Armada, p.7
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       Armada, p.7

           Ernest Cline

  "Sorry to interrupt, ladies," I said. "I think you should just agree to disagree."

  "Iron Seagull!" Cruz called out. "I didn't see you log in!"

  "You're late, fool," Diehl said. "And Cruz won't shut up about Wonder Woman!"

  "I'm right on time," I said. "The briefing doesn't start for another thirty seconds."

  "What the hell happened with you and Herr Knotcher today?" Diehl asked. He said it with a thick German accent.

  "Nothing happened," I said. "Because I split before anything did."

  "Well, he was making threats toward you to his idiot friends after the bell rang," he said. "Vengeance in his eyes and all that. Plan accordingly."

  I cleared my throat. "Time is short. Let's talk mission, guys."

  "If this is another Disrupter takedown, I'm out, y'all," Cruz said. "I'll bail and play Terra Firma instead. I'm serious, guys."

  "What's the matter, Kvothe?" I asked. "Don't you enjoy a challenge?"

  "I enjoy balanced gameplay," Cruz replied. "I'm not a masochist like you."

  I felt a brief impulse to defend the game, but it was hard to argue the point. The Disrupter was a powerful new weapon the Sobrukai had unveiled after one of the game's most recent content updates. It was capable of disrupting the quantum communication link to all of Earth's defensive drones, rendering them useless. For the past few months, all of the game's most devoted players--myself included--had been trying to figure out how to disable a Disrupter's defenses and destroy the damn thing. But so far the Sobrukai's new super weapon had proven to be indestructible, and that made many of the game's higher-level missions more or less unwinnable.

  Despite the endless barrage of complaints claiming that Chaos Terrain had broken and/or ruined their own game, the company refused to remove the Disrupter from the enemy's arsenal or make it easier to destroy. As a result, a lot of Armada players were defecting to play Terra Firma. The Disrupter never showed up in any TF mission--maybe because by the time one made landfall, there was nothing the EDA's ground troops could do to stop it.

  "It's a new mission," I said. "Be optimistic. There might not be a Disrupter in it."

  "Yeah," Diehl said. "Maybe the devs have cooked up something even worse."

  "What could possibly be worse?" Cruz asked. "A mission where you have to blow up a Death Star while being attacked by two Borg Cubes inside an asteroid field?"

  "Cruz," Diehl immediately chimed in. "I highly doubt that either the Borg or--"

  Thankfully, an alert sounded in our headphones just then, signaling the start of the mission briefing. All of the data display windows vanished and I found myself seated in a packed briefing room, with Cruz and Diehl's uniformed avatars Kvothe and Dealio sitting on either side of me. We had each customized our avatars so that they vaguely resembled our real selves--only slightly taller, more muscular, and less pale. The avatars of a few other last-minute arrivals were materializing in the tiered seats around us.

  In the fictional near-future reality of Armada, Cruz, Diehl, and I were drone pilots stationed at Moon Base Alpha, a top-secret military outpost on the moon's far side. They were both lowly corporals, while I held the coveted rank of lieutenant.

  The lights in the virtual briefing room dimmed, and the spinning crest of the Earth Defense Alliance appeared on the view screen in front of us. As the crest faded away, it was replaced by the familiar face of Admiral Archibald Vance, the Earth Defense Alliance's highest-ranking officer. The actor Chaos Terrain had hired to portray the admiral totally nailed the part. His jagged facial scar and eye patch might have seemed over the top on another actor, but this guy somehow managed to sell the whole look and make you believe he really was a battle-hardened military commander facing impossible odds with weary determination and grim resolve.

  "Greetings, pilots," the admiral said, addressing us from the view screen. "This evening's mission will not be an easy one--but it's one I know many of you have been hoping and waiting for since this war first began. Humanity has suffered countless unprovoked attacks from these alien invaders over the years, but now we're finally going to take this fight to them."

  The corners of the admiral's mouth turned upward in the faintest hint of a smile--the closest I'd ever seen him come to displaying an emotion.

  "Tonight, we're finally going to hit them where they live--literally."

