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Authors: S. J. Kincaid

Insignia (6 page)

BOOK: Insignia
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He opened the door to reveal a vast, dark chamber. Tom’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, and then he saw them: a group of a dozen or so teenagers stretched out on cots in a ring, eyes closed.

Tom was thrown by their zombielike silence, by their stillness, by the EKG monitors with jagged lines registering their heart rhythms. What were they even doing? Marsh called it a simulation, but he didn’t see any VR visors or gloves or even one of the old-fashioned sensor bars. No one was gesturing or waving. No one was moving at all, in fact. They looked more like they were patients in some coma ward.

General Marsh gestured for him to come back out of the room. “Those are plebes,” he told Tom in the hallway. “They’re running a group scrimmage. Before they get into advanced tactical training, plebes are drilled in teamwork exercises. They’re also acclimated to the neural processors in their brains interfacing with something other than their own bodies.”

It took Tom a few seconds to comprehend the words:
neural processors … in their brains …

He stopped walking. “Wait, what?” He swung around to look at the two adults. “What do you mean, processors
in their brains
?”

Neither Marsh nor Olivia reacted. It was as if they’d both expected this.

Marsh said, “To become a trainee here, Mr. Raines, you have to have a neural processor installed in your head. It’s a very sophisticated computer that interacts directly with your brain. You’re still human afterward, just something extra as well.”

Olivia’s hand squeezed his shoulder. Tom pulled away from it. “You didn’t say anything about—” he began.

“What did you think, son?” General Marsh raised his thin eyebrows. “Our Combatants control machines, and they fight machines. You’ve got quick synapses yourself. But your brain isn’t machine fast. Not yet. Those kids in there? Their brains are.”

Tom understood the zombielike stillness of those kids: the computers were inside their heads. The simulation they were using to train was running inside the computers that were inside their brains.

“All the trainees undergo the procedure, Tom. It’s safe.” Marsh’s eyes riveted to Tom’s forehead. “What you teenagers have in great supply—and we adults do not—is neural elasticity. Your brain’s adaptable. Adults and neural processors don’t go together. We tried it, and it turned ugly. Adult brains couldn’t adjust to the new hardware. So we use teenagers. By virtue of your youth, your brains are primed for enhancement. The fact is, you can’t control Indo-American combat machines in space if you can’t interface with them. To become a Combatant, you need to cross some of that distance between human and computer yourself.”

Tom gaped at him. “So all of the trainees here, and those combatants on the news, have all got these neural processors? Even
Elliot Ramirez
has a computer in his brain?”

“That’s right. Even Elliot has one.”

“What about the Russo-Chinese Combatants?”

“They have them, too. This is top secret information. The public doesn’t know this, but it’s the key to everything. This is how the war’s fought. Combatants use the neural processors to interface with the unmanned drones in space, to control them, and wage battle against the drones controlled by the neural processors of Russo-Chinese Combatants.”

Tom looked back and forth between the general and the social worker. He remembered that expression on Olivia’s face a few minutes ago when Marsh talked about showing him the training room, and his thoughts dwelled upon it. She’d expected his reaction. They’d both expected it.
This
was the catch. And they’d just decided to ambush him with it.

He found himself thinking of Neil and the way he said Elliot Ramirez wasn’t a real human. His dad had been right. Elliot was part computer.

Tom regarded them warily. “Does it change people?”

“No,” General Marsh said.

Olivia cleared her throat.

“Somewhat,” Marsh amended. “But little changes. Undetectable to you. You’re still
you
in every important sense of the word. Your frontal lobe, your limbic system, and your hippocampus are all intact.” At Tom’s blank look, he elaborated, “We don’t alter your thought process, emotions, or memories. We don’t change the essence of who you are. That would be a human rights violation. But once we install some hardware in your head, you’ll think faster. You’ll be one of the smartest human beings alive.”

“And, Tom, if you have doubts, you can decline,” Olivia added.

