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BLACKSTAR 2060 gardskinner

FREEDOM IS NEVER FREE

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Copyright © 2013 by Gard Skinner All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003 Harcourt Children’s Books is an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. www.hmhbooks.com Text set in Adobe Garamond Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data CIP data TK ISBN: 978-0-547-97259-6 Manufactured in the United States of America TK  10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1 45xxxxxxxx

TAG: DAKOTA LEVEL: 60+ CONFIRMED KILLS: 2635445 ACCURACY: 63% HEADSHOTS: 28% PREFERRED LOAD: SNIPER, COMBAT RIFLE UNIT AGE: UNKNOWN

TAG: PHOENIX LEVEL: 60+ CONFIRMED KILLS: 96598322 ACCURACY: 67% HEADSHOTS: 22% PREFERRED LOAD: SHOTGUN, MACHINE PISTOL UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED

TAG: RENO LEVEL: 60+ CONFIRMED KILLS: 89996899 ACCURACY: 68% HEADSHOTS: 37% PREFERRED LOAD: LASER MACHETE, SNIPER CANNON UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED

TAG: YORK LEVEL: 60+ CONFIRMED KILLS: 92135698 ACCURACY: 59% HEADSHOTS: 21% PREFERRED LOAD: ROCKET LAUNCHER, KNIVES UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED

TAG: MI [“ME”] LEVEL: 60+ CONFIRMED KILLS: 86002354 ACCURACY: 74% HEADSHOTS: 39% PREFERRED LOAD: RANGED WEAPONS, EXPLOSIVE ORDNANCE UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED

TAG: JEVO LEVEL: 60+ CONFIRMED KILLS: 56021888 ACCURACY: 48% HEADSHOTS: 44% PREFERRED LOAD: MELEE, FISTS, TEETH UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED

Level 1
Our first war with Dakota she was wetting her pants, pinned down by laser-machine-gun fire, explosions everywhere, missiles screaming, star fighters diving, cannons thumping . . . The girl was terrified, spouting gibberish, but, OK, not really condition yellow. Sure, she was redlining. We all were. It was an inferno out there. But to be fair, her army-issue trousers were not pee-stained. Or twostained. Was she brave that day? Not a bit. All huddled in a ball, a teddybear clutch on her weapon, cringing at every blast as Planet LB-427 was reduced to ash. A seven-hour battle. She didn’t fire a single shot at the enemy. But at least she could still move and speak, which counts for something when you’re dropped dead center in the most intense firefight ever spawned by bloodsucking alien invaders. In the distance a chrome skyscraper erupted in flames and toppled over, crushing half our regiment. Two orbiting star destroyers collided and rained razor-sharp chunks into our foxhole. Smoke billowed from a crashed troop crawler while a monstrous spider-bot lost three legs and rolled on its back, squirming, helpless, just a countdown away from its atomic core going auto-destruct.

It wasn’t a totally unusual situation ​ — ​ another day on the front lines, another hopeless battle. Our side was defending the last bridge to the Lair of Ultimate Doom as the enemy advanced on our position and tried to wipe us out. Before night fell, they hoped to storm the fortress gates and have it out with our boss, King Necramoid. Typical intergalactic war. The noise. The smoke. The burn. The death. Pure slaughter. Blood frosted the ruins. Severed body parts entangled our feet as we struggled to move. There were just a few dozen of us left, all wearing the slime-green Nec uniform, armed with single-burst blasters, and while we had the numbers, the gamer out there was mowing us down like he was cutting grass. This one was a good shot. Quick with his weapon switches. Flawless ammo management. Relentless power-ups. Over to my right, by the concrete barriers, Third Platoon caught a full wave of Dicer fire. They were sliced neatly in two, all right at the waist. A med-bot tried to revive the top halves but lost both arms to a frag grenade for the effort. All the dying bodies squirmed, bled, and finally went still. — ​ man, she was not with the program. But that day, Dakota ​ “I don’t wanna die!” she screamed, cradling her cold rifle, all curled up in a spot where the gamer had no angle to snipe her in the helmet or toss a betty in her lap. “It’s your job to die!” I argued. “Now get out there, expose yourself, fire off a few random shots, and let the enemy rip you to pieces! At least we can use you as a distraction for the rest of us take him out!” “Why can’t we reason with him? I’m sure he’s just a normal person like the rest of us! Let’s wave a white flag and sit down to discuss a peace treaty!”
...2...

