|Nox Holdings||S||Nox||Platinum Bar|
|Royal D1||S||N/A||Main Stage|
|Otterman Intelligence Systems||S||H. Jay Thiel||Lobby|
|Reality Group||S||N/A||Main Stage|
|The Clancy Group||S||Finbarr Clancy||Platinum Bar|
|Deadlock Security||S||Tunde Ibrahim||Lobby|
|Dryksell Pharmaceuticals||S||Graham Dryksell||Platinum Bar|
|Volte Aerospace||A||Elisabeth Volte||Main Stage|
James scrolled through the tablet in his hand as he marvelled at all the titans of industry that had gathered at such short notice. Quentin had remarked that it was a person called Kell that had organised the evening, but to be able to gather so many people, in such a location... it was inconceivable.
It had taken a few minutes and many reassurances from Don that everything would be okay, before James got back to his feet.
The former Paragon went on to confuse the E-Classer by giving completely contradictory advice to the regal looking attendant.
"Don't bother with the stuffy S-Classers, most of them are going to try and lock you into something unfavourable!"
Don laughed as he gestured around the lobby area.
"This is where the real fun happens!"
James gave Don a curious look, but the deep laugh showed no sign of stopping.
"See him? That's Fran Copato, C-Grade Sponsor... I can tell you what he's offering right now."
James looked where Don was pointing and saw a friendly looking man wearing an apron.
"Free meals, for a year. But you can negotiate with him too and get even more!"
Don was getting incredibly excited as he started to pull James over to where the friendly aproned man stood.
"What more can you get if you negotiate?"
The former Paragon finally stopped in front of the booth, and pointed at what looked like a miniature model of a Nexus Rig.
"Custom foods! Fran here can actually create furniture, ornaments, anything you want... out of food. It's the main basis of F4!"
Don was laughing as he pointed at all of the different items on display.
James asked with genuine curiosity. He knew what Don was doing and it was working.
He found himself smiling for the first time since he opened the envelope.
"Em, the F4 stands for, Fran's Fantastically Fanatic Food."
Fran laughed as he gestured for one of his workers to serve some bowls to both James and Don.
James laughed as he looked into the bowl.
"Proverbs, puns, anecdotes... all edible. Years ago, people would have eaten single letters, but Fran saw an opportunity to diversify."
Don marvelled as he picked out some choice jokes from the bowl.
James was completely bewildered. He knew that Don was a little bit on the peculiar side, but he had absolutely no idea how Fran had managed to get into the building, let alone become one of the prospective sponsors.
As if reading his mind, Fran answered with a guilty laugh.
"I need to disclose that F4 is jointly owned by myself and Don here. He mentioned that you might want to choose us as a sponsorship partner?"
Don shot Fran a withering look.
"You're such a spoil sport, we could have fooled him a little longer."
Fran chuckled as he tapped a tablet in front of him.
James felt a vibration in his own tablet and looked down to see that he had received his first offer.
Sponsorship Partnership - James Sylvester & F4
"Like I said."
Don turned to look at James with a warm smile on his face.
"You can use me as a last resort, I'll sponsor you."
James looked at the numbers and realised that it was practically a no-brainer. Opening his mouth to reply, Fran put his hands up to silence the E-Classer.
"Before you say anything... that you could later regret. Just know that F4 will be here for the rest of the evening. You can try your luck with the S-Grade Sponsors, give them first refusal."
Don nodded in agreement.
"Exactly, and there are a number of other sponsors at the lower tiers that would be okay with sharing. So don't be worrying too much about that envelope, you hear me?"
James shook his head and sighed.
"Thank you both so much. I really appreciate it."
With that said, James picked up his tablet and minimised the offer from F4. He had a lot of different sponsors on the list to go through, and he needed to follow the advice he was given. It wouldn't be wise to lock into a contract with the first place he met. James needed to scope the place out and find the best offer or combination of offers.
