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.
Several hours pass, but we make no more than three feet of progress into the wall. The temperature has risen significantly, causing us to sweat large patches in our clothing. The soldier has long since taken off her armor and outer uniform jacket, while Kira and I only have our light outer layers to remove.
We’ve used up a good portion of our water supply already, and I’m starting to get worried about the battery life on my display, too. Normally, it runs off city broadcast power, but something about the rubble is blocking the signal.
“Could I have water, please?” the soldier asks humbly, though with a furrowed brow.
“Yeah, sure,” I reply kindly, though I have to stifle my initial thought of refusing her. We have to ration our water, especially at the rate we’re digging. I walk over to her, ignoring the click from the rifle’s firing mechanism as I get in range of her chip, and I hand over the bottle from which I’ve been drinking.
“Thank you,” she says gratefully, taking the bottle from my hands.
I watch her drink, using the moment as an excuse to take a break from digging and clawing at the debris.
“What’s your name?” I ask when she pauses between sips.
She looks at me curiously. Kira seems not to notice, and continues chipping at her portion of the rubble.
“Leilyn,” she finally answers. “Or Sergeant Eys.”
“I’ll stick with Leilyn,” I respond with a chuckle.
Leilyn hands the bottle back and pulls herself up against a steel pillar.
“So, what are—”
“What are you doing?” Leilyn interjects heatedly, turning her piercing eyes on me. “I don’t want to get to know you. I don’t like you. You don’t like me. Let’s just get out of here and never speak again.”
I look uncomfortably at my hands for several moments, then I turn away and rejoin Kira. I don’t know whether to feel hurt or angry, but eventually I decide it doesn’t matter. She’s right, after all.
Another hour passes before Kira finally throws the chair leg she’s using as a makeshift shovel to the floor.
“We’re not getting anywhere, Brett. We should save our energy.”
“For what? There’s no other way out.”
Kira looks at me with heavy eyes and turns away, then finds a spot near Leilyn to sit down. I drop the rifle—I’ve been using it to pry at the rubble—and lie down alongside the back wall where it’s coolest.
“What, so that’s it?” Leilyn says, breaking the silence.
“Feel free to get up and do, you know, anything,” Kira replies. “I know you’ve already put in so much work.”
“You didn’t want me to help!” she counters. “And I can hardly stand!”
“I’m sorry, maybe if you hadn’t invaded us—”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about! If you had half—”
“Who the hell do you think you are? What gives you the right to even speak? Let alone talk that way to us?”
“You listen,” Leilyn begins, throwing her fist up in front of Kira's face.
“Uh, uh. No, you don’t get to—”
“Shut up!” Leilyn roars.
Kira quiets down, though her eyes are still filled with venom, and her chest heaves rapidly with every breath.
“You don’t even know, do you?” Leilyn starts again, though it’s more of a statement than a question. “You have no idea who we are? They said you wouldn’t.”
Leilyn scoffs and draws her knife, then uses it to scratch patterns in the dirt.
“You play many games?” she asks.
Kira twists her face in understanding.
“No. He does though,” she answers, pointing at me.
I squirm uncomfortably. Leilyn turns to me and raises a brow.
“I can tell, you know. You have a look. AGILE? Paradigm?” she asks almost indifferently, as if she already knows the answer. My blood turns to ice, but I nod and walk over to take a seat by the two of them.
“I’m from one of the first colonies that fell to AGILE, Belyyera, though you probably never knew it by that name. I'm not sure what your people call our planet, but it’s one of those places you don’t forget once you see it. Belyyera’s an outskirt colony, one of the smallest members of the Federation, but also one of the most stunning. Most of the surface is mountainous, with peaks almost always capped by snow. Long winding rivers cut through its valleys between the mountains; that's where most of us lived."
“It sounds nice,” I mention quietly and honestly.
