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.

“Spiderbot?”

“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."

0.3 - Launchpad


 

The competition is still going strong. We’re currently watching a sniper currently rushing up the stairs of an office building. She’s winded, not used to getting involved in close combat. Her footsteps echo through the stairwell as she tries to make it to a safe location. A rooftop would do her no good right now. She’s being chased by a man in a red helmet laughing manically as if he’s not even breaking a sweat. A flying dagger hits her in the ankle and she tumbles as her tormentor chases.

“I told you it’s like a horror movie if we watch Daamin’s victims instead,” Kai laughs as the woman falls.

“You’re right, but if she stays on the ground we need to find something else to do.”

The woman doesn’t try to stand up. She’s sliding backwards with her hand up yelling no. This is too much like every bad horror movie I’ve ever seen. Daamin stabs her with one of his swords and she lets out a high-pitched squeal before her voice vanishes as her body shatters into hundreds of pieces of what looks like glass. Like a mad man he leaps over the banister and free falls down to the ground floor landing in a kneeling position.

“So, I guess he’s a super hero today instead of an anime character,” I point out.

“Either way, he needs therapy,” Kai shrugs.

“How many people left in the competition?”

“Entirely too many.”

“Want to take a job while he cuts down the competition?”

“You,” Kai seems shocked. “Mr. Solo Dolo, Virtual Kid Cudi, wants to go on a mission, together? As a team? Woah, I feel special,” Kai feigns surprise.

“We’ve gone on missions together before. Plenty of them.”

“Yeah, but I invite you, and trick you into joining.”

“Alright, if you don’t want to go, we can just watch Daamin murder people.”

“Nope,” Kai opens a prompt and accepts the first mission on the list.

“You don’t even know what we’re going to do?”

“That’s part of the fun, right? It’s an Iconic Kai move.”

“You’re not iconic.”

“Not to you, but somebody likes it.”

“Whatever, you’re driving.”

“Hmm,” Kai has a thought.

“What’s wrong?”

“No driving.”

“Because of the competition?”

“No, because this is a big money job and they’re sending a helicopter to our location. We should head to the roof.”

From the rooftop we can’t make out the chaos in the streets below as people but the radio in my ear assures there’s plenty of fresh violence down below. I live pretty high up, and I’ve got a balcony I never use, so I’ve never been on the roof before. Admittedly it makes me a little queasy. Kai seems unbothered, conducting two photo drones to get various pictures of him. I force myself to smile for a few just to please him.

The wind picks up as a golden helicopter inches closer to the roof. When Kai said big money, he meant big money. The helicopter didn’t even land, just extended a matching gold ramp for us to walk across. The inside of the helicopter is a soft leather like material that I probably can’t pronounce or afford.

I’ve never been on a helicopter in my real life, or an airplane, or even past the fifth rung on a ladder. Inside a video game is an interesting way to realize that I’m not height avoidant, but actually terrified of heights. The pilot is giving us details of the job and Kai is making small talk with the pilot but I can’t hear them. Occasionally Kai’s voice will pop in as he talks about how the city looks beautiful up here or the pilot will point out some landmark. I don’t care about any of that, I’m focusing on my breathing. The second thing I’ve learned on this flight is what a panic attack feels like.

“Dre, Dre,” I feel a sting on my face, and notice Kai’s eyes staring directly into mine. “Hey, focus on me, not the flight.”

“What,” I’m trying to make sense of what Kai is saying.

“I didn’t know you were scared of heights.”

“I’m not. I’m not scared,” I argue.

“Oh, you’re scared,” the pilot laughs. “Nothing wrong with it. I’ve seen bigger and stronger men than you be afraid. I really served in Iraq, they don’t train you to be this high in the air. You can trust me, it’s a game, no mechanical issues and we’re well above the folks fighting down there, so no need to worry.”

The pilot’s words don’t do anything for me. I just focus on Kai. Usually I would pull away because he likes to touch people, and I don’t like to be touched. This time I just let him rest his hands on my cheeks and lead me through some breathing exercises until we get close to a landing.

“Coming in nice and slow,” the pilot’s voice crackles as the helipad gets closer.

I’m the first one out of the helicopter. I don’t intend to kiss the ground but I trip, and faceplant. Kai and the pilot stifle laughter, but I don’t care. This is solid ground, and I missed it.

“Welcome to Herron Hills, where the rich come to live with their eyes wide closed,” the pilot gives us an introduction.

“Thanks, but spare me the tour for a moment. I need to get myself together,” I pick myself up from the ground.

