Armada, p.30
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       Armada, p.30

           Ernest Cline
 

  I ignored it.

  Instead, I flew us home.

  As I guided my Interceptor over Portland's charred and smoking skyline, I felt tears come to my eyes. Here was my first glimpse of the devastation the vanguard's attack had caused on our cities, and it was as bad as I'd feared. The whole city looked like a scene out of Deep Impact or World War Z. Every street, road, and highway leading out of Portland was clogged with all manner of vehicles, none of them moving. Pillars of black smoke rose from half a dozen fires all over the city, and the sky was filled with news helicopters and small-engine, fixed-wing aircraft, most of which appeared to be fleeing inland.

  I tuned my QComm to one of the big cable news networks, so that I could listen in to the broadcast--and heard the last thing I expected.

  "In addition to the Earth Defense Alliance's decisive victory in Pakistan," one male news anchor was saying, "news of dozens of other victories are pouring in from other cities around the world. The tide began to turn after the aliens' surprise attacks on Shanghai and Cairo--"

  I frowned and switched to another network, showing live coverage from New York City. The Big Apple looked just like it did in every apocalyptic disaster movie I'd ever seen. The skyline was a smoking ruin, and the streets of Manhattan had been flooded by a tsunami created by one of the many artificial earthquakes resulting from the attacks.

  "--dozens of epic battles were raging over the city just moments ago, but as you can see, the skies are clear," another newscaster reported. "The EDA's army of civilian-operated drones has won another decisive victory here. Humanity has successfully defended itself against the first wave of the invaders' attack. We managed to fight them all off--it's incredible!"

  The beautiful female anchor beside him nodded enthusiastically.

  "In every engagement we've had with the enemy so far, it has become obvious that humans are naturally more adept at combat than the creatures who are operating all of these invading ships and drones," she said. "In every battle they seemed to have us outmatched, but despite their vastly superior numbers and technology, the Europans appear to lack our reflexes and natural predatory instincts--"

  I switched newsfeeds again and saw Admiral Vance, addressing the troops via his handheld QComm, wearing his trademark expression of grim resolve. The man looked downright heroic.

  "--but even though we managed to fight off the first wave of the invasion, we suffered heavy losses in the process," Admiral Vance said. "The enemy didn't lose a soul--just equipment. And two-thirds of their forces are still en route to Earth." He paused to let this sink in, then continued. "The second wave of their attack will reach us just over two hours from now, and we need all of you to be ready."

  Just as he finished making that statement, a new countdown clock appeared on my QComm display--just over two and half hours to go until the second wave arrived, bringing twice as much devastation as the first.

  I switched to another channel, and then another, but it was the same war propaganda on every station. Newscasters of every nationality were claiming victory and imploring their viewers not to give up, to hunker down and keep on fighting, because there was still hope--we could still win this.

  I put my QComm away, wishing that I could bring myself to rally to the Earth Defense Alliance's global battle cry. But it was obvious to me that our remaining forces wouldn't be able to withstand another assault of equal magnitude, much less two more attacks, delivered by a force of double and then triple the size of the first wave.

  I tried to forget about the news, and thought again of my father's heroic act of self-sacrifice, performed in the wake of Chen's kamikaze run. It shouldn't have worked. But it had--just as my father had predicted it would.

  I shouldn't need any more convincing--and, I decided right then, I didn't.

  "I'm sorry I doubted you, Dad," I said to him over the comlink, while I stared at his unconscious face on my monitor, his eyes closed and his forehead caked with dried blood. "And I'm sorry I couldn't bring myself to call you 'Dad' before now, too, okay? Do you hear me? Do you, Dad?"

  His eyes stayed closed, and he remained perfectly still--the ship's inertia-cancellation field kept him from even being jostled slightly, even though we were flying through Earth's atmosphere fast enough to set the ship on fire.

  "You were right and I was wrong, okay?" I told him, raising my voice, as if that would help him to hear me. "And I'd really like it if you would wake up now, so that I can tell you that in person. Would you do that for me?"

