Armada, p.16
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       Armada, p.16

           Ernest Cline
 

  She said something else after that, but her voice was drowned out by the chainsaw-like roar of her Sentinel's Gauss guns as she unloaded both of them at the thing.

  Hearing Lex's voice seemed to remind all of the other drone operators that they had access to a comlink, too, because the public channel was suddenly flooded with overlapping voices. Several of them were ground troops screaming for more air support, as the giant five-Glaive mech thing began to wade through their comparatively Lilliputian ranks, strafing them with plasma bolts from the photon cannons that bristled on each of its armored limbs. Blue flame roared from the thrusters at its feet as it flexed its knees and leapt forward, propelling itself a hundred meters across the burning landscape, toward the base's massive armored blast doors, which had both warped and buckled free of their frame, creating huge gaps along their edges--several of which looked wide enough to allow the giant alien mech to squeeze through and get inside.

  I scanned the wave of ATHIDs and Sentinels storming across the landscape below me. Each operator's call sign was superimposed over the drone they were controlling on my HUD, but it still took me several seconds to locate Lex. She was power-leaping toward the newly assembled Glaive mechs, but her drone and those around her were fighting through a hail of plasma fire from above as the remaining Glaive squadrons swooped in to lay down cover fire for their comrades on the surface.

  I jinked my ship down and to the left, joining a line of Interceptors beginning an attack run on the remaining mass of Glaives. We rocketed straight into their midst, unloading everything we had at them. I nailed at least two enemy fighters myself and saw at least a dozen more get bull's-eyed by my comrades in the space of as many seconds, but we lost several of our Interceptors during the charge.

  Down on the surface, I saw Lex's Sentinel overtake the lead Glaive mech. The two towering opponents began to grapple with one another at the edge of the widest breach in the blast doors. The Sentinel executed an impressive move, spinning counter-clockwise and bringing up one of its massive arms in a clothesline maneuver that knocked the enemy mech's leg completely off of its hodgepodge torso. Lex power-jumped her Sentinel clear of it just before two other Sentinels unloaded on the immobilized metal beast. This barrage was joined by hundreds of ATHIDs who began to fire on it, too. Within seconds, the five-Glaive mech exploded, raining wreckage and debris down onto the smoking blast doors, which pinged and clanged as each piece impacted on it.

  I swung my interceptor up and around again, intending to make another pass at the remaining Glaives. But then I scanned my HUD and saw that only five Glaive Fighters remained, a small cluster of green triangles on my tactical display moving into some kind of attack formation high above me.

  I angled my ship toward the remaining squadron, just in time to see them all simultaneously turn into a sharp dive, streaking straight down toward the base, as if they intended to make one final kamikaze run. But it looked to me like their angle was wrong--they weren't diving toward the breach in the warped blast doors. Instead, they were descending toward the long row of Interceptor launch tunnels nearby--the ones that had been disguised as grain silos until a few minutes ago. Now most of that false exterior was burned and blasted away, leaving nothing but scarred armor plating underneath.

  The diving line of Glaive Fighters began to spread out, each one lining up with a different launch tunnel. And each of those tunnels--which, I suddenly realized, were all sitting wide open at their tops--led directly down into the drone reserve hangar. According to the diagram on my HUD, that hangar was deep inside the base, not too far from where I was currently sitting.

  They intended to make a final kamikaze run into the base, through the open mouths of those drone launch tunnels. The simulated alien invaders in Armada had never tried this move. How had the rocket scientists who designed this base not seen this massive hole in its defenses?

  Luckily, I happened to be here to save the day.

  I jammed my throttle forward and moved to swing in above them, firing my weapons before I was even within range. I got lucky and took two of them out. Then a few of the other Interceptors loitering nearby finally began to fire on them, too, taking out two more of the enemy ships just before they reached the open mouths of the launch tunnels.

  But the last remaining Glaive Fighter managed to get through, and I continued to pursue it as it rocketed downward, closing in on the row of launch silos jutting up from the charred and blackened earth like a row of skeletal fingers.

