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.
“Here. Found this in the cupboard,” I say, handing Kira an energy bar. She accepts it and tosses the wrapper to the side.
“How long has it been?” she asks, her voice muffled by her chewing.
“An hour, maybe? I don’t know.”
“Are they still out there?”
I stand and move to the window, pushing the blinds aside to peek furtively out at Alpha’s. There’s no sign of the soldiers, or anyone else for that matter.
“I think it’s all clear.”
There’s a chime from my wrist, and I gesture for my communications display to appear.
I lean over and show my display to Kira. There’s a message from Red.
“Home. Where are you?” I read out loud.
“Crap. He’s got a long way to go if he’s going to catch up with us,” she says, half annoyed, half relieved.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” Kira answers, wincing as she adjusts herself to stand. I put a hand on her shoulder and keep her down.
“Uh huh. I don’t believe you.”
“You’re shot! Don’t be an idiot.”
“An idiot? I’m sorry, how many doctoral theses are you currently working on?”
“And besides, it was in and through. Didn’t even hit anything important.”
“Look,” I begin as I take a seat across from her and cross my legs. “If Red’s all the way back at home, it’ll take him hours to reach us on foot, not to mention it’s already dark. We should camp here for the night. That way you can get some rest and Red can meet us in the morning.”
Kira looks at me with an unconvinced glare, but finally concedes and eases herself back to the floor.
“Well, if we’re staying here, you better go find something more than energy bars to eat, because that was a garbage flavor I just had.”
“Alright, and while I’m doing that, you can tell me all about the Outlands and how you’re a gun wielding rebel, apparently?” I say with a loaded tone and a half-grin. I stand and walk to the kitchen.
Kira sighs and pulls herself onto the couch, ignoring the smears of blood she’s leaving behind.
“I don’t know, Brett.”
“Come on,” I probe, closing my display after messaging Red. “We’ve got hours to go and there’s no way I’ll be able to think of anything else, like, at all. You have a freaking rifle for goodness sake, and you know how to use it!”
“Look, you wouldn’t get it. You’re Coloradan. One of the Major Five. It’s a whole other world in the pawn states.”
“Try me. How different can it be?”
“How? I mean, you have the same rights as we do, same opportunities, same taxes, stuff like going to school in Los Angeles. That’s not a small school, you know.”
“Yeah, that’s because it’s a government program. It’s just so they can look good for the Global Council.”
“What’s so different about the Outlands, then?” I ask honestly.
“There’s a reason the Rebellion happened,” Kira replies resentfully. She grabs a throw pillow and hugs it gingerly against her chest. “The camera always shows the nice parts of the Outlands, the parts Colorado rules directly. The rest of it is ruled by warlords and mobsters. Mainly, though, it’s anarchy. Every town for itself, every family, even. This, what we have here in LA,” she gestures around her emphatically, “a government that actually polices the streets, streets that you can walk down during the daytime, let alone the nighttime? That’s a commodity out there. And every time there’s an attempt to form a real governing body—something to keep the peace—Colorado shuts it down. They send in the Regulators—of course completely untelevised—and they flatten everything in their path.”
“Man, I’m sorry. I just…didn’t know, you know?” I say softly.
“Like I said. You wouldn’t get it. Peace is a luxury. I mean, look at your life. You eat three meals a day.”
“Four, sometimes,” I joke weakly.
“And you don’t even get it! You don’t get that food isn’t a guarantee in sixty percent of the world! Pawn states don’t get that peace of mind, the peace of knowing you don’t have to worry about what to eat next week, the peace of not having to worry about raiders driving you out of your home. You sit in your big houses, with your big yards and luxury vehicles—"
"You have a high opinion of our apartment."
"—driving to food stores that are so numerous and so close by you can walk to one," Kira continues, ignoring me, "and you brush over the fact that you have no clue what happens in the majority of the world. Your peace is like a tranquilizer, a drug, keeping you from paying attention to reality. The peace that came after the War was only for the Major Five. Peace is outlawed everywhere else.”
I don’t know what to say, or what to do. It’s true we never hear much news about the Outlands, or about any of the other pawn states, and I never took thought about why.
“I’m sorry. I went off on you, didn’t I?”
“That’s alright. I get it,” I mumble understandingly. I take a seat next to her and offer her an apple.
“It’s not alright, but I haven’t really been able to talk about it, you know? As soon as you put up a fuss they ship you back to where you’re from.”
“That sucks. I’m sorry Kira.”
Kira shrugs and takes a bite from the apple.
“So, I have a gun, and I know how to use it. And sure, I’m good at keeping it a secret,” she says, the apple stifling her words. “That’s just what you do in the Outlands. And let me tell you, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen transports full of troops rolling through my streets, shooting at people just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m used to this, and not just in the virtual world, in the real one.”
I stare down at my own apple and find my heart beating faster. I’ll have to tell her. It’s not fair to keep my suspicions a secret.
“Hey, Kira. I should tell you something. About the virtual world.”
A loud thumping comes from just outside the window. I lean up from my spot on the couch and carefully draw the blinds back a sliver.
