I sat up and took in a shuddering breath. Little sparks of pain danced up and down the length of my spine as my nerve endings got used to being back in the real world.

I was used to a little tingle running up and down my body’s information superhighway when I logged out of the Lotus hardware, but this was the first time there’d been pain to go along with it.

Not that I felt like I had much to complain about. I knew someone who never woke up to feel that pain dancing up and down her spine, after all.

I ripped the earbuds out and stared at the things with a nervous shiver running down my spine as though it was chasing away the pain. The sort of nervous shiver that hits everyone when they’ve had a near death experience. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d just had a hell of a near death experience.

Whatever had happened to Diana had just happened to me. I was sure of it. Only I was also pretty sure the safeguards Lotus claimed they didn’t need to put into place after the last incident had just kicked in to save my ass.

Whatever HOE was doing to people to kill them or turn them into vegetables, they’d just tried it on me. They’d tried to kill me, and it only added to the seething hatred I already felt for the sons of bitches.

One thing was for sure. Those gamemaster assholes deserved every kind of punishment they were probably getting right now from their middle management overlords if their response to a little innocent game breaking and international public humiliation was to try and kill me!

“Motherfucking bastard sons of bitches,” I growled.

I took a couple of deep breaths before I stood and did a couple of stretches. The hardware kept my muscles twitching while I was logged in so they wouldn’t atrophy or anything, and there were supposed to be regular logouts for health reasons, but I couldn’t shake the habit of doing my own stretches to chase away some of the cobwebs that always threatened when I first came back to the real world.

It didn’t help that this time it felt like some of the cobwebs were laced with fire. Whatever the fuck they’d done to me had hurt, and that had me thinking about how much pain Diana must’ve been in just before the end if they’d been successful attacking her.

Those corporate cocksucking motherfuckers were going to pay.

As soon as I’d worked out some of the kinks I sat down in front of my laptop. I pulled up some of the usual Lotus news sites, and of course right there on the front page were a bunch of stories featuring the third person live feed I’d put out.

I paused on one of them that showed me getting down on my knees and grabbing at my ears in clear pain. Then it moved to some “gaming journalist” streamer trying to get some bankshot views by jumping on my publicity.

“And there you have the final still before the mysterious streamers disappeared from the game module and it was cut off,” the girl said, leaning forward and causing some of her low cut tanktop to fall open which both distracted me and drew my attention in exactly the way she was probably hoping for when she decided to practice “legitimate journalism” in an outfit like that.

“We have yet to hear anything from the streamers, though many are claiming responsibility on various Lotus forums and social media, and…”

I swiped away from the feed. The girl was pretty, but I needed to see what other people were saying. Only it was mostly variations on the same themes. There were a lot of wannabes crawling out of the woodwork to claim responsibility. No one had come forward with a first person view of the attack. Some worried that Horizon might’ve done something to seriously hurt me and Kristoph given how we’d been acting there at the end.

And there were a lot of them who were talking about the gamemaster’s admission of guilt. I grinned at that. Oh fuck yes. It was going to be tough for them to wiggle their way out of that one. Though I’m sure they were going to throw plenty of lawyers and money at the problem to try and make it disappear.

I sighed. Thought about getting a snack, then decided against it. That’d mean dealing with my parents. I didn’t want to see my mom staring listlessly at the TV like she had since Diana’s accident, or listen to my dad talking about how I was out of there when graduation came around.

No, time to do what I did best when thoughts of an unwelcome future threatened. I put the earbuds in, not even feeling much hesitation when I did it.

There’d been a time, right after Diana went into her coma, when I’d been terrified of using the things. The terror had returned when she eventually slipped away into that unknowable nothingness that awaited everyone in the end.

Only as with all dangerous things, sort of like what driving had been like before the computers took over, using something often enough and not experiencing the supposed dangers firsthand was enough to trick my brain, that really wasn’t all that far from the primates humanity had come from evolutionarily speaking, into thinking the risk wasn’t all that great.

I hit a button and felt the always strange sensation of the game taking over. My body went limp and I laid down on the bed, though I wasn’t controlling the process. My eyes closed, and when I opened them I was at the top of a tower that had a view of an impressive fantasyscape.

I recognized the massive fantasy city out the window. Buildings seemed to be sculpted of stone rather than built. It was on an island that split a massive river to either side, and off in the distance a mountain speared the sky with smoke rising from the top as it always did.

I smiled. Kristoph always had been a big fan of the works of Robert Jordan, and later Brandon Sanderson after he’d inherited that mantle and ran with it writing like a fiend that had some scholars speculating to this day that he was actually an early test case of a storytelling AI being perfected and released to the world.

