|Back to Index||Written May, 2000|
I never intended this. If you'd looked deep into my DNA just after my birth 55 years earlier then I doubt you'd see anything out of the ordinary. Just another kid born to a not particularly well off mother in one of the under-equipped and over-worked hospitals in the Hemmingway, the capital city of the world of New Starling. I attended school, made a few friends, made a few more enemies, succeeded in passing most of my exams at just above the minimum mark, that type of thing.
Looking back it's clear that it was while I was at school I made the most important decision of my life - though that was hardly my concern at the time. My school wasn't in a particularly rough neighbourhood; in fact it was a rather nice and sunny little place. It's not really the place you expect to be set upon by a gang of boys and girls you'd thought were your friends.
I guess I'd made more enemies than I'd thought. I'd never been very good with my fists, something that came back to haunt me that day. I was twelve years old and outnumbered ten to one anyway; it strikes me as highly unlikely that any boxing practice I'd got in over the previous few weeks would have helped much anyway.
Still, if being twelve meant that I was particularly unable to defend myself it also meant that my attackers weren't able to do too much damage. Young bodies are surprisingly resilient really, and young arms are surprisingly weak. There wasn't anything personal; the gang was just bored and looking for something to do. The punches didn't really hurt much, as I cowered on the playground with my hands shielding my face I definitely got the feeling that their hearts' weren't exactly in it.
I was surprised by the lack of pain. I'd been bracing myself for arcing agony but all I felt was a sort of dull sequence of thuds as half-hearted punches landed punctuated by the occasional sharp sting of a kick. I got the feeling that this sort of low level punishment could go on for hours so I was quite amazed when there was a muffled shout from somewhere above me and the punches stopped. I remember gingerly opening my eyes just in time to catch the backs of my assailants as they fled.
Then there were two hands around me, lifting me to my feet. I had a few cuts and bruises but there was nothing broken, I think. There was a man standing in front of me, smiling soberly from a rugged face. He was wearing a military uniform, bright polished silver stars on his lapel contrasting beautifully with the dark blue of his suit. I didn't know much about military ranks then but I guessed that he was an officer.
He ruffled my hair and then tapped me on the back, sending me on my way. I ran back to the school buildings faster than I'd ever run before. By the time I'd thought to turn back to thank the man who'd helped me he was gone. I never saw him again.
I'd never liked bullies, but after that day I started to hate them. Perhaps it was an unhealthy hate? Can there really be any other kind? I was still perfectly content to hate them.
I never went back to that school. My parents weren't happy with that, I remember. They'd been quite proud when I passed the entrance exam and looking back I think it really hurt them. New Starling had a school program operating over the net anyway, so I used that - learning from home. When I took my final exams at the age of 18 I just scraped through on the lowest pass grade - hardly a great achievement but one I was quite proud of at the time. As I think about it I'm sure that I could have done better, but there was just something holding me back, some inhibition I couldn't quite quash. Life's strange, isn't it?
Over those 6 years I learned how to use my fists a little better, but mainly a learnt how to run. From my point of view, the safest way to survive a fight was not to get into one. I made a few friends over the net but I never met any of them in person. I played VR games from our home console, jacking into vast artificial worlds with tens of thousands of other players. I even played with my brother a couple of times - but we tended to argue too much about what game we should play. I never lost my hatred of bullies, nor my admiration of the man who'd saved me from them.
Then I was 18, and the reality of the situation struck home. I would need a job, but the world economy was in recession and there simply weren't any around for someone with my qualifications. My father, a supervisor at the passport office, tried to get me an interview there but despite his best efforts they weren't interested. Neither was I, to tell the truth.
I was eighteen years and two months old exactly when I kissed my mother on the cheek and walked the short distance down to the local recruitment office. I enlisted in the New Starling navy.
I spent three years as a junior crewman before an old Master Chief took me under his wing and started to teach me the kind of things I would need to know. I advanced steadily after that, being granted a field promotion to midshipman and then taking two years out to study at the naval academy to earn my promotion to lieutenant. I saw my first action as a lieutenant, a brief engagement between my New Starling frigate and a privateer. It wasn't much of a match and I can remember watching through one of the portholes in awe as our ship's ion beams sliced neatly through the other ship's hull.
