Excerpt for The Complete Shadowkill Trilogy by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






The Complete

Shadowkill

Trilogy




By Mark S. R. Peterson

Copyright 2017 © Mark S. R. Peterson


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Book 1: Killzone



Book 2: Homeland Defense



Book 3: Storming The Hill



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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.








KILLZONE:

BOOK 1 OF THE SHADOWKILL TRILOGY


A novel written by:

Mark S. R. Peterson


Copyright 2014 © Mark S. R. Peterson





DEDICATION



To Melissa,

Good times and bad, for always hanging in there.

And for not treating “this writing thing” like a pipe dream.


To LucasArts, for creating the Star Wars Battlefront

game series, which was a large inspiration for this book.


And to all the men and women of the

Armed Forces, for your dedicated service.




PROLOGUE




“How long as he been like this?”

“Almost four years, Mr. President.”

“Four?” the President asks. Something else I can tag onto my predecessor. I’m sure the press would love to hear about this one. Not sure what good it would do now. Fox would just report that it’s me blaming Bush for everything. Even MSNBC is starting to follow their lead a bit on that one. “I didn’t think you kept them here that long.”

Dr. Brian Humphrey folds his hands together. “This one is a special case, sir,” he says. “He saw some intense fighting in Ramadi during the summer of 2006. He and three others were kidnapped by insurgents. Before they were to be executed, he was rescued by a group of Special Forces.”

“What about the other three?”

“Executed. He was the only one to survive. He was in the old Walter Reed facility before it was shut down.”

“Marine?”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

His plan for the day had been simple: visit some troops with Sasha at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, pose for a few pictures to prove he’s a friend of the military, and then play a round of golf. His drive has been getting amiss lately, and has a pro scheduled to help him with it. Then, Sasha had asked about a man wearing restraints.

At first, Dr. Humphrey tried to direct her attention elsewhere, but she was relentless.

Possibly a future President herself. Now that would definitely rock Dr. King’s world.

Dr. Humphrey knelt next to her and said, “It’s to protect himself. So he isn’t able to do himself harm.”

That’s when he asked how long the young man had been like this.

Barack has one of his Secret Service agents escort his daughter away while he walks over to the young man. He’s black, cleanly-shaven, and at one time probably had a full head of black hair. His hair is light gray, on the verge of being all white.

“PTSD, I assume?” the President asks.

Dr. Humphrey nods and says, “All he talks about are shadows, robots, and aliens.”

“May I see his chart?”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

Barack scans the chart of Mr. Corey Hickman, from rural Alabama, a Marine Gunnery Sergeant who served a tour in Iraq.

“You aren’t the first President to visit Corey. President Bush was here about a year ago. I believe that was his fourth visit to this young man.”

“Shadows!” a sharp voice pierces the air.

The five Secret Service agents behind the President all clamor around him. Then, when they realize the young man is in restraints, three back out into the hallway.

Corey Hickman stares up at the ceiling, eyes wide, jaw gnawing on an imaginary piece of meat.

The President stands beside him. “Mr. Hickman, I want to thank you for your years of service to this nation. Is there anything we can do for you?”

“Shadows,” Corey whispers. “Beware of the shadows.”

Just then, the man blinks and looks over at Barack. He tugs at the restraints, stretching his fingers towards him.

“Can you unlock this one restraint?” the President asks.

“I wouldn’t advise it, sir.”

“Did he ever shake George’s—er President Bush’s hand?”

Dr. Humphrey shakes his head.

“Unlock it please.”

“Yes, Mr. President,” Humphrey says, sighing.

Two Secret Service men stand along the other side of the bed. Once the restraint securing his right hand is released, the young man slowly lifts a hand. Barack shakes it and says, “Thank you, Mr. Hickman, for your service. It is a true honor to meet you. Is there anything more we can do for you?”

Hickman’s breathing starts growing more pronounced. He nods and says, “I would . . . I would . . . I would . . .”

“Yes, Mr. Hickman?”

As Barack leans in, so does one of the Secret Service agents. In an instant, Corey reaches up and snatches the agent’s pistol free from the shoulder holster—a feat deemed impossible for the most, but with someone of Corey’s military background, it was all part of the training. Then, before the agent can react, the young man presses the gun underneath his own chin and fires the trigger.

A resonating bang echoes throughout the room and hallway, causing the other agents to storm inside, pistols drawn.

Barack remains frozen, staring at the blood and brain-splattered wall, certain his face and shirt have also been sprayed.

Thanks God Sasha wasn’t here to see this.


* * *


“Could you turn that up, please?”

The bartender grabs the remote. The green bar along the bottom of the screen, superimposed along the BREAKING NEWS banner, grows with the number. “Need a refill, buddy?”

The bald man strokes his graying goatee. When he was in the military, he had to shave his face clean every single day. Even though it’s been close to two decades since that time, he’s only grown facial hair within the last six months. He used to have a crewcut too, but, after a brief bout of cancer three years ago where he lost his hair during the intense chemotherapy treatments, he’s loved the cue-ball look ever since. He pushes the near-empty glass forward.

His cell phone rings, his ringtone set on the Star Spangled Banner. He immediately answers it. “Been waiting for you to call, sir.”

“Just have a few more things to get ready, Rex,” the man on the other end says.

“What about this other thing?” Rex asks. “It’s all over the news.”

“How much are they saying?”

“The usual banter. Democrats are blaming the Republicans for some Gulf War Bush-era bullshit and the Republicans are blaming the Democrats on their lack of leadership within the Secret Service.”

“Anything about the victim?”

“They’re not releasing his name,” says Rex, “but an unnamed source is saying he was a Marine Gulf War vet from ought-six.”

“That’s it? Not where he was stationed in oh six or that he was rescued by a group of Special Forces?”

“No.”

“Let’s hope it stays that way.”

The door to the bar in downtown Austin, Texas, opens. In walks a young man who weaves his way over and sits next to Rex.

“I’ll have what he’s having,” the kid says.

