At any turn, p.16
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       At Any Turn, p.16

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
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  I let her talk. I listened to what she had to say, but hell if we were going to actually have a conversation about this. This whole encounter had already crossed over into the Twilight Zone. I was expecting Rod Serling to step into the room at any moment to provide a dry narration of the fucked-up history between Lindsay and me.

  Page 60

  “So, let’s decide already. Italian or Mexican?” I asked.

  She blew out a breath and rolled her eyes. “Just think about it. Give her some space. She may just come back to you if you back off and don’t push your agenda. ”

  Well, that advice sounded familiar. “Is this where you pull out your inspirational keychain with the picture of a butterfly and the saying that if you love something you should set it free?”

  Her lips twisted into a dry smile. “Something like that. ” She turned and walked out of the kitchen. “Come on. Let’s go eat. ”

  I followed her out and we did enjoy a pleasant lunch—mostly talking about safe subjects. She never brought up Emilia or the tattoo again, at least. Like I said, Lindsay wasn’t dumb. But, unsolicited or not, her words kept rolling around in my mind. This was the reason Emilia had backed off—because she cared more about being a doctor, her original goal since she was a child, than she did about this new relationship full of unknowns.

  In trying to secure her, I had pushed her away because I had arrogantly assumed that I was the number one priority. While at the same time telling her that she wasn’t the number one priority to me by refusing to move back East to be with her.

  I was beginning to realize how ridiculously unfair I had been in that. The real question was, was it too late for me to fix it?

  Chapter Thirteen

  The next day was Sunday and I had very little to do in the morning. In this post-Emilia life, the weekends were turning out to be the worst. The loneliness threatened to rise up and suffocate me. Especially when I was trying my hardest to resist my old fallback—work. There was plenty to do, but today I wouldn’t allow it. I couldn’t fall into those old patterns again.

  But it called to me like alcohol to a wino, like the baccarat table to a gambler. Just one hour, that voice would say. You can log in and get stuff done. It will be so productive. After an hour, you can log off. Or maybe just swing by the office and check on things.

  But I’d prove to myself that I could resist—if just for today. No checking work e-mail. Because once I fell down that rabbit hole, it was a steep-ass climb back out again. And I had no desire at all to go hiking some godforsaken mountain trail to reclaim my inner self.

  I allowed myself the concession that playing on DE would not be in complete violation of this Sunday work blackout. So I started up the game and logged on to my invisible Gamemaster account to see if the old group I used to play with was on. We often played together on Sunday mornings and I wondered if they were continuing the tradition.

  I checked my friends list.

  *Your friend, Eloisa, is online. Emilia.

  *Your friend, Fragged, is online. Heath.

  *Your friend, Persephone, is online. Kat.

  They were all here. I checked their location. Golden Mountains Region. They were working on the big secret quest. I resisted the urge to run the commands to see if I could read their in-game texts to each other. They used voice, mostly, unless I was playing with them. I sat back with a sigh. Like the rest of the players of Dragon Epoch, my regular gaming group had erroneously concluded that the Golden Mountains quest chain actually started in the Golden Mountains region instead of where the very first clue actually hid, in plain sight of all.

  I smiled deviously at the screen. It had been months since the launch of the expansion and no one was any closer to figuring out the damn thing than they had been when it had started. If people didn’t start getting clues to that thing soon, I was certain we’d have a riot on our hands—a massive player revolt. Maybe even a sit-in demonstration at DracoCon. Already there were sites that claimed that the quest was a myth or a hoax or hadn’t even been finished and implemented into the game yet. How wrong they were. The idea for that quest had sprung into my mind while dreaming up the original storyline for the game, years ago.

  It had been something of a dream and a long-term goal of mine to develop the technology and game programming in order to implement it. I wasn’t about to give up those clues easily. Not even to the woman I loved.

