Gunner Skale, Page 2James Dashner
“Is one of you George Hartley?” Gunner asked, not knowing what else to say. He’d never had a consulting gig quite like this.
“I am,” one of the men answered, stepping forward to shake Gunner’s hand. He had a firm but disconcertingly moist grip. “We’re glad you could come. We have some exciting things to show you, and I think with your help we’ll be ready to take them to market.”
Gunner looked down at his hand, uneasy. The man hadn’t let go. Finally, after what felt like several beats too long, he did.
“So what is it?” Gunner asked. “Sunglasses? That work really well in the dark?”
The man laughed—more like a guffaw—as if their consultant had just uttered the greatest joke he’d ever heard. His partners did the same. The meeting was getting slightly creepy.
“No, no,” George said, taking off the glasses—they were thick and shiny and had metallic parts in strange places. “These are something that were used a little before your time, Mr. Skale. Have you heard of VRSpecs? They were quite the rage fifty years ago.”
“I’ve heard of them, sure. Of course.” Gunner’s eyes had grown used to the darkness, and now he could see that George Hartley was an old man, hair like gray mist on his head, wrinkles cutting up his face. “But I’ve never seen them, except for maybe in a museum one time. So help me out, here. Are you trying to bring these back? Most people can afford a Coffin or rent one—and those who can’t figure out a way to do it illegally. I don’t think—”
“Please.” George held up a hand. “No, that is not our goal, I assure you. Let’s just say that these glasses hold a bit of nostalgia for us. And we didn’t want to take up your time dressing down for a Sink in the Coffins. Just as important, we wanted to meet you face to face. We think we have something that can change the world, both virtual and real.”
Cherry spoke up, rescuing George. “Not to mention that we’re spending every penny we’ve got just staying afloat. But with your endorsement, Mr. Skale, we think we’ll have capital rolling in by the truckload.”
“Is that what this is about?” Gunner asked. “You want me to plug some product so you guys can start making money?”
“Just …,” George said, his hands held out in impatience, “just let us show you what we’re talking about. The old-fashioned way. You’ve met Cherry”—he gestured behind him—“and these are my other colleagues, Marta and Kent.” They both nodded. “Let’s begin.”
Marta—a tall blonde who Gunner guessed to be in her fifties—stepped forward and handed a pair of the dark glasses to Gunner. More than curious now, he was happy to give them a try. When he slipped them on, though, all he saw was darkness.
“Okay, I’m ready,” he said. “Wow me with whatever it is.”
“Kent,” he heard George say, “initiate the VR and Dissolve us into the Exhibit Room.”
There was a click and a buzz and something like an electric shock that ran through Gunner’s temples. Then everything around him transformed, taking him to another world.
It dazed him at first, making his mind spin and his eyes almost pop out of his head. He hadn’t known what to expect with the archaic virtual technology, but what he saw spread before him was almost indiscernible from what he might see in an average VirtNet program. Gunner, George, and the others stood on a massive cloud that was billowy and white and brilliantly lit, glowing and pulsing as if filled with lightning. Mist swirled around Gunner’s ankles.
Above them, planets and stars hung in the sky like Christmas ornaments, far too large and close to be realistic, but stunning in scale and beauty. There was a purple moon and a bright red planet and a streaking comet and several suns that were almost too blinding to look at directly. Between the cloud on which they stood and the constellations above, the sky was filled with mythical beasts—a dragon, a Pegasus, a griffin, things Gunner had never seen or heard of before—and the air was filled with a resonating hum that vibrated his bones.
He couldn’t believe it.
He couldn’t believe that the fantastic sights surrounding him had been generated by nothing more than a fancy pair of glasses and a specially equipped room. Too tempted not to do it, he edged the glasses down his nose and took a peek—those hundreds of pinpricks he’d seen in the walls were blazing with life, moving and projecting and flashing. He slipped the VRSpecs back into place, and the wondrous view enveloped him once again.
“Not bad,” he said, hoping they caught the sarcasm in his understatement. “Man, visually, they nailed the programming a long time ago. Obviously.” He let out an impressed whistle. “I guess we just needed fifty years or so to catch up with all our other senses.”
“Exactly,” George said. In the virtual world, he was dressed like a medieval knight and looked ridiculous. Which made him likable. “This is where we gather to dive into our coding—it’s cheaper than using NerveBoxes, easier on our old bones to come in and out, yet still beautiful. A nice escape from the world without spending money that we don’t have.”
“Yet,” said Kent. He looked like an android, standing stiffly as if his joints didn’t quite work, with silver wires running along his skin in various places. Cherry was a medieval princess; Marta an old-fashioned soldier. “Once we show you what we’ve done—”
“Yeah, I know,” Gunner interrupted. “Then you’ll be raking in the dough. Got it. But I’m still waiting to see it.” With a start, he realized he hadn’t noticed what he was wearing yet and looked down. Thankfully, just a plain gray jumpsuit, like something a mechanic might don to fix cars.
