FROM THE ASHES OF A DEAD WORLD
By Shane Gries
5th Squadron, 18th Fleet
“Combat, I need a report on the current status of the evacuation,” Captain Pavel Marino said as he paced up and down the bridge, wearing a groove in the decking.
“Sir, transports are still docked planetside and are in a ‘load’ status,” responded Lieutenant Commander Paige Kaya, working deep in the bowels of the Combat Information Center.
“I can damned well read a status board for myself! Now get in touch with Operations Center on the surface and find out what the hell is going on! And I want that report five minutes ago!” Marino was exasperated by the fact that he had to stay on top of his officers for the simplest of things, like actually providing their commander with a substantive report. It was almost like he was commanding a ship full of midshipmen or something. He knew that the crew was tired—he was too—but that was no excuse for any of this amateurish shit right now. Particularly with how serious events were unfolding at the present time.
Marino swept his gaze across the bridge and saw everyone there uncomfortably avoiding eye contact by pretending to be much busier than they actually were. That was up until he saw his XO standing there cleanly shaven with a fresh uniform on, flashing a pearly-white smile. If he didn’t know any better he might have thought the Exec was well rested, but he knew that wasn’t the case. He had been working more grueling hours than anyone and the captain was well aware of it. “XO, what are you doing here? I thought I told you to go and get some rack time.”
“You sure did Captain, but that was over four hours ago. I thought I’d give you a spell and take over flogging the crew for a while.” Commander Archibald “Archie” Aydin was and always had been a fine officer who worked well with Marino. They had only one previous assignment together long before the war and it was a treat to have him as a subordinate again. If there was anyone who could read Pavel Marino’s mind, it was Archie Aydin.
“Tell me something XO, how is it that after all the shit we’ve been through over the last few months, you look like you’ve just reported back on board after a month-long furlough relaxing at the beach?” Marino almost wasn’t kidding.
“It’s all this healthy living. Good food, adequate rest, lots of vigorous exercise and plenty of time for spiritual reflection; that sort of thing,” Aydin said, ticking off a list of things literally none of them had experienced in recent memory.
“You ought to consider a career on the comedy circuit,” Marino said while rubbing his bloodshot eyes, right before indulging himself in an epic yawn.
“Yes Sir. You look like you could use a break, why don’t you get some sleep? I can herd the cats for a while.”
Marino looked at his XO and thought about arguing with him, but the fatigue was overwhelming. “Alright Archie, you talked me into it, I’m off to my stateroom for a badly needed eyelid inspection. Once Combat gets that report from the surface be sure to update me okay?”
“Will do Skipper.”
“Alright XO, you have the bridge,” said the captain as he shuffled off to the hatch, running through a mental list of the thousand things that required his immediate attention, but wouldn’t get it. The tasks heaped upon them kept growing at an exponential rate which directly translated into a series of unpalatable decisions. It felt like it was just a constant stream of “lesser of two evils” and that was the reality they lived in these days.
Marino was a career naval officer who had climbed the ranks in all the usual ways;[CZ1] doing all the expected jobs, attending all the usual schools, and going through all the normal gates. He was an above average officer, though certainly not brilliant and he knew it. He was hard-working and dedicated, always giving one hundred percent to his duties, usually at the expense of his family. That was his cross to bear and he did so as any quiet professional would.
Family. He had one… out there… somewhere. His wife Sadie was down on the surface of Trajan, safe for the time being with her three brown mastiffs. He had spoken with her on a private line a few days ago and the conversation was cordial, if a bit strained. They hadn’t actually seen one another in person in a few years, and since he was in-system she had asked—already knowing the answer—if he could take a shuttle down and see her. But the answer was no, he and his ship were not back home for holiday, they were back home on business. And his business was aboard the Imperator. It was a quiet hell he lived in knowing that he was about to abandon her to her fate when they evacuated the system, but it was a quiet hell that almost every other member of the crew was living in, so he could do nothing more than bear it. He knew Sadie secretly hated him for leaving her here like this, but there was literally nothing he could do.
Pavel and Sadie did have three grown children and they were out there among the stars somewhere, assigned to various fleets fighting now for the home worlds. They were a navy family so there was no doubt that his two sons and his daughter would serve as well. It was a common practice for the military families to carry the burden of service from one generation to the next while the rest of society carried on with their lives in blissful ignorance. It was the military families that suffered during peacetime and sacrificed their children on the altar while the civilians lived their comfortable existences unencumbered and uninterested. They paid their taxes and figured that that was their way of “doing their duty.” As long as it wasn’t their own kids wearing a uniform, then it didn’t matter. That’s probably why Trajan found itself embroiled in so many military adventures during its history—the people weren’t really invested in the outcome. At least they weren’t until now.
