Short Story: Selected Communications of the Zygaran High Command

Despite the fact that I have yet to publish my novel—it is over-budget and years behind schedule, much like the Space Launch System—I assure you that I do, indeed, still write fiction. I posted two stories to this site a couple years back; today, I am publishing a third. If you’ve always itched to read a story about antimatter missiles, strategic deterrence, and alien cat-people, you’ve come to the right place—and if you’re normal, you might still get a kick out of it.

Enjoy!


Date: Y 6526, 105 
Source: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

It is unfortunate that you missed the coronation. Our young Emperor’s fur is still soft like a newborn’s, his eyes are still green rather than yellow, but nevertheless he calmly swore his oath atop pots of soil from three settled worlds. A perfect performance. The banquet afterwards lasted for six hours, with nine thousand in attendance, all the noble houses and merchant kingdoms represented in force. Last I heard, the palace staff were still cleaning up the mess. 

But I’m not writing just to make you feel left out. After all the ceremonies and hangovers were done with, I briefed His Radiance on the Imperial issues—the Sky Guard foremost among them. His response was… mixed.

To put it bluntly, I can no longer guarantee funding for the Sky Guard, not if the Emperor and half of the merchant princes consider it a shocking waste. He hissed when he learned that your budget was sixteen times the figure known publicly. His Majesty even called his late uncle a paranoid lunatic for beginning the project at all, and told me that he would see the money spent on the Zygaran people instead.

I will miss our lively correspondence. You stand to lose a lot more, I think—if you want to save the Sky Guard, I suggest that you act soon, and with vigor.

Date: Y 6526, 106
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

With respect to His Majesty, he is a sentimental child. I will tolerate no reduction to the Sky Guard. If twenty percent of our annual economic product is the price of survival, so be it.

He will see reason shortly.

Date: Y 6526, 111 
Source: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

His Majesty found a disarmed hand grenade in his bed yesterday. The palace is on lockdown, and apparently there is an investigation going on, but nobody I’ve spoken to seems all that interested in finding the culprit.

Somehow the incident inspired him to authorize a new budget for the Sky Guard, with no cuts and in fact a modest increase in funds. His Eminence has also approved the live-fire test you requested for Year 6526, 402. I believe congratulations are in order: your program will survive.

That being said, I have my suspicions that you were more than a passive beneficiary in all of this.

Date: Y 6526, 112
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

I am a humble general and I do not intervene in politics. 

But do tell the Emperor that I appreciate his wisdom. The Sky Guard will be ready in time to execute its live-fire test, and demonstrate to the galaxy that we can defend ourselves. I look forward to a new era of peace guaranteed by rockets.

Date: Y 6501, 189
Source: Researcher-General Shuvi, Theoretics Ministry
To: Commander Egul, Ministry of Armaments

We have established three phases for the proposed Sky Guard system. Each will represent an improved level of operational capability, increasing as budgets and technological breakthroughs allow.

Phase One is the construction of a basic second-strike relativistic weapons system. These weapons will be distributed around our star system’s icy disk, mingling with protoplanetary debris at an altitude of more than a light-day, where they will minimize the emission of any radiation into space. Our analysts calculate only a fifteen percent probability that an attack can identify and destroy assets so located. 

The individual weapon in Phase One comprises an engine, a fuel tank, and a rudimentary guidance system. Propulsion is achieved using hydrogen-antihydrogen annihilation, extremely efficient. We forecast that a first-generation starship will reach 0.33 c over 1,700 hours and four light-days. For the projected dry mass of 130 tons, this yields a kinetic energy on impact equivalent to some 166,000 megatons of TNT, sufficient to render an enemy planet uninhabitable. There is no warhead carried aboard—the spacecraft is the warhead.   

