Yesterday, I shared the first chapter of Challenge Accepted.
Friday started wet and chilly, but Riley had things to finish before she left. While the new colt played, running circles around his dam, she shoveled piles of manure into the bucket of the tractor and spread shavings. Andrews Shires wasn’t exactly a large farm, but the barn had fifteen stalls, all sized for draft horses, and six more geldings lived in the pasture. Every morning started with feeding and turning them out, every day was spent cleaning up after them, and the evenings were simply a repeat of the same.
Twenty-one horses was a lot for one person to handle. Kitty helped, but with school, she simply didn’t have the time to be as involved as she wished, and it would mean more for her to get her degree. Riley sighed, thinking of all the things she should be doing this weekend instead of going to the convention. The fences needed to be welded, the buckets were due to be scrubbed, and with the weather, it would be a perfect time to clean and oil the show harnesses.
But if she could sign a contract, they wouldn’t have to worry as much. She sucked back the last of her coffee, making a face when it was cold, and moved to the next stall. By the time she was finished, the sun was on the far side of the barn and the day was getting late.
She dumped the last load, then went in, brewed a pot of coffee, and headed to the shower. After removing the farm residue, she patted her dreads dry and used the towel to wipe the fog from the mirror. Caught between two worlds, yet not quite a part of either, Riley was determined to make all of this work. She’d been lucky enough to have the body to ride the larger horses, but never the fashion sense. Even as a child, she’d loved to be different, coloring her hair with paint and drawing tattoos on her hands. When she’d come home with the real thing, neither of her parents had been surprised.
The tribal mark on her bicep wasn’t quite what anyone would expect. It was their farm’s brand. Not that they branded the horses, but it had become the logo on all the letterhead and contracts. The mark inside her wrist was a bit more personal. It was the day her parents had been killed in a car accident, written in alpha angle code. They’d lost their best stallion and two mares in the wreck, as well. Riley tried not to talk about it, but the loss weighed heavily. Those horses had been as much family as her parents, and Connor’s pen still stood empty, waiting for the right stallion to fill his place.
A bang at the door made her nearly jump out of her skin. Obviously, Kitty was home. “Get dressed!” she yelled through the wood.
“I’m almost done,” Riley yelled back, blotting at her hair, again.
The towel didn’t do much to keep her warm, but nothing was worse than trying to pull dry clothes onto a wet body, so Riley scurried down the hall and into her room. Closing the door, she saw an outfit laid out neatly on her bed. Kitty had meant it when she said she’d pick her clothes, but it was perfect.
Round-toed boots were stacked beside a pair of tight jeans, a white tank with their logo on the front. A black long-sleeve shirt went with it, but the convention hall would heat up quickly, and it would soon be discarded. She pulled the clothes on and shoved the stack beside it into a bag, not even bothering to look. If she was to be shown off like a prized mare, then Kitty was the person to do it.
As soon as she opened her door, her friend’s voice called out, “I got most of this packed but I’m not touching the case.”
“No, I got it,” Riley agreed, pulling at wires, folding them carefully before tucking them away. “Wanna toss my bags in the truck?”
“I need the truck. Take my car.”
Riley just nodded. It only made sense. Hard to haul a horse to the vet in the car, and it cost a lot less to drive the hour and a half to Dallas. While she finished packing away the computer, Kitty carried her stuff out, returning just in time to grab the case from her hands.
“Mascara at least and eyeliner is better,” she ordered before walking through the front door again.
“Fine!” Riley yelled, hurrying back to her room.
She went a couple of steps further, adding a touch of eye shadow and a bit of clear gloss to her lips. Tucking the cosmetics into her pocket, she grabbed a few hair bands, twisted the mass of dreads into a knot at the back of her neck, then checked the time. Ten minutes till she had to be on the road. Not bad.
“Ok,” she yelled into the house, “I’m leaving.”
