The bright lights of the launch tube were quickly extinguished by the sudden blackness of space as the ship was expelled from the station. It took Marty a minute or two to regain his spatial orientation. His bearings in relationship to the station and the global coordinate system were displayed in front of him, but the launch process was always difficult to adjust to. He looked around behind him to see where Dan was. He saw Dan trailing a short distance behind him, still in wingman mode. The ship's computer would therefore automatically match moves with Marty's ship until it was disengaged for combat.
"I never get used to a launch," Marty complained through the intership radio.
"I know what you mean," agreed Dan.
Marty slid the control stick up and to the left. The two ships moved forward, heading on the course they were briefed prior to launching. He checked the radar, expecting a contact. There was nothing. They must've been too far out, he thought. The blue planet below them reflected light upward into the cockpit, bathing everything in a blue glow. It was an impressive sight to behold, but not for Marty. He never liked the planet that his home orbited. To him, it was like the ancient maritime myths of the sirens, calling people to their deaths with a vision of stunning beauty. He felt immune to her powers.
They crossed over the top of the planet, approaching their destination. The radar contact alert began to chime in his ear.
"God, that's ugly," Dan commented.
The old wreck appeared out of nowhere, as if it were a ghost from some period long ago. It wasn't lit like the other three stations. The port windows were dark, and no maintenance pods or running lights appeared to be operating. It was a dead world, as it had been for over a hundred years.
"I've seen pictures of when this station was operating. It looked just like home," Dan remarked, "What're we doing here, anyway?"
"Looking for something unusual."
They closed in on the wreck, circling along the outer surface. The hull was blackened with soot and littered with debris.
"Jesus, look at that!" Marty gasped.
The hull had what looked to be a volcano-shaped breach pointing outward. The skin of the wreck had been peeled back and portions of the interior could be seen. There were compartments stacked neatly on top of one another. Each looked like living quarters. There were still some of the occupant's belongings fastened to the inner walls, just as the occupants had left them.
"I guess that's what depressurization looks like," Dan replied.
"Only forty people escaped."
"Nobody really knows how it happened. Some say it was a bomb placed by someone from off-station. They were extremely lucky to have gotten out of here at all. The history books don't show any pictures that look like this."
"Of course not! You want everyone at home to panic every time the maneuvering thrusters fire? Anybody would panic if they saw the true nature of the damage here."
Marty's radar contact indicator went off again.
"Got something. Follow me in!" he said, accelerating away from Dan's ship.
Dan disengaged from wingman mode and followed close behind.
"There!" Dan shouted, seeing a glint of something move around behind the wreck.
They sped around the wreck, in pursuit of the contact. Marty's alert chime stopped.
"I lost it. Do you see anything?" he asked.
"Let's back off and see if they come back," Dan suggested.
They started away from the wreck. In the distance, three engine flares appeared to be heading away from the station."
"I see something at nine-o'clock!" Marty reported.
"Should we follow?"
"No, I can figure out their course from here. Looks like they're headed to Prosperity. We don't have enough fuel to pursue them. The boss was right, though."
The fighter ships touched down on the surface of the landing deck and the auto-attendants began busily checking and correcting maintenance discrepancies and providing service to the ships.
Marty climbed out of the cockpit and started across the deck. Colonel Todd Perry was there to greet him, concerned about the news of his finding. He wasted no time getting to the point.
"It's true, isn't it? They're using Unity, aren't they?"
Marty took a breath before he began, "Sir, we saw three small ships moving toward Prosperity. We encountered something in orbit around Unity, but I wasn't able to get a good visual. There wasn't enough fuel to follow them back."
"We're going to look at your imagery. Maybe something will come up during analysis."
Dan arrived behind Marty, waiting for his dismissal. The Colonel finished and left the two standing on the deck.
"Can we call it a day?" Dan asked, eagerly.
"Sure. See you tomorrow."
Marty was still shaken from looking at the depth of the damage Unity had suffered. He made his way to the transport shuttle, disregarding the others who were also crammed into the station's platform. The shuttle slid into the station and stopped, opening its doors. People began filing out of the shuttle, pushing past those who were already on the platform waiting to get on. Somehow, they all meshed with each other and those who wanted on to the shuttle were granted passage as those who got off gave way to them.
