Five year old Dayv huddled behind the couch where he had been pretending to explore the ice caves of Mars. He had just reached the part of the story where the hero, played by him of course, had rounded a corner and come upon a hidden Martian city. Just as he was about to call out to his imaginary crewmates in excitement, loud voices broke the silence of the cave. “Seriously, Myrna? You are going to bring up that ridiculous trope again? ‘We shouldn’t mess with God’s work?’ Are you fucking kidding me? Africa was starving less than a century ago, and now it’s the breadbasket of the planet, thanks to ‘messing with God’s work.’” “That’s different, Danell. Plants are one thing, animals are completely different. Just imagine what could go wrong!” His father sighed, audibly suppressing his irritation. Dayv could see in his mind’s eye the face his father was making, pursed lips and furrowed brow, and cocked head broadcasting his scorn as well as any words could. “Those are the same arguments ignorant people used against genetically modified crops years ago. If we had listened to them, half the human race would have died out in the famine. Instead, we used science instead of denying it, banded together, and look where we are now, on the verge of traveling to other star systems.” “Did you just call me ignorant?” His mother’s voice cracked. He knew she was both furious and hurt. “You son of a bitch, you wouldn’t have you fancy damned degree if I hadn’t taken care of Dayvey for five years. I’m not ignorant, I just believe in caution.” “Fine,” his father shot back as he stomped out of the room. “How many people have to die of malnutrition while you exercise caution? And I still think bringing your imaginary God into it is ridiculous.” Dayv waited until his mother’s ragged breathing faded in the opposite direction. Then he crawled out of what was no longer a Martian ice cave and sat on the couch, resolved to learn how to stop people from fighting, beginning with his parents.
This and similar arguments were taking place across the developed world, not just between married couples, but between elected officials, and even between governments. It wasn’t until billions had died and food shortages crossed the heavily fortified borders of the first world nations, that the voices of science won out over those of religion and fear. Hunger was a powerful motivator and driver of opinion. By the time Dayv graduated from the academy with a dual Cum Laude in languages and diplomacy humans by and large had come to accept or at least tolerate genetic modification in crops and livestock. His parents sat together proudly watching him deliver the valedictorian address, hugged him, took one family photo, and then flew off to opposite sides of the country. His biggest regret had always been his inability to mend the divisions between them.
The general public’s newfound tolerance did not extend to the genetic modification of humans. Faith is a powerful force, and every faith on Earth was opposed to “playing God” with the human genome. It took an existential threat to change enough minds to tip the scales.
No more than a couple of minutes after his parents left, Dayv was approached by a very military pair of people, shown an ID, and asked politely but very firmly to accompany them. His attempts at questioning them as to their reasons or destination were met by non-answers or silence, so he sat in silence as he was driven across the Corps base and down a steeply declining tunnel, and eventually into a generic parking area that could have been anywhere. As soon as they passed through the windowless double doors, he knew that he wasn’t just anywhere. His escorts were met by salutes, and he was shown into a small room resembling a doctor’s office. He was stood in the center, where a 3D x-ray imager spiraled up and down his body. Then his retinas were scanned, and his fingerprints recorded. Finally, a microchip was shot into his wrist.
When he returned to the main room, he raised his eyebrows and spread his hands in interrogation at his escorts. One of them gestured towards a security door with a red light reading Cleared Personnel Only. Shrugging, he walked over to it. As he approached, the light turned green, and he heard the latch cycle. He opened it, stepped through, and his life changed forever.
Humanity’s third deep space expedition had been launched by a US/China consortium to Luyten’s Star 13 years earlier. Their target was a tidally locked planet in the habitable zone. On arrival, they found two branches of the same species sharing the temperate zone around the equator of the planet. One branch was adapted to also live in the heat of the sunward side of the planet, the other on the extreme cold of the shadow. At first things had gone smoothly and the human visitors were welcomed. Then, something went amiss. It wasn’t clear what happened, but the mission diplomat/linguist said something, and within minutes, several humans were dead, and the rest had barricaded themselves in their lander, activated their wormhole communicator, and called home. The room Dayv entered was the communications center on the other end of that wormhole. Over the course of a week, Dayv assisted the mission linguist and diplomat with negotiations. His discovery that any serious decisions had to be made by a member of the sunward branch and a member of the shadow branch simultaneously was instrumental in the hammering out of a treaty. The Luytans refueled the humans’ ship and sent them home, with instructions never to enter that region of space again. Dayv’s reputation and career were established.
