Level 1 – 6
Dylan rode after Luke. She was livid. After Luke unplugged the servers causing a blackout in the whole dojo, he just took off. She may not have beaten the game, but she did meet a real gamer and manage to be embarrassed beyond belief in the same night. Bo Han was just as furious as Dylan, cursing loudly in Korean as her step-brother ran out. Despite being exhausted and mad as hell, she was determined to catch up to Luke. There was something else going on and she was going to beat it out of him.
Then again, it was midnight and between the bruises, the chilling wind, and the three mile bike ride, it would be less of a beating and more like a gentle prodding. Nevertheless Dylan was going to figure out what Luke’s problem was. Only fifty yards in front of her, Luke jumped the curb into their community pool parking lot.
Dylan hollered at her stepbrother, “Would you wait up!”
Jumping the curb out of the parking lot, Luke vice gripped the brakes and skid to a stop. The sound of squealing tires erupted throughout the sleeping suburb. Throwing his bike on the ground, Luke held his hands over his face. With his fists clenched tight, he heaved while holding back tears, “It’s all my fault.”
Dylan dismounted her bike. Walking up to Luke who remained in the middle of the road with his back to her, Dylan offered, “Hey, if you can trust me with your Game Boy, you can trust me with whatever is really going on.”
Still looking down at his feet with his face covered, Luke replied in a low winded voice, “Somebody took Amie.”
Confused, Dylan tried to remain empathetic, “And Amie is a person we should care about?”
Luke finally spun around. His face red and nose running, “Amie is the only person I care about in this suburban hell hole, and I’m going to find her if it kills me. If you want to just make fun of me, fine. But, you know how much it sucks to lose someone so I’m not going to put up with your bitching, got it?”
Dylan nodded. The orange glow from the streetlamp behind them didn’t offer any warmth to the situation, as another sharp breeze blew through the trees lining the sidewalks. Leaves rustled, and the shadows made by the branches dance across the asphalt. It looked like dozens of clawed hands were reaching out for Dylan and Luke stranded in the middle of the street. Taking the risk of being punched in the face, Dylan took another step closer to Luke, and picked up his bike.
Offering her brother the handlebars, Dylan asked, “What happened to her?”
Luke took a deep breath in and released it slowly, “She called me Sunday night. We were both going to play a copy of the game, the one you just played. My computer didn’t have enough space to run the program, or speed to play it over the internet. So I just listened to her play. I listened to her voice. I listened as they took her.”
Dylan’s eyes widened, “They?”
Shaking his head, Luke continued, “I don’t know who. It was more than one. The last thing I heard her say…” he was choking up again, “I’m scared, and I don’t want to die.” Dylan almost put a hand on Luke’s back, but stopped herself. She waited for him to continue. “I rode over to her house as fast as I could. By the time I got there, it was too late.”
Something turned within Dylan, like the cogs and gears within an Autobot transforming. Her mind was racing. There was something definitely wrong, but this couldn’t have been about a video game. There was a vital piece missing for Dylan to form a full opinion: evidence.
Taking in a sharp breath, Dylan sternly requested, “I want to see her house. Tomorrow. First thing after the ‘Y’.”
Luke nodded his consent and mounted his Bike.
Only another four hundred yards till home.
Dylan followed after.
Sneaking back in through the side gate, Dylan carefully repositioned her bike exactly as it was before she left. Luke let his bike fall to the ground. With a sigh Dylan crept up to Luke and tapped him on the shoulder, shushing him. He shrugged her off and kept heading toward the sliding glass door that lead to kitchen.
While Dylan took off her black boots, Luke threw open the door with all the subtlety of an average teenage boy.
Dylan again hushed her step-brother with a whisper, “Luke, try a little stealth, yeah?”
In an average voice Luke croaked back, “Why?”
With that one word that carried through the entire house, the house lights flipped on. Striding through the living room and into the kitchen like a Saint Abrahams Tank came Col. Isaac Yates, “Where exactly were you two coming in from this morning?”
