The man in black fled across the desert and the other man in black followed, until at last he stood at the edge of the marsh, water lapping languidly at his boots. He looked out over the tops of the reeds, across the open bay, at the shining city.

A rowboat glided by, and he hailed it.

"Need a ride?" asked the rower.

The man nodded. "Into the city."

"Well," said the rower, consulting a phone, "it's peak hours so it'll be 50% extra. Just letting you know." He held out the phone expectantly, its little protruding attachment pointed at the other man.

"I have no plastic, stranger," said the man.

"Well, cash is fine," said the rower, putting his phone away.

The man in black reached into an inner pocket of his duster and pulled out a random assortment of odds and ends. A gold tooth, a Euro coin, and a 3 foot USB-C cable.

"That's also fine," said the rower, taking the items and motioning for his customer to step into the boat.

As the little rowboat made its way onto the bay, the rower said, "My name's Percy, by the way. Help yourself to a bottle of water if you want."

The passenger grabbed a miniature bottle of water, but didn't open it.

As they passed out of the reeds, the passenger peered with some curiosity at the little specks and silhouettes of all kinds dotting the bay, from kayaks to commercial ferries. "That's a lot of boats," he said.

"Not from around here, I'm guessing?"

"It's been a while."

"They dynamited the peninsula last year. Boats are the only way regular folk can get into the city now."

The passenger nodded. "And what about irregular folk?"

Percy laughed. "Well if you're fancy and you work for FOONT - a real job, a desk job, not cleaning the offices or working the warehouse or anything like that - you can take the air shuttles." He nodded upward at a dirigible gliding by.

"And why did they dynamite the peninsula?"

Percy shrugged. "You'll have to ask Carton Hustle." He hesitantly searched his customer's face for recognition before adding, "The FOONT guy."

"I'm familiar."

"Something about security, I don't know," said Percy. "Man like that doesn't do anything without a good reason, though."

"A man like what?"

"Like Carton Hustle, I mean," said Percy. "Puts together a business in his garage and now he's worth more than most countries. Sleeps 4 hours a night, holds the land speed record, and writes a book every week. If he wants to turn the city into an island, why, there's got to be some good reason we'll understand soon enough."

"You're a fan?"

"Oh, of course," said Percy, surprised that anyone wouldn't be. "I've got one of his books right on me," he said, taking a brief break from the oars to pull out a beat-up hardcover book entitled Grind To The Top: Who's Laughing Now? Not Them. You. "Take a look if you want."

The passenger recoiled, as if from proffered roadkill. "Thank you, no."

"Suit yourself," said Percy, replacing the book and rowing on. "Well, here's the Ferry Building right here. You need directions? A map?"

"I know the way," said the passenger, rising to his feet with a sudden nimbleness. He was about to leap onto the dock when, as if remembering something, he reached into his pockets and pulled out two pens and a pair of earbuds and tossed it to Percy. "Thanks for the ride," he said quickly, and now jumped up onto the dock.

Percy was about to pull away when he saw a swarm of men in body armor descend upon the stranger almost immediately. He paused anxiously, full of curiosity and some mild concern about the fate of his passenger, yet terrified of being caught up in whatever it was.

The leader of the armored men stepped forward as his underlings kept their guns trained on the new arrival. "Russell Ianniello?"

For the first time in this story, the man in the black duster grinned. "That's my name," he said. "Don't wear it out."

Percy didn't recognize the insignia on their uniforms. Not the SFPD. Private security?

"Mr. Ianniello -" said the security officer.

"Please call me Russ."

"- come with us."

"No thank you."

"We know what you are," said the officer, "and it is my duty to inform you that these guns are loaded with silver bullets. If you-"

"What an incredible waste of money," said Russ, and the next things happened in such a blur that I can only describe them to you in unordered list form, which you can sort into the order you think makes the most sense.

