Armstrong settled into some lecture about a mushroom cloud going up over some city a couple of decades back. Not the kind of thing I liked to think about since it was still the kind of thing that could very much happen these days.
Sure the people who ran the arcologies said they weren’t supposed to fall down unless they got hit by a direct blast, but that was hardly comforting considering the shoddy maintenance I saw on my level every day.
Still, I was more concerned with Lotus Online. My fingers twitched as I thought about it. A nuke hitting my arcology was a distant, if possible, issue. Lotus was a problem facing me right now.
A giggle from the side pulled me away from Armstrong’s lecture. I glanced over to see Kara looking at me. She smiled and did a hand wiggle of her own that matched the way my hands had been twitching.
My tablet pinged. I looked down and frowned. We weren't supposed to be able to use tablets for messaging in the middle of class, but sure enough there was a message down there from a new name. Someone who'd never shown up on my contacts before.
“Nice job kicking Trent’s ass there,” the message said. “Now are you going to live up to your reputation and kick some ass in the game tonight?”
I looked to Kara. She hit me with a thin smile, and then her eyes darted to the front. As though she was making sure Armstrong wasn't paying attention.
"How are you doing this?" I sent back.
"I have surprises," she messaged back. "No one ever suspects the cheerleader. I’ve learned to use that.”
I thought about that and nodded. Only ever so slightly though. I didn't want to give Armstrong a hint that there was something going on in his classroom.
Armstrong was the kind of teacher who loved enforcing the rules. The old battleaxe took a special perverse pleasure in it. I didn't want to draw that kind of attention.
“Believe me,” I tapped back. “When I log back in tomorrow we’re going to kick his ass so hard he’s gonna feel it even more than when you stuck that arrow up his ass.”
Kara snorted. A snort wasn’t good. A snort was the kind of thing that might alert a particularly alert teacher that something was going on in the back of his classroom.
My eyes darted to the front of the room to make sure Armstrong hadn't noticed that snort. It's not like we were passing notes in class like the old days when it was a lot more obvious to teachers that kids were screwing around, but I’d have to be more careful about making Kara giggle.
Only Armstrong wasn't looking at us. No, he was still droning on as though he'd fallen in love and his voice was the object of his affection.
“Wait a sec,” she sent back. “What do you mean tomorrow? You’re not logging in tonight?”
“I might if I have time,” I said. “But I need to do some research first.”
“Oh no you don’t,” she sent back. “I’m not running around that game alone. Besides, you have all that shit you need to sell.”
“And I need a plan for how to properly craft it to make the most money,” I said. “I got caught with my pants down last night because I was trying to avoid spoilers, and I’m not letting that happen again.”
“Maybe you could get caught with your pants down again if you play your cards right and log in tonight like a good boy. ”
I blushed as I realized what she was getting at. I also looked around the room to make sure there was no one else watching. It was ridiculous to think they could all read this conversation, but that’s what it felt like.
But of course no one was looking at me or reading our conversation. They were all trying to pretend they were paying attention to Armstrong’s lecture, and not doing a very good job of it.
“You tease ”
"You never know unless you get your cute ass into Lotus tonight,” she sent back.
"I'll keep that in mind," I sent.
Oh yeah. I was almost annoyed that she was distracting me with the sexy, again, but then the hormones took over and threatened to throttle the more rational parts of my brain focused on Horizon revenge and reminded my brain that this was an insanely attractive, intelligent, and bloodthirsty girl flirting so don’t fuck it up.
"You do that," she replied.
I risked a glance in her direction. Sure I was running the risk of Armstrong seeing that glance and bringing the hurt down, but I figured it was totally worth it. Kara winked at me and smiled.
Yeah, so totally worth the risk.
There was no more conversation after that. Armstrong slammed a hand down on his desk and when we both looked up front he was staring right at us. He didn't need any software telling him students were screwing around in his classroom when he had instincts that’d been honed by decades of fighting wars and teaching high school students in one of the rougher levels of our arcology.