Pavel hadn’t heard much from his kids but he hoped they were still alive. Communications between star systems was slow, and communication during wartime was limited at best. Add to that complication the movement of naval fleets from here to there, in contact, and limited space allowed for personal messages after clearing the censors [CZ2] and well… getting word from his kids was tough. In the early days of the war he knew they were fine because he would have been notified of any of their deaths immediately through official channels. But now that everything was coming apart at the seams, that standard procedure had fallen into disuse. He just had to constantly convince himself that he’d know if something was wrong, but there was no way of knowing that for sure. He certainly didn’t want to think about all the abandoned units and squadrons scattered throughout the galaxy, left to fend for themselves. Or those that were so completely destroyed that there were no survivors left to report. Those dark thoughts haunted him and he tried to shake them away.
The various worlds of the Interstellar Protectorate had been a solid unified entity for over a millennia and had witnessed many great things over that time. There had been many challenges during its long and storied history to be sure, but it had always endured. It had shrugged off civil insurrection, financial collapse, human challenges to its sovereignty, and even the great alien war with the Orions. Never had its continued existence been in doubt, but now everything was lost.
There had been a long-standing competition with the Maktoum Dominion that went back for centuries. They had engaged in the on-again, off-again military clashes with them along their respective frontiers, and even full-blown war over a hundred years beforehand that bled both peoples white, emptied their coffers and ended in stalemate. It was just sort of understood that the Protectorate and the Dominion would carry on like this into perpetuity, competing with one another—occasionally coming to blows—but always accepting that the other would be there. Coexisting like two neighbors that hate each other who engaged in passive-aggressive games. That was up until the “Aguilar Incident” at the Garapan Rift and that’s when things took an irreversible turn that would trigger the end of them all.
It started off as a surveying operation which quickly escalated into a stand-off between small vessels of the local constabularies. That in turn led to a small engagement which quickly grew into local naval squadrons from both sides getting involved. As far away as everyone was from any sort of seat of government from either side, it was left to the commanders on the scene to make all the decisions and that’s when the perfect storm of ineptitude set in. The result was dozens of capital ships engaged in a full-blown battle costing thousands of lives on both sides. This had the predictable result of hurtling the Dominion and the Protectorate into a state of war. Not one of those convenient proxy wars mind you, but a formal declared war.
What was different this time from all the other flare-ups was the state of political and military affairs in the Interstellar Protectorate. The IP was on the tail end of a brutally slow recovery following a massive economic contraction brought on by years of irresponsible fiduciary decisions by the sitting governments. They had been overspending for decades and running up the debt they knew couldn’t be repaid and kicked the can down the road fully expecting the following generations to sort it out long after the politicians were out of office—or cold in their graves—without suffering the inconvenience of facing responsibility for their actions. Buying votes with bread and circuses was the norm for a long, long time until it simply wasn’t sustainable any longer.
Then came the “Great Austerity.”
That was a kind euphemism for the descendants paying for the largesse of their ancestors. A few generations lived like kings [CZ3] and then their grandchildren and great-grandchildren paid the cost. This was really what marked the beginning of the end for the IP. The declining hegemon slowly lost its edge at first, and then went into a freefall.
Fleets of ships fell into disrepair. The equipment of the army soon became obsolete and then poorly sustained as well. The numbers of service members on the rosters was scaled back, and then scaled back some more. Pensions were looted. Operating budgets slashed. Recruiting and retention goals plummeted. This was the navy Ensign Pavel Marino joined; a hollowed-out husk of a once-proud organization.
But Pavel had signed up when things were beginning to get better and they continued to do so throughout his career. He witnessed the low point and then gradually watched the organization that he loved resurrect itself. The officer corps got better, the budgets increased, the older hulls were replaced with cutting-edge new ones crewed by a new generation of trained professionals. It was a heady time full of optimism. Perhaps with a bit too much optimism. They were all guilty of believing their own propaganda back then, fully buying into the messaging that they were “Part of the greatest military the galaxy had ever known.” And while it was true that by the time Pavel earned the shoulder boards of a captain the military was far better than it had been in decades, they all had overlooked just how much better their strategic competitors had become.
[CZ1]Should this be a colon?
[CZ3]Literally in the case of the royal family.