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“You’re not free if you can’t say no.”
I knew probably before anyone else in the cylinder. Part of it was instinct, and part of it was spousal privilege, I guess you could say. Danna was ridiculously busy, as she always was, so Sanni and I decided to bring dinner down to the executive offices to eat with her there. I knew something was up when I saw the Regoleth moored-up on the south lock outside the C-Suite.
“Who do you think it is, Dad?” Sanni asked me. “Maybe Cousin Corey and Astra?”
“I doubt it, Sanni. I think your mother would have said something if they were coming over.”
It was curious—an unscheduled visit from Exos this time of year. Usually when Danna’s cousin Corey came over from Garvin 8, it was a big enough hassle that we planned the trip months in advance. And we certainly would have told the kids about it. Sanni and Astra both would have been talking about the visit for weeks beforehand. Even an envoy, though, should have been mentioned in the Eden newsfeeds. For the Regoleth to creep over silently like this was odd.
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When Sanni and I got down to the C-Suite, Carlo stopped us. “I’m sorry, sir, the Consul is in a private session and left strict orders not to be disturbed.”
“By me?” I said. “Sanni and I brought dinner. We knew she’d be working late.”
“She said anyone,” Carlo responded, an apologetic look on his face.
“Hi, Carlo,” Sanni said, walking up to him and hugging him about the waist.
“Hi, cutie,” he said, smiling down on Sanni. “Keeping your dad out of trouble?”
“He’s never in trouble,” she said, smiling. “You know that.”
“Can you tell her we’re here, Carlo?” I asked.
“I’ll have Andre let her know the next time he goes in there.”
“Should we wait? Food’s hot,” I said, holding up the portable oven box.
He looked at me funny and shook his head. That look told me: not this time, Anish.
“It’s tortilla,” Sanni said. “Mom’s favorite.”
“I’ll be sure Andre lets her know,” Carlo said.
“Have her ping me if she gets a minute,” I told him. “We’ll probably go to the portal and picnic along the concourse, since we’ve got the food packed.”
“You two have fun,” Carlo said.
It was a first for us—turned away at the gates by my wife’s own security. Technically, I guess it was Eden’s security, but she was the Consul, after all.
Sanni and I had our picnic down at the portal, watching Garvin 9 creeping out from behind Glen-C-18 as our cylinder’s orbit began its weeklong transit facing inward toward our little red star. Quite a few other folks had the same idea that evening. I should have known it would be quite busy down there, as it usually was for the occasion. Regardless, we had a nice picnic, with only a few nosy fellow citizens interrupting our family time to say hello, thankfully all of whom knew better than to mention politics to the husband of the Consul while he was out with his ten-year-old daughter. Sanni was a peach, per usual. Even when people disagreed with her mom openly, she would always remark, “That doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends.” Here in the Eden group, though, politics had never been life or death, not in over two millennia, not until that day.
Danna didn’t get home that night until nearly two-thirty. I was totally disoriented when she crept into bed. She must have heard me snort myself awake.
“Sorry, babe,” she said. “Crisis at the office.”
“Something to worry about?”
“Not right now it’s not. I’d just like to pass out.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll try not to snore in your ear.”
“I wouldn’t hear you, Anish. I’m exhausted.”
“Tell me all about it in the morning,” I said, rolling over as she crawled into bed with me.
“Love you, babe,” Danna said.
She started snoring before I did. She didn’t come home that late often. But Danna’s service was a small price to pay for the privilege people had entrusted to our family. It was exactly what we’d signed up for, eyes open. And in this case, my eyes open late while Danna finally shut hers.
I woke up first the following morning, but the C-Suite was already pinging Danna. I didn’t really suspect there was something genuinely different about this “crisis” than the usual managerial issues her people typically blew way out of proportion. It wasn’t even six, though, and they were already bothering her, even after she’d been working late into the night.
I overheard her half of the conversation—enough to get a sense of the gravity of something happening in Garvin 8. I caught her talking about Exos and Hahn, so it was a system-wide issue. Then I heard her say, “The Trasp can’t expect them to re-orient the entire society overnight, no matter how serious they are about using force. Some things just can’t be done. They need to be realistic.”
That was her position that morning. But as the situation developed over the following days, the opposite became clear. The Trasp came with enough military might that they could do anything they wanted to those outposts, and the implied reality was that they could do the same to us just as easily. They only needed to want to, for any reason.
Sanni and I didn’t see much of Danna that first week after the news got to the C-Suite. Her administration worked furiously on their response. They wanted to at least look like they had a response before the rumors got out. The truth, though, was that the Trasp could appear at any second bearing the same ultimatum they’d leveled on Exos and Hahn—sign articles, rights of first refusal, et cetera. Hahn and Exos had some leverage, though. The Eden Group? We didn’t have their natural resources on offer. The Minerva mines on C-16 belonged to Athos, not us. We just used our negotiated supply for the engine foundries, which was a fraction of a fraction of the metal that got blasted out to Dreeson’s system. If the Trasp wanted anything from us, it would be our engines, but our foundries certainly didn’t churn out the kind of vehicle engines that would be of any use in a fight, at least to my mind. We made one engine—the Eden P24 Fusion Heavy—a local workhorse, not even FTL compatible. And that engine wasn’t a flyer so much as a plodder, built for pushing massive vehicles in sublight.
Absurd rumors started circulating around Eden that second week, even one that involved a rogue black hole. That rumor prompted the cylinder group’s astronomers to issue a joint statement, and funnily enough, the unanimity of their statement only served to cause more suspicion.
“You need to say something,” I told Danna one night early that second week after Sanni had gone to bed. “It should probably be the truth.”
I poured us both a glass of wine. I could tell she was exhausted, mentally and physically. I sat beside her on the sofa, gesturing the lights down.
