“It’s confirmed, then?”
“I believe so, Ambassador,” the young official said. He’d been allowed access to the Debating Chamber, a honour that had carefully not been granted to Earth’s Ambassador to the Association of Worlds. An insult, or an admission of shame? “The Hegemony and its allies will get the concessions they seek.”
Ambassador Li Shan kept her face impassive, even as her mind raced frantically. The Association had claimed the space surrounding Earth – and Earth itself – for thousands of years. Seeing no need to actually occupy Earth, they’d simply left the planet and its solar system alone to develop in peace – a peace that had been broken fifteen scant years ago. The Association was weakening and the wolves were at the door. It could still have saved itself, or at least saved Earth long enough for the human race to grow into a galactic superpower, but its population no longer had the drive to impose their will on the universe. Their birth rate was down to almost nothing, while the biological immortality they had gifted themselves with stole their willingness to risk their lives.
“It may be some time before we get the official note,” the young man said. He was almost painfully young, the American representative to Earth’s first off-world embassy. Shan sometimes wondered if he was as naive as he seemed, even though Americans were painfully bad at learning from history. “They’re going to have to come up with some way to salvage their pride…”
“It doubt it will include anything like Earth’s continued independence,” Shan said, flatly. To the Galactics, humanity was a minor upstart power, only in space because a rogue Association Oligarch had given them the technology to escape Earth’s gravity well. The idea of taking humanity seriously…well, the Association was thousands of years old, while the Hegemony and its allies didn’t want another competitor. Humanity would be enslaved or exterminated, like several other races who had had the misfortune to be discovered by the Hegemony before they could defend themselves. “Go speak to the Communications officer. I will require a secure line to Luna in one hour.”
The young man nodded and left, leaving Shan alone with her thoughts. Fifteen years of intensive effort, building a space-based industry and then a small fleet…would it be enough to protect Earth when the Hegemony came calling? She doubted it. The Hegemony had been bloodied in a dozen minor conflicts with its allies, gaining a reputation for brutality that allowed it to even cow the Association. Shan couldn’t understand how any so-called interstellar superpower could allow itself to be bullied by the younger races, but in the end it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the Hegemony and its allies now had a clear line to Earth. They’d taken Terra Nova five years ago. Now they’d come for the rest of humanity.
She looked up through the forcefield and into an alien sky. Great cities drifted above the landscape, casting dark shadows on the fields below. The Association had mastered the technology of food production long ago, allowing them to return their world to the wild while they clustered in giant floating cities. It was a minor feat compared to some of their early technological projects, ones that awed humanity and many of the Galactics. But they’d lost their drive and now they did nothing, beyond maintaining their technology. One day, they might even forget how to do that.
There were millions of contact labourers working within the Association, she knew. Many of them were human, desperately studying their technology and society while doing the work that their masters were no longer prepared to do for themselves. Others came from the Hegemony or a dozen other interstellar races, carving out their own enslaves within the once-proud Association. The secrets behind the Association’s technology had slowly leaked out to the rest of the galaxy, societies that had had more lead time than humanity. One day, the Association would wake up to discover that the Hegemony or one of the other Galactics had developed more advanced technology – and that would be the end of the Association. They wouldn’t see it coming. The Association had been the masters of the known galaxy for so long that any change in the balance of power was inconceivable.
Maybe they’d change, she told herself, but she knew it was futile. The Mandarins of China hadn’t changed in time to prevent the Western barbarians from stamping all over the country, or to avoid a long and bitter civil war between Nationalists and Communists. And whatever happened to the Association, it would come too late to save Earth.
Admiral Tobias Sampson, Chief of Naval Operations, studied the message in front of him thoughtfully. A weaker man would have cursed, or shouted at the universe, but Tobias had long since grown accustomed to the disparity between Earth and the Galactics. The Federation Navy was working desperately to remedy that disparity, and many of the advanced weapons programs were showing some considerable promise, yet they might have come too late. Ambassador Li’s message made that clear.
The Association had expanded outwards at astonishing speed once they’d mastered interstellar travel, but its population had actually started to contract once they’d discovered how to make themselves immortal. They’d claimed hundreds of light years worth of space that they no longer had the inclination to settle, a region of space including Earth. The Association had watched Earth – their historical records had settled many of humanity’s questions about its own past – but they had never bothered to make contact openly. Why should they? Humanity was a primitive race. What could it offer the Association beyond slave labour and a few trinkets?
