Chapter 4

No Place Like Home

The crew bustled about Tesla Prime scrounging what little information they could from bits of ship telemetry.  Julie searched the logs, Jack rechecked the engines, and Stawford scanned the skies for any sign of the civilization they left behind.  Nothing made sense.  Nothing fit.  Trying to piece together the clues, they searched for an answer to a question that no one thought possible.

Where is Earth?

Below the elevated command platform, Stawford rested in the pilot’s chair, guiding Tesla Prime through the expanse of space.  With the build of a middleweight boxer, the pilot of Tesla Prime brushed to the side wavy locks of sandy-blonde hair.  He stared out the forward window, enjoying the wondrous beauty of the cosmos and the millions of stars that dotted the skyscape.  Smoky plumes stretched across the distant sky, shrouding the glowing haze of the Milky Way.

Much closer, a beige planet loomed in the center of the screen.

CLARA announced their arrival. “We have entered the Saturnian system.”

Inside his mind, Stawford began to play Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23: Allegro Ma Non Troppo as Saturn, the glorious ring world, approached.

# # #

North Korea, Twenty miles south of Pyongyang, June 27, 2035

Two F-38 Starfighters flew in tight formation above a scrolling green landscape dotted with trees and carved fields of golden wheat.  The sun was setting and the final days of the second Korean War were coming to an end.  Stawford adjusted his helmet and gazed out the left side of his plane toward a pink and orange horizon.  The blue and white badge on his chest read 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Don’t like this low ops tempo, he thought as he rolled his shoulders and shook his head to stay awake.  “Go-pills wearing off.”  Anxious, Stawford tapped the screen of his terminal and cycled through a series of system telemetry displays.

Sidewinders.  Check.

APU and Propulsion Systems.

Inertial Navigation System.

Radar and Ailerons.

All check.

Night Vision.  Ready.

“White Base, this is Moonlight Echo One.”

After a moment of silence, a voice crackled over the radio from their point of origin in Seoul, South Korea. “Moonlight Echo One, this is White Base.  Read you five by five.  Go.”

“Red Dog and I have completed our patrol of the South Hwanghae province.  No resistance met.”

“Copy, Moonlight.”

“Nearing Songnim now, traveling North enroute to Pyongyang.  We should be within targeting range of the weapons facility in a few minutes.  All systems go.”

“Copy, Moonlight.  We expect light resistance near Pyongyang.  You are clear to engage.”

“Copy, White Base.”

Stawford glanced back at the setting Sun and thought of home.

Jason, his wingman, flew in tight formation next to him.

“I can’t believe we are actually flying,” crackled his partner voice over the radio.

Stawford glanced out the window to his right and smiled.  “You thinking of bugging out?”

“Course not.”

“So what’s up?”

“Well, why us?  Why not send the drones in?”

Advancements in military technology over the past twenty years led to the development of sophisticated aerial drones, controlled from the ground.  During the Second Korean war, though, drones had been ineffective for unknown reasons.  Pilots were reactivated.

“You read the mission briefing before we left, didn’t you?”

“I scanned it.  Mentioned something about China covertly funding the North Korean military R&D program.  But what does that have to do with us?”

Stawford glanced out of his cockpit at Jason whose starfighter floated above the passing clouds.  Stawford returned to his flying.  “North Korea may possess new technologies including NextGen military drones and CommBreakers for ours.”

“But why does that even matter.  Their air defenses have been decimated.”

“True, but we don’t know what kind of forces they have left and the technology may be more advanced.”

“More advanced than these?  The new propulsion systems they put in are wicked fast.  Hells no.  They can’t touch us.”

“Don’t be so sure.”

Stawford shook his head.  Cocky son-of-a-bitch, he thought. Technology is only as strong as the hand that wields it.

Stawford sniffled, still recovering from a cold.  He shifted uneasily and readjusted his shoulder straps.  It had been three months since North Korea invaded South Korea.  Even though the North Korean forces had been routed, this was still a little bit too easy.

