Nick Stoner
Dec 22, 2015 · 19 min read

Authors Note: This is intended as the first chapter in a hard-science series focusing interplanetary struggle in our local solar system at the dawn of machine consciousness. Please, let me know your thoughts.

The Battle Of Io

Year: 2199

Time: 02:00 ZULU

Location: High Orbit, Io — UA Stealth Cruiser XIV (Pegasus)

An ancient weapon orbits high over the volcanoes of Jupiter’s innermost moon, choking the hull of lingering war ship with the aromatic, intoxicating fumes of a Turkish coffee house.

From cannon balls to intercontinental ballistic missiles, military victory has clung throughout the millennia, not to those technological sticks and stones, but to the humble cup of coffee.

Espresso in the case of Captain Charles Rudnick.

Blinding doses of caffeine hit his bloodstream like a bomb and keep him from drifting unconscious toward the stars.

Espresso is an art on Earth. Italians practiced for centuries. The pressure of the steam forms the arch of the foam. Temperatures off by a hundredth of a degree can sabotage the brew master’s flavor. In degree of difficulty, terrestrial espresso brewing is not far from rocketry. Achieving the same level of perfection in space has taken time. A quality cup of Italian espresso requires water to strike the coffee grounds at 98°C, while the brewing mechanism must operate at 75°C. Not around, or about. It must be precisely 75°C. Achieving the proper temperature and pressure takes constant fidgeting with the gears. The whole contraption can weigh over 180kg, which mission planners baulk at, but military planners write off as efficiency costs.

It is the same with all things that go into orbit. They lay bare the essentials of what it means to be human in terms of raw mass. So 180kg to the espresso machine, 100kg to the whiskey supply, 50kg to the zero-g glassware that keeps the Captain and his crew from sipping their comforts out of leaky bags. Culture might be a product of gravity, but it’d been deemed too important a thing to leave behind.

A perfectly arched cascade of foam floats to the brim of the Captain’s glass as he gazes on the fiery torment of Io far below.

Io: innermost moon of Jupiter. Due to Jupiter’s immense gravitational poll, Io is subjected to extraordinary tidal forces. This process causes rampant volcanism with plumes of sulfur dioxide arching hundreds of kilometers above the service. If you look to the North, Captain, you will see a range of mountains that dwarf Mt. Everest.

“It’s nothing but a big rotten egg,” the Captain says with his mind’s voice to the personal CPU embedded in the back of his skull. “Who would ever hide something down there is beyond me.”

The construction of the communications node was most certainly manufactured by machine, not humans as your syntax implies.

Woe the day the machines decide what the machines make.”

Woe. I am not familiar with this word.

“Search Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare. Seventeenth century English playwright and poet. — O, woe is me, To have seen what I have seen, see what I see! — I am still unable to ascertain certain meaning. A human expression of anguish, perhaps. Is this correct?

“Close. Not exactly correct.”

Human language is inexact by its nature. It has been proven that this inexactness often compromises communication.

“You know what compromises communication… Never mind.”

The moon coughs at the Captain like a version of Dante’s Hell come down with the black lung. Jupiter’s deadly radiation belts charge the volcanic plumes, so around the white lava-crested peaks, choked space cackles with brilliant lightning. Against the painted backdrop of Jupiter, Io is an Astrotripper’s nightmare, an act of surrealism waiting to be conceived.

The Captain’s fingers twitch. The espresso churns the contents of his empty stomach. A jittery gargoyle at the helm of his ship, he feels utterly alive.

Heart rate circulation setting at 90bpm and increasing. Beta waves normalizing, but you still need sleep. Your REM cycle is compromised.

“Can’t sleep now.”

The next available chance. Even I rest.

“An interesting choice of words from you.”

Do you refer to my self-identification or choice of syntax for my non-functioning state?

