Authors: Dawn Atkins
Two Can Play
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by
. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Edited by Keyren Gerlach and Terese Ramin
Cover design by Fiona Jayde
Ebook ISBN 978-1-62266-288-3
Manufactured in the United States of America
The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction: Darth Vader, Xena,
Dance, Dance Revolution
, Lara Croft, Zelda,
Prince of Persia, Centipede, Tomb Raider
, Visa, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Day-Glo, Top Ramen,
Sims House Party, SoulCalibur, Street Fighter, Metal Gear Solid, Arizona Republic
Grand Theft Auto,
OyxContin, Novocain, Norton Commando, Dumpster, Tic Tacs, Lysol, Naugahyde, Honda Civic, Nintendo Wii, Zillow, Tilt-a-Whirl, Yamaha,
, Doritos, Ivory Soap,
Asteroids, Playboy Magazine
, Marlboro cigarettes, PowerPoint, A&W, Baggie, YMCA, Google, Jack Daniel’s, Polaroid,
, Demerol, Tylenol, Jell-O, Glock.
To Alex, whose involvement in the immersive world of MMORPGs and energy drinks led me to cook up this story, and who rolled his eyes (as any decent teenager would) whenever I got it wrong. Here’s hoping I got it (mostly) right.
Rena Novo banged through the employee door to the Real Life Lounge, the Phoenix gaming arcade where she lived and worked, her heart punching her ribs as though it wanted out.
Today was big. She’d been assigned a new hire to mentor—her first—which was an honor, but the big deal, the thing that made her blood sing in her veins, was her meeting with Nigel and Naomi Blackstone. Meetings with the founders of NiGo Interactive, the creators of the life Rena lived here, were rare and important.
And nerve-racking as hell. Rena fought the jitters, reining herself in as if for battle, turning her tension into a knot of drive. Control was her ally, focus her weapon.
She scanned the Lounge. A former multiplex, it was a huge open space filled with high-end computers and the latest game consoles. The plasma monitors mostly flashed scenes from
, NiGo Interactive’s creation and the most popular online fantasy game ever.
Rena paused to let it hit—the feeling she always got, a wave of pure joy rolling into deep, sweet relief. She was where she belonged. Safe. Home.
No more shuffling from one wage-slave job to the next, fighting off her landlord’s gropes when she couldn’t make rent, drunk and sick most days, getting mugged of bus fare, trusting no one because no one could be trusted, and being lonely. Always lonely.
Rena spotted her best friend, Cassie, at a game station, so she headed over, dropping into the sleek curve of one of the spaceship-style chairs that clustered around each station. Cassie was deep into a task in
. Rena lifted one of Cassie’s noise-canceling earpieces to get her attention.
“You off shift?” Rena asked her, relieved Cassie was gaming instead of drinking at Blood Electric, the Lounge bar. Most Lifers—the people who worked in the Lounge and lived in the attached Living Quarters—spent every spare hour they were off-shift in the gaming arena. Real Life Lounge was a place to live how you liked and play when you wanted. How cool was that?
Cassie nodded, her eyes on the monitor, where her character Andromeda was scaling the wall of Castle Dragonelle to retrieve the Treasure Lights of Harridan, a mid-level Quest.
Cassie’s online persona—her avatar—was of the Warrior caste, as was Rena’s. Rena convinced girl gamers to choose fighter avatars for the prestige and urged them to
clans, not just join them. Too many girls hung back, let guys run the show. Old-school bogus, Rena believed. She talked the talk in the Lounge and online with the hundreds of girls who were part of her Star Goddess clan.
More girls subscribed to
every day, but guys still outnumbered them two to one. It was the same among Lifers.
That’s why Rena had come up with the Girl Power Project. She had support, mostly from girl Lifers, but if Nigel and Naomi committed to her ideas, she’d have a full-on green light. She hoped that was what they wanted to talk to her about. If not, she’d bring it up herself. In the meantime, she was so wired, it seemed like
castle spiders were scampering along her nerves and holding wrestling matches in her belly.
Cassie’s fingers flew over the buttons, as if the controller were melded to her hand, making Andromeda haul her way up the wall, dodging flaming arrows and buckets of hot tar. Cassie’s face glowed the way it had when Rena recruited her six months before, just three months after Rena had been invited in herself. They shared the same love for the game, the same need for the Life. Rena and Cassie were twins under the skin.
Lately, Cassie had been off somehow. Out of sync. Not right. Rena had recently exchanged phones with her so Cassie could trade Rena’s high-end model for Lifer points—though she wouldn’t tell Rena what was so urgent.
Now Rena smelled liquor on her breath. Dammit. Had she been drinking on shift again? Cassie worked in Accounting.
