Chapter 1

July in San Francisco was colder than Mars in whatever month was the height of Martian winter. I stared balefully out the coffeeshop window into a depressing, gray day. In what way should this place be considered California, anyway?

Even fucking Seattle was warmer than this in the summer.

Regardless, I hated San Francisco and would never willingly come for a pleasure trip. This was all for business. I’d spent a week in training sessions and would be heading out to Palo Alto for meetings before returning to San Diego.

And yet, here I sat, bouncing my leg up and down, running through the plan in my head for the thousandth—no, the two hundred fifty thousandth—time. It echoed through my thoughts, my unvoiced but impassioned plea. And it occurred to me that I had never even spoken these wishes out loud.

This meeting, set in this dreary and depressing—but overly noisy—coffeeshop would be the very first time I’d give them words. So much hung on this.

Certainty solidified my resolve and yet, I wasn’t an idiot. I was fully aware of the risks—to me and to anyone else I chose to involve in this crazy ass plan. So why would I choice to include friends, family, those closest to me. Those whom I cared about so much?

Was I offering an exciting opportunity to get involved on something monumental… or was I being an asshole expecting people to risk it all on what was going on inside my head?

These questions I asked myself as I bounced my knee viciously and practically wrung the skin off my knuckles, waiting. And no need to ponder the reason why I sat in the middle of a Starbucks (home of the worst corporate coffee, I might add), sipping a Venti Americano and brooding about how much fog in July sucked.

My reason walked in the door the next minute.

He hesitated at the entrance, clothed in typical student wardrobe of jeans, a backpack slung over one shoulder, and a sweatshirt. This one denoted his school—Stanford, of course. One of the best business schools in the country.

When he met my gaze he nodded, a smile appearing on his face, and headed my direction immediately. I returned the smile and stood up, surprised a little at how glad I was to see him after all this time.

When Jordan hit my table, he reached out a hand. I clasped it warmly and slapped him on the shoulder with the other.

“Adam! Bro…good to see you,” he said.

“Sit, let me get you some shitty coffee. I know you’re on a student budget.”

He laughed. “And you’re living the corporate high life. Please by all means, buy my coffee, big businessman, and why not dinner while you’re at it?”

“Only if you plan on coming home with me tonight,” I joked. I got the order for his drink and went to the counter while he slouched in a chair and waited, relentlessly keying messages into his phone.

When I returned to the table with his beverage, he dutifully set the phone aside—but within eye shot of any notification messages that might pop up.

“How’s school?” I asked. “You been busy?”

He shrugged. “Uh, school’s good. Stanford is a whole lot livelier than Caltech ever was. The nerd quotient is a ton lower—no offense,” he said, gesturing to me.

My gaze narrowed. “Fuck you. How’s everything? How are your parents?”

“Still not speaking to me. Or at least Dad isn’t.” He gave a long sigh. “I never realized what a blessing that would be.”

My mouth tightened, thinking of my own parental situation. It had been over a year since my mother had last tried to contact me and I silently hoped the safeguards I’d put in place to keep her away would hold out for longer. I understood Jordan’s frustrations completely.

Now he was watching me curiously. “So tell me what’s going on at Sony? They sent you up here for some long ass training. And meetings. I imagine they’ve got something exciting up their sleeves. A new game? Are you involved on some high level?”

I grinned. “You know I can’t talk about that shit, man. Corporate secrets in the gaming industry are more secure than bitcoin. I’d be surprised if I didn’t have some Russian mafioso tailing me.”

“Huh,” he laughed. “I did see a shady type lurking around outside but I just figured that was the boyfriend of my latest conquest.”

I chuckled. Since our year as college roommates—and the horrible break-up with his long term girlfriend—Jordan had reinvented himself as a regular Cassanova, swearing off lengthy relationships and getting his needs seen to in rather creative ways. I took his bait. “Is there a story there?”

He shrugged. “Not really. Same ole. One night stand. The boyfriend that I didn’t even know existed found out. Had to do a bit of dodge and weave. Usually I do my due diligence to make sure anyone I hit on is unattached, but hey, what are you gonna do if they lie about it, right? It’s not like I have ESP or a built in lie detector or something, right?”

I suppressed my own grin, burying it in my cup of coffee as I took a long pull. “Suuure, I’m guessing that if she’s an eight or higher, you don’t really check too closely for boyfriends, am I right?”

