While swords of lightning slashed and stabbed murderously across the scarred shield of sky, Bart Minnock whistled his way home for the last time. Despite the battering rain, Bart’s mood bounced along with his cheerful tune as he shot his doorman a snappy salute.
“Howzit going, Mr. Minnock?”
“It’s going up, Jackie. Going way uptown.”
“This rain could do the same, if you ask me.”
“What rain?” With a laugh, Bart sloshed his way in soaked skids to the elevator.
Thunder exploded across the island of Manhattan, midday commuters sulked under overpriced umbrellas bought from enterprising sidewalk hawkers and maxibuses spewed up walls of wet. But in Bart’s world the sun beamed in golden rays.
He had a hot date with the sexy CeeCee, which in itself was nothing to sneeze at for a self-proclaimed nerd who’d been a virgin until the somewhat embarrassing age of twenty-four.
Five years later, and largely because of the success of U-Play, he could have his pick from a bevy of eager women—even if the eager was mostly due to the money and media his company generated.
He didn’t mind.
He knew he wasn’t especially good-looking and accepted his own awkwardness in romantic situations. (Except for sexy CeeCee.) He didn’t know art or literature, didn’t know a good vintage from a bottle of home brew. What he knew were computers and games and the seduction of technology.
Still, CeeCee was different, he thought as he turned off the locks and security on his trilevel apartment with its four-star view of downtown. She liked gaming, and didn’t care about vintage wine or art galleries.
But even the evening with the sweet and sexy CeeCee wasn’t the reason for the whistling or the big, bright grin on his face as he reset the door locks.
He had the latest version of Fantastical in his briefcase, and until he tested it, played it, approved it, it was all his.
His in-house intercom greeted him with a cheery Welcome home, Bart, and his server droid—custom-made to replicate Princess Leia, classic Star Wars, slave-girl mode (he was a nerd, but he was still a guy)—strolled out to offer him his favorite orange fizzy with crushed ice.
“You’re home early today.”
“I’ve got some work to do in the holo-room.”
"Don’t work too hard. You need to leave in two hours and twelve minutes to arrive at CeeCee’s apartment on time. You’re scheduled to pick up flowers on the way. Will you be staying the night?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Enjoy. Your shoes are very wet. Would you like me to get you a fresh pair?”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll grab some on the way up.”
“Don’t forget,” she said with the quick Leia smirk that always tickled him. “Should I give you a reminder about your date closer to departure time?”
He set his briefcase aside, shook back the light brown hair that forever fell into his eyes. “That’s okay. I’ll set up a buzz in holo. You can just shut down for the night.”
“All right. I’m here if you need me.”
Normally, he’d have used his personal Leia for some conversational practice, might have had her keep him company while he unwound from the day and talked about current projects. There was nothing like a droid as far as Bart was concerned. They never judged, unless you programmed them to.
But Fantastical called him. He opened his briefcase, took out the disc, gave it a friendly kiss as he started up the stairs.
He’d decorated his spaces to his own whim and taste, so toys abounded. Props, weapons, costumes, and art from vids and games served as decor and amusement with every room on every level outfitted with various game systems, vid systems, screens, and comps.
It was, for Bart, a dream realized. He lived, as he worked, in a big e-playroom.
His second-floor office was a to-scale reproduction of the bridge of the galactic warship The Valiant, from the vid of the same name. His work on the gaming discs for the vid had given his fledgling U-Play its true start.
He forgot about changing his shoes, or changing his wet shirt, and went straight to the third floor.
Security on the holo-room required his thumbprint, voiceprint, and a retinal scan. Overkill, he knew, but it was more fun that way, and fun was always the name of the game. He might have opened up the space regularly for friends and guests, but he liked having the superspy aspects in place.
He reactivated them on entering, then shut down all outside coms. For the hour—okay maybe ninety minutes—he intended to play, he wanted no interruptions.
