Armada, p.13
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       Armada, p.13

           Ernest Cline
 

  But there were still a lot of things about this story that bothered me. For one, the details of NASA's discovery on Europa were giving me a strange sense of deja vu. It took me a moment to figure out why

  Since the late '70s, the official word on Europa from our scientists had been that it was one of the most promising potential habitats for extraterrestrial life in our solar system, due the vast ocean of liquid water beneath its surface. As a result, Europa had been a popular setting with science fiction writers ever since. I could think of at least half a dozen stories that involved the discovery of alien life on Europa--most notably the Arthur C. Clarke novel 2010, his sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Peter Hyams had directed an excellent film adaptation of 2010 back in the '80s, and the movie version ended with a highly advanced alien intelligence using HAL-9000 to send humanity a mass-text message warning us to stay the hell away from Europa.

  Attempt no landing there.

  There was also something familiar about an alien first-contact message that contained a swastika. After racking my brain for what seemed like an eternity, I realized the answer was staring me in the face--Carl Sagan himself had written a similar scenario into his first and only science fiction novel, Contact. In Sagan's story, SETI researchers receive a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence that contains a copy of the first television broadcast from Earth the aliens ever intercepted, which turns out to be footage of Adolf Hitler's opening speech at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. One of the most memorable moments in both the book and the film adaptation occurs when the SETI scientists decode the first frame of the alien video transmission and discover that it contains a close-up image of a Nazi swastika.

  The events unfolding on the screen in front of me were different from the tales of first contact described in either 2010 or Contact, granted--but surely those similarities couldn't be mere coincidence?

  Like Sagan, Clarke had been a NASA insider. It made sense that he too had learned of Pioneer 10's discovery on Europa and agreed to take part in the cover-up. But then why had both men subsequently hidden kernels of the top-secret truth in their bestselling science fiction novels? And why had the EDA let them get away with it? Especially considering that both of their novels were then adapted into blockbuster films that had exposed this classified information to a global audience?

  As it occurred to me that I'd probably just answered my own question, several high-resolution images of Europa began to appear on the screen, showing its surface in much greater detail. Up close, the moon looked like a dirty snowball crisscrossed with reddish orange cracks and streaks that were thousands of kilometers long. The giant black swastika stood out in stark relief against the moon's surface.

  "When Pioneer 11 reached Jupiter a year later in December of 1974," Sagan's voice-over continued, "its course was adjusted to make a close flyby of Europa, and it sent back much clearer images of the moon and its surface anomaly, putting to rest any lingering suspicions that the earlier Pioneer 10 image had been faked in some way. By this time, NASA was already rushing the construction of a new top-secret probe designed to travel to Europa and land on its surface to study the swastika anomaly up close, and hopefully collect enough data to ascertain its origin or purpose. NASA dubbed this spacecraft the Envoy I, and it reached Europa on the 9th of July, 1976--the day humanity made its first direct contact with an alien intelligence."

  I had never been so glued to a movie screen in my life.

  A shot of the Envoy I--or rather, another CGI simulation--appeared on the screen, showing the probe as it maneuvered into orbit around Europa, with majestic Jupiter looming behind it. It looked like a larger, less streamlined version of the two Voyager spacecraft NASA launched the following year, with giant fuel tanks and a lander cobbled onto its frame.

  As the spacecraft passed over the huge black symbol, the orbiter deployed its landing module and it began to descend toward the frozen surface.

  The image cut to what appeared to be actual video footage shot by the Envoy lander's on-board camera during its final approach.

  Seen directly from above and in full sunlight, the giant swastika on Europa's surface appeared to consist of nothing more than long bands of discolored ice. The blackened sections of ice still reflected sunlight, and aside from the change in its color, there appeared to be no disruption in the pattern of striated cracks and frozen ridges covering the moon's surface. It looked like someone had slapped the solar system's largest swastika stencil on the side of Europa and then hit it with a Star Destroyer-sized can of black acrylic spray paint.

  "The Envoy lander set down near the southernmost tip of the anomaly, near what would later become known as the Thera Macula region," Sagan's voice-over continued, just as the lander completed its controlled descent and touched down on the surface, with its landing gear straddling the border between the swastika's edge and the unblemished ice beside it.

  To my shock, a familiar gold disc was attached to the base of the lander. It looked identical to the famous gold records NASA had attached to both of its Voyager spacecraft.

  "A twelve-inch gold-plated copper disk was attached to the Envoy lander," Sagan explained. "This phonograph record was encoded with sound recordings and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, to serve as a token of peace from our species."

  After the lander finished unfolding its solar panel array, a jointed robotic arm extended from its underside and began to collect a sample of the blackened surface. The heated metal scoop at the end of the arm dug a furrow into the ice about a foot deep, revealing that it was black at that depth, too. Once the arm retracted, the body of the lander opened up like a metal flower, revealing a torpedo-shaped probe within, with its nose pointed straight down at the ice.

  "The heat generated by Jupiter's tidal flexing of Europa causes most of the moon's subsurface ice to remain liquid, resulting in a subterranean ocean that we knew could possibly harbor life, which made it the first logical place for us to search for the beings responsible for creating the symbol on the moon's surface."

