Armada, p.27
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       Armada, p.27

           Ernest Cline
 

  "Deal."

  0h14m49s remaining.

  My father finished his preparations at the command center and climbed down into his own drone controller pod, which was adjacent to mine. Then the eight of us sat there, each alone in our stations, watching the last fifteen minutes elapse on the countdown clock.

  The general still looked as if he was trying to recover from the emotional strain of speaking with my mom. I didn't want to ask what he and my mother had talked about. But I still wanted to say something to him, to try to make peace while there was still time.

  I climbed out of my pod and grabbed my EDA backpack, which was resting nearby on the floor. My father's old jacket was still stuffed inside, and I pulled it out and handed it to him.

  When my father saw his old jacket, he grinned hugely and spent a minute looking over each and every patch. When he was finished, he leaned over and hugged me.

  "Thank you," he said. "But how it possible that you have this with you?"

  "I was wearing it this morning when they came to recruit me."

  He laughed. "Seriously?"

  I nodded. He flipped the jacket around and put it on.

  "Still fits!" he said, admiring the patches running down each of its sleeves. "I used to wear this when I would hit the local arcades. I thought it brought me good luck." He laughed. "I also thought it made me look like a badass." He shook his head. "Your old man was kind of dork." He took the jacket off and tried to hand it back to me.

  "I bet it looks a lot better on you," he said. "Let me see."

  I shook my head. "No way. You earned all those patches. You should wear it."

  He nodded and slipped it back on.

  "Thank you, Zack."

  "Don't mention it."

  By the time I walked back over to my own pod, there were only five minutes remaining on the clock.

  And then four minutes. Then three. Two. One.

  I dropped down into my pilot seat, and the pod's canopy slid closed above me.

  " 'All things are ready, if our minds be so,' " I heard Whoadie whisper over the comm.

  Just then, my QComm made its wireless link to the pod's surround-sound system, and the next track on my Raid the Arcade playlist began to blare out of its speakers: "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by the Scorpions.

  I bobbed my head in time with its opening machine-gun guitar riff as the last few seconds on the countdown clock ticked away.

  When it finally hit zero, a klaxon began to wail, and a red alert indicator began to flash on my HUD.

  My tactical display lit up, informing me that our remote sensors had just detected the first sign of the Europan vanguard, emerging from the asteroid belt out beyond the orbit of Mars. They were really hauling ass. The Dreadnaught Sphere in the lead was already closing in on the red planet, surrounded on all sides by a phalanx of Glaives.

  "Here they come!" Milo cried over the comlink. "They're coming! See 'em?"

  "Yes, Milo," Debbie replied. "Our eyes work, too. We see them."

  "There's a lot of them," Whoadie added. "An awful lot."

  "The ones we don't stop will be knocking on our front door in a few minutes, so take out as many as you can before they get here," my father ordered over the comlink. "Your drone assignments are linked and locked! Pilots, prepare to launch!"

  "Wolverines!" Milo shouted. Then he let out a long, whooping war cry into his comlink, which somehow mixed in perfectly with the war cry the Scorpions were already blasting into my eardrums.

  On my display, the distance between Earth and the approaching enemy vanguard continued to shrink rapidly, and I could feel my pulse begin to rise.

  "Stay frosty, everyone," my father said. "And may the Force be with you."

  "May the Force be with us," Shin repeated, with no hint of irony in his voice.

  "May the Force be with us!" Graham echoed over the comlink. Debbie and Milo each echoed the sentiment, followed by Chen, who said it in Mandarin.

  "Yuan li yu ni tong tzai."

  The sincerity in Chen's voice finally convinced me to join in. I keyed my mic and carefully repeated after him. "Yuan li yu ni tong tzai."

  Chen laughed and said something else. The somewhat imperfect English translation popped up on my HUD: "We are coming here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and we have no more bubblegum!"

