Ernie Cline took the world by storm with his video game epic Ready Player One. Now he’s back with a brand new novel Armada — with a premise that will sound very familiar to fans of The Last Starfighter. Read the first chapter, right here — and we just gave away 40 signed copies!

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Cline’s Ready Player One is being turned into a movie, directed by Steven Spielberg — so not surprisingly, Armada has already been optioned for a film as well. And we’ve got 40 special galleys of Armada, signed by Cline with a special io9/Gizmodo/Kotaku commemorative sticker.

[Update: Signed copies are gone, sorry.]

Scroll down — but first, here’s what you need to know about Armada, which comes out July 14:

With his new novel, ARMADA (Crown, on sale July 14, 2015), Cline has crafted another inventive, heartwarming, and completely nerdtastic adventure. As it opens, high school student Zack Lightman glances out his classroom window and spots a UFO. Stranger still, the ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting Earth from alien invaders.

Zack’s sure he’s lost his mind. But what he’s seeing is all too real, and his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save Earth from what’s about to befall it. Yet even as he and his new comrades scramble to prepare for the alien onslaught, Zack can’t help thinking of all the science-fiction books, TV shows, and movies he grew up reading and watching, and wonder: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little too… familiar?

ARMADA, which is already being adapted into a film by Universal Studios, is at once a rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming-of-age adventure, and an alien-invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before—one that manages to simultaneously embrace and subvert science-fiction tropes as only Ernest Cline could.

And here’s the first chapter, exclusively at io9:

1.

I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.

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I blinked and looked again—but it was still out there, a shiny chrome disc zigzagging around in the sky. My eyes struggled to track the object through a series of increasingly fast, impossibly sharp turns that would have juiced a human being, had there been any aboard. The disc streaked toward the distant horizon, then came to an instantaneous stop just above it. It hovered there motionless over the distant tree line for a few seconds, as if scanning the area beneath it with an invisible beam, before it abruptly launched itself skyward again, making another series of physics defying changes to its course and speed.

I tried to keep my cool. I tried to remain skeptical. I reminded myself that I was a man of science, even if I did usually get a C in it.

I looked at it again. I still couldn’t tell what it was, but I knew what it wasn’t—it wasn’t a meteor. Or a weather balloon, or swamp gas, or ball lightning. No, the unidentified flying object I was staring at with my own two eyes was most definitely not of this earth.

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My first thought was: Holy fucking shit.

Followed immediately by: I can’t believe it’s finally happening.

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You see, ever since the first day of kindergarten, I had been hoping and waiting for some mind-blowingly fantastic, world-altering event to finally shatter the endless monotony of my public education. I had spent hundreds of hours gazing out at the calm, conquered suburban landscape surrounding my school, silently yearning for the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse, a freak accident that would give me super powers, or perhaps the sudden appearance of a band of time-traveling kleptomaniac dwarves.

I would estimate that approximately one-third of these dark daydreams of mine had involved the unexpected arrival of beings from another world.

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Of course, I’d never believed it would really happen. Even if alien visitors did decide to drop by this utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, no self-respecting extraterrestrial would ever pick my hometown of Beaverton, Oregon—aka Yawnsville, USA—as their point of first contact. Not unless their plan was to destroy our civilization by wiping out our least interesting locales first. If there was a bright center to the universe, I was on the planet it was farthest from. Please pass the blue milk, Aunt Beru.

But now something miraculous was happening here—it was still happening, right now! There was a goddamn flying saucer out there. I was staring right at it.

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And I was pretty sure it was getting closer.

I cast a furtive glance back over my shoulder at my two best friends, Cruz and Diehl, who were both seated behind me. But they were currently engaged in a whispered debate and neither of them was looking toward the windows. I considered trying to get their attention, but I was worried the object might vanish any second, and I didn’t want to miss my chance to see this for myself.

My gaze shot back outside, just in time to see another bright flash of silver as the craft streaked laterally across the landscape, then halted and hovered over an adjacent patch of terrain before zooming off again. Hover, move. Hover, move.

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It was definitely getting closer. I could see its shape in more detail now. The saucer banked sideways for a few seconds, and I got my first clear glimpse of its top-down profile, and I saw that it wasn’t really a saucer at all. From this angle, I could see that its symmetrical hull resembled the blade of a two-headed battle-axe, and that a black, octagonal prism lay centered between its long, serrated wings, glinting in the morning sun-light like a dark jewel.

