Armada, p.24
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       Armada, p.24

           Ernest Cline
 

  What choice did I have, Zack? I didn't want to leave you two, but I couldn't just sit around and do nothing while that happened. So I said yes, even though I knew it meant I might never see you and your mother again. If I died protecting the two of you and our home, then I figured it would be worth it.

  Imprisonment. That was what he began to call it.

  In every letter I opened, my father repeated the same apologies, marking and lamenting every single missed birthday or Christmas. For him, every milestone of my childhood and adolescence had been a double-edge sword. Watching me grow to manhood brought him joy, even from such a great distance. But that joy was always tinged with the bitter agony he felt at having missed every last second of it, and the knowledge of the pain caused by his absence.

  Once a month, he wrote, the EDA would send him updates about my mother and me. He looked forward to them like holidays. In the interim, he scoured the Internet for any additional scrap of news about us he could find in a local paper or on my school's website. Every time he received a new photo of me, he wrote about it in his letters in endless detail, going on and on about how big I was getting. About how much he'd missed me and my mom, more and more every year.

  He wrote to me about his day-to-day life as an elite Moon Base Alpha drone pilot. He recounted the details of the battles he fought each year, during the Jovian Opposition. He wrote about his hopes for victory, and about his fear of "the coming war." My father used that phrase often in his letters. "The coming war." It made me realize how terrible it must have been for him, to have this conflict hanging over his head all these years. My father had lived his whole adult life with this terrible burden, knowing that the End of Everything was coming, and that it was drawing closer every second.

  In one letter, he confessed that he'd stopped dreading the coming invasion. "Now I long for it begin," he wrote. "Because, one way or another, it will put an end to my misery--and my imprisonment here."

  He wrote: "I miss you and your mother so much I can barely stand it sometimes."

  And then, half a dozen letters later, he wrote, "I just can't stand it anymore."

  Another letter said he'd gone "a little nuts for a while." He wrote about how they put him on antidepressants. When things got really bad, he took tranquilizers sometimes, too. And he was required to videoconference with a shrink back on Earth twice a week.

  He wrote that they kept giving him medals, but they no longer meant anything to him. He just wanted to go home. But he couldn't, because it was his job to make sure humanity still had a home when this was all over. Besides, he knew the EDA wouldn't let him go home now, anyway, because he'd asked them--repeatedly. But they told him he was far too valuable an asset, and that the world needed him right where he was. So instead, he'd started to beg the EDA to give him just a few hours of shore leave, so he could visit his family and remember what it was he was up here fighting for. They told him that would be too big of a security risk, and that if anyone learned he was still alive, especially his family, it could jeopardize everything he had worked for and sacrificed for all of these years.

  As difficult as it had been for me to grow up without knowing my father, I now realized that the years we'd spent apart had been even more difficult for him. For the past seventeen years, I'd been living an idyllic life in the suburbs with mom, surrounded by friends and all of the comforts of home. My father had spent those years here, in this desolate place on the far side of the moon, all alone, and for all he knew, completely forgotten by his loved ones.

  Finally I got curious and jumped ahead to the collection of video messages he'd recorded. I clicked on the most recent one, dated less than a week ago. The timestamp said it was just after two o'clock in the morning, by MBA time.

  My father was sitting in a large dark room--larger than his quarters. It was some part of the base I didn't recognize. His unshaven face was just inches from his QComm, and his paranoid, bloodshot eyes filled half of the video frame. As he sat there in the dark, rambling into his QComm's video camera, he looked and sounded just like a raving, straitjacketed asylum patient--more specifically, a lot like Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys.

  "There's something I have to do," he said. "Something I can't tell you about, until I see you in person. But I don't know if Vance will really honor my request and station you up here with me--if he doesn't, I need you to know something."

  He stared into the camera lens, seeming to search for the right words.

  "What if figuring out the aliens' true motives is the only way to beat them?" He shrugged and glanced away. "Or at least survive them? At this point, I think surviving might be humanity's best-case scenario." He looked back into the lens. "I hope all of this makes sense to you, if and when you actually ever get to see it. If you do--please forgive me, Son. For everything. And no matter what people call me--no matter what they say about my own actions, I want you to know that I did what I felt I had to do--to protect you and your mom, and everyone else back on Earth. Please know that I did what I did because I didn't think I had any other choice. If you're still alive to see this message, you'll know I made the right one."

  He stared expectantly at the camera for a few more seconds, as if he actually expected someone to respond. Then he tapped the screen in front of him, and his image winked out.

  I yanked out the flash drive and pocketed it. Then I knelt to grab my EDA rucksack. My old canvas backpack was stuffed inside, along with my father's old patch-covered leather jacket. I slung the pack over my shoulder, then continued out the exit.

  I walked down the empty corridor to my father's quarters. The door hissed open for me automatically as soon as I came within range of its retinal scanner, and I saw my father sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, strapped into an Armada Interceptor Flight Control System like the one I had at home. He was wearing VR goggles and a pair of noise-canceling headphones, and didn't appear to notice me come in. I could tell that he was playing an Armada practice mission with Shin and Milo, because he kept saying their call signs, followed by his trademark RedJive catch-phrase, which he uttered each time he blasted one of his opponents' ships to virtual smithereens.