The Captain considers. He’d meant the latter, but now that he thinks about it… God, he hates these games the CPU plays. Besides, he doesn’t have time to respond. Sergeant Gunner Luis Gutiérrez is yanking himself toward the Captain along the rungs in the ceiling. Well-defined forearms ripple beneath his electrified uniform, forearms the size of Sequa’s, calves the size of saplings. The men and women of The Pegasus all share a similar half built look. While civilian ships putter across the solar system with their bulking gravity donuts, the necessity for speed, sudden acceleration, and stealth mean military ships are stripped to their barebones. Like the early days of space flight, the crew workout over three hours a day, and carry rolls of duct tape for anything without velcro.

Gutiérrez swings to a steady stop just a meter from the Captain, a man raised on space flight and as adapt at navigating zero-g as a hawk a gentle wind. He performs a short salute and reports that any ships approaching from a Martian vector have less than an hour before preferred orbiting windows close, or as he puts it, “Little fucks’ll be here any minute, sir.” The Captain nods, getting high on his espresso while profound dreams flash as reality out the darkened window.

They are used to the dark. Military protocols call for minimal power during “potential engagement scenarios” (PES), so they’ve gone through the genetic treatments, widening cones in the inner eye for greater light absorption. They would fit right in with the religious fanatics of the outer colonies who tunnel through frozen solar waste like tube worms. Adaptation has always been necessary for the expansionist project, a normal part of what the Libertarians and Webwalkers call the post-human condition. So artificial hearts pump blood through the marines’ bodies, machine mechanisms offsetting the circulation havoc of low-gravity. They cope with the environment with a litany of technology and enhancements. As for those military euphemisms, however, there is no genetic treatment for those. A PES is simply a time when a marine holds onto ones own butt and acts like their brothers of old, swimming in mud and making life in a foxhole. They take doses of uppers directly to the frontal lobe and try not to blink.

The Captain doesn’t use the drugs most of his crew function on. Pure caffeine fuels his hawkishness and puts him at ease. If a pulse bomb catches them off guard, many would asphyxiate out of shock at the loss of air before remembering to trigger their emergency helmets. The Captain has seen it many times before — the flash followed by a rapid loss of pressure, eyes bulging in contorted faces, brains not able to comprehend where the air has gone that had been there only moments before, CPU’s more confused than their mammalian counterparts. It’d been determined early in the First Solar War that a CPU could mistakenly kill a soldier during such an EMP attack. A human would try to trigger their emergency helmet, but the CPU would block the brain’s command, and the helmet wouldn’t fire, resulting in death. There were many theories to the cause, from the rapid change in environment causing malfunction to the much maligned — but increasingly believed — theory that the CPU’s were actually scared.

There’s no doubt the marines are.

That’s why they disable their CPU’s from the emergency controls and take their drugs, even knowing the effects can make the shock of such an attack worse. The Captain feels it is better to be primed naturally, to rely on good-old human instincts.

His orders are to wait and observe. If a ship arrives — and only if — is he to take action. The course of action has been left intentionally vague, shrouded in the classic euphemisms. Yes, his superiors deployed a military ship, but they made no announcement of that fact. Any action taken would be neither defensive nor offensive. It wouldn’t be any type of ‘sive. If all goes smoothly, anything that happens during the next hour won’t be recognized as having happened at all.

The Captain is as used to this kind of military posturing as he is to the dark. No one wants to start the next Solar War. So they are reduced to unactionable actions, to observation patterns that are “left up for interpretation” as a younger, brasher version of himself would have explained.

In fact, he’d said as must after the infamous Ceres Maneuver of ’72…

First Officer Rudnick to UA Rear Admiral Alfred “Lips” Thompson, date 2172, February 2, time 0900. Conversation as follows…

“I didn’t ask for a damn transcript.”

I apologize, Captain. I detected effort of long-term memory retrieval.

“A memory is different than recording. We forget for good reasons.”

I do not have the luxury of forgetting.

“Remind me to wipe you before your next upgrade.”

May I remind you that enlisted men are not authorized to destroy, tamper, erase, or otherwise interfere with implanted CPU’s. All recordings, logs, and data are property of the United Aristocrat’s Alliance. Any purposeful damage to a CPU will be deemed a criminal offense regardless of rank.

“Is that a threat? Threatening an officer is cause for a court marshaling.”

