Samantha - Present
I close the job board application window hovering in my apartment living room. My wet hair drips down my back and I glance over at the empty container of mooshu pork, still empty. I’m ninety percent sure I’m going to order again -- these VR units do give you nutrients, but every time I come back to reality I’m starving.
My AI announces, “Incoming call from Mommy Dreadful.”
I rub my eyes, might as well get it over with.
Mom’s avatar appears in my room. She looks terrible. Dark blue bags under her eyes and a tightness at the corner of her eyes tugs at my chest, maybe I shouldn’t have been so harsh before. She’s worried. “Samantha! Please tell me you haven’t been playing games this whole time. Everything I’ve done the past ten years is for you to have a chance as a Professional, instead of sinking Below, staying out of the sun and subsisting like so many others in your generation.”
I sigh. “Is that really so bad, Mom? I’d live, right? Maybe even have fun?”
“Yes, it would be terrible! You’d never contribute to society, you wouldn’t grow, you wouldn’t travel, you’d miss out on so much of life outside of these fake worlds people created to entertain the masses. Please, baby, don’t fall into that trap.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ve already applied to a dozen new jobs. My ranking took a hit after getting fired from this one, but it should still be plenty good enough to get a new job.”
“You got fired?”
“I told you there was no salvaging that job, Helga my boss was focused on firing me. I think she was stealing but I can’t prove it. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it’s over. Can you please just stop leaving me messages many times a day? I’m getting a new job, I’m not turning into a full-time UBI gamer.”
Mom takes a deep breath, “Ok. I’m sorry, baby, but I have to do what is best for you, even if it’s annoying. I’ll get out of your hair, especially if you call me first and tell me how the job hunt is going!”
“Thanks, Mom. Back to the job hunt! Bye.”
I close the call.
My AI announces, “Incoming call from Robert.”
Oh. My. God. My heart rate picks up and I can feel the blood rush to my face. I run to the mirror in the bathroom and pat my hair into place, putting on just a touch of lipstick and a light makeup layer in record time.
Roberts handsome brown-haired face appears in front of me.
“Hi, Sammy! Sorry, I went dark there, I got sucked into this awesome new game, Incrementum. Have you heard of it?”
“What? My AI said you were blocking my calls...”
“Oh...I blocked everyone’s calls as soon as I started playing, the game is that good!”
“You got so caught up in the game you couldn’t meet me at La Rouge?”
Robert’s face looks confused. It’s a familiar expression.
“The date at the restaurant we were supposed to have three weeks ago?” I say.
“Right, yes I tried it before dinner and just lost track of time. Sorry.”
“...so you’ve been doing nothing but playing this game for almost four weeks? What about midterms?”
“Exactly! I got so caught up in coming up with this breakthrough melee fighting style that I totally forgot about everything. I’m really sorry Sammy, do you think you could help me get ready for midterms?”
God, no. Breakthrough melee style? Has Robert always been this stupid and I was too desperate to see it?
“What breakthrough melee style are you talking about Robert?”
“Jaws, hand-jaws. I had a blacksmith make custom handheld weapons, kind of like a bear trap on your hands, that I use to grapple, bite and tear enemies with. I’m still fine tuning it, but when I get in close I bite the enemy down to size, literally.” He reaches towards and makes biting motions with both hands.
I look at the floor and rub my forehead.
“How do you get in close, Robert?”
“Well, most of the time I only get in close if someone else is distracting them, but when I do, man, I tear them up!”
I’m so embarrassed. David’s been right this whole time. Robert is an idiot, and he’s just using me for help with school.
“You’re an idiot. I’ve been trying to ‘win’ you back for weeks now, and you’ve just been playing games? That’s the most inconsiderate thing I’ve ever heard of. And your revolutionary play style is complete garbage. My team killed you a few hours ago. I was the giantess with the staff. If you have really been playing for three weeks, and you’re only level twenty, and you have to have someone else distract an enemy for your play style to work at all, you’re terrible at Incrementum. Screw you for playing a game instead of meeting me for our date, and then blocking me for over three weeks, if that’s really what you’ve been doing. I’m not your tutor I’m supposed to be your girlfriend. UGH, I’m done with you. AI, block Robert.” I say.
His avatar disappears.
What a giant turd! And how gullible am I for going out with him this whole time?
A quick series of knocking sounds comes from the door to my apartment. Who does that anymore?
I walk to the door and open it. Dan’s smile greets me, his face is exactly the same as in-game. Next to him, stands a grey-haired woman with a blue spiral cane, silver dragonfly hair clip and a perfectly tailored blue and grey pantsuit. Her pale blue eyes stare straight through me. She thumps her cane on the floor once, and leans forward, prompting me to do something?
