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Authors: S. J. Kincaid

Insignia (4 page)

BOOK: Insignia
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He went with it.

First thing he did was look at his character’s attire and weaponry. He was in a space suit. Obviously his character was humanoid, then. Over the horizon, he caught sight of a tank jerking across the bloodred landscape. An information bubble popped up and informed him that his enemy was in this hydrogen-powered tank and his objective was to kill or be killed.

The cylindrical cannon cranked toward him, and his heart leaped. He whipped around as swiftly as his character could move and dove into a ditch just before a bone-jarring blast hurled dust into the air on all sides of him. He crawled through the haze into the nearest artillery pit. Another blast missed him, and he dropped into the makeshift shelter.

There was a rumbling through the thin Martian atmosphere as that tank made its way toward him, the slow harbinger of his death. Thrills of excitement shot through him. He wasn’t used to going so blindly into a sim. The tank’s targeting would improve once it drew closer, and even this pit wouldn’t save him. He had to blow his enemy up before that.

He began to figure out what this was: an incursion. Incursions happened when gamers hacked into the systems of other gamers to challenge them in a sim. No one had ever incursed him before, and Tom couldn’t incurse anyone at all because he didn’t know how to do it.

He felt almost delirious with his good fortune. He desperately hoped this was some very awesome gamer, someone spectacular. Someone with a chance of beating him. He’d kill for a real challenge.

He hurled a look around. He was trapped in a gulley, at an utter disadvantage. The only weapon in reach was an iono-sulfuric dispersal rifle planted in the red dirt. He could see the other dugouts in the distance, the symbols etched in their sides telling him one held a batch of grenades, the other C29 antitank guns. According to the information bubble that popped up in the corner of his vision, those were exactly what he needed to take out that tank, but how could he get to them without being blown up?

The ground shook around him with another blast. His gloves vibrated with the rumble. Tom took advantage of the crimson haze and flung himself toward the iono-sulfuric weapon. He seized it and dropped back into the pit. Pretty straightforward rifle, this one, at least according to the next information bubble. Too weak to take out a tank, but it could generate a couple of little blasts, coat his surroundings with a white film, and create a distraction. He needed to fire this, use the haze as cover, and get to the antitank dugout, and then?

The tank rumbled closer, and Tom saw the error in his logic: whoever this gamer was, he probably knew the C29 dugout would be Tom’s assured path to victory. If he was the guy in the tank, he’d wait for the sulfuric haze. He’d count on it. He’d get the coordinates for the antitank dugout beforehand, wait a few seconds, and then lay down a line of fire right in the path to it.

No, Tom couldn’t play into his hands. He’d have to be trickier than that.

So he made a show of making a fatal error. He fired the iono-sulfuric rifle, coating the atmosphere around the tank in a white haze.

But he didn’t go for the antitank guns.

He leaped up out of the ditch and ran straight toward the tank, used his last glimpse of the tank and its velocity to assess position, and swerved to the side before the tank plowed through the haze to run him down. The blast of sound rumbling past him knocked his character over. Tom saw the stark metal through the white haze and charged after it

He leaped forward, fumbling for handholds, and hoisted himself up the back. A few scrabbling grasps with the wired gloves later, and Tom’s character was on top of the tank, above the latch.
This
was one thing an iono-sulfuric rifle could handle. He aimed for the lock, blasted it off, and had the hatch open before the guy inside the tank knew his doom was coming through the ceiling.

With an exultant laugh, Tom dropped through the hatch, his feet clanging on the floor. He stalked toward the thrashing body. No space suit. He wasn’t meant for the atmosphere. The gases inside him were trying to burst their way out of his skin into the thinner atmosphere of Mars.

“Nice try, buddy,” Tom said, and slammed the guy in the head with the butt of his rifle over and over until he went still.

Tom dropped the gun and settled down next to the dead body, waiting for the next level, hoping the incursing gamer wasn’t going to tuck tail and run.

