First Look – The Eighth Excalibur

The post title says it all, my friends. Your first look at the new Excalibur Knights series is here!

I might have to post something from a little later in the story at some point to give you a taste of all the gratuitous alien invasion action to come, but for now, I hope you enjoy meeting the galaxy’s soon-to-be newest Excalibur Knight, Nathaniel Arturi.

Let’s get to it!

Chapter 1 – Man’s Best Friend

“Come on, boy.”

Panting, Nate Arturi reached past the rust-red rain gutter and took hold of the rooftop edge with his fingertips. Rough, dark shingles dug into his palm like sandpaper. He was officially sweating now. And also officially at the part of the climb that scared the living shit out of him.

“Come on, Copernicus,” he pleaded. “What are you doing up here, boy?”

A few yards ahead, at the peak of the angled porch rooftop, Copernicus the corgi turned and barked a chipper greeting, wagging his stumpy little tail as if to say, Ah, good, you made it! Thank you for coming.

Despite everything, Nate couldn’t help but smile. “Do you know why I gathered you here this morning, boy?”

By way of reply, Copernicus barked once more then resumed his winning doggy smile, tail-a-wagging.

“Is he talking up there?” someone asked down below. Then, much louder, Emily’s unmistakably exasperated voice called, “Are you talking up there, IT Guy?”

With a sigh, Nate adjusted his already tenuous footing and leaned out just far enough to see that a small crowd was gathering in Emily’s front yard to watch him flounder.

Fantastic.

Emily Atherton herself was scowling up at him in her skimpy pink bath robe, looking like she’d been interrupted midway through an epic battle with her makeup and hairdryer—and admittedly still looking like a brunette goddess despite the fact.

“Will you be careful up there?” she called. “I don’t wanna pay for you breaking something!”

Him be careful?

“Yeah, sure!” he called down, shooting her a thumbs up before turning back to the roof to mutter, “As soon as you be careful letting your dog run away every goddamn morning while you pretty up. Not that I blame you, boy.” He added when Copernicus cocked his head curiously, his tail stopping in place at Nate’s irritated tone. “You’re just an adventurous little spud, aren’t you?”

At that, Copernicus resumed his tail wagging with gusto. Down below, in the Land of the Careless Assholes, Nate was pretty sure he heard someone murmur something along the lines of, Oh my god, why is he such a weirdo?

He did his best to ignore it and turned his attention back to the coming rooftop mount—the coup de gras of the little climb he’d already made three times too many in one lifetime. It was the part where he took the plunge, thrust off of his last footing, and pulled himself up onto the rooftop like a professional rock climber. If professional rock climbers were scrawny, uncoordinated Penn State information and technology majors with hearts of gold, that was.

Whatever. He’d done this just enough times now to know he needed to move before he could psych himself out and really give the peanut gallery below something to laugh about.

With that in mind, he tightened his grip, tensed his legs, and—

“Nate?!”

And psyched himself right the hell out, a second too late.

It happened like one of those stupid cat videos where the little guy goes for a jump—a jump he clearly could’ve made if only he’d followed through—and instead falls adorably into the chasm between the bed and the dresser.

Hilarious.

Except that Nate wasn’t a freaking cat.

He had a single instant to register that alarming fact, right along with the gut-wrenching understanding that he’d just made a fatal error, and that there was nothing his shocked brain could do about it.

Then the world lurched.

He caught one last glimpse of Copernicus, sprinting down the angled rooftop toward him. Cloudy gray sky replacing dark shingles in his vision. Voices crying. Something thumped into his chest. Then the Hand of God itself punched him in the back about eight thousand times harder.

The ground, some numb corner of his brain pointed out as the world began to resolve from the singular sensation of dark, overwhelming impact into sights, and sounds, and the deep, breathless ache of whatever had just broken inside him.

“Oh my god, Nate!” a familiar voice cried. The same voice that’d just made him slip.

So he hadn’t imagined it. Gwen was here. And just in time to watch him break his own spine trying to save another girl’s corgi.

It just got better and better.

Something shifted on top of him, digging into his chest on pointy claws. He blinked down past his nose, scared to move his neck at all, and found Copernicus hovering over his face, panting excitedly.

