This story features one of my favourite tropes: dilapidated tech that is somehow still working on autopilot. @tom_mendelsohn’s description of an automated defence-grid falling apart at the seams is both charming and endearing. I just want to hug those poor rusted chunks of space junk. But alas, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops…
STORY NUMBER: 48
PROMPT PROVIDER: @tom_mendelsohn
The satellite’s internal sensor array ripples gently as it detects a faint pulse of esoteric energy. The pulse, which seems to be a tight beam of unrecognised composition, emanates in slow gouts from a point in high orbit around Earth. Automated response mechanisms jolt themselves slowly back to life in response, antiquated code on a half-forgotten unit slowly telling it to reorient itself and investigate. With a few clumsy corrective blasts, the satellite angles its creaking primary sensor array towards the source of the anomaly. It sniffs the void; silence – interrupted by another gentle pulse of unusual particles, and a third.
This is enough to kick its secondary curiosity subroutines into something like action; this is all still a perfectly routine response, there’s more than enough still-uncategorised debris in orbit, and comets are increasingly appearing in system unmonitored by what remains of the planetary sensor grid. Nonetheless, heavier scanning ordnance is requested and dispatched by geriatric regional command core as usual, per centuries of hardwired protocol. At the same time, such autonomous defence units as remain clank themselves up to a certain level of precautionary readiness.
It takes 3 hours, 17 minutes and 32 seconds for one of the grid’s heavier surveillance satellites to hove itself into suitable scanning range. Archaic programming and decades of attrition from the junk clouds careening around the Earth have stymied its once-slick grid’s rapid-response capabilities. Still, the surveillance apparatus goes through its motions.
It takes its time; a vane is hanging off the decrepit drone dispatched by the heavy surveillance satellite, slightly obscuring its manoeuvring nacelle. Its thrust and fuel reserves already crippled by so long in high orbit and so many pointless little sorties like these, the little drone makes a rather sputtering way into docking range, navigating with anaemic, stop-start bursts of thrust. It overshoots by some way, a correctional boost sending the drone off-course courtesy of the flapping vane, which finally but too late succumbs to entropy and spirals gently off into the ether.
It takes almost all the remainder of the little drone’s mouldering fuel cell to make its ponderous re-readjustment, but it makes it, in a manner of speaking, though inertial dampners fire too late and it clatters soundlessly into what its senile machine intelligence calculates to be the source of the anomalous particles – a large, darkened tetrahedral structure. It skitters across the surface, fighting to power the last of its electromagnetic landing clamps. It holds – just – and prepares its more sophisticated sensory suite.
Its initial exploratory scan sets alarms trilling much further up the defence hierarchy. The anomaly appears to have no mass, and the matter stream, while unintelligible, is clearly broadcasting with purpose. With a speed as fast as the fried circuits of the grid’s main coordination core will allow, military units are readied and scrambled. The surveillance drone prepares to move to its second-stage scan in an attempt to look inside the structure. Abruptly, it loses touch with its command core.
At a desk in defence control in a Rocky Mountain bunker, an unbidden red light blinks on and off for about 20 seconds before its LED fades out.
Meanwhile, hangar bay doors whirr open on installations all across near-Earth space. Or many do, at least. Some succumb at last to the ravages of time, lacking the reserves to power even the servos to open up, or charge their remaining attack drones, or even respond to the general alert. Many more of these have fallen off the grid years ago, or decades, or centuries. Operational defence craft are at 11% of the grid’s total compliment. Perhaps a tenth of those are running even at half of full capacity.
The first wave, such as it is, of fighting drones arrives into combat range in fits and starts. The command core is waiting for a quorum before giving the engage order, but the moment that order is sent, it loses touch with all 37 drones, prompting the third of six tiers of panic protocol.
More LEDs go off in the planetary complex, this time with a tremulous chorus of alert sounds, illuminating large, empty bunkers with dim red light and small wisps of smoke as rimed circuit boards fry themselves in panic. The warnings go unheeded.
A second wave arrives in the vicinity of the anomaly, marshalled much more cautiously. A team of sensor drones picks up nothing but the stillness of space, though the particle bursts seem more agitated now.
Just as the second wave is obliviated, taking with it 92.4% of the defence grid’s remaining strength, the command core receives from a scrambled reading from a straggler, of different, much nastier exotic matter. The straggler is obliterated nanoseconds later by this particulate stormfront.
Panic protocol tier six is actuated, but there’s not much more the command core can do about this – the countermeasures that might be called upon in tiers four through six have all been out of commission for centuries, long dead through desperate want of the highly specialised maintenance they’d need to function.
Most of the red LEDs have burned through now, returning dust-covered military facilities worldwide to their long, dark sleep, a last few intelligence cores urgent and paralysed, trying and failing to reach switchboards through impassibly corroded communication lines.
In its last moments of function, the orbital command core perceives a sudden haze, before its sensors read hundreds more anomalies blink into orbit.
PROMPT: Mysterious unowned satellite found in orbit. Suspiciously advanced tech & definitely transmitting