Chapter 1 - "Introductions"
Jake looked up. Mike Walters was sauntering in, pulling his long mane into the mandatory ponytail.
“The start of another glorious evening.” The two men chuckled. Jake was just finishing up his side work, filling the trays with lemon, limes and other garnishes. Mike was coming on, taking the latter half of Jake’s shift.
“So, you got a test or something tomorrow? Some big paper you forgot to finish?”
Jake laughed. “No, no. Social event I’d planned before Todd left. School’s still kinda on hold.”
Mike shook his head, giving Jake a look that said he knew better. “Dude, you’ve puttered around long enough. Finish your fucking degree already.”
“One of these days,” Jake conceded. Truth be known he’d love to finish his degree. He was only a couple of classes away as it was. Time, money, Life…something always seemed to get in the way, though. One day.
Mike started checking stock. “Anything I need to worry about?”
Jake gave a quick shake of his head. He glanced up and down the bar. There were a couple of regulars at the end, discussing the day’s games or some such. A handful of others were at the outlying tables. The main room was empty and the servers were getting ready for the evening crowd.
“Nothing of note,” he responded, putting the two trays in their respective spots. “Tens are a little low so if you run out just burn fives. Oh, and Tony will be in later with more half-and-half. You should have enough, unless you get a run on White Russians or something.”
“I’m sure that’ll happen,” Mike said, only half jokingly, as he tied on his apron. He checked that his opener was in place and grabbed a towel, folding it just so and shoving it in his back pocket.
“Good to go. Report’s run already, Tony’s got the totals. You’re good.”
Mike nodded again. “Then why the hell are you still here?”
Jake grinned and wiped his hands on another towel. “I’m already gone, brother. Thanks again for covering.”
“She better be worth it.”
Jake’s grin grew broader. “I’m sure she will be.”
“And don’t forget Sunday.”
“Then go, already, before I change my mind.”
Chuckling, Jake tossed his towel into one of the bins under the bar. “See you later, man.”
Mike waved and Jake left, nodding politely to the doorman. Thursday nights would have a good crowd—not as good as the weekends, of course, but good enough that Jake would probably miss the money—but he’d had this night planned for a couple of weeks, and he’d only been thrown on the shift earlier in the week when the other bartender got fired.
In short order he was home in his apartment, tossing his keys, wallet and the other contents of his pockets onto the kitchen counter on the way to the spare bedroom. He hit the light, illuminating the bare rudiments of an office—desk, computer, filing cabinet—as well as a variety of boxes, bags and other random “I’ll put it here until I decide what to do it” items. Office-slash-store room-slash-junk room. He headed into the bedroom and changed from his slacks and button-down into sweats and a tank top. He made his way into the bathroom, used the appropriate facilities, and washed up. He moved with habitual efficiency. It was almost a ritual, a way to shed the drudge of work and the world outside.
Back in the kitchen he grabbed a box of crackers and a soda, checked his phone out of reflex (no messages), and headed back to the office. He sat down in front of his computer with a contented sigh.
With practiced motion he clicked open a program and hit the power on his speakers. After a few seconds the splash page of the game “Crusaders” came up, the orchestrated theme music at perfect volume, the colorful characters of the fictional superhero team from which the game took it’s name filling his screen. Normally if he was going solo Jake would’ve fired up his stereo, too, with a collection of heavy classical, or even instrumental rock, but tonight was a team run and he’d need the room quiet. That thought led to him putting the microphone headset on and making sure those volumes were set correctly. As “Crusaders” was loading he fired up TeamSpeak, as well. As fast as he was at typing in chat boxes it made more sense for the team to use TeamSpeak to keep going, leaving their fingers free for other more important matters, such as keeping their characters alive.
