War. Suffering. Each of these words has always called for the other, all throughout history. And yet, they have endured from the most ancient times to our present day, and will most likely continue to do so in the distant future.
Some philosophers, once, had our distant relatives believe violence was deeply intertwined with human nature, for animals do not resort to it unless their survival is at stake. Still, it has long been argued we were not that different—that our perception of survival was simply broader and extended to our family, country, or planet. But nowadays, a simple trip to a distant and very specific world is proof those cynical philosophers were wrong, for the better and worst. Aremis, more commonly referred to as Vega II, stands a notice such traits are not just human.
The invisible and suffocating feeling that hangs at all times over this isolated frontier world reminds its inhabitants that brutal realities may still be lurking in the shadows, that an alien menace may still be observing. The Vanduul threat. The barren wastelands and devastated cities the aliens left in the wake of their 2945 attack on the planet marked the beginning of the Vanduul war, and haven’t left anyone in the region mistaken ever since. But so far away from the Empire’s border, well protected deep within its core, can we really say the same?
For those out on the frontline, those that have been fighting the vicious aliens for over seven years, there is no question as to why they do it. They fight for family, for homeland. To protect those they care for from the dreadful fate shared by Oberon, Virgil, and Orion. But slaying a foe you don’t have anything in common with isn’t that hard to conceive, least when your very survival might be at stake. What is much grimmer is when we start looking at each other for conflict.
Comfortably laying back somewhere in the Stanton system, sitting on our stuffed chairs made from an Empire’s entire strength and power, it is somewhat difficult to conceptualize the Vanduul threat and the vast array of violence that comes with it. But scaringly enough, we don’t have to look as far as the Vega system to face deadly menaces—merely to look down on our front porch. The repeated attacks of the xenophobic ‘Xenothreat’ group, rampant piracy from various gangs, and criminal underground are but a fraction of the flourishing perils law-abiding citizens must face.
Insecurity has been a growing concern over the last few years, so much so that it has now become a familiar background of the system inhabitants’ lives: constant invectives to report any suspect activities, having to look over the shoulder on the way from work to home, or the ever-booming business of private security firms and familiar sight of heavily armed guards in cities are but few of the wider, broader, symptoms of the disease. And as an army of watchdogs fearlessly guarded the Empire’s gates, putrid evils grew within, not just in the shadows, but in plain sight.
While companies like Drake Interplanetary rightfully summed it up as the “War at Home” during this year’s Intergalactic Aerospace Expo, this lesser danger, one that can seem trivial compared to the alien peril that hovers above Humanity’s very survival, is no less a deadly one. Crime has now become so much of a concern it could be described as the Empire’s own inner—the most daring would say civil—war.
Under such circumstances, what assignment and aspirations can a journalist have but to meet every involved player, understand their motives, and report them to the public?
Staring death in the eye and walking away is a feat few people have achieved. But out of the entire Stanton system, a quest to find one such person would lead directly toward INS Jericho, the UEE’s Navy main base in the sector. Silent and stationary it stands, wisely cloaked from any long-range scanners inside a nebula. Anyone tempted to pick up a fight against the UEE would have their zeal tempered down merely by sighting it. Several destroyers valiantly stand in the void close by, guarding over the station, their slick yet menacing figure reflecting ionized sun rays and radiating purple shades out of their dark blue coating. Hardly any place in the whole system feels more secure—a feeling that was certainly not lessened by the multiple checks I had to go through to even step on Jericho.
There, I was able to meet two very specific and different men—the sole purpose of my visit. One pledged an oath to defend the Empire and uphold its interests from the deeps of Earth’s oceans to the farthest reaches of space and serves as a Navy Lieutenant, while the other swore to defend Humanity’s interests through sheer violence, and now faces an entire life in a high-security prison over charges of terrorism. Two declarations that, however similar in theory, were put into motion through radically different means and put their bearer onto opposing paths. Two commitments that would normally spark a call for a particular duty and responsibility, but instead saw both men oppose in a fight to the death over the same core belief of protecting a common set of values and an ideal.
