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Authors: S. J. Kincaid

Insignia (10 page)

BOOK: Insignia
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“But this is a candy bar. How does this help?”

“That’s what you
see
.” Vik took a hearty gulp of his orange juice. “Your neural processor’s configured to feed you sensory info for foods that you like. It looks like a candy bar, but it’s really a high-energy-density nutrient bar. When you look at the nutrient bars and see them the way they appear in real life, that’s when you know your hGH is done spiking.”

“What do these really look like, then?”

“They look like high-energy-density nutrient bars. You don’t want any more details than that. Trust me.”

Tom unwrapped the first Snickers and devoured it. It tasted like a normal candy bar. How odd to think his brain was fooling him. His eyes fell on the real food the others were eating. The sausages looked so delicious he could almost taste them. When he reached for the second Snickers, he saw with a start that the nutrient bar now resembled a greasy sausage link. Tom bit, and sausage exploded on his tongue. Intrigued, he turned the picture in his brain to a banana, even though he didn’t like bananas, and when he looked down, the nutrient bar was a banana.

“This is so cool,” Tom murmured.

He saved a bite of his banana/meal bar/Snickers thing to marvel at on the way to Calisthenics. He turned it into a dumpling, into spaghetti, into that French snail dish, escargot. He couldn’t believe his brain could be manipulated this easily. He was looking at one thing and
seeing something else
just because the computer in his head told him it looked like something it wasn’t.

Vik filled him in on the way. “Calisthenics is pretty straightforward. You work out. You get in shape. The first few times are pretty intense, but you’ll get used to it.”

“Oh. Great,” Tom said, pretending he meant it. He stuffed the last of the nutrient bar in his mouth and instantly regretted not turning it back from escargot into something else. He just barely choked it down.

“Calisthenics can be a bit intense right after three weeks in bed,” Vik warned, “but adrenaline will get you through it. Believe me.”

Tom followed him into a vast room, where the other plebes from various divisions waited. When he glanced at the sign overhead proclaiming it the Stonewall Calisthenics Arena, a blueprint unfolded in his vision, telling him the vast arena encircled the interiors of the second, third, and fourth floors. His eyes lit upon the various obstacles they’d have to overcome—ditches to leap across; sets of ladders and rocky walls to climb over; sand pits; water pits; long stretches of plain old running track with fake grass that twisted around and vanished from his sight with the curve in the Spire; stairs to looping, open platforms that featured more obstacles.

And then the landscape transformed around him. They weren’t in the arena anymore. They were in a vast, rolling green field.

Tom blinked, and blinked again. The field was still there, stark and clear as day. “What just happened?”

“You’ve got a neural processor now,” Vik answered. “Get it? The computer has direct control of the signals from your optic nerve.”

Then Tom understood: his brain was being fed a false image like with the nutrient bars at breakfast.

“So none of this is here,” Tom said, scuffing the heel of his boot experimentally on the grass. He even
smelled
it!

“The arena you saw? That’s real. This field is just the processor fooling your eyes. The sounds you hear, the wind you feel? All fake,” Vik said. “Basically, this is an attempt to make exercise more of an educational activity. Most of the exercise scenarios are based on real battles. You learn some things about military history without them needing to actually teach you.”

A chill breeze cut across Tom’s skin, rippled through his hair. The grass squished beneath his boots, and the milky morning sun seared into his eyes. Tom began to smell the acrid smoke that was floating in dark wisps from over the distant horizon. He could even hear the murmurs of voices from somewhere across the field and feel the ground vibrating with the thumping of thousands of footsteps.

He strained his eyes, trying to see the real arena through the illusion, but he couldn’t. “If we can’t see the real world, how do we avoid bumping into stuff?”

“The illusion adapts to the actual arena,” Vik said. “A river in place of the pool. Boulders in place of low walls, cliffs in place of the climbing walls, that sort of thing. By the way, you’ll want to stretch and then start jogging while you can. Calisthenics always starts with the cardiovascular component for phase one.”

