Deep Into the Game
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-1 prologue
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Deep Into the Game
Author :Saul_Tanpepper
© Webnovel

-1 prologue

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Fifteen years after Golgotha

It wasn't Reggie's idea to break into Gameland, not initially, though of course he took all the credit. He liked being the go-to guy whenever it was something the five of us could all get behind. He was funny that way—a big brute of a kid with all kinds of brains and good looks and a huge gaping insecurity complex that needed constant attention. But whenever something turned out to be not so good after all, he was usually the first to distance himself from it, claiming he always knew it was a bad idea, right from the beginning. That's just the way he was.

He had a way of picking the bad ideas, which is why we should've just said no.

We were in Micah's basement. He and Kelly were team-playing Zpocalypto, which is supposed to be something like The Game. Except it turned out to be nothing like it at all. First of all, it was nowhere near as real. There's no VR and the action's totally lame. Plus, the holographics are just so-so. You don't get a good feel for what it's like to be in the actual Gameland, fighting actual zombies, trying not to get eaten. Now I know.

I also know this: Not even those lucky rich pricks have any idea what it's like, the ones who are connected enough to pay for a state-of-the-art cybernetic setup and a Player, plus weasel the necessary invite into The Game. Arc Entertainment didn't just let anyone play. They only wanted the best.

Like us.

Reg and I were bookending the couch. Ashley was sprawled out between us, her feet on his lap and her head on mine. She was drinking a Red Bull through a straw, the can wedged between two cushions to keep it upright. Reg had chugged his and had tossed the empty at the old milk crate in the corner. He missed, of course, and blamed it on the lighting, which admittedly was piss-poor. Micah's HG setup was old and glitchy, so he had to keep the lights dimmed.

Reg was antsy. He was always antsy, but probably more so then because of the caffeine. He kept asking us if we were finished with our drinks. I'm sure he thought the first miss was just a fluke and wanted to redeem himself. That's how self-deluded he could be. But I'd barely even touched my RB. I like the taste of it, but the stuff gives me a headache if I drink it too quickly. And Ash was purposefully nursing hers just to be a pissant.

I was messing with her coppery hair, twining it between my fingers, trying to straighten the curls and watching them spring back. For some reason it struck me as comical and I kept giggling, even though I wasn't even the slightest bit drunk or stoned. Not like Micah. He was the druggie in the group.

The rest of us got our highs playing games or hacking them. That was our escape from the misfortune of being born into families that couldn't afford to buy a decent entertainment system. My family was once so lucky, but after my dad died and Grandpa was fired from his prestigious command post in the Marines, that all went away. Of course, that all happened fifteen or so years ago, so as far as I could remember we'd always been as poor and out-of-the-loop as anyone else in that room.


I caught Reg glancing over at us—probably envisioning me and Ash acting out one of his perverted girl-on-girl fantasies. I obliged him. Sort of. I reached over and pinched Ash's nose until she slapped my hand away with an inviting shriek. The movement caused her to dig her heels into Reggie's crotch, which was precisely what I was going for. I saw him jerk in pain. He tried to hide it, but I saw.

"What's so funny, Jess?" Ash asked me, gazing up at me with those brilliant green eyes of hers. They were so innocent looking, but I'd always known how manipulative they could be.

"Nothing," I answered. Then I coughed, trying to hide another snort of laughter.

Reggie groaned out loud. Then, trying to hide his discomfort, he started complaining about how bored he was: "This scene blows, guys," he whined. "You know what we should do? We should break into Gameland."

"We already tried, Reg. Remember?" Kelly replied. He was referring to Ash's and Micah's attempt to hack The Game a couple weeks earlier. But I sensed that Reggie was talking about something else altogether, something a hell of lot more illegal and a shit-load more dangerous.

I watched as Kel's and Micah's zombie hunters searched through a dark warehouse looking for food. I'd never played this level before, but I could guess what was going to happen. There were certain patterns to how Zpocalypto was constructed. Once you recognized them, it was a lot easier to survive and advance to the next level. If my guess was correct, they were about to be jumped by a bunch of the Undead at any moment.

"Not The Game, dweeb," Reggie barked. "I'm talking about breaking into Long Island itself. We should actually physically go there ourselves."

Kelly didn't look up. "Yeah, man. We'll just hop onto the next transit over there right now." He exhaled with disgust when a zombie slipped out of a shipping crate and chomped down on his ankle, immediately crippling him. If he didn't make it back to his antivenin kit within the next few minutes, his character would be dead and return to undo everything he'd accomplished to get this far.

