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Up, Up, and Away
New Earth Colony Command Center, a small shack stuffed with com gear and computers. One hundred and sixty years after the hulk of Jake's old NASA Explorer ship arrived back on Earth.
"Captain, your only mission is to find the rare elements on that list and get back here ASAP. Are we clear?"
I always thought General Paddock was perfectly clear. His big bushy silver eyebrows seemed so out of place plastered above his beady little brown eyes, burning holes through you, while his big square chin stuck out there daring you to take a poke at it. I knew if I ever did, my fist would just bounce off. But what do I know? I'm just the XO.
"Perfectly," my wife of two whole weeks replied.
"Charlotte, the small anti-ship missiles don't do a damn thing against them, been tried. Keep the long range scanner manned 24/7 and at the first sign, run. We have already lost six ships — bring this one back!" I'd met his type on Earth. Pompous, arrogant, and uncaring, unless it was his butt was on the line.
"What if we can't get away?" our engineering officer, Sylvia Collins, asked. One of the few still alive. She always made my heart flutter when I saw her. Her radiant black hair, her perfect body, her deep black pools for eyes ...
"Then, just like the others, you will die. Until someone can secure those elements and make that damn missile they designed, we have no chance at all. You saw them. The bastards killed the crew of Explorer One and all the rest; don't let them do it to you. You're number seven; they say it is a lucky number. Make it a lucky number! If not, we have one more shot, then this entire colony dies." Emotion from him? Oh, his butt is on the line too. Scared me a second.
As they discussed details I stood reflecting on our situation. We came to this planet a few years ago, our Eden. Leaving Earth and all its troubles behind. All seemed perfect, then we ran across them. An unknown alien race coming to us from an unknown sector of our galaxy, or perhaps even another one. We sent our ship to greet them. As our whole planet watched, the large space-suited aliens took out a saw and cut off the crew's heads, one at a time, all six of them.
Our President was running for re-election and Paddock talked him into going to meet the aliens, a great political victory over his opponents. Well, now there was just Paddock until the new elections. I know we all still have nightmares from those damn screams. Except maybe him.
General Paddock had charge of ground control that day. He was appointed to his position by the President and wasn't really a general. He was an ex-Earth Spacer captain that took the title General when appointed to the Space Exploration and Defense post of our newly forming government. We had no military, no defense, no nothing really. The general personally sent the order to Explorer One's computer, and as our world watched, it accelerated, rammed into, and then exploded in, the huge ship belonging to the aliens, destroying them. We now call them Head Hunters.
I was pulled back to reality as my wife, as competent a pilot and commander as you could want, told the general, "I'm not into those sciences, but why can't we just use the Heavy Hydrogen, umm, tritium we use in our F/F reactors?"
"Ask our damn physicists, Charlotte. They both want those elements on that list. Maybe it is the lack of special equipment. We didn't leave Earth thinking we'd need to battle aliens almost immediately after we set up housekeeping. Now, any real questions? If not, get those items and get back here. That is an order!"
I almost laughed out loud as she saluted with one middle finger to her eyebrow when he spun away.
Our little explorers were just that. In the more than 250 years since their inception, NASA had done absolutely nothing to make them safer than was needed to get us from point a to point b and, if lucky, back again. They did expand them from a one-man ship to a crew of six.
NASA policy stated no planet was hostile, profiling was forbidden, profit was the name of the game, and that meant we were pretty well unarmed. In the earliest days of exploration some ships had made it back, other humans had been found, and NASA was quietly stuffing its own pockets with wealth while people were out of work.
It all changed when the now legendary gutted ship was supposed to have been recovered, and the book with its magic formula was found inside. Finally Earth could dump hordes of people into space, relieving the stress of an overburdened industrial system trying to provide the requirements for life to the billions and billions of people we called humanity.
"Bill and Mary can explain the heavy metals to us. I suspect we will have long periods of boredom to fill," I said to Charlotte. I wanted to get to space.
The general came back and handed Mary a sheet of plastic with several star-charts on it. "Earl says these look promising from the data we collected on the way here. Check them first." He said to Charlotte, "All the location data is in the computer already. Make no reference to where we are, just in case."
Earl Brentworth was our only true astrogator; he had a secondary major in geology. He also was not going with us. Bill was our computer tech and our primary self-taught geologist. He was five foot eleven and a half, two and a half inches shorter than me. Brown hair, a couple years older, shifty eyes. Something turned me off about him, never could point to what during the training sessions on Earth. He had the only real spacesuit we would take along called an EVA.
