No Way Back – The Story Ch. 06-10 – Edited 04JUN2010


Chapter 6

I logged into my system and tried to make it seem like there wasn’t anything was out of the ordinary. I knew that wasn’t going to be possible since I’d been gone for days from the game. Wow… It’s already been two weeks and I hadn’t really noticed. I spent it trying to talk to Dannielle with no luck. She still refused to see me, hear me, anything. I absentmindedly punched in my password and hit the Enter key. In moments I was logged into my dropship’s control room and looking at the various ‘Bot models I’d accumulated. Across the display were my personal stats, the repair condition of my machines, ammunition stockpiles, job requests, friend invites, and rival matches. Everything that I would need to get myself into the game in one of the several ways possible waited for me there. That also included the incoming message beacon, which, at the moment was flashing at me to let me know someone had directly commed me. Or at least had tried. I had three messages, the display scrolling that fact along my command console. I clicked the button and the console flipped up, displaying the messages along with previous contacts. The first one was a message about the game’s two years anniversary and commemorative maps for their users. The second was from one of my “friends” who only had me on his list because he felt he was cheated out of a game when I blew out his Bot’s energy control module, a favored tactic of veteran ‘Bot pilots, and something that I only used to show newer pilots their vulnerability if they weren’t careful. He wanted to challenge me yet again. I laughed as I skim through the message and pushed it aside, thinking I’d have to deal with him another time.

The third message is what catches my attention. It was from my friend from school, Preston. We were friends long before we were on the same assault team in the game. He was writing to check up on me, to tell me how Dannielle had called him and told him that she was leaving me for good, and that it was “way uncool” how I was treating her. The accusation made me that much more angry, but I realized that his feelings on the matter were based on what she knew of what was happening, that I had “been with” someone else and that I hadn’t talked to anyone about it recently. He continued that I seemed more and more elusive and that he was starting to worry that I was spending too much time in the game in general, even though he hadn’t seen me in a few weeks there. The message ended, “Maybe you and I should get off this game and hit the laser tag arena like we used to.”

Laser tag. Sounds like a plan to me! I mean, hell, I don’t really want to be here all by myself in front of this computer today. And yes, he’s right. My life had become nothing but a running stat chart on ChromeBots with the exception of my self-served exile from the world at large the past few weeks. Not to mention that, if I kept going the way I was, I was going to loose what little form I had. I wasn’t really gaining weight yet, but at the rate I was going I was going to find myself “morbidly obese,” as the media and paranoid doctors put it. I laugh at that thought. Yeah, me, still too scrawny to make average weight, as fat…

I quickly close out the game, ignoring the invites that begin popping in my screen and the beacon’s sudden increase from zero to six in a few moments’ time. Today I’m the third best of four gunners in my laser tag team whether anyone liked it or not. The Bot-runners will just have to wait for “PandorasBane” to be ready for them another time. Besides, I have been avoiding everyone, and it was time for me to face reality again. I don’t want people to know how torn up I am about Dannielle, Gabriela, Audrey, or any of the girls who had the misfortune of trying to be my girlfriend in the past, but especially Dannielle. The time spent with each of the girls that I’d tried dating and failed miserably flashed through my heart and mind for just a moment. Each of them were so friendly and so nice to me, even if I really did treat them like crap. They even tried to deal with my gaming habit which just seemed to get worse. And now, to factor in this new person, Chi’bi, or whoever they are. It slowly brought more questions to mind. How many calls hadn’t I received? Was someone tapping my phones? What could I have been doing to create so much interest in me? I push it all aside for the time being and bound up the steps as I head up to my room to get changed.

My closet is flung open, and I dive into the “organized chaos” my mother calls a pigsty of a closet. “I know just where everything in here is!” I’d told her a dozen times. Today, though, I prove myself wrong as I go searching for my team’s shirt. It had been a while since I’d needed it. “Wow,” I say out loud to no one in particular, “It’s been three months! I hope I’m still part of the team.” I grab the pile of clothes and toss them out of the closet, hoping that doing so will show my shirt. Of course, all that really does is make a mess of my room since the majority of my shirts are dark blues, browns, and blacks, a fact that doesn’t dawn on me until after I’ve tossed them. I growl softly at myself as I start rummaging through the now spread pile. I finally find it, a black shirt with diagonal silver stripes and a screen-print of a pair of assault rifles crossing at the muzzles and a black light-reactive bull’s-eye between their butts. Our team, the “Young Gunners,” could have had a tournament run a year ago. Too bad I was too preoccupied with trying, quite literally, to win Allessa’s favor to send in the paperwork. I hurriedly inspect the fabric and stitching to ensure that there are no tears, and then bring it to my nose to sniff it. Seems good, I think as I toss it on the bed. My hands are a blur as I yank off the basic blue t-shirt I’m currently wearing. I toss it into the hamper across the room, then quickly pull on the team shirt.

“Alright, that’s done,” I say to the closet. I quickly round up the thrown clothing and toss the heap onto my bed. Who knows, maybe mom’s right and I should put it away correctly. I’ll do it when I get home, I tell myself. My pants should be much easier; they’ll be in the drawer where I put them. Sure enough, they are at the very bottom of the pile. I jump out of my shorts and pull on the jeans, then grab the sneakers that are half-hidden under my bed, and hurriedly pull them on. I keep a pair of extra-baggy jeans for one reason and one reason only: EVERY other pair of pants I’d worn that weren’t baggy either grabbed, pulled, or tore as I played. You can’t imagine how embarrassing it is to have to finish a match when your boxers are showing through the split on your behind. Even though I didn’t like wearing the “tents” that I enjoyed teasing some people about, they were definitely less likely to tear when moving around, and, sometimes, that’s the part that matters.

“Now to call Preston.” I quietly head back down the hall, expecting my parents to still be sleeping. After all, it is only nine-thirty in the morning. I hadn’t been up this early, outside of heading to school, since Dannielle had left me! I make it down the steps, stealth my primary objective, head around the banister and into the living room. I grab up the house phone and dial in his cell number.

“Mmm… ‘Ello?”

“Preston! It’s me, wake up!”

“Robert?” The sleep in his voice unmistakable.

“Yeah, dude, come on! Get up!”

“What are you, crazy? It’s… Dude, it’s not even ten yet, wake me up when it’s, like, afternoon!”

I decide to give my intent quickly. “Snipes, we gotta get moving! Come on, I’m already dressed and ready to go!” I even sound excited in my own ears. Am I really this excited about getting out of the house?

“They don’t even open for another hour and a half, man, are you serious?” I hear the sound of his sheets rustling as he sits up. “Besides, why now? You haven’t wanted to go now in, like, forever!”

I recoil at the implication. He’s right, I know it. That doesn’t mean I don’t wanna go. “Look, man, if you don’t wanna go, I’ll understand, but I’m going whether you like it or not.”

“Alright, alright, just gimme a few minutes to get dressed. In fact, you come pick me up.”

“Not a problem. Hey, I’m gonna call the other guys to–”

“Don’t bother. They won’t come. It’s too early. Hell, it’s too early for me.” He laughs quietly, and I hear him stretching, the yawn and groan are loud and obviously aimed at the phone. “Only reason I’m agreeing is because I can’t wait to kick your skinny ass, bee-atch.”

“You and what army?” I joke, knowing, statistically, he wasn’t bluffing.”

“Ha, ha. Anyway, mind if I invite someone else to come along?” The request surprises me. Usually he just informs me.

“Sure. Will I be picking him up, too?”

“No, man. They’ll just meet us up there. Give me a minute to text’em.”

“No problem.” I smile, expecting to finally not be on the lower-half of the team. “Uh, Preston? You said text, right?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“What company do you use for your cell phone?”

“Finally gonna break down and buy your own ‘tracking device,’ huh?” His voice drips in sarcasm, as I pick up the less-than-subtle jab at my insistence that cell phones actually allow us to be tracked by the government. I’m not crazy, I know they can.

“Well, it’s more like I think someone’s already broken into my life…”

I hear a sound that I associate with a shirt rubbing against his phone. “Oh, you mean the ‘Chi’bi’ thing? Might just have been a fluke. Or, maybe she was calling a wrong number.”

“Doesn’t matter. Whoever this Chi’bi person is, she’s screwed up my life. Well, worse than I’d done to myself.” I feel myself getting angry again and shove it deep down. Save it for the arena, I tell myself.

“Ah. Well, I use Mobi-Tech. You can get it just about anywhere, and it’s only about twenty bucks for 800 minutes, and you get free mobile-to-mobile for the ten numbers you call the most.” He almost sounds like the infomercial by the time he’s finished his quote.

I think for a moment. Twenty bucks and I know that they are willing to change the number for me if I can prove that someone’s cracked the number. Or that I’m being stalked. “Alright, we’ll stop in and get one for me today.”

“Sounds good, bro. Now, hurry up and pick me up, my trigger finger’s itchin’.”

“Alright, see ya in a few.”

I turn off the phone and set it on the charger. Time to roll. I reach into my pocket and grab my keys, and my finger finds itself against the gemmed key-fob that Dannielle had given me for our one-month anniversary. I still hadn’t removed it, part of me thinking that, if I don’t remove it, then she’d come back when someone says it’s still there. She must really hate me. She won’t even look at me, let alone talk to me and give me a chance to tell her how I really feel about her.

I start heading for the door, reach out, and grab the brass nob. I turn it, pulling the door open to face the bright sunshine and slight morning chill. It was a bit warmer today than it had been the past few days and I wouldn’t need a jacket. Besides, the cold helped. Made me feel like I wasn’t the only empty thing on the planet. As I make my way out of the house, I start thinking about my options in regards to the cell phone. I have some cash from when I was working. I never felt a need to buy anything outside of sodas, and those can be rather cheap. I don’t want an over-expensive phone. Just something that I can use and no one can listen in. Preston has one of those ultra-thin phones, and it always has reception. That’ll work for me.

