Armada, p.5
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       Armada, p.5

           Ernest Cline

  I'd been playing Armada for years, and the whole time I'd been using a cheap plastic flight stick and throttle controller. I'd had no idea what I'd been missing. I'd coveted an IFCS ever since I heard they were coming out on the Armada forums. But the price tag was somewhere north of five hundred bucks--even with my ten percent employee discount that was still way too rich for my blood.

  I reluctantly slid my hands off the controllers and shoved them into my pockets. "If I start saving up now, I might be able to afford one by the end of the summer," I muttered. "That is, if my crapmobile doesn't break down again."

  Ray mimed playing a violin. Then he smiled and slid the helmet across the counter to me.

  "You can have this one," he said. "Consider it an early graduation gift." He elbowed me playfully. "You are going to graduate, right?"

  "No way!" I said, staring at the controller in disbelief. Then I looked up at Ray. "I mean--yes, I'll graduate--but, you're not kidding? I can have this one? For reals?"

  Ray nodded solemnly. "For reals."

  I felt like hugging him, so I did--throwing my arms around his thick midsection in a fierce embrace. He laughed uncomfortably and patted me on the back until I finally let go of him.

  "I'm only doing it because it's good for the war effort!" he said, straightening his flannel shirt and then ruffling my hair in retaliation. "Having your own flight control system might make you an even better Interceptor pilot. If that's even possible."

  "Ray, this is way too generous," I said. "Thank you."

  "Ah, don't mention it, kid."

  Although I'd been worrying for years that Ray's runaway altruism would drive him bankrupt, and that I'd be forced to go find a real job somewhere, it didn't stop me from accepting his latest extravagant gift.

  "Want to head back in the War Room and give it a spin?" He motioned to the small, cramped back room where dozens of linked PCs and gaming consoles were set up. Customers rented the War Room out for LAN parties and clan events. "You could work out the kinks before that big elite mission later tonight. ..."

  "No thanks," I said. "I think I'll just wait and try it out then, on my home setup." Because I might flip out or start foaming at the mouth the next time I see a Glaive Fighter coming at me, and I'd rather be alone in my bedroom if and when it happens.

  He cocked an eyebrow at me. "What's wrong with you?" he said. "You sick?"

  I looked away uneasily. "No, I'm fine," I replied. "Why?"

  "Your boss just offered you a chance to play your favorite videogame at work, on the clock, and you turn it down?" He reached out to touch my forehead. "You got a brain fever or something, kid?"

  I laughed uneasily and shook my head. "No, it's just--I recently vowed to stop goofing off so much here at work, regardless of how much you encourage me to."

  "Why in the hell would you do that?"

  "It's all part of my master plan," I said. "To show you how responsible and reliable I've become, so you'll hire me on as a full-time employee after I graduate."

  He shot me the same look he always seemed to give me whenever I brought up this subject.

  "Zack, you can work here for as long as we manage to stay in business," he said. "Honestly, though, you have to know you're destined for much bigger things. Right?"

  "Thanks, Ray," I said, struggling not to roll my eyes. If today was any indication, the only thing I was destined for was a straitjacket. Maybe a padded helmet, too.

  " 'You cannot escape your destiny,' " he said in his best Obi-Wan. Then he collapsed back onto his stool and fired up another Terra Firma mission with a click of his mouse. Chaos Terrain manufactured a wide variety of Terra Firma controllers, including the bestselling Titan Control System, a dual flight-stick rig that we sold right here in the store. But Ray never played with anything but a keyboard and mouse. He also still preferred a two-dimensional computer monitor to VR goggles, which he claimed gave him vertigo. Like a lot of gamers his age, Ray was set in his ways.

  In spite of what I'd just said to him, I walked back over to Smallberries and clicked the Terra Firma icon on its desktop. The game's opening cut scene began, and I almost hit "Skip Intro" out of habit. But then I let it play, rewatching it for the first time in years.