Rex shoves the full glass of beer to the side. He holds the phone away from his mouth. “Let’s go with the hard stuff, kid. You’re buying.”

The kid flips a twenty onto the bar, and the bartender sets out two shot glasses. He grabs a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from behind the counter and readily fills them up.

As soon as the bottle is out of sight, Rex slams his down. He looks over at the kid. “We’re in for a long day.”


* * *


The motorcade drives away, the President’s personal limousine only housing one other occupant besides him: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. His daughter Sasha is riding in the car behind him.

Just need a private moment with someone who may know a little more than what I’ve been told.

“How could something like that happen?” Barack asks.

“The agent, I guess, was a little too close-”

“I don’t mean what happened today—although I want answers on that too. I mean, how could that young man be in that disparaging condition for so long? I know war can have an affect on people, but . . . to see it in his eyes, one wonders why we even do it. Why we go to war.”

“There’s evil in the world, Mr. President,” the chairman says. “There always has been. No one can make it go away. Not even us.”

The President nods. “I know. The press is going have a field day with the Secret Service. It’ll be worse than the sex scandal they had a few years ago.”

“The young man was very disturbed,” the chairman says. He turns to look outside. “I knew him. Corey Hickman. He was a damn fine soldier, Mr. President. It was tragic what happened today, but . . . I honestly think it was the best for him.”

“How could you say that?”

“War has an affect on people, just like you said, sir. I don’t think he ever would’ve been released from his own demons.” As the buildings fly by in a blur, the chairman says, “But there is truth to what he said.”

“You mean, the aliens and such? You’ve got to be joking.”

“No, not aliens.” He faces Barack, leaning towards him. “Shadows, Mr. President.”



CHAPTER ONE




“Wow, look at all those people,” Lucas Simmons said to his friend, Tre Paxton. The long line outside of the Best Buy store in Grand Forks, North Dakota, wrapped around the corner and down along the entire north side of the building. Near the front were small domed tents, with the residents wrapped up in sleeping bags and heavy winter coats. Further to the rear were those with lighter coats and sporting neither hats nor gloves, their hands shoved into pockets. “They can’t all be here to get the game.”

Tre smiled. “What else would it be? Sucks to be them though. Good thing we got the golden tickets.” He patted his coat pocket.

Lucas can sympathize with those standing in line, for he would’ve done the same thing if they weren’t guaranteed an advance copy of the latest video game craze since Grand Theft Auto and Halo 2. “Heard on the news these stores only have a handful to sell. And once they’re gone, it’ll be two or three months before they get more.”

“Wonder if they know that?” asked Tre, cocking a thumb towards the crowd. “Saw any selling on eBay?”

“Of course,” said Lucas. “I checked last night. You remember how many advance copies they guaranteed?”

“One hundred, I believe. Or was it five hundred? No, I think it’s one. I wonder if we’ll be the only ones from around here.”

“I still think it’s weird we both got one. Almost like it was rigged. But if it was, why us? We’re pretty good, but there are thousands playing their games online. It’s not like we’re MeJabba or Punisher.”

“Yeah, but we’ve gotten higher scores than Punisher though. But MeJabba? Nobody’s better than MeJabba. Not even God.”

“Sorry, my friend. MeJabba is God.”

MeJabba was the number one player in the massively multiplayer online game set up in the Shadowkill universe—call it the modern military meets World of Warcraft. In the game Shadowkill: Mideast Conquest, those playing MMOFPS-style can set up their own teams and can also request to play with those higher-ranked.

Lucas’s username was Shootergod, a sniper, while Tre’s was Gitdown. Tre was an infantry soldier like MeJabba. Both Lucas and Tre were ranked in the top fifty worldwide—in the last MMOFPS competition, they each were just south of the top twenty.

They each get asked often enough to join other teams, but only if they can do it with each other.

“Anyway,” Lucas said, “there were twenty or so advance copies on eBay, and the cheapest was five hundred bucks. The highest was well over a grand.”

“Any bidders?”

“Of course.”

“They had to be scammers then, unless they were selling their copies before they bought them.”

Lucas remembered the day they each got their tickets. He was coming back to the dorms from a class and Tre was just leaving for one. Both stopped at the wall of mailboxes along the first floor of the Tamarack Hall dormitory at Bemidji State University.

“Christ, look at this,” Lucas said, holding up the small manila-colored envelope. Mountainview Gaming was the sender. He ripped it open. “No way. I got one.”

“Way to go,” Tre said, inserting his key into the lock.

Lucas carefully read the letter that accompanied the dark yellow ticket—not quite like the shiny, golden, Willy Wonka-style ticket he’d been hoping for. “Looks like we have to be at Best Buy over in Grand Forks on February 7th, at six in the morning, to get it. Can I hitch a ride over there? I’ll help pitch in for gas.”

“Thanks, but it looks like I need to be there too.”

“What do you mean?” asked Lucas.

Tre held up his own manila-colored envelope. “I won too.”




“Getting an advance copy?” a young twenty-something guy sporting a bomber hat near the front corner asked them.

“Yeah,” Lucas said—to him, it sounds like such a stupid question, for that would be the only reason for them to walk straight to the front door instead of waiting like them.

“Give you two hundred for it.”

“No way,” another guy behind him said, this one in a Minnesota Vikings stocking cap. “I’ll give you four!”

Ever since getting their tickets, they’ve been afraid of someone stealing them—including their own roommates, who aren’t even gamers—so they told no one of their fortune. Many times they thought about renting a safe deposit box at one of the local banks, but always backed out at the last minute. Instead, they tucked their tickets between the pages of their textbooks.

Over the past few months, speculation regarding the game had grown. Early reviews toted it to be the best video game ever, not just for 2006 or even the decade.

Ever.

To separate it from the usual first-person shooter military games, the developers added two new elements. The first was training. Aside from utilizing the option of instant action, players can start out as a private and advance through the ranks. One can even train in the Special Forces. The second element was an addition to their weaponry: swords. Not Lord of the Rings-type swords. Ninja swords.

