Armada, p.21
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       Armada, p.21

           Ernest Cline

  Another turbo elevator hurtled us downward at an unsettling speed, then slowed to a stop just a few seconds later. A screen embedded in the wall displayed a 3-D map of the base, and it indicated that we'd just arrived at its lowest level, at the very bottom of the egg-shaped structure nestled into the Daedalus crater. When the doors hissed open, we stepped out into a short, blue-carpeted corridor that terminated in a pair of sliding armored doors with drone operations center neatly stenciled across them. Above these doors, spray-painted on the wall in stylized graffiti, was the name thunderdome.

  The doors slid open as we approached, and I followed my father through them into a large circular room with a domed concrete ceiling that was painted a bright iridescent blue, like the screens that were used on movie sets as placeholders for digital effects that would be added later.

  "Welcome," my father said, stretching out his arms, "to the Moon Base Alpha Drone Operations Center. We call it the Thunderdome."


  "Well, because it has a dome," he said, pointing up. "And we fight inside it, just like Mad Max." He shrugged. "And because 'Thunderdome' sounds cooler than 'Drone Operations Center.' "

  In the center of the room, on a raised platform, was a rotating command chair with curved ergonomic touchscreens built into its armrests. It was encircled by ten oval-shaped pits sunken into the stone floor, each containing an individual drone controller pod. Unlike the multifunction stations we'd used back at Crystal Palace, these pods appeared to have been designed to control Interceptors exclusively. Each pit contained a simulated ADI-88 Interceptor cockpit--a pilot seat, flight stick, and all of its familiar control panels and system indicators arrayed beneath a wraparound display canopy that slid into place over you when you climbed into the pilot seat.

  My father tapped a button on his QComm, and the bright blue dome over our heads switched on, like the screen of a high-definition television, providing a 360-degree view of the cratered landscape surrounding the moon base that made it seem as if we were standing in the observation deck on the base's top level instead of in a reinforced bunker far beneath the lunar surface.

  As he led me across the enormous domed bunker, I glanced inside each of the drone controller pods at my feet. I could see through their semitransparent canopies, and four of the pods were already in use: Debbie, Milo, Whoadie, and Chen were inside, giving their new rigs a test spin in some sort of training simulation.

  The Japanese EDA officer I'd spotted earlier was standing at the command console with another EDA officer--a tall dark-skinned man I'd never seen before. Both men looked about the same age as my father, and both had the same weary, battle-hardened demeanors I'd seen in him. As they walked over to greet us, I glanced down at the collars of their uniforms and saw they both held the rank of major.

  "Zack, I'd like you to meet two of my oldest friends," my father said. "Major Shin Hashimoto, and Major Graham Fogg."

  "Konichiwa, Lightman-san," Major Shin said. I saluted him, but he threw me off by returning it with a bow. "It's good to finally meet you. Your father has told me way too much about you over the years." He grinned. "I've gotten pretty sick of it, actually."

  "Sorry," I said, just to have something to say.

  Shin studied my face until it started to feel creepy; then he glanced over at my father, then back at me, comparing our faces.

  "Holy Toledo," he said, whistling. "You really are the spitting image of your old man." He elbowed me in the ribs, grinning broadly. "My sympathies, kid!"

  He laughed heartily at his own joke, and my father gave me an apologetic look--the same look I used to give to my mom, when one of my friends came over and broke something. But I laughed politely in return, then turned to shake hands with Major Fogg, who appeared to be the tallest person on the moon.

  "It is my distinct pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Lightman," he said brightly. He surprised me by speaking with a thick British accent. "Welcome to Moon Base Alpha!"

  I glanced at the shoulder of his uniform and saw the Union Jack there, instead of US flag. I also noticed that the word Defence on his EDA insignia was spelled with a c instead of an s.

  "It's just the three of you?" I asked. "No one else is up here?"

  "Just us," Shin said. "A resupply shuttle comes up twice a month, but the rest of the time we're all alone. Not counting all of the drones, of course."

