Armada, p.9
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       Armada, p.9

           Ernest Cline

  "At least you were smart enough to bring backup this time," I said as I slipped off my backpack and took both of its shoulder straps in my right hand, feeling the comforting weight of the tire iron inside.

  Knotcher's smile momentarily faltered, then twisted into a sneer.

  "They're just here to make sure you don't fight dirty," he said. "Like last time."

  Then, in direct contradiction to what he'd just said, Knotcher nodded at the Lennys, and all three of them began to spread out, forming a rough semicircle around me.

  In my head, I thought I could hear the cracked-but-commanding voice of Emperor Palpatine, saying, "Use your aggressive feelings, boy. Let the hate flow through you!"

  "You're in deep shit now, eh, Lightman?" Knotcher sneered. "Kinda like your old man."

  I knew Knotcher was trying to push my buttons. Unfortunately, he'd pushed the big red one first. The ICBMs had just left their silos, and now there was no recalling them.

  I didn't remember unzipping my backpack, or taking out the tire iron, but I must have, because now I had the cold steel rod clenched in my hand, and I was raising it to strike.

  All three of my opponents stood frozen for a moment, their eyes wide. The Lennys threw up their hands and started backing away. Knotcher's eyes flicked over to them, and I saw him registering that his simian pals had bowed out of the fight. He started moving backward too.

  I looked at the curb a few feet behind him, had a nasty thought, and followed through on it by lunging at Knotcher with the tire iron. He lurched backward and--just as I'd hoped--caught a heel on the concrete rise and landed flat on his back.

  And then I was standing over him, looking down at the tire iron clutched in my hands.

  Off to my left, someone screamed. My head snapped around and I saw that an audience had gathered--a handful of students on their way in to first period. Among them one girl, too young and deer-in-the-headlights to be anything but a freshman, slapped a hand over her mouth and flinched backward as I looked her way. As if she was terrified that I--Zack the school psycho--would choose her as my next target.

  I glanced back at the Lennys, who were now standing among the students who had gathered to watch the fight. All of the onlookers seemed to be wearing the same expression of horrified anticipation, as if they believed they might be seconds away from witnessing their first homicide.

  A wave of cold shame washed over me as the intensity of my rage faded away. I looked down at the tire iron clutched in my hands and let it clatter to the pavement. I heard a chorus of nervous laughter behind me, along with more than one relieved sigh.

  I stepped away from Knotcher. He slowly got to his feet. We stared at each other for a moment, and he looked as if he was about to say something when his gaze shot upward, focused on something in the sky behind me.

  When I turned around, I saw a strange-looking aircraft approaching from the east, moving at an incredible speed. The closer it got, the more familiar it looked. My brain still refused to accept what my eyes were seeing--until a few seconds later, when the craft braked to a dead stop and hovered directly over us, close enough for me to make out the Earth Defense Alliance crest stenciled on the side of its armored hull.

  "No way," I heard someone whisper. A second later, I realized it was me.

  It was an ATS-31 Aerospace Troop Shuttle, one of the ships used by the Earth Defense Alliance in both Armada and Terra Firma. And it was about to land in front of my high school.

  I definitely wasn't hallucinating this time: Dozens of other people were staring up at the shuttle in amazement, too. And I could hear the rumble of the shuttle's fusion engines and feel the heat from their exhaust buffeting my face. It was really up there.

  As the shuttle began to descend, everyone in my vicinity scattered like roaches, heading for the safety of the school.

  I just stood there like a statue, unable to look away. The ship was identical to the troop shuttles I'd piloted while playing Armada, right down to the EDA crest and identification bar code stamped on the underside of its hull.

  The Earth Defense Alliance can't be real, Zack, I assured myself. And neither can that shuttle you think you're looking at right now. You are hallucinating again, only it's much worse this time. This time, you're having a full-on psychotic break.

  But I couldn't make myself believe that. There was too much evidence to the contrary.

  Okay, then you might be trapped inside a lucid dream, like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky. Or maybe your reality is really just an incredibly convincing computer simulation, like in The Matrix. Or maybe you just died in a car accident, and this is all just an elaborate fantasy playing out in your brain during the last few seconds of your life--like in that one old Twilight Zone episode.

