Armada, p.20
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       Armada, p.20

           Ernest Cline

  I was still wondering that when I realized he was already moving toward me, closing the narrow distance between us, and then his arms were suddenly wrapped around me.

  A dam ruptured somewhere in my chest, and a torrent of feelings came rushing out of me all at once. I buried my face against his chest, and this triggered a long-dormant sense memory: the sensation of my father holding me just like this, when I was still an infant. It may have even been my memory of the very last time he'd held me, before he'd vanished from my life forever.

  No, not forever, I told myself. Until right now.

  "I'm so happy to see you, Zack," he whispered, with a slight tremor in his voice. "And I'm sorry--so sorry for leaving you and your mother. I never imagined that I would be gone for so long."

  Each word he spoke made my heart swell, until it felt as if it might burst. In one breath, my father had just said all of things I'd always dreamed of hearing him tell me, back when I'd still allowed myself to fantasize about him still being alive. And I was too overwhelmed to respond. Part of me was still sure that all of this was some sort of precarious dream, and that if I said or did the wrong thing, I would wake up now, at the worst possible time.

  I tried again to speak, to tell him I'd been dreaming of this moment my entire life. But I still couldn't find my voice. My father seemed to take my continued silence as a negative sign. He let go of me and stepped back; then he began to study my face, trying to decipher whatever dazed expression he saw there.

  "I've been waiting eighteen years to tell you all of that, Zack," he said quietly. "I've practiced saying it in my head a million times. I hope I got it right. I hope I didn't screw it up."

  Absurdly, I found myself wishing that my mother were here, so she could introduce me to this complete stranger who was wearing my face.

  "You didn't," I finally managed to say, nearly inaudible. Then I cleared my throat and tried again. "You didn't screw it up," I said cautiously. "I'm happy to see you, too."

  My father exhaled.

  "I'm relieved to hear that," he said. "I wasn't sure you would be." He smiled nervously. "You have every right to be angry, and I know you've got a temper, so--"

  He stopped speaking when he saw my smile vanish. Then he winced and contorted his brow--the exact same way I always did when I said something and instantly regretted it.

  "How could you possibly know if I've 'got a temper'?" I asked, the anger rising in my voice like mercury. My father laughed involuntarily at the irony of my response, but it was lost on me, and his reaction only made me feel even more hurt and pissed off. Somehow, all of the excitement and euphoria I'd felt upon meeting him had dissipated in the span of a few seconds. "What makes you think you know anything about me at all?"

  "I'm sorry, Zack," he said. "But I'm your new commanding officer. I read over your EDA recruit profile, and it contains all of your civilian school and police records."

  "All of my private psych evaluation results, too, I'll bet."

  He nodded. "The EDA finds out everything they can about potential recruits."

  I nodded. "Did my 'recruit profile' mention that my anger-management issues might be linked to the tragic death of my father in a shit-factory explosion when I was ten months old?"

  The question clearly hurt him, but I couldn't help but twist the knife a little farther.

  "What do you think it was like for me, growing up believing that's how my father died?" I asked. "And having everyone in the whole town believe it, too? Were you trying to ruin my life? Couldn't you have pretended to die in a fucking car accident or something instead?"

  He opened his mouth and then closed it a few times before he managed to form any words.

  "It wasn't like I had a choice, Son," he said. "It had to be an explosion, so that the body couldn't be identified. They buried a John Doe in my place." He met my gaze. "I'm sorry. I was a kid myself, at the time. I didn't really understand what I was agreeing to do--and to give up."

  We stood there staring at each other in silence for a moment; then my father's QComm beeped. He glanced down at its display with a frown, then turned back to me.

  "We need to get up to Operations and get you and other new arrivals briefed," he said. "But we'll have a chance to talk more in private later on, okay?"

  I nodded mutely. I'd waited this long--and what choice did I really have?

  My father removed a small silver object from his pocket. "Here," he said, pressing it into the palm of my hand. "This is for you."