“I kind of like the helpless Dre. It’s cute,” Kai laughs.

“Shut up.”

“That’s not what you were saying in the air. You were all like, thank you Kai, save me Kai,” he laughs.

“I didn’t say any of that,” I argue.

“Maybe, I imagined that part,” Kai continues to laugh.

“You boys are a real hoot,” the pilot leads us towards a mansion that would seem generic if not for the bright red color scheme.

0.2 - Junkyard Dog



Sixteen thousand people were playing for a shot at the prize. I got to read that much before I was sent hurtling towards the Earth from thousands of feet above. The sky filled with players all trying to aim their bodies and select a landing location. A few hold hands, trying to link up and work as teams. Others tried deploying their parachutes early to have more control over where and when they land. Personally, I’m trying to win and that means taking out the competition. Usually, I try to go non-lethal, but seeing as how nobody loses any progress in this game, I can pull out the big guns.

I equip and assault rifle and go to town. First taking aim at people who already opened their parachutes. It’s going to be a tough landing when your chute is torn to shreds. Then I take aim at those teaming up. It’s not against the rules, but I’m a hater and I don’t like seeing that. Others start to angle their bodies, trying to float away with the madman who has a gun. A few people like my idea and start firing their own weapons. When the sky is full of chaos, that’s my cue to escape.

I nose dive, picking up speed; the wind forces me to close my eyes. A beeping noise in my ear lets me know I’m close to impact. I straighten out my body, slowing my fall before pulling the cord for my parachute. I’m yanked backwards as the chute catches the wind. I’ve never taken the opportunity to go skydiving in the game before, so I’m not sure how to guide my parachute. I’m content wherever the wind takes me as long as I land safely. That shouldn’t be a problem, except I started a gun fight in the air above me and now I’m a gently floating target.

A junkyard comes into sight below me. Must mean I’m at the South Side of the city. I can already hear gunshots mixing with the wind as it passes my ears. The first bullet passes by me as I’m about 5 feet from the ground. I open fire with my assault rifle; hoping to clear some room for a nice landing. I ditch the parachute as soon as my feet touch the ground. I dive behind an old car and land in a puddle of something brown that smells horrible. I really enjoy how immersive this game can be, but I hate it too. I switch to a shotgun and prepare some grenades. I wait for a moment of silence as everyone reloads.

I rush out into the open flinging grenades like a mad man and firing at anyone I see. I feel bad as fill the chest of a teenager with lead from my shotgun. He let’s off a string of expletives only a teenager just learning to curse would as his body vanishes from existence and he’s booted from the tournament. A shot pierces my shoulder from behind. I turn and return fire on someone’s grandmother. Maybe someone’s grandmother. Might just be someone who wants their character to look old. I keep sprinting until I make the exit, not thinking of anything but survival.

I smash the window of a garbage truck parked outside and turn the key. For a moment I pause to think what’s wrong with me. Why am I doing grand theft? Because I want to get rich, there’s no other reason. If I can get somewhere safe and hide out, I’ll be good. Daamin has a few safehouses in the badlands I can hide at.

A small group of people armed with guns has made their way to the junkyard. They’re probably working together and looking for groups of players to take out, or heard all the gunshots. I duck down and hope they don’t see me. Glass shatters and falls onto me, letting me know they saw me. They had a great view of me because they knew exactly where to shoot. I could probably step out and get shot up with some dignity.

I hold my hands up to surrender and nobody shoots. I slowly rise up and back into the seat. There’s probably close to twenty people blocking the exit, all with guns drawn. I slowly open the driver’s side door. Wait, there’s no permadeath, I’m not going to get a chance to try this again. I take a deep breath and slam my foot on the gas. The truck shoots forward with more speed than I expect. I fire my own assault rifle. If this was an action movie it’s the part where my bullets smash into theirs and nobody gets shot. But it’s not a movie, and I get hit plenty of times. My health is low but they stop shooting as the truck turns the first person into a speedbump and follows up with a few more. I can’t help but laugh like an insane person as I make it through the gate and onto the road. I can’t believe that worked.

A sudden warmth fills the air around me, my hearing fades away, replaced only with ringing and slowly my vision turns white.

”Thank you for playing, please enjoy the consolation prize,” a disembodied voice speaks to me from the white void.

When my vision returns I’m standing in my apartment wearing a t-shirt that says, “Hunger Pangs Participant.” I don’t even know what that means. I’m sure it’s a reference to something Daamin could explain.