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First pages

CHAPTER 1

Jack Minnow grabbed a brochure off the rack and his eyes scanned the back page.

"It says here that rule breakers are ten times more likely to survive an apocalypse. They're adaptable and they rely on cunning and instinct."

The woman behind the counter pushed a plastic tray towards him, the kind handed out at airports to slip under x-ray machines. Jack dropped his wallet, phone, car keys into the tray.

She smiled at him. "It also says that rule breakers are ten times more likely to die within the first hour. They're reckless and often act without thinking."

Jack stuck the brochure back in the rack. "So, a win/win day for me."

Superman, his mother had called him after he'd brought home a stray dog for the fifth time. "Can't help but save things," she'd told the dog ranger. Even as a boy, Jack knew what happened to the mutts who got handed over to the ranger, but he still brought dogs home for one last night of fun. His Superman syndrome was the reason he'd entered The Apocalypse Games. Save everyone. Save the world. Nobody dies for real in this world.

The woman removed the tray and he stood there, waiting for a voucher. None came. A warning flared up into his brain. What did he really know about this operation?

"Seriously, about those odds," he said. "Exactly how much testing has gone into the program? I mean this is opening day. There must be kinks to iron out."

The woman's smile exposed teeth as white as the rest of her body. Painted to resemble a computer generated character.

"We use the same technology as they do at NASA," she said. "The nutrient tubes and mist emitters feeding into the simulation pods are the same as those used in space travel. The structural integrity of the pods was tested by NASA engineers only last week." She tilted her head to the side. "We'll take good care of you, Mr Minnow. I'll see to it personally."

He didn't know her name, or anything else about her, but he felt he could trust her, even if it was the same level of trust he placed in his car to notify him when the gas was running low. She stepped out from behind the counter, slipped her arm through his, and guided him toward a set of doors where Reis and Kelly waited.

At five foot eight, the operator was slightly taller than him. Looking at her was like looking at the moon. All white – her hair, her tight-fitting jump suit, her face, neck, and hands. He allowed himself to imagine that the stage make-up covered places he couldn't see.

"How will you see to it personally?" he asked, clearing his throat. "Will you be in the game with me?"

She shook her head. Pity. He was sure he'd enjoy cyber-sex.

He tore his gaze away from her cleavage. "You've got a good crowd here for the opening. How many players you reckon? Eighty? Ninety?"

"There are one hundred and five players taking part in today's auspicious event."

Jack's mood sank a little. "Won't it get crowded?"

She rested her head on his shoulder. Others might have found the gesture too friendly, but not him. Attention from a beautiful woman – genuine or as part of a customary service – warmed his insides.

"There are many apocalyptic scenarios on offer," she said. "Some players have chosen to be placed randomly, in which case we'll load them into scenarios that other players haven't pre-selected. It will be highly unlikely you'll all be playing the same game." She stopped at a machine similar in size to an ATM and ran a laminated pass across the scanner. "I understand you'll be teaming up with two other players, Reis Anderson and Kelly Lawrence."

"Kelly's my sister," said Jack, not wanting to give the woman the wrong impression about him. "I'm being a good brother and chaperoning her."

The woman nodded. "Have you chosen an apocalypse to survive? Or will you opt for the random selection?"

"I don't mind surprises, but this is Kelly's first time. We've decided to play—"

Her fingers swiftly landed on his lips. "Don't tell me. If I don't know then I can't reveal any spoilers."

She slipped the laminated pass around his neck and continued ushering him toward the doors. There, she gently pried her arm away and planted a kiss on his cheek.

"I assure you, Mr Minnow. You will be in the greatest care. Please make your way inside to wait for the rest of the players, and enjoy your complimentary champagne. It won't be long until you're taken to the simulation pods."

"So when we die in the game, what happens?"

She looked off to another player signing up at the desk.

"Miss."

At last she turned around and smiled. "You can't die in the game."

"But it'll feel like it. That's what the brochure says."

She nodded once, then walked away.

