When the Sky Fell
The year is 2217, and Commander Frank Yamane is the captain of the stellar cruiser, Corona, stationed at Saturn's moon, Titan. Having been in the military for most of his life, he is a battle-hardened man who has experienced a series of personal tragedies, including the loss of his beloved wife, Liana. The inability to prevent her death has left him feeling guilt-ridden, and plagued with doubts regarding his ability to lead others. It is these same experiences, however, that have also prepared him for when humanity needs him most−when an alien race known as the Deravans attack the Earth without mercy. Knowing he cannot stop them alone, Yamane has no choice but to seek the assistance of an enemy he helped defeat in a war ten years before. The problem is, Commander Yamane knows they have every reason not to come to Earth's rescue.
And I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great Earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood;and the stars of the sky fell to the Earth ...
S.F.S. CORONA 0102 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 30, 2217
“I’m beginning to pick up multiple images on my monitor,” the RadAR technician cried out.
Commander Yamane kept his place in the command chair, not moving. The Deravans were out there; that he knew. It was just a matter of time before they arrived. He gave his uniform a quick tug. “What’s their speed... and how long before they reach the Lexington?”
The r-tech’s hands fumbled for the information on his console. He turned back. “1.01 stellar velocity, Commander. Their ETA is ﬁfteen minutes.”
Yamane glanced at the display on his right. To his horror, dozens of blips had already ﬁlled the screen. He turned away, his mind reﬂexively avoiding what it did not want to acknowledge. The conﬁdence he had in his plan a few short hours before ebbed at the sight so many enemy warships.
Another feeling, almost as powerful as the ﬁrst, hit him with near perfection. Fear? Panic? No. Irony. Yes, that was it. How else could he describe the very best the enemy had to offer, pitted against a wreck of a ship? He looked up at the main screen. His former command, the Lexington, glistened in the distance. Sorrow tugged at Yamane. Images of abandoning ship came crashing into his mind. Both he and his crew had just managed to get to the escape pods before the Deravans closed in for the kill, all but blasting the stellar cruiser out of existence. Now he, however, had turned the tables on them and worked his ship’s demise into his advantage. All the hope in the world, however, meant nothing if those power cells hidden in the Lexington’s bowels didn’t charge up at the precise moment required. Otherwise, the ﬂeet under his command would ﬁnd itself in a very bad situation. “Come on, girl,” he said under his breath. “Don’t let me down.”
“The Deravans will be in range of the Lexington in ten minutes.”
Yamane veriﬁed their position again. The blips were there, but in even greater numbers than before. “Have all sub-cruisers assume an attack posture. Standby on my mark!”
“Defensive computer protocols have been engaged,” C-tech Landis said to Yamane. “All targeting monitors are online. Pulse cannons are at full power.”
The commander leaned back in his seat and surveyed the bridge. He tried to gauge the status of his crew. Will they remember their training when both sides meet in battle? For that question, Yamane did not have an answer. “Distance to enemy ships?” he asked after glancing at the main screen.
Sitting to the left of the RadAR station, the nav-tech replied, “Sixteen thousand kilometers.”
“The Deravans are redeploying their ﬂeet,” the r-tech yelled over the sounds of computer systems buzzing around him.
Their overall formation, once a solid and unbroken mass of metal and machines, reorganized itself into three lesser-sized squadrons in a matter of seconds. The efﬁcient manner in which the Deravans executed the maneuver chilled Yamane. “Speed and heading?” he asked.
“Unchanged,” the r-tech replied. “They are maintaining their heading toward Mars.”
Yamane’s ship, the Corona, sat behind and a little above the Antaren dreadnoughts. They were laid out in front of her like twelve breech-loaded shells, ready for use at a moment’s notice. Located at the highest point of the stellar cruiser was the bridge. And in the middle of the bridge Commander Yamane waited...and worried. The overwhelming numbers at the Deravan’s disposal rattled him—and he had good reason to feel as he did. If they tried to take on the enemy one ship at a time, the ﬁghters, dreadnoughts, and destroyers under his command would be sitting ducks against the Deravans’ superior guns. But he had learned from past mistakes. They didn’t have the ﬁrepower to outﬁght them, but he hoped to outthink them. On this his whole plan rested.
Optimism wrestled against Yamane’s fears. Perhaps we can win this ﬁght with little difﬁculty after all. A nice sentiment, but it was a lie. Who was he kidding? A single fear had been haunting him from the beginning—that the Deravans could alter their course at any moment and ﬂy beyond the range of the Lexington. And if they did, Yamane would be right back to where he started—taking them on from a position of weakness. On the other hand, the Deravans might also hold their present heading, right into the trap he laid. The odds seemed ﬁfty-ﬁfty, either way.
Doubts crept in. What if—? Yamane could not ﬁnish so terrible a thought. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he stared at their trajectory marked on the r-tech’s targeting grid. The enemy armada held ﬁrm; they had not changed course. He should have been pleased, but something deep within told him they were taking too much for granted. “Time to intercept?”
