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Authors: S. J. Kincaid

Insignia (2 page)

BOOK: Insignia
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Now with Ms. Falmouth and his entire class watching him, Tom tried to think of an excuse he’d never used before to explain why he’d missed the last ten days. He’d missed school so many times, he’d repeated himself a couple times by accident. He’d already lied about going to the funerals of all his grandparents, and even a couple great-grandparents, and there were only so many times he could say he “fell down a well” or “got lost in the woods” or “got hit in the head and got amnesia” before even
he
thought he sounded like a colossal idiot.

Today, he tried, “There was this massive cyberattack on all the local VR parlors. Russo-Chinese hackers, you know? The Department of Homeland Security came in and had to interview everyone in a ten-mile radius. I couldn’t even access the internet.”

Ms. Falmouth just shook her head. “Don’t waste your breath, Tom.”

Tom dropped into a seat, irrationally disappointed. It had been a good lie this time, too.

The avatars throughout the classroom sniggered at him, the way they always did, at Tom the loser who never knew what assignments were due, who never turned in his homework, who couldn’t even manage to show up at an online class most days. He tuned his classmates out and occupied himself with twirling a pencil, which was trickier in VR than most people realized. The sensors of most standard-issue wired gloves had a strange lag time, and Tom figured honing his dexterity with them could only help him in future games.

He heard a whisper from beside him. “
I
liked your excuse.”

Tom threw a careless glance toward the girl next to him. She must’ve joined the class sometime in the last two weeks. Her avatar was a gorgeous brunette with striking yellow-brown eyes. “Thanks. Nice avatar.”

“I’m Heather.” She flashed him a smile. “And this isn’t an avatar.”

Sure it isn’t
, Tom thought. People didn’t look like that in real life unless they were celebrities. But he nodded like he believed her. “I’m Tom. And believe it or not, this”—he gestured to himself like he was proud of how very handsome he was—“isn’t an avatar, either.”

Heather giggled, because his avatar looked just like him, with acne and scrawny limbs and all. It definitely wasn’t an image anyone would use to impress people online.

Ms. Falmouth turned back to face them. “Tom, Heather, are you done interrupting me, or do you need more time for your conversation?”

“Sorry,” Tom said. “We’re all through.”

Tom hadn’t seen eye to eye with Ms. Falmouth since he’d shown up for the first day of school a few years ago as Lord Krull from the game Celtic Quest. She’d yelled at him in front of everyone for being insolent, like he had done it as part of some elaborate scheme to mock her class. He’d just liked Lord Krull from Celtic Quest, that was all.

From then on, Tom always came to class as himself. He never signed on to the internet without an avatar if he could help it. It felt like he’d left his real skin behind, showing up at Rosewood as the same ugly, pale-eyed, and blond-haired Thomas Raines who tailed behind his dad in the real world. Never mind that he didn’t believe for a second that the new girl sitting next to him really looked like her beautiful brunette avatar, and Serge Leon, in the back corner, was way too blustering to be a hulking six-footer in real life. He was probably four foot something and fat.

But Ms. Falmouth didn’t seem to care about them. Whenever Tom was around, her radar was trained on him.

“Our subject’s the current war, Tom. Perhaps you can contribute to our discussion. What is an offshored conflict?”

His thoughts flickered to what he’d seen in the news and on the internet, the clips of the ships fighting in space, controlled remotely by the top-secret combatants identified only by their call signs. “An offshored conflict is a war fought somewhere other than Earth. It’s in space or on another planet.”

“And the sky is blue, and the sun rises in the east. I’ll need much more than the blatantly obvious.”

Tom stopped twirling the virtual pencil and tried to concentrate. “Modern wars aren’t fought by people. I mean, they’re kind of fought by people, because people on Earth control mechanized drones remotely, but the machines do the actual fighting. If our machines don’t get demolished by Russo-Chinese machines, our country wins the battle.”

“And who is involved in the current conflict, Tom?”

