First Strike!

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Mar 25, 2012.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    When she’d first arrived on Centre, the homeworld of theAssociation, Ambassador Li Shan had been awed by the view from theembassy. The Association had beenexploring space and laying the groundwork for the quantum gate network sincebefore humanity had learned to produce fire on demand and it showed. Hundreds of tall spindly buildings reached uptowards the sky, testament to an alien aesthetic that turned creation into anact of joy, while thousands of starships hovered overhead. The capital city floated on antigravity generatorsthat cost more than twenty times Earth’s combined GNP to produce andmaintain. It looked as if theAssociation was still powerful, still in the grip of the uncannyself-confidence that had led it’s founder race to the stars. Earth – poor primitive Earth, only aware ofthe existence of alien races for the last fifteen years – could not have hopedto match what the Association had built over the centuries.



    And yet, the Association was dying. It seemed absurd – the Association’s founderrace had developed a form of biological immortality – but it was true. Theirs was a civilisation in decline, burningup its resources and slowly becoming dependent on other races to maintain itsinfrastructure. The low birth-rate only contributedto the slow collapse into senility as the aging population, unable to die, lostinterest in the universe around them. Asociety that could have rolled over Earth any time it chose was finding itharder and harder to care about the rest of the galaxy. They were already abandoning hundreds ofcolony worlds and migrating inwards towards Centre. And the power vacuum they left behind wasslowly being filled by other races, races more interested in seizing power forthemselves than terminal naval-gazing. One day, the Association would look up and see those races landing ontheir homeworld, claiming their technology and their population. The Association was going to fall and fallhard.



    Shan was Chinese, a veteran of diplomacy on Earth andCommunist Party infighting in China in the chaos that had followed First Contact. Human sociologists had claimed that theAssociation bore some resemblance to Manchu China, back before the CommunistParty had seized the reins of power, something that China had used to win thepost of Ambassador for her. Personally,Shan wasn't so sure. Unlike the China ofthe Boxer Rebellion, the Association could have smashed all of its potential enemieswithin a few months, if they worked up the nerve to impose their will on theuniverse once again. The mightydreadnaughts orbiting high overhead might have been hundreds of years old, butthey were still formidable. But they didn'thave the will to accept casualties any longer. They preferred to close their eyes and pretend that the universe nolonger mattered to them.



    But all the denial in the universe wouldn't change thefundamental truth. Throughout thethousands of worlds settled by the Association, hundreds of millions of guestworkers supplied services that the Association could no longer be bothered todo for itself. Those workers, includinghumans, were raising families and claiming rights, even as the Associationbecame increasingly dependent upon them. The Association was slowly losing control over its infrastructure – and thosewho were aware that there was a problem, such as Mentor, were isolated. One day, they’d realise...but by then itwould be too late.



    It was hard to care about the Association – even the mostbenevolent Oligarch was utterly convinced of his own superiority over membersof the younger races – but Shan knew that if the Association fell, humanitywould be caught up in the chaos. Therewere a dozen races out there that would love to lay claim to Earth, if only tonip another potential competitor in the bud. The Hegemony – who had pushed humanity out of its first colony on anEarth-like world – wanted humans firmly under their thumb. Humans were good at making otherwise inhospitableworlds habitable, creating new territory for the ruling Queens. And Earth’s tiny sphere was blocking theHegemony’s line of advance towards the Rim and the rogue colonies beyond theAssociation’s territory. They had goodreasons for wanting to suppress humanity before Earth became too powerful.



    She looked down at the datapad in her hand once more,understanding why the Association would prefer to avoid bad news. The politics on Centre were confusing –immortality ensured that the various Oligarchs occupied their seats forcenturies, each one laying plans and striking bargains that took decades to payoff – yet she’d managed to create a small network of friends, allies andinformation sources. One of them hadtipped her off that the Hegemony’s gentle, but insistent pressure had finallyborne fruit. The Association was on theverge of signing Earth and her colonies over to their worst enemies.



    Centuries ago, the Association had discovered Earth. They’d watched with detached interest asRepublican Rome fell into civil war, Julius Caesar was assassinated and hisheir became the first true Roman Emperor. Earth had nothing the Association wanted or needed, so they’d claimedthe system and forbidden contact between humanity and more advanced races. It hadn't been until a rogue Oligarch arrivedon Earth that humanity had realised that they lived in a galaxy filled withpredators. The Association had raised noobjection to humanity colonising a number of lifeless worlds near Earth, butthey had continued to claim ownership of Earth and – by extension – Earth’scolonies. One day, humanity would dosomething about that, if the Hegemony gave them the chance. The Association had been content to ignoreEarth. She knew, beyond all doubt, thatthe Hegemony wouldn't be so kind.



    Turning, she stepped back into her office and closed thebalcony door behind her. The Embassy wasas secure as human ingenuity could make it, but she’d never taken it forgranted. Humanity might have gained accessto the Association’s tech base – they’d stagnated for centuries; some of theirstarships from when they’d discovered Earth were still in service – yet it wasquite possible that one of the other races had developed something new anddangerous. Humanity was inventive –another reason the Hegemony intended to crush Earth’s independence – but they weren'tthe only inventive race known to exist. Besides, it was also possible that the Association had kept a few tricksup its sleeve. Some of them realisedthat the younger races did pose athreat, after all.



    Sitting down in front of her computer, she started totype a message back to her superiors on Earth. Once composed, the message would be encrypted using the latest algorithmsand flashed back home through the tachyon-burst network. The scientists swore blind that even the bestAssociation computers couldn't decrypt humanity’s messages in time to beuseful, although Shan knew better than to take that for granted too. Tachyon-burst signals could be intercepted byanyone with the right communications equipment. If she’d been working for the Hegemony, she would have made sure tomonitor humanity’s communications as closely as possible. But there was no other choice. It would take the fastest starship known toexist over two years to reachEarth. The Association was gigantic. No humans, even the increasingly large numberworking as starship crews, could really grasp its size.



    She finished composing the message and hit send. Earth would have some advance warning of thecoming storm, for all the good it would do. Humanity’s tiny navy wouldn't be able to stand up to the Hegemony forlong. She’d hoped that some of the otherraces would be interested in counterbalancing the Hegemony, but Earth didn't haveanything to offer them in exchange. Whyrisk war with the Hegemony over an unimportant little race from a tiny littleworld?



    But what else could she do?



    ***

    Admiral Tobias Sampson, Chief of Naval Operations, was atall, powerfully-built man with short brown hair and a reputation for notsuffering fools gladly. His family hadserved in the United States Navy ever since there had been a United States Navy and there had never been any question ofwhat Tobias would do with his life – until Mentor arrived and turned Earthupside down. Tobias, already marked downas a young officer to watch, had transferred to the Federation Navy – humanity’scombined space force – almost as soon as it was created. He’d risen to the top through a mixture ofsupreme competence and canny politicking, even though he still regretted neverhaving had a chance to command a starship in action.



    The Federation – Earth’s semi-united world government –was a hodgepodge that puzzled the Galactics, who seemed to have assumed thathumanity would gladly create a world government once it knew that there wereother intelligent races in the universe. Humans being humans, unity didn't come that easily; the Federation,unlike the United Nations, was dominated by the nations that paid thebills. None of them were prepared togive up more than a little independence, leaving the Federation heavilydependent on consensus-building in order to function. If there hadn't been a consensus,particularly after Terra Nova, that the Federation had to be strong enough tostand up to the Galactics, Tobias wouldn't have given a rusty dollar for itschances.



    But Terra Nova had rubbed humanity’s collective face inits own inferiority. It had been thefirst Earth-like world to be settled by humanity – and, unlike the othercolonies, it had been settled by colonists from all over the globe. Americans had rubbed shoulders with Iranians,Russians had lived next to Chinese...some of the sociologists had claimed thatthat was a recipe for disaster, but they’d never had the chance to findout. Five years after the planet hadbeen settled, with over three hundred thousand humans living on the surface,the Hegemony had bullied the Association into ceding the planet to them. Terra Nova was now governed by a HegemonyGovernor, ruling over a sizable human population. The reports of conditions on the surface –including some from Tobias’s daughter and son-in-law – were not good.



    He looked around the table, meeting the eyes of thethirteen most powerful men and women in the world. They’d come to Iceland secretly, ensuringthat the media didn't catch wind of what was going on until the nationalgovernments could decide how to handle the new crisis. Critics claimed that the rest of the worldwas excluded, but Tobias found it hard to care. Not every nation actually wanted to pay for its own defence, yet theyall thought they should have a vote on the Federation Council. Anyone could play, if they paid. The Federation Navy alone cost billions everyyear, as well as pretty much all of Earth’s limited trade balance with theGalactics.



    “The message from Ambassador Li makes our position quiteclear,” he said. The world leaders hadalready had time to digest the message. “TheHegemony has found a fig leaf to claim our territory for themselves. We expect that they will demand that wesurrender peacefully to them – and if we refuse, they will bring their forcesto bear against us and crush our resistance.”



    “My God,” the French President said. “And there’s no hope that the Association canbe convinced to change its mind?”



    “Li was not hopeful,” Tobias said. “Unfortunately, there are limits to the wayswe can influence the Association ourselves. The Oligarchs are richer than the combined human race, so we cannotbribe even one of them. And even if wedid, committing the Association to war against the Hegemony would be hugelyunpopular on Centre. It would meanpolitical suicide for those who proposed it.”



    “But they can't just give away our territory like that,”the American President protested. “Weown it; we developed it...”



    “I think your Native Americans might have felt the sameway,” the Russian President pointed out. “They could never understand how white men signing papers on the otherside of the sea meant that their territories could be taken away and theirpopulations destroyed. The Association isconvinced that it owns us and they have precedent on their side.”



    “Might makes right,” the British Prime Minister said, indisgust.



    “Historically, treaties and international law only workas long as someone is willing to uphold them by force,” Tobias said,grimly. “When they discovered Earth, wecertainly didn't have the ability to dispute their ownership – we didn’t evenknow that we had been discovered andclaimed. The Hegemony will use the figleaf they have to justify taking control of us. Our independence will come to an end.”



    He met the eyes of the American President, willing him tobelieve. “The best case is that theywill leave us with limited autonomy on Earth, provided we kiss their behindsloudly and often,” he added. “Humanshave a reputation as hard workers, good soldiers and excellent technicians. They could certainly make use of us, but we’dnever see the benefits of our own labour. The worst case...



    “The worst case is that they wipe us out. Humanity will be exterminated from theuniverse. There may be some humans leftalive in the Association’s territory, but the Hegemony could presumably bringpressure to bear on the Association to expel them. The human race would come to an end.”



    “Jesus,” the American President said. “They’re that determined?”



    “The Hegemony is dominated by a race that has ahistorical urge – almost a genetic compulsion – to reach out and take as muchin the way of resources as it can,” Tobias said, gently. “All of their other borders are occupied bypowers that could put up more of a fight than ourselves – and a lost war wouldbe a political disaster for the ruling Empress. So would holding what they have and refusing to expand any further. The only real target for expansion is us.”



    “I see,” the Russian President said. “We will fight, of course.”



    “If we wait for them to attack us, we will lose,” Tobiassaid, flatly. He felt his heart startingto race as they looked at him. There wasa very real possibility that he was committing career suicide himself merely bybringing the proposal to their attention. Only five people knew about the plan, himself and four tacticalanalysts. “We have to strike first.”



    There was a long pause. “You just told us that we would lose a war,” the French President said,coldly. “Why do you assume that we canwin by starting one?”



    Tobias tapped a key and a holographic star chart appearedabove the table, the Nine Stars – Earth and its colonies – in the centre. Terra Nova, occupied by enemy forces, wasblinking orange, while the stars claimed by the Hegemony were blinking red. Space was a three-dimensional combat environment,something that confused many civilians who didn't understand why the FederationNavy couldn't guarantee safety.



    “We have devoted much time and effort to setting up anintelligence network outside Earth,” Tobias said. The Galactics had their own factions and someof them were willing to slip information to humanity. Humans settled on alien worlds also providedintelligence, although what they could provide was limited. “We know that the Hegemony maintains five Association-designedsuperdreadnaughts in orbit around Terra Nova, a fifth of its entirebattle-line. There are a handful ofsmaller ships, but the superdreadnaughts alone are – on paper – enough tosafeguard the planet from all threats. Their confidence would be fully justified, under normal circumstances.”



    He smiled. “But wehave new weapons and tactics to deploy,” he added. “We can shatter that force before they have achance to reinforce it – and liberate Terra Nova. At the same time, we will hit their base on Garstonwhich provides support for their navy and capture the quantum gate in thesystem. That will impose massive delayson their response – and even when they do realise that they are at war, theywill be unable to reinforce quickly. Ifthey strip their entire border of mobile forces, one or all of their rivalswill pounce on them. That would costthem the war – and even their independence.”



    The Japanese Prime Minister leaned forward. “My country has had its own experience with pre-emptivestrikes,” he said. “Not all of themended well.”



    “There are no guarantees in war,” Tobias admitted. “The sociologists claim that if we manage tobloody their nose and embarrass the Empress, her position will be seriouslythreatened and her clan will remove her before their dominance can be shatteredand they have a civil war. In that case,there would be a long and bloody power struggle before a new leader emergesfrom the fighting, giving us time we can use to fortify the captured worlds andbuild new starships. But even if theydon’t fall into civil war, they would still have problems fighting us if theylost heavily in the opening rounds. Theywould never be able to bring their full strength against us.



    “I have confidence that the Federation Navy can carry outthis operation – can win this war – if we start it at a time and place of ourown choosing,” he concluded. “I have noconfidence that we can stop them if they are allowed to reinforce and thenadvance on Earth unimpeded. We do nothave time to build the starships we’d need to hold them off and no one else islikely to raise a finger to help us. Thechoice is not between fighting or not fighting, but when and where the warstarts. They are not going to allow usto remain independent.”



    The debate surged backwards and forwards. Some of the world leaders were worried aboutdeliberately triggering a war with one of the Galactics, even theHegemony. War was always a gamble at thebest of times – and few battle plans ever survived contact with the enemy. Secrecy would have to be maintained until thewar began, something that would upset local governments and the media. In the end, the vote was very close.



    “Admiral,” the American President said, “you havepermission to plan and execute the strike on Terra Nova. Don’t **** up.”



    “I will lead the fleet in person,” Tobias said. “Operation Kryptonite will remain secretuntil we’re ready to move. If theGalactics get one word of warning, we’ll be screwed.”
     
    STANGF150, kom78 and ssonb like this.
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    Armstrong City had grown in the five years since Captain JoshuaWachter had last visited Luna. Like allhuman colonies, it was a mixture of human and alien technologies, withantigravity lifters running next to gas-powered tractors. The limited supply of Galactic technology meantthat everything that could be done with human technology had to be done,despite claims that this would one day leave the workers operating theprimitive technology hopelessly behind their fellows who had used the moreadvanced equipment. Joshua knewbetter. As long as there was a humanrace, there would be work for people who were willing to work on rocky worldswith little atmosphere. The long-termplan to terraform Luna would take centuries, at least, to come to fruition. Mars and Venus would be habitablesooner. One of Mentor’s many gifts tothe human race had been engineered microbes that started the long task ofturning a barren world into a garden.



    He strode through a series of endless corridors andfinally reached the Naval HQ, positioned on the edge of Armstrong City. The Federation Navy had its own separate installationson Luna – the Federation Navy Academy had been established on the moon, awayfrom nations and nationalist sentiments – but he would never have been invited toany of them. Half of the human raceconsidered him little better than a traitor, while the rest considered him ahero. Anyone dealing with him would wantto do so at arm’s length. He’d actuallyconsidered declining when he received the message inviting him to return toLuna, before deciding to go. If therumours he’d picked up were true, Earth would need all the help it could get,even from one of its most controversial sons.



    The guards – three Federation Marines, carrying thelatest in magnetic-accelerated rifles – checked his ID carefully, beforedetailing another set of Marines to escort him through the Naval HQ and into asmall office. The last time he’dvisited, he’d been extensively debriefed by both Federation Intelligence andthe Office of Naval Intelligence, the civilian and military intelligenceservices studying the Galactics. Thistime, the officer who stepped through the other door was someone a great dealmore senior. Admiral Tobias Sampsonhimself.



    Joshua lifted an eyebrow as Sampson sat down and studiedhim. He saw a man who looked inhumanlyyoung, thanks to the wonders of Galactic medical technology, with an unkemptmop of hair covering a thin body that could never stay still. Outside of the Association’s founder race,there was no such thing as biological immortality, but nanites could dowonderful things for one’s lifespan. Thericher segment of the human race were prepared to pay almost anything to gettheir hands on such technology, technology that was almost free on any Galacticworld. Joshua had made billionssmuggling it to Earth and selling nanites to the highest bidder. If he’d incorporated his business on Earth,taxes would have gobbled up almost three-quarters of his profits. The donations he sent back in alien currencywere his way of contributing to Earth’s desperate struggle to modernise itselfbefore someone with more starships than humanity turned up and demandedsurrender.



    “I am not here,” Sampson said, gruffly. “My appointment book says that I am meetingwith two prospective commanding officers for new-build starships. I expect you to keep whatever you hear inthis compartment to yourself, or there will be consequences.”



    Joshua smiled. Sampson was probably one of the officers who disapproved of him. Coming to Joshua for help had to rankle. “I understand,” he said. “I think I have assisted you enough over theyears to prove my trustworthiness.”



    “No such thing,” Sampson growled. “Ideally, everyone connected with this wouldbe in a secure environment for the next six months, where they wouldn’t be ableto talk to anyone not already authorised to discuss the matter. There are already too many people in on thesecret and some of them have flapping lips.”



    Joshua shrugged. “Youseem to have me at a disadvantage,” he said. “Either tell me what you want from me or let me go back to my ship.”



    Sampson eyed him for a long moment. “You have contacts among the Galactics,” hesaid. “Have you heardanything...interesting lately?”



    “Rumours,” Joshua said. He looked back at Sampson. “Rumoursconcerning Earth and the Hegemony. Itake it that those rumours are true?”



    “The Cats do love to chatter,” Sampson sighed. “From what we’ve heard, the Association is onthe verge of selling us out to the Hegemony. They’ll come here, take our worlds and enslave the human race. We do not have much time to react.”



    He hesitated. “Iassume you’ve heard nothing from Mentor...?”



    “No,” Joshua admitted. “Nothing. Not even a peep.”



    Mentor had been one of the few Association Oligarchs torealise that the Association was heading for disaster. His decision to take a small fleet to Earthand make humanity a present of advanced technology had been against most of theAssociation’s strongest laws, even though they’d been broken many times in thepast. After Earth had started expanding,Mentor had been summoned home to Centre to face his peers. No one knew what had happened to him afterhis trial. The Association considereditself too civilised to apply the death penalty to an immortal being, but therewere plenty of lesser punishments they could have used. Or maybe Mentor had simply decided to joinhis fellows in retreating from the universe.



    It had also been Mentor who had started the young Joshuaon his strange career. A group of humanterrorists had tried to assassinate the alien, but Joshua had saved his lifeand – in return – Mentor had given him his own starship. The Oligarch was so rich that an entirestarship, even one with its own gate generator, was pocket change to him. Joshua had ignored demands from theFederation Navy that he turn the starship over to them, instead setting out onan extended tour of the galaxy. Over theyears, he had built up his own small trading empire, an empire that made himone of the richest men on Earth. And yethis entire fortune was still nothing more than pocket change to manyGalactics. They tended to underestimateJoshua because he was poor by their standards.



    Earth’s technology didn't hold any attractions for theGalactics, at least not the races that had developed their own spacefaring technologybefore the Association had discovered them. The planet did, however, have many other resources they could trade,including artefacts and old movies. Independence Day had been surprisinglypopular, although the Galactics who’d distributed it had branded the movie as acomedy. The sight of Galactics howlingwith laughter as giant flying saucers lowered themselves into Earth’satmosphere was not for the faint-hearted. Why didn't they simply bombard the planet from orbit if they wanted itso badly?



    “The Hegemony intends to take Earth,” Sampson said,flatly. “And as far as I can see, we’realone against the universe.”



    Joshua nodded. It tiedin with his own experiences. Some raceswere friendlier than others, but as the Association’s power dwindled, the moreadvanced races were starting to assert their own domination. The free trading network he’d used had beencreated by the Association and would probably die as the borders started toslip backwards towards Centre. No onewould help Earth, save perhaps only races with little to offer.



    “I see,” he said, finally. “I notice that one of the colonist-carriersis gone...?”



    “Classified,” Sampson said, shortly. Joshua grinned. Mentor had brought Earth fourcolonist-carrier starships, massive ships capable of carrying a hundredthousand humanoids in stasis from world to world. One of them could transport a select group ofhumans – and a complete genetic template – beyond the Rim, hundreds oflight-years away from the Hegemony. Humanity would live on even if Earth was destroyed.



    “But we have only one option if we want to maintain ourindependence,” Sampson continued, ignoring Joshua’s grin. “We have to take the offensive and strikefirst.”



    Joshua stared at him. For a moment, he didn't believe his ears.



    “You want to start a war?” He asked, in disbelief. “Are you insane?”



    “I would prefer to fight now then fight when they have achance to bring more of their power to bear against Earth,” Sampson said. He ran through the strategic rationale. “In your opinion, as someone with moreexperience of the Galactics than most, do you think the plan is workable?”



    Joshua paused, considering. “The Funks tend to bow down to those theyconsider their superiors,” he said, finally. “If we gave them enough of a bloody nose, they’d probably give up ontrying to take our space.” Heshrugged. “But it would have to be a very bloody nose to deter them frompressing on with the fight. TheirEmpress will be putting her own life at risk if she surrenders without theirpopulation being convinced of our superiority. Maybe less so if we start the war...”



    He looked up, sharply. “Are we so advanced that we can attack them even without superiornumbers? I’ve heard rumours...”



    Sampson snorted. “Giveus fifty years of uninterrupted development and we could roll over theAssociation any time we liked,” he said, dryly. “The Galactics don’t seem to have the same impulse we have to keeppushing the limits of technology. Mostof them got their technology off the Association and never bothered to developanything for themselves.”



    “But we don’t have fifty years,” Joshua said,quietly. “Do we have enough to give thema bloody nose now?”



    “I think so,” Sampson admitted. “The technology we do have is enough to givethem a handful of nasty surprises. Butit won’t be enough to give us crushing superiority. I’d prefer to keep all of the new technology underwraps until we could deploy it against the entire Hegemony and smash it beforeit has a hope of developing its own technology, but we won’t have thattime. After the first couple ofbattles...who knows?”



    A holographic chart appeared over the table. Joshua studied it thoughtfully, his mind instinctivelymapping out the trade routes his small fleet used, moving from quantum gate to quantumgate. The economics of the gate networkensured that stars with their own gate received more traffic than stars withoutgates, but the network grew thinner out towards the Rim. Earth and the rest of the Nine Stars hadn’t receivedgates until they’d been constructed by human engineers. The Hegemony now owned Terra Nova’s gate,forcing human technicians to maintain it. It was quite possible that the Hegemony wouldn't be able to maintain theentire network if it did absorb large chunks of the Association.



    “We need to do something to keep the Hegemonyoff-balance,” Sampson said, seriously. His gaze never left Joshua’s face. “As you presumably know” – he smiled thinly – “the Hegemony actually hasstrong trading networks running through the more lawless regions of spacehere. They’ve settled some of their...client races on Tauscher, which isactually one of their more restless worlds. ONI estimates that the Hegemony actually needs to keep a major groundforce on the planet just to keep the settlers under control.”



    “The other Galactics keep running in guns,” Joshuacommented. Tauscher sat in the middle ofthe trading lanes, giving the other Galactics a vested interest in supportingthe settlers to keep the Hegemony busy. There were several pirate bases nearby, largely ignored by the Hegemonybecause some of their backers were from theHegemony. “I’ve never actually beenthere.”



    “We need you to go there now,” Sampson said. He tapped a switch and the display shifted,revealing a comparative fleet list. TheHegemony had more minor combatants than the Federation Navy had starships. “They can't pull too many of theirsuperdreadnaughts off the borders without risking war with someone bigger andtougher than us, but they can detach light units and send them our way. We need to give them a major threat in theirrear.”



    Joshua chuckled. “Withmy trading fleet?” He asked,sardonically. “You do realise that only a couple of my ships are armed and none of them are genuine warships?”



    “We purchased a handful of ships from various sourcesover the years,” Sampson said. The Associationattempted to register starships, but the registry was hopelessly out of dateand often lost track of starships after they’d moved onto the third or fourthpair of hands. Whatever else could besaid about the Association, they built starships to last. Some of their ships were thousands of yearsold. “None of them have any obvious connectionwith Earth – originally, we intended to learn what we could from them and thenpress them into service as training vessels. Now...we have another use in mind for them.”



    “You want me to go play at being a pirate,” Joshua said,slowly. “And what happens when we runinto a real warship?”



    “We don’t expect you to take and hold territory,” Sampsonsaid. “We merely want you to causehavoc, enough to force the Empress of the Hegemony to divert starships to huntyou down. If they start losing controlof their borders, they’re going to lose a great deal of face in front of theother powers. Their nature won’t allowthem to swallow the losses and concentrate on Earth.”



    “You hope,” Joshua reminded him. “A plan where everything has to go right is a plan doomed to failure.”



    Sampson ran his hand through his hair. “I know,” he said. He met Joshua’s eyes, levelly. “It gets worse. We cannot afford to be linked with you –human mercenaries and pirates are one thing, but Earth itself...if theGalactics blame us for your attacks, our political position will be gravelyweakened.”



    “They might join the war on the Hegemony’s side,” Joshuasaid. “Or put pressure on the Associationto respond to the crisis.”



    “They might,” Sampson said. “If you do this for us – and there are few otherswith the knowledge necessary to fit into the underside of Galactic society –you will be completely expendable. Should you be caught...well, you’re already an outcast on much ofEarth. We’ll disown you and yourcrews. We’d much prefer it if you hadalien crew members...”



    “Or that we were never caught at all,” Joshua said. “Do you want us all to take suicide pillswith us?”



    “Implanted vaporisers,” Sampson said. “Ideally, there should be nothing left of youand your ships if they capture you. Andthere’s another problem.”



    Joshua smiled. “Another problem?”



    “I can't give you good officers from the Navy,” Sampsonsaid. “We only have a limited supply oftrained personnel and we’re going to need all of them for the coming war. I have taken the liberty of preparing a listof possible candidates for the operation, men who may be good at what they do,but have problems relating to discipline. Some of them would be better off in the brig than in space. Hell, some of them are in the brig. You cantake as many of them as you want, but watch your back.”



    He passed over a datachip, which Joshua took andpocketed. “It’s a shitty job,” Sampsonadmitted. “If you get caught, theGalactics will be merciless and there will be no way that we can defendyou. This could easily turn into asuicide mission. We can't even give youenough supplies to keep your ships operating for long.”



