The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Kings and Conquests LitRPG series Devils Demons and Dead Men, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.
Thirty-Four Years Later
“I would rather be flushed down a saltwater toilet full of razor blades than play this game one more minute!”
Jordan Hall eagerly re-adjusted his seated position in his tech-office-model desk chair. He checked the chat room feed again and then turned back to his camera, which had a spectacular high-definition shot of his chin bathed in monitor light. Someone in the chat room challenged his opinion yet again. Why were they defending this worthless game?
“Okay, it wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t do such stupid things! Look, I have battleships in my invasion force. Battleships! Two feet of steel armor! Okay? Then I get them next to the beach so they can bombard the city and they get taken out by archers! Archers?! Against a battleship!? Aaaarggh!”
The chat room scrolled and scrolled. About half the respondents were sympathetic. The others were questioning Jordan’s ancestry, rehashing old “your mom” jokes and having a grand old time trolling the others. A digital furball erupted over the accusation that “maybe your battleships just suck” until the troll was dumped into the penalty box for fifteen minutes by one of the mods. It was the chat equivalent of the dunk tank.
Jordan sighed. “This game is just disappointing. The graphics are atrocious. I can’t play it any more. Hah! And now the archers are sinking my transports. Sure! Archers on Normandy Beach. They wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds!”
The game in question was Emperor of Cities, which had just released an expansion that added industrial era units, new city types and new factions. The game media had sleepily rated it mediocre, but players had other ideas. Jordan had only scheduled it on his “No-Name Games” streaming video show because he enjoyed the original release and said so in one of his previous shows. By now he had taken it all back. Now, the game was the worst product ever sold and anyone who bought it was a remedial-class idiot. One of the cardinal rules of being a video game critic was the complete abandonment of subtlety. It was either a gift from on high or it was something you scrape off your shoe. There was no middle ground. Kind of like a ninth-grader’s opinion of female movie stars. They were either indescribably hot or not worth mentioning by name.
A quick check of the NNG viewer count wasn’t encouraging. Only 80 people were watching his streaming Internet show. About 12 of them were the regulars, and half of those were people he knew from work. The rest were undoubtedly unemployed semi-coherent guys in their late teens and early 20s who gathered around video games in much the same way their fathers and grandfathers gathered around Monday Night Football. Video games were one of the last places where males could experience true competition, complete with all the cheating, name-calling and profanity one could possibly want. It was 21st century stickball with a satellite audience.
The viewers weren’t all that different from their host. Jordan was fully prepared to call in sick to his IT job the next morning. He wasn’t sure why, but he was sort of positive he had discussed it earlier that day. It was fine. Nobody could expect a gaming streamer to remember details at 2AM.
“Hey, hey! You guys will know this. Why am I calling in sick to work tomorrow?” Jordan sipped an energy drink. He had a refrigerator full of them in his room.
The scrolling of the chat room paused momentarily. The viewers of the show were also participating in the chat so they could respond to what Jordan was saying “on the air.” At least some of the viewers were thinking and not typing, which was occasionally encouraging. It didn’t happen often. Then the chat window accelerated back to full speed with eight out of ten responses being some variation of “you suck at your job” and more random criticisms of Jordan’s mom. Then he found what he was looking for. He had to squint at the third of three widescreen monitors arrayed horizontally across the main desk-level platform of what he called his “battle station.” He actually joked about it not being a moon during an interview on someone else’s streaming channel and was promptly cut off and permanently banned.
One of the viewers typed “The Kings and Conquests announcement.”
“Thaaat’s right, the old KNC saga. Everyone’s favorite subject.” He sighed again, because he knew what was about to happen. The chat window became clogged with random imagery. Most were parodies of Fairly Unusual’s company logo. Some were offensive pictures where everything and everyone in the image were wearing crowns, and so forth. More people were banned. One user with the screen name “AngryFluid” was identifiable because he was typing in coherent sentences with nouns and everything. Jordan recognized him. He had been a subscriber for a few weeks.
“Okay, Angry. I’ll add you to the stream if you want to tell us what you know. I have to tell you I’m kind of interested in what they have to say tomorrow. Fairly Unusual puts on some pretty good announcements.” A few adjustments to the equipment ensued. Fellow streamer AngryFluid appeared next to the host in the webcast.
“How’s it going?”
“Not bad, how about yourself?” Jordan’s counterpart had a setup similar to his own. Each battlestation was wired in the corner of its owner’s room with the furniture, strewn clothing and other accouterments visible in the shot. The only difference was AngryFluid’s room had no windows, as he was broadcasting live from 40 feet under the Alaskan permafrost in his basement. Jordan was enjoying a much balmier climate in Southern California.
“So what’s your take on the big announcement tomorrow?”
“There isn’t going to be one,” AngryFluid replied with a fatigued drawl before sipping an adult beverage in an old-fashioned glass. “The real news happened about eight hours ago when nobody was paying attention. This is something FUG is making a habit of lately. They time everything just right so the main online media doesn’t catch it until the next day, long after social media has driven it into the ground and it’s old news. Blunts the impact.”
By now the chat room had reached “berzerk factor one.” More than 95 out of 100 responses were accusing AngryFluid of being a wacko conspiracy theorist. Jordan knew the basics of the controversy. Fairly Unusual had been accused in the past of using proxy companies to do their crowdfunding in order to throw off their competitors, but that was nothing compared to the just-about-to-break bombshell. The company’s PR department pretended to leak something crucial, then walked it back, then later revealed it was true right before announcing three more even bigger developments.
Company CEO Garrett Wyland was famous in tech circles for staying one step ahead of the rest of the game industry. Now he was gaining a reputation for staying one step ahead of the media. More than a few of the companies that he had repeatedly upstaged with strategically timed PR were quite keen to see him fall, so they invested heavily in various flavors of corporate espionage, hoping to divine his intentions before he made his next move. The smart money had already concluded the non-scandal scandal had been engineered on purpose long before the leak. Intrigue was something Fairly Unusual couldn’t really afford, as they were gearing up for an IPO. At least that was the conventional wisdom. Garrett Wyland was anything but conventional. Leaks that could later be denied and then re-revealed for maximum media points only made FUG more attractive to early adopters. Their next game was going to be the one to push them over the top.
“Is that the Frosty Cat page everyone was linking last week until it disappeared?” Jordan asked.
“Frosty Cat is the name of the company. They put up a fake-looking page just long enough to get a couple of headlines out of it. Then they took it down to create mystery. The lawsuit rumor was fake. The crowdfund rumor is true.”
“Looks like it worked too. There were at least a half dozen stories in the aggregator feed this morning about it. Are they baiting the media with the scandal you think?”
“Have you seen the page today?”
“It’s back up?”
“Take a look.” AngryFluid took another sip of his drink while the chat room quieted and Jordan pulled up a browser. He navigated to the Frosty Cat crowdfunding page for the new Kings and Conquests game. Jordan paused. It had to be a mistake. The counter read $988,717.
The campaign had been active for 106 minutes.
Devils Demons and Dead Men is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!