"Sk1llz to $$$ the B1llz"
by stefan gagne

From the files of Unreal Estate: Open House,
Some portions copyright other authors; see website for details.

"WAR! What is it good for? Profit, profit, say it agaaaaain...!"

The quasi-melodic voice could barely be heard over the grind of transaxels, as the four-car wagon train hauled its way across the pockmarked ground. The caravan was comprised of sturdy, industrial-grade heavy transport, tugged along by a four-wheel ATV suitable for covering the harshest and nastiest terrain known to man. Despite the heavy load it hauled, and the horrible quality of the landscape, it covered ground like a rabid cheetah on amphetamines.

"I love war, I love war... I love... uh..." he continued, trying to find some sort of rhyming structure as steered with one hand, and held up a freshly laminated map to the drop point with the other. "I love war, you love war, let's make war not love for... uh, score... no, dammit, that's not gonna work. Think JINGLE. Think mass-market appeal. Think prime time RealNet stream mandatory protected-video commercial breaks..."

Truth be told, the ATV driver looked more like a young marketing executive than a weapons dealer. He had the requisite second-hand army gear, but not the requisite first-grade army body. Scrawny and young, with a loose mop of dirty blonde hair, he looked like the sort to fill a foxhole with his own panicked bodily fluids rather than charge out screaming and unloading hot lead into the hearts of the enemy. But he carried himself with the kind of fanatical jingoism reserved for diehard patriots with bombs strapped around their chests... the exception being that his fanaticism knew no border or boundary. Hey, it was a big multiverse out there -- why restrict yourself to only blowing up certain parts of it?

He tucked the map back into his loose military camo jacket, and resumed his songwriting attempts. A few minutes later, ignoring the mortar rounds arcing through the air as two rival clans busily pummeled each other as he drove past, he found his flash of true insight.

"Alright, alright..." he said aloud, then cleared his throat, and sang true. "Police action, terrorism, inquisition? We've got what you need at Duke's Munitions! ...YEAH! That's it! That's it, right there! ...bit long, but maybe I can revise it a little... whoa!!"

The caravan skidded to a halt, wheels locking, dirt kicking up as the momentum carried it to a dramatic halt five feet away from the unmoving fellow in front of him.

(From a distance, it would've been easy to mistake the unperturbed one as a lanky, unimpressive specimen of his species. True, he had some pretty stylish gray threads, very in-mode with the fashions of this Reality -- and the little white streak in his raven-black hair was a nifty touch. But he was tall and wiry, skinny, only handsome in generous terms, right? And in actuality, he preferred to look unimpressive. That way when you were busy unleashing eighty four styles of pain on someone using a variety of exotic and shiny weapons, they'd be less likely to notice before it's too late.)

"...you're late," the second merchant noted, tapping his wristwatch. "You're lucky your clients are late too, or you'd drop a few reputation points, Duke. Honestly, I don't know why I agreed to this..."

"Come on, QwikSlvr! You know why you're here," Duke said, hopping off the ATV, and approaching his friend. "The thrill of the action! The taste of impending victory! The ever-climbing indicator on your Scorecard! You got the goods, yeah? I don't see a caravan here..."

Qwik tapped a suitcase next to himself with his foot. "Here's my caravan. One lousy suitcase of blades... bleh. They wanted the least exotic things I had in stock... a few swords, some throwing knives, things like that. I swear, nobody on Tribal Alpha besides the Steel Blades respects the 0ldsk00l weapon arts... it's all railgun, railgun, railgun, sniper, sniper, rocket launcher, buncha little c4mp1ng b17ch35..."

"Sheesh, will you cheer up? A sale is a sale!" his partner said, uncoupling the caravan, getting it ready for a change of ownership. "We don't exactly live in warlike times, you know? Ever since... what were those two groups called, the ones with the thing about the guy in the place that hated each other's guts?"

"The Shining Hand of God and the Ultimate Expression of Self Society. You should know, you sold to both of them."

"Right. Ever since the Shining Ultimate Whatevers nuked the hell out of each other and crashed their engines and fell into NullSpace, there just isn't much call for weapons of mass destruction, you know?" Duke complained mildly. "I can't GIVE my napalm away at this rate! Believe me, I've tried. And you, look at you -- exotic weaponry? Nobody knows how to use exotic weaponry. I'm not dissing the goods, mind you, you do great work, but you've gotta be feeling just as useless as I have lately. So. Any sale is a GOOD SALE, alright? Quit yer whinin' and enjoy a victory over the menace of poverty!"

Qwik's hackles rose slightly. "I am not going poor, okay? I do good business with collectors. Okay, most folks who buy my work are just looking for conversation pieces, but so what? The work itself is why I do it. Leveling up my crafting skills, natch. But that means I prefer to sell to folks who will at least appreciate the gear for what it is... unlike these l4m3rs you've got me selling to today."

"Ah, but these l4m3rs are at least capable of paying top dollar," Duke noted, glancing to his ATV's dashboard as a little red light started going blinky-blinky. "And watch the 'leet' insults, partner, they're about to arrive..."

Most vehicles in Tribal Alpha were functional, at best. They got troops from A to B safely, and occasionally lugged around heavier weaponry than a single man could carry. Maybe you'd paint flames down the side or a cool death's head onto the hood, but style was secondary to getting the job done, and paint jobs would wear down after repeated repair work to keep the thing rolling straight.

What came over the nearest hill, on the other hand, could be considered the luxury family vacation vehicle of military transport. Shiny and new, with tinted bulletproof windows, exquisite lines sculpted by top designers, full air conditioning, full RealNet audio streaming support with eight way sound and subwoofer, and a rear-mounted rocket launcher capable of taking down air targets from five miles away with laser-guided precision homing rockets. ...Qwik had to silently admit that it at least looked good -- Duke was too busy salivating over the destructive potential of it to notice things like the diamond encrusted Point-sign shaped hood ornament.