“Six minutes, twenty seconds.”
Every tick of the clock forced his hand into a direction he didn’t want to go. Placing his frontline ships in the line of ﬁre was taking a terrible risk, but keeping the enemy ﬂeet on course had to outweigh all other considerations. Ruthless thinking to be sure, but with the survival of humanity at stake, he felt he had no other alternative.
“Signal Commander Moran,” Yamane said to c-tech Landis. “Tell him to prepare for an assault on the Deravan ﬂeet.”
Landis spun around. “Sir?” he gasped, his eyes wide. “You want him to do what?”
“You heard me, Lieutenant,” the commander barked back. “When the enemy armada ﬂies within ten thousand kilometers of the sub-cruisers’ position, they will ﬁre their thrusters and make their course right for them. Then when Moran’s ﬂeet is ten kilometers away from the Deravans, they will ﬁre a ﬁve-second salvo before circling back, past the Lexington. We must ensure the enemy maintains its heading, even if it means risking some of our ships.”
Landis shook his head in a knowing way. “Understood, Commander,” he smirked. “I’ll send the message now.”
S.F.S. DRUMMOND 0115 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 30, 2217
In less than a millisecond, decoding algorithms incorporated into the Drummond’s transceiver unscrambled Yamane’s orders, ﬂashing them across her communication console. “Sir,” the c-tech called out, “I am receiving a transmission from the Corona. Commander Yamane is giving us the go signal for a direct assault against the Deravan ﬂeet.”
Moran brought up his data pad and scrolled down the text. “What are the two distances?”
“Ten and ten.”
“Tell him we’ll make ourselves big fat targets,” he said with a broad grin.
The c-tech offered a weak smile in response and then sent Moran’s answer.
Repositioning himself in the command chair, he assessed their tactical situation. There, ahead of him, were hundreds of ships, all positioned equidistant from one another. Moran leaned to his right. “What is the distance between the two ﬂeets?” he asked the r-tech.
Beads of sweat glistened on the tech’s forehead. “Twelve thousand kilometers, Commander.”
“And their heading?”
The r-tech inputted a set of commands into his console. “Unchanged. They are coming right at us, course—zero-zero-seven.”
“Not long now,” Moran said, almost in the form of a prayer. “Just a little bit more.”
“Deravan ships are now eleven thousand kilometers away.”
“Almost there,” he whispered.
The distinctive sound of the proximity alarm went off. “Ten thousand kilometers.”
Moran stood upright. “Now!” he yelled. “Fire up the main engines.”
The c-tech signaled all seven ships waiting in line; their guns poised on those enemy vessels in the line of ﬁre. In an act of unanticipated choreography, the thrusters of every sub-cruiser ignited at the same instant. A ﬂash of brilliant white light demonstrated to the dreadnoughts and cargo barges behind them just how exact their timing had been.
Moran’s vessel took the point. Coming up about a thousand meters back, three ships on his starboard side and three on his port, the six other sub-cruisers fanned out like sharpened talons, readying themselves for a quick strike.
The r-tech’s attention remained ﬁxed and resolute. Nothing existed for him except the targeting display a few centimeters away. He tracked the enemy’s movements, until the proximity alarm just to his left rang out a second time. “We’ve reached the ten kilometer mark,” he said to the commander after turning back.
Moran’s face became tight. “All batteries...commence ﬁring!”
A blaze of red and blue plasma bursts shot across the bows of all seven sub-cruisers. Multiple numbers of ﬂashes registered in the distance several moments later, and then—nothing.
“What is their course and speed?” Moran shouted out.
The r-tech veriﬁed the results. “Unchanged, sir. Pulse blasts have had no effect.”
Moran glanced at the astro-clock. They hadjust enough time. “Give them a second volley.”
“I’m inputting the command now.”
Every gunner homed in on his prey, locked on, and then ﬁred. Dozens of energy bolts coursed through the cannon chambers, discharging a fraction of a second later. In a mirror-like repeat of the ﬁrst salvo, the lethal bursts slammed into the hulls of those ships ten kilometers away, detonating into dazzling ﬁreballs. When the massive bombardment dissipated, the truth became all too evident. Deravan shields had absorbed the full fury of what the sub-cruisers could throw at them. Without exception, every one of their vessels ﬂew through the barrage, undeterred.
“Hard about!” Moran ordered. “One hundred and eighty degrees.”
After he entered the command codes into his console, the nav-tech grabbed a hold of two support struts and held on tight. The sub-cruiser’s directional thrusters ﬁred on cue. Fighting the forces throwing her forward, the million-ton warship traveling at 0.35 stellar velocity began to buckle. Bulkheads let out deep moans as they contorted under increasing pressure, while deck plates started to pop out of their brackets.
