The Gamer Series #1
Eve 2.0: The Ultimate Gaming Experience
Just when Gwen thought she could beat any video game hands down, her boyfriend goes and gets her stuck in a top-secret government simulator named Eve 2.0.
Being trapped within a couple of her favorite video games doesn't seem so bad at first, but as time becomes a factor and the A.I. program begins to get smarter, Gwen soon realizes that winning or losing isn't just about pride anymore; it’s about making it out alive.
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1/ The Mysterious Facets of Love
Castle Rock, Colorado, is one of those quintessential, small-town suburbs just outside of Denver. I grew up in Texas, but, for the most part, I love it here. The natural beauty of the surrounding mountain ranges and nearby lakes has always appealed to me, and I’m a fan of winter; the colder the better. I’m not much of a people person though, so I tend to avoid the kids at school, and when I’m at work, I’m pretty quiet too. I’m definitely not one for gossip either, though at random times my curiosity tends to get the best of me, especially where Ryan Nelson is concerned. He’s my sorta kinda ex-boyfriend, so I know I shouldn’t care, but when I hear one of the receptionists mention his name, I stop in my tracks.
I shift the little Chihuahua I’m carrying into my other arm, pretending that he’s frightened by the other dogs in the waiting room, then I continue along at a snail’s pace.
“My daughter said it was just a minor accident,” Dolores says, and then, I guess for good measures, makes the sign of the cross. “And she said that no one else was injured, and thankfully Ryan seems to be pulling through just fine.”
Dolores and the other receptionist, Rose-Marie, lean closer to the monitor and examine a bunch of elaborately decorated get-well bouquets, balloons, and stuffed animals.
“I’m glad he’s okay,” Rose-Marie says in her usual motherly tone. “He’s a sweet boy.”
Yeah, right, I think with a snort. Ryan Nelson is a jerk, but I’m usually the only one who thinks so. Everyone else in town loves him and his family. Not that I have anything against his parents or his little brother. I mean, they’re practically like family since my mother and his mother are good friends, and his dad and little brother are actually pretty awesome. Ryan is the problem, at least according to my estimation, so instead of offering to contribute money to his bouquet, which I’d do under any other circumstance, I pretend that I wasn’t just eavesdropping and hurry outside to walk the Chihuahua. Then, for the rest of my shift, I hide in the back, brushing a couple of the dogs and tidying up some kennels while I wait to punch out.
When I finally get home, everything looks normal. Our rustic-styled house is decked to the gills with American flags for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend and the new wrought iron fence that was put around the patio to protect my mother’s prized roses from the deer has been painted white. In our driveway, Mom’s shiny new Range Rover is pulled up so the driver’s side door is positioned perfectly so she can hurry along our petunia-lined walkway without trailing any grass or mud into her beloved new toy.
It all looks so perfect, which is what Mom always strives for, regardless of the turmoil that usually ensues within those walls. I just so happen to know that all is not well in the Nielson home tonight though—or, well, you know, even more off than usual since I overheard the ladies at the front desk say that Ryan’s little brother was staying with us until his parents got home from the hospital. For most people, babysitting an eight-year-old kid isn’t a big deal; they tend to be pretty self-sufficient at that age, but my mother isn’t most people. She’s a former Miss Texas USA beauty queen and was a legendary member of the Texas Tech Grand Championship Cheer Squad. She also has a degree in Theatre Arts, so she knows how to be dramatic on a grand scale.
As I stare at my house from the safe confines of my car, I wonder how she’s handling the situation. She’s undoubtedly in some state of panic, though which particular type of drama I’m unsure, but she’s always frantic and fussing about something, so I prepare myself for the worse. I make my way to the front door and push it open. Ben is sitting in one of the foyer chairs, his expression a lot more forlorn than I had anticipated. Before I can ask him if Ryan is really okay though, my mother and my little sister scramble into the foyer. They’re clearly ready to go somewhere.
When I notice that my sister is clad in her bedazzled flip-flops and a running suit, I turn my attention to my mother. Are they seriously still trying to make it to Elizabeth’s tanning appointment? As if reading my mind, my mother’s icy glare meets my disapproving one and we stare at each other for a lingering moment before I look away.
