Original Work No Worse Enemy

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Nov 11, 2012.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    This probably requires a bit of explanation.

    No Worse Enemy is the sequel to The Empire’s Corps, which I wrote some years ago, posted on Kindle recently – and had a surprising level of success, as well as demands for a sequel. You can download a sample of the original story from my website - http://www.chrishanger.net/Kindle/Theempirescorpsmain.html - and I will happily forward a copy to anyone who is willing to write a review afterwards.

    I hope you enjoy the story. Any thoughts, comments and suchlike will be more than welcome.

  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    It should not be surprising that involuntary settlers from Earth often ended up as either slaves or bandits. The lucky ones endured education that taught them more about their rights than about their responsibilities – or about vital living skills – while the unlucky ones grew up in the undercity, little more than feral animals. Put bluntly, the Empire lost the ability to socialise its children.

    Indeed, by the time I was exiled from Earth, almost all of the Empire’s military and much of its civil service were reporting massive recruiting shortfalls. The educated students they needed simply didn't exist.
    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    “It’s quiet,” Rifleman Blake Coleman said, over the communications link. “Too quiet.”

    “Shut up,” Lieutenant Jasmine Yamane said, lightly. “We are meant to be quiet.”

    She smiled inwardly as they crept closer to the bandit camp, hidden in the Badlands. The bandit leader had been smart – his camp was very well hidden – but he’d reckoned without the Marines. No one would deny that the Badlands were damn near impassable in places, yet they weren't as bad as the Slaughterhouse. Jasmine and her comrades had all graduated from the harshest training camp in the Empire.

    The geologists had yet to come up with a good explanation for why the Badlands existed. They were a tangled nightmare of forests, river and lava pools, as well as enough minerals to confuse sensors hunting for targets. There were even places where lava bubbled up from the planet’s underground. The best guess was that the badlands had been the site of an asteroid impact thousands of years before the planet had been settled; the alternative was a botched terraforming project, which was unlikely. There had been no need to improve Avalon when the planet had been settled, not when it was already perfect for human habitation.

    “There,” Joe Buckley said. He inclined his head towards an outcropping that looked like a tuff of land. The bandits hadn't done a bad job of disguising their lookout; it would have been almost invisible if the Marines hadn't been looking for it. “You see the guy behind it?”

    “Yeah,” Jasmine answered, studying the position. The bandits wouldn't have based themselves in a place with only one exit; stupid bandits wouldn't have lasted long, even before the Marines had arrived on Avalon. “I’ll deal with him. You stay here and watch my back.”

    She crawled forward, trusting in her camouflage to keep her from being spotted. Up close, it was obvious that the bandits had put some thought into their position; anyone sitting in the lookout should have been able to spot oncoming enemies from a distance. Or they would have been able to see them, if they’d cleared away the foliage. But that would have betrayed them to the orbiting satellites used by the Marines. Quite a few bandit camps had been eliminated since the Battle of Camelot because their occupants had made careless mistakes.

    The bandit sitting in the lookout didn't look very competent, but Jasmine checked around carefully anyway before she closed in for the kill. Appearances could be deceiving, as Jasmine herself demonstrated; very few people would have realised that she was a Marine if they saw her out of uniform, or armour. Up close, there was a faint stench surrounding the lookout, suggesting that the bandits didn't give a shit about basic hygiene. Jasmine wasn't too surprised. Unlike the Crackers, who had been offered amnesty after the Battle of Camelot, the bandits had no long-term political objective. They just wanted to have fun. Jasmine pushed her irritation aside as she rose silently to her feet and moved forward. The bandit didn't even realise she was there until she’d cut his throat.

    “Got him,” she subvocalised into her implant. There had been no time for a battlefield interrogation – and the bandit would have been hanged if she’d dragged him back to Camelot. “I’m going onwards to the camp.”

    The bandits had built their camp in the middle of the forest, half-hidden in a hollow that would make it harder for orbital observation to pick up on their activities. Jasmine studied it as they crept closer and scowled; the bandits had clearly kidnapped at least one person who actually knew how to build basic huts out of wood and clay. They were rare skills on Earth, which had long since become an entire planet of city-blocks, but quite common on newly-settled worlds. Wood was simply too efficient a building material to ignore.

    “I have eyes on hostages,” Blake said, suddenly. Jasmine scowled. If the bandits had been alone, she would have called in an airstrike and then cleaned up the mess. “At least five, all young girls. And they’re limping”

    Jasmine muttered a curse under her breath. The bandits raided the local farms regularly, carrying off food, drink, weapons and women. It wasn't uncommon for them to cripple the girls, just to make sure that they couldn't run away after they’d been dumped in the camp; one camp they’d destroyed had had two girls who’d had their legs amputated by their masters. The girls she could see didn't look as if they’d been treated that badly, but they had broken expressions on their faces that made Jasmine wince. They’d had the fire beaten out of them ever since they’d been kidnapped and trapped in a living nightmare.

    “Those sick fuckers,” Joe breathed. He cleared his throat. “Orders, Lieutenant?”

    Jasmine pushed her anger to one side, activating her communicator. “Bring up the rest of the platoon,” she ordered. “And then prepare to engage.”

    She scanned the camp quickly as the remainder of 1st Platoon closed in on the bandit camp, considering options. If they’d been wearing heavy armour, she would have been sorely tempted just to stand up and walk into the enemy camp, secure in the knowledge that they didn't have any weapons that could touch them. But instead they only wore light armour – and she didn't want to risk causing harm to the prisoners. If they ordered the bandits to surrender and the bandits started firing instead, the prisoners might be caught up in the crossfire. And they would open fire. They knew better than to expect mercy from the new government. Why not fight?

    Jasmine smiled, humourlessly. Everything had seemed simpler when she’d been a mere Rifleman.

    “Sound off,” she muttered, as the platoon got into firing position. She listened briefly to the responses, confirming that her ten subordinates were all in position. “And engage on my command.”

    There was a shout from the bandit camp. They’d seen something, perhaps one of the Marines as they crawled into position. Jasmine didn't hesitate; she barked the command to open fire as she squeezed the trigger of her own rifle. The bandit she’d targeted, shot through the head, collapsed in a crumpled heap on the ground. Jasmine was already searching for new targets as the Marines wiped out every bandit in sight. The hostages were clinging to each other, panicking.

    Jasmine keyed her mike as the Marines inched forward. “GET DOWN ON THE GROUND,” she ordered, praying that the hostages would obey. A handful of bandits were trying to fight back, or flee westwards away from the Marines. “GET DOWN AND STAY DOWN.”

    One muddy hut seemed to be held by at least four bandits, who were shooting wildly towards where they thought the Marines were. It hadn't been designed as a blockhouse, Jasmine noted absently, but it would suffice, as long as the Marines kept the gloves on. She used hand signals to order Blake and Joe towards it, while the other Marines provided covering fire to force the bandits to keep their heads down. Blake used a shaped charge to smash in the wooden door, while Joe charged in, weapon at the ready.

    “Two down,” Blake reported. “Two others surrendered.”

    Jasmine nodded. “Secure them,” she ordered, as she rose to her feet and headed down into the bandit camp. “And secure the hostages as well.”

    The girls might have been pretty once, but that had been before they’d spent several months in a bandit camp, where they’d spent the days cooking and cleaning and the nights being raped by their captors. Jasmine’s heart went out to them, yet she knew better than to trust them; people did odd things when they were held captive for so long and it was possible that the women had actually fallen in love with their rapists. The human mind was good at twisting itself and inventing excuses to make suffering bearable.

    She switched channels as the handful of prisoners were dragged out, searched and then secured, left to wait on the ground while the Marines searched the remainder of the camp. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing particularly interesting about the camp, nor was there a large stash of weapons. The Civil Guard had lost several consignments of weapons before the Marines had arrived, some of which remained unaccounted for, but the mystery wouldn't be solved today. Jasmine, who shared the general feeling that some of the Crackers had hidden the weapons in case the provisional government turned out to be a trick of some kind, was privately relieved. The bandits could have been more than a nuisance if they’d had some heavy weapons.

    “Bring in the helicopters,” she ordered. The bandits hadn’t been fool enough to build their camp right next to a clearing, but they’d spotted a potential LZ not too far away. Jasmine had had it checked out before they’d started sneaking up on the camp. If someone needed emergency transport back to the medical clinic on Castle Rock, they would need an LZ. “We’ll be there in ten minutes.”

    The former hostages were being helped to their feet by the Marines. They looked badly shocked, even though they were being rescued. Jasmine couldn't blame them; the Marines looked intimidating as hell – and they’d secured the girls with plastic ties, just in case. The Marines would have to carry the girls to the LZ, she realised; they’d never be able to walk that far without assistance. Jasmine was used to horror – she’d seen too much of man’s inhumanity to man even in her relatively short career – but it never failed to sicken her. How could anyone do that to their fellows?

    They wanted slaves and sex objects, she thought, answering her own question. The really sickening part was that the bandits had been amateurs. Some members of the former Planetary Council of Avalon had been truly sadistic little shits, raping children and other helpless victims. And she’d seen much worse in the Empire, back during the nightmare that had enveloped Han, or in the Undercity on Earth.

    Blake buzzed her. “The WARCAT team wishes permission to approach,” he said. “And the Knights wish to take over the scene.”

    Jasmine had to smile. The Knights – the newly-raised Army of Avalon – weren't as well-trained as the Marines, but they were learning fast as the former Civil Guardsmen were integrated into their ranks. Captain – no, Colonel - Stalker had decided, as Avalon was no longer part of the Empire, to merge the two, knowing that the Civil Guard had a poor reputation. Jasmine had a feeling that the Colonel had some other plan for his Marines, even though a good third of the company had been parcelled out to help the locals. Who knew what they could do once they got the tech base set up?

    “Tell them they’re welcome,” she said, finally. They had asked for a joint attack on the bandit camp, but Jasmine had vetoed it, pointing out that slipping eleven men close to the camp would be hard enough. Colonel Stalker hadn't overruled her – but then, that wasn't the Marine way. She was the officer on the spot, charged with accomplishing her mission. Success – or failure – would be her responsibility. “Let the WARCAT team take samples from the prisoners before we get them back to Camelot.”

    “Understood,” Blake said. “You think they’re going to be hung that quickly?”

    Jasmine rolled her eyes as she started to walk to where the prisoners were being mustered. The new government hated bandits, for plenty of very good reasons. Every single bandit who was caught alive was either hung, or sent to work in a very isolated prison camp. It discouraged surrenders, she knew, but she found it hard to blame the new government. They’d suffered too much when the bandits had been allowed to run rampant over the countryside.

    “Probably,” she said. High overhead, she heard the sound of helicopters. They were nosier than Marine Corps Raptors, but they’d been produced on Avalon, allowing them to save their handful of remaining Raptors. There would be no replacements until their tech base was developed properly. “Prepare the prisoners for their walk.”

    The WARCAT team acted with practiced efficiency, taking blood samples from the prisoners and uploading them to the planetary datanet for comparison to the records. It seemed a little pointless, but Jasmine had learned long ago that there was no such thing as useless information. Knowing who the bandits were might be useful in the future, or allow them to identify gang members who hadn't been killed or captured during the raid. It also gave them time for the medics to check the girls, verify that none of them were in immediate danger and check their identities too. Their families, if they were still alive, would be very relieved.

    “All done,” the medic reported, finally. “You can carry them safely.”

    Jasmine detailed seven Marines to carry the girls, with the remaining five to take point and watch for other bandits, and then led the way back into the badlands. It never struck her until after an operation that the badlands were really quite beautiful, if one liked untamed wildernesses. She reminded herself sharply that they were still in bandit country, that they might be attacked at any moment, even though cold logic told her that it was unlikely. The bandits were rarely brave enough to attack Marines. They preferred targets that couldn't fire back.

    “If I’m carrying the girl,” Blake asked, as they walked away from the remains of the camp, “does that mean I have to marry her?”

    Joe snickered. “I would have thought you’d learned your lesson by now,” he said. “Women are Bad News.”

    “Not all of them,” Blake said. “They didn't actually kill me.”

    Jasmine rolled her eyes. Blake had missed the Battle of Camelot because the Crackers had managed to kidnap him two weeks prior to the fighting. One of their female operatives had seduced him, then drugged him, and then somehow transported him out of the city to a hidey-hole where he’d been hidden until after the battle. Command Sergeant Gwendolyn Patterson, the company’s senior NCO, had been incredibly scathing about the whole affair, pointing out that Blake had shown very bad judgement. Jasmine was his junior, by seniority alone, but she’d been promoted over his head. At least Blake didn't seem to bear a grudge.

    But then, Lieutenant wasn't a permanent rank in the Terran Marine Corps. If she fucked up, Jasmine knew, she could be returned to the ranks without any formalities. Ideally, every Rifleman would have a chance at holding the rank for a few months, just to see who would make a good Captain. On Avalon, with only a relative handful of Marines, it wasn't possible to rotate ranks as often as it was on other planets. They’d already started to bend the rules by integrating Auxiliaries into their ranks.

    “That makes you damn lucky,” Joe said. “Were you borrowing my lucky red shirt?”

    “I was too sexy to kill,” Blake countered, quickly. “That’s why they couldn't kill me.”

    The other Marines started to chuckle, rather sarcastically. Blake had been lucky; it was rare for a Marine prisoner to be left alive for long. Marines had been treated to make it impossible to torture them for information and their implants could be tracked, given time, by their allies. Most kidnappers would have killed their prisoner and then vanished.”

    “Quiet,” Jasmine ordered, as they approached the LZ. “2nd Platoon is waiting.”

    Three helicopters were sitting in the clearing, with two more orbiting overhead, weapons at the ready. Few bandits would dare to tangle with an attack helicopter, but 2nd Platoon was patrolling around the edge of the LZ, just in case. Precautions, her instructors had hammered into her head time and time again, cost very little, certainly less than a helicopter. There was a brief exchange of signals before they stepped into the LZ itself, confirming their identity, and passed the girls over to the first transport helicopter. Twenty minutes later, they were up in the air, heading back to Camelot and Castle Rock. And debriefing.

    Jasmine removed her helmet and ran her hands through her dark hair, cropped close to her skull. Debriefing wasn't going to be fun; being a Lieutenant carried extra responsibilities and few rewards, apart from the credit – and the blame. The rank was supposed to be paid more than a Rifleman, but payment these days was a little skewed. Imperial Credits were worthless on Avalon now and the replacement banking system was still struggling to establish itself. There were places where they used bartering instead of money.

    “You’ll be fine,” Blake assured her. He'd deduced her train of thought, easily. She was hardly the first new Lieutenant to face her commanding officer after an operation. “And then we can go drinking.”

    “I would have thought you’d learned your lesson about that too,” Jasmine said, dryly. The first few months they’d spent on Avalon had included a number of bar fights, before many of the former street gangsters had been either inducted into the Knights or sent to work on the farms. “Besides, I don’t feel like drinking right now.”

    She looked down at Camelot as the tiny city came into view. From high overhead, it looked to be thriving – and indeed, there had been any number of improvements since the former Council had been defeated. The damage caused by the Battle of Camelot had been repaired, apart from the ruins of the former Government House, which had been left as a monument to the war. It was easy to forget that the Empire had withdrawn from the sector, abandoning them...

    ...And that they were completely on their own.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    It was therefore necessary to start teaching the students of Avalon new skills. Both military and civilian. Naturally, there was a degree of makeshift improvising in those early arrangements. Equally naturally, although I didn't see it at the time, was the fact that the youth responded splendidly. The Empire’s education consisted of turning out entitled drones. Avalon could not allow itself that self-defeating luxury.
    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    Castle Rock had changed in the six months since the Marines had landed on Avalon. Once a barren island some distance from the capital city, Camelot, it was now a developed military base for both the Marines and the Knights, serving as both training centre and logistics hub for their operations on the planet. The eighty Marines who made up Stalker’s Stalkers had been joined by thousands of Knights, many of whom had once been Civil Guardsmen before the Civil Guard had been folded into the Army of Avalon. Looking down from his office, Colonel Edward Stalker could see hundreds of new recruits being put through their paces by the Drill Instructors, before heading to the shooting house to brush up on their weapons skills. Even the washouts would prove dangerous to the remaining bandits on Avalon...

    He turned away from the window as Command Sergeant Gwendolyn Patterson entered his office, followed by Lieutenant Jasmine Yamane. Jasmine was young for promotion to Lieutenant, with only limited experience compared to some of the other Marines in the company, but there had been little choice; he’d had to parcel out some of his more experienced officers and men to bolster the Knights. The former Civil Guardsmen weren't completely trusted by the rest of the locals, unsurprisingly. Too many of them had been either corrupt or incompetent. Edward had fifty Marines – four platoons – as a reserve and it bothered him. At least the bandits were largely broken and on the run by now.

    Gwendolyn cleared her throat as Jasmine snapped to attention, issuing a salute that Edward returned gravely. Had he ever been that young? Of course he had – and he’d had the benefit of OCS courses while making his way from Rifleman to Captain. Jasmine was studying hard, under the tutelage of two NCOs and one Lieutenant, but she would never have the formal OCS training provided by the Terran Marine Corps. Being cut off from the Empire ensured that standards would slip. He’d just have to fight to ensure that they didn't slip too far.

    “Congratulations on your first command,” he said. Jasmine would probably have been absolutely terrified when she’d been out in the field, knowing that she was directly responsible for the lives of her fellow Marines. And it didn't help that she’d been one of them only scant months ago. Normally, a potential officer would have been rotated into a different company. “You did well.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Jasmine said. Edward remembered his own feelings after his first command and concealed a smile. He’d been terrified too, when the excitement wore off and he realised just how badly he could fuck up. “We picked up an update from the Knights; SSE produced nothing, apart from some more genetic traces...”

    “That isn't surprising,” Edward pointed out, mildly. SSE – Sensitive Site Exploitation – was standard procedure when overrunning terrorist, insurgent or bandit bases, but it was only of limited use when hunting bandits. They tended not to keep records, or operate in large bands, preferring to raid the borders of settlement on Avalon rather than try to overthrow the government. SSE was much more useful when tackling the remains of the Crackers – the ones who had refused to accept the general outbreak of peace in the wake of the Battle of Camelot – but the Crackers were rarely active within the Badlands. “I assume you moved the hostages to the nearest medical centre?”

    “The Knights saw to that, sir,” Jasmine said. “None of them were in very good shape.”

    Edward nodded, sourly. The Crackers, whatever else could be said about them, had fought a relatively clean war against the Government, even though the former Council had been trying to enslave the entire planet. They’d been careful to avoid atrocities, knowing that they would turn the local population against them. The bandits, on the other hand, gloried in their atrocities, using them to spread terror and discourage resistance. Now, with the Marines and the increasingly effective Army of Avalon hunting them – and the local settlers no longer having to hide their arms from the Council – the bandits were in decline. Everyone knew it, including the bandits themselves. They had responded by becoming even nastier to their victims.

    “But we put an end to the group’s existence,” Edward said. The ongoing operation against the bandits had notched up another success – and the Army of Avalon could hold the territory, now that it had been cleared. And the bandits would be driven further into the Badlands. “Did you file a report?”

    He grinned openly at Jasmine’s expression. As a Rifleman, she wouldn't have been called upon to actually do any paperwork, at least unless the shit had hit the fan spectacularly. Unlike the Army, or the Civil Guard, the Marines tried to keep paperwork to a minimum, believing that it helped reduce unit effectiveness. But since she’d been promoted, Jasmine would have had to handle the paperwork for her platoon as well as actually commanding it in battle. And there was even more paperwork for a Marine Captain...

    And considerably less than for a Sergeant in the Civil Guard, Edward thought, in the privacy of his own mind. The regulars were paranoid, insanely so. Every last item of supplies had to be accounted for, up to and including training rounds fired off during exercises. Unsurprisingly, dreading the thought of so much paperwork, unit Sergeants tended to avoid carrying out training exercises...and then wondered why their men couldn't shoot straight. The Marines joked – with black humour – that the safest place to be on the battlefield was where the Civil Guardsmen were supposed to be targeting.

    “Yes, sir,” Jasmine said, finally. She wouldn't have mastered the tricks for reducing paperwork yet. One of the NCOs would show her, if she didn't work them out for herself. Eventually. Learning the dangers of paperwork was one of the most important lessons for a potential officer. “The report was filed as soon as we landed on Castle Rock.”

    “Good to hear it,” Edward said. “See to your men, Lieutenant, and then stand down for the evening. 3rd Platoon will be moving up to support the Knights for the rest of the week.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Jasmine said. 1st Platoon had been out in the Badlands for three weeks when they’d finally tracked the bandits back to their lair. “What will we be doing after that?”

    Edward had to smile. With fifty Marines on active service, they were mainly running around pissing on fires, backing up the Knights when they ran into trouble as well as serving as a Quick Reaction Force. 1st Platoon would have the evening off, followed by a few days waiting for trouble. They might have preferred to remain in the Badlands.

    “Whatever we have to do, Lieutenant,” he said, wryly. He’d been that young too, once upon a time. “Dismissed.”

    Jasmine saluted and left his office. Edward watched her go, closing the door behind her, and then turned back to Gwendolyn. “She seems to be shaping up fine,” he said, pulling the brief report up on his terminal. Jasmine had mastered the laconic style the Marines preferred, thankfully, even if it would never win any prizes for great literature. “Did you hear anything though the grapevine?”

    “Nothing bad,” Gwendolyn confirmed. The NCOs were intimately involved with grooming potential officers – and could veto promotions that might push someone out of their competence zone. “She definitely had first-mission nerves, but we all get them. And if she survived Han, she can survive anything.”

    Edward winced. Han had been an overcrowded planet in an overcrowded sector, run by a corrupt government that had constantly refused to read the writing on the wall. And then the government had acted surprised when the entire sector exploded in rebellion, directed against both the government and the Empire. Edward had been a Lieutenant himself on Han when the rebellion had begun, pushed into command of the company when his CO had been killed in the savage fighting. It was humbling to realise that the fighting on Avalon, no matter how devastating it had been to the local settlers, was minor compared to the storm that had raged over Han. The Marines had lost upwards of several thousand officers and men; the Civil Guardsmen had been virtually eliminated. And even now the sector was still rebellious.

    Or it had been. These days, there was no way to know what was happening in the remainder of the Empire, or even if there was still an Empire.

    He shook his head at the thought. Once, as a young boy growing up in the Undercity, he’d thought of the Empire as an invincible monolith. But as a Marine he’d learned that the Empire was weakening by the day. There were just too few ships and men to rush around putting out fires, while oppressed communities, planets and sectors were taking the chance to build up their own stockpiles of weapons in preparation for the day they could claim independence and freedom from the Empire. And the Grand Senate, far from realising the danger that threatened to overrun the Empire, had just kept tightening the screws. Didn’t they realise that they were forcing the Empire’s population into rebellion?

