Monday, 13 January 2014

Fire in the Skies

Writer's note- This piece was something I submitted for coursework about half a year ago. It's part of a series of short stories I intend to compile into a larger narrative about a war over alien refugees. That said it all needs some editing and some work on it, (this piece I feel could benefit from being longer) so I would really appreciate any comments offering criticism (yes, even negative criticism). I'll be posting more stories from this project. 

2783 AD
Black Box Recordings of the space vessel Perseus; Flagship of the Unionist space fleet.
Commander Daniel Drayton:  
 “I wish this decision was harder to make. The Perseus is finished. I didn’t want this vessel to die in vain. I don’t feel connected to my actions. The horror I’m inflicting hasn’t registered with me. I am sorry. I truly am. I am the only person who could have agreed to this.”
The Perseus
Drayton stood at the command bridge, breathing in the tension. He knew that this battle would change the war; the first battle to be fought in space. Up until this point there were mostly riots in the dense Ark-Haven cities. Drayton was going to lead this support into Earth’s atmosphere, destroying Separatist defences along the way.
Drayton paced along the bridge and placed his hand on the shoulder of a console operative, bent over a screen.
“What’s your name?”
The young man looked to Drayton his back still hunched.
“Kiel sir.”
“Don’t hunch Kiel. It’ll put your back out. You might need your back, even if your job isn’t very physical.”
“Yes sir, sorry sir” he said, his voice almost cracking.
Drayton smiled for a second.
“Scared lad? You got cause to be I guess. If you bugger up then it won’t be the Separatists that kill you.”
“No sir?”
“No, it’ll be me ‘cos that equipment was bloody expensive!” Drayton’s head reared back with his booming laugh. “Don’t worry lad, we’ll be coming up on Ark-Haven 12 if we make good time they’ll be gunning down anything vicious. We’ve got plenty of advantages.”
“Don’t they know we’re coming?”
“No doubt. But they’re lagging behind; Mercury hasn’t sent help and Ark-Haven 7’s defences are a joke. We’re on the winning side lad.”
Drayton turned and was about to head to his quarters for some rest when Kiel spoke up.
“Yeeeees?” Drayton replied, irritated, but still curious.
“Have you seen them before? The aliens, I mean.”
“The Crogacs? No. This is the first time I’ve left Mars in over ten years, and no Crogacs will be heading there for a while.”
“I’ve seen them, sir.” Kiel’s voice bubbled with enthusiasm.
Drayton was genuinely a little shocked. He wasn’t sure if the boy was trying to impress him.
“Five years ago, sir, doing a tour of duty on the Moon, it was pretty much just menial security guard work. Then I remember seeing Crogacs for the first time. They were enormous.”
“Oh yes?”
“Yes sir. Eight feet tall. But my God, they don’t half stink.”
“HA! Haven’t heard that one before.” A big grin crawled across Drayton’s face.
“Yeah the media doesn’t exactly mention that. Still. It’s worth seeing them. I mean they built something that could travel to different solar systems. That’s got to be worth learning about.”
The grin vanished from Commander Drayton’s face; his voice became harsh.
“So you went to learn from them?”
“Well, yes. I mean, what can’t we learn from them? Of course, I forgot we needed to translate their language first, spent a lot of time with linguists trying to copy their notes so I could read about the Crogac technology. Interesting stuff.”
He stopped abruptly. The Commander frowned and looked off to the side.
“Is that why you’re a Unionist?” he asked.
“Well… yes sir.”
The Commander exhaled; his breath heavy and audible to the entire bridge crew. He turned and left for his quarters.
Drayton’s quarters were minimal. A Mars Colonist emblem was blazoned above his bed, bronze wings holding up a pair of pick axes on a field of red.  It didn’t have any place on a battle cruiser. It was for Martian nickel-iron miners; Drayton didn’t have any use for it. Still better than the Mercury Colonist emblem though, a colony pod on a field of beige, as if they should to be reminded of the need to move around in clunky auto piloted vehicles.
Drayton lay awake. Ten years on Mars. Ten years. He was hoping he wouldn’t have to return to Earth or at least return on his own terms.
Ten Years Ago. Earth, Ark-Haven 14 (Sweden), Federal Alliance Space Port.
