Delivering the Commonwealth

Prolog

“Blown right out into vacuum. All of them.”

Jareth Killian lifted his head from his beer glass to see who’d said that. He’d been sitting at the bar, nursing his drink—another in a long line of them—staring ahead and tuning out the inane chatter and the pickup lines surrounding him. 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.”

Killian 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 discuss that gives them enough fodder for things to say.

Killian tried to shake the haze of his foggy thinking and 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 bodies radiating away from the wreckage. The ship had several additional gaping holes through which more crew and equipment were venting into space. The chyron across the bottom of the screen read, “Fleet destroyed.”

Killian willed himself to focus—today was not a day to indulge his listlessness and lethargy. Something was happening. Something big. He turned to the couple.

“What’s going on?”

If they were surprised by his question, they didn’t show it. Whatever was going on was news to everyone.

“Remember those unidentified objects at the edge of the Kittim system?” the man said.

“Yeah,” Killian replied. Three weeks ago, Long Radar on Farmark spotted what appeared to be a fleet of vessels moving from the edge of the system. Hyperspace relays and perimeter sensors had not recorded any drop out of hyperspace—whatever they were, they had crossed the great void between stars at sub-light speeds. Authorities in the Kittim system made several attempts to communicate with the fleet but had been unsuccessful. 

“Last I’d heard,” Killian continued, “the ISG was escorting a diplomatic delegation out to meet them.”

“Hostiles,” the man said, showing a keen gift for understatement.

Killian’s mind raced, woken from its slumber. Who were they? Where had they come from? 

No one from the League had ever colonized the systems beyond, but research drones had visited them; there weren’t any inhabited systems within a dozen light-years.

Killian turned back to the bar and stared at the drink in front of him. “It figures,” he said, picking up the glass and downing the remainder. 

“You say something, Jare?” asked the bartender, working his way toward Killian.

“What’s that, Stepha? Oh, I was just thinking that 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 nothing but death and destruction. It figures.”

“Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? You want another?”

Killian turned back toward the bar and regarded his empty glass. It was early—only around twenty-two o’clock, still three hours until midnight—but he was done. “Nah, I’ll settle up.” He waved his handheld at the bar to pay his tab and got up to leave.

“See ya again tomorrow?” Stepha said.

“Yeah, likely.” But Killian wasn’t so sure.

He looked around. Everyone was staring at the screens or their handhelds. Nobody was talking. Someone or something had reached down out of the cold depths of interstellar space and gotten their attention. They’d undeniably gotten his.

On the train ride home, he did something he hadn’t done in a long time—he took out his handheld and began scrolling through news feeds, passing up his usual fare of mind-numbing vids and cheap entertainment. On his screen were images of battered hulls of League ships coming in from Farmark. Each vessel seemed to have gaping holes where tons of equipment and thousands of crew had been flushed out into the vacuum of deep space. He paused at an image of a cruiser with the proud emblem of the League of Four Worlds scorched by fusion fire and particle beam. He lingered on a photo of a shell-shocked fleet officer being taken aboard a medical frigate. He scrolled through a steady stream of images of nothing short of a catastrophe but could not look away.

Killian nearly missed his stop but was jostled by a fellow passenger at just the right time to snap him out of his doom-scrolling. He exited the train and walked the half-kilometer to his apartment complex. Through the windows of his neighbors’ homes, he could see screens displaying newsfeeds, interviews with military specialists, and analysts trying to make sense of it all.

He entered his apartment and turned on the screen to one of the larger news feeds. There was a panel discussion—a couple of pundits, their usual security reporter, and a fleet captain in the Intersystem Guard. One of the pundits was in the middle of speaking.

“. . . . just doesn’t make sense how the ISG could suffer such a major setback against such a primitive enemy.” 

The other pundit jumped in. “Clearly, they’re not primitive. They may not have FTL capability, but that doesn’t seem to have been a setback for them. Isn’t that right, Fleet Captain?”

The ISG fleet captain, whom the chyron on the screen identified as Fleet Captain Leyna Schneider-Yu, nodded. “That is correct, Kaden. Our sensors have not detected any hyperspace ability in these vessels. Nevertheless, their weapons technology is potent, and we were unable to do any damage to their hulls.”

The political correspondent jumped in. “Fleet Captain, as tragic as what happened in Kittim is, does the ISG believe that Fairhaven, Pherat, and New Sydney are at risk? If the invaders don’t have hyperspace—”

“The invaders don’t have hyperspace engines, but judging from the fact that they made it to Kittim in the first place, and based on observations our vessels made during the engagement, they have engines capable of a sustained point-five gee acceleration. That would get them to Fairhaven in five and a half years, four if they can muster one gee acceleration.”