  • Russ reached both hands to his belt and drew two gleaming long daggers or possibly short swords.
  • Bullets began whizzing through the air as the armed men fired.
  • Some blood flew out following the bullets.
  • Some blood also flew out of men being cut in half.
  • Someone screamed "the bullets, they do nothing!"
  • Several people held up their phones and caught this on video.
  • As suddenly as he had arrived, Russ disappeared, carrying half of a person in one hand, like a briefcase.

Percy was trying to process all this when someone grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up onto the dock. "My b-boat," he stammered, as his livelihood drifted away.

"You've got bigger things to worry about," said the security officer. It was a different security officer, as apparently the commanding officer had been the first person cut in half. Instead of being pleased about his recent promotion, however, this man seemed furiously unhappy.

"I swear I didn't have anything to do with this," said Percy.

"I saw him step off your boat," said the officer.

"It was just a ride, I've never met-" Percy stopped short as he finally got a good look at the officer's face. The skin was unhealthy - not just blotchy and poorly moisturized but bloodless and apparently rotting. Bits and pieces had fallen off to reveal bone underneath.

"We're taking him in for questioning," said the officer with a scowl, gesturing briskly toward his men. "Get the car."

Terrified and afraid to ask any more questions, Percy was bundled off into a car, and then into a dark building, down a dark hallway, down an elevator, and into a small dingy room with a bucket in the corner, where he was left alone for what could have been hours or days.

At last, the door opened and he shrank back instinctively. But the visitor wasn't an undead monstrosity, or even wearing a uniform. He was wearing slacks, a tie, and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. "Hi there," he said.

Percy wasn't sure what to say.

"I'm Mark, I'm a suspect relations associate with Civilian Oversight Private Security, a division of FOONT. I bet you must be hungry, so sorry about that. Have a bag of Cheetos." He tossed him a snack sized bag of Cheetos.

Percy opened it and began to eat the Cheetos.

"So I hear you're one of our boatmen for our FOONT FlexBoats service."

"Yes, sir."

"That's great," said Mark. "We love to enable independent businessmen like yourself to launch and grow your own businesses. Love to nurture that entrepreneurial spirit."

"Th-thanks," said Percy.

"Now what a lot of people don't understand about our culture is that we're not about punishing people that make mistakes. Anyone can make a mistake! What matters is if we learn from them. Don't you agree?"

"Of course."

"Then let's put our heads together and see what we can learn from your mistake."

"My m-mistake?"

"Yes," said Mark. "You ferried a dangerous and violent criminal into this city and now he's on the loose."

"But I didn't know -"

Mark held up a warning finger playfully. "Ah ah ah. If you remember, one of the core tenets of Hustle culture, as articulated by Carton Hustle himself, is..."

"Never stop grinding?"

"Not that one."

"Haters deserve death?"

"No, the one about responsibility."

"Only you are responsible for your successes and your failures."

"That's the one," said Mark brightly. "That makes you, and you alone, responsible for bringing this threat into the city. I'm sure I can count on an entrepreneur like you to take personal responsibility here and not play victim."

"Yes, sir," said Percy, steeling himself to be true. "This mistake was on me and I accept sole responsibility. But sir, if you could just help me figure out how I should have known..."

"Well," said Mark, "you should have known he was a vampire by his inability to cross running water. The fact he needed you to ferry him across."

"It's pretty normal for humans to not be able to swim across the bay," said Percy, "that's the source of my entire business..." He trailed off as Mark sighed regretfully.

"I'm trying to help you out here," said Mark, "and that can't happen if you're going to be defensive. Can we agree not to be defensive?"

"Yes, sir," said Percy, abashed.

"Now to be clear," said Mark, rolling his sleeves up even further, "what I don't want, is I don't want you to beat yourself up over this. I don't want you to wallow in guilt about how you should have known this man was up to no good. I don't want you punishing yourself for failing to enter this ride into the FlexBoats app, and allowing this monster to kill innocent people all over the city. These things are all your fault, but it doesn't do anyone any good to just sit there and feel bad about it."