Jake logged in at the appropriate place and waited the several eternal seconds before the screen faded out, only to be replaced with the familiar selection of toons. ‘Toons’, of course, was simply another name for ‘characters’. They were the various heroes and villains he’d played over the past year. In recent months, however, he’d settled on running ‘Nemesis’, a super-norm with high fighting stats and a host of gadgets and weapons to make him the equal of any metahuman. “Crusaders” was the hottest MMORPG—massively multiplayer online role playing game—on the internet, and the latest (and best, in Jake’s opinion) of the superhero-themed games available. Jake had signed on early in the beta phase and had played religiously ever since, sometimes to the detriment of his homework and paycheck, not to mention his social life. He’d finally decided to cut back his hours but also to schedule his game time. Thus the schedule coverage tonight: if he was going to schedule a game he was damn well going to be there. A small part of him noted that if he could manage the rest of his time with such enthusiasm and dedication he’d probably have his degree by now. And a better job. And probably a girlfriend. He pushed those thoughts aside and settled in for a long night’s gaming.
Once again the screen faded, but this time resolved itself into the 3D rendering of a hi-tech room, complete with computers, communication equipment and host of other unidentifiable gadgets and do-dads. A variety of small boxes appeared around the edges of his screen, providing him information on his character’s health and power, as well as general info about his locale and his team, most of which hadn’t logged in yet. He glanced at his clock; he was five minutes early. Surprisingly, though, he wasn’t the first one on.
Jake smiled. “Hey, Fortune.” On-screen a small light blinked in one of his info boxes as the figure of a woman ran into his field of vision. The character was Aura, the only female on the team. Jake knew very little about Aura’s player, Fortune, but he always felt a little thrill on those rare occasions they chatted together. As many hotties as he saw at the bar, in some ways he felt more connected to his gaming partner that he’d never met than any other female currently in his life. It was a sad state of affairs, to be sure, but for the moment he’d take what he could get.
“Ready for tonight?”
Jake adjusted his headset and nodded. “Yep. More than.”
“Got out of work okay?” On screen the characters didn’t move, except the random animation that made the toons look this way and that and shift stances in minor ways. Jake kept his camera view on “Close”, so he only saw things as his character saw them. Many folks usually pulled back the camera view so as to have their own character in sight, as well, and while Jake sometimes did that during solo missions, on team runs he wanted to maintain the ‘suspension of disbelief’ and not worry about what he looked like, only what he did.
“Yeah. Gotta pick up a shift on Sunday but it’s worth it.”
Jake smiled again. Fortune sounded wide awake despite being two hours ahead of him. He was in San Francisco, California, whereas she was just outside Indianapolis. For him it was only ten at night. Fortune was a self-proclaimed night owl, however, and midnight to her was as good as noon to most everyone else. Thankfully.
“Hey hey HEY!”
Jake chuckled as his window informed him of another arrival. The techie of the group, Centurion. Robert played the hi-tech armor wearing hero with superb believability. Again, Jake knew very little about the player other than he lived in Arizona, but he suspected he was gay, damn smart, and more than a little introverted in most other aspects of his life. None of which mattered one whit in the game. Again, thankfully.
“No Robert here, m’man,” came the jovial reply. “Centurion, however, is online and ready to kick some ass.”
“Ditto that, Big Man. Time to get Wylde!”
Again the window flashed, announcing the arrival of Wylde, their more bestial teammate. An animalistic hero with claws, heightened strength, speed and perception, Micah—the player—loved to play the “savage”. To be fair, he was good at it. It caused a few headaches but also kept things interesting. Jake didn’t know much about Micah at all, less than anyone else, but so far he seemed like a decent sort.
Jake smiled and leaned back in his chair as the new arrivals talked their way through greetings and small talk. His window flashed one more time. The last of the team had logged in.
“And Morningstar makes five,” he said into his headset.
“Hey, hey, the gang’s all here!”
“Ready set go, baby!”
Jake laughed. The energy was infectious, even across computer links. As the characters all came into view Jake panned back his camera angle. The five heroes that made up Team Vanguard had gathered together in their headquarters, and Jake could feel his adrenaline kicking in as he reviewed each character.
