Armada, p.22
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       Armada, p.22

           Ernest Cline

  As he spoke, the pulsing dodecahedron fired a red beam of energy into the moon's core. It began to generate a spherical field of energy around itself, which increased rapidly in diameter until it completely covered Moon Base Alpha, along with large patches of the moon's surface, which I knew from our briefing was in a pattern that matched the moon's inherent magnetic field.

  "When the Disrupter switched on, it knocked out our ability to control drones from here inside the base," my father explained. "But all of the EDA drone pilots located back on Earth were unaffected, because they were outside the disruption field."

  Shin pulled a different graphic up on the screen, showing Earth and its nearby moon, the far side of which was covered by the Disrupter's transparent field, which was enormous, but not large enough to envelop both the moon and Earth at the same time.

  "The enemy's drones continued to function for the same reason," my father said. "Their operators were back on Europa, hundreds of thousands of miles outside the disruption field."

  Shin nodded. "This base has a backup hard-line intranet," he said. "So we were still able to defend the base using the surface guns, and with tethered backup drones, which were all hardwired and thus unaffected by the Disrupter."

  On the screen, footage showed sentry guns all over the exterior of the base powering on and returning fire as the enemy Glaive and Wyvern Fighters kept right on attacking, raining down a steady barrage of laser fire and plasma bolts on the base defenses. Down on the surface, a few dozen tethered ATHIDs and Warmechs also continued to defend the base, unspooling their fiber-optic tether cables behind them, which drastically limited their mobility, effectiveness, and range.

  "The EDA sent several squadrons of reinforcement Interceptors up here from Earth," he explained. "And with their help, we were eventually able to destroy the Disrupter. But the base was badly damaged, and we barely survived the attack."

  "Is a real Disrupter as difficult to destroy as the ones in the game?" Chen asked via his QComm.

  Shin, Graham, and my father all nodded.

  "Then how did you guys manage to take it down?" I asked.

  Shin and Graham both grinned, as if they'd been waiting for this question.

  " 'It takes two, to make a thing go right,' " Shin recited, smiling cryptically.

  Graham nodded, then added, " 'It takes two to make it out of sight.' "

  They looked as if they were about to recite more of the song's lyrics, but my father shook his head slightly and they both fell silent, waiting for him to continue.

  "Some people think we got lucky," my father said, glancing at Shin. "Personally, I think the Europans allowed us to destroy it."

  "Why would they do that?" Debbie asked.

  "Good question," my father said. "Here, watch the footage and decide for yourself."

  He tapped his QComm again, and another grainy video clip began to play on the view screen.

  "This footage was shot from one of Moon Base Alpha's surface surveillance cameras," Shin said. "Approximately twenty-three minutes into their attack. All quantum and radio communication is still being jammed by the Disrupter. Most of the base, and nearly all of its surface defenses, have been destroyed by this point."

  On the view screen, the smoking ruins of the moon base were visible in the background, its orb-shaped exterior crawling with spider-like alien drones skittering across its armored metal skin and burrowing into it with lasers. In the foreground, just beyond the lip of the Daedalus crater, was the mammoth Disrupter dodecahedron, spinning fiercely just above the lunar surface as it blasted its pulsing red coupler beam down into the moon's magnetic core. In the velvet black lunar sky above, hundreds of Interceptors were launching an assault of the Disrupter's shield, firing on it from as many different angles.

  "As you'll recall from your training, the Disrupter only has one weakness," Shin said. "A steady barrage of laser fire and plasma bolts will bring down its shields, but the Disrupter's power core is so large that it recovers far more rapidly than any of the enemy's other drones. Its shields only drop for about three seconds, then come right back up at full strength."

  "And three seconds isn't long enough to destroy it," Milo said. "At least it never was in the game. That's why no one has ever taken down a Disrupter. Not even the Flying Circus."

  "Look!" Shin pointed at the screen. "Here he comes, to save the day!"

  On the screen, a lone EDA mech appeared, power-leaping across the lunar surface, fearlessly charging toward the pillar of blinding red light created by the Disrupter's transparent coupler beam.

