Armada, p.11
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       Armada, p.11

           Ernest Cline

  "Can I can call home with this?" I asked.

  "Not yet," the corporal replied. "Your QComm's outside phone and Internet access will remain disabled until the big news goes public later today. But you're already connected to the EDA's quantum network, so you can call any other QComm in existence, if you have its contact code. Your code is printed on the back of the case."

  I flipped it over in my hands and saw a ten-digit number etched onto the case. Ray pulled out his own QComm and touched the edge of his device to mine. I heard a soft electronic ding, and Ray's name and number appeared on my QComm's contact list.

  "Now you can call me anytime, from anywhere," he said. "Even from the opposite side of the galaxy." He laughed an unsettling little laugh. "Not that it's likely to happen."

  I gazed down at the QComm. It was hinged along one side, like a flip phone, and it opened up into what looked like a portable gaming device, with another display screen on top and a game controller beneath it, with two thumb-pads and six lettered buttons.

  "What, can I play Sonic the Hedgehog on this thing, too?"

  "Actually, yes," the corporal said. "Your QComm also doubles as a portable drone-control platform. In emergency situations, it can be used to control an Interceptor, an ATHID, or any of our other drones." He lowered his voice, as if imparting a secret. "They're a real bitch to use, though. Take a lot of practice."

  Still leaning forward conspiratorially, the corporal whispered, "Each one also has a built in weirding module." He raised his own QComm and crossed his wrists as he held it out in front of him. "By using sound and motion, you will be able to paralyze nerves, shatter bones, set fires, suffocate an enemy, or burst his organs."

  I laughed out loud.

  "That's the first weirding module joke I've ever heard," I said. "Bravo."

  "There were no weirding modules in the original Dune books, you know," Ray muttered, shaking his head. "David Lynch made that shit up."

  "So what, Ray?" I said, feeling like we were back at the store. "They're cool as hell. I'm not saying it makes up for that super-creepy heart-plug scene--"

  Seemingly all business again, the corporal spoke. "You should be all set," he said. "Your QComm's laser is currently disabled, but your commanding officer will activate it after you enlist."

  "If I enlist," I said. "They still haven't even told me who or what is invading us."

  "Right," he said, shooting Ray a surprised look. "Anyway, the laser will drain your battery after three or four shots, so if you have to use it, try to do so sparingly."

  "Got it," I told the corporal. "So I'm all set?

  "Yes sir," he replied. "Good to go."

  We all saluted each other again instead of waving goodbye; then the corporal remained at attention as we walked out of sight. I followed Ray through a pair of automatic doors into another downward-sloping hallway.

  "Why didn't the EDA introduce all of this new technology into the mainstream?" I asked, studying the QComm on my wrist. "Ultrafast travel, quantum communication--it seems like that would have given a boost to the global economy and the war effort ..."

  "Our scientists spent decades reverse engineering all of this alien technology, but they've only managed to perfect it in the last few years," he said. "I think the EDA would have gradually released it into the mainstream, if there'd been enough time."

  We passed through two more security checkpoints, then proceeded down a long tubular corridor with lots of smaller corridors branching off of it, each lined with numbered doors spaced just a few feet apart. I was just about to ask Ray what was behind them when one hissed open and a female EDA officer emerged. Before the door closed behind her, I caught a glimpse of a tiny closet-sized room. In its center was a rotating chair bolted to the floor, surrounded by an array of ergonomic control panels and game controllers, along with a wraparound monitor displaying a first-person cockpit view from inside a giant EDA Warmech. "Drone controller stations," Ray said, following my gaze. "There are thousands of them located throughout the base. Each one can be used to remote-pilot an Interceptor, an ATHID, or any other drone in the EDA's arsenal--with no lag and no range limitations."

  "You mean ... real drones?"

  "Real ones." He pointed behind me. "Here come a few right now." I turned to see a column of ten ATHIDs marching down the corridor toward us. I stood frozen as the robots lumbered by, joints clanking and servos whining. By the time they rounded the corner and vanished, Ray was already moving again and I hurried to catch up, still trying to get my bearings.

