The Road to the Stars: Chapter One

 Chapter One

“I’m telling you, if we don’t do something, three-quarters of the population of Earth will be dead within twenty years, tops!”

“And I’m telling youthat we don’t have the resources to do anything about it!”

The argument was taking place in the office of the United Earth Director of Distribution’s office, in the Norman Borlaug Building, in Geneva. The Distribution Directorate had become the most influential faction in the UE bureaucracy over the past decades, largely due to the UE policy of providing a Basic Living Stipend to its citizens. Thus, though there was a General Secretary and other titled positions which were officially higher-ranking than the Directorships, the true reins of power passed through Distribution. The Honorable Mya Arabella Hartman, PhD (Agronomy) currently held that position, had done so for several years, and looked to maintain a firm grip on it for the foreseeable future. She was a serious-looking brunette in her forties, wearing a business suit that was just this side of severe. Her opponent today was the Assistant Director for Procurement, Theodore O’Quinn. A lanky ginger, he matched her seriousness with his own intensity, and continued shaking his head.

“The reason we’re going to starve is the same reason we can’t do anything about it – all of the materiel we need to maintain a high-production agricultural sector, all the materiel we could use to mount any sort of resistance, has either been ‘donated’ to the Solarian Union or is being bought by agents outside the UE’s control!” The disgust in his tone was obvious.

In the century since the Artemis Amendment, the balance of power in the Solar System had tilted further and further in favor of the outplanets and away from Earth. The Amendment had given first rights to all of the signatories’ production of palladium, platinum, rhodium, yttrium, lanthanum, and a whole laundry list of other minerals, to the then-struggling colonies. It was initially seen as a measure of mercy, since the difficulty in kick-starting a high-tech manufacturing industry off Earth was nearly insurmountable without support.

As the years progressed, savvy Artemis administrators had consistently downplayed their capabilities. They insisted that the continuation of exports from Earth was the only way to ensure the growing colony’s survival, even as the erstwhile colony was dispatching ships of its own to the asteroids and to Mars. To the growing concerns of the United Earth government, which had succeeded the United Nations in 2071, the Artemis Colony always presented reasonable explanations. ‘It’s more economical to build spacecraft in vacuum.’ ‘Our people, having grown up dealing with space, are far more suited to working in these conditions than Earthborn astronauts.’ ‘We’re exploring the system to find reliable sources so we can stop depending on the Earth.’

Eventually, the explanations stopped as the ability of the United Earth to resist declined. The shipments of ores continued, as Terrestrial laborers transported them to launch facilities, which then shuttled the precious minerals off-planet. Old mines were scoured for the most trivial traces, new mines dug, and the vast scrapheaps and landfills were picked over.

By the time the United Earth realized the predicament they were in it was too late. The Artemesians, allied with the Martian and Titan colonies, were the de facto government outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and demonstrated their reach by destroying the planes carrying a UE strike force. They did this with a kinetic bombardment from orbit: they dropped rocks on them. That was the end of any organized attempt to stop the extractions and the unofficial birth of the Solarian Union.

“Everything is running ragged,” continued O’Quinn. “The Union takes the metals we mine, so we can’t repair the equipment that fails. Many of the systems are running on the emergency backups now, and if those go, the system is going to start to collapse!”

“So what do you suggest?” said Roosevelt Lynch. He was the Director of the Protective Services of the UE; essentially the head of what little military there was. His background was evident; while his hair was going to grey, his mahogany skin bore the scars of too many unfortunate encounters, and his body wore the suit like it would be more comfortable in camouflage.  “We can’t get to them, we can’t organize the locals, hell, we can’t even spit in their faces since they never come dirtside!”

“We could force the non-signatories to provide the metals to us exclusively,” said O’Quinn, tentatively.

Lynch shook his head. “We don’t have the kind of muscle we’d need to project a force like that, even if we were sure that the Union wouldn’t just drop rocks on us for the attempt.”

“There’s also the question of legality,” added Hartman. “The UE was created to bring the nations of the world together peacefully, willingly, voluntarily. If we use our strength to bend the non-UE countries to our will, how are we any better than the Union?”

