Original Work The Embers of War (Angel in the Whirlwind 6)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, May 2, 2018.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, Everyone

    The Embers of War (the title will probably be changed at some point) is technically book 6 in the Angel in the Whirlwind (Kat Falcone) series. I say technically because The Hyperspace Trap (nee Becalmed) is numbered as book five, but I deliberately wrote it as a side story. You can skip it if you wish. <grin>

    If you haven’t read the books, all you really need to know is that the Commonwealth has won its war with the Theocracy and Theocratic Space is now under occupation. But the war has left the Commonwealth exhausted and discontent is spreading rapidly ...

    ... And Kat Falcone, who fought and won the war at huge personal cost, is now caught in the middle.

    As always, everything from spelling corrections to continuity errors and other screw-ups will be more than warmly welcomed.

    Unfortunately, there will be some delays in production owing to my health and family commitments. But I’ll try to keep it flowing as much as possible.

    And, just to let you know, I have several new books up on Amazon. Check out my site - Home - for details.

  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    “That’s all you could find?”

    The two officers winced in unison, as if they expected to be marched to the airlock and unceremoniously thrown into space for failing to accomplish the impossible. Once, Admiral Zaskar acknowledged ruefully, they might have been right. Failure was a sign of God’s displeasure, a proof that the failure - the failed - deserved to be punished. But if that was true, and he no longer believed it was so, what did that say about the Theocracy?

    He studied the manifest on the datapad for a long moment, trying to hold back a tidal wave of depression. A few crates of starship components, some so old they probably dated all the way back to the early days of spaceflight; some old boxes of ration bars that were older than most of the men who were going to eat them ... it was a far cry from the supplies they needed to keep the fleet alive. The fleet - the squadron, really - was on the verge of breaking down completely. In truth, he’d started to lose faith in his ability to keep his ships and men together long enough for the enemy to give up the pursuit.

    “And the asteroid base?” He looked up at the officers. “Were there any people who might be interested in joining us?”

    “No, Admiral,” the older officer said. “They refused our offers.”

    And we can't make them a little more compulsory, Zaskar told himself. We’d be betrayed within the week.

    He cursed his former masters under his breath. His crew was composed of ignorants and fanatics, neither of whom could do maintenance work worth a damn. The only thing they could do was remove a broken component and slot in a replacement, which had worked fine until their supply lines were destroyed once and for all. Even the finest engineers on the fleet couldn't repair everything, let alone build new components from scratch. He’d had to cannibalise and abandon a dozen ships just to keep the rest of the squadron going. And he was all too aware that their time was running out.

    “Go see the Cleric for ritual cleansing,” he ordered, shortly. “And then return to your duties.”

    The two officers bowed, then retreated. Zaskar watched them go, then tapped a command into his terminal. A holographic image snapped into existence, flickering slightly. Zaskar’s eyes narrowed as he studied his fleet. The flicker was tiny, but it shouldn't have been there at all. It was a grim reminder of their predicament. The onboard datanet was glitched and no one, not even their sole computer expert, had been able to fix it. His entire ship was breaking down.

    He wanted to believe that the handful of light codes in the display represented a powerful force. Four superdreadnaughts, nine cruisers, twelve destroyers and a pair of courier boats ... on paper, it was a powerful force. But one superdreadnaught could neither fire missiles nor energise a beam - and ammunition was in short supply in any case - and five of the smaller ships were on their last legs. Each failure, small in itself, led to a cascading series of failures that simply could not be fixed. Zaskar rather suspected that the Commonwealth wouldn't need an entire superdreadnaught squadron to wipe out his fleet in a stand-up battle. A single superdreadnaught would be more than enough.

    Which is why we are here, he thought, switching to the near-space display. They won’t come looking for us here, not until we are betrayed.

    He gritted his teeth in bitter rage. The asteroid settlement was the sort of place he would have destroyed, if he’d stumbled across it before the war. Smugglers weren't allowed to operate within the Theocracy, which hadn't stopped a number of high-ranking personal from trading safety and political cover for items that they simply couldn't obtain anywhere else. And now ... he swore, angrily. The smugglers might be their only hope, if they could find something to trade. But the squadron had very little to offer the scum of the galaxy.

    Except ships, he reminded himself. And we’re not that desperate, are we?

    Zaskar tapped the console, shutting off the display. He didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, but perhaps they were that desperate. His fleet was dying. And its crew was dying too. Discipline was steadily breaking down - internal security had logged everything from fights to a handful of unpopular officers being murdered in their bunks - and he didn't dare try to crack down. His crewmen were too ignorant to realise just how bad things really were - yet - but he knew it was only a matter of time. The squadron was well on its way to collapsing into irrelevance. The Commonwealth wouldn't have to lift a finger to destroy them. They’d do that for themselves.

    He took a breath, tasting something faintly unpleasant in the air. The air circulation system was starting to break down too. He’d had men cleaning the vents and checking - and rechecking - the recycling plants, but if their air suddenly turned poisonous ... that would be the end. It wouldn't even have to be that poisonous. An atmospheric imbalance - perhaps an excess of oxygen - would be just as bad. A spark would cause an explosion. Hell, merely breathing in excessive oxygen would cause problems too.

    The hatch hissed open. Zaskar looked up, already knowing who he’d see. There was only one person who would come into his ready room without ringing the buzzer and waiting for permission to enter. Lord Cleric Moses stood there, his beard as unkempt as ever. Zaskar couldn't help thinking there were more flecks of grey in his hair than there had been yesterday. Moses was nearly two decades older than Zaskar himself and hadn't had the benefit of a military career.

    And he isn’t even the Lord Cleric, Zaskar reminded himself, dryly. He just assumed the title on the assumption that he was the senior surviving cleric.

    The thought brought another wave of depression. Ahura Mazda had fallen. The Tabernacle had been destroyed and the planet had been occupied ... if the wretched smugglers were to be believed. Zaskar wanted to believe that the smugglers had lied, but ... he’d been there, during the final battle. He was all too aware that the Royal Tyre Navy had won. And his fleet, the one that should have fought to the bitter end, had been all that remained of the Theocratic Navy. He sometimes wondered, in the dead of night, if it would have been better to stay and die in defence of his homeworld and his religion. At least he wouldn't have lived to see his fleet slowly starting to die.

    “They found nothing, it seems,” Moses said, taking a seat. “They didn't even find any worthy women.”

    Zaskar snorted. Moses had suggested, quite seriously, that they leave Theocratic Space entirely and set out to find a new home somewhere far from explored space. But his fleet’s crew consisted solely of men. Kidnapping women was about the only real solution to their problem, but where could they hope to find nearly a hundred thousand women? Raiding a mid-sized planet might work - and he’d seriously considered it - yet he doubted they could take the women and withdraw before the occupiers responded. Come to think of it, he wasn't even sure he could punch through the planet’s defences. His fleet was in a terrible state.

    “No,” he said.

    “And they heard more rumours,” Moses added. “More worlds have slipped from our control.”

    “Yes,” Zaskar said. “Are you surprised?”

    The Cleric gave him a sharp look. Zaskar looked back, evenly. The days when a cleric could have a captain, or even an admiral, hauled off his command deck and scourged were long gone. Moses had little real power and they both knew it. Speaking truth to power was no longer a dangerous game. And the blunt truth was that the Theocracy had alienated so many locals on every world they’d occupied that the locals had revolted almost as soon as the orbital bombardment systems were destroyed.

    Moses looked down. “God will provide.”

    Hah, Zaskar thought. God had turned His back. We need a miracle.

    His console bleeped. “Admiral?”

    Zaskar stabbed his finger at the button. “Yes?”

    “Admiral, we just picked up a small scoutship dropping out of hyperspace,” Captain Geris said. “They’re broadcasting an old code, sir, and requesting permission to come aboard.”

    “An old code?” Zaskar leaned forward. “How old?”

    “It’s a priority-one code from four years ago,” Captain Geris informed him. “I’m surprised it’s still in our database.”

    Moses met Zaskar’s eyes. “A trick?”

    Zaskar shrugged. “Captain, are we picking up any other ships?”

    “Negative, sir.”

    “Then invite the scout to dock at our forward airlock,” Zaskar ordered. “And have its occupant brought to my ready room.”

    “Aye, Captain.”

    Zaskar leaned back in his chair as the connection broke. A priority-one code from four years ago? It could be a trap, but outdated codes were generally rejected once everyone had been notified that they were outdated. The Theocracy had been - was, he told himself - so large that it had been incredibly difficult to keep everyone current. And yet, four years was too long. It made little sense. The code dated all the way back to the Battle of Cadiz.

    “They wouldn’t need to play games if they’d found us,” he said, more to himself than to Moses. The scout could be crammed to the gunnels with antimatter, but the worst they could do was take out the Righteous Revenge. “They’d bring in a superdreadnaught squadron and finish us off.”

    “Unless they want to be sure they’ve caught all of us,” Moses said. “The Inquisition often watched heretics for weeks, just to be certain that all of their friends and fellow unbelievers were identified.”

    Zaskar smiled. “We’ll see.”

    He couldn't help feeling a flicker of shame as the guest - the sole person on the scout, according to the search party - was shown into his ready room. Once, it would have taken a mere five minutes to bring someone aboard; now, it had taken twenty. He dreaded to think of what would happen they had to go into battle. A delay in raising their shields and activating their point defence would prove fatal.

    Their guest didn't seem perturbed by the delay, or by the armed Janissaries following his every move, or even by the obvious fact that Righteous Revenge was on her last legs. He merely looked around with polite interest. Zaskar studied him back, noting the hawk-nosed face, tinted skin and neatly-trimmed beard. The man had gone to some lengths to present himself as a citizen of Ahura Mazda. Even his brown tunic suggested he’d grown up on Zaskar’s homeworld..

    And he has a dozen implants, Zaskar thought, studying the report from the security scan. The visitor was practically a cyborg. And that means he’s from ...?

    “Please, be seated,” Zaskar said. He kept his voice polite. Advanced implants meant that their guest was from one of the major powers. The Commonwealth was right out, of course, but there were others. Some of them might even see advantage in backing his fleet. “I’m Admiral Zaskar, commander of this fleet.”

    “A pleasure,” the man said. He inclined his head in a formal bow. “I’m Simon Askew.”

    “A pleasure,” Zaskar echoed. The name meant nothing to him, but he rather suspected it wasn't the man’s real name. “You seem to have come looking for us.”

    “Correct,” Askew said. He leaned forward. “My ... superiors would like to offer you a certain degree of support in your operations.”

    “Indeed?” Zaskar wasn’t sure he believed it or not. Keeping his fleet going would require an immense investment. “And the price would be?”

    “We want you to keep the Commonwealth busy,” Askew said. “It is in our interests to see them get bogged down.”

    “Is it now?” Zaskar frowned. “And who would be interested in seeing them bogged down?”

    “My superiors wish to remain unnamed,” Askew informed him. He reached into his pocket and removed a datapad. “But they are prepared to be quite generous.”

    He held the datapad out. Zaskar took it and scanned the open document rapidly. It was a list of everything the fleet needed to keep functioning, everything from starship components to missiles and ration bars. It was ... it was unbelievable. It had to be a trap. And yet ... and yet, he wanted to believe. If the offer was genuine, they could keep wearing away at the Commonwealth until it withdrew from Theocratic Space. They could win!

    Moses took the datapad. Zaskar barely noticed.

    “You want us to keep the Commonwealth busy,” he said. It was suddenly very hard to speak clearly. “It seems a reasonable price.”

    His mind raced. No smuggler could tranship so much war material into a war zone, not without running unacceptable risks. And no smuggler would have access to cyborg technology. Only a great power could supply the weapons and equipment ... and only a great power would benefit from keeping the Commonwealth tied down. The list of suspects was relatively short.

    And it doesn't matter, he told himself. They’d have to be alert for the prospect of betrayal, but that was a given anyway. The Theocracy had been the least popular galactic government for decades, even before the war. We could win!

