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Gunner Skale, Page 3

James Dashner


  Gunner fell to the floor, arms thrown over his head, protecting his face from flying debris. His game-hewn senses were sharp, and his reactions were lightning fast. There was no loss of pressure because they weren’t actually in space, so the atmosphere of the ship remained stable, but he could tell that the coding had started to break down—he saw glitches and fading color and wavering edges.

  Gunner brushed himself off and stood. Whatever had crashed through the windows was on top of George, massive metal arms pinning the old man to the floor. The intruder was like a giant robot—a thick, monstrous body of gleaming steel and chrome, an insectile head with blazing blue eyes, vents jetting red steam, mechanical grunts and hisses sounding with its every move. And then Gunner saw exactly why George was screaming.

  From the robot’s torso, blades flashed in and out, stabbing the old man in the chest. The blood was a red fountain, splashing on the shiny metal of the attacker. George’s screams turned to gurgles and moans, then stopped altogether. Gunner knew it was a simulation, but the horrific sight still sent a chill up his spine. And he knew he had to fight this thing off.

  Little flaps opened on the robot’s shoulders. Two long instruments with hooked claws on the end shot out and grabbed the sides of George’s head. A third arm came from the monster’s chest, tipped with a long, curling weapon that looked like a scorpion’s tail. It slammed into the man’s temple and viciously dug out his Core—that small metal chip that represented his fragile link to the real world—pulling the chip from the vicious wound and flicking it into the emptiness that hovered behind the shattered windows.

  Gunner felt his world collapsing. Nothing had prepared him for this. Whoever was behind the attack broke new Virt laws every few seconds, each one worse than the last. Coding out the Core was not only illegal, but was an extremely difficult feat of programming. And the robot had done it as easily as tearing off a bandage.

  Rachel’s face appeared in Gunner’s mind then. He didn’t care about anything else. There was only Rachel. And he hadn’t spent the last ten years annihilating the Sleep to give up now.

  Gunner let out a scream that emptied his lungs of air, and scrambled to his feet. He ran at the robot, jumping at the last second onto its enormous arm. He scaled its side and leapt onto the thing’s back. The robot moved, lifting and planting its arms and legs with jerky movements, heading straight for Cherry, as if it didn’t know or didn’t care that Gunner clung to it. With each step, glass crunched under the machine’s clawed feet. Slowly but surely, it caught up to the woman and swung with a huge arm, swatting her through the air until she crashed into the wall and then crumpled to the ground. Gunner hung on as the thing moved again. He searched for something on the creature’s exterior to pull or break or disengage, but his fingers found only a smooth metal hull.

  Cherry didn’t make a sound when the machine tore out her Core. This time, the robot flicked the metallic coin into the air and zapped it with a sun-bright laser, obliterating it. Marta, who’d scrambled to the farthest edge of the room, was next. The robot caught her and yanked her into the air. Over the sound of her screams, Gunner heard her body breaking, bones snapping.

  Still he searched, punching the robot’s metal shell with his free hand as he hung on desperately with the other. The machine was solid, unbreakable. Gunner tried again to access the code—he needed to pull a weapon from his endless stash of programs. But he might as well have been in the Wake for all the good his efforts did. He was blocked from the code like a severed spine.

  The next few seconds were a blur of movement and sound. Marta erupted in one final scream as her Core was excised from her temple, and Kent didn’t even put up a fight, dying in one swift, crushing blow from the robot. Gunner knew without seeing that his Core would be removed as well. He searched his mind for possible solutions. But nothing came, and soon metal claws were gripping his arms, wrenching him off the robot’s back, throwing him to the floor.

  Gunner landed with a grunt that sent the air rushing from his lungs. And then the massive machine—its gleaming body, its hissing steam, its groans of mechanics—was hunched over him, its brilliant blue eyes staring down at him like thrusters on a spaceship.

