Original Work Para Bellum (Ark Royal 13)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Aug 20, 2018.


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  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    Para Bellum is the 13th book in the Ark Royal series, carrying on the adventures of Captain Shields and the crew of HMS Invincible. All you really need to know is that Invincible discovered a brand-new alien threat, a sentient virus that has infected (and effectively destroyed) several other alien races before setting its sights on humanity. Oh, and Captain Shields may be in trouble for blundering First Contact ...

    The bad news is that my health has been quite poor for the past few months. The doctors have been running painful tests and we’ve been promised some answers soon, but (as of writing) the best case is a very nasty infection and the worst is lymphoma. There may be long delays between chapters. This is obviously very frustrating to me; please bear with me a little.

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

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

    Thank you very much for your time.

    Chris
     
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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue I

    From: Admiral Kathy Lauder, UK BIOPREP
    To: Admiral Sir John Naiser, First Space Lord
    Classification: Top Secret, Eyes-Only FSL

    John.

    My official conclusions are in the report forwarded to your office, which you can read at your leisure. My unofficial conclusion is that I’m bloody terrified. Bioweapons have been a constant threat since every kid with a modified chemistry set could start brewing up something nasty in his parents basement, and we saw a whole string of nasty outbreaks during the Age of Unrest, but this is an order of magnitude more dangerous than anything we’ve seen. The concept of a virus that could pass from one species to another was the stuff of low-budget fiction, until now. A sentient alien virus, capable of infecting humans as easily as the common cold, must be reckoned a serious threat. We may find it very difficult to defend ourselves.

    We can and we will take precautions. The virus does not appear to cope well with ultraviolet light, allowing us to ensure it doesn’t spread through the air. We have had some success with experimental counter-viral treatments, when those treatments are carried out within a few short hours of infection. We can be fairly sure of catching an infected person within a few hours, through the use of a simple blood test. However, once the virus starts to infect the body’s organs and build control structures, we have been unable to do more than slow it down. Enthasusia may be the only logical response, particularly once the virus reaches the brain. It isn’t clear - yet - if the virus is capable of masquerading as the infected person, but I think we have to assume that it can and it will. Our people may be subverted and turned against us. It is vitally important that we perform regular blood tests within all sensitive installations.

    Worse, there is no reason to assume that the infections will be limited only to humanity - and our alien allies. We believe the virus can spread into animals too, presenting us with a unique threat. The prospect of dogs - or smaller animals, like rats - being used to carry the virus into human settlements cannot be overlooked. In the event of a major outbreak on Earth, Admiral, we must assume our own ecosystem will be turned against us. The absolute worst case scenario suggests that the virus can even infect our entire ecology. It is vitally important that we don’t let the virus gain a foothold on Earth. If necessary, we will need to destroy any infection with nuclear weapons.

    My team has not, as yet, been able to put together a coherent scenario for the virus’s evolution. However, given its aggressive nature and ability to cross the species barrier, it seems likely that the virus is not remotely natural. Someone designed it, Admiral; someone designed it as a weapon. I don’t know if the creators unleashed it as a final shot at enemies they couldn’t defeat by any normal means, or if it broke loose and destroyed its own creators before starting to ravage the rest of the galaxy, but I don’t believe its natural. It’s just too effective a killing machine. If we can find its creators, we may be able to convince them to stop their virus before it destroys us and every other known sentient race. If not ...

    Of course, some people might consider that whistling in the dark.
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue II

    It was very quiet in the underground chamber.

    President Aleksandr Sergeyevich Nekrasov lifted his head from the report and looked at the other two men - and one woman - sitting at the table. Their faces were carefully blank, the result of a lifetime spent struggling for power and security. None of them dared betray their thoughts too openly. The slightest hint of weakness might prove disastrous. It might cost them their lives. And yet, Aleksandr could tell they were scared. They were the most powerful people in Russia, but were they powerful enough to stand against the latest interstellar menace? He had a feeling that they were about to find out?

    He spoke, with heavy irony. “Your comments, gentlemen?”

    Admiral Svetlana Zadornov smiled, humourlessly. “We made a serious mistake, Mr. President.”

    Aleksandr studied her for a long moment, knowing that she was almost certainly the most ambitious - and dangerous - person in the room. Women in Russia were expected to marry and have at least four children by the time they reached their mid-twenties, not go into the navy and fight their way up the ladder to flag rank. Svetlana had faced a whole string of challenges, from lecherous instructors to alien battleships, and she’d overcome them all. She was good. She had to be good. The only thing keeping her from being an even greater threat was her sex ... and that might not matter, if she laid the groundwork properly. She was a national hero as well as a naval star.

    He cocked his eyebrow. “How so?”

    Svetlana had no patience for political bullshit. “We assumed that we were dealing with another alien race, one akin to the Tadpoles or the Foxes. We believed that we could make contact - covert contact - and manipulate events to our advantage. Instead, we have betrayed the human race to an ... to an alien virus. We must assume that Dezhnev was taken and her crew ... assimilated. The Great Powers will be furious.”

    “If they find out,” Director Igor Ivanovich Zaitsev said, smoothly. The FSB Director leaned forward, his cold eyes moving from face to face. “The ship’s captain had orders to destroy his vessel rather than let her fall into enemy hands, did he not?”

    “Yes,” Svetlana said. “But we have no guarantee he was able to carry out those orders. He might have been lured into talks, while the virus steadily overcame his crew. There’s no sense, from the British reports, that our vaccinations will be enough to stop the virus in its tracks. The ship might well have been taken with datacores intact.”

    “And if the virus can take control of the crew, they’ll happily unlock the datacores for their new masters,” General Stepan Viktorovich Dyakov rumbled. “They’ll be turned into willing traitors.”

    “Yes, General,” Svetlana said. “Dezhnev did not carry a full database, a sensible precaution when the ship intended to make contact with an unknown alien race, but she still carried enough information to make life very difficult. The virus, assuming it took the ship intact, now knows the layout of human space.”

    Aleksandr kept his face impassive, somehow. The Solar Treaty - rewritten after the Tadpoles had taught humanity that it wasn’t alone in the universe - had made it clear that no new alien races were to learn anything of the human sphere’s inner workings until contact had been established and humanity was sure it wasn’t about to be attacked again. A hostile alien race would have to spend a great deal of time surveying the tramlines before they found the ones that led to the more densely-populated worlds - and Earth itself. Humanity could use that time to set up defensive lines and prepare for war. But if the virus had captured an intact navigational datacore, the virus would already know where to attack. His bid to break Russia free of its shackles might have led to disaster for the entire human race.

    He wanted to shout his fury and frustration to the stars. The other Great Powers had never forgiven, let alone forgotten, how Aleksandr’s predecessor had tried to use bioweapons on the Tadpoles during peace negotiations. Russia had seen no choice - it was the only way to recover their principle colony and its population - but it had been a disastrous failure. Nothing had been said publicly, there had been no angry denunciations of Russia ... yet, trade and investment had almost dried up. The country had been badly weakened. It had practically had to mortgage its future to remain a Great Power. Aleksandr was all too aware that keeping up with the latest military technology was costing his country dearly. And yet, they had to keep up. The rising powers would not hesitate to displace Russia if they thought they could get away with it.

    The Indians already tried to displace the British, Aleksandr thought. And the British were in a far stronger position than ourselves.

    He looked down at the report for a long moment, trying not to think about the people on the streets outside. They’d made huge sacrifices, they’d allowed the state to dictate to them ... and yet, they were trapped in an austere nightmare. Mother Russia could feed her children - that was no longer a problem, thanks to modern technology - but they had little in the way of luxury or hope. Aleksandr knew there were grumblers, people complaining that their lives were drab and empty. The FSB had it under control, he’d been assured, but he knew better than to take that for granted. Life in Russia was steadily becoming worse. How long would it be until Moscow exploded into revolution, once again.

    Svetlana cleared her throat. “There is nothing to be gained from recriminations,” she said, dryly. “We have to decide how to proceed.”

    How generous, Aleksandr thought. Svetlana was sneakily making it clear that she wasn’t going to call their attention to the fact that she was the one who’d argued against sending a covert contact team - and, in doing so, was quietly rubbing their noses in it. And how do you intend to use this to unseat me?

    “We have to assume the worst,” Svetlana continued. “The virus knows that we intended to betray our fellow humans. It may seek to use that against us. If it truly understands human psychology, it will see it as a gamble worth taking. It can certainly present enough proof to overcome doubt and suspicion from the other Great Powers.”

    “Great,” Zaitsev said, sarcastically.

    “Therefore, we need to take action,” Svetlana said. “We have to act before it can take advantage of its newfound knowledge. And I know how we should proceed.”
     
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    The chamber, Captain Sir Stephen Shields thought as he faced his judges, had cost the Royal Navy a great deal of money. No expense had been spared in a bid to make it clear that justice would be done, from the magnificent wooden boxes for the judges to the smaller chair and table for himself and his lawyer. He couldn’t help thinking that the giant painting of the king hanging from the far wall was worth a few million pounds. The entire courtroom had probably cost as much as a cruiser. He wondered, rather sardonically, how they intended to explain the expense during the next audit. The Royal Navy had been having problems funding the latest generation of ships even before Invincible had stumbled across a whole new threat.

    He kept his face as impassive as possible, despite a growing headache, as his judges hurled question after question at him. It was hard, so hard, to keep from snapping at them as they asked the same question time and time again, sometimes rephrasing the words in a bid to catch him out. They weren’t interested in the truth, he felt. The five flag officers facing him were more interested in politics than the threat facing the entire human race. He wondered, sourly, just who’d smoothed their path through the navy. His family had enemies. They’d have worked overtime to make sure that their people were in place to push for a court-martial.

    “No, sir,” he said, in response to a particularly irritating question. “I feel that my ship and crew performed adequately.”

    An admiral leaned forward. “Captain, some of our analysts believe that you didn’t make enough of an attempt at opening communications,” he said. “What do you say to that?”

    Some of our analysts, Stephen thought. The ones who give the answers they know their masters want?

    He braced himself. “As you can see from my records, Admiral, we did attempt to open communications. However, we came under enemy fire. Further attempts at opening communications were unsuccessful - and, when we realised what we were facing, we understood why. There is little hope of opening a dialogue when someone simply won’t talk to you.”

    “But you should have tried,” the Admiral said.

    Stephen felt his temper start to snap. He ignored the warning nudge from his lawyer. “With all due respect, Admiral, firing on someone is also a form of communication. The aliens - the virus - wanted us dead.”

    Another admiral chuckled. “He’s got you there, Fred.”

    The first admiral glowered. “Captain Shields, you used classified technology to make your escape. In doing so, you revealed its existence to the enemy. How do you justify that?”

    Stephen felt a hot flash of anger. They’d been over that three times already. He was tempted to suggest they simply refer to the written record, but he knew they wouldn’t listen. They wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Again.

    “Invincible needed to return home safely, carrying her cargo of precious knowledge,” Stephen said, flatly. “We had lost contact with the Russians and we had no way to be sure that any previous messages would reach Falkirk, let alone Earth. Accordingly, I saw no option but to deploy every weapon in our arsenal to ensure that my ship made it safely through the tramline and escaped.”

    He allowed his voice to harden. “I understand the importance of keeping secret weapons secret until they are actually used, Admiral, but we had no choice. I had to do everything in my power to maximise our chances of escape. Deploying classified technology was, in my judgement, the only thing to do. What would you do in my place?”

    There was a long silence. Stephen waited, wondering what the admiral would say? He’d bet half his salary that his questioners had never commanded starships, even during peacetime. No, they’d stayed home and nitpicked from the comfort of their armchairs ... he shook his head in exasperation. He knew that, sometimes, officers made mistakes. But they rarely had anything like enough time to think of the perfect solution.

    The chairman cleared his throat. “I believe we’ve gone as far as we can for the day,” he said, making a show of checking his watch. “Captain Shields, thank you for your time. You’ll have our decision by the end of the week.”

    Unless you want to call me back for some worthless questioning, Stephen thought. You’ve heard everything I can tell you - twice, perhaps - and you still want to waste my time.

    He kept that thought off his face. “Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” he said. It was hard not to allow sarcasm to slip into his voice. “I am at your disposal.”

    His lawyer walked next to him as they headed for the hatch. “They’re unsure how to proceed,” he muttered. “As long as they’re asking questions, they don’t have to take any decisions.”

    “No wonder they’re not on command decks,” Stephen muttered back. A starship captain had to make a decision and stick to it, even if that mean putting his neck on the line, not waffle endlessly until his ship was blown into dust and plasma. “Seriously, what’s our chances.”

    The lawyer said nothing until they walked through the hatch and into the corridor. “I’d say sixty-forty they recommend that all charges be dropped,” he said. “There’s no moment of egregious misconduct from you, Captain, and without that they’ll have some problems justifying putting you in front of a court-martial board. I think they’ll be happier not trying to try a national hero.”

    Stephen shrugged. One half of the country had considered him a hero when he and his ship had returned, bringing warning of a new interstellar war; the other half had seen him as a villain, the bearer of bad news. That half would believe - they’d want to believe - that Stephen had fucked up First Contact so badly that a multispecies alien confederation had declared war on Earth. And, because of his family connections, his fate wouldn’t be decided by the navy. Parliament would become involved. The final decision wouldn’t be based on anything he’d actually done, but on what was politically acceptable.

    And my superiors will throw me under the shuttlecraft, he thought, sourly. The First Space Load had signalled his support, but Stephen had no illusions. If the politicians wanted him punished, he’d be punished. Perhaps I should have gone into law instead, or sought an easy seat in Parliament.

    He shook his head. He loved the navy. He loved command. And the situation was not hopeless. His family’s enemies would have to find a figleaf of justification before they could hang him - perhaps literally - and, so far, no such justification had materialised. He had to keep fighting if he wanted to return to his ship. Invincible was currently being repaired, under his XO’s command. He was damned if he was just letting go of command after how hard he’d had to work to get it.

    A young midshipwoman ran up and saluted. “Captain Shields?”

    Stephen returned her salute. “Yes?”

    “Sir, a car has arrived for you,” the midshipwoman said. “Its waiting at the main gate.”

    Stephen dismissed his lawyer and hurried down the stairs to the main gate. A large black limousine, with tinted windows, was waiting for him. A uniformed chauffeur stepped out of the front door as Stephen approached, saluted him, and opened the rear door. Stephen was not remotely surprised to see his brother sitting in the vehicle. It was the sort of thing his brother would do.

    “Duncan,” he said, stiffly. “What are you doing here?”

    “Get in,” Duncan said. “We don’t have much time.”

    Stephen hesitated, then climbed into the limousine. The chauffeur closed the door behind him. Silence fell, abruptly. Duncan gestured to a seat; Stephen looked around, noting the silent maid sitting at the back of the vehicle, then sat down. The vehicle hummed into life a moment later. There was barely any sense of motion.

    “Our latest car,” Duncan said. He sounded as if he’d built the limo himself. “What do you think?”

    Stephen snorted. “How much of the family fortune did you waste on this ... this white elephant?”

    “I assure you that this vehicle isn’t useless,” Duncan said. “We have a minibar, a small portable cooker, desks and chairs and, of course, secure links to the datanet. I can conduct my business while travelling around the country.”

    “You could also get from one end of the country to the other in less than an hour,” Stephen pointed out, although he knew it was a waste of time. Duncan had always believed an aristocrat had to look wealthy as well as be wealthy. The family name demanded a show of conspicuous consumption. Stephen had never believed that, but then he’d gone into the navy, where efficiency was prized over everything else. “I assume you have a reason for meeting me?”

    Duncan smiled. “Do I need a reason to speak to my little brother?”

    “You never said a word to me at school,” Stephen said. “Ever.”

    “You know as well as I do that older kids are not supposed to talk to the younger kids,” Duncan said. That was unfortunately true. “I’m sure I said a word or two to you during the holidays. And did I not speak to you after we both left school?”

    Stephen shrugged. “And now?”

    Duncan met his eyes. “The Leader of the Opposition has been trying to figure out a way to use your court martial to bring down the government,” he said. “However, it doesn’t look as though you gave them enough rope to hang the Prime Minister. I doubt a vote of no confidence could be passed right now.”

    “That’s something,” Stephen said. He’d always disliked politics, even though he’d been brought up in an aristocratic family. The navy life was far simpler. “What now?”

    “They’ll try and find some kind of face-saving solution, I suppose,” Duncan said. “They staked too much on you. Now, they need to find a way to let you go without making it look as though they were tormenting you for fun and games. I imagine they’d redefine the whole courtroom session as a fact-finding mission.”

    “They certainly found a great many facts,” Stephen said, dryly. “When can I go back to my ship?”

    “When they figure out a way to save face.” Duncan shrugged. “We’re not going to hammer them too hard over the issue - the government’s majority is too thin - but they won’t take that for granted. They’ll assume we’ll take full advantage of their mistake.”

    “Perhaps you should,” Stephen said. “Really try and put the boot in.”

    “We wouldn’t be able to do enough damage to matter,” Duncan said. “And we don’t want a political catfight right now. The country is unsettled enough.”

    He tapped a switch. The tinted windows became transparent. Stephen frowned as he realised where they were. The limo was crossing Admiralty Bridge, heading towards Whitehall, driving past a steady stream of protesters. Many of them were carrying signs, protesting against the new war. He sucked in his breath, sharply. They were walking so closely together that the virus would have a field day, if one of the protesters was infected. They’d all be infected soon enough.

    “I thought large gatherings were going to be banned,” he said, as he spotted a handful of policemen. They were watching the crowd, but making no attempt to break it up. “What happened?”

    Duncan gave him a sharp look. “Political realities,” he said, curtly. He tapped the switch again. The windows darkened. “Shutting down the schools is one thing, but shutting down everything else is quite another. And there’s no reason to believe the virus has reached Earth.”

    Stephen gritted his teeth. There had been a number of starships at Wensleydale that hadn’t known to take extensive precautions against biological contamination, even though they were dealing with a previously-unknown alien race. And some of those ships had disappeared. It was tempting to believe that their crews had managed to hit the self-destruct before they’d been overwhelmed, but he didn’t dare believe it. Planetary defence networks had orders to destroy the ships on sight, yet ... it would be easy to sneak a shuttle down to the surface and begin the infection. Earth might already have been infected.

    “Those idiots are going to get themselves killed,” he snarled. “And they’ll get a lot of innocent people killed with them.”

    “Perhaps,” Duncan said. “But they also don’t want war.”

    Stephen laughed, harshly. “Do you suppose the universe cares what they want?”

    “No,” Duncan said. He sounded as though he understood. “But they do have good reasons for wanting it.”

    “I know,” Stephen said.

    He shook his head. He understood too. Of course he understood. Twenty years ago, the First Interstellar War had brought the human race to the brink of defeat. The Tadpoles had bombarded Earth, killing millions of humans and destroying the work of hundreds of years. And then Britain had skirmished with India, shortly before the Second Interstellar War had pitted humanity and its enemies-turned-allies against a pair of alien races that had made common cause and set out to conquer the galaxy together. The human race had seen too much change in the past few years, too many reminders that the universe was red in tooth and claw. He was uneasily aware that Britain - and the remainder of the Great Powers - had lost so much that something was going to break. And now ...