The "antivenin kit" was one of those things that irritated me the most about Zpocalypto. First of all, the bite causes an infection; it's not a poison, like a snake bite. They should've called it an anti-infective. Secondly, in real life, if you're bitten, there is no cure. What's the saying? Once bitten, twice dead? That professor who tried fifteen years ago proved that. The one who everyone says killed my father.

"I'm not talking right this minute, brah," Reggie answered.

"I'm up for it!" Micah said, as he lopped the virtual head off a virtual zombie with a virtual light saber, something the game was obviously not programmed to provide.

Ash raised her head and looked at me in disgust after seeing this. I just shrugged. It didn't surprise me anymore. Micah was always reprogramming the game in his favor.

"But we should try soon," he added, throwing the severed head into his virtual backpack. "Like, this weekend."

"Where'd you get the light saber?" Kelly asked. He sounded jealous.

Micah smiled his shit-eating grin. "I did a little creative recoding yesterday."

"Cheater."

"Well…yeah."

"Why this weekend?" I asked, only because I was curious to see how far the boys were willing to take this conversation. Theorizing something as blatantly illegal as breaking into LI was much more entertaining than watching the boys play a game they'd hacked. It was also more entertaining than seeing how springy Ashley's hair could be. Or causing Reggie bodily harm and insult.

"Because in two and a half short weeks, our lives are totally going to be over, girl. That's why."

Micah was referring to the start of our senior year in high school. Well, Ash would technically be only a junior, but she had enough credits to graduate with the rest of us, and probably would.

Just three more weekends before our last year of incarceration. Nineteen more days of parole before we were all swallowed up in that mess of a penal system that masqueraded as a social welfare program. It was ostensibly there to prepare us for the harsh realities of an even harsher world, but it failed to do so on so many levels that it was almost ridiculous.

As far as the majority of kids my age were concerned, school was just another relic of the past. How was studying mid-sixteenth century literature supposed to help us deal with rising sea levels in the mid-twenty first century? How was knowing the sum of the angles of a triangle going to help us in the event of another outbreak? If it wasn't for the fact that getting caught skipping school was pretty much a death sentence, signing years of our afterlife away into conscription, we wouldn't even bother going.

I exhaled, trying to quell the sense of panic and anticipation rising up inside of me. I didn't like to be reminded of time slipping away, of what awaited us on the other side of August. I reminded myself that I had to suffer only one more year of that institutionalized prison, then I'd be free to do whatever I wanted to do. We all would.

Most of us were planning on skipping college and going straight into one of those high-paying jobs as a coder with ArcWare. Kelly was the only one of us giving college any serious thought. He was always the one who had to be different from the rest of us. That's what first attracted me to him, his long view, and it's what I so dearly loved about him.

Out of all the guys I'd ever known, he was the kindest, the most caring. Anyone who knew the Corben family—who knew Kyle, Kelly's little brother—could see that.

On the outside, Kelly wasn't much to talk about: brown hair and eyes, an average build, average looks. A girlfriend probably shouldn't say this about her boyfriend, but he was…forgettable. Nevertheless, he more than made up for it with his earnestness. I'd rather be with a guy who was honest with me than one who was easy on the eyes.

Lately, though, he'd been acting all strange. He was moody, inattentive, distracted. Just once in a while I wished he'd lighten up and relax.

"Wait," he said. "You're not serious, are you?" He jerked his body to the left, then twisted it as he tried to get his player to respond faster in the game, but the cheap sensors were low-res and iffy and it made his hunter look more like one of the hunted, all lurchy and uncoordinated. "You mean, like, actually break into Long Island?"

"Dead serious, brah," Reggie replied. He laughed, probably realizing he'd inadvertently made a funny.

Reggie was Kel's opposite. In fact, he was pretty much the opposite of any of us. "Big, bald and brash," Micah always said about him, a stark contrast to his own blond, blue-eyed, befreckled boyish good looks and charm. "A brute with a heart the size of Texas."

And Micah would certainly know about Texas. He was once a Republic good old boy before his parents defected to Connecticut. He always had a smile on his face and a reputation for never hurting a soul. A living soul, that is. When it came to zombies, on the other hand, he was a stone-cold killer. The Undead rarely stood a chance against him. He was the best game player I'd ever seen. Probably the best hacker, too.

Kelly wasn't nearly as good as Micah in the gaming department—or me, for that matter—but still a hell of a lot better than most. Better than Reggie, anyway. And while he could hack, he didn't like doing it. He was too uptight for any of that action, though not enough to not hang out with us.

Yet, as different as the three boys were, they were all brilliant, and they all shared the same passion for gaming. We all did, which is what brought us together in the first place. It's what kept us together despite the immense differences in our personalities.

