Chapter 2 – The Pass of a Lifetime

Chapter 1 started here – https://damienhansonbooks.com/2020/07/15/chapter-1-eat-my-containment-unit-for-neutralizing-trauma/

“All right ladies and gentlemen,” Tyriah said, “Let’s put them in downtime.”

She watched as the coders all sprang into action to shut down further threats the Pradthala family might face, and her leads to the left and right shut down the current threat clocks measuring out the game’s current difficulty settings. On screen, the danger klaxons stopped whirring and retreated into the wall. More security drones arrived and retrieved the CUNTs, freeing up the rest of the family members. Meanwhile, Mr. Pradthala slowly strolled along the hallway, gesturing towards this or that feature of the game, interspersed with softball questions from NNN and GNI. 

On the HUDs, the message scrolled across the top: DOWNTIME PHASE ACTIVATED – RAMP UP PROCESS WILL RESET IN 2 HOURS.

“We’re pleased to announce the roll out of our newest upgrade,” he said, and stopped. “And you, folks watching at home, will have the first glimpse of the genre crossover in action. Shanny!” 

His niece strolled over on screen, while coders called out and confirmed all systems were good. Most were there for no good reason whatsoever, but were on time and a half, so nobody complained. They knew anything directly involving Mr. Pradthala was top priority and nothing went wrong. He’d also mentioned to Tyriah that this was the first time he’d be leaving anything up to chance with his teenage niece, but he was confident she would easily be able to take over the heavy lifting while also becoming the face of version 2.0. Ravindra didn’t have the same drawing power for males aged 18-24, 24-40, or 40-60 that Shanaya did. 

“Hey boss, can you take a look at this?”

“Pertinent?” she asked.

“Buggy.”

Tyriah waved it off without taking her eyes off the action. “Log it and send it along to the right department.”

There was a moment of silence while the news correspondents shifted their attention over to the young savior in the sci-fi singlet, especially with half her head shaved and the other half, long enough to spill halfway down her back, draped over the shaved part.

“Add a touch of eye shadow,” Tyriah said. “Subtle. Ease into it. I want viewers to notice it only after it’s there. Shimmering silver with a hint of pink.”

Everyone held their breath while the PC skinning team went to work, picking a color and waiting for Tyriah to approve of the choice, then dial it up just slow enough that no one realized it was there until they saw how much it worked with her skin tone.

“Boss? I really think you need to take a look at this,” the shaky, unsure voice repeated.

“You have five seconds.”

“We had an unnatural full system cache spike that put us at eighty-five percent overall.” Just like what started happening with Swords & Sorcerers, he didn’t say, but didn’t have to. That shit show had gotten resolved just yesterday, thank heavens. The other heads popped up and away from their stations. Some didn’t even bother to shut off their social media browsers or their YouStreamIt videos.

“But it’s gone?”

“Dropped back down to twenty-four percent where we were.”

“Did you log it? Send it on?”

“Of course. But if it happens again–”

“Worst is over,” she said, and returned her attention to the end of this little demonstration. “Jizz Moppers?”

The coding team for Windswept Hearts perked up. They had the job that was arguably the easiest, most insufferably boring, and had the most disgusting assignments of any team. All that was about to change, but nobody on staff had the magical ability to predict the future.

“Can you take a look at that cache spike and see if you can’t pinpoint the coordinates? Cthulhu Zombies can help you out.” This was an even worse job than normal, given the sheer amount of server farms Prestige Gaming employed here. The estimation was the surface area of Vermont. However, the coders on loan from Terror Within were also on the case. They nodded and pulled away into a huddle of tablets and quiet, slightly miffed conversation. 

Neither would be missed. Shanaya Pradthala had only a single horror movie on her browser history, and the boss man had informed them that it was a date gone bad. She had no interest in replaying through a freakout scenario.

On screen, the news folks were peppering Shanaya with simple questions about the game, the Pradthala family, and her high school life. By now the eyeshadow had appeared, and looked just as spectacular as Tyriah thought it would. Mostly, Prestige’s new star smiled and chewed on her lower lip before responding, which was exactly how she’d been briefed on how to act. This was going to work out perfectly; maybe Tyriah could get the fuck out of Dungeonworld assignments.

