Armada, p.23
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       Armada, p.23

           Ernest Cline

  "And you, Shin?" Debbie asked quietly. "Do you have any family, dear?"

  Shin's smile faded slightly. "Unfortunately, my parents both passed away years ago. About halfway through my tour of duty up here. So I never got to say goodbye to them, which was extremely painful at the time." Then his expression brightened, and he reached over and gave my father's shoulder a squeeze before slapping him on the back. "But my friend Xavier here had already gone through the same thing, and he helped me get through it. He lost his folks, too, a few--"

  Shin cut himself off, then shot a nervous glance over at me and then my father, who was again staring intently at the tablecloth.

  "Anyway," Shin said, forging ahead, "right now I'm just thankful they got to live out their lives peacefully, and that they're not around for ... what's about to happen."

  Everyone around the table nodded, save for my father, who seemed to be slowly turning to stone. Shin seemed to sense this, and he turned to me.

  "How you doing, Zack?" he said. "You holding up okay?"

  I nodded. Then I shook my head. Then I shrugged and shook my head again.

  "Don't look so worried," Shin said. "The general forgot to mention one thing during his little pep talk earlier." He gave me a conspiratorial smile. "We have a secret weapon--the greatest drone pilot who ever lived." He jerked a thumb at my father. "Did you know that your old man has shot down over three hundred enemy ships? He currently holds the EDA record."

  "Your father has also been awarded the Medal of Honor three times, by three different presidents," Shin said. "Bet you didn't know that, did you?" He shook his head at my father. "He's too modest to even tell his own son."

  "Seriously?" I asked him. "Three Medals of Honor?"

  My father nodded, closing his eyes to his embarrassment--the same way I did when I received compliments.

  "They were classified Medals of Honor," my father said. "It's not like anyone will ever find out about them."

  "I just did," I said. "Mom will, too, when I get a chance to tell her."

  He gave me a half-smile, then dropped his eyes again.

  My mother would be proud of him, but that might not be enough, and he knew it. I could see it in the defeated look that flashed across his face whenever I mentioned her. My father knew as well as I did that all of his noble motivations and heroic sacrifices might not be enough to win her forgiveness--or even her understanding--for what he'd done to us. Not in the limited amount of time she would have to do so. I still wasn't sure if I had forgiven him.

  I glanced over at my father. I knew he wasn't planning to call my mother, but I'd do it for him, if I had to. I wasn't sure what he was supposed to say to her, after disappearing for seventeen years--I didn't know what I was going to say when we spoke, and I'd just seen her earlier that morning--or if she'd be willing to listen. But I had to try.

  When Whoadie finished eating a moment later, she got up from the table and went over to the observation window, then spent a moment staring down at the enormous radio dish nestled inside the enormous crater far below. "What did you say that thing was again?" she asked.

  "That's the Daedalus Observatory," Shin said, with a tinge of pride in his voice. "It's the largest radio telescope ever built--by humans, at least."

  "We built it to talk to the aliens?" Whoadie asked.

  Shin nodded. "This crater is near the center of the moon's far side, so this location is completely shielded from all of the radio interference created by humans, which makes it an ideal place to send and receive radio transmissions without them being monitored back on Earth." He sighed. "Unfortunately, the Europans have never been interested in talking."

  "One of the first acts of the EDA," Graham said, "was to create an internal task force called the Armistice Council, made up of a bunch of prominent scientists, including Carl Sagan--"

  "I've been wondering about that," I said, interrupting him. "How did they get Carl Sagan to keep the Europans a secret for so long?"

  "He knew the news could create a worldwide panic and upend our civilization," my father said. "He only agreed to remain silent on the condition that the EDA give him the funding necessary to educate the world's population and try to prepare them for the news that humanity is not alone. That was how he got funding for his Cosmos television series."

  Shin nodded. "Unfortunately, Dr. Sagan passed away before things really began to escalate with the Europans."

  "The Armistice Council kept on trying to establish peace talks after he died," Graham added, "but the squids never sent a single reply."

