Free Kindle Nation Shorts -- February 1, 2012
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In This Issue
About the Author: James E. Lalonde
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An Excerpt from HOLOTAR: LAST QUEEN OF THE WHITE SHAMANS by James E. Lalonde

 About theAuthor:  James E. Lalonde

 

LaLonde
 James E. Lalonde

 

 James E. Lalonde was a technology and business journalist at the Seattle Times, KING 5 News and was involved in the startup of half a dozen software and digital media companies in the Pacific Northwest.  

 

As a kid in Montana, Lalonde learned to love words reading the dictionary. He was a science nerd who placed Third in Applied Physics at the International Science Fair. He started off writing fiction out of college, but soon fell off the literary wagon to become a journalist. After attending university for a year abroad in Italy, he maintained a passion for the country and some of his writing is set there. He was a Gelato maker for several years. More recently, he has worked with the homeless and mentally ill as a counselor, researching Holotar: Last Queen of the White Shamans.

  

Lalonde received the William T. Costello Poetry Award while at Gonzaga University, and he was a finalist in the 2011 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest for Poetry. Holotar:

  

Last Queen of the White Shamans, was a finalist in the 2010 Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest for Urban Fantasy Sci-Fi.

  

"I believe that every voice has a story that deserves to be heard and that often it is the unheard voice that is most profound," says Lalonde. "As these voices speak to me, I try to remember what Plato said: 'Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle...'"


James lives in Seattle and is the father of three daughters. His wife is a fellow journalist. He is currently working on the next book in his 'Mind Googling' series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Holotar

An Excerpt from

Holotar:  Last Queen of the White Shamans

 

by  James E. Lalonde

Walter can Google minds--but, he wonders in today's 5,700-word Free Kindle Nation Short, who wants to know what people are thinking?  

 

He can see inside games, too, and is lured into testing "Holotar: Last Queen of the White Shamans," a new kind of holographic fantasy game designed by a mad Russian. 

 

But the game has been hacked by a very real monster that preys on young gamers--like Walter.  

  

 

  

by James E. Lalonde

4.5  Stars  -  10 Reviews

 

Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

 

Click here to begin reading the free excerpt

 

Here's the set-up:

 

Walter Winkler is a Seattle street kid who can Google Minds. Not that he can help it. Who wants to know what people are really thinking? 

 

His shelter shrink dismisses Mind Googling as mere schizophrenia and worse, intends to 'cure him" if he keeps having "delusions" of getting sucked into other people's heads. 

 

Nicknamed 'Pinball,' Walter has a gift for seeing inside games, too. He doesn't play by the rules. He plays with the code. Avoids the monsters. Always beats the game. 

 

Then Walter is lured into testing "Holotar: Last Queen of the White Shamans," a new kind of holographic fantasy game designed by a mad Russian. Walter is beguiled into promising the 'Last Queen' that he will rescue her child being held captive in Siberia. He also discovers that the game has been hacked by a very real monster, an ancient psychopath unleashed into the new world of massively multiplayer online games and social networks, who is preying on young gamers - like him. 

 

Walter sets out on a journey from Seattle to Siberia and back to fulfill his promise to the Queen and to help the gamers find their monster before it finds him. The odyssey propels him Googling through the minds of a cast of eccentric characters, including Paolo, a Brazilian game executive with a past; Leggs, a rehabbed homeless teen prostitute; and unfortunately, into the mind of a twisted monster named Gvlek. 

 

Holotar: Last Queen of the White Shamans is an urban fantasy, psychological thriller. There are consequences for creating and unleashing real and imagined monsters. Because sometimes, once they get in your head, monsters just won't die.  

 

From the reviewers:

 

Lalonde's debut novel is a fascinating ride into the inner world of a street kid whose talent for "googling minds" takes the reader on a thrilling trip in and out of a next-generation game where there are only two ways out of the labyrinth - winning or dying. Holotar is a challenge uniquely suited to the telepathic abilities of Walter the Pinball Wizard, a troubled teenager whose strange talent is dismissed as schizophrenic catatonia by everyone except a mysterious Microsoft executive named Angel who lures him into a bizarre realm of shamans, shadows, and blood-eating monsters. Gamers, metal heads, steam punkers, and sci-fi fans will be riveted! - Jane Adams "Jane Adams, Ph.D."

