Chapter 1

Nineteen

LATE AFTERNOON—THE TIME WHEN KIDS GO HOME FROM SCHOOL. But the street outside Parkville High is empty. No one walks home in this neighborhood. No one except Hank. Today is Hank’s final day of school, and while the other kids cheerfully climb onto the bus, jump into their cars or get picked up by their proud parents, Hank slips out the school gates with his head held low and sets off for home without a backward glance. The motley motorcade of yellow buses, minivans and secondhand SUVs swings out from the school yard and sails along the street, heading for the leafy suburbs: the passengers chatting happily, swapping jokes, or concentrating on their phones. Some are listening to music, their eyes closed, earbuds jammed in place. But no one looks out the window. No one spares a glance for the boarded-up shops or the tumbledown houses with their crooked roofs and cracked windows. No one wonders what’s beyond the sagging chain-link fences barely held in place by drunken steel posts. This street is a wasteland: barren, desolate, empty.

But Hank walks on, his shoulders squared, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his jeans. He tunes out the rumble of traffic, ignores the diesel fumes. Soon, they’ll be gone and he’ll have the place to himself. He turns a corner, and though he doesn’t raise his head, his eyes flick from side to side, scanning both sides of the street, watching. This is his street, and if there’s anything new, anything missing, he’ll know it in an instant. But there’s nothing to cause concern. Not today. Today, the street is quiet as the grave. The red brick houses don’t just look empty, they seem abandoned: paint peeling from the doors, windows dull with grime, concrete yards cracked and sprouting tufts of grass.

Hank allows himself a grim smile. He’s almost home. He takes a breath, flaring his nostrils. It’s a hot summer day, and the humid air is tinged with a trace of decay. Every summer it’s the same. Hank’s dad, Mervin, says it’s the drains, but how the hell would he know? How the hell would he know about anything? His dad hasn’t set foot outside the house for years. For a heartbeat, Hank pictures his dad, imagines him shuffling from the sofa to the refrigerator, from the bathroom to the bedroom, back and forth, back and forth like a goddamned zombie. He pushes the thought away, pushes it as far as he can. But it isn’t easy. It’s hard to ignore someone when he relies on you for everything. Even harder when you see his face every time you look in the mirror.

Hank takes after his dad. Always has, always will. Everyone says it. And it’s not all bad. Back when he was in his prime, Mervin was a big man: taller than most and built like an athlete. A good man on the basketball court, Mervin played power forward for the college. He could’ve turned pro, so they say. But not Mervin. Ten years pushing paper for the army then kicked out on a disability pension. Hank could never figure it out, and truth be told, he didn’t often try.

Still, the genes came through. Hank has that stature, that poise. He walks like a military man: his shoulders square, his back straight, his arms hanging halfway loose by his side. It’s not much but it’s what he’s got, and it’s enough. Most of the time. The drunks and the vagrants leave him alone. And Hank has the knack of seeing trouble five minutes before it hits the fan. He does OK. He makes his own luck. Most of the time. And when things turn ugly, he’s fast enough on his feet to get the hell out of the way.

But today, the street is quiet, and Hank walks on, unimpeded. The concrete beneath his canvas shoes is cracked and worn. And with every step he takes, a swirl of dust kicks up into the air, where it hangs for only a moment before it whirls and is whisked away by the gentlest summer breeze.

“Too goddamn hot,” Hank mutters. A trickle of sweat runs down the back of his neck, but he pays it no heed. He doesn’t slow his pace, nor does he remove his heavy leather jacket. He wears that jacket every day, rain or shine. And anyway, it’s too late to take it off; his house is just up ahead: stained brick, dented door, just like every house on the goddamned street.

[et_bloom_locked optin_id=optin_12]

Hank takes out his key as he walks up to his front door. His dad keeps it locked no matter what. “It’s OK, Dad,” he says as he lets himself in. He keeps his voice low, steady. “It’s me. It’s Hank.”

He doesn’t get a reply—doesn’t expect one. His dad isn’t on the sofa, so Hank walks through to the kitchen. Mervin is standing at the sink, staring down into the clutter of dirty dishes. He doesn’t look up.

