In 2015, I wrote a novel called Space Cadets which was beloved by its (very few) readers, but shortly after publication, the publisher went bust. As such I’ve been sitting on the novel for years, and instead of leaving it to gather digital dust, I’m using it for an experiment.
An online, illustrated, novel, with all of the illustrations using AI. Here’s part one, and I used DALL-E throughout to try to visualize some of the scenes.
If you want more, please reach out and let me know!
IT NEVER FAILED to give her a thrill when she saw the moonscape rush by underneath her ship, and the blue curve of Earth rise above it. Aisha smiled at its beauty.
Down there, girls her age were wondering about homecoming dances, what dress they’d wear, or which boy would ask them out. She was much happier here, piloting her ship, zipping at breakneck speeds across the Moon, and getting ready to break into deep space.
“I think I see them,” said David, her navigator, and co-pilot, sitting in one of the wing pods to her right.
“Two-seven-zero Karem one-nine-eight.”
“Confirmed,” came the clipped voice of Soo-Kyung, her gunner. Aisha glanced to the pod on her left and her eyes met Soo-Kyung’s. The Korean girl smiled and nodded.
Aisha always wanted a visual confirmation. Comm lines could be hacked and voices faked. Soo-Kyung knew this instinctively. That’s what made them a great team.
“Okay,” said Aisha. “Weapons hot. Let’s check them out.” She punched in the coordinates, and the ship turned towards its target.
“Visual range in five seconds,” said David.
“I see them,” Aisha replied. Her heads-up display started to light up with targets. Squares projected on her canopy, wrapping tiny dots that could easily be mistaken for stars to the naked eye.
“That’s a lot of ships,” she said, awe sneaking into her voice.
“That’s a bloody awful lot of ships,” said David.
Soo-Kyung was business as always. “Orders?”
“Can you confirm ship type?”
“They are mostly type-three fighters. About eighty of them.” “What else?”
“A single mothership. That’s the target.”
“No other fighters?”
“A couple of type-ones, but hard to tell with all the movement.” The fighters were moving around the mothership, following what looked like random patterns, making it hard to get a radar lock. “Are they moving to intercept?”
“David, probe the edge of their defense shield.”
His gentle voice sounded in her earpiece. “Yes, Sir.”
David took the ship forward slowly, while Soo-Kyung watched the behavior of the enemy fighters. They knew from experience that these ships could turn from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. If they didn’t react, they could find themselves surrounded and destroyed in seconds.
“We are at the edge of previous attack ranges,” said Soo-Kyung. “Recommend that we hold this position.”
The ship halted, and they floated in space, watching the enemy. “Any update on ship types, David?”
“The best I got is maybe two or three type-ones, the rest are type-three.”
She wished she had read the spec books more closely but was glad David was there. “Turning radius of type-threes?” “Two hundred degrees,” he answered, almost in reflex. “Distance of fighters from the mothership?”
“Average about three hundred clicks.”
Soo-Kyung raised an eyebrow. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” “Yes,” said Aisha. “Full frontal assault, all shields on front.” “If we leave our back exposed–”
“Hopefully they won’t get a chance. Maximum throttle, straight at the mothership, direct all energy to front shields.”
“Including lasers. We’re on bullets and torpedoes. Can you do it?” She heard the smile in Soo-Kyung’s voice. “Done.”
“Good. And fire at will.”
“David. Punch course in.”
“Manual control to me.”
“Here goes nothing!”
Aisha punched the program, and she felt the craft lurch as they accelerated forward. She continued its burn, getting faster and faster as they approached the enemy ships.
“Ships turning to intercept.”
She saw the enemy ships swarming to intercept. Suddenly their random patterns stopped, and they turned, almost as one, bearing down on her. They opened fire, but the forward shields held.
“Intercept in five seconds,” said Soo-Kyung. Aisha marveled at her ability to stay calm, and it seemed the more stressful the situation, the calmer she was.
And just like that, they flew through the squadrons of enemy fighters, on a course straight for the mothership. “They’re turning to intercept.”
Time seemed to slow down in her mind. The mothership approached weapons range at a painful crawl. The enemy fighters, now behind her, were slowly turning to follow them, with a clear shot at Aisha’s tail. She’d turned off their lasers, directing their energy to the shields, so they’d need to be close for ballistic weapons to be effective.
It was going to be tight. Once the enemy fighters had turned around, the back of Aisha’s fighter was exposed. The lead ones had almost turned and were ready to open fire.
But then Soo-Kyung had her target locked and opened up with everything she had on the mothership. Direct hits, but the ship stayed intact.
