Copyright (C) 1992 Sean M. Puckett.
Admiral Richard Stevens sat back in the control cockpit in the central ship of the battlecluster Sword of Vengeance. Long distance scanners were just picking up the fringes of Saturn's rings. And in there with all the rocks and dust were sure to be the aliens' spycams. "As soon as they sense us, they'll be on us like a swarm of mad hornets," he warned the pilots. Stevens made a conscious decision to relax. No sense going into battle nervous. Scared, sure. Fear can rapidly sharpen the mind, but nervousness can just as quickly dull it. And don't even consider panic as an option. That'd be death for sure.
His head hit the padded rest, and his eyes closed, but not in sleep. In his mind, Stevens was replaying the events and headlines of the past four years. Back in '83, he'd have still been serving as a first officer under Admiral Bigg. "Got promoted when we lost Bigg in the battle --- hah, not a battle, more like a wipeout --- of '86," he thought. Bigg was a good man, and Stevens would have chosen any other way to get his command. But you've got to take what they give you, and he rose quickly from Admiral of the South Polar, Bigg's old command, to his present station as Rear Admiral of the Outer Reach. The Prexy didn't think Stevens should be risking himself like this in the Sword of Vengeance, but didn't have the nerve to deny him.
He ran through it in his mind: "But it was in July, 2183, that the universe changed for us --- for humans --- forever. That was when the researchers at Dark Side University found the alien fleet on their way to Pluto. What a shock that was to everyone. Seven SETI projects had played out over the two centuries since their inception, and not a peep was heard from outer space. The big ears never heard a thing. And now, it was a big eye finally tossing the Homo-exclusivists on their ears. The four kilometer faceted telescope on the dark side of the Moon spotted over 30,000 individual objects moving into the solar system, all in organized formation. No one who saw the images for a moment believed it was an interstellar meteor shower.
"The odd thing about them was that they never emitted any radio signals, and radar sensing always returned an empty field. Half of the pols wanted to send an envoy, half of them wanted to send missiles, and half from each camp waffled daily. It was this sort of chaos that led to the first screwup. The pols wouldn't authorize continuous use of optical telescopes in the asteroid belt --- too many special interest groups still prospecting for silicon in the asteroid belts via optical sensing --- and, inevitably, the DSU telescope lost them as they went in the shadow of Jupiter. They were still outside the orbit of Pluto, but Jupiter got in the way of the line of sight. After three or so hours, Earth overtook Jupiter in orbit, and we could again see where the fleet was. Except they weren't there.
"They looked for months, and never found them. More like, they found us.
"November of that year was our first encounter with the aliens as a race. It didn't go well. In fact, it didn't go at all. The rare-earth mines on Pluto suddenly dropped out of radio contact, and ore shipment slugs stopped coming through. Ships were diverted there immediately, of course, but their radio contacts with us were inevitably of the nature "Everything looks okay. Wait, what's that<crazzzzzz>......." After the third ship was lost, we stopped trying. Nothing happened for two months, then in February of '84, "nothing" happened again.
"An amateur astronomer on one of Neptune's moons was searching for Pluto, but didn't find it. He told his father, an astrophysics researcher, who double checked his son's coordinates, and also didn't find it. Now, it may seem odd that the first person to discover that Pluto was missing was a child, but remember, planets aren't in the habit of going on vacations, stepping out for a bite to eat, or even going off to sit in another room. They're big hunks of rock on infinitely predictable paths around the Sun. There's no NEED to watch where they're going, because the math completely predicts their behavior. It was only a few hours from the boy's first report till every telescope, radar antenna, and scanner in the outer solar system was pointing where Pluto should have been. Some were scanning all around, wondering if someone had been playing a joke on them --- not thinking for a moment that it's really hard to hide a planet under a dark tablecloth.
"Once the news reached Earth, fury was all. Nothing else was talked about for months. Everyone had a theory, but the most common one was the government party line --- A black hole ate it. In the military, few believed it, because we have long memories, unlike Joe Average who gets reprogrammed every week by his senseset. The whispering in the halls of every war spacecraft was the same: The aliens ate Pluto. Okay, maybe they didn't EAT it, but it IS missing, and so are the aliens, and so are all the miners and the rescue ships.
"About half of the monitoring stations continued to try to find Pluto or at least some clue as to what happened to it, without success, until December of that year. That was the month everyone went nuts again. The Neptune Orbital Research Center stopped transmitting. It wasn't located on the planet itself, but on one of the moons. The planet probes stopped sending data at the same time. It was like someone had said "SHHH" to a planetary system of thousands of people. Not a peep was heard again.