  I remembered her teasing me about it. My clues to her had all been genuine, but they’d been so vague as to be useless and she’d known it. I hit the command that would cloak my character from being seen—an ability that could only be used by employees of the company—and traveled to their location. I’m not sure what I wanted to accomplish, but as I sat there for ten minutes watching them beat the life out of an endless string of trolls, I decided I was bored. It would be more fun if I could play with them.

  I wasn’t sure how Emilia would react, but at that point I didn’t care. They were my friends, too, and I deserved to spend a little time with them, even if Emilia had chosen to break up with me. I risked her thinking of it as creepy stalking, but I was determined not to keep the huge distance in the virtual world that I was currently maintaining in the real one.

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  I logged out of my employee account and in to my “fun” account.

  *FallenOne has entered the world of Yondareth.

  FallenOne was a level seventy-five human spearman. He had gray hair and a long, white beard. He kind of looked like a cross between Santa Claus and a Chinese monk. I’d been in a weird mood on the day I created him and his look cracked me up. But he kicked ass and I liked him as a character. I found the nearest magic portal—couldn’t use any of the fancy employee tricks on this account—and sent my character to the zone where my regular group was working their magic.

  *Persephone tells you, Holy shit…is it really you? Where have you been?

  *You tell Persephone, Yup, really me. I’ve been doing other stuff.

  *FallenOne has been invited to join Persephone’s group.

  I clicked the appropriate button, accepting the invitation. Suddenly my headphones were assailed with Heath and Kat chattering excitedly on in-game voice chat. And for the very first time, I planned on joining them.

  Previously, FallenOne had only engaged with the group through text. I could hear them all over voice chat, but I only communicated with them by typing to help preserve my anonymity. Since I type fast, it wasn’t difficult to do. This had worked in my favor when I’d met Heath and then Emilia, because it had helped me keep my identity as their in-game friend a secret. I’d done a lot of things, in those early days, to throw her off track so she’d never suspect. Some of it had been nice, and some, like my asshole act that day we first met in person, not so nice.

  I adjusted my headphones and mouthpiece and pressed the talk button. “Hey guys, how are you?”

  “No way!” Kat said. “Fallen’s on voice chat. You really are a dude!”

  I laughed. “You thought I was a chick?”

  “I thought you were a chick,” said Heath.

  “Screw you. I’m a dude. I won’t mention the details about being sixty-five and covered with back hair, though. ”

  “Eww,” said Kat. “I hope to God you’re kidding. ”

  Emilia wasn’t saying a thing.

  I knew she could hear me. The icon next to her character’s name indicated that she was hooked into voice chat.

  “Hey, Mia, why so quiet?” I said.

  “She’s in a bad mood. We’re hacking through trolls to cheer her up,” said Kat.

  “Hey, Fallen,” Emilia finally said. “Great to hear your voice. ”

  My screen lit up with the purple text that indicated a private message from Emilia.

  *Eloisa tells you, Hi.

  “So what’s with the bad mood? Is killing trolls helping?” I asked.

  *You tell Eloisa, Hey.

  “Yeah. Well, you know me. I’m always in for a good troll beat-down. I’m feeling useful, for once,” Emilia said. “These two losers actually need my elite enchantress powers to survive. ”

  To my surprise, we continued with the parallel conversation—one taking place over voice chat and the other, the private one, in typed instant messages.

  *Eloisa tells you, So…how was your hot date?

  *You tell Eloisa, How was your trip to Baltimore?

  *Eloisa tells you, Touché. I guess you got me there.

  “Whatev, Mia,” Kat said. “You’re always useful. But what the hell—my system has not been working right since that fucking patch those idiots put into the game last week. Assholes must have screwed something up. ”

  I suppressed a snort. It wasn’t every day I got called an asshole and an idiot by my in-game friend. Didn’t matter that she didn’t know she was actually calling me an idiot and an asshole.

  “Yeah, those jerks at Draco. Damn them,” Heath said, not even attempting to hide the laughter in his voice.

  *You tell Fragged, Fuck off.

  *Fragged tells you, HAHAHAHAHA

  “Kat, the problem is that you just have your head up your butt again,” said Heath.