The classy cruiser stopped a hundred yards away, and flashed its headlights. A heavily copyrighted corporate jingle beeped out briefly on its horn.

"Aaaand that's our cue," he said. "Leave the suitcase and let's meet 'em halfway. You don't have any weapons on you, right? Right. They're gonna scan us and vice versa for that. After we swap the points, we go our separate ways. You need a lift back on my ATV back to the public docks? I don't see your vehicle here..."

"I stalked," Qwik noted, walking calmly alongside Duke.


"Stalked. It's a Tribal Alpha thing. You can take the g4m3r out of the l33t, but you can't take the l33t out of the g4m3r, you know..."

Since this was the first time he'd seen the clients in person, Qwik sized them up quickly. They wore tasteful uniforms, quasi-military, quasi-fashion-runway. Likely designed by some top fashion moguls just for their little jaunt into Tribal Alpha... spotless and perfect, with no rips or bloodstains or bullet holes from extended use. Matching chrome sunglasses, all around.

The ringleader was Chad Hunter, son of a RealWare Vice President. He had arranged the deal with Duke, he was the mover and the shaker, destined for great things in the RealWare corporate hierarchy one day. Of course, RealWare had about fifty vice presidents, and his daddy dear wasn't that high up on the ladder... but any leg-up you can get in this world is an advantage someone else probably doesn't have, Qwik reasoned.

His right hand man was Mitch Krappel, whose name spoke enough of his background... the Krappel family owned the Krap Foods empire, and this boy would one day get his hands on the most lucrative mass-produced consumer "food" item business in history. Briefly Qwik wondered if Mitch was walking in a cockier manner than Chad was, or if Chad was the cockier one, but decided in the end that the both of them were actively trying to one-up each other's cockiness with no clear victor in sight.

The final member of the trio was the one Qwik had dealt with personally. For someone who claimed to be a martial arts expert, she didn't look like one -- but neither did Qwik, so that wasn't any real indicator. Muffy Cox, daughter of Alan Cox, director of Love & Hate... every inch the pampered beauty queen, from flawlessly manicured nails to flawlessly styled blonde hair. If she had muscles to back it up, she was hiding them behind the hottest fashions of Nocturne at the moment. The suitcase was for her.

Duke's grin jacked up eight inches at the sight of the blinged-out trinity of rich kid cool.

"Hey, hey! Chad, Mitch, Muffy, good to see you in person!" he declared, stepping forward and shaking hands firmly with the leader. "Looking forward to the continuing success of Duke's Munitions and the future champions of Tribal Alpha, the Liquid Asshats!"

"Liquid ASSETS," Chad corrected, through a forced smile. "I take it our weapons are in that caravan..?"

"Scan it all you like, it's all there," Duke said, stepping back and rejoining his partner. "Muffy, your blades are in Qwik's suitcase next to the caravan. Top of the line, highest quality merch. You guys picked the right pair for your onslaught needs!"

Mitch held up a small device, waving it towards the Caravan... nodding to Chad in confirmation. Qwik did the same thing, using a smaller custom device from the black market of Antiparadisia to make sure their clients were unarmed aside from their scorecards. Everything looked green, so to speak.

"I have to say, Mr. Duke, I'm glad you were able to provide everything on our list," Chad said, perking up after the minor naming fumble earlier. "This is the last item on our shopping list. Starting tomorrow, the Liquid Assets are going to begin running this little reality! It's the stepping stone we need to get a leg up proactively on our competition. Who needs to camp out at spawn points and forage for supplies when they can just import them, after all?"

"Most tribes can't afford a few tons of outside weaponry," QwikSlvr noted dryly.

"Yes, well, we're not most tribes. We're better than them, and we're going to prove it," Chad noted. "Gentlemen, thank you for your help in this matter, and we won't be needing you any more."

"Right! Well, let's settle the bill and you guys can get on with your slaughtering," Duke said, rubbing his hands together in glee. "I believe the price we agreed upon was--"


"There are zeroes involved, yes, quite a few, but--"

"Zero," Chad repeated, snapping his fingers, and dropping the world out from underneath both arms merchants.


Someone was slapping his cheeks.

Correction: QwikSlvr was slapping his cheeks.

Correction: QwikSlvr was lightly battering him with his fists.

"Wake up so I can KILL you!" he seethed, throttling Duke lovingly as he shook him by his camo collar. "This is your fault, dammit! I should have known better. I should have KNOWN...!"

"...hey, be cool, be cool now..." Duke said, trying to get his eyes to focus. "Why's it so dark? What happ-- wait. ...those PUNKS! Where are they? I'll tear them a new--"

"They're long gone, Duke! We're in an oubliette," Qwik said, letting Duke fall back to the earthy ground. "It's an old Tribal Alpha trick, the kind employed by the lowest of griefers -- you find some way to trap a person you hate where they won't be found... say, via a carefully disguised pit trap in the ground... then seal them in for good. I can't believe I fell for it..."

Duke got to his feet, shaking a fist of absolute rage. "In other words, they stiffed me! They stiffed DUKE! Nobody stiffs Duke, nobody! The minute I get out of here--"

"Not without a shovel, you aren't--"

"--I'm gonna stuff a grenade so far up that asshat's sphincter that it comes out his mouth and lands at his feet and blows his legs off!" he finished. "Come on, Qwik! We're gonna get us some good old fashioned over the top revenge!"

"And how do you propose we do that?" Qwik asked. "We've got no way to dig our way out of here; they must've been constructing this trap since the day they contacted you."

Duke considered his options, of which he had enough that they could be counted on no hands. "Alright. Okay. Right. ...wait, I don't get it, how's it possible for an oubliette to work? This is Tribal Alpha -- nobody really dies here, right? I mean, we could starve to death, but then we'd just respawn at the visitor docks!"

