Trent was, as usual, lording it up at the front of the classroom to anyone who would listen. Though I did note, with no small amount of satisfaction, that the number of people hanging on his every word was a hell of a lot smaller now that the game was actually live.
The number of people in our classroom was a hell of a lot smaller now that the game was actually live, for that matter. I almost skipped this morning too, but I had at least one really good reason to come to school.
Though that good reason hadn’t arrived in class yet.
"I can't believe those bastards,” Chris said.
“What can’t you believe?” I asked, turning to him. “That they have two neurons to rub together?”
"Lording it over everybody because they had early access,” he said.
“I mean that is sort of a big deal around here,” I said. “Those fuckers shouldn’t be able to afford it, so of course everyone is going to be sucking their dicks.”
“Might not if they knew Trent was sucking some Horizon dick to get that early access,” Chris grunted.
"Did I hear my ears burning?"
I winced. The last thing I needed was more attention from the asshole attached to that voice. I wasn’t worried about him trying something in class, but I didn’t need him waiting for us after school let out.
“What do you want Trent?” Chris asked.
“I wanted to come over and see how y’all have been doing in Lotus Online,” he said, staring at me with a particular intensity that suddenly had me wondering if Kara was the only one who might’ve figured out my secret identity.
Exactly how the start mechanism worked had been one of the first things I looked into after logging out. Honestly I wasn’t working at one hundred percent even now because I’d been up way too late reading everything I could about Lotus.
It was a battleground with Horizon, after all, and not a game I wanted to play for fun. Which meant all bets were off when it came to spoilers. Fucking over Horizon was more important than spoiling the game.
“What makes you think I was in the game?” I asked, deciding to play innocent.
Though it didn’t help that Chris was right there hitting me with a look that said he thought I’d gone crazy. Trent didn’t miss that look either.
“Come on Colin,” Trent said. “You’re supposed to be clever. More clever than smart the way you run your mouth, but you’re still clever. You know everyone on our level gets shunted into the same starter area.”
“They do?” Chris asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
“They do,” I said. “There’s a region that encompasses our whole arcology, but Nilbog is the starter zone for our level.”
“And there aren’t many people who can afford to play Lotus on our level,” Trent said, an evil grin splitting his face. “Which means anyone we meet around Nilbog is bound to be someone we know, right?”
“I had no fucking clue that’s how it worked last night,” I said, thinking about my surprise at discovering Kara’s secret identity.
My “no spoilers” policy regarding Lotus was biting me in the ass in more ways than one. Even if yesterday had come to a more than pleasant ending, at least.
“So you were playing,” Trent said, a menace to his tone. “So interesting. What exactly were you two numb nuts doing in my town?”
My mind raced trying to come up with a plausible lie before Chris stepped in and stepped all over anything I could come up with, but a voice from behind Trent saved me from having to come up with an answer that wouldn’t reveal who we were. Even though I was pretty sure that ship had already sailed.
Trent might be an asshole, but he wasn’t a stupid asshole. More’s the pity.
“Kara,” Trent said, turning and grinning at her as he gave her a once over that had her rolling her eyes. “Since when do you sit back here?”
“Since I can do whatever I want,” she said. “I didn’t remember ever having to ask you permission to do anything before.”
“Not outside the game, at least,” he said, that grin developing even more of a leer.
He glanced back at me, and blinked when he realized I was staring at Kara with a goofy grin. I couldn’t help it. I kept thinking about all the fun we’d had the night before, and that was enough to fill me with a happiness that’d been missing from my life since Diana’s death.
“Stop looking at my girl,” Trent snapped.
Kara’s eyes narrowed and she hit him with one hell of a deadly disgusted look when he referred to her as ‘his girl.’
“I’m not your girl you prick,” she hissed. “And I never was.”
Now she was looking at me with a worried look. Which was good for a laugh. I couldn’t believe she’d actually think I’d believe that gorilla for even a minute, but the worry was there.
“Come on Kara,” Trent said, his eyes hitting her with the kind of eyefucking that should’ve had security coming for him. “You know you want this.”
She rolled her eyes and shoved past him. Though even when she was obviously trying to get away from him he wiggled his eyebrows and looked like he was enjoying the hell out of her brushing against him.
Which had me wanting to stand and do something. For all that I knew I wasn’t going to win in a fair fight with Trent. Not that not being able to win in a fair fight had ever stopped me from taking someone on before.
