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Original Work Cast Adrift (A whole new universe)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Mar 16, 2020.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    Cast Adrift is, in one sense, a new universe. In another, it’s a reprise of a far earlier trilogy I wrote - When The Empire Falls - which I thought wasn’t worth the effort of rewriting when I started to break into writing. The basic idea is that, 500 years or so ago, Earth was conquered by an alien empire and forcibly integrated into the galactic mainstream ... an occupation that is now coming to an end, as the overlords simply can’t afford it. (Think Roman Britain or British India rather than Vichy France or Vietnam.) Earth is given its independence and cast out to do whatever it likes, unaware that there are predators waiting in the shadows ...

    You can find the original (very different plot) here - Free Books!

    All comments are welcome; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.

    I hope to keep a steady pace, but I’m still battling the remnants of the [bleeping] flu so there will be a few delays. Sorry.

    If you’re interested in following my writing and hearing news of new releases (and a ton of other goodies), please follow my blog (The Chrishanger) or my mailing list (chrishanger-list Info Page). My Facebook fan page is also online - Christopher G. Nuttall - but Facebook has been playing silly buggers recently, so you’re better to follow either of the first two options (or both <grin>).

    Thank you very much for your time.

    Chris
     
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue I

    Washington was burning.

    The President of the United States gritted his teeth in helpless humiliation as Marine One skirted the edge of the disaster zone, heading remorselessly towards what remained of Andrews Air Force Base. Giant pillars of eerie yellowish smoke rose from the ruined city, casting a sinister light over the countryside. The haze was so thick he couldn’t see the heart of the city, although he knew it was nothing more than a blackened ruin. The White House was gone. The Pentagon was gone. Congress and the Senate and everything else within five miles of the White House ... all gone.

    His stomach churned. A day ago, he’d been the most powerful man in the world. His country had been the most powerful country in the world. He’d looked to a future of boundless optimism, a chance to make his legacy as one of the great presidents of his century ... he’d even regretted, deep inside, that he wouldn’t face a crisis that would ensure his name was forever praised or damned. The world had seemed safe and predicable ...

    ... Until the aliens arrived.

    The President still couldn’t believe it. He’d been lucky - or unlucky - enough to be out of the city when the aliens had announced their presence, when they’d systematically wiped out the satellite network, dropped kinetic projectiles on most of the navy and, just to make it clear the planet had new masters, nuked Washington DC. International communications had been shattered, practically effortlessly, but intelligence reports suggested the aliens had also nuked London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing and five or six other cities. Not knowing burned at him as much as anything else. He’d grown far too used to having information permanently at his fingertips to make it easy to handle the fog of war.

    And the nukes are gone, he thought. It was brutally clear that the US nuclear deterrent was no more. The ground-based missiles had been hammered from orbit, the nuclear-capable aircraft had been wiped out and the submarines were out of contact, presumed sunk. What few missiles they’d been able to fire at the orbiting spacecraft had been swatted down so casually that it was clear the aliens were used to much faster missiles. There’s no way we can hit back.

    Marine One shuddered, again, as it started to descend. The aliens hadn’t landed everywhere, if the reports were to be believed, but they’d dropped troops around Andrews AFB and set up defences. The hastily-organised counterattack, drawing on a combination of soldiers, marines and national guardsmen, had been effortlessly smashed. The President wanted to believe that armed civilians and the remnants of the military would be able to wear the aliens down, but the surviving joint chiefs had made it brutally clear that further resistance would be utterly futile. The aliens controlled the high ground. They could bombard humanity into submission, while remaining outside the range of humanity’s remaining weapons. They’d shown a frightening - utterly terrifying - lack of concern for human casualties. Millions of people had already died, all over the globe. They could simply keep dropping nukes until the human race surrendered.

    The President stared, feeling too numb to care as he saw the alien shapes orbiting over the airfield. Alien fighters ... he’d seen the reports. The USAF had sent F-22s and F-35s against the alien craft, only to watch the jets casually blasted out of the sky. There had been no survivors. His eyes narrowed as he saw armoured shapes - armoured combat suits and small hovertanks - moving around the edge of the base. The nearby civilian housing had been turned into rubble. He thought he saw refugees heading south, trying to reach a safety that no longer existed. The country was steadily sinking into chaos. It had only been a day - a day, his mind screamed - and America was already damaged beyond repair. He shuddered to think how long it would take to restore some semblance of normality ...

    His skin crawled as he saw the figures gathered by the runway. No, things would never be normal again. It wasn’t just a crisis, not any longer. It was the new reality. The human race had believed, truly believed, that it was alone in the universe. The President had read the reports dismissing the very concept of alien life, insisting that even if aliens existed they’d never be able to reach Earth. There had been no truth, he’d been told, in any of the UFO reports. Grey-skinned aliens did not abduct humans for anal probing. The witnesses were hoaxers, or drunk, or simply misunderstood what they saw. Aliens simply did not exist.

    And yet, they did. The figures weren’t human. They were ... just wrong.

    The helicopter touched down with a bump. The President watched the crew spin down the rotors before they opened the hatch. He wanted to draw a gun and open fire, he wanted to carry a nuke into the very heart of alien power ... he knew, all too well, that it was impossible. The aliens would shoot him down in seconds and go on to make their demands to his successor. He wasn’t even sure who that was. The Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives had both died in Washington. There had been no reason to think the United States needed a designated survivor. The Secret Service was working frantically to discover who was alive, let alone where they stood in the line of succession. Too many government officials had been in Washington when the bomb fell. They were missing, presumed dead. The President had a nasty suspicion the aliens had planned it that way.

    He stood, feeling his legs shake. He’d made innumerable diplomatic visits, during the course of a long career, but this was different. This was surrender. The President’s heart wanted to fight to the last; the President’s head knew a prolonged conflict would end in the destruction of the human race. He felt a wave of heat brush across his face as he clambered out of the helicopter. The aliens watched him, silently. He stared at them. All, but one were concealed behind powered armour.

    The unarmoured alien was ... alien. The President shivered. The alien was slightly taller than himself, with reddish-orange skin, bulbous eyes and a mouth that was curved in something that looked like a faint sneer. He - the President assumed the alien was a he - had no hair, no ears. He wore a blank tunic that seemed completely unmarked. He ...

    “Mr President,” the alien said. His English was oddly-accented. “Have you accepted our terms?”

    At least they’re not making me wait, the President thought, savagely. Damn them.

    “Yes,” he said. The shame of surrender washed down on him as the words hung in the air. “We do.”

    “Then we bid you welcome to the galactic community,” the alien said. “Come. We have much work to do.”
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue II

    No human had ever set foot within the council chambers. No human ever would. They were reserved for the Alphans and the Alphans alone, for the very highest of their species. Even the servants were Alphans, a sign of wealth and power on a scale most sentient beings would have found unimaginable. No aliens - not even the few races the Alphans considered their equals, or their servants - were ever invited into the chamber. It was the very core of Alphan power.

    Yasuke, Viceroy of Earth, took a deep breath as he stepped into the chamber. The invitation would normally have been the very pinnacle of his career, a promise - in so many words - that the ruling elite respected and trusted him. He had never had any doubt they cared for him - the core council cared for everyone - but respect and trust? That had been denied, until his invitation to visit the elite in the seat of his power. There was no greater honour for someone who hadn’t climbed to the very top of the ladder.

    There was no formal protocol for greeting the core councillors. He bowed once, in salute, then looked around the chambers as the councillors studied him thoughtfully. Massive holodisplays dominated the room, showing a mixture of views from the tower to live feeds from right across the empire. A newscaster was babbling about something in tones of great excitement, as if the broadcast was live. Yasuke knew better. The news broadcasts would have been cleared through a dozen different committees before going live. Events had probably already moved on. He made a mental note to check the government network before he boarded his ship. He’d need to know if something - anything - had happened that might change the core council’s policies before he could put them into practice.

    He kept his face impassive as the live feed panned across a gleaming white tower. The city was dominated by white towers, each one housing hundreds and thousands of Alphans from birth to death. Their every need met by the government, they lived and died without ever making an impression on the universe. Even now, even after the empire had come closer to defeat than ever before, the population seemed unmoved. They didn’t realise - not yet - that they’d built their towers on sand. They didn’t realise that the servile population was no longer content to be servile. None of them even understood how close they stood to total disaster.

    We built our empire on alien labour, Yasuke thought. And now those aliens want a piece of the pie for themselves.

    He turned his attention back to the councillors as the chairman called for attention. There were nine in all, nine people who controlled the destiny of the entire empire. They were wealthy and powerful beyond compare, yet - now - there were limits to their power. It had always been true, he admitted in the privacy of his own mind, but the vast majority of the population preferred to believe in the council’s omnipotence. There were very few races that would have stood in the way, if the council decided it wanted something. But now, the empire was tottering and the scavengers were gathering. The war had smashed forever the perception of invincibility. It had been won, but the cost had been far too high.

    The chairman’s voice echoed in the silence. “Viceroy. You wished to speak to us about the humans.”

    “Yes,” Yasuke said, flatly. “The human problem is growing out of hand.”

    He waited for the nod, then proceeded. “Five hundred years ago, we invaded and occupied Earth. We assimilated the humans into our empire. Humans worked for us - work for us - on almost all of our worlds. We trained them to fight for us, we taught them to use modern technology, we encouraged them to build up a sizable industrial base of their own. They are no longer a first-stage race, if indeed they ever were. There is a strong case to be made that, five hundred years ago, they were actually a second-stage race.”

    “Absurd,” a councillor snapped. “They had barely even reached their moon!”

    Yasuke frowned, inwardly. He’d spent much of his adult life on Earth, climbing until his word was law right across the Sol System, but he couldn’t say he truly understood his human subjects. It baffled him that the humans, given rockets and surprisingly advanced computer technology, hadn’t settled their star system by the time the first explorer vessel popped out of the crossroads and advanced on Earth. If they had, they would have qualified for a certain degree of respect. They certainly wouldn’t have been summarily crushed and assimilated, weather they liked it or not. Instead, they had been too primitive to offer meaningful resistance when the invasion force arrived. Galactic Law was clear. Primitives had no rights.

    And yet, they’d been strikingly advanced in other ways. Their computer technology had been second-stage, at the very least. They’d envisaged uses for GalTech long before they’d realised they weren’t alone in the universe. Their political systems and philosophical background had been astonishingly advanced, in some respects. It was almost as if they’d started advancing to a post-scarcity level without truly being a post-scarcity society. And then their development had come to a screeching halt. The invasion had ensured they no longer controlled their world.

    “The fact remains, honoured councillor, that the situation is getting out of hand,” Yasuke said, coolly. “If you’ll permit me to elaborate ...

    “The humans have been growing restless over the last hundred years. They increasingly see themselves as our partners, not our subjects. They have been offended, massively, when we have moved to put them back in their box. The rise of human political parties demanding equality, or even independence, is a direct result of our meddling. And now, without them, we would have lost the war ... and they know it. Their demands for greater autonomy can no longer be denied.”

    “Of course they can,” the councillor insisted.

    “My staff believe the Humanity League will win a majority in the Sol Assembly, displaying the Empire Loyalists,” Yasuke stated. “The Empire Loyalists themselves are demanding some form of reward for their loyalty. If we fail to come through, their assemblymen may defect to the Humanity League. That might well trigger an early election or a series of by-elections that will put power in the wrong hands. And if that happens, honoured councillor, we will have the flat choice between agreeing to concede independence and risking a war that will rip the empire apart.”

    A ripple of disbelief ran around the chamber. Yasuke understood, better than he cared to admit. The councillors might never have laid eyes on a human, even one of the uncounted millions who lived and worked on Capital itself. They’d certainly never studied the human race. Why should they? There was no one on Capital who cared about human history, beyond a handful of dusty academics? But Yasuke couldn’t allow himself the luxury of ignorance. Human history was astonishingly violent. The longer they managed to keep the lid on, the greater the explosion when they finally - inevitably - lost control.

    “The Earth Defence Force is more powerful, I think, than you realise,” he said. “The humans control most of the military installations within their system. Titan Base is the only real exception and even that installation has a major human presence. They might be able to liberate themselves, if they wished. That’s not the real problem. There are millions of humans scattered across our worlds. What will they do when they see us move to crush their dreams of equality or independence? We will find ourselves fighting a war on our homeworlds!”

    “We have them under tight control,” another councillor said. His skin was blotchy, suggesting he was starting the transition from male to female. “Rig the election.”

    “That’s no longer possible,” Yasuke said. “They use exit polls to gauge the electorate’s views - and votes. They’ve been strikingly accurate, over the last two decades. They’d have good reason to think we rigged the election if there was a sizable discrepancy between their results and ours. And that might trigger off the insurrection we hoped to avoid.”

    “You paint a grim picture,” the chairman said. “How do you propose we proceed?”

    Yasuke took a breath. They weren’t going to like what he had to say. He didn’t like it himself. But there was no choice. The empire itself was at stake. They had to make concessions now or risk an explosion that would destroy everything they’d built over the last ten thousand years. And yet ... they wouldn’t want to believe him. They had good reasons not to want to believe him.

    “I propose we start granting Earth, and the other human worlds, an increased level of autonomy,” he said. “There will be a steady transfer of powers, and an acknowledgement of human equality on their homeworld, over the next two decades. This will, hopefully, satisfy them without risking total collapse ...”

    “Out of the question,” the first councillor snapped. “They’ll be passing judgement on us!”

    Yasuke kept his face impassive, somehow. The councillor’s corporation had run into trouble, forty years ago, when a human judge had ruled against them. They’d honestly never realised that - technically - a human judge did have authority, if only because he’d studied and qualified on Capitol itself. And they’d used their immense clout to not only override the judge’s decision, but insist that human judges were to have no authority over Alphans. And that had turned the most intelligent and capable human lawyers into independence and equality activists.

    “On their homeworld, quite probably,” Yasuke said. “But if you treat them as Alphans, you should be fine.”

    “And how do you know it will be fine?” The councillor glared at Yasuke. “What if this is just the beginning of a human takeover? Or ...”

    The chairman held up a hand. “I think we must consider the issue carefully,” he said. “You ask us to fly in the face of all precedent.”

    “Yes,” another councillor said. “A committee must be appointed to consider all the ramifications!”

    “With all due respect,” Yasuke said, “we don’t have time for a committee.”

    “Really?” The chairman didn’t sound convinced. “How long do we have?”

    “The elections are due in thirteen months,” Yasuke said. The humans had a superstition about the number thirteen. He didn’t believe it himself, naturally, but he had to admit it was an disquieting omen. Thirteen months ... the committee probably couldn’t come to any conclusions in less than thirteen years. “That’s our deadline. If the Humanity League wins, they will start pressuring us for immediate independence. And then we will have to decide how far we’re willing to go to keep them in the fold.”

    “We could lose the war,” the chairman said.

    “Or weaken ourselves to the point one of the other third-stage races can overwhelm us,” Yasuke said. “The Pashtali, for example. They’ve already been fishing in troubled waters with the Vulteks. It’s only a matter of time before they start supporting human rebels. They could win the galaxy without firing a shot.”

    The chairman silently canvassed his fellows. “I believe we have no choice, but to proceed with your plan,” he said. “If nothing else, it will allow us to limit the pace of change.”

    “Unless something unpredicted happens,” Yasuke warned, tightly. He knew better than to think they all supported the plan. “Here, things change very slowly. On Earth, the pace of change is a great deal quicker.”

    But he knew, as he bowed his way to the exit, that they didn’t really believe him.
     
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    James Bond, Gammon System

    Captain Thomas Anderson tried not to grimace as James Bond shuddered and groaned her way through the crossroads and back into realspace. The modified freighter had passed through so many refits that hardly anything, save perhaps for the hull and some of her bulkheads, could be said to be truly original. Her engineers had spliced components from a dozen different races into the ship, turning her into a patchwork mess that defied the best efforts of the certification board. It was a minor miracle, outsiders had noted, that James Bond was even allowed to exist. She should have been scrapped hundreds of years ago.

    And we should probably work on that, Thomas thought. The display blinked, then started to fill with a handful of icons. Sooner or later, someone’s going to start wondering where we got the money to bribe the inspectors.

    “I’m picking up a dozen contacts, Dad,” Lieutenant Wesley Anderson said. Thomas’s son never looked up from his console. “They’re heading in all directions!”

    “I’m sure they are,” Thomas said, dryly. There was much to be said for raising a family on the tramp freighter, rather than trusting them to the schools, but there were downsides too. The crew knew what they were doing, but none of them were particularly professional. “Are any of them close enough to prove a problem?”

    “I don’t think so,” Wesley said. “None of them are within weapons range.”

    “Good,” Thomas said. “Sarah, set course for the planet. Best possible speed.”

    Commander Sarah Anderson, his wife as well as his first officer, nodded curtly. “Yes, sir,” she said. A low shiver ran through the tramp freighter as her drives came online. “We’ll be entering orbit in roughly eight hours.”

    Thomas nodded. “No hurry,” he said. “We’ll be there when we’ll be there.”

    He leaned back in his chair and brought up the live feed from the sensor suite. The inspectors - if there had been any inspectors - would have raised their eyebrows if they’d seen the military-grade sensors concealed within a civilian chassis. Anyone on the far side of the border would have been seriously concerned, assuming - correctly - that James Bond was a spy ship. It would be more accurate, Thomas considered privately, to class his ship as an intelligence-gathering ship, but it would make no difference to anyone who caught them. The ship and crew would never be seen again.

    The system sat on the border between the Alphan Empire and the Vultek Hegemony, itself a semi-client state of the Pashtali Consortium. Thomas didn’t pretend to understand the alien politics. The Pashtali didn’t precisely rule the Vultek Hegemony, but - if the intelligence reports were accurate - they had enough influence to steer the Vulteks in whatever direction they preferred. Thomas suspected that was bad news for the Alphans - and Earth. The Second Lupine War had been incredibly costly. The Alphans were in no state to fight another war with two interstellar powers.

    He frowned as he watched the ships heading in and out of the system. Gammon was technically independent, if only because the system was of limited value. Too many crossroads to be easily secured, a barely-habitable planet without a single gas giant for HE3 ... there was little in the system to interest any of the interstellar powers. There were no intelligent inhabitants, nothing that might convince someone to take the system and keep everyone else out. It was lawless, to all intents and purposes. No one, not even the Vulteks, had bothered to stake a claim to the system.

    And yet, there were more ships moving in and out of the system than he’d expected. The dregs of the galaxy might have made the system their home, but ... he shook his head as more and more data flowed into the datacores. It was quite possible that the planet was seeing an influx of newcomers. Refugees from the wars, religious migrants hoping to find a homeworld well away from any of the interstellar powers, mercenaries and smugglers conducting their business ... it was someone else’s problem. As far as anyone outside the crew, and the EDF were concerned, James Bond was a tramp freighter moving from one isolated system to another. His superiors would assess the data he brought them and decide what, if anything, should be done about it.

    He unbuckled himself and stood. “Sarah, you have the bridge,” he said, calmly. “I’m going to check on our supplies.”

    His wife nodded, tightly. “Have fun.”

    Thomas concealed his amusement as he turned and stepped through the hatch. James Bond was surprisingly large, for a tramp freighter, but most of her bulk was devoted to cargo. The family itself lived in cramped accommodation, so cramped that he was uneasily aware that any dispute could blossom out of control very quickly. It was only a matter of time before Wesley and his siblings decided they wanted to transfer to a different ship ... something that might get awkward, if they joined the wrong crew. He reminded himself, sharply, that Wesley was a grown man. He was old enough to make his own mistakes.

    And it isn’t as if you haven’t made your own mistakes, his thoughts mocked him. You fucked up your life good and proper, when you were his age.

    He put the thought out of his head as he opened the hatch into the cargo hold and walked past the heavily-secured pallets. The weapons were primitive, by Galactic standards, but they were very useful. No one ever asked questions of gunrunners, in his experience; no one wanted to deter them from bringing more guns. And while there were people who would look askance at a gunrunner, they might not realise there was something more to Thomas than a man who profited from war and someone else’s misery. Better to have them look down on you for something, Thomas had always thought, than have them trying to get too close to you.

    The intercom bleeped. “Captain to the bridge! Captain to the bridge!”

    Thomas blinked as he hurried back through the hatch, slamming it firmly shut behind him. Sarah - like the rest of the family - enjoyed command. She wouldn’t call him to the bridge unless it was urgent. His mind raced, trying to determine what had happened. A distress call? A systems failure? James Bond was in better condition than she looked - and she looked alarmingly like a derelict from a bad horror flick - but something could easily have gone wrong. And yet ... he dismissed the thought. The alarms would have sounded if something had failed spectacularly.

    And if it failed so spectacularly that the alarms failed to sound, he told himself, we’d all be dead.

    He stepped onto the bridge and retook the command chair. “Report!”

    “Unknown warship on approach vector,” Sarah said. Her voice was very cold. She’d never been comfortable with their work for the EDF, even though she’d grown up on a freighter herself. The risk of death might have been a constant companion, but there were limits now she was a mother herself. “She’ll be within weapons range in twenty minutes.”

    Thomas nodded as he pulled up the sensor report. The warship was a light cruiser, origin unknown. That meant nothing, he reminded himself. James Bond wasn’t the only ship that had passed through dozens of hands since she’d come off the slipway. The Galactics had no qualms about selling their older and outdated ships to the younger races, who would do their level best to refit them with newer technology. The ship angling towards them might have been refitted so extensively her original builders had been lost in the mists of time. Or ... she could just be a pirate ship. Gammon played host to pirates and their fences too.