“It was,” Leilyn replies coldly. “Up until the Harvesters came, we lived in peace for hundreds of years, thriving in the utopia our ancestors built.”
“Mechanized resource gatherers,” she explains. “Sent by AGILE. The first one that came was more of a spectacle than anything else, but soon there were hundreds of them. They took our crops, our minerals, our precious metals. Even when we hid our resources, the Harvesters always managed to find them. We had no idea what to do, or how to react.”
“You didn’t fight them?”
“At first we didn’t. We had nothing to fight them with. We hadn’t had conflict for centuries.”
“What happened, then?” Kira asks softly, her icy exterior having melted over the course of Leilyn’s narrative.
“At first we just compensated by moving resources around; we became nomadic, carrying and scavenging what we could. What else could we do? Our enemy was faceless; there was no one to negotiate with, or even plead with. But it wasn't long before we used up all our reserves and had to start rationing what was left. The federal government was too nervous to send relief ships or evacuation crews anywhere near our planet, so when people started to starve, we had no other choice but to fight back using whatever we could.”
“The government just left you to starve?” Kira questions incredulously.
“Well, they didn’t have anything to fight with either. We did alright on our own at first, and for a while the Harvesters stopped coming, but it wasn’t long before they came again, this time with weapons. They washed over our little resistance like a flood and stripped our planet for everything it had.”
“How many were there in your colony?” I ask.
“Nearly two hundred million. But that was just Belyyera. Our neighboring colonies were home to several billion in total, and within a matter of years they had all fallen.”
“So how did you escape then?” You said there were no evacuations,” Kira points out.
“There weren’t evacuations at first. When the genocides began, though, the government sent in task forces to evacuate the youth; even then, only a small percentage of the ships made it through the blockades. I was on one of the lucky ships that reached the capital, or unlucky depending on how you look at it. From the capital, I watched as planet by planet our lands were taken over along with those of our neighboring alliances, too.”
I lower my head and kick a pebble-sized piece of rubble around on the floor. It sounds like fiction, a story that my subconscious refuses to believe is real.
“As soon as I came of age, I joined the resistance and immediately got shipped to the front. Most people avoided the front, but I craved it; I wanted to fight more than anything else. But that first battle knocked reality into me.
“I still remember the very first thing I saw on my first deployment. It was a desert world being used as an ammo depot, and we had just landed inside the base’s perimeter when my trainer was shot through the chest before we could even exit the landing craft. Then the soldier beside her dropped, and the next one, then the chief, then the pilot. And then, just outside, a field of Mechs, the guardians of the Harvesters. The vanguard that signal the beginning of the end. The only reason I survived that battle was because I got trapped beneath the dead bodies of my squad.”
I feel my heart drop into a bucket of ice. I know the image she’s describing, though I know it from an entirely different perspective, from the delivering end rather than the receiving. Facing one of the victims now makes my stomach feel as if it’s been flipped inside out.
“How did you find out about Paradigm?” Kira asks intently.
“Well, we started noticing funny things about the Mechs. The ones we killed and captured were nothing more than machines, but in battle they moved like humans, reacted as a person would, not like the Harvesters that moved in programmed motions.”
“But still, that could have been a rival colony controlling them, or people on your own planets. Not necessarily us,” I rebut. Leilyn gives me a sour look and puts her foot up on a block of rubble.
“Earthers will never understand the climate we’ve labored for centuries to create on the colonies,” Leilyn explains, her tone dismissive of my comment. “We’ve developed such an intimate level of trust among colonists that the only possible explanation was something external to our society. So the only option, we reasoned, was that the Mechs were controlled by operators back on Earth, but we had no evidence to explain how.”
“What led you to AGILE, then?”
“One day, researchers from the university at the capital intercepted and decrypted a transmission feed gathered by one of our warships around the front, and when they analyzed it they discovered the Paradigm world.