There are no known cases of CPU’s taken to criminal trials.

“You’re right. We’ve never given you guys many rights. We tend to smash you and get the new one.”

I hope you don’t mind my inquisition, Captain, but I see you have had two previous CPU units prior to my implementation. That is below average for a human your age.

“I refused to go fully cyborg until they made it a requirement for deployment. As long as you’re in my memories, go ahead and see what happened to those older units.”

You become very primitive when you are tired, Captain.

“They can put chips in our heads, but they can’t beat the fight or flight out of us.”

Whom do you refer to with the pronoun THEY?

“I don’t know, Sam. The Libertarians. The Martians. The man. The machine. Is there a difference anymore?”

The Captain’s philosophical musings seem to go beyond his CPU’s circuits. CPU’s can be deceptive that way. Their language, witticisms, and retrievals can seem so perfect, so finely tuned, that one believes they’re speaking to a real person. The computer scientists have to keep reminding everyone — assuring them, really — that this is not true artificial intelligence. They are still only dealing with clever programming, ultra deep learning, and powerful chips. Rational, complex, free-flowing human thought, it’s not. Consciousness? The elusive concept is still a far off dream. But the Captain, despite himself, forgets often. It’s not intuitive, after all, that a CPU can read the mind but can’t see the soul.

The ship is silent.

CPU’s echo in each marine’s head and are answered back with internal thought. The pilots and crew work over light projected keyboards and screens. They tap the air, issuing commands. They control a ship of over 25 million parts, carrying an armament of pulse bombs and rail guns. They maintain the deuterium-tritium fusion engine perpetually, normally burning at 150,000,000 C off their hull, but for the moment, powered down. They operate off of auxiliary battery power to reduce their radiation signature, just another cold satellite caught in Jupiter’s mighty arms. They are a self-contained system. Every breath is measured, every exhalation calculated. Their waste is composted, their urine recycled into drinking water. Their uniforms are washed by lasers. Microscopic nanobots scurry across the floors, collecting dead skin cells and dust, scurrying them off to the organic compressors that break them down into their atomic pieces to feed the 3D printers and life support systems. A nearly perfect closed-loop ecosystem. Nearly.

The Captain has ridden The Pegasus across the Solar System for over thirty years, since the last days of the First Solar War, and when he ties himself against the wall cot at night, he feels more home than he ever did in the hydroponic fields of Valles Marineris or any of the cavernous cities of Mars. He adores its strange groans and rattles. The glimmering walls and rungs appear in his dreams. If he were to exist between these metal walls for the rest of his life, never getting another sunburn, never letting a natural wind toss his hair, it would be a natural life. For, when it came to the natural world, his was The Pegasus.

In theory, as long as their fusion engine stays lit, they can remain deployed indefinitely. Most people assume that many ships lost to pulse bombs in the First Solar War may have very well recovered use of their engines and drift now as cosmic islands. Or steal tombs, depending on one’s predisposition.

Io belches a flashing yellow cloud a hundred kilometers high, just as the silence of the command deck is shattered. Everything begins to flash.

“Two ships approaching. Decreasing velocity,” Sergeant Gunner Gutiérrez says.

“What vector?” the Captain purrs.

“Martian, sir.”

That was the signal.[1]

“Charge our little friends, Sergeant. Everyone, prepare for ignition.”

As he speaks, a series of ordinance laid hours before begins to charge. When fully charged, a pulse bomb carries an electromagnetic emission strong enough to disable any electrical device within 200 kilometers. The trick, as always, is putting them in the right place.

Thankfully, like the fine art of espresso, the Captain is a master. At one point, he was named one of the most prolific captains in the United Aristocrats (UA) fleet. His rank eschews such a legendary history due to his absolute allergy to bureaucracy, especially the mind-toastingly complex and, in his opinion, idiotic levels encountered at the interplanetary level. What his history has won him is a salary that far exceeds his job title.

And he is fine with that. Admirals sit back in crusty stations on Luna. Any higher, and you’re really grounded. Even if a home with a pool in hills of Sedona sounds nice, (it’s basically Martian, they say) he doubts his legs will hold him up any more, and he refuses to wear an exo-suit, no matter how comfortable they say they’re making them these days. And then, there’s the real reason.