Daniel heaved a khaki bag over his shoulder, almost hitting the man walking alongside him.
“You sure you don’t want to take some more things Daniel? I mean, you don’t know how long you’re staying there. I could have your things sent from Margaret’s place.”
Daniel stared on morosely, plodding through the carpet of snow to the Space Port entrance.
“I’m sorry Greg. I have to get away; I can’t cling to my wife forever.”
Greg grabbed Daniel by the shoulder, halting him, then he pushed him back so that he was staring Daniel in the face.
“What about me Daniel? You think I didn’t love Margaret? You think I don’t love you? What are my family supposed to do Daniel? You’re a part of that family. We can help you through this Dan. You don’t have to leave.”
Daniel spoke in a broken wispy tone.
“I can’t keep clinging to her…”
 “Dammit Daniel! You’re running away.” Greg interrupted “I would run away if I could. But I can’t. I have to stay. I can’t run from my sister’s death. You shouldn’t be running. You have to acknowledge her death at some point.”
Daniel gritted his teeth and looked away.
“You’ve already given me this, Greg. I’m going to Mars. I need to get out of here. I need the money as well… I’ll come back.”
Greg tried to meet Daniel’s gaze but he shied away from eye contact.
“We’ll miss you Daniel.”
Daniel lifted his head and faced the entrance again.
“I’ll miss you too. You’ve been a good friend Greg. I’ll try and keep in touch.”
“So long Corporal. Let me know when you get to the first transit station.”
Daniel nodded at Greg.
The Perseus, three weeks later
Daniel’s blaring alarm woke him. His vision blurred as he opened his eyes. His eyelids had gunk forming at the corners that scratched against his skin as he rubbed it out with his fingertips. Fifteen years in the military and he still couldn’t get used to waking up. Margaret was hard to sleep next to, but it was harder not sleeping next her after the accident.  
As he rubbed the sand off of his face he jumped at the sound of the intercom.
“Commander, we are coming up on Earth’s Moon. I awoke you just as you asked, sir.”
“Good. Have you followed Navigator Crain’s directions?”
“Yes sir, the fleet is obscured from Earth’s vision by the moon.”
“And the dummy vessel?”
“Sent according to yours and Navigator Crain’s orders sir.”
“Alright. Let’s fight a war. Commander Drayton out.”
The Separatists knew the fleet was coming; that couldn’t be avoided. After following Navigator Crain’s recommendations for how they could utilise the Earth’s natural satellite to obscure the fleet, Drayton then hoped to send a small dummy vessel with a signal scrambler in the opposite direction they were heading. By the time the Separatists found what’s jamming their signal and where it’s coming from, the Unionist fleet would have them in range and in position to fire. Drayton couldn’t help but feel smug satisfaction, the first sense of achievement he’d had in a while.
After slipping on his stiff uncomfortable uniform Drayton headed back to the bridge. The front viewing panel showed the vast grey image of the moon looming into sight, its surface was scarred and cracked like crumpled paper.
Soon the Crogac moon base came into sight. The specks of light on the looming lunar image for some reaffirmed their purpose. Drayton glanced at Kiel; his face glinted with joy and conviction as the glimmers of alien civilisation danced across his screen. Drayton looked back towards the larger front viewing panel. Kiel turned his head towards Drayton.
“We’re coming up on the Crogac base, sir” he said, his voice enthusiastic.
“So I see” replied Drayton wearily. Kiel’s face drooped and he turned back to the console. Drayton picked up the PA microphone; he drew in a heavy breath and began to speak.
“You have all chosen to fight for different reasons. For some it’s defending the refugee Crogacs. For others it’s the promise of new advances for humanity.”
Daniel moved the microphone away from his mouth and muttered “For some it’s because we don’t know what else to do.” He brought the microphone back to his mouth and finished “Remember these reasons as I give the order to fire.”
As Daniel put down the microphone he focused on the nearest monitor, displaying a simple green and black picture of Earth with the twenty Ark-Havens as red dots. On it he picked out all the ones he’d been to.
He sighed to himself, “Welcome home Dan.” 
“The scrambler is in operation, sir.”
After thirty minutes black space cropped over the moon.