  "Old Viper Vance!" Graham shook his head in admiration. "Watch him go!"

  "Admiral Vance is controlling that mech?" Whoadie asked.

  "Yes," my father said. "But he was a still just a general back then. He used to be in command of Moon Base Alpha. I took over his post when he got promoted to admiral--in part, for the act of bravery we're watching now."

  "Although Viper used to do crazy shit like this all the time," Shin added. "That guy was fearless."

  "I'm sure he still is," my father said quietly, his eyes still on the screen.

  We continued to watch the silent footage of General Vance's charge toward the Disrupter, wondering what would happen when he closed the remaining distance to it.

  "How is he controlling that mech, with the Disrupter still in operation?" I wondered aloud, still studying the footage intently. "He's moving too fast to have a tether, isn't he?"

  My father nodded. "You're right, he is," he said. "Tethered drones were always too slow and too vulnerable for Vance's liking." He nodded at the screen. "He's piloting that mech from inside it. There's a cockpit embedded in its torso, just above its power core--which Viper is setting to overload right ... about ... now."

  On the screen, Vance's mech came within arm's reach of the coupler beam and then suddenly went limp and fell to the surface like giant metal rag doll, throwing up a cloud of dust.

  "He set his mech to self-destruct from inside it?" Milo said disbelievingly. "Did the old man have a death wish?"

  Shin and Graham nodded; then Shin motioned to my father.

  "I used to think he and General Lightman here both did."

  I pointed up at the screen. "But he isn't going to have time to eject."

  My father nodded. "Vance's escape pod launch system was damaged during his charge. So now he's trapped there next to his own time bomb."

  I had already started counting down the seven seconds it would take for his power-core overload sequence to complete, but I'd only hit five when two more mechs appeared, running up from the bottom of the video frame. Laser and plasma fire rained down on them from the dogfight still raging in the dark sky above the burning, half-destroyed moon base. Then I heard a familiar classic rock song blasting over Vance's comm--a song from my father's Raid the Arcade mix: "Black Betty" by Ram Jam.

  "That's one of our nicknames for a Disrupter now," Shin said, nodding at the spinning black dodecahedron on the screen. "A Black Betty. Or a 'ten-sider.' "

  I continued to study the view screen. As the two Titan Warmechs bounded toward the motionless one containing Vance, they moved in a strange sort of unison, almost like a pair of synchronized swimmers. They both seemed to dodge and zigzag perfectly again and again, just in time to avoid being obliterated, always in forward motion, seemingly oblivious to the geysers of rock and moon dust erupting all around--and sometimes directly ahead of--them.

  Shin paused the video. "Your father is operating both of those mechs. Simultaneously. He's inside the one on the left, and it's connected to the mech on the right via a short fiber-optic tether, inside a titanium-reinforced cable stretching between them."

  "Shin would know," my father said, never taking his eyes off the screen. "He finished helping me rig them together about ten minutes before this footage was shot."

  Shin pressed Play again, and my eyes were drawn back to the screen. I watched his two mechs lumber forward, unloading their sun guns and laser cannons into the
Disrupter's massive spherical shield as they passed underneath its mammoth spinning form and the coupler array at its southern pole.

  Then the mech my father was in reached Vance's mech, ripped its escape pod free--with Vance inside--and tucked it under his arm like a football.

  A ring of explosive bolts fired around the armored cable tethering my father's mech to the one beside it, severing their connection. My father's drone threw Vance's now-limp drone skyward like a shot put, toward the Disrupter's still-shielded coupler array.

  In the same motion he power-leaped in the opposite direction while hurling Vance's escape pod in front of him, a bare second before ejecting his own. Both of their pods flew out of the frame just before Vance's mech finally completed its seven-second self-destruct countdown and detonated. Two seconds later, the drone my father had hurled skyward did the exact same thing--a perfectly timed one-two punch. A nearly impossible shot, like a three-pointer from full court with one second on the clock.

