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You're sitting at a diner with Reggie and Tonya, eating a late breakfast while Tonya sips a cup of coffee. "So, the studio where I rented time is just around the corner. I wanted you to have a chance to get used to the cameras and the people. The equipment's gotten a lot smaller over the last ten years, but there's still at least one guy at a control panel making decisions about angles and things."
While Tonya speaks, Reggie's phone buzzes and she takes a look. Her eyes grow wide. "Uh, I'm sorry to interrupt, but the alert I set for the leaderboard just pinged?"
She shows you the phone. The first two names on the list are:
I look at the phone. Blink. Look again. "Holy. Shit. Reggie, that's crazy. Is this a joke? Show Tonya."
When Reggie does as you say, Tonya raises an eyebrow, and when she speaks the chipper tone is replaced by sheer efficiency. "This is exciting, but it also presents some significant challenges, especially since we had no way of anticipating that you'd be in the lead so early in the game. Did you have any plans for the rest of the afternoon and evening? I think our little prep session needs to turn into a full-on war council."
"Well.." I look at Reggie. "Not really. We just bagged a quest and leveled. I was going to do some diving on PoA, but mostly hang out with Reggie. What about you, Reggie?"
"Nothing planned other than hanging out with you, like you said." She squeezes your knee under the table, excited by this turn of events.
"Great. Hey, if you don't mind me asking... are you two a couple-couple now? You seem really comfortable together, which is great for the cameras, but I'm wondering if you're okay with us maybe playing up the romance angle?" She's looking at you, Trev, waiting for your answer first. So is Reggie, actually.
My pause is probably only a few seconds. I smile at Tonya, look over at Reggie, then say, "Sure, play it up. It's no lie we've started dating. Reggie's awesome."
I lean over and kiss her cheek.
It feels weird. I do like her, alot. Like, falling for her. But that answer, it scared me. Was I doing it for the story, to help Tonya? I don't think so. I mean, I will miss Jessi. Or, at least, hanging out and hooking up and getting high and...
No. If I can trust Reggie to work on this quest, to move down here, to maybe split a ton of cash, then I can date her. I'm not declaring love here. I'm not on one knee. I just said out loud what is one hundred percent true.
I reach under the table and find her hand, hold it like we did in Hickory.
Reggie squeezes your hand and keeps it in hers. "No. Tonya, I'm confident that Trev and I are going to be good together for a long time, but I'm not willing to have it out in the media right now. We only met in person for the first time less than a week ago, and... well, I'm sure there are people both of us should talk to before we're on the Internet playing up our grand romance. Family, friends, maybe people we've been seeing casually?"
She turns to face you. "You're the best thing that's happened to me in a long time, Trev, but I hope you understand that I'm not ready to go quite that public with... us?"
She's seeing other people? Hunh, that's interesting. I don't feel jealous, but I'm a tiny bit surprised. She's totally right about how awful it could be with the whole world talking about us dating. "You're awesome, Reggie. And smart. You're right, we should just keep it casual... for the public." I look at Tonya, "This is gonna get weird, isn't it? Hashtagging, Doxxing, all that ugly internet shit?"
"I'm afraid so. After we talk through tomorrow's interview, I'm going to set up a vidcon with some specialists from my division and from our Security group, bat around some ideas about how to keep the two of you safe, happy, and productive. I think you're going to be glad of the sponsorship. You're going to be like fish in an aquarium in about an hour, and we can help insulate you from that, some."
You finish breakfast and make your way down the block to a nondescript building with a small sign that says "Blue Devil Media Services, LLC". Tonya says, "We've given this company a generous retainer to be ready for us anytime we like. Whenever we can manage it, interviews and recorded appearances will happen here." She swipes a card over a proximity reader and presents her right eye to a scanner, and the door pops open. "We'll need to get your biometrics on file before the end of today, just to make things easier."
You enter a lobby decorated with Duke University memorabilia. A well put-together and attractive man in his early forties comes around the counter with a big smile. "Tonya! You're looking great as always. Are these your two new stars?"
Tonya turns. "Trev, Reggie, this is Larry Beaufort. He owns Blue Devil Media."
