Armada, p.26
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       Armada, p.26

           Ernest Cline

  As I watched the chaos unfold in the array of video windows before me, I thought about my mother, and my friends, and everyone else trapped down there.

  Would the EDA's plan really work? Would our civilization collapse in the wake of the revelation that we were about to be invaded by aliens, or had the EDA subconsciously prepared us enough to deal with it, as they'd hoped?

  Would humanity cower in fear, or stand its ground and fight back?

  I stared at the screens, wondering which one it would be.

  Shin pulled up dozens of different television networks from all over the world and displayed them on the dome side by side, along with more video feeds from the Internet.

  We watched as the initial wave of panic spread across the globe--footage of people freaking out on crowded city streets and stampeding out of sports stadiums. But the world seemed to take the news incredibly well. If there were riots, mass suicides, and looting going on, no one was reporting them--or even posting videos of them online.

  Within minutes, it seemed like the same newscasters who had delivered the news were now reporting with total confidence that most of the world's civilian population was already responding to the EDA's call to arms, and that hundreds of millions of people all over the world were already mobilizing themselves by logging on to the EDA's online operations servers to enlist and then receive their combat drone assignments and take up arms and defend the planet. Several networks were showing clips of people abandoning their cars in traffic to run into electronics stores and libraries and coffee shops and Internet cafes and office buildings, thousands upon thousands of people, all in a mad dash to get somewhere with broadband Internet access.

  There was no way the news networks could've pulled together all that footage so quickly (and then edited it together for broadcast). And at this stage, it would be impossible to know whether or not a majority of the world's population was prepared to join the Earth Defense Alliance and fight to defend our home. This had to be the EDA at work, convincing media outlets that our best chance at survival was to tell the reassuring lie. And they were right--if people believed that humanity was already uniting itself under the EDA's banner, they were far more likely to join the fight themselves.

  I thought again of the note my father had scribbled in his notebook so long ago:

  What if they're using videogames to train us to fight without us even knowing it? Like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, when he made Daniel-san paint his house, sand his deck, and wax all of his cars--he was training him and he didn't even realize it!

  Wax on, wax off--but on a global scale!

  Thirty-and sixty-second-long "public service announcements" began to run amid the news bulletins, each designed to inform the world's civilian population of the EDA's plan and show them how to use their computer or mobile device to enlist in the Earth Defense Alliance online and "Help save the world!"

  The best PSA was one that opened with a shot of a brother and sister sitting on the couch in their living room. The boy is playing Armada on their giant television, while the girl sits beside him playing Terra Firma on her handheld tablet. On their screens, we can see that she's operating an ATHID infantry drone while he pilots a WASP quadcopter. Both of them are trying to take down a giant alien Behemoth robot stomping its way through a suburban neighborhood. On the TV screen, we see the Behemoth lurch forward and step on the corner of a house, crushing it under one of its massive metal feet--and at that same moment, the wall of the kids' living room also collapses, revealing that it was their house the giant robot just stepped on. The two kids aren't playing a game--they're defending their home! Their parents cower behind the couch, watching as their two children do battle with the giant alien machine, with the help of hundreds of other drones operated by their neighbors. When the Behemoth explodes under a hail of enemy fire, the parents whip out their smartphones and use them to take control of two more drones and join the battle, too. It reminded me of one of those old toy commercials that ended with the line "And mom and dad can play along, too!"

  When I couldn't bear to watch the news feeds any longer, I climbed into my control pod and closed the canopy, then made it nontransparent, creating my own private isolation chamber.

  I sat there in the darkness for a while, listening to myself breathe. Then I took out my QComm and queued up a song I'd first discovered on one of my father's old mixtapes. It was a great rock instrumental by Pink Floyd that I'd often used to psych myself up before a big Armada mission.

  I played it over and over, each time mouthing the words to the single lyric spoken in the middle of the song: "One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces."

  01h00m00s remaining.

