In the far future, Earth has abandoned large scale warfare in favor of the tenuous peace found inside Paradigm: a global, massive multiplayer online virtual reality environment. Neighbors, coworker, even friends from the other side of the world all compete in a unified campaign built to satisfy humanity's thirst for blood.
Brett leads one of the most elite teams within Paradigm, but when he gets an offer to join the ranks of the developers' leadership, he discovers a dark secret that flips the whole world upside down.
“Back up! Hey, back up!”
My squad scrambles to get out of the way as twelve stories of steel and concrete lean ominously to one side with a chest-clenching screech. Seconds later, the foundation gives way and the residential tower crumbles in a cloud of debris, shaking the ground perilously beneath our feet. Tracers fly through the smoke and bite the ground in front of us as we scramble for cover.
Sand and dirt splash over my head as a tank skids out from behind a dune and rushes toward the gap where the tower once stood. Before the tank can make it halfway, a rocket screams out from the haze and smashes into its side, incinerating it in a horrible plume of flame.
“Sergeant, the right side is open!”
“Copy. Logan, stay here with Phoebs, Galen, and Collin. Hunter, your team’s with me,” I order.
“Galen, your right leg’s venting,” Logan points out.
“I know. I can’t move.”
“Need us to drag you back?” I ask Galen as I replace the magazine on my rifle.
“I’ll be fine.”
“If they breach, you’ll probably get killed. Will you be fine?”
I take one last look at the fluid draining from Galen’s sleek, form-fitting mech, ignoring the bullets slapping the grassy bank just above my head, then pull myself into a crouch and hurry toward the right side of the now collapsed residential tower.
“Alright, let’s move!”
The designated members of my squad silently follow me down one of the roads to the right of the rubble and slip into an alleyway between an office building and a shopping center, keeping low all the while to avoid the blanket of bullets and flak from mortar strikes.
The city looks tired and worn, and almost every building has portions missing from weeks of constant battery by AGILE forces, but today is the projected campaign end and there’s electricity in the air. Campaign ends mean medals and promotions. They mean team recognitions. Most importantly, they mean the promise of a brand new campaign.
I turn the corner, with the rest of my team following right behind, and find two dozen rebel soldiers bunkered down behind makeshift barriers composed of scrapped vehicles, sheet metal, and other bits of rubble dragged from the collapsed buildings. Light flashes from the muzzles of the rebels’ rifles as they fire blindly into the haze. Their faces are dirty; many are bandaged and almost all of them lack real armor. In the center of their defenses is a large anti-air cannon marked by a bright orange objective tag.
Can it really be this easy? I think. I almost feel pity for the sorry looking rebels, their faces filled with urgency and panic. With fear.
I gesture to my team and we spread out along the road, hidden from view by the thick haze. Red target markers appear over the rebels, and I train my sights on one of them.
“Steady,” I caution my team as I take a place behind a broken and burned tree. The rebels still seem oblivious to our presence on their flank.
“Lined up,” Hunter announces.
“Good here,” Buck, our gunner, chimes in.
“Good,” says Darren, our marksman.
I take one last deep breath in and exhale slowly.
Eight rebels fall instantly, dead before they hit the ground, and within moments, the team picks off the rest of the survivors.
The gunfire stops, and I release my grip on my rifle. I wipe my hands on my pants, now keenly aware of how sweaty my palms are. It’s been months since I’ve come that close to losing a squad member.
“Galen, you still there?” I call out, my heart beating strongly against my armor.
“Most of me,” Galen answers. “Enough to cross the finish line.”
I sigh out of relief and notice my surroundings for the first time. We’re in a municipal park at the center of a large roundabout, and in the middle of the park is a fountain made of marble, though a large section of it has been blown away, allowing water to spill freely over the edge. The entire area has a broken beauty to it, like a freshly bloomed flower that’s been crushed.
“Anyone else over there hurt?”
“The others are completely fine, of course,” Galen answers.