    And if she was on a legitimate mission, she would have hailed us by now, he thought. A chill ran down his spine. We might be in some trouble.

    “Send a standard greeting,” he ordered. “If they don’t respond, send a wide-band distress call.”

    “Aye, sir,” Sarah said.

    Thomas forced himself to consider their options. There weren’t many. James Bond carried two plasma cannons ... they might as well be peashooters, for all the damage they’d do to the enemy hull. She could alter course and try to evade, perhaps even double back and retreat to the crossroads ... no, that wasn’t going to work. The warship would have no trouble running them down before they could jump into multispace. They could prolong the chase, perhaps long enough to convince the enemy ship to go looking for easier prey, but it wouldn’t last very long.

    “No response,” Sarah said. “And they’re picking up speed.”

    “Transmit the distress signal,” Thomas said. “And then alter course to evade.”

    He gritted his teeth. Pirates ... they had to be pirates. And that meant ... he hoped, grimly, they weren’t human pirates. The crew might survive long enough to be ransomed if they were captured by non-humans. Humans, on the other hand ... Sarah and his daughters would be brutally raped to death. Pirates were pathologically insane. They’d kill the males, then torture the females to death. Thomas thought cold thoughts about the ship’s self-destruct system. It would be relatively simple to lure the pirate ship into point-blank range and deactivate the antimatter containment chambers. The resulting explosion would destroy both ships. It wasn’t ideal, but what was?

    “They’re angling to remain on intercept course,” Sarah said. “They’ll be within weapons range in ten minutes.”

    “And no response to our distress call,” Thomas said, sourly. He wasn’t surprised. Gammon had no navy. The Galactics didn’t bother to patrol the system. And it was unlikely the mercenaries would drop everything to come to their aid. Who cared about a tramp freighter in the middle of nowhere? “Divert emergency power to the drives.”

    “Aye, sir,” Sarah said, in a tone that told him she knew it was futile. He knew it too. There was no way they could do more than delay matters. “I ...”

    She broke off as her console chimed. “They’re hailing us.”

    “Put it through,” Thomas ordered.

    He tried not to show any reaction as a bird-like alien face materialised in front of him. It wasn’t the first Vultek he’d seen, and he’d spent most of his life around non-humans, but the aliens always left him feeling a little uneasy. It was the way they looked at him, he thought; it was the way they always looked as if they were considering when and where to pounce.

    “This is Captain Anderson,” he said. “I ...”

    “The Vultek Hegemony has assumed control over this system,” the alien said. It spoke Galactic with a faint whistling accent. “You have intruded upon our territory without permission.”

    Thomas blinked. The Vulteks hadn’t occupied Gammon ... not as far as he knew. Why would they bother? And ... they were risking a confrontation with the Alphans and at least two other powerful races. And humanity, of course. There were three human-dominated worlds bare days from Gammon, linked by the tangled thread of safe routes through multispace. Interstellar powers that had been content to leave Gammon independent would be concerned, very concerned, if one power took control and drove everyone else out. The Vulteks were risking a major conflict ...

    Unless they’ve decided the Alphans are too weak to push the issue, Thomas thought, coldly. It was possible. Everyone knew the Alphans had lost hundreds of their prized warcruisers during the war. They could trash the Vulteks in a few days, if they massed their surviving ships, but at what cost? They might just get away with it.

    “We were unaware of any change in power,” he said, carefully. “In any case, under the Convocations ...”

    The Vultek cut him off. “You will power down your drives and prepare to be boarded,” he said. “Resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

    Thomas forced himself to think. The Vulteks were signatories to the standard interstellar conventions. In theory, there shouldn’t be any trouble. The ship would be searched, then returned to the crossroads or simply interned. In practice ... who knew? The courts might take years to decide if James Bond was trespassing or not, particularly if one or more interstellar powers decided to dispute the Vultek claim to the system. He shuddered as a deeper implication struck him. If the Vulteks discovered the sensor suite, they’d realise the ship’s true nature. And who knew what they’d do then?

    Make us vanish, Thomas thought. We dare not let them board us.

    He glanced at the display, already knowing they were trapped. They could neither outrun nor defeat their enemy. And triggering the self-destruct might start a war. The EDF - and the Alphans - wouldn’t know what had happened, but that wouldn’t stop the Vulteks from using the incident as an excuse for war. And yet ... he couldn’t let his ship fall into their hands either.

    “In line with the Convocations, I cannot allow you to search my ship,” he said. “However, as a gesture of good faith, we will return to the crossroads and ...”

    The display bleeped an alert. “Missile separation,” Sarah said, quietly. “They’re aiming to miss, but not by much.”

    “You will power down your drives and prepare to be boarded without further delay,” the Vultek said, coldly. “Resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

    So you said, Thomas thought. His thoughts ran in circles. Earth couldn’t push the issue. It wasn’t clear if the Alphans would push the issue. And there’s no way out.

    He keyed his console, bringing up the limited destruct program. The sensor suite could be reduced to dust with the push of a button, once he inserted his command codes. In theory, there would be no proof that James Bond had ever been anything other than a simple tramp freighter. In practice, he simply didn’t know. The Vulteks might search the ship so thoroughly they turned up proof ... if, of course, they didn’t simply destroy the ship in a bid to secure their new holdings. And if they swept the datacore ...

    “We understand,” he said. “We’ll deactivate our drives as ordered.”

    “Good,” the alien said. “And ...”

    Thomas glanced up as the proximity display flashed another alert. A gravimetric distortion had appeared out of nowhere, a bare three kilometres from their position. He let out a sigh of relief as the distortion became a crossroads, which opened to reveal a warcruiser. The giant warship glided into realspace, its sensors already searching for targets. The Vultek ship didn’t move, but Thomas liked to think he saw it jump. Warcruisers were the most powerful warships in the known galaxy. The Alphans would have no trouble blowing the Vultek ship out of space if they so much as looked at them funny.

    “They’re ordering the Vulteks to leave,” Sarah said. She let out a sound that was half-giggle, half-sob. “That was really too close.”

    Thomas nodded, watching as the Vulteks reversed course and headed straight for the nearest crossroads. They didn’t have the technology to create their own, not yet. The Alphans were the only race known to possess such technology, although Thomas wouldn’t have cared to bet the other Galactics didn’t have it. The technology offered too many advantages to whoever held it.

    “Reverse course,” he ordered, firmly. “We’ll pass through Gammon, then head home.”

    Sarah gave him a sharp look. “And you don’t think we should head home now?”

    “I think we have weapons to sell,” Thomas said. “And we need to know what’s happening on the surface.”

    And see who’s really in control of the system, he thought, grimly. He understood his wife’s point. They’d pushed their luck dangerously close to the limits. But they also needed to find out what was actually going on. If the Vulteks landed a major ground force, digging them out might take a full-scale war.

    “Aye, sir,” Sarah said. They were going to have a screaming match as soon as they were alone. Thomas was sure of it. “We’ll enter orbit in five hours.”

    “Keep monitoring local space,” Thomas ordered. He didn’t relax He wouldn’t until they had completed their mission and left the system safely behind. “I want to know the moment the Vulteks show up again.”

    He sucked in his breath. The Vulteks weren’t stupid enough to pit an outdated light cruiser against a warcruiser, but they wouldn’t like being told to leave at gunpoint. They might assemble their fleet, if they had a fleet within the system, and gamble the Alphans wouldn’t want to start another war. Or try something, hoping their patrons would come to their aid if things got out of hand. The crisis might have only just begun.

    His eyes slipped to the display. The warcruiser was moving ahead of then, gracefully displaying her power - and her masters’ resolve - to the entire system. He felt a sudden stab of envy that surprised him with its intensity. Humanity had advanced far in the last five hundred years, learning from its masters and even improving - in some respects - on their technology. But they didn’t have anything to match the warcruiser. The ship was so advanced that it she been designed for aesthetics, not practicality. There was no way anyone could mistake her for a human ship.

    Wesley had the same thought. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

    “Yes,” Thomas agreed. He’d seen the recordings. And read the secret files, the ones that officially didn’t exist. The fact the EDF kept a wary eye on humanity’s masters, as well as its enemies, was a closely-guarded secret. “But she also took five years from her builders laying down her spine to her crew activating the ship’s drives and deploying her for the first time.”

    And if the Alphans hadn’t had us fighting by their side, he added silently, they might just have lost the last war.
     
  5. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    whether

    hunh?
     
  6. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    ...that it seemed she had...
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    EDS Washington, Earth Orbit

    Commander Naomi Yagami braced herself, then carefully removed the rank badge from her sleeve before stepping into the next compartment. A handful of crewmen stared up at her in shock, their expressions caught in a frozen rictus of alarm, guilt and anger. Naomi stared back at them evenly, keeping her face under tight control. The crewmen were already on the verge of crossing the line. A single show of weakness might encourage them to mutiny. And it would end badly. The Earth Defence Force’s commanders wouldn’t hesitate to fire on a mutinous ship. Naomi was all too aware the marines were already primed and ready to intervene if - when - the shit hit the fan.

    She allowed her eyes to sweep the compartment as the hatch closed behind her. Twelve crewmen were hastily scrambling to their feet, snapping salutes that were distressingly sloppy. Senior Chief Nigel Thompson appeared to be in charge, although it was hard to be sure. The pre-war military structure had broken down under the stress of war, allowing a degree of social mobility that would have been unacceptable in peacetime. Thompson was tough, but was he tough enough to impose himself on his fellows? Crewmen Harris Pettigrew and Isabel Ruthven were a little more surprising, particularly the latter. Naomi happened to know she’d been earmarked for officer rank, if she was willing to become a mustang. She’d shown promise in the last two years.

    “I trust,” she said calmly, “that you were not actually discussing mutiny.”

    Pettigrew spoke first, quickly. “Merely airing our grievances, Commander.”

    “Indeed?” Naomi looked from face to face, wondering if they were willing to cross the line. “And what would those grievances be?”

    Thompson shot Pettigrew a nasty look. “Commander, with all due respect, is there any point in discussing our grievances?”

    “I am the executive officer of this ship,” Naomi said, coolly. She squatted, resting her hands on her knees. “And crewmen, as has long been established, have the right to bring their grievances to me.”

    She waited, wondering if they’d see the out she was offering them. They could air their grievances to her, without fear of punishment. They didn’t have to hold a secret meeting that might get them in real trouble, let alone do something that certainly would. But ... too much had happened, during the war and afterwards, for the lower ranks to have any real faith in officialdom. She might be trustworthy. The empire’s bureaucracy was anything but.

    Thompson leaned forward. “Commander, we were promised shore leave immediately after the war,” he said. “Proper shore leave, not a couple of days in a seedy spaceport strip. It’s been two years since the promise and we haven’t had our shore leave!”

    “I was told my enlistment would end with the war,” Pettigrew said. “And I can’t even leave this ship! My job won’t wait for me much longer!”

    Naomi winced, inwardly. Pettigrew - and thousands like him - had been yanked out of his pre-war job and involuntarily conscripted into the navy. The EDF had needed the manpower desperately, and it had the legal authority to draft whoever it needed, but it couldn’t be denied it had caused all sorts of problems. Pettigrew’s growing resentment was actually the least of them. Naomi had heard there were skilled manpower shortages all over the system. She’d even heard suggestions the human-owned and operated industries were being deliberately starved of manpower, just to allow the alien-owned combines to compete on even terms.

    “My brother says he’ll have to find someone else if I don’t rejoin him soon,” Pettigrew said. He shot her a challenging look. “Why shouldn’t I desert?”

    “Because you’ll be arrested and dumped on Liberty without anyone bothering to court martial you,” Naomi said, dryly. “You might have a point, crewman, but that point will be lost if you commit an offense against good order.”

    “And the peacocks aren’t helping,” Isabel said. “That prick upstairs ...”

    “Don’t insult the captain in front of me,” Naomi said sharply, cutting the younger woman off before she could say something dangerous. Everyone knew the bulkheads had ears. The Alphans didn’t have a concept of privacy and didn’t expect their human subjects to have one either. “If you have a valid complaint, make it.”

    “We’re fed up,” Thompson said, glaring at Isabel. “Commander, we didn’t sign up for the long haul. We knew we’d be retained if war broke out, and it did, but the war is over now. We should be discharged ...”

    “Or given shore leave, at the very least,” Isabel put in. “Commander, we’re worn down as well as fed up. It’s only a matter of time before someone makes a deadly mistake and blows the entire ship to atoms.”

    Naomi nodded, keeping her face expressionless. The hell of it was that they had a point. The crew had been retained, even after the war. And there had been no shore leave ... there hadn’t even been any hazard pay. The bureaucrats hadn’t bothered to think, as always, before they ordered the navy to retain its people. They could have solved half the problems if they’d bothered to exercise their brains and realise that discontent would spread rapidly. Or simply offered extra pay to anyone willing to stay. In these times, the navy was actually a pretty good employer.

    “We’re orbiting Earth, not some godforsaken outpost along the border,” Pettigrew snapped. “They could easily give us a couple of weeks off before we resume our patrol!”

    “Yes, they could,” Naomi said, although she wasn’t so sure. The official newscasts from Earth were rosy, but she’d heard - through the grapevine - that the security system was deteriorating rapidly. Too many people had suddenly found themselves out of work, too many people had suddenly found themselves desperately short of money ... too many politicians were trying to make hay while the fields burned down. “And I will suggest as much to the captain.”

    “That peacock,” Isabel snapped. “Commander ...”

    Thompson elbowed her, hard. Naomi gritted her teeth and pretended not to notice. The captain wouldn’t understand the context, if he heard a junior crewman had insulted him. He’d want Isabel flogged ... Naomi wondered, grimly, if she could convince the captain that discharging the younger woman would be a suitable punishment. She’d never liked the idea of flogging a grown adult. She would do everything she could to ensure it didn’t happen.

    “The captain will take your words under advertisement,” she said. “For the moment ...”

    She looked from face to face, trying to gauge how serious they were about causing real trouble. Thompson and Pettigrew wanted out. Isabel ... Naomi wasn’t so sure about Isabel. The younger woman had potential, but she’d come very close to saying something she couldn’t take back. The others ... she frowned as she noticed the Human League litriture someone had tried to hide at the back of the compartment. That was, technically, banned onboard ship. Legally, she should confiscate it and arrest whoever had brought it onto the cruiser. Practically, there was no point. Political messages spread, whatever the captain and his superiors said. She’d just make an ass of herself if she tried to stop the message and failed.

    “For the moment, I want you to remember that times are not easy for everyone,” she continued. “I know, it doesn’t feel that way. I know, you’re thinking how unfair life has been to you over the last two weeks. But we are doing the best we can.”

    “Even a few days off-ship would be good,” Thompson said, shortly.

    “I’ll do what I can,” Naomi said. She hardened her voice. “And until then, it would make my life a great deal easier if you refrained from holding secretive meetings. Understand?”

    “Yes, Commander,” Thompson said.

    Naomi concealed her relief as she stood, brushed down her uniform and strode out of the compartment without looking back. They were discontented, but they weren’t mutinous. Not yet. It would take something - an incident of some kind, she thought - to turn them from discontented to outright mutinous. Thompson wasn’t stupid. He’d been in the navy long enough to know that mutiny would lead to total disaster. Even if they took the ship, where would they go? There was no way they could get down to Earth with the EDF and the Alphan Picket Squadron bearing down on them.

    She kept her back ramrod straight until she reached Officer Country and stepped into her cabin, where she allowed herself to sag and wipe the sweat from her brow. Thompson wasn’t the only one to feel the crew was being worked to the bone. She’d had to break up a dozen fights over the last two months, then issue sharp reprimands to enterprising spacers who’d decided to supplement their wages by selling moonshine. It wouldn’t have been a problem if crewmen hadn’t started reporting for duty while drunk. She’d had no end of trouble trying to write creative explanations into the logbook ...

    I guess I’m lucky the captain doesn’t bother to follow the log, she mused, as she walked into the washroom and splashed cold water on her face. I’d be in real trouble if someone more intelligent was posted here.

    She shook her head, suddenly feeling very tired. Things had been better, before the war. The peacocks - the Alphan officers appointed to the EDF - had been intelligent, capable and very driven, quick to learn to respect their human subordinates. They spoke English, they often studied human history and they treated humans as close to equal. But the war had drawn those officers back to the Alphan Navy, their slots filled with stodgy oxygen thieves who didn’t have a gram of imagination between them. She supposed she was lucky. Her CO was merely lazy and disconnected. She’d heard there were others who were sadistic, cruel and generally unpleasant.

    Her lips quirked as she lifted her head and stared into the mirror. Green eyes, short red hair and a pale complexion stared back at her. She’d had boyfriends who’d told her she was pretty, once upon a time, but now there were dark shadows around her eyes and her face was set in a permanently displeased expression. Thompson was right. Everyone needed shore leave. She understood, better than she cared to admit, why otherwise loyal officers and crew might be considering desertion. They were coming to the end of their tether.

    She walked back into the main cabin, poured a cup of coffee and drank it slowly. Navy coffee was universally foul, she’d found in a lifetime of service, but it did keep her awake. She wasn’t getting anything like enough sleep. She wasn’t even getting a few hours of rest and relaxation. She finished her coffee, put the mug aside and surveyed her tiny metal box. The bulkheads looked to be looming closer. She knew it was an illusion - the bulkheads were older than her great-grandfather - but it was alarmingly persistent. She’d been in the cabin too long.

    The intercom bleeped. “Commander,” Captain Nobunaga said. “Report to my office at once.”

    “Yes, Captain,” Naomi said. “I’m on my way.”

    She checked her appearance in the mirror - Captain Nobunaga had a habit of reprimanding officers for their uniforms, while ignoring or overlooking more serious issues - then strode out the cabin and up to the captain’s office. It should have been right next to the bridge, but Captain Nobunaga had insisted on occupying the room next to his suite and converting it into his workplace. Naomi wasn’t sure what the Alphan did all day. She was his XO, true, but she seemed to be doing half his duties as well as her own. He certainly wasn’t socialising with the crew, even his servants. Perhaps he had a sexbot in his cabin. She smirked at the thought, then schooled her expression into calm impassivity. Captain Nobunaga had never learnt to read human faces, but there was no point in taking risks.

    The marine on duty outside the office ran a scanner over her body, then opened the hatch and motioned for her to enter. Naomi nodded her thanks as she stepped into the warm chamber, feeling her skin prickle as dry air washed over her face. The Alphan homeworld was hotter and drier than Earth, although they had no trouble coping with colder temperatures. Captain Nobunaga had tried to insist the entire ship be matched to his homeworld, but someone higher up the chain - Naomi had no idea who - had had a word with him and he’d dropped the request. Naomi wished she knew who to thank. The crew would have crossed the line into open mutiny if they were sweating as well as everything else.

    “Captain,” she said, lowering her eyes and sinking into the posture of respect. “You summoned me?”

    She felt an odd little chill run down her spine as Captain Nobunaga studied her thoughtfully. She was no racist - she’d served on a dozen multiracial and multicultural starships and stations - but the Alphans had always worried her. Perhaps it was just the simple fact that their slightest wish was everyone else’s sternest command. They ruled a vast swathe of the known universe and they never let anyone forget it. A word from Captain Nobunaga could propel her career into orbit or send her crashing down to Earth - or Liberty.

    He was unusually short for an Alphan, but still taller than herself. He wore a simple harness and pants, decorated in a style that marked him as outrageously rich and well-connected even by Galactic standards. Naomi had a private suspicion he was actually the black sheep of the family, as his connections should have been more than enough to enter the Alphan Navy at a very high level indeed. Or so she’d been told. Family relationships among the Alphans were hideously complex. It was possible he was actually quite poor by their standards, but - as long as he was well away from Capitol - he could pretend to be rich.

    “Commander,” Captain Nobunaga said. “You may rise.”

    Naomi stood, carefully staring at his leathery neck. Direct eye contact was rude amongst the Alphans, unless one was addressing a social equal. And, no matter her rank, Captain Nobunaga would never see her as an equal. He would never invite her to join his social network, he would never socialise with her ... he would never do anything for her, unless it benefited him in some way.

    “The Viceroy is returning to Earth next week,” Captain Nobunaga said, as if he expected her to know the Viceroy had left Earth. “We will be part of his reception committee.”

    “Yes, sir,” Naomi said.

    “You will see to it that the hull is clean and shiny,” Captain Nobunaga said. “And painted in my colours, of course.”

    “Of course,” Naomi echoed. The Viceroy wouldn’t notice, unless he deigned to inspect Washington personally, but Captain Nobunaga wouldn’t thank her for pointing it out. “I’ll see to it immediately.”

    “Very good,” Captain Nobunaga said. “Dismissed.”

    Naomi bent into the posture of respect. “If I may, My Captain ...?”

    Captain Nobunaga sounded displeased. “You may.”

    “The crew is tired and worn,” Naomi said. “And we’re already earmarked for patrol duties one month from today. Please could I arrange a shore leave period for them before we depart?”

    “The ship has to be ready to depart on time,” Captain Nobunaga said. “You may not.”

    “The ship will not be ready to depart if the crew isn’t ready,” Naomi said. She kept her face expressionless, despite her anger and despair. “Captain, with all due respect, they need shore leave.”

    “They can go virtual,” Captain Nobunaga pointed out. “Your human desires” - he managed to load the word with a staggering amount of contempt - “will be satisfied by illusionary realities.”

    “They won’t,” Naomi said. She’d kept a wary eye on the growing number of crewmen using - and abusing - the VR facilities. So far, no one seemed to have crossed the line into addiction. She had a feeling that was going to change. “Captain, virtual realities are not real.”

    “But good enough,” Captain Nobunaga said. “They can have a day on Luna, if they must.”