My hand catches the handle of the door to my 1993 Chevy Cavalier Z24. Its faded black paint would look great if I took the time to work on it. It was in good repair since the previous owner religiously took care of it. My dad bought it cheap so I could go to work, not that I was now. He keeps telling me that, if I get another job, he’ll go halves on a newer car with me. The problem is that I really like my car. Maybe I should hurry and get a new job, and convince him to go halves on a paint job instead. I sit in the car, pulling the door shut, and crank my V-6 into life. I smile as I let the clutch out and rocket out of the driveway. The exhaust grunts as I bring the car around, drop her into first, and head down the street to pick up Preston.

Chapter 7

She stirs in her bed. It’s nothing like what Chi’bi was used to, the sleeping pods on her unit’s dropship. They were meant to hold one person at a time, which made this human-and-machine-made full-size mattress feel way too large. And without the enclosure she always felt like she was about to fall out and be injured. Even the sleeping pads on the passenger ships she was used to offered more of a feel of security, although they could compare size-wise.

At the moment, though, none of those thoughts were in her mind. Chi’bi was sleeping, and her dreams were of her far-off home, Eil’phia. She wore only what she needed, since her kind usually preferred to let their bodies be against the wind, virtually unfettered, and only covering the most sensitive of areas against the grit that was blown from the numerous beaches. She wriggled her toes through the soft, dark-blue grass and let her claws press into the soft soil. A gentle wind blew across the rolling plains, carrying with it the cry of one of its four-winged birds nestled in one of the few red-leafed trees and the scent of the fruits growing just down the hill. She smiled and sighed, leaning back against the wolven male who had her heart. The white-and-silver wolf, a Ru’therian, had a gentle touch as his paws draped around her. His voice, gentle and loving, spoke to her and told her of how he would hold her forever. That he didn’t care if his parents wouldn’t ever approve. She loved him, and he loved her, and that was what mattered. She turned her head and kissed one of the arms holding her close. She could feel her tuft of a tail against his uniformed groin and his legs alongside hers as he straddled her from behind. She closed her eyes and just let her head rest against the small silver spot in the fur of his bicep, hidden as it was behind the charcoal coloring of his tunic. She could imagine every trace of silver in his fur, the diamond of darker fur lining his back, the tiny, almost unnoticeable flecks of black mixed in.

“Djarn, please don’t ever let me go,” she whispered, her own paws grabbing his forearms to keep him near.

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Chi’bi!” The young Ru’therian’s voice sparkled in his happiness. “Not unless you want me to.”

“Never.” She smiled and turned even further to look into his hazel eyes. But, as she turned, she noticed that he wasn’t watching her. Instead, he was looking off in the distance. She followed his gaze down the sapphire hills to someone approaching. She recognized his features as he stepped closer to them. He was human, lanky, with blue eyes and slightly longer, dirty blonde hair. He walked towards them, his stride unusually confident and strong.

Her love’s voice came softly, “You… You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”

“NO! I hate him! He keeps me from you, Djarn! Kill him!”

A smile came to the face of the human standing now only a few meters from them. “Allessa, who is your friend?” came the voice she’d learned to recognize anywhere.

She spat angrily at the primate, her long ears pulling quickly back behind her head in a show of irritation. “I HATE YOU! Why can’t you just finish what you have to so I can go back to my … Djarn!?” She cried out in confusion as she felt her lover’s arms separate and his body begins to slide away. “No! Please! Don’t leave me with this… this… Creature!”

“He is who you’ve chosen, Chi’bi.” His voice sounding more and more distant.

She tried to jump up to catch Djarn as he slid further away, gaining speed as he continued, but the grass, once so soft and inviting, reached up and wrapped around her legs and hand-paws, pinning her in place. She screamed, a long, loud “NO!,” as she struggled. She kept pulling away from the grass, which only wrapped her in more tendrils, all but naked and exposed to the young human who was still slowly approaching her. She wrenched back and forth as she tried to free herself, and looked up to see him come closer still and remove something from his pocket. It looked just like the communications transceiver that she’d let loose at his home, a small, insect-like device. But this one he set onto her forehead. Almost instantly it dissolved into the nanobot camouflage she had been using to hide on his planet. But the energy they gave off felt different. It was strange, invasive, and full of malice. In moments, they had spread over her and sheared off her fur, leaving her skin naked to his observation, oblivious to her words and thoughts as she tried to control them, reaching out in vain. She cried out as her beautiful fur, her speckles and spots of black on white were removed from her body, leaving only a grotesque pink flesh in its place.

“Allessa, you should be with me.” Robert’s voice the calm, reassuring tone he always had when he was comforting one of his close friends. “I’ve loved your forever. Tell me you love me, too.”

The nanites finished their work of shearing her fur and began working up her body to cover her face. Or, that’s what it seemed. Instead, they bit into her, and began to painfully, yet bloodlessly, reshape her facial features and remove her long, slender ears. She yelled out as her natural beauty was mercilessly destroyed. A cluster parted and worked their way to her paws, beginning their grizzly task of reshaping her extremities, each bite more painful than the last. She screamed once more in defiance and agony as the machines ignored all of her commands and slowly, painfully made her appear physically human.

“Come, this is where you belong. As a human. One of us.” Robert’s voice didn’t come from his mouth, but from in her own mind. “Forget everything else and be mine.”

She screamed once more, tugging her arm away from the blades of grass that bound her. As she did, the grass released its grip and let her see her now-human skin, her new hands and feet. She had pulled with such force that she actually fell off a cliff that wasn’t beside her a moment prior. She tumbled, the robotic terrors leaving her face and body as the wind tore at them. She saw in the distance jagged rocks surrounded by green water. She sobbed softly, and decided she would rather be dead than living as one of these aliens, and especially without Djarn. She closed her eyes and let gravity take its course…

THUMP!

 She landed hard on the floor, the carpeting barely buffeting her fall. With her chest heaving, she quickly brought her hand-paws in front of her face. She felt herself nearly cry when they came up the same glove-like black that gave way to white fur with black spots and specks at her elbows, although they were now slicked with perspiration. She reached up and felt her stretched ears, still oblong and protruding from her shoulder length black hair at the back of her head, which was right where they were supposed to be. That’s when she realized that she was wrapped in the blanket, which must have been what was binding her. She touched her triangular nose, her cheeks, and gazed at her foot-paws. Everything was where it was supposed to be.

At that moment, she decided to risk everything she was trying to save. Djarn was right. She was starting to feel something for this wretched beast she was torturing. It was time to make it end. It was time for him to win, whether he actually won or if she made it happen. She needed to be touched, wanted to be close to her Na’therian love. All she had to do was make it where the human won without it seeming suspicious. And she was developing a plan to make sure just that happened, and it would be tonight.

Chi’bi stood, still shaky from her nightmare, and unwrapped herself from the blanket. She still wasn’t sure how she wound up under it, since she never used it before. She was used to sleeping naked because the feel of the fabric against her fur usually made her too hot as she slept. She moved towards the bathroom, wanting to rinse herself of her night’s horrid dream and the accompanying sweat. As she neared the door, she stopped and looked at her nanite storage unit, then turned towards it. As the technomage she was, she was trained on the use of this camouflage near the end of her apprenticeship, but she never failed to operate them before. She slowly opened the metal casing, finding the machines in their default standby position, clustered together in a ball no larger than her fist. She touched it, and quickly withdrew her hand, fearing that they might jump at her. Without the proper energy from her command they remained inert. She stretched her paw out and whispered the activation command, one specifically chosen by her, “Ng’cha.” The ball suddenly hummed with energy, and she could feel its happiness in its usefulness. That happiness suddenly changed to confusion, then question. It could sense her distress from her own energy. While it couldn’t directly ask her, it could let her know that it was curious.

“I had a bad dream.” She pulled her hand away from the ball, since she had become adept in reading her machines’ artificial intelligence at a short distance without concentrating her energies into her hand. “Did you detect anything in the house tonight?”

The nanobot collective gave her a strong negative feeling. Not one of malice, hatred, anger, but a simple sensation of “No.”

She quickly issued a warm-up command, practice for apprentices when they were learning to use the technology. The ball flattened to a sheet in the bottom of the box. She whispered the next command, and the millions of tiny machines shifted to a perfectly-shaped pyramid. She smiled, once again feeling in control of her technological enhancements. She uttered the word “Ng’cha” once more, and the bots re-formed the sphere she expected, and the feeling of happiness and fun disappeared as they shut themselves down. Chi’bi turned back towards the bathroom and promptly walked in.

The mirror caught her attention as she neared it. She had already been wondering if she had had a change in her appearance, but she didn’t want to feel too narcissistic. She looked over her face, noting that her fur could use some extra grooming, but, outside of that, everything was where it was supposed to be, save for the slicked feel. She ran her paws down her cheeks to feel for any unusual bumps. Her paws traced down her slender neck and down her collarbones as she pressed and felt for irregularities. As they pressed down along her furred breasts, she laughed, remembering her mother’s words. “You should join the Mei’inke since you have the perfect form for it!” It was her mother’s religion, and one that Chi’bi felt was beyond antiquated. If she’d followed her mother’s advice, however, she wouldn’t be in this predicament, Chi’bi thought to herself. It would have been an honor, for sure, but, the pilots from Na’theria had intrigued her so. She checked each breast, knowing that she was overdue for a medical examination, but there weren’t exactly any doctors around here that were qualified to examine her. She continued feeling down her ribs and her stomach, checking for breaks, cracks, bruises, anything from her fall. She was happy that she found nothing. As her paws drifted over her tight tummy and began their drift southward, she blushed, realizing that it had been almost three years since anyone, even Chi’bi herself, had touched her intimately. The thought brought to mind hours of time alone with her wolf, the intimacy they had shared and promised to only each other. Each memory built on the previous, and she could feel her body swelling with heat, her ears pressing down along her back. A yearning, a want to be touched, held, kissed, all came at her in a whirlwind, and she felt herself falling into the Mei’inke world of desire and shared pleasures. She gasped and her eyes bulged at the realization, and she removed her paws from herself, forcing them to do something other than remind her of moments past. She refused to fall into that trap that she felt made her gender so much more subservient then they should be, whether the rest accepted it or not.