“Good boy,” he rasped, wincing at the fire the effort woke in his lungs.

Copernicus barked and gave his face a friendly lick. Tail-a-goddamn-wagging.

Then someone plucked the dog carefully off his chest, and the next second a blonde angel appeared over him, her blue eyes wide with concern, and no less radiant for the throbbing pain at his core or the gloomy morning sky overhead.

Gwen.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Nate forced out past his stunned diaphragm, hoping he could still somehow manage to sound cool. Even if he was paralyzed now.

“I think I’m dying,” his traitor mouth added of its own accord.

And that pretty much nailed it for the sounding cool part.

“Is he alive?” someone called.

Gwen rolled her eyes at the heckler, not bothering to answer and instead leaning in closer to inspect the damage.

“Are you okay?” she asked, laying a gentle hand on his chest. “Can you feel this? And what the hell were you thinking, by the way?”

“I think I broke something,” Nate said, remembering the sickening crunch he’d felt on impact and not sure where else to start with her rolling questions.

Her eyes widened a little. She looked so worried. So worried that, for a second, it almost felt worth it all just to see her looking at him like that. At least until his mind drifted back to the way his hips and back seemed to be laying horribly misaligned, as if…

As if he’d landed straight on his backpack, he realized, finally lifting his head enough to look down. The same backpack he’d set down before beginning his heroic ascent, right where he’d been sure it’d be out of the way.

Score another win for Nate.

“Come on, babe,” called a voice that instantly set Nate on edge. “He’ll be fine. This algebra test isn’t about to study itself.”

Todd.

Freaking Todd. Of course he was here too.

“Just a minute,” Gwen called without looking back. She leaned down and pinched Nate’s ankle. “Can you feel that?”

“I’m fine,” Nate huffed, trying to sit up and immediately regretting the decision as his nerve endings dutifully shouted a full-body damage report.

“You’re not fine,” she said. “You just fell off a roof. I should probably get you to the hospital.”

“I don’t know,” Nate grunted, trying more carefully this time to get an arm under himself and work his way up. “Sounds like you’ve already got a pretty serious situation over there. I didn’t realize they even taught algebra in college.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, but he didn’t miss her grin as she took his arm and helped him up into a sitting position. “Well at least you’re feeling well enough to mock the troglodytes.”

He looked up at her, and his mind went blank. Her face was only inches from his. Close enough that he could smell the lavender. Close enough that he would’ve taken a roof dive a day to stay in this place another few seconds.

“Did you, uh…” he heard his voice mumbling somewhere in the distance. “… just call your boyfriend a troglodyte?”

Why?

Why for the love of the Sith would he say that?

And more importantly, why was Gwen’s lip suddenly quirking in that clever little cockeyed grin that drove Nate crazy every time he saw it?

“Pretty sure I’m just repeating your words,” she said, backing up a few inches to give him space.

Nate tried to let out his built up breath calmly.

“That doesn’t sound like something I’d say,” he mumbled quietly, glancing over her shoulder at the crowd, and at the troglodyte himself.

Todd Mackleroy was pretty much the spitting image of the stone-jawed Prince Gallant from every fairy tale under the sun. Except with way better abs. And way more Greek-lettered tank tops, apparently. He and his surgically attached bundle of frat bros were mingling with the crowd, most of them looking bored.

Except for Todd, who was chatting up a suddenly quite friendly looking Emily, practically undressing her with his mindless grin and his hungry eyes. Not that her bath robe left much to undress.

“Are you going to be okay?”

Gwen’s voice snapped Nate back to the moment. She was watching him with that concerned look, apparently oblivious to her shining knight’s wondering eyes.

“Seriously,” she said. “I’ll call Kells and get us to the hospital right now.”

Nate tried to run through a quick mental inventory but instead found himself searching Gwen’s perfect face, wondering how anyone could ever be distracted by another face again when they had this one giving them smiles and kisses and…

“Nate?”

He swallowed against a dry throat and shook his head. “I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.”

He made to stand, and she scrambled to help him, stabilizing him on the way up and then holding on after the fact, not trusting he wouldn’t fall straight back down.

