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Published May 2011 Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Verastiqui All Rights Reserved ISBN 978-1461166221 Available in Print and Digital

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or digital, is purely coincidental.

Cover artwork “Sonnet” by Jonathan M. Foerster.

EXCERPT When it came to overwhelming the senses, American Reality had their veneers down to a manipulative science. Their storefront was, in essence, just an extension of the virtual worlds contained within, so it fit that the displays gave people a taste of what they could expect if they had the guts to walk inside and slap down thirty bucks. A novice player could lose their mind just standing on the sidewalk, staring at the screens and the replays of explosions and aliens and grisly dismemberments that would rival the most realistic of snuff films. And even if they closed their eyes, the smells would still be there: fresh blood pooling around their feet, the acrid smoke from a signal flare, and even the oily aroma of a Signet, a half-lizard, half-infant concoction found in the later levels of Destined 4 Death. It was a devastating display of sensory overload, which was encouragement enough for some to let go of the real world and embrace the nightmare. “You don’t mind, do you?” asked Sebo, as he laced up his game boots. The ready room in the bowels of American Reality smelled like disinfectant, a deliberate choice to match its Spartan motif, complete with blank walls and a light overhead that flickered like an old-style bulb. It was atmosphere, a bland cracker to clear the palette for the feast to come. Deron shrugged in response and fiddled with the harness on his chest. He did mind. Sebo could usually read Deron’s true emotions, even if his veneer suggested otherwise. All he had to do was watch his body language, examine the way his shoulders slumped, the way his hands moved slowly, lacking enthusiasm. Sebo frowned inwardly. He wanted to tell him that this was for his own good, but it felt too soon to bring up the business of Russo Rivera. Sebo had made the decision while staring at a Destined 4 Death display in the lobby. It was a full-wall veneer that enumerated the new features and bug fixes. The advertising was characteristically slick, and every image that ran in high resolution only made Sebo want to play more. There were so many ways to die, so many ways to kill. The preview made it look like it could rival the military-grade simulations, those recruitonly games that had a reputation for being so visceral as to cause mental breakdowns in one out of every ten players. Though every inch of Sebo was dying to get in there and kill some Signets, he knew that D4D wasn’t what Deron needed at the moment. The accounts of his altercation varied, but anything that would put a person in the hospital for three weeks had to have been brutal. The line that sealed the deal came in the rules of the expansion pack, red text that said hand-to-hand combat only. Ultimately, Sebo chose the more docile Swarm Survivor.

“Your game is ready, gentlemen,” said a sultry voice from the ceiling. Sebo stood up and checked his harness. The small electrodes fitted throughout the straps and plates would provide feedback during the game in the form of electric shocks. They weren’t powerful enough to scar, but they wouldn’t exactly be pleasant. “This will be fun,” Sebo assured his friend as they walked to the entry door on the far side of the room. Deron’s veneer flashed a smile; it froze in place unnaturally. There was an eerie green glow in the next room caused by the dimmed portal on the wall to the left. Within it was the stuttering image of a slick-haired suit; he was adjusting his collar and talking to someone off camera. “This is going to be a slaughter,” he said, pushing a thin red tie into his jacket. “I don’t know how they get people to sign up for this suicide mission.” Sebo chuckled, started to feel better about the production values of a game that had less than a third of the budget of Destined 4 Death. “What?” asked the suit. He leaned his ear off screen and then flashed recognition. The previous smirk turned into a cordial smile as he faced the camera. “Welcome employees three-five-sixteen and three-five-seventeen. Congratulations on your recent promotion to border security! I trust you found all your equipment?” “What the balls is this?” asked Deron. “Great! You’ll find that Graypoint Security has only the best weapons and armor to keep you safe.” He gestured to the armory rack on the adjacent wall. “Well, I’m sure you’re eager to start your shifts. Today’s assignment is the southern echelon, codename Monaco, which shouldn’t be too much trouble even for you two. Turret emplacements are ready to fire and the first wave is on radar and will be arriving soon. Prepare yourselves.” “I don’t know if I like this blended reality stuff,” said Deron. He pulled a rifle from the rack and handed it to Sebo. “All this running around is gonna feel like exercise.” Sebo grinned. “Do you think those aliens care that you’ve been confined to a bed for the last three weeks? Do you think they’ll give a dingle about your extenuating circumstances when they’re eating your liver?!” “Don’t get me wrong, I want to kill.” He curled his fingers into a fist in the space between them. “But I wanted some full sensory Death. This is just a rich man’s tower defense.” “Oh I see,” said Sebo, checking the ammunition count on his gun. “You’re concerned that your near-death experience will prevent you from picking up a new game. Well, if his eminence feels this game is below his regal stature, then he can just stand back and do his nails while I dominate this course on my own.” “It’s gonna take more than rhetoric to beat this game.” By the hesitation in his voice, it was obvious he was uncertain about his word choice. Then he smiled, let Sebo know he was teasing. That was the whole point of coming to Paramel—to allow Deron to let loose and enjoy himself. He had been unnaturally quiet on the ride over, staring out the window as if the outland held anything worth looking at. And on the walk through the