Marty flopped down in a seat, waiting for the shuttle to start up. It seemed like there were always a lot of people around. There never seemed to be any solitude, other than in his quarters. The shuttle's voice called out the next stop and some people shifted in anticipation of disembarking. This routine went on for several more stops until he heard his stop mentioned.
He stepped out of the shuttle, exited the platform and walked the short distance to his quarters. He pulled out his keycard, sliding it into the card slot. The door opened up to an empty apartment. He never accumulated things, like other people. He never spent much time here. It was just a place to sleep and eat, nothing more. The door shut behind him and he went into the kitchen to prepare something to eat.
"You're earlier than I thought you'd be," a feminine voice spoke to him from behind.
"Oh, hi Sheila. I caught an early shuttle. Why are you still here?"
Sheila grinned. She was an older lady, slightly younger than his mother.
"Because you're a pig, basically," she said, smiling at him in her usual mother-to-son fashion, "I can understand you not having time to pick up after yourself, but really! I was supposed to be done two hours ago. You really let this place go."
"That's why I have you around."
"It'll cost you extra to be a slob."
"The check's in the mail."
She could easily assume the role of his mother and he usually let her. She was someone to talk to who didn't understand flying or the Space Service. She was his sanity check, when things became way too complicated, he could always seek some comfort from her without the bias which he normally experienced among his colleagues in the service.
"If you'd settle down, there wouldn't be so much filth around. How old are you now?" she continued.
"That's way too old for someone to be single," she shook her head, "However, I know this girl who's family lives only a few apartments down from me. Nice girl, really. You should meet her."
Marty smiled and shook his head, "No, maybe some other time."
Sheila turned to leave.
"All right, Marty. Until next time, try not to let things pile up so much, huh?"
"All right Sheila. Good night."
The door closed and Marty was alone once again. He noticed that she'd left the window blind open in the living room again. He grumbled, reaching out to activate the shutter. He stopped momentarily, looking out at the blue globe which shone through the window. Apartments with window views were coveted most. The station had artificial gravity field generators, now, so there was no need to spin the station to achieve artificial gravity. The view was captivating, although he tried very hard not to look at it. The living room came alive with memories.
He was ten years old when he had walked into the living room to see the most unusual sight he'd ever seen. Dad was standing in the center of the room, but instead of seeing the usual arrangement of furniture and knickknacks, there were trees and grass throughout the room and the ceiling was covered in a wide, blue open area where a bright, round light shone high in its center.
"What's this?" Marty asked his father.
"You like it?" Dad replied.
"Where's all our stuff?"
"It's here, I'm just using a holoprojector right now. The images are being projected over what's in the room, so you can't see it."
Marty reached out to one of the trees and his hand passed through it.
"They're not real trees, son," Dad explained.
"I've never seen anything like this," Marty remarked.
"This was your great grandfather's holoprojector. His father had recorded these images in the years before the move. He wanted something to remember earth by. I'm surprised this old thing still works."
"I sort of looks like Central Park, but its not round. The light doesn't look anything like the sun-tube in the middle of the park, either"
"No, son. What you're seeing is an actual recording of earth before we had to move. These trees and grass grew on earth once. We put some on the station in Central Park to remind us of what we had on the surface. Someday, we'll be able to return there. That's what Central Park symbolizes."
Marty recalled his history class. The move had taken place over two hundred years ago, when the earth's surface was no longer fit to sustain life. Four large space stations were built to shelter the bulk of earth's population. They were named for human virtues: Freedom, Prosperity, Intelligence, and Unity. Lotteries were drawn to select those who would live on the stations. There was a lot of resentment and civil unrest at first, but eventually everything was settled and the future of mankind was ultimately determined. Humans, as a result of pollution and the gradual recovery of the planet from the last ice age, could no longer live on the surface. It would be many thousands of years before anyone could return there, so the scholars said.
Marty came back to the present and angrily shut the window blind. The mere sight of the blue orb agitated him. It was that constant sight of earth which eventually drew his father toward his death on the planet surface in an attempt to study the planet's recovery. Their ship experienced an engine failure which forced them to crash somewhere on the surface. They were presumed dead, killed either by the crash or the by the planet's now-hostile conditions. Either way, the authorities simply wrote them off and never bothered to send a search party to recover them. That evil siren, earth, had claimed many victims since then, and many more would follow.
