Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Dec 23, 2011.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Captain Larson,” Admiral Bainbridge said. “Please, be seated.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Philip Larson said. “I would prefer to stand.”

    “As you wish,” Bainbridge said. He folded a copy of a report – a paper copy, in a world where almost everything was done electronically – in front of him, and then looked up. His grey eyes met Philip’s blue eyes, a mocking reminder that Bainbridge had spent nearly seventy years in the Royal Avalon Navy. He’d commanded starships back before the Commonwealth had grown to encompass over twenty stars and planets. “The Board of Inquiry has returned its verdict on your conduct.”

    He waited. Philip said nothing. In truth, he felt nothing. He’d known what would happen before he’d walked into the Admiral’s office. Rumour flew through the RAN far faster than travel in hyperspace. And Admiral Morrison was a dangerous enemy. His political friends and supporters wouldn't allow his career to be blighted by a mere Captain, no matter that the mere Captain had saved lives and quite possibly Morrison’s reputation. There was no point in railing at the universe for being unfair – the universe was not fair; it simply was – but if there was any justice, he would have an opportunity to challenge Morrison to a duel.

    “The Board finds you guilty of disobeying orders while under fire,” Bainbridge said. His every word rang through Philip’s head. He’d wanted to believe that it would never come to this, his career going down in flames. But Morrison would never have accepted that a mere Captain had saved his gold-braided ass. “Your defence, while respectable, did not satisfy them that you were justified in your actions. They did find you not guilty of predetermined mutiny, which would have put you in front of a firing squad.”

    Philip’s lips twitched. Outside wartime, military justice was subject to civilian courts. The RAN could hardly afford to explain why they were court-martialling someone for saving a ship and its crew, not when the Assembly was already looking askance at the RAN’s budget for the next five years. In exchange for his life, Philip would be expected to leave the RAN quietly, without causing a fuss that would splatter muck on the Navy’s good name. It had already been put to him, privately. Leave quietly and we won’t be forced to put you on trial before the entire Commonwealth.

    Bainbridge looked down, almost as if the elderly Admiral was ashamed to meet his gaze. “However, the Board found enough evidence to dismiss you from the service,” he said, quietly. “You will be dismissed from the Royal Avalon Navy today, unless you wish to appeal. The Board will hear your further defence if...”

    Philip held up a hand. “I understand, sir,” he said. “I will not contest the dismissal.”

    Was it relief, or shame, in the Admiral’s eyes? “You will be escorted out of the station and into civilian sections, then,” the Admiral said. “Under the circumstances, your travel and lodging will be handled by the RAN. It’s the least we can do.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Philip said. The hell of it was that he was grateful. He’d had his food and lodging supplied by the Navy for so long that he felt adrift at even the promise of a return to civilian life. “I’m sure I will make something of my life.”

    Admiral Bainbridge stood up and held out a hand. “I’ll be sorry to see you go, Philip,” he said. He sounded sincere; Philip was past caring. “You deserved better from the Navy...”

    Philip felt a tidal wave of anger and resentment building up inside him. “The Navy is content to allow a well-connected imbecile to maintain a position that will ensure that he will get a lot of people killed because it would be politically inconvenient to plant his ass in front of a firing squad,” he said, sharply. “Exactly how do you expect to maintain the loyalty of your officers and men when everyone knows that advancement in the Navy is determined by birth, not by ability?”

    “War is coming,” Admiral Bainbridge said, calmly. “You know that as well as I do; war is coming and the Navy has to be ready for it. We cannot allow a political dogfight, not now. I’m sorry about what happened and I will do what I can to make up for it, but I cannot change it.”

    Philip stared at him for a long moment, balling his fists together as if he was on the verge of throwing a punch at the Admiral, and then turned and marched out of his office without saluting. Outside, a pair of Marines were waiting for him, his escort back into civilian life. Philip glared at them and then walked past, forcing the Marines to move sharply to keep up with him. It was easy to imagine that everyone he passed knew about his shame, that they were either commiserating with him or silently mocking him for not standing up to himself.

    Twenty minutes after leaving the Admiral’s office, he was a civilian again.

    “Captain Larson?”

    Philip opened one eye and glared at the speaker. It was a feminine voice, one that seemed out of place in the Spacer’s Hive. But then, the Hive was the lowest of bars in the lowest part of the orbital station, haven to those who sought to drink away their sorrows. He rubbed his head as he slowly stood upright, cursing the growing headache. Just how much had he drunk over the past few hours?

    “Yeah,” he grunted, finally. “Who wants to know?”

    “You can call me Tanya,” the woman said. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the last couple of hours.”

    “I’m sorry to be so hard to find,” Philip said. He looked around the empty bar. “How long have I been here?”

    “You got here forty minutes after you left the Navy Section,” Tanya said, with icy precision. “You ordered several bottles of Algerian Whiskey and proceeded to drink them, one after the other. A pair of half-drunken Marines objected to your rather tuneless singing and you proceeded to wipe the floor with them, while bellowing your outrage at how they could presume to dislike your version of a popular song. The bartender decided to leave you here to sleep it off. You’re lucky the Shore Patrol doesn’t come in here or you’d be spending the night in the brig.”

    Philip shrugged. The Shore Patrol was made up of men who wanted to keep breathing and avoid violence, something that would have left them inclined not to go anywhere near the lower class of drinking establishments. The Spacer’s Hive had a fight almost every night; it was one of the reasons he’d picked for his drinking session. He didn’t normally drink, but it was a special occasion. He’d be lucky if he ever saw space again.

    “Too bad,” he said, finally. Now he was awake, he was beginning to be aware of his body’s aches and pains. The two Marines had obviously handed out quite a beating. “What can I do for you?”

    Tanya smiled. “I’d like to offer you a job,” she said. Philip stared at her. “What would you say to command of a pair of destroyers on anti-piracy patrol?”

    For the first time, Philip took a good look at his companion. She was tall, with a youthful face and long white hair that ran down almost to her rear. It struck him that she had to be older than she looked, with the use of rejuvenation treatments to keep her figure and appearance, yet she seemed to have an air of naivety. She was quite attractive, he decided, but that could be part of her presentation. If she was serious about offering him a job, she would do everything she could to attract him. It hardly mattered. He liked her on sight.

    “I’d say I need a sober-up,” Philip said. Tanya passed him an injector tab without comment. Philip checked it, pressed it against his neck and pushed the button, wincing as he felt the drug being injected into his bloodstream. Sober-ups were renowned for acting quickly, but they tended to have unpleasant side effects. Rumour had it that the manufacturers put them in deliberately in the hopes of convincing heavy drinkers to avoid using the tabs to keep themselves sober after a night on the town. “And probably a shower as well.”

    Tanya smiled for the first time. “That may have to wait,” she said. “I took the precaution of bribing the bartender to leave us alone, but I don’t think the gratuity will run to a shower.”

    “Probably not,” Philip agreed. He felt his hands shiver as the effects of the drug took hold, but ignored it. It was one of the milder side effects. “You mentioned something about a job?”

    “I represent Asher Dale,” Tanya said. “You probably won’t have heard of it.”

    Philip shook his head. He knew every planet in the Commonwealth – even Cadiz, which was technically not part of the Commonwealth – and a handful of outside worlds, but he’d never even heard of Asher Dale. It couldn’t be very important, certainly not important enough to attract the RAN’s attention. But if it was buying or building starships, it had to be important to someone

    “Asher Dales has only been settled for forty years,” Tanya explained. “It was discovered fifty years ago along the Rim by a survey flight and settlement rights were purchased by the Dale Foundation. In life, Asher Dale was a great believer in the independent farmer and his foundation was intended to settle a world where farmers could be farmers, without the ill effects of civilisation. What little industry the system would develop would be owned by the state, rather than corporations, ensuring that business entities couldn’t develop the power they had back on Old Earth.”

    “Or here,” Philip guessed. Avalon’s interstellar corporations controlled a reasonable percentage of the planet’s economy. Their controlling families were the system’s aristocracy. “It all sounds reasonable, but…”

    “It may not work out in practice,” Tanya agreed. Philip nodded. Years ago, a group of Communists had founded a planet run according to the strict rules of Communism, which they’d called Marx. The experiment had ended in civil war, before they’d finally worked out a formula for stability, if not for progress. “We’re hoping to find out if it can work, but others are…impeding our development.”

    Philip lifted an eyebrow. “Pirates?”

    “Or people hired by outside powers,” Tanya said. “There were some legal shenanigans over settlement rights, ones that threatened to draw in other interstellar powers. They may be backing the pirate attacks.”

    “I see,” Philip said. Back when the UN had been the only authority that operated on an interstellar scale, it had been easy to prove claim-jumping and to enforce the decision of the interstellar courts. But the Breakaway Wars had shattered the power of the UN and there was now a power vacuum, without any single authority capable of imposing its will on the rest. An outright attempt at claim-jumping might draw the wrath of the other powers, but it would be perfectly possible for someone to weasel their way into settlement rights by forcing other interested parties to withdraw. “And you can’t ask the Commonwealth for protection?”

    “The Commonwealth wasn't interested in assisting us unless we applied for membership,” Tanya admitted. “And our…government is reluctant to place control of our external relationships in other hands. Besides, the RAN is somewhat overstretched at the moment.”

    Philip nodded, thoughtfully. Everyone knew that war with the Theocracy was looming; everyone, it seemed, apart from a few politicians in and out of uniform. The frontier was being ravaged by pirate attacks that were almost certainly being encouraged by the Theocracy, even if they weren’t being carried out by Theocracy warships. And the RAN, which was responsible for defending the Commonwealth’s shipping, needed to deploy more light units into the region, cutting down the forces that could be spared for other duties.

    “So you want a Navy of your own,” Philip said, thoughtfully. “Do you have any idea of how much that would cost?”

    “We’re looking to purchase two destroyers from the Commonwealth,” Tanya said. “The Falcone Corporation is prepared to sell us two ships and a limited number of supporting components, but we’re short of experienced personnel capable of manning and commanding a starship or two. My brief is to hire experienced personnel who would be interested in working for us, rather than remaining with the RAN.”

    Philip quirked an eyebrow at her. “You do realise that I’ve just been dishonourably discharged from the Navy?”

    “I do,” Tanya said. She hesitated, as if she was wondering just how much she could tell him. “I managed to get access to your service record. You were a good officer; you earned command as soon as you reached the necessary grade. And you spent two years in command of a destroyer similar to the ships we intend to purchase. You’re very likely the best we could hope to get.”

    “True,” Philip agreed. He grinned at her expression. Unless he was very much mistaken – and he intended to check before he signed anything – Tanya’s space-faring experience was limited to civilian vessels, rather than warships. It was quite possible that Asher Dales was biting off much more than they could chew, but he knew that settler-types tended to be tough and reluctant to surrender to anyone. They would do whatever it took to crew and operate the ships. “And do you intend to hire me to help you choose the vessels as well?”

    “If you accept the position,” Tanya said. Philip smiled. The vessels would be under his command, giving him a certain incentive to ensure that he chose carefully. He had no illusions about the state of the destroyers, even if they had been used by the Falcone Corporation; they wouldn’t have been allowed out of the Commonwealth if they were top-of-the-line models with the latest technology installed. On the other hand, many of the earlier types could be upgraded at a reasonable cost. “My…ah, my superiors have placed the matter into my hands.”

    Philip studied her for a long moment. If she was telling the truth, it would be his only opportunity to return to command of a vessel in space. The RAN would be unlikely to permit him to reapply, at least until the war began. He could look for work in the commercial sector, but his experience would only be valuable if he joined a mercenary group and he had the dedicated military officer’s contempt for mercenaries. The thought made him smile. If he accepted the position, what else would he be, but a mercenary? At least he would be fighting for a better cause than the biggest wallet in the system.

    “It sounds like fun,” he said, finally. “What do I do to accept the position?”

    “Well, for a start we get out of this dingy bar,” Tanya said. “You have a shower, get changed and examine my documents. If you are willing to sign on, we can go see the ships this afternoon and then you can advise me on recruiting a crew and supplies…”

    Philip nodded as he pulled himself to his feet. “Very well,” he said. He’d been booked into temporary accommodation along the station’s ring. It wasn't much, but at least it had a shower. “Let’s get out of this dingy bar.”

    Half an hour later, after a shower, a shave and a change of clothes, Philip felt a great deal more human. His apartment wasn't really much more than a single room with attached washroom, but Tanya had already taken over the table and spread out her documents for him to inspect. He tried to ignore her presence as he skimmed through them, noting that they seemed to have been written by someone with little patience for legal niceties. If he accepted the position, he was obliged to help chose the starships and command them for at least five years, barring serious injury or breech of contract. The pay wasn't equal to a RAN Commodore – which would be the closest counterpart to his position – but there was a promise of fifty square miles of land on Asher Dale. If he wanted to retire, or sell the land to other developers, he would be assured of a nest egg for life.

    He studied the final document, thinking hard. It had been fairly easy to look up the RAN’s database on Asher Dale – his access still worked, surprisingly – and there had been little to attract the kind of development the planet needed, even though they didn’t want it. Pirate attacks in the sector had been going up, forcing insurance rates to rise ever higher, while there was no incentive for any of the galactic powers to mount regular patrols of the region. No wonder that they were looking into finding a handful of ships of their own.

    On the other hand, there was something odd about the whole deal. Asher Dales might have more money than the average onlooker would realise, but paying for ships and regular maintenance – and crews – would be hideously expensive. It made him wonder if Naval Intelligence or one of the other intelligence agencies had a hand in it somewhere, clearing permission to export warships out of the Commonwealth. Who knew what good it might do to have influence with Asher Dale in the future? The projected rate of human expansion might make the planet very important in the next few hundred years.

    But it was his only chance to return to space. And he had to admit that he was excited about it, almost as excited as he’d been the day he first set foot on his first command. It would be one hell of a challenge; buying the ships, finding the right crewmen and heading out to safeguard a planet against outside attack. It was a good cause.

    “Very well,” he said. “Where do I sign?”

    “Here,” Tanya said, passing him one of the sheets of paper. “And now can we go inspect the ships?”

    “In a minute,” Philip said. “I have to make a call first.”
    Alpha Dog, kom78, DKR and 4 others like this.
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “It’s good to see you again, Philip,” Cassandra Anderson said. “I wasn't sure if I should call or not.”

    Philip shrugged as he settled down into his chair. “I guess they haven’t blacklisted me, then,” he said. “I was wondering if you would make it.”

    He leaned back and studied Cassandra thoughtfully. She looked around nineteen, with long blonde hair and a face that promised everything to a man’s eye. Philip knew that she was at least forty years old and she’d spent around twenty of them working for the Commonwealth Intelligence Service as an intelligence analyst. They’d met during his posting to a Marine Assault Carrier five years ago, where they’d become lovers. Their different careers had separated them, but they’d stayed in touch. Friendship was often more rewarding than romance, he’d told himself at the time. And he’d been right.

    “No one has burned you, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Cassandra said, thoughtfully. The waiter appeared, placed their glasses on the table, and wandered off to serve his other customers. He’d picked a more up-market bar than the dive he’d wrecked only a few short hours ago, if only because Cass had once told him that she would rather spend a year in the Theocracy than visit one of his favourite bars. The bar fights, he’d tried to explain, were part of the experience, but she hadn't been impressed. “Your file appears to be curiously empty.”

    She leaned forward and placed a Silencer on the table. Philip nodded approvingly. In theory, Silencers were capable of blocking all forms of surveillance, creating a bubble in which nothing could be picked up by curious watchers. They were rarely licensed for commercial use, although there was a thriving black market in bootleg devices. Philip happened to know that there was an ongoing contest between the spies and counter-spies to develop new ways to observe someone without being detected – and blocking any such attempt. So far, the counter-spies seemed to be winning, but he knew better than to take it for granted.

    “In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it is suspiciously empty,” she added. She took a sip of her drink and lifted one elegant eyebrow. “How much did you have to bribe the Admiral to get your antics on Hellhole removed from the system?”

    Philip flushed, and then shook his head. “I didn’t bribe him at all,” he said. “Is someone playing games, or am I caught up inside one of Intelligence’s famous webs of deception and misunderstandings?”

    “I confess that I am not entirely sure,” Cassandra admitted. “I did search the database for anything you might find useful and no one attempted to stop me...”

    “Which could all be part of their plan,” Philip said. He rolled his eyes, dramatically. “Why does Intelligence never bother to simply ask people to do things for them out loud?”

    “Plausible deniability,” Cassandra said. “But I’m just a sissy. What do I know about cloak and dagger theatrics?”

    Philip nodded. The Commonwealth Intelligence Service had only one mission; the collection and analysis of information from all over the Human Sphere. It had originally been part of an overarching intelligence service, but they’d been separated when covert operations had accidentally caused problems for the intelligence gatherers. Cassandra’s employers had an unquenchable thirst for data and even if they were mainly focused on the Theocracy, they would definitely have looked into Asher Dales as part of their work. She owed him a favour or two, although that only went so far. If there was highly classified data in the CIS’s datafiles on Asher Dales, she wasn't going to share it with him.

    “Asher Dales isn't really a target for our intelligence work,” Cassandra said, after a moment, “but it is close enough to the Commonwealth to warrant us taking an interest.” She grinned, mischievously. “The girl who’s trying to recruit you – do you know where she fits into Asher Dales?”

    Philip shook his head. “She’s the daughter of their Head of State,” Cassandra said. “Her public file notes that she was born on Asher Dales, but came to the Commonwealth to study law and interstellar treaties five years ago. That’s not particularly uncommon for bright students from newly-settled colony worlds; we certainly don’t try to discourage it. You never know if some backwards world out along the Rim might become suddenly very important...

    “In any case, she’s here and she has a surprisingly large amount of money to draw on to obtain some ships for their planned defence force,” she added. “They didn't actually apply to the Commonwealth for a loan, let alone a defence treaty, but they did get a loan from the Falcone Corporation. There may have been some underhand dealing in certain places...on the other hand, the Falcone Corporation does own a modest amount of shares in the Asher Dales Development Corporation, so they may be merely protecting their investment.”

