Calliope sipped tea in the control room of her Cannon Asteroid, an enormous camouflaged station chosen for its metal and uranium content. Through its core, her army of builder bots created a modified particle accelerator set to over-amplify its particle stream, creating the biggest cannon in the solar system. Needing both the kilometers of length for amplification and the vacuum of space, Calliope used her surroundings to create a superweapon. Now, the greatest weapon in the solar system had become a target for anyone craving power and control.
The aliens, looking to take revenge on Calliope, had tracked her Cannon Asteroid and attacked. With Eylana, one of the best pilots in the group, and using thirty of her most advanced ships, she defeated two alien stealth battleships with a compliment of fifty smaller fighters.
The dim lighting reflected flecks of color from the dark polished walls of smooth asteroid material hollowed out for her control room. Calliope sat in a padded chair, stirring honey into her tea, and watching the edited footage of her battle with the alien aggressors. She had to choose what to send back to Earth as an official record, and she wanted to show the full extent of the alien technology. She also worried how her tactics would be second-guessed by others. She wanted to be cast in a good light and emphasize how little she knew of the aliens’ capabilities throughout the fight. She had managed to survive with Eylana and five of their own fighters left between them. If she had lost Eylana, her heart would have been ripped out. Eylana was her closest friend, a hard-headed Russian with enough courage and resilience for them both.
Calliope was tall and lean, with bobbed jet-black hair, giving her a serious and combative look that suited her well. Her face was an amalgam of angles carefully composed in a neutral expression honed from years of scavenging among those she feared and hated. As an orphaned child during the anarchy of Earth, she hid any emotional signals, for fear of those feelings being used against her. With Earth scrambling to defend itself against the alien invasion, many people were left in the wild, trying to survive in a collapsed civilization. She had been a child, lost in the struggle for resources after the initial alien attacks, when Earth’s infrastructure was broken and men with shotguns ruled from the back of pickup trucks. Calliope and her band of children had been beneath their notice, and beyond their help.
As the waves of violence subsided, the military became the first semblance of government and sought to reconstruct society and its institutions. Ground forces eventually rescued Calliope and helped reintroduce her to society and school. She took to learning with an unnatural curiosity and the motivation of someone amazed by engineering and stunned by technology.
Calliope had lost her parents at a young age, her father killed by alien scavengers. Her mother taken, trying to defend him as he lay dying. It had been the end of Calliope’s childhood. From then on, she was fighting for her survival and struggling to understand humanity; not as humanity saw itself, but as it truly was in the hunger, cold, and necessary evils of survival. Calliope felt no bewilderment upon learning of genocides, world wars, or massacres. She was certain more of them had occurred than her teachers were letting on. Her paranoia and deep mistrust of human nature had been ingrained from an early age.
This made her transition back to society difficult, especially in learning social conventions and societal norms. It did help her in politics, bargaining, and matters of positioning. Her unerring ability to see the worst in people could be paranoia in better times. In these times, it made her unerringly accurate.
Now, she was the leader of the Earth’s forces in space, the main engineer building the ships to defend against the aliens. Calliope had first been stationed on the moon, but now she was stationed wherever she liked.
Calliope finished editing the transmission of the battle she and Eylana had fought. They successfully defended her Cannon Asteroid and landed to scour the asteroid to make certain none of the aliens had infiltrated. They were attacked and almost taken by a stealth kidnapping squad. She mashed together the usable footage of the hand-to-hand combat she and Eylana had survived. It was terrible footage, dark, with blown out camera flares from the sudden flashes of blowtorches when the builder bots took off an alien limb. It was bloody and messy, but Calliope wanted Arn to know what the fighting was like in deep space.
Calliope and Eylana had destroyed two stealth carriers and their defensive fighters, losing twenty-six ships in the battle. Jared had arrived to apply the finishing touches, bringing reinforcements and finishing the aliens. He conducted the cleanup and salvage of Calliope and Eylana’s damaged and destroyed ships.