Walter Winkler, a mentally ill street kid with a prodigious talent for gaming, can't help getting sucked into other people's minds. When a Microsoft exec offers him $100 to test out a prototype next-generation game, she fails to mention it has a few rather nasty "bugs." What follows is a wild and fast-paced fantasy thriller that's as hard to put down as it is well-written. . Highly recommended. - JoAnne Tompkins

Holotar hurls the reader deep into a richly-imagined world of a troubled gamer prodigy who makes a fateful promise to a dying queen in a next-generation game-gone-bad. Gut-wrenching (literally!) monsters, Russian oligarchs and mobsters introduce wicked chaos at every turn. Not for the dainty or faint-hearted -- this one delivers shocks, clever turns and brutal insights page after page. - Nancy

This book has something for everyone! Futuristic tech, travel, gritty street life, mystery and more. Some very surprising turns keep you on the edge. It blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Very enjoyable. - Chris 

 

By James E. Lalonde

            

  

Excerpt    

Free Kindle Nation Shorts - January 31, 2012 

 

An Excerpt from

Holotar:  Last Queen 

of the White Shamans

By

James E. Lalonde

Copyright © 2012 by James E. Lalonde and published here with his permission


 

 

Chapter 2

 

"Have some more Doro Wot, Pinball," Bill said.

Walter and Bill were sitting in the main shelter dining room. It was just after midnight. The dining room table was covered with cartons from the Ethiopian café Bill stopped at on his way to work. The smells of exotic spices floated from the green, brown and yellow contents of the cartons.

The other counselor, Greta, was playing solitaire over in the glass cage, next to the double screens of security monitors. The monitors had twenty screens flashing by, so that she could see if anybody was having sex, sneaking out or shooting up in the dorms. Greta preferred technology to walk-throughs and solitaire to human contact. Bill said she was the last one out of the Führerbunker just before Hitler killed himself.

"Frankly," Bill confided to Walter, "I think she may be the reason he killed himself."

Then Bill did his mile-wide gold-toothed grin, followed by a thunderstorm rumble of laughter. Greta did not approve of Walter being down here at that hour. The glass cage was her personal Führerbunker and Walter felt her watching him through her sniper holes. But Bill ruled the night shift. No one else would put up with her. He almost made her laugh sometimes. So she pretended Walter did not exist. Walter didn't think that she was going to complain about Bill letting Walter sit around playing games or Googling the universe on the residents' computers all night.

Bill had been all over the world. He called himself 'an old hippie.' He played 'The Grateful Dead' on a cassette player. Bill rode a huge 500 cc World War II motorcycle, called a Puch. He parked it out front where he could see it, not that anybody touched Bill's stuff. He was old but he was also six feet two with arms half the length of the pool table. One time, he crossed Africa on this Puch and got Dengue fever. This African family adopted him and saved his life. He had a picture to prove it, a black and white one, crinkled in his wallet, which was on a chain, a picture of him and this entire tribe standing around that motorcycle. He had 1,000 stories like this.

"Did I ever tell you about the time..."

And then he told Walter anyway. His stories were as rich and exotic as the food. Walter told them to Leggs during the days, since she was locked up in the secret shelter nights.

Bill worked the night shift because he refused to give out the meds. They were kept in the glass cage, in a locked file cabinet. He said he did enough drugs himself when he was young and it was usually a mistake, except for peyote and that was holy because it gave you visions. He was not going to give anti-psychotics or atypical anything drugs to a bunch of crazy kids who just needed a real life. Drugs were Sushi's business. Bill was there to bring a little real life to Mary Magdalene's.

"We're all crazy, Pinball," Bill said. "Life is the cure. Do you know what the secret of life is?"

Walter did not bother trying to get in an answer, because he knew Bill was going to tell him. Bill gestured for Walter to come closer.

"You have to live it," Bill whispered.

