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Book 2 of the Gamers Trilogy
When the Frags escape to the Freelands, they find freedom has its own challenges. Without the familiar rules of LifeGame, Gabby and the Frags stumble from one dangerous Freeland to the next, while conflict in the group threatens to split them up. As the trail to Zaela becomes confused by the looming war, Gabby must reinvent herself or never see her best friend again.
- YA Dystopia
- Found Family
When the Frags escape to the Freelands, they find freedom has its own challenges.Without the familiar rules of LifeGame, Gabby and the Frags stumble from one dangerous Freeland to the next, while conflict in the group threatens to split them up. As the trail to Zaela becomes confused by the looming war, Gabby must reinvent herself or never see her best friend again.
Intro Into Chapter One
Intro Into Chapter One
The plan was the worst ever. The plan was insane. The plan was the dream-child of a mutant monkey drawing in the sandbox. The plan was hatched by a six-year-old debuffed with the worst case of the stupids on this side of the planet. The plan was nothing more than vague ideas that would never work. The plan was...
"Gabby, the guards are moving," whispered Mouse.
Mouse's normal voice was a whisper. This was an ant speaking softly to a mountain. Gabby blinked her eyes twice trying to process the words.
"The guards," said Mouse slightly louder than thoughts.
"The guards..." Gabby repeated back.
Mouse vibrated with anticipation. Whatever energy she conserved by speaking softly she funneled into her muscles. She appeared ready to burst. She grabbed Gabby's arm and pulled on it, making an anguished grimace.
The plan was the worst ever, thought Gabby, but it's mine.
"Right," she said finally breaking out of her stupor, "we have to get moving before the guards get back." If the plan failed it could be her death...and Mouse's too.
Gabby mind-texted Milton that they were moving, hiding their messages as Morse code in the text to confuse sniffer programs. She wished it was Michael on the other end, but Milton knew best how to ensure their communications wouldn't be intercepted. And Milton couldn't be trusted with Michael's job because of his epilepsy.
Gabby rolled her eyes at his call sign. She wanted to chastise him. He'd been calling himself Idiot Boy since the other Frags chose her plan over his. Hers was insane, but at least it had a chance of working.
The grass made little crunching noises as they ran across it. Winter receded from the foothills, but hadn't disappeared completely. Their breath plumed out behind them. Gabby wondered how deep the snows at the farmhouse were since they had been away for weeks.
Their target was a squat brick building in a wide field. It had a hovercraft pad on its roof and communication towers jutted from the corners. Gabby reflexively ducked as she ran, despite Mouse's assurance the cameras had been effectively neutralized.
Halfway across Mouse threw herself to the ground. Gabby hit right after. The frozen grass cut her chin, but she was too scared to move. Mouse's fingers twitched with the tale-tell signs of programming.
Gabby twisted to the side and tried to scan the sky. At first glance she didn't see it. Then the black shape sliding through the sky caught her notice. Gabby had come to despise the hovercrafts with guns hanging beneath like dogs in heat. Her thoughts always went back to the two dead girls in the tent.
She glanced back to Mouse to find the girl grinning. She took that as a good sign. The hovercraft paused above the brick building, retracted its guns and then descended out of view. The girls were up like a starting gun, finishing their sprint. They hit the wall and Mouse gave her the thumbs up.
"That was close," said Gabby.
Mouse shrugged, leaving Gabby slightly annoyed.
"It's not LifeGame," Gabby whispered, louder than she intended, "we die if they catch us."
They edged along the wall until they reached the corner. Mouse peered around the bricks. Gabby was stuck behind Mouse and could only see the back of her head. Her annoyance deepened as she noticed how shiny and lustrous her fellow Frag's hair was.
While the farmhouse had been agreeable to Mouse, it'd not been so for Gabby. Without skins her hair had been revealed as dirty brown. She'd spent so much time wearing other guises she'd forgotten what shade it was. If the color of an old shoe even counted as a color.
After determining the way was clear, they crept to the door. It had a key lock. Gabby would have to get through manually while Mouse kept them hidden.
Gabby crouched in front of the lock and pulled out a couple of specialty tools Drogan had made for her. One looked like a jagged knife and the other was a hook. She called up a helper program and holograms danced in the air, projected there by her eye-screens.