"Of course, ships were sent, with the same results as on Pluto. The ship would near its destination, everything would seem just as it should, then a sudden crackle of static, and nothing. Never heard from again. The media went totally crazy with it. No one could decide who was to blame, but it sure wasn't them. Business as usual for the pols, but this time they were pointing fingers at industry, the military, the universities, anyone. It was a terrible time.
"Three months later, terrible turned to horrible. A vigilant eye was by now being kept on every planet and moon in the solar system, but a freak power outage brought down all the monitors around Uranus -- those set to monitor Neptune -- for three hours. When the scanners and scopes came back on line, Neptune and its moons were gone.
"For once, the pols did something right. There were scare riots and suicides and mass-murderers on every block. They got together and in less than a week, hammered out the Solar Defense Concordance Treaty. It was a nasty bit of work, and there's still parts of it that aren't fully understood. But the important part was the intent: Every country and every company would contribute 20% of their Gross Product for research and defense of the solar system. Loopholes galore didn't stop everyone from jumping on the band wagon. It makes good business and political sense to be seen trying to save the human race from total extinction.
"Out of the US's 20 percent came about 80 percent of the space going warships. All of us US Space Force jarheads got recommissioned under the SDC's new Solar Defense Force navy. Only thing good to come of that was increased pay. They wanted to keep all the experienced hands in, and all the experienced hands wanted out --- it was now really dangerous in space, apparently. So they changed the charter, eliminated all early retirement pay, and added 150% to our paychecks. Suddenly, again, space was a nice place to be. Keeps the enlistment lines long, too.
"The first sheep led to the slaughter was my old fleet under Admiral Bigg. I'd been bedridden on the Moon with pneumonia from a faulty suit air processor, and just missed the fleet leaving for points out. I was mad as hell then, but when the fleet suddenly vanished like all the other ships we'd sent, I composed a thank-you note to the suit processor manufacturer. Never sent it, of course.
"With the SDC Treaty in full effect, and the SDF making headlines as the biggest and best fleet ever (how could it not be, with 80% of the world's ships forced to join it), people were settling down, sort of. Newsreel footage from the 1940's in England reminds me a lot of what people were like back in '86. Business as usual, but a distinct undercurrent of panic and despair. Lots of new babies that winter. After the fleet didn't return, SDF pulled an old warship design out of the Israeli archives and hacked it up a bit, tacked on new weaponry, new energy sources, and called it a "brainstorm."
"After we finished chuckling about that, we took a good look at the design, and liked it. Seven ships mounted together for transport, but unlatching one-by-one for enemy combat. The idea was interesting. Common military strategy would dictate sending all seven ships in at the same time, to battle in flanks. But since our enemy was apparently capable of annihilating an entire fleet at once, better to send in a ship at a time, in hopes of doing more damage. Of course, only fools would want to pilot these individual warships. Somehow, the computer found 17 fools who were smart enough, agile enough, and low-enough rank not to know anyone who could jigger the files. We winnowed that down to the smartest, and designed the cockpits of the ships around them.
"While all of this military planning was going on, the aliens were back to their old tricks. Most of the civilians on the colonies at Uranus had been evacuated after Neptune went, but there were still some caretaker staff still in place. These people were the next to go. In January on 2187, their communications stopped being received. When, three months later, the entire planet vanished, it would have been anticlimactic, save what the monitors found. There were 251 various sorts of scanners, sensors, radar dishes, telescopes and radiation detectors pointed at Uranus when it went, and the data we got from them was fascinating.
"The planet, its rings, and its moons all started emitting increasing levels of broad spectrum radiation, from low infra- red, through visible light, to gamma rays and beyond. The emissions peaked 20 minutes later, when the planet was completely white hot. The light was then flicked off, like a switch, and there was nothing left of the planet, or its moons. Speculation went wild over what kind of device did this, why it needed to be done, who was doing it, anything and everything. The best minds got together and muddled out a theory on how the device worked.
They explained it to the civilians like this: Imagine a lump of coal. When you burn it, it makes smoke, and ash, and produces energy. In this case, the planet itself is being burned from the inside out. This energy is being used for some unknown reason.
But the effect of this process is that the microscopic percentage of energy escaping from the collectors the aliens placed inside the planet is enough to heat it white hot. When the planet is burned away to nothing, the light goes out, and nothing remains.
"They figure it takes the aliens about three months to set up their planet burner. It took us eight months to build the Sword of Vengeance Battlecluster. Seven of the brightest (and dumbest) pilots in the SDF fleet, and me, sitting in a control module, deciding which of them will go to die next. What a news event. What a media circus it was. We left in May, and now here it is the middle of July. Two months of encouragement, thank you's, and best wishes from everyone we know, and billions of people we don't know. Saving the species would be a lot more fun if they weren't so pesty about it."
