Gripping the armrests and keeping his eyes shut tight, James tried to keep his breathing calm. Of all the things he had experienced in the last few days, this was by far the worst of them. All around him, his senses were assaulted by new scents and sounds. The thunderous roar that was followed by a crackling of electricity caused sweat to run down his brow. James wanted to run, but he knew there was no escape.
"Travesty, you good?"
Greaves asked gruffly as his large hand clamped down on James' forearm.
Snapping his eyes open, James looked around himself to see all of the Paragons and Quentin looking at him with a mixture of amusement and concern.
"It's your first time flying, isn't it?"
Helena asked as she turned around in her seat. She politely declined the platter of luxurious food that was being offered to her by an attendant on the aircraft. Her tone suggested she was concerned, but James saw the slight smile on her lips.
"Here, drink this."
A hand appeared from behind him holding a full glass which James took without question. Clenching his eyes shut, he drank the liquid and was surprised at how calming it was. Moments later, James felt absolutely fine and couldn't recall exactly why he had been so panicked.
"What did you give him?"
Greaves asked in surprise as he turned to the person sitting behind James.
Don Orso tapped the side of his nose before giving the former Light General a wink.
"That doesn't answer the fucking question, Don!"
"Whoa, whoa... calm down. Not one for subtleties, I get it. I get it!"
Don waved his hands in a calming gesture as he took a small container from his bag.
"Just a little sedative to take the edge off!"
Greaves' face went red with anger, but dissipated when James placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Thanks Greaves, and thank you Don, I feel much better now!"
Looking out the window finally, James felt no unease at the sight of being so high up in the sky.
James was finally able to look out the window without feeling as though he was going to vomit. The view was absolutely breathtaking. There was a blanket of clouds below them and only the tallest buildings pierced through them. Of all those buildings, one stood highest.
"Royal D1 Headquarters."
Quentin announced as though reading his mind. The CEO walked over to where James sat and leaned down to look through the window with him.
"Richest bank in the world. Fitting place for the top sponsors to meet, wouldn't you think?"
Quentin asked James with a smile before moving back to the platters of food. The spacecraft that they were in was wide and luxurious in every way possible. Each of the Paragons had made themselves at home. Khance was sprawled out on his chair which had reclined into a bed. Varya was using a built-in command console to sort through a list of different sponsors. Beside her was Helena who pointed at different names on the list.
"Do you have a game plan?"
Don's voice echoed out from behind him, which caused James to jump slightly in surprise.
"What do you mean, a game plan?"
James tried turning around in his seat, but he kept sinking into the comfortable material. Greaves came to his rescue by tapping a button on the armrest which rotated the entire seat around to face Don. James could have sworn he saw Greaves crack a smile before he walked over to where Helena and Varya were chatting.
"Has anyone spoken to you about why we get sponsors?"
Don queried as he looked around at everyone, before placing all of his attention on James.
The E-Classer just shook his head slowly, feeling that he was about to find out.
"My tone of voice is probably making it sound like it's some kind of conspiracy... but I can assure you, it's not."
Don started as he moved closer to James.
"That rig that was installed in your place, it costs money... a lot of money. Running it and maintaining it, that costs a lot too. Those nutrient packs don't come cheap! Depending on the model and the packs, you're going to be very in the red before you even get into the game."
James' eyes widened, he hadn't even considered that cost. Some naive part of him had assumed that Quentin was picking up the tab.
"Abidden is no charity either. The operational cost of running a game world that revolves around us? The fact that there's no other players allowed in the game... that costs money too. Lots of money."
Don counted on his fingers as his deep and elegant tone continued to hammer facts into James' brain.
"Back in the days when we were Paragons, the magic number was around... $400,000.00. That's the number we needed to get in from sponsors."
James' eyes widened upon hearing the number. It was a crazy amount to someone like him, and was higher than all his current loan repayments combined.
"Getting that amount of money per month may sound hard, but it's achievable... very achievable!"
Don placed his hand on James' knee as he ushered him to move in closer to hear what he had to say.
James was still reeling over the fact that he could have to pay at least $400,000.00 a month. His mind was in total chaos and all attempts to make sense of the finances came up with a blank.
"Sponsors have the same Class-System as society. S-Class sponsors exist, and could end up paying you $600,000.00 per month. Which leaves you with $200,000.00 that goes straight into your account. But you have to consider..."
It was like a light had appeared at the end of the tunnel, and James felt a wave of relief wash over him. The sponsors seemed to be a lot more capable than what he had envisioned.
"Wait... consider what?"
James asked as he finally heard Don's last words.
"You need to consider your own image and brand. There will be some... questionable sponsors here this evening, that will offer you the world but will ask a hefty price in return. Don't let the money make all your decisions."
Don warned before leaning back in his chair.
James smiled gratefully, but in the back of his head he knew that he would do anything it took to be able to pay off his debts and earn as much as possible.