“Okay,” she said, glancing uncertainly back toward Todd and the rest of the crowd.

“Gwen?”

She turned back to him, dark eyebrows raised, her face attentive.

“It was… good seeing you.”

“Yeah,” she said, frowning at the rooftop. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.” She took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’ll text you later, okay?”

Nate nodded and bent to scoop up his backpack as she left to rejoin her group.

Todd slung an arm over her shoulders like it was mechanical reflex, like she simply belonged there, nestled in. It turned Nate’s stomach, watching the grinning mountain of man muscle pull Gwen in for a kiss even as Emily stood there, all but baring herself for him.

Gwen said something to Todd, and next thing he was looking over at Nate, throwing him a sleeveless salute like they were old pals. “Yo, party tonight, IT Guy. Come drink it off.”

Todd didn’t wait for a response. Just turned and sauntered up Allen Street with Gwen, his posse trailing faithfully behind.

Part of Nate wished he’d had the courage to at least flip the mindless barbarian the bird behind his back. The rest of him, though, was too preoccupied wishing he could be the one sliding his well-muscled arm around Gwen’s slender waist, swaggering off to greet the day. And probably to fail an algebra test. But who gave a shit about that? Class was…

Class.

He needed to get to class.

Still moving tenderly, Nate slung his backpack over one shoulder and limped toward the dispersing crowd. Copernicus, whom no one had seen fit to keep track of, trotted in from the sidewalk and looked up at him with his winning doggy grin.

“Oh, Copernicus,” Nate said, bending carefully down to pat the corgi’s head. “That’s twice this week,” he added to Emily, who was watching Todd and the rest of the Alpha-Sig-Sigs saunter off.

“Yeah, thanks I guess,” she said, like she’d barely heard him.

“Maybe you could get a collar he can’t slip out of.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Or block off wherever he’s climbing up,” Nate added, frowning at the bars on Emily’s window above and wondering, not for the first time, how the hell the little corgi kept managing to get up there at all.

“Yeah, uh-huh.”

Nate turned back and realized Emily was on her phone.

“Or,” he said, ninety-five percent sure she wasn’t hearing a single word he said, “you could, you know, just keep an eye on him or something.”

She let out an explosive huff and whirled on him. “Dude, I said thanks. What, you want me to blow you or something just because you stopped to help again?”

Nate actually recoiled a few inches. “I—What?”

“Whatever,” she said, shaking her head and looking off after Todd’s retreating bro-fest again. “Whatever.”

And with that, she turned and headed for her door at a brusque march.

Beside Nate, Copernicus watched her go in silence, then looked up at Nate, his tail picking up in a tentative wag.

“Go on, boy,” Nate said, waving after Emily. “Go tell her how good she looks or whatever the hell she does with you.”

Nate wasn’t sure if he imagined the corgi’s ears drooping slightly, but the dog certainly didn’t look happy as he slunk across the yard after his half-primmed owner. Emily slammed the apartment door closed as Copernicus reached the porch steps.

The corgi looked back at Nate, head cocked quizzically, tail picking up. Then the door opened, and Emily called, having finally remembered her dependent companion. Ears definitely drooping this time, the corgi marched into the apartment and disappeared as the door swung shut again.

“Goddammit,” Nate muttered to no one in particular.

He turned to retrieve his bike from the tree he’d leaned it up again, positive that he was not up to riding it the rest of the way to campus right now. He was already going to be late to Structure and Design anyway. But that was okay. Professor Hillman probably wouldn’t give him much grief, as long as he turned in his…

Shit.

How had he forgotten?

With a sickened feeling, Nate slid his bag off his shoulder and dropped to one knee. He reached for the middle zipper, already knowing what he’d find, and trying to hold on to hope anyway.

The zipper rumbled across shiny black teeth, parting the middle pocket open until Nate could see the intricate wood, wax, and wire model he’d been working on all week. The model he’d spent hours and hours shaping and carving and shaping some more. More hours still with the paint, until it was perfection. Until it looked like an honest-to-god little alien Promethean dude, ready to spring to life and conquer Earth, one ant hill at a time.