She reached into the shower and turned on, the sound of running water reminding her of home for just a moment, not just her planet, but her home, nestled in against one of the larger waterfalls in the country. As she climbed in, shaking out her black hair, she began thinking of the similarities of the land she knew so well and this planet she had been prisoner on. Very strange, she thought, how much of the remaining wildlife on this planet seemed to be a color-shifted variant of what she knew. The water splashed along her body, cooling her hot fur and, beneath it, her skin and still boiling blood, as she slowly drove out the sensations and thoughts of her physical wants, and, instead, began comparing the physiology of these humans to the species that she knew. It was fascinating, she thought for the hundredth time, how physically similar these alien races were to each other. It made blending in with them so much easier since she only had to hide her fur and physical differences. Luckily for her that was easy enough. But, something suddenly struck her for the first time. Why do the majority of the bipedals in the UFO consortium, and, for the most part, the galaxy, have so similar a design? I mean, there were obvious differences. Some were taller or shorter, some had fur, while others had scales. They all had different faces, and she had longer feet, but, in general, they were the same! Even that Robert physically reminded her of a nice male she knew growing up. If Robert had … Hmm… Beige fur, and the right features, he would even be a highly sought after mate, much like her romantic interest when she was entering her time of growth. Would I want him if he were? He would have been so cute. And I would have welcomed his advances, maybe even let him…

She angrily slammed the water off and stepped out of the tub, reaching for the long towel hanging near the tub. How ridiculous! He’s an ugly, horrid, evil human, and those blasted snakes only wanted him because he was a good pilot.

“Then why are you thinking about him?”

She snapped around, expecting to find a body for the voice that she heard. There was nothing but an empty tub. She closed her luminescent eyes and realized that it was yet another memory. A lesson, given to her a long time ago, by the technomage trainer, who she had a slight crush on after she had started the training. The memory continued.

“He really is cute. Smart and funny, too. He makes me feel like I could do anything,” she heard a younger, more clothed version of herself say. She watched as the other Chi’bi uncomfortably shifted in her uniform as she tried to hide the desire to please the trainer. What she really wanted was to see him happy with her progress, and, hopefully, find her desirable, even for just the night.

“And has he ever told you that he’s interested? Have you ever asked?” The trainer, a canine with a moderate, narrow snout, brown fur and a distinctively large black spot that covered the back of his neck and a large portion of his back and sides, asked her. His orange eyes twinkled behind his smile as he spoke. He was nearly twice her age, but was so kind, calm, and slow to anger.

“I’ve wanted to ask him, but I think he would decline me, and I don’t think I’d be able to handle that.” Chi’bi chuckled as she watched the scene in front of her, remembering how her heart fluttered as he turned towards her again. “He’s just very… I don’t know, busy….”

“Chi’bi,” he said slowly, “whoever this boy is, I’m sure that he would be interested if you just asked. But, he’s interfering with your work. You started out so well, but you’ve since succumbed to this emotion, this fear and uncertainty, and it shows in your skill. Remember, these are not toys.” He gestures to the mechanical devices around him. “They will respond to you, but if you lack confidence in your ability, they will turn on you. They are like wild animals that have been trained. You will give them a life of their own, but they need to be guided. If you aren’t strong enough to maintain it, they will ignore you.”

“Yes, Master. Thank you, Master Me’Yerni.” The younger version of herself sounded so uncharacteristically weak for a moment, but then perked up. “I’ll show you that I can do this! I am not afraid!”

“I’m glad to know that. Now, let’s begin…”

The memory faded and she found herself standing in front of the nanite box again as it rested on her dresser, the towel in her hands now drying her now-standing ears and her naturally straight hair. She would need to either deal with the feeling that she was starting to discover, or just push past them and make this happen. It shouldn’t be too hard. Just another day or two of this and she can return to her Djarn’s arms. That thought made any thoughts of the human and the what-ifs vanish. She opened the drawers and pulled out what she knew Robert liked to see her in, her slightly tighter jeans and a soft, pink sweater. She laughed quietly as she laid them on the bed. Males will be males, regardless of their origin. Djarn liked seeing her in the exact type of outfit, since she was on-base when they met and clothing was required. He was busy scrambling to class, and she was skipping another one. She hated the space sciences class, nothing but numbers and theory, and had created a recorder that would take her notes for her. It was more than against the rules, and had she been caught, that would have been the end of her career in the academy. But, he dropped his comm chip in the rush to get around her, and she had picked it up. When he contacted it later, they agreed to meet up. His sweetness, his exuberance, they made her forget the other men she had known up to that point, and it was just him from then on.

She pushed past her thinking of history, and began to dress, pulling on the silken underwear that seemed to help keep her occasionally coarse fur from snagging the fabric. It was difficult to mask her tail, but the padding she’d added made what she was doing so much easier, and made her rear more appealing to the humans somehow. She then slid into the pants, wriggling her toes to make it a little easier. Then, she went to the box and gave the activation command once more. The ball woke yet again, and gave her the happy feeling.

“Today, we make this happen.”

They gave her a feeling of happy, and then happy again.

“Yes, I am happy about it. We should be done tomorrow.”

The feeling she got from the machine was suddenly not understandable, like it was trying to express a new feeling. Then, the mental image of her home world came to mind.

“Yes, and then we go home. To him.”

The machines gave off the happy feeling once again. She touched the ball and whispered another command. The ball quickly changed into a flowing river of silver that worked up her furred arm and eventually around her face. Then two smaller amounts separated and drifted down both her arms, eventually surrounding her paws up to her elbows in the same silver. She closed her eyes, granting the machines a moment to communicate with the small chip at the base of her skull. Then, she thought about her appearance, and imagined it shifting to the pale-skinned form she had been using for years. The nanites respond and begin arranging on her face, neck, and hands, as they form the needed shapes. She opened her eyes and looked out through the openings that she had trained the machines to leave her. She looked into the mirror before she slowly chanted an incantation. The machines, while wonderful at shaping, shifting, and physical copying, had difficulties with coloring. There were coloring versions, but they required much more maintenance than her prolonged stay would have ever allowed. This final step would be to use her magical ability to grant them the shifting colors required. A crystal next to the nanobot’s box began glowing, and she reached down, grabbing the gem and touching it to the robots on her fur. There was a feel of static, and the gem’s glow faded. She looked in the mirror again. So long as she didn’t remove her mechanical friends, the illusory spell would hold. She smiled, the toothy grin perfectly holding. She turned, grabbed the sweater, and slid it on.

Finally ready for the day’s seduction of the wretched human, she peered out her window. The day was bright, and she smiled wider as she thought about how it would soon be her own world she gazed upon. Her eyes lowered to the road as she looked at the human vehicles. Still combustion, but slowly nearing the fusion and fission energy stages. She had a feeling that they would soon be moving to the next phase of technology, and soon. But, something just didn’t seem quite right as she looked down. She glanced back in at the wall. The clock there showed ten in the morning. She looked back outside again. She saw her “parents’” car, the late-model Cadillac. She saw her “car,” which was actually a ground transporter that had been camouflaged to look like a new Beetle. At least it was cute. Then he saw Robert’s father’s Audi. His mother’s purple Grand Prix. But… Where was the Cavalier? It was way too early for him to be up. He hadn’t been waking up before eleven on weekends. Was it stolen?

She turned quickly and jogged to the wall panel hiding her holographic computer station. She quickly punched in several commands and pulled up communications records from his house. He had made a phone call to his best friend and nothing else. It was rather quick, but it was… A half-hour ago? She hadn’t expected him to be awake so she felt having a listener on wasn’t needed. That means no recordings. No knowing what happened…

“Oh no… I have no idea where he is…”

She started to attempt tracking his whereabouts down, but stopped herself. He would have to come back sometime. This would give her the opportunity to prepare her own items for transport, and make the arrangements to have this be the day that she lost to him, either by skill or by design.

Chapter 8

 The time it takes for Robert to drive to Preston’s house is only about ten to fifteen minutes if you time it with a stopwatch. But, when your mind is over-full of details, issues, and concerns, it seems much, much longer. As I drive, I’m still running through everything that I’ve been able to piece together. So far I still can’t seem to keep a relationship longer than three months. The usual culprits seem to be my gaming, which I enjoy, and Allessa. I can understand why girls would see her as a threat to being with me. She is absolutely beautiful to me, we live next door to each other, and we spend an awful lot of time together. Sure, that time isn’t directly face to face, but it’s still together. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to cheat on them with her! I mean, sheesh! She’s not even really into me! I don’t think so, anyway. I’d understand if she was throwing herself at me, but she talks to me like I’m a little brother. The only physical contact that I’ve had with her, not counting high-fives and fist-bumps, is the occasional hug she would give me AFTER the girl’s already left me. The closest I’ve ever been to dating her is her challenge, and even that is based on the game. It makes me wonder if she really is even interested in me, or is just having fun teasing me. It just doesn’t feel like how it should if someone likes you.

Now, add to this someone spying on me? Why me?! I’m not important. I’m not specifically good-looking, or so I feel. I know my dad does some important government work, but, outside of that, we’re all just a regular, run-of-the-mill, ordinary family! Whoa, what if dad’s a spy, and that’s why someone’s listening! That would be awesome! Not realistic, but awesome, still!