  As I continued to watch the Earth Defense Alliance shuttle land, I told myself that I had no choice but to roll with the situation as best I could--at least until I woke up, ran into Agent Smith, or heard Rod Serling begin his closing voice-over.

  The shuttle lowered its landing gear and touched down softly on the broad sidewalk leading up to the school's main entrance. I glanced back at the school and saw faces filling the windows in every classroom while hundreds of students poured out of every school exit, eager to get a better look at the strange ship and find out what the hell was happening.

  It was easy to tell which of them recognized the Earth Defense Alliance shuttle. They, like me, were the ones looking the most shocked right now. To everyone else, it probably looked like some new kind of military aircraft, a slightly futuristic cross between a helicopter and a Harrier jet, like the drop ships in Avatar or Edge of Tomorrow.

  The shuttle's automatic doors slid open, and three men wearing dark suits jumped out. They looked like Secret Service agents. Our principal, Mr. Wood, stood there frozen for a few seconds, then rushed forward to greet them, his hand outstretched. After he shook hands with all of them, the shortest of the three men removed his sunglasses, and I heard myself gasp. It was Ray Wierzbowski, my boss at Starbase Ace.

  What the hell was Ray doing here, dressed like one of the Men in Black? And where the hell had he obtained a working Earth Defense Alliance tactical shuttle?

  I watched in a daze as Ray flashed some form of ID at Principal Wood. They conferred briefly and shook hands again; then Ray raised a small bullhorn and used it to address the growing crowd.

  "We apologize for interrupting your morning, everyone," Ray said, in an uncharacteristically commanding voice that echoed across the school grounds. "But we desperately need to locate Zack Lightman. Does anyone know where he is right now? Zack Lightman? Please look around and point him out if you see him. We require his assistance with an urgent matter of national security. Zack! Zack Lightman!"

  I realized Ray was saying my name about the same time I realized that everyone within my field of vision was now staring and pointing at me--including Knotcher and both Lennys. It was like that scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Eventually, my public school training took over and I raised my hand and shouted "Here!"

  When he spotted me, Ray grinned and started running across the grass toward me like his life depended on it. It was the fastest I'd ever seen him move.

  "Hey there, Zack!" he said when he reached me, only slightly out of breath. Then he rested a hand on my shoulder and nodded at the gleaming shuttle behind him. "Wanna go for a ride?"

  It's finally happening, Zack. The Call to Adventure you've been waiting for your whole life. It's standing right in front of you.

  And I was scared shitless.

  But I still managed to nod my head and mumble, "Yes."

  Ray grinned--proudly, I think--and squeezed my shoulder.

  "I thought so!" he said. "Follow me, pal. There's no time to lose."

  As the entire school looked on, I followed Ray back across the lawn and over to the waiting Earth Defense Alliance shuttle. As the crowd parted to clear a path for us, I spotted my ex-girlfriend, Ellen, staring at me in disbelief from amid the sea of faces.
The crowd swelled forward and I lost sight of her. I spotted Cruz and Diehl a few seconds later. They'd managed to push their way to the front of the crowd and were standing a few feet away from the two Secret Service types, who were now standing guard in front of the shuttle, holding the throng at bay with the force-field-like power of their buzz cuts and Ray-Bans.

  "Zack!" Cruz shouted when we made eye contact. "What's happening? This is crazy!"

  Diehl shoved him aside and tried to lunge in my direction, his arms flailing like a drowning man. "You lucky bastard!" he cried. "Tell them to take us, too!"

  Then I found myself inside the shuttle, in the jump seat directly across from Ray and his two suited companions. The hatch slid closed, silencing the roar of the crowd. Following Ray's example, I buckled my safety harness across my chest and pulled it tight.

  As soon as he saw that I was safely strapped in, Ray gave a thumbs-up to the lone pilot sitting up in the cockpit, who was wearing an honest-to-God Earth Defense Alliance uniform. For a few absurd seconds, I caught myself appreciating the attention to detail this dude had obviously put into his cosplay. Then he completed the shuttle's ignition sequence and fired its engines.

