Armada, p.32
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       Armada, p.32

           Ernest Cline
 

  Vance frowned. "Funny. I never pegged you for a deserter--or a coward."

  "The Europans know about the Icebreaker, Admiral," my father said. "They have to. Their technology is slightly more advanced than ours. You noticed that, right?"

  Vance snorted. "If they've spotted the Icebreaker, why haven't they destroyed it?"

  "Because they're waiting to see if you'll actually use it, you obtuse prick!" my father shouted back. "That's the whole reason they're attacking us in waves instead of all at once! Don't you see? They're testing us!" He lowered his voice. "Archie, listen to me, man. This is how we survive. They're giving us a chance to reconsider--to think all of this through, instead of blindly retaliating, just like we've always done in the past!"

  "We've had this argument before, X." Vance shook his head. "Many times. You know I'm not going to risk the survival of the human species on some big fat maybe that you cooked up because you've seen too many old movies." He pointed up. "Those things--whatever they are--have already killed millions of innocent human beings, and I'm not going to recall our last chance to destroy them before they destroy us. I don't care who else you've convinced of your asinine fairy tale. The decision is made."

  "Archie," my father repeated, struggling to remain calm, "I'm telling you right now, if you launch those nukes at their home, you're ensuring the destruction of ours!"

  Vance studied him for a moment, then tapped his wristwatch.

  "I guess we'll find out which who's right in about twenty-three minutes," he replied. Before my father could reply, Vance hung up, leaving the two of us alone on the line together. My father's face enlarged to fill my whole QComm display. He looked utterly defeated for a second. But then he broke into a broad smile.

  "Oh well," he said. "I guess this means we go to Plan B."

  I shook my head. "Remind me what Plan B was again?"

  "You and I stop the Icebreaker all by ourselves."

  Before I could reply, a single tone sounded, and three other video windows popped back up on our displays as Lex, Whoadie, and Debbie all joined our call simultaneously, each from a different location.

  "Hey, fellas," Lex said. "Count me in."

  "Me, too!" added Debbie, just before Whoadie shouted, "And me three!"

  "What the hell?" my father said. "Where did you ladies come from?"

  "Dad, this is my friend, Captain Alexis Larkin," I said. "We met at Crystal Palace. She figured out how to jailbreak the QComm operating software. I asked her to set things up so they could all listen in on the conference call. She also installed software on our QComms to prevent the EDA from remotely disabling them."

  My father raised his eyebrows, impressed. "Outstanding, Captain. Thank you!"

  "You're welcome, General!" she said, returning his salute.

  He froze, seeming lost in thought for moment. "Is there any chance you can tell me what Admiral Vance's location was when he broke in on the call?"

  She nodded. "He's in Pennsylvania. At an EDA base codenamed 'Raven Rock.' "

  My father grinned and then saluted her. She returned it.

  Diehl leaned in over my left shoulder, holding Cruz on his laptop screen. "We want in on this operation, too!"

  My father studied the faces arrayed before him in silence.

  "So what's the plan, General?" I asked.

  We rallied at Starbase Ace.

  I drove Cruz and Diehl there in my car, and we pulled up in front of the store just a few minutes before my mother arrived in her own car. My father wasn't with her.

  "Where's dad?" I asked. "What happened?"

  "He drove separately," she replied, before pointing up at the sky overhead. A second later, my Interceptor swooped into view. My father brought the ship in for a perfect landing in the strip mall's crumbling parking lot and ran over to greet us. After my mother and I each gave him a quick hug, I introduced him to Cruz and Diehl, who had watched his arrival in awestruck silence.

  I unlocked the store and led everyone inside. When my father saw the store shelves, lined with high-end Armada and Terra Firma flight controllers, he broke into a broad smile.

  "This is perfect!" he said as he began to grab items off the shelves and hand them to each of us. "I need each of you to build the best rig you can, as fast as you can."

  The moment I finished setting up a makeshift drone controller pod for myself in the store's LAN party room, my father called me back into the tiny, cluttered room that served as Ray's office. He was ransacking the place.

