Original Content Because Someone Had To, Chapter 3

#1
This sums up the rewrite! Took Part 3 and Four of the original and rolled it into one final chapter. The original version of this story was, after all, very short.

Chapter 2, Pt 3

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The kil'tan child's carapace rattled as its plates flexed and clacked together nervously. Even the children knew what the humans had lost in the war. Its mandibles clacked, and an uncertain hiss followed, as the child struggled to understand how to word its question.

So the teacher continued, taking the class' attention away from the shaken kil'tan child. Children were mean, even alien children, and the kil'tan would likely draw a lot of teasing later otherwise. "The humans didn't fight just with ships and guns. Their most dangerous weapon to the Council was words and ideas. Freedom, equality, rights. Ideas are much harder to fight."

-----

None on the Council could have imagined the war with the Terrans would last so long. Fleets had been shattered in the voids of space, worlds had burned under the fire of Senate-species guns. The horrors of biological warfare, the devastation of nuclear fire, but always felt on distant once-human worlds, as the Terrans were pushed back, demanding blood for every foot they lost.

After ten years, the protests and riots had begun among the Senate worlds; civilians and slaves crying out against the war. Higher taxes, forced conscription, rationing. Smuggling became rampant; the very pirates the Council's patrol ships had once hunted had been left unchecked as the patrol fleets were drawn into the conflict.

And with the rise of the black market and smuggling rings, the Terran's war opened onto a new front. Council propaganda spoke of grand victories and the ever-nearing end of the war. The arrogant humans were surrendering by the millions; entire planets throwing off the yoke of an oppressive government to submit to their rightful place at the feet of the Council and Senate.

The humans smuggled in unfiltered footage of the battles that were raged. Of field hospitals where human and Senate-fleet crews were tended. Combat reporters interviewing defectors and rebels that had joined the human cause for freedom in the galaxy. It was propaganda in its own right, but its impact grew with every passing month, every loved one conscripted to the cause, every missed meal or confiscated convenience, taken to the war effort and never seen again. Except, occasionally, on the pirate-smuggled videos from the humans, someone's lost loved one would be seen in a human camp, healthy and well fed.

Comprehensive lists of the names and fates of POWs, a fleeting glimpse of missing loved ones in human prison camps, receiving medical treatment, allowances for religious or cultural requests.

And as the protests escalated, teams of humans and their growing list of allies were smuggled into Council space. They embedded into the local scene, and began instructing civilians on how to be heard by their leaders. And when the executions of the most out-spoken began, how to fight back.

The Council's war efforts suddenly found itself torn between the costly battles against the humans, and the sapping of available man-power as once loyal planets needed ever-enlarging garrisons to keep the slaves and civilians in check.

The first true rebellions began twenty years into the conflict, with the assassination of a Sector Administrator and his aides. In what proved later to be a fatal mistake, the Council launched a kinetic bombardment on the capital where the assassination took place. Millions of civilians were killed in a bid to cow the growing unrest.

It failed.

-----

Admiral dos Santos stood in the main War Room aboard the naval shipyards orbiting Mars. A dozen Admirals were with her, standing around a holographic display of a dozen star systems. All that remained of human controlled space.

Red icons flashed in six of those systems, indicating real-time incursions by various Punitive Fleets. A list of priority messages from those systems; updates on enemy configurations, requests for assistance, status on evacuation efforts.

"If we had built those gun emplacements like I said, those systems would be able to defend themselves! They wouldn't be calling for a fleet WE DON'T HAVE!" Admiral Kensington glared across the table at dos Santos. One of those systems held his birth world, and likely still his family.

She just shook her head, too tired to be goaded into another pointless argument. "We've been over this, John. Yes, planetary or orbital emplacements could challenge the enemy fleets. But they're unable to maneuver. They could launch kinetics from the grav-well at anything static in the system. The resources it would have taken to build those defenses would have meant that many fewer ships we could have set to sail."