  "Squids?" I repeated. "I thought we didn't know anything about the Europans' biology?"

  "That's the official story, all right," Graham said, adopting a conspiratorial tone. "But trust me, mate--they're squids. The brass knows a lot more about our enemy than they let on--they always have." He glanced at Shin, then at my father, then back at me.

  "What are you talking about?" Milo asked. "The Europeans declared war on us, for no reason!"

  Everyone had given up on correcting Milo every time he referred to the Europans as Europeans--even poor Graham, who actually was European.

  "That's the official story, all right," Graham said. "But does it make any sense? Think it through. If the Europans had attacked us ten or twenty or even thirty years ago, we never would have been able to stop them."

  I sat bolt upright, then glanced at my father. But his eyes were locked on Graham.

  "We couldn't even have stopped an asteroid or a meteor from wiping us out back then, much less an angry alien species with vastly superior weaponry and technology," Graham continued. "They had the upper hand from the start, so why didn't they use it? Instead, they basically just handed us their technology and then gave us all the time in the world to reverse-engineer it. Then they gave us even more time to build a huge stockpile of millions of drones to defend ourselves against the drones they were building."

  It was more than a little disturbing to hear Graham vocalize many of the same questions that had been eating away at me ever since the EDA briefing.

  "And they built all of their ships and drones in orbit above Europa, in plain view of Galileo's cameras! There's no way they weren't aware that we were watching them. They wanted us to see! It was like they were running a nonstop, year-round episode of How It's Made by Aliens."

  Graham noticed that Shin was now making a screw-loose gesture with his index finger and flipped him the bird as he kept on talking.

  "The Europans had this huge advantage over us, but then they slowly, gradually lessened it on purpose, instead of just slaughtering us over a weekend. Why? Why send a small group of scout ships every year, year after year, to study us, mutilate our cattle, and attack our secret moon base?" He lowered his voice to a whisper. "But they weren't really even serious attacks. They never try to destroy the entire base or kill everyone inside during their annual Jovian Opposition assaults. Instead, they always do just enough damage to prove that they could destroy the whole base if they wanted to. Then they leave without actually doing it. Why?"

  Shin interrupted him again. "Are you gonna let him spout this nonsense in front of the new recruits?" he asked my father. "Right before the attack? He'll demoralize them!"

  My fellow recruits did indeed seem shaken by Graham's speech. As was I--but for a different reason. Everything he'd laid out matched my own suspicions with eerie accuracy, but I didn't want to hear it. Shin was right: Worrying about abstractions and unanswerable questions just hours before the fight of our lives was a pointless--even harmful--distraction.

  "You can't stop the signal, pal!" Graham said. "I've also heard, from several reliable sources, that one of their scout ships crashed in Florida in the late eighties, only it wasn't a drone. They recovered it with two dead Europan pilots, floating inside a pressurized fishbowl cockpit. Word is we've still got the bodies on ice in a bunker five miles beneath Wright Patterson Air Force Base."

  "He's just repeating old rumors," Shin said. "Alliance gossip--bullshit s
tories that have been circulating through the ranks for decades. There's no evidence to support any of it!"

  "That's not true and you know it, Shin-bone!" Graham said. "Why do you think the Sobrukai were designed to be aquatic extremophiles in the Chaos Terrain games? Because that's how the Europans really look, man!" He turned to address me and the other new arrivals. "The Sobrukai overlord's design was based on the biology of the real Europans. They just scaried him up for the public."

  "Well, it worked," Debbie said. "I have nightmares about that overlord whenever I forget to skip the intro and mistakenly catch a glimpse of him--it, I mean."

  "Once again, I'm afraid the Graham Cracker over there is talking directly out of his ass," Shin told us. "We have no idea if they're cephalopods or not. That's just a best guess, based on their current habitat. In reality, we don't know if they're carbon-based, or if they're even indigenous to Europa." He smiled at Debbie. "Don't worry," he said. "The overlord is made up. He was invented by Chaos Terrain to give the enemy a face--a villainous, slightly humanoid alien that humanity could rally against! Like Ming the Merciless or Darth Vader or Zod or--"

  "I get the idea," Debbie said. She shook her head. "For some reason, not knowing what they look like at all is even more terrifying."

