6

Karen left early the next morning, and Harry found that he had his Saturday to himself. Or at least the first part of the day, until he met Karen later that night for the opening of the exhibition.

The drinks the night before hadn’t quite produced a hangover, but he was still tired when he got out of bed at ten. As he wandered into his bathroom he caught sight of his naked body in the mirror and flinched.

‘Aug, turn everything back on.’

His reflection’s stomach flattened, hair darkened, and his face grew more defined. The studio came alive as well, the window appearing on the wall, pictures coming to life, the grey furniture regaining its style.

Harry gave his augmented reflection a wink before walking naked back out into his studio. He approached his food prepper and stood while he considered his options, rubbing his right quadricep, somehow sore from the night before.

‘Umm, orange juice and a latte.’ Two glasses slid into place under the benchtop machine, one appearing to fill with cold juice, the other his coffee. There was very little difference between them—they were both mostly water with a few suspended electrolytes, the only additions to the coffee being a thickening agent, a dose of caffeine and of course the heat. But Harry could see and smell and taste the two beverages being prepared before him, a perfect illusion of colour and aroma and flavour blanketing the raw ingredients. His aug was constantly interacting with the machine and it received information about the calories, fluids, nutrients and macros, which were subtracted from his daily requirements.

Harry took a sip of his juice. ‘Two pieces of toast, buttered, each with a fried egg on top, you know how I like it, bacon, crispier this time, fried tomato, mushrooms, hash brown and chorizo. Oh, and spinach; I suppose I should eat something green.’

The prepper silently extruded the raw materials onto a plate, adjusting the constituent ingredients for texture, density, consistency and size, loading the food with a quarter of Harry’s daily dietary requirements. After thirty seconds it let Harry’s aug know that it was finished, the smell of bacon hitting Harry as the door of the machine slid open. Harry placed his plate and the glasses on a tray before walking over to his dining table.

The cost of the meal appeared in Harry’s view. Because he’d eaten only basic food this morning it was on a commons license and the only cost was the raw materials and the use of his prepper itself. The tiny amount was subtracted from his account.

As Harry sat at his table he was aware of his nakedness. He jumped over to his bedroom and grabbed his pants off the floor, slipping them on quickly. His aug presented some options for what they were to look like, but Harry dismissed it with a shake of his head. He was at home and was happy to bum around in his greys.

‘News,’ he said, as he sat back down at the table.

He picked up a piece of bacon and delighted in the crunch as he bit down. When he looked up he saw, suspended in the air about seventy centimetres from his face, his news feed—black headlines set atop a translucent white background.

‘World first,’ he commanded, and his aug brought the headlines closer to his face. With a flick of his eyes he dismissed them one by one, before stopping over something that caught his interest.

‘This one, first person.’

With that command he found himself in the Amazon, fire climbing the great trees in front of him, the reporter yelling over the top of the roar of the flames.

‘This summer has been one of the worst in the Amazon’s history as thousands of square kilometres of once tropical forest has gone up in smoke. I’m here at the fire front in Mato Grosso where the worst of the fires have taken hold. Hundreds have been evacuated and three firefighters have been killed.

‘Wait, we’re being told to move, the front is coming towards us.’ A firefighter rushed forward in front of Harry’s vision and forced the journalist into his vehicle. He leapt into the back, falling as he did, only getting up as the doors closed behind him. Harry saw the flames through the rear window as the journalist settled, staring out the back as the trucks raced behind them.

‘Cool,’ Harry said.

The flames were moving now, coming in from both sides of the road, the news van struggling to get ahead of the fire front. The journalist turned forward and moved the perspective so that it was focused on his face.

‘We’re really in amongst it here, folks. The fire is coming in from both sides, racing with this wind. You can see out the front’—the perspective changed again, and Harry was looking through the front window with the journalist’s eyes—‘that we’re trapped here, our only way out is down this road. Come on, Raf, you can do this.’

The driver accelerated further. Flames licked the van and the smoke obscured the road in front of them. But, just as their fate seemed sealed, the van pushed through and their vision cleared; ahead was the open, unthreatened road. The journalist turned around to watch the fire engines race behind them.

‘We made it! We made it!’

Harry closed the article.

‘Obviously fake. There is no way they would have let him get that close. What’s next?’

News of shortages in Europe. That was normal. Dead whales in South Africa. Concern about a hundred-year-old sea wall failing in India.