    “That won’t be a problem,” Joshua assured him. One advantage of the Association’stechnological gifts to the rest of the galaxy was that most spare parts werestandardised. The Hegemony produced thesame equipment as the other powers, even if they placed their own stamp ontheir starships. “I assume we’re notgetting much of a war chest as well?”



    “We’ve got you some untraceable funds,” Sampsonsaid. “Anything after that...”



    “Piracy had damn better pay for itself,” Joshua agreed. He looked back at the Admiral for a longmoment. “Can we actually win this war?”



    “Maybe,” Sampson said. “I...have reason to believe that the Hegemony is increasing its effortsto penetrate our security. They believein divide and conquer – it’s quite possible that they have been trying to makecontact with one or more nations on Earth and offer them a deal that allowsthem to maintain their independence, as long as they help the Hegemony againstEarth. We think that we have their networks under control, but we don’t knowfor sure. I had to take the plandirectly to the world leaders and if a single word gets out ahead of time...”



    Joshua nodded. He hadn'tseen the strategic reports from the planners, but it didn't take a genius torealise that Earth’s forces were very limited. Any reinforcement of the stars near humanity could be disastrous – but then,the Hegemony didn't seem to take humanity seriously. Why should they when they’d bullied TerraNova out of humanity’s clutches so easily?



    “I understand,” he said. “No one will hear a peep from me until the **** hits the fan. How long do I have to prepare?”



    “Two to three months,” Sampson said. “We’re going to be making preparations for theoffensive over the next two months, before actually kicking off theattack. You have that long to get intoposition and prepare to start raiding.”



    “Two months,” Joshua said. “It’ll take upwards of a month to even get there, assuming we can’t risk goingnear the shipping lanes. Even in quantumspace, that’s one hell of a trip. Itcertainly won’t be long enough to make local connections.”



    “Which will at least minimise the risks of betrayal,” Sampsonsaid. “I don’t know if we dare riskwaiting any longer than three months before launching the offensive. If they start reinforcing their battle-lineanyway, our operation becomes much less workable.”



    “Which would be disastrous,” Joshua agreed. “I’ll do my best to expedite my departure.”



    Sampson stood up and held out his hand. “Good luck, Captain,” he said. “We’re counting on you.”



    Joshua shook his hand firmly. “Just make sure that there’s still an Earthfor me to come back to,” he said. “I dowant to return home one day. There’snowhere in the galaxy quite like Earth.”
     
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    Adrienne Lawson had one rule. No one, bar no one, was to call her after shereturned home until the following day. She’d spent the last week in Saudi Arabia reporting on the provisionalgovernment’s attempts to hold the country together after the collapse in oilprices took down the House of Saud and sheer barbarity had thoroughlydiscredited the Islamic fundamentalists who’d seized power in theconfusion. News services, even theincreasingly online newspapers that pulled reports from all over the globe,still needed trained reports and Adrienne considered herself one of thebest. She liked to think that she wasmore famous than the President.



    The sound of her cell phone brought her back towakefulness in a hurry. She cursed underher breath as she sat up in bed and glanced around at the clock. It was morning and they knew not to call her on a morning following a trip overseas. Only her fellow reporters had that particularnumber, the only phone she kept on at all times. It was a policy she promised herself she’drethink whenever she had a moment.



    She reached for the phone, rolled her eyes when she sawthe picture of her last boyfriend she’d forgotten to delete, and answered thecall.



    “This had better be important,” she said. “I need to get back to sleep.”



    “This is very important,” a droll male voice said. She would have recognised Owen Ward’s voiceanywhere. Her immediate superior had aremarkable gift for getting the best out of his reporters, even though he hadn'treported himself since before First Contact. “The Federation Navy just put in a request for embedded reporters.”



    Adrienne smiled, even as she rubbed her tired face. Requestwas a little too much, at least in her view; the military believed that ithad no obligation to bring reporters along into the front lines, or at least asclose as they could without putting lives in serious danger. Adrienne had reported from Prince Sultan AirBase, currently held by a multinational force intent on securing the oil wellsand ensuring that there were no further oil shocks. Oil might be less important with fusionpower, but it was still important for many requirements and Saudi held one ofthe world’s largest sources.



    “And they asked for me,” Adrienne said. It wasn't a question. Reporters who put soldiers in danger orreported lies tended not to be invited back, no matter how important theyconsidered themselves to be. Adrienneconsidered that she’d done a good job, striking the balance between beinginquisitive and respecting military security. “What’s so important that it couldn't waituntil the afternoon?”



    Ward coughed. “Apparentlythe Federation Navy is planning a major exercise, involving almost the entirefleet,” he said. “From what little I wastold, they’re going to be rehearsing the plans for defending Earth against theGalactics. You’ll be told more when youreach the Naval HQ. If you want to go,of course...”



    Adrienne snorted. “Ifthey asked for me,” she said dryly, “should I refuse them?”



    “We could always send Alicia in your place.” Wardsaid. “Market Research says that she’svery popular among young males – and the military is largely composed of youngmales.”



    “Of course she is,” Adrienne said. “Every time she looks like she’s losingviewers, she takes a deep breath and pushes out her rack.”



    “You said it, not me,” Ward said. He chuckled. “But Market Research thinks that she has what it takes to interviewpeople in the military. If you don’t go,I’m afraid that she’s going to go in your place. That wouldn't be very patriotic, would it?”



    “I suppose not,” Adrienne said. “But then, Alicia is a bimbo who never had anoriginal thought in her life. All of herviewers pray for another wardrobe malfunction...”



    “No doubt,” Ward agreed. He returned to business. “You’reexpected at Naval HQ tomorrow, so take the shuttle from New York Spaceport toArmstrong City this afternoon. The Navywill assign someone to meet you and escort you into lockdown...”



    “But...”



    “No buts,” Ward said. “It was quietly, but firmly made clear to me that every reporter on thismad junket was going into lockdown, with no communications in or out until themilitary sees fit to lift the lockdown. You breathe one word without permission and your next boyfriend will bea horny prison guard. The rules haven’tchanged just because you’re going into space.”



    Adrienne nodded, reluctantly. She hadbeen on an extra-solar voyage, something that most of the population ofEarth couldn't claim, but the colony established on Edo had been on a drabrocky world circling a dying star. The Japanesewere shipping thousands of settlers to Edo every month, intent on turning itinto a second home for their people. Rumour had it that large bribes had secured Federation support for theirscheme. Adrienne had investigated, but hadn'tbeen able to turn up anything beyond the fact that Edo enjoyed a population densityin its domes that any other culture would probably have been unable totolerate.



    “Besides, it’s not as if you have anyone on Earth waitingfor you,” Ward added. “Your father dieda long time ago and your mother disowned you.”



    “Enough,” Adrienne snapped. “I’ll be on my way this afternoon. Have Jenny book the tickets for me and I’llpick them up at the spaceport.”



    “Good luck,” Ward said. “Don’t forget that I will be expecting regular reports from you as soonas the lockdown is dropped. And don’tforget to get that in writing.”



    Adrienne sighed. “Iwon’t forget,” she assured him. “See youin a few months.”



    She put down the phone and looked into the mirror. The blonde girl with long hair and tired eyesseemed a stranger. She had a lifestylemany would envy, with a chance to travel the world and even fly through interstellarspace to another world, but she was tired. Perhaps the lockdown wouldn't be such a bad thing. Maybe there’d be a chance to relax. Reporters tended to get star treatment unlessthey embedded in frontline units.



    Shaking her head, Adrienne returned to bed after settingher alarm. The spaceport wasn't that farfrom her apartment, after all. There’dbe enough time to catch forty winks and then take a taxi to the spaceport. Ward could hardly complain if she slept in alittle after she’d agreed to go straight out again on assignment, could he?



    ***

    Topsham was a pleasant little country town in Devon,England, on the east side of the River Esk. Sergeant Conrad McDonald had fallen in love with it the first time hisRoyal Marine platoon had driven through the area to attend a wedding in nearbyTorquay and it had been an easy choice to decide to have his honeymoon there. Transfer to the Federation Marines – who hadbeen crafted along the same lines as the Royal Marines – meant that he couldn'tleave the country without special permission, if only because the FederationMarines were kept permanently ready to go into action within 48 hours.



    He looked over at his wife of three days and smiled ather. The wedding had been a briefservice in a nearby church, followed by a dinner at a countryside lodge in anarea of natural beauty. Conrad had beenposted to Clarke and seen video of Terra Nova, but the English countryside wasstill the most beautiful place in the world to him. Some of the old Bootnecks, the ones who hadfought in Afghanistan, claimed that that shithole of a country was remarkably beautiful,but Conrad wasn't inclined to agree. Having someone taking pot-shots at him from a distance or placing IEDsalong his path wasn't his idea of a pleasant day out with his wife. Afghanistan was now even more of a shitholethan ever, particularly since the NATO forces had been pulled out with indecenthaste after First Contact.



    “Fancy a beer?”



    “I could do with one,” Cindy agreed. She was the daughter of an older RoyalMarine, now retired and tending a pub in Portsmouth. Her father had threatened all sorts ofthings, just to see if his prospective son in law could be deterred, beforecheerfully standing beside Cindy to give her away at the altar. “Just don’t drink too much or you’ll be paralyticin bed tonight.”



    “Nag, nag, nag,” Conrad said. He leaned close to kiss her, and then reachdown to her chest, stroking her breasts gently. They were getting into heavy petting when his bleeper went off. “Oh ****!”



    “Ignore it,” Cindy said. “There isn't time...”



    Conrad shook his head, not without regret. All of the Bootnecks – the slang for RoyalMarine had transferred into the Federation Marines – knew better than to ignoretheir bleepers. No one became aFederation Marine without a perfect service record in their nationalmilitaries, if not Special Forces experience in combat. Conrad had taken part in operations in Jeddahfive years ago, working with American and French soldiers. It had been enough to get him into thequalification course for the Federation Marines, but sheer determination hadtaken him the rest of the way. Evenhardened SAS blades and Paras had been known to blanch when confronted with theFederation Marine training course.



    He picked up the bleeper – he was supposed to wear it onhis wrist, where it also served as a watch – and scowled at the tinyscreen. REPORT ASAP, it ordered, nothingelse. At least they hadn’t used any ofthe code words that warned of imminent invasion or emergency services underMACA rules. The rules were clear enough;he should take a train from Topsham to the Federation Navy base at RAFWaddington, where transport would be laid on to get the Bootnecks to Luna. Being late would result in anything from abollocking by his CO to being marked down for dereliction of duty. It might be an exercise – hell, it was probably an exercise – but they had totreat it as if it were real.



    “I have to go,” he said, reaching for his socks. They’d rolled under the bed in all the excitement. “Listen...you can enjoy the rest of the...”



    “Don’t be silly,” Cindy said. She was the daughter of a Royal Marine, afterall, and knew what happened when duty and personal life conflicted. “Do you think I can stay here while worryingabout you? I’ll speak to the owner andget them to take something off the bill before I get back to Portsmouth. Dad will want some help when everyone comesoff exercise.”



    Conrad nodded, reluctantly. He’d never understood why some Bootnecksfound it hard to come back to base after visiting their wives and families,until now. “Just remember not to flirtwith anyone,” he teased. “You’re my wifenow.”



    “I have that big poster of you up on the wall to keepthem quiet,” Cindy agreed. “Don’t youworry about me. Just get back homesafely and I’ll see you when I see you. Email me when you have a moment, all right?”



    “All right,” Conrad said. He leaned forward to kiss her. “I’dbetter get over to the station now.”



    “I’ll come with you,” Cindy said. “I can kiss you on the platform until thetrain gets here.”



    ***

    Archimedes Penal Colony held ten thousand human criminals,around nine thousand of them serial killers, mass murderers, paedophiles and terrorists. No civilian was sent to the Penal Colonyunless they had been sentenced to life imprisonment, without hope of havingtheir sentences cut short. Volunteerconvicts performed dangerous tasks on the Luna surface, in exchange for betterfood and drink, but none of them would ever be allowed to escape. There were no spacesuits or pressurised vehiclesin the colony to provide safety from the airless vacuum outside. A convict who opened one of the airlockswould merely be committing suicide.



    The remaining prisoners were military personnel who had committedoffences severe enough to justify incarnation, although most of them weren't sentencedto life imprisonment and were kept separate from the general population. Their crimes tended to range from minor, but persistentmisbehaviour to more serious offences, ones that merited more punishment than receivinga Bad Conduct Discharge. The FederationNavy had largely copied the Uniform Code of Military Justice from the UnitedStates, although there were some minor additions from other countries.



    From above, there was little to see as the flitterdropped down towards the mounds of lunar rock that had been piled over the dometo provide some protection from solar radiation. Joshua had spent the time reviewing the filesAdmiral Sampson had given him, looking for military prisoners who might beinterested in serving with the small squadron under his command. He had never had any formal militarytraining, but he did have experience with selecting and recruiting crew for hisships. Some of the personnel were beyondredemption, others were clearly unsuited to the mission, but theremainder...most of them might be usable. Their files agreed that they had potential; they’d just never made useof it, or they’d abused it. The SupplyOfficer who’d gamed the system to ensure that his ship received the latestupdates before anyone else was particularly interesting. Someone with that sort of background would bevery useful. Another had been finallyput in the brig for repeated racial statements directed against the Funks, theHegemony’s master race. Joshua couldn't understandwhy he’d been punished when such sentiments were widespread until he looked atthe specifics. The spacer had made themin front of the Galactic news networks.



    The Prison Warden’s android met him as he entered theairlock. For safety – and to make takinghostages impossible – all of the warders interacted with the prisoners through remote-controlledandroids, each one almost impossible to destroy with nothing more thanhand-powered tools. Joshua looked up atthe towering android, shaped in an exaggerated parody of humanity, and shookhis head. The androids would have littledifficulty restoring order if the prisoners decided to riot – or, perhaps, they’dlet the prisoners kill a few of their fellows before intervening. No one caredwhat happened to the prisoners in this complex. The civilians had been permanently removed from society and sent here todie.



    “I have had the prisoners you requested gathered,” thewarden said. Even the android’s voicewas inhuman, completely atonal. “Theyare waiting for you in the visitor’s room. I must warn you that if they attempt to take you prisoner, we will haveno option, but to flood the room with capture gas.”



    “Understood,” Joshua said. He wouldn’t allow the prisoners to intimidatehim. They were humans, after all, notaliens shaped like humanoid crocodiles with smiles to match. “Take me to the compartment.”



    The android bobbed its head and walked backwards withoutchanging posture. It could move inalmost any direction, twisting in ways no human could match. Perhaps there were AIs behind the androids ratherthan humans, although rumour suggested that most of the operators were actuallycripples. Remote operations was a fieldthat even a paralysed man could enter.



    Joshua smiled as the prisoners looked up when heentered. Some of them had clearlymaintained military appearance while in custody, others had let themselves go,growing their beards and hair until it fell around their wrists. Only one of them was female, a butch womanwho had been charged with striking her commanding officer and refused to eitherapologise or accept guilt. Nearly all ofthe civilian prisoners were male. Femaleprisoners found themselves in a very unpleasant kind of hell.



    “My name is Joshua Wachter – yes, that Joshua Wachter,” he said, by way of introduction. “I’ll keep this brief. I require a number of experienced crewmen tocarry out a very sensitive mission – a dirty dozen or two. Your superiors have agreed that those of youwho volunteer for this mission and come back alive will have their sentencescommuted. Those who wish to remain inthe military will have their records wiped; I can offer jobs to those who wantto serve in space or you can return to Earth without any further time in jail.”



    He smiled, thinly. “I should warn you that the odds of survival are low and we may all bekilled,” he added. “I don’t have any tolerancefor military formality, but I’ll space anyone who imperils the ships or themission. No drinking or drugs will bepermitted” – he gave a hard look to a weasel-faced man who had been chargedwith smuggling cannabis onto a military base – “and bad behaviour will resultin the culprit being thrown in the brig and then returned to thishellhole. Any questions?”



    It was the butch woman who spoke first. “What’s in it for us?”



    Joshua pretended to consider. “Well, you’ll be out of here for a start,” hesaid. “And then there’s the extra payand the chance to live a normal life afterwards. I can even throw in a shitload of money ifyou want. Those who survive will be setup for life.”



    “I don’t know,” the weasel-faced man said. “I hated military discipline when I joined.”



    “So why did you join?” Another man snapped. He’d beenthrown in the brig for rioting on base. “Sir,I accept. What do we do to join?”



    “You have two hours to decide,” Joshua said. “If you want to join the team, call thewarden and inform him. You’ll be shippedto a base and transferred to the squadron within two days. If not...well, thank you for considering it.”



    He nodded to them and strode away, leaving them alone tothink while he returned to his flitter. Organising a small squadron was tricky. He’d never had to outfit warships before, let alone ensure that therewas nothing onboard that had come directly from Earth. But then, the crew DNA alone would prove thatthey’d been human. The Admiral might be disappointedif anything survived a ship’sdestruction.



    But the Admiral had been right. There was no other choice.
     
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  4. goinpostal

    goinpostal Monkey+

    Good story so far!
    Thank You for sharing with us.
    Matt
     
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    “Where the hell did you get these clunkers?”



    Joshua chuckled. Clunkers was an apt description for sixstarships that had been constructed over seven hundred years ago and tradedfrom planet to planet until they had finally been purchased by the humanrace. The hulls were the only parts ofthe ships still original, but much of the interiors were still decadesold. They’d been updated over the yearsby successive owners. The Associationhad long since lost track of what had happened to them, or of their currentcapabilities. Hundreds of otherstarships had fallen into unsafe hands over the centuries.



    The Association’s drive fields allowed it to designstarships to fit their sense of aesthetics, without needing to worry aboutvisible drives. Each of the starshipswas a flattened oval shape, bristling with weapons and sensor blisters. Like most starships designed by the Cats,they wouldn't require any reconfiguration to be used by other humanoid races –and the interiors would be standardised. Up close, he could make out scorch marks on the hulls, the legacy ofyears spent serving less savoury owners. Piracy was epidemic along the Rim and even some of the inner sectors asthe Association lost interest in patrolling the space lanes. It didn't surprise Joshua to know that theFederation had established some links with the pirates. There was an entire network of planets andsettled asteroids out beyond the Rim, worlds colonised by races intent onescaping the Association and the brushfire wars between states that wanted totake its place as premier galactic power. Joshua had even heard rumours that thousands of humans had headed out tothe Rim themselves, particularly after Terra Nova.



    He smiled as the shuttle drew alongside the light cruiserand mated airlocks, before there was a faint hiss as pressure equalised andallowed his small crew to board their ships. The clunkers had been hidden along the edge of the solar system, wellaway from any prying eyes, and the flight from Earth had taken hours. There was little point in establishing a quantumgate so far from Earth, even if its presence wouldn't have been a flag tohostile powers that something was afoot at the edge of Earth’s system. But then, the Association and the otherGalactics tended not to think about the vast reaches of space between stars,not when they could skip through quantum space and reach their destinations farquicker than sublight traffic through normal space. The hidden colonies along the Rim used thattrait to their advantage. Even with themost advanced sensor technology in existence, it was incredibly difficult tospot a hidden base unless it was radiating betraying emissions. A smart crew could remain hidden even at veryclose range.



    The dry air of the clunker caught at his throat as soonas he stepped through the airlock and boarded the ship. Earth hadn't had much time to work on theships before committing them to the raiding party, but the engineers had hadtime to scrub the air processors and fumigate the ships. The Association was plagued with infestationsof small rodent and insect-like creatures that had hitched away on starshipsand been accidentally transplanted to a new world, the results of carelesspolicies back at the start of their expansion era. These days, starships were regularly ventedby their crews every few months. It didn'tseem to help very much. Terra Nova hadreported infestations of cockroaches before the Hegemony had bullied humanityinto giving up the colony world.



    “No stink,” Lieutenant Karla Richardson said. She’d punched her commanding officer – she claimedit was for incompetence. The court-martialboard hadn't been impressed, even though she’d had a good record and apromising career. “That’s a surprise.”



    Joshua nodded. He’dhad enough experience with starships that had passed from owner to owner beforewinding up in his hands to know that some ships weren't properly cared for bytheir crews. It was insane not to takegood care of the only thing protecting them from vacuum, but some crews just didn'tseem to take it seriously. TheAssociation had assisted hundreds of races to climb to the stars, often withoutteaching them the basics of how their technology worked. Many of those races were utterly dependentupon the Association for spare parts and even basic maintenance, just as ThirdWorld countries had bought weapons and supplies from the West on Earth. Joshua had never been able to discover if ithad been deliberate malice or carelessness – but then, the Cats had never been aparticularly malicious race. It was morelikely that they’d assumed that their clients would either learn how tomaintain their ships or remain dependent upon the Association.



    “The crews did some work on her before handing her overto us,” Joshua said. He wondered,briefly, what would happen to the engineering crews, before remembering thatthe Federation Navy needed all the trained technicians it could get. They’d probably be sent to Titan Base orsomewhere else isolated until the war began. He would have preferred to take them with his small squadron, butAdmiral Sampson would never have agreed to let them go. “We need to check the command systems first,and then go over the entire ship in cynical detail.”



    The Association’s founders had better eyesight thanhumanity, eyes that could see into the parts of the spectrum that wereinvisible to humans. Their command andcontrol systems had been designed to be replaced if necessary by equipment moresuited to other races; indeed, judging from the command nodes on the bridge,someone already had replaced them. Joshua powered up the first console and input the command codes,accessing the ship’s processor and ordering it to start the power-upsequence. There was a long pause andthen the main lighting came on, revealing the bridge in all of its glory. Unlike the freighters Joshua knew and loved,there was a command chair in the centre of the bridge for the commandingofficer, one designed for a humanoid form. He could have sat on it comfortably.



    “Nice,” Karla commented. She ran her hand over one of the other consoles, bringing up a statusdisplay. The ship’s fusion reactor waspowering up, flash-waking the rest of its systems. Passive sensors activated, revealing theother five starships floating nearby, but little else. There was very little commercial activityalong the edge of the solar system, apart from a handful of comet minersangling comets into the inner system and aiming them at Venus or Mars. The water-ice within the comets would helpthe terraforming projects. “It’s almostas good as new.”



    Joshua shrugged. “Bringover the rest of the crew,” he ordered. “Weneed to check this ship completely before we even consider leaving the solarsystem.”



    The Association had once had a mania for registering and certifyingstarships and their standards were still used throughout the galaxy. Every ship was supposed to pass basic checksbefore being allowed to leave the shipyard, and be regularly retested just tomake sure that the crews weren't allowing their ships to sink into disrepair,but many commercial ships evaded the checks or falsified their results. Independent owner-captains lived on themargins and had no choice, but to cut costs wherever possible, even though itrisked running afoul of the law. Besides, they also knew exactly where they could cut corners. And itwas their lives at risk if the life support failed while they were in quantum space.



    Once the crew had boarded the starships, Joshua startedto work through the entire set of checklists provided by the Association. Like so much else, the checklists werestandardised and easy – if tedious – to follow. Five hours passed slowly as each system was checked and rechecked, ahandful of components were marked down for replacement, and then supplies weredrawn from the nearby stockpile to replace broken equipment. One of the ships had had a bust air processorthat might well have killed the crew, if they’d failed to realise the danger intime to save themselves from the effects of oxygen deprivation. Another had had the targeting system for itsmain phase cannons removed before they had been passed on to humanity. Joshua rolled his eyes when he heard thenews. Someone probably intended to passon the targeting system to pirates, confident that no one would be able totrace it back to the source.



    Finally, the Clunker Fleet was ready to depart. Two smaller freighters would accompany theminto quantum space, carrying what few supplies could be borrowed from Earth andsome trade goods. It was a general ruleof space trading that items gained value the further they were from their pointof origin. Alcohol affected severalother races like it did humans and vodka, scotch and rum had become surprisinglypopular among the Galactics. Joshua hadused wines to make money in the past, when he’d been buying other starships andtrying to break into markets that were jealously guarded by commercialcartels. Even cheap wine on Earth couldearn thousands of credits if sold to the right people.



    “So,” Karla said, finally. “What are we going to call the ships?”



    Joshua had thought about that on the shuttle. The Association’s ship naming conventionswere incomprehensible to human minds, governed by a logic that didn't quiteseem to make sense. Most of the otherraces had their own naming conventions, with the Hegemony taking the prize forproducing the most pretentious names for their ships. But the ship had been renamed so many timesthat no trace remained of her original name and her previous owners had beencareful to remove all traces before letting her out of their hands.



    “This one will be Blackbeard,”he said, finally. He would havepreferred to use names that suggested that the ships were being operated by theHegemony’s more powerful neighbours, but they might have taken offense and – ifthey found out the truth – joined the war against Earth. “The other ship commanders can pick their ownnames – as long as they’re ones we can write down.”



    Karla chuckled. Onetradition the Federation Navy had borrowed from the Association was allowingsmall craft crewmen to name their own ships. Some were sentimental, some were amusing...and some no one dared writedown. Every so often, senior officerswould consider revising that policy, particularly after the media picked up ona particularly embarrassing nickname and gleefully posted it all over Earth andthe Nine Stars. No one would forget the Horny Goat in a hurry.



    “Not that we’re going to be announcing our names to ourvictims,” he added, after a moment. “Evenflying the Jolly Roger would point them to Earth.”



    “Unless someone learned it from our culture,” Karlapointed out. The Galactics loved many of Earth’s old movies. Even the Funks of the Hegemony consumedwesterns and blockbuster action movies, no matter how trite or overplayed. “I’m pretty sure there are a few pirate moviesout there too.”



    “It can't be helped,” Joshua said. There was nothing they could do if an alien pirateship started pretending to be human. Instead,he picked up one of the datapads and checked the final results from the otherteams. “We’re going to leave tomorrow,ideally. The supplies should be readyfor us by then. Do you want to record amessage for your family?”



    Karla shook her head. “I ran away to join the Navy because of my family,” she said. “They wanted me to work at their little momand pop store, if you can imagine that. I would have died in that little town where the only fun was trying toget to second base with your cousin, or maybe married some inbred moron and hadten kids with him.”



    “You might not be coming back,” Joshua warned her. “Are you sure...?”



    “They will be much happier without a message from me,”Karla said, firmly. “And don’t you dareoffer them my money if I die. They don’tdeserve it.”



    ***

    “We received an update from Captain Hastings,” Commander SoorayaQadir said. “Cunningham and Halsey haveboth completed their drive refurbishments and are ready for deployment. The 2<sup>nd</sup> Cruiser Squadron is now atfull strength.”



    “Good,” Tobias said. Sooraya was an oddity in the Federation Navy, a mustang officer who didn'tcome from one of the G13 nations. Butthen, given that she’d found the strength to escape Afghanistan and join Earth’sdefence force, she deserved a chance to show what she could do. Starship command was unlikely, but a gunboatwas a definite possibility. “I assumethat the other squadrons have completed their own checks?”



    “Yes, sir,” Sooraya assured him. “The IG teams will be on their way to thesquadrons in another day, unless you wish to bring the inspection schedule forward.”



