by Nicholas Amadeus Siennicki
The Captain stood in front of the bridge doors for a second, rubbing a dirt-caked hand across his gleaming forehead. He took two long breaths in, and stepped towards the soundless doors as they slipped open.
“What’s the situation?” He said as he made his way to his chair, flicking some soil from under his habitually dirty nails. He sat down in his chair stiffly, as he acclimated to the hum and buzz of people floating around him.
“We’ve spotted some unidentified ships approaching us, Cap’n.” One of them answered through a thick accent.
“They recently made the jump out of hyperspace.” His First Mate added, anticipating the Captain’s next question.
“Can you get a signal to them?”
“Bring them up.”
A large section of the windshield flickered for a second, and then lit up with a face—a human face. The Captain internally breathed a sigh of relief, having little patience for dealing with the complexities of inter-species communication at the present second. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw navigators turn towards their screens, scanning for anything hostile.
It would have been easier to give everyone the same benefit that others were supposed to afford them: that of the laurel. Peace, friendship, honour. The courtesy to not fire upon a mostly unarmed exploration vessel. The knowledge that such an act was tantamount to a declaration of war against the Human Federation. The acceptance that filling in the edges of the map was a benefit to all races, not just the Captain’s own.
That was the idea, anyway. But just as he saw his navigators scanning, he saw engineers flicking switches and making changes, just in case drastic evasion would prove to be necessary. Sometimes ideals did not corroborate to reality very well.
“Greetings,” The gaunt, haggard face on the screen spoke, snapping the Captain back to the bridge. His voice was a low husk, nothing more than a mere whisper. The fact that he was tired—crushingly tired—was made obvious by everything he did, from his sluggish movements to his gravely, sad timbre voice.
“Greetings,” the Captain replied, “you have been contacted by an exploratory Federation vessel. Are you in immediate danger?”
There was a pause, and the old man seemed to want to look behind him, towards his crew. The lighting in his bridge was dark, sharply contrasted to the gleaming whites of the Captain’s ship.
The Captain looked towards his First Mate and the look they shared explained both their shared anxieties. The First Mate flicked his ear gently and buried his head in a tablet, searching for any information available on this strange ship.
“Where did you come from? What is your purpose here?” The Captain spoke in an easy tone, attempting to be as inviting and understanding as possible. No judgements, no harshness.
“You have dirt on your forehead.” The old man responded, pointing to his own brow. The Captain frowned and touched his head, just now noticing the soil on his hands. He looked towards a private, who immediately scurried off for a damp cloth. The old man sighed, “We come from earth.”
The Captain set his cloth down, confusion at the mannerisms of this strange man mounting. Somewhere deep into his heart, he felt a pang of nostalgia. He had not seen earth in some seventeen years. Being reminded of that fact by old men in dark ships was the last place he wanted—or indeed expected—to be reminded of it.
“You’re a long way from home. Are you starting your own Five Year Mission or are you—”
“Earth is at war.” The man interrupted curtly, before lifting a hand by way of apology, “Permission to come aboard?”
The Captain blinked downwards for a moment, before shaking his head. An unnatural silence had settled over his crew. Even the clicking and tapping of keys died away. Pacing officers and privates stopped in their tracks, all eyes boring holes into the communication screen, into the eyes of the sad, tired, old man. Seconds seemed to stall.
The Captain finally inhaled sharply, and remembered himself. He nodded, and almost immediately, the commlink died. He slumped in his chair as his First Mate came up to him, seemingly the only person with his wits about him.
“Captain,” His First Mate said, after a bit of hesitation, “The probability is high that this is a trap.”
“Is it?” The Captain spoke with the same husk the old man had.
His First Mate stalled, glancing between his electronic tablet and the Captain, seemingly playing out conversations in his head, before settling on an approach, “Allow me accompany you.”
“No.” The Captain spoke low, stepping up out of his chair and making his way to the door. Through the windshield, he could see the dark ship bearing ever closer, and here the Captain realized that the sleek sides of the ship were in fact made by the Human Federation, and that the ship was likely a retooled model of what had been the ship he had first been a private on, a small recon vessel capable of huge hyperspace jumps.
