Gamer PerfectQuestion fights for ColaCorp in WarWorld, an online combat-sport arena where megacorporations field entire armies in the battle for dominance over real-world global-advertising space. Within the immense virtual battlefield, players and bots are high-tech grunts, using dropships and state-of-the-art assault rifles to attack the enemy.
But when times are tough, there’s always the Black, an illegal open-source tournament where the sick and twisted desires of the future are given free reign. And what begins as PerfectQuestion’s onetime effort to make some cash quickly turns dangerous.
All too soon, the real and virtual worlds collide when PerfectQuestion refuses to become the tool of a madman intent on hacking the global economy for himself and fights to stay alive—in WarWorld, in the Black, and in the real world.
Check out an excerpt from Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier, available August 12th from HarperVoyager!
The war starts at 6am, in-game time. By 6:45 we’re losing Hamburger Hamlet as our entire line begins to disintegrate.
It isn’t a total collapse. Pockets of resistance hold out in key positions, buying ColaCorp time, expensive time, to fall back and reorganize. On my right flank, Kiwi holds a high hill overlooking the Song Hua river basin. We call that hill WonderSoft Garage because of the small power station and vehicle spawn depot located there. WonderSoft had made the capture of that hill and power station a primary objective in the last three battles we’d fought at this end of the basin.
And it looked like they were gonna try for it again today.
Over BattleChat, Kiwi swears as he burns through the ammo an air re-supply Albatross barely managed to get through. In my mind, I can see empty lager cans parading the workspace that is Kiwi’s keyboard and monitor, as ambient in-game sound resounds in a metallic symphony of ammo brass expended in adult-sized doses. If the sound of auto-rifles and explosions is a kind of music, and to some of us it is, then Kiwi is Beethoven.
Through graphically rendered feathery willow trees and the game-supposed heat waves of the day, I can barely make out what’s going on up at the top of the hill in brief glimpses. Three fast-attack WonderSoft Goats, their version of a jeep, and a Thrasher light mech are burning. Thick oily smoke belches from the mech, a moment later it explodes in a shower of sparks. More WonderSoft Goats and Thrashers climb the road to the bridge that leads to our side of the river.
WonderSoft Infantry scrambles from cover, racing to other cover, as Kiwi fights hard to keep them from crossing the chokepoint at the bridge and capturing WonderSoft Garage. It’s about to get real intimate, real quick.
“Command, we’re gettin’ killed up here,” shouts Kiwi over BattleChat. His transmission is broken and distorted by automatic weapons fire in the background. “I’m down to three grunts,” he continues. “Request reinforcement or evac, A-S-A-P! If you’ve got fire support I’ll take it now, but you’d better drop it right on top of my position, your choice, Command.”
Minutes earlier I’d requested Command point two transports of grunts our way as reinforcements. One of our Dropships got jumped by a flight of WonderSoft Vampires as they’d approached the LZ. The other, piloted by RiotGuurl, had gotten away.
RiotGuurl is as good a pilot as I’ve ever worked with. Losing the first transport hadn’t been an easy choice for her, but when a WonderSoft Vampire caught your electronic scent, there weren’t many options left for a transport squadron other than split up and run like hell to get away from that wicked ground attack jet.
Since then RiotGuurl was maintaining radio silence. I know she’s chasing every nook and cranny in the jungle clad hills that surround the basin on all sides, flying her gunship way too close to the computer’s representation of the ground, looking for a route back into Hamburger Hamlet so we can resupply and reinforce the river crossing. Maybe even help Kiwi.
“Be advised, Command, it’s just me now. All my grunts are KIA.” Kiwi again. “Two ammo packs left and multiple Softs inside the wire.” Kiwi never gives up. Even when he’s being overrun. Maybe it’s an Australian thing. Once this war is over I plan on taking some of my winnings and heading down under to spend some time in Gigaboo Flats at The Wonky Boomerang, Kiwi’s favorite post-battle watering hole. But hopefully the Cola Wars will never end, or else how will I get paid?
“Kiwi, evac not possible at this time. Sorry about that, Son.” It’s RangerSix, ColaCorp’s Tactical Commander. The fact that he’s overseeing our little firefight reinforces how crucial this battle really is for ColaCorp.
Using my targeting monocular I scan the sloping hills and tall grass behind and above Hamburger Hamlet for our commander’s avatar. RangerSix is the kind of guy who can change a battle with a basic rifle kit and some explosives. As usual I can’t find his hiding place.