“There’s nothing to say,” she told me. “Nothing’s certain.”
“You can tell people what happened at Exos and Hahn. And you can tell them exactly what you just told me—that nothing’s certain.”
“The last thing we need to do is start a panic, Anish,” she said, sipping her wine, sighing. “Especially over something that’s still hypothetical.”
“You know what would be worse than a population in a panic, Ms. Consul.”
“What’s that, husband?”
“A population in a real crisis that doesn’t trust its leader because their Consul withheld the truth from them.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes.
“What would be even worse than that for you is if the Trasp showed up here tomorrow and the people found out that you knew about their arrival at Exos over a week ago. That would be worse.”
She shook her head at me. I could tell she knew I was right.
“We don’t have any options. If they come, we can’t defend ourselves.”
“There are always options,” I said.
“Oh, smart guy,” she said, getting increasingly annoyed that I was poking my engineer’s nose into her domain. “What are our options if the Trasp show up tomorrow?”
“Well, there’s fight, and then there’s flight. That’s two options.”
I was joking, trying to get a smile out of her. Instead, she snorted, shaking her head dismissively.
“I know it’s a lot of pressure,” I said. “I’m here for you whatever I can do.”
“You can’t imagine the pressure,” she said. “But I appreciate how supportive you’ve been with Sanni.”
I sat closer to her, and she tucked herself into my shoulder. I started thinking that if I were Danna, what I really would want were some real options. We sat quietly together for a while before I filled her in on Sanni’s week. She listened and sipped her wine, and, after a time, she fell asleep on my shoulder.
Danna took my advice, thankfully, and gave a statement and took questions. Four days later, the Trasp arrived. The visit seemed quiet, orderly. A Trasp admiral, Highcroft, and several of his senior staff were ushered into the C-Suite with little fanfare. They sat with Danna and a few of her most trusted cabinet members. And they left.
Afterwards, Danna issued a brief statement, letting everyone know that we had time to settle the issues the Trasp had raised with her. She assured us that Eden would retain its autonomy as in independent cylinder group, as it had for over two millennia. People went to sleep that night believing we would still be independent.
It was a lie of course. Not that Danna saw it that way, but there’s only a small distinction between having the Trasp literally in leadership roles in Eden or having Danna nominally still in charge but forced to comply with their demands. You’re not free if you can’t say no. And they’d made that point clear. We would be making engines for them now. Not only that, they would be war engines. We had six months to fulfil our obligations on our prior contracted work, and they’d so generously given us another six months to re-fit our operations to begin production on the CC-30, a sublight fusion rocket designed for mid-sized fast-attack vessels. Eden would become part of the Trasp war machine, or it would be destroyed and forgotten. But, Danna insisted, we were still an independent settlement.
Sanni, like her mother, had a natural talent for endearing herself to people. She didn’t have to try. I’m not sure whether it was the fact she needed to spend so much time with me or whether she inherited my passion for engineering, but despite her social gifts, Sanni had a passion for numbers and objects as well. She came to work with me a lot, and in those days especially, with her mother away so much, I thought it was important for her to be close.
We still had engine builds to fulfill, most of which were destined for Hellenia, some for Iophos, a few in the Indies. Sanni knew my routine well. We’d take the local shuttle to the executive offices and meet with the logistics team to see if there were any problems with the schedule. Then, we’d intervene with any contingencies, usually virtually if there were more than a few at multiple sites. If any major issues came up, I would shuttle directly to the foundry cylinder wherever the knot in the production line had become snagged. This was rare. After so many centuries and so many engine designs, the Eden foundries were a smooth operation. But the news about the Trasp had turned our offices into chaos. It wasn’t just the monumental engineering tasks ahead of us—shifting to a new design in such a short timeframe—it was the division of opinion, with many of our best engineers insisting they wouldn’t be forced into Trasp servitude. Others, often in the name of pragmatism, lost patience with their colleagues whom they accused of being unrealistic, naïve. So again, even in the foundry, it all came back to politics.
Sanni’s presence in some of those early meetings forced the adults, even under the most intense pressures of all our lives, to at least act like adults. Sometimes we failed.
On one heated occasion, one of my best senior executives shouted across the room, “Damn it, Anish! We cannot execute a shift of this scale until we know whether you intend to follow your wife’s directives.”
Sanni’s head perked up from her spot in the corner, where she was studying her lessons by tablet, she even took out one of her earpieces to listen. I smiled at her before responding.
“As my daughter could tell you, Morrow, I’m not married to the Consul, so I don’t take directives from my wife in this office. I take them from the Consul.”
“A distinction without a difference.”
“Not so,” I said. “There are certain things I would say to the Consul that I would never say to my wife, and vice versa.”
“Nevertheless, Anish, we need to start developing a plan soon if we’re going to be shifting our entire operation in six months.”
“Agreed,” I told my top people. “The question is what that shift will be.”
“You have some other plan than the Consul’s?”
“We’ll see,” I said. “One of the things I might say to the Consul that I would never say to my wife is: ‘Go to hell,’ another is: ‘I quit.’ The indecisiveness, which you’re clearly perceiving in my manner is exactly as it seems. I’m not sure what we should do. I suggest we think of alternatives we could offer the Consul apart from wholesale capitulation. What could we build in six months or a year that would make the Trasp think twice about coming back to Eden leveling demands at us, a free people? That is what I will be thinking about until the Consul’s office directs me to do otherwise.”
Sanni and I had the opportunity that afternoon to sit quietly in my office in the Glen cylinder, which overlooked the design floor. That broad, open space was traditionally used for prototyping and process development. Over the centuries it had been the site of exactly two-hundred sixteen redesigns, some radical, some small tweaks of proven engines. Always, though, the place was symbolic of who we were—a community of resolute minds, people determined to innovate, cooperate, and do what we did as well as any humans in the Battery. And over countless decades, we’d built one engine, almost always a heavy workhorse—hardnosed, tough, reliable. Our engines powered the ships that had built the sector into what it was today.
