For inspiring me to start writing as a kid
And for being the voice of reason
The Coalition of Multinational Corporations
About the Author
Also by S. J. Kincaid
About the Publisher
THE COALITION OF MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS
THE INDO-AMERICAN ALLIANCE:
European-Australian Block • Oceanic Nations •
North American Alliance • Central America
(and sponsored Combatants):
SPONSORED COMBATANTS: Karl “Vanquisher” Marsters
SPONSORED COMBATANTS: Elliot “Ares” Ramirez,
Cadence “Stinger” Grey, Britt “Ox” Schmeiser
SPONSORED COMBATANTS: Heather “Enigma” Akron,
Yosef “Vector” Saide, Snowden “NewGuy” Gainey
SPONSORED COMBATANTS: Lea “Firestorm” Styron,
Mason “Specter” Meekins
SPONSORED COMBATANTS: Emefa “Polaris” Austerley,
Alec “Condor” Tarsus, Ralph “Matador” Bates
SPONSORED COMBATANTS: None
THE RUSSO-CHINESE ALLIANCE:
South American Federation • Nordic Block •
Affiliated African Nations
(sponsored members unknown):
LM Lymer Fleet
“YOU’VE GOTTA SEE this watch, Tommy. The inscription says ‘Property of Sanford Bloombury, 1865.’ Imagine that. Some guy was wearing this thing before we even had electricity.”
Tom slid off his virtual reality visor and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dimness inside the bustling casino. The bright lights of the nearby video displays flashed over the smile cracking Neil’s worn face—and glinted across the gold watch dangling from his hand.
“Huh.” Tom didn’t really get why his dad was showing it to him. “Is this watch thing worth a lot or something?”
“Worth a lot? Tom, this watch has been passed down from father to son for generations. It’s a precious family heirloom, and it’s got a lot of sentimental value. Not to our family, of course, but definitely to that banker’s.” He jabbed his finger over his shoulder toward the bald man he’d beaten at poker a few minutes earlier. “So I hope it means something to you when I say that I want you to have it. Happy fifteenth birthday.”
It took Tom a moment to process his words. “You’re giving it to me?”
He couldn’t remember his dad giving him a present for his birthday . . . not on his birthday or anywhere near it, at least. He seized the watch eagerly. The VR visor slipped from his hand, and Neil caught it before it could clatter to the floor.
“This is fantastic, Dad!” Sure, he had absolutely no need for a watch, what with the precise, satellite-tuned chronometer in his brain that measured time down to one two-thousandths of a second. . . . It was one of the many perks of having a computer in his head. Getting a present was still awesome, though.
Neil clasped his shoulder. “Come on, let’s grab some steak.”
Steak. That was even more awesome.
Tom leaped up and followed Neil through the bustling crowd in the casino. They brushed past the vanquished banker, who greedily eyed the watch in Tom’s hand. Tom had no scruples about fastening it on in front of the guy, but it might’ve been a mistake being so brazen about it, because he swore he saw the banker’s face tighten into a mask of hostility—and Tom saw the banker wave over some large man who looked suspiciously like some sort of bodyguard or thug.
Tom darted a last glimpse over his shoulder before he and Neil swept around the corner. Then they plunged through the door into the enveloping, dry heat of the Nevada evening, the startling neon lights of the Las Vegas strip bombarding them from all sides.
Neil surveyed the casino they’d left. “Think the banker’s going to send his manservant after us?”
So he’d noticed the ominous gesture, too. Tom shook his head. “I dunno yet.”
Tom didn’t need Neil to tell him that; Tom did still have some survival instincts from the first fourteen years of his life he’d spent following his dad from one casino to another. As soon as Neil got money, on the rare occasions when he won, keeping that money became the biggest task.
The question was, how alert was Neil right now? Tom threw a careful glance down at Neil’s legs, and he saw that his dad was moving steadily, no swaying or shuffling. Good. Sober. Or at least, as close to it as he ever got.
Tom turned his watch to and fro as they threaded through the crowd, the gleaming lights of the Las Vegas skyboards playing over its surface. The mile-wide screens in near-Earth orbit bombarded ads down at anyone within a hundred-mile radius below them—but their reflections in the watch shrank to tiny slivers of light. Then in the shiny surface, he spotted a figure weaving through the crowd behind them. One glance back confirmed it: the banker’s manservant was tailing them.
Tom’s eyes snapped back to the front. “Yeah, Dad. We’re being followed. Your banker’s a leecher.”
Neil gave a disgusted snort. “Figures. It’s always the Wall Street guys.”
