"What the hell is going on here?" I asked.
"Excuse me," a voice said. "Excuse me! Would you please get out of my way? I outrank all of you, after all."
None of the men holding their weapons moved, which seemed ominous.
“Need I remind you that I’m the one signing your paychecks on this one?” the voice piped up.
Some of the jackbooted dudes finally parted. Though maybe it wasn't entirely fair to call them jackbooted dudes. After all, wasn't a jackbooted thug usually the kind of imprecation that was reserved for a jerk who was fighting against you? As far as I could tell, these guys were on our side. At least for the moment. Though given everything that’d been happening to me lately I wasn't sure how long that was going to last.
"Thank you so much for getting out of my way," a slightly tubby man with bright orange hair and an even brighter orange beard said as he stepped out from behind the soldier dudes. "It's not like I'm trying to save the day or make a dramatic entrance that was totally ruined by you not getting out of my way or anything!"
I cocked my head to the side. There was something that sounded almost familiar about that voice. Like if I listened to it just right I almost recognized the owner.
"Well then," the guy said, putting his hands on his hips as he looked at the damage that’d been done by the jackbooted dudes who seemed to be working for him to the jackbooted dudes who seemed to be working for Horizon. "This is a hell of a lot more impressive than I thought. Good work guys!"
"Do I know you?" I asked.
The guy looked at me. Cocked his head to the side. He had the same look on his face that I imagined was on my own. A sort of a dawning recognition. Then his face split in a wide grin.
"Well holy shit. It is you!"
"I am me," I said. "But I still have no idea who you are."
"A friend," Kara said. "Who came through with a hell of a lot more than I was expecting. You really called out the cavalry for this one!"
"Yeah, well it turns out it's good to have friends in high places and all that," the guy said.
There was still something about that voice. As though I'd heard it before, only going through some sort of filter to mask it or something and…
He grinned, and there was something about that grin that finally set something off in my head. I realized why he looked so familiar.
"Trelor?” I asked.
"Actually the name’s Todd," he said, holding out a hand for me to shake. "Senior developer in charge of crafting systems for Lotus Online. And let me say that it's a real pleasure to finally meet the guy who's been doing his best to break my systems!"
I was just a little stunned. I mean it's not like I'd never met someone I knew from the Internet, mostly when I met a bunch of people I’d been doing online instruction with as a little kid being babysat by the pre-K autoteacher in our living room after going to real school for the first time, but this was the first time I'd had someone from the Internet show up with a bunch of troops to save my butt.
"How?" I asked.
"That's simple," he said. "Your friend here got in touch with me, and I was able to pull some strings. It turns out Horizon aren't the only ones who can summon a nice little private security force in a pinch.”
I looked between the dudes who looked like shock troops in front of us, and then to the dudes who looked like shock troops who were clearly working for Horizon. And I realized we were in the middle of something that was a hell of a lot bigger than just one person looking for a little bit of revenge against a corporation. No, we were stuck between two massive corporations grinding together and fighting for dominance of the future, and I guess it hadn't really hit home just how serious this could potentially be until that moment when I saw two literal armies facing one another down.
"You did all this to save me?" I asked.
"It wasn't all me," he said. "I had to pull some strings with the big guy, but once he realized what was going on…"
The big guy. As in the CEO of Lotus Online Entertainment. Jonathan Bradford. The man who'd started the company thirty years ago in his parents’ basement. Back when living in your parents’ basement was still considered a mark of shame and not something everyone did because there were way more people than jobs to do in the arcologies and socioeconomic class had not only stratified but calcified. The man who was an old-school gamer of the highest pedigree.
"He knows about me?" I asked.
"And then some," Todd said. "But come on. The more time we spend hanging around here the more opportunity we give Horizon to fuck us over after they realize things have gone south here."
I grinned. I couldn't believe it. Somehow we'd managed to have our bacon pulled out of the frying pan again. Somehow I was going to come out on top again, and it looked like Trent wasn't going to have his ass handed to him once more.
"Could you excuse me for a moment?" I asked.
Todd looked down at his watch, then up to me.
"I suppose," he said. "But we really are sort of on a timer here and…"
"This will only take a moment," I said.
I walked over to Trent. Stared down at him. He had a dart sticking out of his chest. Which was a contrast to all the other dudes who had darts sticking out of their necks which was the only exposed area. I guess whoever shot Trent figured it didn't really matter where they hit him.
I pulled my foot back, and then a hand on my shoulder stopped me. I turned to look at Kara. She was looking at me with an odd almost unreadable expression. And in that moment I felt a little guilty that I'd been about to kick a man when he was quite literally down.
"I know," I said. "It's not nice to take revenge on people and all that stuff."
"Actually that's not what I was going to say," she said.
"It's not?" I asked.
"Nope," she said.
She walked down to between Trent’s legs rather than by his ribcage where I’d been aiming. She pulled her leg back, and then hit him right in the danglies with a well-placed kick of her own. Trent let out a groan in his sleep, but he didn't wake up.
Whatever the hell they’d used to knock him out must’ve been powerful indeed if it kept him from waking up after getting a shot to the nuts. Though if that groan was anything to go on it wasn’t powerful enough to keep him from feeling the pain entirely.
"If you're going to kick a man while he's down then you need make it count," she said.
"Damn,” I said. “Remind me to never get on your bad side!”
She shrugged. Then grinned and leaned up to give me a kiss on the cheek.
"I owed him one. Or two. Maybe about a million, come to think of it, for the way he treated me in that game. You haven’t given me a single reason to want to kick you in the nuts. Yet.”
