1.05 - No Hotel for Young Men

“We’re almost out of food,” Kai sighs adding the last of the potatoes to the stew.

“Who would have thought we’d be hunting and preparing food in a game,” Daamin responds. “I can’t believe there are actually people who grow food in this world. Glad we can get it from NPCs too. Players wouldn’t know how to grow enough.”

“I mean, they were optional skills, but nobody ever used them unless they wanted to open a restaurant or something. If I had known all this would happen, I would have put more into non-combat stats. They’re easy to level up, but having a few points is a great head start.”

“So, with you being a femboy now, how do your stats work?”

“Please, do not call me a femboy. It’s been weeks and you keep doing it,” Kai gets annoyed at Daamin.

The two argue back and forth for a while before Kai explains he’s got some stats and equipment from both characters. I don’t really care. They haven’t noticed but stats aren’t super important if you can do something like cook in the real world, you can pull it off in the game. I don’t have any stats for hunting, but my dad was a marine, and we went to the gun range sometimes. I can shoot stuff pretty well; therefore I can hunt. We’ve been out in the badlands for two weeks, just having pointless arguments and never figuring out what to do. We don’t even have a place to stay because so many people fled to the badlands. We’ve been sleeping in our cars since we got out here. Every now and then we’ll head further and further away from the city to some place Daamin knows hoping that there’ll be somewhere we can stay. I’m starting to think we’ll reach the end of the map, but there’s always more sand.

Daamin would never admit it but he’s loving every second of this. It’s one of his fantasies to be stuck in a video game. We already knew he had more time in the game than Kai and I, we knew he preferred to live out here as a nomad. Still, it never ends with how much he has to show or tell us about the places. He’s like an encyclopedia of game knowledge. I’m almost ready to put a bullet in my head and see if I really die. Kai is just, Kai. Easily annoyed by everything, but never really letting anyone know what’s going on in his head. I’ve known Kai for over a decade now, and it bothers me that I can never tell what he’s thinking. Lately, it’s bothered me even more. I don’t think being on the run is good for any of us, but the thing is, we’re not really running from anyone specifically. We’re just afraid of dying, which is a good thing, I guess.

I open up one of the forums players visit just to get some news on what’s going on. The city is still in chaos, player gangs and corporations are literally at war with NPC gangs and corporations attempting to wipe them out and take control of portions of the servers. Some people are doing it because they believe we can get free by taking it back. Others just want to be in charge of it all. The more interesting thing to me is that there are cults that have popped up. Cults praying to the game creator to set us free or make life better. Others are worshipping an AI that supposedly trapped us here to be better people. Most people are just living, trying to survive. Scams promising to let people speak to the outside world are running rampant. A ring of slave runners got busted a few days ago. They were forcing low level players to get implants that would allow them to be controlled. It’s crazy how fast players dove headfirst into the stuff that was basically a backdrop for a massive sandbox game. It’s a real cyberpunk world now, aesthetics be damned.

I feel a pain in my side only to look up and see Kai standing over me, and really glad he’s wearing underwear, “why did you kick me,” I ask.

“Because I’ve been trying to get you to eat for five minutes and you’ve just been scrolling the web like you didn’t hear us.”

“Sorry, just thinking about our next move,” I sit up.

“Sorry Dre, there’s no next move. This is life now,” Kai hands me a bowl of stew and takes a seat beside me.

“What’s in it?”

“Mutant rabbits.”

“The white ones that walk on two feet?”

“Yeah, the only thing we can catch out here,” Kai rolls his eyes and looks to Daamin.

“Hey,” Daamin interjects with a mouth full of food. “My contacts say the city is still crazy right now. You should be glad I’m keeping you guys safe out here.”

“Oh, thank you, our precious savior,” I respond.  

“Hey, be quiet,” Kai holds up a hand. “Do you guys hear that?”

I listen closely. There’s nothing but the sound of wind and the occasional animal or car passing through out here. Today, right now, the wind sounds faster, almost angry. Every now and then there’s the sound of thunder mixing with the wind off in the distance.

“We should get in our cars,” Daamin quickly gulps down his bowl of stew and starts heading towards his van.

“Is there something wrong,” I ask.

“Yeah, you need to tell us what’s happening,” Kai argues.

“You need to get your ass to cover because the sand screamers are coming,” Daamin closes the door of his van on us.

“What are sand screamers,” Kai asks as the sounds grow closer.

I quickly search the web for answers, “sandstorm with hallucinogenic powder of a rare mountain flower.”

I’ve been driving a modified El Camino with a 4x4 kit and some modifications out here, I rush over and slam the door. Another door slams behind me, Kai has taken a seat next to me.

“What are you doing?”

“You do hallucinogenics with friends,” he shrugs. “Keep each other balanced.”

“We’re not doing hallucinogenic.”

“Oh, we’re going to get high. You can roll up the windows all you want, but pollen gets everywhere. Better to be with me than alone or with the giant crocodile man.”

“He’s a caiman.”


“Get out,” I unlock the door as wind and sand slam against the window in an instant.

“You want me to die,” Kai asks.

