"Following Todd" ended up being stepping into a mag car that lifted up off the ground and carried us away from the checkpoint. I knew magnetic material buried in the streets allowed the car to push off and create the hover effect, but it still felt more than a little weird being in a literal hover car.
At least it was weird being in a hover car in the real world and not in the game world which I was more used to.
So I spent the first few minutes staring out the windows and watching what it was like to live on a level that wasn’t overrun with shanties and druggies. It was a glimpse at how the other half lived.
Though honestly it wasn't even the other half. There was only a small percentage of people on the planet who could afford to live like the wooded suburban replica I saw outside the windows. The wealth gap that’d really started to take off at the turn of the last century was even wider these days, that was for damn sure.
"So you've been waiting here this whole time?" Chris asked. He was also staring out the window, and from the envious looks he kept casting through those windows he was liking how the rich lived too.
"Not exactly this whole time," Todd said. "Like I said, the first time I met you I had no idea where you were. But it was easy enough to track that information down once I realized I needed it."
"So you've been spying on us?" Kara asked.
"Spy is such a dirty word," Todd said, grimacing. "Let's say it's more like I've been keeping tabs on you and making sure nothing bad happened to you while preparing for the worst case just in case, and it’s a damn good thing I did.”
He looked at each of us in turn like he was trying to drive home to us just how good it was that he’d been on standby, though there was something about him being on standby that still bothered me.
“So you just happened to be nearby with a bunch of shock troops who were ready to go on the off chance something went bad with Horizon?" I asked, finally getting over the wonder of traveling in a vehicle like this through streets and houses that looked like palaces for all that they were really no nicer than what could be found in the ‘burbs at the beginning of the twenty-first when people were still building out and not up. I wheeled around to look at Todd. "Because it seems awfully suspicious that you have access to those kinds of troops at a moment’s notice."
I wasn't quite going so far as to accuse him of anything, but I was also getting about as close to an accusation as you could get without coming out and saying that he was planning on kidnapping us at some point with those troops he’d just used to “rescue” us. Hell, this could be a kidnapping right here. For all I knew those troops who were working for "Horizon" might’ve been on his side and this was all a huge ruse to lull us into a false sense of security so we’d go quietly and happily to our captivity.
Then again there was Trent to consider. I seriously doubted he’d be part of any subterfuge like that. He probably didn't even know the meaning of the word subterfuge, let alone how to pull it off.
"Come on Colin," Kara said. "You don't have to be a dick to the guy. He did just save our asses, after all."
"But did he save our asses?" I asked, keeping my gaze locked on Todd’s. "Or is this all part of his plot to get us?"
"Whoa there," Chris said. "Conspiracy theory much?
"We just got hunted down by a bunch of assholes wearing the kind of hardware you usually only see militaries running around in because we’re beating them in a fucking videogame," I said. "Next to that I think you can forgive me if I'm just a little conspiracy minded right now."
"Fair point," Chris said, turning to Todd. "So how do we know you're not kidnapping us?"
"Well it's simple," Todd said. "I'm not."
"So we’re supposed to take you at your word?" I asked.
Todd got a funny look on his face. Like a grimace or something. Or maybe like he was trying to squeeze something out on the pot and having some trouble getting it out. I wasn’t sure if I should ask him if something was wrong or offer him some prune juice.
"What are you doing?” Kara asked. “You’re scaring me with that look.”
Finally Todd sighed and shook his head. He muttered something I couldn't quite hear, but it sounded like there were a few swear words peppered in there. Then he looked at us and sighed. He was back to that same imposing look he always had. Like we’re talking this looked like a dude who had a permanent case of resting bitch face.
"Look," he said. "I could try and pretend to be all friendly and everything here. Try to put you at ease, but that's just not who I am. I don't have to interact with real humans all that often, and believe me that’s by choice because I’m not good when it comes to interacting with real humans. It was easy enough for me to relocate to your arcology because all I really need is my computer, even though they insisted in on setting me up in one of the company’s safehouses."
He seemed to be rambling. I was more than happy to let him ramble, though. In my experience people tended to let a lot of stuff slip they maybe ought not to when they weren't really thinking about what they were saying. If he wanted to give away information about what exactly Lotus was doing here then I was more than happy to let him spill his guts.
"The plain truth is I'm not kidnapping you, and you're going to know the truth of that as we continue to move along and you continue to see that I'm not kidnapping you. I know that’s kind of circular reasoning, but…”
He paused. He seemed to think of something. He put a finger on a panel beside him. It lit up with a touch screen and this time he did smile, and it was more genuine. I guess the dude had been serious when he said he was more comfortable working with computers.
Of course that smile was also more rapacious and smartass as well, but it was definitely more genuine than the grimace he'd tried to summon earlier.