I follow Tonya, walking beside Reggie, not holding hands. Speaking of which, when I'm introduced to Larry, I shake his hand, "Hi, Larry. I'm Trev. Nice to meet you."
Larry smiles and gives you a firm return handshake, and then holds his hand out to Reggie, who shakes as well. "We've got the big studio space set up for y'all, and your consultants are in the next-door conference room. Where to?" Tonya responds, "Conference room first. Want to introduce Reggie and Trev to the team."
Reggie whispers to you, "Team?"
I shrug to Reggie, "News to me, too."
When you enter the very modern conference room, there are two people seated at the table, and two standing, talking animatedly. They all look up as the door opens. Tonya smiles. "Reggie, Trev, I'd like you to meet Robyn," a young black woman with very short hair and full sleeve tattoos, sitting at the table, waves, "Edna," the pretty hispanic woman gives you a nod, "Kirk," a somewhat older guy, maybe middle-thirties, with intense blue eyes and a short-sleeved shirt showing pretty incredible guns, sitting, gives the 'what's up, bro?' head jerk, ", and Oliver." A black man of indeterminable age and a bald head, with dark, dark skin and a suit that might have been tailored by magic elves, so perfect is the fit, moves around the table to give Reggie a kiss on both cheeks, and then moves to shake your hand.
"I know it's a little Hunger Games, but you have a team now. These are the best people in the Tri, and you'll have them on-call 24-7 after today."
Oliver says in a resonant baritone, "Tonya, this is going to be easier than we'd expected. I think you're paying me too much." He's looking you and Reggie up and down as if he's evaluating an objet d'art at an auction.
I give a nod or hello to each of them, sort of overwhelmed with why there's a whole "team". Oliver's attention is kinda weird, but man, he's slick.
I look over at Tonya, "What does... our team do?" They don't look like gamers, so they what, handle make-up and stuff?
"Trev, these guys are image and presentation consultants. We don't want to change a thing about you, mind, but we want to make sure that who you are comes across through the cameras. Make sense? I'll let Oliver tell you about everyone."
Oliver repeats the introductions, this time with "job descriptions."
"Robyn is hair and makeup."
"Kirk is clothes."
"And Edna's public speaking and, ah, comportment."
"And I'm the big-picture guy. I know this seems like a lot, but you're going to be very much in the public eye. We're not here to primp and preen you, we're here to make sure you have the skills and knowledge you need to deal with what's coming."
I look over to Reggie. I assume she's good with this. "Cool. I'm a little nervous about how crazy things might be in the offline world, so I appreciate your help. And guidance. I almost make a joke about walking around with a book on my head discussing the rain on a plane in Spain, but I'm sort of afraid Oliver would take me up on it.
"Yes, thank you. Looks like things are going to start rolling pretty fast."
"Please, have a seat. Tonya, do you want to talk first, or shall I run through a quick brief?" Tonya nods to indicate Oliver should continue. After you sit, he continues.
"What you think you know about how the media works these days is wrong. You've seen the images of 'borgarazzi' with implant cameras and wifi nets under their scalps. You've seen the drones and remote-op crawlers, not too many around here, but again, you've seen the images. These things, and the 'regular' reporters with cameras and mics, are the tip of the iceberg. Oh, we forgot to offer you something to drink. Water, soda, juice..." He chuckles. "...whiskey?"
I look around, back to Oliver, "I'm guessing whiskey is the wrong answer? If not, maybe I'll take a Jack and Coke? If it is, a soda's fine." I could use a joint, to be honest.
Oliver chuckles. "Trevian, I don't do pop quizzes. If there's a test, I'll tell you first. Reggie, would you like anything?"
Reggie, eyes a bit wide, says, "Sure, Jack and Coke. That works."
Kirk stands and leaves the room while Oliver continues. "Tip of the iceberg. Collectively, the content-producing media organizations of the United States alone have a collective online and physical capacity for surveillance that you cannot begin to imagine. Much of it is strictly speaking illegal, but since legislation opened their channels to the various three-letter intelligence branches of the government, it is tolerated. Cheaper for the private sector to run it and let the NSA piggyback as they like. Many of those media will already know that Abaddon the Quick is one Trevian Marks, and it will be trivial for them to make the same connections that M-T has, if they don't already know."