  When the countdown clock showed only one hour remaining, all of our QComms beeped in unison. A notice on my display told me that the EDA had finally unlocked our QComms' access to the public phone system. Graham, Debbie, Whoadie, Milo, and Chen each climbed into their individual drone controller pods and then closed their canopies, to give themselves some privacy before for their calls home.

  Shin didn't call anyone. Instead, he picked up his bass guitar, and, in what seemed like an odd coincidence, he began to play a solo version of "One of These Days" while staring up at the stars projected on the dome over our heads. Then I noticed a practice set list taped to the floor in front of him, and saw that several of the songs listed there were tracks I knew from my father's old mixtapes.

  My father was off by himself, too, sitting at the command center console. When I walked over to join him, I saw that he was staring at my mother's contact information on his QComm's display screen.

  "Are you going to call her?" I asked, making him jump slightly.

  He shook his head. "I was about to send her a video message instead," he said. "I recorded twenty-three takes of it, but they're all terrible--so maybe I'll just give up and send her the least terrible one. ..."

  I plucked the QComm out of his hand and began to dial a number.

  "Are you going to call her?" he asked, like a nervous schoolboy. "Right now?"

  I nodded.

  "I need to let her know I'm okay," I said. "And before you send her some psychotic video message, I should probably break the news to her that you're alive first--otherwise she'll have a coronary when your face pops up on her iPhone."

  My father gave me a relieved smile, but before he could reply, we were interrupted by Milo's voice, coming from his nearby pod. When he'd climbed inside, he must've forgotten to close his canopy all the way, and now we could hear every word of his conversation.

  "Ma, it's gonna be okay!" Milo said. "You know how they've been training everyone to fight with videogames? Well I'm one of the best Armada pilots in the world, and so that's why they recruited me early! Yeah! And guess what? Now I'm stationed up here on the moon!"

  "The moon?" she cried. "That's ridiculous, Milo! Don't you lie to your mother!" She raised a giant TV remote. "I need your help with this blasted TV. The same nonsense is on every channel!"

  I glanced over and saw Milo raise his QComm's camera, then tilt it to give her a quick look at the Thunderdome, and at the dazzling field of stars projected on its dome ceiling. She gasped and Milo grinned, lowering the QComm's camera and aiming it back at his own face.

  "Told ya," he said.

  His mother started to wail in fear--there was no other word for it.

  "They put you in charge of defending us? Now I know we're doomed!"

  "Ma, please," Milo said, sounding more and more like a little boy with each word. "Relax. I'm gonna stop these things, I promise. Don't worry. I'll do whatever it takes to keep you and little Kilgore from getting hurt. You're gonna be proud of me when this is all done, you wait and see--"

  I didn't get to find out who or what Kilgore was, because my father walked over and closed Milo's pod canopy for him. Then he walked back over and watched nervously as I raised his QComm and placed the video call to my mother.

  A second later, my mother's drawn and worr
ied face appeared on the QComm's display. She was at work, of course, standing in one of the hospital's rooms, clustered in front of a TV with a dozen other nurses. Even now, after the announcement, she still hadn't abandoned the people she cared for.

  "Zack!" my mother shouted the moment she saw my face. She rushed out into the empty hospital corridor, holding her phone up in front of her. "Thank God you're okay, honey! You are okay, aren't you?"

  "I'm fine, Mom," I said. "You know, aside from the impending alien invasion."

  "Can you believe it?" she said. "It's all over the news--every channel!" She held the phone directly in front of her face. "Where are you? I want you to get home, Zackary, right this minute!"

  "I can't, Mom," I said. "The Earth Defense Alliance needs me."

  "What are you talking about?" she said, sounding increasingly hysterical.

  "I enlisted," I told her. "In the Earth Defense Alliance. This morning. They made me a flight officer. See?"

  I set the phone down on the console in front of me, then stepped back so she could see my uniform. The sight appeared to leave her speechless.

  "Honey, where are you?" she finally managed to ask.

