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The Forbidden Game book 2: The Chase (Chapter 6)

It was that psychic," Dee said promptly. "She looked like a case of peroxide on the brain to me."

"No," said Michael. "You know what it really is?" Jenny thought he was going to make a joke, but for once he was serious. "It's battle fatigue. We've all got it. We're stressed to the max, and we're seeing-and hearing-things that aren't there."

It was the next day. They were all sitting on the grassy knoll-all but Tom, of course. Jenny was surprised that Zach had shown up. After what she'd said to him at lunch yesterday, she'd have thought he'd have withdrawn from them all. But he was in his place, long legs folded under him, ashy-blond head bent over his lunch.

Jenny herself had no appetite. "The calls weren't hallucinations," she said. It was all she could do to keep her voice steady. "Okay, the last one might have been a dream-I woke up my parents screaming, and they said they didn't hear the phone ring. But the

other times-I was walking around, Michael. I was awake."

"No, no, I'm not saying the phone calls aren't real. I'm saying the phone rang, and maybe somebody even whispered something at you-or maybe it was just static-but you imagined what it was saying. You put your own interpretation on the sounds. You didn't hear vanished until the psychic said vanished, right?"

"Yes," Jenny said slowly. In the bright May sunshine, the terror of last night seemed less real. "But-it wasn't like imagining it. I heard the sounds the first time when the phone rang at school, and in the end they came clear. And the word made sense. Not vanished, but famished-it fit in with those eyes."

"But that's just why you imagined it." Michael was waving a box of Cracker Jack, warming to his subject. "Maybe imagined isn't the right word. See, your brain is like a modeling system. It takes the input it gets from your senses and makes the most reasonable model it can from it. But when you're really stressed, it can take that input-like somebody whispering nonsense on the phone-and make the wrong model out of it. Your brain hears something that isn't there. It seems real because it is real-to your brain."

Dee was frowning, clearly not liking the idea of not relying on her brain. "Yes, but it isn't real."

"It's as real as any of the other models your brain makes all day. Like-last night I was doing homework in my living room, and my brain made a model of a coffee table. That's what it thought of the images my eyes were showing it. It took wood and rectangular and matched that with coffee table, and I recognized it. But if I was really stressed, I might see wood and rectangular, and my brain might make a model of a coffin. Especially if I'd been asleep or if I was already thinking about coffins. See?" Jenny did, sort of.

"But the coffin still wouldn't be real," Dee argued. "But how could I tell? "Easy. You could touch it-" "Touching's just another sense. It could be fooled, too. No, if a model's good enough, there would be no way to tell it wasn't real," Michael said.

It made sense, Jenny thought. It was like the dog yesterday evening. She'd been jumping at shadows because she was so frightened.

She sat back on the grassy knoll and let out a deep breath. The knot in her stomach had eased slightly-and now she could worry about other things.

Like Tom. As long as he wasn't there, things wouldn't be right.

The others were talking around her. "-we covered about half the streets yesterday," Dee was saying, "but we didn't find anything-" "I found blisters," Michael put in. "And if I keep missing my kung fu classes I'm not going to live through the next competition," Dee finished.

"You think you've got problems? I found scratches all over the hood of the Spider this morning," Audrey said. "Daddy's going to kill me when he sees it." She told the story of the dog that had followed them. Michael spilled his Cracker Jack in triumph. "You see? More modeling," he said. But Audrey

pushed down her designer sunglasses with one finger to stare over them.

"Jenny?" she said. "What's wrong?"

They were all looking at her.

Jenny could feel her lips tremble slightly, but she tried to sound off-hand. "It's just-Tom and I had a fight. And we sort of…" She shrugged. "Well, I don't know if we're together anymore or not."

They all stared as if she'd said the world was ending in a few minutes.

Then Michael whistled and ran his hands through his hair, rumpling it even more wildly. Dee, who normally scorned anything to do with romance, put a slender, night-dark hand on Jenny's arm. Audrey's eyebrows were hiked up into her spiky copper bangs. Zach shook his head, a distant flicker of ice in his winter-gray eyes.