  I laughed out loud, and for several more seconds I couldn't stop laughing. I'd only just learned the term "gallows humor" a few months earlier, from a book we'd been assigned in American Literature about the Civil War. At the time, it wasn't a type of humor I thought I would ever be in a position to experience. But now, as hearing Chen belt out Roddy Piper's battle cry from They Live in Chinese struck me as one of the funniest things I'd ever heard in my life, I understood the concept perfectly

  "All drones cleared for launch!" the general announced. "Let's go get 'em."

  The eight of us launched our Interceptors, joining the steady stream of drones already pouring out of the hangar, under the control of pilots located back on Earth.

  Together, we flew out to meet the alien invaders.

  Our Interceptors met the Europan vanguard halfway between Earth and the edge of asteroid belt, just within the orbital path of Mars. On my tactical display, the cascade of dark green triangles that represented the enemy vanguard began to slow its speed as it closed in on our forces, represented by an arrowhead-shaped mass of white triangles.

  There were a great deal more green triangles than white ones.

  But with the fearlessness of drone pilots, we continued to charge forward, straight toward our advancing enemy, until we were just within visual contact. Then, at my father's order, we all slammed on our brakes, and our wing came to a collective, drifting stop. "Bad guys at twelve o'clock," my father announced over the comm. "Fangs out. Prepare to engage, as soon as we're within range. You can bet they will."

  A collective reply of "Weapons hot!" echoed over the comm channel.

  There they were: an impossibly vast swarm of Glaive Fighters, arrayed in a protective grid-like shield around the massive Dreadnaught Sphere gleaming in their midst, the warped reflection of the starfield streaking across its chromed surface as they hurtled toward us. The Disrupter had yet to be deployed--it was still concealed inside the armored skin of the Dreadnaught Sphere, along with hundreds of thousands of troopships, carrying millions of ground-force drones.

  "Well, hello there!" I heard my father say over the comm. "This is General Xavier Lightman of the Earth Defense Alliance. Where do you assholes think you're headed?" After a pause, he added: "Klaatu barada nikto, fellas."

  Then, perhaps taking his own stab at some gallows humor, he whistled the five-note message used to communicate with the friendly ETs in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The same tones that bookended each of the Europans' montage transmissions.

  The only response to my father's whistled entreaty came a few tense heartbeats later, when the spearhead of Glaive Fighters leading the vanguard finally came within range of our ships and opened fire on us.

  The black void around us erupted in a deluge of crisscrossing blue plasma bolts and streaks of red laser fire as ships on both sides broke formation to attack.

  Our Interceptors returned fire, and then ships began exploding above and below me, to port and starboard, aft and stern, lighting up the mirror surface of my Interceptor in a horrific light show. A similar cascade of contained atomic explosions began to light up the enemy ranks out in front of me, like tangled chains of Christmas tree lights being switched on, only to short out a second later.

  I aimed my eighty-eight right into the torrent of enemy fighters and fanned the trigger on my flight stick to fire off a rapid volley of plasma bolts. The Glaives were packed so tightly in front me that it seemed difficult to miss, and for a few seconds I felt invincible and unstoppable, like I was using the Force.

  But then I was passing through the cloud of arcing, swooping Glaive Fighters, evading their laser and plasma fire, which I did reflexively, a
lmost without thinking--and I smiled because everything had become clear once again, now that I was finally facing off against my true enemy. The doubt and uncertainty my father had planted in my mind were gone. So was the lead ball of fear in my gut. Now, all that remained was primal, territorial rage, and the clear sense of purpose that came with it.

  Kill or be killed. Conquer or be conquered. Survive or go extinct.

  These were not difficult decisions. In fact, the answers were hardwired into the human brain. The only thing I could think was: Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!

  I continued slicing my Interceptor through the enemy's ranks at sharp right angles, firing first, then moving, then always moving and always firing, firing at the shifting pattern of targets cascading across my HUD, overlaying the folding formations of Glaive Fighters in front of my ship, which moved just like they had always moved in our old Armada and Terra Firma missions.

