The displays from the newest belt of sensors near Mars flooded in to the lower left, the status indicators above and around it hovering in a greenish-yellow zone to indicate that nothing was out of the ordinary. The other data, from Saturn, did the same toward the bottom-middle of his vision. “The new apps are so much better,” Rand Wasolek said to the young woman barely paying attention to him. “They integrate with your interface so well that you know immediately when there’s a problem and you can zone out when there isn’t.”
“Leaves Rand plenty of free time to watch all of his ridiculous action operas while he waits for the software to do all the work for him,” Doug said.
“So sweet, Doug. You didn’t even throw in a ‘shithead.’ Anyway, they haven’t declared us obsolete yet,” Rand said. “I-reupped my contract because I’m just enjoying it while it lasts. You’re lucky you got here when you did, Allie. We’ve got five years of guaranteed pay. I bet they don’t even actually need us that long if another upgrade passes through. Everything will just take care of itself.”
“Yeah but you’re on the edge of what can only generously be called human civilization,” Doug remarked. “Enjoy being up to not much.”
“After doing this for a few days, I can’t imagine what you were dealing with before,” Allie said, reclining next to him on the chair full of supplementary interfaces they’d built out for the listening post operators when the new system had gone in. She turned her head toward Doug. “I feel like I’m inheriting a much easier job than you had.”
“There were some rough nights,” Doug nodded. “Harsh shifts.”
“You say that like you’re a grizzled war hero,” Rand said. “It’s just skimming data looking for the juicy bits. The biggest challenge is staying awake. That’s really what we’re paid for, to watch while everyone else sleeps and goes about their science and whatnot. Now we’ve got things that even do the skimming for us.” Allie seemed to be lost in the wash of data coming through her interfaces. She’d been on board for all of ten days. He started to think she was kind of cute, with hair tied back professionally and freckles, but he burned those thoughts as fast as he had them. He wasn’t about to get written up for creating a hostile work environment with a trainee. “You’re what, 22?” Rand asked.
“That’s right,” Allie said. “First job out of University. Decided to go to fucking Europa. Not exactly a normal career path. It seemed like such an adventure when I accepted the contract.”
“It’s the right age to do this,” Doug said. “You got the new, more immersive interface technology they built from the Tarrare data at just the right time when you’re brain was still flexible enough to take it. You’re used to all this. It’s still tough for old guys like Rand and me. There’s a new software interface and UI release everyday, a lot of adjustment all at once. I miss the brute simplicity of the old software and the shitty sensor arrays sometimes.”
“You’re not wrong,” Rand said. “Even with all these apps and filters providing assists, there’s so much more coming through. The Heimdallr program made the whole thing more powerful and more intricate.”
“Well, in whatever condition it was in I’m still impressed you were the first one to spot the Tarrare with this,” Allie added. She had a sheepish grin on her face. He could never tell if she was mocking him or not whenever she brought it up.
“Like I said before, that’s an urban legend,” Rand said. “I’m sure the surveillance satellites that the UAS DoD have saw them first. I just called more attention to it.”
“Sure you did,” Allie said. “You being the humble bastard you are.”
“That’s right,” Rand said. “You know, you’re lucky you’re getting posted to this colony when you are. It’s almost twice the size it was since the Tarrare made their appearance.” The view from the listening post’s tower was vastly different, Rand marveling at the colony’s structures in a serpentine layout. They broke up through and down under the ice layer in lineae of Europa’s surface like thorns on a bush of plastics and metal.
“I’ve heard they’re planning on building some sort of military outpost,” Doug said. “That’s what all the air conversions, phytoplankton farms, solar panels, and generators are all about. It’s the infrastructure to support all that. It makes sense. Us being out here on the edge and all. Self-sufficiency. I hear they can grow lots of algae in these big sealed tanks they’ve got down even further under the surface. GMO stuff that can survive the temperatures.”
“New people are coming in every day,” Allie said. “Since colonies are exempt from the Alvez Act, all the corporations are doing their serious work out here. When I was applying on JupeJobs I saw listings for an IEI geothermal plant on Io that’s supposed to hire two hundred people.”
