Chapter 1 – Homecoming
By Lady Lear
Much like the pilots of old, the landing demanded the greatest attention to detail. It was said, pilots landing on a carrier in the middle of the ocean at night exhibited greater stress and higher heart rates than when they were in battle.
Reentering the Earth’s atmosphere was comparable. It was enough to put a pilot’s adrenaline and heart rate into overdrive. The pilot’s workload was just as high through the dicey period of coordinated deceleration, when the pilot positioned his tiny craft to endure the grueling temperatures of reentry.
Fighters were small, lightweight, and built for stability at high air speeds in an atmosphere. They were unforgiving of careless mistakes at low reentry speeds. Thus, autopilot was not a substitute for the sharp observations of a fighter pilot if something went awry. Pilots were trained to rely on computer-generated coordinates to plot the reentry corridor, but protocol demanded they maintain their trajectory and projected angle-of-attack by hand.
Coordinated deceleration by hand was like balancing on a tightrope for a fighter pilot. It was a delicate dance, a fragile partnership. The coordinating jets, the main engine, the ailerons, the flaps, the rudder, every control surface of the fighter was fully intertwined with the mental and physical demands of the pilot. This was all to maintain the tenuous balance and the high angle-of-attack for reentry. If the nose or a wing dipped too low, if there was a slight meander off course, it left the scantily armored topside of the fighter vulnerable to the unforgiving temperatures of reentry.
Peter Conroy and his wingman, Jefferson Hardy, concluded a general sweep of the area around the Argo’s projected reentry corridor. Hardy confirmed the area was free of any suspicious activity. This was the signal for the crew of the Argo. It was time to begin their preparations for the countdown. They were almost home.
The small group of fighters would begin their decent before the Argo and sweep the surface of the Earth along the reentry corridor for signs of enemy activity. The Argo would follow; then another small group of fighters would watch from orbit during the Argo’s decent.
Morale was high among the exhausted crew, but so was caution and security. This was the last leg of a tenuous, yearlong journey. Checks and balances were meticulous and repetitious. They did not come all this way to fall prey to another surprise attack, especially during a routine landing. Sometimes, careful coordination and the meticulous management of details were not enough. Mistakes occurred, and compounded quickly, despite every effort to plan for them.
To the casual observer, Peter Conroy appeared to have a reckless bravado when it came to flying. He seemed to have a careless confidence balanced only by sheer luck. It was how they explained his survival, considering the chances he took. The crew of the Argo admired his abilities. They knew flying was somehow second nature to him. Conroy took risks, but they were carefully calculated.
All of his senses were engaged and heightened when he was in the cockpit. His body knew the vibration of the engine. His ears knew the whirring pitch of the instruments. His hands knew the proper responsiveness of the controls. He knew them so well, he could pinpoint a failing instrument before it displayed external signs of fatigue. It was unnerving to his mechanics; they often accused him of having some sort of psychic ability.
Conroy would smile at the prodding. “These fighters are talking all the time,” he would say, “It’s just a matter of learning how to listen.”
He often kept his cockpit pressurized and his helmet faceplate retracted, so he could hear and smell the environment around him. His basic flight training warned of the dangers of explosive decompression during battle. Conroy and Wildstar often argued the point. Wildstar was against the pressurized cockpit during flight. Conroy compromised and didn’t pressurize his cockpit during battle. On long patrols, however, he insisted it was essential for maintaining the health of the fighter. Instruments and gauges couldn't account for everything that could go wrong.
This long-held argument between them went on for months during the mission. That is, until Conroy complained of an odd, burning smell inside the cockpit after a long patrol. The mechanics went over the fighter, trying to detect the burning smell themselves. They targeted the usual suspects, such as electrical conduit, burning insulation, faulty fuses or burned out LED’s, but they found nothing that would generate the burning smell Conroy described.
Conroy insisted they go over the fighter again. The chief mechanic spoke at length with Conroy. It wasn’t electrical and it wasn’t burning insulation. It was something he hadn’t encountered before. The Chief eyed him with some hesitation. Then, reluctantly, he made the next sweep.
