Armada, p.15
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       Armada, p.15

           Ernest Cline

  The station was also outfitted with several other controller options, including a pair of Terra Firma battle gauntlets, used for operating an ATHID or Sentinel, along with more mundane options like a keyboard and mouse setup or a standard Xbox, Nintendo, or Playstation controller--enough choices to make almost any gamer feel right at home.

  I saw a brief flash of red as my retinas were scanned; then a red X flashed on my display, along with the words DRONE CONTROLLER ACCESS NOT AUTHORIZED.

  "Attention, recruit candidate," the same synthesized female voice said as her words appeared on the display screen in front of me. "Only Earth Defense Alliance personnel are authorized to operate drones or engage in combat. Do you wish to enlist in the Earth Defense Alliance at this time?"

  Several paragraphs of dense text began to scroll across the screen, an unreadable blur of legalese outlining all the details of enlistment. It would have taken hours to read it all, and then I still probably wouldn't have understood a word of it.

  "Are you fucking kidding me?" I shouted. "I have to enlist before I can fight?"

  "Only Earth Defense Alliance personnel are authorized to operate drones or engage in combat," the computer repeated.

  "That's a little manipulative, don't you think?"

  "Please rephrase your question."

  "This is fucking ridiculous!" I cried, punching the console again.

  "If you do not wish to enlist in the Earth Defense Alliance at this time, please exit this drone controller station and proceed to the nearest out-processing station."

  When I didn't respond to this right away, the computer said, "I'm sorry, I didn't hear your answer. Do you wish to enlist in the Earth Defense Alliance at this time?"

  Another tremor rocked the base to its foundations. The lights embedded in the ceiling of my station dimmed for half a second.

  "Okay, yes!" I began repeatedly tapping the accept button at the bottom of the screen. "I want to fucking enlist! Sign my ass up!"

  "Please raise your right hand and read the enlistment oath aloud."

  A paragraph of text appeared on my display, with my name already inserted at the beginning. I began to read it, and each word dimmed once I'd said it aloud:

  I, Zachary Ulysses Lightman, having been appointed an officer in the Earth Defense Alliance, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend my home planet and its citizens against all enemies, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; that I will obey the orders of the officers appointed over me; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God.

  That last line was marked as "optional," but I was in a hurry, so I said it anyway, even though I'd always been a devout agnostic. Besides, now I was thinking there just might be a God after all--that would explain who was currently fucking with my whole notion of reality.

  "Congratulations!" the computer said. "You are now a flight officer in the Earth Defense Alliance with the rank of lieutenant. Your EDA skill profile and Armada pilot ranking have both been verified. Flight status--authorized. Combat status--authorized. Drone controller station access granted. User preferences imported. Interceptor synchronization engaged. Good luck, Lieutenant Lightman!"

  My view screen suddenly switched to a familiar first-person view, from inside an ADI-88 Aerospace Drone Interceptor, prepped for launch. The song "Bang a Gong" by Power Station began to blast out of the drone controller station's surround sound system, making me jerk back in my chair. I relaxed as I realized that the computer had just made a Bluetooth connection to my QComm and automatically started playing the next song on my father's old Raid the Arcade playlist.

  I didn't hesitate. I hit the launch release and my Interceptor rocketed forward, out of its launch tunnel--one of those disguised grain silos--and into the clear blue sky.

  A real sky, filled with real clouds.

  That was when I realized my view from inside the cockpit was slightly different than the one I was used to seeing when I played Armada. The HUD readouts and targeting reticle were identical, but they were superimposed over a live high-definition video feed of my drone's surroundings, seen from the stereoscopic camera mounted inside the real drone Interceptor I was now piloting. With the door of my drone controller station closed, the illusion of being inside an actual cockpit was almost total. I could even see the fang-like tips of its photon cannons protruding from the ship in front of me.