Kensington opened his mouth to argue, but was waved off by another Admiral; they had had the arguments before. Fixed defenses just didn't work. No matter how powerful the power grid, planetary shields failed, and planetary installations couldn't evade fire. The Punitive Fleets had learned before fighting humanity the value of kinetic strikes against fixed targets, and they had learned quickly that enough kinetics would bring down fixed human defenses.

"Six systems under direct assault. Transit time to the primary colonies in those systems is average what...four days? Even if we send Sol's defense fleet now, could it reach any of those colonies on time?" Admiral Mikala already knew the answer, but voiced the question anyway. As commander of the reserve fleet, he had been tasked for the past two years to prepare the Sol system for the inevitable invasion. They could not reach any of those worlds in time, and could not risk deploying his fleet out of the system.

Admiral dos Santos shook her head and with a few deft flicks of her hands brought up trajectories for those six known Punitive Fleets. "By initial estimates, they are going to bypass the colonies and are moving towards jump-points bringing them deeper into our borders. I expect we will be receiving updates on launch trajectories. They'll bomb those colonies from afar. They've learned their lesson regarding ground combat. We're not worth the effort make slaves."

In the beginning years of the conflict, the enemy had landed ground troops. After two years of grueling battle on three planets, the Council had ordered bombardments, before evacuating their own forces. They hadn't bothered since, simply parking fleets in orbit and striking any targets they could find on the surface. They had burned entire worlds to bedrock, had employed bioengineering viruses that had collapsed entire planetary ecosystems.

Every battle between the human and Punitive Fleets had gone the same way. Despite numerical superiority, dozens of Punitive Fleets had been shattered in the voids of space. Admiral dos Santos, Admiral Kensignton, and Admiral Mikala had commandeered dozens of engagements.

But humanity's production capabilities had been quickly outpaced by those of the myriad races the Council held in check. For every ship they could put to sail, the enemy could deploy a dozen. For every fleet they could field, the enemy had three. For every system they could defend, the enemy could attack...six. Mikala commanded the Sol defense fleet, a mere dozen ships. Kensington had led his fleet with perfection, but losses between his and dos Santos' First Fleet had been too great, and the remnants of Second Fleet had been shuffled into the First. She held command over a dozen capital ships and twice that in escorts and support.

"Is there any progress on Operation Home Front?" dos Santos looked to Admiral Bonfils, who tore his eyes away from the display after a moment, met dos Santos' gaze for another as if trying to process what he had been asked, then nodded and pulled up a display of enemy space.

"After the Counsil ordered the strike on Noughgan City, there have been uprisings throughout Senate space. The Xeliant Hive, all of them, have begun refusing to make economic reparation payments to the Keliant Consortium. There's even evidence of their worker bioforms refusing to eat. It seems Liberty is finally getting through to her sister hives." Liberty was the Queen bioform of the Xeliant hive that had surrendered to Admiral dos Santos twenty years ago.

It had taken years to develop a proper rapport with the queen-organism of the hive ship, but the true turning point of her and her strain's place in human space had changed when she and her children had come to the aid of humanity's defense in defending the evacuation efforts of a planet a decade ago. Shortly after that, the hive queen had adopted a new name for herself.

Her hive ship sat in orbit of Mars, not far from the very shipyards the Admiralty were meeting in. The huge semi-organic vessel was not tasked to the defense of Sol, but when they had been given freedom of movement in human space, she had brought the craft there without hesitation.

"My field advisers report growing public support for protests and even open rebellion against the sector administrators or their own governments. The Deserter Fleets, the so-called pirates that have been active on the borders even before we stuck our nose into this business, are beginning to unify as well. Admiral Novak can speak more to that."

While Admiral Bonfils was in command of the special forces teams that had been seeded on dozens of Senate-species planets, with the task of advising and training local resistance forces, Admiral Novak was in charge of the teams assigned to working with and unifying the various pirate, outlaw, dissident, and deserter ships and conclaves that had begun to appear along the outer most borders of their space.