    “Very well,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    The sound of a distant explosion, muffled by the forcefield surrounding Commonwealth House, woke Kat Falcone as she lay in her bed. Others followed, flickers of multicoloured light dancing through the window as homemade rockets or mortar shells crashed into the forcefield and exploded harmlessly. She rolled over and sat upright, blinking as the lights automatically brightened. Her bedside terminal was blinking green. Pointless attacks had been so common, over the last year, that hardly anyone bothered to sound the alert any longer. The insurgents had yet to realise that no amount of makeshift rocketry would pose a threat to the Commonwealth HQ. Even without the forcefield, Commonwealth House could take the blow and shrug it off. The blasts wouldn't even scratch the paint.

    Not that we’re going to turn off the forcefield to let them try, she thought morbidly, as she sat upright and crossed her arms under her bare breasts. That would be pushing fate too far.

    She snorted at the thought as she forced herself to key her terminal to bring up the latest set of reports. There was no change, she noted wryly; an endless liturgy of shootings, bombings, gang rapes, robberies and other horrors undreamt of on Tyre. But Ahura Mazda’s population had been kept under tight control for decades, centuries even. The sudden collapse of everything they’d once taken for granted had unleashed years of pent-up frustrations. She sometimes thought that the insurgency was really a civil war, with Commonwealth troops only being engaged when they got in the way. Ahura Mazda seemed to have gone completely mad.

    Damn them, she thought. A final spread of makeshift rockets struck the forcefield outside, then faded away. And damn their dead leaders too.

    She looked down at her hands, feeling as if she simply wanted to stay in bed. She’d had plans for the future, once. She was going to get married and see the universe, perhaps by purchasing a freighter and travelling from system to system, doing a little trading along the way. Instead, her fiancé was dead and she was still in the navy - technically. She hadn't stood on a command deck for nearly a year. Instead, she was chained to a desk on an occupied world, trying to govern a sector of forty inhabited star systems that had just been liberated from one of the worst tyrannies humanity had had the misfortune to invent. The chaos was beyond belief. Ahura Mazda wasn’t the only world going through a nervous breakdown. She’d read reports of everything from mass slaughter to forced deportation of everyone who’d converted to the True Faith.

    Years of pent-up hatreds, she reminded herself. She’d been lucky. She hadn't grown up in a world where saying the wrong thing could get her beheaded. And they have all been released at once.

    There was a sharp knock at the door. Kat glared at it, resisting the urge to order the visitor to go away. There was only one person who could come through that door. It opened a moment later, allowing Lucy Yangtze to step into the bedroom. The middle-aged woman studied Kat with a surprisingly maternal eye as she carried the breakfast tray over to the bedside table. Kat had to fight to keep from snapping at her to get out. Lucy was a steward. Looking after Kat was her job.

    “Good morning, Admiral,” Lucy said. She managed to sound disapproving without making it obvious. “How are you today?”

    Kat swallowed a number of remarks she knew would be petty and childish. “I didn’t sleep well,” she said, as Lucy uncovered the tray. “And then they woke me up.”

    “You need to go to bed earlier,” Lucy said, dryly.

    “Hah,” Kat muttered. She forced herself to stand, heedless of her nakedness. “There are too many things to do here.”

    “Then delegate some of them,” Lucy suggested, gently. “You have an entire staff under you, do you not?”

    Pat would have cracked a rude joke, Kat thought. It felt like a stab to the heart. And I would have elbowed him ...

    She pushed the thought aside with an effort. “We’ll see,” she said, vaguely. In truth, she didn't want to delegate anything. Too much was riding on the occupation’s success for her to casually push authority down the chain. And yet, Lucy was right. Ahura Mazda wasn’t a starship. A single mind couldn’t hope to keep abreast of all the details, let alone make sure the planet ran smoothly. If that was her goal, she’d already failed. “I’ll talk to you later.”

    “I’ll have lunch ready for 1300,” Lucy said. “You can make it a working dinner if you like.”

    Kat had to smile, although she knew it wasn’t really funny. All of her dinners were working dinners, these days. She rarely got to eat in private with anyone. Even cramming a ration bar into her mouth between meetings wasn’t an option. She couldn't help feeling, as she tucked into her scrambled eggs, that she was merely spinning her wheels in mud. She went to countless meetings, she made decisions - often again and again and again - and yet ... was she actually doing anything. She kicked herself, again, for allowing them to promote her off the command deck. The Admiralty would probably have let her take command of a heavy cruiser on deep-space patrol if she’d made enough of a fuss.

    It has to be done, she thought, as she tapped her console to bring up the latest news reports from home. And I’m the one the king tapped for the post.

    “Naval spokespeople today confirmed that the search for MV Supreme has been finally called off,” the talking head said. He was a man so grave that Kat rather suspected he was nothing more than a computer-generated image. “The cruise liner, which went missing in hyperspace six months ago, has been declared lost with all hands. Duke Cavendish issued a statement reassuring investors that the Cavendish Corporation will meet its commitments, but independent analysts are questioning their finances ...”

    Kat sighed. Trust the media to put a lost cruise liner ahead of anything important. “Next.”

    “Infighting amongst refugees on Tarsus has led to a declaration of martial law,” the talking head told her. “President Theca has taken personal control of the situation and informed the refugees that any further misbehaviour, regardless of the cause, will result in immediate arrest and deportation. The Commonwealth Refugee Commission has blamed the disorder on poor supply lines and has called on Tarsus to make more supplies available to the refugees. However, local protests against refugees have grown ...”

    “And it could be worse, like it is here,” Kat muttered. “Next!”

    “Sharon Mackintosh has become the latest starlet to join the Aaron Group Marriage,” the talking head said. “She will join fifty-seven other starlets in matrimonial bliss ...”

    “Off,” Kat snapped.

    She shook her head in annoyance. The occupied zone was turning into a nightmare, no matter how many meetings she attended, and the news back home was largely trivial. The end of the war had brought confusion in its wake - she knew that better than anyone - but there were times when she thought that the king was the only one trying to hold everything together. The Commonwealth hadn't been designed for a war and everyone knew it. And all the tensions that had been put on the backburner, while the Commonwealth fought for its very survival, were starting to tear the Commonwealth apart.

    Standing, she walked over to the window and peered out. Tabernacle City had been a ramshackle mess even before the occupation, but now it was a nightmare. Smoke was rising from a dozen places, marking the latest bombings; below, she could see marines and soldiers heading out on patrol. The civilians seemed to trust the occupiers more than they trusted the warring factions, but they were scared to come into the open and say so. They were afraid, deep inside, that the occupation wouldn’t last. Her eyes picked out Government House, standing a short distance from Commonwealth House. Admiral Junayd and his people were trying to put together a provisional government, but it was a slow job. Their authority was weaker than most of the insurgent factions. She didn't envy them.

    Her wristcom bleeped from the table. She stalked back to the bed and picked it up. “Go ahead.”

    “Admiral,” Lieutenant Kitty Patterson’s voice said. “You have a meeting in thirty minutes.”

    “Understood,” Kat said. She allowed herself a moment of gratitude. Thirty minutes was more than long enough to shower and get dressed. “I’ll be there.”

    She turned and walked into the shower, silently grateful that Commonwealth House had its own water supply. The local water distribution network had been on the verge of failing even before the occupation; now, with pipes smashed by the insurgents and entire pumping stations looted and destroyed, there were entire districts that barely had enough water to keep the population from dying of thirst. Kat didn’t understand how anyone could live in such an environment. She thought she would sooner have risked her life in revolt than waste away and die.

    But it was never that easy, she thought. This is how too many people here believe it should be.

    She washed and dressed quickly, inspecting her appearance in the reflector field before she left the suite. Her white uniform was neatly pressed, her medals and her golden hair shone in the light ... but there was a lost look in her eyes she knew she should lose. She was depressed and she knew it and she really should talk to the shrinks, but training and experience told her that the psychologists were not to be trusted. None of them had commanded ships in battle, or made life-or-death decisions, or done anything that might qualify them to pass judgement on a spacer’s life. She took a long breath, gathering herself as she strapped a pistol to her belt, then walked through the door and down the corridor. The two marine guards at the far end of the corridor saluted her. She returned it as the hatch opened in front of her.

    They built the place to resemble a starship, she thought, dourly. It had been amusing, once, to contemplate the mindset of whoever had thought it was a good idea. Were they trying to remind everyone that, one day, the Commonwealth would leave Ahura Mazda? Or did they just want to pretend, for a few hours, that they were designing starships? But they forgot to include a command deck.

    She drew herself up as she stepped through the next hatch, into the meeting room. It was large and ornate, although she’d managed to clear out the worst of the luxury. She didn't want people to get too comfortable in meeting rooms. Thankfully, most of her senior staff had genuine experience, ether in combat or repairing and rejuvenating shattered planetary infrastructures. The war had created far too many of them.

    And I don’t have many chair-warmers, she reminded herself, as her staff stood to welcome her. It could be worse.

    “Thank you for coming,” she said, once she’d taken her chair. “Be seated.”

    She cast her eye around the table as her staffers sat down. General Timothy Winters, Commonwealth Marines; Colonel Christopher Whitehall, Royal Engineering Corps; Major Shawna Callable, Commonwealth Refugee Commission; Captain Janice Wilson, Office of Naval Intelligence; Lieutenant Kitty Patterson, Kat’s personal aide. It was a diverse group, she told herself firmly. And the absence of wallflowers - junior staffers to senior staffers - allowed everyone to talk freely.

    “I was woken this morning by a rocket attack,” she said, as a server poured tea and coffee. “I assume there was no reason to be alarmed?”

    “No, Admiral,” Winters said. He was a big beefy man, with a bald head and scarred cheekbones “It was merely another random attack. The people behind it scarpered before we could catch them.”

    Because we can’t fire shells back into the city, Kat reminded herself, sharply. The insurgents would claim we’d killed civilians, even if we hadn’t.

    She felt a flash of hatred deeper than anything she’d ever felt for enemy spacers. She’d never seen her opponents in space, not face-to-face. It had been easy to believe that they weren't that different from her, that they weren’t monsters. But here, on the ground, she couldn’t avoid the simple fact that the insurgents were monsters. They killed anyone who supported the provisional government, raped and mutilated women they caught out of doors, placed heavy weapons emplacements in inhabited homes, used children to carry bombs towards the enemy ... Kat wanted them all dead. Ahura Mazda would have no hope of becoming a decent place to live as long as those monsters stalked the streets. But tracking them all down was a long and difficult talk.

    “At least no one was killed,” Major Shawna Callable said. “Admiral, we need more resources for the women’s shelters. We’re running short of just about everything.”

    “And they also need more guards,” Winters told her. “The last attack nearly broke the perimeter before it was beaten off.”

    “Draw them from the reserves,” Kat ordered. She didn’t like deploying her reserves, not when she was all too aware of how badly her forces were overstretched, but she had no choice. The women in the shelters would be raped and murdered if one of their shelters was overrun. “And see what we can find in the way of additional supplies.”

    If we can find anything, her thoughts added. Ahura Mazda produced nothing these days, as far as she could tell. The infrastructure had been literally torn to shreds. Putting the farms back into production was turning into a long hard slog. We’re running short on just about everything these days.

    She looked at Winters. “Is there anything we can do to make it harder for the insurgents to get to them?”

    “Only moving the refugees a long way away,” Winters said. “Personally, I’d recommend one of the islands. We could set up a proper security net there and vaporise anything heading in without the right security codes.”

    “We barely have the resources to keep the cities alive,” Colonel Christopher Whitehall said, curtly. He was short, with black skin and dark penetrating eyes. His record stated that he’d been a marine before he’d been wounded and transferred to the Royal Engineers. “Right now, Admiral, I’m honestly expecting a disaster at any moment.”

    “So train up some locals and put them to work,” Winters snapped. He thumped the table to underline the suggestion. “It’s their bloody city. And their people who will die of thirst if we lose the pumping stations completely.”

    “The training programs are going slowly,” Whitehall snapped back. The frustration in his voice was all too clear. “Half the idiots on this wretched ball of mud think that trying to fix a broken piece of machinery is sinful, while the other half can’t count to twenty-one without taking off their trousers. We’ve got a few women who might be good at it, if they were given a chance, but we can't send them out on repair jobs.”

    “It’s their schooling,” Shawna told them. “They weren't encouraged to actually learn.”

