war on the rocks

Prospero

November 22, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the third-place winner of our short story contest, “A Day in the Life of Space Force, 2050.”

 

As befitted the first hotel in space, Mercury was Hemingway’s breed of establishment. Reassuringly expensive, quietly exclusive, and trading on sophistication: the Raffles or the Ritz of this new space age. In truth, it was more mongrel than thoroughbred, built from an assortment of components and housings. Old boosters and Soyuz modules joined in Frankenstein fashion with newer, purpose-built assemblies that belied the relative luxury within. Together they hung there, immaculate white against the stark, obsidian void. And yet to Lt. Thomas Ross, U.S. Space Force, it was beautiful. Mercury’s heart, flanked by mismatched modules arcing outwards like half-furled wings, was its lobby. There, windows spanned its entire width and gleamed diamond-like in the sunlight.

Mercury’s transfer shuttle was alongside, freshly docked to deliver the latest batch of tourists. He could imagine them with their live-casts running — forbidden for Space Force cabin operators like Ross — linking to-and-from audiences worldwide. They would be open-mouthed, looking down on all creation for the first time. Though he watched from a hundred miles’ distance, linked only by a high-power telescope, he envied those tourists of his mind’s eye. He envied their luxury, their freedom, their simple wonder. It frayed at the headache inching forwards through his skull, like sappers extending a trench.

In vain hope of distraction, Ross ran his routine checklist. First on his priorities was the laser-radar feed, a 360 degree composite “drawn” by emitters that projected laser beams out to more than 300 miles’ range. These tracked nearby commercial satellites that ran like harried commuters, racing to private meetings in the abyss. Farther out, a British launch vehicle charted a lonely arc up from Scotland, while ubiquitous Chinese spy-satellites lingered at extreme range. As always, the geosynchronous Mercury remained at its usual post. Further holographic displays affirmed his high-power telescopes were functioning, as well as his constellation of EVA drones. Last was the station’s externally mounted tritium-fluoride laser array, a weapon Ross understood insofar as he knew how to pull the trigger.

“Hello? Call-sign Mint?”

Ross grunted acknowledgment: “Mint” was his unfortunate call-sign. Likely another Space Force 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 speaking, his telescope alignment constituted a misuse of equipment. He cleared his throat, buying time.

“Prospero, I don’t recall you on this orbit.”

“Really? Repositioned to this track about a month ago.” Ross drew a blank. It was common for operators to go weeks without contacting one another; Her voice was nevertheless somehow familiar, 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, despite himself. “What brings you up here?” Up here — that common bond uniting all cabin drivers in 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 unlike the Navy with its carriers, the Space Force was notorious for extending tours at short notice. “Last time it was 10 months.” Prospero paused, as if weighing up her response.

“Why not stay home?”

The question caught Ross off guard, like some skewered fencer. All his pragmatic half-truths — about the sign-up bonus; the second-tour pension — were nothing against that stiletto subtlety. Why not stay home? With the smell of fresh-fallen rain, and the blue skies, and her… Why didn’t he have the bravery to stay — but courage enough to board the lifters? How often had he bent the wisdom of almost two years up here to look back into the mind of a 20-year-old? How often did he look through his telescopes, never finding an answer? Ross shivered. A breeze was nuzzling the back of his neck, as gentle as a lover and heavy with memories. If he closed his eyes, it could carry him to that hidden world off the New Jersey Turnpike; to the quiet fields nestled behind the Delaware, or to her warmth besides him on the Point Pleasant boardwalk. But his reality was as sterile as a surgeon’s table: The breeze had none of summer’s heat, or the ocean’s salt tang mixed with her perfume. After all, it was simply the oxygen-distribution fan sitting some 15 feet aft.

Shamefully, Ross realised he had still not answered Prospero — and his headache was deepening.

“Lieutenant,” abruptly echoed a toneless voice through hidden speakers. “Flash update for you.”

“Thank you, Balthazar,” Ross answered mechanically, adding, “Prospero, we’ll talk later.”

Balthazar was his standard-pattern “simple” AI; a facsimile of a soul, mass-stamped into memory crystal. The most sophisticated units — and their typically sizeable computing infrastructure — remained groundside. Ross focused on the bank of holographic displays before his seat.

“We have been assigned a new customer,” Balthazar explained. “All existing customers downgraded.”

Ross looked up sharply, eyebrows arched. Strange. His fingers began dancing across his holographic keyboard, his haptic gloves quivering with feedback.