CHAPTER 2

Kelly Lawrence lay inside a glass casket. Her handsome prince wasn't going to rescue her because he was dead. In one week's time it would the first anniversary of her husband's death. That she was taking his place at the launch of The Apocalypse Games had little to do with honoring his memory and more to do with attempting to extinguish the inextinguishable grief that burned in her veins.

"You must know how to mediate," said a woman's voice over a tiny speaker. "You're incredibly calm."

Kelly didn't answer. Small talk was one of the first basic human functions to desert her. Next to go had been the desire to shower, eat, watch TV, read books.

"Yoga?" inquired the voice.

She cleared her throat, because it seemed that the woman wasn't going to accept silence as an answer and said, "No."

"Well, the other player's heart rates are beating off the charts."

One needed a beating heart for it to operate erratically, thought Kelly. Ordinarily, the idea of entering a virtual world of apocalypses would have terrified her. Yet she'd been somewhat comatose since Matt's death. With no specific end date to her grieving, she could be numb inside forever. It seemed fitting that she should enter a world of undead creatures, in this case vampires. It also seemed as if she ought to feel a sense of belonging with the undead, but as yet she felt nothing but her own loss.

The woman stood on the outside of the simulation pod with its glass domed lid, hovering just out of sight, but Kelly knew the woman's body was covered in white paint, her hair was white, she wore electric blue contact lenses, and she was dressed in a sexy white jumpsuit – meant to resemble a computer generated woman called a gigabyte girl.

Another reminder of Matt's absence. As a member of the graphics design team creating the non-character players for the virtual reality world inside The Apocalypse Games, Matt had designed the features of the CGI women. He'd joked one evening about his excitement at having one of these 'come to life' fantasies hook him up to the simulation pod. Kelly had tried to cover the sting that his fantasy woman looked nothing like her by voicing her opinions about sexism and chauvinism on the way into the bathroom. When she'd returned to the bedroom with her long brown hair hanging limp and lifeless, her slightly pear-shaped body swathed in a gown, a toothbrush wedged inside her mouth, her gentle giant of a husband had chosen that moment to say she had nothing to fear, she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Matt Lawrence took something more precious to the grave than the location of the keys to the luggage. He took the ability to make his wife smile.

"Are you all right?" asked the gigabyte girl, her blue eyes twinkling as she leaned over the pod. "Is the helmet too tight?"

Kelly couldn't stem the flow of tears, and she couldn't have wiped the tears from her eyes even if she'd wanted to; her hands were encased in metal skeletons with wires and tubes poking out, much like a patient in the intensive care unit of a hospital. Wires and cables and neural augmentation devices were necessary for the symbiotic hook up with the game's mainframe computer.

"I'm good," she said.

The gigabyte girl looked off to the right, her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed as if considering whether or not to continue with the hook up.

"I'm good."

The gigabyte girl smiled at her, kindly yet patronizingly. In that instant, Kelly hated her.

"Okay," the woman said. "But there is still a few minutes to change your mind."

Her counselor had told her she might never get over Matt's death, but she would eventually return to living and working at full capacity as a paralegal, although she would most likely never be the same person. The problem was that Kelly missed her old self. Everyone did. She could see it in their faces, the way people's eyes brightened as if today might be the day she showed up at after-work drinks. This weekend might be the one she danced like a princess. She might return to partying or shopping or doing anything other than moping around the house in unwashed clothes.

It was while sorting through Matt's desk that she had decided to take his place at the launch of the games. An email to CyberNexis at two a.m. to indicate her intentions, they'd replied first thing the following morning with heartfelt condolences and a promise of an invitation. It had taken the year after his death to build the facility to house two hundred computers and one hundred simulation pods. It had taken her all that time to get over the shock of yet another day Matt would never be a part of – her twenty-sixth birthday, his thirtieth, their first date anniversary, their wedding anniversary. Even a normal day was filled with moments he wouldn't share with her.

This was his final triumph. So no. She couldn't change her mind.

