Armada, p.33
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       Armada, p.33

           Ernest Cline
 

  If it hadn't been for Lex and Ray, he wouldn't have had a chance. Thankfully, Lex was already inside the EDA's security firewall, so she was able to access the base security system to guide my father and use it to help him avoid or evade as many of the tethered ATHIDs as she could while throwing up blast doors around his route to keep defenders away. Meanwhile, Ray used his own hardline network access to seize control of the laser defense turrets positioned along my dad's route and used them to blast a path through the drones stationed ahead of him.

  But just when there seemed to be no stopping him--they stopped him. His luck ran out, and a pack of tethered ATHIDs got the jump on him. He managed to take them all out, but not before a stray plasma bolt hit him in the chest, and he went down.

  I watched helplessly as he struggled to get back on his feet, but he couldn't. So he began to crawl.

  He pulled himself down the corridor, until he reached a charging dock where five dormant ATHIDs were stored. He opened up the maintenance access panels one at a time and entered a long code on each one, and then all four of them powered up. My father detached the tethered controllers from each drone and used them to command the four ATHIDs to lift his injured body off the ground. Then he had them interlace their eight arms and legs around his body, forming something that looked sort of like a walking spider tank. This contraption lifted him up and continued to carry him forward.

  He rode inside as he blasted his way farther into the base, firing four sets of ATHID weapons as he came.

  He also hijacked all of their external speakers, and then used them to play a song I recognized immediately from his old Raid the Arcade mix--"Run's House" by Run-D.M.C.

  "Archie really hates hip-hop," we heard him say. "I bet this will throw him off balance. Like 'Ride of the Valkyries'!"

  He cranked the song up to an earsplitting volume. I could see him mouthing the lyrics as he continued to fight his way toward Vance, lumbering forward like a Terminator that was never going to stop until it had completed its final mission.

  My father piloted his makeshift tank down one last corridor, then finally arrived at his destination--a pair of armored doors labeled raven rock drone operations command center.

  Then, to my horror, I watched as he set the power cells on all four of his ATHIDs to manual overload. In a panic, I asked Lex to patch my voice through to him.

  "I already did," she said. "He can hear you right now."

  "Dad, what are you doing?" I screamed.

  But it was a rhetorical question. I knew exactly what he was doing.

  He glanced up at the security camera mounted nearby--the one we were watching him on. He smiled, but he didn't answer me. He just turned his makeshift spider-tank around and then used it to crash through the armored doors, into the command center itself. Several of the drone drivers had already climbed out of their pods and were now standing there in the middle of the room waiting for him.

  Admiral Vance was standing in their midst, waiting, too.

  The admiral ordered his men to open fire on my father as soon as he stumbled forward into the room, but only a few of them actually obeyed. The majority of them didn't even raise their weapons, and most of those who did couldn't seem to bring themselves to fire--not with General Xavier Lightman in their sights.

  Then Vance started shooting, firing his nine-millimeter Beretta. First he took out the speakers on each of my father's drones, silencing the music blaring out of them.

  Then he turned his weapon on my father.

  "You're a damn fool," he said, just before he opened fire on my father. Several of his men opened fire, too. Most of their shots were deflected by his shield of ATHIDs, but not all of them. A bullet grazed my father's left leg.

  He still didn't stop coming, though.

  He continued to lurch forward, piloting his makeshift ATHID spider-tank farther into the room, as more laser fire and bullets struck him and his drones, until he finally collapsed a few yards away from Admiral Vance, trapped inside the tangled wreckage of the four ATHIDs. That was when Vance finally spotted the power core overload countdowns ticking away on each of them. All of them had about ten seconds remaining.

  "You guys all need to get out of here," my father said.

  The men turned and ran for the exit as fast as their legs would carry them. But Vance didn't move.

  "You better get going, too, Archie," my father said. "Six seconds. Five ..."

  Vance shook his head and then ran to the exit before turning back.

