Editor’s Observe: That is the third-place winner of our brief story contest, “A Day in the Life of Space Force, 2050.”
As befitted the first lodge in area, Mercury was Hemingway’s breed of multinational. Reassuringly costly, quietly unique, and buying and selling on sophistication: the Raffles or the Ritz of this new area age. In fact, it was extra mongrel than thoroughbred, constructed from an assortment of elements and housings. Previous boosters and Soyuz modules joined in Frankenstein style with newer, objective-constructed assemblies that belied the relative luxurious inside. Collectively they hung there, immaculate white towards the stark, obsidian void. And but to Lt. Thomas Ross, U.S. Area Drive, it was lovely. Mercury’s coronary heart, flanked by mismatched modules arcing outwards like half-furled wings, was its foyer. There, home windows spanned its whole width and gleamed diamond-like in the daylight.
Mercury’s switch shuttle was alongside, freshly docked to ship the newest batch of vacationers. He might think about them with their reside-casts operating — forbidden for Area Drive cabin operators like Ross — linking to-and-from audiences worldwide. They might be open-mouthed, wanting down on all creation for the first time. Although he watched from 100 miles’ distance, linked solely by a excessive-energy telescope, he envied these vacationers of his thoughts’s eye. He envied their luxurious, their freedom, their easy marvel. It frayed at the headache inching forwards by means of his cranium, like sappers extending a trench.
In useless hope of distraction, Ross ran his routine guidelines. First on his priorities was the laser-radar feed, a 360 diploma composite “drawn” by emitters that projected laser beams out to greater than 300 miles’ vary. These tracked close by business satellites that ran like harried commuters, racing to non-public conferences in the abyss. Farther out, a British launch car charted a lonely arc up from Scotland, whereas ubiquitous Chinese language spy-satellites lingered at excessive vary. As all the time, the geosynchronous Mercury remained at its regular submit. Additional holographic shows affirmed his excessive-energy telescopes have been functioning, in addition to his constellation of EVA drones. Final was the station’s externally mounted tritium-fluoride laser array, a weapon Ross understood insofar as he knew methods to pull the set off.
“Hello? Call-sign Mint?”
Ross grunted acknowledgment: “Mint” was his unlucky name-signal. Possible one other Area Drive cabin operator was reaching out by line-of-sight laser micro-burst.
“I read. Identify yourself.”
“Mint, this is Prospero. Are you eyeballing Mercury?”
Ross scowled. Strictly talking, his telescope alignment constituted a misuse of kit. He cleared his throat, shopping for time.
“Prospero, I don’t recall you on this orbit.”
“Really? Repositioned to this track about a month ago.” Ross drew a clean. It was widespread for operators to go weeks with out contacting each other; Her voice was however someway acquainted, like a half-remembered dream.
“Not often they OK a reposition, Prospero. What was the priority?”
“You know we can’t talk shop, even on tight-beam. What kind of tag is Mint, anyway?”
“Don’t ask.” Ross chuckled, regardless of himself. “What brings you up here?” Up right here — that widespread bond uniting all cabin drivers of their isolation; their handshake in the vacuum.
“Army won’t have me, and college won’t pay itself. How long have you been in the attic?”
“Nine months, now. Second tour.”
“Christ. Because of the transfer disruptions?”
“You know it,” Ross sighed. Not in contrast to the Navy with its carriers, the Area Pressure was infamous for extending excursions at brief discover. “Last time it was 10 months.” Prospero paused, as if weighing up her response.
“Why not stay home?”
The query caught Ross off guard, like some skewered fencer. All his pragmatic half-truths — about the signal-up bonus; the second-tour pension — have been nothing towards that stiletto subtlety. Why not keep house? With the odor of recent-fallen rain, and the blue skies, and her… Why didn’t he have the bravery to remain — however braveness sufficient to board the lifters? How typically had he bent the knowledge of just about two years up right here to look again into the thoughts of a 20-year-previous? How typically did he look by means of his telescopes, by no means discovering a solution? Ross shivered. A breeze was nuzzling the again of his neck, as mild as a lover and heavy with reminiscences. If he closed his eyes, it might carry him to that hidden world off the New Jersey Turnpike; to the quiet fields nestled behind the Delaware, or to her heat apart from him on the Level Nice boardwalk. However his actuality was as sterile as a surgeon’s desk: The breeze had none of summer time’s warmth, or the ocean’s salt tang combined together with her fragrance. In any case, it was merely the oxygen-distribution fan sitting some 15 ft aft.
