“That shit is gonna kill you if you’re not careful,” I said.
“Yeah?” Chris asked, taking another pull from his vape stick. “Supposed to be a hell of a lot safer than what they used to smoke. Besides. No one’s proven the link between these and anything nasty.”
I waved the cloud of fruit flavored nicotine away from my face as he blew it at me. At least it wasn’t that nasty old shit. Smoking wasn’t allowed on any level of the tower, though of course how much those rules applied depended on how much money someone had.
“That’s exactly what people said about smoking for years y’know,” I said. “Didn’t do shit for all the people who died thinking it was safe.”
“Whatever,” Chris said. “You ready to do this?”
I looked out across our level and up towards the school up in the distance. This early in the morning, before the lights that still worked turned on up above to create the twilight that was daytime, those lights were the only thing twinkling around here.
Everyone else would be logged into their Lotus hardware or sleeping. Or riding high on whatever the fuck old fashioned non-VR drug of choice they were chasing as they came down from their overnight high.
“Yeah, I guess we should do this,” I said. “Not like the trip’s gonna get any easier when the lights come on.”
I sighed. At least at this time of day most of the tweakers were probably still high enough on whatever they managed to score overnight that they wouldn’t be coming at us.
Maybe. If we were lucky. If we were quiet enough as we made our way through the rat’s nest of alleys we had to navigate every day to get to the school elevator.
I looked out to the massive grimy window running along one length of our level. Supposedly the thing had let in real sunlight once upon a time. A supplement to the artificial light back when that artificial light had provided more than a dusky twilight even when it was going full tilt. At least it’d provided light during the times of day when the sun shone at the right angle to get in here.
Not anymore, though. Sunlight was something for people who could afford to live near the top or the bottom. Or for people who could afford to live on a level where people still maintained shit.
I dropped down to the street beside my house. It was safer to be on the roofs for hanging out, but running across the roofs was a good way to get shot by someone with a contraband weapon firing through the roof thinking you were a thief.
Chris did the same. I double checked that the back door to my place was locked. The last thing I wanted was to come home to a security team trying to confiscate my earbuds because some asshole tried breaking in. Then Chris and I moved into the darkness.
“I checked the views on our video this morning,” I said. “That thing is doing pretty well considering the Lotus announcement hit like a half hour after it was uploaded.”
“Don’t remind me about Lotus,” Chris growled.
I sighed. “Sorry. I’m just as pissed off as you are man.”
“I mean who the fuck gouges people like that for the privilege of playing their game a month ahead of everyone else? They’re no better than Horizon,” he groused.
“Don’t say that,” I said. “Lotus was up front with investigators about how their hardware could be abused while Horizon stonewalled. No one is as bad as those murdering motherfuckers.”
“The early access thing still sucks,” Chris said.
“Preaching to the choir, man,” I said.
“I guess they waited two fucking years to get the game out in the first place,” Chris muttered. “They could delay the actual launch another couple of years and it’s not like it would be any different from where we were before.”
I took a deep breath. I knew what was coming.
“Oh, that’s right,” Chris said. “Except it is different this time around because somebody pissed off Horizon and got us banned from their modules so now all I can do is sit in my tower redecorating in between browsing porn!”
“It was worth it,” I said, my voice level.
Chris rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything else. There was nothing else to say. He knew getting them to admit what they had in such a public way was totally worth getting banned from Horizon modules too, even if he got pissy about it.
I opened my mouth to tell him to stop bitching and paused. There was something pinging in the back of my mind. That feeling on the back of my scalp that said there was something wrong. Something off.
It was an instinct I’d come to rely on both in the real world and in the digital world where things could be just as deadly.
The big difference being that in the game world you came back from having the shit kicked out of you with maybe the loss of some gear. In the real world things could get a hell of a lot more nasty.
“What is it?” Chris asked, his hands instinctively flexing for his two-handed hammer that didn’t exist in the real world.
“I really wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “It’ll just make them think you have a weapon.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Did you ever think maybe if we run into a couple of tweakers they’ll think twice about fucking with us if they think we have a weapon?”
“I don’t think that’ll work out as well in the real world as it’s working in your imagination,” I muttered, listening intently for any other noises that might indicate some of the skeevier denizens of our level were starting to wake up enough from their drug-induced haze to go looking for someone they could rob to get the next hit.
A sound off in one of the nearby alleys told me there definitely was someone out there. I heard the distinct crunch of feet on a grimy alley floor.
I glanced up to the school up and in the distance. It was closer, but still too far to do us a damn bit of good. There was no way we’d be able to get to the elevator before whoever was out there got to us.
“Motherfucker,” Chris growled.
Four shadows resolved out of the darkness, but they didn’t step out of the darkness. No, they stayed back in that twilight caused by the gently rising lights overhead.
“What do you want?” I asked.
There was laughter from the four. One of them snapped, and the two to either side of him stepped forward revealing a couple of familiar faces.
“Man, you assholes should’ve seen the looks on your faces!” the one who’d snapped said from the shadows, laughing all the while.
Motherfucking Trent. Think your typical sports big man on campus and that’s your guy, minus any sort of talent to actually win at the football games that gave him that big man status.
“Greg? Kyle?” Chris said to the two who stepped forward. “And does that mean that’s Trent back there acting like the big bad calling the shots?”
“Shut the fuck up Chris,” Trent growled as he stepped forward.
Fucking great. It was bad enough to cross his path at school. It was worse luck to run into them out here where we didn’t have teachers keeping them in line.
Also? I was wondering who the fuck was still hanging back in the alley, but that wondering didn’t extend to wanting to spend any more time around these pricks than I had to.