Audrey was the first to recover. "Don't worry, chiri," she said, taking the sunglasses off and snapping them into a case briskly. "It's not permanent. Tom just needs some stirring up. Guys need to be reminded of their place every so often," she added with a severe glance at Michael, who spluttered.

"No. It wasn't a regular fight. It was about him-Julian. He thinks I belong to Julian or something, like one of those horrible old movies. Bride of the Devil. He thinks he's lost me already, so why compete?" She told them about it as best she could.

Audrey listened, her narrowed eyes turned in the direction of the English building. Suddenly her lips curved in a catlike smile. "Clearly, drastic measures are called for. And I have an idea," she said.

"What idea?"

Audrey nodded toward the building. Taped to the brick was a large poster reading: Come to the Midnight Masquerade. "Voila."

"Voila?" Jenny said blankly.

"The prom. Brian Dettlinger. Yesterday. Remember?"

"Yes, but-"

"You said Tom thinks he can't compete with a demon lover. But maybe if he sees he's got human competition, he'll get a little more motivated."

Jenny stared at her. It was crazy-and it just might work. "But I told Brian no. He'll have another date by now."

"I don't think so," Audrey hummed. "I got the dirt from Amy Cheng yesterday in algebra. Brian dumped Karen Lalonde to ask you."

Jenny blinked. Karen Lalonde was the head cheerleader. Beautiful. Brilliant. Magnetic. "He dumped her-for me?"

"They've been on the rocks for a while. Karen's been seeing Davoud Changizi on the side. But Brian put up with it until now."

"But-"

"Listen to me, Jenny. After what Tom's done, who can blame you for looking elsewhere? Besides, you'll probably have a great time-it's Brian Dettlinger, for heaven's sake. I tell you what; I'll even go with you. I know I can rustle up a date somewhere."

Michael yowled in protest. "What?"

"Now, Michael, don't fuss. I'm not going fox fun; it's like Mother's charities-all for a good cause, Don't you want Jenny and Tom to get back together?"

Michael was spluttering again. But Dee was grinning her wildest grin. "Go on, Sunshine," she said. "Make it happen."

Zach crumpled his lunch sack, looking bored with the whole situation.

"Now, come on," Audrey said. "If we hurry, we should be able to find him before the bell rings. Allez! This will be easy."

It was. Brian looked surprised when Jenny walked up-but a light went on in his eyes. Seeing that light, Jenny suddenly knew that he hadn't found another date.

It was odd having a senior look at her like that. Suddenly Jenny wondered again if it was fair to do this. She thought about Aba's maxims, the ones Dee's grandmother had taped to the mirror in her bathroom. A simple hand-lettered sign saying:

Do no harm. Help when you can. Return good for evil.

In the Game Jenny had understood how necessary those maxims were if the world wasn't going to become the kind of place Julian said it was. She'd resolved to live by them. This didn't seem to fit.

But it was too late now. Audrey was talking with Brian, teasing him, letting him know what Jenny was there for. It was all being arranged.

"I'll pick you up at seven," Brian was saying, and there was something like excitement in his face. He was looking at her eyes, at her hair across her shoulders. She could hardly tell him she'd changed her mind now.

"Fine," Jenny said weakly and let Audrey lead her away.

What have I done? I don't even have a dress-The bell rang.

Jenny, Michael, and Audrey had algebra together, then Jenny went to computer applications. That was where Michael's theory about brain modeling was put to the test.

It started with the keyboard fouling up. Jenny's partner was absent, so she was alone at her computer, a glacier-slow IBM clone.

She was typing in her name when the I key stuck She'd barely touched it with her right index finger, but the Js went on and on across the line. They got to the right margin and went on, got to the edge of the screen and went on.

The screen scanned right and the rest of Jenny's document moved jerkily to the left, disappearing She stared in horror, her first thought that she'd broken the computer. Jenny loved computers, unlike Dee who hated technology, but she had to admit there was something a little odd about them, a little unnerving. As if things might happen unexpected!) there on screen. When she was a kid, after a day of playing with her dad's PC, Jenny had sometimes had dreams of bizarre scenes and impossible games appearing on the monitor. As if a computer wasn't just a machine but some kind of connection that could hook into the unknown.