  "Please?" I said. "General? Xavier?"

  When he didn't answer, I tried again.

  "Dad?"

  But he still didn't respond.

  He was dead to the world.

  I flew him straight to the hospital in south Beaverton where my mother worked, but when I swooped down looking for a spot to land, I saw that all the roads surrounding it were jammed with abandoned vehicles and frightened people. If I landed my Interceptor nearby it would draw all kinds of attention, and it was doubtful I'd be able to take off again.

  I was circling back over the city, looking for a quiet place to set down, when I spotted my high school down below. There were only a few cars still parked in the student lot, and mine was one of them. I could also make out the burn marks on the school's front lawn left by the EDA shuttle when Ray had arrived to pick me up this morning--a whole lifetime ago.

  I considered landing my ship in the lot right next to my car, but then I thought better of leaving it parked out in the open. A few seconds later, I spotted the perfect parking spot.

  I swung around and flew back over the school, but this time I strafed the roof of the gym with laser fire. Then I made another pass and strafed it again, until the whole roof collapsed. Once the dust settled, I lowered my Interceptor down into the gym, concealing it perfectly from view, except from directly above.

  The school superintendent was going to be pissed about the damage, but he could bill me.

  I was sure someone must have spotted my ship during its brief descent, or heard the noise I'd made. But when I climbed out of my cockpit and ran back outside the gym to take a quick look around, I didn't see anyone rushing toward the building to investigate. I figured that the people who weren't too busy fleeing the city or looting were probably inside their homes, glued to their TV and computers screens, waiting for news.

  I sent my mother a text message, asking her to meet us at home with a first aid kit, as soon as possible. Then I pulled my car around, up to the gymnasium's exit. I ran back inside, opened up my father's escape pod, and--staggering under his weight--carried him out to my car.

  The jolt of pain he must've felt when I finally managed to flip him into the back seat brought him to a state of semiconsciousness.

  "RedJive, standing by!" he said drunkenly, slurring his words. He blinked a few times and looked around the car, his eyes widening in recognition.

  "Hey, I know this car. This is my old Omni! This shit heap still runs?"

  I couldn't speak for a moment. I was too overjoyed to see his eyes open.

  "Yeah, it still runs," I finally managed to say. "But just barely." As I gently removed his jacket, I noticed there was blood on some of its patches. I balled the jacket up and shoved it under his head for a pillow. "Try to stay still, okay? Just rest. We'll be home soon."

  "Wow, really?" he said, smiling faintly. "I've never been home."

  Luckily my house was only a couple of miles from school, and most of the streets were still passable. I only had to make one detour, to get around a five-car accident blocking an intersection. During the trip, my father drooled and mumbled in the passenger seat, obviously riding high on whatever pain meds the escape pod's emergency systems had injected into his bloodstream.

  As I turned down our street and saw our empty driveway, I clenched my teeth in disappointment. My mom wasn't here.

  I was still helping my father out of the car when I heard an engine behind me and turned to see my mom's car pulling in. I made a second's wor
th of eye contact with her through the windshield, saw her eyes widen as she recognized me--and then she was leaping out of her car and running to mine, covering her mouth with her long fingers.

  My father opened his eyes in the passenger seat beside me as she peered in.

  He didn't speak. He just stared at her, as if paralyzed. I put a hand on his shoulder.

  "Hey, Mom," I said, getting out of the car. "I'm home. We're home."

  She took me in her arms and crushed her face against my shoulder as tightly as she could. When she finally let go, she turned back to look at my father, still inside the car. "Xavier?" she said. "Is that really you?"

  Somehow he managed to pull himself up out of the car, onto his feet.

  Then he took a step toward her, and she threw her arms around him. He buried his face in her hair, inhaling deeply.

  As I watched them embrace, there on the front lawn, my heart swelled until I thought it might burst.

  I heard barking, and a second later, Muffit burst out of his doggie door. The old Beagle barked and bounded down the front steps and across the front lawn, moving faster than he had in years.