The cockpit of the fighter was dissected with great precision. Panels, instruments, handfuls of wire, even the ejection seat decorated the floor of the maintenance hanger. The flight crew could hardly approach the fighter without stepping on a piece of it.
Conroy remained involved in the entire process at the expense of sleep. He perched himself in his disconnected ejection seat, inspecting parts for damage and inquiring after the mechanics about the function of things he hadn’t seen before. Because he was in his element, time slipped by without effort.
It was much later when the Chief emerged from the cockpit and asked Conroy to stand up from the ejection seat. The Chief turned the seat over and immediately found curious holes melted in the bottom panel. He had found similar damage in the floor of the cockpit between the fittings for the ejection seat. The source of the problem was finally discovered after the damaged panel of the seat was removed.
The ELT, or the Emergency Locater Transmitter, was an important element in the survival of a downed pilot. It was simple and reliable technology. Thus, it was never redesigned for the harsh realities of working in the vacuum of space. In an effort to rapidly design and build a fighter, which could compete with a strange new enemy, this tiny factor was overlooked.
The ELT was a self-sufficient unit attached under the ejection seat. When the ejection seat was activated, so was the emergency beacon. It guided rescue personnel to the location of the pilot. Otherwise, it remained dormant, snugly enclosed in the insulated wiring which was essential for the separation of the ejection seat from the fighter.
The chief mechanic was horrified to discover the essential wiring under the ejection seat was compromised by battery acid from the ruptured cells of the ELT. Conroy was right, the burning smell was not electrical; it was chemical.
The ELT was not checked during a pilot’s preflight. The mechanics were responsible for checking its condition during regular maintenance inspections, which occurred every 50 hours of flight time. It was buried, difficult to access, and difficult to inspect. It could be easily missed. After removing the unit, they presented it to Conroy and stared at him, uncertain of what to say.
Conroy smiled at them and scratched the back of his head as he often did when he was embarrassed. “Well,” he said, as if he had surprised himself, “How about that?”
The chief mechanic called an emergency meeting with the maintenance personnel; the rest of the fighters were checked by the next morning. Four more faulty ELT’s were found. Six others were on the verge of failure.
The story was circulated among the rest of the crew at mealtime, and Hardy was reminded of his Granddaddy’s hunting dogs. He jabbed Conroy in the ribs with his elbow. “Well there, Bird Dog, I’m glad that big snoz of yours is good for sumthin!” To Conroy’s dismay, the nickname stuck.
Wildstar never argued with Conroy again about pressurizing his cockpit. In fact, Wildstar began to pressurize his own cockpit on long patrols. He learned to put more faith in his senses as well as in the skills of his capable squadron leader.
He didn't argue with Conroy when he exchanged fighters with a less experienced pilot in the squadron. The young pilot’s fighter was severely damaged in battle. It couldn’t be fully restored with the dwindling resources on the Argo.
Wildstar suggested the fighter and the pilot should be grounded, but Conroy insisted what remained of the squadron was required for an appropriate sweep before the Argo’s reentry. Conroy offered to fly the damaged aircraft himself, implying his skill could compensate for any problems that might arise. Wildstar didn't argue.
Wildstar later wondered if he made a mistake with his final decision. Things might have been different.
The spacecraft made it through the critical phase of the decent with only minor handling flaws. It was his wingman’s voice over the radio, bringing his attention to the smoke trailing from his right wing.
“Tango Leader, you’re bleed’n smoke at your six.” Hardy’s voice was the first to break the tense static of the radio.
Conroy strained to look over his shoulder. He could see the smoke trail, but the source was underneath him. Conroy’s eyes darted over his instruments. He had normal indications across the board. “Fuel check, Tango One,” he said on the open mike.
“Eighty percent,” Hardy responded.
“Oxygen check, Tango One,” Conroy said.
“Seventy-five percent, Tango Leader.”
Conroy verified his own levels against Hardy’s. They were within range. He assumed the lines to his critical resources were still intact.
“We should break formation and troubleshoot, Conroy,” Hardy said.