    Of course they didn't, he knew. They’d been rich, powerful and untouchable for hundreds of years. Why shouldn't they assume that it would last forever? But Earth had been a pressure cooker for centuries and when it exploded, it was likely to start a fire that would burn through the brittle remains of the Empire. It was a bitter thought, but he and his Marines were likely to be better off on Avalon than they would be on Earth, when the final collapse of the Empire began.

    “Of course she can,” he agreed, finally. He looked over at the map of Avalon on one wall. Now that the Crackers had been brought into the government, they had started resettling the street children out on the farms, hoping to reduce the number of starving poor on the streets. It wasn't working too badly, although some of the children had proved rather ungrateful for the chance to actually make something of themselves. They’d had to be moved to penal islands where they could live or die on their own, with neither help nor hindrance from the Government. “And the new recruits?”

    Gwendolyn was used to him changing the subject by now. “They’re coming along as well as can be expected,” she said. That was high praise, coming from her. “Some minor disciplinary problems, a handful unhappy at being away from home for the first time in their lives and none too happy about the lockdown...”

    Edward snorted. Now they had some time to breathe, they’d managed to improve the training program for new soldiers – including a three-month period when they would be completely out of contact with their families and friends. It was a taste of what Marines experienced when they left their homeworlds to go to Boot Camp, and then to the Slaughterhouse, but it seemed unnecessary on Avalon. After all, as some of the new Council had pointed out, the Knights weren't going to be deployed off-planet. Edward had counted by saying that the recruits had to develop some independence from their former civilian lives. It hadn't been a pleasant discussion.

    “They’ll get used to it,” he said, dryly. But then, Edward hadn't wanted to go back to the Undercity; no one in their right mind would want to go to the Undercity, ever. Most of his fellow Marines felt the same way about their homeworlds. Besides, it could be months between sending a message from a Marine Transport Ship and receiving a reply. On Avalon, it was easy to talk to parents, or friends. “Just keep an eye on the situation.”

    Gwendolyn nodded, rather drolly. It wasn't an order that needed to be issued. All NCOs went through courses in training new soldiers, even if they didn't intend to become Drill Instructors. They knew what to watch for – and what to avoid. And what recruits should be shown the door as quickly as possible.

    “One question did get raised,” she said, tapping the map. “How long can we afford to keep raising soldiers?”

    Edward scowled. Avalon’s economy had been effectively strangled by the former Council – and then torpedoed when the Empire had announced that it would be withdrawing from the outermost sectors along the Rim. Imperial Credits were worthless now, while very few settlers trusted the banks that had been established by the Council. In the end, they’d had to be transferred to Marine control, creating yet another hassle for Edward and his men. But they’d been the only ones everyone on the planet had been prepared to trust.

    On the other hand, the Council’s defeat had allowed the Governor a chance to remove all of their edicts and laws that had limited any hope of economic development. Avalon was now enjoying something of an economic boom, aided and abetted by some of the tech the Marines had brought with them when they’d left Earth. All of the petty regulations were gone and people were making fortunes, fortunes which they were encouraged to invest elsewhere on the planet. But there had to be limits to expansion and Edward was unsure what would happen when they finally hit those limits. Avalon’s population was small – it would have vanished like a drop of water in a bucket if it had been merged into Earth’s population – and there were limits to how much the planet could develop for itself.

    “As long as we have to, I hope,” he said. Between the Knights and the armed settlers, the bandits were being eliminated. So many weapons out in the countryside would create their own problems, sooner or later, but they’d cope with that too. Besides, it might be a good idea to ensure that there was a balance of power between the new Council and the farmers. “Still, we may have to start drawing back soon.”

    “Which will produce other problems,” Gwendolyn pointed out. “We’re drawing off the most aggressive of the local youth into the Knights. What happens when we can’t take them any longer?”

    “We find something else for them to do,” Edward said, cursing the previous council mentally. God alone knew what they’d been thinking, if they’d been thinking at all. There had been hundreds of thousands of unregistered children on Avalon and many of them had ended up on the streets, where the lucky ones had joined gangs with low life-expectancy. The unlucky ones had had to sell themselves to survive. “There are plenty of farms that need new workers.”

    Gwendolyn snorted. “That won’t suit everyone,” she said. “And what about the technical schools?”

    “They’ll have to make do,” Edward admitted. “Just like the rest of us.”

    It was another problem the previous Council had caused, one that was actually more devastating than the street children and endless debt. The Empire’s educational system had been collapsing for centuries; children on Avalon had never been taught more than reading and writing, if that. They certainly rarely understood how technology actually worked, let alone how to modify and improve it for future development. And if they didn't know those details, who would repair the machines when they started to break? The general technological level on Avalon was primitive and Edward had his doubts that even that could have been sustained for more than a few decades after the Empire withdraw from the sector.

    The Marines had started technological colleges as part of Edward’s plan to preserve as much of civilisation as he could, but it was an uphill struggle. Many of the children were willing to learn – unlike the children in the Core Worlds – yet they were critically ignorant of far too much they needed to know. The Marines had had to distribute too many of their auxiliaries to run basic courses on everything from vehicle maintenance to basic spaceflight technology; if it hadn’t been for the agreement with the RockRats, Edward had a sneaking suspicion that they would have to have abandoned space altogether. Maintaining the orbital station, let alone the cloudscoop, would have been almost impossible. And that would have doomed Avalon to eventual collapse.

    He grinned at Gwendolyn, changing the subject again. “I’ve got a meeting with the Council in two hours,” he added. At least the new Council was more reasonable than its predecessor. “After that, we can review the figures and see what we can do about establishing more farms.”

    “A meeting with the Council or just with Gaby?” Gwendolyn asked, and laughed at his flush. She’d told him, several months ago, that Gaby Cracker, the former leader of the Crackers, had a crush on him. Edward had been unable to believe it and decided that he was being teased. “You really should ask the girl out, sir.”

    “A meeting with the Council,” Edward said firmly, deciding not to rise to the bait. He was probably just being teased, a droll reminder that he was still only human. The Ancient Romans had used to have a slave reminding their Generals that they were only human; Edward, who’d been a young man when he’d first cracked open a book on history, had wondered how many of the slaves had survived the experience. “And then I thought I might inspect the spaceport.”

    “A very good idea,” Gwendolyn said. Like all of the Marines, she had a certain suspicion of anyone handling logistics who wasn’t a Marine – or an auxiliary. “Keep the bastards on their toes.”
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    If there was a society that seemed almost destined to survive the collapse of the Empire, it was the RockRats. Living in isolated asteroids, mining what they needed from the boundless wealth of space and relying on the Empire for nothing, they believed that they could keep going even when the Empire’s civil war collapsed into mass slaughter. And they might have been right. It was our good fortune that some of the RockRats chose to side with Avalon in those early years. Without them, we could not have done what we did.
    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    “You wouldn’t believe the view, Jasmine,” Mandy Caesius said, into the recorder. “The RockRats simply don’t believe in gravity.”

    She floated in the centre of a tangled forest of strange trees, growing in all directions. The RockRats had burrowed into the heart of the asteroid and hollowed it out, but they hadn't bothered to spin the asteroid to provide gravity – or install a gravity generator. Instead, they’d just planted the seeds in fertile soil and watched to see what would happen. Now, thirty years later, the interior of the asteroid was a jungle that played host to countless birds and insects that seemed to get along just fine without gravity and allowed the RockRats a chance to relax and meditate on the universe. Mandy hadn't been inducted into their religion – it wasn't something shared with outsiders – but she believed that the RockRats worshipped universal harmony. It certainly seemed to make more sense than the strange religions that had run through campus back home on Earth...

    No, she reminded herself, Avalon was home now. Her father had been exiled from Earth for daring to point out that the Empire was in a state of near-constant decline and his family – Mandy, her sister Mindy and their mother – had been exiled with him. She’d been a right brat about it, Mandy recalled, more concerned with what it would do to her social life than anything else. All of her friends had stopped talking to her after her father had lost tenure and had been forced to leave their home...and if they hadn't been dispatched to Avalon, they would probably have been killed. Now, Mandy looked back on the brat she’d been and shuddered. How could she have been so stupid?

    She hadn't realised just how ignorant she’d been, even after the near-fatal incident with the sparkle-dust, until she’d started studying at the technical college. And she’d had an academic for a father! It had taken months for her to learn the basics and then move on to practical work; if she hadn't shown some promise, she suspected that she would never have been allowed to leave Avalon and join the RockRats in their asteroid cluster. As it was, she’d had to work hard every day, feeling slow and stupid every time she was introduced to a new concept. The only thing that kept her going was the thought that perhaps her father would be proud of her afterwards.

    Her father, and Jasmine, the Marine she’d met and now looked up to as an older sister, of sorts.

    She raised the recorder to her lips again and continued to speak, dictating the next letter to her friend. They’d all been encouraged to learn to write by hand, something that Mandy found rather uncomfortable after so long using computers, but there was no room on the RockRat settlement for such luxuries. It was something of a relief, although she knew it wouldn’t last. The Marines who oversaw the technical schools insisted that they had to keep working on the basics, or else they risked losing competence. Mandy knew better than to argue.

    “They’re sending us out to the latest mine today,” she added, after telling Jasmine about her social life. At least she had friends now, even if they were all driven by a competitiveness that left Mandy wondering how they would have survived on Earth. But then, she’d had opportunities to learn and ignored them; her new friends had been prevented from learning anything useful by the endless mountain of debt. “From what they told us, we will be digging up ores that can be used to build new spacecraft for operations inside the Phase Limit...”

    “Hey,” a voice called , from within the foliage. “Mandy?”

    Mandy shut off the recorder and grinned. “Mike,” she called back. “Over here!”

    Michael Volpe pushed his way through the jungle and out into the clear spot at the heart of the asteroid. He was a handsome young man, although his face bore the scars from a lifetime spent on the streets – and, later, in the Army of Avalon. Someone had clearly thought that he was destined for better things, for he was one of ten young men who’d been added to the technical college’s mission to the RockRat settlement, even though he hadn't spent months learning his trade in the college. On Earth, Many would have flinched away from him, seeing the military as a pool for losers and sociopaths. She knew better now.

    “We’re leaving earlier than planned,” Michael said, after a quick kiss. They’d been lovers for almost a month. Mandy was unsure of how far it would go, but they were enjoying themselves...besides, he was a much better person than the average teenage boy on Earth. “They want us down at the airlock by 0940.”

    “Joy,” Mandy said, after a quick glance at her timepiece. It was 0920. “And you came to tell me that by yourself?”

    Michael gave her the mischievous grin that she was coming to associate with him. “I just thought that we might have time to do something else,” he said, pulling himself forward to kiss her. “Even if we don’t have time for everything...”

    There had been a time, Mandy knew, when she would have dropped everything just to enjoy herself with her latest boyfriend. Perhaps because it was fun, perhaps because it annoyed her father, perhaps because it distracted her from the fact that her life was empty and meaningless...just like the vast majority of the children on campus, back on Earth. Now she knew better...and besides, she did have something to do with her life. She might never be a great engineer – some of the RockRats had forgotten more than the entire class would ever learn – but she did have prospects. There was nothing quite like making something for herself, or keeping a piece of machinery running properly...

    She kissed him back and then started to pull herself back through the forest, back down to the tubes that ran through the entire asteroid. The RockRats didn’t seem to have much of a sense of aesthetics, she’d once decided; the tubes still looked to have been carved with lasers or fusion torches, as if they’d backed a sublight ship into the asteroid and used the drive to carve out the interior. Later, she’d realised that the very lack of aesthetics was part of the RockRat ethos; unlike the rest of the Empire, they didn't smooth out the world around them. They wanted to be reminded of what they’d done to produce their habitat.

    Michael followed her down until they reached the airlock, where one of the RockRat in-system spacecraft was already docked, waiting for the students. The RockRats themselves looked faintly odd to Mandy’s eyes; they were inhumanly tall and thin, seemingly so thin that a brief exposure to a gravity field could prove lethal. Mandy knew better – the RockRats had enhanced themselves in ways that ensured they could exist under a standard gravity field, but also in a way that marked them out from the rest of the human race – but she still found them rather creepy. It was just another clue that there was more in the Empire than she’d ever realised, before her father had been exiled to Avalon.

    “Check your masks and suits,” the RockRat ordered, his dark eyes moving from student to student. “Do you have any problems with your equipment?”

    Mandy nodded as her fingers checked automatically. They’d been told to keep their suits on at all times unless they were in a secure compartment – and to have them ready nearby, just in case. After seeing pictures of people who had been exposed, however briefly, to vacuum, Mandy wasn't inclined to argue. Besides, the RockRats had warned that anyone who didn't take care of themselves would be returned to Avalon before the unkind environment took care of them permanently. Space simply didn't care how important – or young – someone was; if they were careless or stupid, they died. The RockRats seemed to approve of this for some reason that didn't make sense to anyone else.

    “No,” she said, when asked. She checked her mask daily, replacing it whenever the telltales suggested that it might be wearing out. “Everything is fine.”

    “Then board the ship,” the RockRat ordered. “I will fly you to your destination.”

    Mandy noticed some of her fellow students exchanging sarcastic glances as they filed their way into the ship. The RockRats did seem to love pointing out the obvious – although, as Jasmine had pointed out, sometimes it was better to repeat instructions rather than risk having them misunderstood. Apparently, the Marines did the same; it might have been repetitive, but it prevented accidents. Inside, she allowed Michael to lead her over to a seat near one of the portholes, staring out into the endless darkness of space. It always made her feel small and insignificant. The stars had been burning long before the first human had learned to make fire and would be burning after the Empire and all its works faded away into nothingness.

    The Marine Transport Ship that had brought her and her family to Avalon had seemed crude, but the RockRats made it look like the most advanced starship in the Empire. It seemed to have been put together from spare parts, with nothing more than benches for the passengers – although that wasn't too surprising. Unlike a starship, or even one of the more advanced in-system ships, it used a small gas drive rather than drive fields or a fusion torch. There was no need for protection against high gravities when there were no high gravities to fear. A dull tremor ran through the spacecraft as it undocked from the asteroid – once the passenger list had been checked, twice – and started to head out to the mining site.

    Avalon – like most star systems – had an asteroid belt, allowing the inhabitants to mine for raw materials outside the planet’s gravity well. From what Mandy had heard, the original Avalon Development Corporation had planned for a massive economic boom in the sector, hence their decision to spend vast amounts of money on a cloudscoop for HE3. But the Empire had started to retreat from the sector instead and the cloudscoop had become an expensive white elephant. How many of Avalon’s problems could be traced back to a single poor financial decision taken by corporate executives thousands of light years away?

    The RockRats were currently the only people mining the asteroid belt, although Mandy was sure that Avalon’s new government intended to start its own mining operations sooner rather than later. After all, they were attempting to encourage as many students as possible to study asteroid mining, as well as the basic technology behind it. Much asteroid mining was done with technology that would be recognisable to a pre-space society, something that had puzzled Mandy until she’d realised that the simpler the technology, the easier it was to repair if broken. The slow decline in Earth’s infrastructure, she’d been told, owed a great deal to the fact that there were just too few technicians trained to maintain it.

    Another dull quiver ran through the ship as Mandy forced herself to relax. The RockRat spacecraft were always slow – or so it felt, even though they were travelling at a speed she would have found unimaginable on a planetary surface. It would be hours before they reached their destination, and then they’d be expected to start work at once. Months ago, she would have found it impossible to fall asleep on the spacecraft; she’d learned the hard way to bring a book or an entertainment terminal with her. Now, she leaned her head against Michael’s shoulder and closed her eyes. A few hours of sleep, even in an uncomfortable position, would leave her in a better state for working on the mine. RockRats kept strange hours...

    The shock jerked her awake. A massive thud ran through the entire ship, followed rapidly by the alarms sounding in their ears. Mandy reached for her mask automatically, pulling it over her head with practiced ease. Once, she’d regretted losing most of her hair to the demands of space travel, but now she understood just what could have happened to her if her hair had caught in the seal. A faint hiss echoed through the mask as the inbuilt air supply came online, providing several hours of atmosphere for anyone caught outside a pressurised compartment. Faint icons appeared in her HUD, counting down the seconds to the moment when she ran out of air. She glanced over at Michael and saw him looking back at her, his eyes wide with concern. He’d fought in the battles against the Crackers, but here he was just a helpless passenger, unable to do anything to help himself, his girlfriend or the rest of the class. What the hell was going on?

    Mandy keyed the intercom in her mask, but heard nothing apart from a hiss of static, followed rapidly by a deafening screech. She turned the volume down hastily, cursing out loud as she glanced around the rest of the compartment, holding up her hands in the signal for communications failure. It took her a moment to realise that everyone else seemed to have had the same piece of equipment failure. That was supposed to be impossible...wasn’t it?

    The dull throbbing of the drive died away, just as the lights failed. Emergency lighting came on seconds later, illuminating a darkened compartment, a second before another thud ran through the ship. Mandy saw a crack appearing in one bulkhead, where the porthole had allowed the occupants to gaze out into the stars, and realised – to her horror – that the spacecraft was coming apart at the seams. The crack widened as she grabbed hold of the bench, trying desperately to remember the survival lessons that had been hammered into their heads at college. If they were thrown into space, she recalled, the chances of rescue were minimal. Avalon wasn't Earth, with millions of spacecraft cruising around the system. Apart from the RockRats, and the shuttles to and from the cloudscoop, there were almost no ships in the system, ready to pick up unwanted Dutchmen.

    She caught hold of Michael’s arm as the entire ship started to shatter around them. Great cracks ran through the bulkheads, allowing the remaining oxygen to blow out of the ship, carrying at least two of the other students out into interplanetary space. Mandy barely had a moment to notice the suits spinning through the air before they were outside and gone. Their suits would keep them alive, but they’d have no hope of rescue. Perhaps they’d open their masks and die quickly; absently, she wondered if she would have the courage to do the same, if she joined them in deep space. She might be about to find out...

    I’m sorry, Dad, she thought, numbly. The air was gone, leaving them drifting in a vacuum. There was no sign of any of the RockRats; she looked behind her and saw only a handful of her fellow students, clinging desperately to the remains of the ship. What had happened to them? A disaster, something gone badly wrong, or...what? Had they been attacked? She found herself thinking of Mindy, her sister who wanted to be a Marine, and her mother, who wanted to be a social climber. Would they mourn her when she was gone? Or would they cling to the hope that she was still alive?

    She felt another quiver running through the ship and looked up, Two figures were standing in the largest crack, both wearing combat armour. For a moment, she found herself wondering if the Marines had saved them, before catching sight of the decorations emblazoned along the side of the armour. Marine armour was designed to blend in with its surroundings, she knew from Jasmine; these men wore armour designed to terrify. One of them had shark-like teeth on his mask, the other had an idealised male form – complete with genitals – painted on his armour. There was no sign of their faces, hidden under the masks.

    Pirates, she realised in horror. Piracy was an epidemic problem in some sectors, but she hadn't thought that there would be much near Avalon. Why would there be? It wasn't as if the interstellar combines ran massive shipping lanes through the sector. There was literally nothing to attract pirates on Avalon. Attacking the RockRats was rarely profitable...

    All of the horror stories ran through her head. Pirates looted, raped and destroyed, all along the Rim. Perhaps she should kill herself...her hand was halfway to her mask before Michael caught it. His expression was grim, but seemed to suggest that there was hope. Mandy could only pray that he was right.

    One of the pirates stepped forward, caught one of the students by the arm, and pushed him forward, towards the crack. The other pirate caught him and propelled him outside, into space. Mandy stared, unable to believe her eyes. Were the pirates simply spacing their victims? No, she realised a moment later, as Michael and her were picked up and pushed towards the crack. There was a spacecraft out there, waiting for them. They tumbled through space until they reached a third pirate, who caught them and shoved the captives into another airlock. Inside, a fourth pirate pointed a weapon at them. Mandy had bare seconds to recognise that it was a stunner before the universe went away in a blue-white flash of light.
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    The regeneration of Camelot was a difficult task, yet it was one that had to succeed. Put simply, the city played host to hundreds of thousands of unemployed and unemployable people who had to be placated, or they might riot. Matters were not helped by the fact that it was often very difficult to get a job – at least a legal job – as much of the salary would have to go on debt servicing. The previous Council dealt with the problem through doling out a limited supply of food and ensuring that there was always enough alcohol to meet their requirements. Its successor had to do a better job.

    This was accomplished though several different methods. Young street thugs were invited to join the Knights and put to work well away from the city. Others, including mature adults, were helped to set up smaller farming settlements of their own. And those who proved unable to cope with a non-criminal lifestyle were eventually isolated on penal islands. The result was a slow decline in the unemployed urban population.

    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    “I really think that Blake should have an armed escort,” Joe Buckley said, nodding towards the corner of the room. “We don’t want to see him kidnapped again.”

    Jasmine rolled her eyes. After her meeting with the Captain, the remainder of the platoon had insisted on taking her out to drink anyway – and, to be honest, she’d felt like a drink. These days, the Red Light District was one street on the edge of Camelot, a considerably cleaner environment than the one they’d impacted on when they’d arrived. Blake and some of the other Marines who spent all of their off-duty time chasing women might complain, but Jasmine found it a much better place to relax. Besides, the prostitutes were paid properly for their services and the pimps who’d once abused them had been dispatched to penal islands or work camps hundreds of miles from the city.

    “I think that would cramp his style,” she said, finally. “We’ll just keep an eye on him from a distance.”

    She’d given Blake strict orders not to leave the Red Light District, no matter who he was with. It wasn't as if there was a shortage of rooms for brief sexual congress above the bar. She’d watched with some amusement as a group of recruits from the Knights, holding their first pay-checks in their hands, had come into the bar, where they’d been pounced on by the staff. They wouldn't remain solvent much longer, Jasmine knew; she just hoped that they’d consider what they got in return worthwhile. At least this bar was relatively friendly. She’d been in bars that would have taken some cleaning to deserve the term shithole. And ones where she’d wanted to wear a full set of combat armour.

    Koenraad Jurgen sniggered, unpleasantly. “I think we should go with him,” he said. “Can you imagine us all standing round the bed, carrying out weapons, as we...”

    “Yes, I can,” Jasmine said. “Would you enjoy having people watching you?”

    “He’d be limp for a week,” Joe put in, dryly. “Or else he’d be bragging about it for a week afterwards.” He snickered. “Did he ever tell you about the time on Han we went into a bar...?”

    Jasmine shook her head, bracing herself for another exaggerated story.

    “Well, we’d been told that we should keep our weapons with us at all times,” Joe said, shaking his head. “And Rifleman Lucas – he bought the farm on Han – was assigned to carry the Overcompensator. I don't know why he thought he should take it off base, but no one wanted to argue about it...”

    “I don’t believe it,” Jasmine said. The CSW-34 – nicknamed the Overcompensator by the Marines who used it – was a massive piece of kit, so large that there were Marines in powered combat armour who had difficulty using the weapon. There was nothing like it for laying down hot plasma death and discouraging enemy soldiers from coming too close, but it wasn't exactly designed for carrying on a bar-crawl. “He had to be insane.”