    He waved a hand towards the hatch. “Dismissed.”

    Naomi bowed deeper, then backed out of the cabin. She didn’t rise until the hatch was firmly closed. Her former commanders would never have been so dismissive of her concerns. They understood their human subordinates weren’t machines, that even real machines needed to be maintained regularly in order to keep functioning. She wondered, sourly, if she should send one of them a message. The EDF needed those officers if it was to continue to function properly. Thompson and his friends wouldn’t be the only human officers considering desertion - or mutiny.

    She turned and strode down the corridor, feeling the marine’s eyes on her retreating behind. The rumour would be out, sooner rather than later, that the captain hadn’t been generous ... she was tempted to turn and tell him to keep his mouth shut, but it wouldn’t matter. They’d know the truth the moment the shore leave roster was posted. Or wasn’t posted, as the case might be.

    And all hell will break lose when the crew realises they’re not going to get a break, she thought, as she reached the etching of George Washington outside the bridge. And we might have a real mutiny on our hands.

    She studied the etching for a long moment. The Humanity League and the Renaissance Faire had pressed for warships to be named after human heroes, insisting the EDF should do honour to humanity’s past. They’d been surprised, no doubt, when the Alphans had raised no objection to naming a warship Washington. George Washington had led a successful war of independence, after all. It was hardly the sort of thinking the Alphans wanted to encourage.

    Except they destroyed Washington DC when they invaded Earth, she reminded herself, morbidly. It isn’t a honour. It’s a subtle threat.
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    Pournelle Shipyards, Sol Asteroid Belt

    It was said, in all the party broadcasts and broadsheets, that Speaker Fredrick Douglas travelled alone. It was not entirely true, as Fredrick himself would happily testify, but he saw no need to travel with a small army of aides, assistants, gofers and servants. The Alphans might enjoy showing their wealth and power by never going anywhere alone; Fredrick preferred to go the other way and make a point of not hiring people just to prove he could do it. And besides, he’d been in politics long enough to know that every new hire was a potential security risk.

    He sat in his chair and watched through the starship’s sensors as she made her way through the security perimeter and into the Pournelle Shipyards. The Alphans had poured scorn on the design, when they’d first seen it, and declined to invest, but the human assembly had seen the potential and poured a considerable sum of money into the project. And it had paid off. The dispersed shipyard might look scattered and disorganised, compared to the giant assemblies near Capitol, but they were more efficient. They represented the key to the future, he’d argued. He was pleased to discover that he’d been right.

    His eyes tracked a handful of freighters - and a new-build cruiser - as they were put through their paces. The ships wouldn’t win any design awards - they were starkly functional, compared to starcruisers and warcruisers - but they were remorselessly practical. They might lack the advanced tech of their alien counterparts, yet they were cheap, effective and - above all - easy to repair. The Pournelle Shipyards had pioneered modular design, working hard to make sure their ships and starship components were perfectly interchangeable. It took the Alphans years to repair a damaged warcruiser. Their human counterparts could be back in action within a month.

    Perhaps, he reminded himself. The ships are also more fragile than their warcruiser counterparts.

    He looked up as Rachael Grant, his aide, entered the compartment. Rachael was the only person he truly considered a travelling companion, the only person he trusted to put his interests - and those of the league - ahead of everything else. There were too many factions within the Humanity League for his peace of mind, ranging from groups that feared the worst if they pushed too hard to forces that wanted an immediate declaration of independence and a war if the Alphans refused to abandon Earth. Fredrick was grimly aware that his position was nowhere near as solid as he would have liked. He had to maintain a balancing act between pushing for more autonomy and not demanding something that might drive both the aliens themselves and their human loyalists into mounting a crackdown.

    “Sir,” Rachel said. She was a tall woman in her early thirties, with long brown hair that fell to her waist. If she had any hobbies beyond serving the cause, Fredrick had never found them. “We just received an update on the Steven Whitmore case.”

    Fredrick nodded, curtly. Steven Whitmore was a known member of Direct Action, the hardline political pressure group that had - so far - managed to stay on the right side of the law. He’d expected something to happen ever since Direct Action broke away from the Humanity League, perhaps a ban on the group’s existence and involuntary emigration for any of its members who didn’t get the message. He hadn’t expected Whitmore to be busted under the empire’s moral laws. Indeed, it had happened in a manner that made it impossible to tell if Whitmore was genuinely guilty or if he’d been framed.

    “Our sources within the EIS confirmed that Whitmore was busted for possession of pornographic material,” Rachel said. “However, none of it was actually illegal and ... well, it represented all manner of legal porn. There was no rhyme or reason to the collection.”

    “Odd,” Fredrick mused. “And we have no way to know if it was a frame-up.”

    “Or a plan to embarrass the government,” Rachel agreed. “Or ... sir, for all we know Whitmore could actually be guilty.”

    “Of collecting porn,” Fredrick said. It was legal, but distasteful. “Has there been anything from Direct Action?”

    “Not yet,” Rachel said. “It sounds as if they were caught by surprise.”

    “Yeah,” Fredrick considered it for a long moment. “The peacocks wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between different kinds of porn, would they?”

    Rachel shrugged. Fredrick understood. The Alphans didn’t really have a concept of pornography. They’d been bemused when they’d discovered that humans did. The whole concept sounded absurd to them, just as some of their quirks baffled their human subjects. If it was a frame-up, planned by someone on the viceroy’s staff, they might have provided Whitmore with all manner of porn without realising they were scattering their fingerprints on the plot. Or Whitmore could just be a colossal pervert. Fredrick had been in politics long enough to know that some politicians had no qualms about abusing their positions.

    “Keep me informed,” he said, finally. A low quiver ran through the ship as she docked with the shipyard. “We’ll pick up the affair when we get home.”

    He wondered, sometimes, what his famous ancestor - and namesake - would have thought of Earth’s alien masters. The Alphans weren’t cruel and sadistic, by and large, but they were very definitely the people in charge. Fredrick was honest enough to admit the Alphans had done a lot of good for humanity, yet they’d also done a great deal of harm. He’d once had dreams of rising to the top. Cold experience had taught him that, as long as humans remained subordinate to alien masters, that would never happen. He didn’t want total independence, not really. He just wanted to be able to stand face to face with an Alphan and look him in the eye.

    The gravity shifted, slightly, as they disembarked from the starship and passed through a brief security scan. The shipyards hadn’t been targeted during the war, but it was only a matter of time. Direct Action was already talking about direct action - foolish, given the existence of literally millions of loyalists - and there were alien races beyond the border who’d be happy to go fishing in troubled waters. Fredrick had heard all sorts of rumours, from humans being hired as mercenaries to alien operatives disguising themselves as humans and landing on human-dominated worlds. He was fairly sure most of the rumours were nonsense, but it was hard to be sure. The universe was a very strange place. Even the Alphans conceded there were mysteries beyond their ken.

    And anyone who wanted to cause trouble could just hire humans to do it, he mused, as they were shown into a large conference chamber. There’s no shortage of people willing to sell their grandmothers for enough cash to survive the next few months.

    “Speaker,” Martin Solomon said. The Director and CEO of the Pournelle Shipyards Corporation nodded politely, rather than dropping into the posture of respect. “Thank you for coming.”

    Fredrick nodded. They were old friends, although they’d gone in different directions after graduating from university. Fredrick had set out to become a lawyer, then a politician; Solomon had set out to build a corporation that could compete with the interstellar combines and largely succeeded. Fredrick had tried hard to convince him to join the Humanity League, although Solomon preferred to keep his distance. The Alphans could crush his corporation if they chose to boycott it.

    “You look older,” Solomon said. “The wig does nothing for you.”

    “And the lack of hair does nothing for you,” Fredrick countered. He wasn’t a paid-up member of the Renaissance Faire, but he styled himself in a manner he thought his ancestor would appreciate. “Why did you shave yourself?”

    “Hair isn’t always an advantage out here, as you know,” Solomon said. He gestured to the seats. “Please, sit. I’ll have coffee served in a moment.”

    “No hurry,” Fredrick said. “How are matters out here?”

    Solomon looked pained. “They would be better without political interference, I’ll tell you that for free,” he said. “This place - and the others like it - could transform the galaxy, if they let it happen.”

    Fredrick nodded. There was no need to ask who they were. “How bad is it?”

    “Pretty bad,” Solomon commented. “I don’t know if it’s deliberate, Fred, but it’s pretty damn bad.”

    A servant entered, carrying a tray of coffee and biscuits. He placed it on the table, nodded politely to Solomon and retreated as silently as he’d come. Fredrick glanced at the hatch as it closed, then rested his hands on the table. Solomon poured the coffee, placed a biscuit beside each cup and saucer and then handed it round. Fredrick kept his mouth shut. He knew his friend was gathering his thoughts.

    “There are two problems,” Solomon said, when he’d sat back down. “First, we’re short of skilled manpower. We lost thousands of trained and experienced workers to the draft, pretty much all of which was done with a great deal of panic and a absolutely complete lack of common sense. We didn’t just lose the workers. We lost the experienced trainers who could train new workers too. We really need those workers back, as quickly as possible.”

    “I understand,” Fredrick said.

    Solomon snorted. “If that’s true, you’re the first politico to understand since ... ever.”

    “I’ll take that as your endorsement,” Fredrick teased. “And the other problem?”

    “Export licences,” Solomon said. “The vast majority of our produce, Fred, is not on the restricted list. There shouldn’t be any barrier between us and eager customers. It isn’t as if we’re selling antimatter blazers or heavy-duty planetcracker bombs. But the assembly is delaying our licences, apparently because of pressure from the viceroy’s office. I understand they’d be reluctant to have us sell warships to potential enemies, but freighters and spare parts? Give me a break!”

    “I’ll raise both issues with the assembly,” Fredrick said. “But as long as the Empire Loyalists remain in power ...”

    “They won’t,” Solomon predicted. “The economic downturn following the war is starting to bite. People want change, not empty promises.”

    “I know,” Fredrick said. “But we’ll run into problems if we win too big.”

    He sighed. It would be ironic indeed if he became First Speaker, displacing the Empire Loyalists from their decades of majority, only to discover he couldn’t give his supporters what they wanted. No matter what he did, he couldn’t satisfy everyone. It was an open question if he could satisfy anyone. And who knew what would happen if his supporters turned to Direct Action instead?

    “If the barriers are removed, we should experience a major economic boom,” Solomon said. “Our freighters are cheaper than most alien designs, our systems are simpler yet easier to repair ... we don’t even sell them with crappy propriety software to limit their use. Given time, even a first-stage race can learn to use and repair our hardware. And yet, the peacocks are determined to stop us. Hell, Fred, we could keep the EDF running if they let us!”

    Fredrick’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sure?”

    “Pretty much.” Solomon grinned. “Have you ever studied the Type-V medium freighter design?”

    “You do realise I don’t know the bridge from the bulkhead?” Fredrick grinned back at him. “And I do know you love telling me all about your ships.”

    Solomon laughed, then keyed a switch. A holographic image of a mid-sized freighter appeared, hovering over the table. It looked as crude and inelegant as anything else from the human-designed and operated shipyards. He could understand why the Galactics looked at the design and laughed. There wasn’t so much as a hint of elegance, let alone humanity, around it.

    “You’ll notice the drive structure is considerably larger than strictly necessary,” Solomon said, seriously. “In fact, economically speaking, the holds are smaller than they should be for a ship of that size. However, with the advantage of modular design, it would only take a few weeks to replace the civilian-grade systems with their mil-grade counterparts. The hull’s armour can be enhanced, weapons fitted to the internal network and a few other modifications that would turn the freighters into warships. And we could churn them out very quickly.”

    Fredrick looked up. “And how would they compete with a warship? Or a warcruiser?”

    “It depends,” Solomon said. “A purpose-built warship would have the edge, assuming equal levels of technology and suchlike. However, the modular design and standardisation would ensure the modified freighters could be converted into warships - and then repaired, if they took damage - relatively quickly. We could churn out a thousand such freighters in the time it takes the peacocks to construct a single warcruiser. If nothing else” - his eyes met Fredrick’s - “we could take a page from the Lupine handbook and bury the warcruisers in expendable ships.”

    “Which was immensely costly for the Lupines,” Fredrick said. He had no military experience, but he’d attended enough briefings to understand the basics of tactics and strategy. “They lost a hundred starships for each warcruiser.”

    “But they could afford to take the losses and press on,” Solomon said. “If we hadn’t been involved, Fredrick, the peacocks might have lost the war. Yes, the warcruisers are formidable ships. I don’t think anyone can doubt it. But the peacocks simply didn’t have enough of them to win the war easily. Now ... their fleet has been grossly weakened. I’d be surprised if some of the bigger powers aren’t wondering what they can do while the peacocks try to rebuild their fleet.”

    Fredrick nodded, shortly. He had no illusions about interstellar power politics. The strong - those lucky enough to develop spacefaring technology and figure out how to access multispace before they were discovered by someone else - did whatever they liked; the weak, everyone else, suffered what they must. The Alphans had had no qualms about invading and occupying Earth when they’d stumbled across the human race. Now the Alphans looked weak, a dozen other races would be plotting to take advantage of the chaos. Who knew which of them would be the first to try?

    And who knows what concessions they’ll make to us, he mused, in order to keep us from revolting?

    He studied the image for a long moment. “Could you build a warcruiser? I mean, could you build something that’d match a warcruiser?”

    Solomon looked doubtful. “Yes and no,” he said. “I could duplicate some of their systems ... not easily, perhaps, but I could do it. Their armour is really little more than enhanced ablative armour. Expensive as fuck and difficult to repair, but yes ... we could duplicate it. The weapons, sensors and drives? Maybe not. We still don’t understand how they manage to navigate multispace so well. The black boxes have remained resistant to all tampering.”

    Fredrick nodded. “And if you had a crash program into studying their technology?”

    Solomon shrugged. “We have a research program,” he said. “We’ve learnt a great deal about how multispace and realspace interact, but little else. So far, we haven’t cracked the problem. Between you and me - and Rachel, of course - I have a theory the Alphans themselves don’t understand how the tech works. It’s been a long time since they were on the cutting edge of research and development. They haven’t made any significant technological breakthroughs in centuries.”

    “I see.” Fredrick considered it. “Do you think they stole the technology off someone else?”

    “It’s possible,” Solomon said. He shrugged. “And it would be consistent with their arrogance to pretend they invented it for themselves. It wouldn’t be the first time someone found something interesting on an abandoned world or drifting alien wreck and claimed to invent it, rather than admit what they’d found.”

    His face darkened. “Did you hear about the Erehwon Affair?”

    “Just rumours,” Fredrick said. “What happened?”

    Solomon scowled. “Long-range multispace pinging station picked up an artefact, not too far from explored space. You know the drill - they ping the folds of multispace and sometimes they pick up something interesting. We were putting together a mission to explore the ... well whatever it was ... when the viceroy’s office takes it away from us. I think they sent a starcruiser to have a look at it.”

    “Ouch,” Fredrick said. “What did they find?”

    “We don’t know,” Solomon said. “It could have been anything.”

    “I can make a few enquires,” Fredrick said. “But if it was something truly old ...”

    “Or even something they didn’t want us to find,” Solomon said. “I’d say the odds are even, myself.”

    He stood. “Anyway, I promised you a tour of the shipyards. I think you’ll enjoy what you see.”

    “I hope so,” Fredrick said. “Your shipyards could be the hope of humanity.”

    “Until everyone starts duplicating our idea.” Solomon shrugged. “It isn’t as if we can copyright the concept ...”

    Rachel’s datapad bleeped. “Excuse me.”

    Fredrick frowned. The starship’s datacore would have held any messages that weren’t priority-one. Protocol was clear. Meetings were not to be interrupted unless it was a full-scale emergency. A chill ran down his spine. It could be anything, from terrorism to a legal crackdown or ... anything. The world might be about to turn upside down.

    “You’re being recalled to Earth,” Rachel said. “The Viceroy has called an urgent meeting of the assembly.”

    “Crap,” Fredrick said. The Viceroy had been away for two months. His return had been surprisingly devoid of ceremony. Fredrick had suspected that portended trouble of some kind. A high-ranking peacock would normally be livid if he wasn’t given the proper respect. “How long do we have?”

    “It’s scheduled for tomorrow morning,” Rachel said. She checked her datapad, calculating travel times. “You’ll have time for the tour.”

    “Perhaps not,” Fredrick said, reluctantly. “I don’t want to give them an excuse to expel me if the shit is about to hit the fan.”
     
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    Star City, Earth

    Lieutenant Tomas Drache gritted his teeth as the protestors marched down the streets. The protest march wasn’t authorised - the protestors hadn’t bothered to so much as ask for permission before they’d boiled onto the streets - but there had been no orders from higher up the chain of command. Tomas had been in the corps long enough to know that meant the higher-ups were running around in circles, trying desperately to pass the buck to someone who might have the nerve to take strong action and the willingness to take the blame if the shit hit the fan. He felt sweat trickling down his back, the heavy riot gear digging into his skin as the squad took up their positions. The sound of chanting - “jobs, jobs, jobs” - grew louder, until it felt as if the entire city had taken up the cry. It chilled him to the bone.

    He glanced at his HUD, hoping and praying that someone had taken command. Star City was normally the most extensively-policed city on Earth. The Alphans wanted to make damn sure that crime and social deviation was kept as far from their capital as possible. There was almost no privacy in Star City, even in the bathroom! And yet, the mob had formed and swept down the streets without anyone having the slightest indication it was coming. Tomas checked his rifle, hoping desperately the protest wouldn’t turn violent. He didn’t want to kill people protesting their sudden unemployment.

    His heart twisted as he saw a young girl, barely older than himself, amidst the protesters. A university student, suddenly aware her studies might be for naught? A former employee who’d been let go as businesses tightened their belts and cut down on surplus workers? Or a troublemaker who’d helped shape and lead the protest? It didn’t matter. Tomas didn’t want to hurt anyone. But he was starting to fear it was inevitable.

    The city’s authorities had been slow to react, when the unemployed and homeless had started to drift into their city. Star City had always had an excellent social network, with free food and drink handed out to all registered residents. But now, the influx of newcomers had strained the system to breaking point. They wanted to be fed, they wanted to be housed ... they wanted the jobs and dignity the economic slowdown had stolen from them. Tomas cursed under his breath, knowing it was only a matter of time before despair turned to violence. The massive white skyscrapers, the giant towers that reached for the skies, were a slap in the face to someone forced to grub in the dirt. He’d heard the rumours. People were talking about open violence, if the government didn’t give them what they wanted.

    But the government can’t give them what they want, he thought, numbly. And all hell will break loose if they even try.

    He glanced back at his squad, trying to determine how they were bearing up. Sergeant Ross looked as firm and determined as ever, but the younger men seemed nervous. Tomas felt old, compared to them. They hadn’t seen enough action during the war. And yet ... Tomas had seen action and yet he was worried by the crowd. A mob of angry people could be more dangerous, in many ways, than enemy soldiers. The soldiers, at least, might follow the laws of war.

    A squad of police flyers roared overhead. The crowd jeered and threw bottles. Tomas doubted the police gave a damn. They were safely out of range of anything less than a HVM or a smaller MANPAD. The cowards hadn’t been seen on the streets since the assembly had - reluctantly - directed the marines to reinforce the police. Tomas hadn’t been surprised to discover the police kept remembering urgent appointments elsewhere. They weren’t trained to deal with a full-scale riot. Everyone had believed Star City was safe.

    He led his men forward, breathing a sigh of relief when they reached the security barriers and marched into the Viceregal Complex. The Alphans had never bothered to give it a better name, something that nagged at his mind when he wasn’t thinking about something more practical. The Viceroy’s office sat within one of the giant towers, the Assembly - right next to it - trapped within the tower’s shadow. Tomas wondered if that had been deliberate. He hadn’t met many Alphans, but - as far as he could tell - subtle wasn’t a word in their vocabulary. They were often refreshingly direct. They didn’t delight in mindscrews for the sake of mindscrews.

    “Lieutenant,” Captain Hicks said. The sound of chanting grew louder. “Turn your squad over to your sergeant and report to Briefing Room A.”

    “Sir,” Tomas said. Hicks was a stranger - Tomas’s unit had been hastily redeployed when martial law had been declared - but he had a good combat record. “Is there any good news?”

    Hicks snorted. “Optimism? You’ve not been in the corps for long, have you?”

    Tomas laughed, saluted, and nodded to Sergeant Ross before heading for the briefing room. Ross practically ran the squad, when he wasn’t running the company. He could handle the men long enough for Tomas to attend the briefing and return. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a waste of time. The briefing officers seemed to think they were the be-all and end-all of life, with whatever they considered important actually important. Tomas had been in the corps long enough to know they were often wrong. An officer who’d never seen the elephant was prone to making stupid mistakes.

    Briefing Room A was surprisingly crowded. A dozen officers, some accompanied by sergeants, sat around a small podium. A holographic map of the city rotated in front of them, red icons marking homeless encampments, protest marches and other threats to law and order. Tomas had heard, through the whisper network, that the residents of Star City had been complaining non-stop since the unemployed and unemployable had started to crowd their streets. He’d seen the police datanet, the endless list of crimes against public order that would never be investigated, let alone solved. Homeless people sleeping on the streets, spitting in the streets, defecating in the streets ... the residents seemed to have forgotten their common humanity. Law and order was gradually breaking down, no matter what the mayor and his councillors said. It was only a matter of time before something exploded.

