Mike walked into the underground parking garage chewing on a meal replacement bar. It was peanut butter flavored and tasted like it had been left on a shelf for a few decades.
He found the chewing motion comforting; the way only a former fat ass can.
Mike needed that comfort after Dirk.
He still didn’t really feel guilty for killing him. But in the cafeteria he’d been left to eat alone. A bit bored he’d opened his status menu and noticed his credits were a fair bit higher than they had been. Five hundred credits higher in fact.
It hadn’t taken long to make the connection that the system had rewarded him for player killing.
He didn’t like that thought at all. The fact that there hadn’t been an announcement didn’t make it better. If he thought about it, that probably just meant that so many players had killed each other that it wasn’t noteworthy anymore.
That thought was truly depressing. It also meant he’d have to be on guard against people he met on the street. Rescuing survivors would need to take a backseat to making sure his team was safe.
Walking down the rows of military vehicles he saw Nikki standing with a couple of guys next to a cargo truck. The truck was huge, intimidatingly so, and from the attention it was getting, Mike could guess that it was the truck he’d been given to use for the retrieval mission.
“Mike,” Nikki waved him over excitedly as she saw him, “glad you finally said you were sorry.”
Mike was confused for a moment before he remembered Wilson had given her a bogus reason for his being locked up. He didn’t correct her, just gave an awkward smile and a, “yeah me too.”
“I guess you know Corporal Velasquez then,” she said nudging Mike in the ribs like an old man, and Mike grunted.
The corporal was the same one he’d headbutted. Looking closely Mike could tell his nose had been broken in the past. So whether or not he’d rebroken it was anyone’s guess, Feeling the awkwardness in the air, Mike considered extending his hand in a half sincere apology.
Then he remembered Dirk.
Wilson had set the big man up to test him. But he’d been the corporal’s boss. If there was any loyalty there, then an apology wasn’t going to cut it.
He considered that Valenzuela might not know Dirk was dead yet.
It had only been a little over an hour since the fight ended in Mike’s ax buried in the dino man’s head.
But once he found out, if he remembered a smug Mike giving a half assed apology over the broken nose without any mention of killing his superior…
It was hard to know what direction things would go at that point. He might just make an enemy of Dirk’s entire team. Then again, even if he didn’t apologize smugly, that was a definite possiblity.
While Mike was busy thinking through the angles on whether or not he should apologize, he was unaware his awkward pause had dirstupted the conversation flow. He was hardly a social butterfly. Awkward conversations were one of his gifts.
But the others didn’t seem to be comfortable with the silence.
Possibly seeking to fill it, Valenzuela cleared his throat.
“Uh, umm, sir?” He said, hesitantly, causing Mike to look up, into his eyes.
The man swallowed at that. At another time Mike would have laughed at how uncomfortable he was making the smaller man. In the moment he was only surprised. He never really considered himself intimidating.
Clearly he needed to re-evaluate.
Seeing he had Mike’s attention he looked off, like he saw something he had to take care of in the distance, and mumbled, “Dirk was an ass.”
His piece said, he brushed past Mike, heading for a group of uniformed mechanics giving Mike’s new truck a once over. Mike didn’t know what to say. The message was clear though, he didn’t need to worry about repraisals. Dirk’s crew knew and didn’t have any thoughts of revenge.
Mike was curious to know why they would so easily write him off. He just didn’t care enough to ask anyone.
“What was that about?” Nikki asked.
Not seeing a reason to keep it from her, Mike told her about what happened with Dirk.
Nikki whistled after he finished talking and reaching up she patted him on the back.
“You were defending yourself. And even then you wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t tried to sneak attack you. You’re still the good guy Mike. Trust me, I know. And just so you know, I forgive you, think of me like a priest. I’m telling you you’re okay.”
Nikki’s little speech actually did make Mike feel a bit better about things.
He hadn’t really noticed the funk he was in. In his mind, since he wasn’t on his knees in tears begging for forgiveness, or drinking himself into a coma, then killing Dirk must not have effected him. In reality, the effect was there, it was just more subtle than he’d expected.
Without Nikki’s little pep talk he might have hesitated the next time a situation like that occurred. Then he’d be the one with the ax in his head. Knowing someone not only forgave him, but thought he was still a good guy…
It was somehow moving.
Feeling things were getting a little too mushy, Mike changed the subject.
“Who’s this,” he pointed out their third wheel, a young fourteen or fifteen year old kid in baggy fatigues with a clipboard.
The kid was standing to the side, awkwardly trying to blend into the paint on the truck. Seeing Mike point at him, he flinched like he expected a blow. Mike noticed and put his hand down.
“This is Radio,” Nikki said, “One of the teams rescued him and his family from the hospital on Broadway and 43rd the first day of the system.”
“You sick?” Mike asked bluntly, thinking it would explain why the other men were letting the kid play soldier. If he was a cancer patient or something then it was only natural.
“N-no sir,” he stuttered, but then shaking his head, his voice cleared up as he looked past Mike not at him, in effort to maintain his confidence, “My older sister is sick sir. Long term care.”
“Then what are you doing down here with the soldiers kid?”
“I’m working sir.”
“Working?” Mike asked, letting the word hang like a question.
“Yes sir, the Boss said if I work for him, he’ll see my sister get’s her medical treatment. He even promised to look into using magic to heal her.”
