Armada, p.28
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       Armada, p.28

           Ernest Cline

  My father opened his mouth to protest, but another explosion shook the base, cutting him off. Graham shouted both their names over his shoulder and headed for the exit.

  "You're already wasting seconds, General," Shin said. "Milo and I can hold them off a lot longer than the automated sentry systems. But if you don't leave now, you'll never make it!"

  "Go ahead, sir," Milo shouted over his own comm. "We got this."

  While he deliberated with my father, Shin was dragging the fingers of both of his hands across the screens in front of him, highlighting groups of drones and assigning them to attack certain enemies or defend certain sections of the base. I could see him struggling to effectively manage the base's dwindling defensive resources--all while he was simultaneously controlling half a dozen ATHIDs, fighting alongside other infantry drones controlled by operators back on Earth.

  Shin glanced over at Graham, then back at my father. Something unspoken passed between the three men. Then my father nodded, and his fingers began to dance across the control panels in front of him.

  "I'm setting all of the unmanned sentry guns to auto-fire," he said. Then he turned and ran toward the exit. "The rest of you follow me! Now! Hurry!"

  He tapped the QComm on his wrist, and a hidden door opened in the curved stone wall, opposite the entrance, revealing a narrow staircase. The six of us sprinted down it just as another series of tremors rocked every level of the moon base.

  The staircase led down to a large cube-shaped room with a pressurized hatch embedded in its stone floor. There was a rack of visored space helmets mounted on the wall, and my father ordered us each to put one on before donning one himself. After I put mine on, I felt the helmet retract in size slightly to form an airtight seal around my face, just below the chin line. Then a HUD appeared, superimposed on the interior of the visor, with atmospheric readings, and a gauge for the small oxygen tanks mounted on its collar.

  Once Graham made sure everyone had their helmets on properly, my father pressed his palm to the scanner beside the hatch, which hissed open, revealing the interior of a tube-shaped capsule about the size of a VW microbus, with ten passenger seats inside. Through the capsule's porthole-like windows, we could see that it was nestled inside a spherical underground tunnel, like a bullet inside the barrel of a gun. Once we strapped ourselves in, my father smacked the red button mounted on the bulkhead and the capsule rocketed forward, pressing each of us back into our seats.

  As our capsule hurtled through the darkened tunnel, we could hear Milo and Shin shouting a mix of insults and words of encouragement at each other over our QComms as the two of them continued to hold the Spider Fighters at bay.

  "The base is completely overrun," Shin told us over the comm. "Every level. They're concentrating outside the Thunderdome now. They'll break inside any second!"

  "Get out of there!" my father shouted back. "We'll send the capsule back for you!"

  "Sorry, boss," he replied, raising his voice over the sound of rending metal and laser fire. "It looks like we're gonna have to make our last stand right here." He said something else, but it was drowned out by an explosion.

  All of the video feeds to the Thunderdome on our QComms went dead, but we could still hear audio.

  "God speed, old friends," Shin said a second later, shouting to be heard over the chaos unfolding around him.

  My father tried to reply, but he couldn't get any words out. He nodded; then I saw his face contort into a mask of pure anguish just before he buried his face in his hands.

  "Hey, do me a favor, too, will you guys?" Milo added. "After we win this war, tell everyone back home in Philly that my last request was to have my old high school named after me, okay? My mom went there, too, and I think she'll really like that. You hear me?"

  I took my father's QComm and answered for him.

  "Yeah, Milo," I answered. "Sure thing. We'll take care of it."

  "Thanks, man!" he replied. "Kushmaster High School. I love it!" He laughed maniacally again, and I could hear that he was still relentlessly firing his laser turret. "Oh wait! One other thing! Tell them to erect a bronze statue of me in downtown Philly! Just like the one they made for Rocky! But make mine bigger than his, okay?"

  Before I could reply, another explosion rocked the base, distorting the QComm's audio channel. This explosion sounded far louder than the previous ones.

  "Shit! Shit-shit-shit!" we heard Shin yell. "Here they come, Milo! Brace yourself!"

