Deep Into the Game
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1 chapter one
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Deep Into the Game
Author :Saul_Tanpepper
© Webnovel

1 chapter one

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PART ONE

The Plan. Or Rather the Pathetic Lack of One.

Chapter 1

Two days before breaking in.

Thursday mornings during the summer are set aside for free sparring at the dojang. I've been studying hapkido since I was nine and recently passed my 1st gup black belt. What prompted my older brother Eric to push me into martial arts was the second outbreak, the one that happened down in DC. He thought a little self-defense training might come in handy.

The problem with that kind of thinking is that nobody believes a bunch of fancy kicks and holds is any kind of defense against the Infected Undead. And especially not against those with implants. I'd seen the Omegaman propaganda videos in school and knew the damage they could do to a person when fully under the control of a functioning L.I.N.C. implant. But since the government only just started making them mandatory about ten years ago, there are still tons of people who don't have one yet, just waiting to become an IU in the event of another outbreak.

So, yeah, while guns have their shortcomings, I'd rather have one than not.

Despite knowing all that, I decided to stick with the training anyway. I had other reasons for doing so. For one thing, it helped me manage my anger. For another, it kept the bullies who knew my family's history from kicking my ass.

The first outbreak took place in New York, on Long Island, but I don't really remember it. I was maybe four at the time. Eric says it was terrible. The one in Washington wasn't as bad. The military had some experience dealing with thousands of IUs swarming through cities by then. It's probably why DC was never abandoned like LI was. That, and because the island was already pretty trashed from the flooding earlier in the century. As it turns out, it looks like that flooding may provide us the means to break in.

Ashley pinged me last night during dinner to tell me that Micah and Reg had been working on figuring out a way to access LI without passing through the EM barrier. "They think they've come up with a working plan!" She'd sounded excited, breathless. Despite my own doubts, I couldn't resist getting excited, too.

"And?" I'd asked, trying not to sound impatient. "What is it?"

Eric threw me a dirty look over the table. I ignored him. He's always tried to take care of me like a parent, given how there was a huge gaping vacuum in our lives in that regard, but he's barely able to take care of himself, much less me. Even his department-mandated shrink tells him that.

"So," Ash said, "you know how everyone knows about the wall and no-fly zone, right?"

I grunted. It was all common knowledge. Plus the bridges, which were bombed out years back. I thought about mentioning how the East River was heavily mined, but I knew it would just make me sound like Kelly. And besides, it was a moot point anyway. None of us had a boat, or even access to one, so sailing across the river was out of the question. Mostly, though, I just kept quiet because Eric and Grandpa were sitting right there, trying not to look like they were listening, but not fooling anyone.


I turned my back and held my Link tight against me ear.

"Jessie?" Grandpa said. "Dinnertime is family time, young lady. Disconnect, please."

"I'm sorry. This is important. I really have to take this." I got up and slipped out of the kitchen.

"Jessie!" Eric called. "It can't be that important."

I heard Grandpa tell him to control himself, which, of course, led to another argument between them. I never understood the animosity the two shared for each other—frankly, I couldn't care less—except for being aware that it had something to do with my father dying when I was two. Eric had been fourteen at the time, so he still has memories of Dad and all that happened after his death. It really messed him up.

Pretty much everything in my family traces back to that singular event, like it was some kind of Big Bang event or something: my mom's nervous breakdown, Eric's pacifist days followed by his stint in the Marines followed by his creepy obsession with the Undead, Grandpa's scandal and then coming to live with us. I'd never known my father—except by reputation—so I never really felt much interest in learning about him and the circumstances surrounding how he'd died. At least he had the good sense to be murdered before the Life Service law was passed. Not that the government would've had much to work with in his case; from what little I knew, most of his brain had never been found. And without a brain, there's no chance of reanimation.

I hurried down the hall and slipped into the bathroom and closed the door. Ash was saying something about tunnels. I barely caught the tail-end of it.

"What tunnels?"

"Micah thinks he can get his hands on some of the old subway maps and traffic tunnels connecting Manhattan and Long Island."

"From where? How?"

As far as I knew, all of the old plans and schematics had been collected and destroyed after LI was militarized and the wall was built. It was against the law to possess anything related to them. I think it was more an act of denial by the government than one of defiance or security. They probably would've gone in and nuked the place if they could've gotten away with it, if the radioactive ash cloud didn't take out a million more people, making them ripe for reanimation.

"Micah says nothing's ever totally lost, not once it's been in the Stream. There are off-line archives. Someone somewhere is bound to have their own file. Or hardcopy. It just takes a little time to find someone willing to sell the information."

"Where are we going to get the money? And isn't that illegal?"

"Shh!"

I thought about this for a moment, then shook my head. "I'm sure the tunnels are all bombed out or filled in. It wouldn't make sense to just leave them open for zombies to walk through to Manhattan. Otherwise, we'd be seeing a lot more of them, right?"