  Graham nodded. "The Alliance used to have dozens of people stationed up here, to help keep all of the different systems running smoothly," he said. "But once the QComm network came online, almost everything could be done remotely with drones, so they cut back to just a skeleton crew, made up of essential military personnel."

  "There used to be a few more pilots stationed up here," my father added, "including Admiral Vance, but now it's just us."

  "The Three Musketeers," Graham said, smiling. "Lucky buggers that we are."

  A long folding wooden table and three folding metal chairs were arranged against the far wall. The table's surface was covered with a variety of Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks, gaming screens, and dozens of oddly shaped dice.

  "We play D and D four or five nights a week," Graham explained when he saw me eying the setup. "Helps to pass the time. Shin is usually our dungeon master." He smiled at me. "My character is twenty-seventh-level Elven archer."

  "Why don't you show him your character sheet, Graham?" Shin said. "That will really impress the kid."

  Graham ignored him and continued to shadow me with an enthusiastic smile as I wandered around the control center, like a kid showing off his room. A short distance away, I spotted a large drum kit, two electric guitars, and three mic stands, flanked on either side by a stack of amplifiers. I wandered over to examine the gear.

  "What, do you guys have a band or something?" I asked.

  "Indeed, we do," Graham said proudly. "We call ourselves 'The Bishop of Battle.' It's the name of--"

  "The short film starring Emilio Estevez?" I finished for him. "From the Nightmares horror anthology?"

  My father and both his friends blinked at me in surprise as goofy grins spread across each of their faces.

  I grinned back, then nodded at my father. "I saw it when I was working my way through all of your old VHS tapes. It--"

  I cut myself off when I realized how revealing my last statement had been. But none of them noticed. They were all still beaming at me for getting their band name.

  "I like this kid, Xavier," Shin said.

  My father nodded. "Yeah, so do I."

  "We can play some pretty decent Van Halen covers," Graham continued. "Maybe we'll jam for you guys later?"

  "Sure," I said uncertainly. "That would be cool."

  I glanced back over at my father, but he was staring at his feet and shaking his head in embarrassment. "We're not going to play for them, Graham, I told you," he muttered. "Aliens are invading in a few hours, remember?"

  "What better reason to rock out one last time?" Graham replied, throwing up two sets of devil horns.

  I stepped over to the edge of the nearest drone controller station pit and peeked in. There was an out of order sign Scotch-taped to its tactical display.

  "What happened to this one?" I asked.

  "Graham spilled Coke Zero on it, that's what," Shin said. "Cost the war effort millions."

  "Stop trying to pin that on me," Graham grumbled back. "You left your sandals lying around and I tripped over them. Those millions are on you, Shin-bone."

  Graham laughed, but when I laughed, too, he scowled at me.

  "What's so bloody funny, kid?" he said. "I fried one drone pod--that's nothing compared to the zillions of dollars in drones we lost this morning, thanks to your little stunt!"

  Shin nodded, and they both continued to scowl at me for a few more seconds before they both burst into laughter.

  "I'm joking, lad," Graham said, still laughing. "I must've watched the video clip of you chasing that Glaive into the base fifty times so far today! Priceless, that was!"

/>   Shin shook his head. "How did you stop Viper from murdering you for that?"

  "Maybe he realized I'm already a dead man, so there was no point?"

  My father frowned at me and seemed about to say something, but Shin changed the subject before he could.

  "Care for some snackage, Lieutenant?" he asked. "Your favorite snacks were listed in each of your EDA profiles, so we stocked up on all of them. You're a Lucky Charms man, right? Dry, with no milk? We laid in a few dozen boxes for you, see?"

  He pointed over at one of the unoccupied pods across the room, where half a dozen boxes of my favorite breakfast cereal sat stacked up like crates of ammunition. The other new recruits had an assortment of snacks and beverages laid out on the floor around their sunken pods, too. Stacks of Nacho Cheese Combos and Slim Jims were scattered around Milo's pod, along with a small mountain of Diet Mountain Dew. There were bags of Cheddar Jalapeno Cheetos and a row of two-liter bottles of Hawaiian Punch laid out for Whoadie, bags of multicolored Skittles for Debbie, and beside Chen's pod, dozens of silver energy drink cans with qi li printed on the side, surround by writing in Chinese.