***

“Is there anyone back at your high school you’d like to give a shout out to?”

Shanaya bit her lip and tried her very best not to look annoyed. Finally she settled on a response. “You bet! I just want to wish the Freemont International High Flying Fish good luck tonight! They’ll be playing the Port Valley Prickly Porcupines.”

“I’m sure they’ll stomp those prick… ly porcupines,” the news lady said, and tipped her a wink. They wouldn’t, but the news lady had no idea.

There. Now everybody would know that she had no friends, and only wanted the stupid football jocks to win, which they wouldn’t. The football team was the school joke, and generally tried to stay off the radar if possible. She felt a brief surge of dark satisfaction in putting the Flying Fish Football team on everyone’s minds. 

“I think we’re ready to announce our special Version 2.0 upgrade,” her uncle said.

“Phenomenal!” The news dude said. “Now, explain what’s about to happen, if you would please.”

“My exemplary niece is about to choose a pair of genres to play in at the same time, and we’re going to see the very first two genre mashup. We have magi-techno with Swords & Sorcerers crossed with Galaxies Unknown, or Steampunk if we were to blend Mystery Noir with Cyberpunk. We could have the Great Dark Gods if we mixed Stone, Bronze & Steel with The Terror Within. And now, Shanaya, I hope you’ll do the honors.”

All three adults shifted their attention back to her. 

“What will she choose?” News dude asked. “Her choices have just expanded exponentially! What an exciting addition to the Prestige Games platform.”

“I’m honored to be able to witness this firsthand!” news lady gushed.

“How about Cyberpunk Alleys?” She asked. “That’s got flying cars and mechanical arms and stuff right? 

Uncle Ravindra smiled his usual broad smile. “It sure does, and that’s a great choice. And let’s mix it with…”

“I still like the idea of swinging around and sword fighting. Can we go with Swashbuckle Isles again?”

***

“Holy fuck,” one of the nearby coders breathed. “That’s awesome.”

“Cut the chatter. You heard the lady,” Tyriah called out. “Let’s give our hero a cybernetic arm, throw a grapple component on there, and she’ll need a vibro weapon, a rapier. Family’s going to need a ship with all the presidential expansions, Swashbuckle. We need some dynamic environment. What’ve you got, Cybros?”

One of the Cyberpunk Alleys cleared her throat and piped up. “Stacked slum high rises choking with smog, and above that, a floating city full of mega-rich assholes.”

“Very funny. Keep the stacked slums, and let’s start them on roof level. Can we throw everything into an arcology? Slums inside or out?”

“Both?” 

“All right, that sounds good. Helm, engage!”

Instantly, on screen, the game environment went white. Blocks now made up the hallway they were in, but began to shift around in the moment they were visible. Instead, the game skin came on, giving them a gritty vista of shipping containers, scaffolding, and RVs piled up into a haphazard skyscraper Tyriah thought she’d seen in a movie once. It didn’t matter. In the middle distance, a huge ashy colored dome rose impossibly high into the sky, belching smoke into the air from dozens of chimneys, and other less savory chemicals from others in whitish clouds. Streams of floating cars and larger ships soared overhead, humming loudly from glowing repulsors and shaking the whole slum scene with seismic vibrations. 

As for Shanaya, she regained most of the pirate look she’d had before, except now the tattoos peeking out from beneath her grungy clothes and bits of armor were glowing and floating a half inch over her skin. And, of course, one arm had been replaced with a bare metal thing full of actuators, holding a rapier with a humming bluish blade.

“Perkins, give her a cool scar, would you?” Tyriah ordered, and a moment later it streaked down her face, from forehead to chin, like once upon a time Shanaya had had an axe buried right down the center, and somehow survived.

“There we go,” she muttered. “There it is. Hey, who took away that eye shadow? Get that back. Girl looks like a goddess.”

The news anchors lost their minds.