Sending off the transmission to Arn Lasserman on Earth, Calliope considered how best to use the time-delay to Earth. This far out, past the asteroid belt, the time delay was thirty-five minutes to get the message to Earth, then thirty-five back. She left her control room and walked to her newly tunneled out gym area with pads on the walls and floor and recessed mirrors under clear laminate. She had begun training with a short sword, for close combat, and wanted her footwork perfect. Jared, her best pilot, one of her best mechanical engineers, and sometimes her lover, had helped her with the mixed-marital arts. He was former special forces, and trained her in everything from jiu-jitsu grappling to keeping her head moving while striking. The short sword she wanted in case another kidnapping team bypassed her security.
She changed into her workout gear, barefoot in a gi, trying to get her weight behind the strikes. Her right arm still ached where the stress fractures were mending, her elbow throbbed, and she worked through the pain. The asteroid had little gravity, and with the acceleration, there was minimal weight. Enough for her to get a good sweat while fixing her footwork. She turned off the projector showing the katas and toweled off. She needed to decide on her next steps.
She wanted to interrogate the captured aliens on her other asteroid fortress, the Factory Asteroid, and tell them what she had done. She wanted to see their reactions. If these attacks were the work of the Greens, and Calliope suspected they were not, she wanted the Greens to tell her who in fact this other race of aliens were. She wanted to know where the home world of these other creatures was located. Toweling off, getting water, and starting the kettle, she wondered if her plans made sense.
It had been over an hour, past the time delay back to Earth, and Calliope checked for a response from Arn. She thumbed the transmission and smiled behind her teacup. Arn had recorded a heap of praise for her and Eylana. Arn’s giant head of auburn hair and great thick beard were barely contained in the transmission. At well over two meters tall, with long muscled limbs, Arn didn’t fit anywhere well. He had stayed behind on Earth with Midi, his wife, biologist, and lead farmer from the Lunar Colony. Midi was pregnant and needed the full gravity of Earth to insure a healthy baby. Arn had been reluctant to abandon the Lunar Colony he had helped create, but he reveled in the glory of rebuilding Earth, as well as his prospects at fatherhood.
He was the head of nuclear engineering and had designed the fast-breed fission reactors that powered Calliope’s ships. Arn had been her staunch supporter from the beginning, and she trusted him as much as she trusted anyone.
Calliope was glad to hear the praise. She needed someone to acknowledge she was fighting long odds and prevailing. Leaning back in her chair, she saw Arn’s video was over a dozen minutes long and sipped her tea quietly, settling in to watch. Jared walked into the Cannon Asteroid’s control room as well, eating breakfast and dictating his own reports on his different pilots, sometimes watching over Calliope’s shoulder. She reached for him and took his hand, releasing it easily when he kissed her affectionately.
Arn had started with praise for her.
“Calliope, excellent action in the battle. You and Eylana were flawless out there. Destroying alien cruisers is an amazing feat. Your missile and drone modifications were fantastic innovations. I want the plans sent down immediately, as well as any guesses you have about their active camouflage.”
Arn continued with his review of her work. “Everyone is extremely impressed with your battle tactics. Separating your forces into a recon team, a main force, and reserves was ingenious. Down here it is unanimous that you’ll design ships for those three roles going forward. We could use some specialized recon ships with bigger engines and stealth capabilities of our own.”
Arn winked and nodded into the camera and Calliope winced at this, suddenly being required to invent even more tech while being praised for her current battlefield improvisations.
Arn continued, “You would get promoted if there were anything above you. Eylana is now a Commander and on the short list for whatever is above that.
“You two worked together beautifully, and we cut highlights of the video to show here as training exercises. This battle will be a fine example for teaching. This part you will like: we have six of your ships built completely here on Earth and training already. We have one hundred and eighty pilots learning and accruing flight hours on those ships. If they aren’t the pilot, they are the co-pilot, or navigator, logging hours and learning the maneuvers.
“We have another twelve ships coming together shortly, so that will be the beginning of the home defense force. Jared is still expected to bring those thirty ships and the seasoned pilots home, but not until you’ve rebuilt and improved your defenses. We anxiously await your flagship plans. Parker was down here selling us a station plan. He says he needs to run it by you first, but it is time Earth gets a great new station.” Here Arn looked directly into the camera, “Before you get yours for Mars, Calliope.”