The vidphone buzzed and Marty answered it. It was Colonel Perry.
"I need you back here. We have a situation."
Once again, Marty and Dan were out in space. This time, they were responding to an incident that Delta shift had encountered. There was some exchange of fire between fighters from Freedom and those from Prosperity. They needed another group of fighters deployed to the space around Prosperity as a show of force. No one knew how the trouble had started.
Their two ships started their orbital approach of Prosperity's space. A glint of metal shone briefly in front of them. There was no time to react to it. The object slammed into the side of Dan's ship. Flames leapt out of the engine compartment, and the ship shuddered slightly. The object could now be seen as it spun away from the damaged ship. It was a piece of metal which had been discarded from another ship, possibly as early as the first years of space travel. It had fallen into orbit around the planet, held in place by the planet's gravitational field.
Dan had no engine control now. The gravitational pull of the planet dragged Dan's ship toward the surface.
Without power, all Dan could do was dive. He dove low, heading towards earth.
"Dan! Talk to me! Can you recover?" Marty asked frantically.
"Nothing doing, I've lost main engine control. I've only got thrusters. I'm going to have to ditch on the surface."
"You'll be killed!"
"If I bail out here, I'll fall into the earth's gravity and burn up. At least I have a fighting chance going in like this."
"I'll find you."
"I'm counting on it."
The ship broke into the upper atmosphere with Dan firing the reverse maneuvering jets every few minutes to slow the ship's entry speed. The front of the ship began to glow white. Dan fired the reverse jets for longer periods of time as the ship slowed. The ship made contact with the earth, skidding along the ground. It tumbled a few times before rolling to a stop. At least it managed to roll right side up.
Marty followed Dan all the way to the ground. Damn this vile planet, he cursed to himself as he witnessed Dan's struggle, you're not going to get another victim today, I won't let you!
He circled around the wreck to make sure Dan was still alive. Dan threw open the canopy and gave the thumbs-up sign. He would, at least, be able to survive in his suit for several days, he speculated.
Marty veered away from where Dan's ship rested, climbing back up into space. He passed over trees and valleys which reminded him of Grandfather's images of long ago. How could this be a hostile environment? he thought to himself, taking in the majestic views from the sky. It looked so peaceful down there.
He banked right, preparing to ascend when he thought he saw movement on the ground. He moved his fighter around to return to the surface when he saw them. This time, it was unmistakable. His ship hovered for a few minutes as he contemplated what he saw. There were people on the surface and they weren't using suits for protection against hostile conditions! A crowd of them had started out in the direction of Dan's fighter. Marty noticed he was low on fuel. He pulled back on the stick and accelerated skyward.
Marty was at a loss as to what to do next. He wanted to rescue Dan, but defending the station came first. The Colonel had called a meeting and briefed the results of the analysis of Marty's imagery from Unity. The unidentified ships were, upon further investigation, from Prosperity. The station was now on alert status, since this action was considered an act of hostile aggression. It would not go unnoticed.
The two worlds appeared to be on a collision course, and no one could stop them. Were they defending the station or merely advancing the destruction of it? What was so bad about trying to get some use out of an old wreck, anyway? He'd heard that Prosperity was in danger of becoming overcrowded. Perhaps they were just looking for more space. According to Colonel Perry, their forces were suspected of trying to establish a military outpost there, which was a direct violation of the no-use agreement between stations.
However, he was more concerned with Dan's well-being. He'd known Dan for years. They grew up together and continually found themselves put into the same situations throughout their careers. He knew there were people living there, that Dan was all right, and could therefore be rescued.
After the briefing, Marty stayed behind to speak with Colonel Perry.
"Sir, permission to mount a rescue mission for Captain Douglas," Marty said, holding his salute in front of Colonel Perry.
Perry looked at him curiously.
"Rescue mission?" he asked.
Marty didn't reply. Colonel Perry leaned back in his seat, regarding the pilot before him.
"Major Fenwick, let me tell you something. No one will survive out there. The radiation alone will fry whatever's left of him. I'm not going to allow any of my pilots to risk their necks in a vain effort to try to rescue someone from a hostile environment, who in all likelihood, is already dead."