He and Mary were an item; she was a blond, five eight, well built with pretty hazel eyes, but it was her breasts that attracted the men like flies. Many said they were implants, but I think they were one hundred percent Mary. It just fit her overall physique. She did have the sweetest personality too. She was a chemist and had dabbled in geology. She ran the spectral analyzers and gas and mineral separators. We all were cross-trained in many fields, usually just enough to get you into trouble.
Four hours later the makeshift launch pad had one of our two huge refillable booster tanks strapped to our little explorer ship. Or should I say our ship was strapped to it? It was twice our size.
"Launch Control, Explorer Seven is ready for liftoff," Charlotte said.
"Roger Seven, take all commands from me." It was General Paddock — figures.
I could just see out the right side window. For some reason eleven stories up didn't sound too far, until you realize you sat on top of a roman candle waiting to be lit and looked at the huge two part tank full of liquid hydrogen and oxygen just waiting to recombine in their explosive mix.
During pre-launch Charlotte had the main checklist. I did all the panel and switch checks. I had to chuckle as we started the long preflight check sequences and relayed them to ground control. We married just to get this mission. Hubby and wife. She asked me one day at the bar if I wanted a shot at crewing Seven and next day we were on our honeymoon. Maybe love would stop by someday, maybe not, but we got the mission, so who cares? Marriage had long ago been legislated into a meaningless ceremony that served the sole purpose of deciding who received your stuff when you kicked the bucket.
Charlotte was a dirty redhead, brown eyes, tall as they go, almost five eleven, well built, and three years older than me. She shot her last husband when she caught him cheating. That was a few months ago. I heard Paddock say they might charge her someday, but right now they needed a commander.
All my checks were a vocal response to physical tests of systems or verification to switch positions as she read the list. If anything on her side went wrong, like the F/F didn't start, computers failed, or almost anything prior to firing the second stage, we could coast back to the planet. Once it fired we were committed.
I really had only one job during boost. All I did was sit with my glove resting on the cover of the big red button. If something went wrong during launch I pushed it. Rumor said all it did was fold your seats in half so you could kiss your ass goodbye.
"Pre-flight checks complete and nominal," she reported.
"All systems are go for launch," Paddock relayed to his one assistant that lit this candle.
"Explorer Seven, ignition in ten ... five, four, ignition start, two, one, ignition confirmed," he said.
The shaking started, everything vibrated as tons of liquid shot out our ass and belched into flames that turned the whole area to an inferno. As an eternity ticked by Charlotte confirmed the telemetry Paddock was relaying.
"+5 and 1800."
"Roger," she replied against the weight of buildings crushing against us.
"+10 and 8 angles."
I listened to them as the times and altitudes ticked by.
"+145 and 62 angles. Confirm first stage fallback?" he asked.
The rear video feed confirmed the huge booster was falling away.
I slowly removed my glove from the death button.
"Confirmed, booster separation. All systems optimal," Charlotte told him. "Engaging F/F in three, two, one, engaged. Sequencing ... sequencing ... sequencing ... confirmed sequence engaged, all green." The dread Fission/Fusion reactor had started normally.
"Roger, second stage at your command, see you when you get back."
We wouldn't talk again until our return. All communications and local transmissions had been shut down in a hope of preventing the HH, or Head Hunters, from finding our helpless planet.
As the Fission/Fusion reactor came active and the energy to mass converters were brought on line, we fired our second stage and we were now totally on our own as it fell away.
The routines of space get boring quickly. Day after day slipped by as we chose routes, did fly-by analyses of about everything we ran into and found little of what we needed. We spiraled our search map, ever moving outwards. All systems functioned normally. Our crew was more than adequate for this mission. On duty, you ran scans, wrote reports, and looked busy. Off duty, Charlotte and I had our little privacy cubical with its curtains and we did what space couples do for fun and exercise.
Gilbert and Sylvia were our final couple. Sylvia and I had been hooked up twice before; she broke it off both times without reason. I still loved her, and it hurt, but such is life. She hooked to Gilbert for the same reason I did Charlotte, a shot at this mission. What many believed was our one last hurrah. She was also a competent pilot, analytical engineer, and had dabbled in astrogation and space communications. She had graduated with me on Earth. I was fourth, she was third. We were both just turning twenty-three.