Calliope smirked at this. She had hoped to get Parker to finish her Mars station plans first and then start construction with her army of builder bots. Earth clearly needed a great deal of infrastructure, and Parker’s Lunar Station was great, but clearly not enough for the entire Earth. Calliope wondered what they would think the appropriate scale would be for Earth.
Arn continued, “We have made great progress in DC. The water works are up and processing methane. Effluent is coming out clean right now, so there is little energy from that, but we’re working on getting the city up and in shape to move more people in. Roads are good, and our first wave of immigrants are settling into some of the opened interior of the city. Bit of a rat problem, and other pests, abandoned properties are good habitats for some of our more pernicious vermin.”
Calliope thought of cats, then of terriers, and then of larger wild cats. What would domesticate best after the rat population leveled off? Maybe get coyotes and skip the pet-phase.
She sipped her tea and watched.
“The White House is open again, and our ally has moved in and is fixing things up. We’re trying to be clever about security, making tunnels and evacuation plans for a starship in case Earth is hit with a full-scale assault.”
Calliope keyed into her checklist to make certain Arn had her latest excavator bot designs for tunneling.
Arn showed a flash of a smile at this last bit. She suspected he liked the President. Calliope remained undecided. He would want a Starship One soon enough and she had begun plans for a specialized armored troop carrier but had not yet finished it.
Arn continued, “The last is our plans for the solar power satellite. We want that satellite up soon, and we are designing a lot of different viable formats for it. We are working on ways of clearing debris from the orbital sweet spots of Earth. The junked satellites and flecks of paint firing around are like bullets. So, we’ll need your help coming up with some solutions for that.”
Calliope paused the transmission. One of the worst things the aliens had done was blow up enough of their satellites to cause a cascading chain reaction of debris, circling at high speed, clogging the orbit around Earth. This debris hit any working satellite, smashing it in turn, further enlarging the cloud. It was a self-perpetuating orbital mass of junk, devouring everything in its path and growing with each meal. Calliope thought of it as Chaos Theory incarnate.
She had no good ideas to solve this problem, just a lot of bad ones. Maybe a special armored ship with enormous magnets, perhaps even an inflatable Kevlar balloon, or a magnetized drone? An enormous set of armored canvas sails for an orbital satellite with extensible arms? An umbrella of reinforced solar sail pushed out in front of a freighter might work. No idea seemed better or worse than the others, so she tabled it. Arn would need many specialized ships, equipment, and planning. She typed it onto her list of things to create.
She would also have to make certain that Arn was clear that the days of Earth wasting energy on launches were over. Satellites would be created in orbit, weightlessly. No more building heavy objects at the bottom of Earth’s gravity well and then burning through rocket fuel to launch them. Arn could beam his plans to a new station in Lagrangian point two.
Arn was wrapping up. “In Lunar news, Pellaeon is hitting his numbers for self-sustainability. He is doing it with less than half the one thousand-person capacity, but he’s doing it. On the plus side, he is ahead of our proposed construction schedule and will have my dome finished shortly. It got redesigned to have an armored carapace and framework with cannons and deployable deflector shields, so that is slowing things down. There is also a finished underground bunker system with alternative methods of food and fuel. I’d love you to go over that work soon. Mushrooms, artificial lighting, and ditch liquor farming all getting done down in the dark.”
Here Arn was distracted by something behind him and moved aside to allow pregnant Midi into view. She was holding her back, face flushed, and smiling.
Arn said, “Midi is hitting her numbers on the new hospital as well as construction on the baby. I will include the hospital plans and an ultrasound. We will see who is doing the better work.”
Midi smiled at this last bit. Arn and Midi made eye contact and Midi was engulfed by Arn’s enormous embrace. Midi ducked her head into view, smiled, and waved, “Calliope! Good to see you!”
Arn reached out and turned off the viewer.
Calliope heard drops and felt tears fall onto her arm. She was surprised to discover she was crying and didn’t know what to do with her hands. She wanted a baby, seeing Midi’s belly had turned a hormonal faucet on somewhere inside her. She longed for a less reckless life, to settle down and not get shot at anymore. She turned to tell Jared to impregnate her at once, but he must have left the room at some point. It was just as well. Jared was always self-conscious when she cried during sex.