Kirk returns with two tall glasses filled with ice and liquid, and sets them in front of you and Reggie. Her left hand finds your knee again under the table, as her right lifts the glass to take a deep sip.
"I do pot. Like, pretty often. Just... wanted to get that out there." I really have no idea if that's helpful. "I was arrested on a PD charge when I was twenty one, I've gotten a few speeding and parking tickets. I, uh... failed senior-level Chemistry. In high school." Might as well get it all out there.
Oliver shakes his head. "Trevian, calm the fuck down. You're not running for office, or trying to marry into money. That stuff isn't important. I'm scaring you so I can tell you how we handle it. This team, your team, has two jobs. One is to get you ready for the media, so Black Marlin gets some value out of the money M-T is spending. Two is to protect you both, give you the tools to deal with being instant feedbait without losing the opportunity to be young people, enjoying your lives."
He goes on to explain. Robyn is "Hair and Makeup," yes, but she's also some sort of off-book trained disguise ninja. Kirk is "Clothes," but also anti-surveillance tech. Edna is "Public Speaking," but also apparently (even at her young age) an expert on the techniques and tactics of the Big Media organizations. Oliver? "I'm ex-Special Forces. I organize things. We're here to make sure you look good when you're on-stage, and to make sure you're not on-stage when you're not aware that you are."
Tonya chimes in. "Okay, super! Time to talk about tomorrow." She turns to the two of you, clearly breaking the tension purposefully. "Trev, Reggie, how do you feel about Black Marlin gaming gear?"
Oliver's demeanor is solid. I want to trust this guy. I wouldn't want to go into a firefight for him, but that's not what he's asking.
To Tonya, I answer honestly, "Black Marlin's stuff is amazing, Tonya. Far and away the best stuff I've ever used. The haptic is incredible, and the touch controls are perfect. Plus, they look... really snazzy." I look over at Reggie, "Especially on her."
"The gear is more than awesome, Tonya. I think the sensitivity of the haptic feedback and the quick-response and hardwired macro inputs are really going to be a help, finishing this quest, especially the combats. Plus, it looks really sexy, especially on Trev."
Tonya looks at Oliver, and glances around the table. "Super!" She gives a look that passes the torch to Edna.
Edna smiles. "Really? I've got nothing to add. You two are adorable. You ready to hit the studio?"
I nod, consider taking Reggie's hand, but again, don't. Edna is particularly attractive. There's a kind of untouchability about her expression that makes her even hotter.
She's got nothing on Reg, though.
Edna leads the way to the studio after giving you the chance to take another sip or two of your drink. Kirk and Robyn stay behind, already talking about wardrobe and style. Oliver and Tonya meet Larry Beaufort as you exit the conference room and go through a door marked "Control Room Studio A." The two of you and Edna enter the studio proper, set up like a talk show with three high upholstered chairs. Small cameras cover the room from many angles.
Edna indicates that you should take two of the chairs, set fairly close together, and sits down in the third, which is separated by a few feet. A red light over the door blinks three times, then goes green. She turns on a dazzling smile and looks directly into one of the cameras. "As most of you know, Eve Holt, the developer of Twilight Solstice, among other popular games, recently died and left a unique provision in her will. Her billion-dollar fortune will be inherited by whoever first completes a quest she dubbed 'The Mad Dragon's Crown.' We're here today with Trevian Marks, the current leader in the quest, and his gaming partner, Regina Cooper. Trev, Reggie, welcome!"
The beginning of the practice interview flows smoothly. Edna asks about where you were when you found out about Eve's death and the quest, about how you and Reggie met, elicits some cute anecdotes about TSol and your gaming history. Then, "So, Trev, this quest is really a big deal. Has much changed for you, since this all began a week and a half ago?"
I try to keep calm, answer her honestly, "Well, Edna, things have been pretty crazy. I was heartbroken to hear about Eve's, you know, death. I'm trying to get through some programming classes at a local college, and she's one of my biggest inspirations. TSol's been my virtual home for a while, and to know the woman who breathed life into it is no longer here, it was a real shock. The whole quest has been great because it's like this chance to get to know her better. I mean, this is the world she created, and the quest, it's her baby." I shift a bit, realizing I haven't answered her question. "For me, it's been pretty great overall. I got some really amazing gear from Black Marlin, and Reggie and I've been working on the quest, got to meet IRL. But on the downside, my guild is breaking up over the quest, which is a bummer. I'm a founding member, and these guys were great friends. Now, it's just kind of messy. And I love the publicity that TSol's getting, but I'm worried about how some players might end up taking things for what is, honestly, a ton of money."