Killian sat back in stunned disbelief. Even without hyperdrive, they could be at Fairhaven in five years? The distance between Fairhaven and New Sydney was shorter than that between Farmark and Fairhaven—did that mean they could be in the Sharon system in only three years after that?

He changed the screen to another feed. Yet more pundits, yet more doom and gloom, yet more ISG officials expressing skepticism that the fleet could ever be ready to face the invaders again, let alone in the time frames they were expecting. Killian watched until well after twenty-five when fatigue began to overtake him.

He turned off the feed and fell unceremoniously onto his bed without even bothering to undress. He could feel the exhaustion from the shock of the day and the unrelenting coverage on the feeds. As he closed his eyes to visions of shattered starship hulls and terrorized fleet personnel, he felt more awake in that moment than he had in years.


Three weeks went by, and the news wasn’t getting any better. Killian found himself constantly absorbed in reports, scientific observations, and anything that could shed some light on what was happening and how the government would respond.

“Killian, put that damned thing down!”

The jocular voice of Lu Buhari-Singh snapped Killian out of his doomscrolling stupor. “You’re going to give yourself a health condition overdosing on that stuff. And trust me, the plant doesn’t have the best workers’ compensation coverage.”

Killian had to laugh. Lu had a way of being disarming, effective, and ridiculous at the same time. He turned off his handheld and put it in his coverall pocket.

“I’m sorry, Lu. I just can’t get my head around everything that’s happened. I keep hoping that I’ll open up the feeds, and there will be an announcement about an armada or a new superweapon we’ve developed. It feels like we’re not doing anything.”

“Yeah, I get it. You know all my family’s from Farmark, yeah? These things take time, especially if you want to do them right. Right now, the ISG’s focused on getting people out of the system.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess part of it is that I feel like I can’t do anything about it all.”

“Why don’t you join up? The ISG’s definitely recruiting.”

“I don’t know that that’s for me.”

“You were in the Merchant Marine, yeah? Security, right? Same skills that the fleet would want. Hell, the security work you do for me would look good on your record. And you’ve already got space legs.”

“I’m no combat officer,” Killian said, and there, deep in the pit of his stomach, was that feeling of dread at even the thought of combat. He would have liked to have believed it was fear; that would have at least been honorable after a fashion. But he knew it was something else.

As if to spare him from further introspection, his handheld pinged. Everyone’s handheld pinged. He and Lu exchanged a look and grabbed their devices.

“Chancellor’s gonna give an address tonight,” Lu read. “There’s your news, Killian.”

Killian kept rereading the ping notification to see if there were any details. There weren’t.

“Tell you what, I’ll come meet you at your usual watering hole after work. We can watch it together and raise a glass.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” said Killian. He hadn’t been back to the Enfante de Castille since the night the first reports came through. Given everything that’d happened, it’d lost its allure. Still, it would be nice to be surrounded by people when the Chancellor announced whatever new catastrophe she was going to announce.

“Great!” said Lu. “I’ll meet you there after shift.”

A couple of hours later, Killian walked into the Enfante and made his way toward his usual spot at the bar. Someone else was sitting in “his” seat. Before he could decide whether to be miffed or not, he heard his name. “Killian!” He turned and saw Lu sitting at a table along the wall. 

“Place is crowded,” Lu said as Killian walked over. “Looks like everyone’s got the same idea.”

“Looks that way. Have you ordered already?” Killian took out his handheld and logged into the bar’s service portal. 

“Yeah, got something coming.”

Killian sat and placed his own order through his device. A minute or two later, a server showed up carrying a tray with their drinks.

“Well, look who it is!” she said. “Haven’t seen you in a while!”

“Yeah. Been busy,” Killian replied as Lu raised his eyebrows in mild astonishment. 

Almost on cue, everyone hushed as the screens around the bar, regardless of what feed they’d been following, now displayed the seal of the Office of the Chancellor of the Four Worlds. After a moment, the seal was replaced by the face of Aditi Parvat-Singh, the Chancellor of the League. She began to speak in her usual soft manner, flavored with a mild Farmark accent.

“My fellow citizens. An unspeakable tragedy has befallen our worlds. Our siblings on Farmark have suffered a cataclysm like no other in human history. What should have been a joyous day for all of us—the first human encounter with intelligent alien life—has become a day of sorrow and lamentations. The planets of the Kittim system have been devastated, and a hostile intelligence has taken up a position in the system designed to establish its control over worlds that had until recently been the homes to hundreds of millions. 