  The view screen window displaying the admiral's face shrank and moved to the top right-hand corner, while the rest of the screen displayed a technical diagram of a ship model I'd never seen before. Its design reminded me a little of the Sulaco from Aliens. Its elongated, armored hull made it look like a heavy-caliber machine gun drifting through the void of space.

  "This is the EDA's first Interstellar Drone Carrier, the SS Doolittle. After traveling for over two years at nearly seven times the speed of light, the Doolittle has finally reached its target--and your target this mission--the enemy's home planet of Sobrukai."

  "Finally!" Cruz shouted over the comm, perfectly echoing my own reaction.

  All of the previous Armada missions had been focused on defense, and the game's action had always been confined to our own solar system, oftentimes on Earth itself, in the skies over a major city or military outpost the Sobrukai were attacking, although we'd also locked horns with them out beyond the orbit of Mars, near the edge of the asteroid belt, and on the far side of the moon. This was the first mission that had ever involved an offensive against our enemy--and we'd hit the mother lode.

  "As soon as the Doolittle reaches Sobrukai's orbit," the admiral went on, "it will deactivate its cloaking device before launching the Icebreaker, our weapon of last resort, along with an escort of fighters that will be under your control."

  The admiral began to play the tactical pre-vis on the screen. The computer animation showed the cloaked Doolittle swinging into orbit above Sobrukai, and the armada of glittering warships that encircled its equator, like an artificial planetary ring. Spaced out evenly along this ring were six massive chrome orbs--Sobrukai Dreadnaught Spheres. The players had nicknamed them "muthaships." This was the first time we'd ever had to go up against more than one of them.

  The bay doors embedded on the starboard side of the Doolittle's bow irised open and the Icebreaker launched out of it, accompanied by a dense escort of three dozen fighters. The Icebreaker looked like what it was--a giant focused beam-laser bolted to an orbital nuclear weapons platform. The moment it began to fire its powerful melt laser down at the thick layer of ice covering the planet's surface, Sobrukai fighters began to pour out of the six Dreadnaught spheres, streaming forth from glowing, slit-like hangar doors that had opened in their armored skins, to engage with the comparatively tiny group of EDA fighters protecting the doomsday weapon being fired directly down at the icy roof of their squid crib.

  "Eat it!" Diehl cried in mock triumph. "How does it feel, assholes? You like that?"

  I smiled under my helmet. Diehl was right. After months of getting our asses handed to us on our home court, this chance to strike back at the Sobrukai on theirs was going to be hugely cathartic.

  "Your mission is to keep the Icebreaker operational for approximately three minutes--just long enough for it to melt through the ice and launch its warheads into the subsurface ocean, destroying the enemy's underwater lair, an aquatic hive located on the floor on their planet's subsurface ocean."

  The tactical animation showed our drone fighters handily defending the Icebreaker from the enraged enemy armada just long enough for it to finish melting its giant hole and launch its warheads through it, into the planet's subsurface ocean. At this point, the ICBMs transformed into guided nuclear torpedoes, which quickly homed in on the Sobrukai's underwater cave city, which looked like a high-tech hive built into the ocean's rocky floor.

  "Now I feel bad," Diehl said. "Like we're about to nuke Aquaman. Or the Little Mermaid ..."

  "Pretend they're Gungans," Cruz suggested. "And that we get to nuke Jar."

  They both laughed, but I was
still focused on the tactical animation. It showed the EDA's torpedo nukes closing in on the Sobrukai's aquatic hive like a volley of squid-seeking missiles. A few of them were knocked out by the hive's defense turrets, but the vast majority reached their target.

  The ensuing detonations lit up the view screen like an old-school game of Missile Command. Sobrukai Central was obliterated, and the force of the subsequent thermonuclear explosions rocked the planet so violently that cracks spread across the entire circumference of its icy surface, making it resemble a shattered hardboiled egg. There were no mushroom clouds--only a massive column of red steam rising from the massive hole burned in the surface, which shot straight up into orbit as if the planet were spraying blood from a gunshot wound.

  "It's another suicide mission," Cruz said. "But it still looks fun. I'm in."