I growl as I pull down the street to Preston’s house. His old Gremlin’s still a neon yellow color, and it’s still not running in any way that could make it usable. I keep telling him to sell it to one of those weird collectors who love them and he’d make a killing. The body’s in great shape, and it’s still 100% original sheet metal. The only thing really wrong with it, outside of the color, is that the engine needs an overhaul. So far, no luck with that prospect and it’s down again, for the third time this year. I love to bust his chops about his car, but then he reminds me that he bought and paid for his, while my dad gave me mine. I really don’t have an argument for that.

I pull up behind his car and hit the horn. No sooner do I hit it does his head appear from the other side of his car, a huge grin across his face. I shake my head a moment before I hit the power lock button to open the doors. He walks over in his own team shirt and dark jeans. In his hand is a black plastic case, which he puts in the back seat of the Z24, and then he leans down to climb in. “About time you got here! What the hell took you so long? I could have slept another ten minutes waiting for your ass!”

“Oh, shut up,” I return, popping his shoulder with my wrist. “New pants?”

His smile only widens as he lifts the fabric, making an almost six-inch tent on his leg. “Oh yeah. Figured I could break’em in today. So, since we’d be a full hour early if we went straight there, which Mobi-Tech seller did you want to go to? Did you want to get the contracted one, or a monthly pre-paid like mine?”

If I’m being spied on, then getting any kind of contract would be a bad idea. “Pre-pay is good.”

“Alright, then, get this crate moving and get turned around! They should be open already, unlike some photo-intense combat arenas I know.”

I drop the car into reverse and drift away from his stationary vehicle, then cut the wheel and ease the transmission into first. Not that I have to, but I love the reaction I get from him when I’m not on it hard.

“Dude, come ON! I know this piece a’ junk goes faster than this!”

I smile as I gently bring the car into second gear. “Oh, and how fast does your car go right now?”

He laughs loudly in response. “Well, if I get about three or four guys pushing me downhill, I think I can get to about ten or fifteen.”

“Exactly, so sheddep and sit back. Enjoy the ride.”

I stop goofing off with the car when we get to the main road again. For as funny as he gets when he responds, I don’t want to have my car hit by someone not paying attention. Once we get to speed, he turns and looks at me. “So, why the sudden change about the ‘Government-sanctioned tracking devices?’ I thought you said you’d never get one.”

I look at him for a moment, then look back to the road. “Dude, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. You’d think I was just being some conspiratorial moron. Again.”

“Usually, I’d say yes, but you’ve been against cell phones as long as I’ve known you.” I hear a tinge of concern in his voice. “Are you thinking about running away from your place or something? Because if you are, you know you can come stay–”

“No, it’s nothing like that, Press, seriously. I just…” I inhale deeply, then release a heavy sigh, “I think someone’s tapped my house line and has been intercepting our phone calls.” I do my best to keep a straight face and not look like I’m panicking, keeping my tone decently level. I wait for his response, although I’m honestly expecting to hear laughter. I mean, if someone were to say that to me just like that, I’d probably laugh at them, too!

He looks at me for a moment, and then out the passenger window. “I think so, too.”

“What?”

He turns to me, looking dead serious, “Yeah, dude, your dad’s a super-agent spy or some shit. Or maybe your mom’s a covert terrorist or something.”

I shake my head, irritated by the jokes, but still can’t help but smile. “Dude, I’m not playing with you!”

“I know. That’s why I’m making a joke about it. Oh, turn left at this light. But, seriously, I do kinda get that vibe, too. Sometimes I hear weird clicks in the line when I call you. I don’t hear it on anyone else’s phones, and I know for a fact it ain’t my cell, ‘cuz I can hear it on the house line, too.”

I look at him with surprise. I didn’t think he’d believe me. “Wait, so you aren’t gonna tell me I’m crazy?”

“Oh, you’re definitely crazy. But, with some of the stories you’ve told me, and the way some people at school seem to know about our stuff before we have a chance to, I think someone’s being watched at the very least. And no, I don’t think it’s some crazy alien crap or government conspiracy, but I do think someone’s getting something from somewhere.” He looks to his hands. “Besides, with what Dannielle told me about that ‘Chi’bi’ person, there’s gotta be something going on to make this make sense, man, ‘cuz I know you weren’t dating anyone else.” He looks at me, seeing my expression, a mixture of relief and disbelief. “Whatever it is, man, don’t disappear on me again, because something’s gonna happen, and soon.”

“Dude, are you bullshitting me now?”

“Not in the slightest. Pull in there,” he points towards a building across the street. “Rob, you’ve told me about a million and one conspiracies. Some of them make sense and some of them are beyond crazy. But, you at least say them with some kind of openness to being proved wrong. You sound scared as shit, man. I mean, really scared. And I know you’re hiding it because you don’t want me thinking that you’re some wuss or something, but I can hear it.”

“I’m not scared, Preston. I’m pissed about it.” I pull up to the parking stop at the building he’d pointed at, and pull the parking brake. “If I’m right, whoever this Chi’bi is has screwed up my life! They’re the cause of me losing all of my girlfriends!”

“I dunno if I’d go that far, you play a lot of games with that Allessa chick.”

“Okay, okay, fine, but they’ve had something to do with it! I’m gonna find out who she is, and I’m gonna… I’m gonna… I dunno what I’m going to do, but it’s going to hurt. A lot!” Without thinking about it, I punch the steering wheel cover, causing a strangely satisfying “HONK!” to sound from the horn. The woman walking in front of the car mistakes it for a flirt and smiles, winking, as she walks out of the building. That wouldn’t have been so bad if she weren’t so much older and not so attractive.

“Alright, alright, mister insane, vein-popping-a-little-too-far-outta-the-head guy! I get it, you’re gonna make them pay. And I’ll help if you ever find out who they are. So will the rest of the team, I bet. But, you need to start coming to the games. And the meetings. And stop trying to get with Allessa. She don’t want you. She’s using you to boost her own self-confidence, and you’re falling for it. Give me one time she’s actually told you that she actually WANTS to go out with you.” He looks at me, his expression demanding an answer.

“Never.”

“Alright. Now, you’ve gone out with, what, a dozen chicks, and at least half of them have wanted to keep going out with you, in spite of your attitude about women who aren’t Allessa.” I try to cut in, but he motions to shut me down. “And I know you aren’t trying to do it, but you are, man. They’re not good enough because they ain’t her. Well, she’s not good enough for you, man. If she don’t see what kind of great guy you are, then she don’t deserve your time. Now, man up, grow some balls, and start actually seeing some of these girls! I know for a fact that three of them would tickle your nuts tonight if you called them!”

“I really, really didn’t need to hear that, Preston…” I reach over and pull the door latch, pulling it to get moving, and undo my seat belt.

“Yeah, you do, man. Some of these girls aren’t just into you, they’re primed for you! And, hell, Audrey still isn’t seeing anyone else, and it’s been, what, seven, eight months? I’m not saying she’s holding out for ya, but if you don’t go get some of that, she’s gonna go fishing in another pond, and there’s plenty of hungry fish out there for her.”

I slam the door shut and wait for him to hop out, mildly embarrassed by his candor, but realizing that he’s telling me because he wants me to fix myself and stop feeling so miserable. As I wait for him, I think about what he said. Not the “tickling my nuts” part, but that I need to stop waiting for someone who’s never actually shown interest. I’d quite literally waited for years. Years! And where am I? Nowhere closer! So, I decide that I am going to call back…. Uh… Someone… I’ll just have to decide later, I tell myself. I’m going to put everything else on hold, and just be the guy I know I can be. They were all great girls and deserved more than I was giving. Now I would like to be that guy who is giving it their all for her, whichever one it winds up being. Hell, at this point, maybe I could even start just dating girls, find out which one I feel best around, and then ask them to be my girl. Do it the right way this time.

He finally gets out of the car, crossing his arms and leaning on the roof, his smile ever present. “So, you ready to become trackable now?”

All I can do is laugh and tell him to shut up as I start to head towards the door of the building with Preston close behind. It’s a simple enough place, little more than a display shop for the company. As we enter, I’m surprised by its cleanliness and organization. Very open, very friendly and welcoming, a drastic contrast to the exterior’s general appearance, which almost makes it almost seem like a run-down shack. The young lady behind the counter greets us with a warm smile, and offers to show us anything we ask for. I slowly walk around the stations and take my time looking at the individual phones. Seems like such a fuss over such a little devices. Cameras, games, applications. Why don’t they just market it as a mobile computer? Then I turn the corner to find the PDA-like smartphones, and I realize why. Because THOSE would be the mobile PC’s…

I look over to Preston, not sure where to start. “Dude, what exactly should I get?”

“Rob, you need to think about a few things. First, are you looking for a basic phone phone or do you want massive features? For you, though, I don’t think you’re wanting a ton of features, so stay away from the smartphones, Blackberry’s, and PDA’s.” He points towards the smaller flip phones and bar phones and adds, “Those will be your basic phones, basic texting and a few added options, like games, calendars, notepads, and some will have cameras. They would be your best bet.”

I start towards the phones he’d pointed towards, then stop and turn slightly, something catching his eye. It’s slim, but wide, silver, and seems very basic. I pick it up and look it over carefully.

“That’s gonna be a bit more expensive. That’s a RAZR, like what I have.” He pulls his phone to show me, the only difference is his having a black finish. “I like it, but it’s kinda pricy.”

The woman who had been patiently waiting for the right moment to open her sales pitch chooses that moment to step in. “Well, to be honest, I can set you up with one of those rather cheaply, if that’s what you really want. It just depends on how you’re planning on setting up with us, either contract or pre-paid.”

I look at her, then to Preston, then back to her. “What’s the price of one of these?”

“Well, that particular model I can sell at $40 if you’re planning on doing a contract.”

I shake my head slowly. “I was hoping to do a prepay plan, like what he has.”

“Ah. Well, in that case, that phone would cost about $160, and that’s before the plan.”

I start to put the phone down. I’d only brought a hundred with me. I didn’t research phones or plans, and I was expecting to get something cheap.

“This is your first phone, did I hear?”

