The following story by Alec Medén was the winner of the Art of Future Warfare project “Space” war-art challenge that called for a short story envisioning the future of space/interstellar conflict during the last decade of the 21st Century. Alec is a sophomore majoring in screenwriting and creative writing at Chapman University in Southern California.
Donya Al Shirazi watched the missile streak towards her. Just five minutes. That was all she needed. Might as well have been an eternity. She concentrated on the Microdrive engines, and her craft cruised dangerously close to the blue glow of the Earth’s atmosphere. The missile was coming in prograde, so it needed to make up a lot of distance, but the LACE/hydrogen rocket of the African Confederation’s Tsetse 7 missile would allow it to make up the distance between it and Donya’s Interceptor without trouble. When it reached her, it would splatter her across the sky. She had no more solid ammunition, just her laser. She needed five minutes to reach Godard.
The missile made minute course adjustments, straining like a hunting dog. It was starting to catch atmospheric drag thanks to her low angle but it was able to push through with brute force. As it approached the 700-mile mark, Donya armed her laser systems. The rocket had already disengaged its LACE, and it was moving into final boost stage. Her only hope was to outlast its propellant. Unless…
“Godard, this is Foxglove, what’s the word on laser support?”
“You’re still out of range of the station. We can’t get a track on the bogey through the atmo.”
“At current speed, what’s the ETA on that?”
She stared as the little missile, visible only as a dot on her screen, nuzzled closer through the void, seeking the inviting warmth of her fighter.
“That’s one minute too long!”
“Well, we can’t move the station. You have to try and juke it.”
The missile streaked closer. Its supplies were still going strong.
Donya swore and turned her lasers to face the target. The charging diverted useful energy from her Microwave “reactionless” drive, but it was more than worth it.
The missile approached. At this angle, the curvature of the Earth meant that there was significant atmosphere even between her and it. Laser blooming was unacceptable at this range; it would be like firing a flashlight at the missile. She waited as the deadly thing grew closer, and closer…now under 100 miles, now 70, now 30…10!
She depressed the trigger. The invisible beam of the laser struck the missile right on target, and managed to stay there. The ablation from the beam knocked the metal monster nearly sideways, before finally causing the explosive inside to detonate.
A puff appeared in the black.
Donya didn’t have time to sigh with relief before warning lights started flashing, alarms blared, and systems began to shut down.
Pieces of the missile shattered the main laser array, and then ripped the solar panels to shreds. Finally the main computer took a direct hit, and her vision went black.
“Just because the enemy is dead doesn’t mean you’re alive.”
Donya pulled off the headset and slammed it as gently as she could while still expressing anger against her desk. The FMRI/HUD headset cost significantly more money than she had ever seen in her life. She slipped the haptic gloves off her hands and dropped them on top of it.
“I know what I did wrong. It’s just a sim.”
She stood up in her dorm room. It was littered with papers and digital paraphernalia, as well as healthy dose of collector’s items and memorabilia from her favorite video and AR games.
Walter Crant’s British accent emanated from the onboard speaker of her tablet. It was currently exhausting its entire processing capacity attempting to keep up an encrypted link.
“Every failure is an opportunity to improve. What you did was focus too much on the orbital reflectors. We would have lost Godard.”
“Godard can take care of itself, it’s a goddamn space station!”
“Yes! So no matter how many guns we put on it, it’s still stationary! A sitting duck! Why do you think the Interceptors even exist?”
Donya didn’t answer.
“You ready for debrief?”
She looked at the smart tattoo on her wrist. It told her it was nearly 3 PM.
“Nope. I have a class to get to. Now since I’m a frozen corpse slowly careening through space, can I go off? I’ll be late.”
“Debrief at 8 PM tonight. And don’t be late. I have twenty other trainees, and they’re actually grateful for the opportunity to serve.”
“I’m grateful for the pay.”
“We both know that’s not why you’re in this, agent Foxglove.” And without fanfare he shut off the link.
