Her only escape is to lose herself in Nexis, the hugely popular virtual reality game her father created. In Nexis she meets Guster, a senior player who guides Ella through the strange and compelling new world she now inhabits. He offers Ella guidance, friendship...and something more. Something that allows her to forget about the "real" world and makes her feel whole again. But when their separate worlds collide, Ella will have to choose between love and survival. Because Nexis isn’t quite the game everyone thinks it is.
And it’s been waiting for Ella.
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A Tricksters Novel
By A. L. Davroe, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 A.L. Davroe
All rights reserved.
Post-American Date: 6/14/231
Longitudinal Timestamp: 8:05 p.m.
Location: Dome 5: Evanescence
I stand frozen, my arm intertwined with my father's and my body seized tight as a thermal coil, too frightened to step beneath the arched gate. G-Corp's grand ballroom is broad and high, like the orchestra halls of old, but this nano-glass bubble held high by steel girders and thick white columns is not a place where music is born. It's a place where futures are born — where my future begins. Breathless, I stare down, taking in the perfect features, exotic touches, pale skin, shimmering fabric, and delicate details of the inhabitants of my new realm: The Elite of the Aristocracy.
Dad leans in close. "What do you think?"
"Wow." I'm not sure he can hear the word over my thundering heart.
"I know," Dad says. "Can you imagine that The Broadcast was actually concerned about whether this place was an adequate location for this year's Executive Ball?"
This year the ball is being held on the hover-station — a massive platform that hangs suspended between the city of Evanescence and the dome that protects her from the harsh world outside. I force myself to look away from the realm below and up at him, confused. "Why?"
He rolls his eyes as he guides me across the landing and toward the stairs. "Apparently they weren't certain if it would meet the expectations of Evanescence's most discerning Aristocrats. Though, I can't imagine something grander than this, can you?"
I give him an "are you kidding me" expression and turn back to the guests.
Dad clears his throat, touches the brass-colored plastic buttons on his lapel, and straightens his shoulders. "Ready?"
I pull up a cool, Aristocratic smile and paste it there. "As I'll ever be," I say through the fake expression. We descend the main staircase, the clicking of our hard plastic soles silenced by the thick pile of a green rug lining the chrome steps.
As we make our descent the spotlights swing wide and pin their heat upon us. For a mere instant, they blind me, making me feel like I've died and am walking into the light of mythical heaven — descending into the dream-realm of angels. But then my shoe clacks onto the hard white tile of the dance floor, and I'm reminded of my tangible, mortal world.
As if on cue, thousands of projected fireworks spring to life in midair — twinkling in and out of existence like vivid flowers — blooming and dying in time with the siren-song of GAGA 8.9, the cyberstar that G-Corp chose to sing for our entrance. I feel frozen again, drowned and unable to process my surroundings beyond the noise and light and all the confused emotion welling in my stomach.
As the fireworks sparkle out and I'm left standing under the bright lights, I remember where I am, and I swallow hard. Against the creamy tiles and columns hedging the staircase, against the emerald green carpet and reflective chrome, against all the clean perfection, I feel like an ugly scab. Logically, I know that no one is staring at me. My father is the one the spotlights are for, and there are so many other beautiful things to look at that the Elite couldn't possibly bother with me, but I still feel like they are glaring at me, accusing and unaccepting. I imagine the men and women are whispering to one another, their lips moving indiscernibly behind raised fans and champagne flutes, calling out and disowning my dark, imperfect Natural features.
Dad steps close and places a hand on my bare elbow. "Ellani, are you all right?"
I look up at him. My expression must tell him how I'm feeling, because his cool fingers tighten on my feverish skin and he smiles his reassurance. "It is a bit overwhelming at first. Isn't it?"
"They're staring at me," I mutter, hoping he can understand through my glued-on expression of congenial happiness.
Dad's face breaks into a broad grin as his hazel eyes flash across the throngs of Primped, Altered, and Modified Aristocrats. "As well they should."
I give a sidelong glance at Dad, uncertain if he's being cocky or honest. I can't tell. He has a right to be cocky. In less than a month, my father — a mere Programmer who once barely managed to scrape by on the fringes of the Aristocracy — has managed to climb to the top of Central Staffing's personnel list and is now one of the Elite.
President Cyr, the man who owns the whole of G-Corp, and thus all of Evanescence, steps up onto the platform centered in the middle of the vast circular room. His presence renders everyone still and quiet, as if he has the ability to control our behavior with a single thought. As expected of the President, he's perfect: tall and handsome, with hair that has been Altered to the color of sapphires and skin that glints under the spotlights. He's dressed in bright white, a color only the Presidential Family is allowed to wear. For a moment, his silvery eyes sweep over the crowd, his smile growing deeper and wider until I think that it must be painful for him to smile so enthusiastically.
Once he sees that everyone's eyes are upon him, he bends close to the sensors. "Ladies and gentlemen." As his voice blares throughout the room, he sweeps his arm wide, overtaking the crowd and holding his hand out in the direction of where my father and I are standing. The spotlights come back to us. "Warren Drexel."