“We’ll be home soon,” Mom announces as she pulls a Jimmy Choo pump onto her foot.
I look down at my scuffed Converse to hide my disgust. I mean, I get that Ryan had only broken a leg, but my mother and his mother are good friends. Shouldn’t she be at the hospital, by her friend’s side? More importantly—or maybe beside the point—is that Elizabeth has participated in at least one pageant per month for her entire life, so she’s already tanned and has her fill of trophies. Couldn’t they just miss this one? Of course not, I think with an eye roll and a bit of a chill, since I can still vividly recall all of the pageants I had been forced to participate in until I put my foot down.
“The lasagna’s in the oven,” Mom says as she slings her Coach purse crosswise. “Are you listening to me, Guinevere?” she snaps, her tone oozing with impatience.
I give a curt nod and swallow down another snort.
“Stick the garlic bread in when your father gets home,” she orders as she reaches for her keys. “Be back later.”
Mom pulls the door open and disappears down the porch steps. My sister grabs her matching Coach purse and struts behind, like a dutiful puppy. “Bye, guys,” Elizabeth says then looks at Ben. “Tell Ryan to get well for me.”
When Ben nods, she gives another little wave and then she hurries outside to catch up to Mom. I stare at the empty doorway for a moment before I close it. Then I turn and give Ben a good onceover. “Are you really doing okay, champ?”
He just shrugs then looks down at his feet, which is a very un-Ben-like thing to do.
Worried, since I’ve never seen him so despondent before, I walk over to ruffle his hair but stop short when, at nearly six-feet, I realize that I’m towering over him. I decide to kneel instead. After placing my hand over one of his, I ask, “Is Ryan really okay?” Though it comes off sounding a bit robotic since I don’t want to sound too eager to hear his response.
Ben shrugs again. “I think so…” But he doesn’t sound so sure. He looks away, his blue eyes glistening. “I talked to Mom though, and she said he is.”
Ryan and I haven’t been on good terms for years, but I genuinely care about Ben and I hate to see him sad, so I offer up the one thing I know will cheer him up. “How’s about you play a few games on my Station X while I get cleaned up? I just bought a new controller with a fan, and a new edition of Grand Theft Auto came in from Rent-a-Game.com.” That seems to perk him up, but not entirely. “Listen, I know you aren’t usually allowed to play violent video games,” I offer with a couple of air quotes, “but it can be our little secret.”
A smile slowly spreads across his mouth, and then he gives me one of those classic “Nelson” winks. His older brother had started doing that a couple of years back. When Ryan does it, my knees go weak. When Ben does it, I get annoyed.
“So GTA?” I ask again, my tone intentionally light because I refuse to let my frustration toward Ryan influence my relationship with Ben.
“Sure!” he says, the last of the worry slipping off his face.
As we climb the stairs, he asks how I’m doing. I skip over school stuff, since it’s my least favorite part of the day, and I tell him about the adorable puppies we treated at the vet clinic and the six kittens that someone brought in for adoption. Ben listens adoringly and then tells me about his day, the fifth grade seemingly more exciting than the twelfth, at least for him, I guess.
After getting him settled in my bedroom, I head for the bathroom. By the time I’m done showering and getting a load of laundry going, Ben has officially made himself at home. He’s as snug as a bug in my Ace Bayou X-Rocker, the champion of all gaming chairs, so I stroll to the bed and plop onto it.
“Some guy with the gamer tag Peter the Rad keeps inviting you to a private chat,” Ben announces without looking away from the television.
“Oh,” I say, though I’m not too surprised. I’m usually invited to a bunch of stuff the moment I power up my Station X console. A private chat is a little different though, since it’s only between two gamers. That happens often too, which is funny because in the real world I’m pretty introverted. In the virtual world though, I’m pretty well known.
“So this Peter the Rad guy…” Ben starts, his attention still focused on the TV, “is he your boyfriend or something?”
“Oh…umm…” For some reason, that question makes me squirm. “I guess so.”
