Insignia by S. J. Kincaid

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The basics

Title: Insignia

Author:

Series: Insignia #1

- Insignia (July 2012)
- Vortex (July 2013)
- Catalyst (October 2014)

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Goodreads Summary:

The earth is in the middle of WWIII in Insignia, the first entry in S.J. Kincaid’s fast-paced sci-fi adventure trilogy. The planet’s natural resources are almost gone, and the war is being fought to control the assets of the solar system. The enemy is winning.

The salvation may be Tom Raines. Tom doesn’t seem like a hero. He’s a short fourteen-year-old with bad skin. But he has the virtual-reality gaming skills that make him a phenom behind the controls of the battle drones.

As a new member of the Intrasolar Forces, Tom’s life completely changes. Suddenly, he’s someone important. He has new opportunities, friends, and a shot at having a girlfriend. But there’s a price to pay...

In short

Tom is a fourteen-year-old who is very good at video games, but that is all. His father is a gambler so they are always on the move, leaving Tom with no friends and bad school record. But then he gets an offer to join the elite military force made out of teens, and he accepts. He becomes of the trainees for the Intrasolar Forces. He gets a computer in his brain, grows tall and smart, and becomes a good fighter as well. While living with the army, he meets new people, gets friends, but also enemies. They try to sabotage him and his advancement in the organization, and have him thrown in jail, but Tom and his friends outsmart them all and win. Tom gets promoted to the next level of army, glad he stayed with military and kept his friends as well.