KABOOOOOOM! The gamer blew up our force field generator with a Quasi-Burst Rocket Launcher. Those babies are lethal. Downside: they take forever to reload. Dakota jumped to her feet. Out there in the clearing, the gamer was reaching for another shell for his QBRL. She had a moment to do something. Anything. She might have even taken him out with her weapon, but instead, she waved and screamed, “Hey! You!” The gamer looked up. Wow, they never look up. Not even when one of us emits a truly beautiful death howl or dying scream or some kind of agonized shriek. Gamers refuse to pay attention to the NPC hordes. They just kill us over and over and over again. But this one did pause. He stopped loading. He looked right at Dakota as she hopped over the low wall, tossing her weapon aside. “I’m not going to hurt you!” she promised, removing her battle helmet, blond locks tumbling out. “Really! Trust me! I just want to talk. You look like a reasonable person . . .” The gamer shrugged. She rambled on. “So have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we have to fight and why we have to die and what’s the point of —” The gamer holstered the rocket launcher and quickly drew a pair of hand cannons. KERPOWWWWW! They looked to be the .46-caliber upgrades. Both glowed gold and packed armor-piercing ammo. Bad spot for Dakota to be in, but she dove quickly into a bomb crater, her hands still stretched up in surrender. “You don’t have to kill me!” she yelled. “And we don’t have to kill you either! There can be peace between our species!” Strange moment. The gamer paused. Why would he pause? He had a lot of work to do before finally reaching Necramoid’s war chamber. These guys don’t stop for anything when a boss battle is so close they can smell it on their progress bar.
...3...

But Dakota was having an effect. There was no doubt. The gamer lifted his weapons, taking harmless aim at a blank wall in the distance. Dakota peeked her head over the edge of the crater. Realizing the gamer was not going to sizzle it off, she clambered across the bloodstained dirt. “Who are you?” she asked him. “What’s your name?” The gamer pointed to a readout over his head. His tag, God_ of_Destruktion glowed green. Then she let him have it, like a dozen questions all at once. “So, how old are you? Where are you from? How did you get here? And who am I? How did I get here? What time is it? What day is it? What year is it? What is this place? Why all the anger and hostility? What did I ever do to you?” God_of_Destruktiontilted his head. He looked confused. Heavy metal armor shrugged again, the dents and scars moving like skin over a massive frame. His facemask, dark as a sith helmet, began to pan around. He sensed something. It made him nervous. But he wasn’t sure what it was. Dakota pressed, moving forward a bit, “Really, tell me, who am I?” she pleaded. “Why am I here? Part of this madness? Help me, G-O-D, please . . .” But something set God_of_Destruktion off. He jumped back a step, boot rockets popping on, catapulting him a dozen yards away from the approaching girl. A trap! That must be it! He seemed to puzzle it out very quickly . . . Had the NPCs in this level sent a pretty girl as a . . . “Suicide bomber,” I heard him mutter over the radio. “Nice work. Clever game.”
...4...

Yes. That had to be why this enemy soldier had approached him. Unarmed. So gorgeous. So vulnerable . . . Dakota froze, and I watched the whole thing unfold. Honestly, I’d never seen anything like it in all my years in the muck. Nothing even close. And I’ve sent millions to die. Maybe the gamer was right to be afraid. What if Dakota was some kind of self-destruct bomb? I’d only met her that morning while getting suited up. For all I knew, she might be the next generation of NPC soldier. God_of_Destruktion wasn’t taking any chances. He wanted to live just as bad as Dakota. The guy pulled a fusion grenade and slapped it to a sticky pad ​ — ​ another nice move. I could see what was coming. That guy knew — ​ then he threw the thing neatly at Dakota in a long arc. There war ​ was a SPLAT! She turned to look back at us, the blinking device stuck squarely to her forehead; one great toss, if you ask me. The gamer dove behind cover. What could the rest of us do? We all dove too. Reno, York, Mi, Jevo, all of us. Dakota erupted in a shower of red mist and electrical backlash. When the battle resumed, there wasn’t a piece of her left that was larger than a raindrop.

