My brother had been piloting combat aircraft remotely since he was barely old enough to read. When the recruiters showed up at our house to solicit him with a fast track to Captaincy, they couldn’t believe my twelve year old brother was really the famous remote pilot, Leon Ascent. We had to load a competitive flight game and demonstrate before they would believe us.
When they discovered we were a team (I navigate, and Leon pilots) they wanted to recruit us both. They would have taken us with or without our parent’s consent, but our dad called all the local papers and TV stations to our defense. Once our story was out, it spread like wildfire. Our schoolmates even staged a demonstration in which they demanded we be given a choice in the matter. In the end, a compromise was settled on; we could train at home until we graduated from high school.
Our training became intense the last year. We spent hours at the computer using Air force training programs, and hours in the gym building our strength and endurance. Every morning we ran the seven mile stretch to school, rain or shine. Our high school teachers never commented on our below-average grades. They knew we had no time to study literature and mathematics.
“Why?” I asked my dad when the drafting officer came to pick us up at our graduation ceremony. “Why can’t everyone mind their own business?”
He wiped the tear from my cheek with his work-hardened hand and kissed me goodbye. “It isn’t hard to be good, Lani,” he answered in his enigmatic way. “It’s just a little harder than being bad. Stay close to your brother.”
After the initial briefing, Leon and I were told we were fighting an alien enemy who had come to steal our planet and harvest the human population. The war, they said, was actually old, and we’d been fighting aliens for years already. Leon and I were to join the Global E-fleet and engage in planetary defense from space.
Apparently Earth had a global alliance and, on some level, was not as fractured as we’d been led to believe. At the same time, factions existed that had nothing to do with country divisions. I often heard the names of large corporations mentioned as threats or allies more often than I heard the names of nations.
The Global E-fleet was funded by world-wide commercial giants, which were at war with other commercial giants, such as pharma-chem, agriculture, media, and energy. In their bid for control, these giants of power and wealth were trampling the Earth.
But on another level we were all fighting together against the aliens; underground, on the surface, and in space. And in the midst of our war against alien invaders, there existed the constant back-stabbing bid for power. When the aliens were finally beaten, one supreme power of Earth would rise to the top and eliminate the competition.
In the meantime, our mission was to shoot down alien spacecraft over Russia, China, and Australia.
Leon led a squadron of fighter pilots through fifty-four successful missions and I was right behind him in the cockpit for every one of them.
Two years later we were thoroughly experienced and brittle from lack of sleep. It had been so long since we’d been home, we were losing focus on our purpose. At least, I was.
“Satisfied?” Leon spoke through the com. “All is peace and prosperity from here.”
“Just a few more minutes,” I said.
I had awakened that morning, the morning of our promotion and award ceremony, with an overwhelming sense of dread. Something was wrong. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that the Earth was falling away from me. In my dreams, I was holding it with fists full of dirt, but it slipped away, falling into dark space. I awoke with clenched fists, gasping for breath and frantic to make sure our parents were okay.
Leon suggested a flyby and our status cut the red tape.
“We’ll be going home soon,” Leon reminded me. “It’s been over a year now since we even stood on the ground.”
“She’s beautiful,” I whispered.
The azure blue of Earth’s oceans from space is a color not easily forgotten. The deep greens of Africa, South America and Asia, seemed to shout, “food can be grown here!” And the white frosting of snow on our mountain tops promised, “the sun is not too hot, nor the winters too cold.”
All of these lovely features were partially obscured beneath a heavy man-made veil that hid the war from the inhabitants below. A global effort to keep the skies covered with a haze of particulate matter had been going on for decades, since before I was born. The popular theory by climate scientists was that the aluminum and barium would block the sun and cool the planet. The actual outcome had been a thinning of the ozone layer and continuous fallout of toxic particulates, resulting in a significant loss of ocean and soil life.
In spite of the dimming veil of aerosol particulates, the wealth and beauty of our habitat was breathtaking. There was no comparison, no competitor. Earth was the most beautiful and giving mother of the solar system. Of all the gaseous, burning or freezing options we could have ended up with, we, the human race, got planet Earth for a home.
“Can’t see the scars of war from here.” Leon said.
“Can’t see the reasons either,” I added.
My brother banked the Sparrow Hawk toward the orbiting E-fleet Base again, pulling me out of reverie. My head turned, unwilling to look away from home. Mom and Dad were down there, preparing to watch our award ceremony on the computer.
I had mixed feelings about the award and promotion. I felt like a bizarrely groomed poodle awaiting the blue ribbon I’d had no choice in winning. But it did mean more money to send home to Mom and Dad for the Montana ranch we’d all been saving for. The desire to be there was a physical ache in my heart. My fingers curled with the desire to touch the familiar soil of Earth.
At that moment, a moment that later seemed to tear away from time and stand alone in shock and horror, I saw a flame appear in the atmosphere above Australia.
The DEW, I thought. They’ve used the Direct Energy Weapon again, even though they had agreed it was too damaging to Earth’s already thinning atmosphere.
It was small, and hardly noticeable at first, that spark of malice. It was aimed, no doubt, at an enemy installation. A worthy target that could end the war, or determine who the new world power would be.
Other small flames appeared over China and Russia. We could not see the other side of our world. Perhaps there were other places hit at the same time. The flames over China and Russia flickered and died. But the Australian strike lingered.
As though consuming dry paper, the flame spread, and the South Pacific Ocean began to boil and evaporate. A plume of moisture rose into the air forming massive clouds as the waters bled into the sky.
Good. Put out the flame. . .put it out.
But the flame spread to the South Pacific islands, then to upward toward Asia. No, it had to stop.
Within minutes the heavily polluted layer of atmosphere had become a wick, burning the candle of our home planet.
It had to stop.
It would stop any moment.
It was a mistake someone had made, but they could fix it. There was time.
I willed the flame to die and reached out to smother the purple-orange torch over the ocean. But it kept on burning and blackness began to spread across the surface of Earth like mold on an orange.
“But the war’s almost over,” I said. Then I screamed.