For a limited time, those purchasing the new game will get the first month of online playing free. Similar to Mideast Conquest, there was an online gaming contest, scheduled for early May, where the top twenty gamers win a year’s worth of online playing—a feat Shootergod and Gitdown had been striving for but only can get oh so close. In this new game, however, the top five win both a cash prize and a tour of Mountainview Gaming’s headquarters.

A tall, beefy man stood in the doorway, his bulging arms crossed across his yellow SECURITY T-shirt. “Advance tickets?”

Tre and Lucas handed him their tickets.

The man studied them carefully, then said, “Welcome, guys. Head on in and enjoy yourselves.”


* * *


The Best Buy employees were decked out in camouflage military fatigues, and the faint sound of gunfire and explosions could be heard through the loudspeakers.

“Tre and Lucas?” a tall man asked. He was the only employee not dressed for the festivities, for he had on a dark-colored suit and tie. He shook their hands. “Good to meet you. I’m Stan, the store manager. Glad you’re all here. This is Megan.” He gestured to a girl standing on the other side of him, wearing a plain grey sweatshirt. She was so thin her physique resembled that of a twelve-year-old boy, and could’ve been mistaken for one if it weren’t for her long, curly red hair and pink T-shirt she wore underneath the sweatshirt.

“You guys from around here?” she asked, her lips smacking as she chowed down on a wad of gum—or three wads, would be Lucas’s guess.

“Nope, Bemidji,” Lucas said. He shoved his hands in his coat pockets. “We both go to BSU. You?”

“I’m a junior at UND here. Say, how did you both get tickets? You two are pretty lucky.”

Grinning, Lucas said, “We’ve been thinking that same thing ever since.”

“Say, didn’t we play you guys in hockey a few weeks before Christmas? I think we beat you.”

“Probably,” said Lucas, shrugging. He never grew up watching sports—quite odd as he’s from a town that lives and breathes hockey. His Mom divided her TV watching time between the Lifetime Channel and Law and Order. Even though she loved all of the spin-off franchises of the latter, like Criminal Intent and SVU, her heart was always there for the original series. Especially the early shows—her favorite actor was Jerry Orbach, and his death a few years ago absolutely devastated her.

His Dad, on the other hand, was a John Wayne/Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood junkie. Any movie with any of those three actors were like gold to him.

The only sports ever watched in their home was the Olympics—figure skating, skiing, and gymnastics mostly—and the occasional Superbowl.

“Did you catch the Wild game last night?” Megan asked.

“Sorry, but I don’t follow very many sports,” he said, suddenly wishing he hadn’t spoken too soon. Not that she’d ever go out with him, but if there was ever a chance he might’ve blown it.

“Really? Oh, my God, I thought all guys were sports freaks.” She blew a bubble, then popped it. “I can’t help it, myself, I got four older brothers and all. Probably why I play so many games.”

Stan handed all three their advance copies and said, “Okay, if we can all stand over here in front of the game display and get a picture for the Herald.”

A photographer from the Grand Forks Herald readied his camera and snapped a few pictures.

Twenty minutes later, Tre, Lucas, and Megan walk out clutching their new video games, wary of the anxious crowd who still had a half-hour left to wait in the freezing cold. They exchanged their gaming usernames as well as their Facebook friend requests.

Once safely in the car, Lucas and Tre opened up their bags.

The cover of the game depicted a squadron of soldiers running through the streets of a Middle Eastern city, some firing at terrorists along the roofs and in windows while others were wielding ninja swords. Scrawled in glimmering crimson across the cover was the title:


Shadowkill Squadron:

The War on Terror


“Wow,” Tre said. “This looks great.”

Lucas tore open the box. Along with the game, he also bought the colorful graphic manual—he’s sure many of the commands were similar across the previous Shadowkill games, but having the manual separately sure beat trying to view the PDF version that came with the game. He always seemed to waste an entire color cartridge printing the few pages he wanted to keep as references. “This looks even better than Mideast Conquest and Terror Camp.”

“Let’s play this right away,” Tre said.

“I’d like to, but I have a physics test tomorrow,” Lucas said. “And a ton of calculus homework. Shit, I even have a Freshman English paper due Monday.”

“Me too. We can play for an hour or so, and then study.”

Lucas smiled. “Let’s do it. I wanna get into the top five of their next contest and tour their headquarters. If we’re gonna create our own video games one day, it’d be great to see what one looks like.”



CHAPTER TWO




Lucas leaned back and sighed. “Whoa, that was great.” He called Tre.

“Unbelievable!” Tre bellowed—even though eight floors separated the two, he swore he could still hear his voice from up the stairwell with his other ear. “Best game ever! I love shooting and blowing things up, but there’s something super cool about slicing and dicing with that ninja sword.”

“Almost thought we were gonna bite the dust when those two al-Qaeda meatheads started sniping at us,” Lucas said. “Good thing I was able to quickly pick them off. Ready for another one?” He glanced at the clock. Shit, I need to work on my English paper. “Just one more. Then, I have a paper to write.”

“Let’s do it.”

Lucas and Tre have been friends for the past two years, ever since they both grabbed for the lone copy of Shadowkill Squadron: Terror Camp, at K-mart in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Despite both living in rival hockey towns—Lucas from Warroad, Minnesota, and Tre from neighboring Roseau—they were both juniors in high school who didn’t care much for the sport that absorbed much of their towns’ attention.

Lucas had plenty of friends who played video games, but that’s about it. They played. Lucas, on the other hand, yearned for more. He studied how games progressed through the levels and why some games were better than others.

“How do we decide who gets this?” Lucas asked.

Both gripped the game from either end, albeit not enough to completely rip it from the other’s hand.

“Flip for it?” asked Tre, digging out a quarter.

Lucas grinned. “God, that’s so lame.”

“What else then?”

Lucas relinquished his hold on the game. Tre nearly dropped it. He took the game in both hands and held it up between them.