Lynch nodded his agreement.

“Add to that the legal requirements of the Amendment,” continued Hartman. “As long as they demonstrate a need, we are obligated to provide the metals to them, so any metals we receive by our, our, conquest, will only be lost to the Union.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it!” Lynch snarled. “All we have is their word that they can’t fill their internal demand. It’s not like we can go up and inspect! Not only that, but the Union’s fleet of merchants, escorts, shuttles, habitats, you name it, just keeps growing. No wonder they need more and more metals, even though we know damned well that they produce more in a month from the asteroids than Earth does in a year!”

“That is a problem,” admitted Hartman. “But what can we do about it? We have thirteen billion people in the UE, and another four billion in the unaffiliated countries. Most of them spend much of their lives barely surviving. They work at the reclamation yards, in the mines, in the refineries. Those that don’t are engaged in agriculture which has regressed to barely better than early twentieth-century tech. We can barely keep them all fed in a good year, and that’s with imports from outside the UE. There’s nothing we can do from down here.”

“Maybe that’s the problem,” said O’Quinn.

“Of course it’s the problem!” erupted Hartman. “We inherited a broken system from the old United Nations, and haven’t been able to get out from under all the antiquated and, frankly, disastrous treaties and protocols they generously gave us. The biggest mistake the UE ever made was to agree to take on the obligations of the UN unconditionally! Now, we’re stuck with it.”

“Actually, I have an idea,” admitted O’Quinn. He looked to the Director. “Madame Director, may I access your systems?”

“What for?” she asked.

“I have a presentation,” he replied.

“Go ahead,” she waved. “At this point, what can it hurt?”

O’Quinn bustled about for a minute, then announced, “Ready.”

The lights in the office dimmed, and a wall screen, which had been emulating a window, changed to the words, “Operation Take Back the Night”.

“Very poetic,” dryly remarked Lynch. “With what?”

“I’ll get to that,” said O’Quinn. The words changed:

“Problem: Solarian Union control of orbitals”

The words blurred and changed again:

“Problem: Solarian Union treaties”

And again:

“Problem: Inability to organize openly”

“We know all this shit,” said Lynch. “Is there a point coming soon?”

“Maybe if you just explained it, instead of this little dog-and-pony show?” suggested Hartman.

O’Quinn grinned sheepishly. “It helped me think it all through,” he said. “But I’ve been working on this for a while, so I can probably do without it.” He turned off the presentation.

“The Solarian Union holds the orbitals. From there, they make their demands for the metals that they claim they’re owed due to the Artemis Accords and Amendment, right?” He didn’t wait for either of the others to corroborate his statement but continued on. “And since they hold the orbitals, any time we try to organize any resistance, all they have to do is drop rocks on us until everyone’s dead or demoralized.” He took a deep breath.

“We need a way to take back the orbitals without the Union knowing we’re about to do it.”

“You’re good at stating the obvious, but I can get one of my assistants to do that if I wanted smoke blown up my ass,” snapped Lynch, standing. “Madame Director –”

“Sit down, Mr. Lynch!” Surprised, Lynch did. “Mr. O’Quinn, are you proposing we go to war with the Union?”

“Yes,” answered O’Quinn flatly. “Madame Director, we’re already at war with them, and we’re losing. The only difference is we’ve allowed them to bring the war to us, dictate the terms under which it is fought. Right now, it has been almost purely diplomatic and economic.”

“And you think the solution is to bring the war to them?” continued Hartman.

“It’s the only way we can win,” he answered.

Hartman sat in thought for several long minutes. Finally she nodded. “Possibly I agree. The Secretary can be convinced, as can the other Directors. But this is a huge gamble, for the planet and for our own necks. Keep that in mind, Mr. O’Quinn.”

“Cer-certainly!” stammered O’Quinn. “I actually got the idea from an ancient television show –”

“Television?” asked Lynch, incredulously.

“It was a form called anime,” continued O’Quinn. “Science fiction, and they really looked at what seemed to be impossible. But in this show, the problem was a group of alien invaders who were dropping bombs on the planet. The surface was ruined, and everyone was living underground.”

