Armada, p.18
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       Armada, p.18

           Ernest Cline

  After a pregnant pause, the male voice responded with an annoyed, "Yeah, whatever."

  This was followed by another round of high-pitched laughter and some scattered applause. I took it as my cue and stood up, then mounted the shuttle's small retractable staircase.

  The laughter died out as soon as the cabin's four occupants saw me appear in the open hatchway and turned to face me. I stood there for an awkward beat, letting them size me up, while I did the same to them.

  They were all dressed in newly pressed EDA flight officer uniforms like mine. To my immediate left sat a pretty middle-aged woman with tanned skin and dark hair, and the name lt. winn stitched onto her uniform. There was an empty seat to her right while on her left sat a heavyset guy with an unruly beard who seemed to be eying me suspiciously. Seated across from him was a teenaged African-American girl who looked like she probably wasn't old enough to drive yet. A young Asian man sat beside her. He looked like he was in his early twenties, and there was a small Chinese flag beneath the EDA emblem on his uniform, instead of the tiny embroidered version of Old Glory that adorned everyone else's uniform, and instead of the words Earth Defense Alliance there was a string of characters in Chinese.

  After the five of us had stared at each other in silence for what I felt was a sufficient length of time, I stowed my pack in the overhead compartment and took the empty seat next to the older woman, because she was the only one who had smiled at me.

  "Hi," I said, offering her my hand. "I'm Zack Lightman. From Portland, Oregon." As dazed as I was, I still remembered to say I was from Portland instead of Beaverton, to avoid sounding like a hick--or having to endure any Beaver-related attempts at humor.

  "Welcome aboard, Zack," she said, squeezing my hand between both of her own. "I'm Debbie Winn." Something about her demeanor and tone made me guess that she was a schoolteacher.

  "It's nice to meet you, Debbie."

  "It's nice to meet you--even under such terrifying circumstances." She laughed and gave me an anxious smile. I returned it with one of my own.

  "That's Milo," she said, gesturing to the bear-like man to her left, who was still staring at me with open hostility. The name patch on his uniform identified him as lt. dobson.

  "Hi there, Milo," I said, reaching over to offer him my hand. "How goes it?"

  He just stared at my hand without replying, until I finally shrugged and lowered it.

  "Oh, ignore him--he's from Philly," Debbie said, as if that explained his rude behavior. Then she nodded at the young woman across from her. "Zack, that's Lila. Lila, meet Zack."

  "Nobody actually calls me that," the girl said. "Everyone calls me by my nickname, Whoadie. That's my Armada call sign, too."

  We shook hands, and I was about to tell her that I recognized her call sign, but then the young man beside her cleared his throat. The name lt. chen was stitched onto his uniform.

  "This is Jiang Chen--better known as CrazyJi," Whoadie said. "He's Chinese, and doesn't speak much English."

  Chen smiled and shook my hand. He had spiky red hair that obscured the right half of his face, but the look seemed to work for him. Chen glanced down at the QComm strapped to his right wrist, where a string of Mandarin characters were appearing on his display. It must've been translating what Whoadie had said, because after Chen read over them, he looked up and gave me an exhausted smile.

  "Hell-oh," he said with a thick accent. "It goo to mee you."

  "It's good to meet you, too," I replied slowly. "I know your call sign well, CrazyJi. Yours too, Whoadie. We've flown lots of missions together. It's an honor to finally meet you in person." I stood up and held out my hand. "I'm Zack--also known as IronBeagle."

  As soon as they heard my call sign, the tension in the tiny cabin evaporated, and all four of my new companions visibly relaxed--especially Milo, who actually smiled in my direction for the first time since I'd stepped aboard.

  "The Beagle!" Whoadie repeated, smiling with recognition. "Good to finally meet you. You're a fucking legend, man!"

  I saw Debbie wince when Whoadie dropped her F-bomb.

  "IronBeagle?" Chen repeated with raised eyebrows, in what sounded like perfect English.

  When I nodded, he lunged out of his seat to shake my hand, talking excitedly in Chinese. Once he finally calmed down and let go of me, we both retook our seats.