Calliope, wiping at her eyes, played the next message. She had to suppress these hormonal urges. If this was her reaction to near death experiences, she would have to take it in stride. There would be no safety until she built enough ships to handle an assault. There was no thinking about children until she could keep them safe.
Jake’s transmission had just arrived, with news that Jake was alive and well, still learning from the aliens at a slow but progressive rate. Beyond the simple biological truths they shared, there was not much else they could discuss with the aliens. Jake’s message reassured Calliope that everything was still working on her Factory Asteroid, the pilots were happy, and cargo and shipping were on pace.
Still crying, Calliope restarted Jake’s message. She wanted to view it again, to search for subtle clues to the subtext of the aliens.
Jake created hypotheses daily and tested them to falsify as many as he could. He tried the idea of history, which translated poorly to the aliens, to the idea of evolution, which made no sense to them at all. He wanted to try cultural things, with types of food, different mealtimes, even times of day all falling flat and leading to confusion. As far out as the aliens were in the orbit of Jupiter, the sun just wasn’t important to them.
Jake needed Calliope to find out more about the physical realities of the aliens and where they came from. Calliope’s assumption had been Titan or Io, somewhere with possible liquid water and a methane atmosphere that the aliens seemed to prefer. Europa might not have enough internal heat, but it was really guesswork. She followed Jake’s line of reasoning, if there were no seasons or times of day on the moon where the creatures evolved, then there might not be any differentiation of time, daily routine, or seasons in their language or consciousness.
Her tears finally slowing, Calliope started researching. She knew the path of the lost probes led back to Jupiter’s orbit. That meant previous assumptions were pretty much on track. Jupiter’s moons, asteroids, and the surrounding celestial bodies were all in play as possible alien origins.
Calliope had an idea and started working in that direction. The aliens had sent stealth ships down to kill her, so Calliope reasoned it was a fine plan. She called Jared and Eylana and had them come to the conference room to vet her idea. It seemed absurd, but then the aliens had sent two stealth cruisers into their backyard to investigate humans.
Jared said, “Well, it didn’t work out well for them, did it?”
Eylana, a tall Belarusian entered wearing the new flight suit said, “How will we know what would be stealth to the aliens? We don’t know exactly what they see and what they don’t.” And then to Calliope, “Why are you smiling at me!”
“You’re wearing the new Kevlar suit!”
Eylana twirled. “It’s growing on me.”
Jared said, “Maybe if we took a ship to the vicinity and launched probes out from there, so we’re one level removed from the danger, how would that suit you?”
Calliope chewed it over, trying hard to find fault in his plan. “Jared, whenever we decide to play it safe, we fall on our faces.”
Jared said, “Worst-case scenario, the aliens are stealth and surround us before we know to run, we’re captured, tortured, and eaten,” he held up a finger, “or forced into labor camps, and then eaten. Second worst case, they see us and shoot us down. Third worst case, we’re captured, and tortured for Earth’s secrets.”
Calliope’s mouth hung open. She wanted a smart retort, but couldn’t dodge any of his logic.
Eylana said, “Don’t make light of torture. Besides, they don’t know our language, so they would probably torture us with no questions. That’s always harder.”
Jared frowned in shock. “Sorry. I just meant it would be a foolishly dangerous mission, and we should keep a fleet of drones ahead of us for ambushes. And if those drones were the ones that sent out the probes, even better.”
Eylana said, “Calliope, what do you think we’ll see?”
“I don’t know. I only know it’s time. We need to launch a fleet to attack, but at what? Now is the time for spying. We need spies up there to know what is going on. I have pushed my drone network farther out into the orbits of the outer planets, but I see nothing with them. I’m trying to send enough of them to tighten the net to catch the aliens, but I’m getting more and more certain that my drones aren’t seeing anything for a reason.”
Eylana squinted. “What reason?”