Mains, the central hub-street of Paramel, he had kept his head down, even when there was underdressed scenery to take in. A humming in the command room culminated in the illumination of the Monaco echelon. The window that separated them from the playing field flashed, and an overlay appeared along with a small arrow pointing to a blur in the distance. To the left, a large green triangle pulsed. Underneath it was the word PLAY. “Before we do battle,” crooned Sebo, bowing his head ceremoniously, “let us pray for the souls of our enemies. They know not the sins they have committed, having occupied this planet before we arrived, having resisted our attempts to convert them to the Lord. Oh Godless heathens, we give thanks for your efforts, for your determination to provide us with a glorious death. We fight you in the spirit of all men and insects that have fallen before us. May our battle be long, hard, and throbbing!” Deron smacked the PLAY button with his gloved fist. Sebo changed characters quickly, “Look at me, soldier! You remember this: we do not stop. No matter how much blood, no matter how much pain, we do not stop!” Before they could even exit the command room, the suit appeared once more on the wall, looking more disheveled than before. “What the hell am I paying you two idiots for?!” he boomed. “The cannon on level five is down and you two are just standing around! Get your asses out there and fix it!” The door to the battlefield slid open and Sebo and Deron rushed out in formation. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Sebo knew that they were in the expansive warehouse behind American Reality, that everything they saw was just a veneer on movable partitions. Years of immersion had given him the ability to ignore what he knew to be the truth, to simply enjoy the fantasy for all it was worth. A distant crunching sound alerted Sebo to the imminent arrival of their insect enemies. Once that crackling wormed its way into his eardrums, he forgot all about the simulation and lost himself in the game. Instead of the slightly padded floor of a warehouse, he saw dirt, dry in most places except for the occasional blood splatter— evidence of previous attacks. The partitions were high evercrete walls topped with razor wire to keep the insects from crawling over. After all, the alien creatures were just like any other biological enemy, easy enough to destroy once enough of their cells had lost contact with each other. The path through the Monaco echelon was a serpentine pattern that created five levels of defense, each with their own set of guns, mostly consisting of cannons. The third level had a flame thrower that hummed ominously as they ran past it. “Exercise,” commented Deron, his breathing already labored. The chittering grew louder as they turned the corner onto the fifth level, which opened up onto an expanse of dead land, really just a veneer on the back wall of the warehouse. Sebo could see the first wave, a flowing mass of little gloopy animals that looked like over-inflated frogs with elongated arms and legs. The crackling sound they made didn’t match their appearance. “Cover me,” barked Sebo, crossing the exposed entrance to examine the outer gun. Its light blinked yellow and the panel on the front showed the outline of a glove