“You like racing games?” asked Lucas. He gestured over to a Mario Kart demo for the Nintendo GameCube. There were two controllers—at the time occupied by two ten-year-olds who constantly crashed into each other. Soon, a lady came up and told the two they had to leave for home.

Tre shrugged. “Not quite my thing, but it’ll do in a pinch.”

The race track was one of the simple ones—then again, it was only a demo, so they didn’t expect much. Lucas had Mario and Tre was racing Luigi. Right out of the gate, they each soared ahead of the others. By the end of the first lap, they were neck-and-neck, while the next closest was at least two curves behind.

Tre had a slight lead throughout much of the race—the lead car can be the target of many assaults, so Lucas preferred to stay in second place until halfway through the last lap. Rockets that struck Tre only resulted in a temporary loss of his first place lead.

This kid is good.

By the third and final lap, Lucas was two car-lengths behind Tre. A rocket soared overhead to take him out.

Yes! I’m gonna win! The game is mine!

But Tre maneuvered out of its way at the very last second, swerving right in front of Lucas—Mario—who ended up running into the side. The sudden loss of speed was enough for Tre to guarantee his first place finish.

Lucas peered over at Tre. “Racing games not your thing, huh?”

“I’ve been known to play it once or twice,” he said, grinning. “A day.”

Lucas gestured to the Shadowkill game and held out his hand. “Great game.”

“Wanna come over to my house and play some time?” asked Tre, shaking his hand. “I have a few friends who play, but you’re much better than them.”




After graduating from high school, both enrolled at Bemidji State University. They wanted to be roommates, but decided it may not work out since they’d be tempted to play video games all the time. Tre ended up on the second floor of the Tamarack Hall dormitory while Lucas got on the tenth.

Lucas’s roommate was a chain-smoking alcoholic who spent the bulk of his time either hanging out in the weight room with his jock buddies, hitting on girls, or partying off-campus until the wee hours in the morning. Tre’s roommate, on the other hand, was a graphic design major who woke up to Bob Marley on his stereo and was constantly leaving Mountain Dew cans partially-filled with Copenhagen chew around the room.

“Let’s be roommates next year,” they’ve said to each other on more than one occasion.

“Do you think it’ll affect our grades though?” asked Lucas.

“We sure play enough now and we’re both holding down a 4.0 GPA. What difference would it make if we were roommates?”

“Got a point.”

“What floor should we go with: second or tenth?”

Lucas dug out a quarter. “Flip for it?”



CHAPTER THREE




Danny Reed mastered Pac-Man and Donkey Kong long before he mastered the fine art of pooping and peeing in the potty.

His Dad was a rising star in the Boston DA’s office and his Mom was a pediatrician at Tufts, specializing in diabetes. Like most families with a busy lifestyle, they heavily relied upon a nanny to help raise little Danny.

But finding a good one wasn’t easy. They went through seven nannies in less than three years—the last one they fired when they discovered she had invited her meth-head boyfriend over for an amateur porno production on their living room couch, kitchen table, and balcony, and had locked Danny in the closet.

As they searched extensively for nanny number eight, Danny asked why they even needed one. “I can do things myself,” he said.

“You’re too young to be left alone,” his Dad said. Then he turned and saw Danny, with his arms crossed and a deep scowl across his face. “We’d love to, buddy, if we could, but it’s also illegal.”

“What’s that?” asked Danny.

His Mom set a stack of papers from the nanny-placement agency off to the side and said, “It means it’s against the law. We’d both be arrested and would lose our jobs, and then the cops could take you away to a foster home.” She glanced at her watch. “Speaking of job, I have to leave in ten minutes.”

“But what are we going to do about Danny today?” his Dad asked. “I know you loathe the thought of a day-care center, but I have a double-homicide trial to prepare for and the defense is coming down hard on how the evidence was collected. Can we get Mrs. Dalton to-”

“I will not have that alcoholic bitch watch my son!”

“Never had a problem before.”

“I suppose you’ve never seen her drain an entire bottle of wine in one sitting then, huh? That’s what happened the last time she watched our son.”

As they went back and forth, eliminating choice after choice of potential sitters, Danny turned on the N64 and started playing Mario Kart. It didn’t take long before they stood behind him and asked, “What if you were hungry?”

Without taking his eyes from the screen, Danny pointed to the fridge. “Food’s in there. Pizza from last night.”

“Know how to turn on the microwave?” his Dad asked.

Before Danny could answer, his Mom said, “You know that he does.”

“This is a bad idea.”

“But what choice do we have? He can obviously play games all day long, if he likes, and we’ll just keep the door locked. I don’t like it either, but you know our son acts far more independent than other kids his age. Let’s see how today goes. If he does well, let’s try another day.”


* * *


Danny may have acted years above other children his age—once in the first grade, he stumbled upon a high school algebra book behind the teacher’s desk and was solving many of the problems within a matter of days—which only seemed to alienate him even more. He despised physical activity, and before too long his weight gained considerably.

At the age of sixteen, weighing in at three hundred and ten pounds, Danny graduated with top honors and had a full scholarship to MIT. There, he obtained graduate degrees in both Mathematics and Robotics Engineering, then was offered two jobs with the government: the Pentagon and JPL in Pasadena, California. He chose the latter. Around his time at MIT, he was also diagnosed with MS and was soon confined to a motorized wheelchair—with a few added tweaks of his own, of course.

In January 2005, he attended a video game convention in Long Beach. He had always been a fan of the Shadowkill games, so he stopped at Mountainview Gaming’s booth, rolling past all of the other video game companies without so much as a fleeting glance. Screens on both sides of the display showed the latest game to be released in the Shadowkill series.

A tall man with a graying crewcut walked up to him and shook his hand.

“Like our games?” he asked.

Danny nodded. “Of course.”

“Any favorites?”

“Probably Terror Camp,” Danny said. “I love the big world strategy, moving troops here and there, and choosing which battle to fight in. My only problem is that it’s limited on where you can go.”