    “That’s what we all thought,” Joe said. “But Lucas refused to be parted from his gun, so we went down to the bar and ordered beer. And Lucas starts chatting up this really hot girl who just happens to be working the bar that night.”

    He chuckled. “And she takes one look at the Overcompensator and says that she isn't going to be riding on that,” he concluded. “And Lucas looks at her and practically wets himself laughing. And then – and then – he tells her that his real weapon is much bigger. And then she says that she ain’t going to be riding on him at all.”

    Jasmine shook her head as she realised that that was the punchline. “I think I’m not drunk enough for that to be funny,” she said, after a moment. The one good thing about being posted to Avalon – apart from the fact it wasn't Han – was that Avalon actually had good beer. None of the local breweries had realised that they could sell the troops horse-piss and they wouldn’t actually complain, at least not yet. “Pass me another beer.”

    “Of course, My Lady and Mistress,” Joe said. “it will be my honour to serve.”

    He sauntered off to the bar before Jasmine could think of a crushing retort. She hadn't really understood what it meant to succeed to command of the platoon until it had actually happened – and why the officers were transferred to a new unit when they were promoted. The rest of the platoon still thought of her as a fellow Rifleman, rather than as an officer; they couldn't help being familiar. There was no way she could keep her distance from them, as the manuals on how to be an officer demanded, when they’d been with her from the moment she’d graduated the Slaughterhouse and joined the company on Han. Even if she were to be transferred to a different platoon, she’d still be with Marines who knew her.

    “So,” Koenraad said, after a long moment, “did that man ever get back in touch with you?”

    Jasmine shook her head. Four weeks ago, she’d met a man in a bar and struck up a friendship – which had come to a crashing halt when he’d realised that she was a Marine. It was annoying to know that she’d worked just as hard as any of the male Marines to qualify from the Slaughterhouse – women were expected to do just as much as the men, or quit – and yet male Marines seemed to find it easier to find sexual companionship. Just because she could have snapped the man’s neck with one hand didn't mean that she was an inhuman killer. But men didn't seem to like the idea of strong women.

    “I knew it,” Koenraad said. “Maybe you should date someone from the Knights...”

    Jasmine glared at him. “If I wanted advice on my sex life, I would have asked for it,” she snapped, finally. She regretted it almost at once, but it was too much to deal with right now. “And what about that girl you met over in Pendragon?”

    “She wanted to meet with me the next time she visited Camelot,” Koenraad said, complacently. “I hear she has a brother...”

    Jasmine bit down the response that came to mind and shook her head, just as Joe returned with the beer. “Thank you,” she said, gratefully. “How many people did you have to push aside to get it so quickly.”

    “They saw the uniform and let me through,” Joe said. “These people actually like Marines.”

    “Too true,” Koenraad said. “The girl I’m dating was delighted to be able to tell a friend that she was banging a Marine.”

    Jasmine nodded. Avalon had largely detested the Civil Guard – and, to be fair, they’d had a point. Their CO had only been able to call on a handful of units that actually knew how to fight, nowhere near enough to fight both the bandits and the Crackers. And the goddamned Council hadn't helped; they’d deliberately kept half of the Civil Guard neutered and prepared the other half to serve as their enforcers. It had been the Marines who had beaten the bandits, given the corrupt half of the Civil Guard the boot and paved the way for a peace deal that had ensured that Avalon would have a chance to grow again. The Marines were popular on Avalon, something that rarely happened on the Core Worlds, where the military was despised, or feared, or outright hated.

    One of the books she’d read – on the Captain’s orders, to help prepare her for higher command – had speculated that the Marines formed a state within a state. Retired Marines – there was no such thing as an ex-Marine – tended to marry their fellow retired Marines, or to bring their wives and children up on the Slaughterhouse or one of the other planets in the restricted system. It was possible, the writer had continued, that one day the Marines would start acting on their own behalf, rather than that of the Empire. They’d effectively be an insular civilisation in their own right. Jasmine found the concept a little daunting – they’d been trained to bear in mind, at all times, that they were the Empire’s rapier – but if the Empire collapsed completely, who knew what would happen?

    We won’t, she told herself, rather sourly. They were thousands of light years from Earth, a distance that had been daunting even before the Empire had withdrawn from their sector. Anything could be happening on Earth, or on the other side of the Empire, and they’d never know about it. Or perhaps they’d only know about it when the victorious side in the civil war roared out of Phase Space, intent on restoring the Empire’s authority along the frontier. Or maybe the civil war everyone knew was coming – apart from the populations of the Core Worlds – would be averted somehow, and everyone would live happily ever after.

    She shook her head, dismissively. The only way to avert outright civil war would be the Grand Senate giving up some of its power. That wasn't going to happen.

    “Speaking of dating, I think that Blake just got shot down,” Koenraad said. Jasmine turned her head in time to see the girl stamping off, with a downcast Blake heading back towards their table. “Hey, what happened, stud?”

    “It turned out that she wanted a long-term relationship,” Blake said, as he sat down. “Can you imagine it?”

    Jasmine joined in the general laughter. “At least she didn't kidnap you and interrogate you,” she said, finally. It would be years before Blake lived that down. “Count your blessings.”

    “But at least I got a fuck out of the whole deal,” Blake said. “A soldier who won’t fuck won’t fight.”

    “And a soldier...and so on, and so on and so on,” Jasmine said, rolling her eyes. “I think that...”

    Her communications implant buzzed in her ears, sounding the general recall. “That’s a muster,” she said, as she stood up and dropped a credit chip on the table. The others followed her to their feet, already triggering implants that flushed the remains of the alcohol from their bodies. Whatever had happened had to be urgent, or they wouldn't have been summoned back from leave. “We’re heading to the nearest helipad.”

    She keyed her implant to call in as they ran out of the bar and started to head down towards the closest pickup point. Camelot was tiny compared to the vast megacity that covered most of Earth’s surface, but it would take too long to get back to the spaceport, even if they wore battlesuits or hired cars. They’d have to call in for pickup and hope that there was a helicopter – or a Raptor – close enough to serve.

    “General orders,” the dispatcher at Castle Rock said. “Report back to base; I say again, report back to base.”

    Jasmine frowned, thoughtfully. That sounded as if someone was calling a drill, rather than an emergency muster in response to a problem. And yet it was rare to call a drill when a unit was just coming off its patrol rotation and going for some well-deserved R&R. Perhaps the Command Sergeant had thought that they needed to be shaken out of their complacency, or perhaps...

    She shook her head. No doubt they would find out soon enough.


    Castle Rock didn't have a real spaceport, even though they’d had to land shuttles on the island once or twice. Accordingly, control over operations in near-Avalon space was routed through the spaceport, although Edward was grimly aware that their ability to influence events away from the planet was minimal. Avalon had almost no orbital defences at all; the heavily-armed orbital weapons platforms that protected wealthy worlds were years beyond their ability to manufacture. It wasn't too surprising – the Imperial Navy had been called upon to intervene on Avalon years ago, and it might have had to do it again – but it was irritating. He knew exactly what would happen if a hostile cruiser appeared in orbit, ready to drop Kinetic Energy Weapons on the planet below.

    He picked up the headphones as soon as he entered the operations centre and waited as patiently as he could for the spaceport staff to brief him. The original spaceport staff had been largely withdrawn as Avalon declined in importance, leaving a handful of staffers behind who’d had to train up promising youngsters from Avalon. Like the rest of the arrangements on the planet, there was a degree of improvisation that sometimes made it hard to get things done in a timely manner. Edward was uncomfortably aware that the IG would have a few sharp things to say about it if they ever conducted an inspection. But then, the IG was on the other side of the Empire’s rapidly shrinking boundary.

    “Colonel,” a female voice said, finally. “We picked up an emergency alert from the RockRats seven minutes ago.”

    Edward nodded, impatiently. “And what did it say?”

    “They report...sir, they report that their transport ship was attacked and presumed destroyed,” the voice said. “They don’t have the ships to go after the hostile vessel.”

    Edward felt cold ice running down his spine. He'd known it would be bad, but he’d hoped – prayed – that it had just been an accident. There had been no way of knowing just how long Avalon’s isolation from the rest of the settled galaxy would last, yet he’d dared to assume that they would have a year or two before they had to resume contact with nearby worlds. That assumption had just bitten him on the behind, hard.

    “Understood,” he said. He couldn't blame the RockRats for not being inclined to give chase. Their clans possessed thousands of starships, but the ones isolated in the Avalon System had nothing capable of standing up to a hostile starship. There was a good chance that the pirates would continue to ignore the RockRats – the rest of their society gave serious grudge and would never allow the pirates to escape – yet that wouldn't be enough to preserve Avalon.

    “Did they take any visuals of the hostile vessel?” He asked, thoughtfully. “Anything at all?”

    “Yes, sir,” the voice said. “The attacked ship transmitted an alert before it was cut off by the hostile vessel.”

    Jammed or destroyed, Edward thought. He pushed the sinking feeling in his chest to one side. “Patch them through to me,” he ordered, aloud. “And then start running them through the analysis computers – see what they can pull from the records.”

    He pulled his terminal out of his belt pouch and studied the records as they popped up on the screen. The RockRats hadn't been expecting trouble and their in-system ship was hardly built to put up a fight. There were only a handful of images, all showing a starship that appeared to be an elderly design of Imperial Navy destroyer. That probably didn't mean anything; the design was over three hundred years old and most of them had either been scrapped or sold onwards to private interests. Some of them had probably been pirates. Edward had once heard that if former Imperial Navy starships were broken down into their component pieces, the level of piracy would drop sharply. But the Navy beancounters wanted to recoup as much of their costs as possible. Who cared where the ships ended up as long as the beancounters got their cut of the profits?

    “They were attacked,” he said, as Gwendolyn entered the compartment. A quick check revealed a list of names, everyone who had been on the doomed flight. There was no reason to assume that the pirates – if they were pirates – had killed everyone, but the last blip of information had reported total hull collapse. That suggested that the pirates might have overestimated the force needed to bring the ship to a halt. And then...? There was no time to speculate.

    He keyed his communicator. “Attention, all personnel,” he said. “Case Omega is now in effect; I say again, Case Omega is now in effect.”

    “I’ll take control of the evacuation,” Gwendolyn said. Case Omega assumed that Castle Rock was going to come under KEW attack – and end up being destroyed from orbit. If Edward had been running the pirate operation, that was exactly what he would have done. The Marines were just too dangerous to leave alive. “Are you going to speak to the Council?”

    Edward nodded. There was really no choice, even if he had met the Council earlier in the day. He glanced at his timepiece; it was almost midnight, local time. They’d be in bed and asleep. Looking back down at the list, he realised that there was a name he needed to visit personally. He had to inform the Professor that his daughter was missing before the media informed him – and everyone else.

    “We’ll have to wake them up,” he said. If nothing else, flying so many helicopters out of the bases near Camelot would alert them that something was up. “I’ll speak to them personally – in the meantime, I want you to get 1st Platoon prepped for orbit and inserted into the orbital station. I’ve had an idea.”

    “Yes, sir,” Gwendolyn said. “Good luck with the Council.”

    “It isn't the Council I’m worried about,” Edward admitted. “It’s the Professor.”
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments would be nice...

    Chapter Five

    The old Council had effectively consisted of the richer citizens, who gamed the political system in their favour. Unsurprisingly, it was utterly unpopular with the rest of the population, The new Council attempted to be a compromise between the various different factions on the planet; Empire-loyalists, Crackers, farmers, city-dwellers...everyone was supposed to be represented. It was a cumbersome arrangement, but it worked well enough to prevent a repeat of the civil war.

    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    Earth never slept, Edward recalled, as the Raptor settled down on the lawn of what had once been Wilhelm Mansion. Camelot...did; outside the Red Light District and the hospitals, most of the city went to bed in the darkness and almost all activity came to a halt. It felt odd, after the more established cities on a hundred different worlds, but Edward had come to welcome it. But now, with helicopters flying away from the bases and heading out into the countryside, everyone would know that something was wrong. Rumours would probably be spreading already.

    Wilhelm Mansion was the largest surviving building in Camelot, after the battle that had devastated the city centre. It had been built by Carola and Markus Wilhelm, the richest and most ambitious members of the former Council, who had dreamed of ruling the planet as its King and Queen. They’d come far too close to succeeding before they’d been arrested and dumped on a penal island, along with many of the gangsters and bandits they'd tried to use as servants and allies. Edward had studiously resisted the temptation to check up on them; several thousand miles from any other settlement, the only people they could hurt were their fellow criminals. Shaking his head, he disembarked from the Raptor and walked towards the mansion’s doors. They were guarded by a pair of Knights wearing combat armour passed down from the Marines.

    The building itself was incredibly ugly, at least in his considered opinion, and it was difficult to see how anyone had missed the fact that it was intended to be a fortress. A team of armoured Marines would have had no difficulty breaking in, but a mob could be kept out by a handful of snipers and the armoured walls. Edward passed through the security check and walked through the corridors, smiling at the bare spaces on the walls that had once housed tacky artwork. Now, the building played host to most of the civil servants who kept the government working, as well as a handful of Councillors who hailed from outside the capital. The remaining Councillors lived in the city, as did the Governor himself. They had been reluctant to live permanently in Wilhelm Mansion. Edward found it hard to blame them.

    He passed through another security check and into the newly-designed Council Chamber, where most of the Council was already waiting for him. There were twenty-one Councillors in all, seventeen of them seated around the table. They had been elected into power by the population in Avalon’s first free vote – the original Council had been elected by those who had no debts to repay, which was a tiny percentage of the population – after much political wangling. The Governor - Brent Roeder – was, technically speaking, the voice of the Empire, but the Empire had abandoned Avalon. There had been more time wasted over the question of giving the Governor a voice in local politics than anything else. In the end, the Governor had been given the chair while Gaby Cracker, the former leader of the Crackers, had been elected President. It was inefficient, but at least it had produced a workable compromise.

    The Councillors looked tired, he noted, as he took the seat at one end of the table. Edward’s own position was rather ill-defined, something that had happened more by accident than through deliberate planning. As the military commander of both the Marines and the Knights of Avalon, he had a seat on the Council, but he was technically subordinate to the civilian officials. At the same time, the Marines were sworn to the Emperor personally, rather than the elected civilians, which was at least partly why the Grand Senate hated and feared the Terran Marine Corps. If they went decades without resuming contact with the Empire, Edward suspected, the Marines were likely to fade into the Knights, all the more so as they lacked the facilities for training and enhancing new Marines. And on that day, something precious would be lost.

    “Colonel,” Gaby Cracker said. She looked, as always, very young for her role, but Edward knew that the fiery redhead had a working brain and was genuinely devoted to Avalon. Her father, Peter Cracker, had led the first rebellion against the government, a rebellion that would have succeeded if the Imperial Navy hadn't dropped KEWs on his advancing army, crushing it under superior firepower. Edward sometimes wondered what the old man would have made of their new government. “What’s happened?”

    Edward would have smiled, if the situation hadn't been so grave. On Earth, at least outside the Marines, there were endless formalities before a meeting could begin, starting with an oath to the Emperor. No wonder so little got decided – or left in the hands of the bureaucrats – when the formalities could take longer than the meetings themselves. On Avalon, most of the formalities had never had a chance to take root – and Edward hoped that they never would. Besides, Avalon was too small for the formalities and most of the Council knew their fellows outside of politics.

    “We have a major problem,” he said, bluntly. “Two hours ago, a RockRat transport was attacked by a vessel of unknown origin.”

    Gaby looked shocked; she, at least, understood the implications. Apart from Avalon itself, and the RockRats, there were no other settlements within the system. Even the cloudscoop was little more than a makeshift structure orbiting the largest gas giant. An attack on anything within the system had to come from outside the system, suggesting...what? The last they’d heard from outside Avalon had been that the Empire was pulling out, leaving the Rim to its own devices. They hadn't even seen a tramp freighter since then.

    But if someone had raided the system, what did that mean? Pirates, intent on taking anything that wasn't nailed down, or a political entity that intended to climb to power in the wake of the Empire’s departure? Or perhaps the destroyer they’d seen was just an armed merchantman; it would hardly be the first merchant ship to turn pirate when confronted by a defenceless target. Edward honestly wasn’t sure which one was more likely, but one fact was clear; Avalon had something that both pirates and other political entities would want very badly. HE3 was the backbone of the interstellar economy and Avalon, unlike most planets in the sector, possessed a working source of fuel. They’d do whatever it took to capture the cloudscoop.

    One of the other Councillors leaned forward. “Colonel,” he asked, “what happened to the people on the transport?”

    “We don’t know,” Edward admitted. The RockRats had notified Avalon that they were dispatching a shuttle to search for the wreckage – and survivors – but Edward wasn't hopeful. He’d seen the wreaks of enough starships in the past to know that disasters in space were rarely survivable. “It’s possible that they might have been taken by the raiders.”

    “And then...what?” Gaby asked. “What will they do to them?”

    “It depends on who they caught and what they actually want,” Edward said. It wasn't a very helpful answer, but there was no way to know – yet – who had captured their people. Pirates might rape and then kill their captives, unless they were worth a considerable ransom; someone else might have other ideas. In their place, Edward would have interrogated any captives to discover the political conditions on Avalon. “At the moment, we have to assume the worst. The raiders intend to invade and occupy this star system.”

    “We’ll fight,” Julian Rufus said. He tossed Edward a challenging look. “We held off the Empire. We can hold off these newcomers too.”

    Edward kept his face expressionless, even though the Crackers had been beaten in the Battle of Camelot. He had never quite understood the relationship between him and Gaby Cracker; at times, he seemed to be in love with her, but at other times he seemed to think that she was too conservative. The Crackers might have become part of the political process, yet Julian apparently felt that they’d compromised too much. Edward had sensed that his election to the Council – his father, regrettably, had refused to stand for office – promised trouble in the future. Sooner or later, there would be a major clash between the old and the new on Avalon.

    “The situation is different,” he said, instead. Julian had a brain too, even if it had been shaped by a life on the run. “The former Council wanted to rule the planet; that alone limited what it could do to the population. A pirate ship that wants tribute could simply take up position in orbit and drop rocks on our heads until we submitted and gave them whatever they wanted. They are not likely to be deterred by an insurgency on the planet’s surface – and we couldn't touch them from the ground.”

    It was a classic problem, older than the Empire itself. Boosting something – anything – to orbit required a great deal of energy, energy that was easily detectable from high overhead. A starship with a proper sensor suite could see missiles incoming and either evade them or shoot them down with point defence, while launching KEWs against targets on the ground. The Empire had rarely based defences on planetary surfaces, knowing that they were effectively useless. They could be taken out by an invading starship from well outside their own range.

    “Right,” Julian said. He didn't seem convinced, which was odd; Peter Cracker’s rebellion had been stopped by KEWs launched from orbit. “And what are they likely to want?”

    Edward scowled. In the days when the Empire was strong, ready and able to respond to any emergency, pirates had found it hard to get any real traction. But now, with law and order breaking down, piracy had rapidly become epidemic. Edward had seen the remains of colony worlds hit by pirates, raided for food, drink and women, or other worlds forced into effective servitude by the threat of overwhelming force. The Imperial Navy no longer had the ability to provide protection against pirates, so the locals made what accommodations they could with the bastards, even if it meant feeding them and selling their daughters into slavery – or worse. They had no other choice.

    “They’ll want the command codes for the cloudscoop,” Edward said, after briefly outlining what other colony worlds had experienced. “That will give them an excellent long-term position for dictating terms to half the sector.”

    He saw the Councillors exchanging glances and smiled, inwardly. The fusion reactors that provided most of the colony’s power were very efficient, and there was a considerable stockpile of fuel established in underground bunkers, but it would run out eventually. Avalon had a cloudscoop to replenish its stockpiles, yet it was rare for any colony world to have a cloudscoop until it’s space-based industry grew much larger. Most colony worlds simply had HE3 shipped into them by massive tankers, none of which would be running any longer.

    How long would it be, he asked himself as the Councillors started to argue, before the other worlds in the sector began running short of fuel? Years, definitely, particularly if they had no space-based industry of their own. The early colonial investments always included a large stockpile of fuel, as well as the farming equipment needed to ensure the colony could feed itself as quickly as possible. They certainly wouldn't want to be shipping bulk foodstuffs across interstellar distances. But what would happen when the fuel ran out? They’d fall back on more primitive technologies, if they had the time to produce them. Offhand, Edward couldn't think of any standard colony world that had bothered to include non-HE3 power sources. The only ones that might survive the Empire’s fall without noticing were the ones that chose to follow a deliberately primitive lifestyle.

    The Governor tapped the table and silence fell. “As interesting as the long-term implications of us possessing a cloudscoop are,” he said, “we do have a more immediate problem. What exactly are we going to do about this new threat?”

    Gaby looked over at Edward. “Colonel, do you have a plan to deal with the newcomers?”

    Edward hesitated. In truth, he had half an idea at best, one that could easily get 1st Platoon killed, followed rapidly by the rest of the Marines. But the alternative was contacting the newcomers and offering surrender – and hoping that they merely wanted to establish their own hegemony over the sector rather than looting, raping and burning. Surrender wasn't in his nature; years ago, one of his Drill Instructors had claimed that surrender was in the Marine Corps lexicon, but only as something the enemy did. Marines could be tired, wounded and very near death, yet they kept going.

    “I’m working on it,” he said. At least the Council understood the need for operational security. “Our problem, right now, is that we need to start dispersing our military forces and civilian population as quickly as possible.”

    “Out of fear of bombardment,” the Governor said. “Do you think we can get most of the population out of Camelot in time to matter?”

    Edward scowled. It would have been impossible on Earth, or any major settled world, but Camelot had always been a relatively small city, even before the new Council had started encouraging people to move out to the farms. They did have contingency plans to move large numbers of people away from the settlements that would be visible from orbit, if they had time to make them work. The city might have lacked the teeming multitudes on Earth, but it also lacked Earth’s public transportation system.

    “I think we have to start now,” he said. If the newcomers were pirates, with all the bad intentions that implied, dispersing the population might be the only way to save them. “And we need to take control of the situation before rumours start to spread.”

    The Council debated the issue quickly; unlike Earth’s politicians, they could come to a decision without requiring days of debate, as well as requesting further study just to delay proceedings. Edward had the professional officer’s contempt for politicians, but he had to admit that Avalon’s Council seemed to be better than most; they certainly understood the limits of their own power, an awareness that was lacking in the Grand Senate. He answered a handful of questions, made comments when the situation required it, and listened gravely as Major George Grosskopf outlined the evacuation plan. The Council hadn't been entirely happy with Edward keeping him on active duty – he might have been a competent and clean officer, but he’d led the Civil Guard before the Marines arrived – but they seemed willing to forget the past for the moment. Besides, George did know what he was doing.

