Armada, p.29
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       Armada, p.29

           Ernest Cline
 

  "No, we have to go after the Disrupter," my father said. "They'll activate it as soon as they reach the surface, and then only manned ships like these will continue to function. All the EDA's drones will fall out of the sky."

  "What about the conventional air force?" Debbie asked. "Can't they help?"

  "They'll try," he said. "But the Disrupter knocks out all wireless and radio communications, too. It alters Earth's magnetic field and plays havoc with GPS satellites, too. Our conventional aircraft will all be flying blind. And they might as well be going up against Godzilla. Conventional fighters won't stand a chance. It's up to us."

  Just as my father finished his sentence, we received word that the Disrupter had already made landfall, before our ships even reached the edge of Earth's atmosphere.

  But the Europans didn't activate their ultimate weapon then, even though they could have.

  For some reason, they waited.

  They waited until the five of us got there to switch it on.

  When our tiny squadron of five Interceptors reached the Disrupter's last known position, just off the Antarctic Peninsula, the battle was kind of hard to miss. The massive black dodecahedron hovered just above the landscape like a floating mountain, spinning like a top as it finally activated its pulsing coupler beam and fired down into the melting ice below. The powerful beam sheared away huge chunks of glacier and sent them plunging into the icy water below.

  The clear blue arctic sky around the Disrupter was a chaotic cloud, packed with thousands upon thousands of enemy fighters locked in fierce aerial combat with an even greater number of Interceptor and WASP drones, all swarming and diving to strafe the transparent deflector shield that surrounded the skin of the spinning Disrupter in their midst. The Disrupter's protective shield was already beginning to pulse and flicker on my HUD, indicating that it would soon fail. Of course, when it did, there was still the escort of Glaive Fighters orbiting around it, dogfighting a steady onslaught of gamer-controlled drones.

  Fusion reactor detonations kept firing off every few seconds like popcorn, further weakening the shield. It flickered and pulsed more rapidly, and I thought the timing of our arrival just might turn out to be perfect.

  Then the Disrupter activated itself.

  Every one of our thousands of drones froze, and then, in unison, they began to drop out of the sky like pieces of leaden ash.

  Meanwhile, of course, the thousands of alien fighters kept flying, unaffected--with their operators safely back on the Europa and out of the Disrupter's range, its field had no effect on them.

  A few seconds after their links went dead, the EDA drones' emergency fail-safes activated and their autopilots kicked in, attempting to right the drones and land them safely on the nearest patch of ground--or in this case, the crumbling ice shelf. Most of the drones I saw got picked off by enemy fire before they could make it to the ground safely, and most of the others crashed into the ocean or the ice and were lost.

  In a blink, the Disrupter had rendered every single drone in the Earth Defense Alliance's entire global arsenal inoperable.

  I knew the same thing must be happening at that same moment over Shanghai, Karachi, and everywhere else around the world as the millions of video-game-trained civilians who had been waging drone warfare against the alien invaders from their laptops and game consoles just a few seconds earlier now found themselves staring at a "Quantum Link Lost" error message.

  Earth's mighty gamer army was out of commission, unable to do anything now but sit and wait for the end.

  I saw a few other manned Interceptors continue to attack the Disrupter, along with several squadrons of conventional military fighter aircraft. But they were now vastly outnumbered, in addition to being outgunned, and they were getting massacred.

  The sky surrounding the Disrupter now contained only enemy ships--an unopposed swarm of Glaives and Wyverns. The now-dormant ATHIDs and Sentinels standing on the ice shelf below were being picked off like beer cans by the Spider Fighters and Basilisks marching on them from all sides.

  Our five Interceptors continued to dive into the heart of the enemy's forces as a few other stray manned Interceptors formed up just ahead of me, on my father's wing--only to get blasted to smithereens a few seconds later, lighting up the sky on either side of him. But my father piloted his ship through the onslaught, untouched--and so did I. Miraculously unharmed.

