Armada, p.12
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       Armada, p.12

           Ernest Cline
 

  She laughed, and I felt a sharp pain in the center of my chest. She glanced down at her El Riesgo Siempre Vive tattoo, clearly impressed that I knew its origin.

  "All right," she said with an amused sigh. "Have a seat, baby face."

  "Thanks, Grandma." I took the seat next to her and propped my feet up on the seat back in front of me, like she was doing.

  "Did you just call me 'grandma'?"

  "Yeah, because just you called me 'baby face.' And it wounded my masculine pride."

  She laughed again, louder this time, increasing the intensity of my chest pains.

  She was even more gorgeous up close, and her eyes, which I'd thought were brown, actually appeared to be more amber colored, and her gold irises were shot through with streaks of copper.

  "Sorry," she said. "You have a young face. How old are you?"

  "Eighteen last month."

  She smirked. "Too bad," she said. "I kinda have a thing for jailbait."

  "Great," I said. "A pedophile with a drinking habit."

  That got a third laugh--a snorting, girlish chuckle that disrupted my heart rate yet again. Then she glanced back down at her flask and addressed it in a confidential tone.

  "R2," she muttered. "This dream just keeps getting weirder. Now a cute, wisecracking boy has shown up in it. What are the odds?"

  I almost asked if she meant me. Disaster averted.

  "I hate to break it to you," I said. "But you're not dreaming this."

  "I'm not? How can you be so sure?"

  "Because I'm clearly the one who's dreaming all of this," I said. "How could you be dreaming this, when you're just another figment of my imagination, like everyone else here?"

  "Well, I hate to break it to you," she said, poking me with her flask and splashing some of its contents on my leg, "but I am not a figment of anyone's imagination."

  That's a relief, I thought. But what I actually said was, "Unfortunately, neither am I." Then I offered her a smile. "So all of this must really be happening right now. To both of us."

  She nodded and took another drink. "Yeah," she said. "That's what I was afraid of." Then she held out her flask, finally offering me a drink. But I shook my head.

  "You know, on second thought, maybe I should keep a clear head for the briefing," I said. Then, as if that weren't lame enough, I added, "I'm not old enough to drink, anyway."

  She rolled her eyes at me. "They're about to tell us the world is ending, you realize?" she said. "You don't want to be stone-cold sober for that shit, do you?"

  "You make a compelling argument," I said, taking the flask from her.

  As I raised it to my lips, she began to chant "Breakin'-the-law-breakin'-the-law."

  I gave her a pleading look. "Please--don't make me shoot this out my nose, okay?"

  She nodded solemnly and raised three fingers. "Girl Scout's honor."

  I rolled my eyes. "I find it hard to believe that you were ever a Girl Scout."

  Her eyes narrowed, then she reached out and rolled down her striped knee sock, revealing a dark green Girl Scouts of America logo tattooed on her left calf.

  "I stand corrected," I said. "Are you hiding any other cool tattoos?"

  She punched me in the shoulder--hard--then pointed at the flask, still in my hand. "Quit stalling, baby face. Bottoms up."

  I took a small sip--but I still swallowed enough of the burning liquid to make me wince and cough. I didn't know enough about liquor to discern what she had in there, but my guess would have been rocket fuel mixed with a finger or two of paint thinner. I knew she was still watching me, so I forced myself to choke down a second, longer drink. Then I passed the flask back to her, all smooth-like, even though my eyes were watering and my throat felt like I'd just downed a shot of molten lava.

  "Thank you," I said hoarsely.

  "I'm Alexis Larkin." She stuck out her hand. "But my friends call me Lex."

  "Nice to meet you, Lex." I felt a small static shock as we shook hands. "I'm Zack--Zack Lightman," I said, stuttering through my own name.

  She grinned and reached for the flask, which I gladly handed back to her. "So, where do you hail from, Zack-Zack Lightman?"

  "It's just one Zack," I said, laughing. "I'm from Portland, Oregon. What about you?"

