Armada, p.8
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       Armada, p.8
 

           Ernest Cline

  "Huzzah!" I heard Dealio say. "Now I finally get to kill some aliens!"

  "Not if you get waxed before you fire a single shot," Cruz said. "Like last time."

  "I told you, my Internet connection went out!" Dealio shouted.

  "Dude, we heard you cursing on the comm after you got killed," I reminded him.

  "That proves nothing," he said cheerfully. Then he shouted, "Cry havoc!"

  When neither of us followed suit, he cleared his throat loudly over the comm.

  "Uh, why didn't either of you cry havoc with me just now?" he asked. "You bitches best be crying me some havoc! You want to jinx us?"

  "Sorry, Dealio," I said. Then, as loud as I could, I shouted, "Cry Havoc!"

  "I'll leaving the crying to you guys," Cruz said, before muttering his own personal pre-throw-down mantra to himself. "Led's-do-dis."

  I cracked my knuckles, then pressed play on the best "ass-kicking track" on my father's old Raid the Arcade mix. As the opening bass line of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" began to thud over my helmet's built-in headphones, I felt myself begin to slip into the zone.

  The song's machine gun beat was a perfect match for the timing and rhythm of the enemy's ships, in nearly every kind of mission. ("We Will Rock You" worked really well for me during shooting gallery scenarios like this one, too.) When Freddy Mercury's vocals kicked in a few seconds later, I cranked up the volume in my headset--apparently loud enough for my microphone to pick it up.

  "Oh, great," Cruz said. "Sounds like DJ Geriatric is spinning again tonight. What a surprise."

  "If it's too loud, you're too old, Kvothe," I shot back. "Why don't you mute me and put on the latest Kidz Bop compilation instead?"

  "Perhaps I will," he replied. "They're unappreciated musical geniuses, you know."

  The two drones Cruz and Diehl were controlling launched out of the hangar just ahead of me, each labeled with their call sign on my HUD.

  "Attention, your drone is next in the launch queue!" my AVA computer announced, with far too much enthusiasm. "Prepare to engage the enemy!"

  The belt cycled forward again, feeding my drone into the launch tunnel and then blasting it out in space.

  And then it was on like Red Dawn.

  The first wave of responding enemy ships was already pouring out of the bottom of the nearest Dreadnaught Sphere like hornets from a metal hive and streaking down on us out of the blackness, approaching fast along our twelve o'clock.

  A split second later, the space in front of my drone was filled with hundreds of Sobrukai Glaive Fighters, along with dozens of dragon-like Wyverns uncoiling and snaking through their swarming ranks, all of them moving in unison as they moved to attack the Icebreaker. I held my breath as I targeted one of the lead Glaives. I felt like I had a grudge to settle with the damn thing, for escaping from my fantasy life to invade my reality--and for making me question my own sanity in the process.

  My three-dimensional tactical display flashed, warning me of a reactor detonation directly behind me, and I accelerated just in time to escape being caught in the blast.

  Lasting longer than a few minutes in a battle of this size wasn't easy. Evading enemy fire required lightning-fast reflexes, wicked spatial awareness, and a gift for pattern recognition. You had to learn how to find the best route to cut through the enemy's ranks, retreating and attacking simultaneously.

  Once I'd spent enough hours studying how the Sobrukai ships moved and attacked as a group, I gradually began to see the patterns hidden in all that chaos. Sometimes they moved like a flock of birds, chasing its own tail as it circled for a landing. Other times, they made sharp turns in the sky, like a school of predatory fish. But there was always a pattern to it, and recognizing it allowed me to anticipate the enemy's movements and reactions, and that made it relatively easy for me to get them in my sights--as long as I was listening to the right music. Music was key. The old rock songs on my father's old mixtapes were perfect, because they had a steady, hard-driving beat that served as my mental combat metronome.

  I cut my engines and fired my retro-thrusters, swinging my ship around 180 degrees without altering or slowing my forward momentum. Then I opened fire on the swarm of Glaives converging on the Icebreaker's tail with a series of bursts from my sun guns.

  When I hit my first target, it imploded into collapsing fireballs of superheated plasma in front of me, and a message flashed on my HUD informing me I'd made the first kill of the engagement.