"First of all, Jess, I think Reggie's right: there aren't any more IUs alive on the island. Second of all, the tunnels were flooded before the first outbreak. Remember? And everyone knows zombies can't swim."

I snorted. Duh. She was right, of course. After that massive ice shelf broke off of Antarctica nearly thirty years ago and caused the sea levels to surge higher by thirty feet, most of the underground transportation networks in coastal cities had to be abandoned. I guess I hadn't really paid very close attention in history class that day.

"What about the tunnel openings?" I asked. "They'd still be above water, wouldn't they? Surely when the wall was built, they would've closed them—"

"The wall was built ten years ago."

"Okay…"

"Don't you see? After the second flood. The openings would've been totally underwater already. Micah thinks they wouldn't have bothered blockading them since they'd be covered by a good twenty feet of Atlantic Ocean. Out of sight, out of mind, as he says. What's even better, if they're still open, then we can totally bypass the EM barrier by going under it! No walls, no razor wire. It's perfect!"

I shook my head. "I don't know… It sounds like wishful thinking to me. And anyway, the last time I checked, I didn't have gills. And neither do you or anyone else I know."

"Reggie's looking into that."

"Reggie? What's he going to do, rent us a sub or something?"

Ash laughed. "No, silly. The sensors would totally detect something that big, even going through the tunnels. He's thinking a bit…smaller, something more personalized."

I asked her what, but she wouldn't elucidate.

It seemed plausible, and yet I still had my doubts. It was almost too easy. If one of us could come up with a solution like that so quickly, then surely others would have already done so as well.

But then I realized why that wasn't likely. Most normal people avoided lower Manhattan like the plague. And even if you had to go there, the closer you got to LI, the harder it was with all the checkpoints you had to cross. Besides, who in their right mind would seriously think about breaking in? No one was crazy enough to actually want to. They called them Forbidden Zones for a reason, not Disney-Arc Land.

I mentioned this to Ash.

"That's where your brother might come in handy," she said.

I knew exactly what she was talking about: Eric's permit. But before I could argue about it there was a knock on the door. "Jess?" It was my grandfather. "Come out here, young lady, and finish your dinner."

"Just a sec," I yelled. "Ash, I got to go." I lowered my voice to a whisper and added, "You know how the Colonel gets."

"Yes sir!" Ash said, giggling. "I'll get right on spit shining my dinner plate with my tongue, sir!"

I laughed and told her I'd think about it, then we disconnected.

When I stepped out of the bathroom, Grandpa was just making his way back down the hallway. He turned and gave me a stern look and told me to go finish my dinner. I was so excited that I almost shouted, "Yes sir!" just like Ash had done.

I love Grandpa, but there's one thing you never do and that's antagonize him. You take your life into your own hands. The only reason Eric gets away with it is because he's just as bullheaded as Grandpa is.

And, honestly? I think Grandpa's a little afraid of him.

† † †

It's a beautiful August morning by the time I leave the house for the dojang. The sun's still low on the horizon and it's not too muggy out. Not yet, anyway. The cicadas are singing in the trees. I almost feel like skipping all the way there.

The studio opens at seven, though I usually don't show up until around eight thirty. This morning, however, I'd been too wound up to sleep in, as thoughts about actually getting to see a part of the Forbidden Zones suddenly take on a more realistic feel to them. I'm earlier than usual—only the third person to arrive—so I'm left without a sparring partner and will have to wait.

Kwanjangnim Rupert is with some guy I don't know, a green belt. They're walking off the mat as I sign in, looking like they've just finished up their first sparring exercises. They go straight into their meditations. I can hear the master talking about Yu, the water principle: "The stream flows around and surrounds its obstacles," he quietly says, "and so passes them. Dripping water patiently makes its way through the hardest stone. This is how your strength flows in and through and around your opponents."

I smile privately, thinking about the coincidence that the kwanjangnim's message for today would be about water, since that was all Ash could talk about last night. But while Yu teaches us patience and flow, one thing it doesn't explain is how to breathe in an airless environment. If the tunnels turn out to be a valid option, then we'll have to figure out how to get through them.

As far as I know, none of the five of us has ever been scuba diving. In fact, I've never even been snorkeling, except in the neighbor's pool when I was five, but that doesn't really count.

I settle on the bench and pull out my Link and ping Kelly to see if he's awake yet. It sends me straight to his message box, so he's either playing or still asleep.

"Sunbae," Kwanjangnim Rupert calls over at me, startling me out of my thoughts. He walks over and stands before me with his hands on his hips. I exit the app and slide the Link into my bag. I'll try again later or just stop by his house after I'm done here.

"Yes sir!" I shout, as I jump to my feet.

"You're early." He smiles knowingly. I have a reputation for being a late-sleeper.

"I wanted to get today's exercises out of the way, Kwanjangnim."

He gives me a strange look and asks, "What could be more important than your training?"

I quickly backtrack. "I mean, it looks like it's going to be another hot one today. I figured I'd beat the crowds."

"Is this the beginning of a new Jessie?"

