Armada, p.4
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       Armada, p.4

           Ernest Cline

  As usual, the rest of the customer parking lot was empty, except for a small cluster of cars in front of THAI, the generically named Thai food restaurant at the other end of the strip mall, where Ray and I ordered copious amounts of takeout. We'd nicknamed the place "Thai Fighter," because the capital H on their sign had a circular bulge at its center that made the letter resemble an imperial fighter with Twin Ion Engines.

  The sign mounted over the entrance of Starbase Ace was a bit fancier. Ray had designed it to look like a real Starbase was bursting out of the building's brick facade. It had cost Ray a fortune, but it did look cool as hell.

  As I pushed through the front door, the electronic chime Ray had rigged up to it activated, playing a sliding-door sound effect from the original Star Trek TV series, making it sound like I was walking onto the bridge of the Enterprise. It still made me smile every time I arrived at work--even today.

  As I walked into the store, a pair of toy laser turrets mounted on the ceiling swiveled around to track me, activated by their primitive motion sensors. Ray had taped a sign to the wall beside them that read warning: anyone caught shoplifting will be vaporized by our turbo-lasers!

  Ray was in his usual spot behind the counter, hunched over Big Bootay, his ancient overclocked gaming PC. His left hand danced across its keyboard while he clicked the mouse with his right.

  "Zack is back for the attack!" Ray bellowed, keeping his eyes on the game. "How was school, my man?"

  "Uneventful," I lied, joining him behind the counter. "How's business today?"

  "Nice and slow, just like we like it," he said. "Dost thou care for a Funyun?"

  He proffered a giant bag of the simulated onion rings, and I took one to be polite. Ray seemed to subsist primarily on a diet of high-fructose junk food and old videogames. It was hard not to love the guy.

  Back before I was old enough to drive, I used to ride my bike over to Starbase Ace every day after school, just to bullshit about old videogames with Ray and kill time until my mom got off work at the hospital. Either he recognized me as a kindred spirit, or he just got tired of my chronic latchkey kid loitering and eventually offered me a job. I was overjoyed--even before I discovered that my new position as Assistant Sales Clerk involved about ten percent actual work and about ninety percent hanging out with Ray while we played videogames, cracked jokes, and ate junk food on the clock.

  Ray once told me that he operated Starbase Ace "for kicks." After making a boatload of dough on tech stocks during the dot com boom, he now wanted to enjoy his early retirement at the helm of his own private nerd lair, where he got to spend all day playing and talking about videogames with his like-minded clientele.

  He was always saying he didn't give a damn if the store ever turned a profit--which was good, because it rarely did. Ray paid way too much for the used games we bought, and then immediately priced them for less than he'd just paid for them. He put everything on sale, all the time. He sold consoles, controllers, and hardware at no markup--to, as he put it, "foster customer loyalty and promote the gaming industry."

  Ray was also terrible at customer service. He made people wait at the register if he was in the middle of playing a game. He also loved to talk shit about people's game selections while he was ringing them up, if he thought they were buying a lame or easy title, and I'd seen him drive both children and adults out of the store with his opinions on everything from cheat codes to crop circles. He didn't seem to care if his rude behavior drove him out of business. I did, though, which made for a strange employee-employer relationship, since I was usually the one who had to scold him for not being more polite to our customers.

  I fished my Starbase Ace nametag out of a drawer and pinned it on. A few years ago, as a joke, Ray had put his nickname for me on there, so now it read: Hello! My name is ZACK ATTACK. He didn't know that "Zack Attack" was also the name my peers had saddled me with after "the Incident" back in junior high.

  I stood there stalling for a few more minutes, then forced myself to walk over to Smallberries, our second enormous sales PC. I clicked its mouse a few times and opened a search engine. I glanced at Ray to make sure he wasn't looking my way, then typed in the words: Beaverton, Oregon, UFO, and flying saucer.

  The only hits that came back were references to Flying Saucer Pizza, a local restaurant. There were no recent UFO sightings mentioned on the local TV station or newspaper websites. If anyone else had seen the same ship I had, they still hadn't reported it. Or maybe there had been a report, but no one had taken it seriously?