We took one light hit during that battle, below decks near the engine room. I led a rescue crew that managed to get most of the men out of the section before we had to seal it off. When we opened the compartment back up after some external repairs we found two women lying dead on the floor. They hadn't made it out.
At thirty-two I was promoted to Commander and given command of a small patrol boat. It had a crew of just sixteen and a single short-range x-ray laser - a far cry from the power of the frigate I'd served upon for most of my career - but it was still mine! They say you never forget a single detail about your first command - they're right as well.
When I was thirty-six I was promoted to Captain and given command of the NSS Mortonville, a Type-18 frigate almost identical to the one where I'd started my career. The ship saw action eight times in twelve different theatres over the next seven years. We took some damage, and in the last engagement over twenty of my crew were killed when a hydrogen tank exploded - but the ship survived. The Mortonville had to go into dry dock for repairs and I was summoned to a meeting at the Ministry of Defence. I had only been into that building once before - to receive my appointment as captain of the Mortonville - and I was more than a little nervous.
Still, I took advantage of the occasion to visit my parents. My father had retired six months earlier - at a young age by any standards - but he knew that there was no way he would ever afford the longevity treatments on a supervisor's salary and he wanted to enjoy a long retirement. My mother was still working but she mentioned that she was considering retiring as well - together they would have a reasonable pension to live off. I wasn't able to spend as much time as I wanted with them as I wanted.
I arrived at the Ministry of Defence not sure exactly what to expect. I was met by the minister, something I found at once both surprising and mildly disturbing. She was quite young to occupy such a senior post - she'd only been elected five years ago. But there was a strange competence about her I found quite reassuring.
The situation was explained to me in great detail. The Albashan Kingdom (our long-term ally if not a democratic one) had requested a final summit to be held in deep space to negotiate the final terms of the Imperial charter. We all knew about the Empire project, it was one of the stranger ideas to come out of the Albashan Kingdom in the past few years. Actually it wasn't really an Albashan project but more of a personal effort on the part of Prince Abdul Isanamic. The proposal appeared simple on paper, amalgamate several existing power blocks into a super-power adhering to neo-communist principles. I can't claim that I fully understand neo-communism (and I had read Abdul's book on the subject) but all the worlds involved had held referendums over the past few years to establish the view of their planetary populations.
There was quite a lot of enthusiasm for the crack-potted idea - which didn't really explain why it was necessary to hold the negotiations in deep space. The minister explained that the project was attracting some concern from nearby factions who were afraid of suddenly finding themselves in the shadow of a much greater power. They didn't really believe that the idea would work but they were afraid that it might so our intelligence services were apparently concerned that they might attack one or more of the worlds involved in the negotiations if it became public how close we were to a deal.
I do remember pointing out that it hardly seemed fair to suddenly announce to our own public that we'd signed away our sovereignty. I confess that the minister didn't seem overly concerned about that, pointing out that the people had voted for the proposal a few years ago with a massive majority. It seemed that the minor impact on the democratic process was a small price to pay in order to present the other factions with a fait accompli.
I left the Ministry and caught a train to the Hemmingway spaceport a few hours later deep in thought, with my appointment as captain of the Battleship New Starling tucked into my pocket.
Even after commanding a frigate I was amazed with the size of my new command. It was our fleet flagship and as such was heavily armed and heavily armoured. The frigate whose firepower I had so admired nineteen years ago had been armed with two long-range ion cannons - the New Starling had twelve. New Starling wasn't a particularly rich world but clearly hadn't spared any expense in fitting out its flagship. The ship was also designed to accommodate a fleet admiral with staff meaning that there was actually quite a lot of free space - a rare commodity on a warship.
My new command pulled slowly out of dry dock in full stealth mode with its warp engines barely ticking over. I wasn't convinced that all this sneaking around was a good idea - this was an internal affair and other factions had no reason to poke their noses into it. It occurred to me then and there that they weren't so different from the bullies who attacked me so many years ago. I discovered later that Prince Abdul had specifically requested that I command the New Starling after reading my record - apparently he didn't like bullies either.
One of my greatest regrets is that I didn't use the chance I had onboard the New Starling to observe one of the greatest moments in history. I was present at the final signing ceremony, present at what surely must be considered one of the most important moments in all time, but my mind was concerned with the latest crew evaluations. The truth of the matter is that I didn't truly realise what had happened out there on my own ship until much, much later.
