Armada, p.31
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       Armada, p.31

           Ernest Cline

  I didn't chime in. I just let them debate the issue, as if we were all back in our high school's cafeteria, arguing some trivial facet of pop culture over cardboard pizza. This was why I'd come here, I realized--to get the opinion of my two most trusted friends, gauge their reaction, and see if their conclusions mirrored my own. And in a way, they did. They seemed to be just as confounded by all of this as I felt, and yet were also just as intrigued by the mystery as my father.

  I checked the time. It was still running out. And I realized that I'd already made my decision.

  "I appreciate you talking through this with me, fellas," I told them. "Now I've got a phone call to make."

  I raised my wrist and activated my QComm. Both of my friends' eyes lit up.

  "What the holy sweet hell is that?" Diehl asked. "A tricorder?"

  Finn Arbogast answered after the third ring, and his smiling face appeared in high-definition video on my QComm's display. Judging by the view behind him, he was sitting in some sort of command bunker, with giant display screens bolted to its thick concrete walls displaying an icon-littered map of various regions of the world.

  "Zack!" he said. "I'm glad to see that you're alive! You and your father were reported missing in action just after you took out that Disrupter. Congratulations, by the way. I watched the whole thing!"

  "Then you know that my father just risked his life to save us all," I said. "So I think you owe him a favor, don't you?"

  He smiled uneasily. I waited for him to ask about my father, but he said nothing.

  "Did my father ever tell you his theory, about the Europans' true motives?"

  His smiled vanished and he let out a heavy sigh.

  "You mean his theory that this invasion is all a ruse?" Arbogast said. "That the Europans orchestrated this whole conflict as some sort of test for humanity? Yes, I know all about it. I'm sorry, Lieutenant. Your father is a great man--a hero. And we all owe him a huge debt. But all these years at war have addled his brain. He's become delusional."

  "No, he hasn't," I replied, too forcefully. "I've seen the evidence myself, when we were going up against the Disrupter in Antarctica--it dropped its shield on purpose. They let us destroy it! Look at the footage--you can see it happen for yourself!"

  He didn't respond, but his eyes shifted evasively. He looked as if he spent most of his time in front of a computer instead of with people, and he wasn't used to being interrogated or put on the spot like this.

  "I don't see the point in this conversation," he said. "We debated all of this with your father years ago, and I'm not going to go through it again now with you, kid. I mean, look around you! Our enemy's motives are obviously no longer in question!" He pointed to the giant map of the world behind him. "The Europans just killed over thirty million people--and that was just the first wave of their invasion. The second wave is arriving just over an hour from now. So if you'll excuse me, I need to prepare for it--"

  "Sir, if you'll just let me speak to someone who--"

  Before I could say another word, he ended the call.

  I lowered my phone and turned to look at my friends.

  "Okay," Diehl said, leaning forward. "That was a giant ball of fail. What now?"

  I smiled and held up my QComm. All the names I'd just lifted from Finn Arbogast's phone were listed there. I scrolled down to highlight the one labeled Armistice Council Members--Conference.

  "He already gave me all the help I need," I said.

  "You hacked his future phone?" Diehl said. "How? You can barely use apps!"

  "If you must know," I said, "That super-hot mech driver I met at Crystal Palace showed me how to do it. She also kissed me, FYI."

  "Really?" Cruz said, laughing. "Is she from Canada? The Niagara Falls area, perhaps?"

  "I want to know if they boned in zero gravity," Diehl said. "Spill it, Lightman."

  I ignored their questions and called my father on his QComm. It rang and rang. As I continued to let it ring, I grabbed Diehl's phone off his desk to dial my mother's number--only to discover that it was already programmed into his contacts as "Pamela Lightman."

  "Why do you have my mom's number saved in your phone?"

  "Oh, you know why, Stifler," Cruz muttered through from his video window, his voice dripping with innuendo--this was his version of "that's what she said."

  "I've had your mom's number in my phone since I was twelve, psycho!" Diehl said. "You have my mom's number in your phone, too. Get over yourself."