    “We have an evacuation list of children and people in vitally important positions,” George explained. The Council had never reviewed the evacuation plans; the original plans had started with politicians and the wealthy first, but the rewritten plans left politicians in the city until the rest of the population was evacuated. It was an advantage of Avalon’s more open government that Edward hadn't appreciated until it had actually happened. “With your permission, we will start buzzing the people to be evacuated first now.”

    Edward nodded, impatiently. Avalon’s small cadre of trained workers – everything from plumbers and builders to spacecraft designers – would be among the first to be evacuated, along with the children. Losing someone with genuine experience in actually building something would hurt; the old Council had never focused on building up a wealth of experts in any category, even planet-side construction. Edward had often wondered what they’d planned to do if – when – the Empire withdrew from the sector. Carola Wilhelm, at least, had understood the likely outcome of the ongoing crisis gripping the once-proud union of human worlds.

    “I need to leave these matters in your hands,” he said, finally. George could handle it; with the Council’s authority, he would have command of the Knights based near the capital and the local police force. The police were civilian – without any of the training that should have been given to the Civil Guard – but they took their duties seriously. And besides, they were responsible to the local population in a way the Civil Guard had never been. “I have to pay a call on the Professor.”

    Gaby nodded as the debate came to an end. “We’ll see to the evacuation,” she assured him. “Keep us informed of the situation.”

    Edward saluted and left the chamber, linking back into the Marine communications network as he strode back towards the Raptor. There was no change; the deep space monitoring system, such as it was, reported no sign of unfriendly starships lurking near Avalon. Edward, who knew that the system was primitive compared to the systems that guarded Earth, wasn't reassured. Given time and some reasonable precautions, a starship could probably slip into orbit without being detected.

    He sighed as he ordered the Raptor to return to the spaceport, without him. It was the moments between action that he dreaded, the times when he could do nothing, but worry. He’d given all the orders he could; now, while his subordinates turned his wishes into actions, he could only wait and consider what might go wrong. There was nothing he could do any longer to affect the outcome of events. All he could do was wait.

    There was a cab outside the gates, dropping off one of the missing Councillors. Edward hailed the driver and asked him to drive to the nearest residential zone. The Professor lived there, along with his wife and younger daughter. And Edward had to tell them that his older daughter was missing, presumed dead.
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Six

    By Imperial Law, every settled world – certainly those settled with loans from the Empire’s Colonisation Department – had to have an orbital station for easy transhipment of goods. Avalon’s was, in fact, much larger than the standard required by law, yet another white elephant caused by the ADC’s unfounded belief in the sector’s coming economic boom. Perversely, this was actually a great advantage to us when we started returning to space, once we had secured the planet’s surface.

    The standard structure of these stations included...

    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    “It’s beautiful,” Jasmine breathed.

    “It sure is,” Blake agreed, serious for once. Down below, the blue-green orb of Avalon hung in the endless darkness of space. Jasmine could see white flecks in the planet’s atmosphere – clouds forming over the unsettled continent – and wondered, idly, if Avalon would ever have something big enough to be seen from orbit with the naked eye. “Earth just can’t compare any longer.”

    Jasmine nodded. Earth had once been like Avalon, but now humanity’s homeworld was a grey world, covered with the towering city-blocks that made up the megacities. If the technology that supported the human population – the algae farms that produced food and drink, the fusion reactions that provided power – ever failed, Earth’s decline would be unstoppable. Hell, there were places on Earth’s surface that were badly contaminated by industrial accidents, where the population effectively lived in spacesuits or protective armour. If the infrastructure ever failed, Earth’s population would fall sharply, almost immediately. They could never go back to living off the land.

    She couldn’t understand why the Grand Senate didn't seem to realise that they were living on top of a ticking time bomb. Earth’s authorities expelled everyone who was caught committing a crime – even something as minor as speeding – as well as encouraging emigration, but it was nowhere near enough to dampen the population boom. Millions of new children joined Earth’s teeming population every month, far more than could ever be removed from the planet. The only solution that might work was forced contraception, perhaps lacing the tasteless algae glop the average citizen ate with something to stop them breeding, but the Grand Senate didn't seem willing to order it. It made no sense to her; she’d thought her own homeworld was rigorously controlled – and controlling – until she’d seen Earth. Humanity’s homeworld was dying and no one seemed to care.

    “You think we might have to do something clever?” Joe asked. 1st Platoon had drawn their space combat armour the moment they’d received the order to board the shuttle and boost for orbit; now, all they could do was wait while the shuttle made transit to the orbit station. Jasmine had always hated the moment of vulnerability while they were in a flying tin can – she’d had to bail out of a Raptor during the Battle of Camelot – but there was no choice. Combat suits couldn't fly to orbit, not yet. “This could get really bad.”

    Jasmine winced. The list of students who had been on the transport and either killed or kidnapped had been uploaded into the command network, and she’d seen – to her horror – Mandy’s name. She would never have believed that she could have come to like the girl, even to care for her, not when they’d first met. But they’d become friends, of a sort, and she’d encouraged Mandy to study engineering and space construction technology, knowing that it would be vitally important in the future. She might as well have signed Mandy’s death warrant with her own hands.

    Blake and the others had known the risks when they went to Boot Camp. Any recruit who had thought that Marine training was a game would have been shorn of that notion by the Drill Instructors, in their first encounter with the terrifying hat-wearing figures who would dominate their lives for the next three months. Jasmine would always feel guilty if they died under her command, but they’d volunteered for service in the Marine Corps. Mandy hadn't volunteered for anything in her life, up until the moment she’d decided to go to the technical college. And it might just have placed her in the firing line.

    And maybe I should pray that she’s dead, Jasmine thought. She hadn't had to board the wreaked ships left behind by pirates, but she’d seen photographs and read the reports – and worked her way through hundreds of simulations. Pirates knew that they were dead when – if – the Imperial Navy caught up with them. It made them savage, willing to do anything to their captives. Jasmine had saved Mandy from a situation that could easily have turned into rape, but this time she’d been hundreds of thousands of miles away from the girl. This time, Mandy could have to survive by herself.

    The pilot’s voice buzzed through her implant. “Orbit Station is coming into view,” she said. “Hands off cocks and on with socks.”

    Jasmine didn't smile at the standard joke, a tradition that dated back thousands of years. Had she always gotten nervous before a mission? But as a Rifleman, her duty had been to follow orders and look after herself, not command other Marines in combat. This time, she could lose people...but that was always going to be true. Not for the first time, she considered reporting to Colonel Stalker that she could not handle it and requesting a return to the ranks, before pushing the thought aside in some irritation. She was the best-qualified Marine to take 1st Platoon, or so she had been told, and walking away from her duty wasn't in her nature. Besides, one rule the Marines did share with every other military service was simple; if you turned down a promotion, you would never be offered another one.

    Orbit Station came into view slowly as the shuttle drifted up to the airlock. It was a boxy structure, mostly composed of modules that had been shipped in from the industrial node several dozen light years away. Now, a handful of RockRat-produced modules had been added, expanding the space available for storing goods and equipment. Jasmine remembered assisting her superior officers to take as much as they could from Earth, before they bid farewell to humanity’s dying homeworld. Given enough time, she knew, they could build an entire tech base from scratch. If the pirates – or whoever the newcomers were – gave them the time...

    “Armour up,” she ordered, as the shuttle docked with the station. There was no reason to suspect trouble, but Marines were trained to be careful. Besides, they had to convince the station manager and his family to leave the platform before the newcomers arrived – if they did arrive – and wearing battle armour might help. “Blake, Joe; you’re on point.”

    “Understood,” Blake said. She heard the calm competence in his voice and allowed herself a moment of relief, even though she felt as if she should be taking point herself. The point man always had the most dangerous job, being the person who would be shot at first if there was an ambush waiting for them. “Joe can watch my back.”

    “You’ll have to pay me to watch your back,” Joe muttered, as they stepped into the airlock. Jasmine had to swallow the urge to tell them to stop bantering and get on with it. The airlock hissed closed behind them and she braced herself. If there was an ambush waiting for them, it would be sprung now, when the Marines were cooped up in the shuttle.

    “Airlock opening,” Blake reported. Jasmine accessed the live feed from his armour and smiled in relief when she saw the young girl waiting for them past the inner airlock. “One person waiting for us, Morag Campbell.”

    “Trust you to know her name,” Joe said. “Just remember, she isn't old enough to fuck yet and the CO will roast your ass if you even look at her sideways...”

    “That will do,” Jasmine snapped. Like most orbiting stations – and small establishments in space – orbit station was operated by a family, one that had ties to the RockRats or the planet below. Their exact legal status was somewhat disputed – they had a contract with the ADC, which had folded along with the corporation itself – but they’d stayed on the station anyway. No one seemed inclined to chase them away. “Ask Morag where her father is?”

    “She says that he’s in the control compartment,” Blake reported. Orbit station was really too small and immobile to have either a bridge or a command centre. “And she welcomes us to the station.”

    “Good,” Jasmine said. She opened the airlock and stepped through into the station, followed by the remainder of 1st Platoon. The little girl’s eyes opened wide as she took in the armoured Marines; like many children raised on isolated stations, she was slightly agoraphobic. She probably wouldn't have seen so many people tramping through the station since the Marines had arrived, almost a year ago.

    Jasmine removed her mask and knelt down beside her. “Hi,” she said, with a smile. The girl responded with a shy grin. “Can you take us to your father?”

    She’d met Douglas Campbell before, back when they’d first arrived at Avalon. He was a tall, powerfully-built man, almost certainly with some genetic enhancement in his family’s bloodline. The Empire tended to frown on such enhancement – apart from those who were in the military, or wealthy and powerful enough to ignore the law – but the RockRats used it regularly, as did most of the other families that lived permanently in space. Humanity was ill-adapted to survive in vacuum without heavy exercise. Genetic engineering was the only realistic alternative.

    “I heard about the attack,” Campbell said, without preamble. Jasmine rather approved. He would have made a good Marine. “Do you really feel that you can deter an attack on this station?”

    Jasmine took a moment to consider her reply. Orbit Station was almost completely defenceless – and the two makeshift plasma cannons the crew had rigged up wouldn't even scratch the paint of a military starship. Even a civilian craft coated with a layer of ablative armour would be able to shrug them off, while a single missile would blow the station into a great deal of expensive debris. If the enemy simply fired on the station from a safe distance, they were all dead – and there was no point in trying to hide it from him. But on the other hand...

    “We have a plan,” she said, and tried to project as much confidence as she could into her voice. They did have a plan, but it would depend more on luck than judgement. If anyone other than Colonel Stalker had come up with it, Jasmine would have had little faith in its success. “However, we need you to move your family off the station.”

    Campbell scowled. “The kids aren't ready for life on a planet,” he said, crossly. “Can I send them to the RockRats.”

    Jasmine hesitated before answering. “They are at risk,” she said. If the plan failed, or even if it didn't work in time, orbit station might be destroyed. “You can send them down to the planet for a few days, maybe two weeks. They won’t be harmed.”

    “But they will be scooped up by the meddlers,” Campbell said. “I won’t have them stamped into drones...”

    It took Jasmine a moment to realise what he meant. Earth and the Core Worlds had meddling bureaucrats whose only purpose seemed to be ensuring that all children went to the same schools, where they were taught little of any value and far more about their rights than their responsibilities. Jasmine hadn't realised just how free her homeworld had been until she’d learned that, on Earth, childcare could be used as a way to punish political opponents of the regime. Anyone could be declared an unfit parent and have their children taken away, perfectly legally. The RockRats kept their distance from the Core Worlds out of fear that their lifestyles would be meddled with by the bureaucrats.

    “Avalon doesn't have any meddlers,” she said, dryly. Even the old Council hadn't bothered to build up a Department of Child Services – and that was ironic, as Avalon could actually have used such a department. Coming to think of it, if they did their job properly, the undercity on Earth wouldn't have been such a teeming mass of darkness and despair – and hatred. “Look, I swear to you, upon my honour as a Marine, that the children will be returned to you, even if I have to launch an armed raid on the Council Chamber.”

    Campbell smiled for the first time. “I’ll hold you to that,” he said. “Do you want the command codes for the station?”

    Jasmine nodded. “We have to get ready,” she said. “Please ensure that the children get aboard the shuttle. The craft will be leaving as soon as possible.”


    Professor Leo Caesius had once been an academic on Earth before he’d made the mistake of questioning the true state of the Empire. His downfall had been rapid and would have killed him, if the Commandant of the Terran Marine Corps, one of the few people who was aware of the crisis, hadn't seen to it that he and his family received protection and eventual transport to Avalon. Edward had come to like the older man on the long journey to their new world, where the Professor had found himself assisting the formation of a new government – and teaching the children about what had killed the Empire. His wife, a social climber of no small ambitions, had been rather less amused. The couple were not precisely separated, but Edward had heard that Fiona Caesius had been seen with other men.

    He found himself pacing in Leo’s study as the maid went to fetch the Professor. It was tradition in the Marine Corps that the unit’s CO had to visit the family of any deceased Marine, even though it could be years before the visit could be made. Edward had only had to do it twice and it never got any easier. And this particular person hadn't even been a Marine. Mandy should have been safe, even if she had been living in a very unforgiving environment. It was quite likely that Leo would blame Edward for his loss.

    That’s funny, he thought, bitterly. I can face the enemy without panic, but I want to run from this study and flee into the city...

    He looked up as Leo entered the room, wearing a tattered dressing gown that had seen better days. “Captain...ah, Colonel,” he said. The last time they’d spoken, they’d planned out a History and Moral Philosophy course for the city’s students. “It is really rather late...”

    “I’m afraid so,” Edward agreed. For once, he found himself indecisive. How should he approach the issue? “I’m afraid I have bad news.”

    The blood seemed to drain out of the Professor’s face. “It’s Mandy, isn't it?”

    Edward hesitated, and then nodded. “Her transport was attacked,” he said. “She is missing...”

    “She might still be alive,” Leo said. “I...I only got to know her again and...”

    His voice tailed off. Edward caught his shoulder and guided him towards the sofa, feeling a moment of pity for the academic. Mandy had been a brat until one of Edward’s Marines had taken her in hand, guiding her towards a more promising career and a life that would be more fulfilling. And Leo had had a chance to get to know his daughter again.

    “She might,” Edward agreed. He kept the thought that Mandy might be better off dead to himself. She was young, and attractive, and alone. The pirates would be tempted to use her, abuse her and then kill her. “We don’t know for sure.”

    “But why?” Leo demanded. “Why would anyone want to kill her?”

    “It could have been the first shot in an invasion of this system,” Edward said. In some ways, he was hoping that was the case. The newcomers were obviously sneaking around, rather than just charging into high orbit and demanding surrender. It would give him some time to prepare to meet them. “Or it could simply have been a random raid.”

    Leo shook his head. “I’ll have to tell Mindy...my god, I’ll have to tell Mindy. And Fiona.”

    Edward didn't envy him. Mindy was still too young to join the Knights – she’d expressed her desire to join the Marines, but they didn't have the training facilities on Avalon to produce new Marines – but she was working hard. There was a tough mentality inside the girl who had been raised among Earth’s middle classes. Fiona, on the other hand...Leo’s wife would blame him, as she’d blamed him for everything else that had happened in her life. Didn’t the woman realise that she was better off on Avalon than Earth?

    “They might demand money,” Leo said. He looked up at Edward. “Will we pay?”

    “It depends on what they want,” Edward said. Imperial Credit chips were useless on Avalon now, but they might still be usable further in towards the Core Worlds. Or they might want food and fuel. Edward knew that standard policy was to refuse to pay ransoms on the grounds that paying merely encouraged the bastards to do it again, yet that might not be possible. They were a long way from the Imperial Navy. “We’ll have to see what they want.”

    Leo started to shake. “I had a lecture planned for tomorrow,” he admitted. “I thought...”

    “Cancel it,” Edward urged. On the Slaughterhouse, there were trained officers to help grief-stricken parents through the darkness that lay ahead. Here...there were none. He knew that he should find Leo something to do, something that might keep him busy, but he couldn't think of anything. “Cancel it and stay with your daughter.”

    “You’d better go now,” Leo said, after a long moment. Edward understood and rose to his feet, just before Leo caught his arm. “You are going to catch them, aren’t you?”

    “Yes,” Edward said, flatly. He understood exactly what Leo meant. “We will catch them.”
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    If you like this, please post a comment.

    Chapter Seven

    There is a very old saying that runs “luck is like government; you can't get along without it, but only a fool relies on it.” In many ways, that saying reflects the problem with both the Empire and the successor states that arose in the wake of its slow withdrawal from the Rim. Put simply, without a government acting as a reasonably fair referee, the strong will always bully and oppress the weak – BUT if the government is given too much power, it will become the strong itself and bully its citizens. Striking a permanent balance between too much and too little power – and then expecting it to work indefinitely – is impossible. It is tempting to conclude that, if the Empire’s population had paid more attention to its government, the Grand Senate would never have amassed the power to rule the Empire and start it on the slow course to eventual collapse.

    In pirate societies – a term that was often expanded to cover all of the post-Empire societies along the Rim – it was much simpler. There, without any of the Empire’s benefits as well as its disadvantages, it was the Rule of the Strong. This was extremely unfortunate for anyone caught up in their grasp...

    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).


    Mandy groaned, trying to pull herself out of a morass of pain and dizziness that threatened to push her back into the darkness. She’d had a nightmare, hadn't she? They’d all had nightmares after their first briefing on how to look after themselves in space – and after the instructor had told them that all he was telling them only applied if they were near life-support equipment. Otherwise...

    “Let’s face it,” he’d said. “If you’re not close to life support equipment, bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.”

    And there was pain around her wrists, and a cold breeze on her body, and...

    She opened her eyes. “You’re awake,” Michael said, in relief. Mandy’s neck hurt, as if she’d fallen asleep on one of the RockRat transports while leaning against him, but she managed to look over at him. He was naked and his hands were cuffed to a metal pipe...it struck her, suddenly, that it wasn't a dream. “I thought I might have lost you.”

    Mandy tried to move her hands, only to discover that the pain around her wrists was another pair of handcuffs. Someone had cuffed her hands behind her back and used a third cuff to secure her to the metal pipe. She pulled at it in the hopes that it was weaker than it looked, but discovered that it was simply too strong to break. And she was naked too. The suits they’d been told to wear at all times, along with the masks that might save their lives if the shit hit the fan, were gone. A faint scar on her chest suggested that her captors, whoever they were, had used a knife to cut her clothes away from her body. It struck her that they could have done something else to her while she was stunned, but there was no way to know. They could have raped her...

    She pushed the thought aside as quickly as possible, trying to peer around the darkened compartment. It was solid metal, not unlike the module they’d stayed in while on orbit station, but clearly designed to hold prisoners. The only source of light was a single glow, high overhead, casting a cold merciless light down on them. In the darkness, she could see the shape of at least two other people, also cuffed to the bulkhead. It was impossible to make out their faces, but she heard at least one groan.

    Somehow, she managed to find her voice. “What...what happened?”

    “They stunned us,” Michael said. “I assume they stripped us while we were out of it.”

    Mandy nodded, despite the throbbing pain in her head. He'd recovered quicker than her, but then stunning would have been part of his training. Repeated stunning conferred some limited immunity, if she recalled correctly, or it could just have been nonsense repeated by students back on Earth as they planned protest marches in support of the Cause of the Week. Her mother had never allowed her to join one of the protests, no matter how she’d whined and pleaded and eventually thrown tantrums. In hindsight, it might have been the sole smart decision her mother had ever made for her.

    “I need a drink,” she said. Her throat was dry and felt raspy. “What happened to the others?”

    There was another groan from the darkened corner. “I don’t know,” Michael said. “I'm sure they caught more than four of us.”

    Mandy blanched. There had been ten students in all, not counting the RockRats...how many RockRats did it take to operate a transport ship? She’d seen two students falling into space...that left eight, not four. Or had others died and she hadn't noticed? It was alarmingly possible. Or had their captors merely separated them...in which case, why had they left her with Michael?

    Perhaps I shouldn't complain, she thought. At least I have a friend with me.

    A chink of light appeared in the bulkhead, so bright that Mandy half-closed her eyes to protect herself. Someone marched into the cell, carrying a bottle of water in one hand and a strange-looking tool in the other. He stopped in front of Mandy and knelt down beside her, his eyes surprisingly kindly. It dawned on her that he was as much of a captive as herself, even if he was trusted to some extent. He lifted the bottle of water and held it up in front of her lips. Despite her thirst, Mandy hesitated.

    “Come on,” he said. “If I wanted to poison you, I wouldn't have to resort to trickery to do it.”

    Mandy shivered. His voice didn't have an Avalon accent, or anything she recognised from Earth. They could be hundreds of light years from Avalon by now...absently, she wished she knew more about interstellar transport. Her first and last interstellar voyage – the trip from Earth to Avalon – had been conducted in stasis. Six months had gone by in the blink of an eye. Reluctantly, she allowed him to place the bottle against her lips and sucked greedily. The water tasted completely clean, purified in a starship purification plant. There was no hint of planetary life forms at all.

    “Good,” the man said, after he’d attended to the others. “The Admiral will wish to see you soon. When he does, I advise you to be polite and very obedient. He may have a use for you.”

    Mandy and Michael exchanged glances. The Admiral?

    “If you’re not useful, you’ll go into the pool,” the man said. His voice darkened as he looked at Mandy. “You really do not want to go into the pool.”

    “I’m sure we will be useful,” Michael said, quickly. “We’re both training to become spaceship engineers.”

    Mandy blinked in surprise, and then smothered the reaction desperately. If their captors knew that Michael had military experience, if they knew that he’d fought in the war against the Crackers, they’d throw him out of an airlock rather than risk keeping him alive. They couldn't risk allowing them to know the truth. Michael would just have to pose as an engineer until they could figure out a way to escape.

    “That might be useful,” the man said. He stood up, looking down at them. Mandy looked back and saw numb hopelessness in his eyes. “And you two, over there, should make yourself useful too.”

    The bulkhead door closed behind them, leaving the four captives alone. Mandy raised her voice as she looked into the shadows, trying to see the other two captives. “Who’s there?”

    “Dave,” a male voice said. Mandy remembered him – one of the street children who had had more practical experience with stolen vehicles than Mandy had had with legal vehicles – and allowed herself a moment of relief. “But Shelia isn't in a very good state. I think she hit her head badly.”

    There was another groan, underlying his words. Shelia had been smart and funny and one of the few real friends Mandy had made on Avalon. Mandy twisted lightly, trying to see her friend, but it was impossible to make out much in the darkness. She rather suspected that the groans weren't a good sign. The Empire’s medical science could work miracles, yet Shelia’s captives weren't rushing to get her into a stasis pod. Mandy tried to recall all she’d learned about head injuries, before realising that it was futile. Everything she knew about medicine came from bad entertainment programs back on Earth.