No, it just meant I’d have to be crafty. I wasn’t in Lotus where I had no idea what was going on anymore. This was school. Familiar territory. I glanced around looking for something I could use against him.
Kara took a seat right next to me and hit me with a smile that was good for a choked noise from Chris. Kara pointedly ignored the way Trent stared down at us.
“Seriously?” he asked. “You’re sitting with these losers?”
“I’d much rather sit with them than with you,” she said. “None of them have ever taken an arrow to the ass.”
“Oh yeah? This is how you’re treating me after I got you into Lotus?” Trent asked.
“What are you talking about?” Chris asked. “She was in early too? How the hell is this prick coming up with that kind of money?”
“He’s taking payments from Horizon,” I growled.
A simple statement, but it seemed to suck the air out of the room. A few people had been watching our confrontation, and they started chattering at that.
Trent glared at me like he didn’t want that revealed, but what the fuck ever. His fists flexed like he was seriously considering using them.
I wasn’t all that worried about getting in a fight with the prick, but at the same time it was something to be mindful of. Trent had been known to take matters into his own hands when he got pissed off at someone.
I figured that was mostly because the walking asshole lacked the charisma to take care of things using his words. Though I had to admit that fists were an unreasonable but effective alternative for getting shit done when words failed.
“You talk about working for Horizon like it’s a bad thing,” Trent said. “I’ve got way more money than you losers could ever dream of.”
“That you got by getting down on your knees and sucking corporate cock,” I pointed out, the words escaping my mouth before I really thought about it.
That was a problem I had. Usually it wasn’t much of a problem in the game world since people couldn’t hurt someone in there. At least not permanently. It could very much be a problem here in the real world though.
“What was that fucker?” Trent asked, leaning down over my desk as though that was supposed to intimidate me or something.
I stared up at Trent with unblinking eyes. I supposed there were some who’d be intimidated. Trent was well known for solving problems with his fists, after all. He was the kind of asshole who enjoyed hurting people.
The problem for Trent, and maybe for me, was it didn't intimidate me in the least. Not now. I’d gone into the zone, something that’d been sorely lacking in my time in Lotus last night, and while that could be a good thing it could also be bad.
I didn’t care about things while I was in the zone. Ever since Diana’s death I’d had trouble feeling much of anything. Which included difficulty being intimidated by anything.
Including, apparently, the threat of getting the shit kicked out of me in the real world.
Finally Trent blinked and turned away. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
I didn't even bother to sigh in relief. There was no point in sighing in relief when I wasn't relieved to begin with. Sure it’d be nice to not have to fight Trent, or not to have to fight him fair at least, but at the same time it's not like I’d have a problem with that fight. Not with how pissed off I was at how he’d just been treating Kara.
"That's right rich boy," Chris said, adding a twist of mockery to the “rich boy” part of that phrase. "Walk away.”
Trent wheeled on Chris. Apparently he wasn’t up to taking me on with my deadeye stare, but he looked more than willing to cause some trouble with Chris. Where “some trouble” manifested as Trent taking a couple of steps towards Chris with his fist raised.
Which gave me the opportunity I’d been waiting for, and the casus belli for that matter, to set the plan I’d been working on into motion.
I stuck my foot out. It brushed against my bag which pushed out into the aisle between my desk and Chris's. Which was enough to catch Trent's feet as he rushed at Chris. That set in motion a chain reaction where instead of punching Chris, Trent went cartwheeling forward, his arms flailing, and slammed his forehead against Chris’s desk before he went down.
"Holy shit,” Chris said, looking to me. "Did you…"
I shrugged. "My foot slipped."
I looked down at Trent who was rubbing at one hell of an egg growing on his head. Trent stared up at me with daggers in his eyes. It was the sort of look that said he was ready to commit murder.
I wouldn't be surprised if Trent tried something, but as he scrambled to his feet he wavered. That was enough time for a bark from the front of the room to distract us all.
"What the hell is going on here?"
Mr. Armstrong had arrived. The man was pure muscle. A holdover from his time fighting in the various never-ending wars in the Middle East and a couple of border skirmishes on territory that belonged to either Russia or one of several countries that were part of the former Soviet Union depending on the day and time.
"I know there's not going to be any fighting in my room Trent," Mr. Armstrong said.
He didn't exactly threaten Trent, but his voice was a low growl. As he growled the old battle-hardened teacher moved his arms back behind his head. It was a motion that showed off his muscles and made it clear that his time spent running the weight room after school was more hands on than most teachers got.
