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.
Kira throws open the door to her room, and I trail close behind her as she hurries in.
“Where’s Red?” I croak, barely able to speak without my stomach churning.
“He went to Alpha’s to grab bread and eggs,” Kira answers, and she slides her closet door to the side. “He’s not answering my calls, so we’ll meet him on the way.”
“On the way where?”
Kira grabs a case from the top shelf of her closet and tosses it on the bed, then opens it to reveal a steel-black assault rifle, accompanied by a half dozen magazines.
“We’ve gotta get out of here. The freeways’ll be jammed by now, and the skyports are being bombed, which means the only way out of Los Angeles is by sea.”
“What do you mean? Where do we go?”
“I have a cousin in Bankshire Flats. It’s in the Central Federation countryside,” she explains and throws me the rifle. “Hold this for a second.”
I stare at the rifle, then back at Kira, who is busy strapping a tactical vest to herself and loading the magazines from a bucket of ammunition.
“Where did you get this? Kira, guns are illegal in the Republic of Colorado.”
“Ah, but not in the Central Federation. Besides, I doubt Regulators will be paying attention to us. They’ve clearly got enough to distract them. And to answer your question, it was my mother’s during the rebellion. Come on. Let’s move.”
Kira exits the room and speeds down the stairs to the kitchen below. She throws me an empty backpack without pausing, then grabs her own backpack and begins filling it with the contents of our cupboard.
“Your mother’s? What side was she on?”
“You get water. We could be at sea for a while, and I’m not sure if the desalinator on my boat still works,” Kira commands, ignoring my question.
“You have a boat?”
“We can chat later, Brett! Get moving!”
I rush to the refrigerator and start piling water bottles into my bag, then return to the dining table and zip it up with trembling hands. All of this feels real enough, but then again, so does everything in Paradigm.
“Alright, give me that,” Kira orders, grabbing the rifle from me. “I know you play your little game or whatever, but I have real experience with real guns. It’s all different when you’re looking at someone’s eyes. Their real eyes.”
I nod and put the bag on my back. Kira removes one of the magazines from her vest and shoves it into her rifle, then locks a round into the chamber.
“Stay behind me, and don’t stop moving, no matter what. People turn into animals when things go sideways.”
Kira opens the front door without another word and begins jogging westward down the street. Some of our neighbors have already left, but many others are throwing their belongings in their cars, strapping valuables to the top and urging children into the back. I worry someone might notice Kira’s rifle, but most people seem too rushed to notice anything happening outside their small bubble of focus.
I turn to face downtown. It’s glowing against the dark twilight sky, not the usual pale white from office building windows, but orange from flames that lick the air ominously. Smoke spews relentlessly upward, not just from downtown, but from hundreds of other areas all over the city.
“Brett, come on! Move it!”
Kira drags me away from my distraction and pulls me over to her motorcycle.
“Get on,” she commands, and places her hand on the ignition scanner to start the bike’s engine. I obey and take the spot behind her, grabbing the rails beneath me to keep my balance.
“Not so fast. I’ll be taking that,” someone says gruffly, grabbing me forcefully by the shoulder.
Kira whips around, thrusts her rifle under her arm, and shoots the man in the gut. He flies backwards against a parked car and drops to the ground with a blank expression on his face.
Others in the street call out in alarm and turn to stare at the commotion, but then quickly turn back to their hurried preparations.
I look at the man’s eyes and at the blood pooling around his body.
This isn’t a game, I think solemnly as I stare at the man. His eyes looked too real, too filled with desperation. The tone he had isn’t something that can be digitally reproduced, can it?
This can’t be real, though.
Kira speeds off, but I can’t pull my head away.
“Who’s doing his?” I call up to Kira. She places her rifle in a side holster and grips the bike with both hands. “Do you think it’s another rebellion?”
“I would know about it if it was,” Kira shouts back. “Don’t ask how!” she adds, as if reading my mind. The motorcycle roars as we speed in between fleeing cars, which have already begun jamming even the smaller side roads.
I look back at the pillars of smoke and think of the missile I saw strike the skyport. There’s no way rebels have that amount of firepower, but there also hasn’t been any intraglobal conflict for decades. I mean, it’s no secret Colorado isn’t happy with the way Melbourne and the Global Council are tightening local government regulations, and there’s been talk that Colorado’s Representative is in favor of a first strike. Maybe this is a preemptive move by Melbourne?
