While the IP was in a state of decline, her enemies were not and the Dominion enjoyed a series of advantages that were underappreciated by military and civilian leadership back home on Trajan. They had fallen into the trap believing that their family of powerful worlds had existed in sovereign unity for over a thousand years, and that that would never change. They simply did not consider the possibility that they were vulnerable to an existential threat. One that had been known to them for a very long time.
Some of the strategic planners weren’t completely stupid however and recognized critical shortcomings in industrial capacity and a lag in technological innovation. They knew that the Dominion would quickly overwhelm them if the war dragged out for very long, so they opted for a series of daring and operationally risky actions that were designed to gain advantage after inflicting crippling blows on critical military targets and enemy infrastructure. Some of these battles were decisive and successful. But not enough of them were and slowly but surely the Interstellar Protectorate started on a gradual slippery slope of military reversals.
It was seven years in before the first of the home worlds fell. The rest fell in rapid succession after that. The royal family and the seat of government were on Trajan, so the High Commissioner ordered that it be defended at all costs. This was in contravention to military realities and the advice of every single senior leader wearing a uniform. It played into the hands of the Dominion and sped up the inevitable.
Now it was nearly ten years after the “Aguilar Incident” and Pavel Marino was orbiting his home world, commanding His Majesty’s Protectorate Ship Imperator, a heavy cruiser whose keel was laid only a few years ago. Under peacetime conditions Marino probably wouldn’t have made the cut to command anything at all—let along a heavy cruiser—but the war needed hulls, and officers to command them. Especially when many of His Majesty’s best and brightest had been blown to atoms out fighting in a thousand different systems. War had a voracious appetite for flesh.
Pavel knew damned well that command was something he was privileged to have and he worked himself to the ragged edge constantly so as not to let his people down. Maybe he worked himself too hard. It was difficult to say. Particularly when the scope of work seemed to keep growing while the number of people left to do it kept shrinking. No matter. He was a professional and he would do his duty.
Not only did Pavel have the same ship and crew for the last few years, but now he had been put in command of a decent-sized squadron, tasked with the evacuation of Trajan. It was an unenviable task. It was a nearly impossible task.
The Maktoum Dominion military was running down the scattered IP fleets, task forces and squadrons just about everywhere. Most of them were fighting delaying actions, buying time for the evacuation of Trajan, such that it was. The Home Fleet was out there fighting like hell to hold onto the last three jump points in the galaxy that offered up any chance of escape, and they wouldn’t hold long.
In the meantime, down on the surface the last transports were getting loaded full of evacuees.
Naturally all the really important people and their families had seats on those transport vessels. This would also include a small intimate circle of important friends as well such as wealthy business partners, political connections, mistresses and illegitimate children. There was also this farce of a lottery that was put in place to convince the masses that the selections for salvation was done in a random and equitable fashion, but that was all bullshit. There were just enough families from the naval crews selected to give the illusion that it was fair, but more importantly to keep the crews from mutinying.
Pavel’s wife wasn’t one of those selected, but even if she were he would have quietly had her swapped out with the loved one of another crew member. He wouldn’t have asked others to leave family behind if he wasn’t prepared to do it. Besides, most of the crew on board the Imperator were from the other thirteen worlds in the IP and their families had mostly been left to an enemy occupation force.
Those that were absolutely guaranteed seats were the members of the royal family, the High Councilor, all the members of the High Council, and those that sat on the bench of the Principal Judiciary. And naturally most of them were fighting to get others preferential treatment which was bringing the evacuation to a grinding halt. The clock was running and it was only a matter of time before those precious last three jump points were lost, and down below on the surface the anointed ones were squabbling over seats on the Arc.
People were dying by the thousands to keep the escape route open, and the longer the delay, the more would die. But that hardly mattered to the ruling classes, they were concerned about nothing more than saving their own skins while the world burned around them. It was maddening.
Pavel made his way through corridors with members of the crew passing to and fro, all giving respectful acknowledgement of him as he passed. Some looked as if they were carrying out routine tasks, others looked harried. A few had the blank look of a robot simply going through the motions, with nothing left inside. Perhaps he identified with those the most.