Qwik smacked his forehead in disgust. "You don't respawn when you starve out, Duke! Blade strikes, extreme blunt force trauma, explosions, fire... all these things activate the warp bubbles to block damage and send you to your spawn point. Croaking from perfectly natural causes does nothing! Normally I'd just IM my clan if I got stuck in one of these blasted things, get them to dig me out, but we don't HAVE a clan, do we? Nor any means to contact anybody... these asshats of yours play dirty, Duke. Griefer dirty. In my day, true clans didn't resort to this kind of 5h1t; I should've expected it from those honorless b1tch35..."

"So not only did they stiff me on the bill, but they're trying to kill me? Oh, I am SO gonna take a grenade and--"

"Yes, you said. So. The question is, now what?" Qwik asked. "We don't have communicators, we don't have weapons. ...we DON'T have weapons, right?"



"My footwear. They act like explosive devices," Duke stated, pointing down to his feet. "But ones that wouldn't show on their scanners. See, if I clack my heels together three times, it mixes two different chemicals into the soles that turn volatile when combined. All I have to do after that is light my shoes on fire. Boom. But I don't have a lighter on me today..."

A tiny flame lit up the small earthen chamber.

"A good g4m3r always has the basics," Qwik explained. "For some reason, it's always handy to have a length of rope, a lockpick, a towel, and a cigarette lighter. You can get out of nearly any situation using only these items in clever combinations... I've got my towel folded inside the lining of my shirt, the rope's inlaid behind my belt, lockpick's in my hair and the lighter was in my pocket."

"Handy!" Duke agreed, kneeling down to unlace his boots. "So, uh... why didn't you suggest strangling me with the rope or lighting me on fire?"

"I was going to do that for fun after I finished explaining how unhappy I am with the situation," he noted. "It'd hurt like hell even if it worked to respawn us, though. A good old fashioned explosion is preferable. Now click your heels three times and say 'There's no place like Arboria...'"


Somewhere in the distance, a muffled explosion was followed by a sharp cave-in was followed by the familiar 'zoop' sound of a warp bubble activating.

The same 'zoop' echoed through the sparsely loaded visitor's docks, as a non-blown-up Duke and QwikSlvr respawned. Other than Duke's toes feeling a draft through the holes in his socks, the pair was no worse for wear.

"...there. Safe. Count yourself lucky that we got out of that alive," QwikSlvr said, turning to the nearby RealNet workstation. "I'm calling us a taxi. I'd say that I've had it up to here with this mess, but I'm physically unable to raise my hand high enough to demonstrate my annoyance...

"Right! So, let's-- Wait, what? You're leaving..?"

"What else can we do? They have the goods. We can't steal them back without meeting the business end of some very expensive weaponry and getting knocked back to the spawn point. Visitors with our kind of weekend pass get five spawns -- now four -- before facing the final frag! I don't intend to die just to make back a few points. Even if we did get to them, what good would it do? We can't KILL them! Chalk it up to bad luck and move on, Duke. It's just how Tribal Alpha works in this day and age, it's half the reason I left... forget your money, forget revenge. It's over."

"Over... did you say 'over'?" Duke asked, anger rising slowly. "NOTHING is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the... the Aquarians bombed Arboria? Hell no!"

"Aquarians?" Qwik didn't ask. Forget it, he's rolling, he thought.

"And it ain't over now! Because when the going gets tough... the tough get going! Are you with me? Let's go!"

"Duke, come on--"

"Don't 'Duke, come on--' me! This is a matter of principle," he stated, standing proudly in front of a nonexistent flag while making a patriotic speech of some sort. "We can't let them walk all over us like this. I don't care how rich they are, they have to pay their bills like everyone else! You can't even say it's a matter of the unsavory business we're in. Okay, we're not in the multiverse's most ethical industry. We sell things that kill people. But a business is a business, and as merchants of any sort we have to uphold our end of the social contract! And that means when someone breaks that contract, staining our honor, we have to respond to balance the scales!"

"And you want your money," Qwik noted dryly.

"And I want my money," Duke agreed wholeheartedly. "AND I want my money. But I'm serious here, Qwik, this isn't just ordinary greed. ...look. I didn't tell you this, because frankly, it's humiliating... but... two weeks ago, I had this client. Some psycho chick walks into my place, wants one of my rarest and most illegally deadly items. A fifty pound case of trilithium explosive. Good sale, right? And I was so eager to make that good sale that I got easily clocked and run roughshod over, the bitch swiping it and leaving without paying. She trashed my security systems and my RealNet link on the way out the door, as if that wasn't enough..."

"She trashed YOUR security?" Qwik asked, only half-believing. "You're even more paranoid than I aim, and I'm the one with the motion tracking antiaircraft guns pointed at anybody who walks in the door..."

"When someone walks out on their bill and kicks me in the teeth, Qwik, they're not just dissing me. They're dissing you," Duke said, from the heart this time. "They're dissing you and everybody else who's trying to make an honest living. And if you just walk away from this, it's like you're saying you don't mind when someone mugs you and leaves you for dead! We have to do something -- it's a moral imperative! It's--"



"Okay, we'll do something," Qwik said, with a sigh. "As much as I loathe to stay one more minute in Tribal Alpha, you're right. As annoyed as I may be, it's better to stand and fight than grumble and wander away. But Duke, you're not seeing what I'm saying... not hearing what I'm saying, like. What exactly can we do about it? All the usual consequences for wronging someone are missing in action here..."

"We hit them where it hurts, then! Their pride. Why would a bunch of spoiled brats go to Tribal Alpha, anyway? Why spend so much money -- err, propose to spend so much money, at least -- on weapons? Chad said they were better than the other tribes, and they were going to prove it..."

"That's easy. Rankings," Qwik identified... turning to the neglected RealNet Workstation, and calling up the current leader boards for Tribal Alpha. "With heavy gear like that and minimal training they can stomp most of the lesser tribes with ease. Straight up the ladder of... ...well, well... Duke, do you know what day it is?"


