"Mission control, come in. Mission control, please respond," Colonel Sam Paris said with a laugh.
"We hear ya, Colonel," Captain Shane Herzog drawled. "You don't need to rub it in."
"Just wanted to make sure the feed was working," Paris teased. He knew the other pilots of Janus II were disappointed when he pulled rank and insisted on piloting the glider, but they took it well—as Herzog had put it, Paris had paid his dues. That didn't mean he was going to be nice about it, though. "How's the visual coming in?"
"Just fine, sir," Herzog replied with a laugh. "I still can't believe they're letting the geriatrics set do all the fun stuff. Has aerospace med cleared this?"
"Of course they have," Paris scoffed. "Like that was hard to get cleared. Dinner reservations at Mars' finest establishment, a couple of glasses of wine..."
"Watch it, Flyboy," Dr. Anika Paris chimed in with a warning tone. "It's not too late to declare you medically unfit to fly this mission."
"How's my blood pressure looking, Nik?" Paris teased. There was a pause on the other end of the comm.
"Don't push it, Sam, or I really will pull you," she replied. He had to laugh; despite running marathons and watching what she ate, his wife couldn't keep her blood pressure under control. Sam did the very minimum amount of exercise to pass his physical fitness tests and ate whatever he wanted and had the vital signs of a man thirty years his junior. "And it's a good thing I didn't marry you for your romantic side, if rehydrated pasta and powdered energy drinks are your idea of wining and dining."
"Love you too, Nik," Sam replied sarcastically. He was met with the laughter of several of his officers on the other end.
"Okay, guys, time to clear this up," Captain Holly Winnin, the public affairs officer, interjected. "We're broadcasting live to Mars and Earth in three minutes."
"Not many people on Mars other than mission control watching," Paris pointed out. "Probably because there's no one else on Mars. And there's a delay on the broadcast to Earth. Tell me again why I have to watch what I say?"
The other members of the Janus team laughed at his words, even as Winnin gave an exasperated sigh. "Sir, the delay to Earth is only about ten seconds. That's not very much time to edit you."
"I remember the good old days, when we measured the delay in minutes, not seconds," Paris said with a sigh, beginning his pre-flight checks. "It's all that Vulcan technology."
"Done a lot more good than bad," Winnin pointed out.
"You kids are all too young to remember the days when Japan was the manufacturer of high-tech goods," Paris said. "Now, if it doesn't say 'Made on Vulcan', nobody's buying it."
"You're dating yourself again, Colonel," Herzog warned. "Next thing you know, we'll be hearing about things you were doing when you were our age."
"When I was your age, Captain, I was flying all over the Earth, shooting down bad guys."
"Sure you can't pull him for medical reasons, Doc? Sounds like Alzheimer's to me."
"Tempting, but I don't think you could get to the hangar before broadcast," Dr. Paris informed Captain Herzog over the comm. Colonel Paris had to chuckle at his wife's dry sarcasm; sometimes he still couldn't believe how much he loved that woman.
"Okay, guys, as much as I hate to break this up, we're live in five seconds," Captain Winnin interjected.
Paris counted to five, watching for the red light of the comm signal. When he saw it, he began speaking. "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of Mars and Earth," he began. "At least, good morning on Mars. This is Colonel Samuel Paris, commanding officer of Janus II. I'm here to take you along on the very first glider flight over the Martian plateau." He waited a beat. "Mission control, what is our status?"
"Janus II, you are cleared for take-off, over," Captain Herzog replied officially.
"Roger, mission control, starting engines." As soon as he flipped the switch, the plane was ready for take-off, unlike the planes he learned how to fly in, which had to be warmed up first. "Beginning take-off sequence." A second later, he was in the air.
"For those of you not familiar with Martian geography," Paris said, doing his best to keep talking, like Captain Winnin told him to do, "we are near the edges of the Southern Highlands, less than ten kilometers from the cliffs bordering Isidis Planitia, which is where we will descend to the Northern Lowlands, otherwise known as the Martian Plateau. We will be there in less than a minute." If they had timed it right, the sun would be rising over the plateau just as he descended over it.
"Beginning descent," he continued, angling the nose of the glider down toward the plateau, a steep drop, but not as much so as in the atmospheric fighters he flew near the beginning of his career. "Oh, wow," he breathed, forgetting temporarily to keep his comments professional. "I hope everyone out there is seeing this like I am." The sun was just appearing over the vast plains, a gold orb over flat land, the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere giving it a look unlike anything he had ever seen before. Even the other sunrises he had seen from the window of the command center, blocked by the cragged landscape, couldn't compare to this.
He flew into that sunrise in silence for a few moments before speaking again. "I'm going to use a few moments to monopolize the comm link for some personal notes. I just wanted to tell my wife, Nik, thanks for all of your love, support, and good humor over all these years. I couldn't have done it without you, and I don't think I would have wanted to try. My children, Conner, Gene, and Kristina, I'm proud of each of you, and I'm sure you'll succeed at whatever you put your mind to. And to my old friend from flight school, President James Monk," he paused dramatically, glad that nobody could see his mischievous grin, "take off your sunglasses and watch closely, because this is for you." He pulled hard on the controls, sending the glider into a roll. Keeping his eyes on the horizon as he was taught in flight school, he counted three and a half rolls before continuing his flight inverted. He could hear Herzog's quiet chuckle over the closed comm.