  "What are you looking for?" I asked.

  He nodded at the QComm on his wrist. It displayed a map of the local neighborhood, with an EDA icon hovering over the location of Starbase Ace.

  "There's a secret access node for the EDA's hard-line fiber-optic intranet hidden somewhere at this location," he said. "But I can't find it."

  I remembered something Ray had told me during our shuttle ride to Crystal Palace. That Glaive Fighter I'd seen outside my classroom window--he'd said it was a scout ship conducting surveillance on the EDA's hard-line intranet. When I'd spotted it hovering over Beaverton, it had probably been in the process of scanning the "secret" intranet access node hidden here in the store.

  But if the Europans knew about the EDA's backup intranet, why hadn't they bothered to destroy or disable it before they invaded?

  Because their actions have never made any sort of tactical sense, I thought. Why start now?

  My father continued to tear through the office. He began to pull books off a nearby shelf one at a time, then suddenly raked the remaining ones off with his arm in frustration. "It'll be concealed behind an armored access panel--like a safe? Any ideas?"

  I shook my head. "We don't have a safe," I said. "We never needed one." I held up my QComm. "But I've got Ray's number."

  "Be careful what you say," he warned. "Vance could be monitoring your QComm."

  "Not anymore," I told him. "After Vance broke in on my conference call with the Armistice Council, Lex helped me turn on my QComm's hidden security mode--the same feature that Vance uses to prevent his own QComm from being monitored."

  "Captain Larkin appears to be something of a genius, doesn't she?"

  I caught him studying my face for a reaction, and blushed involuntarily. I nodded in reply, then pulled up my contacts and tapped the last name listed there: Ray Habashaw. His face instantly appeared on my display. His name, rank, and current location appeared across the bottom--he was at an EDA base in Arizona called Gila Mountain.

  "Zack!" he shouted. "Where are you? Are you okay?" He lowered his voice and moved his QComm camera a bit too close to his mouth. "I heard you and your father went missing in action after you took out the Disrupter. I was afraid you bought it."

  I shook my head and tilted my QComm so that he could see my current location.

  "You're back at the store?" he said, brightening first, then scowling at the sight of his office. "What the hell, man? Who are you letting ransack the place? Looters?"

  I shook my head, then positioned the QComm so that Ray could see my father, too. His eyes widened.

  "General Lightman," he said, awkwardly saluting his QComm. "It's an honor, sir."

  My father returned the salute.

  "The honor is all mine, Sergeant," he said. "I owe you a huge debt for watching over my boy while I was gone. Thank you."

  "You're welcome," he said, blushing visibly.

  "Ray, we don't have much time," I said. "We need to access the EDA intranet node hidden here in the store. It's an emergency."

  Ray only hesitated for split second. "Behind the UFO poster on the back wall."

  I turned and located the one he was talking about--a framed reprint of Mulder's "I Want to Believe" poster from The X-Files. I took it down, revealing what appeared to be a small titanium safe embedded in the brick wall behind it, with a keypad at its center.

  "The combination is 1-1-3-8-2-1-1-2," Ray said.

  My father grinned and punched in the numbers. The lock disengaged, and
he opened the door. The only thing behind it was a row of ten Ethernet cable ports--just like those on the back of our cable router at home.

  "Thank you!" my father said. He turned to me. "You guys got RJ45 cable here?"

  I nodded. "On the wall opposite the register!"

  He ran out, and I looked back at Ray on my QComm.

  "Thanks, Ray," I said. "But now I have to ask you for another favor. A big one."

  "You better make it quick, pal," he said. "The second wave is minutes away."

  I gave him the short version of the story. It still took way too long. Thankfully, Ray took even less convincing than Lex or my other friends. Once I finished telling him everything my father had told me, he paused for a few moments, then nodded.

  "Tell me what you need," he said.

  As soon as we got our makeshift drone controller rigs connected to the hard-line intranet node back in Ray's office, my father laid out the plan. Cruz, Diehl, my mother, and I all watched my father's chalk talk there in the store, while Lex, Whoadie, and Debbie listened over their QComms.

