On some days, I can taste the Embrosis, sense its strangely cloying bitterness in the back of my throat. It’s a foolish imagining, I know. The Embrosis is a part of me now, infused in every cell. Perhaps I could taste it once but that was long, long ago. Now, I don’t have time for taste or smell, and the only touch that matters is the feel of the quill between my fingertips. The only sound I need to hear is the scratch of nib on parchment. But what I see… ah, my friends, that is a different matter. When the work goes well, I see everything.
But you haven’t come here to listen to me prattling. You want to know about the story I’m working on today don’t you? I can see it in your eyes.
Come closer and I’ll share it with you. Just a snippet mind. This piece isn’t quite ready for the God Machine. Soon it will be fully-formed in my mind, and only then can it be sent to the Machine to be woven into reality. Until then, it should be kept secret. But here – let me show you a little. What harm can it do?
Cheatc0de001 – Chapter 1
Early afternoon – time for kids to go home from school. But no one walks home in this neighborhood. No one but Hank. Today is Hank’s last day of school, and while the other kids cheerfully climb onto the bus 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 other kids sail by in their buses and cars, heading for the leafy suburbs with scarcely a glance out the window at the boarded up shops, the tumbledown houses with rotten roofs and cracked windows, the sagging chain link fences almost held in place by drunken steel posts. But Hank walks on, his shoulders squared and his hands in his pockets.
Soon the traffic dwindles away and then, as Hank nears his house, he turns the corner into a silent road.
Hank’s dad, Mervin, was once a big man, back when he was in his prime, and his son takes after him. Hank walks like a military man; his shoulders square, his back straight, and his arms hanging loose by his side. It’s not much but it’s what he’s got, and it’s enough to make the drunks and the vagrants leave him alone. And anyway, Hank’s smart enough to see trouble five minutes before it hits the fan. He does okay. He makes his own luck. Usually. The rest of the time, he’s fast enough on his feet to get the hell out of the way.
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 ignores it. He doesn’t take his black leather jacket off. He’s almost home.
When he walks into the kitchen, his dad is standing at the sink, staring down into the clutter of dirty dishes. He doesn’t look up.
“You doing the dishes?” Hank says.
His Dad 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 scores? Did you do okay?”
“I got nineteen.”
“Nineteen?” Mervin asks hopefully. “Out of twenty?”
“Percent, Dad,” Hank says. “I got nineteen 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. Go on, he thinks, look me in the eye and say that. But he just 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 in disgust. Thanks for your support, Dad. But there’s no point expecting anything more. His dad has been like this for years – he’s not suddenly going to 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 goddamn waking dream. If he could, he’d take a hammer and pound holes in the flaking plaster, rip up the goddamn floorboards, knock the whole place to the ground. Yeah. That would be pretty damn good. The only problem is, his dad probably wouldn’t even notice.
Hank slams his door shut behind him and kicks a pile of dirty laundry to one side. The whole place is a goddamn 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 gaming chair. “Why not?” he mutters. 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 his hands are placed correctly on the gel pads. He presses his head back against the headrest and the gel-filled pad molds itself to the shape of his skull. And he waits. There. The tiny thrill of an electric current tingles across his scalp as the chair syncs up. Hank takes a deep breath, pushes his thoughts away and lets his mind to relax. He stares up at the ceiling, focuses on a dusty cobweb, watches it sway back and forth. This is the way to get the best connection; let the sync happen. It’s quicker that way and he doesn’t want any glitches. Not today.
Some gamers shave their heads, say the contacts are better that way, but that’s just bullshit. Some gamers close their eyes, but Hank, like all good gamers, 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. The darkness rushes in on Hank and, for a second, it’s dizzying, even for him. The chair falls away beneath him and his stomach churns, but he grits his teeth, swallows spit. It won’t be long now.
There. He can see his HUD. It’s always the first thing to appear. His stats all look good. Any moment now, he’ll be in the game. A message flashes across his HUD. It seems incredibly bright in the darkness:
Hank lets out his breath in a sigh. He’s hooked up. Now, his thoughts are all that he needs.
Select game – Combat 9.
COMBAT 9 SELECTED
Set profile – 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 that’s as far as he can get. No. The hell with that. Today will be different. Today he’s going to crack this sucker wide open.
Mission – resume.
MISSION RESUMES IN 3,2,1.
The darkness lifts, replaced by a smoldering blue sky. There’s a hint of smoke in the air, and nearby, the rattle of automatic gunfire.
Hank smiles. I’m in.
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