And now the ten-inch figurine was smashed to hammered shit at the bottom of his bag.

He looked up, not knowing what to do, which way to even turn. Looked up and found Copernicus watching him from Emily’s window, the curtain draped over his smiling little corgi head, his upper body visibly shaking with the energy of his no-doubt-wagging tail.

“Goddammit, boy,” Nate sighed, turning for campus with his bike in tow. “Someday, we’re both gonna get away from this bullshit.”

***

Across South Allen Street, in the rooftop nook of an old, creaking gray house that was currently the residence of no less than five of Emily Atherton’s neighbors, an old man shifted beneath his threadbare blanket and reached into his robe for his cup, watching as the lanky child below mussed his dark hair, gathered up his pack and bicycle, and limped off up the hill, toward the university. 

“Am I hallucinating again,” the old man croaked in a voice that suggested long bouts of disuse even beyond the troubled sleep he’d just been yanked out of by the commotion across the way, “or are you referring to that jittery runt down there?”

He glanced up at the overcast sky, back down to the boy in question, then smirked, as if someone had said something amusingly naive.

“You do remember what they are meant to do, don’t you?”

He cocked his head, listening, but no one was there. Just an old, ragged-robed man, and his cup of ale, mysteriously full, though he’d only just pulled it from his pocket.

“Very well, very well,” he grumbled, taking a long pull from the cup and shaking his mangy gray mane in reserved exasperation. “Insufferable spirit.”

He stood, and very nearly pitched off of the rooftop when his head went spinning harder than expected. He sniffed, gathering his balance and taking another swig. Something told him there’d be significantly less commotion were he to go falling from a rooftop. No lovely blonde lasses pampering him. But then again, he also wasn’t quite so fragile as to worry about a little fall.

“Are you certain about this?” the old man asked, watching the boy limp out of sight in the distance and knowing even as he spoke the words aloud that it was pointless to question the way of things—that this was exactly why her infernally unerring whispers had led him here, to this happiest of valleys.

He listened intently to the silence, and added his own sigh to the stirring wind once she’d made her reply.

It was time, then.

“Very well…” He downed the remainder of his ale breakfast. “But I’m going to need a drink first, M’lady.”

Chapter 2 – Just Another Friday

“Catch, Broku Brodinson!” was the first thing Nate heard when he arrived home and cracked open the door. He caught the strong waft of fresh pizza next. And the shiny rim of a beer can lofting straight for his chest.

Nate tried to stow his keys, fumbled the can catch, and ended up juggling keys, beer can, and backpack for what seemed like a logically impossible amount of time before finally tripping off of the shoe mat and straight onto the faux wood floor between the couch and their extensive gaming setup.

By sheer nerd reflex, they all gasped and whirled around, all having experienced one too many times the horror of a console yanked from the shelves or a controller yanked from the hand by the clumsy idiot who decided to go tripping over the cables. Only their nerd reflexes were outdated.

“Ahh,” Zach purred when the inevitable crash didn’t come, his eyes returning to his round of Battle Royale. “The joy of wireless controllers.”

“Tomorrow,” Kyle added, adopting an ambiguous fantasy accent from where he was perched on the back of the couch like a sage, albeit overweight, sword master, “you will the catch the beer.”

“I thought we all agreed not to join a frat,” Nate groaned from the floor.

“Bro…” Kyle said.

“Bro!” Zach agreed, not looking away from his game.

“You guys are starting to freak me out now.”

Marty, as he so often did, stepped in to restore balance to the Force. Emerging from the kitchen in typical Meek Marty manner, he scooped the jostled beer can up, went to restock it safely in the fridge, then leaned back out, hefting a fresh beer in one hand and a bottled water in the other, a silent question written on his brow.

Nate pointed at the beer.

“Bad day?” Kyle asked as Marty shelved the water and brought Nate his first round.

“Give him a break,” Marty said, handing Nate the can. “It’s Friday. And you’re already four deep. At 5 PM.”

By way of reply, Kyle burped and cracked open the new can he’d had ready and waiting. “Five, brochacho.”

Marty just shook his head, then added to Nate, in a conspiratorially low voice, “Bad day?”

