Armada, p.17
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       Armada, p.17

           Ernest Cline
 

  "It's not fair to pin that on me," I shot back. "I've never even been in combat before--and I never wanted to be! You brought me here and told me we were being invaded by aliens about ten minutes before they attacked this fucking place! I'm a high school kid! I'm supposed to be in school right now!"

  The admiral nodded, raising both hands in a calming gesture.

  "You're right," he said. "I apologize. This isn't your fault." He smirked. "Not entirely."

  His answer threw me. I didn't respond.

  "The EDA always knew the risks of using a videogame simulation as the sole method of training civilian recruits," he said. "But under the circumstances there was no other option. It was the only way to locate and train millions of average people to operate combat drones in a short period of time without anyone knowing it. Your act of insubordination today--and its disastrous aftermath--are inevitable results of putting an unstable, undisciplined civilian like you on the front lines. But you're one of our most gifted pilots, so in your case, I was told the benefits would outweigh the risks." He let out a weary sigh. "Obviously, that turned out not to be the case."

  He paused, giving me another chance to speak up in my own defense. I didn't take it.

  "If you act without thinking in an Armada dogfight, there are no real consequences," he went on. "Your player ranking drops a few places and the game gives you a canned cut-scene lecture that you promptly ignore." He leaned forward. "But things have changed. This isn't a game anymore. We can't afford any more mistakes like the one you just made. Understood?"

  "So does this mean you're not going to court-martial me?"

  "Of course not," Vance said. "We need you, Lieutenant. Once the Europan armada begins to arrive, we're going to need every able-bodied human being on Earth to take up arms and help us fight them off. And that may still not be enough."

  His gaze drifted back up to the countdown clock mounted on the wall above his desk, and mine followed: 7 hours 02 minutes and 11s remaining. I glanced down at my QComm and saw the countdown mirrored there. It was hard to believe the attack and subsequent battle had all occurred in less than an hour. I watched the seconds tick off.

  "But this was your first and only warning," the admiral said. "You screw up like this again ... you'll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong."

  I stared at him in surprise. He glared back at me for several seconds, then gave me an almost imperceptible smile. I suddenly realized who I was talking to--Admiral Vance was also Viper, the Armada pilot currently ranked in fourth place, just above Rostam. Viper was also the name of a character in Top Gun, the film he'd just quoted.

  Until now, I hadn't known that Viper and Admiral Vance were the same guy. This little detail had yet to be revealed in the Armada's ongoing storyline--which now seemed to have spilled over into reality.

  The admiral was still staring at me, waiting for a response. His grin was gone.

  "Do we understand each other, son?"

  I winced at the admiral's choice of words.

  "Yes sir," I said through clenched teeth. "But I'm not your son."

  He stared at me for a moment; then he smiled and nodded.

  "I know," he said. "You're Xavier Lightman's kid."

  We locked eyes.

  "You look just like him," the admiral said, matter-of-factly. "You fly like him, too."

  The office seemed to be spinning now, whirling around me with increasing velocity.

  "You knew my father?" I finally managed to ask.

  "I still know him," he said. He pointed to his QComm. "I just spoke with General Lightman before you arrived in my office. We talked about you, naturally."

  The words fell on me like an avalanche.

  Since I was a boy, I had imagined countless absurd scenarios in which my father had somehow faked his own death, or lost his memory, or been kidnapped by the CIA and brainwashed into becoming an assassin like Jason Bourne. But the fantasies had been just that--fantasies. I'd never really doubted that he was dead. Not until this moment.

  "My father is dead," I said hollowly. "He didn't live to see my first birthday."

  "Your father is alive," the admiral said. He reached up to touch the jagged scar on his right cheek. "And I owe him my life. We all do."

  My mind kept rejecting that any of this was even possible. That any of this was really happening. My father wasn't just alive, but a general in the Earth Defense Alliance? A war hero, tasked with saving the world?

  I opened my mouth, but Vance seemed to anticipate my next question before I asked it.