Centurion, the nominal leader of the team, stood head-and-shoulders above the rest. His armor looked like a cross between a comic book character and the next generation of sci-fi super-soldier. He’d affected a crimson-and-grey color scheme to maximum affect, and as usual Jake felt a brief stab of jealousy that his own aborted attempt at a hi-tech character hadn’t looked nearly so cool. Centurion was not only the science guru but also the heavy-hitter of the team. He had decent ranged capabilities with both power blasts and missiles, but his main power lay in his great strength and invulnerability to harm. Robert was by far one of the best players Jake had worked with, too.
The next character was Morningstar, a muscular man in a skin-tight red body suit with leather jacket and Zorro-style mask. A blazing star in yellow was on his chest. He used plasma energies to great effect and was the team’s ranged powerhouse. AJ was the player’s name, and he seemed like a decent guy, quiet and unassuming, never pushy, with a kind of down-home accent that made Jake think of Tom Selleck westerns.
Aura was next, a hottie of a toon, standing nearly as tall as the guys, with all the right proportions one would associate with a superhero comic book femme. Her costume was mainly yellow with white and orange highlights to give her a vaguely fire motif. Aura wielded “interdimensional energies” allowing her to alter probabilities, enhance her teammates’ abilities and impact those of her enemies. While not quite the combat monster some of them were, she was still one of the team’s greatest assets, and in Jake’s opinion the reason they did so well more often than not. Fortune, her player, managed to use all the right powers at all the right times to keep the rest of the team at their prime.
Wylde was next on the list. His character crouched where the others stood. Covered in light brown fur, the male figure was perhaps the most muscular in appearance, broad across the chest and shoulders. He wore the equivalent of biker shorts, leaving the rest of his body uncovered. He had a mane of hair several shades darker than the rest of his fur, and similar tufts encircled his wrists and ankles. His claws were noticeable, as were the fangs in his mouth and the yellow-slitted eyes. Wylde was by far the best of the close fighters. Though Jake wasn’t fond of the animalistic branch of powers he had to admit that Wylde cut an imposing figure. He was the newest member of the team, having only run with them a few times, but Micah, his player, had fit right in, both in gaming style and personality. Jake liked him a lot.
The last character was Jake’s own, Nemesis.
Truth be known, Nemesis was a bit of his ego peaking through. Yes, Jake was tall, fairly muscular, agile and strong and skillful—years in sports did that to a guy. Nemesis, however, was all that and more. Originally designed for solo play, Nemesis was meant to be the pinnacle of human development. Stronger than the average man, almost inhumanly fast, skilled in armed and unarmed combat, a master detective and a double handful of useful trades and skills to make his job as an soloist that much better. Jake had fallen into team play almost by accident, but with this team in particular it worked beautifully. His skills and abilities greatly complimented each of the specialists.
Of the entire team, Nemesis stood tallest except for Centurion. He was the most muscular except for Wylde. His outfit was a customized leather affair, forest green and slate grey, with armor reinforcement about the chest, shoulders, elbows, gloves, knees and boots. A belt of gadgets and weapons encircled his waist and a bandolier full of pouches ran diagonally across his chest. His skills and abilities made him a good back-up for range, close-up fighting, stealth and investigation. He was the jack-of-all-trades. He had made himself indispensable to the team by playing smart and being in the right place at the right time to back up whichever of his teammates was in need.
As if it knew it was being watched, the toon smiled and offered a mock salute. Just random animation, but at his desk in the real world Jake couldn’t help but smile. Yeah, Nemesis rocked.
“Okay, gang, get tooned.”
Robert’s standard opening line caused a moment of silence as each player made the mental switch to their character. From this point on, with a few exceptions, they would speak in character as much as possible.
“Wylde’s good to go.”
“Nemesis ready to rock.” Jake said, taking a sip of his soda. He sat forward in his chair and adjusted his headset.
Time to go to work, he thought.