  "I'm on the moon," I said, panning the QComm's camera around the room, and then up at the dome above. "Moon Base Alpha. It's a secret base on the far side. I'm going to help fight off the invasion from up here." I gave her a smile. "All those years I spent playing videogames weren't wasted after all, eh?"

  She broke down into tears then, but she still managed to sound incredibly pissed off.

  "Zackary Ulysses Lightman!" she shouted, making the phone tremble fiercely in her hands. "You are not fighting any goddamn aliens! You come home right this minute!"

  "Mom, it's going to be okay," I said, as soothingly as I could. "I'm not alone up here, okay? That's the other thing I have to tell you. It's going to be a shock, so brace yourself."

  I pulled my father in front of the QComm's camera, then stood just behind him. His legs were shaking so badly I worried he might collapse.

  "Oh my God," my mother said, covering her mouth. "Xavier? Is that you?"

  "Hello, Pam," he said, his voice shaking. "It's--it's really good to see you."

  "It can't be you," I heard my mother say. "It can't be."

  "It's really him, Mom," I said. "He's a general in the Earth Defense Alliance. A war hero." I smiled at him. "He's been awarded three Medals of Honor. Haven't you?"

  He didn't say anything. He just stared at her, like a deer in the headlights.

  "Xavier?" she said. "It's really you?"

  "It's really me," he said, his voice breaking after each word. "I'm alive--and I'm so sorry. I--I can't tell you how much I've missed you--and how sorry I am for leaving you to raise our son all on your own. I'm sorry for a lot of other things, too, but ..."

  She started crying again. My father's face contorted in pain, and that was when I turned and walked away, well out of earshot, to let them talk in private--and to avoid a crying jag of my own.

  I glanced around the room and saw Shin talking quietly with Milo. Nearby, Graham and Debbie were doing the same thing. Whoadie and Chen were both squeezed into Chen's pod, seizing their last chance to make out.

  I climbed into my own control pod and lowered the canopy. Then I took out my QComm and closed my eyes, thinking about what I was going to say to Lex.

  I tapped her name on my very short contact list, and her face appeared on my display so quickly that it startled me.

  Her name, rank, and current location appeared in the bottom right-hand corner of my display. According to the readout, she'd already somehow managed to get herself promoted to captain, and she was still located at Sapphire Station, the EDA operations stronghold near Billings, Montana.

  She was sitting inside a darkened control pod similar to mine, except that hers appeared to be designed specifically to control Sentinel mechs and ATHIDs and included a pair of "power gauntlets" that let her control the drone's massive hands with her own.

  "Hey you! I was hoping I'd get to see your face again before the world ended."

  "I considered putting it off until the weekend. I didn't want to seem too eager."

  "No, of course not." She smirked. "So, what's it like up on the moon, Lieutenant?"

  "Are we being honest?"

  "Why not?" she said. "We probably won't live to regret anything we say."

  "It's pretty terrifying up here, actually. How are things down there?"

  "Equally insane," she said. "But civilization hasn't descended into total chaos yet. People seem to be holding it together. If the news is to be believed, it seems like the whole world is ready to fight back. It's kind of amazing."

  It was hard to hear so much hope in her voice and not be able to tell her about the second Icebreaker--or my father's theory. I desperately wanted to hear what she thought, but there was no time.

  "You ready to give these aliens what for, Lieutenant?" she asked.

  "As ready as I'll ever be, Lieutenant-- Excuse me, Captain Larkin." I gave her another salute--then, like a goofball, I pretended to poke myself in the eye as I did, just to hear the sound of her laugh. "How'd you get promoted so fast?" I asked.

  "For heroism in the Battle of Crystal Palace," she said. "And I had the high score on the ground, as far as enemy drones downed. Plus I didn't blow up half the installation."

  "Yeah, they frown on that."

  "Here, I'm sending you a present," she said, tapping at her QComm display with both thumbs. "A playlist of my favorite Terra Firma battle tunes. I like to rock out when I'm knocking clocks out," she said. "Helps with my aim."