Time had lapsed anyway, indicated by the blue mist that swirled around inside the pod. It was the purest oxygen Kelly had ever breathed. Yet, like most things now, she couldn't find anything pleasurable about it. Green fog seeped in next. It was cold, wet, and designed to reduce the body temperature by ten degrees and drag it into a state of deep sleep, commonly known as hypothermia. Next came the pink fog; nutrients to keep the player hydrated and fed for the next twelve hours.

For those twelve hours, Kelly could, if she chose, be whoever she wanted to be. Even her old self. If she could remember who that once was.

She clenched her teeth as dozens of neural augmentation devices – NADS – pierced her flesh. It felt like thousands of ants attacking her. Sparkling atoms ripped across her vision in a hurry to crash into one another. She closed her eyes but it didn't stop the fireworks. The NADs were designed to work even with her eyes shut. She had come to learn that most things worked even with her eyes shut. No matter how dark the night, no matter how hidden the path, no matter how deep the wound, life went on if only to spite the people who wanted it to stop.

The built-in heads up display unit in the glass lid switched on, speeding up the zipping atoms so all the colors merged into a giant ball of white light. Kelly was about to enter a virtual apocalypse. She wasn't scared. Surviving anything in a virtual world would be far easier than surviving another second of real life.

A computer generated voice like the one on her car's GPS came over the tiny speaker. "Player thirty-one has chosen vampire apocalypse."

It was with mild interest that she found herself watching the presentation of the game as it rolled across the heads up display unit.

"Welcome to the apocalypse," said the female host, Command Leader Stephanie Gey. "Having reduced the number of humans considerably, the vampires may have begun to feed off animals though this isn't practical. Vampires need human blood, and since they are half human they will resort to feeding off each other."

The camera switched to show the face an older man who wore too much stage make-up. The name appearing on the monitor was Command Leader Jonas Barrett.

"Despite folklore stating that bloodletting between vampires is common practice," said Jonas, "dead vampires no longer produce palatable blood. It's like poison to another vampire. Insanity amongst them is prevalent."

The tips the two Command Leaders provided afterward were rather ordinary. Find items for a panic bag. Get to a safe zone. If you couldn't get to a safe zone, make one. Hide until daylight. Source food and water. Burn fires. And let no vampire live.

The computer generated voice said, "Player thirty-one will enter the game in ten seconds. Ten...nine..."

Kelly's equilibrium shifted. She felt her body rolling up then down, her jaw clenched and her stomach dropped. And then, with a jolt like the lurch of an elevator about to do a nerve-wracking descent, she emerged from the ball of showering atoms. She expected to see scenes of rotting corpses, buildings and cars on fire, tanks in the street; instead she found herself standing on a quiet suburban sidewalk. Jacaranda trees in bloom lined the empty street and the purple flowers carpeted the sidewalk. Birds flew high in the sky, too far away to be heard. There wasn't another person in sight and she could imagine herself stuck inside a computer monitor, except the waning afternoon sun and breeze gently kissed her cheeks.

She already knew sight and sound would be activated in this world, Matt had told her so, yet he'd told her that other sensory perception might be limiting.

"The system uses forced feedback to transmit touch sensations," he'd said. "Much like the vibration in a steering wheel of a virtual racing car game. I won't get my hopes up. Touch and smell are the hardest to replicate in a virtual world. I could probably cut my hand off and not feel it."

She was glad now that she'd sat in his office while he'd worked his magic on the computer. Not to understand the details of the game – she truly didn't care if she won or lost. He'd run his fingers through his sand-colored hair, then he'd reached for a Coke and she'd tell him he shouldn't drink too much caffeine and remind him that he needed a haircut, and he'd laugh and say that he liked the hyper-hippy look. She'd wake at two a.m. to a cold bed and get up to make him a grilled sandwich because it was the only way to get his brain to shut down. He'd never once learned how to empty the waste basket in the office; instead he'd let his scribbles of his prototype gigabyte girls pile up till a forest's worth spilled over and became a trip hazard.

Traits she'd once considered annoyances were now endearing qualities she'd give anything to be real.

Feeling the gentle breeze on her cheek, she closed her eyes and made a wish. Maybe dead was dead, but dreams were dreams and nothing could have stopped her from wishing it was Matt's lips she felt against her cheek.