Tom glanced around at the rest of the plebes, dispersing from the main body, spreading out across the battlefield. They were all stretching and darting anxious looks over their shoulders. Tom glanced back toward the rolling hillside, wondering what they were waiting for.

“What happens next?” he asked Vik.

“Incentive to start sprinting.”

Tom stretched, wind ripping against his cheeks, his heart picking up several beats. The distant welter of voices rose. He saw the plebes quit stretching abruptly and break into a flat run.

Screams filled the air. Tom looked back toward the hillside, and his breath caught as he saw the “incentive to start sprinting.” Thousands of men in tartans were spilling over the hillside, shouting a ferocious battle cry, swords flashing in fists.

This is so cool
, Tom thought for one dazzled moment.

A spear whizzed by his face, and his survival instincts kicked in and reminded him he was unarmed in front of a raging horde of medieval Scotsmen. He broke into a run, the screams behind him splintering his ears. Another spear whizzed past him and careened with a solid
thunk
in the grass. Tom swerved around it, his heart pounding, and he reminded himself that this wasn’t real. He wasn’t in danger. This was an illusion.

He forgot that when he heard a shrill scream. Tom glanced back in time to see that Beamer had fallen behind into the clasp of the Scottish warriors. A Scotsman drove a sword through his gut.

“Aaah!” Beamer screamed, thrashing on the ground. “The pain. The terrible pain!”

“Oh God, no, Beamer,” Vik cried, anguished. He grabbed Tom by the collar. “For God’s sake, run faster. Run faster or that will be your fate, too!”

Tom’s easy assurance this wasn’t dangerous evaporated into real fear. Vik was panicking, Beamer had screamed like he was being killed. Was something wrong with the simulation? This wasn’t supposed to be like real battle with people being killed, was it?

He was heaving for breath by the time he skidded to a stop before a solid rock wall with ladders attached to it. That’s when the scenery shifted around him, and he saw Beamer again, standing at the base of a wall, doubled over in laughter.

“Vik, did you see new guy’s face?” Beamer crowed.

Vik bellowed a laugh and socked Tom’s shoulder. “Poor Tom. You really thought he got gutted, huh? Nah, Beamer just bailed on the workout and let them kill him. He’s lazy that way.”

Beamer nodded proudly.

Yuri had skipped the ladders and chosen to scale the rock wall itself. He was already halfway up, but he paused to look down at them and shook his head. “That was not a nice prank to play on Tim.”

Tom understood then: the battlefield really was just a sensory illusion. You couldn’t actually feel anything in an illusion. Beamer had faked the agonized death, and Vik had gone along with it.

“You’re still a funny guy,” Tom told him.

Vik began to hoist himself up the wall. “This is phase two, interval training. You going to die again, Beamer?”

“No way am I climbing up that,” Beamer grumbled, surveying the looming stone wall.

“See you in the next life—or rather, the strength training segment. Come on, Tom.”

Tom followed Vik up the ladders, leaving Beamer behind to the angry Scotsmen. In the real world, this was one of those climbing walls he’d seen. Here in the simulation, it resembled the wall of a castle of sorts. Tom scrambled up the rungs of the ladder, engaging a new set of muscles, and found himself jerking up toward medieval English soldiers waiting at the top, cursing them for being “scurvy barbarian invaders.”

When they reached the top of one wall, another wall presented itself. Behind him, Tom heard more battle cries. He looked back and saw that the massive army of angry Scotsmen was climbing up the walls, too, still chasing them. Beamer got—or rather, let himself be—impaled again. He didn’t fake scream this time. He dropped onto the ground and waved lazily up at Tom and Vik.

Up and down the ladders they were chased, until Tom was heaving for breath. The Scotsmen pursued relentlessly. And then Tom met the rest of the plebes in a four-walled armory. He followed them, seized a sword off the wall, and nearly dropped it. It was unexpectedly heavy.

“How do you fight with this?” Tom asked Vik, hoisting it up with two hands.