  I sighed and closed the browser window, then glanced back over at Ray. If there was anyone I could have told about the Glaive Fighter, it was him. Ray seemed to believe that everything happening in the world was somehow connected to Roswell, crop circles, Area 51, and/or Hangar 18. He'd told me on numerous occasions that he believed aliens had already made first contact with humanity decades ago, and that our leaders were still covering it up all these years later because "the sheeple of Earth" weren't ready to hear the truth yet.

  But UFO cover-ups and alien abductions were one thing. Seeing a fictional alien spacecraft from a bestselling videogame series buzzing your town made even the craziest Roswell conspiracy theories seem sane by comparison. Besides, how was I supposed to walk over to Ray and tell him with a straight face that I'd seen a Sobrukai fighter buzzing our town--when he was, at that very moment, doing battle with that very same fictional alien race?

  I walked over to get a better view of his huge monitor. Ray was playing the same videogame he'd been playing pretty much nonstop for the past few years--Terra Firma, a wildly popular first-person shooter published by Chaos Terrain, the same developer behind Armada. Both games shared the same near-future alien invasion storyline, in which Earth was being attacked by the "Sobrukai," a race of ill-tempered anthropomorphic squid-like creatures from Tau Ceti V who were hell-bent on exterminating all of humanity, for one of the usual bullshit reasons--they wanted our sweet-ass M-Class planet, and sharing shit just wasn't in their cephalopod nature.

  Like nearly every race of evil alien invaders in the history of science fiction, the Sobrukai were somehow technologically advanced enough to construct huge warships capable of crossing interstellar space, and yet still not smart enough to terraform a lifeless world to suit their needs, instead of going through the huge hassle of trying to conquer one that was already inhabited--especially one inhabited by billions of nuke-wielding apes who generally don't cotton to strangers being on their land. No, the Sobrukai just had to have Earth for some reason, and they were determined to Kill All Humans before they took possession. Luckily for us, like so many made-up evil alien invaders before them, the Sobrukai also seemed intent on exterminating us as slowly and inefficiently as possible. Instead of just wiping out humanity with a meteor or a killer virus or a few old-fashioned long-range nuclear weapons, the squids had opted to wage prolonged World War II-style air and ground war against us--while somehow allowing all of their advanced weapons, propulsion, and communications technology to fall into their primitive enemy's hands.

  In both Armada and Terra Firma, you played a human recruit in the Earth Defense Alliance, tasked with using a variety of ground-based combat drones to fight off the invasion. Each drone in the EDA's arsenal was designed to serve as a direct match for a similar type of drone used by the alien enemy.

  Terra Firma focused on humanity's ground war against the Sobrukai after their drones had reached Earth. Armada was an aerospace combat sim released the following year, allowing players to remotely control humanity's global stockpile of defense drones, and use them to battle the Sobrukai invaders out in space and over the besieged cities of Earth. Since their release, Terra Firma and Armada had become two of the most popular multiplayer action games in the world. I'd played TF religiously when it came out--until Chaos Terrain released Armada the following year, and then it had become my primary videogame obsession. I still played Terra Firma with Cruz and Diehl a few times a week--usually in return for the
m agreeing to play an Armada mission with me.

  Ray also frequently coerced me into playing TF with him here at work, so my infantry drone skills were still sharp. This was essential, because in Terra Firma, the size and power of the drones you were allowed to control during each mission was based on your overall combat skill rating. Newbie players were only authorized to operate the smallest and cheapest combat drones in the EDA's arsenal. Once you increased in rank and skill, you were allowed to pilot increasingly bigger and more advanced drones--Spartan hover tanks, Nautiloid attack submarines, and the EDA's largest and most impressive weapon, the Titan Warmech--a giant humanoid robot that looked like something out of an old Saturday morning cartoon.

  Ray happened to be controlling a Warmech at that very moment, and he was in trouble. I watched as a horde of alien Spider Fighters closed in on him. His mech finally succumbed to the incoming barrage of laser fire and toppled backward into a large tenement building, demolishing it. He and I both winced--in Terra Firma, players got penalized for all of the property damage caused by their drones in combat--intentional or otherwise.