"Sir, I beg your pardon. With all due respect, I have reason to believe that Captain Douglas can survive indefinitely on the surface."
The Colonel just looked at him, disapprovingly.
Marty started to say something, and decided against it.
"What gives you this new insight?" the Colonel asked.
"I saw other humans alive on the planet surface."
Perry leaned forward, staring intensely at him.
"What did you say?"
"I saw human beings alive on the planet surface."
Perry stroked his chin for a moment as he pondered what his pilot had just told him.
"Why didn't you bring this to my attention earlier?"
"Sir, I know what I saw. The ship's camera should've recorded something, I was hovering over them for a few minutes."
"The imagery from your ship should be able to determine if what you're saying is accurate. We'll look at the imagery and figure out what to do next. I don't have to remind you about G-induced illusions during spaceflight, do I?"
"No, sir," Marty began to feel hot, "I'm quite aware of the condition."
Every cadet straight out of flight school was aware of G-induced illusions and he resented the Colonel's asking about it.
He looked out his apartment window, trying to pinpoint the area they'd been flying over when Dan fell. If there were others, then surely Dan would survive.
Still, it didn't make sense that the authorities continually dismissed the idea that the earth was no longer a hostile environment. He had seen otherwise, why wouldn't anybody listen to him?
He'd given the service seventeen years of his life. Up until now, it seemed a fair exchange for a chance to fly and a little excitement. Dan had also given a good portion of his life, as well. In return, the service wouldn't even entertain the notion of a search party, even after one of their pilots reported the environment as being safe.
He looked out the window at the blue ball turning before him and remembered the wonders he'd seen from the cockpit. It wasn't an easy place to hate anymore.
Here he was, defending the station from others who were exactly like himself, only they lived on a different station. They were all descendants of the original occupants, who were winners of a worldwide lottery which placed them there. Those who went to the stations believed themselves to be superior to those who were left behind on the polluted planet. Yet, it was these same people who had now developed deep-seated hatreds of each other and were about to go to war.
It was ironic to Marty that these same people, who would consider themselves the superior human beings would spend time making war and believe Dan was dead rather than search for him and investigate Marty's findings.
Marty would not give up. He vowed to continue his search using his off-duty time. He made charts of the global positioning coordinates and relative land position. He managed to find an old radio receiver at a rummage sale, of all things. He modified it, with the help of a friend, to receive broadcasts on the frequency used by emergency transmitters. He spent many nights listening for the locator signal from Dan's ship. While he continued his quest, the trouble between Prosperity and Freedom began to worsen.
The pilots all assembled in the briefing room awaiting the Colonel's arrival. A tall, slender woman with short hair entered the room dressed in a loose-fitting flightsuit. Her face was extremely light, with a hint of red around her cheeks, giving her a look of frailty. Marty could tell she was still young and had no idea what she'd gotten herself into.
Marty stood up and greeted her.
"Second Lieutenant Anna Bacon," she said, holding out her hand in introduction, "Your new wingman."
He looked at her innocent young face as she stood there in her freshly-pressed flightsuit. The suit looked as if it had just been taken out of its packaging. It still had the creases in it from where it had been folded up, despite numerous ironings to press them out.
"Tell me something, Bacon," he asked, looking her over, "You know that we'll be at war soon, right?"
She cringed slightly at the mention of the possibility, but soon regained her bearing towards her superior officer. Marty could tell she'd never thought about what going to war really meant.
"Yes, sir," she responded.
"Do you know why we're going to go to war?"
"The dwellers of Prosperity have violated the no-use agreement concerning Unity. Our people have to respond in kind, or the basis of our coexistence will be threatened."
Marty couldn't help but smile as she proudly recited the lines learned in training. She'd been a good student, he noted.
"But do you know what the cause of the conflict is about? Why do we need to fight them? Aren't we supposed to all be survivors, trying to live despite destroying the very place we came from? Unity's only a wreck in space! Is it really worth dying over? Did you think about that?"
Bacon stood confused for a moment and started to answer when everyone jumped out of their seats, standing at attention. Colonel Perry had entered the briefing room.
The Colonel briefed them on what they would likely encounter on the mission. Their job was primarily to observe the space around Unity and report back on their findings.