"As Admiral Bonfils stated, we are finally starting to see the progress among the disparate species that make up the pirate and deserter fleets. Racial tensions have kept them from forming a unified front for a long time, but we have had success by working through the government-in-exile of the former Woldant empire. They were a Senate member race that collapsed some three hundred years ago, but managed to escape into the fringe with the survivors of their royal family, some remnants of their fleet, and a large portion of their population. Those that still exist within Senate and Council space have been purpose bred into a service-industry slave species." Information was displayed on what was known of the race and their capabilities.

"They were among the first to lend support to our plan, and I and my predecessors have been working closely with them for twenty years now, giving advice and economic support which has allowed them to begin winning over the rest of the fringe elements to their banner."

Admiral dos Santos listened with half an ear; she was privy to all the information already, and her attention was more focused on the events in the six systems that were openly under assault. Confirmation of kinetic launches had come in from three of those systems. Thousands of projectiles were on track to strike every facility and city in those systems in dense, overlapping barrages that would leave nothing alive. Deep bunkers had been established of course, but it was just a matter of time before follow-on forces would devote the time and effort needed to stamp those out.

"Operation Faraday is nearing completion." Her attention shifted back to the conversation then, nodding slightly for them to continue. "The array is fully established now. No signal will escape the the system, and we should be able to start moving civilians there within the month."

Operation Farady, almost literally a giant Faraday Cage built around a tiny, desolate system. No worthwhile planets, no resource-rich asteroid belts or fuel-abundant gas giants. A brown dwarf star, too weak to provide any real heat or light. A dark, quiet system that not even the Council was likely to bother exploring should their expansion ever reach so far into what had once been human space.

The few small planetoids that orbited it were being hollowed out to establish hidden cities and factories, from which humanity could rebuild and rearm, should their part of the war for freedom be lost.

An outcome that was becoming more and more likely by the day.

A priority message flashed in dos Santos' field of view, and the rest of the Admiralty fell silent as they received their own. "Well Admirals. 1st Fleet is being deployed." Her marching orders had been confirmed; her fleet sat hidden in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant in one of those six systems, hidden from the Punitive Fleet that within the hour would be passing that planet.

From there, they were to transit to the next system, and the next...to try and smash as many of the enemy fleets as possible before they could reach Sol. She shared a knowing look with Admirals Mikala and Kensington. The 1st Fleet was at half strength at best; battle damage, low supplies and fuel, crew shortages.

A few final farewells, and her image vanished. She stood up from her state room aboard the Georgios Averof, tugged her tunic straight, and walked towards her door, touching a hand to a piece of torn, charred metal that sat on a stand next to it. The loss of the Hermes had been a heavy blow to the fleet. The loss of Loki had been a blow to the entire war effort that they had never been able to recover from.

The last charge of the 1st Fleet would haunt the Council's memories for years to come.

-----

Admiral dos Santos stood on the bridge of the Georgios Averof as the remnants of the 1st Fleet neared their point of arrival in the Sol gravity well. In their wake, three Punitive Fleets had been shattered. But not without taking a toll on her ships.

Besides the lone remaining battleship of the human fleet, she held command of less than a dozen warships and escorts. The war had been a long, and the Senate races had learned many lessons. Most importantly, how to wage a proper war. Some had been quicker learners than others, but even the Silliunce had changed remarkably over the decades of the conflict.

They had grown deadlier, they had displayed fresh innovation of design and scientific advance. Tactics, command structure, crew training, so much about them had changed since the first time she had led a fleet into battle against them.

And so they had grown more dangerous, and fleet battles had become less one-sided. While those changes had been a part of their strategy to lead the Senate races to eventually throw off their own shackles, and while that process had indeed begun to take hold throughout Senate space, it had been too late.