“Captain,” His First Mate’s voice was even and calm, as always, “how can you trust this man, he is a stranger.”
“With all due respect,” the Captain said, turning away from his First Mate, and making his way towards the door. “We humans don’t joke around with this. Not even the bad ones. Bring him to the arboretum.”
* * *
The Captain stepped through the silent doors into the arboretum, feeling the freshness of the air on his face, and breathing in a deep sigh of comfort. He rubbed his hands together and pushed his holstered phasor behind him, stepping foreword among the trees and letting his hand brush along the bark. He barely had time to drink in the peace of the atmosphere before he felt the door open behind him, and the noise of footfalls interrupted any sense of serenity he could have experienced before it blossomed.
“Captain,” The Old Man reached out a hand as the privates who were escorting him left the arboretum. The Captain shook the Old Man’s clammy hand shortly, before motioning for the two of them to walk into the blooming garden.
They walked for a while among the evergreens and the undergrowth, all carefully maintained to look wild and careless. The Captain led them towards the clearing that had been his project over the last few months. He sat down on an elaborate bench that faced the stone circled flowerbed, where just a scant few moments before he had been planting this wonderful splice of what must be some extra-terrestrial equivalent of an orchid with some variants of earthen plants that would help it foster. The small spade lay idly discarded, yearning for the touch of his hand.
Once again, he couldn’t help himself sighing as the old man creaked over to him and sat his small frame down heavily beside the Captain.
“So this is why you’re all caked with soil.”
The Captain simply nodded, leaning on his elbows as he laced his fingers together. There was a sort of ambivalent mirth to the Old Man’s voice, laced with the inevitable sadness attributed to the reason he was sitting here.
“We haven’t heard any negative news from the Human Federation.” The Captain said bluntly, his eyes dancing over the variety of plants and species he had managed to cultivate. When he had set out, all that time ago, he had said that he would collect at least one species from every planet they visited. When they had set out, all that time ago, he had so many wild ideas and ideals. And now what?
“When was the last time you contacted home?”
“Weekly, if there’s a signal.”
“And no negative news in the last little while?”
“No, nothing. It’s been good… for a while now actually. No major conflicts with anyone. More exploration-based missions than any time before.”
“The calm before the storm.”
“So what happened?”
The Old Man simply shook his head, and the Captain realized now that they were mimicking each other’s pose. The Old Man straightened out his back and sighed, “It all started years ago, when I was a boy, I think. You know this idea, this ideal that the Human Federation has, that peace is—has been—attained? That humans can all live together in a prosperous, unified way? Without money, without issues. It’s the founding principal of our galactic empire.”
“And? What’s wrong with that? It’s worked, hasn’t it?”
“Has it? A war is coming…”
“Is coming? You said it has arrived to Earth already.” The Captain’s hand started to shift quietly to his holster, trying to remember if he had set things to stun.
“I’m sure your crack team of personnel are trying to contact Earth right now, trying to check.”
The Captain shifted rapidly from his seat, standing over the Old Man, hand unapologetically on his holster. The Old Man simply sat there quietly, hunched over his arms again, as though sitting up was a challenge. He looked up and met the Captain’s eyes, bright blue matching bright blue.
“You won’t be able to get a signal from here anyway, we’re much too far away.”
“Care to explain what’s going on?”
The Old Man rubbed his brow, as though lost in thought as to how to even begin to explain the situation at hand.
“The War is starting. Is coming. Has started. The first few days of most wars are quiet, unless they’re a surprise. This is no surprise.”
The Old Man shrugged, then looked back down to the flower bed, “Sit down, son. There’s nothing you can do to help Earth at this moment. It would do you well to listen.”
“It would do you well to be clear.”
The Old Man chuckled low, but it was a mirthless sound, “It all fell apart, you hear me? The underpinnings holding the Federation together just sort of gave way to something sinister. People want power. People crave it. Small things became larger and larger over time, and worlds resented the treatment they were getting. It all sounds so good on paper. New World Economy this, no need for money or material possession that. Can you imagine how hard a sell that was at first?”
