Armada, p.6
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       Armada, p.6

           Ernest Cline
 
Afterward, they said I attacked him "like a wild animal" and beat him unconscious. They said I kept right on beating him, even after he went limp.

  Apparently it took two other boys and a teacher to finally pull me off of him.

  Knotcher spent a week in the hospital recovering from a mild concussion and a fractured jaw. I got off pretty light, considering--a two-week suspension and mandatory anger-management therapy the remainder of the school year, along with the nickname "Zack Attack" and a permanent reputation as the class psycho.

  Far worse than any of that was the terrible ten-second gap the Incident had left in my memory, and the question it'd forced me to ask myself nearly every day since: What would I have done if there had been no one there to stop me?

  Knotcher had probably seen a scan of father's old newspaper obituary online. It was one of the only results that came up when you searched for his name. That was the way I'd learned how he'd died. My mother and grandparents had kept the details of his death from me while I was growing up--and I'm thankful they did, because that obituary had haunted me since the moment I'd first read it. I still had every word memorized:

  Beaverton Man Dies in Wastewater Treatment Plant Accident

  Beaverton Valley Times--October 6, 1999

  A Beaverton man was killed at approximately 9am Friday in an accident at the city's wastewater treatment plant on South River Road. Dead is Xavier Ulysses Lightman, 19, of 603 Bluebonnet Ave., an employee of the city of Beaverton. The Washington County Coroner pronounced Lightman dead at the scene. Lightman was working near a storage tank when an undetected methane leak rendered him unconscious. Investigators surmised a spark from an exposed electrical circuit ignited the gas, and Lightman was killed instantly in the subsequent explosion. A lifetime resident of Beaverton, Lightman is survived by his wife, Pamela, and son, Zackary. Funeral arrangements--

  "Zack, are you even listening to me right now?"

  "Of course I am, Mom," I lied. "What were you saying?"

  "I said that your guidance counselor, Mr. Russell, left me a voicemail, too." She folded her arms. "He said you missed your last two career counseling sessions."

  "Sorry--I must have forgotten," I said. "I'll go to the next one, okay? I promise."

  I tried to slip past her again, but she blocked my path and then stomped her foot down in front of me again, pretending like she was Gandalf and I was the balrog.

  "Did you finally make a decision?" she asked, eying me.

  "You mean, did I decide what I want to do with the rest of my life?"

  She nodded. I took a deep breath and said the first thing that came to mind.

  "Well, I have thought about this quite a bit, and after careful consideration, I've decided that I don't want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything."

  She frowned and began to shake her head in protest, but I kept going.

  "You know, as a career, I don't want to do that," I went on. "I don't want to buy anything sold or processed, I don't want to sell anything bought or processed--"

  "--or process anything sold, bought, or processed," she finished, cutting me off. "Who do you think you're messing with? Lloyd, Lloyd, all-null-and-void?"

  "Busted," I said, raising my hands in a gesture of guilt. "That's what you get for making me watch that flick seven gajillion times."

  She folded her arms.

  "Zack, there's more than enough money set aside in your college fund to cover four years of tuition at most schools. You can go anywhere you want--and study anything you want. Do you know how lucky you are?"

  Yep. I was lucky, all right. My mom had started that college fund for me when I was still just a baby, using some of the settlement money from my father's death that was left over after she bought our house. There had been enough to cover her tuition for nursing school, too.

  Lucky, right?

  Want to hear another stroke of great luck? My father's corpse was so badly burned in the explosion that the coroner had to use his dental records to identify the body, saving my mom from having to go to the morgue and identify his corpse herself.

  How much good fortune can one family stand?

  "Did you think over what we discussed last time?" she asked. "You promised to consider going to college to study how to make videogames, like Mike Cruz is planning to do?"

  "I'm good at playing videogames, Mom," I said. "Not at making them. You need to be really good at programming or digital art, and I suck at both." I sighed and looked at my feet.

  "The important thing is that you love gaming," she said. "You'd figure out the rest. You'd enjoy it." She smiled and touched my face. "You know I'm right. You've got gamer geek DNA on both sides."