  I turned it over. It was a USB flash drive with an EDA emblem stamped on its casing.

  "What's on it?"

  "Letters, mostly," he said. "I wrote to you and your mom every single day I was up here." I noticed that he was shifting his weight from one foot to another while he spoke--another of my own nervous tics. "I hope they help explain why I made the decision I did, and how hard it's been for me to live with ever since." He shrugged and turned away, still avoiding my gaze. "Sorry there are so many--you probably won't have enough time to read them all."

  His voice faltered, and he turned away from me to hide his face. I glanced down at the flash drive, then closed my fist around it protectively, unnerved that so small an object could hold such priceless contents.

  My father raised the QComm on his wrist and tapped a series of icons on its display. There was a metallic clank as a row of storage-compartment doors built into the underside of the shuttle's fuselage slid open, revealing cube-shaped shipping containers. My father whispered a series of commands into his QComm, and a few seconds later, a team of four ATHIDs disengaged from a nearby charging rack and marched single-file over to the shuttle. Three of the drones began to unload the cargo, while the fourth climbed into the passenger cabin to retrieve our backpacks.

  "Ready, Lieutenant?" my father asked, nodding toward the exit.

  "Yes, sir," I replied, slipping the flash drive into one of my uniform's breast pockets so that it rested directly over my heart. Then, together, we continued to cross the hangar, and I finally widened my focus enough to take in the details of my surreal surroundings.

  The Moon Base Alpha hangar bay was a breathtaking site. The curved walls of the armored dome around us were lined with hundreds of gleaming Interceptor drones arrayed in the belt-fed launch racks that would fire them out into space like bullets from a high-velocity gas-powered machine gun. These were the drones we had been brought up here to pilot, I realized. We would use these very ships to wage war with the enemy when they arrived here, just over five and a half hours from now.

  In that moment, I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-Wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica's flight deck. Ender Wiggin arriving at Battle School. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.

  But this wasn't a fantasy. I wasn't Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or Ender Wiggin or anyone else. This was real life. My life. I, Zackary Ulysses Lightman, an eighteen-year-old kid from Beaverton, Oregon, newly recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance, had just been reunited with my long-lost father on the far side of the moon--and now, together, we were about to wage a desperate battle to prevent the destruction of Earth and save the human race from total annihilation.

  If this were all just a dream, I wasn't sure that I would want it to end.

  But it was going to end, and soon--because there was an egg timer strapped to my forearm counting off exactly just how many more hours, minutes, and seconds remained until my rude awakening.

  When my father reached the exit, he continued walking through the open airlock doors, into the tube-shaped access tunnel beyond, which--if the layout of this place was as identical to its virtual counterpart in Armada as it seemed--led beneath the lunar surface, to the adjacent Daedalus B crater, where the rest of the base was located.

  But I stopped just shy of the exit, and turned back to take another look at the thousands of Interc
eptors racked into the curved dome wall around me, and at the automated drone-assembly plants at its far end, their matter compilers and nanobots working even now to construct more ADI-88s--which they would probably never have time to finish, if what Vance had told me about the aliens' speed was true. I winced as another wave of shame washed over me at the memory of my colossal screwup at Crystal Palace, and the hangar full of drones it had cost us.

  But then I recalled one of the final images from the EDA briefing film, of the Europan armada, a massive deadly ring of warships encircling the icy moon, all now headed toward Earth.

  Those drones we lost at Crystal Palace wouldn't have made any difference. Nor would all of the drones here, or those stockpiled back on Earth.

  My father saw me lingering inside the hangar and ran back to fetch me. "What's wrong, Zack?"

  I laughed out loud at the absurdity of his question.

  "What's wrong?" I repeated. "Gee, let me think now ..."

  "We need to get moving, Lieutenant," he said. "There isn't much time."

  But I didn't move. My father waited.

