3050 Solos, Knights of the Royal Guard.
The Royal Guard of Marduk consists of 144 heavy cruisers. The ships being highly automated are flown by only one pilot: the "Solo". The pilots and their families pay for the entire ship, the equipment, and the weapons.
Membership of Guard is an honor for solo pilots. It is an opportunity for wealthy families to rise to the (lower) nobility even though they had not been among the first settlers. "Solo Duty" is equivalent to a medieval knighthood.
About 200 years ago began the so-called storm of the techno-barbarians. At that time modern weapons fell into the hands of archaic societies and peoples with different moral systems. Most of them would probably not have developed advanced technology on their own. Thus, they would never have becoming a threat to interstellar civilizations and we would not have heard about them. However, when some of them gained access to fast spaceships and automatic weapon systems, their ethics, their customs, and their behavioral patterns, became relevant on an interstellar scale. This had fatal consequences for advanced civilizations in their vicinity.
The main trigger for this development was the demise of the Interian Empire. The empire had contacted many species and had tried to integrate them into the interstellar society. However, this process was not completed when the empire suddenly collapsed. Many of those contacted but not yet civilized peoples were left to their own devices. Retreating, the empire abandoned naval bases in a hurry, leaving depots to the local populations. And what these found were modern fully automated weapon systems, ready to use without technical skills, just by voice commands.
Even more weaponry fell into the hands of barbarians during the Gorman civil war where many of the warring parties equipped mercenaries from their home planets.
Also the advanced civilizations of the sector were too careless. When the trade routes became unsafe, they hired mercenaries to protect convoys. However, mercenaries who protect freighters are also liable to attack trade routes. This happened time and again.
Finally, techno-barbarians started to attack not only trade ships, but entire star systems. Several systems of advanced civilizations were unable to defend themselves. They were looted or occupied. Trade partners were lost, interstellar trade became more expensive, and the fringes of all solar systems had to be considered unsafe spaces. After 50 years, the highly interconnected interstellar societies of the sector were in a severe economic crisis. At times some had already suffered from occupation and foreign rule. Most were trying to rearm after a long peaceful period. However, this proved to be difficult at a time of economic decline.
Solar systems employing a modern quaternary system defense, comprising a ballistic shield, deep space barriers, long range mines, and mobile units, can fortify against massive attacks. This is very expensive and a decades-long effort even for wealthy systems. Therefore, most systems only build mobile forces. This is sufficient against attacks by techno-barbarians, at least in most cases.
Another 100 years later, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that many species, territorial sovereignties, and even entire star systems have difficulty in raising sufficient funds for a standing defense fleet. Many have to rely on civilian ships being hastily equipped with weapons as an emergency solution when menaced.
Armed merchant ships are also called upon for defense. Interstellar traders had long been armed to ward off pirates ever since the trade routes had become unsafe. Weapon systems of high-tech civilizations have an enormous destructive potential. A single light cruiser could easily render an entire planet uninhabitable. Such arms being in the hands of interstellar pirates merchant ships are now well armed to protect themselves. Therefore, they are also perfectly suited to play an important role in the defense of their home systems.
In addition, many governments expect wealthy citizens and large corporations to do their duty and contribute to the defense effort. Even in economically difficult times there are very wealthy individuals (well, at least among species who know the concept of an individual). And many of the super-rich have their own spaceships.
In good times, there are fabulous riches in interstellar societies, a thousand times greater than the wealth of billionaires in planet-bound regional economies 1000 years earlier. Even in bad times, the rich can afford their own spaceships, a yacht or an interstellar-jet equipped with weapons that are able to defend themselves against pirates. Besides, even in advanced civilizations there are mercenaries hired to protect their clients. For this purpose, they travel in privately owned well-armed ships.
These ships are largely automated. Virtually all functions of the spaceship are performed by drones, by microbots, or by AIs. Automation goes all the way, from cleaning swarms and repair drones to management positions that would otherwise be carried out by bridge officers. Most of these ships have only a small crew. Often there is only one person onboard: the owner, the captain, the solo pilot.
They are called Solos: a pilot and a spaceship.
Solos are an elite. They are genetically optimized and equipped with nanotechnology. They have a multi-tasking consciousness with several parallel thought processes, accelerated thinking, and unlimited memory. Their mental abilities are enhanced by specialized intuition sources: strategy simulations and tactical optimizers, the results of which are fed into the consciousness through implants. Solos are able to grasp the flood of events from multiple sensor dimensions in battles with tens of thousands of units. They can quickly decide on the best course of action to take. They are in no way inferior to the drone crews of accelerated uploads.