He didn’t answer, just laughed and took his own sip. “I’m glad you told me you were in town. I would have been bummed if I’d missed you while you were up here.”

I blew out a breath and swore. “How can you take living here? I hate this place.”

“You get used to it.”

I frowned at him. “Don’t imagine you get to surf much.”

“We get down to Santa Cruz regularly—a small group of friends make requisite surfing excursions. But the surfing is still not nearly as good as SoCal.”

“Can’t believe you’re not dying to get back.”

“Who says I’m not? One more year and I’m headed back down, provided I’m afforded a nice lucrative opportunity to do so.”

There it was, my doorway in—and a big part of the reason why I’d called him here, aside from our friendship, of course.

“Yeah, about that.” I threw him a quick glance. “How committed are you to that time frame?”

He frowned. “What do you mean? I, uh, need to graduate.”

I leaned forward, putting my elbows on the table. “Do you?”

His expression grew sly. “Not all of us can quit college after a year because we were offered a mid-six figure salary to work at a major corporation as a child prodigy.”

I clenched my jaw, hating that damn P-word that was applied to me more often than not. As if my own hard work and drive hadn’t mattered at all. Yeah, okay, I admit that I had a gift for what I did but it wasn’t all bestowed on me by some mysterious higher power. Much of it came from following the endless stream of curiosity constantly flowing inside my head. The stream was a raging river sometimes—so strong and intense that it felt like it was the thing in control, not me.

“What if I had a similar proposition for you? What would you say then?”

To his credit, Jordan’s features were schooled and unrevealing. He barely even lifted an eyebrow, didn’t even twitch a nostril. Cool customer. “I’m listening…”

Here it was. I had to refrain from holding my breath because a huge part of my plan hinged on how Jordan was going to react to this proposition. And an entire dream hinged on this plan.

I could do it without Jordan, sure. But I trusted him and I didn’t want to do this without him. So I carefully set my coffee cup aside and, to prevent my hands from fidgeting, I laced my fingers together, and began the rehearsed monologue.

“I have an idea. And in order to work on it or even to begin work on it, I’d have to quit Sony Online because as long as I’m employed there, I’m not permitted.”

Jordan nodded. “You have a corporate non-compete clause in your contract, it sounds like.”

“Yeah, so if I want to pursue this idea, I’d need to leave the job first and start up the new business completely separately.”

“Risky shit…to give up a sweet job like that.”

“It is a sweet job. But it’s not my dream job.”

Jordan folded his arms across his chest and leaned to the side, signaling that he was listening intently.

I took a deep breath and continued. “I want to build a company around this idea. I’d need to gather capital. In short, I need a partner. Someone to work on the business end of things.”

He raised his brow. “Startups in the Silicon Valley are a dime a dozen, Adam. And getting venture capitalists involved without offering them your firstborn or at least a good lay…” He shook his head. “Were you thinking of pitching to a business incubator or…?”

I shook my head vehemently. “No, none of that bullshit. I’m not going to sell my soul to some VC who thinks he’s God and can dictate my every move. I do have some of my own money stashed away from selling Mission Accomplished.”

He gave me a skeptical look. “Enough for what you need for whatever this is? And what is it, anyway? An app? A console game?”

“A PC game. An MMO, actually.” I sat back and studied his face.

His brows climbed his forehead. “So I’m going to guess you’re not coming up here then. All the talent for that is in Southern California or the East Coast.”

“Yeah I have no interest in living here.” I looked out the window again. “This place is a hole.”

He laughed and followed my gaze out the window, then lifted his coffee cup to his mouth and took a long, slow drink.

“Okay. So I can guess what you’re about to ask me. And you can imagine the risks on my end in leaving arguably the best business program in the country to go fuck around in some start up—even a start up with an exciting and talented young prodigy at the helm.”

That word again. I rolled my eyes. “Yes, I know it’s asking a lot. But I need your help.”

He put a hand to his heart. “And forgive me. I do respect you and your impressive brain a great deal. But though we are friends, you are barely of legal age. And I gotta ask—”

“What’s in it for you?”

The sly grin grew and his eyes danced. “Yeah.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “Of course you’d have to ask that. I do appreciate the risk for anyone who wants to join in the venture, especially anyone who has to give up something to do it. Let me pitch the game to you…”

“Go for it.”