“Doesn’t sound like anything we have now,” said Hartman.

“No, not as such, but the point was they had to work undercover, underground, in order to be safe from the bombs. I got to thinking, if we organized underground, did ourbuilding underground, the Union wouldn’t know what we’re doing.”

“Possibly,” said Lynch, looking interested for the first time. “Possibly. Their gravitic imaging systems will make that trickier, but if we go deep enough…” His voice trailed off in thought before he shook his head. “No good. For us to be shielded, we’d have to be under at least a hundred meters of solid rock. Less, if we had iron ores mixed through,  but if we’re building a spaceship down there, well, it wouldn’t be much good if we couldn’t get it to the surface.”

“What about under the oceans?”

“Hmm? Well, water is more transparent to GI systems, but, oh, maybe half a kilometer? I’d have to check. But that’s a whole other set of problems.”

“And advantages,” said O’Quinn. “If we’re building underwater, then we have to deal with pressure, right?”

“Right.”

“Which is similar in scope to dealing with vacuum.”

“Hmm.”

“How do you intend to engineer these spaceships? As you’ve noted, the Union is gets all the metals which would be used in high-tech applications. I would think spaceships would require a huge quantity of them?” asked Hartman.

“Engineering will be a challenge,” said O’Quinn. “But I do have a solution. I propose that we strip every last bit of material out of machinery that we can replace with, ah, let’s say, ‘less advanced’ versions.”

“Go from aircars to horse and buggy?” sneered Lynch.

“Not quite that dramatic,” argued O’Quinn. “But to a degree, yes. Let me ask you, what is the one resource we have in abundance?” Both Lynch and Hartman looked puzzled.

“Humanity. As you pointed out, Madame Director, we have thirteen billion people in the UE. Let’s use that pool!”

“Are you really suggesting turning untrained crews loose to do work on the seabed?”

“No, not for those jobs, at least not primarily. But right now, we have engineers and skilled mechanics and other highly trained professionals babying all the tech used in farming, aquaculture, and other subsistence programs. If we remove the tech –”

“I see!” interjected Hartman. “By stepping backward, technologically, we won’t need the same level of expertise to maintain production.”

“We might even increase it,” O’Quinn elaborated. “If we allow the workers to directly benefit from the crops and foods they help grow, won’t they work just a bit harder to make sure that everything keeps going?”

Hartman was nodding.

“It goes against the principle that everyone contributes to the good of the whole,” she mused. “But for this purpose we could be flexible. Yes. I think that could work,” she agreed.

“And what do we tell the Union?” said Lynch. “They’ll be able to see what we do when we pull the current equipment and replace it.”

“We do it gradually, and we tell them the truth: we’re replacing machinery that we can’t maintain with more robust versions.”

“And when they ask for the salvage metals?”

O’Quinn shrugged. “We’re allowed under the Amendment to keep a certain percentage for vital infrastructure. There’s no way that they can argue that agriculture and food production aren’t vital.”

“So we have an idea to build spaceships, a place to build them, a way to get the materials to make the guts of the ships, and a workforce,” summarized Hartman. “One little issue. How do we get enough materials to build the hulls? Aren’t they usually titanium?”

Lynch nodded.

“And titanium is right at the top of the list of metals the Union claims,” finished Hartman.

“I have a couple ideas about that. First is, we don’t build the hulls. We salvage them,” answered O’Quinn.

“Salvage? There haven’t been a half-dozen uncontrolled reentries since the first colonists landed at Artemis. And those usually burn up. There wouldn’t be enough to build a single orbital vehicle, let alone anything that will be able to take a war to them,” protested Lynch.

“Not that kind of salvage. You’re right, there isn’t enough forged titanium on the planet to make the kind of forces we need, even if we stripped every gram. No, what we do is salvage wet navy ships.”

“Now I know you’ve flipped!” burst out Lynch. “That is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard! You want to take ships – steel ships, I might add, which is considerably heavier than titanium – and turn them into spaceships?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do!” snapped O’Quinn. “I’ve run all the numbers and it can work!”