    And now, we have a whole new war, against an extremely dangerous and deadly race, he thought. I’d vote against it too if I thought it would make a difference.

    “We’re switching to a full war footing now, aren’t we?” Stephen met his brother’s eyes, hoping to see confirmation. “Aren’t we?”

    “We are,” Stephen confirmed. “The Opposition’s grown-ups realise that the threat exists, even though their backbenchers want to use the crisis to demand concessions. We’re preparing for war at breakneck speed.”

    Stephen nodded, relieved. The Royal Navy had been taken unawares by the new threat, but a great many lessons had been learnt during the First Interstellar War. This time, procedures were in place to call up the reserves, draw weapons and spare parts from stockpiles that had been extensively built up during peacetime and prepare to go on the offensive. Starships were probably already being dispatched to Falkirk, the point of contact, in hopes of blunting an alien offensive before it could reach the more populated parts of the human sphere. He was fairly sure the Admiralty was already considering ways to go on the offensive. No one ever won a war by sitting still and waiting to be hit.

    But we have no idea of just how much territory they control, he reminded himself. They might be expecting us to launch an offensive; hell, they may intend to destroy the invasion fleet and then follow up with a full-scale offensive of their own.

    “There is a cost, of course,” Duncan added. “Do you know how many people are reservists?”

    “No,” Stephen said.

    “There’s always been a push to favour reservists when it comes to selecting candidates for a job,” Duncan said. “The family industries have done their part. But if the reservists are called up to go to war, there’s going to be a problem replacing them. Losing one reservist isn’t a bad thing, but losing all of them at once ... there is no way replacements for everyone can be invited to apply, be interviewed and accepted before the losses start to bite.”

    He shook his head. “And that problem is affecting the entire country,” he said. “I dare say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

    “Probably,” Stephen said. “But think how much worse it will be if we lose.”

    “I know that,” Duncan snapped. “But how many people don’t grasp the sheer scale of the threat? There were all sorts of problems during the Second Interstellar War. They’ll be worse here.”

    “Probably,” Stephen said, again. Civilians didn’t understand the realities of interstellar warfare. A threat might be a few hundred light-years away, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t touch Earth. “I can’t wait to go back to space.”

    “I don’t blame you,” Duncan told him. There was an oddly wistful tone in his voice. “I wish I could go to space too.”

    The limo came to a halt. Stephen looked up as the door opened, revealing the chauffeur and a darkening sky. He glanced at his watch as Duncan rose and climbed out of the vehicle. It was seven o’clock. And yet, it was strikingly quiet. He frowned as he followed his brother onto the streets. London was a city that never slept. Normally, the streets would be filled with tourists making their way to the theatres or the city’s diverse selection of cafes and restaurants. There was nowhere else in the entire world that had so many diversions for the educated palate. And yet, the city was quiet. Even the hum of traffic was dulled.

    “The club’s still open,” Duncan said. “I thought I’d treat you to dinner.”

    Stephen glowered at his retreating back. “And the rest of the city?”

    “Martial law has been declared,” Duncan reminded him. “The city is shutting down for the night.”

    Good, Stephen thought. He snorted, rudely, as they walked past the bowing doorman and headed up the stairs. Naturally, the aristocracy had ensured that their spaces were spared the attention of the law. But the population will not be pleased.

    He shook his head as they passed a cluster of UV lights. The public would not be pleased, if they realised what was happening. There was nothing to be gained by shutting down the city’s nightlife if a handful of select clubs were allowed to remain open. And yet, it would help keep them alive, if the virus reached Earth ...

    ... And that, as far as he was concerned, was all that mattered.
     
  5. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Our prayers are with you Chris.
     
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    She was not, precisely, a prisoner.

    Captain (Marines) Alice Campbell lay on her back in the hospital ward, as naked as the day she was born. Her hands and feet were secured with thin metal straps, strong enough to hold an enhanced human, while cold light blazed down at all hours of the day. It wasn’t quite as bad as the dreaded Conduct After Capture course - no one was hitting her, or threatening to rape her - but it was still unpleasant. There were few luxuries in the room and none of them made up for being trapped. She was uneasily aware that she was losing muscle tone with every day that passed on her back.

    She looked up at the holographic images playing over her head and scowled. The doctors probably thought they were being kind and sensitive, when they’d refused her access to any news channels, but she found it frustrating. She wanted to know what was going on, damn it! No one had been very informative since she’d been taken from Invincible, save for a nurse who’d told her she’d been moved to a highly-classified military base. Alice guessed she was on an asteroid. No one in their right mind would conduct biological warfare research on a planetary surface.

    Probably some distance from the rest of the system, she thought, as she switched off the holograms. There was only so much Doctor Who one could stand before one started to go mad. And probably quite close to the sun, for convenient disposal of any accidents.

    She sighed, inwardly. She was no expert on biological warfare, but her training had including simulations of operations in regions infected by genetically-engineered - and effectively incurable - diseases. The briefing officers had made it clear that the only defence against biological weapons involved engineering the disease themselves, then using the disease to create a vaccine. Alice had asked, after the briefing, if there was any difference between biological warfare defence research and biological warfare research. The briefing officer had hesitated to answer, then admitted - finally - that there was very little difference between the two. One had to play with fire in order to keep others from playing with fire.

    A door opened. It was practically silent, but she’d been lying in the chamber long enough to become intimately familiar with every one of its sounds. She turned her head to see a figure, covered from head to toe, walking towards her. The doctors never entered the room without protective garments, even though she was constantly bathed in ultraviolet light. They were too scared of infection to show her their faces. She could barely see their eyes through their masks.

    They have to be bloody uncomfortable, she thought, nastily. She’d tried to fight in protective suits, back during basic training, and it had been hot and sweaty. They’d also made easy targets. Hiding from enemy fire was hard enough when one wasn’t wearing a heavy suit. But they’re right to be scared.

    “Alice,” the doctor said. “Can you hear me?”

    “I can’t hear anything,” Alice said, dryly. “Not a single word.”

    She knew she should cooperate, but she was growing sick of lying on her back. She was used to a complete lack of privacy - prudes didn’t join the Royal Marines - but the isolation was getting to her. She wanted to talk to someone, someone she actually liked. She’d even chat with her sister if it meant being able to talk to someone who wasn’t a doctor.

    “That’s good to hear,” the doctor said, her sarcasm washing off him like water off a duck’s back. “Are you ready to proceed?”

    Alice looked up, interested. The doctors had promised a cure for the alien virus trying to take over her body, yet since she’d arrived at the asteroid base they’d been more interested in taking samples than actually curing her. She supposed her body was a living reservoir of alien virus, and she couldn’t really blame the doctors for wanting as many samples as possible, but she wanted it gone. The aliens had infested her system. She wanted her body to be hers again.

    And if the virus manages to adapt to their treatments, she thought, it will take me over anyway.

    She shuddered at the thought. She wasn’t scared of conventional threats. She knew she could handle anything any human opponent could melt out. They could hurt her, they could kill her, but they couldn’t break her. But the alien virus didn’t care about how mentally strong she was. Given time, it would worm its way into her brain and take over. There was no hope of resistance. It scared her more than she cared to admit.

    The doctor leaned forward. “Are you alright? Your heartbeat just spiked?”

    “Bad thoughts, doctor,” Alice said. “What are we going to do today?”

    “We believe we can sweep the virus out of your system,” the doctor said. “However, I must warn you that there is a high risk of death ...”

    Alice laughed, despite herself. “You do know what I do for a living?”

    The doctor sounded irked. “I’m required to explain what is about to happen,” he said. “A few years ago, a process of cellular rejuvenation was developed that - in theory - promised a form of immortality. Tests appeared promising, but experiments on living humans were universally disastrous. I’ll spare you the medical technobabble, Alice. All you really need to know was that the process both rejuvenated and killed the body’s cells. The operation was a success ...”

    “But the patient died,” Alice finished. “Why do you think it will work on me?”

    “It won’t rejuvenate you,” the doctor said. “What it will do, we think, is kill the alien cells. They are so profoundly different from yours that they can be taken out without risking your health.”

    “You think,” Alice said. “What if you’re wrong?”

    “Then you die on the operating table,” the doctor said, flatly. “If you need time to think about it ...”

    Alice shook her head. None of the other treatments had worked. The best she could hope for was remaining in the isolation ward, with constant treatments to keep the infection under tight control. The slightest mistake - or the virus successfully adapting to new circumstances - would end her life, once and for all. It was worth any risk to get rid of the virus. Besides, if she died, at least she’d be free. The thought of seeing her mother and grandparents again was tempting. She’d always believed there was something after death.

    “Now, please,” she said. “I see no reason to delay.”

    “They’ll start setting up the equipment now,” the doctor said. He walked around her slowly, studying her naked body. “Have you been feeling any differently recently?”

    “Not really,” Alice said. There were so many sensors placed against her skin that the doctors would know if there had been any changes. They were probably more aware of her body than she was. “Just the regular hot and cold flashes.”

    “The virus is a tricky customer and no mistake,” the doctor said. “But we have made a start on understanding it.”

    “I hope so,” Alice said. “Do you have a vaccine yet?”

    “No,” the doctor told her. “But we live in hope.”

    He sat by the side of her bed and chatted to her about nothing until the orderlies entered the room. Alice was almost grateful for his company, even though he had nothing useful to say. The doctors were under orders not to talk about current affairs ... Alice hoped that meant that nothing had happened since Invincible had escaped the alien system. Her imagination provided too many dangerous scenarios. There could be a full-scale war going on right now, with hundreds of alien ships pouring into the human sphere, or the aliens could be mounting a stealth assault. She had no way to know.

    We know how to detect the infected, she told herself. And there’s no way any ships will be allowed to land on Earth without being checked first.

    She felt the jerk as the orderlies detached the bed from the wall and pushed it towards the door. Alice looked up, interested, as they passed into the corridor, but it was as bare and bland as the average military base. There were no paintings on the walls, nothing that might make the setting a little more comfortable. The bed moved down the corridor, passed through a pair of airlocks and entered an operations theatre. A large machine, covered with glowing lights and computer displays, squatted in the centre of the chamber. It took Alice a moment to realise that they were going to put her inside the machine.

    “Your heartbeat is picking up again,” the doctor said. “Are you alright?”

    “Yes,” Alice snapped. She took a deep breath, controlling her fears. She’d been through worse. She’d been through a lot worse. “What’s ... what’s going to happen?”

    “You’re going inside the machine,” the doctor told her. “You’ll hear a buzzing sound, but you shouldn’t feel anything. And then we’ll take you out once the process is completed.”

    Dead or alive, Alice thought, morbidly.

    She felt her body start to tense as the orderlies carefully inserted the bed into the machine and pushed her inside. Alice had never been particularly claustrophobic - she’d lost that during training - but she still felt nervous as the hatch closed behind her head. She was lying in a long metal tube that resembled a coffin ... she told herself, sharply, to stop worrying. If the process worked, she could return to duty; if the process failed ... well, she hoped the platoon would say something nice about her during the funeral. And then they’d get drunk at the wake and swap lies about her. She hoped they’d be good lies.

    I wasn’t a failure, she thought, as she waited. They wouldn’t have promoted me if I’d failed.

    “We’re about to begin,” a voice said. It was loud enough to make her jump. “Are you ready?”

    “Yes,” Alice said. She calmed herself, again. “I’m ready.”

    “You shouldn’t feel anything,” the voice told her. “If you do, please let us know.”

    “Yes, sir,” Alice said, tiredly. “Get on with it.”

    There was a long pause, then she felt the machine start to vibrate. The buzzing started a second later, sending chills down her spine. It felt as if she was trapped inside a wood chipper. It was hard to escape the sense that she was about to be tossed down the chute to her doom, even though she knew better. Her body started to quiver a moment later. It felt as though she was standing under a very hot sun. No, it felt as though she was sunburnt ... under the skin. The buzzing grew louder. She gritted her teeth and tried to force herself to relax, somehow. Her skin started to crawl. It felt as though a hundred fingers were drifting over her bare skin ...

    A stab of pain shot through her. For an insane moment, she thought she’d been stabbed everywhere, that a knife had stabbed her ... her mind spun as she struggled to make sense of her feelings. She’d been stabbed ... no, she hadn’t been stabbed. Fire burned along her veins, tearing at her sanity ... she told herself, firmly, that the alien cells were burning up. Her emotions were completely out of control, flashes of rage followed by quivering fear and burning arousal. She felt her arms and legs jerk, despite the restraints. It felt as though she was convulsing, as if death was not far away.

    She thought she saw, just for a moment, her father standing in front of her. She felt a hot flash of anger before realising that it was just a hallucination. She had no interest in seeing the old man again, not after he’d murdered his wife, Alice’s mother. Maybe she had committed adultery. That was no excuse for murder, for forcing Alice and her sister to grow up with their grandparents and a succession of boarding schools. Her lips twitched. They’d asked if she really thought she could cope with military training. After boarding school, military training had been a snap. She certainly hadn’t been one of those tough guys who’d cried when they realised they were sleeping away from home for the first time in their lives.

    They didn’t go to boarding school, she thought. For all the grumbling about military rations, the Royal Marines had better food than the boarding schools. Less unpleasant disciplinarians too. The sergeants had been bastards, but they hadn’t been bastards. They’d have learnt better if they had.

    There was a hot stab of pain, stabbing right into her brain. Alice screamed, helplessly. She thought she heard someone trying to talk to her, but it was impossible to make out the words over her own screaming. She was on fire. Her entire body was burning. She screamed and screamed until the world went black ...

    ... And she woke up in a different room.

    She took a shuddering breath, swallowing hard as her body tried to retch. There was nothing in her stomach to throw up, she thought. She tested her restraints - she was still tied to the bed - and then lifted her head. Her skin looked normal, even though she was sure she should be nothing more than ashes. She didn’t even look burnt. Her body felt ... it took her a moment to realise that she felt normal.

    “Good morning,” a voice said. A man wearing a doctor’s uniform peered down at her. “How are you feeling?”

    Alice blinked at him. He wasn’t wearing a protective suit. “Am I ... am I safe?”

    “We believe so,” the doctor said. He looked to be in his late forties, old enough to be her father. His nametag read VENN. “How are you feeling?”

    “Hungry,” Alice said, after a moment. “Am I cured?”

    “We killed the alien biological material in you,” Venn told her. “You’ve been asleep for several days, Alice. We wanted to be sure it wouldn’t grow back.”

    “And it didn’t,” Alice said. “Right?”

    Venn smiled. “Right.”

    Alice tried to lift a hand. “Can I get up now?”

    “If you like,” the doctor said. He carefully undid the restraints, one by one. “I wouldn’t push yourself too far though, Alice. You’ve been through hell.”

    “Hell was basic training,” Alice said, dryly. She sat upright, looking down at herself. Her arms and legs felt uncomfortably flabby, unsurprisingly. She hadn’t had any real exercise in weeks. “Is there anything to eat?”

    “It’s on the way,” Venn said. “Alice, there are some things you need to know.”

    Alice swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, gingerly. Stabs of pain flared up her legs, reminding her that she hadn’t been allowed to walk for weeks. She cursed under her breath. It was going to take months to get back into condition, if the Royal Marines hadn’t already given her a medical discharge. They certainly wouldn’t let her take command of a company until she was back up to speed. She silently promised herself a long program of heavy-duty exercise, whatever else she had to do. She’d been the first woman to receive a commando badge. She was damned if she was just giving up.

    “First, the virus did make one permanent change to your system,” Venn said. “Your scent has changed in a manner we don’t quite understand. We think it’s a marker that you were infected, a marker that other infected would be able to sense, but we don’t know for sure. We also can’t find a way to fix it. The aliens may always consider you one of them.”

    “That’s something I may be able to use,” Alice said, slowly. She sniffed her palm, experimentally. “I can’t smell anything, though.”

    Venn nodded. “Most humans wouldn’t be able to smell it,” he said. “A dog, however ... be careful around dogs. They’re training dogs to sniff for infected now. You’ll give them a false positive.”

    “Ouch,” Alice said. “Anything else?”

    “You’ve had quite an uncomfortable set of days,” Venn told her. “You were lucky to be sedated. Now ... you’re going to be passing water at an accelerated rate until you finish passing the alien material out of your system and ...”

    Alice met his eyes. “When can I leave?”

    “We would prefer to keep you under observation for several days,” Venn said. “After that, if there’s no sign of a relapse, we can release you. I don’t know where the military will want you to go, afterwards. They may wish to keep a close eye on you.”

    “Probably,” Alice said. She had been infected, after all. It was unlikely she’d be allowed to return to Earth. “I want to return to active duty.”

    “That’s a matter for higher authority,” Venn said. “I can certify that we have killed the alien biological matter in your blood, Alice, but I can’t clear you for active duty.”

    Alice rubbed her forehead. No, Venn couldn’t clear her. God knew she was in no state to return to active duty. She had to get back into shape, then endure interviews with the shrinks until they cleared her ... if they ever did. They’d be worried about tiny fragments of alien biological matter hiding within her body. The virus might just be biding its time, waiting for her to leave isolation before it started to take over her body again. And yet ... she could think of a dozen simple precautions. Surely, she wouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life in isolation.

    “I’ll see what my superiors say,” she said, as the door opened. An orderly entered, carrying a tray of food and drink. “And I will return to duty.”

    “I hope so,” Venn said. “You’ve been very lucky, Alice. Everyone else we studied is too far gone to help. The alien virus left its mark on you, but them? They’re never going to be free.”

    Alice shivered.
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    “Well,” Flight Lieutenant Monica Smith said as they stood on the balcony and looked down on HMS Invincible’s landing deck, “they don’t look particularly photogenic.”

    Wing Commander Richard Redbird resisted - barely - the urge to make a rude gesture in her general direction. “Just because they don’t look good doesn’t mean they’re not good,” he said. “And just because you can’t stand in front of them with your hair streaming in the wind doesn’t mean you can’t fly them.”

    Monica smirked. “I did get asked to model in front of the Tornadoes,” she reminded him, mischievously. She struck a dramatic pose, pushing out her breasts. “My photo was on everyone’s wall.”

    Richard rolled his eyes at her. Monica had been asked to pose in front of the aerospace fighters, although it had been by a PR guy with a slight lack of common sense. Richard found it hard to believe that any prospective starfighter pilots would be attracted to the navy by a pretty blonde girl standing in front of a spacecraft, even though he did have to admit that starfighter pilots were often lacking in common sense too. Their survival rates were so low that senior officers made allowances for them.

    “I think you were replaced the moment some hot babe in her underwear came along,” he said, finally. “And how many seconds do you think that took?”

    He ignored her snort of irritation and turned his attention back to the starfighters. The Hawks didn’t look like much, he had to admit. They certainly didn’t look as deadly as the Tornadoes. They looked more like worker bees than jet fighters. But they were configured for operations in space, while the Tornadoes had been designed to operate in planetary atmospheres as well as deep space. The concept was cool, he admitted freely, but the technology was not quite up to the task. The Tornadoes lacked the manoeuvrability of craft designed to operate solely in space, while they were larger than aircraft designed to operate within a planetary atmosphere. Richard knew, all too well, that the high loss rate amongst Invincible’s pilots during their encounter with the alien virus owed much to their outmatched starfighters. The aliens had kicked their ass.

