Armada, p.10
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       Armada, p.10

           Ernest Cline
 

  "Of course not," he said. "Not all of them. Just certain key properties, like Star Wars, which played a key role in the militarization of science fiction films, TV shows, and videogames in the late seventies. Space Invaders came out the year after Star Wars was released, and humanity has been fighting off videogame aliens ever since. Now you know why. The EDA made sure of it."

  "Bullshit."

  "It's true," he said. "All of the recent Star Trek reboots and Star Wars sequels were a key part of the final wave of the EDA's subliminal preparation of the world's population. I doubt that Viacom, Disney, or J. J. Abrams ever knew what was really going on, or who was pulling the strings."

  I was quiet for a long time as I took all of this in.

  "Why didn't you ever tell me about any of this?" I finally asked.

  He gave me a sad smile. "Sorry about that, Zack," he said. "It wasn't up to me."

  That suddenly drove it home. I had known this man for over six years, and that entire time he had been lying to me--probably about everything, including his identity.

  "Who are you? Is Ray Wierzbowski even your real name?"

  "Actually, no," he said. "My real name is Raymond Habashaw. I borrowed 'Wierzbowski' from one of the Colonial Marines in Aliens."

  "I mentioned that once, and you told me it was a fucking coincidence!"

  He shrugged and looked sheepish. It made me want to strangle him.

  "I was given a new identity when the EDA stationed me in Beaverton in the first place--to keep an eye on you."

  "To keep an eye on me? Why?"

  "Why do you think?" he said. "You possess a very rare and valuable talent, Zack. The EDA has been tracking and profiling you ever since you first played a videogame online. That's why I was assigned to watch over you, and to help facilitate your training." He grinned. "You know, sort of like Obi-Wan, watching over Luke while he was growing up on Tatooine."

  "You're a bold-faced liar like Obi-Wan, too!" I shot back. "That's for sure."

  Ray's smile vanished, and his eyes narrowed.

  "And you're being a whiny little bitch, just like Luke!"

  The other two EDA agents snickered--they were apparently listening after all. I shot them a glare, and they conspicuously returned their attention to their smartphones. I glanced down at the devices they were holding, wondering how they were even getting a signal up here. Each phone was slighter larger and thicker than a normal mobile phone, and hinged so that it opened like a portable gaming console. One of the agents appeared to be playing a game of some kind on his, but I couldn't see his display well enough to tell what it was. I looked back up at Ray.

  "Listen, I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean that. I just thought you'd be a little more appreciative, that's all. Do you think I enjoyed living in Beaverton all this time?"

  Now I was beginning to understand. Ray had spent the past six years of his life stuck with what soldiers referred to as a "shit detail." Trapped behind the counter of a used videogame shop in a desolate suburban strip mall, with nothing to do but watch me play Armada, listen to all of my pointless adolescent bitching, or pass the time by ranting to me about alien abductions and government cover-ups--

  All of his X-Files-inspired alien conspiracy rants over the years had probably been his own way of trying to psychologically prepare me for the truth, whenever the EDA finally decided that I deserved to hear it--which was right now, evidently. At the last possible fucking moment.

  Of course, the truth--or at least some of it--had already been revealed to me years ago, back when I'd first read my father's journal. I'd just been incapable of believing it.

  That led me to finally ask the question I'd been working up the courage to ask ever since I'd first boarded the shuttle.

  "Was my father ever recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance?"

  He let out a sigh, as if he'd been waiting for this question--and dreading it.

  "I honestly don't know," he said. Before I could call him a liar again, he went on. "I'm telling you the truth, so just hold on now and listen to me!" He took a deep breath. "This isn't about your father, Zack. Try to understand what's happening--what's at stake. The entire future of the human race--"

  "Just answer me! I read his journal--he knew about the EDA. He was starting to figure out what they were, and what they were up to, right before he died in some bizarre on-the-job accident. So what really happened? Did the EDA have him killed to keep him quiet?"

  Ray was silent for what seemed like an eternity. But it may have only been a second.