I put my arms around her and whirled her around. I was about to lean in and give her a far more thorough kiss than the one she'd just given me, but someone cleared their throats off to the side. I turned to see Todd, Trelor, staring at us. And realized we were still on that timer. I blushed.
"Sorry," I said.
"No need to be sorry," Trelor said. "I totally understand the desire to make out with a hottie, but you might want to wait until we’re somewhere a little safer to suck face.”
"Right," I said, looking to Chris and then to Kara. "Let's get a move on then."
I wasn't sure if I wanted to get that move on because I wanted to get somewhere I might be safe from Horizon and their asshole minions, or if it was because I was looking forward to getting to someplace nice and private where I could follow through on the promise of that kiss. Either way, it was time to get going.
We stepped onto the elevator and the doors closed with a clang that seemed awfully final. I looked around at the thing. It was the same elevator I’d used to get to school countless times before, but this time it went down instead of up.
The feeling was weird. Like I was a little lighter than usual. It felt wrong, but it was better than being taken captive by Horizon.
"So does somebody want to explain what's going on here?" I asked.
I figured it was safe enough to ask questions now that we’d reached safety. Where "safety" was defined as being stuck on an elevator, but whatever. We were surrounded by heavily armed people loyal to a guy who’d just saved our asses, and I figured that was safe enough.
"It's not really safe to talk about what's going on just yet," Todd said. "We still could get hit by Horizon. They really want you."
"How did you know where I was to find us in the first place?” I asked.
Todd suddenly got an innocent look on his face. "I don't know what you're talking about.”
"Yes you do," I said, poking him in the chest.
For a surprise that didn't seem to get a reaction out of his troops. I figured they would've been a little more invested in his continued safety considering how senior he was at Lotus, but all I saw was maybe the ghost of a smile on a few otherwise hard ass faces.
"Hey now," he said. "Is that any way to treat someone who just saved your ass?"
"Maybe I'll be grateful once you start to give me a little bit of detail about how it is you just happened to be in my arcology out of all the arcologies that exists in this world. Because there's a hell of a lot of them," I said. “Seems like a hell of a coincidence that you would just happen to know where I was, don’t you think?”
"It's all in the End User License Agreement you accepted when you signed up for the Lotus hardware,” Todd said. Then he got a thoughtful look on his face. "Actually technically, if you go by the terms of the EULA, I own your eternal soul. I’m pretty sure that’s just a little joke the lawyers snuck in to be funny, but still…"
"Whatever," I said. "Answers please."
Todd sighed. He looked like the kind of guy who didn't like being on the losing end of an argument. We’re talking the kind of keyboard warrior who would stay up late into the night copying and pasting links and quotes from Wikipedia in an attempt to win an Internet argument without any care for hygiene or his personal sleep schedule.
Not that I thought we were having an argument here so much as we were having a friendly disagreement, but still.
"Okay, so maybe as soon as I realized who you were and what you were doing I maybe relocated myself to your arcology," he said.
"Why would somebody want to live in our arcology?" Kara asked.
"Well it's not like I was living in the drug fueled shantytown you all live in," he said, then looked at us as though he’d realized he might’ve insulted us by referring to our home that way.
Chris grunted. "Don't have to feel bad about calling it like it is man. The rest of us feel the same way about the place."
"Right," Todd said. "So I relocated to some of the more comfortable levels of your arcology. I figured it’d be a good idea to have a safe house close to where you lived on the off chance you did something stupid like revealing who you were to Horizon."
He turned and glared at each of us in turn. Though I held his gaze. If he was trying to intimidate us or something with that line then he had another thing coming.
"They knew who we were from the beginning," Kara said. "We sort of go to school with one of the guys who's their head dude in our region of Lotus."
Todd sighed. "I should've known it’d be something like that. They've been recruiting high school kids and people who have a lot of time to spend in a videogame pretty aggressively. Why would it be any different around here?”
"Yeah, well I can understand why they’d be willing to sign up with Horizon," Kara said.
That was enough to get everyone in the elevator turning and staring at her. Talk about something that seemed wildly out of character for her.
"What?" she said, perhaps a touch defensively. "We live in one of the poorest levels of our arcology. What person wouldn't jump at the chance to get a little bit of money if someone like Horizon was throwing it around?"
"I'm just surprised to hear that from you," I said.
"I might hate them, but I can understand where someone is coming from when they go to work for them."
Thankfully the elevator opened, which distracted Todd from giving Kara the stinkeye. I found myself staring at something I'd only ever heard people talking about before. One of the infamous checkpoints designed to keep people from the really shitty levels like ours from getting out into the rest of the arcology. And sure enough there were a bunch of armed guards standing there complete with metal detectors, wands, and an assortment of weapons that looked like they could give somebody a really bad day if the guards had half a mind to use them.
You occasionally heard about someone from our level getting their asses shot off as they tried to make an escape, but I never thought I’d see one of those checkpoints up close and personal like this. I wasn't stupid enough to try and escape, after all.
"Damn," I said.
"Damn is right," Todd said. "But you don't have to worry about them. You have an in with the border types.”
Sure enough he walked right up to the guards, and they waved him through without so much as questioning him or asking him for any ID. They did the same with us as we passed through the checkpoint. I guess there was something to rolling up to said checkpoint with his own private security force that looked better equipped and more able to handle themselves in a fight.
"If you'll follow me," Todd said, gesturing beyond the checkpoint.
We followed him. What other choice did we have? It was like we were being led through the chocolate factory and Todd was Willy Wonka, and from the smile on his face he was enjoying the fuck out of taking on that role.
I just hoped none of us turned out to be useless old Grandpa Joe in that tortured metaphor.
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!