: Into the Inferno

"Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of
sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed,
it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for
all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
- Wi
nston Churchill


Terran Confederation Senate Building
Washington DC, Earth
1800 Hours, 16 Feb 2681 (2681.047)

Mandatory sessions of the Terran Confederation Senate were very rare indeed. They could only be called by the master of the assembly or the president of the Confederation, and any Senator who was in the city or could get there in time was required by law to be present. In the years since he had been elected to the Senate, James Taggart could only recall four previous occasions when such a session had been called. One of those times had been during the Black Lance crisis, and another had been when the Andorrans had routed, or more precisely annihilated, Confed's fleet at the Battle of Neudresden. Simply by turning the previously scheduled vote on sending further reinforcements to the frontier into a mandatory session at such notice, he had already told the Senators that something momentous, and most likely something very bad, was happening out there.

As the starting time drew near, the Senate assembly hall quickly filled with men, women and more than a few aliens. These were the duly elected representatives of trillions of Confederation citizens. Despite the short notice, more than four fifths of the seats were occupied. With the Nephilim on the rampage through the frontier worlds, and the grim prospect of a new interstellar war on the horizon, the good Senators had been staying close to centre of power over the last few weeks. Despite the fact that the Confederation encompassed many hundreds of worlds, most of the important decisions were still made in this city, a good many of them in this very building, just as they had been for centuries. For the most part, the Senators had exercised their enormous power wisely and responsibly, though there had been a few disastrous exceptions. Taggart could only hope that this would not be one of those times.       

On the stroke of 6:00 PM EST, he banged the gavel down hard three times, the sound carrying to every part of the large debating chamber thanks to its perfect acoustics. The heavy thuds cut across the conversations and whispered asides among the Senators and other government representatives, as well as those from the swarms of journalists in the press gallery who had been hastily dispatched to cover the event, calling the room to order. Once everyone's attention was fixed on him, Taggart cleared his throat and began speaking.

"Welcome, Honorable Senators, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen of the press." The pointed formality, very different from Taggart's usual folksy speaking style, had everyone taking notice immediately. "It is my sad duty to report to you that the crisis on the Frontier, which we had all been confident would soon be resolved satisfactorily, has in fact taken a dramatic turn for the worse. A few hours ago, a flight of Confederation recon Excaliburs was ambushed and destroyed by Nephilim forces in the Ymir System. Before they were shot down however, our pilots were able to transmit their data back to ConFleet. The data shows a previously unknown and extremely powerful Nephilim fleet heading into the frontier worlds from Kilrathi space."

The news caused uproar on the Senate floor, as several senators sprang to their feet, shouting questions at Taggart. The common theme to those questions was just how Confed Intell, Taggart's former domain, could have missed an entire enemy fleet until it was practically in their laps. Other senators, especially those who sat on the Intelligence and Fleet sub-committees, tried to defend those groups, and in the process their own oversight of said groups. Meanwhile, cameras flashed and television lenses zoomed in as the press corps tried to capture the moment for posterity.

Taggart was forced to bang the gavel down hard half a dozen times before order was restored. "Honorable Senators, I shouldn't need to remind you that this is the floor of the Great Assembly, not a school yard! Any senator who cannot conduct himself or herself in a manner befitting this institution will be forced to leave the floor! I am as shocked about this turn of events as you are, but the purpose of this session is not to determine who is at fault in what happened. We have a crisis to deal with, and that must be what our focus is on. You will get your chance to speak, but it will be done in an orderly manner. Is that clear?" Taggart waited a few moments before continuing, but none of the other senators spoke up. In the years since he had been elected to the chair, Taggart had gained a well-earned reputation as a man who was not to be trifled with.

"ConFleet Intell has completed a preliminary analysis of the recon data from the Excaliburs. The enemy fleet consists of at least three Leviathan-class supercarriers, and there is a trace that may be a fourth carrier. What is not in doubt is that the fleet also includes a Tiamat-class dreadnought and a Kraken ship-killer. Our fighters could not get a full reading on the smaller ships, but Intell estimates there are at least a dozen Hydra-class heavy cruisers and three dozen lighter warships. There is no way to get obtain a definite assessment of the fleets fighter strength, but our best estimates are that those ships could be carrying anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 craft. When combined with the still active warships and fighters from the original Nephilim fleet, this constitutes a nearly overwhelming force.

