In the dark outer planets of the solar system, where the sun’s radiation was as faint as the other stars in the sky, Calliope piloted her mini-asteroid. Her dark hair hung over her vac-suit as she spun her digital stylus through her fingers. On the monitors within the bridge, she could see Jupiter as it faded from view. She exhaled in anxious frustration, wondering how to handle the passengers she had rescued. She set her bearings to rendezvous with Martian orbit. As the designer of the camouflaged asteroid, she had equipped it with a fission reactor powering the engines, the small version of her particle-accelerator cannon, and for its three passengers, life support and human amenities.
For Calliope, it held her mother, Cassandra, who recently made a mad, ungainly escape from the Larvaltics, a lizard-like and hostile alien force. Cassandra had been a captive for a decade, traded between warring tribes. Calliope had also rescued her hated enemy and bitter rival, Mattias, a fellow prisoner and passenger aboard Cassandra’s escape ship. Calliope had interrupted Mattias’ concerted effort to kill Cassandra, and now her mother had a swollen neck, bloodshot eyes, and purpling bruises from the battle. She had cracked ribs and a broken ankle from fighting the warrior-caste of the Larvaltics. She suffered multiple burns defending herself with a blowtorch. Both prisoners were dehydrated from being cooked in the Jovian atmosphere before Calliope docked and freed them from their makeshift spacecraft.
Cassandra narrowed her eyes and sipped her tea. Calliope had taken to visiting her in the crew quarters she had prepared. Cassandra could not speak much more than a rasping, coughing murmur. Her throat was healing, and if she needed anything, she was as good with the spare datapad as Calliope. Her onboard medical facilities were not great, and if her mother had a cracked larynx, it would have been an emergency.
Mattias was in a closet turned holding cell. Cassandra had forbidden Calliope from killing him outright and Calliope doubtfully obeyed. She wanted her mother’s approval but was certain that keeping Mattias alive was an egregious mistake that would get them both killed, one in their sleep, and the other directly afterward.
Calliope entered her mother’s quarters and nodded to her. From her position on the bed, she followed with her eyes.
“I’ve brought you some tea. I thought I’d catch you up on the mission and the overall plan I’ve been following.”
Calliope sat in the cushioned acceleration couch and said, “I allowed a decoy to be taken captive by the Larvaltics—”
“We’re following its signal from the Larvaltics’ ship. We’ll see where the alien home world is, and where they evolved. Knowing their origin will be an enormous step-up in our ability to fight them.”
“And why do we think that?”
Calliope, equally horrified by the rasp of her mother’s voice and the unspoken insinuation, reddened. “We can study the natural phenomenon of that world and see their evolutionary beginnings. We can see where they started, what their weaknesses are.”
Cassandra took a sip of tea and said, “So, if the Larvaltics caught some chimpanzees, what would that teach them about our nature?”
Calliope’s stunned pride swelled and spilled into rage. She considered shouting, but then she felt a sheen of sweat on her brow and realized how heightened her reactions were. She swallowed her anger as best she could and tried to answer the question. “Mother, clearly they would learn our biology, our mating habits, child-rearing, maternity, population renewal, things like that. If they saw our behavior, they would see a scavenging pack of murderous animals, savages, best left alone. You must think alien biology would be a treasure trove of information.”
“But there are no military applications. I’m not certain how that would help us wage a war? Besides, now that you have me, I can tell you most of it.”
Calliope was truly chagrined. “I hadn’t realized you knew anything like that. I thought having you here to talk would the most helpful part.” Flustered, she continued. “Clearly, the Larvaltics would fall back to their home world as their line of supply. We would at least know where they were going, where they began.”
Cassandra sipped. “These are not sentimental mammals. They might not know what world they come from. They like ripping the limbs off their captives, planting an egg on their backs, and leaving.”
Calliope saw her mother knew things she did not. “Tell me more then. Tell me about the metal-eaters, from your story. I understood none of that part.”
Calliope waved over a builder bot to record the deposition, but Cassandra waved it away. “Not until my neck is better. Besides, it hurts to talk. I will write. You code, or design.” She swallowed audibly. “Try to think in other frameworks about the aliens.”