  "Come get some!" I heard Milo shouting, his voice strangely gleeful. I could hear the sound of him rapidly firing his QComm's wrist laser. "Who wants some? From hell's heart I stab at thee, assholes! By Grabthar's hammer, you shall--"

  Milo's Khan-quoting was drowned out by another series of massive explosions, followed by what sounded like a hailstorm of incoming enemy laser fire, and by the terrible hurricane-like howl of the Thunderdome being breached and depressurized, as its atmosphere--and everything else inside--was sucked up and out in the dark vacuum outside on the lunar surface. But the silence that followed was somehow even worse.

  As the capsule hurtled us through the tunnel, I stared at my QComm screen in silence, watching video feeds of the final moments of the Last Battle of Moon Base Alpha.

  There were still a few scattered ATHIDs duking it out with alien Spider Fighter drones up on the surface, while a lone Sentinel grappled with a Basilisk in a fire-scorched crater nearby. A handful of Glaive Fighters were still dive-bombing the base, now completely unopposed by EDA forces, hammering it mercilessly until nothing remained.

  We were watching all of this happen on our tiny QComm display screens, as if it were some televised event occurring far away, when a massive tremor shook our escape capsule. A second later, the roof of the tunnel ahead of us collapsed and artificial light poured in from above, as if a bank of stadium floodlights had powered on.

  It was a Basilisk--sort of a giant metal praying mantis with enormous scythe-like blades in place of its front legs, along with an extra pair of clawed, telescoping robotic hands, and twin plasma cannons standing in for its mandibles.

  One of its massive metal arms snaked into the tunnel, barely missing us as we passed beneath it, bringing its fist down like a wrecking ball, smashing the length of track our capsule had passed over a split second earlier.

  A pack of eight-legged Spider Fighter drones detached from the Basilisk and began to skitter toward our capsule as yet more Spider Fighters poured into the tunnel behind them. The capsule continued to accelerate, moving just fast enough to stay ahead of the giant metal claws as the Basilisk struck again and again, tearing into the lunar surface and destroying the tunnel piece by piece just behind us.

  Another tremor shook the tunnel ahead as the Basilisk power-leaped to catch up with us. At the same time, its right arm telescoped forward, and its clawed hand smashed through the capsule's rear porthole. My father slammed on the brakes as the interior of the capsule depressurized, and our helmets switched on automatically to supply us with oxygen. Graham spun around to fire at the flailing Basilisk claw with his QComm laser just before it lashed out and closed its massive metal fingers around him.

  Before Graham even had time to scream, the alien drone crushed the life out of him, right there in front of us. Then it yanked his lifeless body outside, through the smashed porthole, and hurled it against the tunnel wall like a rag doll.

  Debbie let out an earsplitting scream over the comm just as the Basilisk reached back toward Whoadie. Chen moved to try to block its path, while my father fired at it with his QComm laser.

  The Basilisk's other arm smashed through another porthole behind me, but Whoadie yanked me clear of it just in the nick of time. The remaining five of us retreated to the front of the capsule, out of its reach. It flailed its insect-like arms for a few seconds, then suddenly retracted both of them before standing upright, towering over our damaged, depressurized capsule. My father jammed the throttle forward, to try and get us moving along the track again, but I could alr
eady see he didn't have enough time to get us clear.

  The Basilisk raised one of its massive clawed feet, preparing to crush us.

  This was it. There was nothing we could do. We were going to die.

  But then, just as the foot descended, a Sentinel tackled the Basilisk to the cratered surface. The two drones grappled with each other up on the surface, beyond the lip of the gaping hole above us, in eerie silence. There was a volley of laser and rocket fire between them, a blinding white explosion, and then more silence.

  A few seconds later, when the smoke cleared and the lunar dust settled, the massive humanoid face of the Earth Defense Alliance Sentinel swung into view, blotting out the black sky. Then a voice crackled over the comm channel.

  "Told you I had your back, Lightman," I heard Lex say.

  "Th-th-thanks, Lex," I stuttered, my voice cracking over the QComm. "Thank you. You saved our asses. I owe you one."