    Tobias shook his head. The Federation Navy had been obsessive about readiness long before he’dbecome Chief of Naval Operations. Earth couldn'tafford to copy the sloppy maintenance habits of the lesser Galactics, even withthe reliable and interchangeable Association technology. The entire fleet – two hundred starships inall – had to be ready for immediate action if the Hegemony decided to move uptheir timetable and annexe Earth without bothering with a surrender demand. A commanding officer who allowed his ship tobecome unfit for service would be relieved and never allowed to command again,no matter what political or national patrons he had.



    “No need,” he said, finally. He glanced down at the datapad in hishand. “Did Colonel Williams get back tous about ammunition stockpiles?”



    “Not as yet, sir,” Sooraya said. “I believe that his staff are still chasingup the suppliers and attempting to ensure a speedy delivery.”



    “I should hope so,” Tobias grunted. Earth had never performed a full-scaledeep-space exercise before and all sorts of tiny problems were coming tolight. It would have provided theFederation Navy with all sorts of useful data on how well its procedures workedin real life, if the exercise had been real. But instead they were going to war. The young men and women under his command didn't even realise that theywould be seeing action within a month. He had faith in them, but so much was a dangerous unknown. How well would Earth’s surprises perform in areal battle? “Inform the IG that I willbe joining the inspection party for one of the cruisers. I’ll pick the ship tomorrow morning.”



    “Yes, sir,” Sooraya said.



    Tobias smiled. “Thankyou,” he said. “Dismissed.”



    He watched her leave the compartment, the door slidingclosed behind her, and then looked back down at the datapad. Hundreds of readiness reports scrolled up infront of him, each one from a single starship. The Federation Navy had worked hard to cut paperwork back to an absoluteminimum, but even so there was just so much to review and remember. He was going to lead the fleet into battle ina month and then...? They’d find out howgood their training and equipment actually was when compared to the Galactics.



    One of the reports caught his eye and he smiled. The small group of reporters who had beenembedded in the Navy were complaining about the food – and the lockdown. That wasn't too surprising; every reporter he’dever met had been a prima donna, convinced that their **** didn’t stink. The ones he’d met before First Contact haddemanded good food, better accommodations and complete access to everything,which they’d shared with the enemy. Atleast the Federation Navy could take a harder line. A reporter who broke the lockdown withoutpermission would be thrown into the brig and transferred to the penal colony onthe moon. Given what was at stake, itwas unlikely that anyone would complain.



    The next report was a contingency plan for calling upnational military forces to reinforce the Federation Marines. For political reasons, the Federation Marineshad been limited to ten thousand men, a force that could deliver one hell of apunch, but not occupy an entire planet or pose a threat to Earth’s independentnations. Tobias had always thought it asilly thing for the politicians to worry themselves about – the Federation Navywould have had a mutiny on its hands if it had tried to bully any of the majornations – yet there had been no choice. Reinforcements would be provided by national military units, if necessary. They couldn't be called up until the warbegan, for fear it might tip off the Hegemony that something was beingplanned. God alone knew if theFederation’s counter-intelligence operations had worked as well as they hoped.



    Shaking his head, he stood up and looked over at the displayon the far wall. His office was burieddeep under the lunar rock, but like most Luna residents he’d chosen to displayan image from the outside world in his private compartment. Earth hung in the sky over the moon, shiningblue-green against the darkness of space. Tobias had visited a dozen worlds, including some inhabited by racesthat would have found Earth unpleasant for one reason or another, but Earth wasspecial. It was the cradle of the humanrace, the source of mankind. The thoughtof Earth being dominated by the Hegemony was intolerable. It must not be allowed to happen.



    It won’t be allowedto happen, he promised himself, firmly. The plan he and his staff had devised would give the Hegemony enough ofa bloody nose to make them break off and leave Earth alone for a fewdecades. And in that time, humanitywould become far more advanced than they could hope to match. If some of the programs bore fruit, theHegemony wouldn't stand a chance.



    Picking up the datapad, he returned to his notes. There was too much to do before it was timeto go to war.
     
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    “I’m afraid that it’s worse than we thought,” Conradsaid. “There’s a full-scale exerciseunder way and we’re being deployed out into deep space. They’re going to be transporting us to the assaultcarrier in an hour or so – probably longer. Hurry up and wait is still a part of military life.”



    He hesitated. “Theboss hasn't given us any details – I don’t think he knows much more than he’stold us – but he has warned that we’re going to be away for several weeks, atleast,” he added. “Lots of bitching inthe barracks, but no one is paying attention. We volunteered for this **** after all. I love you and I will return to you as soon as I can. Pray for me, ok?”



    Conrad touched a key and the message stoppedrecording. He played it back, wonderingif he sounded too mawkish, before deciding that it definitely came from theheart. Cindy would understand, he toldhimself firmly; after all, her father had been forced to put his duty ahead ofhis heart while he’d been in the service too. The thought that she might find someone else while he was gone...if he hadn'tbeen sure of her, he wouldn't have asked her to marry him.



    He sent the message, uploading it into the base’s communicationsnetwork. In lockdown, every messagewould be reviewed by senior staff before being transmitted to the recipient,ensuring that he couldn't say anything that might breach security. He still remembered the Marine who had beengiven an icy dressing down by his CO for recording himself masturbating for hisgirlfriend. The poor bastard had had hisnickname changed to wanker by his mates.



    The last few days had been a hassle, ever since theplatoon had arrived in the forward base on Luna. Everything had had to be checked, from armouredcombat suits to assault rifles, personal equipment and survival supplies. The senior staff were insistent thateverything had to be perfect, even though it was only an exercise. Some of the younger Marines had wondered out loudwhy they were being such assholes over each and every little detail. It was their job, Conrad had pointed out atthe time, but part of him wondered if something was going on that the brass hadn'tbothered to tell them about. Perhaps theHegemony had decided to move in on Clarke or one of the other colonies and theFederation intended to stand up to them.



    He took one last glance at the photograph of Cindy he’dhidden in his uniform and strode out of the room, leaving it vacant for thenext Marine who wanted to record a personal message for his friends andfamily. The corridors were jam-packedwith Marines carrying supplies and equipment from the storage dumps to theirbarracks. Sergeants were bellowingorders, trying to keep the entire brigade moving towards its eventualdestination. There was order to the chaos,even though a civilian would have seen nothing more than a group of muscularmen carrying junk around the base. Conrad evaded a pair of Marines carrying a heavy plasma cannon andwalked into the barracks used by his unit, 3 Company, 2 Battalion. The younger Bootnecks were franticallypreparing for the deployment while the older and more experienced men weretaking it all in their stride. Some ofthem had finished preparing their bags and were taking the opportunity to catchup on their sleep. Conrad cleared histhroat loudly and they snapped awake.



    “We are to board the shuttle to the assault carrier at1300 precisely,” Conrad informed his men. The Federation Marines were less formal than most military services, butdiscipline didn't suffer. Every Marinehad been in a highly-trained unit before trying out for the FederationMarines. “The time is now” – he made ashow of checking his watch – “1223. Wewill leave this room at 1240 and march down to the shuttle. Any questions?”



    Jimmy, the joker of the platoon, stuck up a hand. “What is the price of sliced ham, perportion?”



    “More than you can afford if you keep earning demerits,”Conrad said, dryly. “Any relevant questions?”



    There were none. Instead, the Marines hastily finished packing and pulled on theirrucksacks, each man checking his partner’s bag and uniform for missingitems. The procedure had been drummedinto their heads since the first day on Mars, where the Federation Marinespracticed serving in a hostile environment. Space could kill someone far easier than the Hegemony’s soldiers – and allit took was a moment of carelessness. Too many people from Earth got to the asteroids, or even the moon, andthen found that they had qualified for a posthumous Darwin award. Even experienced Marines could be caught out.



    “Follow me,” Conrad ordered, when his watch reached1240. He would have chewed out anyMarine who wasn't ready in time, but they were all ready. “Jimmy – bring up the rear.”



    The platoon followed him outside, linking up with therest of the company and marching down towards the shuttles. They’d done it before, thousands of times,but this felt different even to the rawest Marine. If the brass had intended to make themexercise perfectly, as if they were already at war, they’d succeeded. The shuttles, black-painted boxy shapes thatlooked like something out of a low-budget science-fiction movie, were waitingfor them. Their pilots weren't exactlyMarines, but they’d trained alongside the Bootnecks for years, clocking uphours in their craft. And they were onthe front lines themselves, which won them some respect. They were hardly REMFs.



    “Take your seats, if you please,” Conrad ordered,counting his men into the shuttle. Eachshuttle would lift forty men to the assault carrier, and then transport themdown to the surface of Clarke or wherever they’d be carrying out the live-fireparts of the exercise. “Don’t waitup. We’ve got work to do.”



    There was a crackle from the intercom. “Welcome to Marine Flight 001,” a mock-falsettovoice said. “Take your seats andlong-legged stewardesses will be along shortly to buckle you in.”



    The younger Marines chuckled at the joke. Conrad and the older sweats rolled theireyes. The joke hadn't been new when thepilots had started cracking it, even if it did help to dispel the tension inthe air. Live-fire exercises were deadlyserious and Marines had been known to be badly injured, or killed, in thecross-fire. No precautions could guaranteeperfect safety – and besides, none of them had signed up because they wanted asafe life. There was very little safetyfor any human in the universe, but they could have stayed on Earth and been assafe as the planet itself.



    There was a long pause, and then the shuttle hummed tolife around them. The gravity fieldseemed to flux as the craft lifted itself off the landing pad and rose up abovethe Luna surface, heading for the mighty assault carrier. Each of the three humanity had built werehuge, the largest and most complex starships humanity had yet constructed. It was daunting to realise that the Galacticshad built much larger ships – and that one of their superdreadnaughts couldvaporise the assault carriers if they got into weapons range.



    He pushed that thought aside and concentrated oncomposing his mind. Once they reachedthe carrier, they’d have to get into their compartments and get ready foroperations – and then they would be preparing during the trip through quantumspace. No rest for the wicked – or FederationMarines.



    ***

    The Federation had endured a long political debate overnaming conventions for its starships, one that had almost threatened to bringthe entire edifice crashing down. AdrienneLawson had heard that some countries had demanded that their names be selected,even though they’d made little contribution to the cost of the ships. Eventually, the Federation Navy had decidedto name its assault carriers after famous generals – and selected the first threenames from history. Wellington, Napoleon and Zhukovhad been political compromises, ones that still aroused debate on theinternet. The Emperor Napoleonhad lost the wars named after him inthe end.



    Adrienne watched, fascinated, as the assault carrierslowly came into view. It – she – was acolossal boxy design, with launch bays hanging down from her superstructure. She was studded with sensor blisters, orperhaps they were weapons systems. TheFederation Navy had been coy about precisely what weapons outfitted its ships,hoping to prevent the Galactics from hearing about any unpleasant surprisesthat might be waiting for them. Onesingle assault carrier alone looked capable of dealing with any opponent. And yet the briefers had warned that theycould never be included in the line of battle. They couldn't stand up to heavily-armed warships.



    “She’s an amazing piece of work,” her minder said. Lieutenant Barbara – “call me Barbie” –Greenhorn had been assigned to Adrienne shortly after she’d arrived atArmstrong City and had been escorted to Naval HQ. Barbie looked blonde, so blonde it was easyto believe that she was dumb, and yet the Navy would hardly have assigned anidiot to chaperone a reporter. Adriennehad to keep reminding herself that Barbie was almost certainly nowhere near asdumb as she looked. “Do you know howlong she is?”



    Adrienne shook her head. It was difficult for her to tell sizes in space. “Over two kilometres long,” Barbie informedher, with an air of someone imparting a valuable piece of knowledge. “Each of them can carry an entire reinforcedMarine Brigade – that’s over four thousand troops – and land them on any planetthe Navy desired within minutes. Atcrash-launch, they can put over two hundred shuttles into space...”



    She grinned at Adrienne, who smiled back. “Everything has to work like clockwork on oneof those machines,” Barbie added. “Wehave to be careful not to get in the way.”



    Wellington grewuntil Adrienne could see nothing, but the darkened ship’s hull. The shuttle altered course slightly and headeddown towards one of the launch tubes, leading right into the hanger bay. There was a brief fizz of energy around theshuttle as it passed through the force field keeping the atmosphere inside thebay, before settling down on the deck. Outside, Adrienne could see hundreds of men in brightly-coloureduniforms moving pallets of supplies and weapons around the bay. It was a massive compartment, yet it was tinycompared to the entire ship. Thebriefing she’d read – carefully edited to ensure that no useful details leakedto the enemy – had said that each assault carrier had no less than eight hangerbays.



    She stepped out of the shuttle and tasted the ship’s air,scented with engine oil and the familiar smell of a starship crammed withliving breathing humans. It was almostlike walking on one of the aircraft carriers supporting operations in theMiddle East, carriers that would be blown out of the water in seconds ifsomeone hostile took the high orbitals away from the human race. They’d never be built again in humanshipyards, something she was inclined to regret. They had been amazing ships.



    “Stay inside the marked walkways,” Barbie said, pointingto the yellow lines on the deck. “No oneis supposed to go outside the walkways without permission from the crew chief –even an Admiral would have to ask permission before entering. It’s a safety precaution to prevent accidents.”



    “Of course,” Adrienne murmured. “Do you have many accidents?”



    “Something always goes wrong when we prepare ships fordeparture in a hurry,” Barbie admitted. “It’sa good idea to take as many precautions as possible, particularly when liveweapons are being moved from deck to deck.” She nodded towards one of the small groups of crewmen, who were pushinga pallet across the deck. “Hellfiremissiles, designed for launch to suppress enemy air-space defences. Also can be fired at enemy aircraft, but they’renot ideal for such missions.”



    Adrienne looked up at her. “Why can't you build missiles that canaccomplish anything you wanted?”



    Barbie smiled, launching into what was clearly apre-prepared lecture. “Each specifictask requires the missile to be different for optimum results,” she said. “There are limits to how far we can reprogramthem for different operations. A missileconfigured for deployment against a starship would be massive overkill if deployedon a planetary surface. Even thewarheads are different depending on the missile type.”



    She led the way out of the hanger bay and up through anetwork of corridors, crammed with crewmen working desperately on tasks Adriennecouldn't understand. “I should remindyou,” Barbie added, “that anywhere outside your quarters is restricted unlessyou have me with you. The crew doesn't havetime to nursemaid you around the ship. Ialso need to review any recordings you take before they are transmitted back toEarth.”



    So I can't talk toanyone who would give me an unofficial line, Adrienne thought, without rancour. She’d expected as much. It would take some time to build up her ownnetwork of informants, but people would talk to her even without a minder. The trick would be in figuring out what wastrue and what was crap put forward by someone who resented not being promoted.



    “You can have some time to freshen up and then there’s a video-briefingwith Brigadier Jones, the CO of 1 Federation Marine Brigade,” Barbie continued,after a moment. “I understand that youhave already met the Brigadier...?”



    “Only a brief meeting while I was on Luna,” Adrienneconfirmed. “He congratulated me on myreports from Saudi and said that he hoped I’d do as well here. But what are we going to do?”



    “Exercise, of course,” Barbie said. She grinned, again. Several crewmen took more than casual noticeof her chest, despite her uniform. “Thisis the most complex exercise the Federation Navy has ever carried out. It is importantthat the Galactics understand that humanity isn't a small power, barelycapable of hanging onto its own homeworld, but a formidable race capable ofmaking its will felt in the sector. Yourreports will help shape their impressions of our power.”



    “I see,” Adrienne said. It seemed like a great deal of effort for a very small return, but theFederation Navy presumably knew what it was doing. Another passing crewman checked her out, andthen had the grace to blush when she looked back at him. “Aren't there many women on this ship?”



    “The Marines are all men,” Barbie said. “The Federation Navy gives women equal opportunities,but there is no guarantee that there will be equal outcomes. Men outnumber the women twelve to one.” She shrugged. “Not everyone in the Navy comes from a culture that accepts women asequals in the military. A Russian Captainwas relieved of duty and discharged for harassing one of his femalesubordinates, which was one of the nastier incidents.



    “And there are strictrules on fraternising between the sexes while the ship is away from home,” sheadded. “You’re forbidden to sleep withanyone in your chain of command, or someone senior or junior to yourself. The Navy generally ignores sex betweenequals, but the commanders come down like a hammer on anyone who violates theregulations. For an officer, it can ruintheir career; for a crewman, it can mean discharge or time in the brig.”



    They stopped outside a cabin door. “These are your quarters for the next fewmonths,” Barbie said, changing the subject. “Like I said, stay inside when you’re not with me. In the unlikely event of the Captain requiringmy services in another position, I’ll see to it that someone brings you foodfrom the mess.”



    “I feel like a prisoner already,” Adrienne commented.



    “I’ll tell you the same thing that officers have beentelling their grumblers for years,” Barbie said, more seriously. “You volunteered for this. If you didn't want to be under harsh disciplineand work like a mad bastard for the next five years, you shouldn't have joinedthe military. Or embedded yourself inthe military, for that matter.”



    “I suppose,” Adrienne said. She stepped into the cabin. “And thanks for showing me around.”



    “You’re welcome,” Barbie said. “I live to serve.”



    ***

    Joshua looked down at the control panel and then tapped akey, activating the quantum gate generator. It came to life quickly, ready to hurl the starship into quantum space. Each of the Clunkers had a surprisinglymodern quantum drive, but perhaps it should have been expected when the shipshad been refurbished so often. Besides,it would be harder to operate if they had to wait ten minutes between openinggates and slipping into quantum space. Civilian drives left their ships unable to return to quantum space untilthe drive had repowered, leaving them vulnerable to pirates and hostile powers.



    “Drive online,” he said. He’d decided to pilot the ship himself, at least for the firstvoyage. The ship might have beenreliable – the Association built to last – but he needed to get a feel for howshe operated. Some ships could performamazing manoeuvres and others had problems making even a tiny coursechange. “All other ships confirm ready?”



    He’d had to switch around some of the crews until findingcombinations that actually worked. “Everyonesays they’re ready,” Karla informed him. He hadn’t told them exactly what they would be doing, but enough hadleaked out to give them a good idea. Themore greedy of them were already speculating on how wealthy somecarefully-targeted piracy could make them – if, of course, they lived longenough to spend it. “Captain?”



    Joshua triggered the quantum drive. Space seemed to blur in front of Blackbeard, shimmering into the eerielights of quantum space. Thehigher-energy dimension – at least according to the scientists who’d studiedwhat little the Association had told them about quantum space – allowed starshipsto move at speeds that, in normal space, were many times that of the speed oflight. And with their own drives, theClunker Fleet wouldn't even need its own quantum gates. They could operate completely independently.



    “Well,” he said, finally. “Only a month to go until we reach our operations area. And then the fun really begins.”
     
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  7. Grizz-

    Grizz- Monkey+

    And we are off on another amazing adventure [applaud]
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    <b style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"><font size="3">Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    It was time.

    Admiral Tobias Sampson stood on the bridge of Nimitz and watched as the First StrikeFleet prepared to enter quantum space. Fifteen cruisers, each one more technologically advanced than anythingthe Association or Hegemony had ever seen, escorted by fifty destroyers, three assaultcarriers and a small fleet of freighters with military-grade drives. Apart from a handful of officers, no one onthe fleet knew where they were really going – or what they were going to do –but they’d responded splendidly. Thefleet was ready for war.

    He closed his eyes for a long moment, recalling the finalmeeting between him and the Federation Council. There had been no reason for hope, no reason to believe that theAssociation would stand up to the Hegemony, no matter what Ambassador Li did onCentre. Federation Intelligence had evenreported that the Hegemony’s Queens were already dividing up human spacebetween them, ensuring that their clan maintained sole grasp of humanity andthe worlds it had developed. There wouldbe war. Two weeks from the moment theyentered quantum space, they would reach Terra Nova and start the war.

    The thought was chilling. He’d seen war; humanity’spetty fighting on its own planet and a handful of brief brushfires between theGalactics. Many of the fine men andwomen under his command would die, their bodies vaporised as fusion plantsblew, preventing them from being laid to rest on their homeworld. It was even possible that one of thedestroyed ships would be Nimitz, thathe himself would never return home. Civilian leaders often talked about war as if it was the easy option,but the cost was always high. Tobias hadsteeled himself to start and fight a war more desperate than any in humanity’shistory, yet now part of him wanted to quail. A lost war would be utterly disastrous for the human race. It might mean the end of humanity itself.

    But there was no choice. Fight now or fight later, under worse conditions.

    He looked over at Captain Kevin Rupert, CO of theteardrop-shaped starship. “Take us into quantumspace,” he ordered quietly. Once theywere in quantum space, he’d issue the order for the commanding officers to openthe sealed orders from the Federation Council, authorising the attack. “It’s time to start moving.”

    Earth vanished from the display, replaced by the flickeringlights of quantum space. Tobias feltanother pang, knowing that they were leaving Earth critically exposed to theGalactics if they chose this moment to invade. There were two more cruiser squadrons in the solar system, but both ofthem were still working up after being released from the shipyards. They couldn’t have put up more than a brief fightif the Hegemony launched a sneak attack of its own. The sociologists claimed that that wasunthinkable – they wouldn't bother when they were about to get the territorylegally – but Tobias was less sure. Respect for the Association’s law had been falling sharply long beforeMentor had arrived at Earth and brought the human race into space.

    Navigating through quantum space was a tricky task. Other races might have figured out how toenter quantum space, but it was the Association that had devised the network ofquantum gates and navigation beacons, opening up vast swathes of space forexploration and colonisation. Outsidethe Association, beyond the Rim, navigation was much harder. Starships had to return to normal spacefrequently just to check their positions. Even the most advanced quantum drive in existence would have problemsjumping in and out of quantum space so often. Operation Bolthole’s ship had the most capable navigation computersmankind had been able to device and yet they’d still have problems finding asafe world to colonise.

    “Open your sealed orders, Captain,” he ordered,quietly. “And then join me for theall-ships conference at 1450.”

    “Yes, sir,” Rupert said, quietly.

    ***
    The Association Navy had developed traditions over thethirty thousand years the Cats had spent in space that proved incrediblydifficult to dislodge. One of thosetraditions was a form of consensual decision-making that would have beenintolerable to any human commander. Captains of individual starships would participate in democratic debatesabout their objectives and how they’d achieve them, finally voting to endorseor reject a particular operational plan. Humanity hadn't been able to build ships large enough to hold all of thefleet’s commanding officers, which meant that meetings had to be virtual. It did ensure that discussion remainedfocused on the objectives at hand. Tobias was determined that while Captains would have ultimate authorityover their own ships, the Federation Navy’s Admirals would set overall policy –without allowing junior officers to vote on it. No effective military force could function democratically.

    One by one, the Captains and Brigadiers commanding hisships and Marine units signed into the secure conference system. In theory, it was impossible to intercepttransmissions in quantum space except at very close range; in practice, no oneknew for sure. The tachyon bursts the navigationbeacons used were detectable at long range. Tobias had ordered that all transmissions were to be heavily encrypted,just in case. Paranoia was a survival traitif they really were out to get you.

    “Gentlemen,” he said, by way of greeting. “I assume that you have read your orders?”

    He smiled at the faces looking back at him. Some looked shocked, as if they’d reallyexpected nothing more than an exercise, or that humanity wouldn't set out to start a war. Others looked delighted, seeing it as a chanceto avenge the humiliation of Terra Nova and liberate a large human populationfrom the claws of the Hegemony. Severalof them had probably checked and rechecked the orders, confirming that theycame directly from the Federation Council. The worst nightmare of a thousand states was a rogue officer starting awar.

    “In two weeks, we will arrive at Terra Nova,” Tobiassaid. The operations plan hadn't beenloaded into the fleet’s datanet, not yet. “A tanker with HE3 from Jupiter will be visiting the planet shortly beforewe arrive. The crew will usemilitary-grade sensors to pinpoint the locations of the Hegemony’s starshipsand then meet us in quantum space, allowing us to target our exit with pinpointprecision. We will engage the enemy assoon as we leave quantum space.

    “Our objective is the complete destruction of thatHegemony force and the liberation of Terra Nova,” he continued. “Once the fleet has cleared orbital space ofenemy ships, the Marines will be landed to liberate the planet and round up theHegemony population. Their client raceswill be permitted to remain under human rule, if they wish, but the Funks themselveswill be removed from the planet. However”– his gaze swept around the holographic faces – “I want to make it clear thatthere are to be no atrocities. Thepopulation is to be rounded up with the minimum necessary force consistent withthe safety of our troops. We do not needsomething the Hegemony can use as a propaganda tool against us.

    “Assault Force Two will concentrate on the Hegemony baseat Garston. As that base doesn't haveany major combatants, the overall objective will be to either capture ordestroy the orbital installations, preventing them from being used againstus. Depending on the outcome at TerraNova, we may move cruisers forward to Garston and then strike deeper into theHegemony’s space. Garston itself isuseless to us; we won’t bother invading and occupying the world once we’vesmashed their military bases from orbit.”

    “I figure that we could use a whole new habitable world,”Captain Zeke drawled.

    “It has a population of nearly ten million intelligentbeings, mainly Funks,” Brigadier Jones pointed out. “Do you propose to evict them all, or merelykeep them as slaves? Or maybe we shouldpush them all into death camps and commit genocide?”

    “They took one of our worlds,” Zeke said, sharply. “Why shouldn’t we...?”

    “Because we are a small power and we don’t want to eitherforce the Hegemony to rally around their Empress and do what it takes to defeatus, or for other powers to start viewing us as a danger and join the waragainst us,” Tobias said. “Garston willbe immaterial to the war once we've taken out the base and occupied the cloudscoopand we will not waste manpower occupying it.”

    He looked over at Jones’s face. “National units on Earth will be called up assoon as they receive a burst transmission reporting our success,” hecontinued. “They will relieve theMarines for further duties, allowing us to head further into Hegemony space if necessaryand land on their military colonies.”

    There was a long pause. “Are there any points that need to be raised before I transmit theoperations plan to you?”

    “I must say that I find the idea of starting a war to bedistasteful,” Captain Garibaldi said. “Evenif we’re not about to bite off more than we can chew, we...we don’t start wars.”

    “The war started the moment they bullied us into givingup Terra Nova,” Zeke said, flatly. “All we'vehad since then is an uneasy truce, one that could have been terminated at anypoint they desired. How long will it be before they stop extortingHE3 from us and start demanding political control instead?”

    “Not long,” Tobias said. “You’ll find the background brief included in the operational plan, butthe short version of the story is that they’re pretty much on the verge ofclaiming political control over Earth. War is coming whatever we do – we strike now or we risk being crushed bysuperior force.

    “I understand that many of you have doubts,” headded. “Those doubts will also exist onEarth when the population realises that the war is underway. This is a gamble, one that might backfire andcost us everything we’ve worked for over the past fifteen years, ever since werealised that the greater universe was not going to ignore us. But I have faith that each and every one ofyou will do their utmost to ensure that we win this war. We will claw out our place in galacticsociety and prove to the predators out there that we are not to be trifledwith.”

    He stood up. “I’llbe making a general broadcast to the fleet this evening,” he concluded. “Until then, study the operational plans andconsider possible alternatives. We will reconvenetomorrow.”