  The intro's somber opening voice-over (performed by Morgan Freeman, killing it like always) briefly laid out the game's basic storyline. It was set sometime "in the mid twenty-first century," roughly ten years after Earth was first invaded by the Sobrukai, an aquatic race hailing from the Tau Ceti star system, a popular point-of-origin for aliens since the dawn of sci-fi, due to its close proximity to Earth. The Sobrukai somewhat resembled the giant squids of Earth, but with an added mane of spiked tentacles and a vertical shark-like mouth ringed by six soulless, black eyes.

  The game's intro segued into a video transmission the invaders had sent to humanity on the day of their arrival, containing a threatening message from the Sobrukai overlord, whose Weta designers had gone way too Giger in my humble opinion. The gray translucent-skinned creature was shown floating in its dark underwater lair, its tentacles splayed out behind it, addressing the camera in its grating native language, which sounded sort of like a whale's song, if the whale in question was into death metal.

  Thankfully, someone turned on the English subtitles just before the overlord began to make his evil alien species' somewhat cliched intentions known.

  "We are the Sobrukai," it said. "And we declare your pitiful species to be unworthy of survival. You shall therefore be eradicated--"

  There was more to the overlord's message, but I hit the space bar to skip over it. I remembered the highlights. These malevolent unfeeling inkfish had traveled twelve light-years across interstellar space to wipe out humanity and then knock down all of our Pizza Huts, so that they could seize our rare blue jewel of a world as their own. It was my mission to use my baller videogame skills to stop them. Boo-yah. Press fire to continue.

  The whole convoluted backstory behind humanity's ongoing war with the Sobrukai was available online, but gamers had to piece it together by digging through an elaborate network of Earth Defense Alliance websites--an alternate-reality game element meant to help players immerse themselves in the game's narrative. According to the information buried on those sites, at some point during the onset of the Sobrukai invasion a decade ago, the EDA had somehow managed to capture one of the aliens' ships undamaged, and then they had reverse-engineered all of its incredibly advanced weaponry, communication, life support, and propulsion technology--seemingly overnight--and then used it to construct a massive global arsenal of combat drones that were capable of going toe-to-toe with the Sobrukai.

  Of course, the developers never bothered to explain how the EDA's scientists managed to accomplish these amazing feats in such a short time span while fending off constant attacks from the Sobrukai's vastly superior technology--but the way I saw it, if you were willing to suspend your disbelief enough to believe that a race of anthropomorphic extraterrestrial squids from Tau Ceti had been using an armada of remote-controlled robots to wage war on humanity for the past decade, it was pretty silly to nitpick over plot holes and scientific inaccuracies. Especially if they justified evil alien overlords and dogfighting in space.

  I closed the Terra Firma client and opened a web browser; then I pulled up Chaos Terrain's website. I clicked through to their website's "About Us" page and scanned it. As a longtime CT super fan, I already knew quite a lot about the company's history. It had been founded back in 2010 by a Bay Area videogame developer named Finn Arbogast, who quit a lucrative job working on the Battlefield series for Electronic Arts to venture out on his own. He founded Chaos Terrain with the lofty goal of "creating the next generation of multiplayer VR games."

  Arbogast had then assembled a dream team of creative consultants and contractors to help make his bold claim a reality, luring some of the videogame industry's brightest stars away from their own companies and projects, with the sole promise of collaborating on his groundbreaking new MMOs. T
hat was how gaming legends like Richard Garriott, Yu Suzuki, Gabe Newell, Warren Spector, Tim Schafer, and Shigeru Miyamoto had all wound up as consultants on both Terra Firma and Armada--along with several big Hollywood filmmakers, including James Cameron, who had contributed to the EDA's realistic ship and mech designs, and Peter Jackson, whose Weta Workshop had rendered all of the in-game cinematics.

  Chaos Terrain had also licensed the most advanced game engines; then they set about modifying and improving them for their specific needs. Terra Firma utilized code and design features from several different combat-simulation game series like Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Modern Warfare. Armada, on the other hand, had been created using a heavily modified version of the game engine for Star Citizen, which Chaos Terrain had licensed from Roberts Space Industries for an undisclosed sum.

