Calliope faced skyward in her vac-suit, counting down the seconds to launch. She would be landing on the Lunar Colony, a station of engineers and scientists, reopened to fight the aliens that had killed millions, as well as her own parents. As a physicist and engineer, she wanted to create the technology to fight back. Her specific job was classified, and she would not know her role on the moon, or what she had been recruited to build, until after landing.
The engines fired and her entire body shook as the shuttle roared. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she missed the last of the countdown as the ship burst forward, gained momentum, and rode a controlled explosion from the planet’s surface to the crest of space. Within minutes, the retooled space shuttle separated from the booster rockets and cut its engines. The craft was silent, weightless, and coasting. At this speed, the flight to the moon would take less than a day. Calliope looked at the large forward monitors and saw the deep abyss of space with pinpoints of light that she knew to be part of an infinite number of stars.
She glanced over, watching their military guide, already unstrapped and checking the vac-suits of the other scientists and engineers in the shuttle, his gloved hands grabbing the bolted down seats, his legs high towards the ceiling as he reassured everyone and answered questions.
Calliope had met Jared as a guard on the convoy of trucks delivering the scientists and engineers to the launch pad. He was taller than the other guards, not exactly a normal soldier, too carefree and relaxed. Now, he seemed in charge, the helmet of his vac-suit dangling on his back. Some of the passengers were having adverse reactions or panicking from the launch. Jared calmed them and talked to them if they started hyperventilating. Calliope was in better shape than the others, having taken the training seriously. She had dreamed of space since she was a child. Calliope watched Jared to see if he was just going through the motions or if he had real concern over his fellow humans. She had been wrong before.
The other military personnel stayed strapped in, watching from the edges of the shuttle’s seating area with opaque visors hiding their faces. Jared had a clear visor, showing his eyes and easy smile. He had looked like a soldier back on Earth, but now, it seemed as if he were running things. He returned to his seat next to Calliope and she pestered him with questions, what the lunar colony used for heating, how the solar panels were distributed, where everyone was living, how deep under the surface the colony was, and how water usage was tallied.
Jared said, “Why did no one tell you these things back on Earth?”
“They either wouldn’t or didn’t care to. Almost no one will tell you details for fear of discouraging you or frightening off prospects.”
Jared smirked. “If it feels like this entire operation is running by the seat of our pants, then you are correct; we are making it up as we go along.”
Calliope knew they were. They all were. “Why are the pilots ahead visible? Why aren’t they in their own control room?”
“The controls shrunk down to the size of a smart phone. They don’t need the space or the weight. The front is now all cargo.”
“Why are we just drifting? Why aren’t we testing a Hall thruster?”
“You scientists have not built a shuttle with one yet.”
“What is it like up there? Are we going into a war zone? No one tells us anything.”
Jared finally said, “Enough questions. I’ll tell you what I know. There is a good deal of friction with the military. They control the supplies, the shipping schedules, and how and where the colony is opening up.”
“Opening up? What does that mean? I thought you were military.”
“I am special forces, under direct civilian oversight,” he paused, “for now. The military is opening up parts of the station that have been cleared for use and deciding which are to remain shut.”
Calliope said, “I thought civilians were in charge. I thought scientists were leading the way for once.”
“You are. Station Commander Pellaeon is a civilian, but he answers to Earth. The military oversees security and funding for these supply runs. They like to cut corners if they can and I watch to make sure everyone respects the boundaries and meets the requirements. It is a little bit of a three-headed snake, with some checks and balances.”
“Three headed snake? The military, the scientists, who’s the third?”
“The supplies come from China right now. They have recovered the most usable farmland and are willing to trade.”
Calliope thought and said, “I heard rumors of this. The Chinese are trading for guns and technology. It’s a bit more of a political balance than I thought.”
Jared explained more of the intricacies, how the water production and recycling worked, and where the older infrastructure of previous lunar base technology had been modified with the newer computers and better radiation shielding.
Calliope never talked to anyone this much, but Jared seemed to have extensive knowledge of the base and the politics of the engineering group.
“How do you know so much about the engineers?”
They had been talking for a while and Jared looked around to make certain that no one was stirring. “I have a source or two in the engines group.”
Calliope thought that over. She was in the shipbuilding group.