    One by one, the holographic faces blinked out of existence,leaving Tobias alone with his thoughts – and his worries.

    There was one thing he hadn't told them. They all had orders to destroy the sealedorders once they’d confirmed them to their subordinates. What they didn't know was that the official orderswould make it look as if Tobias had launched the attack on his own, withoutpermission from higher authority. If thewar went badly wrong, Tobias would be blamed, perhaps giving Earth someprotection.

    It wasn't much, but it was all he had.

    And his own death was a small price for humanityremaining alive.

    ***
    It seemed to be a rule that larger ships, with much moreinternal volume than their smaller cousins, had less room for junior officers,crewmen and Marines. Even Wellington, over two kilometres long,crammed thousands of Marines into tightly-confined spaces. Some of the crew had even been forced tosleep on the hanger deck because additional technicians had been taken onboardbefore they’d left Earth. To Conrad, itall added up to trouble. There waslittle need to bring civilian techs onboard unless there was a truly desperaterequirement for trained manpower.

    Regulations stated that each Marine had to spend at leasttwo hours per day exercising in the ship’s gym and running laps throughinternal passageways. Like the rest ofthe ship, it was crammed with Marines, most performing press-ups on the deck orusing muscle-building machines to give themselves a proper workout. Conrad was exchanging places with two other Sergeants,allowing him to get in his own workout. No Federation Marine Sergeant – or officer – could afford to skip hisexercises, particularly in front of the men. Few would trust a Sergeant who didn't lead by example, even if he wassupposed to be supervising them at the time.

    He looked up as nine chimes rang through the ship’sintercom, calling them to attention. Throughoutthe gym, Marines stopped exercising and stood up, listening carefully.

    “This is Admiral Sampson,” a voice said. Conrad had met the Admiral once, back when he’dbeen stationed at Luna as part of the Naval HQ protection detachment. The Admiral sounded older than he remembered,picking his words carefully. “Ever sinceFirst Contact, ever since learning that the galaxy is filled with predators, wehave known that we would one day have to fight for our freedom. What happened at Terra Nova taught us thatnothing, but force would convince the Galactics to leave us in peace. Our time has run out. The Hegemony intends to claim our worlds andenslave the human race.”

    Conrad felt, more than heard, the rumble that passedthrough the massive compartment. Some ofthe Marines had relatives on Terra Nova, under the Hegemony’s jackboot. Others knew people who had family on theplanet, or had watched in horror the reports filed by independent journalistswho had been allowed to visit the occupied corridor. None of them would have tolerated theoccupation any longer than strictly necessary.

    “There is only one option,” Sampson continued. “We must strike first, taking the offensive whilewe have the chance. Our target is TerraNova, the world we claimed and settled before we were bullied into surrenderingour people to alien oppression. We willliberate Terra Nova and teach the Hegemony that human slaves don’t come cheap.

    “It will be a hard war. I can offer no guarantees of victory, or even survival. But there comes a time when you have to standup and fight, or submit to permanent slavery. Our fight – and our deaths – will buy every human a chance to breathefree. Earth expects that every man andwoman on these ships will do their duty. I expect no less.”

    Conrad joined in the cheering that followed, privatelycongratulating himself on deducing that they were not heading off on a full-scaleexercise. Marines were shouting andslapping hands, before gently being urged back to their workouts. The thought of going into war drove themforwards. There would never be a chanceto rehearse the operation, not before they landed on Terra Nova. What little intelligence he’d seen suggestedthat the Hegemony had a major military base on the planet, protected by a forcefield that ensured that it couldn't simply be smashed from orbit. The Marines would have to take the planet bylanding on the ground and crushing the Hegemony troops.

    “Back to work, guys,” he said. They’d have to review the intelligence on theHegemony’s ground soldiers and their weapon later on. Well-briefed soldiers tended to last longerthan those kept ignorant by their superiors. “We’re going to war.”

    ***
    Adrienne sat in her cabin, unable to believe what she’djust heard. They were going to war? The fleet was going to assault a world heldby the Hegemony, a galactic power that far outmatched the human race? They were all going to die...she found herselfshaking helplessly, sweat beading on her brow. She’d been into danger before, but it had been under controlledconditions, escorted by soldiers who knew how to protect her if necessary. Now...she was on a starship she knew to befragile when compared to the massed energy batteries of Association-designedcapital ships. And she was expected tofollow the Marines down to Terra Nova, assuming they managed to land withoutbeing slaughtered.

    She stood up, trying to control the shaking thatthreatened to overwhelm her. Logically,the military wouldn't have set out to start a war unless it was certain itcould win, but cold logic provided no reassurance. And to think that she’d accepted the chanceto embed without realising that something more important than simple exercises,no matter how radical, was underway. Maybeshe should have asked more questions, or maybe she wouldn't have learnedanything more until the war actually began. No one, even the Association, could transmit from quantum space tonormal space. There would be no way foranyone to blow the secret until it was too late.

    And there was no escape. Even if she protested, the fleet would still go to Terra Nova and launchits assault. And then she would have toexplain to Ward why she hadn't filed any reports from the front line. It would certainly cost her the chance to winanother prize, even if he didn’t fire her on the spot. No one would trust her to carry out asensitive assignment again.

    She sat back down again and stared into the mirror,seeing her own face reflected back at her. She’d been in danger before, she reminded herself firmly, and she’dsurvived and reported back from the front lines. The danger wouldn't be any lesser if she hidin her cabin, or made a fuss and ended up in the brig. She would do her job to the best of herability and survive the experience. After recording from Terra Nova itself, just after the liberation, therewould be another prize for her. Assumingshe survived the experience and the planet was actually liberated, of course.

    By the time Barbie arrived to escort her on her firsttour of the mammoth starship, she was ready to interview the entire crew fortheir reactions. None of them seemed indoubt about the likely outcome of the war. They were confident that humanity would win.

    Adrienne could only hope that they were right.
     
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    Terra Nova had everything a spacefaring society couldwant, except a gas giant that could be mined for fuel. The Association had surveyed it whilehumanity was still mastering basic metal-working and deemed the system largelyuseless, not even bothering to plant a small colony on Terra Nova’ssurface. They hadn't even established aquantum gate in the system; the gate that served Terra Nova had been built bythe Federation, the third quantum gate produced by human engineers. Gates were, by long convention, open to all,but the galactic powers that felt confident in their strength charged accessfees. The Hegemony, with a major battlefleet in the system, were quite willing to tax human shipping heading to TerraNova.



    Pelican lumberedthough the quantum gate and emerged into the Terra Nova system. Like most commercial shipping, the massiveHE3 tanker possessed no quantum drive of her own and was completely dependentupon the quantum gates for FTL travel. Producing commercial ships was surprisingly cheap once someone had builtthe ship yards; after all, they really needed little more than life support andhull volume. Pelican looked crude, like a set of oil drums bolted together, butCaptain William Zeller loved her. Shewas his ticket to see the universe.



    Earth had established a cloudscoop over Jupiter shortlyafter Mentor had contacted the human race, providing vast quantities of HE3 topower the switch to fusion power and fuel Earth’s growing fleet ofstarships. The Hegemony had demandedthat Earth continue to supply Terra Nova with HE3, even though Earth no longer controlledthe planet and there were gas giants nearer to the system than Sol. The Federation had made nothing more than amuted protest, after ONI pointed out that sending the freighters into thesystem would allow them to take a careful look at the Hegemony’s fleetdispositions. One day, Earth would havethe firepower to teach the Hegemony a lesson. Good intelligence would be needed on that day. Pelican’ssensor suite was military-grade, far more sophisticated than any commercialship would need for its routine activities. William would have expected the Hegemony to insist on searching his shipand demanding explanations for the advanced sensors, but they’d neverbothered. He was unable to tell if thatwas arrogance or simple carelessness. What could tiny Earth’s puny fleet do against five superdreadnaughts andtheir support ships?



    “I’m picking up a challenge now,” his pilot said. No separate disciplines on Pelican, even if she was a FederationNavy ship in all, but name. The crew officiallyworked for the Jupiter Consortium; unofficially, they were FederationIntelligence and ONI. “They’re demandingthat we pay our access fees or get back into quantum space.”



    “Charming,” William said. A quick glance at the sensor take showed that the Hegemony’s fleet wasalready coming into view, surrounding Orbit Station. Humans had built the station, back when TerraNova had first been colonised, only to lose it to the Hegemony. These days, a tiny human staff maintained thestation for their masters. They were oneof the best sources of intelligence that humanity had. “Ship them some credits and request anorbital slot.”



    He waited patiently for the reply. The Association’s currency was still inwidespread use across the galaxy. Someof the younger races had their own currency as well, but the credit was interchangeablethroughout the entire known galaxy. Someeconomists had predicted that that would change rapidly once the Associationcollapsed completely, perhaps reducing interstellar economics to barter unlessa successor power with the same clout as the Association arose rapidly. William hadn't bothered to try to followtheir agreements. It was enough thatEarth’s small stockpile of credits was still good.



    “They’re telling us to dock at the fuel dump and startthe transfer,” the pilot said, after a moment. “Should I take us in?”



    “The alternative is hanging around here,” William pointedout, dryly. “Take us in.”



    Terra Nova grew rapidly on the viewscreen as they approachedthe planet. Like Earth, Terra Nova was ablue-green world, although there were only two main continents. No one was quite sure why some worlds evolvedintelligent life and others didn't produce anything more interesting thanversions of sheep and wolves; Terra Nova had produced few creatures larger thanlizards or rodents. Crops and animalsbrought by humans from Earth had swiftly spread across the first continent,competing with the local fauna. UnlikeClarke, which was dominated by savage plant and animal life, Terra Nova’s localwildlife hadn't been able to cope. Humanity had effectively terraformed the planet far quicker than eitherMars or Venus.



    The Hegemony battle squadron was orbiting the planet,sensors and weapons stepped down to prevent wear and tear. Each of the five superdreadnaughts possessedenough firepower to blast a planet into atoms, or dominate the skies so thoroughlythat resistance would be impossible. They were hulking brutes, their hulls designed so that all who saw themwould know just what they’d been designed to do. There was little of the elegance theAssociation had built into its explorer or cruise starships, none of thefancifulness that they worked into pleasure craft that didn't have to obey Newton’slaws. The ships were intimidating, evenfrom a distance. All of Earth had seenfootage of similar ships in action, in the brushfire wars that had started toappear along the edge of Association space. Everyone knew that they werethe most powerful and capable warships in existence. Nothing could stand up to them.



    He tore his gaze away from the sensor feed as the tanker approachedthe fuel dump, a separate station in orbit around Terra Nova. It too was human technology, allowing vast quantitiesof HE3 to be stored well away from the planet’s surface – and the civilians whohad colonised the new world. Theplanners hadn't realised that having the fuel dump would make it far easier fora hostile force to dominate the planet – or perhaps they had, intending that they would be the hostile force. William had heard a hundred conspiracy theoriesabout what the Federation intended to do with Terra Nova in the long term. Doling out fuel to power the colony’s fusionreactors was such an easy way to control the planet that he’d be surprised ifit had never occurred to the planners.



    The tanker shuddered gently as she made contact with theplatform and started to transfer the fuel. William left the automated systems to get on with it while he reviewedmore of the sensor take from the system – and the planet below. The Hegemony military base, established righton top of Gagarin City, seemed to have grown larger in the months since he’dlast surveyed the planet. They kept thehuman population under strict control, forbidding any further expansion,although many humans had managed to slip out of the city and into theundeveloped regions of the planet. Somereports suggested that there was even a small insurgency underway on TerraNova. It couldn't come close to evictingthe Hegemony from humanity’s planet.



    There were no new orbital fortifications beyond a smallnetwork of orbital weapons platforms. The Association, which had produced much of the Galactic military doctrine,had believed that starships were better investments than orbital fortresses,pointing out that starships were mobile and could be moved from one system toanother. Some of the most importantworlds had heavy fixed defences – the Hegemony homeworld was supposed to beheavily fortified – but most colony worlds were barely defending. The OWPs could stand off a pirate ship, yet asmall squadron could blast its way through them in minutes. Privately, William suspected that theAssociation needed to rethink its doctrine. It had been so long since the Cats had fought a proper war that they’dlost the habit of continually questioning and rewriting their contingency plans. If human military forces had lost that habitin a few years of peace, and had to redevelop it in a hurry when war appearedout of nowhere, how much harder would it be for a race that hadn't fought forthousands of years?



    But maybe it wasn't entirely a bad thing, from humanity’spoint of view. Most of the Galactics hadlearned from the Association, concentrating on starships instead of orbitaldefences. There would be flaws in their doctrine,weaknesses that could be exploited by a human naval force with the willingnessto fight back against the Hegemony and the other galactic bullies. They’d learn, of course – some of them hadprobably been learning in the brushfire wars – but could they learn as fast ashumanity?



    The Association claimed that most races shared the samebasic level of intelligence. Some raceshad traits that bent them towards one kind of thinking or another, or lackedthe emotions that drove humanity, yet there were no races that thoughtsignificantly faster than anyoneelse. The cultural stasis that hadgripped most of the galaxy came from the Association, from its stagnation andslow decline, not from anything intrinsic to the Galactics. As the established order continued to breakdown, war would break out again and again until a new order was established,one dominated by a race that had managed to adapt quicker to the change in thegalactic balance of power. It was hardto imagine the Funks having such imagination, yet they’d come to terms with theexistence of other forms of intelligent life quicker than humanity. And they’d been in the Iron Age when they’dbeen contacted by the Association.



    He glanced up as the console bleeped, warning him of aflight of shuttles heading towards the tanker. They flashed past at full speed, lighting the ship up with their weaponssystems as they made their approach before vanishing into the darkness ofspace. Such crude intimidation wastypical of the Hegemony, an unsubtle reminder of their power. But then, Pelicanwas not only unarmed – she was defenceless. A single burst from a phase cannon would cut right through her hull anddestroy the ship.



    The tanker shivered again as the final drop of HE3 wasextracted into the fuel dump, which disconnected itself rapidly from Pelican. There was no point in asking for shore leave on Terra Nova, even if hisorders had specified that he was to return to quantum space as soon aspossible. The Hegemony mostly refused togrant permission, and even when they did Gagarin City was a depressing placethese days. William was old enough toremember the hope felt by the colonists that they would build a new world, anew melting pot that would take the best from humanity’s disparate cultures andcreate something newer and stronger than Earth. Their dreams had come to an end the moment the Hegemony had bulliedEarth into surrendering the planet. Helooked down at the blue-green globe and shivered, despite himself. The humans on the planet below were living inbondage, slaves to an alien race. Theywould never be anything other than a client race, if they were allowed to liveat all.



    “Take us back to the gate,” he ordered, quietly.



    His orders had stated that he was to attempt to determineif the Hegemony had placed any watching starships in the outer system, ifpossible. Humanity had established asmall asteroid mining station before the Hegemony had taken over, but the Funkshad shown no interest in either forcing the miners to work for them or shippingin their own labour to take their place. It was so much easier to bully Earth out of raw materials – and efficient,if they weren't actually paying for it themselves. A handful of commercial drive fields could bedetected near a couple of the mining asteroids, but nothing else. It didn't really mean anything and only apolitician would think otherwise. Spacewas vast and a starship that stepped its drives down to the bare minimum – or cloaked– would be almost impossible to detect with passive sensors. The entire Hegemony Navy could be hidingthere and they’d never know about it.



    The viewscreen shifted as Pelican continued to lumber towards the gate. To human eyes, the gate didn't look veryimpressive. It seemed to be nothing morethan a ring of metal over twenty kilometres in diameter. To advanced sensors, it was far more complex,existing simultaneously in normal space and quantum space. William didn't pretend to know how theyworked. Few did, outside the research laboratories– and the Association itself. The Catswere normally obsessive record keepers, with a mania for paperwork that madeeven the worst of humanity’s bureaucrats look like a piker, but they werecuriously silent on how they first discovered how to open a permanent gatewayinto quantum space. Some of humanity’shistorical researchers, mining the records of a society thousands of yearsolder than humanity, speculated that the breakthrough had happened byaccident. Others, the more controversialresearchers, claimed that someone else hadgiven the Cats the technology. Williamprivately believed the former. Apartfrom rumours, there was no proof that there was any spacefaring race older thanthe Cats – and they had built the Association.



    “Transmit our ID and request that they open the gate,” heordered. The Funks would probably hitthem with another service charge, just to rub their superiority into the punyhumans one more time. Or maybe they’djust be glad to see the human ship leaving the system. A starship, even a freighter, could make onehell of a mess if it deliberately rammed the planet. “Pay them if necessary.”



    “Another fifty credits,” the pilot reported. He shook his head. “They do make a good thing of it, don’t they?”



    “Bastards,” William agreed. Ahead of them, a shimmer of light appearedinside the gate ring, a chink in the normal universe leading directly to quantumspace. As always, it fascinated andrepelled him in equal measure. There wassomething profoundly unnatural about quantumspace. It wasn't a realm for humanity,or any other race. “Take us out of here,and then set course for the RV point.”



    They’d been given very specific orders before they’dundocked from Jupiter Station. Pelican and her crew was to depart thenormal shipping line to Earth once they’d cleared the ring and head instead toa point roughly a light-year from Terra Nova. Quantum space didn't quite map onto normal space perfectly, one of thereasons why early explorers had tended to get lost and never return home. The navigation beacons were all that made interstellarcommerce possible. Once they reached theRV point, they were to wait. The orderspuzzled him because they made little sense. Maybe the higher-ups knew what they were doing, but he wouldn't have putmoney on it.



    He took the helm himself, allowing the pilot a chance toget a cup of coffee and a snack before returning to duty. Quantum space couldshift from placid to dangerous very quickly, forcing any starship travellingwithin the dimension to be ready to change course at any moment. Even the merest energy storm could wipe outan entire unwary fleet. He’d been ayoung cadet when Earth had heard that seventeen starships built by an alienrace had been caught up in a storm and vaporised. If even the Galactics couldn't master quantum space,what hope did humanity have of taming the alternate dimension?



    It was rare to see another starship in quantum space awayfrom the shipping lanes. Indeed, even onthe shipping lanes commercial ships rarely saw other starships unless it was adeliberate interception. Pirates hadbeen known to hover around the gates and engage unwary freighters, forcing themto surrender and looting their holds before casting them loose to be destroyedby quantum space’s energy storms. Some pirateswere true sadists, torturing their victim before killing them; others tookhostages and extracted ransoms from their relatives before returning themalive, if they bothered to keep their word.



    He blinked in surprise as a handful of starships appearedon the display, hovering within quantum space. They were human starships,small teardrop-shaped cruisers and bulky assault carriers, waiting for hisship. He stared, unable to quite believehis eyes, until he realised that they had to be planning a war. Or perhaps the war had already started and noone had bothered to inform him...no, that couldn't be right. The Hegemony would never have let him closeto Terra Nova if they’d been at war with the human race. Maybe it was just the fleet exercise themedia had been waffling about for the last month before he’d left Jupiter. But so close to Terra Nova...?



    There was a brief pause as ID codes were exchanged andverified, and then the data dump began. William felt the first flash of excitement – and fear – as he realisedwhat it meant. There was only one reasonto want an up-to-date survey of any system; the fleet in front of him plannedto attack Terra Nova – and theHegemony starships in orbit around the human colony. It would be suicide...or would it? There was no shortage of rumours about humantechnological advances, even if the Galactic pooh-poohed the suggestion that arace as young as humanity could possibly have anything to teach them. The Association had stagnated, unable todevelop further – or had the Cats simply lost interest in basic research? They were the richest and most powerfulculture the galaxy had ever seen Whatmore did they need?



    A face – Admiral Sampson – appeared on the display. “Good work,” he said gruffly. “I’m going to have to ask you to remain withthe support ships now.”



    “I understand,” William said. They’d be paranoid about someone warning theHegemony before it was too late. It wasinsulting, but he understood. And therereally wasn't any other choice. “Goodluck, sir. Give the bastards hell.”
     
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  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    The humans who first set eyes on the Mer’fuk immediatelythought of them as lizards or snakes, even though their evolutionary path was verysimilar to humanity’s. Unlike Earth,their homeworld had been dry and resources were scarce, forcing the early Mer’fukto compete savagely for resources. Theirsuccessful leaders were the ones who claimed and held the most territory, usingit as the basis of their power and forcing lesser Mer’fuk to submit and servethem in exchange for food and water. Itwas a trend that drove them onwards even after the Association had given themspaceflight and the First Empress had united their world under her iron heel.



    Lady Dalsha reclined on her command stool and studied themales working busily below her, feeling her gaze on the back of theirnecks. Males couldn't be trusted to doanything other than fight or breed – trying to get them to consider thelong-term effects of their actions was impossible – and they would slack off,or start picking fights with each other, if she and her fellow females leftthem to their own devices. It was thefemales who had built and led the clans, who had masterminded the wars that hadseized vast territories for exploitation and – finally – led them out intospace. If males ruled the world – as theydid with some of the lesser races – they would probably have destroyed themselvesby now, either through a civil war or attacking one of the stronger races inthe galaxy. The Association might bedecadent, with no fire left in its blood, but it still had numbers. They could have crushed the Hegemony if they’dbeen willing to accept bloodshed.



    The thought made her smile. Males were expendable – with four males forevery female, the Mer’fuk could afford to lose a few million in a war withoutseriously threatening the existence of the entire race. It would have been acceptable if the war hadbrought vast new territories, or destroyed a formidable enemy; it might evenhave been considered cheap! She couldn'treally comprehend why the Association seemed unwilling to bring the otherGalactics to heel – they had to knowthat the lesser races were climbing towards the point where they would be ableto fight the Association openly and win – but there was no need to push theissue. A few hundred more standard yearsand the Hegemony would be all-powerful, the new ruler of the galaxy. And theywould not be so foolish as to allow the lesser races so much latitude. They could do as they were told or they wouldperish and vanish from the universe.



    She looked up towards the holographic image of Terra Nova– such a strange name for a planet, but the human settlers had had the right toname it – and smiled again. The Empress,hallowed be her name, had forced the humans to surrender their colony on painof war and total destruction. Once theAssociation had finally, cravenly, surrendered the rest of humanity to the Hegemony,the soft-skinned race would be taught their true place in the universe. Their clever little people would serve the masterrace or die, begging for mercy that would never come. There was no room in the universe for thosewho didn't have the will to do what needed to be done to safeguard theirinterests. The strong would survive; theweak would become slaves – or perish.



    But humans were a strange species. Human culture was infecting the galaxy, eventhe Hegemony itself. Males loved many human entertainments, eventhrough their plots were awful and their special effects laughable. The Empress had banned it, of course, butmales defied the females whenever they thought they could get away with it – ifthey bothered to reason it out that far. Humans had the strange notion that the sexes should be equal and thatthe population should participate in the decision-making process. It was a seductive concept to the morethoughtful males – and even to females so lowly as to be only a bare step abovethe males. Of course they wanted ademocracy! The concept of the strongestbeing the supreme ruler, the concept that had driven the Hegemony to the stars,was under threat from an assault they were ill-prepared to counter. It wouldn't be long before the Empress forcedthe final showdown and crushed the upstart human race. She would prove to the universe – and her ownpeople – that human ideas were nothing compared to the united power of theHegemony.



    A male stepped towards her, bowing in submission. “Great Lady,” he said, “the soft-skins on theplanet below have sent yet another petition for your attention.”



    Lady Dalsha fluttered her crest in disdain. Even crushed, even beaten, humans wereirritating. Why did they expect thatpestering her would get her to give them what they wanted? Let them come up with something she wanted,or a way to threaten her, and then shewould listen. Nothing would be allowedto detract from their role as a client race. They were clearly useless as fighters either. Some of the human mercenaries who had takenservice with the Galactics had impressed the Empress’s advisors enough thatthey’d insisted on landing a larger garrison than normal, but the colonists hadn'tput up an impressive resistance. Evenwhen she’d ordered their religious buildings smashed they hadn't foughtback. They were weak.



    “Ignore it,” she ordered, bluntly. The foolish male should have known not tobother her, but males weren't known for reasoned understanding of orders. Too strong a rebuke and he’d probably keep everything from her, including somethingshe needed to know. “Do not even botherto send a reply...”



    An alarm hooted through the compartment, causing themales to hiss in alarm. “Report,” LadyDalsha ordered, her tone calm and composed. Dominating males was easy as long as one refused to be flustered. “What is happening?”



    “Multiple quantum gates, opening right on top of us,” thesensor officer reported. He was unusuallyclever for a male, and much less aggressive. It was a shame that he couldn't be used for breeding stock, but theHegemony needed aggressive males much more than it needed ones who could countto nine without taking off their boots. “They’refar too close to the planet!”



    Lady Dalsha, for a very brief second, experiencedabsolute disbelief. The Association wasalarmingly cautious about risks that any lesser race would have taken in theirstride. They never established a quantumgate in planetary orbit and warned of the dangers of opening a gateway tooclose to a planet’s gravity well. TheHegemony had risked coming in closer, but the unknown intruders were coming incloser still, alarmingly close to her fleet. Had one of the other Galactics decided to destroy her force before itcould be reinforced from the main fleet?



    “Battle stations,” she hissed. They’d kept their drives and weapons powereddown – after all, who would dare attack them here? It might have been amistake, even though doctrine was inflexible. “Raise shields. Prepare to engagethe enemy.”



    ***

    Tobias let out a breath he hadn't realised he’d beenholding when Nimitz slipped back intonormal space. Humanity’s scientists hadclaimed to prove that one could emergefrom quantum space far closer to a gravity well than the Association believedpossible, but no one had known for sure until they’d actually done it. Fifteen cruisers and their supportingdestroyers had appeared from nowhere, heading right towards an unwary enemyfleet. The sensor take from activesensors – there was no point in trying to hide when the entire system wouldhave detected their arrival – showed that the Hegemony ships were right whereCaptain Zeller’s report had indicated. They certainly weren't ready for a fight.



    “Enemy is bringing up active sensors,” the sensor officerreported. The fleet was already launchingrecon drones towards the enemy, giving their crews additional sensor platformsto parse out the Hegemony’s defences. “I’mpicking up energy signatures from their weapons and targeting systems. They’re flash-waking their defences.”



    Tobias nodded. That wasn't unexpected. Even withtheir power plants stepped down, starships maintained at least one shieldgenerator ready to shield the hull at all times, another gift from theAssociation. Space wasn't empty and evena tiny piece of space junk could damage an unprotected hull. But how quickly could they bring their shipsto full alert? ONI hadn't been able togive him anything other than informed guesses, ranging from five minutes to anhour. It depended on just how carefullythe Hegemony maintained their ships.



    No military force could remain on alert forever, whateverthe politicians and armchair generals might think. Tobias knew that standing guard for day afterday could induce a lethargy into the system, no matter what senior officerssaid or did. It was why sentries wereregularly rotated on and off guard positions. The Hegemony had known thathumanity didn't dare attack them. Was ittoo much to hope that they’d allowed their ships to slip into disrepair, theircrews into idleness? They didn't dareassume the best.