    It could have been worse, he told himself. But if we’d been flying genuine starfighters ...

    He allowed himself a smile as he studied the Hawks. They had come out of a multinational design project, something that had worried defence commenters back when the project had been announced, but Richard hadn’t heard any complaints from their pilots. And there would have been complaints, if the craft hadn’t lived up to their promise. The multinational nature of the project was an advantage, even if it was a blow to national pride. Being able to fly off American and French carriers might be useful. No, it would be useful. They were going to war, again.

    Monica caught his eye. “You got your speech prepped for the maggots?”

    “I know what I’m going to tell them, yes,” Richard said. He’d lost nearly all of his surviving pilots as the Royal Navy distributed their experience through the fleet. He was lucky he’d been able to keep Monica. There had been times when he’d thought the carrier’s flight wing would consist of him and a collection of newly-graduated pilots and reservists. “Are you ready to slot them into your squadron?”

    Monica gave him a sweet smile. “They’ll be kicking ass and taking names by the end of the day.”

    “Make sure of it,” Richard said, dryly. He watched the ground crew move the Hawk into the launch tubes. “We’ll be deploying soon.”

    Monica perked up. “You heard something?”

    “Nothing official, not yet, but the repairs are almost completed,” Richard said. “Do you think they’re going to let an assault carrier sit around doing nothing when there’s a war on?”

    “I’ve already got ten pounds on us leading the assault into enemy lines,” Monica said. “Do you want to place a bet?”

    Richard shook his head, firmly. Gambling had always been a problem on Royal Navy vessels, although senior officers tended to turn a blind eye as long as the stakes weren’t too high. They were also supposed to set a good example by not gambling themselves, at least not in public. Richard had no difficulty following that rule. He’d learnt the hard way that his luck didn’t cover gambling.

    “We’ll just have to wait and see,” Monica said. “They’ll give us some time to get used to our new fighters before we go to war, right?”

    “If they realise there might be a problem,” Richard said. The maggots - the new graduates - wouldn’t be a problem. They’d flown Hawks in the simulators, if they hadn’t actually taken them into deep space. The reservists, on the other hand, might need more time to brush up their skills. “We may be doing our training as we travel to our next target.”

    He closed his eyes for a long moment. Invincible was an assault carrier. She wasn’t designed to sit around defending a fixed target. No, she was designed to go on the offensive. Richard had no doubt they’d be heading back to Alien-1 as soon as the ship was cleared to depart. And then ... he shook his head. He had no qualms about shooting enemy pilots, but he’d never contemplated facing enemy pilots who were nothing more than puppets for an alien virus. God alone knew how many unknown races had been woven together into a viral empire. Did the virus’s victims know they were enslaved?

    It doesn’t matter, he told himself, firmly. You have to kill them or they will very definitely kill you.

    His wristcom bleeped. It was time to meet the new pilots.

    “Come on,” he said. “It’s time.”

    Richard couldn’t help feeling a flicker of relief as he walked through the airlock into Pilot Country. It had been strange over the past few weeks, with he and Monica rattling around like peas in a pod; Invincible had felt almost like a ghost ship. It was a relief to finally have some new pilots and starfighters, even though the lack of experienced personal meant that he was going to have to take more and more on himself until the reservists were up to speed. He’d already shovelled more of his work onto Monica than was good for him. If the XO had noticed and made a fuss ...

    He put the thought aside as he strode into the briefing compartment, Monica right behind him. The pilots hastily put their eReaders, datapads and newspapers away and snapped to attention. Richard surveyed them for a long moment, easily separating the reservists from the newly-graduated. The latter looked too eager to be true. They hadn’t realised, not yet, just how poor their odds of survival were. The reservists, on the other hand, understood all too well.

    “At ease,” Richard ordered. “Welcome onboard HMS Invincible.”

    He waited for the pilots to relax, then leaned forward. “I won’t give you any bullshit, not while you’re under my command. Whatever you’ve heard through the grapevine or seen on the news, rest assured that the situation is worse. We’re going up against an enemy that can take over our very bodies, if it can get a grip on us. Thankfully” - he allowed himself a cold smile - “they can’t get to you in your cockpits. They’ll be trying to kill you instead.

    “We don’t pretend to understand their thinking. There were times when they pushed the offensive against us, regardless of casualties, and times when they simply ignored us as long as we didn’t engage them directly. Given their nature, intelligence believes that we can expect to see suicide attacks as well as more ... conventional tactics. They are so alien, ladies and gentlemen, that their behaviour may be completely unpredictable. Even the Tadpoles, as weird as they are, use understandable tactics. These guys do not.”

    He smiled, thinly. “They also use a mixture of spacecraft and weapons that range from the primitive to the frighteningly advanced. Their best starfighters appear to be slightly better than ours, their worst are nothing more than target practice. Again, we don’t understand why they haven’t upgraded or simply junked their older craft. It’s tempting to believe that they’re incapable of operating shipyards, and the starships we saw were all captured in battle, but that might be just whistling in the dark. There’s no reason to believe they cannot build and operate a shipyard if they feel the need. And they will feel the need.

    “I expect each and every one of you to review the records from Alien-1. See if you spot any patterns, anything that might have been missed. Bear in mind that those records have been used to build simulator programs. What you see in the records is what you will be facing in the simulators.”

    Richard took a long breath. “Are there any questions?”

    “Yes, sir,” a newly-graduated pilot said. He didn’t look old enough to shave. “Why are reservists being pushed ahead of active-duty pilots?”

    Monica snorted. Richard shot her a warning look.

    “Ideally, there would be a cadre of experienced pilots on this ship and the reservists - and new pilots like yourself - would be slotted into place below them,” Richard said, with a patience he didn’t feel. “By the time a place ... ah ... opened up for promotion, you would know what you are doing. Instead, we have two experienced pilots and sixty newcomers who are either inexperienced or haven’t sat in a cockpit for years. The reservists are going ahead because they know their ass from their elbow. Alright?”

    The newcomer flushed and sat down rather quickly. Richard concealed his amusement with an effort. He’d thought his high standing during basic training would translate into a higher position on his first ship too, although he hadn’t managed to put his foot in his mouth quite so badly. And his superiors had been very experienced. He felt a flicker of envy. He’d sell his soul for a dozen experienced officers who could take the younger ones in hand.

    “We will be spending the next few days in the simulators,” he told them. “All of us. When we’re not eating or sleeping, we will be in the simulators. We’re going to go through everything before I let you take your starfighters out for a test fight. And then we’re going to drill and drill and drill until you can do everything in your sleep. By the time we encounter the enemy, I want to be ready.”

    He made a show of looking at his wristcom and checking the time. “We’ll start drilling in ten minutes,” he said. “Go take a piss, if you need one, or just head straight to the simulators. I want you all in your cockpits and ready to go. Anyone who isn’t ready to depart will be in deep shit. Squadron commanders, remain behind; everyone else, dismissed.”

    The briefing compartment emptied rapidly. Richard watched them go, wondering which of the pilots would become aces, which ones would cause him trouble and which ones wouldn’t survive their first encounter with the enemy. The reservists, at least, should be slightly more mature than the newly-graduated pilots. They’d have served on ships before returning to civilian life. He took a breath and turned to his new officers. If only they weren’t almost as green as their new subordinates.

    “We’ll be spending a lot of time together over the next few days,” he said, studying the small group. “I hope you’re ready to do your duty.”

    “I was called away from a comfortable armchair, sir,” Flight Lieutenant Gabby Rancher said, tartly. She was a slight woman, but her cold eyes suggested she wasn’t someone who could be messed with. “I hope this is not going to be a long deployment.”

    Richard raised his eyebrows. “What were you doing back home?”

    “Running a store, if you must know,” Gabby said. “It will all collapse without me.”

    “I can’t make any promises,” Richard said. “It may be a very long deployment indeed.”

    “They always are,” Flight Lieutenant Hamster Aberdeen said. He was muscular enough to pass for a Royal Marine - and bulky enough that Richard couldn’t help wondering how he’d fit into a starfighter cockpit. “Personally, I’m quite looking forward to it. Not being able to talk to my ex-wife is quite a pleasant thought.”

    Monica leaned forward. “However did you get a name like Hamster?”

    “My parents were sadists,” Aberdeen said. “They thought that a shitty name would force me to learn how to defend myself. I haven’t spoken to them in years.”

    “My condolences,” Richard said. “Are you ready to take command of a squadron?”

    “I’m going to give it the old college try,” Aberdeen assured him. “You do realise, though, that my only experience of squadron command lasted thirty minutes? Outside simulations, I mean.”

    Richard nodded. He’d read the man’s record very carefully. Aberdeen had assumed command of his squadron after his CO had been killed, keeping the formation together until it could return to the carrier. Technically, Aberdeen should have stayed in command - it was practically tradition - but the CAG had put someone else in command instead. Richard had gone through the files with a fine-toothed comb, trying to see if there was any reason for the effective demotion, only to discover that nothing had been written down. Perhaps the CAG had a senior pilot who had more squadron experience.

    It would still have been a slap in the face for Aberdeen, Richard thought. And it might have been why he left the navy the following year.

    “You still have more experience than most of the newcomers,” he said, out loud. “And you’ll have a chance to get much more.”

    He looked at Flight Lieutenant Regina Freehold. “And yourself? Are you ready?”

    “I am as ready as I will ever be,” Regina said. She had an odd accent, one Richard couldn’t place. He made a note to reread her file. “But I have never commanded men in combat before.”

    “There’s a first time for everything,” Monica said. “You just have to pretend you know what you’re doing until ... until it’s actually true.”

    “We’ll all be in the simulators,” Richard said. “I'm not expecting wonders, but I am expecting you to set a good example.”

    He glanced at his wristcom. “We have five minutes,” he said. “Dismissed. We’ll have a more formal chat later.”

    Monica grinned at him as the reservists left the room. “It could be worse,” she said. “We could have nothing, but maggots.”

    Richard groaned. “Someone’s been watching Stellar Star XVI too many times.”

    “It was very educational when I was a teenager,” Monica said. “And it helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life.”

    “I don’t want to know,” Richard said. He held up a hand to ward off any further disclosures. “I really do not want to know.”

    Monica shrugged. “More seriously, the maggots have nothing to unlearn. They have all the skills they need to get the experience that will keep them alive. The reservists ... well, they have something to unlearn. Hopefully, we can iron out all the bugs in their training before they actually take their craft into space. The simulator is a great place to make mistakes.”

    “I know,” Richard said. Simulated disasters weren’t real, even if the instructors had chewed him out for mistakes that would - in real life - have killed him. “But we have to pretend that it is real.”

    “So no letting them fly along a trench and blasting a torpedo into a concealed air vent,” Monica said. She looked thoughtful, just for a second. “You know, we could have done that with the Tornadoes.”

    “If we didn’t mind being blown out of the air,” Richard said. He took a long breath. “You’d better get going. We have two minutes.”

    “A girl is always fashionably late,” Monica said. She leaned closer. He could feel her breath on his face. “Do you regret saying no?”

    Richard swallowed, hard. Monica had tried to seduce him, the night they’d returned to Earth. He’d turned her down, even though he’d been tempted. Very tempted. Monica was beautiful and fit and ... Parts of his body had been telling him what a fool he’d been for weeks. And yet ... she was his subordinate. He couldn’t sleep with her or they’d both be cashiered.

    “No,” he lied. “I have a job to do. And so do you.”

    Monica shrugged and walked through the hatch. Richard carefully averted his eyes as he sat back and surveyed the empty room. Sixty newcomers, almost all strangers ... they’d remain strangers too, at least until they saw the elephant. Richard had no illusions. Too many of the men and women under his command would die in the first engagement. He wondered, morbidly, which one would be the first to die. The man who looked as if he’d stepped off a recruiting poster? The pretty brunette? The young man who seemed to be desperately in need of a growth spurt? Or would it be one of the reservists?

    He shook his head as he stood and walked out of the room. There was no point in getting close to any of them, not yet. Perhaps not ever. He hated to lose people under his command, but he knew he would. There was no way to avoid it. No matter what he did, no matter how hard he forced them to train, some of his pilots were going to die. The aliens would blow them out of space, killing them instantly. Only a handful of pilots had managed to eject while under enemy fire.

    But I’ll do everything in my power to keep them alive, he promised himself. And bring them back home safely.

    And yet he knew, all too well, that it was a promise he couldn’t keep.
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    “The First Space Lord will see you now, Captain.”

    Stephen rose and followed the midshipwoman through the door and into a large office. It was surprisingly bare for a room designed more for show than substance, although a large painting of HMS Warspite blowing a hole in an Indian carrier was mounted on the far wall, allowing the First Space Lord to turn and see his greatest triumph. A single desk sat in the middle of the room, flanked by a handful of chairs. Admiral Sir John Naiser himself was seated behind the desk. He looked up expectantly as Stephen was shown into the room.

    “Captain Shields,” he said. “Please, take a seat.”

    “Sir,” Stephen said.

    He sat down and waited, keeping his face under tight control. Admiral Sir John Naiser was a legend. He’d flown starfighters, hunted renegade humans, discovered a whole new alien race and served in the brief Anglo-Indian War before commanding the task force that had put an end to the Second Interstellar War. They’d met before, of course, but Stephen’s admiration was undiminished. Admiral Sir John Naiser’s life read like a storybook. Only Theodore Smith could be said to stand above Sir John in the Royal Navy’s parathon of heroes.

    And Admiral Smith died in combat, like Nelson, Stephen thought. We never got to see him grow old.

    “The Board of Inquiry has finished its deliberations,” Sir John said. “After much careful consideration - and study of the evidence, of course - they have decided that your actions, based on what you knew at the time, were completely justified. Some of them feel that you acted a little rashly at times, but - given that you had an urgent need to both gather intelligence and rescue your missing crewmen - the others overrode them. Accordingly, there will be no court-martial and you may return to your ship.”

    Stephen let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. The Board of Inquiry had made the decision it had been told to make by its political superiors. And that meant ... what? Had someone decided there wasn’t enough evidence to make the charges stick if Stephen went before a court-martial? Or had Duncan and his allies made a string of backroom deals to ensure that Stephen wouldn’t be charged? It made Stephen’s blood boil to think that someone might have escaped justice because he had friends in high places, even though he had family in high places. If he were to be cleared of all charges, he would have been preferred to be cleared of all charges for the right reasons.

    You should be grateful, he told himself, severely. A court-martial would look bad on your record even if you were cleared of all charges.

    “Thank you, sir,” he said, finally. “It was ... it was a concern.”

    Sir John’s lips twitched. “I’m sure it was, Captain,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are other ... issues involved. I assume you’ve been following the news?”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said. The news, and Duncan’s private briefings. “I’m not exactly flavour of the month, am I?”

    “No, Captain,” Sir John said. “There are people - too many people - who blame you for the virus. No sensible person could reasonably blame you for its mere existence, but you know what they say about crowds. They’re only half as smart as the stupidest person in it. I believe it would be a good idea to get you and your crew out of the solar system - out of sight and mind - for a few months, just to let things cool off a little.”

    “I see,” Stephen said, irked. Commander Daniel Newcomb had told him that Invincible’s crew hadn’t been allowed down to the surface, but he hadn’t realised it was more than just an ill-judged attempt to prevent infection. “Where do you want us to go?”

    Sir John smiled, humourlessly. “Alien-1.”

    He keyed a hidden control, activating a holographic starchart. A hundred stars appeared in front of them, each one surrounded by a halo of smaller icons representing British - and human - military installations and deployments. Stephen leaned forward, studying it with interest. A sizable number of icons were orbiting Falkirk, while other - darker - icons were positioned near Alien-1. He sucked in his breath as alerts flashed up on the display, reminding them that some elements were hours or days out of date. Some of the icons on the display might already have been destroyed. The aliens could have begun their advance already.

    If they’re coming, Stephen thought. He shook his head. He was morbidly sure the virus was coming, if only to expand into a whole new selection of host bodies. Humans, Tadpoles, Foxes, Cows, Vesy ... not to mention all the animals and planetary biospheres. No, it will be coming. The only question is when they’ll be coming.

    “Right now, we have established a multinational blocking force at Falkirk, under the command of Admiral Jimmy Weisskopf,” Sir John said. “He’s a good man - I served with him during the Second Interstellar War. The Chinese were irritated that an American got command of the joint fleet, but the Russians - for some reason - refused to back them and their protests got nowhere. That’s something we may have to watch, but” - he gave a thin-lipped smile - “it should remain well above your pay grade.

    “What we don’t have, Captain, is any accurate intelligence on our foe. We know the location of one of their bases, but we don’t know anything else about them. How much territory do they actually control? How many starships do they command? How aggressive are they actually going to be? Frankly, I’m astonished they haven’t launched a major attack already.”

    “So am I, sir,” Stephen said.

    Sir John nodded, shortly. “Getting that intelligence will be your job, Captain,” he said, lifting his eyes to the chart. “Your ship - and a small flotilla under your command - will be tasked with probing alien space and covertly gathering as much intelligence as possible. Ideally, we would like you to remain undetected ... but we would also like you to capture an alien ship for analysis. That, I’m afraid, will not be conductive to remaining undetected.”

    Stephen nodded, slowly. The First Space Lord was right. If they jumped an alien ship at the edge of an inhabited star system, they might be able to capture and dissect it before alien reinforcements arrived ... but it was unlikely they could keep the alien from screaming for help before it was too late. The virus would be alert to Invincible’s presence and do everything in its power to stop the assault carrier from making her escape. He would have to give the matter some thought.

    “We’ll think of something,” he said.

    “I hope so,” Sir John told him. “You won’t have any valid timescale for the mission. I can’t put any sort of time limit on your deployment. However, if they do mount an offensive into our space, your orders will switch from sneaking around to doing as much damage as possible to the enemy’s rear. Do everything in your power to hamper their thrust into our space. Take out supply dumps, smash cloudscoops, etc ...”

    Until we get hunted down and destroyed, Stephen thought. He had few illusions. The virus wasn’t likely to let him raise havoc indefinitely. It will send everything it has after us ... which will ease the pressure on Earth.

    “We won’t let you down, sir,” he said.

    “I have no doubt of it,” Sir John said. He picked up a while envelope and passed it to Stephen. “Your formal orders, Captain, to take command of Task Force Drake. You’ll note that you have two survey ships - HMS Magellan and HMS Raleigh - as well as two destroyers and four support freighters. You also - and this is the bit where you’re going to have to be diplomatic - have a Russian ship under your command. Yuriy Ivanov is, apparently, a cruiser.”

    Stephen lifted his eyebrows. “A cruiser?”

    “More like a small battlecruiser, according to our long-range sensors,” Sir John told him. “The Russians haven’t said very much about her, save for the barest handful of details, but we’ve been able to establish that she’s quite large for a cruiser. I think she might have been an experiment that was not a complete success, but they’d done too much work on her to simply scrap the hulk and start again. I think they probably class her as expendable.”

    He shrugged. “In any case, the Russians have insisted on deploying her to look for Dezhnev.”