Intelligence had reason to believe that Unity was being used as an outpost for Prosperity's forces. There had been a great deal of movement observed between Unity and Prosperity. The Prosperity government denied these allegations, insisting that it was conducting salvage missions, which were legal, according to the agreement.
Perry dismissed the pilots and changed the subject, turning to Marty, "Fenwick, we analyzed your imagery from the last time you were out. We couldn't confirm anything from your reports."
"You didn't see anything? I was hovering over them for at least three minutes!"
"Nothing to confirm what you told me."
"Well, sir, I know what I saw and it wasn't an illusion." Marty turned and walked out of the room.
"Fenwick!" Perry called after him.
Marty turned around.
"I believe you. The examination report came back from Intel. I can assure you, they were very thorough, given the current circumstances. It wasn't my call."
"Understood, sir," Marty turned away again, muttering to himself when he was out of earshot, "It never is, is it?"
Bacon was astounded at the amount of damage Unity had received. She gasped when she saw the gaping decompression rupture which reached out into open space, making a comment to this effect.
"That's what I said the first time I saw it," Marty replied.
"Contact! I have contact!" shouted Bacon through the radio.
"Settle down, send me the coordinates."
They moved off in the direction of the contact. It was a single ship, but not a fighter. It was larger, possibly a transport. There didn't appear to be much data on it that the scanners could piece together, yet. They would have to get closer. It was coming into range fast, so there should be more answers forthcoming.
"Whatever you do, don't fire on it. We're only supposed to observe," Marty said.
"I'm observing it flying away, does that count for anything?"
The transport ship accelerated away from the two fighters, diving down toward the planet surface. They had been spotted. The fighters followed, giving chase. The transport assumed a deeper angle of attack. Marty matched the transport's speed and declination.
"Stay here, I'll be right back." he told her.
"I'll intercept you on your exit point. They don't appear to be able to evade us for long."
He dove down, firing the reverse thrusters as he entered the upper atmosphere. A continuous warbling tone began to sound in his headset. It was an emergency locator signal! Dan's ship could still be sending its locator beacon out. He punched up a navigation grid and began steering the ship down to the source of the signal, forgetting all about the enemy transport.
He came down through the clouds, leveling off. He could see the ground now. It was covered in green, with large trees spreading out in all directions. He passed over a large body of water, nestled between two patches of dense forest. The signal was really strong, now. He kept closing on it. He was low enough to see details on the ground.
Then, he spotted the wreck of Dan's ship. It rested slightly on its side, just as it did when he saw it crash there. He brought the ship around again, setting it down next to the wreck.
He opened the canopy and climbed down onto the planet surface. He went over to the still-open spaceship and noticed that nothing had been touched since the crash. He looked around, spotting a path leading down the hill. He was restricted by the spacesuit, taking small steps as he carefully followed the path. The path became more pronounced as it led down the hill. It looked to Marty as if the path he was following had joined with another one which was more frequently used. He was curious as to how these paths had been made. Nothing was supposed to live here, according to everything he'd been led to believe.
The path led out of the trees. In the distance, he found proof of what he'd seen earlier. There was a gathering of small shelters crowded together. It was a village, but people were nowhere to be found. Again, he wondered how these buildings could have withstood being abandoned for so long. They had to be new, or at least recently maintained, he thought.
He was in the center of the village, looking at the structures. They were rounded huts made of mud and grass, with a large opening in the front and a smaller one towards the back. There was a well located in the middle of the road just ahead of him. He walked over for a closer look. The natural gravity of the planet felt slightly stronger than what he was used to. It was pulling him down toward the ground and he had to strain a little to resist it.
He moved to the other side of the well. He found a man crouched behind it, terrified. Marty looked at him. He was turning blue from holding his breath, shaking, but not moving.
"It's all right Jaxon!" Marty heard someone call out. At least, that's what the words sounded like to him. His outer microphone to the helmet must've been activated, he speculated.
Marty whirled around to see who it was It was Dan who had spoken! He wasn't wearing a suit, and appeared to be breathing fine on his own! He'd let his hair grow long and was wearing a beard similar in style to the other villagers. His clothing looked native, too.
"Dan?" Marty asked the amplifier mounted on the front of his suit.