  "Yeah," I said, smiling. "Mine, too."

  A file transfer complete message popped up on my QComm a split second later--she'd somehow bypassed the security software, so it didn't even ask me for permission before it transferred the songs onto my device. The music player opened, displaying her playlist--which, at first glance, appeared to be a mix of songs by only Joan Jett, Heart, and Pat Benatar.

  "This should come in handy," I said, grinning. "Gracias."

  "De nada."

  I asked her to show me how to do the file transfer trick myself. When she was done, I managed to successfully send her a copy of my father's Raid the Arcade mix.

  She scrolled through the track list for a few seconds, smiling and nodding.

  "Hey, wanna hear some good news?" she asked.

  "Yes please!" I said. "More than I probably ever have in my life."

  "I think I'm going to be assigned to help defend Moon Base Alpha from down here," she said. "You know, provided they don't attack Earth first. We've been running MBA defense sims nonstop since I arrived."

  I smiled--something I wouldn't have thought possible a few seconds earlier.

  "So you're going to have my back, eh?"

  She nodded. "Just give me the QComm ID number on your drone controller station," she said. "I figured out a hack that will allow me to use it pinpoint your location, and tell me which drone you're operating during combat."

  "When did you have time to do that?"

  "I've been sitting here all day, exploring the QComm network between training sims," she said. "The EDA set it up a lot like a traditional computer network, which made it really easy to figure out and use--that's probably why they did it that way. So what's your QCLID?"

  "My what?"

  "Your Quantum Communicator Link Identification number?"

  I stared at the icons that ringed the edge of my display screen and shrugged.

  "I have no idea."

  She grinned at me and rolled her eyes. "See that gear icon at the top right of your display? Those are your drone controller station settings."

  "Right," I said, tapping it with my finger. "I knew that."

  She helped me navigate through menu screens until I located the twelve-digit-long numeric code she needed and read it off to her.

  "Got it," she said, as her fingers danced across one of the touchscreens in front of her. "Now
I can keep an eye on you."

  "I feel much better now," I said. And I did, too.

  "You should," she said. "I've got the skills to pay the bills." She winked at me--all smooth, like a movie star. "And I'm to make sure you keep all of your pieces in one piece," she said. "Until I get a piece. Get me, soldier?"

  "Yes, ma'am," I said. "I believe I do."

  Then I saluted, and it made her laugh--but a few seconds in, it somehow turned into a strangled sob.

  "Fuck, I'm scared, Zack," she said. She bit her lower lip--to stop it from trembling, I think.

  "I'm scared, too," I said, suddenly unable to meet her eyes--even through a screen. "My whole life, I always imagined fighting off an alien invasion would be some epic adventure. That it would be like the movies--humanity would triumph in the end."

  "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," she said. "The pod people always win. That's the smart way to invade--not this Independence Day/Pacific Rim-job crap."

  Her words brought me back to my conversation with my father, and the doubt he'd managed to instill in me during the course of it. Was he right? Would the Icebreaker save humanity, or only seal our doom?

  "I don't want to die for nothing, Zack," Lex said, looking determined now. "Do you think there's a chance we can stop them? All of them? That humans can survive this?"

  I nodded my head way too enthusiastically.

  "Yes!" I answered, way too quickly. "We have to." I stopped my head from nodding. "Do, or do not, there is no try, and all that stuff."

  She laughed and gave me a smile.

  "I'm really glad we met, Zack," she said. She was twisting her fingers into knots in her lap. "I just wish ..."

  "Me too, Lex."

  She took a deep breath. " 'I must not fear,' " she recited. " 'Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.' "

  I laughed and picked up the quote where she'd left off. " 'I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.' "

  " 'And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path,' " she continued. " 'Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.' "

  She exhaled slowly; then we shared a smile.

  "If the world doesn't end tonight, and we're both still alive tomorrow, then I'm taking you out on a date," she said. "Deal?"

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