Untitled Space Opera
By Patrick Hester
© 2010 All Rights Reserved
Earth Prime: November 11, 2260 by the old calendar, 0315 hours
“Incoming call, Admiralty, Priority: Urgent.”
Gabe Carter, Commander Naval Intelligence, groaned.
Blinking at the clock on his nightstand, he fumbled around until his hand landed on the base of the lamp to click it on. Yellow light flooded the room. Blinking, he tried to rub the sleep from his eyes. Pushing back the covers, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up.
“Accept call, bedroom,” he said to the pleasant enough female voice. The panel on the wall beside his bed flared to life, displaying the logo of the United States Defense Force complete with American Eagle, flag, laurel wreath and star pattern. Two heartbeats later, it was replaced by the image of an older woman in a robe, her silver and blond hair falling down around her shoulders.
Carter had never seen Fleet Admiral Vaicci quite so unkempt before. The woman was normally a paragon of military protocol and decorum. Her hair had always been impeccable, her uniforms spotless – to see her in this way somehow lent a vulnerability to her that made him wholly uncomfortable. It was silly of course. No one could sleep in their uniform with their hair perfectly set, but, somehow, thinking that she did, that she always looked that way, made it easier in his mind. He didn’t know why.
“Commander,” she greeted him. If she were uncomfortable with his standing there in a t-shirt and his tighty-whities, she didn’t show it. “Sorry to wake you. I know you’re coming off a forty-eight hour debrief on the El Salvador mess.”
“No problems, Admiral,” he said, stifling a yawn.
“I need you on Mars.”
Carter let out a long, slow breath. He couldn’t help himself. He hated space travel, always had.
“I know your feelings on the subject,” she smiled wryly. “I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”
“Of course, Admiral,” he nodded. “I apologize for my hesitation.”
“Are you familiar with the Arizona?”
“Raymond Feist’s ship? I am.” Older than Carter, Captain Feist had been a friend for decades. He liked the man immensely.
“That’s the one. They’re scheduled to start a six week Mars patrol tomorrow morning, oh-nine-hundred. I am moving their departure up to oh-four-hundred and you will be going with them.”
Carter glanced back at the clock on his nightstand – oh-three-fifteen. That didn’t leave a lot of time to get into orbit.
“Take a private tube,” the Admiral said into his thoughts. “Expense it.”
“Aye, sir,” he replied, his mind already going through a checklist of things he’ll need; computer pad, extra uniforms, skivvies if he needs to go off base and blend in. He already had a bag packed – really, he hadn’t unpacked, so that was sort of convenient.
“You haven’t asked why,” the Admiral said.
Carter looked her in the eye. “I figured you’d tell me what you wanted me to know, Admiral.” He was used to going places on little information and very short notice. It was the life of the naval intelligence officer.
“Good answer,” she smiled. “I don’t want to say over this channel.”
Carter stared at her. That was something. They were using the military net, supposedly the most secure trunk of the Westernet and nearly impossible to track, trace or tap. “I see.” He said after a minute.
“You’ll be fully briefed upon arrival. Contacts and what specifics I can provide will be on your pad by the time you reach the Arizona. Don’t dally, Commander.”
“Understood,” he said as the panel went dark again. Sliding the closet door open, he pulled his duffel out and began going through the contents to see if there were anything he needed to add. Shaking his head, he wondered – what the hell is going on up on Mars?
# # #
Forty-five minutes later, having taken a private, priority tube to March Air Base where a Lear Shuttle waited for him, Commander Gabriel Carter stared out from the bridge of the U.S.S. Arizona at the small, blue planet in the distance. The Arizona had been waiting in high earth orbit for his shuttle to arrive. No sooner had they touched down than the carrier fired her engines and shot off past the moon to find the massive, I.D.E.A. Corp. maintained Jump Gate. The gate was really two long, wide platforms with a narrow trench between them where ships like the Arizona slid in and waited for transport. Once, as a boy, he’d had the opportunity to pass through the Panama Canal. Jump gates always reminded him of that experience, of the ridiculous claustrophobia he felt at being penned in on either side. In this case, the gate walls swallowed up space itself. If you looked left or right, you got a sense of just how small you were compared to these massive man-made monstrosities. Whenever he had to travel, he preferred staring straight ahead through the end of the trench where you could still see space and the earth.
It was a silly thing, but part of why he hated space travel so much. Who else could say, when faced with the great expanse of the universe, that they felt closed in and claustrophobic?
