Chapters:

Prelude:  Flash

It began with a flash.

A blip on a sensor screen, a little blinking light that alerted the Boudicca that another ship was approaching them. A sister blink, burning amber instead of green on the sensor screens of the Stalwart. The Stalwart saw the Boudicca. The Boudicca saw the Stalwart. Target locks were exchanged, a tradition between the Democratic Federation Navy—‘The Fleet,’ they were called back home—and the rival, glowering, naval forces of the People’s Military League.

The two navies, the two nation-states, had rubbed against one another prior to these blinking contact lights. Diplomats had exchanged false words and insincere handshakes. The PML’s First Citizen had visited the DFW’s parliament house and had posed for flash-cast broadcasts with the Prime Minister. The DemFed’s media outlets had concentrated on the stiffness of the First Citizen’s pose, the awkwardness of his speech, the accent. Comedians and talk-show hosts had teased him on a hundred warring DemFed channels, and the government-controlled news agency of the People’s Military League grimly tallied every insult.

And then, of course, their armies had shared a handshake or two no less formal, no less false.

The brawls on the ice planet of Voord had been awkward things. Neither General, put plainly, was quite sure what to do with the other, or with the worthless ball of cold and misery they’d both been dropped on at the same time. No one cared about Voord. They only cared about losing it. The uneasy peace held while the armies eyed one another across frozen fields, wading across sheets of ice to brawl, as soldiers need to do. Lives were lost, of course—both sides granted their enlisted men leeway in the improvised weapons they brought, and padding and cold-weather combat gear could only protect so long when hundreds of men waded into one another wielding entrenching tools, spanners, and the occasional combat knife—but the peace held. Officially.  Soldiers dealt with bruises and cuts in the name of regimental pride and national honor. Eventually the diplomats won, and both sides withdrew from Voord, leaving behind a token force and plenty of flags.

In the handful of years since then, the peace had held. Naval ships locked onto one another in staredowns, armies eyed each other warily through binoculars, read reports from close-support imaging, and did their studious best not to fire. Politicians kept lying. Media outlets kept telling stories.

But then came the flash. The sensor screens lighting up, the Boudicca and Stalwart exchanging transponder codes, sensor sweeps, and target locks. It was an old dance. They’d been at it for years. Many other gunships, cutters, and frigates had eyeballed one another just as warily, even full-on battleships plodded close to one another from time to time in tense standoffs, spraying one another with fighter screens in buzzing swarms, neither side pulling any triggers, neither side quite starting history’s greatest, worst, war.

This time was different, the history books tell us, the People’s Military League reports, the DemFed’s flash-casts. They all agree about the outcome, but the two sides tell a very different story about what provoked it.

What they know, what every child in the universe knows, is that this time, three torpedoes streaked from the Stalwart to the Boudicca. One was evaded. One was neutralized by buzzing point-defense flechette guns. One hit dead-on, amidships, a nuclear explosion that triggered secondaries from engineering and magazine, both, and snuffed out all hands to leave a debris field and a floating husk. The Boudicca’s blinking light vanished. The Stalwart brusquely reported the contact, the deep invasion of the People’s starspace, and went back to its patrol.

It began with a flash.

That was twenty-nine years ago. The war’s raged ever since.

In DemFed worlds, every schoolchild learned the story of the Boudicca. Every old man spat at the word Stalwart. Grav-Blitz league play began every game with a salute to the Fleet, then Wave Ball honored all the Protectors, and it spiraled from there. Hart Industries launched the Boudicca class of patrol/interdiction craft named in its honor, Mustang Dynamics promised stronger engines, Zhang-Singh Synergies began a grind of annual point-defense software upgrades, Adeyemi Enterprises developed grav-fields for protection and—all of them, and their competitors, as well—successfully lobbied Parliament to open up civilian sales in these troubled times, to keep DemFed citizens safe. Industry and innovation were hurried on, as they always have been, by war; history knows no sharper spur than conflict.

The Low Protectors became the Democratic Federation’s shield. The Lunar Guard were omnipresent lights in the sky over DemFed worlds, cutters and sloops-of-war and massive transports, all floating overhead, all ready to protect against PML naval incursions, all equipped to uphold DFW blockades, all ready to interdict, to intercept, to defend. They are the reassuring lights overhead for countless citizens on hundreds of worlds. The Army ranks were swollen with volunteers from hundreds of worlds, wrapped in armor and uniforms of khaki and rifle green, drawn by patriotic fervor, citizen-soldier financial assistance, and a lust for payback over the Boudicca and the DemFed slain. Every war needs boots on the ground. Every rifle needs a soldier. Every planet needs guardians.

The High Protectors emerged as the Democratic Federation’s sword. The Navy, the proud Fleet, the shining beacon of cutting-edge tech, all that capitalism and industry was capable of with a bow and a railgun on top. The sole DemFed military force with access to the Pritchett-Horn drives that launch ships faster than light, the High Protectors not only projected the Navy across the stars, but the DFMC, the DemFed’s Marine Corps. Shock troopers bar none, the proudest, fittest, most aggressive military force in the universe—just ask them—the Marines not only protect Fleet vessels from boarding actions and seize enemy vessels in boarding attacks of their own, but they attack enemy planets in assault waves, hot-dropped in assault torpedoes fired past orbital defense screens, grav-dropping in from low-orbit vessels, or shuttled onto planets by attack craft. The Army merely holds, Marines sneer. They take.

The Low and the High bicker, like all siblings. The Low Protectors are older, more steeped in tradition, in protection, in defense against PML incursions provoked by Hypes attacks. The High are prouder, more eager, more active. They attack. They win. They leave the Lowpees to consolidate, to clean up their messes, to handle the mundanity of garrison and blockade duties.

The People’s Military League lacks that character, that disunity, that jockeying for position and rank and authority. Ask a DemFed, and your average Pimple’s barely human. No drive, because the League looks after you. No ambition, because the League allocates you as a nameless resource. No energy, because the League demands only what you feel like giving. The DemFeds earn their rank, their glory, their pay, their shares and stocks and homes and ships and guns. The League turns people into workers or soldiers, nameless, faceless, a cog in a great, grinding, machine. No one outside the PLM even knows how they developed faster than light travel, no one outside the PLM even knows what poor physicist’s life’s work gave the League the stars. The League simply is. They have an Army. They have a Navy. They present a unified front against their DemFed foes, and their fight for the party’s favor, their personal battles for rank and prestige and security within the League, all are kept secret from outsiders.

Competition, every DemFed citizen knows, is good for the soul. Mediocrity is the root of all evil, untold billions of citizens agree. It’s the contest that counts. It’s the heat that forges us. It’s the winning that matters. Boudicca against Stalwart. Democratic Federation of Worlds against People’s Military League. Hypes against Lowpees on dozens of seasons of The Protectors, vying for public opinion. Hart Industries against Mustang Dynamics against Zhang-Singh Synergies against Adeyemi Enterprises against all comers. The Protectors against Grav-Blitz and Wave Ball in ratings wars. A state fed by the people versus people fed by the state. Gaming houses take wagers on all sorts of contests.

It began with a flash, but it’s become so, so, much more.

That first flicker, that first blink, that first explosion, has had almost thirty years to consume all of known space, and it nearly has. The independent worlds, out on the fringes, wait to see if there will ever be a winner.