“Arn Lasserman is head of that group, isn’t he?”
“Yes, you’ve heard of him. Good.”
Calliope ventured forward, “I sent him my latest ship designs. Don’t tell anyone that, it isn’t common knowledge.”
Jared’s eyes crinkled at the corners. Calliope thought he was suppressing a grin. “I know. That’s why they sent me out to evaluate you and escort you over to Arn as early as convenient.”
Calliope’s mouth hung open for a fraction of a second.
“They like you. None of the teams up there have finished a viable ship design yet. Some are hopelessly behind and taking on other engineering work. The department heads liked your thinking. I can guarantee the military won’t like it, but you’ve got a good start.”
Calliope reached and grabbed his arm, but Jared slipped free and said, “We can’t talk too long. I have to do rounds. Check your oxygen in the suit, there should be plenty, but make certain you have over two hours for the landing, in case of delays.”
Calliope checked her oxygen and thought about this exchange. She realized that Jared was being careful in case they were observed. She looked around to see who might be watching them and saw two of the soldiers turn away to avoid meeting her gaze and a civilian glance down at a clipboard. Calliope knew first hand that humans were not a naturally cooperative species. These separate factions were vying for power and struggling to keep the others down despite their mutual danger. There was also a push to get the spaceship engineering correct, but the technology was way behind. Everyone knew the goal, ships that could fight another arrival of alien invaders. The competition was supposed to be the fastest way to develop a set of independent ships and have the most viable get built. The careers of the best and brightest would be made. Calliope was the only team of one. She had been counting on strict scientific merits ruling the judging, but now realized that may not be the case. If the military were trying to dictate terms already, it might be the ship with the biggest guns.
The moon was growing, filling the forward monitors. Jared returned from buckling everyone in for landing.
Calliope said, “Soon?”
Jared looked at the wristwatch strapped outside of his vac-suit, “Less than an hour. It will go quickly now. We will need to spin around and fire the engines to slow down a bit. First things first, I will get you settled in. I just found out, you have a meeting with Pellaeon and you will be presenting your hull and engine concepts to the whole station soon.”
Calliope had grown up alone, half-starved, and hunted by human scavengers as well as aliens in the wilderness. Both had been desperate to survive and ready to make a meal of anything they could. Public speaking was not even on her radar as something that could be frightening. She feared mobs and crowds, darkness and isolation, starvation and the starved. She was elated to get to the moon, away from the struggles of the damaged Earth.
“Station Commander Pellaeon, the main person in charge?” Calliope frowned. “We are moving quickly then.”
Jared checked Calliope’s straps, tightened them. “Hang on. We’re almost there. Gotta go to work.”
Jared nodded and with a glance at the monitor, pushed out of his seat and started making his rounds.
The descent had no air turbulence, just a smooth gliding, punctuated by the retro rockets firing from the front, killing speed and steering them as the shuttle slowed for approach. The shuttle bounced, found its wheels, slowed, and finally rolled to a stop as the powerful brakes clamped and unclamped to bring the ship to a stuttering and graceless halt.
A tow cart that looked like a small but powerful beetle scurried under the shuttle and was lost to view. It attached to the front landing gear, radioed to the pilots to release the brakes, and towed them down the rest of the grey runway, into an enormous open-faced hangar. It centered the shuttle under a nest of ceiling cranes protruding from elaborate steel frameworks throughout the roof.
Calliope watched as they stopped directly under the cranes for unloading. They were hauling more than the second wave of personnel. Jared unbuckled and Calliope followed suit.
Jared went up and down the seats, unbuckling any stragglers. His helmet visor was down and his seal was good. Calliope checked her helmet seal and grabbed her compressed vac-sealed bags, heading for the exit.
Jared was suddenly talking in her ear, “Everyone make certain they have a good seal on their helmet. This is not a drill. If your seal is off, you will have about a minute to get to the airlock and get into pressure. If not, you will begin dying rapidly. We have never lost anyone, but more than a few people panicked and hurt themselves.”
There was more he said, but Calliope, being last on, was first off, and watched Jared swing open the outer airlock door as it swung back against the hull. He turned to check on all his passengers and Calliope held her backpack in one hand and her case in the other and took a small jump off the edge. She drifted downward to the wheeled staircase beneath her. Amused, she did it again and landed on the ground.
