Insignia, p.1
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Insignia


  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollins Publishers

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  Advance Reader’s e-proof

  courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

  This is an advance reader’s e-proof made from digital files of the uncorrected proofs. Readers are reminded that changes may be made prior to publication, including to the type, design, layout, or content, that are not reflected in this e-proof, and that this e-pub may not reflect the final edition. Any material to be quoted or excerpted in a review should be checked against the final published edition. Dates, prices, and manufacturing details are subject to change or cancellation without notice.

  Advance Praise for INSIGNIA:

  “Reading Insignia completely consumed me. It’s the perfect balance of futuristic and realistic, with friendship (not romance) at center stage. S. J. Kincaid’s debut is one of the best YA novels I’ve read in years—original, thrilling, funny, smart, and not at all predictable. I will follow this writer to the ends of the Earth—she is the real deal.”

  —Suzanna Hermans, Oblong Books & Music (Rhinebeck, NY)

  “I absolutely loved Insignia! I loved the humor; I loved the friendships; I loved the simulations. (And you know a book is good when your son asks you if the book is more important than he is and you hesitate, just for a second. . . .) This is a rollicking, thought-provoking thrill ride like I’ve never seen before. Neither my son nor I could put it down!”

  —Cathy Berner, Blue Willow Bookshop (Houston, TX)

  “For those missing Hogwarts, I encourage you to jump into the world of Insignia, a YA science-fictional tale featuring Tom Raines, an abysmal student but extraordinary gamer, who is recruited into the prestigious Pentagonal Spire military academy and offered the chance to finally belong.”

  —Jill Hendrix, Fiction Addiction (Greenville, SC)

  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollins Publishers

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  INSIGNIA

  S. J. Kincaid

  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollins Publishers

  .....................................................................

  Copyright

  This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Katherine Tegen Books is an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

  Insignia

  Copyright © 2012 by S. J. Kincaid

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.

  HarperCollins books may be purchased for educational, business, or sales promotional use. For information address Avon Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

  ISBN 978-0-06-209299-1 (trade bdg.)

  12 13 14 15 16 XXXXXX 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  First Edition

  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

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  Chapter One

  NEW TOWN, NEW casino—same old plan. Arizona’s Dusty Squanto Casino made it easy for Tom Raines, since he didn’t even have to pay his way into their VR parlor. He slipped into the room, settled onto a couch in the back corner, and looked over the crowd of gamers, taking them in one at a time. His gaze settled on the two men in the opposite corner, and locked onto target.

  Them, Tom thought.

  The men stood with VR visors on, wired gloves clenched in the air. Their racing simulation blazed across an overhead screen for anyone who wanted to bet on the outcome. No one would bet on this race, though. One man was a good driver—he navigated the virtual track with the skill of an experienced gamer—and the other was pitifully bad. His car’s fender dragged across the wall of the arena, and the fake onlookers were screaming and dodging out of the way.

  The winning racer gave a triumphant laugh as his car plowed across the finish line. He turned to the other man, chest puffed with victory, and demanded payment.

  Tom smiled from his solitary spot on the couch.

  Enjoy it while you can, buddy.

  He timed it just right, waiting until the winner started counting up his bills, to rise to his feet and wander into his line of sight. Tom noisily rattled one of the VR sets out of its storage container, then made a show of putting on the gloves the wrong way, before painstakingly adjusting them so the cloth and mesh wiring clasped his arms up to his elbows. Out of
the corner of his eye, he became aware of the winning racer watching him.

  “You like playing games, kid?” the man said to him. “Wanna have a go next?”

  Tom gave him the wide-eyed, innocent look that he knew made him appear a lot younger than he was. Even though he was fourteen, he was short and skinny and had such bad acne that people usually couldn’t guess his real age.

  “I’m just looking. My dad says I’m not allowed to gamble.”

  The man licked his lips. “Oh, don’t you worry. Your dad doesn’t even have to know. Put down a few bucks, and we’ll have us a great race. Maybe you’ll win. How much money do you have?”

  “Only fifty bucks.”

  Tom knew better than to say more than that. More than that, and people wanted to see it before taking up the bet. He actually had about two dollars in his pocket.

