Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | Australian Category

 

Story by Mark McCallum


“I run through the rubble of the city I have destroyed. I am nimble, quick, darting from cover to cover before my enemy can react. Smiting them with sweet vengeance.”

“Geez man, will you shut up with the chatter,” says The Demon Child. “I’m trying to enfilade here,” he says lugging a MAG58 and ammo cans through thick scrub to a better position on higher ground. His mother named him Louis. But try getting in with a kickass posse with a name like Louis.

“Aw c’mon guys, I need the narrative. It motivates me,” I say chuckling. “Maybe one of you guys can do it for me. You know, describe how awesome I am.”

A raucous jumble of taunts and insults fill my headset. I love these guys. We’ve been together since primary school. Though I’ve never met them. Never even seen what they look like. But we would die for each other. And for the last fifteen years, that’s what we’ve been doing. Online, dominating every version ever since Battle Revolution II - My Nations Revenge.

Online virtual combat defines me. I got the t-shirt, the cap, even had a small figurine of my character printed up, in colour, complete with interchangeable weapons. It sits over there, right next to my third-grade swimming trophy on the mantlepiece. Watching over me like the patron saint of gaming. Ironically, despite all that, I’m a pacifist. I would never join the Army. It would be too difficult. Why would anyone want to join the Army? Damn, the unemployment benefit is as much as a grunt’s take home. Humping his big muscle-bound ass and bigger ass pack through the humidity and heat, getting shot at in the jungle. Guess that’s the consequence of a zero-growth economy. I’m getting paid just for sitting at home streaming subsidised Netflix, Foxtel and the bloody Disney channel. Even my Playstation Plus account is subsidised. And you know what, to me, it makes perfect sense. The Government does it just to keep me off the streets and keep money flowing through the economy. Cheaper than cleaning up after a bunch of us disenfranchised youth. Our potential unrealised, being out on the streets doing, well, doing what youth do.

The door flies off its hinges as the boot hits the lock. Shitting cheap cardboard door.

“Hey man! What’s your issue? I’ve got nothing you want,” I say glancing up from the current mission, Hallo 27 - Here we go again. Two men step through the door, black uniforms, jackboots, batons, helmets and looking like they share an IQ of about 90, 45 each. The room darkens slightly like the passing of an eclipse. They each take a step sideways, letting a third guy pass. He’s short, swarthy, looks like my uncle Larry, the Italian one, prepped for a night out. He’s got this shitty light blue suit and reeks of Brut 33.

“Danny Jones?” he says.

“Dude, you got the wrong room. I think you want Denny next door.”

Denny’s a little shit who still owes me twenty, it’ll serve him right.

He steps forward and says, “Sorry son, you got skills,” and jams the taser behind my left ear.

“AFK,” I gurgle.

 

 

I wake. I’m on my back. Where the hell am I? How did I get here? Above me is the bottom of another bed. Institutional sounds and smells. Disinfectant, steel mop bucket, fear.

Man, am I in juvie? I don’t remember doing anything too illegal.

I look to my left, my neck grinds like twisted barbwire, and I see two guys looking at me, sitting on a top bunk opposite. Some big Asian guy and a black dude, medium-sized.

“Morning princess,” says the Asian guy.

I sit up, bang my head on the bed above, swear.

“Where am I?” I say, looking back and forth between the two of them.

They grin and look at each other.

“You, princess, have been recruited into the Army,” says the black dude.

“What? No. Wait. Hang on. Two. No. Three. Three guys broke into my place and…” I rub behind my left ear, two small lumps there, still sore, realisation dawning.

“I’ve been abducted.”

The two guys laugh.

“Alien abducted?” says Asian guy elbowing black dude. 

“You expecting anal probing next?” says the black dude, really getting deeper into his own mirth.

The army? My thinking brain is slowly coming online. I look around. Things are tight. Everything’s aligned. Right angles. Jackie Chan and Denzel, sitting opposite, are wearing uniforms.

“No! No way,” I say, protesting against the looming reality. “They can’t do this. I got rights.”

They both drop off the bunk. “Well princess, they gone and done it,” says black dude, putting out his hand. “I’m Mission Freak, this is Digging Your Grave.”

And there it is, right on their embroidered cloth name tags, Mission Freak and Digging Your Grave.

“What?”

He lowers his hand. “Gaming handles. Look man, better get your shit together. Shave, put that kit on, and stand at the end of your bed.”

I look at the pile of clothes, a uniform, folded at the end of what must be my bed.

 

 

“Attention!”

Asian guy and black dude stand straight and stiff. Outta fear I kinda do what they’re doing.

“Widow Maker,” he yells. I turn to look.

“Don’t you go eyeballin’ me boy,” he says.