  I nodded, then shook my head vigorously. "Sorry," I said. "Sorry, man."

  I put his phone to my other ear. My mother's number rang and rang, too, while my father's continued to ring in the other. A minute passed. Neither of them picked up. Probably not good. I wondered if my dad's condition had gotten worse and she'd decided to take him to a hospital after all.

  After Crom knows how many rings, I finally gave up and canceled both calls. Then I pulled up Arbogast's contact for the Armistice Council again and tried to make a decision.

  I badly wanted to have my father on the line before I called them: The Armistice Council would be made up of world-renowned scientists or EDA commanders or both, and they probably wouldn't listen to some eighteen-year-old kid. But my father was probably unconscious, and the clock was ticking down. What choice did I have?

  I summoned my courage and tapped the Armistice Council contact on my QComm. I watched as the device dialed five different numbers all at once and then connected all of them simultaneously. Then my QComm switched into "conference mode," and my display screen was divided into five separate windows, each containing live video of a different person, each of whom appeared to be in a separate location.

  There were four men and one woman, and all of them looked familiar to me, but I only recognized two of them by name--the two men whose faces appeared in the last two video windows on my screen. The first was Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the second was Dr. Stephen Hawking, slumped in his motorized wheelchair. I heard Cruz and Diehl gasp behind me just as my own jaw dropped open like a castle drawbridge.

  Dr. Hawking spoke up first. I saw the familiar heads-up display for an ATHID on the computer monitor behind him--it appeared that Dr. Hawking had been helping defend Cambridge from its alien siege when he answered the call.

  He spoke using his famous computer-generated voice, which now, ironically, reminded me of Chen's translator instead of the other way around.

  "Who are you?" he asked. "And how did you get this number?"

  I opened my mouth to answer, but no words came out. I'd just recalled the names of the other three scientists on the call--I'd seen each of them interviewed on countless science programs and documentaries. The Asian gentleman was Dr. Michio Kaku, and the other two people were famous SETI researchers, Dr. Seth Shostak and Dr. Jill Tarter. I recognized Tarter because she was a former colleague of Carl Sagan's, and she'd served as the primary inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in the film Contact.

  I was on the phone with five of the world's most prominent scientists, and they were all waiting for me to say something.

  "Doctor Hawking asked you a question," Dr. Tyson said, rolling his eyes slightly. "This is not a good time to be wasting our time."

  I shook my head, and forced my voice into action.

  "I'm sorry, sir, of course," I said, clearing my throat. "My name is Zack Lightman. I was stationed at Moon Base Alpha with my father, General Xavier Lightman, until it was hit--and the fate of human civilization depends on what I have to tell you."

  They all stared at me, waiting.

  I told them, as quickly and succinctly as I could, everything my father had told me, along with what I'd seen for myself in our last Disrupter battle.

  To my shock, none of them hung up on me. So I kept on talking until I had told them everything--and probably a few things more than once. I also used my QComm to transfer the data my father had obtained from Arbogast, including all of the raw Envoy mission footage and the transmissions we'd received from t
he Europans. It only took a few seconds before they were each scanning the data on their own QComms.

  "Some of the things you've just told us are extremely unsettling," Dr. Tyson said. "But unfortunately, they're not entirely surprising. Since it was first formed, this council has encountered a fair amount of secrecy and military bureaucracy in our dealings with the Earth Defense Alliance command--especially pertaining to the release of classified information about the Europans. We were never given unrestricted access to that data."

  "Lieutenant, would you mind if we put you on hold a moment?" Dr. Tarter asked. "So that we can discuss the information you've just given us in private?"

  "Sure," I said, glancing at the countdown clock in the corner of my display, now ticking off the remaining minutes until the second wave attacked. "Take all the time you need. It's not like the world is about to end."

