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Sunday, September 21, 2014

CoE: Section 1

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Clearly I don’t shy from melodrama, right? I’m just getting started and the human race is already doomed.

But it really did happen that way.

Sean Mason didn’t mean to doom the human race. It wasn’t as if he woke up that morning thinking that dooming the human race would nicely round out the day. I'm pretty sure he woke up that morning thinking that he'd been a jerk to a friend who didn't want to sleep with him, and he ought to be better about that. Although it may have also involved a pair of Asian cheerleaders who were getting a D in his accounting class and would do anything to pass. But like most things that Sean touched, he began with pedestrian—perhaps even noble—intentions (not the cheerleader thing, but the other one), and just sort of fucked everything up on the way to executions.

Really, this is a story about Sean's fucked up executions. There were a lot of stories in the war, but Sean's was, in a way, the story. He lived at the epicenter of it all–often was the epicenter of it all. But also Sean and the war…they defined each other. They foraged each other. Sean wouldn’t have been the same without the war. The war certainly wouldn't have been the same without Sean.

Sorry. I don't mean to go to Cliché Town on the Cliché Express.

The story doesn’t begin with Sean condemning the human race to its own destruction. Well…I suppose it did begin there because that's where I began it, but that’s not really where it starts. I watch too many movies. Mr. Melodrama, that’s me. However, to really tell this story, we should back up. Because it really begins a year prior.

So let’s back up. Chunks of earth swirl inward to a single focal point, form into mountains, valleys, plateaus, ravines and other landscape features; a swell moves through the earth—a twenty-foot tall wave through the rock and soil converging to a central point; it shrinks inward toward a two-mile wide crater in the jungle floor; the wave lurches for a moment, and then spits out a cyan ball of crackling energy; foliage sprouts out of the scorched earth—twisted and black, flaming as giant green leaves burn into existence, flames repair the damage before winking out, and then the jungle is pristine with thick green foliage, bugs the size of tennis balls, brilliant multi-colored birds squawking, all bathed in an electric blue light that fades into darkness.

The ball hurls away from the surface of Earth, sails out into space and zips towards a massive warship, with a giant weapon barrel; slides perfectly into the impossibly huge proboscis, and is swallowed; a blue glow in the barrel fades to darkness.

Faster now: the sun slips behind the shadow of the Earth, sailing backward against its normal course, and the night deepens as it moves; near the planet a soft blanket of large ships undulates and writhes, occasionally a burst of light precedes the sudden reassembly and appearance of a new craft. Still faster: The Earth spins backwards faster and faster, undertakes its journey around the sun in reverse; round back to very nearly to the same point that it took off, almost a year before.

And here is where we stop our backwards motion through time, and begin to move through space.

A loosely assembled fleet of ships floats out beyond the fringe of the moon. Three large battleships shift along the perimeters, each oblong in shape and haphazardly blanketed with an eclectic blend of turrets of every size and shape sticking out like a porcupine.

One battleship at the center of the fleet, larger than all the others, also oblong, and white from bow to stern except for faded patches, dramatic scorch marks along the aft, and series of dark, identical cuts that run nearly the whole length of the ship in the lower portion.

The ship is the size of a city—even bigger than most cities, and the cuts are rectangular openings along several of the lower decks—openings into a massive hangar that runs the full length of the vessel. Each is thirty meters tall and three hundred meters wide, the launching point for thousands of smaller ships that berth inside: power-hog weapon platform destroyers more efficient to keep offline between battles, multi-person crew corvettes, and oversized bomber craft—but the vast majority, stretching literally kilometer after kilometer down the hanger, are rows upon rows of small, one-man fighters. Some are boxy, some sleek, some angular and pointed like stinging insects. Thousands upon thousands of them.

The tarmac is an explosion of motion and sound. People race in every direction. The actions of any one of them are sensible—they are going from ship to ship to check drive pattern integrity or inertial dampener compensation power, directing launching ships to avoid collisions, or talking to groups of pilots who then disburse to their crafts–but like a city street or a subway station–when viewed from a distance the tarmac feels like senseless anarchy, bodies hurling in every direction, each with utmost urgency.

Amidst this whirlwind of motion stands a solitary figure in a white flight suit. On his hip is a tiny white holster with a grey weapon so small it looks like it would barely fit in his hand. He almost defies description with the average-ness of his looks, he is neither tall nor short, fat nor skinny, not particularly handsome or homely, his nose is neither beak-like nor flat, his lips neither particularly thin nor thick, he has short brown hair and a tanned, light leather complexion that hints at an indistinct/distinct origin.