“Prick.” Donya whispered as she put on her backpack and stepped out the door.
She walked through the hanging vines, bamboo, and succulents that made up the exterior of most every campus building. They had gone hard for the biobuilding craze, matching much of California. But it all would have been for naught without her father’s idea. Global warming had been dampened by one thing alone: the reflectors. Her father’s reflectors. That’s the only reason she got out of Iran in the war. His concept was too good to ignore. She still remembered the clammy embrace of the gas mask, watching the custom’s agent eye her with distrust, as if her seven-year-old self represented a grave threat to American security.
She could see her Dad’s contribution every day. The dim dots in the sky that you needed a binocular to see, but could see all the same. Those were her father’s work. The solar reflectors gilded the planet in a protective wrap of silver mirrors, blocking a portion of the sun’s rays. They were studded with solar panels, capable of producing a significant portion of the world’s energy. They had saved the world, but not him. Farouk Al Shirazi made sure that Donya and her mother left first. But he stayed too long, and his office in Tehran crumbled under Kazakh and Pakistani bombs.
She had escaped into games. Gamers didn’t care whether you were from Iran, or America or Timbuktu. All they really cared about was your capacity to win. Alternate reality games that made her forget the dwindling food on her table and erased the worn looks on people’s faces in the hard times after the war. She’d excelled, even among her friends, winning her first championship at 16. Now here she was, paying for a Stanford education with her winnings, more secure than she had ever been in her life, but she wanted more. She wanted to win, to excel. Crant gave her another chance to be the best.
The best at war. That’s pretty fucked up, isn’t it?
The funny thing was, after the stress of gaming 18 hours a day to train for tournaments, piloting military drones in space was relatively easy. Reality was simpler than the games.
Professor Williams squinted out at the classroom, a diminutive shape compared to his taller and stronger students. His generation was horribly unhealthy by today’s standards.
“When the Sovereignty movement started really taking off, they scared the hell out of the U.N. Imagine it: a few million of your own citizens claiming dual citizenship to a nation that only existed on the Internet! A few governments even designated them my favorite meaningless word: terrorists. Hell, I remember when I was young we had pundits calling them Soviets. Probably still do.”
Donya turned back to her tattoo. The datafeed flashed, but she didn’t pay attention to what was going on. She looked back up.
He grinned and turned to the classroom. “Now, could anybody tell me what the Sovs did in response?”
Silence. Donya looked at her wrist. There was a message from Crant: Something’s wrong.
The Professor shook his head “Does anyone recognize the name Scalpel?”
Donya sat up straight. A few hands raised in the class. Hers did not. She tried to keep her face blank. She typed without looking: Specifics?
“Well, Scalpel is widely believed to be the military arm of the Sovereignties. It began to combat the increasingly antagonistic intelligence operations carried out by most world governments, foremost among them the U.S. and China. Like the Sovs, they span borders without a care, operating in enemy and allied territory alike.”
She wondered what Professor Williams would think if he knew a Scalpel agent was in his class right now.
Crant messaged her again: Check the feed
She tapped one of the sensors and switched to her datafeed. It took her a moment to understand what she saw.
When she did understand, she felt fear ooze through her like water form a deep sea current.
Williams continued obliviously “Scalpel was known for recruiting young technophiles. Donya, have you ever considered joining up?”
Donya looked up. The Professor was smiling sardonically.
“Considering how much more interested you are in whatever device you have there than my class, I imagine you’d be a perfect fit. Maybe you can enlighten us as to what Scalpel’s first major combat action was?”
Donya stared at the teacher, and then at the other students in class. None of them knew. Nobody knew but her. She looked up at Williams.
“The Water War. ICBM takedowns, right?”
“Well, it seems that you at least do the reading before class. Yes, Scalpel found a cheap solution to missile defense: they flew commercial drones packed with explosives into the silos as they opened, detonating the boosters on site. It was so cheap people almost didn’t believe it was possible. These kind of absurdly low cost and inventive techniques defined Scalpel’s combat up to today…”
Donya was already looking back at her tattoo. A massive stream of data was piling up. At its head:
NUCLEAR WEAPONS SUSPECTED IN ANNHILATION OF LAGOS.