Kyle splayed his meaty hands in dramatic indignation. “We’re sitting right here, Marty.”

“And speaking of which…” Zach said in the flat tone that told Nate without even looking at the TV that his friend had just entered the thick of digital combat, and was now too occupied to finish his request.

Not needing any clarification, Nate rose and followed Marty out of the gamer’s critical line of sight and into the adjoined kitchen and dining space of their happy little Penn State house.

“So what happened, brohan?” Kyle asked through the wooden framework that acted as both lo-fi shelf and honorary divider between the living room and their cramped dining area.

Nate set his bag down on the table and cracked open his beer, absentmindedly watching Zach shoot it out with some random online opponent while he thought about where to begin. He took a sip of his drink, tasted the welcome bite of hops, and finally looked at the can. Founder’s All Day IPA. Collectively—with the exception of Marty, whose parents were loaded—they probably couldn’t rightly afford to be drinking anything better than the finest discount natty pilsners. But they’d come to the agreement that they were a household of higher taste and finer things—as evidenced by the extensive and varied collection of empty craft bottles lining the divider wall and the other shelves throughout the living room.

If they couldn’t get the girls, they figured, they might as well get the good beer, at least.

Nate took another sip—a sip that turned into a long pull, and maybe even a bit of a glug, as he reflected on the day’s steady-fire stream of injustices.

“Goddamn Todd,” he finally gasped at the end of his glug.

His roommates traded a dark look. Zach even looked away from the TV for a moment, only to be rewarded with a swift in-game death.

“Goddamn Todd!” he shouted, tossing the controller down on the couch beside him. “It was down to the final five!” Then, remembering himself, he grabbed his own beer off the coffee table and turned to Nate. “So, what happened?”

“Copernicus got on the roof this morning.”

“Again?” Zach asked.

“Dude,” Kyle said, extending beer hand and open palm like he was fixing to reveal the mind-blowing secrets of the universe. “Ladders. Just sayin.”

“Isn’t that like the fourth time this week?” Zach asked.

“Second,” Nate corrected, “but he’s definitely seemed kind of… I dunno, agitated lately.”

“Yeah,” Kyle said. “Because of the alien mind control rays.”

“That’s not a thing,” Marty said.

Kyle rocked back on his couch perch, eyebrows reaching for the ceiling.

“Not again,” Marty muttered, opening the fridge to grab a beer.

From his couch back perch, Kyle held up three thick fingers.

“He’s doing it,” Zach said before taking a long sip of his own drink.

“Here we go,” Marty said, cracking open his can.

“Three weeks,” Kyle said, wiggling his raised fingers for emphasis. “Three weeks since NASA, the CNSA, and no less than eight major observatories around the world all started reporting”—he made dramatic air quotes—“‘peculiar activity’ in the ‘background radiation.’”   

“Yeah?” Zach asked. “What else, Dr. Evil?”

“At the same time,” Kyle said, jabbing a finger at Zach. “Namor and the oceanographers pop up to tell us there’s some strange seismic activity going down in the great blue yonder, and no one’s sure why. Meanwhile, reports of odd and unusual animal behavior are on, and I quote, ‘an unprecedented rise,’ according to the National Wildlife Federation.”

At that point in the speech, Kyle paused to take a hearty swig of his beer. “This isn’t just another ‘storm Area 51 now’ poseur-fest, gentlemen. Three weeks.” Another swig. “Three batshit weird signs.” Another swig.

“Now I ask you, gentleman…” Zach picked up in a decent imitation of Kyle’s throaty voice.

“If that doesn’t sound like aliens to you…” Marty added, his imitation passable if not quite as good.

Kyle unleashed a mighty burp and crushed his finished can. “Then what the fuck would?”

Nate took another sip of his beer, feeling oddly perturbed by his friend’s bogus conspiracy theory. Chock it up to too much doom and gloom in one day.

Kyle turned back to him. “So what happened with Copernicus?”

“I fell off the roof trying to get him.”

Zach’s eyes widened mid-sip.

“Dude…” Kyle said.

“Are you okay?” Marty asked.

“Is the dog?” Zach added.