I close my eyes as sand keeps pounding the truck from all angles. Hoping not to get high enough that I start seeing ghosts like the internet said. Kai hums a song trying to pretend he isn’t afraid. Lightning lights up the storm and thunder makes the glass vibrate. Kai grips my arm with his arms tightly closed.

“What are you doing,” I try to pull away.

“I’m afraid of thunderstorms, there I said it,” he shouts.

“This isn’t a thunderstorm.”

“There’s thunder and lightning,” he doesn’t stop shouting.

“C’mon man, you’re an adult.”

“I had a bad accident when I was a kid, that stuff stays with you.”

I look at Kai’s face and there’s real terror there. I stop fighting and let him hold onto my arm as I stare through the window. A trio of old women walk in a line, pausing briefly to stare back at me. I know these are the sand screamers but I’ve been expecting them. I don’t scream, and I don’t make Kai look. I just stare back at their unmoving, unflinching faces. I close my eyes and lean my head back, hoping to fall asleep before this is over.  

Author Note: I thought about a longer hallucination scene, but I just wanted it to be simple. Sort of leave the fact that the sand screamers may be real. Less is more type of thing.

1.04 - Apocolypse Now

“Hello everyone, I wish I could be coming to you under different circumstances,” a massive hologram of the game designer speaks over the park where thousands of us are gathered to hear about the upcoming event. None of us know what the creator actually looks like. They always wear a plain black mask and bulky robes. We only know that they play the game alongside us.

“Liberty and Strife has been the pride of my life,” the creator continues. “I’ve worked hard on this game and to see it flourish with all of you, millions, enjoying it warms my heart. I still remember the day the game launched and I nervously awaited the first reviews. I couldn’t stand the wait; I logged in and saw you already forming groups and making new friends. I didn’t have any friends growing up so I wanted a world where anyone could meet people like them and have friends. Liberty and Strife provided that. It is with a heavy heart that I inform you Liberty and Strife will be closing down in six months.  

The creator pauses for a moment. Just enough time for questions and accusations to start running through the crowd. A few crying faces can be seen, others displaying rage. People are reacting in different ways but nobody is happy about the game ending, the closest are those confused. Some people have invested over a decade into the game at this point. Kai, Daamin and I hop from game to game all the time, so it should be no big deal to us, but I think three of us are a little sad. It’s one game that we all love equally. Well, Daamin probably loves it a little more.

“We lack the funding to continue. I’m telling you all this in the name of honesty. I did not wish for this to become a game where you suddenly couldn’t log in one day. Instead, I wanted you to have time left with your gangs, corporations, friends and enemies. I wanted you to finish quests, and collections. The end may be coming; but, do not worry. The friendships and bonds formed will continue on. In the coming months we’ll give more information, and do fun stuff but for now I’d like to give you time to digest what you’ve just heard. This isn’t yet goodbye, but a see you later,” the hologram of the creator bursts into glowing blue sparks and vanishes.

For a while there’s nothing but silence in crowd, noise picks up as a few people chat about what they’re going to do and talk about other games they’ve played or want to play. I’m sure some people are sharing contact information with people they suddenly realize they don’t want to lose touch with.  

A shout comes from somewhere in the crowd, “I can’t log out.” Nobody responds, but the same voice shouts again, “the game is broken.” Red lights fill the plaza as people attempt to log out only to glow red and remain in place.

“Guys, I think the game is broken,” Kai speaks up, glowing red. I attempt to log out but meet the same fate.

“This is it. This is the virtual apocalypse,” Daamin starts speaking as if he was in awe. If his caiman head could smile, I’m sure it would.

“What are you talking about,” I ask.

“Happens all the time, .hack//Sign, Log Horizon, Sword Art Online, Yu-Gi-Oh in that one season,” Daamin starts to calmly explain. “The game gets taken over by a villain, rogue AI or evil corporation and nobody can log out. If we get disconnected in the real world, we’ll die unless it’s one of those things were our consciousness has been transferred to the computer servers. We can’t get out of the game until we beat the dungeon boss or find a relic or something like that. Personally, I’m hoping for evil corporation. It’s a cyberpunk game, it would make sense.”

“Daamin, this is not time for being a nerd. We need to figure out how to get out of here,” Kai tries to sound calm but is on the verge of raising his voice.

“Oh, we can’t get out until the villain shows up and tells us why we’re here,” Daamin pauses, “look up there, I guess we’re going to find out,” Daamin points to where the hologram of the leader had just been; several blue boxes now floated in the air. Each of them blank until words appeared in the first box.


“There is no more logging out, this is your real world now. You played Liberty and Strife for the liberty but now you will know the strife.”


“This game will not end in six months. It will run forever. If the game is stopped, your loved ones will know what true loss feels like.”

“Adjustments have been made to your inventories and stats to rebalance your new lives.”  

“A new event will soon begin to bring excitement to your new life.”

“I’m disappointed, they didn’t put in any effort into this,” Daamin sighs.

“This is all a joke to you,” Kai shoves Daamin but it doesn’t do anything to his massive body.