    Kat nodded in grim understanding. The Theocracy’s educational system had been a joke. No, that wasn't entirely true. It had done its job, after all. It had churned out millions of young men who knew nothing, least of all how to think. But rote recitals were useless when it came to repairing even a relatively simple machine. It was a mystery to her how the Theocratic Navy had managed to keep its fleet going long enough to actually start the war. Their shortage of trained engineers had to have been an utter nightmare.

    They never picked on anyone their own size, she told herself. The Theocracy’s first targets had all been stage-one or stage-two worlds. Very few of them had had any space-based defences, let alone the ability to take the fight to the enemy. And they certainly weren’t prepared for a long war.

    Whitehall met her eyes. “We need more engineers, Admiral, and more protective troops. If we lose a couple more pumping stations ...”

    “I know,” Kat said. They’d come to the same conclusion time and time again, in pointless meeting after pointless meeting. “Right now, Tyre doesn’t seem to be interested in sending either.”

    “We could try to hire civilian engineers,” Kitty suggested. She was the lowest-ranking person at the table, but that didn’t stop her from offering her opinions. “They could take up some of the slack.”

    Whitehall snorted. “I doubt it,” he said. “There’s work in the Commonwealth for engineers, Lieutenant, and safer too. They won’t be in any danger on Tarsus or ... well, anywhere. I don’t think we could get them out here.”

    Kitty reddened. “I ... sorry, Admiral.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Kat said, briskly. She looked around the table. “Are there any other solutions?”

    “Not in the short run,” Whitehall said. “We have water and power, Admiral. It’s getting them both to their destination that is the real problem. We’ve tried setting up purification centres near the sewers and...”

    The building shook, gently. Kat tensed, one hand dropping to the pistol at her belt. That hadn't been a homemade rocket. A nuke? The Theocracy had supposedly thrown its entire nuclear arsenal at the navy, when it had arrived, but she’d never been entirely sure they’d used all their nukes. Hell, the Theocrats themselves hadn't been sure. Their recordkeeping had been appalling. A nuke wouldn't break the forcefield, but it would do immense damage to the city.

    Winters checked his wristcom, then swore. “Admiral,” he said. “There’s been an explosion.”

    “Where?” Kat stood. The blast had been very close. If the insurgents had managed to open a pathway into Commonwealth House, the defenders might be in some trouble. “And what happened?”

    “Government House.” Winters sounded stunned. “The building is in ruins. Admiral Junayd is dead.”

    “... Shit,” Kat said.
  4. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    Peter Falcone - Duke Peter Falcone, he reminded himself savagely - stared at the heavy wooden doors and tried not to let his impatience show on his face. He was no callow youth, although he’d grown up in the shadows of Duke Lucas Falcone; he was one of the single most wealthy and powerful people on Tyre. It hadn’t been easy to convince enough of the family to back him, even though he was Lucas’s oldest child, but he’d made it. The Falcone Family was in his hands now. He had no intention of failing in his duty to his people.

    Assuming I ever get through my investiture, he thought, as he looked at the doors. They were firmly closed, awaiting the king’s pleasure. Who thought it was a good idea to come up with such ... such pageantry?

    He snorted at the thought. The planet’s founders, including his great-grandfather, had created a corporate state. There had been fourteen corporations, at the time, and they’d divided the world up between them. It had been simple enough, he’d thought, but - to give the whole enterprise a veneer of legitimacy - they’d turned the planet into a monarchy, with the most powerful CEO declared king. And it had grown from there into a tangled system that worked ... mostly. But the founders had never imagined the Breakdown, or the Commonwealth, or - worst of all - the recently-concluded war.

    And they didn't imagine one of the corporations collapsing either, Peter told himself. The Ducal Fourteen had always seemed too big to fail. But the Cavendish Corporation was on the verge of total collapse and Peter had a nasty feeling that others might follow. His own corporation was barely treading water. We never imagined having to splash out so much money on everything from weapons development to forward projection.

    It was a sour point, one that had stuck in his craw ever since he’d discovered just how much money had been expended - and just how much remained unaccounted for. The government had raised taxes, as well as asking for voluntary contributions from the big corporations, but its accounting had been poor. The desperate rush to put as many warships into space as possible had done nothing for financial discipline. Peter was uneasily aware that nearly thirty percent of the budget for the last four years had vanished into black projects, projects he wasn’t supposed to know about. It was a staggering amount of money, truly unimaginable, and it was one of the bones the House of Lords wanted to pick with the king. And yet, it wasn't the worst of them.

    Trumpets blared. The doors were thrown open, revealing a pair of uniformed flunkies and, beyond them, the House of Lords. Peter pasted a neutral expression on his face as he began to walk forward, wondering just how many people were watching him make a fool of himself through the datanet. The entire ceremony was being broadcast live. His father had made ceremony look solemn and dignified, but Peter suspected he looked like an idiot. The fancy robes and stylised hair came from a bygone era.

    And true power lies in money, warships and fighting men, he thought, as he walked into the chamber. I could wear rags and Eau De Skunk and I’d still be one of the most powerful men in the world.

    He allowed his eyes to sweep the chamber as the doors were closed behind him. Seven hundred and ninety lords and ladies, crammed into a room that had only been designed for five hundred. People had been talking about expanding the House of Lords, or rewriting the rules about who could and who couldn't attend via hologram or proxy, for years, but nothing had come of it. The lords who could trace their bloodlines all the way back to the founders had been joined by newer noblemen, some who’d more than earned their right to a title and others who had been rewarded for services rendered. A cluster of lords, sitting in the upper benches, wore robes to signify that they were colonials. And hadn't there been a thoroughly nasty fight over their right to sit in the chamber?

    Peter sighed, inwardly, as he picked out a handful of names and faces. Prime Minister Arthur Hampshire, technically a commoner; Israel Harrison, Leader of the Opposition; Duke Jackson Cavendish, trying hard to look confident even though everyone knew he no longer had a pot to piss in ... names and faces, some of whom were friends, some of whom were allies and some of whom were deadly enemies. Peter wondered, careful not to show even a trace of doubt on his face, if he was really up to the task. There were men and women in the chamber who’d been playing politics long before Peter had been born.

    There’s no one else, he told himself, firmly. And I dare not fail.

    He sucked in his breath. He wasn't inexperienced. His father had made him work in the family corporation for years, pushing him out of his comfort zone time and time again. And chewing him out, royally, when he’d screwed up. Peter wasn't sure how he felt about that either. His father had been a good man, but he’d also been a hard man. The family could not afford weakness in the ranks. Peter, at least, had been given a chance to learn from his mistakes. Not everyone had been so lucky.

    And others never had to take up the role, he thought, feeling a flicker of resentment - once again - for his youngest sister. Kat had never had to study business, never had to take up a position within the family corporation. Instead, she’d gone to war and carved out a life for herself. Some people have all the luck.

    Peter stopped in the exact centre of the chamber and looked up at the king. King Hadrian, first of that name, looked back at him. He was a tall man, with short dark hair and a face that was strikingly calculating. The king, Peter knew from experience, was a man who could move from affability to threat with terrifying speed. He was young too, younger than Peter himself. It was something Peter knew had worried his father. Peter - and the other corporate heirs - could learn their trade without risking everything, but the king’s heir could not become king until his father had passed away. King Hadrian had been learning his trade on the job. And it was hard to tell, Peter had to admit, just how much was cold calculation and just how much was sheer luck. And inexperience.

    A shame the rumours about the king and Kat were groundless, Peter thought, as he knelt in front of his monarch. She would have made a good partner for him ...

    He dismissed the thought, ruthlessly. There was no point in crying over the impossible. An affair was one thing, but marriage? The other dukes would have blocked the match without a second thought. And besides, Kat had been in love with a commoner. Peter couldn't help feeling another stab of envy at the thought. His marriage had been arranged, of course; his parents had arranged it. It was one of the prices he paid for his position. But Kat was free to fall in love as she pleased. He wasn't sure it was really a good thing. Kat had been devastated by her lover’s death.

    King Hadrian rose, one hand resting on his sceptre. He wore a full military dress uniform, although it was black rather than white. Peter thought, rather sourly, that the king had no right to wear so much gold braid, let alone the medals jangling at his breast. But then, the king was a hereditary member of a dozen military fraternities. He probably needed to wear the medals his ancestors had won. Some of his supporters would be alienated if he didn’t.

    “It has been a year and a day since Duke Falcone was treacherously killed,” King Hadrian said. His words were a grim reminder that nowhere, not even Tyre itself, was safe from attack. The Theocracy’s strike teams had done a great deal of damage before they’d been wiped out, but the security measures introduced to combat them had been almost worse. “And now, with the period of mourning officially open, we gather to invest his son with the title and powers that once were his father’s.”

    There was a brief, chilling pause. Peter felt his heart beginning to race, even though he was sure there was nothing to worry about. He was the Duke, confirmed by the family council; no one, not even the king, could take it from him. And yet, if the House of Lords refused to seat him, it could cause all manner of trouble back home. The family council might vote to impeach him, on the grounds he couldn't work with the rest of the nobility, and elect someone else in his place. Peter doubted he’d be permitted to return to the corporation after that! It would be more likely that he’d be sent into comfortable exile somewhere.

    “But we must decide if he is worthy to join our ranks,” the king said, calmly. “Honourable members, cast your votes.”

    Peter tensed, telling himself - again - that he was perfectly safe. No one would risk alienating him over something so petty, not now. But the vote was anonymous ... his family’s enemies would vote against him, of course, but what about the others? There were people who might take the opportunity to put him on notice that he couldn't inherit the extensive patronage network his father had built up over the years. And others who would want to renegotiate the terms, now his father was dead. Not everyone was happy with the deals they’d made, years ago.

    He wanted to look round to see the voting totals, but he knew it would be taken as a sign of weakness. He didn't dare look unsure, not now. Weakness invited attack. Instead, all he could do was wait. He silently counted to a hundred under his breath, wishing he didn't feel so exposed. The eyes of the world were upon him.

    “The voting has finished,” King Hadrian said. “In favour, seven hundred and twelve; against, forty-two.”

    And a number of abstentions, Peter thought. Did they refuse to cast a vote because they don’t want to take sides, even on something as pointless as this, or because they recognise the whole ceremony for the farce it is?

    “I welcome you to the House of Lords, Duke Falcone,” King Hadrian said. He reached out and tapped Peter on the shoulder with his sceptre. “You may rise.”

    Peter rose, feeling suddenly stiff. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

    “Take your place amongst us,” King Hadrian said. “I’m sure you will find it a very edifying discussion.”

    A low rustle ran through the chamber as Peter sat down on the bench. It was comfortable, but not too comfortable. Behind him, he heard a handful of lords and ladies leaving now the important business was done. They were too important not to attend the investment, but neither wealthy nor powerful enough to make themselves heard during a debate. And besides, Peter reflected, they probably knew that half the business conducted in the chamber was meaningless. The real deals would be negotiated in private chambers. By the time they were presented to the Houses of Parliament, they would already have been revised thoroughly enough to make them broadly acceptable to everyone. The public debates would be largely meaningless.

    The Speaker came forward, bowed to the king and then took the stand. He was an elderly man, old enough to remember the king’s grandfather. Peter felt a little sorry for him, even though he was sure that anyone who’d held such a position for so long had to know where the bodies were buried. The Speaker had had to wait at the back of the chamber while the king had played his role. But then, that too was part of the ceremony.

    “Thank you, Your Majesty,” the Speaker said. He cleared his throat. “The issue before us ...”

    Peter glanced down at his datapad as the voice droned on. He’d received over fifty private messages in the last five minutes, each one requesting a private meeting. Some of them were just feelers from friends and enemies alike, but others were quite serious. He hadn’t expected a PM from Israel Harrison. Technically, Peter was on the Privy Council; practically, he’d been ... discouraged ... from claiming his father’s seat. There’d been too much else to do over the last year for him to let it bother him.

    “On a point of order, Mr. Speaker,” Israel Harrison said. His voice cut through the hubbub, drawing everyone’s eyes to him. “Is the government seriously proposing to expand the foreign aid budget?”

    He went on before the Prime Minister could respond. “The emergency taxation and spending program was meant to be terminated with the end of the war. We were assured, when we gave our consent, that that would be the case. And yet, here we are, still paying the tax ... and hampering our economy in the process. We need to cut back on government spending and resume economic growth.”