Star Registry 6301, Kathul’s Ember to the general public or Target Primary to His Majesty’s war planners, is 45 light-years away—a trip of 135 years—while the other likely home of alien intelligence (Star Registry 6726/First Southwest/Target Secondary) is 62 light-years distant. No matter where we mounted our retaliatory strike, it would bear fruit long after the dust had settled on our homeworld. 

Nevertheless, Phase One will almost guarantee deterrence, provided that the weapons are suitably hidden and independent of support from Zygar. Even an attack by craft traveling near the speed of light—almost undetectable to our sensors—could be avenged, on the orders of command posts deep within the outer disk.    

We foresee the completion of Phase One by 6524, with ten weapons deployed at a cost of several trillion Imperial credits each. One missile can technically do the job of destroying a homeworld, but there is a high chance of failure en route—our planners estimate a 2.5 percent lethal collision probability per light-year, and the engines will never be fully reliable. Ten is a compromise between redundancy and expense. 

Phases Two and Three shall see incremental expansion of capability. By Phase Two, we will have twenty-one second-generation starships ready for launch in the outer disk, with predicted advancements in materials science and miniaturization allowing for the delivery of 81 tons at 0.53 c (300,000 megatons). Enhanced AI will allow for autonomous target selection during the terminal phase, with subscale flechettes breaking off to destroy targets as small as ships and orbital habitats. 

Phase Three will incorporate multiple waves of attack. The first will be a volley of thirty-one cluster warheads travelling at 0.79 c, with AI and sensors sufficient to obliterate nearly all life in a star system. A second fleet of ten ships, their maximum speed constrained to 0.38 c, would arrive decades later and systematically eradicate any surviving hostiles. 

The total cost for Phases Two and Three is beyond the scope of our research. 

We hope you will relay these plans to His Majesty, and return soon with a response. Each year we delay is another opportunity for our stellar neighbors to strike first.

Date: Y 6526, 360
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

Inform His Majesty that, if he so wishes, the Sky Guard’s first trial may commence twenty days early. My engineers aboard the missile tender K-30 report that the test article is prepared and aimed ahead of schedule.

Date: Y 6526, 362 
Source: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

I’m afraid the political will is hardly there to carry out the test at all, let alone move it up. You have many opponents here on Zygar. The Emperor has begun to speak up again about the Sky Guard, meeting with no fewer than six anti-Guard lobbyists in the past cycle, and several of my colleagues in the Chamber of Ministers have thrown together a draft bill to cut your program at the last minute—“rapid disarmament,” they call it, proposing that we siphon the missiles’ antimatter for our own energy generation, then abandon the hulls in deep space. His Radiance will certainly sign the proposal once it gathers the needed votes. If he is brave and foolish enough, he may try to pass the legislation unilaterally. 

Date: Y 6526, 363
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

It is treason to undermine the security of the species. That applies to the credit counters, the pacifist rabble, and His Supreme Splendor.

Date: Y 6526, 364 
Source: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

Mind your words, general. You might not always be insulated from His Majesty’s anger, on your snowball thirty trillion meters from home.

And it’s not just the Guard’s unparalleled expense that is drawing opposition. Once we light up the first antimatter rocket, we become a threat to all species within a hundred light-years, and even if they pick up our intended message of deterrence (not guaranteed), they might attack anyway. What’s to stop a race of asteroid-dwellers from striking preemptively, when we can only hit something the size of a planet? Effective deterrence requires knowledge we do not have.

Thus the Sky Guard could be not only useless, but actively harmful, even if we grant that the anomalies at Kathul’s Ember and First Southwest really do indicate alien civilizations. My personal opinion is that it’s all a boondoggle. I’ve only supported it thus far because it was the signature project of His Majesty’s uncle, and I cannot distance myself from the old Emperor without undermining my own base of support. Don’t expect me to remain on your side if the political current turns decisively against you. 

Date: Y 6526, 363
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

A less faithful commander would go ahead anyway. Nevertheless, I shall wait to commence at the authorized time, provided His Majesty’s continues to wish it.