“A cyberpunk pirate ship’s going to need camouflage, right?” One of the Cyberpunk Alleys story writers called. “Otherwise the cops bust them on their first day out.”

“Can you script the adaptive camo armor Gear to cover the whole ship?” Another asked the coders.

“Bet your ass I can. Watch this.”

The ship beneath the feet of the rest of the Pradthala family had them clipped into loops on the exterior, with tiny winches at their belts to keep them from falling to their deaths. The ship itself was a parody of a three masted ship, except the sails were energy collecting panels and the bow of the ship had a naked lady made of wood painted on it. SS Shanny was expertly painted on the hull. Various bits of graffiti littered the side, including ‘Your mom was here’ and ‘if you can read this, I’m stealing all your shit.’ The remainder was slate gray streaked with grime where it wasn’t similar repulsor engines. Except that a few moments after it appeared beneath the family’s feet, it vanished, piecemeal, into the background. Only a few hazy suggestions of motion betrayed that something occupied the space.

***

Ravindra turned to the news dude and lady, and said, “Well folks, my niece has done a masterful job and now deserves an uncle to be her copilot.” He produced a number of cards and fanned them out, then handed them to the news lady. “You’ll be receiving a complementary weekend of gaming on me. Three days, two nights. Go and have the time of your lives.”

Mr. NNN was actually named Gavin Cooper, and he just about felt his knees buckle. “Oh my… thank you so much, Mr. Pradthala. It’s an honor!”

The CEO was already walking away, but turned another gleaming grin their way and waved. The game skin, now a grungy cyberpunk overlay on the CEO, buffed him up in his already toned shoulders and turned his plain old leg into a cybernetic one, but Gavin couldn’t help but note (again) just how big the bulge was in Ravindra Pradthala’s thoroughly ripped up acid washed jeans. They watched him clip into the side of the invisible ship, take an invisible hand, and vanish into the protection of the cyberpunk pirate ship.

He turned to GNI, whose name was Danielle Longstreet, and together they shared an ‘oh shit!’ moment of utter glee. They hopped around each other like school kids told they were about to get free ice cream before heading to the waterpark, then took hands and more or less did a squealing Ring Around the Rosie. Of course, this looked a bit out of place atop a stack of slum apartments each roughly the size of his bedroom in a pollution-choked vista with janky flying cars all around, but right now the last thing on their minds was a gritty cyberpunk world. 

He then signed off with a ‘Todd, I’ll see you on Monday with the story of a lifetime!’ while Danielle did her own signoff. 

The rumors were true. They had to be true. He kept repeating it over and over again, though he dared not say it for fear that it wouldn’t actually happen. While the news crew packed up their heavy gear in the NNN van, he kept sneaking glances over at Danielle. They were both married, but what happened in another fucking universe stayed in another universe! 

The blue credit cards each read: 3 Day VIP pass– Prestige Gaming. 

“Congratulations, Mr. Cooper,” a bored Prestige employee said, suddenly beside him. “If you and your crew could just follow me, that would be great. We’ll need you to review and sign these waivers.” 

She had a tablet with over a hundred pages of legalese that he paid no attention to, and rapidly scrolled through before checking ‘Accept’, followed by ‘Agree’. Other Prestige employees were materializing out of the game environment and approaching Danielle and the rest of her crew as well. 

The two producers (read: glorified cameramen) also jumped when they discovered park personnel appearing out of nowhere right next to them, and also disregarded all the legal speak. Several acceptance taps later, they were all bid to follow the quiet employees to a large iridescent lozenge of a car. 

“You’ve just agreed not to make any photo or video recording of your time here at Prestige,” the first one droned. “That means you’ll be surrendering any handhelds, tablets, or other phone devices, and allowing our people to attach restraining bolts to any cybernetic tech you might have integrated onto your persons.”

The enthusiasm was infectious enough that Gavin couldn’t have his spirits shaken. They glanced at one another, shrugged, still high on the invite and the chance to meet Mr. Pradthala, and of course the insane experience they’d just shared. They turned over their devices, were taken to the HUB, and suited up. Gavin had a few words with the cameramen while they pulled on haptic bodysuits, and asked whether the two of them wanted to stick together or make a go of it alone. One of them had always wanted to be a World War II flying ace, while his cameraman Hugh said he was going to go be the sheriff of a one horse town. 