  “Fifty bucks?” the man said. “That’s enough. This is just car racing. You can race a car, can’t you?” He twisted an invisible wheel. “Nothing to it. And think: you beat me, and you’ll double that fifty.”

  “Really?”

  “Really, kid. Let’s have a go.” A condescending chuckle. “I’ll pay up for sure if you win.”

  “But if I lose . . .” Tom let that hang there. “That’s all my money. I just . . . I can’t.” He started walking away, waiting for the magic words.

  “All right, kid,” the guy called. “Double or nothing.”

  Ha! Tom thought.

  “I win,” the man said, “and I’ll get fifty. You win, you get a hundred. You can’t beat that. Take a chance.”

  Tom turned slowly, fighting the laughter rising in his throat. This guy must already taste his easy fifty bucks—he’d fallen for the act so readily. Most casinos had one or two gamers who practically lived in the VR parlors, fancying themselves gods among men who could beat any chump luckless enough to enter their territory. Tom loved the way they looked at him: as some scrawny, stupid little kid they could easily con. He loved even more seeing their smiles disappear when he wiped the floor with them.

  Just to be safe, Tom kept up the act. He made a show of fumbling as he strapped on the VR visor. “Okay, you’re on, I guess.”

  Triumph rang in the man’s voice. “We’re on.”

  They were off. Their cars roared to life and tore furiously down the track. Tom mentally ticked off the laps, taking it all very deliberately. He made a few token mistakes here and there—never enough to slow him down too much, just enough to ensure he was lagging behind the other car. The man, puffed up with confidence and certain of winning, whirled his steering wheel with great, lashing sweeps of his wired gloves. As the finish line appeared and the man’s car turned at the right angle, Tom finally let a grin blaze across his lips.

  One flick of his glove did the trick. He rammed his car forward and clipped the guy’s back fender, then floored his gas. The man bellowed in rage and disbelief when his car swerved off the road in a rain of sparks.

  Tom’s car sailed past the finish line while the other car crashed and exploded in the arena’s side ditch.

  “What—what—” the man sputtered.

  Tom flipped up his visor. “Whoops. I think I have played that game before.” He tugged off his gloves. “Wanna fork over my hundred bucks?”

  He watched, fascinated, the way a vein began popping out and fluttering in the man’s forehead. “You little—You can’t—You’re . . .”

  “You’re not gonna pay me, then?” Tom cast an idle glance toward the man’s recent victim, now sitting on a nearby couch. The bad driver was suddenly interested in their exchange. Tom raised his voice to make sure the man could make out every word. “I guess no one’s playing games for money in here—is that it?”

  The gamer followed Tom’s gaze to his victim, catching the implication: if he wouldn’t pay Tom, then the other guy shouldn’t have paid him.

  The man spluttered a bit like the engine of his wrecked car, then jerked a hundred bucks out of a wad from his pocket. He crammed the bills into Tom’s hand, muttering something about a rematch.

  Tom flipped through the bills, completely enjoying the man’s outrage. “You want a rematch, I’m game. Double or nothing, again? I could really use another two hundred dollars.”

  The man turned a curious shade of scarlet, cut his losses, and fled the room. As for the newbie on the couch, he gave Tom a grateful thumbs-up. Tom returned it, then stashed the bills in his pocket. One hundred dollars. Usually he had to pull off the bet with a few more gamers to make enough for a night’s stay—VR sims involved such low stakes, after all—but at a dive like the Dusty Squanto Casino, a hundred would be enough for a room.

  Tom’s mind already whirled with the promises of the night ahead. A bed. Television. Air-conditioning. A real shower. He could even come back here and play games just for fun.

  The ghastly realization hit just as he reached the door: he was at a casino with a VR parlor.

  He had absolutely no excuse for missing school this afternoon.

  TOM STAYED IN the VR parlor and logged into the Rosewood Reformatory sim for the first time in two weeks. In four years at Rosewood, he’d never skipped such a long stretch of school before, and he’d already missed most of class today. Just the sight in his visor of Ms. Falmouth’s avatar and her virtual chalkboard killed any lingering satisfaction over his victory.

