic test tubes of syrupy orange liqueur were doled out by the dozen. Games of beer pong raged till dawn.

Now, trash is being tidied in neat piles. Diehard stragglers, bleak-faced but grinning, stagger like zombies with Styrofoam coffee cups.

The cabanas are closed, the displays dismantled, save for a few, in which a handful of geeks in day clothes mutely watch black-and-white sci-fi movies.

The pool has been overtaken by normals, as calm and sedentary as manatees.

The final count is 3,800 warm bodies, with another estimated 700 who went unregistered, slipping into the cabana parties sans badges.

On a smoking patio, where a small garden waterfall gurgles, a cloister of diehards share a flask and swap stories. A girl in a lime-green bikini top calls herself Mercy Temptation. Her friend, bespectacled, balding, and damp with sweat, goes by Rascal. They've been here since afternoon on Thursday, for every debauched moment of CONvergence, and they are beaming.

"For those of us in the geek community, CON is the ultimate expression of being yourself," says Rascal. "I can't talk to women," he admits. "Period." He grins wryly, then shrugs. "This weekend, I got three numbers."

"I'm exhausted, but happier than I've been in years," says Temptation. "CONvergence is always a turning point for me, no matter where I am in my life. It's a counseling session. It's a crying shoulder. And it's the party of a lifetime."