  It was true. You'd never know it to look at her, but my mom was a hardcore gamer in her day, too. She'd had a serious World of Warcraft habit for a few years. She was more of a casual gamer now, but she played Terra Firma missions with me sometimes.

  "Aren't there people who get paid to play the videogames to test them out?"

  "Yeah, they're called quality-assurance testers," I said. "The job sounds good in theory, but in reality it sucks. The pay is crap, and all you do is play the same level of the same game over and over thousands of times to try and find bugs in the code. That would drive me nuts."

  She sighed and nodded. "Yeah, me too." She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, then smiled. "You know, Zack," she said, "you can enroll in college even if you're still not sure what you want to study. You just take a bunch of different courses and see what interests you. You'll figure out what you want to do eventually."

  I smiled and nodded in agreement. But she still didn't budge.

  "I'm not trying to pressure you, honey," she said. "I just want to have a plan."

  "My plan for right now," I slowly told my mother, "is to keep on working at Starbase Ace. Maybe switch from part-time to full-time--"

  "That's an after-school job, Zack, not a long-term career plan. Think about what it would be like five years from now. Everyone else will be finishing college and starting a career, and you--"

  "I'll still be sitting on my ass all day, five blocks from where I graduated, working the same crappy retail job I had when I was sixteen?" I finished for her.

  "Exactly."

  I tried to look hurt. "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

  "You're going to find my foot jammed disturbingly far up your ass if you don't stop screwing around and start making a serious plan for your future, mister."

  "When you call me 'mister' I know you're being super serious," I said.

  "I'm not saying that you have to go to college, honey. Join a monastery! Join the Peace Corps! Join the fucking X-Men--I don't care what you do, as long as you do something. Okay?"

  I pretended to sigh heavily in relief.

  "In that case, maybe I'll run off and join the circus," I said. "I could start out as a weight guesser, then maybe work my way up to operating the Tilt-a-Whirl."

  "I think you might have a few too many teeth for that line of work, smart-ass," she said, giving me a playful shove. "I'm not trying to give you a hard time, ace. I just want the best for you. You're so smart and talented, honey. You can do great things." She looked me in the eyes. "You know that, right?"

  "Yeah, I know, Ma," I said. "Try not to worry, okay?"

  She frowned and continued to block my path, arms folded to indicate that getting past her wasn't going to be that easy. But then, like a gift from the gods, my phone chimed to inform me I had a new text message. I fumbled it out of my pocket and studied its display: Urgent Reminder--Earth Defense Alliance Command--Lt. Lightman, you are ordered to log in for your mission briefing at 8pm PST.

  I also saw that Cruz and Diehl had each sent me multiple text messages, asking what the hell had happened in class, and if I was still down for our Armada mission.

  "Sorry, Ma, I gotta run!" I said, holding up my phone like it was some sort of hall pass. "I'm late for my Armada mission--it starts in just a few minutes!"
<
br />   "Yeah, yeah," she said, rolling her eyes. "I know. Late for a videogame." She stepped out of my way. "Go on. Go get 'em, Maverick."

  "Thanks!" I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, which briefly inverted her frown. Then I grabbed the camouflaged Armada controller box as I ran up the stairs and then down the hall, eager to reach the safety of my bedroom and the portal to another reality that lay beyond it.

  But my mother's voice traveled faster than I did, and her final shouted warning reached my ears before I could clear the Neutral Zone. It was something I'd heard her say countless times growing up, and usually it made me want to roll my eyes at her. But this time, her words filled me with a genuine sense of dread.

  "I know the future is scary at times, sweetheart. But there's just no escaping it."

  I locked the door and pressed my back to it, and with my mother's warning about the inescapable nature of the future still echoing in my ears, I scanned the interior of my room, for the first time feeling a sense of shame over how I'd chosen to decorate it. The posters on my walls, the books and comics and toys on my shelves--nearly all of them had once belonged to my late father. The room couldn't even be classified as a shrine to his memory, because I didn't even remember the guy. This was more a museum exhibit--a really sad, fucked-up one, devoted to a man I'd never even known, and never would.