She got up and pulled her backpack on. She stepped out of class.
“Excuse me, Donya, where are you going?”
Donya didn’t answer, and flipped down her visor.
“News query, Lagos.” She barely vocalized, the throat mike picked everything up easily.
The images made her stop walking. That same oblong plume of smoke she recognized all too well. Fires and blackened earth, grainy footage of blackened people.
“Call a certain surgical instrument.” She whispered. A blank Unicode number appeared on her visor. A moment later, she was speaking with Scalpel Agent Walter Crant.
“It wasn’t a nuke.” He said before she’d even opened her mouth.”
“What else does that?”
“Just moments before the impact, we pinged an inbound target. From space.”
“Jesus. You-you can’t expect me to believe that ET-“
“It was one of ours. The U.N.’s more specifically. The U.N. space probe Zheng He, sent out in the sixties to investigate Centauri.”
“What the hell is it doing insystem?”
“Better question, what the hell was it doing accelerating towards Lagos at .7 light speed?”
It dawned on Donya then “Shit. They didn’t need a nuke.”
“No nukes about it. It had a reactor and a Microdrive to accelerate it as long as it wanted; the brute force was enough to cause the explosion. Somebody hacked its controls, probably back when it was being built, so that it would make a U-turn in interstellar space and accelerate continuously until it reached us.”
“Why? Who the fuck wants to create a city buster that would only work in 40 years?”
“Doesn’t matter. Consider yourself deployed.”
“I thought you had plenty of pilots!”
“We lost-“ the call cut out. At nearly the same moment, the entire city went dark as well. Only the bioluminescent fungi on the walkways stayed active. Donya’s HUD disappeared, and she felt a burning in her arm. Her tattoo was dead. She looked up.
A blot of light in the sky, too wide and faint to be a star or a planet, was slowly fading into nothing. The high altitude nuclear airburst dissipated quickly, until there was nothing there at all. It made no sound. However, the sound of a commercial jet careening out of control lent its cacophony to the event. Donya turned and watched the black manta ray shape of the plane twirl down through the clouds, only to dash itself against the far off city in a dim flash of orange.
She slammed open her door and ran to her desk, dropping her backpack next to it. She slid her gloves on immediately and fired up the interface. All her other gear was fried by the EMP but Scalpel had made sure that her mission integral equipment was hardened.
She typed rapidly with her haptic gloves, and then spoke: “Scalpel asset designate Foxglove on station, ready for operation”
There was a pause, longer than any she had dealt with in training. Finally, her vision went black, and she saw Earth. It did not look the same as she remembered. An ugly cloud emanated from Nigeria. Flashes of light in low orbit marred the skies of the blue marble, and clouds of new debris cluttered the commercial orbits. Her fMRI headset effectively read her mind, and zoomed in on any computer-designated objects or debris that she focused on while simultaneously auto-targeting weapons to the contact. Crant’s voice interrupted her horrified study of the carnage.
“I’m giving you full operational control. They’re going after the reflectors.”
“It’s the Africans, among others. They’re worried the mirrors could be used as an energy weapon. They’re deploying forces as we speak!”
“What about Godard?”
She heard Crant take a breath on the other end.
“Godard station was deorbited by a nuclear shaped charge. That’s why we need you to pilot. Good luck.”
She was already in orbit above the lion’s share of the reflector array, using its light to gather up a wealth of solar energy in the Interceptor’s batteries. She was glad that despite the chaos below it, the array seemed to be almost entirely intact. The Interceptor chassis carried both radioisotope generators and conventional batteries, as well as a small forest of solar panels that could be retracted in differing numbers and to different lengths. Its interior contained several microwave drives, evolutions of the proven EMdrive concept, turning electrical power straight into thrust. In addition, chemical thrusters were attached to the vehicle for speedy maneuvering. It sported a megawatt laser system with an effective range of over a hundred miles in vacuum. At the center of the squat structure was a magnetic railgun, capable of firing clouds of smart pebbles, or “buckshot” as it was often called.
