High station rode in its Legrange five orbit as the combined Earth fleet assembled into a low geosync orbit. The station glittered as the shadow of its home world passed over it. The arcs of welders shone from the construction of the large vessel that had been growing from High station as its purpose had been expanded upon the war’s end.
Emil Dalton had been sitting his post as High station head traffic controller for a week now, but it had been the busiest week of the station’s short history. The planning committee still buzzed on his main board even though everything was well underway. When they pressed him for time, he cursed his predecessors’ luck at being shuffled to an Earth-side job. The man’s frayed nerves and a sudden wish to go on a walk outside had made the doctors reassign him early. Emil enjoyed his job, as he sat dreaming of being in an old television program defending his post against their foes. He sat in the comfortable big chair on the bridge of the largest man-made orbital structure ever placed into space even though he felt that the title of High station commander was pretentious for just a glorified traffic cop.
The day had followed the plans, with the few glitches you expect when dealing with the anxiety and egos of the people he was guiding. Emil worked hard to get all into their proper low orbit above the old North American city. Scores of large warships filled his screen, most of which had not been near Earth in a decade let alone in peaceful coexistence with each other. They all sat, nominally under his control, in their tight formation ready for review once the formality started, formality that waited on one politician, who had just signaled he was running late.
Emil looked up as his primary communications officer ,Jeannette Valentine, passed in front of his desk. He smiled to himself as he saw her brush her long blond hair back from her face, place her drink in its holder on the console, and sit at the large comm station. Emil wondered if the party atmosphere might devolve later as he studied her sitting there answering the signal that had brought her away from the group with whom she had been talking. His eyes flashed over to the picture of his family glowing on a side view screen of his desk. He still faced the next three months at his duty station. Then he would rotate back to Earth; and Emil felt that, as a man, several months was a long time to sleep alone.
Heads turned as the ship Emil expected came into sight on their main view screen. He knew the Gemini. He had seen her being built as he had shipped back and forth on his duties. She was the newest craft out of the shipyards of Odessa and boasted new technologies they said would change the way mankind will travel in space. The ship followed her preplanned course up from Earth side, holding a tight parabolic arc. Emil checked over the reports glowing on the board marking the last remaining empty box. With the Gemini’s arrival, the last ship was finally in place at the festivities planned for this day, a day that set to mark the end of the long cease-fire and even longer war. Emil studied the view port showing the burnished hull of the ship as it shone in the rising sun and gaped at its reactionless movement of which he had heard rumors. He could tell that many of his crew on the bridge paused as he did, stared at it passing, and imagined the eyes of most of the crews on the surrounding fleet watched as the Gemini danced among them.
“Commander, Eastern Alliance command is requesting an approach vector for the Gemini,” Jeannette said, breaking Emil’s thoughts.
“And so our missing Viceroy makes his appearance.” He chuckled to himself. “Route them through the parade fleet. Mr. Herrick has been chewing my ear about their ETA for almost an hour.”
He relaxed in his chair and stroked his neat trimmed beard, his best feature in his opinion, and turned his attention to the main screen of his desk. It displayed the broadcast of a local celeb newscaster’s show as she talked to the people on the streets of New York.
Emil thought that the atmosphere of the city was jubilant and that the festivities had been going nonstop since early morning. The millions in attendance made the city appear as the prewar days when people filled every available open space to celebrate the New Year. He glanced across the command deck, where his personnel moved around in a mood as ecstatic as the one on his screen.
He again looked over as Jeannette relayed her directions to the Gemini, daydreaming on what might happen if he could get her alone for some private time. He felt a moment’s vertigo as his attention was drawn to the glass on his desk when it shifted to the side of its holder with a click. Uncertainty filled him as small positioning alarms sounded and automatic systems engaged station keeping thrusters to hold their orbit. Emil looked up to see Jenette rising from her seat confused, alarm radiating from her profile. Looking to the main screen, Emil saw the Gemini as it appeared to twist in the space between the two battle cruisers. The two massive ships that were suddenly being drawn toward the little silver vessel, their own auto thrusters blazing bright against the dark hulls. Silence spread over the festive atmosphere as Emil noted more of his crew staring curiously at the main-view screen showing the odd scene. Suddenly two small projectiles erupted from the Gemini, exhaust blazing from them, as they very slowly clawed away from the silver ship that was inexplicably shifting to red. Emil reached for the alarm switches as the space surrounding the Gemini looked to twist, and the ship was suddenly replaced by an expanding sphere of incandescence. Emil winced as screens that had been focused on the scene polarized from the flash. When the screens cleared, his eyes widened as he saw the cruisers on either side of the expanding shock wave buckle and burst from the force of the explosion. The irresistible force pushed them away faster than their structural integrity could allow, causing secondary explosions to join the first. The main shock shredded the ships, sending pieces hurling into the mass of ships that Earth had assembled.
