Gauntlet Excerpt


SPACE

Chapter One

Only the top gamers in the world were invited to the most exclusive spot in all of L.A., and no one knew what was inside.

Not even me.

“The heat coming off The Wall is huge,” one reporter crooned, emphasizing the last word until he sounded like a mooing cow. Huuuuuge.

With a name like The Wall, you’d think everyone was talking about a nightclub. But no. It wasn’t a boutique or restaurant, either. Sure, any of those would have made perfect sense. Throughout history, these were the kinds of elite establishments marked “Invitation Only” for the Hollywood glitterati. It was expected.

A tradition, if you will.

But the year was 2055. Virtual reality had permeated every aspect of society, and pro gamers were the top celebrities in the world. So, let’s just say tradition had taken a long-needed vacation and was a little too drunk on coconut margaritas to give a shit about what was to be expected.

I cranked the volume on the celebrity-gossip channel, where a drone-camera feed hovered over a single house located in the Pacific Palisades district of Westside Los Angeles.

Okay, to call it a house would be an understatement. A compound. Or, maybe an estate. Fifty thousand square feet of guarded walls, high-tech security, and absolute mystery. Any gamer who got invited through the armed guards and steely gates never talked about what happened inside. So, after weeks of endless speculation, I’d pulled in a professional on the matter.

“This is why you called me in here?”

Dr. Renner sat in a guest chair across from my desk though it had been turned to face the oversized screen in the far wall.

She glanced back at me with a curled lip.

“You’re a psychologist—” I began.

“A psychiatrist,” she emphasized.

Potato. Po-tah-toe.

“Whatever. You can read between the lines. What do you think is inside?” I nodded at the screen, where the paparazzi camped outside the house in droves, hoping to catch a glimpse of the latest gamer let through the magic gates. Drones hovered above, snapping as many pictures as people did. The Wall had so many those UAVs buzzing around, it must have looked like a beehive from space.

“Kali, I specialize in virtual psychiatry. I study the effect of virtual stimulus on a person’s mind and body. How am I supposed to figure out what’s inside some random house?”

I already knew what she specialized in. A few months ago, I was on a pro gaming team under different management, and Dr. Renner was the mental-health expert on staff. Since then, I’d bought out the team, and Dr. Renner followed. She believed in me and my dream to erase the corruption in pro gaming. But currently, my concern over problems in eSports had taken a backseat to figuring out what was going on in that damn house.

“Why is everyone calling it The Wall?” she asked. With a high ponytail, buxom lips, and chunky glasses resting on a perfectly straight nose, Dr. Renner looked like someone who paid her way through med school by modeling, then ten years into her career, forgot how beautiful she was.

“It’s short for The Invisible Wall,” I said.

She glanced at me and blinked. Twice. “I’m afraid I’ll need a little more than that.”

I sighed. “It’s a retro video game term. When you reach the edge of a map in a game, you run smack into an invisible wall. It’s a way of keeping the player inside a set area.”

“But why bother? Can’t a player tell where the end of the map is? Isn’t the landscaping just grayed out or something?”

“No. Usually the landscape continues on. It’s seamless. The area beyond the wall looks like it’s accessible, but it’s not.”

A wave of understanding washed over her face. “So, everyone’s calling that house The Invisible Wall because—”

“You can see it but can’t access it. It’s off the map. Unless you’re invited in.” I opened the television remote app on my tablet. “Here, watch this.” I brought up an old video of a pro gaming team entering the house. It didn’t matter which one I chose. The rundown was always the same.

It starts at the airport.

The television screen went black for a second as the video loaded up. LAX appeared on the screen with the video’s title superimposed over the image.

ANOTHER GAMING TEAM VISITS THE WALL.

Paparazzi and fans were camped out around the airport’s pickup/drop-off zone. More were inside, and a few had even bought tickets to the cheapest flights to get past security. From baggage claim to the getaway vehicle was one long line of cameras, flailing arms, and screaming admirers.

The team exited the terminal, and the crowds erupted in cheers. The team members wore hoods, pulled low over their faces, so no one knew who they were. It didn’t stop anyone from losing their minds. Airport security and private guards cleared a path for them through the airport as they clung to their sunglasses and filed into SUVs with tinted windows.