“Commander, we’re coming around too fast,” the navigator yelled. “She’s not going to make it.”
“Hang on!” The Drummond suddenly lurched over. Everyone on the bridge took hold of whatever was within reach when the sub-cruiser banked hard on her port side.
“Come on, baby,” Moran whispered to himself, “don’t let me down.”
Responding in an almost cognizant way, his ship swung around in a parabolic arc, back towards the Lexington.
Moran clutched his data pad tight. “Are the Deravans still pursuing us?”
The r-tech wiped the perspiration from his forehead. “Afﬁrmative, sir. They’re holding steady. Course—zero-zero-seven.”
S.F.S. CORONA 0119 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 30, 2217
Commander Yamane’s ship waited before the crimson disk of Mars. Despite being outgunned by a factor of ﬁfty, he knew they had to be the victors. If not, the enemy armada would snuff out the human race without a second thought. The Deravan’s unprovoked attack against Earth had been brutal, savage. Their bombardment of death since that terrible day had brought humanity to the brink of extermination. “Twenty to one,” Yamane whispered to himself. Too low. More like a hundred to one. He sighed deeply.
“The Deravans will be in range of the Lexington in thirty seconds.”
Yamane checked the r-tech’s monitor for a third time. To his horror, enemy ships encompassed the left side of the display, while shattered remnants of their once proud ﬂeet dotted the right. His attention remained ﬁxed on those barely recognizable derelicts ﬂoating in the distance. Would they be joining them? He lifted his eyes. We’ll all know soon enough.
“The Deravans will be in range in twenty seconds.”
Yamane swiveled around in his command chair. His face became hard. “Don’t press that button until I give the word,” he said to the r-tech, his voice deep.
“Aye, sir,” he replied. “Ten more seconds.”
Every pair of eyes settled on the main screen. “Five...four...three,” the crew mouthed in unison, “two...one...zero.” High-pitched alarms rang out from every corner of the bridge.
“The Deravans are now in range!” Yamane exhaled, paused for a second and then said, “Charge up the cells.” The c-tech’s ﬁnger came down on that most important of buttons, the one sequencing the ﬁnal command directive. All three transceivers scrambled the compressed data streams before sending them to the omega band receivers on board the Lexington.
A penetrating silence ﬁlled the bridge.
“Power signal sent, Commander. They should charge up right about now.”
The Deravan ﬂeet, positioned at its closest proximity to the Lexington, ﬂew past the stellar cruiser. Every gauge and display tied into the power cells, however, remained at zero. The electro-magnetic ﬁeld had not formed. Yamane waited for several moments. A feeling of dread crept up on him. Seconds passed, but still no change. Something had gone wrong.
“The signal isn’t going out,” Landis stammered.
Now dread and fear gripped Yamane. “Re-initiate the program and send out the signal again.”
Landis inputted the sequence a second time. He looked back, his face pale and glistening. One second turned into two, then four, and then eight. The c-tech’s eyes darted back and forth. “I don’t understand,” he said in a shaky voice. “Power levels are still at zero.”
Yamane rushed over to the communication console and singled out the ﬂashing red button amidst a sea of knobs and switches—the one signifying the difference between life and death. Giving it a ﬁrm press with the heel of his hand, he forced his attention back up to the main screen. Hope buoyed his expectations. Disaster met him there. They had not stopped the Deravans. Terrible images of what they would soon unleash against Earth ﬂashed before his eyes.
“I’ve tried everything,” Landis complained, “but the signal still isn’t reaching the cells.”
“Try again!” Yamane snapped back with a distant, almost trancelike stare.
Hesitation ﬁlled the c-tech’s eyes. He started to speak, but re-inputted the directive instead.
Shrill noises came from every speaker on the bridge, providing the dim answer. “The transmitters are working perfectly, but something is blocking the outgoing signal.”
Walls, ceiling tiles, deck plates—they all pressed in on Yamane. He responded with slow, deliberate steps away from the main screen. In that one instant, everything seemed lost. There was no backup plan for him or for Moran. The Deravans would hit his ships ﬁrst, and then attack the rest of the ﬂeet without hesitation. Confusion reigned in his mind. He needed a solution, any solution. None came.
Yamane closed his eyes tight. He hoped it would shake him out of his stupor. It didn’t work. He opened them again. The frantic sound of Landis yelling into his headset trailed off into a deep silence. Turning the other way, Yamane became acutely aware that the characteristic noises put out by the ship’s instruments were also absent. An undeniable feeling of timelessness seeped over him.
Amidst the darkness and confusion, however, something began to show itself. People and places long since past became clearer as each moment trickled by. Commander Yamane tried to ﬁght the pull back in time, but his desire to return there grew in intensity. Further back he went. Further and further, before the arrival of the Deravans, before the losses they had suffered at Mars, and before the future of humanity hung in the balance.
Then, like a ﬂash of light overwhelming all of his senses, a new reality ﬁnally overtook him, too strong to resist...
