Footprints in Heaven Pt 1: Launch Day


Launch Day

By Rob Dearsley


John Roth leaned forward against the flight harness, eager to get his first look at the St. Marie. The shuttle rounded the curve of the station, giving him his first look at the ship. Floodlights on the docking gantries glinted off her long lines. 
Of course, he already knew every inch of his new comand. The last three weeks had been spent reading about her and studying her plans in preparation for the launch. 
Plans and manuals hadn’t done the St. Marie justice. The shallow curve of her upper hull hugged the lower sections like a protective lover, shielding them. The ship was two kilometres long, half the size of Gateway Station itself. She was a beauty and she was all his.
Although in truth, it wasn’t the ship that had drawn him out of retirement, it was the mission.
“All crew and passengers, secure for docking,” the shuttle pilot’s voice broke Roth’s train of thought.
After one last look at the St. Marie, he leaned back and tightened the restraints. It wouldn’t be long now.
*
The station comander, a young woman with Lieutenant’s bars on her shoulders, greeted Roth at the docking port.
“Captain Roth, good to meet you.” The Lieutenant extended her hand toward him. “Welcome to Gateway.”
Roth took the Lieutenant’s hand, reading her uniform’s nametag. “Thank you, Lieutenant Appleson. But I’ve not been a captain for three years now.”
“Well, you’re one again now, sir.” Appleson handed him an e-screen. “Your reinstatement papers. Welcome back to the Navy.” She snapped him a smart salute.
Roth took the e-screen and returned the salute. “Thank you. Is the Marie ready?”
“Yes, sir. The St. Marie is up and ready to go. There’s just some final prep on our end. You must be excited. You’ll be the first humans to leave the Milky Way.”
He couldn’t help but return her smile. “It’s the reason I came back.” Despite everything, he couldn’t pass up a chance like this. He’d be like the explorers of old. Columbus, Armstrong, Epstein, he’d studied them all in school, dreamed of becoming an explorer – Who didn’t at that age? – But by the time he’d grown up, it seemed like humanity had spread as far as it could. There was nothing left to explore.
Until now.
Appleson in the lead, they walked out onto Gateway’s upper concourse. Below them, the main thoroughfare curved away from them. The large station buzzed with activity, as civilian and military crews moved through the station. Gateway lived up to its name, acting as a waypoint for any ships moving between the spiral arms. 
“You, who would tread on the face of God. We name you heathen. Devils, who would raid heaven and trample paradise!” The speaker stood atop a stack of packing crates, the hood of his brown robe pushed down to reveal a shaven head. The True Believers were playing the ‘space monk’ angle hard.
To be honest, Roth was surprised Appleson let them on the station. He was all for freedom of speech, but those nut-bars represented a real threat to the project.
“Don’t worry about them.” Appleson nodded to a pair of security teams watching the Believers, their stunner rifles held openly across their chests. “You know, there was a pool going as to whether you’d actually come back for this.”
Roth raised his eyebrows. 
“After Cygnus, people were sure you’d never come back. I never doubted you.” She smiled, proud.
Even six years down the road, Cygnus was still haunting him. That whole damn situation had been screwed from the start. At the time, he’d counted himself lucky to survive. That was before he’d realised he’d left part of himself behind on that Tac-Com link.
Roth shook off the memories and forced a smile. “So, how much did you win?”
She glanced away. “Oh, I wasn’t involved, sir. That would be against regs.”
His smile turned genuine, his thoughts turning to the mission. His future. “Of course, Lieutenant. But you still know how big the pot was, right?”
“Ten thousand credits, sir.” Appleson turned away to hide her blush.
*
He followed Appleson around to the far side of the station's main ring. To where the St. Marie waited.
A pair of marine guards stood station on the docking port. The lights glinted off their polished hard-shell, and weapons held across their chests.
Both men snapped to attention, their hands whipping up into brusque salutes.