The object appeared on her scanners, accelerating on a fast and tight orbit towards the array. Nothing could hide from her in space, least of all this. The distinctive scaffolding-clad form of the African Confederation’s primary space weapons platform, the Remora, became immediately evident.
Donya sent it a prepackaged deterrence message. There was no use trying to hide. They could see her just as well as she could see them.
The ship continued without responding. She sent the message again. That was when her cameras flashed.
The enemy was firing their lasers at her. At this range they wouldn’t have a chance of burning her ship, let alone causing explosive ablation, but they could still render her blind.
She fired her cluster round. The recoil blasted her away from Earth at nearly 200 MPH. The enemy laser immediately ceased dazzling her and aimed at her round. She fired up her Microdrive to begin a slow approach to the reflectors, intending to head them off. They wouldn’t get a chance to harm her Dad’s work. Her shot hit the Remora a moment after she began maneuvering. Between laser point defense and a quick maneuver, the ship had avoided most of the buckshot, but something must have struck it because it began to spin like a top.
She was so focused on the enemy craft that it was only when the computer notified her that she became aware of a series of contacts coming fast on an opposing orbit. She focused her rear cameras. It was a number of objects, but this was no high-altitude cloud of debris. They were in formation, and they were emitting energy. The profile was unlike anything she’d seen before. She figured given its size and complexity that it was likely American. She just hoped they hadn’t caught on that reflectors could be used as a weapon too. She couldn’t fight a two front war in the damn thing.
She didn’t have time to consider the implications of this before the Remora fired three Tsetse 7 missiles. Donya didn’t think. She acted. While the missiles were still close together, she fired another round of buckshot. It took a moment for the round to connect, but she was rewarded with the blast of two missiles detonated. The Remora was damaged by some of the debris. Pieces of the craft hung limply from its core like the flayed skin of an animal.
The third missile continued towards her. Donya pivoted her ship on thrusters and fired her laser as it cleared the fifty-mile mark. She learned her lesson from the sim, and this time jetted away from Earth in a radial outburst just as her laser struck and fused the missile’s end. The cloud of lethal debris passed “under” her Interceptor.
The Remora was now only a few hundred miles away, and it was engaging in periodic burns every few seconds, coming closer and adjusting course minutely in an attempt to stay unpredictable. It fired another salvo of missiles, two this time. Donya loosed more buckshot at the Remora, hoping to put the beast out of commission for good. This time the rounds had good effect, and they tore gaping holes in the superstructure of the craft. She saw a telltale blast of one of its missiles detonating. She smiled, until she noticed something.
She enhanced the view on her headset. Air. Streaming from the Remora. And in that rapidly dissipating air…moving shapes.
The Remora had a five-man crew. Donya stared through the cold glass cameras, and watched the bodies stop moving and begin to cool. Only then did she turn back to the American drones. She swiveled the laser mount around. The little octagonal frames showed the telltale flashes of radiation from their microdrives. She saw no weapon systems. But then she saw the computer calculate their trajectories.
“No! No fuck you!” the little machines were forming up so that they would all impact the solar reflectors
She initiated a burn in a vain attempt to close in on the drones before they hit the reflectors. She launched buckshot into the swarm. The round smashed dozens of the enemy, but the swarm reformed faster and more efficiently than a human formation. They were fast approaching the reflectors, and her. She activated the laser. It reached each of the drones and fired. Drone after drone became inactive, but the swarm stayed largely intact. Finally her heat sinks were overloaded. She vainly tried to maneuver out of the way with Microdrive but the smaller, nimbler drones outmatched her. Two drones approached at 34,000 MPH. She braced herself to see the screen go blank.
Instead, it went silver.