GAGARIN STAR FORCE BASE, TITAN 1545 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 6, 2217
Lt. Commander Yamane hustled down the walkway, his pace brisk. Major Stan Kershaw kept up with him, stride for stride. They were running late...again. As a person who prided himself on precision and timing in every area in his life, Yamane hated the idea that someone else, even a close friend like Kershaw, could affect his duties in so profound a way. But here he was, late for his third patrol in as many weeks. If things didn’t change soon, he would put himself on report.
Yamane caught himself. Despite all his efforts otherwise, he was becoming too rigid, too by-the-book. It bothered him when this happened. It was just another patrol, one of a dozen scheduled to go up that day. If he and Kershaw took off a little past their scheduled departure time, the heavens would not come crashing down on top of them.
Needing a distraction, Yamane found himself staring at a beautiful, darkening amber sky. A middle-aged yellow star hovered a little above the horizon, diminished in size and intensity, given the distance between itself and Titan. The day had almost ended, and many other nighttime stars were already ﬂickering in the distance. Even when the Sun hung high in the mid-afternoon sky, the relative brightness was equivalent to an overcast day on Earth. If it were not for hundreds of light-enhancing satellites ionizing the upper atmosphere, people living in the capital city of Kalmedia would experience almost perpetual twilight.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Frank,” Kershaw objected.
The accusatory statement pulled Yamane out of his refuge of drifting thoughts. He stopped dead in his tracks. “Uh,” was all he could get out, followed by a feeble: “I guess—”
“No, you don’t guess,” Kershaw ﬁred back. His black, wavy hair ﬂuttered back and forth in the wind. “We havejust as much right being here as anyone else.” He rammed his index ﬁnger into Yamane’s shoulder patch to better emphasize his point. “Think about it. For over one hundred years, Star Force Command has maintained a consistent policy of outward expansion.
And the planets we’ve colonized have been nothing more than miserable heaps of dust and rock.”
Yamane took in the distant jagged mountains shooting up from the valley ﬂoor. Up above them, a shiny object reﬂected the last bit of light from the waning Sun. He couldn’t tell if the ship was coming or going.
Trying a different tactic, Yamane approached their old argument from a new angle. “That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. The right to colonize a planet isn’t based on whether or not life exists there already. My concern is with the question of Man having a right of to be here in the ﬁrst place. Who are we that we should claim any planet for ourselves?”
A conﬁdent grin broke Kershaw’s thoughtful gaze. “But you aren’t asking a valid question,” he replied, as though a pawn had been moved in a game of chess. “When you go back in history, many of our earliest tribes wondered what was beyond the next hill; and then went on over—often with a large contingent of hunters I might add. If there happened to be another tribe on the other side, they resolved their differences, one way or the other. Not many people along the way asked if it should be done. Rather, they fought for what they believed was theirs.”
“Again, who’s to say either tribe could say this or that piece of land belonged to them. Land is land. It’s still going to be here long after we’re gone.”
“I’ll give you that,” Kershaw agreed, “but think about what we’ve been through these past ten years. You remember those planetary leaders who believed Kalmedia could have posed a threat to Earth’s security; given the right circumstances. But those fears evaporated overnight when war broke out against the Antaren Empire. After that, no one dared question a need for maintaining a ﬁrst line of defense here on Titan. Would you just say, ‘Hey, this moon belongs to everyone, so go ahead—take it for yourselves?’”
Yamane looked up at the stars again. A stiff breeze from the north had been blowing all day, making the sky particularly clear of dust and clouds. He found the small blue orb circling the middle-aged sun just below the constellation of Cassiopeia. He almost thought he could reach out and touch the planet he called home. “That’s my point exactly. You have two groups of people wanting the same thing—territory. Does one side have the right to take it by force?”
“History would say yes. How many peoples and nations have been subjugated by others because they opted not to ﬁght? Again, I go back to Titan. If this base were not here, we would all be speaking Antaren.”
Yamane wasn’t so convinced. He always believed their ﬂeet of stellar cruisers patrolling the fringes of known space provided a far better defense than a stationary base just outside Kalmedia. “We defeated the Antarens because of you and me, and millions of others who were committed to the ﬁght; not real estate. And now that the war is over, we’ve managed a peace of sorts between our two peoples. An uneasy peace, to be sure, with suspicions running high on both sides, but they respect our borders, as we do theirs. Your point of view is based on how history has sometimes worked out, not on—”
The sounds of an A-96 Min ﬁghter blasted by them. Haunting in nature, the piercing shrill was unmistakable, rattling a person down to the bones. Even after years of ﬂying, most Star Force ground crews never really got used to the noise a ship’s engine could put out.
The pilot angled his ship down, until all three wheels hit the runway hard, ﬁlling the air with a multitude of screeching sounds.
“I guess we’ll have to settle this matter another day,” Yamane concluded. “Duty calls.”