  "I told you, I don't know what happened to your father," he said. "I'm a lowly field agent, with equally low security clearance." He held up a finger to keep me from interrupting him again. "Here's what I do know: The EDA does have a file on him in their database. But it's classified, and I've never been able to access it. So I don't know what his connection was to the EDA, if there was one at all. But the EDA wasn't created to murder people. It was formed to save them."

  I was hyperventilating now.

  "Please, Ray," I heard myself say. "You know how important this is to me. ..."

  "Yes, I do," he said. "That's why you need to pull yourself together right now and focus; otherwise you'll ruin any chance to find out what they know about your father."

  "What do you mean? What chance?"

  "You're being transported to an enlistment briefing," he said. "Afterward, you'll be offered the opportunity to enlist in the Earth Defense Alliance."

  "But--"

  "If you take it, you'll be made a flight officer," he said, continuing to talk over me. "And then you'll outrank me." He looked me directly in the eyes. "You'll also have a higher security clearance than I do. You might be able to access your father's file."

  Ray seemed about to say something more when a boom shook the entire shuttle. I felt a rush of panic, thinking we'd just come under attack. Then I realized we'd just broken the sound barrier.

  "Hold onto your seat," Ray said, taking his own advice. "We're about to go suborbital."

  Dozens of questions were still ricocheting around in my head, but I managed to put them out of my mind, at least for the moment. Then I forced myself to sit back and try to enjoy the rest of this surreal ride I now found myself on.

  This was a smart move, because I was about to make my first trip into space.

  I clutched my jump seat's armrests, watching anxiously as the cobalt blue sky outside the shuttle's porthole windows darkened to a deep shade of indigo, then on to pitch black just a few heartbeats later.

  We were at the edge of space. The boundary I'd dreamed of crossing my entire life. I'd never really believed I'd get the chance to do it during my lifetime--let alone today, when I should've been in my first-period civics class.

  I strained against my safety harness and craned my neck toward the curved window, trying to take in the entire radiant blue curve of Earth now visible beyond it. The sight was overwhelming, and made the little kid inside me involuntarily whisper, "Wow!"

  Unfortunately, he must have whispered it out loud, because Ray was now staring at me with the same amused smirk he gave me every time he schooled me in a Terra Firma death match. I nearly flipped him the bird out of force of habit. Some thick part of my brain still thought Ray was my boss and friend.

  We were only in low-Earth orbit for a minute. I kept waiting for the gravity to cut out, right up until the shuttle reached its apogee. No such luck. I still felt no indication that we were even moving--not even when we began to fall back to Earth and the blackness outside my window returned to a deep, dark blue and continued to grow lighter in hue every second until daylight flooded in again.

  We sliced down through another dense layer of clouds, and suddenly the ground was rushing upward in a terrifying blur of speed. But then, in the space of a few seconds, we decelerated to a dead stop. I felt momentarily nauseous, but only because my eyes and my body were sending my brain conflicting information about whether or not I was in motion.

  When I recove
red a second later, I looked back out the window. Directly below us was a large white ranch house flanked by several barns and outbuildings and a long row of tower grain silos topped with steel domes that glinted in the morning sun, like rockets waiting to be launched. The farm was surrounded on all sides by a vast green sea of fields and rolling green hills and prairies, broken only by a single dirt road that snaked away across the northern horizon. I also spotted three other EDA shuttles drifting in the sky around us, all descending on a course similar to our own.

  As our shuttle continued its descent, one of the plowed fields adjacent to the farm collapsed in on itself, like a perfectly rectangular sinkhole, then split in two and slid apart, like two massive elevator doors set into the earth. They revealed an enormous circular shaft leading deep underground--like an empty missile silo, but much larger in diameter. The blue runway lights that lined its curved concrete walls pulsed in sequence as they receded into the depths below, guiding our shuttle down into the darkness.

  "The EDA has bases like this one hidden all over the world," Ray said. "Some are in remote, unpopulated areas like this one. But we also have hidden drone caches and control bunkers located throughout every major city."

  "Just like in Armada," I said. "And Terra Firma."