  Although the game's backstory embraced a lot of tired alien invasion tropes, it subverted many of them, too. For example, the Sobrukai weren't actually invading Earth in person--they were using drones to do it. And humanity had constructed its own stockpile of drones to repel them. So all of the aerospace fighters, mechs, tanks, subs, and ground troops used by both sides were remotely controlled war machines--each one operated by an alien or human who was physically located somewhere far from the battlefield.

  From a purely tactical standpoint, using drones made a hell of a lot more sense than using manned (or aliened) ships and vehicles to wage an interplanetary war. Why risk the lives of your best pilots by sending them into combat? Now whenever I watched a Star Wars film, I found myself wondering how the Empire had the technology to make long-distance holographic phone calls between planets light-years apart, and yet no one had figured out how to make a remote-controlled TIE Fighter or X-Wing yet.

  A warning message flashed on Ray's HUD: your drone has been destroyed! Then his display went dark for a second before a new message flashed on his HUD, informing him that he had just been given control of a new drone. But since all of his unit's larger drones and tanks had already been destroyed, Ray was forced to take control of the only thing they had left. An ATHID--Armored Tactical Humanoid Infantry Drone.

  From the neck down, an ATHID looked similar to the original Terminator, after all of Arnie's cyborg flesh got burned away, leaving only its armored chrome skeleton underneath. But in place of a human-shaped head, each ATHID had a stereoscopic camera encased inside an armored acrylic dome, giving it a vaguely insect-like appearance. Every ATHID was armed with a Gauss mini-gun mounted on each forearm, a pair of shoulder-mounted missile launchers, and a laser cannon embedded in its chest plate.

  I watched over Ray's shoulder as he used his ATHID's twin mini-guns to mow down an onslaught of Sobrukai Spider Fighters--eight-legged antipersonnel robots--that were attacking him on the roof of a burning tenement building, somewhere near the center of the besieged city he was helping defend. He was bobbing his head in time to his favorite TF battle soundtrack song, "Vital Signs" by Rush. Ray claimed that its unique time signature matched up perfectly with the alien Spider Fighter drones' erratic swarming patterns, making it easier for him to anticipate their movements and rate of attack. He also claimed that each of the other songs on Rush's Moving Pictures album was perfect for battling a different Sobrukai drone. Personally, I'd always assumed this was just an excuse he'd concocted for playing that same album on a continuous loop, day after day.

  On Ray's monitor, dozens of Sobrukai troopships were descending from the sky. These massive, gunmetal gray octahedrons where what the enemy used to deploy their ground forces once they reached Earth's orbit. Each one had automated sentry guns mounted all over its heavily armored hull, which was nearly invulnerable to laser fire. Of course, in typical videogame fashion, these ships had been engineered with a glaring weak spot: their engines were unshielded and vulnerable to attack--a fact I knew well from playing Armada. When one of these diamond-shaped troopships made landfall, it would impact with enough velocity to bury its lower half into the surface, like a giant spike. Then the pyramid-shaped top half would open like an enormous four-petaled metal flower, and the thousands of Sobrukai drones packed inside it would pour out, like an army of newborn insects bursting from a broken egg sac, intent on devouring everything in sight.

  In the distance, a swarm of Sobrukai Glaive Fighters streaked across the sky, banking in unison to change course, like a school of piranha in search of prey. Viewed from above, the Glaive's symmetrical fuselage resembled the blade of a double-headed axe, but seen edge-on, its profile distinctly resembled that of a flying saucer from an old sci-fi film--a detail that had worked its way into my earlier hallucination.

  I'd destroyed countless Glaive Fighters during the three years I'd been playing Armada. Until now, I'd never found them especially frightening or ominous. But today, just seeing the background animations on Ray's screen filled me with a sense of dread, as if the ships really were somehow a threat to everything I held dear and not a harmless collection of textured polygons rendered on a computer display.

  Ray power-leaped his ATHID off of the burning rooftop and onto the back of a Sobrukai Basilisk, a reptilian-looking robot tank with laser cannons for eyes. Ray power-jumped into the air again, spinning his ATHID around 180 degrees just before he brought the huge metal Basilisk down with a single well-placed missile shot to its segmented abdomen. It exploded beneath him in a huge orange fireball, and Ray had to fire his ATHIDs jump jets again to land clear of it.