So the day shift gave out the meds Sushi prescribed. The head counselor wore the key, attached to a rubber gorilla, around their neck. Like someone was going to break in and steal somebody else's Seroquel.

They called it the glass cage because it was windows all around, so the counselors could see everything that was going on in the shelter. The doors into this office were locked, even though one of the doors opened halfway on top, so they could give out meds and check out the phone and the remote. That was how Abra got sent to Harborview, jumping over the half door and chasing the Jesus out of the on-call.

"Hard to believe this is just green chickpeas, isn't it?" Bill asked as he reached over and swiped up another glob of the Aterkik Alitcha with a mattress-sized piece of Injera.

It was another rhetorical question, since Bill asked it and answered it himself every time he brought Ethiopian food. Walter had most of the names of the dishes memorized, along with every ingredient, which mainly included enough red pepper to kill a normal person.

"You see," he said, "there are a lot of poor people in Africa. Poor people don't have a lot of exotic food. So they use spices to make things like peas exotic. They use their imagination to make their food fantastic. That's what imagination is for, to spice up life."

Bill and Walter spiced up their lives some more, eating in silence. These were the times Walter liked best, when the shelter was dim and silent, when the traffic outside slowed to an occasional flicker, when he and Bill communicated silently, the way Walter and Leggs did. No outer voices. It was a perfect time, except that Leggs was locked up in the secret shelter, with its curfew.

Walter did not have to read Bill's mind. Bill spoke it for himself. And tonight, Walter could tell he had more to say, just as soon as they decided who got the last of the Daro Wot they were both eyeballing.

The Mary Magdalene Shelter - Mary's everybody called it - was a two-story orange building at the edge of Interstate 5.

The shelter was a refuge for "the most disadvantaged children of the street," that's what the Web site said, a safe place to hang out and hide out from predators, pimps and inner demons. Although it was hard to keep the demons out. And the pimps and the dealers were not far behind, circling Mary's the way sharks do a life raft full of wounded survivors on the History Channel.

You could see the Space Needle, if you stood just right in the doorway, the flying saucer floating above the skyline. The R.E.I. climbing rock was just across the freeway, a four-story sandstone thumb in a giant glass box. The rock was always crawling with tiny people. They had colored ropes and helmets. Sometimes Walter watched them for hours, going up and down on belay, the way the golden elevator pods did on the Space Needle. There was no elevator at the shelter. They didn't allow ropes either. And the only one who wore a helmet was Anthony, and that was just since the cops shot his dog, which was a whole other story.

Bill said that the Catholic Church once owned the shelter, which was why it was not a skyscraper. It used to be a mission for alcoholics. Then the Church ran out of money because of all the pedophile priests and the place was in Limbo until the Church abolished Limbo. That was when they turned the building over to a non-profit.

Walter knew the story was true. There was still a statue of Mary Magdalene guarding the door, next to the red sharpie bucket. Mary had a golden halo. There was a beatific look on her worn painted face. Mary worked the streets too, but Jesus saved her and now she was a Saint, a beacon of hope reaching out to working girls like Leggs. Her hand was even broken off, where she reached out to save you.

Mary was at the door, but the religion at Mary's was psychopharmacology. Dr. Hiram Sushi was the high priest. He ran the shelter. And he ran the people inside it. Like a lot of the people there, Sushi had a split personality, in his case, half Jewish, half Japanese.

The Japanese part of Sushi was a street shrink. Sushi plied the alleys like a psychiatric monk. His backpack was stuffed with Cliff Bars and bottles of water. There was always a retractable carabineer of keys on his belt. Nobody knew all the things they unlocked. A cord kept his thick frameless glasses from falling off. His orange laminated ID badge was always clipped to his orange fleece vest.

Everybody had a theory as to why the shelter was painted orange. Bill thought it was a metaphor for some traffic light stuck inside Sushi's head.

When Walter asked Sushi the monk why the shelter was orange, Sushi paused outside the shelter with his vest and backpack and seemed to meditate on this question. Then Sushi the psychopharmacologist took over. This Sushi gave Walter an analytical look, pushed up his glasses so his eyes did the Dr. Sushi goldfish look. He chafed under the backpack.