Equally important is training. Good Solos have to exercise a lot simulating fights against AI opponents and against other Solos. The cockpit of a Solo ship being completely virtual and fed by sensors is the perfect simulator environment for tactical war games.
Being Solo is not only expensive but also time consuming. The wealth of most Solos is based on a business empire even if it is inherited. However, it is virtually impossible to be a successful business magnate and a versed Solo pilot at the same time. That's why most Solos delegate the management of their companies so that they can devote all of their time to Solo training.
Of course, there are always exceptions. For example rich heirs buying to become a hobbyist Solo. These people can close their personal capability gaps by hiring a small crew. So, not all Solos fly really alone. Some employ additional pilots, tacticians, strategic advisors, social companions, or a "night shift" that is in command while the is Solo sleeping, even if this is only for two hours a day.
There are Solos everywhere in the human sphere. In some solar systems there are only a few while other systems boast of thousands. Where there are many Solos they often constitute the fourth pillar of the system defense fleet alongside upgraded freighters, armed merchants, and the regular navy.
Usually Solos do not carry the main load of a battle. This is the task of heavily armed close combat platforms, the battleships of the modern age. The ships of the Solos are more the size of frigates or light cruisers. They are very mobile and capable of acting independently even at interplanetary distances despite the light lag. Therefore, they are often used as scouts, as a rapid reaction force, or in surprise attacks like ancient cavalry.
Solos are now so important for the system defense that governments must ensure their availability in the event of a crisis. They cannot rely on their Solos contributing voluntarily to defense. Therefore, they require that wealthy individuals provide and equip ships. Solo duty is now so common, that in practice, every citizen and every corporation who can afford to finance a warship is obliged to do so.
Initially, this was a big burden for many. Not all of the super-rich owned spaceships. And not all these ships were heavily armed. The necessary weaponry for Solo duty goes far beyond what would be needed to simply deter pirates, not only in terms of performance, but also in terms of costs.
On the other hand, membership in the Solo component of a system defense fleet is something special. Compared to the regular navy with hundreds of thousands of crews, a thousand Solos are an elite unit.
It is never easy to enlist the super-rich to serve, because great fortunes always offer possibilities to escape service for the home system. Therefore, governments strive to make the duty more attractive by honoring Solos. This works especially well in feudal structures.
On Marduk, the office of president is now hereditary the term president being used like a royal title. The parliament of the Republic of Marduk is dominated by corporations and wealthy families. They are still called deputies, but they are actually elected for life in secure constituencies. The meaning of the terms has changed. People still speak of president and parliament, but the true meaning and the perception are more like king or emperor and senate.
The parliament is the place where the big deals are closed. Even in dire times Marduk has many successful businesses, but the real commerce – and this includes the distribution of the republic's funds – is conducted among the members of the parliament.
Many members of parliament are descendants of the first settlers. Their families command the lion's share of territorial rights in the Marduk system. They not only own planetary territories on the scale of continents, but also artificial habitats, segments of orbital rings and more abstract "territories" like deployment rights for orbital space, exclusive shipping routes, mining claims in asteroid belts, gas giant extraction permits, gravitational swing-by fees, even waste disposal quota and usage rights to sections of the electromagnetic spectrum. Though these families are essentially the modern aristocrats, they still need to do their duty by providing a Solo in order to be eligible for parliament.
In addition to those first-wave aristocrats there is a new kind of nobility based on wealth. The people and families who arrived later but have accumulated great fortunes over the centuries. They are able to rise to the ranks of parliamentarians by providing a Solo. Being chosen for Solo duty is equivalent to medieval knighthood.
The so-called "Members of the Republic of Marduk System Defense Solo Forces" are the knights of the king.
A very special honor is the Solo duty in the presidential guard. These are 144 of the best skilled and best equipped Solos. The presidential guard is practically a modern praetorian guard: 144 heavy cruisers to protect the president.
There are similar trends in many other star systems. Throughout the humans sphere the term Solo stands for reliability, competence, courage, independence, and fabulous wealth.
At a time of economic decline Solos are becoming an ideal for billions of sophonts craving for a better life.