  It looked as if our inept alien enemy had made another colossal tactical mistake. They had not only let their faster-than-light propulsion technology fall into our reverse-engineering monkey hands, they had then given us enough time to build an interstellar warship of our own and send it all the way across interstellar space to launch a counterattack against them.

  As usual, the alien invaders' tactics didn't make a whole lot of sense--and as usual, I didn't care. I just wanted to kill me some aliens, and this was the juiciest setup for a balls-out kamikaze mission in the history of the game--maybe any game.

  In my headset, the admiral's voice was drowned out by the sound of Diehl pretending to snore. "Come on, old man!" he shouted. "Less talk, more rock!"

  "Yeah, I wish we could skip this storyline crap," Cruz said. "Bor-ing."

  "See, this is exactly why you two always get killed within first two minutes," I said. "You never pay attention during the admiral's briefing."

  "No, we always get killed because of you, Leeroy Jenkins!"

  "I've asked you repeatedly to stop calling me that."

  "If the shoe fits, Smack Attack!" Cruz said. "Why don't you try being a team player for once? Just once?"

  "Interplanetary warfare isn't a team sport," I replied. "Never has been."

  "Actually, it kinda is, if you think about it," Diehl chimed in. "The home team versus the visitors. Get it? Visitors?" After a pause, he added. "Because they're aliens."

  "Yeah, we got it," I said. "Will everybody shut up so I can hear the rest of this?"

  "This mission must succeed," the admiral was telling us now. "That armada is preparing to depart for Earth, so this is our one and only chance to destroy the Sobrukai before they come here to destroy us. The fate of humanity depends on the Icebreaker reaching its target." He paused to clasp his hands behind his back. "We're only going to get one shot at this, people, so let's make it count."

  "Are you kidding?" Cruz shouted, as if the prerecorded actor could hear him. "This better not be a single-play mission. It's way too awesome!"

  "He was just saying that for dramatic effect," I said. "I'm sure we'll be able to replay it--just like with the Disrupter scenarios."

  "You better be right," Diehl said. "Because there's no way in hell we're going to pull this mission off on our first try--or our second or third, either. They've got six Dreadnaught Spheres! Each one loaded with over a billion killer alien drones--and a Disrupter to boot!"

  "They won't activate one of their Disrupters here," Cruz pointed out. "It wouldn't have any effect. For a quantum link to be disrupted, both the transmitting and receiving ends have to be inside the sphere." That was the reason the EDA had drones and humans stationed on the far side of the moon.

  "With no Disrupter to worry about, this should be doable," I said. "All we have to do is protect that Icebreaker for three minutes. No problemo."

  "No problem?" Cruz repeated. "Really? You think so?"

  "Yeah. We just--you know--create a blockade."

  "With what?" Cruz said. "Did you check the mission stats? Our carrier only brought two hundred drones along! The admiral failed to mention that."

  "Maybe he did it when you two were snoring?" I suggested.

  "Like I said before, this is yet another example of unbalanced, poorly thought out gameplay," he continued. "The devs at Chaos Terrain are trying to piss us off now. We're gonna get slaughtered--again!"

  "Yeah, yeah," Diehl said. "How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?"

  I laughed. Before Cruz could reply, we realized that Admiral Vance was bringing his chalk talk to a close.

  "Good luck, pilots. Everyone down here on Earth is counting on you."

  He snapped us a farewell salute, and his image winked out on the view screen, once again replaced by the Earth Defense Alliance crest.

  Then, while the mission loaded, we were all treated to a familiar cut scene showing our squadron of heroic-looking, slightly out-of-focus EDA pilots sprinting out the briefing room's exit, down a brightly lit access corridor, and on into the Moon Base Alpha Drone Operations Control Center, a large circular room with dozens of oval hatchways embedded in the floor, spaced only a few meters apart--each containing a drone controller pod. Their hatches hissed open, revealing simulated Interceptor cockpits--each one a pilot seat surrounded by an array of controls and readouts, along with a wraparound view screen shaped like a cockpit canopy window.

  The cut scene ended, and my perspective shifted back to my avatar's POV--only now I was sitting inside my own drone controller pod.