“At this moment, ISG forces are conducting rescue and recovery missions in the Kittim system and attempting to find and save as many refugees as possible. Many residents of the system have fled in craft not meant for interstellar travel. Our fleet is doing the best it can to track down such vessels in the space beyond the Kittim system and deliver their passengers safely to Fairhaven. League Marines are also engaged in targeted rescue missions on the surface of Farmark itself, although these missions have proven to have high casualty rates. It is likely that such operations will be suspended in the near future.”

“Crike,” said Lu. “Imagine pulling that duty.”

Killian just shook his head slowly. The Chancellor continued.

“Our scientists and strategic analysts in the ISG have determined that if the invading forces attempt to reach Fairhaven next, they could be within that system in just over five standard years.” There was a murmur now rumbling through the establishment. This was not a new number to hear—pundits and commentators had been putting this figure out for weeks—but this was the first time the government had said as much.

“And I wish to be forthright with you, my fellow citizens. Given the damage the ISG has taken from the invaders and our utter inability to cause any significant damage to their vessels, the ISG does not believe we can be victorious in another engagement, even five years hence. Efforts at communicating with the invaders have proven fruitless.”

The rumble throughout the bar was building as more and more people began to digest what the Chancellor was saying. Killian could feel his own growing sense of dread. On the screen, Chancellor Parvat-Singh paused, almost as if she knew her audience would react to what she’d said. Then, she took a deep breath and continued. 

“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.”

There was pandemonium in the Enfante de Castille. Killian leapt to his feet and joined with others nearby shouting. Whatever the Chancellor said next was drowned out by the cheering patrons. No one cared; they’d watch the rest of it on replay later. 

Killian returned to the table where Lu was sitting and flopped down in his chair.

“The Commonwealth, Lu! The Commonwealth!”

Lu was happy, to be sure, but he looked more thoughtful than anything—not nearly as celebratory as Killian and the rest of the patrons. 

“What’s on your mind, Lu?”

“It’s amazing, for sure. One way or the other, we’ll find out what happened to them. Why we’ve never heard from them in four hundred years.”

That was an understatement, thought Killian. Every Leaguer wrestled with the mystery of why the Commonwealth had never followed their expedition to establish trade and communications. Finding out what had become of them was like finally scratching a psychic itch that had been plaguing the Four Worlds for centuries.

“Yeah,” Killian said. “I imagine the gambling markets are going to start laying odds on the answers.”

Lu leaned forward and adopted a posture that Killian couldn’t help but interpret as serious. Killian leaned in attentively.

“Look, for the Chancellor to say, ‘We have no choice but to try to establish contact with the Commonwealth and enlist its aid,’ tugs on emotional strings that no Leaguer is without, yeah? It stirs in us that old sense of mystery, wonder, desire to know what had happened, and longing to be reconnected to the rest of humanity.”

“Yeah, of course.”

“See, Killian, the Chancellor’s a politician. She has no idea whether the Commonwealth even exists, and neither do the rest of us. And even if it does, no one knows whether they’ll be willing to help. And if they’re willing, are they able to help? Who knows? But here’s the thing: just talking about the Commonwealth has given us hope, yeah? When was the last time you’d seen anyone who looked like they were feeling something other than terror or hopelessness?” He gestured around the bar, and Killian had to agree.

“I suppose there are worse things a politician could give her people.”

“There’s another thing,” Lu said and gestured toward one of the screens on the wall. By this time, the screen was populated with talking heads dissecting and analyzing what the Chancellor had said. But Lu pointed to the chyron at the bottom of the screen: Chancellor Announces Expedition to the Commonwealth: ISG Seeks Civilian Enlistees for Voyage.

Killian sat back in his chair. He couldn’t quite name the feeling forming in the pit of his stomach, but he knew it wasn’t dread.

“I need to go on that expedition,” he said at last.

“You need to go on that expedition,” agreed Lu. “You were looking for a way to contribute, and there it is, yeah? I’d go, too. Sadly, I’m too old, but you’re not. You’re a good man, good at supply, good at security, and you might be able to do something. So go, get us some help, and tell ’em to come back here with you and frag those bastards who toasted Farmark, yeah? I’ve got some friends in the ISG. I’ll make sure you get an enlistment interview.”

Killian nodded slowly. Lu was right: they didn’t know whether the Commonwealth existed or whether anyone there would be able to help. But in that moment, he knew he wanted to be a part of the effort to find out.