“Blown right out into vacuum. All of them.”
To this day, I can remember hearing those words as clearly as I’d first heard them, cutting through the mental fog that was my usual companion in those days.
I sat at the bar, holding a—fleg, I don’t know—a beer, maybe? Just another drink in a long line of them—another dose of my self-medication regimen to combat the sameness of everyday life. I could usually sit here for a couple of hours after a shift and just kind of stare ahead, nursing my latest dose, tuning out the inane chatter and the pickup lines surrounding me. But this was different.
“God, that’s terrible. All of them?” asked a second voice responding to the first.
“Well, all from that one ship.”
I turned toward the voices. A middle-aged man was excitedly relaying this information to a woman of the same age. They had that look that couples on a first date have when they’re happy to have a topic to talk about that gives them enough fodder to have things to say.
Through the haze of my foggy but coming-into-focus thinking, I followed their gazes up toward the screens on the wall behind the bar. There, in the center of the image, was a destroyer—cut in half like some kind of cutaway diagram with debris and—Abe’s God—bodies radiating away from the wreckage. The ship had several additional large gaping holes through which more crew and materiel were venting into space. The chyron across the bottom of the screen read, “Fleet destroyed.”
I willed myself to focus. It was becoming clear that today was not a day I could indulge my listlessness and ennui. Something was happening. Something big. I turned to the couple.
If they were surprised by my question, they didn’t show it. Apparently, this was news to everyone.
“Remember those unidentified objects at the edge of the Kittim system?”
“Yeah,” I said. Six months ago, Long Radar on Farmark spotted what appeared to be a fleet of vessels moving from the edge of the system. The analysts said that the fleet had not dropped out of hyperspace but had crossed the great void between stars. They made several attempts to communicate with the fleet but were unsuccessful. Last I’d heard, the ISG was escorting a diplomatic delegation out to meet the vessels.
“Hostiles,” the man said, showing a keen gift for understatement.
My mind was now racing, woken from its slumber. Who were they? Where had they come from? We hadn’t ever colonized the systems beyond the League, but research drones have; there weren’t any inhabited systems within a dozen light-years of our worlds.
But in addition to these simple, practical questions was another line of thought, something along the line of “It figures.” After all, we’ve been out here all this time, cut off from the rest of human civilization without so much as a word from any other systems. And now, out of nowhere, the first vessels from outside the League to appear in our space bring with them nothing but death and destruction, annihilating our most potent defenses.
I looked around. Everyone was staring at the screens. Nobody was talking. Something had reached down out of the cold depths of interstellar space and gotten our attention. They’d certainly gotten mine.
Over the next several days, they would keep our attention, as the sight of the battered hulls of the League ships coming in from Farmark flashed across every vid screen, news sheet, and datalink: gaping holes where tons of materiel and thousands of crew had been flushed out into the vacuum of deep space. The proud emblem of the League of Four Worlds scorched by fusion fire and particle beam. A steady stream of images of nothing short of a catastrophe.
Everywhere the citizens of the Four Worlds seemed to be walking about in dazed silence. A pall hung over our systems. We were not alone. And whoever they were, they meant business. This was not how we’d ever imagined ending our isolation.
Ever since the invasion began, the more we learned, the more questions we had. The alien vessels did not appear to have hyperspace engines, but their weapons technology was highly advanced, and their hulls seemed to be able to take everything our ships could throw at them with minimal effect. How had they managed this? How could they be so far ahead of us in some things but still not have managed faster-than-light drives? It’s not like their lack of FTL drives had proven to be a disadvantage—they’d devastated the League ships and created chaos among the Four Worlds.
From their position in the system, the alien ships took months to reach Farmark, and in the ensuing time, the inhabitants of that planet did everything they could to get off-world. The Intersystem Guard mounted a massive evacuation effort before having to flee as the alien fleet approached. When the aliens did get to Farmark, they destroyed what was left of the task force and bombarded the planet.
The last information about the system came with the fleeing League fleet and hundreds of refugee vessels. We still have no idea how many survived or remain on the planet. And no idea how many took their chances in slowboats headed for Fairhaven from Farmark, taking years to cross the gulf between those outposts of humanity.
