Into the Void
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. But you can definitely see one. And seeing one, you can feel it too. You can feel your throat freeze and the air get sucked out of your lungs as you watch the ice crystals form around their mouths. You can feel the fluids boil underneath your skin as you watch their faces bubble and swell. You can feel your vessels burst when their eyes go blurry behind the pink mist of evaporating blood. And you can feel that helplessness as you watch them float away into oblivion, their faces frozen in that scream for all eternity. For them, its only a moment. Fifteen seconds, maybe less. But for you…well…it isn’t over yet…
Major Joe Collins walked briskly up the inclined corridor that led from Berth Ring 3 to the central fuselage of the USS Atlantis, feeling himself become lighter with each step. After about fifty meters or so his march had morphed into more of a moonwalk, bouncing a couple meters between paces. He kept one hand up to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling, pushing himself back down every time he rose too high to speed up his progress until he reached the point where the tunnel shot straight up to the center of the ship. He pulled himself down into a low crouch with the aid of a hand rail and launched himself toward the fuselage, pushing lightly against the wall here and there as it rotated into him. As he drifted up he found a small glass dome protruding into the tunnel. He turned to face it, being sure to maintain eye contact with the lens behind until he heard the sound of the hatch opening above.
Collins glided through the threshold and across the fuselage, pausing for a moment on the opposite side to adjust to zero G. The long tunnel was empty except for two crew members who passed without saying a word, as instructed. When they had moved on, he reoriented himself parallel with the bulkhead and pulled himself forward, hand over hand, using one of the four rails that ran the length of the passage between each ring. He crossed over Berth Rings 2 and 1 to the foremost ring spinning around the fuselage, the one labeled “Command.” Here, he found another glass dome and repeated the procedure from before, opening a hatch at his 3 o’clock. He let the ring rotate until the open door was directly in front of him, grabbed the handle above, and swung himself feet first down the shaft.
As he drifted downward he noticed that this tunnel, unlike the one he had just ascended, had windows facing forward. However, they were frosted out, making them little more than dark rectangles against the light gray walls of the tunnel. Still, it was refreshing to see some reminder of the universe outside. He reached the point at which the shaft curved out towards the ring and bounced along until he could walk with a normal gait. He paused at the end of the ramp, closed his eyes and shook his head, reacclimating to the sensation of centripetal gravity, before stepping off with his left foot into the command ring.
The rings on the Atlantis were so large that the curve in the floor was almost unnoticeable. The hallway he entered was crowded with enlisted command staff from every country in the alliance hurrying between rooms in their service dress uniforms. A couple managed to render him the appropriate greeting as he passed, but most were so caught off-guard by the sight of a field-grade Marine officer in his combat utilities that they simply stared before turning their attention back to the information tablets in their hands. Had he been given more time, he would have changed to the appropriate uniform. But the instructions were clear: “Terminate scheduled exercises and report to command section immediately.”
Collins marched on down the hall till he found the door labeled “Command” and banged on the hatch three times with the palm of his hand. “Enter!” came a voice from within. He swung the door open to a towering figure silhouetted against the starry backdrop of the first transparent window he had seen since boarding. Light from the ceiling cast a glare off the four stars on his collar and his shaved black head. Marine General Shawn Ramsey. To his right and left were Lieutenant General Alan Stewart, British SAS, and a civilian that Collins didn’t recognize, both dwarfed by the General between them. He closed the door smartly behind him, took a step forward, locked his body at the position of attention and presented himself.
“Good morning, sir. Major Joseph Collins, reporting as ordered.”
The General returned the courtesy, stepping to within a pace in front of him before joining him at attention.
“Good morning, Major. Take a seat,” he instucted, gesturing to the long table in the center of the room. Collins moved to the table and sat opposite the other three men. The General began.
“Major, I apologize for keeping you in the dark for so long on this one.”
“I understand operational security, sir.”
“All the same, I think you’re gonna wish you had a little more time to chew this one over. This, as I’m sure you know, is Lieutenant General Stewart. The man to my left is Brian Carter of Sterling Industries. I’m going to let General Stewart catch you up to speed.”
“Thank you, sir,” Stewart began, turning from Ramsey to Collins. “We’ve got a lot to cover. Where to begin? I suppose we’ll start on some common ground and work our way on from there.
“Seventy-three years ago, when the major powers were carving up the territories of the old United Nations Space Alliance we thought we were getting away with the crime of the century when it came to Saturn; taking Rhea and most of Titan, leaving the International Socialist Union with Iapetus. We had the richest concentration of hydrocarbons found outside of Earth, and we gave them a remote, barren, icy rock with barely enough gravity for a proper colony in exchange.