"I'm well aware that the recent reports from the front lines have been that the Combined Fleet has been achieving spectacular victories over the Nephilim. However, these victories have been far from bloodless. Of the five fleet carriers Admiral Hanton commanded when she first engaged the enemy, only the TCS Yorktown and the BWS Valeria are still operational. The fleet has also lost close to half its cruisers and destroyers, and a similar proportion of its fighter craft. Many of the surviving ships and fighters are carrying damaging from their recent battles, and are badly in need to maintenance after two weeks of round the clock combat operations. They're very far from being in ideal condition to engage in another massive fleet battle.

"In addition, the men and women who have held the line for these last few weeks are badly in need of a break from the fighting. Even before we learnt of this fleet, the reports from the ships doctors were that the crews were reaching dangerous stress and fatigue levels. They have suffered the loss of close to half their crewmates. Taking fifty percent casualties is the point at which military psychologists consider the morale of even the most well disciplined fighting force is likely to break. The fact that they have held together this long is a tribute both to the crews and to Hanton's leadership. Asking them to take on another enemy force that is almost as large as the one they have been fighting all along, however, is likely to be asking too much.

"The most optimistic analysis from our tacticians is that the Combined Fleet and its reserve elements have a 25 percent probability of victory over the Nephilim forces if they do not receive significant reinforcements very soon. If the Nephilim break through in strength, they could lay waste to worlds across the Border Worlds Union, as well as our own frontier worlds, the Free Republic of Landreich and the unaligned worlds, putting well over a hundred billion lives at risk. President Cale of the Union has already spoken to both President Quinson and to myself. He confirmed that recent military cutbacks, along with the running battles the Union has been fighting against Nephilim raiders for the last two weeks, have seriously depleted their Navy's fleet strength. There are few ships the Border Worlders can send to aid Hanton. Therefore, he has formally requested assistance from the Inner Fleets under mutual defense provisions of the treaty between the Confederation and the Union.

"Both the President and the Joint Chiefs are in favor of such a proposal. There are several systems where the defensive coverage from the four Inner Fleets overlap, allowing us to move units to the Frontier without compromising the security of the Inner Worlds. However, as I am sure you are well aware, releasing any units from the Inner Fleets from their designated sectors will require the Senate's approval. I therefore propose that the Senate mandates the release of those carriers, escort warships or fighter wings that can be moved to the Frontier without putting the home sectors at risk. The vote will be held at 2000 Hours. As this session was unscheduled, there will now be a ten-minute recess to allow you to confer with your colleagues, and then the floor will be open for debate. As we are sitting under urgency, please limit your speeches to five minutes each to allow others time to speak. May God give you all the wisdom to choose correctly, Ladies and Gentlemen."

Taggart banded the gavel down again, signaling the start of the recess. On the Senate floor, the representatives gathered in their cliques and factions, each group trying to decide what its position would be and to elect a spokesperson for its cause. The outcome of this vote would be hard to predict because they wouldn't be voting along party lines. Instead, their votes would largely be based on how well releasing the Inner Fleets would serve their own constituents. Those senators whose worlds were near the Frontier or which depended heavily on trade with the Border Worlds would be more inclined to send help. However, the Inner Worlds were more heavily populated, and hence had more Senators representing them. Those men and women would naturally be more cautious about moving ships from their own backyards to deal with a more distant threat. In addition to that, though, there would be usual mix of emotions, egos, ideologies and personalities that colored any group discussion. The conversations ranged from whispered discussions to passionate arguments. Meanwhile, the press corps members watching from the cheap seats were sending back the word on what had happened to their editors, more than a few trying hard to conceal an unseemly glee at breaking a story this big. The enemy fleet might well make life hell for the people on the Frontier, but it would also make a hell of a scoop for the stations that provided the fastest and most accurate coverage.

At the end of the recess, the senators filed back to their usual seats, while the spokespeople for each group formally petitioned Taggart for the right to speak. There had been enough consensus among the groups that there were only eighteen people who wanted time to speak. That was few enough that everyone would get their chance to have a say, always assuming that no one ran over time. Taggart made it clear that he would have no hesitation in cutting off anyone who tried for a filibuster.

