The vast red and blue surface of the BetaXenos homeworld hung paralyzed in miniature in the live feed camera view on the bridge of the Milky Way Battlegroup’s flagship THE LIBERATOR. Grand Admiral William Johnson, a well built and stately man of about eighty and hero of the Xenos War, looked on with satisfaction as the vast swarm of human ships maneuvered into position around the enemy world. Putting an entire planet under siege was tricky business, and at the beginning of the campaign the fleet had been quite dreadful at it. Despite the decades of research and theorizing on the matter that had been done during the Terran/Martian Cold War, when they had actually tried to execute those initial attacks they found theories and research to be grossly inadequate. Simple agricultural words (and even colonized moons!) had taken them MONTHS to capture. The fleet bad been unable to quickly take positions around the planet and even when they finally did their formation was far too loose to prevent embarrassing hordes of refugee ships from escaping. Then there was the problem of landing and supporting ground troops, of providing air cover in unfamiliar atmospheres, reducing friendly fire mishaps during orbital bombardment, and of course expunging the remaining alien population once the world WAS finally captured.
All in all the initial years of the conflict had been cringe-inducingly inefficient (save for those welcome occasions when a planet was not needed for human habitation and could be simply dealt with using atmosphere igniters or thermonuclear weapons). Now, however, things were different. After forty years of conflict (actually it was closer to 400 but when traveling at relativitistic speeds time becomes somewhat malleable) the Terran and Martian vessels and their crews had learned to not only work together, but to do so in a precise and effective manner for the betterment and security of the human race. The maneuvers of the ships around him were a living testament to the fleet’s hard-won competence. The men and women in those thousands of ships had left their homes and loved ones behind in another time in the faraway Sol System all for this glorious moment. Soon the latent threat so long posed by the BetaXenos civilization would be burnt away forever.
Admiral Johnson smiled to himself at the thought and moved to fix himself a drink while he waited for the invasion to begin.
The small light on the main console of Captain Brown’s light missile frigate changed abruptly from “Standby” green to “Engage” red.
“Commence bombardment,” he ordered curtly but with just a hint of jubilation in his voice at the prospect of imminent final victory.
As his crew sprang into action, performing their various duties with grace and aplomb, Brown turned his head to look out his ship’s small porthole. Only a minute sliver of the planet was visible through the glass, but its ruddy red coloring invoked a pang of homesickness within him. He suppressed it, as he always did, by running his long-fingered hand over his bald head and reminding himself that all he was doing now was to secure the continued safety of Mars and all its people.
He supposed, upon further reflection, that he and his comrades had been rather successful in that regard – as resistance had been remarkably ineffectual even here at the homeworld of the BetaXenos. When the Battlegroup had first arrived in this galaxy, of course, there had been virtually none (the aliens had been caught completely off guard by the preemptive assault, and none of the doomsday weapons they had been building were operational), but as the years wore on and word of the conflict slowly spread through space the BetaXenos had in some instances been able to erect defenses against the human fleet. Here at the final battle, for example, they had already launched several surface defense missiles in a vain attempt to deter the attacking fleet. Brown had been informed, however, that ballistic shrapnel shields had intercepted all of the enemy weapons before they reached their targets, thus preventing any human casualties.
The same could not be said, Brown thought with no small degree of satisfaction, of the alien defenders on the world below. Past experience had taught the fleet that BetaXenos defenses against incoming strikes were sadly sub-par, most likely due to an overspecialization on aggressive technology and tactics. Thus Brown knew that most of the small outgoing blips on his computer screen, each on indicating a swarm of EMP or chemical warheads, would find their targets. Secure in the knowledge that his part of the operation, and ultimate human victory, was complete, Brown slowly eased back into his chair and waited.
The shuttle jinked and weaved back and forth through the thick air of the BetaXenos homeworld as its automatic defensive systems helped it to dodge the incoming fire. Lieutenant Smith, who had flown troops into battlegrounds across this entire galaxy, knew that most of the fire he was flying through was unguided but was always prepared to disengage the autopilot in case of the rare smart missile. As a reminder of the danger posed by the occasional rogue sophisticated enemy weapon, the shuttle next to him was struck and burst immediately into flames. Smith felt a surge of anger at the sight, seething at the deaths of his comrades. Soon, he knew, the aliens would be vanquished and no further humans would die at their hands either here or at the home they had all left so long ago.
“Estimated landing time is three minutes and counting,” he spoke calmly into his headset, knowing that the soldiers mounted in the belly of the craft would hear him just fine via the interlinked communications system in their masks.
Adrenalin pumped through Smith’s system as he guided the shuttle in on its final approach. On an irrational instinct he braced for impact as the vehicle made contact with the red alien soil. As always, the various gyroscopes and other internal stabilizers rendered the action redundant. Despite the absurdly high speed of the descent, Smith and his passengers felt only the slightest bump upon landing.
Exhaling the tense breath he had been holding, Smith disengaged the magnetic clamps on the four exit ramps, which rapidly unfolded and clanged to the ground with a grim finality. The soldiers the shuttle carried wasted no time in clattering down into the dusty air of the planet they had waited so long to see. Smith said a silent prayer for their success as he raised the exit ramps and initiated takeoff to join the cluster of shuttles headed back up to the orbiting megacarrier. If the soldiers left behind on the surface were successful, he realized with a start, then this was the last time he would be performing these all-too-familiar actions.