James muttered as he pulled out his tablet. Looking at the 'Notes' section of the screen, he saw the advice that was left by the attendant.
|Visit Nox. Don't back down.|
|Nexus Rigs likes you. Use that.|
|Avoid Volte Aerospace. They're being investigated for illegal clinical trials.|
|Dryksell Pharmaceuticals have been asking about you. The daughter is behind it. Use that.|
|Playmates want you as a novelty, E-Classer. Use that.|
James gasped as he looked at the in-depth notes the attendant had left for him.
He hadn't even heard of some of those companies, and yet they knew about him.
After looking through the list a few times, James wondered about the order of the notifications.
All of the sponsors that were listed were S-Grade, and it was clear that the attendant found the last three of the list to be distasteful.
"So then, the first entry on the list would have the most weight."
James muttered as he looked again at the top.
"Looks like we're going to meet, Nox."
The Platinum Bar felt like a completely removed existence from the rest of the floor. It was shaped like a crescent, that hugged each of the glass walls tightly. The whole bar was elevated high above ground level and sat imposingly above everyone. This was where most of the S-Class Sponsors were residing. Whilst many of the sponsors on the ground, in the lobby or main stage areas were waiting on the Paragons. The S-Classers were instead partying it up, being wined and dined by the staff of the Royal D1 HQ. The Paragons, Abidden and the whole purpose of the event was seemingly forgotten if appearances were to be believed.
James stood awkwardly and glanced at his tablet more out of habit than out of curiosity. He had just taken the elevator up to the Platinum Bar, and the scenes that greeted him were that of a wild and affluent party. People were in various stages of dress, drinks were being ferried left, right and centre. Everyone was beautiful and happy. The only thing out of place was him.
A huge burst of laughter sounded out from one side of the bar, and James finally found the culprit.
Khance was standing on a table, holding a bottle of whiskey as he continued telling his story.
The most enraptured person at that table was an elderly thin man that wore casual clothing.
Judging from how everyone behaved and moved around the man, he was the boss.
James made a mental note to himself.
Looking around at the other groups, he realised that the party scenes he was intimidated by weren't as authentic as he believed.
Small cracks in their behaviour showed him the truth, and James noticed one by one how each person was pretending to like the Paragon they spoke to. Laughing at jokes, subtle touching and flirtation, feeding their egos about the glory era of Abidden.
It was actually fascinating to watch them work the room, and James knew that if he had remained as a C-Class, he would have fallen for their ruse completely.
Suddenly, a beautiful feminine hand slid down his wrist before resting against his palm.
James stared at the hand that was now clasping his and it took him a few moments to process the situation before he looked up.
The most beautiful woman he had ever seen was holding his hand. High cheekbones, perfect white smile, piercing green eyes and an incredibly lithe figure.
"Mr. Sylvester, would you care to join me for a drink?"
Even her voice was incredible, James had to admit.
James asked after taking a steadying breath and removing his hand from hers.
The woman bit her lip softly before giving him a sideways glance.
"I guess I could be your playmate... if you really wanted?"
She's good, be careful.
Was the first thought that ran through his head, followed by a thousand other thoughts... most of which involved the woman in front of him.
Glancing once again at the tablet in his hands, James quickly read the last entry in the notes section the attendant had written for him.
|Playmates want you as a novelty, E-Classer. Use that.|
"Am I making you nervous? Let's have a drink and I promise I'll be less forward."
Her fingernails traced down his arm, as her whole body pressed up against his left arm. James could feel her breath against his ear.
"Or maybe... you want to see how far I'll go?"
She finished her sentence with a soft moan that reverberated through James' entire body.
"Seven Hundred and Twenty Five Thousand!"
James blurted out finally, which caused the woman to pause her seduction.
"I beg your pardon?"
Her musical tone was curious and held no signs of annoyance or anger.
"That's my monthly cost. Are you going to pay that for me?"
James didn't intend on being so blunt or straightforward, but it was the only way to get past her seduction.
The woman arched an eyebrow before glancing back to an area of the bar that was filled with gorgeous people.
James followed her gaze and realised that she needed to talk it over with her manager.
Another curious thing that occured to James, was that of all the beautiful people that were a part of Playmates... the woman in front of him was by far his first choice.
