Sneak Peak – Challenge Accepted (Chp 1)
Challenge Accepted is a story of learning to trust, of thwarting expectations, and finding the person who compliments all of our own personal flaws.
The clicking of the keyboard was loud in the room, but Riley couldn’t hear it. With music blaring in her headphones and the game sounds cranked up, the tapping of the keys didn’t stand a chance. Her eyes flicked across the screen, scanning for the tell-tale movement of an enemy between the buildings. She touched the button on her mouse lightly while her left hand wove an elaborate pattern of forward, backward, and sideways. In the top right corner of her screen, a litany of names began to scroll: her victims.
“QQ, you’re a damned hacker!”
The voice screamed in her ears, drowning out her favorite part of the song behind it. Riley couldn’t resist the bait but – so they wouldn’t hear her voice – she typed out her response.
[QQ] Cry more or Alt+Q+Q
The moment of distraction had been enough. Her screen flashed red. One click triggered a med-pack, but there wasn’t enough time for it to work before her character made its last moan and fell face first into the dirt. The chat box erupted with gloating, her executioner bragging about his conquest to anyone that would listen. She just sighed and checked her kill count. Twelve. She was slipping, and if she wanted to get a paycheck from this, she had to be better.
But she could only play so many hours in a row, and it was time for a break. Pushing away from the desk, Riley flipped her brilliantly colored dreads back and glanced through the window, not surprised to see the mare still standing comfortably. This is how it went every year. That horse produced the best babies on the farm but had no interest in allowing her breeders to catch her at it. If she kept to the schedule, tonight was the night.
The room was dark, letting her see through the windows and into the barn, but it made walking to the kitchen as dangerous as traversing a mine field. Ok, not quite as dangerous, since stubbing her toe was nothing compared to blowing off a leg, but she liked the comparison. Too bad there weren’t mine fields in the game. That could make things even more interesting.
Pouring a coffee, she wondered why she was doing this for the millionth time. Most people had a job. They woke up in the morning, headed into the office, and got a paycheck at the end of each week. Things would be so much easier like that, but she couldn’t justify selling her soul by the hour for something that she couldn’t care about. Whether it was welcoming people to Wal-Mart or answering the phone for some stuck on himself CEO, it wouldn’t take long before her disorderly mouth had her looking for another job.
Riley knew that all too well. She’d tried, time and time again, to be the girl the world expected, and time and time again, she simply couldn’t force herself. It wasn’t until her parents died that she began to realize it must be a family trait. They’d kept this farm running on little more than hopes and prayers for decades, shoving their way into a world that was as secretive as the Illuminati.
She chuckled at the comparison. Breeding Shire horses was more like conspiracy theories than she’d ever guessed, but at least her mother had kept good notes. She’d also raised a daughter with a love for the dramatic.
With a brimming cup of coffee, she traversed the mine field of the living room one more time, making her way to the soft glow of her monitor. Setting her cup on the corner of the cheap desk, she looked through the window, a flare of excitement brimming when the mare flicked her tail. It died just as quickly when the very pregnant horse dropped her head and went back to sleep. That meant she had time for another round.
Her game of choice this week was a persistent world first person shooter. It never stopped. There were no true rounds, only an endless cycle of killing and dying just to re-spawn and kill again. With less downtime, it gave her an intense rush as she tried to keep up with the big names in gaming. Clicking a hot spot on the map, the loading screen flashed. She emerged from the spawn tube, checked her loadout, and was back in the thick of things.
The staccato of her gun was loud in her ears, a sharp contrast to the deceptively lyrical but depressing music behind it. This time, it was a large outpost, and she was against insane odds. For every one man on her side, there were at least six on the other. That meant more targets, but also more chances to overextend. Don’t rush, she reminded herself, attacking as she pushed forward. That was the best way to end up dead, and her kill count couldn’t afford a stupid move.