“Don’t forget ADS is almost done building a deep space drone factory and mines over on Ganymede,” Doug said. “IEI also supposedly has a blacksite over there. A lot is happening.”
“You sure you don’t want to stay, Doug?” Rand joked. “There’re always opportunities.”
“I’ve thought about it,” Doug said. “But unlike you, Rand, I’ve lived out here on the Jupiter moons for like twenty years. Enough is enough. Even if this is supposed to turn into a Hub, like a mini-Mars or Luna, I can’t do it anymore. It’s going to be a harsh transition, though. My legs are going to be all fucked by the Earth’s gravity when I get back.”
“They have things to help with that now,” Allie says. “Braces and implants for the knees and back to help you step down and assist you when going back to the higher gravity. Mars and Luna settings. Luna would probably work best for you.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Doug said. “I really need to look into it all. Haven’t been doing my research the way I should.”
“It’s funny talking about the future of this colony,” Rand commented, eager to get away from the subject of Doug’s departure. After all, it was highly likely Rand would never see him again. After Rand’s contract finally ran out, he wondered if he’d go back to Earth. Even if he did, he could foresee a lot of half-assed plans to get drinks that one or the both of them would cancel or reschedule a bunch of times. “I don’t think it’s entirely all science, research, and feel-good stuff they have planned. The Project Heimdallr scanners have a ton of classified modes I can’t unlock.”
“You’ve tried, though? Right?” Allie asked, tinkering with something on her interface.
“Of course I have,” Rand said. “But the covert data feeds coming in here have scary encryption. It says a lot. Or doesn’t say a lot. Depends on your perspective, I guess.”
“Wait,” Allie said. She was working through something. “This can’t be right. I think I’ve found something.”
“What did you find?” Rand said. He asked for permission to share her interface. She granted it, data streams overlaying his. The indicators changed from green-yellow to orange-red. He watched the numbers add up. One anomaly. Five anomalies. Twenty anomalies. It continued to climb.
“Something unknown detected. A lot of them,” Allie said.
“Not again,” Rand whispered. He checked it. Lots of foreign bodies, moving in an organized fashion. “M.C.P., model please.” The master app did what it was told, pulling up displays in all their interfaces of what was coming. It was exactly like it had been back on the day with the Tarrare, but the rendering was so much faster.
“Are those more Tarrare ships?” Doug asked.
Rand knew the truth before he could say it. “No,” he said. “The mineral survey ships they’ve sent through occasionally are just like the main ship at Earth, spheres. Not to mention we were given warning they were coming from the Black Sphere by Earth.” The profile of the starships coming into the system was different. Not spherical. Not matching the composition or energy signatures of any Tarrare ships it had detected.
“Definitely not spheres,” Allie said, blowing up a huge projection in front of them. There were lots of them. Maybe a hundred. Ten or so large ships, all like long arms with claws coming out of them. Tiny ones swirled around them. They were menacing. Non-uniform, long segments pointing out of them and forward. . They were jagged, twisted, full of large knots of outward spires and protrusions. “The composition is metallic and biological. Actually a huge amount of biological matter hardened over a shell.”
“That’s a battle formation,” Rand said. “Those are warships. I’m goddamn sure of it. There’s no way they’d be moving like that, that they would look like that if they weren’t.”
“Should I …” Allie started.
“Definitely,” Rand said. “Administrator Cheung will want to know about this. Get her on as soon as you can.” Rand tried to imagine what this meant. The trajectory appeared.
“They’re headed for Earth,” Doug said. “And very, very fast. They’ll be there in hours.”
“Unfortunately,” Rand said. “And I don’t think this group wants to make friends.”
“What are we about to watch here?” Doug said, lost in the moment. “I mean, what the fuck does this mean?”
“The Tarrare are really advanced, though, right?” Allie said. “They should be able to do something?” Rand and Doug only answered her question with silence. The three of them thought the same, selfish thing. They were praying to unspecified deities and all cosmic forces that whatever this war fleet was would pass Europa by.