I had plenty to think about even if I wasn’t carrying on a clandestine chat in the back of the classroom. There was no way I was paying attention to the depressing history lesson now.
It was odd. It was like for the first time since I’d seen Diana go into that coma there was something stirring inside me other than a burning desire for revenge against Horizon.
Sure that burning desire was still there, but there was something else there as well. Something I couldn't quite describe. Something that almost approached excitement, and it wasn't the excitement of knowing Lotus Online was out.
The rest of the lesson went on in that silence. People were paying attention a little more than usual in this class though. I figured the thought of mushroom clouds going up over some city somewhere was a little more exciting than your usual history stuff.
Not least because there was always a chance some asshole with an axe to grind because of politics or religion or climate change or any other number of reasons might be able to smuggle one of those nukes into a tower and send the whole thing back into the stone age.
When class was over with the ding of a tone we filtered out. I wasn’t even thinking about watching myself when arms grabbed me and pressed me against a locker which made a loud metallic thud as my head slammed against it.
I blinked a couple of times to try and clear my vision, but it was difficult because it didn’t seem like my vision was particularly interested in clearing.
“You think you’re all smart tripping me like that,” Trent said, his breath hot on my face as he leaned in close. “You think you’re all smart getting my people to attack you and blowing them up with whatever the fuck magic you used too.”
I blinked a few times at that. Shit. He knew who I was in the game. Or at the very least he suspected who I was in the game, and there must’ve been something about the look I gave him that gave away how right on the money he was.
“Yeah, that’s right. You’re not the only clever one out there asshole,” he said, pulling me towards him and banging me against the locker again. “But I know what the fuck you did in the game and I know what the fuck you did in that classroom with your little purse and I’m not putting up with you disrespecting me like that. You’re gonna learn there are consequences.”
I probably should’ve played this all contrite. Acted like he was big and bad and I was so sorry for whatever it was I did to irritate the asshole. Only a glance to the side revealed Kara standing right there next to Kristoph, and my fate was sealed for better or worse.
There was no way I was letting him push me around like that when Kara was watching. So in the grand tradition of teenage guys doing stupid things to impress a girl that went back to before the dawn of human history, I fought back with the only weapon I had against this prick.
“Oh yeah?” I said, my mouth moving faster than my survival instinct. “Well if you want to make out with me the least you could do is take me to a party and get a couple of drinks in me. This isn’t really doing it for me.”
Trent looked down and seemed to realize for the first time exactly what it looked like that he was holding me so close. It was sorta intimate, for all that it was an intimate beatdown. People all around us started to laugh as what I’d said filtered back through the gathering crowd, but those laughs cut off as Trent glared at each of them in turn.
Trent might not be the biggest guy in the school, but he was unpredictable. It was well known that he might turn on anyone at any time, and that he was just unhinged enough that he didn’t worry about things like consequences until after he’d done whatever it was that hit him with those consequences.
Rules weren’t enough to stop him from doing terrible things to other people.
Like now, for example. He pulled his fist back. Clearly he’d decided it was worth whatever trouble he was about to get into to deck me nice and good.
“Stop it Trent!” Kara said.
Great. Not only was I going to get punched, but my new kinda-sorta-maybe girlfriend was going to watch my humiliation.
Then a massive hand wrapped around Trent’s hand. The prick looked up in surprise, then let out a noise that was somewhere between a whimper and the sound I imagined someone probably made when they were in the process of soiling themselves.
Armstrong towered over Trent looking down through his bushy facial hair. All of him was covered in hair, for that matter, which always gave him the appearance of a beefy gorilla. Assuming we lived in a world where gorillas hadn’t been hunted to extinction, that is. Or that those gorillas had the ability to teach history.
Or wrap their massive hands around those belonging to unruly students. There was something wild in Armstrong’s eyes as he looked down at Trent. Something that said there was a thin line between Armstrong the gruff but fair teacher who regularly lectured on the death and destruction of the early twenty-first and Armstrong the madman who’d been on the borders of a lot of those conflicts to see and be the cause of a lot of that death and destruction up close and personal.