“The whole world. That’s why it’s called World War III.” She seemed to be waiting for more, so Tom ticked off the major players on his virtual fingers: “India and America are allies, and the Euro-Australian block is aligned with us. Russia and China are allies, and they’re supported by the African states and the South American Federation. The Coalition of Multinationals, the twelve most powerful corporations in the world, is split down the middle between our two sides. And … yeah. That’s about it.”

That was pretty much all he knew about the war. He wasn’t sure what else she wanted. He couldn’t list all the tiny little countries allied with the two sides if he tried, and he doubted anyone else in the room could, either. There was a reason Rosewood was a reform school—most of its students couldn’t cut it in a real, building one.

“Would you like to explain one notable characteristic about this offshored conflict, as opposed to wars in ages past?”

“No?” he tried hopefully.

“I wasn’t really asking. Now answer the question.”

Tom started twirling his pencil again. This was how Ms. Falmouth operated. She questioned him until he ran through all his knowledge, messed up, and looked like an idiot. This time he’d give it to her. “Dunno. Sorry.”

Ms. Falmouth sighed as though she expected nothing more, and moved on to her next victim. “Heather, you two look to be making fast friends. If you’re talking during class on your first day here, maybe you can list a notable characteristic for Tom.”

Heather gave Tom a quick, sidelong look, then answered, “By going to war on other planets, and avoiding fights on Earth, we resolve issues through violence, but we avoid most of the consequences of traditional warfare such as debilitating injuries, human deaths, disruption of infrastructure, and environmental contamination. That’s four notable characteristics. Do you want me to list more than that, Ms. Falmouth?”

Ms. Falmouth was silent for several seconds, perhaps stunned at how readily Heather had answered the question. “That’ll quite do, Heather. Very well articulated. Offshored conflicts are practical socially as well as ecologically.” She strode to the board. “I’d like you all to think of some ways the nature of conflict has shifted the consequences we face....”

Heather took the opportunity to whisper to Tom, “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

Tom laughed softly and shook his head. “You didn’t get me in trouble. This is just Ms. Falmouth letting me know how much she missed me.”

His gloves vibrated, signaling that someone was making physical contact with his avatar. Tom glanced down, startled, and saw her hand resting on his arm. Her voice was a breathy whisper. “You sure?”

Tom stared at her as Ms. Falmouth’s voice carried on: “… exported conflicts serve several purposes …”

“I’m sure,” he told her, so keenly aware of her touch she might as well have been next to him touching him in real life, too.

Heather’s hand trailed down his arm and then slipped away. She nestled it back on her desktop. Tom found himself wondering what she actually looked like. Her avatar didn’t even look like a ninth grader. Was she older than him?

“With the weaponry we use nowadays,” Ms. Falmouth said beside the board, “we could destroy the ionosphere, irradiate the planet, vaporize the oceans. By exporting our wars and engaging Russia and China on, say,
Saturn
instead of on Earth, we can hash out our disagreements over resource allocation without the devastating consequences of traditional warfare, as Heather explained just now. In ages past, people believed that World War III would end all civilization. A famous quote by Albert Einstein:
‘I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’
But we’re in the middle of World War III, and we’re far from ending civilization.”

Ms. Falmouth twitched her finger and the chalkboard morphed into a screen. “Now, I’d like to focus upon the current Intrasolar Forces. I want you to turn your thoughts to the teenagers who are out there deciding the future of your country. We’ll play a short video clip.”

Tom sat up straighter, watching the screen resolve into an outdoor view of the Pentagon and the tall tower jutting from the middle—the Pentagonal Spire—and then to a newsroom where a familiar teenage boy sat with a reporter.

It was Elliot Ramirez.

Tom slumped back down in his seat. Behind him, Serge Leon actually cried out in dismay, “Not
Dorkmirez
!”