“I’m just saying, we’re trapped here. We should make the best of it. Fall in love, adopt a daughter that turns out to be an AI. Maybe we go to war against NPCs,” Daamin really does seem to be in heaven here as sporadic shouts of panic fill the air.

Explosions shake the ground and send panic through the crowd and entire city. Lights flicker across buildings. A few more explosions and everything goes dark. I’m reminded of the blackout event a while back. The city’s power grid was taken down after a terrorist group set off an EMP attempting to wipe out all of the corporations in the city. For three days it was martial law and chaos. It doesn’t take long before we hear the first gun shots echo through the plaza. We take off running unsure of where to go. During the blackout we hid in the badlands and that might be the safest choice now.

I attempt to summon a car but the streets are filled with cars being summoned by everyone in the plaza. The ground slips away from me in the same way it does when missing a step and considering your life over with. I open my eyes to Daamin carrying Kai and I each under one of his arms. Maybe I should do some splicing or get a really weird avatar because Daamin is carrying us with no problem, effortlessly running across the rooftops of cars.

“Where are we going,” Kai asks shouting over the chaos.

“First the badlands then wherever the world takes us,” Daamin doesn’t pause.

“We could hide out at my apartment,” I offer.

“Nope, too open. People could snipe us right through the windows.”

“No problem, I don’t have PvP turned on in my place.”

“Nope, new game, new rules. We’re going to the badlands.”

“I hate the badlands. Put us down, we’ll take our chances with the gangs,” I shout.

“Nope,” Kai answers this time. “Usually I would agree with you, but I’m just not feeling myself right now.”

“What is it? The skirt! We can get you pants,” I offer a peace treaty.

“It’s about all of this,” Kai argues.

“Can you guys stop moving so much, it tickles,” Daamin casually asks leaping over a minivan.

1.03 - The Gang Has a Bar Fight

Kai and I lounge around in a booth at Club Zero’s which is more of a bar than a club, but I don’t name these things; if I did I would have just named it Zero’s. Liberty and Strife has a player base that really gets into their characters, so all the music is from people out there somewhere in the game world. It’s a fun part of the world, countless songs, tv shows and movies made up of people living out their real-world dreams. Not all of it is bad either; some of these people have real talent.  

We’re already drawing a lot of attention with Kai’s female avatar, but Daamin finally showing up doesn’t do anything but add to the scene. Daamin switches avatars all the time, and he’s had some strange ones. I remember he played as a fat four-foot-tall man in three piece suit once. It’s obvious he’s made another switch today. An eight-foot tall man with an alligator head with two swords strapped to his back and a third on his waist. The ensemble is complete with a bright yellow jumpsuit that I recognize from Kill Bill and a black leather jacket that might be from The Terminator.  

“Guys,” Daamin slides his massive body into the booth. “I think I found the game I want to stick with. I love this place.”

“We’re not going to talk about Kai being a woman or you being an alligator with three swords,” I ask because it seems like those are logical starting points.

“Oh, Kai has been doing that for a while. Even got me one of these swords,” Daamin shrugs.

“Why did nobody tell me about this?”

“Because you’re afraid to let loose and get weird,” Kai answers. “It’s a video game, it’s not real life. You can be and do whatever you want, but you chose to be yourself and have a job.”

“Mercenary work isn’t a job,” I respond.

“It is when you do it as yourself,” Daamin looks away.

“Should I turn myself into an alligator man hybrid instead?”

“It’s actually a caiman like the character Caiman from Dorohedoro.”

“I don’t, I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s this great manga by Q Hayashida about,” Daamin starts before Kai stops him.

“I’m going to get drinks before he starts another nerd rant. I can’t listen this sober today. I got kidnapped by The Blue Ribbon Army and all he wants to talk about is nerd stuff,” Kai exits the booth and quickly heads to the bar.

I think I know why Daamin loves this place. He finally has a reason to tell everyone about all of the pop culture things he loves without being laughed at for it. Forget a codex or glossary, he’s the guy to see when you want info about an item. Sometimes I wonder if the creator just loves pop culture or people built monuments to their favorite things as the game grew.  

“Why were you guys fighting the Blue Ribbon Army,” Daamin asks as he realizes I wasn’t falling in love with manga.

“Kai got kidnapped, the leader wanted a girlfriend,” I shrug.

“I hate those guys. They’re based on Dragon Ball but missed the whole point.”

“I thought they were based on nazis.”

“They are. General Blue of The Red Ribbon Army was based on nazi soldiers, specifically the brown shirts. People thought he was a cool character, but kind of forgot he’s a nazi.”

“Get your hand off me,” I hear Kai shout in a voice that still sounds more sensual than angry.

Kai is surrounded by three guys who are looking for trouble. You can be whoever you want, and some folks still choose to be sex pests. Daamin urges me to step in and do something reckless to show that I can let loose like he and Kai can. The situation is getting more tense, and I need to do something. Usually I’m sure Kai can handle himself but right now, I’m not so sure.

“Throw a bar stool, you know you want to,” Daamin urges me.

Screw it, I pick up a bar stool and fling it full speed at one of the men harassing Kai. The man ducks and the bar stool flies into the bar tender’s face. For a moment he looks confused, but then he just drops behind the counter.

