Everyone can have heaven, any heaven they want, but some people don't want to go.
Mankind has largely retreated to the realms of virtual reality, where resources are unlimited and the problems of the real world—violence, conflict, sickness, and pain—can all be avoided. Unfortunately, those who stay behind in the real world pose the only risk to the immortality of those who have converted to virtual existence. Derek, a soldier in the Conversion Forces (ConFoes), seeks to enforce the Mandatory Conversion Act on the remaining mals (malcontent Luddites, gangbangers, and religious fanatics). He just wants to put in his time and join his family on one of the virtual worlds. But until then, he is forced to deal with his psychotic squad-mates, the increasingly brutal tactics of the ConFoes, and a mal ambush. And that's just the beginning of his journey.
While most speculative and science fiction deals with worlds transformed by technological advance, Forced Conversion highlights the troubling and chaotic process of that transformation, itself. It combines the adrenaline-soaked action of military fiction with the extrapolation of current scientific trends of the best speculative fiction, while dealing with the moral and religious implications of both war and technology. When Moore's Law meets God's Law, the result is forced conversion.
I met Don Bingle in a roundabout way, as the coauthor with Jean Rabe (see above) on THE LOVE-HAIGHT CASEFILES. When Don learned I was putting together the thriller bundle, he suggested one of his own books would fit right in. He sent me FORCED CONVERSION for consideration, and I agreed. – Kevin J. Anderson
"Visceral, bloody — and one hell of a page turner! Bingle tackles the philosophical issues surrounding uploaded consciousness in a fresh, exciting way. This is the debut of a major novelist — don't miss it."– Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo and Nebula award-winning author
"I loved it! Many writers have explored hard-hitting and brutal possible futures for Earth, and told colorful tales of people trying to stay alive in them, but few have brought such imagined futures as vividly to life as Don Bingle — and no other book I can think of examines how and why such a future might just happen as well as FORCED CONVERSION does — or provides half the breath-catching twists and turns of Bingle's yarn. A 'good read' of the old school, coupled with all-too-plausible reasons for everything. A grim warning and a fast action adventure tale, all in one! Highly recommended!"– Ed Greenwood, Creator of The Forgotten Realms™ and author of the bestselling Elminster novels
"Forced Conversion is filled with plenty of suspense and surprises, deep and quirky characters, and engaging dialog. It is not easy to set down, so read it when you have time on your hands. It is a helluva trip ..."– Jean Rabe, USA Today bestselling author
Derek hated firefights with religious zealots. They never gave up. Even when they faced certain death, they thought that meant they had won, that their reward in heaven was close at hand and even more glorious if they took you with them.
The scene looked peaceful enough: a shallow mountain creek cutting its way through the soil and detritus of a broad valley floor. A scattering of aging Ponderosa pines whispered and swayed lazily in the breeze above, while the buffalo grass baked and dried in the naked glare of the sun.
But the sun and the trees lied when they whispered peace. Violence stalked this place. The bear and mountain lion tracks crisscrossing a bar of silt nearby bore silent witness to the danger. The pleasant gurgle of the creek's bright, flowing water tried, but could not mask the truth of the mountain wilds. Kill-or-be-killed was nature's way.
And today . . . today there would be violence here of a type never shown in the nature vids.
There were at least three mals on the far side of the creek. His enemy was hiding in the more plentiful pines and bushy undergrowth on the north side of the valley. Derek couldn't see them, hadn't seen them even during the coordinated burst of automatic weapon fire that forced him to dive for the dirt several minutes ago, but he knew that they were there. They were spread out along the outside of a U-shaped bend in the coldwater creek. That way they would have a clear shot at anyone fool enough to charge down the loose gravel bank, cross the shin-high water, and attempt to scramble up the opposite side.