  A split second later, my view of the sky was filled with another familiar sight: a swarm of Glaive Fighters firing in all directions, including directly at me. Thanks to Lex's prodding, mine was the first Interceptor drone to be launched. Which meant I was also currently the only aerial target for the enemy.

  As I banked to take evasive action, I got my first glimpse of the landscape below. The farmhouses, barns, and silos--everything was on fire. Including the ground itself, which had already been scorched black by sweeping laser fire from above.

  According to my HUD, there were exactly a hundred Glaive Fighters attacking the base.

  And this time it's for real, Zack. If you don't stop them, you die.

  I had to make a few adjustments to my controller setup, but it only took seconds because the interface was so familiar. Then I took a deep breath and scanned the field of battle. Down below me, other Interceptor drones were beginning to rocket up out of the open tops of rows of disguised launch tunnels along the farm's northern edge, all of which were now on fire. Hundreds of ATHIDs and several Sentinel mechs were beginning to stream out of the underground bunkers concealed beneath the flaming barns and utility buildings nearby.

  My HUD confirmed that the lone Sentinel running out in front, leading the charge, was being operated by Lex--her call sign and rank were superimposed over her mech on my display. I watched as she launched her Sentinel into a power leap while simultaneously unloading both of its wrist cannons at a line of Glaive Fighters as they zoomed overhead, strafing the ground on either side of her drone with laser fire.

  I banked my Interceptor around and scanned the sky directly over the base. Most of the Glaive Fighters appeared to be focusing their attacks on the entrance--those two large armored doors set into the earth, which were already starting to glow red and warp under the intense barrage of laser fire and plasma bombs. Once they made it through those doors, they would storm down the base and rain molten fire down on everything, killing me, and Lex, and everyone else inside Crystal Palace.

  But I didn't feel uncertain or afraid. I'd been preparing for this moment my whole life--since the first time I ever picked up a videogame controller.

  I knew what had to be done.

  I pulled back on my flight stick and firewalled the throttle, launching my drone into the mass of Glaive Fighters swarming across the sky directly in front of it. My HUD highlighted the ship closest to my position, and I took a bead on it, leading the target just enough to compensate for its speed and distance before I squeezed the trigger, firing off a sustained burst from my photon cannons, scoring two direct hits. The first knocked out the Glaive Fighter's shields, and the second destroyed it in a brilliant fireball a millisecond later.

  Unbeknownst to me, I had just scored the first enemy kill of the battle, and the war.

  After that, though, things began to go downhill.

  The Battle of Crystal Palace, as it came to be known, was my first taste of real life-or-death combat. Even though I wasn't physically inside my Interceptor, my body was only a few hundred yards away, somewhere deep within the underground base I was fighting to protect. If the aliens managed to breach our surface defenses and get inside, I would be killed, along with Lex, the admiral, and everyone else.

  I wasn't going to let that happen.

  I also wasn't going to wait around until RedJive got his or her drone launched and then proceeded to steal all the glory.

  I cleared my throat. "AVA?" I said. "Are you there?

  I expected to hear the default synthesized female voice respond, but to my surprise the system had also imported my customized Armada sound profile, so I heard a familiar sound bite from Flight of the Navigator instead.

  "Compliance!" my AVA computer said, using its familiar digitized version of Paul Reubens' faux computer voice. "How may I assist you, Lieutenant Lightman?"

  "Engage autopilot," I said, tapping the screen of my tactical display. I dragged my finger across it, indicating an S-shaped trajectory through the highest concentration of enemy fighters. "Take me right into the middle of that mess. You fly; I'll shoot."


  Now that I was in a real battle, my Flight of the Navigator sound profile seemed inappropriate and distracting, so I switched back to the default female, which--fun fact--had been recorded by the actress Candice Bergen. Chaos Terrain had spared no expense.

  With the autopilot engaged, I changed my controller configurations so that my throttle and flight stick now functioned as dual-joystick multiaxis firing controls for the Interceptor's omnidirectional laser turret. As I did so, the turret's three-dimensional targeting system activated, highlighting the enemy ships around me in an ever-widening spiral of overlapping red targeting brackets.