  "The EDA faked your father's death when he was first recruited. All our early recruits were forced to cut off all contact with their old lives. In return, the EDA promised to take measures to help support each of their families financially, while they were off saving the world."

  So my father had knowingly and willingly deceived and abandoned us? How could he have--

  Admiral Vance cut into my thoughts again. "Try not to be angry at your father. He did it to protect you. To protect the world. And don't feel too sorry for yourself, either. Your family wasn't the only one that had to make sacrifices." He glanced down at the wedding ring on his left hand. "Trust me, Zack. Your father never forgot about you. He was actually kind of a crybaby over how much he missed you, to be honest." He studied me. "And even though you weren't aware of it, he actually reentered your life several years ago, albeit in a very limited way.

  "General Lightman has been supervising your training ever since the Armada simulation first went online," Vance said. "He took part in nearly all of your training missions. He also happens to be Armada's highest-ranking pilot. His call sign--"

  "RedJive!" I blurted out. "My father is The Red Baron?"

  The admiral nodded.

  "Is he here?" I asked, glancing behind me, wondering if he was about to walk in. "When can I see him?" I jumped to my feet. "I want to talk to him, right now!"

  "Calm down, Lieutenant," he said. "The general isn't stationed here at the Palace."

  He flipped open a clear plastic folder on his desk and handed me the single sheet of paper inside. It appeared to be some kind of office memo printed on Earth Defense Alliance stationery. My full name, rank, and other vital statistics were printed neatly across the top, followed by several lines of text that laced heavily with a lot of abbreviations and acronyms I didn't recognize. The admiral's name and signature were at the bottom.

  "What is this?" I asked, still trying to decipher the text.

  "Your orders," he said. "Along with your duty station assignment."

  I looked up at him. "I'm not staying here?"

  He shook his head. "Most of Crystal Palace's personnel are being relocated to other outposts as we speak," he said. "The location of this base is obviously no longer a secret to the enemy--if it ever was to begin with. Besides, as you know, nearly all of our remaining aerial drones were destroyed when the reserve hangar went up."

  I continued to scan my orders, trying to figure out where I was being sent--then I saw it, printed near the top. duty station assignment: mba--lunar dcs.

  "No way. You're sending me to Moon Base Alpha?"

  He nodded.

  "It's really up there?" I asked. "The EDA really built a secret defense base in a crater on the far side of the moon? Just like in the game?"

  "Yes, Lightman," he said. "Just like in the game. Try to keep up."

  His QComm buzzed on the desk in front of him, and he checked its display. Then he spun around in his chair and began to study the half-dozen display screens arrayed behind him.

  "That will be all, Lieutenant," he said. He pointed to the exit. "Get your uniform and report to the shuttle bay immediately."

  I stared back at him, not moving.

  "I'm not going anywhere until you let me see my father, sir."

  "Can't you read, Lieutenant?" he said. "He's your new commanding officer."

  I glanced back down at the printout in my hand. There it was, printed just below
my duty station: co: gen lightman, x.

  "Give your old man my best when you get to the far side of the moon," Admiral Vance said, in a voice that suddenly sounded light-years away. "And tell him we're even."

  The map on my QComm's display screen led me back through the undamaged sections of the base, down to level four. When I stepped off of one of the turbo elevators that was still operational, I joined the procession of recruits filing into the New Recruit Induction Center, an enormous carpeted room filled with a maze of high-walled office cubicles. It reminded me of the DMV offices in Portland--although, thank Zod, the line here appeared to be moving much more quickly. When I reached the front of it, a uniformed technician gave my retinas another scan. Then he retrieved a crisp new EDA flight officer's uniform from the long rack behind him and presented it to me, on a hanger draped in clear plastic, along with a pair of black running shoes with dark gray soles, Velcro laces, and no manufacturer's logo anywhere on them. The two-piece EDA uniform was dark blue, and its zippered jacket had gold piping along the shoulders and down each sleeve. My name and rank were stitched over the jacket's left breast pocket, above the Earth Defense Alliance insignia.