Ben glances at me with an odd emotion brewing in his eyes. “Does he go to school with you and Ryan?” he asks, trying to sound nonchalant, but when he looks at me again, I can see the same annoyed concern that Ryan is infamous for throwing my way.
I shake my head, not at all thrilled that with every passing day, Ben is turning more and more into his brother. “Pete lives in California,” I say as I pull my backpack closer, intent on grabbing my cell phone so I don’t have to interrupt his game. “He finished high school last year and works for his dad now.”
Ben goes back to looking at the television. “How can he be your boyfriend if he lives in California?”
That’s a good question, and one I avoid answering while I pull up my text messages. Is Pete really my boyfriend? We’ve played together online for over a year now and we talk every day, sometimes two or three times, depending on our schedules. And for the past six months, we’ve made it a nightly ritual to video chat. It’s definitely safe to say that we’ve invested some time with each other, but we’ve never officially met, and even though I throw around the B-word a lot, Ben makes a valid point. I’m in Colorado. Pete’s in California. So does it really matter that Pete is like the tech-gaming yin to my yang when I have no plans of going to California and my mother absolutely refuses to allow Pete to come to Castle Rock?
“He sent another request,” Ben informs me.
I glance at the television a second before the pop-up message disappears. “I’ll be right back,” I say, holding up my phone so he knows why I’m leaving him alone again. “Can I get you anything from downstairs?”
He looks at me with wide eyes. Then he relaxes and smiles. “Why Guinevere Theodora Nielson,” he says, imitating my mother’s haughty tone to perfection, “how many times have I told you that food is forbidden outside of the kitchen!”
I burst out laughing even though it’s pretty pathetic that just about everyone in Castle Rock knows how neurotic my mother can be.
“Well, now, Benjamin,” I counter, trying my best to impersonate Ashley’s squeaky voice, “your father and I have talked it over and we just don’t think that those gory, violent games are appropriate for a boy your age.”
I wink at him. “How’s about I check on the lasagna and make my phone call, then I’ll bring up a soda. Sound good?”
He pulls my huge, plushy footrest closer. After snuggling farther into my gaming chair and crossing his feet at the ankles, he nods. “Oh, yeah.”
Jeez. The boy is seriously morphing into a mini-clone of his brother, which wouldn’t be a problem if I still liked him. “I’ll be right back,” I say, glad to have an excuse to leave.
As I walk toward the staircase, I dial Pete’s number—one of the few I actually have memorized. He usually answers pretty quickly, so after the fifth ring, I shift my phone around to make sure I didn’t accidentally dial someone else.
He finally picks up, sounding breathless. “Hey, babe.”
“Hey, are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m awesome.” He takes a deep breath and exhales loudly. “But first, how are you? How was my Teddy Bear’s day?”
I smile at the term of endearment since it’s nice to have someone respect my wish to be called by my middle name rather than by my heinous first name. “It was decent for a Thursday,” I say with a shrug. “Then I got home, and it went to crap.”
“Doesn’t it always?” He chuckles. “You wanna talk about it?”
“Nah, it was just the same old, same old. How goes life in sunny California?”
“It was another day in paradise, baby. Well, almost, anyway,” he laughs. “With Dad on his honeymoon, I thought I was in the clear to soak up some lunchtime sun, but someone must have ratted me out because Dad’s V.P. called to rip me a new one.”
I chuckle. “Surfs up?”
“Hell yeah. The waves were too kick-ass to pass up. You sure you don’t want to come to college out here? I promise you’ll love it.”
“I’m sure I would, but you know it’s been my lifelong dream to go to Dad and Gramps’s alma mater.” Out of habit, I make the customary Texas Tech “Guns Up” hand gesture. “And it wouldn’t be right to turn down my scholarship.”
“I told you I’d pay your tuition. It’ll come straight from the Peter Sampson Foundation.”
I chuckle. “There’s no such thing as the Peter Sampson Foundation, and—”
“But that’s the joy of being a gazillionaire. I can start one and you could be my first philanthropic deed—”
“I don’t think so.” Ugh. I hate when he tries to use his money to impress me. “And don’t you dare suggest that you’ll convince your dad to pull some strings at that scholarship organization his company offers, because I wouldn’t feel right taking money from him either.” I gallop the rest of the way down the stairs and stop by the bay window in the living room. After pulling back the drapes, I admire the view of the distant snow-capped mountains. “You should come to Colorado before I leave,” I suggest.