  "You're a damn fool," he said. "This won't stop us from deploying the Icebreaker, you know."

  Then he turned and ran, and the op center doors hissed closed behind him.

  "I know," I heard my father mutter to himself. "I was just trying to delay you." Then he laughed. "My son is going to stop you."

  Then my father's four makeshift bomb all detonated in unison, and the video feed went black.

  I screamed. I don't know for how long.

  When I finally got ahold of myself and returned to my senses, I checked the camera feeds from my three drones orbiting Europa. The squadron of EDA drones escorting the Icebreaker had broken formation. They were now drifting around the Icebreaker, which had discontinued its descent toward the moon.

  At this very moment, I knew Admiral Vance and the other pilots who had been in control of the Icebreaker's fighter escort were evacuating the Raven Rock installation. But I also knew that it would only be a matter of seconds before they reached a safe location and retook control of their drones and the Icebreaker. I probably had less than a minute before they started to come back online.

  I left two Interceptors orbiting at a distance, took control of the third, and swooped in to attack the defenseless drones drifting helplessly in front of me.

  I destroyed half of the Icebreaker's fighter escort before I came to my senses and forgot about the rest to focus all of my fire on destroying the Icebreaker.

  But I was still struggling to knock out its shields when Vance and his men seized control of their drones once again, from some new location--possibly using their QComms.

  Suddenly, I found myself outnumbered and outgunned, locked into a dogfight with six Interceptors. As I moved to engage, the song "One Vision" by Queen cued up on my father's old Raid the Arcade playlist. The song finally managed to put me in the zone.

  I took out four of their ships in as many seconds, leaving only two Interceptors remaining--the ones piloted by Rostam and Viper Vance.

  I went after Rostam first, recklessly ramming his drone with mine. The impact set his drone careening off at an oblique angle, right into the path of one of the Icebreaker's automated sentry guns. It exploded in a collapsing fireball.

  Now it was just me and Admiral Vance.

  The two of us were now locked in a fierce duel around the Icebreaker as it hovered above Europa. Muffled through my headphones, I could hear the chaotic sounds of real-world combat somewhere close by--and they were growing ever closer. Spider Fighters had surrounded Starbase Ace. Cruz, Diehl, and my mother were fighting to keep them at bay, and a Basilisk was closing in on the store.

  Then, at the last minute, Whoadie swooped down out of the sky in her own manned Interceptor. When the Disrupter had activated and she'd lost control of her drone, she'd decided to jump back in her prototype Interceptor and had hauled ass here from New Orleans to help us. She took out the Basilisk on her first pass with a shot right between the eyes, then swung around again and strafed the Spider Fighters, allowing me to focus my attention back on my duel with Admiral Vance, halfway across the solar system.

  I knew that Vance had flown on my father's wing at Moon Base Alpha--but he turned out to be even better than I expected.

  Before I knew what had happened, Vance had swung around on my tail and blasted my Interceptor to pieces.

  Then he turned and continued to escort the Icebreaker to its target. But Vance didn't know that I still had those two last Interceptors in reserve, waiting in a holding pattern nearby.
<
br />   I took control of another ship and went after Vance. I managed to strafe him with a barrage of plasma bolts, but his shields held and his ship remained undamaged.

  He killed me again. He was really good. Almost as good as my father, but not quite.

  I took control of my last ship, and once again intercepted Vance and the Icebreaker--just as it came within firing range of Europa's surface. It was now or never.

  I pushed aside my grief and paralyzing rage and focused on what I wanted now, more than anything else in this life--to make my father proud of me, and to make certain that his sacrifice had not been made in vain.

  I firewalled my Interceptor's throttle and locked horns with Vance's drone, which was still flying in a protective pattern around the Icebreaker. But his ship's power core was running low now, while I had a fresh ship with a full charge.