‘Boring. Actually, aug, that game from yesterday.’

Sphere of War: Southeast China,’ his aug replied in his ear.

‘Yeah, that one. Load it up, will you. Oh, wait, give me a minute to finish breakfast and get over to the couch.’

Harry attacked the last of his breakfast, gulping down his juice before walking over to his couch and sitting down.

‘Ok, you can start it now.’

‘Harry, this sim is best played in a standing position,’ his aug replied.

‘Oh, alright. Aug layer off, let me make some space.’

Harry pushed his couch up against a wall and moved the coffee table into the kitchen. He cleared the floor space until he had a three-by-three-metre space to play in.

‘That should do it. I’m ready, start it up.’

The young officer shimmered to life in front of him again.

‘Captain Bo, you’ve decided to join us?’ she said.

‘For the time being, sure, why not. What do I call you?’

‘I’m Lieutenant Li, the commander’s attaché. Let’s get you dressed, we can’t have you going out like that.’

Harry found himself dressed in an officer’s undersuit, a tight-fitting, dark green one-piece worn under the early models of power-armour. His rank was visible in the middle of his chest, three stars bisected by a continuous line. There was no cap with the uniform, it was clear that he was dressed for combat rather than ceremony.

‘Come on, we need to get to the briefing, the colonel is waiting.’

The apartment faded around Harry, and in its place a briefing room came into existence. A large table with a dozen empty chairs dominated the space, and the person Harry assumed to be the colonel was facing a screen with icons plotted on the map, red showing friendly forces, blue for the Americans. As he turned, the young officer saluted. Harry sloppily followed her lead and the colonel returned the gesture.

‘Captain Bo, good to see you again,’ the colonel said. ‘I know you were on leave, but we have an emergency in front of us.’

‘Of course, sir,’ Harry said. Straight to the point. ‘Anything I can do to help.’

‘Here’s the situation. We’ve been waiting for the Americans to land in Taiwan, to counter our liberation of the island two weeks ago. But they’ve done something unexpected.

‘Last night most of our air defences at the mouth of the delta and throughout greater Guangzhou were taken out by American cruise missiles and some sort of space-based bombardment we haven’t seen before. We didn’t think too much of it—they’ve been softening up Fujian since the war started and we figured it was a continuation of their strategy to limit our capacity to respond to an airborne assault against our forces in Taiwan.

‘But that changed this morning. The Marine taskforce heading north from the Philippines swung left and have landed at the Shenzhen, Macau and Hong Kong airports. We only had a small reservist contingent at each and they were easily overrun. US Space Force troops have also landed at the international airport in Guangzhou using some sort of suborbital craft that got through our degraded air defence. There were only police stationed there and we haven’t heard from them for two hours. Their Air Force is now bombing our remaining army units around Guangzhou, and at this stage we don’t know how many we’ve lost. Our fleet is spread between the strait and holding off the Japanese in the northeast; frankly, we’ve been caught unprepared.

‘Our early warning radars have also detected a mass launching of transport aircraft from Guam, Darwin and Manila. We believe that their strategy is to land at our international airports and use them as a base to invade Guangdong. The airports all sit on major ground transport routes, and once they’re secured and reinforced, they’ll be able to launch further ground and amphibious assaults right throughout the delta. They’ll also be able to deploy heavy weapons including missile systems, even before the main amphibious force arrives. With the two carrier groups sitting off Hong Kong and an unknown number of aircraft inbound we have effectively lost control of the skies in the area. The remaining ships will be able to land uncontested.

‘We’re redeploying the PLA Army troops we’ve had defending the Fujian coastline and the navy base in Zhanjiang, but our most capable forces are still in Taiwan. We’re even moving troops away from the Vietnamese border. The Vietnamese have been amassing for weeks but we now believe it’s a diversion and that their real target is the Paracels. With our fleet elsewhere and now this invasion, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to take them. We don’t have the ships or troops to focus our attention there, and certainly can’t push against them on land.

‘Captain, Guangdong is the economic heart of this nation and we can’t afford to lose it. The Americans have escalated this conflict by invading Chinese territory and it can’t be tolerated. We need to you launch an intelligence-gathering mission against one of these targets to give us an idea of what we’re up against.’

A map appeared in front of Harry with the four bases highlighted.

‘I want to see these suborbital transports, so let’s go to Guangzhou International.’

