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.
The downdraft from the aircraft’s engines sends plumes of mist trailing behind us as we skim the surface of the ocean. The air is salty and wet on my tongue, a welcome change from the arid air on Chelgul. I check my rifle and the ammunition pouches on my vest; our equipment is all brand new and allows us to carry almost twice as much weaponry as before. Not to mention our slimmed up mech suits. It hardly feels like wearing a suit at all.
“Safeties off. Three minutes out,” our lieutenant orders over the communication link.
I think back to the letter I received a few days prior and imagine myself giving out the orders, not just as an unofficially appointed squad leader, but as a real officer with weighted commands. It’s appealing the more I think of it, but I mentally check myself and remind myself of why I hesitated to accept in the first place.
The others in the aircraft fiddle with their weapons while I look out the open side door at the line of transports flying in echelon across the sky. There are hundreds of them, all packed with a dozen soldiers each.
This is always my favorite part. The beginning of a mission. No one has any idea what to expect, with all the unknowns and variables.
The aircraft shudders violently and a thick black haze fills my vision. Shrapnel tears at the sides, shredding sections to ribbons as if they’re made of cheese.
“Micah’s gone!” Phoebe shouts.
I pull myself in quickly and look over at Micah, who has a large piece of steel sticking out of his chest.
“He’s fine. It won’t hurt his standing,” I reply.
“Nah, just his pride."
“Strap up! I want the rest of us in as long as possible!” I order urgently.
Several more mortars detonate next to us as I fasten my harness, peppering our neighbors with molten metal. I watch as two, then three, then four aircraft drop to the ocean in flames, gutted by the flak being thrown from shore.
An eerie feeling washes over me. This is unusual. Typically no one gets killed before the first few minutes, at least not until the battle starts.
“Our landing zone’s pretty hot, guys! You’ll have to jump without a stop!” the pilot calls out. “On my mark…”
I watch as the ocean disappears beneath us and dry land materializes, the fields of tropical grass and greenery coming up to meet us at an alarming speed. I unbuckle myself and move to the edge of the doorway.
I jump from the aircraft onto moving ground and roll forward to dampen the impact. Before I have the chance to take my bearings, I feel a smack on my side and watch a trail of bullets eat the grass beside me.
“Down! Down!” I yell to my squad. I’m lucky this time—the armor having taken the brunt of the impact—but the blanket of bullets is so thick that it’s almost impossible to stick one’s head up without getting a haircut.
I do a quick survey as gunfire washes overhead. Target markers appear on my display, but there are so many that it’s pointless to try to pick out any individual. The rest of my squad is beside me, crouched inside a thick lane of grass between the beach and a humble-sized town. Unlike an ordinary town, however, this one is fortified with bunkers and anti-air cannons. Missile launchers decorate the numerous roofs and alleyways; even now, a wave of enemy missiles is being launched from the city to intercept the second wave of our aircraft.
“Team, we can’t stay here forever!” the lieutenant calls out, her tone thick with controlled anxiety. “Don’t forget, this is a liberation mission. This planet used to be ours, but it was taken over by the Federal States of New Damascus. Minimize collateral damage! But keep that main objective as your priority.”
“Copy. Cobras ready!” I reply.
“Wyverns in position!”
“Alright, Cobras, you take point. Wolfpack, along the right flank down the embankment. Take the far side of that hill. Knights, you’re on me. We’ll take the underside of the pier to the left. Wyverns, cover our rear and back us up. Move out!”
I low crawl forward, then raise my head carefully over the top of the grass and place my rifle on a small mound of dirt. After adjusting my scope to the proper distance, I peer through and locate some of the closer targets. With a gentle press on the trigger, the rifle bucks against my shoulder, but it’s difficult to see if any of my shots find their target. We’ll have to get closer.
“Cobras, let’s go!” I order.
My squad moves forward hesitantly, keeping their heads just barely above the grass line. Shouting interjects the chorus of explosions and cannon fire as others in the platoon are hit by enemy fire, but I tune them out, keeping my attention on the field of red target markers and on a large orange objective marker that appeared inside the city while the lieutenant was talking.
Mortar strikes meters to our right, spraying the area with shrapnel, and my ears begin to pound with ringing. The smell of explosives tickles my nose—one of my favorite smells, actually—and I check to make sure that I’m still in one piece.
“Alpha left! Bravo right! Move quicker!”
Flecks of light flash ahead as the enemy fires a continuous wave of bullets at us.
“Collin’s down!” Logan shouts.
This is way harder than anything I’ve seen before. This is crazy.
AGILE aircraft rocket overhead and bomb the zone in front of us, sending orange-black plumes of smoke billowing high into the air, but still the gunfire continues, unaffected.
“Squad leaders, designate targets for Hammerhead missiles!” the lieutenant barks. “Fleet’s launching in thirty seconds!”
“Darren, see the bunkers?” I say.
Darren just barely raises his laser scope when his head jerks back, and he drops to the ground.