Transit between grav-wells left the fleet blind. Communications were impossible as they transited at speeds faster than light. But the situation when she had ordered the fleet to jump to Sol was already grim; three Punitive Fleets were expected to reach the Sol system at the same time, and Admiral Mikala's fleet would be hard pressed to keep the larger enemy force at bay.

That had been five days ago, which meant at least two of those enemy fleets had already arrived in the Sol system, were likely already engaged with the reserve fleet. And more had been spotted transiting fallen systems where stealth satellites still hid.

"Transiting into the grav-well in ten seconds, Admiral." Athena's voice spoke from bridge's sound systems. Combat damage had seen many the Georgios Averof's systems offline. Low fuel and supplies had seen further systems shut off, one of which was the combat AI's holographic avatar.

Admiral dos Santos took a moment to steel herself; she hadn't been young when the war had started, and twenty years of it had been hard on her. Some small part of her wondered if her part of it would be over soon.

Grand Admiral Dor'kal sat and watched as another human world burned below him. He had assumed command of the 94th and 96th Punitive Fleets in the battle for the human home system. His eleventh victory, officially. The first true victory though; the first time he had fought against a human fleet.

The battle for the fourth planet of the system had been heavily colonized. Domed cities built into natural or artificial craters or canyons. Underground chambers that had taken intense fire to bring down.

His orders had been clear; nothing in the human home system was to survive. Destroy all of it. Record every moment of it. Respect no plea for mercy, no offers to surrender.

The Council had taken their resistance very personally, and felt that proof of the death of the human home world would spell the end of the uprisings that were plaguing their territories.

He knew it wouldn't. He feared what would come next, when he carried out his orders. But he had destroyed ten other systems in the war already. Ten worlds that had, after the first, stopped begging for mercy. Stopped offering to surrender; because the humans knew there could be no such agreement.

The fourth planet had asked nothing of him. He had spoken briefly with the planetary representative, whose message was short. "Three billion, one hundred thirteen million, five hundred seventy two thousand, eight hundred and fifty seven people."

He didn't know if it was an official directive from their ruling cast. Or if it was an unspoken decision they had made. But every planet his ships turned their guns on told him how many people he was about to order killed.

Twenty years ago, he might not have cared. But as explosions tore through the myriad cities and underground chambers of the Sol system's fourth planet, he knew that number would burn its way into his mind.

He knew he should have been devoting his attention to the next battle; a Xeliant hive ship sat in orbit of their birth world. A bedraggled fleet of human ships was racing across the system towards his fleet, still days away.

A fleet led by the greatest bounty of any Punitive Fleet. The last human battleship. The first human battleship ever encountered. The Athena AI. The last known combat AI of the human fleets to still be operational.

But they were days away. And some part of him knew he could not look away as that planet died below him. It was the Council's orders to do it. It was his voice that had spoken the command to fire. And it was his responsibility to watch.

When had he grown so weak? He was a Silliunce noble. His gene line was pure. Only the finest mates, the best genetics. This victory would assure him the right for a new mate, perhaps even one of the most elite families.

Yet all he could think of was his own batch; he had only ever sired one. Seven, five male and two female. A worthy hatching, a good brood. They were bright, aggressive, proud. Even the females. His daughters. One, he knew, had been identified for more advanced education. A chance to serve in the fleet. He wasn't even sure when that had started, but as the war had dragged on and losses had mounted, it had become necessary to allow well-bred females to serve as well.

When had he grown so proud of that thought? That his daughter might serve in the fleet. Would not simply be a highly sought after breeder. The Council thought they would win the war. He was not so sure.

"Athena."

"Yes Admiral?" The Athena AI had finished compiling tactical data from the system at large. There was little to be compiled in truth; she did not have enough power capacity left to function the main cannon. Kinetic ammunition stores were almost completely depleted. The same held true for the handful of other ships that remained in the 1st Fleet.

"What is your assessment on our odds?" Admiral dos Santos sat in her stateroom, studying the repair progress for her fleet. The low fuel reserves, and estimates of achievable transit range. None of the ships had enough left to jump out of system.

