The clock slowly ticked the minutes that measured time on a shift in the factory. Push a button and watch another asteroid be fed to the nanovat. Wait for the nanobots to break it down into its component atoms. Watch the reserve levels of all materials and start the laser when the materials were at a high enough level for the next component on her work list.
“Come to the Icarus shipyards!” the add had claimed. “High pay and adventure galore!” The pay did nothing but accumulate in her bank account, as there was nothing to spend it on out here. The only form of entertainment at all was getting plastered at on of the watering holes and getting laid afterward, which lost its appeal after the first three weeks.
Jupiter was as dull as it got, but that was where the engineers had wanted to build the Shipyards for the deep-space explorer. So people like her sat out here, reading guages and pushing buttons and writing the occassional report about the buttons they pushed and guages they read that day.
Skylar Tacitus watched in bored disinterest as the laser switched frequencies (and colors) hundreds of times per second, coagulating atoms into the exact shape and composition needed for the part, one layer of atoms at a time. When the levels of a needed material got low in the tank, she would feed another asteroid to the vat and let it be broken down, to start the process all over again.
The deep-space explorer was nearly finished, she knew. It should be launching in a couple weeks,which would worry some people, as they thought about their jobs. Skylar didn’t worry, though, as she knew the government would have invested as much money into this base just to build one ship.
Earth was getting crowded and more and more people were demanding colonization projects on the Moon, Mars, and Ganymede. Of the three, Ganymede would probably be first, due to its large amount of local water and the nearby presence of Icarus.
Finally, the clock said her shift was done and her relief arrived. She punched out and headed for Jupiter’s Olympus. The bar’s owners may not have known the differences between Greek and Roman mythology, but their booze was strong.
After all, a girl’s got to have something to do between shifts.
Dawn brought another day in the control room of vat 12C. The aluminum and carbon levels were a little low, and she dropped a few canisters of hydrocarbons into the vat, providing both carbon and the hydrogen the nanobots used for power. As usual, her first parts for the day were empty canisters, to replace the ones she dropped into the vat. Wasteful of a little energy, perhaps, but power was cheap, and the infrastructure to pump hydrocarbons into the vats via tubes and pumps would be far more expensive than simply making new canisters.
As the vat broke down its first asteroid for the day, the door to her control booth opened to admit a tall man with a too-harried look on his face. He grinned when she looked up, however, once more looking like he had before he became responsible for the production of thousands of crucial starship parts a day.
“Hi, Gary. What brings you to my cubby-hole?”
“Skylar, I just wanted to tell you in person. You’ve been promoted to section leader, for all of C block. Your section is also going to designated the area for all materials that require special handling. Make sure your people know their jobs and do them right.”
“Special Handling? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Basicly, Earth has decided our little piece of heaven, with its nanovats, are the perfect dumping ground for anything they don’t want to deal with themselves. Congress passed a law and the President signed it, requiring us to accept and process any toxic waste they see fit to hand us. Make sure all materials are handled remotely. I know some of the guys might try their fool hands at throwing the stuff in the vats by hand, just for a little exercise. Make sure they understand the gym is the only place they get exercise around here. OK?”
“Sure. What are we supposed to be building once the ship’s done, though?”
“Actually, all the parts for the ship were finished a week ago.We’re building freighters to haul equipment to the new colony on Mars that Congress approved in the same law. This shipyard should be very busy for the next month or so. After that, who knows?”
“I suppose I’ll get back to work on freighter parts then. I’ll mail the guys to let them know.”
“Alright. I better get back to filling out paperwork. You’d probably like to get paid this week.”
The door closed and Skylar keyed in the next part and the laser flashed into existence, turning out freighter parts with the efficiency only nanovats could match. Her mail contained the same info Gary had left her, telling her the first batch of toxic mess should be in her materials queue within the hour. She sat back in her chair and composed the message to send to her newly-acquired crew.