People below him were speaking back and forth in short, clipped sentences. It was comforting in a way. They were the ones in charge of this ship, the ones making sure everything was running correctly, that they were in the right place, that they didn’t accidentally crash into the gate wall. That was a scary thought. Terrorists has taken out the original earth jump gate that way, commandeering one of the large expeditionary ships the I.D.E.A. Corporation uses to explore distant solar systems, then ramming it right into one of the platforms while it was charging up and preparing to do whatever it did that got you from one point in the universe to another. The explosion had been spectacular, and the radiation had rendered hundreds of miles of lunar landscape unsafe for humans to this day. That was why the new gate was stationed further out and away from moon and earth alike.
“Any thoughts on why I had to wake up early for this little jump to Mars?”
Carter turned, smiling at the man who’d come up beside him. Raymond Feist was of average height with skinny shoulders and lightening black hair cut close to his scalp. He wore the light tan uniform the Navy tended to prefer, his chest ribbons showing his rank and status as a captain of the space fleet. There were dark circles under his gray eyes and a tightness there Gabe did not recall of his friend. Granted, they hadn’t seen each other in over a year, but they’d stayed in touch through messages here and there. He thought of the mission to Mars the Arizona was about to undertake, and decided that there was plenty there to cause stress. Ever since the treaty talks with the Chinese had broken down, tensions were high throughout the fleet. Everyone was expecting a confrontation sooner rather than later, and no one was looking forward to how a fight between American and Chinese forces might play out.
“Even if I knew, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell you, Ray.”
Feist snorted. “Intelligence rat.”
Both men laughed briefly at the barbs, but Feist sobered quickly and lowered his voice. “Has to be damned important to get you on a ship to Mars in the middle of the night.”
Carter couldn’t argue with that logic. He’d been thinking about it nonstop since the Admiral’s call. He still didn’t have any particulars beyond where he was supposed to go and who he was supposed to meet. That information did lend itself to speculation, none of which he was prepared to share with the captain of the Arizona, no matter how long they’d been friends. The Mars colony was officially split into two sections; military and civilian. Unofficially there was a third section connected to the military side that few people ever saw. It was from this station that a lot of intelligence about Chinese fleet movements were compiled and analyzed. His orders were taking him to that area, and he could assume it was to look at something fleet didn’t want to transmit back to earth.
“I agree, Ray,” he said aloud. “But I don’t know what it is. I swear.”
Feist nodded unconvincingly and Carter knew what he was thinking – it was classified and he couldn’t talk about it. That was the problem with being in intelligence, everyone thought you were always lying to them. It had strained more than one friendship since his move to the division a decade ago.
The first flash of lightning made him cringe, causing Feist to chuckle. “I hate this part,” he admitted. He did. They’d obviously received their clearance and the gate had begun to cycle up. The effect was a series of ever increasing arcs and flashes of electricity dancing along the walls of the gate. Faster than most people were prepared for, those same arcs would reach out to the hull of the ship, passing through it, through the crew – through him, unseen thank God. If he actually saw a giant lightning bolt crossing the deck towards him, he would run the other way.
Without looking, he knew that the thin little antenna that stuck out from the edges of the gate walls were even now beginning to pulse and glow. Up one side, down the other, back and forth, over and over. The light grew in intensity, so much so that Feist ordered shades to descend, halving the sun exploding to life around them. Shading his eyes, Carter waited for the moment when his stomach felt like it was being yanked out of his body, down some tube or pipe as if the universe had just flushed him. He didn’t have to wait long.
Different people had different reactions, though the majority reacted no worse than if they’d just been tossed around by a roller-coaster ride. He knew a senator on the arms services committee who threw up every single time without fail. His ex-fiancee immediately got a headache whenever she jumped, one that wouldn’t go away for days sometimes. For Carter, it was a brief moment of vertigo. The universe spun around him, forcing him to grip the rail before him to keep from pitching over.
A chime sounded throughout the ship, followed quickly by a monotone voice declaring, “Jump successful. Clocks adjusted ten minutes for jump displacement. Welcome to the Mars Protectorate.”
Carter checked the time as it flashed across his peripheral vision, fed by the implant located behind his cornea. Nodding to himself, he took several breaths before standing upright and pulling his uniform jacket down and straight again. The other thing he hated about space travel was the loss of time. Ten minutes of his life were gone. To his mind, the trip had been instantaneous, but the computer knew better. According to her, ten minutes were just gone and they were supposed to move on with their lives as if nothing bad had just happened. He often wondered why no one else ever seemed to be bothered by that. If he lost ten minutes every time he jumped, and sometimes he lost more, sometimes less, but for the sake of argument, if he lost just ten minutes – that’s an hour gone every six jumps. The average Defense Force member makes something like three hundred jumps in their lifetime. That’s fifty hours gone – a whole weekend of their life. Lost.
That bothered him.