with the word REPAIR under it. Sebo put his hand to the display and watched the progress meter increment. “Bango! Bango! Ba-boom!” yelled Deron, squeezing off several rounds from his rifle. In the distance, a tiny insect exploded in a golden firework. Without warning, the cannon above Sebo’s head discharged all four barrels at once, creating a deafening boom in the maze. He fell back, dazed, and tripped over his own feet. Before he could get his bearings, the guns fired again, eliciting a chorus of death wails from the incoming wave. A second later, Deron was by his side, thrusting Sebo’s gun back into his hands and yanking on his harness. “Goddamit soldier, on your feet! It was your dumbfuck idea to come to this shithole planet and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna die on it!” There was sweat peeking out from under his battle-scarred veneer. Deron looked up quickly, trained his gun, and fired. The sudden kickback put him off balance. Sebo rolled out from under the line of fire and scrambled to his feet. He pointed his gun in the general direction of the threat and squeezed the trigger. One hundred forty-seven virtual bullets later, his gun clicked empty. “Magazine!” He looked over at Deron, who stared back at him with wide eyes. “You forgot the ammo?!” They made a frantic dash back to the command room as the second and third waves appeared on the horizon. The barrels of the outer gun rotated back, angled upwards unnaturally, trying to find an effective trajectory. Its rounds were much too large for the blob-frogs, which meant a good number of them were making it through. It wasn’t until the flamethrower started spewing a mix of napalm and accelerant that they really started to squeal. Back in the relative safety of the command room, Sebo pulled the extra magazines from the rack while Deron examined the status board. “Level three is breached.” “I’ll get a visual,” said Sebo, choosing the icon from a row at the bottom of the window. It filled the screen and showed the view from within the four barrels of the cannon. Larger baddies had shown up, oddly shaped masses that looked like they might tip over at any second. It reminded Sebo of a spider, but one whose legs grew from the underside of its body so that it resembled a detached hand running along the ground. Deron replaced the magazine in his rifle, smacked it until it clicked. “Guys, I have some bad news.” The suit appeared again, a covered phone in his hand. “I just got a call from MachTech. They say we haven’t paid maintenance on some of our guns, so…” He cleared his throat. “They’re taking the guidance chips offline on most of our echelons. I’m on the phone with corporate trying to get a purchase order, but I think accounting has left for the day so I don’t know when we’ll be able to get the guns working again.” He shook his head, out of things to say. “Good luck.” As soon as the image faded, two alarms appeared on the status screen. “Gun three is down,” yelled Sebo. “Guidance is offline. I’ll have to aim it manually.” He jabbed at the screen, brought up the camera view, and switched the gun into manual control. A holographic yoke grew out of the display and when Sebo wrapped his hands around it, he found he could move the targeting reticle. A quick

twitch of his index finger fired a triplet of shots into the hand-blobs. He caught one in what looked like its shoulder and smirked as it flew backwards into a wall. “Four is down too,” said Deron, a strange grin growing on his face. He looked at Sebo and said with mock drama, “Someone’s gonna have to go out there!” Without waiting for a response, he yelled something unintelligible and raced out of the room. Sebo watched him sprint down the first two levels, but lost him after the third. It was tough shooting the gun and keeping track of Deron on the cameras. Most of the cannons were firing blindly, but he could hear the tinny sound of a rifle in the distance. At first, the reports came in controlled bursts, giving the impression that Deron was doing well, methodically exterminating the infestation. But the string of bullets got progressively longer, until finally he was firing at full throttle, pausing to reload, and then firing again. And in the corner, gun four still showed down. “Contamination imminent,” said that sultry voice from above. Sebo made a face at the ceiling. “Shut up, bitch!” The suit flickered in. “Hold them back! They’ve made it into level two! I’m instituting quarantine restrictions until you clear them out!” Locks clicked in the outer door and Sebo abandoned his gun to try to open it. It didn’t budge. He cursed himself for leaving Deron out there all alone, but there was nothing he could do now. Fight to the finish. Embrace victory or accept defeat. Those were the rules of every game. Back on the guns, Sebo focused on taking out the larger of the insects using an amputation strategy to slow them down, made the others crawl over their carcasses. The dirt had long ago turned into mud; it kicked up in brown drops with every bullet that missed its mark. Something was off; some instrument in the back wasn’t playing up to its full potential. The screams were there and the cannons were blasting. He could even hear the sizzle of blob flesh as the flamethrower spewed fiery death into level three. But again, it was incomplete. Then it hit him. Deron’s rifle—he couldn’t hear it anymore. Sebo checked the cameras, but his comrade had disappeared.

EMBRACE THE VENEER Veneer is now on sale at Amazon! Grab your copy. Enjoy the story. Let me know what you thought. Thanks for reading!

Veneer (Excerpt)  

An excerpt from the 2011 Science Fiction novel "Veneer" by Daniel Verastiqui.

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