A hit on their right-wing made the ship lurch.
“Now would be a good time, Soo-Kyung.”
Aisha looked to her left, seeing her friend’s face deep in concentration. Another torpedo launched, hitting a module to the rear of the mothership’s bridge. A small explosion was followed by several large ones, but before the ship was destroyed, Aisha’s ship was hit again. This time right in the engines.
Aisha felt her ship lurch. Red lights were all over her console. The reactor had taken a direct hit. It was about to go critical. Her heart was beating hard. She reached for the eject buttons, hesitating long enough to see the mothership go up in a ball of flame.
The moment’s hesitation was enough. She felt the ship lurch as the reactor gave out. Her mind slowed as the white flash enveloped them. She had enough time to realize, with resignation, that she was dead. Both co-pilots too.
The simulator door opened, and Captain Simms’ craggy face looked in at her.
“You’re dead. All of you. Again,” he said. Disapproval in his voice. “I thought you guys were better than that.”
A Letter From My Father
My Dearest Aisha: I don’t even know how to begin writing this letter. I look at you now, sleeping in your crib, so small and so helpless, and I wish I could be there with you when you take your first steps. I wish I could see it when you get on the bus for your first day of school. I wish I could hold you when you come home crying for the first time, realizing that the world is a bigger and worse place than you could have ever imagined. But I won’t be. The disease that is tearing through my body will take me away from you soon. And I’m so very sorry. But, so that I won’t be a distant and mysterious memory, I’m writing you this letter. For you have a destiny. A bright and wonderful destiny…
THE TRANSPORT PLANE was older and more rickety than she would have expected for one headed to the spaceport. Aisha peered out the window of the plane intently, waiting for her first glimpse of the great cable veering skyward from Kiritimati into the depths of space.
It even had the old-school seats facing each other across a small table. A man sat there, and he was watching her closely. “It’s nothing really special,” he said. “You don’t see anything. It’s only interesting when a launch happens.” “How often?” she asked, knowing the answer already. She always knew the answer already, but she asked anyway.
“It depends,” he said, looking at his watch. “We build the shuttle onsite and then launch it. It’s not worth bringing it back to Earth, where it would burn up in the atmosphere, so it’s designed to be launched once, and then disassembled into different things to be used up there.”
He pointed at the sky.
“I’m going up tomorrow,” she said.
He nodded, smiling. “I figured. We get a lot of kids your age coming through here, heading for the Academy.” He smiled and went back to reading the news from his tablet. He hadn’t said anything about her color. Mother had insisted on telling everyone within earshot that Aisha was the first African-American to go to the Academy. And not only was she African-American, but she was also a girl.
Aisha groaned inwardly. She wished mother would just stop. It had been a couple of hours since they had left Hawaii. The plane flew south to the tiny atoll that Aisha couldn’t take her eyes off of. Upon arrival, they would take the short trip out to the bottom of the cable, and the fleet of ships imaginatively called Terminus. That would be the last stop before she launched into orbit, leaving Earth behind.
The man lowered his tablet and pointed to a silver dot on the horizon.
“That’s a shuttle right there,” he said. “And if you look closely you can see the cable that makes up the Space Elevator.” Even the words sounded amazing to her. The Space Elevator. Since the invention of materials with the requisite strength in low enough density to make the concept buildable, many nations had gathered together to build this one. The idea was simple. Tether a cable on the Earth near the equator, and extend it out into space for about 35,000 kilometers. The object on the far end of the cable would then be in geostationary orbit, always above the same position on the Earth, much like communications or TV satellites.
She peered, trying to make out the cable, but it was just too skinny to be seen from this distance – except for the occasional glint as the tropical sun reflected off it.
Because the cable was tethered to the surface of the Earth, the rotation of the planet would send any object attached to the cable flying out from the center of gravity, propelling it into space. Once it reached the top of the cable, it could then launch itself outward, using a tiny fraction of the fuel that a traditional rocket launch would use up.
Almost overnight, it revolutionized space travel. One of the first things the international community had agreed upon was to build an academy. Its goal: To teach a new generation of humans what it would be like to have a single, coherent community, not hindered by the tropes of the past. Ultimately, such a community would be the future of mankind, its backers had argued, and would put an end to the wars that nearly destroyed us all.
Aisha opened her locket and looked at his face, trying to remember him. Ravaged by cancers from radiation suffered in war, her father died before she reached her first birthday. He smiled back at her from the tiny picture, and she could see the pride in his smile.
