By Richard Paolinelli
© 2019 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.
“I mark a bittersweet anniversary today in a way that none of us could have ever anticipated. Who could have known that 15 years ago, when mankind first ventured out of the solar system, we had started a countdown on our very existence. How could I have known then that I was commanding a mission, not to the stars, but toward Armageddon instead.”
– from the journal of General Duncan Sinclair, January 13, 2125, the tenth year of the Kustani siege of Earth
A high-pitched buzz pierced the silence of General Duncan Sinclair’s office. His dark, chiseled features, which had led many to describe him as roguishly handsome, scrunched into a scowl that he aimed directly at the intruding intercom.
Setting down his stylus, the same pen he’d carried with him on his ill-fated mission beyond the solar system, Sinclair closed his journal and pushed it aside. With a sense of foreboding, he activated the intercom’s receiver.
“Sinclair here, go ahead Westbrook.”
“I’m sorry to disturb you, sir,” the apologetic voice of Sinclair’s aide began without any surprise at his superior’s clairvoyance, “but you said you wanted to be informed if we heard anything from Mars.”
Mars Base had been silent for over three days now, having gone quiet without so much as an explanation or a “mayday”. The sense of foreboding increasing in leaps and bounds, Sinclair steeled himself for his aide’s next words.
“Sensors show six patrol fighters Earthbound. We’ve confirmed they’re part of the Mars Base detachment. We haven’t been able to establish radio contact,” the aide paused uncomfortably. “It looks like they’ve taken a lot of damage.”
As we had feared and much more, Sinclair thought bitterly to himself. Even Lieutenant Westbrook, who always found a way to put a positive spin on any situation, was struck silent. Mars Base was the keystone in Earth’s defense, if it had fallen to the enemy then the demise of humanity was all but sealed.
“Dispatch a fighter wing to escort them in and inform me when they arrive,” Sinclair said, somehow managing to keep an undertone of defeat from creeping into his voice.
“Colonel Rogers has already done so,” Westbrook paused, this time even more uncomfortably. “In fact, he recommended that we increase our alert status before he left,” Westbrook added a quick, but quiet “sir” waiting for the impending thunderstorm to strike him down.
But the storm never broke, much to his relief. Even though both men knew that it was against standing orders for either Sinclair, as the commanding officer of Moon Base, or Rogers, as the base’s Wing Commander, to lead a mission like this, Rogers would know how important the information the Mars’ pilots carried was. He would undoubtedly have a logical explanation for his personally seeing to it that they made it back safely.
“I see,” Sinclair said quietly. “Very well then, have the Colonel’s relief put us on DEFCON Two and tell the Colonel to report to my office along with the Mars’ pilots immediately upon their arrival, Sinclair out.”
Sinclair snapped off the intercom before Westbrook could get out a “Yes, sir!” and contemplated his journal. He’d begun writing the thing on his twentieth birthday for reasons he’d long since forgotten. At the end of every day for twenty-four years he’d logged in every event, good or bad, that had left a mark upon his life. As he placed the leather-bound volume in its designated slot in his desk, Sinclair couldn’t help but wonder how many more events were left to be included in the journal and if anyone would survive long enough to ever read them.
Colonel Ken Rogers led four of the six pilots into Sinclair’s office, the other two had been wounded fighting their way off of Mars and were getting treated in Med Bay. Rogers had known his old friend and commanding officer had been under a great strain lately, they all had to some extent over the last ten years, but seeing the dark circles under his eyes and the weariness in Sinclair’s face shook Rogers. It looked like Sinclair had aged another decade since he’d last seen him at the morning briefing. The report he was delivering wasn’t going to improve things either.
The pilots gave a brief, but devastating account of Mars Base’s fate: The complete destruction of the military and civilian populations, buildings and nearly every piece of equipment on the planet. Only a small number of the smaller fighter ships had gotten away, none of the evac shuttles had cleared the ground before being destroyed, and had joined up with the last two battle cruisers left in Earth Fleet in full retreat from Mars. With communications jammed, the fleet was trying to slow down the enemy’s procession toward Earth, sparing only the six fighters to warn Earth Defense Command. The Fleet Commander, an old friend of Sinclair’s, had sent a private message with the flight leader, who ended his report by handing Sinclair the disk containing the message.
Sinclair took the disk, somberly dismissing the pilots. Rogers stayed behind, waiting for the door to close behind the last man out before addressing his friend. He knew how much Sinclair blamed himself for the current situation and no matter how much he disagreed with Sinclair’s assigning that blame to himself, he could certainly understand why he did so.
Sinclair had commanded the mission that had dropped the beacon out in deep space, inviting any and all species of the galaxy to drop by Earth and say hello. The theory at the time had been that any species advanced enough to attain deep space flight would be inclined toward peaceful contact. So the theory said. But instead of a benevolent race, Earth was being called on by the Kustani and if any race could be said to be evil incarnate then it would be the Kustani.
A dozen years ago the Kustani had made first contact with an Earth exploration ship, with tragic results. The Earth ship had been completely destroyed, all hands aboard lost, and the two species had been at war ever since. For the last ten years the Kustani had encircled the solar system, gradually contracting the ring, much like a giant fishing net, into an ever-tightening circle around the inner planets.
Earth, still in its interstellar flight infancy, didn’t have the resources to break the siege. All Defense Command could do was to slow down the Kustani and hope for a miracle. That hope, along with most of Earth’s resources, were fast running out.
“I checked with plotting before I came here,” Rogers began. “The Kustani stopped their advance just a few million klicks on the other side of lunar orbit.”
Standard operating procedure for the Kustani, a race of beings with humanoid-like bodies with gourd-like heads the color of pumpkins and eyes of milky gray that reminded Sinclair of his worst childhood nightmares, keep the pressure on the defenders and watch base by base crumble and fall. Tighten the circle, increase the pressure on the defenders, sit back and wait for the next line of defense to collapse.
Now all that stood between the Kustani and the Earth itself was the Moon, a base staffed with a few thousand soldiers, and what few ships remained of Earth Fleet. Barely enough to hold off the Kustani for long should they decide for one last push, Rogers thought bitterly.
“We aren’t going to win this time, are we, Duncan?”
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Next week: Desperate times call for desperate measures.
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