"It's the thirty first of the month," the former tribal warrior said, with his first smile of the day. "I think I know how we can hurt more than their pride. But as l33t as we may be, we can't do it alone... hrm. I'd call in a friend of mine who's living in Nippon now, but she left Tribal Alpha years ago and didn't seem keen on coming back..."

"Lucky for you then that a friend of mine owes me a favor, and has no problems with Tribal Alpha's irony," Duke said, with a huge smile. "Lock and load, Qwik. It's time to kick asshat and chew bubblegum, and I'm all out of--"

"Here," Qwik said, offering him a stick of Krap Foods YummyChew™.

"...it's a figure of speech."

"I know. But your breath isn't, and after all the hot air you were blowing with those speeches, I think you owe me this small courtesy before the asskicking commences. So, who's your friend?"

Duke popped the stick of fructose enhanced delight into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully, as he pulled up the RealNet Messenger. "Mm. Friends, actually..."


They were kings (and queen) of Tribal Alpha. (Not that Tribal Alpha was aware of this yet.) They were poised for utter dominance, and it hadn't cost them a single point.

Free was Chad's modus operandi. The vehicles they drove? Free, corporate sponsorships from various partner companies they were related to. Their current headquarters? Free as well, by virtue of blackmailing the former owners with expertly falsified evidence that they were cheating the Tribal Alpha ServOps... impossible, granted, but it'd be enough to get the other clans to hunt them down in tandem. Any excuse for an extermination was good enough on Tribal Alpha. The former owners vacated rather than face that.

The best freebie by far, however, was today's haul. Crates of weaponry, emptied out and stacked up in the open courtyard at the center of their small fort. Machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, automated heavy turrets, sniper rifles, plasma cannons, and even napalm canisters (which for some reason were thrown in for free anyway). It was the kind of destructive power that easily rivaled the defense forces of most realities.

Chad sat on a box of ammunition, eyeballing the stacks, making a mental tally to see if Duke had cheated them out of what they had rightfully stolen. So far, everything was in order.

"Check this out, check this out!" Mitch called out, hefting a machine gun that equated a third of his body mass. "I'm gonna go out back and practice firing this thing off. It's probably got a hell of a kick, but it'll be worth it! This is WAY better than the stupid gun club my pop belongs to..."

"Don't waste ammo," Chad said. "We're saving this stuff for the other 'clan members' we're going to hire to do most of our scoring for us. I've already researched a couple likely ones who would defect from their home teams, given the right encouragement..."

Muffy was likewise posing with deadly implements, in her face, a double ended force sword. She whirled it around in an arc, blue trails glowing through the air -- then embedded the blade three inches in the floor. "Hoahh!" she shouted, like she'd seen in chop socky RealNet streams. "This thing is awesome! Like, I hope our gun fodder doesn't do ALL the killing... I wanna get out there and chop some folks up. I haven't been practicing for weeks for nothing, Chad! I wanna be leet!"

"L33t," Chad corrected.

"What's the difference?"

"I don't know, that's just how you're supposed to say it. ...and... looks like it's all here," he said, finishing his eyeball tally. "Everything I ordered. Okay, we install our newly purchased shield bubble for the fort, turn it on, and bed down for the night. Tomorrow we'll start contacting the soon-to-be new members of Liquid Assets and--"

"Uh, Chad... company," Mitch said, pointing with a thumb down a nearby hallway. "Get armed. It's our old friend."


Footsteps echoed through the mostly-empty fortress, as the visitor approached. Slow and even, quite calm, and sounding nothing like an incoming attack wave hell bent on taking the fort by storm. Which was a good thing, since none of the automated defenses had been installed yet...

In fact, the visitor was totally unarmed. Aside from a smile so bright and cheerful it could blind a man and give him cavities within minutes.

"So, these are your new digs, huh?" Duke asked, glancing around. "Nice place. And I see you've unpacked the goods -- that's some fine quality merchandise you've got there, I stand by my recommendations..."

Chad frowned, snatching up a nearby rifle. "I'll bite... how'd you get out of that pit?" he asked, keeping his weapon down for now; Mitch already had a bead drawn on him, ready to blow Duke away at the slightest sign of trouble...

"That's not really important right now," Duke said. "Except that I don't hold it against you, you know, trying to kill me. Hey, I deal in weaponry, that's par for course, yeah? ...but one thing I can't accept is lack of prompt payment. So, boys and girl, I'm giving you this fine opportunity to pay up for the gear. Transfer me the points we agreed on and all is forgiven and we go our separate ways. Good?"

"Good? Why should we bother paying you?" Chad asked. "We're on Tribal Alpha. What can you do to us, shoot us? Our spawn point's right inside this fortress. It wouldn't matter. Are you gonna sue us? My father's lawyers can have you so tangled up in inter-reality legal issues that you'll be old and gray before you see a cent -- not to mention that Tribal Alpha's an anarchy anyway and you'd be hard pressed to find a court official period, much less one who would care--"

"Yeah, yeah, miasma of mayhem the likes of which you'd see on Important Courtroom Drama," Duke said, having expected that answer. "But at least explain one thing. Why aren't you paying me? You're richer than sin. It's not like the piddly fees -- compared to other, lesser arms dealers, of course -- are out of your reach..."

Chad smirked, hefting his rifle to his shoulder. "Because we shouldn't have to," he says. "We're rich, yeah. But we're powerful. And that means we can do what we like. We want to take over Tribal Alpha? So we take over Tribal Alpha, and without having to blow a wad in the process. It's guys like you scraping a living off the bottom of society's barrel who need to worry about money. We're not you. And we don't have to give you squat if we don't feel like it. Mitch? Blow this guy away. And if he comes back three more times, shoot him three more times until he decides it's not worth REALLY dying for."