    He stood, with the rest of the officers, as General Willis strode into the room, followed by a tired-looking aide. The general was a short, aggressive sparkplug who’d made his name in several campaigns and holding actions during the war. Tomas wasn’t sure Willis was the sort of man he’d want in command during a delicate peacekeeping operation, particularly one that could lead to severe violence right across known space, but no one had bothered to ask his opinion. Perhaps someone higher-up the chain had thought Willis’s reputation would be enough to deter the protestors from starting a fight they could only lose. Or, now the war was over, perhaps Willis was the designated scapegoat if the shit hit the fan.

    “Relax,” Willis growled. He stood beside the podium, glaring at the map. “Smoke them if you’ve got them.”

    He waited a moment, then pressed on. “I’ll keep this short and sour. We have specific orders from the assembly. We are to protect the Viceregal Complex, Spacetown and Human Heights. And, to be clear on this point, we are authorised to use whatever force we deem necessary, up to and including the use of lethal force. If any of the priority sectors are threatened, the gloves are to come off.”

    There was a long chilling pause. Tomas shivered. The sectors made sense - protesters attacking any of them would unleash one hell of a can of worms - but lethal force? It was a licence to kill. Or worse. And yet, what could they do? If Spacetown was stormed, with its alien population put to the sword, it would be a diplomatic disaster. The Alphans would be embarrassed - at best - in front of their fellow Galactics. And, at worst, it could lead to a whole new war.

    “Intelligence reports that terrorist groups and sympathizers have been moving agitators into the city,” Willis continued, coldly. “Our reports suggest their deployments include a sizable number of illicit weapons. We have been cautioned that these individuals intend to spark a riot, perhaps immediately after the Viceroy’s speech to the Assembly tomorrow morning. Our operatives have located some of the agitators and we will be taking firm and vigorous steps to remove them before they can become a threat. Some of you will be deployed on missions to arrest them. Others, unfortunately, remain unidentified.”

    And if they’re unidentified here, Tomas thought, they might pass unnoticed until it is too late.

    “I understand that many of you have doubts about your role here,” Willis concluded. “I appreciate you didn’t sign up to play cops and robbers. But it is vitally important that we keep the city under control. The last thing we need, right now, is a diplomatic disaster.”

    Tomas nodded, shortly, as Willis stepped back to allow the ops officer to start handing out assignments. His squad was being assigned to a snatch-and-grab mission, something that bothered him. Marines weren’t policemen. He’d practiced snatch-and-grab missions in the past, but always against terrorists or alien commanders. They’d never had to carry out such an operation in the middle of a friendly population. God knew the police should be able to handle it. They had the training and experience to do it without causing too big a scene.

    If that’s even possible today, he thought, as they were dismissed. Too many people are spoiling for a fight.

    “Lieutenant,” Captain Hicks said, when Tomas returned to the makeshift barracks. “You’ll have a tagalong on your deployment.”

    “Sir,” Tomas said, automatically. His mind caught up with him a second later. “A tagalong?”

    “Yes,” Captain Hicks said. He bent into the posture of mild respect. “Colonel?”

    Tomas blinked in surprise as the Alphan emerged from the office. The Alphan ... he bent into the posture of respect himself, cursing his delay under his breath. They were both hugely outranked by the Alphan. A single word from him would be enough to destroy their careers and put them out amongst the mob.

    “I am Colonel Tallinn,” the Alphan said. “You may rise.”

    Tomas straightened, trying desperately to look as if he’d heard of Colonel Tallinn. He hadn’t. The whisper network shared all sorts of details on alien officers, from the brave who shared the hardships with their human subordinates to the cowardly and incompetent who stayed at the rear and issued orders from a safe distance. But he’d never heard of Colonel Tallinn. His uniform harness marked him as an liaison officer, but ... he shook his head. It didn’t matter what formal position the alien held. He was superior by virtue of being an Alphan.

    “I’ve taken the liberty of ordering your squad to assemble at the landing pads,” Hicks informed him. “Colonel Tallinn will ride along with you.”

    “Yes, sir,.” Tomas said. He kept his real opinion to himself. A tagalong wouldn’t be helpful at the best of times. If something happened to Colonel Tallinn while he was under Tomas’s care ... Tomas might as well jump out of the shuttle and save everyone the trouble of a court martial. “If you’ll come with me, sir.”

    He surreptitiously studied the alien as they walked to the landing pad, where an assault shuttle was waiting. The Alphan looked calm and composed, but that was meaningless. He didn’t have any combat pips on his harness, no hint he’d actually seen action ... no hint of where and when he’d served, if indeed he’d served at all. The elite Alphan special forces were the equal of any human formation - Tomas conceded the point without rancour - but Colonel Tallinn simply didn’t feel like an experienced officer. And Tomas couldn’t even remind him that Tomas was in charge, during the operation. It was going to end badly. He knew it.

    Sergeant Ross greeted them as they reached the shuttle. “Sir. We’ve had a mission download. The lads have been studying it.”

    “Good,” Tomas said.

    Colonel Tallinn paused. “You allow them to read their orders?”

    “They have to know what they’re doing, sir,” Tomas said, trying to keep the dismay out of his voice. Colonel Tallinn was definitely not a special forces officer. “If something happens to me, sir, they’ll have to complete the operation themselves.”

    He took a datapad as they stepped into the shuttle and took their places. The orders were relatively simple, although - in his experience - that generally meant trouble. He would have preferred to spend hours going over the mission, determining how best to carry it out and planning for as many contingencies as possible. And General Willis had signed off on the mission ... it wasn’t a good sign. The government had to be panicking.

    And maybe we should be panicking too, he thought. The shuttle whined to life, the gravity field flickering and fading as the craft glided into the sky. We’ll be right on top of our target within seconds.

    “ETA, two minutes,” the pilot called. “Ready to drop?”

    Tomas glanced at Ross, who nodded. The squad was ready, taking hold of the ropes and preparing themselves to abseil to the rooftop below. Tomas wondered, grimly, if their target realised the shuttle was coming for him. There’d been hundreds of shuttles flying over the city in the last few weeks, but their shuttle had been flying dangerously low. It was the sort of thing that would get a pilot in real trouble in a warzone, if an enterprising enemy officer hadn’t shot an HVM up his tailpipe first. But here ...

    “Ready,” he said. He checked on Colonel Tallinn, who looked ready. “Open the hatches.”

    The hatches opened. Tomas didn’t hesitate. He jumped through the hatch, rappelling to the rooftop as fast as he dared. Someone shouted, outside, as he hit the rooftop and slammed open the hatch. Four of his men threw stun grenades down the hole, then jumped into the room below as the blue light flickered and faded. Tomas barely had a second to realise that Colonel Tallinn hadn’t followed him before he jumped himself. The alien hadn’t left the shuttle.

    Fuck, Tomas thought. Why the ...?

    He put the thought aside as they rampaged through the house. Two men grabbed for guns, only to be knocked to the ground and zip-tied before they could take aim and open fire. A trio of women sat in the next room, screaming loudly. Tomas shoved them to one side and hurried downstairs. If he was any judge, their target would already be heading for the door. It was his only hope. But, when he reached the ground floor, it was empty. There was no hint their target had ever been there.

    “Shit.” Tomas keyed his mouthpiece. The shouting outside was growing louder. It was only a matter of time until the mob started to break down the door. “Does anyone have eyes on our target?”

    “No, sir,” Ross said. “We have nine captives, including two children, but our target isn’t here.”

    An intelligence fuck-up? Tomas cursed savagely as the squad searched the house thoroughly, checking for secret passages and compartments that hadn’t been on the plans filed with the city administration. Or did the bastard have time to get off his ass and run before we smashed our way into the home?

    He put the thought aside. There was no time for recriminations. “Get the prisoners to the shuttle,” he ordered. There had been illegal weapons in the house, if nothing else. “And then scatter some bugs around as we pull out.”

    “Yes, sir,” Ross said. The sergeant would have made his disagreement known, if he had disagreed. “You’d better get back to the shuttle.”

    Tomas nodded, looking around as he made his way back to the rooftop. The prisoners were making one hell of a fuss as they were hoisted through the hatch and into the shuttle. Their home was surprisingly nice, although smaller than he would have expected. Housing was expensive in Star City, he reminded himself. He couldn’t have bought an apartment within the city limits on his salary. Even the rent would be enough to break him.

    He kept his expression under tight control as he clambered back into the shuttle. Colonel Tallinn was sitting by the hatch, his face unreadable. Tomas hesitated, unsure what to say. The alien should have followed him out ...

    “I thought I shouldn’t get in the way,” Colonel Tallinn said. “I thought I ...”

    You mean you panicked, Tomas thought, coldly. He would have understood if the officer had stayed back, if he’d made it clear he intended to stay back. Hell, a smart officer would have stayed back. But Colonel Tallinn had gone right to the hatch before turning back. And you expect me to cover for you.

    He sighed, inwardly, as the shuttle headed back home. The mission had been a tactical success, but - practically speaking - a failure. They’d missed their target. They’d shown they were willing to harass activists ... worst of all, they’d learnt Colonel Tallinn was a coward who didn’t even have the sense to hang back. Tomas wasn’t given to reflection, but he had the feeling it boded ill for the future.

    I’ll have to discuss it with Hicks, he thought, wishing he knew the senior officer better. Was he an officer who could be relied upon? Or was he someone who would throw a subordinate under the shuttlecraft? The corps was normally good about learning from mistakes, rather than looking for scapegoats, but times were far from normal. And hope this piece of bad luck doesn’t get any worse.
     
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    Star City, Earth

    It was clear to anyone who looked with an unbiased eye, Viceroy Yasuke had often thought, that it was a human who had designed the Assembly Chamber. The building seemed designed to strip the honour and dignity from those who entered her doors, even from the elected representatives and their appointed lords and masters. There was no elegance to the seating arrangements, merely a combination of comfortable benches and seats organised to showcase which of the major political parties controlled which seats. Yasuke had never worked out why they bothered. It was almost pitifully easy to calculate which party held the majority, which party was in the minority and which - if there was a third party - held the balance of power.

    And they might have to redesign the entire building if there’s a viceroy after me, Yasuke thought, as he strode through the chamber. The humans struck and held the posture of respect, but he knew many of them didn’t mean it. That worthy might insist on a building and social formalities that truly matched his status.

    He kept the amusement off his face as he reached his chair and sat, allowing his eyes to sweep the room. First Speaker Nancy Middleton, Empire Loyalists, sat on the other side of the chamber, facing him. He’d never found it easy to read human facial expressions, but he rather thought she was nervous. Rumours had been spreading everywhere since his return to Earth. In the middle, he had no trouble picking Speaker Fredrick Douglas out of the crowd. The man might rail against the Alphans and their sense of formality, even of social theatre, but he wore clothes that would have been outdated years before Earth had been dragged into the Alphan Empire. In his own way, the man was just as impressed by formality as his alien masters. He just chose to focus on a different kind of protocol.

    And he’s already looking for ways to turn the crisis to his advantage, Yasuke reminded himself. The human was ambitious - and there were limits to how far he could go, under normal circumstances. It was a kind of ambition that was thoroughly alien to Yasuke’s people. They saw no need to upend centuries of established protocol for their own personal power. He’s been working hard to convert the independents and undecided factions to his cause.

    Yasuke sighed inwardly as the First Speaker stood and launched into a complicated speech of welcome. The Empire Loyalists were loyal - their positions depended on loyalty - but they knew as well as everyone else that they had to get some concessions from their alien masters or risk alienating their voters. Too many promises had been made, when the border was crumbling and enemy hordes were pressing into star systems that had never known an invader, for everyone to pretend it was business as usual. Yasuke knew Nancy Middleton had made a number of attempts to seek a private audience, well before he addressed the assemblymen as a group. He had a nasty feeling he knew what she wanted to say. And, by declining, he’d probably weakened her position.

    He nodded in acknowledgement when the speech finally came to an end, ruefully admitting that his detractors back home had a point. He’d become too human. A speech that lasted a mere thirty minutes felt as if it were dragging on forever. No purely human government would tolerate a speaker who waffled on for hours, he was sure. Their limited attention span would make sure of it. The humans would look at anyone who bored them and decide he wasn’t worthy of their time. Yasuke admired it, in a way. They had a directness about them that his own people had left behind long ago.

    “And we take pride in inviting you to speak before us,” Nancy said. “We are honoured by your presence.”

    And that may not be remotely true, Yasuke thought, as he stood. He wasn’t blind to the Viceroyalty’s flaws. While I was away, you got to play.

    He composed himself as the chamber quietened down. His mouth felt oddly dry. He’d spent weeks arguing with his superiors, and their bureaucratic servants, in a desperate bid to convince them to grant concessions before it was too late. They hadn’t understood, not really. Even after the war, even after a seemingly-endless chain of disasters, they hadn’t understood. Time was no longer on their side. Earth had to be placated or abandoned. And they weren’t quite ready to let the planet go.

    “Over the past centuries, we have brought you into the mainstream of galactic society,” he said. “We have uplifted your technology to mainstream standards. We have tutored you in behaviour conventions that mark you as civilised beings. And we have integrated you into a galaxy-spanning trading network that reaches well beyond the limits of our empire. We have raised you up and you have made us proud. The sacrifices you made for us, during the war, have proved that you are worthy, that you are ready to move to the next stage.”

    He paused, feeling hundreds of eyes watching him. The humans were probably live-streaming the speech, even though it was technically forbidden. The days when a speech could be modified before being uploaded to the datanet were long gone. It made him feel oddly vulnerable. Mistakes could no longer be fixed before they went around the planet at the speed of light. And something that proved harmful could no longer be simply erased and denied.

    “We have promised you much, in return for your services,” he continued. “Today, we will start the process of granting you limited - local - autonomy. Over the next twenty years, we will transfer more and more powers to the assembly until you have the status of one of our planetary assemblies. Certain matters will remain reserved to Capitol, of course, but the remainder will be yours. We have faith, now, that you can handle it.

    “We appreciate that some of you would like us to move quicker. We realise that some of you expected an immediate transfer of powers. But it is our belief that a rapid transfer would cause violent instability, would unleash forces that neither you nor we would be able to control. Your planet was divided, hopelessly divided, when we arrived. You seemed almost to be regressing from a path towards planetary unity. Do you really wish those days to return?”

    He let the words hang in the air as he tried to gauge their reactions. There wasn’t a single living human who recalled the days when they’d thought they were alone in the universe. There wasn’t a soul who remembered what the planet had been like, hundreds of years ago. They’d grown up, for better or worse, on an alien-dominated world. They would see the advantages of independence without the downsides. Humans had been killing themselves over everything from resource allocation to religious ideology. They’d needed a paternalistic race to teach them a lesson before they blew themselves back into the Stone Age.

    But it is in their nature to rebel against their parents, he thought, grimly. Human children became rebellious, difficult to control, as they grew up. Sooner or later, they will rebel against us.

    He felt a twinge of sympathy for the first viceroy. He’d known that humanity needed a firm hand, to guide and punish a race that simply couldn’t look to the future. But the humans had rebelled against his guidance, even when they admitted it was for their own good. Humans saw paternalism as condescension. And they argued their alien masters exploited the human race as much as they taught it. Yasuke had to admit they had a point. The Alphan Empire had benefitted hugely from human servitude. There wouldn’t be millions of humans scattered across hundreds of densely-populated worlds if humans hadn’t proven themselves so useful.

    “We will be detailing how the process is to begin over the next few days,” he concluded, keeping his voice calm. “We will be working with you to outline the process for transferring powers, then steadily withdrawing ourselves until you can stand on your own two feet. We ask for your patience, as we dismantle a structure that has been in existence for hundreds of years. And we ask you to remember that we have brought many great things to your homeworld. Do not be so quick to throw them away.”

    ***
    Speaker Fredrick Douglas kept his face under tight control as the alien viceroy brought his speech to an end. He’d hoped for more. He’d hoped ... he hadn’t been fool enough to think the Alphans would simply grant humanity independence and withdraw at once, but he’d hoped they’d realise that Earth was steadily turning into a pressure cooker. It was only a matter of time until something exploded and all hell broke loose.

    He ignored the muttering from his fellows as the First Speaker rose to thank the viceroy in a manner that would have embarrassed any merely human despot. The Alphans seemed to like being praised, even if they had to know little came from the heart. And yet ... Fredrick schooled his face into immobility as Nancy yammered on and on. The Empire Loyalist leadership might remain loyal, after the speech was uploaded to the datanet, but Fredrick wouldn’t bet on the rank-and-file going the same way. They expected some kind of reward for their service. A slow transfer of power? Twenty years to wait for local autonomy? It wasn’t good enough.

    And they can tie matters up in committee until we forget what we’re arguing about, he thought, tartly. The pre-invasion humans had complained about government bureaucracy, according to the files. They hadn’t known how lucky they’d been. They might stall long enough to take back everything they promised when things quieten down a bit.

    He gritted his teeth, knowing he had to take a stand. There were rumours upon rumours of Direct Action - and a hundred other factions he wasn’t sure even existed - readying themselves to cause real trouble. He’d seen security reports cautioning assemblymen to remain inside the complex, rather than go on the streets ... frightening, given that Star City was supposed to be the safest place on Earth. There were troops patrolling the streets, heavily-armed flyers orbiting the complex ... he shook his head. It was hard to tell if the threats were real, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was ensuring he made a stand before someone pushed him aside.

    And keeping Direct Action from doing something that will spark a massive crackdown, he thought, as he pressed the buzzer for attention. We cannot afford an uprising now.

    “The Assembly recognises the Minority Leader,” Nancy said.

    Fredrick stood, adjusting his wig and brushing down his suit. “Honoured Viceroy, I thank you for your statement,” he said, calmly. It was as much flattery as he could bring himself to offer. “We appreciate that your proposal is, by the standards of your people, remarkable and even revolutionary. We realise that it must have cost your government a great deal to concede it was even necessary. But we feel it does not go far enough.

    “Earth is no longer the deeply divided world you discovered, hundreds of years ago. Humanity itself is no longer the scattered, warring race you encountered, tamed and brought into your empire. We have grown and developed, embracing both your technology and your social concepts. You have given us much and we thank you for it. But we believe the debt has been paid in full. We have worked for you. We have fought for you.

    “Without us, even your military concedes you would have lost the war. Without us, your empire would have been broken by a foe who outnumbered you fifty to one. Without us, your entire system would have shattered even if your core worlds escaped occupation or isolation. Without us - yes, without us - you would have lost. Your history, the history you claim stretches back millions of years, would have come to a sudden and very final end.

    “We do not hate you. We appreciate what you have done for us. But it is time for us to be free. Let us go now, as your friends and allies and trading partners, and stand upon the galactic stage as equals. Let us carve our own destiny amongst the stars. Let us be your friends, not your servants or your slaves.”

    He tried to keep the pleading out of his voice, but he feared he’d failed. “You made us promises, when you thought you were losing the war,” he said. “All we ask is that you keep those promises.”

    Before all hell breaks loose, he added, silently. He knew he should be pointing out the risks of trying to suppress the human race, but he couldn’t say that publicly. The Alphans couldn’t be seen to bend to pressure or threats. Better to discuss the downsides of broken promises later, in private. They have to know they’re sitting on a powder keg.

    He bowed to the viceroy, hoping the inscrutable alien would listen to him, then sat as a dozen other assemblymen buzzed for attention. Nancy, looking thoroughly displeased, was careful to make sure the Empire Loyalists spoke first. Fredrick would have been amused, if they’d been debating something of little import. It didn’t seem to have occurred to her that showing partiality would be used against her, during the next election cycle. Fredrick made a note of it on his datapad, ensuring the recordings were collected and saved before someone a little smarter than the First Speaker made them disappear. They’d play well to the gallery. Nancy would have to explain herself to her own constituents, as well as the rest of the world.

    Assuming there is a next election cycle, he thought, morbidly. There might be a crackdown well before then.

    He kept his face impassive as assemblyman after assemblyman denounced his politics, his career and - for all he knew - his face. He stopped listening after it became clear the Empire Loyalists were caterwauling off the same song sheet. Nancy had probably gleaned some hint of what the viceroy had intended to say, perhaps from the viceroy himself. The aliens had had centuries of experience in political manipulation. They’d probably done everything in their power to smooth the speech as much as possible.

    We’ll have to register a protest now, then go swinging into the election cycle, he told himself, as his supporters were finally allowed to speak. The Empire Loyalists held the majority, barely. If he could change that, if he could displace Nancy before all hell broke loose, he could make a formal demand for independence. Or at least autonomy. We cannot look like collaborators, not now.

    He sighed, inwardly. It would have been easier, in many ways, if the Empire Loyalists had been true collaborators. It would have been easy to paint them as the blackest of villains, to wage a merciless war against all who served Earth’s alien masters ... it would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have been true. The Alphans had been part of the system for so long that they were just ... normal. One might as well wage war against males or females or people who wore alien-derived fashions. It would have been stupid.

    “I will not mince words,” Speaker Philip Maybe said. “Earth deserves independence. Earth deserves - Earth demands - to be free.”

    Fredrick groaned as the chamber dissolved into shouting. It was going to be a long day.

    ***
    Yasuke wondered, not for the first time, if he’d made a mistake. It was never easy to follow the ebb and flow of human politics, not when a strong and determined individual could shape the debate and lead the remainder of humanity in a dangerous - or simply unwise - direction. There were times when he thought the debates should be conducted by text, stripping primitive emotion out of the equation and allowing pure logic and reason to flourish. But he knew the humans would never go for it. They’d suspect that whoever controlled the datanet would control the debate.