  "Attention, all Interceptor pilots, this is Palace Command," Admiral Vance's familiar voice barked over the comlink. "Disengage and cease fire! Do not attempt to pursue that ship into the launch tunnels! I repeat, disengage and cease fire! We have automatic security fail-safes in place that will--"

  I muted the admiral's voice on my comlink.

  On my tactical display, I saw the wing of Interceptors trailing me break off and disengage, just as Vance had instructed, and for a brief second I almost did the same: The years I'd spent playing Armada had conditioned me to follow orders, and Vance's orders in particular, because the game's mechanics rewarded officer obedience.

  But that had been in a videogame, and this was real life, and the admiral's last-minute order to break off my pursuit seemed like certain suicide. If I didn't destroy this last remaining Glaive Fighter before it reached the other end of the launch tunnel, nothing would prevent it from overloading its power core inside the drone hangar. The detonation could cause the entire underground base to collapse in on itself, killing me and Lex and everyone else inside before any of us got our big chance to save the world. I wasn't willing to take that risk--or to trust my life to the same moronically designed "automatic security fail-safe" that had just allowed this massive enemy breach in our defenses.

  So I made the snap decision to disobey a direct order and continued to pursue the kamikaze Glaive as it made its nosedive down through the silo's open mouth and into the launch tunnel beyond it, ignoring the insistent, looping voice of Master Yoda in my head: Told you, I have! Regret this, you will!

  We both streaked farther through the narrow launch tunnel, like one bullet chasing another down the barrel of a gun, both headed the wrong direction. Just as I was about to open fire on the enemy ship again, it turned into a barrel roll and began to scrape the bladed edge of its right wingtip against the tunnel wall, and I pitched clockwise to dodge the shower of sparks it threw up in its wake. Once I righted myself, I managed to get the Glaive back in my sights for a moment, and I fired a short burst at it with my sun guns. But they glanced off its shields and it kept right on trucking. Meanwhile, overfiring my weapons had caused my drone to decelerate in speed, so the Glaive had increased its lead, making it even more difficult for me to get a bead on it. It reminded me of playing Space Invaders--the last alien alive was always the bitch of the bunch, and the hardest to kill, because it moved faster than all of the others. Was it just my imagination, or did this Glaive suddenly seem a whole lot harder to kill than all of its cannon-fodder brethren?

  I had to stop firing for a second to focus on keeping my Interceptor from crashing into the tunnel walls as I inched my speed back up, trying to get the enemy back in my sights. Its metal hull glinted up ahead as the pulsing collision lights embedded in the concrete walls of the shaft streaked past in a neon blur.

  The power in my Interceptor was nearly depleted. Soon, I would have to choose between firing and keeping up. I only had enough juice for a couple sun gun shots.

  As our two ships continued to hurtle downward in a diving chase, I saw the tunnel begin to broaden slightly, and I fired another burst from my sun guns. But it didn't connect, and my cockiness now turned to panic, because the lone Glaive had just cleared the tunnel and come out the other side, zooming on into the cavernous drone hangar.

  I followed it inside, and then slammed on my Interceptor's inertia brakes, because it appeared that I now had my enemy cornered. I continued firing plasma bolts at the Glaive, and shooting from a standstill dras
tically improved my aim. I scored two directs hits on its shields in rapid succession, causing them to flicker and then fail.

  The second the Glaive's shields dropped, it slid to an instantaneous stop out ahead of me, near the hangar's cavernous center. I'd seen Glaive Fighters and EDA Interceptors execute this maneuver countless times while playing Armada. I'd executed it plenty of times myself--the drone had just initiated its self-destruct sequence. Its reactor core would overload in approximately seven seconds.

  I fired a last volley of plasma bolts at the unprotected enemy ship, which was already vibrating from the buildup of power in its reactor core, and held my breath as they streaked toward it, silently praying to Crom that they would reach the Glaive and destroy it before it finished transforming itself into a weapon of mass destruction.

  Time seemed to stop. I caught a second-long glimpse of the hangar around us and noticed that it was still over half-full. Thousands of brand-new, unused Interceptors were nestled into belt-fed launch racks that lined the hangar's curved reinforced concrete walls.