“At ease, damn it.” A woman walked out of the airlock without looking up from her e-screen. Her officer’s uniform was neat and bore comanders’ bars. Her hair was pulled into a regulation tail, the dark twin of Appleson’s blonde one.
“Comander Hays,” Appleson said. “I’d like you to meet Captain Roth.”
Hays’s head snapped up and her hand, still holding the screen, whipped into a salute. “Sir. I wasn’t aware you were on the station.”
Lieutenant Appleson shrank back under Hays’s frosty glower. “Sorry.” 
Roth stepped between the two women. “All’s well that ends well. Pleased to meet you, Comander Hays.”
Hays softened. “The pleasure’s all mine, Captain. I’m to be your XO on the St. Marie.”
“Maybe you could give me the tour while Gateway finishes their preparations?”
“Of course.” Hays pocketed her screen and turned toward the airlock without giving Appleson a second glance.
As soon as the airlock closed behind them Roth turned to Hays. “What’s with you and Appleson?”
“It’s not important, sir. It doesn’t impact on my ability to do my job.”
He raised his eyebrows sceptically.
“Most of the time.” She turned away, raking a hand through her hair.
“Hays?”
“She’s only comander of Gateway. Once we’re in Triangulum it won’t matter, anyway.” The airlock’s decontamination cycle finished, and they were disgorged into a wide corridor. Crew, most garbed in the plain blue of enlisted, moved at a quick pace. Presumably getting the ship ready for departure. He didn’t want to keep pressing Hays at this stage. She was right, once they left the Milky Way behind any problem would be moot. 
If Roth was lucky, he’d be able to leave the ghosts of Cygnus behind.
*
The St. Marie’s bridge was the biggest he’d served on. The split-level space was twice the size of those on even comand carriers. But then, the Marie herself was at least half as big again as one. The upper deck was dominated by a large holographic situation display, flanked by other comand stations, most of them already manned by officers in crisp grey uniforms. 
Roth leaned against the guardrail and looked down onto the lower deck. Another, even larger situation display was surrounded by more stations, each one dedicated to managing a different system.
The far wall was a huge window, looking forward. Outside blinking lights outlined the pair of half ring structures that formed the subspace doorway. The system that would catapult them to Triangulum Galaxy. Gantries and cables connected the doorway to the station, Roth knew they connected straight into the Gateway’s power core. 
Sirens let out a single whump, at the same moment the situation displays flashed red.
One of the officers turned to face them. “Sirs. We’re picking up explosions on Gateway.”
Hays sprinted to the officer’s console, fairly shoving him aside to read the display. “Not good, several blasts in the public areas.”
Roth marched to the situation display. “Show me.”
The holo-table’s display flickered and came up with a three-dimensional wireframe of Gateway. Glowing red carets indicated the positions of the blasts. They were all in the outer docking ring. One closer to the Marie’s berth than he would have liked.
Roth looked up. “Get me the airlock guards. Now.”
“Patching it through to over here.” Hays gestured to the coms console at the rear of the bridge.
Roth joined Hays at the coms console. “Sit-rep?”
“Not sure, sir.” The marine’s voice could barely be heard over the hubbub of panicked voices.
Damn. This wasn’t the start Roth wanted. It was the damn Believers. It had to be. “Marines, secure the airlock. Hays, lock down the ship. I don’t want anyone on or off.” He itched to activate the ship’s Hard-light armour, but couldn’t while they were still linked with the station.
Hays moved away, barking orders to the bridge officers.
The coms console was a standard layout, it hadn’t changed since Roth had last been on a naval ship’s bridge. He opened a channel to Gateway. “Appleson, what the heck is going on?”
 Appleson leaned toward the com pickup, her dark eyes flooded with anxiety. “Reports are still coming in. We’ve got multiple groups of hostiles still moving through the station. They’ve dropped several security teams already.”
Damn it, what was Appleson doing? “Why aren’t you using Tac-Com?”