After a few shuffling steps, Calliope saw lights coming from an interior observation deck revealing the mess of bent rebar, load lifters, and a wall of sandbags set to stop the lunar dust. Workers were already coming inside and going out, working the cranes, getting the cargo. The Lunar Colony was getting thirty new scientists and engineers and six pilots, soldiers, and maintenance personnel. The colony population would be over one hundred and ten, almost a tenth of former capacity to force self-sufficiency within the year.
She shuffled to the observation area, closed the airlock door behind her, and a green button lit up. She made as much of a fist as she could in the bulky gloves and hit it. She hated the clumsy vac-suit, frustrated because she was thin, lithe, and swift in real life. An audible hiss echoed as visible streams of air filled the chamber. Within a count of ten, pressure was equalized, and the lights above the door handle lit green.
Calliope crossed the interior garage and saw Jared hurrying from behind to stop her.
Her helmet speakers said, “Ok! Wait up, this airlock can hold five, let me get the first people in there with you.”
Calliope nodded, realized it was silent, and then said, “Ok. A lot of airlocks to get in, no?”
Jared said, “If any cargo explodes, you’ll be thankful for every single one.”
Jared herded other slow, clumsy, suited people in with her and then they were inside a locker room of sorts. It looked like the equipment bay on Earth where they had put on their suits, with three-foot-wide, painted steel cages with hooks for hanging the suit parts. Calliope began the process of removing her helmet and gloves. A few people were in the room already, and one she recognized from description alone.
Calliope saw the man she was looking for, Arn Lasserman. He was enormous, well over two meters tall and correctly proportioned with thick, gorilla arms crossed before his barrel chest. The head of the nuclear engineering department, he was the only engineer who had previously done a lot of the work required on the moon. Supposedly, he had been very high up on the food chain before the invasion. Designing and overseeing construction of nuclear power plants for submarines, which were most analogous to pressurized spacecraft.
Calliope wanted to talk to Arn because he had set the agenda. First, design ship hulls with engines specs and reactors tested in virtual. Arn’s teams would see if the designs could deliver power and thrust to the estimated weight. Then scale models would be created, and more simulations run. After those tests were passed, materials would be allotted to the construction of the ship, the reactor and engines built, installed, and test flights could begin. Calliope knew that somewhere in this process they were going to need to add offensive weapons, like lasers, and missiles. They would also need defensive weapons against incoming attacks.
Calliope hurried to remove her spacesuit pants, unclasping and unzipping the layers of the suit built up around her. The locker room was a wide space, and Calliope saw the other four people still milling about, helping each other with the interior straps to get out of their suits. Skinny with long limbs, she unbuckled her own and jumped her bare feet up and out of the boots in one smooth move in the light gravity. Flipping her suit up onto the racks, she grabbed her cases to follow Arn into the observation deck airlock.
Calliope hurried through in her flight suit, ran a hand through her hair, and stepped into her boots while the airlock pressurized. The door opened and she saw Arn with a group of engineers, looking out the glassed-in observation area.
Arn stared out, watching people come in from the shuttle. A much smaller engineer was on his right, talking to him. Other than Arn, Calliope only recognized the head of her shipbuilding section, Josef Scheiner. She had many virtual conferences with him, and he looked even smaller in person. She dropped her vac-sealed bags near the airlock and approached the group. Arn towered over the other engineers. He stepped back to let her into their circle. He smelled of acetylene and sweat. Calliope saw burn marks on his steel lined boots and weariness in his eyes. There was black grease under his nails and his breath smelled of distant coffee. Calliope knew this was a man she could work with, probably having come directly from his workshop to watch her and the rest of the second wave of scientists arrive.
His auburn mane of curled hair was unkempt, framing his angular face as he looked her up and down, nodded, and said, “Call me Arn. Head of Nuclear Engineering and in charge of building the ships. You’re Calliope, I take it. I got your data package. It is a good design, solid, strong, and an excellent solution.”
He surprised her by putting her name to her face and having read and understood what she had sent him. Most department heads were administrators and were way behind on the work of their own departments, but then Arn was habitually surprising others.
Calliope caught his sideways look to the other engineers, who were slowly realizing that they had been dismissed. Arn waved the other engineers into the airlock to hurry and said, “Go!”