“Brett, look!” Kira calls out, pointing up at the sky where hundreds of fiery trails are making their way from west to east.
“Another attack?” I yell forward. Kira shakes her head and pushes the bike even faster. I watch the trails of light soar closer, pushing clouds out of their way as they surge groundward.
“Dammit,” Kira grumbles, and we skid to a sudden halt.
Dozens of vehicles are jammed so close together that even the smallest spaces are filled, blocking our way forward. Just ahead of the vehicles is an accident between two public transports and a car; one transport has caught fire, and a panicked looking public worker is urging people off with rapid hand gestures.
“Just cut through the park,” I say impatiently.
Kira revs the engines and pulls us to the side of the road, then jumps the curb and speeds into the public park on our right. Grass flies into the air as the tires peel out, leaving thick divots in the mud behind us.
Just as we reach the far side of the park, an earth shaking boom rips through the air. To our right about a mile off is a large, silver-coated landing craft maneuvering itself to the ground with four thrusters, two on either side, expelling blue-white exhaust. The heat of the ship’s exterior causes the air to shimmer chaotically in its wake, like the sidewalks on a sunny day.
On its nose are the letters FSND.
A memory grazes my mind, like a stone across water, leaving me feeling uneasy and off-balance.
“Grab the rifle,” Kira calls back to me as she gazes nervously at the ship.
“Are you serious?”
“Brett, grab it! You do well in Paradigm, right?”
“Kira, that’s totally different,” I fumble. “You even said so yourself!”
“I know what I said! Look at what’s happening! I need you to grab the rifle!”
“Okay, okay,” I stammer, and I take the rifle from its holster at Kira’s side. It feels heavier in real life, more detailed too; I can feel the individual imperfections in the metal.
“Safety on the right by the trigger. Let me turn it off,” Kira says. She takes one hand off the bike controls and offers her finger back to me. I press the safety up to her index finger and the rifle clicks into active.
I struggle to maintain my seating and simultaneously hold the rifle as we bounce along the poorly paved road, not to mention the effort it takes to keep my eyes open for threats, especially considering I don’t have the battlefield target assistance I usually get in Paradigm. The landing craft has disappeared behind the rows of buildings, but hundreds more craft have appeared, spread out across the city, performing similar maneuvers.
“We’re almost at Alpha’s; try contacting Red,” Kira directs.
I balance the rifle in one hand and use the other to pull up my communications display.
“I’m not getting a response!” I say after several attempts to call him fail.
“Keep trying! We can’t waste time waiting for him!”
I continue my attempts to contact Red, while Kira pushes the bike even harder, guiding us in between abandoned vehicles and through back alley passageways. Several blocks later, we reach an underpass and slip quickly underneath, only to find our path blocked on the other side by two armored troop carriers.
The carriers are a sickly black color with the letters FSND on the front, their smooth, cool exterior broken only by a pair of heavy machine guns on top. We have similar vehicles in Paradigm; they’re serious machines built for quick strikes—built for invasions.
To the left of the blockade is a grocery store, Alpha’s, where several dozen individuals are being led away with their hands on their heads by soldiers in thick, black-matted armor.
I’ve seen that armor before. I’ve seen it today…
A bullet cracks by my head, pulling me rapidly from my thoughts.
With shaking hands, I raise the scope to my face, but fail to keep the image from jostling around. Kira skids to a halt behind a parked vehicle and pulls both of us off the bike and onto the ground. I come to my knees and steady the scope in the direction of Alpha’s.
Five soldiers are making their way cautiously towards us, steadily firing a continuous stream of bullets that smack the body of the vehicle in a symphony of pings.
FSND. The Lieutenant mentioned the Federated States of New Damascus in her brief back in Paradigm. Then there was the ship, the cruiser we were attacking earlier with the same lettering. Can it be possible I’m still in the game? I try using the game’s designated hand gestures to bring up a display, but nothing happens. Maybe there’s something wrong with my headset, or even the game itself?
Pavement flies into our faces as gunfire chips away at the road. I try refocusing the scope, but my forehead has become sweaty, fogging my vision with tiny beads of moisture.
“Move!” Kira grunts.
She takes the rifle from my hands and comes to a squat. After quickly steadying herself, she pulls the trigger lightly, eliciting a chain of pops that sends me rushing to cover my ears.
“Get ready to dash!” she adds between sequences of fire.