“Oh, Copernicus is great,” Nate said, smiling a little at the memory of the corgi, then quickly sobering. “But I landed on my backpack and crushed the Promethean…”

“Nooo,” Marty groaned.

“… And Gwen and Todd just happened to be walking by in time to see the whole thing.”

“No!” Zach said.

“So, yeah,” Nate said. “I got to play helpless invalid to Gwen. Meanwhile, Todd’s all but getting it on with Emily Atherton right behind her back.” He shook his head, too frustrated to find adequate words.

“Sounds like good news to me,” Marty said. “Todd is obviously a dick, and Gwen obviously cares about you. Win-win.”

Nate sipped his beer, considering Marty’s wisdom. “She did offer to drop everything and take me to the hospital.”

“See?” Marty said, cracking a smile. “That’s great, man. She cares.”

“Yeah, because we’re fucking BFFs,” Nate muttered, but he found himself smiling too. Maybe it was partly thanks to the beer he’d downed rather hastily, but Marty’s smile always seemed to have that effect on him.

“Sooo,” Kyle said, leaning forward excitedly. “Was Atherton wearing the bathrobe again?”

“Dude,” Zach said, elbowing Kyle’s knee. “Not important right now.”

“Emily was wearing the bathrobe, yes,” Nate said, glad for the chance to turn the spotlight off of his own public embarrassment. “Pink and skimpy. Practically falling out of it.”

“See?” Kyle said, splaying his hands at Zack. “How is that not important? Imagine…” He ran his hands through the air, tracing unseen curves, then cracked open a fresh beer and took a sip, shaking his head longingly. “Almost makes me wanna start waking up before noon.”

“Yeah,” Zach said. “Emphasis on the almost, right?”

Kyle shrugged and sipped his beer.

“Dude, have some pizza and forget about the whole thing,” Marty said to Nate, flipping open the topmost box of the Bell’s pizza stack on the table.

“We’ve got noobs to slay and beers aplenty!” Kyle agreed, raising his can in cheers.

Stomach rumbling at the sight of cheesy goodness, Nate took a slice and dug in without argument.

“What did Hillman have to say about the Promethean?” Marty asked.

Nate shook his head and tried to talk around a full bite. “I think I’m dropping his class.”

That caused another round of startled looks.

“It’s just too much to juggle,” Nate said, immediately feeling defensive. “It’s an elective anyway.”

Zach cocked his head. “But it’s like…”

“The only class he cares about?” Kyle asked.

“Yeah, that.”

Nate shrugged. “No software firm is gonna care if I took some art classes.”

Merciful Sith, he sounded like his dad.

“I don’t need the credits anyway,” he added to wash the thought away, but his roommates’ skeptical stares persisted. He turned and found the same look mirrored on Marty’s face.

“What?” He pushed past Marty to grab a plate from the kitchen cupboard and returned to the table to load on a few more slices. “I can just make useless shit on my own time, can’t I?”

“That he can,” Kyle said with a clap of his hands. “Now get your beers and start your rigs, ladies and gentlemen,” he added, pointing first to Marty, then to Nate, then to the bottom two flat screens of their Cartesian quadrant style Mother of All Gaming Shrines.

“Tonight, we game!”

***

A few hours and a few beers later, Nate was finally starting to feel comfortable with the idea that normalcy had returned. Sure, it had been a shit day. And sure, he might’ve nixed what little bit of his prematurely failed art career he had left—not to mention further buried his chances with Gwen. But he had his friends, and he always would. And they had their games. And he had his buzz.

Things could’ve been a whole hell of a lot worse.

In fact, he decided, after another beer and an unexpectedly spectacular Battle Royale victory, he wasn’t really sure they could’ve been any better than they were just like this. Things were exactly as they were supposed to be. He was sure of it. So sure that he was preparing to make it known via a grand—and possibly slightly drunken—declaration when his phone vibrated on the floor ahead of him.

He traded an arched eyebrow with Marty, who was sitting cross legged on the floor beside him, as was their custom—Zach and Kyle both perched on the couch behind them where they could see over their heads.

“Hold up,” Nate said, ducking his in-game character safely into a corner and reaching for his phone. His heart fluttered at the name on the screen.