    The Prime Minister stood. “The fact remains that a vast number of worlds, inside and outside the Commonwealth, have been devastated by the war. Millions upon millions of people have been displaced, cities have been destroyed, food supplies have been sharply reduced or cut off entirely ... uncountable numbers of people have had their lives destroyed. Our reconstruction program may be the only thing standing between those people and utter destitution.”

    “I fully understand why my honourable friend feels that way,” Harrison countered. “But I fail to understand why we should risk economic collapse, and our own utter destitution, to save those worlds. Many of them were formerly enemy states. Others have been, if I may make so bold, ungrateful.”

    Peter gritted his teeth as the debate raged backwards and forwards, with government supporters exchanging harsh words with the opposition. It wasn't about the displaced people, he knew, and it wasn't about foreign aid in and of itself. It was the age-old question of just who got to control the budget. The government wanted to keep the emergency taxation program because it gave them more money to spend, while the opposition wanted to get rid of it because it gave the government a great deal of clout to buy votes. And the hell of it, he knew all too well, was that the opposition, if elected into power, would want to keep it too.

    “The military budget is already too high,” Harrison said. “Do we face any real threat from an outside power?”

    Grand Admiral Tobias Vaughn rose. Peter thought he looked tired. Vaughn had been the navy’s senior uniformed officer - which made him the de facto senior officer for all branches of the military - for the last five years, a term that covered the entirety of the war. Rumour had it that Vaughn wanted to retire, but - so far - the king had convinced him to stay. Now the war was over, Peter couldn't help wondering just how long that would last.

    “There are two aspects to your question,” Vaughn said. He sounded tired, too. “First, we do not face a peer threat at the moment. However, our neighbours have been building up their own military forces over the last few years. We have reason to believe that they have been pouring resources into duplicating our advanced weapons and technology - unsurprisingly so, as they may regard us as a potential threat. It is possible that we may face an alliance of two or more great powers in the near future.

    “Second, we have a responsibility to provide security for our territory, both within the Commonwealth and the occupied zone. There is, quite simply, no one else who will provide any form of interstellar security. We must deploy starships to protect planets and shipping lanes, we must deploy troops to protect refugee populations and provide support to various provisional governments. The Jorlem Sector became increasingly lawless as a result of the war, honourable members. Do we really want the Theocratic Sector to go the same way?”

    Harrison stood. “Is it going to be a threat to us?”

    Vaughn looked back at him, evenly. “We have confiscated the remaining enemy industrial production nodes,” he said. “In the short term, chaos in the Theocratic Sector will be very bad for the locals and largely irreverent to us. However, in the long term, there will be pirates, raiders and revanchists taking root within the sector. I submit to you, sir, that those forces will eventually become a threat.”

    “But the Theocracy is dead.” Harrison tapped his foot on the ground. “How long do you want to continue to fight the war?”

    “Until we win,” Vaughn said. “Right now, sir, the sector is unstable and we’re the only thing keeping it under control.”

    “We have a debt of honour,” King Hadrian said.

    “A debt of honour we cannot afford to meet,” Harrison said, curtly. He didn't quite glare at the king. “And a debt of honour that was entered into without Parliament’s consent.”

    Peter groaned, inwardly, as the debate grew louder. Harrison was right, of course. The king had promised much and, so far, delivered little. But the king had made promises he’d had no right to make, certainly not without Parliament’s approval. No wonder his government wanted to keep the emergency taxation powers. It was the only way to keep his promises to the Commonwealth.

    And yet, we simply cannot afford to rebuild all their infrastructure, he thought. The expenditure would be unimaginably huge. Even trying would be disastrous.

    He groaned, again. It was going to be a very long day.
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    “Observers on Ahura Mazda confirm that Admiral Junayd, the head of the provisional government, was killed in an explosion,” the Talking Head said. “Admiral Junayd was the Theocracy’s best naval officer prior to his deflection, after which ...”

    Commodore Sir William McElney snorted rudely in the direction of the display screen, then returned his attention to his beer. The bar was a spacer’s bar, with hundreds of men and women coming in, ordering drinks and then chatting to their mates in hopes of finding work on a starship before they ran out of money and had to go down to the planetary surface. It wasn’t easy. William had discovered, upon his return to Tyre, that vast numbers of spacers had been released from the navy, now the drawdown was in full effect. There were ten spacers for every posting, perhaps more. The freighter captains could pick and choose as they wished.

    He took a sip of his beer, wondering just how long it would be before a fight broke out. Raw desperation hung in the air like a physical force. Spacers hated going down to the ground, even for short periods, yet most of them knew it was just a matter of time before they were marched to the shuttles and unceremoniously sent down. Orbit Station Beta was immense, easily large enough to swallow a number of superdreadnaughts in its hull, but it didn't have room for thousands of spacers. A fight might kill the hopes of anyone involved when they were caught by the guards. These days, the shore patrol was extremely intolerant of anyone who caused trouble.

    His lips twitched, sourly. It had been his fault, as much as anything. He could have stayed in the navy, if he’d wished. But the refugees from Hebrides had needed his help ... he’d thought. They were a hardy people, but they weren’t used to the Commonwealth ... or what life was like outside their dead homeworld. The refugee community hadn't precisely collapsed, not completely, but the youngsters had started to embrace the ways of their new homeworld and the older folk had been unable to stop them. William wasn't sure he blamed them, either. He’d kept some of his homeworld’s practices, after he’d joined the navy, but not all of them. A whole new world was opening up in front of the youngsters, a world where they could do more with their lives. And no one could stand in their way.

    He glanced at his wristcom as the Talking Head started to babble about sports results. She was late. He wasn't even sure why she’d chosen to bar to meet ... unless it was an elaborate joke of some kind. Perhaps it had been a joke. Like it or not, he was no common spacer. How many captains would want to hire a man who technically outranked them, someone who might not be aware that the captain was the ultimate authority on his ship? That was a matter of law - a captain could give orders to an admiral - but rank sometimes did odd things to brains. An admiral might forget that his rank didn't put him above the law.

    A rustle ran through the room as someone stepped through the door. William looked up and lifted his eyebrows. The woman was no spacer. That much was clear, just by looking at her. She wore a white suit that hinted at her curves without revealing them, her blonde hair in a long plait that reached down to her hips and a faint professional smile. William nodded to himself, then raised a hand in greeting. She nodded back as she walked over to the table and sat down.

    “Commodore William McElney?” Her lightly-accented voice suggested she already knew the answer. “A pleasure to meet you in person.”

    “Likewise,” William said. He didn't recognise her accent, although he was fairly sure that she’d spent years on Tyre. “Although it’s just William, now. I’m retired.”

    “I read your file,” the woman said. She held out a hand. “Tanya Barrington, Asher Dales.”

    William studied her for a long moment as he shook her hand. She had a strong grip; indeed, she was stronger than she looked. He wondered, absently, what she made of him. He’d always been short and stubby, despite endless rejuvenation treatments; his hair, slowly starting to turn grey, was grim proof that he hadn’t been born on Tyre. And the long coat he wore over a basic shipsuit was proof he was hurting for money. He was too stubborn to look up some of his old friends for a loan.

    And she looked at my file, William thought. That meant ... what? A government? Or a corporation? Or merely someone with access to an information broker? It wouldn’t be hard to get a copy of his naval record, if someone had the money. There weren't that many classified sections in his file. Who is this woman?

    Tanya reached into her pocket and produced a privacy generator. “I assume you don’t mind me using this ...?”

    “Not at all,” William said. He hadn’t planned to record the conversation. “But we can go into a private room, if you wish.”

    “That might be preferable,” Tanya said. “But we’re still going to have to use it.”

    William nodded, signalling the bartender to make the arrangements. Tanya was young, then; young and a little naive. He found himself looking at her with new eyes as the bartender escorted them to a private meeting room. It was hard to be sure with people who’d had the standard genetic enhancements and suchlike, but he’d bet half his pension that Tanya wasn't long out of her teens. She walked like a professional, which probably meant she had some qualifications, yet little actual experience. In hindsight, perhaps she hadn't realised what a spacer’s bar was like before making arrangements to meet in one.

    “Here we are,” he said, once the door was closed. The meeting room was very basic, but at least it was clean. He’d been in worse places. “What can I do for you?”

    “To cut a long story short, we’d like to hire you,” Tanya said. “You come highly-recommended.”

    William narrowed his eyes. “Really?”

    “Yes,” Tanya said. She reddened, slightly. “Perhaps I should explain.”

    She took a breath, then began. “I was born on Asher Dales, a star system on the other side of the Gap,” she said. “It was a very simple world, really; my father, a spacer captain, only used it as a homeport because my mother had fallen in love with it. Anyway, as you can probably imagine, I was five when the Theocracy arrived. Asher Dales had nothing more than a handful of outdated orbital defence platforms, so the battle began and ended very quickly.”

    “Ouch,” William said.

    “My father managed to sneak a bunch of refugees off the planet, including myself,” Tanya continued. “We ran through the Gap and, eventually, made it to Tyre. There was” - she made a face - “some sort of deal between my father and ONI, which allowed my mother and me to gain permanent residency in exchange for service. I went into the local school system and, eventually, went into law.”

    “And then your planet was liberated,” William said.

    “Yes,” Tanya agreed. “My father played a major role in the liberation, landing with enough troops to prevent the Theocrats from tearing the world apart before it was too late. He was rewarded by being elected president.”

    “I’m glad the story has a happy ending,” William said, sincerely. The cynic in him thought that the refugees would discover that their homeworld was nothing like the idealised one they remembered. “But what does this have to do with me?”

    “We want - we need - to build a space defence force,” Tanya said. “And we need someone to command it.”

    William lifted his eyebrows. “And you don’t have someone who can do it for you?”

    Tanya shook her head. “No,” she said. “A handful of refugees did go into the navy, but the ones I contacted were unwilling to return home. Most of them have permanent residency rights on Tyre and aren't willing to give them up. The others ... don’t have the sort of experience we require. Our database search, when we widened it, turned up you.”

    “I see,” William said. He was tempted. No, he was very tempted. He could have stayed on a command deck, if he’d stayed in the navy. Leaving had been a mistake. And now there was a chance to start again. “What - exactly - do you want?”

    Tanya looked back at him, evenly. “In the short term, you will have considerable power to purchase starships, hire crews and turn them into a dedicated force,” she said. “In the long-term, we will expect you to train crewmen from Asher Dales to serve on the ships.”

    William nodded, slowly. “How much have you done already?”

    “Nothing, beyond arranging a handful of meetings with shipyard owners,” Tanya said. She held out a datapad. “We do have all the licences we need.”

    “I hope so,” William said. He’d dealt with a handful of shipyard owners. The decent ones tended to be anal about paperwork, while the crooked ones expected massive bribes in exchange for keeping their mouths firmly shut. He scanned the datapad and nodded to himself. “Have you applied to the Commonwealth for a grant?”

    “Yes,” Tanya said. “But we’ve been advised, purely off the record, that the odds of getting a grant are very low.”

    “I see,” William said. He scanned the datapad, again. The licences were indeed all in order, as were the credit notes from two different banks. For a planet that had only recently been liberated, Asher Dales had put together a quite impressive sum. “Well, we’ll have to discuss terms, of course ...”

    Tanya smiled. He smiled back. It was easy to tell that she knew he was hooked. The chance to build a small fighting force from scratch, even if it was tiny compared to the fleets that had waged titanic war for the last four years, was not one he could miss. And who knew? Given time, Asher Dales might grow into an economic powerhouse, one that could afford a bigger fleet ... and he’d be at the ground floor. It definitely wasn't something he could miss.

    And I’ll be in space again, he told himself. That alone would make it worthwhile.

    “I can sell you this heavy cruiser,” the dealer said, two days later. “She’s outdated, but ...”

    William glanced at the datapad, then shook his head. “Not a chance,” he said. He’d served on one of those starships, years ago. They weren’t bad designs, but they were high maintenance. “We need to focus on destroyers and corvettes.”

    Tanya caught William’s arm as the dealer turned away. “I thought the bigger, the better.”

    “Size isn't everything,” William muttered back. “And that ship is really too large for purpose. We won’t have the maintenance facilities to keep her going.”