  Whoadie and Milo both nodded. I glanced at my father again, but he was studying my face, as if trying to gauge my reaction to what I was hearing.

  "Do you believe any of this stuff, General?" Debbie asked him. He hesitated a moment and exchanged looks with Graham before finally breaking his silence.

  "I'm far more skeptical about those rumors than Graham," he said. "However, I don't entirely agree with Shin's straightforward assessment of things either." He glanced at me. "We've all had our share of arguments about this--with Admiral Vance, as well. We all interpret the limited data we have in a drastically different way." He smiled faintly. "Part of being human, I guess."

  "You didn't answer the question, General," Whoadie pointed out. "What do you believe?"

  "Yes, General," Shin said. His tone was suddenly derisive. "Why don't you be honest and tell them the truth. Tell your son the truth--about your 'theory.' That should really give morale an added boost around here, just before Zero Hour!"

  Shin dropped his silverware onto his plate with a loud clatter, got up from the table, and walked out of the mess hall. My father watched him go.

  Graham shrugged and continued eating. "The three of us have been arguing this subject for years," he said. "Our differences in opinion were bound to come to a head today."

  "Shin's just under an enormous amount of stress right now," my father said. "We all are."

  "What was he talking about?" I asked. "About your theory?"

  My father sighed and glanced at the others, who were all watching him intently--including Graham.

  "Nearly everyone in the EDA at the command level agrees with Graham, in that the Europans' behavior and tactics over the past forty-two years raise a lot of questions--at least from a human perspective." He shook his head. "The problem is that no one has ever been able to agree on how to interpret them. Most of the people in command--people like Admiral Vance--lost interest in trying to communicate with the Europans after they began sending drones here to attack us."

  "Damn straight!" I said. "They declared war on us."

  "True," he said. "But what if the Europans waited until now to attack because they have a hidden motive--one we still can't ascertain? Maybe we've misinterpreted their actions? Or maybe they've misinterpreted ours?"

  "What the fuck is there to misinterpret?" I heard myself ask. "They're coming to kill us all, just like they've been promising to do since before any of us were born. The time for negotiating has passed, don't you think?"

  My father shrugged. He looked cornered. "I don't know, Son," he said. "Maybe."

  I got to my feet, knocking over my chair with a clatter.

  "Maybe? Did you say maybe?"

  "Calm down, Zack," my father said. "Let's talk this through--"

  "I've heard enough talk, General!" I said. "Shin is right. You're supposed to be leading us into battle and inspiring us! Not--not dumping all of your own fear on us!"

  My accusation seemed to detonate on his face like a bomb. His features began to contort, but I turned my back on him so I wouldn't have to see the rest of his reaction.

  I walked out of there as fast as I could without looking back.

  When I finally stopped walking a few minutes later, I realized I was lost. So I pulled up the interactive map of the base on my QComm and used it to locate the nearest turbo elevator. I rode it down to the habitation level and then returned to where the living quarters were located. When I reached my room, I pressed my palm to the onyx panel beside the door and it slid open. The lights came on as I stepped inside.

  The interior looked like a dorm room at Starfleet Academy. It had a symmetrical two-occupant layout, with a loft bed on either side, each enclosed in a transparent soundproofed box that could be blacked out with the touch of a button for privacy. Each loft also had a built in ladder, dresser, and uniform closet, and there was a large flatscreen television monitor embedded in the ceiling directly over each bed. There was also a small computer hutch beneath each bunk, with an ergonomic chair bolted to the floor. My backpack was sitting nearby.

  I sat down at the computer, and its built-in monitor lit up, displaying a desktop with EDA logo wallpaper and a few program icons.

  I took out the flash drive my father had given me and plugged it in.