“Oh!” Kitty called, “Money!” She passed her a handful of bills and two credit cards. “Text me the cost of the rooms. The cash is for spending, the credit is for rooms and gas.” When Riley nodded, she went on, “And do me a favor?”
Riley laughed and hugged her friend. “I’ll do my best. Call if you need anything. Feed’s on the white board, the bins are full, we should have plenty of hay, and the vet knows I’m out of town.”
“Then stop worrying,” Kitty said, pushing her toward the door. “Go. You deserve a weekend without horse crap on your boots. Show those boys that you can aim.”
With a last wave of her hand, Riley obeyed.
The drive to Dallas was tedious and uneventful. She turned the music up and cracked the sunroof just enough to get a hint of fresh air, but not enough to let the damp March weather chill her to the bone. When she pulled off I-35 and onto 635, that’s when the traffic started to get thick. This convention was a big deal. Not only FPS gamers, but also MMOs and other popular titles would be attending. All the big companies were flying in their staff and there would be a huge area dedicated to the latest technology. Sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, she had plenty of time to think about not only that, but also the reaction she was about to cause.
Women had finally managed to break into gaming in the last decade, but the world of first person shooters was the last bastion of male dominance. While massively multiplayer online games were made up of roughly half men and half women, only ten percent of the FPS players were female. Most of them were casual players – which was fine – but that skewed the leader boards even more. For as long as she could remember, Riley had only ever seen four other women try to break into the game, and none of them had succeeded. It was probably a pipe dream, but she wanted to be the first. She had for years.
She just had to make sure she could not only get noticed, but also place. If she could get into the top three, she was sure she’d at least get a sponsor. She really needed an offer from someone. Hell, the farm needed her to get an offer!
It was dark when she finally arrived. Following the signs, she pulled the car around back and found a place to park, popped the trunk, and began loading herself down with bags. First, she would check in, then set up her rig. The rooms went fast, even if she had reserved one.
The next couple of hours became little more than a myriad of lines. The line to check in, the line for the elevator, and even the line for the exit. Bodies pressed close together, and everyone was doing their best to impress. She saw mohawks standing an arms length tall and piercing plugs large enough to fit a baseball through but, for the most part, the crowd was little more than geekish guys in T-shirts and jeans.
It was on her last trip when someone realized she might actually be a gamer. A nylon bag filled with her peripherals hung across her shoulder and her case rested easily on her hip. Riley took baby steps forward, waiting for her chance to be issued a ticket and assigned a place at the table. She’d been creeping closer for ten minutes when the guy behind her spoke up.
“You know this is the line for the FPS tournament?”
“That one…” He pointed across to their right. “Is for the MMO section.”
“The big sign,” Riley said, tilting her chin at it, “that says ‘Professional League of Gamers Tournament’ kinda gave it away.”
“So you’re gonna try to play with the big boys?” He didn’t even try to conceal his amusement.
“Yeah. Good luck with that. They won’t even realize you’re a chick until you’re dead.”
Riley finally looked behind her. “What name do you go by?”
“LOLWaffles. I use that for most of them, at least. You?”
She just smiled. “Riley. Nice to meet you, Waffles.”
“Don’t even have a name?” He smirked as he shook his head in sympathy.
“Pretty sure I just told you.” Thank God there were only two people left before she was done with this line.
“I meant a game name.”
“You’ll figure it out, but if I don’t tell you, you won’t send me requests to cyber or something stupid.”
He laughed. “Fair point. Good luck then.”
“You too.” She held out her armband to the security at the door. He handed her a ticket and pointed her in the general area.
Finally inside, she followed the directions to a massive row of tables, walking along it until she found her assigned place. Power bars and plugs of just about every type were duct taped to the back. Little metal chairs were pushed in at the front. It sure didn’t have the comforts of home, but there was something about the banners along the walls that made it seem worthwhile.
Dropping the bag into her seat, Riley began to put her rig back together. She went over everything carefully, from the connectors on the motherboard to the level of coolant in the radiator, before closing her case and plugging it all in.