  But even that amazing bit of timing wasn't enough. Because just before both mechs would've impacted against the Disrupter's transparent shield, the shield dropped, leaving the dodecahedron unprotected for that narrow three-second window while its massive power core recharged enough to power its defenses back up. It was during this incredibly short sliver of time that both mechs detonated, one after the next.

  The first detonation struck the Disrupter's diamond-hard hull, but its armor appeared to absorb the blast somehow, and the triangular facets of the dodecahedron's skin lit up molten orange as the energy dissipated across them. Only when the second mech detonated a half-second later did the Disrupter's weakened armor finally fail, in an explosion that took out the Disrupter itself.

  Graham and Shin both broke into applause. I got the feeling they had watched this footage on a regular basis, and that they applauded like this every time. Whoadie, Milo, Debbie, and Chen all applauded, too, but I abstained. I was too busy staring at the screen.

  "Can we watch that footage again?" I asked. "At half speed this time?"

  Shin nodded and ran it again. Then he ended up running it for us several more times, at everyone's request. The footage became more impressive, and more unsettling to watch, with each viewing. My father had truly pulled off a one in a million shot. If the Disrupter's shields had failed a split second earlier or later, his attack would have failed, too. And studying the time counter on the video clip, it looked as if the Disrupter's shield stayed down a fraction of a second longer than it should have--just long enough for my father to pull off a miracle.

  "How many more Disrupters are on their way here right now? Milo asked fearfully. "You left that little detail out of your briefing."

  "Three," my father said. "There's one Disruptor accompanying each wave of their invasion force."

  "Three!" Milo repeated. "There's no way we'll be able to destroy three Disrupters, one after the other--not with a massive alien shit storm coming down on us!"

  My father nodded. "Yes, I'd say that's a real long shot. But we do have one last card up our sleeves. The Icebreaker."

  "But I thought the Icebreaker mission already failed," Debbie said. "It was destroyed before the melt-laser even breached the surface of Sobrukai--Europa, I mean."

  "The Icebreaker you escorted last night was destroyed, yes," my father said. "But we had a contingency plan. We hoped we might be able to destroy the Europans before they launched their armada, but we knew our chance of success was extremely slim. So we constructed a second Icebreaker, which was hidden inside a hollowed out asteroid and placed into orbit around Jupiter, to avoid detection by the Europans. As soon as their armada departed for Earth--leaving Europa unprotected--we launched the Icebreaker. It's already on its way."

  "When will it get there?"

  "It should reach Europa about the same time the second wave of the enemy's armada reaches Earth."

  "What if we don't survive the first wave?" Debbie asked.

  "Then the Icebreaker won't make any difference," Shin said. "But that's why we have to make sure we do survive! Because then we may finally get our chance to end this war, once and for all."

  I waited for Graham or my father to agree with Shin, but both of them were silent.

  "Anyone hungry?" my father asked. He held up his QComm. "I just got word the drones have finished preparing our dinner in the mess hall."

  "Thank God!" Milo shouted, already moving toward the exit. "I was afraid that Cheetoos and Root Beer would be my last meal. Let's eat!"

  Whoadie and Debbie nodded in agreement, as did Chen once he heard the translation.

  "I don't have much of an appetite," I said. If I was about to die, I wanted the breakfast my mother made for me that morning to be my last meal--not some Salisbury steak dinner reheated in a moon base microwave.

  My father nodded, and he and Shin began to lead the others toward the exit. Graham saw me straggling behind and threw an arm around me.

  "Trust me, you'll change your mind once you see the spread up there," Graham said. "They sent up a special five-course gourmet meal for us on your shuttle."

  "Why?" Debbie asked. "Because it will probably be our last meal?"

  "Probably," Graham replied, giving me a grim smile as he quickened his pace toward the exit. "That's why I, for one, intend to stuff my face."

  The Moon Base Alpha dining hall was a long rectangular room containing four circular tables made of brushed steel, flanked by matching benches bolted to the floor. Several modular food and beverage dispensers were embedded in one long wall, along with a few microwaves--but no replicator, as far as I could tell. The opposite wall was dominated by a large curved window that provided a stunning view of the massive Daedalus impact crater spread below us, like a monochromatic Grand Canyon.