    He said nothing, watching as the human loyalists and loyal opposition - a team the humans had gifted his people - argued savagely. The First Speaker was doing her best, but it was clear her party was deeply divided. Yasuke cursed his superiors angrily for not allowing him to move faster. They’d managed to worry their allies while angering their enemies. And ... he conceded, privately, that they hadn’t satisfied anyone. The humans who didn’t want things to change were going to be disappointed, as were the humans who wanted immediate independence. He stared down at his datapad as a new set of reports blipped up in front of him. The crowds on the streets were getting larger. And angrier.

    And they’re far too close to Spacetown, he thought, grimly. Spacetown was hardly the only alien settlement on Earth, but it played host to ambassadors, counsels, reporters and influencers. He’d wanted to close the embassies, just to keep outsiders from fishing in troubled waters, but his superiors had overruled him. Whatever happens here will be broadcast across the galaxy before we can put a lid on it.

    He forced himself to relax. Alphans understood patience. If nothing else, they could wait for the shouting to die down and then start negotiations with the grown-ups. Hopefully, they could get the transfer of power agreements sorted out before everyone involved - himself included - died of old age. If they lasted so long ... he’d have to make it clear, to the bureaucrats, that there was no time for delay. Their stalling tactics couldn’t be tolerated. The humans would see them for what they were.

    Yasuke shivered. He had a nasty feeling time was no longer on his side.
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    Earth Defence Force One, Earth Orbit

    It seemed to be an inevitable consequence of the end of hostilities, Captain Thomas Anderson had often thought, that the bureaucrats and pen-pushers and other oxygen thieves came back into power as soon as the actual fighting came to an end. He wasn’t fool enough to believe everything would be rosy if all the bureaucrats were put against the bulkhead and shot - after being allowed to spend their last moments writing memos deploring the waste of bullets when there was a perfectly good airlock only a few short metres away - but there were limits. Each successive layer of bureaucracy not only made it harder for officers to get things done in time, it increased contempt and hatred for bureaucrats among the rank and file. And that weakened the military too.

    He breathed a sigh of relief as he was finally shown into Admiral Adam Glass’s office. His original orders had made it clear that he was expected to report to the admiral as soon as he returned to Sol, but the bureaucrats hadn’t got the memo. They’d made him cool his heels in orbit for two days before they’d allowed him to complete his mission. He’d filed a formal complaint, but he doubted anyone would care. Earth, if the newscasts were accurate, had too many other problems. Privately, Thomas was tempted to just reverse course and head into unexplored space.

    “Captain,” Admiral Glass said. “Welcome home.”

    Thomas nodded, studying the older man grimly. Admiral Glass had always been short, but he seemed to have aged a decade in the months since their last meeting. His face was lined, his hair had steadily lightened until it was white; Thomas rather suspected the old man had lost weight. It couldn’t be easy, directing the EDF as it grew from a system patrol force into a regular - and formidable - navy. Thomas saluted, then took the preferred chair as Commander Evensong stepped into the office. She hadn’t changed. Her tinted skin, almond eyes and treacle-coloured hair turned heads wherever she went.

    “Commander,” he said. “Good to see you again.”

    “And you,” Evensong said. If she had another name, she’d never shared it. “I hear you had an adventure.”

    “Adventure is someone else in deep shit far away,” Thomas said. He was no coward, and he was happy to accept risk in the line of duty, but there were limits. His kids didn’t deserve to be blown away because their father was an intelligence officer. “I take it you read my download?”

    Admiral Glass cleared his throat. “We’re interested in your impressions,” he said. “If you please ...”

    “Yes, sir.” Thomas took a moment to gather his thoughts. “We passed through Riker-23 on our way to Gammon. There was no suggestion that anything had changed, within the system. We didn’t even have a hint of trouble until we entered Gammon itself, whereupon the Vulteks tried to run us down. Thankfully, a warcruiser showed up before it was too late.”

    “Thankfully,” Glass agreed. “The Alphans have resumed patrols of the neutral zone between their empire and the other interstellar powers.”

    “The warcruiser was able to determine that the Vulteks hadn’t laid political claim to the system,” Thomas explained. “However, they did land a sizable force of colonists ... heavily-armed colonists. Given the lack of a planetary government, it’s quite likely they’ll take control of the surface - directly or indirectly - within the next few years. I think it’s just a matter of time before they take formal control of the system itself.”

    Evensong raised her eyebrows. “With a warcruiser on patrol?”

    “The warcruiser is only a threat if her master chooses to intervene,” Thomas pointed out, coolly. “And if she has orders not to start a shooting match that could easily become a war, she’ll leave plenty of room for enemy misbehaviour. The Vulteks might win the planet and system by default.”

    “Which is worrying for us,” Glass mused. “Do you think they intend to test our defences?”

    “Yes, sir,” Thomas said, flatly. “We passed through Delaine and a couple of other systems on the way home. There’s nothing on the open datanets, naturally, but the covert grapevine warned of alien ships being seen probing the border. I think - no one was able to confirm it - that the reports were the only reason the warcruiser was there. A couple of sightings of what could be unfriendly ships in our systems ...”

    “It would be worrying,” Glass agreed.

    “Yes, sir,” Thomas said. “There were also reports of more traders passing though the system, traders who seemed more interested in looking around than actually trading. I think they’re considering something a little more severe than merely testing our defences.”

    “They’d be going to war with the Alphan Empire,” Evensong pointed out. “And we’re not exactly weak either.”

    Glass narrowed his eyes. “Captain?”

    “Admiral, over the last five years, I’ve only seen one warcruiser patrolling the borders,” Thomas said. “And that was the ship that saved our asses three weeks ago. There aren’t many other ships on duty, beyond a handful of converted freighters and a lone - heavily outdated - warship. The planetary defences are weak, unable to keep an enemy fleet from securing the high orbitals and bombarding the colonies into submission. If I was in charge of the enemy fleet, sir, I’d be thinking about a smash and grab operation too.”

    “Except you’d start a war with the Alphans,” Evensong reminded him.

    “The Alphans took a beating in the last war,” Thomas countered. “They’ve lost, once and for all, the aura of invincibility that kept their empire together. They still have a powerful fleet, Commander, but everyone knows how to beat it. Frankly, given how many interstellar powers resent their predominance, I’d be surprised if some of them weren’t getting together and plotting how to make sure the Alphans stay down.”

    “It’s easy to come up with plans,” Evensong said. “Carrying them out ...”

    “The Vulteks are an aggressive race with powerful patrons,” Thomas said, flatly. “If they bite off the border worlds, there’s a better than even chance the Alphans will allow it to slide.”

    “They wouldn’t,” Evensong said.

    Thomas cocked his head. “How much are those worlds worth, economically?”

    He went on before she could answer. “I did the math, during the voyage home. The entire sector isn’t worth that much, not now. Delaine is the most important world in the sector, at least to us, but ... she isn’t worth a war. The Alphans might decide there’s no point in expending countless lives and starships recovering a sector they consider to be valueless. And it is, to them. I think we have to prepare for trouble.”

    “But they’d look weak, if they let it slide,” Evensong insisted.

    “Their population doesn’t want another war,” Glass said, quietly. “They might resist any suggestion they fought for the border stars. Their homeworlds won’t be threatened.”

    “But Earth will be,” Thomas said. “If they take Delaine, they’ll be within two weeks of Earth. And there are enough threadlines through multispace to make it very difficult to stop them short of Earth itself. We’d never be able to mine the entire region extensively enough to keep them from breaking through.”

    “We might be able to stop them at Santa Maria,” Glass said. “The crossroads is quite small, relatively speaking. It was earmarked for a fallback position, but we didn’t have the budget to turn it into a fortified system.”

    “We might need to find the money, somewhere,” Thomas said. “Sir ...”

    Glass laughed, humourlessly. “Have you seen the reports from Earth?”

    “Yes, sir,” Thomas said.

    “Right now, the Assembly is struggling to find the money to do anything,” Glass said. “The Alphans have the same problem, so we can’t look to them. I have a nasty feeling they’ll be demanding cuts, not budget increases, in the next few months.”

    Thomas rubbed his eyes. “Sir, with all due respect, that will not go down well along the border.”

    “I know.” Glass looked tired. “But, right now, we have too many other problems.”

    He leaned back in his chair. “I’ll want you back out there as soon as possible,” he continued, after a moment. “Take a few days to visit Luna, if you like, then head off again. I’ll see to it you get priority for everything you need.”

    “I may need to offload my children,” Thomas said. “Or transfer them to other ships.”

    “I can’t guarantee their safety anywhere,” Glass said. “The asteroids should be safe enough, unless the shit really does hit the fan.”

    “My parents might take them,” Thomas said. “I know my oldest son is an adult, but I don’t believe it.”

    “No one ever does,” Glass said. “Our kids are our kids, even if they have kids of their own.”

    “Yes, sir.” Thomas stood. “I’ll discuss it with my wife, then let you know when we’ll be ready to depart.”

    “I’ll forward you an intelligence briefing,” Evensong said. “But it might be a little out of date.”

    Thomas nodded. The intelligence briefing would be days or weeks out of date. There was no solid communications network along the border, forcing starships to serve as couriers or try to ping messages through multispace. The shipping guilds had been begging for a dedicated relay network for decades, but nothing had ever been done. Evensong, thankfully, was smart enough to realise that she couldn’t steer events from hundreds of light years away. The Alphans had run into problems, during the early stages of the way, because they’d thought they could.

    He saluted the admiral, then turned and walked out of the office. A pair of mid-ranking officers glanced at him in surprise, no doubt wondering why a mere captain - a civilian captain - had been prioritised over them. Thomas wanted to sneer. Their uniforms were a little too neat - and lacking in campaign pips. REMFs, basically. The EDF tried hard to rotate officers between combat assignments and desk posts, but there were limits. He hoped Admiral Glass would ensure they didn’t reach the very highest levels. A man who didn’t know what he was doing - and was too ignorant to know it - would be very dangerous if he climbed into the wrong post.

    And Sarah isn’t going to be happy, he thought. His wife was going to explode like a damaged antimatter containment chamber. She’ll say I’m putting the family at risk.

    His thoughts darkened as he headed down to the shuttlebay. And she’ll be right.

    ***
    Admiral Adam Glass knew, without false modesty, that he’d climbed to the top through a combination of sheer tactical brilliance, an instinctive understanding of how to manipulate the bureaucracy for his own advantage and a certain awareness of where some of the bodies were buried. He’d been ambitious as a young man, joining the EDF as soon as he reached the age of majority and scrambling up the ladder with a haste some of his alien superiors found unseemly. He liked to think he’d mellowed, as he commanded starships and task forces and even an entire fleet before he’d finally been shunted into a desk job. His ambitions were no longer personal. He wanted - he needed - to see the EDF become the front-line fleet it needed to be.

    It wasn’t an easy job. The Alphans had never envisaged the EDF as anything more than a minor system-defence formation. They’d been surprised when the EDF had mushroomed into something more, purchasing outdated starships and turning them into everything from training vessels to first-grade warships. Adam had feared a crackdown, before the war had exploded into open violence. The EDF had continued to expand, but at a cost. His plans for steady expansion had been thrown out the airlock. Instead, the fleet was effectively tottering under its own weight.

    He was no fool. He’d served in junior posts before climbing to command and flag rank. He knew the EDF was running hot. He’d read the reports from Internal Security. The officers were grumbling, the crewmen were discontented and the messes were revolting. And the embedded alien officers were making matters worse. The pre-war embeds had known what they were doing - or, at least, they’d been willing to learn. The post-war embeds could have given the rest of their species lessons in arrogance, bloody-mindedness and general idiocy.

    And that would be funny, under other circumstances, Adam thought. He felt his bones ache as he keyed his terminal, bringing up the latest reports. Something was going to break, sooner or later. The news from Earth hadn’t helped. Internal Security hadn’t managed to track down whoever was distributing humanist literature all over the fleet. Right now, those idiots are just pouring fuel on the fire.

    He leaned back and brought up the planetary display. Earth was surrounded by starships, orbital battlestations and asteroids that had been mined for raw materials, then converted into industrial nodes or orbiting habitats. It was an impressive sight, although he’d seen bigger and better orbital halos deeper within the empire. Capitol itself was so heavily surrounded by orbital stations that it was a wonder the sunlight ever reached the planetary surface. The Alphans had even talked about building a Dyson Sphere, but - as far as he knew - the plan had never gotten off the ground. They simply hadn’t been able to dismantle an entire star system for raw materials.

    His gaze sharpened as he focused the display on a cluster of green icons. Seven warcruisers, holding position in high orbit. Officially, they were protecting the planet; unofficially, they were a reminder that Earth was still part of the Alphan Empire. Adam had heard rumours that the Alphans had drawn up contingency plans to put down a human mutiny, although it would cost them dearly. The EDF could take the warcruisers, if they opened fire at random. It would be a costly victory, but ... Adam shook his head. They might win the battle, but never the war.

    He clicked off the display in a moment of irritation. He didn’t hate the Alphans. He’d outgrown the lingering resentment years ago. The Alphans were a fact of life. One might as well hate one’s own parents. There was nothing to be gained by agonising over an invasion that had taken place so long ago it might as well be ancient history. But it was infuriating to be reminded, constantly, that humanity was a young race, to be seen - at best - as children who could be smacked and sent to bed without supper. That had been true, once. Now, humanity was catching up fast. Adam wasn’t blind to the steady advancement of human understanding. The EDF’s researchers believed it was just a matter of time before they matched and superseded their masters.

    And what do we do, he asked himself, if they try to stop us?

    He stood, pacing the compartment. He was loyal. He’d taken the oath, seventy-two years ago, and he’d meant every word of it. And yet, where did his loyalties lie if the shit hit the fan? Or if the Alphans chose to abandon human settlers to their fate? Captain Anderson might be right. The Vulteks might be planning to test the waters. And Adam had met enough bullies to know the only thing that would stop them was a punch in the nose.

    The news from Earth wasn’t good. Adam welcomed the promise of a slow transfer of powers, if only because he knew enough history - human history - to accept that an immediate transfer would be disastrous. But twenty years? Adam suspected he wasn’t going to live long enough to see it. The genetic modifications spliced into his genes might keep him going another ten, if he was lucky, but twenty? He shook his head. He didn’t blame the crowds on the street for being angry. Twenty years was absurdly long, by human standards. The Alphans should have realised they’d only make matters worse ...

    His intercom bleeped. “Admiral,” Ensign Corey said. “Speaker Douglas has sent a message, requesting a meeting. He’s citing assembly privilege.”

    “Brilliant,” Adam muttered. He didn’t like Speaker Douglas. The man flirted with radicalism. Either he was playing a double game or he simply couldn’t keep his own people under control. “Did he say why?”

    “No, sir,” Corey said. The ensign sounded worried, as if he expected his head bitten off at any moment. “The message merely requests a meeting at your earliest convenience.”

    And I can’t stall for long, Adam thought, coldly. Douglas had citied assembly privilege. He couldn’t be denied unless there was a real emergency. And I think I know what he wants to discuss.

    “Tell him that I should be free to speak to him tomorrow morning, barring accidents,” he ordered, finally. A few hours ... he couldn’t stall more than a few hours. It would be long enough to consider the problem carefully. “Give him one of the reserved spots on my calendar. And clear him for travel to the station.”

    “Aye, sir,” Corey said. “Do you want me to send him a shuttle?”

    “We better had,” Adam said, after a moment. He was tempted to refuse, to insist the speaker found his own shuttle, but it would be petty and stupid. Besides, it would be safer to use a military shuttle. Who knew who might try to compromise a civilian craft? “Yes, see to it.”

    “Yes, sir,” Corey said.

    Adam returned to his chair and sat. He had a feeling he knew what Douglas wanted to talk about and ... he didn’t want to talk about it. Where did his loyalties lie? Where did the EDF’s loyalties lie? And what would they do when - if - the shit hit the fan?

    Shatter, his thoughts mocked him. Too many factions, pulling in too many different directions ... the entire edifice could come crumbling down. And that will be the end.
     
  12. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    consuls

    Proferred?
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    Star City, Earth

    “You know,” someone muttered from the rear, “I was always told the streets of Star City were paved with gold.”

    Lieutenant Tomas Drache did his best to ignore the speaker as the marines marched down the road. A year ago, the district had been charming - in a distinctly urban sort of way - and reserved solely for government workers and their families. They’d had gardens, schools, a park and even a private swimming pool. Now, the families were gone, their gardens and the park had been turned into tent cities, the swimming pool had been drunk dry and the school had become an emergency aid centre. Thousands of sullen eyes watched the marines as they kept moving, never stopping in one place. There were enough reports of squads being harassed - or openly attacked - for Tomas to insist they kept moving.

    Sweat trickled down his back as he glanced at Colonel Tallinn. The Alphan had insisted on staying with the squad, even after the viceroy had thrown oil on the fire by promising humanity autonomy in twenty years. Tomas had tried to complain to his superiors, to ask them to suggest the Alphan went elsewhere, but he’d been told to shut up and soldier. The Alphan was sticking with the squad and that was that. He gritted his teeth as the alien looked back at him, holding his rifle in a dangerous pose. Tomas couldn’t decide if the Alphan was trying to look good or if he was just an idiot. Real soldiers knew to keep their fingers off their triggers unless they intended to open fire.

    God help us, he thought, as they rounded the corner and marched past a soup kitchen. The householders had been screaming blue murder about the homeless - they’d called it an invasion - and demanding that someone do something about the poor bastards. What the fuck are we going to do?

    The sense of unease grew stronger the more they walked down the street. The squad had raided three more houses - and he’d heard, through the grapevine, that over thirty other houses had also been hit - but they’d found nothing. The agitators seemed to have managed to cover their tracks perfectly, somehow. It shouldn’t have been possible. Tomas had heard rumours that Internal Security had been losing control of the surveillance systems, or that they’d been destroyed, or even simply compromised. It sounded quite plausible. There was no way someone could remain undetected for a week, not without tripping a sensor somewhere. But if someone had compromised the system, or the agency itself, they might be able to remain off the grid indefinitely.

    A series of angry shouts echoed through the air. Tomas braced himself, but the shouter vanished back into the crowd without further ado. The street closed ranks around him. Tomas was tempted to give chase, to give the idiot a proper hiding, but he knew it would only make matters worse. The crowd was already angry. It could turn on the marines in a second, if it felt provoked beyond reason. And yet, doing nothing would only make things worse too.

    “We should go after him,” Colonel Tallinn said, sharply. “Lieutenant ...”

    “The viceroy ordered us not to make matters worse,” Tomas said. It was a ... creative ... interpretation of the viceroy’s orders, passed down through the chain of command, but a fairly safe one. The colonel might argue with him, a mere lieutenant; he wouldn’t risk getting into a pissing contest with his ultimate boss. “We’ll catch him later.”

    He did his best to ignore the alien’s angry muttering as they picked up speed, heading out of the estate and back towards the government complex. The feeder roads in and out of the city had been cleared, thankfully, but the side-streets were crammed with angry people, some of whom were carrying makeshift weapons. Tomas eyed a large man carrying a baseball bat, wondering if he’d try to crack it against a marine’s helmet. A baseball bat was a serious threat in the wrong hands. The government might have ordered a full ban on weapons, but there was no way they could round up all the baseball bats. Or a lot of other things that could be used as makeshift weapons. Tomas hoped none of the former marines had joined the crowd. They’d know how to make weapons from all sorts of common household junk.

    And they might, he thought. Rumour insisted the emergency recall of military personnel hadn’t been heeded by everyone. There were hundreds of names missing from the rolls. Or so he’d been told. Marines generally retired to colony worlds, where their skills were in high demand. It would just take one or two former bootnecks to make the homeless a lot more dangerous.

    His earpiece bleeped. “Abandon your patrol route and report to the Street of the Endless,” Hicks ordered. “I say again, abandon your patrol route and report to the Street of the Endless.”

    “Yes, sir,” Tomas said, automatically. “We’re on our way.”

    He nodded to Sergeant Ross, then checked his HUD. The live feed from the orbiting drones showed a massive crowd gathering near the Street of the Endless, despite strict orders to remain indoors and a growing military presence. He hastily plotted a route, then started to march down the street. His men followed him. The route was a little longer than it should be, but it would keep them out of the jam-packed streets. It looked as if everyone was heading for the Street of the Endless. He could hear the crowd shouting, baying for blood, as they reached the CP. Hundreds of marines were already setting up barriers to keep the crowd from getting too close to Spacetown.

    “There are hundreds of ambassadors in there,” Colonel Tallinn said, as they reported to Hicks. “The crowd will kill them.”

    Tomas blinked in surprise. It was, as far as he knew, the first piece of tactical acumen Colonel Tallinn had shown. But then, Spacetown was pretty obviously not a human settlement. He hoped the aliens were smart enough to remain indoors, if they hadn’t already been evacuated. Xenophobia was rare on Earth, after hundreds of years of interaction with alien races, but it wasn’t gone. The crisis had brought out the worst in humanity.

    “The crowd is to be steered down the freeway, away from the alien residences,” Hicks said, quietly. “They are not to be allowed past the barriers.”

    “Yes, sir.” Tomas felt a lump in his chest. The alien ambassadors had to be protected, or Earth would find itself in the centre of a galactic storm. “We need tangle fields as well as barriers.”

    “They’re on the way,” Hicks said. “Take your place and wait.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    Tomas cast an eye down the Street of the Endless as the shouting grew louder. It was a massive road, lined with towering statues of humans and aliens who’d served the empire in some fashion. The Humanity League had insisted on including a statue of Captain Khan, the lone submarine commander who’d launched a successful nuclear strike during the invasion and taken out an alien base. Tomas had often wondered if the statue had been included in hopes of keeping the league under control or a droll reminder that Khan hadn’t actually stopped the invasion. In hindsight, it had been clear Khan hadn’t even known there was an invasion. He’d thought his country was fighting a conventional war against its historic foe.