I look straight ahead. Beyond my control, which annoys me. Then it doesn’t matter cause he’s all in my face.

“I am your training sergeant. You will call me, Sergeant. You got that. To you, I am god. I decide when you sleep, wake, eat, piss, shit.”

He straightens, turns, paces. Dramatic effect.

“C’mon man, I’ve seen the movies,” I start. He’s back in my face. Literally face to face, his eyeball almost touching mine.

“Excuse me,” he says, but it’s not a polite excuse me. Like, excuse me, I would like to interject.

“Well, I’ve seen the movies. We can both waste our time here with all this malarky, or we can move on,” I say. Yeah, yeah, I know. My mother always said I was a little touched in the head.

He stays there, eyeball to eyeball. I can feel his eyebrow hair grinding into my forehead.

“There’s a reason it’s in the movies you little dipshit. Cause it’s true.”

He straightens again stepping back to appraise me.

“Widow Maker hey? Is that because when all those sweet milfs get sight of you and they go home and top themselves?”

“Well. Sergeant. That would make it widow-er maker. Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue,” I say, smirking, looking sideways at Asian guy and black dude. Yeah I know, touched in the head.

Sergeant grabs the front of my uniform, my head bounces off the metal bar at the end of the bunk. Not once, but twice.

“Alright smart arse. You are going to give me twenty.” He looks me up and down. “And I think I need to clarify. I mean pushups.”

I drop on to my chest.

“And since you are a crew. Yeah, that’s right princess. This is your new crew. You two, MF and DYG, get down and give me a hundred each.”

I groan, seeing the disgust and disappointment rising in Asian guy’s and black dude’s eyes.

“Five minutes,” says the Sergeant, pointing to a door at the end of the barracks. “You, in the room at the end of that corridor.”

 

 I walk to the door, working out the burn in my shoulders, my new black boots squeaking on the brightly polished floor. Behind me, I hear Asian guy and black dude muttering as they finish the hundred count. I raise my hand to knock.

“Come in,” says a thickly accented voice from within. Slavic?

I grip and slowly turn the knob, swinging the door aside. Revealing that bloke who looks like my Uncle Lenny. Taser’s sitting right there on the desk. Like it’s a bloody paperweight on a pile of forms.

“Ah, Mr Jones. Please come in,” he says, indicating the chair opposite him.

“You!”

“Congratulations,” he says, standing, leaning over the desk, extending his hand.

“Congratulations. You bloody well assaulted me. You abducted me,” I say.

“Alien abducted?” he asks, a smirk on his lips.

I look at the hand still hanging there and sit down. Seeming to take no offence at my rebuff, he retakes his seat.

“Look, let’s start again shall we?” he says, his eyebrows rising questioningly.

“Congratulations,” he says pausing, looks at me sideways, nods, goes on. “Congratulations Mr Jones, you have been selected, due to the skills you have displayed in the online game Battle Revolution, to be given the opportunity to repay the Australian taxpayer, by being enrolled in the Australian Army. This enrolment action has been conducted in accordance with the Job Active program, Work for the Dole, as brought into legislation in 2018,” he says, the smirk now a grin.

My mouth drops open. “You can’t do this,” I say, deciding to go with that good old fallback, moral outrage. “And who the hell are you anyway?”

“Ah. Sorry,” he says, leaning forward, extending his hand again. “Georgi Abadjiev, field agent for People Power Australia. Contracted to Defence to meet government mandated recruiting targets.”

Again, I ignore it.

He clasps his hands together and leans forward on his elbows. “Look Danny. Can I call you Danny?”

“No.”

“Well Danny, it’s like this. You’ve,” he lifts a sheet of paper on a clipboard glancing, “cost the taxpayer a little over one point five million dollars, and it’s time to give back.”

He smiles and waits.

“There’s no way I’ve seen one and a half mil. I barely…”

“No, no, no. You misunderstand. That’s what it’s cost the government to administer your case of, I’m sure, unintended unemployment for the last, ah,” checks clipboard, “eight years.”

“What? There’s no way I can pay back one and a half mil.”

“Oh. Again you misunderstand. You don’t have to pay it back. We’ve calculated the length of Army service required to repay that amount, and it’s, ah,” clipboard, eyeballs me, “the rest of your working life.”

I’m in shock. Jaw slack. A mouth breather.

“Ha! Got you. No no, it’s only fifteen years. I really think you’ll enjoy it. It’s not that much different than what you’ve been doing. Except you’ll be a little fitter. A little better groomed,” he says, waving his finger in my general direction, “and a little better fed. Oh, and you’ll have to get up a little earlier.”