I spoke to the Prince himself briefly, he was a busy man but he managed to answer a few of my semi-serious questions with a smile. For him this was the culmination of twenty years of effort and he was exhausted.
When we returned to New Starling we were no longer the flagship of our world's small military but a sector command ship of the Imperial navy.
I commanded the New Starling for six years during the formative years of our new Empire. The ship had an admiral now, several in fact during the course of my command. We spent a lot of time out on deep patrol along the border but it would have to have been a crazy group of smugglers who tried to run across near us; we spent most of the time blasting nearby space with sweeping beams of electromagnetic radiation, daring something to challenge us. No one did.
One of the few questions I'd managed to ask Prince Abdul (by this point he was simply Chairman Isanamic) was why he felt it necessary that we should start with a new calendar. The signing took place in year one of the galactic era, you see. He had smiled at me at asked if I had a better idea as to how to combine the completely different calendars of the six different constituents of the Empire.
"But aren't you afraid that we're straying a little close to hubris here?" I asked.
Abdul laughed again. "We've just done the most important thing ever done in the entire history of humanity," he replied smoothly, "I think the least we can do to commemorate it is to start a new calendar."
So it was in 6 G.E. when I was 49 years old that I was promoted for the final time. New Starling had been denoted the new Empire's capital world (much to the Prince's annoyance - he hadn't believed that a capital world was necessary) and Hemmingway was still the capital of the capital (so to speak). I managed to drop in on my parents again, it was nearly four years since I'd last seen them. They were both happily retired now and then seemed to have accepted the enormous changes that had been going on around them with equanimity. Despite their hopes I think they both realised that the Empire's neo-communist utopia wouldn't be in place in time to give them the longevity treatment they both needed.
I took a short vac-train trip up to Sebrica to see my brother again as well. He had a family now - something I'd never really found time for. Though I'd met his wife briefly before this was the first time I'd ever seen his two baby girls. They both clung to their parents legs and stared curiously at this strange man standing in their living room in his dark blue uniform.
But my time was limited as always, and I did have to acknowledge that my place really was up in space. After visiting the new headquarters of Imperial navy command I took a shuttle back up into orbit as an Admiral. I didn't know it, but that was the last time I would ever set foot on the planet that I had served for most of my adult life.
I chose the New Starling as my flagship, of course, although it was difficult to get used to having another person in direct command. It was during my years as sector command officer than I learnt the true scale of the interstellar tensions the creation of the Empire had created. As I became better and better informed I came to realise that these tensions weren't subsiding over time - in fact they were building.
I was in the shower one morning on the fifth anniversary of my appointment when the obvious thought struck me. There would be war.
For the first time in eleven years I contacted Abdul Isanamic. I remember sitting on a sofa in my cabin onboard the New Starling with a fleet disposition report in one hand as I watched the flickering screen light up in front of me with Chairman Isanamic's face on it. The ultra-secure encryption distorted the image somewhat but it was unquestionably him, a little older and more worn perhaps but there was still the spark of life in his eyes I recognised from the last time we met.
I outlined my fears to him and he nodded gravely at each of my points and then leant forward and told me that he knew. He had suspected that the Empire was falling head first towards war for longer than I had. He asked me if I thought the Imperial navy could mount an effective defence.
I said that it would depend on the exact size of the threat arrayed against us. There were thirteen 'hostile' powers that shared the Empire's borders and I estimated that we might be able to survive an attack from eleven or twelve of them, but I believed that the thirteenth would stretch our resources beyond breaking point.
He just smiled in that reassuring way he had and said that all the Empire's diplomatic effort would be directed at keeping our 'enemies' divided. He felt as I did that the Empire could survive a limited attack.
We were both right. Just under a year later in 12 G.E. twelve of the surrounding factions simultaneously sent their ships into Imperial space. The one that didn't, the Estoran Regime, was the one who had seemed least hostile to us over the past few years. It was also the one which could have most directly threatened New Starling. Faced with a war on twelve fronts I ordered the majority of the New Starling defence flotilla to move away and shore up the defences of other worlds that were more directly threatened. The New Starling battle group itself moved to help defend the Sorna system.