***

Traces of Matt were noticeable in the game. Blue shutters, blockbuster movie posters, pizza and donut stores. A white Hummer sat parked on one side of the street, a black Hummer on the other. The billboard for the animal rescue shelter caused a stagger. Had Matt designed this town with every intention of one day bringing her for a picnic?

Yet he hadn't built a 'picnic' world. Monsters would try to kill her, though by her thinking, nothing could kill that which did not live.

It was too late to back out. Despite a legal document which demanded secrecy, Matt had explained what happened to the bodies hooked up via electrodes in the simulation pods. Players couldn't die, although the pain would feel real. And since the games cost a small fortune, the players would remain hooked up for twelve hours. No early exits. No refunds either by according to the waiver document.

The idea that of NADs sticking into her flesh caused her to roll her neck and kick her legs to stimulate blood flow. Inside the pod her actual legs were kicking, but the pod and mass of wires connected to her cyber suit would restrict movement. She waving her hands in front of her face, expecting to see a crack in the imagery. Lastly, she stared up at the sky, feeling like a zoo exhibit. The operator would be staring down to check her vitals. Nobody stared back.

Immersed in the game's mainframe, she sensed Matt's presence and turned.

Nobody there. So the flicker of light must have been her imagination.

***

The day her brother discovered she was taking Matt's place at the launch he'd purchased a ticket. And since Jack operated Quest, an adventure tour business, he'd announced this as an opportunity to test the game. Kelly knew it was an excuse to could keep suicide watch. Jack was two years older, and they'd been close growing up. This past year, though, Jack had excelled in his sibling duties. She couldn't have coped without him. He'd taken control of everything, refusing to let anyone else help pay bills, forcing her to eat, getting her to shower and brush her teeth and hair. Her big brother had swept in like Superman and prevented her from falling off the cliff.

A car-sized ball of atoms appeared across the road, and emerging from the center was Jack.

"Stay there," he yelled. "I'm coming over."

A second flash of white light appeared, and from the center came Reis Anderson, Jack's friend and business partner. A ball of resentment settled in her stomach at Reis's presence. She couldn't dictate who could enter the game, but Matt's death had sent her world imploding until only her parents and Jack mattered. She's pushed aside Matt's parents while she grieved, and she'd yet to feel guilty over this cold treatment.

As Jack and Reis crossed the street, white light exploded. When it dissipated they were gone. She waited a few minutes to see if Jack or Reis followed. But she was alone.

This street was different yet as deserted as the first one, with many of the store windows boarded up. She could imagine this was the world as she'd wanted it. A world devoid of humans was a world without animal cruelty, rape, sexual slavery, human trafficking, live stock exports, drugs, strip clubs, fur coats, puppy farms, hunting for sport: matters that had manufactured misery before Matt's death. In his own way, her husband had built the perfect cubby house for her; a world devoid of people.

She was deep in thought and savoring the solitude, when after a few blocks she saw the emerging pattern. Shop windows displayed a poster with the same warning sign. She stopped to read a poster displaying statistics. A plague had swept through the country, killing or turning millions of people. National security had imposed quarantines and curfews while thousands of vampires were hunted and slaughtered. This town was at stage five – containment. People were returning to their homes and places of business.

A world without people meant something else rising up to rule the planet and humans would become the prey. So Kelly walked a little faster until she came to a boarded-up 7-Eleven. Tearing off loose boards, she slipped inside and piled a load of goodies into a carry bag. The aim of the game was to collect items to survive the apocalypse, and since she didn't care about fighting vampires, she stocked a bag full of wine and junk food. Not the panic bag the game inventors had in mind, but so what? She had her own reasons for being here.

When she stepped from the 7-Eleven the sun had dipped an inch lower in the sky. The vampires wouldn't attack until night. Pity.

"Are you lost?"

Kelly Lawrence jumped at the voice from behind. She spun to see a tall dark man in a trench coat smoking a cigar. He had grey stubble on his face and a rifle in his hands. The weapon wasn't aimed at her. Yet. Even though she couldn't die inside this virtual world, and players weren't supposed to attack other players, this pixilated world could be as populated with psychotic bastards as the real one.

