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Chapter 1

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Ger dug deep, mashing the battered mini keyboard. He’d never faced an online opponent like GNGR346 and whoever it was, was incredible.

Pushing back his long sweaty hair, he fast-typed a blistering number of surefire moves designed to vault his character onscreen with relentless precision. Outside of the traditional WSAD commands that drove him forward, he had coded his Avatar with all of his powerful finishing moves, driving the onscreen Viking with what he thought was savage unbeatable fury. Eat that!

And yet, GNGR346 was kicking his ass avoiding every power strike and doubling down with a flurry of attacks that he hadn’t even seen before.  WTF?

Ger grunted in genuine frustration as he continued the furious assault on the online BERSERKER game determined to not fall to his unknown assailant. How is this happening? It had started easily enough with him logging in after his 'bot chaperone had checked his most recent school uploads. The condition of his staying with this foster group was that they would check his online school homework and he would agree not to go to the dark web hangouts that had gotten him arrested in the first place. All he had been trying to do was pay for his Mom’s meds - but the courts didn’t see it that way and the next thing he knew, Mom was in Rehab and he was shipped off to the foster group, whose impossibly slow computer he had overclocked to get him in the game, was severly harshing his action. BERSERKER lacked the pure adrenaline thrill of his previous illegal data skirmishes and the online hacking rush - especially in the strictly off-limits dark web arena - but the game did have some attractions. He’d leveled up fast, and as long as he stayed within the legal limits of the web, did his online homework and kept to the imposed ninety-minutes time allowed on the group computer - nobody seemed to have any problem with him online.

Of course, he could have easily disabled the key tracker the 'bots had installed on the computer and fed it a ton of random websites had we wanted to go back to the dark side, but he was determined to do his time quickly here and pass it playing mindless Bronze Age MMORPG’s until Mom was clean and he was free to rejoin her. Play the game, loot the rewards.

‘Who are you?!’ Ger screamed at the computer as he cratered out again.

Onscreen, he was down to his last life and GNGR346 barely had any damage.

He breathed in slowly, falling into the zone that he knew served him best when he got frustrated. As a forever-skinny kid, he’d learned early to control his anger or get his butt handed to him. Like now. Did you really just do that?!

Ger’s Level 15 Viking Warrior (which he affectionally dubbed KILLDZR) fell to the minx-like moves of GNGR346’s Fairy Elf. The lithe seven foot magickal Avatar neatly and effectively severed the head of his trusted game figure and all Ger could do was watch helplessly as GNGR346 won the round and leveled up over him as KILLDZR bled out of his newly-severed neck. I hate you.

He glared at the game leaderboard seeing his onscreen name - DD4EVR - drop down one slot. He’d owned that board within a week of signing into the game and now he was number two.

‘WHO ARE YOU!?’

Ger stomped away from the overheated computer and stared out into the alley below through the battered plastic wall pane - the only window in the cramped space. Of course, it’s raining. It’s always raining.

Here in MegaCity One, the streets continued to pile up with more and more Outlanders looking for a place to stay. And there’s always more people outside.

Below him in the acid-rain soaked road, huddled people tried to sleep in the wet alley. They were just smeared shadows to him through the dirty plexiglas  but he could still see several smaller ones that had to be kids — teenagers like himself. That could be me out there.  He was lucky that he had a place here - even if it was court appointed - as many were still reeling from the collapse of the off-planet ecosystem and had no hope but to return home to Earth. Already Megacity One was hopelessly overcrowded and outside of the retrofitted closet/ computer room, the foster home was a cramped warren of beds, troubled kids and robots. This was the only place he had any privacy at all - even if it had once been for storage.

He glanced at the large neon timer set over the battered door.

He still had five minutes left before his time was up.

Enough time to go back in and challenge GNGR346 to a rematch and get his place back at the top of the game board.

<PING!>

His in-game message system sounded as Ger turned back to the computer.

Flopping into the well-worn chair, a flashing neon message reminder alerted him that he had a direct message. He clicked on the icon and was stunned to see a DM from GNGR346.

Intrigued, he clicked on the icon and read the message that flashed on the screen

<You wanna do something really interesting?>

Ger shook his head - It’s probably gonna be an ad for some kind of game booster they’re selling - as he wrote back,

<How did you beat me so fast?>

He waited for GNGR346 to respond figuring that the promotion would come on now to have him join a Clan or get some high-priced Mod that would better autocomplete his moves.

<It’s easy when you’re a N00b>

A skull smiley-face emoji taunted him as he stared at the response. Flipping him the bird.

A N00b?

Ger fingers flashed in response as he wrote back.

He hated Trolls with a passion and GNGR346 was clearly dissing him. I’ll show you who’s a N00b! Dropping cover for a moment, he typed in the terminal computer code for a dark web cluster bomb that would infect his tormenter’s system and flood their home screen with advertisements for sex sites, home shopping portals and other assorted web trash. Enough, Troll.

A flash of bright, brilliant light overwhelmed him as both his monitor and system shut down with an audible bang. The stink of burning circuits filled the room. Ger staggered back from the now-smoking computer as the timer in the room started to ring. ‘Time. Time. Time,’ chanted the countdown clock as Ger sighed in frustration. His shoulders slumped in resignation as he glared at the now-broken computer terminal. I am so toast.

Onscreen, the neon green taunt was burned into the old-fashioned monitor.

<N00b>

Isla sat back laughing at how DD4EVR had tried to infect her system with a classic old-school cluster bomb. How lame was this guy anyway? An e-bomb? What are we, twelve?