  "Texas," she said softly. "I live in Austin." Her expression darkened, and she took another drink--wincing at this one. "And I was just there, less than an hour ago, debugging subroutines in my cubicle, when a motherfucking Earth Defense Alliance shuttle suddenly shows up and lands right outside my office building! I figured I must be losing it. Now I'm not sure what to think."

  She shivered and rubbed her bare shoulders.

  "It's cold as balls in here!" she said. "And I left my sweater in a different time zone."

  I offered up a silent prayer of thanks to Crom, then opened my backpack and handed her my father's jacket.

  "Wow," she said. "Bad ass. Thank you." She spent a few seconds admiring the patches; then she drew the jacket across her shoulders like a shawl.

  "Where do you work?"

  "At a software company. We make apps and operating systems for mobile devices. It was surreal when the shuttle landed outside our offices, because a lot of my coworkers are gamers, too. So a lot of us recognized the shuttle right away, even before we saw the Earth Defense Alliance crest on its hull. None of us could believe what we were seeing."

  "What happened?"

  "We all ran outside to the parking lot. Then two people wearing suits--a man and a woman--stepped out of the shuttle and asked for me by my full name, which was weirdly humiliating, like getting called to the principal's office or something. They said they needed my 'assistance with a matter of urgent national security.' What was I supposed to do? They were riding around in a spaceship from a videogame, and I knew I couldn't spend the rest of my life wondering what it looked like on the inside, or where it was going to take me--so I went with them." She nodded at our surroundings. "Now I'm in a top-secret government base somewhere in the middle of fucking Iowa, waiting to find out what the hell is happening. In short--I'm totally losing my shit."

  She said all of this in a very calm, steady voice.

  I nodded. "I think we're actually somewhere in the middle of fucking Nebraska."

  "Yeah? How do you know?"

  "Because Ray--the EDA agent who brought me here--said this was Nebraska."

  "The jokers who brought me here wouldn't tell me shit," she said.

  It hadn't occurred to me until now that I may have been given special treatment, but it seemed doubtful that all of the other recruit candidates in that auditorium had been mentored and watched over by an undercover EDA agent who had been stationed in their hometown for the past six years.

  Lex glanced back down at her QComm, which had finished rebooting, and thumbed through the icons on its display.

  "They better make good on their promise to unlock these things," she said. "I don't want my grandma to get too worried about me. She tends to do that if I don't call her every day--" Lex dialed a number on the QComm from memory, but a red X appeared on the display, along with a message that said, "Access to Civilian Networks Locked."

  "We'll see about that," she muttered, scowling at the QComm before she slid it into her pocket.

  "Are you and your grandma close?" I asked, just to hear her talk some more.

  She nodded. "My folks both died in a car crash when I was little. My grandpa had already passed, so my grandma raised me by herself." She met my gaze. "How about you, Zack? Anyone back at home you're worried about? Anybody who'll be worried about you?"

  I nodded. "My mom." I pictured her face. "She's a nurse. It's just the two of us."

  Lex nodded, as if I'd explained everything. We both fell silent for a moment. I suddenly found myself wishing Cruz and Diehl were there with me. The insanity of this experience would have been much easier to handle with my two best friends around.

  But even though the Mikes were skilled at both Terra Firma and Arma
da, their rankings apparently weren't high enough in either game to merit an invitation to these strange proceedings.

  "Lex?"

  "Zack?"

  "Do you play Terra Firma and Armada?"

  "T.F."

  "How good are you at it?" I asked. "Are you one of the Thirty Dozen?"

  She nodded. "I'm currently ranked seventeenth place," she said, far too nonchalantly. "But I've been as high as fifteenth. Those standings fluctuate a lot."

  I whistled low, impressed. "Damn, woman," I said. "What's your call sign?"

  "Lexecutioner," she said. "It's a portmanteau. What's yours?"

  "IronBeagle," I told her, wincing at how dorky it sounded in my ears. "It's a--"

  "It's fantastic!" she said. "I love that flick, as cheesy as it is. And my grandma used to play that Snoopy vs the Red Baron album every Christmas."

  I did a double-take at her. No one had ever gotten the Iron Eagle/Peanuts mash-up in my call sign without me first having to explain it to them--including Cruz and Diehl. I felt a strong urge to reach out and touch her shoulder, to confirm that she was real.