Date: Y 6526, 396 
Source: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

The bill for immediate disarmament has stalled and His Majesty continues to sit on his paws. You may consider this the clearest permission you will get to execute the test.

Date: Y 6526, 400
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

At 16:00 today—our signal took fourteen hours to get there—the test article fired its engine for the first time. All systems remain nominal, and acceleration is smooth and steady so far. A public statement will be made only after the test’s conclusion in eighty days.

Send His Radiance my regards. His uncle would be proud. 

Date: Y 6526, 483
Source: Subdirector Vulip, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Director Isvilin, Ministry of Information

We submit the following for general publication:

— Beginning of bulletin — 

Subjects of His Majesty!

Your shield against alien aggression, the Sky Guard, is now operational! All threats to our domain may now be met with immediate and unstoppable vengeance, a hail of relativistic missiles that can wipe any civilization off the face of the galaxy. It is the triumph of our species’ ingenuity, the fruit of decades of toil, the final revolution in military power.

Thirty hours ago, the test missile hit an icy planetoid at one-third the speed of light. It created a flash bright enough to appear in our own night sky. As the vapor clears, ten identical missiles wait fueled and ready on the fringes of our star system, guided by a network of sensor posts, their service tenders and long-term antimatter storage ensuring that they may protect us for centuries hence. Nobody will dare to attack us when they know we can trace back their missiles and annihilate the source.

And they do know: the antimatter engine and the impact will be visible far, far out into space. All foes, in Kathul’s Ember and First Southwest and systems undiscovered, shall see our message and realize the following:

  • We can harness the power of antimatter.
  • We can use that immense power to create a doomsday weapon, accurate and devastating against whatever target we choose.
  • We can launch these weapons from deep in our system’s outer disk, where they will be completely hidden and utterly immune to a first strike. 

Thus we establish deterrence. Remember the Tri-Conflict of the sixty-second century, when our homeworld’s states faced each other with nuclear weapons, preventing any major outbreaks of warfare. We foresee the community of the wider galaxy as operating on similar principles. As we expand outward there is a place for peace, but not weakness. 

Zygar stands strong forever.

— End of bulletin — 

Sky Guard HQ requests that this message be broadcast first-priority on the text-nets and the state news service, prior to any official statement by the Emperor. For your promptness and cooperation you may expect to be rewarded handsomely.  

Date: Y 6527, 6
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

I regret to inform you that there has been a mishap with the Sky Guard system. For security reasons, I have kept it secret from the government and public, but it has developed to the point where I must now make some sort of statement. Alert the Emperor but do not allow him to panic. 

Six days ago, the Sky Guard lost contact with all ten of its missiles, and shortly afterwards nine of them fired up their engines. This is a worrying anomaly. However, you may be assured that my staff and engineers are working tirelessly to correct the issue.

Date: Y 6527, 7 
Source: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

This is worrying indeed. Do you have any information on their projected course? Judging by what our observatory at Priat’an tells me, at least a few of the missiles appear to be heading into the system…

Date: Y 6527, 8
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

You may wish to meet with His Majesty and discuss plans for leaving the homeworld. 

Date: Y 6527, 9 
Source: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

I don’t have time for this, Ersidap! Tell me what is going on!

Date: Y 6527, 10
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Imperial Palace

Nine missiles are executing a coordinated attack against our populations, and are set to impact inner-system targets within thirty days. This obviously was not one of the programmed firing solutions. My technicians are at a loss to explain it. 

Date: Y 6527, 12 
Source: Minister Klas’the, Provisional Palace
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

This morning His Majesty and most of his ministers, myself included, evacuated to the orbital command post at Third Trailing. 

Between bouts of spacesickness, the Emperor told me that he is relieving you of command. I recommend that you take the honorable way out and resign first.