  "Muffit!" my father cried, breaking off his embrace with my mother to greet the ancient dog, just a second before Muffit somehow summoned the strength to bound into my kneeling father's lap.

  "Oh, it's so good to see you, boy!" he said as Muffit showered his face with kisses. "I missed you, boy! Did you miss me?"

  Muffit barked happily in reply, then continued to shower my dad with saliva. It had never once occurred to me to wonder whether our dog remembered my father--after all, Muffit had been just a puppy when he disappeared.

  My father began to laugh under the beagle's barrage of kisses--but then he glanced over at my mother and me and suddenly broke down and began to sob. He turned away and tried to hide his face by burying it in Muffit's graying coat. My mother put her arms around both of them, and I saw that there were tears running down her cheeks, too--and I knew they were the same sort now welling up in my own eyes. Tears of joy.

  Through my increasingly blurred vision, I watched my father and my mother and my dog, all holding each other, just a few feet away from me--my family, impossibly reunited, after all this time.

  Suddenly, I wanted very much for the world not to end. I wanted it to keep going, more than anything.

  My father set Muffit down and scratched his silvery muzzle. "You got old, didn't you, buddy? That's okay. I did, too."

  My mother examined the cut on my father's forehead and winced.

  "Help me get him inside," she said. "Christ, what did you give him? Bourbon?"

  "The med computer in his escape pod dosed him with some sort of painkiller," I explained. "Will he be okay?"

  My father burst out singing--some old song I didn't recognize.

  " 'I haven't got time for the pain!' " he bellowed.

  My mother let out a laugh, then nodded at me.

  "He's definitely suffered a concussion, but yes--he'll live." She let out another laugh, which turned into a sob halfway through. "That's funny, considering he's been dead for seventeen years." She gave me an unsteady smile. Her lower lip was trembling.

  "It's gonna be okay, Mom," I said, just to have something to say.

  We got my father into the living room and lowered him onto the couch. Then I turned to my mother and hugged her as hard as I ever had in my life.

  "I need to run over to Diehl's house, Ma," I told her, breaking off the embrace. "There's something I promised Dad I'd do."

  "He didn't promise me anything!" my father shouted--but his face was buried in the couch cushions, and Muffit was sitting on his head, so I may have misheard him.

  "Zackary Ulysses Lightman, you are not going back out there!" my mother said, pointing her finger at me. "I've been worried to death! You can't do that to me again!"

  "It's okay now," I told her as I headed for the door. "The first wave of the invasion is over. Nearly all of the alien drones from the vanguard have been destroyed."

  My mother smiled with relief, clearly mistaking my meaning.

  "But that was just the first wave, Mom," I said. "A lot more are on their way."

  "Two more whole waves of them," my father mumbled, lifting his head long enough to dethrone Muffit, then dropping it facefirst into the cushion again.

  Her eyes shifted back and forth between the two of us uncertainly. I went over and hugged her a last time.

  "I'll be back before then," I told her. "I promise." I glanced at my father. "Try and sober him up, will you?"

  The drive to Diehl's house was easier than I'd feared--I had to use some sidewalks and lawns to avoid pileups and downed power lines, but with the streets and sidewalks empty of traffic, the detours didn't take long.

  When I reached Diehl's house, I saw over a dozen dormant ATHIDs standing guard around the perimeter of his lawn like robotic sentinels. I saw the omnidirectional camera eyes swivel to follow me as I approached, but they made no move to stop me. I scaled Diehl's backyard fence, climbed up onto his roof, and then tiptoed over to his second-story bedroom window to peer inside.

  To my relief, Diehl was in there, he was alive, and he was doing exactly what I'd expected to find him doing--sitting at his computer, talking to Cruz via a video window on his computer.

  Diehl had the soles of his feet propped against the edge of his desk, and he was leaning his metal chair back, balancing it on its two rear legs--an old habit of his. When I tapped on the windowpane and he looked over to see me standing outside in my EDA uniform, he jerked backward in surprise, the chair tipped over, and he fell to the floor with a thud. But he recovered quickly, scrambled back to his feet, and ran over to throw open the window.