The first to speak was Senator Thomas Irium from the planet of Arcadia. As the name suggested, it was a very pleasant and peaceful planet. It was located well behind the frontier, and hence had been spared during both the First Kilrathi War and the current Nephilim conflict. He had long been a critic of Confed's outward expansion, claiming that the new colonies took vital resources and funding away from the core sectors.

"Honorable Senators, how much longer must we be expected to continue supporting Frontier worlds that cannot defend themselves? Irium demanded rhetorically. It is bad enough that we must pour money and materials into our vaunted new colonies year after year. It is bad enough that we spill blood by the liter every year in an attempt to maintain a tentative foothold on the edge of human space. Its bad enough that we over-commit ourselves trying to be this Galaxy's policemen, trying to protect the worlds of other nations as well as our own.

"What is far worse is that we are now being asked to put our own people, our own families, and our own worlds at grave risk in order to do this. The President and the Joint Chiefs tell us that this move will not threaten the security of the Inner Worlds. How can they know this? Do they know how many fleets the Nephilim have or where they will strike next? Of course not! The next Nephilim fleet that we know about could appear in any one of our home sectors. We are being asked to gamble with the safety of our homeworlds and the lives of our people, and I for one will not stand for such recklessness!

"We have already committed enough resources, in fact more than enough resources to the defense of the Frontier. We have sacrificed thousands of our sons and daughters in the name of expansionism and mutual security. We have sent three whole carriers and their escorts to back up the Combined Fleet, and still they want more. When are these demands going to stop? We cannot keep bleeding away more and more and more resources to protect the Frontier while the home sectors are left vulnerable. This is where we must say we have given all that we can give. We must hold back what we have now to protect the homeworlds. That is the only rational choice we have available, Honorable Senators."

It was lucky that Senator Caroline Hill was next on the speaking roster, as she was practically frothing at the mouth at what Irium had said. She represented the Torgo System. That system was right on the frontier, but the real reason for her rage was that Torgo was the home base for Confed's Third Fleet. Thousands of the servicemen and women who had been fighting to hold the line were her constituents, as were their families.

"Three carriers? Three carriers? Three carriers?" she demanded. "You sent three old escort carriers protected by an obsolete frigate and a Kilrathi War cruiser! One of the four fighter wings on any one of our Vesuvius carriers would've as many fighters as that entire force. Just one of our Plunkett cruisers would've as much firepower as all five ships put together!"

She took a deep breath, a calming gesture that wasn't entirely feigned. "Ladies and Gentlemen, our tacticians were already taking Third Fleet's
reserves and those from the Union Militia into account when they calculated that the Combined Fleet would have a one in four chance at best of defeating this enemy fleet. Its no secret that Third Fleet has hardly been a high priority when it comes to receiving new equipment these past few years. All of their fleet carriers at the start of this battle were of the ancient Concordia class, which might go a long way towards explaining our horrific losses. The entire Third Fleet has just one squadron of Vampires, and none of Devastators. Even at the start of the battle, they were poorly equipped compared to the Inner Fleets.

"Furthermore, the fighter losses of the last two weeks have been horrific. The reserves that we and the Border Worlders have sent them can replace the losses in quantity, but not in quality. Only about a third of their current fighters are frontline craft, Panthers, Wasps, Border Worlds Retaliators and so one. Another third are second line craft like Excaliburs, Bearcats and similar Border Worlds craft, while the remainder are downright obsolescent craft like Arrows and Thunderbolts.

"Honorable Senators, how can we ask our brave men and women to throw themselves into this battle horribly outnumbered and grossly under-equipped? Especially when we have half a dozen heavy fleet carriers and many smaller ones packed with our most modern fighters but sitting on the sidelines? Not to mention squadrons of cruisers and destroyers? Don't listen to your fears, Ladies and Gentlemen. Give our soldiers the support that they need, that they deserve."

The next few speakers were largely forgettable, restating either Irium or Hills position with a few minor variations. They were evenly divided into the two camps, and the cliques they represented seemed roughly similar in size. Neither the Senators nor the watching journalists could get a firm idea of which way the vote would go. The next Senator to speak was Joshua De Silva. He represented one of the Inner Worlds, but was also been very much in favor of expansion and engagement with the other nations, so it was anyone's guess which cause he would support.