I nod in response.

“Ever? I mean, you never got one when you were younger,” she asks, the surprise in her tone is honest.

“He’s one of those conspiracy-investigators, and didn’t like what he found about the triangulation.”

She smiles, and her eyes well up in tears as she tries to hold in her laughter. “Well, I know it CAN be done, but it’s not really all that easy,” she managed between snickers and snorts.

“Alright, alright, I know, I’m crazy.”

“Not crazy, just worried about the wrong thing, in my opinion.” Her voice is playful as she looks back towards the back of the showroom. The girl turns back and steps in closer, continuing with a more hushed tone. “Look, I usually don’t do this, but you seem legit about never owning one before. I can sell you one of the refurbs for fifty bucks.”

“Oh, really? I didn’t realize they were kept in the stores.”

“Well, yeah, just in case we need‘em for a quick warranty replacement. But, you gotta do two things. First, I want you to buy your setup here. It’s been quiet today.” Her dark green eyes flash with a smile as she starts towards the counter.

“Oh, well, that would be a simple one. I was planning on it.” I smile to her, hoping she isn’t just teasing me.

She heads behind the counter and pulls a sales slip from under it. She begins asking me the basics, filling in the form with basic information about the sale. I was a little apprehensive at first, but, being that I do want to get started, we went through every detail honestly. Afterwards, she opens the locked cabinets behind her and pulls out a white box with a simple label of RAZR REFURB. She set the box on the counter and removes its contents onto the counter. She picks out the unit itself, installs the newly-programmed SIM card into the unit, and plugging in its battery. She then quickly makes a few phone calls, activating the card and preparing it for use. Then, she flips it open and begins clicking away on the keypad. After a moment and a bunch of clicks, she hands me the phone. “There you go, you’re all set! Your number is on the receipt, just learn it and remember it.”

“Thanks!” I reply happily. Then, a thought strikes me. “Hey, you said two things. What was the second?”

She smiles, flips open the phone and presses down on the circle. The address book pops open, with a single name and number, Alexandria, on it, which she then hands to me to see. “Oh, yeah. Call me,” she giggles, and then turns to head toward the back of the store, paperwork in-hand.

Preston looks at me, a stupid smile on his face, and watches me look between the phone and the girl. I know that my expression is nothing short of dumbfounded by the straight-forward nature of the request. “So, you gonna call her?”

I finally flip the phone shut and reach to take the rest of the packaging with me. I take one last look over my shoulder at Alexandria, who was obviously trying her best to show off what she felt was her best assets. “I guess I don’t have much of a choice,” I joke, and we turn to head out of the building.

Chapter 9

After another ten minute drive, we arrive at LaserRunner, the local branch of the laser tag arena franchise that has spread across the country. It looks more or less like a warehouse from the outside, except for the bright green sign that advertises the name of the facility. Two stories of winding mazes, bunkers, lighting effects, fog machines, and hidden laser traps to keep you on your toes. The trip from the cellular shop was filled with mostly badgering about how I managed to catch yet another number, while Preston’s own prospects have been rather slim. I tried to explain to him that it might have to do with his greasy hair, or his occasionally abrasive personality, but he shrugged it all off, calling it all “just who he is.” The one thing he said to me that made sense was that he wanted to date Audrey, and that he didn’t mean to imply that he thought she was trashy, but that she has just been single the whole time. I simply replied that, since he likes her so much, why not ask her out. His response? “I didn’t think you’d be okay with it.” So I told him I was. Of course I am, I think…

We climb out of the car, the conversation still centering around his infatuation with Audrey. He reaches into the back and grabs his black case, and bangs it onto the roof of my car. When I glare at him and ask him what he thinks he’s doing, he only laughs and apologizes, then snaps it open quickly and shuts it again. He walks around the front of the car, his eyes scanning the barely-used parking lot, then to his watch, and back towards the highway.

“Something wrong, Preston? You look confused. This is the right place, don’t sweat it!” I laugh in an attempt to emphasize the joke and look at him again. He’s finally stopped looking at the road and, instead, is looking towards the pavement at his feet.

“Yeah, well, it looks like the, uh, guy who usually opens up isn’t here yet.” He gazes at the entrance, then again at his watch, and back to the road again. “He’s usually here at least a half-hour before.” No sooner did he finish saying it does a small green pickup pull in from the highway. “Ah, speak of the devil! Maybe he’ll let us in early before the other players get here.”

I snort doubtfully as I stop leaning on my car. “I don’t think so. He hasn’t before,” I assert as I stretch my arms straight over my head, then swing my neck back and forth, trying to loosen up. “But we can always ask.”

The man parks his truck and kills the rattling engine. He jumps out, slamming the door behind him, and begins to head towards the front door. Before I can move, Preston pops his case into my gut and jogs over towards him. He stops the man as he comes closer and starts talking quickly. I can see his hands moving as he’s talking so, whatever he’s saying, he feels it’s very important. As he talks, the guy looks past Preston in my direction, then back to Preston. The guy puts his hand Preston’s shoulder, then nods and smiles as he says something back, then heads for the door. Preston jogs back over to me, and it’s obvious that he’s trying to hide a smile.

“Well, he’s letting us in.”

I feel my eyes widen in response. “What do you mean, he’s letting us in?! What did you say to the guy?”

“I just told him that I needed to set up my gun and that I’d need to have access to a pad set to do it right,” he says quickly as he snaps his case from my grip. “Now come on, you big pussy, before he changes his mind!”

Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I quickly pop open the door to my car, hit the lock button, and then dash in behind Preston, letting the door close behind me. My eyes widen when I get in and look around. I’d never seen the place so dark and empty before, but that probably had to do with the fact that nothing had been turned on yet. I see Preston and the manager at the computer station with his case open and a cable from it is attached to the shoulder pads he’d already grabbed. I start walking around the arcade at the entrance and hear the hum of lighting activation as they bring up the internal systems. Apparently the entire building was wired for control through the main terminal and he was bringing up the arena section by section. I see the lights from inside the arena doors kick on, then the black lighting overhead begin to flicker, then warm to their full, yet still dark luminescence. Around the arcade, the video arcade machines each begin humming and whining as their screens all warm and begin displaying their boot sequences. I look back to see both of them looking over to me, but as I turn, they go back to what they are doing. I pay it no mind as I head towards the pro shop. LaserRunner was one of the few chains that allows customized weapons. They had to pass their energy emissions testing, as to not overload their wireless network. Each weapon had to have the four receptors found don the stock pistol, one on each side, one on the tip, and one on top. They also had to link into the shoulder pads with the supplied cable. I hadn’t spent the money on it, but Preston had. His weapon was lighter and painted gunmetal gray in comparison to the usually metallic blues and greens of the LaserRunner official guns. It also had a longer barrel which actually was used to re-focus the laser, making it scatter less and making predictable targeting his main goal. That’s why we called him “Snipes.” Scopes weren’t permitted, but if they were, we’re sure he could score a perfect hit across the building, not that he couldn‘t already at least hit the target. This shop was where you could buy the parts needed to assemble a weapon, or buy your own and reconfigure it. I look over the options as the shelf lights each turn on. Different stocks, barrels, triggers, even foam-covered laser grenades that could be tossed into the bunkers. So many options, colors, shapes. They weren’t overly expensive, but, without a job, I couldn’t afford it.

A hand comes down hard on my shoulder. I snap around to see Preston had already linked his weapon with the shoulder pads and suited up, and I punch him in the shoulder while letting loose a scolding about sneaking up on people. He only laughs, “Come on, he said the arena’s ready to go for the two of us. Since he’s not expecting anyone for at least an hour, he’s giving us the first half-hour free. Get suited up, swipe in, and let’s do it!”

Wow, free? That’s never happened either! Well, it is going to be a slow day, especially this early, and he knows we’re one of the two local teams. The fact that it’s Saturday manages to slip my mind. I think out loud to myself, “He must think we’re getting ready for a meet, or that they’re deciding whether to kick me from the team or not for my extended absence.” I follow behind the quickly-moving Snipes as he heads into the ready room, and then straight through the separating doors and into the prep chamber. Once inside, I don a shoulder pad set with the opposite-color lighting as Snipes, then grab my key ring-mounted identifier and tap it to the weapon. It chirps and displays my name on the face of the weapon’s display, “PndrasBane,” since we could only use ten characters. I look up to find that Preston’s already in and probably setting up for an ambush as soon as I enter the room. I press up against one of the walls, then push my gun in, then back out quickly. I smile as I hear the sound of his weapon firing at mine, then the subsequent cursing as he misses and the rustle of his pants as he changes position. I duck in, and we begin our little game of cat and mouse.

I’ll never understand how he always seems to know where I’m going before I get there. Head up the ramp, and there he is, already at the top and taking aim. Press into a bunker, and the fires at the entrance traps before I get in, triggering their count-down so I can’t make it. Turn a corner, and I hear and see the laser blast cutting off my path. I even tried doubling-back and he was ready for it. Dammit! I’ll never be able to beat him at this rate!

We call him Snipes because he rarely misses. Luckily, I’m used to a lot of his tricks. It’s why I manage to avoid a lot of his shots. Not all of them, but a lot of near-misses and blown covers. It gives me a chance to occasionally go on the offensive every now and again as he tries to reposition his longer blaster for a shot. As the lasers fly back and forth, I’m stuck with the feeling that he’s generally kicking my arse. I’m at least putting up a good fight, even with him tracking and stalking me. I usually lose by worse than two-to-one against him, but this round seems more balanced. The half-hour flies by, between yells, curses, and the occasional high-five for good maneuvers, we hear the “Game Over” alarm, and head out of the arena. We laugh about the round, goofing with each other about unusual shots, planned gunning, and basically discuss everything that happened that round in detail. Critiques are common since we’re trying to make out team stronger.

“You know, this would have been much more fun if the team was here in full,” I suggest, looking at him with a smile. “We probably could use the workout.”