  There was no time now for subtlety. I put my fighter into a dive and came straight at him with all guns blazing while he did the same, the two of us playing an outer-space variation on a game of chicken, unloading all of our weapons at one another simultaneously.

  A split second before we collided, his depleted shields failed--but mine held, allowing me to destroy his ship with a well-placed plasma bolt. It incinerated his ship, just as mine flew straight through the ensuing fireball.

  I didn't stop to celebrate. I swooped down to take out the Icebreaker, too--just seconds before it launched its nukes at Europa's surface.

  "Don't do it, kid!" Vance screamed over the comlink channel, now powerless to stop me. "If you do this, you'll be personally responsible for the extinction of the entire human race."

  I went ahead and did it anyway.

  When I fired a last burst from my sun guns, the Icebreaker went up in a brilliant, soundless explosion of light.

  That was all it took.

  In that one moment, it appeared that I had negotiated a cease-fire. The news was already coming in over all of the EDA comlink channels. All around the world, the alien drones and ships had just suddenly deactivated, allowing themselves to be easily destroyed.

  I sat there, listening to the news the war was over, trying to make myself believe it. Then, just as I was about to disengage from my Interceptor and remove my helmet, I saw the surface of Europa crack open beneath me, breaking apart like an eggshell as a giant chrome orb rose out of the hidden ocean below, ripping a massive, circular hole in the surface ice as it zoomed up into orbit and began to hover in space directly in front of my ship. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the object was actually an icosahedron, with twenty symmetrical, faceted sides--a "twenty-sider," Shin would have probably called it.

  The icosahedron hovered in front of my ship. Then it began to speak to me.

  "I am the Emissary," it said. "I am an intelligent machine created by a galactic community of peaceful civilizations known as the Sodality."

  The Emissary then explained to me that there were never actually any extraterrestrial beings living on Europa at all! Only microbial life had evolved in the moon's subsurface ocean. No intelligent beings--indigenous or otherwise--had ever lived there.

  "Then who built the armada that just attacked Earth?" I asked. I felt like a character in someone else's dream. "Who have we been fighting this entire time?"

  "I built the Armada," it said. "And this entire time you were fighting against yourselves.

  "The Sodality has been monitoring your species' radio and television broadcasts for as long as you've been transmitting them into space. But we didn't begin to take a special interest in humanity until 1945, when you created your first nuclear weapon and then used it for warfare against your own kind. At that time, we used all of that data we had collected to create a detailed profile of your species and ascertain its evolutionary strengths and weaknesses. In 1969, when your species became technologically advanced enough to reach another world, in this case your own moon, you became a potential threat to the others members of the Sodality. And that was when I was sent here, to deliver the Test."

  "So it was a test, after all?" I said. "What for?"

  "A test that we use to gauge whether or not your species is capable of existing peacefully within the Sodality," the Envoy said. "It was initiated when your species first discovered the swastika on Europa's surface. We selected a symbol that your culture most associates with war and death, and then we re-created an enormous replica of that symbol on the nearest celestial body in your solar system with conditions capable of harboring intelligent life."

  "We knew your discovery of such a symbol would eventually prompt you to send another probe down to the surface to investigate its origin," the Emissary said. "As soon as your probe landed on Europa, the next phase of the test began. I simulated a standard first-contact scenario for your species, in which a cultural misunderstanding leads to a declaration of war."

  The machine's declaration didn't ring true to my ears, but I was in no mental condition to start a debate.

  "You built all of those drones yourself?" I said. "And you controlled them in combat?"

  "Affirmative."

  "So this entire time, it was just you?" I said. "One artificially intelligent supercomputer pretending to be a hostile alien race for the purpose of testing humanity's character?"

  "In very simple terms, yes. That is accurate." The machine paused. "It was your time to be tested. The Sodality found it necessary to ascertain how your species would handle a common first-contact scenario with a neighboring civilization. As I said, it was a test. The Test."

