Authors: Saul Tanpepper
Tags: #horror, #cyberpunk, #apocalyptic, #post-apocalyptic, #urban thriller, #suspense, #zombie, #undead, #the walking dead, #government conspiracy, #epidemic, #literary collection, #box set, #omnibus, #jessie's game, #signs of life, #a dark and sure descent, #dead reckoning, #long island, #computer hacking, #computer gaming, #virutal reality, #virus, #rabies, #contagion, #disease
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE GAMELAND SECOND SEASON OMNIBUS
(Jessie's Game, Book One)
(Being a True Account of the Long Island Outbreak)
(Jessie's Game, Book Two)
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The Last Zookeeper
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Signs of Life
(Jessie's Game, Book 1)
A Dark and Sure Descent
(Jessie's Game, Book 2)
by Saul Tanpepper
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Part One: Survivors
Part Two: Players
Part Three: Operators
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It was the woods behind her house. Jessie recognized the place immediately, though she couldn't remember how she'd gotten there. She'd last been conscious of the television in her houseâ on the screen a pair of unfamiliar Players battling it out to the death, although
hadn't been the reason she was watching the show. But that setting had been the typical urban wasteland of the arcade and not the lush greenness of
The actual gaming arena was located sixty miles away by road, roughly half that by air over the mined swamps and deeper waters of Long Island Sound. Physical access to Gameland was, of course, restricted to the Undead. For just a moment, before she recognized the woods, she'd thought she was back there.
The narrow strip of greenery was one of the last in southeastern Connecticut; it was certainly the largest. Like a hastily stitched tear, it followed a meandering cut in the bedrock where water once flowed, drawing the two irregular halves of the city of Greenwich together. The ghost of the stream, once called Rockwood Creek, had its origins in the warrens of the old Mianus River State Park to the north; its opposite terminus disappeared into the concrete culverts on the Port Chester side of town.
Yet, despite its vibrant, verdant beauty, few people ever visited the place anymore. For most, the abundance of mosquitoes kept them away. The fear of becoming infected, though largely unfounded and routinely discredited, remained stubbornly persistent.
Being a low point in the city's topography, storm wash naturally accumulated along the edges of the greenbelt. The city had long ago decided to stop sending in cleanup crews, since the Undead laborers had an annoying habit of getting themselves tangled up in the dense undergrowth. It was both a hassle and a risk to the living to have to cut them free.
It'd been years since Jessie had last walked these overgrown trails. She hadn't planned on coming here. Hadn't even been thinking about the place.
It's a dream. You must've fallen asleep.
Except it didn't feel like a dream. The visuals were much too vivid. The brilliant sunlight. The trees. This just felt too real.
What the hell's going on?
The stream was mostly gone, of course. Not a surprise. Years of drought and sweltering heat had whispered away all but the deepest pools. During the dry season, there was barely enough moisture left in the ground to nourish the native growth. Maple trees grew stunted, disfigured leaves, like arthritic hands curled into fists. They bore a permanent reddish-yellow hue. The willows seemed to tolerate the persistent heat better, perhaps owing to their more extensive root systems. But the vines, recent invaders to the place, thrived. They strangled the tree with their varicose ropes, and seemed perfectly suited to this new clime. They had an ability to suck the moisture from the very air itself.
The rains had come early this yearâ not enough to flood the creek bed, but enough to saturate the dirt where it pooled. There had been an explosion of recent undergrowth. Grass and mushrooms flourished, but it was the long-dormant reeds and cattails which currently dominated the low-lying areas. The air was redolent with the aroma of their pollen, moldy and sweet. The underlying scent was musky, organicâ the cloying pong of decay.
Jessie smelled none of this. She knew only what she saw. Her memories filled in the other sensory details.
There was a time when the stream had been deep enough and wide enough to wade into past her waist. The cool water had been a guilty pleasure, the mud and algae squishing between her toes. The mesmerizing way the dappled sunlight would play off the oily streaks on the surface. No one ever told her not to swim in it, although once she became older, she knew better. She'd heard stories that much of the runoff came from the waste water treatment plant across town.