  I pitched into a barrel roll as I flew through the flaming debris, silently cursing my father. He'd planted the seeds of doubt in my head, and now I suddenly saw evidence to support his theory everywhere I looked: My father, my friends, and I continued to streak and loop through the chaos, effortlessly blasting enemy fighters out of the sky one after the other while laser fire and plasma bolts streaked past us on all sides--just like we used to when we played Armada together.

  But these were real aliens we were fighting--sentient beings with highly advanced technology, intent on destroying us. And we were outnumbered thousands to one. We should've been dead a hundred times already. Were humans really just better at war than they were, or all this time, had the aliens been throwing the game?

  A volley of photon bolts nailed my shield, knocking its power down by two-thirds and snapping me out of my reverie. I shook my head to clear it, then accelerated to catch up with my father and the others. We all locked into attack formation, tearing along the ragged edge of the ice shelf, which continued to crumble and collapse into larger and larger pieces, melting rapidly under the intense heat emanating off the spinning dodecahedron above.

  The Disrupter now hung about a hundred meters above the ocean's wrinkled surface, like a diamond chandelier suspended from nothing at all. Its escort of Glaive and Wyvern Fighters continued to swarm and dive over and around it, circling it like a cloud of silver flies.

  There were still more enemy fighters than I could count--so many that my AVA computer was having a hard time estimating their number, too. There appeared to be a few hundred of them now, with more circling farther out, on the periphery of the battle. And according to my tactical readout, there were thousands more enemy ships on their way--hundreds of thousands of more.

  "Where are those reinforcements coming from?" Whoadie asked. "Did they stop attacking Shanghai?"

  "No," my father said. "According to the EDA command, the city has already fallen. Now they're diverting more of their ships here. In a few minutes, the odds of us being able to destroy this thing are going to be a lot worse."

  "Then let's get it done right now," Debbie suggested. "No time like the present."

  "Ready to rock shit from my cockpit!" Whoadie declared. "What's the plan, sir?"

  Just then, I saw Debbie's ship get hit by a barrage of plasma fire. One of her engines erupted in flames.

  "Eject!" the rest of us all yelled over our comms. But Debbie had already beaten us to the punch. Her cockpit module shot away from the rest of the ship's smoking fuselage like a bullet casing being ejected from a gun port. It flew upward for a few seconds, then began to arc back down toward the wrinkled surface of the icy sea below.

  As I steered my Interceptor into a dive to try to go after it, Whoadie's ship swooped in out of nowhere and caught the pod in mid-fall, using the magnetic retrieval arm slung under her ship's nose. When the metal pod locked into place on the underside of her fuselage, she let out a cry of victory--but it was cut off in mid-yawp when a barrage of laser fire streaked across her hull, nearly hitting Debbie's pod.

  "I got you!" Whoadie cried. "I got her, General! But I don't think I'll be much good in a fight now."

  "Get out of here, Whoadie!" my father ordered. "Get Debbie to safety. Now!"

  "Yes, sir," she replied, firewalling her throttle. Her ship streaked away in a blur.

  "And then there were three," I muttered over the comm. "And all three of us are gonna be toast in a few seconds, too, if we stay where we are."

  "Just keep watching the birdie," my father said as I saw his ship swoop and make another pass over t
he dodecahedron surface, blasting two Wyverns in the process. "According to my HUD, that shield is already pretty weak. Keep firing at it-- Chen, what are you doing!"

  The comm channel was drowned out by the sound of Chen, screaming "Seven!" in a voice choked with tears. Then he yelled "Six!" And then "five!"

  Only then did I understand. Chen was reacting to the news of Shanghai's destruction in the worst possible way--a nervous breakdown, right in the middle of combat. And who could blame him? He wasn't a soldier. No one had prepared him--or any of us--for the horrors of war.

  I located Chen's ship on my tactical display and saw that he was already turning into a steep dive toward the Disrupter, with his guns apparently set to auto-fire. His shields took a direct hit and failed, and then a second later, his weapons failed, too, followed by his engines. But his ship's momentum continued to hurtle it forward, toward the Disrupter, and on my HUD, his ship began to flash red, indicating that its reactor core had been set to overload.