The others looked Calliope over, annoyed at being summarily waved off, their meeting cut short.
Calliope hesitated a fraction, realizing she was about to be alone in a confined space with a giant, someone she could not hope to fight. Then she gritted her teeth and tried to relax. Arn did not miss the hesitation and watched her closely. Many on Earth had been traumatized and PTSD screening was a thing of the past. His face was masked and Calliope saw that he was hiding something.
Calliope said, “But?”
“But, the military will hate it. Think in terms of fighting ships. Your ship is viable and works, but it lacks enough excess power. It looks small and will not excite the people,” Arn searched for the right word, “behind this program.”
Calliope was stunned. This was dumb. Incredibly dumb, and coming from Earth’s best hope, the man she most wanted to impress.
“I thought you were in charge. How are you letting decisions like this come through? I wanted a small ship, like the fighter craft on Earth. We need many small craft—”
“I am in charge of building, but not supplies or when they send them. Or people they send me. See the leverage others have?”
Arn stopped, looked for assent, and continued. “Bigger. We need it bigger. Trust me, it sounds stupid, I know, but you must get your plan approved by Pellaeon before we can go ahead with it, and you ignored all the engineering constraints. He needs the military to be happy, so you need to make your ship bigger.”
Calliope was trying to get traction on this new line of thinking. “The constraints were wrong. You were asking the wrong questions, modelling the specs to engines you don’t have instead of taking the best engines and modelling the ship around them.” She paused looking pensive. “Ok. How much bigger? Foolishly bigger, frighteningly large?”
Arn didn’t smile. “That sounds contrary to all prevailing thought.”
Then he returned to the subject at hand. “I don’t know how big. Yours is the first ship that looks viable at any size. Just know that there are a lot more politics going on up here and we will have to play ball a little more than you will like.”
“Play ball? This is for the survival of humanity. Why would we fight each other? We need to make the best solution, the best ship possible to defeat the aliens.”
“For credit, for saving humanity, for all the money, power, and fame associated with making the ships that will save us all. Maybe there is some religious desire thrown in there too, to be seen as some sort of messiah.”
Calliope shook her head, “There is no wealth anymore. Why wouldn’t people just cooperate?”
Arn smirked. “This is their cooperation. When it suits them to get more power, more prestige in their sphere of influence. These are people who would not save the world unless there was something in it for them. I understand some rivalry, but not the stupid obstructionism I am getting. I think they would rather see the whole place burn rather than let it run with someone else in charge.”
An awkward silence spread as Calliope grit her teeth, knowing the type of people she had been running from all her life had somehow gotten here ahead of her. Arn realized he might have said too much and looked for words as well.
Calliope said, “You said my ship is the first? No one here—”
“Yes, I know, I almost stopped and designed one myself. But here, look out the observation deck. After I got your data, I did this instead.”
Arn checked to make certain the observation deck was empty and said, “Watch. The cranes are hauling out six tons of my titanium ingots.”
Arn continued, “What do you know about Electron-Beam-Cold-Hearth-Melting? It is only for titanium and titanium alloys; it must be done in a vacuum because titanium is so reactive to oxygen. A real pisser on Earth, but up here in the natural vacuum, it should be a cinch.”
Calliope narrowed her eyes. Arn was building infrastructure from scratch up here. “Has anyone done that before?”
Arn was leaning down in a conspiratorial way, talking low and fast and trying to get as much information out as quickly as he could.
“Nope. You are looking at the first to do it. I made a furnace installation about five floors deep, right out here on the surface. Now I am waiting on the titanium and, of course, the electron beam lasers to bring the heat up past 1,600 degrees C to melt the ingots.”
Calliope was stunned. After waiting for ten months to get to the moon, she was shocked to learn that this was not the paradise of logic and reason she had hoped. She was not hopelessly behind, but absurdly ahead. She tried to keep up with what Arn was saying; “You need titanium alloys to make parts for the reactors?”
Arn laughed, “I don’t exactly know. The computer simulations think I can take a few tons of weight off the reactors I am planning. We will need all the power we can get from the Hall thrusters and still have slow ships. I’ll need a ton more innovations than just titanium parts.”