The human race, however, was shaken. Petty international squabbles paled alongside the possibility of total destruction by a superior species. The instinct for survival brought the nations of Earth together in a contentious but determined union. Exploration of the parts of the galaxy not proscribed by the treaty was intensified, with the aim of colonization. The thinking was that a human race distributed over numerous planets would be harder to wipe out. Lastly, the taboo against human genetic manipulation, while not overcome in many minds, was weakened. Earth’s religions had been able to rationalize other sentient species on other planets as just part of God’s creation, but the existence of an obviously superior race put the lie to “in the image of God.” A visceral antipathy towards engineered humans held on, though, so the newly formed Global Defense Force first tried cybernetics, but the human body proved too fragile to withstand the stresses put on it by mechanical enhancements. Next, they tried pure robotics, but were unable to create an AI which could improvise on the battlefield and which would also follow orders. So, using artificial wombs and donated oocytes, they started from scratch, building a superior human.
Scientists already had considerable experience from their work with domesticated food animals, and much of the theoretical research had been done, as well as some clandestine experimentation in countries less constrained by moral and religious barriers. With the full weight of the newly unified world behind it, thousands of the best minds who had ever lived, and no financial restrictions, the project moved ahead rapidly, and, five years later, the first platoon of super-soldiers was born and placed in a carefully designed environment with highly trained “parents.” There were problems and missteps along the way, with everyone learning on the fly, but, ten years after their birth, thanks to an accelerated maturation process, the human race had expanded to include 50 adult super soldiers and 200 more in various stages of development.
Using CRISPR II, an advanced gene modification technique, the clones’ frontal lobes were enlarged to boost their intelligence, their limbic systems were tweaked to suppress fear and other destabilizing traits, and their physical bodies were enhanced, giving them stronger bones, tougher skin, and augmented senses.
Their upbringing was designed to instill a sense of duty, devotion to humankind, and respect for authority. When they “graduated,” every one of the first 50 chose to enter military service. They underwent extensive combat training which further reinforced their respect for and obedience to authority. Because “ordinary” humans were concerned about a rebellion by the soldiers, or worse, being replaced by them, they were all sterile and had a small explosive charge implanted inside their skull which could be set off remotely. Only mission commanders had the authority and codes to do this.
The six soldiers assigned to this mission had all trained alongside the main crew, so the two men and one woman who came through the port were familiar faces. All had first names only, followed by Alpha, since they were from the first platoon. They were impressive specimens of humanity, 30 centimeters taller than any of the crew, and solid muscle. Each was trained in the complete library of military arts, but each had a specialty as well. Ebony skinned Freya was a martial arts specialist, having achieved top ranking in every major discipline and some of the more obscure ones. Second through the port was the ironically named Baldur, bronze skinned with close cropped bright blue hair. He was the demolitions expert. He was closely followed by Eir, who, in addition to her complete military training, was also an expert surgeon, skilled in the treatment of humans and enhanced soldiers alike.
After brief nods of acknowledgement to their fellow crew members, the soldiers got right down to business. Prithya had always found their matter of fact behavior in some situations disconcerting, knowing that, when they were off duty, the soldiers could really let loose. She also found it oddly familiar, reminiscent of the contrast between children and their elders back home. The weird thing was, these soldiers were more than 10 years younger than she!
They began by passing out lightweight neckbands to each crew member. Freya showed them how to activate them, creating an ionized field that would hopefully shield them from unwanted contact with the bacterial transistors and any AI program they might carry. Baldur then addressed Prithya. “Tell me everything you can about the sphere. I’ll also want stats on the faraday cage you cobbled together.”
She handed him a data pad, on which she had called up the information in anticipation of his question. Baldur browsed the screens, and called up a mini schematic holo of the sphere. He rotated it around and replayed its retraction from its extruded state several times. He frowned. “You have no idea what alloy it is made of?”
“None,” Prithya said. “It is a technology we have never achieved, metal behaving like smartplaz. I wish we could reverse engineer it instead of destroying it.”
“It’s not particularly heavy, based on what I’m seeing here,” Baldur said. “I’m guessing it is carbon based, light but strong. Obviously designed for space travel and entry into an atmosphere, but probably not made to withstand an explosion. We have a couple of options. We can try to destroy it here on the ground, which would be the fastest way. That entails risk because we don’t know exactly what it is made of, so we would risk toxic fallout from an explosion or, worst case, the destruction of the Faraday cage without damaging the sphere, consequently releasing your friend All back into the atmosphere.”