Hours turned into day and days into weeks, and the demand for parts seemed to increase, though now they looked like parts to expand the shipyard. Increasing amounts of materials still arrived, both toxic and otherwise, with some labelled radioactive and some just looking like remnants of a junkyard. She decided to take a walking tour of the yard after work, to see if she could find what was going on.
The tour had proved very enlightening. The yard was expanding, and many ships were being built that did not look at all like freighters. They had no huge storage holds and had areas that suspiciously like gunports. In the fifty years since humanity had established a permanent place in space, humanity had never built a warship. That, apparently, had changed. Gary’s office light was on as she passed it on the way back to her quarters.
“Since when did the government decide we need warships?” she said, slightly indignant at not having been told.
“Since we managed to stumble into a war,” he replied. “It’s not going to be secret much longer anyway. Are you aware of what the deep space explorer was supposed to do?”
“It had a FTL drive. It was supposed to start exploring our area of the universe.”
“It was. It did. After the first jump, the ship ran into a battle in deep space. Some aliens were attempting to destroy some other aliens who weren’t even firing back. The crew of the Apollo mutinied when Captain Carver ordered the ship out of the area. They attached tow cables to the badly damaged vessel and tunnel-jumped back here. Since we know pretty much how to track tunnel-jumps, we have to assume the fools have led some very hostile aliens right back here. We have no choice but to prepare for the arrival for some very hostile aliens to show up.”
“How long until the shooting starts?”
“I don’t know. Admirals and Generals don’t tell us that. Our jobs is to recycle all materials we’re sent and keep building ships. They'll take care of the rest.”
“Sure hope there’ll be enough metal in the asteroids to build them, is all I have to say.”
“Earth will start sending regular shipments of garbage mined from old landfills to keep our factories running. They’re building their own vats as well, but ours is supposed to get regular shipments as well. The space elevator was finished last month, which will make this possible, but we’re in a wartime production cycle now. Maximum output for the forseeable future. Also, tell your people none of this. They’ll see it on the evening news in a few weeks anyway, but we need to keep the alien discovery quiet until the military boys can get the info they want from the aliens the Apollo brought back.”
“Alright, I’m going to turn in now. We have to turn out space-dock parts tomorrow and I have to prioritize materials feed for C block in the morning, so nobody runs into a shortage of materials they need for their production schedule.”
She closed the door behind her and quietly walked back to her quarters. The halls seemed too thin now, as though they offered little protection from the enemy that would soon approach. He quarters offed little respite from her dark thoughts, as the comfort of clean sheets and darkness could not calm her racing mind, filled with the stories she’d heard in her youth.
Her grandfather had told stories of war, as he had fought on the last one Earth had known. He said he had never seen anything so horrible. His commander had said they would surely defeat the Americans, as their hearts were pure and God would help them. God was on the side with the heaviest batallions and they had rained destruction down from space. Nuclear missiles and Fuel-Air explosives had destroyed everything around him, then their space-assault Marines had dropped from orbit. There were very few of his comrades left to surrender beside him, but he had known they had lost the war by that point. The United States of Earth had formed five years later, but he had become an American citizen by that point anyway, for he had seen the handwriting on the wall the day he survived the destruction of the army he had been part of.
She wondered how many people would die in this war and knew she wouldn’t find out first-hand, as her job was essential. Earth couldn’t defend itself without warships to fight, so she knew she would have plenty of work to do.
Morning brought work, and work started to fill her days with labor so draining that her nights usually contained nothing but sleep that seemed to fail to rest a tired mind. Asteroids come in with decreasing regularity, to be replace with the industrial leftovers of Earth’s past.
Rumors started to wind their paths through the grapevine of the workers. Some of them said this war (as the news channels had reported it to be coming by this point) was a convenient excuse to clean Earth’s environment of some of the damages man had done to it. That seemed unlikely to Skylar, as some of the junk they were recycling looked like raised shipwrecks, expensive to raise even with modern technology.