That was when I felt my brain begin to short-circuit, because there was no mistaking the craft’s distinctive design. After all, I’d seen it almost every night for the past few years, through a targeting reticle. I was looking at a Sobrukai Glaive, one of the fighter ships piloted by the alien bad guys in Armada, my favorite videogame.

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Which was, of course, impossible. Like seeing a TIE Fighter or a Klingon Warbird cruising across the sky. The Sobrukai and their Glaive Fighters were fictional videogame creations. They didn’t exist in the real world—they couldn’t. In reality, videogames did not come to life and fictional spaceships did not buzz your hometown. Implausible shit like that only happened in cheesy ’80s movies, like TRON or WarGames or The Last Starfighter. The sorts of movies my late father had been nuts about.

The gleaming craft banked sideways again, and this time I got an even better look—there was no doubt about it. I was looking at a Glaive, right down to the distinctive claw-like grooves along its fuselage and the twin plasma cannons protruding from the front end like two fangs.

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There was only one logical explanation for what I was seeing. I had to be hallucinating. And I knew what sort of people suffered from hallucinations in broad daylight without any help from drugs or alcohol. People who were cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, that’s who. Cats with a serious marble deficiency.

I’d long wondered if my father had been one such person, because of what I’d read in one of his old journals. The things I’d seen there had given me the impression that he’d become somewhat delusional near the end of his life. That he may have even lost the ability to differentiate between videogames and reality—the very same problem I now seemed to be experiencing myself. Maybe it was just as I had always secretly feared: The apple had fallen right next to the Crazy Tree.

Had I been drugged? No, impossible. All I’d eaten that morning was a raw strawberry Pop-Tart I’d wolfed down in my car on the way to school— and the only thing crazier than hallucinating a fictional videogame spaceship would be to blame it on a frosted breakfast pastry. Especially if I knew my own DNA was a far more likely culprit.

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This was my own fault, I realized. I could’ve taken precautions. But instead, I’d done the opposite. Like my old man, I’d spent my entire life overdosing on uncut escapism, willingly allowing fantasy to become my reality. And now, like my father before me, I was paying the price for my lack of vision. I was going off the rails on a crazy train. You could practically hear Ozzy screaming “All aboard!”

Don’t do this, I pleaded with myself. Don’t crack up now, when we’ve only got two months to go until graduation! This is the home stretch, Lightman! Keep it together!

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Outside the window, the Glaive Fighter streaked laterally again. As it zoomed over a cluster of tall trees, I saw their branches rustle in its wake. Then it zipped through another cloud bank, moving so fast it punched a perfect circular hole through its center, dragging several long wisps of cloud vapor along with it as it tore out the other side.

A second later, the craft froze in midair one last time before it streaked straight upward in a silver blur, vanishing from sight as quickly as it had appeared.

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I just sat there for a moment, unable to do more than stare at the empty patch of sky where it had been a second earlier. Then I glanced around at the other students seated nearby. No one else was looking in the direction of the windows. If that Glaive Fighter had really been out there, no one else had seen it.

I turned back and scanned the empty sky once again, praying for the strange silver craft to reappear. But it was long gone, and now here I was, forced to deal with the aftermath.

Seeing that Glaive Fighter, or imagining I’d seen it, had triggered a small rock slide in my mind that was already growing into a crushing avalanche of conflicting emotions and fragmented memories—all of them linked to my father, and that old journal I’d found among his things.

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Actually, I wasn’t even sure it had been a journal. I’d never finished reading it. I’d been too disturbed by its contents, and what they’d seemed to imply about the author’s mental state. So I’d put the old notebook back where I found it and tried to forget that it even existed—and until a few seconds ago, I had succeeded.

But now I couldn’t seem to think about anything else.

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I felt a sudden compulsion to run out of the school, drive home, and find it. It wouldn’t take long. My house was only a few minutes away.

I glanced over at the exit, and the man guarding it, Mr. Sayles, our elderly Integrated Mathematics II teacher. He had a silver buzz cut, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and wore the same monochromatic outfit he always did: black loafers, black slacks, a white short-sleeve dress shirt, and a black clip-on necktie. He’d been teaching at this high school for over forty-five years now, and the old yearbook photos in the library were proof that he’d been rocking this same retro ensemble the entire time. Mr. S was finally retiring this year, which was a good thing, because he appeared to have run out of shits to give sometime in the previous century. Today, he’d spent the first five minutes going over our homework assignment, then given us the rest of the period to work on it, while he shut off his hearing aid and did his crosswords. But he would still spot me if I tried to sneak out.