“Prep the missiles.” Drayton said softly, his gaze fixed on the growing emptiness.
In the blackness the tiny blazing fires from the Separatists’ vessel propellants looked like little candles.
“Proceed at a steady pace. Dim the lights.”
The fleet continued, the Perseus’ propellants contended with the moon’s gravity giving off a low lugubrious rumble.
“The Separatists are within firing range sir. Shall I fire?”
“Is the rest of the fleet within range?”
“Yes sir”
Daniel tried his best to look stoic as he watched the Separatist fleet on the viewing panel. The gentle whooshes of the missiles from the Perseus were the only thing to be heard. The flickering candles soon burst into clouds of light.
 Another barrage of missiles from the vessels behind them travelled across the emptiness. More fire. It only kept burning in places where the hulls were penetrated, as the oxygen and anything that would burn was sucked from the ships.
Drayton could only imagine the hell it was for anyone caught on the decks that were damaged. They were either pulled into the vacuum of space, or immolated. Some of them it might be both; ripped from the bosom of the vessel and into the unforgiving blackness, the fires of war searing and melting their flesh; their screams of horror heard by no one, not even themselves.
“The enemy vessels are turning to face us sir.”
“I want another barrage ready before they can repel borders.”
 “Yes sir.”
“Magnify the viewing panel. How much damage have we done?”
The vision of death and war intensified. The image growing larger until the bridge could see the scale of their damage.
“There is some heavy damage sir. Looks like a few missiles breached the hulls. But all their vessels look to still be mobile sir.”
“Not for long” Drayton walked over to the viewing panel. “Take out their weapons” Drayton pointed to the main turrets of a heavy frigate that was slowly coming around. “And have our light destroyers concentrate fire on this battle cruiser’s engines. I want that thing immobilised.”
The light destroyers surged ahead of the fleet, their sleek designs allowing for more manoeuvrability. Their canon fire ricocheted off the protective hull of the Separatist flagship. They continued up and down the huge external engines, their blasts barely scratching the blue paintwork.
“I said concentrate fire.” Drayton shouted at one of the operatives, “Keep canon fire to one location; breech that hull dammit” a quivering operative relayed Drayton’s commands through his headset.
The Perseus hummed again as another stream of missiles arced across the closing empty space. The canons of the Separatist heavy frigate managed to take a couple out but it couldn’t withstand the full barrage and its main turrets were blasted off in silence.
The Separatists mobilised two light destroyers, the speedy machines dodged the elegantly gliding missiles and the canon fire peppering the battle zone. Their canon fire sent a gentle rumble across Perseus.
“Sir, we have two light destroyers opening fire on our missile silos.”
“Stow away the silos, open canon fire on the nearest. Bring the Sky Hammer around to destroy the other.”
The Sky Hammer, almost as agile as its opponents, flew around the Perseus. As it arrived it launched its small missile load. One of the light destroyers disappeared in a flash of flame, its crumbling black wreckage scattered across the Perseus’ hull. The other was not so easily caught. It outmanoeuvred the canon fire from both the Perseus and the Sky-Hammer. The Sky-Hammer unleashed another missile.
“What the-” Drayton yelled but it was too late.
The missile from the Sky-Hammer crashed into the Perseus. The huge ship rocked.
“Damage report, what the hell happened?” Drayton cried out.
“The Sky-Hammer missed. They’ve taken out our starboard missile silo, sir” reported the nearest operative, his face red in the light of his screen. “The destroyer is pulling away sir. It’s attacking the Sky-Hammer.”
“Well, it’s their problem” Drayton snapped. “Bring us around, utilise the portside silos. Have the frigates cover us. What news from our destroyers?”
“Minimal resistance from the enemy flagship sir” reported Kiel.
“They’re holding back” Drayton grimaced “Send a message to Ark-Haven 12 and 14. Tell them I want to know when they can send us support.”
The young man typed busily at the console, as the Commander stormed up and down the bridge barking orders, trying to make the most of their element of surprise. “Bring the Drake around to cover our starboard.”
An operative at the back of the bridge turned to face the Commander.
“Fire one round from the portside silos. Bring us into Earth’s atmosphere.