“No way, babe. I love you, but I’m so not down with hanging out in landlocked USA.”
“It isn’t that bad here, and this time of year, the lakes are pretty awesome—”
A huge crash from above startles me. I look at the ceiling and then panic when Ben starts running along the hallway, his footsteps reverberating through the house, sounding more Yeti-like than eight-year-old kid-like. “Ben!” I hurry over to the staircase. “Are you okay?”
“They’re home!” he shouts as he rounds the corner and rips down the stairs.
“Slow down, champ!” I order.
“But they’re home!” he repeats as he shoves past me and yanks the front door open.
Without skipping a beat, he sails over the porch steps and runs out of sight.
I hurry after him but stop short when I see Ashley’s Tahoe in their driveway. Wow. The kid must have supersonic hearing because my bedroom is on the back half of the house, or maybe he really was that worried. I mean, he and Ryan are ridiculously close even though there’s a ten-year-age difference between them, which is actually pretty sweet.
“Everything okay?” Pete asks.
“Oh.” I had totally forgotten he was on the line. “Sorry. My neighbor’s son was in a car accident so I was babysitting his little brother until they got back from the hospital.”
“You mean the jerk who likes spreading vicious rumors about you?” He snorts. “That neighbor?”
“Ah...” For some reason, I’ve never told Pete that Ryan and I used to date. I’m not sure why, especially since I’ve told him just about everything else there is to know about me, but with Ryan...I don’t know. I mentioned the rumors he started freshman year, but I never told him that I used to really like him...or maybe even loved him...
“Teddy Bear?” Pete hedges.
“Sorry...yes, that neighbor.”
“Sounds like karma came back around to bite him in the butt.” He chuckles. “But how’d you end up babysitting? I thought today was your day at the vet clinic?”
“Yeah, but when I got home, Mom asked me to take over. Not that I minded,” I add absently, since I’m suddenly transfixed as Ben reaches for the back door. The instant I get a clear view of Ryan, my heart skips a few beats. It’s a reaction I wish I could change, but even with a knee brace on his right leg and a cast on his left leg, the guy looks like he should be on the cover of a magazine.
“Does that mean your forced-babysitting gig is officially over now?” Pete asks.
“Oh.” Jeez. I keep forgetting he’s on the line. Before I can apologize for spacing out again, my father pulls into our driveway. “It is,” I tell him, “but my dad just got home. Mind if I catch up with him over dinner and then finish up my laundry before we video chat?”
“Yeah, of course, but try to make it sooner than later. I’m dying to show you the stuff for the game.”
My heart skips a few more beats, but in a different way. “You got it?” I ask eagerly as thoughts of beta testing his father’s top-secret game dance in my head. “I thought you said he had it under some pretty tight security.”
Pete laughs. “Oh, he did, but I was still able to hack through the system and get into the lab. I already overnighted your copy with the gear. It should get there tomorrow afternoon.”
“Gear?” My ears perk up yet again. “What kind?”
“I’m not entirely sure. There’s a memo claiming that the virtual-reality goggles and the haptic gloves are for some little kids’ game, but I’m not buying it, not with all the effort Dad put into keeping me out.” There’s another pause. “I’ll mess with them later. After I get done dealing with Mom.”
I grimace, since I know she hasn’t been taking the wedding news well. “Oh…how’s she holding up? Still in denial?”
“I wish,” he mutters. “Now she’s just pissed, which is ten times worse.” He sighs. “Think you’ll be free by nine?”
“Yeah…” I glance at my watch and nod, “that sounds good.”
“Cool. I’ll catch you later then. PTR signing off. I love you, Teddy Bear.”
The first part of PTR signing off stands for Peter the Rad. It’s a saying he uses when he ends a video on his gaming channel or when he logs out of his Station X. The I love you thing is relatively new though, and it always makes me squirm.
“Ditto,” I finally say, since I still haven’t mustered the nerve to repeat those three little words back to him. I end the call just as my father gets out of his car.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says cheerfully.
