Rick Dial’s career as a superstar quarterback ended when a car accident left him unable to walk. But his uncanny gaming ability caught the attention of a secret government organization trying to stop a high-tech terrorist attack on America. He’s been to the fantastical cyber world called the MindWar Realm . . . and returned to Real Life victorious.
But the stakes have just gone up. Another attack is imminent, and Rick is the only one who can stop it. How can he, though, when terrorists have kidnapped his best friend Molly and are threatening to kill her if Rick returns to the Realm?
As Molly uses every resource of mind and body to outwit her brutal captors, Rick races against time inside a nightmare video game where a fate worse than death may be waiting for him.
Hundreds of miles apart, both will have to test the power of their faith and the strength of their spirits. They’re being forced to a moment of sacrifice . . . one that could cost them everything.
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The Mindwar Trilogy Book Two
By ANDREW KLAVAN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Andrew Klavan
All rights reserved.
MOLLY WAS JUST finishing up her jog when the killers came for her.
It was finals week. Five days until the Christmas break began. A quiet had fallen over the university. Students were at their tests during the day or grinding away at the books in their dorms and in the library at night. The undaunted party crews were now confined to Greek Row and a few venues off campus where no one would complain about their loud music. A lot of kids had already headed home. By five or so every evening, when the last dusk light had faded and the winter night came down, there was no one walking on the lamplit pathways and the majestic stone buildings were dark.
That was when Molly liked to hit the gym. The other athletes had cleared out by that time and the after-dinner amateurs hadn't shown up yet, so she usually had the place to herself. She used the locker room to change into her black workout outfit. Pulled on a black elastic band to keep her hair out of her eyes and clipped it in place with a couple of bobby pins. Took her phone, headset, and key card and headed into the workout room.
It was a long room with ellipticals and treadmills lining one wall and weight machines and free weights against the other. Molly was a volleyballer, the setter on the school team. Her workout was tough. She ran through a brutal hour-long weight routine to keep her core and upper body strong. Coach Nasty—an iPhone workout app—shouted encouragement in her earbuds as she sweated through the reps. When she was done, she paused only long enough to switch over to her JogHard app. Then she pushed out through the gym's metal side door and took off running into the chilly darkness.
She did five miles, out to the edge of the campus, up Library Hill, through the residential streets of NorthSide, then along College Avenue until she cut into the campus and followed the winding paths back to the gym. All the while she was running, her jogging mix was slamming jock-beat music into her ears, interrupted only by the occasional location, speed, and distance stats droned at her by JogHard: "You're at College Avenue and Fourth Street. You have run 3.5 miles east at a pace of 5.2 miles per hour!" Very little of this noise broke through into her consciousness, though. Mostly, as her sneakers slapped the pavement, as her breath came out of her in short bursts of wintry steam ... mostly, she was thinking about Rick Dial.
He'd been gone two months now. She didn't know where. His whole family had left town. He e-mailed her now and then, but he never told her much, never told her where he was or what he was doing. It was all hush-hush, some secret government thing his dad had gotten him involved in. Rick's father and hers were close friends, both professors here in the Physics Department her father ran—but even Molly's dad didn't know what Professor Dial was doing or where he'd gone. It seemed no one did.
Slowly, Molly was beginning to accept what she already knew in her heart of hearts: Rick wasn't coming back.
What did that mean to her? Was she in love with Rick? If she had a dollar for every time she had asked herself that question during one of these evening jogs, she'd have a whole lot of dollars by now. She probably could've bought a Porsche outright with singles alone. Rick and she had been friends since they were kids. They were just starting to become more than friends when Rick's car was broadsided by a panel truck. His legs were smashed up. His career as a football quarterback was over. His college scholarship was gone. He locked himself away in his room to play video games for hours on end—his way to avoid accepting the bitter change that had come into his life.
And he wouldn't talk to Molly anymore. He wouldn't answer her calls or return her e-mails. So she never really got to find out how far their romance was going to go. It was as if she had started falling for him—and then been frozen in midfall. And then, before she could break through his depression and get him to talk to her, it was all over. He was gone.
She cried when he came to her house to say good-bye. She cried off and on for a few days after that. She still cried sometimes in bed at night when she thought about him. But was she brokenhearted or just disappointed? Had something irreplaceable been lost forever, or was it just one of those things you forgot about over time? Was she in love with him? Congratulations, Mol: another dollar.
So that's what she was thinking about when the killers came. She never saw them until it was too late. With some Kelly Clarkson survival anthem drilling into her brain through her earbuds and the computer voice of JogHard offering up her final stats, with her body exhausted from her workout and her mind returning obsessively to the same old memory—that sweet, sweet moment when Rick had kissed her and everything had changed—(I never expected this, Molly!)—she really didn't have a chance.
