Chapter 1

Caden ran toward the water with his head down. As he arrived at the edge of the lazy river, he slowed dramatically and submerged in a practiced motion, weapon and all. The barrel of his PAW snapped shut as the sensor detected the water. The splash was minimal. He continued up to his neck and hid among the reeds.

It was the tenth and final day of the Blood Glades. Caden had racked up seventeen kills.

I can’t believe it’s going so well this year. Can I even get one more? I might be up at the top of the rankings.

He resisted an urge to preen. With so many kills, a fair number of fans would be watching him every second.

Don’t die now. Not now. Not with seventeen kills.

Caden told his heat sink to recycle water. The cold water around him had already removed a lot of heat from the surface of his body. Now his heat sink dumped the hot water it had used to cover his infrared signature and sucked in cold water. Caden dunked his face several times. He was getting cold, but he ignored the discomfort. It was just another way his determination would give him an edge.

As long as I don’t get severe hypothermia and check out before the deadline.

Once his heat sink had recharged, Caden moved again. Most players would have just lurked there, waiting for the time to expire and hoping to catch a lucky kill at the river. But that was not Caden’s style. “The Hunter”, they called him. He specialized in finding squatters and eliminating them. It was his unique tagline, and he intended to live up to it.

Caden emerged from the water under cover of vegetation. He was cool enough now to avoid the scopes used in the Blood Glades. Of course, real space force tech could detect everything alive for many kilometers, but everyone was given just enough toys to make the tournament interesting.

Caden scaled a slight muddy rise and disappeared into a thick copse at the top. He moved slowly but steadily. He stopped to examine the area from the top of the rise among the trees.

He spotted a collection of shacks in a clearing below. They were built close together, almost leaning against each other, composed of wood and tin. The ground around the shack was littered with moss and weeds.

Caden spent an hour analyzing the shelter. Darkness approached. Chances were good someone was in there—either covering for the night to hoard their kills until the end or to catch another squatter headed in. He analyzed every detail with his PAW’s scope. Finally he spotted a sensor nestled against a tree facing the shelter. All the Blood Glades contestants had them. The sensors detected movement and alerted the owner silently. Perfect for a low-tech trap or at least an early warning of an attack.

The sensor was fairly well hidden, but not well enough. Its placement was typical for giving a squatter in the shed a chance to sleep and still be able to fight back if approached. It was predictable, almost too easy.

Something felt wrong.

This guy makes it to day ten, but his setup is totally orthodox. Like a tutorial on squatting. My automatic reaction is to do what I do best—dig him out and move on.

Caden did not move forward. On day one he might have disabled the sensors he knew were there and then busted in through the roof or some other unexpected entrance. On day four he would have set up a trap for when the squatter had to emerge, by placing his own sensors across the path the squatter would use to retrieve his own sensors, sleeping until the sensor was tripped, and then shooting the enemy.

Caden swept his side of the shacks again. He found it—a hole in the ragged tin hanging over the side of one of the sections. And it covered… the obvious tree he would have used to set up his own counter trap. Caden looked through his heat scope. Nothing.

Of course not. He’s shielded in there. Or his heat sink hasn’t expired yet.

Caden waited.

If I have to, I can end it with seventeen kills. Better than dying now.

But even as he told himself that, Caden knew he wanted eighteen. He had five hours left. His own heat sink would be warm by then. He decided to wait it out. If he had been spotted getting to this position, he’d be dead already. He sat, watching his scope. The light of the last day failed in the virtual world of the Blood Glades.

As time ticked by, he became aware of a dull glow through the scope. At the hole. A sniper waited there, covering the tree he might have used for his counter trap. Caden realized he had to act. His own heat sink might be failing the same way. The other guy could spot him at any time.

Caden took the shot with less than an hour to go, bringing his kills to eighteen in ten days. The first thing he heard when time ran out was a headline from an important tournament stream: Caden Lonrack, the Hunter, takes the Blood Glades tournament with a masterful eighteen kills!

Caden smiled wildly. I did it. One of the hardest steps. I’m certain to win a spot at New Annapolis now.




Cassie looked disturbed to Caden. Her eyes glistened as if she might cry. They stood side by side surrounded by her party guests. The noise of the party covered their arguing.

“You’re still going? After everything that’s happened between us?” she said.

“We talk about this all the time, Cassie. How could you not know? I talked about it right before the tournament, even!”

Caden felt anger growing. He looked away from her. He saw Jillian Orler entering the room. She was an incredible beauty, a tall, blonde-haired girl constantly pursued by dozens of male worshippers.

Jillian caught Caden’s sideways glance and used it to move in. She joined Cassie and Caden, entering their space and forming a tight circle. But she ignored Cassie, standing very close to Caden and smiling a huge smile.