“You doing the dishes?” Hank says, and he can’t quite keep the surprise out of his voice.

Mervin pushes out his bottom lip. “I was going to,” he says. “I was thinking about it.” He turns around and looks up at his son. “But never mind that. Did you get your test score today? Did you do OK?”

Hank shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “I got 19.”

“Nineteen?” Mervin asks hopefully. “Out of twenty?”

“Percent, Dad,” Hank says. “I got 19 percent.”

Mervin looks at the floor. “That’s it for college then,” he says. “In the morning… in the morning, you’ll get a job.”

Hank stares at his dad. Goddamned hypocrite, he thinks. He’s telling me what to do? He can’t even look me in the eye. But he shrugs his shoulders. “Sure, Dad,” he says. “First thing.”

Mervin doesn’t reply. He turns back around, stares at the dirty dishes.

Hank shakes his head slowly. Thanks for your support, Dad. But there’s no point expecting more. His dad’s been distant for years: a shadow in the shape of a man. He’s not going to suddenly change. Not any time soon anyway. Hank walks away and stomps up the stairs to his room, slamming his feet down as hard as he can on the loose boards, making every footstep count. The house needs noise, needs shaking out of its goddamned waking dream. If he could, he’d take a hammer and pound holes in the flaking plaster, rip up the goddamned floorboards, knock the whole place to the ground. Yeah. That would be pretty damn good. The only drawback—his dad probably wouldn’t even notice.

Hank slams his bedroom door shut behind him and kicks a pile of dirty laundry to one side. The whole place is a goddamned mess. It’s no wonder Mom left. It’s a miracle she held on for as long as she did. Maybe he’ll call her up later. Maybe.

He looks down at his game chair. “Why not?” he asks the empty room. He’s in a mood to kick some ass. He scoops up the mess of crumpled papers strewn across his chair: school work, unfinished assignments. Later, he’ll take them out to the trash. Or maybe he’ll burn them. For now, he tosses the whole pile onto the floor and sits down.

He powers up the chair then lays his arms on the armrests, making sure he places his hands correctly on the gel pads. As he presses his head back against the headrest, the gel-filled pad molds itself to the shape of his skull. And he waits.

There it is. The tiny thrill of an electric current tingling across his scalp as the chair gets ready to sync up. Hank takes a deep breath, shoves his thoughts out of the way and lets his mind relax. He stares up at the ceiling, focusing on a dusty cobweb, watches it sway back and forth. You’ve got to let the sync happen. It’s the best way to get a good connection, and he doesn’t want any glitches. Not today.

Some gamers shave their heads. They say it makes the contact even better, but that’s bullshit. Some close their eyes, but Hank’s a hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool, blood-and-guts game-head. He keeps his eyes wide open. If you can’t face the sync, you shouldn’t play. Simple as that.

A shadow creeps across the ceiling, hiding the cracks in the plaster, the cobwebs. Hold on, Hank tells himself. Here it comes. And it begins. The darkness rushes in on Hank, and for a second, it’s dizzying, even for him. The chair falls away beneath him, and his mind spins. His stomach is suddenly hollow, and a bitter taste rises to the back of his throat. But Hank grits his teeth, swallows spit. Let it happen. It won’t be long now.

Yes. He can see his head-up display; the HUD is always the first thing to appear. He runs his eye over his stats: all green, all good. Any moment now, he’ll be in the game. A message flashes across his HUD, its bold red letters incredibly bright in the darkness:

AGRIPPINE EXPERIENCE: SYNCHRONIZATION COMPLETE

Hank lets out his breath in a sigh. He’s hooked up. From now on, all he needs are his thoughts.

Select game, he thinks. Unlimited Combat 9.

UNLIMITED COMBAT 9 SELECTED

Set profile: Sergeant Kilgore. Set mode: solo. Set difficulty: maximum.

Hank hesitates. Should he start a new mission? He’s kind of stuck on the last one. Maybe he’s gone as far as he can. No. To hell with that. Today will be different. Today, he’s going to crack this sucker wide open.

Resume mission.

MISSION RESUMES IN 3, 2, 1

The darkness lifts, replaced by a cloudless blue sky. There’s a hint of smoke in the air and nearby, the rattle of automatic gunfire.