    “Sounds like it,” Philip agreed. “Why didn't they seek a treaty with the Commonwealth instead? Or the Frogs...?”

    “Shades of Cadiz return to haunt us,” Cassandra said. Philip nodded, slowly. “I think they’re reluctant to allow us or anyone else a chance to annexe their planet. They want to stand on their own two feet.”

    Philip scowled. The Commonwealth had annexed twenty-four planets, all of whom had had home-grown political parties that had wanted to tie themselves to Avalon. Apart from a handful of minor incidents, there had never been any unrest and even that had tapered away as the benefits of Commonwealth membership had caused a small economic boom. The Commonwealth, flushed with success and fearing the advance of the Theocracy, had allowed itself to be pushed into annexing Cadiz, a world right on the border between the Commonwealth and its most likely enemy. It hadn't been the brightest idea; Cadiz’s warring factions had barely hesitated before engaging the Commonwealth’s occupation force, with the net result that the Commonwealth was permanently engaged in trying to put down an insurgency and pacify the planet.

    He’d served there as a young officer and he’d seen the results. Cadiz was unlikely to ever develop into an economic powerhouse until the different factions stopped fighting each other and the Commonwealth – and outsiders were reluctant to invest without heavy guarantees of protection for their investments. Cadiz might or might not be part of the Commonwealth, but it had the lowest living standards of any world outside the Theocracy. In hindsight, there were times when he suspected that the kindest course of action would have been to drop a tailored bioweapon on Cadiz and swear blind that it had been a terrible accident.

    “Unfortunately, they may not get that chance,” Cassandra said, after a moment. “There is considerable intelligence suggesting that the Theocracy is interested in that sector.”

    “Right,” Philip said, sourly. All of a sudden, everything made a great deal more sense. If the CIS or Naval Intelligence believed that the Theocracy was involved, it might explain why Tanya had been able to purchase starships without attracting attention. Even so, the Theocracy was some distance from Asher Dales – and they would have to traverse much of the Commonwealth to reach the newly-settled world. It was fairly easy to slip through the border, but shipping an entire assault fleet to the defenceless world would be tricky. “Maybe they want to encircle us.”

    The Theocracy’s expansion had brought its border up to the Commonwealth – and very few people expected the border to remain quiet. Certainly, the RAN’s high command – and the King himself – were frantically preparing for war. The best case projection Philip had heard was that the war would start in five years, but the upspring in pirate activity – forcing the RAN to divert light units to serve as convoy escorts – suggested that the **** would hit the fan a great deal sooner than that. And then there was the rumours that the Theocracy was actively arming the insurgents on Cadiz...

    Hundreds of thousands of refugees had managed to flee the Theocracy, many of them making their way to the Commonwealth. Their stories had been horrifying, warning of the dangers of Theocratic occupation, and they’d been spread wildly across the entire sector. But the insurgents on Cadiz wouldn't care that they were dealing with a power that would do far more damage to them than the Commonwealth had ever done – and, by working with their operatives, were ensuring that the Theocracy knew precisely who to target to destroy the insurgency.

    And if the Commonwealth fell, Asher Dales and the other worlds in that sector wouldn't have a prayer.

    “It’s possible,” Cassandra agreed. “There’s a world in that sector – Jordon – which is playing host to a number of refugees from the Theocracy. Would you care to guess how many of those refugees are young men of military age?”

    Philip’s eyes narrowed. “You think that they’re an invading army?”

    “It’s a possibility,” Cassandra said. “We’re not even sure how they managed to reach Jordon in the first place. The official story says that they were smuggled out by one of the more notorious pirates in the sector, but that still doesn't explain why they didn't go somewhere closer to the Theocracy, at least at first. And, unlike all of the other groups of refugees, they didn’t split up. They arrived on Jordon as a group and have, so far, been keeping their heads down.”

    “Just waiting for their moment,” Philip said, thoughtfully. “And no one has been even remotely concerned about the possibility of the Theocracy gaining ground in our rear?”

    “There isn't much we can do, overtly,” Cassandra pointed out. “Jordon isn't a Commonwealth world – nor is Asher Dales. Even if we were at war, we would still have shaky legal grounds to intervene. We’d upset far too many of the other powers if we stamped on this before it became a serious problem...”

    Philip rolled his eyes. The Breakaway Wars had wrecked the single authority that had had both the will and means to enforce a single code of conduct on humanity’s interstellar settlements. There were a number of agreements between the various successor states to the United Nations governing the rules of war, interstellar settlement and communication, but enforcing them was difficult – and the Theocracy had never signed any of the treaties. Even so, if the Theocracy managed to establish a colony world near Asher Dales, the Commonwealth would be legally obliged to allow the Theocracy to route its starships through Commonwealth space. And that would create a whole new string of potential problems.

    “I need a straight answer,” he said, slowly. “What sort of operation is the Commonwealth running?”

    Cassandra met his eyes. “To the best of my knowledge, the Commonwealth has no operation running on Asher Dales or in any of the surrounding star systems,” she said. “On the other hand, the Commonwealth would be delighted if the Theocracy was barred from entering the sector by a united power, defended by a formidable military force.”

    “So if I succeed it’s a great victory for covert operations and if I fail it’s all my fault,” Philip said. It sounded like the sort of concept the various covert operations services would enjoy, all the more so because they wouldn't be directly involved. Failure wouldn't reflect badly on them. “You do realise that Asher Dales won’t be able to build battleships for at least forty years, perhaps longer? The Theocracy could take the sector any time they decide to divert a squadron of battlecruisers to annexe the settled worlds.”

    “That might well alarm some of the other powers,” Cassandra said. “They’re happy enough to see us facing the Theocracy – it saves them having to build up their own military forces and get ready for a fight – but if the Theocracy seems utterly fixated on expansion...”

    “I wouldn't care to count on it,” Philip muttered. “Thank you for your time and help.”

    Cassandra favoured him with a brilliant smile. “You’re always very welcome,” she said. “I always knew Admiral Morrison was an asshole anyway. If he didn't have so many powerful friends, he'd be out on his ass so fast that he’d probably slam into the door before it opened.”

    “One can always hope,” Philip said. He looked up at her, suddenly. “What’s the best guess as to how long it will be before we go to war?”

    Cassandra hesitated, taking another sip of her drink. “It depends on who you talk to,” she admitted, finally. “We’ve always had problems getting assets inside the Theocracy – and most of the people who make the important decisions are completely beyond our reach. Our ability to guess at their intentions is rather limited – and intentions are what drives military operations.”

    She shrugged. “On the other hand, there is a great deal of indirect evidence,” she added. “There has been a colossal upswing in pirate activity along the border, suggesting that someone is backing the pirates. The general consensus among intelligence analysts is that we will be at war within two years, perhaps less – perhaps much less. Admiral Morrison’s stint at Cadiz is due to end in three years, so it’s possible that they will strike before he’s gone – they could hardly hope for a more incompetent officer in command of Cadiz and the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet.”

    “There’s no way to be certain, of course,” Philip said. He looked down at his untouched drink, and then took a sip. Flavoured water might have been fashionable, but it had never been his favourite. On the other hand, he didn't want to get drunk again. Building up a defence force for a colony world would be a remarkable challenge – and he’d be able to set the ground rules that would shape its personnel. He could ensure that no one got promoted without actual competence, rather than family connections. “Is there any reason why I shouldn't take up this opportunity?”

    “None that I know about,” Cassandra said. She batted her eyelashes at him, beguilingly. “I’d miss you, of course.”

    “That looks terribly unnatural on you,” Philip said. Cassandra giggled. “I may need to run a handful of names past you for vetting. Tanya might have managed to get a line on a few starships, but I bet she hasn't bothered to think about the crews.”

    Civilians,” Cassandra agreed. “Go have fun – you never know; it might even make you happy. And if war does break out, you’ll probably be recalled to active service.”

    “I can hope,” Philip agreed. He stood up and kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you for your time and effort.”

    “Best of luck,” Cassandra said. “And don’t forget to write. The sissies will be very interested in hearing about what happens to be going on in your new sector.”

    Tanya had booked herself a hotel suite in the upper levels of the station, not entirely to Philip’s surprise. When he pressed the buzzer, the door hissed open without checking his identity, allowing him to walk inside. Puzzled, he looked around until he saw Tanya seated in one corner of the room, going through lists of starships for hire or outright purchase. She looked up as he walked over to her and smiled, tiredly. Wading through starship files was never an easy task at the best of times, even with military training and experience. A newcomer would rapidly find herself swamped in the data.

    “Welcome back,” she said, ironically. “Did you make up your mind?”

    Philip nodded. “I’d be happy to take on the job,” he assured her. It was very definitely the truth. A chance to do what he’d trained to do – serve in a military force – and even build up a whole new navy from scratch. “Do you have a contract, or would you just accept my word?”

    “I’ll need you to help with the starship purchases,” Tanya admitted. For the daughter of a planetary leader – he’d have to look up Asher Dales in the galactic datafiles and see how its government was organised – she seemed to have no servants or bodyguards escorting her. The Commonwealth was far safer than many other star systems, but even so...the daughter of a planetary leader would make an attractive target for kidnap. “I can’t make head or tail of this...”

    She scowled, openly. “I’ve purchased three destroyers for the fleet, but...”

    “I hope you inspected them first,” Philip said. He scowled. It wouldn't have mattered, anyway. Someone without naval experience could be given a completely sanitized tour and they’d never realise just how much they’d missed. “I’ll have to confirm that they’re suitable before hiring crews – they’ll need to be convinced that the ships won’t blow up in hyperspace or lose their vortex generators when they try to return to normal space.”

    Tanya frowned, concerned. “Does that happen often?”

    “Commercial starships – even ex-military ones – aren’t always cared for as much as they should be,” Philip said. He picked up the datapad and ran his eye down the details. There simply wasn't enough to help him to make up his mind. “We’re definitely going to have to go inspect them.”

    He keyed the console embedded in the desk and found a shuttle flight heading out to the Quincy Starship Refurbishment Yards. It wouldn't be a long flight, just long enough for him to go through the files more carefully and see what needed inspection. If nothing else, the absence of certain pieces of information should tell him what the dealers didn't want anyone to see. And there were too many pieces of information missing...

    “Come on,” he said. Tanya nodded and stood up. For the daughter of a Head of State, she didn't seem to insist on protocol – but then, Asher Dales was hardly Avalon, or even Mars. Tanya was probably smart enough to know that her father’s position hardly counted in the Commonwealth. Asher Dales would vanish without trace on any of the more populated worlds. “We’ll go inspect the ships and then we can start hunting for crews.”
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The Quincy Starship Refurbishment Yards were based around an asteroid habitat in a free orbit around Avalon’s star. Philip had never had occasion to visit them before, but there was nothing particularly new or exciting about the small shipyard. Tanya, on the other hand, was staring out of the shuttle as if she’d never seen anything like it before, which was quite possible. Asher Dales had no shipyard and most of the Commonwealth’s shipyards were positioned away from the planet. It had been centuries since an orbital station had fallen out of orbit and crashed down on the planet below, but no one felt like taking chances. Besides, having the shipyards in orbit just made it easier for any aggressor to wreck havoc.

    They transferred to a small inspection bug and cruised towards the first of the three destroyers. The three ships - Dasher, Dancer and Joe Buckley – had been withdrawn from service in the RAN five years ago, according to the file Quincy had transmitted to Tanya when she purchased the ships, and passed to the Refurbishment Yards for downgrading into civilian craft. They might have been outdated, but they should have sold to commercial interests sooner rather than later; Philip suspected that that was a bad sign. The RAN files on the three ships hadn't suggested that anything was seriously wrong with them, yet the files might not have been updated after they’d been decommissioned.

    Dasher came into view slowly and Philip switched the autopilot on, looking up at the starship’s gleaming white hull. The Oslo-class destroyers were compressed arrowheads, built for heavy firepower rather than speed; they bristled with weapons pods and missile tubes. They weren't the most advanced design in known space – the RAN had developed two successive classes of destroyers since the Oslo-class ships had been launched – but they were definitely solid workhorses. The ship’s name, illuminated by floodlights positioned within the frame surrounding the starship, could be read easier. It added a certain layer of enchantment to the entire scene.

    “She’s beautiful,” Tanya whispered. “How do we get onboard?”

    “We dock,” Philip said. The bug drifted up to the hull and placed itself against one of the smaller airlocks. On impulse, Philip picked up a pair of facemasks and tossed one of them to Tanya, before pressing the other against his mouth. There was a hiss as it fixed itself to his skin. Tanya looked a question at him, just before the airlock hissed open, revealing a second airlock within the destroyer. He beckoned for her to follow him into the ship, leaving the bug behind. The airlock hissed closed behind them, a second before the inner door opened. “Come on...”

    There was always something eerie about a ship that had been almost completely powered down. The atmosphere smelt musty even though the facemask; a quick check revealed that the drives, weapons and life support systems had been stood down completely. He led the way to the bridge and peered inside, feeling a tingle running down his spine. It was easy to imagine a ghostly crew carrying out their duties, utterly unaware of the presence of unwanted intruders. The captain’s chair, positioned in the centre of the cramped bridge, was dusty. Philip ran one finger over the seat, smiling inwardly. If any active-duty CO had seen his seat in such a condition, he knew, the CO would have been furious. He hated to think what the IG would have said about it. They’d have seen it as a sign the Captain wasn't doing his job properly.

    He stood up and peered around at the various consoles. They seemed to be in fairly good condition, although there were a handful of places where classified components had been removed before the ship had been decommissioned. Tapping one of the two active consoles, he brought up a ship monitoring subsystem and examined its findings. Dasher was in a rough condition, mainly through lack of maintenance. The two fusion reactors positioned towards the rear of the ship were in acceptable condition, but the wear and tear on the power distribution grid was horrifying. It would take at least a week to replace the power conduits to ensure that they didn't burn out the moment he demanded full military power – and it would definitely take longer if there were any other problems.

    “So,” Tanya said, into the silence, “what do you make of it?”

    “Her,” Philip corrected, absently. “A starship is always a her.”

    He tapped the console again and checked the weapons systems. Unsurprisingly, a number of components had been removed to make it impossible to fire the weapons, although they could be replaced fairly easily. In theory, a decommissioned warship couldn't be reactivated once it had been sold to a civilian shipping line, but in practice it was simple enough to outfit the ships with newer weapons and turn it into a light military craft. Pirates had been doing it ever since the Breakaway Wars, when a great many UN starships – no one knew how many had vanished somewhere in the interstellar gulf – had become pirate craft. The RAN had destroyed a number of them during antipiracy missions.

    “We’re going to have to spend some time refitting the ship,” he said, absently. He attached his datapad to the console and downloaded a complete report from the starship’s monitoring systems. It looked as if they would be spending at least two weeks working on Dasher before she was fit for service. If the other ships were in worse conditions...

    Tanya frowned. “Do you know how long?”

    “Not yet,” Philip said. He straightened up and switched off the console. “I think we'd better take a look at the other two ships.”

    An hour passed slowly as they inspected Dancer and Joe Buckley. Dancer wasn't in any particularly worse condition than Dasher, although her weapons systems would need to be switched out with new components before her targeting computers could be rated as fit for active service. On the face of it, Joe Buckley was in excellent shape, except for one minor detail. The vortex generator was missing, completely. Philip suspected that someone must have cannibalised the ship once she’d been decommissioned; a military-grade vortex generator – the key to entering hyperspace without needing to use a vortex gate – would be worth thousands of pounds on the black market. Asher Dales didn't have a vortex gate, unsurprisingly; Joe Buckley would be utterly dependent upon her consorts to travel faster-than-light. A pirate ship could evade her simply by jumping into hyperspace.

    “****,” Tanya said, when he had finished detailing the problems. “I thought...”

    Philip shrugged. “Let me see the documents again,” he said. He skimmed through them rapidly, looking for something he was sure wouldn't be there. Tanya might have been a good choice for recruiting personnel, but she knew nothing about starships. She wouldn't even have noticed its exclusion. “Ah.”

    “I paid for these ships,” Tanya said, ignoring him. “And I got taken for a ride. My dad’s going to kill me.”

    “I don’t think so,” Philip said. He glanced over Joe Buckley’s specs one final time, making sure of his ground. “Let's go have a few words with Mr. Quincy.”

    Richard Quincy, the owner and CEO of Quincy Starship Refurbishment, clearly didn't know the meaning of the words charm, elegance and good taste. His offices were decorated with expensive paintings, artefacts from a dozen worlds and signed photographs of him with a number of celebrities. Philip had a private suspicion, as they marched into the office and up to the receptionist’s desk, that most of the artefacts weren't worth anything like as much as they seemed. The whole office was decorated to impress his visitors. Philip, who had been in combat against pirates, was unimpressed. The medals that decorated one part of the wall were clearly faked.

    The receptionist looked up in surprise as he stormed up to her desk. She appeared young, wearing a low-cut dress that hid nothing, although that could be an illusion. There was no reason why Quincy couldn’t have had his secretary undergo cosmetic surgery to improve her charms. She was certainly a distraction to anyone who came into the office demanding recompense, or worse.

    “Yes?” She enquired. “Can I help you, sir?”

    “I want an immediate meeting with Quincy,” Philip said, firmly. He glared at the receptionist, never allowing his gaze to drop from her eyes. “You will inform him that I am here to see him, now.”

    The receptionist hesitated. “I’m afraid that Mr. Quincy has an urgent meeting...”

    “Indeed he does, with me,” Philip said. “You will inform him that...”

    “I cannot intrude upon his meeting,” the receptionist said, with great dignity. The effect was somewhat spoiled by her youthful appearance. “I must ask you to arrange an appointment...”

    Philip leaned down until his nose was almost brushing against hers. “I fear that you have misunderstood me,” he said, sweetly. “You will go inform him that we are here to see him, or we will go at once to the police and file a complaint against Mr. Quincy and his corporation. I dare say that your position here will not survive...”