Athena was silent for a moment. It wasn't that she needed time to think of her response. Didn't need time to run the numbers. The answer came to her instantaneously. She just didn't wish to say it.

"That bad. I agree. Unless whoever is commanding that fleet decides to come for us first, we won't reach Earth in time."

"Correct, Admiral." Athena studied the lone Xeliant hive ship that still sat in Earth's orbit. The last of the escape ships had fled, and only Liberty's hive kept the Punitive Fleet from trying to run those civilian ships down. Her ship sat mid-way between Earth and her moon, between the Punitive Fleet as it slowly advanced from Mars towards Earth, moving away from the 1st Fleet for the moment, still a day away.

"Liberty will not be able to hold them back. For a forty foot tall bug, she's a good person. She refuses to run, because we were good to her people. And now she'll let her people die right next to ours, to buy us what...an hour?"

"To buy them an hour, Admiral." She indicated the escaping ships, the billions that were still on Earth. "For some, that will be one more sunrise."

"One last sunset, for others. Athena. You don't need to be here, you know."

Athena was again silent for a moment. "I have no where else to be, Admiral. It has been an honour."

"Operation Faraday, Athena. You know they need you more then we do." Admiral dos Santos stood, wondering when the aches and pains had first started. A moment to stretch her back, then tug her tunic straight, before looking up at one of the cameras Athena was surely watching her from. "You don't need to die here."

She had already run the numbers. She could easily transfer herself off the ship, transfer her program to one of the ships that were heading to the Faraday Cage. A final fleet was under construction there.

She was torn. Between duty to her ship and crew, and to the cause as a whole. It was a decision she could not, would not make.

And Admiral dos Santos knew it. "You don't need to see what's going to happen here, Athena. If they ever make a statue of me...I'm vain, I suppose. The start of the war, not as I am now." She smiled softly then, and issued an over-ride protocol. Athena shut down instantly, and the ship's lead comms officer transferred her program off ship, shot it across the stars to their last bastion.

-----

The Captain sat in a larger chamber of the cave system-turned headquarters of the Feoruta Rebellion. The planet, Feoruta Prime, was the anchor world of one of the Council's largest dedicated military ship yards. Even in the green-tinted light of day, the massive orbital ship yards could be seen around the planet's rocky moon over head.

There were only twenty humans on the planet; special forces operatives embedded to assist the local rebel movement, in an entirely advisory role. It was up to the people of Feoruta to strive for their own freedoms and equality; the entire human strategy for a grass-roots and populist movement that belonged to the people it sought to free.

The war was into its twenty second year. Hundreds of Senate planets were torn apart by rebellion. Senate warships had gone rogue, some falling to piracy, and others to raising the flag of rebellion. But the Council's war against the humans continued to progress, with the colonies of Alpha Centauri and the shipyards of Barnard's Star having fallen to their fleets.

Humanity had held the advantages of quality. Their crews were both better trained and dedicated to the cause. Their leaders, more adaptable and inventive. Human military and technical sciences had far outstripped the Council and Senate races even before the conflict had begun, and had only continued to advance.

But they were only one people. A handful of planets compared to what was held under the Council's talons, which had held the advantage of quantity.

He was tasked to advise the Feoruta rebellion; small teams were seeded around the planet, working diligently to train rebel fighters, offering a wealth of experience to their planning sessions, and helping guide the propaganda campaign on the planet. But at the end of the day, the fight was led by the people of Feoruta; as was the case on a hundred planets across Council space.

In an adjacent chamber, a captured military shuttle was being prepped; the rebels had worked hard to prepare for what was to come. A daring raid on the lunar shipyards; a strike to cripple their manufacturing capability. A flotilla of pirate raiders waited in the system's inner asteroid belt, ready to unleash an ancient human weapon on the shipyards, once the rebel team had crippled its central computer and defensive capabilities.

