Kat stood at the counter fretting under harsh fluorescent lights. Jamal, her supervisor was in the back room reviewing inventory numbers, leaving her to handle the convenience store on her own.
Second shift wasn’t Kat’s favorite, but when the corporation assigned her the job to help ‘pay down her ledger’ while she was still in school, no one bothered to ask her opinion. Soon, she would be contacted by headhunters looking to place her in a more appropriate permanent position with the company, but until then she was stuck watching a pair of teenagers browse through a selection of bright and sugary drinks made by the company.
Theoretically, she was supposed to be watching them because there was an off chance that they might try to shoplift the soda. Given that the teens were already logged into the system by the sensors mounted at the door that had already identified them by the lanyards that all employees were required to wear around their necks, Kat doubted that she would have something that fun happen.
Instead, more than a little bored by the dull shift, she called their publicly available information up on the smartglass screen that covered her left eye. For security purposes.
Danny Ames and Jessica Stillworth, tenth year students attending her school with slightly better than average grades. Danny worked at a movie theater and Jessica was a delivery girl, transporting goods too fragile for the drones that handled most courier work.
A flick of Kat’s pupil pulled up the next set of pages on the two of them. Before long she found herself browsing their social media pages. From the composition and lighting on some of the selfies, it looked like Jessica had a talent for photography. Unfortunately, like everyone else in the bottom floors of the arcology her ledger was in the red.
Kat doubted that she’d ever get a chance to really pursue that passion. In all likelihood, Jessica had two years of temporary work and schooling before she was assigned to a factory. There was just something about twelve hours of dangerous work in a hot and loud environment that killed someone’s ability to relax and pursue hobbies at the end of the day.
That was the story of her mother. She tried her hardest, but raising two children on her own was beyond her. Kat did her best to help with raising her sister. Before she turned ten, Kat knew how to change a diaper and reheat a frozen meal. Even with her help, most days their mother would stagger home exhausted after a long day at work and simply sink into the apartment’s sole ratty couch, unable to do much more than blankly stare at their modest smartglass until it was time for dinner and bed.
Kat blinked, minimizing the display as the two customers approached the counter carrying handfuls of snacks. She quickly scanned the food and their lanyards, adding the debts to their ledger and marking the purchases against their weekly spending limit.
They hurried out of the store, joking and giggling together, either unaware or numb to the fact that their purchase was one yet another tiny but inexorable step toward eternal corporate indenture.
Although she tried to limit her purchases, many of Kat’s classmates couldn’t say the same. To them, the idea of paying off their ledger was laughable. They were born into debt, and they would die there. The only number that genuinely mattered to them was their weekly spending limit. Everything else was a nonsensical abstraction.
The door chimed and Kat’s breath caught in her throat as Arnold walked in. He always looked out of place in the dingy convenience store, but today his outfit made it especially jarring. On the first couple levels of the arcology, everyone wore cheap and bright clothing covered in garish logos. Arnold’s designer jacket and a set of newish slacks might not set him apart in Java Bounty, but here it was like seeing an alien.
“Kat!” He called out, face brightening as he saw her working the counter.
“Arnold,” she smiled back as he hurried over to her. Today wouldn’t be the first night that he came to visit while she was supposed to be working, and although it was against corporate regulation, Jamal wouldn’t care unless she neglected a customer or fell behind on her work.
“Is now a good time?” Arnold asked, looking around the empty store before leaning on the counter in front of her.
“The store’s dead,” Kat shrugged. “The corporation’s demographics say that a store of our size needs to be open twenty four hours a day, but I don’t see it. We have two people working here and I’ve seen maybe six customers all night. I don’t have a fancy degree in profit analysis, but I really don’t see the cost/benefit of keeping a couple people on site when there’s literally nothing for us to do.”
Arnold winced when she heard him mention the degree.
“Look,” he began, his face scrunched into a sour expression. “I know that getting passed over for the corporate college slot was a sore spot for you.”
“Maybe a year ago,” Kat sighed. “It isn’t fair, but what is? Mom told me that I only try to control what’s within my grasp and that I should ignore everything else, and for all her faults, it was some good advice.”
“You should be mad,” Arnold hissed, his eyes flashing. “No one at our school worked harder than you. Anna and I don’t have debt so we weren’t assigned jobs. Meanwhile you worked two, one illegal and one uh.”
Kat couldn’t help but notice how cute Arnold was when he gulped nervously. There was something about the way his eyes scanned the room while his cheeks flushed in agitation that called out to her.
“One questionably legal one,” he continued, the euphemism lifeless as it fell off his tongue. “Despite that you got better grades than anyone in the school, and still Anna and I got your slot just by virtue of who our parents are.”
“Don’t you mean that Anna got my slot?” Kat asked, a mischievous smirk on her face. “I seem to recall that you managed to snag first place. You earned your place at the college, she’s the one that stepped on my back to get there.”
Arnold looked nervous for a second, playing with a button on the cuff of his jacket as if internally debating something. Finally, his expression cleared, as if he’d come to some decision.
“Do you remember that favor you promised,” he whispered his voice warm and urgent as he leaned toward her. “I think I have a good idea for what you can do.”
Kat flushed as her mind raced through possibilities.
“You know how you’re a runner right?” Arnold’s question was awkward and forced.
“Yes,” her response was equally leaden. He wanted something professional then. Not-
“I’m not going to college,” he rushed the words out. “Look, I know you’re going to think that this is a dumb idea, but an opportunity came up and I had to take it.”