That’s done it for me. I only march to one beat, and that beat’s mine. I stand, the light metal chair falling backwards. “There’s no way you can make me do this,” I yell, violently stabbing the air in front of me with my finger.

“You are right. I can’t make you do it. However,” he says evenly, handing me a sheet of paper with what I recognise was my signature from over a decades ago. “You did acknowledge that you would enter this program at a time determined by, and convenient to, the state to meet national workforce requirements in return for that sweet social security safety net you’ve been drawing down on.”

“The State. The State. Who the bloody hell is the state?” I say, trying to simultaneously open and kick the door. It doesn’t go well. Face full of door. Mouth full of blood.

“No way man,” and I’m out the door.

 

 

Outside of the office and he’s there, the Sergeant. I try to walk past him, twisting slightly, not making eye contact. He uses his body to jam me against the wall.

“Don’t give Mister Abadjiev shit you little punk. You think you’re going to get a better deal. You won’t. There’s something he hasn’t told you yet,” he says, pausing.

And he has got my attention. I raise my eyes to his.

“I guess he’s the carrot, I’m the stick. He’s the good cop, I’m the bad,” he says, looking up as if smelling the air. “You know we don’t arrange it that way. It’s just in our nature. You have to be true to yourself. Don’t you?”

I wish he would just get to the point. Stop with the bloody theatrics.

“You’ll miss that sweet subsidy. The N-Flix, PS Plus. No more going down the shops, picking out what you want to bang in the microwave that night. Going home, picking your nose, pleasuring yourself in private. It’ll be communal living, food stamps, limited travel card, and those shitty orange jumpsuits. Back to a level one newb, a social support zero.”

“What? You can’t do that,” I say.

“Hey, it’s not us. It’s the social contract with your elected Government. They’ve been looking after you. Time to give back.”

“This is not my Government. I endorse none of their foreign actions. Out of protest, I don’t even vote.”

For some reason, he finds this really funny, and he laughs long and hard and actually slaps his thigh.

“Hell Widow Maker, it’s time to get in the game, get in the arena,” he says, turning away.

Then he seems to think better of it.

“You think you got ethics. I ain’t seen you at no protest rally. Don’t vote, yet take the money. All I’ve ever seen you do, and we’ve been watching for a while now, is sit on your ass and waste other crews in that shitty game. Why’s this any different?”

“It’s very different. Online it’s not real,” I say in protest.

“Isn’t it?” he says, pulling a tablet out of a thigh pocket, tapping to some report, turning it towards me. “Your endocrine system says otherwise. Look at those endorphin levels. Man look at that hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal axis response. Whoa, off the charts man. I’d be proud of that. And not a single drug in your system.”

I try to turn away, but he’s all up in my dial now.

“Look at these images of you in play. Look at your face. Man, it’s pornographic,” he says. “Remember that kill? The anticipation? The satisfaction? You have a hard-on? Why you think you got no lady?”

He leans close. I can smell sardines on his breath. “It’s because you don’t need one.”

 He pushes me hard into the wall. “Think about it joe boy,” he says, walking off.

 

I walk back into the barracks. Asian guy and black dude are standing there, their arms crossed.

“Look, mate, it looks like we are gonna be a team. You can kick and scream,” Says Asian guy.

“Wriggle and squirm,” says black dude.

Asian guy picking up the monologue. “But you’re wasting your time. We’ve been there. Unless you want to be that SS zero, you got no choice.”

I feel all the fight gone out of me. I guess that’s one of the undesirable side effects of being a disenfranchised youth, short attention span and lack of commitment to, well anything. Except gaming. But if I think about it that is one of the easiest things to do. Roll out of bed, nuke a burrito, coffee pod, sit on the can finishing the coffee, hit the bean bag, hit the game. I’m sure my already sloping shoulders slump even further.

Asian guy steps in, puts his big meaty arm around me and with a squeeze says, “C’mon Widow Maker, my name’s Gerald, and this is Aden. Let’s go and get some breakfast.”

He keeps his arm there and gently leads me towards the smell of frying bacon, eggs, and brewing coffee.

“It’s actually quite good,” says Aden, bouncing along beside.

The dining hall’s already crowded. We line up behind these big, really big sweaty guys. I get a good serving of some of the best food I’ve eaten in years. It’s kinda like the stuff I used to get at home when I used to go back there.

“Hey man, where’re you going?” says Gerald, he’s almost as tall as these guys but nowhere near in the same shape as them. “We don’t sit with them.”

“Why?”

“It’s a status thing,” he says, heading towards a table in the corner. A few other pasty, slope-shouldered, guys are already sitting there. Ah yes, these are my people.

“So, what’s with them,” I say, chinning towards the big guys.

“They’re one of the,” and he does the air quotes thing, “fighting four.”