Perhaps his only feature of note is his eyes. Not the color, for the color is a heavy-flecked hazel that seems to reflect whatever color he is looking toward at the moment. His eyes are big and always on the move, gazing about. They are not large naturally but held wide. And it is not a nervous dart like some soldiers’ paranoid glances about, but a curious gaze of wonderment like a young child’s. As if he is seeing the world for the first time. He constantly looks round, taking it all in.

He holds in his hand a white helmet to his flight suit.

This is Sean Mason. And this is where our story really begins.

A reaction of negativity must best be discussed in terms of degrees. There's the negativity a child shows after their first encounter with lima beans, the face someone one makes when televised space shuttle launches is the only thing on television, there is the soul crushing horror that crosses a face when one sees an art installation made of paper mache, peat moss, and thin filaments of wire to create an exact replica of Pol Pot's scrotum, and then there is the look that Sean was giving his fighter. Disgust seeped from his features like bile oozing from a bloated liver. He couldn’t even look at it without his lip unconsciously curling into a sneer.

The offensive systems were sub standard. The defensive systems were sub-sub standard. Even the standard was sub standard, having been lowered after the designers lost track of which "sub" they were on when they talked about the sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub standard systems. As Sean waited for his security handprint to register, something bulky and metallic fell from the fuselage to the tarmac with a heavy, metallic crunch. Sean was fairly sure it was important.

Scrambling pilots buzzed about the hanger like a swarm of white insects, most of their uniforms undecorated and unadorned at this end of the hangar. The occasional mechanic in a red jumpsuit or tech in green threaded between the ships, checking out something or another, and every so often a pilot with adornments on their flight—rank insignia, commendations, or just mission stripes—would move through, looking like a neon sign in a shanty town.

“No!” someone yelled, their voice cracking. “Suicide is against my religion! I won’t go!”

Sean glanced across the tarmac. A pilot in all white struggled against two men in black (security force) cradling high powered rifles as they eased him into his cockpit with their feet. Sean couldn’t hear them, but their faces looked very similar to Sean’s Aunt Patty when she used to try to coax her cat out from under the bed and into the carrier to go to the vet. One security officer tenderly strapped the pilot in with a plastic smile while the other punched up the initial pre-flight sequence. Once the first officer had the man strapped in, he stroked his rifle like a pet. The bigger of the two security officers—one with a chest that Sean guessed might be an actual barrel—looked up at Sean, who stood motionless in front of his craft. Barrel’s eyes narrowed. Sean pointed at his hand and handprint, and Barrel turned back to what he was doing without a word or a nod.

Announcements came across the PA three and four times a minute. Most directed at some group or individual who was not Sean, but every few times it was a canned safety message. (“Don’t forget to check your instruments—space flight speeds make flying solely by visuals virtually impossible.” “Your artificial intelligence will reallocate your power systems by voice commands so you don’t need to use the fold out keyboard.” “Your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device. Of course, where you’re likely to crash, you will be floating just fine all on your own.”)

Behind the various announcements, a requiem played softly, echoing throughout the hangar. The dirge tunes of this particular requiem reminded Sean of teen-agers wailing about their prom dates cheating on them. Sean thought requiem before they had even launched was in poor taste. Rumor had it that Penelope, the woman in the morale office who was in charge of music, had herself a pretty raging drinking problem. The last time anyone had seen her without a lavender cosmopolitan sloshing about in her left hand, humans had held Earth.

As the security computer buzzed away in its process of approving Sean’s handprint, he lifted the helmet in his left hand and looked at it. Masking tape cut across the front of the helmet above the face plate with the word “Wanker” written on it in black marker. Commander Witherspoon had assigned him his call sign after Sean’s first simulation performance report. Witherspoon said that the name just came to him when he thought about what Sean “must have been doing in there to get a score like this one.” Sean picked at the tape while he waited for his cockpit to open, eventually got a purchase on it, and peeled it off. Only smooth, white dura-plast remained. He ran his finger over the smooth spot where the tape used to be, buffing out some of the tape’s residual stick and chewed on his lower lip.

He could see himself reflected in the visor. The lights in the hangar were the sort one might find at a grocery store or hospital—brilliant and white, diffused so they seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, and so unmercifully bright that they cowed all vestige of shadows into the furthest recesses, nooks, and crannies. The curved angle of the visor twisted him like a funhouse mirror. His frame looked skeletal, and the face that usually got him pegged for ten years younger, stretched like a ghoulish corpse and gazed back at him with sunken ovals.