Calliope caught the gist. “You’ll be able to use 3D printers with titanium, as long as you do it on the surface. That is huge.” Her tone changed, “What do you mean you don’t know what else?”
“Look, we used to make light-water reactors. We have switched to smaller, more powerful liquid salt reactors, and we are trying to take the next step forward from that. I built an aluminum stamping plant up here for a lot of the ship parts. We are casting about trying to do much more than incremental advances. To be able to fight the aliens and their technology, we need many leaps forward.”
Calliope agreed, “The reactors are too heavy for the Hall thrusters output. We need more power or less mass to match the acceleration of the alien ships.”
Arn said, “Precisely. Not many engineers are good in this environment. Too many people freeze when the variables are this wide-open. They need a closed system with fewer possibilities, limited variables, less to think about.”
Calliope said, “I designed that ship to be efficient, the smallest ship we can make, launch, and fly in space, maybe to the moon and back. A large ship is just more resources capable of being destroyed in one shot. We need many one-pilot fighters, not bigger battleships. Didn’t we prove this in naval warfare throughout the history of mankind?”
Arn’s mouth thinned to a line under his bushy beard and he looked down at Calliope.
“Your fighter is good, but too small, how can it get to the enemy? How long can a pilot last with too few supplies and not enough air? The next thing we would need would be a giant carrier to bring all these little fighters to the enemy. Already we would need a bigger ship, and your premise is ruined.”
Calliope nodded, “I see. And losing the carrier far from Earth would strand all the mini-ships and fighters.”
Arn smirked, “You’re faster than the others.”
Calliope had to crane her neck upwards to watch Arn’s face. “You are thinking of offense. My small fighters were planned as defensive forces, easily deployed from here or Earth’s orbit to defend in case the aliens come back, but you want to take the fight to the enemy.”
Arn’s eyebrows shot up, “Don’t lump me in with them! But yes, we have very recently been informed that our priority is designing for offensive capabilities.”
“This begs the question,” Calliope saw she had his full attention. “Have you found the aliens? Do you know where they are from? Where they are now?”
Arn’s brows furrowed. “No. We have not. But I see where you are going with this. If we have not found them, why are we thinking offense? I agree with you, but we are not wasting our time. We will need to engage them farther out to make the fight less costly to Earth. We cannot allow them in close enough for any more surface bombardments, either here or back on Earth. It is just too costly.”
Calliope had suffered directly from the invasion. She thought of her mother, her father, her cousins, and her aunt. She knew what costly meant in concrete and personal terms.
She considered, and said, “Bigger can be more powerful, like a larger attack ship, more power to the engines. We can find a way to turn this to our advantage, to make faster, more capable ships. We can make this work. What will it mean for your reactors?”
Arn gave a grin under his pronounced auburn mustache. “Good. I liked you already when I read your plans and I’m going to need all the help I can get. I will get the nuclear engines lighter and more efficient. Pull the plans for the fast breeder reactors to make better fuel, especially considering the poor quality of our uranium up here. You get a larger ship going, something about a scale of magnitude larger, think of a ten-story building, and hurry. We will keep your defensive fighter on the back burner. Maybe claim we need a few to train pilots, so we can make some prototypes. Once you have your new ship designed, we will need to figure out the engines, whether we will use Hall-thrusters or chemical rockets. Heat loss will also be a huge problem.”
“Heat loss? You mean getting rid of the excess heat from the reactor. I had an idea for that.”
Arn raised a hand to stop her. “Not now. Don’t invent a dozen little things; stay focused. We need a working ship, now. We can take turns inventing the rest while we test-fly the prototypes.”
Calliope said, “We need more prior work to build on. We are making too many things from scratch.”
Arn nodded, “You are correct. Too many of the things we are building are wrong, heavy, or only able to be made on Earth. We have to blaze our own trails here.”
Arn paused, realizing he sounded too formal when he wanted Calliope to be an ally. “Look, you work your ship. Make it in virtual and show me soon. I have a few of my own ideas to work on.”
Calliope followed his eyes and saw that the room was already filling up with scientists and people from respective departments ushering them out into the station to their new posts.
Calliope turned back and saw Arn already leaving. He turned for a moment, already halfway inside the airlock, “Calliope?”
“Welcome to the moon.”