  I once again marveled at the powerfully calming effect of Sagan's voice. If James Earl Jones had been chosen to narrate this briefing film, it would have been even more terrifying to watch.

  "Shortly after it touched down, the Envoy lander deployed a cryobot, an experimental nuclear-powered melt probe designed to burn down through the moon's surface ice and explore the ocean hidden beneath it for signs of extraterrestrial life."

  The lander slowly lowered the torpedo-shaped cryobot, pressing its superheated nose down into the blackened ice. An explosive column of steam shot up high into Europa's nearly nonexistent atmosphere as the probe began to melt through the onyx surface, burning a perfect cylindrical tunnel through the ice as it descended, pulled downward by gravity.

  In a few seconds, the tail of the cryobot disappeared beneath the surface, unspooling a long fiber-optic tether behind it that would keep it connected to the lander and its transmitter. Then a cutaway animation of Europa appeared on the screen, showing the cryobot's progress as it burrowed down through several kilometers of solid ice before it finally made it all the way through the crust and then plunged into Europa's dark ocean.

  "We lost contact with the cryobot just a few seconds after it cleared the underside of the moon's ice layer. At first, NASA suspected an equipment malfunction, because we also lost contact with the lander up on the surface at the same moment. But when the Envoy orbiter passed over the landing site again a few hours later, the satellite images it sent back revealed two things: The lander had completely vanished from the surface, and so had the swastika."

  The film cut to a rapid slideshow of still photos taken by the orbiter. The swastika had indeed disappeared, leaving no sign it had ever been there in the first place. Then the image magnified to show a detailed view of the probe's landing site. The four impressions left by the lander's feet were still visible, as was the circular hole the cryobot had burned into the ice--ice that had mir
aculously reverted to its natural color.

  "Forty-two hours after NASA lost contact with the lander, its radio transmitter came back online, broadcasting on the same top-secret NASA frequency. When its signal reached Earth, we discovered that it contained a brief voice message, apparently sent by the inhabitants of Europa. To our surprise, it was worded in plain English, and spoken in the voice of a human child."

  A recording of a young girl's voice began to play on the soundtrack.

  "You have desecrated our most sacred temple," the child's voice intoned in a flat, inflectionless tone. "For this there can be no forgiveness. We are coming to kill you all."

  Even as I shuddered in my seat, something about the message struck me as oddly familiar. It was like something out of a bad science fiction movie.

  Then Carl Sagan's calming voice-over continued.

  "It was quickly determined that the female voice heard in the alien transmission had been synthesized from one of the brief audio recordings included on the gold record we had attached to the lander."

  "To our dismay, this twenty-one word message began to repeat on a continuous loop, hour after hour, day after day. The Europans, as we began to refer to them, ignored all of our attempts to respond or explain our actions. For reasons we still don't understand, it appears they viewed our first attempt to make contact with them as an unforgiveable act of war. By sending a melt probe to explore beneath their moon's surface, we may have unknowingly violated some territorial or religious boundary their species holds sacred. Or the Europans may simply view our species as a threat to their own. We still aren't sure of their motivations, because all of our subsequent efforts to communicate with them have met with failure."

  Another wave of nervous chattering swept through the auditorium. I scanned the audience, half expecting someone to flip out, but everyone remained calm and in their seats--including me. The revelation that evil aliens were coming to try to wipe us out didn't send anyone into hysterics or create a panic--and I thought I understood why. For decades, we had all been inundated with a steady barrage of science fiction novels, movies, cartoons, and television shows about aliens of one kind or another. Extraterrestrial visitors had permeated pop culture for so long that they were now embedded in humanity's collective unconscious, preparing us to deal with the real thing, now that it was actually happening.

  "We began to send more probes to Europa, numbering in the hundreds, but nearly all of them were lost or destroyed shortly after they reached the moon's orbit. However, through trial and error, we were eventually able to place a handful of remote surveillance platforms on several of Jupiter's neighboring moons, allowing us to closely monitor Europa without being detected. Their cameras sent back the following orbital surveillance images."

  Thousands of satellite images of Europa began to appear on the screen, displayed rapidly in chronological order, so that they created a rough stop-motion video, showing what appeared to be a thin ring of metallic debris forming around the moon near its equator. When these photos were magnified and enhanced, millions of construction robots became visible, crawling along orbital scaffolds and the skeletal hulls of the spacecraft they were building.

  It looked just like the Sobrukai homeworld during our mission last night, except that Europa's surface was mostly white, instead of red. And instead of the purplish gas giant named Tau Ceti V looming behind it, it was the familiar cyclopean eye of Jupiter.

  The Europans were building an armada, just like the Sobrukai. But much closer to Earth. They had Foundry Ships orbiting their moon, cranking out fighters and drones--just like those I'd spotted above Sobrukai last night. The Europans had also towed several large asteroids and meteorites into safe orbits around their moon, and now hordes of those spider-like construction robots could be seen swarming over and burrowing into their surfaces, to mine them for metals and other raw materials. When an asteroid was all mined out, another would be towed into orbit.