Her pinky flicked the tab key. Seven kills already, she saw as she strafed around the corner. A glimmer warned her of a stealther and, with a tap of a finger, she knifed him, adding one more death to her total.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Her screen registered a hit. She crouched, spinning behind cover while checking the mini-map. Riley knew better than to stand still in a game like this – she retreated, only to come face to face with one of the biggest names in gaming. Above his character, in glaring red letters, she read “Void”.
Smashing G1, a long acting med-pack went off. She twitched her wrist, aiming for his head, but he was faster. Rounds hit her character, destroying her aim. They both moved, trying to outflank the other. Keys tapped louder and louder as she hammered at them, the green squares of her life slowly disappearing. Then he got just a bit too close. She tapped the mouse twice and flicked the knife, seeing the kill counter in the bottom of her screen at the same moment her own turned red.
“Damn it!” Riley yelled, slapping her hands on the cheap desk, coffee splashing over the edge of her cup.
Grabbing a napkin from the other side, she was wiping up the mess when a ding made her glance back to the screen. There, in the chat box, was a private message.
[VOID] Damn good fight. Been a long time since I’ve had to work for it. You coming to Gamers Live this weekend?
She stared at the message, truly shocked to see it. Void was the best in the scene. He’d turned down countless contracts to go pro, saying he preferred to remain anonymous and keep gaming as a hobby, yet he was a regular face at every convention. He also never gave compliments. Hell, he rarely spoke to anyone! She began typing before she even knew what to say.
[QQ] It’s local, so thought about it. Thanks for the compliment.
He’d been waiting for her answer, because in less than a second, the notice dinged again.
[VOID] You should come. Would love to shake the hand of the man who not only can make me sweat, but also type complete words.
[QQ] That sounds like an offer I can’t pass up. Didn’t think you were in the Dallas area.
[VOID] There’s a tournament. Enter it. They’re offering a pretty sweet pro contract to the winner. Can’t tell you how I know that, but I’ll be rooting.
[QQ] …and playing. You enter every one of those.
[VOID] 😉 Someone has to keep you kids on your toes. Bring your rig.
[QQ] You seem to have convinced me. Let’s see if I can take you down next time.
[VOID] Challenge accepted.
Her hands were on the keys to reply when movement caught her eye. The mare was on her side, her legs straining, nothing more than her haunches visible through the grate in the door. Riley pulled off the headphones and tossed them on the desk, grabbed her jacket from the back of the couch, and darted up the hall to pound on her roommate’s door.
“Kitty! She’s foaling!” she yelled through the wood before rushing to the barn.
Of course she was too late. Jena never wanted an audience to her labor, but the sight in the barn was exactly what Riley hoped to see. A beautiful black foal lay in the straw, its head bobbing awkwardly as it blinked at the light. She slowly opened the stall door and stepped inside, whispering gentle words to the mare as she checked the baby over. A colt, and a rather impressive one from the wet, crumpled mass of him. She eased his hind legs the rest of the way out and patted the mare’s hip before moving to his head and checking for any birth defects.
“That’s a big one,” Kitty said, a blanket tossed around her shoulders, her fuzzy bunny slippers peeking out from the bottom.
“It’s a boy.” Riley looked up with a grin. “And he’s well marked. If he’s half as nice when he stands, we just got our next stallion.”
“Thank god,” Kitty breathed. “We can’t keep buying breedings and pay for hay, not unless the market improves a bit.”
“Still four years before he’ll make us any money. I may have to sell the team.”
Kitty shook her head. “Not yet. We can get by this year. Sell the geldings, but not the mares, Riley.”
She nodded, all too aware how tight things were financially. “I just keep hoping for a corporate contract. Dad made a name for them, it’d be a shame to sell them for pennies.”
“Yeah,” Kitty agreed, “but selling’s the best option we have.”
Riley decided to change the subject. “Fought to a draw with Void.”
“Damn! No way?”
She nodded, letting a bit of a proud smile show. “He asked if I’m going to the convention. Said he wants to shake my hand.”