Suddenly red beacons spring on all around the control center. Long range scanner indicates alien ships closing fast. Stevens snaps the safety covers off the ship-docking controls, and commands the injections of moderate stimulants into all his pilots.
The fight sequence is recounted in the game
Galacta I - The Battle for Saturn.
"...and as the last of the wreckage drifts off into space, people of Earth, I am once again glad to say that the alien menace has been defeated! Admiral Richard Stevens, Commanding, out." Stevens heaved a sigh. That was the fourth message SDF wanted him to record. First, his tactical manual. Then message to the president of the SDC. One for the UN. One for the senseset audience. Another for the scientists who wanted first hand detail, and another for the SDF generals. Two more to go.
"Gentlemen of the scientific community. This message will serve as accompaniment
to the tactical manual and battle recording tapes. With this information, the SDF hopes
you can discover how, if not why, these alien life forms were destroying our solar system.
The response time of the aliens is tremendously quick. Their ships are highly responsive,
and are able to reverse direction in an instant. The energy used in maneuvers like this in
astronomical, yet we detected no traces of..."
The admiral is interrupted by flashing red beacons, and warbling sirens. The computer announces, "Recording halted, file saved. Vast energy surge detected above the ecliptic, 150,000 km distant. Probability of offensive potential 14 percent."
"Screen, sensors, downlink."
Computer: "Screen activated. Sensors locked on. Transmitting data to downlink. Surge increased in power 33 percent."
"Nature of energy?"
Computer: "Unknown, resembles matter/antimatter detonation. Surge increased in power 140 percent. Probability of offensive potential 23 percent."
"Shape of energy flux distribution?"
Computer: "One node, precise alignment with axis of our location. Probability of offensive 78 percent. Surge power 478 percent."
"Engines to emergency, direction Earthward, 90% away from axis of alignment. Notify pilots of situation."
Computer: "Engines full, heading 60, mark 11. Pilots notified, linked in. Reactor temperature stable, 67 minutes of emergency power remain. Warning. Energy flux node rotating to preserve axial alignment, elongating, speed 25,000 kps. Time till intersect 7 seconds. Power 8,332 percent."
"Emergency band channel NOW! Sword of Vengeance under attack, unknown adversary, unknown weaponry, advise full alert status ...<FRAZZ>"
As the beam of blazing energy enveloped the Sword of Vengeance, observers around the Solar System with a religious bent would later say it appeared as if the finger of God reached out in wrath. In fact, several new religions were founded on this basis. These religions believed Humans were either A) being punished for destroying alien life B) being punished for destroying Human life through the ages C) being told to get back to Earth and stay there or even all three at the same time.
Only seconds later, the beam and its source both wink out, and nothing of the Sword of Vengeance remains, save her last transmissions captured by downlink on Rhea, the fifth moon of Saturn. These were broadcast to Earth via laser link, to the network satellites via emergency message intercept, to the sensesets via fiber optics, and finally to the nervous system of Pilot Benjamin Stevens of Southeast Salvage and Hauling
Ben Stevens, nephew to the famous Admiral Stevens, was linked into the state stunt jet competition. If he couldn't compete in person, and couldn't attend, he wasn't about to miss the sensies. Ben's contract with Southeast wouldn't allow him to take the week he'd have needed to participate. They placed sensecasters on the bow of each plane, and viewers were treated to first-person rolls, loops, vertical simulated bomb runs, back arrow S's, negative Immelmans, and other amazing aerobatics that were only possible with the smaller stunt jets.
The sensenet news bureau news-brief logo appeared at a typically inopportune time, followed a moment later with their oh- so-perfect anchor. "Flash in your head, and bang in your brain, sorry to intrude, now I'll explain. A space tragedy alarming to all, amidst the joy, our hopes must now fall. The Sword of Vengeance, about to return, triumphant at last, to cinders did burn. A blaze of flame, from weapon unknown, demolished the ship, our sensors have shown. Nothing survived the incredible blast, so for a moment, watch this twos cast." A 2D window appeared over the anchor's shoulder, and Admiral Steven's victory message played itself out. "As you have heard, it was moments ago, when..."
