The Fall of Heaven, Episode 2: The Midway Fleet
Editor’s note: This is a serialized five-part story for the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project.
Commander Wainwright was an engineer, then a pilot, then an astronaut. Before the war, his career of assignments read like a redacted intelligence report, presenting a lot but saying very little. An engineer for U.S. Space Command, then Strategic Command, then a shipping pilot for the mining operations on the moon, he was presented as an expert witness for the War Crimes prosecution and many in the Summer Powers would spit at the mention of his name. Many leaders in the Winter Powers would probably have the same reaction. He has become one of the biggest critics of the Space War and one of its chief commentators in the political aftermath, publishing a highly controversial history of the war entitled The Bad War: The Winter of America’s Discontent.
I’ve come to his small cottage in Haleiwa, North Shore, Oahu. He has informally renounced his U.S. citizenship in favor of the Republic of Hawaii (ROH), but still draws his military retirement checks. The irony is fitting. He greets me at the door, his long brown hair pulled in a pigtail behind his head. Look past the hair and he has the image and bearing of a man who has spent 20 years in the military. Despite being 55, he has the energy of a 25 year old. Rumor has it he has turned to surfing, scuba diving, and marijuana. That would certainly explain the weathered skin and bloodshot eyes. I introduce myself and he welcomes me in.
“It’s nice to finally meet you Commander Wainwright, or would you prefer Augustus?”
“Hey, man, just call me Auggie. I spent over twenty years as “sir” or “Wainwright this or Wainwright that,” people just call me Auggie now.”
“Shall we get started?”
“Sure. I’m ready when you are.”
I pull out my Dictaphone and hit record.
“The current date is Friday, January 25th, 2119. We are located in Haleiwa, Oahu, Republic of Hawaii. This is Stephan Armitage of the United Nations Data Reclamation Project. I am interviewing Augustus Wainwright, former U.S. Navy commander and astronaut. Currently he is a consulting engineer for Clear Skies International, author, historian, and noted surfing aficionado. We are here discussing his experiences during the Winter-Summer War primarily focusing on his role in the Midway Fleet and the Siege of Marno Rift Valley. We can begin when you are ready.
“Alright, so just start anywhere?”
“Sure, it’s up to you.”
“You read my book right?”
“Alright, well then you know how I feel about the war overall. They say that the Space War was the only big war America lost, and I don’t think that’s exactly true. Everyone lost in that war. Everything else is just what that idiot in the White House is saying. I’ve heard what the media has said, but I don’t hate America, I just couldn’t live there anymore, man. I love it here, the ROH treats me right. Besides, if you want aerospace engineering jobs, there’s no better place than the ROH right now. What do you think they did with the military bases when the United States and then the Chinese packed up and left? It’s no surprise Honolulu’s a boom-town. They remained neutral in the war, and it has served them well.
“I miss home, no doubt, but things were never the same when the war ended.
“You want to know about Marno Rift Valley, right? I wrote about it in my book. But I suppose that’s not the same. We had to send the Midway Fleet. We all thought the mission would be routine, you know? Winter and Summer had been sniping at each other ever since the war in the Middle East, tensions were bad, escalations here or there. But really, they were just proxies and brushfire wars, world power passive aggressive tension just letting off steam. The Aegis and hongdun missile defense systems didn’t do much to help, they only increased tensions, I talk about that at length in my book…
“Honestly we figured the whole thing was a simple humanitarian mission, we had to do these every few years back then anyway, the damn lunies5 were always having issues. You know they had children working in the comms facilities? Odd people. The lunies, I swear to god, these guys, they chose to live there, had wives and children on the moon, the goddamn moon. What the hell did they expect? I think living there messes with your mind. I’ve been there for a few months at a time and I gotta tell you, even that messes with your head you know, just being there a few months, but being born there? Living your whole life there? The gravity, the light, something’s just off and your mind knows you don’t belong… they’re just weird people. All in all, we figured issues with their comms or the lunies breaking something was the likeliest scenario.
“We were already tense, down at Space Command, we had been out of contact with Musk Station at Marno since August and intelligence gave us nothing we didn’t already know. The Chinese and Russians had vehicles at the edge of the valley, an invasion or rescue force…we didn’t know, and the Chinese and Russians embassies claimed their central governments didn’t have contact with the moon either. Only now we call it the Siege of Marno Rift Valley, back then we had no idea. We could see some of the stations through the dust and debris: a few ones still with the lights on, a few others destroyed. The colony looked exactly like bubble froth from the earth, domes built on domes, some lit, some not. No response to comms in any band.