    The change was remarkable. “Please wait two minutes,” the secretary said. Philip waited, never taking his eyes from her, as she picked up a small communicator and spoke into it, rapidly. If his other experiences with salesmen were anything to go by, Mr. Quincy would do anything to avoid drawing the attention of the police. And if the police happened to be given a copy of the documents Tanya had been sent, nothing would save him from a hefty jail term. “Mr. Qunicy will see you now.”

    Tanya caught his arm as they passed through the door. “Are you sure you know what you are doing?”

    Philip nodded “Yes,” he muttered back. “Let me handle this.”

    Mr. Quincy was a short man, with an expensively-tailored suit that couldn't quite hide the fact that he was uncomfortably overweight. His dark eyes flickered around the room, never quite meeting Philip’s eyes; his hands were twisting in front of him, suggesting that he was nervous. But then, the mention of the police would be enough to make him more than a little worried about the future. No one reached the heights of his profession without making any number of questionable deals. If a pirate ship happened to be traced back to him, he’d be spending the rest of his life on a penal colony.

    Philip pulled a datachip out of his pocket and dropped it on the table. “This is a copy” – he stressed the word copy to make Mr. Quincy nervous – “of the contract you sent to Miss Barrington, covering the sale of three Oslo-class destroyers from your business to Asher Dales. Your contract specifically states that all three ships are in acceptable condition and have been certified as such.”

    Mr. Quincy didn't pick up the datachip, almost as if he feared that it would burn him. “I must protest this intrusion into my office,” he said, quickly. “All such matters are handled by my company’s lawyers.”

    Philip ignored him. “I have inspected the documents,” he said, darkly. “The ships do not match the specifications you supplied. Furthermore, none of them have CAB-issued certifications. You are no doubt aware that failure to provide a CAB certification is grounds for nullification of contract – and a lengthy jail term.”

    He rarely had anything good to say about bureaucrats, but he blessed them now. The CAB – Commonwealth Assessment Bureau – had been created to regulate the sale of starships to third parties, providing an impartial evaluation service that allowed buyers to be sure that sellers were not trying to deceive them. It also made it harder for pirates to use shell corporations to purchase ex-military craft that could be turned into pirate ships. By not obtaining a CAB certificate, Quincy had opened himself to legal action. The CAB would be leading the charge. Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat who felt himself taken in vain.

    “I’m sure that my lawyers simply failed to include the certificate,” Quincy said, quickly. “I can have it forwarded to you...”

    “I was sure that that was the case,” Philip pretended to agree, “so I contacted the CAB directly and asked for a copy of the certificate’s registry number. You will be aware, no doubt, that a certificate’s existence cannot be hidden, even if the certificate itself is restricted? Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there was no certificate.” He grinned. “Would you care to explain that little discrepancy?”

    Quincy hesitated, no doubt sensing the abyss opening up in front of him. “There is no requirement for a CAB certificate when the sale is made to a foreign government,” he said, finally. He was, as it happened, right – but only partly right. Philip grinned, inwardly. His superiors had thought that they were punishing him when they’d made him study Admiralty Case Law at Piker’s Peak. “The CAB would only have assessed the starships if the outside government had requested an assessment. And Asher Dales” – he’d opened up the file now – “made no such request.”

    “There is some case law in your favour,” Philip agreed, amiably. “Wrigley’s Planet vs. Consolidated Industries would seem to suggest that the CAB was not required to inspect the starships before they were transferred to an outside world. However...”

    His voice hardened. “You are no doubt aware that Asher Dales was funded by a number of different corporations,” he added. “In that case, the result of Thande vs. Ian Montgomery and Nova Candia vs. Consolidated Industries would seem to hold true. Asher Dales would count as a commercial entity until it managed to buy its shares back from the founding contributors. The failure to provide a CAB certificate, in such cases, becomes a very serious offense.”

    Quincy stared at him, and then scowled. “If there has been an oversight, I assure you that I will deal with it,” he said, quickly. Philip guessed that he was considering which of his employees he could throw to the lions when the CAB started pressing charges against him. “And we can make certain amounts of recompense...”

    “I’m afraid that Thande vs. Ian Montgomery definitely established the point that the corporation as a whole is responsible for such oversights,” Philip said. There was no point in letting Quincy shovel the blame off onto some poor unsuspecting employee. Besides, Quincy was a snake. Nailing him would be a pleasure. “The CAB would certainly support such an interpretation. And so, I'm afraid, would the Falcone Corporation.”

    Quincy’s eyes widened. “What?”

    Philip grinned, enjoying himself. “The Falcone Corporation provided some of the money that was used to buy the starships,” he said. “I dare say that their legal division will want a few words with you, don’t you think? Even if the CAB merely settles for confiscating your assets and putting you in jail, the Falcone Corporation would want its own pound of flesh...”

    He sat down and treated Quincy to a cheerful smile. “But we really don’t have time to **** around with legal tricks,” he added. “Why don’t we make a deal?”

    Quincy scowled. “What are you offering?”

    “I want those three ships refitted quickly,” Philip said. “You will pay for that; ideally, I want the Joe Buckley to have a new vortex generator.” He ignored Quincy’s snort. Obtaining a new generator suitable for such an old starship wouldn't be easy. It would certainly be very costly. “I also want a large bulk freighter – but that shouldn't be a problem; you have plenty of them in stock. Just make damn sure that it has a CAB certificate. I’ll be sending you a list of spare parts I’ll want loaded into the freighter. You’ll supply those as well, of course.”

    “You can’t blackmail me,” Quincy protested. “You’re just as...”

    Philip allowed his smile to widen. “Interesting point,” he said. “I’m afraid that most case law would still put the burden of the blame on your shoulders. Given that you actually sold the ships to use, you would certainly be expected to pay for their refitting and the rather large collection of spare parts we happen to need...”

    He shrugged. “I dare say that you could try to slow things down,” he added, after a moment. “If the ships – all four of them – are not ready to depart in a month, I’m afraid I’ll have to make you more notorious than you are already. I trust that we have a deal?”

    “Very well,” Quincy said. “You have a deal.”

    Philip was still grinning as they boarded the shuttle for the trip back to Avalon. Tanya seemed rather surprised, although Philip wasn’t sure why. Or perhaps she was annoyed at herself. The missing CAB certificates could have caused a great deal of trouble for Asher Dales in the future – and the starships had definitely not been up to spec.

    “That was...odd,” she said, finally. “Will he really keep his word?”

    “Unless he wants to spend the rest of his life on a penal world, he will,” Philip said. “I’ve met enough men like that to know how they think. They turn into pussies when anyone actually stands up to them. If you hadn't bought the ships, it would have been a different story...I guess they saw you coming.”

    “I guess so,” Tanya admitted. “I haven’t practiced much as a lawyer...”

    “Everyone learns from experience,” Philip assured her. Oddly, he was feeling great. He hadn't felt so good since he’d learned that the RAN had promoted him to Captain – and he’d never expected to feel so good again. “I’m sure that there will be much more experience in the future.”

    He shrugged. “We go back to the station, have an early night, and then start hunting for crewmen in the morning,” he added. “How many crewmen do you want?”

    “Enough,” Tanya said. “I leave it in your hands. Just remember that you're the one who will have to command them.”
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  4. goinpostal

    goinpostal Monkey+++

    A good start!!
    Thank You!
  5. Cephus

    Cephus Monkey+++ Founding Member

    AS always a great read !!!!
    I think this one has come together much faster than the others and seems to be headed for ride !!
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Not a bad response, I feel,” Philip said, four days later. “We’ve got most of the people we need signed up.”

    He glanced down at the list of replies. Avalon – like all major spacefaring planets – had a permanent pool of spacers looking for work on starships or the massive space stations orbiting the planet. Many of them had experience in the RAN, or merchant shipping; some of them were constantly looking for a new challenge. He’d gone through the communications networks, uploaded a few advertisements and waited for the responses to come back. Most of the people on his first list had agreed to sign up.

    Tanya frowned. “Do we really need all of these people?”

    Philip smiled. Ever since buying three starships that were not really suited to purpose, Tanya had become a great deal more careful about approving expenses. He couldn't really blame her, but it was irritating, not least because she didn't really have the experience to say what was necessary and what wasn’t. She’d hired him to handle that part of her mission, after all.

    “We won’t have a shipyard at Asher Dales,” Philip reminded her. In theory, one could operate an Oslo-class destroyer with less than ten crewmen; in practice, it would be almost impossible to handle any major repairs with less than thirty officers and men. Luckily, pirates had a slapdash attitude to maintenance; even a light cruiser in pirate hands would have problems taking on a naval destroyer. Even so, he wasn't going to risk being caught hundreds of light years from anywhere that could repair his ships. “We need the crew.”

    He scowled as he ran his finger down the list of people who hadn't responded, or hadn't replaced with full details. Some of them hadn't been interested in joining any kind of naval service; they’d been discharged from the RAN for insubordination or persistent misbehaviour. Others didn't want to leave the Commonwealth, even with the promise of a land grant on a new colony world. A handful of the ones who had accepted seemed to be having problems finding someone willing to give them a reference, which didn't bode well. And three of the people with experience that Asher Dales desperately needed hadn't replied at all.

    “And we need people with proper skills,” he added, after a moment. He stood up and headed towards the door. “I’ll have to speak to two of them in person. Don’t wait up for me.”

    Tanya blinked. “Where are you going?”

    “Somewhere I wouldn't take a civilian,” Philip admitted. “Trust me; you don't want to follow me this time.”

    He heard the noise echoing down the corridor for several minutes before he reached the Hungry Werewolf. Someone had turned the music up loud, but it couldn't be loud enough to drown out the sound of shouting and fighting. The Hungry Werewolf had a reputation as the worst place to drink in the entire system, one its patrons enthusiastically passed on to anyone who wanted to find somewhere to drown their sorrows. No law enforcement service ever went anywhere near the bar; prostitutes were about the only safe people on the drinking and dancing floor. And anyone, Philip knew, who tried any of the bar snacks, was taking their life in their hands. It was part of the bar’s charm.

    The door swung open as he approached and an oversized spacer was unceremoniously tossed out into the corridor. He hit the bulkhead with a sickening thud, staggered to his feet, and stumbled away from the bar. Philip was mildly impressed. The last he’d heard, the Hungry Werewolf had been having trouble finding bouncers with the muscle and violent sociopath nature needed to live down to the bar’s reputation. Two more revellers followed him out, one collapsing as soon as he was outside; the other running away at great speed. Philip shrugged to himself and pushed open the door.

    Inside, the noise was far louder than outside. Thirty to forty people were packed into a cramped space, some dancing on the floor, others sitting up at the bar and trying to drink themselves into a stupor. Philip wondered, absently, if he would have eventually come to the Hungry Werewolf if Tanya hadn't found him. It was the bar for people who had fallen through the cracks and been abandoned by the system. The dark side of Avalon, some would have said, and perhaps they would have been right. But then, many of the people in the bar could have found employment if they hadn't been addicted to stimulants or electronic pleasure boosting...he caught sight of a prostitute whose client had collapsed in a drunken heap. Not inclined to waste her chances, the prostitute was going through his pockets and systematically removing his wallet, his ID and anything else that happened to be of interest.

    Rolling his eyes, Philip made his way to the bar and ordered a beer, looking around for his first target. He’d had to call in a favour from Cassandra to find Commander Saul Schifrin – he hadn't replied to the message Philip had sent, three days ago – and apparently it hadn't been easy. Schifrin had been propping up the bar at the Hungry Werewolf for the last few months, drinking himself into an early grave. His RAN file indicated that he’d been found drunk on duty at least four times, after which his superior officers had run out of patience and unceremoniously discharged him from the navy. Philip sighed inwardly as he caught sight of his target. At one point, Schifrin had been an expert tactician, known for his skills in hunting down pirate ships.

    He was taller than Philip had expected, with a receding hairline and a slight paunch. His hand was clutching a beer glass as if he expected to have it stolen from under his very eyes, while he was using his other hand to hold himself to the bar. At least there was no sign of an electronic simulator jack plugged into his neck, Philip told himself; there was no way he would have taken an electronic addict into his crew, no matter how qualified or experienced he had once been. The addicts lived in a state of permanent orgasm and simply considered themselves above the concerns of mundane life. They couldn't be trusted with anything serious.

    Shaking his head, he walked around the bar patrons – noting the bar fight that seemed to have broken out when one of the patrons objected to a prostitutes terms – and sat down next to Schifrin. The man’s white hair contrasted oddly with his bright red jumper, but it seemed that dress sense was one of the things Schifrin had forgotten since he’d been discharged from the RAN. Cassandra had been able to slip Philip his file and it had made very depressing reading. Schifrin, like so many others, had seen the horrors the pirates had left in their wake and it had broken him. The RAN couldn't be everywhere at once. Even the Theocracy, to give the devil its due, didn't allow piracy within its territory. It preferred to point the pirates into the Commonwealth instead.

    “Commander Schifrin?” He asked. The former Commander looked up at him, and then returned to his drink. “I have a job for you.”

    “Shut up,” Schifrin growled. “Sit down, have a drink, and then go away.”

    Philip shrugged, reached into his pocket, and produced a sober-up tab. Before Schifrin could even register its presence, he pressed it against his neck and injected it right into his bloodstream. Schifrin yelped in shock as the fast-acting drug burned through his system, driving the effects of the alcohol out of his mind. He gasped, swallowed hard as if he was on the verge of being violently sick, and then stared up at Philip angrily.

    “What the hell did you do that for?” He demanded, loudly. “Marie! Throw this jerk out before I go to town on him!”

    “I have a job offer for you,” Philip said, evenly. “It involves command of a destroyer. Are you interested, or should I go to the next person on the list?”

    “Command of a destroyer?” Schifrin repeated. “There isn’t anyone who would give me a destroyer to command. Fat ****ing chance after my dishonourable... They’d have to be insane.”

    Philip shrugged. “Then maybe I’m crazy,” he said. Part of him wondered if Schifrin was really up to the task, yet there simply weren't many people in Avalon with the experience and the desire to serve in a foreign navy. The RAN might have loaned a few officers if Asher Dales had been willing to sign an alliance, but Tanya had been clear; her father wouldn't agree to any permanent alliance with anyone. It would compromise his planet’s independence. “I have an Oslo&shy;-class destroyer, in reasonable shape, that needs a commanding officer...”

    He felt a presence behind him. “I also need a Marine CO,” he added, without looking back. “Can I interest you in the job?”

    “Don’t throw the bum out,” Schifrin said, quickly. “He’s offering us money.”

    “Is it enough money,” a female voice said, “to make it worth our while?”

    Philip shrugged. “How much money could tempt you to leave a job in a nice place like this?”

    The bouncer sat down, facing him. She appeared to be young, with short blonde hair and a persistent smile, but her face was badly scarred and a handful of tattoos covered her exposed arms. Marine Lieutenant Marie Martinez had been discharged from the RAMC for extreme violence, which had made Philip laugh when he’d first read her file. He’d always thought that that was how one got into the Marines, at least according to rumour back when he’d been a junior officer. Marines and spacers worked together, but that didn't mean they had to like one another and the Marines mostly kept to Marine Country.

    “It depends on what you’re offering,” she said. A pair of patrons were listening to the conversation and she glared at them until they shuffled away. “I’m not interested in mercenary work.”

    “It isn’t really mercenary work,” Philip said, and explained about Asher Dales in a few short sentences. “I need a CO for one of the other ships and I need a Marine to train the locals in space boarding tactics.”

    “You intend to take a few pirate ships,” Marie said. “And what will you do with the pirates?”

    “Strip them naked and put them out the airlock,” Philip said, flatly. The Commonwealth – and almost every other interstellar state – had precisely one punishment for piracy. There were people who argued that there should be some room for leniency – the pirates committed hundreds of atrocities, knowing that they would be executed when the law caught up with them – but it wasn't an attitude that found favour with many spacers. The pirates looted, raped and murdered their way across space until they were caught and executed. And no matter how many of them the RAN killed, there were always more out there.

    Philip hadn’t just studied interstellar case law during his year with the JAG. One of his superiors had written a book on the economics of interstellar piracy and his conclusions had made interesting reading, once they’d been mentally translated into plain English. There were hundreds of colony worlds out along the Rim – or even beyond it, settled by people who had believed that the Breakaway Wars would result in the destruction of every known colony world – that simply couldn't afford machines and material they desperately needed. The pirates were quite happy to sell the material they’d captured to the colonists, secure in the knowledge that the colonists would never betray them to the authorities. And then there were the perishable goods from a dozen worlds, foodstuffs that couldn't be produced on other inhabited planets. They commanded high prices and, with a little care, pirates could earn enough to keep their starships running.

    Even so, pirates tended to live hand to mouth. There was an entire network of support bases, fences and other criminal activity that helped them to raid commercial shipping, but the various military powers worked hard to shut it down. The Theocracy’s quiet support for pirates raiding the Commonwealth’s shipping actually made life easier for the pirates, if only because Commonwealth warships were prohibited from crossing the border into the Theocracy. If the Commonwealth ever discovered proof that the pirates were using a star system on the other side of the border as a base, the **** would really hit the fan. It would almost certainly lead to war.

    “Sounds ideal,” Marie said. “Excuse me a minute.”

    She stood up, marched over to two patrons who were arguing violently with one another, and banged their heads together hard. They dropped to the ground, groaning, as she turned and marched back to her seat. Philip smiled, impressed. It took a person with considerable nerve to serve as a bouncer in the Hungry Werewolf; he had a suspicion that most of them simply didn't last very long. But then, few people who knew her reputation would mess with Marie – and no one would do it twice.

    “It definitely sounds ideal,” Schifrin agreed. The bartender had placed a jug of water in front of him and he was drinking it greedily. Sober-up taps tended to produce massive dehydration very quickly. “What’s the pay like...?”