"How did they know to send you?"
The woman looked at him with a hurt expression on her face.
"I wasn't sent, I... picked you."
James immediately tried to backtrack, but stopped when he realised who he was talking to.
"You're terrifyingly good at this."
The serene and seductive smile was replaced momentarily by a smirk.
"Incredible, isn't it? It's almost... like this is my job?"
Her entire head turned to one side as she widened her eyes in mock surprise.
James could only stare in shock as she slipped back into character and made her way back to the other Playmates.
His eyes followed her across the room, and she turned around to catch him staring.
She brought her hand to her mouth to make an incredibly suggestive gesture that James thought only existed in the slums.
James spent the next hour wandering around the Platinum Bar. Many of the S-Grade sponsors politely declined him as he approached. He couldn't blame them, he was a high-risk category. With no gaming track record over the last decade, any investor would see red flags. If they did go out on a limb to sponsor him, they stood to lose a lot of money and reputation if he turned out to be terrible at the game.
Before he even approached one of the booths, the employee gave him an imperceptible shake of the head which James was thankful for. He didn't waste his time in approaching them.
"So are you going to ignore me all night?"
A familiar voice called out from behind him, causing James to turn around in confusion.
Standing in a long blue dress with her hands on her hips was Liliana.
"You own a dress?"
He laughed in surprise as he looked her up and down. Whilst the woman from Playmates had been his ideal type, James couldn't help but be attracted to Liliana's hands-on, no-bullshit attitude.
"Yep, it even has pockets!"
Liliana answered as she pulled a tablet out of nowhere.
James had to do a double take which caused Liliana to burst into laughter.
"You know, it's actually worth it just for that reaction."
With that said, she tapped her wrist and the illusion flickered off for a moment. The beautiful blue dress disappeared, only to be replaced by her standard black and green uniform.
As soon as he had seen it, it was gone. The blue dress was back and Liliana gave him a sly wink.
"They told me I should dress nice for the party, so I decided this would be a fun compromise."
Before James could ask what sort of device she was using to create her disguise, she was talking again.
"So, how was it? The Chessmaster? What was the tutorial like?"
Opening his mouth to respond, Liliana raised her hand abruptly to silence him.
"Actually, hold that thought. Lets get some drinks, I want you to tell me everything!"
James happily obliged and found himself sitting in a private booth a few minutes later. An attendant brought them a selection of different themed drinks which were left on the table. At her urging, James went through all the sensations he had felt when he first logged in after she left. He told her about the tutorial quests that were designed to teach him about role playing games, and how he felt a little out of his depth since all he had been playing until that point was Player vs. Player games. He told her how well rested he felt after logging out of the tutorial, and praised the Chessmaster once again. It was only after James finished explaining about the different tutorial missions that Liliana seemed satisfied.
"It sounds like you're going to be a natural at this! Would you believe that there are some celebrities that completely skipped those tutorials?"
She shook her head in disbelief before taking a drink of the cocktail in front of her.
"It's optional? I thought it was mandatory..."
James admitted awkwardly. Even if he had known it was optional, he still would have thrown himself into the missions to get a better understanding of the game.
"Haha, yes! It's very much optional. I've played a few missions myself... I was genuinely just curious about the gameplay. I said it was to calibrate the Rigs better, but they all knew I just wanted to play the game."
Liliana admitted herself while mirroring his awkward smile.
"So tell me, Mr. Sylvester. What has been the biggest shock so far, your whole world had been turned upside down in the space of a few weeks... and tomorrow you're going to create your very own character in Abidden. What's going through that malnourished head of yours right now?"
James took a drink as he thought about the question.
"What has been the biggest shock? Probably the $725,000.00 I need to come up with every month. If you added up all of my medical bills over the last ten years, my in-game winnings and everything I've ever earned... it wouldn't be enough to pay a single month."
James laughed as he reached for another drink.
"It's so terrifying, that in one moment... by opening one envelope, I saw just how inconsequential my life is."
Liliana stared at James before she burst out laughing.