“Congrats on your win! It was so exciting there at the end. You know the Haden Stream showed the other guy setting up the trap. I think I bit all my fingernails off!”

Caden smiled politely. “I knew something had to be up. It was such a mundane setup for tenth day,” he said.

“I feel so lucky to know you! All my relatives want to come visit just to see you!”

Caden laughed dismissively. “See me? No way.”

“Yes, you’re super famous now.” Jillian moved closer, touching his shoulder.

Caden nodded. Suddenly he realized Cassie had disappeared. He excused himself quickly, staying neutral to Jillian, and went after his girlfriend. His link told him she had retreated to the kitchen. He found her there, hiding in the larder, pretending to sift through their snack supplies.

“Sorry about that,” Caden said.

“Sorry that you have beautiful girls crawling all over you, or that you’re leaving me?”

Caden struggled to answer, but she continued before he could form a protest.

“Get out of my house,” she said. “You’re no longer invited.”

She was serious. His link told him she had placed him on an eviction timer. Part of him wanted to tell her the party would evaporate when he left. But he said nothing. Caden just walked out. A few people called after him, but he just waved and kept going out the door. It was late evening now. More people lingered on the huge porch, so Caden kept moving without meeting anyone’s eye. He took the outdoor stair to the landing pad atop the porch.

If she doesn’t respect my wishes to go to New Annapolis, then she wasn’t the girl for me, anyway, Caden thought. But of course while his internal monologue’s summary seemed tidy, his emotions were not so easily dismissed. Caden still felt disturbed. He had shared his dreams with her. Had she been listening?

He summoned a personal antigrav disc to take him home. The lights of several were visible in the clear night sky. Caden distracted himself by watching for the one that would come down and retrieve him from the beautiful mountainside home. He brooded in the shadows as he waited.

Caden’s arrival at nineteen years of age meant it was time to begin a new phase of his life. He had worked hard and planned it all very carefully. His parents had instilled that behavior into him from the beginning. Caden Lonrack succeeded at everything. He was a great athlete, a good student, and a popular guy. He ‘had his ducks in a row’, as his father would say, some secret archaic phrase that meant everything was planned, practiced, and wrapped up. All the time.

His next life phase was no different: New Annapolis was his destiny. Caden had invested a lot into that plan. His academics, athletics, and virtual training skills were all top notch.

Many of his friends simply played at virtual reality tournaments such as Blood Glades for the fun and challenge of it. Others played for the notoriety they would gain among friends (or members of the opposite sex) by doing well there. For Caden it went a bit further: a Blood Glades champion had another feather in his or her cap for a shot at the best officer academy the space force had. Now Caden was such a champion. It showed more than quick reflexes and a sharp mind. It showed planning, practice, dedication, discipline—words used often at the Lonrack household.

You did not become a Blood Glades champion if your ducks were not in a row.

As his disc settled a foot above the ground before him, its lights washing over Cassie’s front lawn, Caden felt a sense of momentous transition in his life. If Cassie did not value what he had achieved, or what he would yet achieve, then Caden would leave her behind and find another life more meaningful and fulfilling than a girl like her could ever imagine.




The next morning, at home in his own large room, Caden distracted himself from thoughts of Cassie by contacting his recruiter in the space force.

“Oh, Caden. I’m surprised to hear from you again.”

“What do you mean? I want to verify my auto acceptance to the academy offer. I just wanted to know if you had a start date yet. I’m planning my move.”

“You’ve been rejected.”

“That’s not possible!”

“It’s out of my hands.”

“You lying son of a bitch! You said I was as close to guaranteed as it gets! You oohed and awed over my qualifications yourself. You know it! How could this happen?” Caden mentally yelled over his link.

“Look, kid. I wasn’t lying. You have your shit together, and everything was fine. But you didn’t tell me your family is friends with an executive director and opposed to your entrance to the academy.”

“What? What are you talking about? My parents did something?”

“You didn’t know?”

“Just tell me.”

The recruiter’s voice got softer. “Sorry, Caden. Your folks pulled some strings. High up. They have some leverage. There’s nothing I can do.”

Caden did not know what to say, so he just closed the connection.

How could they do that to me?

Angry, violent thoughts flashed through Caden’s head. As he exited his room, his body shook. He glided down a bank of stairs onto another level of the vast house. He found his parents donning gear for another climb out in the mountains. They wore thick gray protective suits with backpacks arranged nearby to accept their gear.

“What have you done? How dare you sabotage my career! Do you have any idea how long I’ve prepared for this? You idiots!” he exploded.

His parents stood stunned before his verbal assault. Their mouths literally dropped open. Caden had not screamed at them since the age of seven. His mother actually stepped back.