  "Lieutenant Lightman?" a male voice called out.

  Ray and I both stopped and turned around to confront the voice's owner. He was just a kid, even younger than me, with dark brown skin, hair, and eyes. There were captain's bars on his lapel and an Iranian flag was stitched onto the shoulder of his uniform. The young man held up a QComm and appeared to scan my face with it. Then an enormous smile appeared on his face when he saw my name appear on its display. He abruptly snapped to attention and saluted me.

  "It's such an honor to finally meet you in person!" he said. "Captain Arjang Dagh, at your service. I'm a huge fan of your work, Lieutenant!"

  "My work?" I repeated, glancing over at Ray uncertainly. "Lieutenant?"

  "Sorry, sir," Ray said, returning Dagh's salute. "Mr. Lightman here hasn't been sworn in yet."

  "Of course!" he said. "I knew that!" He grinned apologetically. "Sorry for stalking you with my QComm, 'Mr.' Lightman, but I've always wanted to meet you." He began to shake my hand and didn't stop. "The two of us have flown dozens of missions together over the years, so you might recognize my call sign." He put out his hand. I shook his hand as firmly as I could. "I'm Rostam. Currently ranked fifth. Right above you."

  My smile faltered and I let go of his hand. I recognized the name, all right.

  "Wow, really?" I said, trying to recover by mustering a fake grin. "It's great to finally meet you, too. I always assumed I was the youngest pilot in the top ten."

  "That honor appears to be mine," he replied, flashing me an infuriatingly humble smile. Then he turned to address Ray. "I'm currently ranked fifth," he said. "The IronBeagle here is in sixth." He smiled back at me. "But that's a recent development. For a long time I was chasing your tail."

  "You deserve to be in the top five," I said, trying to hide how much his compliments were irking me. "You've trounced me on the player-versus-player servers more than once. You're an ace, man. Elite."

  "Very kind of you to say," he replied. "That means a lot, coming from you."

  Ray cleared his throat impatiently and pointed to his nonexistent watch. Captain Dagh gave him a perturbed glare, then jerked a thumb at the captain's bars on his lapel.

  "Chillax, Sergeant," Dagh said. "The grownups are talking."

  When Dagh turned back to face me, Ray reached out and mimed snapping his neck. "Yes, sir, Captain, sir."

  Dagh smiled at me again; then he produced a glossy eight-by-ten photo from a plastic folder stuffed under his arm. It was a photo of me--an enlarged version of the one they'd just taken for my ID badge. He held it out to me sheepishly, along with a black felt-tip pen.

  "Would you mind terribly signing this?" he asked. "I'm trying to collect autographs from all of the other pilots in the top ten, and I figured this might be my only chance to get yours."

  I ignored the ominous subtext of what he'd just said and then used his pen to sign my first ever autograph. Then I handed the photo back to Dagh, wondering how many other Armada pilot autographs he'd collected so far today, and from whom.

  "Thank you so much, Mr. Lightman," Dagh said. "Like I said, it was an honor."

  He started to salute me again, then stuck out his hand instead. We shook.

  "The honor was all mine, sir," I said. "I hope we run into each other again."

  He reached out and touched his QComm to mine. Both devices beeped.

  "I added my QComm number to your contact list," he said. "Don't hesitate to call me if I can help you with anythin

  "I will," I said. "Thanks."

  He turned and hurried off in another direction. Once he was out of sight, Ray and I continued walking. We passed through another set of automatic armored doors.

  "How old was that kid?"

  "Who, Captain Dagh?" he said. "Seventeen. But he was only fifteen when the EDA first recruited him. He's a prodigy, though." He stopped walking and gave me a nervous glance. "Not to imply that you weren't--or aren't."

  I felt like I'd just been picked last for the world's biggest game of kickball.

  "I was ranked in the top ten, too," I said. "Why wasn't I recruited at age fifteen?"

  He frowned and gave me an incredulous look.

  "Your psych profile indicated you weren't suitable for early recruitment."

  "Why not? Why wasn't I suitable?"

  "Don't play dumb, 'Zack Attack,' " he said. "You know why."