The whole point of gaming, to Bart’s mind, was the immersion of self in the fantasy, or the competition, or just the fun. And Fantastical would take that immersion of self several steps beyond what was on the market in mid-2060.
If the latest adjustments and enhancements worked, the businessman inside the gamer reminded him.
“They’ll work. It’ll be mag to the nth,” he muttered as he inserted the disc and ran through the startup. Once again he used his voiceprint, then his password. The new version was totally top secret. He and his partners hadn’t built U-Play on geek alone. He understood, very well, the cutthroat business in the gaming field, and actually found the corporate espionage kind of a rush.
He was a player, he thought. Not just in games but in the business of games. U-Play’s success provided everything he and his friends, his partner, had talked about, dreamed about, worked for.
With Fantastical, they’d be kicking it all up—and—fingers crossed—become major players.
He’d already decided on the scenario, a favorite, and the level. He’d practiced, studied, refined, and reworked this fantasy, the elements of it countless times during development, and now set for the game he code-named K2BK. He’d take the role of the battered and cynical hero, battling the evil forces of the beleaguered kingdom of Juno on the endangered planet of Gort.
The mirrored walls of the holo-room reflected him as the light began to swirl and dim, as his damp and wrinkled khakis and Captain Zee’s T-shirt, his wet skids transformed into the scarred battle gear and boots of the warrior king.
In his hand he felt the hilt, and the weight of the broadsword. And that rush, yes, that new rush of his embodiment of the hero, and the battle to come.
Excellent, he thought. Excellente primo. He could smell as well as see the smoke of battle, and the blood already spilled. He reached up, felt the bulge of biceps, the pucker of an old scar.
Twinges and aches throughout his body spoke of wounds barely healed, a lifetime of combat.
Best, he felt strong, bold, brave, fierce. He became the courageous warrior king about to lead his exhausted, wounded, and unnumbered people into battle.
He let out a war cry—because he could—and heard the power of his voice shake the air.
It rocked completely.
A scruff of beard covered his face, and a tangle of hair tickled his neck and shoulders.
He was Tor, the warrior, the protector and rightly King of Juno. He mounted his warhorse—on the second try, which wasn’t bad—and charged into battle. He heard the cries of friend and foe as swords clashed and fire lances spewed death. His beloved Juno burned so he hacked his way through the lines while blood splattered and sweat streamed down his skin.
At his partner Benny’s suggestion they’d added an optional love interest. In order to reach his woman, a brave and beautiful warrior courageously defending the castle walls, he had to fight his way to the front and engage in the ultimate battle—mano a mano with the evil Lord Manx.
He’d reached this level countless times during development, had gone beyond it only a handful as he programmed the challenge to the top of the scale. It took skill, timing, agility to fight through, to dodge the flames from lance and arrow, to deflect the slash of sword—or what was the point?
Any hit would lower his score, potentially send him into humiliating retreat, or a valiant death. This time he wasn’t looking just to beat the level, but to hit a new record.
His horse screamed in challenge as they galloped through the stink of smoke, leaped over bodies of the fallen. He braced and clung when the horse reared, and still was nearly unseated.
Every time that happened, he met Manx on foot, and every time he met Manx on foot, he lost Juno, the woman, and the game.
Not this time, he swore, and gave another booming cry as he broke through the smoke.
And there, the walls of home where the brave fought those who tried to destroy it. And there, the dark, fearful visage of Lord Manx, sword red with the blood of innocents. He felt a pang—for loss, for the happier times of his childhood before murder and deceit had sullied it.
“Your trap failed,” Bart called out.
“I would have been disappointed otherwise.” Manx grinned, his black eyes shining with death. “It was always my wish to meet you here, to end you and your line on this ground.”
“It will end here, and with your blood.”
The men charged; swords met. A snap of lightning Bart had added for drama spurted and sizzled from the cross of the blades.
Bart felt the impact race up his arm, and the bolt of pain in his shoulder had him making a mental note to lower the levels on the ...