"Who are you?" she asked.

The stranger reached a hand inside his shirt – her hand went to her bag where a can of Mace sat on the ready. Around his neck was a laminated pass attached to a lanyard with a one inch photo of his face plus a series of icons – lightning bolt, mushroom cloud, skulls and crossbones, biohazard sign.

"I'm one of the players," he said. "Ash Brogen." He lifted himself up to his full height. "You look like you could use some help Miss..."

Her mouth went dry. "It's not Miss. It's Mrs Kelly Lawrence."

"I'm Special Agent Ash Brogen. Do you require escorting to the safe zone, Mrs Kelly Lawrence?"

'Special Agent' went a long way to explaining the trench coat and cigar. Admittedly, she could have imagined any outfit and the game's computer would have created it for her. Yet she had no idea what to wear to an apocalypse. It wasn't like they had a fashion show for it, or if they did she wasn't on their mailing list. So she'd settled for the regular clothes she'd worn to the complex – black jeans, cream leather jacket, red shirt, black ankle boots.

"Kelly?" he asked. "You all right?"

For a second her mind had drifted. Something she'd gotten used to over the past year, but somehow inside this computer generated world with wires plugged into her brain, the notion of her mind drifting held dire consequences.

She shouldn't have come. She wasn't a geek, she wasn't into video games, doomsday prepping, or sci-fi movies. She was a paralegal! But she couldn't leave. Not without finding what she'd come for.

"You tell me," she said. "Is it safe to go to the safe zone with you?"

"I'm Special Agent Ash Brogen," he said. "Do you require escorting to the safe zone?" His whole demeanor deflated before her eyes. "Please. This is my fantasy. Can you help an old fool like me out by playing along? I'm here to win free games and helping strangers will get me the extra credits."

She pointed at the rifle. "Will you shoot me if I don't play along?"

"What? No! I'm a Special Agent. I only shoot the bad buys, and right now I'm on assignment to hunt down a lair of vampires and destroy it. I'll do anything for extra credits."

He twisted his head left and right then he started walking. Kelly supposed it made sense to follow him and explore this world, given that her late husband, Matt, had designed parts of it.

"These games are damned expensive," he said, stopping at a corner of a building to scan to street.

"I guess."

He gave her a quick look up and down. "You a VIP."

"No."

"Won a ticket?"

"No."

"Sorry. I don't mean to pry. Leanna, she's my wife, she's always telling me that I meddle too much. She's also always saying I don't know when to shut up. Hell, I'm just the curious type."

Ash took off across the street but Kelly's feet were planted firmly on the ground. She suddenly couldn't move because an invisible hand was squeezing her heart.

"What is it?" Ash asked, his eyes widening. "You psychic? Can you sense them?"

She shook her head.

My husband died. He worked on the game. I'm taking his place. This is what was she wanted to say, but grief had stripped her of the will to talk.

"It'll get dark soon," said Ash. "We've gotta hurry if you want to make it to the safe zone."

"You should just go. I'll be fine."

He smiled. "No can do. My wife would kill me if she found out I'd left you on your own."

"Nothing can hurt me," she said. "Not in here."

He nodded. "That may be so, but I've still got a conscience. I'd like to keep it clear if you don't mind."

***

The rest of the walk was completed in silence and Kelly had let her mind drift where it wanted to go. Mostly it landed on all the things she and Matt would never get to do. Like walking through a virtual world where millions of people had been killed or turned into vampires. A world where vampires had been slaughtered in their thousands but many more died or contracted a deadly virus that mutated them into freakish monsters. A world without people.

The idea wasn't that unappealing. But a world without people meant something else would rise up to rule the planet and humans would become the prey. But what?

Kelly walked a little faster, clutching the bag tightly to her chest. Right before Ash had found her she'd been inside a 7-Eleven where she'd piled a load of goodies into a carry bag. The aim of the game was to collect items to survive the apocalypse. And since she cared little about fighting vampires, she stocked a bag full of wine and junk food. Not the panic bag the game inventors had in mind, but so what?