“As it turns out, Ivan’s been making the most of that particular misfortune. Shortly thereafter, ISU began constructing a base on the far side of the moon. Its remoteness made it difficult to surveil, but on the rare occasion it did come into view we were able to observe a large structure coming up along the ridges of a massive crater. We assumed they were using the terrain as natural scaffolding for a ship-building facility, taking advantage of the low gravity. In fact, the enemy ran a massive disinformation campaign to confirm that suspicion. What should have tipped us off was the perfect circle they had made, completely following the circumference of the crater,” here, the he paused for effect. Collins’ eyes widened with comprehension. The Lieutenant General continued.
“Yes, the ISU constructed a particle accelerator, the largest one ever completed; twenty times the diameter of CERN, and vastly more efficient in the reduced gravity of Iapetus. It went operational within two decades.
“At the same time, back home on Earth, the Chinese had finally perfected the art of capturing antimatter. Stabilizing the stuff requires balancing it perfectly in a vacuum, using magnetic fields, or gyroscopic forces. To date, the most we’ve managed to capture for any significant period of time has been a cubic centimeter or two. Intel reports indicate that, on Iapetus, the Russians and the Chinese have produced, captured, and indefinitely stabilized cubic meters of the most energy-rich substance known to man. We’re playing with marbles and they’ve got a bloody beach ball!”
Here, Collins interjected: “to what end? Between all the superpowers, there’s enough nuclear warheads in the solar system to assure mutual destruction several times over! Launch them through a railgun at a close enough range and there’s no stopping that. What do they want with antimatter?”
General Stewart was about to reply when he was cut off by the civilian. “Propulsion,” he began. “Since the end of the rocket age any ship that’s traveled from any celestial body to any other has been powered by ion engines, with the notable exception of the solar sails on the Second Home Mission. Ionic drive has taken us to every corner of the solar system. In fact, we’ve developed the technology so well that, in a few years, we might be able to match the travel time of the 2HM ships, if not surpass them. But we still wouldn’t be able to catch up. With an antimatter drive, theoretically speaking, the most limiting factor would be the ability of the humans on board to survive the G forces produced in acceleration. By a conservative estimate, such a ship could make the same journey as 2HM in a tenth of the time.”
“And by all accounts, that’s what they plan on doing,” General Ramsay said. “When it launched during the peace, the Second Home Mission took with it the combined hopes of all humanity. Almost every nation on earth collaborated in a massive effort to establish the first viable human colony beyond our own solar system. For 107 years, they’ve been in cryo, tended to by three generations of maintenance crew, waiting to reach their destination. They’ve got two years to go.
“The vessel the ISU has been working on is a warship. Their plan, from what we can tell, is to set a course for Alpha Centauri and hijack the Second Home Mission while they’re still pitching their tents. If they succeed, not only do they gain the only real estate outside of our solar system, we also lose any bargaining power we thought we had with mutually assured destruction.”
“So we destroy the ship,” Collins tried.
“It’s not that simple,” Carter interrupted. “Destroying the ship would be a setback, for sure. But the actual construction of the ship only represents a fraction of the effort they’ve put into this. The majority of it has been spent developing antimatter capture and the corresponding propulsion system. On that front, we’re still years behind. In the time it would take us to catch up, they could build two new ships. I’m sure you’re starting to see where you fit into this picture.”
“Your task here, Major, is to bring us that ship,” Stewart continued. “As I’m sure you’ve gleaned, we’ve finally developed a source on the inside, codenamed Sky. From what we can tell, Sky is a senior Chinese programming officer working on the AI that governs everything at the ISU base on Iapetus, including that ship. Our plan is to sneak you and a small team onto an ISU base on Titan. From there, you’ll board one of their shuttles to Iapetus, using your own biometrics and false credentials which will have been uploaded into the enemy system by Sky.”
“You want to run an infiltration op and you still don’t have an identity on your agent?”
“We’ve run multiple verifications of Sky’s placement and access. We’ve verified control. But as of yet, no, we still do not have an identity.”
“I’m sure you realize how high the stakes are here, Major.” General Ramsay now. “We wouldn’t be taking this kind of risk otherwise.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t want someone a little more senior for this.”
“We did. Colonel Brett Thompson said he wouldn’t trust anyone with this, including himself, more than you. And Lieutenant Colonel Romero didn’t think he could pass for Russian. Whereas you…well, your mother was Russian, wasn’t she?”
“Second generation Lithuanian, Sir.”
“So you’ve got the look. And your record shows you speak Russian with near-native proficiency. We figure you’ve got a pretty good chance at blending in long enough to get on board that ship and pilot her back to friendly skies. Better than I’ve got, at least.”
Collins cracked a smile at the General’s dry humor. “Well then, the only problem I can see is the crew. A ship like that has to have several hundred crew members, plus combat troops for their planned operation.”
“When she makes way, we anticipate a crew of approximately 4,500.”
“I don’t think they’re going to like it when they find out about the change in itinerary.”
“Well, Major, space travel is dangerous. And the void is unforgiving. That’s all for now. You’re dismissed.”
Major Collins stood, coming to attention one last time. As he began to leave Saturn’s rings had just come into view in the window. He took one last look before he about-faced closing the door behind him.