Now her eyes widened as the Js went on. On and on and on. That wasn't right-that couldn't be. Where was word wrap? The letters should just fall down onto the next line.

They didn't. They kept going. A line of s hitting the edge of the screen and then ebbing back as the screen scanned right, then surging to the edge again. Like a snake. Or something pulsing.p>

Jenny's little fingers were tingling; there was a crawling between her shoulder blades. This was wrong. She had a dreadful feeling of the physical distance the line of Js had traveled. It was as if she were out in space somewhere, far to the right of her original document-and going on farther. She was lost somewhere in virtual space, and she was terrified of what she might see there.

JJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJ

Jenny had been pressing Escape continuously since the key had stuck. Now she hit Enter to put in a hard return, to break the line. Nothing happened.

WJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJ

Oh, God, what was out here? What were the s heading for? Something miles to the side of her original document, something that just couldn't be there because there wasn't room for it. She was beyond any possible margins. It was like sailing over the edge of the world.p>

She scrambled in her mind for the screen rewrite code, hit that. Nothing. She stabbed at the Break key. Nothing. Then, teeth sunk in her lip, she pressed Control/Alt/Delete.

The combination should have rebooted the computer. It didn't. The s sailed on.p>

The screen glowed a deep and beautiful blue. Jenny had never noticed before just how blue that screen really was. A color vivid beyond imagining.

The white s surged on and on. Jenny had a physical sense of falling. She was out too far….p>

She reached out and did something the computer teacher had threatened them with death for doing she flipped the main switch of the computer off. Depriving it of electricity, killing it in the middle of a program. Crashing it deliberately.

Only it didn't crash.

The switch was off, the CPU light was off-but She 7s kept on going, pulsing and surging.

Jenny's breath stopped. She stared in disbelief. Her hand went to the monitor and fumbled frantically with the monitor switch. It clicked under her fingers; the monitor light went off.

"What are you doing?" the girl to the left of her gasped.

The monitor still glowed blue. The Js sailed on,

Jenny yanked the keyboard out of the socket.

She had to stop this. Something was going terribly, unimaginably wrong, and she had to stop those h before …

"Ms. Godfrey!" the girl to the left of her cried. "Ms. Godfrey, Jenny's-"

Jenny had just an instant to see what happened next. Even with the keyboard detached, the 7s kept going-or at least she thought they did. It was hard to tell because everything happened so fast. There was a bright flash-the screen going blindingly white -and a blue afterimage printed on her retinas. Then the monitor went dark.

So did the lights in the room-and all the other computers.

"Now see what you did," the girl beside her hissed,

Jenny sat, scarcely breathing. Pulling out the keyboard cord couldn't have caused a blackout. Even crashing her computer shouldn't have done that. The room wasn't totally dark, but it was very dim; the windows were tinted to protect the equipment. Impressed on the dimness Jenny saw pinwheels and filaments of glowing blue.

Oh, please, she thought, holding herself as still as possible. She could feel her heart beating in her throat.

Then she heard-something-from underneath the computer tables.

Soft as a match strike, but audible. A moving sound, like a rope being dragged. Like something sliding across the floor.

Toward her.

Jenny twisted her head, trying to locate it. The teacher's voice seemed distant. The sliding sound was getting closer, she could hear it clearly now. Like a dry leaf blowing across pavement. Starting and stopping. Surging. Like the s. Coming straight for her legs.p>

It was almost here. Almost was under her table. And she couldn't move; she was frozen.

She heard a hiss like static. Like white noise. Or –

Something brushed her leg.

Jenny screamed. Released from her paralysis all at once, she jumped to her feet, beating at her leg. The thing brushed her again, and she grabbed at it, throttling it, trying to kill it-

-and found herself holding the keyboard cord.

It must have fallen over the edge of the table when she yanked it out, and dangled there. Jenny was holding on to its spiraling length so tightly that she could feel dents in her palms. This close she could see it clearly. Just a cord.

The lights went on. People were gathering around her, putting their hands on her, asking questions.