  No wonder my mother avoided coming in here. Seeing the decor probably broke her heart two or three different ways.

  A small fleet of model spacecraft hung suspended from the ceiling on fishing line, and as I crossed my room, I brushed each of them with my fingertips, setting them in motion one after the other. First the starship Enterprise, then the Sulaco from Aliens, followed by an X-Wing, a Y-Wing, the Millennium Falcon, a Veritech Fighter from Robotech--and finally, a carefully painted Gunstar from The Last Starfighter.

  I pulled the window shades down, plunging the room into darkness save for a narrow shaft of sunlight that fell on my battered leather gaming chair in the corner, casting it in an otherworldly glow. As I collapsed into the chair, I sang the first five bars of "Duel of the Fates" to myself in anticipation: Dunt-dunt-dah-dah-dah!

  I grabbed my dusty game console and disconnected my old plastic flight stick and throttle controllers, along with my bulky first-generation VR headset, which was held together with copious amounts of black electrical tape. Once the old gear was set aside, I connected the various components of my new Interceptor Flight Control System and positioned them around my chair, placing the heavy metal flight stick on an old milk crate in front of me, directly between my knees, with the separate throttle controller on the flat armrest of my chair, within easy reach of my left hand.

  This setup was supposed to re-create the exact layout of the Interceptor cockpit controls seen in the game. My own private starship simulator. Sitting there inside it, I remembered building a spaceship cockpit out of couch pillows in front of the television when I was a kid, in an effort to make the experience of playing Star Fox on my Nintendo 64 more realistic. I'd had the idea after seeing some kids do it in an old Atari commercial for Cosmic Ark on one of my father's old videotapes.

  Once I had my new controllers arranged properly, I synced my phone to the Bluetooth headphones built into my new Armada VR flight helmet. Then I cued up my Raid the Arcade playlist--my digital re-creation of an old analog mixtape I'd found among my father's things with that title carefully printed on its label in my father's handwriting. The title led me to assume it was a compilation of his favorite gaming music, and I'd grown up listening to those songs while I played videogames, too. As a result, listening to my father's old digital combat compilation had become an essential part of my Armada gaming ritual. Trying to play without my Raid the Arcade playlist on in the background invariably threw off my aim and my rhythm. That's why I made sure I had it cued up before the start of every mission.

  I put on the faux Interceptor pilot helmet and adjusted its built-in noise-canceling headphones, which completely covered each of my ears. After I adjusted the VR goggles to make sure they fit snugly over my eyes, I thumbed the small button that extended the helmet's retractable microphone--a completely pointless, yet undeniably cool feature. Then I retracted and extended the microphone a few more times, just to hear the sound it made.

  Once the game finished loading, I spent a few minutes customizing the button configuration on my new throttle and flight-stick controllers, then logged on to the Armada multiplayer server.

  I immediately checked the EDA pilot rankings, to make sure my ranking hadn't slipped since my last login. But my so-cheesy-it-was-cool call sign was still there, in sixth place. I'd held that spot for over two months now, but a part of me was always still shocked to see it there, listed among the top ten, alongside the game's most famous--and infamous--players. I scanned the familiar collection of call signs, listed in what had now become a familiar order:

  01. RedJive

  02. MaxJenius

  03. Withnailed

  04. Viper

  05. Rostam

  06. IronBeagle

  07. Whoadie

  08. CrazyJi

  09. AtomicMom

  10. Kushmaster5000

  I had been seeing these ten call signs almost every night for years, but I didn't actually know who any of those people really were--or where they lived, either. Aside from a few casual acquaintances at school and work, Cruz and Diehl were the only Armada pilots I'd ever met in real life.

  The game had over nine million active players in dozens of countries, so clawing my way up into the top ten had been no easy feat. Even with what I've been told is a natural talent for videogames, it had still taken me over three years of daily practice before I even managed to crack the top one hundred. Once I'd crossed that threshold, I finally seemed to find my groove, and in the months that followed, I made a meteoric rise into the top ten while also rising up the ranks of the Earth Defense Alliance, earning one field promotion after another until I was promoted all the way up to Lieutenant.