What went down

  • Start of the story comes with Tom, a fourteen-year-old main character of the novel, waiting in a casino to strip people out of money. He competes with a guy, pretending he has no idea what he’s doing, only to win a hundred dollars that would ensure him bed and bath and TV for the night. Since his father is a terrible gambler, Tom has to take matters in his own hands so he can assure a roof over their heads. That also means he often skips online school because he cannot log in on the internet.
  • As Tom finally makes it back in class late one day, after being gone for ten days, his teacher starts nagging at him right away. She bombards him with questions until Tom doesn’t know how to answer anymore. The topic is the last world war – the third so far – and we learn that the world is battling in space to ensure no lasting damage comes to the Earth itself.
  • In class, Tom makes a new friend, a girl named Heather, who’s new in class. She seems to be a really kind and smart girl whom Tom likes immediately. After the class, he manages to even ask her out on a virtual date the next day.
  • After class, his teacher takes him to her office to talk about his absences in class that keep occurring, and Tom’s wild and not very believable excuses. She tells Tom she notified Child Protective Services because of his irresponsible father. Tom dreads to think of going back to his mother in New York and her douchebag rich boyfriend, while his teacher is telling him off because he isn’t bothered with his future.
  • After a bad night and no sleep, Tom leaves for the parlor of the casino again, to play some games. Mid-game, another one flashes and he goes with it. At first, he thinks it’s a challenge from another player, only to find Heather at the end of the sim, telling him he passed. When the sim ends, there’s a clapping noise. There’s an older man standing in the parlor, clapping to Tom. The man tells Tom he was looking for him for a month and Heather helped find him.
  • The man’s name is General Terry Marsh and he thinks Tom would make a great Combatant in the war. He tells Tom he’d be perfect for Pentagonal Spire. When Tom tells that to his father, Neil immediately says no. After a short fight, Tom’s father signs the form for joining the army anyway and hands the custody over his son to the army.
  • Tom’s taken to Pentagon, and is told he will have a special civilian status until he’s old enough to enlist. He is told he will receive further education and that has some days off and weekends to his leisure as well. He’s shown around the compound as well. Tom also learns he will have neural processor fitted into his brain. Tom becomes less and less sure he wants to do this, so Marsh gives him some time to reconsider before he sends him home should Tom decline. In the end, it’s Heather who pushes him over the edge so Tom decides to join.
  • Tom wakes up from a drug-induced sleep, thinking he’s it. After coming back around, he learns he had the chip implanted. He’s got photographic memory, internal chronometer and other perks. After the check-up, he meets his new roommate Vik, and two other fellow Plebes, Beamer and Yuri. Tom sees his room and gets an uniform, then they head for breakfast.
  • At breakfast, a girl named Wyatt Enslow hacks Tom’s profile to put in some fake achievements since he himself doesn’t really have any and it raises many suspicions. After breakfast it was time for training in an arena, full of various obstacles. Tom fights Scotsmen and Medieval Englishmen with Japanese weapons for a vigorous training. Afterwards, when taking a shower, he finds he had no acne or facial hair whatsoever – it was removed with the operation because it’s not ‘productive’.
  • First class of the day, math, terrifies Tom as it features a test, but Tom soon finds out he can actually do advanced math that he never learned before. In all the classes, he found, he was among the best. He even speaks Japanese. At lunch, famous Elliot Ramirez, the face of the young soldiers, tells Tom he’s in his training group.
  • After lunch simulation is about wolves, and even though they’re supposed to be working on team work, Tom takes initiative, finishes the task alone and gets scolded by Elliot. In programming the next day, the professor demands from Tom to tell him who hacked his profile, but Tom declines. The penalty is that he’s gets viruses tested on his own chip, turning him into a dog, a man in love with the floor, a hungry boy and many other things.
  • Another simulation passes where Tom refuses to play by Elliot’s rules and gets sidetracked for the entire session – he’s King Arthur’s wife, who stays back and doesn’t fight, but Tom outsmarts them all again – he sends a message to the enemy so they storm the castle, kills the enemy king and waits for Elliot to return.
  • Tom is growing up with alarming speed, and because he feels something is wrong – he has a lot of pain and odd alerts flashing in his vision – he decides to go to the infirmary. On the way down, he meets Karl, an older boy that got into a sort of argument in programming with Tom. Karl wants to settle the score, but Tom manages to escape. He makes it to the hall where Heather lives. Under the pretenses she is helping Tom, she sells him out to Karl in exchange for a sponsorship in the army for her friend. Tom is saved by Wyatt, who changes Karl and his friends into chickens with a virus hack. From that moment on, Tom is more careful with Heather.
  • Tom finally makes it to the infirmary, where he learns his growth spurt is not good for him and his bones, so they stop the program in his chip despite Tom’s protests. Tom also gets obsessed with streams of Medusa, the best combatant in the world, coming from Russo-Chinese area. He keeps downloading videos of Medusa’s fighting and watches them over and over.
  • The video of Wyatt saving Tom from Karl makes it across the Spire as Vik put it in the homework downloads. So naturally, professor Blackburn of programing saw the piece as well. In class, he asks the attacked group who the attacker was (as Wyatt deleted herself out of the video) and when they tell him Tom might know, Tom is the class’ tester again. This time Blackburn accesses his mind, alteres his memories and induces a phobia. When Tom kind of passes, Blackburn tries again on a member of Karl’s gang that was ‘chickened’ by Wyatt.
  • By evening, all combatants that were fighting off a surprise attack from Russo-Chinese and were missing in classes, come back, exhausted. They lost, all thanks to Medusa totaling them all. Tom is impressed despite the loss and is eager to download the video of the intergalactic fight immediately.
  • The first following weekend is parents weekend, and Tom does not expect any of his parents to come. So when he is called to the lobby to be a parent escort, he gets a bit scared his father came. It turns out it was actually his mother’s boyfriend, Dalton, a man employed by Dominion Agra, one of the big war sponsors. He comes by to try and get Tom on his side, to get him to be Dominion’s combatant in time.