Calliope fumed but had to agree. Here sat before her a all the answers she sought, and Calliope was not a patient person on her best day. She had so little to go on, but that was the purpose of this whole journey, to get more facts for a better theory.
She left her mother alone and began her work by checking her mission status. The decoy had been captured and was transmitting direction and velocity. The alien stealth technology was excellent, and Calliope could see why her drones were failing to spot any aliens, their stealth technology was too advanced. The first innovation would be a better method for her drones to see the enemy. Currently, the only success was that the aliens couldn’t see her drones either.
The Larvaltics continued orbiting Jupiter and then turned away, heading toward the trailing field of Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit. The Larvaltics seemed to be winning a genocidal civil war against the Barovaults, a smaller, greenish cross between a stick-insect and a lizard. The Larvaltics were larger, with thicker, black carapaces, and according to her mother, had several subspecies bred for different tasks, from a warrior sub-caste to political overlords, to possibly genetically engineered larval forms, the metal-eaters, whatever they might be.
Jared watched the transmission again. It seemed unbelievable. Perhaps Calliope had been captured and she was trying to send a coded message? But then why would she include an aside that Mattias had been rescued? Wouldn’t Calliope have done the correct thing and jettisoned him out an airlock? Jared could think of no possible reason to keep him alive. Mattias had already tried to kill Calliope twice, succeeded in disabling her ship, stranding her to die in space. It had taken a technological miracle for Calliope to survive.
Jared was still commanding all forces and construction on Calliope’s large, industrialized Factory Asteroid. The embassy for the Barovaults was almost complete. Construction had begun on the research facilities and housing complex for the newly arrived scientists and their equipment. The Barovaults had begun translating many concepts and warmed to many of the ideas of diplomacy.
Some of the painful truths being uncovered were that the Barovaults had none of these concepts. The victors of a battle ate the losers. They enslaved what they could and moved on. Talking things out, trade, and settled boundaries were not known between species or even sub-species. All territory was won or lost in battle. All areas where one type of being lived were taken and transplanted by the other. There were no fixed civilizations, no negotiations, and no trade.
The implications were not good. Earth was painfully behind technologically, and although they were catching up quickly, Jared had no desire to spend his life fighting these creatures. There had to be a solution other than war. Finding something these aliens wanted, something other than ceaseless expansion, military victory, and plunder. What would they even trade? It seemed to Jared that these aliens seeded colonies the same way a farmer seeded fields, simply to come back later for the harvest.
Maybe that was the key; to get the aliens to find a food other than each other. Jared didn’t know whether the aliens enjoyed eating humans. He didn’t want to know. If they had been eating humans, he might not be able to accept them or spare them later.
Jared moved on to the second part of the transmission. Calliope said her mother and Mattias had blasted free during a jail break. Jared thought that was too improbable to consider. Jared knew Calliope’s story. Her mother was taken from Earth during the alien invasion almost twelve years earlier. He couldn’t imagine she had somehow survived out in orbit for all those years. It made sense she was a captive, but how would she create a ship? Little by little? Jared supposed an engine could be crafted, a fuel source hoarded, but it was patently impossible to build a rocket alone, there were too many parts, too many different sciences. It all seemed false.
Calliope stated that it was the worst looking craft she had ever seen. A ceramic shell with engine cones strapped to the bottom. Jared assumed it was plausible given enough time. It felt too coincidentally like their Trojan horse, the decoy ship they had allowed to be captured by the Larvaltics. Their decoy was covered in sensors, burst emitters to track the Larvaltic ships. The good news was they had taken the bait. The false captive was signaling, and the giant ships were moving quickly to reveal their home world. This tracking felt like an important victory. The enemy would head back to their territory and reveal their patterns of movement if not their home world.
Jared thought hard about the ceramic hull of the ship that Calliope’s mother had been in. Calliope said she had discarded it. Were there other methods the aliens could use to track her? Mattias might be irradiated with something? Jared thought to follow-up later.
He knew where Jake and Eylana were supposed to rendezvous with Calliope on this mission. Now that the bait had been taken, they were to meet and return. Perhaps the message arriving from Eylana would confirm this new turn of events.