Edna directs the same question to Reggie.
"Well, Trev said most of the things I would. In a way, I think, this quest gives us a way to mourn Eve. The money's a thing, a big thing, but if she'd just left us this, without a real-world award, it would still be a gift. Material changes? Lots of them. I've seen places I wouldn't have otherwise, met Trev in the world, and some other really cool people. Some parts of my... timetable... for life have moved up, and some matter less than they did. And this..." She gestures to include Edna and the room. ""...this is kind of bizarre, y'know?"
The questions turn to the technical a bit, Edna asking about gameplay and specifics of the quest. You and Reggie tag-team smoothly, avoiding mention of specific details that might help other questers, and bringing in the Black Marlin gear whenever it seems appropriate.
Eventually, Edna stops and looks at the glass panel between you and the control room. "Tonya, does that seem good for the basics? Should I go to the gotchas?"
Tonya's voice comes through the speakers. "Seems like a good time, Edna. Go for it."
Edna explains. "Most interviews will be basically like what we just did. Sometimes, though, you'll get a hyena that wants to stir things up, embarrass you or make you look foolish. I'm going to go through some more aggressive and ridiculous questions now. Are you two ready?"
I give Reg some encouraging looks, back her up when I see an opening. She's a really genuine speaker. I hope they interview her every time. I need her with me. To Edna, I nod, "Sure, Edna. Hit us with your best shots."
Edna's face takes on a severe expression, almost a sneer. "Mr. Marks, don't you find it a little disgusting that so much money is on the line for playing a video game? Especially when so many in this world are dying from starvation and disease? If Eve Holt really was such a good person, why did she throw her money away on gamers?"
After your answer, Edna changes tone again. "You two are really sweet together!" She leans in conspiratorially. "How's the sex? Do you ever do it in the game?"
Again waiting for your answer, Edna moves on with, "You're quite successful so far. Do you ever fear that another player might come after you in the 'Real World' to stop your progress in the game?"
I try to answer each without asking for help. Each of them are really damn hard.
Sick and donation: "I think it's amazing that Eve decided to give her wealth to the people who enjoy her art, her expression, her games. There's suffering and disease, you're right. But that doesn't stop us from watching movies, going to football games, reading blogs. And money's just a medium of exchange, you know? I know it's more money that my or my family and friends could ever spend, and I'm definitely donating to charity."
Sex life: "Reggie and I are the best of friends. I wouldn't be on the leaderboards at all if she wasn't there, searching lore, charting routes, making connections. Our partnership isn't about sex, or romance. This quest isn't about it, either." I hope that dodge works.
IRL interference: "I'm really glad the game's closed to new folks. I've never run into anyone in real life who played TSol that I didn't find something cool about them. Like Tobes, the player of Roddik. We actually worked together on a quest recently. It was really fun." There, I just "outed" Tobes. I mean, not really. I glance over at Reggie.
"Those were excellent answers, Trevian. You come across as sincere because you are sincere. For the future, though, I'd avoid mentioning the real name of any player, at least until M-T Legal gives you the green light."
She goes through a similar drill with Reggie, with similar results, although Reggie of course has already had the real-name warning. "Tonya, do you and Oliver want to join us?"
When they do, Edna says, "Tonya, we may need to do some course corrections once we see what the environment's like, but for right now I don't see the need to change a thing." She turns back to the two of you. "You need to know one thing, though... no one that is paying any attention is going to believe that you two aren't together. We got Tonya's text while you were on the way from the restaurant, and I respect your decision not to put that out there this soon, but you're too adorable together for people not to ask."
To Oliver, Edna asks, "How'd they come across on the screen, Sarge?"
"No problems at all. Hell, Laetitia's going to want to adopt them, Ed."