“Now,” George said, his virtual face showing he was ready to get down to business. “Let’s remove ourselves to the sitting area and let the show begin.”
They moved through some wispy clouds and made their way down a slope. Gunner walked tentatively at first, sure he was going to slip through a hole and plummet to the ground. He didn’t know how that worked when wearing a pair of VRSpecs, but he didn’t want to find out.
After passing a pillow-like wall of cloud, they came upon a circle of wooden stumps, about ten in all, looking as if their trunks had just been chopped and felled. In the middle of the circle was a ring of stones with blackened ashes at its center. It all reminded Gunner of a scouting camp he’d gone to as a kid, before people were allowed to use Coffins. He hated to admit it, but fake camping, to him, beat real camping any day of the week.
“Please, have a seat,” George said.
He motioned to the stump closest to Gunner, who sat down, wondering where in the world all this was going. He had a sudden longing for Rachel, wishing she were there with him. The second this crazy meeting was over, he’d book it home and take her somewhere special inside the Sleep. Somewhere familiar.
The others took their own stumps and spread out around the circle. Everyone looked to George to begin.
“Now,” the old man said, adjusting his unnecessary armor. “Look into the fire, Mr. Skale. Look deeply, and you will see the world of our code. You’ll see just why we’re so excited about what we’ve discovered.”
Gunner did as he was told. He sat and stared at the charred wood and sooty ash. Then it began to change, dark swirls dancing upward from the ring of stones, devouring the air around it. It grew and grew, reaching for the celestial body–filled sky, encompassing everything around them. Gunner found himself leaning backward, trying to take it all in, wondering what it was. Soon he saw nothing but blackness, some parts darker than others, spinning like a black hole. It made him queasy, and once again he wondered if he’d fallen for some scheme.
But then a sea of coding splashed from the darkness, an onslaught of letters and numbers and symbols. He’d never seen so much data and information, so much programming—of such complexity—in one place before. From somewhere in that churning cyclone of code, he heard George’s voice, quiet and proud.
“This, Mr. Skale, is something we like to call the Mortality Doctrine.”
Hours later, Gunner had forgot
ten all about any promise he’d made to himself to rush home to Rachel and Sink into the VirtNet for a night out. He’d forgotten about every little thing in his life, enraptured by the code that George and his partners revealed to him piece by piece. Mesmerized, he sat and stared and listened, never wanting it to end, wondering if maybe it was all a dream. What he saw unravel before him like a long, long story seemed utterly impossible. And yet … it was there. In the code.
“We still have a long way to go,” George said at some point, long before Gunner wanted them to stop their presentation. “But hopefully we’ve shown you enough that you’ll believe in our cause. We want you to join us, Mr. Skale. Not only do we want your endorsement for publicity’s sake—we are practical, after all—but we want your counsel and advice. We want you as part of this team, a team that’s going to change the world forever.”
There was a whir of sound, and then everything disappeared, sucked back into the little fire pit in a great whoosh. Gunner could do nothing but stare at the ashes. Clouds and sky and planets filled the world now.
“What are you going to do with it?” he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper. His tone must’ve shown them that his joining their cause was an absolute given. All he wanted now was to understand what he’d just witnessed.
“The possibilities are endless,” George replied. The man suddenly didn’t look so goofy in that medieval garb of his. He looked like the greatest warrior who’d ever walked the earth. “Educating the young with instantaneous downloads of information. Eliminating dementia with stored memories and photos. Breaking down language barriers by downloading every known language into every mind. Restoring brain damage with artificial intelligence. Endless, Mr. Skale. The scope of possibility is matched only by its sheer wonder.”
Gunner swallowed, his throat a desert. He’d always known the brain was nothing but an extremely complicated computer. And these people had figured out a way to meld the mind with technology—in a way that seemed straight out of the wildest novels about the future. He was excited and terrified.
“If this got into the wrong hands …,” he started, then stopped. George and the others weren’t stupid. Not by a long shot.
“We know,” George replied. “Yes, we know.”
“So … what’s next?” Gunner asked.
“Can you come back tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he didn’t hesitate to say. “But not until we take care of some business first.”
For the first time that day, George looked surprised. “And what’s that?”
“I’m buying all of you Coffins. Brand-new. The best on the market.” Gunner paused, looking at the fire pit longingly. “No more VRSpecs, my new compadres. Tomorrow, we meet in the Sleep.”
They actually had to settle for three days later.
It turned out that purchasing, then waiting on delivery and installation of four NerveBoxes took that long, and it just about drove Gunner crazy. He spent his every waking moment thinking about or talking about what he’d seen, which in turn just about drove Rachel crazy. It was a sign of her love that she didn’t pack up and move to Europe.
Finally, an hour before his planned meeting with Virtual Solutions, she huddled in his arms, whispering in his ear.
“I’m proud of you.”
“Proud of little ole me? Why?”
She kissed him. “Just because you’re awesome. I could care less about you changing the world.”
“Couldn’t care less,” he said, knowing that’d get him a love smack. And it did.