“Nice meeting you out here,” I said. It wasn’t. “But you guys had your fun, really funny how you made us think you were going to rob us and kill us there, and we’ll be on our way to school now. Don’t want to be late or anything.”
“Whatever Colin,” Trent said. “Not like you have anything worth stealing.”
“Fuck off,” I said without really thinking about my words or their potential consequences. “You’re just as poor as the rest of us.”
“Am I?” he asked.
“Yeah, you are,” Chris said.
“Oh yeah? Then how did me and my boys get early access to Lotus?” he asked.
His words landed like a punch to the gut. I guess that was better than the literal punch to the gut he could be hitting me with, but not by much.
“What are you talking about?”
“Shut up Trent,” the fourth figure said. I recognized that voice, and my cheeks colored.
Kara was the last person in the world I wanted to witness Trent pushing me around. She stepped out of the shadows and, as always, she looked stunning. The head cheerleader and most beautiful girl in our school all wrapped up in one tight package, so of course she’d be with Trent.
For all that he was terrible at football, and she was actually pretty good at the whole stunting and tumbling thing that went along with being a cheerleader.
“Shut up Kara,” Trent said. “Or do you want out of the deal?”
She opened her mouth like she wanted to say something, then snapped shut. Trent nodded in satisfaction, but I glanced between the two of them. She wasn’t happy with him. She’d never seemed all that happy with him, at that, for all that they seemed to run in the same social circles.
“How did you get into Lotus?” Chris asked.
“He’s lying,” I said, holding Trent’s gaze. “He’s just as poor as the rest of us, and no one on ZZ-Alfa level can afford to get into Lotus.”
“Yeah? Well things might be changing,” Trent said. “I rule this school, and soon enough I’m gonna rule in Lotus too!”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “You think because you’re in sports at our shit school that makes you better than me?”
“Prick like him can’t be that high and mighty considering the football team hasn’t had a winning record against any of the other levels since he joined the team,” Chris said.
“You shut the fuck up,” Trent growled.
“Whatever,” I said. “You’re not worth it.”
I turned and motioned for Chris to go. It pained me to retreat, especially since the more caveman parts of me were screaming that we shouldn’t retreat with Kara standing right there watching us turning tail, but that’s what I did.
Only something spun me around before I could walk too far. Trent stood right there glaring down at me, and he looked pissed.
“Did I tell you you could leave?”
“Fuck you Trent,” I said, that caveman part of me writing checks my ass couldn’t cash, to quote an ancient movie. “And your stupid team that couldn’t win if the other team sat down on the field and let you.”
“Fuck you Colin!” he shouted, loud enough that his voice echoed all around us.
I looked at those alley walls as a plan started forming in the back of my mind for getting away from these fuckers without them beating the shit out of me and Chris. It would have to come together fast. Trent seemed more unhinged than usual this morning.
Unfortunately getting away involved getting him more riled up. Which meant I was risking a punch to the gut before this was all over.
“Why should I shut the fuck up?” I asked. “You’re a fucking loser who can’t win!”
I raised my voice too. It echoed off the alleys. Greg and Kyle were looking around like they didn’t like all the noise, but Trent was fuming. I couldn’t tell what Kara was thinking. She was a surprisingly cool customer for a pretty young girl walking through the alleys.
“And what the fuck about you?” he growled. “Spending all your time crying about your dead sister? Please. You’re a fucking loser out here, and you’re a loser in those games.”
I threw myself at him. Luckily Chris was there to hold me back from doing something stupid. Trent was way bigger than me, after all.
“He’s not worth it man,” Chris said. “We need to get going.”
I heard something shuffling in the distance. Usually that wasn’t a good sound, but it was exactly what I was hoping for.
“Your friend’s right,” Trent growled. “Run off and cry little loser.”
That shuffling was getting louder. A calm came over me. It was the kind of feeling I got whenever a plan started to come together.
“Go fuck yourself Trent!” I shouted loud enough that it could be heard all through the alleys. Loud enough that all the tweakers and other unsavory types who haunted the alleys would hear.
“Come on man,” Chris said.
Shadows appeared behind Trent and company. I was about to go with Chris, but one of those shadows stepped forward revealing a dude with way too much wild hair and way too few teeth. He wrapped his arms around Kara whose eyes went wide just before she started kicking and screaming.
Trent turned and stared, astonished, then seemed to realize for the first time that we had company. The wannabe tough guy stared at the legitimate danger all around us for the space of a breath, then turned and ran. Kyle and Greg waited for a beat before they ran screaming like the little bitches they were.
Leaving Kara all alone to deal with the assholes I’d called down on her in the hopes they’d distract Trent so we could make an escape.
Talk about a plan working way better than I ever could’ve hoped for.
“What are you waiting for?” Chris asked.
I looked at Chris. Then to Kara who was still struggling. And I knew that I wasn’t leaving while she was in trouble, for all that she’d been palling around with Trent and the asshole brigade.
“We can’t leave her,” I said, determination filling my voice.
“Son of a bitch,” Chris said, reading the tone and knowing it meant we were about to leap headfirst into the shit.
The big difference being this was happening in the real world where there was a good chance one or all of us might get shanked for our trouble instead of getting sent to a respawn point.
Hi! I'm a working writer who's been doing this full time since early 2015. I got my start in the Kindle romance boom, and I'm finally getting around to publishing stories under my own name!
I live in the Midwest with my wife, kids, and cats. Most days find me sitting in front of my computer typing out stories for your enjoyment!
I'm currently releasing Spellcraft. The tale of Conlan, a gamer who loves finding ways to exploit game systems, and how he uses those unique skills to battle a soulless multinational entertainment conglomerate who killed his sister and is trying to take over the gaming world!
Spellcraft is currently released on a chapter a day schedule.
I hope you enjoy my work. Thanks for reading!