Derek wasn't a fool and he certainly wasn't gung-ho enough about this mission, any mission, to charge forward on his own. Instead, he hunkered down behind one of the bigger Ponderosa pines. He gulped for air, breathing in the sweet smell of the sticky sap oozing from where a bullet had scored the trunk only moments before. The sugary scent mixed with the salty tang of his own sweat and the whiff of powder still in the air from his untargeted return fire. His mouth tasted of mud, tinged with metal.
He glanced furtively about for hostiles, then sat with his back to the trunk as he checked his ammunition and waited impatiently for the rest of the squad to move up. They'd heard the gunfire. There was no reason to risk moving back to report. Still, he counted the seconds and yearned for a radio to call for help.
He'd learned many things in the course of his training: military maneuvers, survival techniques, PsyOps methods. Things he otherwise never would have thought about back home; things Katy would never know or understand; things he would never tell her when he saw her again after his service was complete. But he had never learned why the squad couldn't use a damn radio to communicate on patrol, not even a radio with an encrypted signal. Their vehicle had laser communications gear, but out in the field they used hand motions. So he sat, frozen in place, imagining a hand motion he would love to give whoever had banned the radios, and waited for reinforcement.
He heard the squad before he saw them, which didn't say much for their training, or, more accurately, their leadership. A. K., the hulking squad commander, crashed forward, barely bothering to crouch as he moved quickly through the buffalo grass. Sandoval, slightly pudgy and sweating profusely, trailed diagonally on A. K.'s right, just ahead of Pancek, who moved in the calm, deliberate manner of a professional soldier. Manning, short and wiry, moved quickly and furtively in a mirror position to A. K.'s left, along with Digger, who was older, taller, and considerably more laconic in his movements and his attitude. Back and center, their resident techno-geek, Wires, crept forward awkwardly with his conversion equipment.
Derek swung his rifle around the side of the trunk and let off a burst into the trees across the creek, both to give the squad some cover and to make sure they knew exactly where he was. The squad would know the sound of his rifle; the ConFoe suppressor rifles made a deep, dull bark—the result of the rubber bullets. The mals used a variety of weaponry—everything from ancient Kalashnikovs to collapsible Uzi submachine pistols, but they all had the sharp yelp and bite of real ammunition made of brass and lead and designed to tear a ragged hole out of your sinew when they hit.
The mal religious fanatics didn't have to play by the rules regarding lethal force. Only the ConFoes were supposed to do that. It's what almost made it an even fight, despite the superior numbers, training, equipment, and transportation of the ConFoes. The Conversion Forces were tasked to locate, capture, orient, persuade, and convert the malcontents, forcibly if necessary. The ConFoes could only use lethal force in defense; the mals used it all the time.
A. K. halted the group's advance in a brief hollow behind a small deadfall. "Bareback," he growled. Pancek, Manning, Sandoval, and Digger simultaneously popped out their ammo magazines and snicked in fresh ones from their belts with smooth, practiced motions. Wires merely continued his slow, burdened effort to catch up; he didn't even carry a gun.
Derek knew that A. K. had no need to switch; he never used rubber, despite the regulations.
Derek made no move to switch magazines either, but for a different reason. "There's no need for that, A. K.," he hissed back to his squad-mates. "We outnumber 'em."
"To hell with that. Damn mals need to learn to run back to their hidey-holes when A. K. comes to town," the squad leader boasted, louder than he needed to. He obviously didn't care if the mals heard.
"There's only three . . ." Derek argued back.
A. K. fixed him with a steely gaze, the muscles tensing in his jaw. "You only saw three." He looked up toward the shade of the more densely packed trees across the creek. The sunlight dappling through the swaying pine branches was the only thing that moved within his gaze. "They only showed you three." His tanned face crinkled slightly as he took in a long deep breath, then loosed a practiced stream of spittle through his teeth. "I smell one behind every tree."
He motioned, first to Sandoval, then to Manning. The signs were quick and precise and ended with a curt nod. Sandoval moved back and downstream, Manning back and upstream. They would cross the creek a hundred yards on either side of their advancing leader and attempt to flank the enemy. Derek had less than three minutes to get with the program before all hell broke loose.