“What’s that?”

“They’re the guys that go into the field and do battle.”

“And what do we do?”

Aden leans forward across the table, pointing out the window. “You see those things there? That’s what we operate.”

He’s pointing to these man-sized Gundam things. Robots that look a bit like a Power Ranger. Just not camp, camo.

“Huh. Cool.”

 

 

I spend a couple of weeks doing basic training, getting fitter, getting abs. They’re pretty neat. Something the ladies might like when we get some leave. We also spend a lot of time in the classroom. It’s easy stuff. Rules of engagement, ranks, tactics. A lot of it I already know. It turns out the online games have been preparing me for this for years. Then I get to do what they recruited me for.

“Okay Widow Maker,” Sarge says, handing me a tri-shock controller for a PS7. “You need to log a bit of game time.”

“What game?” I ask, testing the tension on the controller, making a few changes to its configuration, upping the yaw rate and inverting the pitch.

“Your favourite. However, we need to wire you up first,” a smile rising on the Sarge’s lips. “Oh, and it is going to hurt.”

“What? Why?”

Sarge turns leaves and says, “Handing over Doc,” to an old guy in a lab coat, cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He gets closer, and I’m not sure why he has a white coat. Maybe it’s to better show the egg, sauce and coffee stains.

“Did you see the signs. I’d prefer it if you didn’t smoke,” I say, clearly staking my claim on my personal rights.

He raises something looking like it’s from the Tower of London. Been there virtually. Looks like it’s designed to sit on my skull, about a hundred thumb screws on its surface like a hedgehog, big thick cable running from its back.

“Did you hear him say, this is going to hurt?” says the Doc, with a quizzical frown, looking at me through thick smudged bifocals. Touched in the head.

“Here, let me light that for you,” I say, taking the beat-up Zippo lighter from his moist, soft hand.

He draws deeply, then, allowing the smoke to leak out of him he says, “Okay, this will map your brain activity to the inputs you make on the controller.”

“Do I have to think about it?”

He looks at me with that quizzical frown again. “No. Have you ever thought about anything?” he says, cranking down on the first pair of the thumbscrews.

“Ow. Shit, man, take it easy will you.”

“Gotta be good and tight to get good conductivity,” he says, starting in on a second opposing pair of screws. “If we don’t get it right this time, you will just have to go through this all again.”

I grit my teeth against the pain.

They start me with the newb’s tutorial, just moving and shooting, swapping out weapons and stuff. Then they team us up, Mission Freak and Digging Your Grave. They’ve recruited well. There are no arguments about roles. Six hours later, just a typical gaming day, we are dominating the advanced missions on the ultra-nightmare setting.

“Okay boys that’s it. We’ve got the data.”

“Aw c’mon let us just finish this. Pleeeze!”

We game on blissfully ignorant of the one hundred pressure points drilling into our scalps.

 

 The next day we are directed to a dimly lit room, three recliner rockers, with shitty brown vinyl upholstery. Sarge following us up.

“What’s this? Where you hang out with Gramps and Granny,” I say. He hits me. Actually hits me. Well clips me behind the ear and says, “Get in the chairs boys. Look for your name.”

Asian guy complains that his smells, and the duct tape repairs are scratching his neck. They are comfortable. I take a mental note to get me one of these Lay-Z-Boys in my dotage.

“Okay, grab those helmets, put them on,” he says, as three technicians in cams tighten the chin straps and fit sets of virtual reality goggles.

“What’s going on Sarge,” I ask.

“You ready to try some hotwire voodoo shit?” says the Sergeant.

The screens in the goggles light up. I am there. In the game. I’m sure I can feel the hot desert sun on my skin.

“Whoa,” says black dude.

“Give me a controller,” I say, keen to start playing.

“Don’t need one dipshit,” says the Sarge.

As he says it, without thinking, I am moving. My inventory opens, and I select an EF88 slapping an extended mag home. I am fast, faster than ever before. “Geez, this is quick.”

“Yeah, matched to the performance of those robots out there,” says the Sarge.

“Woo Hoo! Let’s do this,” yells black dude.

 

I’ve been in the Army for almost a year now. I’m considered a functioning member of society. Old Mr Abadjiev was right, it’s not that different from what I was doing before. I’m fitter, a little better paid, and just a bit more disciplined. Just a bit.

Asian guy, black dude and I are sitting on the top bunk. Oh, by the way I’m pasty boy, small. The kid they dragged in last night has a line of drool running down the side of his cheek.

“Hang on,” says Asian guy. “I think he’s coming around.”

“Okay, we agreed right?” I say, eyeballing the other two. “I get the alien abduction line. Right?” the other two nod. Sarge is finishing up his breakfast.