Trent woke up from his nap and immediately started checking out the gaming forums. He was really behind on the latest gossip and who’s who for SOO. His stomach dropped a bit when he saw what he’d been dreading. The hype for Vale DePardon’s new stream was at a fever pitch.
The night before, Steve had come over with the food Trent had asked him to bring in-game. They’d talked about the implications of what the group had found and Steve had asked for advice on how he should continue building his character, Bartholomew.
Trent had seen the exchange between Steve’s character and Abbey in-game, the little side comment. He was expecting Steve to ask him a question, probably an uncomfortable one. His friend didn’t say anything, though.
Trent slammed an energy drink and ate a few potato chips while burning through the forums. Things were looking bad. The Lords of Finality were trying to put a positive spin on their encounter with Vale. However, they were having a tough time, since the stream clearly showed them getting their asses kicked by a little steampunk girl.
Trent pinched his nose and sighed. The biggest news was about the Secret of the Old Ones, the item. The players online were calling it a Monarch Stone. A tiny handful of players so far had found crystals that would change them into another race. So far there’d been one undead player and a couple Abyssal Ones, the creepy fish people in SOO.
Players in the forums were guessing that the Secret of the Old Ones crystal was worth over ten million dollars. The number made Trent’s eyes bulge. How could a digital item cost so much?
His first reaction upon seeing the projected value was that clueless people were just tossing random numbers around. However, upon further research, he saw actual businesses making public announcements about buying the purple Monarch Stone.
Trent didn’t know what to do. Eventually, he pried himself from the forums, ordering his persocom to display his schedule. The Vermillion Entertainment rep had informed him that his guard detail would arrive in a couple hours. Trent thought the whole thing was a little over the top.
He just needed a little protection, not a full-time guard!
His contract only stipulated he would receive something around one thousand dollars US and a percentage of advertising revenue. He’d also get a percentage of endorsements or something. He hadn’t really paid attention. The main reason he had gone with the streaming company was to cover his ass in case anyone found out who he was in real life.
However, so far, it didn’t seem anyone had. In fact, even in-game, things were quieting down. He wondered if he’d made a good decision by going with Vermillion or not.
He shrugged and took a shower. He didn’t leave his dorm very often anymore, but Vermillion told him his security detail would want to scope out his area and maybe visit his physical school campus. Why they wanted to, Trent had no clue.
His persocomp informed him that he had a class right before his security detail arrived. He sighed. He hated having such a full schedule.
After getting showered and dressed, Trent logged into his school network and found himself in his personal, neon-lit loading room. His loading room had been gradually evolving since his early teen years, and some of his old teen angst still remained. He chuckled at the posters on the walls and random weapons residing on flat surfaces.
Trent smiled and walked through the doorway into his classroom.
Class hadn’t started yet, and different groups of students were talking in groups as he arrived. Trent usually didn’t talk to many people other than the handful of other gamers and…Something was wrong. It seemed like every eye in the room was tracking him as he entered. Conversation stopped.
One of the girls in class tittered to her friend before walking over to Trent. He blinked. Girls in class never randomly came to talk to him. He wasn’t afraid to talk to people or anything, he just didn’t see a point when they were all in a virtual classroom.
The girl, Trent thought her name might be Becky, asked, “Are you Trent Noguero?”
Trent frowned. “Yeah. I’ve been in this classroom for months. Why do you even need to ask?”
The girl blushed, her persocomp translating her normal physical reactions to her current emotional state in the simulated world. “No reason to be a dick about it,” she muttered. “Anyway, is it true that the Monarch Stone is worth over ten million dollars?”
Trent’s heart dropped. “What are you talking about?”
The girl smiled and tucked her hair behind her ear. “I guess you haven’t seen the newsletter, huh?”
Trent blinked again and immediately ordered his persocomp to bring up the daily newsletter. He skimmed until he found it. The article was fairly self-explanatory. It read, “Vale DePardon… our very own Trent Noguero?” The writer was anonymous. The side-by-side portraits comparing Trent to his character didn’t prove anything for sure, but he knew his anonymity was gone.
Whoever had written the article had even included an old student body survey where Trent stated he played SOO for fun. Nothing in the article was conclusive, but the points it raised would be enough for most people.
Trent’s thoughts grew wild as he stared at the article. He should have radically changed his appearance or created a female character or something. When he rolled his character, he couldn’t imagine actually looking down and seeing boobs. He wasn’t sure how he’d react to actually being a girl in-game, either. However, that was before he’d started becoming one of the most famous gamers in the world!
He backed away slowly. Even the professor was just watching from the corner. He had no allies here. He took another step back, ready to turn and flee to the log point at the back of the classroom, but someone grabbed his arm. It was a big guy; Trent vaguely remembered his name was Tony. “Hey, how about you tell me how to get to the World Tree?” he leered. “I’ll give you a grand right now if you do.”
Another man grabbed Trent’s shoulder and said, “Hey, buddy, why the rush? You don’t mind telling your class where you found that Monarch Stone, right? There are still a few out there, after all.”