Across the river, WonderSoft artillery begins throwing everything they’ve got at us. Head down inside my command post, I crank my speakers to full ambient in-game sound, cutting off Catherine Wheel’s seminal late 20th century album Ferment. I’m waiting to hear RiotGuurl’s turbines. She’s Kiwi’s only hope now.
“Sixty rounds left. How about Fire Support, RangerSix?” It’s Kiwi.
“Negative at this time.” I hear the quiet frustration in RangerSix’s smoke-stained voice.
“Die in place again, huh?” grunts Kiwi.
Behind me, in the detailed squat bamboo and stone village that is the game designers’ representation of a fictional southeast Asian river basin village, a place we call Hamburger Hamlet as a nod to the often bloody struggles for on-line supremacy that take place there, our armor rolls through, retreating farther to the east. We’ve been holding this side of the river, waiting for our massive Charger IV battle tanks to cross the muddy brown shallows under heavy mortar fire. Now, it’s time to bug out.
WonderSoft Garage has always been the key to control of the river crossing at Hamburger Hamlet. There’s no bridge, but the river’s shallow enough to get most vehicles across. Now that the over-watch Kiwi was providing at the garage is on the verge of being taken, the battle, at least here alongside the river, is lost for ColaCorp. Any of our units on the far side of the river aren’t getting back to our lines without an airlift. The game-day still promises more fighting. It’s Saturday and the network goes big on coverage for the weekend. But, to lose good armor this early would spell disaster for whatever Command has in mind for us to do next. We’ve gotten the Chargers back to this side of the river. That’s enough for now. We’ll have to fight another battle somewhere else.
“Afraid so, son,” says RangerSix to Kiwi over BattleChat regarding any kind of assistance. Or to be more specific, the complete lack thereof. “Sorry.”
Kiwi doesn’t reply.
The turbines of RiotGuurl’s Albatross scream loudly as she coaxes the VTOL transport slash gunship into a tight bend south of my position. The fat hover jets that hang beneath the stubby wings of the wide-bodied OD Green Albatross kick up a spray of water as she bleeds altitude and speed getting close to the surface of the river.
For a brief second there’s hope.
But, as I swing my avatar’s view around, locking her craft into my HUD, I don’t need imaging software to tell me her ship’s already down to forty-eight percent integrity. The Albatross is vomiting black oily smoke while blue flames climb from the turbines across the fuselage, licking at the pilot’s canopy. Seconds later a dart-winged fast mover, camouflage shifting from sky-gray to river-brown as its on-board computer tracks position relative to target and adjusts the color scheme, comes into view. It’s a WonderSoft Vampire and it vaults the bend farther down the river, rattling out short bursts from its forward mounted 30mm chain gun directly into the Albatross’s burning fuselage.
The pilot’s an amateur.
Any good pilot would just let her crash into the ground, but this jerk wants a special gun camera ‘kill’ to put up on his webwall. A professional player kill worth bragging about. Or at least he’s hoping to brag about it.
“Not today,” I mutter and order my air defense grunt to take out the Vampire, an easy kill at this range and altitude with a preoccupied pilot. The grunt, skinned in jungle cammo and battered light body armor leaps out from behind the barn at the far end of Hamburger Hamlet and scrambles to shoulder the Ground to Air HammerClaw missile.
With in-game ambient sound cranked up to full, I hear an unseen WonderSoft sniper’s Barret3000 go off like the sudden snap of a dead branch. A moment later my grunt is flung backward from the impact of the supersonic round.
That means WonderSoft has snipers in the hills on our side of the river. Things are actually worse than they seem.
“C’mon you lazy…” growls RiotGuurl over BattleChat as her Albatross loses an engine and begins to list badly to starboard. I know she’s scrambling to maintain some kind of altitude in order to get the replacement platoon she’s carrying out the door and somewhat near our position alongside the river. Parachutes puff to life just beyond the flaming fuselage, but the falling stick of badly needed grunts and players will be scattered all along the river at best. With our line currently collapsing they’ll be less than combat effective. They probably won’t even be able to link up with any friendlies.
I hit E on my keyboard and then SPACEBAR, making my avatar jump up from behind the sandbags I’m using as a command post I’d set up back when I thought there might be some kind of contest for Hamburger Hamlet. But that’s not happening today.
I race for the air defense grunt’s gear, knowing the sniper sees me. A good sniper will wait for me to reach the dead grunt. It’ll take two point five seconds to exchange my rifle kit for the shoulder-fired HammerClaw Air Defense System the downed grunt carried. That’ll be all the time the sniper needs to blow my avatar’s head off. My hope is that a good sniper, and I hope this sniper is good, is waiting for another grunt to appear and pick up the valuable Air Defense gear. My other hope is that he’s not expecting a real live player. Or at least that’s what I tell myself as I reach the grunt’s prone body.