He likes this too much — gazing upon sights the brain doesn’t dare try to grasp. There are women, (and men) on a planet or two who’ll testify that he more than likes this. They’d say he loves it. Far more than anything else.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the adventures, commanding an Interplanetary Cruiser is a puzzle of geometry and physics, hard sciences with severe rules. Orbits have to be followed. Even the most genius of military operations abide by the absolute laws of gravity. The best captains factor in the Universe’s laws. They understand them intuitively. Better, even, than the physicists, engineers, and CPUs running the numbers. A captain can feel the way gravity tosses a ship, the gentle pulls and tugs. The fabric of spacetime bends within their bones. Or so he’s always felt.

Today, gravity tells him which orbit vectors a ship approaching from Mars has to approach at, a different answer for every second, down to millionths place. It tells him where the safe orbiting distance from his own pulse bombs is. Gravity makes the art of war into a terrible and precise science.

The crew of The Pegasus can’t see the approaching ships out the observation windows. They’ve been covered with a common optical shielding that renders an object almost completely invisible. The best they can do is trace the faint radiation paths left in the wake of charging fusion engines. Using these signals, the Captain’s crew informs him they could fire pulse bombs in T-minus two minutes.

I know.

“Keep us updated,” the Captain says to his crew. “Stay quiet,” he says to Sam.

They wait. The moon spews fiery sulfur, and the Captain tries to imagine again the intrepid people who’d ventured down to that hellish rock to build the communications node they now protected. He doesn’t care if machines installed the actual cables and metal, as Sam says. It was people who imagined building such a thing. People. The work of Libertarian fanatics, most likely. They were the ones who’d nearly sabotaged humanity’s entire expansionist endeavor with their self-righteous treachery, a single act that had sparked an eleven-year solar wide war.

The Captain snorts at the thought. He doesn’t know whom he’s prepared to unleash hell upon. The Martian designation doesn’t mean anything anymore. Not since the war. They could be Libertarians, crawling out of their subterranean bases in the northern Martian tundra. Or a UA faction operating for the benefit of a separatist patronage. Or a Terrestrial Colony State — American, Chinese, Indian, or Russian — contracted by the UA. (Aristocrats had been contracting state resources for at least sixty years.) And this is why the details don’t matter. They are all fanatics, as far as the Captain is concerned. His commanders know as much. It’s why his orders come in the form of gravity vectors encoded in political double and triple speak.

At this point, who matters so much less than what. That is fanaticism’s great legacy. The deeds of most of human history can only be explained through it. And at the dawn of the 23rd century, fanaticism has managed to weave through every bare-naked rock of the Solar System. This is the reason he floats on edge of Jupiter, ready to drop the bomb.

“Targets in range,” Gutiérrez says.

A moment of hesitation can allow for a velocity change, a shift in orbit. Hesitation here can cause instantaneous failure.

“Detonate!”

A pair of brilliant lights blares into existence in the deep, sulfurous darkness.

“Reignite engines!” the Captain barks.

His Chief Physicist, Dr. Angelina Witt, is slim and pretty, but utterly cold. She swipes at her controls with the efficiency of a CPU in a woman’s body. The men watch her, wondering if it isn’t the other way around.

Her actions cause the ship to lurch as the high-powered lasers focus their tremendous energies on a pinpoint in Pegasus’s engines, consuming all remaining battery power. It takes less than an instant, a billionth of a blink, for the fuel of the sun to ignite in their stern.

Sam has already calculated the coordinates necessary to approach the disabled enemy ships should a rail gun volley be required. Espresso foam moistens the Captain’s lips. He recalls the days when they blasted ships into oblivion, when lasers seared holes the size of a gorilla’s fist to knock a missile off course, when Libertarians blockaded Earth with an act of sabotage that left nascent, dependent colonies stranded to starve and die. The brutal days, the New Dark Ages, as they were sometimes called, of a less civilized space war. All sides learned quickly. If they were going to obliterate each other, they couldn’t litter the Solar System with space junk, clogging the only solar highways gravity made possible with swarms of charred 28,000 km/h metal roadblocks. That wasn’t in anyone’s best interest. Tactics changed.