When he arrived in his stateroom there was a certain sense of relief and release. He was in his own private sanctuary, a place he spent precious little time and a luxury he rarely afforded himself. At the end of his rack was a holographic status board giving live updates to various bits of information he was most interested in. There was a gently pulsing red light in the lower corner of the display that indicated a missed call from the XO.
He virtually pressed the call button on the holographic screen. “What’s up XO?”
“Skipper I’ve got some updates from dirtside. What would you prefer first, the good news or the bad news?” The audio was crystal clear as if the XO were standing right there in the room, but Marino had the video switched off for a bit of privacy.
“Since when did you ever have any good news? Don’t tease me, I might start developing an uncharacteristic sense of optimism,” Pavel said, running his fingers through greasy, unwashed hair.
“Well, Colonel Bridger called to report that things are coming off the rails down planetside. Order is breaking down rapidly and his troops are engaged in some pretty significant gun fights down in the capital and it isn’t all just rogue civilian groups looting and stealing. He reports that there are several military units down there initiating a coup and they’re trying to keep the government representatives from getting off-world. That’s effectively keeping the spacedromes in the city shut down for the time being for fear of shuttles getting shot out of the sky.
“That’s just one problem. The other, bigger one is we’ve got members of the High Council down there making a mess of the manifests and demanding changes to get other people evacuated that aren’t on the lists. Every person of influence or title is down there pulling rank,” Archie said without a hint of humor in his tone.
“So what’s the good news?”
“The good news is that the royal family got out and their ships are slipping into formation with the rest of our squadron. The King sends his compliments to you and the rest of us for our professionalism and undying loyalty.” Marino thought he picked up a hint of sarcasm in the last part of Archie’s response, but just a hint, so he let it go.
“Is the Palace Guard with them as well?”
“Affirmative. Brigadier Khan has the entire battalion loaded up with all of their equipment, including Mark II Armored Combat Ensembles and maintenance staff.”
“Good, those are some excellent troops and they’ll likely be useful later on. Whenever the hell we get out of here,” Pavel said, feeling just a bit exasperated thinking about all the politicians down there holding up the entire operation.
“Skipper, I know I shouldn’t ask this but…”
“At what point are we going to cut bait? I mean, we’ve got the royal family all safe and secure, but the longer we stay here the less likely it is that we can guarantee that. We probably need to consider pulling out of here regardless of whether or not we can get the government out.” Archie Aydin did not make this statement lightly and it was hardly off the cuff. He also had to know that if he was transmitting it to the captain’s stateroom that it was being recorded as well.
“XO, we are a constitutional monarchy and we take our orders from the duly elected government. The government that is currently on the surface making our mission more and more difficult with each passing minute. But they’re still in charge and we are going to stay here until we get them all up here with us. If all of us end up dead or spending the rest of our days on a prison barge then so be it, but we stay.” Pavel said it as firmly and gently as he could. There was no doubt in his military mind what his mission was, and he was ready to lay down his life for it. Even if the mission seemed more and more ridiculous with each passing minute. Saving the duly elected government while simultaneously abandoning the electorate that put them into office. And the more he thought about his wife Sadie down there, well… that didn’t make this pill any less bitter to swallow. He almost wished he would have the opportunity to die carrying out this shitty assignment. It would be the easy way out.
“Understood Skipper. You know me, I’m always up for a good time, and this here is one hell of a party.”
“I know Archie, that’s what worries me about you. One of these days I’m going to have Doc have one of his best head-shrinkers do a full clinical study on you. I’m sure we’d gain priceless insights into the human condition. But I’m afraid that is going to have to wait.
“Now, if you don’t mind, my rack is calling my name right now. I’m going to get some sleep, call me if there’re any further issues.” Pavel could feel the exhaustion wrapping him in a warm embrace.
“Will do Captain. Get some rest, I’ll see you soon.”
Without a further word Pavel laid himself down and stared into nothingness. He did not bother to undress or even remove his shoes. His mind wandered as he tried to focus on all the things he needed to do when he awoke.
And then he fell mercifully to sleep.