Sol Side Up


by John Steiner

On completion of two missions, the crew of the Mockingbird returns to Earth for Grav Leave. Not everyone welcomes them back as intrepid explorers and peacekeepers. Colonel Ramachandra becomes the target of a kidnapping plot, and the abductors' motives aren't clear. Major Lamarr Fitch struggles with the responsibilities of filling in. He must organize the ship's crew to get Colonel Rama back. Captain Malcolm O'Connell confronts his past and the legacy of being a reincarnated Xerces Protocol patient.


Seventy days and two missions later, the blue and white triangular ISS 454 Mockingbird parked its Flipspace Device at Lagrangian Station Five and reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. Colonel Sumitra Ramachan­dra received the honor of taking fly-by-wire control for the reentry corri­dor to make their landing. In her eyes appeared instrumentation data and a blue and white sky rising up over the Raven class Intra-Solar Vessel. A lighter and less intense blue than Kepler 22b certainly, which she wouldn’t have noticed without having been to the exo-solar world.

“Colonel Ramachandra,” Maggie, the AI, said. “There are two OSF 168 fighters taking up escort wing positions.”

“Copy that,” Colonel Rama answered, while switching views to her left then right wings.

The two much smaller craft exhibited a similar blended body-wing triangular outline for hypersonic speeds. They differed by having a nose cone with canard wings to add lift in landings and takeoffs and a variable height vertical stabilizer that never rose over a meter. Their operational ranges didn’t reach far past geosynchronous orbit, hence the designation of orbital supremacy fighter. They reflected an exclusive air-to-air role few crewed craft held, whereas most others kept to lower altitudes and took on a wider diversity of simultaneous functions in the battle space.

The two fighters followed the Mockingbird as it dipped into the highest layer of clouds that streaked thinly across Earth’s unique blue yonder. Farther down, clouds acquired more volume and the gleaming white brought memories of childhood to Rama. Between a few friendly puffs of vapor stretched the Vandenberg Offshore Airbase on the coast of the Republic of California.

Units like the Fifth Aerospace Force, the First Light FTL Ops Wing, which commanded the Mockingbird, the Magpie, and now six other ISV-71 Ravens, had no single home base. Instead, they employed the mobile basing concept pioneered a little over a century earlier. This improved the rapid reaction capabilities of air wings who were the forerunners of the Aerospace Defense Response under NATO. That was before the fo­cus of space-based operations went beyond peering back at the Earth.

Sumitra fine-tuned her alignment with the runway she was instruct­ed to use. She activated magnetic suspension to augment the lift provided by wings, which were angled out to their full one hundred-fifty meter spread. Mat Tread landing gear emerged from under smart material arm­or. The left and right main gear made contact with the tarmac first. The dozen malleable pads of each gear rolled as wheels and were joined by four more Mat Treads from the nose gear. With reverse-directed thrust from the four Planck engines atop the tail, Colonel Rama slowed the Mockingbird to taxiing speed.

The ninety-meter long space and Flipspace-capable aircraft turned to a lot reserved for it. Sumitra saw huge crowds gathered there. They were held back by holographic projections of yellow caution lines and by Base Patrol personnel. Many hands held signs, but Sumitra saw not all of them were nice.

Sighing and shaking her head, the colonel shut off the ship sensor feeds to her ocular implants, and then unstrapped. Others in the Combat Information Center also unstrapped, with her XO, Major Lamarr Fitch showing a sour face.

“Yes, yes, that’s why we faced the Jade Continuum and Risky Busi­ness,” Fitch mocked in a light tone. “So we can come home to deal with protests against what we do to keep those ingrates safe.”

Sumitra waited for the rest of the CIC crew to leave. Major Fitch, Chief Anders, and finally Sumitra left the cabin empty for the first time in over two months. The ship’s complement headed for the cargo bay. The crew had been on the high G of one planet, felt greater gee forces in heavy burns and light G in XIP accelerations, followed by none at all for weeks on end. After that, being pulled on by one force of gravity felt almost new.