“The ward room and chief’s mess over at U.S. Space Command figured the Russians and Chinese had a malfunction in their interspace network that caused the catastrophic failure on 8/21, course, we didn’t know then what we know now. We didn’t know what happened at Marno, either, again we figured it was the lunies fucking up. We thought there had been some sort of accident. We figured the president and his guys would figure it out. Only the most naïve person in the world actually thought the Chinese and Russians were there to help, though.
“Of the 52 transports we sent out to Marno Rift Valley, only two were ever recovered. Of the 157 people on-board the transports, none survived. The rescue shuttles did have military personnel, and they did have a few escorts, but there were mostly civilians on there, you know, doctors, engineers, and, yeah, believe it or not, like three or four insurance lawyers. Yes, lawyers. It was a hodgepodge of civilian freighters, military transports, and the old interspace drones, remember the XT-110’s6? Yeah, they got those old pieces of shit working again, and repurposed them under human control.
“It took weeks to get the mission together, three long weeks. The President and Joint Chiefs made the call to send aid. We got the call a few days after we lost contact with Marno. The Space Command and Strategic Command J5 started drafting and repurposing old operations and contingency plans, you know, the CONPLANS and OPLANS, and that’s how Joint Task Force 979, or the ‘Midway Fleet’ started. The orders were clear: establish contact, conduct research, deliver aid, evacuate civilians or casualties, and use military force if necessary.
“The JTF-979 departed from the Cape with their T-birds7 to make the orbital route to the Low-earth waystation, the USSS8 Arizona and then proceed to the Debel line9. It was standard procedure then to wait until one of the Debel stations10, in this case the USSS Midway, made it into the trajectory window before departing. The transports docked at Arizona and waited for the window. The T-birds were refueled and stood at ready, they would escort 979 back down when it returned. Being armed, T-birds weren’t allowed to go into interspace regions with the rest of 979.
“The JTF-979 fleet refueled at the USSS Midway about a day later, and then set course again for Marno Valley. They had been in route for about 36 hours when we heard it. It was 0237 17 September 2092 — I remember like it was yesterday — when we got the first distress call from the lead transport the USIS11 Riyadh. An hour later we got the Aden, and then the Cowpens, and then the Saratoga. The first few were the same: digital distress call and then radio silence. At first we thought it was a malfunction, some sort of extraneous code in their datalinks, sending out false data and then repeating it throughout the net and beaming it back down to earth. We started getting voice comms from some of the next few ships. The comms were full of static, hard to make out some of what they were saying. Within 6 hours, about halfway through the Debel zone, we had lost contact with every ship. Not a ping, IFF signal, “hey I’m alive” chirp or anything…nothing.
“People blame the GRAVINT sensors, of course. Congress has been tooting that horn for a while now, “Why didn’t the GRAVINT sensors work? The American taxpayer needs to know!” I’ve heard the testimonies, and so has Congress. You’re measuring something as sensitive as gravity fields, you’re going to have an extremely temperamental system. GRAVINT was always a problem. It was a new technology. The bumping and jostling on lift-off, docking, and unloading messes with the calibration of the machine. It takes hours to recalibrate, hours, do you know how much it costs just to keep a team of twenty space transport personnel up there for a minute? Try billions. So when you talk about multiple recalibrations over several hours each, we’re talking about trillions. So extra hours were a no-go. We had to manually adjust the threshold for warning and move on and hope for the best. Sitting there, opening up the sensors, and adjusting for ambient gravity wasn’t a viable option.
“That’s why we were blindsided. We had multiple next generation LCSTs, even the ones the Summer Powers didn’t know about, but without effective warning, they were blind. Say what you want about the fengqun as a LCST rip-off, it did one thing different that effectively fucked us. Instead of separating and releasing the swarms early in a simple two-stage process like ours, the Chinese and Russians did it in three stages, getting close with mid-sized delivery vehicles and then shooting out like a shotgun. It wasn’t effective for debris or countermeasure defense — and had huge reliability issues — but when configured for offensive ops it worked like a charm. Just got up close and got you. LCSTs would shoot from far away, the fengquns would sneak in and shoot the gun right in your face. We started calling them ‘FQs’ and then ‘fuck you’s.’ The name stuck for a reason. If they were on you, it was too late. That’s why it’s bullshit when they said they were for defensive purposes only, you know… like for space missile defense and debris defense. They were tailor-made for covert use and surprise.