  "You bet you do," she replied. Her Sentinel reached out toward our exposed escape capsule with one of its massive hands, and I had a sudden moment of panic. But she used both of her mech's hands to delicately lift our escape pod up out of the rubble, then place us back into the tunnel just beyond the section destroyed by the Basilisk.

  After she set us down, Lex waved goodbye with a massive hand.

  "Everyone here at Sapphire Station has already been reassigned to drones back on Earth," Lex said over the comm. "I stuck around to see if you guys needed any help, but Shanghai is getting totally hammered. I have to roll!" There was a whine of servos as she stood her Sentinel perfectly upright. "Good luck!"

  Her Sentinel powered itself down and fell dormant, like a giant metal puppet abandoned by its puppeteer.

  "Who was that?" Whoadie asked.

  "Captain Alexis Larkin of the Thirty Dozen," I said. "She's a friend of mine."

  She nodded; then I saw her nod at Debbie, who was shuddering and weeping silently, staring through one of the smashed portholes. My gaze followed hers, and only then did I realize that my father had already scrambled out of the capsule and was now outside, cradling Graham's dead body, with his helmet's clear faceplate pressed to his friend's cracked and bloodied one.

  His comm was muted, but through his fogging faceplate, I could see his face contorted in anguish. His mouth was open in a silent wail as he hugged Graham, rocking his lifeless form back and forth. Back and forth.

  That was the only time I ever saw my father cry.

  I don't know how many seconds passed like that. I do know that I was still trying to muster the courage to yell at my father, and tell him we had to get moving, when he finally stood up and scrambled back inside the capsule. Then he hit a button on the bulkhead. Armored shutters irised closed over the capsule's smashed portholes, sealing the leaks in the hull. As the cabin repressurized, my father got us moving forward again.

  Debbie was still weeping silently in her seat. Whoadie put an arm around her.

  " 'Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind,' " the young woman recited. " 'And makes it fearful and degenerate; Think therefore on revenge and cease to weep.' "

  Debbie nodded and took a deep breath. Then, in what seemed like the space of a few seconds, I saw her expression transformed from grief into pure, unbridled rage.

  Our escape capsule reached the opposite end of the darkened tunnel a few minutes later, and we pulled into a pressurized arrival dock, and the capsule's doors hissed open. We followed my father to the armored doors of what was clearly an emergency bunker the EDA had constructed in the Icarus crater.

  I saw my father hold his breath when he placed his palm against the scanner beside the station's armored front entrance. The faceplate beeped and turned green a second later, and the doors to the Icarus bunker slid open, revealing a narrow tunnel beyond. My father ushered us all inside, then punched a button on the wall. The armored doors slammed shut behind us, sealing us safely inside. We found ourselves in a small hangar bay nestled at the Icarus crater's base. Inside it, eight Interceptors stood gleaming under the halogen floodlights.

  "We have to hurry," my father said. "Everyone take a ship. Quickly now!"

  I hurried down the catwalk to examine the nearest one. These ships weren't like any of the drone Interceptors we'd already seen: They had cockpits, and were designed to be piloted from inside, rather than remotely. "These are ADI-89s," my father shouted to us. "Special manned Interceptor prototypes."

  As he spoke, he was reaching into a large metal tool chest bolted to the wall of the hangar. He took out some sort of pistol-shaped power tool, like a motorized ratchet, then ran over to the first Interceptor and opened a hatch on the underside of its hull, revealing a mess of wires and circuitry. As he dug around inside, he said, "We didn't have access to this bunker until the invasion began, to prevent us from using them to go AWOL." He smiled. "But the base security protocol fail-safes just granted me emergency access."

  He used the power tool to remove a small cube-shaped component from the ship's underbelly, tossed it on the floor, and closed up the hatch. Then he ran over to the next Interceptor and repeated the process.

  "What are you doing?" I asked him. "We've got to get the hell out of here!"

  "Don't you think I know that?" he said. "This is important. Sixty more seconds."

  True to his word, a minute later he had pulled the same cube-shaped component out of all eight ships. I picked one of them up off the floor to examine it. Stenciled on the side of its gray plastic casing was a long serial number followed by some letters: eda-ai89-ava-trnspnder.