“You’re so jaded.” The Captain said snidely, shaking his head and crossing his arms.
“I am, yes.” The candidness of the Old Man’s voice caused the Captain some pause, “And you would be too, if you lived through what I have.”
The Captain shook his head but offered, “So how did it all fall apart.”
“Natural greed, I guess. Ignorance. The people who controlled and monitored the system did it through limiting the spread of information because complacent people don’t ask questions. Nobody was hungry, everybody had more than they needed, and it was owing to this great institution. If average people stop asking questions about leadership and how the system works for long enough, the ones who are still expressing doubt are labeled nothing but lunatics.”
“And you’ve been scorned your whole life then?”
The Old Man laughed deeply, shaking his head, “By God no. I was once just like you. A starry-eyed Star Captain, ploughing ahead to see the edges of the map filled in. I even kept an arboretum, just like you. I know why you do it.”
The Captain’s head was tilting back further and further as the Old Man kept talking, “So, why do I?”
“Some sort of idealization of all the places you’ve discovered, and how they can all grow together in harmonious unity.”
The Captain lowered his head as calmly as his now pulsing heart would allow him. That was, ostensibly, the exact reason he kept his garden, and let it grow as it wanted.
“You keep the worst weeds at bay, and ensure nothing is choking out anything else, but besides that, you allow it to play out how it will. It’s this pretty little mirror to society, and the Federation, and your mission.”
“And if you’re wrong?” The Captain asked, but there was no conviction in his voice.
“I’m not wrong, because I felt what you feel now once, and I planted these seeds just like you did, just like so many other Star Captains do. We all miss the outside, the forests, the earth. Nature. We all miss it, and we’re all optimists.”
“Just the way they want us to be? To keep us down?” The Captain was trying to regain some semblance of control in the conversation, but he feared it was far gone.
“No, I don’t think so. The optimism comes from the ignorance. I truly, honestly, and earnestly believed in a better, brighter tomorrow. In the self-improvement of man and the enfranchisement of the soul. Don’t you?”
The Captain could not help himself from nodding.
“It’s a good dream to hold onto, son. It is, despite everything.”
“So why did the war start?”
“The same reason all wars start,” the Old Man gestured to the room, “resources.”
“We have technology that replicates matter, we have technology that can reconstruct human beings, for God’s sake! What resources could you possibly be talking about.”
The Old man looked up for the first time in a while, and he was nodding, “You’re right, we do. And we all live in this idyllic little paradise created by the availability of goods. Nature submits to our will and we choose to treat her well. Races submit to our Federation and we choose to treat them well. People submit to their rulers, and they choose to treat us all well.”
“So what, it’s agency that’s causing all this?”
“No, it’s still resources. Namely, who controls all the infinite abundance of this galactic empire. With a long period of peacetime, without the external threat, without that looming presence, people look inward and start questioning their own existence. They start to break through that veil of ignorance.”
“So what you’re saying is that this all started because we don’t have some massive impending threat that’s this close to annihilating all of us.”
“Well, that’s this close to massively changing the power dynamic that exists, at the very least. War keeps leaders busy, even if it never reaches the shores of the masses. And even if we can produce infinite resources, the questions of who controls them are always on people’s minds. The thing about a truly egalitarian society is that we haven’t evolved to the point where it’s possible. And we never will. It’s not in our nature.”
“Nature,” The Captain repeated, his shoulders heaving as gooseflesh ran up and down his body. Now, suddenly, all the words that the Old Man were saying seemed to be carrying some weight. Now, somehow, he seemed to be wrestling with the fact that this reality, was, in fact, reality. He held up his hand and walked away from the clearing for a moment, trying to let the emotion and the information coalesce into something palatable. He flipped open a commlink.
“Is everything okay, Captain?” the familiar voice of his first mate greeted his ears, calm, quiet, concerned.
Part 2 will be published next week!
Photography courtesy of Tom Francis.