He snorts a short laugh as he hangs his laser gun on his back. “Well, it’s too early for them. But, I did invite someone else. Let’s see if they’ve shown up yet.”

“Sure!” I can feel his anticipation growing as we head out into the lobby. It’s still pretty empty for a Saturday, but there is one person standing near the waiting queue. They shift uncomfortably as they look at us, and I smile. The bright-yellow-clad person just nods, their face hidden by a green mask that was shaped like a skull.

Preston walks over briskly towards the masked player. Must be someone new, maybe a laser tag fanatic. Not too many people wear masks in the arena unless it’s part of a team uniform. I hear him say something and they both nod. He waves me closer and I take the time to bounce over. “Alright,” he grabs their gun and looks at its screen, then hands it back as he continues, “’LayZerGirl,’ let‘s see what you got.”

A girl? On the team? Well, that wouldn’t bother me at all. And, if she’s good, maybe we can get in the next 5-man tournament and try for a title. I look her over carefully, trying to get an idea of her physical conditioning, but her outfit is just baggy enough where I can’t see anything of her body, outside of her being nearly my height, and the yellow glowing from the black light makes it that much harder to guess proportions. “So, you play before?” I ask loudly to making sure she can hear me over the techno beats pounding over the room’s speakers.

She simply nods.

“Okay, how much? You any good?”

Another nod.

“What, you can’t say anything?”

All she does is looks away, and points towards the entrance of the arena. The move is confusing to me since they hadn’t called for the next round.

We also hadn’t paid for it.

I sigh loudly and shake my head. How are we going to communicate with each other if she can’t talk? I mean, a team is only as strong as their weakest player, and right now her obvious weakness was lack of communication.

Preston looks between us, my obvious concern and her lack of any expression behind the mask, and quickly jumps in. “Hey, it looks like there’s another player here. If we hurry, we can get set up for a two-on-two. What do you say? Try this new girl out?”

I nod, watching the girl in front of me gently leaning back on her right heel, her left foot extended out slightly in front of her, her left hand resting in the pocket that I’m assuming is at her waist. That’s when I finally notice that the gun she‘d been holding was a custom pro-shop build. She’d had it painted a bright pink which glows brightly in the black light. Seems she prefers the rifle feel to the usual hand pistol. “Hey, have you had that checked since you came in?”

She looks at me through the dark holes of her mask then slowly nods.

“Are you really not going to say anything to me? I mean, obviously you talk to Preston.”

The response I get is silence.

“Alright, suit yourself.” I growl as I start to turn towards the front desk. Damn it, I hate being ignored.

We both head over to the register, my face warm from my attempt at hiding my irritation. The clerk looks at her, then to me. “Uh, guy? She’s already paid.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. In fact, we’re all waiting on you. It’s a 20 minute two versus two match, seven bucks to get in. You game?” The grin on his face isn’t forced; he’s trying not to laugh at me for holding up the game.

I pull out my wallet and grab out a ten, the hand it quickly to the man. In a moment he’s handed me my change and has pulled the microphone to his mouth. He loudly and clearly calls out the start of the game in five minutes, then guides us all into the ready room. Once inside, he quickly goes over the rules with us, the abbreviated version, since he recognizes all of us, or so he says. We head in and I grab a set of shoulder pads and get signed in again. The team was obviously planned, Preston’s and my pads glowing green, while “LaZrGirl”’s and “Guest-1” are both red. Instead of the usual main door opening, two side doors open, one green, one red. The teams head for their respective doors and press through. This was to allow fairness in the team round. Once both teams were at their starting points, they both hit an actuator to open into the maze. As the doors open, the guns go active, and it’s to the hunt.

Preston and I had done this a hundred times before. We usually worked very well together as a team. Our movements are specifically set up for watching each other’s backs as we traveled through the maze. The tactic is very useful against a disorganized team, but make for a low-scoring game if both teams knew what they were doing.

To keep ourselves sharp, we would chat as we moved, feeling his hand pop my shoulder to move forward, giving verbal commands, monitoring motions in the flashes and unusual lighting of the room. “Hey, Rob, remember when we were younger, and you kept telling me that you would know when things were getting over the top?”

I fire at a flash of red, only to see it being one of the many strobes among the traps and lighting here. “Yeah, why?”

“I think you’re making a big mistake with Dannielle. I think letting her go is the worst thing you can do. I think you‘re not seeing how you‘re actually going over-the top in fail.”

“Oh, so this is a serious talk? We usually don’t do that.”

“I know, but this is worth talking about. You’ve been my best friend for, what, ever? Clear!” I feel his hand tap my shoulder, and I snap around a corner. I bring my pistol to bear at nothing, but I know that I hear a shoe scrape. He continues to make his point. “You know why girls like you? Because you’re honest, straight-up, and care about their feelings.”

“Move up. Look, I know that I screwed up with her. I didn’t want to.” I see the tell-tale bright yellow turn a corner and open fire, catching the shoulder target with one of my quick shots. She quickly dives back around the corner to get clear, and both Preston and I fall back around the corner again. “But why the hell would she believe me? I mean, hell, I think you only believe me about what happened because you know that I wouldn’t make it up. Move back some, she hasn’t come back around, and I haven’t heard her move.”

“How could you, there’s a lot of music here.”

“Good point. I’ll jump up, you get ready.” I take three running steps, snap a turn at the corner, and find nothing. She’d moved on. Confused, I turn to Preston and shake my head, then feel my back sensor buzz as I’m hit. I look behind me, and she’d climbed up the ramp to the upper level and hit me through the grated floor. “HIGH!” I yell, but he’d already aimed up towards her and was firing at her. All three shots missed, mostly because she had already ducked around the barrels and away from the grating that made her an easier target.

“That’s part of your problem, Pan,” he starts, referring to my player tag, ”you don’t bother to look around you, just straight ahead. Think about it. Had you not waited two, three weeks to call her, and still not call her, she’d still be around.” He starts to step forward, then curses loudly as he’s hit from behind by the unnamed player. The fool laughs and starts talking trash, obviously not realizing that I was right there. I return the favor, hitting him as I went active from my own hit.

The round continued, far more frenzied from that point on. He berated me for betraying myself over a game yet again, and I continued to tell him that I knew that I had abandoned a lot, but I was going to fix that now. The conversation seemed to be doing nothing but messing with us, so we changed topics quickly.

“You know your Cowboys are going to fail yet again, right?” I quickly snap at him, returning to our usual badgering of the other. We’d used football as an opponent distraction many times since a lot of players took their teams so very seriously.

He laughs as he shoots up the ramps again and looks back at me. “Dude, get your Eagles a real coach and then we’ll see what happens!”

As we regained our rhythm, we seemed to be much more alert and aware of the players throughout the maze. Our scores quickly went up as their lack of cohesion prevented them from splitting us up enough to weaken our defense of each other. By the end of the round, we’d mounted a sizable lead, but the LaZrGirl player seemed almost able to match us and our tactics, popping up quickly when we began to work corners. It worked for her about half the time, but she found herself just as often gunned down. The guest player, though, spent most of the time whining about how we weren’t playing right. Some people just don’t get tactical play.

The Game Over alarm sounds through the speakers, and we all head towards the main door. I disconnect the lock on the shoulder pads, and offer a “Good game!” to the other team. She simply nods, and his response was lacking civility, typical of his type. Preston and I head out together, chatting as we get to the screen to see the scores. We’d almost doubled their score, with my score being somewhat lower than his. The surprising statistic, though, was her score. While the majority of her team’s score were her hits, they were also almost entirely on my targets. I feel myself swelling with irritation, and it starts to tap into the anger I’d been feeling from the past few weeks. Snipes catches my mood shift and grabs my shoulder.

“So, if Dannielle was here right now, what would you say to her?”

“Damn, Preston, drop it! She’s gone, what else can I do about it?”

He smiles, looking at me. “Come on, I’m your buddy, who else ya gonna tell?”

With my ire already touched, his prodding only eggs it on, and I release everything I’d pent up in a half-yell. “You want to know what I’d say to her? I’d tell her that she should have let me tell her that I didn’t know. I’d tell her that she’s really just that fucking awesome, and that I really am sorry that I let it go the way it did! I’d tell her that I want a chance to…” I inhale finally, and close my eyes, my shoulders falling, and, with them, my anger and attitude. “… To make it all up to her…”

“Is that how you really feel?” The voice comes from behind me, and I know it, oh, so very well. I snap around and almost fall backwards into Preston. The mask is gone, and I finally see her face. The blonde hair with the narrow blue streaks. The golden honey eyes. That slender nose on her slightly rounded face. The full lips that I’d been thinking of, randomly either telling me she was done or pursed for a kiss. It was Dannielle. She’d been the one shooting me. She’d been listening to what I had to say. “What would you tell me that I don’t know? That that stupid game keeps you occupied? That you are desperate for a girl who doesn’t know you exist?”

Preston drops a hand on my shoulder. “I’m going to let you two talk. Go into the lobby and sit, because you got a lot to talk about.” I start to protest, but he turns to Dannielle. “Oh, and if you two work out, you’re totally in. Just shoot at the whole team next time. You might have carried your team better.” He turns and heads towards the growing group of players showing up for their lunch breaks and for their friendly rematches.

We head out into the snack bar, the black lights finally at their fullest illumination, and only thrown off by the lights of the bar itself. The scent of hot dogs, sausages, and bacon waft from the counter, and I consider asking if she is hungry. Like normal, Dannielle took the initiative. She wasn’t here to play with words. “Who is Chi’bi?” she asks after we’ve sat in a booth. She’s giving me the opportunity to finally explain what’s going on. “And no games, no bullshit, I want to know.”

I see that I have one chance to try to explain everything to her, so I decide that I’m going to outright take it and run. This will either work or it’ll damn me forever. “Dannielle, I truly don’t know. I–”

“Why are you going to lie to me!? I’m right here!”