  As promised, an extravagant meal was already laid out on the tables, ready and waiting for us--what looked like more than enough food for several Thanksgiving dinners. One of the steel tables was covered with a silk tablecloth and set with eight place settings, complete with silver cutlery and fine bone china, and off to the side stood a row of four ATHIDs standing at silent attention, ready to serve us. A paper tuxedo was taped to each of their chest plates.

  I took the last empty seat, between my father and Milo. Graham sat next to Debbie, and only then did I realize from their body language that the two of them were crushing on each other in a big way. Milo noticed it, too, and rolled his eyes, then nudged me and nodded at the two of them, then at Shin and Whoadie, who were both making furtive eye contact, too.

  "This is just great," he grumbled under his breath. "Here I thought I was being recruited for an epic space adventure, but it turns out I'm a guest star on Love Boat: The Next Generation."

  "Set course ... for romance!" Shin quoted, doing such a perfect Patrick Stewart impersonation that Milo and I both laughed out loud.

  Everyone began to pass dishes and serve themselves food--everyone except Debbie, who bowed her head and began to mumble silently to herself in prayer. We all froze for an awkward beat, then bowed our heads in solidarity until she finished.

  Even with all of that delicious-looking food in front of me, I still didn't seem to have any appetite. But the day's bizarre events appeared to have left everyone else ravenous, and for a while they were all too busy stuffing their faces to talk. I cast a few sideways glances at my father, but he was shoveling food into his mouth robotically while avoiding eye contact with me.

  Chen was the one who broke the silence.

  "My phone is still not functioning," he said, via his QComm's translator. "When will I be allowed to call home and speak to my family?"

  My father checked the time on his own QComm.

  "An hour before the vanguard is expected to reach us," he said. "That's when the leaders of every nation around the world will break the news to their citizens. Once the cat is out of the bag, you'll be able to call home. We won't have long to talk, I'm afraid."

  "Why is the EDA waiting until the last minute to tell eve
ryone about the invasion?" Whoadie asked. "That won't give the world much time to prepare for the vanguard's attack."

  "The world is already as prepared as it's ever going to be," my father said.

  Shin nodded. "The population is already beginning to panic, judging by what's on the global news feeds. People all over the world saw those EDA shuttles with their own eyes this morning when the shuttles were flying around to pick up essential recruits. The media has been airing and analyzing footage all day, along with information about their connection to Chaos Terrain's videogames. The whole world wants to know what's really going on."

  My father shook his head. "No they don't," he said. "Once people find out about the invasion, chaos will spread like wildfire. Civilization will start to break down."

  Graham made a derisive sound. "The EDA knows people will be more likely to stand their ground and fight if they don't have time to turn tail and run for the hills."

  I looked at my father. He briefly met my gaze, then glanced over at Debbie, who was staring down at the countdown clock on her QComm. It was superimposed over a photo she'd set as her display background--three smiling, dark-haired boys resting their chins on the edge of a swimming pool in the bright sunshine.

  "Handsome boys," Graham said.

  "Thank you," she replied. "I'm worried about them." Then she reached out and covered the countdown clock with her finger so she could still see her sons' faces.

  "What about you two?" Debbie asked, addressing Shin and Graham. "Is the EDA going to let you contact your families, too?"

  "I'm a bit nervous about that, actually," Graham said. "Me mum is still alive, but she thinks I died back in the nineties. My father had already passed by the time I was recruited, so I left her all alone--and she's been alone ever since. The EDA has taken care of her financially, of course, but emotionally, well, what can one do?"

  Graham blinked a few times, then swallowed hard.

  "I hope she still recognizes me," he said. "And if she does, I hope the sight of me doesn't give her a coronary--that is, if the PM's address doesn't do that first." He shook his head. "The poor old girl is in her sixties now."

  I wasn't all that worried about how my own mother would react to the news our planet was being invaded. She had always been the picture of calm in the face of crisis. She seemed to thrive on it. But when she found out my father was still alive, well--that was another story.

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