    “They don’t get past us,” Colonel Tallinn said. The Alphan sounded nervous. It was hard to be sure, but ... he definitely sounded nervous. His finger rested on his trigger. “They don’t get past us.”

    “You could go back to HQ,” Tomas said, quietly. “Sir ...”

    “I have to be here,” Colonel Tallinn snapped. “Stand your ground!”

    Tomas swore under his breath as the protestors came into view. They looked angry, waving signs that had probably come off some underground printer ... printing shops were banned within the city, but there was no shortage of them outside the borderline. A number were openly carrying more makeshift weapons, including a sizable number of baseball bats. Tomas wondered, suddenly, if someone had purchased every bat in the city. It wouldn’t be hard to order hundreds of bats. Hell, even Internal Security’s famously paranoid filters wouldn’t flag them up as articles of concern.

    The shouting grew louder as the crowd approached. Tomas checked his rifle, then glanced back to see if they had an escape route. It would be difficult ... he feared they’d crash into each other if they tried to fall back. A handful of flyers roared overhead, the crowd hooting and howling curses at them. Tomas was tempted to curse them too. The flyboys weren’t the ones on the front lines, bracing themselves to stand off an angry crowd. They were just agitating the crowd for no good reason.

    Hicks took the loudspeaker. “TURN DOWN THE FREEWAY,” he bellowed. His amplified voice was so loud Tomas thought he was going to crack windows and shatter the riot barriers. “TURN DOWN THE FREEWAY AND WALK AWAY!”

    The crowd kept coming. Tomas shuddered, catching sight of a handful of protesters who’d suddenly realised they were being pushed forward by the thousands of people behind them. They might be smart, but the mob itself was dumb. It was nothing more than a wild animal, a collective mindset unable to understand that it was stumbling into the abyss. He saw a young boy - he looked barely old enough to shave - fall to the ground. The protestors trampled him before he could regain his footing, crushing him below their weight. Tomas checked his rifle again, readying himself to fire a warning shot. If the protestors started to push through the barriers ...

    Where the fuck are the tangle fields? The thought echoed through his mind, time and time again. Where the fuck are they?

    The roar grew louder, the deafening sound shaking him to the bone. He glanced at his squad, rearing their fear and nervousness in their stances. They were holding their weapons at the ready, the shouting and screaming burning through their training ... he saw sweat glistening on their faces as they held the line. He wished, suddenly, that he’d pushed for different duties, that he’d put his name forward for starship service at the end of the war. Here ... he had the awful feeling that something was going to go wrong.

    A rock flew through the air and clattered against the barrier. And Colonel Tallinn broke.

    “Fire,” he ordered, as he opened fire himself. “Fire!”

    Tomas barely caught himself, an instant before he could squeeze the trigger and open fire into the crowd. Others weren’t so quick. A dozen marines opened fire, sweeping the crowd with bullets. Tomas watched in horror as the front lines disintegrated, the bullies cutting through their bodies with horrific ease and going on to burn through the next few rows. The crowd recoiled in horror, the wounded and dead stumbling even as the rear lines kept pushing forward. And the marines were still firing!”

    “CEASE FIRE,” he shouted, as loudly as he could. The mouthpiece picked up his words and relayed them. “CEASE FIRE!”

    The squad stopped shooting, but Colonel Tallinn was still firing. Tomas grabbed his rife and shoved it up, then yanked it away as soon as the alien took his finger off the trigger. Colonel Tallinn stared at him, too shocked to even protest at being manhandled by a mere human. Tomas shoved him to the ground, knowing it would end his career. Colonel Tallinn had just started a civil war!

    He swallowed, hard, as gas canisters began to burst. Sleepy gas was dangerous in open areas. It was never easy to tell who might breathe too much of the gas and never wake up - even if they weren’t allergic to the mixture - but someone higher up thought there was no choice. The crowd broke, hundreds of badly-shocked people running in all directions or stumbling to the ground. The dead were lying still, their blood staining the cobblestones. The wounded were screaming desperately for help, for something that might never come. Tomas stared at them, wondering if he’d be put in front of a court martial or simply shot. He could have stopped Colonel Tallinn ...

    Laying hands on an Alphan and being an accessory to mass murder, he thought, numbly. I’ll never get a job with a record like that.

    Hicks ran up to him. “What happened?”

    Tomas waved a hand at Colonel Tallinn. “The fool panicked,” he said, stiffly. “We’re fucked.”

    “Focus,” Hicks snapped. “We’ll worry about the peacocks later.”

    “Yes, sir,” Tomas said.

    He wanted to believe it was a nightmare, as the medics arrived and started doing what they could, but his body resolutely refused to wake up. He was no stranger to horror - he’d seen men badly wounded or killed outright, during the war - but this was too much. No inhuman race had carried out the slaughter, no gang of pirates intent on looting and raping their way across the universe ... he’d done it. His men had done it. He jumped as he heard gunshots in the distance, saw a flyer racing across the sky. They’d committed the single greatest act of human-on-human slaughter since the Islamist Uprising and ...

    Tomas couldn’t look away as the dead were loaded onto hovertrucks for transport ... somewhere. A young boy, perhaps the one who’d been trampled to death, wounded so badly it was a mercy he’d died. A slightly older girl, with two bullet wounds just below her neckline, her face untouched even as she’d died in agony. A headless body, so badly mutilated that he couldn’t tell if the victim had been male or female. And a man who’d been carrying a baseball back ... the cynical side of his mind wondered if Colonel Tallinn would try to claim the crowd had been armed. God! There’d been no threat! A handful of men with automatic rifles had slaughtered the crowd.

    Disgust welled up within him, disgust and a bitter sense of guilt. He hadn’t fired, but he hadn’t stopped anyone else from firing, had he? Not until it was too late. He raised his eyes, trying to determine how many people had been killed, but drew a blank. Some bodies looked as if they’d been reduced to bloody chunks. Others were surprisingly intact, save for bullet wounds. And still others looked to have been trampled into the cobblestones.

    “They took the peacock,” Ross said. Tomas was so far out of it that it took him several seconds to recognise the sergeant. “Internal Security. They marched him away.”

    “Fuck,” Tomas said. It would have meant certain death if he’d shoved his pistol in Colonel Tallinn’s face and pulled the trigger, but ... right now, it was a price he would have gladly paid if it had kept the slaughter from ever happening. “Just ... fuck.”

    He wondered, idly, if there was a chance he could find the alien and kill him before Internal Security managed to get him off-world. No one would want to admit what had really happened, not now. They’d blame it on the crowd, or him, or ... he shook his head as he gazed at the towering skyscrapers. There would have been eyes up there, people watching and recording as the protest march turned into a slaughter. The newscasts might be heavily censored - he was sure of it - but news would get out. The protestors who’d escaped would tell their friends, then go online. The entire datanet would have to be shut down ...

    And even that won’t keep word from spreading, he thought. He wanted to draw his pistol, put the weapon to his head and pull the trigger. There’s no way to keep a lid on it.

    A uniformed officer - a major, one he didn’t recognise - strode over to him. “Drache?”

    “Yes, sir,” Tomas said.

    “You and your men are to report to Barracks Seven and go into immediate lockdown,” the officer said, crisply. “I am obliged to inform you that failing to carry out these orders will be regarded as desertion and treated accordingly.”

    Internal Security, Tomas thought. The major had to be Internal Security. He’d never met a real marine who’d talked like that. Even the redcaps - the military police - tended to be less formal when they were being unpleasant. It’s only been a few hours and they’re already trying to get the fix in.

    “Yes, sir,” Tomas said. “Sergeant, round up the squad and escort them to the barracks.”

    Ross nodded. “Yes, sir.”

    Tomas watched him go, then looked at the major. “Sir? What’s going to happen to Colonel Tallinn?”

    The major’s face remained blank. “That’s none of your concern, corporal,” he said. His voice grew louder, as if he wasn’t used to having his orders questioned. “Report to the barracks at once.”

    Corporal, Tomas thought. Have I been demoted or are you too ignorant to read my rank pips?

    “Yes, sir,” he said. There was nothing to be gained by arguing, not now. “I’m on my way.”

    He resisted the urge to glare at the major’s back as he hurried away. Instead, he looked around. The medics were working desperately to transport the last of the wounded to the nearest hospitals, if they had room. Tomas didn’t know. There were supposed to be dozens of medical facilities in the city, but they might not have enough beds - and doctors - for the wounded. He wanted to scream, or hunt down Colonel Tallinn and kill him. What the hell had he been thinking? What the hell had he done?

    He wasn’t thinking, Tomas thought. The Alphan had been a coward and a fool. One was quite bad enough. A combination of the two was disastrous. And that was the problem.
     
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Eight

    Star City, Earth

    “Would it be too much to ask,” Yasuke demanded, as he stepped into the holding cell, “that you have a good explanation?”

    He felt a surge of anger - very human anger - as he glared at Colonel Tallinn. The colonel hastily bent himself into the posture of respect, far too late to do any good. He wasn’t precisely under arrest, but ... Yasuke wondered, suddenly, if anyone would complain if he strangled the idiot with his bare hands. A viceroy had vast powers, with very vague limits on just how far those powers could go. Yasuke allowed himself to enjoy the vision of Colonel Tallinn being brutally strangled for a long moment, then put it aside. He didn’t have time to enjoy himself. All of his plans had just crumbled into dust.

    “They shot at me,” Colonel Tallinn said, sullenly. “I returned fire.”

    “I read the preliminary reports very carefully,” Yasuke snapped. “It was a rock. It was a rock that posed no threat to either you or the men who were not, technically speaking, under your command. And you ordered the marines to open fire.”

    “It was my duty,” Colonel Tallinn insisted. “My Lord Viceroy, I must ...”

    “Be quiet,” Yasuke said. “Do you know how many people you killed?”

    Colonel Tallinn said nothing. He probably hadn’t bothered to think about it. Yasuke had. It had been seven hours since the slaughter and the death toll kept rising and falling as more people were reported dead or wounded or simply missing. There was no way to be sure, not yet, but over four hundred people - all human - had been confirmed dead. He was all too aware that number would rise over the next few days. And it had happened right in front of every alien ambassador on the planet.

    “You gave the order to fire,” Yasuke snapped. “You killed hundreds of people.”

    “It was my duty,” Colonel Tallinn repeated. “My Lord Viceroy, I did what needed to be done.”

    “Did you?” Yasuke let the words hang in the air for a long chilling moment. “You needed to killed hundreds of people? You needed to destroy humanity’s faith in us? You needed to give the independence activists a bloody flag they’ll use to unite humanity against us? You needed to practically murder the entire empire?”

    He clenched his fists. “What were you thinking?”

    “My Lord Viceroy, I ... I don’t answer to you,” Colonel Tallinn said. “I ...”

    “Wrong.” Yasuke controlled himself with an effort. “You’re in my viceroyalty. A state of emergency has been declared. I can have you shot and no one will do more than file a pro forma complaint. Your connections” - he was sure Colonel Tallinn had connections - “are already scrambling to disown you. That’s how badly you fucked up!”

    “My Lord ...”

    “Be quiet,” Yasuke said. “This is what you are going to do. You are going to remain here. You are going to write a full report covering everything that happened from the moment you were assigned to the human marines until you wound up in this cell. If there is the slightest disagreement between your report and the facts, as they emerge, your career will be at an end and you will be tried for mass murder, perhaps even treason. There’s enough precedent to put you in a cell for the rest of your very long life. Do you understand me?”

    “My Lord,” Colonel Tallinn said. “I ... my family ...”

    “Is already struggling to disown you,” Yasuke snapped. It wasn’t true, but he was sure it would be true. The word was already out and spreading. “You are alone. Get used to it.”

    He turned and stalked to the door. “And the humans might demand you be handed over to them for trial,” he added, as the guard opened the door. “If that happens, you will be shot.”

    There was a faint sound of shock from behind him. Yasuke ignored the sound as he walked through the door, allowing the guard to slam it closed. Colonel Tallinn would be kept in isolation until the facts were fully understood, ensuring he couldn’t rally his family and political connections to his side. Yasuke was fairly sure the colonel’s family would disown him, but ... he wanted to grind his teeth in frustration. Who’d thought that assigning Colonel Tallinn to a marine squad was a good idea? And why hadn’t they thought better of it when the streets had started to fill with protestors?

    His aide met him as he returned to his office. “My Lord, you have over two hundred messages from human politicians, military officers and newscasters,” he said. “And the Humanity League has demanded the assemblymen be recalled for an emergency debate.”

    “Naturally,” Yasuke snarled. They hadn’t wasted any time, had they? He sat at his desk and stared at the reports waiting for him. He’d thought things were going well. He’d thought the negotiations were proceeding perfectly. And then Colonel Tallinn had thrown everything into the crapper. “I suppose we have no choice, but to honour their request.”

    “Under emergency protocols, you could delay the recall,” his aide said. “You’d have some support in the chamber ...”

    “No.” Yasuke knew it wasn’t going to work. Any human politician who collaborated with him now, with blood still staining the streets, would pay a savage price during the next election cycle. The election was too close for the electorate to forget. The Humanity League would make sure they didn’t forget. “Do we have an updated report from the streets?”

    “Yes, My Lord,” the aide said. “People are staying indoors, mostly. We’ve thrown open sports centres and schools to house the homeless. But we’ve had some patrols harassed and a couple of lone soldiers have been mobbed and killed. There’s also rumblings in a dozen other cities. The media lockdown isn’t working.”

    “No,” Yasuke agreed. There was no way to shut down communications completely, not without taking down the entire datanet. Human hackers were expert at hijacking the system to send uncensored messages. It was illegal, but when had that ever stopped them? “There’s no way to keep word from spreading.”

    He closed his eyes for a long moment. The original timetable had been smashed beyond repair. Any hope of a gradual transfer of power had been lost with it. And that meant ... he eyed the updates from the military command network wearily. If there was an uprising, or even a steady descent into chaos, could he count on the military? The inexperienced embeds hadn’t realised there was a problem - idiots, the lot of them - but the more experienced officers were sounding the alarm. The human troops might turn their weapons on their former masters.

    And that would mean a civil war, he thought, grimly. In theory, he could call for enough reinforcements to overwhelm any humans foolish enough to resist. In practice, the government might just wash its hands of the whole affair. Or it might discover it had problems back home. The entire empire could be destroyed.

    “My Lord?”

    Yasuke looked up. “Inform the communications office that I want a direct line to Capitol in an hour,” he said. “I need to speak to the core councillors themselves.”

    His aide started in shock. “My Lord, the councillors won’t speak directly to anyone.”

    “They’ll speak to me,” Yasuke said, flatly. “This is a priority call.”

    And we have to hope they learnt something from the war, he thought, as his aide hurried off to do his master’s bidding. Matters wouldn’t have gotten so far out of hand if they’d been alerted to the invasion before it was too late.

    But, for once, he was utterly unsure what to do next.

    ***
    “You are not - precisely - under arrest,” Captain Grogs said. He’d introduced himself as a military police lawyer, the moment he’d stepped into Tomas’s holding cell. “But you would be wise to remember that anything you say will be recorded and may wind up being used as evidence against you during court martial proceedings.”

    “Yes, sir,” Tomas said. He felt numb, too numb to care about anything. “I understand.”

    He stared down at his hands. They were clean, but it was easy to imagine them soaked with blood. Human blood. He’d never killed a human before ... cold logic told him he still hadn’t, that he’d done everything in his power to stop the slaughter, but raw emotion told him otherwise. He was almost glad he’d lost the capability to feel. The numbness was a relief, after the guilt. He wished he’d thought to shoot Colonel Tallinn himself before it was too late.

    “Good,” Grogs said. “Now, starting from the beginning, tell me what happened.”

    Tomas said nothing for a long moment, trying to marshal his thoughts. What was the beginning? When had it all started? He took a breath, then carefully outlined everything that had happened since the company had been pulled away from training duties and assigned to patrol the city. The marches, the raids, the protest ... and the bloody slaughter. He wondered, numbly, how his men were coping. He’d had to leave them in the barracks, knowing it was only a matter of time before the redcaps descended like wolves on sheep. This wasn’t a harmless little prank like getting blind drunk and getting into bar fights or seducing the commanding officer’s daughter. This was ... his mind wanted to believe it had never happened. He couldn’t allow himself the luxury.

    “I see,” Grogs said. “Do you think the protest was on the verge of turning violent?”

    Tomas swallowed. “I don’t know, sir.”

    “But you must have an opinion,” Grogs said. “Do you not?”

    “I don’t know, sir,” Tomas repeated. “Protesters can turn into a mob at the drop of a hat. It could have turned violent very quickly, leaving us with nowhere to run. I don’t know if it would have done ...”

    “But someone threw a rock,” Grogs said. “Didn’t they?”

    “A rock?” Tomas tried not to giggle like an idiot. “A rock. We had body armour! It wasn’t as if they were firing automatic weapons at us!”

    Grogs nodded, curtly. “And what do you think caused the ... incident?”

    “The bloody slaughter, you mean,” Tomas corrected. “Colonel Tallinn panicked. He ordered the men to shoot. And they did.”

    “Panicked,” Grogs repeated.

    “Yes.” Tomas felt a hot flash of anger. “He was a coward and a fool who should never have been given a weapon and put on the streets. His mere presence screwed the chain of command into a pretzel. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near us. Instead, he issued the order to open fire. How many thousands of people are dead because of him?”

    “We’ve been told not to speculate,” Grogs said.

    “Of course not,” Tomas said. “What now? Do I get blamed for the slaughter? Does he get a free ticket to Capitol and I get one to Liberty? Or do I get put in front of a wall and shot?”

    “I have no idea,” Grogs said. “What do you think should happen?”

    “Colonel Tallinn should be shot,” Tomas said, flatly. “And the chain of command needs to be smoothed out before we have another” - he allowed his tone to turn mocking - “incident.”

    Grogs didn’t rise to the bait. “You and the other witnesses are currently being held in isolation for your own protection,” he said. “You will be given a datapad. You are to write down everything you can recall, from start to finish. I am obliged to remind you that this will be considered legal testimony and any discrepancies between your recollections, other people’s recollections and hard evidence will result in an investigation and may result in criminal charges.”

    “I can tell you were trained as a lawyer,” Tomas said, sharply. “Tell me ... when they put me in court, will you be allowed to defend me? Or will the judge order you out on the grounds you’re human?”

    “On the record, we’re not allowed to speculate about future proceedings,” Grogs said, sharply. “Off the record, I will tell you that everyone above us” - he jabbed a finger at the ceiling - “is running around like a bunch of headless chickens. I can’t swear to what will happen in the next few hours, let alone the days and weeks to come. All I can do is advise you to tell the truth, as you see it, and let the future take care of itself.”

    Tomas laughed. “And when they start looking for scapegoats ...?”

    “Right now, I think they have other problems.” Grogs stood. “And so do you.”

    “Hah,” Tomas said.

    He watched the lawyer bang on the door, the guard opening it and shooting Tomas a nasty look before closing it again. REMF. Tomas didn’t know anyone, even the redcaps themselves, who actually respected the military police. They could be tough, in roving bands, but none of them had ever seen real combat. Even the units that served as occupation troops were rarely blooded. The real fighters normally killed anyone who even looked at them funny before the follow-up units arrived.

    Fuck, he thought. He forced himself to stand. They’re going to kill me.

    He stared at the dark metal walls. They were solid, too solid to do more than bruise his skin and crack his knuckles if he punched them. He’d grown used to small quarters in the barracks, but ... there was something about the holding cell that just felt oppressive. He wondered sourly if they’d move him to a proper cell within the next few hours or simply take him outside, put him against the wall and shoot him. There were all sorts of rumours, each one wilder than the last, about just how far the Alphans would go to maintain their power. Tomas hadn’t believed any of them until now.

    I guess I’ll just have to wait, he thought, as he started an exercise routine. It would take his mind off his plight, at least until the guard shoved the promised datapad into the cell. And see what happens next.

    ***
    “Good God,” Rachel said, quietly.

    Fredrick nodded, curtly, as the horror unfolded in front of him. The datanet had been placed on semi-lockdown, which was all the proof he needed that something bad had happened, but the league had plenty of experience in moving data from one place to another without being shut down. The recordings had been taken by a sympathiser in the city, transferred to a datachip and hand-carried to the league’s headquarters. And they were ghastly.

    He felt sick, his stomach churning with horror and fear. True fear. The death toll had to be in the hundreds, perhaps even the thousands. He’d heard rumours of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dead. Cold logic told him that was absurd - even now, there couldn’t be more than a million people in the city - but the rumour mill was out of control. Asteroids blown apart, entire planets scorched clean of life ... he’d even heard a story the aliens had nuked Star City again. He only had to look out of the window to disprove that story.

    The recording came to an end. He forced himself to look up. “Has there been any response to our demand for a recall?”

    “No, sir,” Rachel said. “But I happen to know the Empire Loyalists have echoed our demand.”

    Fredrick nodded, unsurprised. The Empire Loyalists were fucked. It would have been good news, if the streets weren’t stained with blood and the very real prospect of armed intervention looming over the entire planet. Fredrick had no illusions. The human race could put up a fight, if the warcruisers arrived to teach the planet a lesson, but it would end with everything they’d built over the last century blasted into atoms. And that would be the end of everything.

    Rachel glanced down as her datapad bleeped an alert. “Sir, William Grey is requesting a private meeting.”

    “Of course he is,” Fredrick snarled. “The whole crisis is practically tailor-made for him.”