Here, the ground was still a soggy bog, the water seeping invisibly through some unseen rift in the porous bedrock, soaking the thin spongy layer above. Down here, clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes and gnats puffed from cattail chimneys, and the breeze was cooler than any beneath a patio umbrella.
She was standing on a trail. The narrow path ran just above and parallel to where the old creek used to be. Several trees in the vicinity had fallen recently, their strength sapped by the vines and their flesh atrophied by disease. Some of the fallen leaned precariously against their neighbors. Others rested on their sides. Their roots peeled back the skin of the forest floor.
Jessie stumbled, her toe catching on an exposed knuckle of wood.
No, that wasn't quite right. It wasn't
didn't stumble. This body wasn't hersâ it didn't feel like it belonged to her anyway, and it certainly wasn't under her control. She had tried to make it do something, but it hadn't obeyed even her simplest or most urgent commands.
Has to be a dream.
Another stumble, the same foot snagging beneath another root.
, she muttered in her head.
Lift your feet higher.
The world wobbled in the windshield of her mind's eye, rising suddenly and tilting in that telltale way that comes after an ankle is twisted, then juddering dizzily. Finally correcting. She felt a stab of pain shoot up her leg and into her side. But the pain wasn't her own. It registered in her mind, which seemed to record and annotate and file it away like numbers or facts. The pain wasn't real.
She heard a gruntâ again, only in her mind, not in her ears. Coming from her own throat, though it was no sound her throat would ever make.
The view righted itself, realigned with the trail. Forward movement recommenced.
The strain of exertion registered in her mind as well, a tightness in the chest, burning of the arms. Strain in the body's back and legs. It wasn't her brain receiving this information, not firsthand, at least. It really was like watching a movie, listening to recorded sounds, like somebody whispering descriptions of what was happening to her.
She was inside someone else's mindâ inside, yet unable to connect with the owner.
Not someone else, your own. You're dreaming, that's all.
Still more curious than concerned, she tried again to get her head to turn to the side, to direct her eyes to take in a different view than what was directly ahead. But her efforts were ignored.
She'd been having nightmares lately, dark dreams in which she was completely at the mercy of whatever script her subconscious mind had written for her. This felt a little bit like that, only in those dreams she'd been able to exert control to an extent. Here, she was helpless.
She tried anyway. She told herself to wake, found she couldn't. And now the first tendrils of apprehension began to worm their way into her mindâ
her own mind
. This distant sense of alarm was hers to feel. It originated within her rather than being transmitted to her.
The eyes (not hers) remained stubbornly fixed on the narrow trail straight ahead, providing her only with a jouncing image. The motion kept time with the body's plodding footsteps.
It had to be a dream. There could be no other explanation.
This is most definitely
She became aware of a buzzing sound in her head. There was pain. The view blurred momentarily.
Shadows and flashes of sunlight alternated. Sunlight on her faceâ on the stranger's face. On her arms. Warmth. She registered the relative coolness of the shade. Sweat trickling down the body's neck. Exhales hot on her face.
The stranger's face.
Imprints of heat and wetness and light only.
The view swiveled dizzyingly to the side, and passed over a board nailed to a tree. The old and faded sign had lost all but one of the mounting nails and now tilted sideways. P
Impossible to read when you're dreaming.
Yet the words were clear, unmistakable.
More walking, more straining, and now she realized she was carrying something heavy in her arms. The stranger was carrying it, not her. Again, the effort wasn't hers, nor the fatigue. She wanted to look down, to see what the object was, but the eyes would not stray.
Ahead, a small opening in the trees. She knew this place, too. The sky above, unobstructed, cloudless. She was filled with surprise at how overgrown the glade had become. The old tree stump where she'd once sat so many years ago. It was now a misshapen hump of moss, a riot of browns and greens, one side sprouting mushrooms, leprotic disks of fungi larger than her outstretched hand.
Nostalgia swept through her. This was where she'd fallen in love with Kelly.
Is that why she was dreaming of this place? Kelly would've been on her mind. They were going to file the marriage documents later that afternoon.