She could open every lock on the farmhouse without the program, but she wanted every advantage with their lives at stake. Ghostly hands showed her where to put the tools. Gabby jammed the jagged knife in the lock and jiggled it until it felt right. Then she carefully caressed the inner workings of the lock with her hook. The program analyzed the angle of her arm and created the feeling of pressure on her wrist through her sense-web. She adjusted the angle until the pressure reduced.
Mouse hopped on the balls of her feet. Her voice came out in three squeaks, like three of her namesakes being stepped on in rapid succession. "Hurry. Hurry. Hurry."
Gabby grunted. Telling her to hurry was not going to help her get through the door.
The ghost directions were telling her to trigger the third bump in the lock. The problem was finding where they started. Mouse emitted a tortured squeal and bounced dramatically.
When the lock clicked, Mouse pushed Gabby out of the way and dragged her into the first room on the right. They huddled behind the closed door.
Not having an object in her hands made Gabby edgy. She was used to playing games that required wielding weapons. A sword or a big fat axe would feel right beneath her fingertips.
But this was the real world and even a digital axe could get them shot. The men in the guard tower wore real guns with real bullets.
Gabby could detect no sounds on the other side of the door. She was anxious to complete their part of the plan. They had to disable the guard tower so the hovercraft couldn't keep them from escaping the GSA and LifeGame and all that went with it.
The two girls had spent weeks getting to their current location using their original hijacked FunCar, most of the time spent hiding from the GSA's ever present sensors. But they couldn't drive it anywhere near the guard tower, so they had to hike the last twenty miles through rough terrain.
When they were certain no one lurked on the other side of the door, they made their way to the stairs on the first floor. The brick walls and concrete flooring would echo with any scuffed feet, but the girls made it up without making a sound.
Once they verified the hallway was clear, Gabby gave Mouse the go-ahead. Mouse bobbed her head like a genie and padded down the hall. Thick speech and occasional laughter came from an open doorway halfway to Mouse's target. Gabby thought she heard the rhythms of a joke being told.
When Mouse reached the open door, she paused and peered around the corner. Gabby expected her to dart past. Instead, Mouse glanced back at Gabby and stepped into the room.
Gabby couldn't believe it. She'd been betrayed. Mouse was turning them in. Gabby was about to run out of the building when she realized the men's voices hadn't changed. They would have reacted to the young girl slipping into their room.
When she emerged moments later she had a red box in her hands. Mouse shoved it into her backpack and continued down the hall. Despite the cold, a thin bead of sweat formed on Gabby's forehead.
Mouse disappeared into the server room and Gabby breathed a sigh of relief. It wouldn't take Mouse long to plug into the system and upload their hack.
Gabby continued up the stairs. She put her ear to the door to make sure no one was on the other side. It was cold to the touch.
She went through to find the hovercraft hangar empty of guards. The room had no roof. The crisp blue sky hung directly over the building. Two hovercraft sat on roller carts. Another one had been taken apart. The four rotors lay stacked haphazardly like cans of discarded tuna.
The cart was easy to roll despite its size. Gabby moved the first hovercraft back into the center of the room. Then she rooted around the lockers and toolboxes for a screwdriver. After a brief examination, she found the access panel on the other hovercraft.
Gabby took off her heavy winter gloves and opened it to find a neat circuit board. She jabbed the screwdriver into the controls and closed the panel. She repeated the sabotage on the disassembled hovercraft. Her shoulders itched every time she turned her back to the door.
Back at the original hovercraft, she eyed the smooth, flat surface between the four rotors. There was space to lay in the middle, but nothing to hold onto. Gabby searched around until she found a rope. Using a knife she'd liberated, Gabby tied sections around the rotor struts.
A bloom of light appeared in her vision. Part of her interface had woken up, signaled by the hovercraft beneath her. Mouse had uploaded the hack. Gabby now had control of the hovercraft and the others controlled by the tower would be useless. That was the plan anyway.
Gabby climbed on the hovercraft and commanded it to start. When nothing happened, a stone formed in Gabby's stomach. If her program couldn't interface the hovercraft, they wouldn't be able to return to the other Frags before the guards fixed the hack and the damage she'd done to the other hovercraft.
On a whim, Gabby opened the access panel. A switch inside was set to 'HIBERNATE.' She blew out a relieved breath, returned the switch to 'ON' and closed the access panel.