  Over my comlink, I heard Chen cursing and shouting in Chinese. The English translation popped up on my HUD: They killed my sister! Now I'm going to kill them!

  I watched in paralyzed horror as Chen continued his dive toward the Disrupter's spinning faceted surface, and I saw my father spiral his ship over into a sharp dive to pursue him. As Chen's Interceptor closed in on the spinning dodecahedron, I winced and held my breath, expecting his ship to impact on its deflector shield. But a millisecond before his ship reached it, its reactor detonated, lighting up the sky.

  The explosion's energy dispersed across the Disrupter's deflector shield--and then it flickered and failed. The transparent blue shield around the Disrupter had vanished, leaving its faceted skin exposed to attack.

  Of course, by the time I saw this, it was already too late for me to do anything about it. Even if I'd been willing to overload my own ship's power core, to join Chen in his kamikaze run, there wasn't enough time for me to react now. The shield would only be down for three and a half more seconds. You had to be both psychic and suicidal to get the timing right, and at that moment, I was neither.

  My father, however, appeared to be both.

  Because he was still streaking toward the Disrupter, right on Chen's tail. He had seen the rash decision Chen had made, and then immediately made one of his own.

  "Are you nuts?" I shouted. "The shield won't be down long enough!"

  "It will, Son," he said. "Because they're watching, and they want my heroic gambit to work. Just like I told you. Watch--I need you to see this."

  "I don't want to see anything, you fucking asshole!" I screamed. "Eject, now! You can't do this to me!" I said, voice cracking. "Not again!"

  My father's ship righted itself, but didn't change course.

  "I love you, Son. And I'm sorry. Tell your mom--"

  Time slowed down to a crawl. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.

  I finally thought to begin counting--one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three, one thousand four.

  The Disrupter's shield remained down. Was I counting too fast?

  On my tactical display, my father's ship closed the remaining distance to the still-exposed Disrupter like a bullet streaking toward a bull's-eye, as the Glaive Fighters closed in, firing on him from all sides--all of them conveniently missing our hero.

  Stormtrooper Syndrome, I thought to myself absurdly. These guys couldn't hit water if they fell out of a fucking boat.

  A split second before my father's ship self-destructed, I saw the armored shell slide down over his cockpit canopy as it had Debbie's, transforming it into a sealed escape pod. The pod fell like a stone, plunging into the churning ocean below--just as his power core imploded and the whole world went white.

  Somehow I had enough presence of mind to jam my flight stick forward, diving my own ship into the ocean below just as the overlapping blast waves emanating from the massive explosions above slammed against the surface, throwing up steam and making the sea boil and evaporate.

  My tactical display showed me what was happening on the surface. My father's reactor core detonation had torn apart the unprotected Disrupter, and its faceted skin exploded into a cloud of triangular debris that blanketed the ocean surface, mingling with pieces of human and alien spacecraft. I could hear the largest pieces of debris as they thudded again the watery ceiling above me, like dirt raining down on a coffin lid.

  It was completely quiet down there, beneath the waves, floating inside my watertight space ship as I gazed up at the fiery apocalypse erupting above the surface. The silence was so total that for a moment I wasn't sure if I was alive or dead. Then I heard the panicked cadence of my own breathing and realized that yes, I was indeed alive, at least for the moment.

  But I wasn't sure about my father. I wasn't getting a signal from his pod's emergency beacon, and the scopes in my ship's sensor package were useless--the ocean was so littered with the wreckage of hundreds of drone Interceptors, Glaives, and conventional fighter aircraft that picking out a single escape pod from the detritus was impossible.

  He would drown down here, if he hadn't already.

  I powered on every external light my ship had, and then the internal ones, too, just for good measure, but I was still only able to see five or six feet into the murky waters, and there was nothing there, nothing--and the deeper I went, the muddier the water.

  I stared helplessly at my blank scopes, trying desperately not to assume the worst, but doing just that.

