Smacked with Facts


Eventually, Trent felt the van slowing down. He hadn’t paid much attention during the drive. There was a lot on his mind, and he was spending significant focus on containing his nerves. It had taken an effort of will to keep his gorge down for the first half of the ride.

He glanced up as he felt the vehicle decelerate further. The van drove through a large gate and parked in front of a huge building that looked part office building, part mansion. Trent shook his head and woke from his near meditative state. The female guard who’d been driving got out and opened Trent’s door for him. The male guard was holding some sort of medical pack to his bloody shoulder.

“That looks like it hurts like hell, Rich,” the woman said, wincing in sympathy.

“Yeah, I’m gonna head to the medic. You got this, Stace?” asked the big, dark man.

“No doubt. Not only that, you just literally took a bullet for us. Go do what you gotta do. I’ll tell the captain what went down.”

The man, Rich, moved off. Trent watched him go. That is one tough son of a bitch, he thought. The woman began leading Trent to the front of the building.

The woman said, “You probably have a lot of questions. Everything happened so fast I didn’t even get a chance to introduce myself. I’m Stacy. You already met Richard. Please hold your questions until we get inside. It will be quicker that way, I promise.”

Trent mutely nodded and followed her inside to a waiting room. Somehow, Stacy produced a towel from somewhere and handed it over. Trent immediately understood; he wiped all the blood off his face and handed it back. The blonde guard nodded in approval. Trent got the idea she didn’t like to waste time with pointless talking.

Stacy folded up the dirty towel and disappeared down a side hallway while Trent tried to calm his badly frayed nerves. He used his persocomp to pull up a simple minigame that overlaid his vision, then proceeded to metaphorically turn his brain off for a while.

He didn’t want to think about people in class crowding him, or his SOO skills working in a completely different digital environment, or getting shot at.

At least his gaming probably helped. Even as freaked out as he was, he had a feeling others would have been handling it worse. SOO felt so real and he had dealt with so many terrifying situations in-game, he sort of already had a coping mechanism in place.

His thoughts were interrupted when an attractive young woman in business casual clothing and wooden glasses cleared her throat to get his attention. “Excuse me,” she said. “Your friend has arrived so if you’d like, I can move you to another lobby where he’s located.”

Trent frowned. Who the hell is she talking about? “Uh, sure,” he answered. He got up and followed the woman down a hallway he hadn’t seen earlier. The building was huge. As they walked, he studied the woman and realized she was probably only a year or two older than he was.

As she walked, the woman’s skirt hugged her curves, and Trent liked what he saw. He absently thought about how Steve would probably just focus on the back of her head to not be rude. He didn’t see eye to eye with his friend. Trent refused to feel bad for checking out the woman’s booty.

As they walked, he realized that he should at least try to make an effort to be social. It was tempting to just watch her sway some more, but he shook himself and asked, “So what’s your name?”

The woman glanced around and smiled. Her teeth flashed white and her dark hair shimmered. “My name is Florinia. I’d ask for yours, but I obviously already know who you are.”

“Yeah, probably both my real and in-game name,” Trent grumbled. Florinia laughed, and the sound rang like the tinkling of bells. Trent was feeling depressed again, so much so he didn’t even check Florinia out anymore. His life had truly exploded.

And people had really even tried to kill him. What the fuck?

After another couple minutes, Florinia led Trent into a new waiting room. As soon as they walked through the door, he got hit by over two hundred pounds of man hug. Trent’s first reaction was to go for the eyes, but then he realized it was Steve and relaxed. He briefly returned the hug and then stepped back.

Florinia said, “It shouldn’t be too much longer. You can both attend the meeting together. It won’t be far from here.” Trent nodded at her as she glided away. She seemed very athletic, especially with how easily she moved on her heels. He wondered if she played soccer or something.

Trent glanced back and saw Steve shaking his head. “Dude,” he said, “you look like a starving wolf. If you’d stop acting like a creeper, maybe you’d have a girlfriend.”

“Whatever. I don’t have time for a girlfriend unless she plays SOO, and most gamer chicks suck ass at real games.”

“Real games?” Steve lifted an eyebrow.

“You know, games where you need to think fast or actually do something complicated.”

“So you consider SOO to be a ‘real’ game, right?” asked Steve.

“Of course, duh.”

“Well, Abbey doesn’t suck, not by a long shot,” Steve replied. “She has helped us out a lot.”

“She’s not my type.”

“That wasn’t my point.” Steve frowned and said, “Her existence is at least an exception to your rule, if not entirely debunking it. SOO is a game where you can artificially increase your stats. A chick can kill you in the game just as easily as a dude, and probably will if you don’t get your head straight. You should take this more seriously.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I’ll let Brutus know to watch out the next time I see him. That is, if he doesn’t kill me immediately. I’m sure he’s just shaking in his sixty-pound boots about some Utena wannabe duelist chick.”

Steve gave Trent a side-eyed look. “First, I didn’t catch that reference. Second, for such a smart guy, you can be really dense sometimes…and an ass; probably more ass than dense, actually.”

Trent groaned. Steve was a great guy, but sometimes he could be a nag. His life goal seemed to be to save Trent from himself or something. The irony was that Steve looked so much like the type of guy who should be receiving advice, not giving it.

Trent shook his head and said, “You know what, fuck this. I got shot at and my life was ruined today. I’m not in the mood to be lectured.”