Kitty had been her best friend since grade school and worked at the farm since junior high. When Riley’s parents died, she’d stepped right in, taking over the finances – all too aware that was Riley’s Achilles’ heel. She’d also been the one to introduce Riley to the world of first person shooters. While Kitty enjoyed the games, Riley had excelled, quickly making a name for herself, only to lose everything when rumors spread that she’d slept her way to the top of the competitive ladders.
It had been Kitty’s idea to create the new persona, QQ, and leave the old to wither. It wasn’t hard to convince her competition that she was nothing more than another guy with too much free time – she simply never used voice chat. So if anyone could understand how excited Riley was, it would be her best friend.
“When is it?” Kitty asked.
“This weekend. It’s in Dallas but will be an all weekend deal. Can you watch the horses?”
Kitty gave her an appalled look. “Of course! You don’t even have to ask.”
Unwilling to be ignored, that’s when the newest member of the herd decided it was finally time to stand, struggling to untangle his long legs and making a complete mess of it. The mare nickered and surged to her own feet, leaving little room in the stall. Riley backed out, moving beside Kitty as they watched the baby try for his first steps.
“Always my favorite part,” Kitty said.
“I like it when they win,” Riley countered, bumping her shoulder against her friend’s.
Kitty just lifted her arm and wrapped the blanket around them both, the girls smiling at the future of the farm. They stood like that for almost an hour, until the colt had done everything they needed to see, then they slowly made their way back inside, the sky just beginning to grow lighter.
Her coffee had grown cold long ago, so she staggered into the kitchen and set another pot to brew. Passing by her computer, a message still flashed on the screen.
[VOID has requested to be your friend]
“See,” she told Kitty, pointing at the square box.
“Damn. He doesn’t usually make friends. What the hell did you do?”
“Fought to a draw, like I said.”
Riley just nodded and did her best not to look as smug as she felt.
“Ok,” Kitty said, “Spill it!”
“He said I made him work for it.”
“What did you do?”
“I think I got the drop on him. His reactions are faster than mine, but I never gave him the chance to take advantage of it. Cover, strafing, and a quick knife.”
“You killed him with a quick knife? No one gets that close!”
Riley just shrugged. “I think he assumed I’d run. I was low on health and in a bad spot. I figured it was take him out or die. I preferred the first option.”
“Nice! So you have two days. Clean the machine, back everything up, and we have got to find you something to wear!”
“It’s a gamer convention, Kitty, not a beauty pageant.”
Her friend took a step back and gestured at Riley’s body. “Black and neon dreads, how many body piercings, and what, two tattoos now? You’ve already started the look, no reason you can’t make it marketable. Think of this as nothing more than a horse show. Braids, mane rolls, and all the trimmings.”
“Fine!” she agreed, giving in. “Just nothing crazy. I do not want to look like I’m trying to get a damned date. I want a contract, not a boyfriend.”
“Deal. You handle the kill count, I’ll arrange the wardrobe, and you won’t even kill me when I’m done.”
Riley just closed her eyes and nodded, all too aware of what she was getting herself into.
“And we’re pulling out the petty cash to pay for the trip. Go easy on the tequila?” Kitty teased.
“Deal. If we can take at least a first at the next show, we’ll make it all back.”
“Then you’d better start working with the yearlings. If they can place, we can get a few sold. Just need two, Riley. Won’t hurt the farm to have a couple less mouths to feed.”
“I know,” she said, hearing the coffee maker beep. “But it’s morning and I have got to get some sleep.”
Kitty just shook her head. “Coffee, then bed? Don’t know how you can do it, but whatever works. Just be nice to Void?”
“I thought I was.”
“I mean when you meet him. He’s a good asset to have on your side.”
“Until I show my face and they realize I’ve had tits the whole time.”
“Ok,” Kitty chuckled, “there is that. But don’t throw a drink on him?”
“Swear,” Riley said. “This is just business. I won’t do a thing that would be out of line.”
Kitty nodded, then turned on her own computer, sinking before it while the fans began to whirl. “And I’ll watch the kid while you get a few hours. Need to buy grain today and drop invoices off at the post office.”
Riley groaned, dragging her tired body from the room, thinking of nothing more than getting her caffeine fix and some sleep.