“Good to hear. We’ve had a lot of similar feedback. And if you like that one, you’ll want to play our newest, Mideast Conquest. The strategy is more freestyle, so it should give you a bit more freedom. What’s your gaming username, if you care to share it? I’d be interested to know if I recognize it from the leaderboards.”

“Oh, I’m fairly certain you have.” In the online gaming community, he’s had people beg and plead for him to be on their team. Although outright solicitation of money, property, or other services are strictly prohibited, it still doesn’t prevent it from happening. He’s had guys request to loan their girlfriends to him for the weekend—and in a few occasions the girlfriends have requested it themselves. “MeJabba.”

The crewcut man smiled. “Holy cow. You’re serious, aren’t you? Yes, I surely recognize that name—I think the whole Shadowkill gaming world has. It’s an honor and privilege to meet you. My name’s Rex Cornelius, the Creative Manager for our development teams. You work in gaming?”

Danny shook his head. “I work at JPL, in their robotics division.”

Rex took a half-step back. “Robotics? I can tell you’re not joking with me. How ironic. Do you like your job? Get paid well?”

“As well as a government outfit can pay, I guess,” said Danny, shrugging. “What’s ironic about me working in robotics?”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry like that. It’s just . . . I’ll be right back.”

As Rex went around to talk with someone along the other side of the booth, Danny wheeled himself up to a demo game station that just opened up. He started playing the latest Shadowkill game, his fingers flying along the controls. He targeted every terrorist in the game with such speed and dexterity that the area around him soon grew silent. When he finished the mission, he wheeled back and turned around. “You’re right, I do love-”

There was a sea of people before him, leading as far back as he could see, clapping and cheering.

“Well done,” Rex said, clapping him on the shoulder. “I’d like you to meet one of the founders of Mountainview Gaming. Lich Glasnov.”

Lich shook Danny’s hand. “Nice to finally meet MeJabba in person. We’ve been mighty impressed with your skills. Rex here was telling me you work in robotics. If I may be so bold, do you have a contract with JPL?”

Danny nodded. “It’s due to be renewed at the end of next month.” He went on to share a bit about his background and education.

Afterwards, Lich rubbed his hands together and said, “Consider not accepting their renewal offer. We’ll pay double what they’ll offer you.”

Danny felt like crying. All of his life he’d dreamed of working for a video game developer, but he also loved working with robots. “Would I be paid to play games? Or develop them?”

Lich leaned closer to him and said, “We’re in the early stages of a government contract. One that you could be a big help for us to help accomplish. I can’t say any more than that until you start working for us and sign an NDA. Given your current position, I know you’re familiar with them. We really could use your talents. Both in robotics and . . . with your other skills.” He motioned to the plasma screen where he’d been playing. “Tying them together, so to speak. What do you say?”



CHAPTER FOUR




“Think it’s true what the forums are saying about him?” Lucas asked.

“Who? MeJabba?”

“Yeah. I know he’s probably not some secret agent or a Russian spy or anything, but what if he really did eat himself to death? You don’t name yourself MeJabba when you look like Fabio.”

“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, buddy,” said Tre. “All set? Let’s win this thing.”

Today was the final game of the annual MMOFPS contest. Four five-member squadrons, each corresponding to a different color, were competing to win the grand prize of twenty-five grand in cash and a tour of Mountainview Gaming’s headquarters.

Lucas and Tre were in Green Squadron. The three other members were Weaselman and Lowblow, who were both infantry soldiers like Tre, and BigGunz, who manned an M60 assault rifle and rocket launcher.

“Welcome, Shadowkill Squadrons,” the voice of the general said. “The objectives for your mission today are two-fold. First, the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States has been kidnapped by al-Qaeda terrorists. They’re demanding all of their brethren to be released from custody within two hours or else they’ll execute him and broadcast his death for the entire world to see. Intelligence believes he is being held somewhere on the western edge of Baghdad. Second, intelligence has also received information regarding a potential bombing at a mosque in central Baghdad, where a high-level cleric will be recruiting for the Coalition. That time is also in two hours. May the best squadron win.”

Green Squadron was now in the belly of a Blackhawk chopper, flying low towards Baghdad.

“Please advise me of a drop-off location,” the pilot said. On the display were two areas painted in green: one on the western edge of Baghdad and one on the south.

Tre—Gitdown—said, “I vote to save the Ambassador, even though many innocent lives may be at stake for the bombing.”

“It’s a fact that the Iraqi Ambassador has been kidnapped,” BigGunz said, flexing his arms. “The bombing is only listed as a potential event. If we delay trying to free him by looking around for the bombers, he’ll get his head chopped off for sure.”

“I agree,” Lucas—Shootergod—said. “Save the Ambassador.”

“Me too,” Weaselman said.

Lowblow turned to the pilot. “Western edge. Pronto!”

“Orange Squadron is also heading towards the western edge,” said Shootergod as he studied the game map, noting where the other choppers were heading. “Punisher is with them. The others are coming in from the south.”

“Watch out for Orange’s sniper too,” Weaselman said. “His miss percentage is less than five percent. What’s yours, Shootergod?”

“Six percent miss overall and I haven’t killed a single civilian this whole tournament.”

The Blackhawk decelerated and the pilot said, “We’re at the drop-off location.”


* * *


Gitdown and Weaselman tossed a pair of grenades at a door. Within moments, the door burst open and Green Squadron slipped inside, shooting at the terrorists.

BigGunz kicked open a side door and saw a family of six huddled together in fear. He headed back out. “All clear.”

They slipped down an alley. At the end of it were four terrorists, facing away from them.

Gitdown and Lowblow both unleashed their ninja swords and took care of them.

“Attention Shadowkill Squadrons, we have an update on the Ambassador’s kidnapping,” the voice of the general said. “The deadline has been moved up. I repeat: the deadline for the Ambassador’s execution has been moved up. Moments ago, on a broadcast on Al-Jazeera, the terrorists state they do not feel their threats are being taken seriously. Therefore, they are giving a deadline of five minutes. If they do not see any of their brethren being released in that time, they’ll immediately execute the Ambassador. Unfortunately, there is no further intelligence as to his whereabouts.”