    “General signal to all ships,” he ordered. “They are to open fire with phase cannons assoon as we enter range.”



    The distance between the two fleets closed withstaggering speed. Humanity might nothave been able to build superdreadnaughts – at least not yet – but the Admiral-class cruisers compensated bybeing faster than any other ship in space, as well as packing enough advancedweapons to make them a match for anyone else’s battlecruiser. It would take the Hegemony months, at least,to duplicate the weapons, assuming they figured out the basic principles orpaid someone else to do it. But most ofthem were nothing more than variants on technology the Galactics had possessedlonger than humanity had possessed fire. They’d probably deduce what humanity had done as soon as they saw theweapons in action.



    Signals flashed between the ships, designatingtargets. The Hegemony kept its ships ona tight leash, with one flagship and little room for independent action on thepart of subordinate commanders. They hadn'trealised – at least not yet – that the sheer volume of signals from theflagship made it easy to identify. Andonce it was taken out – crippled or destroyed – it would be impossible for themto re-establish their command network. None of the junior commanders would have the authority to take command.



    “Entering range,” Commander Jackson said, quietly. “Phase cannons online...and firing.”



    Phase cannons were relatively simple weapons, designed bythe Association and copied by all of the Galactics. They fired a phased beam of immenselydestructive energy towards their targets, burning through iron or steel as ifthey were made of paper. Humanity hadimproved the weapons considerably, both enhancing their power and adding asecond refinement. The simulationsclaimed that the second refinement would be a total surprise to the Galactics,but there was no way to know until now. Tobias leaned forward as the fleet opened fire, bright red beams oflight lancing towards their targets.



    Brilliant spheres appeared around the superdreadnaughtsas the phase cannons hit the shields, which started to deflect the energy awayfrom the ships. Normally, shields wouldhave to be battered down before the cannons could start cutting into the hull,giving the Galactics time to respond to the attack. Now...the phase cannons started rotatingtheir modulation, hunting for the frequency that would allow them to penetrate theshields instantly. The Galactics had toleave one frequency open or they wouldn’t be able to return fire. As he watched, several of the beams lanced through the shields and dug into enemyhulls. The fleet’s electronic servants,acting quicker than any human mind could follow, swiftly updated the other phasecannons, switching them to the correct frequency. Superdreadnaughts staggered as the powerfulbeams started to burn through their hulls. The hulls were tough, made from a synthetic compound developed by theAssociation, but not tough enough to stand up to phase cannons for long.



    “Enemy is returning fire,” Commander Jacksonreported. The Hegemony ships had startedto fire back frantically, many of their shots going wild. Their targeting systems were having problemswith so many of their sensor blisters – exposed on their hulls – wiped out byhuman weapons. “They’re trying to lockonto us.”



    “Evasive action,” Captain Rupert ordered. Phase cannons were light-speed weapons. There would be no telling that they wereunder attack until the blast struck them. Nimitz and her sisters had farmore powerful shields than anything else their size, but they didn't have the strengthto stand up to a battering match at close range. “Continue firing.”



    The fleet passed throughthe Hegemony formation, still firing, and spun around to reengage theenemy. Lumbering superdreadnaughts couldn'thope to match their speed and manoeuvrability. Sensors reported that all of the superdreadnaughts had been damaged, butnone of their more important systems – their drives, power plants and commandstations – had been destroyed. They wereburied deep within the hull, heavily protected. Taking them out would be harder than merely scarring their hulls. Smaller Hegemony ships were taking upposition around the superdreadnaughts, trying to shield their tougherconsorts. They might even succeed ifthey were allowed time to prepare for the next attack run.



    “Lock antimatter torpedoes on target,” he ordered. “Fire at will.”



    Nimitz shudderedas she unleashed a spread of antimatter torpedoes towards the enemy ships, eachone powerful enough to wreck a planetary ecosystem if they detonated on thesurface. The Association had devised acheap method of producing antimatter centuries ago, but they’d always beenreluctant to make full use of the incredibly dangerous substance. A single glitch in an antimatter containmentpod and there would be a colossal explosion. Indeed, the Association Navy had forbidden their ships to carryantimatter warheads in peacetime, fearing the consequences of a single malfunction. The Hegemony – and humanity – had no suchqualms. Antimatter was so powerful thatit had to be used in war.



    Humanity had modified the standard torpedo casings withbetter drives and devised a way to compress more antimatter into awarhead. The Hegemony was about to findout that humanity’s torpedoes were far more destructive than anything theAssociation had ever built – and faster too, harder to intercept. But the Federation Navy hadn't had it all itsown way. The cruisers couldn't carrymore than a hundred torpedoes apiece – and when they expended their entireload, there would be no more until they could rearm. Each of the superdreadnaughts carried moretorpedoes than Tobias’s entire squadron.



    “Hegemony attempting to target the torpedoes,” CommanderJackson said. “Their point defence ishaving problems locking onto the weapons.”



    Tobias smiled as the first torpedoes struck home. Unlike the phase cannons, torpedoes couldn't slipthrough defence shields as if they weren't there, but they were so powerfulthat it hardly mattered. Even fratricidewasn't a problem when each detonation only added more force to theexplosion. The blasts were so powerfulthat they blinded some of the recon drones the squadron had launched the momentit emerged from quantum space. For theHegemony crews, it had to seem like the gates of Hell had opened up in front ofthem.



    A superdreadnaught fell out of line and staggered away,bleeding plasma from a dozen open wounds. The crews were already trying to escape – the sensors were picking uphundreds of lifepods blasting free of the doomed ship – even though theHegemony expected their crews to fight to the death. It was a mystery why they’d even bothered toinstall lifepods in the first place. Another superdreadnaught, heavily damaged, was somehow still firing atthe oncoming human ships. The remainingthree were less damaged, their shields having held against most of theblast. They seemed stunned, even as thehuman cruisers fell on them like wolves on a flock of sheep.



    They’d learned from the last pass, Tobias realised as thetwo fleets came together once again. Their weapons fire was more targeted, moving rapidly from target totarget, their computers trying to predict the random jinks used by human shipsto evade incoming fire. Nimitz shuddered again as a phase cannonburst struck her forward shields, only to be repelled and evaded as thehelmsman threw her into a tight turn. Herweapons were still firing, raking into her target’s hull whenever the phasecannons matched the enemy’s shield modulation. Someone on the other side had a brain, Tobias realised. He – more likely she – had been smart enoughto start rotating their shields as soon as the first bursts of human fire slippedthrough their shields and into their hulls. It hampered their ability to return fire – they'd have to keep alteringtheir weapons to match the shield frequencies – but it might keep themalive.



    The 2<sup>nd</sup> Cruiser Squadron swooped down on itstarget, one of the intact superdreadnaughts. It looked as if the enemy formation was falling apart, although it wasimpossible to be sure. The enemyflagship hadn’t been badly damaged, which suggested that their commander wastrying to adapt to a situation she would have considered impossible. Tobias barked orders and the 1<sup>st</sup>Cruiser Squadron reformed and headed towards the enemy flagship. Once she’d been taken out, it was possiblethat the enemy would surrender. Intactsuperdreadnaughts would teach Earth’s engineers a great deal about the Hegemony’sfleet – and rescuing survivors would look good in front of the otherGalactics. It would...



    “Admiral,” Jackson said, “Tirpitz...”



    Tobias looked – and swore. Tirpitzhad one of the more aggressive commanders in the Federation Navy...and he’dtaken her too close to the superdreadnaught, which had lashed out hard enoughto punch through the cruiser’s shields and destroy one of her drive nacelles. Unable to adapt in time to change course, thecruiser spun out of control and slammed into the superdreadnaught it had beentargeting...



    ...And both ships vanished in a ball of fire.
     
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    Lady Dalsha had been trained to remain calm in allcircumstances. No one was permitted tocommand a starship, let alone an entire squadron, unless they were both loyalto the Empress and capable of remaining calm even in the worst ofcircumstances. But the disasterunfolding in front of her was utterly outside her experience. No one had seen an Association-designed superdreadnaughtdestroyed in hundreds of years. Even theworst of the brushfire wars had never cost anyone a superdreadnaught. Everyone knewthat the ships were invincible.



    Except for the intruders who were attacking herships. Tactical analysts claimed thatthey were human-built vessels, even though that was obviously impossible. Humans couldn'thave built such ships and yet surrendered Terra Nova without a fight. It was vaguely possible that someone elsemight have assisted the humans, but why? Impeding the Hegemony’s expansion would have delighted a dozen otherraces, yet it would have meant war if their hand had been discovered. And even if they had, why would they havegiven new weapons to humanity instead of arming their own ships?



    The impossible ships closed in again, firing a secondspread of torpedoes. Point defence firereached out to target them, the gunners suddenly having become verymotivated. A normal torpedo spread posedlittle threat to a superdreadnaught, but each of those torpedoes was a deadlythreat. She couldn't understand how theunknowns had managed to compress so much antimatter into such small torpedoes,yet in the end the how and why hardly mattered. All that mattered was defeating the enemy or extracting her commandbefore it was completely wiped out. Terra Nova and the garrison on its surface would have to fend foritself.



    And there was so much disruption in normal space from theantimatter blasts that she couldn't even contact the Hegemony and warn them ofthe new threat.



    “Bring up the main drives,” she ordered. They’d have to run – and while no Hegemonyfleet had ever run from an opponent before, no fleet had ever faced such alopsided battle. Those cruisers were sosmall that losing one had to be only a tiny portion of the enemy fleet, whicheach lost superdreadnaught cost the Hegemony dearly. Even the Association, back when it had beenbuilding superdreadnaughts, had never been able to build one in less than ayear. It took the Hegemony more like twoyears to complete a superdreadnaught. “Takeus to minimum safe distance from the planet and open a gateway into quantum space.”



    Ripper’s veryhull seemed to scream in protest as two torpedoes struck her shields, burningout two of her shield generators. Therewere a dozen shield generators built within the hull – the Association believedfirmly in multiple redundancy – but they were all burning out. No one had envisaged weapons that rotatedtheir frequencies until they found the one that would allow them to go rightthrough the shields, therefore no one had bothered to design shield generatorsthat could switch frequency instantly. Making the change placed extra wear and tear on generators that wereprone to burning out if overloaded.



    One superdreadnaught gone, another a powerless wreck,unable even to self-destruct. TheEmpress would not be pleased. The maleson the ships would be forbidden breeding privileges and dumped on an isolatedworld without any females, one where their natural impulses would lead them tofight until they killed each other off completely. She...the Empress would not be merciful, ifonly to make it clear that failure would not be tolerated. There were worse fates than death and theclan that had ruled the Hegemony since First Contact knew all of them. She silently prayed to the gods her people nolonger believed in that they could escape. The unknowns seemed to have them at their mercy.



    They closed in, dancing around her fleet in randompatterns that her tactical computers couldn't follow or predict. They’d learned from the destruction of theircomrade, making sure not to expose themselves for too long, twisting andturning to take the blasts that did hit them on unexposed parts of theirshields. Association-designed shieldswere omnidirectional, creating a bubble that surrounded the entire ship. The intruders had shields that seemed torotate, sharing the burden among several different shield generators. They could lose part of their shields withoutlosing them all.



    Her ship shuddered again, and again. So close, the intruders didn’t seem inclinedto use torpedoes – or perhaps they’d fired them all already. Her first command had been a destroyer thathad barely carried ten torpedoes. Buttheir phase cannons were digging deeper and deeper into the hulls of theirtargets, hunting for the vital systems that kept the ships going. For the first time, she grasped the essentialweakness in simply copying Association-designed starships. All of her ships – and those belonging tomost of the Galactics – had the same configuration as the Association hadspecified, thousands of years ago. Anyone who learned how to destroy a superdreadnaught could destroy allof them.



    She showed her teeth in a gesture of defiance. Whoever they were, whatever they were reallydoing by attacking her fleet, the Hegemony had thousands of starships at itscommand. The Empress would lead herpeople to a war that would only end when they bombarded the enemy homeworldinto debris, exterminating their entire race. They would...



    The lights flickered as one of the enemy beams slicedthrough a power distribution node. Therewas no hope of concealing from the enemy just how badly they’d harmed her ship,not now. Anyone with passive sensors –let alone active systems – would be able to monitor her ship’s power signature fluctuatingwildly as power was diverted to drive nodes and weapons systems, even from lifesupport. Her crew could live for hoursbefore exhausting all the oxygen in the hull.



    And then the enemy started launching torpedoes again.



    And for the first time, she knew despair.



    ***

    The Hegemony had boasted, when they’d bullied Earth outof Terra Nova, that they never surrendered territory they’d claimed. It was practically ingrained into their verygenes. The concept of sharing what theyhad, of distributing wealth and resources evenly, was alien to them. It wasn't too surprising, given how hard they’dhad to struggle to survive on their homeworld, but it made them dangerous. They were more unpleasant neighbours than NaziGermany or the Soviet Union.



    But now they were starting to retreat. The three superdreadnaughts that were stillcapable of moving under their own power were inching away from Terra Nova,their drive fields flickering in and out of existence as they fought to keeptheir drives operational. Theirremaining escorts were forming a line and attempting to bar the human shipsfrom reaching their larger consorts, an act that would have won them somerespect if the Hegemony had been more inclined to be friendly to its weakerneighbours. Instead, they were merely aproblem that had to be removed.



    Two of his own destroyers had moved closer to thedrifting hulk, allowing Marines to fly out of their airlocks and board the derelictship. It was a risk – there was noreason why the Funks couldn't turn off the containment chambers in theirwarheads and vaporise the remains along with the boarding party – but takingthe hulk intact would be worth any risk. Even damaged, it would give the human race valuable intelligence.



    “Engage the smaller ships with torpedoes,” he ordered, asthe fleet closed in on the enemy line. They were opening fire before the human ships had entered range, hopingto score a lucky hit. He didn't intendto give them the chance. Some of hisships had lost parts of their shields, leaving their hulls vulnerable if theenemy put a shot through the gaps in their defences. And his cruisers couldn't stand up to a heavybombardment on their unshielded hulls. “Blowthem out of our way.”



    The enemy destroyers attempted to evade as the spread oftorpedoes roared towards their ships. Standard doctrine called for the torpedoes to concentrate on a singletarget; instead, his torpedoes spread out, each one going after a differentship. The enemy had to find it more thana little intimidating, particularly if they’d realised just how powerful hiswarheads actually were. There was a goodchance that a single hit would be enough to cripple or destroy the smallerships.



    He smiled as antimatter warheads started exploding. Some had been picked off before they hittheir targets, but others had struck home...and destroyers vanished in flashesof brilliant white light. Several otherswere badly damaged, limping out of formation or coming apart at the seams. They hadn't been designed to do more thansupport the wall of battle, even before humanity had started rewriting the rulebook. Two ships turned and fled, racingpast the superdreadnaughts and trying to make it to clear space. Tobias ordered two cruisers to leave formationand try to run the enemy destroyers down before they could escape. Accurate data on what human weapons had donewould make it much easier for the Hegemony to duplicate humanity’sinventions. Knowing that something waspossible was half the battle.



    “Take us in,” he ordered. The superdreadnaughts were still firing, but their drives werecrippled. They’d never make it to clearspace in time to escape. “You may fireas soon as we enter range.”



    Nimitz’s phasecannons opened fire, digging into the enemy hulls. Tobias gripped his chair as the cruiserslipped closer, feeling a cold exultation as humanity gave the galactic bully abloody nose, learning that the Hegemony was far from invincible. They’d won the first battle through luck,skill and better weapons and the next battles would be harder, but the humanrace would find its confidence soaring once the reports reached Earth. No one would ever be able to refuse to takehumanity seriously ever again.



    One of the enemy superdreadnaughts staggered out offormation as her shields failed, just before an antimatter torpedo struck herhull. For a moment, she still seemed tobe struggling for life before the blast tore through her structure andvaporised the entire ship. Both of theenemy ships were now radiating flagship-style emissions, a cunning ruse thatmight have worked earlier, before his fleet had managed to identify theflagship. The antimatter dischargers hadn'tbeen anything like powerful enough for his ships to lose track of the enemyflagship, even though her commander had managed to keep her intact despiteTobias’s best efforts.



    And then there weretwo, he thought. His formationclosed in on its targets. It won’t be long now.



    ***

    The sound that groaned through Ripper’s hull spelt the death-knell of the entire ship. Centuries ago, the Association had producedhull and structural metal that held up even in extreme circumstances, but itwas not completely indestructible. Thechain of explosions that had rippled through one of the lesser weapon bays hadcompromised the entire starship’s integrity. Internal structural fields that were supposed to reinforce the rawmaterial were failing one by one. Another shudder ran through the mighty ship as her drives finally died,trapping her in the Terra Nova system. It was even possible that the planet’s gravity would pull them in andslam them into the surface. A belatedrevenge...except the intruders would simply vaporise the hulk if they didn't deemit worth salvage.



    Lady Dalsha saw the males starting to panic and knew thatshe’d lost control over the situation. They’d start fighting and tear the rest of the ship apart, if the enemyleft them alive that long. The handfulof other females on the ship wouldn't be able to regain control until it wasfar too late. Males had problemscomprehending that someone was stronger than they, particularly when it came tofighting. It was females who providedthe long-term thinking...and there was no longer any future for any ofthem. The males would understand that ona level that no female could match. Andthen they would destroy themselves in fighting.



    She flipped up a hidden panel in her command stool andtapped in two codes known only to her and her superiors. The first would activate the sleepy gas thatwould force the males into hibernation, a gas she’d been warned could only beused in the event of mutiny. Somefemales didn't have the knack for commanding large numbers of males, or wereunable to maintain the balance between reward and punishment that kept themales in line. The second would dosomething that she would once have considered inconceivable. It would shut down her ship’s weapons andbroadcast surrender, her surrender. The Hegemony had never surrendered before...



    ...But there was always a first time.



    This won’t be theend, she thought, as she waited for a response – or an antimatter torpedothat would vaporise what remained of her command. The males were still twitching where they’dfallen to the gas. It didn't affectfemales unless there was a much heavier concentration in the air, for reasonstied into their biology. Females werestudier than males. Whatever happens to me, the Empress won’t let this pass.



    The communications screen lit up and she found herselfstaring at a human face. She wanted toscream, to rend and tear at the air with her claws, but instead she keptherself under tight control. Humanswould understand Galactic Three, one of the artificial languages the Associationhad devised for its client races. TheEmpress had talked of the days when the One Tongue would be spoken across thegalaxy, but those days had yet to come. How had the humans grown so mighty? Had some of their entertainments been based on reality after all? Or had someone more advanced than theAssociation helped them?



    Or was the Association more interested in galacticpolitics than everyone believed? Theywere an old race, the oldest spacefaring society known to exist. Had they shared all of their technology, orhad they kept a few surprises back for the day when the younger races tried totake their remaining worlds? There wasno way to know, but the Empress would find out.



    “Great Lady,” the human said, in passable GalacticThree. Her – no, his – tone was faintly shaded with an emotion she didn't recognise,but suspected was scorn. “You wish tosurrender?”



    No, shethought.



    “Yes,” she said. The Hegemony would need her observations of the battle so the Empresscould plan their counter-offensive. Whoeverhad given the humans such technology wouldn’t have very much of it, or theywould have struck the homeworld directly. It crossed her mind that they had struckthe homeworld and pushed it aside. “Ioffer you my ship and my submission.”



    It was an old ritual, one that had never been extendedoutside the race. But it was the onlyone she had. And if the humans refusedto accept it...



    ...The Empress would never know what had happened in thesystem.



    ***

    Tobias studied the alien face, wishing he knew how to readher properly. Even the Association hadhad problems creating automatic translators that allowed different aliens racesto understand one another, let alone follow body language from a thousanddifferent worlds and races. A humanshaking his head was saying no; an alien headshake could mean anything from ‘Ihate you’ to ‘I want to have sex with you’ – if it meant anything at all. There were races so cold, so emotionless,that they were difficult for humanity to accept and understand.



    And the Funk wanted to surrender. Part of him wanted to press the offensive, towipe her and her fleet out of existence, to avenge Earth’s humiliation inblood. But he’d told his subordinatesthat he wanted no atrocities. How couldhe demand that if he ordered an atrocity himself? And it wouldbe an atrocity. There was no soundtactical reason for slaughtering a crew that wanted to surrender. They could take prisoners and interrogate them. A Great Lady would know enough to please evenONI.



    “My Marines will be boarding your vessel,” he said,finally. “If there is any resistance,you and your ship will be vaporised. Donot attempt to destroy computer records or kill members of your crew. Do you understand me?”



    The alien bowed her head, her crest hanging low. Humanity had studied its most likely opponentfor long enough to know that that was supposedto be a sign of surrender, the acceptance of someone else’s incontestable superiority. And yet...it could be an act, one good enoughto fool humans who were only outside observers. Aliens were alien, not humans in funny costumes. They always had to bear that in mind.



    “I understand,” the alien said.



    “And you will order the planetary garrison to surrender,”Tobias added.



    The alien looked up, unblinking eyes meeting his. “I have no authority over the garrison,” shesaid. There was no way to know, butTobias suspected that she was telling the truth. The Funks didn't believe in united commands,particularly commands that would-be usurpers could use to try to overthrow theEmpress. “They will not surrender on mycommand.”



    “I see,” Tobias said. The Marines were already on their way. “Do not attempt to impede my forces taking control of your ship.”



    He cut the communications link and looked up at CommanderJackson. “Have the positions ofplanetary defence sites been plotted?”



    “Yes, sir,” Jackson said. “Most of the outlying ones are well away from human populations, but ahandful are near major settlements – including the main garrison.”



    Tobias nodded. Atleast the Funks probably wouldn't think of taking hostages as human shields, atleast not at first. They showed such afrightening lack of concern about their own civilians that they had problemsgrasping the fact that humans cared. Howlong would it be before realising that they could deter orbital bombardment bypacking their bases with human children?



    But they won’t havethe chance, he told himself. This is the sole major human populationunder their rule. And we’re going totake it from them.



    “Then give the order,” he said. “Land the landing force!”
     
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  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    Conrad always gotnervous before a drop – he’d read StarshipTroopers in school and the book had left a permanent impression on himbefore humanity had learned how to produce armoured combat suits in reallife. The assault shuttles were headingright towards Terra Nova, each of them carrying two platoons of armouredMarines, their lives dependent upon the skill of the pilots. No one was entirely sure how well defendedTerra Nova was; Galactic doctrine called for only placing small forces on aplanet’s surface, but the Hegemony had needed to keep the population undercontrol. The intelligence services hadn'tbeen able to get anyone into their bases.



    “Entering atmosphere,” the pilot’s voice said, cracklingin his ears. “Prepare for drop.”



    He tensed, despite himself. By the time they qualified, Marines had spenthundreds of hours learning how to operate the combat suits, but it would be thefirst time they jumped into combat on an alien world. There were some things that no amount oftraining could prepare one for, no matter how detailed the simulations. Even live fire was different when the enemygenuinely intended to kill their targets. A single burst from a plasma cannon intended to shoot down shuttles oraircraft would vaporise the suit and kill him before he even knew what had hithim.



    The display in front of him updated rapidly, a dozenscreens monitoring the progress of the assault, the status of his Marines andintelligence amassed by the drones and starships in orbit around TerraNova. Multitasking was difficult – morewould-be Marines flunked out through failing to learn to handle their suitsthan anything else – but he’d learned how to take what information he neededand ignore the rest. Some officersbelieved that Marines should only have access to some of the data and have therest doled out by their superiors, yet exercises had shown that that sometimescaused problems on the ground. So didthe superiors looking down from orbit and trying to dictate orders to theBootnecks on the ground, bypassing the Marine officers trying to run theshow. Conrad suspected that seniorofficers would one day manage to secure more control for themselves, hopefullylong after the human race had secured its place in the universe. Less adaptable tactics would turn the warinto a war of attrition, one the human race couldn't hope to win.



    He felt the shuttle shiver around him as it dived intothe atmosphere. They were coming in overthe ocean, heading towards Gagarin City. The garrison squatting beside the city was a vast brooding superstructure,protected by a force field and the presence of human settlements aroundit. Updated reports warned that theFunks were launching drones towards the shuttles, hoping to down some of thembefore they began to spew out armoured Marines. The starships picked them off from orbit, clearing the path to thecity. A timer appeared in front of hisdisplay, counting down the seconds. Ten,nine, eight...



    There was a jerk as his suit was picked up and tossed outof the shuttle, falling down towards the ground. The Captain led the way, followed by Conradand the rest of his men. Warning lightsflashed up on his display as the Funks turned their attention to the Marines,trying to pick them off before they reached the ground. The combat datanet activated automatically,bringing ECM and other countermeasures online. Several Marines fired back towards their tormentors, using theirtargeting systems to pick off the small plasma cannons normally deployedagainst armoured vehicles. Others curledup and waited for the antigravity system to cut their fall, a second beforethey hit the ground.



    Gagarin City had been built on one side of a river, asite that had reminded him of early London when he’d first seen the maps duringthe planning sessions. The original prefabricatedbuildings had been rapidly replaced with brick and wooden buildings constructedfrom materials found on the planet itself, while hundreds of small villages andfarms had been established upriver and fishing boats had set out on the vastocean. Some of the alien fish wereinedible, others were considered a delicacy – or they had been, until theHegemony took the planet. The cynicalpart of Conrad’s mind wondered if some of the higher-ups were more irritatedover losing their expensive food than losing the planet itself.



    The Funks had built their garrison on the other side ofthe river, a security measure that had seemed perfect when they’d landed andestablished their control over the high orbitals. There wasa small insurgency underway, after all, and they knew better than to trustany human, even the turncoats who had gone to work for them. But now it would work against them, for thereshould be no humans in their garrison to be caught in the crossfire. Or so the planners had hoped. The Funks might just think of taking hostagesif they were given long enough to consider.



    He hit the ground and instantly crouched down, watchingfor possible threats – and targets. TheFunks would have deployed their own troops to counter the landing as soon asthey realised the threat, and they’d cleared away much of the foliage around theirgarrison to give their people clear fields of fire. They’d also built a small town for their ownpeople, including a number of servants from their client races. Intelligence claimed that the Funks hadn't actuallybrought a large civilian population of their own, although Conrad knew betterthan to take that for granted. Thespooks had been known to be wrong before.



    A small detachment of enemy troopers appeared out ofnowhere, firing towards the Marines. Conrad was in motion almost before he realised what had happened,jumping towards cover and firing back towards the enemy. Tanks – including the Challengers he’d workedwith on Salisbury Plain – were heavily armoured, but also alarmingly easy tosee – and kill. Combat suits were farsmaller and presented more difficult targets, as well as carrying weapons thatwould have made the tankers green with envy. A single Galactic-grade plasma cannon or HVM would tear through aChallenger like a knife through paper.



    The Funks had their own suits, of course, and they movedforwards with a grim determination that any human would envy. They combined the fanatical fearlessness ofterrorists and insurgents with workable doctrine and an understanding of theirown weapons, making them far more dangerous enemies than anyone else theMarines had fought since they’d been founded. Funk males were supposed to be more aggressive than any otherintelligent race, even human males competing for female attention. They certainly lived up to their reputation.