For a while afterwards they called it the three-day war, though I think the term 'foundation war' has replaced that now. It was short and sharp and very brutal. The Empire's intelligence organisations were amalgamations of the separate ones that had existed before the Empire's foundation and as such they meshed together about as well as two positive charges. They had completely and absolutely failed to provide any warning of the fact that twelve factions were preparing to attack us and it was only because we'd been expecting an attack for several years that we were even vaguely prepared.
It could be argued that the Imperial navy was the one institution the Empire had managed to produce that worked and it was just as well. The Empire's founding principles of decentralised command came into play and each commander essentially found himself fighting a version of the larger war in miniature.
385 enemy warships were involved in the invasion, ranging in size from frigates and destroyers up to full size cruisers and battleships. The Imperial navy lost nearly three quarters of its strength, 285 warships, defiantly defending our territory. Enemy losses were higher, though not by much. And if our military had been crippled then theirs' had been devastated - they had thrown every last resource they had into the fight and we had beaten it down.
The New Starling group took heavy damage. We lost two frigates and a destroyer in various engagements and the New Starling itself was hit several times. At the end of the day though, we prevailed. It was only when the fleet tried to communicate news of the victory back to navy command in Hemmingway that we realised that something was wrong.
There were no super-light communications emanating from the New Starling system, the enemy was jamming us. But why?
We were the closest battle group and we set a return course to our home base at maximum speed. We arrived about six hours later to find the planet burning.
There were eight warships of the Estoran Regime in orbit. The planetary defence network was a smouldering ring of orbital debris. The few ships we had left behind were lying dead in space.
In many ways it was the ultimate act of spite. They weren't interested in conquest. They weren't interested in taking our planets or our resources. They just wanted us dead. New Starling had been bombed from space with thermonuclear weapons. Even as the battle group closed on the planet we could see that nothing could have survived.
A few minutes before we entered weapons range the enemy commander contacted the New Starling and communicated his surrender.
It was a tactical move - and one that I had to admire from the purely logical point of view. They might survive an engagement with us but it would slow them down and then the entirety of what remained of the navy would descend on them. By surrendering now they saved themselves.
I didn't fully understand at the time - that only came to me years later - but they always planned this. The Empire's capital world had fallen and they expected their capture to be brief as, without a government to guide us, organised resistance collapsed.
I don't know why I did what I did. I could feel the anger boiling in me. I could feel the hate. Enlightened neo-communists like ourselves aren't supposed to hate our enemies; we're supposed to understand, to engage them in dialogue, to help them. Never to hate them. But I hated them. They were just states acting as bullies. I hate bullies.
I can remember thinking of my mother and father, my brother with his wife and two small children and the few friends I still had, all down there. All dead.
I reached forward and touched the button on my control panel that gave me a direct voice channel to the rest of the battle group. As per the standard rules of war all communication between enemies was conducted directly between the lead ships and my battle group knew nothing of what was going on. The Estorans were waiting for us to accept their surrender…and my ships were waiting for their orders.
I leant down to the microphone, almost burying my head in my hands, and issued my last order. "Fire."
They might have outnumbered us, but they weren't ready to fight. I watched impassively as one by one their ships were hit. Two exploded, the rest were just cut into pieces. My flag captain ran across to the communications panel and tried to issue a cancellation order. He was too late. The New Starling never fired a shot against the ships that had destroyed its namesake, but it didn't matter.
Five thousand men and women died onboard those ships.
I was ordered to resign afterwards. My career ended as ignominiously as it had begun nearly 40 years earlier. Our enemies had miscalculated. They really couldn't understand the Empire - it was so alien to them. This was both the source of their fear of us and the reason why they could never beat us. Abdul was right - we never really needed a capital world. The Galactic Empire went on, despite New Starling's destruction.
A week later a 50 warship battle group slid into orbit around Estoran. The government surrendered unconditionally before they even fired a shot. Abdul Isanamic might have died that day in the nuclear fire that claimed Hemmingway but he created an Empire that stands a chance of surviving the ultimate test of time. The Empire is his legacy. I truly wish mine could be less bloody.
Perhaps in the future the genetic engineers will be able to turn out a creature that doesn't feel anger, doesn't give in to hate and has no irrational desire for revenge. Perhaps then we truly will be enlightened and neo-communism will finally be realised. But I'm only human. In the end, despite all the repercussions and despite the arrogant defiance I showed at the hearing, I'm not proud of what I did.
But I'd do it again.