"Why would we even want to go to the Wastes?" Kelly asked without looking away. The Wastes were the places that had been decimated over the past thirty years by rising sea levels. Pretty much every coastal city had such areas, variably referred to as the Wastes or Wastelands. They were urban ghost towns, and LI was just one of many. Perfect breeding grounds for outbreaks.

Reggie shrugged. "Uh, no reason, brah, other than to see if we actually can. To say that we did."

"Sure, why not," Ashley chimed in. "I'll try anything once. We haven't done a damn thing exciting all summer and it's almost over!"

I wanted to pinch her nose again just for reminding me of that.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how breaking into Long Island—even just planning something like it—would liven things up, take our minds off of school and the inevitable dreariness of those long winter days ahead, hunched over a desk in sub-zero classrooms, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous Shakespeare-inflicted misfortune.

This time Ashley didn't ask why I was giggling.

"Doing something just so you can brag about it isn't a reason," Kelly argued.

"Oh, don't be such a weenie," Reggie retorted. It was his typical comeback whenever any of us disagreed with something he said. We usually let him get away with it because he was so damn big. That, and he actually relished a good argument.

But Kelly wasn't giving in so easily. They got into a heated discussion, mostly focusing on the actual logistics of breaking into what had once been a militarized zone and was now blockaded by physical and electromagnetic barriers.

I was listening with interest, but Ash got bored and made me go upstairs with her. She needed to use the bathroom and the one down in the basement was nasty. But she never liked wandering around Micah's upstairs all alone. She said it felt spooky, like his parents were ghosts watching over her.

When we came back down, it appeared that the argument was over. Micah and Kelly were back to playing Zpocalypto and Reggie was asleep on the couch, snoring loudly. He had a smile on his face.

Ashley kicked him. "Hey, perv! Make some room," she said. "Quit hogging the couch."

Reggie opened one eye and his smile widened, but he didn't move. "Where'd you guys go?"

"Upstairs to have hot lesbian sex in Micah's room."

"That was quick."

"Yeah, well, Jessie's super easy to bring to climax."

"Ashley!"

I could feel my face burning. I may have lost my virginity at fifteen, but I was still a bit of a prude about it, especially around her. It was like I needed to balance out her own over-the-top sexuality.

Ash didn't care what people thought. She always just said whatever was on her mind. In fact, I'm sure she said things just to try and elicit a reaction.

I looked over at Kelly, but he hadn't even heard what she'd said. He was too absorbed in the game.

Reggie snorted. He gave Ash a good, long, appraising look, beginning with the thumbs she'd hooked onto the waistband of her jeans, pausing at the low neckline of her more-than-ample breasts, then finally reaching her eyes. Not once did she flinch. If anything, the look on her face grew even more defiant.

"Sorry I missed it," he said.

She glanced pointedly at the bulge in his jeans and smiled. "I'm sure it was just as exciting as you imagined it."

Reggie laughed and pulled up his legs, then swung them over the front of the couch. Ash plunked down next to him with a heavy exhale. He swung his arm over her shoulders, letting his fingers dangle a hair's width away from the top of her breast. Though the two weren't technically together, everyone knew they were doing it. At least whenever there wasn't anything better going on. Or anyone.

I glanced past my boyfriend to the flickering HG image in front of him. He was back to level eleven—his nemesis. If I were a betting girl, I'd wager he was on his last life and was about to be attacked. Again.

Poor Kelly. As good as he was, he just couldn't seem to make it past this level no matter how many times he tried. But I didn't feel much pity for him at the moment. Sometimes, like right now when he wasn't paying any attention to me, his obsession with the game kind of pissed me off.

"So…what'd you guys decide?" Ashley asked. "About Gameland."

I looked over. Reggie's thumb was now resting on the exposed skin of her breast. He was slowly brushing it back and forth. I felt a tingle pass through my own body, then a twinge of jealousy. Reggie was a code geek, just like the rest of us, but at least he had broader interests outside of the games.

Kelly could learn a thing or two from his example.

"Well, actually, it wouldn't technically be Gameland," he told Ash. "We'd just be breaking into one of the Forbidden Zones on LI—an outer zone. I think the Gameland arena is more toward the center of the island—that's what Micah thinks, anyway—and it's probably pretty heavily barricaded to keep the Players from getting out."

He was talking about the implanted zombies that were recruited into The Game. They called them Players.

"There's still the Infected Undead on the rest of the island," I pointed out.

Reggie chuffed. "Yeah, like there'd be any IUs left after thirteen years. They're all dead by now." He waggled his fingers spookily at me and said, "No brains to feed on."