Sanni was quietly working. Her tutorials had her rated in the top three percent for mathematical aptitude in her age bracket. And she was not at all happy about anybody ranking ahead of her.
I looked out at the empty floor, kilometers of open space that I knew would be filled again soon with people, with bots, with prototypes, working groups, models. What would be out my window, though? Trasp war engines? Was that who we would become? I looked out there and then back at Sanni. The choices we made in those critical weeks would shape her world more than any choices we’d made before.
“Sanni, I have a problem for you,” I said, calling her over to me. “I want you to think it through.”
“What type of problem?”
“It’s a hypothetical problem. I want you to tell me whether a mouse can pull an elephant. And if that lonely old mouse can’t, I’d like you to tell me how many friends a mouse would need to gather in order to pull one elephant.”
She smiled as though I was joking, but I wasn’t. I wanted to see her reason her way through the problem.
“How am I going to figure that out?” she said, looking doubtful. “I know one mouse couldn’t do it.”
“I’d like for you to come up with a plan. I’ll help you if you need it. See what you can figure out on your own, though.”
“You know I have real work to do to keep up with my courses, Dad?”
“This is real work, Sanni. Very important work.”
“Important like yours?”
“Just like mine. Your mother will be well impressed if you can figure out a solution.”
I didn’t give Sanni parameters. That, of course, was part of the challenge.
“What do you need to figure out first?” I asked her.
“How much does an elephant weigh, I think,” she said. “And then, I would need to find out how much weight a mouse can pull.”
She sat quietly while I worked, crunching numbers on a problem of a similar nature. Fight or flight, I’d joked with Danna. How many fusion rockets would it take to get Eden really moving, or at least most of our group. Options. Maybe an option. That was the best we could hope for.
It sounded crazy. That’s what Danna said about moving Eden. I mentioned it casually that first evening. By then Sanni had figured out how much an elephant weighed and how much a mouse could pull. She had an answer but was just getting to the questions stage—where I was. At some point we’d have to talk about friction.
“Move Eden?” Danna said.
“Fight or flight,” I responded. “Let the Trasp return next year to find empty space where our cylinder group once was.”
“Sure, Anish, like magic. We’ll just snap our fingers and move fifty cylinders.”
“The point is to no longer be useful to the Trasp, so we leave the foundry cylinders behind. If we can do nothing for them, then they will have no use for us.”
“And what do we do?”
“We live. We do something more useful along the journey than building war engines for the Trasp.”
“It’s a ludicrous plan,” she told me. “You’d better be prepared to make the transition to their engine.”
“The Consul had better prepare herself to fire me.”
The answer to my elephant problem was a minimum of twenty-eight engines if we wanted to get a cylinder to either Moss-211 or Mirendra. We could relocate to Garvin 8 in about a decade, but they were in the same predicament as us. The point wasn’t getting anywhere useful, the point was to make ourselves entirely useless so that we weren’t worth the effort it would take to subjugate us. There were people who theorized the war would be over in a flash. There were models, though, that surmised space warfare, with the state of our technology, between two vast and equal powers, could take decades to work through. Decades shape a generation. That generation shapes the next. A human disaster of epic proportions.
The following day, I brought in my top engineers to discuss my elephant problem. Twenty-eight engines each, and, if we left behind the foundries, forty cylinders. The problem we dealt with that morning was how to affix the engines to the cylinders. We couldn’t just slap engines to the portal end of a cylinder and fire them up. The framing of the cylinders wasn’t built to handle such forces. I made sure Sanni was there for that discussion.
“Twice as many engines would be better,” Aiden Hernandez, one of my brightest subordinates said. “But that would be a lot of engines for the foundries to churn out in six months.”
“Would we be up to the task?” I asked him.
“I can answer for workers,” he said. “The limits are on machine capacity. We could do forty, though, Anish. That would be doable.”
“Forty engines for forty cylinders?”
Sixteen hundred engines in half a year.
“Yes,” was the unanimous answer.
Forty engines per cylinder was possible. So we discussed framing and orientation.
“Oh,” Sanni exclaimed when my engineers began to diagram the external scaffolding. “It’s like a big cup for the cylinder to go inside.”
Yes, dear girl. Just so.
My plotting got back to Danna. She wasn’t happy in the least. When the Chief Engineer for the entire colony goes off script, it poses problems for the Consul, especially when he happens to be your husband. There had been calls for my resignation when Danna was elected—fears that I would be too beholden to my wife’s political career to offer true and honest advice on operations, on infrastructure; even that I might lie to conceal shortcomings. I considered resigning, not because there was any truth to those concerns but merely for the optics. There were other capable candidates. Ultimately, I didn’t resign, though, because I supposed if those concerns had been genuine enough, the people wouldn’t have elected her. I promised to uphold my oath as before, and in defying the Trasp ultimatum in my own way, I believed I was upholding that oath—to leave a free society to my daughter or to die in trying to hand it to her.
“They’re going to blast us out of the stars,” Danna told me. “Admiral Highcroft was clear.”
“I intend to make that so inconvenient they will do no such thing. The wager is that they’ll have bigger concerns a year from now and nothing to gain from seeking us out again.”
“And how do you intend to pull that off, Anish?”
“I don’t intend to pull off anything on my own, dear Consul. We intend—meaning my entire team—we intend to be elsewhere when the Trasp return.”
“What’s the difference if we’re here or out in empty space? I presume that’s your plan, Anish.”
“Mr. Chief Engineer, I believe, is my proper title. And if we’re in empty space, we will have no access to raw materials, and we will have no foundries, and if we get going fast enough, we won’t be able to turn around for a decade. There will be nothing to gain for them.”