  “Shut up, Fragged, or I’m going to let you die this time. ”

  “This time? I die so much in this game they’re going to make me buy a plot at the local cemetery. ”

  I snickered. “Maybe it’s just PEBCAK. ”

  “What the hell is that?” Kat asked.

  Heath and I answered at the same time. “Problem exists between chair and keyboard. ”

  “It’s a common term in IT,” I added.

  “Oh shut up, Fallen, I liked you better when you could only type,” Kat hissed.

  *You tell Eloisa, So are you ok with me playing today? Was kind of bored.

  *Eloisa tells you, It’s okay if you play. Better playing than working.

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  *You tell Eloisa, Right.

  *Eloisa tells you, You aren’t working too much, right?

  *You tell Eloisa, Ummmm.

  “So, what are we doing?” I asked the group. “Just hacking on trolls for hours on end? Let’s do something productive. ”

  “We’re working on that shitty quest,” Kat said. “I read on Gamer Garden that they’ve found evidence of a key to the first part of the dungeon system to rescue the princess. It drops when you loot a random dead troll. But it’s super rare. So we are killing them by the hundreds to see if it drops. ”

  I sat back, trying not to laugh. I hadn’t seen that article. What a load of bullshit. I’d have to ask the developers on Monday if they had planted that bogus clue themselves.

  “What do you think, Fallen? Is it a waste of our time? I’m really, really curious to get your opinion on it,” Heath asked.

  *You tell Fragged, Fat chance.

  “I dunno. I’ll go with the flow. If you guys are having fun, let’s just keep at it. Hopefully Em—Mia is feeling less cranky?”

  “Wreaking murder and havoc on the monsters of Yondareth always brightens my mood,” she said in a breezy, distant voice.

  *Eloisa tells you, Nice almost-slip, genius boy.

  *You tell Eloisa, Can’t *always* be perfect.

  Yeah, I’d almost slipped and called her Emilia. As far as I knew, I was the only one who called her by her full name. I’d started out doing it as one of my many ploys to throw her off track as to who I really was. But it had stuck. She was my Emilia. Mia was what everyone else called her.

  *Eloisa tells you, Yeah, so…really…you aren’t working too much, are you?

  *You tell Eloisa, Define “too much. ”

  *Eloisa tells you, Adam…

  I sat back, my fingers hovering above the keyboard. My chest seized again. I was touched by her concern while at the same time resenting it. God, I missed her. And we’d only been broken up for a few weeks.

  *You tell Eloisa, I’m mostly fine.

  *Eloisa tells you, Why only “mostly”?

  *You tell Eloisa, I figured that would be obvious.

  “Incoming one badass motherfucker! It’s Grubious the Great. Get him! He’s got loot!” Heath yelled into his mic as his character appeared out of nowhere, chased by one very large and angry troll. Our group jumped into action and a few minutes later the troll’s corpse was dead at our feet, his virtual loot split between the four of us.

  *Eloisa tells you, Sorry. I meant, like with the lawsuit and stuff. The bloggers aren’t being very kind.

  *You tell Eloisa, So I noticed. Glad to see Girl Geek has stayed out of it.

  *Eloisa tells you, Of course I’d stay out of it. I spend my efforts on important things like raging about chainmail bikinis, not lawsuits.

  We spent over an hour working our way through those trolls, which generated (in gamer speak we used the word “spawned”) as fast as we could kill them. The mythical key never appeared, as I knew it wouldn’t. I was almost tempted—almost—to log in on my other rig and code something that looked like a key for them to find as a joke, but decided against it as too mean.

  I figured I’d throw them a bone instead, even if it was a very, very subtle bone.

  “So guys, this is getting extremely boring and we aren’t getting anywhere,” I said. “How about we go make some new characters and run around the starting area?”

  “WTF, Fallen. Newbies? Um, no. I’m not in the mood to get killed by a first level bat over and over again while picking yellow daffodils for General SylvanWood’s lost love,” Kat said, referring to one of the basic first quests ever given to a new character in the world of Dragon Epoch.