  • In the next simulation, they are in the middle of a Greek war, defending Troy, when there is an incursion, this time from Russo-Chinese. All their greatest combatants busted into the groups’ simulation and took the role of the opposing team. Tom is the only one that stays behind and fights them all. He kills all of them but one: he has a showdown with Medusa but loses only barely. Despite the loss, he is absolutely ecstatic. The fight actually earns him praise from Elliot. While waiting for daily briefing of the entire Spire, Tom and Wyatt sit together. Wyatt teaches Tom a new function of the neural processor – instant messaging between two people. Tom was actually asking about it because he wants to get in contact with Medusa.
  • At the briefing, Blackburn tells everyone he’s opening war games. Since they’re all bad at programming, he’s trying to persuade them to try harder. They are allowed to put viruses on one another to win points. It’s a fight on purely programming level. Tom and Vik immediately team up. When they leave the room, Karl and his friends follow right after, seeking revenge for the first programming class. When they’re discovered, the two groups try to attack one another, but they all fail. When Wyatt comes by and tells them how pathetic they are, failing for half an hour, Vik calls her ‘Man Hands’ again, making her so mad she unleashes her genius on all of them. She’s one of the few really amazing ones at programming so she goes on a rampage and starts hitting everyone and everything.
  • The last night before the end of war games, Tom decides to try and hack into Wyatt from the 11th floor where the top of the military’s offices are. He plugs himself in and suddenly finds himself in the orbit, connected to a satellite. Soon, he makes it into the Sun Tzu Citadel, the Russo-Chinese combatant center. Unplugging himself, he hurries back down, but never forgets.
  • By the end of the wars, Tom and Vik never managed to put one on Karl, and neither has Karl on them. It was a constant stalemate and they all gave up. When Tom and Vik try to ambush Wyatt, she tricks them with talking so the war games officially end. That’s when they’re discovered by Blackburn who tells them the games were made so he could find the rogue hacker, and he did. Wyatt is very scared, until Blackburn offers her a sort of internship with him, and Wyatt grabs the opportunity.
  • While waiting outside the museum one weekend, Tom gets picked up by Dalton, and is taken to a disclosed location. It’s a club for the city’s creme de la creme, and Dalton tries to persuade Tom to join him again. Tom refuses, so he is forcefully sat into a chair and plugged in. He gets to have programs loaded that fool him into thinking Dalton and his firm are good people. Tom will have his brain washings until he’s ready, and Karl will help from the inside.
  • Next day, Beamer’s gone. He had some doubts about staying in the Spire, so he is getting some ‘help’. Tom kept feeling odd ever since the club visit with Dalton, like something’s missing. His brain also flashed ‘Restricted Access’ at random times, confusing Tom further. One night, when Wyatt and Blackburn are doing some research in the basement, Tom sneaks into the man’s office to get into Sun Tzu Citadel again. He finds Medusa and leaves her a message to meet him. She meets him in a game and defeats Tom again, but promises to meet with him again later. Tom figures out Medusa’s a girl, and is utterly impressed by her.
  • Tom suddenly wakes up at 0000 hours, and, despite not meaning to, goes down to the common room, where he is picked up by Karl. He has no idea how he is walking around and why. Karl takes him to an empty bedroom and demands Tom lies on a bed, so he can plug in some more brain washing.
  • A few weeks later, Tom is a completely different person. He cares about his looks, he exercises before breakfast, he volunteers… and Vik starts noticing. He’s been downloading the latests updates himself: manners, etiquette etc. yet there is still something nagging at him inside his head. The odd behavior was picked up by Vik, Yuri and Wyatt and they have an intervention, but they can’t come through to him at all. Until Wyatt brought Blackburn to do a system scan on Tom.
  • Tom is cornered, but his new programming is ready for that. It triggers a mention of something from Blackburn’s personal files, and Blackburn suspects Wyatt of breaching his trust, which works for Tom who was about to be discovered. Next day, he is tricked by Yuri, who challenges his ego to trap him under the lifting bar. Wyatt made a new firewall, a great new program, to ‘clean’ Tom. The debug is successful and Tom is back to normal.
  • The next few days, Tom and Vik spend their time planning vengeance on Dominion Agra. One night at the club with Dalton, Tom gets a message from Medusa. Being under the malware, he completely forgot about her. She decides to help him with his vengeance.
  • Tom hacked into the club’s data stream. He programmed the sewer water from the club to reverse, to pump back inside the club’s toilets so everything stank, but made it look like Karl was having terrible winds. Medusa joins the fray, disabling the phones, blasting terrible music while Tom left everyone trapped by changing the lock code on the door.
  • Blackburn’s revenge comes soon after. He makes Wyatt super busy, making her work alone, and Tom is the test guinea pig for programming class again. Tom and a boy named Nigel are tasked to hide and evade the entire class, but they have a fight in hiding and Nigel attacks Tom. Tom is in the infirmary and on bed rest for a few days.
  • Soon, the evaluations arrive, for the possible promotions. Elliot has a talk with Tom and promises he’ll recommend him for a promotion. At their next chat with Medusa in a game, Medusa reveals all the American fighter’s names have been leaked.
  • Chaos is all over the Spire and talk about treason is everywhere. When Tom is woken up by Blackburn, he knows he’s in trouble. Dalton contacted the Spire to tell them Tom was in contact with someone from China back on the day they attacked the club. Tom admits he was talking to Medusa. Tom has a processor scan to determine if he is a spy, but Tom is scared they’ll learn a secret about Wyatt and how she helped Yuri, so he runs.
  • Tom hides in the office of the social worker, but Blackburn removes him from her office by force and performs the scan, revealing all Tom’s day fantasies and suppressed memories. But Tom resists for hours, until he finally interacts with the census machine and electrocutes Blackburn.
  • The next day, the machine is fixed and Tom is back in it. Later on, with the help of the social worker, they managed to get Tom’s father to sue the military over the military, to stop the torture on Tom. When General Marsh takes him away for a chat, he tells him Tom will be Elliot’s proxy, the real fighter in the next fight with Medusa.
  • Tom catches up to his friends and tells them about the deal. Vik suggests cheating, Wyatt suggest she makes a virus for him, and Yuri says Tom should just ask Medusa to forfeit. Tom agrees with all, but asking her fails before he even asks. Next is the virus that Wyatt makes for Tom.