    “Forget the pay,” Marie snapped. “This is your chance to get back in the command seat of a starship! You ought to be paying him to take you.”

    Philip laughed and reached into his tunic, producing a pair of datachips. “These are the contracts,” he said. “Assuming you last five years, there’s a land grant which you can keep and develop for yourself, or sell to other developers. Pay is on a reasonable scale in local money; less so if you want it in pounds, dollars, or interstellar credit notes...”

    “Smart,” Marie said. “You want people spending money on the planet if possible...I wonder what the exchange rate is like?”

    “It’s backed by a Planetary Development Fund,” Philip said. Interstellar economics were tricky, all the more so since the UN’s unified currency had gone the way of the dinosaur. It hadn't worked very well even when the UN had been a going concern, if only because most colony worlds hadn't had much to sell their inhabitants. Inflation had helped to fuel the Breakaway Wars. “You’ll have a nice nest egg if you serve for five or more years – food and suchlike is provided free...”

    “We might even get good food if we’re near a planet,” Schifrin commented, cheerfully. It was an article of faith among RAN crewmen that the food was universally awful, even though that wasn't entirely true. On the other hand, the RAN’s cookery course was universally acknowledged to be the hardest in the known universe – it had to be; no one had ever passed it. “I think I’d be happy with such an arrangement – where do I sign?”

    “One word of warning,” Philip said, “I don't have time for a drunkard on my ships. If I catch you drinking while you’re meant to be on duty, or reporting for duty with a hangover, I’ll personally beat the crap out of you.”

    “I’m sure there are regulations against laying hands on your subordinates,” Schifrin said.

    “There are?” Marie asked, in a tone of artful surprise. “Tell that to my Drill Instructors.”

    “I get to make the regulations,” Philip said. No one on Asher Dales had any experience writing Naval Regulations. Philip intended to copy the RAN’s regulations, with a few minor modifications to suit himself. “I’m not kidding about beating the crap out of you. And if I have to beach you, it won't be on Avalon.”

    “Don't worry about it,” Marie said. “I’ll ride herd on him for you. He won’t touch a single drop while I’m taking care of him.”

    “Thank you,” Philip said. “We’re refurbishing the three ships out at Quincy Starship Refurbishment Yards. The bastard tried to cheat us so we put the fear of the CAB into him; still, I want someone there overseeing the work as soon as possible.” He dropped a set of coins onto the table. “Get yourselves there and make yourself known to Quincy, and then start inspecting the ships. I want them in perfect working order by the time we leave.”

    “Understood,” Schifrin said. “Which ship do I command?”

    “I’ll decide that once we have the remainder of the crews lined up,” Philip said. “If you have a particular favourite, let me know.”

    He looked over at Marie. “I want you to find ten or so retired Marines or people with military experience who would be prepared to serve as cadre for my little force,” he said. “Get people with real military experience – ideally, people with training experience. I’ll drop you a note of pay scales and suchlike once we get set up at the Yards. Let me know if there are any problems...”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Marie said. Retired Marines – there was no such thing as an ex-Marine, they claimed – kept in touch, even the ones who had had to leave the corps under a cloud. Marine would know dozens of people who met the bill. “I’ll find you plenty of possible recruits.”

    Philip smiled. “Then I’ll see you both at the Yards,” he said. “Good day.”

    He didn't start chuckling to himself until he was well away from the Hungry Wolf. They both wanted to return to space; he could see it written all over their faces. And they had the experience his little command desperately needed. All he’d have to do is watch Schifrin to make sure he didn't return to the bottle...but he probably wouldn’t. He was desperate to return to command of a starship, just as Philip himself had been.

    Checking his wristcom, he headed off down the corridor. There were a handful of other possibilities he had to see.
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    <B style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal"><FONT size=3><FONT face="Times New Roman">Chapter Five<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    “I trust you are pleased with my work?”

    Philip shrugged. Quincy or one of his people had been hanging around for the two weeks of refurbishment to get the three destroyers ready for space. The Quincy Starship Refurbishment Yards had provided two hundred trained workers to do most of the labour, although Philip had insisted that his crewmen had to work beside their counterparts to ensure that they knew how the ships went together. Every starship was different, even those that had been produced for the military, and they all had their own idiosyncrasies. The last thing he wanted was a nasty surprise while they were a hundred light years from the nearest shipyard.

    “It has been much better,” he said, after a moment. Part of him wanted to keep extorting money and spare parts from the dealer; the rest of him thought that once he’d obtained all he needed, he might as well stop twisting his arm. “We should be ready to depart in a few more days.”

    He studied the bridge of Dasher thoughtfully. It looked a mess, with half of the consoles removed and a number of hatches in the deck opened up to allow old components to be pulled out and replaced. Workmen were everywhere, working frantically to get the ship ready to depart before the scheduled deadline. The rest of the small destroyer wasn't much better, he knew, but thankfully the original designers had built her to last. They hadn’t realised just how far naval technology would advance once the galactic powers had started pressing against one another, leaving them struggling to develop newer and better defences for their starships. Dasher might have no place in a local wall of battle, or providing escort to the massive battleships that provided the RAN’s heavy firepower, but she still had her uses. It seemed almost a pity that she’d been retired – and a relief that there was still useful work for her to do.

    “I trust you have moved all of the supplies to the Nancy?” He asked, dryly. The Nancy – a heavy bulk freighter – had been designed for work in the Commonwealth, not out along the Rim. Asher Dales certainly didn't have an orbital station that could unload her and transport her cargo down to the planet’s surface. Philip, however, had had other ideas and switched out most of her cargo holds for living space and spare parts. The freighter would provide a mobile support base for his fleet, as well as holding prisoners and repair crews, once the latter were trained. There was no way it could match the utility of one of the mobile support ships used by the RAN, but it would suffice for his little squadron. “I really would hate to have to come back here to file a complaint in person.”

    “They have all been loaded, as you requested,” Quincy said, quickly. Philip made a mental note to have it checked, carefully. He could trust Quincy to do everything necessary to avoid having to explain himself to the CAB inspectors, but he wouldn't put it past the dealer to try to cheat him somehow. Revenge would be a more than suitable motive for the man. “I think that you will be satisfied.”

    Philip nodded. “Thank you for your time,” he said. “You can go bother someone else now.”

    He ignored the fuming Quincy as he walked over to the captain’s chair and smiled to himself. Someone had brushed off the dust while replacing the twin consoles that allowed the commander to assume control of the ship’s drives or weapons if necessary. All of the equipment had been carefully checked and while the military-grade material had survived its treatment better than he had expected, it was still a relief to have most of it replaced. Military-grade equipment was popular with commercial shippers; it was often far tougher and more reliable than anything produced by the commercial sector. Even so, a few years of neglect and disuse could wear away almost anything. And Quincy was paying for the refurbishment.

    His wristcom buzzed. “Captain” – they hadn't decided if he should be a Captain or a Commodore, although he would definitely be wearing two hats – “this is Bartley, in Engineering. We’ve plugged the second fusion plant into the ship and she seems to be running fine. Once we’ve finished closing up all the hatches and access points we should be ready to move.”

    “Understood,” Philip said. Bartley had been a real find; an engineer who should have been serving in the RAN, rather than the commercial sector. Indeed, he honestly wasn't sure why Bartley hadn't applied to the RAN. He should have been accepted without demur. “Let me know when we’re ready to take her out.”

    He’d given Dancer to Schifrin – not without a few misgivings, even with Marie watching over him – and Joe Buckley to Captain Thomas Nonagon, another former RAN officer who’d left the service ten years ago to work in the commercial sector. He’d clearly repented of it since then, not entirely to Philip’s surprise, and had eagerly accepted the position when Philip had contacted him. Unlike Philip or Schifrin, Nonagon actually did have experience commanding Oslo-class destroyers, which he claimed would give him an advantage over the other two. Philip wasn't so sure – the older Captain wouldn't have remained current on the latest military technology – but it wasn't really a competition. Besides, there would be plenty of time for him to catch up.

    An hour passed slowly as the engineering crew checked and rechecked the ship’s systems. Philip waited patiently, refusing to hurry them even though part of him wanted to demand that they cleared the ship for action at once. He’d heard stories of how ships had suffered catastrophic drive failures through someone having left a multitool in the wrong place and he had no intention of putting the departure date back because he’d been too impatient to wait until everything was ready to go. Slightly to his annoyance, Dancer was ready to depart before Dasher, although it would be a few days before Joe Buckley was ready to join them. Replacing a vortex generator took longer than pulling out and replacing a fusion reactor, even though – on the face of it – it was a simpler task. A mistake with the vortex generator could mean being stranded in hyperspace, unable to return to normal space. There were stories about starships that had become trapped in hyperspace, drifting onwards in a desperate search for a vortex gate, their crews long since dead at their stations...

    He shook his head in some irritation. There was little truth to such stories, but they never lost their power to chill spacers. He’d heard dozens of different stories, from strange starships sighted briefly in hyperspace to encounters with godlike alien beings. None of the stories had ever been verified, leaving them all as nothing more than rumours. They were still told to new recruits, just to remind them that humanity didn't know everything about the universe...

    His wristcom chimed. “Captain, we should be ready for departure,” Bartley said. The remaining crew on the bridge had closed all the access points, allowing the bridge crew to take up their stations and prepare for departure. “Permission to power up the drives?”

    Philip sat down in the command chair, feeling the old excitement welling up inside him. It was no wonder that so few people, once they’d been promoted to command a starship, ever wanted to leave. The ship’s captain was the sole authority onboard his ship, with the right to command her crew – and the responsibility to bring her and her crew safely back home. He felt the responsibility settling around him like a shroud, a mocking reminder that the Captain could never relax completely. Captains had been court-martialled for losing their ships to errors the Board of Inquiry deemed avoidable, even if it hadn't been their fault. The Captain bore the ultimate responsibility...

    He keyed his wristcom. “Begin power-up sequence,” he ordered. The RAN’s shipyards normally carried out the first sequence before clearing the ship to depart the construction yard and handing her over to her first commander. He would have to supervise as Dasher came to life for the first time in several years. “Monitor the power curves carefully. I don’t want any more surprises than we can avoid.”

    There was a long pause, just long enough for him to wonder if something had gone wrong, and then a dull thrumming started to echo through the ship. It felt wrong, somehow, as if the drives weren't properly aligned together. He gritted his teeth as it grew louder, throbbing away at the back of his teeth, and then it slowly faded into the subtle harmony he recalled from his naval service. The crew would stop noticing it after the first few days, he knew, and would react with blank looks whenever the newcomers asked them about the noise. It still felt a little off, but it shouldn’t be a problem. A serious problem would have meant instant and catastrophic drive failure.

    “Report,” he ordered, as Dasher came to life around him. The consoles lit up with bright lights, flashing through the power-up sequence before they settled back down into standby mode; the overhead lights grew brighter, and then faded back to normality. He glanced at his console and smiled when he saw that his starship was truly at his command. The power leads connecting to the shipyard were no longer required. They could disengage at any moment.

    “We appear to have a working starship,” Bartley said. Philip smiled, realising why Bartley had never joined the RAN. The young man had no sense of proper protocol, or even respect for his superiors. He would never have been able to endure a spit-and-polish naval service. The RAN did what it could to accommodate crewmen with special talents – there was a tactical officer with a talent for tactical operations matched only by her complete unawareness of social protocol – but there were limits. “I’m just running through the standard checks now...all components seem to check out, thankfully.”

    “Thank God,” Philip agreed, seriously. The thought of losing time removing and replacing any of the new components had been preying at his mind. Tanya hadn't said anything out loud, but it was clear that she wanted to be off as soon as possible. The latest reports from the Rim hadn't been good. “Start secondary power-up sequences...now.”

    The reports came in from all over the ship, each one confirming that Dasher was ready to fly and fight. Philip allowed himself a moment of relief as the weapons systems checked out – they’d had to pull out the outdated systems and replace them, which risked creating incompatibilities when the old and new systems tried to work together – followed rapidly by the sensors. Pirates didn't normally worry about their sensors – they preferred to worry about packing as many weapons as they could into their hulls – but most naval officers knew better. A good sensor system, and a good tactical operations officer, was worth its weight in gold. Being able to spot someone trying to creep up on you was very useful, as was having the capability to engage targets at extreme range.

    Another hour passed slowly before Philip felt ready to take Dasher out into open space. At his command, the final links to the shipyard were severed and Dasher started to make her way out into space. She moved slowly, but very gracefully, certainly when compared to a freighter. The thought made him smile. Freighters, no matter what some officers thought about the value of Q-Ships, weren't really warships. Even the best of them lumbered like wallowing pigs compared to a military ship.

    “We are clearing the shipyard approaches, sir,” Raphael Kuntz reported. The helmsman had been a mercenary before Philip had approached him with an offer and he’d transferred instantly, preferring the chance to join a genuine naval service to remaining as a worker for the highest bidder. “All systems report condition green-one; I say again, condition green-one.”

    “Good,” Philip said. He allowed himself a tight smile. Some Captains preferred to experiment with their new commands gingerly at first, as if they were afraid they would break them, but Philip had never shared that particular faith. It was better to know if something was going to fail near a shipyard, rather than somewhere a few dozen light years from any repair yard. “Bring us to condition red-one.”

    He keyed a switch on his console. “This is the Captain,” he said. “All stations, red alert; I say again, all stations, red alert.”

    Sirens howled through Dasher as the crew scrambled to battle stations. The lights dimmed and flickering red lights came on, warning the crew to prepare to engage the enemy. Philip silently counted off the seconds as station after station confirmed the red alert, noting that they were already behind the RAN’s standard response time for battlestations. He wasn't too surprised, or upset; the crew had only had a few days to get used to their new ship, let alone time to run some proper drills. The flight to Asher Dales should give them plenty of opportunity to practice, unless pirates decided to show up and try to attack. If someone happened to have told them what the Nancy was carrying, it would certainly tempt any pirates who happened to be prowling around the Avalon System to try to intercept the bulk freighter.

    “All stations report ready, sir,” the tactical officer – Garry Harmon - growled. He didn't sound happy; five minutes, seventeen seconds wasn't a good response time. Philip had known Captains who would chew out their subordinates for such a poor display. On the other hand, most of those Captains would have been in command of their ships for longer than few hours. “Tactical sensors are functioning at full capacity. Main display online.”

    Philip nodded. A cruiser or a battleship would have a holographic display on the bridge, displaying everything within sensor range, but the tiny Dasher had to rely on a much smaller display on the Captain’s console. It would take some time for him to get used to it; his last command had had a full tactical display. There was little choice; even if they’d been able to get a holographic display system, they wouldn't have been able to fit it on the bridge. The display by his side was useful enough, but complicated. He’d have to work on it while carrying out drills. Given a few days, they could probably get ready for action. Who knew? Maybe the pirates would be tempted to go after Nancy...

    “Take us towards Dancer, intercept course,” he ordered. It was time for exercises and war games; in fact, he might be able to convince Home Fleet to spare a squadron of destroyers for advanced manoeuvres. The bean-counters hated live-fire exercises, but there was a limit to how much simulations could replace such expensive drills. “Let’s see how good we are, shall we?”

    “You’ve done a wonderful job,” Tanya said, four days later. “My father will be very pleased.”

    Philip smiled, tiredly. He hadn't really had a proper night’s sleep since he’d moved his quarters to Dasher, along with his flag. At least Home Fleet had been willing to assist his tiny force, allowing them a chance to drill as a unit. Dasher and Dancer were improving rapidly, with Joe Buckley’s crew catching up now that their ship was ready for action. The small crew of technicians and repair crew he’d amassed on Nancy were training hard, as well as rotating through the three destroyers. Ideally, he wanted them all to be familiar with all three ships. The absence of any serious repair facility at Asher Dales was going to be a major problem.

    On the other hand, it might also be an opportunity. If they were lucky, they might be able to start setting up one of their own – and charging merchant skippers to use it. Asher Dales was already a destination for the merchants, thanks to the presence of a cloudscoop; a repair yard would definitely boost the system’s economy. And, best of all, it didn't really require anything they didn't already have. Quincy had given Philip everything he’d asked for without public grumbling.

    “I'm glad to hear it,” Philip said. “We’ll depart tomorrow – and then the real work begins.”

    Tanya smiled, tiredly. “I never realised that there was so much to do on a warship,” she admitted. “I only ever travelled on commercial ships.”

    “There’s just as much work to do on a commercial ship,” Philip assured her, with a slight hint of amusement. “The crews are just better about keeping it out of the passengers’ sight.”

    He shrugged. “But the military insists on far higher levels of readiness than a commercial liner,” he added. “You never quite know what might be waiting for you when you arrive at your destination. The enemy might have taken the system, or there might have been an ambush, or...the possibilities are endless. We have to prepare for them all.”

    “I leave it in your capable hands,” Tanya said. “Maybe I should have studied starships rather than law...”

    “I have always felt that starships were more important,” Philip agreed gravely, and they shared a laugh. “Make sure you get plenty of sleep tonight though; the first night in hyperspace can be thoroughly weird if you’re not used to serving on a military ship.”

    “I will,” Tanya said. “Don’t worry about me.”

    She gave him an odd, almost impulsive hug, before heading out of the door to her own cabin. Philip watched her go, wondering what that was all about. He hadn't made a pass at her, if only because he was working for her and the military frowned upon fraternisation between people of different ranks. Maybe she was interested in him.

    “And maybe you’re just deceiving yourself,” he told himself, firmly. “Get some sleep, old man. You’re going to need it.”
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  8. rgkeller

    rgkeller Monkey+

    It is a blessing indeed to have your stories to read each day. My thanks and appreciation.
  9. Cephus

    Cephus Monkey+++ Founding Member

    I have thank you and say MERRY CHRISTMAS to you and yours !!
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “All stations report ready, sir,” Harmon reported. The tactical officer was also serving as the default XO, if only because Dasher didn't have a full crew. Philip suspected that such improvised solutions would be the order of the day until Asher Dales created its own training establishment. “Home Fleet has cleared us for departure.”