  *Fragged tells you, What’s the matter…are we getting warm? I have a feeling we’re on the right track and you’re trying to reroute us. It *is* the key, isn’t it???

  I laughed again. Like I would tell him. I hadn’t even told Emilia anything helpful and I’d slept with her every night for months.

  *You tell Fragged, Ooops, I guess you caught me.

  A little while later, Katya logged off to go to work. Heath stayed for another few minutes before signing off and Emilia and I were on, alone. Instead of sending text chat, we could actually talk.

  “So…” she said.

  I cleared my throat and stared at her avatar on the computer monitor. “I’m glad you decided to come back to work,” I began lamely.

  “I don’t think William would have forgiven me if I hadn’t. ”

  “Not true. He wouldn’t have forgiven me. ”

  Page 63

  She laughed a little nervously. “Maybe you’re right. ”

  There was a long, awkward pause. The static electrons hissed between us. It hurt, hearing her voice and knowing she was close by. The distance between us might as well have been millions of miles.

  She began again. “So…I’ve been thinking about all the stuff being said on the blogs right now—the ones focusing on the developments of the lawsuit…”

  I pinched the bridge of my nose and rubbed it, feeling the onset of a new headache. It served me right. The doctor had advised me to wear special glasses while using the computer and I almost always forgot to put them on. Of course, I didn’t fully believe his theory that the eyestrain was what induced the migraines.

  “Yeah? What are your thoughts?”

  “I know these people—well, not in person, but we communicate online a lot. I read and comment on their blogs, they comment on mine. We share info. We e-mail each other. I know what would steer them away from this beat-down campaign. ”

  I frowned, concentrating on her words and wishing I could see her face. I imagined that cute little dimple that appeared between her eyebrows when she was concerned. “What’s that?”

  “Change the conversation. Get them talking about something else. ”

  “Well, I was hoping that the buzz around our very first DracoCon would do that, but it doe
sn’t even seem to be making a dent. ”

  “The Con is going to be awesome and a lot of the bloggers will be there. But I know of something even better. ”

  “Yeah? What?”

  “The hidden quest. ”

  I sighed. “Is this another attempt to pry clues out of me?”

  She paused. “It’s an attempt to help you save your company’s reputation. This would get them off the warpath. And players would flock to their blogs if they were discussing their progress on the quest. ”

  “Bullshit. The minute that quest is uncovered, it’s over. They put their heads together and share clues. Then, they solve the entire thing in a thirty-hour period and post spoilers online so everyone else can just repeat what they uncovered. I worked on the concept for that quest for years. I’m not about to see it just blown through in a day and a half. ”

  “But…it’s been six months since it was implemented. People are claiming the quest doesn’t even exist or that the code for it is broken. I know in my heart that the quest will be an amazing experience or you wouldn’t be so protective of it. But you have to let it go. You have to give it up so that others can enjoy it. ”

  I shook my head though I knew she couldn’t see me. “I’ll, uh, I’ll think about it. ”

  She sighed. “Okay. You can’t keep all your secrets forever, you know. ”

  That seemed like a personal message to me about us. I took a deep breath, feeling like we’d crossed over into forbidden territory. We’d never expressly forbidden this territory, but it seemed dangerous all the same. “I’ll keep them for as long as necessary. ”

  “I see,” she said quietly.

  I paused. “When can I see you again?” I finally asked.

  She cleared her throat. “I thought you were seeing other people. ”

  “That’s not an answer. ”

  She paused. “I don’t know. ”

  I closed my eyes, the headache intensifying. But this ache was nothing like the one in my chest. I’d fucked up with her, badly, and if I didn’t rein myself in soon, I stood to fuck up even more.

  “I’m gonna go. I won’t log on again unless you want me to. ”

  “Why would I not want you to? You had fun today, I could tell. I’d never ask you not to log on. ”

  “I did have fun, but you enjoying your gaming time is more important. ” And I probably wouldn’t have logged on if I hadn’t wanted to hear her voice so badly.

  “Adam, I…”

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