  I began to slip into the zone--the old familiar rhythm I would sometimes fall into when I played Armada, where everything just seemed to click. With the help of the music in my headphones, I'd locked into the enemy's patterns of movement, their little digital idiosyncrasies that allowed me to anticipate their attacks and evasive maneuvers. I was on fire. I couldn't seem to miss, while at the same time, nothing could seem to hit me.

  For a few seconds, it felt just like playing Armada back home.

  Why would real aliens behave exactly like videogame simulations of themselves?

  The question kept trying to worm its way into my thoughts, but I wouldn't let it. I focused on the bliss of battle instead.

  Our Interceptors were getting picked off fast, but the first of our reinforcement drones was already arriving. Each time one of our drones was destroyed, its operator took control of another Interceptor inside the reserve hangar at Moon Base Alpha and flew back to rejoin battle as quickly as they could. Thankfully the trip back to the battlefront was growing shorter every second, because the vanguard was still moving forward, still closing in on Earth. We were losing ships fast.

  If it hadn't been obvious before, it definitely was now--we were fighting a war of attrition. We weren't going to be able to stop the vanguard. Not by a long shot. The vanguard was moving too fast, and it was mowing down everything we put in its path.

  We were only going to make a small dent in their forces before they reached Earth--if that.

  I took out seven enemy ships before my first drone got waxed.

  The handful of minutes it took my second drone to get "back in the shit" seemed to stretch on for hours. Once I finally reached the enemy's ever-encroaching front line and reengaged with the vanguard, I got nailed by an overloading Glaive reactor core on my way in and got blasted to bits once again--this time without scoring a single enemy kill.

  As my third Interceptor rocketed out of the drone hangar, a warning began to flash on my HUD, informing me that the enemy was already closing in on the far side of the moon.

  A second later, I saw them falling toward me, straight out of the black lunar sky above, thousands upon thousands of them, filling the horizon.

  "The vanguard is splitting up!" my father said over the intercom. "Dividing itself in two. It looks like the half containing the Disrupter is headed for Earth."

  "And the other half is headed here," Shin added.

  I checked my tactical display--they were right. The vanguard had split itself in two, like an amoeba, creating two torpedo-shaped clusters of roughly equal size. One cluster had the Disrupter dodecahedron at its center. The other was closing in on us.

  On my tactical display, the deluge of green triangles began to rain down on the base, like lava erupting from some Olympian volcano anchored in the stars above.

  "Moon Base Alpha is under attack!" my computer helpfully informed me. "Warning!"

  An ear-splitting klaxon began to wail over the base intercom.

  "Knock, knock!" Graham shouted over comm. "Our guests have arrived! And they never seemed this pissed off on any of their previous visits. Check the topside feeds!"

  I flipped off my VR goggles for a moment and tapped a small security camera icon on my QComm. A dozen thumbnail windows filled its display, each showing a different camera feed from the base. The exterior of the base was crawling with enemy drones, so covered by attackers that it looked like some otherworldly anthill being invaded by a neighboring colony of metal insects. In the background, other drone dispersal dropships continued to make landfall, opening up like metal flowers as they hit the lunar surface, allowing thousands of spider-fighters and basilisks to pour out and join the swelling army of alien drones already descending on the base.

  "Welcome Wagon activated!" my father announced. The base's automated sentry guns sprang to life and began to unload a steady barrage at the hundreds of Glaive Fighters descending on the base like angry hornets.

  The Fighters' first volley of plasma bombs detonated against the base's defense shields. The explosion erupted and crackled across the shield's transparent surface as its energy was deflected back out into space, creating a dazzling light show across the display over our heads, briefly lighting up the darkened Thunderdome. The accompanying transfer of energy shook the entire base, and the lunar surface beneath it.

  As the moonquake--my first--subsided, I had to resist a panicked urge to scramble up out of my control pod and run to safety--wherever the hell that might be.

  Instead, I gripped my flight stick even more tightly, pulled my newly launched reserve Interceptor into a steep climb, and firewalled the throttle, blasting straight upward into the deluge of Glaive Fighters descending toward me. Other drones were launching and forming up below me, adding their fire to mine.