  I filed into the adjacent changing rooms, then found an empty stall and got undressed. After I finished stuffing my civilian clothes into my backpack, I put my EDA uniform on. Everything was just my size.

  I avoided looking in the mirror until I was finished, then turned to face my reflection. I hadn't worn a uniform since Cub Scouts, and I was concerned that this one might look equally unflattering on me. But when I checked my profile in the mirror, I thought I actually looked pretty sharp, like an intrepid young space hero about to embark on an epic adventure. Then I realized--that was more or less my new job description.

  I stared at my face in the mirror, taking in the strange mix of fear and anticipation battling each other for supremacy there.

  Then I straightened my uniform one last time, picked up my backpack, and exited the dressing room, feeling several inches taller now than when I'd first stepped inside. The map on my QComm directed me back through the base, again highlighting a circuitous route that took me around the areas damaged during the enemy's sneak attack.

  When I reached the shuttle bay, I was surprised to see that aside from some rocky debris scattering the runway, it seemed to have escaped the attack--and my monumental screwup--unscathed.

  Several EDA shuttles were parked on numbered landing pads around the perimeter of the hangar's oval-shaped runway, and I walked down the line until I spotted the one specified in my orders. Its cabin doors were open, and through them I could see that several people were already sitting on board, waiting for departure.

  "Look at you," I heard a female voice say behind me. "An officer and a gentleman!"

  I turned to see Lex, standing at rigid attention in her new EDA uniform, which looked as if it had been tailored to accentuate her frame.

  "Well?" she said. "What do you think?"

  I think you might be the girl of my dreams and I'll probably never see you again. That was what I was thinking. But I couldn't bring myself to say it out loud, so instead I took a step, straightened my spine, and snapped her a sharp salute.

  "Lieutenant Zack Lightman," I said. "Reporting for duty, ma'am!"

  "Lieutenant Alexis Larkin," she replied, returning the salute. "Ready to save the world!"

  I dropped my hand and took a step back. "You look outstanding, Lieutenant."

  "Why thank you, Lieutenant," she said. "You don't look too shabby yourself." She studied the rank on my uniform. "So I take it the admiral decided not to court-martial your insubordinate ass?"

  I shook my head. "He let me off with a warning."

  She shook her head. "See what I mean?" she said. "You're clearly getting special treatment." She gave me a shove. "Is your old man a senator or a mob boss or something?"

  I wasn't sure how to answer that, so I didn't. "Where are they sending you?" I asked.

  "Sapphire Station," she said. "That's the code name for another base like this one, located just outside Billings, Montana. How about you?"

  I handed her the printout of my orders that Vance had given to me. When she finally located my destination, her eyes went wide and she looked back up at me.

  "Moon Base Alpha?" she said. "It's real?"

  "Apparently."

  She shoved the sheet of paper back at me in disgust. "What a bunch of horseshit!" she said. "I get stationed in Montana, and you get to go to the fucking moon. That's real fair." She gave me another playful shove. "Maybe I need to start being insubordinate, like you."

  I knew she was joking, so I didn't respond. An awkward silence descended.

  Lex unsnapped her QComm from the strap on her forearm. "Hold your arm out for a second."

  I did as she asked. She touched her QComm to mine and both devices beeped.

  "Now I've got your number, and you've got mine," she said. "We can stay in touch." She pointed to the countdown clock on her QComm and smiled. "We'll probably only be able to stay in touch for another six hours and forty-three minutes, so it's no big deal."

  "Thank you," I said, staring down at her name on my own QComm's display, and then at the countdown timer next to it.

  "Wow, you're a popular guy," Lex said, staring down at her QComm screen. She tapped it a few times, then tilted it toward me again, and I saw the three names listed on my own contact list mirrored there: Arjang Dagh, Alexis Larkin, and Ray Habashaw. Then she tapped the music icon, and I saw that she had somehow pulled all of the music off of my device, too.

  "Hey, how did you do that?" I said, making a halfhearted grab for her QComm. She snatched it out of my reach.