    Stephen winced. Dezhnev had vanished, sometime during the mission to Alien-1. No one had been able to establish what had happened to the Russian destroyer, although there was no shortage of theories. The virus might have caught a sniff of Dezhnev at some point, tracked her down and jumped her. She’d been so far from Invincible, watching the alien system from what had been supposed to be a safe distance, that her sudden destruction had gone unnoticed. Or ... she might have been captured. The only thing anyone knew for sure was that Dezhnev had never returned to the human sphere.

    Unless the virus took the ship intact and sent it creeping through the tramlines, Stephen thought, grimly. How much did it manage to recover from the ship’s datacores?

    It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Dezhnev and her crew hadn’t known about the virus. They might not have realised they needed to take extreme precautions to keep their crew safe from infection. And if they had been captured and infected, they’d be sharing everything they knew with the virus soon enough. And then ...

    They may know everything about human space, Stephen thought. We have to find out what happened to that ship.

    “The Russians do have a point, sir,” he said, slowly. “We do need to know what happened to Dezhnev.”

    “Yes, but right now our priority lies in gathering intelligence,” Sir John said. “The Russians have agreed to serve under your command, Captain, but keep an eye on them. There’s something about the whole business that bothers me.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said. “Do you have any other orders?”

    “You have standing orders to attempt to make peaceful contact if, and only if, it won’t endanger your ship,” Sir John said. “There are ... politicians ... who believe we should at least try to make peaceful contact. I don’t think we can hope to co-exist with the virus, at least until we develop a vaccine, but hope springs eternal in the minds of the deluded. If you see a chance to try, Captain, take it. If not ... well, there’s plenty of leeway in your orders. I will understand.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said, feeling his heart sink. “Why haven’t they attacked us already?”

    “A good question,” Sir John said. “And the same question has been asked already, countless times, by a number of politicians. We saw enough ships on active duty to give them a real punch, if they wanted to shove us away from Alien-1. The pacifist side of the aisle believes that the virus responded to our presence, but isn’t particularly aggressive. If we leave it alone, it will leave us alone.”

    “Sir, it’s absorbed at least two alien races,” Stephen said. “We have good reason to believe that it is very aggressive.”

    “Yes,” Sir John said. “And that makes me think that they’re preparing to hit us.”

    Stephen nodded, slowly. No military force in human history could launch a major operation without a great deal of planning and preparation, particularly when caught by surprise. The Royal Navy - and every other military force in the human sphere - maintained a Quick Reaction Force, to deal with any unexpected problems, but it took time to gear up the remainder of the military for war. The virus might be taking the time to lay the logistical framework for a push into human space before actually launching the invasion. God knew the Royal Navy would have the same problem if the situation was reversed.

    But Alien-1 has to be quite important to them, he thought. At the very least, they should try to secure the systems between Alien-1 and Falkirk.

    “They’ll have to blast their way through Falkirk,” Stephen mused. “Unless they have some drive system we’ve never heard of ...”

    “There is the jump drive,” Sir John said. “Incredibly expensive and quite dangerous, but they could use it ... if they have it.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said. “And they might have it.”

    He sighed. The jump drive had been humanity’s best shot at escaping the tyranny of the tramlines, but - so far - no one had managed to slim the system down enough to cram it into a single starship. Even a battleship or a fleet carrier couldn’t carry a jump drive without stripping everything else out of the hull. There was a framework that could be used to jump a fleet from one star to the next - it had been used, famously, to end the last war - but it was grossly inefficient. It was also a sitting duck.

    “We’re relying on you to find out, Captain,” Sir John said. He nodded to the envelope in Stephen’s hand. “Your travel orders have been cut, Captain. A shuttle has been assigned to you at Northolt, which will fly you directly to Invincible. Ideally, I’ll want your squadron assembled and you on your way by the end of the week. The Russian ship will join you when you depart.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said, crisply. He’d only brought a small carryall down to Earth when he’d left the ship. There was nothing he couldn’t replace, if he had to head straight back to Invincible. “I won’t let you down.”

    “Collect a car from downstairs,” Sir John ordered. “And good luck.”

    And don’t go talking to anyone else along the way, Stephen added, silently. It was rare for the First Space Lord to take such interest in a mere captain’s travel arrangements. Normally, one of his officers would take care of it. But Stephen was a political football. His family connections had embroiled him in politics from a very early age. He doubted the First Space Lord liked that. Better to get me off the planet as quickly as possible.

    “Thank you, sir,” he said. He stood and saluted. “I’ll be back.”

    The First Space Lord’s staff were nothing if not efficient. A car was waiting for him as soon as he reached the door, with a junior officer at the wheel. The Royal Navy had never been particularly enamoured of the concept of self-driving cars, fearing the dangers of what would happen when - if - hackers managed to break into the control network. It had never happened, but the network had been shut down deliberately during the Battle of Earth. Afterwards, Stephen had heard that demand for self-driven cars had skyrocketed. Too many people had been trapped, away from their homes, when their cars had simply pulled to the side and shut down.

    They shouldn’t have depended on a computer to do the driving, Stephen thought, as he clambered into the backseat. They were lucky it wasn’t a great deal worse.

    Rain was pelting down over London, splashing off the car’s windows, but there was still a small army of protesters outside the secure zone. Stephen watched them for a long moment, wondering if they really thought they’d accomplish anything. It only took one side to start a war and, so far, the virus had been very aggressive. Stephen had even heard scenarios that suggested the virus had sent the generation ship to Wensleydale in hopes of securing a foothold on the colony world, although that would have required precognition. The generation ship had been launched centuries ago and Wensleydale had only been settled for five. But then, it probably didn’t matter. The virus didn’t need a whole new host population to breed.

    We might have to start killing entire planets, Stephen thought. If it really can take over a whole biosphere, we’re done.

    He leaned back in his seat as the car slipped onto the motorway and accelerated towards Northholt. The streets were clear, with surprisingly little traffic. Wartime preparations were starting to bite, he guessed. He’d caught snatches of a debate in parliament about evacuating the children to the countryside, in hopes of avoiding the chaos of the First Interstellar War, but so far nothing seemed to have been decided. Stephen himself was in two minds about it. The cities would be priority targets, if the virus took the high orbitals, yet scattering the population randomly would tear families apart for years. But if Earth was attacked again, it would be the least of their problems ...

    “We’ll be at Northholt in twenty minutes, sir,” the driver said. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

    “No, thank you,” Stephen said.

    He opened his orders and read them, twice. There weren’t any surprises, although there was an order to cooperate with the Russians as much as possible. He read the section twice, then guessed that someone was trying to patch up the Great Power alliance that had dominated the world for nearly a hundred years. Stephen suspected that that particular genie had well and truly escaped the bottle - there were quite a few lesser powers making their bid for great power status - yet he didn’t blame the Foreign Office for trying. An alliance with the four other Great Powers might have involved a great deal of holding one’s nose while turning a blind eye to the less savoury aspects of one’s allies, but it had been relatively predictable. A world where there were more than five superpowers would be far less understandable.

    And more likely to go crashing down into war, Stephen thought. The Solar Treaty forbade acts of aggression within the solar system, but - with more nations deploying warships and space-based weapons - the treaty was starting to fray. And who knows what will happen then?
     
  9. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    One may assume that political correctness has not been eliminated that far in the future? crews?

    Yeesh.
     
  10. DarkLight

    DarkLight I self identify as a Blackhawk Attack Helicopter! Site Supporter

    defence contractors?


    representing British - and other human - military installations?
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    PC has been blasted off the face of the Earth <grin>

    Chapter Five

    Alice dropped to the deck, braced herself, then started to perform a series of push-ups. Her body started to ache at once, ache in a manner that reminded her of her first days in the CCF, back when she hadn’t been anything like as fit. She cursed under her breath and forced herself to keep going, reminding herself - in the words of her instructors - that pain was weakness leaving the body. And yet, she felt dreadfully unfit. It was all she could do to stumble through a pathetic fifty push-ups. She had the nasty feeling that it would take her a very long time indeed to qualify for active service.

    “I’m not giving up,” she muttered, as she sank to the hard metal deck. Her body was covered in sweat. “I’m not giving up.”

    “That’s good to hear,” a new voice said. “Captain Campbell?”

    Alice looked up, sharply. A middle-aged man was standing there, wearing a grey suit he somehow managed to make look like a uniform. She rolled over and stood, wondering precisely how she’d managed to miss him entering the gym. She was supposed to be aware of her surroundings at all times, damn it. Her eyes flickered over her visitor, catching the tell-tale signs of a military career. She would bet half her paycheck that he was a marine himself. He wasn’t even looking at her chest.

    Not that there’s much to see, she thought, ruefully. Her sister had inherited their mother’s chest. Years of constant training will do that to you.

    “Yes,” she said, carefully. “And you are?”

    “Colonel Watson,” the man said. He held out a hand, which she shook automatically. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

    Alice eyed him, warily. “Are you sure it shouldn’t be Doctor Watson?”

    Watson smiled. “Ah, you’ve caught me out. I’m also a practicing psychologist in my other life. I got a bit of shell in me, you see, and I didn’t want to leave the marines.”

    “I see,” Alice said. She didn’t relax. She could ring rings around a civilian psychologist, someone who knew less about the military life as she did about the civilian, but someone with genuine experience would be harder to fool. Not that she wanted to fool Doctor Watson, of course. She just wanted him to clear her for active duty. “Why didn’t you study actual medicine?”

    Watson showed no offense at her sally. “A battlefield medic would have to keep up with the rest of the company,” he reminded her. “And that, alas, is beyond me.”

    He cocked his head. “I’ve taken the liberty of organising coffee and biscuits in the next room,” he added. “Will you join me for a snack?”

    “I’ve been on weirder dates,” Alice said, more to see how he would react to her words than anything else. He showed no visible reaction. “Why not?”

    She grabbed a towel off the rack and rubbed herself down as she followed Watson into the next compartment. It was nothing more than a small sitting room, with a table made of faux-wood and a pair of comfortable armchairs. A tray of imported biscuits sat on the table, next to a pot of coffee, a jug of milk and two empty mugs. Alice felt her mouth begin to water as she saw the biscuits. She hadn’t tasted proper food since she’d been infected. The asteroid staff did their best, but they couldn't disguise the origins of their food. Their meat and vegetables were as fake as the wooden table in front of her.

    “Take a seat,” Watson said. He poured them both mugs of coffee, then sat down facing her. “This discussion is to be strictly informal.”

    Alice winced. “I take it that means that the records will only be watched by a few hundred people?”

    “More a case of us both speaking freely, without regard to rank,” Watson said. He didn’t bother to deny that the conversation would be recorded. Alice wouldn’t have believed him if she had. There was little privacy on a military base. “I read your application to return to active duty with great interest.”

    Alice nodded. “I’m wasting away here,” she said, flexing her arms. They felt weak, even though a civilian would have thought her strikingly muscular. She’d worked hard to build up her strength. “And there’s nothing useful I can do for you.”

    “It certainly seems so,” Watson agreed. He took a sip of his coffee. “It’s been a week since you had the operation. The medics inform me that no trace of the alien virus remains in your blood.”

    “They seem pretty certain,” Alice said, although she was fairly sure that the reports included a great deal of CYA. They wouldn’t be entirely sure that all traces of the virus were gone unless they vaporised her entire body. She had a feeling the medics wanted to dissect her after she died, just to see if the virus had found a hidey-hole somewhere within her flesh and blood. The thought was terrifying. “And I haven’t had any odd ... sensations since the operation.”

    “Indeed,” Watson said. He nodded to the biscuit tray. “Eat something, please?”

    Alice took a chocolate chip cookie and bit into it. The biscuit tasted heavenly. Someone had used a fraction of their mass allowance on biscuits ... she had to smile at the thought. It wasn't the first time someone had chosen to bring along a luxury, something to remind them of home, rather than something more practical. She supposed she should be grateful. Food from Earth could be quite expensive in the asteroids. She didn’t think that any of the Belters were making cookies.

    They probably will, one day, she thought. They’re quite determined to limit their dependence on Earth.

    “I’ve read every one of your statements,” Watson said. “And I’ve read each and every report on your progress, from the day you applied to join the Royal Marines until ... well, yesterday.”

    “I’m sure they made fascinating reading,” Alice said. She took a sip of her coffee and smiled at the taste. Watson was definitely an experienced officer. “What did you learn?”

    Watson met her eyes. “Why did you choose the Royal Marines? You had to know there was a good chance you’d be rejected out of hand.”

    “For being a women,” Alice said, curtly. The Royal Marines - and the other front-line combat units - were supposed to be men-only. There were rumours of spec-ops units composed entirely of women, but Alice had never heard anything to suggest that those rumours had any grounding in reality. She would certainly have been invited to join if there was any truth in the rumours. “I wanted a challenge.”

    “And you got one,” Watson said. “Didn’t you?”

    Alice nodded. The recruiters had told her that the instructors wouldn’t make any allowances for her. Alice had accepted it - it wasn’t as if the enemy would go easy on her either - but she hadn’t really understood until she’d reported for training. They’d pushed her hard, practically daring her to complain about her treatment; she’d gritted her teeth and forced herself onwards, never allowing herself to show a moment of weakness. She’d come too close to disaster when she’d twisted her ankle, she admitted privately; she really should have taken that injury to the medics. But she’d kept going ...

    She hadn’t graduated in the top ten. But she’d graduated.

    “You don’t give up,” Watson said. “Sergeant Woodman said as much, in his report. He figured you could be killed, but not actually beaten. He was rather impressed with you.”

    “I always thought he hated me,” Alice said. Woodman had been a bully. Or so she’d thought. Military instructors needed to act like bullies without crossing the line into actual bullying. “What else did he say?”

    “Suffice it to say that he figured you were an asset we shouldn’t waste,” Watson said. “But” - he took another biscuit and held it up - “you are not in a good state right now.”

    “I can get back into shape,” Alice said, feeling her chances of returning to active duty slipping away. “Marines have suffered much worse than me and returned to service ...”

    “Yes, they have,” Watson agreed. “But your condition is unique.”

    “I wasn’t the only one to be infected,” Alice said.

    “No, but you are the only one to be freed,” Watson said. “There’s a school of thought that argues that we should keep you under constant observation.”

    “I don’t think they’d learn anything useful,” Alice said, tartly.

    “You’re also not in a good state, physically speaking,” Watson said. “Right now, I would not clear you for active service. You could not keep up with the platoon.”

    “I’m trying to get back into shape,” Alice told him.

    “Yes,” Watson said. “You don’t give up.”

    He took a bite of his biscuit. “There’s also the possibility that you were ... influenced ... by the alien virus while it infested your body. A number of people believe you to be a security risk. They want you either locked up in a secure holding facility or - at the very least - discharged from the military.”

    Alice tensed. She’d heard horror stories of captured soldiers being conditioned and returned to their fellows as unwitting spies. It hadn’t happened in decades, as far as anyone knew, but it was still horrific. She wasn’t sure she could resist an attack on her mind. She’d been trained to resist everything from drugs to direct brain stimulation, but her instructors had made it clear that everyone broke eventually. They hadn’t said it directly, yet Alice had no difficulty reading between the lines. If they were captured and subjected to such treatment, they had to try to kill themselves before they were twisted out of all recognition.

    “I have been tested extensively,” she said. “And the tests found nothing.”

    “They know that,” Watson said. “But they also know we’re dealing with something alien.”

    “And you don’t know its limits,” Alice said. She took a breath. How would she know she wasn’t under alien control? She thought her thoughts were her own, but what if she was wrong? How would she know? “Is there any way to be sure?”

    “Not that we have been able to determine,” Watson said. “You see the problem, I’m sure?”

    “You want to keep me locked up,” Alice said. She thought for a long moment. It wouldn’t be that hard to escape the asteroid, now she was no longer strapped to a bed. She could run ... and yet, the urge to run might be an alien command. How could she tell the difference between her thoughts and alien commands? She would never know if she was in control of her own body. “Damn it.”

    “Not quite,” Watson said. “The issue was debated quite hotly. Some people argued that you should be kept locked up, as you put it. Others pointed out that we had no evidence that could be used to detain you. You’re not a traitor or a criminal, merely the ... victim ... of an unprecedented alien threat. You are no longer infected and keeping you here would be a legal nightmare.”

    “I thought the government could hold whoever it pleased,” Alice said. “Or am I wrong?”

    She knew she wasn’t. She’d read her history books. The emergency powers granted to the government after the Morningside Incident, which had brought the Troubles out into the open, had never been truly relaxed. If the government wanted to hold her without charge, it could do so with minimal oversight ... all the more so, she admitted sourly, as it wouldn’t be that hard to build a case for keeping her confined. It wasn’t as if she was being held in Colchester or another high security prison. The asteroid was more comfortable than the barracks onboard ship.

    “No,” Watson said. “But the government does require a valid reason to detain you.”

    “But it has one,” Alice said. She took a breath. “Get to the point.”

    Watson smiled. “You cannot return to active service,” he said, bluntly. “You’re not in fighting trim, Alice, and there’s a question mark over your mental health. On the other hand, you are one of the few people who had encountered the new alien threat and survived. Your knowledge may be quite useful.”

    “Everything I know is in my reports,” Alice said, dryly. She’d spent quite a bit of time writing down everything she could remember, from the interior of the alien hulk to the sensation of being infected. “I held nothing back.”

    “You have two choices,” Watson said. “First, you can remain here. You will be studied, of course, but otherwise it will be a reasonably comfortable existence. Given time, the doctors will find a way to confirm that you are no longer a threat and release you. You can then reapply for active service, as I’m sure you won’t waste your time here.”

    “No, sir,” Alice said.

    “Second, you can return to Invincible as a consultant. You will ...”

    Alice choked. “A consultant?”

    “You will be consulted on the alien threat,” Watson said. “And you can spend the time in transit getting back into shape. Again, you will be watched and monitored constantly, but at least you’ll be making a valuable contribution.”

    Alice winced. She’d had a friend who’d been shunted over to the Attorney General’s Corps with those precise words. Perhaps he was making a valuable contribution, wherever he’d ended up, but he hadn’t joined the military to be a backroom bureaucrat. He’d wanted to join the infantry and test himself against Britain’s enemies. The idea of making a valuable contribution was little more than consolation for the simple fact that one had been shifted out of the combat arms. And now she had been shunted out too.

    “You won’t be part of the Royal Marine contingent,” Watson said, confirming her worst fears. “But you will be able to train with them. I can have orders cut for you to be tested and, if you pass, to be allowed to join the marines again. However, your CO may have his doubts about someone who was touched by the aliens. You might be wise not to push.”

    “I know,” Alice said.

    She looked down at her hands for a long moment. She didn’t want to stay on the asteroid, even if she wasn’t been held in tight confinement. She wanted to get stuck into the enemy before it was too late. She had no doubt there would be war. She’d felt the virus from the inside. She knew how aggressive it was, how quickly it had adapted itself to a whole new biochemistry. Coexistence was not an option.

    And yet, if she returned to Invincible, what would she be?