  "What's your call sign, Debbie?" I asked, even though I already had a good guess, just due to the process of elimination.

  She laid a hand on her chest and bowed her head. "AtomicMom, at your service." She smiled nervously. "You know, like 'Atomic Bomb'?"

  "Yeah, lady, we get it," Milo said, rolling his bloodshot eyes.

  "Let me guess," I said, leveling a finger at him. "You're Kushmaster5000, right?"

  He smiled, looking immensely pleased. "The one and only."

  The Kushmaster, also known as "KM5K" to his many detractors, was a pilot known for his incessant (and often unintentionally hilarious) boasting and trash talk on the Chaos Terrain player forums, where he used a prismatic cannabis leaf for his avatar. He also loved to do a running voice commentary of the battles over the public comm channel, like Jack Burton broadcasting on his CB. I usually muted him, but I still recognized his Philly accent, and the cocky attitude that seemed to come along with it. I wasn't sure I liked him, and he seemed to like it that way.

  But in a strange way, learning their call signs suddenly made me feel as though I was among old friends--or at least familiar allies. AtomicMom, Whoadie, CrazyJi, and Kushmaster5000 were all names that I'd been seeing daily for the past year, because they were four of the call signs always listed among the top ten Armada pilot rankings--at first above, and then eventually below my own. When I'd checked the rankings last night, Whoadie's call sign had been listed right after mine in seventh place, followed by CrazyJi in eighth, AtomicMom in ninth, and Kushmaster5000 in tenth.

  "Sorry if I acted like a prick before," Milo said, solemnly offering me his fist to bump, which I did. "I thought you might be RedJive, or one of those other elitist dicks in the top five."

  Chen read the translation, then whispered a response into his QComm in Chinese. The device instantly translated his words and repeated them in English.

  "I was thinking the same thing," the computer said, in a synthesized male voice that sounded exactly like the one used by Stephen Hawking.

  I suddenly found myself wondering if Hawking had been a part of the EDA's big cover-up, too. And what about Neil deGrasse Tyson? If Carl Sagan had been let in on the secret, it seemed likely that other prominent scientists had, too. I added this to the list of unanswered questions whirling around inside my head, which seemed to only be growing longer as this insane day progressed.

  "I am not liking RedJive also," Chen's translator went on to declare loudly in its uninflected monotone. "He is an asshole total!"

  Whoadie laughed and mimicked the translator's voice while she made stiff robotic motions with her arms. "Yes!" she intoned. "The Baron is complete face-fuck!"

  The others laughed, but I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Luckily, my dad's impromptu roast was interrupted a second later, when the hatchway leading to the cockpit slid open and an ATHID clanked through it on metal feet. The drone's head split open and extended a small flatscreen telepresence monitor that displayed a live video image of the drone's operator, a middle-aged EDA officer with an impressive Sam Elliott-gauge mustache.

  "Welcome aboard," he said. "I'll be your shuttle pilot today: Captain Meadows."

  The second he finished introducing himself, he was bombarded with questions from all sides, in a variety of accents, and in at least two languages. I wanted to ask him a few thousand of my own, but he was already holding up one of his drone's clawed hands, motioning for silence. It took a minute.

  "I'm not authorized to answer your questions," he said. "Your new commanding officer will brief you as soon as we arrive at the moon base. If you have any other questions and the answers aren't classified, you can
type them into the EDA Recruit Orientation Manual app on your QComm. Understood?"

  Everyone nodded and glanced down at their QComms.

  "Outstanding," the captain said in response to our silent compliance. "We'll depart in just a few minutes. But before we leave, I'm told there's someone who wants to see you off."

  He motioned to the open hatchway just as a familiar-looking middle-aged man with red hair stepped through it, leaning into the shuttle's crowded cabin. He greeted everyone with a gleaming, press-photo friendly smile.

  "Finn Arbogast?" several of us said in unison.

