Ubuntu

There is no irony quite so poignant as when an instrument of horror and destruction becomes the saviour of mankind, reflected Professor Martin Mandho. Floating one thousand kilometres above the surface of Mars, he looked out upon the dream which had taken most of his life to realise. He could not feel elation. He saw not beauty in the silver lines, but death. He could not reassure himself that his original intentions were pure, motivated by both a desire to defend humanity and a fierce, fierce pride of his people. The Earth Alliance, strength through unity. Compassion for fellow humans.

Humanity had almost turned this weapon against fellow humans!

I did not take leadership of this project for selfish reasons, thought Professor Mandho, yet, I cannot escape my conscience. I am a hero to my people. But I am damned at the same time.

Today was the launch of the second-largest artificial structure ever constructed by humanity. She was second only to the cage which bound her.

Professor Mandho had been invited to the hastily-prepared launch ceremony on the observation deck. He declined the invitation, citing ill health. In reality, he did not wish to celebrate the commissioning of the ship. He wished only peace in the solitude of his quarters.

Yes, he was a party to humanity's most astonishing accomplishment. But at what price was this achievement bought? Blood. Some of it mine, some of it not. Now that the project had achieved fruition, he decided that he wanted nothing more to do with the ship.

"Professor Mandho." Rear Admiral Wright had looked at him with his steel-flecked eyes. The younger man had aged to such an extent in the past few days that age lines now traced their way across his haggard face. "What I am about to reveal to you is classified information. Unauthorised dissemination of this information is punishable by law. Am I clear on this?"

"Yes, Admiral."

"Good." Wright took a deep breath. "Very good. I received a communique from the Security Council this morning. Our defensive line has been unsuccessful in halting the advance of the Gigas-class warship. As of 0335 hours, the Shivan vessel is en route to this system and is expected to enter Sol space within the next few days. I've been informed by GTVA command that they are unable to commit any further assets to the defence of this system. Damn them." Admiral Wright, one of the most powerful officers in the EA fleet, looked at Professor Mandho with a defeated expression. Mandho understood. The objectives given to the Ships of the Line were clear: draw the line, give no ground. If they had failed, Admiral Wright could only be asking one thing.

"Admiral, I have already given you my report. The Icanus is not ready for combat operations. The weapons systems have not been tested, we've barely finished our tactical simulations, and she is still crewed by only one fifth of her complement. If you send the ship out there, it's suicide!"

"I've read your report Professor, but, frankly, we've all run out of options. In a few days every man, woman and child in this system will be dead unless we can stop the Shivans from reaching Earth. I'm authorising the launch of the Icanus at 0600 hours, tomorrow. Your ship has become humanity's only remaining hope."

When the dark news reached Atlantis station, chaos ensued. Civilians well aware of the tactical significance of their orbiting home immediately booked seats on departure shuttles. The destination wasn't important: Mars, Io, Titan, anywhere else but Earth or the station on which they were based. The last shuttle left with barely 30 percent of the total population having evacuated. Military personnel were stretched thin between keeping the remainder of the station's inhabitants in order and making launch preparations. Professor Mandho, despite his misgivings, had done his part to ensure that the launch was to go as smoothly as possible. With the completion of everything that had to be done, he had retired to his quarters to brood.

Maybe I'm just an old, old man, he reflected. An old man weary of fighting, and who has lost hope. Maybe, maybe if the Icanus managed to save humanity from extinction, his dream would be vindicated. His conscience would be put to rest. His life's work would mean something other than death.

The mighty engines flared up, died, flared up again. Docking tubes detached from the ship with a hiss of escaping air. With a wrenching groan from the hull that was felt rather than heard, the Icanus edged forward. Unlike the launch of the EASD Nemesis, there was no ceremony to this. There were no flights of ships taking escort, no fireworks, no camera crews. There was just the silence of space, and the stillness of an entire race holding its breath in anticipation.

Mandho closed the blinds of his window and walked over to his private liquor cabinet. He opened a bottle of Scotch whisky which he had been saving for this occasion. He did not see the ship clear the dockyard, nor did he see the 20 kilometre-long behemoth leap forward and melt into a dazzling circle of blue and white light. He did not hear the sudden cries of jubilation that would have come from the observation deck and echoed throughout the station. He heard instead the sobs of a people so tormented by nightmares thought long vanquished, that an entire civilisation was on the verge of breakdown.

He raised his glass to an imaginary audience. "Ladies and gentlemen," he intoned. "I give you the Icanus."

Part 2: Controversy

Prose