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.”