It's just your brain making models, she told herself desperately, ignoring everyone else. The computer malfunctioned and you freaked. You heard static when the power went off, and you freaked more and made it into a hiss. But it wasn't real. It was just models in your brain.

"I think you'd better go home for the day," Ms. Godfrey said. "You look as if you could use some rest."

"I've got it figured out now," she said to Michael that night. "It must have been something to do with the UPS-the uninterruptible power supply. That's a kind of battery that keeps the computers going when the power goes out."

"Oh, right," said Michael, who knew very little about computers but would never admit it.

"That's what kept the computer going, but then somehow I managed to blow the whole system," Jenny said. "That knocked the power out, and all the rest of it was in my mind."

"You must have looked pretty funny holding that cord," Michael said.

They talked about what had happened to him and the others that afternoon. He and Dee and Audrey had gone postering together and had covered most of the area between Ramona and Anchor streets. They hadn't found anything.

Jenny told him what she'd told Dee and Audrey earlier. She was okay now. She'd slept all afternoon. Her mother had wanted to take her to the doctor, but Jenny had said no.

She was very proud of herself for realizing it had all been in her mind. She planned to stay calmer in the future.

"Well, that's good," Michael said. His voice sounded surprisingly weak for somebody whose theory had been confirmed. "Uh, Jenny-"

"What?"

"Oh, nothing. See you tomorrow. Take care of yourself."

"You, too," Jenny said, a little startled. "Bye."

Michael stared at the cordless phone he'd just clicked off. Then he glanced uneasily at his bedroom window. He wondered if he should have told Jenny -but Jenny had enough to worry about.

Besides, there was no reason to do anything to tarnish his own brilliant theory. It was just battle fatigue, and he was as subject to it as anyone else.

Stress. Tension. In his own case combined with a rather nervous temperament. Michael had always claimed to be an unashamed coward.

That would account for the feeling he'd had all day of being watched. And there was nothing really moving outside that window. It was a second-floor apartment, after all.

Audrey stretched in her Christian Dior nightgown and deposited herself more haphazardly across the peach satin sheets. Even after forty-five minutes in the Jacuzzi her feet hurt. She was sure she was getting calluses.

Worse, she couldn't shake the strange sensation she'd had ever since this afternoon. It was the feeling Audrey usually had when entering a room-of eyes on her. Only these eyes today hadn't been admiring. They had been watchful-and malicious. She'd felt as if something were following her.

Stalking her.

Probably just the remnants of yesterday's fright, There was nothing to worry about-she was safe at home. In bed.

Audrey stretched again and her mind wandered. Eyes… hmm. No eyes now. C'est okay. Va bine.

She slept.

And dreamed, pleasantly. She was a cat. Not a repulsive scroungy cat like Jenny's, but an elegant Abyssinian. She was curled up with another cat, getting a cat-bath.

Audrey smiled responsively, ducking her head, exposing the nape of her neck to the seductive feeling. The other cat's tongue was rough but nice. It must be a big cat, though, she thought, half-waking. Maybe a tiger. Maybe-With a shriek Audrey bolted straight up in bed, She was awake-but she could swear the sensation had followed her out of the dream. She had felt a rough tongue licking her neck.

She clapped a hand to the back of her neck and felt the dampness there.

A strange, musky smell filled the room.

Audrey almost knocked the bedside lamp over getting it turned on. Then she stared around wildly, looking for the thing that had been in her bed.

Dee woke with a start. At least she thought she woke-but she couldn't move.

Someone was leaning over her.

The room was very dark. It shouldn't have been, because Dee liked to sleep with the window open, the curtains drawn back. Breathing fresh air, not the stale refrigerated stuff that came out of the air conditioner.

Tonight she must have forgotten to open the curtains. Dee couldn't tell because she couldn't move her head. She could only see what was directly above her-the figure.

It was a thick darkness against the thinner darkness of the room. It was a human shape, upside-down because it was leaning over from the headboard side.

Dee's heart was pounding like a trip-hammer. She could feel her lips draw back from her teeth savagely.

Then she realized something horrifying.

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