“Sensors were knocked out. We’re running blind here.” Appleson turned to someone off camera. “Lock it down. We have to hold here and the core. Captain, I’ve got to go. We’re trying to accelerate the timeline to launch.”
The com signal cut off, leaving Roth looking at the blank screen for a second. The Marie’s sensors and coms were easily within operational range of gateway. And she was a big enough, new enough ship that she’d have the suite. Damn it, he knew the Marie had one. He might have skimmed that part of the manual, but he knew it was there, heck he knew where it was.
“Hays,” he snapped, his voice sounding overly harsh, even to his own ears. “Bring Tac-Com online.”
“Sir?” She followed him through the reinforced bulkhead doors into the small compartment, passing orders on to other officers as she went.
In front of them, the circular ring of consoles flickered to life, their soft glow bathing the room in a blue light. 
Flashes of death and destruction flickered behind Roth’s eyes. Cygnus seven. A whole battalion cut down and he’d felt every death. His hands bathed in that blue light as he ordered more and more men into the breach, ordered them to their deaths. He’d been branded a hero. He wasn’t a hero to the three-thousand men he’d watched die through the Tac-Com link.
He’d not used Tac-Com since.
Hays placed a hand on his arm. “You don’t have to do this.”
“It’s my job.” He stepped into the ring of consoles and pulled on the headset, feeling the magnetic electrodes connect with the implants on the back of his neck. “Engage link with Gateway security forces.”
A rush, like ice water down his neck, as the system linked with his brain. Sensations flooded in, so many and so fast they might drown him. He could lose himself, never feel his own body again.
He focused on the sensations of his own body, the scratch of his uniform, the hush of the air circulators, the metallic tang the filters gave shipboard air. 
One breath, then the next. He was himself again. He slowly expanded his focus, allowing the feeds to draw his attention.
Gateway stretched out around him. Green and red carets popped up, showing him the locations of the security teams and hostile forces.
A comlink from Gateway’s comand centre popped up at the edge of his attention.
“Captain,” Appleson's voice filtered into his mind. “We’ve got CIC locked down. You need to secure the core.”
Her words drew his attention, first to the comand centre, lockdown markers flashing off all the doors, then to power core, a circular room at the bottom of the station. Roth focused on the closest security team, a four-man unit. His attention cycled down to an isometric view of the corridors around the core. As he tightened down the visual resolved into full-colour real-time video. The security squad moved toward the core access.
“This is Captain Roth on the St. Marie on Tac-Com. I’m taking control.” He took a breath and focused. The telemetry from their armour sensors filled in more details of the scene, and brought in physiological data, enough that he could practically feel what they felt.
The troops moved up in formation and dashed through the intersection, heading for the reinforced doors to the power core. They knew the nearest enemies were in the next section, but it didn’t stop their hearts from hammering so hard their chests might burst. They’d never seen real combat before. Even the presence of live-fire guns, heavy and cold in their hands felt alien. 
Roth was tempted to form them up on the door. Just hold. They were safe for now. He was letting the trooper’s anxiety divert his thoughts.
But the Believers had bombs, what if they could breach the core somewhere else? He had to send the men out. Into harm’s way.
He forced his white-knuckled hands to relax. They could do this. They’d be fine. He’d keep them safe.
Two men stayed on the door, while the other half of the team moved off along the tight curve of the corridor. They’d thought they were anxious before. Now, real fear left them sweating in their soft-shell armour. 
They paused, hunkering down. The Believers, in their brown robes, were just around the curve of the corridor. There wasn’t any real cover, but the security troops had the element of surprise. They’d have to go in shooting.
Another security squad was moving in toward the centre ring. They’d be able to attack on two fronts.
The pair of troopers charged. The roar of their gunfire, amplified by the hard confines of the corridor, left their ears ringing. The armed Believer crumpled with a cry of pain and a spray of blood. The second monk lunged for his companion’s weapon, ship-safe bullets shattering off the deck all around him. The security troops brought their fire to bare.