“Prepare a shuttle for the Commander,” ordered Feist. “And an escort wing.”
Carter turned and smiled at his friend, letting the darker thoughts fade away. “I don’t know that the escort is necessary.”
“Intel suggests it is,” Feist winked at him. “You should know that.”
“Fine, fine,” Carter gave up. Feist stuck his hand out and Carter grabbed it easily. “Thanks for the ride, Ray,” he said.
“No problem. We were heading in the same direction. Not this early, but hey – you can owe me for the loss of sleep.”
“Shuttle’s prepped, sir,” called someone below them that he couldn’t see.
“Be careful,” Feist said, squeezing his shoulder. “Mars is a dangerous place these days. But I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”
Carter smiled crookedly. Three bombs in six months and no idea how they were getting in, civil unrest and the lack of a new treaty looming over everyone’s head. It was driving fleet insane. “No, you don’t have to tell me that. I don’t think I’ll be here long, though. Thanks again.”
After a brief chat about poker that resulted in his reluctant acceptance to be included in the next game via vid chat, he made his exit and followed a young ensign down to the shuttle bay as quickly as possible. Without the ensign he was sure he would’ve gotten lost more than once. He didn’t spend much time on these ships except on the occasional off-world mission, so it was easy for him to get turned around. The part of him that didn’t hate space travel completely, the very small part of him, still felt that space travel as a whole was strange; the hum of the engines reverberating through the hull, coming up through his feet, the taste of the air, not quite fresh, not quite stale. Plus the artificial gravity. He tried not to think about that or what might happen if it suddenly stopped working.
The shuttle, different from the one that brought him up from earth, shook and rocked as it lifted off from the deck and shot out the side of the carrier. Carter stared out the port side, watching the engine flare as one of the escort ships fell into formation slightly beside and behind them. Somehow, the closed in space of the shuttle was more comforting than being in the carrier. He shook his head, wondering if anyone else would feel the same way and if he’d ever get comfortable in space.
“We have a one hour flight to Marineris Station, sir,” said a yeoman. Young, male and wearing a pristine white uniform, Carter wondered how the man managed it given the hour. For his part, his interrupted sleep had him sure he must look like shit warmed over. “Would you care for something to eat or drink?”
Carter shook his head. “I think I’ll catch a little shut-eye. Wake me in fifty?” Just the thought of a little sleep instantly made him feel tired. Yesterday had been a long day and had spilled right over into today, which didn’t look like it was going to end any time soon. He yawned.
“Of course,” the yeoman smiled. Walking over to a closet, he pulled out a pillow and a blanket and offered them up. Carter took them and settled in for the flight. His eyes closed and darkness followed.
# # #
Twenty-seven levels beneath the Martian landscape, the lift came to a halt and the doors dinged open. Carter stepped out and followed the young woman in the red and black cammos down a decently lit corridor past nondescript doors labeled with numbers that began with four zeroes, twenty-seven, a dash and anywhere from oh oh one all the way to two four three that he saw so far. He knew for a fact there were at least forty levels here as he’d been on level forty once before. Rumor had it there were closer to sixty levels but no one had ever confirmed that to him. He also had no clue how many rooms were actually on this level. A bank of lifts on the main floor provided access to the lower areas, but they didn’t all open up to the same floors or areas. This made it impossible to know any real details about the installation.
At a door whose number ended in one three three, the woman paused and smiled at him. The door slid back to reveal a large room filled with solid monitors and stations, a throw-back to days past, but only one person that he could see inside. An older woman in loose fitting red and black cammos with short red hair, a wide nose and large eyes waved him in before calling out to his escort for some fresh coffee. Carter stepped forward, crossed the ten or so feet between them and then followed the Master Chief down a quick set of stairs to the only active work station that he saw.
“Chief,” he said. Master Chief Ashota had worked Mars for nearly fifteen years now, filtering through endless streams of data. Normally she had a team of dozens of analysts swarming around her. That the place was empty made Carter’s stomach go cold.
“Commander,” she said without a smile. She wasn’t a smiling type, never had been. Come to think of it, he couldn’t recall a single time that he’d ever seen the woman smile. Probably why her first husband left her with nothing but his last name. Waving her hand above the console, she began entering in a long stream of characters by hand. Carter blinked at that. Since when had a wave not been good enough for access to a computer? “I prefer the old school ways, Commander,” she said without a trace of amusement in her voice. “Keeps people honest.”
“Of course, Master Chief,” he replied, not really seeing it but thinking it better to agree than argue the point.