In the upper corner of the screen, a video showed the Ambassador wearing the typical orange jumpsuit while a hooded terrorist stood behind him, knife in hand.

“Hey, I know where that is,” BigGunz said. “See that power generator in the corner, the one with the large swatch of white paint along the top? It’s in a house about two blocks from here. Follow me.”

They ran off to the north, zigzagging along streets, until they came to an alley that was barely wide enough for them to fit single-file.

“Watch the roofline, Shootergod,” BigGunz said. “This is a great place for an ambush.”

Shootergod took the liberty of viewing the game map. Orange was closing in from the west—Grey and Red were near the middle of the city. “Better hurry, guys,” he said. “We have company.”

Three heads appeared along the roof ahead of them. He planted the crosshairs on the one closest to him, then took out all three in rapid succession when he noticed the muzzles of their AK-47 assault rifles.

“There’s a kid sitting by the front door of the house,” BigGunz said, peering around the corner. “He was there on another mission too. There’s a panic button behind him that he’s been instructed to push at the first sign of danger.”

“Do we take out the kid?” Gitdown asked.

“We’ll lose points if we do,” BigGunz said. “He’s a civilian. And a child too. We need to get him away from the button. Let’s move back and around the block. We don’t want to end up taking the house head-on.”

He led them around to the side of the house, ever mindful of Orange Squadron’s location and any insurgents they meet. They came around the corner, the kid by the door looking away from them. When he turned and saw the squadron quickly advancing, he leaned back towards the button.

Gitdown fired a quick burst into the wall next to the button, forcing the kid away.

BigGunz was first through the door. Weaselman and Gitdown came through right afterwards, sweeping to the left and right.

Three men were sitting at a table. One was cleaning a rifle while the other two were hunched over a horde of bomb parts. Instead of shooting them, the soldiers unleashed their swords and sliced them up.

“Where’s the Ambassador?” asked Shootergod.

Lowblow took a position next to the door as Orange Squadron came around the corner, Punisher in the lead, heading right for the house. “Hurry!”

“Under the table,” BigGunz said, shoving the furniture out of the way.

On the floor appeared an outline of a hatchway.

BigGunz flung it open and Shootergod jumped inside.

Once at the bottom, the first thing he noticed was a man in an orange jumpsuit kneeling on the other side of the room.

And beside him were at least a dozen terrorists, all masked and armed.



CHAPTER FIVE




Shootergod fired at those standing on either side of the Ambassador, then rolled towards a stack of crates along the side as a flash grenade dropped onto the floor from above. It went off, blinding the remaining terrorists.

BigGunz and Weaselman jumped down now, and in seconds cleared the room.

Shootergod ran over to the Ambassador. “Are you hurt?” he asked, cutting the ropes securing his wrists and ankles. He removed the blindfold.

The Ambassador shook his head. “Thanks for rescuing me.”

Shootergod helped him to his feet. “We’re not out of this yet,” he said, viewing the battle map. Orange Squadron was waiting outside. It’s a major penalty to take out another squadron, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t steal their prize and win the game. “We have a Blackhawk waiting nearby. Let’s move, everyone! Stay alert! Orange is nearby!”

Once back on the main floor, Lowblow said, “Orange just left. They’re heading towards the mosque.”

BigGunz led the way as the other four huddled around the Ambassador. When they cut around a corner, the Ambassador said, “I overheard you say something about a mosque. Did you stop the bombing?”

All five stopped.

“No, we decided rescuing you was more important,” Shootergod said. “Besides, we didn’t know if the bombing was just a bluff.”

The Ambassador said, “I appreciate you coming for me, but the bombing is real. My kidnapping was meant to distract you from it. It’s imperative the cleric be allowed to speak at the mosque today and help recruit for the Coalition. The outcome of this war largely depends on it. The bombs are small enough not to be detected by any pat-down searches. They were told to get as close to the cleric as possible. They left maybe ten minutes before you guys showed up.”

“What did they look like?” Weaselman asked.

The Ambassador dropped his head. “They were dressed in black, like most of the other women around here. Nothing to distinguish them from anyone else.”

“But there must be dozens of mosques in Central Baghdad,” said Shootergod, reviewing the battle map. “How do we know which one it is?”

“It’s not in the middle of the city, like everyone thinks,” the Ambassador said, rubbing his wrists. “It’s not far from here. Four or five blocks at the most. Look for the one with the twin domes.”


* * *


They spotted the wide, sprawling mosque, the twin domes poking up like golden bubbles.

“Any ideas?” asked Shootergod. “I don’t think they’ll be too happy with us barging in and shooting all the women dressed in black.”

“Let’s check with the guards,” said Gitdown. “They’re bound to help us, if they’re Coalition-friendly.”

BigGunz strapped his rifle across his shoulders. “Shootergod, lead the way.”

They entered the mosque. A soldier near the door held up a hand. “Halt! What’s the meaning of this?”

Shootergod quietly explained the situation. When he advised of a solution, the soldier asked, “You want to do what? But we search everybody who comes in here.”

“Did you find anyone with bombs strapped to their waists? Three women, perhaps?”

The soldier shook his head.

“The cleric’s life is in danger,” said Shootergod.

The soldier stared at him for a moment. Then, he turned and said, “Follow me.”

He soon conversed with two more soldiers, followed by another. This latter one was at least six inches taller than the others and his pristine uniform was highly decorated with medals. He turned to Shootergod. “Would you be able to identify the bombers?”

“No, but I have a plan to draw them out.”

The officer nodded. He led them through a domed hallway until they came to a long room decorated in gold. The officer whispered in the cleric’s ear.

“I appreciate the Coalition looking out for us,” the cleric said to Shootergod. “This is all the more reason for us to stand against the insurgents and return this city back to the people.”

Shootergod quickly donned similar garb to what the cleric was wearing. Then, covering his head with a thin veil, the cleric’s assistants ordered all women towards the back of the room. All but three women started moving.