A look of disappointment crossed Kershaw’s face. Yamane recognized that sulky expression, but winning a philosophical debate paled in comparison to being up there, with the stars. His whole week had been planned around this patrol, and he wasn’t about to miss his chance just to appease his friend. Rather than argue, Yamane just spun around and hurried off to the hangar bay.
“Hey, wait up,” Kershaw surrendered, and then ran after him.
Upon entering the hangar bay, Yamane noted all fourteen single-seat ﬁghters, seven on one side and seven on the other, parked in their assigned stalls with military precision. Near the front of the bay, Yamane’s ship waited for him. His initial inclination had been to climb into the cockpit and roll right onto the tarmac, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, not yet. A ritual needed attending to ﬁrst, one he had observed since his earliest days in the academy. He wasn’t certain if the informal ceremony had been followed out of superstition or habit. Probably a little of both. But he always made it a point of checking over his ship before departing. The mechanics had certainly gone over it with a ﬁne-tooth comb during pre-ﬂight checks, but a trip into space didn’t have the same feel if he didn’t work the ﬂaps or inspect his ﬁghter himself.
Coming up from behind, Yamane stood before the tail section. Every line and angle came together for him in a signiﬁcant and profound way. His attention ambled down somewhat. A careful examination of both sets of small, blunted wings, directional thrusters, and the single engine capable of pushing his craft past stellar velocity gave him a sense of limitless freedom. Any chance to go back up there did—every time.
Moving towards the front, Yamane stopped when he faced his ship head on. Two additional ﬁghters parked towards the rear of the hangar caught his eye. Based on their disassembled appearances, they weren’t going anywhere. Someone had removed all six turbines from both ships, while parts and tools littered the ﬂoor in a haphazard fashion.
“Are you two arguing again?” a mechanic joked after he came from behind a thruster nozzle. Swipes of grease covered his coveralls from top to bottom. “Only reason I know why you’d be this late for another patrol.”
Yamane gave the starboard wing a good shake. “I assume she’s ready to go up?” he asked.
Kershaw walked up from behind. “Oh, don’t worry about him, Sergeant,” he said, sarcasm peppering each word. “The lieutenant commander can’t wait to get out there and answer the secrets of the universe.”
The mechanic let out a restrained laugh before bringing his attention back to the half-repaired nozzle. Finding himself drawn to the same cone-shaped apparatus, Kershaw started rolling up his sleeves, exposing two muscular forearms. “Those crossover valves there need replacing,” he offered after a brief examination. “Do you have a modiﬁer wrench handy?”
He had just gotten the housing assembly off when Yamane grabbed his collar and pulled from behind. “You should leave the repairs to the professionals. They know what they’re doing.”
Kershaw rose to his feet. “But Frank, this will just take a minute.”
“We’re scheduled for the next patrol, not to put ﬁghters back together.”
“I don’t know why you always want me ﬂying with you,” he replied with that same disappointed look as before. “You know I’m a much better engineer than I am a pilot.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Yamane agreed, “but people should ﬁnd ways of broadening themselves so they aren’t stuck in a rut.”
Kershaw placed his hands on his hips. “Look who’s talking. You’ve logged in more ﬂying time in the last two months than half the squadron combined.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Yamane countered, “but this will all be a moot point if we don’t get out there in the next two minutes. The control tower is waiting for us.”
“All right,” the major conceded, “but if that ﬁghter is here when we get back, she’s all mine.”
The mechanic just shook his head, and then resumed his work.
MOFFETT TRACKING STATION, KORIDAN SECTOR 0237 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 17, 2217
Monitor 1 came up negative again. Monitor 2, negative. Ten seconds later, monitor 3 conﬁrmed the results. The tracking computer moved array number 7 to its next pre-programmed position. Once scanned, a single column of numbers popped onto the screen. Monitor 1 came up negative, again. Monitor 2, negative. Ten seconds later, monitor 3 conﬁrmed the results. And on and on the same mind-numbing activity had taken place throughout the night.
Sergeant Morris stared at all nine screens across from him, a blank look on his face, trying his best to remain awake. It had been his tenth double-duty shift in as many days, and he was exhausted. This fact was driven home with the realization that monitoring those same planets in the Rovina system for hours on end had long become a tiresome sight. Most people would feel this way, he reasoned to himself, if they had to do the same monotonous activity for two weeks straight: check an area of space, usually one with little strategic signiﬁcance, and then move on. The whole thing seemed pointless.
Array number 7 moved over again. Even though the targeted areas were light-years away, the transceiver relayed multiple streams of data in an instant. Morris smiled. In fact, he considered the operational system something of an amusing diversion. Dr. Fredrick Henkle, who had developed the Radial Ampliﬁcation Resonator ﬁfty years before, created more confusion than anyone he knew. He must have had a warped sense of humor, Morris thought. Why else would he call his creation RadAR? Confusing name or not, Henkle’s invention had revolutionized space travel. At just about any point in the galaxy, an operator could send and receive a signal in a matter of seconds, as though the distance between the two had melted away. From then on, the business of space travel had become a much more practical endeavor. For Morris, however, reaching out to the stars did not give him the personal freedom he thought would be a part of his work. Instead, his duties in the military had become a kind of jail sentence—just him and his keepers, the machines.