"Honorable Senators, my colleagues have already stressed the obligations that we have both our soldiers and to our citizens, those in the home sectors as well as those on the Frontier. However, we must remember that we have international obligations as well. The treaty we signed last year commits us to helping the Border Worlders defend themselves against any threats from Kilrathi space, just as it commits them to helping contain such threats before they hit more heavily populated Confed sectors. The Border Worlders have kept their obligations by using every ship they have in the fight, and ensuring that the Combined Fleets line of retreat has always been through lightly populated frontier systems rather than back into our space. They have ensured that the battle stays in their space rather than ours. They've kept their word.

"Can we say we truly say that we've kept ours if we refuse to send any help now, based on what we fear might happen rather than what is happening? We have promised repeatedly that ConFleet will be there to defend the Border Worlds. We have promised that optimizing their forces to act as Confederation reserve forces rather than as an independent military, along with the accompanying cutbacks in their Navy's fleet strength, won't compromise the Unions safety. We cannot abrogate those obligations now, not in the middle of a crisis such as this. It would be both morally dishonest and cowardly to do that, Ladies and Gentlemen."

The next to speak was Senator Gaston Diego, the Leader of the Populist Party. While Taggart's Federalists currently held the majority of the Senate seats, the words of such a senior politician would carry a lot of weight in the coming vote. Senator Diego paused for a few seconds, either carefully weighing up what he was going to say, or wanting to convey that impression to his audience, or both. He was such a consummate politician that it was difficult even for a fellow political veteran like Taggart to tell when he was acting.

"Senator De Silva is quite correct when he says that we have repeatedly promised to defend the Border Worlds against any all threats. These promises are a matter of public record, and must carry a great deal of weight with all of us. The only course that would rest easily on our consciences would to send aid to our beleaguered allies of the Frontier. It is the obvious choice, the simple choice. It is also the wrong choice.

"It is the wrong choice," he repeated, ignoring the ripple of sound that echoed through the Assembly hall at his sudden change of direction. In the background, Taggart banged the gavel down hard to restore order. "It is the wrong choice because the tactical paradigm changed beyond all recognition with the arrival of the Nephilim. Our defense treaty with the Border Worlds Union was based on the assumption of threats from Coreward such as the Kilrathi or the Mantu, with a faster-than-light technology similar to the Akwende Drive. Such an opponent would have had to pass through the Border Worlds to attack the Confederations territory. In such a context, a total commitment to the defense of the Frontier made sense. In helping defend the Border Worlders, we also defended ourselves.

"However, the wormhole technology used by the Nephilim negates all of our previous plans and assumptions. They can strike anywhere and at any time. They can strike the heart of the Confederation with the same ease that they struck at the heart of the Kilrathi Assembly of Clans. We must be prepared to meet such a threat, Honorable Senators, and the only way that we can do so is by being cautious to the point of paranoia. We must keep the Inner Fleets, all of the Inner Fleets to defend our homes sectors because those sectors are just as much under threat as the Frontier colonies are. A supposedly safe quadrant that today has a surplus of defending forces could tomorrow be the front line of the battle against the Nephilim. We simply cannot to afford to weaken any of them at this crucial time.

"Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, it sickens me that we have to contemplate abrogating the commitments that we have made to our friends and allies. I would hope that it sickens you too, because this is not a proud day for any of us. However, we have a responsibility to make this choice based on reason rather than emotion. We have to consider the survival of all humanity. We must be prepared to regretfully sacrifice lightly populated worlds for the greater good of humanity. We made such choices without flinching during the Battle of Terra, and we must make them again now that the Nephilim threaten our homes as surely as the Kilrathi did then."

Two of the next three speakers supported sending more help to the Combined Fleet, while the other opposed the motion. Taggart bit back the urge to groan aloud when the next Senator stepped up to the podium. It was Senator Paulette Ganson, the red haired harridan who led the fringe (as in lunatic) One Confederation Party. He knew that what she was going to say would be nothing but trouble, but Senate rules demanded that she be allowed her chance to speak.

"So, the Border Worlds Union is requesting even more help in fighting off the Nephilim invasion," she said with obvious satisfaction. "I remind this Senate that the Border Worlders rejected the benefits of Confederation citizenship years ago. They chose instead to declare their independence on the most spurious of grounds. They set up an illegal government over worlds that are an integral part of Confederation territory, and they did it through an armed rebellion that murdered our soldiers and civilians. The only reason that we didn't put down this treachery right at the start was because of misplaced collective guilt over the actions of Tolwyn and his Black Lance renegades, guilt that the Border Worlders have had no hesitation in manipulating when it suited their purposes.