Just as Kira is reaching for another magazine on her vest, a hole appears in her side accompanied by a loud thwack. She flies backwards with a surprised yelp.
I move beside her and hurry to press down on her abdomen, which is spilling crimson trails of blood onto the asphalt. I look up to find the soldiers still pressing forward, shouting in a language I don’t recognize. Panic ripples through my veins like ice.
“Hey, can you move?” I stammer, struggling to maintain pressure on her wound.
Kira groans and pushes my hands out of the way, then stumbles precariously to her feet.
I hurry to grab Kira by the armpits, then guide her rapidly off the street into one of the buildings along the side, tracers flashing past us as we run. It all feels strangely like a game, as if I’m still in Paradigm. Am I? My subconscious ignores the possibility that there will be no respawn if I get shot.
Distant shouting follows us as we weave through hallways and courtyards in an erratic pattern. I quickly realize we’re in an apartment complex, and I attempt to open one of the doors to our right. I let out a relieved exhale when it opens on the first try and carry Kira inside, making sure to close and lock the door carefully behind us. Several minutes pass before I’m confident we’ve lost the soldiers.
“Let me down,” Kira moans.
I release her, and she stumbles to her knees alongside a couch. Blood spills out from in between her fingers as she holds one hand to her side and searches around her vest with the other.
“Crap. Are you okay?”
I slide down alongside her, unsure of how to help. Small pools are beginning to gather on the hardwood floor beneath her as blood seeps both from where the bullet entered and also from a larger exit wound on her back.
“I’m not great,” she groans between staggered breaths. “Help cut me loose.”
I unbuckle the straps on her armor and remove it from her body, tossing it unceremoniously to the side.
“No, wait! Brett, the top left pouch. There’s a Chemgraft in there.”
I scramble to where I tossed the vest and fumble to undo the pouch cover. I finally manage, after several tense moments, to remove a thin, white patch wrapped in silvery plastic. Kira’s eyes droop as she pulls herself up to a better seated position.
“Okay, put it on my back. I can’t see the wound.”
“Wait, how? Kira, I don’t know—”
“Hey, breathe. Breathe,” she says, grabbing me by the arm with one hand, while saving the other to guard her wound. “In for four, hold for four, out for four.”
“How can you be so calm right now?”
“Aww, baby. You clearly didn’t grow up in the Outlands,” she says with just a hint of condescension. “Now breathe. You’re going to pass out or something.”
I steady myself and follow Kira’s breathing. She locks her eyes on me and guides me with her breaths.
“Alright, you ready?”
“Okay, now get that thing on me before I pass out.”
I take one more breath, then remove the covering from the Chemgraft and lift her shirt to place it on her back.
“Water. It needs water,” Kira notes calmly.
I hurry to my bag, grab a bottle, and splash the patch with a few shakes. The patch implodes into the wound with a sucking sound and expands into a foamy cushion. Kira gasps softly and pulls away.
“There you go. Now hand me the other one. I’ll get the front. Good job, Brett!”
I hand over the second graft—which she promptly takes and applies to her entry wound—then sigh and slump down next to her. After lowering her shirt gingerly back into place, Kira pulls a couple pills from a pants pocket and pops them into her mouth.
“What are those?” I ask, watching as she drinks from my bottle of water.
“My blood,” she gulps, barely pausing as she empties the rest of the bottle. Her face is pale and tired, but the dressings seem to be keeping her from bleeding out. “Well, crap. Who are these guys?”
“I don’t know,” I muse half-truthfully.
As much as I try to weave an alternate explanation in my mind, I keep drawing myself to the same morbid actuality that there’s nothing simulated or virtual about any of this. The soldiers are real. The FSND is real. AGILE is real.
Suddenly, I feel my stomach lurch as my mind traces the logical paths of my mental tapestry to a fact I haven’t yet considered.
We were fighting the FSND—whoever they are—on our last mission in Paradigm. What if none of that was a simulation? Everything looked real enough, so it’s not that far-fetched to imagine. We launched colonies from Earth centuries ago, but we've long since forgotten them, or at least the public has forgotten them. Could the Federated States of New Damascus be one of those colonies?
What if all of it is real?
I feel like throwing up, a feeling aided by the smell of Kira’s blood in the room. We killed countless numbers of people in mere minutes in Paradigm. I personally killed dozens of people in that last battle alone. Not to mention the killing I’ve done during all my years of gameplay.
Or can I even call it a game anymore?