“Customer call-sign is Nimrod,” Balthazar continued. “This comes direct from SPACECENT, Lt.,” it added, referring to U.S. Central Command’s Space Force component.

***

TO: CALLSIGN ‘MINT’

SUBJECT: CUSTOMER DOCKET ‘NIMROD’

COMMUNICATIONS & OPERATIONAL DETAILS FOR NIMROD (U.K. S.A.S.) ATTACHED. PROVIDE IMMEDIATE COMMUNICATIONS & ISR SUPPORT.

***

Ross commanded one of dozens of U.S. Space Force geosynchronous “cabins”: platforms tasked, among other missions, with assuring space-based communications and intelligence for groundside “customers.” Ross felt his pulse returned to pedestrian lethargy. Priority tasks for Special Forces teams — even those of allied nations — – were not unusual, despite this order’s terse, non-standard packaging. Nor were they strenuous. Indeed, as the congressionally mandated “man in the loop,” much of his role simply involved delegating to the onboard AI: Balthazar even ran the maintenance of the cabin’s laser-array using its EVA drones. Ross was painfully aware of his own cost-ineffectiveness.

“Balthazar, align our main communications and telescope arrays per the docket attachment.” Ross quickly felt a lateral movement in his stomach: 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 Space Force cabin work was done in monastic isolation, it was because groundside customers resented the ‘easy’ job upstairs. I’d be the same if I were 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 envision what Nimrod was facing, but his imagination had grown threadbare up here. He spat a helpless curse, gripped by his worsening headache.

***

Nimrod, half a planet away, pinched the bridge of his nose. A tension headache had set in — another reminder that age had laid its hand upon his shoulder, warning him to seek other employment.

“You alright, boss?” one of his men asked. The nearby figure was clad in drab civilian clothes and a rough-wearing poncho. Like Nimrod, a bulky re-breather mask concealed his lower face. In Bandung, the city of four million mopeds, such measures were all too necessary.

“I’m fine,” Nimrod lied. His eyes stung from the air pollution, uncovered as they were, but he glanced about to confirm his team was in place.

Their target building sat nearby, a squat-looking concrete confection resting back from the half-empty side street, aloof behind slapdash fencing. His team was dispersed about the street, half-hidden in the gathering gloom. The sun had already fallen on the city, as quick as a mortar shell, leaving only a dirty bronze smudge to mark its passing amid the endless grey sky. Somewhere, beyond the smog, were abyssal, cliff-like mountains; vast, volcanic slabs that rimmed the city. Nimrod only knew they were there because his approach road had led down into the bowl of the city, suffocating in its own foul breath while vivid green forests watched disdainfully from the rim. And even at Bandung’s altitude, the air was close from the heat of the dying day. It was a far cry from Nimrod’s native Warwickshire, or even the climate-controlled submarine that had covertly delivered him ashore.

The journey inland had been long and slow. But the flexible e-paper secured around Nimrod’s forearm gave some clue of its significance: The dimmed screen was due to flash him Prime Ministerial authority to proceed. He didn’t pretend to understand what madness had overtaken the Indonesian government in recent years, but he knew this deployment was not lightly made. He also knew he had no desire to visit an Indonesian jail. But Nimrod was confident in his edge today. He carried a state-of-the-art AI in his backpack — Nimrod had never seen one so portable before — and the GCHQ boffins in Cheltenham had cooked him a bespoke scrambling algorithm: Nearby Virtual-Reality users would simply see his team as local police, a possibly critical deception in a pinch.

Having the Americans watch down from space wasn’t bad, either, in a comfort-blanket kind of fashion.

The e-paper buzzed softly against Nimrod’s arm. He glanced down at its single message:

PROCEED.

Nimrod keyed the radio mike pressed against his throat:

“Shake a leg, lads. We’re going in.”

***

Ross, far above, had meanwhile grown bored. Unbidden, he contacted Prospero.

“Prospero, you still there?”

“Go ahead,” answered the familiar female voice.

“You see the latest footage from Jakarta?”

“Of course,” she scoffed. Everyone saw the live-casts. “Only one export still coming out of there.”

The unceasing footage from other people’s live-feed contact lenses had left Ross in no doubt about her meaning. Ross knew too little to understand, but there was no mistaking the fall of a country into despair — or a government into madness.