Dylan snapped to attention. Luke stood with the posture of a used beanbag chair. Keeping her eyes locked forward, the gamer girl answered, “Colonel, we were at a friend’s house, sir.”
With his eyes locked on Luke, Col. Yates clarified, “And what friend did you sneak out of the house to take my daughter to see at midnight?”
Luke shrugged, “Just a friend.”
Dylan stepped in before her father melted Luke’s face off, “Sir, we were just playing video games. We lost track of time. I take full responsibility.”
Dylan’s father didn’t budge. She could almost see fire shoot out of his mouth as Col. Yates pressed the issue, “This is the second night you left the house after hours. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Another shrug, but Luke’s legs nearly buckled under the heat, “No.”
With a snort, her father swallowed his temper, “Have it your way. We’ll start with one week of zero privileges for the both of you, or longer until you do have something to say. Am I understood?”
Dylan remained at attention as she answered, “Sir, yes Sir.
Luke kept his head down, “Whatever.”
Colonel Yates stepped aside, “Dismissed.” Dylan marched past her father and got as far as the foyer when she heard, “Hold on, Private.” Hanging her head, Dylan knew what was coming. Turning about face with a frown she faced her father, “I’m going to need you to hand over your sidearm.” With a heavy sigh, Dylan withdrew and relinquished her Game Boy. A fatherly grin flashed on the colonel’s face, “It’s only a week, Dylan. You can make it.”
With a small huff, Dylan looked up with apologetic eyes and nodded. Dylan raised her hand to salute. Her father returned salute, and waved her on to bed. As she jogged up the staircase, he offered one last stern, “If you go AWOL again, it’s going to be a whole month, young lady.”
The thing about Dylan’s room was that the main light switch was at the bottom of the stairs. So, unless she remembered to leave a light on, Dylan often found herself climbing up to her bedroom in the dark. It’s not that she was afraid of the dark, but she certainly didn’t need to be reminded of her current situation. For all intensive purposes, she had just volunteered for a mission she knew next to nothing about. She wasn’t afraid, but Dylan hated to navigate her way through the dark.
Feeling her way toward the television, Dylan considered playing a few rounds of Mortal Kombat, or maybe a speedrun of Sonic 2, but instead just sat on the bed. She thought about all the times her in game avatars had died and the many more characters that she killed. She thought about Al Hazar. He didn’t explode in a pixilated fireball like Dr. Robotnik or Shao Kahn. He was the one boss that remained motionless in the sand. The image continued to burn into Dylan’s mind like a branding iron.
Taking off her jeans, Dylan changed into her sweatpants and climbed into bed. She tried to think about the games she still needed to practice before the DAC. Unfortunately, her mind kept circling back to Bubblegum Bounty Hunter. She was playing over the internet. Was she competing against other players? Where Big League, Spearmint, and Eclipse real people some place fighting to kill the same guy?
Maybe Amie, was playing against other players too. Maybe Amie had won the game like Dylan. Would that be enough to make someone crazy enough to kidnap her, or worse? Dylan had met people that took gaming way too seriously, but kidnapping was way across the border of normal-serious and into the heart of Crazytown. She tried to eject the idea out of her mind, but something else crept in. Something worse.
Jill, in her anti-gaming hysteria was blabbing to her father a week ago at dinner about an article she’d read in the Dallas Morning News. Apparently, there were a bunch of kids killing themselves over their Virtual Pets. There was even a boy in Austin whose mom had punished her kid by taking away his Tamagotchi. When his mom finally gave it back to him, the little virtual pet had died. That night, the boy hung himself. He was eleven. The pet wasn’t real. That boy took his own life because of a fake dog (or whatever it was) died.
For Dylan, video games were supposed to be an escape from reality. They were almost an escape from death. If something happened to you in game, you put in another quarter and try again. But, Bubblegum Bounty Hunter looked more realistic than any game she’d ever played. It felt more real too.
Dylan was certain that whatever mystery she was diving into, would take her into deeper, darker waters than she’d ever experienced before. Pulling the covers up to her chin, and closing her eyes tight, Dylan braced for the worst. There might not be a reset button on this adventure.