After the Sky Fell
It's been thirty years since a shadowy alien armada was defeated in battle; now the Deravans are back to finish what they started: exterminate the human race.
The year is 2247, and Commander Frank Yamane's grave warnings of their imminent return have gone unheeded. Once hailed as a hero who saved Earth from almost certain destruction, he is now seen as a relic from a past most people would soon forget.
Mired in petty squabbles and clashes over limited resources, the solar governments that still exist are consumed by their own self-interests, while millions of survivors cling to a tenuous existence. Yamane fears an increase in hostilities will break out into open war, and is sent as an ambassador to broker a peace agreement against Earth's most fearsome rival, the Jovian Alliance.
What he doesn't realize is that the Deravans are behind it all. Their intent is to eliminate humanity in one fell swoop, and claim what they have craved since the dawn of time − unquestioned dominion over the galaxy.
In this heart-pounding final chapter of the Sky Chronicles, will the Deravan's insidious plan of conquest finally be realized or can Yamane overcome the impossible one last time and stop them?
And the sky was split apart like a scroll when it was rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places . . .
MAIN ASTEROID BELT
0305 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, APRIL 11, 2247
The feel of his fighter underneath him was the greatest sensation Stephen Danegeld had ever known. Miles of wires and circuitry worked together in a symbiotic relationship, guiding all fifteen tons of machinery with the flick of a wrist. It gave him a sense that anything was possible. Up, down, left, or right, if he chose, he could keep the nose of his ship pointed in one direction and then maintain that course forever. He often wondered what he would find out there if he did.
“The hydra is a mythological water-based reptile, isn’t that right?” Lt. Morehouse’s voice crackled over the speaker.
Danegeld smiled at his question. Considered by many as the most intelligent pilot in the squadron, with two advanced degrees under his belt by the age of twenty-five, yet for reasons unknown, felt the need to bring up a point in an almost child-like nature.
He glanced out his cockpit window. In the tapestry of countless stars, Morehouse’s fighter was nothing more than a speck of grey against the void of space, lit dimly by the fading glow of his exhaust contrail. In a way, his query made sense. After ten hours on deep patrol with the other members of Hydra squadron, even a tired old conversation was better than interminable quiet.
“Yes, Lieutenant. The Hydra is a Greek beast. With multiple heads.”
“Mmmm. I like that, sir. About the heads.”
“I don’t mean to intrude on your convo,” Lt. Herhold said in a playful tone. “I think the main point Morehouse raises is based on the phrase, water-based.”
“Hmm,” intoned Morehouse. “What I was actually meant was that the Hydra has no wings. So it can’t fly. Which means if it wanted to fly, such as over a small island for example, it couldn’t.”
“He might be able to leap over the island,” added Herhold thoughtfully.
“True,” Morehouse agreed. “If it were a small island. But that would be leaping, not flying.”
“Yes,” said Herhold emphatically. “Unless hydras sprouted wings.”
“They’d have to be really big wings,” Morehouse added. “A hydra’s at least thirty tons.”
In the privacy of his cockpit, Captain Danegeld shook his head. He wondered if his two lieutenants’ fascination with the mundane was endemic to all off-worlders, or just the local colony the two had transferred from. Either way, the time had come to rein them back in.
“Let me see if I follow your reasoning,” Danegeld interrupted. “You’re saying that, since hydras are water-based, and have no means of flying, islands, space, or otherwise, that the logic of our squadron name is called into question?”
“The conclusion does seem to follow, sir,” Morehouse said.
Danegeld cleared his throat. “I don’t think it follows at all.”
“Sir, are you saying a hydra can fly into space?”
“You don’t have wings, Lt. Morehouse, but you can fly into space.”
“Yes, but I’ve got a Min fighter under me.”
“My point is you don’t need wings to fly into space.”
“But a hydra isn’t the same as a Min fighter, sir.”
“Think of it this way, then. Our squadron is the hydra and the Milky Way galaxy is like a big ocean, with uncharted islands and new monsters. That means in this six-man squadron known as the Hydras, you are one deadly head of our six-headed beast, of which I am the biggest and baddest of all. And if you think or say otherwise, I’ll chomp your puny head off and spit it out for the local piranha to nibble. How does that sound, Lieutenant?
“Uh, quite clear, sir.”
Captain Danegeld grinned, figuring Morehouse did the same. Both he and Herhold regularly enjoyed discussions about making the illogical, logical, even when it bordered on the absurd. At times, though, it required a strong rebuttal to put him in his place, so long as he didn’t cross a line.