  "Your 'test' killed millions of innocent people," I said through clenched teeth. "Including several of my friends. And my father."

  "We are sorry for the losses you have suffered," the Emissary said. "But know that many other species have passed the Test with no conflict or loss of life."

  I was nearly sobbing now. "What did you want us to do? What were we supposed to do?"

  "There is no right or wrong way of taking the Test," the Emissary told me. "Using human psychological terms, it was a projective test, rather than an objective one. It presents the subject civilization with varying sets of circumstances intended to gauge your capacity for empathy, altruism, and your ability to act and negotiate as one collective species. It allows the Sodality to see how your species navigates first contact with a species of similar temperament."

  "Isn't there an easier way to do that?" I asked. "One that wouldn't have involved killing millions of us and trashing our whole planet?"

  "The Test reveals things about a species that cannot be ascertained any other way--what your Earth scientists refer to as an 'emergent property.' "

  I didn't know how to respond. I was almost too upset to form thoughts or words.

  "You should not feel too remorseful about how the Test played out," the machine said. "Your species' primitive warlike nature made a certain amount of conflict inevitable, as it often does. Regardless, your species should be pleased with the outcome. You passed the Test."

  "We did?"

  "Yes. The result was uncertain for a while, but you did well at the end. Many species lack the ability to defy their own animal instincts and allow their intellect to prevail. Such species are usually declared unfit for survival, much less membership in the Sodality."

  "So you're saying that if I hadn't destroyed the Icebreaker, you would have exterminated the entire human race?"

  "Correct," the machine replied. "But thankfully you made the correct choice, and knowingly disengaged from the cycle of warlike escalation with your imaginary enemy. That is why I'm speaking to you now. Once the Test has been passed, the emissary makes contact with the individual most directly responsible, to inform them that their species has been invited to join the Sodality."

  "How many other civilizations are there--in the Sodality?"

  "At present, the Sodality has eight members," it replied. "Your species will be the ninth, if you accept our invitation."

  "How do we do that?"

  "You may accept the invitation on your
species' behalf right now," it told me. "You have earned that right."

  "What if I--what if we decline to join?"

  "No species has ever declined to join the Sodality," the Emissary told me. "There are many benefits to membership. The sharing of knowledge, medicine, and technology, among other things. Your species' longevity and individual quality of life will increase drastically."

  I didn't spend a whole lot of time thinking it over. I just went ahead and said yes.

  "Congratulations."

  "That's it?"

  "Yes. That is it."

  "What happens now?"

  "Now we will begin the process of inducting your species into the Sodality," it said. "The first step is for us to share certain beneficial aspects of our technology with your species that will help you rebuild your civilization. Very soon your people will also be free from sickness and hunger. But this is just the first step. The Sodality will contact you again when you're ready for the next one."

  "When will that be?"

  "It depends on what you do with what you are given."

  Before I could sort out my next question, the Emissary probe departed, warping out of our solar system in a blink. I never saw it again.

  I parked my Interceptor in orbit around Europa and disengaged the link, leaving it there, possibly forever. Then I turned around and saw my mom standing behind me, along with Cruz and Diehl. All three of them had been watching, and I saw that Cruz and Diehl had both recorded my entire conversation with the Emissary on their phones.

  I asked Diehl to post my exchange with the Emissary on the Internet, but he told me there was no need--the aliens had been broadcasting it all around the world, on every TV channel and device connected to the Internet. The truth about the Envoy and existence of the Sodality had already been revealed to the entire human race.

  When the third wave of the alien armada arrived a few hours later, the drones didn't attack. Instead, they landed and began to help humanity rebuild its civilization, as well as its planet's fragile environment. The alien drones also began to dispense miraculous life-giving medicine and technology, along with an endless supply of clean, abundant energy. It seemed like they gave humanity everything it had ever wanted.

  But while the world celebrated its victory, all my mother and I could do was go back home, and begin the process of mourning everything we'd just lost.

 
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