    Not a marine, not really. She couldn’t reclaim the uniform until she returned to active duty or chose to transfer sideways into the support arms. She wasn’t sure she could stand it, even though - as an experienced officer - she’d have a far better handle on what the combat arms needed than someone who’d never seen the elephant. Perhaps it was her duty. And yet, after everything she’d done, she didn’t want to end up a useless REMF ...

    “I’ll just have to qualify for active service,” she said. She looked up and met his eyes. “I’ll return to Invincible.”

    “Very good,” Watson said. He finished his coffee and poured himself a second mug. “I’ll arrange transport tomorrow, after you complete a final battery of tests. Once done, I suggest you get a good night’s sleep. I imagine there will be quite a few questions when you return to the ship.”

    “Probably,” Alice said. “Unless they don’t want to come too close to me for fear of being infected ...”

    She allowed her voice to trail away. Was there a danger? She didn’t know. Her environment would be closely monitored. She would be monitored too. If the virus started to take her over - again - the ship’s doctors would know long before she became contagious and take precautions. Invincible was the sole ship that had encountered the aliens. The crew knew, all too well, the dangers of letting the virus get a foothold amongst them. Alice would be surprised if the ship wasn’t constantly flooded with UV lights.

    Which will make it impossible for the virus to spread, she thought. And if the crew are in combat suits, or even sealed shipsuits, they should be safe from harm.

    “You may experience some isolation, yes,” Watson said. “And there will be some ... ah ... precautions taken, just in case you do become a threat. But otherwise ... you will be free to spend your time doing everything you need to do to reapply for active service.”

    If they trust me enough, Alice thought. Major Henry Parkinson might refuse to recertify her, even if she passed all the tests. He’d be in an awkward position, for sure. He won’t be entirely certain he can trust me. He’ll look at me and wonder if an alien is looking back.

    “I understand,” she said, firmly. “I won’t change my mind. I’ll go straight to Invincible.”

    “Tomorrow,” Watson corrected. He stood. “I wish you the best of luck, Alice, whatever you decide to do in the future. You can change your mind up to the point you actually climb aboard the shuttle. After that ... you’re stuck.”

    Alice shrugged. It wasn’t as if she’d been able to choose her duty assignments. She went where she was sent. She’d spent a few months on embassy duty, which had been boring, and a few months guarding bases in the Security Zone, which had been anything but. Returning to Invincible was better than remaining in a prison, no matter how comfortable it was. She would have a chance to ...

    Her lips twisted into a wry smile. She’d have a chance to make a valuable contribution.

    And I might have a chance to hurt the aliens, she thought. And that would be worth almost anything.
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    “We’re coming up on Invincible now, sir,” Crewman Jones said. “Do you want to watch from the cockpit?”

    Stephen looked up from his datapad. He’d thought he was keeping abreast of his paperwork - and Commander Newcomb had taken as much of the burden on himself as possible - but there were times when he wondered if the sole purpose of the Royal Navy was to churn out paperwork and drive its commanding officers insane. The flight had been spent skimming countless reports, from updates on production figures to the latest set of speculations about the alien virus and its motives. Stephen had been mildly relieved to see that very few of the navy’s analysts believed that the virus was friendly, or that it could be appeased in some way, but their scenarios were universally depressing. Humanity could lose the war without firing a shot.

    “Yes, thank you,” he said.

    He stood and walked into the cockpit, taking the co-pilot’s seat. Crewman Jones took the pilot’s seat and tapped a handful of controls, adjusting their course and speed as they approached the Hamilton Shipyards. The defences would be on a hair-trigger, watching for signs of alien attack. Stephen knew there were hundreds of ways to die in space, most of them involving nothing more than one’s own stupidity in the face of the cold equations, but dying because there was a mix-up with the IFF signals would be amongst the worst ways to go. Military technology had advanced radically since the day a caveman had figured out that he could use a club to bash his enemy’s head into mush, but it was still impossible to totally eliminate the risk of friendly fire. A blue-on-blue would be utterly disastrous.

    “They’ve checked our IFF,” Jones said. “We are clear to enter the shipyard.”

    Stephen leaned forward, spotting a handful of lights in the distance. The Hamilton Shipyards looked oddly disorganised, at least to civilian eyes. A handful of space stations, a cluster of spider-like construction slips scattered around seemingly at random, dozens of industrial nodes, working overtime to keep the fleet supplied ... he smiled, realising that the Royal Navy was definitely taking the threat seriously. The yard was working at full capacity.

    “They’ve moved your ship out of her berth,” Jones said. “We’ll be docking in two minutes.”

    “Noted,” Stephen said.

    The shuttle steered towards a cluster of lights at the edge of the shipyard. Stephen watched, feeling his heart begin to pound in his chest, as Invincible took on shape and form. She was a long dark shape, flanked by two starfighter launch and landing tubes; she looked smooth, with a sleekness to her form that older designs lacked. His experienced eye picked out the sensor blisters and weapons mounts on her hull, yet they didn’t seem to weaken her appearance. Invincible looked deadly. Her designers had gone to some lengths to make her look striking.

    Because the Tadpoles taught us that starships could be elegant as well as functional, Stephen thought. Most human starships were blocky, ugly shapes. Even civilian craft were designed more for function than appearance. The Tadpoles, on the other hand, had turned their starships into works of art. And the navy wants to impress the people who pay the bills.

    He scowled at the thought. The Navy League had been pressing for more fleet carriers and battleships for the last ten years, pointing out that Britain had to keep up with the aliens as well as the other Great Powers, but there was no denying that the navy was expensive. It wasn’t difficult to see why factions in parliament wanted to reroute some of the navy’s budget to more popular, vote-grabbing areas like health or education. And yet, the navy was Britain’s shield. If it fell, the nation fell with it.

    “Invincible is ordering us to land in the main shuttlebay,” Jones said. “Is that acceptable?”

    “Quite acceptable,” Stephen said.

    He watched, feeling a sense of pride, as the shuttle glided towards the shuttlebay. To hell with his brother and his political games. Invincible was where Stephen belonged. He’d take his ship back into harm’s way, putting his body between his nation and war’s desolation. He smiled as the shuttle landed neatly on the deck, alarms bleeping as the shuttlebay hatch slowly closed. It wouldn’t take long to pressurise the deck. And then ...

    “Nice landing,” he said, standing. “Will you be returning to Earth?”

    “I have orders to take this craft to the shipyard hub,” Jones said. “I’ll probably be transporting other people back to Earth.”

    Stephen walked into the rear of the shuttle and picked up his carryall. The First Space Lord’s staff had packed his bag, then rushed it to Northholt before the shuttle departed. Stephen wasn’t sure how he felt about that, even though he appreciated the thought. They’d wasted a great deal of effort that could have been better spent elsewhere. It wasn’t as though Stephen couldn’t draw whatever he needed from the ship or the shipyard’s stores.

    They really wanted me off-planet as quickly as possible, he thought, as he slung his carryall over his shoulder and headed to the hatch. The politics must be growing dangerous.

    He checked the telltales - the deck was pressurised now - and opened the hatch. The air smelt - unmistakably - of a shipyard. Commander Daniel Newcomb and the remainder of Stephen’s senior officers were waiting for him, their faces calm and composed. Stephen was relieved he hadn’t lost anyone, even though the Admiralty had been threatening to poach some of his officers for months. He didn’t really have time to break in a new officer as well as sneak into alien-controlled space. But then, his crew were the only ones with experience fighting the alien threat. It made sense for the navy to spread that experience as widely as possible.

    Putting the thought aside, he faced Commander Newcomb. “Commander. Permission to come aboard?”

    “Granted,” Newcomb said. He saluted, smartly. “Welcome back, Captain.”

    “Thank you,” Stephen said. “I assume command.”

    “I stand relieved,” Commander Newcomb said. There was a hint of irritation in his voice, so carefully hidden that only someone who knew him very well would be able to hear it. He’d been Invincible’s effective CO for the last few weeks. Now, he was just the XO again. “I have a handful of reports for your attention.”

    Stephen nodded. He didn’t really blame Newcomb for being irritated. But then, Stephen also happened to know that Newcomb was on the short list for promotion to command rank when a slot opened up. His experience over the last few weeks would only help him. It was unlikely the navy would deprive him of a chance to shine.

    He returned his officers’ salutes, then dismissed them with a nod. “Walk with me, Commander,” he said. “What’s our status?”

    Newcomb strode beside him as they passed through the airlock and headed down the corridor towards the intership car. “Our armour is at full integrity and our damaged weapons and their mountings have been replaced,” he said. “There were some weaknesses in the ablative armour that were exposed by the engagement, so the construction crews took the liberty of installing some extra layers. It’s all detailed in the reports I sent you.”

    He paused, inviting Stephen to comment, then continued. “The downside is that a third of our crew has been reassigned to other ships, to be replaced by a collection of newly-graduated crewmen and recalled reservists. They have no experience whatsoever of serving on a ship like ours. Fortunately, I managed to keep most of the crew chiefs and experienced crewmen, so the rough edges are being smoothed out even as we speak. That said ...”

    Stephen felt his heart sink. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d commanded an inexperienced crew - Invincible was the first of her class, ensuring that her first cruise had largely been spent identifying and removing problems that hadn’t been predicted by her designers - but he was taking his ship into a warzone. He promised himself, silently, that he’d work the crew hard. They could not be allowed to slip into complacency with a powerful alien threat lurking on the other side of the tramlines.

    Newcomb looked grim. “Our greatest weakness lies in our starfighter arm, sir. We have only two experienced pilots, plus the CAG. The remainder are all either new or reservists.”

    “Fuck,” Stephen said. “Are they being trained?”

    “Yes, sir,” Newcomb said. “They’ve spent practically every waking hour in the simulators. I believe that Commander Redbird is quite determined to ensure that they’re ready to go into battle.”

    “Let us hope they will be,” Stephen said. Simulators had their place, but they simply couldn’t substitute for real combat. There were always surprises when humanity went up against an alien foe. “I take it there’s no point in asking for our old pilots back?”

    “They were scattered across the navy, sir,” Newcomb said. “I’d be surprised if we even got one back.”

    Stephen shook his head in disbelief as they stepped into the intership car. He understood the logic of spreading the experienced pilots as far as possible, but still ... he was taking his ship into a goddamned warzone! He needed experienced pilots, not enthusiastic newcomers and grumbling reservists. At least the latter would have had some experience. He just hoped it had been real experience.

    The hatch opened. He stepped onto the bridge and looked around. As always, it took his breath away. The bridge had been designed to be photogenic as well as functional. His command chair sat in the centre, surrounded by holographic displays; the other consoles were neatly arranged in a formation that suggested his ship was plunging onwards into the unknown. It was completely pointless - the bridge could look like anything - but he had to admit it looked good. He just hoped that the aesthetics helped convince the public to support the navy, instead of convincing them that the admirals were wasting money on fripperies. It was sheer luck that the Royal Navy had avoided a repeat of the American Space Force One scandal.

    “Captain on the bridge,” Newcomb said.

    “As you were,” Stephen said. Invincible was moored within the Hamilton Shipyards, one of the most heavily-defended locations outside Earth’s Halo, but every station was fully manned and the carrier was ready to go to war at a moment’s notice. Everyone knew the virus could already have sneaked a fleet through the tramlines and into Sol. “Status report?”

    “The ship is currently on low-level alert,” Lieutenant Sonia Michelle said. The helmswoman sounded nervous. She’d been left in command when the remainder of the officers went to greet their captain. “Drives and weapons can be brought online at a moment’s notice, sir; starfighters can be deployed within five to ten minutes. Two-thirds of our crew are currently onboard or performing EVAs. The remainder are on Hamilton Seven, but can be recalled at a moment’s notice.”

    “Good,” Stephen said. Hamilton Seven wasn’t Sin City, let alone Earth, but it had enough distractions to be a popular shore leave destination for crewmen who weren’t allowed to travel too far from their ships. “Please inform Commander Redbird that I need to speak to him immediately.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Commander Newcomb, you have the bridge,” Stephen said. “We’ll discuss our deployment orders later.”

    “Yes, sir,” Newcomb said. “I have the bridge.”

    ***
    Richard had to swallow hard as he clambered out of the simulator and staggered to the cold metal deck. Being yanked out of a VR sim had always been unpleasant, although - thankfully - the Royal Navy’s simulators didn’t involve direct brain simulation. The boffins kept promising a neural link that allowed a pilot to control his starfighter through thought alone, but so far nothing practical had come out of the labs. Richard was almost relieved. The idea of having his mind linked to a starfighter was terrifying.

    Although it would speed up reaction time, he thought. Starfighter pilots had very good reflexes - the ones who didn’t ended up dead, if they didn’t wash out of the training centre - but even they had their limits. If we could react with the speed of thought ...

    “The Captain wants to see you,” Lieutenant-Commander Rebecca Wycliffe said. The CAG held out a pill. “Do you need this?”

    “Probably not,” Richard grunted. Rebecca was his senior officer, even though he had control over the carrier’s fighter wing. He didn’t want to show weakness in front of her. “Will you continue monitoring the exercise?”

    “Of course,” Rebecca said. “They’re doing better.”

    “They could hardly be doing worse,” Richard grumbled. “But I suppose they’re learning.”

    He shook his head in disbelief. It was amazing just how many things the pilots had to unlearn. He wasn’t sure which set was worse. The newly-graduated were all spit and polish and basic mistakes, while the reservists had forgotten what little military protocol they knew. They were lucky they were starfighter pilots. Anywhere else, there wouldn’t have been anything like so many allowances made for them. He had a feeling that at least two of his reservists would have ended up in front of a court martial within the week.

    “Yes, they are,” Rebecca said. “Give them some time.”

    Richard nodded, then headed for the hatch on wobbly legs. He wondered, morbidly, if he was growing old. Perhaps it was time to seek a transfer to command rank. It wasn’t as if a starfighter pilot hadn’t made the jump before. The First Space Lord himself had been a starfighter pilot. He sighed as he forced himself to stand up straight. No, he wouldn’t apply for command rank. He was a starfighter pilot and he’d die a starfighter pilot.

    Unless they find a medical excuse to discharge me, he thought, sourly. They’ll say I’m getting too old to fly a starfighter.

    He sighed, again. He wasn’t that old. But being a starfighter pilot was a young man’s game, one an older man couldn’t play. Experience didn’t always beat youth when experience had slower reflexes and more awareness of risks ... he put the thought aside as he reached the Captain’s Ready Room. Pulling himself upright, he pushed the buzzer and waited. The hatch slid open a moment later. Captain Shields was seated behind his desk.

    “Captain,” Richard said, saluting.

    “Take a seat,” Captain Shields ordered. He waited until Richard had sat down, then continued. “How are the starfighters?”

    Richard took a moment to gather his thoughts. He’d been too busy over the last week to actually write any reports, although Captain Shields was sensible enough to realise that report-writing wasn’t anything like as important as getting his starfighters and their pilots ready for battle. Aristocratic brat or not, the Captain had a surprising amount of common sense. Richard couldn’t help finding that a relief.

    “The starfighters themselves are in top-notch condition,” Richard said. “I’ve watched the ground crews take the craft to pieces, then put them back together. Overall, we can deploy our entire roster of Hawks and Tornados, although it should be noted that we don’t have enough pilots to fly both sets of craft at once. I don’t know why we’ve been asked to keep the Tornados.”

    “We may have a use for them,” Captain Shields said. He didn’t sound too pleased. The Tornados had been a nice idea, but somewhat impractical. “Storing them isn’t too difficult.”

    Richard had his doubts - the hanger space could be used for additional Hawks - but he suspected there was no point in arguing. “The pilots are the current weak link, sir,” he said, instead. “We’ve been running them through endless drills, and they are getting better, but frankly I think we’d be looking at a couple of months before the squadrons would be certified for operations if we weren’t going to war. Right now, unit cohesion is very poor.”

    Captain Shields frowned. “A discipline problem?”

    “Not in the sense you mean, Captain,” Richard said. “Normally, we would slot a couple of new pilots into a squadron, which would allow them to be absorbed without trouble. Their more experienced comrades would have no trouble showing them the ropes. Here, though, we simply don’t have coherent squadrons. We’re having to build unit cohesion up from scratch and its slow going. Everyone is a stranger to everyone else. I’d hate to have to mix-and-match the pilots if we have to reconstruct the squadrons on the fly.”

    He leaned forward, trying to project as much confidence as possible. “We should be able to overcome the problems, sir,” he added. “But it will take time.”

    “I hope you’ll have enough time,” Captain Shields said. “Between you and me, Commander, we’re expected to depart by the end of the week. The time spent in transit should give you more opportunities to train, but ... I expect you to do your best.”

    “Yes, sir,” Richard said. “We will overcome our problems. We just need ... a little more time.”

    “Ask me for anything, but time,” Captain Shields quoted. “Are your Squadron Commanders up to the task?”

    “Flight Lieutenant Smith is the sole officer I was able to keep, so I have no worries about her,” Richard said. “The other three are reservists, with limited experience. Unfortunately, their subordinates have picked up on that. Mistakes have been made ... thankfully, all the deaths were in the simulators. They’re learning as we go along.”

    Captain Shields frowned. “Should I be begging for more experienced officers?”

    Richard winced. The practical side of his mind insisted that yes, Captain Shields should ask for more officers. But he also knew that the reservists would see it as a demotion. Hell, it would be a demotion. And they weren’t doing that badly ...

    “Give them two more weeks,” he said. “If they don’t shape up, we can beg for more officers.”

    “We’ll have to do it at Falkirk,” Captain Shields said. “I ...”

    His intercom bleeped. “Go ahead.”

    “Captain, HMS Magellan has arrived,” Commander Newcomb said. “Her commander would like to speak to you.”

    “Understood,” Captain Shields said. “Patch him through to me.”

    He looked at Richard. “Do the best you can,” he said. “And inform me if you need help.”

    “Yes, sir,” Richard said. “You’ll be the first to know.”
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    “Ladies and gentlemen, we have docked with HMS Invincible,” the shuttle pilot called. “All aboard who’s going aboard.”

    Alice gritted her teeth, wondering why Watson - or whoever had made her travel arrangements - had stuck her with this particular pilot. Perhaps it was a test of her patience - or her endurance. After enduring a blatant come-on that didn’t so much test the limits as drive a battleship through them, she rather thought she could be excused for breaking the young idiot’s neck. It had been a long time since she’d gone to bed with anyone, she had to admit, but did he really think she’d like the idea of spending the flight in his arms? The pilot was revolting. No wonder he was assigned to an isolated base. The real question was why hadn’t he been dishonourably discharged long ago.

    She stood and picked up her single carryall, ignoring the way the pilot’s eyes roamed over her body. It wasn’t as if there was much to see. She’d traded her uniform for a bland shipsuit, but it revealed little of her curves. Hell, it showed more of her muscles than anything else. She might have been weakened, after spending several weeks lying on her back, but she was still strong enough to take him out with a single punch. And yet ... his presence might be a test. Watson was probably still watching her.

    “You missed a chance to get what only I can provide,” the pilot called, as she started to open the hatch. “I can take you to heaven and then ...”

    “So can my hand,” Alice called back. “And it doesn’t talk back to me either.”