  "You're not in the Thirty Dozen, otherwise I'd recognize your call sign," she said. "You must play Armada?"

  I nodded, trying to hide my disappointment. "Not your game?"

  She shook her head. "Flight simulators give me vertigo. I prefer to throw down with my feet on the ground." She pointed a thumb at herself. "You put me at the controls of a giant battle mech, I will crush my enemies and see them driven before me."

  I grinned. "What about the lamentations of their women?"

  "Oh yeah," she said, chuckling. "Their women lamentate all over the place. That goes without saying, doesn't it?"

  We both laughed loudly, drawing annoyed stares from those seated within earshot. We appeared to be the only two people in that auditorium who were in a laughing mood--which made us laugh even louder.

  When we regained our composure, Lex upended her flask and let the last few drops inside fall onto her outstretched tongue. Then she screwed the cap back on and stowed the flask in her jeans.

  " 'I've lost R2,' " she quoted, before mimicking the little blue droid's famous whistling sigh. This time, I was the one who snorted out an unexpected laugh.

  "So spill it, Star Lord," she said. "What's your player ranking?"

  "My Terra Firma ranking is too abysmal to say out loud," I said, laying on the false modesty with a trowel. "But in the Armada rankings I'm currently sixth."

  Her eyes widened, and she swiveled her head around to stare at me.

  "Sixth place?" she repeated. "In the world? No bullshit?"

  I crossed my heart, but did not hope to die.

  "That's some serious bill-paying skillage," she said. "Color me impressed, Zack-Zack Lightman."

  "Color me flattered, Miss Larkin," I replied. "But you'd be a lot less impressed if you'd ever seen me play Terra Firma. I'm okay in an ATHID, but I can't drive a Sentinel to save my ass. I always end up stomping on a tenement full of civilians; then I get demoted back to the infantry."

  "Doh! Collateral and property damage! You like to double down, eh?"

  Before I could answer, the lights in the auditorium dimmed and a hush fell over the audience. I felt Lex grab my forearm and squeeze it tightly enough to cut off my circulation. I stared straight ahead, clutching the armrests of my seat, trembling with a lifetime's worth of accumulated anticipation as the screen in front of us was illuminated.

  Then they showed us the most disturbing government training film in history.

  An animated Earth Defense Alliance logo appeared on the screen, with the capital E and D in EDA morphing into a transparent shield that encircled a spinning blue Earth. The negative space between the legs of the stylized capital A formed the domed head of a Sentinel mech, while the space at the A's center contained a lidded cyclopean eye, which I knew was meant to represent Moon Base Alpha, the secret Earth Defense Alliance installation on the far side of the moon. I wondered why the real EDA had chosen to include Moon Base Alpha in the crest, since the base itself obviously couldn't be real. Then I reminded myself--just a few hours ago, I'd thought the same exact thing about the EDA itself.

  The EDA crest faded, and ominous music swelled on the soundtrack. It was the opening track of the orchestral score for Armada, composed by none other than John Williams. When the London Symphony Orchestra's string section kicked in, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

  I reminded myself that this was real life.

  I reminded myself to keep breathing.

  On the screen, an early NASA probe drifted into the shot, hurtling through the starry void. It looked like an old backyard satellite dish with three long outdoor TV antennas bolted to its base at right angles. I recognized it as one of the twin Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft, the first two probes NASA sent to survey our outer solar system. They were launched in the early 1970s, so I knew the footage we were seeing had to be computer generated.

  The camera swung around behind the spacecraft, revealing that it was fast approaching Jupiter. As the gas giant loomed on the screen, a voice began to speak over the music on the soundtrack. Lex and I both gasped with recognition, along with a chorus of others in the auditorium. We all recognized the voice instantly, even though its owner had been dead for nearly twenty years.

  It was Carl Sagan.

  And the first words he spoke contradicted nearly everything I'd ever been told about our current understanding of the universe.

  "In 1973, NASA discovered the first evidence of a nonterrestrial intelligence, right here in our very own solar system, when the Pioneer 10 spacecraft sent back the first close-up image of Europa, Jupiter's fourth-largest moon. It was received and decoded at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on December 3rd at 7:26 p.m. Pacific Standard Time."