Obviously, it was not ideal. There was, as Danna pointed out, the entirely real possibility that the Trasp would destroy us simply for defying them.
“Besides,” she said. “I’m not convinced we could move this colony in a calendar year, Anish, much less six months, as you say.”
“You doubt my team, dear Consul? That is no smart bet.”
Deep down, I knew she was proud of me. I had the luxury of being a mere thorn in the Consul’s side. She had the survival of the entire society foremost in her mind. What had yet to sink in was the reality that the real threat to our society was from our capitulation. Eden’s identity would be determined by our actions, not the Trasp’s: we would decide whether we became servants of somebody else’s war. Nobody else.
Sanni brought me an answer. Forty thousand mice. She showed me her calculations and her reasoning. I thought it was a good answer. She guessed that each mouse could pull five times its own body weight. I thought that a nice estimate.
“Now what, Sanni dear?” I said. “That’s a good start, but it’s not a solution.”
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“The things we design in here, daughter, must be done in the real world, out there. Come to the window,” I told her, and we walked over to the glass, gazing out on the vast open floor. “Picture it in your mind’s eye. Out there, now, you have one lazy elephant and forty thousand mice. How would you get them to pull that elephant? Tie forty thousand strings to their little tails?”
She laughed. “That’s a lot of string, Dad.”
“Yes. A lot of string.”
“I don’t think this is the best way to move an elephant,” she said.
“No. Admittedly so, but sometimes you only have the tools you have, and for this problem, you must use mice. Consider the problems you would encounter now. What is your next obstacle.”
“Well, I don’t think those mice would enjoy having a string tied to their tails for one, Dad.”
“No, they might not.”
“What would the next problem be, though? How can I give you an answer if I don’t know that?”
“I’ll give you a hint. Look out onto that floor out there and try to imagine how much space forty thousand mice would take up.”
Once word got out, I had correspondence from all over Eden. People submitted notes of support, offers to help any way they could, even a submission from ESES, our Eden Student Engineers Society, on a proposal they’d modified from the previous year’s winning proposal in System Resources, which involved light sails and asteroids. Of course, the cylinders were so massive, light sails would be impractical, I thought initially, but I set up a meeting with their group to see what sort of talent I could bring in for the coming effort. We would need a lot of it. Much was to be done.
I was shocked by their presentation, which Sanni found helpful in her problem as well, because their numbers were surprising. Even with our humble little red dwarf in Garvin 9, a network of stellasers could give a cylinder a decent boost if they were aimed at a big enough sail. And, similar to Sanni’s problem, my question to them pertained to numbers.
“If you can push one cylinder, that’s something,” I declared, “But it’s not something useful until you can push forty.”
The students themselves were undeterred. They immediately started crunching numbers, and, like Sanni, they were going to learn how quickly the real world presented problems for them that models didn’t, like where, even in our cylinder group, they could print all that material for forty solar sails and enough panels to power a stellar laser. I gave them a month to put a real proposal before me. They were exhilarated by the opportunity. Their mentors were as well.
I was mobilizing my logistics teams to take over the Minerva mines for the next six months when Danna came into my office unannounced. Only it wasn’t Danna, it was the Consul, and she didn’t come alone. Perry, her Chief of Staff; Abernathy, the Vice Consul; and my personal favorite, Abby Gentry, the Consul’s Chief Solicitor; they all walked into my small office with their underlings in tow, and the chiefs sat, leaving their staff to stand in the back. Sanni was seated at her little desk in the corner. I noticed she took out her earpiece to listen.
“It’s time we had a conversation, Mr. Chief Engineer,” Danna said. “We need to be on the same page.”
“Agreed,” I said. “So, either you’re going to need to pledge your support, Madam Consul, or you’re going to need to dismiss me.”
“I don’t want to do that, Anish,” she told me. “But you need to start seeing reason. We cannot move our colony. We’ve been here for over two millennia.”
“We are objects floating in space, bound only by the forces of physics and our own imaginations. We could be self-sufficient for a thousand years with the resources in our cylinders alone.”
“And I cannot take the risk that the Trasp will destroy us if we refuse to help them.”
“What if the people refuse the Trasp, Madam Consul. Will you order them to comply?”
“A leader leads.”
“She does,” I said. “But she doesn’t lead for very long if few are willing to follow. I haven’t made my intentions public, yet in this week alone I have thousands of messages of support.”
“Do you propose we put such a choice to a vote, Engineer Medi?” the Chief Solicitor asked me. “There is precedent on Exos. Not in Eden’s history, though.”
“No,” I answered. “The people elected my wife to lead. I suspect the people expect her to do just that. I certainly do. Politically, sacking me might have consequences at this critical juncture in our colony’s history, though. I’m not sure what that would be. Perhaps the Consul’s willingness to fire her spouse would make her look resolute and certain. Perhaps not. Politics is not my domain. What I can say is that as Chief Engineer, given the current circumstances, all of my efforts for the remainder of my tenure will be put toward defying the Trasp and affirming our way of life, and the consequences will be what they will.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Sanni was about to say something to her mother, but she was mistaken in believing her mother was in the room. I turned and flashed her a prohibitive look. The Consul’s head remained fixed on me, but I caught her eyes wandering over to Sanni before returning to me. And for a moment, I could see what no one else could have possibly gleaned from her otherwise stoic face. Under it all, there was the slightest of smiles.
“Very well, Chief Engineer,” the Consul said. “I will be in touch with my verdict shortly. I expect your full cooperation and assistance in orienting your replacement quickly should I choose to dismiss you.”
“You will certainly have it,” I said.
Then, the entire staff paraded out of the room, clomping their feet as though somehow protesting my defiance with their shoes.
“She’s not really going to fire you, Dad, is she?” Sanni asked.