But then the body morphed. Tom leaped to his feet and stared, fascinated, as it changed from a man in combat gear to a woman. A girl.

She sat up, tossed her dark brown hair out of her eyes, and gave him a slow, mesmerizing smile. Tom gaped at her, his brain blanking out with disbelief.

“Heather.” He realized suddenly that
she
was the incursing gamer.
She’d
been the one to challenge him to a sim. He wondered if the sense of awe and excitement sweeping through him was what it felt like to be in love. “You’re a gamer, too!”

“Not exactly, Tom.” There was a teasing note in her voice. “Congratulations. You passed.”

“Passed what?”

But she vanished and the simulation went black. Tom gazed into the darkness, confused, and then a slow, steady clapping filled his ears.

His
real
ears.

Tom flipped up the visor and shot to his feet to face the other person in the VR parlor.

The newcomer was an older man with graying hair; a long, pale face; bulbous nose; and full-on military fatigues. He rose from the couch across from him, and Tom realized uneasily that the man must’ve been there for a while just watching him.

“Well,” said the old man, “you’re everything I expected, Mr. Raines. Most don’t even make it into the tank on their first try.” He tapped on his ear and said to someone, “I’ve got visual confirmation that it’s Raines. You can log off now. The network address checks out. Fine work, Heather.”

The whole transition from virtual Tom to real Tom always made him feel weird and stupid even when he wasn’t taken by surprise by some stranger staring at him while he played. “Wait, you know Heather? You two set up that sim?”

“Ms. Akron was scouting you out for me,” the old guy said. “I’ve been looking for you for a month, son. You’re a hard fellow to track down. As soon as she secured your network address for today, I hopped on a plane. I wanted to run you through that scenario once before I made up my mind, but I was certain you wouldn’t disappoint. And you haven’t.”

Tom’s mind flickered to his dad’s constant assertions—
The IRS would love to get their hands on me—
and he edged back. Then again, this could be something to do with Ms. Falmouth’s threat yesterday about calling Child Protective Services. Either way … “Why have you been looking for me?”

“Let’s just say, I’ve been searching for young people who fit a certain profile, and you top my list. One of my officers discovered you on a gaming network, but you kept moving on to new places before we could make contact. I watched you face off with your opponent here in the lounge last night. Tricky move you pulled in that racing game.”

Tom froze. “Oh, you saw that?”

“I’ve also watched you several other times. Back in Southern California. In New Mexico.”

Tom fixed his eyes on the bulbous tip of the man’s nose, thinking quickly of some excuse. He hadn’t been doing anything illegal.... Well, anything illegal
apart
from the underage gambling. Actually, that was very illegal all by itself. What could he say? Maybe he could just deny he was doing it.

“I didn’t see you in person,” the man assured him. “I was given a feed of some of your old games. You’re quite the gamer. I’m impressed.”

Tom blinked. “Impressed?” That wasn’t what he’d expected. “Um, who are you?”

“My name is General Terry Marsh. As you may know, the government’s been monitoring the country for some of our most promising young people to be Combatants in the war.”

Tom said nothing. The words did not compute.

Marsh went on, “I’m here because we need someone like you at the Pentagonal Spire.”

The Pentagonal Spire.

The Pentagonal Spire
. Where the Combatants for the Intrasolar Forces trained. Where people like Elliot Ramirez lived.

Tom realized what this was. “All right, did someone put you up to this? Because I’m not a total chump. Whatever this is really about, I’m not going for it.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Marsh noted drily. “Most teenagers would jump at the opportunity to join our Combatants.”

Tom spun back to face him, because the old man looked stern, and he was wearing military getup, after all. “You’re messing with me, aren’t you? You have to be.”

Marsh gestured for him to sit down. “Mr. Raines, you’ve heard of the current war situation. You must have.”