    A plasma bolt scorched through the air, alarmingly closeto his position. Someone had trackedhim, then. He fired back as he crouchedlow and moved to another position, while three other Marines took advantage ofthe enemy’s preoccupation with Conrad to take up forward positions and pourfire on the enemy. A brief note flashedup in front of him, informing the Marines that plasma weapons fire had set thealien town on fire, before he dismissed it. There was no time to worry about the alien settlement when he wasfighting for his life.



    He saw a Funk pop out of cover and run forwards, seekinga better place to fire on the human invaders. Conrad snapped off a shot before he had quite realised what he wasdoing, striking the alien suit in the centre of its torso. The blast punched right through the armourand crisped the alien inside, killing him instantly. Conrad wondered if the suit would try tocontinue the fight on its own – some human-designed suits could do so – but insteadit just hit the ground and lay still. The Funks clearly agreed with the Cats that making AI too intelligent was asking for trouble.



    Inch by inch, the Marines pressed forward towards thealien base. The force field shimmeringoverhead protected it from the starships, but it didn't touch the ground. Some of the briefers had explained that forcefields would attempt to cut through the earth and completely shield the base,tearing through underground piping and installations in the process. All that really mattered to the Marines wasthat they could slip through the gap and take out the force field generator themselves,exposing the base to orbital fire. TheFunks could surrender or the garrison would be taken out from orbit.



    The outer shell of the base itself was made from hullmetal, contemptuously repelling plasma shots from the Marines as theyconfronted the trenches and emplaced weapons the Funks had constructed to bleedan attacker white. They’d clearly hadsome reason to be paranoid about the locals, even though it looked as if they’doverdone it. Conrad stayed low – the automatedweapons would snap off a shot at any Marine who exposed himself beforebiological minds could see and react – and pressed forward, leading fourMarines behind him. A thought activatedthe grenade launcher and he fired a spread of grenades into an alien trench,before nipping forward and diving into the space cleared by theexplosions. One Funk was clearly badlywounded, if not dying; the other seemed to be stunned, but alive. Grenades just weren't as effective onarmoured troopers as they were on unprotected men.



    He lifted an arm to shield himself as the Funk threwhimself forward and crashed right into Conrad. The blank metal of his facemask seemed to mock the humans as blowsrained down with armoured strength, shaking the entire suit. An unsuited human would have been smashed toa pulp with just one blow. They were tooclose to risk using his plasma cannon and so he fought back, matching the alienblow for blow. Neither one of them couldgain an advantage, even with their augmented suits. He found himself wishing that he could seethe alien face, to look into the red eyes that had haunted humanity’snightmares since they’d realised that not all of the Galactics werefriendly. The thought drove him on as hekicked the alien in the chest, knocking him backwards and down the trench. A burst of plasma fire from one of theMarines cut the alien down before he could get back up and return to the fight.



    “Follow me,” Conrad barked. The updating display showed the Marines closingin on the base itself, pinpoint plasma fire picking off the automated guns thatwere trying to wipe out the Marines before they got too close. In some ways, the aliens had reinvented theart of building castles or forts – but humanity had learned that there was nosuch thing as a perfect fortification. Lords from the Dark Ages had been able to defy their kinds, until thekings and their armies had started to use gunpowder and cannons to bringrebellious lords to heel. The Funks hadn'teven started to work iron before they’d been introduced to the greatergalaxy. But that didn't stop them beingdangerous.



    An automated weapon turned rapidly towards him, spewingout white-hot bursts of light. Conrad wasn'tsure what it was tracking, or if it was tracking at all, but he took it outbefore it could start firing on him. Theplasma containment field lost cohesion and exploded, scorching the garrison’swalls without actually doing any serious damage. They’d had good reason to be confident thattheir base was safe from anything the insurgents could do. One by one, the defences were eliminated, butthe Marines had to get inside the base. And the Funks knew it too.



    Some Marines launched a diversionary attack on the maindoors as Conrad led an assault right up the side of the garrison, scrambling upthe walls. A set of armoured Funks metthem as they reached the top of the brooding dome, only to be picked off by thesnipers that had moved into position now that the automated weapons had beendestroyed. Marine snipers could shoot aninsect out of the air at long distance; even half-camouflaged, the Funks wereeasy targets. If they had snipers oftheir own, no one had ever encountered them and lived to tell the tale.



    He fired a set of grenades into the hanger doors beforethe Funks could finish closing them. Theexplosions blasted through the air, destroying a set of helicopter-likeaircraft and igniting stored ammunition, but the garrison barely shook. They’d separated the hanger from the rest ofthe base with another layer of hull metal, a precaution that would have seemed excessiveif it hadn't paid off so well. Justbecause the Funks had been primitive when the Association had first encounteredthem didn't mean that they were stupid.



    The Marines pressed into the hanger themselves, rushingthrough the burning debris and down towards the armoured door. Two Marines fixed HE charges to the weakpoints while the remainder covered them, watching for any armoured Funks thathad survived the explosion. Conrad spieda suit and put a plasma burst through it before he realised that the Funk hadbeen killed already. Another Marinefound an alien so badly wounded that there was no hope of survival, even withGalactic medical care. He was put out ofhis misery as the Marines fell back and detonated the explosions. The armoured door blasted inwards, clearing theway into the base. Armoured Funks inchedforward, firing as they came. They hadto know as well as the humans that if they lost the force field, the fightwould be over.



    Conrad lunged forward as Marines fired grenades and smallHVMs towards their targets. Explosionsblasted through the garrison, tearing through the weaker interior and destabilisingthe entire structure. The Funks seemeddetermined to fight for every inch of ground, refusing to fall back even whenit would have made sense. Conradsuspected that they were rushing defenders to the breach, fighting a delayingaction while the remainder of their armoured troopers set up defences furtherinside the complex. Unlike most of theirtechnology, the garrison hadn't been copied from the Association. No human had ever been allowed inside thecomplex and then permitted to depart. What few reports they’d had from Terra Nova stated that prisoners whoentered the garrison never came out again.



    A warning light flashed up in his eyes as the Captaindied. It was a risk officers took,sharing combat with their men, but it was still a shock. The Captain had been a good man, even though –like all officers – he’d started out as a green lieutenant with a great deal oftheory and very little experience. Buthe’d learned quickly. There would betime to mourn later, he told himself, as the Marines pressed onwards. The enemy didn't give them any time to relax,but kept throwing in their own attacks while they rigged booby traps furtheralong the corridors. Another Marine diedwhen he stumbled over a plasma charge some crafty Funk had pulled from anoverheated cannon and rigged with a simple detonator. Two other Marines, their suits badly damaged,had to withdraw from combat. Theirprotests were still echoing in his ears even when they’d managed to return tothe shuttles on the ground.



    Another explosion tore through the complex, burningthrough walls and floors. The entireinterior might collapse at any moment, he realised as the Marines activatedtheir antigravity systems and flew over the holes. He saw a set of what had to be alien officesbelow them, empty of their occupants. The planners had believed that the Funks would order all non-combatpersonnel into bunkers under the garrison when it came under attack, but it wasjust possible that every one of the Funks was a combat soldier first. Conrad was silently relieved that theplanners had been right. Killing Funkswho were trying to fight was in the line of duty, but he didn't want to killenemy civilians. Besides, intelligencecould interrogate them and learn more about their opponents.



    The enemy attacks became even more frantic as the Marinesclosed in on the force field generator. It was easy to detect now as it struggled to compensate for the burstsof human fire that brushed against the field, even though the incoming fire wasnowhere near powerful enough to overload the system. Conrad picked off two of the final defenders,and then ordered several Marines to fire grenades into the generator room. There was no point in trying to turn thesystem off when they could just destroy it. The explosion ripped through the base and started the collapse; Conradhad to jump and scramble for safety as the remaining floors started to crashinwards. But the force field wasgone. The Marines fell back to safety,ignoring the remaining defenders. Theycould surrender or the fleet would reduce the garrison to rubble fromorbit. Marine datanets updated, rapidly redefiningfire teams, platoons and combat leaders. Seventy-four Marines had perished in the assault; thirty-two were wounded,some badly enough to require immediate treatment. Their suits would do what they could, butanything that burned through the suit was certainly capable of inflictinghorrific damage, if it didn't kill them outright. The odds were not good.



    There was a long pause as the Marines fell back from thegarrison while the fleet demanded that the enemy surrender, and then the Funksthrew down their arms. Conrad wasn't toosurprised. They would have known thatthe fight was hopeless as soon as they lost their force field. If they’d defended it better, there mighthave been a long siege – or worse. TheMarines might have had to carry a tactical nuke inside the garrison and set itoff, maybe more than once.



    “Take them as prisoners,” he ordered his men. “And watch your backs. They may not all have given up.”
     
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  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    “We picked up the message,” Captain Walsh said. “We are good to go.”



    Commander Markus Wilhelm nodded as Formidable slipped back into quantum space. Transmitting a tachyon-burst signal across hundredsof light years took a vast amount of power, but receiving one was a simplematter. The message Formidable had picked up would seem harmless to any Galacticlistening posts, even though it was the instruction to head to Garston andcommence the attack. There would be nowarning until it was far too late.



    He glanced over at his co-pilot – and wife – Carola, whosmiled back at him. Gunboat crews hadthe shortest life-expectancy in the Federation Navy – a single direct hit froma Galactic weapon would blow the gunboat to atoms – and most of the normalregulations were relaxed for them. Noone else really understood the stresses of piloting a gunboat, particularlywhen the crews were kept isolated from the rest of the Navy. The Galactics could not be allowed to know aboutthe gunboats until it they’d been deployed in action. It wouldn't be long before they came up withcountermeasures to minimise their effectiveness, assuming that they wereeffective. No one had actually testedthe theory outside simulations, until now.



    Formidable didn’tlook very formidable, not from the outside. She was a simple bulk freighter, a design that Earth had copied and putinto mass production, undercutting several Galactic consortiums in theprocess. The civilian versions of thedesign had no quantum drive and were completely dependent upon the quantum gatesto move from star to star, like most commercial shipping. Inside, she was the first gunboat carrier in existence,transporting her parasite ships from world to world. The best of it, according to the briefing,was that when the Hegemony realised that seemingly-innocent freighters werecarrying gunboats, they’d have to stop and search every freighter before they entered orbit. It would not please the other races whentheir traders were delayed by Hegemony security patrols.



    The timer started to count down as Formidable made her slow way towards the quantum gate. It was possible for patrols to be flownthrough the areas of quantum space that corresponded to inhabited star systems,but rare for anyone to try it outside a quantum gate. An entire fleet could approach a star systemand remain undetected until they emerged into normal space. Some of the tactics used by the raidersincluded lurking in quantum space near a gate until a likely target came along,and then moving in to capture the ship. Markusran a hand over his console, checking and rechecking Knife’s systems. When thetime came, the **** was really going to hit the fan.



    “Here we go,” Carola said. The quantum gate opened up around Formidable, allowing her back into theinky darkness of normal space. Stars glowedin the distance, watching as the puny races lived and died like mayflies whilethey burned on. Some of the Galacticsactually worshipped the stars, believing them to be gods. Others had no time for the entire concept ofreligion and regarded it as absurd. “Don’tforget to give the bastards hell.”



    Garston sat on the nexus of no less than five traderoutes, giving the Hegemony a chance to extract user fees from thousands ofstarships. The system’s gas giant had noless than four cloudscoops operating, drawing up HE3 for starships and fusionreactors, while there were hundreds of asteroid mining operations drawing raw materialsfor the industrial nodes orbiting the planet itself. Garston had been settled for over a thousandyears, first by the Association and later several other races, before it hadbeen ceded to the Hegemony. The sheerscale of activity in the system was impressive. Earth had worked desperately to build up its industry, but Garston hadfar more productive capability than Earth. The Hegemony’s iron grip on the planet hadn't changed that, even thoughthey weren't fond of free enterprise.



    But then they haveto worry about Galactic opinion, Markus thought, as Formidable inched towards the planet. Wallowing like a fully-loaded freighter mightoffend the Captain’s dignity, but it was part of the act. They can'tcrack down on most of the races here without pissing off Galactics with the abilityto make the Hegemony pay.



    He watched as Garston Base slowly came into view. By treaty, the Hegemony was the only powerallowed to station armed forces in the system, which simplified the problemfacing the gunboats considerably. Anything that shot back at them was Hegemony and could be destroyedwithout compunction. Accidentallykilling other races, on the other hand, could result in a diplomaticdisaster. The point had been hammeredinto their heads time and time again. Earth did not need more enemies.



    Garston Base was a massive ring, positioned neatly at oneof the gravitational balance points between Garston and one of its moons. Long struts expanded out into space,providing docking ports for military starships. The design was thousands of years old, produced by the Associationduring its first expansion into space. Markuscouldn't understand why the Association – or one of the other Galactics – hadn'tattempted to improve the design, but the briefers had said that the Cats stuckwith what worked. And even though theywere in decline, they still set the standard for the rest of the galaxy. Humans, on the other hand, looked constantlyfor ways to improve what they had. Howlong would it be before humanity raced ahead of the rest of the Galactics?



    “We’re picking up a Hegemony battlecruiser near thestation,” Captain Walsh said, “and a pair of destroyers on mobile patrol. Kill the battlecruiser first.”



    “Yes, boss,” Markus muttered. The battlecruiser was a surprise, althoughthey’d been warned that ship schedules couldn't be completely relied upon. Chances were that her arrival had surprised GarstonBase as much as it had surprised the Federation Navy. “All systems online?”



    “Of course,” Carola said. “We’re ready to launch.”



    Humanity had dreamed of starfighters – fighter jets inspace – long before obtaining the technology to reach the stars. In practice, the idea had proven impractical,even for the Association. Building astarfighter was easy, but designing a compensator that could fit into such asmall craft was impossible, at least so far. Torpedoes pulled such high speeds because they didn't have frail pilotsto be squashed by their acceleration. The gunboats were a compromise design, light attack craft that couldharass enemy starships...and give them a very nasty surprise. There was another concept that the Galacticshad deemed impractical, until human ingenuity had made it work.



    “They’re challenging us,” Captain Walsh said. Ideally, Formidablewould have inched closer to Garston Base before starting the attack, but they'dknown that it wasn't likely to happen. The Hegemony bullied human ships frequently, along with ships from otherraces too weak to make a fuss. Formidable had transmitted anofficial manifest as soon as she hadcleared the quantum gate, one carefully crafted to avoid attracting officious customsofficers, in the hopes it would prevent an inspection until it was toolate. “Gunboats...launch!”



    The hanger bay opened wide, tractor fields pushing thegunboats out into space. Sensor readingswould be a little confused, making it harder for the Funks to react. It was quite possible that they’d think that Formidable had suffered a terribleaccident and was coming apart at the seams. They’d probably launch a rescue shuttle and charge humanity through thenose for the service. Markus smiled ashe activated the gunboat’s drives. Theywere about to get a very nasty surprise.



    “All Grumbles form up on me,” he ordered, as the gunboatsraced away from Formidable. The Funks would see them coming; they’d knowthat they were under attack. “Our targetis the big brute. Eagles; concentrate onthe station. Ivans; cover our backs fromthose destroyers. Good hunting.”



    The Hegemony battlecruiser – her IFF transmitter identifiedher as something that translated loosely as ManifestDestiny – slowly came to life as the gunboats zoomed closer, bringing theirweapons systems online. Her crew hadprobably been enjoying a little intercourse and intoxication on the planet,assuming that the Hegemony males were allowed to do either, but all spacenavies ensured that enough crew to operate and fight the ship remained onboardat all times. The battlecruiser mightrun, or she might fight; they’d certainly be a little contemptuous of the tinygunboats. No one else had devised eitherthe craft or a doctrine to use their advantages against enemy starships.



    “Attention, all shipping,” the recorded message in GalacticThree stated. Formidable was pulsing the message right across the GarstonSystem. “A state of war exists betweenEarth and the Hegemony. All civilianships are advised to identify themselves to us and remain clear of militaryoperations. Our attacks will only bedirected against Hegemony starships; I say again, our attacks will only bedirected against Hegemony starships. Remain clear of military operations for your own safety.”



    Markus silently prayed that the Galactics would listen asthe battlecruiser started to spit deadly fire towards the gunboats. The crews instantly abandoned their firstformation and fell into the second, a chaotic pattern that shiftedrapidly. It looked as if the force’scommander had lost control and his pilots were panicking, but it was acarefully-planned operation. The rapidand unpredictable motions made it extremely difficult for targeting sensors totrack them and open fire. Some of Earth’slittle improvements to the ECM systems developed by the Galactics would madetargeting the gunboats even harder.



    “Concentrate on the drive section,” he ordered, as thegunboats slipped into weapons range. They were so close to the battlecruiser that they could see it throughthe cockpits with the naked eye. “We don'twant her getting away...”



    A gunboat vanished in a puff of light as the Hegemonygunners scored a direct hit. Markus hadknown that there would be losses – pilots he had know and had trained besidesfor years – but it was still hard to accept. He wanted to stick his hand down on the firing key and blast away at theenemy ship until it bled. Instead, heforced himself to concentrate as the gunboats pulled out of their dive,skimming along the edge of the battlecruiser’s shields. One gunboat pilot misjudged the turn andslammed right into the shield. The Funkswould find it a little reassuring, for a few more seconds. It would be clear that the gunboats weren't carryingantimatter.



    “All right,” he ordered. “Fire at will.”



    “Hey,” one of the other pilots said. “Which one of them is Will?”



    Markus snorted as implosion bolts rained down on theenemy drive section. Implosion bolts,for reasons no one outside the engineering departments understood, went rightthrough shields as if they weren't there. They seemed the perfect weapon, but the Galactics – who had devised thetechnology – had never made good use of it. Even for the Association, it was impossible to devise a way ofprojecting the bolt more than several hundred meters before it just cameapart. Any starship armed with animplosion bolt weapon would have to close to suicidal range before openingfire, during which time their opponents would have shot the **** out ofthem. They simply weren't a verypractical weapon...



    ...Unless they were mounted on small craft, craftconsidered expandable by the senior officers who had devised the concept andput it into production. Earth couldtrade a handful of gunboats for a Funk battlecruiser and come out ahead, atrade that couldn't be made with starships. The gunboats did have some limitations – they couldn’t carry quantum drivesand their life support was very limited, even with extension packs – but none ofthe pilots worried about such details. It was enough that they could fight...and give humanity’s tormentors abloody nose they’d never forget.



    The battlecruiser seemed to jerk in shock as deadlyblasts tore through her drive section. Her gunners kept firing, even as she tried to twist away from the tinyattackers. Markus grinned as thegunboats followed, still pouring fire down on the enemy ship. The gunboats, like most small craft, were farmore manoeuvrable than any starship. Andthey could accelerate far faster than their target. The ship’s only real hope was to jump outinto quantum space, but it was already too late. They’d lost their quantum drive withinseconds.



    They’ll be readyfor us next time, Markus thought. Reprogramming their tactical computers would be simple, once they knewwhat they were facing. Garston’smilitary presence wouldn't survive the attack, but most of the commercialstarships would make recordings of the battle, hoping to sell them to interstellarnews networks. The secret would be outthe moment one of them sold their recordings to the Funks. Andthen it will be far harder.



    He twisted the gunboat through a complicated evasivepattern as the battlecruiser lashed out at its enemies, a lion being stung todeath by tiny wasps. Two more gunboatswere picked off, but it made no difference. A direct hit on one of their fusion plants took out most of their power,leaving the ship drifting in space. Lifepods were launched as the crew desperately tried to escape, farfewer than there should have been. Perhaps the lifepods had been ripped apart by the attack, or perhaps theFunk crewmen thought that the gunboats would simply pick them off one byone. Markus wouldn't have done it evenif he’d been ordered to slaughter the helpless escapees. It would have been an atrocity.



    An explosion blew the rear section of the battlecruiserto pieces, leaving the remains cart-wheeling across space. Weapons fire fell away and finally stopped altogether. The ship no longer posed any threat and so Markusled the Grumbles away from their target. Once the gunboats had left the system, the commercial ships could pickup the lifepods and save the crews. Behind them, Ivan Squadron had destroyed one of the Funk destroyerswhile the other had fled into quantum space. That wasn't too surprising. Retreat had been the only logical course, even though the Funks weren't knownfor running from the battlefield. Butthey weren't as bad as the spider-like race on the other side of the galaxy. They regarded themselves as completelyexpendable, just like any other form of military technology. Even the Association had had problemscommunicating with them.



    Garston Base was fighting back savagely. Unlike a starship, which had to devote largeparts of its internal space to drives, orbital bases could cram extra weaponsand shield generators into their hull. Thetime they’d taken to destroy the battlecruiser had given the station’s crew achance to adapt to the gunboats. EagleSquadron had damaged the base, but seven of the gunboats had been blasted intospace dust – including the one flown by the squadron commander. What little coordination still existed amongthe pilots wasn't enough to cripple the station.



    “Ivans and Grumbles, target the station,” Markus ordered,sharply. The shortage of real experiencehad thrown up another nasty problem, one they should have expected. There was no reason why “Eagles; pull backand reform.”



    The station grew rapidly in front of him as they closedin. It was larger than anysuperdreadnaught, large enough to allow starships to dock inside the base’s hull, where they could be powered down andrepaired. And it lacked a place thatcould be destroyed and set off a chain reaction that would destroy the base,unless they burned right through to the fusion plants. Doing that would require burning through theentire station. The gunboats swept out,targeting the station's point defence and picking the guns off, one byone. Several gunboats died before evenrealising that they were under attack. Someone on the other side had already managed to reprogram theirtactical computers.



    Good thing we’regoing to kill her, Markus thought, as he picked off another point defenceweapon. With clear space, the gunboatswere taking up positions and pouring fire directly into the stationitself. Explosions billowed out in thedarkness of space, none of them powerful enough to tear the station apart untilone blast shattered the struts holding the ring together. Slowly, magnificently, the entire stationbegan to disintegrate. Somethingexploded deep inside and kicked a mountain of debris out into the system. Markus allowed himself a moment of silence toappreciate what they’d done, and then barked an order to his gunboatcrews. They turned and fled the dyingstation before it shattered completely. A few hundred lifepod beacons appeared on their displays, screaming forhelp. The commercial ships would have torescue them.



    Formidable wasalready heading back towards the quantum gate when the gunboats formed uparound her. She could slip into quantum space herself, but that would have revealedthat she carried a quantum drive. Letting the Galactics think that she needed a gate to enter and leave quantumspace might come in handy as the war raged on. None of the other ships tried to stop them leaving the system, leavingthe Hegemony’s military reputation in tatters. A report would be transmitted to Earth as soon as they reached a safedistance.



    The eerie lights of quantum space surrounded them as theypassed through the gate. Gunboats could enter quantum space if a starshipor a fixed installation opened a gate for them, allowing them to return totheir carrier once they were safely away from the battle. And if they were lucky, the Galactics would assumethat the opposite was true. Nowherewould be safe from gunboat attacks.



    “Good work, everyone,” he said. “Time to return to the barn – and debriefing.”



    He ignored the groans from his crewmates. They needed to analyse the battle carefullyand work out what they’d done wrong – and right. Learning from success was harder thanlearning from defeat, but there was no choice. The next time the gunboats faced a Hegemony fleet, the Hegemony wouldknow what to expect.



    And then they would reallytest the gunboats to the limit.



    But then, these arethe problems of victory, he reminded himself. Justthink how they must be feeling.
     
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    <b style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"><font size="3">Chapter Twelve<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]


    The streets of Centre’s floating city looked normal, eventhough the universe had just turned upside down. Hundreds of thousands of people, from ahundred different races, thronged the streets, coming together in anassociation supervised by the Association. The Cats had dreamed of a universe whereevery race worked together for the common good, but the way they’d gone aboutit had been largely counterproductive. And now they were losing interest in maintaining the edifice they’dcreated.



    Ambassador Li Shan walked through the streets, badlyshaken. She'd known, of course, thatboth Federation Intelligence and ONI operated out of the human embassy onCentre. It was still the heart of theexplored galaxy, still a place where humans could learn about the Galactics anddig through records that stretched back over thousands of years. But to be told that there was a set ofintelligence operators that she’d never known about, until one of them had beenordered to reveal himself, was shocking – and the discovery that Earth wasembarking on a war was terrifying. Noone had told her, not until the first strikes had already been launched. Logic told her that they couldn't have sent amessage until the war actually began, for fear of interception and decryption,but it was hard not to resent their decision.



    Four men from the embassy walked behind her, all trainedand experienced Federation Marines. TheCats didn't permit others to carry weapons on their world – it was meant to bea place of harmony – but the Marines had a few surprises up their sleeves. It was quite possible that the Funks wouldattempt to assassinate Earth’s Ambassador, once they realised that the war hadbegun. They’d probably have to disownthe assassin and pay reparations – after all, they wouldn't want the Associationto wake up until it was too late – but it would pay off handsomely. Earth wouldn't be able to get another accreditedAmbassador out to Centre for years and her deputy wouldn't be accepted by theGalactics. Just another convention thatthe Galactics couldn't be bothered to change.



    The streets looked busy, with market sellers trying tosell their wares, but it was easy to see what was missing. There were no Cats within the crowd, andindeed few of them within the city itself. The terminal ennui that was wearing away at their determination to tamethe universe and bend it to their will was slowly killing them, even though noCat had died naturally for thousands of years. No one was entirely sure just how many were left, out of a populationthat once numbered in hundreds of trillions. There was no demographic data available on their population thesedays. Shan was inclined to believe thatsome Cats realised the danger and were doing their best to hide their weaknessfrom the rest of the galaxy, but there was no way to know for sure. Even her sources on Centre couldn't find outeverything.



    She tensed as she saw a pair of Funks heading across thestreet. Neither of them seemed awarethat they were at war with the human race, but it wouldn't be long before thenews reached Centre. Some of the plansshe’d seen had suggested blowing up the relay stations, before the diplomatshad seen the plans and vetoed them. Therelay stations were linked to the quantum gates and nothing would be more likely to bring the entire galaxy down onEarth’s head. Destroying a gate wasregarded as the ultimate crime, because it threatened the very foundations ofcivilisation. Even mass-producing and deployingsubversion nanites was less dangerous.



    Like all races, the Hegemony maintained its own Embassyon Centre. It had been built in thestyle they’d used before they’d been contacted by the Association, a weird buildingthat reminded her of a cross between a castle and a tent. Their homeworld had had few permanent cities,not unlike Earth in the years before humans had moved from hunter-gatherers tofarmers. Indeed, the Funk culture – suchas it was – had disdained the city-folk before they’d gained access to advancedtechnology. Maybe they would haveevolved away from the demands of their homeworld if they’d been allowed todevelop naturally. But the Associationhad never given them that chance.



    And yet they’d adapted to the existence of more powerfulraces better than humanity...