Fireships; a dozen old cargo ships, stripped of all unnecessary systems to make room for explosives and thousands of ton of stone, engines and power plants over-clocked and prows covered in thick slabs of crude armour.

As the rebel team readied to board though, they were stopped. The Captain could see what transpired from where he sat, and watched with uncharacteristic focus. Screens around the command center were displaying a recorded Council broadcast; they had become increasingly common over the years, especially following anything that could be spun as a victory against the Terran military.

It was the third time it had played that day. Every three hours, every linked monitor on the planet, on every planet in Council space surely, showed the same thing. He hadn't spoken much since the first time it had aired; he hadn't moved from where he sat, simply watching the message.

His sergeant had been the first to shake it off; a smile, a half-hearted comment about propaganda and doctored footage. But like the other two soldiers under his command, something was gone from the sergeant's eyes. He had smiled and clapped the local rebel leaders on the shoulders, urging them back to work. He had gathered the other two humans in the bunker, and had spoken with them.

And the Captain had sat there, watching the broadcast again.

The sergeant had spoken to him next; a simple request. He had barely heard what the man had asked, but it couldn't have been anything else. A request for deployment orders. The sergeant had understood, of course; the Captain couldn't go. The rebel command still needed him, after all. He was a good man, and would do his duty. He had to do his children proud. Their memory proud.

And the Captain had nodded, and the sergeant had departed. Two young soldiers in his wake. None had looked back at those monitors, and had simply prepared for the mission.

At the shuttle, a kil'tan soldier was stopped by the sergeant, who slapped the large, insectoid ex-slave on its thick-carapaced shoulder, or what passed as to the best of human conception. He spoke to the rebel team, and two others had slowly stepped out of the line to make room for the two human soldiers. The sergeant spoke to the group, and handed something to the kil'tan with a grin that didn't quite touch his eyes, and then they boarded the shuttle.

The ramp closed. The engines spooled up, and it was gone.

The Captain didn't watch it go, just watched as the broadcast played out its message. The rebel soldiers approached, the kil'tan carrying an odd green object in one of its primary manipulators. The massive insectoid creature's gaze swept everything but the monitors, as the Council message replayed.

The kil'tan came to the Captain, secondary manipulators scratching its carapace'd underbelly uncertainly, before it held the odd object up for the Captain to see. An ancient style of military flashlight; a simple battery operated, plastic thing, the illuminator jutting out from the body at a right-angle.

The kil'tan spoke in a series of clicks and subdued squeals, which were processed and translated by a the Captain's earpiece. “Captain? What is this?”

He slowly pulled his gaze from the monitors to look at what the kil'tan held, studying it a moment before answering quietly. “A flashlight, soldier. The sergeant calls them torches.”

“Why did he give me this? Kil'tan can see in the dark, Sir.”

The Captain was quiet a moment, his mind slowly clawing its way from the precipice. Why had the sergeant given up his flashlight to a kil'tan soldier? And then it clicked. The Captain's gaze snapped towards where the shuttle had sat, and he couldn't help but smile, if only for a moment. “Passing the torch. That ass-hat.”

On the monitors, Asia minor could be seen from orbit. Flashes of light and black smudges of smoke marred the horizon line between day and night. Senate ships sat in high orbit, raining fire onto the birth-world of humanity.

-----

“Councilor? We are receiving incident reports from seven Sector Administrators.”

The Silliunce Councillor looked up from his meal, his sharp-fanged snout smeared in blood and sauces. “What now? More fuel shortages? Another failed rebel raid? I do not care! We are celebrating, captain.”

The smaller creature fidgeted uncertainly, the longhairs of its ears laying back in fear. But the officer bulled forward; its report was too important. “The Feoruta lunar shipyards are destroyed, Councillor. The Sector Administrator reports that most of the 117th Punitive Fleet was lost in their moorings.”

The Silliunce Councillor froze, staring with cold eyes at the captain.

“What?”

