A child looks to the blood-red sky as it is rent by the chemical trails of missiles. Her face is stained with dirt. Glimpses of her sickly pale skin can be seen underneath the paths, her tears clean away. She turns away from the sky when a voice calls her name, and she rejoins her family. The caravan is moving again.
Thousands flee the city on foot surrounding trucks bearing the food and water needed to make their trek somewhere far from the fighting. The child doesn’t understand why there is fighting. All she knows is that her mother and father had promised her that things would be better after they left the city. She hoped that things would get better soon.
Over the last several weeks, Gus had found himself thrown face-first into the fleet’s service. The first half of his day was taken up by grueling physical training. During the first few days, this had composed primarily of loading hydroponics onto shuttles for transport to the planet. Once that had been completed, the real physical training started.
The Saratoga was considered a ‘Carrier Cruiser,’ which essentially meant it was a huge ship and had quite a few support facilities. As part of those support facilities, there were two gyms adjusted to 1.2 earth normal gravity instead of the rest of the ship’s earth normal gravity. These gyms rapidly became like a second home to all of the recruits. They ran, lifted weights, and learned hand to hand in their physical training each day.
In addition to training the body, Gus and the other recruits were thrown into training their minds. Gus’s time was shared between two professions; electronic warfare and electronics repair. As it turned out, there was more than a bit of overlap. While electronic warfare spent a lot more time on the software side of things, the knowledge he was gaining from the electronics repair training was also applicable.
However, they didn’t just learn about human tech. Gus was also required to learn about the technology of the ‘Slugs’ as they were often called due to their striking resemblance to the earth creature. A race of parasitic aliens that took over the minds of other life forms and used a variety of species to accomplish their goals. Their ability to apply different life forms to different solutions had reflected itself in their technology as well. Much of their technology leaned towards biological solutions or mechanical imitations of nature.
Fortunately for Gus and his other electronic warfare trainees, this actually made things easier. Because of this more biological approach, the Slugs had created ships where every system was interlinked with no thought to security. This was apparently changing in their newer ships, but the feeble attempts at upgraded security measures weren’t anything that hadn’t been developed in humanity’s past and were easily bypassed.
By contrast, a lot of time was spent learning how to hack and bypass human-made systems. It was a focus that confused Gus until one day he asked the Technical Sergeant in charge of training them why they spent so much time learning to hack human systems.
The Sergeant nodded, “An excellent question. Why should we learn how to engage in warfare against other humans electronic or otherwise? After all, we have a common enemy to fight that we are all united against.” The recruits nodded in response. The Sergeant continued, “Well unfortunately we aren’t actually united. While the Slugs pose an existential threat to all of mankind not all of mankind is equally threatened at present. There is something of a front line due to energy restrictions on FTL. And while the Slugs could and indeed have launched attacks deep into human territory the fact is that many worlds are not under direct threat.”
The Sergeant paused, taking a long drink from a water bottle before he continued. “Now, you might be thinking that this is a good thing and without a doubt it is. However, this can lead to a mentality of some worlds thinking that they don’t have to contribute to the war effort as much. After all, the enemy isn’t at Their doorstep.” he spat out the last words in disgust.
The normally calm and measured Technical Sergeant Jenkins they had come to know seemed to crack a bit in front of them. His next words carried unmistakable hostility. “These worlds that are far from the front. Some in comfort and others that have simply been cut off since the collapse of the old United Systems Alliance. These worlds shy away from doing their part and joining the Avalon Fleet in the defense of humanity. Worlds like your own that allow corruption to fester and place valuable citizens into menial positions. Other worlds where the people languish about while drones care for their every whim. These worlds all must be brought into the fold if we are all to survive together. And sometimes this involves fighting our fellow man as foul an idea that is in this day and age. The Avalon Fleet is sometimes left with no choice and so we prepare for it.”
Jenkins straightened his jacket and cleared his throat before continuing, “And that’s why you must learn to fight against human systems. This is especially the case as we will soon be departing to another system with an out of contact colony soon. New ships with skeleton crews have arrived to relieve some of our ships that have nearly completed their training cycles. Once the new ships are integrated into the fleet we will depart on a three week journey through subspace.” he said all this in a much calmer and even tone marking a return to the usual Technical Sergeant the recruits were familiar with.
Gus was relieved that Jenkins had calmed down, but was concerned by what he had said. Gus hadn’t expected to fight other humans, but it made sense when he thought about it more. After all, the leaders of his world had been put in chains when the fleet had discovered their corruption. It was likely someone with the same training he was now receiving had cracked the systems that had allowed that discovery.