Tobias scowled. He’d been a young Lieutenant in the United States Navy when Mentor – a rogue Oligarch – had made contact with Earth. Mentor’s warning about more advanced societies inhabiting the galaxy had scared hell out of humanity’s leaders, with good reason. His gifts of technology had solved many of humanity’s problems, all the while making Earth a more tempting target to the barbarians who prowled the borders of the Association looking for victims. Tobias had transferred into the Federation Navy – Earth’s new space-based defence force – as soon as it had been possible. He’d always wanted to fly in space. Fifteen years of climbing through the ranks – and sound political manoeuvring – had left him as the senior uniformed officer in the Federation Navy. Right now, he was more inclined to wonder if he’d taken a poisoned chalice.
Humanity had worked hard ever since Earth had entered the galactic scene. There were hundreds of thousands of humans living and working outside the solar system, sending back reports to Federation Intelligence. They knew more about their possible – hell, their probable – opponents than their enemies probably realised. And yet every last piece of information seemed to confirm the simple fact that humanity was badly outgunned by the Hegemony alone. The Federation Navy simply couldn’t stand up to their juggernaut if they came after Earth.
His gaze slipped to a single photograph on the otherwise-drab bulkhead. His daughter and her husband had gone to settle Terra Nova, the first world humanity had discovered that didn’t require extensive terraforming before it became habitable. They’d looked forward to the promise of creating a new society away from Earth. But then the Hegemony had bullied the Association into granting them Terra Nova – it was in Association-claimed space – and occupied the colony. There had been nothing that the human race could do to prevent the Hegemony from enslaving the population. Tobias hadn’t heard anything from his daughter for the last five years.
Carefully, he walked over to the safe set in the bulkhead and pressed his hand against the sensor. It read his fingerprints – and the implant concealed in his palm – and activated the retina scanner, which scanned his eye quickly, matching it against the pattern stored within its secure database. Only three people had been granted access to the safe and the techs swore that no one, even with the very best of Association technology, would be able to break in without triggering security protocols that would reduce the contents to atoms. Tobias hoped that they were right. The operational plans concealed within the safe would be disastrous if they became public knowledge. He had no confidence in the media’s patriotism if they somehow learned of the plans. They’d be more likely to tell the entire universe.
He removed one set of papers and closed the safe behind him, carrying the papers back to his desk. The operation plan had been updated ever since it had first been devised, after the occupation of Terra Nova. Back then, Tobias’s predecessor had vetoed the plan, pointing out that humanity didn’t have the military power to carry it out successfully. Now…
It was a gamble, Tobias admitted. They would be literally betting everything on one throw of the dice. Yet what choice did they have? The Hegemony was winning permission from the Association to take the sector of space that included Earth – and Tobias knew better than to think they would leave Earth alone. Humanity’s network of industrial stations and gas giant mining platforms – one of humanity’s few interstellar exports – were a tempting prize. Why would the Hegemony bother to leave Earth alone when they could just take everything humanity had built at minimal risk? And if they had time to mass their firepower against Earth, the Federation Navy would lose.
He keyed a switch on his desk. “Lieutenant Chamfers,” he ordered, “have my shuttle prepared to leave in one hour.”
“Certainly, sir,” the Lieutenant said. “What should I give as the destination?”
Tobias smiled. “Iceland,” he said.
The Federation was the result of a series of political compromises that – typically – pleased almost no one. Unlike the United Nations, it was dominated by the nations that paid the bills, each nation being granted a percentage of votes that matched the amount of the total operating budget they paid. Officially, the Federation Assembly was based in Geneva, but it was little more than a debating chamber. Representatives voted as they were told to vote by their governments, with little regard for global feelings. It put a great many noses out of joint, yet there was little they could do about it. With access to the boundless resources of outer space, there was no need to court Third World states any longer.
For meetings and conferences that couldn’t be allowed to become public, there was a secondary base in Iceland. World leaders would board shuttles in their capital cities and proceed directly to the base, bypassing all of the tedious diplomatic formalities. As the Federation’s CNO, Tobias had the acknowledged right to summon such a meeting at will – although he wasn’t fool enough to think that his position would survive if he summoned them to Iceland on a whim. There were enough issues with gathering the most important world leaders in one place to turn any security officer’s hair white.
The shuttle grounded on the landing pad and he disembarked, ruefully aware of the invisible security sensors scanning him for weapons and other surprises. Tiny nanomachines floated in the air, ready to invade his body and paralyse him if he made one false move. There was no way he could feel their presence, yet he always felt a shiver as he walked through their position and down into the waiting hanger. The base had little on the surface to attract attention. All of the conference facilities were deep underground, protected by layers of rock from orbital and nuclear strikes. There were similar bunkers being prepared for the civilian population in a dozen different countries, but Tobias had often wondered how useful they would actually be. The population would emerge into a world devastated by alien kinetic strikes and antimatter bombs.
He walked into the conference room, paused long enough to salute the small cluster of flags at one corner of the compartment, and then stopped behind his chair. Earth’s leaders looked back at him, almost certainly aware of what he had come to discuss. They would have their own sources within the Federation Navy, or its diplomatic service. Ambassador Li’s report would probably be common knowledge by now. Earth’s struggle for independence was about to begin.