Tom stayed where he was. “I don’t live in a cave.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. You see, we used to give programmers control of the Indo-American machines fighting across the solar system. They created programs that determined the actions of those machines. Logical actions. The Russo-Chinese alliance adopted the same strategy, so combat became very predictable. The outcome was predetermined, and oftentimes, an outright stalemate. So we became clever. We inserted a human factor into the behavior of machines.”

“Combatants.”

“No, first hackers. They tampered with Russo-Chinese software. Russia and China deployed their own hackers, and we stalemated again. But the Russo-Chinese military went a step further, and gave human beings active control over their combat machines. Strategists. Unconventional thinkers. Risk takers. Mavericks. Young ones, because teenagers have certain attributes critical to this type of warfare. So now we, too, have young people on the front lines, young people playing a critical role in the war effort.”

“Young people like Elliot Ramirez,” Tom pointed out.

In other words, young people who were promising, talented, go-getters. Young people who were nothing like him.

“That’s right,” the general said, undaunted. “Elliot has a particular set of strengths he brought to our forces. Charisma, charm, and he’s an excellent figure skater.”

Tom snorted. He couldn’t help it, picturing the heroic warrior, Elliot Ramirez, in a sparkly unitard.

Marsh’s eyes narrowed. “Make fun all you like, young man, but that kid has golden DNA. He’d have been something spectacular wherever he went. If he hadn’t ended up with us, Ramirez would be competing in the Olympics. For us, it’s the potential that counts. We look for people who are promising, those who can deploy effective strategies against the Russo-Chinese Combatants. We can train our recruits, we can make them better than they ever imagined, but potential? It’s the single quality we can’t create. Ramirez brought something unique to the table. And we’re hoping you can as well.”

That sense of disbelief crept over Tom. This couldn’t be happening.

“Do you need to see proof, Tom?”

“Yes,” Tom answered at once.

“How about I show you a Challenge Coin?” Marsh slipped out a coin from his pocket. “Members of the Air Force—”

“Show this to each other to prove they’re military. I know. I’ve played about a million military sims.” Tom snatched the coin and turned it over in his hands, seeing the Air Force insignia, on the back.

Marsh took it back from him and pressed his fingertip over the logo. “Brigadier General Terry Marsh, United States Air Force,” the old man said. The coin’s surface flashed green, verifying his voiceprint, his identity, his fingerprint, and DNA all at once.

Tom looked at Marsh’s stubby fingertips, coin clenched between them, trying to figure out ways someone could fake Air Force technology. The very idea this general guy might be here for him was so incredible, he couldn’t get his head around it.

“Does that pass your inspection?” Marsh asked him, waving the coin in two fingers.

Tom stared at it, then dragged his gaze up to Marsh’s. “You’re really here for me? You think
I
could be a Combatant?”

“It’s a great opportunity, son. We give trainees an education in strategic theory, and if they’re good, we give them a chance to be the Combatants who direct our mechanized intrasolar arsenal. In cases like yours, the cognitive skills and reflexes fostered by these gaming simulations prime you perfectly for operating combat machines.”

“That’s why you picked me? Because I’m good at games?”

“Because you show a killer instinct in them.”

Tom thought suddenly of Ms. Falmouth. Her words rang in his brain:
What are you good for?

For this, apparently. For saving the country just like Elliot Ramirez.

“Your quick victory in that test scenario?” Marsh went on. “That’s my icing on the cake, so to speak. It confirmed everything I suspected. You’d be perfect for us.”

Tom closed his eyes and opened them, expecting this to be some glorious dream. But Marsh was there, the VR parlor was real.

Marsh gave a crisp nod at something he saw on his face. “That’s right, son. Your country needs you at the Pentagonal Spire. The question is, are you man enough to win a war for us?”

“N
OT A CHANCE
,” Neil said.

Tom sat on the edge of his bed in their hotel room. Neil nursed a drink, since, as he always liked to say, a good screwdriver was the only reliable hangover cure he knew. The very mention of Tom’s encounter with General Marsh made every line stand out on his face.

BOOK: Insignia
11.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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