  As the time-lapsed footage continued to play, flying through weeks, months, and years of incessant construction by these self-replicating machines, a small fleet of glittering spaceships began to form around Europa. It continued to grow until the alien war vessels grew so numerous they formed a Saturn-like ring that encircled the equator.

  As the asteroids were towed in and mined out, six massive Dreadnaught Spheres began to take shape in orbit above Europa. "Despite all of our ongoing efforts to negotiate a truce with the Europans, they continued to make their preparations for war, constructing drones that then went on to build other drones," the voice-over explained. "We watched with growing concern as their numbers began to multiply exponentially right before our eyes, month after month, and then year after year.

  "In the mid 1980s, the Europans began to send scout ships to Earth," Sagan continued. "Our military forces managed to capture and study several of the enemy's spacecraft. That was when we discovered that they were all drones, which the Europans were controlling from hundreds of thousands of miles away, using some form of instantaneous quantum communication. For this reason, we still know almost nothing about the Europans' biological makeup or physical appearance."

  I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, feeling a strange combination of frustration and relief. I'd half expected Sagan to reveal that the Europans looked just like the anthropomorphic squid-like Sobrukai depicted in Armada. It was a relief to learn this was not the case, but equally frustrating to be told that, after four decades, we still didn't know anything about our enemy's biology.

  "However, after years of effort, our scientists were able to reverse-engineer the aliens' quantum communication technology, along with certain facets of their ships' propulsion and weapons systems. We have since used these newfound technologies to construct a global stockpile of our own defense drones, which we believe will give humanity a fighting chance against the invaders."

  I heard myself let out an uneasy sigh. I'd been willing to suspend my disbelief for the EDA's "we reverse-engineered the aliens' technology in just a few years" explanation back when I'd thought it was just a fictional videogame backstory. But I definitely didn't buy it now that the EDA was trying to pass it off as a historical fact--even if they were using Carl Sagan's voice to do it. It seemed utterly impossible that the EDA had managed to reverse-engineer vastly superior communication, propulsion, and weapons technology in just a few years while concealing this endeavor from the whole world--let alone mass produce it into millions of drones. And even if that was possible, why had our enemy made the task so easy for us? According to what we'd just been told, the Europans had not only let us capture several of their vessels, they'd then given us enough time to figure out how they worked, to build our own fleet of ships with the same capabilities. And by constructing their armada in orbit around their moon, in full view of our satellites, they'd basically given humanity a detailed video of what to expect when their attack came.

  There had to be some truth to what the EDA was telling us. The shuttle ride I'd just taken to get here was proof of that, as were my current surroundings. But I was sure there was more to this story than they were telling us. A lot more.

  "Gradually, it became evident to humanity's leaders that we faced certain extinction if we didn't set aside our differences and unite as one species to defend ourselves and our home. This prompted select members of the United Nations to form a secret global military coalition for that very purpose, known as the Earth Defense Alliance, in the event that our worst fears are one day realized, and the entire Europan armada disembarks for Earth."

  The animated EDA logo reappeared on the screen.

  "Until then, we continue to work toward peace, while preparing for the possibility of war."

  As Sagan finished the closing voice-over, the screen went dark and the film ended abruptly. Lex realized she was still clutching my forearm and let go of it. There were marks where she'd dug her nails into my skin, but I hadn't even noticed. I'd been too busy having my whole perception of reality shattered into a million pie
ces.

  When the lights came up a few seconds later, they hit us with the really bad news.

  A tall man in a heavily decorated EDA uniform mounted the small stage down below and walked to the podium at its center. When he reached it, his face appeared on the giant view screen behind him, and I gasped in unison with Lex and a chorus of others in the audience.

  It was Admiral Archibald Vance, the cyclopean EDA commander who gave players their mission briefings in both Armada and Terra Firma.

  I'd always assumed he was just an actor who had been hired to play that role, but it appeared I'd been wrong about that, too.

  The admiral rested his hands on the podium and cast a long appraising gaze over his audience.

  "Greetings, recruit candidates," he said. "My name is Admiral Archibald Vance, and I've been a field commander in the Earth Defense Alliance for over a decade now. I'm sure many of you are surprised to learn that I'm a real person, and not a fictional character. But rest assured, I am real, and so is the Earth Defense Alliance."

  There were scattered cheers and some muted laughter. The admiral waited for total silence before he continued.

  "You've all been summoned here today because we need your help. You people are among the most-skilled and highly trained drone pilots in the world. The videogames you've each mastered, Terra Firma and Armada, are both actually combat training simulations created by the EDA to help us locate and train individuals like each of you--who possess the rare talents required to help us defend our planet from the impending Europan invasion.

  "As you just saw, our alien enemy's existence has been kept a guarded secret since its initial discovery," he went on. "This was done out of necessity, so that humanity would keep calm and carry on long enough for our leaders to organize and mount a defense against the invaders." He slid his hands off the podium and scanned his audience again.

  "But we've finally run out of time. The day we've been dreading all these years is now at hand. And you people are the EDA's most promising recruit candidates, from dozens of different countries all over the world," he told us. "Which is why we've taken the precaution of relocating you here, to a secure location, before the truth of our circumstances are revealed to the entire world."

 
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