Threedak sat in her command couch buried deep in the bowels of Meridian station, pouring over the hovering 3D map of the space near Dhaj. The planet’s belt was near complete, a series of stations and shipyards connected to a giant rail transit system capable of rapidly moving goods and passengers from one point to another. Perhaps more importantly, the belt was almost completely covered with solar panels and capacitors. Without atmospheric interference, direct exposure to Dhaj’s sun generated a huge amount of power that was invested almost immediately back into the empire’s insatiable industrial machine.
Both of Dhaj’s moons were riddled with mines, periodically taking advantage of their lower gravity to spit large chunks of purified metal into orbiting nets via mass drivers. From there, cargo vessels dragged the metal past the collection of captured comets being mined for hydrogen to fuel the growing fleet of Dhajtel vessels, and to the shipyards themselves.
Even from Meridian station, the shipyards glowed, a million whiteblue fireflies as welders flickered in the darkness. From tankers and cargo ships, to the two kilometer long skeleton of the first Dhajtel capital ship, work continued at all hours. Already almost one million Dhajtel lived in various stations of the belt, and with each day that number only grew.
Threedak waved a grasper, zooming the hologram in on the lunar mines. Despite heavy automation, each moon had almost fifty thousand Dhajtel excavating literal tons of metal on a daily basis. Already Bekai estimated that it would only be a matter of decades before the moons were completely stripmined of heavy metals at which point it would be time to move out of Dhaj’s orbit in search of new sources of metal.
That was why her daughters had ended up in one of their rare disagreements. Threedak sighed, waving a grasper through the hologram and causing it to disappear. She turned her gaze to where Kahtash, Bekai, and Dahlass stood in her office. None of them so much as glanced at each other, instead fixing the entirety of their attention on her.
“So,” Threedak began with a dry chuckle that quickly lapsed into a short bout of coughing. “It sounds like your dispute is over how fast we should expand and what the expansion should look like, is that right?”
“Yes Mother,” Bekai took a step forward, wobbling slightly in the faux gravity created by the habitat’s constant spinning. “We’ve all agreed to avoid exploiting Dhaj any more than necessary, but as things stand we will need new sources of hydrogen, exotic elements, and heavy metals sooner or later. We have enough cargo vessels to start putting together new mining and industrial colonies on nearby asteroids or moons. We’ve even started putting together a pair of O’Neil Cylinders that we could put in orbit around one of the nearby gas giants. From there it would be a flick of the tail to start exploiting its moons and atmosphere.”
“But,” Dahlass shot a quick glare at her sister. “Even if we have the technology to start exploiting nearby planets, we shouldn’t run the risk of cultural drift. If the colonists can’t quickly and easily communicate with the rest of the species back on Dhaj it’s only a matter of time before we lose our greatest asset, our identity.”
“What we really need,” Dahlass turned to Threedak, speaking with an uncharacteristic intensity, “is some way of maintaining our unity. I propose we create something like the old human internet. A repository of knowledge and culture that every Dhajtel can access regardless of where they are stationed in the system. We would be able to exchange everything from films and music to research and schematics at the speed of light. The entirety of our civilization would always be within your graspers at only a couple minute’s notice.
“It will be expensive and take time,” Dahlass was fervent, a hint of fire in her eyes, “but we can create a network of interconnected satellites orbiting the sun. The satellites would serve triple duty as transmission stations, receivers and data repositories. They would be a distributed network, even if the satellite you sent a query to didn’t have the exact information you needed, it could quickly acquire that information from one of its sisters. Without the network, we would only be able to communicate with each other when Dhaj has a line of sight on the colony.”
Threedak finally turned to Kahtash. Her last daughter was silent through both of her sisters’ pitches, but she shook her head the entire time. Threedak waited a second for her to speak before motioning with a grasper to spur her overly taciturn daughter into action.
“Both of their plans are sound ones,” she spoke curtly, her voice slightly clipped. “Every day our need for materials grows and securing more needs to be a top priority. At the same time, the persistent threat caused by the Maxists demonstrates Dahlass’ wisdom. Just two months ago the bombed a hydrogen refinery just down the coast from Hope City. Over twenty lives were lost. But-”
Kahtash paused, collecting herself slightly, clearly uncomfortable with making such a verbose speech. “We can’t defend ourselves,” she continued, building up speed as she forced herself to keep speaking. “We only have a handful of screening vessels and a pair of torchships. That isn’t even enough to properly protect Dhaj, let alone cargo ships and far flung colonies.”
“Kaht,” Bekai interrupted, throwing her graspers in the air. “What is there to be afraid of? I know we’ll need to build warships eventually, but for right now our priority needs to be expansion. In a decade this system needs to be the backbone we can lean on when journeying out into the galaxy itself.”
“You forget,” Kahtash replied, speaking slowly with a slight frown on her face. “We don’t know where the invader ship that shot the Ark down went. It might have returned to its home, but it also might be somewhere nearby. We know that it was a dangerous journey here. There’s a good chance that it was severely damaged and couldn’t risk the jump home. Personally, I don’t want to risk running into the invaders while unprepared. Even if the risk is small, and it requires us to slow our pace of expansion, caution seems to be the correct plan at the moment.”
“It would be possible to use the navy as a unifying force,” Dahlass interjected hesitantly. “My project could wait a decade or so if we focus on imperial service. Maybe we make colonial postings only available to those who have served in the navy as an effort to ensure that our sense of unity is imprinted on any colonies we found.”