“How’s it feel?” asked Stawford.  “Little different than flying from the ground, I bet.”

“Cockpit looks the same but yeah, the feel is different.  The noise, the vibrations, accelerations.  I’m getting the hang of it though.”

Although Jason had flown a hundred missions with remarkable precision and skill, this was only his second time in the air.  Stawford was concerned.

“Okay, let’s stay focused.”

After a few precision punches into a keypad on his right, a heads-up display appeared in front of him.

“We should be getting close.  Stay sharp.”

A symbol appeared at the top of the heads-up-display, labeled Pyongyang. It drifted slowly downward. Stawford studied the terrain.  Red Dog’s blip mirrored his own on the display.  Everything was in place, normal.

Then, a flash.

Heat on his skin.

Ringing in his ears.

His heart pounded with adrenaline.

“Shit!”  Stawford pulled to his left.  Shrapnel pelted the chassis of his plane.  Alarms blared inside the cockpit.  He scanned the radar display floating in front of him.  Nothing.

“White Base this is Moonlight.  We have possible Triple A contact from the ground.”

Another booming explosion blasted Stawford’s starfighter to the right. He pushed forward and raced toward the ground in a desperate attempt to evade.

The radio crackled.  “Moonlight, this is White Ba…”

Static.

“Holy shit!” screamed Jason over the intercom. “Where are they!  I don’t see anything on my HUD!”

“They are using ECMs.”

“Don’t see ‘em!”

“Jase, listen.  Power down your HUD.”  Stawford pulled out of his power dive and corkscrewed to the left.

Jason continued. “Wait, I see something!”

Stawford saw it too, three small blips near Pyongyang.  Too far though, he thought.

“It doesn’t add up.  Those blips are 20 miles out.  Those blasts came from here!”

“We need to get out of here,” screamed Jason over the radio. His afterburners flared to life.

“Negative.  Form up and stay on my wing!”

Stawford looked out his window as Jason’s starfighter rocketed ahead.

Shadows ascended from below.

“What the hell is that!” screamed Jason as a darkness moved in around him.

“Jase!  Stay on my wing!”

“We need to get the fuck out of here now!”

Jason pulled back and raced upward, disappearing into a gray cloud above him.  Like a ruby lantern, the cloud flared as bright as a crimson sun and then then went dark.

“Jase!”  Stawford brought up his display.  The blip of Jason’s starfighter vanished.

“Respond!”  Nothing.  “Red Dog!”  Silence.

Stawford sailed through the blackness alone.  “Jase!  Respond!”  The dark terrain raced beneath him as the engines roared, pushing him onward away from the scene.  Above and below, he searched the skies for any sign of the attacker.

“White Base, this is Moonlight.  Come in.”

Stawford leveled off and studied the horizon.  The amber lights of Pyongyang approached.

“White Base, if you can read, I’ve lost Red Dog.”

Silence.

Stawford swiveled back and forth trying to get a visual on something, anything.  Behind him and to his left, a jet black fighter loomed in the darkness.

“There you are.” Stawford pulled to his left.  The black fighter gave chase.

“White Base, this is Moonlight.  I have a visual on an enemy fighter.” The Nanchang Q-10, he knew it well.  But this model was different.  The silhouette of the Q-10 for sure but it was shrouded in an unnatural darkness.  The enemy fighter closed in.  A streak of red light flashed to Stawford’s left.  “Oh, you brought your flashlight.”

Stawford rolled right, pulled back on the stick, and soared upward into the clouds. The Nanchang followed.  Stawford smiled and glanced to his left.  “Bring it.”

Punching through the top of the clouds, Stawford glanced over his shoulder.  The Nanchang followed closely behind him.  Moments later, several more emerged from the cloud tops.  Then two dozen.

Stawford shook his head.  “Too many.  Time for plan B?”