    Philip settled back into the command chair. “Activate the vortex generator,” he ordered. It wouldn't be the first time he’d left Avalon, but it was very different to leaving the planet while serving on a RAN starship. He’d still been part of the Commonwealth then; now, he and his crew were effectively on their own. There would be no support from the RAN if they ran into something they couldn't handle. “Open the vortex.”

    He looked up at the main display as the vortex, a shimmering funnel of light, flared into existence in front of the four starships. The eerie lights of hyperspace beckoned his ships, welcoming them into the realm where FTL travel was possible – and ships could become lost without a trace, if their navigation systems failed. Philip knew that hyperspace travel was as safe as human ingenuity could make it, yet a handful of starships vanished every year and were never seen again. Their losses couldn't always be blamed on pirates. Hyperspace had a strange effect on anyone who had to spend most of their lives within the alternate dimension.

    “Take us in,” he ordered, quietly. Nancy would follow Dasher, then Dancer and Joe Buckley would bring up the rear. All four ships would fly in close formation within hyperspace, if only to provide mutual protection if pirate ships attempted to attack the small convoy. Three destroyers should be more than enough firepower to beat off any pirate attack, but hyperspace was known for confusing sensors and creating false readings. A pirate ship might be within a few hundred thousand kilometres of the squadron and only see the big freighter.

    The vortex loomed up in front of his ship, and then he felt the odd twist in his chest that marked the entry into hyperspace. He swallowed hard as his mind seemed to swim, before settling back down to normal. Hyperspace affected a handful of humans quite badly, forcing them to remain in stasis during flights from one star system to another; it was a disability that could be quite inconvenient. The RAN had an Admiral who was an absolute terror in normal space, but became violently sick as soon as his ship entered hyperspace. He’d been assigned to command planetary defences, where he wouldn’t have to enter hyperspace very often.

    Philip relaxed as the other three ships entered hyperspace, the vortex closing behind them as soon as Joe Buckley had made transit. No one had ever been able to come up with a coherent explanation for hyperspace’s mere existence, but for spacers it hardly mattered. All that really mattered was that it was a way to travel faster than light. In theory, it should be possible to tap energy from hyperspace and use it to power installations in normal space, but all such experiments had ended badly. There were ongoing research projects all across the Human Sphere. If anyone succeeded in tapping hyperspace, the development would be as revolutionary as counter-gravity drives or hyperspace vortex generators.

    Hyperspace was a dangerously high-energy dimension. Where normal space had few natural threats to modern starships, hyperspace had thousands of them. Great energy storms flared through hyperspace, seemingly randomly, forcing starships to make a hasty return to normal space or attempt to dodge the storm, adding days or weeks to their journey times. Stars and planets cast shadows into hyperspace, creating tight knots of energy that destroyed any starship foolish enough to try to venture into them. The eerie flickering lights that flared up in the distance might be the precursor of another storm, or they might be nothing more than mild energy discharges. Hyperspace was treacherous; spacers knew better than to take chances within the dimension.

    “Scan for threats,” he ordered, as the small squadron started to move. The space around Avalon would be crawling with starships, including a number on picket duty, watching for threats from the Theocracy. In theory, it was impossible to penetrate the outer patrollers without being detected, but in practice hyperspace made it hard – almost impossible – to detect unwanted guests. The Theocracy had never signed any of the treaties that defined territorial space, which didn't stop it from complaining loudly whenever a commercial freighter accidentally strayed across the border. “I want to run a rotating patrol pattern around Nancy, checking and rechecking our sensor readings.”

    “Understood,” Harmon said. Hyperspace did odd things, often without rhyme or reason. One ship might pick up a threat the other two had missed completely, or it might detect one of the sensor ghosts thrown up by hyperspace, convincing the sensors that a ship millions of kilometres away was right on top of them. “Should we maintain a combat datalink?”

    “Assuming we can, then yes,” Philip agreed. He grinned to himself. “All stations can stand down from vortex alert, but I want them to remain manned at all times. And we have a multitude of drills to cover.”

    He keyed his console and brought up a display of hyperspace surrounding Avalon, running through the latest charts provided by Home Fleet. The RAN ran constant surveys to update navigational data throughout the Commonwealth – and data was shared with many other powers, apart from the Theocracy – but no one had been running major surveys of the Einstein Sector. Asher Dales and the other settled worlds in that sector didn't have access to the StarCom Network and they certainly didn't have the resources to survey the sector themselves. Philip made a mental note to ensure that his little squadron spent some time surveying and established links with local commercial shippers to share information, even though commercial sensors weren’t up to military standards. Knowing the precise texture of hyperspace surrounding Asher Dales might make the difference between success or failure.

    There were no serious threats, according to what little data there was, but that meant nothing. Planets and stars didn't move randomly, but energy storms sometimes flared into existence without any visible cause. They’d just have to keep their eyes open for threats and then navigate around them if necessary. At least all three destroyers now had vortex generators of their own. They could split up, or one of them could bring the rest of the squadron out of hyperspace. He took one final look at the chart and then closed it down. Smart spacers knew not to trust the charts too far. They could often be misleading.

    He picked up a datapad and started to tap instructions for the next series of drills. The squadron had been showing a marked improvement over the last few days, ever since Joe Buckley had joined them, but they still weren't quite up to scratch. It was a pity that he hadn't been able to fill all of his billets with RAN veterans; they, at least, would have understood the importance of regular exercises. The men he’d drawn from commercial shipping didn't have the same appreciation, although they did understand the value of checking and rechecking every single component on the ship. A single oversight could have disastrous effects.

    “Contact,” Harmon announced, suddenly. “One starship, two hundred thousand kilometres off the port bow and closing...”

    Philip tapped his console. In hyperspace, it was only really possible to engage a target at very close range. If the unknown ship was a pirate, it was being remarkably coy about it, instead of trying to close in fast enough to prevent its target from altering course and trying to lose itself in hyperspace. His hand hovered over the alert button, ready to flash an alert throughout the ship, and then the unknown target backed off.

    Dasher and Buckley concur,” Harmon said. He sounded as puzzled as Philip felt. “The unknown target retreated.”

    “Maybe they saw the three warships and decided not to risk it,” Philip said. He wouldn't have admitted it on a RAN ship, but he was actually relieved. He’d been working his crews hard, but he wasn't sure that they were ready for combat with a starship of unknown firepower and defences. The range had been too great for the sensors to pick up anything useful. “Make a note in the log and we’ll drop it off when we have a chance.”

    He stood up. “You have the bridge,” he added. “Call me if there are any more unknown contacts.”

    A battleship was threaded with transit tubes that allowed its crew to race from one part of the ship to another at terrifying speed. Dasher was simply too small for any such luxuries, forcing Philip to walk from section to section, when he wasn't climbing through the tubes that allowed the crew to maintain parts of the ship without having to open the bulkheads. The destroyer seemed to be in good shape – they’d built ships to last, ever since the Breakaway Wars – but he reminded himself never to become complacent. A malfunction that would have been nothing more than a nuisance at Avalon or even Cadiz would be a disaster at Asher Dales, where there was no shipyard or repair station. And if something happened to Nancy, they’d be forced to fall back on the space parts they’d loaded on the destroyers, and they really hadn't been able to fit many of them into their hulls. Dasher’s designers had wanted to create fighting machines, rather than cargo ships; indeed, one of the reasons why the Oslo-class ships had been withdrawn from service was that they carried surprisingly few missiles. A long missile duel with any target would be disastrous.

    The thought made him scowl. Avalon was a reputed producer of weapons, but the navy reserved the most advanced missiles for itself and refused to grant licences for their sale, pointing out that access to one of the latest missiles would give the Theocracy an insight into how the missiles could be spoofed, or tricked into expending themselves upon an ECM drone rather than an actual warship. Philip couldn't deny the logic, but if they encountered pirates with up-to-date missiles – a very real threat, as several powers sold modern missiles to all comers – they would find themselves in trouble. On the other hand, pirates did tend to ignore the support systems and they might well be unable to use their ill-gotten weapons to best advantage. It wasn't something, he reminded himself firmly, that he could take for granted.

    He roamed the ship’s five decks for the next hour, dropping into each of the different sections and inspecting them minutely. It was a relief to see that his crew seemed to be keeping up with naval requirements, although they lacked the spit and polish of a proper naval crew and probably would never master it. He told himself that it didn't really matter as long as they understood and respected the limits, but it did bother him. They’d just have to keep working away at it during the cruise.

    Marie greeted him as he entered the makeshift Marine Country. Dasher and the other ships of her class hadn't been designed with Marines in mind, forcing the RAN to reconfigure one of the ship’s exercise compartments into a section for their use. Marie had done most of the recruiting for the squadron’s Marines, but Philip had read their files quickly and had to admit that she’d done a good job. Most of them were veterans who had left the RAMC for one reason or another, with a handful of veterans from the Army to balance it out. Philip inspected their compartment quickly, nodded to Marie, and then left. By long tradition, Marine Country was almost a separate part of the ship in its own right. What happened in Marine Country stayed in Marine Country. It wasn't uncommon for a battleship crew never to see the Marines, unless the **** really hit the fan. Dasher wasn't anything like large enough to enforce such segregation. At least he didn't have too many people who would pick a fight at the mere suggestion that a Marine should leave Marine Country and visit the naval compartments of the ship.

    Every starship built for the RAN had an observation blister located at the prow of the ship. It was a tradition that had existed almost as long as the Royal Avalon Navy itself; indeed, it was shared by many other navies. The observation blister allowed crewmen to see out into hyperspace, or to find some privacy onboard a cramped starship. He checked the telltales out of habit – observation blisters were sometimes used for physical intimacy – and then stepped inside the blister. It was a surprise to realise that he wasn't alone. Tanya had found her way to the blister ahead of him.

    “I thought you were meant to be in your cabin,” Philip said, without heat. A military starship was no place for a civilian, but Tanya had insisted on travelling on Dasher, rather than Nancy. He couldn't really blame her for wanting to explore the ship. The cabins, even the one intended for the XO, were little more than cubicles. Claustrophobic personnel never joined the RAN, or served in Fortress Command rather than any of the warships. “It’s going to be a long flight if you want to stay here.”

    Tanya didn't look away from hyperspace. “It’s beautiful,” she said, seriously. “I never saw it on the liner that brought me to Avalon. Why didn't they show me this...”

    She waved a hand at the transparent blister, and the flickering lights of hyperspace outside the hull. “They should show everyone this,” she added. “They’d love to see it.”

    “Around one person in a million or so suffers badly when they gaze out into hyperspace,” Philip said, gravely. “They can become very ill, or go insane...all of which tends to make a great deal of money for lawyers. Commercial shipping lines don’t want to take the risk of being sued, so they refuse to establish observation blisters and keep the passengers away from the portholes. They’ve never come up with a test for the condition that actually works.”

    “But they’d know when someone did, wouldn’t they?” Tanya asked. “It’s not a condition you develop suddenly, is it?”

    “No one’s quite sure,” Philip said. “They used to believe that early exposure to hyperspace inoculated humans against Hyperspace Revulsion Syndrome, but in truth older passengers have the same problems as younger passengers. And then the Syndrome only appears when the passengers actually see hyperspace, rather than being in hyperspace. There was a theory going around that hyperspace had multiple dimensions and some humans were able to perceive them, but...”

    He shrugged. “I don’t believe that anyone has ever solved the mystery,” he said. “All we really know is that some people react very badly when they look out at hyperspace.”

    Tanya snorted. “I take it there’s no chance of gaining superpowers from watching hyperspace then?” She asked. “What a terrible disappointment.”

    Philip chuckled, surprising himself. The Quantum Children, a very popular series of holographic dramas, had featured a small army of children who had been exposed to hyperspace and somehow gained superpowers. With great power had come tight uniforms and muscles on their muscles. The show’s star, a charming young woman with the power to turn invisible, was admired mainly for her chest – and the fact that her uniform tended to become transparent just before the rest of her body.

    “Probably not, no,” he said. “On the other hand, you could try going out into hyperspace in a spacesuit. Some of the people who have done that have reported seeing very strange things...”

    “I think I’ll pass,” Tanya said, firmly, “Philip...”

    Philip looked up. “Yes?”

    “Thank you for everything,” Tanya said. “I can’t say how much it means to me, or my father, to have someone who actually knows what he’s doing. We honestly didn't understand just how much needed to be done to build a small squadron of starships...”

    “It isn’t a problem,” Philip assured her. “I ought to be thanking you.”

    Tanya frowned. “Answer me a different question,” she said. “If war did break out between the Commonwealth and the Theocracy, which side would you be on?”

    Philip frowned, puzzled. “I was a serving officer in the RAN,” he reminded her. “During that time, I was posted to the border between the Commonwealth and the Theocracy. I recovered ships containing refugees who’d fled the Theocracy...if there’s a force for evil in the galaxy today, the Theocracy is it. Conquest by the Theocracy means the end of the world.”

    Tanya nodded. “But not everyone in the Einstein Sector would believe that,” she said, seriously. “They’d want to stay out of the war.”

    “So do the Frogs, with much less reason,” Philip said. Marseilles was lucky enough to be on the other side of the Commonwealth to the Theocracy, allowing it to rely on the Commonwealth for its own defence. It’s powerful navy would have been very welcome if it had chosen to join the Commonwealth in a defensive alliance, but instead it had chosen to remain aloof. The RAN’s officers often speculated on what they’d do if the Theocracy won the upcoming war. “It takes two to make a peace, but only one to actually have a war.”

    He checked his wristcom and scowled. “I have some exercises to supervise,” he said. “I’ll see you at the mess tonight?”

    “Of course,” Tanya said. There were no private dining compartments on Dasher. The officers and crew ate together in a single compartment that could only really house half the crew at one seating. “I’ll have more questions for you by then.”

    Philip grinned. Tanya was worried – and it didn't take a genius to realise why. In a month, she would arrive at Asher Dales – and her father, the planetary leader, would pass judgement on her work. And if he was displeased with her...?

    “I look forward to it,” he said. “See you this evening.”
    Alpha Dog, kom78, goinpostal and 3 others like this.
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    <B style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal"><FONT size=3><FONT face="Times New Roman">Chapter Seven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    After the first five days in hyperspace, Dasher and her crew settled into a routine, broken only by frequent drills and exercises. Each of the destroyers had a chance to play pirate, while internal drills concentrated on emergencies ranging from power coolant leaks to enemy boarders trying to storm the ship. Philip monitored the results of each of the drills and allowed himself to feel a little satisfaction at how the crew was improving. They would soon be up to RAN standards, he told himself.

    No pirates attempted to block their path as they raced on towards the Einstein Sector. After the first week had passed, Philip found himself oddly disappointed by their refusal to challenge the squadron. It was possible, of course, that the pirates had simply missed them in hyperspace, or that they had realised that the squadron consisted of three destroyers and decided not to risk engaging the small fleet. There was no way to know for sure, but as they crossed the borders of the Commonwealth and headed out towards the Rim, the handful of contacts they did pick up seemed to fade away.

    He kept a close eye on the long-range navigational sensors monitoring hyperspace as they ventured further into the Rim. Hyperspace seemed surprisingly quiet, although he ordered a brief detour to evade a hyperspace storm that might have posed a threat to his ships if he’d flown too close to the medusa. There were theories that suggested that human starships travelling through hyperspace caused the energy storms, although Philip suspected that if that was the case, no one was going to be interested in shutting down FTL travel, at least until some other way to move between star systems was discovered. Even so, it would be interesting to see if the squadron attracted energy storms while it was patrolling the sector. It might add additional evidence to those who believed that humanity was creating the storms.

    The thought made him smile. A hundred years ago, a religious collective that had believed that technology was evil and hard labour was the only path to salvation had set up a colony on a world only a couple of hundred light years from the Commonwealth. Quite how they’d reconciled their belief that technology was evil with their own use of starships to reach their new paradise escaped him, but the Theocracy hardly had a monopoly on religious hypocrisy. Besides, they’d probably spent most of the journey in stasis to escape being contaminated by the presence of labour-saving technology that might have made them repent of their doctrines. And thirty years ago, the Theocracy had invaded their world. They hadn't been able to put up any kind of defence. Who would give up technology when the costs were so high?

    He put the thought aside as another alarm rang through the ship. Moments later, two of the bridge crew came bursting in through the hatch, followed rapidly by a Marine who took up station in front of the bridge, blocking all unauthorised access. Harmon snapped to attention and started tapping away at his console, bringing up short- and long-ranged sensors, displaying their readings on the main display. Three unknown contacts appeared in front of Philip, underlined by a single word that – in his opinion – spoilt the effect. SIMULATION.

    “Engineering, this is the Captain,” Philip said. Dasher was far too small to have a secondary bridge, but during simulations the starship could be commanded from Engineering. Bartley would have made a great helmsman if he hadn't had such a remarkable talent for engineering. “Confirm simulation; I say again, confirm simulation.”

    “Simulation confirmed,” Bartley said. “You all have fun now.”

    Philip rolled his eyes as he cut the connection. “Tactical,” he barked, “report!”

    “Three unknown starships approaching on attack vector,” Harmon reported. “They will enter attack range in seven minutes, thirty seconds. No IFF transmissions detected.”

    “Unsurprisingly,” Philip noted. Hyperspace did odd things to radio transmissions. Sometimes they vanished within hyperspace’s energy fields and sometimes they were boosted over hundreds of light years. It didn't seem to be related to the method used by StarCom units to transmit across the interstellar void, but researchers had been studying it for decades and were apparently still no nearer a solution. An FTL communications system small enough to fit into a starship was pretty much the holy grail of defence researchers. It would revolutionise the face of warfare. “Link Dancer and Joe Buckley into our datalink; tell them to prepare to engage.”