Shamefully, Ross realised he had nonetheless not answered Prospero — and his headache was deepening.
“Lieutenant,” abruptly echoed a toneless voice by way of hidden audio system. “Flash update for you.”
“Thank you, Balthazar,” Ross answered mechanically, including, “Prospero, we’ll talk later.”
Balthazar was his commonplace-sample “simple” AI; a facsimile of a soul, mass-stamped into reminiscence crystal. Probably the most refined models — and their sometimes sizeable computing infrastructure — remained groundside. Ross targeted on the financial institution of holographic shows earlier than his seat.
“We have been assigned a new customer,” Balthazar defined. “All existing customers downgraded.”
Ross appeared up sharply, eyebrows arched. Unusual. His fingers started dancing throughout his holographic keyboard, his haptic gloves quivering with suggestions.
“Customer call-sign is Nimrod,” Balthazar continued. “This comes direct from SPACECENT, Lt.,” it added, referring to U.S. Central Command’s Area Drive element.
TO: CALLSIGN ‘MINT’
SUBJECT: CUSTOMER DOCKET ‘NIMROD’
COMMUNICATIONS & OPERATIONAL DETAILS FOR NIMROD (U.Okay. S.A.S.) ATTACHED. PROVIDE IMMEDIATE COMMUNICATIONS & ISR SUPPORT.
Ross commanded considered one of dozens of U.S. Area Pressure geosynchronous “cabins”: platforms tasked, amongst different missions, with assuring area-based mostly communications and intelligence for groundside “customers.” Ross felt his pulse returned to pedestrian lethargy. Precedence duties for Particular Forces groups — even these of allied nations — – weren’t uncommon, regardless of this order’s terse, non-normal packaging. Nor have been they strenuous. Certainly, as the congressionally mandated “man in the loop,” a lot of his position merely concerned delegating to the onboard AI: Balthazar even ran the upkeep of the cabin’s laser-array utilizing its EVA drones. Ross was painfully conscious of his personal value-ineffectiveness.
“Balthazar, align our main communications and telescope arrays per the docket attachment.” Ross shortly felt a lateral motion in his abdomen: Balthazar was adjusting the cabin’s angling with micro-bursts from its CO2 jets.
“Nimrod, this is Mint, do you read?”
“Roj, Mint. Nimrod here,” spoke a clipped British voice, as gravelly as a limestone quarry.
“Comms and scopes are now aligned with you. You can access the telescope feed remotely.”
“Understood. Await a data transfer in 15.” Nimrod muted the line. Ross rolled his eyes: if Area Drive cabin work was completed in monastic isolation, it was as a result of groundside clients resented the ‘easy’ job upstairs. I’d be the similar if I have been down there, Ross mused. He scanned the attachment to Nimrod’s docket, checking their location: Bandung — deep in the mountains of West Java, Indonesia. Ross tried to check what Nimrod was dealing with, however his creativeness had grown threadbare up right here. He spat a helpless curse, gripped by his worsening headache.
Nimrod, half a planet away, pinched the bridge of his nostril. A pressure headache had set in — one other reminder that age had laid its hand upon his shoulder, warning him to hunt different employment.
“You alright, boss?” one among his males requested. The close by determine was clad in drab civilian garments and a tough-sporting poncho. Like Nimrod, a cumbersome re-breather masks hid his decrease face. In Bandung, the metropolis of 4 million mopeds, such measures have been all too essential.
“I’m fine,” Nimrod lied. His eyes stung from the air air pollution, uncovered as they have been, however he glanced about to verify his workforce was in place.
