The Empire

This story is taking a stance (albeitĀ one open to interpretation) on “the empire”, which is always evil in Sci-fi.

The empire had stood for over a hundred years. Some people were still alive who could remember a time before the empire, but this is only due to the peace and stability the empire provided. Such thoughts frequently went through the mind of Legate Alexis, as he looked out the port observation window of the starbase. The chaotic patterns of stars arrayed before him, billions of pin pricks of light – but they amounted to nothing until humanity descended on them and made something out of the rich possibilities of their worlds. In turn, humanity amounted to nothing while their worlds bickered and fought amongst each other. Only the stabilizing order which the empire imposed had brought peace to humanity, and allowed something beautiful to arise out of the chaos. His computer chimed, “This authorized RSI break will be over in 3… 2… 1… break complete”. Before the computer even reached two, Alexis was already touching the computer again, back to work weaving through various intelligence reports for indications of seditious activity. He hated the breaks, designed to prevent repetitive stress injury from working at a computer all day. He felt that they wasted his precious time and distracted him from his job, almost to the point where he wondered if the amount of theoretical injury time saved would ever exceed the cumulative amount of all those five minute breaks. But he knew that it was a choice made by the empire to care for its workers and that someone, somewhere, had weighed the various aspects and made an objective decision on what served the empire best. Progress could only be made if his life was not spent second guessing all these choices, like the rebel groups who were constantly second guessing the empire itself. On a whim, he searched for malicious software designed to corrupt the RSI enforcing software. There were over a hundred hits. He laughed softly to himself as he forwarded the list to a subordinate; this was far too minor a point to allocate the system’s legate to.

Twelve RSI breaks and three days later, a report from the Flamingo Shipyards correlated with a secret police file on a radical libertarian faction. Alexis summoned the chief of the secret police, in order to plan their response.

“Gustav, I’ve read the reports and it sounds like the `birthers’ are planning something disruptive”

“Yes sir, my reports indicate they’re gearing up for something; but I don’t know what. Do you know what they’re planning?”

“Why don’t you tell me what you know about them first?”

“All I know is in my reports sir.”

“I know that, and I’ve read the reports. I just want to hear the summary in your own words.”

“The birthers have reached out very widely for supporters, and appear to have grown in membership by a thousand fold over the past year. Our estimates now place their membership at approximately a fifth of a million people. This surge has led to increased ease of tracking them, they must need the numbers for something soon because even they must know that a crackdown is imminent.”

“You really believe they have the fore-thought to understand the consequences of their actions? People usually rebel because of extreme shortsightedness.”

“I don’t think they’re quite that dumb sir. Never underestimate your enemy. This group has been particularly elusive and difficult to track down over the last decade, they surely know a thing or two about information flow.”

“Perhaps they think they’re invulnerable? Two hundred thousand people already, and the ban on natural births has always been a controversial policy. Perhaps they think they can rally enough support to take down the empire?”

“A mere two hundred thousand? Even if their numbers swelled by thousand times again they would pose no real threat and they know it. Since the planetary bombardment on Eridani, seditious groups have avoided all direct confrontation with the state. That was twenty years ago.”

“Then what do you think they are doing?”

“I don’t know. There is a critical piece of their plan that they have managed to keep secret – none of our plants have been informed and one has already been killed for trying to find out.”

“A tragic loss. I only received this new intelligence this morning, I assure you he did not die a meaningless death. I believe I have discovered the secret piece of their plan.”

“You have? Is it off-world communication? Are they working with the Rigel cells?”

“There’s no need to guess anymore inspector. They only have hopes of off-world collaboration. A custom built ship from the Flamingo Shipyards fell off the books, right into an area controlled by the Birthers. Its specifications allow for it to support almost a quarter of a million people for a multi-generational journey.”

“They’re trying to escape…”

“Exactly.”

“Then this isn’t a problem, is it? They aren’t trying to take down the empire, they just want to run away. They’ll be no threat, and save us the bother of disposing of them.”

“You don’t understand human nature, do you? Sure, they’ll be no threat this decade. Maybe it will be a hundred generations before the ship reaches a habitable world, and another hundred generations to head back in our direction. But at that point in the future we will be back to the chaos before the empire. Humanity will not be of one mind, conflict will return to plague our daily existence, and our potential will again be impossible to realize.”