The boy looks up from where he's stretching on the mat and his eyes widen. He's tall for his age, blond, big-boned, bordering on heavyset. He has this ruggedness about him, like he'd be a football or rugby player if they weren't illegal sports. He looks a little familiar, but I can't seem to place him. I think he might be in the grade below me, although I know that's not the real reason for my ignorance. Ashley's a grade below, too. The real truth is he's not part of our circle, our gang of gamers and hackers. I don't do much socializing with anyone outside of it. Not even with other hapkido students.

"Ready to spar?" Kwanjangnim asks me.

I nod. "Yes sir." I jump up and stand to one side so he can lead me onto the mat.

"Oh no, not me. Today I'll be talking it easy."

"Why?"

He groans. "I strained my back this morning."

Once more I glance over at the boy. "From sparring?" I can't imagine Master Rupert being injured by a lowly green belt.

"No," Kwanjangnim says. His laughter is thick and contagious. His face gets a little red. "I got hurt… Actually, I strained it getting out of bed." He rubs his back and shrugs. "I guess I'm getting old. Either that or my mattress is."

We both enjoy another laugh before he adds something about going in to get his implant soon. It kills the moment, leaving us standing in an awkward silence before he gestures the boy over.

"This is Sunbae Jacob Espinosa," he says, introducing us. "Sunbae Jessica Daniels."

"Jake," the boy says, offering his hand. Meanwhile, I've bowed, so he withdraws it, even as I raise up and extend mine. Finally, we both clasp hands and bow awkwardly to each other. His grip feels weak, like he's consciously afraid of hurting me.

Rupert laughs at us and says, "Jake's new to the school. His forms are really pretty good. You two can warm up on each other, but for sparring today, no kicks, okay, Jess? Just hands, hits and holds. And try to take it easy on him. He'll be testing for his next belt in a week and we need him all in one piece."

"Bring it!" Jake says, slipping into a sparring stance. Rupert frowns, but I return the challenge with a growl.

"Keep it clean, guys!"

Despite the differences in our skill levels and the restriction on kicks, it turns out to be a good workout. Jake's quick and strong, almost as good as most of the red and black belts I'm used to sparring against. But he's also a bit top-heavy, and I'm clearly a lot more seasoned. After dropping him for the fifth or sixth time, I get him in an arm hold that he can't escape out of.

He calls it quits, saying he's got to leave, but just as my grip relaxes, he spins under me and wrenches my arm. The next thing I know, I'm lying on the floor with his knee on my back and my arm twisted away from me. I can't move.

"That was a cheap shot," I say between clenched teeth.

He lets go and stands up. "Sorry."

When I get up, I think I see a brief flash in his eyes, something powerful. I can't tell what it is. He looks away too quickly.

While I'm packing my gear, he comes over to talk to me. I wait for him to apologize. I'm still a little miffed by the unexpected throw, so I just grunt responses. That sort of poor sportsmanship isn't allowed in here, and if Kwanjangnim Rupert or any of the other trainers had seen what he'd done, they would've given Jake a severe tongue-lashing.

He tells me he's only been training for about ten months, and I tell him nobody gets as good as that in such a short time, which makes him pause. I might as well have called him a liar.

"I—I guess I'm a quick learner," he stutters. "How about you? How long have you been training?"

I give him a good long look before telling him I've been at it for eight years. "Off and on," I say, though it's not exactly the truth. I did miss one summer when Eric took us on a trip to Seattle after he got out of the Marines. "And I started in juniors."

He shakes his head and stares at me, a smile curling his lips.

"What's so funny?" I ask.

"I'm sorry. It's just that…"

I narrow my eyes and wait for him to finish.

"I guess I was a little surprised to see you walk in this morning."

I stare at him. "Have we met before?"

"Um, no. But Ashley Evans talks about you all the time," he explains. "Says you have mad gaming skills. She was my science partner last year in chemistry lab. She's a jacker, right?"

"Jacker?"

"Game hacker. That's what the kids call her and others like her."

I think about this for a moment, then decide I actually like the term. Even though it doesn't apply to me specifically, it does describe the others quite well. "I just play. I don't hack."

He nods, tentatively, and looks around for something to say.

"I have to go," I tell him.

"I really enjoyed you this morning! The sparring, I mean. Not you. That is, you're really good."

"Are you hitting on me?"

He blushes.

"I already have a boyfriend."

His face reddens even more. He looks like he's about to choke. I smile. At least we're even now.

"Kidding," I tell him. "To be honest, though, if it ever came down to it, you'd probably kick his ass."

He laughs. I can see him relax. "And you could easily kick mine," he says.

"In a fair fight, maybe." He's got a good four inches on me and probably fifty pounds. And he is strong.

"I'm sorry about that move back there. The last dojo I was in didn't care too much about etiquette. It was all about skill and strength and speed and taking advantage of our opponents' weaknesses. That's one of the reasons why I transferred here."

"Don't sweat it," I say. "Just don't let it happen again."
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