Since he took over the Hydras three years ago, Danegeld often felt this was the best compilation of pilots the squadron ever had, save one—Lt. Dan Johnson. He was the only pebble in his shoe, or more accurately, a self-serving opportunist well versed in using his father’s ambassadorial position as a ladder for himself. Among his many failings, he had never learned the value of earning anything. He expected others to bend to his will, rather than the other way around. Case in point, on the first day Johnson joined the squadron, Danegeld had him doing push-ups for forgetting to address a superior officer with the proper courtesy. Since then, he made it his personal goal to be as irritating as a privileged self-centered brat could be.
Danegeld had to hand it to him, though. He was quite good at it.
At least he only had the one splinter in his skin to deal with. Lt. Hartman was Johnson’s polar opposite. Quiet, humble, and an exceptional member of the team, Danegeld expected him to make captain in time. Committed to protocols without question, he knew the book as well as anyone, just the sort of wingman who could check the one and only hotshot pilot in the group.
Probably the most integral member of the Hydras in Danegeld’s opinion was Lt. Jillian Karzai. Dangerously integral. If he was the alpha head of the squadron, Jillian comprised the heart of the beast. She was the ace, acquiring a coveted seven-star rating on every skill set test at the academy. If she hadn’t purposely taken a dive on the command and leadership aptitudes, she would have almost certainly been given her own squadron by now. In a Min fighter, her capabilities equaled that of the best pilots in the fleet. She routinely pulled off risky maneuvers with the barest of efforts, while at the same time had racked up 52% of the Hydra’s kills all on her own.
On a more personal level, it wasn’t her skill that placed her at the heart of the squadron, it was the friendship the two of them had enjoyed since childhood, along with their shared passion for the Antarian sacred books. He didn’t take it lightly when Karzai told him of her plan to flop the academy’s command and leadership tests. She had sacrificed a dazzling career and limitless advancements, and for what? Friendship? Not only that. They both knew an unspoken truth between them ran deeper than friendship, of which neither had actually acted upon. Danegeld thought it best if they didn’t, now or ever.
Star Force Command would never allow more. If they didn’t, then neither would he. He was the squadron leader, with the responsibility of the pilots on his shoulders. Emotions, no matter how strong, had to be suppressed as long as they served together.
Danegeld gripped the maneuvering stick of his A-99 Min fighter a little tighter. Responsive within a nanosecond, his ship executed maneuvers with the slightest touch, something he still hadn’t gotten used to in this latest rendition of the old fighter. Today, the A-96s were nothing more than museum pieces, and the A-97s and 98s hadn’t quite lived up to Star Force expectations. This version, however, promised everything a pilot wanted in stealth technology and firepower. With the flick of his finger, Danegeld could mask his power outputs to near zero, while at the same time, accelerate to stellar velocity before the enemy knew they were there. And in these times, with the Jovian Alliance and Confederation having all but started a shooting war against each other, any advantage meant the difference between extinction and survival.
Danegeld scanned the stars that hung in tandem with the ink black veil of space. Before them hovered an almost infinite supply of asteroids, whose precious raw materials had the potential to rebuild Earth a hundred times over. Within the Main Belt were millions of still unexplored chunks of rock born at the inception of the solar system, and between each and every one lay a dozen hiding places pirate raiding ships often attacked from with little or no warning.
He studied the convoy of cargo barges off on his port side they had been assigned. Lined up in four rows of ten, he knew he didn’t have near enough fighters to offer even a minimum of protective cover should the enemy strike with sufficient force. If it weren’t for the assistance offered by the Star Force, they would almost certainly be attacked, as helpless as lambs against the wolves. Each barge held precious cargoes of gold, silicon, iron, copper, and most important of all, teledite, the rare mineral that made stellar velocity possible.
A blinking red light just above the central display brought Danegeld back into the confines of his cockpit. Even before his eyes zeroed in on the problem his diagnostic computer had already identified the source. Set halfway between several boulder-sized asteroids and his position, a faint red glow pulsed on the RadAR screen. He had a leech, and it had locked onto his ship.
“Blast!” Danegeld shouted over the com system, “I’ve got a bloodsucker on my tail.” Suddenly, his ship registered a ten percent drop in power. He arched his fighter in an attempt to disrupt the enemy beam that was sucking him dry.
Danegeld growled in frustration when power levels continued to dip, now hovering at a dangerous fifty percent. Moments later, it had fallen to forty-five. At that rate, Danegeld knew he had less than a minute before his life support systems shut down. He went with the only option at his disposal. Though it wouldn’t pass for elegant, he redistributed most of the power from his shields and recharged his energy cells.
“Karzai, take over lead on the convoy. Johnson you’ve got my back while Morehouse bags this little pest.” Danegeld turned his attention to the cargo barges. “Commander of the Nostromo, this is Captain Danegeld. Inform the convoy we’ve spotted a leech. Chances are good there are more of them out there.”
“I’ll alert my pilots,” the commander said, “but keep in mind these old ships won’t last long if a blood sucker gets a hold of one.”