  Ray nodded. "Everything is hidden in plain sight." He pointed below us. "Those outbuildings actually conceal the entrance of an underground infantry drone bunker. And those grain silos are camouflaged Interceptor launch tunnels. Amazing, eh? It's astounding how much the EDA has accomplished while working in secret all these years."

  I nodded, still trying to rein in my conflicting emotions. Everything I'd ever been told or taught about the state of the world had been a lie. I'd grown up believing that despite our aspirations, humans were still just a bunch of bipedal apes, divided in arbitrary tribes that were constantly at war over their ruined planet's dwindling natural resources. I'd always assumed that our future would end up looking more like Mad Max than Star Trek. But now I was forced to see our rampant fossil fuel consumption--and our seeming disregard for its effect on our already-changing climate--in an entirely new light. We hadn't used up all of our oil and ravaged our planet in a mindless pursuit of consumerism, but in preparation for a dark day that most of us hadn't even known was coming.

  Even humanity's lack of concern for its rampant overpopulation problem now a made a terrible kind of sense. What difference did it make if our planet was capable of supporting all seven billion of us in the long term when a far greater threat to our numbers was waiting in the wings? And despite the overwhelming odds, humanity had done what was necessary to ensure its own survival. It filled me with a strange new sense of pride in my own species. We weren't a bunch of primitive monkeys teetering on the brink of self-destruction after all--this appeared to be an altogether different kind of destruction we were teetering on the brink of.

  Our shuttle was racing down the tunnel now, blurring the lights embedded in its walls into strobing neon bands as we plunged deep underground.

  When we reached the bottom of the shaft a few seconds later, it widened into an enormous subterranean hangar, with a large circular runway that was now spread out below us. Our shuttle landed at its northern edge, joining a long line of identical EDA tactical shuttles parked along the runway's glowing perimeter.

  As soon as the doors slid open, Ray unbuckled his harness, jumped out onto the runway, and motioned for me to follow. My fingers fumbled with the latch of my safety harness for a few seconds; then I finally slipped free of it. After I tested my legs to make sure they were both still working, I climbed outside to join Ray. The pilot and the other two EDA agents remained on board. Like an idiot, I awkwardly waved goodbye to them just before the shuttle doors closed again with a pneumatic hiss.

  I checked the time on my phone and saw that the trip here from Beaverton had taken less than twenty minutes. I also noticed that I wasn't getting a signal down here. Which meant I wouldn't be able to call my mom and tell her I was all right. Suddenly, I wanted very badly to hear her voice. Had the school called her yet? What had they told her? She had to be going crazy with worry right now.

  Earlier that morning, when I'd stumbled downstairs, she'd surprised me with dinner-for-breakfast waiting on the kitchen table. Her "monstrous meatloaf" and mashed potatoes--my absolute favorite. She'd watched me stuff my face, grinning from ear to ear and pausing every few minutes to tell me to slow down and chew my food. I'd given her a quick kiss on the cheek and rushed out the door, worried that she might decide to revisit the dreaded subject of my academic future at any moment. She'd called out "I love you," and I'd mumbled it back to her as I continued hurrying out to my car. Had she heard me? I felt like kicking myself for not making sure.

  "Welcome to Crystal Palace," Ray said. "That's the EDA's code name for this place."

  "Why?" I asked. "Because of that old arcade game?"

  He shook his head. "No, because it's easier to say than 'Earth Defense Alliance Strategic Command Post Number Fourteen,' " he said. "Sounds cooler, too."

  As we stepped away from the shuttle, I took in my new surroundings. Hundreds of people were hurrying around the runway in what appeared to be a state of highly organized chaos. Most of them wore Earth Defense Alliance combat fatigues like our shuttle pilot, and I found myself wondering if I was going to be issued a uniform, too.

  I heard a rush of air over our heads and looked up to see a procession of four more shuttles descending through the entry shaft. As each one set down on the runway and discharged its passengers, other civilians like me emerged, escorted by one or more EDA agents wearing dark suits. Most of them appeared to be holding it together pretty well. A few of them looked terrified, like lambs being led to the slaughter, but the vast majority appeared to be having the time of their lives. I took quick stock of my own emotions, and I decided I fell somewhere in the middle.