Gwen: “How are you feeling?”

He unlocked the phone, game temporarily forgotten as he tried to compose an adequately cool response.

“Who dat?” Zach asked, craning curiously from the couch.

“It’s Gwen,” Marty said with a knowing smile. “That’s the Gwen face.”

“Ah, She of the Many Cliques,” Kyle said. “How is ol’ Gwenneth?”

“I don’t know why you insist on calling her that,” Marty said. “Having other friends isn’t a crime, you know.”

Other friends?” Kyle asked. “I’m sorry, did I miss the part where she’s still our friend?”

Nate swiped out his reply and hit send.

Nate: “Feeling great… but sorry, who is this again?”

He wasn’t surprised at the bitterness in his friend’s tone. Once upon a freshman dorm, Gwen had been their on-again, off-again fifth controller jockey, and Kyle in particular had never seemed to forgive her for having slowly vanished into the college ether.

“She still asks about you guys,” Nate said, returning to the ongoing game. He didn’t mention the part where his own chances to see her had grown decidedly less and less frequent with each passing semester. “And to answer your original question, Kyle, aside from having caught a bad case of steroid fever, I think she’s pretty—”

The phone vibrated in Nate’s lap.

That was fast.

“Yeah, we know you think she’s pretty, buddy,” Zach said. “Now if you could kindly hide the erection, we’ve got an enemy team at…”

But Nate was already glancing down at the phone with a single-mindedness that would’ve made Pavlov proud.

Gwen: “Har har, Mr. Concussion. I probably shouldn’t encourage you to drink, considering, but come hang out tonight if you’re up for it?”

Excitement rose in Nate’s chest, tinged with a twist of apprehension and joined shortly by the churn of guilt in his gut. Did he really want to—

“Nate!” Kyle cried, snapping him back to the war room. “Get your rockets out here and—Well, shit. Never mind. Because now we’re dead. Go team.”

Nate looked up from his phone and vibrating controller just in time to watch the enemy team finish sweeping the floor with their digital bodies. “Sorry, guys,” he said with a guilty grin, brandishing his phone. “But yeah. She’s good, I think.”

The look on his face must’ve said the rest, because Zach and Kyle both went from looks of suspicion to ones of accusation in a flash.

“Dude, it’s Friday night squads,” Kyle said. “You can’t bail to go hang out with the original squad bailer. She of the…” He frowned, having apparently stumped his drunken self.

“You need to stop with the nicknames,” Marty said.

“And every night is squads night for us,” Nate added.

Kyle shook his head, holding up a single meaty finger. “Not true. Zach and I totally played duos the other night when you and Marty were”—he made air quotes—“‘watching Prometheus.’”

“So spooky,” Zach said in a mock whisper. “Hold my hand!”

“Well…” Nate said, swiping out a reply to Gwen.

Nate: “Might have jumped the gun on the drinking thing. Where would I find you if I were up for it?”

“… Maybe you guys have a Battle Royale problem,” he concluded, looking up at Kyle and Zach.

“And that was also three weeks ago,” Marty pointed out. “Just for the record. Pretty sure we haven’t missed a night since.”

Kyle looked in turn genuinely surprised and then moderately disturbed by that news. “Three weeks,” he muttered. “Goddamn aliens.” He shook his head clear, his usual vigor returning. “Well in that case, I should probably make sure I fed Hector.”

Gwen: “Follow signs of troglodytes. Big, big footprints. Many keg tracks.”

Nate smiled down at his phone then almost dropped it as the couch creaked and Kyle thudded down to the floor. Their plus-sized roommate stopped to catch his balance, clearly feeling the effects of the innumerable beers he’d pounded since he’d last left his seat, then he steadied and jabbed a finger at Nate.

“And once I’m sure Hector’s not dead, then it’s Friday night squads! You wouldn’t wanna make your pals go dropping in with some rando fourth, would ya?”

When Nate wasn’t quick with a response, Kyle marched off down the hallway, muttering something about randos and kids these days and the humanity, gods the humanity! They listened to him bang open the metal door and thump into his room down the hall.

“If you’re gonna go,” Marty said, “could you come have a look at my arduino first? I hit a little snag.”