"That's completely my fault! Most people have costs of around $300,000.00 to $500,000.00 depending on their Rig. Your custom Chessmaster falls into the next category at $600,000.00. The other $100,000.00 is monthly maintenance by me and the remaining $25,000.00 is for your nutrient packs."
James just gaped at Liliana as his mind calculated the math.
"If you're responsible for every Paragon and Heroes rig... and you charge $100,000.00 per month..."
Liliana waved her hand dismissively.
"Yes, it means I'm filthy rich... but nothing compared to everyone around us. I'm just a lowly employee of Nexus Rigs!"
Shaking his head, James finished his drink as his mind continued to count the amount Liliana was making.
"Great, I was waiting for you to get a little tipsy! Time to start the negotiation!"
Liliana laughed as she tapped the tablet that suddenly appeared in her hand.
Manufacturing Partnership - James Sylvester & Nexus Rigs
"We'd be paying you $125,000.00 just to test new software on you... and the only downside is that you'd get regular visits from me."
Liliana added when she saw the dumbfounded expression on James' face.
James re-read everything in front of him, trying to figure out where the catch was.
"Yes, very serious. It's that scary recovery rate of yours, I want to test all of our new Rigs with it. There are loads of users that we could test on, but none of them are in Abidden. Imagine if we had you as a case-study!"
Liliana was practically bouncing in her seat with excitement and James couldn't help but share her enthusiasm.
"Don't suppose you know where I can get $600,000.00 by any chance?"
James asked with a grin.
"You'll see that this partnership has us listed as a manufacturer instead of a sponsor."
Liliana pointed at the title of the contract as she ignored his question.
James glanced at it and then back at the Engineer who was smiling at him.
"It means that you can still take on an exclusive sponsor who will retain all advertising and promotional rights. Nexus Rigs doesn't need a slice of the pie, so don't worry."
After confirming the transaction with his own tablet, James shuddered in a mix of anticipation and excitement. He had a fixed income, from a reputable employer for the first time in his life.
"First we had coffee at your place, then drinks in the Royal D1 HQ... Can't wait to see what our third date will be like!"
Liliana winked as she exited the booth.
By the time James thought of a retort, she had already disappeared into the crowd.
Looking back at his tablet, James thought of the advice Fran had given him earlier.
"Give the S-Class Sponsors first refusal."
"Who are you?"
The woman sat by herself in a private booth in the Platinum Bar. In front of her was a glass of water and her sponsor tablet. Her long black hair framed her porcelain white face, and James would have guessed that she was only a few years older than him.
Nox squinted slightly as if she was trying to recall something. Her hand reached towards the tablet on the table before she stopped abruptly.
"Ah, the E-Classer?"
A moment of silence passed between the two of them before Nox spoke abruptly.
"Why are you here?"
Nox crossed her arms and looked James up and down slowly as if to size him up.
"I'm going to be a player in Abidden. That's why I'm here."
This was a complete curve ball to what James had experienced up until now.
Every single sponsor that he had even brushed past had treated him like a royal or celebrity.
Even those who had no intention of sponsoring him, they were still courteous and respectful.
So why was Nox being so difficult with him?
"Do you have any desire to sponsor me?"
James asked lamely.
All of the negotiations up until this point had been incredibly in his favour.
This passive aggressive style wasn't really what he was expecting.
Nox answered before dismissing him completely with her hand.
Glancing at the tablet, James was once again thankful for the information the attendant had given him.
|Visit Nox. Don't back down.|
James wasn't exactly sure what he was supposed to do in this situation. The advice was to not back down, but she hadn't been argumentative with him... just dismissive.
Did he need to goad her into an argument?
As he tried to figure out what to do, Nox glanced up at him.
"You're still here?"
A funny thought suddenly popped into his head.
"I owe you $2,400.00. Would you like me to trade it with you now?"
Pulling up his wrist, he held his hand at the ready to initiate the trade.
Nox looked up at him with an amused expression.
"You owe me money?"
James nodded as he waved his wrist in front of her.
