Story by Adam Casalino
The cruiser crashed painfully to the earth. It skidded across the rain-slicked runway for several feet before coming to a stop. The chief engineer came running from the observatory. She jammed her hand into the emergency retrieval switch and held her breath as the crumpled hatch slowly rose. To her relief the man inside was alive.
“Are you insane?”
“We told you not to jump back,” she groaned, “there were too many near the atmosphere. And look at you! You’re not even wearing your flight vest. You could’ve caught your death of cold.”
The chief engineer extended her arms and helped the pilot out of the damaged space craft. He was only wearing a light shirt and jeans—far from the standard uniform—and the rain quickly soaked him to his skin. Blood was dripping from his forehead and it ran down the side of his face. He favored his left side and after several unsuccessful attempts at walking, leaned heavily on the chief.
“I swear, Hank, sometimes I think you want to get yourself killed.”
“It’s the only thing I’m not good at, eh Becky? Who the hell are they? Don’t tell me you sent for medics?”
A swarm of men—draped in macs—were rushing towards them.
“Those are my engineers,” Rebecca replied. “They’re going to see just how much damage you caused my cruiser.”
“The States’ cruiser. Is it too much to ask to be forgiven a few bumps and scratches for defending the planet?”
“You won’t be doing much defending if you keep wrecking ships, Hank.”
They entered the base through the take-off observatory, a many-windowed station swarming with satellite monitors and orbital engineers. Rebecca’s supervisor shouted some order, barely heard over the general noise of the room.
“I’m taking Captain Brillson to Medic.”
“Well be quick about it. We got four more cruisers coming in and they’re in worse shape that his!”
“You see,” Henry replied. “I’m not the only one who got banged up out there.”
“You’re just the one who started all the trouble,” Becky said.
They exited the observatory and Rebecca started down the left terminal. Henry pulled her around.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Mission Control? No, I’m taking you to Medic.”
“I need to report in.” It was a lie. Pilots who survive a crash always go to Medic first. Reports can be filed at any time. They both knew this.
“Hank, there is nothing at MC that concerns you.”
“It always concerns me.” His voice lost its usual charm and grew cold. “I need to know if we broke through the blockade.”
The round chamber of Mission Control was crowded with pilots. Brigadier General Grieves stood in the center. The murmur died down at the raise of his hand. Only the soothing beeps of the myriad consoles were heard. Henry and Rebecca entered and stood in the back as Grieves began to speak.
“Thanks to the courageous efforts of our cruiser fleet, our enemy was forced to withdraw. However, what we thought was a blockade was merely a disguise. The so-called blockade ships were actually transmitting false-data to our satellites. Our view of the space surrounding earth was cut off, allowing them to bring in invasion carriers. They pulled the wool over our eyes good and tight on this one.”
The large screen behind the commander lit up, displaying several rotating images.
“These ships can carry five thousand single-manned fighters, fast enough to slip past our patrols, with enough fire-power to level an entire city. We estimate there are fourteen of these carriers just beyond the moon’s orbit.”
The room was silent for an entirely new reason. Grieves cleared his throat and continued.
“The US Space Corps is coordinating with our allies to prepare defensive measures. However, with the British Empire’s fleet largely beyond the Solar system’s edge and China’s recent defeat at the Belt, it will be days before an adequate force can be put into place. So, our only option—for now—is to send a small team to disrupt the enemy’s convoy any way they can. The carriers are not yet in position. Their fighters are most likely not ready for flight. Now is our one chance of delaying their assault. A fleet will be assembled within three days time, though we are taking volunteers.”
No one spoke. Pilots with years of experience looked at the floor, stared at their fingernails, or quietly edged towards the door. They knew the reality of the mission. The carriers were not defenseless. Scores of warship were undoubtedly guarding the convoy. A petty team of ships would barely make a dent against them. Everyone involved would surely die.
“Alright,” Henry said. “It seems no one else wants a go at it. I guess it’s up to me again.” The entire room turned and stared at the smirking captain.
Brigadier General Grieves exploded. “Captain Brillson you’re in no condition for flight. What are you doing here anyway? You should be in Medic.” He scowled at Rebecca. “Miss Sorenin, please take him away.”
Rebecca nodded sheepishly and pulled at Henry.
“None of these men are willing to commit suicide,” he said, refusing to move. “I doubt most of them can even devise a strategy that’ll work!”
“Captain if you don’t leave now, I’ll have to remove you by force.”
Henry glared at Grieves before finally relenting to Rebecca’s persuasion. He spent one restless night at Medic before returning to his quarters—the medical staff unable to stop him.
The Corps had trouble assembling the team, but by the day before launch they managed to pull pilots from each fleet to partake in the assault. The engineers gathered in the observatory to prepare. Rebecca was given the list of pilots—she was responsible for charting their flights. She scanned the list for the types of ships that would be flying. Her eyes froze on the one name:
Captain Henry Brillson: forward guard of Cruiser Fleet
Rebecca threw the list down on her desk and rushed from the observatory. She reached Henry’s room in less than a minute.
“You’re leading the cruisers?” Her anger and fear wrestled with each word.
“Would you expect anything different?”
“Come now, it’s not hard swapping places with someone on this mission.”
“There’s no way Grieves would have allowed it.” She was on the verge of exploding.
“Grieves doesn’t have the last word in the matter, or did you forget he’s just a Brigadier?”
Her anger gave way to frustration. “Hank, you can’t keep doing this.”
“Doing what?” he replied in offense.
“Putting yourself in reckless danger.”
“I’m sorry, I thought there was a host of ships ready to invade the planet!”
“That’s not why you’re flying,” she said. “That’s never been why. I’m convinced you won’t stop until you are dead.”
Henry did not reply. The certainty of her words grew in the accumulating silence.
“Killing yourself is not going to bring her back…” Her voice was small and desperate.
“I know,” he finally said. “But staying alive won’t either.”