Armada, p.25
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       Armada, p.25

           Ernest Cline

  Under other circumstances, this might have made me laugh. But not then.

  "So," he went on, "humanity discovers this threatening message from an obviously nonhuman intelligence--placed in a spot where they knew humans would find it when our technology advanced to the stage where we were capable of sending probes to our outer solar system--sort of like the monolith buried on the moon in 2001?"

  I nodded--not in agreement, but just to indicate I understood the reference. Internally, I was wondering if my father was experiencing confirmation bias or observational selection bias, or one of those other biases I'd learned about in my AP Psychology class. Maybe he was seeing patterns where none really existed.

  Then again, maybe not.

  "The Europans must have known we wouldn't be able to resist sending a probe down to investigate its origin--and the moment we did, they suddenly declared war and their intention to kill off our entire species. According to the official story, the aliens never gave us a chance to explain our actions, or negotiate with them. But they didn't kill us off right away--even though they clearly had the technological means of doing so. No, instead of attacking us, they lured us into some sort of weird arms race. Then they gradually let us close the technological gap between us and them. Over a forty-two-year period. And then this year, they finally decide to invade. Why? Their behavior doesn't make any sense--unless they're testing us. It's the only explanation that makes sense."

  "We are talking about aliens here," I reminded him "You can't impose human logic on alien behavior, right? Why should anything they do make sense to us? Their culture and motives might be ... you know, 'Beyond our human understanding.' "

  My father shook his head.

  "This human understands enough to know when he's being messed with," he said. "These aliens have done everything they've done to us for a reason--maybe to elicit a reaction. Or to put us in specific kinds of circumstances, to see how we'll react to them--collectively, as a species."

  "As a test?"

  He nodded; then he sat down abruptly without saying another word, like an attorney who had finished delivering his closing argument to a jury, and stared at me, apparently waiting for me to respond, his eyes darting back and forth feverishly, hanging on my reaction.

  "What is it you think they're testing us for? To see how terrified they can make us? To see how difficult we are to kill or enslave?"

  "I don't know, Son," he said, his voice still calm and even despite his expression. "Maybe they wanted to see how our species would handle itself during an encounter with another intelligent species? A potentially hostile one? That's one of the classic tropes of science fiction. Aliens are always showing up to put humanity on trial. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Stranger in a Strange Land, Have Spacesuit Will Travel--and a bunch of different Star Trek episodes. The Europans might have a million different motives. On the eighties reboot of the Twilight Zone, there was this one episode, called A Small Talent for War--"

  I raised my hand to cut him off.

  "But this isn't science fiction, General," I said, feeling as if I were the adult in this conversation, while he had assumed the role of the starry-eyed teenager who won't listen to reason. "This isn't some Twilight Zone episode. It's real life, remember?"

  "Life imitates art," he said. "And maybe these particular aliens do, too." He smiled at me. "Does any of this feel like something that could happen in real life to you? Or do events seem to be unfolding the way they would in a story, or a movie?"

  He picked up a large whiteboard resting against a nearby console and tilted it toward me so that I could see the two hastily drawn diagrams on it. He'd drawn a picture of the Death Star from Star Wars on the left side and a sketch of the Disrupter dodecahedron on the right. Both drawings were surrounded by arrows and notes that appeared to draw a comparison between the two. But it was hard to be sure--because I couldn't read my father's handwriting to save my life.

  "Take the Disrupter, for example," he said. "Why is it so difficult to destroy, when we have no problem plowing through their other drones? Why not make all of their drones that hard to destroy? Because the Disrupter is a level boss, that's why!" He pointed to the whiteboard. "The Disrupter is their version of the Death Star--it's a huge, nearly indestructible doomsday weapon, but it has a small Achilles' heel that will allow us to destroy it." He locked eyes with me. "It's like they designed it that way--so that at least one pilot has to sacrifice themselves to destroy it. The shields only drop for a few seconds--just long enough for two perfectly timed core detonations to go off! Why would they engineer it that way, unless it was on purpose?"