  I held my breath as the file list popped up. There were hundreds of text files saved on the drive, along with dozens of video files, all with similar filenames: "DearZack" followed by a six-digit numerical date. The first file was named DearZack100200.txt. October 3, 2000. A few days after my father was supposed to have died.

  Dear Zack,

  I'm not even sure how to start this letter. So much has happened in the past few days, and most of it still doesn't seem real.

  I'm writing you this letter from the moon. For real, kiddo. Your dad is on the moon!

  You see, I didn't really die in an explosion at the plant, like they told you and your mom. The government just made it look like I had died, because they need my help to fend off an alien invasion. I know that sounds ridiculous, like something out of a science fiction paperback or a late night movie. But there's a reason for that! Star Wars, Star Trek--all of those sci-fi movies, novels, TV shows, and videogames I've been playing my whole life--they were all designed to prepare the people of the world for a real alien invasion. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it, but I know it's true. I've already seen the evidence with my own eyes.

  We still don't know when the invasion will begin, so I'm not sure how long I'll have to be away from you and your mom. Maybe it will only be a few months. But it could be years before I'm able to come back home. There's also a chance I might get killed up here. If that happens, I don't want you to spend the rest of your life believing your dad was just some loser sewage worker who died in a stupid accident before he ever did anything important with his life.

  I want you to know who I really was, and what really happened to me. But more than anything, I need you to know how hard it was for me to leave you and your mom, and how hard it is now to know you both think I'm dead. Please know that I never would have put either of you through all of this if I felt like there was any other chance.

  The government has promised to take care of my family while I'm away. They set up some sort of fake settlement for the accident, so you and mom should never have to worry about money. You'll be able to live a lot more comfortably than the three of us ever could have on a sewage worker's salary, that's for sure. I know it won't make up for me being gone, but it does make me feel a little better.

  I really miss both of you, but I have to admit that it's also kind of amazing up here. My whole life, I felt like I was destined to do something important, but I was only ever good at videogames, which I always f
igured would be completely useless. But it's not useless, and neither am I. I think this is what I was always destined to do with my life. I just never knew it.

  My whole existence is classified now, so I'm not even allowed to send you birthday cards while I'm away. But I'm still going to write you, as often as I can, and I'll save the letters until I can give them to you. I'm going to write to your mom, too. It's only been a few days, but I already miss both of you a lot.

  I hope you're both doing okay--and I hope my funeral wasn't too hard on your mom, or you, even though you're not even a year old yet, so you won't remember being there, but she will, and thinking about how hard that must have been for her makes me feel like jumping off a cliff. Of course, I realize now--I already jumped. That's why I'm stuck up here now.

  Anyway, I promise to write again soon, when I have more time. I'll tell you about everything that has happened to me, and all about this moon base where I live. But right now, I have to go defend Earth from alien invaders.


  Xavier (Your Dad)

  I kept on reading, devouring letter after letter.

  His early letters filled in missing details of the story I'd already pieced together from reading his old Theory notebook. My father described in detail how he'd begun to uncover facets of the EDA's grand conspiracy in the years before they recruited him, after his encounter with the strange Phaeton game at his local arcade. He would later learn that the same prototype was used to recruit Shin, Graham, and Admiral Vance.

  After he was inducted, my father's longtime suspicions were confirmed--the EDA had been tracking him ever since he was in grade school. He'd been moved to the top of their watch list after he'd mailed in dozens of fuzzy Polaroids of his record high scores to Activision. But the EDA deemed him ineligible for early recruitment, due to some "troubling results" in the preliminary psych evaluation they did on him. That was why they didn't actually recruit my father until much later, when he was nineteen--shortly after he became a father. One morning, two men in black suits showed up during his lunch break and abducted him from his job. They took him to one of their secret installations and showed him an earlier version of the EDA briefing film I'd been shown and gave him a choice--he could either join the EDA and use his videogame skills to try to help save humanity, or, he could, as he said, "puss out and keep wading through sewage for a living, until aliens show up and destroy our planet, along with my wife, my baby boy, and everyone else I know and love."

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