    He studied the developing tactical situation as the minutes ticked away. The enemy ships appeared to be intent on overhauling the squadron, something that gave them considerable latitude for breaking free if it appeared they’d bitten off more than they could chew. He could move his ships to shield Nancy, but that might allow a fourth enemy ship ahead of them a chance to take a shot at the freighter before he could realise his mistake and shield her. If there was a fourth enemy ship, of course. Pirates didn't often operate in squadrons – too much mistrust and arguments over who should claim the booty – but raiders from the Theocracy would have no problems operating as a team. They would be less concerned about taking the freighter intact too, adding another wrinkle to the tactical problem. A single direct hit from a modern missile and Nancy would come apart at the seams. She had never been designed for combat.

    Joe Buckley is to move into lead position,” he ordered, finally. If they were pirates, two destroyers would be sufficient to deal with them. “Dancer is to follow Dasher into rear position.”

    The seconds ticked down towards zero. “Missile separation,” Harmon snapped, suddenly. A new icon, glowing bright red, appeared on the display. “One missile, fired from outside maximum range. Probably a warning shot.”

    Philip nodded. Pirates would certainly want to intimidate their targets and expending a single missile was an easy way to cow opposition. And the Theocracy normally wouldn’t bother with a warning shot. Unless the war had started while they were in hyperspace, they’d be careful to ensure that there were no survivors. They wouldn't have wanted to alert the Commonwealth ahead of time. His lips twisted into a dark smile. In some ways, that made it easier to handle the tactical situation. There was no point in trying to surrender.

    “Ignore it,” he ordered. “Bring Dancer into a rotating pattern with us; we may as well try to confuse them. Let them think we have a whole fleet of destroyers out here.”

    He scowled as he watched the results. Hyperspace’s odd nature could be used in their favour – if they were lucky. The enemy would have real problems keeping a lock on the two destroyers at such an extreme range, allowing his ships a chance to break that lock and leave their tactical officers confused as to just how many ships there were. If they were really lucky, the enemy would start thinking that their locks were settling onto different ships every time. If...no one could rely on such a tactic working, at least not for very long.

    “They’re coming into weapons range,” Harmon reported. “Should we open fire?”

    “Negative,” Philip said. At such extreme ranges, the chances of a hit were low. They would be worse for the enemy, of course, but he simply didn’t have the missiles to waste. There would certainly be no time to resupply from Nancy. “Hold your fire...”

    “Missile separation,” Harmon said. He rapped out his report as the display flared with bright red icons. “Incoming missiles; roughly forty-two Mark VII missiles. Enemy craft almost certainly heavy destroyers or light cruisers; class and source unknown. No sign of external racks.”

    “Unless they’re light destroyers and they flushed their racks at us,” Philip said. Pirates rarely used external racks, but it wasn't something one could take for granted. “Bring the point defence online and engage as soon as the missiles enter firing range.”

    “Understood,” Harmon said. There was a pause. “Missiles appear to be targeted on us and Dancer; I say again, missiles appear to be targeted on us and Dancer.”

    “Good,” Philip said. The helmsman threw him a surprised look. “We can take some damage, but Nancy would be destroyed if one or more missiles struck her hull.”

    The destroyer hummed as counter-missiles started to launch from her rear tubes. Hyperspace made it harder for point defence weapons to work properly, but the firing solutions were relatively simple in a stern chase. The enemy simply wouldn't be able to throw any surprises while he was trying to slam his missiles into the small squadron, or so Philip hoped. One of the problems when facing pirates was that their ships tended to be non-standard and they sometimes packed nasty surprises for an overconfident naval commander. He’d heard of a pirate ship that had mounted a planetary defence cannon and fired it at a cruiser at point-blank range. If the cruiser had been alone, the pirates might even have escaped in the confusion.

    Missile after missile vanished from the display as the point defence picked them off, but a handful survived to throw themselves upon their targets. Dasher and Dancer altered course rapidly and randomly, throwing off the missile locks just before most of the remaining missiles had a chance to strike home, but two of them managed to hit their targets. Red lights flashed up on the ship’s status board, before fading away as the onboard damage monitoring systems reported that it wasn't as serious as they’d first thought. Whatever else could be said about the Oslo-class destroyers, they'd been built tough.

    “Minor damage,” the engineering officer reported.

    “Return fire,” Philip ordered. He’d held his fire too long, he realised, and cursed the oversight. “Target the lead enemy ship with the first salvo, then move to the second and third ships.”

    Dasher shuddered as she unleashed a spread of missiles, followed rapidly by a second spread. The enemy ships were still closing, which meant that it would be harder for them to dodge the incoming missiles than it had been for Philip’s small squadron. Even so, if the missiles lost their locks, they’d probably shoot past the enemy ships before they had a chance to retarget themselves. Standard missile control systems didn't quite work in hyperspace. Most naval tacticians dreaded the thought of fighting in hyperspace; indeed, many tactics were designed to avoid fighting within such an unpredictable dimension. As far as anyone knew, the Theocracy’s tacticians agreed with the Commonwealth on that score. It still wasn't something to take for granted.

    “Direct hits,” Harmon reported. The lead enemy craft had staggered out of formation and was falling back rapidly. They’d lost their drives, Philip realised, and smiled to himself. He was mildly surprised that the ship hadn't been destroyed, but it hardly mattered. They’d be stranded in hyperspace forever, unless one of their comrades abandoned the chase and came to the rescue. Pirates wouldn't lift a finger to help their comrades, not when they’d have to share the booty; the Theocracy might well abandon its men for tactical reasons. “The remaining two enemy craft are still in pursuit.”

    Philip gritted his teeth as all of the starships went to rapid fire. They would shoot through their entire load of missiles in minutes and now that they’d been blooded, the enemy were being alarmingly careful. Their point defence was definitely inferior to Dasher’s, but they seemed to have a great deal more of it. Someone had definitely been outfitting those ships with non-standard weaponry. If they shot themselves dry, they’d have no choice, but to run and hope that they could keep their distance until the pirates gave up on the chase.

    “The Joe Buckley is to drop back,” he ordered. “As soon as she enters missile range, I want massed fire on the nearest enemy target. Fire at will.”

    “Understood,” Harmon said. There was a long pause as the Joe Buckley fell back, leaving the Nancy to plough onwards on her own. If there was a fourth enemy ship waiting for a crack at the freighter, Philip had just given the pirates a golden opportunity. But there was no other choice. “Massed fire engaging...now!”

    Dasher shuddered again as a wave of missiles launched from her stern. They were joined by salvos from the other two ships, which converged rapidly on the lead pirate ship. The pirates tried desperately to avoid it, but it was far too late. There was a series of explosions as the missiles struck home, followed by a single massive explosion wiping the entire starship out of existence. The third pirate vessel hesitated, and then fired a single final salvo of missiles before backing off. Her commander had clearly decided not to push her luck any further.

    Philip considered, very briefly, detailing the Dancer to double back and destroy the stranded pirate ship, before dismissing the thought. He had no love for pirates – no one who had to comb through the wreckage they left in their wake had any love for them – and leaving them to suffocate all alone in hyperspace was a more than just punishment. Besides, he simply didn't have the time to waste. They had to reach Asher Dales and start replacing the expended missiles. A second encounter with pirates would be disastrous.

    “Stand down from simulation mode,” he ordered. The consoles instantly rebooted themselves, wiping all traces of the simulated damage from the displays. “Pass a message to all hands; well done.”

    He smiled as he settled back in his chair. The simulation had been largely random, leaving the crew without any idea of what they would be confronting, but they'd overcome the simulated danger. There were limits to simulations, of course, including many that would be largely impossible to overcome without having actual damage to practice on, yet it was definitely a good result.

    Philip keyed a switch on his console and opened a specific channel. “All section heads; report to the mess hall for debriefing at 1534,” he ordered. “And then we can start devising an even tougher simulation.”

    “We did about as well as could be expected,” he said, an hour later. Most of his senior crew were occupying the mess hall, with Captains Nonagon and Schifrin attending via holographic projection. Their images had a tendency to fuzz slightly as hyperspace took its toll on the signal. The RAN’s standard procedure for dealing with conferences in hyperspace was to have minutes of each meeting relayed to the other ships, a procedure Philip had borrowed for his own squadron. It would reduce confusion, he hoped. “Overall, the crews performed very well.”

    “We’d have been screwed if a bigger ship had turned up with a bad attitude,” Schifrin pointed out, crossly. Philip’s spies on Dancer had reported that he hadn't gone back to drinking, but he didn't seem to be in a good mood – ever. “As it was, we fired through nearly 80% of our stored missiles. If we’d had to fight the enemy for longer...”

    “Not something we can do much about,” Nonagon countered. “You know as well as I do that you have to fire off ten missiles in hyperspace to guarantee at least one hit and...”

    “We’re still running very short of missiles,” Schifrin insisted. “We can deter pirates; hell, they wouldn't be pirates if they had the balls to take on someone who was actually willing to fight. But we can't deter the Theocrats or anyone else who might have bad ambitions for this sector. We’d have to kill the bastards.”

    Philip nodded, sourly. Unlike the Avalon Sector, where most of the worlds that had later formed the Commonwealth had had common backers, the Einstein Sector seemed to have a multitude of different founding corporations. Asher Dales had links to a dozen different corporations from the Sol System – Mars’s banking laws made it very difficult to trace the money back to its source – and several others actually had more links. Only one of the colony worlds – New Copenhagen – could really be termed a truly solid investment. It was just a surprise that it hadn't been more developed by the time Asher Dales had started to attempt to establish a navy. But then, the effective destruction of Earth had wrecked a great many plans for new colony worlds.

    “We can probably fit in more missiles if we throw out some of the other sections,” he said, thoughtfully, “but what can we afford to lose?”

    There was an uneasy pause. The destroyers were already crammed with as much spare parts as could be fitted in, at least without removing the supporting structure that held the starship together. They’d even removed half of the cabins and forced the crew to double up in bunkrooms, something that hadn’t found favour with the crew. Not that Philip could really blame them for that; once they reached Asher Dales, he intended to ensure that they all had a week or two of shore leave.

    “We’ll study the problem and work on it over the next couple of weeks,” he said, firmly. “Maybe we can find a smaller freighter and refit it as an ammunition ship...or maybe we can take a pirate ship intact. Overall, though, we’re doing well. All we have to do now is not lose our edge.”

    On that note, the meeting broke up. Philip found his way to the observation blister and sat down on the bench, staring out into hyperspace. The simulation had brought it home to him; he and his crew were truly on their own. No one would come riding to the rescue if they ****ed up, or ran into something they couldn't handle. The thought was not a cheerful one, even though it was one hell of a challenge. And besides, he didn't want to let Tanya down, not after everything they’d already done. He liked her more than he wanted to admit to himself.

    Five days later, they arrived at Asher Dales.

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  12. Cephus

    Cephus Monkey+++ Founding Member

    Thanks for the present ,they seem to be getting shipshape and on track .Now all we have to do is find some pirates !!!
  13. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    Thanks Chris, Best Christmas Present I got Today!!! :)
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “The system isn't deserted, sir.”

    Philip snorted. They'd arrived at the edge of the Asher Dales System, if only to prevent whatever local monitors there were from panicking when they saw his small squadron. Besides, it allowed him and his men a chance to scan the system for themselves and update the navigational charts, such as they were. The RAN had possessed no navigational data for the Asher Dales System at all, something that had surprised him. They were normally much better at collecting data that might be needed in the future.

    “I’m not surprised,” he said. Long-range sensors were far from perfect – and limited by the speed of light time delay – but they could provide a rough picture of commercial activity all over the system. “What do you have?”

    Harmon tapped his display thoughtfully. “I've got what looks like three to four freighters in orbit around Asher Dales itself – or at least they were nine hours ago, two more freighters near the gas giant and several radio beacons within the asteroid cluster,” he said. “I thought this system was supposed to be a stage-one colony.”

    “But someone decided to invest in a cloudscoop.” Philip said, slowly. Cassandra’s files hadn't been able to suggest a reason why anyone would establish a cloudscoop in a stage-one colony, unless someone had a great deal of money or a complete lack of scruples over who bought the processed fuel. HE3 powered fusion reactors over the entire Human Sphere; it was the key to spaceflight everywhere. But Asher Dales would have only a small demand for HE3 for at least another twenty-thirty years. “Maybe they have plans to become a centre for commercial activity in this sector.”

    “Or maybe they’re supplying the pirates with cheap fuel,” Harmon countered. “If they don’t have a local market, perhaps they’re trying to export it elsewhere.”

    Philip shrugged. “Something to wonder about later,” he said. Cassandra’s attempts to trace back the money that had founded the colony had floundered after running into Mars’s banking laws. Mars – the sole terraformed world in the entire Human Sphere – had very liberal banking laws and rarely shared data with anyone else, even if they were trying to track down terrorists and wreckers. Some people believed that the Redskins – as Mars-modified people were called, not particularly politely – were angry at how their colony had been treated after the Breakaway Wars, but Philip suspected otherwise. Money talked – and the bankers made millions of the local currency merely protecting it from hungry lawyers and law enforcement agents. “Can you pick up anything from Asher Dales itself?”

    Harmon keyed his console, running through a complete sweep. “Nothing,” he said, after a moment. “But she’s a stage-one colony, sir. I’d be surprised if they were putting out anything more interesting than weather forecasts and other such crap. They might even prefer to keep all transmissions running through hardened landlines than risk open transmissions. It depends on how paranoid they’re feeling.”

    “True,” Philip agreed. Most inhabited worlds were easy to identify, if only because they were broadcasting heavy radio transmissions into the surrounding volume of space. Even the worlds founded by paranoids who had believed that the Breakaway Wars would result in mass slaughter had an electromagnetic presence. Avalon put out almost as much radio noise as Old Earth before the Breakaway Wars; hell, even the Theocracy’s homeworld was supposed to be quite noisy. “Transmit a standard greeting and then take us towards Asher Dales, nice and easy. We don’t want to panic folks.”

    He settled back into his command chair and studied the main display. In theory, claim-jumping was illegal and almost impossible; in practice, there had been hundreds of nasty incidents along the Rim, incidents that dated all the way back to the days of the UN. At least there’d been a single authority then to impose order and at least attempt to settle such issues without the need for violence, but right now there was no such power. It would be fairly easy for one group of settlers from one of the human powers to land on a world claimed by another, and then resist with lethal force when the authorised settlers arrived. Philip had read a number of intelligence reports back when he’d been a serving officer in the RAN, reports that suggested that – if anything – the level of violence along the Rim was increasing. It might eventually serve as the trigger for a galactic war.

    Philip had little use for intelligence’s predictions, but even he had to admit that they had a point. In pre-spaceflight days, the only ways to deal with uppity and unwanted minorities had been to either segregate them or commit genocide. Now, any state that had a group it didn’t want found it far cheaper to buy a colony starship and transport them all to another planet, one hundreds of light years from their former homeworld. And, in doing so, groups of colonists often found that they’d moved from the frying pan into the fire. Colonists were often hardier stock than those they’d left behind and few of them were prepared to wait for the interstellar courts to rule in their favour. Besides, since the UN had collapsed and died, there simply weren't any interstellar courts with the power to have their rulings enforced.

    In some ways, it actually suggested reasons why Asher Dales wanted to establish its own naval service. There were nearly thirty inhabited worlds within the Einstein Sector, but none of them had any significant defence force. They might find themselves the unwilling recipients of colony groups that believed – rightly or wrongly – that they had permission to settle on one of the newly-settled worlds. Or, for that matter, they would be unable to stop another outside power from extending its protection to them – even if they didn't actually want to be protected. Having a stick and the ability to use it counted for a great deal along the Rim, where there was no other form of order. The Commonwealth certainly wasn’t going to help the Rim, at least not without a request for incorporation. There was too much danger of a nasty skirmish with one of the other powers. And with the Theocracy clearly preparing for war, there was little stomach for provoking a confrontation with someone else.

    “I’m picking up radio beacons on several of the asteroids,” Harmon said, breaking into Philip’s thoughts. “They’re marking claimed rocks, I believe. I think they’ve got their very own RockRats here. Maybe not much of a seller’s market yet, but they’re ready when the time comes...”

    Philip glanced down at the display and frowned. The RockRats weren't exactly an interstellar power, if only because they pervaded the Human Sphere. They’d originally been independent settlers in Sol’s asteroid belt, who’d declared independence from the UN and eventually started spreading out throughout the explored galaxy. The RockRats were politically neutral, willing to sell processed ore to anyone who was prepared to pay up front, and generally ignored the rest of the human race as much as possible. There was a very good chance, he reminded himself, that the RockRats had actually reached Asher Dales before the official survey ship had arrived, although they wouldn't have bothered claiming an Earth-like world. The RockRats prided themselves on living without the benefits of an Earth-like world and regarded the colonists who swarmed over such worlds as...imbeciles. True immortality – or at least survivability – could only be found in space. There were people who wondered if the RockRats hadn't already spread well beyond the Rim, but there was no way to know for sure. They never shared navigational data with anyone, even those who were prepared to pay in kind. No one knew what they did with the money they were paid either. Self-sufficiency was a point of pride among the RockRats.

    “Send them a standard greeting too,” Philip ordered finally. There probably wouldn't be any response, but at least he would have made the gesture. Besides, RockRats disliked pirates and might be convinced to assist Philip when he started hunting them down. “Has there been any reply from Asher Dales?”

    “No, sir,” Harmon said. “But they’ve only had the signal for” – he checked his console – “two minutes. They may have had to wake their traffic control officer up.”

    Philip smiled. Avalon – and every developed world in the Human Sphere – maintained a System Command that was responsible for monitoring and authorising space activity close to the life-bearing worlds. Even the Theocracy accepted that every developed system had the right to authorise – or not – activity near their worlds. But Asher Dales had very little space activity to speak of and they might not have a proper traffic control officer. Their ability to monitor what was going on outside their atmosphere might be very limited. And their ability to control it might be non-existent.

    “Maybe,” he said. He glanced up at the timer. Unless they slipped back into hyperspace, they would be at Asher Dales in just under four hours. “Or maybe they’re in trouble.”