Resigned to a purgatory-like existence for the remainder of his shift, Morris picked up another cup of coffee. He couldn’t remember if it was his fourth or ﬁfth. As he put in a third packet of sugar, a high-pitched chirp registered on the speaker. He swiveled his chair around. The small, angled display revealed what it had an hour before, a class-M star cluster. Thinking he must be hearing things, Morris reached over and picked up the cream. A beep sounded a second time. He put the cream down and checked the screen again. The same stars appeared, nothing else.
“Those stupid birds are nesting at the arrays again.” He picked up his data pad and typed in a memo, “Note to self: Shoo birds away at end of shift.”
A high-pitched chirp sounded a third time. The mobile tracker stopped, indicating it had locked onto something. He stared at the screen. Nothing seemed to be different. He rubbed his chin. “Let’s see if this works,” Morris mumbled to himself. He typed in a series of commands into his console. The booster array signal doubled in strength, increasing picture resolution by almost ﬁfty percent. There, ever so faintly, a hazy image appeared.
“What are you doing all the way out there?” he said under his breath. “Maybe if I tighten the bandwidth.” Morris inputted the new directive into his tracking computer. That star cluster, ﬁlling just about every square centimeter of the display, moved inward, as though it had collapsed upon itself. Morris’ idea was working. There, right before his eyes, the ghost changed itself into a small, fuzzy blip. “Gotcha!” he declared in triumph.
Two rows of analytical computers began to click and whirr as they processed a ﬂurry of incoming data. Morris scooted his chair over and studied the numbers. Though broken in spots, the telemetry indicated the object was traveling in a linear direction. “Must be a deep space patrol I forgot about,” he concluded. But after accessing ﬂight schedules for that region of space, he found nothing had been scheduled out there for the next two months. Something’s not right about this, he thought. Maybe I should contact the duty ofﬁcer. Morris switched on the intercom.
“This had better be good,” a groggy-sounding voice replied after a lengthy delay.
“Captain Gollanski, this is Sergeant Morris in tracking tower two. I just picked up something unusual on my monitor. I think you should come down here and double-check these ﬁndings.”
A heavy sigh came through the speaker. “Can it wait until morning?”
“I don’t believe so, Captain. Something tells me this might be important.”
“You don’t believe? That’s not much of a—” Gollanski stopped. “I’ll be there in a minute,” he sighed again. Just as he promised, the duty ofﬁcer arrived sixty seconds later, on the dot. Draped in a blue ﬂannel robe, he went right up to Morris. “All right, Sergeant,” the captain said in a conspicuously gruff manner, “what’s so important that couldn’t wait until morning?”
Morris swallowed hard. “I’ve been tracking an unidentiﬁed object for the last ten minutes. Telemetry indicates the unknown is coming from sector seven, but we don’t have anything scheduled out there until October. I was hoping you might know something about this.” The captain, in the midst of a yawn, just shrugged. “Maybe if you see what I’m talking about.” He switched the transmission from his console to the one nearest the Captain.
Gollanski rubbed his still-tired eyes. He then bent over and scrutinized the intermittent contact from a closer vantage point. “Preliminary analysis indicates the unknown is traveling in a linear direction,” he mumbled to himself. “Are you sure these readings are correct?”
“No doubt about it. I’ve checked them over three times.”
“Sector seven is right at the edge of known space,” the captain afﬁrmed. “A transport would need a couple of weeks just to get out there. Has the telemetry indicated what this could be?”
“The object is still too far away. Maybe in an hour or two we can get more accurate data.”
“I don’t have a good feeling about this.” He stood up and stared at the nine screens above. “I think Star Force Command should be informed. Make contact with them right away.”
NEW ROANOKE COLONY, BETA CENTAURI 2157 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 10, 2217
Tom Stafford sat on a hill overlooking the desert setting of the Monfort Plains, which had in effect, became his new home. There, down below, he observed twenty temporary shelters set up in two rows of ten, side-by-side. Set inside the shelters, the RadAR shack stood near the middle of the compound. Seven cargo bins placed around it formed a loose circle, and scattered about the camp, various all-terrain vehicles. Except for his fellow settlers, he had not observed any evidence of life elsewhere on the planet, save a seemingly inﬁnite supply of scrub brush growing all over the northern continent.
In his mind’s eye, however, their far-ﬂung outpost had already become much more. New Roanoke represented the dreams and aspirations of people who envisioned a better life for themselves and their children. Though the colonists numberedjust over a hundred now, perhaps in a few short years the outpost could be the site of a major metropolitan community, with ﬁfty-story buildings lining downtown boulevards, hover ports dotting the landscape, and new cities popping up elsewhere on Beta Centauri.