"Well, here we are," Ash said. "The safe zone."

They'd stopped at an area that was cordoned off with a ten-feet-high chain-link fence with barbed wire on top. Kelly had been hunkered down in her private mental bunker she'd forgotten that as soon as darkness fell, vampires would try to kill her. And the sad thing was she was going to let them. Still, the hazard sign attached to the fence reminded her she worked in an office where they had a coffee machine and people came around and gave them neck massages.

Ash looked up at the sky. "Darkness is coming. You'll be fine inside here."

"Aren't you coming in?"

He clenched his cigar between his teeth. "The action ain't in the safe zone. It's out there, where the freaks of nature are hell bent on wiping out humanity. It's my job to prevent them."

The premise of the game was to survive the end of the world, not go out into it and get killed. But who was she to judge another player's motives when her own were dubious.

"You'll be safe here," he said.

She peered through the fence. Inside the compound, dozens of people were huddled around camp fires, rubbing their hands, laughing and talking as if nothing was wrong. Maybe she should sit this game out.

Ash was staring through the sight of his rifle, taking aim at an unseen target, in no hurry to leave.

"This isn't a game for me," she said, her voice low and husky.

"This isn't a game for me either," he said. "It's a chance to be more than I really am."

He'd been kind to her and he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Her old self would have taken the urge to plant a kiss on his cheek as thanks and run with it. Her new self might have been a miserable ball of anger and grief, but she wasn't rude.

"Everyday Ash Brogen is fine as he is," she said. "Thank you for everything."

He glanced away, as if embarrassed. "If only everyone thought like you. Good luck, Mrs Kelly Lawrence."

"You too, Special Agent Ash Brogen."

"Oh, I've got something for you." He reached into his coat and placed something in her hand. "You can probably use this more than me."

She looked down to find a string of rosary beads and fought back tears. She knew all about making the sign of the cross, then saying the Apostle's Creed, then the Lord's Prayer, three Hail Mary's and a Glory Be To the Father. When Matt had failed to walk through the door she'd accepted that the days spent repeating prayers had been wasted ones.

She held the beads out to Ash. "Thanks. But I don't believe in God anymore."

"It's to keep the vampires away."

Trusting that he knew more about this stuff than she did, she stuffed the string of beads in her jeans pocket and stepped inside the safe zone.

The sun had dipped further in the sky. One minute closer to her impending death.

***

The safe zone. It looked safe. Tall fence. Brick huts. People were carrying items into the huts. Silhouetted by the falling sun, Kelly watched a group of people setting up tents. The steady whack of metal spikes being driven into the ground reverberated across the air. Fires were burning bright. The orange and pink sky overhead was turning dark purple. A small group of children ran around a large fire. She knew this was a ruse of the game, using children to provide the illusion of security. This deception drove a spike of disappointment into her; maybe the kids would keep the danger away. She was relying on danger for her plan to work.

The day her brother had found out she was taking Matt's place at the launch he'd purchased a ticket. And since Jack operated Quest, an adventure tour business, he'd announced this as an opportunity to test the game. Kelly knew it was just an excuse to could keep suicide watch. Jack was two years older, and they'd been close growing up. Friends, romances, college, later their careers kept them apart for months at a time. This past year, Jack had excelled in his sibling duties. She couldn't have coped without him. After Matt's death, he'd taken control of everything that had drifted off her radar of interest, refusing to let anyone else help with paying bills, forcing food down her throat, getting her to take a shower or brush her teeth and hair. Her big brother had swept in like Superman and prevented her from falling off the cliff.

Jack's friend and business partner, Reis Anderson had decided to tag along. A ball of resentment settled in her stomach at Reis's presence. She couldn't dictate who could or could not enter the game, but Matt's death had acted like an imploding star, sending her world in on itself like a black hole, until the only people she wanted to talk to were her parents and Jack. Even Matt's parents had been pushed aside while she was grieving and she'd yet to feel guilty over this cold treatment.