“Give me an excuse,” Armstrong growled.
“You can’t touch me!” Trent said, a note of fear coming to his voice. “I’m a student! You can’t touch students!”
He cried out at the end of that and went down, the hand he’d been using to hold me against the locker disappearing along with. He fell to his knees and Armstrong stared down at him. Clearly the thin line between reasonable and crazy had disappeared.
“Try me,” Armstrong said.
A cracking noise came from inside Armstrong’s fist. It took me a moment to realize it was the cracking of Trent’s bones as Armstrong squeezed with all the strength he had, and there was a whole fucking lot of strength there.
“Fine!” Trent cried out, his eyes returning to me. “But you better watch yourself you little prick.”
That didn’t sound like the most sincere apology in the world, but apparently it was enough for Armstrong. At least it seemed to put the problem on hold long enough that it would cease to be his problem, so he let Trent go.
Trent collapsed back, glaring at me the entire time. As though it was somehow my fault this whole thing had happened and not his for starting it in the first place.
Then he was gone, melting into the crowd.
“Thanks for the save,” I said, turning to Armstrong.
Armstrong looked to me and the phrase “if looks could kill” immediately came to mind. It wasn’t a pleasant look. It was the look of an educator who’d been battle hardened in the real battlefields of the world before he’d returned to one of the towers in the Midwest where he was tempered once more in the forge fires that were the modern education system in a crumbling arcology.
“Don’t think for a moment that I did that for you,” he said. “You think you’re clever, but that’s going to get you in trouble if you don’t have something to back it up. Think about that.”
I opened my mouth to tell Armstrong exactly where he could stuff his advice, but the more I thought about it the more I realized there was something to what the old man said.
I prided myself on always having a plan. I liked to think I was constantly in control of my surroundings, but my little tiff with Trent just now, not to mention my constant flailing in Lotus last night, was proof that I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I liked to think I was.
Either way I’d just been embarrassed in front of Kara which I didn’t care for. I looked to her and she blushed, then stepped forward and took my hand as the rest of the crowd dispersed.
“There was nothing you could’ve done,” she said. “He snuck up on you.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But I do know I’m going to do my best to make sure he doesn’t ever have the upper hand again.”
She gave my hand a squeeze. It was good to know she still had my back even after I’d been sort of humiliated in front of her.
“Well that went well,” Chris said, putting a hand on my shoulder.
“I didn’t see you raising a hand to help me out there,” I said.
Chris arched an eyebrow. “Any reason why I should’ve raised a hand to help you? You seemed like you were doing a good enough job of handling Trent.”
I stared at him with my eyes wide. “If that was your idea of me doing a good enough job then we need to have a serious conversation man.”
Chris chuckled. “I could see Armstrong coming out here with death in his eyes and I figured that wasn’t something I wanted to get involved in. Trust me, if it looked like Trent was actually on the verge of punching you out I would’ve done something. Besides, it’s kinda fun to see you sweating a little while you’re in danger and wondering if something is going to come along and save your ass.”
“Thanks a lot,” I muttered. “Now let’s get going. We all have earbuds waiting for us at home, and I have some research to do before I log in tonight.”
“So you are logging in?” Kara asked, hitting me with a knowing grin.
“You bet your cute ass I am,” I said with a wink.
Chris, for his part, rolled his eyes. “Is this flirting going to become a thing with you two? Because I’m not cool with that.”
I slapped him on the back. “Weren’t you the one who was talking about how we should figure out just how immersive the game world was?”
“Yeah, but I meant I should figure it out. Thinking about you figuring it out is just gross.”
I grinned. “And you living with that mental image is payback enough for letting me sweat while Armstrong was coming to the rescue, my good man. Now let’s get a move on. We have a long night of gaming ahead of us!”
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!