  "You're welcome. You're welcome. Oh, and you're quite welcome, too."

  I cleared my throat loudly, and he pulled off his goggles and headphones.

  I held up his flash drive. He nodded and stood up. Then he glanced over his shoulder at the nearest security camera before turning back at me.

  "Let's go," he said. "I know a place we can talk in private."

  My father led me through a maze of dimly lit corridors, then onto a turbo elevator. It whisked us upward, to the base's top level, and the doors opened on the observation deck. I now noticed that the transparent dome overhead was the exact same size as the domed ceiling down in the Thunderdome, and it offered the same exact view. I glanced around until I located the camera array suspended from the dome's armored frame, which captured the 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape in high-definition and projected it on the Thunderdome's concrete ceiling, deep beneath the moon's rocky mantle.

  Without pausing to admire the view, my father crossed to the other side of the observation deck, to another elevator door. Unlike the other doors on the base, this one failed to open automatically when he approached it. Instead he flipped open a panel beside it to reveal a numeric keypad and punched in a long code from memory. The doors swished opened and we stepped inside. There was a single button, with a down arrow on it that lit up when my father pressed it. The elevator carried us downward, dropping us so fast I thought my feet might lift up off the floor for a moment. When the car opened, we stepped out into a narrow service tunnel lined with wires and metal tubing. I followed my father down its length, nearly sprinting to keep up. It was a very long tunnel, with a steep downward grade.

  When we finally reached the other end, my father opened a circular hatch in the ceiling with yet another security code. After a short climb up a metal ladder, we emerged into a large, circular room wi
th a clear domed ceiling. It provided a stunning view of the surrounding crater and of the armored sphere that was Moon Base Alpha, visible off to our right--a giant armored orb nestled into the adjacent goblet-shaped crater high above us, just beyond the lip of the larger bowl-shaped Daedalus crater in which we now stood.

  "Welcome to Daedalus Observatory," my father said. "Sorry about all the dust and trash--the cleaning drones never come down here, obviously. They closed the observatory down over two decades ago and made the whole place off limits."

  I spent a moment gazing out at the barren lunar surface, which stretched to the black horizon in all directions. The sight suddenly drove home the fantastic isolation of the place. It was no wonder my father and his friends behaved a bit strangely. The years of solitude they'd had to endure up here probably would have driven a lot of people nuts.

  "You said this place was off limits?"

  "It was," he said. "It is. But I figured out how to get the power and life-support systems in here back online without alerting anyone back on Earth. And I left all of the hidden microphones and cameras in here disabled, so this is one of the few places in the entire base where the EDA can't monitor or record me."

  He leaned toward a small microphone stalk protruding from a nearby security console and then spoke loudly into it.

  "Open the pod bay doors, HAL," he recited. "I said, please open the pod bay doors, HAL." He grinned at me. "See? Sweet, sweet privacy."

  "Right, we wouldn't want the Cigarette Smoking Man to eavesdrop on us," I muttered. But he ignored the remark.

  "Here," he said, reaching over to flip a bank of switches, flooding the dim space with flickering fluorescent light. "This is what I wanted to show you."

  The other side of the control room was a chaotic, cluttered mess. Handwritten notes, diagrams, drawings, and computer printouts were taped up everywhere and stacked on every available surface. It looked like the lair of a homicide detective on some TV show--one who had spent decades tracking a serial killer no one else believed existed.

  I crossed the room and walked through the paper jungle my father had created, studying his notes and printouts.

  "I know how all this stuff must look," he said, as if he'd read my mind. "Like Russell Crowe's garage in A Beautiful Mind, right?"

  "I was thinking it looked more like a supervillain's lair," I said. I started punching random buttons on the console in front of me. "Which one of these is the self-destruct?"

  "The first one you pressed, actually," he said, pointing to an unlabeled red button.

  I believed him for a split second--long enough for my eyes to widen in panic.

  "Yes!" he said, grinning. "Got you, kid."

  "Fine, you got me," I said. "You did all this yourself?"

  He nodded. "I've never shared any of this with either Shin or Graham," he said. "Shin wouldn't take any of it seriously," he said. "And Graham--well, Graham doesn't have a very skeptical way of thinking, and I wanted to approach this scientifically." He locked eyes with me. "But from what you said up in the mess hall before, I was sure you didn't want to hear any of this?"

  I shook my head. "I've been asking myself the same questions you and Graham mentioned. I just ... didn't think learning the answers could make any difference now." I locked eyes with him. "Tell me," I said.

  He nodded and took a deep breath.

  "You know who Finn Arbogast is," he said. It wasn't a question, but I nodded.

  "The fake founder of Chaos Terrain?" I said, recalling my brief meeting with the man that morning at Crystal Palace--a lifetime ago. "What about him?"