"In fact, if you want to leave then you can leave now," he said. "I don't think you're going to have a very good time if you go back to your parents’ houses though. Horizon is going to be keeping an eye on them. I also don't think you're going to have a very good time if you try to go just about anywhere else in this arcology."
“What if we try to get out of here?” Kara asked.
"You can try to get out of course," he said. "You have enough money that you should be able to do that. The question is where are you going to go? How will you access your resources? Figure out a way to get a secure place without letting Horizon know about it? It’s a tall order for three kids on the run.”
"So you're saying you're going to help us with all that stuff?" I said. "Just like that?"
He shrugged and spread his hands out. "Why should you be surprised that I want to help you? I've done nothing but help you so far. Frankly I'm a little insulted, at least as insulted as my shriveled black coder’s heart can be, that you’d even think I was working for those assholes after I made it clear I hate those motherfuckers as much as you do."
The door flipped open on the vehicle. There was nothing but sprawling green all around us. The suburban landscape had been left behind, apparently, and it looked like we were in the middle of a park or something.
I thought about some of the rumors I’d heard about nature preserves on some levels of the arcology. The kind of places that looked like old-school jungles had back in the day before they’d all been clearcut and burned to the ground. The kind of places where people went at their own risk. Where there were the kinds of dangerous creatures lurking in the shadows and behind every tree that could make a person seriously regret trying to get back to nature.
There was a reason mankind had spent millennia trying to make nature his bitch, and now that man had finally won that long war against the natural world there were some people who put some of those dangerous creatures back in those nature preserves on various arcologies where they could live out their lives blissfully unaware that they were in an artificial environment.
Of course that also meant that a bunch of those creatures were blissfully unaware that they shouldn’t be eating any humans they might come across on those nature preserves.
Again there was a suspicious part of me, the part of me that was still reeling from getting chased through my own level by a bunch of guys dressed like soldiers, that wondered if there might be something with big pointy scary teeth waiting for me on the other side of that vehicle door. If maybe that something with big pointy scary teeth was part of the reason why Todd was being so accommodating by allowing us to leave.
I forced myself to take a deep breath. To stop thinking that way. It was counterproductive. Todd was on our side, and I needed to stop thinking otherwise.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just dealing with some shit right now."
"You and me both buddy," Todd said, hitting that panel again and causing the door to hiss down.
"So now can we get something productive done here?" Todd asked. “Because you’re all deep in the shit right now, and you’re going to have to start digging out soon.”
"That's the understatement of the century," I said.
"Also, I think I need to make something clear from the get-go here," Todd said.
There was something about the tone of his voice that caught my attention.
"What is it?" I asked.
"The thing you have to understand is I'm not exactly here directly under company orders," he said. "In fact you could say that if anyone figured out what we were doing here, the company would disavow all knowledge of it. I'm on my own, as it were, sticking my dick out on the chopping block to save your asses.”
"So you're like a rogue agent or something?" Chris asked, frowning.
"Something like that," Todd said. "It's difficult to explain without going into internal politics at Lotus. The old man knows what I'm doing, and he totally supports it, but he also totally can't support it publicly if we get found out. If that makes sense."
"What the hell does that mean?" Kara asked.
"I think I get what the hell it means," I said. "It means Bradford is an old-school gamer of the highest order. He doesn't like what's happening with his game. Am I sort of on track here?"
"More than sort of," Todd said with a grimace.
"But Lotus is also a publicly traded company," I said. "Has been for years now. The old man might have the majority stake in the thing, but that doesn't mean he can go off the reservation publicly. So he's giving us support privately while publicly toeing the company line if we do something that forces him to toe that line.”
"Fucking shareholders," Kara said. "The world got fucking destroyed by shareholders, and they didn't need nuclear weapons or anything. All it took was a little greed for humanity to destroy everything."
"And now greed might destroy Lotus as well," Todd said. "Unless we do something about it. I wasn't going to intervene unless something happened, but I figure Horizon sending their goons to try and make you quietly disappear qualifies as a situation I need to get in the middle of.
I sighed. The world had gone crazy. But at least we were okay for the moment. Even if the future was looking bleak.
"So what now?" Kara asked.
"What now?" Todd asked. "Well I would think that's obvious. Now I'm going to take you back to the safe house I've been hanging out at, and from there…"
"You're going to make like the great and powerful Og and give us facilities we can use while we fight a war against Horizon on your behalf?" I said, arching an eyebrow.
"Nice to know that you youngsters appreciate the literary greats," Todd said. "But there's not a chance in hell I'm going to pull something like that."
"Really?" I asked, arching an eyebrow. "Color me surprised."