Sunglasses. Tinted windows. As if pro gamers could conceal their identities, nowadays. But they tried. Some of them even succeeded.

The video cut away, and the same vehicle from the airport (verified by license plate) appeared at the house. More fans and paparazzi assaulted the car, pounding on the windows. The gates opened, and the SUV slid through. Armed security at the gates kept the riffraff out. Once the SUV rounded the driveway and stopped near the door, the team piled out, hoods still pulled low over their eyes until they disappeared inside.

Dr. Renner crossed her arms and leaned forward in the chair. Her brow furrowed. “Why are they hiding their faces?”

Even she sounded interested now.

“Exactly.”

Dr. Renner pressed her lips together and adjusted her glasses. “How do we even know these are gaming teams?”

“A few have been revealed. Either a fan pulled their hood off or the paparazzi got close enough to snap a picture of their faces.”

Dr. Renner considered it and sighed.

“What do you think is inside?”

Ah, flipping the question around on me. Psychology 101. Oh, excuse me. Psychiatry 101.

“Drugs,” I said. “That’s why no one’s talking about it and why everyone is hiding their identity. I think they’ve cooked up something more addictive than HP.”

HP was the ecstasy of the gamer world. It makes you feel invincible, just like the game. And just like a game, you’ll hit it. Again, and again, and again.

“Kali,” she began. “If you had relapsed, you’d tell me, right?”

“I’d whiz into a cup for you and put a bow on it.”

Her lip curled again. “Please don’t relapse. And not just for your own sake.” She eyed my mug. “How many cups of coffee did you drink today?”

“This, plus one.”

In a big gulp.

“Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “You seem a little jittery.”

Raise the threat level to Defcon Four. She’s onto me.

“Look,” I said, holding up my tablet to distract her, secretly hoping my hands weren’t shaking as badly as I thought they were. “It’s in all the tabloids. Read through them. I’m sure you can wade through the bullshit.”

Dr. Renner took the tablet in her hands, flipped through it a few times, and peered over the edge at me. “You hate these magazines.”

I only hated them when they screwed around with my love life—when I had one. Funny how actors, rock stars, and heiresses used to constitute the fodder that fed the tabloid cows. Now they came second, behind gamers. Since the mystery of The Wall, nearly every article centered on the virtual elite. And yes, I used to sneer at these magazines. Now I had a subscription to every one of them.

The mighty fall sometimes, okay?

Dr. Renner eyed me again. “Kali,” she began. “I know this must be fascinating to you, but I’m not completely comfortable encouraging you to indulge in this compulsion—”

“Interest,” I emphasized. “It’s a healthy interest.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Oh, come on.” I pointed at the television screen. “If there was something this interesting going on in the world of psychology—”

“Psychiatry.”

“—wouldn’t you be intrigued?”

Something interesting in the world of psychiatry. Pffft.

She considered it, shrugged, and flipped through the magazines on my tablet a few more times. “Any idea who owns this place?”

“Tamachi Industries. A Japanese company that specializes in artificial intelligence.”

“So, it’s about technology.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“What does artificial intelligence have to do with pro gaming?”

“There are chilling towers.” She pointed to a picture of the house, holding up the tablet for me to see. “Are you sure it’s not tech related?”

“Nah.” I dismissed the suggestion with a wave of my hand. “That’s just to throw people off.”

“Why are you so sure it’s a drug house?”

“Everyone knows it’s something I stand against.”

She studied my expression for a minute with narrowed eyes and slightly pursed lips. I hated when she looked at me like that. It felt like she was reading my mind.

“Oh,” she began with a smile. “That’s what this is about. You don’t care what’s in the house. You just want to know why you haven’t been invited.”

Well, her psychic powers hadn’t failed her. Actually, I did care about what was in the house. If it was drugs, I wasn’t interested. Not anymore. But I did have a bit of a reputation in the gaming world. I was Kali Ling, the warrior. Holder of three Virtual Gaming League records and the undisputed queen of the RAGE tournaments, the VGL’s most brutal fighting game. Didn’t that at least merit an invitation? You know, delivered on a platter. Maybe silver.

“Can you give me any other clues?” Dr. Renner asked, eyeing the television screen, which had gone dark at the end of the airport video.

