NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON!  – “Ready Player One meets Halo, with a touch of Wreck-it Ralph.”

Kill Code“Ten… Nine… Eight…” The Marines were calling out the numbers along with the screen, and when we hit one, the screen lit up with fireworks over the White House, illuminating the crowds cheering us on.

All around the world people were tuning in, preparing to watch the first simulated war in history. Here I was, playing my part in it. A final look around the room showed anticipation, bravery… the world’s finest.

The headsets went on, and I was back in blackness. The light flashed a couple of times, then vanished.

The smell of pines hit me first, then a gust of wind brought a scent like fresh rain. A moon shone down on us from the middle of the sky, reflecting off the damp grass at our feet. It was all so real. I knelt, taking off my glove, and could feel the grass, smooth and sharp to the touch.

“You going to make love to this place, or come fight the war with me?” Relic said, grinning at my side.

“When it was the scene from my game, it felt real but still… fantastical? Now this—this could be anywhere on Earth… wow.”

“We can gush over it all night long, or ensure those bastards with the Eastern Ascent Company make amends. As much as this is a fake war, it’s more real than anything we’ve done so far.”

I laughed, then saw he was serious. “Go get ‘em, Colonel.”

Relic grinned and called over his officers. As he was the senior officer on the ground, he passed down orders, and soon we were moving in teams. Several smaller teams went ahead as scouts, while a large group of us made slower progress, moving up the diagonal center to be prepared to slip either way and intercept them. This wasn’t about taking the enemy’s base or stealing a flag, but annihilation, and we had to remember that.

“How’s this work?” Derrins said, as we started out. He pulled out his Ka-Bar and slashed the air with it, then thrust forward.

“Stick them with the pointy end,” Williams said to his right. “You know which side that is, don’t you?”

“Funny,” Derrins replied.

“I mean, if I cut the enemy, they’d bleed out. But this sim doesn’t allow for bleeding out like that, so…?”

“It’ll likely kick them out,” I said, turning to them even though we were supposed to be focused ahead. We had all just gotten here, so it wasn’t likely the enemy could be so close this soon. “Meaning, if you land a strike that would normally result in their death, even if it wouldn’t be immediate, I’m guessing here it’s immediate.”

“That’s how it worked in the other sims,” Wingate said, and it was the first time I’d noticed she came through. She returned my look and laughed. “You’ve changed, Major.”

“We all have,” I replied, turning back to join Relic. Apparently, I looked more like a Marine when in uniform. Go figure.

“So… what about slit wrists?” Derrins asked the captain.

She said she had no idea, but I missed the rest of it as I turned to Relic and said, “Your teams know what they’re doing, that’s a given. But what about the enemy? Have we seen them in action?”

“Deadliest fighters are likely the ones they’ve acquired from Central Asia, but they might also be the least committed, since they were the last countries to be pulled into the web.”

“We don’t know who we’re fighting?” I asked.

“Part of how it works,” he replied, shaking his head. “Could also be the Snow Leopards Group, for all I know. They wanted to keep it secret on both sides. Makes it more interesting, I guess.”

I nodded. Sure, I got that.

We passed by the first set of rocks, and I saw one of ours on top of the wall, scouting out the area ahead. One Marine at the front of our group waited for a signal from him before advancing, and Relic was talking about setting up a defensive perimeter when we heard a distant shout.

We all froze, listening, then heard a pop, possibly a gunshot.

A chill ran through me when a voice shouted into our comms, saying they had contact. The next sound was clearly a rifle blast. Two seconds later, the echo of the shot came from our left, and teams were moving to join the fight. Six of the larger Marines moved off to our right, and someone said something about them working to flank the enemy. I motioned the team with me to our left, figuring we could come at them from the other angle.

I charged with the rest of them, anxious to see how the combat portion of this simulated war held up. We didn’t have fancy space armor or thrusters like in the Game of Shadows sim, only our tactical gear, rifles, and Ka-Bar knives. No air strikes, no mechs or massive bombers threatening to blow us all to smithereens.

Not here—here it was all about the fight. Marksmanship and good ol’ MCMAP—the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, which I was glad to hear was still in place. It had undergone some massive changes over the years, introducing more styles of combat as the Corps expanded its way of thinking. Before leaving the Marines, I’d even gotten up to my brown belt in the new system, and if not for my belly, would be quite the threat if someone got close to me.

With that thought, I glanced down and realized something that had felt off from the beginning but hadn’t been super obvious. The belly was gone! In fact, I felt light again, like I had two years ago. The simulation must’ve either done something to put us all in our best shape, or had references to my previous military records and adjusted accordingly.

I was going to kick some major ass, old-school style.

We passed by the large stone walls and entered a wooded area, all of this very familiar from my game. I had Derrins and his buddies, along with a couple of Marines I hadn’t gotten to know yet, while Relic and Wingate had continued up the main route. The way they figured it, the enemy would likely have set up a defensible position, not on the main path either. Maybe an ambush, but our forward units would uncover this before the main force reached it, so it might actually be Relic’s group that would be coming at their flank.

Another shot rang out, then several more in response. I waved my team forward, shouting for them to “Get some!” I wasn’t sure if Marines still said that, but it felt right at the time. Matter of fact, I thought as I charged forward, all of this felt right. Being back in the Marines, charging into action—it was like I could breathe again after so long of having a pillow stuffed in my face.

Even though it wasn’t real air at all, it tasted fresh, energizing.

Then a bullet hit the rocks next to my head, and I froze. In my day, I’d been a badass. I’d been deployed with First Recon once before and even saved lives. Now one goes off nearby and I freak out? Oh, hell no. And as the only video game guy in this sim, I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the first one out of it.

I charged forward. I’m up, he sees me, I’m down. Each time I popped up, I repeated the mantra, pumping out new rounds into enemy soldiers and watching them explode into a bunch of pixels that vanished into the air like evaporating mist.

FROM JUSTIN >>> This is actually not the first chapter – it’s a section I chose because it’s when the simulated war first starts. It’s kind of “Ready Player One meets Halo, with a touch of Wreck-it Ralph.” Yeah, so if you enjoy that VR style storytelling of Ready Player One, and more of the shoot ’em up Marine stuff from Halo, this might be for you. The Wreck it Ralph reference is from a reader, who pointed out that some of the fun game reference stuff feels like a more grown-up version of that. I hope it’s as fun for you all to read as it was for me to write! If you want to get it free on KU, or for only $2.99, you can find it on Amazon. Please remember to leave reviews. Thanks!