The Weight of One World by Robert Corrado
Maris scowled at the image of the planet on the large telescreen before him. He resented that the council had placed such a weighty decision on his shoulders. He’d been able to avoid it for the duration of the voyage, telling himself that he had to focus on matters of ship security, or navigating the best possible course among other nonsense. He had acted like a cancer victim in denial. A tumor grew inside him and the knowledge of that tumor he’d pushed as deeply into his subconscious as possible but the unpleasant feeling he carried with him every day that a confrontation with it was inevitable persisted. It had been a long voyage from the Milky Way and so he’d had plenty of time to push that tumor deep. Now it stared him right in the face from the telescreen. Balt, his second in command coughed loudly from behind him to get his attention.
“Yes Balt?” Maris asked, his eyes glued to the telescreen, but Balt seemed hesitant to deliver.
“The Council would like a status upda…”
“FUCK THE COUNCIL! Am I clear?” Maris hissed the retort without turning from screen.
“Yes sir.” Balt meekly took up his previous position behind his commander.
The Annihilator was the grandest ship in the armada and Maris was her captain. The ship currently occupied a low orbit around the miserable planet that still sat serenely in the center of the bridge telescreen. Maris had given the gun crews authorization to target the grey sphere just moments after their arrival but still had hesitated when it came to the order to fire. They could have been bombarding the planet for hours already. Even the ship’s largest battery was prepped to fire but sat silent, her maser cannon. It ran the length of the ship’s entire spine and its energy could turn every drop of water on the planet to steam and ignite the atmosphere into a fireball. Maris persisted in his hesitation.
It was no easy thing to commit genocide. There were aliens down there and they were dangerous. Others of their kind had killed so many of Maris countrymen that the death toll could scarcely be counted even by computers. He should want to pull the trigger, end the war for good. The knowledge that once this planet was gone that this species would be exterminated left him feeling sick, and also very angry. The council had given him vague orders. When you arrive, determine the level of threat, and then respond to that threat to insure the safety of our people. The subtext however had been clear; they expected him to deploy the maser; to destroy the colony utterly. The official orders allowed the cowards in the council the comfort of knowing they had not officially committed the living creatures on the planet below to extermination. Maris railed inwardly against the impatience oh his masters. How dare they? Not one among them with enough spine to make the decision themselves yet they demand a status update! ?
Maris spat. Politicians! What are they good for except filling graves!? Ultimately, Maris conceded to himself that the species that they contended with was dangerous enough to merit the level of force that the council expected. Maris had fought the aliens since he was barely a cadet out of the academy, and now as an admiral he had the opportunity to end their threat for every future generation. Balt had sidled near Maris again and spoke to his captain, a nervous flutter in his voice.
“The planet is haling us sir. A peace envoy wishes an audience. Will you hear this envoy sir?”
Maris considered carefully. Perhaps talking to this envoy would give him the clarity he needed. He needed to be certain that extermination was the right course of action. Perhaps the alien would show its hand, reveal to him some evil intent in their species future that might steel his resolve. Then again, the envoy might evoke sympathy, perhaps even pity in him. If he were swayed by that and stayed his hand would that decision come to haunt the future of his people?
“I will give this envoy an audience.” Maris had almost whispered it and it was probably for the best that he had not seen Balt’s dismayed reaction to the answer.
The telescreen changed from the small greyish planet to the face of Maris greatest enemy. He’d seen captives, and been up close to them before. They violated all of his senses, and looked so utterly different from his own kin that Maris could hardly keep himself from wincing at the image before him. It was a female of the species and disgusting to behold as all of them were. The horror before him did not wait his bidding to speak but instead began as soon as she could see she had the admiral’s attention. It’s harsh and ill-formed speaking parts barked out an unrecognizable string of sounds that pained his ears, but the translator within the ship’s computer did not delay for long.
“We are unarmed. We beg of you. Grant us mercy. Grant us life.”
The image on the screen widened its maw and bared its teeth to Maris. It was how they showed friendship a behaviorist had once told him. It was all the impetus Maris needed. His resolve had grown to the size of an unassailable tower.
“Balt. Open fire.” Maris sighed as if all the worry of the world were lifted from him as the words were uttered.
“Yes sir!” Balt responded, wide-eyed.
The telescreen changed back to the image of the small grey planet. The ship batteries began to open fire, pummeling the world and causing blossoming explosions on its surface. The maser punctuated their barrage, its beam colliding silently with the center of the planet and turning its surface at first red and orange as the atmosphere completely ignited and then to ash grey and cinder black over a period of a minute or more. The campaign had been so long, starting in the Milky Way and ending all the way out here. This was it, the last planet in their ancient empire and Admiral Maris could hardly believe the thing was done. The image of the alien’s snarling visage still stained his mind’s eye and he feared that even with the eradication of the species he’d never forget it. Balt placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry sir. No one will mourn the extermination of the humans.”