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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.

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.

Chapter 2

Are You All Right?

MERVIN STANDS AT THE KITCHEN SINK and listens to his son thudding up the stairs. Funny, he thinks. He makes a lot of noise moving around for a kid who barely says a word. His lips twitch a little, but they don't make it all the way to a smile. He rubs the back of his hand over his forehead. There's a film of cold sweat on his brow, and it smears against the dry skin of his hand. He frowns and glances up at the kitchen clock. "Almost time for my meds," he says. First though, he was just about to do something. But what was it? He looks down. "Oh yeah, the dishes. Jesus, I'll forget my own head."

He squirts a good glug of detergent onto the stack of greasy plates in the sink then puts the bottle down and eyes the faucet warily. The old pipes trap air, and these days you almost take your life in your hands every time you want hot water. It works OK for a second, but then it lets fly with a great belch of hot air, spattering scalding water all over the place. There's probably a knack to it, a certain way to use the damned thing without getting burned, but he's never found it.

He turns the faucet then steps back as smartly as he can. He narrows his eyes, studying the spiraling stream of steaming water. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. The sink is filling nicely now, the suds swirling and rising up, squeezing their way around the dirty crockery. "Looks like the pipes fixed themselves after all." The sink is almost full now, and he steps closer to turn the water off.

His fingers are only a half inch from the faucet when it picks its moment to fight back. A burst of hissing, gurgling hot air erupts from the spout, sending a spray of steaming water up Mervin's arm, stinging his bare skin. "Shit, shit, shit!" He turns the water off so hard the whole faucet twists and turns against the stainless steel of the sink, the spout now pointing in the wrong direction. "Goddammit! Why does every single, goddamned thing have to go to shit? What the hell did I do to deserve..." But he can't finish the sentence: dares not ask that question. No. Anything but that.

He stares down at the pile of dirty dishes. He doesn't want to hear the words. Not today. But they come anyway. The voice he knows only too well hisses its filthy lies in the dark places at the back of his mind: You know why, you asshole. You were born a goddamned loser, and you'll die the same way.

"Shut up, Clyde," Mervin growls. "You've been dead for goddamned years." And it's true—Captain Clyde has no business whispering anything to anybody. Not anymore. Whispering! Mervin thinks. And the corners of his mouth droop even lower than usual. Whispering was never Clyde's style.

Mervin takes a deep breath, exhales noisily, blowing out his cheeks. He puts a hand on his stomach. A thin thread of anxiety is already pulling itself tighter in his guts: wriggling, seething in his stomach like a parasitic worm. He's got to stop it. He has to squash the memories from those days, has to keep them away. He takes another deep breath. And another. But it doesn't work. He plunges his hands into the bowl of hot, soapy water. The heat tingles, like a million tiny pinpricks piercing his fingertips, and the skin on his forearms blooms bright red. "Focus, you idiot," he mutters. "Focus on the task at hand." But as the words leave his lips, the voice he hears is not his own; it's Clyde's, in all its full-throated, rasping belligerence.

"Focus on the task at hand!" Clyde bellows. "My god, if you worthless sons of bitches lose focus for even one goddamned second, I'll tear out your eyeballs and ram them down them down your goddamned throats."

Mervin shuts his eyes, and he's there—the place he hoped never to see again—the War Room.

 

The War Room is almost dark. The only source of light is the blue glow from the rectangular screens attached to each virtual reality chair. The VR chairs are arranged in four parallel rows of ten, all facing the same way, and Mervin is in the front row. He'll be on display the whole time. If he lets his nerves show, Clyde is sure to see.

Captain Clyde is up there now, strutting back and forth across the raised platform at the front of the room, spouting his usual stream of dark threats and vulgar insults.

What an asshole, Mervin thinks. Clyde turns his stare on some poor devil at the back of the room, and Mervin seizes the chance to make himself more comfortable, shifting slightly in his chair. His helmet is heavy, and the room is warm, the air stale. Mervin tilts his head a little to stretch his neck, and a trickle of sweat creeps across his scalp and dribbles down toward his ear. Maybe that's just the conductive gel, he thinks. It makes no difference either way; a little sweat makes for a better connection. But maybe that's just another piece of barracks folklore: a snippet of spurious information doled out by old hands to confuse new recruits. It's too late to worry about that now.

Mervin swallows hard. This will be his first major mission, and he mustn't make a single mistake. It's all got to go like clockwork. He takes a slow breath to steady his nerves, tries to tune out the captain's barrage of meaningless invective. How the hell can I concentrate on anything with you bawling at us all the time? he thinks, but he doesn't say a word.

Someone tugs at his shirtsleeve, and Mervin risks a quick sideways glance. Jerry is looking up at him from the neighboring chair, his pale-blue eyes eerie in the dim light. "Are you all right, Merv?" Jerry mouths.

Mervin nods once then looks away. If Clyde catches them chatting, he'll send them both on a ten mile run with full packs. And worse, he'll pull the pair of them off the Ops Team and put them back on the training roster. To hell with that! He can't go back to training: all those hours in the VR chair, the threat detection simulation, the endless malware pattern analysis. It was enough to drive a man insane.

Mervin blinks slowly, lets out a long breath. Like clockwork.

"Are you ready?" Clyde bawls, and forty voices are raised in response: "Yes, Sir."

Clyde's face, pale at the best of times, is ghostlike in the near darkness, and the cold blue light from the screens throws the pockmarks on his cheeks into sharp relief. Clyde tells everyone he wears his scars with pride: souvenirs from the Syrian War, the last great campaign to be fought on land. But Mervin's always suspected the scars are the result of untreated acne in Clyde's youth. Whatever the truth, right now, Clyde's face is a mask of shocked outrage.