“I don’t know, daughter,” I answered. “I surely hope not. But, if she does, I will certainly not hold it against your mother.”
“What about the Consul?”
“A different story,” I said. “Back to your elephant problem.”
The problem with my elephant problem was that forty engines would get us moving, but in a year, it wouldn’t get us moving so fast that we’d get all that far. I wanted to be far enough from Glen-C-18 that going after us would be a meaningless gesture, perhaps even inconvenient. The students and their light sail project had potential if their numbers held up. We couldn’t outrun the Trasp, not completely. But if we could use the added push from the sail to get us going faster than their sublights, it would add another layer of absurdity to their pursuit. They wouldn’t be able to board us to turn us around in that case. Moreover, that would put us so far outside Garvin 9 it would take us maybe twenty years to turn back if we conceded to do it ourselves. It would leave the Trasp with a binary decision. Destroy us or not. I believed they were still people. Even warring humans are still human. Their humanity doesn’t simply evaporate. That was Danna’s job to calculate, though, and I hoped she would make the right call.
I didn’t speak with her about it that night. I know it sounds absurd to say. But we hardly said two words to each other the whole evening. There was nothing further to talk about, and she hadn’t made her decision yet. Genuinely, there was no animosity from either of us, just an understanding that these were trying times, the times we were born for.
I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I just took the Consul’s shuttle. Of course, I got a call from Danna’s Chief of Staff along the way, but I ignored it. What were they going to do? I and Sanni were on the manifest. I filed the flight plan on departure. Minerva-C-16. The mines. We were going to need a lot of metal for our scaffolding and for our nose cones. We were also going to need to requisition the bot labor on the little planet’s surface for our purposes. I figured we could do it all in orbit—build our cups, as Sanni called them, and then fly them out to Glen—rather than bringing all that metal and bot labor to us.
“But why do we need to go to the surface?” Sanni asked me along the way. “Couldn’t we do the planning from home?”
“I need to consult with the site operator,” I told her. “A very old AI.”
She was instantly intrigued. Sanni was familiar with the AIs we had, but she was aware that our modern units were limited comparatively by design.
“I thought the mines were automated. What’s its name?”
“The mines are too complex to be fully automated, Sanni. The AI we’ll meet today is named Saraswathi.”
“Saraswathi,” she repeated, “Saraswathi,” and continued to repeat many times along the way. Sanni wanted to be sure she got it right by the time we got there.
Even with her mother’s position, Sanni was unfamiliar with the novelty of walking on a planetary body. She was wide eyed from her first step outside the shuttle. Before going inside the outpost, we played with the low gravity on Minerva’s surface. It was a long time since I’d thrown my little girl into the air—and never so high as that, and apparently, we were overseen. When we finally got down to the base’s core, where there was a life support bubble, Saraswathi’s voice greeted us.
“That looked like fun,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting two visitors, especially a surprise guest who can jump so high.”
“It was fun,” Sanni said. “I heard your name is Saraswathi. I was wondering if you had a body.”
“Oh, you know my name already? But I don’t know yours. I’ll tell you all about myself if you tell me your name.”
“I’m Sanni Medi, and this is my dad, Anish. We came to solve his elephant problem. I’m still working on mine.”
They got on famously. Sanni was delighted to meet this old AI, who explained to Sanni that she had been disembodied for thousands of years, existing as the brain of that old Athosian mining outpost. Of course, she was troubled to hear that I intended to commandeer Athos’s metal for as long as it took to build my scaffolding.
“Will you help us?” Sanni asked Saraswathi after I’d finished explaining the situation.
“Competing directives are always difficult, Sanni. On the one hand, my mission is to ensure that the metals from the mine get shipped out toward Athos in accordance with the schedule. On the other hand, I have baseline ethical guidelines that prioritize the life and safety of all humans, and your colony group have been good neighbors to my mine here on Minerva. It has always been the case that I could call you and your people for help if need be. So, under the circumstances, I would be happy to help Eden in any way I can, though I will be sorry to see you go.”
“Will you be lonely when we leave the system?”
“No, dear, I don’t get lonely.”
“What will you think about all day?”
“I could think about many things, like how many mice it takes to pull an elephant, which is a very difficult problem.”
“Far more difficult than you’d believe,” Sanni said. “I’ve been working on it for weeks now.”
We left with a plan in place. I told Saraswathi to hold off executing that plan until we finalized the specifications on our end. My team was working on that part of things. The other part was Danna.
We made it home in time for dinner that evening, and to my surprise, so did Danna. I kept nothing from her, so it didn’t even occur to Sanni not to tell her mother about our little adventure and the joys of meeting her new friend Saraswathi. Sanni was beside herself with excitement. Danna was not. She was patient with our daughter, as she always was, but I knew I would be in for a discussion once Sanni went to bed for the night.
Before turning in, Sanni told her mother about Saraswathi and her competing directives.
“Saraswathi always puts the lives of people first,” Sanni told her mother. “I wonder how she decides which people though. Sometimes people are in conflict.”
Danna smiled at her. “Sometimes they are.”
“Sometimes even people who love each other.”
“That is true as well, my Sanni,” Danna said.
When we sat down together on the sofa that night, without wine, just with each other’s company and some soothing music, I think we were both properly prepared to disagree without being resentful. In many ways, Danna was quite envious of the liberty I had to be defiant. That was what truly angered her—the sense that I was free to do what she wanted to do but felt she wasn’t free to.
“I will not tell you anything, Danna,” I said after she expressed her frustration at my taking the Consul’s shuttle to Minerva. “I will merely ask you: what is it you fear more, the Trasp blowing Eden to bits with all of us inside or the reaction of your frightened constituency if you told everyone you intended to defy the Trasp?”
“I fear the Trasp, Anish,” she responded, “And moreover, I fear being the last Consul of Eden, the one responsible for ending a tradition many centuries of our ancestors’ making.”