With a manic grin, thrilled at the prospect of unloading at a live target instead of a little paper silhouette, Mitch yanked back the load lever on his machine gun. "Right, Chad. One holy arms dealer comin' up..."

"I won't come back three more times," Duke quickly warned. "I'll be waiting at the public dock spawn point for you to beg me to take your money, Chad. And believe me, by the end of the day, you'll b--"

Fake blood and nasty looking fake flesh splatter appeared in the space Duke previously occupied, as the barrage of heavy rounds activated his warp bubble's "insta-gib" function.

When the smoke and echo of the onslaught cleared from the courtyard, Muffy's giggle could be heard. "That guy's funny, Chad! How long do you think he'll be waiting there? Maybe I should go have more fun with him!"

"This isn't fun, it's annoying," Chad decided, fetching a bandolier of appropriate ammo. "Guys, I'm going to the public dock to clean his clock a few times until he decides to leave. You two guard the fort until I'm back. Mitch, lock down all the entrances but the front one, and patrol it -- Muffy, stay by the stash in case anybody gets by Mitch. I don't know what this idiot's planning but we're not going to lose our advantage."

"What could he possibly do, though?" Mitch asked. "You said yourself he didn't have the connections to raise an army against us. And he couldn't exactly sneak in and steal the stuff back without a carrier and an hour to load it back up..."

"Whatever he's got planned, it won't matter once I finish fragging his ass three more times," Chad said. "Enough screwing around. Nobody's gonna stand up to the best arsenal money didn't buy."


Testosterone pumped through Chad's veins so hard that if you cut him, he'd probably bleed semen.

The thing about being a dominant warrior on Tribal Alpha was that it earned you respect as a man. It proved that you could kill (even if you weren't) and you could fight (even if it was mostly faked) and you could win. You could achieve, excel, prosper, and achieve synergy in the bloodiest way possible. Every motivational holo-poser dotting the walls of RealWare's corporate campus screamed out for success -- tiny figures made of light climbed mountains, sailed the seas, dove from the skies, and proved their worth for all to see.

That's why he was here, that's why he took up Mitch's offhand suggestion that they go kick some butt on Tribal Alpha for the weekend so seriously. He took that dare and jacked it up to the next level. Here, he'd fight tooth and nail (or rather, pay others to fight tooth and nail while he only fought tooth) for the respect he deserved -- and wasn't getting from his father's corporate peers.

That drive to crush, to achieve, to kill, to SUCCEED filled his very being as he charged across hillsides in the Liquid Asset's armored luxury transport, rifle (which he decided to name Betty) on the passenger seat. He'd lay waste to this stupid merchant a few times, prove he was the superior lifeform, and roll back to base for brewskis with the gang. And he'd enjoy it tremendously, which mattered just as much as the end result did.

He pulled a sweet powerslide into the visitor's docks, which were largely abandoned as night had set in over Tribal Alpha. And there was the little idiot, Duke, just standing there alone waiting for him. Easy pickings.

Chad jumped out of the vehicle while it was still in motion, Betty swinging up to the ready position, a white hot being of manly two fisted cool--

--and collapsed to the ground, vision blurring as Duke's tazer sent a few unhappy volts through his body.

Next thing he knew, he was handcuffed to the grill of his own vehicle, and Duke was grinning that same obnoxious smile he were when he strolled right into Liquid Asset territory.

"I'm glad you came," he said. "I know it's a bit early in the fun to be asking this again, but are you ready to pay me my money yet?"

"...geb bent," Chad slurred, senses coming back to him slowly.

"Yeah, had a feeling. Okay, let's get to the heart of the matter," Duke said, holding up a small data pad. "What you see here is the Ladder of Triumph, the sole source of bragging rights on Tribal Alpha. You know all about the ladder, right? You did your research... and look, here's your score. Looks like you scored a point when your buddy shot me. That'll help prolong the inevitable--"

"For crying out loud, get on with it! What are you ranting about, you peon!?"

"Today's the end of the month," Duke explained. "And at midnight on the last day of the month, the tribe at the bottom of the Ladder of Triumph is marked for the Final Frag. They're essentially shown the door, since nobody wants to stick around after being told their next kill is for good. And tonight, the Liquid Assets, which haven't gotten very many points yet, are going to the bottom. Unless, of course, you pay me what I have coming to me. Not a point more or less."

And the boy handcuffed to his car laughed out loud. Not the response Duke was expecting, admittedly, as he crouched there holding out the datapad for public observation.

"Read your own numbers, Duke," Chad suggested. "We're far from the bottom of the ladder, even as a new clan. There are idiots out there with NEGATIVE scores! So what, you and that knife guy are gonna kill us a bunch of times? You've only got an hour before midnight! How can you two do all that when you've only got a couple lives to spend? You're underestimating us, and that's a classic business mistake. Mitch is a sharpshooter, and Muffy's proven to be no slouch when it comes to martial arts. You wanna try? Go ahead and try. Shoot me now, if you want. I'll respawn at home and load up and come back for more!"

...Duke's smile slid back into place, as the brat expressed his open defiance.

"I'd love to do just that, but instead I'm going to keep you immobilized here. And my associates will be more than enough for your buddies. We're going to sit here and watch the number drop -- and you can stop it at any time by paying me."

"Considering that's a pipe dream, fine, I'll sit here and watch," Chad said. "We'll see who has the last laugh. ...associates? Did you hire an army or something? Since when were you that connected of a guy on Tribal Alpha?"

"No, just one friend," Duke counted on a single finger. "QwikSlvr and an... associate of mine. An outsider."

"Two on two? Fair fights are for idiots, Duke."

"Yeah, I know; I'm a guy who believes in peace through superior firepower, remember? That's why I've made sure through my choice of friends that this is nowhere near a fair fight..."