  I took out five more enemy fighters. Then a sixth, and a seventh. My comrades were doing equally well. I heard Debbie mutter "Easy-as-can-beezy" to herself over the comm.

  Then, just as I was swinging my crosshairs over my next target, a hail of enemy laser fire finally converged on my drone from several different angles, and it was blasted to smithereens.

  I cursed and took control of another ship, but before I could even launch it, the enemy ships had reached the surface and blasted their way into the base's drone hangar.

  When I fired the launch release on my drone, nothing happened, because the catapult mechanism had already been blasted in half. As the towers of unused drones around me began to crumble and collapse, my display flashed bright white.

  At the same moment, I heard a thunderous, booming explosion up on the surface, followed by a shockwave that shook the Thunderdome violently.

  I opened the canopy of my pod and stuck my head up, then looked around. One at a time, the others emerged, too.

  "Damn," my father said, far too calmly for my liking. "One of them breached the hangar's defenses and self-destructed. The whole place went up, along with all of our remaining reserve drones."

  "What are we supposed to do now?" Debbie asked, echoing my own thoughts--though she sounded a lot calmer than I was currently feeling.

  "The EDA is sending more Interceptors up from Earth," Shin told us. "But they're all going after the Disrupter. We're probably on our own here now."

  He and my father exchanged a brief glance, before the general turned to address the rest of us.

  "Everyone get back in your pods, now!" my father shouted. "Shin will give each of you control of one of the base's laser sentry turrets. Try to keep as many of them from advancing down here to the op center for as long as you can! Hold them back, okay?"

  Before he'd even finished speaking, he leaped down into one of the dual-ATHID control rigs he'd constructed and powered it on. He slipped his hands into its power gauntlets as the display screens arrayed around him all lit up simultaneously.

  Another violent tremor shook the Thunderdome as we all scrambled back into our control pods. As I closed the canopy and settled back into my seat, a simplified HUD appeared on my screens, laid over a high-definition video feed from one of the base's sentry t
urrets, along with a targeting reticle, a range finder, and a power meter for its laser cannon.

  "Keep firing!" my father said. "Hold them back as long as you can!"

  I picked off as many drones as I could, but they just kept on coming in a never-ending assault. Within a few minutes, the inevitable happened: a group of drones concentrated their laser fire on the hangar airlock long enough to break through the blast doors to the corridor beyond.

  The enemy now had free run of the base.

  "Breach! That's a breach!" Shin shouted over the comm channel. "They're inside the base! I can see them on levels five and six, and they're already making their way down here! Mostly Spider Fighters--hundreds, maybe thousands of them!"

  We all remained inside our control pods, each of us now taking control of an ATHID in different locations through the base. I don't know about the others, but I was getting my ass kicked. Each time I took control of a new ATHID, it was torn apart by Spider Fighters even more quickly than the last.

  "Okay," my father said. "Abandon stations. We're evacuating, right now! Chen, Whoadie, Zack! Do I have to pull you guys up out of there? Because I will! Come on! We're leaving!"

  I scrambled up out of my pod just in time to see my father make good on his promise. He reached down and grabbed Whoadie around the waist, then lifted her up out of her pod, away from the controls. My father passed her off to Debbie, then turned and prepared to do the same thing to Chen, who complied on his own at the last second--leaping up out of his pod like Superman, then snapping the general a salute as he landed on the deck in front of him.

  "Sir, yes, sir!" Chen shouted.

  Shin remained inside his pod. I ran over to check his pod display screens--he was operating a whole squadron of ATHIDs posted outside the turbo elevator shaft leading down to the Thunderdome. On the security camera feeds, we could see an angry horde of Spider Fighters in the process of breaking down the armored door that now separated them from our current location. Each time they slammed into it, we could heard the muted, repetitive clanking transmitted through the stone walls around us.

  When he saw that Shin wasn't leaving, Milo jumped back into his own pod, saying, "Shin and I will hold them off; then we'll catch up with you!"

 
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