"I told you I'd find you!"
"You can breathe down here. Take your helmet off."
Marty did so, taking in his first breath of fresh air. It felt clean and crisp, like a cold glass of water on a hot day. It had a sweet taste to it, unlike the recycled air of the station's environmental system.
"Wow!" he exclaimed.
"That's natural earth atmosphere you're breathing," Dan explained.
"We're not supposed to be able to do that here."
"I know. They were wrong."
"I...I came to rescue you."
The words sounded hollow to him now, since this new discovery. After months of waiting and anticipating, the moment he dreamed of had finally arrived. He looked out at the spectacular surroundings, unsure why he ever thought that his friend was in danger. He appeared to be in perfect health. This was not the dangerous wasteland the authorities seemed to think it was.
"Now I'm not sure what I'm rescuing you from," he added, looking at the spectacular surroundings.
"It's beautiful here. Look, that's what the sun really looks like. The blue stuff is called sky. There's nothing for miles but flat open spaces, not like Freedom. I don't really know how to say this," Dan shifted the weight of his body from one foot to the other, as he paused looking down at the ground, "I don't want to come back. These people here are simple, but honest. They work hard to get what they can from the land and they're not as well protected from disease as we are, but there's something about living here that I can't describe. We came from here originally, you know. We evolved into what we are from here. This is the true home of mankind, not some station in orbit somewhere. This is a re-evolution, the return of man to his natural habitat. It's nature in action."
Others had started to gather around them as the two spoke. They said nothing, but simply looked on, intrigued by the discussion.
"There's more," Dan continued, walking over to a short woman, roughly his age, "It's been over eight months since I landed here. Everyone would've given me up for dead, so I knew that my life, as I knew it, was over. I couldn't have been more wrong. My life was just beginning! I have a family, a place to belong. I'm married, now."
He said something unintelligible to the woman and she responded in kind. Marty was only able to make out his own name through the gibberish. She turned toward Marty, holding out her hand and muttering something else equally unintelligible.
"She says she's glad to make your acquaintance," Dan explained.
"Uh, likewise," Marty sputtered, "This is quite a surprise. Everyone thinks you're dead."
Dan put his hand on Marty's shoulder.
"As a friend, I need you to make sure everyone thinks that I still am. Can you do that?" he asked.
Marty was a little apprehensive at first, but reluctantly agreed.
"Will I still be able to visit?" he asked, half- jokingly.
"Sure," Dan laughed.
He threw his arms around Marty, hugging him tightly.
"We've been through so much together."
The distant sound of a ship's engines became audible. Marty looked around in the sky.
"I better get out of here so they don't find you."
"Goodbye, old friend," Dan said, holding up his hand.
Marty quickly put on his helmet and trotted as fast as his spacesuit would let him back up the hill where his spaceship stood waiting. The roar of Bacon's ship filled the air as she streaked across the sky.
"You found your friend's ship, I see. I picked up the beacon shortly after you did," she said through the ship to ship radio. The signal could also be picked up in the suit's headset, "Is anyone alive down there?"
Marty looked down the hill toward where the village stood, thinking about the request his lifelong friend had made of him.
"No," he answered, climbing back into his spaceship.
The scramble came just before shift change in the afternoon. Pilots raced toward their ships and strapped themselves in. Each of them shot off down the launchway as soon as they were strapped in. Much of the start-up checklist items had to be completed in space. Marty sped down the launchway and into space to join the others. Tensions had risen to the point of no return. A Prosperity transport had been attacked and destroyed by a routine patrol of Freedom ships. This was it, Prosperity had officially declared war on Freedom.
Prosperity forces were approaching in attack formation, headed directly toward Freedom. The space was filled with fighters, spreading out in a defensive line. All of them were traveling out to meet the aggressors head on.
Colonel Perry was Marty's attack group commander. He called for a sound-off and all the pilots dutifully responded with their appropriate number, of which Marty's was nine.
"Contact bearing four-four-seven!" someone shouted into the radio.
"Charlie and Delta groups, peel off and engage. Everyone else, stay on course," Perry commanded.
Marty could see the great blue planet spread out before him below. Images of his father came to him as he recalled the events leading up to his disappearance, or death, or whatever it actually was. He thought of Dan, the people of the village, and the endless open spaces which existed below. It was so peaceful there, he thought to himself.