Hank smiles. I’m in.

SERGEANT KILGORE RUNS LIKE HELL. He keeps his head low and powers forward, following the path he’s picked out between piles of smoldering rubble. A burst of automatic fire crackles from behind him, and the rounds fizz through the air, thumping into the ground around his feet. He needs cover—and fast. Up ahead, on the right side of the street, there’s a low brick wall, maybe four feet high. It’s at least fifty yards away, but he can make it. He’s got to. There’s a guy hot on his heels, taking pot shots at everything that moves, and no matter what he’s tried, Kilgore just can’t shake him off. He needs an advantage, needs an edge, and that wall is the best he’s going to get.

Kilgore pumps his arms and powers forward, his boots clobbering the concrete. Thirty yards. Twenty. He’s almost there. He’s going to make it. A bullet slams into the body armor on his back, and he almost pitches headfirst to the ground, but his momentum carries him forward. He staggers for a moment then runs on. The wall is only ten yards away.

His HUD flashes up a message:

WARNING: ENTERING SILVER ZONE: MULTIPLE THREATS DETECTED

“Shit!” Kilgore hisses between clenched teeth. “Not yet!” He was always headed for the Silver Zone, but this isn’t the way he wanted to play it. He planned for a covert mission, a quiet incursion into hostile territory. Instead, he’s charging down the middle of the road, and the moron on his tail is making enough noise to wake the dead.

Kilgore eyes up the brick wall and alters his approach, placing his feet precisely. A few short strides, then he makes his move, launching himself into the air. He reaches out with his left hand and grabs the top of the wall, swinging his body over the top and landing perfectly on his feet. In one motion, he springs up and turns around, facing the street. He rests his elbow on the wall and lowers his head to the scope on his assault rifle. Yes! His opponent stumbles, realizing his mistake: He’s left himself in the open, with nowhere to go. The guy panics and races toward Kilgore, firing his rifle from the hip, spraying bullets far and wide. This moron’s shooting like there’s no tomorrow, Kilgore thinks, and a smile twitches at the corners of his mouth. But not for long. There are no bonus points for grim irony in this game, no rewards for schadenfreude.

Kilgore exhales and presses the trigger, unleashing a three-shot burst. His opponent’s body armor is good, but so is Kilgore’s aim, and as he watches through his scope, the guy’s skull explodes in a spattering spray of blood. But Kilgore doesn’t gloat. He’s on the move before the other guy’s corpse hits the ground.

Kilgore stays behind the brick wall, running in a half crouch. When you’re in the Silver Zone, you stay out of sight whenever you can. But he can’t hide forever. He’s set himself a goal: a set of coordinates he must reach. It’s a tough assignment; his objective is deep inside enemy territory. But if the rumors on the forums are right, there’s a secret base: a military stronghold no player has ever seen. They say the location was leaked by an ex-employee at Agrippine Experience: someone sacked for hiding cheat codes in the game.

At first, Kilgore wasn’t so sure. The whole thing smelled suspiciously like an urban myth. But a few days ago, he caught a break and found the coordinates online. Since then, he’s been on a mission. And he can do it. He’s got the gameplay skills to make it this far and one or two tricks up his sleeve to tip the scales in his favor. If the secret base is real, he could be the first player to see it. Now that really would be something to shout about. Notoriety, celebrity, fame—call it what you want—it could all be his for the taking. A time-stamped snapshot of the base is all he needs. And he’s almost there.

Kilgore stops to catch his breath, and he checks the mission map in his HUD. He’s close, so close he can almost taste it, but it won’t be easy. He’ll have to cross the road, leaving himself in the open, then run like hell until he reaches a turn on his left. He must take that side street. It’s the only route. There is no alternative.