“It’s always you, isn’t it?” Buck snickers. Several of the others laugh.
“I have a long torso, people.”
“Hey, look up!” Hunter calls out suddenly.
About two thousand feet above us are a half dozen bombers, all with their bomb bay doors open showcasing an arsenal of ammunition. Their engines give off no exhaust, and had Hunter not pointed them out, they probably would have slipped silently past, unnoticed. The stealthy bombers carry the most lethal weapons AGILE has and are capable of bringing any resistance to their knees, but they’re also incredibly expensive and require all threats to their safety to be cleared before arrival.
I watch eagerly as the bombers pass overhead and release their arsenal of missiles with a roar. The missiles scream across the sky toward an array of skyscrapers to the east—the downtown area of the desert city of Chelgul. It’s the last city on the planet to fall to AGILE, and has put up more resistance than any other city we’ve faced, or at least for as long as I’ve been a member. It’s relieving to see the projectiles meet their targets in a brilliant eruption of orange and black, sending shattered glass and liquified metal blasting outwards in shockwaves.
Cheers ring out across the global network as one by one the massive towers collapse, sending shudders rippling through the ground.
A panel appears in my display titled Objectives, and a green line strikes through the words
“Alright, see you guys in the foyer,” Galen says. Moments later his location dot disappears along with the dots belonging to Collin, Phoebe, and Logan. A green objective triangle pops up on my display, and I follow it to the other side of the park where a transport is in the process of landing.
I push through the swirling exhaust and advance up the open back hatch, covering my face from the debris whipping around me. Once inside, I find a seat along the wall and wait as the rest of my team follows shortly after and fills the remaining seats. The objective panel appears again and clears the final objective, leaving only a large banner reading Mission Complete.
The ramp closes with a mechanical whine, and we lift off. I swipe the notifications off of my display and look out the window at the smoking remnants of Chelgul passing beneath us. Chelgul was a shining oasis on a desert planet before the assault, with parks, impressive gems of architecture, and azure lakes. But now it’s nothing more than a shadow of what it used to be. It’s a shame, I muse, that the rebels used this place as a shield. It’s worth preserving.
But it’s not like any of this is real anyways.
I turn away from the window and watch as the scene fades from view; the aircraft interior turns into our squad room, with a long conference table in the center, shelves along the side displaying our achievements, and walls covered in banners and our unit’s flag. My team members’ sleek metallic combat exosuits—with the trademark stylized white star on the chest and the letters A.G.I.L.E. beside it—disappear to reveal each individual’s true form.
Seated across from me is Myla, a light-haired girl from Glasgow, and probably the most lethal member of our squad. Next to her is Micah, who—along with Phoebe—makes up the grenadier component of our squad. Micah is probably the most skilled out of anyone on the team, and he knows it too.
“Hey, Brett. Look,” Galen says, appearing beside me with a display in his hand. I take it from him and look it over. “The points. Look at the points.”
“14,080? That’s it? After a campaign end? Dude, how close were you to phasing back?” I ask incredulously.
“You don’t want to know,” Galen responds with a chuckle. Galen’s a lighthearted, secondary school-aged kid from South Africa, who somehow manages to maintain campaign readiness despite his usual reckless tactics.
“Man, you gotta be careful,” I say, laughing as I watch a replay of Galen getting blown upside down by a false resupply stash. “Remember how long it took Buck to get out of recycling?”
“Yeah, that sucked,” Buck interjects, keeping his gaze trained on his display as he scrolls through his stats. “I was fighting seven-year-olds in PvPs for like a month.”
“How long did those last?”
“With my rifle? I got through like two a minute.”
Buck—Able Buckner as he refuses to be called—is a wrestling coach from Ankara, and by far the strongest of our group, with a boxy head and a chest the size of a lion’s. He’s also the oldest of the group, but only joined Paradigm—the international virtual gaming world designed by the Associated Group of Integrated Liberation Enterprises—a few years ago. He joined our team as a fresh recruit—one of the quickest to get out of the Bottom Half—but got recycled into pre-campaign readiness matches after losing half his game points stepping on a mine during his first mission.