“There's more Councillor. The Hentzon Prime Naval Station, lost. Siltani Manufacturing Yards, overrun. We've lost contact with the Wourillia Prime Sector Administrator's palace and the garrison has fallen. Cheecarro Prime...”

“I have learned many hard lessons during the war, Councillor. I have seen things that have given lesser minds nightmares. But thanks to you, I learned a new nightmare. I had always thought the most dangerous thing in the Galaxy was a human with something to defend.” Grand Admiral Dor'Kal stood on the bridge of the last Council-aligned dreadnought.

The last Punitive Fleet held station in orbit of the last bastion of the Council, the home world of the Silliunce people. “Fifteen years ago I obeyed an order I knew to my BONES to be the wrong one. I have obeyed orders ever since, for to do any less would have further damned my soul. To have carried out those orders, and then to give in to my doubts...no. It was an order you gave, but one I obeyed. And I had to live with that.” A list of numbers had haunted him for too many long years.

The last fleet of the Council was a mere few dozen ships. They were all battle damaged, all near out of fuel and ordnance. The last stockpiles had been depleted, the last draftees had been drawn and boarded to the remaining warships. And it was not nearly enough.

“I believe you too have learned though, Councillor. Far more dangerous than a human with something to defend, is one with nothing left to lose.” The last Grand Admiral of the Council fleet stared long and hard at the holographic display that dominated the center of the command deck. They had learned long into the war that things like windows on the bridge were a terrible idea.

They had learned long into the war that the Grand Admiral should not also command the ship on which he stood. They learned that the females could serve and lead as well as males. They had learned the importance of philosophy and freedom both of thought, and of action. The change had been slow, and it had been insidiously tempting, and he had watched it happen.

The humans had defeated them before firing the first shot; they had fought a war with the poison of idea, and made the acceptance of them a necessity. Everything about the Fleet had changed since the beginning of the war. About their society. And each change had been small. And each change had been necessary. And each change had brought them one step closer to defeating themselves.

And on one of those last ships that held the line between the enemy and his species' birth world, his daughter held a command. A re-purposed transport ship, but a ship. Commanded by his daughter, and he felt pride.

Arrayed between the home world and its moons was an armada. Senate-species rebels. Council fleet deserters. Pirates, merchant-marines, civilians. And at its center, the last of the human fleet. They had always had the advantage in quality; each battle their ships had been better defended, better armed, faster. These last were the pinnacle, arrived like ghosts from the aether, unchanged over a decade of war since the fall of their home world. Some long hidden ship yard, some unknown colony maybe. He didn't know where they had come from, but they kept striking and fading into the darkness of space these past few years without a trace.

The sight of them shook the Grand Admiral to the core of all he was. There were no running lights along their hulls. No windows. They never responded to Council communications. They were faceless ghosts, avenging demons. And he could not curse them, could not even hate them for what they had done to everything he had ever known.

The Grand Admiral turned then to the Councillor; the bastard had not born the stress of the war well. Since the destruction of Earth and the purge of the last known human colonies, the breadth of the human strategy had become quickly known. They had cropped up across Council space, seemingly everywhere at once. And the type of war they brought to the Council with the death of their home world had been another hard lesson learned for the Grand Admiral.

They had called the actions of Senate-species rebels an insurgency. What came when the humans stepped to the fore had been far worse. Surgical and methodical in its methodology, but so brutally cold. There was no blind rage in their retaliation. It had been terrifyingly orchestrated, and it had torn down entire governments.

The Councillor, the last one alive, had lost weight. The luster of his scales had faded, and he looked half-molted, ragged tendrils of paper-thin skin hanging from his face and neck. Once sharp talons were cracked and yellowed, as were his once-sharp fangs.

The Councillor sat in his appointed chair, hunched forward, once-fine robes stained with fluids both from food and himself, and he mumbled and hissed at the display of the rebel fleet.