Date: Y 6527, 15
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Provisional Palace

You will have my resignation after you fly all the way out here and force it from me. And don’t bother with calling my second-in-command—all communications in and out of the headquarters are strictly under my control.  

Nevertheless, as a token of my fealty to the crown, I will continue broadcasting reports. This hijacking of our Sky Guard is an act of war, by a foe as yet unidentified, and I resolve to prevail in His Majesty’s name.

Currently the missiles are traveling at 0.005 c. That is already too fast for any pursuing craft to catch up, and we have no suitable interceptors near the inhabited worlds. However, by detonating cargo ships along the rockets’ paths, it may be possible to create a debris cloud that will disintegrate them before they can harm us.

And as for the tenth missile—which, while unresponsive, is making no moves against us—I have dispatched a tender to investigate it. The crew will arrive in sixty days.  

Date: Y 6527, 47
Source: Analyst Bish’yap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk 
To: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk

I have finished my assessment as ordered, sir. Information is fragmentary, but judging by the latest census data and the placement of the strikes, the attack killed 13,990,000,000 people—an estimated 99.7 percent of our species. The death toll breaks down as follows:

  • Zygar: 13,070,000,000 casualties. Four missiles struck at 9.3 percent c, their points of impact evenly spaced to inflict maximum damage. While the missiles hadn’t had time to reach full velocity, they partially made up for that with leftover antimatter and propellant mass, giving them enough energy to vaporize sections of the crust. The seismic shock alone would have leveled most structures. A shroud of particulates, radioactive after the missiles’ antimatter reacted and released gamma rays, now floats high in the atmosphere where it obstructs most sunlight. The result of this is certainly a mass extinction of all complex lifeforms. Zygarans may survive somewhere on or beneath the surface, but we have yet to establish contact with them. Nevertheless, most of our orbital habitats remain intact, and at the time of writing the Emperor is quite secure aboard one of the larger stations.
  • Qulip: 491,000,000 casualties. Our second inhabited world sustained two missile strikes, inflicting similar destructive effects to those on Zygar, and diminishing planetary habitability for the foreseeable future. We maintain communications with an isolated mining town near the south pole, but no other survivors have revealed themselves so far.  
  • Ovoc: 423,000,000 casualties. There were two strikes here as well, hitting opposite sides of the planet to ensure maximum destruction. Firestorms rage across the surface and have incinerated most of the jungle. 
  • Barvad-Val: 6,000,000 casualties. The final missile struck and neutralized our main source of antimatter. It flew close to the Sun so as to reach tidally locked Barvad-Val’s substellar hemisphere, and shortly before impact it disintegrated—we believe deliberately—to spread hypervelocity debris over most of the surface. Almost all of our solar collector area was obliterated.      

Interception attempts were consistently unsuccessful. When the Sky Guard detonated the freighters New Akzat and Reliable over Zygar and Ovoc, respectively, their debris clouds were lost in the vastness of space without any detectable impacts. Even if we had scored a hit it is unlikely that the missiles would have dispersed enough to significantly reduce their damage. 

In summary, the attack destroyed virtually all of our population, along with a sizeable majority of our economic infrastructure. The remaining colonies will have to rapidly develop autarky if they are simply to survive, let alone rebuild. Otherwise our scattered outposts will devolve into starvation and savagery.

The only consolation I can see, sir, is that the missiles performed flawlessly, in fact better than we ever expected of them. Our engineers should be commended. 

Date: Y 6527, 77
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Provisional Palace

I appreciate the frequency of your messages, minister, but the tone is lacking. Your calling me a traitor and threatening my execution has become tedious. I deserve appreciation, seeing as I am now spearheading our race’s first interstellar war, and today I even have good news to give His Majesty: some of my technicians have docked with and boarded the tenth missile, the one that did not fire. Perhaps now we will be able to determine what hijacked the Sky Guard, and respond accordingly.   