That’s them!

They quickly detained and searched the women, finding the explosives strapped to their waists.

The screen went blank.

“Both objectives complete. Mission accomplished, Green Squadron,” a voice said. “An e-mail will be sent to each player’s e-mail address, notifying them of their ranking in this competition within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Thank you for playing the 2006 Shadowkill Squadron: The War On Terror annual MMOFPS competition.”

Tre and Lucas looked over at each other.

“I think we won,” said Lucas. “Didn’t we?”

“We had to. No one else did what we did. We not only saved the Ambassador, we also stopped the bombing.”

Lucas rubbed his hands together. “I can’t wait to see Mountainview Gaming’s headquarters. Their place must be awesome. But . . . wasn’t that game strange? Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast, but there was something different about it.”

“You mean, the fact that there was less shooting and more talking? That was just at the end.”

“None of their other games were like that though.”

Tre shrugged. “Maybe it’s just a way to separate the very best from the rest.”

“Probably right.” Lucas lifted up one of his favorite Shadowkill T-shirts, this one bearing a soldier with an assault rifle in one hand and a ninja sword in the other. “Will I look too much like a geek if I wear this to Mountainview?”

“Not any more geekish than if you wore a Star Wars T-shirt to Skywalker Ranch.”



CHAPTER SIX




Lucas was studying for an upcoming Calculus test when there was a knock at the door.

Can’t be Tre. He’d just knock and come on in. Must be one of Doug’s idiot football buddies.

“Come in!”

He turned his attention back to his homework, but was jarred out of solving the next differential equation when there was another knock, this time more intense.

“I said come in! It’s open!”

By the third knocking, he slammed his pen down and whipped open the door.

“For crying out loud, couldn’t you hear-”

Standing out in the hallway were two men, dressed in identical gray suits, red ties, and dark sunglasses. “Lucas Daniel Simmons?” one of them asked.

“That’s me. Auditioning for the next Men In Black sequel, gentlemen? You’ll be great as one of the aliens.”

The other man handed over a sealed manila envelope.

Lucas took it, saw his name on the front, and said, “Gee, thanks. I appreciate the post office upgrading their services like this, but it’s not necessary.” He was about to close the door, but one of the men planted his foot firmly past the threshold.

“Read the letter,” he said, “then do what the instructions tell you to do.”

“Is this finally my letter to Hogwarts?” Lucas asked. “I know I’m a bit old, but I’m ready, Professor Dumbledore.”

His dorm phone rang.

“Can I answer that?”

“Read the letter, Mr. Simmons. Now. Then do what it says.”

“Okay, okay. Whatever you say. God, can’t you at least crack a smile or anything?”

The phone went silent by the tenth or so ring. Then, his cell phone in his pocket rang. Making no move to answer it, Lucas ripped open the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper, with the United States Presidential Seal along the upper left corner and Mountainview Gaming’s logo on the upper right.

He read the letter:


Dear Mr. Lucas Daniel Simmons aka Shootergod:

Congratulations on winning the 2006 Shadowkill Squadron: The War On Terror annual MMOFPS competition. As a reward, Mountainview Gaming is presenting you with a monetary prize, a personal tour of our main headquarters, and a special invitation to participate in a future gaming experiment. Due to the sensitivity of this highly classified experiment, we’d like you to immediately accompany the “messengers” of this letter. The Bemidji State University President has already been notified of the situation, and has granted you leave for as long as the experiment lasts, including an A grade for each of your current courses to help maintain your 4.0 GPA and additional compensation.

Congratulations again on winning the competition. We look forward to meeting with you today.


Sincerely,

Peter Chin

Lich Glasnov

Founders of Mountainview Gaming


Today? I guess I’m going on a trip.

He peered inside the envelope and saw a check made out to him in the amount of $25,000. What puzzled him the most was that the issuer of the check was the IRS, not Mountainview Gaming.

He looked up at the two men. “I assume you two are the messengers the letter mentions.”

They both nodded.

“Did Tre get one of these too? Tre Paxton? He was also in my gaming squadron. Is he coming with me?”

The two men crossed their arms and remained silent.

“How long am I going to be gone? How much do I pack?”

“Pack a few changes of clothes and we’ll make sure the rest of your belongings are properly secured,” one said.

Lucas took out a duffle bag from his closest. He packed three changes of clothes and his laptop, leaving the Calculus book open on his desk. No sense taking that, if I’m already scoring an A.

He was escorted downstairs, where a dark-colored sedan was waiting. A few people they passed look at them suspiciously. He came close to blurting out something like, “I’d tell you where I’m going but then these two will have to kill you,” but didn’t.

I have a feeling they wouldn’t think it would be very funny.


* * *


Tre was on his way back from the computer lab, where he’s one of university’s student computer technicians, when a deep voice behind him asked, “Trenton Gerald Paxton?”

He was walking along the sidewalk on Birchmont Drive, eyeing a group of girls ahead of him, when the voice discharging his full name made him stop in his tracks—only his Mom called him by his full name, and that’s only when she was none-too-happy. He turned around.

Two men in dark suits were standing behind him, one with a manila envelope in his hands.

“Yeah, I’m Tre. What’s up?”


* * *


Thirty minutes later, Tre joined Lucas at the Bemidji Regional Airport. They were soon escorted aboard a private jet, surrounded by six men in the same dark-colored suits.

“We won,” Tre said once they were in the air. He rubbed his hands together. “What are you gonna do with your twenty-five grand? I might either buy a nice car or a new laptop or even be able to afford a place off-campus.”

Lucas smiled. “Or all three. Not sure what I’m doing yet. Just trying to take all this in. Any clue where we’re heading? And why the urgency?”

Tre shook his head. “I assume it’s Mountainview.”

They sat in silence, as the Midwest plains passed by beneath them. Lucas cracked open a bottle of Mountain Dew and leaned back. He checked his watch. He peered up at the sky, now unhindered from any clouds.