  "Guilty as charged," he said, grinning and slightly out of breath. "I ran all the way down here from the Op Center so I wouldn't miss my chance to finally meet all of you." He went around the cabin, giving each of us a firm handshake in turn. "You five people have been the pride and joy of the Chaos Terrain project for a long time now. In fact, your talent and dedication were what helped us convince the higher-ups that our civilian simulator training initiative could actually work on a global scale, so thank you!"

  I'd seen plenty of photos and video interviews with Chaos Terrain's founder, but in person he was shorter than I expected. He shook my hand last, and when our eyes met, he cocked his head at me sideways.

  "You're Zack Lightman, aren't you?" he said, shaking his head as he studied my face. "The famous IronBeagle?"

  I nodded. He glanced around at the others, then gave me a sheepish grin.

  "Listen, Lieutenant," Arbogast said. "I hope Admiral Vance wasn't too hard on you earlier. There was no way you could have known about the security blockade doors on those drone launch tunnels. No enemy ship ever attempted that maneuver during any of their attacks against our moon base, so we never included it as a possibility in any of your Armada training missions." He shrugged. "Live and learn, I guess."

  I glanced around the cabin. Everyone was staring at me in wide-eyed surprise.

  "That was you?" Milo said, laughing. "You're the kamikaze dumbass who chased that Glaive Fighter into the hangar before it went kaboom?"

  I nodded.

  Everyone stared at me for an awkward beat; then Arbogast clapped his hands.

  "Well--I know you're about to depart for MBA, so I don't want to hold you up," he said. "I just wanted to thank each of you, and commend you on your bravery--"

  "Excuse me, sir," Milo said, in his thick Philly accent. "But where the hell is RedJive? You know, The Red Baron? He's the top-ranked Armada pilot in the world, right? So why ain't he here? Aren't you gonna recruit him, too?"

  Arbogast shot a glance at me, then looked back at Milo.

  "RedJive was recruited decades ago," he said "He's our most decorated pilot."

  Arbogast studied my reaction while the others exchanged looks of surprise.

  "But who the hell is he?" Milo asked. "Or she?" He gave Whoadie and Debbie a placating smile.

  Arbogast nodded. "RedJive is the call sign used by General Xavier Lightman."

  One at a time, the others each turned to look at the name patch sewn onto my uniform. Then they all stared at me for a few seconds. When I failed to say anything, Debbie finally broke the silence.

  "Any relation, Zack?" she asked quietly.

  I looked at Arbogast. He seemed interested in hearing how I would answer, too.

  "He's my father," I said. "But I never knew him. I grew up believing he died when I was still just a baby. I just found out the EDA faked his death when they recruited him."

  They all stared back at me in silence, taking this in--except for Chen, who had to read the translation off his QComm before he understood what I'd just said. When he looked up from its display a few seconds later, he let out a long low whistle.

  "And now you're on your way to the moon to meet him for the first time?" Debbie said.

  I nodded.

  "Jesus, kid!" Milo said, shaking his head. "And I thought my day was turning out weird."

  I turned back to Arbogast. "Do you know him?"

  "A little," he said. "I had the honor of working with General Lightman briefly a few years ago. He was one of our primary military consultants on Armada." He studied my face for a second, then shook his head. "You look just like him."

  I nodded. "Yeah, so I keep hearing."

  We heard a low whine as the shuttle engines began to power up. Arbogast stood up straight and snapped us all a clumsy salute.

  "Thank you again for your service," he said. "And good luck up there!"

  Then he exited the shuttle before anyone could even return his salute. After he left, the ATHID Meadows was controlling turned to slap a large red button on the bulkhead. The shuttle's doors slid closed with a pressurized hiss, barely audible over the growing roar of the engines.

  "Strap in, recruits," Meadows told us over his comm. "We're cleared for departure."

  I pulled on my safety harness and fumbled with the buckle until it finally clicked into place; then I pulled the straps tight against my chest. Once everyone was properly buckled in, Meadows' ATHID gave us all a robotic thumbs-up.

  "The journey to Moon Base Alpha should only take about forty minutes," he said. "Once we clear the Earth's atmosphere, we'll be moving extremely fast. If we run into any hostiles along the way, you'll each be able to use your QComms to control one of the omnidirectional laser turrets mounted on the underside of the hull. But our scopes are clear right now, so it should be smooth sailing. Just sit back and try to enjoy the ride."