“Did you just hit the bar tender,” Daamin asks in confusion.

“It wasn’t on purpose,” is all I can say.

Daamin exits the booth and loudly speaks to everyone in the bar, “looks like we got ourselves and old-fashioned bar fight. No guns, no knives, no killing and no squealing.” Everyone agrees and takes their positions as if waiting on a cue. A woman breaks a beer bottle on a table and eyes a short man across the room.

“This is ridiculous,” is all I can get out before I get slapped in the ear by a bar patron.

I hate fist fights, it’s not like the movies. It’s never cool. Most people don’t know how to fight in real life, a fight is thirty seconds not the fifteen minutes of urban warfare that movies would like you to think. After getting punched in the stomach by a guy twice my size I grab a pool cue to even the odds. It shatters into splinters of wood as it makes contact with his face. He doesn’t even budge, maybe this is more like a movie than real life.  I let out an involuntary scream as he lifts me over his head and tosses me into a wall of different bottles behind the bar. Wearing wet socks is one of the worst feelings in the world, it doesn’t get better when your entire body is covered in wet clothing. I spot Kai behind the bar, rapidly changing outfits covered in a sparkling animation provided by the game.

“What are you doing,” I ask as I catch my breath.

“Trying to change to my normal avatar but the game is glitching.”

“Thought you liked being eye candy,” I joke as he switches avatars once again.

“So what, I like attention,” Kai swaps again. “Shouldn’t you be helping Daamin.”

“Yeah, but I like watching you panic, it’s why we’re friends.”

“Get lost Dre,” Kai shouts at me in what almost sounds like his normal voice.

“Good luck, I think I hear Daamin calling for help.”

I leap over the bar and grab another stool before heading straight towards Daamin’s massive body. He’s laughing as several people are latched on trying to bring down the giant alligator, or caiman man. I swing the stool towards one of them who drops out of the way. The stool smashes into a confused Daamin’s chest.

“C’mon man, we’re on the same team,” he chastises me.  

“I’m sorry, bar fights aren’t my thing,” I sucker punch one of his attackers.

“Great job,” he gives me a thumbs up before effortlessly flinging three bodies across the floor.

A small explosion silences the barroom as splinters of a pool table fly across the room. Everyone is frozen in time as a man in a tuxedo with a Yankees hat stands in the center holding a grenade in his hand.  

“That was against the rules,” someone yells out.

“No it wasn’t, he said no guns,” Tuxedo guy argues.

“Which one of you assholes hit me with a bar stool,” the bar tender waves a gun around.

Without hesitation I shout, “the guy in the Tuxedo.”

The bar tender pulls the trigger and a large ball of orange goo leaves the end of the gun before slamming into Tuxedo man. At first nothing happens, then he starts to shout before his avatar starts to melt into in a pile of goo. Nobody moves to loot his gear, afraid of the orange goo.

“At least he won’t be really upset when he respawns,” someone says.

“Hey, we need to go,” I hear Kai's normal voice a hand grabs my elbow.

Outside, Daamin and I are staring at the Kai we normally see, or close to normal. He had the silver hair braided into a long ponytail, the dream catcher tattoos on each hand. His arms were covered in the tattoo sleeves depicting totem poles, warriors and other Indigenous symbols. He was even wearing the black crop top and necklace made of turquoise stones he wore from time to time. The problem was that instead of the six-foot-tall muscular man I expect when I hear Kai’s voice, I was looking a scrawny man no taller than 5’9 wearing a dark blue skirt and black knee-high converse shoes.

“What happened,” I ask in confusion.

“I got hit switching between avatars, now I’m stuck,” Kai responded in panic.

“Oh shit, you’re a trap,” Daamin starts to laugh, “a whole femboy,” the lizard’s jaws opening and closing at a rapid pace.  

“We have to fix this,” Kai squats down hands on his head.

“Relax,” I pat his back, “we’ll get your avatar fixed.”

A horn sounds signaling a major announcement for the server. People will be heading to parks and plazas trying to hear the announcement. Probably some new event people will be interested in for a few days and then forget about.

“I guess we’ll get you taken care of after this,” Daamin leads the way out of the alley and towards the ominous horns. 

1.02 - Blue Ribbon Army

I log into Liberty and Strife 2099, wait for my character to load up. I give him a quick look over, debating if I want to change anything. People can be just about anything they want in the game world. My character isn’t much different than me so I’m proud of that. Well, he’s in way better shape and has a powder blue fade, but other than that he looks like me. I even used the face scan option that most people ignore. I get why it’s ignored; you can be anything you want in most of these virtual games; that’s part of the marketing for every single one of these. Want purple skin? Do it. A lizard tail? Make it happen. Want to switch up your gender? No problem, and you don’t even have to fight the BMV or any politicians about it. But I’m a simple man; I change up my clothes a little, high-top sneakers, black jeans, black wife beater, blue jacket and a gold rope chain just to stunt on the haters. I laugh to myself as I sit back in my chair and slip my virtual reality helmet on.