The rotors spun to full speed the instant she resent the command. Gabby fixed herself into the center, allowing room for Mouse to climb on, and grabbed the ropes. The command for moving upward was just to think about going up. She'd made the controls as intuitive and non-tactile as possible. Her experience with the Frags' hacked FunCar had taught her the dangers of haptic control.
As the hovercraft rose off the cart, Gabby drummed her fingers on her leg. Mouse should have come through the door already. The plan was for her to move to the third floor as soon as the hack was uploaded. The business with the red box gave Gabby pause. Why had she risked their mission for it? What was in it?
When the door banged open, Gabby knew something was wrong. Two men burst into the room. They hadn't expected to see a young girl riding their hovercraft, so their guns weren't drawn, but they didn't hesitate to reach for them.
The room fell beneath Gabby faster than she could realize that she'd sent the command to fly upward. Gunshots whizzed past the craft. When she thought about moving forward, the hovercraft nearly slid out beneath her. The black plassteel surface was so slick her heavy winter clothes had no grab. Only the guide ropes kept her from plummeting to her death.
Gabby glanced downward only to find she was hundreds of feet in the air. She reflexively leaned back and the craft moved drunkenly in that direction. Vertigo slammed her stomach and Gabby had to shut her eyes to keep it down.
When gunshots rang out again, Gabby sent the command to move forward, this time wrapping her arms in the ropes. The hovercraft wobbled through the air like a see-saw, nearly bucking her off. It wasn't meant to have a rider.
In a bid to stabilize herself, she shot a leg out only to hit the rotor casing. The sky rotated around her as the rotor pushed them into a spin. She fell on her side and couldn't get traction to get upright. She felt like a turtle on its back.
Eventually Gabby realized she needed to tilt the hovercraft forward slightly. She carefully wedged her feet into divots in the craft's exterior. Moving that way kept her pressed into the surface and didn't unbalance the craft as much. Once she had a handle on controlling it, she circled around to find Mouse.
During her battle for control, the hovercraft had flown over the trees, well away from the field. More shots drew her toward the road leading to the guard tower. Mouse was running along the road in a zigzag pattern.
Two men were running after her, randomly firing their guns. Gravel sprayed up around Mouse. Gabby kept expecting the girl to drop. An off-road vehicle appeared from the lower level garage on the building.
At first Gabby was paralyzed by concern. It was her fault that Mouse had joined the Frags. If she was hurt, or worse - killed - Gabby would never forgive herself.
Without concern for her own safety, Gabby plunged into a dive. For a brief exhilarating and terrifying moment, Gabby thought she was flying. The craft was angled far enough forward that she couldn't see the black shell beneath her. The wind screamed in her ears on the descent.
Remembering to pull up at the last second, Gabby leveled out. The hovercraft normally floated through the air like a breeze. Gabby was riding a banshee.
The man on the four-wheeler sped past the running men and would soon overtake Mouse. He had a black object the size of a baton in his hand. It was pointed forward like a jousting lance rather than lifted over his head to strike. Whatever it was, he was going to use it soon.
Gabby hadn't thought to program her neural controls to access the guns beneath her hovercraft, but she could extend them. She could feel the gears rumble beneath the shell when she sent the command. The craft wobbled slightly.
As she rapidly approached the man on the four-wheeler she dug her heels in for impact. The man was leveling his object to fire. Shouts of warning from behind didn't deter him and Gabby clipped him with the guns. The sickening crunch made her fingers cringe.
Gabby wheeled the craft around to find the man splayed in an awkward heap and the now empty four-wheeler rolling to a stop. The men slowed at their fallen companion. Gabby caught up to Mouse. Bullets ricocheted off the gravel while Mouse climbed on.
Mouse screamed and Gabby knew it was bad right away. Gabby reached back with one arm and held Mouse tight. Once Mouse had one arm around Gabby's waist, she sent them over the trees and out of range.
"What happened?" Gabby shouted, expecting the worst.
The plan was mine.
"They shot me," shouted Mouse over the wind noise. Her voice was tinged with fear. "In the arm. It hurts."
Gabby grabbed both ropes with one hand and took her scarf off. She handed it to Mouse. "Is it bad? Can you tie this around the wound? I can land if we need to."
