Authors: Michael McCloskey
2013 Michael McCloskey
art by Howard Lyon
thanks to Maarten Hofman, Howard Lyon, and Jonathan Rudd.
Caden ran toward the water with
his head down. As he arrived at the edge of the lazy river, he slowed
dramatically and submerged in a practiced motion, weapon and all. The barrel of
his PAW snapped shut as the sensor detected the water. The splash was minimal.
He continued up to his neck and hid among the reeds.
It was the tenth and final day
of the Blood Glades. Caden had racked up seventeen kills.
I can’t believe it’s going so
well this year. Can I even get one more? I might be up at the top of the
He resisted an urge to preen.
With so many kills, a fair number of fans would be watching him every second.
Don’t die now. Not now. Not
with seventeen kills.
Caden told his heat sink to
recycle water. The cold water around him had already removed a lot of heat from
the surface of his body. Now his heat sink dumped the hot water it had used to
cover his infrared signature and sucked in cold water. Caden dunked his face
several times. He was getting cold, but he ignored the discomfort. It was just
another way his determination would give him an edge.
As long as I don’t get severe
hypothermia and check out before the deadline.
Once his heat sink had
recharged, Caden moved again. Most players would have just lurked there,
waiting for the time to expire and hoping to catch a lucky kill at the river. But
that was not Caden’s style. “The Hunter”, they called him. He specialized in
finding squatters and eliminating them. It was his unique tagline, and he
intended to live up to it.
Caden emerged from the water
under cover of vegetation. He was cool enough now to avoid the scopes used in
the Blood Glades. Of course, real space force tech could detect everything
alive for many kilometers, but everyone was given just enough toys to make the
Caden scaled a slight muddy
rise and disappeared into a thick copse at the top. He moved slowly but
steadily. He stopped to examine the area from the top of the rise among the
He spotted a collection of
shacks in a clearing below. They were built close together, almost leaning
against each other, composed of wood and tin. The ground around the shack was
littered with moss and weeds.
Caden spent an hour analyzing
the shelter. Darkness approached. Chances were good someone was in there—either
covering for the night to hoard their kills until the end or to catch another
squatter headed in. He analyzed every detail with his PAW’s scope. Finally he
spotted a sensor nestled against a tree facing the shelter. All the Blood
Glades contestants had them. The sensors detected movement and alerted the
owner silently. Perfect for a low-tech trap or at least an early warning of an
The sensor was fairly well
hidden, but not well enough. Its placement was typical for giving a squatter in
the shed a chance to sleep and still be able to fight back if approached. It
was predictable, almost too easy.
Something felt wrong.
This guy makes it to day ten,
but his setup is totally orthodox. Like a tutorial on squatting. My automatic
reaction is to do what I do best—dig him out and move on.
Caden did not move forward. On
day one he might have disabled the sensors he knew were there and then busted
in through the roof or some other unexpected entrance. On day four he would
have set up a trap for when the squatter had to emerge, by placing his own
sensors across the path the squatter would use to retrieve his own sensors,
sleeping until the sensor was tripped, and then shooting the enemy.
Caden swept his side of the
shacks again. He found it—a hole in the ragged tin hanging over the side of one
of the sections. And it covered… the obvious tree he would have used to set up
his own counter trap. Caden looked through his heat scope. Nothing.
Of course not. He’s shielded in
there. Or his heat sink hasn’t expired yet.
If I have to, I can end it with
seventeen kills. Better than dying now.
But even as he told himself
that, Caden knew he wanted eighteen. He had five hours left. His own heat
sink would be warm by then. He decided to wait it out. If he had been spotted
getting to this position, he’d be dead already. He sat, watching his scope. The
light of the last day failed in the virtual world of the Blood Glades.
As time ticked by, he became
aware of a dull glow through the scope. At the hole. A sniper waited there,
covering the tree he might have used for his counter trap. Caden realized he
had to act. His own heat sink might be failing the same way. The other guy
could spot him at any time.
Caden took the shot with less
than an hour to go, bringing his kills to eighteen in ten days. The first thing
he heard when time ran out was a headline from an important tournament stream:
Lonrack, the Hunter, takes the Blood Glades tournament with a masterful eighteen
Caden smiled wildly.
it. One of the hardest steps. I’m certain to win a spot at New Annapolis now.
Cassie looked disturbed to
Caden. Her eyes glistened as if she might cry. They stood side by side
surrounded by her party guests. The noise of the party covered their arguing.
“You’re still going? After
everything that’s happened between us?” she said.
“We talk about this all the
time, Cassie. How could you not know? I talked about it right before the
Caden felt anger growing. He
looked away from her. He saw Jillian Orler entering the room. She was an
incredible beauty, a tall, blonde-haired girl constantly pursued by dozens of
Jillian caught Caden’s sideways
glance and used it to move in. She joined Cassie and Caden, entering their
space and forming a tight circle. But she ignored Cassie, standing very close
to Caden and smiling a huge smile.
“Congrats on your win! It was
so exciting there at the end. You know the Haden Stream showed the other guy
setting up the trap. I think I bit all my fingernails off!”
Caden smiled politely. “I knew
something had to be up. It was such a mundane setup for tenth day,” he said.
“I feel so lucky to know you!
All my relatives want to come visit just to see you!”
Caden laughed dismissively.
“See me? No way.”
“Yes, you’re super famous now.”
Jillian moved closer, touching his shoulder.
Caden nodded. Suddenly he
realized Cassie had disappeared. He excused himself quickly, staying neutral to
Jillian, and went after his girlfriend. His link told him she had retreated to
the kitchen. He found her there, hiding in the larder, pretending to sift
through their snack supplies.
“Sorry about that,” Caden said.
“Sorry that you have beautiful
girls crawling all over you, or that you’re leaving me?”