  I don't think they even heard my snarky reply, because they put me on hold before I'd finished making it. Their video stream windows froze and grayed themselves out. I also noticed tiny arrow icons linking their five video windows, to indicate that they were all still talking to each other on the call while I was temporarily excluded. That was when Cruz caught a glimpse of my QComm screen, which was now divided into over half a dozen windows, each with a different person's face, just like the opening of the Brady Bunch--so he decided to belt out an impromptu parody of the opening line of the show's theme song: "This is the story, of an alien invasion, by some fuckheads from Europa who are--"

  That was all he managed to get out before Diehl snapped his laptop shut, cutting him off. He winced at me apologetically.

  "It's okay," I told him. "The council has me on hold."

  Diehl exhaled and reopened his laptop. Cruz was still singing away.

  "All of them have tentacles, like their mother! The youngest one in curls!"

  Diehl laughed. Cruz laughed. I laughed.

  Gallows humor.

  As we sat there waiting, my QComm rang, startling me so much that I nearly dropped it. My display informed me that, in addition to the five other calls on hold, I had a new incoming call--from my father.

  I hit the answer icon, and my father face's appeared in another video window, along with the five grayed-out ones.

  He was smiling--an unbridled, rapturous smile, even bigger than the one he'd been wearing when we first met. I half expected to see an animated bluebird alight on one of his shoulders before he broke into song. My eyes went to the gash on his forehead, which my mother had bandaged, and I wondered if his uncharacteristically upbeat mood was somehow due to his head injury. After a few seconds he managed to force the smile down--but his mouth snapped back into a goofy grin a second later. He shrugged, as if to say I just can't hide how I feel inside.

  That was when I finally noticed that the wallpaper in my mother's bedroom was visible behind him, and I suddenly understood--and immediately wished I could pull and somehow yank the knowledge back out of my brain. No wonder my parents hadn't answered their phones earlier. They'd been too busy boning each other like teenagers.

  "Zack!" my father said, way too brightly. "How are you doing, Son?"

  I wanted to reach through the phone and strangle him--then I stopped to wonder why. It's not like it was their first time, right? And hey, the world was probably about to end. Half the people on the planet were probably going at it right now, just like everyone up on the goddamn moon! Everyone was jumping at their last chance to jump one another. And if anyone deserved a moment of happiness, it was my father, who had just risked his life for the zillionth time to prevent the extinction of the human race.

  If I'd still been my old Bruce Banner self, I would have Hulked right the fuck out on him, then and there. But I didn't. I smiled back at him.

  "Hey, Dad. I'm on hold with all five members of the Armistice Council," I said. "I just told them everything--to the best of my ability, anyway."

  He laughed, assuming I was making a joke. But then his smile abruptly vanished.

  "Wait," he said. "Are you being serious with me right now?"

  "As a heart attack," I said, tapping at the menu on my phone. "I just added you to the conference call."

  His eyes widened when he saw the names of the other people on the call.

  "But--how did you get in touch with them?"

  "You aren't the only one with a few tricks up his sleeve, Dad," I said. "I'll explain later, if we have time."

  My father's face changed--he looked as if he was trying not to panic now.

  "What did you tell them?" he asked. "I mean, how did they react?"

  I noticed that Diehl was staring over my shoulder, holding up his laptop so that Cruz could eavesdrop, too.

  "Holy shit!" he whispered. "Is that your dad?"

  I nodded. I was about to introduce my father to my two best friends when the Armistice Council took us off hold. They all seemed a bit surprised to see that my father had joined us--but not nearly as shocked as he was when he saw who was on the call. "Who is this gentleman, Lieutenant?" Dr. Shostak asked.

  "This is my father, General Lightman," I said. "The officer I was just telling you about."

  My father was still staring into his QComm's camera, dumbfounded. "Well, first of all," Dr. Tyson said, "we would like to commend you both for your service, and for being brave enough to bring this information before the Armistice Council."

  "You're welcome?" I said uncertainly.

  "We've only had a limited time to consider the evidence," Dr. Tarter said carefully. "But we believe there's a strong possibility your theory about the Europans is correct."

  "You do?" my father and I both asked in unison, making the scientist smile.