"It's just paint, Mr. Winkler," he said in his monotone Dr. Sushi voice. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Then Sushi the monk was back and seemed to regret the remark. He made a soft clucking sound. Snuggled his backpack tight. He gave Walter a soft, apologetic smile and slipped off into the Friday evening dusk in search of lost young minds.

It was the Jewish Sushi, the psychopharmacologist that specialized in curing the disadvantaged children the monk brought in, the crazy kids, disoriented seekers, bleary-eyed ravers, and tweakers selling blowjobs for meth or smack. He addressed all of them as 'Mr.' or 'Ms.' His game voice never revealed emotion. Walter called him Sushi, but never to his face. In fact, Walter couldn't remember ever calling Sushi anything to his face, like his name was Voldemort or something unspeakable.

There were two shelters, too. The secret shelter was for rehabbing working girls like Leggs. Getting them social services. The entrance to the secret shelter was around back.

Walter didn't remember much of his life before Sushi the monk found him in the Starbucks dumpster. Somebody beat him with a board from a crate, beat him pretty bad, trying to get Walter's shoes. His hair covered most of the scars now. They didn't get his shoes, his Hyperdunks. That was the only thing he figured he had that was worth beating him up for, with a board from a crate. They were wasp-colored. Double-knotted laces. He always double-tied the laces. The resulting knot was very difficult. It was what Sushi called a Gordian knot. A problem you can't undo in a normal way. Kept people from stealing Walter's shoes. They would have to cut his feet off to get them.

A famous basketball player wore Hyperdunks, Kobe Bryant. Walter found his pair in the shoe heap at Value Village. They were Nike originals. 'Jump higher. Cut sharper. React faster. Be more explosive. Fly Wire technology.' They didn't make them like this anymore. He saw the irony in his beating experience. That was why he got beaten and how he got away from the guy with the crate. His shoes. Hyperdunks were not just his shoes. They were another one of his secret powers that Sushi did not believe in.

Bill said Walter put up a good fight, left a trail of blood a block long. That was what led Sushi right to the dumpster. Walter was catatonic when Sushi found him. His right hand was broken up so bad that two fingers were pointing in opposite directions. Walter saw the whole thing, he was floating up above his body as Sushi the monk gently examined him in the trash heap of clear plastic bags filled with day-old donuts and half-full latte cups. That's what happens when he went 'cat.'

Sushi did not believe any of this happened, that Walter 'saw' Sushi save his life, that he had this 'out of body' experience, or that Walter ever went 'mind Googling' and 'head hopping.' No. Sushi said it was all just the schizophrenia and catatonia. And he thought the crate beating exacerbated Walter's 'delusions of paranormal grandeur,' not to mention his 'diminished cognition' and 'post traumatic amnesia.' No. Sushi said it was all in Walter's head, that he was just hearing 'inner voices.'

Walter and Sushi didn't see eye to eye, mainly because Sushi would not look Walter in the eye. Sushi told Walter to join the Inner Voices Group. Walter countered that they should start a 'Mind Googling' Group. Sushi just shook his head when Walter brought this up. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes like he was exhausted. Like he was sorry for Walter. Like they would have to consider the alternatives. Walter felt sorry for Sushi sometimes, for all the things he did not believe in.

"You have a gift," Bill said. "Don't let anybody tell you different."

Still, Mary's was the closest thing to home that Walter knew. And Sushi was the closest thing any of them had to a father. He was happy here at Mary's living in the margins. At the edge.

The TV was always on. TV gave him good ideas for what to watch on YouTube. And Bill let him live on the PCs and play the ancient Xbox into the night. Breaking and entering games and exploring the secret subterranean worlds programmers left hidden there. Walter didn't sleep much nights. Sushi said this was something left over from his street life, where you only sleep days in doorways. Because that was the only time you were safe, when the predators can't get you. Most of the time.

And of course, at the center of it all there was Google.

