war on the rocks

Not Fast Enough: A Tale of a True Space Warrior

November 26, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the winning submission from our short story contest, “A Day in the Life of Space Force, 2050.”

 

The klaxon blares, and I sprint towards my drop-pod. I biometrically access the weapon locker next to it, grab my plasma rifle, and snatch a few concussion grenades for good measure. They’re always fun. Twelve seconds later, Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” blares as I rocket down from orbit in a titanium alloy shell designed and built by the lowest bidder. I try not to think about that.

I’m briefed mid-descent: The enemy has powered on computer systems known to be associated with pre-flight checks for orbital kinetic projectiles. We can’t risk them targeting a major population center with even just one. Once they’re nudged out of orbit, gravity takes over and accelerates several hundred kilograms of hardened steel to a respectable fraction of the speed of light. The projectile impacts with the yield of a mid-grade nuclear weapon. Once the weapon is on its way, there’s no way to stop it, even if the enemy wanted to. The only defense is to stop it before it gets launched. Our Commanding Officer takes a moment to impress upon us the importance of this task and I roll my eyes. He’s only ever been ground-side infantry and doesn’t have a single orbital drop to his name. But he’ll use this billet to pick up a star, I’m sure. Whatever, man. Let us do the real work.

I shake my head to clear it. There’s only 20 seconds to impact. Check the energy loadout on my shield generator. My huge biceps make it hard to see the panel in the cramped confines of the pod. Ten seconds. I’m falling at over a mile per second. Five. The repulsors built into the pod fire off at the last second, turning my impending gruesome death into a merely earth-shatteringly violent, but survivable impact. Go.

The enemy compound is 50 fifty meters to my rear. I peek out from the cover of my pod and assess the drop locations of my platoon. My holographic display tells me they’re spread in textbook fashion across a 100 meters of parking lot. The smoke from all the destroyed cars makes visual confirmation impossible.

“Execute Bravo-Two,” is all I have to say. The vocalization triggers command-and control-software to process subordinate unit locations and direct them to the preplanned locations according to that seizure protocol. Bravo-Two will leave most of my platoon outside to secure the facility against outside reinforcements or civilian interference. We did land inside a city of nearly two million souls, after all. The crack of a rifle rings out, and my display shows that it came from the roof. How stupid. Of course, the shot fails to penetrate the power armor of its target, and a dozen plasma rifles return fire, incinerating the sentry.

The breach team is already bounding towards the walls of the compound, fusion cutters activated. The telltale glow and sparks make them a target, but powering the system up takes longer than actually cutting through the doubly reinforced concrete and steel walls. Having them activated will buy us precious seconds. Smart move, and I make a mental note to applaud Sgt. Henderson’s initiative afterwards. A text message pops up on my display. It’s the president: “You have two minutes before de-orbit is initiated. Our lives are in your hands, son. Godspeed.”

One minute fifty-nine seconds later I perch victoriously atop the command-and-control center of the enemy network. Smoke and sparks pour from the systems destroyed by pIasma weapons, and my platoon tech specialist is busily hacking into one of the few terminals left untouched. I open my combat helmet visor to reveal a glorious five-o-clock shadow and chew on the end of an unlit cigar.

“Sorry, buddy,” I say, as I tip the badly mangled corpse of an enemy solider off the desk where he fell, “Not fast enough.”

Suddenly, an alarm begins to blare. My brain groggily tries to understand what’s going on. A cold, wet nose presses itself into my face and the realization slowly dawns that I’m in my apartment, and the dog needs to go out. Forty-five minutes later I sit down at the same desk I have for the past two years, wondering if today is the day I understand exactly what my job is.

My inbox has a dozen emails, each less important than the last. The uniform board has determined that the dress uniform shoulder cape must fall between the elbow and waist, but if they are the same height, it may extend one and three quarters inches past. Our security manager is holding another annual training brief for the 64 percent of the command that missed the last one. Several automated messages telling me that satellites completed their preprogrammed tasking and sent the results to the consumer. One email from a friend with a funny picture of dogs wearing hats, as well as an invite to get lunch later. How stupid. It’s Taco Tuesday, Jeremy, of course we’re going to the cafeteria.

I start to write him an email to tell him so, but the computer chooses that moment to freeze. My initial troubleshooting protocols fail after Ctl-Alt-Del doesn’t do anything, and for some reason the fans start spinning up really loudly. I’m forced to just hold the power button and pray I didn’t break it any more than it already was. The Space Force is charged with the defense of space and all American assets within it, yet without fail we use second rate computers built by the lowest bidder. I try not to think about that too much.

My computer is still bringing itself back online, but I studiously pretend like I’m working on something important. The CO is walking by, and the last thing I need to do is make eye contact. He barely knows what an apogee or perigee is, but doesn’t let that damper his enthusiasm for command. He loves emphasizing to anyone who will listen how “important the mission is.” We think he’s practicing for his pitch at a promotion board to general. Whatever, man. Let us do the real work.

There isn’t much going on today, though. The orbital paths of the various satellites are just as pristine as they were yesterday. Even the satellites of our national rivals are in the right spots. In theory, if a war kicked off, this office would become the first branch of service to get into contact with the enemy. All that really means is that we’d have to activate the various defense sub-routines built into the satellites, because a whole bunch of enemy nasty things are going to try to knock them out of the sky. Then we watch the computers to see whether our countermeasures actually work or not. If they work, great, our automated systems will continue to provide the customer with the products they need. If not, then we scramble to contract as much satellite time as we can from the few private sector firms willing to take that risk. They know ahead of time their birds will get blasted too, but they’ll be sure to get paid more than enough to replace them.

I would normally go to the gym and spend some time on the treadmill, but today I’m resting up. Our softball game tonight is against the National Reconnaissance Office team, and we’ve wanted to beat those assholes since they beat us in the semi-finals last year. Ever since the Space Force was founded, the rivalry has been fierce. They’re just jealous because we get military discounts and they don’t.

I decide to head to the breakroom to alleviate the monotony when it happens. From down the hall I can see the corner of the vivid pink and orange box: Someone brought doughnuts. If it’s ten already, then all the good ones are gone, but there’s a chance I can still snag a Bavarian Crème or vanilla frosted. I increase my pace, knowing each second matters. I sweep into the room and grab the last remaining pastry just as Bob turns the corner from the other direction. He looks at the box, then me, with despair evident on his face.

“Sorry, buddy,” I say around a mouthful of cinnamon doughnut, “Not fast enough.”

 

Captain Jesse Schmitt is a MAGTF Intelligence Officer currently serving as instructor at the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group. He is a graduate of the University of Florida, where he studied Economics, Political Science, and SEC Football. He is currently working on a Master’s Degree in International Relations.

Image: NASA