.

We hold a responsibility to those under our flag,

But such is not ironclad; they must not take our duties for granted.

In turn, we must accept they have a choice to accept or not.

- Prime Minister Quinn


Discarded Responsibility

Change was in the air for the planet Dartenis. Change; beautiful, necessary, and most importantly, legal change. Change was often vilified. A mistaken attitude wherein stagnation and the familiar being a comfort.

It was a great victory for Jean-Claude Collard. He had stirred up enough feelings, enough sense of righteousness toward his lofty ambitions that the colony world of Dartenis had called for a referendum. There was a question that those living upon this world needed to quantify. How many still desired to be a part of the United Terran Initiative? How many would have the planet secede from the uncaring nation?

Over the course of a year, the question had been asked, had been wondered. Jean-Claude Collard had stirred up a great passion amongst those he led, his promises on election being to have the world be free to decide its own destiny. He had worked so hard, had done so much to achieve this goal.

He had been victorious.

The referendum had been held and the majority had elected to have Dartenis leave the Terran Initiative. It was legally done, a representative from the Initiative had come, had given his words which were so paper thin in hiding how desperate the Initiative was to not have a planet leave their banner. Still, President Collard had humoured the man, had signed all the documents that showed that yes, he had been informed of the "consequences" of his world's leaving, had had those same "consequences" publicly aired during the campaign for the referendum, because legally it was required that the people know what they were signing for.

He was proud to say that two-thirds of his people had seen through that desperate attempt to cow them into staying. As to the other third; those who had wanted to remain a part of the monolithic empire in all but name? They were free to stay or leave. The Initiative was even providing free transportation for those that had wanted to remain a part of their nation but hadn't the means to leave now that their desires had been overridden.

Yes, all was going well.

Jean-Claude Collard looked out the window of his office, took in the capital city of his world and sipped a small sip of his wine, a small celebration of his victory.

#

'I don't get it.'

Sergeant Hesne turned to look at his squad-mate, the crimson lenses of his helmet glinting against the sun.

'You don't get what?' Hesne asked the other grenadier.

'Why this planet chose to secede.' Private Thaddeus—Thad to his friends—waved a wand toward the city of New Carolina. 'I mean, they were told about the consequences right?'

Hesne nodded once and turned his eye back to the refugees who were all waiting to get about a transport to take them back to an Initiative aligned world. 'Yup, it's on public record. Magistrate Heimer gave the papers: they were signed, they were dotted. We know that it was made public knowledge. So we can't say it's ignorance.'

'Speak for yourself,' Private Dawson said with a snort. 'They're ignorant, and it's deliberate on their end. Can't educate those who don't want to be educated.'

'Well even discarding the consequences, what exactly makes them think leaving the Initiative will benefit them in any way?' Thad asked.

'I dunno.' Hesne shrugged. 'The big thing that President Collard keeps harping on about is how they'll be free to carve their own destiny.'

'What does that even mean?' Thad all but shrieked the question.

'Well I don't know: I'm too sane to buy into bollocks.' Hesne retorted. 'He's conned everybody into this weird notion that they're being oppressed.'

'We're oppressing them?' Dawson sounded amused. 'Really? How? National policy is largely to let each colony be, so long as they follow national law.'

Hesne groaned in disgust. 'How in the hell am I supposed to know. I'm too sane to understand. Or maybe I'm just too sober.'

Dawson guffawed. A few hundred yards from them, one of the massive transport ships being used to ferry those who'd wanted to remain part of the Initiative offworld lifted itself from the ground and twisted in the air so that it could shoot up into orbit and then make the transition to the neighbouring colony world of New Mercia. In twenty minutes, another transport ship would land to take its place, but until then, there would be some discomfort among the waiting refugees. It was illogical, but the longer they couldn't see another ship there to be filled, the more their heads would fill with doubts and fears.

It was that last detail which was why the landing site was being patrolled by Initiative troops, though they had to be careful to de-escalate any problems rather than make it look as though they were being heavy-handed in their efforts to keep order. Any concerns about too harsh an approach and the masses might just riot, to try to force their way into whatever transport was available regardless of space concerns. As it was, the transports were already being packed beyond the recommended levels by far. If the destination hadn't only been a single constellation lane away there was no way they would have dared.

It felt silly to Hesne that one space being vacant would cause so much concern. It was as if there was a collective OCD that was triggered the instant that there were less than five transports at a given moment.