“Nice keyboard,” some guy said as he passed by.
She just grunted, not even bothering to look up. When it was all together, she flipped the switch in the back and pressed the power button, worried that nothing would happen for only a moment, until the LEDs began to glow and the fans started to hum.
“Rainbow?” a guy wondered, commenting on her choice of lighting for the case.
“So you a lesbian?” His eyes lit up at the idea. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen.
“No, fuck off.”
Another man sank into the chair beside her, flicking on his own machine. “You’re full of piss, aren’t ya?”
She looked over at him and shrugged. “You would be too.”
“Probably. Interested a match? Want to make sure I’ve got the settings right for the LAN.”
“Would love to.”
“K. Hit server 3. I’ll make it private.”
When all of her peripherals finished syncing with the cloud, she clicked on the icon, launching Call of Battle, the highlight game for this year’s tournament. The log-in screen flashed up and she paused, glancing at the man next to her. She wasn’t quite ready to let them all in on her little secret. Her fingers typed in the information for her training account, logging in CareBear instead of QQ. While the screen loaded, she grabbed her headphones and toggled the press to talk key.
“You’re working.” His voice was deep and rich in the speakers.
“Thanks,” she said, pressing the key to transmit. “Any special rules?”
He laughed. “Winner buys the drinks.”
“Thought loser was supposed to do that?”
“If that’s how you want it.”
“Loser buys and it’s a deal.”
“Game on.” He tapped a key and they dropped into the world.
She moved. The map might be new to her, but they were all variations of the same thing. Her fingers flicked across the keys. She didn’t even bother to look at the real person, all she needed was to see his avatar. Releasing her mouse for a moment, she shoved at a roller on the keyboard, cranking the volume as loud as possible, straining to hear a virtual step, never pausing to give him a chance to get behind her.
She finally heard it. On the other side of the wall, she could just make out his character coming closer. With only her fingertips caressing her mouse, she raised her sights and moved between cover. Drifting around the back, the goal was to flank him – but this guy didn’t suck.
He predicted the move and took his own precautions. That was, until she tossed a grenade through the open door.
“Fuck!” he whispered in her ears.
She heard him running for the other side, but she was already moving. Before he could leave the room – with half his health stripped by the grenade – she lined up a head shot and clicked. His character fell.
She tried not to smirk. “I think the LAN settings are fine. Or were you going to try best two out of three?”
He laughed honestly. “Nah. Just wanted to see if I could buy you a drink. I figured I’d win either way. Deal’s a deal.”
Closing the game and turning off her machine, she carefully put everything away, then stood, waiting for him to do the same.
“So who made your machine?” he asked, gesturing for her to lead the way, his mannerisms well polished.
“Nice. Usually the answer is either ‘my boyfriend’ or ‘my husband’. So far, looks like I haven’t managed to crash and burn, yet.”
“No, not yet, but I didn’t catch your name. Sorry, I was too busy looking at the map.”
“IceMan. It’s been a while since I’ve seen CareBear log in. What brought you back?”
“Oh I’ve been around. Just dropped the name.”
“So you just kicked my ass on an alt character?”
“I feel used.”
“I just wanted a drink.”
They walked into the hotel bar and he gestured politely to a table in the corner. Riley slid in one side and he took the other, finally giving her a chance to really look him over without giving the wrong impression. He wasn’t the stereotypical gamer. Nice looking but very clean cut, he exuded an executive demeanor of control even in his casual attire. He was cute, and surprisingly well built. Most gamers were dorks, but this was obviously a businessman in hiding.
When the waitress came by, he ordered a scotch for himself, raising an eye when she ordered a tequila.
“Double, no lime, with a slice of lemon,” she added.
“Got it,” the girl said before walking away.
“So you play as hard as you drink?”
“No,” she teased. “I don’t drink nearly that hard. This is just warm-up.”