‘Good choice, Captain. We’ve managed to get two helicopters for you, two squads, they’re suited up and ready. I suggest you meet them at the hangar, no time for introductions. Let us know what the Americans have at the airport and call in support from out rocket forces. We’ll take out the airfields ourselves if we need to. Good luck, Captain.’

The colonel turned back to his screen; the briefing was over. Harry turned to Li.

‘This way, Captain. Please follow me.’

Harry leant gently forward, towards the direction Li was walking and found himself walking alongside her. They moved down the long corridor of the headquarters, past a range of officers until they reached a blast door. Li flashed her identification at the guards and they opened it. The two of them walked through the door and into the hangar.

‘Captain Bo, we have a standard loadout for you today: a shoulder-mounted 5.8 mm light machine gun, one shoulder-mounted anti-materiel rocket, a semi-automatic 5.8 mm pistol, and a short sword. Within your squad you have another fifteen men with the same loadout, as well as one drone operator, one electronic warfare operator, and two heavy-weapons specialists with 12.7 mm anti-materiel guns. Would you like me to take you through the operation of your powered armour?’

‘No, Li, that’s fine, a friend of yours showed me in the last one of these I played. It was a few years ago, but it’s like riding a bike, right?’

‘Very well, sir,’ she said. ‘If you need help at any time, let me know.’

Harry found himself in his armour, weapons protruding from his shoulders, a mask covering his face. The screen in front of his eyes was a heads-up display, a throwback to the days before augmentation.

‘Aug, when did augmentors replace HUDs in the military?’

‘First prototypes were introduced by the People’s Liberation Army eighteen months after the liberation of Taiwan.’

‘Right. Must have been playing past that time in the last game then.’

‘That game was not completely historically accurate, Harry.’

‘Yeah, figures. How about this one? How does it stack up to the historical record?’

‘Reasonably well. However, the historical record states that there was still an armoured brigade stationed in Guangzhou which engaged the threat at the airport before being forced to fall back, not a special forces unit. In fact, the Southern Theatre Command’s Special Forces Brigade was stationed in Taiwan at the time, and they were not equipped with powered armour.’

‘Weren’t you listening? I was on leave, that’s why they called me in.’

‘My mistake,’ the aug said.

‘Yeah, damn right. Anyhow, back to the game.’ Harry turned to Li. ‘I’m ready if you are.’

‘Certainly, sir. Your transportation awaits.’

Harry moved over to the lead helicopter and stepped inside, locking the back of his armour into a receptacle in the helicopter, remaining standing the whole time. He was greeted with a dozen ‘good morning, sir’s over the unit’s channel. Miniatures of their faces and status appeared in the bottom of his HUD.

‘Morning, everyone. You all know what you’re doing so, yeah, chat later.’

The helicopters taxied out of the hangar and took off quickly. They kept low, flying below the level of the skyscrapers to avoid detection by the American fighters flying unseen overhead. Even from this angle the city was miraculously complex, cars and trucks jammed on multi-lane highways, citizens swarming in the streets below, people waving out from the windows of impossibly tall office towers as their soldiers flew past. It truly was an age of miraculous excess.

Harry always preferred to play the war sims as China. There wasn’t any substantial reason for it—he had ancestors who had fought on both sides—except perhaps that he empathised with their pre-war position more. The equipment was roughly equivalent, and, in the end, the entire world had fought itself to a stalemate, a victory of sorts only coming to China and its allies when the Americans tore themselves apart after the armistice. Of course, nobody won in the longer term, especially after the famine and disease and natural disasters that followed wiped out ten times the number that had died in the war.

But that was history, and now all Harry had to do was get through this first mission and decide whether it was worth another investment of his time and money.

His HUD told him they were nearing their drop-off at the southern end of the airport. The pilot dropped altitude again as they flew over fields and suburbs, flying fast until the vast complex was in sight. He pulled up and set the machine down.

‘Out you get,’ yelled a man; his HUD told him was Sergeant Wang. He was no doubt going to be an important character as the game progressed.

Harry unhitched and was first out the door, turning as the second helicopter began its landing. Suddenly, from the direction of the airport, came a beam of green light which punched straight through the helicopter. It exploded as it hit the ground.

‘Cool. Aug, did they actually have lasers back then or is this more inaccuracy?’

