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Insignia


Page 1




CHAPTER ONE


NEW TOWN, NEW casino-same old plan. Arizona's Dusty Squanto Casino made it easy for Tom Raines, since he didn't even have to pay his way into their virtual reality parlor. He slipped into the room, settled onto a couch in the back corner, and looked over the crowd of gamers, taking them in one at a time. His gaze settled on the two men in the opposite corner, and locked onto target.


Them, Tom thought.


The men stood with VR visors on, wired gloves clenched in the air. Their racing simulation blazed across an overhead screen for anyone who wanted to bet on the outcome. No one would bet on this race, though. One man was a good driver-he navigated the virtual track with the skill of an experienced gamer-and the other was pitifully bad. His car's fender dragged across the wall of the arena, and the fake onlookers were screaming and dodging out of the way.


The winning racer gave a triumphant laugh as his car plowed across the finish line. He turned to the other man, chest puffed with victory, and demanded payment.


Tom smiled from his solitary spot on the couch.


Enjoy it while you can, buddy.


He timed it just right, waiting until the winner started counting up his bills to rise to his feet and wander into his line of sight. Tom noisily rattled one of the VR sets out of its storage container, then made a show of putting on the gloves the wrong way, before painstakingly adjusting them so the cloth and mesh wiring clasped his arms up to his elbows. Out of the corner of his eye, he became aware of the winning racer watching him.


"You like playing games, kid?" the man said to him. "Wanna have a go next?"


Tom gave him the wide-eyed, innocent look that he knew made him appear a lot younger than he was. Even though he was fourteen, he was short and skinny and had such bad acne that people usually couldn't guess his real age.




"I'm just looking. My dad says I'm not allowed to gamble."


The man licked his lips. "Oh, don't you worry. Your dad doesn't even have to know. Put down a few bucks, and we'll have us a great race. Maybe you'll win. How much money do you have?"


"Only fifty bucks."


Tom knew better than to say more than that. More than that, and people wanted to see it before taking up the bet. He actually had about two dollars in his pocket.


"Fifty bucks?" the man said. "That's enough. This is just car racing. You can race a car, can't you?" He twisted an invisible wheel. "Nothing to it. And think: you beat me, and you'll double that fifty."


"Really?"


"Really, kid. Let's have a go." A condescending chuckle. "I'll pay up for sure if you win."


"But if I lose …" Tom let that hang there. "That's all my money. I just … I can't." He started walking away, waiting for the magic words.


"All right, kid," the guy called. "Double or nothing."


Ha! Tom thought.


"I win," the man said, "and I'll get fifty. You win, you get a hundred. You can't beat that. Take a chance."


Tom turned slowly, fighting the laughter rising in his throat. This guy must already taste his easy fifty bucks since he'd fallen for the act so readily. Most casinos had one or two gamers who practically lived in the VR parlors, fancying themselves gods among men who could beat any chump luckless enough to enter their territory. Tom loved the way they looked at him: as some scrawny, stupid little kid they could easily con. He loved even more seeing their smiles disappear when he wiped the floor with them.


Just to be safe, Tom kept up the act. He made a show of fumbling as he strapped on the VR visor. "Okay, you're on, I guess."


Triumph rang in the man's voice.
"We're on."


They were off. Their cars roared to life and tore furiously down the track. Tom mentally ticked off the laps, taking it all very deliberately. He made a few token mistakes here and there. They were never enough to slow him down much, just enough to ensure he was lagging behind the other car. The man, puffed up with confidence and certain of winning, whirled his steering wheel with great, lashing sweeps of his wired gloves. As the finish line appeared and the man's car turned at the right angle, Tom finally let a grin blaze across his lips.


One flick of his glove did the trick. He rammed his car forward and clipped the guy's back fender, then floored his gas. The man bellowed in rage and disbelief when his car swerved off the road in a rain of sparks.


Tom's car sailed past the finish line while the other car crashed and exploded in the arena's side ditch.


"What-what-" the man sputtered.


Tom flipped up his visor. "Whoops. I think I have played that game before." He tugged off his gloves. "Wanna fork over my hundred bucks?"


He watched, fascinated, the way a vein began popping out and fluttering in the man's forehead. "You little-You can't-You're …"


"You're not gonna pay me, then?" Tom cast an idle glance toward the man's recent victim, now sitting on a nearby couch.
The bad driver was suddenly interested in their exchange. Tom raised his voice to make sure the man could make out every word. "I guess no one's playing games for money in here. Is that it?"


The gamer followed Tom's gaze to his victim, catching the implication: if he wouldn't pay Tom, then the other guy shouldn't have paid him.


The man spluttered a bit like the engine of his wrecked car, then jerked a hundred bucks out of a wad from his pocket. He crammed the bills into Tom's hand, muttering something about a rematch.


Tom flipped through the bills, completely enjoying the man's outrage. "You want a rematch, I'm game. Double or nothing, again? I could really use another two hundred dollars."


The man turned a curious shade of scarlet, cut his losses, and fled the room. As for the newbie on the couch, he gave Tom a grateful thumbs-up. Tom returned it, then stashed the bills in his pocket. One hundred dollars. Usually he had to pull off the bet with a few more gamers to make enough for a night's stay-VR sims involved such low stakes, after all-but at a dive like the Dusty Squanto Casino, a hundred would be enough for a room.


Tom's mind already whirled with the promises of the night ahead. A bed. Television. Air-conditioning. A real shower. He could even come back here and play games just for fun.


The ghastly realization hit just as he reached the door: he was at a casino with a VR parlor.


He had absolutely no excuse for missing school this afternoon.


TOM STAYED IN the VR parlor and logged into the Rosewood Reformatory sim for the first time in two weeks. In four years at Rosewood, he'd never skipped such a long stretch of school before, and he'd already missed most of class today. Just the sight in his visor of Ms. Falmouth's avatar and her virtual chalkboard killed any lingering satisfaction over his victory.


She immediately focused her attention on him. "Tom Raines," she said. "Thank you for gracing us with your presence today."


"You're welcome," Tom said. He knew it would just annoy her, but it wasn't like she had a good opinion of him to be ruined.


To be fair, he missed class a lot. Mostly not on purpose. Mostly he missed school due to losing access to an internet connection. It was just another hazard of having a gambler for a father.







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