    He’d done a little research, during the brief period between signing contracts and taking a shuttle to the scrapyard. Asher Dales didn't have any space-based maintenance facilities at all. Anything larger than a light cruiser would be in real trouble if she suffered a catastrophic systems failure. And there was no guarantee of getting help from the Commonwealth either. William disliked politics intensely, but he’d studied it enough to be sure that the Commonwealth would not be accepting new members anytime soon.

    And besides, we need numbers, not firepower, he thought. Our foes are not going to be flying in battleships and superdreadnaughts, but destroyers and frigates.

    “I have four destroyers here,” the dealer said, reluctantly. “But they’re quite old.”

    “They look suitable,” William said. They weren't modern ships - the navy wouldn't be selling modern ships outside the Commonwealth - but they were suitable. Besides, they were also relatively easy to keep running. He’d seen similar ships survive and prosper despite the best efforts of their pirate crews. “We will, of course, have to go over them in cynical detail.”

    “Sir!” The dealer sounded offended. “They have CAB certificates.”

    “So they do,” William agreed, lightly. He took the proffered datapad without looking at it. “But we have to go over them anyway.”

    “I’ll arrange a shuttle,” the dealer said. “Is there anything else you need?”

    “Weapons and a sizable number of spare parts,” William said. “And at least one bulk freighter, armed.”

    The dealer’s face fell. “Sir, they’ve been tightening up laws on armed freighters,” he said, slowly. “The government doesn't want ...”

    “Then a freighter with weapons mounts,” William said. That wasn't good news. Despite the navy’s best efforts, far too many freighters travelled without escort ... and too many of them never came home. Piracy had been on the upswing even before the end of the war. Too many escort ships had had to be reassigned to the battleline. “Someone isn't thinking clearly.”

    “No, sir,” the dealer said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

    William grinned at Tanya. “I’ll have to check out the ships,” he said, as the dealer hurried off. “Do you want to come with me or stay here?”

    “I’ll come,” Tanya said. “It might be interesting.”

    The dealer returned. “This way,” he called. “The shuttle’s at the docks.”

    William took his chair and scanned the datapad as the shuttle undocked. The dealer had been telling the truth, unsurprisingly. All four destroyers had been checked before they’d been placed in long-term storage. William was mildly surprised they hadn’t been broken down for recycling or simply sold for scrap, but they were intact ships. They were worth more intact, if they could find a buyer. Besides, the navy had probably considered purchasing them for live-fire targets.

    Tanya nudged his arm. “Did you manage to recruit crew?”

    “A handful,” William said. He’d reached out to a couple of old friends specifically, but the others had been contacted through recruitment agencies. “I’ll have to interview them over the next few days.”

    He frowned as the shuttle docked with the first destroyer. That wasn’t going to be easy, at least until he had a few trustworthy assistants to help with the hiring. He knew what to look for in naval crew - that wouldn't be a problem - but engineering and support staff were going to be a headache. Anyone who hadn't been snapped up by one of the bigger corporations was likely to have serious problems. An alcoholic, perhaps. William had no interest in hiring someone who might be more dangerous to his friends than his enemies.

    The gravity shimmered, slightly, as the hatch opened. William felt his frown deepen. A mismatched gravity field or a sign of something far worse? He’d have to find out before they authorised the purchase ...

    “Let’s go,” he said. “Come on.”

    The dealer remained in the shuttle, to William’s private relief, as they entered and inspected the destroyer. She was a small thing, only five decks; her energy weapons and missile tubes were active, but outdated. William checked the computers, looking for obvious problems, then worked his way through the engineering section. Everything appeared to be outdated, but serviceable. There didn't seem to be any reason to reject the destroyer out of hand, but he’d have to make sure the life support, drives and shields were checked and rechecked before money changed hands. Too much could go wrong too quickly for him to be willing to take chances with vital systems.

    “It seems serviceable,” he said finally, triggering the privacy generator. It wouldn't be hard for the dealer to use the destroyer’s datanet to spy on his customers. “We will have to get a complete inspection team out here, but otherwise it looks good.”

    “And you have to check out the others,” Tanya said, ruefully. “I should have stayed behind, shouldn't I?”

    William shrugged. “You need to know what you’re buying,” he said. He’d seen plenty of young midshipmen run into trouble through sheer ignorance. Tanya didn't even have the advantage of four years at Piker’s Peak. “And you could easily get conned if you didn't know what to look for.”

    “I’ll leave it in your capable hands,” Tanya said. “If the four destroyers and the freighter are what you think we need, we’ll buy them.”

    “As you wish,” William said. “We’ll also need to purchase a vast number of spare parts. A shortage at the worst possible time could doom us.”

    “I understand,” Tanya said. Her lips thinned. “We do have to hurry, though. Have you seen the news reports?”

    “Yeah,” William sighed. He’d seen the reports and heard the rumours. “The navy could be withdrawn from Theocratic Space.”

    “And then Asher Dales will be unprotected,” Tanya said. Her voice was very quiet, as if she didn't want to trust the privacy generator too far. “We need to get the ships in place before it’s too late.”

    “We will,” William assured her. “We’ll make sure of it.”

    He took one last look around the destroyer as they made their way to the airlock. The dealer might be a sleazebag, but he knew his ships. It wouldn't take long to get the destroyer ready for space, once money had changed hands and she had a crew. They could reach Asher Dales in three weeks, if they pushed the drives hard ...

    “We might even be able to start sharing information with other worlds,” he added, thoughtfully. “The more pirates we can kill, the better.”

    “More will come,” Tanya said.

    William shook his head. “Pirates are basically cowards,” he said. “They don’t want to risk their ships and crew when it can be avoided. You just have to kill a few of them to make the others look elsewhere.”

    And if someone had made it clear to the Theocracy that they couldn't win the war, he added privately, the entire war might never have been fought.
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    Kat had seen devastation before. She’d watched, helplessly, as enemy starships bombarded entire planets; she’d stared in horror as Hebrides had been turned into a radioactive wasteland. And yet, the crater in the ground where Government House had been was somehow worse. The hopes and dreams of an entire planet had died with Admiral Junayd.

    She looked at General Winters, trying to keep her feelings under control. “There was a forcefield.”

    Winters looked grim. “The blast went off inside the forcefield,” he said. “The post-battle assessment teams are already looking at the evidence, but it seems to me as though the forcefield actually trapped the blast and made matters worse.”

    “Fuck,” Kat said. She could smell death on the air. “How did they even get a bomb past the security sensors?”

    “I don’t know,” Winters said. “But I can guess.”

    Kat could guess too. Treason. Admiral Junayd had insisted on building up his own security forces as quickly as possible, pointing out that they’d work better with the local population than the Commonwealth Marines. Kat had reluctantly backed him, knowing that there would come a time - sooner rather than later - when the Commonwealth would have to hand the planet over to the provisional government. But all it took was a single traitor in a position of power to set the effort back years. It wouldn't even have to be a high-ranking traitor. A lone man in command of the sensors could let a bomb into the compound with minimal effort.

    And he probably died in the blast, Kat thought. Did he even know what he was smuggling in?

    She gritted her teeth as the wind blew stronger. The recruits had been tested - repeatedly - under lie detectors and none of them had been working for the insurgents ... not directly. But they hadn’t been angels either. Admiral Junayd had been willing to accept a certain level of moral flexibility in exchange for loyalty. The troops hadn't committed atrocities on a regular basis, thankfully, but they’d had no qualms about smuggling or shaking prisoners down for funds. One of the smugglers had probably thought he was slipping drugs into Government House. This time, his handlers had sent him a bomb. And he wouldn't have survived the blast.

    Her heart clenched, just for a second. She’d never liked Admiral Junayd, and she hadn't wanted to trust him, but she’d come to believe that he meant well ... that he had meant well for his people. There had been a certain amount of personal enrichment in there too - ONI had kept careful track of how Admiral Junayd had been rigging the provisional government to support his primacy - but by and large he’d done a decent job. And he hadn't joined the factions that blamed the Commonwealth for the chaos. He would be missed.

    She allowed her eyes to sweep the blast zone as the recovery crews went to work, pulling out bodies and stacking them like cordwood by the side of the road. Marines followed, their eyes sweeping the streets for signs of trouble. The entire area had gone into lockdown, with the civilian population warned to stay inside and off the streets, but Kat was grimly aware that they could still be attacked at any moment. Captain Akbar Rosslyn, the commander of her close-protection detail, had made it very clear to her. If there was anyone on the planet more hated than Admiral Junayd, it was Kat. The insurgents would spend their men like water if there was a chance of killing her.

    Perhaps we should use me as bait, Kat thought, morbidly. It might draw more of the cockroaches out of the shadows.

    She snorted at the thought, then turned her attention to the bodies. There were fewer than she’d expected, unsurprisingly. The blast would have destroyed the forcefield generator, of course, but there would be a microsecond delay between the generator’s destruction and the forcefield actually failing. Winters had been right. The blast would have been trapped, with nowhere to go. It was a minor miracle that so many bodies had survived intact. There was a very good chance that Admiral Junayd’s body would never be recovered.

    Winters checked his datapad. “Intelligence states that no less than seventeen groups have already claimed responsibility for the blast,” he said. “So far, no actual confirmation.”

    Kat shrugged. “Perhaps they’ll go to war over it,” she said. The insurgent factions hated each other almost as much as they hated the occupiers. She sometimes thought that the only thing keeping them from actually winning was that they spent half their time trying to take out their rivals instead of the common foe. “Do we have any solid leads?”

    “Not yet,” Winters said. “Perhaps not ever.”

    Kat nodded, sourly. In one sense, it simply didn't matter. The damage had been done. Government House was gone, the heart of the provisional government had been wiped out ... and the occupiers had been made to look like weak fools, unable even to protect their collaborators. She didn't have to wonder how many others would start to edge away from the provisional government. She knew. Everyone would be reassessing their position and some ... would start developing ties to the insurgents. It was hard to blame them, too. They could hardly be expected to commit suicide for a government that couldn’t even protect them.

    “Have the families of the dead put through screening, then marked down for transport off-world,” she ordered. In the distance, she heard the sound of guns. “They can set up somewhere else.”

    “If we can find somewhere willing to take them,” Winters said.

    Kat bit down a sharp reply. Winters was right. There were so many refugees washing around what had once been the Theocracy that a few hundred more would not be warmly welcomed. And these refugees would be coming directly from Ahura Mazda. They might be women and children, but they would still would be about as welcome as a punch in the face.

    “We will,” she said, although she wasn't sure that was true. “Have your men ...”

    Another round of gunfire echoed over the city. A pair of helicopters, followed by a marine skimmer, flew overhead, heading for the sound of the guns. Kat tensed, expecting to see a HVM stabbing up to take out one of the helicopters, but there was nothing. Most of those weapons had been expended during the original invasion, although her intelligence staff kept picking up rumours of secret stockpiles that had only just been rediscovered by the insurgents. There was no way to be sure, but Kat suspected that all such stockpiles had been uncovered long ago. The insurgency desperately needed heavy weapons.

    Captain Akbar Rosslyn hurried over to her side. “Admiral, there are reports of shootings closer, much closer,” he said. “You really should head back to Commonwealth House.”

    Kat took a moment to compose herself. Rosslyn was a good man. It wasn't his fault that he wasn't Pat. But it still felt odd to be working next to a stranger. She hadn't made any attempt to get to know him ... not, she acknowledged, that she should have done. Pat had been her equal, or close to it, when they’d met. Rosslyn was so far beneath her that they might as well be on different planets. And yet, as her chief protector, he was very close to her.

    And I sound like Candy, Kat thought, ruefully. Her older sister was notorious for having affairs, including one with her bodyguard. Rosslyn is doing his job.

    “Keep me informed,” she ordered Winters. “I’ll be in Commonwealth House.”

    Winters nodded. “I suggest we put all the local workers through another round of screenings,” he said. “We have to be sure they’re not under enemy control.”

    Kat sucked in her breath. There was one sure way to make someone untrustworthy ... and that was to treat him as though he was untrustworthy. It was true on Tyre - her father had admitted, once, that he’d turned a loyal subordinate against him - and even more true on Ahura Mazda. It was odd - before the invasion, a man could be arrested at the command of his superiors at will - but true. Interrogating the workers might simply create more enemies.

    “Do it,” she said, reluctantly.

