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Level 1: Firing up

‘I don’t know anything and I didn’t do anything.’

Zeb, 2050

Chapter 1: ‘Attention game’

Willis was weak. He was ill. And he was lost.

The city’s buildings reached high, throwing out long shadows and reminding him of the Shade Specter monsters from a virtual game that was all the rage a few years back – not that he’d ever played the v’game himself, or any v’games at all. V’gaming wasn’t his thing.

He stood in the darkness of one shadow with his back to a department store wall and gazed out at the moving crowds, avoiding their glances.

As soon as his mother’s zipcar had lifted from the curb and buzzed away, leaving him alone, he felt nauseous. What was he doing here? He had no idea which direction led home. Cities were foreign to him, and yet here he was, smack bang in the middle of the biggest one he could imagine. Fool. He knew how this dumb outing was going to end: with him contacting his mum or dad and one of them coming to fetch him.

No! He would not message home. He was practically fifteen. This might be a new place to him, but he was capable. He’d find his own way home. Somehow.

Then Willis saw him. Zeb Redman. He’d know him anywhere; only the coolest kid from his class. Correction. The whole damn school.

He shot past Willis on his hyperboard, crouching low for speed. The hyperboard’s erupter – the small suspension laser generator fixed at the back – thrummed loudly.

Maybe if Willis followed him, he would learn a thing or two about living in this place. Or at the very least, he could point Willis in the right direction.

Willis raced after him.

***

Zeb Redman cursed as he spun around the corner, balancing on his speeding hyperboard, and saw the last thing he wanted to see. The queue at Screamers V’Games Universe was mammoth. It snaked from somewhere deep within the store, out through its snapping auto-doors and stretched out of sight down the street. The disappointment gnawed at him. Wagging school had made no difference.

The store’s flashing signs seemed to taunt him: Experience the new Plush. Free trials all day. Don’t miss out.

Zeb sighed, flipped from his hovering hyperboard, and landed on the street curb. Far in front of him, perched at the head of the queue, some lucky guy was set to be the first to experience the new Plush DVP – deep virtual player – v’games console. Zeb gazed the other way, down the shuffling queue of hopefuls. At ten minutes a turn, it would be nighttime before his chance at a free try-out came around. The place would be closed by then.

He closed his eyes and released a slow breath, relaxing as he’d trained himself to do prior to taking on a high-level boss enemy. As in v’games, so in life. He decided to go in anyway. With all this commotion going on, you never knew what you might find. Behind him, he was half-aware of some kid approaching. He looked wet. No one worth knowing, that was for sure. He ignored him, stepped forward and worked his way through the queue and into the store. People glared, but he held up his arms, all innocence. ‘It’s all right. Not queue jumping. Just trying to get in.’

With the rack full, he was forced to carry his hyperboard. He wandered the aisles of expensive v’games that filled the store’s shelves, thoughts of which monopolized his every waking moment. Especially the gleaming rows of gloss-wrapped 2050 first-person shooter new releases – v’games with packaging that sported moving images of exploding army death-tanks, multi-headed trolls with weapons the size of cannons, grinning aliens with scarred and bloodied bodies ... Xtreme-rated horrocore. All bearing the latest in ziptech security seals. Impossible to steal.

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