'You know,' Dawson started to say as they walked alongside the fencing that had been erected to try and herd the refugees in some semblance of order. 'They might not be so panicked if we weren't wearing full combat gear.'

'But if a riot were to break out,' Thad replied before Hesne could, 'we'd need all the protection we can get.'

Dawson shook his head, paused his walk so he could examine a family of four on the other side of the fence. The mother of the family noticed his attention and quickly averted her gaze. On the other hand, the younger of the two kids looked at the trio of grenadiers with the awe and wonder that only the youth were capable of when seeing real life army men in person.

The private did have a point. The Initiative army equipped its soldiers with full combat armour, which included a helmet that concealed the face of the wearer behind a respirator, the grill of which was almost reminiscent of a stern expression. Coupled with the glaring red eye lenses, while it was an iconic image for the Terran army, it wasn't ever going to be winning any hearts and minds strategic campaigns. Regrettably, that particular strategy fell out of favour during the early years of the Holy Crusade. It had become far more important that those serving the armed forces be as survivable as possible against the seemingly unstoppable kaiserlich. Even after the Crusade came to an end, the Initiative had never backtracked on that change.

Still, Dawson also had a point: this wasn't a hostile combat zone. They didn't need to intimidate nervous refugees who were only refugees because they wanted to remain a part of the Terran Initiative. So with that in mind, Hesne pressed his fingers to a hidden switch in his armour, had his helmet retract and fold itself away, exposed his face to the world.

He instantly felt vulnerable. It wasn't even the lack of armour surrounding his head; it was the absence of his visor's HUD. No scrolling text, no highlighting points of interest, not even a marker to identified the man below the armour when he looked to the other two grenadiers.

'Think this will help?' he asked, gave a grin towards the kid who was still watching the trio with undisguised awe.

The kid's expression morphed into confusion; tugged at the father's sleeve and spoke words that weren't audible at the distance they were from the grenadier patrol.

Hesne chuckled mirthlessly. He supposed it would take some people by surprise when they saw him without the concealing helmet. He was a loyal soldier in the Terran army, but he was also a minority.

'You'd think they'd never seen a xeralnaat before.' Thad was unable to conceal that he was laughing when he spoke the words.

As they began to walk again Dawson shrugged and chose to also retract his helmet, blinked rapidly when his eyes took in unfiltered sunlight for the first time in hours. 'It's like they forget that Terran refers to nationality as much as species.'

Thad pointedly didn't retract his helmet, shook his head at the pair. 'If either of you get a concussion when some bright spark lobs a stone, I'm laughing.'

'Paranoia, good,' Hesne twisted his lips into a grin. 'You can shield us with your thick head and its extra plating.'

Thad waved his middle finger at Hesne. Above, another transport finally came down from orbit, was already moving to take the place of the recently departed. Hesne wasn't interested in that though, his eye caught another ship landing, this one in the smaller area set aside for civilian ships that were willing to offer aid or pick up relatives.

'Huh, is that a Gladiator-class interceptor?' he asked.

The craft in question looked like an old atmospheric fighter plane. It was a description that could be applied for most Terran interceptor craft; why change what worked? With Terran doctrine having interceptors pull double duty within atmospheric conditions, it certainly worked. But even by the standards of Terran fighter design, this particular craft looked almost like it had come straight out of one of those period drama vids that his daughter was obsessed with watching.

Thad lowered his waggling finger and examined the small craft which had captured the sergeant's attention. He gave a sound of confused thought. 'That doesn't sound like any interceptor class. Don't we name all our interceptors after martial weapons?'

'The Initiative does, yes.' Hesne answered. 'But the Confederacy don't.'

'Oh, it's a confed interceptor.' Instantly Thad's voice became dismissive, borderline disgusted. 'How would you even know about Confederacy strike craft?'

'My kids play videogames. Latest craze is some strategy game involving the Gaian Confederacy as one of the playable factions.'

Thad made a sound beneath his helmet that could at best be described as immature. At worst, it would be described as crude and borderline vulgar.

Hesne ignored his amusement at Thad's opinions regarding the other nation, instead moved toward the landed interceptor. A human male with dishwasher blond hair looked up from where he had landed after hopping out of the cockpit on the opposite side of the craft, lifted a hand in greeting.

'Hello there,' he called out.

'Pilot,' Hesne acknowledged him.

