Into Red Skies
Everything was ready, and truly, whether it was or not, we were launching the next morning. We had a small window for the launch. Being this far from the star, the small aperture in the Red Layer would only be facing towards the inner system for 24 minutes. If we missed that window, the ships would be lost to space and their pilots with them.
I don’t know if other pilots were able to sleep that night, but I know I couldn’t. A sea of memories, hopes and horrific possibilities kept playing inside my head on repeat. I tossed and turned all night, as I had many nights before, and once more ended up out in the balcony, looking up at the swirls of plasma.
The alarm clock went off in the bedroom, prying me from the crimson trance I was under. The day had officially arrived and the adrenaline started to pump through my veins. I showered, dressed and tried to get some food in my stomach, but the butterflies in it wouldn’t have it. After a quick trip to the bathroom to throw up, I was ready to head out to the base. As I sat in my vehicle, I felt foolish for having done the dishes and made the bed. No matter what happened with the mission, I was never coming back. I have to admit that made me a little sad, but there was no time to be sad, it was time to travel through space.
The drive to the base was as usual, until I got a mile out. At first it was a few vehicles, but soon both sides of the desolate road were lined with cars. People stood outside, holding signs, clapping, cheering as far as my eyes could see. I had to slow down as many approached my vehicle to give words of encouragement and thank me. It was beyond surreal; all I could do was wave, smile and try not to run anyone over.
As I reached the gate the crowd of admirers and fans disappeared. Only the familiar guard and the highly secured gate accompanied me now, and neither were much for compliments. I showed the guard my identification, he scanned it as he had a million other times, and the gate opened.
I could already see the launch pad; it was full of life and buzzing with activity. The ships glistened under the artificial sunlight, as an army of people prepared them. I am not sure if it was my imagination, nerves or if I could truly feel the magnetic energy already emanating from the launcher; but my hair stood in attention the last few yards of my drive.
Once inside, all of us went through our final briefing, and got geared up. The suits were skin tight and specially made for each of us. They were grey, almost silver, with a helmet to match. The helmet had two large oval visors. They split them up so one could display, information and control while still getting a clear view through the other one. The filter in front of the nose and mouth made it impossible to talk without a communicator, but made any atmosphere safe, without the need for any tanks. The suits had many other features, but if everything went according to plan, there would be no need for those features.
We lined up and started a long walk towards the launch pad. As we took each nerve wracking step I would hear the roar of the spectators in the distance. Even as far as we were and with all the noise of the crews, I could still hear them. I couldn’t help but to contently smile inside my helmet, since no one could see it anyways.
“You know they are cheering for me right?” Guabanex’s deep voice broke the silence though the communicators. A myriad of laughs erupted as we all gave into laughter to alleviate the tension.
“You must be out of your mind Guabanex, it is all for me, a lady even asked for my autograph on the way in.” Atubey chimed in once the laughter had died down some.
Atubey was as feisty and witty as she was a great pilot and beautiful. As a matter of fact, both Atubey and Guabanex were two of the best scouts and pilots, after me of course. We were the top 3 and were all destined for the 4th and most promising planet.
I kept quiet and just enjoyed the incessant banter that ensued over the communicators. Everyone was stressed to their limits and embraced the chance for levity. We quickly approached the magnetic launcher. I had seen it a million times before, but never had it looked so imposing. Crews diligently inspected every centimeter of it and got it ready for its task. There must have been close to a thousand people on the thing and the energy emanating from it let us know it was alive and ready.
The magnetic launcher stretched about 1,000 meters on the ground before it sharply curved up for another good 500 meters into the air. At its apex it reached an angle of 62.53° allowing for the most effective launching angle out of the planets gravity. It was about 50 meters wide and down the middle a one meter metal strip did all the work. Once it was magnetized, the ships would be propelled exponentially faster down the middle strip until they reached Mach 50. Even with the drag of the atmosphere as we exited the planet, it created enough force to get us to our destinations. To make the trip even faster, the ships were fitted with photon engines. The engines were incredibly fast but didn’t allow for much steering at those speeds. Once launched, our heading was pretty much locked in until we arrived.
The go ahead was given, and one by one we started to board our ships, zipping down the magnetic launcher and getting propelled into the cosmos. Each pilot would get in their ship and everything would be initialized. The crane would pick the ship up and with the help of guides and spotters, it would place on the magnetic strip. A 3,2,1 countdown would be given and then the ship would take off. First it moved slowly but with every meter it gained exponential speed. As the ship reached Mach 1, we could hear and somewhat feel the boom of breaking the sound barrier. That was the Clear Zone, and no one was allowed there.
After the Clear Zone the ships picked up speed so fast that the sound they left behind literally got lost. Air atoms, wind and even the rotation of the planet made the sound disperse and get lost from its creator. The ships sounded like a zipper being moved as they sped through the launcher. So as sound got left behind it scattered and became lost, it sounded like we were inside of a swarm of bees. Some people found it disturbing, to me, it was just amusing, especially with everyone buzzing around getting the ships launched.
We were on a tight schedule; I was going to be the last launched so there was no time to really get distracted. Even with the expedited protocols, we would only have two minutes to spare. In reality we were barely going to make it, not a very comforting thought for me at the back of the line. We had no margin for error and if we messed up, I would be the one to pay.
One by one we departed, the swarm of workers, directing us, having everyone ready. There were only two ships ahead of me, when the crew member ran up to me. It wasn’t my turn yet, but he was screaming at me to get into my ship. Everyone had gotten in the ship right before the crane, but now he was instructing me to break protocol. Waiting until the last second to board the ship, I will admit, was not the most time efficient way to launch, but the weight and movements of the pilot could make the disk shaped transport tip, which would completely bring the operation to a halt.
The man wasn’t going to stop, he kept screaming at me to get in. I know he couldn’t see the puzzled, disapproving look on my face through my helmet, but I could very clearly see the panic and urgency in his eyes. It felt like we were on schedule but apparently I was mistaken. I did as the man ordered; he didn’t really give me a choice. He was pulling me by the arm and was going to drag me into my ship whether I wanted it or not. I climbed into my metal disk and it closed around me like a clam protecting its pearl. It wasn’t until the monitors turned on that I realized what had sent the crew member into a frenzy.
In the distance the Red Layer swirled and danced as usual, only that is was no longer contained. There had been a breach and the plasma was weaving its way through the atmosphere like a snake to its prey. The sharp crimson fingers slowly reached towards the surface of the planet. The red solar plasma both floated and fell with a deadly grace. Panic exploded in my gut and coursed through my veins at what I was seeing. We had protocols and bunkers for emergencies, but not for situations like this. There were too many people here, crew members and the hundreds of thousand spectators outside the base. There was no way they could get to a safe bunker.
I could hear the Plasma Alarms begin to scream, their cries of warning in the distance and I felt helpless. The crane picked me up and my ship, placing us on the track. The crew worked frantically to get my ship launched as the plasma fingers became a sea of tentacles. The whole bottom shield of the Red Layer was failing. My ship launched and I zipped fast and faster down the launcher. As the ship started to angle upwards I was reassured the small aperture in the Red Layer was still open for my ship to slide through. It took a lot of energy to make that aperture and it destabilized the fields. It was probably what made the shields fail. Our mission of hope and salvation might have doomed everyone left back on the planet’s surface.