Soon the darkness fades away and I’m standing in the my penthouse apartment at The Pluto, an upscale megabuilding in the heart of Astro City. Places like this would cost a fortune now, but I got in on the game early and picked it up for cheap. I could have sold it on a few different occasions and cashed out for some real-world money but what can I say? I love the little place. A small workshop, weapons room where I can display stuff, a lot of trophy cases for cool items I’ve picked up. Some days I just hang out here and watch the streams of what other people are doing in the city. But Kai’s message sounded urgent, I pop open my messages, but I’ve got nothing from Kai. A few invites to join various player gangs or corps in the city. I don’t join any teams, they never end well. One person always tries to prove they’re the leader and it just creates division. I pause and stare at the avatar on a message from an unknown sender with the subject line that says “HELP!”

Wait, oh my goodness, does Kai have an alternate character? I mean, she’s a cutie, but I’m going to bring it up when I see him. Him, or her, I’ve never met Kai in person, could be him or her. I laugh as I open the message. It’s Kai alright, lots of words in all caps for emphasis, exclamation points instead of periods and plenty of emojis but only various faces. He’s being held hostage by a gang leader, who wants Kai as his new girlfriend. Okay, well, this will be fun.  

I could drive but the coordinates Kai gave me are right by a train stop and I like riding the train, my city doesn’t have one in real life, so this is fun for me still. It’s obvious I’m the highest leveled character on the train. High level characters all have garages full of personal vehicles they’ve bought and customized that they can summon in an instant. I do too, but that doesn’t mean public transportation is bad. A few have put together impressive looking characters, but a quick scan shows low level armor and weaponry I expected. I catch a few strange looks; they’re probably scanning me and seeing that my level is too high for a train ride. If another player or enemy NPC is ten levels or more above you, it’s impossible to see their level. The game’s way of telling you that a fight is way beyond what’s possible. A level three might catch a level eight lacking, it happens. But a level three and level thirteen going at it only ends one way. When there seems to be an infinite leveling system, it’s good to know which fights you can’t win. I watch out the window as we leave the city center, weaving around and even through some buildings, dropping to street level or climbing higher to reach each stop.  

I hop off and walk a few blocks to the hideout. It’s an arcade that The Blue Ribbon Army uses as a base. The Blue Ribbon Army has two attire options. All black suits, or blue pants brown shirts; they look like they’re planning a new World War all the time and they are not the good guys.

“Hey, you’re not a member,” a blonde man with blue eyes stops me at the door.

“Wow, the costumes were already crazy, but you’ve gone full blown Hitler Youth. Like, wow, you even modeled your face after Hitler.”

“Leave our territory before things get bad for you,” he raises his voice.

I quickly select my favorite shotgun and blast him in the chest. He slumps to the side of the building. I usually just use the stun option because I’m a nice guy. If I stun them, they basically die but it’s no big deal. If I kill them, then they die, but also lose a random number of items from their inventory. In a game with no limit on carrying capacity, it’s a good way to make sure people don’t just bring everything they own with them. It also makes people buy apartments. Unfortunately for the guy on the ground, I don’t care if The Blue Ribbon Army loses items.

The door slides open, and I roll a few stasis grenades through. They explode, freeze people in place for a few seconds, I run through, boom, boom, boom; I bet it looks cool. The shouts stopping right as they reach their loudest let me know it’s time to move forward. I rush in, blast the man on my left, two on my right, one directly in front of me, two on the right and my shotgun needs to reload. I can take my time because I’ve already cleared out the little arcade. I pick through the digital corpses and pocket some ammunition and cash. They don’t have anything else I want. These gangs and corps are always so stupid; why would you give all your best loot to someone else?  

Behind the counter is a door that leads to a hallway, on the right an empty bathroom for the employees, on the left, an empty storage room of old arcade machines. That just leaves the manager’s office at the end. “Fuck the manager,” I mumble to myself before kicking open the door. A slightly larger man is seated behind the desk crying, unaware that I had just kicked in the door. Through his sobs I could barely understand that he was begging Kai not to leave and she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

“Hey,” I nod towards Kai, “let’s get out of here before they respawn.”

“Sure thing,” Kai responds with a voice directly out of a commercial for phone sex.

“You can’t take my Princess,” Buff Adolf shouts and rises from his desk, he’s only level 24.

“Sorry,” I aim my shotgun at him before he can equip a weapon, “your chick chose me,” I fire several shots into his chest before he can respond.

“My hero,” Kai laughs and plants a kiss on my cheek.

“What the hell Kai,” I shake my head and start to make my way out as Kai follows.

“Don’t be transpohobic,” Kai still can’t shut off the phone sex voice.

“I’m not being transphobic. I’m...homie-phobic because my homie has suddenly become a local single in my area.”

“There’s not a lot of girls who play this game. It’s something like 78 percent men. Based on pure statistics, most of them are straight. Probably some incels. I play as a hot big titty goth girlfriend and they give me stuff, good stuff. I transfer it all to my main character and it’s a win. I just have to keep a low level and pretend to be confused,” Kai laughs maniacally at the plan.