Oh, “Please, come in.”
“Don’t feel bad Samantha, she has that effect on people. This is my boss Francine Bloom.”
I step back and let Dan and Francine walk past me. My small living room is big enough for me but with the three of us, and not holograms, I’m a little uncomfortable. Francine stares at me again, raising her eyebrows.
I just shrug, “What? I don’t know what you want me to do, we don’t go to etiquette class anymore. It’s 2051.”
Dan clears his throat, clasping the wrist of one arm with the other before he says “Typically when you invite guests into your home you offer them something to drink and a place to sit.”
I roll my eyes, “Fine, would you two like anything to drink? Please, sit on the only thing you can sit on, my couch.”
“Thank you. I would like a water.” Francine says. She sits and crosses one leg over the other with an annoyingly straight back.
I stifle another eye roll, walk to the kitchen and fill a glass with water.
I hand Francine her water and say, “Why are you two here?”
“First, I’m sorry for my earlier behavior. I have not been myself lately. After my husband’s passing, the thought of losing even the small village of Athens was like losing him again. It is not an excuse but an explanation,” Francine says.
I break eye contact with her and kick the ground, and say “Uh, yes, I heard...Sorry for your loss.” Lame, but what am I supposed to say.
“Second, “ Francine continues, nodding her head at my awkward platitude, “thank you for leading the team to dispatch Null. Dan related your adventures to me. It is clear that your direction and individual efforts carried the day. Well done. Can you please divulge how you got Null to cancel his quest? Did you kill him? It does not seem like just his death would cause the quest to end but my quest completed, indicating we are out of danger.”
I nod and say, “I nearly died after Null killed Dan, but it turns out that Bonesy, the mouthy skull, is composed of ferromagnetic materials. My boons let me shunt electricity into Bonesy, causing him to become magnetic. Once I shunted enough electricity into him, he stuck to Null’s sword, making it unusable. Then it was my staff vs. an unusable sword. Before the final blow, I gave Null two options. The first option was that I killed him, and looted his body, taking the sword and breastplate, or maybe just one if the game only lets me take one, leaving him behind the curve on equipment and setting him back on his ultimate goal to be the greatest player in Incrementum. The second option was that I killed him but did not loot his body, and he canceled his quest and swore to fight for Athens for one full day, up to three times at any time in the future, with at least a week’s notice. I hope you congratulated Doc, Dan, Kuruk and Leonard as well -- especially Doc -- I wouldn’t have defeated him without their efforts.”
Dan tilts his head and says, “What about David?”
“David was totally useless Dan, you saw it!”
He smiles, “Haha, yeah, he really was.”
Francine sighs and says, “We don’t see eye-to-eye on all things, young lady, but you are proving to be surprisingly competent. Dan, it appears you are right. She has the makings of an exemplary leader and tank. Samantha, may I ask, why haven’t you returned to Incrementum?”
My cheeks redden at her praise and my spine straightens. It’s a welcome change from Helga the Terrible.
“I don’t know if Dan told you, but I’ve been in danger of being fired for awhile now, and the danger became real. I had to put out job applications and start looking for a new place to live. Hopefully above the solar line if I can find a position.”
Francine frowns, “If you only knew how hard I fought against the city solar sails. The energy is not worth the human and environmental cost. Of course it was good for our bottom line, but there were and still are so many better ways.”
“My husband and I founded Bloom Solar.”
I take a step back. Woah. Wait a second...
“Dan you sneaky good for nothing blessings monkey! You let me go this whole time agonizing over my job and you didn’t mention your boss controls the solar industry? She’s what, the richest woman in the world?”
Dan at least has the decency to look ashamed. “It wasn’t my secret to tell. She doesn’t want people in the game to know. I think she’s #3 currently.”
“That’s right. I don’t want people to know, in accordance with my husband’s wishes. Part of my husband’s dream, before he passed, was to sell our interests in Bloom Solar and move on to a new grand project, founding a new civilization with just our wits and determination, not our wealth and fame. We wanted to found our new civilization not on earth, and not in space -- like some are trying -- but in an alternate reality, a digital reality. Our current society and planet are what they are, mistakes have been made, some things are good, some are bad, but one thing is certain, we can’t start over. In another new world, like Incrementum, we can. James was obsessed with it, researching governance models, city planning, logistics..the list goes on.”
Francine tears up slightly, dabs and white handkerchief against her eyes and continues. “I should have paid more attention, but I thought he would be with me to do it. I will study, learn more, do better, and turn the Athenian Empire into the single greatest power in Incrementum, and that power will do right by its citizens, not perfect, but right.”