    She turned and followed Rosslyn back to the armoured car. The streets between Commonwealth House and Government House - what remained of Government House - were supposed to be safe, but there was no point in taking chances. She shouldn't have come out at all, as Rosslyn had pointed out. But Kat had known she needed to see the blast zone with her own eyes. It was the only way to grasp the scale of their failure. Admiral Junayd was one man, but too many dreams had died with him.

    The vehicle hummed into life as soon as the door was closed, outriders moving into position to provide covering fire if they came under attack. Kat took a moment to centre herself, then reached for the datapad to check the reports. Her staff did their best to filter things that could be better handled at a lower level, but there were still hundreds of messages coming in every hour on the hour. The planet never slept. Kat skimmed through the list, wondering - again - why so many issues were deemed urgent. They could definitely be handled by someone at a lower level.

    She forced herself to work until the vehicle turned into Commonwealth House and drove straight into the secure garage. The marines saluted her as she exited, although Rosslyn and his men looked as if they wouldn't be happy until she was in her office. Kat returned the salutes, then took the lift straight to the upper levels. Perhaps there was a chance to grab a mug of coffee before the next meeting.

    I really need to get back on a command deck, she thought. It would be so much simpler.

    “Admiral,” Lieutenant Kitty Patterson said, as Kat stepped into the antechamber. “Commodore Higgins requested a holoconference at your earliest convenience.”

    “Ah,” Kat said. Commodore Fran Higgins wasn’t known for jumping at shadows. “Set up the call in my office, then bring me some coffee.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Kitty said. “You’re also scheduled for meetings with ...”

    Kat held up a hand. “I’ll deal with them later,” she said, tiredly. Her afternoon schedule was full. Of course it was full. Meeting after meeting after meeting ... was she actually doing any good at all? Or was she simply wasting away? “Have some lunch sent up as well, please. I think I’m going to need it.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Kat rubbed her forehead as she stepped into her office, feeling a headache starting to form behind her temples. The office was immense, bigger even than a flag officer’s quarters on a superdreadnaught ... she couldn't help wondering, sourly, if she’d made a mistake in accepting it. She didn't have to show off her status, either as a Fleet Admiral or a Privy Councillor. Everyone who was anyone already knew who she was.

    And some of them see me as their meal ticket, she thought, crossly. She’d met a handful of sycophants in the navy, yet there were entire departments in the civilian sphere that seemed to be composed of nothing, but sycophants. They think they can ride me to heights of power they couldn’t reach by doing their damn jobs.

    Commodore Fran Higgins’s image appeared in front of her. “Admiral,” she said. “Thank you for seeing me.”

    “You’re welcome,” Kat said, sitting down at her desk. “I trust things are well with the squadron?”

    Fran frowned. “Unfortunately, Admiral, that was what I intended to raise with you.”

    Kat looked up, studying the older woman. Fran’s career had nearly been destroyed by her former commander, one of Admiral Morrison’s sycophants. She might have lost everything if the Theocracy hadn't attacked Cadiz, giving her a chance to save her ship and crew from enemy fire. The commendations she’d earned for preserving her superdreadnaught, and the desperate need for experienced officers, had ensured that her career continued to grow. Fran wasn't inclined to panic over nothing. Kat had always admired that about her.

    “I see,” Kat said. The last set of reports had insisted there weren’t any problems, beyond a shortage of suitable shore leave facilities. “Is there an issue?”

    “I received instructions to prepare to transfer two destroyer squadrons back to the Commonwealth,” Fran said. “Apparently, they’re not going to be replaced.”

    Kat winced. “I haven’t heard anything about it,” she said. “Let me see ...”

    She reached for her datapad. Had she missed an update? Or hadn't it been sent to her in the first place? Technically, she was the senior officer in the sector, but Fran was in command of the task force. Fran should have been bumped up to Admiral when the responsibilities had fallen on her ... Kat wasn't sure why she hadn't been. Politics, probably. Anyone who reached high rank in the navy was either extremely well connected or the client of someone who was. But Fran wasn't anyone’s client.

    Unless she’s mine, Kat thought, flicking through the message headers. There didn't seem to be anything relating to fleet deployment. And that would link her to my entire family.

    She shook her head. “Nothing,” she said. “What’s the deadline?”

    “Two months,” Fran said. “They want me to send out the recall orders now.”

    “Hold them for a day,” Kat ordered, after a moment’s thought. “I’ll contact the Admiralty and ask for ... clarification.”

    “Please do,” Fran said. “Admiral, if we have to strip eighteen destroyers out of our line of battle ...”

    Kat nodded, irritated. She knew the dangers. The two squadrons of superdreadnaughts orbiting Ahura Mazda were not designed to escort freighters, hunt pirates or even patrol the fringes of explored space. The navy might as well swat flies with sledgehammers. No, escorting and patrol duties required a large number of destroyers, frigates and cruisers, not superdreadnaughts. Cutting eighteen destroyers out of the task force and sending them home would put a severe crimp in their ability to operate. Even recalling them to Ahura Mazda, prior to sending them home, would be inconvenient.

    “Don’t recall them immediately,” she said. She wasn’t going to order escorts to simply abandon the ships they were supposed to be escorting. “I want them to complete their current missions first.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Fran said.

    “But cut orders for them to return here once their missions are completed,” Kat added, after a moment. She could stall for a few days, perhaps even a couple of weeks, but after that she would have no choice. She’d have to send the ships home. “Orders are orders ...”

    She cleared her throat. “I take it there’s been no sudden upswing in pirate activity?”

    “No, Admiral,” Fran said. “There were a handful of raids along the fringe, but nothing too serious. The real problem, right now, is providing security for refugee transports. Hell, we need to provide the refugee transports. And we have no idea where to put half of them.”

    Kat made a face. “I wish I knew,” she said. “This world seems intent on tearing itself apart.”

    Fran met her eyes. “Did you read Captain Bartholomew’s report? From Judd?”

    “Yes,” Kat said. “He didn’t paint a pretty picture.”

    “It won’t be long before the lid blows off,” Fran said. “And then there will be bloodshed.”

    Kat nodded. The Theocracy hadn't just left behind troops and administrative staff. It had left behind collaborators, true believers ... and their families. Some people had genuinely believed in the True Faith, others had merely pretended to accept it as the price for survival ... and now the war was over, there was no place for either of them. None of the liberated worlds wanted to keep their collaborators. Kat had no sympathy for men who’d gloried in the opportunity to lord it over their fellows, but ... what about their families? Or the ones who’d had no choice? Did they all deserve to die?

    And yet, we don’t have anywhere to put them, she thought. No world wants to take them ...

    “We may wind up having to expand settlements here,” she said, finally. “At least the occupiers know about keeping a planet running.”

    “Don’t count on it,” Fran said. “Judd was a very fertile world before the Theocrats arrived. Now, they’re struggling to feed themselves. A decade of mismanagement led to a near-complete collapse in production.”

    Which helped to keep the population under control, Kat thought, sourly. The Theocrats had had no compunction about brutalising Ahura Mazda’s population. Why should they have hesitated to brutalise infidels? No wonder their occupations were so horrific. Their troops knew no better.

    She looked up as Kitty entered the room, carrying a tray of coffee and biscuits. “I’ll speak to you later,” she told Fran. “And inform me at once if you receive any further directives.”

    Fran’s image vanished. Kat glared down at her hands. The Admiralty should not be sending instructions to her subordinates without copying her, even if Fran was the task force’s commander. Kat was in charge of the sector ... what would have happened, she asked herself silently, if she’d started making plans that depended on those destroyers? The sector’s economy was a mess in any case. Taking away eighteen escort ships would only make it worse.

    She nodded to Kitty. “Contact Tyre,” she said. “Inform them that I require an urgent conference with the king.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Kitty said. “Do you want to cancel your afternoon meetings?”

    Kat tapped the datapad, bringing up the schedule. “Yes,” she said, finally. She had a feeling that the conference would go on for some time. Besides, none of the meetings were particularly important. Everyone involved could get some work done for a chance. “Cancel the first two and place the third on the backburner.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    There was nothing to recommend the star system to anyone, save for a handful of orbiting asteroids and a couple of comets that had gone unremarked during the first and last official visit by a survey ship. A dull red star marked the system as practically useless, as far as the Theocracy was concerned. There was certainly no large population of unbelievers to enslave for the greater glory of God. The only people who might be interested in the system were pirates, smugglers and black colonists. It didn't even have a name!

    We’ll have to fix that, Admiral Zaskar thought, as Righteous Revenge made her slow way towards the asteroids. Perhaps something with the proper tone.

    He kept a wary eye on the display, expecting enemy icons to pop into existence at any moment. The long-range passive sensors were picking up nothing that might suggest there was any technological presence in the system, but he knew better than to take that for granted. Commonwealth cloaking technology had been dangerously advanced even before his remaining sensor nodes had begun to decay. It was quite possible, as some of his officers had pointed out, that they might be flying directly into a trap. But he’d chosen to take the risk. It wasn't as if they’d had much choice.

    “Hold position on the edge of the asteroid cluster,” Askew said. The agent - whoever he was working for - had shown no signs of discomfort on the superdreadnaught, even though the ship’s slow collapse had to be obvious. “We’ll take a shuttle into the base.”

    Admiral Zaskar gave him a sharp look. “Did your ... backers ... build this for us?”

    “I’m afraid not,” Askew said. “The settlement originally belonged to a bunch of colonists who set out to find paradise. They hollowed out one of the asteroids and set up a colony, only to discover that they were short on practically everything they needed to live. The last of them passed away twenty years ago. My backers made a careful note of the colony’s location for future use.”

    “And no one else knows about it,” Admiral Zaskar said.

    “As far as we know,” Askew assured him. “There weren’t many records left behind.”

    Admiral Zaskar scowled. He wasn’t sure he believed the story, not completely. There were thousands of colonies, mainly asteroid settlements, that existed off the books, but they were alarmingly close to the Theocracy. He found it hard to imagine an isolationist group that wanted to remain unnoticed setting up shop here. And yet, he had to admit they might have been right. The unnamed system had attracted no interest, even during the height of the war.

    A pirate base would be more believable, he thought. But too many people would know where to find it.

    “Hold position,” he ordered the helmsman. “And have my private shuttle prepared.”

    Askew looked impatient - it was the first genuine emotion Admiral Zaskar had seen on his face - but he waited quietly while the shuttle was prepared. Admiral Zaskar was mildly surprised. Any experienced spacer would have known that it could have been done quicker, if the crews had started work before they reached their destination. But then, he’d been determined to sweep as much of the dull system as possible before risking exposure. An enemy force lurking under cloak might just give itself away ...

    “We’ll go,” he said to Moses. “Are you coming?”

    “Of course,” Moses said.

    Admiral Zaskar tried to keep the tension off his face as they made their way to the shuttle and cast off, heading straight for the asteroid. Askew took the controls, handling the craft with a grace and precision that suggested he’d flown them before; Admiral Zaskar resisted, barely, the temptation to ask Askew where he’d flown them before. It didn't have to be in the Theocracy, he had to admit. The shuttle design had been stolen from New Washington and put into mass production. Askew could have flown them anywhere.

    “There are actually four habitable asteroids,” Askew commented, steering a course towards the nearest. “One was designed for constant rotation, but we cancelled the spin when we took control. It would have been far too revealing. The other three were mined for raw materials and later converted into living space. They never had gravity in the first place.”

    “That may be an advantage,” Admiral Zaskar commented. “We’re going to have to refit the ships anyway.”

    “And reload with newer weapons,” Askew told him. The asteroid came closer, a bulky shadow looming against the darkness. “Give me a moment ...”

    His fingers worked the console, sending an IFF code. There was a pause, just long enough for Askew to wonder if something had gone wrong, then a chink of light appeared on the side of the asteroid. He leaned forward, trying to see as much as possible, as the light rapidly expanded into a giant hatch. Inside, he could see a handful of crude machines - they predated the Theocracy, he thought - and a number of crates, lashed to the rocky wall. It was a giant hangar bay.

    “Here we go,” Askew said. He steered the shuttle inside and gently landed it on the deck. Low vibrations ran through the craft as the hatch slid closed. “We’ll have to wait a few moments for the chamber to pressurise.”

    Admiral Zaskar glanced at him. “No forcefield?”