"No," said Percy, feeling much worse about it.

"The past is the past," said Mark, patting Percy on the hand reassuringly. "Hustle culture is about rising above it, about moving forward. You remember when Carton tried to solve the housing crisis by building a second level above the city of Seattle and it collapsed, crushing the entire city?"

"Of course," said Percy. "That was in Setbacks: Life's Refresh Button. So inspirational."

"That's right," said Mark. "He could have given up then. He could have not bribed the jury and gone to jail. But instead, he went to Japan to meditate for a month and learned that the Chinese word for 'crisis' is the same as the word for 'opportunity', and after beating the charges and hustling his pants off, he landed the contract to build the incredibly successful city we now call New Seattle."

Mark leaned forward, meeting Percy's eyes. "I want to help you build New Seattle right here. I want you to come back from this terrible thing you've done. You're going to turn this setback into a victory by helping us catch this dangerous monster."

"I'll tell you everything I know," said Percy, desperately, "but it isn't much." He told Mark about the stranger's weird payment methods and how he seemed to have come from far away.

"Yes, we have those items," said Mark. "They were taken from you when you came here."

"Could you... could you use those to track him, somehow?"

"Perhaps," said Mark. "That sort of thing takes time, though. How about we bring in these items and see if it triggers any more memories you might have. Anything he might have said about where he was going or who he knew."

"Okay," said Percy hesitantly. He was pretty sure there wasn't anything else to remember but he dreaded coming up empty on his only chance at redemption.

Mark knocked at the door and had a brief conversation through the window before returning to Percy. "They're bringing them."

A short while later, Mark had set up a wooden crate as a table in front of Percy, covered with the items in question - the gold tooth, the Euro, the USB cable, the pens, and the earbuds.

Percy looked over all of them, trying his best to remember something, but came up as blank as he expected. As his hand hovered over one of the pens, however, he had the strangest feeling, as if it was surging with a kind of power. He picked it up.

"Remember something?" asked Mark.

"No," sighed Percy, disappointed. As he put the pen back down, he felt the odd feeling of power fade.

With prompting from Mark, he tried to remember more details but it all seemed to disappoint his interrogator.

Mark sighed. "I feel like you're not really committed to doing what it takes to rise above your past here. I want you to come out of this stronger, but at the end of the day, it's your choice. You've got to be the one to make it happen."

Percy was almost afraid to ask. "W-what if I don't? If I can't?"

Mark shook his head. "Well that kind of negativity isn't going to help you, but if you're not able to turn this around, I'll be frank with you. We can't be carrying dead weight. We'll unfortunately have to terminate you."

"As a boatman?" gasped Percy. "But it's all I-"

"As a human being," said Mark.

Percy's eyes grew very wide. "You can't! You wouldn't!"

"You have to keep in mind, we are running a business, not a charity."

"There seems like a lot of room in between!" said Percy.

"It sounds like you haven't read Carton Hustle's books very well at all, then," said Mark, with grave disappointment. "Still, this isn't quite the end of the line. You've still got a golden opportunity to find the springboard at the bottom of the pit. All you have to do is want it enough."

"Believe me, I do!" exclaimed Percy, who definitely wanted enough to be alive.

"All right, then," said Mark. "Let's go over the facts again." He was interrupted here by the door flying off its hinges and smashing into him, crashing both him and it into the opposite wall.

"Oh God!" cried Percy, cowering in the corner.

In the doorway stood his former boat passenger. "Oh good," he said, seeing Percy. The man walked swiftly over to the table and grabbed the unusual pen. "I was afraid they might have taken it off you."

"They did," said Percy, "but they brought it back for me to take a look at... hold on, what is going on?"

"Good question," said the man. "I never introduced myself, I'm Russ Ianniello."

"And you're a vampire?"

"Yes," said Russ. "More importantly, I'm very sorry you got mixed up in this. I gave you the pen because I was a little worried this might happen. We should get going."