One of the few Lifer rules was no booze at work or in Quarters and no drugs ever. It was crucial. Like Rena, some Lifers had a history of addiction, and Nigel and Naomi promised to protect their sobriety.
Rena would have to talk to Cassie about her drinking. Cassie would bristle and yell, but you had to be strong for the people you loved.
Cassie’s keys clicked away and soon Andromeda landed on the other side of the wall. Wielding her sword with manic speed, she slashed her way into the castle. “Die, infidel dogs,” Cassie said into her mic in her Darth Vader voice.
Some of Cassie’s Quest mates laughed. Reading down the on-screen list of player names, Rena recognized a dozen or so from Rena’s
clan. Twelve hundred strong, her clan included two hundred Lifers, which was an honor, since Lifers were the elite of any clan, bringing exclusive Levels and extreme Quests to the game.
Now Andromeda leaped, flipped, and swung through the castle, unlatching a hidden door with a trick move—Cassie was so good—to grab the Treasure Lights and escape.
The losers groaned over voice chat, then offered grudging praise. Cassie deposited the Lights into the clan inventory so that all would share the new powers. A generous choice. But that was Cassie. Beyond generous.
“We’d better clear out,” Rena said, nodding at the customers beginning to swarm the game stations. Customers—the Deads, as Lifers called them—got preference when the Lounge was open. The Lounge filled up early on Fridays with players hot for a head start on their gamer high. The hard-cores would stay until the Sunday midnight close, delaying their return to the Dead World as long as possible.
Rena felt sorry for the Deads, who only had this bliss evenings and weekends or until they tapped out their gold cards. Rena and the Lifers had this every day.
Rena led Cassie toward the walkway that ringed the arena.
“When’s your meeting with Nigel and Naomi?” Cassie asked, her eyes eager beneath her heavy black makeup. The leopard spots tattooed around one eye made her look jungle-worthy.
“Two more hours.” The thought made Rena’s stomach spiders go from wrestling to pole-vaulting, as if they’d quaffed a growth elixir.
“Didn’t Maya say it’s for a Quest?”
“She said it
be.” Maya was the Blackstones’ adviser, so she knew more than most about their plans. Maya had recruited Rena and treated her like a little sister, which pleased Rena no end.
“If it’s a Quest, you’ll get a level boost and a new job. That’s very cool.”
“It’s kind of fast, don’t you think?” Rena was only Level Five and Owner Quests didn’t happen until Level Seven usually. “Maybe it’s about the Project.”
“Girl Power again? Equality is all nice and apple pie, Rena, but face it, boys own gaming. Don’t waste a trip upstairs on a no-way-José dream.”
“It’s the right thing to do, Cass. It’s the next step for the Life. Since when did you give up? You got half my petition signatures.”
Cassie shrugged. “You’re my homegirl, Reenie. I’m with you all the way. Go, Rena, go.” She tapped Rena’s fist, but there was no life in the move or her voice. “Let’s celebrate your meeting.” She nodded toward Blood Electric.
“I’ve got to meet the Recruit I’m supposed to mentor.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot. You’re a Mentor, too, now. Leaping up that ladder, swinging by the rungs.”
“You make that sound like a bad thing.”
“It’s not. It’s all good. You’re like the Guardian of the Gate. If there was a president of Real Life Lounge, you’d be elected.” Cassie sighed.
“I just miss you. We haven’t gamed together or sparred in the Dome in like forever.” The Dome was the hologram theater where Lifers enacted
battles to entertain customers. Rena would be in the first Friday fight before she went upstairs.
“With the launch coming up, we’ve been pushing hard.”
, the second generation of the game, would be released in three weeks and the pressure was intense. Rena worked as a beta tester in the computer lab, and she’d been putting in tons of hours.
“Things are strange now,” Cassie said. She sounded odd.
“You mean hectic? With the new Lounges on tap and all the hiring going on?”
“It’s more than that.” Cassie lowered her voice. “Some things are just not right.”
“Like what things?” Rena tensed. The Life had to be right. Always.
“This and that. Procedures. Weird ledgers. I’ve seen a few–” She stopped abruptly, her gaze locking on something beyond Rena’s shoulder.
Rena turned to see Mason Rockingham, NiGo’s main money guy and the boss of Cassie’s department, huddled up with two of the new Watchers. Mason rarely showed in the arena, and why would he hang with the security guards? Maybe he had Watchers take the Lounge cash to the bank or something.
“What have you seen?” Rena whispered, looking back at Cassie.
“Forget it,” Cassie said. “I just hope the doubled subscription rate gets us over the money hump. Mason’s on a rampage about revenue.”