“Either of those results would be disastrous,” Mags said. “Other options?”
“If you are set on destroying it, the only other option would be to send it into a high orbit, surround it with directed charges, and obliterate it there. That would require waking up the other three soldiers on the orbiter and figuring out how to get the sphere and cage close enough for them to reach it, but far enough so that they won’t blow themselves up as well.”
“I don’t particularly like that option either,” Mags said. “It sounds as if it would take quite some time.”
“A couple of days at least, to modify the thrusters from the pod to lift the thing into orbit, position it, and then place and detonate the charges.”
“That would strand you down here without thrusters,” Mander said. “Can’t you just tow it into orbit using the pod, and then come back down?”
“Too much payload for the thrusters.”
“Do we absolutely have to destroy it?” Prithya asked. “It would be really nice to study it a bit more, as long as it’s isolated.”
“As long as it can potentially destroy us, yes we do,” Mags said. “It sounds like sending it into orbit and blowing it up there is not realistic. Is there any way to neutralize it here without using explosives?”
“What if we set off an EMP inside the cage?” Prithya asked?
“To do that, we would have to open the cage and go inside to place the device. I’m not willing to risk any of you to do that, not to mention the potential of giving All access beyond the cage.” Mags stood and stared at the outside viewscreens for a moment. “Ok, Man, I want you to initiate resuscitation procedures for the remaining soldiers, and Baldur, you and your team get to work on blowing that thing up. Let’s work to mitigate the effects of either of the worst case scenarios. Prithya, tweak the shields as best you can to block any fallout from the explosion. Baldur, maybe set up a directed EMP in the event that the cage is destroyed and the sphere intact.”
“We also need to let the Deer People know what we are doing,” Cohl said, “so they can get out of harm’s way.”
Mags looked at Cohl, then at Dab, and back again.
“We’re good,” Dab said.
“Yeah,” Cohl said. “We’ve agreed to take a step back until we negotiate this crisis. Mission success and survival are paramount. No more complications, captain.”
“OK, then,” Mags said. “Cohl, you seem to have the best connection to the Deer People. Can you communicate that they need to move away from the sphere without actually making contact with any of them?”
“I think so, captain,” Cohl said, “especially if Friend is in the vicinity.”
“Make it happen then. Also find out where we can move the cage so it is a safe distance from any tree refuges.”
Cohl began to suit up.
It turned out that Friend was not in the vicinity of the lander, but Cohl was able to send a warning to the Deer People closest to the sphere, causing them to move back. They also sent him an image of a corner of the meadow where there presumably wasn’t a tree refuge.
As soon as Cohl returned and told them where the sphere needed to be moved to, the soldiers, who hadn’t removed their suits, exited through the airlock. Walking briskly to the sphere, they activated the floaters, and moved it across the meadow to the safe location indicated by the Deer People. There, they removed the floaters and began setting up charges around the cage at Baldur’s direction.
Fifteen minutes later, they were back aboard the lander.
“We are go for detonation, captain,” Baldur said.
“Shields should protect us from any fallout,” Prithya said. “I’ve transferred the bulk of power to the side of the lander facing the blast as well.”
Mags nodded to Baldur. “Let’s do this.”
They all watched the monitors as Baldur counted down. “Five, four, three, two…” The sphere suddenly shot upward, tearing through the Faraday cage like tissue paper, and disappeared into the clouds. A second later, the explosive charges detonated on empty air.
Prithya ran to the consoles and brought up the tracker, which automatically followed any artificial movement. “That thing reached escape velocity incredibly fast,” she said. “And it didn’t stop in orbit. It has left the planet.”
“Where is it heading?” Mags asked. “Can you tell?” She motioned to the soldiers. “You three go round up those unused EMP devices before the Deer People get their hands on them.”
The soldiers left the bridge, and Mags turned back to Prithya, eyebrows raised.
“If it hasn’t changed direction,” Prithya said, “it was heading either for one of the outer planets or out of the system altogether. The orbiter should be able to track it, but damn that thing was fast.”
“Man, start resuscitation of the other three soldiers, and power up our long range com. I need to contact command. Prithya find out from the orbiter’s tracker where that thing is headed. I hope it is leaving the system. The last thing we need is for its builders to be in the neighborhood.”
“Already done,” Prithya said. “It left the system still accelerating. It hasn’t sent a signal yet, but it may just need to get within range of its destination, or out of our sensor range before it does. Long story short, we won’t know where it is going or if it contacted anyone until they show up.”