The Believer fired his small automatic and one of the security troops sprawled to the deck clutching his side and gasping for breath. 
Images of a thousand other men under his comand dropping in the panicked throes of death flashed through Roth’s mid. The force of it left him gasping.
The other trooper flinched at the sight of his friend dropping to the deck.
It gave the Believer enough of an opening to lunge for the bomb.
“We will stop the heathens.”
 The blast washed out the sensor feed, blinding him for a second. When it came back the remaining guards pulled their comrades away from the destruction.
“Damn.” Appleson’s curse made Roth start. “The core’s going into cascade failure. Our only option is to dump the power into the doorway system. You’ll have one chance to make it through.”
He looked up, focusing on the com feed. Appleson’s face was caked in grime, her hair askew. “I’m sorry.”
“Just be ready to go.” Appleson cut the com from her end.
Damn it all to hell. Roth yanked the headset off and threw it onto the console. Turning his back on that infernal machine, he stormed out onto the Marie’s bridge.
“What’s going on?” Hays said from the situation display. “Sensor readings from the station are going crazy.”
“Station core took a hit. They’re going to activate the portal, we have to be ready to go through.”
“What about the station?” 
He shook his head. “The Lieutenant implied that opening the gate would stabilise the power core.”
Hays turned away. “All hands, prep for intergalactic jump. Divert all power to propulsion. Lock down all non-essential systems.”
“We’ve got incoming,” the sensor tech called. “Breach pods.”
Half a dozen carets appeared on the situation display. Where the heck had they come from? He expanded the view to show a small cargo haulier pulling away from the station. 
The pod’s projected intercept tracks showed them aiming for the Marie’s rear quarter. 
“Bring AML and hard-light armour online,” Roth ordered without looking up. The Anti-Missile Laser system would make short work of the breach pods.
“No can do,” Hays replied. “Weapons are offline for the jump. Deploying marine teams to projected impact sites.”
The com system beeped. Roth and Hays turned to the console as Appleson appeared. The poor Lieutenant looked even more haggard than the last time. “We’re kicking the door. Go now!”
Hays swore and turned away. “All engines to full. Flank speed for the portal.”
Her hands clenched as she turned away from the com console and stormed past the situation display to the guardrail. 
A glance at the situation display showed several of the breach pods missing due to the Marie’s sudden jump in acceleration. Power readings from the station were still spiking all over the place. 
The brackets of the portal glowed as bright as the sun, even through the reactive glass of the bridge windows.
A voice called from one of the stations behind Roth, “Jump in ten.”
In the last moments before the situation display descended into static, Roth thought he saw Gateway breaking apart.
A blinding flash filled the bridge. 
“Jumping now.”
The lights flickered and went down. The deck lurched throwing Roth against the situation display. 
As he landed hard on the cold deck, it felt like he was in a dozen places at once. He could still feel the deck beneath him as he turned to see himself sprawled against the situation display. The deck pitched and twisted beneath him, for a moment he was looking down on the St. Marie from above. 
Back on the bridge, alarms buzzed. An acidic tang filled Roth’s throat, a power relay had burned out somewhere behind him. 
“Lights?” 
At Hays’s comand, the bridge lighting flickered to life. All around them, other bridge officers picked themselves up. 
Roth surveyed the scene, aside from a couple of cuts and bruises, everyone looked okay. “Status report.”
 “Where are we? Did we make it?” Hays pulled herself up on the guardrail.
The scanner officer reported, “Star patterns don’t match any known constellations and I’m not picking up any standard com signals. I think we made it to Triangulum.”
Hays looked between the sensor tech and the view beyond the windows.  “What do we do now?” 
Roth smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder. “We do what we came here to do. Explore.”
They both turned to face the sea of undiscovered stars. 
They were true explorers now.

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