She was just reaching the gym again. Slowing down to a walk as she came up on the PE Building's side door—the one that led straight into the workout room. She had her key card out of her tracksuit's pants pocket. She swiped it through the slot with one hand while she pulled her earbuds off with the other. She shouldered the door open—and the first thug barreled into her, shoving her through.
Molly was a big girl. Her face was elegant, even delicate—with light brown hair framing gentle brown eyes and a small nose dotted with faint freckles—but she was almost six feet tall and broad-shouldered, and her legs, belly, and arms were hard with muscle. As the surprise blow sent her stumbling into the workout room, she turned on her attacker, ready to fight. Then she got a look at him. The sight made her sick with fear. She could tell at a glance he wasn't just some street thug. Dressed head to foot in black—black jeans, black T-shirt, black windbreaker—he was rangy and graceful. His head was thin, pointed top and bottom like a diamond. His smile was tight and confident. And there was death in his eyes.
She knew at a glance she couldn't fight him. She had to run. But even as the thought came to her, the other thugs grabbed her.
There were two of them, waiting in the gym. They came up behind her and locked her arms in theirs. At the same time, the first thug, the smiling Death's Head, drew a syringe from inside his windbreaker and stepped toward her.
In high school Molly had taken classes on self-defense for women. They'd been taught by a gruff female ex-Marine named Stella. Stella told the class: the first rule of girl-on-guy fighting is that the girl's going to lose in a straight-up brawl. Those scenes in the movies where the lead actress punches some guy in the jaw and he goes somersaulting backward across the room—doesn't happen this side of reality. Hit a guy like that offscreen, and you'll break your hand and then he'll kill you. Best bet: hit the guy once, somewhere where it counts—in the throat, in the eye, in the groin—then run like your butt's on fire, screaming as loud as you can.
Good plan—except the two thugs who had hold of her arms were stronger than strong, their grips like steel bands that locked her helplessly in place. And here came Smiley McDeath with that syringe. Another second and he was going to stick that thing into her neck and knock her out. And what then? Cart her off into slavery like one of those girls she sometimes saw on the news? Or worse: use her and kill her so that her dad had to identify her body at the morgue?
Well, it might go down like that, she thought. But win or lose, it wasn't going to happen without a fight.
Fear and determination gave her strength. She lifted her right leg high and drove the edge of her sneaker down hard into the ankle of the man beside her. He cried out and staggered, loosening his hold on her arm. She used the moment to drive her elbow into him, knocking him back. Then, with her right arm free, she let out a high yell and drove her palm into the other thug's nose.
The blow struck home hard. Thug Two's face was covered with a splat of blood as his nose broke, flattened under her palm. He fell back, and Molly spun away. She staggered across the gym, trying to escape the man with the syringe. If she could make it into the locker room, she thought, she might be able to break out of here ...
But there was no way. The three men had already recovered and were coming after her. The first thug—the one she'd kicked—wasn't hurt at all. He was moving toward her in a low, fighting crouch, ready for anything. Thug Two—the guy whose former nose was now just a fond nose memory—was swiping the blood off his face with the back of his hand and stalking her with eyes that had gone white with rage.
As for Smiley McDeath, he had paused to put the protective cap back on the syringe needle. In fact, he was doing this with such deliberate calm and confidence that it sent a chill through Molly's heart. A moment later, he, too, was closing in on her, cutting off the path to the locker rooms, backing her up against the wall.
Molly had seen scenes like this on television shows, but nothing like this had ever happened to her in real life. She was shocked by the fear she felt. So much fear. It seemed to sap the energy right out of her muscles, seemed to drain the will out of her heart. Still short of breath from her run, she almost wanted to surrender right then and there, just to get it over with, just to end the terrible suspense.
But she couldn't help noticing that the wall the thugs were backing her up against was the wall with the free weight shelves. And hey, if they were going to give her something to fight with, well, then she was going to fight until the fight was over.
She turned fast, grabbed a dumbbell—five pounds—and flung it at the Nose Guy with a whipping twist of her wrist. She was so quick, Nosey never saw it coming. The dumbbell hit the dumbbell smack in the center of his face, right in his ouchie, poor thing. His childish squeal of agony would have made Molly laugh in triumph if she hadn't been busy fighting for her life. But even as Nose Man reeled backward, gripping his face with both hands, the other two kept coming at her.
Molly grabbed a second dumbbell off the wall—another five-pounder. She didn't throw it this time. They were too close. She swung it back and forth in the air, so that the two thugs had to duck out of reach to keep from getting brained. That gave her a second to think.
She thought: Scream!
She kept swinging the dumbbell at one thug then another as she let out the sort of shriek she hadn't shrieked since her fifth birthday party. A silent prayer flew from her heart to heaven: Let there be some football guys in the locker room. And Lord, if you could make them defensive linemen weighing about 280 pounds apiece, so help me, I will give, like, every penny I have to charity.
The thugs ducked her wild swings and cursed. Her screaming was getting to them.
"Shut her up!" shouted Smiley McDeath, no longer smiling.