  It was immediately obvious to me why the EDA had recruited Dr. Sagan to narrate this film. Sagan's assured and familiar baritone imbued each word he spoke with the weight of cold, hard scientific fact--which was incredibly unsettling, because Sagan had been a driving force in humanity's search for extraterrestrial intelligence since the 1960s. If NASA had discovered aliens back in 1973 and Sagan had helped conceal it from the world for the rest of his life, he must have had an incredibly compelling reason for doing so--but for the life of me, I couldn't imagine what it could have been.

  Maybe the EDA had somehow edited or simulated Sagan's voice for this film? Or maybe they had blackmailed him into doing it? Shit, for all I knew, the EDA might have a secret lab beneath the Pentagon filled with Axlotl Tanks, where they mass-produced Sagan and Einstein clones around the clock like Honda Accords.

  Then a video image of Dr. Sagan himself appeared on the screen, and I stopped wondering whether it was really his voice. The footage was clearly from the '70s: Sagan looked younger than he did in the original Cosmos miniseries. He was standing in a crowded JPL control room with a dozen or so shaggy-looking scientists, all of whom were clustered around a tiny black-and-white TV monitor, watching anxiously as humanity's first close-up photo of Europa slowly appeared on it, a single line of pixels at a time. The right half of the Jovian moon lay in shadow, but the hemisphere on the left was currently in full sunlight, and some faint surface features were already visible there, despite the image's low resolution.

  As the download approached completion and the rest of Europa's surface gradually became visible, Sagan and the other scientists began to study the image with an increasing air of confusion and alarm. When the last row of pixels formed and the complete image appeared on the monitor, it revealed that an enormous section of Europa's icy surface was covered with a giant swastika.

  Frightened whispers and murmured expletives swept through the auditorium. Beside me, I heard Lex whisper, "What the fuck?"

  I nodded in agreement. This was undoubtedly the most unsettling history lesson I'd ever been subjected to--and I couldn't imagine what could be coming next.

  "That first c
lose-up image revealed the existence of an enormous symbol etched onto the Jovian moon's surface," Sagan's voice calmly explained. "An equilateral cross with all four of its arms bent at perfect right angles--known here on Earth as a swastika--was clearly visible in the southern hemisphere, covering an area of over a million square kilometers. The swastika was so large, in fact, that it appeared slightly warped in that first Pioneer photo, due to the curvature of the moon's surface.

  "The discovery of this symbol was immediately recognized by NASA scientists as the first concrete evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence. However, the excitement over this landmark discovery was eclipsed by the debate over the symbol's potential meaning. For thousands of year the swastika had been used by peaceful cultures around the world as both an ornamental symbol and a good luck charm, until it was adopted by the Nazi Party in 1920, and the atrocities they subsequently committed forever transformed it into an icon of humanity at its absolute worst."

  "Yeah, why didn't they slap a yin-yang symbol on Europa instead?" Lex whispered beside me, slurring her speech a bit. "That would've blown NASA's mind."

  I shushed her, and she let out a short hysterical laugh, then seemed to regain her composure. We both returned our attention to the screen.

  "We had no way of knowing whether or not the beings who had defaced Europa were aware of the meaning the symbol held for us," Sagan's voice continued. "Until we had more information, all we could do was speculate about the symbol's origin and meaning. Our nation's political and military leaders made the decision to conceal it from the world, fearing that news of its existence would create a panic that might plunge our entire civilization into religious, political, and economic chaos. President Richard Nixon issued a secret executive order that NASA's dark discovery on Europa would remain a highly classified national secret until it could be studied further."

  Now I understood why Dr. Sagan and the other JPL scientists had gone along with the government's cover-up. The alternative would have been to tell the fragile citizens of Planet Earth that they'd just discovered a giant Nazi Post-it note orbiting Jupiter. If Walter Cronkite had dropped a bomb like that on the evening news back in 1973, human civilization would have gone collectively apeshit. Planning another mission to Europa under those circumstances would have been problematic--maybe even impossible.

 
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