Marsh gave a crisp nod. “That’s right, son. Give me the word, and we’ll have you back at the Dusty Squanto with your old man. You signed a confidentiality agreement on the plane, and we’ll hold you to keeping what you’ve seen here to yourself, but I don’t think that will be hard for you. What’s important is, you come into this with your eyes wide-open.”

Tom couldn’t speak for a long while. His dad’s words returned to him, unbidden:
You know how the military treats its people, Tom? They chew them up and spit them out, that’s how. You’re just another piece of equipment to them
.

Equipment. A computer was a piece of equipment. He would
be
equipment.

“That’s the only way I can do this?” Tom blurted.

“The only way. Without the neural processor, you’re useless to us.”

And Marsh had waited until now, after Tom had turned on his father, pressured him into signing the consent form, flown across the country, and gotten his hopes up so high he’d been soaring in the stratosphere, to drop this bomb. It was manipulative. Tom didn’t need some computer in his head to see that. If there was one thing he hated, it was feeling like a chump.

“Maybe this isn’t for me.” Tom watched Marsh’s face as he spoke, relishing the shock that washed over the old features. The general thought he’d hooked him. Thought he would feel he had no choice anymore. He felt a surge of vindictive satisfaction at proving him wrong.

“Well, son. That’s unexpected. That’s, well …” Marsh seemed to be fumbling for something to say.

“He’s made his decision,” Olivia said, triumph in her voice. “Take him home, Terry.”

The words sent panic skittering through Tom, because he wanted this life at the Pentagonal Spire. He wanted it ferociously. But he couldn’t just be some chump tricked into it. He’d never forgive himself. He’d rather gouge out his own eyes than let Marsh get away with manipulating him.

Marsh studied him for a long, tense moment. Then he said, “I’ll tell you what, Tom, how about I give you some time to think it over?”

Tom could have laughed. He’d bluffed and won. He’d forced Marsh to give in a bit. The tension eased in his muscles. He hadn’t let the general totally snow him. “Fine. I’ll think.”

Marsh seemed to relax, too. He held out a shiny black keycard, his watery eyes searching Tom’s face, trying to gauge how serious he was about resisting the idea of joining up. “Ms. Ossare, why don’t you escort Tom down to the mess hall? There are some meal points on this card. Have a bite to eat. On me. When you feel ready to make your decision, click on the pager.”

Tom glanced at the keycard and turned it in his hand for effect. “And if I say no, I get to leave?”

“Yes, Raines.” Marsh’s voice grew gruff.

“He’s legally obligated to allow it,” Olivia added.

Tom raised his eyes to hers and returned her smile with a quick one of his own. “Fine. I hope there are a lot of credits on this. I’m starved.”

Marsh’s look of irritation made it all the better.

T
OM SETTLED AT
a table in the mess hall directly beneath a row of screens in sleep mode and a large oil painting of a man with a plaque that proclaimed him General George S. Patton. He stared up at the gruff face of the general, an empty meal tray sitting on the tabletop before him. He didn’t actually feel like taking it over to the serving line and grabbing food. His head began to ache. He found himself wishing his dad was around.

Then again, if Neil had been there when General Marsh pulled that Oh-I-forgot-to-mention-the-computer-in-your-head-earlier thing, he would’ve exploded. Maybe punched him. And that wouldn’t have helped anything.

Tom scrubbed a hand through his hair. What was the matter with him? He couldn’t turn this down. And he shouldn’t take it personally. Marsh probably had some standard military recruitment playbook: get the kids away from their parents, get them to the Spire, get their hopes up, and then spring the big surprise-brain-surgery thing.

He held up the keycard and idly turned it back and forth, watching it glint in the light. Knowing he was being manipulated didn’t make him feel any better about it.

“If you’re not going to use those meal credits, can I?”

The voice startled him. Tom’s gaze jolted. It took him a long moment to remember the English language and the fact that he was capable of using it.

“So that wasn’t an avatar.”