The crowd explodes. As they clap and yell my father's name I ball my fists, trying to keep myself from shaking. All I can do is hope that no one notices how plain I am in comparison to my father — that my holo-mask does what I've programmed it to do: hide me in plain sight. Holding my breath, I dip into a well-practiced curtsy and say a secret prayer that I won't do something uncharacteristically stupid like bend over too far and land on my face.
As I straighten, the holo-screens hovering over the dance floor flash replays of this evening's awards ceremony where my father received Evanescence's most prestigious accolade: G-Corp's Civil Enrichment Award. He received that award for the development of Nexis, the most advanced and entertaining virtual-reality game in the known history of Post-America.
My father smiles and waves in appreciation, hamming it up for the crowd. But most of them are now focused on the screens, their internal programming telling them not to look away lest they miss something important. When The Broadcast shows a replay of the award being presented to my father, there is another round of applause and appreciative murmurs. Everyone listens to my father's acceptance speech, and they renew their appreciation when he exits the stage. Then the screens go still, their broad, flat expanses reflecting G-Corp's emblem — a silver G on a green triangle.
All eyes go back to the center of the room, but President Cyr is no longer at his podium. For a long moment, everyone seems at a loss as to what to do next. The cheering dies down and in the next instant it's as though Dad's sudden fame is forgotten. GAGA 8.9 gets back up onstage and begins another song. In a flurry of sharp brocade coattails and gossamer gowns cut in the Neo-Baroque fashion, the crowd turns back to their conversations, the perfect epitome of what all Aristocrats are like — bored and quickly dissatisfied with the latest trends.
"Sheep," my father mutters under his breath. He puts his hand to my back and urges me away from the stairs.
An android walks by, her chasis the typical service model — bland and forgettable — and her outfit a black uniform with the G-Corp emblem on the chest. She's guiding a hover-tray piled with plates of jewel-colored fruits, hearty vegetables, delicately cooked meats, and exotic cheeses.
My mouth waters as I reach out and snatch a plate.
My father does the same. "The only good part about these damned balls is the food." He turns to face me and grimaces. "Would you turn that ridiculous thing off? I want to see my daughter when I speak to her."
Annoyed and a little self-conscious, I turn my holo-mask off. Without the customized holographic projection that I've programmed into it, people will be able to see what I really look like.
I avoid looking at the people around me as I pop a grape into my mouth. With a small moan of pleasure, I close my eyes, relishing the sharp snap of the skin as my teeth clamp down and savoring the tart flavor oozing around my tongue. I chew it slowly, loving how refreshing and sweet such a small piece of food can be.
Dad picks up a piece of apple. "It's a crime how something that was once so common is now so rare," he reflects.
I nod. Most agricultural land outside has been destroyed, and hydroponic space within the dome is at a premium, making fresh produce expensive. Only synthetic and preservative laden foods are easy to come by now. "That's the case for lower-class Aristocrats, but that won't be an issue for us now, right?" I say, hopeful. "With the success of your game?"
He examines the apple, thoughtful. "You know, apples used to grow all over America. There's this fun little tale about a man named Johnny Appleseed."
I give him a pained expression. "Please Dad, not here."
He takes a deep breath and holds it, his intelligent eyes examining me. "You know, there was a time you liked my stories."
I roll my eyes. "I do, Dad. Just — not right now. It's embarrassing how you go off on these tangents about what was and used to be." I want to tell him that he sounds like a crazy man, the way he obsesses about the past, but I don't think he'd take that well.
"I'm trying to make a point, Ella."
"I know. It was so much better before the war. I get it, Dad. But ..." I take a breath, trying to collect my thoughts. "Why bother? It's not like anyone complains about it. I mean, most people don't even know what it was like before the war. The Aristocrats only know Evanescence. It doesn't matter that a chasis was once an internal frame or that it was spelled differently. And no one cares that we didn't spell things with far fewer capitals," I say, using examples he gave at breakfast this morning when a lecture on my misuse of singular and plural pronouns (whatever those are) turned into him going on a tirade about how proper grammar has declined over the last few hundred years. "That was then, this is now. A chasis is an android overlay and it's spelled with only one S and random things are capitalized. Besides," I add, getting back on topic, "the Aristocracy prefers the taste of synthetic, preservative-laden food anyway. It's not like most of us can't afford to eat such unhealthy food."
Now it's Dad's turn to roll his eyes. "Oh yes, with the advent of Custom babies, most predispositions to disease, weight gain, and slow metabolisms have been removed from the Aristocratic genome. Besides, even if Aristocrats did manage to gain weight, they could just have the fatty tissue removed, couldn't they?" There's a strange, part-sarcastic, part-bitter tone to his voice that I don't quite understand.
I squint at him, unsure of what he's getting at. He takes a bite of the apple, chews it, and then frowns. "They taste better in Nexis."