  I nodded. "I wondered the same thing," I confessed.

  "No weapons designer or engineer would build something with such an arbitrary weakness," he said. "The Disrupter is more like something a videogame developer would come up with, to create a big challenge at the end of a level--a boss that requires a huge sacrifice to destroy. And then they send one--just one--to attack this base, instead of sending it to couple with Earth. Why? Because they wanted us to see how it worked! Then they let us destroy it! Maybe that was part of their test--to find out if humans are willing to make a heroic sacrifice to save their comrades? To see if our species actually behaves the way we portray ourselves in our books and movies and games?" He stood back up and began to pace, faster and faster. "They could be testing us to see if humanity lacks the courage of its convictions? Are we as selfless and noble as we think we are?"

  "But how would the aliens even know about Vance's heroic sacrifice?" I asked. "Or about anything that was going on within the EDA's ranks during those battles?"

  He bit his lower lip; then he held up his QComm.

  "Think about it. Where did this QComm tech come from?"

  I shook my head, not wanting to believe it. But he nodded in disagreement.

  "The Europans invented this technology, and we barely even understand how it works," he said. "For all we know, they're using these to eavesdrop on us right now." He rubbed his temples, wincing. "I mean, do you think it was a coincidence that of all the EDA sites around the world they could've attacked this morning, they chose the one where we'd just relocated all of our elite recruit candidates?"

  He fell silent and stared at me. My head was spinning. I sat down in one of the leather chairs bolted to the floor.

  "Why are you telling me all this?" I asked.

  He frowned, looking disappointed that I needed to ask.

  "Because you're my son," he said. "Maybe I just want to get your opinion."

  "On what, General?"

  "On what you think we should do," he said. "Do we ignore everything about the Europans' actions that don't add up and let the EDA launch their doomsday weapon at them? Try to commit genocide against the first intelligent species we've ever contacted?"

  "But they're coming here to commit genocide against us!" I shouted. "We have no choice but to defend ourselves!"

  "I believe we do, Son. I think that's what they're doing: presenting us with a choice. We can try to destroy them, thereby ensuring that they destroy us," he said. "Or we can take a gamble, based on our deductions and our moral reasoning, and try to stop the Icebreaker."

  "But then--won't we just be allowing them to wipe us out when they arrive?"

  "If they wanted to exterminate humanity, they could have done it decades ago," he said. "They had the technological capability to wipe us out the day we made first contact with them. The illusion that we can defeat them in this war is just that--an illusion. It always has been."

  I didn't respond. He took me by the shoulders.

  "No one else knows all of this. No one else could read these tea leaves like you and me, Zack. I feel like there must be a reason the two of us are here right now. We're in a position to decide the fate of humanity." He smiled. "Maybe it's destiny."

  I stared into his eyes. He was telling me the truth--or what he believed to be the truth. There was no doubt in my mind of that. It's impossible to have a poker face with
someone who has the same face as you.

  "This is why you didn't participate in that first Icebreaker mission, wasn't it?" I asked. "The admiral benched you, didn't he? He thought you might try to sabotage it?"

  He nodded. "He knows me well," he said. "We were friends a long time."

  "You shared this theory with Admiral Vance?" I said. "And he didn't buy it?"

  "Archie is a good man," he said. "Fearless. Honorable. But the guy doesn't have much of an imagination," he said. "And he doesn't know shit about common tropes in science fiction." He grinned. "Take his call sign, Viper. He borrowed that from Tom Skerrit's character in Top Gun, his all-time favorite movie. He hates science fiction. I could never get him to watch Trek, Wars, Firefly, or BSG!" He shook his head. "The bastard even refused to watch E.T.! Who doesn't love E.T., I ask you?"

  "Yeah, the man obviously can't be trusted," I muttered.

  My father frowned at my sarcasm. "That's not what I meant," he said. "Archie is a fighter at heart. He believes we can beat them, despite their superior technology, because evolution has better equipped us for warfare." He shook his head. "I'm a gamer, Zack. Like you. When I find myself confronted with a puzzle, I can't help but try to solve it."