Donya made an animal noise as she watched one of the mirrors use its onboard microdrives to maneuver on front of her. The drones bashed into it, but even at their insane speeds, the hyperdense polymers and the self-assembling semiorganic compounds that made up the back of the mirror slowed them down significantly blasting them off course. The jagged splinters of mirror and drone sheared off several of her solar panels, but didn’t strike the center of her vehicle. She was safe.
She sat, watching infinities of stars reflected in shards of the reflector.
“Foxglove, Foxglove are you there!”
“Was that you? Did you fucking destroy it!?”
“Yes, of course! We hacked the controls of the reflector. We needed to protect your vehicle. It’s a high value asset.”
Crant yelled over the speaker, shocking her into opening her eyes. “Listen, Foxglove, disengage right now!”
“Why did you do it? You needed to save a goddamn weapons platform instead of the most important fucking-!“
“Listen, we have an inbound track on a missile.”
“There’s nothing on scanners you idiot!”
“Not in orbit! A hypersonic missile is inbound to your position. On Earth. Get the fuck out of there!”
For a moment it seemed like he was speaking a different language. Then it sunk in.
She ripped the headset off and ran. She blew out of her dorm and sprinted for then nearest fire alarm. Thankfully that at least was EMP hardened.
She was yelling at people streaming out of the stairwells to run when the blast knocked her on her feet. She managed to get up, and felt the blood on her face. She touched her hair. Nothing lethal. When she opened her eyes, she realized the same couldn’t be said for everybody. It was a maelstrom of smoke and fire. The missile had streaked in and hit somewhere around the third floor, where she lived. She ran past people moaning on the ground, towards the smoking maw of the stairwell.
She tried to push her way into the heat and smoke, but a hand grabbed her arm, holding her back. She pulled, but the hand did not give. She turned to stare at Professor Williams
“You can’t go in there! Wait for the firefighters!”
She pulled again “Get off me! Get off!”
“It’s too dangerous!”
“I did this!” Williams let go, his mouth half open.
“I did this.” Donya repeated, “It’s my fault. So I have to try and fix it.”
She ran in. But the smoke burned in her throat and the heat was suffocating. She didn’t know when she collapsed and stayed down, but she did remember the cool embrace of a hardened firefighting bot pulling her from the building. She remembered seeing the sky above as she was carried out, and how it was full of shooting stars. She remembered the bot taking her not to the firefighting trucks, but to a white van, piloted by a gaunt man in a suit with a sallow, angular face.
“It’s okay Foxglove. You’re safe now.” Walter Crant said.
Donya was piloting the Interceptor again later that night. They needed somebody on picket duty at all times. The solar cells were already repairing themselves, and disposable rockets from Scalpel’s stocks on the Moon would rendezvous with her vehicle in twenty minutes to supply her more buckshot.
“You did a good thing today.” Crant said.
Donya made a minute course adjustment with a wave of her glove. The air in the safehouse smelled vaguely of plaster. Homeland Security was no doubt after her, but Scalpel could keep her safe. Her mother was probably terrified.
“That interceptor is the last weapon left in space. Scalpel has orbital superiority. Something the Africans and the Americans can’t say for themselves.”
Donya stared at the stream of shining metal and glass as it flowed beneath her, like a silver river around the Earth, encircling it and keeping it safe.
“I always assumed you were in the UK.”
Crant chuckled “That’s the beauty of Sovs. You never know who’s around the corner, willing to give you a hand.”
“Whether you want it or not.”
Crant sighed. He waited, thinking, before responding:
“Your father’s work wasn’t in vain. We can rebuild it. But first we need to win what looks like a fourth world war. Priorities, you know. It’s all about value.”
Donya nodded “Priorities. Dad understood that. It’s funny, because he was near the top of everyone else’s list, except his own.”
“I imagine those two facts are connected. I think your father would have worked with us, if the Sovs had been around then. We just want what’s best for everyone.”
Donya watched the cold, cold stars, and she wondered how long it would take for the crew of the Remora to fall back home again.
“They all say that.”