His father raised his open hands, urging Caden to calm down. Some part of Caden, powerless behind the tsunami of anger, realized he was physically intimidating his parents. Though his parents were both active, their son had grown taller, stronger, and more capable.

“Is this about the application at New Annapolis?” his father asked.

Caden had never felt such anger in his life. He smashed aside the backpacks and climbing gear on the table before him with one long swoop of his arm. Ropes, metal grippers, and containers came crashing over the side of the table. Then he grabbed the edge of the table and threw it in the opposite direction. He took another step forward. He saw fear in his father’s eyes.

“You destroyed years of work! Years! And you didn’t even bother to inform me!”

“I didn’t think you still wanted to throw it all away by becoming a space soldier,” his father said defensively.

“A space force officer! The most challenging career you could imagine! How could you have no idea? Don’t you ever listen to anything I say?”

“Tromping about the galaxy is not challenging, it’s dangerous and mundane,” his mother sniped from farther back. “Space ships have rooms the size of closets. You’d be packed into a ship like a sardine and sent off to the frontier, just to be shot by the aliens. What good would all your work be then?” Her voice shook.

“Why didn’t you say anything earlier? Why not tell me from the beginning?”

“It was a good motivator,” his father said. “Sometimes kids need that. But it’s time to grow up now. You have a great life ahead of you, thanks to your hard work.”

A calm descended upon Caden. The anger had not gone away, but it changed from hot to cold.

“No. You have it backward. What good will all my work be now?”

Caden retreated for his room. Everything had gone from bad to worse. His breath came in ragged gasps. His stomach felt sick.

What’s going to happen to me now? My investments are bankrupt. I might as well have spent all my time trying designer drugs and enjoying endless virtual screwing like all the other rich kids on Bethany Mountain.

He sealed himself into his room. Dozens of working replicas of space force men and materiel sat on his shelves around him. A pseudo virtual trainer helmet and mat dominated one corner of the room. Just staring at his own room showed him the magnitude of the disaster: his entire life was preparation for this blocked career. He had acted exactly how so many parents wanted their kids to be: focused on the future instead of the present. Caden was the model child for pushy parents with ambitious goals for their kids, the kind of go-getter who didn’t have to be nagged to achieve great things. He did it on his own. He was a fire-and-forget missile launched at a career they did not really want him to hit.

A knock came on his door. Strong, insistent. His father called him on his link.

“Yes?” he said on his link.

“I had hoped to spare you this realization,” his father said. “Real war is as much about luck as skill, at least for the people holding the guns.”

“Robots hold the guns, dad. New Annapolis is an officer academy. It’s just training to be an officer, knowing the basics of warfare before you move on to the way it’s done today.”

“I’m not finished. Caden, do you think you won that tournament on skill alone? How do you think it works?”

“I know how it works perfectly. How do you think I made champion?”

“Oh? Then let me congratulate you on a brilliant campaign. ‘The Hunter’. Very smart. And fourteen million fans.”

“It’s nice, sure, but I didn’t do it for that.”

“You won because of that. Where do you think the money comes from for such a big tournament? It’s huge. There’s a lot of money involved. The Hunter fits a character profile in their scheme. The one who goes around killing all the cowardly squatters, who only move enough to keep from being disqualified. The audience doesn’t like to watch squatters, Caden. They like to watch the Hunter.”

“Yes, that’s why I have the fans. So what?”

His father sighed. Caden heard it through the door.

“You won because you have the whole package, Caden. Good looking, hard training, hard enough to sell it that you’re the legit winner. But in the end, you had the story they wanted, the action the fans wanted, and that’s why you won. You had help. Without those fans, someone would have tagged you, Caden. The Blood Glades is rigged. You won a popularity contest as much as anything else. I’m sorry. You’re good, but don’t be naive. You’re old enough to know better now.”

The connection dropped.

It’s not true, he thought. But it still hurt. He felt robbed of the championship. The doubt had been introduced. He tried to sidestep the turmoil. And besides, the point was New Annapolis; this was only a stepping-stone.

Some small part of him wanted to cry for the first time in years, but he stomped it down. Caden Lonrack no longer cried.

Since Caden did not know how to process this disaster further, he fell into an old habit of checking up on his friends and his usual virtual haunts. Before flitting off to share his bad news wherever his buddies were enjoying themselves, Caden checked his batched messages. One stood out: a job offer from a tiny outfit called Parker Interstellar Travels.

Mr. Lonrack. Your performance in the Blood Glades tournament impressed us a great deal. We understand your test scores are outstanding as well. If you’d like to try something every bit as challenging as the space force, without big brother standing over your shoulder, contact us. We have a fantastic position for you on the frontier. We will cover all travel costs just for the chance to speak with you about our offer at Parker Interstellar Travels.

“Without big brother standing over my shoulder,” he said aloud.

I wonder what that means?