“Umm, Commander…”
“Have us ready to drop our ground troops. Make sure Ark-Haven 12 is ready to fire.”
“What is it now?” Drayton said wearily.
“The enemy flagship is launching what seem to be… colony pods, sir.” He replied. 
The pods moved slower than the destroyers. They were only marginally less clunky than the frigates.
“Shall I open fire sir?”
“Only with canon fire, save the missiles for the flagship” Drayton said, a hint of curiosity in his voice. “What the hell are they doing?” he pondered aloud.
The pods swerved around the Perseus to the starboard side. The canon fire harmlessly bounced off of the dense lead hulls. The scattered canon fire wasn’t enough of a challenge to the pods that survived the harsh climates of Mercury.
“They’re not changing course sir. They’re coming straight for us!”
No missiles. Canons were useless. As the Perseus broke into Earth’s atmosphere the Mercury colony pods smashed into the hull of the Perseus, each one digging deeper and deeper into the fine craft.  As they collided something ignited within them, spreading scorching hot thermite across the battered hull. Super-hot oxygen from piercing the atmosphere helped the orange tinged white hot chemical reaction. The hull now scarred and useless allowed for blazing hot air to pour into the ship.
“The impact took out the engine!” reported Kiel.
Drayton’s uncomfortable shirt soaked up a river of sweat.
“Are we going to crash?” he asked.
“At the current rate and trajectory, we’ll be crashing in northern part of Judea.” Kiel said, desperately trying not to slur his speech.
“Navigator Crain, in our current state, how far can we change our trajectory?”
Crain peaked her narrow head out from the green glow of the navigation screen. Keeping her thin face focused on the screen below him. She replied without emoting.
“We can change our trajectory by about fifty miles sir.”
“Any chance of landing safely in the sea?” Kiel asked desperately.
“No. We’re heading for land.” Crain said.
Kiel turned away and buried his face in one hand and started chewing strands of skin off the other.
Drayton paused. He’d been looking over Crain’s shoulder at the navigation screen. It was mostly a complex series of lines and coordinates in front of a detailed map. He could still make out where they were and what their likely crash site was. His brow furrowed.
“How close is Ark-Haven 7 to our crash site?”
“Twenty, sir” replied Crain, a hint of worry in her cold voice.
There was a long palpable pause. Some of the bridge exchanged knowing glances. Daniel spoke up.
“Change our course. Head for Ark-Haven 7.”
Kiel turned around, pulling his fingers from his slavering mouth. His eyes stained red.
“The Perseus isn’t going to burn out. If we can hit Ark-Haven 7’s industrial district then we at least damage Separatist supply lines.”
 “But what about the people in the city?” Kiel said, his voice becoming more resolute through the tears.
Drayton said nothing; he gritted his teeth and glared at navigator Crain.
Crain nodded at him and fed the coordinates into her computer. The propellants hummed as they steered the vessel towards its crash site. Crain avoided Kiel’s desperate stare.
“We’ll be landing in approximately five minutes.” Crain said.
Daniel walked away; his fists clenched so hard, his knuckles turned white.
In his room he reached for a recorder, his final words transmitted from the tiny device in his fingers to the vessel’s black box. In his drawers he kept a crumpled printed picture of his time in Ark-Haven 12. He’d taken pictures of Margaret by the huge cable cars.
“Why do I need a print? I’ll have it on my computer” he’d asked her.
Her sweet voice resonated plaintively in his head.
“Your computer crashes all the time Daniel, don’t you want something tangible?”
The atmosphere tore at the ship’s hull. The huge battle cruiser echoed with the booming noise of destruction.
Daniel’s fingers wrapped tightly around the picture of Margaret. Hot tears streamed down his face. He closed his eyes; behind his lids he saw only flashes and blurs of red. He envisioned all the cities he’d been to. They all lacked her.  
From his knees he looked up at the insignia of Mars colonists.
“I’m sorry Margaret. I wish I was better. I wish I wasn’t capable of this.”
The Perseus’ hull was covered in white hot flames, its sleek design penetrating the atmosphere like a sword through flesh. Below, Ark-Haven 7’s citizens tried desperately to evacuate. Unlike the battle, all the screams were heard. 

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