  I wasn't a fan of several aspects of his plan, but there was no time to argue, or to come up with another solution.

  My father wished everyone good luck. Then the others stayed inside while my mother and I walked outside to bid him farewell.

  "What if you can't delay the Icebreaker long enough for me to get there?" I asked, once we were far enough outside that my friends wouldn't hear his answer.

  "Don't worry," he said. "I'll take care of it. Okay?"

  "Okay."

  He grabbed me and pulled me into a fierce embrace.

  "I love you, Son," he said. "Thank you for helping me do this. Thank you for believing in me. You'll never know how much--how much that means."

  He kissed my forehead, then walked over to say goodbye to my mother. She wasn't crying--she'd put on her bravest face, for both of us.

  They spoke to each other briefly, but I stayed out of earshot. I don't know what they said to each other. But my mother nodded before she kissed him goodbye, and he smiled at her.

  Then he turned and climbed inside my damaged Interceptor, and my mother and I watched as he flew off, bound for the Raven Rock command center.

  The second wave attacked just minutes after my father departed, and a swarm of Glaive and Wyvern Fighters descended from the sky to attack Portland and the surrounding suburbs. Our drone reserves were heavily diminished, and consequently we were far more outnumbered than we had been during the first wave. But the EDA's civilian gamer forces continued to put up a valiant fight, and a fierce battle raged in the streets of the city and in the sky above while we carried out our mission inside the store.

  During his chalk talk, my father had explained how the EDA's hardline intranet worked. It was an underground fiber-optic cable network directly linking all of its drone controller outposts together, creating a Disrupter-proof communications system that the Alliance had prepared in anticipation of the invasion. It would allow the EDA to keep communications open between its command outposts, and allow drone operators to help defend other installations remotely while the Disrupter was active, via hardwired defense turrets and tethered drones.

  If everything went according to my father's plan, we would be able to use our intranet connection at Starbase Ace to help him infiltrate the Raven Rock outpost during the chaos of the Disrupter attack.

  If not, well--then he was going be totally hosed.

  While my father piloted his manned Interceptor to assault Raven Rock, where Vance's team was located, I sat inside Starbase Ace piloting the three Interceptors my father had commandeered from the Icarus crater and sent off toward massive Jupiter, its tiny moon Europa--and the Icebreaker closing in on it.

  Cruz and Diehl took control of four new ATHIDs from a nearby EDA drone cache and redeployed them in the Starbase Ace parking lot, to defend us during the second wave of the attack.

  Lex was at Sapphire Station, and Ray was at Gila Mountain. Both were connected to the hardline EDA intranet from inside their assigned drone controller pods--and both were already preparing to help my father execute his infiltration plan.

  While Cruz and Diehl used their giant robots to help defend Starbase Ace from the incoming swarm of Spider Fighters and Basilisks, my mother, Debbie, and Whoadie all used WASP aerial drone quadcopters to defend the store from above.

  Whoadie was fighting from an Armada sit-down arcade game located in the game room of her Uncle Franklin's bowling alley in New Orleans. Debbie was back home in Duluth, controlling her drone from her own living room while her three sons continued to stand guard outside their home by controlling EDA drones with an Xbox, a laptop, and a touchscreen tablet, respectively. We knew that Debbie and Whoadie would both lose control of their drones when the Disrupter switched on, but there was nothing we could do about that. They intended to help out for as long as they could.

  While my friends kept the enemy drones at bay, I continued to pilot my drones toward Jupiter, trying to make it to Europa in time to stop the Icebreaker--while my father attempted to prevent Vance from launching the weapon before my ships even got there.

  That was when we got word via a public EDA command broadcast that the second Disrupter was about to make landfall. At first, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Instead of activating the Disrupter in a secluded location like Antarctica, this time the aliens picked a far less subtle location--the national monument at Devils Tower, Wyoming. The same spot where humanity makes first contact with the alien visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. An "intergalactic game of Simon," my dad had called it. Featuring those same five tones the Europans had used to bookend their cryptic transmissions to us.

