Author : Nils Holst
It had been five years since Theo had seen another human being, much less saluted one.
“Captain Theodore Holmes of Alpha Company, Third Colonial Marine Battalion?” asked the man with the holopad. He didn’t look up as he scrolled through the UNSS Sargazzio’s personnel list.
“Yes sir,” croaked Theo. The Sargazzio’s voice recognition software had failed over a year ago, he hadn’t spoken in months.
“Where’s your commanding officer?”
“I’m the only soldier aboard this ship sir. The rest of my battalion died on Ignis Magna.”
The man frowned and clicked off his holopad. He looked a bit soft around the middle. Too much time behind a desk.
“There were over eight hundred men listed on that manifest. You’re the only one left?”
“Yes sir,” said Theo. “Seven soldiers made it to the dropship, but I was the only one the Sargazzio’s autodocs could save.”
“You, ah… seem to be taking this pretty well captain.”
“It took the Sargazzio five years to get back here sir, I’ve come to terms with a few things. When will I be redeployed?”
The man shook his head and beckoned for Theo to follow him.
“I am Martin Ortega, or Admiral Ortega I suppose, if you insist on titles. I was promoted from postmaster to high admiral this morning for the express purpose of welcoming you back home. We don’t have much of a need for admirals these days, but we figured you’d appreciate the gesture.”
The space station was deserted, silent save for their footfalls echoing through the corridor. The sound had nearly driven Theo mad on his long flight home.
Ortega paused in front of a viewport, looking out at the massive hull of the Sargazzio. The pinnacle of military engineering when she was commissioned over eighty years ago, the ship had sixteen twin-mounted flak cannons, eight large-coil railguns, a suite of countermeasure lasers, four Grindlewald drives capable of sustained .9c, and enough life support for a full mechanized battalion. She had gone out accompanied by much pomp and circumstance, stuffed with soldiers and armed to the airlocks. She had come back a battered hulk, an ancient behemoth limping into dock on quarter power with holes the size of watermelons punched through her hull.
“The war is over,” Ortega said. “The treaty was signed the year before you landed on Ignis Magna, but even at near-light speeds most planets didn’t get stand-down orders for another couple years. The riots started when they declassified the casualty lists. Billions dead for no reason. The Colonial Defense Force was dismantled, the arms cartels overthrown. We’ve been at peace ever since. For decades we’ve kept this station operational, waiting as the warships trickled in. Waiting for you.”
“Your battalion was the last. After we’re done here the station will be demolished and the Sargazzio slagged. The world has moved on, the war is ancient history.”
Ortega turned away from the viewport and walked toward the receiving room.
“What happens now?”
“You’re discharged,” Martin said. “Let me be the first to congratulate you on surviving the Long War, now described as the biggest fuckup in human history. You’ll be in the media spotlight for a while, journalists and network commentators wanting to talk to the last returning soldier. But after a couple weeks you’ll be old news, and everyone will forget. You’ll see – things have changed. You may have only aged ten years, but the world you knew fell by the wayside decades ago.”
Silence filled the room.
“Did we win?”
“Does it matter?”