    The thought wasn't a reassuring one. A colony world without any space-based defence network was effectively helpless when the pirates came calling. It didn't take much effort to modify a freighter to drop KEWs onto a helpless planet, which would force the planet’s inhabitants to surrender or die. Pirates had been known to raid entire worlds along the Rim, often demanding food, luxuries and women – and sometimes destroying entire colonies afterwards, just to hide their tracks. The RAN executed such pirates immediately after capture, not something that inspired them to be merciful. They had literally nothing to lose.

    Philip had run through hundreds of exercises in the last week of their voyage to Asher Dales. One had revolved around finding an enemy force – either from the Theocracy or merely common pirates – in control of the planet when they arrived. The results hadn't been particularly reassuring; they could drive away a small pirate craft, but a Theocratic warship was unlikely to be deterred by three destroyers and a bulk freighter. And if they found a Theocratic warship...in truth, Philip had no idea how they should handle the situation. Return to Avalon and warn the Commonwealth that the Theocracy had managed to secure at least one world within the Einstein Sector?

    He scowled down at his display as he clicked into the sector map. The Theocracy wouldn't have any difficulty overrunning any of the colony worlds, but if – when – they went to war against the Commonwealth, their new conquests would be cut off from the rest of the Theocracy. Logically, there was no reason for them to push the offensive before defeating the Commonwealth, yet there was no reason to believe that the Theocracy was inclined to be logical. They were a religious society, refugees from the chaos of the breakdown on Old Earth, who intended to export their religion to the rest of the Human Sphere. A chance to capture thirty effectively defenceless worlds might have seemed ideal to them.

    But it might just alarm the rest of the Human Sphere...

    His thoughts were interrupted by a bleeping from one of the unmanned consoles. “We’ve picked up a signal from Asher Dales, Captain,” Harmon reported, switching the message from the communications console to the tactical systems. “They’re welcoming us to their world and inviting us to take up a parking orbit. There’s also a compressed message encrypted for our noble benefactor.”

    Philip scowled at him. Noble benefactor had been a slang term for the funders of any operation from Old Earth that had survived the expansion out into space. It didn't really apply to Tanya; she might have been their backer, but she wasn't meddling in his command decisions. Someone smart enough to know their limits was a rarity among government personnel, at least in his experience; even the Commonwealth had government officials who thought that they were qualified – as they manifestly were not – to issue tactical orders to their military officers. Some of the worst military disasters in human history had occurred because the person in charge didn't really understand what they were doing.

    “Send back a signal thanking them for their welcome and updating our ETA,” he ordered, standing up. A quick tap on his datapad downloaded the message into its secure storage. The RAN had, unfortunately, taken out the classified secure communications equipment when they decommissioned the ship. He didn't really want to read Tanya’s mail, but he did have a feeling that he would be happier if he knew what her father was saying to her. Or maybe he was just being paranoid. Cassandra’s warnings kept echoing through his head. “You have the bridge.”

    “Aye, sir,” Harmon said, formally. “I have the bridge.”

    Tanya had been allocated the XO’s cabin, the second-largest on the destroyer. It was still cramped and uncomfortable, even for a career military officer. One bunk, a handful of storage compartments, a washroom and a personal computer system, but little else. Tanya hadn't complained, but Philip would have been mildly surprised if she hadn't found it a little claustrophobic. Conditions on corvettes were even worse, he knew, yet their crews were never expected to serve onboard for more than a week or two at a time. Besides, they also had smaller crews and didn't rate a full Captain to command them.

    “We picked up a message for you,” Philip said, passing over the datapad. He had no idea what Tanya did during her day, outside meals and their conversations in the observation blister he saw very little of her. But then, he had little time to spend with her. He needed to know his ship inside out before he took her into battle. “You’ll have to decipher it yourself.”

    Tanya nodded and produced a smaller datachip from her picket, pressing it against the contact strip on the datapad. Philip watched as she activated the program and ran the message through the decrypting system. The CIS – and every other intelligence service in the Human Sphere – worked frantically to break codes, but Philip knew that their success rate was mixed, at best. Every major power had access to computers that could create effectively unbreakable codes, or codes that could only be broken after several years of computer time. Commercial institutions were not supposed to produce or use unbreakable codes, but it was a law that was wildly flouted. Their competitors were fond of trying to crack codes too. Philip had even heard rumours that the Commonwealth was trying to slip unbreakable coding algorithms into the Theocracy to help the dissidents – if there were any dissidents – but he’d never heard anything for sure. But then, if there was such an operation, no one would want to alert the Theocracy’s internal security services until it was too late.

    “He’s glad to see us,” Tanya said, once the message had finished decrypting. “And you’re invited to a dinner this afternoon to welcome you to Asher Dales. I have instructions to make sure you come, even if I have to crack you on the head and drag you into a shuttle myself.”

    Philip frowned. “What about the rest of my crew?” He asked. “I can’t be seen enjoying myself while everyone else is still stuck on our tin-cans.”

    “Everyone’s invited to Landing City,” Tanya said. She smiled at his expression. “We keep planning to rename it, but no one has yet managed to get enough votes to have it changed.”

    “Better get on with it,” Philip said, as he straightened up. The cabin was barely large enough to allow him to stand upright. There were some Marines who would have real problems walking through such cramped compartments. “There's only three hundred or so cities with that name in the Human Sphere.”

    “We’ll think of something,” Tanya assured him. She smiled. “Are we in orbit now?”

    Philip checked his wristcom. “We’ll be in orbit in thirty minutes, unless we discover a reason to hurry,” he said. “If you want to watch from the observation blister, you might enjoy it. It is always spectacular to watch an unspoiled world coming into view.”

    He was still smiling when he returned to the bridge. The main display had been adjusted to show Asher Dales, shining out against the darkness of space. Philip glanced down at the sensor readings running beside his chair and nodded to himself. Asher Dales had water covering two-thirds of the land, with two large continents and a handful of smaller islands providing enough living room for millions of human beings. According to the survey report, which had been filed by the scout crew, the vast majority of animal and plant life on Asher Dales was compatible with humanity, although some animals apparently tasted terrible. Philip made a mental note to ensure that his crewmen were thoroughly briefed before they landed on Asher Dales and went exploring, just in case they ran into any surprises. New worlds always had surprises in store – and many of those surprises were unpleasant. So far, no one had ever encountered non-human intelligent life forms, but the potential was always there.

    “We are entering orbit, sir,” the helmsman said.

    “Good,” Philip said. “Signal the other two ships; I want us spread out to allow for maximum sensor penetration. This region of space is to be permanently monitored at all times. Alert me if any newcomers decide to come visiting.”

    “Yes, sir,” Harmon said.

    Philip nodded. One of the three destroyers would have to remain at Asher Dales, if only to provide protection for Nancy. That wouldn't be a problem, he told himself. They’d just have to keep rotating the three destroyers through the position, at least until they found some extra ships. Maybe they could take a pirate ship or two intact.

    “And have my shuttle prepared,” he added. “I’m going to the surface. You have command.”

    “Yes, sir,” Harmon said. He grinned, suddenly. “Should we try and have the decks swabbed while you’re gone?”

    Philip grinned back. “Surprise me,” he said. “And inform Captain Schifrin that he has squadron command. I shouldn't be long, but...”

    “Don’t worry, sir,” Harmon said. “We’ll take care of the ship for you.”
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    <B style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal"><FONT size=3><FONT face="Times New Roman">Chapter Nine<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    “Do you have to fly like this?”

    Philip laughed. It had been months since he’d flown a shuttle with his own hands, but he’d forgotten nothing. The RAN insisted on all command personnel being checked out on the standard ground-to-orbit shuttles, as well as Marine Assault Shuttles, and Philip had recertified himself during the frantic scramble to prepare the squadron for launch. Besides, the shuttles were easy to fly. They weren't like commercial designs that were intended to impress the groundhogs with how skilful their pilots were, when they were allowed to see into the cockpits. Philip pulled at the stick and yanked the shuttle into a loop-the-loop, watching Tanya’s face pale before she burst into giggles. The shuttle’s flight path straightened out as they headed onwards towards Landing City.

    “It’s fun,” he pointed out. Flying in space was surprisingly easy, but flying in a planetary atmosphere was a real challenge. There were jet aircraft designed to perform the most remarkable stunts back on Avalon, stunts that sometimes cost lives. The performers disdained safety equipment – even parachutes or counter-gravity packs – in their desperate quest for speed and manoeuvrability. “And besides, I don’t get many chances to play.”

    “You ought to go Fax hunting if you feel like playing,” Tanya said. She scowled, clutching at the side of her seat. “There's some real fun; lots of men riding horses, chasing the Fax – and the Fax is cunning, it knows to hide and sneak up on the hunters...”

    “I hunt men in starships,” Philip pointed out. Chasing a defenceless animal, no matter how dangerous, had never stuck him as a particularly decent thing to do. Besides, pirates hunted their victims; it was possible to feel good about himself while killing pirates. “I don’t need to hunt a small animal to prove how manly I am.”

    Tanya giggled. “The Fax is about the size of a large man, with sharp claws, sharper teeth and a very nasty disposition,” she said. “The original survey team managed to miss them when they surveyed the planet; we still don't know how or why. We only discovered them when farmsteads started to lose men, twenty years ago. They sent out a posse and they discovered the first Fax – and it killed four of them before they shot it to pieces. After that, we hunted them down whenever we even suspected their presence.”

    Her voice sobered, slightly. “The wretched creatures have developed a taste for eating human flesh,” she added. “And children are just the right side for their jaws...”

    Philip glanced at her, sharply. If Tanya had been warned about the dangerous animals that lurked on the borders of civilisation from a very early age, it would have made an impression on her. He’d wondered why she’d gone to Avalon to study; perhaps she’d had reasons for wanting to get away from Asher Dales. Or perhaps he was merely reading too much into the situation. Tanya was bright – her university record proved that – and Asher Dales would need at least one qualified lawyer in interstellar law. Someone might just try to prosecute them for claim-jumping if they weren't careful. It wouldn't be the first time someone had tried to claim that they discovered a given system ahead of its lawful owners.

    He shrugged and returned to the controls. Landing City was coming up on the horizon, a small collection of prefabricated buildings mixed in with wooden and stone buildings made from local materials. If he recalled the original colony plans correctly, Asher Dales had been colonised in a fairly standard manner; the prefabricated buildings had been dropped onto the planet from orbit, providing a home for the first settlers while they built their own and started to set out the first set of farms. Almost every colony world concentrated on producing its own food first, if only because shipping food across interstellar distances was vastly uneconomic. After that, it would start developing light industry – unless it was settled by a low-tech religious group – and eventually its own space-based industry. The Commonwealth had helped some of its member worlds to progress faster than average by providing interest-free loans, but most colony worlds took at least one hundred years before they were producing their own starships. It was possible that the RockRats would help out, but they rarely bothered to help planetary colonists. There was nothing in it for them.

    And yet, maybe they had. Asher Dales had one natural moon and one artificial one, an asteroid that had been gently nudged into a stable orbit. It was a natural mine of metals that any industrial world desperately needed, but Asher Dales was generations away from being able to exploit it properly. There was nothing in the files that suggested why anyone would bother shifting the asteroid, which puzzled him. Unless it was all a tax dodge, which wasn't entirely impossible. Inspectors from the Core Worlds weren't likely to come all the way to Asher Dales just to see what their money was being spent on, were they?

    “There’s no formal spaceport,” Tanya explained, as Philip banked the shuttle over the city. “We do have a landing ground on the outskirts of the city. There should be a beacon...”

    “Found it,” Philip grunted. Someone on the surface had just turned it on, which suggested that Asher Dales didn't see many shuttles. On the other hand, there was at least one shuttle on the field, a heavy-lift design that dated back seventy years. Perhaps they’d bought it cheap after the Breakaway Wars, probably from one of the successor states. “They’re not going to talk me down, so I’ll just have to land her at the opposite end of the field.”

    He brought the shuttle to a hover, shaking his head at the sheer crudeness of the landing field, and then lowered her slowly to the ground. There was nothing so crude on Avalon, or anywhere else in the Commonwealth. The only people who generally landed shuttles outside properly-designed landing fields were Marines, who were trained for forced landings in enemy territory. There could have been someone under the shuttle as he lowered her down...he shook his head, angrily. They’d have to do something about the field if his men were going to be using it regularly. One little incident and the locals would start hating them.

    The shuttle touched down with a bump and he unstrapped himself as it powered down. Motioning for Tanya to remain in her seat, he checked the environment readings before he cracked open the hatch, breathing in his first taste of Asher Dales. It was a warm day, with the scent of pollen in the air, and a hint of the sea beyond Landing City. The planners had intended Landing City to become a port for sailors over the next few decades, according to Tanya, and he suspected that they were probably going to be very happy with the end result. In the distance, he could see mountains half-hidden in the haze, with birds flying through the air; there was no sign of any aircraft, even a flying ambulance service. Asher Dales simply couldn't afford to import such equipment, at least unless it was prepared to mortgage its future still further.

    Curious, he thought, sardonically. They can afford three destroyers and a bulk freighter, crammed to the gunnels with supplies, but they can't afford some basic aircraft?

    Tanya joined him at the hatch and stepped out into the grassy knoll. She was smiling as she walked several paces away from the shuttle, and then turned to wave to him. It struck him that she’d missed her homeworld and he felt a sudden pang of longing for Avalon. But Asher Dales was his homeworld now, no matter what his heart said. He’d joined their naval service while it was still nothing more than a paper concept.

    “Come on,” she called. “We’re expected in town.”

    Philip closed the shuttle’s hatch and followed her over the grass towards a small wooden building that seemed to be the sole sign of life on the landing field. Someone had been cunning and sown grass onto the building’s roof, making it very hard to see from high overhead. Philip couldn't decide if it was a security precaution, or if someone was merely using the grass to help bind the building together. It could be either. He started as a grey head appeared around the side of the building, and then relaxed – laughing at himself – as he realised that it was nothing more dangerous than a donkey. Tanya giggled at him and reached out to stroke the donkey’s fur. It looked up at her with wise old eyes, and then returned to cropping the grass.

    “Hey, you two,” a voice called. A young man – no, a boy; he couldn't be any more than eleven – was running towards them from the direction of town. “They want you in the Town Hall...”

    He was breathing heavily as he ran up to them and skidded to a halt. “Your father wants you in the Town Hall,” he said, once he’d stopped gasping. “And this is Admiral Philip?”

    “Captain Larson,” Philip corrected, evenly. There were plenty of tiny navies along the Rim that made up for their small size by giving their officers grand titles, but it wasn't a tradition he intended to embrace. “Don't you want to check our papers?”

    “Oh, there’s no need for that,” the boy assured him. “Come on, Dobbin; don’t try to bite the man’s uniform.”

    He pulled himself up onto the donkey’s back and encouraged the beast to start moving towards another building, half-hidden under the grassy knoll. “You’d better get on with it,” he called, as he receded into the distance. “They’ve got all the big names waiting for you.”

    Tanya laughed as she led the way towards a half-laid road. “There’s no immigration formalities here, I’m afraid,” she said. “If you land and you behave yourself, you’re always welcome. Landing City isn't really meant to be very big at all, but it just grew and grew...”

    Philip shook his head. Landing City was tiny; it would have vanished without a trace in Camelot, the capital city of Avalon. Old Earth had been reputed to have even larger cities before the Breakaway Wars, cities so large that law enforcement was almost impossible, save by the most savage methods. Those cities were nothing more than necropolises now, with the few surviving humans on Earth desperately struggling to survive with help from Mars and the other colonies in the Sol System. It was still an economic powerhouse, even without Earth, but it was also politically fragmented. The outside powers, Cassandra had once commented, worked to keep the Sol System from forming any kind of unified political body. None of them wanted to see the Sol System trying to assert power outside its borders again.

    The walk took little more than twenty minutes, which gave him a chance to inspect the city for himself. It looked a nice place to live, if a little quiet for his tastes. Most of the population seemed to be middle-class, although there were a handful of men who were clearly wealthy – recognisable in any society – and a few who looked to be lower-class labourers. The transport seemed to be based on horses and donkeys, with a handful of electric vehicles for emergency services. As far as he could tell, it appeared peaceful; many of the buildings seemed to be covered with flower gardens, just like the building back in the landing field. He felt an odd spurt of interest as he saw a woman wearing a tight shirt passing him on the other side of the road, followed by a string of children.

    “The local schoolmarm,” Tanya identified her. “We don’t want any slip into mass illiteracy here, so she’s responsible for teaching basic lessons six months out of every year. Most kids go on to work their family’s farm or take up apprenticeships; a handful, like myself, manage to get scholarships to other worlds. I think you’ll probably get more recruits than you were expecting. There’s always a number of people who just want out of a boring life.”

    Philip glanced at her, surprised. “Do you find it boring?”

    Tanya shrugged. “I’m the most highly qualified lawyer for a hundred light years,” she said. “I won't ever be able to use most of what I’ve learned here, so...sometimes I do find it boring. My mother passed away and...I’m expected to take her place, but I don’t want to really do that either. Maybe...if my father hadn't wanted me to round up a few ships and their crews, I would have just slipped away into the Commonwealth. A farmer’s life isn’t a life for everyone.”

    There was a sad note in her voice, something Philip decided not to press any further. He could understand how she felt, even though his life had had many more opportunities than hers had ever had. The Commonwealth had been good to him; it’s navy had trained him and turned him into a reasonably competent commanding officer...and then he’d angered the wrong superior officer. He’d been tempted to crawl into a bottle and stay there, but Tanya had offered him a new chance at life. Who knew if he’d be happy on Asher Dales?

    But then, he'd be doing what he loved. Tanya...would be bored stiff by whatever legal work Asher Dales provided for her. He wouldn't have blamed her for wanting to leave.