    She stepped through the airlock before the pilot could respond, feeling the gravity quiver slightly as the assault carrier’s gravity field took over. The corridor was empty, save for a single man. Major Henry Parkinson stood there, in full uniform, his hands crossed over his chest. Alice kept her face as expressionless as she could while she closed the hatch, allowing the pilot to depart. She hadn’t expected a welcoming band, but she had expected more than just her superior officer.

    “Major,” she said. Her mouth was suddenly dry. “Permission to come aboard.”

    “Granted,” Parkinson said. His eyes never left her face. “Alice, I ...”

    He moved with blinding speed. Alice barely had time to realise she was under attack before his fist cracked into her jaw. She stumbled backwards, more shocked than hurt. He’d pulled that punch. He could have laid her out on the deck if he wanted and she knew it. And yet, a month before, she would have seen the punch coming and dodged it. She’d fallen a long way. She rubbed her jaw, trying to keep her face expressionless. Parkinson knew she’d fallen too, now.

    “You have a long way to go,” Parkinson rumbled.

    “Yes, sir,” Alice said. There was no point in trying to deny it. “But I will catch up.”

    “That’s good to hear,” Parkinson said. “You’re on detached duty. You have been assigned a cabin in the lower levels. You may make use of the facilities in Marine Country, if they are not required for other purposes, but otherwise you are not to consider yourself a marine unless I recall you to duty. Your men are no longer under your command. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes, sir,” Alice said. “Apparently, I’m a consultant now. Whatever that means.”

    “It means you get paid a great deal of money to be absolutely useless,” Parkinson said. He grinned, suddenly. “You can watch our exercises and tell us what we’re doing wrong.”

    Not allowing me to take part, Alice thought, although she knew it wasn’t entirely fair. She doubted she could pass the entry tests right now, let alone the qualifying exams. Or perhaps not taking the enemy seriously.

    She shook her head. Major Parkinson was well aware of the threat. He’d seen men under his command fall to the new threat. He’d probably read all the reports too. He wouldn’t let the virus get a foothold without a fight. She had no doubt of it. Parkinson was smart as well as tough. And she didn’t blame him for being wary of her.

    “I’ll be sure to nitpick,” she said. If Parkinson wanted her to watch and comment, she’d watch and comment. “When are we starting?”

    “We may find something else for you to do,” Parkinson added, without answering her question. “Coming?”

    He turned and strode down the corridor. Alice hefted her carryall and followed, resisting the urge to rub her aching jaw. She’d have to find someone to spar with, someone who would give her a challenge without effortlessly overpowering her every time. She tried to recall the roster in hopes of finding someone who taught martial arts, but no one came to mind. The really skilled martial artists tended to remain on Earth.

    Invincible felt different, although it took her a few moments to put her finger on why. The atmosphere smelt like a shipyard, rather than a starship that had been on active duty for the past nine months. That had to be a little frustrating for the ship’s crew, she guessed. Their ship smelt as if it had come off the slips yesterday. That would change, as Invincible headed back into deep space; they’d just have to endure it until then. The lights felt a little brighter too. She suspected they’d worked UV projectors into the light panels. The air was probably cleaner than it had been in weeks.

    And we’ll all be constantly exposed to UV light, she thought. Does that have any ill-effects?

    She dismissed the thought as Parkinson stopped outside a hatch and pressed his finger against the scanner. The hatch hissed open, revealing a mid-sized cabin. It was no larger than the bedroom she’d had at her grandmother’s house, but - compared to her accommodation in Marine Country - it was luxury incarnate. The private bathroom alone was pure heaven. She opened her mouth to protest, but Parkinson was already striding inside. She hoped he’d understand she hadn’t chosen the cabin for herself.

    He should know it, she told herself. Whoever assigned it to me didn’t realise I’d prefer somewhere smaller.

    “You will remain here, when you are not training or otherwise engaged,” Parkinson said, firmly. “You have access to enough entertainment to keep you occupied for years. If you go outside without permission, you will be in deep shit.”

    “Oh,” Alice said. She was a prisoner then, no matter what Parkinson claimed. “And what sort of shit will I land in?”

    “The sort that gets you thrown into the brig for the remainder of the voyage,” Parkinson said, sharply. His face softened as he turned to face her. “Look, Alice, things are not what they were. It was all I could do to get you this cabin instead of a reserved room in the brig. Don’t be foolish, okay?”

    “Yes, sir,” Alice said. She looked down at the medical bracelet on her hand. By now, the little tattletale had probably established a live feed to the ship’s computers and was feeding data to the medical staff. “I won’t be foolish.”

    Parkinson smiled. “There are MREs under the bed,” he added. “Feel free to eat, if you wish, or sleep. I’ll be back soon.”

    He turned and walked out of the cabin. The hatch closed behind him. Alice tried to open it, in a spirit of slight experimentation with the rules, and was unsurprised to discover that it wouldn’t open for her. There were ways to get the door open - and she knew several different tricks she could try - but they’d all damage the system beyond repair. It would mark her out as a ...

    Alien spy, I suppose, she thought, as she started to search the small compartment. Or someone who can’t follow orders.

    She wasn’t surprised when, five minutes after she began her search, she’d discovered no less than seven optical and audio pickups concealed within the room itself. There would be more, she was sure, including a handful too tiny to be seen with the naked eye and completely beyond detection without specialised equipment. She was tempted to remove the bugs she had found, but that would just have upset her minders. Instead, she opened the drawer under the bed and removed a single MRE. Parkinson had crammed nearly thirty into the tiny compartment. It made her wonder, as she opened the packet and triggered the heating element, just how long he was expecting her to remain in the cabin. She’d get cabin fever soon enough.

    But at least I’m on a ship, she thought, as she felt the deck quiver beneath her feet. The main drives were powering up, one by one. And I’ll be on my way back into alien space before too long.

    The MRE started to steam. She removed the heating element with the ease of long practice, tossed it into a bin and opened the remaining packets. The army’s curry and rice bore little resemblance to the curries her grandmother had made, once upon a time, but they were edible and filling. Her grandmother had been a bit of a rebel, in her own way. There had been a time when making ethnic food caused people to regard you with suspicion. She wondered, idly, how the army had ever gotten away with serving curry-in-a-bag.

    Probably because no one dared say the army was anything, but ultra-patriotic, she thought, wryly. And most of the people outside the army probably never knew anyway.

    She poured her dinner onto a plate, then sat down and started to eat. Parkinson would be back - or someone would be back. She wanted to be ready for them. And then ... she silently catalogued all the things she could do with the equipment in Marine Country. Hours of exercise - supervised or not - would set her on the road to recovery. And then, she just needed to find a sparring partner ...

    And hope I can convince Parkinson to trust me before it’s too late, she reminded herself. If he doesn’t trust me, I’ll never get a chance to return to active duty.

    ***
    Captain Katy Shaw was older than Stephen had anticipated, even though he’d read her file with considerable attention. The Royal Navy normally transferred its officers to a different ship when they were promoted, but Survey was a law unto itself. Katy Shaw had served on HMS Magellan ever since she’d been a young midshipwomen, moving steadily up the ranks until she’d finally stepped into the command chair. Stephen didn’t think that denying an officer a chance to transfer was a good idea, but he had to admit that Katy presumably knew her command from top to bottom. Besides, she was a born survey officer. It was unlikely she could take command of a military ship.

    She was a tall woman, with red hair that was steadily going grey. Stephen couldn’t help being reminded of his second governess, a formidable woman who hadn’t put up with any nonsense from Stephen or his brother. Katy Shaw’s record was formidable too. Her ship had opened up new tramlines, located dozens of habitable worlds and - before she took command - stumbled across the Foxes and Cows. Magellan had been lucky to escape without being detected and destroyed. Stephen had read that report very carefully too.

    “Captain,” he said. “Welcome onboard HMS Invincible.”

    “Thank you, Captain,” Katy said. “Please, call me Katy.”

    “Stephen,” Stephen said. Technically, she had more time in grade than he did, but the Royal Navy insisted that warship captains had automatic seniority over non-warship captains. It was a sensible precaution, he’d always felt, but one that always put noses out of joint. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

    “Thank you,” Katy said. A steward brought them both tea, then withdrew as silently as he’d come. “Although I cannot say I like the sound of the mission.”

    “We have to know just how much territory our enemy controls,” Stephen said. “And your ship was designed for stealthy operations.”

    Katy didn’t look pleased. Magellan and her sisters were designed to be incredibly stealthy in the hopes that they’d be able to locate any potential threats and slip away without making contact. Their cloaking devices and ECM nodes were as capable as anything mounted by a warship. But survey officers were more interested in opening up new areas of space for exploration than spying on enemy planets. They were, at heart, more civilian than military.

    “I understand that we have been drafted for the duration of the conflict,” she said, finally. “I have already taken the liberty of offloading non-essential crew members. However ... I should warn you that there will be protests.”

    Stephen had to smile. “Tell them to stand in line.”

    Katy shrugged. “I’m sure they will,” she said. “We were preparing to depart on a two-year mission when you returned home.”

    “You’ll still be exploring unexplored space,” Stephen said. “Or doesn’t it count if someone else got there first?”

    “It still counts,” Katy said. She leaned back in her chair. “What do you want from us, Captain?”

    “We’ll be probing the stars around Alien-1 in the hopes of determining how much space the virus controls,” Stephen said. “Your specific orders are to accompany Invincible and use your specialised equipment in support of the mission. In the event of us making contact with the enemy, you and your crews will take the lead in a bid to establish lines of communication with the virus. I’ve been told that your communication crews are trained in thousands of ways to communicate.”

    “Yes,” Katy said. “We have quite a few ways to open communications. But the system has never really been tested.”

    Stephen nodded. The Tadpoles had been the ones to figure out how to speak to humanity, not the other way around. The Vesy had been forced to learn Russian, then English; the Foxes and the Cows had copied a captured Tadpole database. Survey Command might be very proud of its First Contact package, but it had never been used. There was no way to be sure how a completely unknown alien race would react.

    They might think we’re being dreadfully rude, he thought, with a flicker of amusement. Or they might be completely bemused by something we consider to be as clear as water.

    “We may have a chance to test it, then,” he said, although he was certain that trying to open communications would be a waste of time. “If we encounter hostility, Magellan and Raleigh are to retreat at once while Invincible and the other gunslingers hold the line. Should you lose touch with us, beat feet back to Falkirk and report to Admiral Weisskopf. He can send a message down the flicker network for further orders.”

    Katy nodded. “It sounds simple enough,” she said. “And workable.”

    “The devil is in the details, of course,” Stephen said, dryly.

    “Always,” Katy agreed. “Some of my crew believe you muffed the first attempt at opening contact. What would you say to that?”

    “They fired on us,” Stephen said. “And opening fire is also a way of opening communications. It says die, you bastards.”

    He looked down at his desk for a long moment. He’d spent enough time in the upper crust to know that ambassadors and translators always worked hard to clarify messages and make allowances for mistakes. It was hard enough to avoid accidental mistranslations and insults when both parties were human, even if they didn’t speak the same language. Aliens were ... well, alien. It was impossible to be sure they’d meant to give offence. A smart diplomat left as much room as possible for manoeuvring around potential insults as possible.

    But opening fire? Without provocation? Stephen couldn’t believe that indicated anything, but naked hostility. Humanity wouldn’t fire on an unknown alien ship unless it presented a clear and present danger, yet ... it would be easy, so easy, to believe that the aliens did pose a threat. It was one of the nightmare scenarios he’d studied during his time at the Luna Academy. A human ship, believing itself to be in danger, firing on a hyper-advanced alien starship ...

    ... And, the next thing they knew, the aliens made the sun go nova.

    “We know our duty,” Katy said, breaking into his thoughts. “And we won’t let you down.”

    Stephen nodded. No one reached command rank, even in survey, without a degree of hard common sense. Katy might bemoan the failure to open communications, she might try to open communications if she got a chance, but she understood the dangers. Her ship wouldn’t be risked unless there was a very real chance of ending the war. And Stephen wouldn’t blame her for trying.

    “Thank you,” he said. He leaned forward. The next question had to be asked, even though it was a technical breach of etiquette. “Do you know Captain Hashing?”

    “He’s a good man,” Katy said, calmly. If the breach of etiquette bothered her, she didn’t show it. “Worked his way up through the ranks like me, although he was always more interested in gas giants than Earth-compatible worlds. He had - still has, for all I know - a theory that we’d be abandoning planetside habitats forever, once our tech reached the point it could keep us alive in space indefinitely. The future generations of humanity would grow up in habitats orbiting gas giants, or sailing between the stars in immense ships. I believe he was considering retirement when the news hit.”

    Her lips quirked. “He’s quite a rich man, thanks to some nifty investments with his share of the reward money. He was talking about establishing his own colony in orbit around Jupiter or Saturn. He’s certainly rich enough to do it when he retires.”

    Stephen frowned. “But he’ll do his job?”

    “Yes,” Katy said, flatly. “He’ll do his job.”
     
  14. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    run?

    This indicates that pilots are NOT in the line chain of command, an automatic dead end at some rank, much the same tho' more limiting than things were when I was serving.

    arms folded? Hands crossed sorta reminds me of how bodies are sometimes arranged in coffins,
     
  15. DarkLight

    DarkLight I self identify as a Blackhawk Attack Helicopter! Site Supporter

    believed him if he had...

    if she wasn't being held
     
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    “Captain,” Commander Newcomb said. “All systems check out A-OK. Your starship is fully at your command.”

    Stephen leaned back in his command chair. It had been a long week, with barely any time to catch some rest between inspecting his ship from top to bottom and stowing away as many supplies as she could carry in each and every nook and cranny, but they were finally ready to depart. And they’d met the First Space Lord’s deadline. His little flotilla would have no trouble reaching Falkirk on time.

    Which makes a pleasant change, he thought, as he checked the displays one last time. Our shakedown cruise was nowhere near as uneventful.

    “Communications, inform System Command that we are departing on schedule,” he ordered, calmly. “Helm, take us out as planned.”

    “Aye, Captain.”

    Stephen smiled, feeling a flicker of anticipation as the drives grew louder. There would be no more micromanaging once his ship crossed the tramline, no more contradictory orders that were cancelled bare seconds after he’d read them ... no, they’d be cut off from Earth and he would be in sole command. Going into enemy space would be dangerous - he had no illusions about that - but he’d also be isolated from his superiors. He would definitely be in sole command.

    “We’re underway, Captain,” Lieutenant Sonia Michelle said. The helmswoman kept her eyes on her console. “We’ll be crossing the shipyard boundaries in two minutes and we’ll be crossing the tramline in three hours, seventeen minutes.”

    “The remainder of the task force have fallen in behind us,” Lieutenant Alison Adams added, shortly. “They’re keeping pace, as planned.”

    “Good,” Stephen said. “Communications, please extend my compliments to the other commanding officers and inform them that I’m inviting them to a dinner, to be held once we’ve crossed the tramline. Once they acknowledge, forward the details to the galley.”

    “Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thomas Morse said.

    Stephen nodded and turned his attention back to the display. Sol was teeming with activity, from warships and freighters heading to the front to asteroid miners buzzing about like angry bees. The solar system hadn’t been so active since the last interstellar war, even though the massive colonisation program had been underway for years. Hundreds of thousands of people were leaving the planet each month, heading for their new homes on a distant colony world. Stephen had seen the incentives being offered to the colonists. He just hoped they’d have the sense to realise that life on an untamed world would be nothing to write home about.

    He pushed the thought aside as he checked his inbox. There was nothing new, save for a single update from the family’s private news service. Stephen glanced at the header, decided it wasn’t immediately important and put it aside for later consideration. He’d feared that their orders would be changed on short notice, but it seemed as though they were going to be allowed to proceed as planned. That was a minor miracle in its own right.

    The Admiralty has just over three hours to send us some new orders, Stephen reminded himself, grimly. There had been some talk about Invincible escorting a convoy to Falkirk, but the convoy organisers had kept falling behind until the Admiralty had dropped the plan. But once we cross the tramline, we’re free.

    He studied his console thoughtfully, noting that the starship’s drives and life support were functioning well without acceptable parameters. He would have been surprised if they weren’t - they’d ironed out all the bugs during their shakedown cruise - but it was better for any problems to manifest within the solar system, rather than an alien star system. Being rescued - and towed back to the shipyard - would be embarrassing, yet it would be preferable to being caught by a fleet of alien ships. Stephen knew what fate awaited Invincible’s crew if they were captured. He’d already determined to blow up the ship rather than see her fall into enemy hands.

    “Cruising speed achieved, Captain,” Sonia said. “We’ll be crossing the tramline in three hours.”

    Stephen had to smile. One thing the civilians never realised was that space was big, unimaginably big. Invincible might be one of the fastest things in space, certainly when compared to the giant fleet carriers, but even she took time to get from place to place. He didn’t really begrudge the time, even though part of him wanted to cross the tramline before his superiors could send him new orders. The gulf between the shipyard - and Earth - and the tramline was a buffer between humanity and an invading fleet. He dreaded to think what would happen if the Royal Navy ran into an enemy that wasn’t bound by the tyranny of the tramlines. They could jump into orbit and lay waste to Earth before the defenders could react.

    And it might be theoretically possible, Stephen thought, grimly. He’d read papers suggesting that there were ways to fold space that didn’t require more power than the entire Royal Navy generated in a year. Someone more advanced than us might be able to do it and then ...

    He pushed the thought aside and concentrated on the reports. Nothing seemed to be going wrong, yet. He eyed his console suspiciously - in his experience, something always went wrong when a starship left the shipyard - and then forced himself to relax. They’d just have to deal with any problems as they cropped up. He had a good ship and a good crew. He didn’t need to worry himself to death.

    Not yet, anyway, he thought. We’ll be facing the aliens soon enough.

    Time passed, slowly. Stephen watched and waited, feeling a flicker of relief as they reached the tramline and made transit. The display blanked, just long enough to worry him, then started to fill up with icons. Terra Nova’s endless civil war hadn’t put a stop to activity in deep space, well beyond the reach of any of the factions. There was going to be a political headache, the analysts said, when Terra Nova evolved a government that controlled the entire planet. Legally, that government would have jurisdiction over the entire system; practically, the governments and corporations and independent settlers wouldn’t recognise the government’s authority. And some of them were loaded for bear. Stephen suspected that the planetary government would always be at a major disadvantage. They simply couldn’t afford to build a fleet capable of imposing their authority without making their plan blindingly obvious.

    “Captain,” Morse said. “The other commanding officers have informed us that they will be attending the dinner party.”

    Surprise, surprise, Stephen thought. It would be a rare officer who’d decline such an invitation, unless there were extreme extenuating circumstances. But I do have to talk to them before I reach the front.

    He stood. “Commander Newcomb, you have the bridge,” he said. “I’ll be in my Ready Room.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Newcomb said. “I have the bridge.”

    Stephen kept a wary eye on the live feed from the bridge while he worked in his Ready Room, although he wasn’t really expecting trouble. The miners-turned-pirates who infested parts of the system weren’t likely to pick a fight with either of the destroyers, let alone the whole flotilla. It said something about the general lack of law and order in the Terra Nova system that space pirates actually existed. Anywhere else, they’d be cut off from their supply bases and hunted down like dogs. He suspected it was just a matter of time before the spacers crafted their own government, with the power to impose law and destroy pirate gangs. There was nothing romantic about space pirates.