“How long have you been doing this?”

“A few months, I’ve gotten some good gear too. You know I’m an engineer, but I’ve got some great hacker tools. Really opened up a whole new level to my game.”

“Got you held hostage too. Cool gear isn’t worth that.”

“We can’t all just buy all the DLC like you moneybags.”

“That’s not illegal.”

“But it’s kind of cheating.”

“Not cheating.”

“Creative playing at least,” Kai laughs. “You want to go to Club Zero?”

“Yeah, see what’s up with Daamin. You should call him next time. He might actually be into Lady Kai.”

“Lady Kai, I like that,” Kai snaps his fingers.

A pink and gold striped APC arrives for us and Kai hops into the driver’s seat. I don’t even question who would give him something like this and how long he worked to get it. Kai is probably the best friend I’ve ever made over the internet. We started playing Call of Duty together back in high school, now we’re both on the cusp of thirty. Kai is a good player but there’s always some hairbrained scheme to run or exploit to take advantage of. Still, Kai is the closest thing I’ve ever had to joining a clan, gang, corp, guild or whatever in every game we’ve played.

I shoot Daamin a message to see if he’s online. He’s our third but plays in a different time zone so it isn’t always convienent for him to join us. Daamin is obsessed with anime, video games and everything else nerdy. We picked him up a year or two ago when we started playing Liberty and Strife, he hired us for some mercenary work. He does plenty of it by himself, but he’s got connections and needed a few extra hands. Daamin responds back, letting me know he’s in the middle of a shootout in The Badlands. He says shootout, but Daamin doesn’t carry guns. He really runs into battle with a few drones for backup and a sword for a main weapon. It’s kind of funny until you watch him go to work.  

“Daamin will meet us there later; he’s finishing up a gig.”

“Alright, so it’s just the two of us. It’s a date,” Kai starts to laugh.

“Your Lady Kai laugh is weird, and I hate it.”

“Chill out, I’ll switch back when we get to the club. Thought you might like some arm candy for once in your life.”

“Shut up and drive.” 

1.01 - The Office


 “Hey,” my boss walks into my office and slams the door.

“Good morning,” I respond.

“It’s not a good morning,” he stares at me with wide eyes.

I already know how this is going to go. He’s on a war path lately. I probably haven’t even done anything wrong, but things go bad in his personal life, and he comes into the office on a power trip. Todd has a real short man complex and we all suffer for it. He’s also been on the job 40 years too long and needs to retire, because basic technology regularly raises his blood pressure to the point where he’s close to a stroke or another heart attack. The sound of him typing with just his index fingers echoes through the entire building each day and we all pray that it’s a short email he’s sending.

“What can I do to make it a better morning,” I ask in my calmest voice possible, not wanting to set off a landmine.

“You can do your damn job,” he slams several random papers onto my desk.

“Did I do something wrong here?”

“You do something wrong every day, then you walk around here like nothing bothers you. It’s unnerving,” he continues.

“I’m not understanding what you mean.”

“I got a call from Emily Norman,” he sits down then immediately stands back up. “You denied her for a car loan.”

“Yeah, she didn’t have a driver’s license. Our loan policy says anyone approved for a car loan needs to have a driver’s license.”

“So, what you’re saying is, you don’t know when to make exceptions for members?”

“That’s a pretty big exception. We’re basically helping her break the law.”

“Don’t get smart with me, you’re on thin ice,” he raises his voice.

“For following the rules,” I’m legitimately confused.

“That’s your problem; you think you’re smarter than everyone Alan,” he points a finger at me.

“It’s actually Alexandre, like Alexandre Dumas. You can call me Alex, Andre, or Dre I’m fine with any of them.”

“Whatever. You’re untrustworthy and you place your trust in the wrong people. I know you’re applying for other jobs.”

“That’s not illegal.”

“You’re too ambitious, you need to know your spot, and stay in it. You’re disloyal and nobody wants a disloyal person working for them.”

Alright, I’ve got it now. He’s upset I applied for another job. I guess I should scratch credit unions off my jobs search if they’re going to tell my boss I’m looking for a new job. I thought I was being smart; only using my personal computer, and taking interviews on days off or on my lunch. Someone spilled the beans, but situations like this are why I don’t want to be here any longer. The pay isn’t really good enough to take his random outbursts.

“You don’t have anything to say for yourself? You’re just going to sit there emotionless? Are you fucking robot?”

He’s really making me mad, but I don’t get the option to just run around the office shouting and slamming things down to make a point. When I raise my voice, people get nervous. They feel threatened and I’m suddenly the villain. I know if I yell back at him, I’ll be getting fired today. That’s what he wants, and I’m not going to give him that joy.

“You know what,” Todd starts to point again. “You’re on probation. Consider this your warning, next time I have this talk with you, you’re fired. Maybe this will teach you to how to be a valuable part of the team.”

I don’t get a chance to respond before he leaves my office. Once I hear his door slam down the hall I make my way out through the back door. Screw him. I could grab him by his little throat and fling him into traffic. The whole thing was just a setup for him to tell me how much he disliked me. I don’t like him either. By the time I make it to my car I haven’t decided if I should just drive away or of I should drive my car through the building. If I come in from the south side of the building, I can hit his desk. I just take a deep breath and exhale instead. My car insurance rates would never go down if I did that.  