Francine waves her hand, “Back to your difficulties, Dan told me about your professional situation. I made a few inquiries. Your solar maintenance budget and many others were ransacked. Your superiors have been embezzling funds for years. They’ve been fired and might even go to jail.”
“Yes!” I say, pumping my fist into the air. “I knew it! What’s with the letter I got from the head of the board...Michael...something.”
“Michael Foss and his accomplice, Helga Trompswitch, were both fired and may face criminal lawsuits if the District Attorney chooses to prosecute. Politics.” Francine says as she waves her hand.
“Wow, thank you. Does this mean I can have my old job back?”
“No. Corporations do not appreciate whistleblowers, your termination will remain in place, regardless of its injustice.”
I feel like a rocket, soaring to the moon, right when it ran out of fuel and started crashing back to the earth.
“Oh...that’s not good news.”
My shoulders slump and I look at the poorly carpeted floor of my apartment.
“Which brings me to my offer. I own a building in Chicago. Nothing too grand, maybe double the size of this one...perhaps more. I have room on staff for another solar technician. If that is what you wish to do, you may do it there. That offer is on the table, no matter what comes after this, do you understand?”
My engines of hope sputtered, maybe I wouldn’t have a crash landing after all.
“Good. What I want, is for you to sign on as the Head of my Elite Athenian Warriors. I have already offered Mr. David Fullbright and Mr. Kenneth Carmine a position as one of my Elite, interestingly enough, they want to know your answer first.”
“Who is Kenneth...and why? This is a too good to be true offer, those are normally not true.”
“You know Kenneth as Kuruk, I believe. His clan and him may join Athens, to swell our ranks for the trials ahead. I have decided that while we achieve my dream, we might just help some others. Not for free of course, they have to work in Incrementum as citizens of Athens, but a better offer than they receive here, below the solar line.”
“As to your second question, I don’t think you understand the value a leader and tank has to me. In the very near future, I will need my Elite to conquer dungeons, mines and even other homesteads. We must explore the Unknown Lands to the north, and fend off aggressive neighbors from the south. My Elite need a tank and leader to secure iron, gold, bronze and silver for the empire.”
“That is not my role, I must organize and facilitate our growth. If you lead my Elite, it’s worth more than a solar technician’s salary, to me, and also in bitcoin. The exchange rate for a bitcoin is already one ounce of Incrementum gold. That rate will become more favorable over time, as more people immerse in Incrementum and demand increases. Especially when we control a large portion of the supply. As the tip of the Athens spear, you will lead efforts worth thousands of ounces of gold, maybe even millions. If you join me, as the leader of my elite, I will offer you three percent of the Athens empire quarterly profits, in addition to all the other standard Elite bonuses.”
“I also want to show you this.”
Francine reaches into the too expensive to think about purse at her side, and pulls out a jar, with only two pills. Dan sharply inhales. Francine holds up her hand to forestall any comments.
“You are aware of Everlife pills, I assume?” Francine says.
I nod my head. They were supposed to be the new fountain of youth, reversing decades of cell aging with just one pill. Francine continues.
“They are prohibitively expensive, of course. What people are willing to pay is what they cost, and that is a lot. I have two pills, one was for James, and one for me. I sat for weeks in my apartment, with little except my person, and these pills beside me. I did not want to take them, I still don’t want to take them, I want to see James as soon as I can.”
She pauses and looks down.
“But he believed in Athens -- he wanted the Athenian Empire to be a reality, and he could not stand a quitter. No, that lovely stubborn man would cuss me up and down if I joined him sooner than I had to without seeing this through. I will commit to this path, I will stick around to see this through. The question is, will you?”
Francine stops talking, still sitting straight on my cheap couch, holding the fountain of youth and offering me a vision of wealth I never even considered. I can do the math if she’s right about the exchange rate becoming more favorable, and the potential wealth of the Athenian Empire, this could change my life immensely.
“Can I think about it?” I say.
“If you have to think about it, I’m making this offer to the wrong person,” Francine says.
What’s the worst that can happen? I get fired?
“I’m in,” I say.
Dan whoops and rushes forward to hug me. Francine smiles.
“Very good. There is one more thing.” Francine says.
“What’s that?” I say.
“You will be head of sanitation as well. Sewers and so forth.”
“What the heck? Bait and switch much?” I say, throwing my arms up in the air in frustration.
“Oh, don’t worry, you have very good staff. A seasoned manager came on the market lately, she had a black mark on her record so I got her to agree to a year-long contract at a substantially reduced rate.” Francine says.
“Oh my god, really?”
“Yes. Helga Trompswitch reports to you on all her efforts to safely manage the human waste of our rapidly growing population.”