A patrol of four soldiers is marching down the road, closely trailing what looks like some sort of anti-armor drone with four, thick, iron-grey legs and a cannon protruding from the front.
“What is it?” Kira grunts. She turns over and pulls her blanket over her head.
“I don’t know what it is.”
“Can it be shot?” she groans, emerging from the covers with squinted eyes.
Kira gets up from her end of the couch and looks out the window beside me. She’s holding her wound, but she looks considerably better than the day before.
“How are you feeling?” I ask.
“Fine,” she answers, then walks away from the window and into the kitchen. “We should get moving, though. Has Red said anything?”
“He spent the night at home. Didn’t run into any trouble.”
“We need to move quick if we want to meet up with him and then make it to the marina before dark. We probably can’t take the bike any farther; it’ll draw too much attention with all these soldiers around.”
“Yeah. I didn’t think of that.”
Kira takes our water bottles and begins refilling them from the tap.
“Have him meet us by the promenade. That should save us time,” she says as she dons her armor. “I swear, they find the one gap in this thing…” she adds with a grumble.
I pull up my display and message Red, then switch to a map of the city.
“We’re about half an hour from the promenade. It should take Red two and a half hours to get there from home, give or take, so we still have time before we have to leave.”
Kira looks at me uncomfortably.
“I’d rather just leave now in case we run into trouble.”
“Oh,” I respond quietly. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
It’s an obvious fact, and one, that for some stupid reason, I haven’t considered. Of course we’ll probably run into soldiers again, but the thought of it makes me physically sick. I don’t like the idea of having to confront them, either to be shot at or forced to shoot at them.
I stand and look back out the window. The sky is a hazy grey, thick with smoke. The sound of cannon fire and rifle shots echo in the distance like rolling thunder and the crackle of lightning, sometimes close enough to rattle the windows in their frames.
It’s surreal to be in the middle of all this, to be on the receiving end of an invasion.
“You going to be okay?” Kira asks, looking questioningly at my face wrinkled in thought.
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
“Because if what you told me last night is true—”
“I’m fine, really.”
Kira stares pensively at me for another moment, then pulls the backpack up in front of her and deposits the water bottles inside.
“Well, I think we’re set on supplies. It should last us several days, especially if we use some of the fishing gear on the boat. Now we just have to hope they didn’t shut down the marina.”
“Yeah,” I agree, though my mind is elsewhere.
“I’m guessing they’re spread too thin to worry about the harbor, though,” Kira continues, mostly talking to herself. “LA is a pretty big city to hold defensively.”
She grabs a pack and offers it to me.
“Only way up is forward,” she says earnestly. “Let’s get going.”
I grab it and give a half-hearted smile in return. Kira puts on her own pack, wincing as she slings her arms through the straps.
“Hey, I’ll carry that,” I say, reaching my hand out.
“I’m fine. We’re wasting time.”
“We’ll waste a lot more if you start bleeding out again.”
“Jeez, Brett! Honestly, I’m fine. Can we just go?”
I toss my hands up in surrender and follow Kira to the apartment’s entrance. After slinging her rifle across her shoulder, she opens the door and leads us into the complex’s hallway.
The air is stale and unmoving, and every breath we take seems to carry a sour taste, almost metallic-like. A haze surrounds us, much like the morning fog that’s common for this area, except instead of letting a gentle blanket of light through, the orange-ish mist stifles all but a small percentage of the sun.
Once outside the complex, we turn to the west and begin jogging in the direction of the promenade. Every now and then a patrol passes by—prompting us to scurry for cover—but the streets are empty for the most part, everyone having fled or taken to hiding. It’s eerie seeing the streets so quiet, so lifeless.
Bright trails streak across the sky throughout the morning. Hundreds, thousands more landing craft crashing down across the entire Los Angeles area and beyond. Sonic booms become commonplace, meshing harmoniously with the sound of gunfire like a morose wartime concerto. It all feels strangely like a game still, with the whole ambiance and atmosphere of everything. Except instead of being the attacker, I’m playing the other side. Not even the other side, really. More like the role of the bystanders.
Soon, we reach the promenade—a long street full of colorful shops and markets that, under normal circumstances, would be bustling with street performers and shoppers, but is now chillingly still like the rest of the city. Trash is scattered everywhere, with bags and other belongings abandoned by tables and benches, all left in a hurry.
The crack of rifle-fire suddenly bounces across the walls.
Kira grabs me by the arm and drags me behind a row of potted shrubs that form the boundary of a restaurant’s outdoor seating area. Several more snaps follow the first and we press ourselves closer to the ground, causing Kira’s rifle to clank against the concrete. She reactively shushes it and freezes in place.
Second later, the thumping of boots passes by us on the side street attached to the promenade, accompanied by the urgent shouts of soldiers.
It should be commonplace by now, hiding from soldiers, having already encountered numerous close calls on the way, but I still find my heart frantically jumping out my chest.
After several minutes of silence, we gain the confidence to peek up from behind the shrubs and look around the promenade. This is the spot we’re supposed to meet Red, but we’re still hours away from the rendezvous time. I pull up my communications display and try calling him, but there’s no response.
“I guess we’ll just wait,” Kira mumbles.