Sean suddenly wondered what the stress of flight missions would do for his complexion. It probably wouldn’t be good, whatever it was. Or worse he would get wrinkles, and his hair would go white like in horror stories. Or he would get those stress pimples that liked to sit right on the border of lip and had no other purpose but to hurt like hell or huge pustule blemishes on his forehead like a teen-ager. The ones with massive whiteheads staring out from bloated red bumps. In any case, Sarah wouldn’t find him attractive. He’d probably worsened his chances of ever being with her by signing up, and it was because of space acne.

Though, of Sean's worsened chances with Sarah, he really had no doubt. She wasn’t likely to be impressed by him when he was blown into crystallized shards across Earth’s orbit.

“You know that’s what happens if you’re blown out of your ship, right?” Witherspoon asked in that hard Scottish accent. “Your body freezes into crystals and you shatter like glass, and then the little, tiny bits of you just float around in orbit for the rest of time. That’s right lad…the rest of tiiiiiiiime.”

Sean didn’t like Witherspoon very much.

He didn’t imagine Sarah was the type to cream herself at the sight of whatever was recovered of his body sitting in a small jar on a countertop—even if the jar wore a little leather jacket and copped crystallized attitude. Women could be superficial that way.

Sean looked at his pathetic craft, and shook his head, thinking of the way the situation had spiraled downward into what were sure to be the last few minutes of his life. If he had left well enough alone, he could be doing the Winter’s taxes right about now. He would have made a nice fat fee of ration-chits and credits and easily been able to hire a Sarah look-alike who was stripping to put herself through law school to come to his quarters, coat herself in coco-butter and shove her breasts in his face.

Sean doubted very seriously that his next few hours would compare. There was likely to be a lot more flame, a lot more crystallizing, and a lot less breast.

His chances were grim, but the war needed pilots. In modern space combat, fighters were critical. They were the bread and butter–the meat and potatoes. Sean knew this from the introductory video he saw his first day of training: “Your Death Dealing Space Fighter and You.”

"We need you pilots!" the announcer said."Small snub fighters almost always determine the outcome of space warfare, and you, could be the grain of rice that tips the balance. Or at least the grain of rice that slams their fuel and explosives-loaded fighter into something mildly important, making your death non-trivial. Or at least less trivial than being hit in the face with a Falingash orbital bombardment weapon."

Sean was pretty sure the narrator of the film was the same guy who did all those gory videos for driver’s education where they try to scare teenagers into not being maniacs by showing them footage slightly more graphic than most of them spent money to see the Friday before—his voice had that same melodramatic edge when talking about anything. “That’s why fighters are vital,” he’d said. “That is why you, as a new pilot to the Earth Defense Force, are so important. Only an actual, living person can pilot a fighter through extensive AI and signal jamming counter measures.”

"Fighters are critical for their ability to get into a larger ship’s shield bubble." Sean was sort of starting to fall asleep at this point, so he didn’t catch a lot of the details about how–something about energy ratios and frequency calibration.

"Once inside the shields, smaller ships can attack discreet targets like sensor clusters, heat exhaust ports, weapon systems, shield generation nodes, power distribution modules, bathroom skylights, smiley face balls on the end of antennas and other critical resources. Fighter superiority often determines the course of a battle, and that is why fighters are the most important ship in any fleet. They clear the way for delicate and vulnerable ships with unbelievable firepower to do the real work of kicking ass."

"That's why you are so important, beginning pilot. Well....not you specifically because you have absolutely no skill whatsoever. But pilots. You are the grunts of space warfare. No army can have too many. Even though your individual value is minuscule, your aggregate worth is incalculable. Now let's take you though a few of your fighter's basic functions..."

Sean lost consciousness right around then. He was actually the last one in the room still awake.

As "space grunts," pilots experienced the same spectrum of equipment and training that grunts had throughout the history of war. There would always be the elite corps, equipped with the most sophisticated and technologically advanced weaponry and equipment available, whether it be steel blades, repeating rifles, or the latest in body armor. In the conflict over Earth, such “equipment” went by the name of the GX-1200 Panther, the best fighter in the human fleet. Its energy generators cranked out a power output cap higher than a small destroyer. The photon shields could run at the equivalent of 25.5 meters of tritanium at full power with dovetailing shield screens, and a redundant ensconcing system. Twenty-five high-output lasers sliced anything in the Panther’s path like a Christmas ham. It was the only fighter with two plasma ejection units and an ion blaster for cap-ship assaults. Six computer operated swivel turrets gave hell to any pursuing craft. Five missile pods for configurable missile payloads to match a mission. Six S.P.A.M.M. missiles auto deployed as a counter-measure to sentient plasma. This was a fighter.