"Thanks for the advice, Don. I can't afford to screw this up though. I'm an E-Classer at the end of the day, I doubt the sponsors will be lining up for me."
James answered honestly as he mulled over everything he had heard so far. This sponsorship event had quickly soured in his mind and now became a battlefield for him. He needed to make sure he got the best deal for the months ahead... even if it meant compromising in the short term.
"I'm serious, James. I'll sponsor you as a last resort if necessary."
The normally jovial and happy, Don Orso was nowhere to be seen. The man in front of James was deadly serious.
"I can tell you from experience James, these sponsorship events are scarier than any monster Abidden has to offer."
Before James could answer, Quentin's voice carried throughout the interior.
"Get ready everyone, we're here!"
When the doors opened, James thought his jaw would hit the floor. The last number of days had been a whirlwind of emotions for him. He got to experience so many new things in such a short space of time. The apartment was nicer than any place he had ever lived in, the rig he got to test the night before was the most incredible piece of gaming equipment he had ever heard of. His first time in a luxury spacecraft that now took him to the tallest building in the world. Royal D1 Headquarters, over three hundred floors, state of the art architecture that attempted to pierce through the atmosphere. The higher up the tower you went, the more incredible the view. Each glass panel showed the starry horizon all around them, but that wasn't the greatest surprise when the doors opened.
They weren't just on one of the three hundred floors, they were in what looked to be an amphitheatre filled with elevated podiums, stages and booths. In the distant background, one of the most popular bands in District One, Elevation, started to play and James instinctively knew that he was out of his depth.
"Mr. Sylvester, here is your Sponsorship Pack. From everyone at Royal D1, we hope you enjoy your stay."
A regal looking gentleman, wearing a full tailored suit appeared beside the E-Classer.
James stammered his thanks as he accepted the ornate box that was presented to him. It looked identical to all of the boxes that were being passed to the Paragons.
When he returned his gaze to the regal man, James searched his face for any sort of reaction. Being an E-Classer made you good at reading people. It seemed that the ability to read people got worse as you went up the steps in society, with S-Class being painfully oblivious to the rest of the world.
The gentleman smiled pleasantly in response and James was genuinely surprised to see that there was no judgement or derision coming from him.
"If you open the pack, Mr. Sylvester, you'll find a tablet which will give you information on all the sponsors in attendance today. Their offers have been customised to each individual, with many leaving their positions open to negotiation."
James nodded his head as he listened to the instructions.
"We would highly recommend you hear out the highest-tier sponsors first, as many of their offers are on the basis of exclusivity."
The gentleman took an envelope from the opened box, and presented it to James.
"This is your baseline. It is your monthly cost calculation and it should not be shared with anyone else. The reason for the envelope, and for the tablet is to preserve the integrity of each sponsor's offer."
James couldn't help but laugh at the comment, which caused the gentleman to raise a confused eyebrow.
"I apologise, Mr. Sylvester, was something I said unclear?"
"Oh, no... sorry, it's not you. I know you're just doing your job. I just find it funny how transparent this system is."
James gestured at the envelope and the tablet in front of him.
When no answer came from the attendant, James continued.
"I mean, they clearly don't want the Paragon's communicating with each other about the deals... as everyone has a different value. I'm pretty sure Helena and myself are going to have very different conversations today. Wouldn't you think?"
The regal attendant looked around the room, making sure that nobody was in earshot before lowering his voice.
"Correct, Mr. Sylvester. If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion or two?"
James looked at the man who still wore his smile as though nothing had happened.
"Please, by all means."
He offered the tablet to the attendant who tapped in a few notes.
"If I can be of any more assistance, you can find me and my colleagues all around the room. We can be identified by our red jackets. Good luck, Mr. Sylvester."
James looked at the retreating figure for a few moments before glancing around him to see how everyone else was doing. Many had already set off towards the different sponsorship booths, but only Don Orso remained.
For some strange reason, he was sitting on the floor.
Don ignored the embarrassed looks from the nearby sponsors as he rummaged through his box.
Just as James was about to turn his attention to his own tablet, he saw Don finally withdraw a single envelope from the stack of promotional material in the box.
Paper was a luxury commodity, so the promotional material from sponsors in each box was just another way for them to flaunt their wealth and influence.
Upon seeing the envelope in Don's hand, James recalled his conversation from earlier about his minimum cost per month.
"Lets see how bad it really is..."
He muttered to himself as he carefully opened the envelope, making sure not to tear any edges.
Pulling out the embossed card, James found that it had his name etched in silver on one side.
"That's pretty cool."
He smiled as he turned the card.
"... that's not cool."
James felt his knees buckle as he read the card one more time. No matter how many times he looked at it, the number didn't change.
He slowly sat down before his knees completely gave way. James turned the card in his hand.
It was definitely addressed to him.
A deep laugh burst out from behind him, causing James to look over in alarm.
Don Orso sat on the ground holding his own open envelope.
"Why do you think I'm sitting?"