“Nope.” Heather Akron was impossibly prettier in person, with her dark brown hair escaping its loose ponytail, her yellow-brown eyes like no color he’d seen naturally before. This time, she wore a uniform: camouflage trousers and dark tunic. The bald eagle insignia of the Intrasolar Forces was on her collar, and beneath it were four triangular points stacked on top of one another, like the tips of arrows shooting upward. “Yours isn’t an avatar, either,” she teased.

“No.” It wasn’t so funny this time, knowing she was seeing him up close.

“May I?” She gestured to the keycard.

“It’s the general’s. Go nuts.”

Heather’s eyes twinkled as she took it. “Thanks. I used up my snack allotment for this week on lattes. It’s so bad, but I can’t say no to myself sometimes.”

“You don’t have to. Say no to yourself, I mean. Not about lattes.” He stumbled over the words as she leaned in closer—close enough for her breath to brush his skin.

“How about General Marsh buys us both a drink, Tom?”

“That’s a great idea.” As long as Heather said his name like that while smiling at him like that, he’d agree that jumping in a nuclear reactor was a great idea, too.

Heather winked. “Perfect!” And she swept off to the coffee stand across the mess hall.

He watched her hips sway away and tried to think of witty things to say when she finally returned, even though he knew after that, she’d be gone. Beautiful girls didn’t hang around to talk to short, ugly guys with bad acne.

So he was all the more astonished a few moments later when she lowered herself across the table from him and slid a drink his way, her fingers poking out of the holes of what looked like biker gloves or something. He could see the Intrasolar Forces insignia on her palm, too. He knew what that bald eagle insignia looked like with his eyes closed. He’d seen it on the internet, on the news. He’d never even dared to hope he might get a chance to wear it himself. He knew he was crazy, even hesitating like this.

“I know I should cut back,” Heather lamented, sipping at her drink, “but I’m
such
a caffeine addict. I just love how wired it leaves me.”

“Yeah,” Tom agreed, unsure what he was agreeing with, and took an overlarge gulp of the drink she’d given him. The hot liquid singed his tongue.

“So how about it, Tom? Are you going to be a plebe soon?”

He wasn’t sure how to answer that.

“Oh, but I saw how you handled that tank simulation,” Heather went on. “I bet you won’t be a plebe for long. There are promotions twice a year, and I bet you’ll move quickly to Middle Company. After that, it’s Upper Company, and then, if you can network with the right people and get a corporate sponsor, you’ll join the Combatant group.”

“Camelot Company,” Tom said, awed.

“It’s mostly civilians that use the full name. We’re called CamCo here.”

Tom straightened.
“We?”

“Uh-huh. I’m in CamCo.”

He gaped at her. He’d probably seen her in action, too. Probably seen clips of her on the internet. “What’s your call sign? I bet I’ve heard of you!”

“Well, I’m a newer Combatant, but maybe you have. I go by Enigma.”

Enigma
. He’d seen her! She was sponsored by Wyndham Harks, and he remembered this time on Jupiter’s moon Io … Oh, and that time on Saturn’s moon Titan, when … A half-dozen battles from the last few months flipped through his head. “I can’t believe it,” Tom marveled. “You’re Enigma. You’re one of the best. I remember that time you guys were fighting on Titan, when you—”

Heather laughed, and linked her fingers with his to stop him. The physical contact was something of a shock to Tom, because it was nothing like VR.

“Tom, that’s so sweet of you to say, but this isn’t about me right now. It’s about you. It’s about the choice you’re going to make today.”

“Right. Right.” His attention was riveted to the way her thumb stroked across his knuckles.

“I bet I know why you haven’t signed up yet. You’re freaked out by this, right?” She tapped at her temple, indicating the implanted processor.

“I wouldn’t say ‘freaked out.’ I’m not freaked out.”

Her voice grew softer, her touch still tickling along his skin. “You sure? It’s okay to tell me. I can answer any questions you have.”

And suddenly, Tom knew why
she
just happened to be here, of all possible people in the Pentagonal Spire. He knew.

BOOK: Insignia
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