    He worked until late afternoon, then changed into his dress uniform and made his way down to the dining room. He’d been tempted to tear the compartment out and replace it with something more useful, when he’d seen it for the first time, but he had to admit it did have its uses. And yet, the compartment was really too luxurious for his peace of mind. It looked as if it belonged on a luxury liner, not a warship heading to the front.

    The designers probably wanted to suck up to the admirals, he thought, as he waited for his guests. They wouldn’t be happy unless they had the finest accommodation on the ship.

    His lips twitched at the thought. He’d seen the old tin-cans that the Royal Navy had built during the first expansion into space. They’d been little more than glorified rockets, lacking everything from artificial gravity to starfighters. The crews had endured horrific living conditions, their lives more at risk from their own ships than enemy action. Stephen wondered, idly, what those men would have made of Invincible. They’d probably take one look and wonder if they were hallucinating. Stephen’s ship was ridiculously luxurious compared to the tin-cans.

    The hatch opened. Stephen straightened up. “Captain Brisling,” he said, as a middle-aged dark-skinned woman stepped into the compartment. “It’s good to see you again.”

    “And you,” Captain Samra Brisling said. “You seem to have done well for yourself.”

    Stephen nodded, then greeted the other commanding officers. Captain Vandal Hashing was older than he’d expected, even though Katy Shaw had told Stephen that Hashing was on the verge of retirement. Captain Jonathon Linguine looked ridiculously young to be a destroyer captain, particularly as he had no aristocratic connections that Stephen had been able to uncover. But then, his file had made it clear that he was an above-average officer, with a string of commendations to his name. He would make battleship command in five years or burn out early.

    “Captain,” Captain Pavel Kaminov said. The Russian’s voice was strongly accented, somewhat to Stephen’s surprise. English was everyone’s second language these days. You couldn’t be a spacer unless you spoke perfect English. “Thank you for your invitation.”

    “You’re welcome,” Stephen said, shaking Kaminov’s hand. “We’re glad to have you along.”

    He studied Kaminov for a long moment. The Russian was tall and thin, his face strikingly pale. It was hard to make even a guess at his age. Kaminov’s file stated that he was in his late forties, but MI6 hadn’t been able to confirm any of the details. Stephen wasn’t too surprised. The Great Powers rarely shared complete files with anyone. He just hoped the Russians hadn’t exaggerated Kaminov’s combat experience. That might cause all sorts of problems.

    “Please, be seated,” he said. He waved a hand at the table. “We’re quite informal here.”

    “That’s a relief,” Katy Shaw said, as she sat. “I’ve never been quite sure which fork I should use for soup.”

    Stephen smiled at the weak joke. “We won’t be able to enjoy fresh ingredients for long, so get it while you can,” he said. “My chef worked overtime to prepare this delicious repast.”

    He motioned for Kaminov to sit next to him as the steward brought in the first course, a clear chicken soup. The Russian seemed oddly amused by the whole affair, although he ate without hesitation. Stephen guessed he hadn’t spent much time with foreigners. The Russians hadn’t participated in many of the multinational fleet exercises that had been carried out between the wars. Their self-imposed isolation had cost them dearly.

    Conversation flowed around the dinner table as the various captains chatted freely. Stephen listened, occasionally inserting a comment or question, as Katy and Hashing talked about survey work beyond the rim of explored space. They made it sound like a wonderful adventure, even though Stephen knew that their crews would be thoroughly bored of each new planet by the time the survey team moved to the next star system. But then, it couldn’t be helped. The survey team needed to be sure the planet didn’t have any unpleasant surprises before the first colony mission arrived.

    And some planets have been quite inhospitable, he reminded himself. They turned out to be nothing more than poisonous snakes in the grass.

    He met Kaminov’s eyes. “I was wondering why your government saw fit to assign your ship to this mission,” he said. “They were not very forthcoming to us.”

    “We lost a destroyer to the enemy aliens,” Kaminov rumbled, after a moment. “The government wants to know what happened to her.”

    Stephen nodded, slowly. There had been no sign of Dezhnev since she’d vanished in Alien-1. He didn’t blame the Russians for wanting to know what had happened to her, although he had a private suspicion that they’d never know. Dezhnev could have slipped too close to an alien starship and been blown into atoms, or suffered a catastrophic life support failure that had killed her entire crew. Stephen doubted that any such failure would have killed the crew instantly, but in a hostile star system the Russians wouldn’t dare signal for help. They might have suffocated long before they could be rescued.

    “We also want to know as much as possible about the new aliens,” Kaminov added, after a moment. “Gathering intelligence is not my preferred role, Captain, but I wasn’t given a choice.”

    “Orders are orders,” Linguine said. The young man sipped his wine, thoughtfully. “What will you do if you locate her?”

    Kaminov made a motion that might have been a shrug. “It depends. If we can recover her, I have orders to try. If not, I have orders to destroy her. But if she was captured, we are unlikely to see her.”

    “True,” Stephen agreed, slowly. Any captured alien ships would not be added to the line of battle. They’d be taken to a secret location and carefully disassembled, piece by piece, until the boffins worked out what made them tick. It was hard to believe that the virus wouldn’t do the same, even though its psychology was thoroughly inhuman. The virus would certainly want to dissect the ship’s datacores for actionable intelligence. “Did her CO have orders to destroy his datacores if the ship came under fire?”

    “He did,” Kaminov confirmed. “But we cannot tell if he carried out his orders.”

    Assuming his ship was actually captured, Stephen thought. But we have to assume the worst.

    “We shouldn’t have any trouble with our mission,” Samra said. “As long as we are careful, we should remain undetected.”

    “I’m sure that’s what Dezhnev thought,” Linguine commented. “The alien sensor grids might be far better than ours.”

    “Or they may have devoted more effort to covering Alien-1 than we devoted to covering Earth,” Stephen pointed out. “Their economy might be more geared to war production than ours.”

    “If they really are a single entity, they might not care about comforts,” Hashing said. “They might be able to devote a great deal more of their GNP to the military than anyone else.”

    Stephen winced at the thought. He knew, all too well, just how much money was funnelled into the Royal Navy each year. It was hard to blame the politicians who wanted to redirect some of the money elsewhere, even though he knew Britain had to keep up with the other Great Powers. But if the virus didn’t have to worry about such matters, it could construct a far larger navy without risking political upheaval or civil unrest. And if it could out-produce its new enemies ...

    “They might also not take the war seriously,” Katy said. “If they don’t see us as a real threat ...”

    “Every living thing wants to survive,” Kaminov said.

    “I don’t think politicians want to survive,” Linguine said.

    Samra snorted. “Politicians are isolated from the consequences of their decisions,” she said, dryly. “That ensures that they develop an unrealistic view of the world. The virus, on the other hand, presumably knows everything about its surroundings. It won’t assume that we will leave it in peace.”

    “It’s already shown that its aggressive - and hostile,” Stephen agreed. “And yes, it wants to survive.”

    “But how are we going to beat it?” Hashing took a sip of his wine. “We have no vaccine, we have no way of freeing countless innocents from its grip. This is a hostage crisis on an unprecedented scale.”

    “We wipe it out,” Kaminov said. “We destroy its ships, we smash its asteroid habitats, we burn its planets to dust and ash. And when we’re done, we keep the entire system under a very close watch. If it moves again, we destroy it.”

    Hashing glared. “You’re talking about genocide.”

    “Spare me your false morality,” Kaminov said. “Your country deported millions of fourth-generation citizens, many of whom went to their deaths. And they were human. The virus is very definitely not.”

    He leaned forward. “This virus poses a terrifying threat. If it gets lose on Earth, countless millions will die - or be robbed of their freedom. There is no such thing as an immoral tactic when confronted with such a foe. It is them - the virus, really - or us.”

    “If we do as you wish, we will be wiping out at least two alien races, neither of whom have done anything wrong beyond being infected,” Hashing said, sharply. “They didn’t make a choice to fight us ...”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Kaminov said. He lowered his voice. “What would you have us do? Treat the virus with kid gloves until it broke free and exterminated us? I understand your point, Captain, but the survival of humanity and our allies is at stake. We have got to put ourselves first.”

    “We can contain the virus,” Samra said.

    “Are you sure?” Kaminov gave her a sharp look. “What if you’re wrong?”

    “The decision isn’t in our hands,” Stephen said. “Our job is to scout out the alien homeworlds.”

    “And then prepare to destroy them,” Kaminov said. “We cannot allow the virus to exist.”

    Hashing snorted. “And how would we be sure of getting every last fragment of it?”

    “We couldn’t,” Kaminov said. “But we have to try.”

    Stephen winced, inwardly. He hated to admit it, but Kaminov had a point. The virus could not be allowed to exist. And yet, destroying the virus meant destroying untold billions of innocent aliens, aliens who had been hosts from birth to death. They didn’t deserve to die.

    It’s going to be a long mission, he thought.
     
  17. DarkLight

    DarkLight I self identify as a Blackhawk Attack Helicopter! Site Supporter

    Well within acceptable parameters
     
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    Alice felt naked.

    She crawled through the Jefferies Tube, feeling as if she was being watched. The hunters were after her. She paused outside a hatch and checked the telltales, then keyed the switch to open it. The hatch slid open, revealing an empty tube. Gritting her teeth, she pulled herself through the hatch and listened carefully. There was no sign of any pursuit.

    Which means nothing, she reminded herself, as she looked up and down the tube. They’ll be moving as quietly as possible.

    She forced herself to keep moving, despite the sweat pouring down her back. It stung to admit it, but - in hindsight - she wondered if agreeing to play the quarry had been a bright idea. The marines would find it easier to catch her than someone in better shape, even if she did know the ship like the back of her hand. It was a far cry from the Escape and Evasion courses she’d passed during basic training. But then, the marines were undermanned. Better to let them chase her than a crewman who wouldn’t know how to hide.

    A sound echoed down the tubes. She tensed, listening carefully. Someone following her? She’d done everything in her power to evade detection, but she knew from experience just how far sound could travel in an enclosed space. She thought she heard someone coming up the tubes, someone who wanted to catch her ... turning to the right, she opened a hatch and scrambled out into the corridor. A pair of passing crewmen gave her an odd look, but ignored her. They’d have been told not to pay any attention to the marine version of hide and seek.

    But the marines will be after me in a few moments, Alice thought. Someone would have noticed the hatch being opened ... and it wouldn’t take them long to realise that Alice was the only person who could have opened the hatch. I have to move.

    She forced herself to think as she hurried down the corridor. Unless she missed her guess, the marines would be guarding the hatches that led further into the ship. They wouldn’t want her to slip past them and hide. She glanced at her wristcom, calculatingly. If she managed to stay ahead of them for another two hours, she’d win. But she doubted she could keep ahead of them. They had a rough idea of where she was now and ...

    Footsteps, she thought, as the sound reached her ears. They’re coming.

    Her hand dropped to the stunner at her belt. She could fight, if she wished ... it would certainly make the game a little more exciting. But she didn’t think she could stun them all before it was too late. Parkinson would have a number of sharp things to say to his men if they were stunned, yet ... it wouldn’t make any difference to her. She considered jumping back into the tubes, then dismissed the thought. They’d have blocked off the exits by now, unless they’d slipped badly since she’d been infected. Instead, she ducked into a storage room and looked around. The walls were lined with spacesuits. A thought struck her as the hatch hissed closed behind her. If she got into one of the spacesuits and remained very still ...

    Alice grinned as she hastily took one of the suits and pulled it over her shipsuit. The hunters might not think to check the storage room at first, not when they knew there was no way out. They wouldn’t expect her to trap herself, would they? If she was lucky, she could make that work against them. She finished donning the spacesuit, then leaned against the bulkhead and waited. They would check the storage room, sooner or later. She just hoped they couldn't see her eyes.

    The hatch hissed open, five minutes later. Alice cursed under her breath. That was quicker than she’d expected. Perhaps they’d narrowed her location down more than she’d thought. It made sense, she supposed. They might have had checkpoints all along the corridor. If they knew she hadn’t gone in either direction, she practically had to be in the storage room ...

    I should have kept the stunner within reach, she thought, as two marines entered the compartment and looked around. They moved with a calm professionalism that made her smile, even though she was starting to wonder if she’d ever be able to rejoin their ranks. I could have stunned them both and walked out of the compartment.

    Alice tensed as the marines poked and prodded around the compartment, making sure she wasn’t hiding behind the spacesuits or the boxes of supplies. Would they think she might be hiding in the spacesuits? They stopped after a long moment, muttering to each other so quietly that Alice couldn’t make out the words, then headed out of the hatch. Alice almost started giggling. Parkinson was not going to be pleased with the two marines when the time came to review the exercise. Bundled up in a spacesuit, Alice would have been an easy target ... if they’d seen her. And they hadn’t thought to check ...

    Unless they’re waiting outside, she thought. They might be waiting for me to show them where I’m hiding.

    She considered it for a long moment, then dismissed the thought. They’d been told, time and time again, not to be clever. If they’d known where she was, they should have grabbed her immediately. Instead ... she wondered, wryly, just what Parkinson was thinking. If he had a rough idea of where she was, he might order the marines to make a more careful search of the entire section. She considered, briefly, simply staying where she was, then dismissed the idea. The next set of searchers might be a little more careful.

    Smiling, she clambered out of the spacesuit and headed for the hatch, unhooking the stunner from her belt. The hatch hissed open, revealing a pair of marines standing with their backs to her. They spun around, their hands grabbing for weapons, too late. Alice stunned them both and watched as they fell to the deck. Parkinson was going to kill them. Her lips twitched at the thought. No, he wouldn’t kill them, but he’d give them the ass-chewing of the millennium. She checked one of the bodies until she found the terminals, then used the marine’s fingerprint to unlock the device. Parkinson’s orders popped up in front of her. He seemed to think she’d somehow made it into the next section.

    The marine’s headset bleeped. “Higgins, report.”

    Alice hesitated. She’d seen countless movies where the good guys were able to impersonate the bad guys and convince their superiors that nothing was wrong, but it didn’t work so well in real life. She simply didn't sound like a male marine. And yet, Parkinson would know that something was wrong. Higgins hadn’t responded. And that meant ...

    She put the terminal down on the deck - the marines would probably be able to track it - and hurried down to the section hatch, careful not to go too close. Parkinson would dispatch some of his men to check on the fallen marines ... and, if she was lucky, they’d be sent from the force guarding the hatch. She smiled as she heard footsteps running towards her. The marines were on their way. She pressed herself into a sideroom, clutching the stunner in one hand. If Parkinson outguessed her, she’d have bare seconds to take them down before they got her. But the marines ran past ... she gave them a few moments to get out of hearing range, then hurried down the corridor herself. The hatch looked unguarded ...

    There’ll be guards on the far side, she reminded herself. Parkinson won’t leave the hatch completely empty.

    She keyed the switch, opening the hatch. Three men stood on the far side, their weapons raised and pointed at her. Alice froze, hastily evaluating the situation. Perhaps if she jumped them ... she shook her head, inwardly. She’d never been able to best a male marine in a no-holds-barred fight, let alone three of them. She would do some damage, but they’d bring her down and ...

    One of the marines jabbed his rifle at her. “Bang. You’re dead.”

    “Alas, woe is me,” Alice said. The marine wasn’t one of the men who’d served under her direct command. That was a relief, although she knew it was meaningless. “Contact the Major and tell him that the exercise is over.”

    “I already know,” Parkinson said, appearing from a side hatch. “How did you evade my sweep?”

    Alice smirked. “I was inside one of the hanging spacesuits,” she said. “They didn’t think to check.”

    Parkinson looked pained. “I’ll ... discuss it with them when they wake up,” he said. “Congrats on staying ahead of us for so long.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Alice said. “What now?”

    “Return to your cabin,” Parkinson said. “We’ll talk about the exercise later.”

    Alice nodded stiffly - she knew better than to argue in front of the men - and headed off to her cabin. Her body ached, even though she’d been exercising heavily ever since Invincible had left the Sol System far behind. She gritted her teeth, promising herself that she wasn’t going to give up. She’d been through too much to transfer to the rear or simply accept a medical discharge. She would be a marine again.

    Her cabin felt uncomfortably large as she stepped inside. It might be small, compared to a middle-class hotel on Earth, but it was still larger than the barracks. She looked at her terminal for a moment, half-expecting to see the post-exercise report already waiting for her, then sighed and stepped into the washroom. A shower, a rest ... and then she could go back for more exercise. She was not going to give up.

    At least I stayed ahead of them for a few hours, she thought, as she turned on the water. I’d like to see a civilian do that.

    ***
    Richard smiled to himself as the starfighter twisted in space, reversing course in the blink of an eye. The three enemy starfighters didn’t realise what he was doing until it was already too late, allowing him a chance to fire into their blind spots. Two starfighters vanished from the display before their pilots even realised they were under attack. The third threw himself into a series of evasive manoeuvres that were somewhat less random than they should have been. Richard calmly lined up the shot, then blew the pilot out of space. A squawk of outrage echoed over the communications link.

    “You’re dead,” Richard said, cheerfully. “All three of you are dead.”

    He took a moment to survey the situation. The simulated mission had been simple enough. One side had to attack the convoy, the other had to defend ... it was a shame, really, that the defenders had allowed themselves to be drawn out of formation. They’d killed seven of the attackers, but the attackers had devastated the convoy. Seven freighters had been destroyed, with three more heavily damaged. The defenders might have killed more ships, but the attackers had won on points.

    And this was just a simulation, he thought. What will happen when we face a real enemy?

    “The exercise is now terminated,” he said. The display faded away into a grey mist. “All pilots, get a shower and a snack, then report to the briefing room.”

    He opened the simulator and clambered out, feeling his legs threatening to collapse beneath him. Honestly! There was no reason to house the simulators in mock starfighter cockpits, was there? He leaned against the simulator until he was sure he could walk properly, then headed for the hatch. Behind him, the other pods were cracking open. The pilots were probably already accessing their performance. Richard wondered how many of them would realise just how poorly they’d actually done.

    Too much inexperience combined with a lack of command talent, Richard thought, as he showered and changed into a fresh uniform. They’re going to have to be broken of that problem. Quickly.

    He sighed as he made his way to the briefing room. To be fair, the stats had been improving over the past week. The pilots were learning from their experiences. But Richard was all too aware that experience simply wasn’t the same as reality. The aliens would present them with all sort of surprises, surprises that were completely unpredictable. Who knew how his pilots would cope with the unknown?

    Monica entered a moment later, looking clean and tidy. “My pilots did their job,” she said, as she sat at the back. “You can’t say otherwise.”

    “No,” Richard agreed. Monica knew what she was doing. It was a shame the reservists had so much they needed to relearn. “They did very well.”

    The room slowly filled with pilots. Richard resisted the urge to make sarcastic comments about pilots who would be late to their own funerals. They should have learnt how to shower at the academy, surely. He waited until the compartment was full, then slapped the table hard enough to make everyone jump. The pilots stopped chattering and stared at him in surprise.

    “That exercise was a failure,” Richard said, sharply. His voice echoed in the silent compartment. “And why was it a failure?”

