Acronian Space Agency Headquarters
New East Harbor, Acronis
January 31st, 2017
01:14 AM East Acronis Standard Time
“Get the Prime Minister. Alert level one.” Director Adar Evrash Telandrai’s words were curt, and he did not even look at the person to whom he spoke. His eyes were locked on the main screen in the command center. Once, not too long ago, this room would have been filled with engineers and scientists tracking the location of weather satellites, or running simulations of planned olunar probes. Not anymore. The Acronian Space Agency no longer plotted the course of objects leaving the Urth, but space junk - some of it enormous - crashing back into it. And today, some of it was headed straight for Acronis.
“How big is it and where is it headed?” An aide had placed the phone to the Director’s ear before he even noticed it. The Prime Minister’s voice was just as curt as his had been.
“The biggest is 4 meters wide, but we’ve identified over two hundred individual pieces larger than a centimeter, and they’re all on a trajectory to land somewhere in the south. About a 30% chance of impact in Zinia province. We believe it’s what’s left of one of the space telescopes.”
“4 meters,” the Prime Minister repeated. “Is that… bad?”
“It’s bigger than most, far bigger.”
“What happens when it hits? How big will the… the ash cloud be?”
Adar stopped for a moment and had to remind himself that not everyone was as knowledgeable as he. “This wouldn’t be large enough to cause anything on that scale,” the Director explained. “The risk is if it impacts a building, or some piece of infrastructure like a train track, or a dam. Or a residential neighborhood.”
“30% chance, you said? What’s the chance it falls in the ocean?”
“About 25, by our estimates. The other percentages are other land areas.”
“I don’t like those odds, Director.”
Air Acronis Flight 704
10,600m above Zinia Province, Acronis
02:57 AM East Acronis Standard Time
“It’s been a quiet flight.” Nevar was rummaging through his backpack as he spoke.
“Yeah, the weather’s been great.” His co-pilot, Alenda, had her eyes fixed on the horizon. She was tired, she could feel it in her eyelids. She was getting too old to fly planes this late at night. Or rather, this early in the morning.
“Well yeah, but I meant, the radio’s been quiet, haven’t heard any chatter from any other flights.” Nevar found what he was looking for and pulled it out of the bag: it was a necklace. A golden chain with what appeared to be a figure of the Goddess Akrona as a pendant.
“Oh, I suppose,” said Alenda. She hadn’t noticed. “What’s your necklace?”
“It’s my lucky necklace!” Nevar was young, fresh-faced. Alenda envied his energy, his naivete. “I never fly without it, but I forgot to put it on when we left. Oh well, better late than-” Nevar stopped dead in his tracks. “Captain?”
“Yes?” Alenda felt her heartbeat quicken. She didn’t like the tone of his voice.
“Captain, the radio receiver is… broken?” Nevar pointed to the light on the instrument panel that would normally be green to indicate that the radio receiver was on. Instead, it was red, which indicated an error state. Never in her 24 year career had Alenda seen a red radio receiver light. If it had gotten turned off somehow, the light would have just gone dark.
Alenda flipped the switch, just to see if it would change. No luck. She did it again, and then once more. Nothing. “Well,” she said, her stomach dropping into her feet. “This high up, all we’re missing are the check-ins when we cross border zones, and the automated transponder can do that as well, so-” She stopped. That indicator light was off, too. In fact, there were several red lights that shouldn’t have been red.
There was a knock at the cockpit door, and then the ring of a phone. One of the crew was calling into the cockpit. “Yes?” Alenda grabbed the phone with white knuckles.
“A passenger told us the in-flight Wi-Fi has stopped working. We’ve reset the router but it’s still down,” the flight attendant said. She sounded casual, almost annoyed, as if she didn’t want to deal with a complaining passenger. After all, it was almost three in the morning, everyone ought to be asleep.
“Yeah, uh, we’re… looking into some… minor communications problems,” said Alenda, scanning her eyes over the panel. “Let me know if it comes back up.” She hung up the phone. All the most crucial equipment was still in the green, altitude was stable, the engines were fine. Control had responded when they crossed into the Zinia Province Air Control Zone, and that hadn’t been more than… half an hour ago? She wasn’t sure. All she had been thinking about was how tired she was. The only things that weren’t responding were radio equipment. “What, did somebody shoot the antenna off?”
It was at that moment when the Royal Acronian Air Force 7X-2 fighter jets appeared on either side of the plane.
“Akrona’s tits!” Nevar, the young, fresh-faced boy swore at the top of his lungs. “What’s going on? What’s going on?”
“Shut up,” she barked. “They’re sending a message.” The pilot of one of the jets had a flashlight and was blinking in Morst Code. She had to concentrate and think in Staynish.
“Descend,” she said aloud. “Nevar, take us down.”
“Down? Down where?”