  I watched in slow motion as the shots I'd fired closed in on the Glaive's quivering metal hull. They finally seemed to reach their mark at last, and I saw a blinding white flash across my cockpit's wraparound screens.

  Then they all went black, and my entire drone controller station powered down, throwing the tiny room in total darkness. Somewhere above me, I heard the muffled atomic boom of a power core detonation, followed by a horrible rumbling that could only be several levels of the base collapsing in on each other.

  I don't know how long I sat there in the pitch-black darkness, listening to the aftermath of my mistake. But at some point the door of my controller station hissed open, and a terrible flood of light poured in, momentarily blinding me. As my eyesight slowly returned, I saw a female silhouette resolve in the doorway. Lex was standing there, with one hand cocked on her hip.

  "Did you see what happened?" she said, shaking her head. "Some moron Interceptor pilot chased that last Glaive Fighter into one of the launch tunnels, right before the whole hangar went up."

  I nodded and got to my feet unsteadily; then I stepped out of my control pod, feeling almost as if I'd just emerged from a real Interceptor--and a real battle. Which, of course, I had.

  "I'm still not even sure what happened up there," I lied.

  "We'd already won," she said. "We'd just destroyed all but one of their drones--but then somehow the last Glaive Fighter got inside the drone hangar before it self-destructed," she said. "Somebody screwed up."

  When I didn't respond, she studied my face for a moment.

  "It was you, wasn't it?" she said. "Didn't you hear Admiral Vance screaming at you to break off over the comlink? Everyone else sure did!"

  She pursed her lips and gave me two thumbs-up.

  Before I could begin to formulate my defense, my QComm beeped and vibrated against my forearm; then its display began flashing red to get my attention. A text message appeared, ordering me to report to Admiral Vance in the command center. An interactive map of the base below it appeared, and a green path lit up, leading from my current location in the drone controller hub out into the corridor outside, then down to another bank of elevators.

  Just as I finished reading the message, that synthesized female voice spoke over the base PA system. "Lieutenant Zack Lightman. You are ordered to report to Admiral Vance in the command center on level three immediately."

  As Lex stepped aside to clear my path, she softly sang, "You're in trouble."

  The three-dimensional map on my QComm took me on a circuitous multilevel route through the base. It seemed to be detouring me around the sections most heavily damaged by the hangar explosion, but I still saw signs of its aftermath everywhere.

  As I made my way down half-collapsed corridors filled with smoke and sparking electrical fires, several ATHID emergency response teams marched past me, coming the other direction. I also saw a few of my fellow drone operators, many of them covered in dust or ash. Some shuffled along like zombies, while others ran past me in hysterics. At every turn, I expected to see a corpse--someone who had died because of me.

  The dreamlike euphoria I'd felt during my arrival here had now completely subsided--replaced with a cocktail of confusion, uncertainty, and most of all, doom.

  When I passed through the security doors leading into the Crystal Palace command center, the two guards at the entrance seemed to know who I was and what I was doing there. In fact, it seemed as if everyone who saw me fixed me with a withering glare. But I glared back at each of them defiantly.

  When I finally reached Admiral Vance's office, I paused outside in the corridor and practiced saluting a few times, mimicking the way I'd seen soldiers do it in the movies. Then I took a deep breath and pressed my hand to the scanner plate on the wall. A tone sounded and the doors slid open. With some effort, I stepped inside, and the doors hissed shut again behind me.

  Admiral Vance was sitting behind his desk, but he stood up when I walked in. I halted just inside the entrance and gave him the amateur salute I'd just finished rehearsing.

  He surprised me by straightening his posture and returning it, raising a rigid right hand to his brow in a blur, then dropping it like the blade of a guillotine a half-second later. That was when I noticed the sidearm on his right hip. An old fashioned nine-millimeter Beretta. I was pretty sure he hadn't been wearing it earlier in the briefing auditorium.

  I lowered my salute, but made sure to remain at rigid attention, while doing my best to avoid making direct eye contact with the admiral--which was surprisingly difficult, considering he was only rocking one eye. The admiral let the silence wear on, and I realized that he was waiting for me to speak first.