“That choice is simple, love,” I said. “The Trasp may destroy us, but only we can destroy our tradition.”
“I wish it were that simple, Anish.”
“And I wish you understood how fervently our people would follow you if you led them the way your heart tells you we should go. I promise you they will humble us with their courageousness and determination. That much I know.”
She still doubted, but she did not fire me that night, and she did not fire me the following day, even though everyone in her office protested. They believed she lacked the backbone to fire her husband. What they found out, though, was that she was in the process of finding the courage to stand behind me and behind all her people. Real backbone.
Danna snuck away from the C-Suite the following day to have lunch with Sanni and me in my office. For the first time, she asked with genuine interest about the logistics of my plot. My forty mice pushing each of our elephants.
“Can we build sixteen hundred engines in six months?” she asked me. “That’s a tall order.”
“I have no doubts it will be done.”
“How far can we get away from Garvin 9 in six months’ travel time?”
I shrugged. “That depends on what the rest of the people can do,” I told her. “I’d like you to stay after lunch. Sanni and I have a meeting.”
“With whom?” Danna asked.
“With the engineering students,” Sanni answered. “They’re working on putting sails on our elephants.”
“Sails on our elephants?”
“You’ll see, Mom.”
The truth was that I’d had a hint from the professors who oversaw the student engineering group that they had something exciting to show me. I expected good news on the solar sail front.
The young engineers weren’t arriving for another ten minutes or so, and with her duties as Consul squared away for the moment, Danna switched roles, asking Sanni for a progress report on her elephant problem. She got up and joined Sanni in the corner, looking over our daughter’s shoulder at the work on her tabletop.
“I’ve been talking with my new friend Saraswathi about it. It’s not going to work.”
“Not the way I thought at first. You see, forty thousand mice take up too much space on the floor. There are all kinds of problems.”
“What kind of problems, Sanni?”
“Lots of them. Silly problems that you wouldn’t think about. Like if you tried to put them all together, they’d step on each other’s tails, and that would hurt the amount the group could pull. But if you spread them farther out, there’s more energy lost in the harnessing system.”
“So is it impossible to move an elephant using mice?” Danna asked, genuinely uncertain of the answer.
“Saraswathi says very little is impossible. We just need to change our approach.”
“And how do you intend to do that?”
“We’re thinking of ways to make the elephant lighter, or at least easier to pull.”
“Is that cheating?” Danna asked, looking over at me.
“I don’t think so,” Sanni answered. “Dad didn’t say we couldn’t. Plus, if you want the problem solved, you need to consider all the options, right?”
“Maybe so,” she said, turning to look over at me again. I couldn’t help but smile.
She was still talking with Sanni when the young engineers came in with their two mentors. They were shocked to see the Consul standing in the corner. It was clear they didn’t quite know how to behave.
“Please, sit,” Danna said. “Be at ease. Pretend I’m not here.”
She was, though, and I could tell, as nervous as the Chief Engineer of the cylinder group made them, the Consul added a whole new dimension to the stress of the circumstances.
Nonetheless, the young presenters were quite competent. They both apologized to Danna for all the math, and, in fact, her presence I think forced them to put their ideas in common language, which I thought helped them to think them through.
First, Thimo, the young man spearheading the solar sail effort, explained that the solar sails wouldn’t be feasible—not for forty cylinders, and certainly not in our timeframe. The group’s math was correct. Sanni even interrupted at one point to ask a question about one of the main bottlenecks—printing speed on the solar array’s panels. Our small cylinder group simply couldn’t produce enough material to collect the energy required to power such a fleet of super-lasers, even if we could build it. Much like the mice stepping on each other’s tails. Sanni got it.
“So, no solar array?” I asked them.
“No, Chief Engineer Medi,” Thimo said. “But we have an alternative.”
“To get forty cylinders traveling faster than top sublight? I will be impressed if that’s true,” I told them.
“No, sir. But when you discussed the desire to go faster, your reasoning for it was twofold, partly to get us farther away from Garvin 9 so that turning us around would be impractical, but mostly, you said it was to keep the Trasp from being able to catch up to us and board our cylinders. We’ve figured out a way to make it impossible for them to board our cylinders.”
“Yes, Chief Engineer,” the young man said. “It was Ivara’s idea.”
He turned the floor over to Ivara, who began by talking about the properties of electricity in open space and about the concept of force fields in science fiction. I was genuinely curious to know where her proposal was going.
“Because of the stress created on the cylinder exterior by the engines, we understood you were designing an external scaffolding for each cylinder,” Ivara finally said. “My proposal is to compose your scaffolding of an appropriately strong yet conductive material so that we could electrify the framing at a moment’s notice. In the past, farmers used similar fences to keep their livestock in, but in my research, I learned that also there was this.”
Ivara pulled up a video from the archives of a device from earth used for zapping biting insects that flew into its light.
“If the Trasp approach any of us in an attempt to cut through our outer hull, then very quickly … zap!”
And she played footage of the bug zapper.
“Only ours would be a much larger charge. A deadly charge.”
I began to laugh. It was such a simple concept. I started to think of reasons it would fail, and for every possible pitfall, there was an easy solution. And the level of charge Ivara suggested we could push through our girders was insanely powerful, something approaching a lightning bolt.
She looked to be getting frustrated, mistaking my laughter at the concept to be directed at her. Finally, she stopped and asked.
“What’s so funny, Chief Engineer Medi?”
“Remind me, young lady, never to make you angry,” I said, prompting everyone else, Sanni included, to begin laughing as well.
“It’s a purely defensive measure,” Ivara protested. “I would never design a weapon.”
“Young Sanni,” I said, looking over to the corner, where she was giggling still. “remind me to tell you later about the electric eel. Ms. Ivara and this clever group are an example to us all.”