  He began to pace back and forth in front of me again.

  "I want to find out what the Europans really are. What's really down there, under all that ice?" He looked up through the dome, at the bright band of stars overhead. "I want to know the truth. I want to reach the end of the game." He turned to locked eyes with me once again. "And I want to save the world, if I can."


  "I'm not sure," he said. "But I'm going to try, if I get the opportunity." He looked at the floor. "And I wanted to explain myself to you first. So you'll understand any actions I may be forced to take." He shrugged. "Maybe you can explain them to your mother, if I don't get the chance. ..."

  He trailed off. I was too frightened of what he might say to ask him to elaborate.

  When it became clear to him that I wasn't going to say anything more, my father reached out and pressed his hand to the scanner beside the exit. The door hissed open.

  "It's a lot to process," he said. "I'll give you some privacy to think it all through."

  He took a step forward, as if to hug me, but something in my eyes made him change his mind. He smiled and stepped back.

  "I'm gonna head back down to the Thunderdome and run a final systems check on each of the control pods," he said. "Meet me there whenever you're ready, okay?"

  I nodded, but remained silent. He gave me another forced smile, then disappeared through the exit.

  Once he was gone, I sat there alone in the darkened Daedalus Observatory control room, at the center of the giant electronic ear that humanity had constructed to try to communicate with its enemy, thinking about everything my father had just told me.

  What if he was right about everything--just like he'd been right all those years ago when he scribbled down his theory about the Earth Defense Alliance in that old notebook of his? That theory of his had seemed ridiculous at first, too.

  I let the possibility linger in my thoughts for a moment. Then I cast one last glance up through the dome at the starry dynamo stretched out over my head, taking it all in. Then I turned and hurried out the exit, fleeing the solitude of the Daedalus Observatory as quickly as I could. There wasn't much time left. I didn't feel like spending any more of it alone.

  I rode the turbo elevator back up to the observation deck. The moment the elevator doors swished open and I stepped into the large domed room, the odor of burning cannabis filled my nose. The smell grew increasingly stronger the farther I ventured into the room, as did the familiar strains of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, punctuated by fits of only slightly suppressed laughter.

  In the dim light, I could now make out two figures stretched out on the floor across the room: Shin and Milo were sprawled side by side, lying flat on their backs, staring up through the observation dome at the glowing band of the Milky Way above. They were passing a cruise-missile-sized joint back and forth. The Pink Floyd was cranked up so loud they hadn't heard me come in, so I stood there eavesdropping for a few minutes while they continued a giggle-filled discussion of their favorite Robotech episodes.

  I tiptoed up behind, then loudly cleared my throat.

  "What's up, fellas?"

  Shin scrambled to his feet, looking mortified. But Milo barely even reacted.

  "Zack!" Shin said, turning red. "We didn't hear you come in--" He turned to point a finger at his companion. "I was, uh, showing Milo some of the things we grow in our hydroponic garden and, ah--"

  "Now you're getting stoned out of your gourds?" I said. "While listening to Dark Side of the Moon?" I motioned to the cratered surface out beyond the dome, stretching to the horizon in all directions around us. "On the far side of the moon?"

  "This is a special strain of Yoda Kush that I myself created," Shin said, holding up his giant spliff. "I thought it might help relax his nerves." Then he took a long hit and inhaled deeply. "Poor Milo is really stressed out, aren't you?"

  Milo shook his head. "Not anymore," he said, grinning wide. "Zack, you won't believe this shit!" With some effort, he sat up, then turned to face me. "Shin told me that the EDA spent decades engineering a special strain of weed that helps people focus and enhances their ability to play videogames! Once they had it perfected, that was when the government finally started legalizing it in the States." He raised his arms in victory. "This ganja is part of the war effort! I love it!" He broke into song, and Shin immediately joined him.

  " 'America. Fuck yeah. Comin' to save the motherfuckin' day, yeah!' "

  They broke up into another laughing fit.