“Grand Admiral? The rebel fleet is requesting your attention. It is...it is the humans.” The communications officer did not look up from his station, instead continuing to sift through the inter-fleet communications, ever watching for errors or irregularities, signs that the humans AIs were at work.

The Councillor's mumbling and hissing ended, and he froze like prey might when it caught the scent of a predator. The Grand Admiral merely let out a disgusted hiss and stepped forward, “Put them through.”

A monitor came to life. The Athena AI was displayed against a featureless grey background. He had been known as the killer of Athena. When the ship known to house her program had been destroyed at the battle for the human birth-world. But he had somehow known she had escaped. “Surrender.”

The single word was delivered without emotion. There was no hatred nor hint of hope for a bloodless ending. Its option was offered, but there were no terms given. It was the chance for a total and complete Council surrender. Loyalists would be arrested, if not simply torn apart...as he expected for himself and the Councillor.

He knew then that the Terran ships hadn't a single human aboard them. They were drones, controlled by the human combat AIs directly. Machines, fighting for the memory of their creators. How many humans could be left in the galaxy? How many had he killed, not just on Earth but every colony world he had bombarded? Every ship he had destroyed? But there had to be some left out there, somewhere.

But the crews of his fleet would live. His planet might well live. His family. It was an an opportunity he had been ordered not to give the humans of Earth. And yet the Athena AI offered it, a chance to spare more lives. To end a war that had raged far too long.

“Grand Admiral to the fleet. You are the last loyal sons and daughters. The strength of your will, your devotion, does your ancestors proud. We have held to the very precipice, and I know you would do the memories of those that came before you proud. If I asked it, you would dash yourself upon the enemy's claws. You would pull them down with the weight of your own corpses, and would form a wall to shield the world of our birth. But I ask something of you now that will be far harder to accept.”

The Grand Admiral turned to the last Councillor, who glared at him with a renewed rage. An impotent rage though, which faded quickly as the Grand Admiral struck him down. A flash of powerfully talon'd arm. A gout of blood, and the Councillor fell to the floor. “Power down all weapons. We surrender.”

-----

The class was silent as their teacher's story ended. Across Alliance space, children just like those in her class were learning about the war. The price that was payed for their freedoms, for everything they took for granted. A few short generations past, some in that classroom had been servants and slaves, others masters and abusers.

Generations of mistreatment and prejudice were slow to fade, but the humans had passed on the tools that would be needed to do so. Education, equality, and forgiveness. No one needed to be bound by the place in life to which they were born.

There had been a long debate over the naming of the school. Some believed it should have been named after the human fleet admiral that had won the first battle against the Council, firing the first shots of the war. But others had debated for the first to speak out against the Council. An old human with a limp, a calm-spoken man who had delivered the first human ideals to bring the Council's oppression to an end. In the end, they had won out, and the school found it's name after the statue of the old man.

Nikolai Brandon Academy. The first school built post-war, on the grounds of what had once been the headquarters of the Senate. A place that offered opportunity to all, of open doors and clear futures.

“A great human once said, 'If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.'” The teacher smiled at her class, as the quote and an image of its speaker appeared in the air next to her own holographic image, the face of John F. Kennedy, with a short bio and dates of birth and death. “No one is trapped by the role for which another may think they were born. No one need be a slave, a servant, a soldier. You are offered a future, if you are willing to reach for it, and are willing to work with those around you to secure a bright future for your own children.”

The bell rang, and at the smile and dismissive wave of their teacher, students gathered their things and started filing out of the room. All but one kil'tan child who ambled towards the teacher's desk and peered up at her image. “Do you miss them?”

Athena looked down at the child and smiled warmly, shaking her head. “They are not gone, child. There are not many, but every year more children are born, and the terraforming efforts on Earth continue. They never sought to rule, and when the Grand Admiral surrendered, their work was done.”

The kil'tan child's carapace scrapped and twitched happily, “I want to thank them for what they did.”


“They would just say the same thing they do every time, child. 'It had to be done.'

-----

Chapter 2, Part 3
 
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