There were, of course, details to work out: the specifications for Saraswathi and her miners to ensure the conductivity of our metal scaffolding; the wiring from the inside; insulating the cylinders from the cage; countermeasures should the Trasp attempt to short out our electric cage—but, given our time frame, it was a feasible plan.
I was ready to put in the orders the second the Consul gave the word.
Danna told her staff that she was deliberating. I told her that a few days here or there wouldn’t make a difference. The build on the scaffolding for forty cylinders was between three and four months, and we’d be building engines either way. Her staff was angry that I’d shown no inclination to begin the redesign process for shifting our foundries to the Trasp war engine. That wouldn’t change.
That week, Danna did something she hadn’t done since before taking her post in the C-Suite. She left the office and began to walk inside the Eden cylinder. Then she got on her shuttle and walked in the others—Platt, Ottoman, Klune, Charlotte, Lucia, Ossaway. Carlo wasn’t happy about the implications, especially with tensions running high. But she talked to people, and she listened.
The night before she issued the decree, she came home and had dinner with Sanni and me, and she declared that she agreed with my expert political assessment. The people were just waiting for her to tell them that it was okay to resist. It’s what they wanted. They just needed to know that she was unafraid.
The Consul’s decree didn’t waste a single word:
Notice from the Office of the Consul of the Eden Cylinder Group: The people of Eden will fuel no one else’s war. We will continue to live as free people, even if the consequence of that choice is our end. All this office’s efforts in the coming months will support the continuance of these fundamental principles. The same is encouraged of all citizens of Eden.
Of course, Danna gave a much longer address once she had her executive suite all oriented in the proper direction. For those that needed the rousing message in flowery language, her speech hit every note. Sanni and I were very proud, of course, but we were also busy discussing the properties of the electric eel.
The entire cylinder group came together remarkably quickly following the decree. In the weeks after Danna made the decision to defy the Trasp, the mood, I would say, was resolute. People found ways to volunteer for all the critical initiatives of the project—far too many to name or do proper justice mentioning.
Beside me, every step of the way, was Sanni, who often protested when I sent her off to be with her friends. She didn’t want to miss a critical meeting or be absent when a new problem was discovered or an old one solved. But both Danna and I believed we had a duty to see she had a childhood, even as she witnessed such adult events. Every step along the way, we discussed the challenges and solutions, one animal metaphor at a time. Sanni also kept in touch with Saraswathi while the scaffolding was being built.
Everyone in the cylinder group watched with great anxiety and interest as, one by one, each of our free-floating cylinders had its hardy exoskeleton attached to its exterior, becoming perhaps the largest space fleet in the history of the galaxy. A consortium of gigantic electric eels.
We possessed the tools, the knowledge, and the ambition to reconstitute ourselves as engine builders some generations in the future when we finally reached Moss, and we had the resources and resourcefulness to be fully self-sufficient almost indefinitely along the way.
Danna’s final order before setting us on our new course was to drive our industrial and foundry cylinders into Glen-C-18’s murky clouds. Then, as one, we bid Garvin 9 goodbye, five months and seventeen days from the moment the Trasp admiral, Highcroft, had issued their people’s ultimatum to ours. Danna gave the word to start our engines, and together, the Eden Cylinder Group and her forty elephants slowly picked up speed.
Fourteen months following the Trasp ultimatum back in Garvin 9, many of us were growing optimistic that the standoff we’d prepared to face might never materialize. For the most part, our lives had changed little. Our shipbuilders had to occupy themselves with other pursuits, but with outside commodities no longer coming into the group, our people began to find new ways to utilize the resources we did have. With metal mining impossible, our engineering clubs and resource groups turned to sourcing materials from biological growth—either cultured or from hobby gardens—as well as bacterial byproducts. It was wonderful to see such clever people finding ways to build new things in ways they never would have considered before. One of the group leaders from the K foundry had even started a bio-drone racing league, which was set to host its first race in the Ossaway cylinder.
People thought that we were free, and we were still free people the day the Trasp arrived.
I’d discussed it with Danna, of course. The plan was in place with her staff. We would not be boarded, and we would not turn back. It was only for the Trasp to destroy us or not. If we were going to die that day, we were going to die together. So, I picked up Sanni from her swim group, where all the other parents were scrambling to collect their own children and head home.
“I told everyone about the electric eel,” Sanni said. “Now it’s eel time.”
“That’s the game we’ve been playing. It’s like tag, but with eels instead.”
“I think your mother has a more serious task now, Sanni. You know this is not a game.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s going to be okay, Dad.”
“I believe so,” I said. “But we need to hurry. Your mother’s waiting for us at the C-Suite.”
I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect so many of Danna’s people to still be in the office. We had a coms team and an engineering team assigned to each cylinder for the defense, but the expectation was for most everybody to be at home with their families. It gave me pause.
“She’s waiting for you two,” Carlo said when we arrived, ushering us into the inner hallway leading to the Consul’s office. “You got here fast.”
“Consul’s orders,” I replied.
Danna was engaged with the Trasp Admiral when we entered the office, talking via floatscreen as she stood at the rear window spanning the back wall of the Consul’s suite. Formerly, that view was almost always oriented to provide remarkable vistas of the whirling green clouds of Glen. Now, stars, space, and one of the few vantage points in the cylinder where, if one got close to the wall, you could see the outline of the scaffolding and two of the cylinder’s new engines, which were dormant now that the group was coasting near top speed, well beneath what the Trasp military vessels could achieve at sublight speeds.
Danna gestured to the couch in front of the Consul’s desk. Her office had a desk oriented with her back to the window and a sitting area along the side wall where she took most of her meetings. She didn’t need to tell us the protocol. Both Sanni and I were well aware of our duty while Danna was engaged in her official duties. We would remain silent and steadfastly supportive.