Gilbert was the shrink, doctor, and physical trainer; he also filled in as navigator and robot repair. Until we started hooking couples into crews there were a lot of problems, now you were picked only if you appeared to be a stable couple. Love was not required, and was actually frowned on. Except possibly Mary and Bill. I don't think love was a problem.
We had finally started finding a few of the rare trace elements in a small meteorite swarm, things were starting to look up as Bill suited and retrieved various rocks identified by Mary.
At three months into our mission we got the alert we dreaded — the race for life was on. Head Hunters had been spotted at the fringe of our range, but we were unlucky bastards, we'd slowed down to get the elemental readings. They got a trajectory lock. I vaguely remember the wife screaming, "Balls to the wall!" Some ancient expression, but my trying to bend the throttles past their stops was quite present-time.
I don't honestly remember much of the following two weeks; I doubt any of us slept. It was slam this way, slam that, go up, go down, spiral, 'yeah, they missed,' or 'yeah, missed again.' We all knew we'd never get to say, 'aw shit, they hit us.' For two weeks we wiggled and wormed and jumped through space folds as these two huge alien ships followed, doggedly tracking us. We the fox, they the hounds with our scent, slowly running us to ground.
"Fire the generators!" she said. That meant it was the end, the F/F was shutting down and the two chemical generators measured emergency power in hours. "Gil, head to those asteroids, I dare the bastards to follow!" We had jumped through a fold that had a large series of asteroids circling what seemed to be a dead star; maybe ... maybe we could lose them.
Little doubt what would happen now. At almost a quarter light speed and no fuel to continue to accelerate, and minimum maneuverability, we were zeroed in on the huge asteroid belt. Charlotte looked sad and very tired. "Sorry people, we tried hard. Just wasn't to be. I promise we won't be awake if they try to saw our heads off. Say your goodbyes and prepare for Death Sleep."
I kissed her on the cheek and crawled into the suit. I cinched down as tight as I could on all the safety straps as I sat in the XO's chair one last time. We knew this was our last ride. I smelled the gas, I remember —
* * *
After expending its last ergs of energy in emergency retro the little ship slammed to a stop against a large asteroid. Its atmosphere voided to space. Its six human inhabitants floated inside, slowly bouncing from wall to wall. Their bodies limp and unresponsive. The ship was just as unresponsive.
He stood in Command on the First Battle Cruiser. They had chased the little ship for two full weeks. The second Cruiser had fired many times at it. His had fired more than once; neither had succeeded in getting close. As he predicted, they were out of fuel and coasting.
The little ship plunged headlong into the asteroid belt, never reducing speed. The commander watched while his ships did emergency braking. That little ship hit an asteroid, it started careening wildly, its atmosphere voiding into space. Then it hit another, smashing almost in half and was lost to view in the huge field of rocks. He couldn't understand why they had not simply given up. They would have died quickly and almost painlessly. Now, even if still alive, they had no hope, only a slow death in the middle of an asteroid belt. His ships would look for them; search the belt as best they could. They needed all the information they could find, but he knew they went deep just by their momentum. He dared not risk either of his ships; even in careful maneuvers they could only penetrate the belt the shortest of distances. If they could find the little ship they would either send a small recovery team to tether it and pull it out, or blast it to pieces, just to be sure. Even if they didn't find it, he was fairly certain he could claim the kill. After all, records show other commanders were given the kill credit when they were rammed by the little ships they chased. They all died, he was still alive.
Since the start of this war only one of these little ships had stopped and surrendered. It's occupants, it was said, jabbered nonstop, but nothing of sense could be made of it. Each of their little heads were removed quickly, almost no blood lost, and they were assured almost no pain. The Goddess had smiled upon them. Careful studies of the limited data from the pod showed they had been transmitting the whole event. Why or where was never determined, only the small message pod was received at the home world. What is known is not a single little ship had ever stopped willingly again. His orders were clear — eradicate all humans upon contact; the Goddess demanded we purify the universe.
His experts analyzed the videos. The other ship had recovered bits of debris that had flown out the other side of the field; large image blowups showed clearly the rending of the first impact and the venting of air into space. The second impact showed the massive damage done that would insure it never flew again. They would go home, he had his kill.
The two ships turned away from the belt and they increased their speed and slowly became invisible to all the asteroids of the belt who couldn't see, or hear, or feel them, and had nothing that cared even if they could.
Excerpted from "Blood Sabers"
Copyright © 2018 MF Burbaugh.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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