“Would you like your VIP Services guide?” the bored attendant asked him, but he wasn’t paying attention. He only had Danielle on his mind. He waved the Prestige employee off and wandered out of the changing room, while employees gathered up his wallet, pants and underwear and put them in bins.

They parted ways and left Gavin to meet back up with Danielle Longstreet. They’d met at a few events, but never had much chance to talk with one another… she’d always been on his Wife-Allowed list.

He approached her, with the haptic suit suctioned onto his body, and his six pack gleaming front and center. “How do you feel about a partner?” he asked.

Danielle opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it apparently, because she then snapped it shut and smiled strangely at him. “Sure, why not?”

***

Shanaya was ready to admit to herself that they were having fun when her aunt had to go and ruin it. First, they’d taken off on their ship, and she’d felt the wind in her hair. They were flying, and maybe sure they were still on the ground somehow with game blocks around them, but anywhere she looked the surface was hundreds of feet below, or ramshackle homes built into unsteady shapes by the ingenuity and poverty of the fake people living in them. The illusion was perfect, and more than that, once they got the ship off the ground, she knew they could get hundreds of real feet in the air.

A message had appeared, and relayed to them by a shadowy bearded guy (who called himself Johnson for some reason) was a message: If you want riches beyond your wildest dreams, and the ability to shove a knife in the ribs of those cocky rich sonsabitches running the arcology, you’d best head to these coordinates and be ready for plunder. He then relayed the schematics of the convoy they’d be robbing, starting from the arcology through a dangerous part of the world: Ryker’s Gulch. If they weren’t fast enough, they’d have to dive beneath the sea toward the underwater arcology Seatopia. Everything would get a hundred times harder and more dangerous once they were beneath the waves. 

Of course Ryker’s Gulch was teeming with security precautions, and other pirate teams might be after the cargo, but the shadowy bearded guy Johnson had heard they were the baddest pirates this side of Arizona Bay. 

All that was just gravy as far as Shanaya was concerned. It was once the message cut out that her aunt got involved.

“Well this is hardly the sort of thing a girl her age should be doing, is it Ravindra?”

Both of them turned to behold Aunt Rashmi. 

Uncle Ravindra’s mouth dropped open. “Ahhh… jewel of my heart, I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about.”

“Running around in a pirate’s outfit? With tattoos all up and down her body? And look at this, you’ve chopped her arm right off. See that? She’s been forced to get a prosthesis. Not only horrific and sad, but disgusting. You’d think with the technology these days, she could get something lifelike, so no one would notice her disability.”

She turned toward her uncle, flummoxed, and found he’d also turned to face her. Apparently neither of them had any idea how to proceed. If there was one person who could suck all the words out of the mighty Ravindra Pradthala’s mouth, it was his wife. 

“Ahh…”

“And look at me? Look at what you’ve done to me?” She swept her hands down. All her fashionable henna, gold bangles and jeweled bindi were gone. In their place she had a tricorn hat, a shabby flowing shirt sporting several holes, and someone had replaced one of her eyes with a large cybernetic attachment. Presently it was glowing red. 

Shanaya thought she looked completely amazing, but apparently this wasn’t up to her standard.

“This is… this is a game, my sweet,” her uncle said.

“Pah,” she dismissed with a wave. “Women should be stately and beautiful wherever they go. And maybe they shouldn’t be playing games? Why don’t you change us back into something presentable. I for one would love to wear a beautiful sari, red and gold. Oh, and the most expensive jewelry that your little game robots can manufacture.”

“Your wish is my command,” her uncle smiled while putting his hand behind his back in a place where only she could see. He waved her away and she almost giggled. He was giving her a chance to escape!

 Gently easing her way around the corner of a deck cabin, Shanaya breathed a silent sigh of relief and grabbed a hold of some rigging. She’d be best hidden in the crow’s nest. And she’d have the best seat in the house. The world around her was pure gorgeousness and she wasn’t going to visit in a pink dress with red ruby slippers.