Tonya gives a Mona Lisa smile, which may contain just a touch of self-congratulation. Oliver chuckles, then says, "Okay, time for the Wonder Twins." He opens the door. "We're throwing a lot at you two. We'll give you a minute to yourselves. Join us in the conference room when you're ready."
As soon as we're alone, I check in with Reggie, "Hey, are you okay? This is pretty crazy, I'm really glad you're here. And the dating thing.... is that a problem?" I sort of rapid-fired those at her, I hope she isn't overwhelmed.
Reggie moves to you for a hug, her cheek resting against your chest. "It's a lot, Trev. Our lives are different from now on, aren't they?" She leans up to give you a soft kiss. "The dating thing... we're together, aren't we, so it's cool. I just... I'd like to be able to explain to my family, my friends, that I'm not crazy, leaving for a week and coming back with a boyfriend I'd never met in real life when I left. And yeah, there's a guy I've been on a couple dates with. It's nothing, really, but I feel like it would be kind of a dick move to let him find out on some website."
She just holds on to you for a minute. "I've got a feeling, Trev. You and I, we're going to rock this. We're smart, we're in tune with Eve and the game, and we've got each other's backs. If the real world tries to throw us for a loop, we'll kick its ass. Right?"
When she explains the dating thing, it makes perfect sense. I nod along, "Yeah. I get it. You're not crazy, but they don't know we've been tight for forever." On the "other guy" thing, I agree, "I know. I've got a girl I hang out with, nothing definite, but it'd be good to sit down and chat with her, too."
I hug her back, hold on with her. She fits with me so perfectly. "We will kick so much ass. But, like, if you want to play it casual for a bit, a week or so, that's really okay. I'm not pushy. I like you, Reggie. Friends or friends plus. And if the publicity makes you feel weird about this crazy week we've had together, then we just, play it by ear. I'm not going anywhere." I hope she gets that. I'm trying to let her feel comfortable with whatever pace she needs to set. My mom would be thrilled with Reggie, way more than she was with Jessi. Not that I blame her.
Reggie takes your face in her hands and looks deep into your eyes. "Trevian Desmond Marks, of the North Carolina Markses, I am crazy, because I am about to say something more mind-blowing than corporate sponsorships, media attention, and one point four billion dollars. I love you, Trev. We'll play it as casual as we can, tomorrow, but I'm having those conversations, with my friends and my family, and Roberto, between the time I get to Michigan on Tuesday and the time I go to bed that night."
She holds your eyes for another long moment, waiting.
I answer her proclamation with a kiss. I move in close, hands cupping her cheeks, the tip of my nose brushing against the bridge of hers, then I tilt my head slightly and close the scant distance to her mouth. Soft, lips to lips, solid and unyielding. After a few heartbeats, I tease her with my tongue, and as she accepts it, my hands trail down to her hips. I kiss her soft and sensual for a little while, then pull back smiling. "My mind is blown. And I'm really glad you said it first. I'm gonna hold that over you for a really long time, Reggie." I chuckle a little, meet her eyes. "It is crazy. But I've been holding back from saying it for a few days myself. I didn't want to freak you our. I love you, too, Reggie Cooper. I guess we're both freaky."
Just the hint of a tease of a smile, and then, "Well, that's settled. Shall we go see about wardrobe and makeup?" She moves toward the door with a backward glance.
"Wait, what?" I reach out and pull her to me. "I just declared some love, you can't leave me hanging, girl!" I put my hands on her hips and dive in for another deep kiss, pushing my body against her like she's a magnet and I'm some happy fridge. I pull back an inch, looking in her lovely eyes. "Tell me again."
I know we need to move on, get this work going. But I want to enjoy this moment. I haven't told a girl those three words in a very, very long time.
After your kiss and the request, Reggie chuckles. "Trev, I love you. I expected to like you, I planned on fucking you, but I did not expect or plan on this. I caught myself doodling your name on the hotel stationery yesterday while I was making calls about the move. I love you. I love you. And I'm over the moon that you feel the same way." She gives you a mock-challenging look, like "Is that enough?"
My grin is wide. I share her little laugh. "I thought you might be a crazy cat lady. But you're the smartest, coolest, sexiest person I've ever met. I'm really smitten. I can't believe we're together, Reggie." I kiss her again, a peck, then let her step away. We really should move on.