League defense intelligence estimated that if the alien invaders set their sights on Roger’s Star, they would be in that system in fifteen years. Now, I know that fifteen years sounds like a sufficient period to defend against an invasion, but fleet commanders were not optimistic. They maintained that there was no way that the ships of the Four Worlds could advance sufficiently in technology in that time period to repel the alien invasion.
With the waves of refugees arriving on Fairhaven, New Sydney, and Pherat, accompanied by the increasingly gloomy military assessments coming from the military, an overall feeling of nihilistic dread began to settle over our systems. Oh, we were all committed to fighting, but few held out any hope that our fight would be anything other than a romantic last stand for humanity.
The Chancellor of the League was a native of Farmark. She listened to the briefings. She had seen, as we all had, the disturbing images that had come in from what was left of the fleet. She had seen the convoys of refugees arriving on the remaining planets. She had seen and heard the despair that gripped the population. And she knew she had but one option.
I can remember the night she announced her decision. A few weeks after the fall of Farmark, she stood before the Great Assembly and spoke the words that now every school child of the Four Worlds knows by heart: “In our darkest hour, we must reach out to that source of light that had burned the brightest in all of human civilization. Unable to repel or reason with the invaders ourselves, we have no choice but to try to establish contact with the Commonwealth and enlist its aid.”
The Commonwealth! I can remember how that word made my spine tingle. It was as if she had said she would enlist the help of the Roman Legions, the Allied Forces, or the Belt Rangers. It was a name of might and power from the past.
The Pioneers who settled our planets left the Commonwealth four centuries ago, having been determined to find readily habitable worlds rather than candidates for the long process of terraforming. Jumping farther and farther from the inhabited regions of the galaxy, they eventually arrived at the system we call Sharon. They found two habitable worlds in that system: New Sydney and Pherat. Only three light-years away, they found a second star system—Roger’s Star—with an inhabitable planet: Fairhaven. Four light-years beyond that, they discovered Kittim with another habitable world: Farmark.
Those Pioneers had limited resources, and a span of seven light-years from one settlement to the farthest was enough; it gets costly to send antimatter-fueled message drones much farther than that. Besides, even though they had jumped over seven hundred light-years before finding the Sharon system, they knew that within a few decades, Commonwealth vessels would arrive and establish trade. Eventually, the supply lines of the Commonwealth would extend out our way, and whatever we lacked would be met. But they were wrong—those supply lines never came, and we never heard from the Commonwealth again.
The Pioneers did not have the resources to fuel a ship capable of jumping all the way back to Commonwealth space, not when such resources, meager as they were, were required just to maintain communication and trade among our modest little League.
And so, we in the League of Four Worlds went about our affairs, adjusting to the idea that we were truly alone out here in the grand sweep of the Milky Way. We would always consider it a mystery why we had never been followed. We liked to point out that our expedition had been no secret, and many such expeditions had charted new worlds, setting up the frontier before being subsumed into the expanding borders of the Commonwealth of Humanity. Even after four centuries, hardly a day goes by when we don’t think about this greatest of all mysteries.
Absent something surprising, won’t find out what had happened for at least another three hundred years—that’s when the first radio signals would reach us from Commonwealth space—assuming any had been sent out this way. If not, it would be another thousand years before we received a reply to the messages we sent their way four hundred years ago.
We Leaguers had many theories as to what had happened, of course. Some said that disease had likely overrun the Commonwealth. Others believed perhaps civil war had arisen. Some believed perhaps alien invaders had destroyed the Commonwealth after the Pioneers had set forth—a theory that was gaining popularity in the days since the Battle of Farmark.
We had no idea whether the Commonwealth even existed and, if it did, whether they would be willing to help. And if they were willing, whether they would be able to help. But I began to discern the true genius of her plan: whatever else the Commonwealth might be able to do for us, it had already done one thing—it had given us hope. It was the first time in a while that so many of us had felt something other than terror or hopelessness.
I still remember that day my fellow patron’s words pierced through my fuzzy consciousness. But I remember the night of the Chancellor’s speech even better. For it was the night that I, and thousands like me, volunteered for the expedition to go.