“Where are you at now, Brett?” Galen asks me.
“I haven’t checked yet. One sec.”
I gesture for a display to appear and pull up my statistics with a list of achievements and awards I’ve won.
“56,000! Jeez. You doing side missions?” Galen asks in awe over my shoulder.
“No, I just actually hit what I shoot at,” I throw back. I’m actually surprised, if I’m being honest with myself. It’s the largest jump in points I’ve ever had.
I look over to where my rank is displayed and note with some disappointment that I’m still a staff sergeant. Ranks aren’t directly tied to points, but still, most people make first class around 55,000.
“So, how are we celebrating, guys?” Buck asks.
“Drinks!” Myla calls out enthusiastically.
“Well, yeah. But where?”
“There’s a place in Tokyo,” Myla suggests. “It’s in the old Toshima district. They have a big Global office there, so there’s a nice variety from all over. Strong stuff too, because they have those loose liquor laws over there.”
“I’m good with that,” I say.
“Think Phoebe can handle the strong stuff?” Galen snickers. “She’s so small, she’ll probably wipe out after the first shot.”
“Watch, she’ll drink the most out of all of us,” Buck says.
“Mmhmm,” Phoebe responds with a smile. Everyone in the room laughs. Phoebe is, in fact, the smallest of our crew, and never speaks all that much, at least not until she loosens up with a few shots.
“Hey, I gotta head out. Are we good with Tokyo, then?” Darren asks.
“Sounds good to me,” Micah confirms. “Meet at 10, Tokyo time?”
The rest of the team voices their agreement.
“Alright, I’m out,” Darren announces. “See you all in a bit!”
One by one the team members leave, their images fading from the room, until finally I’m the last one left. I sigh and lean back in my chair, then pull up my record and look at the sergeant stripes next to my name.
“Ah, whatever,” I grumble to myself, and I’m about to close the display when I notice a message in my inbox. No one ever uses the messaging system inside the game itself, so I find it odd. Normally team members know each other’s contact information in the real world.
I open the message and begin reading:
MEMORANDUM FOR: SSgt Brett McArthur
FROM: HQ AGILE/FTC
100 World Way
Ft. London, Palisade, ROC
SUBJECT: Officer Training Academy (OTA) Admission
1. This memorandum is to bear record that the addressed individual has been reviewed, assessed, and deemed qualified for accession to Second Lieutenant in the armed forces of the Associated Group of Integrated Liberation Enterprises (AGILE).
2. The Player addressed is hereby offered a position at AGILE OTA class 40-01, with a reporting date of 14 July 2440 and a projected graduation date of 20 September 2440.
3. Further information concerning training can be found on the official network page of AGILE Force Training Command (AFTC). Please contact your local AGILE representative with any questions.
4. Upon completion of OTA, Players receive payment according to the Global Accreditation Payment Schedule at a level of GO-006.
5. The Player addressed should respond to this memorandum in writing NLT seven (7) days from notification. Failure to respond will result in the nullification of all offers and resumption of current game status.
Jaytham N. Hubert II, Colonel - Commander, AGILE Accessions Council
I close the message and stare at the wall, stunned.
There are very few officers in the game, and I always assumed they were AGILE employees. At first glance it sounds like a pretty awesome job—getting paid to live in the Paradigm world. Now that I think about it, though, it means I would have to give up my team of friends and spend most of my free time inside the network, something I’m not sure I’m ready to do.
Still, Global Officer schedule six is a whole lot more money than what I’m getting paid now, not to mention it means I could finally leave my analytics job at the university. I honestly couldn’t stand studying analytics my whole academic career, and I certainly can’t stand doing it now as a profession. But Aptitude tests are the foundation of a progressive society, or whatever garbage they’re saying nowadays.
I put aside the display. I’ll have to think about it later; I have to get ready for Tokyo.