  She immediately focused her attention on him. “Tom Raines,” she said. “Thank you for gracing us with your presence today.”

  “You’re welcome,” Tom said. He knew it would just annoy her, but it wasn’t like she had a good opinion of him to be ruined.

  To be fair, he missed class a lot. Mostly not on purpose. Mostly he missed school due to losing access to an internet connection. It was just another hazard of having a gambler for a father.

  Tom’s dad, Neil, usually saved enough money to pay for a roof over their heads and some food at the gift shop. But some days he got totally cleaned out at the poker tables. It happened more and more these recent years as the last of his luck deserted him. When Neil squandered their money, and Tom couldn’t find any sucker to bet against him in the VR parlors, they had to skip on small luxuries like hotel rooms. They ended up in a park or at a bus station or lying on benches at the train station.

  Now with Ms. Falmouth and his entire class watching him, Tom tried to think of an excuse he’d never used before to explain why he’d missed the last ten days. He’d missed school so many times, he’d repeated himself a couple times by accident. He’d already lied about going to the funerals of all his grandparents, and even a couple great-grandparents, and there were only so many times he could say he “fell down a well” or “got lost in the woods” or “got hit in the head and got amnesia” before even he thought he sounded like a colossal idiot.

  Today, he tried, “There was this massive cyberattack on all the local VR parlors. Russo-Chinese hackers, you know? The Department of Homeland Security came in and had to interview everyone in a ten-mile radius. I couldn’t even access the internet.”

  Ms. Falmouth just shook her head. “Don’t waste your breath, Tom.”

  Tom dropped into a seat, irrationally disappointed. It had been a good lie this time, too.

  The avatars throughout the classroom sniggered at him, the way they always did, at Tom the loser who never knew what assignments were due, who never turned in his homework, who couldn’t even manage to show up at an online class most days. He tuned his classmates out and occupied himself with twirling a pencil—trickier in VR than most people realized. The sensors of most standard-issue wired gloves had a strange lag time, and Tom figured honing his dexterity with them could only help him in future games.

  He heard a whisper from beside him. “I liked your excuse.”

  Tom threw a careless glance toward the girl next to him. She must’ve joined the class sometime in the last two weeks. Her avatar was a gorgeous brunette with striking yellow-brown eyes. “Thanks. Nice avatar.”

  “I’m Heather.”
She flashed him a smile. “And this isn’t an avatar.”

  Sure it isn’t, Tom thought. People didn’t look like that in real life unless they were celebrities. But he nodded like he believed her. “I’m Tom. And believe it or not, this—” he gestured to himself like he was proud of how very handsome he was “—isn’t an avatar, either.”

  Heather giggled, because his avatar looked just like him—acne and scrawny limbs and all. It definitely wasn’t an image anyone would use to impress people online.

  Ms. Falmouth turned back to face them. “Tom, Heather, are you done interrupting me, or do you need more time for your conversation?”

  “Sorry,” Tom said. “We’re all through.”

  Tom hadn’t seen eye to eye with Ms. Falmouth since he’d shown up for the first day of school a few years ago as Lord Krull from the game Celtic Quest. She’d yelled at him front of everyone for being insolent, like he had done it as part of some elaborate scheme to mock her class. He’d just liked Lord Krull from Celtic Quest, that was all.

  From then on, Tom always came to class as himself. He never signed on to the internet without an avatar if he could help it. It felt like he’d left his real skin behind, showing up at Rosewood as the same ugly, pale-eyed, and blond-haired Thomas Raines who tailed behind his dad in the real world. Never mind that he didn’t believe for a second that the new girl sitting next to him really looked like her beautiful brunette avatar, and Serge Leon, in the back corner, was way too blustering to be a hulking six-footer in real life. He was probably four foot something and fat.

  But Ms. Falmouth didn’t seem to care about them. Whenever Tom was around, her radar was trained on him.

  “Our subject’s the current war, Tom. Perhaps you can contribute to our discussion. What is an offshored conflict?”

  His thoughts flickered to the clips he’d seen in the news and on the internet—the ships fighting in space controlled by the top-secret combatants identified only by their call signs. “An offshored conflict is a war fought somewhere other than Earth. It’s in space or on another planet.”

 
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