Trent kept trying to back up, but the entire class seemed to be surrounding him. He was panicking. He didn’t like being around this many people in the first place, and they were pressing in. They all seemed to be talking at once. They all wanted something.
Trent closed his eyes. He felt hands all over him. They were restraining him. He couldn’t move. “Let me go!” he yelled…and cast <Gust>. A blast of wind bowled over all the students near him, pushing them away. The professor at the front of the room gasped. His jaw dropped, and the pen he’d been holding fell a few inches before hovering in midair. The VR classroom didn’t allow items to fall to the floor.
“Let me go,” Trent said again more quietly. This shouldn’t be possible, he thought. He was using skills from a completely unrelated game within his virtual classroom. It didn’t make any sense. He shook his head, deciding he could think about it later, and ran to the room’s access point. Doing so would log him out several times faster than through his persocomp alone.
Back in his room, he gasped awake and heard pounding on his door. Mind still in disarray, Trent padded to the door and asked, “Who is it?” His voice sounded a little shrill to his own ears.
“Vermillion Entertainment Security,” said the muffled voice outside the door. Trent used his persocomp to see through the exterior camera outside the door. He saw a man and a woman wearing suits.
The man was big and dark-skinned with close cropped hair. He barely fit his jacket. He looked like a linebacker. His dark suit and dark sunglasses made him seem intimidating before Trent even registered his size. The man looked like he bench-pressed firetrucks for fun.
The woman was a little taller than Trent, so definitely tall for a woman. She was built like a volleyball player. She had tan skin, blue eyes, and dark blonde hair. She wore the same type of suit as the man but tailored for her, and she wore different shoes. Instead of dark dress shoes, she had on faux heels; her pants were hemmed up to show her ankles.
Both the man and the woman looked like they were in their early forties, but extremely fit. Just standing there, they seemed to exude a “don’t fuck with me” vibe.
“Uh, how do I know you’re really with Vermillion?” Trent wasn’t taking any chances.
“You mean other than the fact we’re talking to you through the door instead of kicking it down?” The man’s voice was amused. “The passcode you gave us to meet with was, ‘Swish and Flick.’”
“Okay, you guys are legit,” Trent muttered. He opened the door and the two security personnel funneled into his tiny dorm.
The female guard suddenly turned her head, looking at something nobody else could see. She was probably conferring with her persocomp’s overlay. “Wait, Rich, we’re here early.”
“What?” asked the man. He turned looked at his own overlay. “Trent, weren’t you supposed to be in class right now? I mean, it doesn’t matter anymore, but that was one thing we came to talk about.”
“Uhhh…” said Trent lamely, “there is an article in the school newspaper that basically outs me as Vale.”
“What?” said the woman. Her voice was sharp enough to cut steel. The man and woman’s heads swiveled to look at him, and Trent suddenly got the feeling they were both very scary people.
“We need to move now! Alert HQ.”
“On it,” said the woman.
With that, the two suits began rushing Trent down the hallway toward the parking lot. He tried to slow down, asking, “Hey what about my—?”
“We will get it later,” said the woman. “Everything will be taken care of. Don’t worry, our job is to make you comfortable.”
“What the…?” Trent didn’t know what else to say. He’d hired on as a streamer for protection, but this was ridiculous. They were treating him like he was a VIP or something.
The man was on his left and the woman on his right when they emerged from the building at a trot. Suddenly, Trent heard some popping noises. It sounded kind of like cans getting run over by a car. He began looking around to figure out where the noises were coming from, but the woman forced his head down. “Stay low!” she yelled.
Nearby, a car’s window exploded before the car door developed a couple holes. Another car’s alarm began screaming. Trent finally understood. We’re getting shot at! Trent’s first reaction was to panic. However, then he remembered his time in SOO. He actually knew what to do.
He ducked down low and began following his guards’ lead, not fighting them anymore. “My car is over there!” he yelled, pointing.
The woman had a pistol in one hand and was silently moving her lips, probably communicating with someone via her persocomp. She briefly glanced at Trent and shook her head. “Too dangerous. We’re leaving it.”
Trent wanted to argue but decided to just let it go. The entire situation was bizarre. Someone was obviously trying to kill him, but he was so hopped up on adrenaline he didn’t feel much fear. More than anything, he just wanted to know what the hell was going on.
After staying low, a few more lines of cars later and he finally realized where they were heading. His guards were making a beeline for a big black van. There was a gap between the last car and the van, though. The big male guard yelled, “We’ll have to run for it.”
The woman nodded and so did Trent. The next thing Trent knew, he was sitting in the van while they drove on the highway. He felt dazed. He touched his face and looked at his fingers as they came away red. I have blood on my face.
He tried to fight through the fog to remember what had happened. With difficulty, recalled that the male guard had been shielding him and got shot in the shoulder. Trent slowly blinked. His nerves began to make his body shake. He felt like he would puke.
What the fuck is going on? I’m just a gamer!
Trent concentrated on taking deep breaths and wondered how a single day could so thoroughly destroy his entire life. He needed to plan his next moves, but before that, he needed answers.
For the moment, he concentrated on just breathing regularly and being thankful he was still alive.