  "Where are the others?" I asked.

  "They all snuck off to bone each other," Milo announced. "Whoadie and Chen, then Debbie snuck off with Graham."

  I had no idea how to respond to this information.

  "I can't say I blame them," Milo said. "We're all facing the possibility of imminent death. Why not throw caution to the wind and go out with a bang--so to speak."

  "I was just thinking the same thing," Shin said, turning to smile down at him. The two of them made eyes at each other for a few seconds--until my clueless ass finally figured out what was going on.

  As my mother was often fond of pointing out to me, my "gaydar" was just plain broken.

  "I'll see you guys later," I said, backing toward the exit. "I'm just gonna--you know." I nodded over my shoulder. "Let you guys have some privacy."

  Shin grinned at me, amused at how flustered I'd become all of a sudden.

  "Thanks, Zack," he said.

  "Yeah, thanks dude!" Milo called after me, laughing. "We could use the privacy!"

  As I rode the lift down to the Thunderdome, I found myself wondering where Lex was and what she was doing. Had she too found some handsome stranger to spend her last moments with, while I waited mine out alone up here, a million miles away?

  01h33m43s remaining.

  When I reached the Thunderdome, I didn't think there was anyone else there at first. Then the canopy of one of the drone controller pods slid open, and my father climbed out of it. He smiled at me, but I turned away as soon as our eyes met and walked over to one of the other pods. Just as I was beginning to lower myself into it, my father crouched at the edge of the oval-shaped pit and looked down at me.

  "I'm sorry, Zack," he said. "I shouldn't have dumped all of that on you. It was too much, after everything else you've been through today."

  "It's okay," I said.

  "Thanks for listening," he said. "You're a good listener, just like your mom." He looked away. "I just--I've been waiting for a long time to talk with you about all that. ..."

  He trailed off. I lifted my eyes to meet his gaze but didn't respond.

  "Aren't you going to say anything?" he asked.

  I shook my head. "I'm still trying to process all of it," I replied. "I don't know what to believe."
r />   He nodded. I hit the button to close my control pod's canopy. It slid shut between us, ending the conversation--or at least postponing it temporarily.

  I sat in my simulated cockpit with my eyes closed, trying to collect my thoughts. I didn't have much luck.

  Sometime later, I heard my father greet Debbie, Chen, and Whoadie. Milo, Shin, and Graham a few minutes after that.

  When the countdown clock hit the one-hour mark, we all gathered in front of the command station to watch the president of the United States address the nation from the Oval Office on live television. She smiled reassuringly at the camera, but the fear in her eyes was evident.

  "My fellow Americans," she began. "At this very moment, the leaders of every nation around the world are about to show their citizens the same briefing film I'm about to show you, which will explain the alarming situation that now faces all of humanity."

  Debbie was standing nearby, staring down at her QComm display, waiting for the moment when she could finally call her boys. But our phones were still locked. I glanced over at Chen, Shin, and Graham, who were each focused on other, smaller display screens mounted nearby--the ones that showed the leaders of their respective countries making a similar introduction. A second later, the faces of the US and Chinese presidents, and of the Japanese and British prime ministers, vanished from the display screens and the Earth Defense Alliance logo appeared on each of them.

  "In 1973, NASA discovered the first evidence of a nonterrestrial intelligence, right here in our very own solar system," Sagan's voice-over began, "when the Pioneer 10 spacecraft sent back the first close-up photograph of Europa, Jupiter's fourth-largest moon."

  The eight of us stood there, clustered together in a tight knot, and rewatched the entire film, this time with the knowledge that the rest of humanity was seeing it, too.

  When the film ended, the president's face reappeared, and she told the world what Admiral Vance had told all of us at Crystal Palace earlier that morning--which now felt like an entire lifetime ago. Once the president finished revealing the bad news about the approaching alien armada, the networks began replaying her address, with increasingly alarming headlines superimposed across the screen, along with footage showing the stunned and panicked reactions of average people.

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