  "One down, a few million to go," I announced over the comm, already buzzing with adrenaline. Killing videogame aliens had always been an outlet for my adolescent frustrations--but tonight it felt as though I was venting compressed rage each time I pulled the trigger.

  It didn't matter that the Sobrukai were fictional--I still wanted to kill every last one of them.

  "Guys, I've got two Glaives on my tail," Diehl announced. "Any help?"

  "Help yourself, pal!" I heard Cruz say. "We're all getting our asses handed to us!"

  "Not me," I replied. "I am officially in the zone."

  I scanned my scopes, but neither Kvothe nor Dealio were currently visible, because the Icebreaker was now directly between us. I fired my lateral thrusters and did a series of diving barrel roles to evade the incoming barrage of plasma bolts streaking past me on all sides. I also teased the throttle to vary my ship's speed and angle of ascent, while I lined up my omnidirectional laser turret's targeting reticle with a new threat--a train of three Glaives I'd just picked up on my tail, looming on my HUD's aft display.

  The moment I got a targeting lock on the leader, I thumbed the laser turret's trigger. The beam only lasted for a split second and it wasn't visible with the naked eye, but its exact trajectory appeared on my HUD. I watched as it burned through the hull of the Glaive closest to my tail, then continued burning on through the other two Glaives directly behind that one, destroying them in a rapid chain of explosions: Boom! Boom! Ba-Boom!

  I powered down my already overheating laser, then switched back to my plasma cannons, which automatically reoriented my HUD so that it showed what was in front of my ship, instead of the dissipating fireball in its wake. Then I threw the throttle wide open. But as I passed under the Icebreaker and prepared to swing up on its opposite side, two more Glaives reappeared on my tail. They dropped in directly behind me and I started to take heavy fire, knocking my shields down by half and putting even more of a drain on my power cells, which were already dangerously low.

  According to my HUD, the Icebreaker had been firing its melt laser for less than a minute, and the Sobrukai had already destroyed nearly half of our Interceptors. Reinforcements were still pouring out of the Doolittle's hangar, but these drones were all piloted by players who had already gotten themselves killed once, and most of them would be destroyed a second time within seconds of rejoining the battle.

  Cruz was right--we weren't going to be able to hold them off long enough.

  "Screw this," I said. "I'm gonna try and create a diversion."

  "Where are you going?" Cruz said over the comm. "Protect the Icebreaker, dumb ass!"

  "Sorry, Cruz!" I said, pushing my throttle forward. "But you'll never guess who just showed up. Leeeeeeroyyy--"

  "Oh, Lightman, don't you even dare!"

  "--mmm-Jenkinsss!"

  I broke formation with the others, leaving the Icebreaker behind as I moved to attack the nearest Dreadnaught. I slammed my throttle forward and crossed in front of it, strafing the turrets spaced along the sphere's equator, taking out one or two of them.

  "Goddammit, Zack!" Cruz shouted. "Every time! Every goddamn time!"

  I grinned and fired my thrusters, putting my fighter into an instantaneous vertical dive, with the intention of slipping under the sphere to strafe its shield. This maneuver cost me nearly a third of my remaining power, because my Interceptor had to momentarily activate its inertia-cancellation field to execute it. But I shook several of the Sobrukai fighters off my tail, because they needed to execu
te the same move to stay on me, and most of them didn't have enough power. Instead, they had to fishhook around behind me, then try to get a bead on my Interceptor again--when I was already gone.

  Another swarm of Glaives emerged from the nearby Dreadnaught, all diving at the Icebreaker in a straight line, firing in tandem. I shredded them with a single sustained burst from my sun guns, bringing my Sobrukai kill count up to nine. Not bad, but also not up to my usual standards. My aim was a bit off.

  "Shit!" I heard Diehl shout over the comm. "I just lost my gorram shields because I'm already out of frakkin' power!"

  "Dude," Cruz said. "You shouldn't mix swears from different universes."

  "Says who?" Diehl shot back. "Besides, what if BSG and Firefly took place in the same universe? You ever consider that?"

  I heard a thunderous series of explosions behind me and swung my head around just in time to see the IDC Doolittle erupt into a huge fireball amidst a hail of enemy plasma fire.