  His task complete, my father ran up the metal gantry platform and over to a darkened command console that lit up at his touch. The fingers of both his hands began to dance across its touchscreens as he tapped icons and navigated submenus--almost as fast as Commander Data. In seconds, he had powered up all eight of the AI-89s. Their fusion engines began to hum and then whine, their exhaust ports glowing with orange energy.

  My father tapped another icon, and all eight cockpit canopies slid open. As I ran over to the nearest Interceptor, a panel slid open in the aft side of its hull and a metal stepladder unfolded to the stone floor at my feet with a metallic clang. I heard the same sound three more times in rapid succession on either side of me, as Debbie, Whoadie, and Chen each approached a ship.

  It was the first time I'd been inside a real cockpit of any kind--much less that of an interplanetary spacecraft. But it didn't feel like the first time. The controller setup inside was identical to those in the drone command pods, and those hadn't been all that different from the simple plastic flight stick and throttle rig I'd been using in my bedroom for years.

  Sitting in our open cockpits, we were now at eye level with my father, who remained behind the command console on the elevated command platform in front of us, so I was able to see the array of display screens in front of him.

  "When these ships are in flight, each of them is enclosed in a spherical no-inertia field," he said. "So flying these ships from inside won't seem any different than piloting them remotely. Except for one thing, of course--if you get shot down piloting one of these, you won't be able to take control of another drone. Because you'll be dead."

  When he saw our reactions to this statement, he showed us their main safety feature. "Don't worry. The cockpit module inside each of these ships is actually a self-contained ejection pod. It's supposed to deploy automatically in the event of a direct hit, like airbags."

  "Supposed to?" I said.

  "These ships are all prototypes," he said. "I don't think they got much testing." My father's hands continued to fly across the control panel. From my vantage point in the cockpit, I could see the control screen over his shoulder, and it seemed that he was pulling up the flight plans for the three remaining Interceptors--the ones we were about to leave behind. He pulled a wrinkled piece of paper from his pocket, consulted it, and began typing, as if he was punching in a route for the unmanned Interceptors, using the paper as a reference. Then he began to access a ser
ies of hardware configuration menus I'd never seen before.

  When my father finished working at the bunker's command console, he powered it off, ran down the metal catwalk, and jumped into the cockpit of his own Interceptor, sliding down into the leather pilot seat like a kid sliding down a banister.

  The canopies of our five cockpits slid closed with a pressurized hiss, our engines screamed in my ears as they powered up to full readiness--and then the small hangar itself depressurized and its armored doors slid open above, revealing a rectangular swath of the starry lunar sky.

  We blasted out of the crater and rocketed around the moon's opposite side, and fragile Earth became visible to us once again, hovering in the blackness ahead.

  Over the comm channel, I heard my father gasp at the sight--one he hadn't seen with his own eyes in an entire lifetime. My lifetime.

  "There it is," he said softly. "Home sweet home. Man, I really missed it."

  I'd missed it, too, I realized. And I'd been gone less than a day.

  As our five ships moved into formation and turned homeward, toward Earth, I checked my scope and saw that the three unmanned Interceptors were heading in the opposite direction, out into space, toward whatever destination my father had programmed into them.

  I turned my gaze back to Earth and watched it begin to grow in size as we approached, until its blue curve completely filled the view outside of my spacecraft.

  My father sent a tactical map to the display screens inside our cockpits. "They're dividing their forces in half again," my father said over the comm. "See?"

  He was right. Half of the vanguard's remaining forces appeared to be descending on mainland China, while the other half continued to escort the Disrupter, which was heading off in a different direction, along with the alien drones that had survived the assault on Moon Base Alpha.

  "Command thinks the Disrupter is probably going to make landfall somewhere along the Antarctic Peninsula. They're sending every Interceptor they can spare to try and take it down. The rest of our aerospace forces are currently defending Shanghai."

  "Shanghai!" Chen repeated, followed by something in his native tongue. A second later, my QComm translated: "My family lives just outside the city limits. But my sister is stationed at a drone operations base in the center of downtown. I have to go help her!"

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