  Before I could respond, Ray turned his back on me and continued walking.

  But before he could get out of sight, I swallowed my pride and hurried after him.

  Eventually, we arrived in a circular lobby containing a large bank of elevators. There were already several other "Elite Recruit Candidates" milling around, waiting for the next car to arrive. I was about to walk over and join them when Ray tapped me on the shoulder.

  "This is as far as I go," he said. Then he looked me up and down, as if he were sending me off to my first day of school. He reached for my backpack, which was now mostly empty, and I handed it to him. Then before I could protest, he slipped my father's jacket off of me and began to fold it up.

  "Hey, that's mine!" I said, hating how much I sounded like an angry child.

  "Yeah, I know," he said. "And it's a very cool jacket--no argument. But wearing it into this briefing won't help you make the best first impression."

  He stuffed the jacket into my backpack and forced the zipper closed, then put the pack back on my shoulders.

  "Those elevators will take you down to the briefing auditorium," he said, pointing behind me. "Just follow those other recruit candidates."

  I glanced across the lobby, over at the recruits forming a line at the elevators. Then I turned back to face Ray. "When will I see you again?"

  "I'm not sure, pal," he said, meeting my gaze. "Things are happening very fast now. I'm departing on another shuttle in just a few minutes."

  "Why?" I asked. "Where are they sending you?"

  "To help defend the Big Apple," he said. "I'm one of the Thirty Dozen, remember?" He smiled and straightened his posture, then his lapels. "I've been assigned to the EDA's First Armored Drone Battalion," he said. "We'll be defending the eastern seaboard. So I'll be down here fighting them on the ground while you're up there, fighting them in the sky."

  We stood there in silence for a moment; then Ray stuck out his hand. I hesitated for a moment, but then I shook it. In spite of everything, I still didn't want Ray to leave. He was the only familiar face in this place. While I was fumbling for a way to say goodbye to him without expressing any hint of forgiveness, Ray surprised me by throwing his arms around me in a fierce bear hug. Then I surprised myself by hugging him back, just as tightly.

  "You've got a gift, Zack," he said, stepping back. "You really can make a difference in this war. Remember that, okay? No matter how frightening things get these next few hours ..."

  I nodded, but didn't reply. I had absolutely no idea how to respond to that--or to anything that was happening right now. I wasn't a soldier. I was just a kid from the suburbs who played a shitload of videogames. I wasn't prepared to fight an interplanetary war! At the moment, I didn't feel prepared for much of anything--not even to say goodbye to Ray.

  "Okay, let's not make a scene," Ray said. "Take care of yourself for me, okay? And--" His voice caught. He cleared his throat and went on. "And when this is all over, let's make a pact to meet back at Starbase Ace. We'll order some Thai Fighter takeout and swap war stories. Deal?"

  "Deal," I said around the lump rising in my throat.

  Ray saluted me, and I saluted him back, even though I felt like a kid playing soldier.

  "The Force will be with you," Ray said, giving my shoulder one last squeeze. "Always."

  That was it. He turned and walked off, disappearing back the way we came. I stood for a moment, staring after him; then I glanced back over at the bank of elevators, where my fellow "Elite Recruit Candidates" continued to form an anxious queue.

  I filed onto an elevator with fifteen other recruits. They varied drastically in age, gender, and ethnicity, but all of them wore a variation of the same dazed expression, which I knew was probably also mirrored on my own face.

  As the elevator descended, we all stood there in silence, staring at the ceiling, our shoes, or at closed doors in front of us--anything to avoid making eye contact. I wondered where each of them had been and what'd they been doing earlier that morning, when an Earth Defense Alliance shuttle had appeared out of nowhere to shatter their notion of reality, yank them out of their lives, and bring them here.

  I also found myself wondering if I'd ever played Terra Firma or Armada with any of these people. It seemed possible--even probable. Hell, for all I knew, one of the men--or women--standing beside me could be the famed RedJive, in the flesh.

  The elevator car had no floor indicator or control panel, just a single down arrow that lit up and beeped about twice every second as the car descended deeper and deeper belowground. I counted over twenty of those beeps before the doors finally opened again.