The Japanese Prime Minister, who was the current chairman, spoke into the silence. “Thank you for coming, Admiral,” he said, as if Tobias hadn’t been the one who had called the meeting. “We understand that you have matters you wish to discuss with us.”
Tobias nodded. “Thank you, Prime Minister,” he said. He cleared his throat. “We have been informed by Ambassador Li that the Hegemony’s quest to be granted supremacy in our sector of space is about to be completed. The Association had shown no signs of being willing to stand up to their constant pressure. We must assume that the Hegemony will lay its own claim to this sector within the next six months.
“We have also learned, through a source I am not at liberty to discuss, that the Hegemony’s Emperor and his Court have already started dividing up our territory between them. Earth itself will be put under the control of the Crown Prince and our colonies will be distributed among his cronies. Exactly how they intend to assert their control over Earth is unclear, but given that they have a habit of using demonstration nuclear strikes against civilian targets…”
He allowed his voice to trail off, giving them a moment to grasp the implications. One law of interstellar warfare had been deduced long before humanity had made its way into space. Whoever controlled the orbital space around a planet controlled that planet. They could drop rocks on the inhabitants at will and there was nothing the inhabitants could do to stop it.
“But we have to do something,” the President of France protested. “Can’t the Navy stop them?”
“If they have time to concentrate their forces against us,” Tobias said, evenly, “we will be badly outgunned.”
“There’s no diplomatic angle we can follow?” The German Chancellor asked. “No way we can convince the other interstellar powers to intervene?”
“They’re too scared of the Hegemony,” the President of Russia snarled. “It looks like it’s us against the universe. And we can’t even surrender unless we want to be treated like those colonists on Terra Nova.”
“There is one possibility,” Tobias admitted. This was the difficult part. He had to convince them to gamble with the lives of everyone on Earth. “We strike first.”
There was a long pause. “Explain yourself,” the Chinese Premier said. “How do you believe we can win a war if we start it ourselves?”
Tobias smiled. “The Hegemony’s supply lines are actually quite long,” he said. “Apart from their squadron at Terra Nova and their base at Teflon, most of their forces are watching their borders with their rivals. Over the next few months, we are expecting them to start moving additional battleships down to Terra Nova and use them to drive on Earth – assuming we don’t roll over for them like good little primitives. We have a window of opportunity to break their control over Terra Nova, smash a large part of their fleet and then go on the offensive. They would have to choose between shifting their forces to smash us, which would risk weakening their borders with their rivals, or accepting our liberation of Terra Nova.”
“It’s a hell of a gamble,” the President of the United States observed. “We might be giving them a Pearl Harbour of their own to rally around. In the long run, we’d be obliterated.”
“Japan has had its own experiences with launching first strikes,” the Japanese Prime Minister agreed. “I cannot advise the tactic against an alien force that outguns us…”
“But it wouldn’t if we smashed their battle squadron at Terra Nova,” the Russian President pointed out. “They wouldn’t exactly be looking at parity, but they’d have to strip their borders bare to concentrate a superior force against us. And it isn’t as if Terra Nova is that important to them.”
“Except as a symbol of pride,” the French President said. “But the other option is surrender…”
The British Prime Minister looked at Tobias. “I assume your staff have run war games and simulations,” he said. “How do they play out?”
“It depends on a number of different factors,” Tobias admitted. Some aliens thought like humans, others were very…well, alien. The psychologists thought that the key to beating the Hegemony was to undermine their faith in themselves. “Assuming we win the first battles, we have a fifty-fifty chance of ultimate victory – victory being defined as survival as an independent power. It is possible that the Hegemony will find itself attacked along its other borders, which will give us time to build an impregnable position we can hold indefinitely. On the other hand, the Hegemony’s enemies may choose to refrain from pressing them while they crush the upstart human race.”
“Or the Association might intervene,” the French President mused.
“Perhaps,” Tobias agreed. It didn’t seem too likely. “Or perhaps the horse will learn to sing.”
“It seems that we have a choice between fighting now or fighting in a year, under much worse conditions,” the American President said. He didn’t look comfortable with the decision. Tobias could hardly blame him. Americans liked the wars to be honourable – but there was nothing honourable in what the Hegemony was planning to do. “I call for a vote.”
Tobias watched the votes mount up, an overwhelming majority in favour of launching a strike on Terra Nova before the Hegemony had time to prepare. They believed they could digest humanity at will. The Federation Navy would show them differently. Humanity had a vast heritage of science-fiction books and movies to use for inspiration. The aliens tended to view them as little more than comedies.
“Thank you,” he said, as the vote concluded. There would be war. “The Navy won’t let you down.”