“I don’t know, I just know we need to have a manned mission up there to see. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s time. We need to take our language skills and translators and get up there and listen! I think we have seen the excellent kidnapping skills the aliens have for taking prisoners. It’s time we snatched some of our own for bargaining chips.”
Jared nodded at this and Eylana said, “That still leaves us with the idea that we can make stealth ships. What can’t they see? I suppose you have some suggestions.”
Calliope said, “I was thinking a ceramic hull, something thick, but with a really low magnetic cross section. We would stud it with lateral lines of SQUID receptors for hearing the aliens sneaking up. We would put the engines more interior and hide our heat signature.”
Jared said, “But if we get spotted, or when we get spotted, what is our escape strategy?”
Calliope said nothing. Eylana suggested, “You don’t mean to be the vanguard, and have no escape strategy. We would have the fleet running a few light minutes behind us?”
Calliope said, “What kind of fleet? We have no clue as to scale.”
Eylana sent a piercing glare. “We’ll build capital ships to back us up.”
“That was my initial plan, but now I’m lost. We just have no idea what we’ll learn. I just know we need to go out there and do this now. A small-scale spying mission. Before we commit too heavily in any one direction for the fleet. We need to see where the aliens are, what they’ve got, and what we need to counter with.”
Jared nodded. “You’re right, this is the right time for spying. We need to do it without getting captured.” He paused for a beat and said, “I vote you blast drones out now. A new set of drones with your latest in stealth features. Listening with your new sensors, all ceramics.”
Calliope nodded but wanted more than that. “Maybe. I don’t have stealth drones ready. I’ve got ideas, but I’m not even prototype stage yet. The designs aren’t ready.”
Eylana sat back in her seat and crossed her arms and legs. Her head was down in thought and she was frowning. “How soon will the capital ships be done?”
“I have three weeks for the one on the Factory Asteroid. About the same for the one being built here. Those are just skeletons though, they’ll need interiors, and I don’t know how to do any interior plumbing. I’m guessing, but I need help.”
“If we go, who would go? Us three, and in what are we travelling? You want a new ship, a new design, don’t you? You have a new design already! I can see it in your eyes.”
Calliope opened her mouth and then closed it. “Yes, I was thinking of something new. Possibly with escape pods set to accelerate us out, in case things get hot.”
Jared said, “The ship would self-detonate? After we escaped.”
Calliope said, “Something like that. They would accelerate to ridiculous degrees and circle back to distract, but I don’t have the details worked out.”
Eylana said, “I’m in, but the ship has to fit the mission. I’m dying out there again.”
Jared exhaled a long slow breath. “I hate this idea. It’s necessary, but it sucks. Can’t we get volunteers out of the pool? We can’t lose any of you, especially now. Or even me. Not that I’m being egotistical, we’re just the current leaders of every project. We’re starting to gain momentum. We don’t even know what they can and can’t see.”
Calliope brooded. “I see your point. There’s no way to do this well. I agree, I’ll start with stealth drones and launch them. While they’re on their way out, I’ll design and build a stealth ship. We’ll watch the drones, and decide our next moves from there.”
Jared exhaled again. Eylana simply fidgeted and said, “I’ll help make the drones. I understand the requirements. You start on the ship, and you start now, this instant. I had a bad feeling when you started talking and I still feel it.” She looked scared. “Like we’re too late. I feel a sense of urgency, like these months might be our last.”
Calliope said, “I feel it too, that strange, strangling feeling. We’re idle fools, wasting our time while the enemy gathers their strength.”
The three exchanged glances. Calliope said, “Ok, I’m pulling in twelve asteroids, we’re going to double the builder bots and triple my battle bots. Does that sound good? I can start the twelve asteroids right now.”
Calliope usually started the solution to any problem by harvesting great numbers of asteroids for material. Her extensive drone network around the inner solar system communicated in a web and could land engines on an asteroid and haul it in quickly. It had been one of Calliope’s first innovations and remained one of her greatest advantages.
Jared nodded. “I feel the urgency too. I’m not certain if it’s a symptom of paranoia more than any sort of premonition. Either way, it’s real. I can feel it.” He looked them both in the eyes. “That feeling that our most frenetic pace will not be enough.”