I curse silently and crawl over to where Darren’s body is sprawled across the dirt. We’re down three now. In spite of the situation, I can’t help but wonder how this is going to reflect on my record, especially having just received a commission offer. I think about it, though; whole squads were shot down before even making it to shore. Maybe the score will even out in the end? I can only hope.
I fight the grass in my face and grab the laser sight from Darren’s lifeless form.
“Phoebe, give me a twenty degree spread!” I command and throw my rifle behind my back.
There’s a rapid thunk, thunk, thunk, as a chain of grenades leaves Phoebe’s launcher, followed by the pounding of explosives detonating downrange. I use the temporary break in enemy gunfire to peek up over the grass and train the laser sight on the bunker closest to us.
Each second seems to pass like an hour as I wait for the fleet’s response. Has it been thirty seconds yet? I wonder restlessly, watching as the enemy quickly regains the courage to emerge from cover. I take notice of their armor; it’s nothing like what I’ve seen on rebels from our past battles. Their armor is new and well engineered, like they were expecting us.
A screech sounds overhead, and a series of missiles collides with the bunkers, blasting them to bits and sending chunks of concrete flying in every direction. A wave of heat washes over us, and I’m forced to lower my face to the ground.
“Cobras, move forward!” the lieutenant orders. “Keep low. Stay cautious. Don’t lose track of those target markers!”
My squad—or what’s left of it—slips carefully out of the brush and into the open patch between us and the borders of the city. Smoke pours from dozens of craters where the bunkers were only moments before.
“We got more rebels up th…” Hunter begins before he flies backwards, a gaping wound in his stomach.
Bullets peck the dirt as we run for cover, which in my case is the carcass of an enemy tank. Flames lick the side of my face from the still burning fuel covering its armor.
There’s no time for hesitation. We’re too exposed to wait around; it won’t be long before mortar or artillery blasts us away.
After loading a fresh magazine into my rifle, I stand up and aim at the nearest target marker, but before I can pull the trigger, a line of bullets eats its way in my direction and strikes me once, then twice in the chest.
I collapse backwards, the world moving around me in slow motion. The scene fades from view before I can reach the ground, and I find myself in an ethereal waiting space.
I can’t believe it. I curse and throw my rifle, which skids away and disappears into the blue mist surrounding me. It’s been more than a year since the last time I died. This whole mission has been a disaster since the beginning.
I pull up a display and look at the live feed of the battle. My squad isn’t doing well. There are only four of them left, and judging from how the rest of the platoon is performing, it won’t be long before they’re killed off too.
The enemy is winning. That’s new. No matter how bad we are individually, there’s always some sort of deus ex machina that saves the overall mission. But this one seems to be collapsing into one hell of a dumpster fire.
The display suddenly disappears, and I find myself in a cockpit. I’m in a flight suit and have a full-face helmet sealed on my head. This is a Mustang, I recognize—a space fighter. I look out the canopy and see that I’m locked onto the hull of a warship in line with a dozen other fighters.
Bonus mission unlocked! a banner announces across my vision. New objective: defend Earth.
“What in the hell…”
“Hey Serge, you there?” comes Micah’s voice over my headset.
“Yeah, man. Where you at?”
“I think I’m next to you.”
I turn to the side and, sure enough, the Mustang next to me has CPL MICAH “BOOMER” PERRIS printed in bold, black letters on its side underneath a tinted canopy.
“Guys, this is weird,” Buck announces with his usual gravelly, amused tone. “We must have really screwed the pooch bad. They stuck us in space.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Micah replies. “And I’ve been playing a long time.”
“Always manage to slip that fact in, huh?” Myla spits in annoyance.
“Hey, just because you got shot in the first five seconds…” Galen begins.
“How am I the target here?” Micah says defensively. “Hey Galen, Galen. Are you even still above the threshold after wiping out just now?”
“For your information, I didn’t even…”
“Guys, shut up. Look,” I point out.
Our carrier is in the process of joining a group of destroyers, and it rotates until Earth is in full view above us.
It’s beautiful—the Earth—with its turquoise ocean covered by scattered flecks of clouds arranged in patterns only nature’s improbability can produce. Lights speckle the dark side where the cities are, and long, thin strands highlight the super highways that are the lifeblood of our civilization. I can’t even imagine the level of design that went into creating this much detail.
Target markers suddenly appear between us and the Moon. I increase the magnification on my display, and, sure enough, a clump of foreign looking warships appear, locked into an orbital trajectory with Earth.
It takes me a second to remember the controls for a spacecraft, but I manage to disengage myself from the hull of the carrier without wrecking anything important.
“You guys seeing that?” I ask as I adjust my trajectory by firing maneuvering thrusters.
“The cruisers? How can you miss them?” Micah responds.
“Alright! Something fun for once! Let’s hose ‘em,” Myla calls out enthusiastically.
I break from the orbital path of the AGILE destroyers and direct my Mustang toward the enemy cruisers.