"Yeah," he said. "You'd think that's where this is going, but I'm not some multibillionaire who can keep you safe or anything like that. I have some pull at my company, but every minute you're spending at that safe house with me is a minute that house might get raided by Horizon assholes. Best case scenario if something like that happens is it creates a PR nightmare for the company where the usual gaming circlejerk will say we’re favoring someone and Horizon’s PR people make hay out of it.”
“And the worst case scenario?” I asked, knowing even as I asked that I wasn’t going to like the worst case scenario.
“You’ve heard the rumors that Horizon can make people who disagree with them disappear, right?” Todd asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Yeah, those are all totally true,” Todd said. “Best for you not to be on the wrong end of one of those corporate disappearings, if you catch my drift.”
I swallowed. Yeah, that didn’t sound like my idea of a good time at all.
"Fair enough," I said. "So what do we do now?"
"I happened to have a glance at your bank account,” Todd said. “I know you've been spending gold like crazy trying to fund your little war machine, but I also happen to know that you have some liquid cash reserves at your disposal thanks to all that gold sitting in your account. The kind of stuff that could be used to buy a private security force of your own guarding an undisclosed location in one of the nicer parts of the world, if you catch my drift."
I thought about what he was saying. It's true that I had a vast amount of money coming in on the regular. The goblins were manufacturing stuff and selling it into a game world that was hungry for alternatives to what Horizon was selling, and the real beauty of it was I could sell stuff that was better than what Horizon was putting out, price it lower than they seemed willing to go based on some of the price wars we’d had on the Auction House, and still turn a profit thanks to the mass production machine I’d put together in the goblin Kthonopolis.
Only. Doing what Todd was talking about would require a hell of an investment. It was money that I had, but it was money that would put a serious damper on our war efforts if it was suddenly missing from my account.
“I’d have to find some way to make up that money," I said. "It's going out as fast as it's coming in. If I sold some of it on the exchanges, like enough to afford what you’re suggesting…”
Todd shrugged again, a small smile playing across his face.
"It's a damn shame you don't have, say, an army at your disposal that’d be able to do a little bit of extermination,” Todd said.
“Extermination?” Chris said. “We’re not getting rid of the goblins you sick fuck.”
“Not that,” Todd said. “I’m talking exterminating the kind of big scary monster that would probably give you one hell of an influx of cash if you were able to defeat it."
What he was saying sounded very close to going after the creature lurking in the depths of the Kthonopolis. Whatever the hell that creature was. The jury was still out, and I hadn’t been able to get anything more useful than looks of gibbering terror from the goblins when I interrogated them about what was lurking down there.
I didn't doubt that whatever the hell the thing was, it was powerful. Not the kind of thing that would be defeated easily unless you had a bunch of players at your back willing to run a raid.
Or a goblin army using the kind of technology most players could never dream even existed in Lotus.
"I'm also given to understand that you've been developing all sorts of nifty weapons that I tossed into the game, never thinking that someone would be stumbling on them within a month of the game launching,” Todd continued, a look of pure innocence on his face. Like he was just speculating. “Things like airships mounted with spellcrafted cannons and explosive rounds? Impressive stuff. The kind of stuff that might give you one hell of an edge if you were to, say, face down a hypothetical raid boss that may or may not be lurking in the depths of your neighborhood…”
Now the thin smile on his face was a grin. A wide shit eating grin that said he was telling me way more than he probably should've been telling me, and doing it all under the guise of a simple pleasant conversation.
I looked to Chris and Kara, and smiled at them in turn.
"What would the two of you think of relocating to some better digs?"
For a wonder, they actually looked a little reluctant. Chris was the last one I would've expected to get all warm and fuzzy when it came to thinking about our shitty home. I hadn’t known Kara long enough to really know what she thought of where we’d grown-up, but I did know weren't many people who got all warm and fuzzy thinking about the place. No, it was the kind of place people dreamed of getting out of, even if the only true escape was by overdosing with something shot up your arm.
Finally Chris shrugged. "I guess I don't really have much of a choice."
Kara grinned. "I suppose if we're going to go anywhere I want to go with the two of you."
"Really?" I said, feeling a stab of jealousy. "Both of us?"
"Well yeah," she said. "There's whatever's going on with us, and then there's Chris here who's become like a big brother. After all, he was the one who thought to call me when Horizon attacked.”
She looked at me and winked to let me know she wasn't too terribly put out by that, but I was still embarrassed by it. What kind of idiot didn't think to call his girlfriend first? Though I suppose in the end it’d all worked out for the best.
I turned to Todd. "So I have no idea how to even begin to arrange any of this stuff. Would you be at risk of a certain firing if you helped us out?"
"I think I can work something out," Todd said, that grin never leaving his face.
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!