    He waited, just to see if someone would try to answer, then went on. “The mission objective was to get the convoy from Alpha to Beta without losing a single ship. What happened? Seven out of ten ships were destroyed! And why were they destroyed? They were destroyed because their escorting starfighters were more concerned with scoring kills than covering the convoy they were meant to be escorting! Do you know what would have happened if the engagement had been real?

    “For want of a nail ...” - he shook his head in annoyance, remembering how his instructors had forced him to study the whole poem - “a kingdom was lost, eventually. What would have happened if that convoy had failed to reach its destination? We might have lost a base, which would have led to the loss of a star system, which might have cost us the war itself ... all because a pack of starfighter pilots couldn’t be bothered to carry out their actual mission.”

    His gaze swept the room. He understood, better than he cared to admit, the urge to score kills. Every pilot wanted to paint a golden ace on his or her cockpit, to signify that they had killed over five enemy starfighters; every pilot wanted to be known as a brave and skilled flyer. He understood, but the mission came first. There was no room for mavericks in the compartment. The starfighter pilots had to follow orders.

    “I understand how you feel,” he said, quietly. “But the mission comes first.”

    Richard took a long breath. “We have two weeks to reach Falkirk, then we’ll be heading into enemy territory. By then, I want all of our weaknesses smoothed out. I want each and every one of you to put the mission first. And if you don’t” - he let his words hang in the air for a second - “you will be traded for a more experienced pilot from one of the fleet carriers.”

    Which may be a little harsh, he thought, keeping his face under tight control. And it might nip your careers in the bud.

    He took a long breath. “Get some food, then report back to the simulators. We’re going to be going through the exercise again. Dismissed.”

    “I think they took your words to heart,” Monica said, once they were alone. “But they also think they have to rack up kills.”

    “Not when they’re charged with escorting a convoy,” Richard muttered. “Stellar Star and the Starfighter Pilots has a lot to answer for.”

    “I think Battle of Earth and Ark Royal might have been more of an influence,” Monica said, dryly. “No one really takes Stellar Star and the Starfighter Pilots seriously.”

    Richard shrugged. Battle of Earth and Ark Royal were hugely patriotic movies, written and produced by scriptwriters who were more interested in spectacle and propaganda than realism. Richard had never met Theodore Smith, but he had met Admiral Fitzwilliam and the actor who’d played him hadn’t looked anything like the former First Space Lord. It was a minor miracle they’d produced a realistic Ark Royal. Richard would have expected them to present a starship out of a futuristic fantasy. The producers had probably boosted Royal Navy recruitment for generations to come.

    “It doesn’t matter,” he said, dismissing the movies and their producers. What they knew about life in the navy could be written on the back of a second-class postage stamp, with room left over. “What matters is carrying out the mission.”

    “I know,” Monica said. “And they know it too. They’re just ...”

    “Inexperienced,” Richard said. He ground his teeth in frustration. “And young.”

    Monica pointed a finger at him. “You’re in your late twenties,” she said. “You’re not that much older than them. And I’m only a couple of years younger than you. Give them time.”

    “We don’t have time,” Richard said. “What happens if we get attacked tomorrow?”

    He looked at the bulkhead, visualising the empty system on the far side. The virus could have sneaked ships down the tramlines easily, if it wished. They might be attacked at any moment. Richard didn’t blame the captain for feeling paranoid, even though he’d heard - and squelched - some grumbling from his pilots. The virus had every reason to try to attack enemy fleets before they reached Falkirk.

    “Then we fight bravely,” Monica said. The calm confidence in her voice was almost reassuring. “They won’t let you down.”

    “I hope not,” Richard said. He turned away from her, heading towards the desk. “But right now I’m more concerned with them letting themselves down.”

    “They’ll do better in the real world,” Monica assured him. “Didn’t we?”

    Richard gave her a sharp look, but said nothing.
     
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    Stephen had taken the precaution, as the fleet approached the Falkirk Tramline, of sounding the alert and bringing his crew to battlestations. There had been no suggestion that Falkirk had actually been attacked, let alone occupied, but he was feeling paranoid. The virus could easily have subverted a handful of crewmen, then steadily spread through the multinational force despite the best precautions human ingenuity could devise. Stephen hoped he was merely being paranoid. If the virus had overwhelmed the multinational fleet, humanity was probably doomed.

    “Jump completed, Captain,” Sonia said.

    “Transmit our IFF to System Command,” Stephen ordered. “Tactical?”

    “The sensors are coming back online now,” Lieutenant-Commander David Arthur reported, calmly. “Long-range sensors suggest that the system hasn’t been attacked.”

    Stephen frowned as the display started to fill with icons. Six months ago, Falkirk hadn’t been considered anything more than a refuelling post for starships en route to Wensleydale. It had a gas giant and a handful of rocky airless worlds, but little else to attract spacefaring powers when there were plenty of more habitable worlds. Britain had laid claim to the system more to secure the trade links to Wensleydale than anything else. Now, it had been turned into a formidable military base. Nine fleet carriers, twelve battleships and over a hundred smaller ships held station near the tramline, while a handful of space stations orbited the gas giant and mining craft buzzed around the asteroids. The defenders were already working on building up a small industrial base. It would never match a major colony, but it would reduce shipping costs ...

    “Captain, we’re picking up a challenge,” Morse said. “They’re demanding that we repeat our IFF.”

    Stephen’s eyes narrowed. There hadn’t been time for Invincible’s arrival to have been noticed, let alone her IFF signal reach Admiral Weisskopf. A new icon flickered to life on the display, a Japanese destroyer sitting near the tramline. Stephen relaxed, slightly. The Japanese ship might have orders to recheck every ship entering the system.

    “Repeat the signal,” he ordered. “And request permission to rendezvous with the main fleet.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Morse said. There was a long pause. “They’ve cleared us to proceed, sir.”

    Stephen nodded. “Helm, set course to rendezvous with Admiral Weisskopf.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    Newcomb glanced at him. “Do you think we’ll be haggling over whoever owns this system in the next few years?”

    “Probably,” Stephen said. Britain might have claimed the system, but the other human - and alien - powers had provided a great deal of investment. When - if - the viral crisis ended, there was going to be an argument over who should actually have jurisdiction. “We might end up cutting a deal with the other Great Powers.”

    He put the thought aside as Invincible and her flotilla glided towards the Multinational Fleet’s position. Up close, it was even more impressive than he’d realised. The Tadpoles and the Foxes had both sent contingents to join their human allies, fearing the consequences if the virus managed to infect human space. Stephen had read papers suggesting the virus would have no trouble infecting every alien race known to mankind, as long as they were carbon-based. So far, no one had encountered a race that wasn’t carbon-based. Humanity’s allies had excellent reasons for wanting to make a stand so far from their homeworlds.

    “Captain,” Morse said. “Admiral Weisskopf sends his compliments and invites you to join him onboard USS Texas.”

    “Please inform the admiral that I will be delighted,” Stephen said. “Have my shuttle prepared for departure.”

    “Aye, Captain.”

    “We’re settling into position now,” Sonia said. “The fleet doesn’t seem to want us to come too close.”

    “Very good,” Stephen said. He wasn’t too surprised. Invincible had had infected humans onboard. Admiral Weisskopf had good reason to be concerned. “Inform Admiral Weisskopf that I’m on my way.”

    He passed the bridge to Newcomb, then changed into his dress uniform and walked directly to his shuttle. The pilot disengaged from Invincible with commendable speed and took the shuttle straight towards Texas, disregarding the remainder of the fleet. Stephen looked forward with interest as the American battleship came into view. Texas was larger than her British counterparts, although Stephen wasn’t so sure that her extra weapons and armour gave her an edge. It looked as if she’d have problems bringing all of her weapons to bear on a single target.

    And she’s a bigger target too, he thought. He could see some advantages to the design. The Americans could rotate their ship, allowing each plasma gun a chance to fire and then recharge while maintaining a consistent bombardment. They could presumably overcharge their plasma cannons, if they were rotating their ship. They’d run the risk of accidentally overloading the plasma containment chambers, but they’d presumably hardwired some safeguards into the system. She would be a tricky customer in a fight.

    “Captain, we’re being ordered to dock at the upper airlock, rather than land in their shuttlebay,” the pilot said. “We’ll be docked in two minutes.”

    “Understood,” Stephen said. Hopefully, docking at an airlock meant a certain lack of formality. And yet ... he had a feeling that the Americans were feeling paranoid. If the shuttle was carrying a nuke, it would do a great deal less damage if it detonated outside the battleship’s hull. They wouldn’t let him land in the shuttlebay unless they were entirely sure of his bona fides. “Dock as soon as you can.”

    He took a long breath as the shuttle docked with the giant battleship. The gravity field flickered a moment later, growing stronger momentarily before the shuttle’s generator automatically shut down. Stephen stood and headed for the hatch, silently cursing whoever had designed his dress uniform under his breath. It felt uncomfortable when he needed to feel relaxed.

    A pair of United States Marines in dress uniform stood at the far side of the hatch. “Sir,” the leader said. “We need to do a blood test.”

    Stephen nodded, holding out his hand for the scanner. It bleeped a moment later, signalling that he was clean. The marines relaxed visibly - if Stephen had been infected, their odds of survival would have been very low - and motioned him through an inner hatch. A young ensign was waiting for him. She looked so young that she made Stephen feel old.

    “Welcome onboard, Captain,” she said. “Admiral Weisskopf is waiting for you.”

    Stephen looked around with interest as she led him through a maze of corridors. The American ship wasn't that different to its British counterparts, not on the inside. It would have been hard to tell it was an American ship if the American flag hadn’t been displayed everywhere. Otherwise, it felt just like a British ship. But that wasn’t really a surprise. A great many components had been standardised, even before the First Interstellar War. The battleship would have her secrets, of course, just like Invincible, but ...

    He pushed the thought aside as the ensign opened a hatch. “Admiral Weisskopf, sir,” she said. “Captain Shields, HMS Invincible.”

    Stephen stepped past her and into the cabin. Admiral Weisskopf was a short muscular man with skin so dark that Stephen found it hard to look him in the eye. He saluted as the hatch hissed closed behind him. Admiral Weisskopf looked back at him with equal interest. The last time they’d met, Invincible had been returning to Earth. Now ...

    “Take a seat,” Admiral Weisskopf said. He had a thick Texan accent that Stephen found a little hard to follow. “I take it you didn’t get put in front of a court martial after all.”

    “It was a close-run thing,” Stephen said. He sat down, resting his hands on his lap. “Luckily, I followed proper procedure. They had no grounds to charge me with anything.”

    “And so they’ve sent you and your ship back here,” Admiral Weisskopf said. His face twisted in displeasure. “I am not happy at the thought of poking the hornet’s nest.”

    Stephen met his eyes. “Wouldn’t you prefer to know what’s coming at you?”

    “I have destroyers in the systems between us and Alien-1,” Admiral Weisskopf said, “although they may miss the signs of a major enemy offensive. I’m feeling rather exposed out here.”

    “I know, sir,” Stephen said. “My orders are to attempt to remain undetected ...”

    “Which may prove difficult,” Admiral Weisskopf said, cutting him off. “If it was up to me, Captain, you and your little flotilla would join the MNF and stand in defence of the tramline chain to Earth.”

    He snorted, rudely. “But it’s not up to me, is it?”

    Stephen said nothing. He understood Admiral Weisskopf’s concerns. But, at the same time, he also understood the importance of finding out what was coming towards the human sphere before it actually arrived. They knew almost nothing about their new foe, nothing they could use to calculate just how strong the virus actually was. Invincible’s mission might be their only hope of peering below the fog of war before it was too late. Every analyst agreed that it was only a matter of time before the offensive began.

    “Of course not,” Admiral Weisskopf said. “Good luck, Captain. Try not to stir up a swarm of angry hornets.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said. “What is the current situation?”

    Admiral Weisskopf frowned. “So far, there’s been no trace of anything sneaking down the tramline chain from Alien-1. Which proves nothing, of course. We’ve seeded the whole system with scansats, but as long as the bastards are careful they can get a whole fleet into attack position without being detected. You know how badly fucked we’d be if they did get control of this system. They’d be able to attack us from four different angles.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said. He didn’t think the virus would want to leave such a powerful fleet in its rear, but they’d seen more than enough evidence to confirm that the virus simply didn't think like humans. Hell, if cut off from its supply lines, Admiral Weisskopf’s fleet would simply writher on the vine. “And Wensleydale?”

    “The quarantine has not been broken, as far as we can tell,” Admiral Weisskopf said. “None of the captured - and presumed infected - starships have been located. We assume they’re attempting to infect our worlds, but so far they haven’t shown themselves. Nor have we spotted the missing Russian ship. We’re assuming the worst.”

    He looked up at Stephen. “Understand this, Captain. My priority is maintaining control of this system and keeping the bastards out. I have strict orders not to go haring after you if you run into trouble. Your ships will be on their own. I cannot leave my post, Captain, and I cannot draw down my defences to assist you. Be absolutely clear on that. I cannot provide any assistance once you’ve crossed the tramline.”

    Stephen nodded, unsurprised. “I understand, Admiral,” he said. “We planned on the assumption that we’d be alone.”

    “Good thinking,” Admiral Weisskopf grunted. “Just make absolutely sure that you don’t get spotted. I really don’t want them to come boiling out of the tramline with blood in their eyes.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said.

    He didn’t take the Admiral’s words personally. Admiral Weisskopf had every reason to be concerned. Falkirk was heavily defended, but no defence was perfect. The virus could easily deploy a blocking force to pin Admiral Weisskopf down, then dispatch the rest of its fleet into the human sphere. And then ... Stephen couldn’t help feeling pity for the American. He was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon.

    There are other defence lines closer to Earth, Stephen thought. But the aliens could come at us from a hundred different directions.

    Admiral Weisskopf smiled. “Now that’s over, Captain,” he said, “I hope you’ll have time to join my staff and I for dinner.”

    “It would be my pleasure,” Stephen said. “But afterwards, I will have to return to my ship.”

    “Of course,” Admiral Weisskopf said. “And you’ll be leaving tomorrow?”

    Stephen nodded. “We have orders to move fast,” he said. “And there’s no hope of shore leave here.”

    “Tell me about it,” Admiral Weisskopf said. “It’ll be years before there’s anything more exciting than cloud-skimming in this system.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said, with the private thought it wouldn’t be long before the NAAFI and its counterparts started to set up shop within the system. And they’d be followed by far less scrupulous organisations. “There’s nothing else to do here.”

    Dinner was surprisingly spicy, Stephen discovered, although he found himself enjoying it more than he’d expected. Admiral Weisskopf explained that his cook was Mexican, someone who had joined the USN to escape the chaos that gripped the Mexican Protectorates on a regular basis. Stephen had to admit he’d never eaten anything like it, even in London’s handful of curry houses. He was tempted to suggest that the cook opened a restaurant in London, although it was possible he wouldn’t be granted a licence. The city’s authorities were suspicious of anything that smacked of ethnic food.

    Which is stupid, Stephen thought. The Troubles had left scars in their wake. He couldn’t help wondering just how much Britain had lost in the chaos. It isn’t as if we ever went to war with Mexico.

    He took a sip of his beer and surveyed the table. The Americans seemed to be considerably less formal than their British counterparts, with junior officers enjoying a freedom to speak that would probably have landed their counterparts in hot water. They didn’t seem to care so much about the dinner arrangements, either. There hadn’t been any set courses, just an invitation for the diners to help themselves. Stephen was pretty sure the Americans would be more formal if diplomats or senior officers were involved, but he found their attitude rather relaxing. It was nice not to have to worry about the proper way to hold a fork.

    “You’ll be able to check in with the destroyers on the near side of Alien-1,” Admiral Weisskopf said, once the meal was finished. “After that, you’re on your own.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said. “I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.”

    “More dangerous than you might think,” Admiral Weisskopf warned. “Watch your back.”

    “Yes, sir,” Stephen said.

    He was in a pensive mood as the shuttle disengaged from Texas and headed back to Invincible. He’d read Admiral Weisskopf’s orders. He wasn’t surprised that Admiral Weisskopf was unwilling to detach ships from the MNF to go to Invincible’s aid. His orders gave him very little leeway. He was to hold Falkirk and, if that proved impossible, he was to withdraw down the tramline chain. He was not to go gallivanting off on missions that might make it harder for him to carry out his orders.

    “Captain, we’ll dock in two minutes,” the pilot said. “Do you have any specific orders?”

    “Just dock at the forward airlock,” Stephen ordered. He keyed his wristcom. “Commander Newcomb, meet me in my Ready Room in five minutes.”

    He sighed as he sat back and studied the MNF. It looked alert, yet no fleet could remain on alert indefinitely. And yet, Admiral Weisskopf had been right. An attack could come at any moment, catching the defenders by surprise. The MNF would be constantly rotating its positions, with some units at battlestations while others remained at a lower state of readiness. They had no choice. They couldn’t keep their crews at alert indefinitely without burning them out.

    A low rumble echoed through the shuttle - the gravity field flickered again - as the craft docked with Invincible. Stephen rose and walked through the airlock, thinking hard. There didn’t seem to be any reason to make any changes to the original plan, save perhaps for the presence of scouting destroyers in the systems between Falkirk and Alien-1. He could send messages with them, allowing him to keep his own destroyers in reserve. It wasn’t ideal - the flicker network had spoilt them - but it was the best he could do. Admiral Weisskopf would need their records from Alien-1 before they pushed into unexplored space.

    Commander Newcomb met Stephen in his Ready Room. “How was it?”

    “We’re going to be on our own, as we anticipated,” Stephen said, and shortly outlined what had happened during the meeting. “The MNF isn’t allowed to leave Falkirk.”

    “It makes sense, sir,” Newcomb said. “Falkirk is a bottleneck system.”

    “Unless the virus has its own version of the jump drive,” Stephen said. The virus might not be deterred by the immense cost of building and using the drive. “They could leapfrog around the MNF and strike at Earth.”

    “They’d still need to get control of the tramlines,” Newcomb pointed out. “I don’t believe they could produce an indefinite supply of jump cages.”

    Stephen shrugged. They knew so little about their enemy. The virus might have no qualms about wasting vast amounts of resources; hell, the resources it might expend on building jump drive cages might be a tiny fraction of its overall resources. He cursed under his breath. MI6 could make reasonably accurate guesses at how many ships the Great Powers might be able and willing to build - and semi-accurate guesses about the alien powers - but the virus was a complete blank. The idea of an entire star system being converted into a war machine was terrifying. Even during the darkest days of the First Interstellar War, humanity hadn’t embraced collectivism. There was no way the Great Powers would agree to unite as one. But the virus? It was a single entity.

    It must have some way of splitting up and recombining, Stephen thought. I wonder if we could turn it against itself ...

    He put the thought aside for later consideration and sighed. “Commander, ready the ship for departure as planned,” he said. “I have to write my final reports to the Admiralty, then get some rest.”

    “Yes, sir,” Newcomb said. “I’ll take care of it personally.”
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    Owing to a combination of a house move and medical appointments, there will probably be no updates until Wednesday. Sorry.

    Chris
     
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