The collection of shelters below didn’t quite measure up to the vision in his mind. And while he would be the ﬁrst to agree they had a long way to go, the “wild west” aspect of the New Frontier only bolstered his determination. He believed that whatever goals Man set for himself he could fulﬁll, no matter what the obstacles.
A branch snapped in the distance. Stafford froze. His senses heightened. Unseen rocks tumbled down the darkened embankment. Darting his eyes about, he heard another snap. After crouching down low, he picked up a ﬂashlight lying nearby and grasped it tightly. With his heart thumping, he turned on the light and pointed it into the darkness. His fears subsided when the beam caught a large man with glasses and white beard approaching from below. That description could only ﬁt one person—Jerry Ashby.
“I didn’t…mean to…scare you,” he gasped between each winded breath. Feeling more at ease, Stafford set the ﬂashlight by his feet again. “I came to tell you the grid will be powered up in ﬁve minutes,” Ashby said, still breathing hard from his one hundred-meter trek up the steep grade.
“I know,” Stafford replied, distance shading his voice. “I just needed a little time alone.”
Ashby took in the colony. “Sure is impressive, isn’t it?”
Stafford nodded in agreement. “I think New Roanoke is well named. Just as with the colony those English settlers established seven hundred years ago, a whole new future awaits us.”
“After the Antares War, I never thought we would see any new settlements in my lifetime. All the ones we had were lost, and no one was so eager to reach out into the unknown again.”
A stiff breeze brought a chill to them both. The day had been unusually warm and they were likewise dressed for the weather. But when the blue super giant twelve billion kilometers away crept below the horizon, temperatures dropped fast.
“I think we should get indoors,” Stafford suggested.
After feeling the goose bumps on his arms, Ashby quickly agreed.
Because of the sheer drop, the loose, sun-baked clay and dirt made their trip a tricky one. Stafford took a couple of hesitant steps, clomping as he did, and then slid a meter or two before catching his balance. Ashby, slowed by his age and size, approached the descent more cautiously. He tried taking a smaller step before shifting his weight onto the other foot.
Arriving in a cloud of dust and countless small boulders, both men congratulated themselves when they reached the bottom in one piece. Javen Chang, whose turn it was to stand guard that night, powered up the protective grid the instant they stumbled past him. A gentle buzzing noise went from power relay to power relay.
“I’ve got the next shift in the RadAR shack,” Ashby waved. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”
The name ‘RadAR shack’ struck Stafford as ironic. Shack was the last name he would give to a building that stretched twenty meters into the sky. The reinforced structure, built out of concrete and steel, easily dwarfed both sets of temporary shelters on either side. But the name somehow stuck, and no one referred to it otherwise.
“Goodnight, Jerry,” he waved back and then stopped. Stafford looked at the stars ﬂickering above, and listened. A strong breeze blew past him. A couple of cast iron frying pans hanging on a wire strung between two poles brushed up against each another. The semi-rhythmic dissonant notes drowned out the noise that had ﬁrst caught his attention. His suspicions eased. Probably nothing, he thought, and then continued on his way. Stafford stopped again after taking another half-dozen steps. “Do you hear that?”
Ashby, who had reached the shack doors, also stopped and listened. He scanned the sky above. “Hear what?” he asked after several moments passed.
“Sounds like a low hum...coming from the north end of the canyon.”
Ashby looked around. “You must be hearing those energy transformers by the grid.”
“No...this sound is different...and it’s getting louder.”
“I’ll go check the scopes inside. Maybe they can tell us if something’s out there.”
Just as he opened the door, a far-off explosion lit up the night sky. A second or two later, shock waves created by the detonation ﬂew past them, followed by a mild rumbling.
Stafford took a hesitant step forward. “What was that?” he demanded.
Before Ashby could answer, another explosion hit closer to camp. A brilliant yellow and orange plume transformed the night into day for a brief instant, and then faded into darkness. Several families, woken by the noise, came out to see what had happened. Acrid smoke and burning embers met them at their doors. Seconds later, additional explosions detonated all over the compound.
“Get back inside!” Stafford screamed, waving his arms back and forth to get their attention.
A ship of unknown conﬁguration ﬂew overhead in a blink of an eye. The unfamiliar craft targeted a cluster of cargo bins and then ﬁred. Stafford stepped back just as they erupted into crimson balls of light. A blast of superheated air knocked him back a couple of steps. When a second blast landed nearby, he turned and ran in the opposite direction. Trying to keep low, Stafford searched for anything that might provide minimal cover. He caught sight of a person staring at the sky. The person just stood there, frozen.