  "Bravo, Sergeant," I said, using his rank in the fictional Earth Defense Alliance.

  "Thank you, Lieutenant," he replied. "That means a lot coming from you."

  He grinned and raised his right hand off of his mouse long enough to snap me a salute before refocusing on the battle.

  According to the readouts on his HUD, his squadron had already lost all six of their hover tanks, and both of their Titans. They only had seven ATHIDs left in reserve, and the pulsing icons on his tactical map indicated these were stored inside a nearby EDA weapons cache that was already under attack by a swarm of Spider Fighters. Ray's squadron was fighting a losing battle at this point. The city would fall to the Sobrukai any minute now. But as usual, Ray kept on fighting, even in the face of certain defeat. It was one of his most endearing qualities.

  Ray was, by far, the best Terra Firma player I'd ever seen in person. A few months ago, he'd finally managed to earn membership in "The Thirty Dozen," an elite clan of the best 360 players in the game. Since then, I'd seen him logged on to Terra Firma's servers every day, playing one high-level mission after another. And since he wasn't burdened with distractions like school or homework, Ray could devote his every waking moment to the game, so he'd logged more combat time than me, Cruz, and Diehl all put together.

  "Son of a bitch!" Ray shouted, hitting the side of his monitor. I glanced over and saw that the Sobrukai were currently overrunning the surviving members of his squadron and exterminating the last of their drones. A few seconds after Ray's last reserve ATHID was crushed between a Spider Fighter's vise-like mandibles, the words mission failed flashed on his display, and then he was treated to a cut-scene animation of the Sobrukai's forces destroying downtown Newark.

  "Oh well," he muttered, shoving another mouthful of Funyuns into his face as he pondered the city's smoking ruins. "At least it's only Newark, right? No big loss."

  He chuckled to himself as he wiped simulated-onion dust off his fingers and onto the legs of his jeans; then he gave me an excited grin.

  "Hey, guess what came in today?" he asked. Then he produced a large box from underneath the counter and set it in front of me.

  If I'd been a cartoon character, my eyes would have bulged out of their sockets.

  It was a brand new Armada
Interceptor Flight Control System--the most advanced (and expensive) videogame controller ever made.

  "No way!" I whispered, examining the photos and stats printed on its glossy black box. "I thought these things weren't supposed to hit the market until next month!"

  "It looks like Chaos Terrain decided to ship them early," he said, rubbing his hands together excitedly. "Want to unbox this bad boy?"

  I nodded my head vigorously, and Ray grabbed a packing knife. He cut the box open and then instructed me to hold onto its sides as he pulled out the Styrofoam cube housing the controller's various components. A few seconds later, everything was freed from the packaging and laid out on the glass countertop in front of us.

  The Armada Interceptor Flight Control System (IFCS) contained an Interceptor pilot helmet (incorporating a set of built-in VR goggles, noise-canceling headphones, and a retractable microphone) and a two-piece HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) rig, comprised of an all-metal force-feedback flight stick and a separate dual-throttle controller with a built-in weapons control panel. The stick, throttle, and weapons panel all bristled with ergonomic buttons, triggers, indicators, mode selectors, rotary dials, and eight-way hat studs, each of which could be configured to give you total control of your Armada Interceptor's flight, navigation, and weapons systems.

  "You likey, Zack?" Ray asked, after watching me drool over it for a while.

  "Ray, I want to marry this thing."

  "We've got over a dozen more back in the stockroom," he said. "Maybe we can build a display pyramid out of them or something."

  I picked up the helmet and hefted it, impressed by its weight and detail. It looked and felt like a real fighter pilot helmet, and its Oculus Rift components were state-of-the-art. (I had a half-decent VR headset at home that Ray had gifted me, but it was a few years old, and the display resolution had increased drastically since then.)

  I set the helmet back on the counter, resisting the urge to try it on. Then I reached out and rested my left hand on the throttle controller while I wrapped my right hand around the cold metal of the attached flight stick. Both seemed like a perfect fit, as if they'd been machined to match my hands.

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