  "Hello, fish," I whispered, reciting an old incantation. "Welcome to my barrel."

  AVA piloted my Interceptor along the corkscrewing arc I'd laid out, plunging it directly into the enemy's chaotic midst. A swirling whorl of highlight targets appeared on my HUD overlay. I cranked my music up even louder, took a bead on one of the leaders, and opened fire.

  To my surprise, I managed to take out seven enemy ships in rapid succession, with precise, sustained bursts from my laser turret, before any of them even had time to take evasive action. Then the other ships on my HUD broke from their attack formations and scattered in all directions, all while firing back at me--or at where my Interceptor had been a millisecond earlier. Just as I'd planned, when my Interceptor passed directly through the center of the enemy's symmetrical gauntlet, their ships were caught in their own crossfire for two or three glorious seconds, resulting in the destruction of at least a dozen more of their fighters. Then, as if controlled by some hive mind, they all ceased their friendly fire in unison, allowing my drone to escape and slip out the other side.

  I'd executed this maneuver hundreds of times in simulated Armada dogfights, and if I got the timing just right, it always worked like a charm, because the enemy ships reacted to it the same way every single time--the way videogame enemies often tend to do.

  But why would the same tactics work now, in the real world? If these were real alien attack drones, under the control of sentient beings living in subsurface oceans of Europa, half a billion kilometers away, why would they fly and fight exactly like their videogame counterparts?

  How could Chaos Terrain have been able to simulate the enemy's maneuvers and tactics with such a high level of precision and accuracy? That shouldn't be possible, unless the Europan drones were being controlled by some form of artificial intelligence or some sort of linked hive mind, instead of being piloted by individual sentient beings.

  My Interceptor took a glancing hit to its shields and a warning klaxon sounded, drawing all of my attention back to the battle. The haptic feedback system in my chair vibrated to simulate the impact of the enemy plasma bolt against my shields, and I watched their strength indicator bar decrease by half. I highlighted another course on my tactical display and tapped the Commit icon.

  "Affirmative," AVA said calmly as the computer pulled us into a steep climb. On my HUD, I saw a long chain of enemy Glaives converge on my tail and arc upward to follow me.

  My laser turret had already drained most of my power core's reserves, so I switched back to my sun guns, then swung my targeting reticle over the leader, taking careful aim. I closed one eye, took a breath, held it--and then fired. And fired again. And again. BOOM! KA-BOOM! BOOM! Three more Glaives exploded brilliantly in front of me, one after the other, just as I'd seen their videogame counterparts do countless time before, from the safety of my suburban bedroom, and I heard the words of a young Luke Skywalker echo in my mind: It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon back home.

  I nailed another Glaive, and then another. I was on fire. Everything about the way these Glaive Fighters were moving and attacking was familiar--in some ways, even predictable.

  And it still felt too easy. Like many fictional alien bad guys, the Sobrukai fighters I'd faced off against in Armada had always suffered from Stormtrooper Syndrome. They couldn't aim for shit, and they were way too easy to kill. But those had been fictional aliens in a videogame. These were real extraterrestrial ships in a real-life battle. So why did the same tactics still work?

  I mouthed the lyrics to the Queen song playing on my headset as I blasted one Glaive after another right out of the sky. And another one gone, another one gone, another one bites the dust.

  I took out three more Glaives with a volley of photon bolts, bringing my total kills up to seventeen. According to the mission timer on my HUD, my Interceptor had only been in the sky for seventy-three seconds.

  Then, just as I was beginning to feel invincible, my ship took a series of direct hits from behind and my shields failed completely. Warning indicators began to flash on my HUD as AVA put my Interceptor into an evasive barrel roll and we swooped in low over the base.

  The ground below was already littered with the burning, skeletal remains of hundreds of downed ATHIDs. I zeroed in on one that was legless and decapitated, but still flailing and firing its guns blindly at the sky. Then its operator finally activated the drone's self-destruct sequence, and the detonation caused one of the flaming buildings nearby to collapse.