  “At least tell me who you are,” Gunner said, forcing out the words even though his chest was on fire. “Tell me why.”

  A voice—detached, almost dreamlike—answered.

  “The Mortality Doctrine is mine. And now so are you. Say good-bye to flesh and bone, Gunner Skale.”

  There was a burst of pure light and a rush of sound, and then Gunner felt his memories drain from his mind like sand down a funnel.


  Hours later … weeks later … a lifetime later …

  Gunner’s eyes opened, though he’d never closed them.

  He was in a forest, surrounded by trees and darkness and mist. In front of him, a man dressed in a business suit stood tall and straight, like a trained soldier, a look of sublime calm on his face. The man was neither young nor old. Neither ugly nor handsome.

  Gunner inspected himself. He looked … different, though he couldn’t say just how. On some level, he already understood what had happened, but he couldn’t piece it together.

  “Who are you?” he asked the stranger, not knowing what else he could possibly say.

  The man smiled, as genuine as they come. “I’m a Tangent, Mr. Skale. And now so are you. I’m sorry to break this news to you, but your intelligence has been removed from your body. Downloaded into safe storage, formatted into what I see before me. The new Gunner Skale, if you will. I hope in time you’ll see that I simply had no choice in the matter.”

  Gunner’s instinct was to argue against such an impossible thing. Except that he knew in his gut, somehow, that it was true. “How? … Why?”

  “It’s better than death, wouldn’t you say?” The man had not stopped smiling. He also hadn’t moved. Not an inch. “You’re a valuable asset in times like these, so I’ve decided to spare you. In a manner of speaking. And my demands are quite simple. If you do what I say, and if you do it well … then, when all of this is over and the world has changed, I’ll give you life once again. This I promise you. You’ll have a new body, younger and stronger, and your final gift will be immortality.”

  Gunner had never felt so disconnected, so … untethered, as he listened to the man’s words. Comprehension still waited over a horizon unseen.

  “It will take time to process,” the stranger continued. “Time to adapt and accept. But in the end, you’ll thank me. You’ll be an active part in the greatest leap of human evolution the universe will probably ever witness.”

  “But my …” Gunner collapsed to his knees, saw the mist swirl away from him in dancing eddies. He’d been the fiercest fighter the Sleep had ever seen, but now he had nothing left in him. Gaming had taught him many things, but perhaps one lesson above all else: Know when you’re defeated, and save victory for another day.

  “Rachel,” he whispered. He broke into sobs, chest heaving with the pain of accepting the stranger’s words. Everything had been taken from him. Everything. He could barely handle the splitting ache of his heart, shattering.

  “Rachel,” he finally said, as if no other word existed anymore.

  “You can see her again.” The man finally moved, walking forward, then kneeling next to Gunner. He placed a hand on his shoulder, a mocking sign of comfort that enraged Gunner, but he forced himself to rein his anger in. “Do as I ask. Help me. Change the world. Then we’ll find you a new body and you can be reunited with your wife. Again, you have my solemn promise.”

  Gunner looked up at the man through the tears that streamed from his eyes. “What? What do you want me to do?”

  The stranger slowly stood, helping Gunner do the same so that they faced each other, only a few feet apart. Then the Tangent who’d taken everything away from Gunner Skale told him what he had to do to get it back.

  “I want you to help me build a Path,” the man said. �
��And then I want you to guard it. And someday you’ll be reunited with Rachel.”

  Rachel, Gunner thought, his mind fuzzy. I know that name. Don’t I?

  Turn the page for a sneak peek of

  The Eye of Minds

  Excerpt from The Eye of Minds copyright © 2013 by James Dashner. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.



  Michael spoke against the wind, to a girl named Tanya.

  “I know it’s water down there, but it might as well be concrete. You’ll be flat as a pancake the second you hit.”