Conroy paused before responding, quickly running through his options in his head. Hardy used his name rather than Conroy’s call sign in his last transmission to emphasize his concern. He knew Hardy was right. Conroy shook his head in frustration. His decision might cost them two fighters during the descent instead of one. “Tango Two, take the lead and cover the Argo’s critical descent.” Tango Two responded with a double-tap on his mike and began to ease into the lead position.
Conroy broke formation with the squadron and Hardy followed. Once they were at a safe distance, Hardy made a pass below Conroy’s spacecraft and attempted to assess the damage.
“There’s a rupture in the heat shield,” Hardy said. “I think it’s the insulation that’s burn’n. There’s no visible fire.”
Conroy sighed with relief. His experience told him the heat of reentry had weakened and cracked the heat shield on the belly of the fighter. There was still a level of protection between the heat shield and the fuel lines. If the crack was minor, and he hadn’t lost a large section, he might still be in shape for an underground landing.
Conroy’s fighter was simply a glider during the critical phase of decent. The engine was dormant until it was time to maneuver in Earth’s gravity. If the engine was damaged, targeting an underground hanger for a landing was dangerous for both him and the hanger personnel. He knew he would have to manage a controlled crash on the radioactive surface of Earth. It was a worst-case scenario. One he hoped to avoid.
“Give me some space, Hardy,” Conroy said, as he recalled his flame-out procedures.
Hardy maneuvered his fighter away from Conroy’s. Giving him distance to engage the engine. Standard procedure was to glide as long as they could to conserve fuel. In this case, if a problem arose, altitude would give him time to troubleshoot.
The familiar shriek of the engine shook Conroy’s body in the cockpit. It was a welcome sound. His eyes darted quickly across the engine instruments, carefully checking for anomalies: temperature, pressure, and fuel flow. They gauges suddenly came to life and settled at their familiar indications.
Conroy was aware of a soft flash in his peripheral vision. Hardy engaged his own engine to stay level with him. He knew Hardy was watching him carefully, scanning the exterior of his fighter, looking for external signs of stress.
Conroy eased the throttle forward, slowly. The engine power increased and the fighter began to gain altitude. Hardy followed his lead.
Conroy smiled. Tension released from his body. The instruments indicated normal engine performance. However, more than the instruments, he relied upon what he felt. The vibrations of the engine, the sound of the motorized flaps as they moved, the responsiveness of the controls, they all had the familiar feel of a healthy fighter.
Conroy smiled sheepishly at Hardy through the weathered haze of his canopy, feeling a little foolish for his heightened cautiousness. Hardy seemed eased by his demeanor and smiled back. Conroy laughed out loud with relief and Hardy joined in.
The explosion was a surprise. There was no warning. Conroy’s fighter disappeared into flames.
Conroy’s fighter was spinning. He heard Hardy’s voice screaming his name over the radio. Conroy was too busy to answer. ‘It must have looked bad from out there,’ Conroy thought. ‘It’s starting to look bad in here.’ His training took over and his hands went through his emergency procedures before his brain could completely grasp the situation.
‘Reduce engine output,’ he thought and pulled back on the throttle, but he suddenly realized he couldn’t hear the engine. He tried maneuvering to stop the spin. ‘Rudder, ailerons… ailerons…’ he thought. “Ailerons!” He shouted, but the controls were unresponsive. Against the increasing gravity of the spin, he turned his head to check the condition of the right wing. It was gone.
Thoughts of his family flashed through his head. The names of the dead were sent to Earth as soon as they established regular communication. His own family would be expecting him, waiting for him at the Argo’s landing site. There would be no warning for them.
‘The irony,’ he thought, ‘if I bought it here, today… the very last day of the mission… what a mess!’
He reached for the ejection handle at the base of his seat. With both hands, he pulled hard. He shut his eyes, pressed his head against the headrest of the seat, and crossed his arms over his chest.
He heard the explosive bolts of the canopy blow and the violent hiss of the jets under the seat. He felt the shelter of the cockpit fall away from him. A furious rush of air buffeted his flight suit. There was a momentary sense of weightlessness, then a nauseating sensation of a spinning decent.
Suddenly, a sharp, explosive sound. Blackness, then silence.