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My eyes moved to the ancient clock embedded in the lime green brick wall above the obsolete chalkboard. With its usual lack of pity, it informed me there were still thirty-two minutes remaining until the bell.

There was no way I could take thirty-two more minutes of this. After what I’d just seen, I’d be lucky if I managed to keep my shit together for another thirty-two seconds.

Off to my left, Douglas Knotcher was currently engaged in his daily humiliation of Casey Cox, the shy, acne-plagued kid unfortunate enough to be seated in front of him. Knotcher usually limited himself to lobbing verbal insults at the poor guy, but today he’d decided to go old-school and lob spitballs at him instead. Knotcher had a stack of moist projectiles piled on his desk like cannonballs, and he was currently firing them at the back of Casey’s head, one after another. The back of the poor kid’s hair was already damp with spit from Knotcher’s previous attacks. A couple of Knotcher’s pals were watching from the back of the room, and they snickered each time he nailed Casey with another projectile, egging him on.

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It drove me nuts when Knotcher bullied Casey like this—which, I suspected, was one of the reasons Knotcher enjoyed doing it so much. He knew I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

I glanced at Mr. Sayles, but he was still lost in his crossword, clueless as always—a fact that Knotcher took advantage of on a daily basis. And on a daily basis, I had to resist the urge to knock his teeth down his throat.

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Doug Knotcher and I had managed to avoid each other, for the most part, ever since “the Incident” back in junior high. Until this year, when a cruel act of fate had landed us both in the same math class. Seated in adjacent rows, no less. It was almost as if the universe wanted my last semester of high school to be as hellish as possible.

That would have also explained why my ex-girlfriend, Ellen Adams, was in this class, too. Three rows to my right and two rows back, sitting just beyond the reach of my peripheral vision.

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Ellen was my first love, and we’d lost our virginity to each other. It had been nearly two years since she’d dumped me for some wrestler from a neighboring school, but every time I saw those freckles across the bridge of her nose—or caught sight of her tossing that curly red hair out of her eyes—I felt my heart breaking all over again. I usually spent the entire class period trying to forget she was in the room.

Being forced to sit between my mortal enemy and my ex-girlfriend every afternoon made seventh-period math feel like my own private Kobayashi Maru, a brutal no-win scenario designed to test my emotional fortitude.

Thankfully fate had balanced out the nightmare equation slightly by placing my two best friends in this class, too. If Cruz and Diehl hadn’t been assigned here, I probably would’ve snapped and started hallucinating shit midway through my first week.

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I glanced back at them again. Diehl, who was tall and thin, and Cruz, who was short and stocky, both shared the same first name, Michael. Ever since grade school I had been calling them by their last names to avoid confusion. The Mikes were still engaged in the same whispered conversation they’d been having earlier, before I’d zoned out and started seeing things—a debate over the “coolest melee weapon in the history of cinema.” I tried to focus in on their voices again now.

“Sting wasn’t even really a sword,” Diehl was saying. “It was more like a glow-in-the-dark Hobbit butter knife, used to spread jam on scones and lembas bread and shit.”

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Cruz rolled his eyes. “‘Your love of the halflings’ leaf has clearly slowed your mind,’ ” he quoted. “Sting was an Elvish blade, forged in Gondolin in the First Age! It could cut through almost anything! And its blade only glowed when it detected the presence of orcs or goblins nearby. What does Mjolnir detect? Fake accents and frosted hair?”

I wanted to tell them what I’d just seen, but best friends or not, there was no way in hell they’d believe me. They’d think of it as another symptom of their pal Zack’s psychological instability.

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And maybe it was, too.

“Thor doesn’t need to detect his enemies so he can run off and hide in his little Hobbit hole!” Diehl whispered. “Mjolnir is powerful enough to destroy mountains, and it can also emit energy blasts, create force fields, and summon lightning. The hammer also always returns to Thor’s hand after he throws it, even if it has to tear through an entire planet to get back to him! And only Thor can wield it!” He leaned back.