  As we ascended, my internal monologue went something like this: That isn't some guy cosplaying at SobruCon IV, Zack. To me, he looks like a real-life EDA pilot, in a real-life EDA uniform, who is currently piloting the real-life EDA shuttle you appear to be aboard. So, let me see now--multiply by two and carry the one--hey, that's really weird, but if my math is correct then THE EARTH DEFENSE ALLIANCE IS FUCKING REAL!

  I pressed my face to the curved window beside my seat and gazed down at my peers and teachers, still gathered in front of the school far below, already shrinking to the size of ants as we zoomed upward in a surreal blur of speed.

  But when I closed my eyes, it didn't even feel like we were moving. No g-forces were pushing me back into my seat. The shuttle wasn't even shimmying or vibrating from turbulence as it climbed through the atmosphere.

  Then I remembered--according to Armada's backstory, all Earth Defense Alliance ships were outfitted with reverse-engineered alien technology, including a Tragheitslosigkeit Field Generator, which created a small inertia-cancellation field around a spacecraft, by "harnessing the aligned spin of gyromagnetic particles to alter the curvature of space-time" or something. I'd always assumed this was just more phlebotinum-powered pseudoscientific handwavium, concocted by Chaos Terrain's writers to make their game's impossibly kick-ass outer space dog fights seem mildly plausible, just as Star Trek and Star Wars used "inertial dampers" and "inertial compensators" so that Han Solo and Captain Kirk didn't get squished into heroic jelly every time they made the jump to light/warp speed.

  I clamped my eyes shut again. It still felt like I was sitting in a car idling at a red light. So much for Sir Isaac Newton.

  A dense layer of clouds obscured the stunning view, and I finally managed to tear my eyes away from the window. I turned to face Ray. He was still smiling. His two stoic companions remained stonily silent and expressionless.

  "Nice jacket," Ray said. But unlike when Knotcher had commented about it, there was no sarcasm in his voice. He leaned forward to admire the patches running down both of my sleeves. "I used to have a few of those Activision patches, you know. Not easy to get."

  I stared back at him in disbelief. He was making small talk with me, as if we were still behind the counter at Starbase Ace. As if he hadn't just turned my whole notion of reality upside down and inside out.

  I felt a wave of anger. Mild-mannered, middle-aged Raymond Wierzbowski--my employer, close friend, and surrogate father figure--had clearly lied to me about a great many things. The deceitful bastard obviously knew what was going on--and had for quite some time now.

  "What the fuck is happening right now, Ray?" I asked, unnerved by the amount of fear in my own voice.

  " 'Somebody set up us the bomb,' pal," he quoted. "Now it's time to take off every zig for great justice."

  He chuckled softly. I wanted to sock him in the face. Instead, I started shouting.

  "Where did you get an Earth Defense Alliance tactical shuttle? How can this thing even be real? And where is it taking us?"

  Before he could answer, I pointed at the two men seated beside him. "Who are those two clowns? For that matter, who the hell are you, asshole! Huh?"

  "Okay, okay!" Ray said, throwing up his hands. "I'll try to answer your questions--but first you need to take a deep breath and calm down a little bit, all right?"

  "Fuck calming down!" I shouted, straining against my safety harness. "And fuck you, too, Ray, you lying sack of shit! Tell me what's going on, or I'll lose it, I swear!"

  "Okay," he said in a soothing voice. "But first, I need you to breathe, Zack."

  He studied my face anxiously. I realized then that I did not, in fact, appear to be breathing. So I took a deep, gasping breath, then exhaled slowly. I felt a little better then, and my breathing began to normalize. Ray nodded, satisfied.

  "Good," he said. "Thank you. Now go ahead and ask your questions again, one at a time, and I'll do my best to answer them, if I can."

  "Where the hell did this shuttle come from? Who built it?"

  "Isn't that obvious?" he said. "The Earth Defense Alliance built it." He nodded at his two companions. "And to answer your earlier question, these two men are EDA field agents, here to ensure your safe transport."

  "No way," I said. "There's no way the EDA can be real."

  "It's real," he said. "The Earth Defense Alliance is a top-secret global military coalition formed over four decades ago."