“I wondered how long it was going to take you to get here,” Kristoph groused.

I wheeled around and grinned. Kristoph sat in a chair that looked more like the best modern equipment gaming could offer than something I’d expect out of one of the greatest high fantasy epics to come out of the latter half of the twentieth century. I moved over to sit and one of those chairs appeared under me as well.

“Sorry,” I said. “I was checking some of the feeds.”

“In the real world?” he asked.

Kristoph looked at me from around a translucent screen hanging in the air in front of him that was far more impressive than my small laptop screen in the real world. He’d muted the sound, but it was obvious he was watching videos of our incident with the Horizon Online Entertainment gamemasters. 

Not that there was much of anything else on all the usual gamer feeds right about now. Even the most successful streamers were busy filming reaction videos to get in on our action.

I grinned and waggled my eyebrows. 

“Are we making the news?” I asked.

“You bet your ass we’re making news,” Kristoph said. “But you knew it’s all over the usual feeds. People can’t shut up about what we just got those Horizon assholes to admit to.”

“Good,” I said, my voice harsh. “They deserve it for what they did to Diana.”

Kristoph flinched, and a quiet rage boiled behind his eyes. He’d been close to Diana too, after all.

“I get it,” I said. “They’re the soulless evil corporation that all our favorite scifi authors warned us about, but is poking at them really a good idea even if they deserve it? I’m pretty sure they just tried to kill us.”

“They did try to kill us,” I said. “And they would’ve covered it up just like they did the last time it happened.”

Kristoph looked down. There wasn’t much of a response to that, after all. Killing us wouldn’t be anything to Horizon after what they’d already done. The empty room down the hall from mine was proof of that.

“I’m going to keep giving them shit until those assholes come out and admit to everything they’ve done,” I said. “They keep hiding behind their lawyers and their money and I think we all know where that’s going to get us.”

“Nowhere,” Kristoph growled.

“Exactly,” I growled right back at him.

I knew there wasn’t much chance me or my family would ever see any sort of justice for my sister through the usual justice channels. Not when the courts could be bought by the highest bidder. Even with what they’d just admitted to.

“Right. We need to start working on the next job,” I said. “That one was good. We actually got one of their assholes to admit something, and we got it on a livestream. That’s gonna be everywhere.”

That was another trend that kept right on going from the late twentieth and early twenty-first. Maybe the courts had been bought and paid for, but there was still one court that could influence things: the court of public opinion. I felt like I’d gotten a pretty good handle on pulling those levers even if there wasn’t a chance I was going to do anything in a real court room.

The formula was simple, even if creating that formula could be tricky at times: do something audacious enough that it got people’s attention, then put a message behind it or get the asshole you were targeting to admit something they shouldn’t while the world was paying attention.

“You’re crazy,” Kristoph said. “Did you forget that they just tried to kill us? Besides, we’re not going to be able to do anything now. You heard the guy. They got our brain patterns. We’re banned.”

“There are ways we can spoof that,” I said.

“Yeah, and we’d have to disable some of the safeties that probably saved our asses just now,” Kristoph said. “Do you really want to risk having our brains fried to prove to the world they’re frying people’s brains?”

“You have a point,” I muttered. “I fucking hate that you have a point.”

We’d probably die unremarked, too. Sure some people might wonder what happened to that livestreamer who griefed the Horizon gamemaster from time to time, but no one would care if a couple of teenagers living out in the middle of the rust belt in the unfashionable middle of an arcology suddenly wound up dead on their Lotus earbuds.

They’d probably blame it on kids overdosing while using the Lotus earbuds like they had with the first wave of deaths and comas. That infuriated me. I knew Diana had never touched anything harder than alcohol and pot in her life, but it’s not like anyone batted an eyelash these days at someone in one of the numerous towers dotting the rotting grain belt of America keeling over from an overdose.

“Well we have to…”

“Conlan,” Kristoph said.

“Not right now Kristoph,” I said. “I need to figure out some way to…”

“Seriously,” he said. “You need to see this.”

“Is it another cat video?” I said. “Because this isn’t the time or the place. We’re planning revenge here man!”

It was a measure of just how urgent Kristoph thought whatever he was talking about was that he didn’t shoot back a moderately witty response. Usually a comment like that would be enough to get the two of us sniping at each other for the next twenty minutes, but he was obviously preoccupied by something he thought was important.

“What’s going on?” I asked with a sigh. There was something on that translucent screen hovering in the air that had Kristoph’s attention, and if it was enough to interrupt one of our back and forths then it was worth finding out what it was.

That’s when the trumpets sounded.

“What the fuck is going on?” I asked as our surroundings, Kristoph and me included, melted away in a swirling maelstrom of light.

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