Elliot Ramirez was everywhere. Everyone knew him—the handsome, smiling, all-American seventeen-year-old who represented the future of Indo-American supremacy in the solar system. He was in commercials, on bulletin boards, his bright grin flashing and dark eyes twinkling on cereal boxes, on vitamin bottles, on T-shirts. Whenever a new Indo-American victory was announced on the news, Elliot was trotted out to give an interview and to talk about how America was
sure
to win now! And of course, Elliot was front and center in Nobridis, Inc.’s public service announcements because they sponsored him. He was one of the young trainees who controlled American machines in outer space, one of the Americans dedicated to taking down the Russo-Chinese alliance and claiming the solar system for the Indo-American allies.

“How did you get the call sign Ares?” the reporter asked Elliot. “That’s the Greek god of war, I understand. It says a lot about your battlefield prowess.”

Elliot’s chuckle flashed his white teeth. “I didn’t choose ‘Ares’ for myself, but I guess my fellow soldiers thought it should be my call sign. They pleaded with me to take it. I couldn’t refuse the appeals of my brothers-in-arms.”

Tom laughed. He couldn’t help it. Several female avatars whirled around to shush him.

The image on the screen flickered briefly to a battle in space, where a vessel digitally labeled “Ares” was flying toward a dispersed mass of ships. At the bottom of the screen, the caption read “The Battle of Titan.” The reporter’s voice carried on over the image: “… great deal of attention these last few years, Mr. Ramirez. How do you feel about the public’s fascination with you?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t see myself as a great hero the way so many people do. It’s the machines that do all the fighting in space. I just control them. You could say”—and here the image flipped back to Elliot just as he threw a wink at the camera—“I’m just a kid who likes to play with robots.”

Tom kept remembering the only interview of Elliot Ramirez he’d ever sat through before this one. His father was in the hotel room with him, and he’d insisted on watching the entire thing several times because he was convinced that the famed Elliot Ramirez wasn’t a real person. He refused to change the channel until Tom was convinced of it, too.

“That’s not a boy. That’s a computer simulation,” Neil had declared.

“People have seen him in person, Dad.”

“No human being acts like that! Look how he blinks every fifteen seconds on the dot. Time it. And then look at his eyebrows. He raises them to the exact same height every single time. That smile, too. Always the same width. That’s a computer-generated simulation of a human. I guarantee it.”

“Who’s the reporter talking to, then?”

“She’s in on it, too. Who owns the mainstream media? Corporations. That’s who.”

“Right. So I guess cereal companies are putting a fake kid on their boxes, and Elliot’s big sponsor, Nobridis Inc., is also parading around a guy they’ve never met? Oh, and don’t forget all those people on the internet who say they’ve gotten his autograph.... They’re
all
in on it, too, right?”

Neil’s spit began flying. “Tom, I am telling you, this Elliot kid is not a real person. This is how the corporate oligarchy works. They want a pretty face to make their agenda look good for the masses. A real human being is unpredictable. Create a computer-generated human to be the representation of your organization? Then you control everything about that representation. He’s no different from a logo, an action figure, a piece of insignia.”

“And you’re the only one in the world who’s picked up on this.”

“What, you think the American sheeple are going to question the corporatocracy? They’re too busy doing their patriotic duty, gutting their own country to fund a war over which Coalition CEO gets the biggest yacht this year. Wake up, Tom! I don’t want any son of mine buying into the establishment propaganda.”

“I don’t. I don’t,” Tom had protested.

He wanted his dad to be right. He really did. Even now, he studied Elliot and tried to see something fake and computer simulated about him, but he just saw a cheesy kid madly in love with himself who laughed at his own jokes way too much.

“What message would you like to leave viewers with tonight, Mr. Ramirez?”

“I want them to know, we kids at the Pentagonal Spire aren’t making the big sacrifice. Saving the country’s pretty fun! It’s you, the American taxpayers, who keep the fight for our nation going strong. And thanks to Nobridis, Inc., the Indo-American alliance is more—”

“Saving. The. Country.” Ms. Falmouth flipped off the video segment as Elliot launched into promoting Nobridis. “The next time you think you have too much homework, I want you to consider the burden on this young man’s shoulders. Elliot Ramirez is out there forging a future for our nation, securing the solar system’s resources for us, and you don’t hear him complaining, do you?”

BOOK: Insignia
6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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