  "I was pissed when they hacked into my old phone, so I decided to try hacking theirs. It was shockingly easy." She smiled. "They may have used alien technology in these things," she said. "But the software they installed to run it all was clearly created by humans--overworked, underpaid programmers like me who take all kinds of shortcuts. The security protocols on the file-sharing system are a total joke. It only took me about five minutes to jailbreak this thing."

  She tossed her QComm behind her back with one hand, then caught it effortlessly with the other, keeping her eyes on me the whole time. Then she held it back up in front of me.

  "Access to the public phone network is still disabled, so I wasn't able to call my grandma," she said. "However, I did figure out how to enable admin privileges on the QComm network. Now I can pull private data stored on another QComm, just by calling it or touching it with mine. Contacts, text messages, emails, everything."

  "But why would those features even be included in the software?"

  "Why do you think?" she said. "So Big Brother can keep on spying on each of us, right up to the bitter end." She grabbed my phone. "Here, I'll jailbreak yours, too."

  I handed my QComm back to her, then watched as her thumbs danced across the keyboard on its display for a moment.

  "You're kind of amazing," I blurted out--because that was what I was thinking, and I'd recently been told the world was about to end. "Did you know that?"

  She blushed, but didn't avert her gaze from my QComm display.

  "Yeah, well," she said, playfully rolling her eyes. "That's just, like, your opinion, man."

  I laughed and moved a step closer to her. She didn't move away.

  "Listen," I said, as if she weren't quite obviously already doing so, "I know we just met, but I just wanted to let you know that I wish we'd met each other a long time ago, under different circumstances. ..."

  She smiled. "Don't go getting all mushy on me now, Princess," she said, stepping back. "So long."

  She turned as if to walk away--then she abruptly turned again, spinning back around on her heel, grabbed me by my lapels, and then she kissed on me--right on the lips, with tongue and everything. When we both finally came up for air, Lex wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug. Then she stepped back and jerked a thumb over her shoulder, toward the lone shu
ttle on the opposite side of the bay.

  "That's my ride over there," I said. "I think they're probably waiting on me."

  "Yeah, we should both get going."

  "Yes. We should."

  Neither of us moved.

  "Good luck, Lex," I said finally.

  "Give 'em hell, Zack," she replied, grinning. "Call me from the far side of the moon. Let me know if you spot any Decepticons or secret Nazi bases hidden up there."

  "Will do."

  We saluted each other again; then she hoisted her new EDA backpack and ran over to her shuttle. I watched until she disappeared inside and its doors hissed closed. A few seconds later the shuttle lifted off and ascended through the narrow gap between the armored blast doors high above, which were now too warped and damaged to open all the way.

  Then Lex's shuttle titled skyward and rocketed away, out of sight.

  I took a deep breath, hoisted my own pack onto my shoulder, and turned to walk toward my own shuttle, wondering how long it would take to fly me to the moon.

  As I approached the shuttle, I could hear several loud, overlapping voices coming through its open hatchway.

  "Why does everyone always automatically assume that RedJive is a man?" a woman asked in a thick Southern accent. "That's pretty damn sexist, if you ask me."

  "Yeah," a younger female voice chimed in. "The Red Baroness might be a better nickname--for her."

  Female laughter followed. I paused a few yards from the shuttle and crouched, pretending to adjust the Velcro straps of my new EDA sneakers so that I could continue to eavesdrop.

  "People assume RedJive is a guy because Red Five was a guy," a male voice replied. He had some sort of East Coast accent that sounded equally thick to my Pacific-Northwestern ears. "Hate to tell ya, but the Red Baron was a dude, too--just like Maverick, Goose, Iceman, and every other ace fighter pilot in history."

  "You're aware that those are all fictional characters, right?" the younger woman asked, talking over the man's chuckling. "For your information, there have been female fighter pilots for over a hundred years now. I wrote a report about it for school. A woman named Marie Marvingt flew combat missions over France way back in World War I, and the Russians used female fighter pilots in World War II. And the US military has had women fighter pilots since the seventies."

 
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