    He forced himself to calm down. Direct Action could not be allowed to take any sort of action. Not now. He’d heard enough to know their planned campaign of slow-downs, strikes, sabotage and outright terrorism would only plunge the planet into civil war. The loyalists wouldn’t be the only ones calling for their heads. A terrorist campaign would rapidly cost Direct Action - and the Humanity League - all the sympathy it had earned.

    And then everyone would be demanding our immediate extermination, he thought. And the Alphans will be happy to oblige.

    “Inform Grey that I’ll see him in an hour,” he ordered, finally. “By then, I should have a plan ready to take the lead - to take control. And hopefully keep him from doing anything stupid.”

    “Yes, sir.” Rachel didn’t sound optimistic. “I’ll let him know.”

    Fredrick tended to agree. Word was out and spreading. So were rumours, each one more exaggerated than the last. The Empire Loyalists might be fucked, but so was he if he wasn’t careful. He had to lead the protest, while - somehow - keeping it from getting out of hand. There were enough hotheads out there to ensure that something would happen ... something else, he supposed. They had to avoid giving the Alphans a ready-made excuse for a crackdown. And yet, many of those hotheads regarded him as a borderline collaborator himself.

    “And then see if you can arrange a meeting with the First Speaker,” he said. “We may as well see if we can put forward a joint resolution.”

    “Yes, sir,” Rachel said. “Might I say that seems unlikely.”

    Fredrick laughed. “In the words of my ancestor, we must all hang together or hang separately,” he said. “The Empire Loyalists may no longer be quite so loyal.”

    Rachel looked doubtful, but merely nodded.
     
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    EDS Washington/Earth Defence Force One, Earth Orbit

    Commander Naomi Yagami stared down at the two sets of updates, wondering - numbly - if all hell was about to break loose. One update came directly from Earth Defence Force One, so vague she was sure it had been written by a committee of politically-minded officers; the other came from the whisper network, so blunt and crude she suspected that whoever had originally written the message intended to cause trouble. The truth ... she sucked in her breath. The truth might lie somewhere between the two extremes.

    She let out a long bitter sigh. The first message referred to an incident in Star City, something that might cause unrest and even outright violence. Captains and senior officers were ordered to keep their crews under lockdown and to do everything in their power to keep rumours from spreading. The second message claimed the Alphans had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people in Star City, perhaps as a precursor to re-establishing direct rule over the solar system. Naomi refused to believe so many people had been killed, but ... she could easily believe that something had happened. And where did that leave her?

    Her hand touched the pistol at her belt. She’d taken the weapon from the safe, the moment she’d read the update, and checked it carefully. She’d never fired a pistol in anger, but she’d made sure to spend at least an hour on the firing range every week. A spacer could never be too careful, particularly when crewmen were being run ragged by commodores and admirals who’d never stood on a command deck. And yet now ... she forced herself to think. What would she do, if Washington was ordered to provide direct support? What side was she meant to be on?

    She tossed the question around and around, trying to come up with an answer. She’d sworn an oath to the empire. She hated the thought of breaking it. But the empire hadn’t been very good to her. She knew, without false modesty, that she should have reached command rank herself years ago. She should have been in command of Washington. And yet, the alien-dominated command structure had placed a well-connected idiot in command. It hurt, more than she wanted to admit to anyone. She’d worked hard to earn her place. She knew she deserved it. And yet, it had been stolen from her by someone who’d been lucky enough to be born to the right species.

    And that species just carried out a brutal slaughter, she thought. The precise death toll might not be known for days, if at all, but she knew hundreds of people had been killed. What do I do if I get told to carry out one myself?

    The thought chilled her to the bone. She had no qualms about killing enemy starships intent on killing her. She had no hesitation in blowing away pirate ships, crewed by monsters intent on looting, raping and killing their way across the second; she had no doubts about escorting captured pirates to the nearest airlock and throwing them out, once they’d been drained of everything they knew. But firing on innocent civilians? She was no shrinking violet, no virgin who’d yet to see hostile action. She knew there were times when civilians were in the wrong place at the wrong time, where they were injured or killed ... she knew there was no way to guarantee there would be no civilian causalities. Only a particularly idiot politician could be so fatuitous. But deliberately slaughtering civilians?

    She shuddered. She’d never been ordered to drop KEWs on civilian targets, let alone get up close and personal with the people she’d been ordered to kill. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that destroying ships meant killing people, that bombarding planetside targets meant killing people ... they were just icons on the display. Operators whooped and hollered and slapped their palms as icons blinked out of existence, unwilling or unable to acknowledge that they’d killed people. And yet ... she knew, all too well, that bombarding a city meant killing thousands of innocents. She liked to think she’d refuse if someone told her to commit such a ghastly atrocity.

    And yet, it would be perfectly legal. The Alphans had no qualms about carrying out nuclear strikes on inhabited planets if they felt them necessary. They’d nuked a dozen cities on Earth, hundreds of years ago, just to make it clear that they were the masters now. She’d read the warbook extensively, during long and boring deployments. She knew an order to put down a riot by bombarding the city would be perfectly legal. But it would be morally wrong.

    And what will I do, she asked herself shortly, if I get told to do it?

    She closed her eyes, thinking hard. It wouldn’t be difficult to commit mutiny. Or barratry. There was only one non-human onboard and she’d have no trouble taking him out. She could just walk to his cabin, open the hatch and shoot him. And yet ... which way would the crew jump? Would they support her? Or their legal captain? They might detest the peacock, but he was their rightful commanding officer. And his orders would be legal, both legally and practically. Hell, there were even protocols written into the legal framework that insisted anything an Alphan did was legal by definition.

    I take the ship, she thought. She knew she could rely on the command staff. She’d been the one to meld them into a team. And she knew discontent was spreading below deck. But what do I do then?

    She turned her attention to the display. The warcruisers were still in position, holding station near Earth. They were out of range, but that would change quickly. Naomi was sure the EDF could take them, if all hell broke loose, yet ... there was no way to plot and carry out a mutiny on such a scale without being detected well before it was too late. Internal Security would realise something was up. Naomi was pretty sure they monitored the whisper network closely. She was mildly surprised they’d never tried to shut it down. And even if the EDF did take out the warcruisers, what next? The Alphans would send a fleet to exact revenge and put the human race back in its place.

    And that will be the end, she told herself.

    Her heart twisted. Was she condemned to do nothing? Or was she ... she looked up, sharply, as the buzzer rang. There weren’t many people who’d call on her, in her office, without calling ahead. Trouble? Her hand dropped to her pistol, ready to draw the weapon. She told herself not to be silly. She’d never drawn on a member of her crew before, not ever. She was damned if she was starting now.

    “Come,” she ordered.

    Her eyes narrowed as Senior Chief Nigel Thompson stepped into the compartment. He was alone, thankfully, but his visit could not be a coincidence. NCOs like him had whisper networks of their own, if rumour were to be believed. They knew too much about what was going on, at any given time, for Naomi to doubt it. And that meant ... what?

    “Commander,” Thompson said. He sounded more urgent than their last meeting. “Have you heard the news?”

    “Yes,” Naomi said. “And, right now, we can do nothing.”

    “That isn’t going to sit well with the crew,” Thompson said, flatly. “Hundreds of people are dead.”

    “I know,” Naomi said. “Did you get a more accurate count?”

    “The message stated nine hundred people were killed,” Thompson said. “But the figure could be a great deal higher.”

    “It could also be a great deal lower,” Naomi pointed out. “The first reports are always wrong, Mr Thompson. And it’s only been seven hours since the shit hit the fan.”

    “Since hundreds of people were killed,” Thompson said. “Commander, the crew is not happy.”

    “Neither am I,” Naomi said. “And what do you propose we do about it?”

    She waited, wondering if Thompson actually had a good answer. It was easy, in her experience, to say that something must be done. It was a great deal harder to come up with ‘something.’ She’d forgive Thompson stepping outside all bounds of naval protocol if he actually came up with a workable idea. So far, she’d come up with nothing.

    “We take the ship,” Thompson said. “And stop them.”

    “And then what?” Naomi waved a hand at the display. “Those warcruisers blow us away!”

    She met his eyes before he could muster another suggestion. “Right now, we have no option but to wait and see,” she said. “If things get worse, we can ... reassess the situation.”

    “And let them get away with it?” Thompson stared back at her. “They murdered countless innocents!”

    “I know,” Naomi snapped. “But we don’t even know what really happened. Do we? We just have vague reports! Give them a chance to work out what happened and what they’re going to do about it. If they decide to do nothing, we can do something ourselves.”

    She winced, inwardly. Thompson wasn’t stupid. He knew - he had to know - that he was coming very close to advocating mutiny. He had to know she should - technically - arrest him for sedition. And yet ... was he a spy? A plant? Internal Security might be trying to trick her into saying something that could be held against her. If she arrested him, she might trigger a mutiny; if she didn’t arrest him, she might be arrested herself ...

    “We must not act rashly,” she said, pushing her doubts aside. “Give them a chance. And if they fail to handle the situation properly, we can rethink our stance.”

    Thompson looked displeased. “Yes, Commander.”

    “And make sure everyone gets the message,” Naomi said. “We cannot afford rash action.”

    She watched him go, grimly aware it was only a matter of time until something exploded. Thompson was smart and tough, but he’d find it hard to ride herd on the hotheads within the crew. Someone would do something stupid, or start walking down a path that would lead to outright mutiny and eventual execution ... she cursed under her breath. The hell of it was that she wanted to do something too. She was just all too aware that there was nothing she could do.

    Not yet, she thought. She started to mentally draw up contingency plans. She didn’t dare write any of them down. But we have to think of something and fast.

    ***
    “The reports are clear, Admiral,” Commodore Yang stated. “Incidents of sedition have increased by several hundred percent in the last nine hours.”

    Admiral Adam Glass gave him a sharp look. “Are you surprised?”

    Yang blinked. “Admiral?”

    “The reports are clear,” Adam said, deliberately echoing the commodore’s words. “Upwards of five hundred people - the death toll keeps changing - were killed. The rumours started spreading - and growing - before the last of the bodies had even hit the ground. Right now, there are people convinced the entire city was depopulated and then burned to the ground. And they’re getting angry.”

    “Sir,” Yang said. “Sedition must be suppressed.”

    Adam met his eyes, evenly. “Is it sedition or just grumbling?”

    He shook his head before Yang could try to answer. Internal Security officers had no sense of proportion. They couldn’t tell the difference between spacers letting off steam by grumbling and outright sedition. Spacers grumbled, it was a law of nature. There was no way anyone could crack down on it without sending morale into a black hole. Hasty repression might easily lead to a genuine mutiny.

    “You will continue to monitor the situation, but you will do nothing unless there is a clear and present threat to system security,” he ordered. “And you will inform me ahead of time before you take any corrective measures. Do you understand me?”

    Yang frowned. “Admiral, with all due respect ...”

    “Do you understand me?” Adam held his eyes. “Or do I have to assign someone else to your role?”

    “No, sir.” Yang bent into the posture of respect. “I understand perfectly.”

    “Good,” Adam said. “Dismissed.”

    He turned his attention to the display, not bothering to watch as Yang backed out of the compartment. That was an insult, a slap across the face by Alphan etiquette. The nasty part of Adam’s mind wondered if Yang would care. He’d notice, of course, but would he care? Or would he just be glad he’d escaped without being replaced? Adam would have to burn a great deal of his political capital to have Yang removed and replaced by someone a little more sensible, but he could do it.

    Or maybe I can’t, he thought, with a flash of dark humour. Internal Security doesn’t have anyone with any common sense.

    He snorted at the thought as he pulled up the latest set of reports and scanned them quickly, feeling his heart sink. The death toll now stood at four hundred and thirty people - a note, at the bottom, stated that the remaining wounded had been stabilised and nearly all of the missing had been accounted for. Four hundred and thirty people ... he shuddered, trying to comprehend what had just happened. The war had killed millions, but they’d all lived on worlds on the other side of the empire. This incident had taken place on Earth. The entire planet was outraged.

    The reports were clear. There were protests in over twenty years, with wildcat strikes taking place all over the system. The interstellar relay network had been shut down, save for emergency messages, but it was only a matter of time before word spread right across the empire. God knew there were enough alien powers with an interest in making life hard for the Alphans. They’d ensure the exaggerated reports were spread well ahead of the truth.

    Although the truth is pretty bad, he reminded himself. Pretty bad ... it was a disaster and everyone knew it. The slaughter had smashed all hope of a peaceful transfer of power. Yang might be an ass, but he was right. Sedition was spreading. Adam knew enough about spacers to know some of them would be plotting trouble. And if we don’t manage to get ahead of the crisis, we’re going to be smashed flat.

    He turned his attention to the communications log. The viceroy hadn’t returned his call. He couldn’t talk to any other politicians without speaking to the viceroy first, although the log stated that over a hundred politicians had tried to speak to him. And dozens of officers had sent him private messages, expressing their concerns. He was standing on a powder keg that might explode at any moment. He honestly didn’t know what to do. If he spoke to his subordinates, it might be held against him; if he didn’t take the lead, someone else would push him aside and do it instead.

    The intercom bleeped. “Admiral,” Ensign Corey said. “His Lordship the Viceroy is calling on a priority line.”

    Adam frowned. The disdain in the ensign’s voice would have been all too clear to a human. He hoped she hadn’t sounded like that to the viceroy’s aide - or whatever lower-ranking staffer had been assigned to arrange the call. The viceroy himself knew humans very well, perhaps well enough to read human emotions. It wasn’t easy - it was never easy to read alien expressions - but the viceroy had spent more time on Earth than Capitol. He might be able to do it.

    “Put him through,” he said, calmly. He’d speak to her about her tone later. “And hold my other calls.”

    The viceroy’s holographic image materialised in front of him. “My Lord Viceroy,” Adam said. “Thank you for returning my call.”

    “You are most welcome,” the viceroy said. It was hard to be sure, but the alien looked harassed. Worrying, in someone who had the power of life and death over the entire system and everyone living within it. “Is the EDF reliable?”

    Adam felt a chill run down his spine. The warcruisers weren’t that far from the orbital station. If they opened fire without warning, they could cripple the EDF before anyone could fire a volley in return. And ...

    “I believe the vast majority of my officers and crew will remain loyal,” he said, carefully. “But there is considerable anger over the slaughter. It will have to be handled, somehow.”

    The viceroy looked thoroughly displeased. “My government is currently trying to decide how to handle the situation,” he said. “But they may not come to a decision before matters get out of hand.”

    They’re already out of hand, Adam thought. And if you’re getting desperate, My Lord, what are you going to do next?

    “The Assembly will meet tomorrow,” the viceroy said. “Keep your people under control, Admiral. I believe things will change, but I don’t know how.”

    “I’ll do my best to buy you time,” Adam said. “Do you intend to charge Colonel Tallinn?”

    The viceroy gave him a sharp look. “If I can, I will,” he said. “But that won’t be easy.”

    “No,” Adam agreed. “It won’t.”

    He glanced at one of the reports someone had hastily thrown together for him. Colonel Tallinn could be charged with a dozen different offences, but making them stick would be a political nightmare. The Alphan Government wouldn’t be happy if Colonel Tallinn was tried in a human court. They’d want to try him themselves, but Colonel Tallinn could claim Alphan privilege if he wasn’t quietly discharged and dispatched to a colony world on the other side of known space. It would be a horrible mess.

    “Do what you can,” the viceroy ordered. “And tell your people a final decision will be coming soon.”

    “Yes, sir,” Adam said. “Good luck.”

    The viceroy made a very human snort. “Good luck to you too, Admiral,” he said. “We’re both going to need it.”
     
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Ten

    Star City, Earth

    It wasn’t easy to keep his expression under tight control, Fredrick discovered, as he strode into the chamber for the emergency session. He’d been surprised that neither the Empire Loyalists nor the viceroy himself had made any attempt to bar the session, although he supposed that both parties knew they were in deep shit. Rumour had it the Empire Loyalists were on the verge of shattering into a handful of smaller parties. He would have been pleased if he wasn’t ruefully aware the Humanity League was in trouble too.

    If we take the lead, we become targets, he thought. And if we step back, others will take our place.

    He took his chair and waited, watching as the room steadily filled to capacity. The viewing galley was heaving with newscasters, pointing portable recorders and sensors at the assemblymen below. Fredrick nodded to a particularly intelligent reporter, then returned his attention to the assemblymen himself. The First Speaker looked as if she didn’t quite know where she was. Fredrick supposed he couldn’t blame her. Two days ago, she’d looked to be on the verge of true power; now, the only reason she hadn’t already been replaced was the simple fact that no one else wanted the job. The most powerful position any human could hold had suddenly become a poisoned chalice. And it hadn’t even been her fault. It would have been funny, if it hadn’t been a foretaste of what the future might hold for him. He was all too aware his supporters might turn on him too, if he failed to lead them where they wanted him to go.

    The viceroy entered the chamber, looking tired and worn. He didn’t make any sign for the assemblymen to rise as he took his chair. Fredrick wondered if that was a sign of guilt or simple exhaustion. The viceroy hadn’t been directly guilty, if the reports from reliable sources were accurate. He hadn’t given the command to open fire. But he was part of a system that kept the human race under strict control. He might not be personally guilty - Fredrick conceded the point without rancour - but the system he upheld was as guilty as hell.

    And his superiors have to be mad at the poor bastard too, Fredrick thought, with a flicker of sympathy. No wonder he didn’t get any sleep.

    The First Speaker’s expression didn’t sharpen as she keyed her console. “Speaker Douglas has requested the floor,” she said, without the usual preamble. “Please remember that this is an emergency session” - her eyes swept the chamber - “and interruptions are not tolerated.”

    Fredrick nodded politely as he rose. By custom, having asked for an emergency session, he had the right to make his speech without interference. The First Speaker could make her response, also without interference. And then the knives would come out. The assemblymen could tear him to shreds, if they wished. Very few emergency sessions had ever been called, outside wartime. The political costs were sometimes too high.

    “I will not mince words,” he said. “I will forgo propriety and etiquette and speak to you bluntly. The matter is too important for such distractions. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of both the human race itself, and the greater empire, may rest upon what happens today.”

    He took a breath. His career was about to go into orbit or be buried so deeply no one would ever mention his name. He’d done everything in his power to keep the speech from leaking out, but he was all too aware that his political enemies could guess what he was about to say. They’d understand his problems as surely as he understood theirs. Even the viceroy - and his staff - would understand him. They knew what he was about to say.

    “Yesterday, a marine squad was ordered to open fire on a protest march,” he said. “By the time the squad was ordered to cease fire, four hundred and thirty people lay dead on the streets. A further two hundred and seventy were wounded, some seriously enough to require immediate transport to hospital. And, even as word started to get out, the government chose to shut down the datanet in a bid to prevent the news from spreading far and wide. All they managed to do was give credence to the wildest of rumours.

    “But it is no rumour that four hundred and thirty people are dead. It is no rumour that four hundred and thirty people were murdered.

    “I have it on good authority that the officer commanding the marines was a coward and a fool. I have it on good authority that his family connections, utterly beyond reproach, were allowed to override common sense. I have it on good authority that the marines were told to follow his orders, whenever he chose to issue them. And we know, because four hundred and thirty people died in the streets, that he chose to order his men to open fire. And we know that commander’s family are already doing what they can to get him off the hook.

    “That man is a murderer. And yet they’re trying to save him from the consequences of his own stupidity.”

    He allowed the words to hang in the air. “I believe I speak for the majority of the human race when I say I have lost all faith in the empire’s goodwill. I believe I speak for us all when I say enough. Public opinion demands I take a stand, that I make it clear we have reached the point of no return. The changes wrought by the war were weakening us well before the murderer took a squad of men and set out to commit an atrocity. And he has, in a single bloody second, killed the empire itself.

    “In the name of humanity itself, I demand two things. First, that Colonel Tallinn be handed over to us for judgement. He will be given a fair trial, following procedures laid down when the last of the pre-invasion governments were dissolved, but his family and his political connections will have no opportunity to put their finger on the scales. He may speak for himself, or hire a lawyer; he will not be allowed to claim privilege and skate punishment for his crimes.

    “And second, I demand that the empire grants us immediate independence.”

    A rustle ran through the air. Fredrick smiled to himself. They’d known it was coming, they had to have known, but it was still a shock. The words threatened to upend everything they knew about how the world worked. He glanced at the viceroy, noting the alien showed no visible reaction. Had he been caught by surprise? Fredrick doubted it.

    “Two days ago, it was possible to have faith in the ultimate goodness of the empire,” Fredrick said. “It was possible to believe that a steady path towards autonomy would satisfy both sides. But that is no longer the case. Our faith was murdered by Colonel Tallinn and his family. Let us part now, without further ado, and meet as friends and equals on the galactic stage. Let us put this whole sorry affair behind us and look to a better - and brighter - future for us all.”

    He sat down, smiling inwardly at the numb shock on some faces. The Empire Loyalists had known what was coming, yet they hadn’t been able to do anything about it. Today, imperial unity was a losing cause. The First Speaker had to know it. And yet, what else could they do? What was the point of a loyalist party if there was nothing to be loyal to?

    The First Speaker stood. “No one can deny that the events of yesterday were a ghastly tragedy,” she said. “No one can deny there is a need to come to terms with the incident, that there is a need to clearly establish what happened and make sure the guilty parties are punished. No one can deny it. But no one can also deny that this is no time to score cheap political points, to advance an agenda ...”

    There was a roar of anger from the benches. Fredrick kept his amusement under tight control as the assemblymen, Empire Loyalists as well as Human League, started shouting Nancy down. The First Speaker gravelled for silence, but it never came. She might have a point, he conceded, yet it didn’t matter. Right now, people were angry. They wanted blood. They didn’t want someone calling for calm, promising an investigation that would be carefully planned to avoid pointing the finger at the wrong people ...