In frustration, I smack my hand down hard on the table between us. I wasn’t about to give her the chance to outright interrupt me. “Dannielle, listen!” My voice is stronger than I meant it to be, but her interruption had startled me. I sigh, then take a deep breath to recompose myself and calming my tone before I continue. “Look, I don’t know who that person is. Your telling me is the first time I’d ever heard of her. I swear I never got any phone calls or messages.”

She leans herself back against the bench seat, and it’s so similar to what I thought I’d recognized before, but this time her hands, now in fists, are pressed into her hips. “Then how do you know it was a she?” she growls at me.

“Because you told me that it was, Dannielle. I was waiting for your calls. I wanted to hear from you again. I’m sorry that I didn’t initiate any of it. I’m sorry that I never stopped to think, hey, why not just call her. But, if you’ll let me, I’ll show you that the usual me is so much more than that.” I realize that I’m looking at the table, and I shift my gaze back up, wanting her to see that I mean every word, that I really want to have another chance. “It was stupid of me to let you think that I didn’t care because I do. You’ve been my friend almost as long as Preston. Hell, we’re all friends that way. You know that I’m not like this. You know just how much I enjoy being around you.”

Her hand reaches out slowly and rests on mine and, somehow, I’m calmed by it. The touch itself feels reassuring. “Robert, all I wanted was for you to show me that heart that I know is buried behind your craving for that bitch. I know you don’t want to hear it that way, but she is. She’s been toying with you for years and it’s gotta stop.” Her voice begins to soften and she looks to the table, expecting me to jump to Allessa’s defense. When she doesn’t hear anything she continues, slowly bringing her gaze up to mine again. “Look, I’ve known you through your broken arm when you thought you could fly with paper wings. You do stupid things. You do them with the best intentions, though. I didn’t want to break up with you, Rob, but I want someone who wants me.”

I pull myself together enough to finally respond. “And I do, Danni, that’s why I asked you out in the first place.”

“Yes, you did,” she starts quietly, “you asked me out so you’d forget her. And when you started seeing me, she decided that’s when she was going to pour on the charm. Don’t you see? She doesn’t want you happy. She wants to string you along. And you haven’t even gotten anything from her… Have you?”

“No!”

“Then why are you letting her do this to you?”

“I’m not anymore, Danni. I want to be with you. I want to be us again.

She sighs behind a smile, and her eyes seem to sparkle for a moment. “So do I.” Her voice hardens somewhat. “But, if you want me, you need to show me.”

Her assertion catches me by surprise. No man ever gets this easy of a chance to have his girl back. “And what would that be?”

“I want you to stop obsessing over her. I know she’s your neighbor, but you need to. If I call you, and that’s if, I want to be the important one to you. I want you to tell her that you’re seeing me again and that we’re a couple. I want you to ignore her when I’m with you. And if you don’t do this for me, we’re done. Forever. If you want to be with me, Rob, then be with me.” She smiles, feeling that she’s covered the important bases. “Can you do this for me?”

I close my eyes, inhaling deeply, and slowly breathe out. I open them to the heaven that is the depths of her eyes, and see that she means every word. She is willing to give us a chance if I give us the chance that she’s always deserved, which means ignoring Allessa and all she does. “Yes. I promise.”

She exhales, and it seems like she’d been holding her breath. “Good. Now, is there a place in here to sit alone for a few minutes? You know… Not so visible…”

“I think there’s an area in the back, why?”

“Because, I want you to myself for a few minutes, and I want it now.”

What man would deny a woman like her that kind of request?

Chapter 10

“Where is he?!”

Chi’bi stalked her bedroom window, her patience already having been pushed to its limits. She couldn’t find him anywhere. If this were any ship or any city she simply would have used her security clearance to access the security cameras throughout the area and find him. But this planet’s security hadn’t become centralized yet, and there was no easy way to access every device without going to each individual one and tapping it. There were millions of them.

She pulled up her holographic display again and began going through the connections she had acquired. He hadn’t pulled any money from his accounts. Not today, anyway. He hadn’t accessed any of his usual e-mail or gaming systems since this morning before he left. He hadn’t even called home, meaning he anticipated that his parents knew where he was. That meant had had to have left a note. The only thing she knew for sure was it was already 6PM, she hadn’t seen him, and the only communications he’d had that were obvious were when he called his male friend this morning. How was she going to end her time here if he didn’t show? Or worse, what if something happened? If he was injured, dying, something other than just out for a while? What if she never got to hear his voice again? No, if that were the case then the hospital would have called. Or the police if the situation was bad enough. Besides, why would it matter if he never spoke to her again? It’s just a job. One she couldn’t wait to have over.

She ran the scans again in an attempt to find some proof that something had been going on. For the twenty-seventh time today they came back empty and unchanged. This was absurd! There was nowhere for him to be this late! Why wasn’t he back yet!

She pounded the wall with the heel of her fist before storming down the steps. She was hungry. Again. This was the fourth time she was about to eat something today. She knew that she was hungry now, but the moment she popped something into her mouth, that would be the end of it. Regardless, until she ate it was going to weigh at her and make her feel faint. She stomped into the kitchen, opening her refrigerator to pull out a bag of store-bought salad, then slammed it shut. She didn’t care for dressings, seasonings, cheeses, or anything that distracted from the flavors of her natural diet. The salad bag she had in her hand didn’t quite taste the same as what she would have had fresh and available at home, but it was close enough for her to ignore the differences. It became even more true once she washed away the substances the humans used to keep insects off. Didn’t they realize yet that usually those pests removed the less-desirable plants? She shoved the thought aside as she dropped the whole sixteen ounce bag into a bowl. She reached up into the cabinet to pull out the colander from within, then began washing each piece of the individual vegetables and leafy greens to purify them. They were then dropped into the colander and left to drain for a moment. Once she had gone through the whole bag, she dumped the entire colander into a larger bowl and took it into the living room. She pulled the chair from the green computer station and angrily slammed it into the wall next to the window. She then sat in it, munching on her food as she watched for the tell-tale sights and sounds of the red car.

“He’d better get here soon.” She didn’t speak to anyone in particular, but felt better at just saying it. “You’re not supposed to keep a lady waiting this long for you.”

A few moments and several leaves of spinach and lettuce later, her request was finally answered as the mid-toned rumbling of his V-6 came rolling up the street. She set the bowl down and moved the curtain aside to make sure that it was the right car. Sure enough, the Cavalier rolled up and into his parking spot. She was about to let go of the curtain and race out to see him, surprised at her own happiness at the his arrival, when a second car, a blue Ford Probe pulled in behind it. She glowered as the doors opened on both cars, and a young, blonde female stepped out of the Ford. She pulled the curtains closer to her face so she wasn’t seen and watched as Rob and his former girlfriend stepped closer to each other. “Get away from him, he’s mine,” she thought out loud to herself, this time not letting the unusual statement pull her back. I broke you both up for a reason; he’s going to save me from this planet. She watched, willing herself to stay as she watched them stop and start chatting, their body language oozing with an obvious attraction and desire for the other. No, no, no, NO! This can’t be happening! Suddenly, they stopped talking and kissed each other, and she couldn’t bear to watch any longer. An unexpected pain hit her chest hard as she flattened herself against the wall. Was he giving up on her? Was he going back to this untalented, worthless…

Human. She had to accept it. She knew she wasn’t doing enough to keep him specifically interested. Everyone in the school they attended felt that she wasn’t right for him, even though he couldn’t see it. And she knew why. You can only chase something that’s dropping clues to its intentions and whereabouts. And this human, in fact, all them before her, they all made it clear their intentions, but Chi’bi, no, Allessa, had never at least pretended it was part of what she wanted. She was about to lose her years of training him to a lack of planning. No, she told herself, it was a lack of giving.

No, I’m not going to lose it all. I still have time. I can still fix this. He wants to be with Allessa. When he wins tonight, he’ll have it. He’ll surrender to it, and then he’ll be taken in by his new handlers. When that happens, that’s when I leave and can be with Djarn. I’m packed, everything is ready to go. I just need him to finish what he’s doing. With this done I can go back to my love and be happy in his arms once more.

She angrily steps away from the wall that was hiding her from their eyes. She heads towards her computer station and grabs a brush she’d left there, then begins pulling it through her dark hair. The tines catch her pulled-back ears, and she ignores the small pains from each one as she brings it all back into the usual ponytail she wore to mask them. It was never comfortable and she was always worried about losing the strength to keep them up. If that happened, she’d find herself lop-eared, and that just wouldn’t do. It hadn’t happened yet, and she prayed that today wouldn’t be the day it changed. Djarn loved to play with them, and she worried she’d lose that affection from him. As she dropped the brush, she looked in the mirror hanging on the wall to ensure her costumed camouflage was still in effect, which it was, and logged into her terminal and ChromeBots for when he inevitably logged in.

— —

“I’m really glad we finally talked, Rob. I really didn’t want to have it end like that.”

She looked and sounded so happy, and it was all because I managed to finally have my thoughts heard out, and my feelings for her were shown. Me? I’m on cloud nine! I finally have a chance to do it right. Not only have a girlfriend, but treat her how she deserves to be treated!

Her body still tight against mine as we’d not let each other go since I kissed her while we stood outside of her car, all I could do was look her in the eye and smile. “Danni, all you had to do was tell me how you felt and I would have told you everything the whole time.”

“I know. I’m sorry I just ran. I thought you were going to just brush me aside for her like you did everyone else.” She brought her tender lips forward and brushed them against mine again, what seemed like the millionth time just today, and giggled. “I hope you don’t let me down, Robert. My mind is telling me that you will, but, in my heart, I know you feel the same way I do.”

“Dannielle, I know I’ve screwed up a million times in my life, but this time…” I pause, looking deeply into her eyes, “I won’t let myself make that mistake again.”