With that thought, Gus cleared away his doubts. The Avalon Fleet was doing its best to fight for humanity’s survival. If they ordered him to fight against his fellow man, there would undoubtedly be a good reason.
After that, Gus threw himself into his studies with even greater conviction than before. He spent his time poring over diagrams and software manuals. He learned the ins and outs of various security systems and the common ways to exploit them. He even spent much of his designated free time studying despite his comrade’s urgings.
Eventually, he was dragged out about a week after they had entered subspace. Benny and some of his other acquaintances among the recruits dragged him down to a small gap in between hydroponics and engineering. There was some structural reason for the gap to exist in the ship, and Gus was sure it was related to the excess of struts that seemed to spear through the area. But the reason for the gap’s existence was not the concern of the recruits. What they were concerned about was the distillery that had sprung up in the area.
One of the older NCOs had explained to the recruits that it had been set up on the ship a long time ago and that the inspection officers made a point of not noticing it. Pretty much every ship had one, and while it wasn’t exactly in line with regulations, it was generally considered a good idea to just let the crews have them. It was an easy way to help maintain morale and required no real effort on the part of the command structure.
Gus sat down with the rest of the group after they got their drinks. At some point, someone had fashioned a variety of primitive seats. Anything from what essentially amounted to exceptionally long hammocks to small cargo crates that were magnetically locked to the floor.
Gus took a drink of whatever had been served to him and almost spat it out as he gagged it down. Benny slapped him on the back, belting out a loud laugh which did not help Gus’s situation and sent him into a coughing fit. He eventually recovered enough to join in on the conversation as he continued to sip from his drink cautiously.
One of the enlisted who had been picked up on the planet previous to Gus’s own was talking. He was a stocky man whose eyes gleamed with wit. “Anyhow as I was sayin’ I’d say to expect at least a bit of trouble at this next planet. It’s supposed to be a proper earth-like which means they’ll be fully self sufficient. It’s not like where you or I grew up where there’s a bit of a reliance on trade and once that dried up everything went to crap. They won’t want some external force butting in on their situation when they think they’re already properly sorted.”, he said.
One of the recruits who had nearly finished his drink already spoke up. “You say all that, but our world didn’t put up any fight and from what I’ve heard, neither did yours.”, this statement brought on a round of nods from the other recruits. “Sure they’ve got everything they need what with them being a proper earth-like and all, but once they see a big fleet in orbit I’m sure they’ll see reason.” the recruit said, ending his statement with a loud burp that sent the table into a fit of laughter.
The other enlisted man, who Gus now realized as he glanced at his uniform, was a Private shook his head. “Alright, look here you see. We send out scout ships ahead of the fleet, right?”, he said taking a moment to look at everyone at the table. “Alright so we send out these scout ships and they report back whether a system is inhabited or not. If a system is inhabited they try to make contact with the locals. Basically try to see what the situation is and inform them of the grander situation happening in the galaxy in case they’ve fallen out of the loop.”, he paused in his explanation to take a swig from his drink.
Another recruit spoke up while the Private was drinking. “Alright I get all that and that was kind of explained already. I don’t see what that has do with anything though?”
“Well if you’d let me finish before spewing out the shit you have for brains into my ears I’d tell you.”, the Private spat back with a grin on his face. “Now normally everything goes fine until the colony is informed that a fleet is going to stop by to say hi eventually. This colony though didn’t even take the scout kindly. Just fired off some missiles at it. Luckily the crew got back alright, but it was kind of a nasty surprise for them from what I heard.”, he finished off the rest of his drink and indicated to one of the recruits to fill it for him.
As the already half-drunk recruit stumbled off to refill the Privates drink, Gus spoke up. “Not doubting you or anything, but how is it you know all this?” he asked.
The Private nodded, “That’s ’cause I’m assigned to one of the hangar maintenance crews. Was there when the scout came back in and got a chance to talk to the pilot a bit before he went in for official debrief. Got a whole firsthand account of the situation.”, the man grinned widely as he spoke. He was obviously quite proud of being able to get the first scoop on the story.
Gus nodded, continuing to sip at his drink as the other recruits badgered the Private with more questions. Gus didn’t pay much attention to the conversation and only tuned back in when a card game started up. He’d never played Poker before, but the rules were simple enough. The time passed quickly, and Gus eventually ended back up in the room he shared with three other recruits. He was drunker than he’d ever been in his life and ended up collapsing into his bunk immediately.
As he lay there, Gus thought that this might be the best time of his adult life. It was hard work, harder than anything he’d ever done before. But at least now, his life had a purpose beyond mining ore deep below the earth. He quickly drifted off to sleep with a smile on his face.