  I turned to study his face, then asked him the question I needed to ask: "How badly outnumbered are we going to be? Once the entire armada arrives?"

  "So badly it's not really even worth thinking about," he said immediately, without even pausing to consider his answer. And the lack of concern in his tone pissed me off all over again.

  "Then why the hell did you bring me up here?" I asked. "So that you could have a quick father-son playdate before we both die horribly?" I jerked a thumb at the shuttle. "If we're doomed, just tell me right now. I'd rather fly that thing back home and die with my mother. She's all alone now, you realize?"

  My father looked as if I'd just gutted him, and I felt a pang of regret--but it was mingled with a twisted sense of satisfaction. It felt good to hurt his feelings--it was payback for the way his choices had irrevocably damaged my own.

  It took my father a moment to respond. When he did, his tone of voice had hardened.

  "I didn't 'bring' you up here, Lieutenant. You voluntarily enlisted as a solider in the Earth Defense Alliance. You don't get to run home now just because you're scared. Trust me."

  "I'm not scared," I said, lying right through my teeth.

  "If that's true, then you're a fucking idiot," he said matter-of-factly. "But I know that's not the case." He looked me in the eyes. "I've been fighting this war for half my life now, Zack, and I'm terrified. You don't know how long I've lived in fear of this day, and now it's here."

  "You're not making me feel any better right now," I told him.

  "I know that, Lieutenant," he said. "I also know how hopeless our chances must seem, given what you've been told and the images you've been shown. But believe me, Son, there are a lot of things about our situation--and our enemy--that you still don't know."

  He cast a glance back over his shoulder, toward a large security camera mounted above the nearest exit, sweeping its lens slowly back and forth. Then he turned back to me, and I think that was when I caught my first glimpse of something truly unsettling in my father's eyes. A hint of the very madness that I'd always feared I might have inherited from him.

  "We can't talk now, or here," he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. "But things aren't nearly as hopeless as they seem, Zack. I promise you." He gave me a hopeful smile. "That's why I'm so thankful you're here now. I'm going to need your help."

  Despite my better judgment, I went ahead and asked, "With what?"

  "With saving the world, Son," my father said. "You think you're up for that?"

  I straightened my posture, and for the first time I noticed we were now the same height.

  "Yes, sir, General, sir," I replied. "Most definitely."

  There was no mistaking the look of pride on my father's face. It was intoxicating.

  "I was hoping you'd say that," he said, patting me on the back. "Follow me."

  He turned and began to jog back out through the hangar's exit.

  I cast another furtive glance back over my shoulder at the gleaming fighter ships stockpiled around me. Then I turned and ran after my father--even though I still wasn't quite sure exactly where he was leading me.

  As General Lightman led me through the dimly lit carpeted corridors of Moon Base Alpha, I kept biting the inner wall of my cheek every few minutes, because each subsequent flash of pain was proof that I was wide awake, and that this was all really happening.

  As we took a circuitous route down to the Operations level, I marveled at how strangely familiar my new surroundings were, and at how perfectly Armada's simulated version of the moon base matched the real thing.

  When I mentioned to my father that it looked like certain elements of the base's exterior design had been "borrowed" from the fictional Clavius Base seen in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he was delighted to confirm that they had.

  "The team of engineers who designed and built this place were in a huge hurry, so they borrowed from a lot of existing designs," he explained, motioning to the carpeted corridors around us. "They stole a lot of ideas from Syd Mead and Ralph McQuarrie, like everyone else. Other people, too." He grinned. "The access corridors down on the maintenance level look like they were stolen right off the set of Aliens, I swear--wait until you see them."

  Once he told me all of that, I suddenly began to see evidence of sci-fi design theft everywhere I looked inside the base. Everything was sleek, ergonomic, and vaguely retro-futuristic in its design, which often appeared to favor form over function.

  There were also a lot of vintage rock band and movie posters taped up everywhere, but I was pretty sure those had been added by the base's current residents--as had the graffiti spray-painted in red on one of the corridor walls: the cake is a lie.

