Harper Voyager / "Soda Pop Soldier"
In the upcoming science fiction novel “Soda Pop Soldier,” countries don’t fight for land or resources — instead, corporations wage war for advertising space. And instead of deploying soldiers to the real-world battlefield, those corporations enlist top videogame players to determine victory.
The narrator, a gamer dubbed PerfectQuestion, fights for a company called ColaCorp in a game called WarWorld, but soon finds himself scrounging for extra money in The Black, an illegal and unregulated game-world. The excerpt of “Soda Pop Soldier” below, its first chapter, finds PerfectQuestion and his teammates facing steep odds in WarWorld as they battle it out with the gamers of another company, WonderSoft.
(Also, don’t miss this interview with author Nick Cole, where he explains how the novel came to be and why even non-gamers might like it.)
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.
“Soda Pop Soldier” comes out in paperback on August 12 and will be published by Harper Voyager.