Their goal constructing sat close by, a squat-wanting concrete confection resting again from the half-empty aspect road, aloof behind slapdash fencing. His group was dispersed about the road, half-hidden in the gathering gloom. The solar had already fallen on the metropolis, as fast as a mortar shell, leaving solely a unclean bronze smudge to mark its passing amid the countless gray sky. Someplace, past the smog, have been abyssal, cliff-like mountains; huge, volcanic slabs that rimmed the metropolis. Nimrod solely knew they have been there as a result of his strategy street had led down into the bowl of the metropolis, suffocating in its personal foul breath whereas vivid inexperienced forests watched disdainfully from the rim. And even at Bandung’s altitude, the air was shut from the warmth of the dying day. It was a far cry from Nimrod’s native Warwickshire, and even the local weather-managed submarine that had covertly delivered him ashore.
The journey inland had been lengthy and sluggish. However the versatile e-paper secured round Nimrod’s forearm gave some clue of its significance: The dimmed display was resulting from flash him Prime Ministerial authority to proceed. He didn’t fake to know what insanity had overtaken the Indonesian authorities in recent times, however he knew this deployment was not frivolously made. He additionally knew he had no want to go to an Indonesian jail. However Nimrod was assured in his edge immediately. He carried a state-of-the-artwork AI in his backpack — Nimrod had by no means seen one so moveable earlier than — and the GCHQ boffins in Cheltenham had cooked him a bespoke scrambling algorithm: Close by Digital-Actuality customers would merely see his group as native police, a probably essential deception in a pinch.
Having the People watch down from area wasn’t dangerous, both, in a consolation-blanket sort of trend.
The e-paper buzzed softly towards Nimrod’s arm. He glanced down at its single message:
Nimrod keyed the radio mike pressed towards his throat:
“Shake a leg, lads. We’re going in.”
Ross, far above, had in the meantime grown bored. Unbidden, he contacted Prospero.
“Prospero, you still there?”
“Go ahead,” answered the acquainted feminine voice.
“You see the latest footage from Jakarta?”
“Of course,” she scoffed. Everybody noticed the reside-casts. “Only one export still coming out of there.”
The unceasing footage from different individuals’s reside-feed contact lenses had left Ross in little question about her which means. Ross knew too little to know, however there was no mistaking the fall of a rustic into despair — or a authorities into insanity.
“Lt.,” Balthazar interrupted all of the sudden. “Please note…”
Ross blurted an interruption, forgetting Prospero instantly. “Nimrod! Damnit…”
He cued Nimrod’s channel, blinking away his headache. The cabin instantly echoed with the tin-can rattle of gunfire, as if an assault had reached orbit.
“How’s that data transfer coming, Nimrod?” Ross glanced throughout the telescope feed: ivory-dot figures adorned the blackness of the infrared array. They appeared few; they have been few. Past their skinny, white line have been dozens extra spectral figures, approaching via tendrils of tracer hearth that stitched the open floor in-between.
“Standby.” Ross’ show instantly confirmed add progress tabs.
“Receiving now, Nimrod. Looks like you have company.”
“Aye. The locals want their AI back.”
Squinting, Ross spied a flight of quad-copter drones rising from the skinny white line. Every appeared with distinctive blurred-blades and shoebox fuselages, accelerating into the approaching mass and bursting in succession. The infrared scope winked with the silent brightness of our bodies ripped and torn. Panning the telescope with twitches of his haptic gloves, Ross spied a second group of attackers. Whereas the first superior throughout open floor, these approached with a fence for concealment, flanking Nimrod’s workforce. Ross swallowed the ache of his headache, warning Nimrod:
“Check your telescope feed. Six targets. East. Behind that fencing.”
Nimrod’s workforce reoriented immediately; Its subsequent salvo despatched excessive-velocity rounds by means of the flimsy cowl, scything the second group. Our bodies slumped and tumbled.
“Listen up Mint,” Nimrod spoke urgently now. “Our AI just interrogated their unit. Data-mined the bloody thing. Something came up about that hotel up there. The Mercury. Don’t ask me why. Don’t ask me how, but they’ve smuggled a bomb onboard.”
Ross felt his head pounding and his pulse racing, like a runner reaching velocity. He snapped to his AI: “Balthazar, verify that!”
“Lt., data-mining an AI is the equivalent of inducing involuntary memory recall in the hippocampus of the human brain. The interrogated AI will not have been able to falsify any information.”
