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In the Middle

It was my birthday on the night we learned that our planet was between two great worlds who had set themselves to war. Thirty-two turns about the sun, and it showed. Hair gently turning to grey, lines arcing from my eyes and mouth where none had been previously. It was a bright day, the sky mirrors terrifically amplifying the weak sunlight into its familiar softness, shadows blurred into a peripheral dance. There’s no special significance to thirty-two, but that was no reason to degrade the celebrations. We’re a tight knit enough community that any excuse to break out the booze and dance mats is welcome. Life hasn’t always been easy this far from the sun, and we make the most of opportunities when they arise. The protein mines had been productive the last decade or so and people felt we were going to be able to make this all work in the long-term – by which they meant permanent. Slipping away from the homeworlds had been my parents’ and their parents’ choice. The goal was to simplify their lives, step back from the technological race that home had fallen into. That, and its crushing environmental effects of course. So they’d found, or commandeered, or claimed – it was never entirely clear which – this tiny outer planet. The advantage of leaving a high-level society is that you can take the best of it with you and leave everything else behind. So we had light, we had power, we had tools and both knew how to use them and how to make more. Simply dropping the population from billions to thousands takes out an awful lot of stress. The first years were very hard, from what I understand, but we were stable now, just fifty years later. Stable, and thriving.

It might have been my birthday but I still had to go to work – such is the hardship of an adult. As a protein mine technician it’s not exactly an awful life, though neither is it particularly thrilling. Something vast died inside the planet a very long time ago, but the extreme cold at the core meant that it’s been preserved almost perfectly for millennia. And now we drill into it and extract the good stable protein chains for reworking into food, oil, plastics and more. I’ve done my time down below and now supervise from the drill rooms. I’d grown to dislike the dark, and the sense of being inside a once-living thing and an irrational fear that it might suddenly digest me had become stronger over time. Now I just watched us gut the thing, and felt better about it. The colossus is one of the reasons our parents chose this planet over others – it was a resource equal to the greatest treasures. It’s the foundation of our economy, industry and agriculture. Thank god it’s dead.

Shift over, we piled out of the mine; trolley-loads of miners debarked at the station and after passing through the scrubbers were free to shower and go their own way. The next shift would be along shortly. I hung my apron on the hooks by the main exit and headed for Hen’s Tavern. One of the best uses of the protein we extracted was its invaluable role in brewing…  Hen’s isn’t the only bar of course, but they do have the best dance mats and their beer is clean, sharp, and potent. We had quite a crowd. They were only vaguely interested in it being my birthday, but that was fine, I’d sought an excuse to party in plenty of theirs, so no hard feelings about not being the centre of attention. I did get a cake, courtesy of my sister and a few close friends. Beer flowed, we danced. It was a good party.

The news didn’t even spoil my birthday really, since I’d already done all of the birthday-ish things that I wanted to do, but we were all rather drunk by the end of the evening and perhaps not truly ready for world-changing information. A peal of thunder echoed across the town and we looked up in time to see lights racing past – I thought them a low-flying shower of flaming meteors, fast enough to break the sound barrier. But they weren’t stopping, they just blazed on past. As we watched, another wave came by, and another and another. This was no meteor shower, and we stood uneasily under the light show. The local radio was going behind the bar, and they did a “we interrupt this broadcast” notice to announce what we’d already noticed. They did have more information though, drawn from the near-dormant communication satellites in orbit and our telescopes on the ground: a fleet of advanced space craft had apparently used our small gravity well to slingshot themselves at even higher velocity deep into the solar system – the solar system our parents had largely abandoned. We’d received no communication from them, though they must have noticed our sky mirrors at least, since they’d taken care to avoid – or ignore – them. It was more exciting than anything else. In my lifetime there had been reports of only a handful of long-range transmissions – the homeworld checking in to see if we were still alive, or something similar. This was the first time most of us had seen anything like an offworld spaceship, let alone a fleet. The excited buzz carried us through another round of drinks, dancing and at last a shambling home.

The next evening brought a repeat display, though in the opposite direction. Apparently these were not the same craft, but another fleet. Our little home planet was, for whatever reason, currently in a convenient spot in our long orbit for these two forces to use as a waypoint. That probably wasn’t a good thing, though we could hope we’d only be useful to them for a little while. There was much discussion, but little action since we still had work to do, and they’d ignored us so far – what could we have to interest them? Our telescopes had been tracking both sets of ships to the limit of their capacity and had determined that the first set we’d seen had been heading for our parents’ home planet, much deeper in-system towards the sun. I didn’t understand how the second fleet could have missed them, but the theory ran that neither was a defensive fleet, both were attacking the other’s home.

It was weeks later before we saw or heard of any further action. Those two fleets had presumably gone off to do whatever they were planning to do to each other’s planets and our celestial cycle looped onwards. The ruling councils had been greatly exercised about all this, but for most of us it was just a few minutes of gossip here and there while we went about our usual routines. That was, until a stellar jet parked itself in orbit. Close and large enough that you could see it in mirror light, it hung in the sky like a tiny moon. A much smaller shuttle emerged and landed somewhere near our council buildings. A huge crowd showed up to gawp at the visitors. Disappointingly, they looked very much as we did, though they seemed rather shorter. They ignored the crowd entirely and the little delegation vanished inside the council buildings. They emerged, furious, hours later and stormed back into their shuttle and away to their jet. It disappeared in short order. This process was repeated a few weeks later with their counterparts from another world. We came to understand that we were being courted by these two powers, for our home did indeed fall conveniently between the two, and both would very much like to station some part of their fleet in orbit, and ideally use some of our planetary resources.

At first, I thought our council had rejected their entreaties, which would explain why both delegations looked so angry. However, in a public address our council announced that they had agreed to allow ships to station here, and even potentially join us on the ground, but that offer applied to both fleets, and neither could be here at the exclusion of the other. By the time my next birthday came around we had two icily unfriendly groups of ships in orbit, and their occupants living in our towns. Our council had also refused them permission to build barracks, insisting that all should co-habitate with the local population. It was a strain, but it seemed that our little world’s position was sufficiently desirable that they’d both bend over backwards to have our assistance. As the war had progressed, we became a curious beacon of peace. With envoys from both fleets living in our homes and towns, my thirty-third birthday was a much larger and more exciting affair.

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In the Middle

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