    By custom, each Ambassador could call upon anotherAmbassador at any time, without warning. The Association’s traditions for a declaration of war were rather lessdetailed, if only because the brushfire wars were really nothing more thanminor skirmishes. When the Cats had beenstrong and determined, they'd been able to keep younger races from fightingeach other. Now...even without humanitystarting a war with the Hegemony, no one expected the uneasy peace to last morethan a few decades. Scrabbling over thedivision of the Association’s space had already begun.



    She stepped up in front of the force field and held upthe pendant that certified that she was an accredited Ambassador, appointed byEarth and accepted by the Association Commune. The guard – an unarmoured Funk, with no visible weapons – looked at it,make a motion that reminded her of a shrug, and pushed a button. Oddly, she realised as the force fieldflickered out of existence, the guard was female. It was rare to see Funk women in menial jobs,unless they were being punished. Ofcourse, keeping one’s temper was essential on Centre and a Funk male might havestarted a fight by now. Maybe it was amore important position than she’d realised.



    The Funk’s voice was almost atonal, save for a hissingsound that seemed to underlie her Galactic Three. “The Ambassador is eating,” she said. Galactic Three wasn't a particularly politelanguage, reducing messages to their bare essentials. The guard didn't mean to be rude. Probably. “She will see you after she has dined.”



    Shan smiled and pushed forward. “The Ambassador will see me now,” shesaid. She took a breath, puffing out herchest. The Funks didn't take malesseriously, but if they recognised that she was female...of course, all humanslooked alike to them, just as many humans had difficulties telling the differencebetween different Funks. “This matter istoo important to be left to wait.”



    There was one thing about the Funks that reminded her ofher old tutor’s comment about the Russians. They saw the universe in terms of superiors and inferiors. Convince them that you were superior and theywould genuflect and obey; fail to convince them and they would happily takeadvantage of you. But it was oftenharder than it sounded. The guard wouldhave had her orders from a known superior and might not break them for another,particularly a human.



    The Funk bowed her head, slowly. “I will escort you to the Ambassador,” shesaid. “Your guards may wait outside.”



    “Of course,” Shan said, coolly. The thought of not having her bodyguards wasterrifying, but she knew better than to let them see it. Besides, four guards might not be able to gether out safely if the Funks went against thousands of years of tradition andmurdered an Ambassador in their own Embassy. That would seriously annoy all of their neighbours. “Lead the way.”



    The guard scurried ahead of her as Shan strode into theEmbassy as if she owned the place, passing through a security scanner thatinformed her hosts that she carried nothing more dangerous than a datapad, asingle datachip and a secure terminal. Notthat that would reassure them. Theremight be a general consensus that murdering Ambassadors was not civilised, butthere was no law against spying – and plenty of ways to carry surveillance toolsinto a secure building. She could becarrying a handful of nanotech bugs with her, or something even smaller. But they had to see her. She was Earth’s Ambassador.



    She’d never visited the Funk Embassy before and part ofher was curious. The interior of thebuilding smelt faintly of rotting meat, reminding her that the Funks liked toeat their meals raw. Rumour had it thatthey dined on alien flesh in a perverse form of cannibalism, although shedoubted that that was true. Humanity hadbeen quite prepared to believe the worst of them after they’d taken Terra Novaand stories of them devouring human children had spread widely. Who knew? Maybe they would convince one of the other Galactics to intervene.



    In the dim light, she could make out the plain stonewalls, decorated by remarkably fine carved letters. Like humanity, the Funks had kept their own languagesafter learning the various Galactic tongues, but they’d never had a writtenlanguage until they’d adapted one from the Association. Reading it was tricky; some words were comprehensible,probably taken straight from Galactic Three, others were new to her. The Association would have been wiser to notewhat the Funks had done and realise that absorbing and dominating was part oftheir nature. But the Cats had probablyjust seen it as another primitive race copying technology from their betters.



    A handful of other Funks glanced at her as they passedher in the corridor. Most were female,but a couple of males hissed at her when they saw her. They’d probably smelled her first – their noseswere sharper than human noses – and recognised that she was alien. Her escort eyed the males until they weregone, almost as if she’d expected them to lose control and attack Shan. It would have been disastrous if they had,even if Shan survived without serious injury. The Hegemony’s reputation would have taken a terrible blow.



    The Funk Ambassador was seating at a table that had beenhastily cleared of raw animal flesh and the vats of strong wine the Funksbrewed and sold to the rest of the galaxy. Meeting her in the dining hall was a subtle insult, which she pretendedto ignore. She had demanded an immediate meeting, after all, and could hardlycomplain when they pretended to take her at her word. The Ambassador was older than the averageFunk, almost certainly – although it was hard to tell – a close relative of theEmpress. Nepotism was how the Funksoperated, which had the added bonus that anyone without family loyalty wouldn'tbe able to rise to a senior position they could use to mount a coup. The pendent around her neck glowed as itrecognised the presence of Shan’s pendant. No one else would be able to wear it until they received accreditation intheir own right.



    “Great Lady,” Shan said, with a slight bow. Galactic protocol could be very complex attimes, with hundreds of different races adding their own spin on events. “I thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”



    “I thank you for visiting,” Great Lady Vanla said. It was always difficult to read emotionsbehind alien words, but Shan was sure that she was lying through her sharpteeth. The Great Lady hadn't missed any opportunitiesto remind humanity of its lowly place in the galaxy, or to intimidate or bribe potentialallies into staying away from Earth. “Iam sure that your urgent request represents an urgent matter.”



    Shan took a breath. “Over the past ten years, ever since our races first encountered eachother, your race has pushed us hard,” she said. Part of her had wanted to simply deliver the declaration of war and getout, but her terminal was recording the entire meeting. It would be necessary to show it to the otherGalactics when humanity started looking for allies...assuming that the war wentas planned. She couldn't remember if anywar had ever gone according to plan, but she doubted it. “You have demanded concession afterconcession from us, impeded our efforts to move into the wider galaxy and takena whole population of humans captive. Nowyou are attempting to claim our worlds, to end our independence. We can no longer tolerate your dishonourable interferencein our affairs.”



    The Great Lady cocked her head slightly, a Funksmile. “The world you call Terra Novawas transferred to us legally, from the race that originally claimed it,” shesaid, with some clear amusement. “Thefact that a number of...squatters landed on the world, without permission fromthe owners, is of no consequence to us. We were happy to invite them to join the Hegemony, with the same rightsand duties as any other client race.”



    And those rights were very thin on the ground, Shanknew. The Association’s founders hadpatronised the younger races for years, but they hadn’t acted out ofmalice. But the Funks believed themselvessuperior to everyone who couldn't stand up for themselves. Humans would never be anything more thansecond-class citizens under their rule, denied even the hope of freedom.



    The hell of it was that they did have a point, under Galactic law. Terra Nova had been claimed by the Association, although the Cats had neverraised any objection to humans settling on the planet – or, for that matter,the countless other worlds in similar positions. But the Cats had never given up the settlementrights to humanity, and when the Association had convinced them to sign therights over to the Hegemony, it had all been perfectly legal. It just hadn't been particularly ethical. Who would have thought that among the races humanity would encounterincluded hundreds of lawyers?



    But human visions of the universe outside Earth’satmosphere had always been limited. Aliens had been depicted as unified cultures, either benevolentfederations who would give humanity the keys to the stars or implacably hostileempires that would destroy humanity if humanity didn't destroy them first. But realaliens were people, even the ones so alien that holding a conversation wasalmost impossible. And in the snake pitthe Association had accidentally created, the rules were more important thanany concept of ethics, particularly human ethics. Might made right and the Hegemony simply hada bigger stick than Earth.



    “And our homeworld?” Shan asked, meeting the bright red eyes. How could anyone escape realising that the Funks were predators first and foremost? Just because they were matriarchal rather thanpatriarchal didn't make them any less determined to cling onto their ownculture than any number of human tribes on Earth. “What claim do you have on Earth?”



    “The Association claimed your world as well,” the GreatLady said. “Why should we not seeksettlement rights from them?”



    Several arguments rose in Shan’s mind, but she pushedthem down. The Great Lady would eitherlaugh at them, or regard them as proof of human weakness. And maybe she’d be right.



    “You have been attempting to prepare us for the kill,”Shan said, coldly. It had been clearever since Terra Nova had been awarded to the Hegemony. They were gradually weakening and isolatingEarth, before moving in to take the human race for slaves. It was a slow process, but what did the Funkshave to fear from Earth? “We can nolonger allow you to weaken us into insignificance.”



    She produced a standard datachip from her pocket anddropped it on the table. “While we enterthis course of action reluctantly, regrettably” – a piece of fluff for theGalactics who would hear the recording, later – “we see no other choice, but topush you back as hard as we can. Earthis formally declaring war on the Hegemony. We will drive you out of our territory, liberate Terra Nova and teachyou that you may have the law on your side, but we have the determination.”



    For the first time, she saw the Great Ladysurprised. Her jaw hung open, revealingteeth sharp enough to rend and tear at human flesh. Male Funks were supposed to be as strong ashumans, perhaps stronger, but there was little data on how strong their femaleswere, just speculation. The thought thatthe inferior would turn on the superior was outside their comprehension. Sun Tzu had known better, all those yearsago. And yet she was closer in time toMaster Sun than she was to the founders of the Association.



    “You are insane,” the Great Lady managed, finally. “The entire combined tonnage of Earth’s punyfleet is nothing compared to a single task force of our navy. You will be obliterated. Your worlds will become ours without the necessityof convincing the Association to give us settlement rights. You...”



    “Will not go down quietly,” Shan said. If nothing else, at least they would betaking action. “We will not let you takeus down without a fight.”



    She bowed again, walked backwards to the door, andsmiled. Her escort hadn't heard thediscussion and merely escorted her out of the building, rather than trying todo anything to impede her departure. Shan allowed herself another smile as she stepped out into the brightsunlight and left the Embassy behind her. She couldn't escape the feeling that she’d barely escaped with herlife.



    “Back home,” she said, shortly. Earth’s embassy was two kilometres away, onthe outskirts of the floating city. Traditiondemanded that everyone walk from place to place, except in life-threateningemergencies. “We have work to do.”



    And they did, she reflected as they began the longwalk. She had to get humanity’s side ofthe story out into the galactic news networks and begin using all of hercontacts to start pressuring the other Galactics to support Earth. Galactic reporters will probably want tostart setting out for the war zone, hoping to watch one fleet beating theother. The brushfire wars had been onething, but an outright war launched by a minor power against a major power wassomething different. Once they got overtheir shock, the Hegemony would be doing the same. Convincing the other Galactics to supportEarth might be just as important as actually winning battles in space andliberating Terra Nova.



    Now, all they needed was some victories to convince the Galacticsthat humanity wasn't about to be crushed. And that wouldn't be easy.
     
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


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



    Fires were still burning throughout Gagarin City and theFunk settlement beyond as the shuttle swooped down towards HeinleinSpaceport. Most of the Funks hadsurrendered, but a handful of males – crazed with battle lust – had carried onthe fight, forcing the Marines to hunt them down and take them out one byone. The human population had turned ontheir former masters savagely as soon as they realised that liberation was athand, slaughtering dozens of Funksbefore the Marines could take them into custody. They’d also assaulted members of the Funkclient races, creating potential problems for the future. Humanity needed allies among the enemy’sslaves.



    Heinlein Spaceport had expanded during the years theFunks had ruled Terra Nova, apparently one of the few installations to haveseen any growth during their rule. They’dadded prefabricated hangers, runways and a series of guard posts that preventedhumans from entering or leaving the spaceport except under controlledconditions. It reminded Tobias of thebases the various militaries had established in what remained of the MiddleEast, the zones where the population moved from compliant and friendly tohostile and fanatical in seconds. No onecould be permitted to enter without supervision, for fear of suicide bombers orterrorist gunmen. The precautionscreated additional enemies for the troops, something that was regrettable, butunavoidable. No doubt the Funks had hadthe same problem.



    The shuttle touched down and the hatch opened, revealinga pair of Marines serving as a honour guard. Protocol demanded that the Admiral be escorted by a platoon, at least,but there was a shortage of Marines who could be spared for close protectionduties. The city was on the verge of collapseand the Marines were all that were holding it together, replacing the policeforce the aliens had created. One lessonhumanity had learned in its long history was that both liberation andoccupation forces needed to impose order right from the start. Freedom, democracy and human rights camelater. And the colonists had beenthrough hell for the past five years. Tobias couldn’t blame them for wanting a little payback.



    He exchanged salutes with the Marines as another flightof shuttles roared overhead. Thespaceport was the only place on the planet that could take an influx of troopsfrom orbit quickly, even if it was alarmingly close to the main city. Brigadier Jones and his command staff hadalready established their headquarters in the spaceport, although if Tobiasknew the Brigadier he was commanding operations from within his armoured suit,far closer to the action than Tobias would have preferred. Marines were a law unto themselves; theircommanding officers served on the front lines, taking insane risks to win andkeep the respect of their men. Tobiasallowed his escort to lead him towards the largest of the spaceport buildings,once the processing centre for new immigrants to Terra Nova. His daughter and her husband would have gonethrough the centre before being allocated their land, a place where they couldstart building a new life together. Now,the building had fallen into disrepair. The Funks hadn't wanted more human immigrants and they’d been reluctanteven to allow visitors.



    Colonel Lafarge looked up from where he'd been studying amap when Tobias entered. He inclined hishead in greeting, but didn't salute. Saluting senior officers in a combat zone marked them out for enemysnipers. Some of the Funks were stilltrying to hurt the liberators before they were wiped out. The map was paper, rather than one of theelectronic plotting displays Tobias was used to using, but the Marines didn't seemto have any problems with using it to represent the city. They’d marked the location of patrols on themap with pencils.



    “Admiral,” Lafarge said. His accent was French, even though – like all Federation Marines – he spokeEnglish perfectly, along with Galactic Three. “The city is largely under our control.”



    “Good,” Tobias said, shortly. Lafarge had drawn the short straw, no doubt,and had to remain at the spaceport while his CO and the other Colonels were onthe front lines. It worked for theMarines, even though it wouldn't have worked for the Federation Navy. “And the Funks?”



    “We’ve taken over several large buildings and turned theminto makeshift prison camps,” Lafarge informed him. “The Funks are being searched, processed andthen guarded by a pair of companies. I’vehad to issue orders for no locals to be allowed to enter the camps after one oftheir more unwilling collaborators killed a prisoner.”



    “Good thinking,” Tobias said, ruefully. He’d intended to be gentle in victory – it wouldhave made for good publicity among the Galactics – but the locals had otherideas. “How secure is the city itself?”



    “Most of it is fairly secure, but some parts have beenconsumed by riots before we could get troops in there to deal with them,”Lafarge said. “And there are still ahandful of Funks out there, looking for trouble. We’ll bring it to them when they show themselves.”



    “Riots,” Tobias said, quietly. The Funks had steadily created an underclassof humans, one that had fallen into criminal activity as the only way to stayalive. Of course they were rioting, nowthat the iron hand of Funk control had been removed. Terra Nova would take decades to recover fromthe trauma of alien control, assuming that humanity won the war. “And how much of the local government hassurvived?”



    “The original Governor has not been found,” Lafarge said,“but a number of collaborators were killed when we stormed the garrison. And...”



    He hesitated. “Andwe found proof that some of them had been indulged by the Funks as the rewardfor their collaboration,” he added. “Theywere permitted to rape, torture and murder as the whim stuck them. Two of them were found with preteen childrenin their quarters...”



    Tobias blanched. “Takethem all into custody,” he ordered, flatly. He wanted to unleash the Marines without a trial, to punish the collaboratorsas they deserved, but they had to make it clear that they were punishing theguilty. And what of those who had had nochoice, apart from collaboration? Couldthey really blame someone if the Funks had put a gun to his child’s head anddemanded his services, or else? “Makesure that enough evidence is recorded to use against them when we hold trials.”



    “Yes, sir,” Lafarge said.



    “I need to go to the city,” Tobias said. It was selfish of him, but he wanted to seewhat the Funks had done with his own eyes. The reporters were already being shipped down from the assault carriers,ready to beam their reports back to Earth. They’d known that conditions on Terra Novawere bad, but they hadn't realised just how bad they’d become. “I’ll need to meet with the Brigadierpersonally.”



    ***

    Conrad kept a wary eye out for Funks – or angry civilians– as the small platoon advanced down the street. He would have preferred a more subtle approachthan a patrol that stood out for miles, but their orders had been clear. The Marines were to make a show of strength toconvince the Funks that further resistance was futile, and warn the civiliansthat the colony was now under martial law. Some of them had been very ungrateful and started to riot as soon as theFunks were gone. Others were starting tokill collaborators, or to hunt down anyone who had helped the Funks, evenagainst their will.



    The sound of sobbing caught his attention as they turnedthe corner. He stepped forward,motioning for two Marines to follow him while the others remained behind,covering them. A young woman – hardly morethan twenty years old – lay on the pavement, crying. Two other women stood over her, one hackingaway at the crying girl’s hair while the other held her down. Their victim looked pitiful, awakening Conrad’sprotective instincts. He lifted hisrifle and pointed it directly at the hairdresser.



    “Let her go, now,” he ordered. Civilians were strange; sometimes they obeyedorders and sometimes they wanted to debate them, as if they didn't feel theneed for discipline. But then, he’d beena tearaway before the Royal Marines had knocked some sense into his head. The distance between him and the youthslashing out at their former tormentors was less than he would havepreferred. “Now!”



    He clicked the safety off and had the satisfaction ofseeing the first woman stumble backwards. The hairdresser, made of stronger stuff, glared at him. Up close, he could see bruises on her face,inflicted by someone who had intended to hurt her without causing permanentdamage. He’d seen them before, on womenin places occupied by Western military forces. Their husbands liked to compensate for perceived insults to theirmasculinity by knocking their women around. They were brave enough to hit their wives, but not brave enough toconfront the armed Marines.



    “This...bitch usedto sleep with Howell,” the hairdresser said. Conrad winced, inside. The Marinenetwork had already informed him that Howell had been one of the worstcollaborators, a former farmer whose farm had collapsed before the Funksarrived through his mismanagement. He’dbeen unemployed up until the moment he’d realised that he could sell hisservices to the Funks. “She used toentertain the lizards. Why should we notpunish her?”



    Conrad doubted the last charge; interracial sex was rare,almost non-existent. There were no actuallaws against it, but as most intelligent races didn't really feel attractionfor other races the Association didn't need to bother. The Hegemony males wouldn't find humanfemales attractive, if they even recognised the difference between male orfemale humans. It was more likely thatthe hairdresser was exaggerating. Conradcertainly hoped she was exaggerating.



    “Because all collaborators will be tried and, if foundguilty, will be punished,” Conrad said, firmly. He understood how they felt, but another thing learned from humanhistory was that revenge was a road that had no ending. The losers would seek their own revenge assoon as they felt strong enough to take it. “She will be tried, along with the others. Let her go.”



    “And then she will walk,” the hairdresser said, angrily. “Someone like her will flutter her eyelashesat the judge and jury and convince them that she was an unwitting dupe! A fancy lawyer will get her off on atechnicality. She used to name peoplesuspected of being part of the resistance and Howell’s police picked them upand beat them until they confessed. I...”



    Conrad pointed his rifle right at her heart and her voicetrailed off. Regulations concerning thecare of prisoners, whatever their crimes, were clear. The Marines were to prevent anyone harmingthe prisoners, particularly the ones who might have useful information forintelligence teams. Conrad doubted thatthe crying girl would have anything in her mind that ONI could use, butregulations were clear. Besides, roughjustice offended his sense of order.



    “Release her now or I will shoot you,” he said,flatly. Behind him, the two Marines tookoff their own safety catches. “Step awayfrom her.”



    The hairdresser looked into his eyes, and thenreluctantly let the girl go. “You don’t understandwhat we’ve been through,” she said, finally. “You should help us.”



    “We did,” Conrad said. “Now please go home. We’ll takeher to the camp.”



    He shook his head as the two women walked away. It was going to be a long day.



    ***

    Gagarin City had once been a prosperous, if rough,city. Tobias had seen pictures sent homeby Judy and he'd admired the neat little houses and the brick buildings thatwere steadily replacing the prefabricated structures produced on Earth. The Old West must have looked similar, backbefore civilisation had crawled over North America, with small towns islands ofhuman settlement in the wilds. Some ofthe colonists had been wealthy enough to afford to buy and operate a groundcar,but most of them had used bicycles or horses to get around the city – or outside. Terra Nova lacked any animals that could bedomesticated to take the place of the horse.



    Now, parts of the city were in ruins and the rest lookeddecayed. Many once-prosperous buildingswere falling apart through lack of maintenance. The city’s water and electricity infrastructure had been taken by theFunks, who often cut the supplies just to remind the humans who was incharge. Several buildings housedhomeless families who had nowhere else to go. Some colonists had managed to turn a profit in the years of occupation,but they were the exception. Themajority were poorer now than they’d been before the Funks arrived.



    He'd done his best to read through all the reports, butthey didn't prepare him for the reality - and there were sights he never wantedto see. Terra Nova had suffered a foodshortage in the second year of occupation, a combination of a bad harvest andthe demands placed by the Funks on the food supplies. They’d attempted to solve the problem byrounding up hundreds of unemployed humans and shipping them out to work on thefarms, only to discover that the results were nothing short of disastrous. The people they’d chosen as farmers had never been farmers and most of them hadbeen too ignorant to know how to start. Vast stretches of farmland had been ruined before the Funks realisedthat they’d made a mistake and gave up on trying to force people to become farmers.



    There was worse. People had been forced to turn to crime to survive. The Funks didn't seem to care about what humansdid to each other, which allowed criminal syndicates to survive – hell, some ofthem had clearly allied with the Funks. Hundreds of women had been forced into prostitution, serving the fewhumans able to afford their services. Aloaf of bread, a slice of meat, an egg or two...it was all it took to buy a prostitutefor the night.



    He winced as the groundcar turned a corner and he saw theman hanging from the lamppost, very definitely dead. Someone had hacked away at his body just tomake sure and blood was pooling under his swinging corpse. A collaborator, no doubt, or perhaps someonemurdered to pay off an old grudge in the confusion. Even the Federation Marines couldn't beeverywhere at once. Small patrols movedthrough the streets, constantly broadcasting warnings for people to remain intheir homes. In the distance, he couldhear brief crackles of gunfire as the Marines stumbled across lurkingFunks. They still hadn't completelysurrendered.



    The park had once been Gagarin City’s pride and joy. A group of settlers had brought flowers andtrees from Earth and planted them in the heart of the city, in front of thetown hall. It had been beautiful beforethe Funks had destroyed it, burning the entire garden to the ground. Now, fencing had hastily been erected aroundthe blackened soil and used to construct a POW camp. Inside, several hundred Funks sat listlessly,their bodies inhumanly still. They neverwasted a movement, Tobias knew; it was a point of pride with them that theynever wasted anything. Their homeworldhad never encouraged conspicuous consumption.



    Outside, a handful of Marines held their weapons at theready, guarding the POWs. At least theFunks could be fed on human rations, making it easier to feed theprisoners. They could eat a far widerrange of food than humanity, another legacy from their homeworld. Some races could only eat foodstuffs fromtheir homeworld, or grew sick if they didn't eat precisely the right food everyday. Feeding them would have been agreat deal harder even with Association-level technology. No one had yet managed to produce somethingout of nothing.



    The Town Hall had been patterned after the White House,although it was far smaller. There hadbeen a minor scandal when it had first been designed, as critics had pointedout that the Governor only really wanted a spectacular mansion for him and hisfamily. The Governor had been replacedat the end of the year, but the Town Hall had been completed , just in time forthe Funks to take over the planet. They’dinstalled the worst of the collaborators in the Town Hall and used them toadminister the planet. A human wouldhave used the building for himself. Tobias couldn’t tell if the Funks didn't like the Town Hall, or ifchoosing to place their Governor in their garrison had been a security decision. Or perhaps it made perfect sense from theirpoint of view. The supreme commandershould have the toughest possible accommodation, if only to intimidate possibleopponents.



    Inside, a handful of Marine intelligence specialists weremoving from room to room, removing papers and computer processors from the TownHall. The spooks would work their waythrough them and extract any useful intelligence, although Tobias doubted thatthey would turn up anything interesting. Whatever else could be said about the Funks, their operational security wasvery good. They didn't tell their peopleanything unless their superiors believed that they needed to know.



    “Admiral,” Jones said. The Brigadier had ditched his armour as soon as the main body offighting came to an end, like most of his men. “Welcome to Terra Nova.”



    Tobias smiled. They’d won the battle, even if the war would go on. The Hegemony would probably know that it wasat war by now. He’d sweated bullets overthe timing of the declaration of war – it might have come too early or too late– but it hardly mattered. The report fromFormidable had confirmed that theHegemony base hit by the gunboats had passed on a warning before it wasdestroyed.



    “Thank you, Brigadier,” he said. “It’s great to be here.”



    Jones smiled. “Wefound someone in the basement you’re going to want to meet,” he said, andtapped his wristcom. “Send her in,please.”



    The door opened...and Tobias stared, all decorumforgotten. It had been years since he’dseen Judy, and she’d aged from the girl she’d been as a child, but herecognised her at once. He swept her upinto his arms and hugged her tightly, kissing her forehead. His daughter was alive and well!



    “I knew you’d come,” Judy whispered. Tobias felt hot tears pricking at hiseyes. “I waited for you and you came!”



    “I came,” Tobias said. It was suddenly very hard to speak. “I came for you.”
     
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  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    COMMENTS?


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



    “Apart from Tirpitz,which was completely destroyed, all of our cruisers suffered only minimaldamage,” Commander Sooraya Qadir reported. It was a day after the Battle of Terra Nova. “Captain Tallyman estimates that repairs to Woodward, the most badly damaged of ourcruisers, will take no more than three days now that the Fleet Train hasentered orbit. We could advance againstthe next target once repairs are completed.



    “However, five destroyers were lost,” she added. “Two of them hadn't been refitted with thereinforced variable shield generators that gave the rest of the fleetadditional protection, but all five of the lost ships were picked off by the superdreadnaughtsas they closed in on their attack runs. Theyjust don’t have the defences to stand in the wall of battle.”



    “We knew that when we went in,” Tobias said, flatly. He would have loved to visit Judy’s farm –the Funks had arrested her after discovering that she was involved in theresistance – but there was no time. Thenews about the war was already out and spreading. “And the Marines?”



    “One hundred and nineteen died in the assault on thegarrison,” Sooraya informed him. “Thelargest single loss was the destruction of a shuttle before the Marines hadfinished bailing out, taking out fifteen Marines and the shuttle crew. Thirty-seven have also been injured severelyenough to merit a return home to where they can receive proper medicalcare. They’re currently in stasis in theFleet Train.”



    Tobias nodded, sourly. Every one of the Galactics with ambitions to replace the Cats as thedominant race in the galaxy maintained a Fleet Train, a fleet of supply andtransport starships that supplied their navies as they advanced away from theirhomeworlds. Humanity, on the other hand,hadn’t had the time or resources to do more than improvise a fleet train fromcommercial freighters and a couple of mothballed deep-space survey shipspurchased from the Association. Giventime, he had no doubt that the Federation Navy would build a proper supplyfleet of its own, but they would have to make do with what they had for themoment.



