“There has been no communication from the aliens,” Butler said. He stepped forward and pointed at the large screen in front of us. I was just barely getting used to him being more mobile, but I still stepped away like he was a massive tree in a forest, about to fall. “Their smaller ships have a much higher flight ceiling than the American ones, but they’ve still retreated to the mothership after the American fighters got too close.”
“Robyn, what’s your flight ceiling?” I asked.
“I haven’t hit it yet,” she said. “My guess is either infinite or the edge of the atmosphere. Depends on if my power is using the Earth’s gravity or not. Some of my fliers have different abilities, though.”
I nodded. Anyone with wings would have a tiny maximum height compared to anything technological. On the other hand, I knew she had at least one man with rockets. He should be able to reach outer space if he felt like it.
“We’ll get you some flight suits,” I said. “See how close you can get to these things.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong?” I sighed. “Tell me you’re not afraid.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m—okay, I am afraid. My therapist says I need to be more honest about that sort of thing…”
I frowned. She had a therapist? I had no record of that. I made a mental note to check up on it.
“I’m more worried about getting supplies directly from Necessarius. I wanted the fliers to be a little more independent.”
I smiled. “This from Clarke’s princess? He built NHQ for you in the first place.”
Butler chuckled. “I did have some say in it, you know. We had been needing a headquarters for a while. The unfortunate situation with Robyn just scared Isaac enough to accelerate it by a few years.”
Robyn gave us a massive eye-roll. “Anyway. Do we know anything about these aliens? Other than the fact that Silk seems to be worried? Which strikes me as a really, really bad sign, by the way.”
“No,” Butler said. “Nothing.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. “MC?”
“This is a schematic of the alien fighters,” MC said over the loudspeakers as a picture appeared on the screen. “Of course much of it is guesswork, but between the space colonies and our own scopes, we have a pretty good idea what they’re capable of.”
The ship was a small, teardrop shaped vessel without any apparent windows or other apertures. The round section was the front, the tail the back. It was roughly the size of three baseline humans; with the machinery, it would be a tight fit for a person.
“Their fighters use a reactionless drive that is roughly comparable in speed and maneuverability to our own rocket engines. The current theory on Ceres is that they’re exploiting the Woodward Effect, but that hasn’t been conclusively proven. However, if necessary, Cerean ships can outrun them, at least until fuel becomes an issue.”
“The para ships haven’t needed to refuel since we’ve been watching them,” I said. “Their radiation signatures imply hydrogen fusion, which means they would need to refuel eventually, but the mothership can likely collect hydrogen from the interstellar medium.”
“The mothership?” Robyn said. “Why not the daughter ships?”
I pointed at the schematic. “No room for a ram scoop. Maybe if they’re completely unarmed, but even that’s unlikely. My guess is that the mothership acts as a refueling point. The daughter ships should be able to hold enough hydrogen for a week or two of operation—less during high-energy operations like combat. If the ships are manned, the pilot will need food sooner than the ships will need fuel.”
Butler looked at the schematic. It had a small, human-shaped figure inside it. “How sure are we that the ships are manned? Drones seem like the wiser course.”
“They appear to communicate with radio, like we do,” MC said. “At least, that’s our best guess judging by their scans. We’ve had a few bursts from the ships that would be consistent with pilots reporting and receiving orders, but nothing like the near-constant datastreams drones would require.”
“What about artificial intelligences?” Robyn asked.
Butler and I both stared at her.
“Oh come on,” she said. “Obviously it’s possible. MC, could they fit in an AI smart enough to fly one of those ships?”
The voice from the speakers was hesitant. “…maybe. We couldn’t, that’s for sure, but if their AI science has advanced a bit, it’s possible. But that’s making a lot of assumptions. The ships seem to be just the right size for one pilot.”
“And that’s not making assumptions?”
“Not as many,” I said. “One of Lemuria’s satellites got a good scan of one that passed by. There seems to be a good amount of empty space in the middle. The most logical explanation would be a pilot.”
Robyn frowned. “What, they can’t detect pilots?”
I shook my head. “Not using the scanner the satellite was equipped with. Living flesh isn’t dense enough.”
“Which is more evidence that these ‘para’ are close to human,” MC said. “Of course, we could have assumed that from the very beginning. I doubt they would have bothered to come here if they weren’t at least crudely similar to us, biologically.”