Ben, stunned, dragged the senseset off his head. Uncle Richard... dead? The family always knew he would meet his end in space, but the reality hit Ben like a load of steel slag. His uncle had been like a second father to Ben. Richard Stevens was the bane of Ben's parents, however, signing up a 10-year old Ben for pilot lessons, getting the boy a jet for his 13th birthday, taking him to see stunt shows every week when on planet. When Richard was shipped off planet with the Space Force, Ben's parents were almost glad to see him go. The course of Ben's life was already set, however. He would be a jet pilot, and that was all for discussion. He and his uncle kept in constant correspondence, and though Ben envied him the freedom of flying in space, could not bring himself to join the Space Force. He was too much of a free spirit, he felt, to deal with the regimented and commanded lifestyle. Richard Stevens did nothing to encourage the boy, either, knowing of the dangers of the military life, especially in the cold vacuum of space.
Ben was a marvelous flier. He could feel the air currents through the controls of his jet. Cloud patterns told him where to go for smooth atmosphere, or where to go for an exhilarating roller coaster ride. At 18 he refused his father's offer to send him to engineering school, even through his father's carefully reasoned arguments about potential earnings, safety, and staying close to home and family. Ben heard none of it, and soon signed his current contract with Southeast Salvage and Hauling. He'd been working there for three years, and though there was no shortage of flying to be done, the rather boring assignments were starting to take their toll. Every off day, Ben would go up in the old craft his uncle gave him, and practice his stunt flying. And every day at work, one or the other of Ben's supervisors would tell him to quit "cutting it up" and fly like a professional.
It was only a few minutes before the message terminal chimed, and a static image of his mother appeared on the screen, frozen in an expression of shock and disbelief. Ben called out "Accept." and the image came to life. "Ben," she cried. "I just heard! How terrible! Molly just told me to replay Beta-34, and I saw it. Oh, Ben, I'm so sorry! I know how much you two had in common! Listen, I have to call your father at the office, I don't want one of his miserable co-workers to break it to him. I've got to go. I love you, honey, please call me later!" And before he could even say good-by, the connection disappeared. The terminal chimed again, wondering if it should replay the call. Ben told it to wipe the message, and sunk lower in his seat.
Several months later, the entire planet of Saturn disappeared in the same fiery glow that had taken Uranus. No lives were lost, fortunately, because the defeat of the Sword of Vengeance was all the prompting anyone needed. The human race was in full retreat, back to the planet of its origin.
The loss of his uncle and the disappearance of Saturn set Ben Stevens on fire. Everyone could see what would eventually happen -- Jupiter, Mars, then Earth. If the aliens kept to their schedule, the entire planet would vaporize in three and a half years. All around the world, there were thousands of organizations with countless solutions. Ben reviewed almost every statement of these organizations, but none of them made sense to him.
He was nearly crazy with the need to do something when the arrival of his uncle's locker contents set him in a totally new direction. Admiral Stevens' possessions, what few of them he left behind, were sent from storage on the Moon to Ben's father, the only surviving relative. James Stevens, a strong hearted and religious man who had already finished his grieving, sent the items along to his son Ben, in hopes of providing the younger man with some solace.
Along with the expected and usual tunics, boots, medals, and cap were a small collection of university chits, and something almost beyond belief. A tiny diary chit such as a teenage girl might have. At first, Ben was sure it was only accidentally included with the shipment, but when he slid it into the slot on his message terminal, his uncle's full name was that displayed. A subtitle read "For Ben." His father had apparently accessed the chit, because a note was appended to the title, reading: "I've left this unopened for you. Please send us a copy when you've gone through it. Dad."
As was usual with diary chits, a password was required for access. Any decent ice could crack a teenager's diary, but apparently his uncle wasn't concerned with intentional hacking, only unintentional. A flashing prompt at the base of the screen asked Ben for the code, and Ben responded with the first thing that came to mind, "Password Mini-32." The computer flashed acceptance, the password was the model number of the jet Uncle Richard had given him when he was 13. The diary table of contents sprang up, and there were a few dozen entries over a series of 12 years. The first entry was several days after Ben's 10th birthday, the time his uncle had started him on pilot lessons.
Ben read the last entry first. The date was that of Admiral Stevens' assignment to the Sword of Vengeance. The entry was short:
"Ben, I've gotten the Sword! You're the only one I can tell how excited I am. It's hard to be a stuffy old Admiral when you've been given the chance of a lifetime! I ship out in only a few hours, but I have to leave right now for a briefing with the pilots and crew. To fly, actually fly a ship again... it's been a long time since I've been at the helm of a ship. For years they've assigned top navigators and pilots to me, and of course, I accepted them. There's a lot more to Admiralship than flying, but oh how I've missed the simple pleasure of zooming through space. I've got to go. "Gonna save the planet again." In case I don't come back, this'll be my last entry, so I should say that I wish you the best of luck in whatever you choose to do with your life, and remember one thing: If you've made yourself happy, that's one thing. But if you've made a lot of people happy, that's a lot of things. Damn, they're paging me. Richard, Out."