Steve held out his hands and said, “Okay, okay, I’m just glad you’re alright.”

After a slight pause, Trent asked, “So what do you think this meeting is about?”

Steve grimaced. “Well, I kind of figured with your streaming contract and my own contract—”

“What, you have a contract?”

Steve blinked. “Yeah, you’re going to have cameras on you in-game all the time now. Abbey and I are part of your group, so we’ll have cameras on us, too. Streaming companies basically need to have contracts with a full streaming group so they don’t open themselves up to lawsuit. My terms aren’t as good as yours, but they’re still very generous.”

“I had no idea.”

“Trent, you have blind spots a mile wide,” Steve sighed. “You know, you can do these amazing things like put together the World Tree puzzle, and even actually get there in-game, all while being broke and low level. Meanwhile, you totally miss real-world stuff like this.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Trent grumbled.

“Anyway,” Steve continued, “I think this meeting is probably about us getting pulled out of school and about our future security. They might be moving us to this building, who knows.”

“Wait, what? Pulled out of school? What are you talking about?”

Steve gave Trent a level look. “You think getting shot at every day will be a good college experience? What happens if they crash through into your room? You got lucky. I think we all did. It seems they didn’t know who I was yet, thank God.”

“But this doesn’t make sense,” Trent said, violently shaking his head. “My contract is going to give me less money than I’d make out of college after I get my degree. Why the hell is everyone so excited? Like…someone just tried to kill me over, what, a grand a month or something!?”

Steve gave him a strange look. “You think our first paycheck is going to be like… a few grand?”

“Yeah, divided biweekly, too, right?”

Steve shook his head and grinned. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” he said. He headed over to a side table and started rummaging around, eventually producing a piece of paper.

“What are you do—?”

“Just wait,” Steve said, smiling. He wrote something on the paper with a pen and then folded it up. He slipped the paper across the little table and said, “This is how much I’m expecting to make on my first paycheck, and I will be making less than you.”

Trent felt skeptical. He walked forward to grab the paper. He didn’t understand why Steve was making such a show out of the matter.

Even if he could make two or three times the monthly stipend in his contract, it wouldn’t be enough to quit school over. It wasn’t like he could play games the rest of his life, or even be popular forever, and—

Trent opened the paper and threw up in his mouth a little.

He coughed and said, “This is more than my parents make in a year. A lot more, in fact.”

Steve was obviously enjoying himself. “Yup. You don’t pay enough attention. It seems like if it’s not school or gaming, you just don’t get into details. Maybe it’s a focus thing, I don’t know. Dude, do you know how many millions of people are going to be watching your very first stream? And what’s more, that number will probably grow. Hell, if viewers stay interested enough in us, we could get action figures.”

“Of course I knew it was going to be a lot of people, but…action figures?” Trent felt light headed. He hadn’t truly understood how much money in advertising there was, or how much his little percentage would pay him.

“Yes, action figures. Streaming is a huge business. Some stream channels get more views than popular tele shows or even movies. You just don’t get it. If we’re popular enough, they may make games about us, and we’ll get a percentage of that profit, too.”

“Huh,” said Trent. He didn’t know what else to say. He was going to be rich.

“Thing is, some countries, especially the corrupt or poor ones, also have their own streamers. Someone tried to take you out today probably so you couldn’t become super popular and possibly steal viewers. Streaming is a huge industry. People will kill over it.

“Plus, if they kill you, nobody will know where the World Tree is anymore and other streamers will have a chance at it too.”

“I just, I didn’t know…” Trent whispered.

“Oh yeah, I almost forgot,” Steve said. “Abigail wanted to know if she could move closer to us. She wanted to make sure you wouldn’t get weirded out. Vermillion Entertainment will probably put her up somewhere for her protection, and she thinks she might end up by herself. It would be pretty lonely.”

“Yeah, sure, why would I ca—” Trent stopped and held a finger up in the air. He slowly said, “This was why she really wanted to be in my group, huh?”

Steve sighed, “Of course. Who doesn’t want to get rich and have fun doing it? Plus, she’s probably ABI, and probably felt bad about stealing some of your privacy. Plus from some of the conversations I’ve had with her, I get the impression her family has bills and she needs the money.”

“Wait, Abigail is ABI? I took a look at her character sheet, remember? She doesn’t have any stealth abilities.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Dude, you are hell on wheels in a duel and you’re probably the greatest Occultist in the game right now, but you can get terrible tunnel vision. You can’t think of other players through the lens of your class. Abbey can make machines and such. How hard do you think it would be for her to create something to help stay hidden? Hell, she could keep it with all the crap hanging off her outfit.

“I mean, she was on your stagecoach when you first met her. Even if she didn’t have any stealth abilities and isn’t actually ABI, she’s still obviously good at finding a target, tracking them, and staying unseen. She’s like a ninja in lacey steampunk clothes…with lots of guns.”

Trent’s mouth dropped open. He wasn’t used to feeling stupid, but this conversation had been particularly painful. The big shit-eating grin that Steve was giving him wasn’t helping. Then again, he’d much rather be made fun of by his best friend than be shot at in a parking lot. Perspective was a hell of a thing.

He would seriously need to keep an eye on Abigail, though.

Suddenly, a door opened and Florinia called, “Please follow me! Mr. Vermillion can see you now.”

Trent automatically began walking to the door but missed a step when he thought, Mr. Vermillion? Like, the CEO?

What is up with this day?


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