“I have to kill you. You're too good.”
The man in the back of the brown van had big blue eyes, watery and wide like a begging dog’s. He hadn’t looked this way when he’d offered Wyatt all the Arcade Credits he wanted in exchange for lifting boxes from the rainy street to the van’s cargo hatch. That sounded like an awesome deal to a thirteen-year-old.
"The world shouldn’t make you people as good as me.” Rain drummed the roof in the space between the killer’s words. “But you’re still a child. That's why I’m so sorry."
Thin white hands gripped twin Bowie knives. Wyatt sobbed and thought of his mother but before the man could stab him, a wire caught the would-be killer around his neck. Neon from the Arcade’s window glinted off metal. The droid beeped a few times, and the man slumped.
This wire wasn't thin like the one Luca Brasi used for his trade in The Godfather. Wyatt always loved that movie. But if he got dropped into that world he couldn’t imagine himself a victim. In the Arcade, he had one of the top stealth-kill scores for his age group. Everyone wanted him in their Party.
President Nancy Regan’s voice came through on the radio, and the First Lady-turned-President’s feminine voice snapped him out of his reverie. He wanted to be a good son and brother. And that's why, after who or whatever held that wire had done its work, Wyatt made a break for the back door of the van.
But he didn't make it. Something cold and steely wrapped itself around his ankle, something like a wire. When Wyatt turned his head, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.
The thing in front of him blinked, not with eyes, but with flashing lights of different colors and shapes, something like R2-D2 except this thing was bigger.
"Analysis—subject a candidate."
"Ow!" Wyatt kicked his leg out in front of him at the sting the droid gave him. It felt more like getting a shot at the doctors office than like the droid was trying to take his leg off or even kill him.
For a moment, the inside of the van went away, replaced with a white-sanded beach beside a forest, then a vista of rolling misty hills. A fortified collection of towers and spires perched on a cliff’s edge. That faded and a carousel of races and classes whirred before his eyes, the choices in line with those at the Arcade. Except this had options from all over the US, not only the ones Wyatt could choose on the East Coast.
"Conclusion—subject verified. Potential: high."
"Yeah, I know. All the grown-ups say I've got a big giant brain and should get straight A's. So what?" But Wyatt’s breath caught in his chest at the idea that maybe ‘subject’ meant ‘player’ to Mr. Roboto. Could he actually play a Drow with a skin tone like his own instead of a pallid High Elf for once in his life? He didn’t dare ask.
The droid or robot or whatever it was made no reply. Instead another wire, which Wyatt realized was something like a robotic tentacle, wrapped around his upper arm.
This time, after it stung him on the inside of his elbow, a fuzzy warmth radiated from Wyatt's arm out through the rest of his body. He slept.
In the dream, Wyatt felt like he was underwater. He could breathe, but only just barely. He'd taken swim classes at the Y so he figured he shouldn't panic, but it wasn't easy. Instead of flailing his arms up and down or every which way, Wyatt pushed in front of him and then pulled back through the water, swimming like he'd learned at the YMCA. Kids in Florida all took that same course, there were pools everywhere and the rash of drownings had been almost as bad as the rash of kidnappings lately.
Wyatt flipped over on his back, floating. The ocean was like a second home. Hanging out here would give him time to think about what had just happened to him in relative safety.
The droid got the old guy with the knives. Had Wyatt seen his body in the back of the van after he’d keeled over? No. So what happened to him? And what did he mean about too good? Was it his Arcade scores? The police reports always said that kidnappers stalked the ones they took. But something about that didn’t seem right.
Wyatt splashed his hands around in the water a bit, held one up, looking for the Big Dipper in the sky. All the light pollution around Pompano made it hard to see stars but this stretch of sky wasn’t like that. Could he be further up the coast, some place without much night-life like Boca? He had no idea.
At any rate, he couldn’t find a single familiar star in the sky. If he wanted to get his bearings, he’d have to do it onshore. He flipped over, then practiced his best breaststroke. Wyatt was rewarded for his efforts in his YMCA class.
Sand squished under his feet, familiar even through his sneakers. Growing up practically on the beach had given him an advantage here. But why the droid which had declared him "high potential," whatever that meant, would up and dump him in the ocean was beyond Wyatt's comprehension. At least he'd been dropped near enough to the shore to get out.
His feet kept sinking in the sand, something he hated, until he got halfway up the beach. Wyatt couldn't do anything about his soaking clothes, but he knew what to do with his shoes. He took them off then looped the laces together to hang them over his shoulders.
"Yeah potential high. That's me."
"Is your name seriously Potential High?" The voice came from further up the beach.