ColaCorp SOP insists live-player avatars look just like the A.I. controlled grunts. Hyper-muscled, digital depictions of front line real-world combat troops. Dirty green jungle-stripe fatigues, dull green and grease black tiger-striped face and arm cammo. Even the same gear with the rare exception of a shotgun or a favorite sidearm. It’s good policy. The enemy expects an A.I. grunt’s reaction to any given circumstance. So we all look like grunts, that way the expectations are lower. Except a live player can do the unexpected.
RangerSix is probably behind that smart idea.
I pause at the kit and roll left a heartbeat later. A spray of dirt blossoms on-screen as the Barrett’s round explodes in the mud just beyond the dead grunt’s body.
Where my avatar’s head should have been.
Now the WonderSoft sniper will need to pull the slide back and chamber another massive round, a serious drawback to using the Barret3000.
I exchange kits with a tap on the keyboard, raise the shoulder-fired missile and select Shotgun Mode, firing on the fly, not even waiting for the high-pitched tone indicating lock. The missile-lets that scatter away from the launcher don’t have far to go as the Albatross and Vampire streak straight over the top of Hamburger Hamlet. They sidewinder skyward and punch right into the bottom of the frost-gray SkyCammo of the WonderSoft Vampire.
Kaboom. No Vampire. Musta hit an armed weapon or maybe even the fuel tank.
Meanwhile, RiotGuurl’s finished.
“Lateral’s gone… I’m going in,” she says just before the Albatross smashes itself into the cliff wall below WonderSoft Garage above the river.
I know RangerSix sees it happen. Seconds later he’s broadcasting an area-wide alert. “Albatross Two-Six is down. Repeat Albatross Two-Six is out of action. All units, we are leaving this AO! Be advised we are evacuating the river. Fall back to rally points appearing on your HUDS now.”
A moment later, a yellow triangle indicating a rally point has been established a kilometer to our rear, appears on my avatar’s CommandPad. The tanks rumble away dustily into the foothills behind Hamburger Hamlet, un-bothered by the snipers. Across the river I can see WonderSoft grunts swarming into their slate-grey troop carriers. A missile streaks away from one of them, crosses the river and smashes into a nearby barn, turning everything into sudden flying, flaming matchsticks. Casualty reports flood in from my platoon. I order my two heavy machine gun units to open fire on the WonderSoft transports as they approach the river crossing. Smoking tails of depleted uranium rounds streak low over the river at hypersonic speeds as plumes of water blossom in the shallows and muddy riverbank on the far bank. My gunners are just finding their range as the first WonderSoft transports wallow into the muddy brown water.
On the hill above my position, WonderSoft Garage, the rattle of gunfire and brass has stopped. Kiwi’s out of assault rifle ammo. The fight up there, is over.
“Kiwi, what’s your status?” I say over BattleChat as I retrieve my rifle kit.
“Not good, mate. Not good at all. It’s a real knife and gun show up here.”
“I can hold the Hamlet for a few more minutes if you can get out,” I tell him.
“Negative Perfect, not happening. It’s too hot, hot, hot to leave.” I hear the pop pop pop of his sidearm as he spits out the repeated word.
“Be advised,” it’s RangerSix again. I can tell he’s pointing this message at me and me alone. “We are leaving this AO now, PerfectQuestion! Get your platoon moving and cover those tanks. Watch for anti-armor mixed in with snipers above your position.”
“What about Kiwi?”
RangerSix says nothing.
“No worries here, mate,” Kiwi breaks in. “I’m havin’ a barbeque and I’ve invited all the WonderSerfs. Main course is a whole lotta thermite.” Seconds later, “See ya, Perfect.”
The entire jungle hilltop around WonderSoft Garage blossoms in rosy red, flaming destruction. The explosions billow and rise above the soft feathery jungle haze and the sleepy yellow-brown river. Several, smaller, secondary explosions accompany the blast, indicating WonderSoft’s APCs, probably just arrived to establish control of the captured objective, have also been invited to Kiwi’s barbeque.
Kiwi loves his explosives.
“G’day Mate,” I whisper, watching the apocalyptic ending of ColaCorp’s hold on WonderSoft Garage. Then my squad is up and moving into the hills, low and slow, watching for snipers.
“My grunts were getting chewed up the whole way back to the evac point. I lost twelve.” I’m telling Sancerré about my bad day.
“Oh, where did you lose them? Go to the last place you’d look. Whatever it is, it’s usually there, in the last place you’d look.”