  A rapid series of piercing shrieks, each followed by what sounded like a brief thunderclap, erupted from the surround-sound speakers lining the walls, floor, and ceiling of my drone controller station. It was a sound I knew well from playing Armada--EDA surface-to-air cannons being fired. During the game's online co-op missions, I'd learned to react to this sound by checking for friendly fire, because the players relegated to operating surface guns during these battles were usually those with the worst aim.

  I tilted my ship starboard and scanned the ground below, tracking the sound to its source. Several long, concealed trenches had opened in the terrain surrounding the farm on all sides. They were each lined with dozens of antiaircraft plasma cannons and surface-to-air laser turrets. Each one of them was already moving and firing in its own unique pattern, and I knew these guns must now be under the control of other Earth Defense Alliance recruits like me, who were also fighting for their lives from a darkened Drone controller station deep underground.

  I reoriented my tactical display to a two-dimensional view, and it instantly reminded me of the classic arcade game Missile Command. Squadrons of Glaive Fighters were making repeated, swooping attacks on the armored blast doors set into the surface, diving toward it in tight groups of four and five, raining plasma bombs as they came--while also trying to evade the steady barrage of fire from the base's surface guns, with only marginal success.

  The number of enemy ships was already beginning to dwindle, and they were coming under more fire every second, as an intermittent stream of reserve Interceptor drones continued to emerge from the grain silo launch tunnels and join the fight.

  Infantry reserves were beginning to arrive, too. New ATHIDs and Sentinels were pouring out of their underground bunkers in a steady stream, firing their weapons at the invaders as they came.

  My shields were coming back up now, so I deactivated the autopilot and nosed my Interceptor over into a spiraling dive, attempting to engage another squadron of Glaive Fighters as they arced down to make another carpet-bombing run on the already red-hot blast doors, which were now beginning to warp and buckle in their massive earthen frame, creating gaps along their edges that were growing wider every second. Soon, they'd be wide enough for a fighter to get inside--and that was all it
would take.

  I adjusted my ship's angle of approach and closed in on the Glaive squadron from above, swinging my targeting reticle over with their silhouettes on my HUD. I thumbed my weapons selector and armed my Interceptor's Macross missile pod. But just as I was about to fire it, my targets stopped firing and accelerated their dive.

  For a split second I was certain all five of them were going to crash into one of the blast doors in some sort of kamikaze run. But then I realized that they weren't going to impact on the doors. They were aiming for a spot several dozen yards away, near the center of the farm--near a cluster of our remaining infantry drones, which were already scattering to get out of their way.

  But the squadron slid to an abrupt halt just before impact, then began to hover a few feet above the ground. In the space of a few seconds, the five Glaive Fighters turned and rotated themselves into a star-shaped formation, so that their wingtips barely touched, linking themselves together in a circular chain. Then the curved, blade-like wings of the five Glaive Fighters began to interlock and merge with each other, rapidly combining and then reconfiguring to form a single giant humanoid robot, roughly the same size as one of our own Sentinels--like a makeshift Basilisk.

  The giant junkyard golem began to bound across the solitary paved road leading up to the isolated farm house facade, uprooting the line of utility poles adjacent to it, until the power lines snapped across its chest like Godzilla. Tines of electricity briefly erupted across its shambling torso, but that didn't slow its progress. It kept on coming, as other Glaives began to combine and make landfall behind it.

  That was when I stopped feeling cocky, and started feeling afraid--terrified, really. None of the Sobrukai ships had ever exhibited behavior like this in Armada or Terra Firma. This was something new. Nearby squadrons of ATHIDs and Sentinels were already converging on the threat, scrambling to attack this new enemy in their midst.

  "You've got to be kidding me!" I heard a female voice shout over the open comlink channel. It was Lex. "Since when did these things learn how to form into Voltron?"

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