Onscreen, her avatar, BRITSHINSTR, bowed in salute as she signed off the BERSERKER game. Content in her victory, Isla sighed in satisfaction as she sat back and watched her leaderboard position flash one last time in her browser before the game shut down. Her parents would not be happy to see that she was playing online and she made sure that her log-on deets were clearly hidden behind a shell she had devised on makeup tips and cool new hairstyles. She knew her father would never look there anyway during his weekly remote sweep of her computer’s operating system — but Mom might. He’d been off-world for so long she barely remembered what he looked like in person.

She stared at the portrait of her family that hung over her immaculately made bed. She prided herself in keeping her room organized and she knew she should feel lucky where she was in the current world — but it was hard. And boring. So boring.  Surrounded in soft earth tones with a large picture window that looked out on their manicured garden, Isla blanched at how perfect this room was and how empty it felt. There’s nothing here for me. I don’t belong in this world.

She stood, stretching her long, lean body trying to work out the kinks in her back. Definitely took too long taking down the N00b. She had to admit she had been kinda impressed a little with DD4EVR initial gameplay. He fought well at first and had some game, for sure - but his auto-programming keys were so easy to beat once she ran her own AI enhancement. It took her only seconds to run an analysis mirror and then reverse-engineer his tactics with her own advanced fighting style. She knew he’d be back after her after she trashed him so she’d sent an auto-destruct code at him she’d learned from her mystery crush Jericho. Didn’t expect that one, did you? She couldn’t resist getting that one last dig in.

She hated guys like DD4EVR. Great name, though. Gotta be a Ramones fan.

Isla smiled in secret knowledge that she had gamed her competitor fair and square and gave thanks to the computer science and programming classes she had excelled in. The only downside to this awesome talent was that all her scores were all tracked which meant she had been earmarked for a successful career in her father’s sector that she had no intention of EVER taking. As an Astral Engineer, he was off-world so much, too much for someone like Isla who valued her connection with the Earth - but he was able to provide a great life for her mother and herself - even if the women had been fighting nonstop since she turned seventeen. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Isla stared at the old family picture - Mom, Dad, Sasha and herself - all in a trip to the woods when they had still been there. I look so little. I miss her so much.

In the picture, Isla’s fiery red hair stood out in stark contrast to her mother’s and Sasha’s own pale blond features. It was from her father that she inherited the titian locks that she had hated forever. Now, she knew that there was no amount of hair dye that was going to change the fact that she was a ginger through and through. Might as well embrace it. Go Red!

‘Isla, come down for dinner, honey. The computer’s made Italian tonight. ‘

From downstairs, Marta called up and she made her way to her walk-in closet knowing that her current outfit of Doc Martens, skinny jeans and her coveted vintage Ramones T-shirt were not suitable for her tightly wound Mother. She’d learned to pick her battles with her and dressing for dinner was just one of the smaller skirmishes she was willing to grudgingly concede.

The closet was full of well-tailored dresses that she had inherited from Sasha and even though they were long out of fashion, they still flowed nicely when she reluctantly shrugged one on. She missed her sister who had been one of the first casualties who’d followed their father into planetary service and was one of the original homesteaders that were sent to cultivate the Mars colony. When Outpost XVII fell, they waited months to find out that she was one of the first to pass. They’d had a makeshift funeral for her here on Earth - but even that her Father had been unable to attend due to his ever-demanding work responsibilities. No body. No Dad. No life.

Isla sighed and pulled off her clothes and slid into one of the silk sheathes that only now started to hang properly.

In the last few months, she had noticed how her body was changing and that subtle curves and mods caused her to be more than self-conscious when wearing a dress. She preferred her street level outfit that lay discarded on the floor that allowed her to move anonymously through the city’s internet clubs and online portals. She valued her privacy and constructed an elaborate online persona that guarded who she really was - as she ever-slouched in her favorite dark hoodie and sunglasses to shield her figure and face. She’d recently added a reflective camera-blocking scarf for the CCTV units and didn’t carry a comm-link when she didn’t have to. Isla went into stealth mode as a default that seemed encoded into her DNA.

That’s how she found Jericho. As if he had been waiting for her all along.

‘Isla, it’s getting cold. Are you coming? Or do I have to come up’

Her mother had little patience when it came to dinner insisting that they try to uplink with Dad each night and have a dinner as a family. They hadn’t been a family for real since Sasha’s death as they each retreated into their own safe spaces. Dad had lost himself in his work, Isla in becoming a secret computer and cybernetics hacktavist and her Mother in the ever-increasing daily videocasts of the newly rich and famous. They were never able to get Dad online and so dinner usually devolved into a silent wake of a meal in their large vaulted space. Same crap, different day.

‘I’m coming, Mom. I’m just getting changed’.

Isla took a last look at herself in the full-length mirror that showed her all she needed to know. I look like a girly girl. This sucks. I hate fashion.

She was dwarfed in the large room that had everything one would hope for their beautiful teenage daughter and yet - she felt nothing. She had only found happiness in the world of the cyber-activist Jericho and his attempts to illustrate the hypocrisy that controlled MegaCity One. I am so not like my Mother. If they only knew what I know. Or did. They’d lose it. For sure. Yet Jericho had ghosted her recently. No response. No way to contact him. Everything was on his terms. Typical.

‘Isla!’ Are you coming down? I’m not calling you again!’

‘Here, I come,’ Isla called as she swiped a brush quickly through her tangled hair and stomped off downstairs to the dining room for the ‘tasty’ robot-cooked dinner. She hated Italian food — There was always meat — and was already imagining going back online after dinner again and beating on DD4EVR again. Maybe that would make me feel better? Couldn’t hurt. What else am I going to do?

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