My girlfriend does not understand my job.
“You’re not listening,” I say.
“Yes, I am. You said you lost your little grunts.”
“Yes, I did say that, but you don’t know what I mean by grunts. If you did, you would know I cannot go back and ‘find them’ in the last place I would look for them. They’re dead. KIA.”
She pauses from packing her camera bag. I notice there’s a little black dress and heels inside.
“I understand. You don’t need to get testy with me, it’s not like I’m two years old,” she says as she snaps up some memory sticks from the floor. “They’re something to do with your game. Just go find them, or better yet, get some new ones.”
“First off Sancerré, grunts are computer controlled AI bots assigned to each player. They look like basic versions of our avatars. Like real modern combat troops. Once they get ‘killed’ they’re dead. They don’t respawn. Second off, it’s not a game. It was, when I was paying to play like all the subscribers, but now I’m a professional and if you’d get your head out of your viewfinder you’d realize the ‘game’ I’m playing is paying the rent right now.”
“We don’t use viewfinders anymore, SoftEyes show exactly how the shot might be composed.”
She’s a photographer.
“I understand that because what’s important to you, is important to me,” I say. “But that doesn’t always seem to be the case in reverse.”
“Okay, Okay, enough. Tell me about your bad day playing war. What happened to all your grunts?”
“They got killed. Happy?”
“People got killed?”
“No, my grunts got killed, and every grunt under my command is my responsibility and gets deducted from my total score, which gets deducted from the ColaCorp victory point total, which gets deducted from my weekly bonus.”
“You shouldn’t let that happen.” Her tone indicates she understands the seriousness of the loss. Or at least that we won’t be getting as much money as we need in next week’s paycheck. “Who killed all your grunts?”
“Listen, there are real players fighting me online… fighting my team, ColaCorp. Got that?” I feel a rant coming on. I feel an argument in the air. Like an afternoon storm coming straight at you.
“Yeah, duh! I wasn’t born yesterday,” she snaps.
And, I love her.
“You’re a goon.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too,” she sighs and sits down next to me. “I’m sorry I haven’t been listening. It’s just that this is a really big spread for Vanity. And being an assistant for fashion’s greatest eye, in his very own opinion, is… very… let’s just say it has its problems.” She sighs again and there is enough in it that I know the world is bigger than me and my problems. I know I’m not here just for me. That… I want to rescue her.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I feel bad for just coming in here to vent. It was a bad day all across the board. We were fighting for advertising space at Madison Square Garden and Channel Two. It was kind of a big day.”
“Is that why they pay you? Because if you and your friends win your little games then they get to own those places?”
“Well they don’t get to own them, but they get the right to pay to advertise in them. Plus LiveNet broadcasts the best parts of the action with lots of product placement.” It’s surprising to me that Sancerré, a trained commercial photographer, doesn’t understand advertising-gaming rights. But fashion seems to be its own little world. Hence the photo shoot last year in which she’d had to hide under a model dressed as an undead Marie Antoinette carrying a light sabre as the dust children of Mogadishu ate red apples on a dirty street full of cheap PrismBoard advertising. I think it was an ad for jeans.
“I guess today was pretty important then,” she offers.
“Yeah, it was. But forget about it. How long do I get you for?”
“I’m afraid that’s it, soldier boy. I’ve got to be there early. Miss Thing threatened not to show up over shoes and they want me in just in case she actually makes good and doesn’t show.” She shoulders her bag and checks her make-up in the mirror one last time.
“Is she really that bad?”
“Worse. She actually will show. She will get what she wants and then she’ll play the martyr as everyone grovels for her forgiveness. It’s disgusting.”
“I guess I might just chill tonight,” I say with a stretch and a yawn. “I’m pretty wiped. If you’re back by midnight we can go watch the big PrismBoard at Madison Square Garden change over to WonderSoft.”
“I wouldn’t count on it. Mario made us clear our schedules. He wants to buy us all drinks at Burnished.”
“Do I need to worry? I mean, I know you love those things. I’m sorry I don’t have enough. I wish I had more. I’d spend it all on you… honest.” I would.
“I know you would. You don’t have to worry about those things. Everything will be okay. It won’t always be like this.”
But somehow I do worry and I imagine it being much worse.
Later after she’s gone, I bring up my compilations. I’m feeling very ‘Nam. I mix a scotch and SevenPlus, ColaCorp’s new not-cola and light a smoke just as this great remix from the 2030’s of White Rabbit by the band that first did it comes on. Outside, the late winter sun drops below the horizon. New York locked in winter is even more depressing than getting pwned by WonderSoft. I want jungles and golden sunsets. I want a hot yellow sky and murky haze and gurgling brown rivers. I light some incense, crank up the humidity control, put on an army surplus Tee shirt and ‘Nam out.