Something in Ben's head clicked over. He had always believed his uncle had joined the Space Force for a selfish reason -- to fly in space. But in review of everything Ben could remember, his uncle had always been courteous to a fault, kind, and giving. The last statement in the diary made it all come together. Admiral Richard Stevens joined the Space Force not to fly for fun, but because for him, flying was how he could best help humanity.
Ben quickly read through the rest of the diary entries, and they all reinforced his discovery. Each one was filled with the profound desire to use his talent and joy for flying to help others. Richard Stevens came alive for Ben, then. He suddenly understood why his uncle had done all those things for him.
Richard saw himself in Ben, as a young boy. Remembering his own joys in learning to fly, his only choice could be to do everything he could for Ben to help him experience it as well. And in a flash of insight, Ben understood why his uncle had never suggested Ben apply to the SDF as a pilot. He didn't want Ben to lose his life in a space battle, or lose his joy of flying stuck making mail runs to and from the asteroids, or lose his sense of fun stuck behind a desk as a grey haired administrator.
Only moments later, Ben decided he would join the SDF and use his flying skill for the benefit of the human race. He drew up short, mentally, when he remembered his contract with Southeast Salvage and Hauling. He had two more years to serve, and the penalty for early cancellation was a wage garnishee equal to the cost of his replacement. Unless... Stevens quickly called Southeast and asked to speak to the man he had met only once, three years ago, on his job interview.
Byron Southard, the general manager at Southeast, listened to Ben and his tale. He wasn't about to give up his best and most reliable pilot without a damn good reason, but after consideration, Ben's story came up good enough for him. Not, however, good enough for the comptroller, who said he would pursue a broken contract with a swarm of lawyers. Ben's reaction to that was apparently preconsidered, for he immediately said he would voluntarily pay the penalty if Southeast didn't officially file notice of a broken contract and request for garnishee. The comptroller almost grinned, seeing a simple solution to the money problem, and okayed it. Southard made up a contract rider, had Ben fax his signature in, and the deal was done. Ben packed the few personal possessions he had, and didn't even look back at the monthly apartment he had so excitedly moved into three years before. He took a tube to the SDF recruitment office, and made his name known to the receptionist.
Though he was the fourth person in the waiting room, Ben's name was called first. A sergeant of impressive physical apperance walked with him down one hall, up a flight of stairs, through a long covered walkway to a second building, and into the reception of a Commander Lee. The sergeant announced Ben's name to the clerk, who beckoned him to sit. Job complete, the sergeant exited the way he had come. A short wait later, the clerk announced, "Commander Lee will see you now. Door on the left."
Ben arose, thanked him, and proceeded through the door. Commander Lee's office was well appointed. Lee apparently had the benefit of a number of years in the same room, for the walls and cabinets were decked out in as fine a trim as one might expect from a thirty year veteran. Which he was. "Please sit, mister Stevens."
"Thank you, Commander. I have a certain suspicion that this is not the usual treatment for potential recruits." "Your suspicions, Stevens, are completely accurate. Admiral Stevens set up a computer system watch on your name. If you came to a recruting station, you would be sent to me. And here you are."
"So this has something to do with my uncle?"
"Very little. It's to do with you. Admiral Stevens kept us updated on you, son. We know your experience, your education, and even something about your personality. We read that diary chit he left for you--"
At this, Ben started to his feet, anger rising. But Lee waved him back in his seat. "Siddown, son. Nothing is private in the SDF, especially for an Admiral. We can't take any risks." Ben glowered, but acquiesced. "I understand." "Of course. We figured you would show up here once you read it. You're a very talented pilot, Stevens, and if I read you right, you want to fly for the SDF."
Over the course of the next year, Ben progressed rapidly through SDF training, flight simulation, and his first few flights in space. Now based on the Moon with other new pilots, he was privy to the SDF's monitoring station there. When probes on Jupiter and its moons ceased transmitting, and three months later the entire giant planet burned away, he was among the first to know and seethe with that shared inner hate. An alien race was slowly, surely demolishing his solar system. Soon, they would come for him and the planet that gave him genesis.
The SDF did not attempt to attack the aliens on Jupiter. There was not enough time to ready a new ship design. That would have to wait till the monitors on Mars failed. The extra year of development might give them enough of an edge to defeat the menace.
--- To Be Continued ---
Well, not really. Since Galacta never spawned a sequel, the rest of the story never got written. Sorry about that. But, so you're not left hanging, here's how it ends: Earth and humanity are safe, but Ben dies heroically.
So, what do you think? Should I quit my day job and write SF for a living?