LevelUP: an 8-bit novel by Micah Joel. Author's definitive online edition.
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LevelUP corporation’s approach to branding seems pretty straightforward on the surface: put an obnoxious shade of blue on everything. Especially their corporate fleet. So when the expected vehicle is not a delivery truck, but rather a SUV shellacked with LevelUP’s retina-scorching hue, it’s equal parts terrifying and exhausting. A visit from corporate is far worse than an extra work shift. It means they want something else.
The vehicle crunches to a stop on the gravel just outside the factory, right in the middle of the circle of harsh light. Two bodyguards uncrimp themselves from the back seat, the cool evening breeze ruffling their ties as the first one begin unloading boxes. The other clears out a perimeter with little more than a look, people tripping over themselves to get out of the way. That done, he barks a word of approval into his neon blue walkie-talkie. The SUV’s front gullwing doors hiss open.
Out steps Vic “thumbs up” Vertex, sycophantic grin still in place. He manages to get his picture in every article written about LevelUP. A popular rumor suggests that his middle name got legally changed to an emoji.
Vic shivers in the cool breeze. “Let’s get this party started,” he says, flashing double thumbs-up signs to himself. Nobody returns his smile.
“Just give us the food,” somebody mutters.
Lora Baines, pushes her way through the huddled masses. “What’s this about? I’ve done everything you’ve demanded. What more do you want?”
Vic grazes Lora with his confused smirk. “And you are?”
Max’s never seen Lora this upset. She sputters something that Max can’t quite make out. Vic gracelessly snatches Lora’s three-ring-binder, the one filled with details of the camp’s operation, then turns his attention to inspecting the rest of the gathered residents, making a point of leaving her request hanging.
His gaze settles on Molly, her head down, absorbed in her beeping video game. He swipes it out of her hands. “What have we here?” He unsnaps the back panel to reveal six double-As. “I wasn’t aware batteries were permitted in the camp. Where’d you get those?”
Molly says nothing. Her eyes leap from face to face, pleading for support.
Max steps out from the safety of the crowd and grabs the game back, but Vic doesn’t let go. Max and Vic lock eyes. “Leave her alone,” Max says. He braces his foot and pulls harder. For someone Vic’s size, he’s surprisingly wimpy. Vic shifts his feet for better leverage. “She’s not hurting anyone,” Max says, and pries the game toward him. When Vic abruptly lets go, it nearly sends Max tumbling.
From the passenger side of the SUV slithers Hemera ↑. Krapht in the flesh, the CEO with an emoji for a middle initial. Her usual habit, when asked what it stands for, is to simply point upward rather than dignify the question with a spoken response. People usually just pronounced it as “Up.” And nobody was quite sure whether the controversial initial came about before or after she took the helm of LevelUP Corporation. It didn’t help that in one day—a day that later came to be known simply as Damage—nearly every storage device in existence had been destroyed.
Hemera adjusts her sleeve, and Max catches the unnatural glow of a digital display embedded under her skin—a level of technological sophistication unheard of in the camps. Hypocrites like Hemera always deny how deeply technology has infected them.
“…utmost importance,” Hemera is saying. Distracted, Max missed the first part. He can’t pull attention away from the central question of the moment:
Why is her forehead blinking?
Max rubs his watery eyes, and there’s still something there—a flashing pixel. But when he turns his head, the pixel holds position, as if it were floating in front of him. How?
Even when he clamps his eyes shut, it’s still there—fully revealed as an exclamation point, not just a single pixel. Max opens his eyes, and the symbol drifts until it is centered on Hemera. What the?
Hemera raises an eyebrow at Vic. “Contraband,” he says. “This guy,”—he aims an accusatory finger at Max—“is bringing in batteries.”
Wait, what? Max points at himself and mouths, “me?” Vic is willing to bury him in trouble in the name of petty revenge. Never mind that he was actually correct—Max had traded for those batteries, not that Vic had any way of knowing.
Hemera looks Max up and down. “What’s your name?”
“Max. Max Root.”
“Well, Max, Max Root, you’d better watch yourself.” Hemera gestures to the moonlit sea of canvas covering the hilltop. “Which tent is yours?”
The exclamation point blinks more urgently. Max swallows. “C’mon,” he says.
Vic looks up from Lora’s binder. “That one,” he says, pointing.
“Go check it out,” Hemera directs, and bodyguard number one obliges, the crowd scrambling out of his way.
“No!” Max stomps toward his tent, but the look in Hemera’s eye stops him in his tracks. Without a word, she shows him exactly what the power dynamic is. She could disappear him without a second thought. Just like old Isidore.
Max clenches his fists as the brute shines his flashlight on the tent. As if it’s too much trouble to figure out which side the entrance is on, he splits the canvas like paper. He paws through Max’s bed, scattering IOU papers from under his pillow. He holds the flashlight with his mouth and hefts Max’s footlocker—containing every thing of Max’s that he hadn’t put in his pockets this morning—on his shoulder before walking back to Hemera.
“Please, no!” Max shouts. He has things from before Damage. Things from his father. Consequences or not, he breaks from Hemera’s crushing stare and beelines toward his tent.