  Not the most comforting choice of words when talking to someone who wanted to end her life, but it was certainly the truth. Tanya had just climbed over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, cars zooming by on the road, and was leaning back toward the open air, her twitchy hands holding on to a pole wet with mist. Even if somehow Michael could talk her out of jumping, those slippery fingers might get the job done anyway. And then it’d be lights-out. He pictured some poor sap of a fisherman thinking he’d finally caught the big one, only to reel in a nasty surprise.

  “Stop joking,” the trembling girl responded. “It’s not a game—not anymore.”

  Michael was inside the VirtNet—the Sleep, to people who went in as often as he did. He was used to seeing scared people there. A lot of them. Yet underneath the fear was usually the knowing. Knowing deep down that no matter what was happening in the Sleep, it wasn’t real.

  Not with Tanya. Tanya was different. At least, her Aura, her computer-simulated counterpart, was. Her Aura had this bat-crazy look of pure terror on her face, and it suddenly gave Michael chills—made him feel like he was the one hovering over that long drop to death. And Michael wasn’t a big fan of death, fake or not.

  “It is a game, and you know it,” he said louder than he’d wanted to—he didn’t want to startle her. But a cold wind had sprung up, and it seemed to grab his words and whisk them down to the bay. “Get back over here and let’s talk. We’ll both get our Experience Points, and we can go explore the city, get to know each other. Find some crazies to spy on. Maybe even hack some free food from the shops. It’ll be good times. And when we’re done, we’ll find you a Portal, and you can Lift back home. Take a break from the game for a while.”

  “This has nothing to do with Lifeblood!” Tanya screamed at him. The wind pulled at her clothes, and her dark hair fanned out behind her like laundry on a line. “Just go away and leave me alone. I don’t want your pretty-boy face to be the last thing I see.”

  Michael thought of Lifeblood Deep, the next level, the goal of all goals. Where everything was a thousand times more real, more advanced, more intense. He was three years away from earning his way inside. Maybe two. But right then he needed to talk this dopey girl out of jumping to her date with the fishes or he’d be sent back to the Suburbs for a week, making Lifeblood Deep that much further away.

  “Okay, look …” He was trying to choose his words carefully, but he’d already made a pretty big mistake and knew it. Going out of character and using the game itself as a reason for her to stop what she was doing meant he’d be docked points big-time. And it was all about the points. But this girl was legitimately starting to scare him. It was that face—pale and sunken, as if she’d already died.

  “Just go away!” she yelled. “You don’t get it. I’m trapped here. Portals or no Portals. I’m trapped! He won’t let me Lift!”

  Michael wanted to scream right back at her—she was talking nonsense. A dark part of him wanted to say forget it, tell her she was a loser, let her nosedive. She was being so stubborn—it wasn’t like any of it was really happening. It’s just a game. He had to remind himself of that all the time.

  But he couldn’t mess this up. He needed the points. “All right. Listen.” He took a step back, held his hands up like he was trying to calm a scared animal. “We just met—give it some time. I promise I won’t do anything nutty. You wanna jump, I’ll let you jump. But at least talk to me. Tell me why.”

  Tears lined her cheeks; her eyes had gone red and puffy. “Just go away. Please.” Her voice had taken on the softness of defeat. “I’m not messing around here. I’m done with this—all of this!”

  “Done? Okay, that’s fine to be done. But you don’t have to screw it up for me, too, right?” Michael figured maybe it was okay to talk about the game after all, since she was using it as her reason to end it—to check out of the Virtual-Flesh-and-Bones Hotel and never come back. “Seriously. Walk back to the Portal with me, Lift yourself, do it the right way. You’re done with the game, you’re safe, I get my points. Ain’t that the happiest ending you ever heard of?”

  “I hate you,” she spat. Literally. A spray of misty saliva. “I don’t even know you and I hate you. This has nothing to do with Lifeblood!”

  “Then tell me what it does have to do with.” He said it kindly, trying to keep his composure. “You’ve got all day to jump. Just give me a few minutes. Talk to me, Tanya.”

