Armada, p.14
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       Armada, p.14

           Ernest Cline
 

  "Holy fucking shit," Lex whispered beside me.

  "The briefing film you just saw was first prepared in the early 1990s," Admiral Vance said. "We've updated the computer-generated imagery over the years, but its contents have changed very little. The EDA has always intended to release this film to the world when the threat of invasion could no longer be concealed. Sadly, that day is now at hand. After threatening us with extinction for over forty years, it appears the Europans have finally completed their preparations for war."

  He gripped the edges of the podium, as if to steady himself. It made me realize that I was doing the same thing with the armrests of my chair.

  "Here is our satellite imagery from early yesterday morning." A new high-resolution image of Europa appeared on the screen behind him. The armada we'd seen under construction in the canned video was now complete. The six Dreadnaught Spheres had flowered open to take on their deadly cargo, and their long spiral storage racks were nearly filled to capacity with over a billion individual drones, ready for transport and deployment.

  "This next image was taken just a few hours ago," the admiral said as another image of Europa appeared on the screen. The band of gleaming alien construction ships that had been orbiting the icy moon was now gone--and so were the six massive Dreadnaught Spheres. And there was a giant circle burned in Europa's southern hemisphere--in the exact same spot on the moon's surface where the Icebreaker had aimed its melt laser during our assault on Sobrukai last night during the Armada mission.

  "Holy shit!" I shouted, and I wasn't alone. "That mission was real?"

  "What do you mean?" Lex asked.

  Before I could answer, the admiral spoke again.

  "The EDA launched an attack on Europa last night," he said. "Many of you Armada pilots took part in that mission, which was our one shot at destroying them before they launched their drones to destroy us. But the Icebreaker mission failed. And now their armada is on its way to Earth."

  I couldn't keep my doubts to myself any longer. "This story doesn't make any damn sense," I whispered to Lex. "If these aliens want to wipe us out, why wait forty years to attack? Why give us that long to figure out their technology and prepare to fight them off, when they could have wiped us out back in the seventies? Why wait?" I shook my head. "It didn't make sense when it was backstory for the game, and it doesn't make sense now either. I mean, why send a fleet of robotic drones? Why not hit us with a virus or a killer asteroid or--"

  "Christ, who the fuck cares, man?" Lex hissed back. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her attempt to take another sip from her already-empty flask with a trembling hand. Then she cursed and retightened its cap. "Maybe they live for thousands of years? Four decades might seem like a long weekend to them." Her eyes narrowed at the glowing image on the screen. "It doesn't matter now, does it? They're obviously through waiting."

  She turned her attention back to the admiral, and I tried to do the same.

  "This is the enemy fleet's current position and trajectory," Vance said, just as an animated map of our solar system appeared on the screen behind him. The current location of the Europan armada was indicated by a chain of three amoeba-shaped blobs, each one larger than the last. They were stretched out in a line between Jupiter and Earth, inching their way through the asteroid belt like an interplanetary wagon train.

  The Europan armada appeared to be approaching Earth in three separate attack waves. Their overall trajectory was indicated by a glowing yellow line that left no doubt as to their destination.

  "Oh my God," Lex whispered. "They're already more than halfway here."

  She was right. The first wave was already approaching the asteroid belt out beyond Mars' orbit.

  The display zoomed in on the vanguard--the blob in the lead--showing that it was comprised of a dense cloud of thousands of tiny green triangles swarming around a dark green circle in their midst--a Dreadnaught Sphere, surrounded by its fighter escort. The admiral then adjusted the tactical display to zoom in on the two even-larger blobs of ships trailing it. The second blob contained two Dreadnaught Spheres and twice as many Glaive Fighters escorting it. The third blob contained three Dreadnaught Spheres, and triple the number of fighters escorting them.

  The admiral used a laser pointer to highlight the three clusters of ships.