Walter Googled the whole universe from Mary's. Visited places. He found out stuff. He Googled the schematics of the Space Needle, and even though he never got up it, he knew it like he built it. His favorite part was the secret stairway that runs up and down the elevator shaft. He rarely got to touch one of the million other gadgets he saw evolving in the world around him. Most of the stores had him flagged on their security cams, with facial recognition software, so the guard was waiting for him by the time he got to the goodies. But he knew everything about everything, thanks to Google.

Perfect days in Seattle only last a few minutes. It was always another perfect Seattle day on Google Earth. Sitting in the cozy gloom and glow of the shelter, Walter was captivated by the eternal sunset Google captured for Walter as it glinted from the grinning windows of a billion Seattle condos, houses and skyscrapers lining the bowl of hills around the bay. Walter could zoom in and prowl the streets of rich neighborhoods, watch people watering their lawns just to keep them green, go places where he would get arrested if he went there in person.

Googling Earth was a lot like Googling minds. He couldn't change the things he saw. He knew that. He could only look. That feature wasn't available yet. For now, Google kept its data trapped like souls inside its farm of computers hidden in the desert, where only Google could manipulate it.

When he was Googling around in somebody's mind, he couldn't change things in there, either. Memory was that way. But he could see things a million different ways. Google things that even the people who lived in there couldn't see. Find a keyword that Walter Googled and used to follow the threads running though a million memories. Of course, a lot of people encrypted their thoughts, locked them away where even Walter's keywords could not unlock them.

Most people only saw things one way. They saw what they wanted to see. Or they only saw what they could not stop seeing. They forgot the rest. Forgot the passwords they used to encrypt stuff. Still, Walter found years of memories abandoned or hidden under the mattresses in people's minds, waiting for Walter to Google around, getting different perspectives.

Walter also Googled every new word he heard. Words are better than the fantasies in video games. Words have memories, histories, lives. Derivations. Everything came from somewhere else. Everything was like something else, a string of similes as far as Walter saw, all the way back to the Primordial Soup. To the Big Bang. And those were just metaphors. Nobody was sure what they were really like. Walter was the shelter Scrabble king. He took down every new college kid who came to be a counselor at the shelter, to put real life on their resume.

"You are becoming an etymologist," Bill said.

This set Walter off on a Google of 'mologists.' Sushi was an epistemologist. He was always searching for reality, which he pretty much defined as his own. Walter did not bring this up with Sushi. Anyway, what was Walter going to do? Change Sushi's mind?

Walter wanted to be an entomologist. Who didn't like bugs? It was a good time to get to know insects. Bugs were going to rule the world. There was a YouTube video called 'Cyborg Insects,' where they implanted nanotech into moth brains so they could see through their eyes and use them to guide robots. Roaches were next. Walter was not sure he wanted to meet a robot controlled by a roach. But it wasn't like they were asking to be masters of the universe. He was taking a wait and see on that one.

Bill studied Walter as he licked his fingers. He was not afraid to look Walter in the eyes.

"Walter, it's time to take a chance." Bill called him by his name, which meant he was telling him something very serious. "The cactus isn't getting any younger."

Walter looked over Bill's shoulder at his Christmas cactus, which Walter planted in Gardening Group when he first came to the shelter. It was sitting up on the counter, inside the glass cage under the fluorescent lights. It was much bigger than the baby thing he planted. Its arms were all over the place, pointing in all directions, like the arms of a giant Medusa alarm clock, all snakes of wafer-thin green cacti with crimson blossom heads. It was blossoming even though it was summer, not Christmas.

Walter looked from Bill's face, eyes intense and somehow humorous, skin weathered with the experiences he had around the planet, looked around the universe of the main shelter room, paused at the inviting glow coming from the PCs, then rushed over the terrain of Greta's green and blue Solitaire lit face. He arrived back face-to-face with the blossom-laden cactus. So what if it was not Christmas? The cactus was happy. Who was to say, epistemologically speaking, that it was not Christmas, at least for the Christmas cactus?

"It's the artificial light, Pinball." Bill shook his head at the cactus so that the silver loop danced in his long leather ear and his gray ponytail twitched. "That's what it does to you."