The last thing he said made his eyes light up with enthusiasm and forgetting his fear he met Mike’s eyes. For a moment Mike considered asking more about his sister and her situation but he decided against it. No sense letting the kid think he cared. Word of that kind of thing got around.
Mike wanted to maintain his rep as the strong silent type. He couldn’t go full silence though, because he was expected to be a leader. So he had to find a middle ground. Asking about the extended family of random garage employees seemed to step over that line.
Instead he said, “I didn’t want your life story kid. I wanted to know what you do here”
“I’m part of your field team sir,” Radio said with a grin that shouted he was proud of that achievement.
“No your not.” Mike said, dismissing him.
Turning to Nikki he said, “how long before we’re ready to head out?”
“You in a hurry or something?” She asked, but then shrugging, before he could answer she said, “they’re running the last checks now, should be another ten maybe twenty minutes.”
Pouting off to the side, Radio looked like he wanted to say something, but didn’t quite have the courage worked up yet. Seeing the look he was giving him, Mike said, “What?”
Surprisingly it was Nikki who answered, “The boss really did assign him to the team. He’s a player, just like us. Well kind of, he’s only level two,” she said, and as if offended Radio corrected her.’
“Three. I’m level three.”
“Right, fine, he’s level three,” Nikki said, rolling her eyes, as she kept talking, “the important thing isn’t his level though, its his skill. He can send and receive signals.”
“Like a Radio,” Mike finished for her, “I get you. But we can just use a regular radio for that. No need to bring any kids along.”
“I’m not a kid,” Radio said, pouting.
“Whatever, kid, your skill is pretty sweet. But trust me when I say this, you’d rather stay here. It’s dangerous out there. People die.”
“People die everywhere sir,” Radio said.
“He has a point,” Nikki added in his defense.
Mike glared at Nikki for a moment before turning back to Radio.
“Why do you even want to come?”
“I told you. I have a sick sister.”
“And, the Boss said, if I don’t work, he can’t afford to supply her with medical treatment.”
“So work in the garage then. There’s no need for you to go out into the field where it’s dangerous.”
Radio was quiet for a moment before he muttered, “The Boss assigned me to your team.”
“What was that?” Mike asked.
“I said the Boss assigned me to your team. That is my job. Going out in the field with you. Making sure you can stay in touch with the base. Giving you direction to the next locatation. That’s my job.” He practically shouted, then belatedly he added, “Sir.”
Mike felt a little respect for the kid after his outburst. He knew his place in the system. He wasn’t going into the field because he wanted to. He was doing it because his sister’s life depended on it.
Wilson was a bastard, he’d set Mike up to kill Dirk, his best man.
Sure Dirk was apparently disliked by his own men, but he’d been the strongest at the base next to Wilson himself. That was to say, he had no doubt that the old vampire was holding this kid’s sister over his head like a threat. If he followed orders she’d live, if he didn’t she’d die, and he might even get kicked out of the base.
In Wilson’s mind, he was saving people from the system. The end justified any means he had to take to get there.
Mike felt a little bit of pity for the kid.
Suddenly without warning the image of another kid he’d been impressed with and then let down flashed in his mind. He knew the reason he was so against Radio joining him, was because deep down he was afraid that he’d fail this kid too.
Radio had family that depended on him. If he died that was at least two people dying.
Mike took a deep breath.
Pausing for a moment, he gathered his thoughts.
Reaching out he took Radio by the shoulder. Applying just enough pressure from that the kid winced, he looked him right in the eyes and said, “You will listen to every word I say. If at any time I think you’re not cut out for this or you disobey me even once, and you’re gone. I don’t care if I have to make you walk back. Understand me?”
It was all bluff. He’d decided to take the kid. Even if it was the worst decision he’d ever made, he wouldn’t abandon him now. But Radio didnt’ know that and was very quick to agree whole heartedly swearing his allegance.
“Good. What weapon do you use?” Mike asked.
Looking embarassed Radio said, “I used a kitchen knife, then a machete. Then a soldier gave me a pistol in the end and I used that for a while. I don’t really have a “weapon” though.”
“What combat skills do you have then?”
“I have [Enhanced Senses] and [Quick Hands], but that’s it. Basically I’m good at avoiding things and sticking the zombie before it can grab me.”
“Wilson didn’t give you any credits to buy skills?”
Mike swore. The old vampire was getting on his nerves. What was he doing with all the gathered credits he was collecting if he wasn’t “upgrading” his men with them? And why was the kid confused about the Boss being called Wilson?
The last worked itself out as Radio said, “Oh the Boss? He didn’t give me any credits. He said I’d earn them working for you.”
Grumbling Mike grabbed Radio around the shoulders and led him to the vending machines next to the lift.
“I have a few hundred credits you can use,” going quiet for a moment, he sighed and took something out of his storage ring, “and you can take this for when things get up close.”
Radio looked at the knife Mike was handing him and his eyes got big around, sliding his thumb down it’s edge he yelped and stuck it in his mouth. Talking around the finger he asked, “is this a magic knife?”
“Yeah kid, it is,” pausing again for a moment he added, “take care of it, and it will take care of you. Just remember don’t do anything stupid. We’re not heroes, we’re survivors. Okay?”
Radio agreed with a smirk as he stared down at his new knife.
Good news everyone, our first sponsored chapter will be this Sunday. You can all thank A. H. “KASHIM” for that since his donation put us over the line. I think that’s enough for this particular note, so as always, thanks for reading.
Author : The Steve