Everything had been routine. We had seen no sign of the N’Kerlan fleet, at all. Everything was fine and I was getting pretty sick of it. This was already the fifth time we had gone on patrol. The mission was twelve hours of pure boredom. All I did was fly our starfighter, that we had given the name “The Arena”, from point “A”, Starbase 67, to point “B”, 250 kilometers from the event horizon of gridline grid-line 40. It was usually my old friend, silence, and myself. Korina, at times, came over to me and we talked, but she had to keep her mind on our mission, despite the fact that my mind was usually on her. The thing that I found astounding was the Major Redenbacher and I had had two well-meaning conversations. Once we talked about how he had piloted at construction shuttle on Mars in the 2020’s, and how he had signed up, with later regret, on a Deep Space Survey Ship in 2028.
I can’t remember the day, time or hour I started calling Patterson Korina, nor the minute I stopped referring to Major Redenbacher as “the old bastard”, but I do remember the first time I realized how wrong I was about “Ace” Redenbacher, the hero of 2030.
We pulled in late, at 01:00. Korina and I had planned to have a late dinner and maybe a few drinks at the Lone Star before calling it a night. Redenbacher always turned in right after the flight, despite our invitations. We met with Donaldson at the bar; his squad had come in early.
"It's real quiet out there this week." Donaldson remarked.
"Well, I don't know just how to feel about that" I replied " I've been out there five times already and seen the same thing every time..."
"Wait..." he interrupted " Stars, right!" "You got it." I said as I reached for my glass. Old Lou, the owner and bartender of the Lone Star, always had our usuals ready for us.
"Look!" Korina said as she pointed toward the door, "There's Rodriguez."
He saw us and walked over to the bar. He smiled and Old Lou poured him his usual, a cold Dr. Pepper on ice. Rodriguez was a very different kind of person. He came from a strict military family, yet he didn't drink. One of his ancestors had fought at the Alamo, on the Mexican side of course, and he always bragged that his great-great-great grandfather had had breakfast with Santa Anna, himself. He wanted to make Captain more than anything in the world. I'll never forget the way he looked in those days. He was tall, dark and had a moustache. Still, despite everything, he always looked as if he was hiding from life.
“How are you 'fly' boys and girls going.” Rodriguez began, “Your mission reports looked good. Promotions are up tomorrow at briefing.”
“Swell” I said.
Everyone laughed. I had no idea why.
“What’s wrong? What did I do?” I puzzled.
“Swell?” Korina said with a grin, “Buster, why do you talk like that.”
“Well…I… I guess…” I stuttered
“It’s because Buster here is always at least 100 years behind the times.” A voice said.
It was Redenbacher. The fact that he was there stunned everyone. We had never seen him past 01:00 anywhere, much less at the Lone Star.
“I thought I would see how the freshmen spent their nights in the fishbowl.” he jarred.
Old Lou looked at him; he had never forgotten a drink as long as I had known him. Had he this time?
“Give me a tequila and…” Redenbacher paused, “Just give me a damned tequila”
“Sure thing, Ace” Old Lou responded looking for a bottle of the famed tequila. That was the first time I had heard Old Lou speak. He had always been silent, simply making and giving drinks for the generations of flight crews and officers that visited Satrbase 67.
“Ace?” asked Rodriguez, “They called you Ace”
“Yup” Redenbacher replied, “That was my call name in the old squadron.”
Again, Redenbacher paused. He looked deep into his drink, sipped it, and said,
“Lou, here, was ‘Comet Rider’ Ford.”
“That was a hell of a long time ago, Ace. I was a young man.”
“So was I.” Redenbacher lamented, “You see gentlemen, and lady, this man you see before you pouring drinks, is Air sergeant Louis Ford. The only enlisted Starfighter pilot in the Air Force.”
“I was ‘Comet Rider’ Ford” Lou protested, “Now I’m just ‘Old’ Lou. Here is another drink.”
“Lou” I started to ask, “Why didn’t you ever tell us you were a fighter pilot?”
“The ‘Comet Rider’, by dear boy, has been gone a while!” Lou went on.
“Maybe it’s about time he came back.” Redenbacher stated as he wished us a good night.