Bill leaned over Walter's shoulder, so Greta couldn't hear him from her listening post. His breath flowed over the dunes of Walter's cheeks, a trade wind of fiery peppers and ginger and temptation.

"Go for it," Bill said. "Take a chance. Before our good Dr. Sushi cures you."

"But what if Sushi is right?"

"Sushi is crazy as a loon," Bill said. "It is a prerequisite for being a shrink."

Bill winked at him.

Now Walter was feeling what Sushi called being 'conflicted.' Bill knew the world. But Sushi was not going to like this any more than Leggs was going to like it, his taking a chance with Angel. And who was going to look after Leggs while he was taking a chance? The sharks swimming around the shelter, they had their eyes on Leggs. They wanted her back in the water. Of course, there was Sushi. Walter believed in Sushi because Sushi believed in Leggs. Because Sushi saved Leggs from the sharks.

One of the first things Walter remembers after he came to the shelter was watching Leggs working the wall of McDonalds across from the Westin, waiting like Chicken McNuggets for customers. It was Sushi the monk who stopped by, talking to her, giving her supplies and trying to talk her down from using them. It was Sushi the shrink who took over after someone reported a dog run over by the side of Aurora Avenue and it turned out to be Leggs. She got cut and beaten. They said she was going to die. Sushi put his foot down. Made sure they saved her. That's how Sushi was, when Sushi believed in someone. He did not give up on them.

Walter thought that down deep, Sushi believed in him, too. That's why he wanted to cure Walter. Walter knew that was why Bill was worried. Because Sushi never gave up. And because Sushi had 'alternatives.' Maybe Bill was right. It was time to take a chance, prove himself to Sushi.

There was a flash of gold teeth as Bill snatched up the last leg of Doro Wot chicken and it vanished in the cave of his mouth.

"You snooze, you loose," he grinned.

 

 

Chapter 3

Angel drove Walter in her red pod car into this maze of green glass Microsoft buildings, in a perfect, landscaped forest called Redmond. They turned for no reason at identical intersections. He tried to memorize the way but everything was the same here. In Seattle, every alley had its own look, own smell, unique landmarks, he could find his way in the dark. He understood how salmon got home from the ocean, found the right stream that was imprinted in their brains. But Walter was lost here.

By the time they pulled into the garage underneath one of the green glass buildings, Walter was starting to think maybe they were already in the game.

Then the manicured forest gave way to layer after layer of parking, a hive of shiny pods. He pressed his face against her side window and watched Porsches and hybrids and Land Rovers rush by. Some of the cars were low to the ground and were shrouded with tarps, the way they covered furniture in old movies when somebody left for a long time or was dead. Who covers cars inside a garage? Somebody who worked with her in this green castle, that's who, Walter thought. Maybe they died? Or maybe they never got to leave? Every space was full as she wound down level after level, not ever slowing down, her tires squeaking on the curves down, down, until her car jolted to a stop in a spot that seemed to be waiting for her near an elevator bank.

The elevator opened into a cathedral of lobby. There were windows tiered up three stories above double sets of security glass doors with heavy frames. Walter stepped out and followed Angel without a word. They stopped in front of a counter, behind which another gleaming young woman was multitasking. She was talking into the kind of microphone-on-a-wand that famous singers use, while she fed documents into a fax and slid a clipboard with forms on it under Angel's nose. There was a painting hanging over the receptionist's head of a pink Cadillac convertible with huge tail fins, the top down, flying past a Route 66 sign, with nobody at the wheel.

While Angel attacked the forms with a familiar eagerness, Walter did a turn around to get a good look at the cathedral. There was a yellow chair across from the check-in counter, the stone kind you saw pictures of people reclining on 3,000 years ago over their sarcophagus. There was a guy sitting on this one now, wearing a name badge. He was motionless, like he was part of the chair. Walter walked over and stood in front of him. Walter saw that his badge read: 'Jawaharlal Tobaccowabbi, Candidate.' Walter stared at him, but the candidate's eyes were lost in preparation. He did not acknowledge Walter's existence. If this Tobaccowabbi wasn't dressed in a suit as tight as his name badge, he could have been a shelter kid with that distant look. Anyway, Walter was not interested in him, either.