    She wanted to take Michael’s arm to draw support, but she couldn’t move her hands. Instead, she had to settle for inching closer to him and pressing against his body. His eyes were grim and worried; he knew, just as well as she did, what was likely to happen if their captors discovered what he’d been. Hours seemed to pass as they huddled together, before the bulkhead doors opened to reveal two more men. They marched over to John, released him from the pipe and pushed him towards the door.

    “Shelia needs help,” Dave started. “She...”

    One of the men punched him in the stomach, hard. Dave doubled over, gasping for breath, just before he was dragged away and the door closed behind him. Mandy heard another groan from Shelia’s direction and shivered, wishing that she could get closer to her friend. An attempt to slip along the railing failed when she found herself caught by one of the railings that connected the pipe to the bulkhead. Another series of hours seemed to go by – it couldn’t be more than thirty minutes, she told herself – before the bulkhead doors opened again, allowing the men back into the cell. There was no sign of Dave. They dragged the unresisting Shelia out of the cell – for a moment, as her face was lit up, Mandy saw a slack helpless expression – and then vanished again.

    Her turn came next. Mandy stayed quiet as they unhooked her from the railing and pulled her to her feet. Her legs felt cramped after so long in the cell, but she forced herself to move anyway, unwilling to give them any excuse to lay hands on her. Outside, they pushed her through a crowd of men who leered and catcalled as they saw her nakedness, although they didn't try to touch her. Mandy wished she’d kept her hair long enough for it to dangle over her breasts, preserving what they could of her modesty. But it probably wouldn't have mattered.

    Concentrate on what you’re seeing, she told herself, firmly. And keep calm.

    She thought she was inside a starship, from the omnipresent background hum she recalled from the Marine Transport Ship. The bulkheads were plastered with a logo she didn't recognise; a snake curled up, ready to spring on its prey. None of the men looked like real soldiers or Marines, she decided; their shipsuits were patchy and frayed. Only a few of them even seemed to be wearing fully-protective garments. And all of them carried weapons, ranging from the small pistols she’d been taught how to use at the technical college to rifles that reminded her of the ones the Marines carried. A handful even carried edged weapons and looked fully capable of using them.

    The men fell away as her escorts glared at them, pushing Mandy up the corridor and through a long series of passageways that seemed completely unmarked, apart from the snake logo. She rapidly lost track of where she was in relation to the cell, although it probably didn't matter. Her hands were cuffed and she was escorted by two burly men – and she had a feeling that falling into the hands of the other men wouldn't be any safer. Her mind was starting to swim – partly through hunger and partly through fear – when they stopped in front of a large airlock and opened it. Mandy felt a brief moment of panic – they were going to space her – before logic reasserted itself. They would hardly space themselves.

    Inside the airlock, there was a single large cabin, about the same size as a RockRat family room. A man stood in front of a holographic display, his hands clasped behind his back; as he turned to face Mandy, she realised that he had no hair and one of his eyes was missing, leaving behind an empty socket. It looked almost as if it had popped out only minutes ago, even though she knew that had to be impossible. He wore a long black cloak that covered a set of body armour and a belt carrying several different weapons.

    “I am the Admiral,” he said. His accent was just as unfamiliar as the previous man’s accent. “I lead this fleet. One day, I will be Emperor.”

    Mandy stared at him. He had to be joking...and yet, she could tell that he believed every word he was saying. She tried to find her voice, only to discover that she had absolutely no idea what to say. What did one say to a madman with the power of life and death over her? If she’d studied more history, as her father wanted...she’d probably have still found herself speechless. He had to be insane.

    “I took you from your previous life because it was time for you to come and serve me,” the Admiral continued. Thankfully, he didn't seem to be expecting a response. “You will never see your home again.”

    Mandy felt a cold flash of panic, which she struggled to fight down. If they were under Phase Drive, they could be anywhere by now...and a starship was little more than a grain of sand on a giant cosmic beach. Even if the Marines set out to find her at once – and she knew that Jasmine would come looking, if she could – they’d never be able to track down the Admiral and his ship. And what if he had a real fleet? The Marines didn't have anything more than a few in-system ships and a handful of shuttles.

    “You have two choices,” the Admiral said. His remaining eye gleamed with fanatical determination as Mandy shrank away. “You can convince me, now, that you can be useful to me, that you will be a good member of my crew. Or you can go to keep my men entertained, as your friend has already gone.”

    Mandy blanched. Shelia...what would they do to her? Mandy’s imagination provided too many possible answers. The catcalling the men had made as she’d been paraded past them suggested several others. And Dave? What had happened to Dave? She didn't dare ask.

    “Convince me,” the Admiral ordered. “Now, if you please.”

    The mockery in his voice stung. “I am a technical student,” Mandy said. “I was working with the RockRats when you kidnapped us, but I was ready to take the tests for maintaining starship systems and components and...”

    She thought about mentioning her father’s work on Avalon, before dismissing the thought. Either the Admiral wouldn't be too interested, or he’d be very interested indeed. The cloudscoop alone might keep his fleet operating for years to come.

    “We could always use more engineering staff,” the Admiral said, after a long moment. He looked her up and down, his eyes lingering her bare breasts. “And are you willing to bet your life on your competence?”

    Mandy swallowed. “Yes,” she said.

    He slapped her, hard enough to send her staggering to her knees. Through a wave of pain, she could barely make out his next words. It was something about showing proper respect to her commanding officer...the pain made it hard to focus. A strong hand fell on her shoulder and pulled her back to her feet, despite her dizziness. If her guards hadn't moved in to support her, she knew that she would have fallen back to the deck.

    “You will address me as Sir,” the Admiral said. Mandy nodded quickly, desperately. “And now you will go to your cabin, where you will rest until you are called. My engineer has leave to beat you if he feels that you are not performing...and if you are incapable of performing, you will be thrown to the men. I assure you that will not be pleasant.”

    “Yes, sir,” Mandy said, quickly. “I won’t let you down.”

    “Good,” the Admiral said. He barked orders to the guards, who started to drag Mandy back out of the cabin. “Get some sleep. You will need it.”

    This time, there were no men in the passageway gaping at her as she was hustled down and into a tiny cabin, barely large enough to house a bed. They undid the handcuffs, shoved her into the compartment, threw a box of something after her and then closed the door. A quick check revealed that it was locked, or impossible to open from the inside. Mandy rubbed at her cheek, wondering if he’d knocked a tooth loose. It didn't feel that way, but how could she be sure?

    She picked the box off the deck and looked inside. There was a small collection of ration bars – she’d been assured that the algae-based food was universally awful – and a single empty cup. Looking around the compartment, she found a spigot of water and a single tattered shipsuit. It stank, so badly that she almost would have preferred to go naked, and there was a hole in it just over where her heart would have been. She didn't want to know what had happened to the original owner.

    Carefully, she nibbled at the ration bars, before lying down on the uncomfortable bunk and closing her eyes. A deep feeling of helplessness welled up inside her and she started to cry, unable to keep the tears from flowing. Where was she? Where was Michael? And what would happen to her?

    And would she ever see home again?
  9. ssonb

    ssonb Confederate American

    Good as always ,I love to read your stories to escape to another world. Keep it up, We all need the worlds you create where good and evil battle.Your stories show that no matter how advanced the human race becomes it is still driven by the same forces Honor,money,power and sex!
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    I invite you all to imagine, if you can from your lofty perch, what it was like on Avalon, just after the first attack on the transport ship. We had barely grown used to considering ourselves alone in the universe – we were no longer part of the Empire, for better or worse – and suddenly we were no longer alone. Who was out there? Who was threatening us? It will not surprise you to know that fear and uncertainty ran through the body politic. We had beaten the bandits, come to terms with the Crackers, and then started to build a new nation.

    But what was happening to us now?
    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    “I’m afraid the media want an interview,” Gwendolyn said. “Do you want me to tell them to go to hell?”

    Edward nodded. The sun was rising over Castle Rock, rising on a world that had just realised that everything was going to change yet again. They’d managed to start getting the first people on the list out of Camelot before the news broke, but as more and more people were informed it was inevitable that the media would pick up on it. Avalon’s media was nowhere near as tame as the media on Earth – where reporters knew their place as servants of the Grand Senate – and it couldn't be relied upon to be sensible, even if it did have more common sense than the average chicken. And he didn't have time for an interview.

    “Tell them that I’ll speak to them as soon as possible,” he said, as another flight of helicopters roared overhead, heading back to the mainland. The latest batch of recruits had already been dispatched to the emergency base near the Badlands, along with most of the training staff. Moving the heavy equipment would take longer. Thankfully, they’d taken the time to spread out the stockpiles, even though it risked losing one or more of them to bandit attack. “We don’t have the time right now.”

    Gwendolyn smiled. “And probably never will,” she added. Both of them had been surprised by the local media. It was more honest than the media on Earth, at least after the old Council had been defeated, but it was also more inquisitive. At least it didn't repeat propaganda put out by one Grand Senator or another without actually bothering to do basic fact-checking. “Lieutenant Hawking sends his compliments and reports that his company is ready for operations in Camelot if necessary.”

    “Let’s hope they won’t be needed,” Edward said, shortly. Camelot didn't seem to be panicking, but there was a definite sense of unease as the Knights tried to run the evacuation. They’d always meant to rehearse the process, yet they’d never gotten around to it. Moving even a few hundred thousand people was tricky and it would have disrupted everything else – and made the Council very unpopular.

    He shook his head. Emergency precautions and exercises were always unnecessary – until the day they became necessary. People always bitched and moaned about them, even Marines, who really should have known better. But now that there was a crisis...maybe they could carry out more drills afterwards, once the crisis was over, before everyone forgot while they were important. And they could work on distributing more people around the countryside.

    Absently, he picked up his terminal, which he’d linked directly into the orbital monitoring system. The shuttle carrying the children from orbit station had landed and the children had been rapidly transported to one of the smaller farming settlements, where they would remain until the emergency was over, one way or the other. There was no reason to assume that the smaller farms would draw fire unless they were dealing with raiders who would wreak an entire planet for the hell of it. Edward had seen the result of raider attacks, but even they had never wreaked entire planets. It would have left them without any future source of food, drink and women.

    But terrorists might destroy the entire biosphere, he thought. It had happened in the past. He’d been in Boot Camp when a subset of the Nihilists had used orbital bombardment to wipe out an entire planetary population, slaughtering millions of people in the name of their death-loving creed. And yet, the Nihilists were rare outside the Core Worlds. It wasn't likely that they would come all the way to menace Avalon.

    There was no sign of any activity outside the planet’s orbitals, but that meant nothing. Monitoring the RockRats alone was difficult from such a difference – the limited speed of light alone ensured that most of their data would be hours out of date – and a starship operated by a competent crew could sneak up on the planet without being detected. The spaceport staff had always meant to build a better orbital monitoring system, but they’d never had the time or equipment. Edward had concentrated more on producing weapons and equipment for the military. Hindsight suggested that might not have been such a great decision.

    “I have the latest reports from the FOBs too,” Gwendolyn added, after a moment. “They don’t report any major upswing in bandit activity.”

    “That’s good,” Edward said. “Remind the platoons to prepare to disperse if I send the order. The FOBs may well be noticeable from orbit.”

    He’d worried that the bandits would have links to the newcomers; if he’d been trying to take the planet, building up an intelligence network would have been his first priority. In theory, it should have been impossible for anyone to land on the planet without the Marines spotting them, but in practice Edward knew that there were gaps in the surveillance system. A skilled team of Marines could almost certainly land on the planet without being detected.

    “Of course, sir,” Gwendolyn said. Her tone suggested that he was nagging – and repeating himself, issuing the same order time and time again. But then, it was her job to point it out whenever he was starting to harass his subordinates. “They’re ready to disperse on command.”

    Edward nodded. The Marine Corps disliked the idea of pinning its officers and men in one spot, rather than taking the fight to the enemy, but there was little choice. Random sweeps through the Badlands would only stumble on bandit camps through sheer luck; meanwhile, the bandits might be raiding the towns and villages they were meant to be protecting. Instead, Edward had placed platoons of Knights – backed up by one of the Marine platoons – near threatened locations, allowing the military to respond quickly to any incursion. It was helping to mop up the bandits, but it was a long slow process. Counter-insurgency always was.

    “Right,” he said. “And...”

    His terminal started to bleep, followed rapidly by his communicator. “This is Stevenson,” a voice said. “Colonel, we’re picking up a starship on approach vector. Class and weaponry uncertain as yet.”

    Edward looked down at the terminal’s display. The newcomers were playing it carefully, although there was an frightening lack of care in their approach that worried him. On one hand, they were moving forward slowly, hoping that he’d reveal any surprises he had before they got too close to escape; on the other hand, they weren't trying to hide any longer. It seemed very likely that the newcomer commander no longer really believed that Avalon might pose a threat.

    “We’re on our way to the command centre,” he said, standing up and heading for the door. “Keep us informed.”

    The newcomer showed up clearly on the main display, a single red icon surrounded by pop-up boxes representing the analysis computers best guess at its capabilities. It was impossible to be entirely certain, but the general tonnage of the intruder suggested a light cruiser, rather than the destroyer that had attacked the RockRat transport. That definitely didn't bode well; one ship might be within their capability to handle, yet two or more might be impossible. A standard Imperial Navy tactic was to keep one or more ships in reserve, under stealth, to see what happened. The newcomers might have learned their tactics from the Navy.

    Or they might be former Navy, he thought. The Imperial Navy had been a bloated bureaucracy for so long that few people really knew how many ships and men were actually in service. Going by the official fleet lists alone, the Imperial Navy should have had no trouble meeting its responsibilities, but Edward had heard – unofficially – that the fleet lists were at least an order of magnitude greater than the reality. Starships vanished all the time; who was to say that they hadn't become pirates, or petty warlords, or...there were just too many possibilities.

    “We can’t pick up any trace of another ship,” Colonel Kitty Stevenson reported, through the communicator. She was Imperial Navy Intelligence, rather than a line officer, but she had been the best qualified person to put in charge of the spaceport, as well as internal intelligence. The Imperial Navy traditionalists would have been horrified at the breach in protocol; Edward found it hard to care. “The newcomer doesn't seem to be sending any signals, but they could be lasing someone outside our detection range...”

    “Understood,” Edward said, calmly. “Inform me the moment you have a positive identification on the ship’s class.”

    The hours ticked away as the intruder came closer to the planet. Edward sat down in his chair and forced himself to be patient, feeling – again – as if he’d been promoted too far too fast. He was a Captain – he still thought of himself as a Captain – trained to lead his men into battle, not to serve as the overall commander. But he had no choice, but to watch from safety as his subordinates went into danger. Shaking his head bitterly, he considered hailing the newcomer, before dismissing the thought. Hailing the intruding ship would reveal too much about their space-based observation systems.

    Did they know they’d been detected? It was impossible to tell. Passive sensors were impossible to detect by definition and the spaceport staff had been careful not to sweep the intruder with active sensors. On the other hand, they weren't trying to hide any longer – and in their place, Edward would have assumed that he’d been detected at once. He found himself running through possible scenarios in his mind; the intruder intended to intimidate them, the intruder was trying to distract them from another starship, the intruder was just stupid...there were too many possibilities there too. The only reassuring thought was that there shouldn't have been any need to try to be subtle. Avalon’s orbital defences were effectively non-existent.

    And maybe they don’t know that, he thought. It might explain the slow approach. If they knew that a company of Marines had been abandoned on Avalon, would they expect some orbital defences as well?

    He looked over at one of the operators. “Time to orbit?”

    “Thirty-seven minutes, assuming they don’t change their course and speed,” the operator reported. The enemy ship was already within weapons range of the planet, assuming they didn't really care about accuracy. KEWs were cheap; anyone with access to space and a basic fabricator could produce as many as they wanted from an asteroid or two. “They’re starting to sweep space with radar pulses.”

    Gwendolyn looked over at him. “Well,” she said, “at least they won't think they’re undetected now.”

    Edward nodded. It didn't take a mil-grade sensor to pick up radar pulses – and they could be detected from outside their active reception range. The intruder had just announced its presence for all to see. It wouldn't be long before they started hailing the planet... The minutes ticked away until the intruder was nearing high orbit, altering course slightly to enter orbit over the settled continent. That didn't bode well, Edward decided. They’d clearly obtained some intelligence on Avalon...

    They probably downloaded the planet’s records from the Imperial Library, he thought, dryly. It would hardly be the first time that ‘intelligence’ had been freely available, if someone had thought to look for it. The Civil Guard’s intelligence analysts had often repackaged data from the Imperial Library, or corporate records, by slapping a security classification on it and claiming that it was the result of extensive intelligence-gathering operations. At least Imperial Intelligence generally did a better job.

    “Incoming,” the operator snapped. Edward’s eyes flew back to the display as a red icon broke away from the intruder, lancing into the planet’s atmosphere. The projected endpoint was only seventy kilometres from Camelot, in the Mystic Mountains. They’d be able to see the flash and hear the impact in the city. “Time to target, three minutes and...”

    Edward accessed the live feed from one of the FOBs. The Mystic Mountains were home to the Mountain Men – hermits who chose to remain isolated from society – and a handful of the more irreconcilable Crackers, forcing him to leave a small detachment of Knights near the foothills. It was a major hassle – he would have preferred to deploy those soldiers elsewhere – but there had been little choice. Now, he watched through their sensors as a streak of light hit the mountain’s peak, always hidden among the clouds, and sent shockwaves running through the region. Anyone caught underneath dislodged rocks would be dead.

    “Impact,” the operator said. “I couldn't get a very good read on its force, sir, but it seems roughly identical to a standard-issue KEW...”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Edward advised. There was no reason why the intruder couldn't simply keep experimenting with different sizes of KEW until they found one that worked, if they even bothered to try. The Imperial Navy might have a KEW-standard, but it was hardly a requirement they needed to follow. “Send the dispersal signal to the FOBs.”

    The intruder came to a halt over Camelot and waited. Edward waited too, knowing that there was nothing else they could do. Seconds ticked away, forcing him to monitor progress as his men dispersed into the countryside and the Council headed to their underground bunker – although he doubted that it would provide much protection if the intruder wanted to kill them. The Imperial Navy had invested billions of credits in producing weapons designed to crush bunkers, but a handful of KEWs would have the same effect – at least, if one wasn't worried about civilians caught in the line of fire. He was pretty sure that the intruders would have a frightening lack of concern about civilians, if they were prepared to bombard the planet almost at random.

    “They’re hailing us,” the operator said.

    Gwendolyn leaned forward. “The entire planet, or the Council, or what?”

    “The signal is being relayed from orbit station through the laser link,” the operator said. “I don’t think it can be picked up on the planet directly.”

    Edward frowned. That suggested that the intruders were trying to keep their demands a secret – even though they’d already given up on keeping their presence a secret. It could be a tactic to put pressure on the Council, or it could be an attempt to keep the general population from knowing what they wanted until it was too late. Either was possible.

    “Let’s hear it,” he said. “What do they want?”

    The voice was completely atonal, almost certainly computer-generated. That was a fairly standard pirate tactic; they knew just how far the Imperial Navy would go to hunt them down, so they concealed the identities as much as they could. It never boded well for anyone taken prisoner by the pirates; if they knew they had someone worth ransoming, they would take precautions to prevent them learning anything about their captors, but anyone else would almost certainly never see freedom again. Unless they were rescued by the Imperial Navy...

    “We hold the high orbitals over your world,” the voice said. “You are ordered to surrender and submit yourself to our rule. We hold the entire sector in our hands. If you refuse to surrender, we will bombard your planet until you submit – or die.”

    Edward looked over at Gwendolyn, who looked back in equal puzzlement. Pirates making demands on planets normally wanted food, drink and women. Edward had been considering a contingency plan for slipping a handful of female Marines onto the shuttles in the guise of unwilling victims. But a demand for complete surrender? That was odd, unless someone was making a bid for power. Or trying to confuse the defenders.

    “You will provide us with the following items,” the voice continued. “A complete list of your resources. The names of your governors, who will rule your world in our name. A complete list of everyone on your planet with spacefaring experience. We will be dispatching armed soldiers to occupy your orbiting station; you will surrender it without a fight. Any resistance will be met by punitive strikes against your population, followed by us repeating our demands publically.”

    And causing a panic, Edward thought.

    “The Council is calling,” the operator said. They’d taken pains to establish secure land-links from Castle Rock to Camelot, even if they had been expensive. There was no way they could be detected from orbit. “They want to know what they should do.”

    Edward silently blessed his own foresight. “Tell them that we are rolling the die,” he said. If this went wrong, the entire planet might be lost. But the alternative was slavery – and certain death for the Marines. “Sergeant, contact Lieutenant Yamane. Inform her that she is cleared to proceed.”

    “Understood,” Gwendolyn said. She keyed her terminal, sending a single message up the laser link to orbit station. If she had her own doubts about the wisdom of this course of action, she kept them to herself. “Message sent.”

    “And now we wait,” Edward said.

    He sat back, wishing that he was in orbit. Despite the risks – and they were colossal – it was better than sitting on the ground, watching helplessly as his Marines went into battle. But all he could do was watch, and wait, and pray.
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    Marines are expected to be the most well-rounded soldiers in the Empire. A Marine Company may find itself serving on a planet’s surface, or in deep space. As such, Marines are trained extensively for operations in all possible locations. Those who fail the training program cannot be given their Rifleman’s Tab...

    ...As might be expected, the training process is the hardest in the military. Those without the dedication and drive that makes a Marine will find it a foretaste of hell.
    -Major-General Thomas Kratman (Ret), A Civilian’s Guide to the Terran Marine Corps.

    Jasmine felt, as she took her first step out into space, the sense of awe and complete insignificance that always gripped her when she spacewalked. Space was vast; the planet below seemed huge, but it was tiny compared to the vastness of the local star, let alone the entirety of space. On such a scale, a single Marine didn't even register. A starship wasn't even a speck of dust in God’s eye. She pushed the old terror to the back of her mind – she’d had to learn to overcome it at the Slaughterhouse – and drifted forward, using the gas jets mounted on her suit to propel herself. A moment later, the rest of the platoon followed her into the inky darkness of space.

    The enemy ship had positioned itself some distance from orbit station, as if it expected the station to be carrying weapons that could threaten it. Jasmine wasn’t sure if the intruders were just being paranoid, or if they had picked up some bad intelligence somewhere, but it hardly mattered. It was a lucky break and the Marines would need every one of those they could get. The suit’s sensors reported that the intruder was sweeping space with radar pulses, locating and tracking every piece of junk in orbit around the planet, but its radar shouldn't be able to pick up the combat suits. They were stealthed specifically for operations in space.

    And if we’re wrong about that, she thought, in the privacy of her own mind, we’re all dead.