She smiles again, then slowly, unwillingly but forcedly begins to back away. “I’m glad to hear that. I really should get home. I’ll call you when I get there, okay?” She turns to start making her way back to her car, then stops, then quickly turns around and quickly pounces on me, knocking us both to the grassy yard in front of my house. Once we come to a stop, she passionately kisses me, and I find my hands wrapping around her as she does. We laugh together after she finally lets their lips separate. “I’ve always wanted to do that to you,” she says through her giggling as she begins resting her head on his shoulder for just a moment, and lets her hand run along my hair.

I looks up into the cloudless sky and wonder if anything could be more perfect. Granted, landing on the ground was somewhat painful, since I’d landed on a couple stones when she surprised him with her tackling, but I just don’t care. For that moment, nothing was wrong, nothing could be wrong, and the only thing in my mind was this warm, loving woman I’d almost let slip away. I gently run my right hand up and down her side, enjoying the feel of her body through the more form-fitting shirt she’d had tucked under the neon yellow she was wearing earlier. In her faded black boot cut jeans and her much more revealing, almost sheer top and white under-tank, she was an amazing sight, and the fact that she was with me… I truly don’t deserve it, and I know it. But, no matter what I have to do, I’m going to make it up to her.

We lay on the grass for a bit. After a few moments, she pulls me tight as she gently kisses my cheek, then goes back to lying on my shoulder. Of course I couldn’t let it sit without a return, so I would kiss her forehead and enjoy the scent of her hair as we watched the sky slowly darken. The air was still, save for the rogue bird’s call and car driving past, but nothing disturbed us in their moment of rest together.

After what felt like no time, but was in reality about ten minutes, she carefully rolled off my right side and props her head on her left hand, looking at me as I turned to face her. “I really think I should be going,” she said, not sounding as if that was what she was really thinking. “But, Rob… I have to know. What are you going to say to her?”

“To whom?” I ask, not thinking about who she could be referring to. She simply looks at me, and nods in my direction. For a moment, I still can’t think of who she’s referring to. Then I realize she’s not nodding at me but behind me, and I realize she means Allessa. “Oh. Well, I’m going to tell her that I’m seeing someone special, and that I want to be with her. I’m going to tell her that I can’t be on as much, because I’m going to be spending my time showing you,” and he touches her nose playfully, “that I really do want to be here with you.”

“And what if she has a problem with it?”

“Then she doesn’t need to be my friend.”

She smiles and her eyes sparkle, and she kisses me once again. “You have no idea how much better that makes me feel!” She sits up, then jumps to her feet, waiting for me to stand once again. “I know you mean it, too, Rob, and that makes me happier.”

I do mean it. I plan to tell her that, since she didn’t take advantage of my wanting to be hers for two years and some-odd months… No, for over 5 years… I’m going to move on and there’s nothing she can do about it. “Look, Dannielle, you’ve known who I am for years. Before I knew who I was. Your giving me this chance to be that man is more than I can hope for.” I take her hand in mine, and gaze deeply into her lovely golden eyes. “And, I’m grateful that it’s you.” I quickly lean in and steal a kiss from her before she turns to head back towards her vehicle.

“Me, too.” She starts towards her car and I watch her, her almost 5’7” figure slowly shrinking as she skips the few feet away. She pulls her door open, then looks at me once more with a genuinely happy smile on her lips before she climbs in and starts the Ford engine. It’s a smile that I hoped I’d give to her every day from this moment on. As she puts the Probe into gear, she waves through her windshield and then quickly pulls off.

I wave back and wait until I can’t see the car anymore before I begin to head inside. The day’s memories flash through my mind. Her time alone with me, cut shorter than she wanted by Preston’s search for us after his game. The few games we played together before heading out for lunch. Preston’s finally have the courage to call Audrey, who we then pick up and have with us during our lunch. Our drive across town to the park, where we all just played together, Preston and Audrey getting to know each other a little better and Danni and I stealing hidden kisses in the slides and tubes. Getting yelled at by a bunch of young children’s parents for “not acting our age.” Then, a trip to the mall, where we just walked around together. I must admit, Audrey took to Preston so very quickly! I think she always liked him but was worried what I would think as well. Then, finally parting ways, dropping Preston and Audrey off at his place, then Danni and I coming here. It was such a wonderful day. And there still were a few hours left in it! Oh, it was a wonderful day, indeed!

I entered the house, whistling happily. My mom was there, with my dad, and they ask me how my went. I tell them it went well, and that Danni and I are seeing each other again. They seem so happy for me about it, and I remember that they’d seen me moping around the past few days, so I understand their response. They tell me that dinner is on the oven when I’m hungry, which I thank them for. After pulling out the plate of meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, I head back to my computer to check my messages and hop onto my game. I might as well play a few rounds tonight since I still have plenty of time left in the day.

I log in, and my comms beacon shows no additional messages today. It’s not overly unusual, since I had so quickly logged off morning. I go to set up my medium-weight ‘Bot for some lighter games when I get a direct message.

ChiMaschi: So, how was your day?

PandorasBane: It was good. Dannielle and I got back together!

ChiMaschi: Oh? Well I’m glad to hear that. I’m sure she’ll be good for you.

PandorasBane: Thanks!

ChiMaschi: I was wondering if you were avoiding me, though. I’d been waiting for our game today.

PandorasBane: Oh. Sorry. About that. I dunno if I’ll be able to play as much anymore. I told her I’ll be with her more, and not let my game ruin it.

ChiMaschi: Well that doesn’t mean we can’t still play. It doesn’t mean my offer doesn’t still stand.

PandorasBane: If we play, then it’s just for fun, Allessa. I mean it. I don’t wanna screw this up again.

ChiMaschi: That’s fine. But, I still hope you’ll win. Because I want you to. I really want you to take me out, Robert.

PandorasBane: If you wanted to go out with me, why the game? We could have gone out, but now I’m with Dannielle.

ChiMaschi: I do want to go out with you, Rob, you’re a great guy. I just don’t want to be some girl you just play with and that’s it. I wanted you to fight for it. Come on. One more time. If you don’t win, I’ll respect what you have now.

PandorasBane: Doesn’t that seem kinda backwards? I’m WITH Dannielle!

ChiMaschi: Just one more. Please? For me?

PandorasBane: I didn’t say I wasn’t going to play. Just that I’m with Dannielle now so it’s not about going out with you.

ChiMaschi: Okay, but if you win, I want one date. Consider it a consolation prize for me for not just letting it happen for so long.

A few moments pass because I’m weighing my options. I really meant it when I told Dannielle that I was going to make it serious with her. But, we didn’t exactly say we’re exclusively boyfriend and girlfriend now. We’re just seeing each other now.

ChiMaschi: You still there?

I need to give her some kind of answer, so I answer out loud to myself. “Aww, screw it. I’m not going to win, anyway, so might as well.”

PandorasBane: Yeah. Okay. IF I win, then I’ll go out with you on one date. But, I’m with Dannielle now, so it’ll be just that, a simple, one-time date.

ChiMaschi: I’ll only need one to change your mind. 😉

PandorasBane: I’m not playing, Less. I really want to make this work with her.

There’s a short pause as I wait for her response.

ChiMaschi: Okay. Just one. Can we play now?

PandorasBane: You’re on!

Within a few moments, I’ve received a one-on-one match invite, for one of the most densely-covered maps in the game. I was expecting a difficult map, so when I see it, I don’t panic. It’s one I’ve gotten to know very, very well. I accept, and the game brings me back to the dropship control screen, but now, it’s changed. The view-port has a heavily-forested planet showing against the black and white-specked background of space. The running lights are no longer a cool, pale blue, but a strobing red alert, showing battle stations are in effect throughout the ship. I pull up my ‘Bot preparation screen, looking over my inventory of usable ‘Bots, weapons, recon units, ammunitions stores, and interchangeable armors. Now it’s time to get this all set.

I decide that I’m going to go with the DarkWolf unit mostly because, even though it’s the heaviest of the medium-weight ‘Bots and somewhat slow, it’s also rather short and squat, which will make the tree-line help me in my game of cat-and-mouse with Allessa. I swap out the radar-scatter armor I’d been toying with recently, since the trees will interfere with motion, radar, and infrared detection, for the high-energy absorption. It’ll be a little heavier, but I’ll be able to take more hits. I set up with medium and long range lasers on both arm pods, since they’ll be just as effective as short-range, but can burn through the trees, too, with minimal energy loss. I mount a medium-range ballistic weapon on the center of its torso, a straight shot out from the cockpit, not that I’m anticipating needing it. It won’t go through the trees so nicely, but if she uses jump-jets to get above me, it’ll become a perfect round while she’s in the air. I then set up a 12-pack of long-range missiles on my ‘Bot’s left shoulder with 8 reloads. Again, no good in the trees, but if we get in the clearings, or if she jumps at me, they’ll be perfect.

I look at my ‘Bot’s payout and feel satisfied by its configuration until I realize that I have two slots still empty and enough available capacity to load a second long range missile rack on my Bot’s right shoulder. I go to drag it into the slot when, for no obvious reason, I get a thought: Use the flight probe. A simple, unmanned drone that I can launch into the air and immediately get an overview of the map, including thermal and radar signatures, plus a massive increase in accuracy on the missile systems. Most of your better players don’t use them. They’d rather have the payout used to do damage. But, in an area like this, it might make the difference,especially considering the radar jamming that this map has with the trees. And, I think to myself, Allessa will be using the payload for weapons. With the left-over weight, I can hold not one, but two of them. I load them on my right shoulder, then save the configuration.

With my Bot finally ready, I return to the control room and click the green “LAUNCH!” button on the lower panel. The game goes to a cut-scene, showing my ChromeBot leaving the blocky ship on its way down to the planet’s atmosphere and, eventually, its surface.

“Alright,” he says to himself, “Here goes nothing.”

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