And just as there would always be the elite and equipped, there would also always be the guys like Sean. The guys with the weapons dug out of the armory from the last war. The guys with the guns notorious for how they jammed. The guys riding on horseback into battle against a Panzer division and the mission objective of "maybe you can slow them down a little." The guys bringing farm implements to fight The Knight of the Severed Peasant and his personal cavalry guard.

Sean’s particular bit of inferior equipment went by the sobriquet of the GT 03 Mosquito. American economy class auto makers cranked out Mosquitoes by the thousands. A Mosquito was not much more than a pre-war F-28 Firefly jet fighter made space worthy. The armor consisted of four layers of dura-sheet tritanum “foil” that most pilots used to keep their food from getting freezer burn. The shield system was a joke–no really, it was actually a joke: the guys that designed shields had been kidding around when they made the prototype, had a good laugh, and went to lunch; when they came back, still snickering, they found the prototype in full production. The main armament, a dual laser cannon, had a power output so notorious for its weakness that most pilots called it “The Ultimate Obliterator” out of that same charming sense of reverse irony that gets bald people called “curly” and seven foot tall men refered to as “Midg.” The ship’s only rear-facing swivel deterrent was manual control and basically amounted to a handgun glued to the aft roof. The Mosquito didn’t have a configurable missile pod, and only came with six darts missiles. When Sean had asked a tech where the S.P.A.M.M.’s deployed from, she’d laughed herself into a trip to the infirmary. Something about popping an embolism…

A pilot from Rose squadron, sealed inside a Panther, took mechanics two hours with a precision arc laser, a diamond bit drill, retro grappling hook, and the uber-jaws of life to get out. The same thing happened to someone in a Mosquito the next day, and they retrieved him after eight seconds of banging on a “bendy part” with a crescent wrench.

A positive chirp from the handprint security pad interrupted Sean’s thoughts. The hood hissed open. “Well, how do there, sir,” a Bill Paxton voice said (from one of his slimier roles). Sean could hear the gritting behind the fake cheer. “What can I do ya’ for, partner? You like this one? She’s a beaut, isn’t she. And I think she likes you too. Oh yeah…you and this girl were made for each other. Listen, it’s the end of the month, so I can go out on a limb today to help us make quota—just today you understand. What would it take to get you leave the lot in this baby right here….today…right now? I got the paperwork in the office. Let’s make it happen.”

Sean pressed his eyes closed, and the image of him shattering into infinite orbit that blazed on the backside of his eyelids actually soothed him a little. He swallowed, ignored the voice, and started to climb the ladder to the cockpit. His vision fuzzed a bit at the edges.

On the first, and what would be the last, day of flight training, Witherspoon had given the pilots a short, but intensely personal questionnaire. It asked deeply probing questions about sexuality, past relationships, favorite sitcom, preference of cheese, favorite feces throwing primate, and more. Sean answered honestly for about the first third. Then, as he went on, he started to get self conscious. He imagined Sarah reading it. Gouda and Baboons? she would think. What a loser. So Sean started adjusting his answers to try and be cool. Before he could go back and change the old, un-cool answers, Witherspoon told them they were done, and uploaded the info from their pads.

Later, Sean found out that the forms were the latest in cutting edge psych profiling, used to determine each individual pilots’ ideal match for their onboard computers’ artificial personalities. Most of the men got sultry females incapable of saying anything that wasn’t in some way a double entendre. Most women ended up with a deep male voice that sounded like a cross between Sean Connery and Patrick Stewart: “Baby, grab my stick and engage!” A few got a matter of fact sounding electronic voice that stated facts with utmost brevity. A couple got a wacky-sounding cartoon voice.

Sean got a used car salesman.