"You don't know that."

He shook his head. "You're beginning to sound just like your boyfriend. He says it's not doable."

"I didn't say that."

Reggie smiled. He was egging me on, and I'd fallen for it. I should've known. Whatever Kelly said, Reg always tried to say the opposite. And now that Kelly was saying it was impossible to break into LI, it just made Reg even more determined to say it wasn't.

Kelly paused his game so he could tick reasons off on his fingers: "Fifty foot wall around the entire island, electrified razor wire, all the bridges demoed, no-fly zones, biometric mines in the East River, electromagnetic barrier—"

"EM, brah? Really? Chillax. I'm not talking about hacking in, I'm talking about breaking in. Remember? The EM's nothing to worry about."

"It could fry your implant," I said.

"Implant, shmimplant."

"There's no way," Kelly insisted. "I'm telling you, it's impossible."

"Maybe there is a way," Micah said, still playing. He was one of those freaky types who could give a hundred percent of his attention to something like Zpocalypto or Warlock Four and yet still be fully involved in a conversation, even while being stoned off his gourd. I could never understand how he did it. The guy was more than just scary smart. It was like he could partition his brain into distinct segments—one for gaming, one for being wasted, one for everything else—yet still use them all at full capacity. He was like a computer. "I'll give it some thought."

"I know!" Ashley exclaimed. "We'll just sprinkle a little fairy dust on our bodies and fly ourselves in."

"I'll sprinkle fairy dust over your body if you do mine," Reggie said.

I snorted.

He looked over at me. "Every time someone disses a fairy, another zombie gets its wings."

I rolled my eyes, but I was laughing.

"That's just…stupid!" Kelly snapped. "Besides, you have to get through Manhattan's restricted zones first. That can be a hassle."

"That's true," I said. I'd gone there on occasion with my brother; he had a special pass. I remembered all the checkpoints and the guards questioning us.

Kelly smiled and nodded at me, thinking I was actually taking his side in the argument. "It's crazy talk."

I went over and plopped down on his lap and planted a kiss on his lips. It wasn't one of our usual hot-n-heavy lip-bruising kisses—I didn't want to start anything—but I hoped it was enough that he'd not take what I was about to say the wrong way.

"If Reggie says he can come up with a plan, then… Well, I'm in, too."

Kelly leaned away from me like I was contagious.

Reggie gave a howl of triumph. "See? Didn't I tell you it was a good idea?"

† † †

That was weeks ago now. How many exactly, I don't know. I've lost count of the days.

Reggie is leaning on me, pushing all of his weight onto the bandage pressed at my side as if he's afraid my guts are going to come spilling out at any moment. Now he doesn't look so sure of himself.

"I knew this was bad," he growls. "Right from the start I knew we shouldn't have come here. That's what I tried to tell you guys."

I look up at Kelly standing outside the glass door looking in—what's left of him, anyway—and I see now that he was right. He was right all along. I just wish he'd tried harder to stop us.

I don't blame either of them, though. I don't blame anyone. Not myself, not even the asshole who first planted the idea in Reggie's brain. We all had our own private reason for coming. That's what really drove us to do it. But would we have come if we knew then what we know now? Would we still have agreed to try?

I don't know. Maybe not.

Then again, maybe.

As I lie here dying, lost somewhere in the Wastes with zombies closing in, wanting nothing more than to feed on those of us still alive, the truth finally hits home: it never really mattered what we wanted or didn't want. Arc Entertainment had this all planned from the very beginning. They wanted us in The Game. That's why it was so easy for us to break in.

And why getting out has been such a killer.

I slowly reach behind my back, to the cold metal of the gun tucked into my waistband. I've got one bullet left. Just one. I know it sounds cliché, but I've been saving it for just such a moment.

My fingers wrap around the grip; they find the safety and flick it off. They touch the curve of the trigger, test its resistance. Reggie sees the wince on my face as I pull it free, but he thinks it's just the infection taking hold. He doesn't yet see the gun. All he knows is that the disease is spreading inside of me. He knows the agony I'll soon be going through. He knows the monster I'm about to become.

I cough. "Got any antivenin?" I ask, trying for humor.

He smiles a wistful smile.

I draw the gun out and hold it up. They all see it at the same moment, though it doesn't register with any of them right away what I'm going to do with it. Then, all at once, they know, and they start yelling for me not to do it.

But I don't hear them. All I can hear as I aim and pull the trigger is Kelly—my poor, dear, lost Kelly—whispering inside my head how much he loves me.

I guess he was a better player than I realized.
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