  We also passed one corridor lined with dozens of framed photos of men and women in EDA flight officer uniforms, wearing hairstyles from at least four different decades. Each photo was accompanied by a small plaque with the officer's name and two dates, indicating each individual's "Term of Service in the Earth Defense Alliance." This was followed by "Made the Ultimate Sacrifice to Protect Us All."

  "All these people served up here?" I asked my father.

  He nodded. "And they died up here, too," he said. "Those are officers who lost their lives in the line of duty."

  "But they were just drone pilots, right?" I said. "How did they all die?"

  "During previous attacks the enemy has made on this base," he said. Then, before I could ask him to elaborate, he said, "I'll explain in the briefing."

  When we reached the end of that corridor, my father led me onto a turbo elevator that carried us down to the Operations level, located over a mile beneath the lunar surface, in just a few seconds. Then my father led me through a series of cavernous chambers carved into the lunar bedrock, which housed the cold-fusion generators, life-support systems, matter compilers, and the enormous gravity-distortion array.

  "I don't know how most of this stuff works," my father confessed. "Or even how to operate most of it. But I've never needed to, because all of the base systems are completely automated. And all of the maintenance is done by drones operated by real people back on Earth."

  When we passed the glass-walled med bay, I saw that it, too, was staffed entirely by drones. The base doctor appeared to be a specially equipped ATHID with a pair of articulated human hands that allowed a surgeon back on Earth to operate them remotely.

  "A doctor in London used one of those med drones to remove my appendix a few years ago," he said. "The procedure went flawlessly."

  The crew quarters were packed onto the same level--fifty modular dorm rooms, each designed for two residents.

  "Since only three of the rooms are currently occupied, everyone gets their own private digs," my father said. He pointed to a door labeled a7. "These are your quarters. The door has already been coded to your biometrics, and your pack should already be inside."

  I held up my QComm and checked the cou
ntdown timer.

  "Why even bother giving me a room?" I asked. "The vanguard arrives in just a few hours--it's not like I'm going to try to take a nap between now and then."

  "No," he said, smiling. "But you might want some privacy later on, once you're able to call your mother."

  I stared at him until he met my eyes. "Are you planning to call her?"

  He shook his head. "I doubt that would be a good idea," he said. "Why would she be interested in speaking to me, once she finds out I'm alive and that I ... abandoned you both?"

  "Of course she'll want to talk to you!" I told him. "She'll be overjoyed to find out you're alive." Then without thinking, I added, "Just like I am."

  He studied my face. "You really think so?"

  "I know so," I said, although I was trying to convince myself as much as him. "She never got over losing you. She never fell in love again after you. She told me so."

  My father suddenly turned away, and I heard a small noise escape him--like the sound of wounded animal, caught in a trap. When he made no other attempt to reply, I motioned to the other doors lining the corridor.

  "Which room is yours?" I asked.

  He pointed to the first door at the end of the hall, labeled a1.

  "But that's not part of the tour," he said, attempting to steer me in the opposite direction.

  "Just let me peek inside for one second," I said, standing my ground. "Please? Sir?"

  "There really isn't that much to see," he said, still interposing himself between me and the door.

  But judging by his reaction, there was clearly a lot to see--and I was determined to see it. I didn't move. Our standoff continued for a dozen or so seconds before the general finally stepped aside and palmed open the door, his face already flashing red in embarrassment as I squeezed past him to peer inside the tiny modular room.

  The entire back wall of my father's quarters was covered with photos of me and my mom, including all of my yearbook photos going back to grade school. A photo of my mother in her nurse's uniform, which he must have found on her hospital's website, was hanging over his bed. The rest of his walls were completely bare.

  Before I could examine his living space further, he prodded me back out of it into the hall, then locked the door.

  "Hurry," he said, trying to hide the unsteadiness in his voice. "Every second counts."

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