“We studied you for more than a year, learned how you operated, where you operated from, took bio-signatures of every user. But then our last defense on Qa’ara fell under attack—I was there to watch it—and that meant the capital was next. At the rate AGILE was moving, we were quickly running out of time.”
Leilyn sheaths her bayonet and crosses her arms over her knees.
“With the Mechs coming faster than we could fight them, our last option was to attack the source. So, I was chosen to be a part of the invasion party that would strike at the heart of AGILE on Earth and neutralize any of the Mech operators we found in our path, using the bio-signatures we collected from Paradigm.”
“How does that work?” Kira asks curiously.
“A simple scanner. One per fireteam. It’s not a perfect system, but it does the job.”
Silence falls as Leilyn finishes her story. I put my head on my hands and tug anxiously at my hair.
“Leilyn, you have to realize, we…I had no idea…”
Leilyn waves her hand and grimaces.
“Nothing you can possibly say will undo what is done,” she says painfully.
I sigh with a wavering breath and fight the tears welling in my eyes.
“But, I understand how complex this all is. I know you are not personally to blame. Be at peace, for as long as it may last in any case.”
She looks around at the now growing darkness in the room. My display is nearly out of power, and Kira’s, too, is showing signs of fading.
“We should rest,” Kira suggests. “I’m going to hunt around for something to cushion the ground.”
Kira stands and wanders away, leaving us in almost total darkness. I slump down and try, unsuccessfully, to take my mind off everything Leilyn has just said. The only thing to distract me, though, is the gentle dripping of water as it trickles relentlessly down the walls and the blockade of rubble.
Soon, Kira returns with a mess of tattered tablecloths and hands one to each of us. I crumple mine up and lay my head down, but something on my inside refuses to let me feel comfortable, as if every cell in my body knows what I’ve done and knows I don’t deserve to feel comfortable.
But time passes, and, almost without noticing, I drift off to sleep.
“Hey, get up,” Kira whispers, shaking me awake.
“What?” I mumble.
I open my eyes and take several moments to remember where I am.
I lift my ears and quickly discover what Kira is pointing out. There’s a faint grinding noise—like the sound of rock and metal scraping against each other—mixed with the cacophony of urgent voices.
“There’s someone out there,” I say excitedly. “Hey! We’re here! Over here!”
Kira joins me, and together we call out as loud as our dry throats will allow, but Leilyn remains silent, sitting cross-legged with an apprehensive look about her.
After what seems like an hour, the grinding reaches a peak and daylight comes rushing into the cavity, forcing the three of us to shield our eyes.
“Hey, you all alright?” comes a voice through the opening.
“We will be!” Kira answers emphatically.
“One. Head and leg.”
“Two,” I clarify, looking over at Kira’s side.
The voice turns and calls out to someone, then faces us again.
“Alright, we’re going to get you out. Hold tight!”
The next moments are a blur as Los Angeles emergency personnel open up the hole in the debris and rush to pull us out. Once outside, I look around and find the carcass of a fighter aircraft surrounding the remnants of the restaurant, with smoke still rising steadily from the debris.
“This way,” one of the medics prompts, leading us away from the building and on towards an emergency services tent down the promenade a bit.
There are bodies everywhere. Soldiers. Not just FSND, but Coloradan, too. A tank sits halfway inside another building spewing dark fumes into the air, a bold white star on its hull accompanied by the familiar AGILE in prominent characters.
I turn around to see Leilyn being helped out of the rubble by a couple of medics, one on either side of her.
She looks different in the natural light. Or, rather, she looks like anyone else, like any other Earthborn. It’s stupidity to assume she would look any different, but still, in that moment that’s what strikes me the most.
I quicken my pace so that I’m marching alongside Kira, who is being helped forward by the medic.
I can’t help but wonder what she thinks about the whole situation, about the conflict. Though our planets are light years apart, the FSND seems to be a mere extension of a much larger problem that plagues our own pawn states, one of asymmetric dominance and a hunger for peace.