"Oh, my sweet lord," he hisses. "Did that just happen? Did I just ask a goddamned question and get an answer from a bunch of little girls?" He looks from side to side, his eyes wide in theatrical surprise. "Did I just walk into the goddamned powder room by mistake?"

The troops know better than to answer. The men know better than to grin, and the women know better than to roll their eyes.

"Children," Clyde says, his voice dangerously low. "I apologize. I was expecting to set some highly trained operatives loose in a monumental act of cyber warfare. The details are too brutal for your sweet natures, but I regret to say that this stringent action is deemed necessary for the defense of the free world. Now, if you'll excuse me, I may need to raise my voice a little to see if I can encourage an appropriate response from the bunch of gutless new recruits the high command has saddled me with." Clyde pauses and takes a deep breath. "I said," he roars. "Are you ready?"

"Yes, Sir!" the troops respond as loud as they can. The yell rasps in the back of Mervin's throat as though the words are being ripped from his larynx.

"That's more like it," Clyde says. "Now I can hear a little steel, a little determination, and by god, you're going to need it." He steps down from the raised platform and stands tall, his hands behind his back. He pauses for a moment then begins his inspection, pacing between the parallel rows of VR chairs, glancing at the screens as he passes. "As you know," he begins, "our esteemed brothers in Detection have informed us that the sneaky little bastards in Eastern Europe have hit one of our firewalls with an almost bewildering array of minor breach attempts. This is, of course, a decoy—a ploy to draw out our defenses. Their true attack will begin at the very second of your deployment. They hope to overwhelm our defenses, expose our vulnerabilities and subsequently, to breach our security protocols and destroy our systems. This is nothing less than an act of outright war—a vicious and unprovoked attack on our great nation." He stops in front of Mervin's chair and looks down at him. "They expect an automated response, a damp software squib." He bends from the waist, puts his face close to Mervin's and looks him in the eye. He pauses for a moment then speaks slowly, lingering over every word. "Our enemies expect their attack to be met by a security subroutine—a pathetic shadow puppet constructed by some spineless, limp-fingered little worm of a man."

Mervin sits motionless, struggling with the urge to squirm in his chair. He isn't going to give that bastard the satisfaction.

Clyde holds eye contact for a moment longer then moves on, still spewing out his crude attempt at a pep talk. "What they do not expect is to be met by real soldiers. Soldiers with the heart to fight and the honed reflexes and intelligence to deal with any threat, no matter how complex or how fast it may adapt." He turns sharply on his heel and addresses them all. "You are prepared. You have trained long and hard, and each and every one of you has attained the highest standards demanded by our country, our commander in chief and lastly, by me." He smirks as if the troops will share his little joke. "Today, you will deal out death and destruction to our enemies. You will not simply fend off a few fragments of malicious code, you will trace them to their source, then you will annihilate the sons of bitches that sent them out. You will cripple their systems, destroy their infrastructure. Their planes will fall from the sky. Their power plants will grind to a halt. Their trains will plow through stone walls. They will be devastated—cold, hungry and alone. We will send those misbegotten bastards back to the Stone Age, and they will rue the day they sent their filthy cyber sneak-thieves to besmirch our glorious nation." Clyde stands at attention and fills his lungs. "Now go to it, and chase every one of those bastards down." He turns his head to look into the shadows at the edge of the room, and then he nods once.

The techs, Mervin thinks. You forget they're in the room.

"This is it," Clyde says. "Check your screens, and get ready. Initiate countdown."

Mervin snaps into action as his training kicks in. He flexes his fingers and slides them into the custom-made grooves on the armrests of his chair. The thin layer of conductive gel tingles against his skin. His screen shows a poor connection on his left hand so he adjusts his position until the warning blinks off. He tries to relax his shoulders and clear his mind. His helmet is growing warmer now, but that's to be expected. The latticework of electrodes pressed against his scalp is springing into life, thrumming with a million subtle currents. Soon, his brain's electrical activity will be in sync with the VR system, and then he'll be deployed. His screen shows the final stages of the countdown, and the first wave of disorientation hits him. For a moment, the room flickers out of existence, and he feels as if he's falling, as if he's walking up some stairs and has put his foot down on a top step that isn't there. Then his vision clears, and he's looking at his screen again. Five, four, three. This is it; he's going in. His chair sways. The whole room lurches sideways then drops away. He's melting, sinking into the chair like butter on hot corn. The room blurs, fades away, but Mervin can still make out the countdown on his screen. Two, one.

The room is gone, but Mervin sees the last command from the system. The bold red letters float in front of his eyes: DEPLOY.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

On Mikey's first day at school he discovered the wondrous world that is The Book Corner, and he has never really left it. On writing, Mikey says: "I love the savage magic of wordcraft—it's edgy, exciting and much harder work than everyone thinks." He lives in the UK on the edge of the wilds of Dartmoor, with his wife, two children, and black Labrador called Lottie. He has more books than are strictly necessary, but not quite enough to have his house reclassified as a library. Apparently.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
This story was inspired by the classic tale of The Silver Tinderbox as set down by the Brothers Grimm, but in place of magic, we have the futuristic world of the game. Imagine virtual reality on steroids and you'll get the picture. There are some references to the tale - see if you can spot them.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I've been reading sci-fi from a young age and I've always loved the richness and breadth of imaginary worlds that can play out in a sci-fi setting. And most good sci-fi has a meaningful message too. My message here is about trust, and the appreciation of real, rather than virtual, relationships.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
I write complex stories with interwoven story lines and this book has 3 threads. It's a challenge to switch story lines in a way that keeps the reader engaged, doesn't disrupt the flow, maintains the pace, and hangs together as a logical story. I love classic cinema and it influences my work.

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