Most people play the game. Hank lives it.

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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 User Interface; the UI 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 UI, 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.

That’s the end of the snippet, but you can always Find this book on online

 


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