    Being a sitting duck was never the Marine way, or so she had been told. Even when in friendly territory, they’d been trained to take precautions against surprise attack. But in space, there was no choice. There was nothing that would shield them against enemy weapons if they were spotted; they’d be wiped out in seconds if the pirates noticed their presence. Jasmine took a deep breath as they drifted closer to the pirate ship, wondering – absurdly – if she would even notice before they fried her. Laser weapons propagated at the speed of light; plasma cannons weren't too far behind it. Detection would mean certain death.

    Up close, the pirate ship was a hulking mass of metal, painted black. That was odd for pirate ships, particularly the ones that couldn't hope to pass for civilian vessels. They tended to paint their ships in intimidating colours, although Jasmine had never been able to see the point. Most of their victims would never have the chance to see their naked hulls before it was too late. She kept a sharp eye on the gravity sensors as they drifted closer, watching for any sign that the enemy ship was deploying gravity shields. It was lucky that no one had ever managed to come up with a protective bubble that surrounded the entire ship, or their planned stunt would be completely impossible.

    Her HUD flickered a message in front of her eyes. Ship class identified; Casanova-C CL(Assault). Standard weapons platform...

    Jasmine smiled in relief. They’d had no trouble in identifying the basic hull – light cruiser designs followed the same pattern, ever since naval technology had stopped advancing – but the interior could have followed a dozen different designs. The Casanova-C design, if she recalled correctly, had been a stopgap construction program to produce a light cruiser suitable for raiding and convoy escort, one that should have been replaced with a more specialised design. But the tightening budgets had kept them in service for centuries after they were first designed, as well as forcing the Imperial Navy to sell hundreds of them to outside interests. Who knew where this particular cruiser had originally come from? There were no identifying marks on the hull that would allow them to identify its original designation.

    There didn't seem to be anyone on the hull, she saw, as the Marines drifted closer and finally came to a halt, hovering just over the metal. Standard procedure was to use magnetic fields to attach themselves to the hull, but that might have set off alarms inside the ship. The Marine Transport Ships certainly monitored their own environment very closely; there was too much at stake to risk assuming that the pirates wouldn't do the same. Instead, she led the way towards the airlock she knew had to be there, an emergency maintenance hatch that would be difficult to seal. Most space technology was standardised and had been so for centuries. She doubted the pirates would have bothered to change much. They rarely showed that much concern for their ships.

    She held up her hands, using them to signal the rest of the platoon. A single radio signal, even a microburst, would be too risky near the enemy hull. Blake and Joe moved forward to cover Brains as he drifted up to the airlock, looking for the access point. Imperial Law demanded that all airlocks be manually accessible from the outside, just in case someone punctured their suit and had to get into the ship’s atmosphere in a hurry. It was why naval vessels posted guards at all airlocks, even though it was very difficult to board a ship while it was underway. But it was tradition and therefore couldn't be changed.

    Brains held up his own hands, signalling that he was about to disconnect the airlock system from the rest of the ship. It would be too much to expect that opening the airlock wouldn't sound an alarm; the Imperial Navy took a dim view of airlocks that opened without an apparent reason. But if they could disconnect the warning system...Brains reached inside as the Marines tensed, bracing themselves, and pulled out the component inside. A moment later, working with desperate speed, he opened the airlock. Inside, there was barely enough room for two armoured Marines.

    Jasmine led the way inside, followed by Joe, who covered her as the airlock hissed closed. Pirates were notoriously sloppy at maintenance, but only a complete idiot would remove the basic safety precautions built into standard airlocks, including the one that prevented one door from opening while the other was still open. Jasmine lifted her rifle as the second door opened, her suit’s sensors noting the presence of a standard atmosphere, surprisingly clean for a pirate ship. She'd heard stories of Marines who’d boarded pirate ships to discover that the pirate crews had defecated in the passageways and urinated in their own cabins, not to mention leaving dead bodies scattered everywhere. Not all of the stories were exaggerated...

    Two men turned to stare at the Marines as they stepped out of the airlock and into the passageway. One of them reached for a weapon, just before Jasmine triggered the stunner built into her rifle and sent both men tumbling to the deck. A quick inspection of their outfits revealed that they weren't wearing shipsuits, let alone carrying protective gear. She dreaded to think what a Marine Sergeant would have said about such carelessness when approaching a hostile planet. They might have been prisoners...no, prisoners wouldn't be carrying weapons.

    The airlock hissed open again, revealing two more Marines. Jasmine used her hands to order them to take up positions at the end of the corridor, pulling up the plans for the Casanova-C design in her HUD. The semi-intelligent system was already comparing what the suit’s sensors were picking up to the standard plans, looking for places where the pirate crew might have reconfigured the interior. Jasmine had heard horror stories about ships that had been reconfigured by crews that hadn't known what they were doing – and she wouldn't trust a ship that had been reconfigured by pirates – but there were plenty of civilian yards that would take pirate gold to reconfigure their ship and then keep their mouths shut.

    She smiled as the remainder of the platoon entered and started issuing orders. Two of the Marines would remain at the airlock, protecting the tactical nuke they’d brought with them. Detonating it on the hull would have damaged the ship; detonating it inside the hull would completely vaporise the vessel. It was a poor second-best to capturing it intact – and it would wipe out the entire platoon along with the pirates – but there was no choice. If the pirates managed to defeat the Marines and remain in control of their vessel, they could exterminate the entire population on Avalon.

    Brains and three other Marines would head down to Engineering, where they would capture the compartment and hack into the vessel’s computer network. The pirates weren't foolish enough to leave the computer network open for anyone to access; they knew what a dedicated hacker could do to the network. Besides, unless this pirate gang was really unusual, their commander would probably want to keep control of the network for himself. It would help to discourage his subordinates from trying to take over by sticking a knife in his back.

    Jasmine led the way up the corridor towards the bridge, watching for other pirates. The interior of the ship looked old; she was silently relieved that her mask covered her nose, even though it didn't look as bad as the stories suggested. No pirates attempted to block their way as they inched through what should have been a set of shared cabins for junior crewmen – all of them appeared to be locked, oddly – and reached the elevator shaft. The entire system appeared to be non-functional, something else that puzzled her. If they could maintain the Phase Drive and the life-support systems, why couldn't they maintain the elevator?

    They want control, Blake signalled to her. Jasmine nodded in understanding. The light cruiser was tiny compared to a battleship, but the pirate commander would probably want to limit his crew’s mobility as much as possible anyway. How could anyone run a starship like that and expect to survive a battle with an equal foe? But then, pirates shied away from warships, even warships operated by the more comic-opera self-defence forces. Even a small destroyer, manned by a competent crew, could take out a pirate cruiser.

    Their combat suits were too bulky to allow them to slip up the Jeffries tubes, so they had to take the stairs. There, they encountered several more pirates, all heading down towards the lower levels. Had they detected the airlock opening and passed it off as a glitch? It was possible, she decided as they stunned the pirates, but surely anyone that stupid wouldn't be capable of running a starship for very long. The Marines were trained to treat all alarms as the genuine thing, even if the perimeter sensors had a long history of sounding false alerts. A single genuine intrusion that was ignored could be completely disastrous.

    She heard the sound of shouting up above and knew that they’d lost the element of surprise. There must have been other pirates at the top of the stairs, in position to see their comrades fall, stunned. Jasmine launched a set of remote probes from her suit, activating the full combat network and linking into Brains’ group. The network would have been detected by enemy sensors if they’d activated it, but there was no longer any point in refusing to use it. Her HUD updated rapidly, filling out the internal chart of the ship’s innards. There didn't seem to be any real surprises, apart from an interior airlock that had been pulled out completely and junked.

    Someone high overhead was a quick thinker. He took up position and started to fire down the stairs, trying to keep the Marines back long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Blake stepped forward, fitted a grenade to his rifle, and fired it up the shaft, timing the detonation perfectly. Jasmine ran up as soon as the grenade exploded, firing at anything that moved. A pirate had been turned into bloody chunks by the explosion, which had also scorched the paint on the bulkheads. The remainder of the material looked unharmed.

    “Move,” she sent, as the remaining Marines followed her. Three pirates seemed to be running forward, two of them wearing body armour. Cursing – the body armour would deflect the stun bursts – she flicked the switch on her rifle and opened fire with armour-piercing bullets. Blake readied a plasma rifle – there were battlesuits designed to deal with standard bullets – but it wasn't necessary. Both pirates staggered backwards, dead the moment her bullets passed through their skulls. “Up to the bridge.”

    Brains updated her; the pirates had started to seal Engineering, but not quickly enough to prevent the Marines from breaking in and opening fire with stunners. The fighting had rapidly become hand-to-hand – no one would fire automatic weapons in an engineering compartment if they had any sense – and that gave the Marines an advantage. Brains was already trying to hack into their computer core, but he was finding it slow going. The Imperial Navy might have standardised everything, with certain weaknesses and access points hardwired into the system, yet the pirates had apparently added their own improvements. Or, more likely, whoever had owned the ship after the Imperial Navy had decommissioned it. The self-defence forces tended to dislike the idea of the Imperial Navy being able to regain control of its former ships.

    The pirates had extensively modified Officer Country, the living compartments belonging to the five senior officers on the ships. They’d welded in heavy barriers, in some cases binding them directly to the bulkheads, and positioned heavy weapons, as if they’d expected to have to defend themselves against their own crew. The Marines paused long enough to regroup and then started to use explosive charges to knock down the barricades. A handful of pirates attempted to duck into the cabins to hide, just as the main lighting flickered and failed. Brains notified her a second later that he’d triggered a security flag and most of the command network had simply shut down. Jasmine wasn't too worried; the Marines could fight in the dark and the pirates wouldn't be able to bombard the planet, at least until they regained their network. She sent a signal back to Avalon, requesting reinforcements, and led the thrust that cleared the remainder of the corridor. Ahead of them, the airlock leading to the bridge was sealed shut.

    “Get the debonder,” she ordered. Blake hurried to obey. The airlock door was solid, made out of hullmetal, as was the bulkheads surrounding the bridge. In theory, the bridge – buried in the heart of the ship – should have been the last place to be destroyed, although Jasmine had always questioned that theory. Take out Engineering, and the weapons, and the ship would be effectively helpless. “Break down the airlock.”

    The debonder hummed to life, weakening the molecular bonds that held the airlock together. It was difficult to use it on the external hull – it was simply too thick for the debonder to work quickly, while setting off all kinds of alarms – but it should work on the airlock. Unless, of course, the pirates had set up a countering field. If so, they’d simply have to cut all of the command lines into the bridge and wait for the pirates to run out of atmosphere and suffocate to death. That could take a while.

    Jasmine drew back as the airlock crumbled into dust, just as the pirates started shooting through the gap. The Marines returned fire, launching stun grenades into the bridge and jumping into the compartment as the pirates reeled back. Only a pair of them seemed to be wearing proper armour and they were both quickly dispatched by bursts of plasma fire; the others, caught up in the stun bursts, were twitching on the deck. Jasmine strode over to the main command chair, flipped open the protective box covering the Captain’s personal console, and plugged a link from her suit into it. Computer experts down on Avalon would work through the network to gain control and check for any unpleasant surprises.

    “We have reinforcements on their way to you,” Captain Stalker said, through the communications network. It wouldn't take more than twenty minutes for the shuttle to dock with the pirate ship, allowing 2nd Platoon to join them. They’d be able to help with the mopping up. “How many prisoners do you have?”

    Jasmine checked the HUD records quickly. “We have five on the bridge and we have stunned seventeen so far – none of them are actually restrained. There may be others somewhere else on the cruiser”

    There were commanding officers who would have bitched about that; protocol demanded restraining prisoners, but there hadn't been time. Captain Stalker, thankfully, understood.

    “Once 2nd Platoon joins you, sweep the remainder of the ship for prisoners and prepare them for transfer to the surface,” he ordered. “Once the ship is empty, we can set the analysts loose on it and see what they can pull from the computers.”

    Jasmine nodded. She’d forgotten that her friend was missing, in the excitement of boarding the enemy ship, but if Mandy was still alive the contents of the ship’s databanks would be the best hope they’d have of finding her. Carefully, she passed the orders on to the rest of the platoon; now they held the sensitive parts of the ship, they could wait for reinforcements before taking the rest of her. They’d just have to hope that the pirates couldn't trigger one of the warheads on the missiles, assuming they’d already bypassed the safeties that were supposed to prevent them from detonating inside their mothership.

    “Understood, sir,” she said. She couldn't resist a grin. “The ship is ours!”
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    The Empire has always devised the laws concerning the treatment of prisoners-of-war to suit itself; unsurprisingly, as the Empire has always been massively more powerful than any of its possible opponents (and, in its later years, there were no other multi-system powers). In particular, pirates, insurgents and terrorists are almost inevitably rated as illegal combatants who can be interrogated, tortured and shot out of hand, without trial.

    Naturally, it is hotly debated if this is actually a good idea. Enemy combatants do not surrender if they believe they will be killed afterwards. Further, at least when dealing with peer powers, mistreating one side’s captives will encourage retaliation by the other side against its own POWs. Marines must therefore use their wide latitude to strike a balance between several different issues, including that of operational security and the safety of Marines who may be captured later in the operation...

    ...In fact, we may want to grant legal status to insurgents who don’t act in a manner designed to bring death and destruction to their own people...
    -Major-General Thomas Kratman (Ret), A Civilian’s Guide to the Terran Marine Corps.

    “They don’t look very impressive, do they?”

    Edward shrugged at Gwendolyn’s comment. Pirates were never very impressive once hauled out of their ships and held in the sunlight. Most of them tended to be cowards, brave when carrying weapons, but unwilling to fight when facing an armed opponent. Looking at them, it was no longer possible to believe that one of the other planets in the sector was starting its own empire. They were unmistakably pirates, complete with a mixture of outfits, poor medical care and craven attitudes. According to 2nd Platoon, who had rounded up most of the survivors and escorted them to Castle Rock, some of them had already started trying to sell out their comrades while they were being shackled.

    “No,” he agreed. “But we will pretend to take them seriously, for the moment.”

    The pirates – there were fifty-two captives in all – would be separated from their comrades and interrogated one by one. Most of them were probably low-ranking scum without any real connection to the greater pirate community – pirates knew to maintain at least some operational security, or the Imperial Navy would have wiped them out long ago – but they could still provide intelligence. If nothing else, they could identify the senior officers among the captured pirates, allowing the interrogators to focus on those who might be able to tell the Marines something useful. Some of them would probably have implants designed to make it difficult to interrogate the bastards, but there were ways around them. The interrogator just had to be clever.

    He watched as the prisoners were hustled across the landing field towards the penal block. Avalon didn't keep many prisoners; those who were arrested and tried were generally sent to work camps or penal islands once sentence was passed, unless they were sentenced to death. Technically, Edward had the legal authority to execute all of the pirates – and they knew it. If they’d talk, however, he was prepared to deal. On a penal island, they wouldn't be able to hurt anyone, but themselves.

    The surprise had come when 2nd Platoon had swept the living quarters on the captured vessel. They’d discovered seven young women – the oldest couldn't be more than twenty – whom the pirates had apparently kept as sex slaves. The Marines had restrained them anyway, just in case they’d developed an affinity for their captors, but had sent them for medical attention rather than transporting them down to the surface with the rest of the prisoners. Edward had skimmed the preliminary report and felt thoroughly sick. All of the girls had been raped repeatedly, as well as being beaten by their captors. Three dead bodies had also been discovered, their throats cut by their masters. How could anyone do that to their captives?

    “The Council would like to know what you’ve pulled from the ship,” Gwendolyn said, after the prisoners had shuffled their way into the penal block. “I thought we hadn't pulled anything from their databanks yet...?”

    “Nothing,” Edward confirmed. “Kitty is on her way up there now, along with three other analysts with some computer experience. We’ll have to see what they can get for us.”

    He had to smile. At least some of the Council had seriously considered trying to deal with the pirates, before they’d discovered the truth. Making links with an interstellar power near Avalon would have been very useful, both for the planet’s economic development and their own security – and career prospects. But it seemed that there was no such power, and once the records of what the Marines had found on the ship became public, those Councillors would wind up looking like fools. It was a pity, Edward decided, that Julian hadn't been one of them. The pirates made the bandits who had tormented Avalon look kind and civilised.

    They walked after the pirates into the penal block and watched as the interrogators began their work. The first test was simple enough; once the pirates had been wired to a lie detector, they were asked for their names and origins, which were then compared to the records they’d had sent to Avalon before the Empire had withdrawn from the sector. Edward wasn't hopeful that would yield anything useful, but it did help to provide a baseline for fine-tuning the lie detectors. It also allowed the interrogators to start building up a picture of who had held what position on the pirate ship.

    Steadily, the network started to build up in the main interrogation room. As Edward had suspected, most of the prisoners were deliberately kept ignorant, but a handful were senior officers. One of them – the one the Marines believed had killed his sex slave rather than risk having her recovered – was actually the third-in-command of the ship. Edward had asked why the tactical officer – who would be third in the chain of command on an Imperial Navy starship – would be off the bridge and discovered that the pirate was actually the Captain’s bodyguard and security officer. Apparently, he was completely loyal to the Captain, but Edward had his doubts. The preferred method of promotion in the pirate world was knifing one’s superior in the back, literally.

    His lips quirked into a smile. How very much like the Grand Senate.

    “He wants to deal,” the interrogator reported. He was a Marine auxiliary wearing a bloodstained apron intended to intimidate the prisoners. There was no need to use physical torture just yet. “But he insists on dealing with someone senior.”

    Edward nodded and allowed the interrogator to lead him into the interrogation chamber. The prisoner was cuffed and shackled to a chair, so solidly that even a boosted Marine in full battle armour couldn't have hoped to escape. He was a rat-faced man with eyes that flickered nervously from side to side, as if he was looking for salvation he knew he wouldn't find. Edward knew his type well; brave enough in packs, willing to do absolutely anything to a helpless victim, but a coward when confronting someone stronger than him. And he had to know what the Marines could do to him – what they would do to him, if he failed to strike a deal.

    “Who...” The prisoner coughed and started again. “Who are you?”

    Edward studied him for a long thoughtful moment. “Colonel Stalker, Terran Marines,” he said. He didn't miss the prisoner’s flinch. Marines had a good record for hunting down and exterminating pirates. “Convince me that you can be useful and your life will be spared.”

    The prisoner swallowed hard. “I want guarantees...”

    “And I want proof that you can be useful,” Edward said, shortly. He looked over at the interrogator. “Does he have an implant?”

    “Yes, but it’s an old design,” the interrogator said. “We can probably break it.”

    Edward looked down at the prisoner, who cringed back. “You heard the man,” he said. “We can break your implant. Even if we fail, we’ll inflict staggering pain on your mind, perhaps kill you outright. It’s very easy to cause a brain spasm by messing around with an implant.”

    He kept his face carefully blank as the prisoner glanced around, unwilling to meet Edward’s eyes. The Empire’s standard practice for dealing with new kinds of anti-interrogation implant was to take the implanted person to a lab and start experimenting, looking for a way to break it. It was a process that tended to go through experimental subjects very quickly – whoever was designing the implants kept developing new designs – but they were all sentenced to death anyway. If they died broadening the Empire’s knowledge base, perhaps allowing the next attempt to succeed, no one would care.

    “It’s your choice,” he said, slowly. “Tell us what we want to know, or we’ll see what we can do with your implant.”

    There were other ways to pressure someone with an implant. The system would destroy the carrier’s brain if it sensed that he was being tortured, or drugged, but it had its limits. Hunger was often as good a means of torture as any, or thirst. Edward could wait for the man to crack – and someone as cowardly as their prisoner would probably not hold out long enough for the implant to notice and take him out.

    The prisoner looked up at him, finally. “What do you want to know?”

    “Tell me about your ship and crew,” Edward said. “What did you hope to achieve by coming here?”

    “We were running out of fuel,” the pirate said, finally. Edward concealed a flicker of humour. With the Empire’s withdrawal from the sector, fuel shipping would have broken down completely. “The ship was too badly damaged to make a skimming run through a gas giant’s atmosphere and the processor never worked properly. We were seriously thinking about finding a planet we could invade and just settling there. Everyone knew that it was just a matter of time before the Captain did it, or he was killed and his successor took us to our final resting place.”

    He took a breath. “We called in at an asteroid settlement, looking for fuel,” he continued. “That’s when we met the Admiral. He offered us fuel and food and supplies; in exchange, we had to work with him as his allies. The Captain decided that we didn't have a choice. We made the deal. The Admiral gave us a new XO and sent us here.”

    Edward’s eyes narrowed. “The Admiral?”

    “We don’t know much about him,” the prisoner confessed. Edward took a sharp look at the lie detector, which was still showing a green light. “He...he told us that he intended to build an empire, that we could work with him or be removed. And then he led us here on a raiding mission and then left, leaving us orders to take control of the planet.”

    “Which you failed at, rather spectacularly,” Edward pointed out. There were hundreds of questions that needed to be asked, but he had one he wanted answered first, if possible. “Did you take prisoners from the transport you attacked?”

    “I think so,” the prisoner admitted. “We weren't allowed to see them; they were transhipped to the Admiral’s personal vessel and taken out of the system. I think the Admiral wanted to recruit them if possible; we were told we could find our entertainment on Avalon, once we took the planet.”

    “You mean you intended to rape your way through the planet’s female population,” Edward said, coldly. Just how many crimes did this man have on his soul? “Here’s the deal we will offer you.”

    He leaned forward, until he was staring right into the prisoner’s eyes. “You will answer all of our questions, fully and completely, without trying to lie,” he said. “If you have information we haven't asked about, you will volunteer it. In exchange, we will send you to an island where you can live out the remainder of your life, however long that is. If you break the agreement or try to lie to us, all bets are off and we will try to break your implant’s protection. Do you understand me?”

    The prisoner nodded, meekly. “Start running through the questions,” Edward ordered the interrogator, as he turned to the door. “And keep me informed.”

    He’d have to read the reports very carefully. The interrogators would record everything for the analysts, who would read it and propose new questions for the next session. It could take weeks to drain a prisoner of everything he knew, even a completely cooperative prisoner, and they’d have to be careful. The ‘Admiral’ could easily have lied to his reluctant subordinates and their captive would repeat his lies as truth. Unfortunately, the lie detector that could tell the difference between a lie someone believed to be truthful and something that was objectively true had yet to be invented.

    Outside, he met Gwendolyn and two other interrogators. “Most of the prisoners were deliberately kept ignorant,” she said, passing him a datapad. “A handful might know something useful.”

    Edward skimmed the datapad quickly. A few questions was all that it had taken to establish that most of the prisoners knew nothing useful. Later sessions would piece together how they’d joined the pirate crew, although Edward suspected he knew the answer. The interstellar shipping community had its seedy side – and crewmen in poor financial situations would often find themselves sinking into crime, eventually moving to a pirate ship and becoming outright pirates. And once they’d been tainted, they would never be able to return to civilisation. It was a story as old as crime itself.

    “Keep working on them,” he ordered, returning the datapad to the interrogators. They’d ask other questions, just in case one of the pirates had managed to slip something past their captors. “Did you hear anything from the inspection team?”