“I’m aware of that,” Danegeld replied. “We’ll do our best to keep them from latching onto you.”
When a green light blinked on, the power in Danegeld’s ship surged. One glance at the RadAR scope explained the reason. Morehouse had spooked the leech, and sent it speeding away toward a medium-sized asteroid off on his port side.
“He’s trying to suck and duck,” Morehouse shouted over the com.
As the red blip moved toward the edge of his RadAR display, Danegeld pictured the pirate stuffed into that jury-rigged hunk of semitronics, probably laughing at him right now.
“Don’t let it get away, Morehouse—I’m giving you thirty seconds to squash that bug. If it’s not dead by then, return to formation.”
“Roger that, Cap’n.”
“Not exactly a textbook maneuver,” Lt. Johnson said on the com. “You’ve left our right flank open for attack.”
Danegeld wanted to reach across the void of space and smack him in the jaw. He’d pushed against the chain of command before, but never like this. “Hold your tongue, Lieutenant,” he barked. “There’s a time and place for textbooks.”
“I’m only pointing out the leech may be a decoy.”
“Duly noted. Just make sure you stay on my six in case it is a trick.”
“That’s not good—”
“—Stow it, Johnson.”
The sudden silence over the com felt thick. Johnson had been insubordinate in the past, only it had always been done in private. Here in the air, with his entire squadron listening in, he’d crossed a dangerous line.
“I’ve almost got him!” shouted Morehouse.
The little leech ship darted erratically, but without much skill. Obviously, a pilot with a minimal number of flying hours. Two seconds later, a small fireball blossomed in the darkness.
“Nice shot, Morehouse,” Danegeld congratulated. “Now back in formation.” The words had barely left his lips when a white-hot ion burst slammed into his fighter. Caught off guard by the unexpected explosion, he sat up and fought to bring his ship back under control.
“Whoa,” Herhold said on the com, “where did that come from?”
Danegeld scanned the area of space in front of him. Only darkness showed itself. “Johnson, can you see anything from your position?”
“Affirmative, sir,” he replied without emotion. “I have barge number ten falling behind the others.” Plumes of orange and red plasma fires trailed behind it.
“Sir!” Karzai cut in, “I’ve picked up two more leeches on my RadAR scope.”
“Blast those relics,” Danegeld groused in frustration. “They should have been sold for scrap years ago. Karzai, Hartman, you’ve got the point. Everyone else, keep your eyes open.”
His orders were clear—get the convoy to Earth intact. The Omnicorp munitions factories desperately needed the raw materials the barges carried in their holds. Without them, arms production would grind to a halt in a matter of days. Not the most of ideal situations with tensions between the Alliance and Confederation at an all-time high. One little incident, and both sides could find themselves in a real shooting match, maybe even all out war.
Danegeld brought his ship around and took in the damaged barge. Just as his wingman had described, the rectangular-shaped vessel had suffered heavy damage. Fortunately, the plumes were small ones, a clear sign it hadn’t suffered a core breech. If it had, that ship, along with most of the others in the convoy, would be nothing more than the fading remnants of a reactor explosion.
“Johnson, bank hard to port, forty degrees. I’ll circle around and get a better look, see just how bad the damage is. If she can’t be saved, we’ll transfer their cargo and then scuttle her.”
“Aye, sir. Forty degrees.”
Just as Danegeld pushed down on his maneuvering stick, another explosion knocked his ship’s thrusters offline. “What the—?” Unlike the previous pilot, this one possessed the skill of a marksman he hadn’t encountered before from a leech.
A ship with no markings flew overhead at nearly 0.75 stellar velocity, its weapons blazing. A maze of fire blossoms formed all around the convoy, effectively blocking him from it.
“Captain,” a high-pitched voice screamed in Danegeld’s helmet. “I count five ships coming at us from your aft position. From the looks of their configuration, I’d say they’re Alliance.”
A different voice cut into his radio frequency. Based upon the incoming data stream on his targeting grid, this second signal was much weaker, as though it had originated from a great distance. “Captain Danegeld, come in please. Captain Danegeld. This is Star Force Command.”
The disembodied voice possessed a soothing quality about it, woefully out of place in the situation he now found himself. “Danegeld here. I’m in the middle of an emergency situation. Please stand by.”
Without the slightest regard for what he had just said, the person continued as though he had no idea they were under attack. “Negotiations between the North American Confederation and the Jovian Alliance broke down earlier today. All military sectors are now on highest alert. The safe arrival of the convoy under your command is your utmost priority. Intelligence places Alliance ships in your sector. Proceed with utmost caution.”