I cleared my throat to begin my rehearsed monologue. “It’s a dynamic fantasy adventure that would build on classics like World of Warcraft and Everquest, but it would have a more…complex quest structure, immersive storyline, dynamic changes that affect the online environment—”

His head tilted to the side. “Dude, you’re going to have to polish that pitch because my eyes are glazing over right now.”

I blew out a breath and drew in a long one. He was starting to get on my nerves. “I’ve been dreaming about doing something like this for years. There have been times in my life where… I wanted an immersive escape, a satisfying experience online where I could relate to and interact with other people in a safe environment that provided a fantasy. That allowed me to be someone else for a while—a hero. I just want others to have that type of experience.”

“Will there be naked girls? I think there should be naked girls.” Jordan nodded. I threw him a look and he put up his hands defensively. “What? I like naked girls.”

“Well the FCC might slap a harsh rating on the game for that. How about half naked girls?”

His head wobbled from side to side, considering. “That could work. Bikini clad girls in chainmail. Hot girls. Blondes, brunettes, redheads. Thin girls, curvy girls.”

“You’re not very picky are you?” I laughed.

“When it comes to the female half of the species? Not at all. I love women.”

I smirked. “A little too much, I think. You’re going to get some kind of disease from all that loving of women that you do.”

He rolled his eyes, then leaned back and stared at the ceiling for a long time, running a hand through his light brown hair and ruffling it.

“How ironic that your name is Adam—the Fallen Man who has come to tempt me with a big juicy red apple I’m dying to sink my teeth into. In my head, I know I need to finish this degree. If I don’t, there will be no end whatsoever to the old man’s gloating. I can hear the I told you so’s already.”

Then he leaned forward, rubbing his jaw, the loud scratch of his whiskers against his fingernails. “But I don’t want to live my life based on what I think the old man will say, you know? That’s not the way to be successful. Big success comes from taking risks.”

I nodded, my hands clenching together even tighter. Here it came…his yeah or nay. I resisted the urge to push forward into a hard sell. “Business school is horse shit, you know? Theory and statistics and economic extrapolation. Even the professors are so far removed from the business world as to be relevant. Getting my hands dirty with something like this…”

“It’s more than just an idea. I’ve got some things worked out in my head that I think will be big once I figure out how to implement them. That AI engine that I sold to Sony was just the jumping off point. Nothing proprietary. I’ve been really careful. And of course this coule be a partnership, we can hammer out the details. Founder status. Shares in the company, how we’ll approach raising capital—”

Jordan stared at me, expression frozen. He held up a hand. “Calm down a sec. I don’t need the hard sell.” Then he took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “I’m in.”

I blinked. “What, really?”

“Don’t look so surprised. I’ve seen what you can do. What you have done by the ripe old age of twenty-one. Christ, you were a millionaire before you were old enough to drink—or even vote, for that matter. If you believe in it this much. If you’re this passionate about it then… I think it will go somewhere. And I might have a little seed money coming my way to buy in with.”

My own brows shot up at his mysterious reference, but he didn’t clarify even when I waited for him to do so. I finally cleared my throat and replied. “Really? You’ve been selling your body up here and stashing it away as a nest egg?”

A well-deserved middle finger was my only reply. And that was all the answer I got about his unexplained “seed money.” Jordan had always been a big fan of the stock market. Perhaps he’d gotten lucky and hit it big. Or thought he was about to.

He bared his teeth in a shit-eating grin. “You know what we should do? I say we go seal this deal with a hearty steak dinner and some heavy drinking at a bar that involves taking home some hot girls in Nob Hill.”

“Of course it’s going to involve banging some hot chick.”

“You’re no stranger to banging hot chicks. Are you still with Lindsay?” he suddenly asked.

“I was never ‘with her and–wow, you’re well informed on my love life aren’t you? She’s getting married to some banker. We haven’t been anything other than friends for years.”

“Ah, too bad. She’s hot as hell. Too hot for you.” Then he winked.

“Fuck you. I agree to the steak dinner.”

He shook his head and started to laugh. “Man, I cannot fucking wait to see the look on Dr. Stewart’s face when I tell her that I’m quitting the program. She’s going to shit herself.”

“What is she in love with you or something?”

“No, she’s ancient anyway. Knew my dad when they taught at Davis together. I’m sure she’ll waste no time informing him, too.”

“Fuck them all. You’re your own man and this is your chance to prove it to the world.”

One brow raised as if a sudden idea occurred to him. “Is that what you are doing, Adam? Proving yourself to the world?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe just setting out to conquer it.”

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