She headed further into the compound. Lit up with a spotlight was a sign almost as big as a billboard. ALL SURVIVORS MUST READ RULES OF THE COMPOUND was written in large black lettering. The rules were simple. Keep the vampires out. Kill any that came in. She hadn't quite known what to anticipate, but she was a little disappointed about the lack of activity so far. No bloodshed, no overturned cars, no ambulances, no sirens, no people screaming. The end of the world was rather insulting; to think that Matt had died for this lackluster event.

She headed for a picnic table to take the edge off boredom with a slug of warm white wine from her panic bag. Midway through her second mouthful, she heard a growl. Looking over her shoulder, she saw two dogs the size of wolfhounds baring their teeth and skulking towards her. They weren't normal dogs; they had leathery skin, red eyes, emaciated bodies. She scrambled up on the table, her heart beating inside my chest. Wishing for death was one thing. Wishing to be torn apart by rabid dogs was a sick fetish she wanted no part of.

"Go away," she hissed. "I'm not playing your game."

The low guttural growls only urged her heart to race faster. The operator on the outside couldn't know that she was mildly terrified of sharp teeth – sharks, rabid dogs, killer clowns, and now could add vamp mutts to the list.

It was a given that someone would be monitoring her vital signs, yet it occurred to her they must be monitoring her brainwaves as well. These dogs had appeared just as she'd thought about the lack of danger. It was stupid to think the computer could tap into her mind to read her thoughts. No. This was just a coincidence. A horrid coincidence that her tormentors were creatures that frightened her the most.

Curling her hands into fists, she banged them in the air as if hitting the glass lid of the simulation pod.

"Change the channel," Kelly said to the sky.

Why had she let Jack talk her into vampires? There were so many more ways to die that didn't involve sharp teeth. Death by chocolate. Shopping till she dropped. Drowning in champagne.

The dogs continued growling, yet they still hadn't attacked, and the sense of being watched from outside hit her once more; perhaps the reason they hadn't attacked was because she hadn't run. Maybe her movements were being monitored, just not in the way she expected. What if surviving the apocalypse was a ruse? What if watching players survive the apocalypse was the game?

Finally, the dogs lunged and her reflexes kicked in. She threw her panic bag at them. A bottle of wine hit one dog on the head, it yelped and backed off. The other jumped up onto the bench, snapping at her jeans as she launched herself off the table. Even though she couldn't die inside the game, it would feel real.

By no means was she a sprinter, nor was she able to run a marathon. But hooked up to the cyber-computer, physical difficulties became actualities. She was running faster than the dogs but they were close behind.

"Kelly!" someone shouted.

It was a miracle she could hear someone over the noise of her blood pumping in her head.

"Kelly! Go left."

She recognized Jack's voice. He'd said to go left and so she swerved left. From behind came a thunk and then a squeal. One dog down, but she didn't dare slow down. From behind came a second thunk, but no squeal. She'd forgotten what a klutz her brother could be. He had a weapon aimed in her direction and he was likely to take her down instead.

"Go right."


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Debbie Richardson is a writer of speculative fiction. Her favorite authors influence her to write: Dean Koontz, Stephen King and Anne Rice. She wanted to be a musician first but decided writing had better hours. She wants to be as prolific as her favorite authors and she loves meeting readers and sharing her writing tips with other authors. When she's not writing she's reading, killing weeds in the garden, walking the dog, or apologizing to her piano and guitar for neglecting them.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
There is talk that too much time spent in non-reality is dangerous. As a writer I disagree, but I wanted to put characters into a game where they were faced with crossing the line to see if they would. Turns out you can cross the line, but you'll pay a price. Real or not real.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
Pandora is the name the players give to the computer when it malfunctions. There is no communication to or from the outside world, so the computer presents itself in human form to talk with the players. She becomes another player of the game, and another obstacle to beat.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
I grew up adoring The Brothers Grimm fairy tales. So I've always loved fiction. As an adult I discovered Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Anne Rice. Their stories took me to places that didn't exist in reality. I read to escape and I write for the same reason.

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