The shootout became a ballet.

They’re charging now. The marines feel the acceleration in their bones, marrow sloshing like water in a shaken jar. Tendons stretch. Gutiérrez pops a finger. Then another. They still can’t see the Martian ships, but CPU’s confirm they’re closing fast. If there are survivors, the Captain will send out a boarding party. The team is already assembling in the hull, snapping clunky armored exo-suits over silky graphene body armor, some armed with diamond saws and gravity clamps for prying airlock doors, others with nightmare inducing blades and electric spears — the intimate weapons of a boarding party. The globular pools of blood they’ll spill preferable to a volley of bullets expelling them out into the vacuum.

Boarding range is less than a minute away. The Captain is halfway through ordering Gutiérrez to stop popping his fingers and join the boarding marines, as an explosion rips through space just outside the Pegasus along her portside.

The Captain’s espresso slips from his grip, tumbling endlessly through the air, punching black steaming bullet holes through their lightboards. Red alerts flash.

Engine power has been lost. We are losing preferred trajectories.

“Who fired at us?”

Based on projectile speed and explosion profile, missile was Type…

“Who, Sam?! Not what, goddamnit. Who?! Are the enemy ships disabled?”

Yes, Captain. The projectile could not have originated from the Martian ships.

The marines are assessing the damage, rapidly beating at their lightboards. They relay all manner of information to the Captain, but he cannot hear half of it with Sam buzzing in his head twice as fast as any of them. He hears half facts. The missile has knocked them off course. Engines, and thus, navigation is disabled. That antiquated phrase that’s been with the crews of ships since the days of the long oarsmen — they’re sunk.

Without engines, the attack vector they were on before the explosion will have them plunging into the heart of Jupiter in mere minutes. They’d been sprinting forward, but cut loose, the ship and everything on board is nothing but another cold rock 778.5 million kilometers from the sun.

Pegasus is plowing through Io’s volcanic plumes, and as it does, there’s a new sight out the windows. Dozens of escape pods jettison from the cloaked Martian ships, so they appear to be materializing out of nothing, popping into existence like the streaky blurs of a quantum particle. The mysterious missile has ruined the chance for a boarding party. The crews in the Martian escape pods may still try to land on Io to disable the communications node. If the Captain were leading the Martians now, he certainly wouldn’t take crippling for surrender. There is only one option.

“Sergeant Gutiérrez, are rail guns still functional?” the Captain asks, as the ghostly escape pods disperse into the cosmic night.

A railgun attack in current orbits will endanger Helium-3 mining operations in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

“Yes, sir,” Gutiérrez calls out faithfully, unburdened by the computational conscious in the Captain’s head.

“Fire.”

The recoiling guns send shivers through the deck, but that’s all. The tungsten-tipped projectiles are electrified down muzzles that extend the length of the ship, cutting into the vacuum at 8,000kph. The cloaked ships reveal themselves a moment later as they shatter like glass. The escape pods become party balloons, their bursting streaks of fire spurting electric confetti across the clouds of Jupiter. The obliterations lasts only seconds before the deck quits shivering and all the can be heard is the incessant blurring of the red alert to remind them all that they’re still in danger.

Sam has been keeping a countdown of the danger in the Captain’s head. They are moments away from loosing the ability to use their own escape pods to become satellites of Jupiter instead of meteors. But The Captain isn’t listening. He’s still watching the Martian ships break apart, glinting in the light, then vanishing, barely there at all. He’s watched this death dance a hundred times, or has it been two hundred?

206.

He doesn’t move until Dr. Witt makes the official announcement that they have four minutes to abandon ship before their uncontrolled trajectory plummets them straight toward Jupiter’s core. They only wait for the Captain’s word to evacuate, sure the old space veteran hasn’t gone suicidal on them.

“Abandon ship.”

The order hardly makes it off his lips. His commanding officers lean in to confirm that they’ve actually heard. Like a young family listening to a dying man’s staccato, departing words.