  "Zack!" he said, leaning out the window to give me a hug before pulling me inside. "Jesus, man!"

  We hugged each other; then I turned to wave at Cruz in his monitor. He was sitting at his computer in his own cluttered suburban bedroom, just a few miles away.

  "Holy shit," I said. "It's really good to see both of you guys."

  "Yeah! We had no idea what happened to you!" Cruz said. "Sweet EDA uniform!"

  "Thanks," I said, collapsing into a beanbag chair in the corner, suddenly feeling the heaviness of my exhaustion weighing me down like a suit of medieval armor.

  "We weren't sure we'd ever see you again, after you flew off in that shuttle!" Diehl said, sitting back down at his desk.

  "School was canceled right after you left and they sent everyone home," Cruz added. "That's where we were when the news hit earlier this afternoon. So we jumped online and helped fight off the first wave."

  "We've been glued to our consoles since," Diehl said, still in shock. "We helped defend Shanghai and Karachi--until the Disrupter activated and disabled everyone's links. We would have been hosed if the EDA hadn't taken that thing out."

  "The EDA's Drone Operator Assignment System switched both of us to local defense once the enemy began to spread out and attack everywhere," Cruz continued. "And since we're two of the highest-ranking drone drivers in the greater Beaverton area, we got first dibs on local drone access! We used our ATHIDs to help defend Beaverton from the drones that landed here."

  "Yeah, did you see that Basilisk we took out?" Diehl asked. "It was right down the street from your house."

  "You two did that?"

  They both nodded proudly.

  "We couldn't let that thing stomp your house!" Diehl said, slapping me on the back and then hooking his arm around my neck.

  "Thanks, fellas," I said. "I appreciate it." I pointed back outside, at the ring of ATHIDs encircling his house. "How did you manage that?"

  "Their operating system software has zero security installed," Cruz said. "I guess the EDA decided not to bother--but that makes them incredibly easy to hack. People all over the world have been figuring all sorts of hacks to make them do stuff the EDA never intended, then they post "How To" videos on YouTube, showing everyone else how to do it, too." He pointed outside. "That's
how I disabled the recall subroutine on those ATHIDs out there, so they didn't leave for reassignment after the first wave." He beamed proudly. "Now they'll be here to protect my mom and little sisters when the second wave arrives."

  I nodded, impressed. I was about to ask if he'd tried making them line dance when Diehl shouted at me from the laptop screen.

  "So spill it," he said. "What happened to you after that shuttle picked you up at school this morning? Where the hell have you been all day?"

  I considered how to answer.

  "On the far side of the moon," I replied. "With my dad."

  On the monitor, I saw Cruz's jaw drop open.

  To my left, Diehl leaned back a few inches too far in his chair and fell over again.

  Once I caught my breath, I tried calling Lex to make sure she was okay. She didn't answer, but a few seconds later she texted me: I'm OK. Will call U ASAP. <3

  Then, as quickly as I could, I told the Mikes everything that had happened since we'd last seen each other. Eventually I worked my way up to telling them my father's theory about the Europans' true motives, and the observations he'd made that supported it. It took a while for me to get to our battle with the Disrupter, and to explain how its conclusion seemed to be proof of my father's theory.

  When I'd finally laid everything out, I asked the question I'd come here to ask.

  "What do you guys think?"

  They both stared at me in silence for a long time. Diehl was the first to speak.

  "I think your dad is probably right," he said. "Why would the Europans bother to send robots and spaceships to attack us?" He shoved a handful of corn chips into his mouth, then chewed it thoughtfully. "If their primary goal was to wipe out the human race, they could have just hurled an asteroid at Earth. Or fired a bunch of long-range nukes. Or poisoned our atmosphere, or--"

  "Maybe they're precursors!" Cruz shouted from Diehl's computer monitor. "Maybe they seeded life on Earth millions of years ago, and now they're here to punish us for turning out to be such a lame species and inventing reality TV and shit?"

  "This conversation was an intelligent one, right up until you joined it," Diehl said.

 
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