“That’s just him.” Truth be told, Rena didn’t like Mason much. She wasn’t sure why. He wasn’t a Lifer—most of the people on the business side of NiGo were only employees—but that wasn’t it. And it wasn’t that he was arrogant and cold and bossy, either. He plain gave her the creeps. Maybe his mix-and-match eyes—one blue, one brown—threw her, though that would be so not fair and totally anti-Life of her to judge him for his appearance. “Nigel and Naomi wouldn’t have hired Mason if he wasn’t brilliant. He’s just doing his job, I guess.”
“You have such faith,” Cassie said, sounding bone-tired.
“Of course I do. You do, too.” Unlike in the Dead World, in the Life, everything made sense. Rena made progress every day, earning points and privileges and climbing levels. Here, everything was fair, nothing was hidden. Here, no one could knock you down, hurt or cheat you, make you feel lost or confused. Best of all, she had the support and friendship of the NiGo Family, the Lifers she worked and played with every day. Who wouldn’t have faith in that?
“I’m not like you, Rena,” Cassie said.
“Lately you’ve seemed kind of blue.” She took a deep breath, ready to say the hard words. “I know how it is with liquor, Cass. You think it will help, but it makes things worse. You need to stop.”
“Don’t preach, okay?” Cassie sighed. “Alcohol is not my biggest prob.”
“Talk to Maya. She helped me.” Maya and the Life had saved Rena, and she was grateful to her bones.
“Forget Maya. Maya’s a vampire.”
“Cassie!” That was way out of line. Worry spiraled through Rena at her friend’s black mood. “Next couple days, let’s game in my Quarters. I got the new
Dance Dance Revolution
from my catalog. We can do a beat-down.”
Cassie’s smile barely split her lips.
“We’ll get takeout and you can steal my moo shu pork,” she coaxed.
“Stolen tastes better.” The usual line came out way too faint. What was wrong with her fierce friend?
“Sure you don’t have time for an Electrique?” Cassie asked. Electrique was the energy drink sold exclusively in Real Life Lounges.
“Sorry. I’ve got to find my Recruit.” She paused. “You going to drink E, Cass?”
“I’m thinking V-Trique.” V-Trique was Electrique with vodka, the Lounge’s signature cocktail and Cassie’s downfall at the moment.
“Pace yourself, would you? For me?”
“You’re harshing my high, Mom.” She smiled sadly.
“I’m just saying—”
“Go be a Mentor. I’m cool. You worry too much.” She waved Rena away. “If he’s cute let him know I’m up for sex points. Ohh, ohh, ohh, yes, yes, YES.”
That sounded more like Cassie, and Rena laughed. Maybe once they spent time together, Cassie would get back on track.
Now Rena scanned the swelling crowd. Where was her guy? There. Had to be the dude braced against the Info counter in a beat-up bomber jacket and generic jeans, looking around as though he was casing the place for a rip-off.
Hmm. Most Recruits were totally gee-wow about being selected. Not this guy. He looked at least twenty-six—oldish for a Lifer.
Rena was twenty-one, the youngest you could be to become a Lifer. Probably because of the bar. Lots of Lifers were teens with fake IDs—former fosters, runaways, kids fresh from rehab or juvie or jail. She didn’t blame them for cheating their way in. Deads under twenty-one could be in the Lounge, just not in the bar, and there were millions who played
at home online, but the best high was at the Lounge, so they usually had long lines outside waiting for slots that never came open.
Bomber Jacket noticed Rena, locking on as if she were in his crosshairs in a shooter game. She got a little shiver.
Rena was used to men staring. Six feet tall and built large, she caught eyes. She wasn’t fat, just a bigger breed. In high school, her friends called her Xena as a joke, but she preferred LC for Lara Croft, the game character who’d given her courage.
She stepped closer. “Gage Stone?”
He nodded, pushing away from the counter.
“I’m your Mentor, Rena Novo.” She held out her hand. “Your guide to the Life.”
“Glad to meet you.” He showed no irritation at having a girl Mentor and his grip was firm, not crushing. She hated when guys worked a handshake to show off how strong they were.
“I have a Dome battle in a bit, then a meeting upstairs, but I can get you started and show you around.”
Gage looked her over as though he was after her source code and Rena’s pulse kicked up a notch. Weird. She broke off her gaze to grab a walkie-talkie and headset from behind the Info desk. She held a headphone against one ear and cupped the mouthpiece by her face to show him how it worked.
“Zeke, you copy?” She looked toward the entrance, where Zeke, the Watcher on duty, swiveled his head her way. “I’m demo-ing gear for a newbie. Over.”
“Whatever I can do for you, my shortie. Over.” Zeke could be the Watcher poster boy, with his shaved head, ripped body, and air of menacing cool. He looked natural in the uniform of black muscle shirt, black jeans, and jackboots, and the armband tattoos of overlapping scimitars seemed made for his biceps. Watchers were required to have black belts in some martial art. Zeke had two.