I had never seen anything like it before in my life. In what had to be five minutes, ‘Old Lou’ the dusty old bartender, had turned into “Comet Rider” Ford. It was at that instant that I gained a new respect for “Ace” Redenbacher.
We talked with “Comet Rider” Ford for nearly an hour. He must have gone to bed a proud and happy man that night. To this day I can still remember the proud look on this face as he closed for the night, August 16, 2053.
At morning call we reported for mission briefing at 06:00. After I was promoted to First Lieutenant in what had to be the most pompous ceremony I had ever attended, we were asked to wait for the arrival of General Hertz. Unlike the first day, we all talked with each other, the silence had finally been vanquished.
General Hans-Dieter Hertz, a German by birth, gave us the mission briefing himself. He was a most dynamic creature. As General of United Earth Forces on the edgelines of the frontier, he was constantly placed in politically dangerous positions with President Light and his advisors. Twice before they had had open arguments on what policy to follow in dealing with the N’Kerlan Empire. General Hertz’s policy for trade, via the S’Kerlan Panatons, often placed him in the line of fire. The N’Kerlan Empire had enslaved the Panatons for 679 years before the United Earth helped them gain independence from their masters. Hertz often counted the Panatons as traitors and spies.
The briefing was more of the same, despite some colorful German accented metaphors General Hertz added. We entered the hangar level for the sixth time. Donaldson and Catlowe were walking toward the command center when I noticed that our vessel was not where it usually was.
“The Arena” was always on pad 13; today we were on pad 7. It seemed that Donaldson’s ship, the “Track 2”, had had major problems with its side mounted Hyper-Warp generators. The enlisted ground crew had moved it to our pad, it was closer to the Hyper-calibrator, the main device used at that time to run simulation on the Hyper-Warp conduit sub-systems.
I could see the blue glow emitting from our generators. It was a soft blue color that really drew the eyes to the shuttles. I always thought it might not be all that safe, I mean the power of an atomic bomb contained in an ultra-glass case. The discovery of the hyper-drive system was a discovery literally stumbled on by then American scientists. I never have been able to forget about it. The story, told to me since I was a child, about two scientists, Joyce Bonner and Dell Norris, who completely messed up a quantum energy formula and turning it, a useless theorem, into the practical formula for faster-than-light travel. I’m just a pilot, I really know very little about the physics involved. I can repair the damn thing if I have to, but I couldn’t really tell you how it works.
The hangar level was lighted to that blue glow every time the ships were warmed up. It was strange that I would notice that at that particular time.
“Let’s get this show on the road” Redenbacher said over the sounds of the hangar level, “I want to come home early and take a well deserved nap.”
“I, for one,” Patterson replied, “am looking forward to dinner at the Lone Star. Its steak and potato night.”
“Alright” I uttered, “I‘ve gotta wait for Donaldson anyway. You two can start your checklists. After all, I just fly the damn thing.”
“He gets promoted and he thinks he can push around a senior officer” Redenbacher remarked, “We shall just see about that. Come on, let’s go Lt. Patterson.”
They got up in to the “Arena” while I awaited Catlowe and Donaldson. Catlowe came out of the command center first. He had contracted the flu and was grounded. Donaldson came out with a packet of papers and a small bag.
“Donaldson” I yelled across the hangar level, “I need the transport papers.”
I wanted to take some fresh fruit on the mission as a diversion. I was allowed, but the paperwork required for one apple alone was beyond belief. I had put in for it before the second mission; it was not until then that I had been given the O.K.
“There you are” Donaldson said as he handed me the papers, “One apple and orange permit for five missions. Only you would actually do all this paperwork for a few damn apples.”
“These are special” I bullshitted, “They were sent to be by President Light himself from the fertile fields of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Shipped through dangerous space, namely you guys’ quarters”
“Your full of it today, Premont” he pointed out, “Lower Rio Grande Valley indeed…”
“Have it your way!” I exclaimed, “Good luck, out there!”
“Good luck? I won’t hit any more planets today, officer.” Donaldson said jokingly.