"I can't reach her!" the other thug shouted back.
For that one moment, Molly began to hope she was going to get out of this.
Then the side door opened and the Troll came in.
That's what he looked like: a troll. Not one of those cute plastic trolls with the stand-up purple hair either. But an evil fairy-tale troll, the kind of green-skinned, pimply midget muscleman who hits unsuspecting travelers over the heads with his club. And all right, he didn't have green skin, not quite. And he was dressed rather stylishly in gray slacks and a black turtleneck and a corduroy jacket. But he was about four feet tall with bulging arms and legs. He had a huge head with thick red hair. He had tannish cheeks with sickly pink patches. He had big round eyes full of pain and rage. Even his friends would have said he looked like a troll. If he'd had any friends. Which he didn't.
The other thugs all stopped in their tracks as he entered. Even Nosey stopped sobbing and dropped his hands from his bloody face.
Molly paused, holding the dumbbell over her shoulder, ready to strike. She went on screaming as loud as she could. Someone had to hear her somewhere.
The Troll crossed the workout room quickly with a rolling, crippled gait. His hate-filled eyes took in the scene: the Noseless Wonder, bleeding and mewling; Thug One panting with his useless efforts; Smiley McDeath all out of smiles and looking right well ashamed—and, of course, Molly, brandishing the dumbbell at them all and screaming like a banshee.
The Troll gave them all one look. Then, in a voice like a landslide of gravel, he said, "What's taking so long?"
Whereupon he reached quickly inside his corduroy jacket, drew out a gun, and shot Molly in the chest.
It was a stun gun: it hit Molly with an electric charge that turned her arms and legs to water. The next thing she knew, she was lying on her back, her mouth open in a soundless cry of agony. The smiling man with death in his eyes was leaning over her, his syringe lifted again.
After that, there was only blackness.CHAPTER 2
"FIND HIM!" MISS Ferris said. "Now!"
She never raised her voice. She never changed her tone. The expression on her face didn't even flicker. It was as flat and unemotional as ever. She wasn't a big, imposing figure either. She was a small woman, in fact, and young, only in her thirties. She had short black hair that made her hard features seem almost boyish. She wore a dark pantsuit that made her body seem all straight lines and angles. But as unimpressive as she might have seemed to an outside observer, everyone in the room knew she was in command. The moment she gave the order, the security team of enormous and muscular tough guys—Victor One and Bravo Niner and the hilariously named Juliet Seven and all the rest of the letter-and-number crew—scattered, on the hunt.
Her face set—it was always more or less set—Miss Ferris turned away from the retreating hulks and faced the thin microphone that snaked out of the Control Room wall on its gooseneck wire.
"Don't make them hurt you, Rick," she said, her tone still cold and impassive. "Give yourself up while there's still time."
"Fat chance," Rick Dial muttered to himself. And he continued to drag himself along the narrow air vent.
This was his plan—not much of a plan, he had to admit, but the best he could come up with. The compound that housed the MindWar Project was largely underground. And the thing about an underground compound, Rick had realized, is that it needs air. And the thing about air is that you have to bring it from above ground and pipe it through the whole facility. Rick had spent the last six weeks pilfering the compound's specs, mapping out the air circulation system, and stealing the security cards and codes he would need to gain access to the vents.
But of course the place was so well guarded, so locked down, so wired up with security features, that the alarm had gone off mere minutes after he'd entered the ventilation system. Miss Robot Face Ferris was probably tracking him on sensors even as she broadcast to him through the compound's loudspeakers.
"Really, Rick," he heard her deadpan voice droning to him now. "You're being childish. You know you can't pull this off."
Why didn't she ever change her tone of voice? She sounded like a GPS giving directions. Turn left in five miles—and give yourself up.
Something about the emotionless woman really got under Rick's skin. He wanted to shout at her: "Where's Mariel? Who's Mariel? How can I save her?" He had to bite down hard to keep his mouth shut so he wouldn't give his location away.
But even though he said nothing, Miss Ferris knew what he was after. Her monotonous drone continued over the speakers: "This isn't helping anything, Rick. We're doing everything we can to help your friends. I know it's frustrating, but you can't just act on your own like this."
"Watch me," Rick muttered. He ignored the throbbing ache in his legs and continued to drag himself down the metal shaft.
Miss Ferris didn't understand, he thought. She didn't know how he felt. How could she? With her stony face and metallic blue eyes, empty of all emotion. She didn't understand that he couldn't just wait around hoping she and Commander Mars might one day decide to send him back into the Realm. He had to get back there—soon, now. He had to find Mariel, to rescue Mariel. She had saved his life. He owed her. And maybe more than that. He wasn't sure yet, but he thought it was possible he had fallen in love with her. Even though he had no idea who she was. Even though he wasn't even sure she was real.
Excerpted from Hostage Run by ANDREW KLAVAN. Copyright © 2015 Andrew Klavan. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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