The mission was simple: kill everyone.
The complications came in the details, such as the directive to keep it quiet. So when a guard stepped around the corner of the house, Michael had to stop him from firing the pistol he was reaching for. Michael brought up his sound-suppressed shotgun and put a sabot slug—which became shrapnel only upon hitting flesh—into the man’s chest.
There was no way he could have missed. His helmet contained a facemask that enhanced the quality of everything he viewed through it. A blue set of crosshairs showed him where his weapon was pointed. The system recognized humans, and the facemask crosshairs turned red when his aim was dead-on.
The man flew backward and struck the corner of the house. But instead of rebounding off it, he continued falling, passing through the bricks as if he were a ghost. The break from reality startled Michael, but only for the five heartbeats it took him to remember another of the helmet’s technical capabilities: it could insert avatars—digitally constructed characters—into his field of vision.
Unless the system glitched, as it had just done, it was impossible to tell avatars from the live actors cast to make these training missions as authentic as possible. The facemask’s screen rendered people, real or drawn, as photo realistic cartoons. Sketchy black lines outlined them. Their skin was too perfect, too creamy.
“Crap,” Michael said, disappointed in himself for letting the glitch startle him. His teammates—not to mention the officers watching in the Command Center via a live satellite feed—would have caught his hesitation. That was all he needed, being the newest and youngest member of the team.
Here on out, he thought, make it perfect.
He felt a nudge on his arm, and the team leader’s voice came through his headphones: “That was the warm-up.”
Of course. The designers of these tactical games always pulled the same trick: They sent an enemy to confront the team right away. It got the players’ adrenaline pumping, their hand-eye coordination aligned, their minds into a kill-or-be-killed mentality.
Michael glanced back. He nodded at his own helmeted reflection in Ben’s black facemask. Beyond, at the curb, Anton occupied the team’s transportation, a van “commandeered” for the mission. Emile, the last member of their four-man team, would be coming through the back.
Don’t shoot him, Michael reminded himself. That would completely blow their chances of outscoring the other teams. He’d never live that one down.
“Get moving,” Ben said.
Michael moved quickly up the front porch steps, knelt in front of the door, and pulled a lock-pick gun and tension wrench from a pouch. He felt the deadbolt disengage. He unlocked the door handle and replaced the tools. He rose, readied his weapon, and waited. A red light on his display indicated that Emile had not yet bypassed the home’s security system.
Michael considered the scenario they were playing: A rebel leader, whose planned coup would harm U.S. interests, had holed up with guards in a suburban community. Michael’s team was to eliminate everyone and make it look like a murder-suicide. That meant no evidence of forced entry, and when they terminated the leader—the High Value Target—the shooter had to be close, the shot placed just right so the wound would appear self-inflicted. They’d been told the HVT had access to the type of shotguns the team was using. The weapons’ smooth-bore barrels would make it impossible to prove different weapons had been used.
Ben gripped his shoulder, reassuring him. It only made Michael more nervous. This was Team Bravo’s last chance to edge ahead of Team Charlie in frag points, or successful kills. He didn’t want to mess up.
On his screen, the red light changed to green. Three deep breaths, and he opened the door.
He stepped into a foyer and buttonhooked around the door. Clear. A living room opened to the right. Farther along the left foyer wall was a French door, partially open. Light shone through the glass panes.
The layout of the house—two stories, central hall on the ground level with rooms on either side—would force him and Ben to separate.
As Ben rushed toward the lighted room, Michael moved into the living room.
He panned the gun across the area. Clear.
Behind him came a scream. It was cut off by the distinctive sound of his teammate’s weapon: Thoomp! Thoomp!
Something crashed. Michael fought the urge to rush back.
The scream had been high-pitched, like a woman’s, then changed to a deep, guttural growl. Either his headphones had glitched or the guard had shrieked in surprise, then slipped into you’re-not-going-to-get-me mode as he’d gone for his gun.
Had to be an actor. What computer-generated avatar would do that?
He ran through the room, toward an archway. Beyond, the surfaces of a kitchen gleamed. A door in the kitchen’s back wall swung open. As a figure came through, the sensors in Michael’s helmet identified the intruder as another team member—Emile.
Michael turned, absently noticed a table cluttered with the remnants of a meal: dirty plates, silverware, glasses. He started past it and spotted a man. He was standing in a den, on the far side of a couch. Facing Michael, he reached into his jacket.
Michael fired. The man left the ground. He crashed into a television, which rocked but stayed on. The system added spatters of black game-blood to the front of the TV. Cartoon animals danced and sang on the screen, their voices high and merry.
Thousand points right there, Michael thought. I’m going to be top dog on this one.
Emile rushed to a sliding glass door off the den, opened it, and stepped out.
Michael went to an opening on the opposite side of the den. The foyer: he’d circled back around. Ben was making his way up a staircase. Michael fell in behind him. At the landing, Ben turned left and swung into a bedroom.
Michael turned right. At the end of a hall, a man stood in a doorway. Michael snapped his shotgun up. The computer’s facial recognition software identified him as the HVT. Michael ran for him. The man slammed the door.
Michael rushed up to it, then remembered why the guy was the High Value Target: rebel leader, preparing a coup. No doubt he was armed, leveling a machine gun at the door. Michael slammed his back against the wall beside the door.
Kick it in. Duck out of the line of fire. Dive back in. Blast away.
Glass shattered within the room.
Michael kicked open the door. He saw a flash of movement at the shattered window.
He jumped onto the bed, over it, stopped beside the opening. He glanced through, pulled his head back. The patio roof extended out from the house below the window, glass and pieces of wood all over it. He stuck his head through to check either side. Nobody.
Emile was just there. He’d gone out the door to the backyard patio.
“Emile! He’s in the backyard! Do you see him?”
Michael stepped through the window and scrambled down the incline to the roof’s edge. The yard was dark, except right below him, where the light from the house splashed out. A rain gutter had broken away, swinging from one end. He leaped for the grass. His ankle twisted and he rolled. Pain flared up his leg. He brought his gun up, swung it in a complete circle, rotating his body on the grass.
The sliding door into the den was open. Could the HVT have gone back in? Through the house to the front door? Hiding? Again, he spun around. He saw no other clues to where the man had gone. He got his feet under him. His ankle gave out, and he fell to one knee. Felt like glass grinding around inside him.
Forget it. Push it away.
He rose and limped through the door. Swinging his weapon back and forth, he crossed to the foyer. Ben was stomping down the stairs. The front door was open. Emile came through it from outside. He shook his head.
“What happened?” Ben said.
Michael started for the door in the kitchen. As he passed another door— narrow: a pantry or coat closet—it opened. A man—not the HVT—bolted out, screaming. He was on Michael, hammering at him with something, cracking it against the helmet.
Static flickered over Michael’s screen. The man’s image flickered with it, his face seeming to change. He went out of focus, then became sharp again, all eyes and nose and teeth. Michael couldn’t get his gun around. He pushed, but the man was clinging to him with one hand while the other continued beating the object into his helmet and shoulder.
The man gasped and crumpled.
Liquid spattered over Michael’s facemask, obscuring his view. Bursts of static on the screen pierced Michael’s eyes. He reached for his chinstrap. His fingers slipped over it, wet. He tugged off his glove, got the chinstrap unsnapped, and ripped off his helmet.
At his feet, bleeding out on the floor, gasping for breath, was a young boy.