I check my phone after I’ve calmed down a little. I’ve got a text from Kai. He needs my help with Liberty and Strife. Kai is a good player but he gets into trouble all of the time. I guess that’s something to look forward to after work.

0.5 - Gang Gang

“Hey, we don’t really want any trouble,” Kai speaks to the guard as we approach the warehouse.

“Well you got it,” the guard responds.

“We’re just here to talk to Zhang,” Kai continues.

“No Zhang here,” the guard responds.

Kai keeps trying to talk it out but I take note of the guard. He’s a splicer. I’m not sure Kai has picked up on the fact that the guy doesn’t have any eyelids yet and his speech is hindered. Probably got a tongue to lick his eyes like those little lizards. What are they called?

The guard reaches behind his back, going for a gun, Kai is too trustful. I shove Kai to the side at the same time equipping a shotgun. The guard fires first, his handgun lands center of my chest, but I’ve built my character up enough and equipped enough body armor that it doesn’t matter. Two quick blast from my shotgun and the guard slumps against the wall, his gun sliding the side.

“Guess you should have got Geico,” I laugh to myself.

“What are you talking about,” Kai looks at me confused.

“Geckos, the guy had eyes like a gecko.”

“I hate you sometimes,” Kai laughs as he rolls a metallic ball with a flashing light in his hand.


“Yeah, it’s fun to bring out the classics every now and then,” Kai throws the ball high into the air towards a vent on the warehouse.

The ball sticks to the wall before sprouting eight legs. A small laser cuts a hole in the vent and scurries into the warehouse. Kai hums a song to himself as he pilots the bot through some kind of remote on his wrist. Bringing out classics seems like a fun idea. I switch an assault rifle. I’ve become a fan of shotguns so I don’t use automatic weapons too often these days. I like to get in close.

“What are you humming,” I ask Kai as he hands me an earpiece.

“Mariah Carey, We Belong Together.”

“The remix with Jay Z is crazy,” I affix the earpiece.

“Mariah Carey plus hood dude, it never misses.”

“Mariah Carey and The Lox, Mariah Carey and fat Gucci Mane.”

“Mariah Carey and ODB,” Kai adds.

“That’s a good one.”

“You going through the front?”

“Yeah, I want to wrap this up quickly. Hopefully we can see Daamin win the competition.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Do me the honors,” I point at the door.

“Spider bot is dispersing smoke through the ventilation right now. I’ll feed you directions,” Kai tosses a small coin at the door and it’s blown in.

I rush in fire at the first thing I see moving, it shouts and drops to the ground. I feel the spiderbot hop onto my shoulder. Kai comes in through the earpiece and becomes my eyes. I only need a general area to aim at with an assault rifle. I reload and do a 180 degree turn as Kai warns me of an enemy approaching me from behind. It’s not a hard fight, but something about it is bothering me. Some of the enemies aren’t moving like NPCs. They’re doing their own thing. Trying to flank me, switching weapons, using healing items liberally. It’s not sitting right with me, even as I fire the last round and the smoke clears out.

“Good job, our target should be behind the door right here,” Kai joins me in person.

“Hey, did that fight seem odd to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“As if some of them were players, not NPCs.”

Kai surveys the room, then he starts counting. “You took out 27 people. There’re 19 bodies, but 27 opportunities to loot. Meaning eight of the targets were human.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Human and NPC gangs don’t work together. The game doesn’t allow for that. NPC gangs have everything scripted.”

“You think they hacked the game?”

“If they did would they have left items that we can loot?”

“Good point.”

The two of us ponder the possibility of the game being broken or changing for a while silently. For the two of us, it means nothing. We’ll just find a new game to play. For other folks, well this is their all. They’ve made this game more important than their actual lives.

“I guess we should finish the mission,” Kai breaks the silence.

Behind the door is nothing but an old janitor’s closet with a desk forced in. Behind the desk Zhang sits on the lap of a guy who looks to made up of equal parts Kid Rock, Joe Dirt and actual dirt. I wouldn’t be surprised if he lived in this closet. He moves to shout.

“Don’t move Wade,” I aim my gun at him. The fun of the game has suddenly vanished for me.

“Your gang is gone. Gone to hell specifically,” Kai leans on the doorway.

“Who are you,” Wade asks.

“We’re the guys come to take Zhang home,” Kai responds.

“I can’t live without my baby,” Wade screams again.

“Hey,” I shout. “If you don’t stop screaming I’ll just blow your head off.” Wade stops immediately.

“Zhang, you have to go home.”

“I can’t,” Zhang finally speaks. “Father is an evil man. His company gouges prices and exploits cheap labor. They pollute the planet and lie about it. They will drive the world into eternal darkness if nothing is done.” Kai and I share a glance before we burst into laughter. “This is not funny,” Zhang continues.

“Baby,” Kai holds up a hand. “That’s called late stage capitalism. We’re all victims. The best thing you can do is take your rich daddy’s money and spend it on good causes that can help improve the world.”