While she typed away, the young woman returned with a fresh pot of coffee snuggled on a tray amidst cups, cream, sugar and, bless her, donuts. Carter thanked her profusely, then poured himself a cup of coffee, adding copious amounts of cream and sugar. One or two sips before he broke a donut in half and dunked it. The second half disappeared as quickly as the first.
“You’ve no idea,” he admitted. Devouring the remnants of his second donut, he grabbed a chair and sat before the console while the Chief queued up several files.
“What am I looking at here?” Carter asked with a yawn. The Chief tossed a file to the screen in front of him. He wasn’t used to these old monitors, so he leaned in for a closer look at what appeared to be a video file. He waved it to start, then leaned back. The image on the screen flickered to life, first showing the U.S.D.F. logo, then switching to a massive ship, much larger than anything anyone was supposed to have built or been able to build. He whistled through his teeth.
“The U.S.S. Barry, on routine patrol on the outer edge of the Martian Green Zone, came across an unknown contact,” Master Chief Ashota said. “On silent running, they started a track on the target and took up a parallel course, trying to get as much data as possible.”
Carter squinted at the blurry image.
“Try this,” said the Master Chief. A few passes across the console and the image changed to one much clearer and obviously enhanced. Carter whistled again. The sharper image showed something longer, wider and taller than it should be. There was something on the hull he couldn’t quite make out. His mind was already running through the possibilities; Chinese, Japanese, European Union. He was starting to understand why fleet had refused to transmit these images, rousing him to fly up here in the middle of the night.
“Can you enhance this area?” he asked, drawing circles with his finger.
“Aye,” replied the Chief. Several images appeared on the screen, each one showing different versions run through different filters to reveal details of the ships design. Obviously, the Chief had already done an analysis on these images. His eyes immediately went to the image in the upper right corner.
“What are these?” he asked, tracing the rows along the hull with his finger.
“We believe they are gun ports, sir.”
Carter shook his head. “That’s not possible. There are…” he tried to count, letting the sentence trail off.
“Over four dozen, yes sir. On both the port and starboard. Plus these,” the image zoomed in, revealing several larger ports. “Rocket or missile ports. Given the groupings of four and the spacing between them, I’m leaning towards rockets. We also see missile ports along the spine of the ship in this shot,” the image was replaced by one at a slight angle, revealing rows of large missile hatch covers.
“What the hell is this?” Carter whispered to himself.
“There’s more,” said the Master Chief. The image changed again, a close up on the hull. “Recognize it?”
Carter stared at the emblem on the screen. “Chinese.”
“Once the ship was identified as being Chinese, the Barry ordered them off. They were a hundred miles inside the Green Zone in violation of the Treaty.” Mars used to be neutral territory. Four years ago, the American Protectorate felt it was necessary to push China out. Too many conflicts, too many fights and bombs going off as tempers flared between factions. A treaty came later. That treaty was now being renegotiated and the Chinese government felt that, while the negotiations were ongoing, the old treaty was null and void and they could do whatever the hell they wanted.
“They wanted us to see them,” Carter mused. But why? They build a new ship, obviously a battleship, and then they make sure to be seen? It didn’t make sense. Except as an intimidation factor and that ship sure as hell fit that bill. Worse, why hadn’t anyone, anywhere reported this ship as it left port? Why hadn’t anyone reported the damned thing being built in the first place? The Chinese had two shipyards off-world and both were under covert surveillance; if this ship had come from either, there should’ve been a report and it should’ve crossed his desk. It didn’t. That was not good.
“That’s my take, sir,” said the Master Chief.
“Okay, I’ll need copies of everything including interviews with the crew of the Barry.”
“There’s more,” the Chief said.
“More?” he said, leaning back to look at her. “Isn’t this enough?”
“Enough to haul your ass out here in the middle of the night? Not likely.” Curious, he turned back to the console. The image on the screen changed to a side by side of the Chinese vessel and an American carrier. The carrier, the single largest ship in the U.S.D.F. fleet, was dwarfed, the Chinese vessel at least four times the size. American carriers were little cities floating in space. The Chinese ship was four times the size – what did that make them? A state? A country?
“My god,” Carter breathed. The image changed to a video. The Chinese ship was moving off, lights along the hull flashing. The flashing moved up and down the hull, growing in intensity. Carter clutched at his chair, realization hitting him like a ten ton rock in the head. He leaned back from the display as flashes of light popped and swirled until the ship vanished in one bright flash of light.
“That isn’t possible!” he said. Ships could NOT jump without a gate!
“Yes, sir, I know. But there it is. The Chinese have built a jump capable ship. They don’t need gates anymore. They can show up anywhere they want, any time they want and there isn’t a God-damned thing we can do about it.”
Commander Carter felt the universe spinning beneath his boots.
Everything had just changed.