“Gee, what a shocker,” Rachel said after swallowing a bite of her breakfast and taking a sip of orange juice. “You never came to bed last night.”
Gunner leaned in and kissed her. “Sorry, babe. I figured I might as well finish off Plague while I had all my ducks in a row. Plus, that way I can spend more time with you this weekend! See how it all works out?”
“Good try. I’ll give you that much.” She pulled out a stool and motioned for him to sit. “You made breakfast yesterday. Let me get you a bagel.”
“If you call runny eggs and black toast breakfast. You ate three bites, tops.” Gunner was more than happy to be waited on, though. He sat down, trying not to wince, but Rachel saw the pain on his face.
“Wow, a little rough with the monsters, eh?” she asked as she went for the cupboards. “Maybe you should bring me along so you don’t get hurt so badly next time.”
“And let you get any credit for my sheer dominance of the Sleep? No way.” He smiled, but they both knew that deep down he meant every single word. Rachel was an excellent gamer—one of the best—which was why he couldn’t ever let her come along. People really would discredit him for having such a talented partner.
She placed a bagel, a tub of cream cheese, a knife, and a huge glass of OJ in front of him. “Eat up, warrior.”
“Gladly. Thanks.” He dug into the cream cheese with the knife and started spreading. He felt like he hadn’t eaten in a month.
“You ought to be a real charmer at work today,” Rachel said, “running on zero sleep and whining every time you take a step. Maybe you should just call in sick. I will, too, and we can chill at Paradise Alley in the Sleep. Throw ice at the old-timers.”
Nothing had ever sounded so appealing to Gunner, mostly because he knew he couldn’t do it.
“Sorry,” he said. “Not today. I’ve got a big consulting gig with Virtual Solutions. All I have to do is impress them, and they’ll start printing money to pay me”—he winked at her—“ ’cause I’m so smart, ya know?”
“Pretty much a genius.” Rachel rolled her eyes and gave him a kiss on his cheek, ignoring that he’d just stuffed a quarter of a bagel in his mouth.
He guzzled his orange juice in one long, sweetly satisfying swallow, then stood up to go. “I just wish the rest of the world loved it like you do. And me. Everyone hates me.”
“They always hate the guy at the top. Always. And remember—the teenagers love you still. There’s that.”
“Yep. There’s that.”
After a long embrace with Rachel—much longer than he had time for—Gunner headed out the door.
He always hoped for five minutes. Every day he swore that if he could just make it five minutes, he’d be happy and not complain the rest of the day.
Once again, he was disappointed.
Approximately thirty-three seconds after exiting the front door of his apartment building, a group of teenagers engulfed him, asking for his autograph. He obliged as cordially as he could for a minute or so, enduring the inevitable barrage of compliments and requests for advice or interviews as one voice ran into the next.
Eventually, he broke free, apologizing, saying he was late for work, and they followed a bit before finally giving up, wandering off to their own lives. Then came phase two. The dirty looks from adults. The gamers who’d been doing it long enough to stop admiring and start hating. Gunner just walked, eyes straight ahead, promising himself for the thousandth time that he’d use that ridiculous amount of sponsorship money he’d received from game companies to create a more private life.
After making it to the train without too much incident, he found a dark corner in the back and sat down, resting his head against the window. He cursed those stupid interviews he’d agreed to do for Gamer Central. In the end, that was what had robbed him of his glorious anonymity. They’d plastered his face all over the Net, and for a good amount of time no one could escape it. He was everywhere—NetScreens, WallScreens, NetWatches, you name it. Gunner Skale, ugliest wallpaper of the century.
He groaned inwardly. He loved gaming. He loved winning. He loved dominating.
But, man oh man, he hated being famous. Even as he had the thought, he saw a woman sitting a few rows down eyeing him with nothing short of hatred. She had the look of a prolific gamer—short orange hair, piercings, clothing that showed she didn’t give a crap what people thought of her. Maybe he’d stepped over her on his way to the top of Plague. Who knew.
He closed his eyes to shut her out and daydreamed, remembering the time when gaming was the most fun, when he’d shattered all the Lifeblood records and no one really knew him yet. The real him.
Those were the days.
Gunner liked saying he had to go to work. He liked to call his job the daily grind. But in actuality, it was nothing like that. First, there was nothing daily about it. Rachel teased him all the time about “calling in sick,” even though Gunner had no boss, no office, and no set schedule. But when you’re the most skilled gamer in the Sleep, people want your advice. On a lot of things, most of which would surprise the average Joe. And these people were willing to pay Gunner an absurd amount of money.
Which he was more than happy to accept.
Today, he’d been invited to a small building on the outskirts of the city, a place no one would notice unless they accidentally bumped into it: brown dusty concrete exterior, dirty windows, weed-choked parking lot. There were only three cars parked there, all of them old models, and one of them had a flat tire. Gunner didn’t think he had the correct address, but he tried the door anyway and wasn’t surprised when he found it locked, rattling on its rusty hinges.
What the hell? he thought. Had he really wasted a chance to spend the day in the VirtNet with Rachel for a fake address? He was just turning to walk away when the door opened with a jangle. It had one of those little bells to announce anyone coming or going—something Gunner had only seen in historical games within Lifeblood.
A woman poked her head out, all frizzy red hair and bright lipstick. “May I help you, sir?” She smacked her gum like an all-out assault. “We don’t usually open until noon or so.”
Gunner could only stare. Someone had played a joke on him. Surely.
“Sir?” the bubbly lady inquired.
“Um … I was supposed to meet with George Hartley. Of Virtual Solutions?”