    The centre of town wasn't part of the prefabricated section, something he considered rather impressive for such a new colony. A handful of buildings had been carefully built out of bricks and mortar, each one almost a work of art. One blocky building was identified as the main hospital, a second was clearly the home of what little civil service Asher Dales had and the third was the Town Hall. A small group of men stood outside it, led by a man wearing dark robes and a gold chain around his neck. Philip didn't have to ask to know that he was Tanya’s father. Their faces were remarkably similar.

    “Welcome to Asher Dales,” Tanya’s father said. They shook hands firmly. “I'm Rupert Barrington, First Speaker of this open-air loony bin. This is my council of fellow lunatics...”

    Philip had to smile. Rupert Barrington didn't seem to take himself too seriously, not like so many other planetary officials Philip had had to deal with, but perhaps that wasn't too surprising. Asher Dales was hardly populated enough to allow a separation between the rulers and the ruled, the same separation that led to political corruption and eventually tyranny. He had no idea how people were elected to government office on Asher Dales, but it would be very difficult for a man to rule like a tyrant.

    “I’m pleased to be here,” he said, seriously. “My ships and men have come a long way to work for you.”

    “And believe me, we’re glad to see you,” Barrington assured him. “If you’d like to come inside...”

    The interior of the Town Hall was surprisingly large. Philip had known that human societies had produced remarkable buildings without the help of counter-gravity systems, or low orbit industrial nodes, but it was still remarkable to see a building that had been produced by little more than sweat and blood. Barrington was happy to explain how his government had offered loans to companies that produced bricks and other building materials and then purchased their first products to start building the Town Hall and the other essential buildings. They did have an entire database of Old Earth’s long-forgotten building methods and many colonists had started trying to reproduce them.

    “We did have some embarrassing failures,” he admitted, openly enough. “You’ll have to see the building that doesn't have any plumbing, or the one that fell down while they were trying to build it because of high winds racing through the canyon. And I could hardly fail to mention how one of my sons managed to build a boat that promptly sank as soon as they took her out onto open water.”

    “Of course not,” one of the other councillors put in, “but at least they managed to master it after the first couple of disasters.”

    “We’ve seeded the oceans with fish from Earth,” Barrington explained. Philip wasn’t too surprised. Mars might be the only world to have been terraformed completely, but humans had brought their crops and animals to almost every world they’d settled. They'd also brought less-welcome guests. Plagues of rabbits and cockroaches had spread across countless worlds, often doing serious damage to the local ecosystem. No one had ever managed to prevent it; even the RAN, despite endless studies, had failed to prevent rats from breeding in starships. Philip had been a lieutenant when a crewman had been court-martialled for feeding a number of rats on a heavy cruiser. “You’d be welcome to hire a boat or even buy your own, if you feel like fishing.”

    “Or you could go Fax-hunting,” one of the younger councillors said. “If you feel like long hours of boredom, followed by moments of screaming terror...”

    “That’s precisely like military service,” Philip said. There was something in the councillor’s gaze...he didn't like Philip, which was odd. They’d certainly never met before Philip had come to Asher Dales. The first few generations of colonists tended towards hard common sense. They didn't start feeling a disdain for the military, and fighting in general, until all threats had been removed. Avalon was an older colony and the RAN still had more recruits than it could handle. “Maybe I’d enjoy it...”

    “But we’d love to invite your crews for a dance this evening,” Barrington continued, ignoring the younger councillor. “I trust that you will allow them to attend?”

    Philip nodded, still puzzled. “I can allow half the crew to come down at a time,” he said, firmly. Everyone would need shore leave after the voyage. “A dance would be just what they would need.”

    He frowned, still aware of the sense of dislike from the young councillor. “But shouldn't we get the basic rules settled first?”

    “Of course,” Barrington agreed. “If you will come right this way?”
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  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The Council’s meeting room was instantly recognisable, although it lacked many of the luxuries that would be found in a RAN conference room on a starship, or on one of the many orbiting fortresses that defending the Commonwealth’s worlds. A single large table dominated most of the room, with a map hung on the far wall that displayed the main settlements on the first continent. It would have been an electronic display on Avalon, Philip knew, but here it was a physical map. He couldn't decide if it was a work of art or merely the best map they could produce with local technology. It certainly wouldn't update automatically.

    Human servants were a sign of wealth and power on Avalon. It wasn't too much of a stretch to assume that the same was true of Asher Dales, although the planet’s technological base was hardly advanced enough to produce automated servants. One of them poured Philip a glass of something that smelled rather like brandy and motioned him to a chair on one side of the table. The councillors took the other chairs, facing him. It was alarmingly like facing a RAN Board of Inquiry, although the navy didn't provide anything stronger than water for its personnel.

    Barrington tapped the table once, calling the room to attention. “Thank you all for coming,” he said, formally. “The first meeting of the Naval Oversight Committee is in session.”

    Philip smiled, inwardly. Asher Dales had precisely three warships; four if one counted Nancy. Claiming that they had a full-sized navy was a little disingenuous. On the other hand, it would certainly make them more intimidating to pirates, if not the Theocracy. A single heavy cruiser from the Theocracy could destroy his entire squadron in a missile duel, or even vaporise them if they closed to energy range.

    “The purpose of this meeting is to set the regulations for our ships and crews,” he continued. “I would ask Captain Larson to set out what he considers appropriate.”

    “Thank you,” Philip said, carefully. It was hard to resist the temptation to laugh, for it was clear that Barrington and his fellow councillors were out of their depth. They knew very little about commanding a navy, even to the point of being unable to propose regulations. “For the navy’s internal structure, I have taken the liberty of copying most of the Royal Avalon Navy regulations, as most of my crewmen would be familiar with them. I can give you a copy for perusal at your leisure and you would be free to suggest changes if you feel them necessary.”

    He paused and took a sip of his drink. It tasted like brandy, although there was a hint of something new and exotic in the flavour. If it was local produce – and very few people would have the wealth to ship in drinks from across the Human Sphere – it could probably be exported to Avalon, perhaps through cutting a deal with one of the shipping lines. Or maybe they’d be reluctant to risk opening trade deals with the Commonwealth. It would run the risk of dragging the Commonwealth into their sector.

    “It is standard practice for crews on liberty to be bound by planetary laws while on Shore Leave,” he continued. Legally, the crewmen he’d hired worked for Asher Dales, but they weren’t – yet – citizens of the planet. “You will need to arrange for a briefing for the crews before they land on the planet for the first time. I’m afraid crewmen on liberty tend to get into more trouble than the average citizen, a reflection of how tightly controlled their lives are while on their ships.”

    “Hold on a moment,” the young councillor said. “Why do they have to go down to the surface at all?”

    “Because, Tam, they will need a chance to get out of their ships from time to time,” Barrington said. Philip nodded, wondering why Tam seemed to dislike him. Perhaps it was the thought of cultural contamination, or maybe it was just fear of what might happen when crews on liberty came down to Landing City. “You can't ask a man to remain cooped up inside a tin-can for the rest of his life.”

    “We’re paying them to defend the planet and our freighters,” Tam objected. “We’re not paying them to...”

    “That will be enough, Tam,” one of the older men said, flatly. Tam flushed. “We need to let them know what they’re defending – and citizenship for any or all of them was included in the contract. The last thing we need is to alienate them from us.”

    “They will also need a chance to recuperate,” Philip said, flatly. “A crew, no matter how well-trained, will start losing its edge almost at once. After a few weeks on convoy duty, they will need a chance to unwind or discipline will start to suffer. Believe me, the last thing any commander needs is a restless crew that isn’t paying attention to its duties.”

    “We can arrange a briefing,” Barrington said, cutting off further debate. “There really aren't that many laws here, I’m afraid. They can do what they like as long as they don’t harm other people.”

    Philip smiled, dryly. Avalon operated on the same principle, although there was a wide body of precedent over what constituted ‘harm.’ He could just imagine a crew of spacers, released from their metal confines, pushing the limits as far as they would go. Spacers came to spaceports for Intercourse and Intoxication rather than the more traditional Rest and Relaxation, They might well push the limits so hard that they broke. Perhaps he was just being paranoid, but Asher Dales seemed too small to have a proper spaceport nightlife, with cheap beer and cheaper women.

    “The important issue you need to settle,” he said, “is just what you want the navy to do. If you want us to merely patrol Asher Dales and the surrounding system, we can do that; escorting freighters throughout the sector will be a little more complicated. We can also go hunting pirates, but again – that requires careful planning ahead of time.”

    There was a pause. “We have been in discussions with several of the other planets in the sector, if I may be frank with you,” Barrington said, finally. “They have agreed to pick up part of the tab for your services in exchange for you running patrols through their star systems and escorting freighters. Much of the freight does come through Asher Dales” – because of the cloudscoop, Philip guessed – “and we believed that we would make an ideal location for the navy’s HQ.”

    Philip considered it, briefly. Unless he was very much mistaken, the sector’s inhabited worlds intended to set up their own defence union – perhaps even a loose political union. It wasn't a particularly bad idea, except for the minor matter that they didn't have the resources or industrial base to build up a full-sized navy to defend their interests. They would be outgunned by all of their possible competitors for a very long time to come. The only solution he could think of was a defensive alliance with another galactic power, but they’d want something in exchange. Trade concessions, perhaps, or settlement rights.

    He didn't say that out loud. “The principle problem,” he said, carefully, “is that we have only three small destroyers to carry out our missions. One destroyer will have to remain at Asher Dales at all times; Nancy, the bulk freighter, is a very tempting target to any pirates who happen to be sniffing around the system. That leaves two craft to escort freighters and deter pirates. We can provide escorts if we have an operating schedule, but we will have major problems providing assistance to another world with so few ships.”

    There was a pause. “Are you saying that you cannot protect us?”

    “One starship can only be in one place at one time,” Philip said. “The closest inhabited world to Asher Dales is four days away at maximum speed. A message summoning us would take four days to reach us after the crisis, and then we’d take another four days to get anyone back into the system. That’s eight days – and that assumes that we have a ship on station here that we can send. If you want total protection, you’re really going to have to buy more ships.”

    “This is outrageous,” Tam protested. “We’re paying you to protect us.”

    “You’re also paying me to be honest about the problems we will face,” Philip pointed out. Whatever was bothering Tam, he was growing more and more irritating with every breath. “I cannot change the laws governing space travel purely because you find them inconvenient. You have to set priorities, which we will then follow to the best of our ability.”

    He looked up at Barrington, who seemed to understand. “We have very limited resources in this sector,” he reminded him. “We can provide an escort for freighters, but in doing so we put one of our ships out of contact for several weeks. And if we happen to need that ship somewhere else...”

    “I take your point,” Barrington said. “I guess that’s something we will have to consider, Captain...coming to think of it, what should we call you?”

    Philip hesitated. “There’s only ever one Captain onboard a ship,” he said. “I’m currently wearing two hats; Captain of Dasher and Commodore of the Asher Dales Naval Service.”

    “So we change the title depending upon the circumstances,” Barrington said. He seemed more amused than irritated by the concept. “I hope you’ll excuse us if we make mistakes. None of us have any experience operating a navy.”

    Philip nodded. “Which does lead to the next point,” he said. “I understand that politicians...”

    “A very dirty word,” one of the older men growled.

    “We are the elected representatives of the people,” another one pointed out. “I think that makes us politicians by definition.”

    Barrington scowled at them and they fell silent. “You’ll have to excuse them,” he said, to Philip. “They came from worlds overrun by professional political leaders.”

    “It’s no problem,” Philip assured him, making a mental note to discuss the local political situation with Tanya as soon as possible. “This council – politicians or not – has overall authority to set priorities for the navy. That is understood. However, the council does not have the...experience or knowledge required to issue detailed instructions. If you want something done by my people, tell us what you want done and then let us figure out how to do it. We’ll tell you if it can’t be done.”

    “So if we tell you to take a particular planet, we have to tell you that and let you decide how to do it,” Barrington said. He grinned at Philip’s expression. “Don’t worry; we don’t have ambitions for galactic conquest. Far too much like hard work.”

    Philip chuckled, politely. It had been a very weak joke. “Far too many military operations have been ruined because of interference from political leaders who thought that being elected automatically made them qualified to run a military campaign,” he said. “It’s been a problem throughout all of recorded history. I would prefer to avoid it from the start.”

    “We’ll do our best to avoid it,” Barrington said. “Now, about rules of engagement...”

    “You’ll have to study the issue in some detail,” Philip said. “I can provide you with copies of the RAN’s doctrines on the subject; generally, we’re allowed to engage targets when we believe that there is a clear and present danger to the ship. You’ll have to decide for yourselves what constitutes a threat to Asher Dales...”

    “We can't have you starting a war because you feel threatened,” Tam said. “What happens if you fire on a Theocracy warship?”

    Philip frowned, inwardly. Tam knew about the Theocracy...but then, anyone with any access to the galactic communications network would know about the Theocracy. Asher Dales wasn't one of those worlds that chose to shut the outside world out in the hopes that the outside world would respect their privacy, They certainly saw enough freighters to have a fairly good idea of what was going on in the Commonwealth.

    “I would try to avoid having to fire on any kind of warship,” Philip said. The Theocracy wasn't a signatory to the Albion Conventions, which provided a common basis for recognising territorial space. In theory, no power controlled the interstellar gulfs between stars; in practice, the Theocracy patrolled heavily to prevent pirates and smugglers – and spies – from slipping into their territory. The Commonwealth did the same, fearing that the Theocracy had its own long-term plans for conquest. “However, if a warship did arrive and was making threatening noises, would you rather that I tried to drive it off or let it take the world without a fight?”

    “It’s clearly something that we will have to consider,” Barrington said. He tapped the table, meaningfully. “The Council will discuss this at some later time. Until then...I trust that you and some of your senior crew would like to join us for a dance this evening? We’ve laid on quite a spread to welcome you to your new home.”

    Philip grinned. “Real food?” He asked. “I’d have a mutiny if I refused on their behalf. I’ll just have to organise it so the ships have crews, just in case someone decided to attack while we were on the ground.”

    “I leave that matter in your capable hands,” Barrington said. He stood up, bringing the meeting to an end. “My daughter will show you around Landing City, or back to your shuttle if you would prefer. Meeting adjourned.”

    “That was a very short meeting,” Philip said, when they were back outside. The temperature had risen, or maybe it had merely been cooler inside the Town Hall. “Your father seems to run a tight ship.”

    “They have a law saying that no meeting can last longer than half an hour,” Tanya said. “Dad always said that it was to stop windbags from going on and on while wasting everyone else’s time. I always thought it was a brilliant rule myself...”

    Philip laughed. One aspect of a Captain’s career that was never shown on the document-dramas about life in the Royal Avalon Navy was how much time was wasted at various meetings. It was worse for the REMFs back on Avalon, but they seemed to enjoy pointless meetings – or perhaps that was just a vile slander. He definitely preferred being out on independent command; there was still plenty of paperwork, but at least he wasn't forced to hold meetings to decide what to do. The Navy’s time was better spent on fighting than paperwork, or fornication.

    “Your father seems to understand what he’s doing,” he said. He considered asking about Tam, before deciding that he might be being paranoid. “Tell me something; how does your government actually work?”

    Tanya considered. “Most of our population is comprised of freeholders; men and women who own clear title to their lands,” she said. “The government assigns land to newcomers, who have to use it – either to farm or for something else – for a period of five years before they gain clear title to it themselves. Their title can then be passed down to their children or sold, as they see fit. Each freeholder gets one vote, which he casts on issues placed before him by the government. The council’s decisions have to be ratified by the population before they become law.”

    She shrugged. “Not everyone wants to farm or own land,” she added. “Those who are in businesses, such as one of the many building companies, have to pay a small tax to the government in return for the vote. They have the same rights as freeholders, although they don’t really own land...”

    “Sounds like a recipe for trouble,” Philip pointed out.

    “Not really,” Tanya assured him. “There’s quite a number of freeholders who have relatives in various trades, so they talk and work together on a number of projects. Younger sons often choose to set up their own freeholds rather than work on their elder brother’s farm – the elder is expected to help the younger ones set up their new farm if necessary. It isn't exactly a perfect system, but it does work fairly well.”

    She grinned. “And besides, it does keep the council honest,” she added. “A councillor has to be an active freeholder or businessman before he can be elected. They have to know what life is like as a normal person – the government is really a part-time thing for us.” She shook her head. “Leader of this open-air loony bin indeed. Dad got the largest majority of votes in the current council, so he’s the First Speaker – little more than Chairman, really. He doesn't get any special rights beyond that...”

    “It sounds simple enough,” Philip conceded. “You do realise that there’s no room for democracy on a starship?”

    “I worked that out,” Tanya said, dryly. “I think that my father will ensure that you have independence, at least when it comes to internal naval decisions. The council will probably want to watch you carefully at first, if only to understand how you intend to proceed. I don’t think that they liked you being candid about the problems you face in space combat.”

    “A planet is a small place,” Philip pointed out, mildly. “The interstellar gulfs are vast. Any ship between planets is utterly out of communication until it reaches its destination, even in the Commonwealth. And there’s no StarCom network here to allow instant communication between stars. Anything could be happening on the next star over and we wouldn't know until word reached us, if it ever did.”

    He shook his head. “We’ll go back to the shuttle and make arrangements for some of my crews to join the dance,” he said. One of the Captains would have to remain behind, along with a third of each crew. They’d have to have their own chance the following day. “And then you can show me the city.”

    THERE WILL BE A SLIGHT DELAY, OWING TO FAMILY MATTERS. GRR. Comments are still welcome, or brainstorming thoughts.
    kom78, goinpostal, Cephus and 2 others like this.
  17. wrs987

    wrs987 Monkey+

    Great start! Can't wait for more. Hope all is well with the family.
  18. squiddley

    squiddley Monkey+++

    Thanks Chris,I love the space stories.
  19. goinpostal

    goinpostal Monkey+++

    This story is great,just like the others have been.Thank you much!!
  20. harrya217

    harrya217 Monkey+

    Great! Can't wait for more.
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