He runs on until he reaches the end of the wall, then he hesitates, checks the map for the seventh time. This is it. Time to cross the street. He takes a knee and peeks around the edge of the wall. Or tries to. A hail of automatic fire rains down on his position, the rounds taking chunks out the wall and ricocheting off every surface. Jesus! He throws himself back against the wall, leans against it. He can feel the bullets shuddering into the brickwork as the enemy rocks the wall with a stream of automatic fire. Chunks of cement spill down in a shower of brick dust and rattle on the top of Kilgore’s helmet. Someone’s having fun, he thinks bitterly. But they’re doing their job well, laying down enough suppressive fire to keep him pinned down. He’s trapped, and in a few minutes, the wall will break down and he’ll be forced to retreat. To add insult to injury, his HUD flashes up a new warning:

HOSTILE INFANTRY: GDL PATROL DETECTED

“No shit,” Kilgore mutters darkly. “I knew those bastards would show up.”

This changes everything. The General Defense League are just grunts—part of the game—but each GDL soldier is equipped with AI. They can act independently, and they never tire, never give in. But what’s worse for Kilgore is the way the GDL units work together. Each soldier can call up other units in a coordinated response. If Kilgore retreats now, they’ll hound him down and wipe him out.

Kilgore spits the dust from his lips. He has two choices. He can sit behind the wall and wait for it to collapse, or he can try and fight his way out. He shakes his head. Maybe there’s another way. He’s got this far by outsmarting the opposition. If he can assess the situation, perhaps he can find an opportunity, a way to take the initiative.

He drops down onto his belly and slides across the ground, pushing himself away from the wall. It gives him a better angle, and he can see a little way across the street. Up ahead, he has a tantalizing glimpse of the side street he’s got to take. It’s too far—I’ll never make it. From the intensity of the suppressive fire, the buildings across the street must be swarming with GDL. And there are probably more units on the way. It’s hopeless.

But Kilgore rolls his shoulders, flexes his fingers against his rifle. He’s a smoldering fuse, a grenade without the pin. Every muscle in his body is taut; every heartbeat sends a jolt of adrenaline surging through his veins. He’s got to do something. Anything’s better than sitting in the dirt waiting for the wall to give way. He shuffles back a little and pushes himself up into a crouch. He’s not keeping himself low enough to be protected by the wall, but so what? A guttural yell builds in his chest, a savage roar of anger and frustration seethes in the pit of his stomach. To hell with this! He won’t wait to be picked off by those goddamned vultures. Better to go out in a spray of bullets and a hail of glory.

But somewhere deep within the game’s servers, a zero flicks up to a one, and a sniper’s bullet spins just a little faster as it leaves the rifle’s muzzle. It’s enough, just enough to make it fly true against the crosswind, and it finds its target. The bullet screams through a gap in Kilgore’s body armor and rips into his shoulder. The pain sears through him, and a burst of red-hot light explodes in his mind. He slumps to the ground, landing hard on his backside. He’s safe for the moment, but the agony in his shoulder races through his upper body like a flame through gasoline. He breathes hard, fighting against the pain. He’s got to blank it out. He’s got to focus. He forces his mind to form the right words, and his HUD responds to his unspoken commands.

Status report.

HEALTH: CRITICAL—TRAUMA, BLOOD LOSS, SHOCK

ENERGY: DEPLETED (25% REMAINING)

BODY ARMOR: DEPLETED (10% REMAINING)

Apply medikit.

MEDIKIT UNAVAILABLE

Inventory.

The list scrolls upward in front of his eyes. It doesn’t take long. His body armor isn’t worth shit; there’s no medikit, no field dressings, no painkillers. One more hit, and he’ll be pulped. Kilgore lets fly a few harsh words. A moment ago, he was ready to go out fighting, but this! This is bullshit. Cowering behind a wall, bleeding out into the dirt—that’s no way to die. He raises his rifle, but his shoulder screams in agony with every movement. “Goddammit!” He grits his teeth and starts pushing himself up to his feet, but a wave of nausea floods through his body, and the ground tilts up toward him. Suddenly, there’s something hard and gritty pressing against his face, and he realizes he’s fallen over, his head on the ground. “This is it,” he whispers. He’s lost his life. And since he’s not on a sanctioned mission, he’ll be blasted back to basic training. All those hours I put in, all the money I’ve spent. He grimaces. It’s just not fair. But there’s nothing he can do about it. Not one damned thing.

[/et_bloom_locked]


I hope you enjoyed that snippet.

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