The main screen dimmed, then shone bright as the chain reaction grew and rippled through the fleet, flinging smaller ships into larger ones. Emil’s stun grew as the explosions propagated through the crowded sky in ever-increasing volume. One large ship plummeted from its low orbit, blazing through the atmosphere to what Emil knew its ultimate fate to be when it would plow a long furrow of fire and destruction on the surface. He gaped as a fast attack ship dove low above the city in what appeared to be an effort to outrun the calamity. The ship screamed into the thin atmosphere above the city until a flaming chunk of debris crashed into it causing more rapid-fire explosions to ripple across its surface.
The screen on Emil’s desk still shone with the crowds of people on the planet’s surface, flashes visible on upturned faces even in the bright daylight. Shocked looks of men, women, and children on the streets vanished as the console blanked. On the main view screen, a large explosion blanketed the sky above the city. A massive cloud with an angry red center bloomed where the city of New York had moments before stood proud and strong.
Emil reminded himself to breathe as the center of the vast cloud still glowing red had expanded for what felt like an eternity to him. He knew that his crew sat in stunned silence as he himself stared in disbelief, the dark tanned skin of his Turkish heritage appeared pallid. He stared at the screen at what had once been a cultural center of their planet, now relegated to history.
Emil pulled his eyes from the catastrophe and looked around at the personnel under his command. Fear and shock written upon the faces of his crew gave him a small comfort in the realization that no one here had forewarning of this event.
He glanced at the shipyard sprawling behind the command deck. The huge ship, the Lux in Orbis Terrarum, that was taking shape there was to be mankind’s masterwork in exploration and peace with people of the Earth’s nations working together to forward man’s journey into the galaxy. Emil wondered if the future was to be lost. He thought of how the war that had caused the Earth’s population to drop from eight billion to two billion had ended six years earlier, and today the United Earth Alliance was to take control of the entire world. The UEA was to end the balkanized history of the solar system, regional conflict in the past, and humankind would prosper and expand to the worlds even now under study for colonization, worlds unlike Mars, dry and with its thin atmosphere, but verdant living worlds much like the Earth itself, ready to feed a hungry population.
Emil looked again at his staff, determined that he needed to get the command deck back under his control and away from the horror on the main screen.
In what he hoped was a firm voice, Emil called out an order.
“Ms. Valentine, get me a list of the ships able to respond.” Emil paused. “And try to separate out those in immediate need of help.”
Emil waited as the young Italian woman tore her gaze from the screen, scanned her communications board, and replied, “The Sydney is calling for aid, reporting major damage and many casualties.” Jeanette’s voice was rough, and tears glistened in her eyes as she continued, “Most of my channels are overloaded or down, sir.”
“Mr. Peters, get whatever pods we have out there,” ordered Emil as he swiveled in his chair. “Mr. Jensen, I need all available ship locations.”
As the deck crew resumed work, they hustled to answer requests for information and support. Mark Jensen keyed through ship registry before Emil heard him call out in a flat voice.
“Sir, there are two Star Reach ships, the Fifteen and the Twenty-seven, at Mars’s base. The Thirty-three is out at Titan,” he trailed off as Emil saw him scan the board in front of him.
“Nothing at Luna?” questioned Emil, his voice sounding tense.
Mark looked up, shaking his head. “Nothing but some small, sub-light craft, sir.”
Emil pursed his lips, thinking fast. “Bring everything that can fly up from Luna, have the Fifteen come in to help look for survivors, and put the other two on standby.”
Then he turned to his comm officer, “Jeannette, get me Geneva.”
Emil looked around the bridge as the deck crew moved to resume their work, the party atmosphere gone. He studied them as they attempted to bring the station up to full duty. Emil heard the repeated calls go to sections that failed to answer. He sat and observed his people as they worked, all of them trying to ignore the dark stain on the planet before him.
After a few minutes Emil saw Jeanette, tears still wet upon her cheeks, turn from her console. “UEA Geneva for you, Commander,” she said.