  "For reasons we still don't understand, the enemy has divided its invasion force into three attack waves, each progressively larger than the last," he said. "We estimate that each one of those Dreadnaught Spheres is carrying a payload of approximately one billion individual drones."

  Even I was able to do arithmetic that simple. The admiral had just told us that there were six billion killer alien drones on their way here to wipe us out. This obviously wasn't going to be a fair fight--not after that second wave got here.

  The admiral moved his laser pointer back to the arrow-shaped cluster of ships out in front. "If it continues on its current course at the same speed, the vanguard--this first wave of ships out front--will reach our lunar perimeter less than eight hours from now."

  A digital countdown clock appeared in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, showing the time remaining until the vanguard's arrival: 07:54:07

  A second later, my QComm beeped and its display lit up on my wrist, just as every other QComm in the auditorium did the same thing, creating a single loud beep that echoed through the crowd. I glanced down at my wrist and saw that the same invasion countdown clock now appeared on my QComm's display, perfectly in sync with the one on the giant projection screen behind the admiral.

  07:54:05

  07:54:04

  07:54:03

  "Jesus," Lex muttered, staring at the QComm strapped to her wrist, watching the seconds tick down. "Now I feel like Snake Plissken."

  I snorted out a wholly inappropriate laugh that echoed through the silent auditorium before I quickly stifled it as the sea of faces below us turned to scowl in our general direction. Lex snickered, and I raised a finger to my lips and shushed her.

  "If we manage to survive the vanguard's attack, the second wave of enemy drones will reach Earth approximately three hours later, with the final wave reaching us roughly three hours after that."

  Every time he said the word "vanguard," all I could think of was an old Atari arcade game with that title. Vanguard was a great side-scrolling space shooter from the mid-1980s that I'd discovered in my father's collection. In the game, when you reached the last of the game's five increasingly difficult waves, you faced the final boss, known as "The Gond." In my head, I was already imagining that the Gond and the Europan overlord looked more or less identical. Then I reminded myself there might not even be a Europan overlord--the briefing film said we still didn't know anything about their biology or social structure. Maybe they didn't even have a leader. Maybe they were a hive mind?

  When the admiral finished speaking and turned away from the screen, a rumble of anxious murmuring spread through the audience, gradually increasing in volume, until Vance finally motioned for silence.

  "You're right to be alarmed," he said. "A full-scale invasion of our planet is now underway, and our enemy has us vastly outnumbered. Thankfully, the odds aren't nearly as hopeless as they seem. The Earth Defense Alliance has been preparing the world for this moment for decades, and when it begins, humanity will be ready to fight back and defend our home."

  A desperate cheer went up as the Earth Defense Alliance crest reappeared on the screen, accompanied by another piece of music from John Williams' score for Armada. As skeptical as I was about everything I'd just been told, hearing the music in that context gave me goose bumps.

  A hangar full of ADI-88 Interceptors appeared on the screen, and I felt my jaw go involuntarily slack. They looked exactly like the drones I'd piloted in Armada, down to the last detail. Another photo appeared, showing thousands of ATHIDs standing in formation under powerful floodlights in some secret concrete bunker. Finally, a photo of a single Sentinel mech was displayed, and I heard Lex mutter "
whoa" under her breath. It looked just like one of the Sentinels in the game, and just as huge.

  "You're looking at the real reason for the recent global financial crisis--all of human civilization's technology, industry, and natural resources have been leveraged to the hilt in our effort to ensure that we have the firepower necessary to repel the invaders' superior numbers and advanced weaponry. And now, at long last, our forces are ready for deployment."

  More photos were displayed on the screen, showing thousands of real Interceptors, Sentinels, and ATHIDs stored in hidden locations around the world, waiting for battle. I felt an involuntary surge of pride for my species, and the technological miracles we had accomplished in an effort to ensure our own survival.

  "We have constructed millions of these drones and hidden them in strategic locations all over the globe, ready for deployment," the admiral continued. "When the invasion begins, civilian recruits around the world will be able to use their gaming platforms to take control of these stockpiled drone forces using the enemy's instantaneous quantum communication link technology. This global network of military defense drones will be our only hope to even the odds that are stacked against us all."