  "What did I tell you?" Cruz muttered into his headset. "There goes the carrier, and the rest of our drone reserves."

  "Yeah, and that goddamn Icebreaker still isn't finished making its stupid ice-fishing hole, either," Diehl added. "Game over, man. Game-the-fuck-over."

  "Not yet," I muttered.

  Clenching my teeth, I swung my Interceptor back around and returned to try to help defend the Icebreaker, targeting the cluster of Glaives attacking its aft thrusters--but I couldn't get a lock on any of the targets flashing on my HUD, because I kept having to dodge incoming enemy fire, as well as friendly fire from the sentry guns on the Icebreaker's armored skin as my drone skimmed over it.

  My drone took two more direct hits, knocking my shields down to fifteen percent. One more hit and they would fail, and my weapons would follow soon after. Not good.

  I jammed my flight stick forward, cutting into a sharp dive to avoid flying right into the beam of the Icebreaker's pulsing melt laser. Ignoring AVA's warnings about my drone's imminent power failure, I gunned the throttle and continued turning into a barrel roll, both sun guns still blazing.

  "Shit!" I heard Diehl curse. "They got me, guys. I'm out."

  I glanced at my HUD just in time to see Diehl's Interceptor vanish off my scopes.

  "Me too," Cruz added a second later. He unleashed a colorful stream of profanity on his comm and logged out of the game completely.

  The digital deaths of my two best friends distracted me just long enough to take another series of direct hits, causing my shields and weapons to fail. I immediately initiated the self-destruct sequence on my drone's power core, even though I knew it was unlikely I would last the seven seconds required for it to complete.

  All of the Glaive Fighters in the vicinity began to redirect their fire at me, hoping to destroy my core before it could complete its countdown and go critical. But in doing so, they were momentarily forced to take their focus off the Icebreaker, just as I'd hoped.

  Five seconds remaining on my drone's self-destruct sequence. Then four, three--

  But that was when the inevitable happened--the Icebreaker finally took one hit too many and exploded directly beneath me. The ensuing fireball destroyed my drone, along with every ship within its blast radius.

  Ominous music began to play in my headphones as the words mission failed appeared, superimposed over my now disembodied view of the Sobrukai armada, as each of the six Dreadnaught spheres began to recall their remaining drones and return to their original formation in orbit, with this minor threat to their world now vanquished.

  I blindly powered off my game console and sat in the darkness for a moment before pulling off my VR helmet and returning to the real world with a sigh.

  My phone rang a few seconds later. Cruz was on the line--he had already checked, and wanted to let me know that Attack on Sobrukai wasn't on the list of replayable missions--at least not yet. Then he conferenced Diehl in for his traditional post-mission bitch fest. After, the Mikes tried to cajole me into joining them for a Terra Firma mission, but I mumbled something about having homework and said I'd see them at school tomorrow.

  Then I got up and went over to my closet. When I opened the door, a small avalanche of stuff spilled out onto my feet. I rummaged through the dense forest of dress shirts and winter coats on plastic hangers until I found my father's old jacket way at the back. It was an old black baseball jacket with leather sleeves, and it was completely covered, front and back, with embroidered patches, all somehow science fiction or videogame related, including several high-score-award patches for old Activision games like Starmaster, Dreadnaught Destroyer, Laser Blast, and Kaboom! Running down both sleeves were logos and military insignia from the Rebel Alliance, the Star League, the United Federation of Planets, the Colonial Fleet from BSG, and the Robotech Defense Force, among others.

  I studied each one in turn, running my fingertips over the embroidery. When I'd last tried this jacket on a few years ago, it had still been too big on me. But when I slipped it on now, it fit me perfectly, almost as if it had been tailor made.

  I found myself itching to wear it to school tomorrow--despite my earlier vow to stop living in the past and obsessing over the father I had never known.

  I looked around at the posters, toys, and models that filled my room and felt a pang in my chest at the thought of moving all my dad's prized possessions up into the attic. Despite my good intentions, it seemed I wasn't quite ready to let go of my father. Not yet.