“Surely that’s a problem for the next millennium? At the rate the Imperium is advancing now, surely we’ll have solved sedition by then?”

“It causes damage to the empire now too. What of the example this provides? If we let them go, other seditious groups will try to escape. Millions of people might fling themselves into the unknown depths of space from every world. Perhaps even the utopia of Earth will be plagued by seditious factions once they feel an option is available to them. Even if we assume these groups are all peaceful and rational people, how many exoduses will succeed? How many will fail, dooming their crew to eternal unmarked graves in the emptiness of space? How many people will be forced to give up their stable lives on a wild gamble, where the best possible outcome is to rebuild everything they have here in what metaphorically amounts to a different color?”

“So we must kill hundreds of thousands of families?

“I wouldn’t have expected you to be supporting sedition Gustav.”

“Of course I don’t sir. But surely you understand that the death of two hundred thousand people, women and children among them…”

“Would be a tragedy. Not an immeasurable tragedy, for we can compare it to the suffering of billions across the empire. But it would be preferable to kill just the leaders, and try to let as many of their followers as possible back into the fold.”

“Perhaps we can – did this ship come presupplied from the shipyard or is it empty?”

“The ship was empty of primary reactants. But they can easily collect the oxygen from the air while it’s landed, and pick up a lifetime supply of hydrogen at the first gas giant.”

“They’ll also need a substantial amount of water to get it running properly.”

“The empire distributes water to every citizen – are you saying two hundred thousand water rations won’t be enough?”

“It won’t be easy to hoard that much all together without drawing fatal amounts of suspicion. It’s more likely they’re going to raid a water depot right before they leave.”

“Do you know which one?”

“I believe so. The group is centered around the Kappa district and has several new agents who work at the Kappa water distribution center. Given their recruiting schedule, they’ll attack within the week.”

“Well done Inspector. Mobilize your troops to foil their raid and try to take as many leaders into custody as you can.”

“Are you going to send in a battalion of police backup?”

“Do you really want it? Surely your secret police forces are up to the challenge, and mobilizing the real police would tip our hand.”

“You make a good point. Just have a contingency plan ready in case we’re overwhelmed.”

“I always have a contingency plan. Good luck Inspector.”

As Inspector Gustav headed back to the shuttle bay, Alexis turned to the starboard window of the starbase. The name was particularly apt on this installation, for it faced the star Pollux directly. For a moment, he watched through the carefully designed glass as the fiery ball continued to burn up its only fuel at an exceedingly slow rate. It seemed so wasteful, but he knew that the light and heat was essential for both life and progress. Eventually, he reactivated his computer and began to flesh out his contingency plan.

That night, Alexis tossed and turned fitfully in his sleep. Eventually he woke up in mid sleep-cycle. His groggy mind clung to the interrupted dream, and tried to remember. He had been walking through space ship corridors, turning randomly. The station loudspeaker had been listing general approaches to navigating mazes, marking visited areas, always taking left turns first to explore it methodically, consulting maps, and so forth. He remembered all these things being broadcast, but in the dream he had ignored them all. He had always felt like he knew the right way, or that the next turn seemed familiar, or that he had a lucky hunch, and yet he wandered the empty corridors for what seemed an eternity. At the end of the dream, he took one final turn and found himself in an execution chamber. The doors slammed, gas vents hissed, and alarms sounded. He awoke just before the gas filled the room, imminent death tended to be the way his nightmares ended. But the alarms seemed to be so strong a memory that it was as if he could still hear them now. He listened closer, straining to recognize the pattern from the blaring sirens. A guard started banging on the door to his quarters, “Sir, the base is on alert. You need to get to the command center. Sir, are you awake?” This is when Alexis realized that the alarms weren’t just a memory from his dream. He got out of bed and bolted to the door. “Yes, I’m awake. I’m on my way.”

“Sir, it’s only a level 3 alert. You have time to get dressed before reporting in.”

“Good point.” muttered Alexis as he ducked back into his quarters. Soon he was standing in the command center wearing his Legate uniform (although he had forgotten his Legate hankerchief).