Out of the vast array of answers they gave to my questions, one was somehow common to both protagonists: for home and family. These are the reasons they fought and still fight for, while others would do it merely for money or a sudden adrenaline rush. To them, risking their lives in war is not just a job nor some kind of game, it is a question of very survival—not just theirs, but of all those they care for. And I hold no doubt that when both men tried their best to bring death upon their enemies in the heat of battle, they too forgot whatever stood at the end of their barrel felt the same way as they did.
“The UEE’s abandoned those it was entrusted to protect,” the former Xenothreat member explained to me when I asked him about his motives. “The aliens’ influence is growing like cancer inside our borders and they won’t do anything about it, so it falls down on us citizens to take action and put a stop to it. Much like with those pirate scums. But piracy is a net loss for corporations while aliens buying out our officials is a juicy market, so action against one is deemed good while against the other it’s terrorism.”
An openly xenophobic opinion countless of my journalist colleagues would have jumped on, but the reason I had come to visit him inside his small, dark-gray cell wasn’t to debate politics; it was to understand. Understand what makes man wage war on man, all while he’d so gladly explain a bigger threat lies around the corner.
“Why do you think the frontier colonies got hit by the Vanduul for centuries without the mighty Empire ever lifting a finger ’till now?” he went on. “They were not economically viable enough, and all those fat senators rather had money flown in synthetic world fantasies or buying friendships with tree-looking merchants than addressing the real problems. Aremis was the first outer colony to reach such a prosperous state, and the prospect of losing it scared those scumbags shitless. That’s why they took action against the Vanduul. They don’t care about the inherent menace aliens represent, they only care for their bank account.”
A clear-cut opinion Lieutenant Foy, a Navy junior officer who serves aboard the UEES Radiant Sorrow and enlisted following the failed Vanduul attack on Vega II, didn’t quite share.
“Anyone that comes forward, we help, because that’s the best we can do. Sometimes the best we can do won’t feel like enough, but it’s all we’ve got. The UEE’s ways have always been those of diplomacy first. We must acknowledge the Vanduuls are tribally organized, and for long we only believed their attacks to be isolated skirmishes. People must understand, whether it’s with pirates or alien species, there’s no going back from pulling a trigger. You fire the shot, chances are someone’s going to get killed and their buddies’ day ruined. And those who’ll live to tell the tale will come after you, soon or late.”
A less sinister and definite outlook on the ongoing conflict, and maybe small of an insight as to why the Empire has seemingly been so reluctant to take decisive action against the growing criminal underworld. Still, both perspectives left the lurking feeling that the truth was elsewhere, somewhere in between the lines of political takes and military doctrines.
Money has always been an easy explanation, after all, for one could argue war is also a booming opportunity and market, to some. While Aegis Dynamics presented the Sabre as a new contender to the well-established Anvil Aerospace Gladius following the Vanduul attack on Aremis and tried its best to win over military contracts, Roberts Space Industries profited from the creation of the Militia Mobilization Initiative back in 2946 to unveil its Polaris corvette and introduce it to the civilian market. The military-industrial complex has grown tremendously over the past seven years of war, and yet its subsidies are difficult to fathom for they are measured in saved lives more than money earned. Shipyards have flourished and ship manufacturers’ growth rates indicate they sell more of their products today than they ever did in Human history, but this is merely a consequence of the wars we fight rather than their cause.
As for the answer that rings true to every mortal human being, about why we fight? A lesson to be learned from these interviews aboard Jerricho may be that if we want to understand why the opposing side took arms against us, we might as well grant ourselves a good look in a mirror, both figuratively and not. For if one lesson is to be learned from Xenothreat’s attacks on the Stanton system, it is that our fight against others is more often than not one against ourselves—our own flaws and faults, for our shortcomings and weaknesses of today will create tomorrow’s adversaries.
Different choices made and paths walked turned brothers into foes. And what is it then, that can differentiate us from vile Vanduul beasts and make us truly human? Probably not emotions just by themselves, but compassion, maybe. The leap of faith that comes with the decision of not pulling that trigger. Not today, nor tomorrow, nor ever. Or those who’ll live to tell the tale might just come after us, soon or late.
Zirmarg for Imperial Geographic, Stanton system