There was this practice in the poker circuit now called “leeching,” where men would hire a few thugs and play the game to win, even if they lost. If they legitimately won, they kept the spoils of victory, and if they lost, they dispatched their thugs to take back the money they’d gambled away. It ruined the game for everyone, because leechers didn’t seem to understand the concept that gambling meant accepting your losses as well as your winnings. They seemed to think that win or lose, they were entitled to the spoils.
He elbowed Tom. “You remember how we deal with leechers?”
“I’ve only been gone six months,” Tom protested. He tugged off his watch and let the thug see him giving it back to Neil. “Back of the head?”
“Back of the head,” Neil agreed.
This was the sort of incident Tom hadn’t missed while living at the Pentagonal Spire, training to be an Intrasolar Combatant. There, life was about routine, abiding by regulations, and Tom generally knew what would happen one day to the next.
Life with his dad was like this: chaotic, unpredictable, sometimes dangerous. Tom was almost relieved they were running into trouble, because the first two weeks of his legally mandated time away from the military’s custody had
“Go in there,” Neil directed, jabbing his finger toward the storefront of the next restaurant.
Tom saluted him. “See you soon, Dad.” He veered from his father’s side and headed on into the restaurant, leaving Neil to continue down the street in the press of the crowd.
They’d done this enough to have a basic routine down. Tom waited as the thug trailed to a stop in the midst of the crowd streaming around him, considering which of them to follow. Then he made up his mind and began stalking after Neil again. Tom scanned the room to make sure no one was looking his way, then swiped a heavy napkin holder from a nearby table and plunged back out onto the sidewalk. He began tailing the thug, who was so busy tailing Neil, he didn’t notice. They never did.
Through the crush of the crowd, Tom saw the guy swerve after Neil into an alleyway. Tom broke into a flat run. He reached the lip of the alley as the thug closed in for the kill. “Hey! Hey, you!” the man bellowed at Neil.
Neil made a show of spinning around coolly, primed for a confrontation, his eyes glinting with challenge. He gave a small smile, seeing Tom drawing up on the man from behind. “What can I do for you, buddy?”
Tom raised the metal napkin holder for a devastating blow, waiting for the guy to make the first move and officially render it self-defense when Tom whacked him over the back of the head, and Neil jumped forward to pummel with his fists. Tom watched the man reach into his coat pocket, and he knew it was time. He lunged forward, but Neil must’ve seen something other than a gun in the thug’s hand, because his eyes shot wide open and he thrust up a splayed palm. “Tom, no! Don’t!”
The man spun around, and Tom saw what he’d taken out.
A police badge.
Tom felt a dropping sensation, realizing he’d almost clubbed a cop. The napkin holder danced out of his fingers and clattered to the ground. The cop tore out his gun and leveled it at Tom. Tom’s mouth went dry. He raised his hands and backed away. “Sorry. We thought you were . . . Sorry.”
Neil raised his hands, too. “My kid and I thought you came to rob us.”
The police officer snarled at Neil, “I’m going to need that watch back. And that money you pocketed tonight.”
They both stared at him, realizing they’d been right: he had come to rob them. Neither of them had expected the leecher to hire an actual cop to do his dirty work.
Neil gave a derisive laugh. “Private detail duty, eh, Officer?”
Like most everyone else nowadays, cops couldn’t really live on their salaries, especially now as automated machines replaced them in standard patrolling and crowd control. An unscrupulous few of them took side jobs like this, acting as badge-carrying servants to the same men who’d given themselves bonuses with what used to be the cops’ pensions.
This cop holstered his gun, satisfied he’d established his legal right to steal Neil’s winnings. “We all do what we gotta do. Now hand it over.”
“You don’t seem to get how this works,” Neil spat, his hands curling into shaking claws. “Your patron wagered and he lost. He lost to me fair and square. Maybe he’s never gotten the memo, but when you gamble and you lose, you actually lose. It’s a bargain you make for the money you get if you win. He can’t just send a pet cop to take it back because the game didn’t go his way!”
The cop was unmoved. “Do you want to give me a problem tonight, sir? Do you want this to turn ugly? Because I’ve got no issue with that. Just from the look of you, I’m betting you have prior offenses. That’ll be helpful later when I say you were resisting arrest, or maybe that you were aggressive and left me no choice but to defend myself with force. And maybe your kid came after me, which will be good reason to lock him up, too.” He smirked at Tom. “I don’t think you want this nice-looking boy of yours in there with that bunch. I think you should play nice and give me what I was sent here for, and we’ll all walk away.”
Every muscle in Neil’s body tightened.
Anger simmered in Tom’s gut, too, but he knew there was no standing up to a cop. This guy could beat them both up and charge them with the felony. His word would always be taken above theirs in a court. For that matter, even if Tom hooked into a census device and uploaded this memory to the Spire’s systems so someone could view it, and he could prove the cop was in the wrong, he and Neil would still end up the ones in trouble for illegally recording a police officer.
