PROLOGUE


 

I wake up as Paul Wilkins, but that’s not who I’m going to be today.

It’s a grey morning. People often say that the sun is hiding behind the clouds, but I find that to be a self-centered point of view. Relatively speaking, the sun is the most stationary of all the parties involved, and the least timid. Its light has touched pretty much everything in our universe! I doubt the sun is afraid of one small patch of Earth.

But now think about the other guy, the cloud that blocks the sun. For him, it’s a victory. In those evaporating moments, it holds back the greatest power in the solar system, preventing it from providing energy to the most complex life forms in the known galaxy. A cloud’s entire life is a monument to resistance and martyrdom.

I get no inspiration from apathetic omnipotence. Our lives are so short, I’d rather be like the cloud: constantly fighting against powers greater than me. Today, for example, I am going to kill five people that stand in my way. I plan on killing more as the weeks go by.

I stand by the window as I contemplate the violence to come. Where the absent sunlight might have warmed my skin, I am instead invigorated as the clouds burn above me. Today I shall have an audience. I shall be celebrated for my killing sprees. Almost every day for the last three years, I have been bettering myself as a death dealer. Fighting against the flaw I share with the cloud: I die too quickly.

I need to prove that there is nobody better at the game than I, and now I finally have a team that I can trust to bring me to the top.

My vainglorious daydreaming is arrested by my new team’s manager calling us to action. I have a primal urge to delay, just to spite his demand, but I know better now. Some battles are not worth fighting on the open field, but I despair at the idea that he recognizes any control over me. I rue the contract I had signed with such naive relief. But the end will justify the means, and I could ask for no better company in my chains than my current teammates. We are warriors, he is a manager.

Lex is the price I pay for them, and my room in this house. Unreliable associates have been my constant kryptonite, but those days are past. I look to Lex not as the pioneering paragon of gaming he once was, nor as the Goliath to my David I saw him as more recently. Rather, like I am Atlas, he is a weight I must bear. One burden I need not suffer, however, is the weight on my bladder.

There’s an EpiPen laying on the counter. As I wash my hands, the water flows over a metal bracelet that works in scorning partnership with the pen as symbols of my weakness. The cliché is that the pen is mightier than the sword, but my experience says otherwise.  Poor judgment of words may have held back my proficiency in violence, but I have overcome those setbacks with resilient dedication to my art. Still, looking at the pen on the counter I cannot deny the power it holds over me. The purpose it serves. Probably because this pen is also a sword, and I’d sooner face a blade than have that thing jabbed into my leg. Leaving it on the counter in this shared bathroom was an oversight. I was not of a clear mind last night.

I bring the mind-killer back to my room and toss it onto my bed. It once belonged in my bag, but no longer. I shall have to destroy it later. I head downstairs with my gear, and wait with the others. We are still waiting for Tariq, who ran back into the house “for something.” He is often absent-minded – offline – but endearing. I enjoy the frustration he causes Lex.

On the way to the studio, most of us are calmly talking strategy with the coach, but our superstars Cadi and Toro seem to be preoccupied with their nerves. This anxiety is not something I share. The match ahead is something to be excited about; an opportunity to show my strength. Our strength. Their worry makes them weaker, though I know that the coach has pills for them to level that out. It’s shameful, but many of our opponents will be doping as well. I relish the idea of beating someone who has a chemical advantage, and I’ve done it before.

However, I do take omega-3 supplements, and I have been known to join in medicinal-grade group therapy sessions. For appearances sake.

Meanwhile, Tariq keeps looking at me in a way I cannot understand. Over the past couple of weeks he’s been somewhat in awe of me. I think I see pity in his secretive looks, or maybe it’s jealousy. Regardless, while he’s good at his job his tactical mindset is weak, prone to dangerous mistakes in judgement. I wish he would focus on the coach right now instead of looking at me.

Ours is the first match scheduled. My blood is thick with anticipation. I have been on that stage before, but my old team did not have the aspirations that still drive me. Now I stand with the best, and if the waves of support online are any indication, the crowd should be cheering for me this time. Me. It will be nice to have them on my side, for once. If the fans like winners, then I’ll make them roar. As we head to the stage, I leave my bag in the room with our manager, taking only what I need: mouse and keyboard, energy drink, banana. Caffeine and potassium baby, great for concentration.

The feeling of being in front of an audience like this is indescribable. I’ve been to enough sporting events to know what it’s like to be a fan in the crowd, but now there’s some sort of existential force separating us from the excitable hive mind. Instead of cheering with them, I feed on their support.

They are chanting for us. The strong shout of “T-A-M” rocks the stadium, but I hear another chant is fighting its way to the surface.

“Hardent! Hardent! Hardent!”

That’s my name, in this house. They are cheering for me.

It feels good. I have no intentions of giving them back anything less than an exciting match.

I am playing well, but it’s more stressful than I expected. It almost hurts to breathe, but my drive is clear. I don’t just want to win; I want to completely shame the other team. But it’s not going as expected. My own players are struggling. My mouth was dry, now it’s burning. Too much caffeine. It’s hard to keep my focus on the game. Someone left a bottle of water on the desk, and I drink some. It’s washing the metallic taste out. I drink most of it now while my champion is dead, I won’t have many spare moments later.

Something had changed. There is vomit on the keyboard. The burning in my throat tells me it’s mine. The coughing is painful, breathing is a trial. Liquid fire itching out of my skin. Each cough comes with bile. Throat swelling shut, more out than in. I’ve never had an allergic reaction like this before. I think my stomach is ruptured.

I hope they paused the game. I try to tell them. I’m talking with guts.

It’s hard to see, I force my eyes to focus. Everyone is standing around me. Good, they paused. Their eyes show worry, but there’s no need. I’ll be fine. All eyes but his. He’s gloating. I have to be fine. Blinking strings, sweat. Why is Tariq holding an EpiPen? No, I beg. I can fight this. He can’t hear. I can’t speak. My eyes plead. He looks terrified.

His hand moves, fast. Can’t see it. Can’t feel it.

The fog about me is going away. I feel light. When you plan to take someone’s life, you should be prepared to die yourself. In my profession, I made that trade many times. And yet, I never expected to go like this. 

“…Paul…” I hear whispered. But it’s not Paul anymore. Just listen to the crowd, they’re chanting my name.

Everything is getting brighter. The sun is breaking through. It doesn’t look like they paused after all. It’s a shame I didn’t last longer.

GG


 

Turn the page to chapter 1