“The sun still sets in the west, right?” he asked Tre.

“Has been for as far as I can remember. Unless there’s been a pole axis shift since this morning. Why?”

“The sun is behind us and it’s in the middle of the afternoon. We’re not going to Mountainview. We’re flying east.”



CHAPTER SEVEN




The first time Lucas and Tre realized they were in Washington D.C. was when they drove within sight of the Washington Monument—the five hundred and fifty-plus foot tall obelisk poking up like a middle finger proclaiming America’s superiority to the world.

Seated in the back of a dark-colored sedan, they drove by Lincoln Memorial and soon turned into a parking ramp. Instead of going up, they headed to the sublevels. After passing through a checkpoint manned by a uniformed officer, they parked in a stall, sandwiched between a plain white van and a black BMW. There was a RESERVED – DO NOT PARK sign secured along the concrete wall before them.

The floor lowered, drawing them further underground. The only source of light was the ambient dashboard lights. Once they hit bottom, the driver turned on the headlights and they soon came to a set of steel double-doors.

The driver and front passenger immediately jumped out, then opened the back doors to let out Tre and Lucas. The air was strikingly cool. They were led through the doors and down a narrow hallway until they came to a large auditorium-sized room with banks of computer screens and workstations laid out before them. Along the walls were various computerized maps, many displaying areas in the Middle East.

Four men walked up to them. Three were dressed in suits, while the fourth bore a well-decorated military uniform.

“Paxton and Simmons, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” a man with a crewcut, one of the suits, said. “My name is Rex Cornelius. I’m the Creative Manager for Mountainview Gaming. I hope you had a pleasant trip.” He extended a hand.

“Pleasant?” Lucas asked, crossing his arms. “Let’s see: we’re confronted by a couple of guys who look like they’re from Men In Black, and told we have just a few minutes to pack a change of clothes before we’re thrown into a car and sped off to the airport. Then, instead of heading out to your headquarters in California, we’re flown to D.C.” He gestured all around him. “No, I’d say pleasant doesn’t even register on my radar.”

Tre also crossed his arms. “Yeah, what he said.”

Lucas removed the check from his pocket. “Thanks for the dough. It’ll come in handy.”

Rex smirked. “Sorry for the cloak and dagger treatment, gentlemen. But given the extremely sensitive nature of the circumstances, we needed to take such precautions. All in the name of national security.”

“National security?” Lucas asked. “This is a joke, right?”

“Not in the least.” Rex turned and gestured to the other two dressed in suits. “I’d like you to meet the founders of Mountainview Gaming, Peter Chin and Lich Glasnov.”

All thoughts of their bizarre treatment over the past few hours were erased.

Now all I have left to do is meet George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and marry a Victoria’s Secret model, and my life will be complete, Lucas thought.

“And this,” Rex continued, gesturing to the fourth, “is Major Reginald Armstrong of the Joint Chiefs.”

Lucas and Tre straightened their posture and shook hands with the high-ranking Major.

“Now, if you’ll follow us, you can meet the rest of your squadron.”

Squadron?


* * *


One side of the room was lined with glass, overlooking the control center. Near the front was a large screen displaying the United States Presidential Seal. There were five chairs lined up in front. Three were already occupied.

Tre and Lucas sat on the remaining empty chairs.

“Gentlemen and lady,” Rex said, standing in front of them. “Before we begin, I’d like to introduce everyone.” He pointed over to the left side of the row. “Stacy Zutz, better known as Weaselman. She hails from Chicago, where she attends the University of Illinois with a major in psychology.”

Lucas’s ears perked up when Rex mentioned lady. When he finally saw her, his palms got sweaty and his heart raced. From his position, without straining himself too much and making a scene by gawking at the only girl in the room, he saw she was both petite and slightly on the heavier side.

Not that it matters. She seems to be well-endowed elsewhere. Like I’ve said before: God’s a guy. He sure makes some lovely creatures.

“Next is Todd Williamson from Seattle,” said Rex. “You may know him as Lowblow. He’s been a manager at Starbucks for the past eighteen months, and in his spare time when he isn’t playing video games he’s writing a science fiction novel. Then we have Bruce Ulrich, known as BigGunz. He’s been the lead programmer for several Fortune 500 companies over the past twenty years, and has spent the last three in Boston.”

After introducing Tre and Lucas to the group—Stacy peered over at Lucas, and he flashed her a wide grin, which she reciprocated—the lights in the room dimmed. Images of the war in Iraq—many far too graphic to be shown on network TV without the strictest of content warnings—flashed onto the screen.

“Over a year ago,” Rex said, “while putting the final touches on Shadowkill: Mideast Conquest, we were approached by Major Armstrong about an experimental project. Long story short is that the government had been developing a new group of soldiers for several years and needed highly-skilled gamers, like yourselves, to help run them.”

The doors at the back of the room opened. Six soldiers, all dressed in light tan military fatigues, marched towards the front of the room. They stood at attention, facing the five.

“Gentlemen and lady, let me introduce you to the real Shadowkill Squadron.”

Upon command, all six soldiers saluted in perfect unity.

“When you mentioned that the government needed gamers to help run new soldiers, what did you mean?” Tre asked.

“These aren’t ordinary soldiers, Paxton,” Rex says. “They’re robots.”



CHAPTER EIGHT




“Apparently math isn’t your forte,” Lucas said. “I count six robots and there are only five of us.”

The door at the back opened again. A wheelchair zipped down the aisle and spun to a stop next to Rex. The man seated in it may have been extremely obese, with his thick arms rolling with undaunted blubber, but the speed at which his hands moved about the wheelchair controls was jaw dropping.

“Allow me to introduce you to your team leader and sixth member of Shadowkill Squadron, Danny Reed,” Rex said. “He has advanced degrees from MIT in robotics, and his diligent work and breakthroughs on this project have allowed us to complete it much sooner than expected. He’s also very familiar with all of your gaming styles, for you may know him instead by his gaming username, MeJabba.”


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