Another explosion detonated a mere five hundred meters from Danegeld’s position. “Duly noted,” he snapped back. As the last word slipped from his mouth, a wall of crimson light engulfed his fighter, slamming into it with the force of one kilotons at nearly point-blank range. When the stars reappeared, he found himself in the midst of a skirmish between a handful of pirate leeches and the freshly joined Alliance raiders, both of whom vied for the same prize.
“Captain, you have to do something,” a frantic voice screamed on the radio. “Those alliance devils will blast us out of existence.”
Danegeld repositioned himself in his seat and fixed his attention on an Alliance ship circling around for another attack run, its signature blue exhaust plumes marking its way through the turn. He made a quick calculation in his head and estimated when the pilot would pull out of the maneuver. “This is the squadron commander,” he said to the captain of the lead ship. “Maintain your present course. I repeat, maintain your present course.”
“But Captain, my scopes show another ship on an intercept course.”
“Exactly,” he said under his breath. Danegeld brought his fighter around and accelerated to 0.59 stellar velocity. Switching over to his targeting scanner, the enemy vessel appeared in the center of the display. On the top left corner of the screen, a second display counted down the distance between them. “Seventy-five hundred,” he said under his breath, “Five thousand…four thousand…three thousand.” At twenty-five hundred meters, the proximity alarm let out a high-pitched squeal, the kind that rattled a person down to his bones. Unfazed by the minor distraction, Danegeld fired his pulse cannons at the target in the center of the cross hairs with a simple flick of his thumb. In an instant, a dozen energy bolts coursed through the acceleration chambers, discharging a fraction of a second later. Every one of them slammed into the hull of the ship two thousand meters away with pinpoint accuracy, detonating into dazzling fireballs. When the massive bombardment dissipated, only the emptiness of space remained.
“That got him!” Morehouse shouted on the radio.
Before Danegeld had a chance to relish in his victory, Karzai jumped into his earpiece. “Captain! You’ve got an Alliance ship on your tail.”
Danegeld looked over his shoulder. Just as she said, it hung off his aft section, about two hundred meters back. Two more ships entered his view. If he didn’t shake them, Danegeld knew they would be the end of him.
Where the blast was Johnson? The first priority of any pilot was to stick with his wingman, no matter what.
Danegeld turned his Min toward the bright sphere of Saturn hovering in the distance, hoping he just might goad the enemy into following him away from the barges. Unfortunately, the pilot didn’t take the bait.
“Watch him!” shouted Morehouse. “He’s going in for a strafing run.”
The Alliance ship came up from behind the cargo barges and unleashed a volley just as deadly as before. Multiple explosions tore through their hulls as though they were made of tissue paper. When the lead vessel careened out of control and slammed into the barge next to it, the resultant explosion made an end of them both.
Danegeld felt the loss of those crews. Until now, raiding parties were only interested in one thing—cargo. Except, something had changed. Then he remembered the transmission he received just before this skirmish began, and news of the failed peace talks. Now that negotiations between the two governments had broken down, they weren’t interested in profit any longer. The only thing that counted was the destruction of as many ships on the other side as possible. His last thought produced a sense of unease in him. The convoy was a long way from Earth. If more Alliance ships showed up, the Hydras wouldn’t be near strong enough against a determined enemy with superior firepower.
“I want all fighters to rendezvous at my position. We’ll form up and try to provide as much cover as possible.”
Johnson’s voice bleated over the radio. “Captain, we can’t protect all the barges. Strategy demands we protect those that haven’t been seriously damaged. If we try and save them all we won’t last five minutes.”
“You have your orders,” Danegeld barked back. He had no time for officers who didn’t follow directions, even those whose father was fifth in line to the presidency. “Form up at position zero-seven-seven.”
Danegeld pivoted his fighter around. His grin morphed into a smirk when he picked up a blue trail left by one of the Alliance ships. It had come in low and used the plasma fires as a way to mask its movements. Fortunately for Danegeld, it didn’t work. He tracked the enemy vessel until it emerged on the other side. Just when he set his thumb on the trigger of his weapons, an ion blast struck his fighter dead center. Alarms rang out as his ship tumbled away out of control. His already dire situation worsened when the weapons computer lock blanked out at the same moment his thruster control froze. Danegeld tried to reactivate them, but without success. Helpless in every respect, it was only a matter of time before his opponent swooped in for the kill.
One by one each system shut down as a result of the g-forces thrown against his ship as it jerked back and forth in ways it had never been designed to withstand. His breathing deepened, and his vision narrowed, until all at once, an idea came upon him like a flash of insight. If he initiated a sudden systems shutdown, and then booted them up again at the same time, it just might work. Or it could just as easily fry every semitronic circuit in his ship. Under the circumstances, he didn’t have much of a choice.
He entered the code for an emergency shutdown into the computer keypad—#H9-A0-L00#. The instant he pressed the “enter” button, all his indicators, lights, and displays went dark. Drawing in a quick breath, he hit “enter” a second time. Nothing happened. He tried again. No change.