  "This council has access to classified information about the Europans that adds further credence to your theory, gentlemen," Dr. Shostak said.

  "The official story is that when NASA's Envoy probe landed on Europa to investigate the swastika-shaped anomaly on the moon's surface, it attempted to make contact with the extraterrestrials who created it by burrowing down through the moon's surface ice with a melt probe to reach the subsurface ocean below. But that cryobot's mission wasn't to make contact with the Europans--its mission was to destroy them."

  "I knew it!" my father said. "President Nixon ordered NASA to strap a nuke onto that probe, didn't he?"

  Everyone but Hawking nodded grimly.

  Shostak continued, "Nixon didn't believe the swastika could be anything but a threat. He and a few advisors decided that we had no choice but to take preemptive action."

  "So it was us," my father said. "We attacked them first. And then they came here to attack us. That's how it started. And both sides have been slowly escalating the conflict between ever since, for forty-two years--"

  "Until a few days ago," I said. "When we escalated things to the breaking point by launching a doomsday weapon at them."

  Dr. Tarter nodded. "In light of everything you've told us, it's entirely possible that our use of the Icebreaker was what prompted them to finally deploy their armada and invade after waiting so long."

  I shook my head. "This whole time, it's been us. We're the ones who've upped the stakes every time."

  My father nodded. "And now there's nowhere else for things to escalate. We've reached the endgame--the point of mutually assured destruction. If we attempt to destroy them, they'll destroy us."

  "And you believe the only way to prevent that is for us to recall the Icebreaker and declare a cease-fire?" Tyson asked. "After these beings have already attacked us and killed millions of innocent people?"

  "If we continue to escalate this pointless conflict with them, they're going to exterminate all of us in a few hours anyway," he said. "Admiral Vance is wrong. Launching the Icebreaker at Europa won't stop the second or third wave of their armada from attacking us--quite the opposite. It will seal their decision to destroy us!"

  "He's right," I said. "We have to take this chance. Humanity has nothing to lose--nothing we're not going to lose anyway.
We can go down fighting, but we'll still end up extinct."

  Dr. Tyson nodded. "Unfortunately, it may already be too late for us to convince the EDA command to act on this information," he said. "Admiral Vance still isn't answering our calls, and the second wave of the attack is only minutes away."

  "The Icebreaker will be within firing range just a few minutes after that," Shostak added. "Perhaps the Europans timed it that way?"

  "Don't bother contacting Admiral Vance," my father said. "He won't listen."

  "You're damn right, I won't," Admiral Vance said as his face appeared in a video window alongside the half dozen others on the call.

  I blinked in surprise. Apparently Vance knew a few QComm tricks of his own.

  "I've listened to about as much of this treasonous talk as I can stomach," he said, and reached up and tapped his QComm screen several times in rapid succession. One by one, each member of the Armistice Council was disconnected from the conference call. When he was done, only my father and I remained on the line with him. His haggard face grew to fill half my display, scowling at us in crystal-clear high-definition.

  "Don't bother trying to call the council back," he told us. "I've just locked all of their QComms, so don't hold your breath for them to call you either."

  My father didn't respond right away. He just glared at his old comrade in silence over the video link for a long moment.

  "How long have you known about that weaponized Envoy lander, Archie?" my dad finally asked. "How long have you known that we're the ones who started this war?"

  "I found out when they put me in charge," he said. "And by then, it no longer mattered. And it most definitely does not matter now." He paused. "Whether or not they lured us into this war is irrelevant at this point. Can't you see that, Xavier? We're fighting for the survival of our species! Informing the world that humanity may have accidentally incited this conflict wouldn't help the situation."

  "Accidentally?" I said. "Nixon had NASA send a nuke as our first olive branch, Dr. Strangelove!"

  "You and your son need to give up on this nonsense, General," Vance said. "I need you both back on the front lines, right now, before the second wave makes landfall."

  My dad shook his head. "No, Archie," he said. "We're done fighting. Both of us."

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