His jovial tone makes my stomach tie up in knots though. I slide my phone into my back pocket and give him a thorough once-over. His tie is loosened, and his hair is disheveled, which usually means something is bothering him. When he gets close enough, I reach for his briefcase. “Bad day?” I inquire even though I already know the answer.
He slings his arm over my shoulder, which is always a little funny to me since he’s a few inches shorter than I am. “Yeah. I lost a patient this morning, but he came in pretty banged up.”
“Oh.” I never know what to say to that. “Sorry, Dad.”
“It’s okay.” He releases a long breath. “Just part of the job.”
We walk toward the house in silence, but just before we climb the porch steps, I stop to glance across our yards. Ryan’s father, Mark, is helping Ryan into a wheelchair. “Was your patient in the same car accident as Ryan?” I inquire, hoping to get some insider knowledge without coming right out and asking if Ryan is really okay.
“No. It was totally unrelated.” He glances toward the Nelsons. “Actually, in Ryan’s case, there technically wasn’t an accident. He and a couple of his friends thought it would be cool to car-surf after school. When Ryan’s turn came up, he fell off the hood and fractured his left leg and bruised his right knee pretty badly.”
“Well,” I say just as Ryan plops into a wheelchair, “I guess that explains the chair.”
“Yeah, and the cast and the knee brace,” Dad adds. “Did I mention that Mark and Ashley had me paged when they got to the hospital?”
As I shift my attention back to my father, I narrow my eyes. “Did they?”
“Yeah, and after I assured them that Dr. Aries had diagnosed everything properly, I hung around until Ryan was discharged.” Dad gives me a sideways glance. “He and I had a nice little chat while we waited...”
From past experience, I can only assume that they talked about me. It’s something that Ryan does with both of my parents, which is beyond irritating. I mean, I get that we’ve been neighbors for four years and that my parents and his parents are good friends, but I hate the fact that he always tries to get Mom and Dad to relay information to me.
“He mentioned that he’s going to need help carrying his books to class and wanted to know if you’d be willing to lend a hand.”
My stupid, stupid, stupid heart skips a few more beats. I look across our lawns just as Ryan waves. Jerk, I think to myself as I cross my arms over my chest.
“Teddy,” Dad continues in that annoying forgive-and-forget tone of his, “I completely understand why you’re so cautious where Ryan is concerned, but in his defense, he’s really gone out of his way to make amends—”
Just then, and seemingly at the perfect time to disprove my father’s little theory, Carly Tannen’s hot pink Mustang revs so loudly, my bones quake. As she pulls into the Nelson’s driveway and then hurries out of her convertible with all of the fanfare expected of the head cheerleader, my body tenses painfully. I whip around before I have to endure watching anymore and my father has enough sense to follow along in silence. It isn’t until we’re both in the kitchen, me slamming my way through the room as I get the garlic bread in the oven, that Dad finally speaks up again.
“You’ll never guess what I found today,” he says, his tenor intentionally light. “I ran into the supermarket to grab lunch and I found Silent Movie in a bin by the register.” He pulls the movie out of his briefcase and holds it up for me to inspect.
“That’s awesome!” I manage to say enthusiastically despite my suddenly somber mood. I take the DVD out of Dad’s hand, probably a bit too roughly, and admire the artwork on the cover. “Seriously, Dad, this is great. Now our Mel Brooks collection is complete.”
“Yeah, that definitely made my day too.” He stares off into the distance, his mind probably fixating on his now-deceased patient. After another second, he shakes his head and looks at me with eager hopefulness illuminating his eyes. “Do you have homework tonight?”
“No, but…” I take in his disheveled appearance and decide that Pete and his new game will have to wait a little while longer. “Did you want to watch it while we eat?”
For the first time, Dad genuinely smiles. “Yeah. That sounds like a plan, kiddo.” He heads toward the foyer. “I’ll just go and get cleaned up while we wait on the garlic bread.”
“Yeah, okay.” I consider saying something else to try and cheer us both up, but I figure that if anyone can make us forget about our crappy days, it’s Mel Brooks.