I open my mouth to respond, but a shadow manifests in the corner of my vision, and a smooth, familiar voice interjects. "I completely agree."
Dad's eyes light up. "I figured you would, Zane."
Zane? I glance up at the newcomer just as he flashes a perfect grin that I've sighed over more than once when he shows up on The Broadcast. Zane Boyd. "Of course," he says, his posture angling so that he's now standing beside both me and my father. "Though I can't say I've been quiet about my support of the game. It's simply genius."
Dad lifts his hand and raises his brows at me. "You see?"
I sigh. All I ever hear from him is Nexis this and Nexis that. He's obsessed with that game. I mean, good for him, he developed a stupid game that won him the Civil Enrichment Award. Other people feeding his obsession isn't helping. "It's just a game, Dad," I whisper.
His brows lift. "That game has done, and will do, a lot for you, young lady."
I look away, ashamed. It's not that I'm not grateful for what he's accomplished for me. The game has given me a higher social class. When it comes to arranging a marriage for me, it will be to a boy from an Elite family. With the extra credit Dad earns from the game, I can have things that I've always wanted. And, because his abilities as a Programmer are now well known, the likelihood of me getting a good job placement after school is much higher. It's everything I could ever want wrapped with a huge, silky bow.
But if time could be reversed and all those days he spent locked up in his workroom could be turned to days that he spent with me, I think I'd give up all the benefits. Even when he does spend time with me, all Dad seems to want to do is talk about programming and his game. I'm sure he thinks it's exciting for me. I am, after all, his daughter — his biological protégé — but I don't have as much interest in my abilities as a Programmer as Dad does. I'm good as a Programmer, I know that, and part of me is a little interested in the genius that is Nexis but, I don't want to be a Programmer. I want to be a Designer and my jealousy of the game is enough to keep me silent about any Programming questions I might have about it. I can't tell any of that to Dad, though; it would break his heart. So instead of saying what I really think, I say, "I know."
"Do you?" Dad asks. "Not just for you. For many people. Zane, why don't you tell my daughter about the story you're covering in the Outer Block?"
Zane Boyd looks down at me and I feel my face flush. I don't normally get attention from anyone who is Elite, let alone a Broadcast anchor. Avoiding his penetrating stare, I focus on his suit instead. Harley Dean, my favorite designer. I knew there was a reason I liked this guy — besides the fact that he's Custom stunning, has tasteful Mods, and covers his stories with admirable outspokenness.
"Well," he says, and I can't help but look back up into his Altered eyes — royal purple with luminescent flecks — "there's been talk that Lady Cyr will be funding gaming houses for the Disfavored."
I blink, stunned. I never would have expected Dad's game would be the thing that bridged the gap between us and them.
Zane continues. "I've gone out once already to do some preliminary coverage for a miniseries I'll be running later this year. I'm extremely interested in how the game will impact the Disfavored."
I cock my head, impressed. Zane isn't much older than I am. I remember passing him in the halls at school when I was transferred to Paramount Prep after my first set of aptitude tests. It's not only amazing how gifted and charismatic an anchor he is, but also how brave he is. "Aren't you frightened? Going out among them?"
He laughs at me, his whole face lighting up. "Frightened? Of what?" He sobers up. "They're just like you, Ellani."
I feel my jaw drop in shock. I'm not sure if I'm more moved that Zane Boyd actually knows my name or that he's bringing attention to my Natural features.
Dad reaches out and grasps Zane's shoulder. As if sensing my confusion, he says, "Considering the game's recent coverage on The Broadcast, Zane and I have been seeing a lot of each other lately. You've come up in conversation more than once."
Why? I don't factor into Nexis at all.
Zane narrows furtive eyes. "I've been looking forward to finally meeting the daughter of Cleo and Warren Drexel."
I hold out my hands. "Well, as you can see there isn't much to her."
He smirks. "I beg to differ."
Dad clears his throat. "I think I'm going to leave you two to —" but he is interrupted by a familiar voice. "Well, Warren, aren't you proud of yourself?"
I turn to see Uncle Simon, my father's brother and business partner, standing just behind me, a tall crystalline glass of champagne in one hand and the sleeve of an uncomfortable looking Bastian — his adopted son — in the other. Uncle Simon is dressed in a militaristic navy blue jacket that follows the Justaucorps design. The braided cord around his cuffs and lapels has been woven through with fiber-optic thread so that a constant waterfall of rainbows glistens at the slightest movement.
"Oh, I'm not sure they needed to make such a grand spectacle as all of this," Dad says. "They've never made such a big deal about the award before."
Uncle Simon drops Bastian's sleeve and claps my father on the shoulder. "Come now, this is no time to be bashful. Nexis is the most revolutionary game to hit Evanescence since the dawn of the Post-American Age. Bask in the glory, my brother." He tips his head back and downs his champagne.
"How many of those have you had, Simon?"
Excerpted from Nexis by A. L. Davroe, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2015 A.L. Davroe. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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