  Could Fate possibly be so cruel as to take my father away from me, on the very same day I'd found him? I didn't like the answer my subconscious spat back at me, of course. But it was my fault for asking, really. I should've known better.

  Warnings began to flash on my HUD, telling me that my hull was leaking and that I would need to surface now, or risk having my engine and life-support systems fail.

  But I didn't surface. I kept on looking for him, even though it was pointless.

  He couldn't vanish on me again, not now. Not before I had a chance to tell him what I'd seen during the battle. What he'd shown me.

  He was right; I was wrong. I understood that now. If he would just come back, I would tell him, I would help him, I would do whatever he wanted. He didn't need to punish me like this--by letting me get to know him and learn to love him, only to break my heart all over again.

  A voice in my head was saying, At least he died for what he believed. But that only made me feel worse, because it didn't ring true.

  I knew what was happening up there, above the water's surface. As soon as my father destroyed the Disrupter, all of the Earth Defensive Alliance's quantum communication links would've instantly came back online, everywhere around the world. Now all of the Earth Defense Alliance civilian recruits were back in the fight, controlling the millions of drones stockpiled around every heavily populated area in the world.

  Thanks to my dad, humanity had a fighting chance for survival once again. He'd given everything to save the world.

  But I didn't care about the world just then.

  The world could go to hell and take everyone and everything with it, if only that meant I could have my father back.

  I swung my Interceptor across the darkness of the ocean floor, peering into the emptiness, ignoring the increasingly loud warnings from my AVA computer telling me to surface, and to do it now, or I would die, too.

  Because that sounded fine to me. Just fine.

  Sitting there in the darkness, I found myself thinking about Lex. I wondered where she was, and if she was still alive.

  Then I remembered my conversation with her, and the QComm hacks she'd shown me. My father's QComm number was on my contact list. If he had the device in his flight suit and if he hadn't powered it off, I might be able to use that to find his escape pod.

  Feeling a sudden burst of hope, I fumbled my QComm out and pulled up my short contact list. Then I repeated the steps Lex had shown me to perform her "remote location hack." It involve
d pressing several icons on my display in rapid order, like the old Konami code. It took me several tries to get it right, because my hands were shaking and the hull-integrity and leak warnings from my AVA computer kept frazzling my nerves.

  Finally, a GPS program appeared on my QComm's display. My QComm appeared as a green dot--and my father's appeared right on top of it, as a flashing red dot. I rotated the display to show our relative depths.

  My father's pod was directly below me!

  I blindly circled my ship around in a corkscrew, using my QComm to close in on him. As I pulled up to avoid the tangled wreckage of two Glaive Fighters, I felt a jolt and heard a loud crack as my father's escape pod appeared out of the watery darkness outside, slamming right up against my cockpit canopy. As the two acrylic domes collided, I caught a horrifying glimpse of his limp and lifeless face, just a few inches away from mine.

  Once I'd stopped screaming, I maneuvered my Interceptor around his pod and activated its retrieval arm. A second later, its magnetic seals locked into place with a thud and the arm retracted, fusing my father's escape pod to the underside of my ship's hull.

  My AVA computer linked to the pod's occupant diagnostics, and my father's vitals appeared on my HUD. He wasn't dead! He was merely unconscious, and the computer calculated a sixty-seven percent chance that he had suffered a concussion. He was also bleeding from a deep laceration on his scalp. A dialog box popped up on one of my cockpit screens, providing me with a running list of the treatment and drugs that the pod was administering to its occupant. A video window popped up on my display, showing my father's unconscious form from the shoulders up, and I winced as the pod dosed him with a cocktail of painkillers via a needle gun mounted on one of its many robotic arms. I hoped to hell the drugs in that pod didn't have an expiration date.

  I watched the drone work on him for a few more seconds; then I finally snapped out of my daze and gunned my ship's throttle, blasting up out of the ocean, then on up in the clouds above, still flooring the gas.

  My AVA computer informed me that my passenger needed medical attention immediately, and the autopilot set a course for my ship to the nearest EDA med center, at the southern tip of South America.

 
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