Silence. Stillness. Peace.
To make useless noise is to profane the quiet of space Itself. Far better not to speak than to let superfluous babble leave your lips.
Once, Jupiter was the magnificent hub of the system's trade. Now, since the Collapse, we remain silent. As is proper.
– Jovian Reticence, Marsha Olandère (Ganymede Press, 2167)
Burning stars fell from the airless sky of Europa. Ships, engaged in war, spat endless streams of bullets as they passed each other at unimaginable speeds through the void of space. They were the fighters, single-person ships, pawns following orders they barely understood.
On the ground, troops fought in the low gravity, trying to capture the entrances to the ice tunnels. They were as ants, though every few moments the flash of a missile would reveal that they knew more than the insects they resembled.
Above it all hung the capital ships; the bases from which the real players stoically watched those living and dying by their word.
"It's taking too long," Admiral Rachel Stenton said. "We're losing ships faster than them. At this rate, we'll have to flee home with nothing to show for our losses."
She was talking to General Ben-Oni Khalum. The officer with such terrifying yet useful methods that he was given an outmoded rank and control of his own small fleet of ships with orders never to engage the enemy without permission.
Stenton tolerated him. Barely.
"But Admiral," he replied in an obnoxiously polite tone, "if we retreat, they'll have years to rebuild their fleet. A stalemate, once again. Olympus Command is counting on you to finish this, once and for all."
She knew what he was really saying. Let me win this, his mind spoke into hers. You know it's the only way.
"No, General," she said to his unspoken demand. "We need citizens, not corpses. This is a rebellion; those are our people, though they deny it."
The General smiled. "You know where to find me if you change your mind," he whispered before disappearing down a corridor.
Admiral Stenton continued to watch the battle through the tactical reports on the screens in her room. "There goes another one," she whispered as a dot on the screen flashed red and disappeared. "Another life lost to a war we can't win."
At some point, the General re-entered the room. She could sense him behind her, watching her. She didn't acknowledge him.
"General," she said at last, turning around, "win me this war."
Ben-Oni smiled. "Admiral, I only needed permission." He turned to leave but hesitated at the last moment. "I'm not a villain," he declared before floating away.
Admiral Stenton wondered what he meant.
The transmission was on every wavelength, General Khalum's face plastered over every screen on Europa. He was delivering an ultimatum.
"This is your final chance to surrender," his smiling voice said in every home of Europa. "Delay too long, and there will be consequences. Allow me to demonstrate."
The colony shook, the walls of the tunnels beneath Europa's ice trembling for a moment, then becoming stable again.
"That was a five-ton rod of tungsten, flung from orbit," Khalum's voice droned. "It had easily enough kinetic energy to crack through your colony's icy shell. Luckily for you, it fell a hundred kilometers away."
The Council of Europa watched silently, waiting for the point. They had heard of this man; everyone in power during a war was responsible for lost lives in some way, but he was directly responsible for at least a million deaths.
"I happen to have ten more rods, identical to this first one. Every hour, another will strike, but ten kilometers closer to your colony. Each time, the effects will be worse. Unless, of course, you surrender."
A shocked Admiral Stenton received the Council's offer of surrender within an hour; no more rods struck.
Two small ships in orbit around Europa flared and fell, though this time they fell intentionally. In them, the leaders of the brave troops who had now regained the Jovian colonies rode in silence. The Europans watched, waiting for the judgement from faraway Earth.
Europa, first and foremost of Earth's old colonies in the outer solar system: all of Jupiter's colonies stood with it or had already surrendered. It had survived three decades without Earth and fought again this last time, but had finally accepted the offer—or demand—of membership in the Solar Federation.
The ships slowed and grew as they fell and floated to the surface of the ice on tongues of flame. They landed, coughed a final burst of exhaust, and were still.
Admiral Rachel Stenton and her entourage disembarked, stumbling over to the city's entrance, unused to the insistent—though light—pull of gravity as they walked.
The Europan First Minister greeted them at the airlock, wordlessly ushering them to his office. The door closed with a click, sharp and loud in contrast to the Minister's silence.