Danegeld caught the glint of the Alliance ship coming about. The faint roar of its engines reverberated in the cockpit’s silence. It was only a matter of time now.
His body tensed as the cold void of space beckoned. He was not afraid to go to her.
Amidst the quiet, Danegeld stared at the stars spinning in the chaos around his fighter. A strange sense of peace settled upon him. He didn’t fear death. Rather, he had always been afraid of not dying well. He comforted himself with the thought that, should this be his time, he had at least gone down in battle. A victorious death according to the Antarian scriptures.
A muted chirp unexpectedly sounded in the cockpit. Followed by another. One light flickered on, and then the targeting display likewise glowed back to life. When power outputs passed the eighty percent mark, Danegeld grabbed hold of his maneuvering stick and re-ignited the engines.
With a quick jerk away from the convoy, he pivoted his fighter around just in time to see the Alliance vessel that had fired on him line up for another attack run. In an almost instinctual response, his heart rate dropped and all his senses zeroed on the approaching vessel. As though time slowed to a crawl, the thumps in his chest grew louder. His mind stilled. Nothing else existed in the universe except the vessel in his sights. Then, with a simple press of his thumb, he fired his weapons straight at the enemy. It vaporized into a fireball of crimson light.
Before another enemy ship swooped in and caught him unaware, Danegeld banked over on his port side and headed back toward the remaining cargo barges.
“Are you alright, Captain?”
“I got a little cooked back there, but they haven’t knocked me out yet,” he replied in an even tone. Rattled was more like it, but he’d never let it show. “I want everyone to form up in front of the middle freighter and give those barges optimum protection.”
“Hartman!” Karzai shouted, “You’ve got two bogeys on top of you.”
Danegeld turned toward the action on his right. Out there, all alone, Hartman didn’t stand a chance. In response, Karzai and Herhold dropped down in an attempt to cut off the Alliance ship.
“It’s a bait and switch!” shouted Morehouse. “Hartman, your flank.”
Before he could respond, the enemy vessel let loose a lethal barrage of weapon’s fire that slammed into Hartman’s unsuspecting fighter with unparalleled precision. The resultant fireball cascaded burning fuel and metal across a thousand meters of space.
Danegeld’s chest burned in him at the site, though he dare not verbalize his feelings, lest the pilots under his command cast aside their training and try to even the score. “Karzai. Hartman. Back in formation,” he said with as little emotion as possible. “These barges aren’t home yet.”
“I said back in formation!”
The pilot on the lead barge cut in over the radio. “Captain, I…another ship on my…a big one…delta-cruiser…on us fast.”
Though heavy static garbled much of the barge’s transmission, Danegeld had gotten the gist of the message. Enough to know they were in serious trouble. His squadron of Min fighters was no match against one of the Alliance’s big ships.
He looked at his RadAR scope and considered his options. He’d lost one pilot already, and wasn’t prepared to lose another. On the other hand, his mission was simple—get the barges safely to Earth…or die trying. The last part hadn’t been said, but he understood his commanding officer, Colonel Lawrence, well enough. He expected it of them without having to say it.
Resigned to his duty, he was about to respond, when a crackle of static filtered through his speakers. Then a familiar voice cut in. “Captain Danegeld of the 214th fighter group. Please respond. This is the SFS Daedalus, coming to your assistance. Can you read me?”
Had he heard him right? Was this an Alliance trick? “This is Captain Danegeld. Please repeat your last message.”
“It’s good to hear your voice, Captain. This is Commander Nikopoulos. By the sons of Zeus, it has been too long my friend.”
Danegeld knew that Greek accent. A picture of a black moustache with an equally thick set of bushy eyebrows came to mind. Aggressive to a fault, he knew Nikopoulos had come for a fight, and would move heaven and Earth to protect those barges. “Your timing is impeccable. We’ve got a few Alliance ships to contend with here. If you could launch your fighters…”
“No need,” he replied. “As soon as that Alliance delta-cruiser caught sight of us, the cowards manning her flew off as quick as their engines allowed.”
“You don’t know how good it is to see you.” Danegeld looked over his shoulder and caught sight of several cargo barges spewing out plumes of plasma fire. “Those ships behind me have taken a pretty bad beating. I’m certain they’ve got wounded aboard. If you can spare some medical teams, we—”
“Already formed and should rendezvous with them shortly.” He paused a moment. “My instruments tell me most of your squadron is pretty much banged up as well. I think it would be wise if you came on board so repair teams can patch your ships back together.”
That was probably the best suggestion he’d heard all day. “Roger that. We’re on our way.”