He moved so that he could look her in the eyes. “Okay. It’s time for a cheese moment. You don’t get these often. Are you ready for it?”
“Oh, I’m ready.”
He kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, babe. This is something big—bigger than any stupid game. And I want you with me on this. We can do good things and always be together. That’s what I want.”
Gunner swore he saw a tear brimming in her right eye. “That’s what I want, too,” she said. “Forever.”
Thirty minutes later, they said good-bye.
George and his partners seemed to like celestial bodies, so Gunner didn’t have to think hard to decide which of his many VirtNet hangouts he’d use for their meeting. You didn’t become the best gamer out there without knowing how to code like a beast. Gunner Skale had programmed getaways in all kinds of places that no one else could touch—not even the VNS. A submarine on the bottom of the ocean, a cabin in the Rockies, a tree house in the Redwoods, a penthouse in the Empire State Building. If he didn’t know her better, he’d say that those sweet hideouts were the only reason Rachel stuck with him.
But for Virtual Solutions, he chose the Skaleship: a massive spaceliner that he could take anywhere in the VirtNet with a few swipes of code. And today he chose the rings of Saturn. The windows of the viewing port would probably never be physically possible on a real spaceship—they were twenty feet tall and as many feet wide—but this was the Sleep. The brilliant colors of the rings, flat as a pancake, with the mammoth sphere of Saturn lurking behind them, were utterly beautiful.
“Thank you for this,” George said as they all took their seats in the middle of the mostly empty room. Five people in all. Marta still looked like an old soldier, and Cherry’s red hair glowed in the light of the planet. Everyone had chosen their real-life Auras to keep things simple. Kent seemed happy to let George do all the talking. “Words can’t express how grateful we are to have your support.”
“And money,” Gunner said with a smile.
“Yes, that too.” George shifted in his seat. “But your counsel will be worth just as much.”
“Then let’s get started. Last time we got to see the fun stuff. I guess we better talk about your business plan this go-round. How protected is this coding, first of all?”
Marta answered that one. “We’ve taken all the necessary steps, legal- and business-wise. Securing and protecting our assets has been our top concern. I assume your … Skaleship is safe from prying eyes?”
Just as she finished speaking, Gunner caught a glimpse of movement over her shoulder. He looked past her, through the huge windows, out at the rings of Saturn. There was something coming toward them, a darkness against the shining plane of the rings, that grew larger even as he stared at it. Gunner hadn’t gotten to his level of gaming by assuming the best of a situation. He shot to his feet.
“What is it?” George asked, following their host’s gaze.
“This location is secure. That shouldn’t be there,” Gunner whispered. “We need to get out of here. Now. I’ll take us to another of my hideouts. Link up with me.”
For the first time since he’d met him, George scowled. “What is this? Some kind of trick? Did you think we’d walk in here and trust you with our secrets, give it all to you? We’re still protected. We’re not a bunch of fools.”
Gunner tried to take a step back, surprised by the reaction, but his chair was in the way—he plopped down into the seat. “George … I … Are you insane? Of course I’m not trying to steal anything. I hardly even know anything about your project!”
“But you have your own resources,” Cherry said sharply. “Plenty, as you like to hint at all too often. I think we should Lift and reconsider, George. This is all too fishy.”
Gunner stood up again and regained his composure. The object outside the ship had tripled in size, coming closer and closer. “Listen, I don’t know what’s happening, but I promise I’ve been honest. I’m very interested in what it is you have to show me. Let me just …” Gunner froze. When he tried to access the code to change their location, something blocked him. He tried again. Nothing.
“What’s wrong now?” George demanded.
“What the hell?” Gunner said under his breath. “I can’t …” He looked at George and his partners. “We’re blocked from the code. And … I don’t know what that thing out there is. But I have a feeling it’s not good. I swear I had nothing to
do with this! I don’t know what’s going on.”
Marta and the others were visibly struggling to access their own coding to no avail.
“Mr. Skale!” the old man shouted. “I demand you remove this block immediately!”
Gunner was at a total loss—nothing could block him from code. Nothing! “I don’t know what’s happening. I’m telling you, I don’t!”
The darkness now took up half the viewing port, the approaching object obscuring the outside world. For the first time since he could remember in the Sleep, Gunner had absolutely no idea what to do. They couldn’t leave, he had no way to access defenses, his potential partners had turned against him, and something was about to crash into his ship.
The others saw that he was just as upset as they were. They gathered around him and faced the huge windows.
All was black now. No stars, no Saturn, no rings. Just darkness. As he stared, a spot of light appeared in the middle of the abyss, then widened into a bright opening that almost blinded him. A shadow passed across it with lightning speed. There was a blur of movement, a thump of sound, a jolting clap outside that rattled the ship.
And then an enormous metallic object was outside the viewing port, hurtling toward them. It crashed through the windows with a hideous explosion of noise, and shards of glass rained down on Gunner. It was as if the VirtNet itself had just been shattered with a hammer.
Amidst it all, somehow George’s screams were crystal clear.