  "Formed to do what? To 'defend Earth,' I suppose?"

  He nodded. "Hence the name."

  "To defend it from what?" I wanted to hear him say it. Out loud.

  "From an alien invasion."

  I studied Ray's face for any hint of irony, but his expression was now gravely serious. I glanced at his two companions to gauge their reaction, but they didn't even seem to be listening to our conversation. Both of them had taken out smartphones and were studying their displays.

  I looked back at Ray. "An alien invasion? By who? The Sobrukai? Evil humanoid squids from Tau Ceti? You're gonna tell me they're real, too?"

  "No, not exactly," he said. "The Sobrukai are fictional, invented by Chaos Terrain to serve as the alien antagonists in their videogames. But, as you're probably now realizing, Armada and Terra Firma aren't just games. They are simulators designed for a very specific purpose--to train citizens all over this planet to operate the drones that will defend it."

  "Defend it from who? You just said the Sobrukai aren't real. ..."

  "They aren't," he said. "But they're standins for a real alien threat, whose existence had to be kept secret until now to prevent global panic." He gave me an odd smile. "The name Sobrukai is actually a play on the word sobriquet, which is just a fancy term for nickname. Sneaky, eh?"

  A terrible thought occurred to me. "Yesterday morning, I was sure I saw a Glaive Fighter. ..."

  "That was the real deal," he said. "You spotted a real enemy scout ship. EDA intel says a bunch of them have been spotted over the past twenty-four hours, all over the world. We think they're conducting surveillance on all of our hard-line intranet nodes--"

  "But it looked exactly like a Sobrukai Glaive!"

  "Of course it did," he said. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. Chaos Terrain modeled all of the Sobrukai's forces after our real enemy. They re-created their ships and drones as accurately as possible inside the sim--in the games. To make them as realistic as possible."

  "So these aliens, they really have Glaive Fighters? And Wyverns--"

  "And Dreadnaught Spheres, Spider Fighters, Basilisks--they all really exist," he said. "Chaos Terrain made up those names, but everything else about the enemy's drones in Armada is completely accurate. Their appearance, weaponry, maneuverability, tactics, and strategy--all were based on direct observations of our real enemy's forces and technology, made during ou
r previous engagements with them."

  "Previous engagements?" I asked. "How long have we been fighting them? Where are they from? What do they look like? When did they make First Contact? If--"

  He held up a hand to cut me off, sensing the hysteria creeping back into my voice.

  "I can't tell you any of that yet," he said. "The information we've gathered on the enemy is still classified." He checked his watch. "But not for very much longer. You'll be fully briefed as soon as we reach Nebraska."

  "Nebraska," I said. "What's in Nebraska?"

  "A top-secret Earth Defense Alliance base."

  I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it again. Then I repeated this process a few more times, until I actually managed to form words again.

  "You said the EDA was formed over four decades ago. So we've known this alien invasion was coming for that long?"

  He nodded. "Since the mid-seventies," he said. "That was when the EDA first began using certain elements of pop culture to subliminally prepare the world's population for the invasion. That's why the EDA secretly poured billions into the fledgling videogame industry back then--they recognized its potential military training applications." He smiled. "They helped get Star Wars made back in 1977 for pretty much the same reason."

  "Pardon me?"

  Ray held up three fingers--Scout's Honor. "I didn't believe it either, when I first found out. But it's true. Star Wars was one of the first movie projects the EDA helped finance, because their think tanks told them its unique subject matter could help the war effort. George Lucas never even found out about it. He always thought Alan Ladd, Jr., deserved all the credit for green-lighting Star Wars, but in reality, the EDA put up a large chunk of the budget through a bogus network of film and television financing companies that could never be traced back to--"

  "Hold on. You're telling me that Star Wars was secretly financed by the Earth Defense Alliance to serve as anti-alien propaganda?"

  He nodded. "That's a gross oversimplification, but yeah--more or less."

  I thought about the timeline my father had made in his old journal.

  "What about all of the other science fiction movies and shows released over the past forty years?" I asked. "You're telling me they were all created as anti-alien propaganda, too?

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