  "I was his primary military consultant when he and the Chaos Terrain team were developing Terra Firma and Armada, as well as all of the early mission packs," he said, and I thought I detected a tinge of pride in his voice. "I always dreamed of making videogames for a living when I grew up, so you can imagine how I felt when I got the chance to help design the videogames that might help save the world.

  "Arbogast and I collaborated for several months. Not in person, but we video-conferenced several times a week. It was his job to create the videogames that would train the world's population how to fight off the Europans. So his training simulations had to be able to simulate their ships, weapons, maneuvers, and tactics--all with a very high degree of accuracy. To accomplish that, they gave Arbogast unrestricted access to all of the EDA's data on the Europans--everything we'd learned about them since we made first contact."

  He sighed heavily. "And I managed to access some of that classified data."

  "How?" I asked. "When you were stuck up here and he was back on Earth?"

  "He linked his computer network to ours," my father said. "So that he could share new builds of Terra Firma and Armada with us as soon as they were ready for testing. That allowed me to gain access to his research files on the Europans--which contained a lot of the top-secret data about our interactions with them over the years ... and everything I learned from them confirmed the theory I'd already been forming for almost a decade."

  I nodded, trying to hide how nervous he was making me.

  "Lay it on me," I said.

  "Okay," he said. "Here goes." He took a deep breath.

  "Ever since we made first contact with them, the aliens have been intercepting our movies and television broadcasts. Then they edit clips from them together and transmit them back to us, once a year, just prior to the Jovian Opposition," he told me. "But only a handful of people have ever been allowed to see the transmissions." He motioned to the screen. "Now I need you to see them, too."

  A barrage of these alien-edited video clips began to appear on the screen--and every last one of them depicted some form of human conflict. I glimpsed a lot of World War II newsreel footage, intercut with photos and video of the dozens of other large-scale military conflicts that had occurred in the following decades. But these images of real-life war were intercut with scenes from a lot of old war movies and television series. It almost seemed as if the Europans were unable to differentiate between reality and fiction. Either that, or they were intercutting the two on purpose, in an effort to make some kind of point.

  Even weirder--I also began to spot brief scenes taken from dozens of science fiction films--all of them featuring hostile alien invaders of some kind. In the space of just a few seconds, I spotted shots from various films in the Trek and Wars franchises, mixed with shots from the various versions of War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, V, and even--God help us--Battlefield Earth. Nothing from the friendly alien movie genre, though. Not so much a single glimpse of E.T., Starman, ECHO, or Alf.

  "Look at these transmissions," he said as the barrage of clips continued to flash on the screen, showing a grotesque menagerie of extraterrestrial invaders plucked from the entire history of science fiction films--Aliens, Predators, Triffids, Transformers--you name it.

  "These images, and the way in which they're arranged--I think it's some kind of a message, Son," he said. "An intentionally cryptic one. It's like--like they're holding up a mirror, so that we can see ourselves from their perspective."

  The rapid montage of unsettling imagery flashing on the screen suddenly segued into a series of two-and three-second-long clips from summer blockbusters like Independence Day, Armageddon, and Deep Impact, most of them from scenes that depicted all of humanity uniting as one species, to save itself and its home from a deadly comet, a rogue asteroid, or from a wide variety of hostile alien invaders.

  "I think the Europans have been studying us and our popular culture since before we even made first contact with them," my father said, raking his hands through his hair. "I think they watched all of the science fiction films and television shows we've made that depict an alien invasion of our planet, and they realized it was one of our species' worst nightmares. So they set about making it happen. They proceeded to stage an alien invasion just like the ones we'd always imagined. The kind depicted in our fiction, complete with giant motherships, starship dogfights, killer robots--
all of it!"

  My father stared at me, waiting for me to say something, but I was momentarily speechless. I could only continue to stare at the screen, where the images kept coming. I spotted stills from the reboots of The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and War of the Worlds, and then a clip from an older film, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

  "I knew for certain these images were intended to be a message when I heard this," he said, tapping his QComm. "Each of these bursts of images ends with a series of five tones."

  It was the opening of "Wild Signals" from John Williams' score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The five tones the government has their keyboardist start off with when they play that epic game of Simon with the aliens at the end of the movie.

  La-Luh-La-BAH-BAH!

  The tones sounded as if they were coming from an old touch-tone pushbutton telephone handset. They began to play, very quickly, on a repeating loop. Then my father muted the audio and turned to study my reaction. But hearing those five notes from Close Encounters had momentarily thrown me off balance. I'd never liked that film--probably because of how easy it was for the main character, Roy Neary, to (spoiler alert) leave his family at the very end of the film. It hit a little too close to home.

  I stared at the images. I listened to tones. I waited for him to continue.

  "Okay," he said, inching forward. "First, just think about the chronology of events. Think about how our first contact with them went down. The Europans orchestrated this entire conflict--they lured and manipulated us into it." He narrowed his eyes. "Why else would they slap a giant swastika on the surface of Europa--it was a trap, and we walked right into it! Just like Admiral Fucking Ackbar!"

 
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