The pilot blinked in momentary surprise at seeing the form of Hesne, so very much not a human, in the infamous armour of a Terran grenadier, before he then shrugged and apparently decided to take it in stride.

'What can I do you for?' the pilot instead asked while he stood and circled his craft.

'Just curious,' Hesne answered, jerked his head at the craft. 'Namely about why you've landed a Gladiator interceptor in the refugee zone.'

The pilot laughed a deep belly-aching laugh. 'Common mistake: this isn't a Gladiator. It's a civilian model based on the design. This is a Civitas-class fighter.'

'What makes it civilian?' Dawson asked, very clearly looking at the weapons, more than enough to cause certain groups to lose their rags at the notion of private citizens having access to such arms.

The pilot shrugged and then tapped the nose of the fighter. 'Power restraints, mostly. Even if I were to soup this bird up, I can't fit a military grade engine in, so I'm limited in my power usage.' The pilot's lips twisted into an amused grin. 'On the other hand, because of the smaller engine, this bird actually has space for cargo.'

Hesne blinked in surprise at that last detail and cast a critical eye at the fighter. 'That has a cargo hold?'

The pilot chuckled. 'Not a big one, admittedly.' He tapped at the underside of the craft's nose and twisted at a hidden latch. A panel opened up, revealed the cargo space. Big definitely wasn't the wording to describe it, but it was certainly enough to get by.

The pilot started to remove the content of the cargo space, carefully moved the heavy cargo crate and rested it to the ground.

'It's why I'm here. Dropping off some supplies and then taking my client to Hogan.'

'Privateer then.' Thad scoffed, his earlier attitude still there to be heard.

The pilot shrugged in a carefree manner. 'Licensed. It's a living.'

Hesne's eyes lingered in the craft. 'Power limits aside, I image that's a fast ship.' His eyes lowered to the small cargo space. 'Break past many blockades in your time?'

The privateer's smile became less benign and instead crafty in nature. 'Don't ask me any questions, I'll not tell any lies.'

Hesne shrugged. 'It's not my concern. Confed?'

'Born and bred on the capital of Gaia itself.' The pilot held out a hand. 'Seth Marshall.'

Hesne clasped the hand of the privateer in a firm shake. 'Sergeant Gron Hesne.'

'Your friend can relax by the by. I might be born a Gaian, but I'm not a patriotic "our way is the true way" type. To be fair, can't recall the last time I actually visited the Confederacy.'

Hesne shot Thad a look, a silent order to calm himself.

'Not a fan of home?' Thad asked, very pointedly ignored the order which didn't come verbally.

Marshall shrugged nonchalantly, ignored the hostility in the tone. 'I've had disagreements. Don't particularly care for the authoritarian turn the council has taken over the past few decades.'

Thad snorted and turned away. 'Sergeant, I'm going to keep patrolling the perimeter.'

Probably for the best. 'Go ahead.'

The grenadier marched stiffly away, back toward the fences. As he moved, he retracted his helmet, exposed pale skin and dark hair.

'He's not a fan of the Confederacy then?' Marshall asked with an eyebrow raised to his hairline.

'Apparently not,' Hasne said, cast a look at Dawson, who knew Thad better than he did.

'Just a victim of the "us versus them" propaganda.' Dawson shook his head, looked a mite bit annoyed at the fact. 'Any of the alien nations? He's live and let live. A separate human state? Well…' he waved a hand towards the now distant form of Thad with an expression of "what you see is what you get".

Marshall gave a mirthless grin. 'Similarities are startling. We used to be taught in the Confederacy that our separation from you was mostly amicable, but now… well, you're the devils.'

Hasne shrugged. 'Can only speak from the experience of growing up on a fringe world, but Terran education barely mentioned the Confederacy. You're a footnote. You separated, end of.'

Marshall laughed, more genuine than his previous smile had been. 'That must irk the council some.' His smile faded into a frown and he looked at the landing sites, at the five transport craft ferrying all the refugees. 'I don't even know what's going on here.'

'The planet elected to secede from the Initiative.' Hesne frowned, wasn't particularly interested in repeating the conversation he'd had with his two comrades just minutes prior.

'See, I don't get why? Why are you letting them?'

For a moment, Hesne was flatfooted, the conversation had taken a turn that wasn't familiar, for which he was thankful, once he had regained mental equilibrium.