With that he threw me my small bag of fruit and he was off to his ship. I walked over to the latter and entered the cockpit. Korina was just finishing up the last Sensor test and Redenbacher closed his last service hatch tight. I checked all the controls and tested the radio.
“19,C 530 to Control, come in Control… over.” I sputtered into the radio headset.
“Roger… This is Control. 19,C 530 do you have any fruit’s or veggies for us guys in Control.”
It was Rodriguez. He was fooling with us as usual. He knew these missions were as boring as hell and tried to keep us sane with his strange sense of humor. Sometimes he was funny, other times I felt like turning him off for peace and quiet, but quiet was a commodity that was in great supply out in space.
“Sure” I responded, “All hatches secure, Control. I think there are plenty of fruits and nuts there in the command center already.”
“This is 20, C 530” another voice came over the radio, “Would you guys kindly shut-up and get off the channel.”
It was Captain Bryan Teston; he was Catlowe’s pilot. A very brave man, he was about average height and maybe just a little over weight. He was like no other officer at the base. He had a large scar on the side of his face and nearly always wore dark glasses. He was about ten years older than I was, but acted like a man three times his age. He had a chest full of ribbons, but never wore them. He was a hero, and didn’t need trinkets to tell him so. He had a wife and two children back at Starbase 67. His daughter, Michella, and son, Ralph, were often found exploring the finer points of Starbase 67. Mrs. Teston was the head of the Starbase 67 Women’s Auxiliary. Catlowe and he had become good buddies, but he never talked to me, or Korina or Redenbacher about anything non-military.
As we entered Hyper-Warp, a question that I had been pondering on my mind since Rodriguez informed me of major Redenbacher’s identity came again into my mind.
“Major Redenbacher?” I asked as I corrected our course heading, “I have kind of been wondering something.”
“Just ask it, Buster.” He stated
“Well” I asked with reserve, “I was wondering how someone with your flight experience as a pilot ended up a lowly flight technician?”
“It’s simple” he started, “I’m old. The cut off age for a pilot is forty; I’m well over fifty. I should be retired from flying altogether. Tyson has been trying to get me to stop for ten years now, promoting me and hoping I’ll take one of the command desk jobs that bastard want’s me to take.”
“Why don’t you?” I asked
“It’s a long story” he replied
“Tell us” Korina implored, “There is nothing to do, anyway.”
“O.K.” He spoke, “I all starts when I was young. My family had moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 2027; my father, my mother and my younger brother. We had been poor for a long time; I was 29 years old and had worked with my father at the old factory in Macon, Georgia. One day my father asked me what I planned to do with the rest of my life. I told him I would stay by him and the family until I died. He would have none of it, he felt ashamed that I had wasted my youth in such poverty. There was a Ship, the U.S.S. Lantana, one of those deep-space vessels the United States had built. Volunteers would serve aboard one year, and become commissioned officers in the U.S. Air Force depending on the progress of that person. I joined and left Earth for the first major survey of deep space."
“What happened” I inquired
“Something that no person on Earth would have ever imagined. In 2028, as you know from those history books, the N’Kerlan Empire launched it’s sneak attack on Earth. A fleet of over ten thousand ships. Every major city was attacked, most vaporized. I had been in space for only about a year when it happened. We were recalled and came back to an Earth in ruins. The colonies on Mars, protected from the attack by a Martian dust storm, were all that was left of the urban civilization of Earth. As we prepared for the attack, I made a horrible realization. My family…”
Redenbacher stopped and fought back what I knew had to be tears. I had seen pictures of the cities left after the N’Kerlan sneak attack of 2029. Nothing but rubble remained of the great cities of Earth. Dallas, New York, London; were all the names of ancient ruins. I was born between Roswell and Tatum New Mexico, a rural out of the way area, and never saw any of that destruction as a child, but when I was ten years old; I went on a field trip to El Paso, Texas. It as nothing more a junkyard. The ground, in some places, was glass. The heat from the N’Kerlan weapons has been so intense that it melted the ground into glass. Atlanta, Georgia no longer existed as a city, but as a radioactive pile of twisted metal and debris.
“My hate…” Redenbacher continued, “keeps me out here. When I got to old to be a pilot, I became a navigator. When I found myself to old to be that, I dropped down one more level. I will kill every one of those blue bastards if it takes the very life from my body.”