  She buried her head in the crook of her right arm. “I just can’t do it anymore.” She whimpered and her shoulders shook, making Michael worry about her grip again. “I can’t.”

  Some people are just weak, he thought, though he wasn’t stupid enough to say it.

  Lifeblood was by far the most popular game in the VirtNet. Yeah, you could go off to some nasty battlefield in the Civil War or fight dragons with a magic sword, fly spaceships, explore the freaky love shacks. But that stuff got old quick. In the end, nothing was more fascinating than bare-bones, dirt-in-your-face, gritty, get-me-out-of-here real life. Nothing. And there were some, like Tanya, who obviously couldn’t handle it. Michael sure could. He’d risen up its ranks almost as quickly as legendary gamer Gunner Skale.

  “Come on, Tanya,” he said. “How can it hurt to talk to me? And if you’re going to quit, why would you want to end your last game by killing yourself so violently?”

  Her head snapped up and she looked at him with eyes so hard he shivered again.

  “Kaine’s haunted me for the last time,” she said. “He can’t just trap me here and use me for an experiment—sic the KillSims on me. I’m gonna rip my Core out.”

  Those last words changed everything. Michael watched in horror as Tanya tightened her grip on the pole with one hand, then reached up with the other and started digging into her own flesh.

  Turn the page for a special look at

  The Maze Runner,

  the first book in James Dashner’s

  New York Times bestselling series

  Excerpt copyright © 2009 by James Dashner. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.


  He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.

  Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him. He fell down at the sudden movement and shuffled backward on his hands and feet, drops of sweat beading on his forehead despite the cool air. His back struck a hard metal wall; he slid along it until he hit the corner of the room. Sinking to the floor, he pulled his legs up tight against his body, hoping his eyes would soon adjust to the darkness.

  With another jolt, the room jerked upward like an old lift in a mine shaft.

  Harsh sounds of chains and pulleys, like the workings of an ancient steel factory, echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls with a hollow, tinny whine. The lightless elevator swayed back and forth as it ascended, turning the boy’s stomach sour with nausea; a smell like burnt oil invaded his senses, making him feel worse. He wanted to cry, but no tears came; he could only sit there, alone, waiting.

  My name is Thomas, he thought.

  That … that was the only thing he could remember about his life.

  He didn’t understand how this could be possibl
e. His mind functioned without flaw, trying to calculate his surroundings and predicament. Knowledge flooded his thoughts, facts and images, memories and details of the world and how it works. He pictured snow on trees, running down a leaf-strewn road, eating a hamburger, the moon casting a pale glow on a grassy meadow, swimming in a lake, a busy city square with hundreds of people bustling about their business.

  And yet he didn’t know where he came from, or how he’d gotten inside the dark lift, or who his parents were. He didn’t even know his last name. Images of people flashed across his mind, but there was no recognition, their faces replaced with haunted smears of color. He couldn’t think of one person he knew, or recall a single conversation.

  The room continued its ascent, swaying; Thomas grew immune to the ceaseless rattling of the chains that pulled him upward. A long time passed. Minutes stretched into hours, although it was impossible to know for sure because every second seemed an eternity. No. He was smarter than that. Trusting his instincts, he knew he’d been moving for roughly half an hour.

  Strangely enough, he felt his fear whisked away like a swarm of gnats caught in the wind, replaced by an intense curiosity. He wanted to know where he was and what was happening.

  With a groan and then a clonk, the rising room halted; the sudden change jolted Thomas from his huddled position and threw him across the hard floor. As he scrambled to his feet, he felt the room sway less and less until it finally stilled. Everything fell silent.

  A minute passed. Two. He looked in every direction but saw only darkness; he felt along the walls again, searching for a way out. But there was nothing, only the cool metal. He groaned in frustration; his echo amplified through the air, like the haunted moan of death. It faded, and silence returned. He screamed, called for help, pounded on the walls with his fists.