"Hello?" Wyatt froze or tried because he couldn't stop shivering. This beach was somewhere north of the subtropical climate he'd grown up with and loved.
"Yeah hello." The voice's owner snorted. "That and five bucks will get you a coffee. Well no it won't. For once there's no Dunkin' Donuts."
Wyatt turned around to see what kind of punk kid would talk to him this way. He found a girl about his age smirking at him. Her hair was long and jet black, and her skin a shade of brown lighter than his own.
"My name's not Potential High," Wyatt said. "It's Wyatt. And what's with the attitude?"
"You mean to tell me you don't have an attitude after waking up in the goddamn ocean?" She rubbed her upper arms. "This sucks."
"I don't have time to toss attitude. I have to figure out where I am so I can get home. My whole family's got to be freaking out."
"Yeah okay." She sighed "I guess you'll probably want my help. I'm Alisha."
"So do you know where we are?" Wyatt bounced from one foot to the other but stopped when he realized Alisha might think he had to take a leak.
"Only that we ain't in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. Or Wyatt. Look." Alisha pointed up at the sky where Wyatt saw two moons hanging there. "Yeah, it's exactly like the joke about the Desi chick and the Black kid who walk into an alien cantina. Except it's not."
"Okay so," Wyatt dug one toe into the sand. "Do you think that droid or whatever was from another planet? Did we get abducted by robot aliens?"
"Possibly." Alisha's mouth twisted like she was taking a math test. "And yeah, it was some kind of reject Battlestar Galactica toaster that snagged me too."
Wyatt was about to ask Alisha if a racist psycho killer had been about to kill her when the robot showed up too, but both kids turned around. The scream came from down the beach.
Wyatt took off running, his legs used to that kind of pace on wet sand. Alisha struggled to keep up as though she wasn't. Or maybe she had more caution than Wyatt when she heard obvious trouble.
Something struggled right where the water lapped at the sand, a brown and white bundle smaller than either Wyatt or Alisha but still kid sized. The scream came from that and was pitched high enough to shatter glass, like the opera singers Wyatt's kid sister idolized.
When he saw the dainty hand, its fingertips ragged and red with blood, he almost panicked.
"It's a girl in there! We've gotta save her." The panic managed to stop Wyatt from feeling the cold, at least.
He dug through his waterlogged pockets hoping to find something sharp, but the only thing he had in there was his Token stick from the Arcade. That's all he brought with him when he snuck out. If he was more like his big brother, he'd have a Swiss Army knife on him all the time. But he wasn't, so he didn't.
This beach didn't seem to have litter like the ones in Florida, no pop tops, broken beer bottles, or even gum wrappers littered the shore. Wyatt tried grabbing the web of ropes, pulling them off the girl, but all he did was drag her further out of the water. That wasn't a bad thing, but it left her still entangled in the net.
"I got this." Alisha stood over them holding a big spiral shell, which looked worn and washed by the ocean and sand, no sharp edges anywhere.
"How's that going to help?" Wyatt wondered if the Desi girl knew more about alien planet seashells than he did.
"Watch me." Alisha pressed her hands together and Wyatt heard a crackle like a bowl of Rice Krispies when you pour milk over it. One of the shell spirals snapped off, forming a point and edge. "Not a knife but it'll do."
Alisha went to work cutting the ropes, dropping the other half of the shell. Wyatt picked that other half up and joined in. Within minutes, the girl pushed free. She tucked herself up in a ball hiding in her long brown hair. The poor girl shook all over, which made sense since she only wore a nightgown and was drenched to the skin.
"You're welcome," said Alisha.
"Jesus Christ, Alisha. Attitude." Wyatt slapped a hand over his mouth even though his Lord and Savior might not be able to hear him on an alien planet or wherever, anyway.
The girl blinked up at him, her face hitching and twitching like people do when they stub toes and try not to cry about it. Wyatt had nothing to give to help her warm-up. He hadn't worn a jacket when he'd gone out, either. And Alisha was a jeans and T-shirt kind of gal, apparently.
"A fire would be nice, Wyatt."
"Yes it would, but I wasn't a Boy Scout or anything so." Wyatt shrugged.
"Something tells me we should learn some of these skills soon."
When Alisha said the word skills, a faint glow appeared in front of her face. White and yellow neon lines plus backwards letters made Wyatt think of a game interface. But that was crazy, wasn't it?
"Whoa!" Alisha held up her hand tapping at the glowing square button in front of her. She smiled. "This is really cool, you should repeat what I just said, open your own menu."
"You said that like we're at a restaurant or something." Wyatt rolled his eyes, then said, "skills."