CORONADO ESTATES, NEW ENGLAND VALLEY, NORTH AMERICAN CONFEDERATION
0337 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, APRIL 11, 2247
Hazy images tugged at the corners of Frank Yamane’s thoughts. Clear one moment, they blurred into obscurity the next, faint reminders of a time long ago. Familiar faces stood just out of reach, whose names escaped him. A feeling of confusion pressed down on him like a great weight. He should know what to do. Men and women in uniforms stood nearby and waited for him to make a decision. Precious seconds ticked by as they waited. Yamane drew in a frantic breath, but acrid smoke filled his lungs. He had to do something. Then, like an arrow that somehow found its target, a lone voice called to him in the darkness, “Commander, we have to leave now.”
Yamane’s pulse quickened at the realization he was on the bridge of the Lexington, back in command of his old ship. A deep well of pain arose from within. He felt an intense resentment toward the Deravans. What they had done made no sense, and yet, they continued to destroy without provocation…or mercy.
His gaze fell. “Give the order.” Never had Yamane felt more defeated in his life.
“All crew abandon ship. I repeat, all crew abandon ship.”
All at once, he found himself on a life pod. Those same familiar faces surrounded him, only they stared back in muted silence. Except one. Stan Kershaw, his second-in-command. “We have to leave now,” he pleaded with him. To which Yamane only nodded.
An intuitive understanding settled into Kershaw’s features. He rose up and turned a red handle that latched the escape door closed. A muffled explosion sounded from behind. Through a small porthole window Yamane watched the Lexington fall away, smoke pouring from her hull. The sight of the Deravans hovering over his ship like a pack of hungry wolves became too much for him and he turned aside.
A moment later, brilliant white light filled the interior of the life pod.
Yamane bolted up. “No!” he shouted.
His eyes darted about, but only darkness met him back. Slowly, his reason returned. The Lexington…gone? He dug his hands into his hair. Only then did he realize how fast his heart pounded in his chest. It was all he could do to catch his breath. His sheets were wet to the touch, soaked in sweat. This was his home, back on Earth. “That must mean...” The words fell from his lips.
The comm panel on the wall opposite him lit up. “Sir, are you alright? Do you require anything?”
He didn’t answer at first. “No. I...everything’s fine.” Though his words assured his electronic butler, housekeeper, or whatever other domestic nomenclature his mind conjured up, something deep within him told him it wasn’t. The miles of circuitry and multi-phasic processors built into his home probably knew it too. Though most adept at meeting his spoken needs, the Guardian 9000 system didn’t include cognitive problem solving protocols. Once Yamane assured his caretaker he was all right, it accepted his word at face value and switched back into standby mode.
“Very good, sir.” The green light in the center of the panel flashed twice before it switched off.
Yamane threw off his covers and stumbled through the dark into the bathroom. “Quarter lights.”
The light fixture above came to life and bathed the bathroom in a soothing, tawny glow. Disjointed images of his dream still danced in his head. And with them, a feeling of anxiety that grew with each passing moment. He stuck his hands under the faucet, tripping the sensor. Water quickly filled the shallow valley formed by his palms, and he splashed it on his face. The cool liquid felt good as it trickled down his cheeks and dribbled off his chin, though it didn’t alleviate the unease felt in the pit of his stomach like he hoped. Staring deep into his tired eyes reflected in the mirror, an intuitive understanding washed over him. Something had happened, and it wasn’t good.
SFS DAEDALUS, KUIPER ASTEROID BELT
0341 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, APRIL 11, 2247
Though his fighter felt somewhat shaky, Danegeld corrected his approach to the Daedalus’ starboard landing bay, his wingman at his side. He turned a knob just below the radio receiver and reset the second channel for the guidance beacon frequency. In an instant, the position of both ships popped onto his targeting grid, indicating their altitude, distance, and speed relative to the delta-cruiser.
“Altitude, fifty meters,” he said into his headset. “Five kilometers to the runway…speed, three hundred kilometers-per-hour.”
When Danegeld angled his fighter toward the landing bay it felt sluggish. A sharp jolt veered his craft to port. He brought his other hand up to the maneuvering stick and pulled it in the opposite direction. Only with an extra bit of effort did he manage to get the Daedalus back into the center of his targeting grid. His fears eased when he took in the warship. She appeared ready for a fight all right: her forward gun port opened and ready for action. Commander Nikopoulos had already deployed her porthole shields, and radio transmissions ceased when his squadron flew within ten-kilometers of the delta-cruiser. If the Alliance was spoiling for a fight, she was ready enough for them.
“Four thousand meters and closing,” Danegeld called out to the delta cruiser. At two thousand meters he lowered the landing gear.
“You’re in the slot Hydra One,” the operator said into his headset. “Reduce speed to two hundred and fifty meters-per-second.”
“Distance...fifteen hundred. Up two degrees forward motion. Contact in five seconds.”