Date: Y 6527, 88
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Provisional Palace

My technicians tell me they have a theory as to what caused the attack. I am a warrior, not an engineer, but even so their proposal sounds plausible to me.

They say this was an alien cyberattack executed more deviously than we could have imagined. We think it began around twenty years ago, with the Specter of the Outer Disk, when a listening post detected transmissions from beyond our star system. These caused a stir until it was discovered that they were no more than echoes of our own comms, reflected by some unknown mechanism deep in space. 

This assessment may have been incorrect. The Specter of the Outer Disk could have concealed another signal beneath it, designed to infiltrate a foreign program into our networks. This would have spread out from the listening posts like a virus, traveling and reproducing through every stratum of data, until the whole infrastructure was compromised. It could then have reprogrammed the missiles directly under our noses.

The test flight, then, was not only for our benefit. Our adversary wanted to see if its weapons would work, and we helpfully provided proof. It had the green light at the very moment of impact.  

My techs tell me that the failed missile, the one that didn’t fire, had been hijacked like all the rest. The difference was that the intruding software failed to execute properly. This is heartening—it seems that even the enemy’s most devious methods are fallible.

Date: Y 6527, 90
Source: Commander Ersidap, Sky Guard HQ, Outer Disk
To: Minister Klas’the, Provisional Palace

Our revenge is at hand. 

The control systems on the failed missile, it turned out, were irredeemably compromised. Nevertheless the crew of the tender managed a workaround, replacing part of the computer core with a three-person cockpit. In His Majesty’s name—symbolically, I mean, because His Majesty would never have approved this—I ordered them to prepare for a suicide attack against the alien threat. 

Choosing the target presented some difficulty for me. I’ve worked at the problem for a while now, poring over our limited data and drawing some discouraging conclusions. The source of the computer virus was likely a probe hovering on the outskirts of our star system, but we can’t determine whether it came from First Southwest, Kathul’s Ember, or a different origin altogether. We do know that it must be ancient—a low-thrust ship would have had to embark thousands of years ago, a high-thrust one would have been picked up at any time during the last four centuries. Our enemy thus has the expertise to build extremely long-lived starships, and the resources to send these probes to any species with the mere potential for space travel. As soon as the species becomes a threat its weapons will be hijacked and turned against it.

It would seem, then, that we jumped into a millennia-old game without knowing the rules. Was that arrogance? Perhaps. Is it arrogance, now, to plan a counterstrike, when the enemy is surely old enough and powerful enough to survive? Certainly. 

Nevertheless, I assigned our last missile a target, and the crew—heroes all, doomed to run out of oxygen around three days from now—began their perilous journey towards it. My decision came down to chance. A coin toss. I flipped the coin, and when the face of our Emperor’s late uncle came up, I knew that Kathul’s Ember was the target. 135 years from now our missile will strike that world, impacting it at one-third c with three Zygaran corpses aboard.


Thanks for reading to the end! I welcome any feedback you might have—feel free to drop a comment below, or send me an email at nicq98@gmail.com. And with this particular piece, I must credit the novel The Killing Star for inspiration; fortunately, though, my take on interstellar warfare comes with fewer dinosaurs, Buddha clones, or out-of-place references to the Titanic.

One quick aside: Can you believe that Let’s Get Off This Rock Already! is already four years old? My first post was on July 17, 2018, way back when I was still in engineering school and co-writing this site with my friend AJ (who may yet return for a guest post, if I can talk him into it). I’ve published seventy-four pieces since then. So far, it’s been a splendid and eye-opening journey.

I’ll catch you all next Sunday!

3 thoughts on “Short Story: Selected Communications of the Zygaran High Command

Add yours

  1. Nic, well done! I really appreciated the message swapping to tell the story. Fast paced and relevant. More fiction, please!💛

    Cecilia 218-235-9669

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! Glad to hear the epistolary style worked well for you—it was definitely an experiment for me, LOL.

      I intend to upload more stories in the future!

      Like

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