“Arnold Jacques," Kat wasn’t whispering anymore, her voice taking on the tone she used on her sister when the little brat misbehaved. “After everything you’ve worked for, how in the hell could you just throw aside college? College means management Arnold. I try not to be a downer about it, but things aren’t great for non-managers. This is important Arnold.”
“I had a broker offer me a subscription,” Arnold blurted, his eyes pleading with Kat. “I know exactly how much management means, but a subscription is something different.”
“I could be a player Kat,” his eyes flashed as he whispered excitedly. “Powerful enough players get to leave the arcology. I know I have things good compared to a lot of employees, but this is my chance. I could mean something.”
“How much,” Kat crossed her arms, noting the suddenly sheepish expression on Arnold’s face. “Brokers don’t work for free and black market subscriptions to Somnus are some of the most expensive products out there. They don’t even trust freelancers like me to carry them because most brokers are afraid that we’ll simply take the subscription and disappear.”
“Everything I had on me,” Arnold shifted uncomfortably, “but it was worth it. I’ve been playing the last couple of days and the game is amazing.”
“How.” Kat enunciated every word. “Much. Did. You. Pay.”
“My dad had just transferred my college tuition into my account,” Arnold responded weakly. “I just need to raise a level or two and he’ll be fine once I tell him where the money went.”
“Oh my God Arnold,” the blood left Kat’s face as she took a step backwards. “That’s over one hundred thousand credits. I know that subscriptions are expensive but-”
“Wait,” she cut herself off and squinted at Arnold. “You haven’t told your father how you’ve spent his money yet, have you?”
“No,” Arnold dragged the word out uncomfortably. “If I’ve learned anything from him, it's that if you disobey the order of a superior, don’t bother to present your findings unless you have something to show for it. I’ll let him know what I did once I have an ability or something. Until then, it’s best if he thinks I’m attending college next term according to plan.”
“God Arnold,” Kat shook her head in bemusement, her arms crossed in front of her chest. “Why even bother to study for the aptitude test and take first if you knew that you weren’t going to college anyway?”
“Because Anna’s been a bitch to you,” he replied bitterly. “I can’t say or do anything about it either, but don’t think it makes me happy. If all I can do to help you is score a petty win in some meaningless academic records, it’s the least I can do to make up for my silence.”
Warmth filled Kat and her expression melted. She knew that she should still be mad at Arnold for wrecking his future, but there was something about his earnest puppy dog expression that disarmed her completely.
“But what if you die in game?” She asked, her tone softer. “Each subscription is only good for one avatar and the powers that go with it. If you get killed, everything is over and you have to start from scratch. Even then, you would still need to get another subscription. I don’t suppose you have another hundred thousand credits laying around?”
“I’ll be careful,” he placed a hand over his heart, trying to placate her. “Look, that’s why I’m here anyway. I know that this is a huge risk, but it’s not like it hasn’t already started to pay dividends.”
Kat just stared at him, a single eyebrow raised and her arms still crossed. If he had an actual justification for his actions, Arnold would let her know.
“You see,” he scratched the back of his neck, embarrassed. “Somnus involves a lot more fighting than I thought. Everyone hears the stories about the master crafters climbing level after level, but without a megacorp supporting you, that just doesn’t happen.”
“My dad has taken me to the gun range a couple of times,” Arnold shrugged sheepishly, “and I know my way around a forty cal pistol, but there aren’t any guns in Somnus. Right now I’m fighting things with a sword, and I’ve almost cut my hands off four times in three days.”
“Everything you’re saying is filling me with confidence in your decision,” Kat interjected dryly. “You aren’t filling me with hope at your prospects of ascending past the first floor.”
“But that’s why I need you Kat,” his voice was breathy. Urgent and pleading. “I got lucky on my second day and came across an injured elite monster. I killed it and it managed to drop another subscription.”
Her sarcastic response caught in her throat. Kat’s eyes widened. Was he-
“I need someone I can trust Kat,” Arnold grabbed her right hand in both of his. “I know that you can fight, and you won’t leave me high and dry.”
“Please,” he begged, his eyes drilling into her. “If I give you the subscription will you form a team with me? I’m never going to make it to level two without some help, and if I don’t manage to ascend a level before college is supposed to start I won’t have anything to show my dad.”
“But Arnold,” Kat replied weakly. “You just bought a subscription for one hundred thousand credits. It’s too much money, there’s no way I’d be able pay you back for that. Like, in my entire lifetime.”
“I can’t sell it Kat,” he shook his head, curly brown hair flopping to either side. “The corporation frowns on buying things from the black market, but selling things to the black market is another matter entirely. My entire family could be fired if I sold it.”
She opened her mouth to demur again, but Arnold shook his head, cutting her off.
“Think of it as a gift Kat,” his brilliant smile stole her breath. “One that I need to give you if you’re going to do that favor for me.”
Warmth traveled up Kat’s arm from where Arnold held her hand. Her nerves sang and tingled as something triggered them. Then a wave of vertigo hit her, causing the room to wobble and spin as whatever was happening assaulted her brain.
It stopped as quickly as it started, leaving Kat disoriented and stunned. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but something deep inside told Kat that she was a player now. First level and unclassed.
She blinked at Arnold in confusion, opening her mouth to say something. Kat didn’t even know what to say. Hell, what was she supposed to say? Thank him for the gift? Curse him out for the invasion of privacy by forcing the subscription on her? Make a joke?
“The favor is pretty simple Kat,” Arnold let go of her hand and stepped back from the counter. “I need help climbing the tower, and I’d like you to be that help.”
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night