Hook, line, and sinker. From doctor to detective in less than five minutes.

I flipped the television back to the celebrity-gossip channel. “They’re always debating it on Hypnotized.”

Hypnotized was the biggest gamer-celebrity news channel in the country. Lately, debates over The Wall took up nearly all of their programming. When the channel popped up, a group of reporter-journalists sat on a couch, talking about . . . guess what?

“Okay, let’s talk about who hasn’t been seen at the house.”

“What about Kali Ling?”

Well, look at that.

The volume went up.

“I mean, she won a championship last season and was the first female captain in the VGL. You’d think she’d be at The Wall.”

See? Invitation.

“You’re out of your mind. What’s she done since then? Nothing.”

Nothing?

“Hey, three words. Youngest team owner in history.”

“That’s five words.”

The cell phone wrapped around my wrist buzzed. I tore my gaze away from the television screen long enough to glance at the caller identification. Speaking of my love life . . .

James Rooke

My heart clenched, and I forced myself to read the name several times. No, that couldn’t be right. He hadn’t talked to me in weeks. So, what was with the sudden phone call?

Since we’d won the RAGE championship last fall, I’d left the team to build up resources, sponsorships, and— most importantly—money, in order to take over ownership of Defiance. Rooke had stayed with the team. But when I bought out our former owner, Rooke immediately bowed out and just left. No explanation. No phone call.

Until now.

I let a slow breath pass through my lips and tapped the ignore button.

“Why are you ignoring him?” the doctor asked.

“How did you know—”

“Body language.”

I frowned. “How come you can figure out who’s calling me, but you don’t know what’s inside that damn house?”

“Your exterior is a little more expressive than the house’s.”

Was that sarcasm? I was rubbing off on the good doctor.

“You might not feel like talking to Rooke,” she began. “But maybe talking to me, or someone else about it will help.”

“He left. What is there to talk about?”

The words left my mouth in such a way I might as well have chewed them up and spat them out. Dr. Renner repeated her pursed- lips, narrowed- eyes, mind- reading pose for a minute. She opened her mouth like she was about to say something when a reporter burst into the scene on the TV screen.

“We’ve got the latest footage,” he announced. “And we know who it is this time.”

The reporters bristled, exchanging glances with each other.

“There’s another team at the airport?”

“No. But there’s a team about to go through the gate.”

“If they weren’t spotted at the airport first, that’s means—”

“It’s an American team.”

An American team? Interesting. None so far had been seen at The Wall.

The volume went to maximum.

The journalists turned to the screen between them. The shot showed a black SUV rolling through the gate and stopping just in front of the house. A security guard exited the car, along with five figures clad in black, hoods pulled low, same as usual.

“How the hell can you tell who that is?” one reporter protested.

“They’re dressed just like all the others.”

“The scans from the survey drones are telling us that this individual”—the new guy pointed at the screen, and the camera zoned in—“is a woman who’s five-foot-five.”

“Lots of women are five-foot-five.”

“Sure, but how many have a crescent tattoo on their calf?”

The camera zoomed in on the woman’s calf muscle, where the edge of a crescent tattoo peaked out from beneath her pant cuff.

“That’s Jessica Salt of Team Legacy!”

“Legacy is at The Wall? This just went epic.”

My heart stopped.

This was epic. For two reasons. One, Legacy was the first confirmed American team to appear at the house that we knew of. All the other teams seen at the house, identified or not, had arrived on international flights through the airport. Second, Jessica Salt was the female gamer. Nine-time championship winner and overall goddess-on-Earth. If she was there and this was about drugs, what did that mean?

Dr. Renner grabbed my arm and shook.

“Are you okay?”

Am I okay that the number one female gamer in the industry was just seen at the biggest drug house in all of L.A.? Uh, no.

Really, really not.

My tablet pinged in Dr. Renner’s hands. When she tapped the screen, her face fell.

“Kali,” she began. “We have a problem.”

Those were never good words but were considerably worse coming from our resident psychiatrist. When she handed me the tablet, and I gave it the once-over, my mouth fell open.

Spelled out in the upper-right corner of the test results was a single word that solidified my stomach to stone.

FAILED.