  "Lieutenant Zack Lightman," I said, clearing my throat. "Reporting as ordered ... sir."

  "At ease, Lieutenant," the admiral replied, sounding surprisingly calm. "Sit."

  He motioned to a metal chair beside his desk. As he took his own seat, the admiral reached over to shut off one of the computer monitors arrayed around his desk in a semicircle, but just before the screen went dark, I caught a glimpse of what was displayed on it--the same mug shot that was on my EDA security badge was clearly visible at the top, along with my senior yearbook photo and a lot of densely packed text--all of my private information, including my school records. Before I'd walked in to his office, the admiral had been skimming my entire life story--and he'd made no effort to conceal this from me.

  "You had quite a first day, Mr. Lightman," he said. "You're going to be the first recruit in EDA history to be court-martialed less than an hour after they enlisted." He smiled. "You might make The Guinness World Records, provided it still exists after tomorrow."

  "Admiral, sir--I'm still not even sure what it was I did wrong," I said, and that was mostly true. "I was trying to stop that ship from getting inside the base before it self-destructed! What did you expect me to do?"

  "To follow orders, Lieutenant," the admiral said, and I thought I finally detected a hint of anger in his voice. He tapped a key on his computer, and his display screen lit up. He clicked his mouse a few times and my Interceptor appeared on the monitor, turning into a steep dive to pursue the last remaining Glaive Fighter as it streaked down into the open mouth of the drone launch tunnel while the admiral shouted over the comlink: "Disengage and cease fire! Do not attempt to pursue that ship into the launch tunnels! I repeat, disengage and cease fire!"

  The clip cut to another camera angle, which showed the last Glaive Fighter as it emerged from the opposite end of the drone launch tunnel and entered the hangar, with my ship close on its tail, still firing at it. The admiral paused the footage again.

  "I issued that order for a good reason, Lieutenant," he said calmly. "If you'd followed it and broken off your pursuit, an armored safety blockade would have locked into place over that launch tunnel at both ends, preventing the enemy ship from flying into it. Like this--see?"

  On another monitor, the admiral pointed
to an animated wire-frame graphic that showed a Glaive Fighter approaching the launch tunnel's open mouth. But just before it got there, a thick circular disc slammed into place, covering the launch tunnel's entrance. A second later the enemy ship crashed into it and exploded in a simulated fireball.

  "But that's not what happened, is it?" the admiral said. "Because you ignored my order and continued to pursue the enemy ship at close range, the transponder inside your Interceptor disabled the tunnel's safety blockades to allow it safe passage. Unfortunately, this also allowed the Glaive Fighter you were chasing to do the very same thing. Thanks to you, it was able to breach our defenses and enter our drone hangar, where it promptly detonated its reactor core."

  He hit Play on the footage again, and I watched in silence as the Glaive Fighter completed its self-destruct sequence and detonated.

  "Bravo, IronBeagle," the admiral said, giving me two sarcastic thumbs-up. "By some miracle no personnel were killed by that explosion," he said. "But we lost over five hundred brand new ADI-88 Interceptors."

  I winced. That was a lot.

  "I did shoot down more enemy fighters than any of the other pilots," I said.

  "True," he said. "But your little screwup did more damage to this base than the enemy's sneak attack managed to." He frowned at me. "Whose side are you on?"

  I didn't have a response for that. The even-tempered disappointment in his voice was somehow far worse than the bawling-out I'd expected. "Those drones took years to build, at a cost of millions," he said. "But that's just money. To humanity, they were priceless, since we've run out of time to build any more of them."

  "But, sir--how was I supposed to know about those automatic security blockades?" I said. "That was never a part of the game. In Armada, the Sobrukai never tried to fly one of their fighters into an EDA base through its drone launch tunnels."

  "That's because we didn't think there was any way for the enemy's fighters to get past the launch tunnel security blockades." He sighed. "Apparently, no one believed one of our own pilots would be dumb enough to tail an enemy ship making a suicide run into our drone hangar."

 
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