Mitch Krappel had won awards for his marksmanship. He could hit a pheasant in mid-flight from a hundred yards. Of course, he typically used the kind of high powered weaponry that would ensure no pheasant under glass afterwards, unless you didn't mind little bits of flesh and feathers for dinner. Which was on the same nutritional plateau as the rest of Krap Foods, truthfully, but...

His mind also wasn't very good at metaphors. He dealt with what was in front of him and little else. So babysitting the main entrance of the fort was uncannily boring -- nobody knew they were there yet, they'd kept a low enough profile not to draw aggro from the other clans. Who was gonna attack now? Duke? QwikSlvr? Were they somehow going to train a few dozen mobs to the Liquid Assets front door? Unlikely.

So really, this was paranoia at best, Chad deciding to play it safe. Play it safe and boring. The guy was taking this whole suggestion Mitch made way too seriously, months of prep, all the scheming. Mitch would've been happy taking a week's vacation here and shoot a few guys. In fact, right now, he'd rather be inside loading his new guns, stroking them, and--

He blacked out briefly, then came to at the Liquid Assets spawn point just inside the front gates.

"...the hell?" he said aloud, not quite sure what happened -- until he glanced at a nearby monitor. The obituary / scoring indicator was flashing [LIQUID ASSETS member MITCH KRAPPEL was SNIPED by GUEST COMPETITOR.]

So Duke was sniping? No big deal. Mitch was ready for that. So, he charged out the gates, taking a sweet defensive roll to get behind one of the many armored cover plates near the entrance, and--

--respawned back where he started. [SNIPED,] the reader cheerfully indicated. Which was impossible, because those plates were angled away from the fortress, they should have kept him out of any line of sight!

In a huff, Mitch jogged inside the inner wall, heading to a side exit. Sure, Chad wanted them all sealed, but he could seal it behind himself... this would give him the edge on that sniper. He ducked out the side exit, closing it behind him, and scanned the treelines. He could follow the shadows on this side of the fort towards the forest, and then--

--[SNIPED,] the monitor flashed again, as he found himself right back where he started.

"DAMMIT!" he exclaimed to nobody in particular. Now it was personal. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths, then called up a map of the fortress and the surrounding area. Wherever Duke was camped out, he had to have line of sight to all three places where Mitch was fragged... he couldn't have relocated fast enough to make the third shot from a new spot. Nobody was that fast. Nobody was that quiet...

There. One place behind the underbrush on the west side. And a perfect path to sneak up to it, if he left through the back gate. He slung his rifle, and started the long jog around the compound... down empty corridors that would one day be filled with happy (or at least not unhappy enough to leave) recruits for the Liquid Assets. Or at least, would be once he dealt with this idiot. Three frags, that had to be all Duke had left -- or even if it was a newcomer, he could get them five times. He knew he could. His trophies said he could.

Mitch moved as silent as the night around him, slipping around the fort and into the treeline. Towards the position of the sniper. Even in the dim lighting, he could see a form lying prone there, with a rifle... this would be easy.

But to be on the safe side, rather than sneak all the way up and break the idiot's neck, he'd just rake the entire area with heavy machine gun fire. Which he did. Hot lead tore up the ground, tore up the sniper, left nothing but...

...rags and straw, and a stick which had LOOKED like a rifle from this angle. A decoy.

Right before he blacked out, he could've sworn he saw the glint off a sniper's scope, and the outline of a cape in the trees above him...



"Ichi, ni, san, shi!" Muffy chanted, going through a kata with her newly acquired swords. One in each hand, akimbo style. One, two, three, four. They whirled over her head in a silvery arc, patterned motions she'd learned from countless expensive self-training martial arts video streams. One, two, three, four. She knew multiple styles, with multiple weapons, and could take on multiple foes at once -- the guys she hired to practice with her were no match, and she had no problems cutting them down like weeds. One, two, three, four. ...not that she killed them, of course, but fortunately a clause in their contracts meant they couldn't file a complaint against Drome's video networks for bruises and compound fractures...

She stepped through the motions one more time, ready to call it quits for the night. Nobody was showing up, and there wasn't any need to guard the weapon cache.

"Ichi, ni, san--"

Her own sword skipped over four, and went straight to parrying the incoming attack.

"Okay, so you've had some training," QwikSlvr said calmly, locking his double-ended saber up with her twin swords, crossed over her head and kicking up sparks from his energy weapon's interference. "I'll give you that. What're you doing slumming with those idiots, Muffy? If you were serious about this, you could join any tribe you want as a low level n00b--"

She twisted her blades to the side, spinning away from her enemy and assuming a defensive stance. "I'm not a TRAINEE! Gawd!" she spat back, with all the pouty venom a daddy's girl was capable of. "I studied my butt off so I didn't have to enter at the bottom of the ladder. That's only for losers!"

"You don't know how close to the truth you are..." Qwik warned... but lowered his double-saber, standing completely open to attack. "But take it from a former ranked grand master, you're just a n00b. That's not a bad thing, Muffy, it's an honest starting point. So, I'll give you a choice -- do you want to learn the true ways of Tribal Alpha, and achieve true 0wnage -- or just hang out with a bunch of twinks like you are now?"

He spun his blade up to position, blocking her incoming strike single-handedly.

"It was worth a try," he noted, before flicking his wrist and neatly beheading her.

Gibs splattered to the ground as she was teleported out. He assumed his come-on-and-attack-me open poise, and waited.

When Muffy ran in next, rage was in her eyes and her throat, unloading a battle cry that would've made a D3THL0RD impressed. It didn't impress QwikSlvr, who effortlessly twirled aside and stabbed her through the midsection.

Three more kills went by like this before Muffy slowed down, stalking around the courtyard, trying to find an opening in what only looked like a completely open position. She was improving, at least -- giving up on berserker rage and trying to be tactical about it. Qwik studied her motions, taking note of them not just so he could pwn her again and again, but so he could study her progress...