“Report!”

“Sir, the Birthers have begun their assault on the Kappa district water distribution center. They blasted the gate open with an exploding truck and another truck full of armed militants was right behind. They are currently engaged in close-quarters combat in the halls of the facility.”

“Where did they get weapons and explosives from?”

“They didn’t specify that while storming the compound, sir.”

“Of course they didn’t. Do we have surveillance footage of the weapons they are carrying?”

“Yes sir, looping that video on screen four. They do not conform to standard weapons schematics used by the imperial guard.”

“I’m so glad the imperial guard isn’t selling weapons on the street” drawled Alexis with mounting impatience. But the night shift never contained their best information operatives anyways, so he was inclined to be patient with her and lead her to the answer. “The irregular schematics and homogeneous materials suggests that they used hacked fabrication units to construct custom fire-arms. Make a note to find their facility when this is all over.”

“Yes sir.”

“Do we have a video feed on the water distribution controls?”

“Yes sir, bringing it up on screen one.”

The distribution controls were a wide panel of computer equipment in a tower overlooking the complex. Panels indicated the tanks and pipes they controlled with translucent overlays on the windows, all of which were currently green. Inspector Gustav stood three meters from the elevator, with his rifle already pointed at the closed door in anticipation. Sitting at the controls were the two standard employees that manned the control room. Theoretically, they would continue to monitor the water flow even in an emergency, but this emergency seemed to be too much for them. As one sat crouched over, crying into her palms, the other just stared blankly. His eyes didn’t move at all, not even when the elevator creaked with the oncoming car. Gustav moved his finger to the trigger, ready to shoot the instant the elevator door opened. His palms began to sweat, and he started feeling the discomfort of imminent combat intensifying in his heart. He heard the woman stop crying, and he assumed that she had been overwhelmed with terror now that the elevator full of attackers had just climbed into position. Unfortunately he was wrong. She had stopped crying to remove a concealed fire arm, and the sudden discharge of that weapon drowned out the sound of the elevator doors opening; for Gustav at least.

Alexis watched from orbit as the rebels walked over, and often on, Gustav’s body while they took over the control room. One more shot cleared the blank-faced operator, and one of the militants quickly took his place at the console. Hands flashed across the panels, and the displays went red and yellow across the board. One pipe flashed blue and yellow as the entire facility began to drain out through it. A hundred kilolitres of water was siphoned away before one of the rebels shot out the surveillance camera. “The Battlecruiser Maximus can bombard the facility within five minutes. Should I instruct them to move into position?”

“No!” shouted Alexis. “Over a million people depend on that facility – destroying it is not an option.”

“But the terrorists will destroy it anyways to cover their tracks, if we beat them to it we can curtail their theft.”

“Unacceptable. They may have the same choice to destroy the facility as we do, but we should not be getting our moral lessons from terrorists. Order the Maximus to prepare for my arrival, and get the rest of Gustav’s men out of there. Let the rebels have their water for now.”

“Sir, are you helping the rebels?”

“What? Of course not! I’m trying to minimize the damage to an imperial planet – did you forget that’s the primary purpose of the empire? Protecting our citizens?”

“No, sir”

“Then follow my orders and prepare my shuttle to depart as soon as possible.”

An hour later Alexis was standing on the bridge of the Maximus, a Centurion class Battlecruiser. The same type that destroyed Eridani those twenty years ago, and a symbol of the might of the Imperium. Every imperial world had one in orbit, and the Legate knew the entire empire hoped that they were mere decorations. This time though, he feared he would have no choice but to use it.

“Legate, are you sure this is the rebel’s escape trajectory?”

“Captain Candelus, we’re seeing it though the cameras on your own ship. Do you think something else could explain the kiloton vessel down there?”

“It could be a decoy.”

“We’ve had eyes on it from the moment it left space-dock. I don’t want to underestimate my enemy, but I don’t think they could have swapped in a decoy that size without us noticing.”

“Even though they’ve covered it in camouflage netting?”

“Which even your cameras can see through with the right setting. It’s moot – see there? They’re disconnecting the loading pipes. I think they’re going to launch.”