Zach, who’d been watching the two of them expectantly, took that as a sign to fire up a solo round. “Yeah, go look at his arduino, Nate,” he said, smirking a little drunkenly and looking at a sincere loss between finishing his pizza or his beer while the game loaded.

Nate grabbed one last slice of pizza and followed Marty down the hallway to his friend’s room. Without question, Marty’s room was the tidiest in the house, and he was undoubtedly the MVP when it came to keeping the rest of the house in order as well. Between that fact and the concerned look Marty turned on Nate the second he closed the door behind them, Nate couldn’t help but wonder for the thousandth time if maybe his own mother didn’t secretly have Marty on payroll as her designated worry-wart by proxy.

“Why are you dropping Hillman’s class?” he asked.

Nate looked around the room. “The old can you take a look at my arduino trick, huh?”

“Gets ‘em every time,” Marty agreed, sitting down at his computer desk and waking the sleeping beast. “I have been getting an error all afternoon, though. Driving me crazy.”

Nate stood there while Marty pulled open the code he’d been working on for his utterly unnecessary and wonderfully nerdy automated bedroom wakeup system. Adjustable lights, music, motorized window blinds control, and retro LED message board—all controlled by a handy little arduino.

Marty loved these kinds of projects. It was the kind of stuff Nate highly appreciated as well but never tended to initiate himself, preferring instead to spend most of his leisure time either gaming or sketching up his concept art alongside that little voice in his head that said maybe, just maybe if he kept it going he could one day find work as a real living, breathing video game concept artist. One day.

His phone buzzed in his hand.

Gwen: “So what do you say, sailor? Just like old times?”

He tucked the phone in his pocket, suddenly feeling a little sick for reasons he couldn’t identify. Probably just the onslaught of pizza and the beer, he supposed, but…

“I couldn’t show it to him, Marty. The Promethean, I mean. It’s stupid, but after all the work I put into it… I just couldn’t show Hillman what was left. Not even to prove my story.”

Marty frowned, clearly trying to understand. “So what? He threatened to fail you or something?”

Nate shook his head. “No. He just said he understood and asked me if I wanted to try again.”

“But… That’s good, right? Why don’t you just, you know… try again?”

Nate leaned in to inspect Marty’s code more to change the subject than anything else, taking the mouse to scroll through the lines.

“You love that stuff, Nate,” Marty said quietly. “You don’t have to drop it all just because…”

He trailed off, either unsure of what to say, or just unwilling to point out the truths that Nate already knew: that he wasn’t a concept artist, and that he probably never would be. That there just weren’t that many reliable, obtainable jobs out there in the field, as his parents had been quick to point out back when the college talks had started. And sure, that didn’t mean he had to drop the art. But it also didn’t mean there was any point pretending he was something he wasn’t.

“You transposed this matrix in the wrong spot,” he said.

“What?” Marty said, turning back to the monitor.

“The way you’re opening this spreadsheet and accessing the… Never mind. Just, this matrix needs to be transposed every iteration, see? So it needs to be nested one loop deeper.”

“Oh.” Marty squinted at the screen and bobbed his head as he saw it. “Ohhh. Yeah, that’s… that makes sense.” He looked at me. “That was quick, dude. You are really good at this stuff, for what it’s worth.”

Really lucky, was more like it. He’d just happened to start reading at exactly the right spot. But he still appreciated Marty’s compliment. For a second, he thought about asking his friend to come with him, even though he knew the answer would be a solid thanks, but no thanks… unless you need me to.

“I still think you should stay in Hillman’s class,” Marty added, still looking at the monitor. “For the record.”

“Duly noted,” Nate said, patting his friend on the back. “Maybe I’ll try to take a page from your wall display’s book.”

Nate opened the door and slipped out of Marty’s room to go investigate his clean shirt situation, sure that behind him, Marty was meanwhile turning to look at the retro LED display on his nice, tidy wall.

“ERROR,” it read. “INPUT INVALID.”


That’s it for the first look, my friend!

Lots more Excalibur Knight goodies on the way between now and the series launch (tentatively the end of October).

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Peace and love, Book Fan!

-Luke