“Let’s move on,” Butler said. “Do we know anything about their weapon systems yet?”
“Nothing,” I said. I pointed to the front of the schematic. “Scans indicate there’s something in there, but they haven’t fired on anything yet. Judging by the small size of the ships, I would guess something energy-based, lasers or plasma perhaps. There’s no room for bulky ammo stores.”
“Could be something with small ammo stores,” MC said. “Like a small railgun.”
Robyn frowned. “I’ve seen railguns. Would one even fit? Or rather, would one that’s strong enough to damage another ship fit?”
It took me a second to parse that. “Uh, yes. Well, I mean it’s possible. We’d be hard pressed to do something like that, but that’s just an engineering problem.”
“How do these weapons stand up against our own ships?” Butler asked. “Theoretically, of course.”
“Pretty much anything is going to tear through any human ships like butter,” MC said. “Nobody has bothered making combat ships yet. Ceres has a few prototypes, but that’s about it. Even the military outposts don’t have much.”
Butler sighed. “So our entire species is a sitting duck.”
“She didn’t say that,” I said. “The various manufacturing colonies can start making guns and slap them onto existing ships without too much trouble. It will be crude, but it should be enough to put holes in the alien ships.” Assuming our scans were accurate, but I didn’t say anything about that.
“All right. How many human ships are there across the entire system?”
I frowned. “Over two thousand, I think.”
“Most are in orbit around either Earth or Mars,” MC said. “Transport shuttles and the like. And most of the rest are in the asteroid belt.”
“Right. And how many ships do these para have?”
“Current guess is a thousand,” MC said. “Though it’s hard to keep track. Plus the mothership, of course. They’re all staying pretty close to her, so they haven’t had a chance to explore the system beyond their initial fly-by. And that was pretty quick.”
“Yes, let’s discuss that,” Butler said. “They have faster than light capabilities.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Did you read the transcript of Derek’s debriefing? Silk doesn’t seem to think that they should have FTL travel. That implies all sorts of things.”
“Yes, it implies that she’s just as confused as the rest of us.”
I shook my head. “No, not that. I mean none of this technology is that far beyond us.” I waved my hand at the schematic. “The reactionless drive is a bit surprising, but that’s about it. They don’t seem much more than fifty years or so ahead. A working FTL drive is centuries ahead of what they have. I don’t think they built it.”
Butler stroked his chin and frowned at me. “That’s a very attractive theory, but I don’t think we can assume that. If they use FTL technology when we aren’t expecting it, they’ll be able to devastate us. Destroy every single one of our outposts before we even know what has happened.”
“Then why haven’t they done that already?” I asked.
“Maybe they want peace.”
“If they wanted peace, they would have contacted us by now,” I said. “Even if they can’t speak our languages yet, they would have done something as a show of faith. Moved the mothership to a less threatening orbit, perhaps.”
“There you go assuming again,” MC warned. “They’re aliens. They probably don’t think the same way humans do.”
I shrugged. “We have to start somewhere. Pretend for a moment that that is a human ship. What would its behavior suggest?”
Butler nodded. “They’re surprised.”
“They didn’t expect us to be here,” I said. “We’ve been here for a while. The fact that they didn’t notice implies that they were using light-speed detection devices to look for habitable worlds. When they left their homeworld—” I checked my notes. “—three thousand years ago, we would still have been living in small towns and villages. And their information would have been an additional three thousand years out of date. I doubt they even noticed us on telescopes. Which, added all together, means they didn’t have FTL travel.”
“Yes,” Robyn said, annoyed. “We know. Welcome to five minutes ago. I think the point Butler was trying to make was that they could have reverse-engineered an FTL drive. Maybe they found a wreck or something.”
“Yes, because space is simply littered with functioning artifacts of ancient FTL-capable civilizations.”
“Why not? It’s not like we’ve explored the universe or anything.”
“Perhaps we should table this discussion for the moment,” Butler said. “Let’s focus on tactics for the moment; we can deal with the rest later. The important part is that we do not believe their small ships capable of FTL.”
“All this is moot until we actually talk to them,” MC said.
I smiled slightly. “So a first strike option is off the table?”
Butler raised an eyebrow at me. “Nothing is off the table.” He sighed. “But for now, we wait. And try to figure out what they actually want.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 318)
This one took me a while, because while nothing happens, that’s exactly the point. They just don’t know anything yet.
Next is a big one, though.