The runway shot underneath his fighter. As soon as the wheels came into contact with the deck, he reversed engines while hitting the brakes hard. His fighter whined loudly under the stress as it screeched toward his left, until he finally stopped a mere thirty meters from the jet blast wall at the end of the landing bay.
When the canopy lifted, a blast of cool air rushed in. Danegeld removed his helmet and drew in a deep breath. A noxious mixture of engine exhaust and high-octane fumes filled his lungs. Never had anything smelled better in his life. After escorting the convoy for the last ten hours without a break, anything smelled better than breathing in the same recycled air.
Danegeld pried himself out of the cockpit seat. When both boots landed on the flight deck he turned and waited patiently for the remainder of his squadron to land. For the second time since he took command they returned from a mission one man short. Kendel had been the first. Now Hartman. He had hoped it would be easier this time, but it still felt like someone had kicked him in the gut. Grief echoed through him at the thought of another empty bunk that faced his crew. As each fighter came in for a landing, the distinctive sounds of their Pratt & Whitney engines filled the landing bay. The Daedalus could not have come at a better time. Outgunned by a margin of three to one, and his men exhausted by the long patrol, they wouldn’t have lasted much longer out there. At least they would get in some much needed bunk time.
First things first. He had some unfinished business with his wingman, Lt. Johnson. When the lieutenant parked his fighter, Danegeld grabbed his shoulder the moment his boots hit the deck and spun him around.
A look of defiance made Johnson appear older than his twenty-three years. He brushed back his matted blonde hair with his hand and let it rest against his pronounced jaw. “Captain, I—”
“You never leave your wingman,” Danegeld scowled as he pointed at several holes in the mid-section of his fighter. Pitted and ripped away in several spots, a cluster of semitronic circuits hung lifeless over the charred edges. “If not for the rest of the squadron, I wouldn’t be here now.”
Johnson’s hardened blue eyes turned, and his chin tilted up. “Sir, I had two of their ships in my sights. If I had gotten off a clean shot, I’d have taken them both out at the same time.”
“And sacrificed me in your moment of glory.”
“You can’t blame me for my decision. I was only following your lead…you know, throwing the flight manual out the window. You were safe enough at the time. What were the odds that Alliance ship would get off a lucky shot?”
Danegeld drove his fist into Johnson’s face.
He stumbled back into his Min fighter and cupped his jaw with his hand. A spatter of blood dripped on the tarmac. “I’ll have you court-martialed for this,” he snarled.
Danegeld grabbed Johnson by the collar and yanked him close enough to smell his breath. “I don’t give a spit if your father is the Confederation Ambassador to the Alliance. I’m talking to you, right here, right now. You wanna be a man, Johnson? Then stop hiding behind your family’s name and take responsibility for your actions.” Danegeld released him with a shove. “I’ve put up with your insubordination since you joined this outfit, but it stops now, or I’ll bounce you out of here so fast you won’t know what hit you.”
“Whatever you say, sir.”
Danegeld straightened. “As of right now, I’m reducing you to the rank of ensign. Maybe that will help you remember how we do things around here.”
Johnson let out a heavy breath but didn’t speak.
“You’re dismissed,” Danegeld barked, and then spun around. As he headed for the lift, he knew it wouldn’t be the last he heard about this.
ALLIANCE CENTRAL COMMAND, GANYMEDE, JUPITER
0703 CELESTIAL AZIMUTH TIME, APRIL 12, 2247
A single, rhythmic tap of a finger sounded in the room. Around a circular table sat the highest-ranking members of the President’s war cabinet. To a man, their attention remained fixed on an empty chair at the head of the enormous table crowded with reports and terminal outlets. Suspended above, a column of lights illuminated the room, casting each cabinet member’s shadow against the muted bronze-colored walls in grotesque shapes.
“How much longer are we going to wait?” General Wainright asked, breaking the awkward silence. He pressed his folded arms against the ribbons and medals blazoned across his chest. His once thick black hair had thinned over the years, replaced by a noticeable paunch around his mid-section and a rather obvious jowl that dangled under his jaw.
Several other members shifted in their chairs but didn’t reply, something he took as uncertainty on their part. If experience with men of influence taught him anything, facts were what mattered. Not opinions. If a question went beyond their knowledge base, they had learned it was far better to say nothing than guess.
The door at the far end of the room whooshed open without warning. A thin man with a narrow face dressed in a black suit hurried in, a look of worry knitting his brow. He pulled the only empty chair away from the table with a quick jerk and fell into it noisily. “I’m sorry I’m late, gentlemen, but the meeting with President Barrows went longer than anticipated.”
“Mr. Vice President,” General Wainright said, “I think it would be best if we dispensed with the preliminaries, and got down to business.”
He noted how Barrows’ number two man bristled at the slight against him. A person of his position was used to taking the initiative in meetings of this importance. But they didn’t have time for pleasantries, not with the future of the Alliance hanging in the balance.