By the sixth time he fragged her, she had already learned to parry his first counterattack. But fragged she was. And this time, she didn't come back.

"Camping..?" he wondered aloud. "Alright. I can play Oh just as well as I play Dee..."

Crouching down, he broke out into a sprint, down the corridors of the fortress.

It was uncanny... he hated coming back to Tribal Alpha, frankly. He had left for very good reasons. But anybody born and raised here is powerless against the call of the l33t... it sings to you. And when you sing back, it's like everything's right again.

He was hoping she felt the same way. It'd be a shame to waste such potential. Maybe a few dozen frags would teach her the humility she needed...


Thirty seven frags. THIRTY. SEVEN.

It wasn't possible. Every time Mitch thought he'd tracked down Duke's position (assuming it was Duke) his enemy would snipe from some ridiculous new location that no normal human could possibly have reached in time. He'd even tried counter-sniping, taking up his own position through the narrow arrow-slits in the fortress, and took an impossibly well aimed bullet every time he showed the whites of his eyes.

Defending the fort wasn't a high priority right now. Revenge came first and foremost. Even one frag, one lousy frag would make the whole thing worthwhile. Just to say "HA! You didn't totally own me!". Or was it 0wn? Zerown? Something like that. He couldn't give a rat's ass about the lingo, he just wanted to prove his aim...

This position, this one was perfect. He'd managed to find an access tunnel up to the top of the fortress that even Chad didn't know about, right up to a half-walled rooftop area. He'd also grabbed a night scope from the armory (which for some reason Muffy had abandoned), guaranteeing him victory.

He strapped on the goggles, and fired them up. A perfect view of the trees, with heat signatures highlighted... one in particular. Right where the sniper was, a human form, lying in wait for where Mitch was actually thinking of going if he hadn't found the roof first.

Mitch moved without sound, creeping up to the edge of the roof, and setting up a sniper rifle he'd replaced his heavy machine gun with long ago. He slid back the bolt as quietly as possible, and lined up his shot... a sitting duck. A sitting pheasant.


And the sniper fell out of the tree, dead. Mitch was about to celebrate when he realized the body wasn't teleporting away to respawn somewhere else.

He slid the goggles off, and peered across the way... to another decoy. This one apparently with a radiator installed just in case some idiot decided to use heat scopes.

The cold muzzle of a rifle pressed against the back of his head.

"Leaves fall in autumn," a woman behind him spoke. "This is natural and in keeping with how things must be."



Muffy's left-hand sword spun through the air in tight circles... landing sixteen feet away, point-first into the floor.

Desperately, she switched her main blade to a two-handed stance. Absolute hatred poured from her eyes as she glared down her opponent... her opponent. The smug bastard. Just standing there, calmly chasing her down through the fortress, taking her out in one, two, only rarely three attacks. No matter where she ran, he'd find her. No matter how hard she tried to fight back, to find a weakness, he got her before she could get her opportunity to get him...

"How many times do I have to 0wn you?" Qwik asked, facing her down for the countless'th time, with a smile -- he was enjoying himself. Not out of sadism, but out of the pure thrill of the hunt. "When are you going to understand, Muffy..?"

"Shut up and fight!" she screamed, launching at him -- and finding herself back at the spawn point.

In frustration, she took out her anger on a nearby decorative statue of some fallen warrior of Tribal Alpha's past. Which proved sturdy enough to chip her already well worn blade.

It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair! She was rich, she was powerful! She had access to the best weapons and the best training. She'd prepared for months! She dropped pounds and worked out and got ready for this little adventure and now this guy, this... this RETIRED loser from Tribal Alpha was... he was..!

"Not chasing after me?" Qwik asked, after dropping down from the rafters behind her. "Am I chasing you again this time? I thought you were getting some of your fire back--"

"What do you WANT?!" she screamed at him. "Why are you fighting me? Is it the stupid bill? Chad's the one who decided to screw you guys over, not me! Go stab him fifty zillion times!"

"You know what I want."

"No, I don't! I really, really don't! I... I'm..!"


Her nearly useless sword dropped to the floor, clattering.

"...I'm a n00b," she said, at last. "A low level n00b. Are you happy now?"

"I'm only happy if you understand why I'm happy."

"What sort of nonsense is that?!"

"I'm happy because now your REAL fight begins," he said. "Once you get over yourself and start thinking Tribal Alpha 0ldsk00l style, then you can make some progress. You can level up. You can learn that there's more to the game than just what you think you are. You've got a real grind ahead of you, but if you're serious... if it's not just a laugh and a lark, a rich kid looking for fun... I think you can do it. What do you think..?"

"I... I don't need this," Muffy said, getting defensive. "I've got money. I've got a mansion! Servants, and any kind of food I want to eat, and any pay-per-stream I could ever want to watch, and... it was just a joke, a bet between Mitch and Chad..."

"How much did you weigh before they made that bet, Muffy?"


"You've got good conditioning for someone who claims she's only doing this on a whim. I'm willing to bet that you took this more seriously than either of those two d1cks did -- otherwise, why not just use a gun? They're easier to learn. Instead you're here fighting with two swords, which is never as easy as it looks on RealNet, and you're holding your own better than most n00bs would--"

"What are you talking about?! I can't get a single attack to stick to you!"

"And I've only fragged you a dozen times so far. I'd call that a good rate, considering my former standing in this occasionally obnoxious game," Qwik said... with a gentler smile. "So. Are you or are you not serious about this? Do you feel the call of the l33t..? Some part of you is enjoying our fight, isn't it..?"

Muffy squirmed, feeling like she was forced to perform complicated math at the blackboard in front of class.

"...yeah," she admitted.

"Good. Pick up your weapons, now."

"Why? What's the point?" she asked. "I can't beat you."