“Then people always ask, well, weren’t you prepared for it? We didn’t know it was a siege at the time. We didn’t know that the Chinese and Russians blamed us for 8/21. Hell, we didn’t even know the extent of 8/21 until after the war. We did know that Russian and Chinese space stations and satellites stopped responding to comms checks, but, honestly, back then, things were so bad we didn’t give it much thought. ‘Oh, they’re being pissy, alright, whatever, give them a loud squelch and move on…’ We operated independently on completely different networks, we didn’t need to communicate. Other than voice comms, we couldn’t send data between our communication networks and theirs, they were incompatible and both sides wanted it that way. Their nets were theirs, ours were ours. We didn’t talk to them, they didn’t talk to us that much, whatever, that’s how it was.
“It would take another day to get news. In the form of a hand-delivered message: a joint Chinese, Russian, Korean, and Brazilian declaration of war. Their media was splattered with images of Marno Valley, declaring the first victory in the war, we all saw it. Our people, American people, were being lead with their hands on their head through Musk station, like prisoners of war. PLA soldiers — or whatever they say they were — draping American flags around themselves as war trophies. Blue, emaciated bodies being moved into piles. CNN showed it on repeat for days. The declaration of war told us what we didn’t know: It claimed we had killed tens of thousands of Russian, Chinese, Korean, and Brazilian civilians and military and had destroyed their space-based comms, all with a cyber-attack — of course, back then, we at Space Command were oblivious. And now, having gained the upper hand, we supposedly ‘continued our aggression by mounting an invasion force against Russian and Chinese sovereign territory on the moon.’ They seized the Tianti elevator the hour the notice was being delivered, locking down the most strategic point in near-space, even if it was half finished. The declaration was how we found out the truth about the Midway fleet. They had the strategic initiative and we knew immediately we were losing.”
He pauses for a second…
“I don’t think the Summer powers were blameless, no… but I don’t think they were totally to blame, either. That view doesn’t exactly sit very well on either side, these days. The whole world has been a powder-keg for forty years, it just so happened that some idiot with a hard-on for the Chicoms and Ruskies lit a match and said ‘screw it.’ You know, honestly, It sounded like complete bullshit, then, the whole Midway Fleet response. And I don’t know if the U.S. government knew the truth of the matter, or planned the entire goddamn thing, I have my suspicions and I have my doubts, and I can let you interview some of my old buddies who would swear that was the case. I just don’t understand how the government didn’t know we were responsible for 8/21, they had to have known and…I am not crazy. It’s just…
Auggie’s eyes glass over a bit as he stares off for a few seconds. He shakes his head like he’s brushing something off and pulls a lighter out of his pocket. The joint he had been carefully rolling through the interview found its way to his lips and he lights it up. He leans forward on his stool, narrows his eyelids, takes a puff, and asks,
“…do you know how they died?”
“The Midway Fleet. Those guys we sent up there.”
“No, not exactly.“
“People don’t understand…Swarm weapons like FQs or LCSTs don’t destroy things. They can block, and destabilize something incoming like debris…but they never get enough speed to destroy or penetrate. No…they surround and neutralize electrical systems, or latch on and take over flight control. Think white blood cells. They feed off of the energy systems. First comms, then flight, and on and on and on. Systems go one by one. The atmospheric systems are the last. Those civilians and astronauts? I knew some of them. I knew them, I flew with them and let me tell you it wasn’t quick, it wasn’t crash boom bang, Lucy-in-the-sky-with-diamonds, meet-your-maker death. It was the shittiest death you can think about. They knew they were doomed and had to wait for it…the two transports we found, the people wrote letters to their families saying goodbye. How messed up is that? They knew… They were drowning while being able to breathe. They suffocated to death and knew it was happening. Not even the goddamn lawyers deserved that.”
Stephen Armitage is a researcher for the United Nations, journalist, and war correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com.