    “Only that the engineers were astonished the ship didn't blow up under them,” Gwendolyn informed him, as they stepped back outside. The sun shone down brightly, causing Edward to shield his eyes after the darkness of the penal block. “Apparently, their basic maintenance left a great deal to be desired.”

    Edward scowled. The Imperial Navy had been reporting recruitment shortfalls for centuries, all concentrated in the categories – skilled technicians – where they were desperately needed. Accordingly, most components for starships were black boxes, ones that could be inserted into the right places without the maintenance crew actually knowing what the boxes did. In some ways, it made life easier, but it was a false saving. The ignorance of many of the crews could be very dangerous, particularly on ships that had been cut off from the Empire.

    On the plus side, the ships were very rugged. Even a poor crew could keep them going, as long as they didn't run out of supplies. And even if they did, components could be cannibalised from other ships, or even civilian vessels. The Navy’s components, designed to a far higher standard than the average civilian component, were in great demand among civilian shippers.

    “I wish I was surprised,” he said. “Did they have any idea how long it would take to restore the ship to operating condition?”

    Gwendolyn threw him a sharp look. “You plan to take the ship and wage war on the pirates?”

    “I don’t think we have a choice,” Edward admitted. “If this...Admiral really exists, if he really thinks he can build his own empire, he’s going to want the cloudscoop. The prisoner didn't mention the scoop at all, which is odd...”

    “Unless the Admiral plans to take it later, once they get the command codes off us,” Gwendolyn said. “Odd that they didn't demand them from the start.”

    Edward nodded. He hated working blind; hell, they’d had better intelligence when they were fighting the Crackers. Just what were they dealing with? A pirate with delusions of grandeur or someone who thought that they could actually build their own empire? If the latter, might he want cooperation from Avalon’s Council? But if that was the case, why had he sent a pirate crew who would gleefully have inflicted vast sufferings on a civilian population? He keyed his terminal and sent a message back to the interrogators, to ask them to find out what the Admiral had ordered once the high orbitals were taken and secured.

    “We’ll see what we can pull from the databanks,” he said, finally. His communications implant buzzed before he could say anything else. “Stalker.”

    “Colonel, this is Sadie,” a voice said. She’d been one of the Marine Auxiliaries who had received a field promotion to combat medic. Technically, she should have been returned to the Slaughterhouse to run through the Crucible again, but it was impossible. At least she already had most of the Marine-issue implants. “I’ve just had a look at the body of the ship’s XO – sir, this guy was heavily implanted.”

    Edward blinked in surprise. “How heavily implanted?”

    “Heavily, sir,” Sadie said. “Some of the blasted things have melted down, but I can see traces of enhanced strength and resilience, as well as something that seems to be an advanced neural link – I’d say that he was a Cobra, if there were any Cobras left.”

    “Odd,” Edward mused aloud. Cobras had been enhanced soldiers from several hundred years ago, but they’d been replaced by Pathfinders and Force Recon. They weren't genetically-engineered; they certainly couldn't reproduce and expect their children to have the same improvements. “Do you think he was in stasis?”

    “Impossible to say,” Sadie said. “It’s possible that someone might have preserved a set of Cobra implants and the facilities to use them.”

    “This just gets better and better,” Edward said. “I’ll be heading to Camelot in a couple of hours to brief the Council. Please bring whatever you have by then with you.”

    “Yes, sir,” Sadie said. “I’ll be there.”

    “Cobras,” Gwendolyn said, thoughtfully. “I always wanted to know if I could take one.”

    “Don’t wish too hard,” Edward said. “You might get your wish.”
  13. ssonb

    ssonb Confederate American

    Gettin real good now.
  14. PAGE90LX

    PAGE90LX Monkey++

    Another great story.
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone, I’ve managed to pick up a cold, so I can't write any more today. Quite how I managed this in Kota Kinabalu is beyond me...

    Anyway, I’ll try and pick it up again tomorrow. Sorry about the delay.

  16. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Hope you feel better soon!
  17. ssonb

    ssonb Confederate American

    Dang! them summer kolds are the worst!!!
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Still feeling rotten, but I've decided to press on. Keep an eye out for typos...

    Chapter Eleven

    As the renowned sociologist Kimball Kinnison pointed out, the pirates have actually evolved a culture of their own – although they wouldn't see it that way. Put simply, the pirate culture is based on the rule of the strong; those too weak to defend themselves, or to build up a following, remain at the bottom of the heap. This has dire implications for the ‘losers;’ they can be raped, tortured and killed at will by their superiors. The only hope for survival is to ally themselves to a powerful patron...

    ...However, the pirate culture does not admit of a strong leader. The very nature of interstellar travel makes it easier for subordinate Captains to break free, given a chance. Any group effort must proceed with the cooperation of everyone with power, which can sometimes be as simple as knowing more about engineering than anyone else..

    -Edward E. Smith, Professor of Sociology. Pirates and their Lives.

    Mandy had no idea how long she’d slept before she heard the sound of someone tapping at the hatch. She felt an odd moment of disorientation as she sat up in the bunk, wincing slightly as she bumped her head into the ceiling. The trainees had received more than enough lectures on how the Empire worked hard to cram as much as possible into a tiny space, but hearing about it was different from actually experiencing it. There just wasn’t enough room in the cabin to swing a cat.

    She clutched at the ragged blanket as the hatch started to open, revealing a gray-haired man whose features seemed oddly immobile. It took her a moment to realise what must have happened to him; impure rejuvenation drugs still worked, but they tended to inflict damage on the recipient’s nervous system. Or something like that. The man looked younger than her father, yet he could easily be a great deal older. His eyes, however, were sharp and utterly uninterested in her, apart from how she could help him. He wore a black uniform with a silver star on his right shoulder. On his belt, he carried an assortment of guns, knives and something that looked like a short coil of rope.

    “You may call me Vane,” he said. Like the rest of the pirates, he had an accent she couldn't place. “I was informed that you are an engineering student?”

    “Yes, sir,” Mandy said, carefully. It beat whore, she’d told herself in the night. “I was in training when you took me...”

    “I am this ship’s Chief Engineer,” Vane informed her. “You will be working directly for me. Get out of bed and turn around, facing the wall.”

    Mandy hesitated, before realising that she didn't really have a choice and obeyed. She heard the sound of something rustling before a strand of rope cracked across her back, followed by a sheet wave of pain that drove her to her knees. Mandy found herself on the deck, screaming in pain; every inch of her body seemed to have turned red hot, burning its way into her very soul. And then the pain just vanished, leaving her staring at him in horror.

    “This is called a neural whip,” Vane said, recoiling the device she’d taken for rope. “It is really the most economical torture device ever invented. While it is used, the target feels horrific pain, but there are almost no after-effects. It takes months of torture before permanent damage is inflicted on its target.”

    His eyes met hers as she pulled herself to her feet. “If you fuck up, I will use this on you,” he added. “If you prove unable to learn, or don't know enough to be useful, I will throw you to the men. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes, sir,” Mandy said. Her entire body was shaking, although she couldn't tell if it was through shock or outrage. She felt almost as if she’d caught a nasty cold and her entire body was electric, and sensitive. “I understand.”

    “Good,” Vane said. He looked her up and down, considering. “I think the first thing you need is a shower” – Mandy was suddenly uncomfortably aware that she stank – “and then we can get down to engineering. Follow me.”

    Mandy obeyed, stepping out of the cabin and into the ship’s scarred corridors. “Anyone with a silver star on their shoulder is a superior officer,” Vane said, as they walked down a flight of stairs and into a washroom. “Do whatever they tell you to do, without arguing. They have leave to whip you if you refuse to obey. Anyone else...you’re welcome to fight them off, if you can.”

    “Oh,” Mandy said. A moment later, she realised what he meant and blanched. “I...”

    Vane snorted. “Wash as quickly as you can,” he ordered, “and then we can go down to engineering.”

    Mandy wanted to linger for hours under the hot stream of water, even though she was still wearing the tattered shipsuit, but she didn't want to irritate Vane. No wonder everyone obeyed their officers, if the alternative was being whipped like that. But Captain Stalker didn't have to whip his men to enforce discipline...she couldn't imagine any of the Marines being whipped for disobedience. But then, she hadn't wanted to come onboard the pirate ship, while the Marines had volunteered for service with the Marine Corps. For all she knew, the remainder of the pirate crew had been shanghaied too.

    A hot stream of air dried her skin and – feeling human for the first time in far too long – she allowed him to lead her down into the engineering compartment. There was a guard outside, who saluted as Vane approached, before taking a long hard look at Mandy. Mandy winced, all too aware of just how much flesh the tattered outfit showed off, before realising that the guard was in charge of preventing intruders from entering the engineering compartment. The pirates wouldn't want just anyone accessing the heart of their ship.

    “She can enter with me or another of the senior monkeys,” Vane said, to the guard. Monkeys was slang for engineers, Mandy recalled, something the RockRats had used to make fun of the trainees. It’s origin was somewhere lost in the mists of time. “If she’s on her own, restrain her and summon me.”

    Mandy swallowed hard as they passed through another heavy airlock and into the engineering compartment. The Empire’s designs all followed the same basic pattern; looking at the Phase Core, right in front of her as she entered the section, convinced her that she was onboard a heavy cruiser. Long strands of solid power conductors led to the four fusion reactors that kept the ship going, which were in turn linked to the ship’s fuel tanks. The entire compartment was heavily armoured, ensuring that a disaster with the ship’s drives wouldn't take out the entire ship, while making it harder for any outside vessel to disable the ship’s drives and bring her to a halt.

    The engineering compartment was neater than the rest of the ship, or at least the parts she’d seen as she’d been dragged through the ship’s innards. But then, that made a certain kind of sense; careless or messy engineers didn't tend to live very long. The best of them, she’d been told, had been trained to pay careful attention to detail, as well as keep all of their tools and spare parts comprehensively organised. Leaving tools and components scattered everywhere was asking for trouble. She saw a handful of other engineers as she was led through the compartment, into the side room that served as the chief engineer’s office. It was evident that he spent as little time in the office as possible.

    “Take a seat,” Vane ordered, as he studied a situation board on one of the bulkheads. It looked as though one of the ship’s fusion reactors was fluctuating – and that another simply wasn't working at all. Mandy had been taught that attempting to repair a damaged fusion reactor was an exercise in futility, but that had been before the Empire withdraw from the nearby sectors. The pirates might have no choice, apart from trying to repair the complex and fragile piece of equipment.

    Vane turned back to her and dropped a single component in her lap. “Tell me,” he said, “exactly what you would do with that?”

    Mandy hesitated. The component was a black box...no, she knew what it was. She’d seen enough of them during her training. “You plug it in to reroute power,” she said, finally. “If you add it to a computer node, you can ensure that the node has enough power to function...”

    Vane nodded and fired another question at her. Mandy braced herself as she answered that question, and the next, and the next...it seemed she was being given an exam. A handful of her answers were wrong and Vane painstakingly corrected her, but he seemed pleased enough with the others, although it rapidly became clear that Mandy had less hands-on experience than he would have liked. One answer had him threatening to whip her again before pointing out that trying to reconfigure the drive fields while the ship was in motion was likely to cause an explosive backlash. The ship should have had safeties to prevent such a backlash, but from Vane’s response, she had the feeling that the pirates had disconnected half of the safety systems. She’d been told that the Empire massively over-engineered its ships, yet removing the safeties didn't strike her as a good idea.

    She was sweating by the time Vane finished her exam, feeling her stomach growling its hunger. Vane didn't seem to notice; he paced back and forth in the compartment, muttering to himself in a language Mandy didn't recognise. Most planets taught their populations Empire Standard as well as their local language, assuming that they managed to preserve a separate tongue at all; it had never occurred to her that using a second language would make an effective code. But then, most spacers would have access to some form of translation software.

    “You are not prepared for work on the main power systems,” Vane said. Mandy wasn't surprised, although she was disappointed. Given time, she was sure she could figure out how to wreck the entire ship from engineering. “Fortunately, there is no shortage of other work that requires a trained technician. The waste disposal and hydroponics facilities, for example.”

    Mandy shuddered. She had never realised just how much forethought had to go into building space stations and starships, at least until her first visit to orbit station. Space wasn't a planet; everything from the atmosphere to the crew’s biological wastes had to be carefully handled, or simply removed from the environment. Orbit station had processed the crew’s wastes and dropped the remainder into Avalon’s atmosphere. Starships tended to shoot anything that couldn't be recycled into the nearest sun.

    “Follow me,” Vane said. He stood up and led her towards the door. “I strongly suggest that you do not go running around the ship on your own. Some of the crew will consider you a potential target.”

    Mandy shivered as they walked back into the engineering compartment – and stopped dead as she saw Michael, on the other side of the chamber. He was being interrogated by another engineering officer, presumably one of Vane’s subordinates as he didn't have a silver star. Mandy wanted to call to him, particularly when he looked up and saw her, but she didn’t quite dare. Who knew what would happen if the pirates ended up believing that they had trained together? But surely it was too late to prevent them from getting that impression?

    Vane stopped in front of a hatch and opened it, revealing a Jefferies tube. Mandy followed him up inside the tube, allowing herself a moment of relief as the hatch clanged closed, cutting off the noise from engineering. Instead, she could hear a dull thrumming sound echoing through the entire ship, louder than the sound she recalled from the Marine Transport Ship. The pirate ship – it struck her suddenly that she didn't even know the ship’s name – wasn't a healthy ship at all.

    “This ship is called the Sword,” Vane said, as he climbed through the tubes. The gravity field pulled at her as she climbed up a ladder leading up to the upper levels, leaving her feeling tired and dizzy. “The Admiral uses it as his flagship and so it must be kept in pristine condition.”

    Mandy glanced at him, sharply. It didn't take an expert to realise that the ship was not in pristine condition. As they approached the network of pipes that made up part of the ship’s plumbing system, it became increasingly obvious. Hundreds of components had been allowed to decay, wires hung down from the ceiling – presenting a hazard to life and limb – and at least one of the pipes had started to leak. She wrinkled her nose against the stench, realising just why the pirates had given her this job. If she accidentally killed herself, it would only be a small loss to the pirate crew.

    Bastards, she thought, as they came to a halt underneath the main set of piping. The damage was much more extensive here, to the point where human wastes had begun to rot away the surrounding area. Starships were designed with considerable redundancy – losing the entire compartment wouldn't cripple the Sword – but it might be lethal if they ever went into battle against the Imperial Navy. Going to full power might suddenly reveal all of the ship’s little problems.

    “Tell me,” Vane said, with suspicious politeness, “how you would fix this problem?”

    Mandy grimaced. The smell alone made it hard to think properly. It would be nice to find a shortcut, but she had the idea that the only real solution would be to fix the piping and then start repairing all of the power conduits, one by one. If she stopped the cause of the problem, she could then take the time to mop up the damage...

    But if she did, would she not be helping the pirates?

    The thought nagged at her mind. Mindy, her sister, had probably been taught what to do if she were ever taken prisoner. Mandy had never expected to face an enemy POW camp, let alone involuntary servitude. And if she helped the pirates, would she be charged with piracy when – if – she returned home? What would the Marines say if they discovered that she’d helped the pirates maintain their ship? What would Jasmine say if she found out the truth?

    But the alternative was being whipped, or worse.

    “Deal with the damaged processors first, then start fixing the mess,” she said, finally. A normal starship would have internal monitoring software that would allow the maintenance crews to target the most heavily-damaged parts of the network, but she rather doubted that the pirate monitoring software would be working properly. “And we’d need gas masks.”

    Vane laughed, the first glimpse of humour she’d seen from him. “You can have one,” he said, dryly. “I’ll take you to lunch and then you can get to work. And while you’re eating, you can decide what else you need for your task.”

    Lunch consisted of a stew so unpleasant that ration bars would be preferable. Mandy ate it in a crowded dining compartment, uncomfortably aware of the eyes mentally undressing her as she ate her meal. The pirates looked a rough lot, probably made more unpleasant by the food and drink rations; almost all of them were male. Only two women appeared to be full members of the crew and they looked worse than the men. Another woman, seated at an isolated table, seemed to be having real problems eating her stew. It wasn't until she turned to look at Mandy that Mandy realised that the woman’s teeth had all been removed, making it impossible for her to chew her meal.

    “She had too much pride,” Vane said, by way of explanation. “Eventually, they knocked out her teeth to make it impossible for her to bite when they used her.”

    Mandy swallowed hard to prevent herself from throwing up. The very thought was horrifying, and disgusting, and...it could happen to her. Or to any of the others, come to think of it. For all she knew, the pirates kept male sex slaves too. The woman looked beaten down, her exposed flesh showing marks from where she’d been hit, time and time again. It was just too unpleasant to contemplate. Even the bandits hadn't been so nasty to their captives...

    But how would you know? She asked herself. You spent most of your first months on Avalon in a haze of bitterness and loneliness...

    Vane stood up. “What other pieces of equipment do you want for your task?”

    Mandy dragged her thoughts back to the matter at hand with an effort. Vane had timed the visit to the dining compartment perfectly, she realised, giving Mandy a glimpse of what awaited her if she failed to please her new masters. It was a very convincing argument, she had to admit; she didn't want to end up a brainless piece of meat, servicing men until she died.

    “A pump, a storage tank, a gas mask and some tools,” she said, slowly. She’d have to empty out the septic tank to clean it. That wasn't going to be pleasant. Absently, she wondered how the pirates managed to survive in such an unhealthy atmosphere. Surely, they knew the concept of basic hygiene if nothing else. “And perhaps a direct link to one of the recycling chambers.”

    Vane nodded and led her from the compartment. Mandy followed him, silently resolving to be the most loyal minion the Admiral could hope for, until she got a chance to escape. And then she would do whatever she could to stop the Admiral in his tracks. And if she could help the poor slave girl, she would do that too.

    Carefully, she eyed Vane’s back and considered where best to stick the knife.
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    We had known, of course, that there were other planets in the sector. Avalon was far from alone, even if it was out along the Rim. But the five light years between Avalon and the nearest other inhabited world might have been an impassable gulf, as far as we were concerned. Without a starship, reaching it was impossible.

    But others, sadly, did have starships.
    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    “The good news is that we captured the ship largely intact,” Kitty Stevenson said. The Imperial Navy officer looked tired and worn. “Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to secure their database.”

    Edward frowned. “They took out the main database?”

    “They didn't use it,” Kitty clarified. “The engineers say that they stepped the entire thing right down and replaced it with a portable system from a different starship. That system is now dust, leaving us without any navigational data for tracking the pirates down.”

    “I see,” Edward said. “So we don’t know where they came from at all?”

    The thought made him scowl. Imperial Navy starships recorded a great deal of data about their surroundings at all times, starting with enough information on the nearby stars to allow their past voyages to be reconstructed, even if the main database had been lost. Indeed, one of the tests posed to analysts was to have them reconstruct a ship’s course, condition and crew status from the recorded data. But if the pirates had stepped the entire system down, there would be little data for the analysts to work from.

    “I’m not sure about that,” Kitty admitted. “We did interrogate the pirates at some length and we know quite a bit about their operations. Including, I should add, a planet they have effectively taken over.”

    Edward nodded as he led the way into the Council Chamber. “You can brief the Council,” he said, flatly. “And then we’ll have to decide what to do with the information.”

    Thankfully, the new Council didn't waste time with formalities. Edward was permitted to speak at once. “We captured the pirate ship,” he said, without preamble. “A number of pirates were taken prisoner and interrogated. The news is not good.”

    He nodded to Kitty, who stood up. “The prisoners all claim to work for someone called the Admiral,” she said. “According to them, the Admiral is a pirate warlord who believes that he can build an empire of his own in the wake of Earth’s withdrawal from this sector. They knew very little about his forces, but they do believe that he has at least seventeen starships under his command, including a hard core of ex-Imperial Navy warships. He also seems to have access to a source of fuel, although we are unable to guess at its nature.”

    Edward nodded, thoughtfully. It was possible to use a starship to skim gas from a gas giant’s atmosphere, to mine fuel from lunar rock or even to process it from water. A cloudscoop was massively more efficient, but they had their limitations – and they were sitting ducks, easy targets for anyone with a missile and bad intentions. There was no reason why a handful of pirate ships couldn't keep supplying themselves with fuel indefinitely.

    “The Admiral apparently gave them orders for dealing with us after we surrendered,” Kitty continued. “Everyone with technical experience was to be dispatched to one of his bases, where they would be put to work maintaining his fleet; Avalon itself would be responsible for supplying his fleet with food, fuel and...entertainment. If we refused to cooperate, we would be hammered from orbit until we gave in and accepted defeat. In short, the Admiral believes he can build an empire and there is very little in the sector to stop him.”

    “But you took their ship,” Julian pointed out. “Surely you can do the same to any other ship?”

    “What we did rather depended upon the advantage of surprise,” Edward said, before Kitty could answer. “The pirates could have had another ship watching from a safe distance, one that would have recorded what happened to their first ship and then slipped out of the system. We cannot count on getting so lucky again.”

    “Besides, the next squadron he sends here might be bigger,” Kitty added. “Even three ships would be difficult to board and storm at the same time.”

    She cleared her throat, continuing the briefing. “According to the pirates, their last port of call – at least, the last one they can identify for us – was Elysium,” she said. “I’m afraid that they are currently holding the planet in bondage.”

    “The planet of the nomads?” Gaby asked, thoughtfully. “What do they have to offer the pirates?”

    Edward had wondered that himself. Elysium had started life as a fairly normal colony world, but – not too unlike Avalon – it had developed in an unusual direction. The Empire had wanted to transport a number of minority populations away from the Core Worlds and had selected Elysium as their destination, believing that the debris-rich system would one day be a jewel in the Empire’s crown. But the population, not all of whom were willing to become cogs in the Empire’s machine, had started regressing to hunter-gatherer clans, rather than concentrating on their economic development. The Empire had found it hard to deal with the clans – after all, they weren't actually rebelling – and Elysium had been largely abandoned, even before the Empire had pulled out of the sector completely.

    The last report the Marines had received – the compressed datafiles from the Commandant of the Marine Corps – had noted that the few remaining corporations had pulled out of the system completely, leaving a small nexus of RockRats alone. Anything could have happened in six months, but he rather doubted that the RockRats could have built a cloudscoop or anything else the pirates could use. Perhaps the Admiral had just selected Elysium as his first target to test the concept. It wasn't as if the planet could fight back.

    “Food, drink and women,” he said, bluntly. He looked around the room, wondering which way the different Councillors would jump. “Our only option is to go on the offensive.”

    Gaby leaned forward. “Do you even know where to attack?”

    Edward scowled. Without proper sensors, one star system was very much like another – and the pirates had taken basic security precautions to conceal the location of their hidden base. The prisoners all agreed that it had been a settled asteroid – there were millions within the Empire, or past the Rim – but they didn't actually know where it was, and searching at random was unlikely to produce a definite result. Indeed, even if they did pick the right star system, they would have to get very lucky to locate the asteroid base. It would be easy for the pirates to hide it from passive sensors.