    “No,” Askew said. “I believe the original founders didn't have forcefields.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Moses said. “As long as the supplies you’ve promised us are here ...”

    “They are,” Askew said. The hatch popped open. “As you can see, we’ve been ready for quite some time.”

    But you needed to find us, Admiral Zaskar thought, as he followed Askew through the hatch and took a deep breath. The air smelled clean. That must have taken longer than you hoped.

    He took another breath as the shuttle’s gravity field faded away. It had been years since he’d exercised in zero-g, but the body never forgot. He found himself smiling as Askew took hold of the nearest handhold and led the way towards a distant hatch. It felt good to just relax, just for a moment, and smell the clean air. The asteroid base might be old, but it wasn’t on the verge of breaking apart. His superdreadnaught might never smell so well again.

    “In here,” Askew said, opening the hatch. “I think you’ll like what you see.”

    Lights came on, so bright that Admiral Zaskar winced. Inside, the chamber was crammed with supplies ... Theocratic supplies. He stared in disbelief, trying to understand what it meant. Someone had raided a supply dump ... or was this a supply dump? The asteroid settlement might easily have been raided by the Theocracy, once upon a time. Or ... his mind span as he tried to understand what he was seeing. The supplies in front of him were familiar supplies.

    He pulled himself after Askew. “Where the hell did you get these?”

    “It’s a long story,” Askew said. “Suffice it to say that they fell into our hands.”

    Admiral Zaskar glared, but Askew refused to be drawn any further. Instead, he led them on a brief tour of the asteroid, pointing out supply rooms, refreshment chambers and everything else they needed to repair and operate the fleet. Admiral Zaskar doubted they’d be able to keep the fleet going indefinitely - there was a distinct shortage of machine tools and anything else that might make them self-sufficient - but it would definitely get them a new lease on life. They might even be able to survive long enough for the Commonwealth to withdraw.

    “Well?” Askew smiled at them. “What do you think?”

    “A gift from God,” Moses said.

    Admiral Zaskar wasn't so impressed. “But at what price?”

    “I told you,” Askew said, patiently. “Keep the Commonwealth tied down.”

    “We have no choice,” Moses said. “We accept your offer.”

    “But first, we have to repair and rearm our ships,” Admiral Zaskar said, before Moses could promise an immediate attack on Ahura Mazda. The last report had stated there were four enemy superdreadnaught squadrons based there and his forces wouldn't stand a chance if they risked an engagement. “And then we can begin our campaign.”

    “Yes, Admiral,” Moses said. “But at least we have hope!”

    His words echoed in Admiral Zaskar’s thoughts as his crews sprang to work, some reopening the older asteroids while others transferred the spare parts and weapons to the fleet. It felt good to be able to throw out old components once again, even though Admiral Zaskar was ruefully aware they could probably be repaired with the right tools. Slowly, day after day, his fleet started to heal. Once his missile tubes were reloaded, he even became a little more confident in his ability to win an engagement against a numerically-equal force.

    And yet, the question of just who Askew actually worked for hung in his mind, taunting him while he tried to sleep. Askew couldn’t be a Theocrat, no matter how he looked; he simply didn't have the attitude of someone who’d grown up in the Theocracy. And yet, he’d either liberated an old supply dump or transferred the supplies to the base from somewhere else. But where? Admiral Zaskar had assumed that they’d be given spare parts with no fixed origin, but instead they’d been given Theocratic spare parts. The more he thought about it, the more he wondered. Could Askew be working for someone in the Commonwealth?

    It made no sense, yet ... the thought refused to go away. The Theocracy hadn’t been able to sell spare parts on the galactic market, before the war. It hadn’t even been able to give them away. So where had the spare parts come from? If the Commonwealth had overrun a supply depot, the supplies could have been sold onwards ... but who would buy them? Even the missiles weren't worth that much on the market. Pirates were about the only people who’d want them if there was any other choice.

    If someone in the Commonwealth is backing us, he thought, why?

    He tried not to think about it as he inspected his fleet, stalking the decks and listening to the commanding officers as they assured him that their ships were ready for battle. He’d tried hard to impress upon his subordinates that he preferred honesty to worthless promises, but he didn't know just how well the lesson had taken. Too many commanders had grown up knowing that they could be executed for failing to accomplish the impossible. Even Admiral Zaskar himself had had problems. But they could no longer afford to force men to choose between lying or losing their heads. They were at war.

    “Well,” he said, a week later. “We seem to have made a reasonable start.”

    He allowed his eyes to survey the compartment. He’d invited his commanding officers to attend, either in person or via hologram. He was oddly gratified to see how many had chosen to attend in person, despite the claims on their time. He’d been in conferences where most people had preferred to send holograms, knowing that it was safer not to be there in person when a commander started swinging the axe.

    “Our ships are generally in better condition now,” he added. It would be a long time before they were back to peak form, if indeed they ever were, but at least they were on the way. The cynic in him noted that they might last five minutes, instead of one, if they encountered a numerically equal force. “And our crews are well-fed for the first time in weeks.”

    “They’ve certainly started attending services again,” Moses commented. He was about the only person who would dare interrupt the fleet’s commanding officer. “God has truly blessed us.”

    “Indeed he has,” Admiral Zaskar agreed, concealing his annoyance. He was the fleet’s commanding officer, but who knew which way his subordinates would jump if he moved against the cleric? “However, the question now is simple. Where do we strike first?”

    Captain Yam hit the table with his fist. “We recover the homeworld,” he snarled. “Let us kick the unbelievers off our land and ...”

    “That would be suicide,” Captain Abraham said. “The enemy is too strong.”

    “God is with us,” Captain Yam snapped. One hand dropped to the dagger at his belt. “Or are you afraid to place your faith in Him?”

    “That’s the kind of thinking that cost us the war,” Captain Abraham snapped. “Do you want to throw away everything we’ve done, for nothing?”

    Admiral Zaskar tapped the table before an actual fight could break out. The last thing he needed was his commanding officers tearing themselves apart. Captain Yam was a brave man, and a terror to his crew, but he rarely bothered to think; Captain Abraham genuinely did think, which had earned him some attention from the inquisitors before the war had come to a sudden and catastrophic end. They went together like fire and gunpowder.

    “I have no intention of wasting this opportunity,” he said, firmly. “And we do not have the firepower to win a stand-up fight against four enemy superdreadnaught squadrons.”

    He met Captain Yam’s eyes, daring him to disagree. It wasn't just the raw numbers, although thirty-six superdreadnaughts could pump out enough missiles in a single broadside to utterly obliterate his fleet. The enemy’s technology - everything from sensors to point defence and missile targeting - was generally better. It wouldn’t take long for them to crush his fleet in open combat, even if the numbers were equal. No, he needed to pick his fights carefully. He didn't dare let himself be lured into a fight he couldn’t win.

    And if I retreat, my crews will grow discontented and my subordinates will plot my overthrow, he thought. Their sheer ignorance was a terrifying problem. They have to understand that we have to play our cards carefully.

    He keyed the console, bringing up an image. “Judd,” he said. “If the latest intelligence reports are to be believed, Judd still plays host to a considerable population of loyalists. They are held down, of course, by the new government, but they yearn to be free. I think we should give them that opportunity.”

    “It is our duty,” Moses agreed.

    “We will leave here in two days, taking every ship that can make the journey,” Admiral Zaskar continued. “We will, of course, attempt to escape detection while we’re in hyperspace, particularly when we cross the shipping lanes. We don’t want to accidentally lead the searchers back to our base. Once we arrive at our destination, we will carefully recon the system to make sure the enemy hasn’t assigned a large covering force, then move in and engage the enemy. We will not, of course, take prisoners.”

    He smiled, coldly. The last report insisted that the enemy had only stationed a trio of light cruisers in the system. That might have changed, of course, but he doubted it. Judd was practically friendly territory, as far as the unbelievers were concerned. The vast majority of the locals were unbelievers themselves, while the believers had been rounded up and placed in concentration camps. There was no need to assign a large garrison to police the planet’s surface. The locals could do that for themselves.

    But not for long, he told himself. Three light cruisers would be no match for his fleet, unless they had some utterly insane weapons system that he’d never even imagined. It was possible, he supposed, but unlikely. The Commonwealth had produced a great many new weapons systems during the war, yet most of them had really been nothing more than improvements and upgrades for previous designs. Once we get into firing range, those cruisers are doomed.

    “We will land troops, briefly,” he added. “Our goal will be to free the prisoners and cause havoc, not to occupy the planet. We will fall back as soon as that goal is achieved. By the time enemy reinforcements arrive, we will be long gone.”

    He looked around the table, silently picking out the men he knew were going to cause problems. The fanatics, the power-hungry, the ones who thought they could do better than him ... they’d always been a problem, but now it was far worse. There just wasn’t any way to keep them under control. Half the internal security systems were still offline.

    “We will depart in two days,” he reminded them. “If there are any problems, I want to know about it. This is war, not an opportunity for personal glory. I expect you, each and every one of you, to remember that. Our goal is nothing less than the restoration of the Theocracy and the reinstatement of the True Faith. Dying gloriously will not serve our goal. Dismissed.”

    He sat back and watched them leave, wondering which ones were going to disobey him. The fanatics? Or the power-hungry? It was easy to think that glory was the way to power. Here, they might be right. The Theocracy no longer existed, save in the hearts and minds of his crew. There was no force capable of preventing them from putting someone more energetic into the command chair ...

    “You seem confident,” Askew observed. He hadn't moved from his chair. “Are you sure you can hit Judd?”

    “It’s a convenient target,” Admiral Zaskar told him. The Commonwealth had raided Theocratic space repeatedly, during the war. Now, the boot was going to be on the other foot. Let them run around trying to smash raiding parties for a change. “Some distance from us, of course, but barely defended.”

    “Unless that’s changed,” Askew said.

    “We’ll see any reinforcements before they see us,” Admiral Zaskar assured him. “And if they have sent a squadron of superdreadnaughts to protect the planet, we’ll back off.”

    “Good thinking,” Askew said. He lowered his voice. “Will you survive?”

    Admiral Zaskar shrugged, understanding the real question. “Survive my own people? We will see.”
  9. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    “Well,” William said. “We have ships and we have crews.”

    Tanya studied the manifest he held out to her. He’d moved himself and his possessions - one carryall of clothes and datachips - to HMS Dandelion as soon as the missive had been concluded and the destroyer handed over to her new crew. The captain’s quarters, which doubled as the captain’s ready room, were tiny, but at least they were his. Besides, he hadn’t had much time to make use of his bunk. When he hadn't been recruiting crewmen, he’d been supervising the engineers as they checked and rechecked every last component. Tanya looked a little out of place on the ship, but she’d never complained. William was tempted to ask why she’d never joined the navy herself.

    She looked up. “Are they good crews?”

    “I believe so,” William said. He knew some of the officers and men he’d recruited personally. The others had taken a little more care. He’d read their files carefully - evidently, Asher Dales had an agreement with the Commonwealth allowing a certain level of access - and contacted their former commanding officers for references. They were all good men. “They certainly know their jobs.”

    And they’re experienced, he added. They may drink, or set up illicit stills, but they won’t let them get out of hand.

    He allowed himself a tight smile, even though he knew there was still a great deal of work to do. He hadn't felt so happy since ... since he’d stood on the bridge of his first command, back before the mission to Jorlem. Unlucky - Uncanny, he reminded himself sharply - had been in poor condition, but she’d been his. The four destroyers and one freighter he’d purchased for Asher Dales were in better state, while their crews had practically been hand-picked. He might no longer have access to the vast supply network that had kept the Royal Navy functioning, but having sole command more than made up for it. He’d taken care to purchase all the supplies he’d need to keep the squadron running for three to five years.

    “As long as you trust them,” Tanya said. She looked around the tiny compartment. “I don’t know anything about naval affairs.”

    “Which makes you smarter than far too many lawyers I’ve had to deal with,” William said, truthfully. Tanya would probably have made a pretty fair lawyer if she hadn't been called back to her homeworld, a homeworld she’d admitted she barely remembered. She was smart enough to realise her ignorance and honest enough to admit it. “Suffice it to say that we should have enough firepower to deal with plausible threats.”

    Tanya lifted her eyebrows. “Plausible threats?”