...5...

Level 2
“OOOOOOOWWWWWWW!” Dakota moaned. I could tell the reassimilation was hurting, but that’s usually the way it goes the first few times. Some soldiers can take it. Others have to let you know they don’t like pain. That second kind is also prone to all sorts of other whining. I’ll get back to that later. She was lying on the operating table, the arms and beams from the giant machine quickly knitting her back together. A foot here. A leg there. Two hands. The organs and glands and blood vessels. Arteries were strung, sealed, and pressure-tested. Veins were filled with fresh blood. Eyeballs plopped into sockets, a synaptic wand stabbing in the side and neatly stitching the neurons to her oblongata. “OH, man, this HURTS!” she cried. “Of course it does,” I agreed, grabbing her left fingers to see if the feeling had returned. “You took a fusion grenade to the forehead, dummy. It isn’t supposed to feel good.” “They didn’t tell me about that in training,” she spat, obviously angry that her drill sergeant had left out a few key facts. “They assume you understand that getting shot or blown up or run over or disintegrated all the time isn’t going to be a walk in

the freakin’ park.” The words came out of my mouth a little mean. Not sure why I lashed out like that; I really didn’t have a reason. I kinda liked her so far. She must pack a different kind of guts to face a gamer without a weapon like that. I noticed I was still holding her wrist. Not sure why about that, either. It looked different. Strong, tough, but . . . different. “You’re Phoenix.” She said it flat, like repeating a fact for a test. At the same time I saw her start massaging the ink around her hand. “No one told me I was getting another body.” And what a body too. You can’t imagine. Some artist pulled out all the stops for this one. Built for war. Just plain built. She’d taken her paw away, was making a fist. I wanted it back. Something along the palm . . . Dakota sneered. “I do not plan to end up on this table. Not ever again.” “I like the attitude, Dakota. Staying alive is the game. You sound like a winner.” “I just don’t like getting pulverized.” “None of us do. Hop up, kid, let me show you around.” The machine finished sewing her back together. She zipped her jumper but was wobbly as both boots hit the floor. Typical. Something about the first few times you go double-z. As in 00, when you die, no hit points or health left. Your equilibrium gets all messed up for a while. Anyway, she stumbled into me. Man, she was stacked, for war, for pinup photos, you name it. Head to toe, not a muscle or bulge out of place. I could see her weaving as we walked. Didn’t mind when she leaned against me, not one little bit. Just doing my duty for my team, right? The inside of Central Ops was, you guessed it, constructed just
...7...

like you’d want a cost-is-no-object top-secret military installation to be. Steel grates for walkways. Sliding doors. Cold gray walls and thick windows. Everything burly and tough and top of the line. Very little wasted space. Hall after hall with closely spaced cabins. Deck upon deck of them. You’d get completely lost if the coordinates of your location weren’t painted every few steps on the floor. At CO, no one gets lost because there’s nowhere to go. You’re totally enclosed except for the out-portals in mission control. Incoming mail goes straight to Re-Sim. The place seems huge your first day, and then you realize how small it is. “Where are my quarters?” Dakota asked, and of course this was my choice. I was team commander, and I’d planned to put her down below with the other new grunts, but on a whim, I changed my mind. We were on my deck now, and one of my corporals had just been promoted to Boss, so what the heck, I gave her his cube. That put her about five doors down from me, and again, why do that? She already seemed like a whiner. Maybe it was that hand. We’ve all got the company tat, you know. Around the palm. Have it as long as any of us can remember. But hers . . . now it hit me . . . hers was off somehow. Dakota was an interesting addition to my squad, no doubt about it. That blond hair. Around the same age as the rest of us, which was in the prime of our fighting lives. But she wasn’t built like a teenage girl. No, she walked like an athlete and moved like a warrior. You probably know the mold. You know it for all of us. I was way over six feet, about 250, and all of it ripped muscle. I made the Hulk look like he should do a sit-up or two. Wire hair. Block steel for a skull, iron girders for bones. And here’s the kicker: none of us could legally join any military we’d ever
...8...