    He smirked as the shouting grew louder. It was going to be a very bad day for his rivals.

    And if it looks like I’m doing something, he told himself, the hotheads won’t do anything stupid either.

    ***
    Yasuke would have gladly thrown Colonel Tallinn to the humans without a moment’s hesitation, if he’d thought it would put a lid on the brewing disaster. The colonel’s report hadn’t been the greatest piece of military fiction he’d ever read, but it was certainly the most outrageous. His story kept changing, sometimes within the same wretched paragraph. He’d felt he needed to send a message, he’d felt afraid for his life, he’d simply not thought about what he was doing ... Yasuke had found himself seriously considering just having the idiot shot. It could hardly have made matters worse.

    He watched, grimly, as the human politicians shouted at each other. He’d expected the session would be bad, with politicians lining up to take shots at the government and the wretched colonel, but it was worse than he’d feared. The loyalists were no longer loyal. He could see a dozen Empire Loyalists attacking the First Speaker - and, by extension, the government - with a savagery that awed and terrified him. It was a far cry from the genteel discussions from home. He found it hard to believe his race had ever been so ... riotous.

    But they know they can lose everything, he thought. And that forces them to fight to the finish.

    He glanced at his aide. The arguing looked as if it was on the verge of turning into a real fight. Yasuke was tempted to call the troops to separate them, but it would only make matters worse. Instead, he rose and stepped through the concealed rear door. It felt as if he were running away, but it was the only thing he could do. His superiors were already annoyed. They’d be a great deal angrier if they thought a viceroy had been manhandled.

    “There was an update from Edinburgh,” his aide said, as they slipped into the tunnel leading back to the Viceregal Complex. “The strikes have got out of hand. Half the policemen sat on their hands when fighting broke out.”

    Yasuke nodded. “I see.”

    “Colonel Talc has requested permission to send in the marines,” the aide continued. “He insists that, without them ...”

    “No.” Yasuke cut him off. “We don’t want another ... incident.”

    He kept walking, thinking dire thoughts about the mess Colonel Tallinn had inadvertently created. Earth was rapidly becoming ungovernable. The industrial nodes, asteroid mining facilities and even HE3 cloudscoops were experiencing slowdowns, where the crew weren’t openly striking. There was trouble on the ships, even some of the warcruisers. His more experienced officers and crew had a great respect for humanity. They weren’t going to take kindly to orders to slap the human race down.

    And word is already spreading, he thought, grimly. We couldn’t cut the ambassadors off forever.

    The thought mocked him. His career was probably deader than the ancients themselves. The alien ambassadors had sent messages home, as soon as they’d been granted access to the interstellar communications network. Right now, their governments would be helpfully relaying the messages to the human-dominated worlds ... perhaps even aiming them into the empire itself. They wouldn’t even have to lie. The truth was quite bad enough.

    He let out a long breath as they reached his office. He’d let himself believe he could control the pace of change. For all the time he’d spent on Earth, he hadn’t quite understood just how quickly things could change. And now ... the damage was beyond repair. There was only one choice left.

    “Get me a priority link,” he ordered, curtly. “I need to talk to the councillors.”

    He took his chair, poured himself a mug of water and waited. The councillors would keep him waiting, just to make it clear they were the ones in charge. Normally, it wouldn’t matter. They wouldn’t keep him waiting for long, not when he’d opened a priority channel. But now ... any delay felt disastrous. Time was running out. They were staring down the barrels of a full-fledged insurrection, perhaps even civil war.

    The terminal bleeped. Holographic images started to materialise around him. He bent into the posture of respect, held it for ten seconds, then straightened. It was the only way to convey urgency. They had to understand the growing crisis. They had to ...

    “Viceroy,” the chairman said. “You wish to speak to us about the humans? Again?”

    “Yes,” Yasuke said. “They are demanding Colonel Tallinn’s head - and independence.”

    “It would be easier to give them independence,” the chairman said. It sounded like a joke. Yasuke knew it wasn’t. “The colonel’s family has not - yet - disowned him.”

    And they’ll have trouble disowning him when they’ll be throwing him to the human courts, Yasuke thought. Their enemies will paint them as betrayers.

    “The situation is getting out of hand,” he said, shortly. “The humans are angry at us - with reason. There have been a string of nasty incidents over the past five hours alone. There are rumours of mutinies, even uprisings. Even if none of them materialise, the economic damage is going to be considerable. The slowdowns alone are going to have nasty knock-on effects. My most optimistic projection suggests the crisis could send the entire empire into recession.”

    “Impossible,” another councillor insisted. “The humans are not that important!”

    “They supply us with cheap goods,” Yasuke reminded him. He’d had his staff work out the details, shortly after the war. “And many of those goods fill important holes in our supply chain. And ... they also serve in our armies, and work on our streets, and do all sorts of tasks our people are unwilling or unable to do for themselves. There is no way we can put them back in their box without doing immense harm to ourselves.”

    He leaned forward, willing them to believe. “And the longer the crisis continues, councillors, the greater the chance someone else will start to meddle.”

    The councillors said nothing for a long moment. “You paint a grim picture,” the chairman said, finally. “What do you propose we do?”

    “I think we need to implement the withdrawal plan,” Yasuke said. “And abandon the human sector completely.”

    “Are you mad?” A councillor glared at him. “Do you know how much that’ll cost?”

    “Less than a war,” Yasuke said. “We could lose.”

    “No,” another councillor insisted. “We outgun the humans ten to one. Fifty to one!”

    Yasuke took a breath. “The humans have enough firepower, at least in theory, to take out the picket squadron,” he said. “They might well have contingency plans to secure the EDF and do just that. They’ll certainly fear that we intend to strike first, which will encourage them to strike first ...

    “We’ll retaliate, of course. But the humans are capable warriors, innovative warriors. Putting the rebellion down will be costly, even if our victory is assured. And, least you forget, we have a massive human population scattered across the homeworlds. There will be trouble, from terrorism to outright uprisings, that will cost us more to put down. And ... that will bring in outside powers. We could win the war, councillors, but lose everything.”

    “So you have said,” the chairman reminded him. “We have not forgotten.”

    No, Yasuke thought. But you’ve been safe in your towers for so long you can’t really comprehend you might be threatened.

    “We are short of time,” he said, instead. “I believe we must concede now, to keep from losing more. We are still their major trading partners. We are still their employers, in many ways. Losing direct control of Earth will hurt, councillors, but we will recover. It will certainly be cheaper than the alternative.”

    The chairman nodded. “And Colonel Tallinn?”

    Yasuke took a breath. “I would suggest handing him over for judgement,” he said. “We could strike a deal, giving him to the humans if they rule out the death penalty. Or simply put him on trial ourselves, find him guilty and remand him to a penal colony.”

    “We will discuss the issue,” the chairman said. “We will contact you shortly.”

    “Time is not on our side,” Yasuke said. They didn’t understand. He’d told them, time and time again, but they didn’t understand. Things moved fast on Earth. “I need a decision within a standard day.”

    “We understand,” the chairman said. “You will be contacted.”

    The holographic images vanished. Yasuke leaned back in his chair, feeling cold despite the warm room. The humans were on the verge of revolt, none of the loyalists could be trusted any longer and his leaders were ... what was the human expression? Playing string instruments while the city burnt to the ground? His entire race had done the same, before the war. It had been so long since they’d faced a truly dangerous opponent that they’d forgotten it could happen. And they’d been lucky to survive their misjudgement.

    He keyed his terminal. “Send a signal to the warcruisers,” he ordered. He had to put his people on alert, if the council did the wise thing. Or if they ordered him to put the revolt down as savagely as possible. “Code Theta. I say again, Code Theta.”

    “Yes, My Lord,” his aide said.
     
  17. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    ???
     
  18. Thanks Chris, Great work as usual this one could be added on to for a long time and it could go so many different ways. You Sir are a Great writer.
     
    techsar likes this.
  19. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Most definately a good tale thus far, Chris! Your efforts are impressive. (y)
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    Star City, Earth

    “I’m starting to think,” Fredrick said as the aircar headed towards the Assembly, “that emergency sessions and recalls are growing disturbingly common.”

    Rachel made a show of considering it. “Prior to the war, there were only two emergency sessions and there were over a hundred years between them,” she said. “Now, there have been three within seven years, but only two in quick succession.”

    “This one and my one,” Fredrick said. “How many would we need to call before it became a trend?”

    “It depends,” Rachel said. “How many disasters do you want to face?”

    Fredrick nodded, curtly. The first emergency session within his lifetime had been called when the Second Lupine War had broken out. The second had been the one he’d called himself. And now, a third ... called by the viceroy. He felt a cold hand clench his heart and squeeze. There had been no reply to his demands, no acquiesce or casual dismissal. He felt as if the walls were closing in on him, even though nothing had happened. He felt like a criminal who feared his guilt was written all over his face.

    Which is stupid, he old himself, sharply. You’ve done nothing wrong.

    His heart started to pound as the aircar landed neatly on the pad. The viceroy had vast powers. If he wanted, he could arrest Fredrick and the entire Humanity League and sentence them to exile - or death - without hope of appeal. He could charge them with treason and deny them the right to a trial - or put them in front of an emergency court, with the conviction and sentence planned well in advance. He could ... Fredrick forced himself to remain calm as he passed through the security checkpoint and walked down to the hall. The viceroy knew the planet was on the verge of chaos, perhaps even open rebellion. He wouldn’t turn off the antimatter containment chamber without good cause.

    He schooled his face into immobility as he passed the guards and took his seat in the hall itself. The government had never been so weak. The Empire Loyalists were fracturing, on the brink of splitting into two separate parties. Fredrick himself stood to gain hugely, if he survived the next few days. And yet, there were rumours of everything from a lockdown to outright military intervention. Troopships were supposed to be on their way, bringing a small army to keep the planet under control. The EDF would be disarmed and ... who knew? The planet hadn’t been so unstable since the invasion itself.

    The hall filled slowly. A number of loyalist assemblymen seemed to have decided to stay away, he noted; they’d probably passed proxy voting powers to their fellows. They were feeling the heat from their voters, he thought; they knew they couldn’t be seen to be taking a stand without paying a severe price when the election rolled around. His lips curved into a cruel smile. Whatever those assemblymen did, they’d piss off at least half the voters. It was unlikely their careers would survive. Cowards they might be, but he had to admit they were also quite practical. They probably told themselves they could take a stand when it became clear which side was going to win.

    He stood, with the other assemblymen, as the viceroy entered the chamber and made his way to his seat. The alien looked tired and worn, although it wasn’t easy to be sure. Fredrick had spent years studying Earth’s alien masters, only to discover there were aspects of their psychology that were seemingly beyond human understanding. Their behaviour wasn’t easy to predict. They could move from being extremely generous and compassionate to oppressive and spiteful at the drop of a hat. And it was hard to say who was calling the shots. The viceroy had spent long enough on Earth to adapt, in some ways, to humanity. His superiors might never have left their homeworld. They might not even have met a human.

    The viceroy reached his chair and turned to face the assemblymen. Fredrick tensed, inwardly. It was something important, then. Normally, the viceroy sat and watched his human servants - and the loyal opposition - do their business. It was rare for the viceroy to take the lead ... he reminded himself, again, that the current situation was unprecedented. Anyone could happen, anything could happen and he was at ground zero. The Alphans would have no trouble seizing him and the others if they wished ...

    He braced himself as the viceroy started to speak. This was it. Whatever was going to happen, it was about to happen. And whatever happened, he promised himself, he was going to be ready.

    ***
    Yasuke took a moment to run through his speech, then contemplate the latest report on human political developments, before he opened his mouth. The Empire Loyalists were on the brink of coming apart at the seams, even formally-loyal assemblymen demanding accountability and the murderer’s head - they never referred to Colonel Tallinn by name - on a platter. It was possible, as some of his superiors had argued, that the humans would forget Colonel Tallinn ... in time. Yasuke didn’t believe it. There was no way to stop word from spreading. The mere fact they’d tried had given credence to the claim Colonel Tallinn had killed millions with his bare hands.

    Anyone who bothers to think rationally would know that couldn’t possibly be true, he told himself, as the chamber quietened. But no one is thinking very rationally at the moment.

    He felt an odd little pang as he prepared to speak. It felt as if he were admitting defeat, as if he were betraying humans - and aliens - who’d placed their trust in his government. Things were going to change, things were going to careen out of control ... he wanted to sit, to hold back the speech, to wait and see in the desperate hope things would get better. But he knew, all too well, that they wouldn’t. Chaos would come, desperate his best efforts. And the whole edifice would crumble into ruin. The empire itself might be doomed.

    Be blunt, he thought. His speechwriters had worked for hours, trying to put together a speech that would satisfy everyone. They’d failed. Let them know, for once, that you think of them as equals.

    “Hundreds of years ago, my people found a divided world, a world and a people warring against themselves,” he said, quietly. “We took the world, as was our right as a superior species; we took the people and uplifted them into civilisation. It was, perhaps, inevitable that those people would eventually demand their rights as citizens of the galactic community. It was, perhaps, inevitable that they would clash with their teachers ... and that, eventually, something would happen that would tear the relationship apart.

    “My government deeply regrets Colonel Tallinn’s actions. My superiors have condemned him in the strongest possible terms. He has made it clear that the current situation is unsustainable, that things will have to change. We have spent the last three days deciding how we should proceed, then sorting out the details. We thank you for your patience.”

    He kept his face impassive with an effort. By human standards, they’d moved slowly; by theirs, they’d moved at breakneck pace. There hadn’t been any real contingency plans for anything beyond a minor uprising - and they hadn’t been updated since the war. The government had buried its collective head in the sand and pretended they wouldn’t be necessary. Yasuke cursed the idiots under his breath. If they’d spent even a few days considering other possibilities, they might have been better-prepared for this day.

    “It has been decided, at the very highest levels, that the empire will grant you and your worlds the independence you crave,” he said. “An election will be held within two weeks, so a caretaker government can take office and handle the independence negotiations. Martial law will be declared, to ensure the election can be held safety and no one - of whatever faction - has a chance to put their thumb on the scale. After that, the majority of our forces will withdraw within a month. My role will switch, at that point, from viceroy to ambassador. We will continue to provide a certain degree of border security until you are ready to stand on your own two feet, but I must caution you that will not last.

    “My staff has already devised a list of issues that will have to be discussed, once the caretaker government takes power. A number are relatively simple and can be dismissed within the day. Others, such as the legal status of non-humans on Earth, may take longer. My government has agreed to repatriate non-humans who wish to leave, but - as time goes on - that offer may be closed. We ask you to be careful, when you decide what you want to do with your non-human population. You will no longer have our protection if you decide to mistreat them.”

    Yasuke paused, studying their faces. They seemed shocked, too shocked to hide it. The Empire Loyalists were astonished, no doubt considering he’d shoved them under the shuttlecraft, but the Humanity League looked equally surprised. They were getting everything they wanted on a silver platter ... Yasuke concealed his amusement with an effort. Perhaps they should have followed their ancestor’s warning about being careful what they wished for. Earth would stand alone, against a hostile universe. And the rest of the galaxy would know how dangerous the humans could be.

    “This isn’t what any of us expected,” he concluded. “My office hoped there would be a steady transfer of powers, not an immediate withdrawal from your territory. We ask you - I ask you - to look to the future, to put the past in the past and think about the future of your people. You have - you have always had - remarkable potential. It is up to you, now, to decide if you will live up to it or not.”

    He took one last look around the chamber, then turned and walked out. The silence was deafening. They were stunned beyond words, suddenly finding themselves standing at the brink of apotheosis or nemesis. Yasuke felt a hot flash of anger, cursing Colonel Tallinn - again - for his sheer stupidity. His superiors had refused to let him surrender the colonel to human justice, pointing out it would set a terrible precedent. They’d refused to listen to his argument that not handing him over would also set a terrible precedent. He was mildly surprised he hadn’t been ordered to put Colonel Tallinn on a ship and send him home. Perhaps his superiors wanted to keep their options open.

    His datapad bleeped as he made his slow way back to his office. The media had broadcast the speech to the entire world. Reactions were already flooding in, some of them curiously muted. The world had just changed, turned upside down in the blink of an eye. Even the most xenophobic humans, the ones who lived in places devoid of non-human life, would have problems coming to terms with what had just happened. The planet hadn’t been changed so badly since the invasion itself, hundreds of years ago.

    Yasuke felt another pang, of guilt and grief and sheer frustration. He’d grown to love the planet, and the human race, over the last few decades. The viceroyalty had been the culmination of his professional career. He wasn’t fool enough to think he could keep climbing the ladder, not when his enemies were already gathering. And even if he did ... it would take years, years he didn’t have, to reach a level where he could wield raw power again. On Earth, he was a big fish in a small pond. Back home ...

    Not that it matters, he thought, coldly. The humans will already be looking to the future.

    He sat, checking his datapad as yet more reports flooded in. His staff were still working on the list of matters that had to be discussed, drawing up working papers on everything from military collaboration to the distribution of economic assets. The big combines were already demanding huge payments or ... or what? He wanted to laugh. It wasn’t as if they could dismantle an asteroid mining station and ship it back home. Half the industrial nodes were owned by humans and nearly all of them were operated by humans. Who knew which way their operators would jump, if push came to shove? Who knew?

    They’ll side with their fellow humans, he told himself. He was morbidly sure of it. Why would the operators accept being subordinate when they could be equals? And that will mean bad news for the combines.

    He smiled, humourlessly. Right now, that was someone else’s problem.

    ***
    “On your feet, Lieutenant.”

    Tomas stood, feeling old. He’d been in the holding cell for days, but it felt like years. He’d always had a pretty good time sense - he’d grown up on a series of military bases - yet he’d started to lose his grip as time plodded onwards. It didn’t help that no one had so much as hinted he might be released, or charged with failing to prevent an atrocity or something. He’d had the nasty feeling, as hours turned into days and days turned into ... more days, that no one really knew what they were doing. They were just marking time, waiting for something to happen.

    He scowled at the intelligence officer. They were all the same, weedy men who asked the same questions time and time again. Tomas was entirely sure that everything he’d said, time and time again, had been recorded and dissected by an entire team of intelligence officers, intent on finding something they could use to toss his career into the crapper. The psych tests hadn’t helped. He was morbidly certain they intended to blame him for everything. First, for failing to stop the atrocity and then for stopping it. Consistency had never been a priority when the shit was hitting the fan.

    “What now?” His throat felt uncomfortably dry. “Have you reached the limits of what anal probing can teach you?”

    The intelligence officer gave him a sharp look. “What are you talking about?”

    Tomas snorted. “You’ve kept me here for days,” he said. He wasn’t going to admit he wasn’t sure just how long he’d been in the cell. “Aren’t you supposed to charge me with something? Or ...”

    “There are no charges,” the intelligence officer said. “You’re being returned to barracks.”

    “Oh.” Tomas felt his head swim. After everything ... they were just returning him to barracks? They were just ... letting him go? It made no sense. “And Colonel Tallinn?”

    “Is no longer your concern,” the intelligence officer said, forbiddingly. “His fate won’t be decided here.”

    “Oh,” Tomas repeated. A nasty thought occurred to him. “And what about my men?”

    The intelligence officer turned and headed for the door, beckoning Tomas to follow him. “I believe the matter was discussed at the very highest levels,” he said. “A failure to follow orders would have been counted as mutiny, which - in a state of unrest - could have led to the death penalty. The government has decided to class them all as being personally blameless - you included. The whole affair is being swept under the rug.”

    “Fuck,” Tomas said. He felt a surge of anger. He’d watched the slaughter time and time again, every time he closed his eyes. His dreams had been so bad he’d been tempted to beg for sleeping pills. “How many people died?”

    “Around five hundred,” the intelligence officer said. He stopped and turned to face the younger man. “Did you watch the broadcast?”

    Tomas laughed. “Where the fuck do you think I’ve been for the last few days?”

    “The peacocks are pulling out,” the intelligence officer said. His voice was so flat there was no way to believe he was joking. “They’re picking up their crap and going back home. Right now, martial law has been declared and we need every last soldier on the streets. I suggest” - his voice hardened - “that you go back to the barracks, report for duty and try to forget what happened over the last few days. And be grateful the public doesn’t know your name. There’s a lot of anger out there.”

    “And it will be worse, when it becomes clear that Colonel Tallinn’s gotten away with it,” Tomas said. He felt a chill settle in his heart. “And he has gotten away with it, hasn’t he?”

    “I don’t know,” the intelligence officer said. “But you know what? It’s above your pay grade. Above mine too, for that matter. I dare say the provisional government will raise the issue soon enough, once the election cycle is completed and we start rushing towards independence. That’s their problem.”

    Tomas said nothing as they reached the door and headed into the open air. He could see a plume of smoke rising from the other side of the city, suggesting ... suggesting what? A terrorist bomb? Or a bonfire? Or ... or what? He knew he should be relieved he hadn’t been blamed for the massacre, that he hadn’t been shoved in front of a court martial or secret court and condemned to death to save Colonel Tallinn. And yet ... too many people knew the truth, too many to bribe or intimidate into silence. The secret couldn’t be kept. And trying would only make it worse.

    “Thanks,” he said, sourly. The system was fucked. Independence couldn’t come soon enough. “And what do we do after independence?”

    “Fucked if I know,” the intelligence officer said. He sounded a little more human, now they’d moved to a less politically unsafe topic. “Right now, everyone else is wondering the same thing. And some of them will make their move.”
     
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