  A second later, the hatch hissed closed above me just as all of the control panels around me lit up, as did the wraparound view screen. This created a second layer of simulation--the illusion that I was now sitting inside an ADI-88 Aerospace Drone Interceptor, powered up and waiting in its coiled launch rack in the Doolittle's drone hangar.

  I reached out to blindly place my hands on the new controllers in front of me, adjusting their placement to match the layout of my virtual cockpit inside the game. Then I took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, trying to relax. This was usually the best part of my day, when I got to escape my suburban existence for a few hours and become a crack fighter pilot duking it out with evil alien invaders. It was supposed to be cathartic.

  But tonight, I didn't feel like I was escaping anything. I felt anxious. Excited. Righteous. Maybe even a little bloodthirsty.

  Like I was going to war.

  The goggles inside my new Armada VR helmet provided me with an immersive 360-degree view from inside my drone's simulated cockpit. Looking out through its wraparound canopy, I could see the Doolittle's drone launch hangar. I glanced left and then right, taking in the row of identical Interceptors lined up on either side of me, gleaming under the hangar dome's floodlights, ready for launch.

  My heads-up display appeared, superimposed over my wraparound view out of the cockpit, providing readouts of my starship's flight, weapon, and communication systems, along with radar, sensor, and navigation data.

  I cleared my throat and addressed AVA, my ship's artificially intelligent voice-activated avionics computer. AVA served as a virtual copilot, managing my ship's navigation, weapons, and communication systems and providing me with verbal status updates. AVA could also give novice pilots helpful on-the-fly recommendations on how to improve their maneuvering techniques and weapon usage, but I'd disabled that feature long ago.

  "AVA, prepare all systems for launch," I said.

  "Compliance!" AVA chirped brightly. At the default setting, the computer spoke in a perpetually calm, synthesized female voice that I found unnerving in the heat of battle. So I'd installed several other custom sound profiles, including one called Trimaxion, which gave it the voice of the ship's computer in Flight of the Navigator. It made my ship's voice sound like Pee-wee Herman yelling through a vocoder, but this amused me and kept me on my toes.

  Each Interceptor's thrusters, weapons, and shields were powered by a fusion reactor that constantly recharged its drone's power cells. But it did so at a very slow rate, so you needed to use your power sparingly during battle--otherwise you'd end up floating through space, a sitting duck with a dead

  It was easy to run out of juice during the heat of combat, because every time you moved or fired your weapons it used up some of your power, and whenever your shields took a direct hit, that drained your power cells, too. When they started to get too low, your drone would lose its shields first, then its weapons, and finally its thrusters. Then your drone would crash and burn--or, if you were lucky enough to be fighting in space, it would just begin to drift helplessly through the void while you waited for the power cells to recharge enough for your thrusters to come back online, praying that an enemy ship didn't pick you off first--which it almost always did.

  The enemy Glaive Fighters had blaster turrets mounted on each of their wingtips that could rotate in any direction, giving them an almost unlimited field of fire. But my Interceptor's plasma cannons (aka "sun guns") and Macross missiles were both forward-firing weapons, so my target needed to be in front of me if I was going to be able to hit it. My ship had a laser turret, however, that was able to fire in any direction, but unlike my sun guns, the turret used up a lot of power and had to be used sparingly.

  Our ships were also each equipped with a self-destruct mechanism, which also served as a weapon of last resort. As long as your drone had even a tiny bit of power remaining, you could detonate its reactor core in an explosion that could vaporize everything within a tenth of a kilometer. If you timed it right, you could take out nearly a dozen enemy ships at once with this tactic. Unfortunately, the enemy also had the ability to detonate their power cores--and they didn't care about taking out friendlies when they did it. A lot of players didn't either, of course. For some, it was their only real strategy. The only major downside to pulling this self-destruct move was that it meant you would miss at least part of the battle, because before you could fly back out to rejoin the fight, you had to wait to take control of another drone back inside the hangar, and then wait for it to reach the front of the launch queue--all of which could take up to a minute or more, depending on how fast the enemy was dropping our drones.

  A klaxon began to sound as the hangar's belt-fed launch rack whirred into action and began to deploy the Interceptors slotted ahead of mine one after the other, firing them out of the belly of the Doolittle like bullets from a machine gun.

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