Trent hit me with a final glare and shook his head.
"No trouble at all Mr. Armstrong," he said, reaching up and wiping a trickle of blood from the giant egg on his forehead.
Though as he walked past he hissed at me. "There's going to be plenty of trouble for you later though. Just you wait asshole.”
I stared up at him with that impassive stare again. Intimidating Trent wasn't exactly what I was going for. That was simply how I looked at the world since my sister had her fatal brush with Horizon Online Entertainment. Only if it was going to intimidate him then I’d use it.
"Thanks man," Chris muttered.
"No problem," I said, smiling for the first time since the whole thing had started. "We have to stick together when the assholes try to bully the little guy. You know?"
Chris was hardly a little guy, but he knew what I meant.
"What did you do?" Kara asked, also speaking low enough to hopefully avoid arousing Mr. Armstrong’s ire.
I turned and shrugged, but I did return her grin.
"My bag got in my way when Trent tried to punch Chris. I really should’ve watched where I put the thing,” I said. "I guess it was just karma coming to bite him where it counts.”
Kara rolled her eyes. “And I’m supposed to buy that from the big schemer?”
“How does she know you’re the big schemer?” Chris asked, sounding even more out to sea.
“You can buy it or not,” I said. “I happen to know you have some good techniques for getting information out of people.”
“What techniques?” Chris asked. “Why the hell are you talking like you know each other?”
“Because we do,” I said. “You know her too.”
Kara made a motion that involved her finger pressing against her neck. It didn’t take Chris long to figure out exactly what she meant by that. He actually started to lunge for her, then stopped with a nervous glance to the front where Mr. Armstrong was trying to get an ancient 3D Holoprojector to sputter to life.
“That was fucking you?” Chris hissed.
“Turns out there are a lot of people we know lurking around Nilbog,” I said. “Which makes sense if you know how the starter areas are assigned and take available player population on our level into account. Which I totally didn’t last night because I was an idiot avoiding spoilers.”
“So you’re saying Trent and his asshole buddies are in the game?” Chris asked.
“And they’re the ones running Horizon Dawn,” I said, glaring daggers into the back of Trent’s skull as I thought about jamming other things into the digital equivalent.
“Holy shit,” Chris breathed.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Kara said.
“Not that. I mean not exactly,” Chris said. “I just never figured a girl like you would be the gaming type.”
She must’ve thought there was a challenge in what Chris said. There wasn’t, really. Nothing beyond the surprise he felt finding out that she was a gamer at all.
It was a stereotype, I knew it was a stereotype, and I tried not to fall into the trap of stereotypes where I could avoid it. Chris, clearly, was having a little more trouble with the thought of a pretty girl gaming.
“Pretty much everyone is a gamer these days,” she said simply. “I don’t see why it’s such a surprise I game too.”
“Good point,” Chris muttered. “But did you have to work with those assholes at Horizon? You’re not still with them, are you?”
“She isn’t,” I said, thinking back to our adventures last night.
“I’m not,” Kara said. “And I'd like to see you turn that down. I thought all the rumors about what Horizon did to those poor gamers were Internet rumors, and it was an opportunity to play Lotus a month before anyone else! I didn’t even know Horizon was involved until I was in the game and already had the account. That’s how secretive they kept things.”
“Yeah, I think I’d have trouble turning that down for sure,” Chris said. “I’d have to burn my account when I found out Horizon was involved, but I wouldn’t turn it down at the get go.”
“Definitely,” I replied, surprised to realize that I’d probably fall victim the same way Kara had, assuming it’d all gone down the way she said.
Yeah, it’d be difficult to turn down a crack at the best gaming experience that’d come along in years. The first revolution in gaming hardware since Pong. Or Super Mario Bros. Or Super Mario 64. Or Mario VR, and I’m talking about the later actual Mario VR and not the red and black Wario game that still made gamers’ eyes bleed to this day when they tried it out in emulators.
Now that I thought about it I realized this was the first revolutionary shift in gaming technology that didn’t involve an Italian plumber leading the charge.
Armstrong clapped his hands together. With the muscle he was pushing around it sounded like a thunderclap.
"Okay then," he said. "I know I have all of you for at least today, but the longer that damned game is out the more likely it is everyone starts getting mysteriously sick at the same time, so let's get started."
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!