Stenton spoke. "We're here to accept your surrender," she began in a formal, clipped tone, but she was interrupted.
"Please, Admiral," the Minister said with a slight bow, "no words are necessary, so let us remain silent, 'as is proper.'" He motioned for her to sit in the chair behind his desk before disappearing through a side door.
He reappeared a minute later with a steaming cup of tea, which he handed to the Admiral, giving another bow before leaving, this time for good.
Stenton looked quizzically at the tea, then at her aides. "What just happened?" she asked.
"Apparently, some sort of ritual surrender," one replied. "We've become so out of touch with the culture here that it's hard to be certain, but it seems they place an emphasis on brevity and silence over—"
"Alright, that's enough," Stenton interrupted. "Write it up as a report and I'll read it. For now, I have work to do."
From: Olympus High Command
To: Admiral Rachel Stenton, Solfleet 7
Congratulations on your successful capture of Europa. We are disappointed that you had to resort to using Khalum, but would like to reassure you that in our eyes, you made the correct choice. A promotion of some sort may be in your future.
We regret that we must put you back to work so quickly, but there is a growing crisis which cannot go unaddressed.
The administrators of the Solar Federation have been increasingly concerned by reports of the Titanean Order's doings. Our intel indicates that they have spent more on weapons research in the last six standard months than in the previous ten years combined.
The initial concern which brought the Titanean state of affairs to our attention was the desertion of Dr. Abathus Kreller, head of the development of the Sirius-class battleships. (You may remember him.) Eighteen standard months ago, he resigned from his position in our engineering corps and we later learned that he left Mars on a ship owned by the Titanean Order. Our agents on Titan have mentioned his presence there and reported frequent conversations between him and the Prime Regent.
Our agents also report construction projects recreating parts from Federation-designed ships such as the particle beam design used on Sirius-class battleships and laser arrays from Arcturus-class ships. The technical descriptions we received indicate that they are near-perfect replicas of our own models.
We fear they may be attempting to develop a larger fleet with advanced weapons systems, perhaps in the hopes of challenging our fleet. Currently, we do not know of any projects to build entire replicas of Federation warships, but there has been renewed activity in upgrading the Order's current fleet and in training crew.
The situation is urgent and requires immediate attention. The Order already controls the entire Saturnian system, far more than a minor faction should be allowed. Your fleet is the only one available at this time; you will be assigned to address this situation. All leave is canceled. Begin your mission as soon as possible.
Your mission is to take Solfleet 7 to Saturn in as short a time as reasonable and station your ships near Iapetus.
Perform reconnaissance of the system, alerting us of the exact specifications of all ships in their fleet that you are able to observe. Detain and search any ships attempting to enter or leave the system and report to us before allowing them to pass.
This operation's goal is to gain vital data; we believe that we have complete access to all external communication from the Order, but we cannot yet ascertain with certainty whether our fears are reasonable.
As such, avoidance of violence is high priority. You are to present a letter "inviting" the Order to join the Federation. When they inevitably reject it, do not press the issue, but remain in system and continue monitoring for two weeks, making any excuses necessary to maintain your presence.
We repeat: do not engage with the Titanean fleet without provocation. If the Titaneans make contact, transmit everything they say back to us. If a Titanean ship threatens violence, you have permission to destroy it and resolve the situation with military force, but until you are threatened or attacked, you are to remain pacific.
"Thirty-two across," Captain Cherie Lawrence said aloud. "'Mountain on one of Saturn's moons, named after the home of Smaug.' I really have no clue, how about you, Rachel?"
Stenton and Lawrence were relaxing on Europa, enjoying the mild pull of gravity holding them in place. It was almost a vacation to feel that insistent tug again.
"Erebor," Admiral Stenton replied, without opening her eyes. "From Tolkien's The Hobbit, though it is referred to as 'The Lonely Mountain' in that text."
"I really don't know how you keep up with all of that classical literature, Rachel. It flies over my head."