Tom reached out and nudged his dad. “Just give it to him.”
With a noise of disgust, Neil delved into the pockets of his worn suit and hurled down the watch and a wad of cash, letting it all litter across the broken concrete of the alleyway. “You’re no better than a common hoodlum.”
The officer swooped down and snatched the roll of bills. “We’ve all gotta feed our own.”
Neil gazed at the man with a burning rage in his eyes, and Tom knew this bomb would explode if he didn’t intervene now. He reached forward and grasped Neil’s rigid arm, then jerked his dad back toward the street with him. But Neil couldn’t resist a parting shot.
“You’re next, you know!”
The cop swung back up to his feet. “Are you threatening me?”
Oh no. Tom tightened his grip on Neil. “Dad . . .”
But Neil had that reckless light in his eyes, a crazed grin twisting his leathery face, and Tom knew this was a lost cause. “My boy and me, yeah, the corporate overlords already see us as surplus people breathing their air, living on their planet, but you know what? You’re a worthless cockroach to them, too, buddy. They used to need you to keep your boot on our necks while they emptied our pockets. . . .”
“Dad, let’s just go!”
Neil forged on. “But I hope the next time you look up at a drone in your sky or a patrol unit on your street, you’ll realize you’re nothing to them, too, and if you don’t like it, they’ve got an automated boot to shove up your—”
The cop crossed the distance between them in two strides, and cracked the butt of his gun across Neil’s face, slamming him to the ground. Neil started laughing, raising himself up on his elbows, blood dripping from his nose in dark globs.
“Too close to the truth, Officer?”
The cop ripped forward for another blow, and Tom didn’t even think about it—he shoved the man back. He knew a moment later that he’d made a mistake, and the cop’s Taser jammed into his side, sending an electric jolt tearing through his muscles, locking them up, hurtling a mass of stars before his eyes. The entire world became a vibrating mass of prickling needles, and his body slipped out of his own control, thrashing to the ground. . . .
Tom came to sprawled on the ground, his palms stinging, his knees burning. He became aware of Neil shaking him persistently.
“Tommy . . . Tommy! You’re starting to scare me. Come on. Wake up, kid. Wake up.”
Tom forced his eyes open, a groan escaping his lips. “Dad?”
“Oh, thank God. I don’t know what that was you just had.” Neil’s face was washed of color, a stark gray. “A seizure or something.”
“I’m okay.” His voice rang strangely in his own head. Everything seemed very far away.
“Well, you sent the banker’s pet running.” Neil hoisted him to his unsteady feet. “I guess he didn’t want to get blamed for killing a kid.”
They began the slow, difficult journey back to the hotel, Tom half draped over his dad’s shoulder. His nose was buried against Neil’s jacket, the smell of stale smoke and alcohol filling his nostrils. Numbers danced meaninglessly over his vision.
Tom woozily tried to sort out what had happened. He’d definitely lost a few minutes, or maybe his chronometer was messed up.
He’d been tased before, back when he was a lot younger and had started gambling in VR parlors. He l
Tom had learned his lesson: he stopped losing.
He’d also learned what a Taser felt like, so he knew it wasn’t normal feeling this weak, feeling the strange buzzing in his skull, seeing the strange numbers dancing over his vision. It had to be the computer in his head, registering its objection to that electric jolt. He hoped he hadn’t messed it up too much.
The neural processor didn’t calm its strange seizure of flashing numbers until Tom was lying on his bed in their hotel room, the AC pumping a jet of icy air at him, the television buzzing. Tom could hear Neil muttering where he sat, drinking on the other bed.
Tom lifted his head blearily to see the screen was graced by the newly public Camelot Company Combatants. The Indo-Americans and the Russo-Chinese had worked out a temporary cease-fire, allowing the CamCos to go on publicity tours, where they touted their efforts in the war and their sponsors from the Coalition of Multinational Corporations. The military was also taking advantage of the absence of the younger trainees to open up certain areas of the Spire for a bunch of media events.
Ever since CamCo’s identities had leaked, they’d become famous. Tom saw strange rumors about them all over the internet, too. “Britt Schmeiser’s Weekend of Debauchery”; “Alec Tarsus’s Dark Past”; even headlines about the old favorite: “Elliot Ramirez’s Forbidden Love.”
Now Tom watched the screen hazily, seeing the handsome face of Elliot Ramirez, the Pentagonal Spire’s longtime public CamCo. The dark-haired boy sat easily in the center of the massed CamCos, graciously assuring the reporters that he was pleased to share the spotlight. Snowden Gainey was preening in the chair next to his, and Cadence Grey kept darting nervous glances toward the camera. Everyone was there but . . . Someone was missing.