It was evident to him that the authorities, including his boss, had lied to him for some unknown reason. He began to question the validity of this undertaking. What are we doing here? Is any of this really worth fighting for? Weren't we all basically the same? Were they lying to us now? If so, what for? He felt something deep inside him, tugging at his conscience from the planet's surface. The same tugging which had killed his father long ago.
The ships continued forward. Prosperity forces made visual contact and began firing. The Freedom defensive forces returned the fire. The war had officially started.
"All ships, break off and attack individually!" Perry's voice shouted at them.
The space around Marty's ship erupted into weapons fire and explosions.
"Enemy ship locked on!" screeched Bacon as she disengaged the wingman routine.
Marty pulled up to start a counter attack. The enemy fired a volley of weapons at his ship. He sidestepped the attack and lined up the enemy in his crosshairs. He fired.
The enemy cut right, still firing. Marty countered, sending several rounds through the cockpit of the enemy ship. The force of depressurization ripped the ship into pieces and catapulted the pilot's lifeless body into space.
He turned to see where Bacon had gone. She was lining up on another one. She fired and destroyed it. She gave him a thumbs up sign. He returned the sign back to her.
An enemy fighter came out of nowhere with weapons blazing. It hit Bacon head on, destroying her ship instantly. Marty looked around to see where it had gone. He found it, lined up, and fired. It was a DIRECT HIT. The area was littered with the wreckage of dead ships and floating, charred bodies from both sides. It was a bloody battle.
Marty looked down at the planet below, remembering what Dan had said about re-evolution. Another explosion went off, shaking Marty's ship.
"Bravo nine, break off and assist Charlie and Delta forces. There's a large group of enemy fighters breaking through the defensive lines!" Colonel Perry's voice thundered through the radio.
"Roger, I'm on it," Marty replied.
Marty saw Colonel Perry's ship as it swung around to pursue the attackers. He had just begun to accelerate when an enemy fired on him. The Colonel's ship erupted into a fiery ball before disappearing from view.
Marty could see more ships exploding in the distance as the battle raged on. A body floated past, entering earth's atmosphere. It began to glow as it plunged toward the surface. There was a group of enemy fighters making their first attack on Freedom. He was too far away to engage them, and there didn't appear to be any other fighters left in the immediate area. He could see more ships being dispatched from Freedom, desperately trying to fend off the attackers.
Marty found himself at a crossroads. He was sworn to protect his home, yet somehow, he could no longer think of Freedom as his home. At least not when the fertile hills and green fields of earth still beckoned. He remembered his great grandfather's images on the old holoprojector. Re-evolution was taking place, calling him home. He knew what he had to do.
He angled his ship toward the planet surface, toward the spot where Dan's ship lay. He set down on the surface once again, only a few meters from where the wreck of Dan's ship sat. He opened the canopy and threw off his helmet. He climbed down out of the ship and started to walk back down the path toward the village.
He noticed that the sun had begun to set behind the foothills in the distance. It was barely visible through the thick forest of trees. He looked up into the sky, breathing in the cool crisp air when he noticed a bright light appear in the in the sky. It was real intense for an instant, then faded again, until it was no longer visible. Streaks of light accompanied a fireball which hurtled through the atmosphere.
It was too large to be a ship, he figured. The attack on Freedom must've been successful. Now there would only be one other station to challenge the actions of Prosperity's government. Over two thousand men, women, and children were now falling to their deaths, burning up as the station tumbled through the atmosphere.
The so-called chosen people had been successful in their pursuit of war. However, it was of no concern to Marty, for he was no longer a part of their world. To them, earth was a dangerous place, but Marty knew differently, now.
Nature was a force which worked on human beings as well as on the animals he'd studied in school. Natural selection, they'd called it. That's what sorted out the weak and inferior gene strains from the stronger ones. Just as animals who were weak got eaten by predators, he'd been naturally selected to return home, as had the others, who were long presumed dead by the authorities.
Perhaps those in the stations weren't the ones who were fit to return, he thought, watching the station he'd once called home continue downward toward the surface. Marty shook his head and started again, down the path toward the village where Dan and his new wife lived, ready to finish what nature had started.