  This plagiaristic, Frankenstein-like development strategy proved wildly successful. Terra Firma and Armada were two of the bestselling multiplayer videogames in the world, and with good reason. Their stripped-down arcade-style gameplay made both titles easy to learn and fun for casual players, but they were also scalable and dynamic enough to be challenging for everyday players like myself. Both games also had killer production values, and they could be played on any modern gaming platform, including smartphones and tablets. Best of all, the games weren't overpriced, like most MMOs. Sure, Chaos Terrain charged a low monthly subscription fee to play both Terra Firma and Armada, but once you got good enough to achieve the rank of officer in either game, CT waived your monthly fee and you played for free from then on. And they didn't use in-game microtransactions to milk players for extra revenue, either.

  I closed the window and stared at the icons on the desktop, trying to sort out my thoughts. Until today, it had never occurred to me to make a connection between the alien invasion plotline of Chaos Terrain's games and the conspiracy theory outlined in my father's notebook. There were hundreds of alien-invasion-themed movies, shows, books, and videogames released every year, and Armada was just one of them. Besides, the game had only been out for a few years, so how could it possibly be connected to the stuff my father had written in his notebook decades ago?

  On the other hand, if the government really did want to train average citizens to operate drones in combat, then multiplayer combat games like Armada and Terra Firma would be exactly the sort of the games you'd create to do it. ...

  When the Star Trek door chime sounded a few minutes later and a gaggle of semi-regulars from the nearby junior high filed into the store, I shoved my new helmet, throttle, and flight-stick controllers back into their box and stowed it under the counter before any of the prepubescent hooligans could lay their covetous eyes upon it.

  "Welcome to Starbase Ace, where the game is never over," I said, reciting the store's canned greeting with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. "How may I help you young gentlemen this evening?"

  When I got back home, my mother's car was parked in the driveway. This was a pleasant surprise, because she'd had to work a lot of overtime at the hospital this past year, and a lot of nights she didn't get home until after I'd already crashed for the night.

  But knowing she was home also put me on edge, because she'd always been able to tell when something was bothering me. When I was younger, I was convinced she possessed some sort of mutant maternal telepathy that allowed her to read my mind, especially when there was crazy shit going on inside it.

  I found my mother stretched out on the living-room sofa, with Muffit curled up at her feet, watching the latest episode of Doctor Who, one of her many televised addictions. Neither of them heard me come in, so I just stood there for a moment, watching my mother watch her show.

  Pamela Lightman (nee Crandall) was the coolest woman I'd ever met, as well as the toughest. She reminded me a lot of Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley--sure, she might have a few issues, but she was also the kind of single mom who would strap on heavy artillery and mow down killer cyborgs, if that was what it took to protect her offspring.

  My mother was also ridiculously beautiful. I know people are supposed to say things like that about their mothers, but in my case it happened to be a fact. Few young men know the Oedipal torment of growing up with an insanely hot, perpetually single mom. Watching men constantly flip out over her looks before they'd even bothered to get to know her had made me faintly disgusted by my own gender--as if I didn't already have enough psychological baggage strapped to my luggage rack.

  Raising me all by herself had been difficult for my mother, in lots of ways that probably weren't obvious to most people. For one thing, she'd done it without any assistance from her own parents. She'd lost her own father to cancer when she was still in grade school, and then her ultra-religious mother had disowned her for getting knocked up while she was still a senior in high school and then marrying the no-good Nintendo nerd who'd defiled her.

  My mom had told me that her mother only tried to reconcile with her once, a few months after my father died. It didn't go well. She'd made the mistake of telling my mom his death was "a blessing in disguise" because it meant that now she could find herself a "respectable husband--one with some prospects."

  After that, my mom had disowned her.

  I secretly worried that one of the toughest things for my mother was the simple necessity of being forced to look at my face every day. I looked just like my father, and so far, the similarity had only seemed to increase as I got older. Now I was nearing the age he'd been at the time of his death, and I tried not to wonder how awful it must be for my mom to see her dead husband's doppelganger smiling at her from across the breakfast table every morning. Part of me even wondered if that might be why she'd become such a workaholic the past few years.