  The EDA crest appeared on the screen behind the admiral once again.

  "The Alliance's international forces have already managed to thwart dozens of enemy scouting mission to Earth, and these engagements have helped us collect an enormous amount of data on their ships, weapons, and tactics," he said. "And we've fed every ounce of that data into the Terra Firma and Armada training simulations, to ensure that they would be effective in preparing you to face real enemy drones in combat. So all of you people have been fighting a simulated version of this war for years." He smiled grimly. "Now it's time for the real thing."

  He clasped his hands behind his back, and his expression softened. "I know how frightening all of this must be for some of you," he said. "We can't force you to risk your lives and join our ranks. But you should all know by now that you won't be able to hide from this war by running back to your homes. And your friends and families won't be able to hide from it either. No one anywhere on Earth can hide. These creatures, whatever they are, are coming to exterminate us all. If we don't stop them, humanity will cease to exist."

  He rested both hands on the podium and angled his gaze downward, as if addressing the recruits seated in the first row.

  "But we are going to stop them. If all seven billion members of the human race unite in the face of this threat, and we fight back as one species and one planet, with every ounce of strength we have, we can win this war. I know it. And that starts right now, with each of you."

  A cheer slowly rose from the audience. I didn't add my voice to it, and neither did Lex. But she nodded slowly, as if resigning herself to Admiral Vance's call to action. Down on the stage, the admiral paused to straighten his posture, and when he spoke again, the calm edge had returned to his voice.

  "Even though the Europan vanguard won't reach our lunar perimeter for another eight hours, we have reason to believe the enemy may be preparing to launch a sneak attack sometime today, before the rest of the fleet begins to arrive. Over the past few days, dozens of Europan scout ships have been spotted in our atmosphere, and several of them were observed conducting surveillance on EDA installations and outposts like this one."

  He pointed to a map of the world that had just appeared on the screen behind him, which was scattered with flashing red dots indicating the locations of the scout ship sightings. Most of them were near largely populated cities, but one was flashing right over my hometown.

  "We still have no way of tracking these Europan scout ships, so their current position remains unknown. However, we--"

  We heard a low, rumbling boom from somewhere far above us, like a muffled detonation, followed by a fierce tremor that shook the entire auditorium, like a brief earthquake. A few people screamed; then a warning klaxon began to wail.

  "Red alert. This installation is under attack," a synthesized female voice announced over the PA system. "All personnel report to your battle stations immediately. Repeat--this installation is under attack. Red alert."

  Lex and I exchanged looks of disbelief.

  "Seriously?" she said. "This can't really be happening right now, can it?"

  "No way," I said. "They're screwing with us. This has to be a drill or something. ..."

  Another blast up on the surface shook the stone floor beneath our feet once again--more fiercely this time--and there was another volley of panicked screams and shouting. The map projected on the auditorium's giant screen was suddenly replaced with eight live video feeds from cameras up on the surface, showing Crystal Palace's dairy farm facade from various angles around its outer perimeter. All of the buildings were in flames, and the sky overhead was filled with a swarm of dozens of Glaive Fighters. I could see their blade-shaped hulls flashing like mirrors in the morning sun as they rained lasers and plasma bombs down on the base.

  The auditorium fell eerily silent for a moment as everyone stared up at the images on the screen. Then the screaming and the shouting continued, now at a much higher volume.

  Up on the screen, a squadron of Glaive Fighters swooped down and carpet-bombed the armored doors over the docking bay entrance.

  Another tremor rocked the auditorium, and silt began to rain down from cracks in the reinforced concrete ceiling. I wondered how much more abuse it could take before it collapsed.

  "Remain calm, people!" the admiral ordered, shouting to be heard over the growing din of panic in the audience. "If you want to live, I need you to pull it together and follow orders!"