  "How did our favorite snacks end up in our EDA profiles?" I asked Shin. But it was Graham who answered.

  "The EDA knows everything about everyone, kid," he said. "Your food and beverage preferences weren't the only things being recorded while you were playing Armada and Terra Firma, trust me. Your pulse rate, blood pressure, sweat content--the EDA makes the CIA and the NSA look like the PTA."

  "Great," I said. "The government has been spying on all of us our whole lives, but at least we get to have our favorite snacks. Bonus."

  To my surprise, my father grinned at my remark. He seemed about to respond, but just then the other new arrivals emerged from their pods, and he went over to greet them. Chen snapped to attention when he saw my father approach, and the others scrambled to follow suit.

  "At ease, recruits," my father said as he walked over to them. "Welcome to Moon Base Alpha. I'm General Xavier Lightman, your new CO. I apologize for keeping you waiting."

  He scanned their faces, waiting for a response, but my new friends all seemed too starstruck to speak. My father walked over to stand in front of Milo, who was grinning like he was about to meet one of his favorite movie stars, his earlier disdain apparently forgotten.

  "You're Milo Dobson, right? Better known as Kushmaster5000?"

  Milo nodded imperceptibly, caught in the throes of some sort of gamer fanboy aneurysm.

  "It's an honor to finally meet you in person, Lieutenant Dobson," my father told him. He turned to the others. "It's an honor to meet all of you. Whoadie, CrazyJi. AtomicMom." He shook hands with each of them in turn, then nodded at me. "And, of course, IronBeagle. You're five of the most gifted pilots I've ever seen in action. We're privileged to have you here."

  The others smiled and their faces flushed with pride--and mine may have a bit, as well.

  "Thank you, sir!" Chen said, carefully repeating his QComm's translation.

  "Yeah, thanks, General!" Milo said, finally recovering from his stroke of paralysis. "I mean, holy shit--that's a huge compliment, coming from RedJive himself! You're the best of the best of the best, sir! I've been studying your moves for years--we all have."

  My father seemed genuinely embarrassed by this praise.

  "You're giving me way too much credit," he said. Then he pointed to his two comrades. "Shin and Graham were both heavily involved with your simulator training, too. I'm sure you'll recognize their call signs. Shin uses the handle MaxJenius, and Graham--"

  "My call sign is Withnailed," Graham finished. "Though these two rarely use it."

  "We prefer to call him 'Limes' instead," Shin said. "It's short for 'limey.' He hates it."

  Graham nodded. "Indeed I do."

  We all smiled in recognition at their familiar call signs. MaxJenius and Withnailed were both mainstays in the top-five pilot rankings, too. Since the first year the game was launched, they had both alternated between second and third place, right below RedJive.

  "I don't mean to be rude, General Lightman," Debbie said. "But when are you going to tell us why the EDA sent us up here?" She glanced over at Shin and Graham. "Why couldn't we just remain back on Earth with the other recruits?"

  My father exchanged a strange smile with his two friends, then nodded at Debbie.

  "I was just about to brief all of you on that subject," he said.

  Graham smiled; then he motioned to a row of low, padded leather bench seats behind us. "You guys might want to be sitting down when you hear this," he said, before sitting down himself. Milo and Debbie joined him, but Chen, Whoadie, and I remained on our feet.

  My father waved his hand at the view screen covering the domed ceiling, and the image arrayed across them changed. We were no longer looking at a live feed of the lunar landscape outside the base, but at an animated three-dimensional graphic of our solar system, with the spinning planet Earth in the foreground and the moon lazily orbiting it at a distance, both surrounded by a series of concentric rings indicating the orbital paths of the other planets. My father made another gesture at the screen and the animation of our solar system began to speed up, making the planets zoom around the sun like a pack of race cars, each on a separate track.

  "One of the things you weren't told during your enlistment briefing is that this isn't the first time the Europans have sent ships to Earth to attack us," the General said. "Over the past four decades, they've done it exactly thirty-seven times."