  "Oh, that's not cool!" Diehl shouted, staring at a live video image of the Disrupter taken by an orbiting satellite. "Are these alien pricks openly mocking us now? Christ!"

  When the Disrupter activated, the drones my friends were using to defend Starbase Ace were disabled and went limp or fell out of the sky--as did every untethered EDA drone around the world.

  But the Europan drones continued to attack, closing in on Starbase Ace as if they somehow knew it was of strategic importance.

  Lex, Ray, Debbie, and Whoadie all lost control of their drones as their links went dead. So did Cruz and Diehl, but they both ran outside and activated the hardline controllers on two dormant ATHIDs. They detached the small Xbox-like game controller from each ATHID's back and then ran back inside, unspooling their drones' carbon-fiber-sheathed tether cables to their maximum length.

  My mother, always cool during a crisis, ran over to guard the door behind me with an aluminum baseball bat, apparently with the intention of using it to fight off any aliens that attempted to get past her. I took off my QComm, strapped it onto her right wrist, and showed her how to fire its built-in laser. She tossed her bat aside, then aimed the device at the floor and activated its beam for a split second--long enough to burn a hole in the carpet and the concrete foundation beneath.

  "I got this," she said, smiling with satisfaction. Then she aimed her new weapon back at the door, continuing to stand guard over me.

  I focused my attention back on the array of monitors and controllers spread out around me. The three Interceptors my father had launched from the Icarus crater were finally closing in on Europa.

  Even though I was located inside the Disrupter's cancellation field, these three ships were millions of miles outside of it, so my quantum communication link to them was unaffected. And so, unfortunately, were the EDA's links to the Icebreaker and its fighter escort, under the control of Vance and his underlings at Raven Rock.

  I took control of the lead Interceptor, and through its cameras I could see the Icebreaker closing in on the icy moon, surrounded by its escort of two dozen drone Interceptors. I knew that those ships were under the control of the best pilots the EDA had available, and that would almost certainly include Viper and Rostam, who were both listed above me in the Armada pilot rankings for a very go
od reason--they were better than me.

  Even with three ships, there was no way I could take them all on at once, no matter how badly I wanted to. So instead, I did as my father had instructed. I sat tight, out of sight, and waited for him to even the odds.

  When he reached Raven Rock, my father circled high over the base, waiting until the moment the enemy activated the Disrupter. He knew exactly when it happened, because the EDA fighters and drones protecting the installation down below deactivated instantaneously.

  I also lost the audio and video feeds from inside his cockpit, but a few seconds later Lex executed some further computer wizardry, and a live video image of my father's ship reappeared at the edge of my HUD. The feed appeared to be from one of the base's external security cameras, fed back to us through the hardline intranet.

  With the base's defenses momentarily disabled, my father had turned his Interceptor into a steep dive, and now he appeared to be making a suicide run at the base's armored blast doors, which were still very much closed.

  As he raced toward the base, I realized he was aiming for one of the drone launch tunnels, just as I had earlier during my colossal screwup at Crystal Palace. But here, instead of being disguised as grain silos, the launch tunnel openings were camouflaged as rock formations embedded in the mountainside.

  I sat in Starbase Ace, watching his progress over the base's network of security cameras. Once his ship was inside the Raven Rock drone hangar, my father set it to hover on autopilot, then used his ship's laser turret to cut a large hole in the ceiling. He raised his Interceptor up to the opening, opened his cockpit canopy, and jumped out, scrambling into the dust-filled level above the hangar ceiling.

  Then he drew his sidearm and took off running, even deeper into the base.

  I expected the corridors to be empty, or filled with inert drones. But when the Disrupter activated, some of the base's internal hardwired defense turrets had remained operational, along with a few dozen tethered ATHIDs, all controlled by operators linked to them through the EDA's hardline intranet. They were already converging on my father's position, under orders to stop him at all costs.

 
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