The rest of the flight plan, a wide loop over the north pole before returning to base at Noachis Terra, went exactly as planned. After locking down the glider, Paris exited the hangar and entered flight control, where he was met with a wild burst of applause. "Congratulations, sir," Captain Herzog said, shaking Paris's hand. "That was quite the flight. I especially enjoyed the rolls and inverted flying, but the weak stomachs of some of our Earth-bound viewers might not have thought it was so great."
Paris grinned and shrugged. "Nobody forced them to watch."
Herzog snorted. "And miss the first view of mankind's next expansion site? I doubt it."
"Not exactly the most hospitable place ever," Paris commented, glancing out the control center's viewport.
"So?" Herzog replied. "They're setting up colonies on the moon. At least Mars has day and night and seasons. I'm betting forty years, fifty max, we'll have people living full time here." He glanced out the transparent aluminum viewport and shook his head slowly. "That was quite the historic flight you took out there, Colonel."
"You're scheduled to take her out tomorrow, Captain. And none of those weak-stomached Earth-bound citizens will be watching, so you can do whatever stunts you want."
"That's just the point, Colonel," Herzog said with a frown. "Nobody will be watching. Nobody remembers the second guy. It's nothing historic."
"There's more to life than flying, Captain."
Herzog shrugged. "Maybe for you. Some of us don't have those kind of choices. This is what I was born and trained to do."
Paris knew Herzog's file, just as he knew those of everyone else who was part of Janus II. When the war ended twelve years ago, he was one of thousands of war orphans left without a plan or place to go. If it weren't for all the government regulations, he and Nik would have adopted a dozen or so of them, but they weren't given that option. Herzog was one of the fortunate ones bright enough to get a scholarship to continue his education, earning a spot at Randolph-Macon Academy, Maggie Johnson Love's alma mater. It wasn't much of a stretch for him to go from R-MA to the Air Force Academy, and after graduation with a degree in aerospace engineering, quickly distinguished himself as an astronaut, earning him a position on Janus II as a newly promoted captain. "I was eleven when Colonel Green blew up Grand Coulee Dam, was in the first group sent from the orphanage to military school. Augustine Military School for Boys, in my case." He smiled at the look of surprise on Herzog's face.
"You, sir?" he asked in amazement. "But, you're a decorated fighter pilot, a highly educated officer. You're married."
"Yes," Paris said with a nod. "We were fortunate. One of my friends from flight school, Maggie, wasn't so lucky. When she was shot down a year and a half after her wedding, the Air Force still hadn't acknowledged her marriage. Her husband never did get permission to bury her." Even more than twenty-five years later, thoughts of how the Air Force treated the Love family still made him angry. He pushed those thoughts aside and turned his attention back to Herzog. "I'm going to give you some advice, something that was told to me years ago by the person who probably had the greatest impact on my life. They don't own you. Or at least, they shouldn't. You have the right to be happy. You can go out and live your life." He caught sight of Nik approaching them, her medical bag in hand, and grinned. "And now I'm going to tell you something that she neglected to tell me: stay away from my daughter."
"I heard that, Flyboy," Dr. Paris said with a roll of her eyes. "Krissy's only eighteen and is safe on Earth, far too busy studying archeology to be distracted by Shane. No offense."
Dr. Anika Paris turned back to her husband. "You are overdue a post-flight check. Do I have to make it an order, Colonel?"
Paris turned to Nik with a grin. Even twenty-six years after he met her, he could honestly say there wasn't a minute that went by that he wasn't still intrigued by her. She was no longer the twenty-two-year-old second lieutenant who skipped her mother's memorial to go for a walk without her shoes, no longer the stubborn and insistant young woman who absolutely refused to cut him off and let him back out of a date, but that didn't mean he wasn't completely in love with the woman she became. The long dark hair was now streaked with gray and cut into a stylish bob, there were lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth that weren't there before, but those liquid blue eyes were just as clear, and nothing could ever touch that sense of humor. There were still moments when she smiled or tucked a lock of hair behind her ear that he did a double-take, sure that it was almost thirty years before, when he was a first lieutenant and talking to Colonel Bryndis Savage, but then the moment would pass, and all that was left was the woman he fell in love with despite his best efforts, the only person he ever even considered growing old with and raising a family with. His grin widened, his eyes twinkling mischieviously, as he responded to her comment. "I wasn't aware you outranked me, Colonel."
She grinned in reply before rolling her eyes. She grabbed his hand and led him toward the makeshift exam room, not needing to pressure him to follow her anywhere she wanted to go. Sure, a historic flight over the plains of Mars was no small thing, but he was certainly glad it wasn't the only thing he had going for him.