Historians recognize Monday, May 10, 2184 as the beginning of the Independence War between the Offworld Colonies and the Terran Federation. It came at the end of a week of tension and uncertainty following the expiration of President Monroe’s second evacuation deadline of May 3.
In the last weeks of April, the Terran government had finally made some moves to create an appearance of credibility around the demand for an offworld evacuation, by providing passenger ships to carry the evacuating population to the planet.
During the preceding year, passenger flights to and from the Colonies had slowed and finally halted. The administration’s embargo of lifesystem supplies to the Colonies had included a prohibition against any passenger travel from Earth, so commercial airlines could only send ships to orbit empty. In the first rush after the order, when about twenty percent of the offworld population chose to return, there were enough bookings for Earthbound flights to justify the cost of sending empty spacecraft up, but that had come to an end and by early 2184 no commercial carrier still had scheduled flights between the Colonies and the Earth. In April, with an executive order of dubious legality even under his emergency powers, President Monroe nationalized the five largest private airlines and sent all their orbit-capable passenger ships to dock at the Colonies, ready to carry the population back down. Even with all available ships standing by, the full evacuation would take months— but the ships were ready to start it.
This move was not, however, accompanied by any increase in the Offworld Force under Warren Armstrong’s command. He faced the same tactical problem as before: not enough troops to force an evacuation against opposition from the Offworlders themselves. But in mid-April his tactical team hit upon a strategy that could accomplish his mission.
Colony lifesystems depended on photosynthetic plants to recycle water and carbon dioxide, and produce oxygen and food supplies. The majority of an O’Neill Colony’s interior was devoted to farmlands raising vegetables and grains while in population centers almost every horizontal surface hosted decorative plants or grassy lawns. But all of this only provided a fraction of the requirements. The real key to each Colony’s lifesystem was the network of algae tanks. These were not simply large spherical containers— a design like that wouldn’t allow sunlight to penetrate to the center of the tank, and so would limit the photosynthetic reaction. Instead the algae tanks took the form of branching masses of small cells connected by a network of tubes, sometimes compared to artificial trees and sometimes to the gills of a fish. Carefully designed, as much by decades of trial and error as by original plans, these networks allowed each small container to receive full sunlight, directed onto it by the Colony’s computer-controlled mirrors, as well as helping to stabilize the population booms and crashes that living systems were otherwise prone to.
These tanks provided the bulk of the Colony’s oxygen, as well as fodder for onboard livestock and the raw materials for a number of processed foods for the human populations. And they were extremely fragile.
Armstrong’s tactical team devised a plan for the bulk of each company within the Offworld Force to attempt to begin rounding up civilians and forcing them into the waiting transports. Almost certainly the only result would be their arrest by Colonial police. They could try to make a fight of it, but as Armstrong had realized all along, they would be swiftly overwhelmed. It wouldn’t matter, since the real attack would be by small commando units that would use the turmoil to evade observation and go to the Colony age tanks, and destroy them.
The Colonies had stockpiles of lifesystem consumables large enough to last for several months— long enough for an orderly evacuation. But there would be no hope of rebuilding the tanks, and regrowing the algae population, before those supplies were exhausted. Experience with the earliest O’Neill Colonies, fifty years earlier, had shown that those living systems could only be cultivated at a slow, careful pace to avoid sudden crashes.
If the plan worked, there would be no choice but to abandon the Colonies. And if the main companies were briefed to surrender as soon as confronted by the Colonial police, it could be done without any loss of life— except, perhaps, whoever might notice and try to stop the commando units.
Armstrong now had in his hands the means to succeed in his mission, without the bloodshed he had wanted, from the beginning, to avoid. Under his existing orders, he had the power to approve this plan without consulting any higher authority. Nevertheless, he submitted the plan, via coded transmission, to his immediate supervisor (and longtime mentor) Admiral Richard Gali.
Historians are unsure of Armstrong’s motive for doing so. Was he, perhaps, putting the Monroe administration to the test? In any event, Gali quickly approved the plan, extending congratulations to the Offworld tactical team for devising it. President Monroe had a different reaction. Orders swiftly came down from the Chief of Military Operations (CMO), the Cabinet official charged with oversight of the Terran military, forbidding Armstrong from putting the plan into action.
Within a day, President Monroe backed up the order by giving a public speech in which he outlined the plan and stated he would not allow it. In doing so, he removed any chance of its success— warned by the public announcement, the Colonies could move at once to surround their lifesystems with enough security to prevent any sabotage. Monroe said sabotaging the Colony algae tanks would mean the loss of the “vital materials” which must be returned to Earth, along with the human population, in order to restore Earth’s ecosystems.