  The drone returned to the cockpit, and I saw it dock with its charging station just before the hatch closed. When I glanced around the cabin, I found that my companions were once again staring at me. Debbie and Whoadie quickly averted their eyes, but Milo and Chen both just kept right on staring, as if a sparkly horn had suddenly sprouted from my forehead. I ignored them as long as I could; then I slowly mimed cranking up the middle finger of my right hand. When it reached full mast, they both finally seemed to get the hint and looked away.

  I took out my QComm and tried punching my mother's mobile number into the keypad, but the call didn't go through, and a notice popped up informing me that access to the civilian phone system was still restricted.

  I sighed and snapped the QComm back onto my wrist.

  We lifted off a few minutes later. As before, the ride remained perfectly smooth, even as the shuttle climbed through the atmosphere and accelerated to escape velocity--and the sky outside our windows gradually began to turn from light blue to pitch black.

  And this time, when we reached the edge of all that blackness, the shuttle didn't turn around and begin to fall back to Earth. We kept right on going, out into space. As on my first shuttle trip, the gravity inside the cabin never wavered, and when I closed my eyes, it felt as if we were motionless, even though we were moving so fast that within just a few minutes, we'd already traveled far enough away from Earth for me to be able to see the entire planet all at once, something I'd dreamed of doing for as long as I could remember.

  I stared down at the radiant blue-white sphere that was home to everything and everyone I loved and scanned the gaps in the swirling cloud layer until I located the western coastline of North America, then followed it until I spotted the familiar inlet of Portland, just barely visible. I realized then just how far away I already was from home. And it was getting farther and farther away every second.

  That's what we're fighting for, I thought. That's what they're trying to take from us.

  I pressed my face against the window beside me, craning my neck to see as far ahead of us as possible. And there it was: a radiant gray-white bulb, shining in the darkness far ahead of us. I'd spent my entire life believing that no human being had set foot on its surface since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Now I was headed there myself, aboard a spacecraft that incorporated reverse-engineered alien technology, to meet the father I had never known. What was he like now? What would he say when he saw me? How would I react?

  Across from me, I noticed that Debbie had her head down, and her hands w
ere clasped together in her lap. Her eyes were closed, and she was moving her lips in silence.

  "What are you doing?" Milo asked, sounding genuinely curious.

  Debbie silently whispered "Amen" to herself, then opened her eyes and looked over at him.

  "I was obviously trying to pray, Milo," she said.

  "You were praying?" he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "To who?"

  Debbie stared at him in disbelief. "To Jesus, Our Lord and Savior, of course."

  "Oh, yeah, of course," Milo said, chuckling. "Just one question, church lady--in what part of the Bible did Jesus warn us about this alien invasion?" He glanced around the cabin at the rest of us for support. "Because I must have missed that verse!"

  Debbie stared back at him, instantly livid. She opened her mouth, but his question seemed to have her so flustered that she didn't know how to respond.

  Whoadie did, though.

  " 'And the fifth angel sounded,' " she recited, locking eyes with Milo, " 'and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace. ... And the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.' "

  "What pit?" Milo asked. His smile was gone. "What are you talking about, kid?"

  I'd been raised to believe there was no real difference between religion and mythology, but Whoadie's words spooked me nevertheless. The verse she quoted conjured up a vivid memory of the cataclysmic fire and smoke roiling off the Crystal Palace blast doors as they buckled and warped under a hail of alien laser fire.

  " 'And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast,' " she said, " 'and they worshipped the beast, saying, who is like unto the beast? Who is able to make war with him?' "

  When she finished, everyone just stared at her for a moment. Then Debbie began to applaud, and Chen and I joined in. Whoadie blushed and looked down at her feet.

  "My uncle Franklin loves to quote Scripture," she said, shrugging. "I been hearing him recite Revelations since before I could walk."

  "Well, I vote for no more Bible verses," Milo said, raising his right hand. "That seriously creeped me out."

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