  We stepped off the elevator into a large circular lobby that was already clogged with a procession of disoriented recruit candidates like ourselves. Most were dressed in their normal street clothes like me, but for a wide variety of different climates. I also spotted people in business suits, fast food uniforms, surgical scrubs, and one dazed-looking middle-aged woman who was wearing a wedding dress and still clutching her bridal bouquet.

  A line of EDA soldiers stationed around the lobby herded everyone through a long row of doors, into the adjacent sunken auditorium. As I filed into it with the others, I swiveled my head around to survey the layout. The enormous bowl-shaped auditorium had stadium-style seating that faced an enormous curved projection screen, making it look more like an IMAX theater than a top-secret underground briefing room. But the ceiling was a different story--it was a long, sloping grid of concrete waffle slabs, each reinforced with shock-absorption springs at its center. Like the rest of the base, the auditorium looked as if it had been built to withstand a direct nuclear blast on the surface above.

  I swept my gaze around the auditorium, trying to decide where I should sit. At the foot of the giant screen, I noticed a low rectangular stage with a podium at its center. The first thirty or so rows in front of it were already filled with nervous recruits, and a steady stream of new ones were filing in and filling up the rows behind them, one after another, the way we did at school assemblies. But a few dozen less conformist (or more antisocial) individuals had chosen to sit much farther back, either by themselves or in scattered small groups.

  I began to climb the nearest staircase, heading for the least populated seats in the upper third of the auditorium. Once I reached the nosebleed section, I began to look for a sufficiently isolated seat--then I froze in midstep.

  She was just off to my right, sitting all alone in a deserted row near the back, taking brazen pulls from a chrome hip flask painted to look like R2-D2. Even seated, I could tell she must be a few inches taller than me. Her pale, alabaster skin contrasted sharply with her dark clothing--black combat boots, black jeans, and a black tank top (which didn't fully conceal the black bra she was wearing underneath.) She had a spiky wave of black hair that was buzzed down one side and chin-length on the other. But the real kicker were her tattoos, on each arm: on the left was a beautiful seminude rendering of the comic book heroine Tank Girl, adorned in postapocalyptic rock lingerie and smooching an M16. On her right bicep, in stylized capital letters, were the words El R
iesgo Siempre Vive.

  Seeing her was almost as jarring as when I'd first glimpsed that Glaive Fighter the previous afternoon. I had fallen for Ellen gradually, over a period of months. But this--this was like taking a lightning bolt from Mjolnir straight to the forehead.

  I was still wondering if I had the courage to go sit near her when I realized I was already moving in that direction, as fast as my feet would carry me. As I climbed the stairs, it occurred to me that my emotions were probably not to be trusted under these heightened circumstances, but that thought was lost amid the influx of hormones flooding my brain as I made my way to the center of the row where she was sitting. I tried to convince myself that she looked like she could use some company--even though everything about her demeanor indicated the opposite.

  When I reached her seat, she ignored me, leaving me standing there waiting for her to acknowledge my existence. As she continued to stare at her lap, I looked down at what was holding her attention and saw that she'd cracked open her QComm and had its electronic innards arrayed on her thighs, like she was performing an autopsy on the device--which I figured she was, since it seemed doubtful she would ever be able to put it back together.

  But then she began to do just that, reassembling the QComm in seconds, with the speed and dexterity of a Marine field-stripping a weapon. When she finished putting it back together, she powered it on and watched the operating system reboot.

  Then she finally raised her eyes to meet mine. I pointed to the seat beside her.

  "Is it okay if I sit here?"

  I know it's hard to believe, but I improvised this opening line right on the spot.

  She gave me a quick once-over before answering.

  "Sorry," she said. "I'm having a private conversation with my droid. Isn't that right, R2?" She raised her flask to her lips again, then waved it at the sea of empty seats spread out below us. "Why don't you go find another female of the species to mack on?"

  "Don't flatter yourself, Vasquez." I nodded at her flask. "I'm just here to bum some of your booze."

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