    “Elysium,” he said. He had to smile at their reactions. “Right now, we know that there is a small detachment of pirates on the planet’s surface, and in orbit. We can get to them using the pirate ship and take them out. And then we might be able to capture someone who knows something more useful.”

    “Might,” Gaby repeated. “And what happens if the Admiral’s fleet returns to this system while you’re gone?”

    “We lose control of the orbitals,” Edward admitted. He hesitated, and then pressed on. Civilians often had to have things explained to them that any military officer would understand instinctively. “If we sit here, with a single captured starship, we lose. They need the cloudscoop; they will eventually return to the system, expecting the pirates we captured to have secured it for their use. At that point, we will be snookered. We have to take the offensive now, while we have a chance.”

    Julian looked down at his hands. “How many other worlds does the Admiral have under his control?”

    “We’re uncertain,” Kitty said. “Some of the pirates gave us different answers, but they all believed that they were telling the truth. The worst case is seven other worlds, none of them more advanced than Elysium itself. I think they may have been leaving the more advanced worlds for last.”

    It sounded reasonable, Edward thought, but he didn't believe that it was true. The Admiral needed the cloudscoop more than anything else; indeed, if Edward had been running his campaign, he would have targeted Avalon first. There had to be something else going on...or maybe the Admiral had a vast stockpile of fuel for his early operations. Every intelligence analyst in the Empire knew the dangers of over-analysing data...

    “I have a question,” one of the older Councillors said. He had been elected by a farming community near the Badlands, one of the ones that had been at the mercy of the bandits until the Marines had arrived. “Why should we risk ourselves to help the other worlds? What did they do to help us when we needed it?”

    Edward winced. The hell of it was that the Councillor had a point. Avalon’s Governor had been begging for help for years before his understrength company had arrived on the planet, during which time the bandits had run riot and the Crackers had carefully prepared their forces for a final battle to determine the planet’s future. But then, none of the other worlds could have done much to help, except perhaps sending mercenaries to fight beside the Civil Guard and that would have been expensive.

    “I can show you the records from the WARCAT team’s survey of the ship, if you like,” Kitty said, sharply. “The pirates committed all sorts of atrocities against their prisoners – and they would have committed them on Avalon, if they had managed to beat off the Marines. We recovered datachips containing recordings of some of their other antics. One chip records the rape, torture and murder of a girl who couldn't be older than ten...”

    “I know how unpleasant some people can be,” the Councillor snapped at her. “God knows, I saw enough of what the bandits did to my people. I just don’t see why we should divert our forces to Elysium when we have enough problems at home.”

    “I wasn't planning to send any of the Knights,” Edward said, quietly. “They’re not trained for operations in space. I intend to take three Marine platoons and a handful of engineering technicians to help run the ship.”

    “Leaving us defenceless,” the Councillor said.

    “There will be two full platoons and the Knights left behind to hold the line,” Edward said, refusing to allow himself to become angry. “And the single ship we have – in very poor condition – will not be able to provide much resistance if the pirates return to Avalon. Having her well away from the planet might be more useful than keeping her in orbit.”

    “It is true that the other worlds in the sector gave us no help when we needed it,” Gaby said. Edward saw her smile and grinned, inwardly. Gaby had been on the other side during the war and wouldn't have wanted the Governor receiving help from other worlds. “On the other hand, we do not want the Admiral as a neighbour – and we could use friendly relations with our other neighbours. I believe that we should send what help we can.”

    “I have a better idea,” the obstructive Councillor said. “Why don't we ask the Empire for help?”

    Edward sighed. “The last we heard was that the Grand Senate had closed down the Midway and Trafalgar fleet bases,” he said. “Assuming that the Jutland fleet base remains active, it will take at least a month to get there with the ship we captured and another month for any help to return to the system. And that assumes that the base CO has a squadron at his disposal that he is willing to send so far from his sector.”

    He scowled. “And even when Midway was active, the Empire was reluctant to send any ships as far out as Avalon,” he added, grimly. “I don't think that we can count on the Empire for help...”

    Julian gaped at him. “But the Admiral wants to build his own empire...”

    “The Empire was never very willing to confront problems along the Rim,” Edward admitted. It was no coincidence that most of the horror stories about pirates, insurgents and outright rebels came from the Rim. Concentrating a major fleet presence at the edge of the Empire was expensive, time-consuming...and tended to be futile. The pirates tended to move to other sectors, or simply wait until the warships had to return to their bases. “We cannot expect them to do anything about the Admiral.”

    His scowl deepened. Even in its reduced state, the Imperial Navy could smash any pirate fleet with ease, if it could be concentrated against the pirates. But the Navy’s commanders had been reluctant to get their ships scratched for decades; he remembered the dark days on Han, when the Imperial Navy ships had refused to support the troops on the ground out of fear of the defences the rebels had managed to put into orbit. Quick action might have halted the slaughter long before it got out of hand.

    “We vote,” Gaby said. “All those in favour of dispatching a mission to Elysium?”

    Edward counted the votes quickly. It was closer than he had hoped, but enough Councillors had voted in favour to allow the mission to proceed. Silently, he went through his basic concept of operations as the Councillors chatted about other matters, deciding who was going to accompany the captured starship to Elysium. 1st Platoon would be going, by right of conquest; 3rd and 4th Platoons would probably be the best to accompany them. 4th Platoon in particular had a number of veterans of operations in space. If they hadn't been on deployment when the RockRat base had been attacked, he would have sent them to orbit station instead.

    “There’s another issue that should be addressed,” Governor Brent Roeder said. “Should we seek to make closer ties with Elysium, if we succeed in liberating them?”

    Edward wondered, absently, just how much it must have cost him to make that statement. The Governor had been resolutely loyal to the Empire and had only reluctantly accepted the reshaped Council after the Battle of Camelot. No doubt part of him had expected the Empire to complain about the outcome and blame the man on the spot. Governors were important people, but their careers depended upon patronage from the Grand Senate and the new Council had no ties at all to the Empire’s political masters. It would be much harder to exploit Avalon in future.

    “I think so,” Gaby said, finally. “Even if they can't do much to help us now, in the long run...”

    There was a long pause as they considered the possibilities. The Marines had brought a massive infusion of technology along with them to Avalon. Given enough time, Avalon would start producing its own starships, particularly now that the Empire’s restrictions on industrial growth were a non-issue. The RockRats had even noted that it might be possible to start producing their own ships within a year.

    And then...Edward could understand the temptations facing the Council. If the Admiral could dream of empire, why couldn't Avalon build up its own network of allied and subordinate worlds? If nothing else, a multi-system political entity would be in a better position to negotiate with the Empire than a multitude of isolated systems. Making alliances with the populations of the other worlds in the sector might be the first step towards building a better union.

    It was a thought that nagged at him, in the darkness of the night. He was sworn to the Empire and the Emperor, the ideal of unity that had saved the human race from wars that might have exterminated it. In the Empire’s Golden Age, they had wanted to bring every world into the Empire, believing that it was for the best. And now...he was watching as the Empire crumbled and the first successor states began to arise.

    The discussion took longer than the argument over sending help to Elysium in the first place, but eventually Professor Caesius was chosen as Avalon’s representative to Elysium. Edward wasn’t sure if that was a mercy or not – he hadn't seen the Professor since telling him that his daughter was missing, presumed dead – yet he had to admit that there were few other people who could do the job. The Professor had considerable experience in dealing with people from different backgrounds; after all, he’d caught on Earth, where students came from all over the Empire.

    It was a relief when the meeting finally ended and he could walk out of the building, back towards the spaceport. Camelot still felt largely deserted; the Council, unsurprisingly, had decided not to start moving people back to the city just yet. There was no way to tell when the next hostile starship might arrive and announce its presence by firing on the city. In the long run, Edward knew, they’d have to build some planetary defence stations for themselves, or Avalon would be permanently vulnerable. But they’d have to build starships too.

    It's too soon, he thought, sourly. Given five years, they could have turned Avalon into a nexus of starship construction. But they’d barely had six months. It’s far too soon.

    Shaking his head, he linked into the command network and started to issue orders. 3rd and 4th Platoons would make their way to orbit, where they would be joined by a small army of technical experts and everyone they could find with starship experience. The preliminary report suggested that the pirate ship would require weeks of work to render it safe, but they didn't have weeks. They would have to carry out basic maintenance on the way to Elysium.

    Oddly, he found himself smiling. After the complexities of fighting the Crackers, and building a new government, hunting down pirates should be simple. And then they could all be legally exterminated.
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen

    Given what flowered from it, many people find it hard to believe that it all started with a single starship that threatened to explode under its new owners at any moment. When I think about the risks we took, I start to shake, even many years after the event. Not that I thought about it at the time, really; after Mandy’s disappearance, I cared nothing for my own survival. Being on an explosive starship might just have provided a way to end it all.
    - Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

    “You do realise you get to rename the starship?”

    Jasmine turned to see Kitty Stevenson entering the compartment. The Imperial Navy officer had always rubbed her the wrong way, if only because Imperial Intelligence and the Imperial Navy had blundered badly on Han. Technically, Kitty wasn't in her line of command – Marines answered to their own officers, rather than to the Imperial Navy – but there was such a thing as showing respect to other officers.

    “You commanded the mission that captured it,” Kitty explained, when Jasmine lifted her eyebrows. The hours since they had captured the ship had been hectic; they’d taken the prisoners off the ship, along with their slaves, and then vented the entire ship to exterminate the bugs that infested the lower levels. After that, they’d started working on the ship’s systems, trying to bring it back to full working order. “Tradition says that you name it.”

    “The Horny Goat,” Blake suggested. “Or what about the Desirous Dildo?”

    “I am not going into battle on a ship called Dildo,” Jasmine said, shaking her head. “And why would we want to name a ship after you?”

    Blake laughed. “But just think about all the kids who will have to read about this mission in their history books,” he said. “Don’t you want to give them a laugh?”

    Jasmine snorted, although she did have to admit that the thought was appealing. But then, how many historical starships could the average person name? There were far too many people on Earth who believed that Neil Armstrong had captained the first starship to travel beyond the speed of light, rather than the starship being named after Armstrong, who had actually been the first man to land on the moon. And then there was Dauntless, which had been the flagship of the Imperial Navy during the Unification Wars, and Harrington, which had been the most successful starship at hunting down pirates...how many others were even remembered? Hadn't the Professor once said that a galaxy that forgot its past had no future either?

    “Maybe something simpler,” she said, as she turned back to their work. It seemed that there wasn't a single part of the ship that hadn't been damaged in some way, either through mistreatment or simple avoidance of maintenance. The Civil Guard’s worse units certainly didn’t bother to maintain their own weapons, although it wasn't a mistake that the Marines made themselves. Back on the Slaughterhouse, they’d been shown exactly how easily their weapons could become degraded through lack of cleaning and maintenance. And then they wouldn't be fit for combat.

    “Choose something soon,” Kitty said, as she turned to leave the compartment. “We’re planning to leave in six hours.”

    Jasmine watched her go and then pulled out another strand of corroded wire. “Perhaps the Shithouse,” Blake added, dryly. “Or the Thunder Box. Or...”

    “I think you’d ensure that it wasn't suitable for children,” Jasmine said. The less said about thunder boxes, the better. “Maybe we should just call her the Dancing Fool.”

    Blake made a show of rolling his eyes. “That isn't quite as...amusing,” he objected. “And the kids wouldn't understand.”

    “It might encourage them to look it up,” Jasmine countered. Carefully, she finished pulling out the wire and started to replace it, carefully logging each step. “And then they might decide to follow in his footsteps.”

    “Maybe,” Blake said. “But Shithouse definitely fits this ship.”

    Jasmine couldn't disagree. She knew how hard it could be to do basic maintenance, day in and day out, but anyone who spent their lives in space had to understand the importance of keeping their equipment working. Those who didn't normally ended up dead; if the Imperial Navy hadn't designed its ships to be so forgiving, the pirates would probably have killed themselves by now. At least they hadn't managed to destroy the internal monitoring system, thankfully. It could be used to point the repair crews to the areas that needed immediate attention.

    She’d been on long operations into the bush, back on the Slaughterhouse and later on Han – and Avalon. No one emerged from one of those feeling clean, but the pirates hadn't seemed to care at all. The stink, thankfully, had been blown away when the atmosphere had been vented and the entire ship had been frozen, yet she knew that wouldn't last. They’d have to spend hours washing the deck among other things, just to make the ship safe for habitation. If they hadn't had boosted immune systems, she would have worried about catching diseases from the ship’s interior.

    “I was told that one of the pirates was a Cobra,” Blake said, changing the subject. “Do you think there might be more of them out there?”

    Jasmine straightened up and looked down at her work before answering. “I suppose it is possible,” she said. Cobras didn't have biological enhancements; they were enhanced in labs, all of which were supposed to have been shut down. No one knew where the pirate Cobra had come from, or if there were more of them out there. “Maybe someone set up a whole production line out along the Rim.”

    “Maybe.” Blake agreed. He grinned, nastily. “I always wanted to know if I could take one of them.”

    “You only wanted to know if you could once there was a chance you might encounter one outside simulations,” Jasmine corrected him. They’d all faced heavily-enhanced opponents during basic training, where the enhancements could be simulated to a far higher level than was possible in reality. She still remembered being tossed around the training field by a simulated warrior – called a Draka for reasons lost in time – before realising that it was a trick. They hadn't been meant to fight the Draka hand-to-hand. “Who knows? Maybe you could beat one...”

    “Unless it happens to be a young and sexy Cobra,” Joe said, as he entered the compartment. “Aux-Lieutenant Delacroix’s complements, Lieutenant, and would we be so kind as to check out our quarters and make them safe for habitation?”

    Blake grinned. “And what exactly did you do to piss off Layla so badly she sent you up here as a messenger boy?”

    “I volunteered,” Joe said. Jasmine and Blake exchanged disbelieving glances. “I heard that 3rd and 4th are coming to join us and I wanted to make sure that we got the best sleeping quarters on the ship.”

    “The ones that only stink of urine, as opposed to using and shit?” Blake asked. “Or perhaps the ones that will probably electrocute us all if the ship goes to full power?”

    Jasmine shook her head. “Honestly,” she said. “It's like dealing with a mob of adult children. Does it really matter which set of quarters we get? We’re going to be jammed in so tightly that we'll be glad of the chance to go on a suicide mission.”

    Joe nodded. “The Lieutenant was saying that about half of the quarters on this ship are going to have to be sealed up completely,” he said. “If we had a proper shipyard...”

    “And while we’re wishing, I’d like an entire squadron of modern warships and a full division of Marines,” Jasmine said, as she headed towards the hatch. Blake and Joe followed her. “I think we just have to make do with what we’ve got.”

    Marines were used to bedding down in uncomfortable positions. On bases, or transport ships, Marine platoons were given a set of barracks and told to organise themselves; on FOBs, sleeping quarters could be as simple as a roll of bedding under the stars, or a cold stone floor cleared of all traces of its former occupants. Jasmine had long ago grown used to sharing her sleeping quarters with men, even men who weren't her fellow Marines. Someone – a particularly stupid member of the Civil Guard - had tried to slip into her bedding on Han and she’d stuck a knife in him. Even so, the quarters on the pirate ship were truly unpleasant.

    The basic sleeping facilities were standardised, but a quick check revealed that the washrooms didn't work and the sonic showers were inoperative. All of the bedding the pirates had used had been taken out of the compartment and dumped into the planet’s atmosphere, which was something of a relief. She didn't want to have to use bedding that had last been used by unsanitary pirates. The remainder of the platoon arrived and started working on clearing the remaining bunks, before ordering new bedding from the planet’s surface. Compared to the clockwork precision of a division of Marines embarking on a transport ship, their preparations were laughable. It wasn't a pleasant thought.

    But then, the Marine Corps had plenty of experience boarding its own starships. They had never practiced converting a pirate ship into a transport before...

    “They say that the bedding is on the way,” she said. Marines travelled light; Jasmine had been a Rifleman when she'd left Earth and she hadn't had a large baggage allowance. Besides, they weren't leaving Avalon forever. “And plenty of ration bars.”

    “I’m sure there are laws against cruel and unusual punishments,” Blake grumbled. “What did we do to deserve ration bars?”

    “Hey,” Joe pointed out. “You want to rely on this ship’s food processor?”

    Blake scowled, but had to admit that Joe was right. The better food processors almost invariably produced tasteless slop; the worse designs produced food that was technically nutritious, yet tasted appalling. And the pirates probably hadn't bothered to maintain their food processors any more than they’d maintained the rest of the ship, even though it helped keep them alive. Jasmine had heard that the engineers had taken one look at the life support systems, specifically the air scrubbers, and almost fainted. The pirates might have been on the verge of killing themselves simply through polluting their own air.

    His communicator buzzed. “This is Stalker,” the Colonel said. “Did you select a name for the ship, Lieutenant?”

    Jasmine nodded, although she knew that her superior couldn't see her. “The Dancing Fool, sir,” she said. “I thought it was appropriate.”

    There was a long pause. “Acceptable,” the Colonel said. “I will have the ship renamed just before we set out on our mission.”

    “Good choice,” Joe said, softly. “It might just remind us that we need to be daring.”

    “Yeah,” Blake said. “But come on – can you imagine the ship being called the Horny Goat?”

    The Dancing Fool had been a Marine, back in the days of the Unification Wars, one of the rare heroes who had actually done almost everything they said he’d done. Jasmine hadn't been sure if she believed the stories of his exploits when she'd been taught about them on the Slaughterhouse, but he had been an inspiration to her and the rest of her class. His missions had been the stuff of legends, with him just smashing his way through obstacle after obstacle and never giving up, even when he seemed to have overreached himself. They just hadn't made men like him after the Empire was solidly established.

    And now they were going to need more men like him.

    “I’d prefer not to think about it,” she said. “And we have to prepare for departure.”

    “This ship doesn't smell very healthy,” the Professor said.

    “It isn't,” Edward said, shortly. It had been barely two days since he’d seen Professor Caesius, but he was profoundly shocked by the change in his friend. The Professor hadn't looked so withdrawn when he'd been evicted from Earth for questioning the state of the Empire. “You really don’t want to know what the pirates were doing for their own entertainment.”

    “I believe I can guess,” the Professor said. He looked over at Edward, grimly. “Is there any news?”

    Edward hesitated, just long enough for the Professor to notice. “I don’t know anything for certain,” he admitted, finally. The Professor had a right to know, but he didn't want to raise the man’s hopes. “They did have orders to take prisoners and...Mandy was an engineering student. She would be useful to them.”

    “Useful,” the Professor repeated. “You know, I was so proud of her when she finally started to work.”

    “I know,” Edward said, gently. The old Mandy had been a teenage brat, plain and simple, someone who had bitched and moaned about being forced to move to Avalon. But she'd improved and turned into someone with real promise...and her sister might make a good Knight. “What did your wife have to say?”

    “She blamed me for Mandy’s capture,” the Professor said. Edward noticed that he didn't refer to his daughter as dead. “If I hadn't been exiled out here, she said, Mandy would have lived a full and happy life on Earth...at least until the undercity exploded and Earth collapsed into a nightmare.”

    Edward nodded in understanding. The average citizen of the Empire had no idea of the storm that was already pressing against the establishment. They saw the Empire as strong and didn't see the weaknesses underneath, or the cracks running through the military and bureaucracy that would eventually tear it apart. All they saw was the endless bounty of the Empire – and forgot that it had to be paid for, by someone. The Professor’s calculations of what would start happening, soon enough, were horrific. How could anyone not believe that the Empire was in serious trouble?

    But maybe Earth’s fall would be delayed long enough for Mandy to live out her life. If so, it would take place during her children’s lives. Edward wouldn't bet one credit on anyone’s chances of surviving in the middle city as the hordes raged up from below; the middle classes were deliberately kept disarmed, just to keep them from posing a problem to the Empire’s rulers. The Fall of Earth would be an orgy of looting, raping and slaughter on an utterly unprecedented scale.

    He led the Professor up through the ship’s passageways – none of the internal elevators were working – and onto the bridge. The pirates had taken out half of the original consoles and replaced them with cannibalised items from several other ships, including a helm console that had evidently been taken from a freighter. Edward was surprised that they’d even been able to get it to work; the engineering crews had suggested that the pirates had had the help of a genuine shipyard, perhaps one of the civilian yards that were happy to do work without asking too many questions. Or maybe they had a secret shipyard somewhere out along the Rim.

    Kitty Stevenson was working on one of the consoles when they entered, but she stood up to welcome them. “The ship should be ready to depart on schedule, sir,” she reported. Technically, she was the vessel’s commander – they didn't have many people with the right qualifications - but Edward was her superior officer. Naval protocol hadn't really been designed for such a situation. “We’re just loading the rest of our supplies now.”

    The Professor leaned forward. “How long will it take to get to Elysium?”

    “Roughly nine days,” Kitty said. “We could do it in four, but I’d prefer not to press the drive too hard until we have a better idea of its condition. Right now, a single fluctuation in the drive core and we’d be drifting in interstellar space for the rest of our lives. And, of course, once we get there we’re going to have to sneak into the system.”

    “Which may be difficult,” Edward put in. Starship sensors were tuned to watch for starships coming out of Phase Space along the Phase Limit – and they dared not assume that the pirates would have neglected their sensors badly enough for them to slip in without being detected. The only sure method of sneaking into the system was to drop out of Phase Space some distance from the Phase Limit and crawl into the system at sublight speed. “And then we have to deal with the pirates.”

    “And anyone else who might be in the area,” the Professor said. Edward gave him a sharp look, and then nodded. Who knew what the Admiral might be doing with his ships? “Do we have any idea what we will be facing?”

    “No,” Edward admitted, reluctantly. He hated operating blind. The fog of war had swallowed up everything more than a short distance outside Avalon’s atmosphere, ensuring that they would never truly know what was out there, waiting for them. It had been so much easier operating on Earth, where the finest units in the Imperial Navy were based. No pirate would be able to get close to Earth...

    “Of course not,” the Professor said, when Edward said that out loud. “They’re all in the Grand Senate.”

    Two hours later, the Dancing Fool groaned into life and headed towards the Phase Limit. Edward sat on the bridge, watching grimly as the technicians checked and rechecked the systems, noting down critical components that required inspection or immediate replacement. Given a completely free choice, he would have preferred to scrap the light cruiser completely, but they didn't have any other starships.

    “I don’t think they ever wanted to fight a warship,” Kitty said. “We can barely get one-third of this ship’s rated speed out of its engines. Even a merchant skipper could probably outrun her if he got a head start.”

    “Let’s just hope that our target comes to us,” Edward said, reluctantly. A plan that depended upon the enemy doing something stupid was a plan designed to fail. “At least they can’t cause an entire planet to disappear.”
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