I settle into the warm glow of the scotch, dragging absently at my smoke. I think about WonderSoft Garage and Kiwi. He’s near the end of a bad streak of getting killed. ColaCorp doesn’t like that kind of thing and it’s only a matter of time until he gets reduced from professional status back to enthusiastic amateur. He needs a win. In truth, the whole team needs a win. We all do.
WonderSoft had come into its own in the past six months of online warfare, dominating most of the battlefields for advertising supremacy. Eastern Highlands was my first campaign as a pro player-officer and already we’d lost some major advertising venues in and around New York. Losing everything to WonderSoft is probably going to get me booted back to freelance which will cut down on any future campaign actions. Worrying about Kiwi only reminds me that his situation is only slightly worse than mine, and everybody else’s at ColaCorp for that matter.
My ‘Nam set gets psychedelic, cascading over remixed hits almost a century old. I mix another drink and log into the Bunker, the gathering place for ColaCorp professionals after battles. Senior Commanders generally didn’t drop by after a loss, but after a win they’d come in and hand out bonuses and slap our backs over the feeds. Today’s beating at Eastern Highlands and the loss of Madison Square Garden and Channel Two ensured we wouldn’t be seeing them tonight.
It sucks to lose.
Kiwi’s avatar, large and hulking, shirt off and showing curling tribal tats leans against the bar talking to JollyBoy, an Intel Specialist and Fever, a great medic who’s managed to revive me on the battlefield more than a few times, including one time I swore I was really down for the count. I double-click them and bring up all three of their feeds. Kiwi looks even more frightening in real life than his avatar. Huge, hulking, tattoo overdose, a leering lecherous grin, almost drooling into the monitor. His eyes are the only feature that tell you he’s a friend and not foe. His eyes say, “I’m kind, you can trust me, mate”.
“Perfect, Perfect, PerfectQuestion. Did ya make it back to the rally, mate?” he asks me.
“Cheers, Kiwi. It was touch and go, lost a lot of grunts. But yeah we got picked up at the rice paddies just as WonderSoft started dropping their artillery all over us.”
“We lost three slicks at the LZ,” JollyBoy announces happily. The joker he is never fades, even when he’s delivering the worst of news. Losing three Albatrosses made me glad I was on one of the slicks that got out of there. What a cheap way to get it. Its one thing to be out there fighting, making a bad choice, getting caught in the crossfire, whatever, and losing your day’s winnings and bonuses. But catching a slick and feeling safe as you hear the turbines spool up and thinking you’ve just escaped one bad day of gaming and that you’re gonna get paid and make it to the next fight only to have it explode a moment later. Well, that’s another thing. A bad thing.
“Any players?” asks Fever. Fever cares little about the fighting. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen him running around with his weapon out. He only carries his med packs, boosts and revival pads. He cares more about us, than the battles.
“Yeah,” smirks JollyBoy. “ShogunSmile and WarChild…”
“These laughin’ newboys with their haiku tags. Serves ‘em…” Kiwi’s drunk, but just drunk enough to catch himself at the beginning of a lecture on tag choice. His discipline isn’t long for this world.
“What’re you listening to, PerfectQuestion?” asks Fever catching the music in my background.
“Lemme see… Vietnam by this reggae guy, Jimmy Cliff.”
“Sounds good…. feed me.”
“Me too,” says Kiwi. I patch them into my music, inviting JollyBoy also.
“No thanks, PerfectQuestioney. The Harlequin likes his industrial trance calliope mixes.”
JollyBoy is weird.
We play music for a while and watch funny clips from the day’s battle. Usually something we or our grunts did that was dumb. We talk about what went wrong and what we should have done, all the while each choosing a song, not realizing we’re saying something about ourselves, the day and, maybe life. Finally Kiwi plays Waltzing Matilda, mumbles something about the long ride to the Wonky Boomerang and logs off without further goodbyes. Jollyboy has long since faded into other conversations. Fever smiles and says, “Keep your head down, Perfect,” and is gone. I scan the cantina for RiotGuurl.
Because it was her first battle as a professional. That entitles her entrance into the Bunker. I tell my empty apartment it wasn’t her fault that we lost and put on Black Metallic by Catherine Wheel. Another drink and I force myself to think about Sancerré and a relationship that’s coming apart at the seams. But my guitar driven thoughts keep returning to RiotGuurl.
Who is she?
Where is she?
And why do I care?