  I leaned back in my chair, stifling a yawn that did not wish to be stifled. I did a quick systems-wide status check, the results of which confirmed that my wagon was draggin'. Plutonium chamber empty. Sleep required immediately.

  I took three steps toward my bed and collapsed facefirst onto my vintage Star Wars bed sheets, where I immediately fell into a fitful sleep.

  My dreams that night were plagued by visions of a giant Sobrukai overlord constricting its enormous tentacles around a defenseless planet Earth as if preparing to swallow it whole.

  When I walked out to my car the next morning and glanced down to unlock it, I saw the long sine-wave gouge that now ran bumper to bumper down the driver's side.

  Someone had keyed my car. I turned to scan the surrounding houses, on the off chance Knotcher was still in the vicinity. But he was nowhere to be seen, and it occurred to me he had probably done this last night, while the Omni was parked outside Starbase Ace. I just hadn't noticed after work because it was dark out, and my car's paint job wasn't exactly unblemished to begin with.

  I turned back to resurvey the damage, this time in the context of the vehicle's overall condition. The long scratch Knotcher had added would be barely noticeable to anyone else. One of the few perks of driving an ancient, rusted-out shit wagon was that it took real effort to make it look any less aesthetically pleasing than it already was.

  This realization allowed me to calm myself enough to heed the whispered advice of Master Yoda now on repeat in my head: Let go of your anger.

  I often tried to calm myself with Yoda's voice (which sounded nothing like Fozzie Bear, damn you) during moments of distress. Obi-Wan or Qui-Gon or Mace Windu sometimes had calming movie-quote wisdom to share too.

  That was only on good days, of course. On the bad ones, I found myself drawing on equally compelling advice from Lords Vader or Palpatine.

  But it wasn't their dark influence that motivated me to get the tire iron out of the Omni's trunk and place it inside my backpack. It was the voice of my friend Diehl, recounting his warning last night about Knotcher's threat to seek revenge.

  I parked my car in the student lot and trudged toward my school's front entrance while counting off the numbers of days remaining in my sentence--only forty-five more to go.

  But when I reached the open grassy area bordering the parking lot, Knotcher was there waiting for me, along with two of his brain-trust buddies. All three were grinning, arms folded across their chests like goons in some Power Rangers episode.

  My gaze shot over to the sch
ool's front entrance, calculating the distance. If I tried, I could probably make it there before they stopped me. But I found that I didn't want to.

  Knotcher was standing out in front. As I'd feared, keying my car wasn't enough. He'd decided that his manhood was now in question, and that he had no choice but to corner me and deliver a beating--with some help, of course.

  Knotcher's two gargantuan pals were known around school as "the Lennys," even though neither of them was actually named Lenny. They'd been saddled with this nickname after our class read Of Mice and Men in sophomore English. I didn't think the moniker really fit. Yes, they were both big and dumb, like the character in the book, but deep down, Steinbeck's Lenny had been a kindhearted soul. The two Lennys standing in front of me now (who I thought of as Skinhead Lenny and Neck-Tattoo Lenny, respectively) were both as mean as they were massive. But their size was dwarfed by the epic scope of their stupidity.

  "Love your new jacket!" Knotcher said. He made a show of slowly circling me to examine each of the patches sewn onto it. "These are really impressive. Is there a little rainbow patch on there somewhere, too?"

  After a few seconds of processing time, both of the Lennys chuckled--that was how long it took their reptilian brains to complete Knotcher's elegant rainbow-equals-gay equation.

  When I failed to respond, Knotcher tried again.

  "You know, that sorta looks like a varsity letterman's jacket," he said. "If being a videogame nerd who can't get laid was a sport." He laughed. "Then I suppose you'd be our star quarterback--eh, Lightman?"

  I could already feel my anger spiraling out of control. What had made me think it was a good idea to wear my father's old jacket to school? I'd basically been inviting public ridicule on the one topic guaranteed to set me off--and of course Knotcher would be the one to take the bait. Maybe that was why I'd done it in the first place--the same reason I'd confronted Knotcher yesterday. Some angry caveman lobe of my brain was itching for a fight--and so I had orchestrated this confrontation. This was my doing.

  Knotcher and the Lennys took a step toward me. But I stood my ground.

 
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