Though scientifically nonsensical, Monroe’s statement was at least consistent with the Born to the Earth party’s long held (and equally unscientific) position about the effect offworld colonization had on the planet. But Warren Armstrong took it as proof that his worst fears were true: the President did not want his mission to succeed; instead he wanted a prolonged conflict to generate ongoing propaganda. His journals show his firm decision, at this point, that it would be a bloodless conflict.
On Sunday May 2, all twenty-four Colonial governors met by a conference call to coordinate their response to the military action expected the next day. Warned by Monroe’s speech, every Colony assigned a large police presence to guard their lifesystems. Colony SWAT or other emergency service units would surround the military bases. They would take no action unless they “witnessed a crime”— charges discussed included disorderly conduct, illegal weapons, whatever might serve for any military personnel who attempted to coerce civilians into boarding the waiting ships. Colonial schools and businesses announced closures for Monday, and all citizens not required for critical Colony operations were told to remain in their quarters.
At the same time, Armstrong conferred with his company commanders. At 0600 Monday morning, he would declare martial law. The troops would attempt to leave base and begin a round of Colony living areas, ordering people to the ships and arresting any who refused. But if blocked by police units— which he knew would be the case— they were not to try and break through, but simply stop. Their officers would remind the police that under the President’s emergency powers, the military had jurisdiction. But they weren’t to open hostilities and under no circumstances were they to be the first to fire a shot.
On Monday, May 3, the stalemate everyone knew would happen, happened. On every Colony, police lined up to block any military personnel from leaving their bases, warning them that any who did so would be arrested. The companies of the Offworld Force took up position just inside the base exits, their officers warned the police to stand aside or be arrested in their turn. Nobody actually did anything. It was a staring match that continued for several days.
Losing patience, on Sunday May 9 President Monroe personally issued orders to the Offworld Force, via public address, that the next morning, May 10, one week into the stalemate, if the civilian police did not stand aside the soldiers were to open fire on them. Any officer who failed to issue the necessary orders, or any soldier who failed to act “with necessary aggression” was to be arrested at once— and shot if he or she attempted to interfere with those who were doing their duty.
Armstrong had had enough. On the morning of May 10, he issued orders to his Offworld Force to stand down. He must have known it would not be that simple. By issuing his directive publicly to the whole Force, bypassing the chain of command, Monroe had effectively ordered everyone in the Force, from Armstrong down to the most junior enlisted man, to act on his own if his superiors failed to obey the directive. The resulting chaos was inevitable.
Hoping to avoid bloodshed, Armstrong had stocked his Offworld Force with as many offworld-native troops and officers as he could, and for the rest he had carefully avoided any with obvious Born to the Earth sympathies. Even so, the officers and troops of the Force divided over whether to obey Armstrong’s order to stand down, or Monroe’s to open fire. Instead of a battle between the Offworld Force and the civilian police, across the Colonies there were short, disorganized, and inconclusive brawls among the members of the Force itself.
On Star City, where Armstrong’s own command staff were headquartered, very few in the local company attempted to carry out the Presidential order. They were quickly disarmed by those who sided with Armstrong. At the other extreme, on Nova the commander of the Force’s 6th company, Captain Jeanette Wheeler, ordered her troops to open fire as the President had ordered. About half of her platoon lieutenants refused and the enlisted soldiers seem to have been equally divided. Shots were fired and the situation degenerated into a brawl. Nova’s police moved in, but it took more than six hours before what was effectively a riot was brought under control and Captain Wheeler ordered her company to stand down. Fifteen members of the Terran military, and five Nova police officers, were injured. No one was killed.
No other confrontation was as prolonged as that on Nova. Some company captains sided with Armstrong, some attempted to carry out Monroe’s orders. Almost every subordinate officer and enlisted soldier who was an offworld native followed Armstrong’s order to stand down, along with almost half of the remaining personnel. Shots were fired in skirmishes on Galileo, Shuraku, and Prometheus, but only three injuries were reported, all on Galileo. Nowhere except the Nova did the conflict last longer than an hour, before those who sided with the Colonies, together with the civilian police, were able to reestablish order. No fatalities occurred in the muddled, uncertain skirmishes of the first battle of the Independence War.
On all Colonies, the civilian police moved in and took control of the military bases. Those of the Offworld Force who had tried to follow Monroe’s orders were escorted to the passenger ships the President had sent to receive an evacuating civilian population, along with anyone else who chose to return to Earth. Knowing court martial or worse awaited them on the planet, few of those who sided with Armstrong chose to return. Temporarily, they remained housed at the military bases, now under Colonial control.
Warren Armstrong sent his resignation from the Terran Military in a personal communication to Admiral Richard Gali. The message was encoded under a privacy seal and neither main ever revealed what it said.
Aboard the Colonies, the Terran Military had effectively ceased to exist. But it would not be long before its former members were recalled to duty, on behalf of the new nation that would soon declare its existence.
TO BE CONTINUED