“How many ships do I need to build Kahtash before we can continue our expansion,” Bekai glared heatedly at both of her sisters. “Twenty new ships? Forty? Just give me a number and I’ll make it happen. Those Kithra class screeners only take about six months of slip time. I can juggle a couple queues around for cargo and passenger construction and we’ll be ready to go again in a year or two tops.”
“It isn’t just screeners we need Bekai,” Kahtash replied coldly, clearly put out by her sister’s dismissive tone. “Our current fleet organization chart calls for one capital ship, four torchships, and twenty screeners to protect Dhaj. I would recommend at least two patrol and protection units consisting of one torchship and four screeners each. Anything less than that would be a gamble and put our daughters at risk.”
“Torchships and Capital ships!” Bekai’s tail twitched uncontrollably. “Those take years! You’re asking for almost half of my slips for five years. It’s like you’re trying to crack open my eggs and leave the yolk to rot in the sun!”
“Bekai,” Threedak interjected sternly. “Language! I know you’re excited, but there’s no need to become vulgar during a planning meeting. Now let your sister speak.”
“Thank you mother,” Kahtash inclined her head at Threedak. “We need the torchships because of their more efficient engines. Screeners are fast and agile, but their fuel efficiency is rotten. Theoretically they can travel around the solar system on their own, but most of that involves putting them on ballistic courses and waiting months for them to get to their targets. Plus, none of them carry the armor needed to properly slug it out with kinetic weapons and missiles. A torchship might be slower to accelerate, but their heavy fusion engines will get them where they need with fuel to spare. As for the capital ship-”
Kahtash lifted her graspers in a very humanlike shrug. “It’s basically a gigantic torchship. I just want the Empress Threedak on hand in case we actually hit a snag. After all, overwhelming firepower is the best kind of firepower.”
“Kahtash,” Threedak tapped the fingers of her grasper on the table in front of her couch. “What did you say that our empire’s first capital ship is going to be named?”
“We’re unanimous on it Mother,” Kahtash replied implacably while Dahlass squirmed and Bekai smiled. “Even Pinrakt designed its coat of arms. The Navy high command is in agreement that the flag vessel of the home fleet will always be the Empress Threedak with the name being passed on to new ships as larger and better warships become available.”
“Fine,” she growled, her neck pouches swelling and deflating as she tried her best to stare her daughters down. “We build the ships Kahtash requested while preparing essential infrastructure for colonies. I want us to be ready to mine as soon as we’re sure that Dhaj is safe.”
Five years passed in the flick of a membrane and a flurry of activity. In the meantime the Maxists grew from a joke to a persistent annoyance. In part, the lack of expansion forced more and more Dhajtel to live in the stations and shipyards of the belt. Even with their race’s imprinted unity many began to grow disaffected with the stagnant conditions and low gravity that tore at their bodies.
Finally, the first colony fleet launched. Every worker on the belt got a full day off devoted to fermented grain, music and general revelry. It’s true that they already had colonies on Dhaj’s moons, but this was different. The Dhajtel were about to permanently step out of their orbit. Yet another step toward seizing their collective destiny.
After the first day, some of the expedition’s shine wore off for the common Dhajtel, but Threedak was still riveted to the hologram in her office. Almost hourly, she checked for updates as the torchship, with its four screeners magnetically sealed to hardpoints on its flanks, led a collection of mobile construction vessels, transports and freighters to Hector, a moon orbiting Gabriel, the nearest gas giant to Dhaj.
Hector had been selected for two major reasons. Firstly, it had low enough gravity that a landing craft could begin the process of settling it without too much difficulty. Secondly, most of the moon’s surface was covered in ice. At some point, Gabriel’s gravitational forces tore apart two to three of its other moons creating a mineral rich belt of asteroids around the larger planet. Hector would serve as an ideal central resupply depot for a fleet of mining vessels that would come in a later wave, intent on exploiting the bounty of mineral wealth orbiting Gabriel.
Soon the plan was to move on to the planet's other moons, one of which was almost half the size of Dhaj. Achilles would likely need an elevator just like Dhaj, but early experiments indicated that its rocky surface was rich in trapped deposits of oxygen and nitrogen. With thirty to fifty years of terraforming and a huge amount of greenhouse gases, Dhajtel would be able to walk its surface with little more than thick coats and supplemental oxygen. It wouldn’t be an absolutely perfect new home for the species, but it was no more hostile than what a mountain climber faced while hiking.
Still, that was all in the future. For now, Threedak’s eyes remained glued to the green triangle that represented the torchship and the series of circles that signified the civilian vessels as they grew ever closer to their prize.
Then, a yellow triangle flickered to life on the map. An unknown contact. Threedak frowned, staring at the blob of light as if willing it to try and reveal its secrets.
It was a full planet out, near one of the moons orbiting Michael, another gas giant. Another yellow triangle sprang into being beside it.
A third triangle appeared. She hissed, drawing breath in suddenly through her sharp and gleaming teeth. Three ships in her solar system. She stood and began pacing, her legs padding quietly against the metal floor as Threedak repeatedly wrung her hands.
“Identity confirmed,” Kahtash’s voice erupted into the silence from Threedak’s projector as all three triangles suddenly turned crimson. “Unknown vessels are invaders. I repeat, we have encountered the invaders.”