‘They did, Harry. The landing of the US Space Force Special Forces troops in Guangzhou was the first operational deployment of mobile-directed energy anti-aircraft weapons. The simultaneous use of several previously withheld American special weapon systems was a significant contributor to the strategic surprise they were able to take advantage of in the early phases of the war.’

‘Right. I suppose I should call that in.’ Harry opened the radio channel back to command. ‘Uh, command, they have what I’ve been told looks like directed energy anti-aircraft weapons and they shot down one of the helicopters. Looks like everyone onboard is dead.’

‘Received and understood, Captain. I need you and your men to enter the base and identify any new weapons systems that may be a threat to our counterattack. Command out.’

As the communication cut out, Harry saw text in his vision:

1 of 4 Mission Objectives Completed

Easy enough. Find new equipment and call it in. Shouldn’t even have to fire a shot.

‘Ok, men, gather around. We have to go in and find new stuff and call it in to command. Let’s go.’

‘Captain,’ Sergeant Wang raised his hand. ‘We still have our drone operator and our electronic warfare specialist, it might be best if we used them to find targets.’

‘Excellent idea, Wang. Drone dude, launch. Oh, and if you can, feed the image to me, I want to watch.’

The drone detached from the soldier’s back and quickly took to the sky. The operator kept the drone low, below the level of the building they were using for cover. Harry saw what the drone saw in the corner of his HUD, the forward-mounted camera showing soldiers unloading their landing craft.

‘Drone dude, I need a shot of those suborbital transports, they seem new. Get in closer.’

The drone dropped until it was less than a metre above the runway. It closed quickly on the closest of the transports until it came into full view, strafing sideways to get a look from all sides. The transport was a long, flat-nosed tube with a delta wing.

‘Send that one through as well, it should be part two.’

2 of 4 Mission Objectives Completed

Another objective met. Too easy.

The drone feed went dead.

‘What happened?’

‘They spotted it, sir, shot it down. It’s inoperable.’

‘Crap. Ok, electronic warfare dude, what have you got for me? That really doesn’t sound as good as drone dude, I’ll work on it.’

‘Sir, nothing on comms, whatever they’re using is below the noise floor. I do, however, have a very strange fluctuation in the high microwave band.’

‘That’s probably it then. Where is it?’

The operator held his arms out.

‘What are you doing?’ Harry asked.

‘Sir, directional antennas on my suit’s wrists. If I hold them out wide I can get a bearing on a signal.’

‘That’s makes sense I suppose. Where is it?’

‘The strongest reading is north-north-west from here. I’ll send it through to your HUD, sir.’

A map appeared in Harry’s view. They were in the south-east corner of the airfield, taking shelter east of a small fuel depot. A line of bearing radiated in the direction of the airport, that was where the signal was. When he closed the map, he found that the bearing was illuminated in his HUD.

Harry looked along the line projected in front of him. As his gaze met the horizon, he saw it. The air was shimmering, a vertical shaft of refracting material distorting the heavy cloud cover behind it.

‘Electroman, do you see that?’

‘Yes, sir. I believe that’s the source.’

‘Can you pull it out or something, make it so I can see it?’

‘Yes, sir, working on it.’

Harry’s HUD overlayed the shaft with a dull purple originating at a location somewhere on the ground and rising to the clouds above. Where it intersected the cloud it punched right through, leaving a turbulent hole swirling around it.

‘Ok, command, you need to see this too, I think, it definitely qualifies as a something weird.’

‘We see it, Captain. You need to get closer, locate the source and identify what it is.’

‘Yep, I can do that. Out.’ Harry turned to his sergeant. ‘Wangster, what’s the best way for us to get to that location?’

‘There’s a main road near here that leads under a taxiway. If we can find cover on the way, it might be our way in.’

‘Ok, roger. Right, well I’ll let you lead the way, it’ll be good experience for you.’

‘Yes, sir. Men, follow me.’

The soldiers ducked as they ran forward. Harry did the same, squatting and leaning in the direction they were heading. He found himself running along somewhere in the middle of the pack, keeping up with the rapid pace of the soldiers in their exoskeletons.

Wang ordered a soldier to scout ahead as they approached the underpass below the taxiway. Harry saw the soldier’s view in his HUD. There, at the north end of the underpass, was an American machine-gun position.

Harry ran over to Wang. ‘What do you think, Wangster?’

‘We take them out, sir. We still have one 12 mm and the Americans aren’t in armour—should be able to do it easy and quiet.’