Swearing below his breath, he ejected the partially expended magazine of rubber bullets and replaced it with the real thing. He stuck a couple extra magazines into the waistband of his camouflage pants for ready access and counted the grenades hanging off his belt: three stunners on his right, two incendiaries on his left.
Unfortunately, the mals decided not to wait to be flanked. They opened up on Derek with apocalyptic abandon before he could even turn back around toward them and get his bearings. Bursts of automatic fire tore up the ground in arcs to his left and his right, zeroing in on him as steady fire from the front pounded into the soft wood of the Ponderosa pine, chewing through it, sending wood and splinters flying into his neck.
He knew better than to have remained stationary this long after having been spotted by an enemy, especially with his back to them. Now they had fully triangulated their fire on his position. It was only a matter of seconds . . . .
With a bellow, A. K. vaulted over the deadfall and charged forward to the left of Derek's untenable position. In A. K.'s left paw, a gleaming silver machine pistol spat out a stream of fire and death at the position of the left-most attacker. In his right, an automatic heavy rifle did the same. A. K.'s taut muscles absorbed the recoil of each shot and his shoulders strained to keep the weapons level despite their thundering rate of fire. Even with the dual targeting and his quick movement forward, A. K.'s aim remained remarkably true, pummeling both positions without respite.
More splinters exploded from Derek's tree as A. K. drew even and passed his position, still firing to both sides, his arms outstretched, his chest full and wide toward the center mal, who had been punishing the side of Derek's cover facing the creek.
Pancek and Digger flung themselves wide to either side, each firing in short bursts at the mal nearest them as they gained speed in an effort to rush and jump the creek.
Derek's tree stopped vibrating as the center shooter began to veer his fire toward the charging A. K. It was up to Derek to save the belligerent asshole. He reached down with his right hand to his left side and loosed a grenade, flicking the pin out with his thumb as he had been drilled in boot. He drew his arm back, then flung his arm upward as he twisted around the right side of the tree to fastball the weapon into the thicket directly across the creek.
As the explosion rocked the previously peaceful valley, Derek threw himself toward a large pine to his right, trusting the dust and chaos of the explosion to cover his movement and staying low to avoid the steady stream of lead that A. K. continued to spew in both directions. The tree he chose was half-undercut by the eroding bank of the creek and leaned out at a forty-five degree angle across the water. If he could clamber atop it and sprint across, he could drop down on the other side before he was re-targeted and capture their center opponent.
Derek attempted to shoulder his weapon to leave his hands free and planted his left foot hard to push up onto the angled pine. As he did, the earth gave way beneath him and his leg dropped into a void until his crotch shockingly halted the fall by colliding with a wide tree root. His rifle slipped off his right shoulder as he spun and jerked painfully downward to his left. Blackness and flashes of light flooded Derek's vision as his plan disintegrated with the eroding earth. He scraped his face on the tree trunk as he fell, wrenching his lower back and twisting his right knee in the process.
Derek gritted his teeth to avoid crying out and struggled to remain conscious. The bank had undercut the old pine more than he had realized and his leg had punched through a layer of dirt between two gnarled roots. His left leg now dangled helplessly below the angled tree without purchase. His gun was out of reach, in the open to his right. Shots rang out on three sides of him, but the tree blocked his view of the firefight raging about him. Mud spattered against his exposed leg as slugs slammed into the bank. The automatic fire approached him from the left in a stream so thick that he knew his leg would be chewed off when the dum-dum bullets cut through his flesh, leaving his blood to course down into the pristine water of the creek.
He tried to marshal his thoughts and figure out what to do, but the only thing that could permeate the haze of pain was that this was surely an asinine way to die. Even more so, because only mals died at all anymore.
That was the beauty of conversion.
Where was that damn slowpoke, Wires, when you really needed him?