“Dude, Mjolnir is a bullshit magical Swiss Army knife!” Cruz said. “Even worse than Green Lantern’s ring! They give that hammer a new power every other week, just to get Thor out of whatever asinine fix they’ve written him into.” He smirked. “By the way, lots of other people have wielded Mjolnir, including Wonder Woman in a crossover issue! Google it! Your whole argument is invalid, Diehl!”

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For the record, my own personal choice would have probably been Excalibur, as depicted in the film of the same name. But I didn’t have the heart to join the debate. Instead, my attention drifted back over to Knotcher, who was in the process of lobbing another giant spitball at Casey. It nailed him in the back of his already damp head, then fell to the floor, where it joined the soggy pile of previously fired missiles that had already collected there.

Casey went rigid for a second on impact, but he didn’t turn around. He just sank back down into his seat while his tormenter prepared another saliva salvo.

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There was an obvious connection between Knotcher’s behavior and the abusive drunk he had for a father, but the cause of his sadistic behavior didn’t excuse it in my opinion. I clearly had a few daddy issues myself, but you didn’t see me pulling the wings off of flies.

On the other hand, I did have a slight anger-management problem, and a related history of physical violence, both well documented by the public school system.

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And, oh yeah, that whole “hallucinating alien spacecraft from my favorite videogame” thing.

So perhaps I wasn’t in the best position to judge the sanity of others.

I looked around at my classmates. Everyone in the vicinity was staring at Casey now, probably wondering if this would be the day he’d finally stand up to Knotcher. But Casey just kept glancing up at Mr. Sayles, who was still engrossed in his crossword, oblivious to the intense adolescent drama unfolding in front of him.

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Knotcher launched another spitball, and Casey sank even lower into his seat, almost like he was melting.

I tried to do what I’d been doing all semester. I tried to manage my anger. To focus my attention elsewhere and mind my own business. But I couldn’t and I didn’t.

Watching Knotcher torment Casey while the rest of us just sat and watched filled me not only with self-loathing, but with disgust for my whole species. If there were other civilizations out there, why would they ever want to make contact with humanity? If this was how we treated each other, how much kindness could we possibly show to some race of bug-eyed beings from beyond?

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A clear image of the Glaive Fighter reappeared in my mind, cranking up the tension in my nerves a few more notches. I tried to calm them once again—this time by reminding myself of the Drake equation, and the Fermi paradox. I knew there was probably life elsewhere. But given the vast size and age of the universe, I also knew how astronomically unlikely it was we would ever make contact with it, much less within the narrow window of my own lifetime. We were all probably stuck here for the duration, on the third rock from our sun. Boldly going extinct.

I felt a sharp pain in my jaw and realized I was clenching my teeth—hard enough to crack my back molars. With some effort, I unclenched them. Then I glanced back at Ellen, to see if she was watching all of this. She was staring at Casey with a helpless expression, and her eyes were filled with pity.

That was what finally pushed me over the edge.

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“Zack, what are you doing?” I heard Diehl ask in a panicked whisper. “Sit down!”

I glanced down. Without realizing it, I’d gotten up from my desk. My eyes were still locked on Knotcher and Casey.

“Yeah, stay out of it!” Cruz whispered over my other shoulder. “Come on, man.”

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But by that point, a red film of rage had already slipped down across my vision.

When I reached Knotcher, I didn’t do what I wanted to, which was to grab him by his hair and slam his face into his desktop as hard as I could, again and again.

Instead, I reached down and scooped up the soggy pile of gray spitballs resting on the floor behind Casey’s chair. I used both hands to pack them all together in a single wet ball, then slapped it down directly on the top of Knotcher’s head. It made an extremely satisfying splat sound.

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Knotcher jumped up and spun around to face his attacker, but he froze when he saw my face staring back at him. His eyes went wide, and he seemed to turn slightly pale.

A collective “Ooooooh!” emanated from our classmates. Everyone knew what had happened between me and Knotcher back in junior high, and they were all electrified by the possibility of a rematch. Seventh period Integrated Math had just gotten a hell of a lot more exciting.

Knotcher reached up and clawed the wet ball of chewed-up napkins off his head. Then he hurled it angrily across the room, unintentionally pelting half a dozen people. We locked eyes. I noticed a rivulet of Knotcher’s own spittle dripping down the left side of his face. He wiped it away, still keeping his eyes on me.

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“Finally decided to stick up for your boyfriend, Lightman?” he muttered, doing a poor job of concealing the unsteadiness in his voice.