He understood what she meant by a menu as green and brown lines and letters lit up in mid-air. The interface he saw in front of him, and it was an interface, had so much in common with the games he jacked into at the Arcade he couldn't believe it. A list of stats and skills made lines on the interface. There were buttons to tap also, one of them marked 'Inventory.' He pressed that, opening a submenu.
"Oh this is awesome." Wyatt made a few selections on his screen and dry clothes immediately replaced the wet ones on his body. He hunkered down on the sand next to the girl shivering there. "Hey, try it," he whispered. "I found clothes to wear in there. You can, too."
"Th-th-thanks," said the girl. "Sk-sk-skills."
The girls interface was blue and yellow. She moved her hands a few times and stood up fully dressed. She looked more like an illustration from his brothers Dungeons & Dragons books, not like anything Wyatt was used to seeing girls wear. He couldn’t see her feet because she’d dug them into the sand. Maybe she had sandals on.
The girl nodded, the corners of her mouth tilting up slightly. She opened her mouth like she was about to say something, but stopped and blinked at Alisha.
"Whoa!" Wyatt blinked too.
Alisha wore plain scratched and dented plate armor over a shirt of mail. Neither had a spot of rust but the whole get-up also had no ornamentation at all. She smiled looking down at her gauntleted hands.
"Coolest. Alien. Abduction. Ever!"
Something inside the net flipped and flopped. The girls didn’t seem to notice. Alisha checked out her armor while the little brunette flipped through her inventory, grinning. Wyatt wanted to do something like that, too but checked the net first and found fish. A line of text appeared over them.
Add Moonfish to inventory? Y/N
Wyatt selected Y, and the fish blinked out of the net. His menu popped up, alerting him that he had six fish in his food bag, along with some onions, potatoes and salt. Checking back in his skills he found a listing for Cooking, Aptitude: Basic.
He looked again in his inventory and at his skill list. Wyatt found a bow and a knife, the latter copper and not too sturdy. That was fine with him anyway. The Halfling Ranger he always played at the Arcade was an archer. The bow was old but ornate, with a gleaming string. It had a title, Endless. When he touched it, the bowstring hummed, reminding Wyatt of a contented dog. He wondered where it came from.
Something tugged his sleeve. He turned to find the bashful girl at his elbow.
“Hey,” Wyatt said.
She only grinned a little and her cheeks turned pink. That was okay with Wyatt. His baby brother was just as shy as this girl. He could handle it.
“I’m glad we got you out of that net. I’m Wyatt. What’s your name?”
“L-l-lena.” She twisted some of her hair between her fingers and took a deep breath. “Thanks.”
“No problem, any time.” He smiled. Now that he saw her close up, Wyatt realized that Lena was probably about his age but small for it. The girl was so pale it looked like she didn’t make it out in the sun much at all even though her skin had an olive tone. Circles under her eyes and sunken cheeks made him wonder whether she’d gotten snatched and then locked up for a while. He remembered the nightgown, though. Maybe she'd been ill.
Before he could figure out how to ask Lina about how she got here, Alicia interrupted.
"So the skill interface says I'm a Paladin. Cool, huh?"
"Oh yeah. And I'm a Ranger." Wyatt grinned. "I guess I technically lied about not knowing any Boy Scout stuff. It's all in here, just like what I play at the Arcade."
“And you’re a Drow, obviously.” Alicia pointed at his ears. She tucked her own hair behind her ears, revealing the tapered tips of a Half-Elf.
Reaching up to touch them, Wyatt checked. Yup, fully pointed ears along with his dark skin meant Drow. No wonder the stars looked so bright to him.
"So can we have a fire already?" Alisha waved one hand at the other girl "Lena's freezing and stuff, even with the dry clothes."
Well, at least she’s not completely ignoring Lena, probably just impatient. Wyatt hoped Alisha’s easy use of all the Arcade jargon meant she was a competent and experienced player like him. He’d never seen her on the rosters in his Regional Area Network, though. The ‘Net was worldwide but Arcade Adventure gaming only networked locally, over designated geographic regions in the US.
Lena shivered, glancing from him to Alisha with wide hazel eyes. She didn’t need to speak for Wyatt to know she’d like him to answer the question.
"I'd love to, but there's nothing to burn over here." Wyatt shrugged. "We have to gather some driftwood or go up to the trees and find some."
Wyatt peered up at the woods. He knew that, as a Ranger, it’d be a quick and easy thing to run up there and do a quick safety check. But he’d be in trouble if anything dangerous lurked up in the underbrush.
"Tanks go in first, right?" He looked at the woods, then Alisha’s armor and shrugged.
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