  There was a loud whoosh behind us as our shuttle lifted off again, and Ray and I turned to watch it slowly rise and then rocket back up through the circular shaft to the surface.

  "Follow me, pal," Ray said before striding off toward a pair of large armored doors set into the stone wall at the opposite end of the runway. They were already sliding open to reveal a broad, downward-sloping corridor that led even farther underground.

  I stopped and called out to Ray, who turned and walked back to me as the other agents and recruits began to stream past us, continuing through the massive armored doors.

  "What if I decide I don't want to enlist?" I asked. "What if I sit through this big briefing of yours and then decide I want to go back home?"

  Ray smiled, as if he'd been waiting for me to ask this, too.

  "Then I would remind you, Zackary Ulysses Lightman, that you are an eighteen-year-old citizen of the United States of America and therefore legally subject to military conscription."

  This possibility hadn't occurred to me. "Wait, so--I'm being drafted right now?"

  "Not really," Ray said. "No one's going to force you to fight. If you still want to go home after the briefing, just say the word. They'll put you on another shuttle to take you straight back to Beaverton--a first-class seat on the Chickenshit Express."

  I didn't respond--I was already too busy nursing my wounded pride.

  "I know you, Zack," Ray said. "You've been waiting your whole life for something like this to happen. Something important. Something meaningful. A dare to be great situation. Right?" He took me by the shoulders. "Well this is it, ace! The universe has given you a chance to use your gifts to help save the world. Do you really expect me to believe that you're gonna pass it up to run home, sit on your ass, and watch the end of the world on TV?"

  Ray let go of me and set off again. His footsteps echoed off the high stone walls as he passed through the open doors and down into the corridor beyond, disappearing from view.

  I took one last look up at the tiny circle of sky still visible through the open shaft entrance high overhead. Then I ran after Ray.
>
  The entrance corridor led down to a security checkpoint where a uniformed EDA corporal scanned my handprints and retinas to verify my identity, then stood me in front of a blue screen to snap a digital photo of my face. A few seconds later, the printer behind him spat out a photo ID badge with a holographic EDA crest on it, which he handed to me. Printed beneath my picture were my full name, social security number, and the words Elite Recruit Candidate.

  As I clipped it on to my shirt, the corporal handed another badge to Ray. It had an old photo of Ray on it, along with: Sergeant Raymond Habashaw--Field Operative.

  I wondered why our call signs weren't printed on our badges, but then it occurred to me that the EDA probably didn't want any of its recruits walking around with handles like "Slomosexual" or "PercyJackoff69" printed onto their official identification cards.

  The corporal reached under the counter and handed me a small handheld device that resembled an extra-thick smartphone--the same sort of device I'd seen Ray and his two companions using during the shuttle ride here. The device was inside a protective case with a thick Velcro wrist strap attached to the back, which the corporal used to fasten the device to my right forearm, like an oversized wristwatch.

  "This is your QComm," he explained. "It's a Quantum Communicator--basically a smartphone with unlimited range. It will work anywhere in the world--or in outer space." He smiled. "They also have insanely fast Internet access and Bluetooth capability. I already imported all of your contacts, photos, and music from your iPhone, so you're all set up."

  I pulled my iPhone from the front pocket of my jeans. It still had no signal, and the battery was about to die. "How the hell were you able to do that?"

  "Don't worry," the corporal said, ignoring my question. "Your QComm is far more secure--and versatile." He tapped its display. "It's like an iPhone, a tricorder, and a small laser pistol, all rolled into one device."

  "Whoa, seriously?" I unsnapped it from my wrist to examine it more closely.

  "Yeah," the corporal said, smiling proudly. "I'm sort of like Q in the James Bond films. Except, you know, I only get to hand out this one thing."

  I turned the QComm over in my palm, trying to accept that I was holding a piece of reverse-engineered alien technology. I tapped the touchscreen and it lit up, displaying a large collection of icons. Email, Internet, GPS, and what looked like a normal phone dialer, along with other applications I didn't recognize.

 
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