"Yes, $2,400.00. Can we hurry this up? I have other sponsors I need to go and annoy."
Nox rested her elbows on the table and cradled her chin in her palms. Curiosity was written all over her face.
"You're one of my tenants?"
"Formerly. I'm in District 6 now and I've moved away from the Outskirts."
"Aha, so the $800 for rent and the $1,600 breakage fee?"
Nox asked with genuine amusement and James couldn't help be surprised.
"You actually know the rents in the slums?"
She wasn't listening to him though. She brought her wrist up and opened up her terminal.
"I have a number of bad qualities."
Nox began as she flicked through different screens on her wrist. James could see her entering in his surname, and he assumed it was for her to accept his trade.
"One of those bad qualities is that I hate losing."
James looked at her in bewilderment, not sure why she suddenly started to share random facts about herself.
"I think everyone can agree that you're winning... at everything."
James stated the painfully obvious, which only elicited a slight smile from Nox.
"Another bad quality is that I'm quite possessive of things I like."
Standing awkwardly at the edge of the table, James casually looked at the tablet and wondered when it would be appropriate to just walk away from her. By all accounts, she was one of the wealthiest people in the world... reclusive, introverted and ruthless. That was her reputation. James felt like adding the term, 'Weird' to the list.
"I say these things to you, so you can tell me what you would do in my situation."
Nox explained as she left one hand cupping her chin, while the other hand started to tap the surface of the table in a rhythmic succession.
"I was informed to leave you alone. Another S-Class wants you. I genuinely didn't care."
James tried to figure out what was going on, was she talking about Playmates or Nexus Rigs?
"Then I find out that you're my tenant?"
"I was your tenant."
James added awkwardly.
"No, you are my tenant."
Nox tapped her wrist to display his building.
"I just bought it."
James felt his blood run cold. Helena had specifically looked for private housing. James knew for a fact that Nox had nothing to do with that skyscraper.
Was all he could croak out.
Nox simply smiled.
"So as I was saying. I don't like losing things, and I guess being told what I can and can't do... falls into that category."
"You literally bought a fucking building, because I moved out of the slums?"
James felt like he couldn't breathe.
Nox laughed and shook her head.
"No, of course not. I bought it because you're interesting to me. I told you, I'm possessive of things I like."
Taking the tablet in her hand, Nox tapped a few different options before putting it back on the table.
"I'm your Sponsor now, you'll have the full contract details by the time you get home."
James was reeling from all the information and felt his own tablet vibrate.
Sponsorship Partnership - James Sylvester & Nox Holdings
"I normally have contracts ready for more realistic candidates, so I can't give you all the information right now. The deal will be reflective of your current E-Class status and subject to change or review if you happen to improve that status."
Nox continued as she resumed tapping her fingers.
James answered immediately. Whilst there were some very appealing parts of the contract, it would throw him into further debt.
Nox looked at him for a few seconds before a predatory smile appeared on her face.
"Do I need to explain again about how I don't like to lose?"
James opened his mouth to answer, but Nox continued.
"Or should I explain why it's typically a bad idea to piss off the richest person in the room?"
Whatever he was about to say disappeared upon hearing that sentence.
"I'd much prefer we did this the easier way... so how about you tell me what you want, and I'll see how it stacks up against what I need?"
Nox added as though she was offering him an olive branch.
"Before the negotiations start... I have to ask, why are you doing this for me? I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with me being a former tenant, you've millions of those."
James asked genuinely and wondered if he'd finally get a straight answer from the property mogul.
Nox spread her hands on the table and looked James in the eye.
"A sponsor wanted for you to have absolutely no options, so you'd be forced to crawl to them and beg for their help."
James' eyes widened at those words and he felt like he already knew exactly who was behind it.
Nox put him out of his misery.
"To be honest, sponsoring you feels right. Pissing off Sarah Dryksell is just an added bonus."
"I should have known it would be her."
James muttered, but his attention was snapped back to the tapping of fingers against the table.
Nox smiled at him again.
"Forget about her, you're in the middle of the biggest negotiation of your life."