“JUST DO IT!” Alenda shouted. There were a hundred and seventy seven souls on her aircraft and all of a sudden she was terrified for every single one of them.
The plane jerked downward - Nevar was a little panicked - and the fighter jets followed. “Follow the jets, Nevran. Just follow them. We’ll be fine.” While still staring at the signaling pilot, her hand found the intercom and she messaged the cabin. “Attention passengers, this is the captain speaking. At this time we are making an emergency descent on order of the Royal Acronian Air Force. Flight crew, please prepare for-”
At that moment, a chunk of space debris roughly the size of a grapefruit slammed into the plane’s starboard wing. The entire aircraft jolted and violently listed as both engines went up in flames. A fuel line had been punctured.
“What the fuck is happening? Did they shoot us?” Nevar desperately tried to gain control of the plane, but it was only barely responding.
“Son of a bitch, it’s space junk!” Alenda cursed herself for not paying attention in the emergency presentation on the space debris problem last month. The trainers had said it was almost an infinitesimally small risk. It must have been a piece of debris that had taken out the antenna earlier, and there was apparently still more coming. That was why the jets had come to-
The jets broke off course. They shot away at what had to be supersonic speeds. And that could only mean one thing.
Captain Alenda realized her finger was still on the intercom button.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, her voice somehow eerily calm. “I want you all to know that flying with you all today has been an honor and a privilege. Please know from the bottom of my heart that…” She stopped. She had no idea what to say in a situation like this. “That you are loved. Each and every one of you is loved, is a treasure, is a gift from the Goddess, and for what small, brief time our lives intertwined, I feel… grateful for having been able to share with you. My name is Alenda Tovai Ashtrovat, I’ve been a pilot for 24 years. Your co-captain is Nevar Ikrit Nalavar, he’s been with Air Acronis for two years. I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to know all of your names, but I want you all to know that… that we will be remembered. And we will be loved. Forever.”
She thought about lifting her finger from the intercom button, but then she saw out of the corner of her eye the golden glint of Nevar’s lucky necklace. “Nevar,” she said. “Would you like to… to lead us in a prayer?” The plane was almost spinning now, violently listing, but she could still see the light of the moon through the window. It wasn’t quite full, normally one didn’t do formal prayers until a full moon, but Akrona would be sure to forgive them.
Nevar took a deep breath and decided on his favorite prayer: the Canticle of the Benefactor. One recited the Canticle if they couldn’t make it to formal monthly services for some reason, like if they were disabled, or traveling. Or wouldn’t live to see the next full moon.
"O Goddess, O Goddess, thy blessings are many, thy wisdom and grace know no bounds,
O Goddess, O Goddess, with my heart I beseech thee, through You let our hearts be found,
Joyous and praising, and love overflowing, and gifted and honest and true,
Let all those among us, and all those outside, know peace and know kindness through You.
I praise You, Life-Keeper, my great Benefactor, and lift my voice for all to hear,
Though distance may keep me from Your holy temple, I know that You always are near."
Prime Minister’s Residence
February 6th, 2017
6:14 AM, East Acronis Standard Time
“Prime Minister?” The intern’s voice was soft.
“Yes, Toran?” The Prime Minister purposefully spoke clearly and loudly, in an attempt to impress upon the intern that he was fine. He wasn’t, but he wanted the intern to think so.
“The plane is ready, sir. RAAF says they would like to take off by 6:45.”
“Very good. I’m just getting dressed, I’ll be out soon.”
The intern stepped away from the door, which had only been opened a crack. In truth, the Prime Minister had already gotten dressed, as he had been awake since at least 4 AM. He hadn’t slept a full night in a week, and he wasn’t sure he ever would again.
He sat at the foot of his bed, fully dressed in his suit and tie, holding in his hand a golden necklace. It had been among the wreckage of Flight 704, and unlike almost everything else from the plane that had been burnt to cinders, the necklace had been almost unblemished. It was a simple necklace, a gold chain with a pendant of the Goddess. One might find a hundred of its likeness at any Temple in Acronis, but this one… this one was special.
With a deep breath, Rotaž Ikrit Nalavar stood up and placed the necklace around his neck. Normally he wouldn’t wear his religion on his proverbial sleeve, but he intended to make a point today. Today, just days after the funeral of his son - Air Acronis Co-Captain Nevar Ikrit Nalavar - he would face the people who, as far as he was concerned, the people who murdered him: the imperialists, the so-called “Great Powers,” who had turned the atmosphere into a minefield and brought down the space junk that had crashed into the surface, not unlike a missile itself, and killed not only the 177 people onboard Flight 704, but the 97 people who had been sleeping in the houses along the residential street the plane had crashed into. And there would be bound to be others. The junk would be raining down on the planet for years, perhaps a generation, not only threatening lives but blocking scientific progress as life on Urth had to flee from space in fear.
Never again. As the Goddess as his witness, space would be a place of war never again.