Dice bopped and clanged in her HUD and then a 6 and a 9 rolled through her vision. Success! She pulled herself up and kicked off into a swing, laughing into the tremendously blue sky.

“Hey. Hey!” her aunt called from below. The woman had gotten her avatar changed and was back to herself, but clad in a rich sari and absolutely covered in golden jewelry. Bling bling, Shanaya thought, laughing harder. She didn’t even notice when the distractions of below caused a reroll of the dice in her HUD. And then her hands, suddenly slick with sweat, rolled off of the cord and she plummeted to the deck below.

She crashed against the deck. You’ve suffered a Level 1 Harm, the HUD announced. Would you like to resist? 

Honestly, it felt tough to breathe, but she reached up and tapped yes. More dice clattered, then the HUD informed her You have taken 4 Stress. She lay there spreadeagle, out of breath but giddy. Even falling in this game was a blast. And with her haptic setting turned way down that fall hadn’t hurt nearly as much as it could’ve.

“Young lady!” she heard her aunt bellow from somewhere nearby. Nope. That’s not going to happen, she thought. She jumped to her feet with ease, dice clattered, and then she was bounding up a pile of spare parts, leaping up into the rigging and spidering her way upwards. This is magnificent she marveled. Grabbing a hold of the circular edge of the crow’s nest, she pulled herself in while cheesy happy music filled her brain. “I am King of the World!” she cried, not ripping off a single thing from any movie, new or old.

“Woah,” came a voice from behind her. She almost pitched forward out of the crow’s nest and into the deck below. Shanaya gasped in shock and flipped her head over her shoulder to see who or what had surprised her. A kid was sitting there, recessed into the bottom corner. He waved a weak hello.

“Who are you?” Nataya asked. Her surprise had turned to intrigue – the kid was dressed in a peasant smock and smelled like a dirty alley.

“I’m Marioli. But, please don’t giggle, I don’t like it.”

She nodded. Being named after the titular character of such VR classics as ‘Uber Awesome Marioli Family’ and ‘Jump On Monsters Eat Star Many Fight’ had to have taken a toll on the kid. Plus it was nice to have someone here not recognize her. She’d take that for all it was worth.

“How old are you, Marioli? And what kind of character are you?”

He laughed. “You’ll never guess it. This place is amazing!”

“Well, are you ten?” she asked, doubt laced through her words.

“Nope. Would you like to guess again?”

“Nope. Would you like to tell me the answer now?”

“I’m 17. In real life I’m about five foot six!” he stood up and turned himself in a circle, gesticulating over his body. “How’s that for a wonder?”

She giggled and her mind wandered over what he might look like inside of all of those nanites. Brown choco-eyes set in a face of bronze? Maybe pale white and freckled skin topped by a bushy mound of freaky red wispiness?

Then she groaned inwardly. Being lonely at school and in life was making her crazy.

“Well, Marioli, I’m Shanaya, Busty Buccaneer of the, uh, Bovian Badlands!”

“You don’t look that busty.”

“Shuddup. I don’t think my parents will let me change my boobs setting but that doesn’t mean I can’t dream. Anyways, what’s your game story? Am I debasing myself with a simple farmer boy? Busty buccaneers have better things to do, you know.”

“I am Marenzo, apprentice plumber to Lorenzo, who is son to Costenzo, the head of the guild. But I was kidnapped by slavers so I escaped their hold and jumped off of their ship not so long ago and just kinda fell down into this crow’s nest. Been sitting here ever since. It’s nice and relaxing. Plus it’s apparently a good way to meet new people.”

“Well, Marenzo, welcome to the Spooner Schooner or whatever proper name my Aunt will give it soon enough. So you say you hopped your way to adventure?”

“Indeed I did!”

Shanaya pulled herself up onto the edge of her crow’s nest and held out a hand to Marenzo.

“Wanna jump again?” she asked. 

Published by Damien Lee Hanson

I am the founder of Damien Hanson Books. Come check out awesome authors right here at my website!

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