"No, but you can learn from losing. And I promised Duke I'd keep fragging until midnight, so I've gotta keep fragging. I'm a man of my word. But I won't attack an unarmed warrior; I'm no lowly cherry picking PKer. Ready?"


"Ahh, there it goes again," Duke said, tapping the data pad screen. "Looks like Muffy's getting 0wned again. Dunno what the pause was, but as you can clearly see, the Liquid Assets are dropping rung by rung..."

Chad turned pale, watching the name of his beloved whim plunging down the Ladder of Triumph. For all the frags Muffy was suffering, Mitch was suffering twofold... and they had dropped well into the negative numbers already. Slot by slot, below the 'J.O.B. Squad', below the 'Default Tribe Name', below the 'Elitecrew Dominator Gods'...

"And look, it's three minutes to midnight!" Duke noted. "At the rate you're plunging, you'll be declared this month's Final Frag! How's that for your poster boy image, Chad? A sparkling debut at the bottom of society's barrel, with all us schmucks who need to worry about money--"

"You miserable little piece of--"

"I know. That's what keeps me in business. So. The bill. Are we settling, or not..?"

Chad quaked with anger, as the numbers sank and sank, so dangerously close to the most disgraceful defeat they could suffer in this place...

"...my scorecard's in my left pocket," Chad said, hating every single phoneme he was forced to utter. "And if you take even one point more than we agreed on, I'll sue you so hard your ancestors have to file for Chapter 11."

"All I ever wanted was what I had coming to me, no more, no less," Duke said, slipping the boy's expensive looking platinum scorecard out with one hand, tapping a button on his data pad with the other. After completing the transaction between his own card and Chad's, the handcuffs were off in a flash. "All done. Consider the dogs of war called off. Hop in your fancy wheels and roll on home, boy. ...where did you get that thing, anyway? I want to add one to my vehicle bay--"

With an angry snarl, Chad snatched his scorecard away, and marched off to said fancy wheels. He was gone without another word.

Duke twirled his scorecard between his fingers, then pocketed it. Another unsatisfied customer. And here he was hoping for some repeat business. Asshats or not, a sale is a sale.


When the luxury troop transport rolled to a halt in front of the Liquid Asset fort, Mitch and Muffy were there to do the opposite of greet him.

"Where the hell were you? We got our asses handed to us!" Mitch complained. "That blade junkie brought some sniper bitch, and they were--"

"I know," Chad interrupted. "And it's over now. We lost a lot of rungs on the Ladder of Triumph, but--"

"How many rungs?"

"...a lot," he repeated, through clenched teeth. "But it's not important. We're going to win them back. We're going to climb, succeed, and crush everybody with--"

"Okay. Okay. You know what? Sit and spin, Chad," Mitch helpfully suggested alongside an illustrative finger gesture. "I'm going back to Pia Pia! I didn't want to be part of some crazy-ass militia movement, anyway. I just wanted to have some laughs and shoot some people, is that so wrong? I didn't sign on to be completely humiliated by some goddamned chick! ...no offense, Muffy--"

Muffy, who had been quietly ignoring the boys, spoke up just as quietly. "You're a n00b, Mitch. You too, Chad. What else were you expecting? You can't BUY your way to success. I think they just proved that tonight. I'm out of here too, Chad. Forget this. ...I'm going to scout around and see if any clans need a trainee."

"You're staying?" Mitch asked. "Okay. Fine. You two stay. Chad, run your little army, Muffy... whatever. I'm gone."

The 'leader' of the Liquid Assets was so bewildered that he didn't bother to notice Mitch hopping into the expensive land cruiser and taking off with it. He had nothing to say when Muffy wandered back into the fort, and emerged with all her things packed up in the suitcase Qwik sold to her. He added nothing to the nothing he was saying when she walked away, intent on getting the hell away from the home base of the Liquid Assets.

An empty base, save for the cache of expensive weaponry he just bought wholesale. Weapons with nobody to use them.

Well... now what? he thought.


"Now, what we have here is a very expensive wine which I got as a bonus for a heavy shipment of C4," Duke was explaining, showing off the bottle. "That's what makes it even more special. Specialer. Specialist? Because it was a gift for a job well done. That's customer satisfaction, Qwik. That's what makes our business tick..."

Qwik looked up from his tiny cup of sake, his second one of the evening. The sales counter of Duke's Munitions was already littered with various open beverage containers. "Duke, you're already drunk," he felt the need to point out. "I don't think you really need MORE--"

"Hush, I am making a point," Duke said, waving the bottle around. "And it is a very important one! Because. Because every cloud has a silver nitrate lining. Where the heck is she? It ain't a party 'less the gang's all here. See, what you saw tonight, that favor I called in -- that's good customer service too. That's what makes it all worthwhile, no matter how many asshats I gotta plow through to get to what's right and decent and... and that's a very important point, it's--"

His rambling motivational speech was cut off when the doors opened, and the harsh elements of Arboria swathed through the room briefly. Two cloaked figures entered the room, masks drawn up to protect against the constant sandstorms of the war-torn landscape...

QwikSlvr studied them closely. "So... you were the sniper?" he asks. "Which one of you? I don't think we've met--"

"'course you haven't met, these two don't technically exist," Duke said. "Qwik, let me introduce you to the most impressive sniper I've ever met..."

The woman lowered her mask... and sniffed at the odor of alcohol in the air. "I see he is celebrating," she said. "We will not be staying long enough to partake, only to confirm from our client that his needs have been met... I am Kisei. A pleasure to meet you. And this is--"

"Tachi," the man said, lowering his own mask. "Her father. And indeed, the pleasure is all ours. Duke? Sake for me, tea for her, if you will. I think we'll be staying, daughter -- no sense letting a celebration go to waste."



Muffy Cox, Mitch Krappel, Chad Hunter
No protections.

Kisei, Tachi
Please contact Stefan Gagne before using. (They will be opened up for easier access after a future story. Stay tuned.)