A Moral Aphelion
Summary: A starship admiral is tasked with ending an interstellar war by any means necessary. When they have the chance for a decisive, ruthless blow, they struggle with different sets of ethical and analytical factors.
The besieged world of Ezia was breathtaking beautiful from the bridge of the Priman First Vanguard Fleet's flagship, the Thunderhead. Its surface was almost entirely crisscrossed with the organic, winding city lights and canals of the accidental ecumenopolis. Unlike Prima, with its rigid, geometric continental sectors, the lights on the Ezian night-side were fluid and organic.
Admiral Higano Hespex extensively read about the Ezian Grand Republic and its history, even before the war officially started. His crèche-mate Irith was an art historian, tracking pan-galactic aesthetics from the first human settlement two million years ago, to the present trends in Ezian art. The Ezian homeworld was visited by the first wave of seedships, terraforming the whole surface by replicating the same urban template. It was entirely unintentional, but nevertheless beautiful.
Hespex knew it was exceptional in many ways. Its terraformed atmosphere, gravity, and even day and night cycles were closer to humanity's long-ago Motherworld, lost forever in some distant galaxy. Every street, every canal, every building on its surface had the aesthetic of carved, painted stone, rather than the rusted steel towers on Prima. Unlike Prima, it only had a single layer between it and its natural crust, unlike the thousand-inhabited layers of Priman under-city. It was perhaps the only planet fully covered by Ezian settlements, as they preferred space habitats and a handful of surface research and trading outposts. The official population was only a dozen billion corporeal humans next to Prima's ten trillion. With its sparse population and high artistic output, any bombardment would result in irreplaceable artistic and cultural loss.
"Admiral," an aide said, over neural implant. "We have multiple contacts appearing out of shunt-space."
Hespex knew this would happen. The Ezians were masters of shunt-space navigation, sending out trillions of nano-probes on blind, single-target jumps. Those that survived that dandelion-like scattering became shunt-beacons enabling immediate follow-up settlement by automated seedships. While their presence was sparser than Priman space, it was dispersed over an area orders of magnitude larger. It would take millennia, if not longer, to properly track it all.
"Multiple hostiles confirmed!" the aide said. "It's the Ezian Home Fleet!"
The Ezian mastery of shunt-space enabled them to rapidly concentrate their smaller fleet, picking off smaller Priman task forces. Priman numbers kept forcing them on the defensive, but at great cost. As their industrial facilities and population centers were space-born and mobile, the Ezians could keep falling back on all frontiers for geological timescales. In time, such elusive fleets could out-produce even Prima's foundry worlds. It would be nearly impossible to track them all down.
"Orders?" the aide asked.
Hespex hedged his entire strategy on a route-back engineered from a wrecked Ezian probe. He'd hoped to jump the most powerful capital ships to the Ezian system to force a decisive battle. As he counted the signatures, he saw he was outgunned. It would take time for the enemy to get within range, even with their superior long range, relativistic cannons. He had to act fast.
"Dreadnaught Tyrannosaur reporting heavy damage!" said another adjunct. "Frigates Sabaton and Amarth destroyed!"
Hespex knew there was one chance for a decisive blow. He had to inflict as much damage as possible, lest the galaxy become an eons-long war of extermination. The Priman Hegemony perceived Ezian commercial and cultural power as a threat, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. All he had to do, he realized, was take down as many enemy ships as possible. There would be no need for a genocidal, barbaric bombardment of their homeworld. They had him outgunned and outnumbered, but all his crew had uploads back home. Their sacrifice would be worth it, as all militaries were designed to take losses and keep fighting.
"Standby for targeting orders!" he informed his adjuncts, his optical exocortex moving orders of magnitude faster than human nerves.
Just then, Hespex received an update over the shunt-line from home. Prima had been struck from orbit. A small Ezian task force, likely expendable gunnery drones, blasted the world with relativistic kill missiles from the edge of their system. Each impact likely killed orders of magnitude more than the entire Ezian sector. His uploads, his crew's uploads, his crèche-mates, and everyone he'd grown up with could be gone. With his calculations changed, he gave the orders.
"Glass the planet!" he said, fury erupting like a supernova.
"Sir?" the adjunct asked.
Time slowed as adrenaline slowed Hespex's mind. His augmented perception of time slowed to a subjective eternity. Enemy projectiles could've ended him during any one of them. He had time to reconsider or adjust his actions. A thousand contradictory thoughts raced through his mind, weighing the faces of those he knew versus a billion hostile strangers. Human evolutionary psychological and kin selection pressed on him like an avalanche.
"Confirm. Relativistic bombardment, declare victory, and shunt out," Hespex replied. "May history be merciful to us all."
Hespex saw the remaining fleet discharge their surface munitions in an instant. The tactical simulations showed the continent-sized wildfires and artificial winter that would engulf what remained of that world. By the time the fleet shunted back to friendly space, he had time to reconsider his orders. He hoped to end the war there, by sending his message. He did not regret giving those orders.
Hespex received orders from Hegemony Command, HEGCOM, but it was stock, automated messages. HEGCOM did not respond to any of his hails. Something was wrong. As his adjuncts collated data, they beheld the full picture of what transpired.
After they'd struck Ezia, the Core Worlds were struck by similar Ezian gunnery drones. However, their strikes had been largely constrained to industry sectors of foundry worlds, space ports, and other strategic resources. Ezian drone spacecraft shunted into orbit around their populated worlds and detonated themselves, creating rings of space debris that would block access for years. Their spies and special forces trained saboteurs and sympathizers on the ground, enabling them to wage guerrilla war, and eventually overwhelm, now isolated Hegemony governments. The de-facto quarantines were worse than any tactical simulation indicated.
Hespex saw few fleets reporting in. A few outlying, minor systems reported in, primarily anti-piracy fleets or token garrisons. Most were on worlds that were major Ezian trading partners before the war. The major taskforces and battlegroups, like Firedrake and Kraken, failed to respond. He anticipated some continuing their war, likely becoming glorified raiders or pirates. They would be mere nuisances to the ascendant Ezians.
Hespex asked the tactical adjuncts what caused the Ezians to so directly strike the Core Worlds. The reply he received from them was the same that he'd receive from historians and former Ezian officers. After the strike on their homeworld, they lost the only limit on their care to avoid civilian collateral. It was the decision that helped seal the Hegemony's fate.
Much to Hespex's relief, he was not hauled before a war-crimes docket. Legal AGIs analyzed his mindset at the time of command, and found his actions logical, if extreme, under the momentary duress. He was even given a place in the postwar provisional government, a symbolic posting on a remote system. His former colleagues, Hegemony taskforce officers, were running rogue, a far more pressing threat. He nevertheless mused on his decision, despite his best efforts to forget. In his own, imperfect way, he decisively helped end the war.