Caden struggled to answer, but
she continued before he could form a protest.
“Get out of my house,” she
said. “You’re no longer invited.”
She was serious. His link told
him she had placed him on an eviction timer. Part of him wanted to tell her the
party would evaporate when he left. But he said nothing. Caden just walked out.
A few people called after him, but he just waved and kept going out the door.
It was late evening now. More people lingered on the huge porch, so Caden kept
moving without meeting anyone’s eye. He took the outdoor stair to the landing
pad atop the porch.
If she doesn’t respect my
wishes to go to New Annapolis, then she wasn’t the girl for me, anyway,
thought. But of course while his internal monologue’s summary seemed tidy, his
emotions were not so easily dismissed. Caden still felt disturbed. He had
shared his dreams with her. Had she been listening?
He summoned a personal antigrav
disc to take him home. The lights of several were visible in the clear night
sky. Caden distracted himself by watching for the one that would come down and
retrieve him from the beautiful mountainside home. He brooded in the shadows as
Caden’s arrival at nineteen
years of age meant it was time to begin a new phase of his life. He had worked
hard and planned it all very carefully. His parents had instilled that behavior
into him from the beginning. Caden Lonrack succeeded at everything. He was a
great athlete, a good student, and a popular guy. He ‘had his ducks in a row’,
as his father would say, some secret archaic phrase that meant everything was planned,
practiced, and wrapped up. All the time.
His next life phase was no
different: New Annapolis was his destiny. Caden had invested a lot into that
plan. His academics, athletics, and virtual training skills were all top notch.
Many of his friends simply
played at virtual reality tournaments such as Blood Glades for the fun and
challenge of it. Others played for the notoriety they would gain among friends
(or members of the opposite sex) by doing well there. For Caden it went a little
further: a Blood Glades champion had another feather in his or her cap for a
shot at the best officer academy the space force had. Now Caden was such a
champion. It showed more than quick reflexes and a sharp mind. It showed
planning, practice, dedication, discipline—words used often at the Lonrack
You did not become a Blood
Glades champion if your ducks were not in a row.
As his disc settled a foot
above the ground before him, its lights washing over Cassie’s front lawn, Caden
felt a sense of momentous transition in his life. If Cassie did not value what
he had achieved, or what he would yet achieve, then Caden would leave her
behind and find another life more meaningful and fulfilling than a girl like
her could ever imagine.
The next morning, at home in
his own large room, Caden distracted himself from thoughts of Cassie by
contacting his recruiter in the space force.
“Oh, Caden. I’m surprised to
hear from you again.”
“What do you mean? I want to
verify my auto acceptance to the academy offer. I just wanted to know if you
had a start date yet. I’m planning my move.”
“You’ve been rejected.”
“That’s not possible!”
“It’s out of my hands.”
“You lying son of a bitch! You
said I was as close to guaranteed as it gets! You oohed and awed over my
qualifications yourself. You know it! How could this happen?” Caden mentally
yelled over his link.
“Look, kid. I wasn’t lying. You
have your shit together, and everything was fine. But you didn’t tell me your
family is friends with an executive director and opposed to your entrance to
“What? What are you talking
about? My parents did something?”
“You didn’t know?”
“Just tell me.”
The recruiter’s voice got
softer. “Sorry, Caden. Your folks pulled some strings. High up. They have some
leverage. There’s nothing I can do.”
Caden did not know what to say,
so he just closed the connection.
How could they do that to me?
Angry, violent thoughts flashed
through Caden’s head. As he exited his room, his body shook. He glided down a
bank of stairs onto another level of the vast house. He found his parents
donning gear for another climb out in the mountains. They wore thick gray
protective suits with backpacks arranged nearby to accept their gear.
“What have you done? How dare
you sabotage my career! Do you have any idea how long I’ve prepared for this?
You idiots!” he exploded.
His parents stood stunned
before his verbal assault. Their mouths literally dropped open. Caden had not
screamed at them since the age of seven. His mother actually stepped back.
His father raised his open
hands, urging Caden to calm down. Some part of Caden, powerless behind the
tsunami of anger, realized he was physically intimidating his parents. Though
his parents were both active, their son had grown taller, stronger, and more
“Is this about the application
at New Annapolis?” his father asked.
Caden had never felt such anger
in his life. He smashed aside the backpacks and climbing gear on the table
before him with one long swoop of his arm. Ropes, metal grippers, and
containers came crashing over the side of the table. Then he grabbed the edge
of the table and threw it in the opposite direction. He took another step
forward. He saw fear in his father’s eyes.
“You destroyed years of work!
Years! And you didn’t even bother to inform me!”
“I didn’t think you still
wanted to throw it all away by becoming a space soldier,” his father said
“A space force officer! The
most challenging career you could imagine! How could you have no idea? Don’t
you ever listen to anything I say?”
“Tromping about the galaxy is
not challenging, it’s dangerous and mundane,” his mother sniped from farther
back. “Space ships have rooms the size of closets. You’d be packed into a ship
like a sardine and sent off to the frontier, just to be shot by the aliens.
What good would all your work be then?” Her voice shook.
“Why didn’t you say anything
earlier? Why not tell me from the beginning?”
“It was a good motivator,” his
father said. “Sometimes kids need that. But it’s time to grow up now. You have
a great life ahead of you, thanks to your hard work.”
A calm descended upon Caden.
The anger had not gone away, but it changed from hot to cold.
“No. You have it backward. What
good will all my work be
Caden retreated for his room.
Everything had gone from bad to worse. His breath came in ragged gasps. His
stomach felt sick.
What’s going to happen to me
now? My investments are bankrupt. I might as well have spent all my time trying
designer drugs and enjoying endless virtual screwing like all the other rich
kids on Bethany Mountain.