  My mom had never played the part of the lonely widow--she went out dancing with her friends all the time, and I knew she dated occasionally, too. But she always seemed to end her relationships before they got serious. I'd never bothered to ask her why. The reason was obvious--she was still in love with my father, or least with the memory of him.

  In my younger years, I'd drawn a kind of perverse satisfaction from knowing how much she missed him, because it was proof my parents really had been in love, but now that I'd grown up a little, I was beginning to worry she might stay single forever. I didn't like the idea of her living here all alone in this house after I graduated and moved out.

  "Hi, Mom," I said, speaking softly so as not to startle her.

  "Oh hey, honey!" she said, muting the TV and sitting up slowly. "I didn't hear you come in." She pointed at her right cheek, and I dutifully went over and planted a kiss there. "Thank you!" she said, ruffling my hair. Then she patted the couch beside her and I sat down, pulling Muffit onto my lap. "How was your day, kiddo?" she asked.

  "Not too bad," I said, punctuating the lie with a casual shrug to help sell it. "How was your day, Ma?"

  "Oh, it was pretty good," she replied, mimicking my voice--and my casual shrug.

  "Glad to hear it," I said, even though I suspected she was fibbing, too. She spent her days taking care of cancer patients, many of them terminally ill. I wasn't sure how she ever managed to have a good day at that job.

  "You're not working late tonight?" I asked. "It's a Christmas miracle."

  She laughed at our old family joke. Everything was a Christmas miracle at our house, all year round.

  "I decided to take a night off." She swung her feet off the couch and turned to face me. "You hungry, babe? Because I'm craving cinnamon French toast." She stood up. "How about it, kid? Feel like having some breakfast-for-dinner with your mom?"

  Her question made my spider-sense tingle. My mom only offered to make me breakfast-for-dinner when she wanted to have a "serious talk" with me.

  "Thanks, but I had pizza at work," I said, inching backward. "I'm kinda stuffed."

  She moved between me and the staircase, blocking my escape.

  "You shall not pass!" she declared, stomping her foot down theatrically on the carpet.

  "Your vice principal called me a little while ago," she said. "He told me you ditched math class early today--right after you tried to pick a fight with Douglas Knotcher."

  I looked at her face and fought down a wave of anger, instead forcing myself to see how worried and upset she was, and how much she was trying to hide it.

  "I wasn't trying to pick a fight, Mom," I said. "He was tormenting this other kid who sits near me. He's been bullying him for weeks. And I ran out of there because it was the only way to stop myself from tearing Knotcher's head off. You should be proud of me."

  She studied my face for a moment; then she sighed and kissed me on the cheek.

  "Okay, kiddo," she said, hugging me. "I know it isn't easy being stuck in that zoo. Just tough it out for a few more months and then you'll be free. Captain of your own destiny."

  "I know, Ma," I said. "Two months. I'll make it. No worries."

  "Remember," she added, biting her lip. "You're not a minor anymore. ..."

  "I know," I said. "Don't worry. Nothing like that will ever happen again, okay?"

  She nodded. I could see that she was thinking about the Incident. The Incident that I'd just promised her, for the thousandth time, would never happen again.

  Here's what would never happen again:

  One morning, a few weeks after I started seventh grade, I was walking past Knotcher and a few of his friends in the hallway when he smiled at me and said, "Hey, Lightman! Is it true your old man was dumb enough to die in a shit-factory explosion?"

  I'm not paraphrasing. That's a direct quote. There were eyewitnesses.

  The next thing I remember, I was sitting on Knotcher's chest, staring down at his motionless, blood-drenched face, amid a cacophony of screams from our classmates. Then I felt a tangle of strong arms around my neck and torso, pulling me up and off of him--and found myself wondering why my knuckles were in agony, and why Knotcher was now curled in a bleeding heap on the waxed marble floor in front of me.

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