All too quickly, Max why this was a bad idea. Before he’s out of the floodlit circle, bodyguard number two casually extends an arm, clotheslining Max. In a moment of suffocating clarity, Max marvels that when your trachea is on fire, hitting your head on the ground doesn’t even hurt. Well, not for the first second.
Still sprawled out, Max recovers just in time to see the bodyguard, now only steps away, hurl the footlocker to ground, splintering the timeworn plywood. All of Max’s belongings tumble into the dust. All the inventory to keep his shop running. Personal effects. Everything that’s ever mattered. A golden box from the deepest strata of Max’s history lands in front of Hemera’s glossy blue pumps. It was one of his earliest belongings, to the point where he can’t remember exactly how he got it. Or what it’s for.
Hemera picks up the box, turns it over in her hands, then hands it to Vic, who pockets it. “Get rid of this garbage,” she says to the bodyguards.
Max scrambles for his belongings. “No! I need that stuff, it’s all I have,” he calls out, but bodyguard number two threatens to stomp him into the ground while his companion heaps Max’s things into the back of the SUV.
With a satisfied look on her face, Hemera puffs on a mini-cig, good for only two or three puffs before it’s done. Oddly, Max never noticed her produce a lighter at any point.
“What she says is law,” Vic says. “Even stronger than law. Like, hyperlaw.”
That’s not even a word, moron, Max wants to say, but a hand gently reaches to steady him. It’s Ice, kneeling alongside, comforting. “Let it go,” she says. “Things can be replaced. You can’t. We’ll get through this.” Vic’s smirk somehow grows even more irritating. Ice helps Max to his feet.
Hemera turns to the crowd. “Enough of this. I want to speak with the camp administrator. Where is Isidore Morris?”
Silence. Max scans faces around him—full of similar confused looks.
Lora’s standing right there. “What kind of sick game are you playing?” she sputters.
Hemera looks her up and down. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced.”
Surprise and indignation battle on Lora’s face. Indignation wins. She stomps her foot on the ground, raising a thin cloud of dust that the wind curls across Hemera’s elegant legs. Her voice contains a dangerous growl. “I’m the camp administrator. After you took Isidore, we had no leader, so I stepped up. I never asked for this this.”
“I’m sorry,” Hemera says stiffly, “I still didn’t get your name.”
“Seriously? I’m Lora Baines, Acting Administrator. I’ve been—”
“Ohhh, you’re Lora Baines,” Vic says. “That was the second thing on your agenda, boss. She hasn’t completed a productivity shift in twenty-seven weeks.”
“That’s because I’m administering the entire camp!” Lora snaps. “You can’t expect me…to…” Lora withers under Hemera’s glare.
“I expect all such leadership changes to be duly authorized before they take effect,” Hemera says. The temperature drops five degrees. “So, regarding Mister Isidore Morris. Surely at least one of you have seen him.”
But if Isidore’s not here, and LevelUP didn’t authorize his exit, how would he get out of camp? The entire perimeter’s monitored.
“alt="new section",” Hemera says. “Search the tents. Turn everything upside down.” The bodyguards break in opposite directions.
Flashlight beams work their way from one tent to another. The bodyguards manage to avoid destroying anyone else’s shelter. The search, of course, doesn’t turn up Isidore or any recent evidence of him.
The bodyguards huddle around Hemera, leaning into her ear to say something. Hemera’s face colors as she marches back to the SUV. “Get back to work,” she screams, even though their bonus work shift is over. She slams the heavy gullwing door behind her—no small feat. The tires spit gravel as the car whisks them out.
The boxes of Solylent bars sit unguarded. Lora rushes over to them. “Max,” she calls, “come help with the distribution.”
Max ignores her, and instead wanders back to the tattered canvas and bent poles of his tent. He gathers up as many of the IOUs as he can. The ones with boot prints should be fine. The ones that blew away on the breeze will be more difficult to redeem.
So: no livelihood and no shelter for the night, and his head still throbs. A long day indeed. He’s going to have to find a new tent somewhere. Maybe Abhinav over in the Moffett camp still has one he’d trade for.
At least all the beeps and blinks are gone, ever since Max hit his head. He rubs the tender spot, where a goose egg rises up underneath his hair.
Max collapses onto his torn sleeping bag and stares up at the twilight sky. There’s something hard underneath. After digging around for a minute Max finds it—a loose double-A battery.
He laughs. The bitter kind of laugh that’s all the only thing standing between you and a sobbing breakdown. He’s always kept a positive attitude through rough times—and there’ve been a lot of those. This time feels different. Everything’s going to end up okay. Right? Even as he thinks it, it sounds stupid in his head.
Max rubs his eyes, suddenly tired as the weight of the day’s events settle over him. Nightbirds squawk in the distance, and the rotting vegetation smells less like rotten eggs than it has in a long while. Then the beep returns, and with it, a blinking pixel dead center in his field of view.
 Technically not an emoji, just a boring character on a higher Unicode plane.
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Copyright 2018, 2019 Micah Joel. All rights reserved.