'Because forcing them to stay would be tyrannical?' he found himself asking, though it was more to himself than anything else. 'We force them to stay and they start being more violent about wanting to leave.'

'But this planet was colonised by your government, so why would you so easily let it go?'

It was Dawson who answered this time, his answer far more sure of itself than Hesne's had been. 'Technically, we didn't colonise this planet. It was colonised by corporations who claimed to do it in our name. We were then left with colonies that we never actually wanted.'

Marshall blinked in surprise. 'You… never wanted these colonies?'

Dawson shook his head. 'The Initiative was trying to avoid spreading itself too far too quickly. The corporations ignored that and were only thinking about profit margins and mining rights. They then began colonisation efforts and expected to be rewarded for their forward thinking. They were in for a rude surprise when the Initiative government's response was annoyance and anger. But at the end of the day, it was Initiative citizens who had formed the colonies, so we were obligated to protect them as best we could.'

'Wait, so when these fringe worlds decide that they want to leave the Initiative…'

'We're actually more than happy to let them go as it means we aren't stretching our naval patrols thin trying to protect them from piracy and raiders. More than that, a lot of these fringe colonies are still at developmental phases where they're actually a burden on national resources. They say "oh we want to leave" and we think: oh good, that means we can put the resources we aren't getting any return on elsewhere and our naval patrols have less ground to cover meaning better protection for those that are still with us.'

Marshall barked out a laugh. 'And they still choose to leave?'

He sounded disbelieving. Hesne didn't blame him. Hesne had been listening to the arguments from both sides from the start and even without knowing about the Initiative's stance on the issue, he simply hadn't been able to fathom any benefit that Dartenis would gain.

Most of the so-called positives were wishful thinking at best, outright lies by those campaigning to leave at worst. Arguments like arguing that the credits no longer being taxed by the Initiative could be put into speeding up the development of the colony, an argument that completely ignored the fact that as a colony at phase-two development, the taxation was non-existent. The only taxes that Dartenis had were from the planet's own management.

Another argument had been made that the colonists would be able to charge the Initiative an export fee, which was ignoring that Dartenis imported far more than it exported.

Hesne shook his head, dismay at the gullible nature of those who had believed in the false promises of the leaver's campaigning. 'I think they're victim to a collective delusionism about their own worth. They haven't suffered any raids or pirate attacks, so they believe they don't need naval protection… even though it's because of that protection that pirates haven't attacked.'

Dawson snorted in amusement mixed with trace amounts of disgust. 'They also seem to be ignoring the bit about how if they want the supplies that they need in order to build up their colony from us, well, as they are no longer part of the Initiative they now have to pay import fees.'

'To my knowledge, Dartenis hasn't yet got enough farms and agricultural plots to feed its own population, even with this exodus.' Hesne added, waving his hand at the refugees in the background as he spoke. 'So that's food they now aren't getting free of charge from the rest of the Initiative. Stockpiles should last a month, assuming President Collard hasn't been shirking his duties. Material for construction and development, well Dartenis was never intended to be an industrial or mining colony, so that's another thing they need imported.'

Dawson looked up at the sky, as though beseeching some deity for some semblance of sanity in the world. 'But yet, over in the city, they are celebrating their newfound "freedom", ignoring that Magistrate Heimer made it clear, quite publicly mind you, just what their new independence actually means for them.'

'They aren't the first world to secede from you though,' Marshall said, was clearly up to date with the history of the Initiative in that regard. He lifted a finger, was clearly going to count off the colonies he knew of that had done just that. 'Ordail, Aehldaris and Périnia…'

Dawson scoffed loudly, cut off Marshall before he could recite any more, if there were more. His head shook and his expression one of mocking contempt as he then glared out at the distant city.

'Yeah, a handful of colonies have left, were let go without complaint, which is what made this referendum so stupid! They've seen what happens but they still cling to this strange delusion that no, they will be the exception. Except we already had the exception in the form of Ordail, and even they were eventually devastated beyond recovery by a pirate raid.'

Marshall looked momentarily taken aback at Dawson's outburst. His head then tilted in consideration and he gave a single nod, clearly agreed.

'There is no saving people from their own stupidity apparently,' he said in acknowledgement. 'I'm surprised that you didn't list the Confederacy as your exception.'

Dawson shook his head. 'Because they aren't. The Confederacy wasn't founded by a single planet seceding, it was a mass exodus of peoples to a different part of the 'verse entirely; the formation of a new colony elsewhere, completely un-associated with the Initiative from the start.'