  The fear in the admiral's voice was almost as unsettling as the video on the screen behind him.

  "Repeat--this installation is under attack," the computerized female voice repeated over the PA. "All personnel report to your drone controller station immediately. Check your QComm for further instructions. All personnel report to your drone controller station immediately--"

  Lex whipped out her QComm. Its display lit up with another GPS-style map of the base, showing a green path from where we were sitting at the back of the auditorium, down the steps to the nearest exit, then down a series of corridors to a circular room labeled Controller Hub 3. I checked my QComm and saw that I was assigned to Hub 5, which was along the same route, but slightly farther away from us.

  "Let's go!" Lex said, dropping my jacket in my lap as she squeezed past me. I didn't rise from my seat. My eyes were still fixed on the chaos unfolding on the screen, but my brain was churning through everything I'd learned today--and how little sense any of it made. Something was wrong here. And I still didn't know if my dad's--

  "Zack?"

  I looked over and saw Lex staring back at me from the end of the row, her eyes burning with impatience. "Well? Are you just gonna sit here and let these things kill us?"

  She was right. This wasn't the EDA's fault. It was the Europans'. Here, revealed at last, was my true enemy--the cause of all the loss and hardship that had plagued me since birth. These invaders from another world--they were the reason all of this was happening. By declaring war on us all those decades ago, the Europans had disrupted human history and robbed us of our future. And now they were here to rob us of everything else, too.

  Suddenly, the only thing I cared about was making them pay. Every last one of them.

  "Yeah, I'm coming," I said, jumping to my feet. I shoved the jacket back into my pack, then ran to catch up with Lex, who was already bounding down the tiered steps three and four at a time.

  Lex and I squeezed through the bottleneck of people at the nearest exit. As soon we cleared it and burst into the corridor outside the auditorium, Lex took off running again, pushing past other less-eager recruits until she was out in front, leading the charge. I raced to keep up with her, following the machine-gun-like sound of her combat boots hitting the stone floor up ahead of me.

  We heard another concussive explosion impact up on the surface, and the shoc
k wave shook the floor. Dust and silt began to rain down from the tile seams in the corridor ceiling as the people around us continued to sprint in all directions, following maps on the glowing screens of their QComms.

  I ignored mine and just focused on keeping up with Lex as she continued to run down a seemingly endless series of corridors, until finally she stopped outside a set of armored doors labeled controller hub 3.

  "This is me," she said, pointing down the corridor. "Hub Five is farther down."

  I nodded and opened my mouth to wish her good luck, but I'd only managed to get out "Goo--" when she turned and planted a kiss on my cheek. This may have caused a slight drop in the structural integrity of my knee joints, but I managed to stay upright.

  "Give 'em hell, IronBeagle," she said, just before she ran through the armored doors and they slammed shut behind her.

  As soon as I was able to will my legs back into motion, I took off running again. At the end of that same corridor, I reached a pair of doors labeled controller hub 5 and bolted through them. They opened on an enormous barrel-shaped room with hundreds of drone controller stations honeycombed into its curved walls, to which were bolted a network of narrow ladders and access ramps. It looked like a larger version of the drone-control centers in Armada's cut scenes. My QComm display switched to a three-dimensional diagram of the room, then highlighted my station assignment--DCS537. I scaled the nearest ladder up to level three, then sprinted down the metal access ramp to my station. A scanner beeped as I approached, and the door hissed open. I hurried inside.

  As soon as I sat down in the leather chair, the door hissed closed and the control panels around me lit up, along with the wraparound view screen, which currently displayed the Earth Defense Alliance insignia.

  I looked around at the familiar array of controls and wrapped my right hand around the flight stick directly in front of me, which appeared identical to the Armada flight-stick controller Ray had given me the previous day. The dual-throttle controller by my left hand also appeared identical to Chaos Terrain's home version, except that it was bolted to the armrest of my ergonomic pilot seat.

 
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