Stenton opened her eyes and glanced at Cherie, who was still looking at the crossword puzzle but had a slight grin she was trying to conceal. Stenton smiled and shut her eyes again. "Tolkien's fantastic, though. You should read his writing."
"I'll read a novel by Tolkien the day you have trouble solving one of these puzzles, how about that?"
"And no pretending!"
Stenton laughed. "Of course not! Eventually there'll be a clue neither of us knows."
Lawrence didn't hear this. "I don't think we're the intended audience for this puzzle."
"Fourteen down. 'The Genocide General, responsible for the destruction of the Houyi colony.'"
This clearly flustered Stenton. She sat up and scowled. "I don't even want to think about General Khalum right now."
"Oh? He does seem to be the hero of the hour. A bloodless victory instead of a continued war possibly stretching decades."
Stenton's voice was dangerous. "That was the same tactic he used with Houyi. The difference is that Houyi thought he was bluffing. The Europan Council knew he wasn't."
"Ah." Lawrence was silent.
"He wasn't bluffing, Cherie. You know that."
Lawrence said nothing.
The gloomy silence was interrupted by a knock on the door. "I'll get it," Lawrence said. She strode quickly over to the door.
A young man outside looked at her in surprise. "Urgent message from Earth for Admiral Stenton," he said, holding out a sealed envelope.
Stenton had stood up and come over to see. "Paper?" she asked. "Really?"
"Not quite; it's a synthetic substitute."
"Still, why a physical message?"
"Beats me, it's what the Europa's comm system printed out. Their communications tech is decades old, but it still has a stronger signal than our own, so we're using it for now. They must have come up with the synthetic replacement when they couldn't get any more paper from Earth after the Collapse."
"Whatever," Stenton said. "You're dismissed."
"Should I step out for this?" Lawrence asked. Messages from Olympus were confidential.
"You're fine," Stenton said, ripping open the envelope clumsily. "Ack, I ripped the message. Good, it's still readable."
She was silent for a full minute or two as she read the paper grimly.
"Well?" Lawrence asked.
"My fleet has a new assignment."
"A crisis in the Saturnian system."
"I'd like to come."
"You should stay with your fleet."
"As commanding officer of the joint fleet, you have authority to move ships from other fleets to your own, especially now that you have priority orders."
"Just because I can doesn't mean I will."
"Please?" Lawrence begged, trying to appeal to Stenton's pathos. "You'd keep your best friend out of your fleet?"
Stenton sighed. "Permission granted."
"Fantastic!" Lawrence cheered.
"I remind you that I am now your commanding officer," Stenton said coldly. "Please treat me with the correct formalities."
"Yes, sir," Lawrence said, straightening. "Orders?"
"How soon can your ship be ready to launch?"
"Twenty-four hours if I push."
"Make it twenty."
"Are we in that much of a hurry?"
"The fleet will leave in thirty hours, and I need to run drills on your ship. It's never seen action, so we need to test everything. Especially your weapons."
Lawrence smirked. "I think you just want to see an explosion," she said.
Stenton arched a single eyebrow.
"I mean, yes, sir. I'll tell my crew immediately."
Stenton stood smiling for a few moments after Lawrence left, then quickly hurried off to make her own preparations.
"Fire at will," Admiral Stenton said calmly, beginning the test of the S.F.F. Jaguar's particle beam. Captain Lawrence, floating next to her, whooped and pushed a button.
The ray from the particle cannon was invisible. Stenton almost expected to see the billions of joules of energy pouring out of the ship, but it was as if nothing was happening.
She also expected something slower. The asteroid ahead of the ship immediately began glowing and within a couple seconds had exploded into a thousand fragments.
"Very nice," Stenton said. "The Jaguar will make an excellent addition to our fleet."
"Thank you, Admiral," Lawrence said, trying to contain the rush of adrenaline. "I look forward to it."
"Now, back to work," Stenton said, turning to an aide. "Is the fleet ready?"
"Yes, sir. All but two of the Arcturus-class battleships are fully-staffed and ready. But with the Jaguar, we shouldn't need them. The other ships are also ready."