heard of. Years-wise, we were too young. But it was all about combat experience, right? My squad was ten times as battle-hardened as any puss gray-haired general on any planet. We’d seen more, shot more, and suffered more than entire armies. Some days, we were entire armies. Our whole regiment was the same way. You’ve seen us in games, — ​ we’re the biggest of the big and the best of the best. in comics ​ Looking for a steamroller in combat boots? A truck in pants? A wrecking ball wearing army-green? You found us. And you found a world of hurt. But Dakota, the closer I got to her, the more time we spent together, there was something else. Something extra. A blackened core in those dark eyes. A gaze that made you shake a bit. Strong, yes. Confident, absolutely. But no one would forget her on the battlefield earlier. She sure hadn’t shown much in the way of common sense when hot metal began tearing through soft flesh. So I told her where to find things. The mess, where she could grab whatever she wanted to eat. The gym, where she could work out if she felt like it, clear the cobwebs or whatever. We had a library and a game room and a bunch of other spots to gather during offhours, but interest in those really came and went. Up ahead, my buddies, who’d been here almost as long as I’d been at CO, were just coming out of the section lounge. Drinks, games, chatter. It had a monitor for the latest outgoing missions, something we checked all the time. Like any military, we lived our lives on call. Long periods of boredom punctuated by intense moments of sheer terror. “What’s the drill?” I shouted to Reno. The boy just shook his big head, neck tendons rippling. He was always first to check for
...9...

action. First to go over a hill or through a door. I trusted him with my life every single day of my life. “Nothin’.” “Nothin’,” York echoed. He was always doing that. Going with the flow. Never a complaint. Dude was a monster, skin dark as shadow, the kind of bald beast you don’t want to run into unless you’ve got a lot of friends around the corner. — ​ full name Miami ​ — ​ was right behind them. Of course it Mi ​ had occurred to us all long ago that we’d each been named after some city or state or something in the United Zones of whatever they were calling it these days. Who really knew what was going on outside CO? Our information came straight through the propaganda channels. And even the little stuff we could glean from our enemies, from their chatter, from their habits . . . well, at least we had a safe place to sleep every night. Didn’t seem like that was a common luxury these days. You might have seen Mi around. She was a hottie. But in a complete-opposite-of-a-weak-supermodel kind of way. Body, brains, and brawn. Not to mention those eyes. If you ran into her on the front lines, trust me, you didn’t forget. Something about when you mix radioactive green peering through coal-black locks. Her gaze was the last thing, the very last thing, a lot of gamers ever saw. So, more about our names: I was probably from Arizona originally, Mi from the Orange State . . . New York, Nevada, Sarajevo, and so on. You’d have to be a complete moron not to have picked that up right away. So of course the next question is, why not just go by our real names? And that was the thing. The central point. None of us could remember our real name. None of us had any solid memories at all
. . . 10 . . .

of where we were before we joined up. That part of our lives ​ — ​ how — ​ it was all we got here, why we were here, where we came from ​ a big blank in our heads. It was as if someone had kidnapped us, opened our skulls, and melon-balled out all the memory stuff. The only things they’d left behind were the training and the encrypted tattoos. We got blank slates, serial codes on our hands, and the ability to get blown to a million bits in insane battles day in and day out. Then they gathered up the debris and pieced us together again. What a life. Or was it even life? It might have been death. None of us really had a clue. None of us really cared, either. Not until Dakota started asking hard questions.

. . . 11 . . .