“Hold up though. Let’s think this through so we don’t get smoked again,” I reason as the rest of my squad joins me. “Who are we missing?”
One by one they report in, all except for Logan and Phoebe. They’re probably still back in the ground battle.
“Okay, looks like we got some help,” I point out, gesturing to nearly three dozen other Mustangs pulling up alongside us, “but we’re still no match for cruisers without any bombers. Out only hope to win this is if we lure them in close enough for the destroyers to do their job.”
“That’ll put them way too close to Earth, don’t you think?” Micah mentions.
“We’ll drag it out so the destroyers have time to break into a higher orbit.”
“Let’s get going. I feel weird just sitting here,” Myla grumbles.
“We’re going. Keep an eye on your orbital path. We aren’t flying planes. Space is different.”
“Roger. See yah!”
Myla’s Mustang shoots off in front of us, her main thrusters glowing a bright blue. Everyone else follows suit and guides their ships into attack formations alongside her.
I release the safety on my weapons and grip the thrusters tight. There’s something making me feel anxious. I can’t put my finger on it, but something just doesn’t feel right.
“Serge, fighters!” Micah announces.
I look up beyond the line of Mustangs and find dozens of small silver specks emerging from behind the cruisers.
“Dang, that can’t be good,” Galen says.
“Make sure your weapons are active. I want us barrels hot as soon as they’re in range.”
“That’s more like it!” Myla says enthusiastically, her smile evident in her tone.
Hundreds of flashing red triangles suddenly appear on my display accompanied by a piercing alarm.
“I see them.”
“In range! In range!”
I squeeze the trigger on my controls and watch as an arsenal of missiles erupt from my Mustang with a jolt.
“Enemy missiles closing!”
Some of the incoming missiles detonate as the Mustangs target them with defensive lasers, but their efforts seem largely fruitless. Moments later, the vast majority of the projectiles smash into our formation, instantly vaporizing a third of the fighters in a soundless explosion.
I somehow manage to evade the first round of projectiles, but the enemy fighters reach us before I can grab a breath, and then the dogfighting begins.
I maneuver through the mess of fighters, keeping my eyes on the cruisers to make sure they stay along the outskirts of the battle. We’ll have to draw the fighting out if we want the destroyers’ help. I run through calculations in my mind and ram my throttle from side to side to get my Mustang into just the right offensive trajectories.
“Cobra leader, this is Gripen 3. We’ve only got two left. Permission to attach to your flight.”
“Granted. Take rear guard.”
I watch as the cruisers edge closer to Earth, their orbital path still tracking just beyond the AGILE destroyers’ range. They’re so close now I can see the details of their smoothly crafted hulls, all with the letters FSND printed boldly on their noses.
A horrifying flash of light breaks my train of thought, and I turn my head to see two dozen missiles launch from the cruisers, each almost twice the size of a Mustang. I watch helplessly as they press past the dogfight and on towards Earth, leaving nothing behind but a white trail of light.
Are we going to lose again? I think helplessly to myself. What kind of bonus is this? How can we possibly be expected to win? Or even stay alive for that matter?
The AGILE warships double their burn to intercept the missiles; a destroyer catches the attention of one missile, which winds its way in a confused path before slamming into the side of the ship, ripping through the entire front half in a blinding blast of light. The rest of the projectiles continue on, unchallenged, and disappear into the atmosphere.
One by one, the missiles crash into Earth’s surface, releasing enough energy to be seen even from our distant orbit. Clouds seem to flee the impact as shock waves rebound across the atmosphere, shoving the wisps aside like debris in the wake of a boat.
Screaming fills my ears, and I throw my hands up to my head to fiddle with the earpiece inside my helmet.
“Hey, was that a Cobra?” I ask.
“What are you talking ‘bout, Serge?” Buck replies, his tone strained in concentration. The screaming comes again, and this time I’m too busy dodging a trail of gunfire to adjust my headset.
“That screaming! Can we shut that down?”
“Serge, no one’s screaming. Though I sympathize,” Myla responds.
“I’ve got a jacked up channel,” I grumble, and use one hand to adjust my receiver, while the other pulls the Mustang into a backwards facing turn. “I may have to change our freq—”
“Brett, get up! Get up!”
My ship jolts to the side.
“Serge, you’re breaking up!”
I feel something press against my sides and the ship jolts again.
My eyes suddenly open, and I see Kira standing over me with tears rolling down her face, my neural networker crumpled up in her hands. I gasp at the sudden sensory overload and lean over the side of my bed to throw up.
“Kira, what the hell?”
“Brett, look!” she sobs, and she drags me over to the window.
I pull myself up from being hunched over and stare out at the downtown district of Los Angeles. Many of the iconic skyscrapers are missing, and thick black smoke billows up into the air. Even as we watch, a missile thunders down from above and collides with one of the regional skyports, sending a loud booming pulsing through the air.
I turn to the side and throw up again.