"Very well. Have any missing crew report to General Khalum. They should be given adequate punishment for failing to report in time."
"How quickly can we make it to Saturn?"
"The astrogators say six standard months, if we leave ten kilometers per second of delta-v for maneuvers at Saturn and reserve enough fuel for the return trip."
"Tell them to get us there in five months, or faster if possible. Take the extra fuel out of the reserve for the return journey; I'll write Olympus to ask for more support ships with fuel to follow us as soon as possible."
Stenton turned to Lawrence. "I'll leave you, Captain. Be ready to leave within four hours, please. And ensure that the particle beam is properly shut down before we move out."
"Of course, Rachel."
"That's Admiral, Captain Lawrence. Please try to remember."
Lawrence nodded absentmindedly. "Listen, Rach— Admiral. I have a couple of concerns about this mission. Could we talk somewhere privately?"
"Here, we can speak in my office."
Captain Lawrence's office was properly fitted for the Captain of one of the twenty most powerful warships Humanity had ever built. It was neat and clean, but the sparse objects the room was populated with screamed authority. Somehow a sextant hanging on the wall (thoroughly useless in the space age), potted plant glued to a shelf in the corner, and tablet stuck to an adhesive pad on the desk with a star map open were able to say, "Wisdom and Power live here."
"What's up, Cherie?" Stanton said, shedding her usual coat of formality.
"You need to tell me what the mission is."
"I already did. We go to Saturn and monitor—"
"No, Rachel. The real mission."
"Cherie, I'm quite honest when I say that what I've told you is all I've heard from Olympus."
"But it doesn't add up! It doesn't take an entire Solfleet to monitor a rebel faction. The Solfleets are only deployed in full when something serious is going on."
"Maybe Olympus saw something that really spooked them. Something they haven't told me. Maybe they're looking for something. But the stated mission is recon."
"It still doesn't make sense."
"Well," Stenton mused, "I think we may be glad after all to have this extra warship."
Since the dawn of the space age, people were fascinated with rocket launches. There's a paradoxically serene beauty that comes with the roaring might of the engines; the ship seems to build a pure white tower of cloud out of nothing. The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were personified in these glorious ships of metal.
But soon, rockets were commonplace. Every day, almost, a new rocket made its way out into the oblivion of the heavens. People moved away from Earth, the ancestral home of Humanity, and settled on cold, airless worlds, and hot, hellish wastelands where launches didn't leave behind pillars of steam or produce thundering noise. Rockets were no longer impressive.
So Humanity invented a new glory: the fusion engine.
As Solfleet 7 began its burn to Saturn, twenty-five glorious suns lit up the skies of Jupiter's moons. Children stopped and stared; business-people adjourned their meetings to gaze on the sky from windows; scientists on Io put down their Geiger counters for a moment to gaze at the majesty that their science had created.
None of them knew—though a few suspected—that these beautiful lights were on a mission to wage another war, to leave children orphans, to enforce a new Pax Romana—or a new Terreur.
Twenty-five glorious suns. Twenty-five new dawns for humanity—or twenty-five sunsets.
Solfleet 7, Admiral Rachel Stenton commanding, had begun its new mission.
"Our agents have confirmed the launch of Solfleet 7 from the Jovian system. They appear to be headed this way."
"So soon? I had hoped that Venus would have time… But it is too late for that. When will they arrive?"
"Solfleet 7 is not yet finished with their burn, but our analysts doubt we have any longer than five months."
"They're taking their sweet time. Four months, minimum, until they even launch."
"We'll have to do without them. Ready the Saboteur."
"It's being done as we speak, sir."
"And the crew?"
"Drilling. So far, they're scoring seventy percent in simulation."
"Not good enough."
"We know, sir."
"Give the Federation the chance and they'll destroy us. We cannot allow that."
"Sir, our people are ready to wreak any amount of mayhem necessary to bring down the Federation."
The Prime Regent rose slowly and gazed out of the window.
"So," he said finally. "This is how the end of the world begins."
"Less blood than I'd expected for that particular show, sir."
"It'll come, in time and in abundance."