“Alright,” I put the gun down. “Let’s get out of here.”

Zhang and Wade both begin to shout about how they’re refusing to leave. Kai tries to reason with them, but I’m ready to wrap this up. Everyone thinks she’s been kidnapped anyway, why don’t we kidnap her. That’s not a bad idea. I scroll through my inventory until I stop on sleep grenades. Perfect. I drop two in the room but nobody seems to notice. I take Kai’s hand and close the door, leaving Wade and Zhang to fall asleep.

“Just let them sleep, we’ll kidnap them in a few minutes when the gas is gone,” Kai just stares at me blankly before squeezing my hand. “Oh, sorry,” I drop his hand. “Just wanted to get out of there before the gas got us too.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Kai just nods.

“You’re not going to call it brash and reckless,” I ask.

“Um, yes. Reckless, brash. Heart stopping. Pulse raising,” Kai trails off. He must have gotten a good dose of the smoke.

0.4 - Flipper Not Floppy

Deng Yi, an NPC, but a well known NPC. He's the richest NPC by far, responsible for founding several billion dollar companies within the game world. Yi also has alleged ties to the underworld based on his character profile. He hasn't hired us for anything beyond the law. We've been hired to retrieve what he called his, "most prized posession." The meeting with Yi was brief but he gave me bad vibes. Extremely posessive and doing a lot to remind everyone in the room that he was in charge. The way he talked about his "posession." From the way he was announced before he entered the room, then flanked by two huge bodyguards and then exited without anything more than telling us what he would pay.

"Crazy how he thinks someone took his daughter," Kai says as we're left alone in her bedroom. "It's even crazier that there hasn't been any ransom request yet."

Kai summons a few drones that do the hard work of searching for clues. DNA samples that don't match the daughter, things that aren't where they should be, things that don't belong. Nothing looks crazy to me. Looks like every other young adult woman's bedroom I've been in. A few pieces of art that don't really form a cohesive theme, stuffed animals from childhood that have sentimental values. Clothes all over the place, some of which that have never been worn before. The drones do their work and Kai either saves or discards them based on if they're useful or not.

"Did Li give you bad vibes," I whisper hoping not to alert the guards outside. "He didn't even tell us his daughter's name."

"Zhang, it was on the bedroom door. But yeah, but I don't think he killed his daughter and is using the chaos in the city to hide her body," Kai jokes. 

"Wow; I wasn't going that far. I just think he's kind of an out of touch asshole. He thinks of his daughter as a posession, not a person. It took fifteen minutes of him rambling until mentioning that his most valuable posession was his daughter not some object. That just screams she ran away to me. I'd run away if I was her."

"Were you a runaway too," Kai asks passively.

"She's a little old to be called a runaway. Let's just say she chose to leave. Wait, were you a runaway?"

"For a few weeks before they caught me trying to hop on a bus headed to San Francisco."

"Why San Francisco?"

"Heard it was a cool place."

I don't press the issue. Kai has a tendency to over share, and then expects me to do the same. I'm sure he had a good reason for running away, but it's probably good if I don't hear about it. I don't ask more and he doesn't explain. Instead I start to snoop through her diary. Real detective work, not TV magic.

There's nothing surprising. She dislikes her dad. She's a grown woman who has her own dreams and aspirations. His need for control is why she never wants to be around him anymore. A little childish for someone her age, but nothing surprising. At least not until the part where she spends 20 pages describing how much she loves her boyfriend and his new splicer modifications. She didn't love the scales at first but they sparkle now and it's great. I skip the next five pages about their love making and pass the journal to Kai to examine.

"Woah, didn't know that was possible," Kai says as he turns a page and quickly reads the next page.

"What is it," I ask.

"He's got the dolphin upgrade, can do some crazy stuff with that. I thought it was a myth."

"I'm not up on my splicer modifications, what can dolphin DNA do?"

"Well they're smart creatures, they can do a lot. But the one he got, woah. It's a jaw dropper."

"Get to the point."

"Dolphins have a prehensile penis and this guy has been doing some things that can only be described as incredible."

"Thanks, that's enough."

"They're big too. Like a a pool noodle and he's just rearanging her insides. He's massaging parts you probably can't even reach."

"How do you know I can't reach?"

"I'm just saying."

"Just saying I'm small because I'm a big man."

"But are you big where it counts?"

The two of us burst into laughter at the aburdity of the whole situation. She's basically writing erotica in her journal, and her dad doesn't know where she's at.

"Dickmatized," Kai continues to laugh.

"We got a name for this guy?"

"Wade Dolphin Dick Calvert."

"Think you can track him down?"

"Does a dolphin piss in the ocean," Kai asks causing us to have another fit of laughter. It's only a few seconds before he has a whole profile pulled up on the guy. A chronic splicer, high ranking member of an NPC gang. Nothing else important. He's our first stop to getting Zhang back home. At least long enough for us to get paid.

"Daamin's still in this," Kai says as we exit the mansion.

"I got 5 dollars that says he wins it all."

"I got five on it."