Emil sat forward and pressed a switch, causing a screen to show a middle-aged man of European descent as he appeared to be near shouting.
“Commander Dalton, thank God someone is still up there.” Emil observed the panic rise in the ground-side communications officer’s voice. “General Rashton has assumed command on this end.” The man on the screen appeared wild eyed as he stammered out, “What reports can you supply?”
“There are massive damages to the parade fleet, and we have three functional FTL ships in system. My command has no serious damage, and we are attempting to retrieve casualties—” Emil cut his response short as, at that moment, an older man pushed the pale shaking communications officer away from the set and took the screen. His dark skin stretched on his careworn face, his shoulders appeared slumped, pulled down by the weight of a world resting on them, and his eyes filled with sadness. Emil thought they were the eyes of an old warrior who knew that battle was once more upon him.
“Emil, can you hold if things get hairy up there?” the older man asked in a calm voice.
“General, this station is not designed for combat. We are equipped for traffic control, tracking, and functioning as a shipyard,” Emil said, then continued almost in desperation. “I am bringing the injured here for now. What planet-side hospital can accept—” A warning klaxon split the air on the command deck, interrupting Emil.
“Commander, the Lunar cannon is firing!” Mark called out, panic sounding clear in his voice.
Emil thought fast. He knew of the Lunar canon, a particle accelerator built by the North American government at the end of the previous conflict. Its position upon the moon had given it clear range over the Earth’s environs, but no agency had used its frightful power.
“What is its target?” Emil called out, knowing they had no chance to stop it regardless of the intended spot. Emil watched in growing impatience and fear as Mark scanned the reports crossing his screen.
In a quiet shocked voice, he replied, “New Delhi, sir.”
“That is just a population center. What could be the point of that?” Emil questioned, rising from his chair. “They wouldn’t dare,” he muttered under his breath. “Give me a view of the zone!”
Emil knew the attack was over even as Mark adjusted his controls and caused the scene to flash onto the main screen. Analysis of the scene would later show the massive destruction caused by the weapon.
The particle projector had fired a mass of sufficient size that its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere brought destruction itself. Air molecules unable to move out of the way of the projectile traveling close to light speed superheated past the point of fusion, nitrogen and oxygen combining into sheets of flames and rained down on the surrounding countryside. The impact of this mass of flaming gases brought the surface temperature of the city up to its melting point in microseconds.
A flash and the explosion rivaling the largest fusion bombs followed, but the city already destroyed by the initial impact left none to die in the following blast. All that remained of the ancient city was a vast cooling pool of melted rock surrounded by burning rubble and a ring of countryside deforested by the heat and now in flames.
Shock again rippled across the command deck. Emil ran his hands through his hair, stretching the skin back from his face. He realized this, the incineration of millions of people in both cities, and he could have done nothing to prevent it. He thought of his wife and four children still at home on the Earth and wondered if he would ever see any of them again. Emil saw the silent tears of his personnel on the command deck and wondered again if all would be lost.
“Commander Dalton!” he heard General Rashton yell from his screen. “I am sending you a message, and I need it relayed to the Antares with all speed.” His fingers flew as he typed on the board in front of him. “I am ordering them to return to Earth as soon as possible. Asher’s ship may be our only chance to end this.”
Emil blinked and watched the screen for a moment before responding, “Can we spare a Star Reach?” Emil asked while he sank down into his chair. “I can route the Thirty-three from Titan.”
The general shook his head. “We may need all the ships we have.” The scene vibrated, and dust rained around the general, causing him to look up at the ceiling.
“Their orders will be on file if I am unavailable. Emil, I need you to take control of High Side until they get here.” Emil felt General Rashton’s gaze fix upon his eyes.
“General, I am a traffic controller, not a combat officer,” Emil replied as alarm rose in his voice.
The screen vibrated again, and Emil saw several staff members moving behind the general. He locked eyes with General Rashton as the older man’s face appeared even more grim.
“You are what I have. Take command!” the general ordered. “May God protect us all. Rashton out.”
The screen went blank as the general signed off. Emil sank back into his seat and turned to his deck crew. “Peters, I need a message pod for immediate departure to rendezvous with the Antares,” Emil said, pulling his courage together.
Peters loaded the automated craft, still sitting in its launch tube, with the message. He programmed it for the destination and launched it on its journey to the distant star where the explorer Antares should receive it. Emil watched the transport speed into the vastness. Knowing the Antares might be Earth’s last hope, he prayed that his people could hold out until the ship and crew could return.