'On the upside,' Hesne began, took a dark humour in the next statement, 'there will be a certain satisfaction to be had once reality hits them. The government will get to point out, quite truthfully, that they had ample warning. These warnings were made public to the people of Dartenis, were made public in such a way that even foreign nations can see we gave the warning, I mean, gods-damn, it was broadcast live across the nation. So no, they do not get to complain that they decided to ignore those warnings.'

Hesne chuckled and followed up his prediction of the future of Dartenis with a: 'If somebody is determined to drown themselves, then trying to save them will only get you pulled under the water along with them.'

'Not that that would be a concern for you,' Marshall joked lightly, pointedly looked at Hesne's features. Hesne grinned in acknowledgement: it was an idiom that meant little to a member of an aquatic species, but his point still stood.

Dawson gave a shrug with one shoulder. 'Either fight to keep a colony you never wanted or let it go with a clear conscience?' His arm waved at a transport ship as it began to lift off. 'And those who had wanted to remain a part of our nation? We're doing what we can. I can sleep easy at night knowing we did what we could.'

Marshall shook his head, his grin slipped into a grimace. 'That's cold attitude to hold, but at the same time I'm not sure I can blame you. So, once the last of these refugees has been transported, you wipe your hands clean of all responsibility.'

'The short and dirty of it,' Hesne agreed.

There was a called out attempt to get their attention. Hesne turned to see Thad returning to them, pace brisk. Once he saw that he had the attention of the three, he slowed, and turned to look at Marshall.

'Somebody at Checkpoint Delta is asking for you by name, Marshall.' Thad informed him, tone kept professional, despite his earlier distaste for the Gaian.

Marshall hummed, and his smile returned to his face. 'Ah, good. I had commed him to let him know I was landing.' He reached down and lifted the crate he had previously removed from the cargo space of his fighter.

Hesne hummed, acknowledging that he'd also heard, and pointed at Dawson, even as he looked at the privateer. 'Private Dawson will escort you, and you can verify if it's your client.'

The Gaian looked to Dawson and nodded, already moving to fall into step beside the grenadier. 'Lead on, private.'

Hesne stood back, positioned himself beside Thad and watched the pair depart. He inhaled deeply, turned his eye toward the city in the background, where no doubt President Jean-Claude Collard was watching the exodus of those who had disagreed with his belief of leaving the Initiative as being a good thing. He wondered what Collard's thoughts were of a third of his people leaving him.

Did he realise, deep down, just how badly he had screwed his people over? Or had he bought so deeply into his own rhetoric that he honestly believed that a developing colony that was still dependant on imported goods to survive was somehow able to survive without free aid?

After a moment, he snorted in disdain. No matter what President Collard felt or believed, no matter what came as a consequence of his actions, Hesne would be sleeping easy, was absolved of all responsibility. Even if he hadn't been enlisted in the Initiative armed forces he would have been leaving this planet of his birth, along with his family. He had fought against the referendum, but the nature of democracy was that there was always the side that lost to the majority. President Collard had spun his words, played the piper, and those who had elected him into office had once again fallen, swayed to his way of thinking.

'You going to miss this place?' Thad asked. His voice was lighter than it had been while in the presence of Marshall, shoulders weren't hunched defensively.

'Not really.' Hesne shrugged. 'Never felt that attached to Dartenis.'

As a colony, it had potential… had. But now, even if they managed to last long enough to become self-sufficient, they would be stunted economically, a constant eye in the sky for the next opportunistic raiders who saw a world undefended.

Collard had never put proper time into the planetary defence militia, so even on a ground level, they were easy pickings. Again, Hesne had to wonder just what delusional world Collard and his followers were living in.

His hand rose back to his head, an unconscious habit whenever his comlink was in use. His shoulders sagged in relief, gave Thad a pat on the shoulder and jerked his head towards one of the landed transports.

'Come on, I want to go to LZ Charlie.'

Thad tilted his head in silent query. Hesne let him stew in his curiosity for several moments before finally answering.

'I just want to see my family before they get shipped offworld.'

Thad clicked his fingers in realisation. 'Oh that's right, I forgot you were born… well… hatched here.'

Hesne gave him a bemused look, because he knew full well that was a lie. The private laughed and waved his hand in a small motion of 'lead on', quickly matched the brisk pace of the sergeant.

-FIN