"A safe place," said Russ. "I still have friends here and there." He frowned at Percy. "Bullets are fatal to you so I think we should take the stealth approach on the way out."

"Is that even possible?" said Percy, looking at the door mashing the man against the wall.

"No one heard that," said Russ dismissively. "It's empty down here, everyone is at the ceremony."

"What ceremony?"

"The raising," said Russ. "That makes it easy for us. We'll just duck in the locker rooms, grab a couple of acolyte robes, and should be able to slip into the ceremony and leave with all the others."

Contrary to Percy's expectations, it went about exactly as Russ had said. What did disrupt his expectations was the ceremony itself. They emerged from a dark hallway into an arena-sized room, structured in the shape of a semicircle built to hold an audience of thousands, with a small dais at the focal point.

And indeed, the room was full of thousands, but something was off. It seemed as if the entire audience was asleep, slumped over motionless in their seats. Percy followed Russ into a couple of empty seats and gasped as he brushed against one of the audience members, limbs rigid as death. As he sat down next to the person he had brushed, he realized he was sitting next to a corpse.

"It's fine, be cool, act dead," said Russ, slumping over.

"Probably easy for you," muttered Percy, but did so.

"I don't know what that's supposed to mean," said Russ pointedly, "but if you value your life, don't move a muscle until everyone else gets up."

"Until WHAT?" hissed Percy, almost rising, but Russ pressed him down with one hand and a warning glare so unexpectedly terrifying that slipping into paralysis was the easiest thing to do.

There was a figure on the dais now, and she was beginning to speak. She was wearing a dark and work-appropriate pantsuit and an elaborate headdress made to look like the head of a raven. Her cheerful face peered out of its open beak.

"Greetings," she said brightly. "I'm Ada Deathlace, global head of human resources for FOONT, and I am so excited to be welcoming you into our fold today."

It was an understatement to say that Percy had a lot of questions but Russ was still glaring at him so he held his tongue.

"I've got a lot to say today, and not a lot of time," said Ada, "so why don't we go on and raise you all now so you can actually hear me."

At this, a handful of dark robed figures joined her on the stage, taking their places along the outside of a runic circle that ringed her.

She raised her hands high. "By the power bestowed upon me by Carton Hustle, our founder, who worked while we slept, who took upon himself and himself alone the great risk, I give you the gift of opportunity. I command you, rise! Rise and grind!"

She seemed to shimmer with a cold, overwhelming, pale light that radiated from her and out to the robed figures. The runes in the circle seemed to set afire with that same ghastly light. Twisting beams of energy like snakes writhed out from their hands and into the dead audience. One of these beams brushed Percy, and bounced off, as if uninterested in him. He shuddered involuntarily, as if a ghost had petted him.

And then the audience of corpses obediently began to rise.

Before Percy could really sink in to the horror of the situation, Russ was poking him. "Stand up!" he hissed.

Percy did so, and found himself standing amongst thousands of robed acolytes, all standing on their own, their gazes turned toward the dais.

"I introduced myself earlier," said the woman with renewed chipper energy, "but you probably couldn't hear me, because you were dead! So let's start over again. I'm Ada Deathlace, global head of human resources for FOONT. And this is the first day of the rest of your lives."

The audience murmured a bit. Some of them were looking around, or at themselves, as if just as confused as Percy, although they seemed sleepier about it. That seemed reasonable as they had just been dead.

"You'll all see that you're wearing standard issue FOONT novice robes," said Ada. "That's a gift from us. And you're probably wondering what happened! Well! Each of you comes from your own unique set of circumstances but what you all have in common is that you have failed FOONT and you have failed Carton Hustle.

"Some of you were terminated as a direct punishment for your failure, while some of you died due to your own lack of dedication, causing you to leave duties unfulfilled. We have an elite team of delvers here, who were charged with unearthing some Gold Rush era catacombs beneath the city and retrieving an important artifact, and instead of delivering on their responsibility, they died upon encountering an ancient entity trapped in the catacombs. The end result? No artifact delivered. A failure.