"You're going to love Jack Aubrey. He's seriously the coolest cat ever." She returns the peck. "So, we understand each other? Cool to move on to whatever the hell Tonya's throwing at us next?"
You make your way back to the conference room you started in, where Robyn and Kirk give you a quick briefing. Seems like they trust your choices, mostly, but they do have a rack of outfits for both of you on reserve, just in case, and Robyn's firm on "touching you up" before the interview tomorrow.
Soon enough, Edna, Robyn and Kirk excuse themselves and you are left with Tonya and Oliver.
"We need to talk about keeping you two safe, happy and productive. Before I start throwing more scary shit at you, do you have any questions you'd like to ask?"
I nod when he talks about being safe. "What should we watch out for? I'm sure you know I work at a, ah, fondue restaurant. I see strangers all the time. I'm not really, well, engineered to be very suspicious of people." I'm more worried about Reggie, even though that's a little sexist and after watching her fight, a little stupid. Regardless, I am.
"Good question. I'd like you both to go through a few days of training, similar to what M-T executives receive. We can give you some basic tools to help you be... not suspicious, but aware of people and your environment. Also, I don't think there's any reason to give you a protective detail, but I'll be here in the Triangle for the duration and you'll have my number if anything happens. Keep in touch if you're travelling or going off the grid for any reason."
Reggie speaks up. "I'll be leaving for Michigan Tuesday morning to pack up for the move here."
"It's early days yet, you should be fine. I'll give you the number of an old buddy who's freelancing in the area, though, just in case."
For the next thirty minutes, the four of you talk seriously about various things that might change in the coming weeks. A few topics are below.
Tonya offers Reggie the use of a condo M-T owns, one of several they maintain to house scientists and engineers when they come to Research Triangle to collaborate on projects at one of the area's universities. This would give the two of you a place where neither Reggie's name nor yours is on the lease or any public records. Reggie doesn't want to commit without talking to you privately.
Oliver gives you both new phones, the same high-quality secure Samsung models that M-T execs carry. They have a feature that allows you to use your current number through a sort of virtual SIM, but you can switch to an encrypted line that M-T pays for by simply using a different unlock code.
Tonya gives you a quick summary of some of the media organizations you might encounter and their various operational styles, followed by a quick lesson on how to say "No Comment" without coming across as a jerk.
Finally it's over. It's been a long day, and Reggie suggests heading back to Top of the Hill for beer and pool.
"Ask your roomies, too, if you want. I feel like some normal people are necessary, right now."
I'm super cool with some nice swanky pad for Reggie, but if she wants to list pros and cons, that's okay. I'll shoot texts out to Tandy and Jake for Top of the Hill hanging out.
You make your way to the car, arms full of bags with very high-end Black Marlin promotional garb. Shirts, hats, ties, hoodies, every possible item of branded clothing you can imagine. After tossing the swag in the back seat, you drive to Top of the Hill.
Reggie chats, mostly about what she's going to keep of her stuff in Lansing. By the time you get to the bar, she's decided to take the offer of the M-T condo. "It will make things a lot simpler and quicker, anyway. Not moving my furniture and the other big stuff. It's pretty much thrift-shop and IKEA, anyway."
You beat Jake and Tandy to the bar by a few minutes, and you're halfway through your first beer when they blow in. As you make your way through the requisite hugs and hellos, your new phone pings with a text message.
Hey! Lili's band is playing at The Warehouse and I just got home for fall break. Want to meet me there?
"Hey y'all, Echo and her friend Lili are at The Warehouse tonight. Tandy, you're DDing, yeah?" I sort of assigned her the task just now, I think. But seriously, she's underage anyway. "Let's finish this round and head over. I want to see how this kid can rock."
I lean into Reggie, explaining, "Guess you're meeting the fam. You remember my little sister Echo? She's in town on fall break." If there are no objections, we're heading that way. In my hooptie, probably. I sort of expect Jake to stick around until his new girlie girl gets off ("gets off", get it?), but I'm cool either way.
Tandy's got no problem with being the designated driver, and Jake, as you suspected is going to hang around until Margie's done with work. He says he'll text you when they leave, see if the band's still playing.
You're at The Warehouse in twenty minutes, getting ready to walk in the door.