  On the domed screen, the celestial clockwork of our solar system continued to spin forward until the orbits of Earth and Jupiter aligned, bringing the two planets into their closest annual proximity. Then, as the orbit of Jupiter's moon Europa brought it as close as possible to Earth, the animation froze.

  "Every 398.9 days, a celestial event known as the Jovian Opposition occurs," the General explained, "when the Sun and Jupiter are both on opposite sides of Earth, and Europa is at its closest proximity to us. Ever since our first contact with them, the Europans have used that proximity to send a small detachment of ships to Earth, to conduct surveillance, test our defenses, and abduct live human specimens for study."

  He tapped his QComm display, and an image of Moon Base Alpha appeared on the screen, seen from above, nestled into the Daedalus crater.

  "Once the Europans began to send scouting missions to Earth, the EDA decided to construct a secret defense base here on the far side of the moon," the general said. "It was originally intended to function as a long-range surveillance and communications outpost. But when it finally became operational in September of 1988, and a permanent human presence was established here, the enemy's tactics changed. When the next Jovian Opposition arrived, the Europans didn't send their detachment of scout ships directly to Earth. This time they came here to Moon Base Alpha first--and attacked it."

  Video footage began to play on the domed view screen, showing a large formation of Glaive Fighters streaking down from the starry blackness of the lunar sky to descend on the tiny moon base nestled in the crater below, as Interceptors began to launch out of the base's hangar and fly up to meet them, setting off a massive aerial battle.

  "We managed to fight them off, but just barely," he said. "It took nearly a full year to repair the damage. And when the next Jovian Opposition arrived, the Europans attacked again, this time with an even larger force, to match the increased size of Moon Base Alpha's defenses. And once again, our forces were barely a match for them."

  "The same thing happened again the next year," Graham said. "And the year after that."

  "Each year, they sent even more drones to assault the base," Shin said. "And every year, we increased our defenses here in anticipation of their next attack."

  My father nodded. "This escalation continued for over a decade, until the Europans changed the game on us again last year, by unveiling a new weapon--one you've all encountered before during your Armada training. The Disrupter."

A collective groan escaped the new recruits. On the view screen, we watched as a cluster of enemy ships appeared, descending toward Moon Base Alpha in perfect formation, creating an image that momentarily resembled a screenshot of the game Space Invaders.

  A wire-frame diagram of a spinning dodecahedron appeared adjacent to it on the view screen, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

  "The Disrupter appears to function by coupling itself to a large celestial body, like a planet or moon." On the view screen, an animation showed a spinning chrome dodecahedron making landfall on Earth and then firing a beam of red energy into the planet's core. "The device then harnesses the planet's magnetic field, using it to generate a spherical field that disrupts all quantum communications inside it."

  "All of the EDA's drones have backup radio-control units," Shin added. "Unfortunately the Disrupter interferes with normal radio communications, too, so they're useless."

  On the view screen, the emerald green Disrupter began to generate a transparent sphere of red energy that enveloped the entire planet Earth, along with its entire atmosphere--causing the EDA's drones to fall out of the sky. But the moon was outside of the Disrupter's range--as was the secret EDA defense base on its far side.

  "The quantum-disruption effect only works if the transmitting and receiving ends of a link are both contained inside its spherical field," the General said. "If either the drone or its operator are located outside of the disruption field, the quantum link is completely unaffected and remains intact. If the enemy manages to couple their Disrupter to the Earth, only the EDA personnel stationed up here on the moon--that's us--will still be able to control the drones we have stockpiled back on Earth, and vice versa."

  My father flipped away from the wire-frame animation and back to the footage of the enemy fighters, revealing a large, onyx-colored dodecahedron--a dark, multifaceted jewel spinning in their midst. The object pulsed rapidly in color from jet black to molten red along its illuminated angular seams.

  "Just before the Europans attacked this base during the last Opposition, they activated the Disrupter, coupling it to the moon's magnetic field, which is relatively weak compared to that of Earth."

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