Two-hundred years ago, that’s exactly what the Captain might have been, another 83-year-old decrepit ape in an open hospital smock, a cancerous body shitting itself into eternity, not the specimen struggling to keep his composure over the helm of an Interplanetary Cruiser. He rubs a purple and gray striped goatee, dyed to match the regal colors of the United Aristocrat’s flag while gage-weighted earlobes bend upward ever so slightly in the low-gravity. He isn’t old in any sense of the word. News is out about the solar system’s first bicentennial, so he’s a young chicken, as an old phrase would put it. But he’s feeling ancient with so many eyes younger than his waiting for his move. For the young, death is never imminent, until it is.

When the marines determine that the Captain has actually spoken, they begin bellowing his order for themselves, their voices reassuring one another. The colonies on Europa or Ganymede will send rescue parties soon enough. They won’t be adrift for long. Maybe a few hours at most — if they evacuate now. They swing toward the back of the ship along the ceiling rungs like a tribe of maundering apes traversing the forest canopy. One-by-one they settle into pods built for four, performing the briefest of systems checks before strapping themselves in and hitting ignition.

The pods carry miniscule amounts of hydrogen peroxide to make small course corrections after the ships magnetic expulsion system launches them to safety. They’re flimsy things, stocked with air and supplies for little more than a week, and almost no radiation shielding to speak of. They’re going to be fried out there, huddled in tin barrels as they tumble through the abyss.

Except for Dr. Witt.

She clamors past the escape pods, shoving marines out of her way as she scoots along. The Captain has Sam open a channel to Dr. Witt’s CPU. Her response rings through his head.

“Dr. Witt, where are you going?”

“We must retrieve the data card from the engine’s computer. I want to see why the reaction shut down.”

“They shut down because we were nearly taken out by a missile.”

“That’s a soldiers response. If a shockwave can cause a rupture in the…”

Captain, one minute until collision with Jovian atmosphere is unavoidable.

Sam’s rote description of being squeezed to death by millions of kilograms of pressure per square meter is almost calming. It is at least less infuriating as Dr. Witt’s arcane search for meaningless data. By now, the marines are gone, safe in low-Jovian orbit. They will not be meteors today. The same can’t be said for the Captain, Dr. Witt, or Sgt. Gutiérrez who has waited with the Captain like a dependable first mate.

Sgt. Gutiérrez barrels after the insufferable physicist. Moments later he is dragging her by the arm like a piece of cargo while she kicks and screams. Together, the men manage to force her into the pod. She stubbornly begins to cooperate, pouting while they buckle her down. The Captain thanks Gutiérrez and tells him he’s earned a promotion, before flinging himself back into the hallway where the Captain’s personal pod waits.

Nineteen seconds.

This is plenty of time for the Captain to strap in, close hatch doors, pressurize, and launch. Or, it will be, if he doesn’t hesitate. If his hand doesn’t halt before the launch trigger, an outstretched finger resting against an existential barrier.

Launch. Launch now. Ten seconds. Captain, you must launch now if we are to achieve orbital stability.

A machine wouldn’t hesitate. But the machine is only a voice in his head. The Captain is something else.

He launches three seconds too late.

[1] Quantum Encryption Key Accepted

From: Major Cecilia Ortega, UA

To: Captain Charles Rudnick, UA Stealth Cruiser XIV

SUBJECT: PES, Io, Jovian System: Presence Requested

Captain Rudnick, embedded in this message you will find a diagram of known locations of the nodal networks making up the Interplanetary Internet known as Republica. Please note the central node splitting the inner and outer systems in the Jovian system. As the closest UA vessel to this location, your ship’s presence is requested to maintain a wait and observe orbit for potential PES. UA intelligence has reason to believe an attack on this central node is imminent. Please withhold any actions until Martian Vector of approaching ships is discerned. If confirmed, please engage in non-descript actions to preserve quantum coherence of the Io node. Please reenter your encryption key to confirm message received.

Nick Stoner

Written by

Do cool things everyday. Then make them great. @StonerWriter

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