"Now, however, the existence of the Border Worlds Union itself is shown for the sham that it really is. This so-called Union is a little tin pot nation that cannot even fend for itself. Now that they have found they cannot defend their own worlds, they come crawling back to us. What right do they have to ask for Confed protection after rejecting Confed rule? I say that if they want the benefits that are extended to Confederation member worlds, they must also be prepared to once again assume the responsibilities and obligations of being member worlds. They can't have their cake and eat it too, Honorable Senators.

"That is the bottom line for my party's support of this motion, Ladies and Gentlemen. If the Border Worlders agree to forgo their claims to independence once and for all, dismantle their illegal government and agree to pay reparations to the families of all Confederation citizens who were killed in the rebellion, we will support the release of the Inner Fleets. If not, we will shed no tears over the deaths of rebels and traitors."

Taggart had been forced to call for order several times during Ganson's speech, and had even threatened to expel two Senators who had been heckling her. However much they might disagree with what she said, she had every right to be heard. The process of democracy was every bit as important as the end result. To think otherwise was to start down the road that Tolwyn had followed. The remaining Senators who spoke on the vote were much less controversial, speaking for one side of the argument or the other, but using more conventional arguments to support their positions.

It was close 2000 Hours by the time the last of the Senators had finished their speeches. There was one more person who had been granted leave to speak however. That was Governor Milam Weir of Hellespont, who had been in Washington to plead for financial assistance for frontier colonies that had been hit by the invasion. While it wasn't common for people who weren't Senators to address the Assembly before a vote, it wasn't unheard of either. What these speakers had to say had sometimes greatly influenced the Senate's decisions, and the course of history itself. The most famous example of that had been when Blair had confronted Tolwyn before the vote on the war declaration with the Border Worlds. Many of the Senators who had been there that day had often had nightmares about what kind of place Confed might have become if Blair had been a little less eloquent or if Tolwyn hadn't tripped himself up as he had.

"Honorable Senators, thank you for giving me the chance to speak to you," Governor Weir began. "I have no hesitation in admitting to you that I have a very personal stake in this matter. My children are right in the path of this invasion, as are billions of others. The people of the Frontier worlds have suffered unimaginable horrors over the past two weeks. With few exceptions however, we have only been attacked by Nephilim raiding parties rather a fleet hell bent on our annihilation, thanks to Admiral Hanton and her pilots. What we have suffered to date is far less than what we will suffer if the Nephilim are allowed to run loose through the Frontier after smashing the Combined Fleet.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I understand that some of you might have issues or disagreements with the Border Worlds government. I beg you to remember, though, that in protecting themselves, they have also helped shield Confed's own frontier worlds both from the raiders and from the enemy fleet. The Border Worlders are far from the only ones who are at risk if the Nephilim break through in strength. Confed's frontier is interwoven with that of the Union like two strands of a rope. The Nephilim will have no hesitation of crossing that border, if in fact they are even aware that it exists. Not only that, there are dozens of frontier colonies who have chosen to remain unaligned, and they too risk being devastated. There are literally over a hundred billion souls at direct risk of death or enslavement.

"These people, all of them, are innocent. They don't deserve to left at the mercy of the Nephilim, Ladies and Gentlemen. As we have seen so often these last few weeks, the Nephilim have no mercy. I beg you, please do not abandon us to them. Please don't sentence my family and billions of others to death."

Taggart brought the gavel down again as Weir finished. "I think we've heard enough. The Assembly will now vote," he said, perhaps unconsciously using the exact same words he had used the last time the Senate had considered the fate of the billions on the Frontier.

As they had all expected, the vote was very close. Virtually all the Senators from the outer territories voted for releasing the Inner Fleets, as did many Senators from the Inner Worlds, perhaps swayed by the passion of people like Senator Hill or Governor Weir, or the commitments that Senator De Silva spoke of. In the end though, it wasn't enough. By the slimmest of margins, the motion was defeated. The collective decision of the Senate was that the greater good of humanity made it necessary to withhold the Inner Fleets. The survival of those billions on the Frontier would depend solely on the battered remains of the Combined Fleet and its unblooded reserves.