Stawford brought up a computer screen as a swarm of fighters closed in.  A hail of crimson streaks filled his sky.

A message popped into view.  “Engaging liquid oxygen subsystem.  Suborbital flight available in ten mins.”

“Not good enough. I need it now.”

Several of the Nanchang fighters pulled to the left, several more to the right.  The gap between Stawford and the fighter swarm closed as they moved in for the kill.

Stawford pushed his starfighter forward as the engines strained in the thinning atmosphere.  The stars hung motionless in front of him, beckoning.  The roar of his engines and scores of fighters were behind him.

Words appeared on the display, “250,000 FEET”.  The engines sputtered as the fighter swarm closed in.

“Not gonna make it.”  Stawford punched his keyboard, accessing overrides to the orbital subsystem.

A series of screens popped up.

“OVERRIDE ALGORITHMS… SEARCHING,” read the display.

“Some LOX would be nice,” said Stawford calmly.

“LOX SYSTEM PRESSURIZING… STAND BY,” announced the ships computer through a set of speakers embedded in the forward panel.

Stawford’s starfighter shuddered as an energy blast from one of the black fighters slammed the back of his plane.

“STAND BY.”

More arcs of red energy erupted around him. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not become a flying barbeque.”

“STAND BY.”

Stawford squeezed his lips and eyes, shut bracing for the inevitable impact from that would end his life.

A moment passed, then two.

“TANKS PRESSURIZED.  LOX ENABLED,” announced the computer.

Stawford eyes snapped open.

“Good.  Now go!  Go!  Go!”  Stawford punched the final override key as the engines roared to life.  He sank into the chair of his cockpit and finally, the pursuing swarm fell back into the darkness.  He closed his eyes and breathed slowly as he raced into space.  Outside, the rush of Earth’s last air gave way to silence as Stawford left the atmosphere.  Stawford relaxed.  His shoulders deflated and he glanced out his window at the beautiful stars.  A moment later, silent red lightning sprang from the darkness and grazed his cockpit.

Alarms blared and warning lights blinked.

Stawford looked down.  “Report.”

“HULL BREACH.  ATMOSPHERIC CONTROL FAILURE.”

Stawford could feel the air swirling around him.  He held his breath.  Only a few moments left.

He punched in a sequence of commands on his keyboard.  “Enable: autopilot.  Destination: White Base.”

“AUTOPILOT ENGAGED.”

Stawford let go of the controls and gazed out into the blackness in front of him.  Just before he lost consciousness, Stawford felt his eardrums burst from the vacuum of space.

* * *

Command Deck

Stawford smiled as the clouds of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, sailed beneath him.  The purple horizon circled this beige mysterious moon.

Thomas placed the tablet on the table and rubbed his eyes.

“Commander.”

“Yes, CLARA.”

“Mr. Sinclair has a visual on the Moon.”

Thomas looked up.

Off to the left beyond Saturn’s rings, hung the Moon, tilted on its side and dimly lit with the reflected light from Saturn.

“Oh my God,” murmured Thomas.

Over the CommSys, Julie spoke.  “Commander, Sir, I rechecked the signal we received from the Moon.  No message.”

“Alright, thanks. Jack, anything?”

“With the Earth out of the equations, everythin’ lines up.”

Thomas stepped forward.  “CLARA, are we getting any readings from the surface?  Any activity?  Anything?” asked Thomas.

“Negative Commander.  Ambient temperatures within Moonbase Sagan are negative 70-degrees Celsius. No heat signatures have been detected.  The small amount of surface ice appears to be from Enceladus.”

“Patch me through to the crew.”

“Ready, Commander.”

“Okay, everyone, we have a visual on the Moon and Stawford is going to be touching down in 20 minutes or so. Jack, Julie, and Dax, suit up.  You’re with me.  Isaac, Sophia, and Stawford, we need you here to monitor telemetry.  Be ready to roll out in one hour.”

 

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