"But today, they, and all the rest of you, get a privilege that few other people in history have ever gotten: a second chance. It is time to think long and hard about what you did wrong. Did you not have the hustle? Did you focus on the negativity? Did you listen to the haters? Did you try to get by just working 8 hour days? Did you fritter away your money on fancy coffees and avocado toasts?

"This all changes now," she said, her voice rising to a crescendo. "You still have the same 24 hours as anyone else, but now, in undeath, you have the great advantage that you no longer need to sleep. You no longer need to eat. Your souls have been hollowed out and purified of time sinks like love and friendship. You are free! Free to dedicate every hour of every day, and every thought of your mind toward draining every drop of the opportunities that FOONT provides you to succeed.

"Even with the tremendous headstart we are giving you, the grind will be hard. You will have fierce competitors within and relentless enemies without. But if you do not accept no, if you put it all on the table, if you do not quit, and you want it more than all the others, then the great prize, as you all know in your hearts, is that someday you yourself will be like Carton Hustle, who rose from a garage to the throne. You yourself will be as a god."

The chamber was filled with cheers and applause, including from Percy, until Russ slapped him on the hand.

"Now, I want to be clear, we can't force anyone to do this," said Ada. "All I can say is that if you're willing to take on the challenge and become part of something greater than yourself, we want total dedication. Who will swear to me, this day, that you will dedicate your new life 24/7 to the opportunities given to you by FOONT?"

There was a deafening roar from all corners. Percy was smart enough not to join in this time.

"And those who do not want to take advantage of this opportunity, please raise your hands," said Ada, "and I will have my staff come around with NDAs for you to sign, and we will dismiss you to lesser assignments."

A surprising number of hands went up. Percy looked at Russ, who shook his head, and they both remained motionless.

"Disappointing," said Ada, her lip curling.

"Duck," whispered Russ, pulling Percy down, as bolts of darkness leapt forth from the robed figures on stage, hitting every raised hand and reducing the body attached to ash.

There was a great deal of murmuring but it didn't seem dissatisfied. Percy's immediate neighbor was looking at the pile of ash on the seat on the other side and saying, "Well, I guess he didn't want it enough."

"I want to emphasize," said Ada, with a harder tone, "that this is not a job. This is not about clocking in and clocking out and collecting a paycheck. We don't want people who try, or who do their best, or wring their hands about work-life balance and empathy. We want people who get it done, and will not be stopped by excuses, distractions, or morality. If you're that kind of person, you will be greatly rewarded. If you're not, if you spit on this great gift of a second chance as those people did... well, we won't need you anymore. You will be returned to your eternal rest, as you were when we found you.

"But enough negativity. Let's focus on success. And the start of that is finding out your assignments for today. Each of you should have a card in your pocket with a number on it. When you exit the auditorium, there will be a bunch of tables in the lobby with different number codes. Go to the table that matches your card - some lines will be longer than others, and get the details of where to go next. We have buses outside that will take you to the dormitories and offices.

She now raised her hands in a sort of exuberant if unholy benediction. "Now go out there and show the world it made a mistake killing you! You're back, baby, and better than ever!"

And with that, everyone began to file out. Russ and Percy slipped in among them, lingered in one of longer and more chaotic lines until a good number of acolytes had finished and began walking out to the buses. They left the line and walked out as well, slipping through the crowd and into the shadow of the building, where they dumped the robes into a trash can and slipped down an alley where a motorcycle sat.

Russ hopped on the motorcycle. "Okay, let's jet." As Percy hopped on behind him, Russ frowned at him.


Russ picked up a helmet hanging from the handlebars and gave it to him.


Russ took a deep breath that even Percy knew was the breath that someone takes before reciting motorcycle accident statistics, and Percy just said, "Fine, fine," and put on the helmet. As soon as it was on, Russ revved up the engine and zoomed away.

To Chapter 2: Levels