“Lt.,” Balthazar interrupted suddenly. “Please note…”

Ross blurted an interruption, forgetting Prospero immediately. “Nimrod! Damnit…”

He cued Nimrod’s channel, blinking away his headache. The cabin immediately echoed with the tin-can rattle of gunfire, as if an assault had reached orbit.

“How’s that data transfer coming, Nimrod?” Ross glanced across the telescope feed: ivory-dot figures decorated the blackness of the infrared array. They looked few; they were few. Beyond their thin, white line were dozens more spectral figures, approaching through tendrils of tracer fire that stitched the open ground in-between.

“Standby.” Ross’ display suddenly showed upload 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 emerging from the thin white line. Each 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 bodies ripped and torn. Panning the telescope with twitches of his haptic gloves, Ross spied a second group of attackers. Whereas the first advanced across open ground, these approached with a fence for concealment, flanking Nimrod’s team. Ross swallowed the pain of his headache, warning Nimrod:

“Check your telescope feed. Six targets. East. Behind that fencing.”

Nimrod’s team reoriented instantly; Its next salvo sent high-velocity rounds through the flimsy cover, scything the second group. 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 speed. 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 explained. “Apparently the bomb went up with the latest transfer flight.”

Ross froze. He had seen Mercury’s transfer shuttle earlier — it had docked only today. Maybe I still have time.

He muted Nimrod’s signal.

“Balthazar, raise the Mercury. And get one of our EVA drones over to them. Now.” Ross was frantic. Only now did the urgency of the SPACECENT order — perhaps the result of some advance warning —  begin to make sense. If Mercury detonated, it could trigger a Kessler syndrome: a domino effect of ever-expanding shrapnel, destroying satellites with childish, indiscriminate fury. The sheer ambition of the plan was incredible; a goal of crippling infidel economies and militaries wholesale. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a Kessler syndrome was the worst fear of the Space Force.

“Lieutenant, EVA drone en route…”

“Good, now — “

Lt., I am assuming command.”

Cabin AIs were coded to do so only in extreme danger, where human direction risked compromising the cabin.

“Your cabin air mixture is approaching dangerous CO2 levels,” Balthazar continued, “inspect and repair your oxygen-generator at once.”

Ross instantly pushed free of the crash-seat, drifting aft. Twisting a knee into his chest, he started a slow tumble orienting him “upwards” relative to his workstation. Momentum did the rest, planting Ross alongside a matte-grey, torso-sized tube. Using electrolysis to strip hydrogen and oxygen from wastewater, this was the cabin’s lung. Ross understood his headaches now. Some vital, capricious component had failed — leaving him to suffocate. He cursed helplessly. Fixing the generator could take hours, but Mercury could not wait.

Opening a hatch besides the generator, Ross pulled free a metal cylinder wrapped in thermal cladding: an oxygen candle. Securing it to prevent it free-floating, Ross flicked a simple switch on the cylinder’s body — a percussion cap, which began burning a sodium chlorate-iron oxide mixture. Soon, the “candle” would vent oxygen as a by-product, a decades-old technology serving as Ross’ only lifeline. With that, he was launching back to his station.

“Balthazar, I’m good,” Ross announced. “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 familiar, feminine tone.

“Prospero, get off my comms,” he snapped. “Not a good time.”

“What’s the plan?” Prospero persisted, ignoring him. Something drove Ross to respond — despite training, despite 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.”

“Long shot.”

“You got other ideas?” Ross hissed, glancing across his comms tabs. He paused. Looked again. There were no incoming signals — no tight-beam laser burst, no VHF radio —  none besides Nimrod’s muted line. Like a dawn suddenly breaking cover, Ross recognised Prospero’s familiarity. It was her. Or, at least, his memory 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 realise how far gone he was.

“Guess they skimped on his last update,” Prospero agreed, laughing with her laugh — a dirty, infectious chuckle.

Ross glanced at the oxygen candle.

“Relax,” Prospero soothed. “You didn’t imagine that part.”

Ross breathed the poisoned air, ignoring his imagination.

There was a hotel to save — and with it, most of Earth’s orbital ranges. Just another day in the Space Force.

 

Hal Wilson lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in the aerospace industry. A member of the Military Writers Guild, Hal uses narrative to explore future conflict. He has been published by the Small Wars Journal, and has written finalist entries for fiction contests with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, and the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project. Hal graduated with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and is studying for an MA on World War I. He tweets at @HalWilson_

Image: Wikimedia Commons