How did it end?

On the day of the fight at the Summit, Tom comes with Elliot, but Nigel is there too, just in case. So when Tom is supposed to plug in, Nigel sabotages him and makes him immobile. While gloating, Nigel reveals he laked the names and IP addresses of the Camelot Company to the world. Nigel plans to crash the ship into Pentagonal Spire and dislodge Tom and General marsh at the same time. Tom does the only thing he can and unleashes Wyatt’s virus on Nigel. When Nigel falls over, Tom knocks him out and plugs himself in and goes after Medusa.
Tom decides to connect to the grid Medusa is using, and finds she can communicate with satellites and machines as well. He manages to secure the satellite they had to grab and deposit on Earth, and races down to win. Medusa is on his tail all the time, chasing Tom, so he veers away directly into a storm. In the chase, he tries to get inside Medusa’s head, and finds her true self. She is just as he imagined it, dark haired and all, but her face is disfigured. She must have been in a terrible accident. And Tom goes straight for her weak point, letting her know he sees her.
Tom manages to deposit the satellite just before Medusa crashes into him and jolts them both out of the fight. When Marsh and Blackburn come see Tom, he explains it all about Nigel. Blackburn deposits of Nigel while Marsh goes back out to be congratulated. Meanwhile, Tom is feeling terrible despite the win.
After a showdown with Blackburn, where Tom wins and puts the older man in place, Tom also secures all charges against him dropped, with help of the social worker. He also meets his father, to persuade him to drop charges.
Tom, Vik and Wyatt are all promoted to Middle company a few weeks after the fight. Tom keeps logging onto the internet, into games, looking for Medusa, even though he knows he blew it with her, until finally one day he finds her in Medieval England again. They kind of make up, Medusa promising him she will stomp him the next time they fight.

Anything else

Reformatory school – online school for those who cannot afford the ‘real’ one; last resort. It’s where Tom’s going to school.
Combatants – elite soldiers fighting in space (Camelot Company)
Incursion – a hack into someone’s gameplay from another gamer as a challenge
Sim – simulation
Pentagonal Spire – a place in Pentagon where young smart people are trainees for Intrasolar Forces
Plebe – lowest rank in the army, starting point
Divisions – ‘houses’ inside the Spire

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