I did it, Dad. I made it into space, and I made sure that you would never be forgotten. That the next phase of humanity will have a little part of you in it. That was worth fighting for. I just wish you didn’t have to die for it.
The plane jolted as it began to descend, waking Mother. “Are we there yet?”
Aisha smiled to herself. “We’re almost at the Terminus.” Mother smiled and looked at the man sitting across from Aisha. “She’s going to the Space Academy, you know,” she said, smiling. The man nodded. “You must be so proud.” “Oh, I am,” said Mother. “She’ll always be my little girl, but to be the first African-American, and one of the first girls up there, it’s so exciting.” “I’m sure,” said the man. “I think she’ll do amazing things.” “Aww, you’re so nice,” said Mother, milking the compliment for all it was worth.
He said nothing and went back to reading.
Irked, mother looked around for someone else to impress. The plane lurched again, so she closed her eyes instead, fighting back airsickness. Mother was never good at flying.
Aisha turned back to the window, catching the man’s eye with his small smile. He nodded at her, and she returned the gesture.
The ground rushed at them, and with a jolt, they landed on the small airstrip. Since the construction of the Space Elevator had begun, this tiny island had changed from being a rock in the middle of the ocean to a thriving miniature city. But land was at a premium, so all passenger transport still came through the tiny airstrip on the western side.
Aisha had read that a new floating airport was under construction. When it opened, the island would be connected directly to the mainland of the USA and other countries, instead of needing a transport plane like this one flying out of Hawaii. As she got out of the plane, Aisha could feel the warm breeze and hear the crash of the surf. A rocky beach lay just to her right, within walking distance of the airstrip. Mother emerged, blinking in the bright light. A representative of the Academy greeted them and led them towards a small set of prefabricated buildings that served as the registration center.
A tiny look of disappointment crossed Mother’s face. Aisha rolled her eyes. Mother was probably expecting more press to meet them here, presumably not having enough of them in Hawaii.
The only cadet on the arriving flight, Aisha strolled after the greeter, calling for Mother to keep up. The warm humid air felt good in her lungs. For the next few years she would be breathing processed air in the space station, so she wanted to make the most of it.
She wondered if there would be time for the beach.
The administrative center was as plain on the inside as it was on the outside. A threadbare box, it housed several desks at which sat tired-looking administrators swiping through computer terminals.
The greeter read Mother’s disappointed gaze. “Here’s where we just make sure you are whom you say you are before taking the boat across to the Elevator. It helps us make sure that people don’t sneak aboard.”
Mother raised her eyebrows. “What kind of people sneak aboard? Terrorists? It doesn’t look like you could stop them!” The greeter smiled a little, and to Aisha, it looked practiced. “No terrorist could get within a thousand miles of this place. No, we’re more concerned about curious onlookers, too many relatives of cadets, that type of thing.”
His words confused Aisha. How could a terrorist be stopped from getting here, when just about anybody could fly here, including too many family members? Was it all a front, or were they profiling everything about every person who even tried to come to this place? She held her tongue. If Mother thought there was any profiling going on, she’d launch into one of her rants.
“I hear the hotel is very nice,” Aisha said, changing the subject. “Yes,” said the greeter. “We want your last night on planet Earth to be special.”
“But she’ll be coming back, for vacations and the like,” said Mother. “So it’s hardly her last night.”
“Of course,” said the greeter, smiling, before ushering them to a desk where the clerk had finally booted up his screen. “You’re our last flight of the day today,” he said cheerfully. “But don’t worry - you aren’t the only launchie. The others are at the Terminus ahead of you, so you’ll have plenty of friends for the ride up.” Aisha smiled. She didn’t need friends, but it was best not to argue.
“Ah Miss Parks,” he continued, checking her credentials. “I heard you were coming today, it’s very nice to have you aboard.” “Thanks,” said Aisha. “But I just want to be like any other student.” “Yes,” he continued. “The media have made a big deal about it down here, but once you get up there, all that will be forgotten.” Mother piqued up. “What?” “We try to keep the kids insulated from political and social matters down on Earth,” he said in a trained voice. “That way they can focus on their work.”
“But she is the first African-American to be accepted since open enrollment. Not only that, she’s one of the first girls.
That makes her very important.”
“Ma’am,” said the receptionist. “Your daughter is extremely important, and in time you’ll find it’s not for those reasons, but for who she is and what she’s capable of doing. Her race, her gender, those things don’t matter.”
“But she is the first African-American–”
The man interrupted, albeit politely. “Of course,” he said. “And the press at Terminus will want to ask you all about that.”