"I want to go back," said Mouse and Gabby wasn't sure if Mouse was talking about the Frags or her parents. Gabby kept the craft level so Mouse could safely bind her gunshot.
"Will you be okay? How bad are you bleeding?"
Mouse wrapped her good arm around Gabby's waist and set the other one on her leg. Blood soaked the jacket. Insulation from the lining leaked out of the hole. It appeared the bullet had passed through the flesh of her arm. If it'd hit bone, Gabby was sure that Mouse would still be screaming.
"I'll get you back. Yell if you need me to stop."
The plan was mine.
Her mind replayed the crunch of the lowered guns impacting the man's head and the sound of Mouse's yelp when the bullet hit her. Even though one guard shot Mouse, Gabby hoped she hadn't killed the other.
They coasted over the trees, but once Mouse got a firm grip, Gabby accelerated until the wind seared her face with cold. As she flexed her hands, she remembered she'd left her gloves in the hangar.
"Um...Gabby, there might be a problem," shouted Mouse. Gabby was glad that Mouse was directly behind her, otherwise she would have never heard her.
"What?" she asked, realizing how tight her jaw was from clenching it.
"I'm not sure I loaded the hack in the right place..." Her voice got quieter as she spoke.
"What do you mean?"
"The file structure wasn't like Milton said it'd be. I had to guess where to put it," said Mouse, clearly in pain from the gunshot.
Gabby leaned her head back so Mouse could hear her. "Well, it must have worked since we're flying a couple of hundred feet off the ground right now."
"But what if they find it and turn it off?" asked Mouse.
"Milton said it would be impossible to find."
Gabby knew what Mouse was going to say before she said it. "Only if it was put in the right location. They might be digging through the files back there..."
...getting ready to turn it off and plunge us to our deaths.
They flew in silence. Gabby found herself glancing at the ground. The craft wobbled in response.
"Should we land?" asked Mouse. "They know we're riding it."
"We need to get back as fast as possible. We don't have any supplies and you're shot. If they disable the hovercraft before we get back, we're probably dead anyway," said Gabby. "And even if we survive we'll be stuck in the GSA longer and the Coders will have more time to find us and we just pointed a big red arrow to us."
While Mouse mulled Gabby's words, Gabby took a long look at the blood soaked sleeve. It didn't seem like it was getting worse, but it was hard to tell under all the layers.
"Can you at least fly lower to the ground?" Mouse said finally.
Gabby nodded. A nearby river ran through the valley. It was the one that formed the lake they would have to cross to get out of the GSA. They would be able to follow it for most of the journey.
Gabby lowered the hovercraft to a height of about ten feet. The cold water might kill them but at least they would stand a chance of surviving the fall, though she wasn't sure she'd be able to swim since her hands had frozen into fists. The air above the river was colder than above the trees.
"How long will we have to fly?" asked Mouse.
A map appeared flying along side them. Gabby ran a quick calculation based on their speeds and the semi-torturous route of the river.
"About four hours," she said.
Mouse's head lay into Gabby's back while her arm cinched around the waist. Gabby wished for goggles to keep her eyes from watering.
An hour after they'd left the tower, a red warning light blinked in her interface. It came only minutes after they'd flown by a massive elk drinking at the water's edge. Frost tipped its rack and great plumes of frozen breath ejected from its nostrils.
The light was an indicator her system was being attacked. She'd given up the LifeGame program and taken a system the Frags had made when she joined them. Milton had promised her it was intrusion proof.
The guards obviously hadn't found the hack Mouse had downloaded into their system, but they had traced her link through the hovercraft and were trying to break in. The slow blinking indicated they hadn't progressed far, but there was another three hours of flight time.
Gabby knocked the hair from her eyes with a forearm. It hurt to touch her face. She wondered if her hands and face were developing frostbite. They certainly would if they were plunged into the river below.
Goggles and a mask were details she hadn't thought of when she conceived her plan. Nor had she thought to find non-lethal weapons in case they had to defend themselves. The hollow crack of the man's skull still echoed in her ears. Those details now seemed like the most important ones.
The plan was mine.
Gabby blinked away the wind-blown tears and tried not to look at the slow pulsing red light or Mouse's bloody sleeve. It was going to be a long three hours.