“Quite right,” the vice president acknowledged. He sat back in his chair and cast his eyes on the report he slapped on the table moments before. “I briefed the President about yesterday’s incident at the Kuiper Asteroid Belt. Tell me we had no choice in the matter.”
Commodore Langdon, the oldest member at the table, and the most experienced, cleared his throat as he leaned forward in his chair. He cast a surreptitious glance in Wainright’s direction before speaking. “It is the opinion of the war cabinet that if we didn’t act when we did, the Confederation would have solidified its claim in the disputed area. I don’t have to tell you about the shortages we’ve faced in the last six months, most of which have stemmed from the cease-fire agreement that landed us in this position.”
“There’ve been three incidents in this month alone in which Confederation ships perpetrated illegal mining operations on the Ceres asteroid, not to mention a number of other private enterprises. If we continued to do nothing, not only would it be a slap in our face, but it would also encourage more illegal mining of desperately needed resources needed by our home world.”
The vice president’s attention drifted off toward some unseen object in the distance. He sat in his chair with his hand on his chin, not moving, until he offered the cabinet several nods of agreement. “I suppose you’re right,” he said, his voice just above a whisper. He suddenly caught himself and sat upright in his chair. “The President, while he did agree with your recommendation we should send the Confederation a message and retrieve what they stole from us, is concerned that the destruction of their cargo ships went beyond his orders. Lives have been lost unnecessarily, and they may retaliate with a greater show of force.”
General Wainright had little use for sympathy at a time like this. He typically viewed politicians as weak individuals, more interested in opinion polls and pet projects that mollified the populace than acting on what was in the best interest of the people. Difficult situations demanded hard decisions, and he viewed the man across from him as incapable of making those kinds of choices. “Better to send a strong message than to—”
“You have brought us to the brink of war!” the vice president barked. “The President and I are both in agreement that this is not an acceptable course of action, not while we are still in negotiations with the Confederation. Magistrate Evers has assured me that Ambassador Johnson is an honorable man, one we can work with. But your stupid stunt yesterday might have thrown months of negotiations into the trash heap.”
The general felt his temper rise. “Have you no understanding of what we face on a daily basis? Food lines that stretch for blocks have become a regular part of life in the cities. If it weren’t for Samaarian relief transports, our people would starve. Despite their help, we still face shortages of desperately needed materials that make life on Ganymede possible.” He pulled out a data pad from his brief case. “My analysts tell me if our situation does not reverse itself in the foreseeable future, they predict a total collapse of our economy within the next eighteen months.”
His words brought a chill into the room, each man’s face around the table readable at the news.
“And by collapse,” the vice president said after collecting his thoughts, “you mean a significant devaluing of our currency to the point of insolvency.”
“I mean, Mr. Vice President, a total collapse of our society,” the general said. “We will no longer have the resources in which to keep our ships, power plants, and power grids going. And without power, we die.”
The vice president put his hand on his chin like he had done before. “Just like the Japanese.”
Different members of the cabinet turned toward one another.
“Sir?” Commodore Langdon asked. “I’m not sure...”
“Earth history,” he replied with a faraway look in his eyes. “Three hundred years ago. The Japanese Empire was engaged in a war against China, and in retaliation, the United States cut off all trade. Their country is really a series of volcanic islands, with few natural resources. Without a steady supply of steel, rubber, and oil, their military leaders concluded they only had two years before they ran out of those essential materials. And so as a preemptive measure they attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese army also attacked the Korean Peninsula, the Philippines, and Indo-China, as a way of securing these resources for themselves. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well for Japan, and their cities were almost bombed out of existence by the Americans by the end of the war, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” A flicker of resolve seeped into his gaze. “I give you my word, I will not let that happen to the Alliance. As long as we have a peaceful option on the negotiating table, we push for that.”
General Wainright sat erect. “But Mr. Vice President, the Confederation cannot be trusted. How do we know they haven’t used the peace talks for the purpose of lulling us into complacency, all the while preparing their forces so they can attack at their first opportunity. They’ve broken peace agreements with us in the past, and I suspect this situation is no different.”
“Point well taken, General, which I will include in my report to the President.” The muscles around the vice president’s lips softened. “An important World Assembly meeting is scheduled for today on Earth in New York. If what you’ve said is true, then I think I would be in our best interest if we paid close attention to the proceedings so we have a clearer idea of what their true intentions are.”
For the first time since the briefing began General Wainright found himself in agreement with the man he considered his political and military opponent, albeit, reluctantly. “Alright, Mr. Vice President. We’ll wait a little longer and see where the negotiations take us. I just hope you’re right.”
At that, the vice president rose from his chair and left the room, the same line of worry knitting his brow.
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