“And how do you intend to get these ships to the bottom of the ocean without the Union noticing us moving them? Or do you have a brilliant plan to deal with that? Madame Director –” pleaded Lynch.

“I agree, this fantasy has gone far enough,” said Hartman, standing. “You have wasted far too much of my time, Mr. O’Quinn. Get out of my office! And you can be assured that you will be leaving this department immediately!”

“The United States Second Fleet!” said O’Quinn desperately. That froze both Hartman and Lynch.

“What are you talking about?” demanded Hartman.

“It’s a fleet that sank at anchor in 2098,” said Lynch. “Hurricane Alondra. Worst naval disaster in that country’s history.” He frowned, thinking. “They were off…Mobile, I think.”

O’Quinn nodded.

“So it’s a sunken fleet. So what?” said Hartman.

“It’s a relatively modern fleet,” said O’Quinn. “It’s in water that’s shallow enough to allow for recovery, but deep enough for concealment. That’s how we get them in place, without the Union noticing,” he directed to Lynch. “And it’s been relatively untouched in the twenty years since they sank.”

“Why?” asked Hartman.

“Hurricane Alondra devastated most of the New Confederacy,” said Lynch. “The United States had blockaded their southern cities, like New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola, using the Second Fleet. They didn’t take them off station until they knew Alondra was moving in, for whatever reason. Even then, they only ordered them to gather in Mobile Bay, and most of the ships were overwhelmed by the storm. The ongoing low-level hostilities between the US and the New Confederacy kept anyone from doing recovery work.”

“So we go in and, what, turn sunken ships into spacecraft?” scoffed Lynch.

“More or less,” agreed O’Quinn. “The largest ones. Look, it’s perfect. They’re easily accessed, they’re still in good condition, and they didn’t sink because they had huge holes blown in them. They were just overwhelmed by waves and weather.”

“The United States is a signatory to the Artemis Accords,” mused Hartman. “But they’re not part of the UE. In fact, I don’t think any of the countries on that continent are, with the exception of Canada.” She thought some more. “We might have trouble claiming jurisdiction over the wrecks.”

“They’re in Mobile Bay. That means that the New Confederacy will want to have a say, since that’s definitely territorial waters.” Lynch didn’t look happy about that.

“If we went public, we would,” said O’Quinn. “We’re not going public. This is all sub rosa; if it isn’t, if the Union hears about it, we’re done for.”

“This is lunacy,” said Lynch, but there was a thoughtful look in his eyes.

“Which is all we have left,” countered O’Quinn. “Twenty years, remember? And that includes the unaffiliated countries, so if they want to save their asses, they’ll support us, if only by not opposing us.”

“That’s a good point,” said Hartman. “If we move forward with this at all – and that’s a huge if – we’ll need to get the support of the North American nations, if for no other reason than they’re the only ones who aren’t crippled by the Artemis Accords.”

“If they’re not crippled,” argued Lynch. “Why would they agree to support us?”

“They might not be crippled,” agreed O’Quinn. “But they’re certainly hampered by the restrictions the Accords impose on the rest of the world.”

“You said you had other ideas?” said Hartman. “If the salvage idea turns out to be too difficult.”

“There is one company we might be able to convince to help us,” said O’Quinn. “They provide most of the lift out of the gravity well for the Union, which means they’re the only company that is currently building spacecraft in any quantity. If they throw in with us, then we can use their existing manufacturing facilities to build ships for us.”

“I think that’s a better option,” said Lynch firmly. “Even if your Second Fleet is in the condition you think it is, converting them to spacecraft wouldn’t be just difficult; it would be a nightmare.”

“Why didn’t you start with that idea? What’s the company called?” said Hartman.

“Heavy Lift Corporation,” answered O’Quinn. “And they’re the problem. They have close ties to the Union since they do most of the lifting to orbit. I don’t know if we can trust them not to try to play both ends against the middle.”

“A good point,” said Hartman. “I think I might have to take a direct hand in this.”

Published by gaffen620

Author of The Cassidy Chronicles. Lives in Colorado with many dogs, cats, and one very patient wife.

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