“All hands to battle stations!”

“And what were you planning to do with battle stations captain?”

“Are you saying you won’t need them?”

“I probably will. But remember that this is a matter of planetary sedition under my jurisdiction. I’ll give the orders.”

“Yes Legate. You’d better take good care of my ship then.”

“And its crew, I assure you. These rebels should pose little threat.”

“Yet they defeated your secret police and have managed to assemble arms and explosives.”

“Nothing that rivals the imperial guard, I assure you. We’ll soon find out – they’ve launched.”

“You’re making a lot of assurances right now” muttered Candelus as he sits down to watch things play out.

“ETA 3 minutes for intercept” is called out from the front of the bridge, “Do we hold position Legate? They’re on a collision course.”

“Back off a hundred kilometers, we don’t want to be directly in their path.”

“Yes sir. They’ll be through the atmosphere in one minute. The rebels are trying to call the Maximus sir, do we respond?”

“Have they cleared the atmosphere?”

“Just now sir, do we respond to their call?”

“Respond with the forward plasma batteries. Full salvo.”

“Yes sir, firing forward batteries.”

“Continue firing until their ship is disintegrated. Launch fighters and order them to vaporize anything falling to the planet.”

“Yes sir. Screens are holding, opposing weapon systems seem to be having power distribution issues. Their superstructure is now compromised and they’re launching escape pods.”

“Tell the fighter craft to shoot them down too.” This made Candelus leap to his feet. “You’re targeting the escape pods? That’s a civilian ship!”

“No captain, it’s a rebel ship. Every person in those escape pods intended to defy the empire.”

“You didn’t even talk to them!”

“You can’t undo sedition over a video call. We all knew that their crimes against the empire would be punishable by death.”

“But it seems so heartless!”

“It is heartless. The empire by its very nature must at times be heartless. But this is because the passions of the heart have thrown humanity into conflict again and again over the course of a long and bloody history. Steadfast against chaotic impulses, the empire has brought true stability to man for the first time. That fact contents my heart through these trying times.”

“That merely moves the chaotic conflict of human nature to within each man.”

“It was always present within us. But, like the empire, we can rise above it. The empire stands as a shining example of the peace this brings. There is always conflict, and always cost, but if you can fight your battles inside then you can keep yourself from damaging the world or yourself. We can all make it a better place, side-by-side, without fear.”

“What of the fear that the Pollux incident will occur again? That we’ll shoot down another quarter million people?”

“It is far less than the fear of every man, woman and child when they cannot trust in safety from their neighbors, from their environment, from disease, from war and from hunger. Focusing their fear on us is a small price to pay. In the big picture, so are a few hundred thousand lives.”

“Sorry to interrupt sirs, but the last fragments of the rebel ship have been vaporized. There were no survivors. Fighter craft are returning to the hanger.”

“Very good, stand down. Someone, escort the Legate back to his shuttle. I believe he has completed his mission.”

When Alexis returned to the starbase, he was greeted as he left his shuttle by an unhappily awake chief of operations. “Legate, we’ve got some problems.”

“Lay it on me.”

“The destruction of the Kappa district water facility, and a small debris impact, has disabled several food processing plants in the area. I can order half rations for all citizens within the hour.”

“Don’t. Send a priority signal to central logistics and requisition daily food shipments until those plants are repaired.”

“Sir, the earliest a shipment could get here would be in three weeks. Without rationing, and with this many plants out of commission our reserves will only last two weeks.”

“Wow, that poor harvest last year was worse than I thought.”

“It was pretty bad – and you didn’t allow half rations then to build up our reserves more.”

“Repurpose all the organics factories in Sigma district for food reprocessing. Allocate all engineering teams, if it’s done within the week we should be able to resume production in time to be sustaining again before reserves run out.”

“And the factories you’re replacing?”

“We’ll build more factories. For now, the other organics can wait three weeks for shipments to arrive.”

“Yes sir, I’ll start sending out the orders immediately.”

Back at his desk, Legate Alexis reflected once more through the starboard window. The Imperium’s resources may be technically limited, but he always felt good when he used them to maintain the well-being of its citizens.

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