“There’s one there! Hurry, get it!” someone snapped, pointing an armored finger towards a fleeing BetaXenos.
Reacting quickly, private Jones spun about and fired a controlled burst at the target, which dropped dead immediately. Without another word Jones and his squad resumed their patrol through the newly taken capital city of the enemy homeworld; the heavy boots of their Defender Combat Suits sending a resounding echo down the empty street. Jones cast a derisive sneer from behind the expressionless face of his armor’s mask at the mangled corpse of the BetaXenos he had just felled as he walked past it. He found the creatures to be utterly loathsome in every way; their bizarre forms entirely unlike anything he was familiar with and their culture equally incomprehensible. He had killed them without remorse across a dozen worlds, secure in the knowledge that every time he pulled the trigger he was protecting the lives of everyone back home (even if that home, after nearly five centuries, might be almost as alien to him now as the city he currently stood in).
As they walked, Jones idly glanced up at the tall buildings that towered up all around him. The initial use of non-concussive weapons in the siege (the hazy crimson and cobalt mist of the nerve gas agent still clung dimly to the ivory towers) had left the city largely intact for future human benefit. Jones could see on an academic level why the structures had been spared (give or take a few buildings damaged in what one-sided fighting had occurred), but the idea of actually living here, even if its previous inhabitants weren’t, rankled him terribly.
That line of thinking caused him to consider, and not for the first time since the primary combat operations of the siege had ended six hours before, that he was now free to settle down anywhere he liked in this galaxy’s occupied systems. He could even, he supposed, book passage on one of the colonization ships slated to return to the Milky Way. He wondered, again not for the first time, whether he would be able to acclimate to the constant gravity and wide open spaces of planetary life. He wasn’t sure if he would, after nearly a lifetime spent aboard spacecraft (first in the care of his parents, both former combatants in the fleet, and later as a soldier himself) but it was no matter. He could always remain in the military if he so chose. Now that the war was over the possibilities, or so it seemed to Jones, were as wide as the vast blue above him.
The massive dining hall of THE LIBERATOR was filled beyond capacity with soldiers and crew members, all united in unrestrained celebration at the end of their long, long conflict. Quieter but no less exuberant than those he commanded was Grand Admiral Johnson, who sat amidst a rowdy throng of marines and was helping himself to liberal glassfuls of the fleet’s finest wine and wearing a tired smile. He had not fully realized the weight his command had put on his shoulders until the day’s victory had removed some of it. Now that the war was over (for the most part; there would still be years ahead of hunting down and eliminating the scattered remnants of the BetaXenos) a good deal of the leadership decisions and responsibilities would pass to civilian colonial authorities, and Johnson was rather looking forward to the reprieve from the constant stress of conducting an intergalactic war.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a meticulously groomed young ensign who had materialized at his shoulder, “bur we have a message for you. From the Sol System.”
Startled to sobriety, Johnson followed the ensign out of the centrifugal dining hall and into the ship’s weightless system of corridors.
“IG-1 found the probe bearing the message a number of years ago,” the young man was saying in reference to the first human base established in this galaxy, “and we just now received it in the latest supply transport. It was apparently meant, however, to arrive shortly after the fleet did.”
They entered the bridge and stopped briefly at the door to the Admiral’s ready room. As he was entering the code to open it he asked, “Then why did it take so long to reach us?”
“It was apparently damaged by micrometeorites on the way here. The ion engines weren’t operating at full capacity and much of the message it contained was lost.”
Johnson nodded his understanding and, crossing to his computer console, found the message in the ship’s network. The security encryption code was of the highest order, meaning that he and the ensign (whom Johnson good-naturedly allowed to stay) would be the first to see it. Upon being opened the message displayed a fuzzy image of the Terran prime minister and Martian president standing side by side. Both men were centuries dead, but nonetheless this message recorded by them just after the fleet had launched had finally arrived at its desired recipient.
The message, as the ensign had said, was garbled and fragmented, but the most important piece remained. The president was just saying, “The BetaXenos are not a threat to humanity. They never were. But the perpetual tension between our two peoples HAD to be diffused somehow, lest it destroy us all.”
The prime minister spoke now, “So when our deep space exploration machines reported the existence of the BetaXenos, we devised a plan to remove virtually all of our weapons and soldiers from play in one fell swoop. To keep our race from annihilating itself, we made another into our mutual enemy. But they are not.”
The president spoke once more, “And so, Grand Admiral, we hereby order you to halt the invasion. Colonize the BetaXenos’ galaxy and make your homes there alongside them. They are a peaceful people, and will be likely to help you in – ”
Admiral Johnson cut the message off with the stroke of a key and erased it forever with another. He looked up at the ensign, whose face had gone as white as a sheet. Johnson smiled broadly and confidently reassured the younger man, “Buck up, m’boy. There’s no need to worry. This message here was just a minor inconvenience.”
With that he turned away from the computer and, pausing briefly to rest a comforting hand on the ensign’s shoulder, moved through the door to rejoin the celebrations.