    “The Hegemony lost two superdreadnaughts outright, athird wrecked beyond hope of repair and two more that surrendered,” Soorayaadded. “By any standards, it was themost one-sided victory in recent galactic history. We took over nine thousand prisoners from the superdreadnaughts alone and the spooksare already cooing over what they’ve managed to extract from theircomputers. We...”



    Tobias held up a hand. In one sense, she was right; it hadbeen a one-sided victory. But losingTirpitz inflicted more proportionaldamage to the Federation Navy than the loss of five superdreadnaughts to theHegemony. The balance of power, at leaston paper, favoured the Hegemony, something the other Galactics would considerwhen they started thinking about who to support. So far, there had been little reaction fromanyone else apart from a bland statement condemning the violence from the AssociationCommune. No one knew how the Hegemonywould react to the defeat they’d suffered.



    “Those are minor priorities, right now,” he said. Earth had no superdreadnaughts, but while hewas tempted to repair one of the captured ships and add it to his fleet, heknew that it would be worse than useless. Superdreadnaughts were ponderous brutes while his cruisers were light,fast and armed with superior weapons. There was no way to justify the cost in resources it would take torepair the captured ships. They’d bebetter spent on the new construction in Earth’s orbital yards. “The priority is to advance on Garston.”



    The planners, those few who had known about Kryptonite,had been divided on the question of mounting further assaults. Some had pointed out that Earth had no claim –legal or moral –to Garston and that taking the planet would give the Hegemony achance to score a major propaganda coup. Others had insisted that only hitting the Hegemony again and again wouldconvince the Empress to back off, and that delaying the advance would give theFunks a chance to reinforce the threatened sectors. Tobias had clung to the middle ground untilthe decision actually had to be made. His fleet had won one battle and it was largely intact. They could advance before reinforcements weredispatched from the Hegemony.



    And there really wasn't any other choice.



    But there was a problem. The Hegemony was small compared to the Association, but it still heldupwards of five hundred stars and trillions of Funks. There was little hope that humanity would beable to overrun and occupy it all, even if that didn’t provoke intervention fromthe other Galactics. They would have tocome to peace terms eventually, or the Hegemony would eventually grind themdown and push humanity all the way back to Earth. Pressing the offensive might guarantee thatthe Hegemony couldn’t discuss peace...and one of his private nightmares was hisfleet advancing further and further, until it was cut off from Earth andtrapped.



    “Contact the commanders,” he said, finally. “Inform them that I wish to depart no lessthan one week from today.”



    It would require superhuman effort to prepare the fleetin time, but it had to be done. Remaining static at Terra Nova, as the Hegemony might have done, wasmerely asking for defeat. They had toremain on the offensive...or risk losing the war.



    “And then have the Marines send up the enemy commander,”he added. “I want to have a word withher.”



    ***

    How had thehumans become so advanced?



    The question tormented her, overriding even her concernfor her own safety. Lady Dalsha knewwhat would have happened to any important prisoners taken by the Hegemony; they’dbe brain-sucked and whatever was left of them afterwards would be dumped intothe nearest star. Most of the prisonersthe humans had taken were nothing more than ordinary males, never trusted withany secrets, but she knew how much she knew. The armoured humans who had taken her into custody would probably nothesitate to do whatever it took to dig information out of her mind.



    But even that might be a preferable fate to what wouldhappen to her if she returned home. Thehunt for a scapegoat was the Empress’s favourite choice of sport, if only tomaintain her own position. After all,being ultimately responsible for the most disastrous defeat in the Hegemony’shistory would weaken her position...and then the rest of the aristocracy wouldstart sharpening their knives. TheEmpress would put the blame on the officer who’d been in command - Lady Dalsha –and then have her brain-wiped and thrown to the males. There was no worse punishment in the Hegemony.



    The humans had treated her reasonably well. They’d given her edible food – not always guaranteedwhen dealing with aliens – and enough water to keep her alive. The air was cooler and wetter than shepreferred, but the human ships were so small that setting up a comfortableatmosphere in the brig would probably be impossible. Besides, the part of her that remembered thetimes when her ancestors had searched frantically for water knew that she shouldbe grateful. Not all worlds were as harshas the one that gave birth to her race.



    She looked up as two humans entered the brig and stoppedin front of the force field holding her inside. They both wore armour, concealing their repulsive human features. It was impossible to tell if they were maleor female; with humans, anything was possible. They believed in the equality of the sexes. It was an absurd concept to her, but humanswere an alien race. Surprises had to beexpected.



    The force field vanished with a crackling sound. “You will come with us,” one of the humanssaid. “Do not attempt to resist.”



    Lady Dalsha rose to her feet with as much dignity as shecould muster and allowed the humans to lead her out of the cell. The interior of their starship was painted anuncomfortable shade of white, with data terminals and consoles everywhere. It was so unlike one of the Association-builtships that the sheer alien of the humans was brought home to her. No Hegemony-built ship would have scattereddata terminals around for the crew. Theymight have found something that was not suited for junior eyes.



    She wanted to ask questions, but she had a feeling thatthe humans would refuse to answer her – assuming that they knew theanswers. The Hegemony kept its juniorsignorant; many human societies did the same, leaving the seniors in power tokeep the system running. Instead, she keptsilent and watched, hoping to see something that would unlock the secretsbehind the alien ships. She saw nothing,but humans. If they’d obtained technologyfrom another race, their unknown benefactors had not chosen to serve on theirvessels. Perhaps they didn't want to beseen by the Hegemony, or perhaps the humans had stolen the technology fromsomeone else. It seemed impossible thatany race could advance so far, so quickly. Even the Cats had taken thousands of years to work out a gateway into quantumspace.



    The guards halted outside a sealed hatch, which opened asecond later. Lady Dalsha stepped intothe room and stopped, looking around her in surprise. The human commanders were given smallerliving spaces than Hegemony males on superdreadnaughts, something that puzzledher. How could the superior be superiorif there weren't clear marks of her – his – status? The human seated behind the desk rose up andnodded to her escort, speaking to them in one on the human tongues. There weretranslation programs that could handle human languages, but she hadnone. They’d taken everything beforethey’d brought her onboard.



    “Welcome onboard the Nimitz,”the human said. The human namingconventions for their starships puzzled her. Why name starships after their ancestors when there were so many idealsin the universe? “I am Admiral TobiasSampson, commanding officer of this fleet.”



    Lady Dalsha felt her claws itch under her scales. She wanted to lunge forward and tear into thehuman, but she knew that his guards would stop her instantly with their suit-augmentedstrength. The results would be painfulat the very least, and humiliating.



    “I am Lady Dalsha,” she said, finally. “You have attacked my ships withoutprovocation.”



    The human snorted. “I think we both know that there was amble justification,” he said. “The important detail is that we won and tookyou and your surviving crewmen prisoner.”



    “So you did,” Lady Dalsha agreed. The Association had tried to enforce certainrules when it came to dealing with prisoners, but she was uneasily aware thatthose rules were often flouted. “Ishould remind you that the Empress will not look kindly upon any mistreatmentof my crewmen and myself.”



    The human smiled, barely showing his teeth. “Do you think that she would love us anybetter if we didn't mistreat you?”



    Lady Dalsha waved one hand in the air, absently. “I am your prisoner,” she said. “Why have you brought me here?”



    “I wish you to take a message back to the Hegemony,” thehuman said. “It is possible that yourEmpress will continue to fight the war, even after we have established our superiorityin weapons systems. I want you to tellher that she can have peace, instead of getting her fleet slaughtered when ittries to counterattack. We don’t reallywant anything apart from Terra Nova – and it’s back in our hands. There can be peace.”



    Lady Dalsha stared at him. The human had to be insane – or ignorant. There was no way that the Empress wouldaccept the loss of Terra Nova, not without trying to recover it. If human superiority wasn't clearly demonstrated– and it hadn't been – the Empress couldn't surrender Terra Nova withoutlooking weak. The war would continueuntil the human race was crushed. Theirnew weapons, wherever they had come from, wouldn't be enough to even theodds. She’d seen enough to have a goodidea how to counter their tricks.



    But the Empress wouldn’t know everything. She hadn't been able to get a signal outbefore the humans had forced her to surrender; everything she knew about thehuman tactics and technology would be useless, unless she managed to take theinformation back home. And if the humanswere prepared to let her go...



    “I will certainly take your message to the Empress,” shesaid, slowly. “But you have attacked ussavagely, striking from the shadows. Wewill not take that lightly.”



    “We didn't take Terra Nova lightly either,” the humansaid. “We will provide transport for youfrom here to Garston.” He smiled, as ifthere was a joke in his words she couldn't understand. “I’m afraid the military base there hassuffered an...accident...but you should be able to find a civilian ship willingto take you the rest of the way home. Oryou could pass on the message through the communications network. I dare say that one of the other Galactics inthe system will agree to let you use their transmitter.”



    “Thank you,” Lady Dalsha said. Perhaps she could win back a little honourthrough her report, and her thoughts on how to combat the human technology. Maybe the Empress would even spare herlife. “I will do as you wish.”



    ***

    The President of the United States stared into thecamera, putting every ounce of his experience into maintaining the solemn,grave and yet optimistic expression that the situation demanded. It wasn't easy. People said that the President was the most powerfulman in the world, and there was a certain amount of truth in that saying, buthe was hardly the most powerful man in the galaxy. The Empress of the Hegemony wielded morepower than anyone on Earth could match, commanding fleets that could turn Earth’ssurface into radioactive ash if she willed it to be done. Earth had never quite recovered fromdiscovering that humanity wasn't alone in the universe. There were times when the President felt thathumanity was sinking towards self-inflicted destruction even without theHegemony.



    But then, humanity was really nothing more than amicrostate to the Galactics. Thatrealisation had stunned millions of humans. They weren't just unimportant, but insignificant, barely worthy ofconsideration. Fifteen years of efforthad gone into changing that, into building humanity up into a minor galacticpower, and yet the culture shock had never quite gone away. Earth had slipped into a siege mentality anda growing paranoia about the universe outside. Americans were stockpiling guns and building bomb shelters, sheltersthat would provide little protection if the planet was blown apart byantimatter torpedoes. And yet any politicianwho tried to get in the way was crushed. The panic was too strong to be easily controlled.



    “My fellow Americans,” he said. They’d cleared a slot for him on every television, radio and internetchannel in America. Galactic-levelcomputers had changed the internet beyond recognition, making it the mostpowerful medium for sharing ideas in history. They were far harder to censor or block than anything produced by merehumans. “I come to you with gravenews. The long-expected war betweenhumanity and the Hegemony has finally broken out.”



    His advisors had debated endlessly over the question ofadmitting that human ships had fired the first shots in the war. The President could understand theirfeelings; Americans liked wars to be honest and open, even though wars hadnever been either. Pearl Harbour and9/11 had both been sneak attacks perpetrated against America and both hadgalvanised the country. But then, so hadthe loss of Terra Nova. A good third ofthe planet’s population was American.



    “Human ships have liberated Terra Nova from alien rule,”he continued. “The first battle was astunning success. Humans have shown theGalactics that we cannot be taken lightly.”



    He paused. “Butwars are not won by one victory alone. This will be a long hard struggle, a war that will define the future ofboth Earth and the Hegemony. I ask youall to pray for the success of the gallant Federation Navy, fighting to defendEarth, and for the American soldiers who will soon be joining the FederationMarines on alien planets. And I ask youto pray that we will emerge victorious from this war, secure in our place inthe universe and confident that we will not be bullied and eventually enslavedby an alien race. God bless America.”



    The camera clicked off and the President relaxed, wipinghis brow. God alone knew what wouldhappen when the Hegemony responded to the attack, but he was sure that it wouldbe bad – and if humanity wasn't ready, the devastation could be immense. He felt powerless to affect events, eventhough he was the President of America. No one truly realised just how much power the Federation Navy had, notuntil it had gone to war. The dividedcommand structure gave the CNO remarkable latitude to fight the war as he sawfit.



    At least we have a goodman in charge, he told himself, and hoped that he was right.



    He stepped into the briefing room and looked down at hispublic relations staff, the men and women who monitored public opinion andtried to urge him to surf the shifting tides through to win the nextelection. Half of them were alreadytapping away at laptops, reading internet forums and trying to put together a consensuson how the public was reacting to the news. The President was less impressed. The internet was a shifting maze of attitudes that seemed exaggerated throughanonymity. No doubt there were alreadytrolls sneering at his message online.



    “The first results are already in,” the youngest memberof the group said. “People are scared,but also confident. They want victoryand they believe that we can win it.”



    “Of course,” the President said dryly. It would be days before they had a real picture of how the country wasfeeling. “So do we.”
     
  17. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    hehe Chris, this time I waited awhile to even start reading yer story. So I wouldn't get mere sips but entire gulps & swallows this time :)
     
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    <b style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"><font size="3">Chapter Fifteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]
    “They used to take children away to the garrison,”Beverly Troy said. She was around fortyyears old, according to the colonist database Adrienne had downloaded beforeleaving Wellington, but she looked atleast sixty. Many of the other colonistswho had lived through five years of hell looked just as bad, if not worse. Some of them had fallen ill and died becausethey didn't have the right diet. “We allknew what they were doing with them, but we told ourselves that we didn’t, thatthe kids were just visiting...oh god!”

    She started to sob, noisily. “My little Eric went into the garrison,” shesaid, between sobs. “He was only sevenyears old when they took him and...and I prayed that he’d be fine, that he’d beuntouched, but he was such a pretty boy. They’d love him! Where ishe? Was he alive or dead or did you puthim out of his misery...I need to know!”

    Adrienne shook her head tiredly as the woman keptsobbing. The Funks had been brutal,stamping down hard on any bursts of independences from their human captives,but they hadn't been outrageously cruel, at least not by their ownstandards. But the human collaborators,the ones who had served the Funks willingly, had indulged themselves inactivities unthinkable to a sane mind. They’d preyed on men, women and – worst of all – children, to the pointwhere the Funk troops were almost popular. No one had been able to tell if the Funks had allowed it on purpose orif it had been a simple oversight, but it hardly mattered. No wonder the colonists wanted to tear thecollaborators limb from limb.

    Three days after the battle, the fires were finally outand workers were starting to repair some of the damaged buildings. Others were beyond repair and would have tobe demolished and replaced by new construction. The colonists had set to work with a will, although the Navy hadn't triedto hide the fact that the Funks might slip back in and occupy Terra Nova forthe second time. Barbie had been vagueon precisely how many Federation Navy ships had been damaged or destroyed inthe battle, but Adrienne didn't need precise figures to know that the combinednavy was weaker than the Hegemony. Thathad been one insight that wouldn't be going into her reports. The Funks would no doubt listen to humanbroadcasts with as much interest as humans listened to theirs and it wouldn’tdo to give them any idea of loss rates.

    Down the street, most of the Funk prisoners were beingmarched out of the city, towards a POW camp that had been established severalmiles from human settlements. Adriennefound it hard to understand why the military would want to keep the aliensalive – instead of allowing the locals to throw rocks at them endlessly – but shesupposed that they had their reasons. Some of the reporters had suggested leaving the prisoners in the city ashuman shields – alien shields, technically– before being shouted down by the others. There was not a shred of evidence to suggest that the Funks cared onewhit about the safety of their own civilians. The battle they’d fought against the Marines had showed a frightening lackof concern for their own lives, let alone human lives. And besides, it would look very bad to theother Galactics.

    She walked closer, studying them with genuineinterest. Earth had played host tothousands of aliens over the last fifteen years – the Federation had workedhard to attract aliens with technical skills humans needed – but a surprisinglyfew number of humans had seen an alien in person. Adrienne had never seen a Funk before, eventhough they were humanity’s main tormentors. They didn't look very intimidating now, with Marine guns trained ontheir backs. If they’d had tails, theywould have been dragging them through the dirt. They’d been defeated and it showed.

    A handful of locals were watching from the other side ofthe street. Two of them looked old enoughto remember the days before First Contact; the other three were young children,barely older than the colony itself. Afew more years and Howell and his gang of sadists might have come calling totake the children away to their den. Adrienneambled over towards them and held up her press card. The reporters had been wandering the cityever since it had been declared safe, collecting interviews from the colonists. Everyone seemed to have a story to tell.

    But not all of them would talk. Some were fearful that the Funks would comeback, although they'd have to start rebuilding the collaborator force fromscratch. Others were frightened thattheir peers would deem their own little compromises collaboration; deprived oftheir main target, the mobs were turning on anyone who had been forced to workwith the Funks. There was even anotherPOW camp nearby for rioters who refused to listen to reason, forcing theMarines to arrest them. And then there were people who just wanted toput the whole nightmare behind them as quickly as possible.

    “They took my brother away one day,” the woman said. She looked down at the ground, sadly. “Howell’s men said that he was tied into theresistance, that he’d been responsible for planting bombs in the city. I never knew if that was true, but I neversaw him again. They killed him...”

    Her husband took her hand, looking up reproachfully atthe reporter who had intruded into their private grief. Adrienne understood; there might never be anyanswers for those who had lost friends and relatives to the Funks and theircollaborators. Howell’s men haddestroyed their records when the Marines landed, while the Funks hadn't botheredto keep any proper records of humans they’d executed during theoccupation. Most of the bodies had beendestroyed, or buried somewhere without a marker. Local rumour said that the Funks had eatenthe bodies, but Adrienne hoped that that was just a sick joke. Humans had always made up horrifying talesabout their enemies to justify their hatred.

    “I wish I could find out,” Adrienne said. Reporters had a great deal of access, morethan most people realised. But she couldn'tfind records that weren't there. “Icould ask...”

    “If you would,” the woman said, but it was clear that shedidn't expect anything to work. Adriennecouldn't blame her. “His name was CameronWilliams, but everyone called him Buck. It used to be a joke before the end of the world. He used to love bucking the rules...”

    Adrienne looked at the children, and then turned andwalked away, leaving them to their grief. They'd been traumatized by the occupation, as had every other human onthe planet – and Earth itself would be shocked when the full truth wasreleased. She’d already had two briefmessages from Ward, one congratulating her on a piece that had been releasedjust after the President’s speech to the nation and the other ordering her toattach herself to Admiral Sampson and send stories and feature articles. Unfortunately, Admiral Sampson’s aide hadmerely promised to pass on the request and had never got back to her. The military knew the importance ofcooperating with the press, but the Admiral was likely to be very busy. There was a war on, after all.

    The faces of the woman and her children kept flickeringthrough her imagination later that afternoon, when she was allowed into thedetention centre run by the Marines. Unlike the POW camp for Funks, the detention centre for collaboratorskept them separated from each other by wire, preventing some of the suspectedcollaborators from murdering other collaborators. At least one person had claimed to be acollaborator, according to rumour, so he’d have a chance at murdering thebastard who had raped and killed his sister. He would have succeeded if it hadn't been for a meddling Marine.

    A small investigation team had been charged withgathering evidence to use against the collaborators, confirming and qualifyingtheir guilt. Those who had collaboratedwillingly, or engaged in atrocities, would face the hangman once they had beentried, or dispatched to Luna Penal Colony. The others, the ones who had been forced into collaborating, would betried more leniently than the willing collaborators. But that probably wouldn't satisfy theirenemies on Terra Nova.

    “It’s something of a legal gray area,” the Marine LegalOfficer explained, in the small office he’d taken from the Funk who’d used toown it. It was a vaguely disconcertingplace, close enough to what a human would find comfortable for the oddities tostand out. “You see, the FederationCharter strongly restricts where the Federation has jurisdiction – no one inthe national governments wanted to create a world government that wouldeventually be able to dictate to them, not unlike the US federal governmentdictating to the states. A typicalcompromise and one that probably would have bitten us on the ass sooner orlater, even without the Funks. TheFederation does have jurisdiction over Terra Nova, but there is no provisionfor overseeing criminal trials, let alone trials for treason andcollaboration. It’s not even certain ifwe could legally charge them withanything.”

    “But that's insane,” Adrienne protested. “Surely there are rules...”

    “There are, but precisely where those rules interact isthe question,” the Legal Officer said. “WhenI was a jarhead, I was bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice – I volunteered,so there was no question about the UCMJ applying to me. When I requested transfer to the FederationMarines, I moved to the Federation Code, which was partly based on the UCMJanyway. But in both cases I volunteered toaccept entering that particular sphere.

    “But treason against Earth isn't on the statue books,” headded. “No national government wantedthe Federation deciding what constituted treason. Who knew what would happen if that particularcan of worms was torn open? Not them,that’s for sure. Now, Terra Nova had –has - a limited criminal code dreamed up by the idealists who spearheaded thecolonisation project, but it doesn't include treason and collaboration. No one considered the possibility when theystarted settling the planet.”

    He grinned. “Confused,yet?”

    Adrienne nodded. “Yes,”she said, bluntly. “We went to warwithout knowing what we were going to do to collaborators.”

    “That always happens, every time something changes,” theLegal Officer assured her. “I thinkthat, technically, our best choice would be to charge them under national lawsagainst treason – they’re still citizens of their home nations, even if theylive here. Luckily, none of the childrenare old enough to be put on trial – they’d have to be tried under Terra Nova’slaw and that...”

    “Doesn’t cover it,” Adrienne said, impatiently. “So...what is going to happen to them?”

    “The spooks are currently picking through their brains,”the Legal Officer said. “Those who cooperatewill have it entered in their records – perhaps they will be offered life imprisonmentinstead of execution. The others...willbe charged once we figure out which body of law we can charge them under andput on trial. Whatever else happens, thevictims will demand justice.

    “One possible thought is convening courts here, withAdmiral Sampson as the judge,” he added. “If you squint at the regulations in the right way, it would be justabout legal and quicker than anything else. But I don’t think that national governments are going to go for it – it wouldset a dangerous precedent. An alternativeis convening a trial here with a local jury, at least for the ones who have committedcrimes that can be charged under thelocal legal code. Getting an unbiasedjury, on the other hand, might be a little tricky.”

    “I don’t envy you,” Adrienne said. “Should I write articles complaining aboutthe lack of anything to bring the bastards to justice?”

    “Hard cases make bad law,” the Legal Officer quoted. “And so does political pressure to get lawspassed quickly without considering the consequences. They tend to make a lot of money for lawyers.”

    “You are alawyer,” Adrienne said.

    “I rest my case,” the Legal Officer countered, with a grinthat Adrienne would have found charming under other circumstances. “But...”

    He looked up. “Hey,do you want to see them?”

    Adrienne nodded, allowing him to turn on a monitorscreen. “I’m not entirely sure why theFunks built this place,” he admitted. “Itwas largely abandoned by the time we landed and the locals say that no one wastaken here for at least six months. Butit not only keeps several hundred prisoners in confinement, it allows us towatch them constantly. That one there” –he switched the screen to display a single prisoner – “is Howell. The evidence we collected on the first daywill be enough to justify his execution under local law, even if he is nevercharged with treason. We won’t even needthe kids we found in his quarters to testify against him.”

    He shrugged. “Andwhy did he do it?

    “Apparently, if you believe him, he never got a break,”he added, sardonically. “I can see whyhe might feel that way, right up until the moment I realise that he never even tried to succeed. He thought that success came automatically;he never realised that he had to learn and work and work damn hard. Maybe he was always twisted, maybe he wasslowly twisted by bitterness...I don’t know or care. He lost his right to freedom and life when hestarted molesting kids and tormenting their parents. Damn the bastard to hell.”

    “He doesn't look very impressive,” Adrienne said, after amoment.

    “They never do,” the Legal Officer said. “I did some pro bono work during downtime between tours; one of the cases Ihandled was a group of Klansmen who’d been caught red-handed in the process ofburning down a black church. None ofthem looked impressive; some were fat, some were disabled...one had a missingchin. The great champions of the whiterace were among its least healthy members.

    “We saw the same in the sandbox,” he added. “The nutcases who’d throw themselves on ourguns were often the worst of the population. They could only thrive in chaos – not that any of them really did, ofcourse. The ones who slap women forshowing some skin are the poorly-educated men who have little hope of risingout of poverty, never realising that it is themselves that keep them back. And the whole bloody cycle goes on for yearafter year.”

    He shook his head. “If nothing else, we can do one thing,” he concluded. “We can take those bastards out of the genepool.”

    ***
    “The Federation Council extends its congratulations onyour victory, Admiral,” Admiral Sun Ji Gouming said. The Chinese Admiral had become the Deputy CNOthrough political compromise, but he was a fighter and Tobias trusted him implicitly. If the US had ever had to fight China overTaiwan, he sometimes wondered what would have happened if Admiral Sun had beencommanding the PLAN. “Nationalpopulations have experienced mixed reactions, but the news of Terra Nova gavepublic moral one hell of a boost. We maysee fear later on, once the delight wears off...”

    He shrugged. Chinawas less sensitive to what its civilians thought than America. “The Council has also accepted your proposalto push on and complete the reduction of Garston before the Hegemony canreinforce the world. If you detach thegunboats for raiding missions, you should be able to add to the enemy’sconfusion. I’m afraid that neither ofour two intelligence services have been able to report much on what theHegemony is doing – reports are always at least several days out of date beforethey reach us. From what we do know, theHegemony has no intention of throwing in the towel just yet. Their Ambassador has been projecting highconfidence to the Commune – she hasn't even attempted to rally support, as faras we can tell. But its early days yet.

    “Complicating matters is the presence of a Hegemony heavycruiser and a light cruiser in the Heavenly Gate System,” he continued. “ONI ****ed up – we didn't know about theirexistence until the Canary Ambassador quietly passed the information toAmbassador Li. We’re not sure what theCanaries will do; technically, they should intern the ships until the end ofthe war, but the Hegemony will probably start pressurising them to be a littlemore accommodating soon if they’re not already doing so. I don’t think the Funks are particularlywelcome guests...”

    Tobias snorted. The Canaries had populated their solar system by the time theAssociation stumbled across them, meeting the Cats as near-equals. But unlike the feline explorers, the Canarieshad a religious taboo against leaving their system and very few had everjourneyed more than a light-year from their star. They were tough, with an understanding oftheir technology that the Hegemony lacked, but not strong enough to stop theHegemony invading their system if the Funks were prepared to soak up thelosses. Tobias could easily believe thatthe Funks wanted the Hegemony ships gone, or destroyed, yet they couldn't do itopenly.

    “The Council wants your thoughts on the matter soonest,before you head off to Garston,” Admiral Sun concluded. “Just remember to keep reading Sun Tzu and applyit to the war - you won’t go wrong.”

    He laughed, just before the recorded message came to anend. Tobias replayed it, listeningcarefully, and then read through the attached documents. The Canaries had always been friendly to thehuman race, but then they’d been friendly to everyone who visited theirsystem. And they had no ambitions tobecome a major galactic power.

    Picking up his terminal, he began to issue orders. He had an operation to plan.
     
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments keep me going through...

    Chris
     
  20. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    I thought it was kicks to the keister that did that? lol
     
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