Mockingbird personnel lined up on the ramp and strode down as a formation in step with Colonel Ramachandra. Lining their path beyond the ramp were base personnel with Brigadier General Chaffee and an­other general with three stars on her uniform; Lieutenant General Roslyn Dolinsky, the ForCom commander. Also present were the President of California along with several congressional office holders and diplomats from other NATO member nations. Sumitra stood before her crew to ac­cept handshakes from each VIP in turn. Lt. Gen. Dolinsky and the Cali­fornia president turned to face M-cast journalists covering the ceremony.

“Sir, who’re all the protesters?” Colonel Rama asked General Chaffee through barely parted lips, while looking straight ahead. “I thought California’s public approved of NATO membership.”

“The majority of them do,” Chaffee answered, allowing himself to lean visibly, but still looking ahead and applauding with everyone else. “However, there are several different groups protesting.”

“I saw the Earth Only Network signs,” she said, referring to EON’s slogans demanding all humans live on Earth and nowhere else, “and the anti-gene therapy purists. Who else is here?”

Chaffee pointed at various groups. “You’ve got the Cancel Artificial Intelligence Now people protesting Maggie’s right to exist. Way over there at the far end, are a handful from the Biblical End of Life League (BELL). The various religious groups who believe neuro-synaptic resuscitation is against the will of God. In addition, you have the usual protest tourists from the American Southern States who don’t like other parts of the former United States benefiting by staying in NATO. There’s a group of academics who oppose our landing on worlds harboring life. The new twist is the growing number of organizations who claim we’re secretly covering up alien contact.”

“Secretly?” Rama protested uncomfortably loud compared to an­other round applause dying down. “Everyone knows we’re studying exo-solar biology and employing SETI Protocols.”

“Ah, it’s the Astraeus Event,” the Brigadier General reminded her, and pointed to the signs reading: What really happened to the Astraeus, and where is her crew? Remember the Astraeus 1500. Jade Continuum hijacking, my ass.

“There’s my favorite.” He pointed to the last one. NATO lies and the Astraeus flies. “Basically, that group claims the Astraeus crew is still running missions to worlds with alien civilizations, supposedly as covert diplomacy and trade deals for advanced technology.”

“But,” Sumitra complained while going back to the second-to-last sign, “even the declassified version of our report doesn’t accuse the Jade Continuum of hijacking the ship.”

“Hijacking, unlawfully salvaging.” Chaffee dismissed her protest with a wave. “The people who invent these conspiracies don’t make such distinctions. Those who follow the conspiracy theory tend to add their own details, anyway. I’m more worried about CAIN trying to attack our AIs and the BELL nuts working out new ways to damage the neuro-synaptic backup services. The intelligence departments don’t have proof that the two groups are working together. I’m sure it won’t be long until they set their differences aside to join their goals.”

“One thinks they’re defending us from rogue AIs and the other wants us to die of unaided old age,” Sumitra summarizing the ideological contradiction.

Compliant to the overall celebratory end to the homecoming events, Colonel Ramachandra and General Chaffee applauded the speech by the California president, to which neither listened. After that, General Dolin­sky dismissed the honor guard detail and the Mockingbird crew for the official start of their Grav Leave.

Sumitra and the thirty-six people of her shipboard command strolled down a walkway lined by crowds on either side. Many crew members had family awaiting them who either were citizens of California or flew out from their home countries to greet their returning loved ones. Others just cheered as a ritual for returning service veterans, but a few jeered instead.

One man holding a sign about the Astraeus pushed past security to run right up to Colonel Rama. He screamed something about the ill-fated FTLV, most of which Sumitra couldn’t understand, and then spat on her uniform as she flinched back. Having none of it, Lieutenant Cipactli Arroyo-Diaz appeared, about to jump in and grab the guy, but stopped.

“Don’t,” Captain O’Connell called out, in hasty intervention with an arm between the two, as he eyed the smirking conspiracy protester. “It’s what he wants. Deny him the satisfaction.”

Herself feigning being unaffected, Sumitra pulled out a hand­kerchief to wipe off the affront to her chosen branch of international mil­itary service.

“Yeah, that’s real classy, schmuck,” Malcolm O’Connell said in her stead with forced calm.

"FLIPSPACE: Sol Side Up" by John Steiner


Amazon Kindle



? Heat Level: 0