On the wall above the boy, rising at least twice as tall as Walter, was a picture that stopped Walter in his tracks. It was a painting of a gigantic pinball machine. It was so real, Walter heard it, really heard it, the steel balls flying and the flippers pounding. He heard laughter and shouting. It was the most amazing painting he had ever seen. Then Walter realized the voices were coming from above him. He looked up and saw an open level, a choir loft in the cathedral. But there did not seem to be a way up there.

Someone opened a door between the elevators and the reception desk where Angel was still filling out forms.

"Jaws?" a female voice said with a giggle.

Jawaharlal sprung to life now.

He walked to the door with his hand extended and followed the unseen voice inside. As the door swung shut, Walter heard the laughter in the loft notch up in volume. He slipped through the door without Angel noticing. 'Jaws' was just turning into a room with a long table. There were stairs and the sounds of pinball and familiar scratchy, electronic voices that seemed to be calling down to Walter as he ascended.

There were four guys around a Star Wars pinball machine, an ancient one with that cheap painted art they had when the Empire was young. The people around the game were not wearing suits. They were wearing jeans and T-shirts, like him. The machine exploded with the defeat of the player at the flappers. He slapped the machine and the tilt bells went off.

"Jesus, 21,670,000," one of them shouted. He bent over and pushed a button that reset the flashing contraption. So this was it, Walter thought. Angel's game. He frowned. Star Wars? This was the original deal. He saw the Jedi with sabers and dorky plastic toy figures of R2D2, Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo and Princess Leia and Darth Vader, of course, the whole cast stuck around the pinball field like Darth Vader had them all trapped here with carbon freezing, which Walter knew was impossible, because that happened in the sequel. Still, Angel was mixed up if she thought this was The Next Generation. He knew that was Star Trek. She must not watch SyFy.

"Who are you?"

"I'm Walter Winkler," he replied.

"You the new 'C' candidate?"

"I'm here to play the game."

"Really," said the 21,670,000-point scorer. Walter saw his name, Brett, flashing in orange lights next to his score. His voice had that bully sneer. "Let's see what you can do."

This was Walter's first real pinball machine. Bill called him Pinball because of a song, by The Who. Bill played it for him, because that was how Bill thought Walter played video games, by intuition. Like a deaf, dumb, blind kid. But the closest Walter ever got to a pinball machine was the doorway into Game World. The bouncer there never let him in, not that Walter was going to spend his life savings playing pinball. Walter stepped up to the frenetic flashing face of the machine and looked around suspiciously for the coin slot.

"Ah, its free."

Walter looked around twice to make sure they were not kidding. He took his position and put his hands on the flappers, tested them out, pulled back on the spring-loaded ball launcher, still hot and sweaty from the other pinball wizard. He let the silver ball fly. Walter felt the ball hit the first posts. He heard the sounds of Darth Vader taunting Princess Leia and he heard Han Solo warning him about some unseen danger. The Light Sabers were slashing. The storm trooper pistols were firing. Walter saw the lights going off crazy and wild. The cacophony of electric clacking ran through his body and rattled his bones. All the lights and sounds melded. His eyes went wide and he saw the machine working, he saw where the ball was going, where it might go, where he could make it go. He never pulled another ball.

He did not know his eyes were closed until he opened them. The point counter was flashing and maxed. '100,000,000.' A game siren was going off. There were now a couple dozen silent people surrounding the pinball machine.

"Holy shit," someone said.

Walter felt the familiar pain of female nails in his bare arm. Then something with sharp little teeth bit his nipple.

"Ouch," Walter said. He looked down and there was a nametag hanging off his T-shirt.

"He's mine,' Angel hissed to the mob of programmers.

Angel took him down a maze of halls. The offices were the size of the parking spaces and filled with computers and monitors. The walls were covered with posters and stuffed with junk. Most of them were empty, except the ones with intense figures hunched over keyboards. Angel made one stop, at an open kitchen that smelled of the expensive coffees in the little shops in Seattle. She opened a refrigerator and exposed a collection of every pop Walter knew.