Other rumors claimed that the search for metal-rich asteroids was getting difficult to find. The cost of just randomly dropping in asteroids for little return of the metals needed for ship construction would cause production delays that Earth simply could not afford. This seemed a likely reason why Earth was shipping them every piece of rusted junk they could find, as long as it had the metals in it that Earth needed. It also meant that many of the ships that had lost their last battles would have another chance to redeem themselves, Skylar thought as she pressed her button and watched an ancient cannon fall into the vat, soon to become part of the United States Navy.
A few weeks passed with Skylar watching the news contantly. The aliens brought back had been a raise of intelligent plants they had offered advance technology in exchange for our defending them and giving them a place to live. They were given Venus and they had introduced the technology of the heat shield, which allowed the plants to grow and prosper. Mars and Some of Jupiter’s moons would now be colonized with this technology. It was hoped that Mars would be able to start mining as soon as possible as the fleet Earth faced was huge.
The first force that arrived would be badly outnumbered, but they would likely just be a scouting probe. It was also unknown how powerful their weapons were and what tactics they would use. Military people on the news channels wouldn’t talk about their actual plans, but what they kept repeating was that it was difficult to plan for war against an opponent you knew nothing about.
Time faded into dull routine, as the orders for parts kept coming in and the shipyard continued to produce warships to protect the motherworld. She did not notice when the materials coming in no longer looked like rusted junk from Earth’s past and started to look like blasted junk from recent battles. When she did, she realized the Navy was bringing back the wreckage from battles for recycling. Not all the wreckage brought back was of Human design, she noticed. Markings on them looked like nothing created from Human language. One of these pieces of junk caught her attention, as it fell off the conveyor, onto the catwalk that was her access to her office.
Using the remote handlers, she noticed it seemed to be a computer memory chip and gave off no readings of radioactivity or toxicity whatsoever. She dropped it into the analyzer unit and was flabergasted by what she found stored on it. Shock and anger roared though her body, as she realized the terrible truth that lay exposed to her eyes.
The computer was capable of reading it, though she did not, at first, comprehend why. It displayed the momory core stored there and she realized that this computer could read it because it simply accessed the central shipyard computer core, which been used by the R & D people to break the samples of memory core that had been recovered by the Navy from battles across the system. It was simply scientists’ disregarding security that had failed to prevent the system from divulging this information to anyone who happened to acquire an intact chip and feed it to the computer.
The story it told was as amazing as it was disgusting. The aliens they fought were entirely mechanical in nature, that much was public knowledge. What wasn’t was the story of why. Apparently, they had once been a species of biomechanical lifeform, such as the animal life on Earth. The plants came and started to terraform their world to suit their own needs, rendering it uninhabitable to the creatures, who transformed themselves into an artifical machine race, into which they transferred their consciences and left the world. They learned how to reproduce, with the building of new machines and AI’s with unique personalities. They prospered, and returned for revenge. They were destroying the last of their ancient enemy when the human ship had interferred.
As she finished reading the data of the history of their enemy, her office door burst open and Gary stood before her, with the company of two armored Marines. One grabbed her and handcuffed her roughly, while the other had the retreival arm throw the chip into the vat, to be destroyed in seconds and proceded to wipe the memory of the data the chip had contained.
“Skylar Tacitus, you are under arrest for possession of classified and sensitive material. You will come with us,” the Marine who had handcuffed her said.
“What do you mean? We’re helping a people who commited virtual genocide. How can you say we know these things and are still helping them?”
“Because we need the knowledge they offer to save ourselves and the Machines will not allow us to go in peace now. We tried, but they refused to listen or entertain peace overtures. Like it or not, we can have one enemy and one friend here, or two enemies. For now, this knowledge must be kept secret, an so you must be silenced.”
Fear filled her as she spoke her next words, suspecting what they were.
“What does that mean?”
“It shouldn’t be necessary to kill you. This knowledge will become essentially public after the war, so for now, you will be imprisoned, so our friends do not have reason to fear us at this time.”
An hour later, Skylar found herself in a prison cell, deprived of due process do to wartime conditions. She laughed bitterly, hoping the war was short. Those also serve, she remembered from the old saying, who stand by and wait.