I really felt for the man. He told us of how he had gone to Mars and built up a fleet of early starfighters to guard against a second wave. He went on to tell us of how he and his brother served at the Battle of Patatai in 2030 and how he saved an entire squadron of American flyers from a fleet of twenty N’Kerlan fighters.
Korina was quick to pick up on Redenbacher’s emotional cues. She came from a very traditional military family. She had never been to Earth; she was a military brat. She was born on Mars Base in 2028 to a Sergeant Anthony and Deborah Lee Patterson. She grew up going from Starbase to Starbase following the war as it took humanity deeper and deeper into space. She grew up to be the only thing she had ever known.
"Where did all the time go?" Korina said as she returned to her station, "I missed the normal check out window."
Korina clicked the same series of buttons she had pressed everyday since we started this mission. The long-range scan only took about three minutes to run.
"Let's see " she reported, "Sector 530 gridlines twenty through thirty report as all clear. Long range scan of Sector 531…"
Korina stopped her report and pressed the general quarters alarm.
"We have three N'Kerlan fighters closing on our position" she exclaimed "they will be on us in two minutes!"
"What the hell's going on?" Captain Teston blared over my headset, "Why are we at alert status?"
"Captain Teston, we have three confirmed N'Kerlan vessels on intercept course." I responded, "We have less than two minutes to prepare, Sir."
"Lets keep a tight formation." Teston responded, "Maybe they won't attack."
"That's suicide" Redenbacher yelled, "Buster, if you know what's best, break formation"
"That is a negative," yelled Teston, "I'm in command here not this old timer. Premont If you break formation you'll face court Marshall."
"Teston, you arrogant ass hole, I out rank you" countered Redenbacher, "The only way to fight them is to do it as individual ships in a coordinated attack."
"I was afraid of this." Teston stated, "Major Damson gave me authority to relieve you if you ever interfered with command. As of this moment you are relived of duty."
"Damn it!" Redenbacher screamed, "Premont, Break formation now or we're all dead."
"The N'Kerlan Ships are breaking out of Hyper-Warp" yelled Korina.
I flung the "Arena" out of formation, Major Danby Followed. Captain Teston remained on the same heading. The N'Kerlan flagship had launched a matter-antimatter charge directly in what would have been the center of formation. The explosion flung us off our flight course. I could hardly handle the ship as it jarred and shifted in the currents caused by the explosion. The ship filled with small explosions and a haze of smoke. Redenbacher handled the fires and Korina restarted the ships systems in order to bring our weapons and firing computer back on line.
Major Danby's ship suffered a complete loss of power. Parts of his vessel had been blown into the cold void of space. He needed time to recover.
The worst part of the ordeal came in the form of Captain Teston's ship. Still flying the same course, his ship was in the heart of the explosion. The hull had instantly ignited and the crew was slowly being roasted alive. We listened as the screams of his flight crew came in over the radio. I grabbed my headset and threw in on the floor. Despite that, I could still hear their voices. I could hear someone yelling about a Hyper-Warp core rupture. The pain-induced screams that followed were beyond description. Even more chilling was the complete silence that followed as the radio went dead. We saw the light from that silent explosion; three souls, our friends, had passed into that light.
The three N'Kerlan ships flew by us and began a turn; they were going to finish us off. I needed the ship's weapons system. I looked over and saw Korina; a frightened look filled her face as she watched a computer screen with numbers calculating and start-up protocol downloading.
"Come on!" she said to herself, "Come on, faster!"
Redenbacher was on the floor frantically trying to repair one of our targeting computers. I could hear him cursing the wires and scrambling for the correct tools.
"The N'Kerlan ships are coming about!" I yelled, "I need those weapons, now!"
"The system is re-booting, Buster!" Korina said in desperation, "All we can do is wait!"
Maybe time passes slower when you think you know that you are about to die. The thoughts that go through one's mind during these eternal moments are unlike any thoughts you have at any other time. All I could think of was the letter I was going to write to the Micro Super Computer Corporation from my lab top in hell. To think, that every thing had been routine.