I bared my teeth and lunged a step forward, cocking my right fist back. It had the desired effect. Knotcher didn’t just flinch—he lurched backward, tripping over his own chair and nearly falling to the floor. But then he righted himself and faced off with me again, his cheeks now flushed in embarrassment.

The classroom was now dead silent, save for the incessant click of the electric wall clock, ticking off the seconds.

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Do it, I thought. Give me an excuse. Throw a punch.

But I could see the fear growing in Knotcher’s eyes, subsuming his anger. Maybe he could tell from the look in my own eyes that I was on the verge of coming unhinged.

“Psycho,” he muttered under his breath. Then he turned and sat down, flipping me the bird over his shoulder.

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I realized my right fist was still raised. When I finally lowered it, the entire class seemed to exhale in unison. I glanced at Casey, expecting him to offer me a nod of thanks. But he was still cowering at his desk like a whipped dog, and he wouldn’t make eye contact with me.

I stole another glance at Ellen. She was staring right at me this time, but she immediately looked away, refusing to meet my gaze. I scanned the rest of the classroom. The only two people who would make eye contact with me were Cruz and Diehl, and they both wore expressions of concern.

That was when Mr. Sayles finally looked up from his crossword and noticed me hovering over Knotcher like an axe murderer. He fumbled with his hearing aid and powered it back on; then he looked back at me, then at Knotcher, then back at me again.

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“What’s going on, Lightman?” he asked, leveling a crooked finger at me. When I didn’t respond, he frowned. “Back in your seat—now.”

But I couldn’t do that. If I stayed here one second longer my skull was going to implode. So I walked out of the classroom, passing right in front of Mr. Sayles’ desk on my way out the open door. He watched me go, eyebrows raised in disbelief.

“You better be on your way to the office, mister!” he shouted after me.

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I was already sprinting for the nearest exit, disrupting one class after another with the staccato screech of my sneaker soles on the waxed corridor floor.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally burst out of the school’s main entrance. As I ran for the student parking lot, I swept my gaze back and forth across the sky, from one horizon to the other. To anyone watching from inside the school, I must’ve looked like a complete mental case, spectating some tennis match between giants that I alone could see—or maybe like Don Quixote, tilting at a few windmills before he gave them the La Mancha beatdown.

My car was parked near the back of the lot. It was a white 1989 Dodge Omni that had once belonged to my father, covered in dents, dings, peeling paint, and large patches of rust. It had sat neglected under a tarp in our garage throughout my childhood, until my mother had tossed me the keys on my sixteenth birthday. I’d accepted the gift with mixed feelings— and not just because it was a rusted-out eyesore that barely ran. It also happened to be the car in which I was conceived—while it was parked in the very same lot where I now stood, coincidentally. An unfortunate bit of trivia that my mother let slip one Valentine’s Day, after too much wine, and one too many back-to-back viewings of Say Anything. In vino veritas—doubly true in my mother’s case when a Cameron Crowe movie was added to the mix.

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Anyway, now the Omni belonged to me. Life is a circle, I suppose. And free wheels are free wheels, especially to a broke high school kid. I just did my best not to think about my teenage parents going at in the backseat while Peter Gabriel crooned to them on the tape deck.

Yes—the car still had a functioning tape deck. I had an adapter cable for it, so I could play music off my phone, but I preferred to listen to my father’s old mixtapes instead. His favorite bands had become my favorites, too: ZZ Top, AC/DC, Van Halen, Queen. I fired up the Omni’s mighty four-cylinder engine, and Power Station’s cover of “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” began to blare out of its half-blown speakers.

I hauled ass home as fast as I could, weaving through the maze of shady suburban streets at what was probably an unsafe speed—especially since I spent most of the trip looking up instead of at the road in front of me. It was still only midafternoon, but a nearly full moon was already faintly visible overhead, and my gaze kept locking onto it as I scanned the heavens. As a result, I almost ran two stop signs during the short drive home, then came within a few inches of getting broadsided by an SUV when I coasted through a red light.

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After that, I put on my hazard lights and drove the last few miles at a crawl—still craning my neck out the window, unable to keep my eyes off the sky.


So... want a signed copy of Armada? The first 40 people to email charliejane@io9.com and tell us 1) their favorite classic video game and 2) their home mailing address get a free copy! [Update: The signed copies are all gone. That went fast!]


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.