“My AI’s saying something about a sympathiser in the transfer shuttle ground crew,” Nimrod defined. “Apparently the bomb went up with the latest transfer flight.”
Ross froze. He had seen Mercury’s switch shuttle earlier — it had docked solely right now. Perhaps I nonetheless have time.
He muted Nimrod’s sign.
“Balthazar, raise the Mercury. And get one of our EVA drones over to them. Now.” Ross was frantic. Solely now did the urgency of the SPACECENT order — maybe the results of some advance warning — start to make sense. If Mercury detonated, it might set off a Kessler syndrome: a domino impact of ever-increasing shrapnel, destroying satellites with infantile, indiscriminate fury. The sheer ambition of the plan was unimaginable; a objective of crippling infidel economies and militaries wholesale. Maybe unsurprisingly, a Kessler syndrome was the worst worry of the Area Drive.
“Lieutenant, EVA drone en route…”
“Good, now — “
“Lt., I am assuming command.”
Cabin AIs have been coded to take action solely in excessive hazard, the place human path risked compromising the cabin.
“Your cabin air mixture is approaching dangerous CO2 levels,” Balthazar continued, “inspect and repair your oxygen-generator at once.”
Ross immediately pushed freed from the crash-seat, drifting aft. Twisting a knee into his chest, he began a sluggish tumble orienting him “upwards” relative to his workstation. Momentum did the relaxation, planting Ross alongside a matte-gray, torso-sized tube. Utilizing electrolysis to strip hydrogen and oxygen from wastewater, this was the cabin’s lung. Ross understood his complications now. Some very important, capricious element had failed — leaving him to suffocate. He cursed helplessly. Fixing the generator might take hours, however Mercury couldn’t wait.
Opening a hatch apart from the generator, Ross pulled free a metallic cylinder wrapped in thermal cladding: an oxygen candle. Securing it to stop it free-floating, Ross flicked a easy change on the cylinder’s physique — a percussion cap, which started burning a sodium chlorate-iron oxide combination. Quickly, the “candle” would vent oxygen as a by-product, a many years-previous know-how serving as Ross’ solely lifeline. With that, he was launching again to his station.
“Balthazar, I’m good,” Ross introduced. “The oxygen candle covers me for twenty-four hours. ETA on our drone?”
“Why, what’s the plan?”
This wasn’t Balthazar who answered. Ross glowered at the acquainted, female tone.
“Prospero, get off my comms,” he snapped. “Not a good time.”
“What’s the plan?” Prospero endured, ignoring him. One thing drove Ross to reply — regardless of coaching, regardless of protocol. Flustered, he spoke with a snarl.
“Balthazar coordinates with Mercury’s AI and decouples the hotel’s shuttle. We can use the EVA drone to de-orbit the shuttle… We’ll figure something.”
“You got other ideas?” Ross hissed, glancing throughout his comms tabs. He paused. Appeared once more. There have been no incoming alerts — no tight-beam laser burst, no VHF radio — none in addition to Nimrod’s muted line. Like a daybreak out of the blue breaking cowl, Ross recognised Prospero’s familiarity. It was her. Or, at the least, his reminiscence of her.
“Yeah. Took your time figuring that one out,” Prospero chided. “Hypoxia is a hell of a thing.”
“Balthazar took his time warning me,” Ross sighed, chilled to understand how far gone he was.
“Guess they skimped on his last update,” Prospero agreed, laughing together with her chuckle — a unclean, infectious chuckle.
Ross glanced at the oxygen candle.
“Relax,” Prospero soothed. “You didn’t imagine that part.”
Ross breathed the poisoned air, ignoring his creativeness.
There was a lodge to save lots of — and with it, most of Earth’s orbital ranges. Simply one other day in the Area Drive.
Hal Wilson lives in the United Kingdom, the place he works in the aerospace business. A member of the Army Writers Guild, Hal makes use of narrative to discover future battle. He has been revealed by the Small Wars Journal, and has written finalist entries for fiction contests with the U.S. Military Coaching and Doctrine Command, and the Atlantic Council’s Artwork of the Future Challenge. Hal graduated with first-class honours in War Research and Historical past from King’s School, London, and is learning for an MA on World War I. He tweets at @HalWilson_
Picture: Wikimedia Commons