Wildstar wandered through the clamoring sea of people. He pushed passed embracing families and tearful reunions. His lack of emotion was a drastic contrast to those surrounding him. That’s what made him stand out.
Venture yelled out to him from a distance, waving him over. His little brother’s hand was in his. Wildstar knew Venture wanted him to meet his younger brother, but Wildstar held up his hand. He didn’t smile. The smile on Venture’s face faded and he nodded.
Venture distracted his little brother by pointing in another direction, “C’mon, Jordy, I see Sandor over there!”
Wildstar didn’t find who he was looking for until she found him. She stood silent and still among the crowd of excited people. Her eyes locked on him as soon as he appeared, almost as if she anticipated his arrival.
There was no emotion about her or the young man standing next to her. Any hope or excitement had settled into a silent anxiousness. The young man was looking above the crowd, carefully scanning faces, but the young woman’s eyes maintained a guarded stare.
The noise of the crowd abated between them, receding like water into the sea. Wildstar had never met her, but somehow she seemed to know who he was.
Without breaking her gaze from him, she raised a hand and touched the young man on the arm. The young man looked down at her then followed her eyes to Wildstar. They waited for him to make his way to them.
Wildstar swallowed hard, his mind racing, trying to piece together what he would say to them. He remembered lying down on Conroy’s bunk, where he could see the assortment of photographs Conroy posted on the wall and on the bottom of bunk above his. Conroy sat on Wildstar’s bunk across the narrow walkway and they shared stories about their siblings.
Conroy was the only one that could draw out a story about Alex without any effort. Conroy would recall something about his own brother and suddenly Wildstar’s pleasant memories of Alex would return. Before Wildstar knew it, he was sharing a story with Conroy. It was easier to forget the grief of his brother’s loss when they spoke of good times before the bombings.
Confronted with Conroy’s family now, he felt as if he knew them. Strangely, it didn’t seem to make things any easier.
Cory was the image of his brother in his cadet’s uniform. There was no denying the relation. The same strong jaw-line, the same lean build. He was tall, like his brother. Even the way he stood was familiar. His shoulders back, his head held high with a striking confidence undiminished by his youth.
Jessica had the soft, delicate look of her mother. Her blond hair was swept back from her face into a long braid. She was tall and thin, a contrast to the masculine build of her brothers, but the confidence of her demeanor was no less obvious. When Wildstar reached them, he noticed the eyes that studied him so carefully were a striking blue.
“Jessica? Cory?” Wildstar began carefully, meeting their eyes as he spoke their names.
“Is he alive?” Jessica asked, before he could say anything else. Wildstar sensed she suppressed the trembling in her voice.
Wildstar hesitated. Although he knew very little, he was ready for a carefully crafted explanation. In his surprise he could only utter, “I don’t know.”
“Where is the medevac?” She asked softly, with an oddly surreal calmness.
Wildstar pointed the way, quite shocked at her grasp on the situation. He was much more prepared for an emotional wreck.
“I’m going with you,” Cory said to Wildstar, but Jessica halted him with a gentle touch.
“No, I need you to get the medical staff together. We need a trauma specialist… We might need a surgeon.” She grasped his arm and leaned into him. “Tell Doctor Randal to stand by before he starts celebrating. Tell him who it is.” She paused a moment, biting her lip as she thought.
Wildstar was relieved. Her voice was low and steady. She had no intention of startling the people around them.
“Cory?” She said, “If he’s injured, he’s going to need whole blood. A lot of it.”
Cory nodded at his sister and threw Wildstar a quick salute as he started to back away. “Sir!”
Wildstar quickly saluted back; he then watched Jessica pick up the tattered, leather backpack at her feet. She threw it over one shoulder and looked at Wildstar expectantly. “Let’s go,” she said and brushed passed him.
He hesitated again, still in shock over her measured reaction. Part of him tried to understand what had just happened. The other part decided to follow her without question. He spun around and moved quickly to catch up with her.
To Be Continued
Chapter 2 – Aftermath
Crashing on the radioactive surface of Earth is not the homecoming Peter Conroy had in mind. It's a race against the golden hour to save him.