Three shuttle-sized vessels ﬂew over them both, ﬁred on a pair of temporary shelters, and then disappeared behind a nearby mountain ridge. Stafford took advantage of the opportunity and dashed towards the person standing like a statue in the darkness. “Ashby!” he shouted after recognizing him. “We have to get a message out—before it’s too late.”
Ashby didn’t respond. He just kept his attention ﬁxed on the sky above.
Stafford, realizing his pleas were useless, turned and ran for the RadAR shack. Before he had gone no more than a handful of steps, however, a powerful explosion went off directly behind him. The force of the blast hurled his limp body twenty meters. He struck the ground hard with a thud, and had the wind knocked out of him.
Shaking off the effects of the explosion, Stafford eyed the shackjust a stone’s throw away. With a force of will almost beyond belief, he scampered to his feet again. The sudden action, accompanied by a terrible ringing in his ears, almost caused him to lose consciousness. No, I can’t be injured, he willed himself to believe, and then scurried to the other side of the compound. A quick jerk on the outer doors revealed a dimly lit RadAR shack interior. Once inside, Stafford took a split-second to orient himself, and then bolted down a long white corridor. Flying into the control room with almost reckless abandon, he zeroed in on three operators hovering over a pair of consoles. “Have you gotten a message out yet?”
One of them threw down a cipher book in anger. “Neither transmitter is working,” he scowled, his voice sharp.
Stafford shot a quick look at both stations. “Not working—why not?”
“The ﬁrst hit took out our antennas. We did transmit a partial message, but only that we detected some ships on our scopes. The signal went dead after that.”
A high-pitched whistle sounded above them. Before Stafford could respond, a massive explosion rocked the RadAR shack. Support beams from above came crashing down, knocking out all but a handful of lights.
Dust and debris ﬁlled the control room, followed by an extended period of silence. When he felt it safe enough, Stafford peered out from beneath the computer console he had ducked under. His eyes caught sight of a multiton support beam resting on the workstation right above him. The mangled piece of equipment groaned under a weight it had never been designed to support. Thinking quickly, he moved his hand out like a probe, careful to avoid jagged pieces of glass and metal littering the ﬂoor. When his index ﬁnger bushed past the bent leg of a nearby console, he wrapped his hand around it. Stafford drew in a deep breath and then pulled himself out. Under the ﬂickering of emergency lights, he saw the RadAR console buried under tons of twisted debris. His heart sank. Now there was absolutely no way of getting a message out.
Two more explosions detonated near the building. A wall behind him collapsed into a heap of broken concrete and twisted rebar, ﬁlling the control room with even more dust and debris. Stafford wanted to run, to get out while the chance was there, but he couldn’t just leave his friends behind. He at least had to try and ﬁnd them.
As he took a couple of tentative steps forward, a violent coughing ﬁt stopped him in his tracks. Stafford put his sleeve to his mouth, using it to ﬁlter out a heavy layer of particulates ﬂoating in the air. Then something caught his attention. There, buried underneath tons of concrete and metal, were the men he had spoken with only moments before—all dead. He ground his teeth together. “At least they had a quick end,” he thought.
Another hit brought down two smaller girders, slamming them into the concrete foundation below. Stafford realized the RadAR shack was coming undone. If he didn’t get out now, the next hit would most likely ﬁnish them both off at the same time.
The few surviving emergency lights guided him to a small hole near the south wall. Stafford set his fears aside and scurried through a tangle of wreckage. He found himself outside again. The stars were out now, a pair of moons casting their shadows on the devastation around him. Flames engulfed every building in the camp, both large and small, while thick columns of black smoke billowed up into the heavens. The crackling of multiple ﬁres burned in his ears. He suddenly felt alone.
Two more ships passed by overhead. Stafford took note of their silhouettes against scores of raging ﬁres licking the night sky. He found himself drawn toward the polished, strangely shaped vehicles. They formed a rounded triangle, with appendages ﬂowing out from behind them. It wasn’t so much their conﬁguration, but an ominous quality each one possessed. In fact, the very existence of those vessels exuded a frightening darkness—as though some kind of malevolent force was leading Stafford to the edge of an abyss.
Through the ﬁre, a lone ﬁgure appeared. His gait remained slow and regulated, unconcerned about what was taking place all around him. “Ashby,” Stafford called out.
He stopped. “Is that you, Tom?” he asked in an odd tone, before falling to his knees. Stafford caught him just as he landed on the ground. “Looks like we were wrong. This colony is going to end up like all the others.”
Stafford cradled Ashby’s head in his arms, rocking him back and forth. “Don’t say that...nothing is over until we say it is. We can rebuild ...”
Ashby looked up at his friend, smiled, and then closed his eyes. Stafford felt Ashby’s pulse slowing, the last beat dragging out to a standstill. He was gone.
Pain and anger exploded in Stafford. He embraced his dead companion, and began to weep. Another bolt came from the sky and landed near him, but he didn’t care. Nothing mattered.
One last blast detonated a short distance away. There was a ﬂash of light and then darkness.
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