All around him, Sean heard honeysuckle voices crying “Oh hi, big boy. I’m so happy to see you again. You ready for a ride?” As Sean strapped himself into his seat his computer also greeted him. “Well, sure we can test drive her, partner. Why don’t we give her a spin and you see how she responds to you. We have a number of payment plans that could have you flying out of this hanger in just a few minutes. Today. Let’s make it happen. Carpe diem, right? Seize the day. That’s all about today, right? It’s not Carpe tomorroum…”

As the ship systems powered up, a small screen next to the primary heads up display lit up with a woman’s face. “Okay Lilly pilots,” she said, “remember your preflight checks.” They’d all been told about Gloria, the flight coordinator, whose job it was to relay all the orders of command to the various squads, but this was the first time Sean had actually seen her. She looked matronly, with a rounded face (despite rather tight food rationing) that framed a warm smile. Her eyes crinkled at the corners the way his mother’s used to when she made her “concerned” face about some damned fool decision Sean made.

Sean looked for a few minutes, running his hands over the many buttons and switches, trying to remember where the right one was, then finally finding what he was looking for, he flipped on the display monitor. A skeletal picture of his ship lit up with an innards display of each of his systems. A pale green outlined everything.

“Computer,” Sean said, interrupting the computer’s ongoing pitch, “give me a full diagnostic.”

“You got it, bud,” the computer said. “Listen, there’s this little tiny…it’s not even a thing really. It’s just that the aft inertial dampener is three percent off on calibration. But unless you plan on flying backwards at full speed, you won’t even notice. Plus the port side running lights are flickering. Other than that, this girl is primo cherry. And hey, are you going to let a little problem like running lights get you down? This baby’s got it where it counts, and that’s all that should matter. Oh and just between you and me…” the computer lowered its voice, “…this is about pussy right? This ride is a babe magnet. Mag-net. One look at this, and the chicks will be crawling all over you for a ride, if you know what I mean. You know what I mean right? Right? Right? Right?”

As the computer pitched on, the cockpit canopy began to slide closed above Sean’s head. When the last safety restraint clicked into place, the hydraulics automatically began to slide it shut with a gentle hum. Sean watched it moving inexorably downward with a growing sense of panic—like a cell door on that first night in a prison movie. It clicked home and hermetically sealed with a hiss, trapping him inside.

“All—” Sean’s voice cracked, jumping three or four octaves. He swallowed and tried again. “All systems go.”

“You’re clear to launch, Lilly squad.” Gloria said, saluting them. “And good luck.” The monitor with her face snapped off again.

Sean felt a shift as the launch pad where his craft berthed shifted across the floor to taxi him into launch position. All around him Mosquitoes blasted forth hurling out the hangar door and into space—the atmoshields shimmering briefly as the mass pushed through. Far in the distance, beyond the launching ships and other craft, a battle already raged. Sean saw the Earth as a golf ball sized backdrop against streaks of brilliant color and flashes of white and red.

“You are ready to launch,” a soft female voice informed Sean. “Please launch your fighter. You are ready to launch. Please launch your fighter…”

Sean took a moment, trying to remember where the thruster controls were—like a new driver looking for the parking break. He reached over to his left and stopped, reached back to his right, grabbed what he was pretty sure was the thrust controls, and then started to second guess himself.

“Please launch your fighters,” the voice said. Sean tried to ignore that it had gained an insistent edge. “You are ready to launch. Please launch your fighter…”

“Sorry,” Sean said pushing the thrust forward as gently as he could. He felt his stomach lurch as the fighter shot forward and out into space, accelerating to nearly 300 kps. Lilly squadron was already in a very lose V formation and counting off when Sean approached. He couldn’t manage to keep formation so he kept drifting forward and back, port and starboard.

“Lilly eight, standing by.”

“Lilly nine, standing by.”

Sean waited until twenty, and gave his own call. In some other squadrons, qualities like leadership, resourcefulness, and coolness under pressure could affect rank, but in rookie squads, numbers were assigned according to skill in simulations and exercises. Sean was ranked 20th in his squadron. Since each squadron had twenty fighters, Sean had the honor of carrying a title marking him as the worst pilot among them. The combat monkeys had even beat out Sean for the spots of Lilly seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, and they were part of an experiment to see how long the Falingash would take to shoot down poorly trained monkeys.

But the really degrading thing was that Lilly squad tested as the worst squad in the fleet, not just below the seasoned squadrons, but actually testing worse than other rookie pilot squadrons. So Sean was basically the worst pilot in the entire human fleet.

And as humans were the newest star-faring race, with the least trained fleet, Sean Mason was arguably the worst pilot in the entire universe.

It was probably going to be a bad day. But at least it wasn't likely to be very long.

[© 2014  All Rights Reserved]

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