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Disclaimer: This is part two of the Steam Whistle Alley Series. Link to book one is available in the description, available in ebook, paperback and KU. The first couple pages of book two contain some serious spoilers for book one, so don't say I didn't warn you. The following chapters are unedited, but I try and keep the typos few and far between. If you notice any typos, plot holes, or other errors, please comment in the description. Thanks for reading! - JM
The panic was overwhelming. I frantically spun around, searching the cabin of my hover van, but I knew my efforts were in vain. The gear we had worked so hard to attain was missing. My pet monkey, Banjo, was nowhere to be seen and most importantly, Jeni had disappeared as well.
“What did you do with them, Blatman?” I screamed at my monitor. My fists were balled so hard I cut my palms with my fingernails. My breath came in great gulps. I walked over to the monitor and placed both hands on it, staring at the sweaty face of Chuck Blatman, AKA the Glitch. “If you harmed a hair on her head, I will hunt you down! I swear it!”
"Ah, Jake, it pains me to see you in this state," said the Glitch with mock sincerity. He leaned closer to the monitor, and his voice took on a conspiratorial whisper. "Ever stop to consider you might still be in the game?"
I glanced over to my goggles, which were sitting on one of the front bucket seats.
Blatman giggled maniacally. "Well, you're not. This is real life, Jake, and I took everything that matters to you," the Glitch said with a snort. "How does that make you feel, hmm?"
I had an answer for him, but at that moment, a sudden, excruciating pain in my temples doubled me over. I screamed in agony. I looked up at the monitor, panting.
“Doesn’t feel too good, does it?” asked the Glitch. “Now, you’re going to listen, Jake. You’re going to find the other gears. You’re going to take over Steam Whistle Alley. And you will do exactly as I instruct you. Do you understand?”
“Go to hell,” I spat at the monitor. The pain in my temples increased, and my vision was starting to get blurry.
“Oh, I might yet,” the Glitch hissed, “but I’ll take you with me. There’s so much more you can lose, you know. I heard the doctors are making progress with Holly’s condition. It must be hard for you, knowing that you’re the reason she’s in a coma.” The Glitch flashed a spiteful smile as he saw my reaction. “Yes, yes. Poor girl. Hooked up to machines, and respirators…,” he paused, and the smile left his face. “And computers.”
I unleashed a torrent of oaths and profanities at him, but the pain in my head was getting the best of me. I stood up, turned around and paced the length of the cabin. Something wasn't right. For starters, the two bucket seats in the rear of the vehicle looked…pixelated. Poorly rendered. I looked around the van, and noticed other anomalies, too. For an instant, I caught Jeni's reflection in the rear window. I knew it was Jeni; her purple hair was unmistakable. Her back was to me, but I could see her grabbing my wrist, and for a second, I could feel it, too. Then the vision disappeared. I spun around again, disoriented. The glitch was still on my monitor, saying something, but at this point, I couldn't hear anything. I put my hands to my head, took two more steps, and then fell flat on my face. The last thing I remembered was the Glitch's laughter, and a voice, calling my name. Jeni?
I don't know how long I was out for, but I do remember snippets of dreams. I'm not sure if they were, dreams, really… more like the hallucinations that can accompany a severe fever. I saw images of the Glitch and Jameson, with Jeni between them, staring at me. I saw the gargoyle we called Honeybucket launch into the air with Trick in tow. She cackled as she let go of Trick's hand, and he plummeted back to the ground. I saw my sister, in her hospital bed at my parents—but the bed was on fire, and when she opened her eyes, she repeated my name, "Jacob… Jacob…," with absolutely no expression on her face.
When I opened my eyes the first thing I remembered seeing was a sterile-looking white ceiling. I heard the faint beeping of monitors and equipment nearby.
Hospital, I thought.
Then Jeni's face appeared, with Banjo on her shoulder.
“Hi, Jacob,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I croaked. My voice sounded horrible. “How long have I been here?”
“Nearly two days,” Jeni said. Part of me wanted to react to this information, but I just looked back up at the ceiling.
“What happened?” I asked.
"We don't know all the details, yet," she said. "Iggy's looking into it along with Alex and Al. What we do know isn't good," she said. "Are you sure you're up to this?"
I sat up a little in my bed.
“Yeah, I’m okay. Is there anything to drink, though?” I asked. I was still groggy, and my mouth felt as if it were stuffed with socks. Jeni poured me a paper cup of apple juice. As I shifted myself to drink, I noticed that there was an array of electrodes connected to my forehead and temples. I touched them hesitantly and looked up to Jeni.
“They’re monitoring your brain waves,” she explained. “From what we understand, you experienced some sort of… residual effect. Iggy says that even after we log out, our brains are still seeking the augmented connection. It becomes accustomed to the sensory input. This effect isn’t readily apparent in VR games, because the entirety of your perception is replaced by the VR graphics—there is no real-world connection.”