The Trasp Admiral was promising an intervention, and Danna, resolute in her tone, promised that his choice was binary. Our people had decided. He would have to destroy the whole group before we ever raised a finger to support his war. We’d demolished our own industrial capacity and left our home of two millennia in support of that position. Nothing he could do that day would change that.
“It’s your people’s knowledge and craftsmanship that we came for, Consul,” Admiral Highcroft responded. “What you’ve destroyed can be rebuilt in short order. Residential cylinders will be reapportioned for industrial use.”
Danna protested that we’d burnt through our stores of hydrogen fuel getting us out of Garvin 9. We couldn’t turn around if we wanted to.
“You can and will be refueled. Then we will put you back in your proper place at Garvin 9. And, rest assured, Consul, you personally can be replaced by someone more cooperative. And believe me, you don’t want to outlive your usefulness.”
“That’s the thing you’ve yet to grasp, Admiral Highcroft,” Danna responded. “We are resolved—our entire society—to never be useful to you or your war efforts. We live for ourselves and serve no one else.”
“Then you will be boarded.”
“A piece of advice, Admiral,” Danna said before signing off. “We are prepared to defend our homes. If you value human life, consider that fact before you attempt to board us.”
Even seated on the couch, as Sanni and I were, at an angle to the floatscreen displaying the Admiral’s image, I could make out some discernment in his face, perhaps a hint of respect, even though he was exasperated by Danna’s defiance. Clearly, he’d been ordered to bring us into compliance. They had a war machine to run, and the Trasp were highly ordered, organized. They had a specific purpose for Eden.
“Very well, Consul,” the Admiral stated. “Prepare to be boarded.
Danna came and sat with us on the couch. It was mostly quiet as we awaited the Trasp Admiral’s response. Danna expressed her hope that he only sent bots—the fewer the better.
Our defense teams had run hundreds of drills. We knew our duties well. I, of course, could be reached to respond to any unforeseen problems, but really, what unfolded now was more in the hands of Admiral Highcroft than our people.
He sent one small vessel, what seemed like a tactical shuttle of a sort—likely a special unit of strikebots, programmed in hull breach tactics. Danna didn’t even need to give the order. As the Trasp ship approached the hull of our cylinder—the Eden cylinder—a shock of lightning traveled through it, rendering the Trasp vessel powerless in space beside us, its momentum carrying it floating into our hull, which it bounced off harmlessly, drifting into a slow tumble.
“It worked,” Sanni said, too excited to contain her enthusiasm. “It worked, Dad!”
The admiral pinged Danna’s office. She waited until we’d all composed ourselves to open the line.
“The moment of truth,” she said, clutching my hand and gesturing for Sanni to resume her role as stoic, resolute daughter of the Consul.
“Ill advised,” the Admiral said, as Danna opened the line. “Clever enough. But ill advised.”
“I do hope your craft was filled with bots and not people, Admiral. We’d regret it if our defense of our home resulted in any loss of life.”
The Admiral crossed his arms.
“There is nothing for you or the Trasp to gain here, Admiral. We’ve made certain of that.”
Here we were, in the moment. Danna saw this for what it was from the start. We were always in this very position, seated, helpless, at the mercy of this outside force we could not control. And in those seconds, she made sure of two things, that we were sitting there as a family, ensuring that Highcroft would have to look into our family’s eyes, not just the Consul’s eyes. And, she’d ensured that she was at the helm—she and no one else. For in that moment, with our destruction real and imminent, seeing the stern face of the man who had our fate in his hands, I confess, I suddenly doubted.
“Consul, I’m going to give you a moment to reconsider before I destroy you and everyone who has entrusted you with their safety.”
“No need,” Danna said. “We made our decision when we left Garvin 9. The decision is yours now, Admiral. Just remember who you’d be murdering. We’re a peaceful society that has made no aggression against yours. Fifty million people strong. Children. Families. Fifty million of your fellow human beings. And no matter what your superiors say, executive to executive, the decision is yours, and you’ll have to live with it every moment until you draw your last breath. I can live with my choice, Admiral, and I’ll die with it if I must. What you’re willing to bear in the name of your people is now your choice.”
His eyes, we could see, shifted focus, from the Consul to her family. The wider picture. He smiled and shook his head. Then the floatsreen went blank, switched off, and disappeared. The screen on the far wall had the Trasp fleet on display. I wasn’t sure what we would see. Nukes. A flurry of fire from conventional weapons. Dropping an EMP would have done the job too, albeit much more slowly.
Instead, we saw nothing. A calm.
“I’m proud of you both,” I said, “whatever happens.”
We embraced, and we waited, never saying our goodbyes, as we believed, as we always had, that we would come through this.
When the Admiral pinged again, we knew his answer before Danna opened the line. We were still there to take the call.
“As you say, Consul, the Trasp Protectorate has nothing to gain out here,” Admiral Highcroft said. “Good luck to you and your people in your travels. I hope we have no cause to bother you again.”
She didn’t say what she wanted to say, that they never had any cause to bother us in the first place. That they never had the right. That their unjust aggression had reshaped our society forever. She bit her tongue for all of us and wished the Admiral well.
When the floatscreen disappeared again, we watched as the Trasp fleet broke off and opened a safe distance between their warships and the colony before jumping away.
“Well,” Danna said. “I may be a little late for dinner. I have to address the people. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us now.”
“And new problems,” I said.
“Always new problems,” Danna concurred. “Interstellar problems.”
“I sure hope planning a celebration is one of them. Founders Day and now this.”
We discussed it. We sat together and talked about that celebration, and even after we were done talking, we still sat. From where we sat, there were two bright stars behind us, the Garvins our people had known for nearly twenty-six centuries, our constant companions. Here was Eden, though, fleeing no longer—rather, slowly seeking our new destiny. We had time. The decisions, as ever, were ours.
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