  I knew Armada was only a videogame, but I'd never been one of the "best of the best" at anything before, and my accomplishment gave me a real sense of pride.

  Admittedly, all the time I'd had to devote to the game had shaved a full point off my grade average, and it had probably cost me my relationship with Ellen, too. But I'd already vowed to turn over a new leaf, I reminded myself. After tonight's mission, no more Armada for at least two full weeks--even if that meant sacrificing my position in the top ten. No great loss, I told myself. The higher you were ranking, the more trash talk, friendly fire, and accusations of cheating you had to endure from the other players.

  Case in point--the Armada pilots currently ranked in the top five were easily the most loathed players in the game's brief history. This was partly because the top five ranked pilots had the honor of "painting" their drones with their own customized multicolored designs, while the rest of us flew plain old stainless ones. That was how the top five had earned their nickname "The Flying Circus."

  A lot of posters in the Chaos Terrain forums seemed to believe the top five pilots were just too good to be real players, and that they had to be NPC bots or Chaos Terrain employees. Others theorized they were an elitist gamer clan, because the five of them never responded to messages or in-game chat requests. Of course, that may have been because N00bs were always accusing them of cheating, by using some sort of client hack to auto-aim or give their shields infinite energy. But it was all bullshit sour grapes. I'd been going head-to-head with RedJive (aka "The Red Baron") and the other members of the Flying Circus on the free-for-all death-match servers for over a year now, and I'd never once seen any sign they were cheating. They were just better than everyone else. In fact, studying their moves and learning from them was how I'd climbed into the top ten. I still found their general arrogance obnoxious, though--especially RedJive, who had an infuriating habit of sending the same text message every time he shot someone else down in the game's player-versus-player practice mod
e: You're welcome.

  Those two words would flash on your screen, accompanied by a blood-boiling BEEP! RedJive obviously had a macro set up to fire that message like a missile, right after he blasted your ship to bits--literally adding insult to injury. I knew why he (or she) did it, too. It was a tactical move designed to anger his opponents and throw them even further off balance right before they respawned in another ship. And it worked, too. On everyone. Including me. But one of these days, when I finally got RedJive between my crosshairs, it would be my turn to send one of those infuriating texts: No, no, no, RedJive. You're welcome.

  Of course, now I constantly got accused of hacking all the time, too. To quote my wizened boss, Ray Wierzbowski: "That's how you know you've mastered a videogame--when a bunch of butt-hurt crybabies start to accuse you of cheating in an effort to cope with the beatdown they've just suffered at your hands."

  When I pulled up my friends list, I saw that Cruz and Diehl were both already logged in, their player rankings listed beside their call signs. Cruz (whose call sign was "Kvothe") was currently in 6791st place, and Diehl (aka "Dealio") was ranked 7445th. Their Terra Firma player rankings were much higher, but they were both still a long way from making it into the Thirty Dozen like Ray.

  I switched on my helmet microphone and joined Kvothe and Dealio on their private voice-chat line.

  "You still won't admit you're wrong?" Cruz was shouting as I logged in.

  "I told you, your Wonder Woman argument proves nothing!" Diehl said. "Yes, Princess Diana of Themyscira did once wield Mjolnir in some obscure bullshit cross-over issue! That only proves my point, Cruz! Do you think Wonder Woman would ever be caught dead wielding Sting?"

  "No, but she's a superhero, and they don't use swords, do they?" Cruz said--clearly without thinking his statement through.

  "Superheroes don't use swords?" Diehl said gleefully. "What about Nightcrawler? Deadpool? Electra, Shatterstar, Green Arrow, Hawkeye--oh, and then there's Blade and Katana! Two superheroes who are actually named after swords! Oh, and Wolverine had that idiotic Muramasa Blade made with part of his soul. Which, while incredibly lame, was still a far cooler magical weapon than Sting!"

 
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