‘Yeah, good idea. Heavy-weapons man, peek around there and take them out.’

The soldier moved forward and lay prone on the ground, just outside the tunnel of the underpass, a bipod deploying at the end of the long weapon. He pressed himself sideways just above the ground towards the underpass, skidding to a halt when he was inside. He fired off three rapid shots. The Americans hit the ground.

‘Good work. Ok, let’s keep moving, I’ll take the lead.’ Harry was starting to get into the game.

They ran through at full pace, standing upright, bounding on their powered legs. Two soldiers looked up from a ground vehicle they were working on, clumsily bringing weapons to bear. Harry turned his head, squinted at the closest man to focus his targeting reticule, and then clenched his right fist, firing his shoulder-mounted light machine gun. The man went down as a spray of pink mist erupted from his torso. One of the other soldiers took care of the other technician.

‘Boom, got him!’ Harry roared and laughed. ‘Did you see that, Wangster?’

Harry received a collectable kill card for his efforts. The card contained the service record of the American soldier he had shot, the real-life person who this individual game character was based on. This one was William Edmonds, Bill to his friends, Private, twenty-two years old, from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. There was a full service history, along with his family tree, social media and school records, all the information which had made it through the war. It was the details like this which made the Sphere of War series so popular. The card was added to his inventory.

The other soldiers took cover behind the workers’ machine. The alarm hadn’t been raised, and from the width of the beam, it was clear that they were close.

‘Wangster, I’m going forward to take a look. I need one of the men to come with me, pick one.’

‘You, go with the captain. Sir, we’ll cover you.’

‘Come on, kid. Let’s see what’s behind there.’

Harry found himself running through a carpark, ducking and taking cover as he moved. He hadn’t thought before now that the airport would have been running when the Americans landed—the civilians were probably still inside.

At the top of the carpark, just outside the terminal, was the source of the microwave beam. It was coming from a small shipping container, with cables fanning out in all directions. A large dish sat on its roof, pointing directly above. This appeared to be the source of the beam.

Harry sent his images back to command.

‘Captain, we were wrong, that isn’t the source of the beam, it’s the destination. It’s a mobile microwave power receiver, the power is coming from space, and it’s powering those laser machines. Tag it, we’re firing missiles now. If we can shut it down, we can retake the base.’

‘Consider it done,’ Harry said.

3 of 4 Mission Objectives Completed

‘Harry, this is command. We have missiles inbound, you need to get out of there. Gather your men and get back to the chopper.’

‘Ok.’ He turned to the soldier. ‘I suppose we should go.’

Harry started running back to his men. As he approached, Sergeant Wang pointed to the air.

‘Look,’ he said.

Harry turned. Missiles were coming in on a steep angle, heading directly towards the microwave receiver. They exploded two hundred metres above its target.

‘Shit,’ one of the soldiers said quietly.

‘Yeah, that is shit. Let’s go blow it up,’ Harry said. As he did, shots rang out and two of his men went down.

‘We’re under attack, back to the landing zone,’ Wang said.

Oh, well, Harry, this is obviously the end of the mission, no point dragging it out. He began running back to the helicopter, streaking ahead of his men. He reached the helicopter first but waited by the door, insisting that his men board ahead of him.

‘Get onboard, sir,’ Wang called.

Harry boarded. Through the window he saw an American C-5, flanked by two Raptors, landing at the airport. The invasion proper had begun. As the helicopter took off, the game’s point of view pulled back and he watched the helicopter fly away. From the distance he could see a stream of American planes on their way. Text appeared in Harry’s vision.

Mission Completed

‘Aug, close the sim,’ Harry said. His vision faded to black before his apartment came back into view. ‘That was hard work, I need to sit down.’

Harry collapsed in his chair.

‘So, aug, if I do decide to play this game, what’s it going to cost me? Time and money.’

‘They’re using a standard mission-by-mission payment model, as well as costs for equipment and extra characters. I estimate that to play the game completely it would cost three hundred dollars and take six hundred hours.’

‘Wowsers. I mean, not too bad, a dollar per two hours, but I don’t know if I can invest that much time. How long did the last Sphere of War game take me?’

‘Similar time, Harry, five hundred and forty hours. That was, however, four years ago.’

Four years ago. Before Karen. Back when he had nothing better to do.

Maybe that was it; the telcos had detected he wasn’t playing games anymore and had decided it must be time for him to get married.