“You don’t fight, really. Lifting it. That’s the point of phase three: strength training.”

Screams pierced the air. Tom braced himself for whatever was coming next.

Japanese ronins rushed into the room.

Tom started laughing. It made
no
sense having Japanese ronins in a medieval English castle under siege by Scotsmen, but he didn’t care. He hurled himself into fighting with the heavy sword. He ignored the fact that blocking the blows from the ronin invariably began to resemble lifting weights in a gym, since the illusion of the fight made it so much better. He saw Vik dodge a sword and spotted Beamer in the corner, getting impaled for a third time. Yuri leaped forward to avenge Beamer and then threw himself gloriously into the battle with two ronins at once, wielding a sword in each hand. Then he heroically stepped between Wyatt and the ronin besieging her and began fighting three ronins, all at once.

“Yuri, stop showing off!” Wyatt snapped at him, shoving him out of her way and taking on the ronin herself again.

And then the ronins faded away, the dank castle walls vanished, and Tom found himself standing in the middle of the arena, heaving for frantic breaths, a thick iron weight clutched in his grip. Yuri had a weight in each of his hands, and he set them on the floor with a plunk. He didn’t even look like he’d broken a sweat.

Vik turned to Tom, his tunic plastered to his chest. “So what do you think?”

Tom managed a breathless reply, “Beats … running … laps.”

I
N THE LOCKER
room, Tom’s body shook with exhaustion as he stood beneath the hot jets of the shower, steam curling up around him. His mind swam with the images of angry Scotsmen, charging ronins, and furious English soldiers. He had to remind himself this was not a dream or a hallucination, this was his reality now. His hands scrubbed through his short hair, and over his face....

Tom froze, startled by smooth skin.

He pressed his fingers over his cheekbones, his forehead, his chin. Not a single bump. It felt as if …

He yanked his towel down from the curtain rod, wrapped it around his torso, and scrambled over to the mirrors outside the stall. One swipe of his palm cleared the steam, and for the first time since he was ten years old, he looked at his own face without seeing skin disfigured by acne.

Tom stared at his face, a strange feeling welling up inside him. This was him. This guy, he wasn’t so ugly. Not Elliot Ramirez, yeah, but this guy could walk into a high school—a real, building one—and he’d actually fit in there.

Tom had taken it for granted he’d always be that ugly kid. He knew that even if the acne cleared up, his face would be so scarred it might as well still be there. But he looked like a normal guy now. A normal teenager surrounded by other normal teenagers, with possibility and a future ahead of him. He even had a profile that proclaimed him a national spelling bee champion, not a homeless loser who couldn’t even make it at a reform school. His brain ached, but in a good way. There was this feeling inside him that for the first time in his life, he’d become a real person.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” Vik said, emerging from the steam behind him.

Tom stepped back.

“What’s up, man?” Vik’s dark eyes flicked to the mirror. “You’ve been staring at yourself for, like, twenty seconds. Now, if you looked like me, I’d understand being awestruck by your own beauty.”

“I was thinking about something. I didn’t realize they changed stuff about you when they did the surgery. Physically.”

“Oh, you mean the way you don’t get facial hair anymore?” Vik rubbed his smooth chin.

Tom nodded like that was what he’d meant.

“Yeah, it’s a pain, but the processor pretty much shuts off anything it deems extraneous like the function of hair follicles on your face when you have to be clean-shaven for the military, anyway. And I had this fantastic scar over my eyebrow that was all healed when my surgery was done, too. It’s too bad. It made me look tough.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“No, I really had a scar.” Vik pointed to his eyebrow.

“Yeah, I believe that. I just can’t picture you looking tough.”

He dodged Vik’s towel before he got snapped with it.

T
OM FOUND TWO
more nutrient bars in his locker. He imagined them as bacon and devoured them on the way to classes. Information popped up in his head. He examined the data, and realized it was his class schedule. He waited for that thing Vik called data comprehension to come along with the information. The schedule looked odd.

BOOK: Insignia
7.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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