"It's free," she said. "Just take what you want."

He was wary, with that 'just' word again. But he took a 16-ounce Amp from the top shelf. He popped it open and it was freezing and perfect.

Then she took him down the hall to an unmarked door. There was a bullet-shaped trashcan next to it. They stood there together, bonding in silence. What was he supposed to do? Then he saw she was staring at his Amp.

"You'll have to leave that here," she said, pointing at the garbage can. He just had time to get it down. He got a stab of brain freeze before she practically levitated it out of his hands into the trashcan.

She opened the door and held it open so he would step inside.

"I'll be with you in a minute."

Then she closed the door and he was standing in a padded cell, a cube with acoustic foam on the walls. There was a pedestal with a sleek, black pillar of computer built into it. He moved closer to the computer. He heard the subtle breath of smooth cooling fans. So, Walter thought, this is one of her 'neXt generation games.'

There was a single large circular button on the pedestal slowly pulsing blue light, with words in circle backlit by the light: 'Holotar: Powered by Dragon Eye.' Atop the pedestal of the game machine, there was a giant glowing dragonfly eyeball. It was a compound eye. It looked like a real dragonfly eyeball, bubbled with 30,000 lenses so you didn't know what it was looking at, since it saw everything. He loved dragonflies. He did not like this Dragon Eye.

There was a big flat screen across the cube from the pillar, where another dragonfly eyeball was staring at him, covering the room from that side. They got both eyeballs. Somewhere, he thought, there was a big, pissed-off blind dragonfly bumbling around, maybe in this game.

Walter looked behind him and the door was gone, it was padded right into the wall. Walter had never seen a game dungeon before, but he was pretty sure this was one. Angel did not bring him here to play pinball.

The simmering Holotar Dragon Fly eyeballs came to life. There was a chain reaction. Translucent laser beams of blue and green light shot out from each lens. The screen came to life. Walter felt the spears of coherent light pierce the heterochromatic prisms of his eyes. Strange contructs began building within his brain. It was a kind of doorway, assembling itself like a black hole spinning with faces and fragments of places. It appeared to be an opening to another three-dimensional space. A glowing, hollow, bluish ice cube version of the game dungeon was forming on the other side.

Floating in the middle of this ice cube was a perfect avatar - no, a perfect three-dimensional hologram -- of Angel. He blinked. So this is one of her 'Holotars.' He saw himself now, also floating on the screen next to Angel.

He looked at himself floating up there in the center of this virtual game cube. Angel's Holotar was hovering next to his own digital image, which was still forming next to hers. Then he looked down at himself still standing in the game dungeon. He was dissolving, his flesh and blood was being disassembled by the intersecting laser beams, transporting Walter from himself into his own image on the other side.

She was waiting patiently for the process to complete, floating there rendered perfectly, right down to the leaf of bamboo peeking around the stem of her neck and that same smug sales smile parked on her lips. She seemed pleased and full of pride, as he was deconstructed and reassembled.

Walter did not look at himself in mirrors much. The mirrors in the bathrooms at the shelter were polished steel rippled with the imprints of many angry fists. This holographic mirror was stealing his soul. He blinked. The transfer was almost complete. He was in the cube with Angel, looking down into the game dungeon at the last vapors of his real body, which was a thin translucent husk now. He could see through the skinny-legged black jeans Leggs gave him, the faded Grateful Dead T-shirt Bill gave him was hollow. His Hyperdunks were empty and clutching their Gordian laces tight. His entire body was a specter, caught in a latticework of Dragon Eye beams.

He lifted his hand before his face, the hand in the cube. His hands looked exactly like his hands. He cracked his knuckles. He heard them. They had made a lot of noise since they got broken in the crate beating. It was his knuckles, all right. He saw Angel's Holotar grimace at the sound of his knuckles cracking. Yes. It was his body, all right, this digital phantom.

Angel snapped her fingers. Walter's body, the one he came to play the game with, gave up its ghost and vanished right before his eyes, along with the game dungeon.

"Are you ready to play, Walter?"

 

 ... continued ...

 

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