    “Well, we won’t be able to do much if the sector is invaded by aliens,” William said, dryly. “Or if one of the other Great Powers goes fishing in troubled waters.”

    He looked at the holographic starchart for a long moment. It was hard to be sure - he’d never been able to follow politics on Tyre, not when he hadn’t been raised on the corporate world - but it looked as though a number of politicians wanted to withdraw the navy from the Theocratic Sector. It wasn't a reassuring thought. William knew his destroyers could handle pirates, if any of them came knocking, but not a larger threat. The remnants of the Theocratic Navy were out there somewhere. William liked to think that their poor maintenance habits had finally caught up with them and their ships had broken down in interstellar space, but he couldn't allow himself to believe it. And while the Commonwealth had no interest in a little expansion, whatever the locals thought, there were other interstellar powers out there. One or more of them might see advantage in snapping up the liberated worlds before they developed space-based defences and industries of their own.

    “Then it’s better to depart now,” Tanya said. “We’re not going to get there in a hurry, are we?”

    “Dandelion and Primrose will reach Asher Dales in two weeks, unless something goes wrong with the drives,” William told her, simply. “Lily, Petunia and Macdonald will take longer.”

    He concealed his annoyance with an effort. The Flower-class destroyers were good ships, even if they were slightly outdated. They’d been the fastest things in space, in their day. But now, two of them had to be detached to escort the freighter. Macdonald was armed, but William had no illusions. She wouldn't be any match for a pirate ship with a brave - or desperate - crew.

    And if they knew what the freighter was carrying, they’d take whatever risks they had to take to get their paws on her, William reminded himself. They’ll be desperate for top-of-the-line spare parts.

    “I’ll be travelling with you, of course,” Tanya said. “Or would you rather I stayed on the freighter?”

    “You won’t see much difference,” William told her, wryly. “The freighter cabins are even smaller than our cabins.”

    Tanya’s lips curved into a smile. “Impossible.”

    “Believe it,” William said. He’d earmarked a cabin for her, the second-largest on the ship. It still didn't have enough room to swing a cat. She was lucky she wasn't a midshipwoman. The midshipman quarters were so tiny that only one person could be moving about at any one time. Everyone else had to stay in their bunks and pray they weren't late to their duty stations. “Bring your kit and anything else you want onto the ship by 1700.”

    He made a show of checking his wristcom. “We’ll be leaving at 1900. If you’re not onboard, we’ll go without you.”

    “That would be embarrassing,” Tanya said, deadpan.

    William snorted. It would be more than merely embarrassing. An officer or crewman who missed the deadline for returning, who was left behind when his ship departed, would be in deep shit. They’d be lucky if they were only forced to pay their passage fee on the next available starship going in the same direction. And yet, Tanya was more than just a civilian. Tanya was their supervisor ... not having her with them when they reached Asher Dales, he thought, would definitely be more than just embarrassing. They’d have to explain her absence to her father and his government.

    “I don’t have much to bring,” Tanya assured him, standing. “And I have it all at Orbit Station.”

    “Just remember we do have mass limits,” William said. The last transport he’d travelled on had been crammed with civilians bitching about the mass limit. They hadn’t realised that the starship had only limited space. Thankfully, experienced spacers generally knew better. He hadn't been a CO long enough to develop any bad habits. “And don’t try to evade customs.”

    Tanya laughed and left the compartment. William watched her go, then turned his attention back to the datapad. The final set of checks had been completed, some under his personal supervision; there were no problems, as far as his crews could tell, with the destroyers. But it would only be a matter of time before something developed. William had been a spacer long enough to know that a component would wear out or someone would make a mistake in the listings or ... something ... that would cause problems. And then ... he’d just have to pray it was a problem they could fix. Being without the supply line was going to be a major headache.

    Which means I’ve probably forgotten something, he thought, sourly. He looked down at the manifests, tiredly. They’d need something they hadn’t thought to bring. Years of experience convinced him of it. And yet, what? There was no way to know. We’ll just have to wait and see.

    His terminal chimed, loudly. “Captain?” Commander Patti Ludwig sounded as tired as William felt. “Captain Young requests a holoconference.”

    “Put him through,” William said. “And then contact System Command and inform them that we wish to confirm our departure time.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    William leaned forward as the star chart blinked out of existence, to be replaced by Captain Gary Young’s head. He was a strikingly handsome young man, at least in appearance; his navy file made it clear that he was only five years younger than William himself. William wasn't sure what to make of Young’s vanity - he seemed to spend half his salary on cosmetic rejuvenation - but there was no denying his competence. His blond hair and too-handsome face masked a very sharp mind. William would never have hired him if he’d had the slightest doubt of Young’s skills.

    “Commodore,” Young said.

    “Captain,” William said. He was both Dandelion’s commanding officer and the squadron commander. It wasn't something he could maintain forever, particularly if Asher Dales started to grow a bigger navy, but for the moment he was happy to wear both hats. “What can I do for you?”

    “Well, I’d like a battlecruiser and perhaps a few more freighters filled with supplies,” Young said, dryly. “But I’m really calling to confirm that we will be ready to depart as planned.”

    “Good,” William said, curtly. He’d like a battlecruiser too, but there was no way Asher Dales could purchase such a large ship. And even if they could, crewing her would be impossible. “Did you manage to link up with a convoy?”

    “Yes, sir,” Young said. “We’ll be travelling to Cadiz with Convoy Golf-Echo-Nine, then proceeding through the Gap to Maxwell’s Haven with Convoy Sierra-Alpha-Three. After that, we’re on our own. They pulled too many ships off the front lines to search for Supreme.”

    William winced. An interstellar liner, even one the size of a superdreadnaught, was tiny on an interstellar scale. The odds of finding her were so low that ... that William had greater odds of being declared King of Tyre and Emperor of the Galaxy. If pirates had taken Supreme, the ransom demands would have started to come in by now. It was far more likely that the ship had suffered a catastrophic failure in hyperspace and either been destroyed or made a crash-transition back into realspace. And if she’d lost her vortex generators, she wouldn't have a hope of reaching the nearest inhabited planet before her life support failed.

    But the navy can’t say that to the rich and powerful aristocrats who had family on the liner, he reminded himself. They have to make a show of hunting for her, even though they know it’s useless.

    “There’s no immediate hurry,” he said. He would have preferred to use all four destroyers to escort the freighter, but he didn't like the way things were going in parliament. It might be better to have two destroyers on station before it was too late. “That freighter has got to be protected.”

    “I understand, sir,” Young said. “I shall guard her with my life.”

    “Very good,” William said. “And I expect you to avoid engagement, if possible. No heroics.”

    “Yes, sir,” Young said.

    He didn't sound disappointed, William noted wryly. But then, any sensible naval officer would know better than to go looking for trouble when they were on escort duty. The convoys tended to attract trouble. Pirates knew better than to engage convoys, but the Theocracy had managed to take out a number of supply convoys during the early days of the war. Their efforts hadn't been wasted, William conceded. They’d probably prolonged the war by several months.

    “There is another point,” Young said. “I heard ... I heard that the dealers were facing new regulations on what they can and can’t sell to foreign governments.”

    “So far, nothing seems to have firmed up,” William said, slowly. Asher Dales was, technically, an ally, but Tyre seemed to be having second thoughts about selling modern technology to anyone. Parliament was starting to think of the Commonwealth - and the liberated worlds - as potential rivals. It didn't bode well. “Still, we need to secure as much as possible before it’s too late.”

    “Yes, sir,” Young said. “But are we foreigners?”

    William hesitated. He might be a colonial, but Young wasn’t. He’d been born and raised on Tyre. And yet ... he’d taken service with a foreign government. William didn't think there was any prospect of Asher Dales going to war against Tyre, but technically ... he shook his head, dismissing the thought. They’d obtained the proper clearances to go to Asher Dales and join the fledgling navy. That was all that mattered.

    “They don’t want to sell their most advanced technology to anyone,” he said curtly, using his annoyance to hide his own misgivings. They weren’t doing anything wrong, or illegal, but they weren't in the navy any longer either. “But we don’t need it to swat pirates.”

    “It still feels odd,” Young complained.

    William smiled, humourlessly. “Welcome to life on the poverty level,” he said. Tyre was a rich world. The aristocrats could purchase a squadron of superdreadnaughts out of pocket change. Asher Dales was lucky to be able to scrape up enough cash to buy and equip four destroyers and a freighter. “You were on half-pay when I snapped you up. Do you want to go back to it?”

    “No,” Young said, quickly. “But it just feels off.”

    “I know,” William said. “But you will have to cope with it.”

    He smiled, rather thinly, as Young’s image vanished. Young had never lived anywhere, but Tyre. He probably didn’t understand, at an emotional level, the realities of life on a rougher world. Or, for that matter, how people in distant offices could make decisions that wrecked havoc on defenceless worlds. William doubted the restrictions on tech transfers would cause any immediate problems, not for him and his little squadron, but they might cause all sorts of issues in the future. It would hamper Asher Dales and the other liberated worlds as they sought to take control of their destinies.

    But they have a long way to go before that becomes a problem, he told himself, firmly. First, they have to survive.

    He spent the next few hours reading through the final reports from the four destroyers and the freighter, then downloading news bulletins from the planetary datanet and reading them too. It looked as though no one could make up their minds about anything, although there was no shortage of Talking Heads ready to expound on The Meaning Of It All. William read through one explanation, noted that the writer clearly knew nothing about the realities of naval life, and dismissed the rest of it unread. It was evident that whoever was running the news service wasn't interested in facts. There was no shortage of officers on half-pay who’d be happy to supplement their income by writing articles for the media companies.

    Tanya returned to the ship on time, to his private amusement. He checked on her as she settled into her cabin, reminding her to spend time in VR simulations or something else that might distract her from the bulkheads pressing in on her, then hurried to the bridge. It was tiny, compared to Uncanny’s, but it was still the nerve centre of the ship. He sat down in the command chair and surveyed his kingdom. The weight of command responsibility fell around him like a shroud.

    I never thought I’d command a ship again, William thought. Losing two ships in quick succession - and suffering the first mutiny on a naval starship - had blotted his record beyond repair. The mutiny hadn’t been his fault, and the inquest had made that clear, but he’d been lucky beyond words to get a second command. And I won’t lose this one.

    He sucked in his breath. “Engineering, power up the drives.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    William smiled as he felt a low rumble echo through the ship. They’d powered up the drives before, just to make sure they were in working order, but this was real. He watched the power curves form on his display, the drive fields readying themselves to push the ship out of orbit ... he felt his smile grow wider. He’d been deluding himself, when he’d gone to live with his people. The command deck of a starship was where he belonged.

    “XO, signal System Command,” he ordered. “Inform them that we are ready to depart.”

    “Aye, sir,” Patti said.

    William tapped his console, bringing up the near-space display. Tyre was surrounded by green and blue icons: hundreds of orbiting asteroids, thousands of military and civilian starships coming and going. It was hard to be sure, but he thought there were fewer civilian starships than he’d expected. The economy was having problems transiting back to a peacetime footing. He grimaced at the thought. No wonder the politicians were considering cutting their military commitments. The end of the war had brought a severe drop in tax revenue.

    And they can't rely on the Commonwealth to soak up much of their production, he thought, sourly. He didn’t pretend to understand how the interstellar economy worked, but he couldn’t help thinking that it sounded like a junior officer’s attempt to explain just what he’d been thinking to an annoyed superior. No wonder so many spacers are out of work.

    “System Command has cleared us to depart, sir,” Patti reported.

    “Very good,” William said. “Helm, take us out of orbit. When we reach the gateway point, take us into hyperspace.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    “And then set course for Asher Dales,” William added.

    “Aye, sir.”

    William settled back in his command chair as Dandelion moved out of orbit, Primrose following at her heels. The destroyer wasn't a heavy cruiser, but she was his. He was the last of the absolute monarchs, as long as he sat on her command deck. Tanya wanted him to train up local officers and crew to take his place, but it would be a long time before he stepped down. He felt a flicker of pity for Kat. She should never have let them promote her to flag rank. How could she command a starship now?

    A shame she can’t join us, he thought, sincerely. But her family will never let her go.
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    Peter Falcone had never liked his father’s business office. It was immense, yet empty: a single desk, a large window overlooking Tyre City and a handful of expensive paintings on the walls. There was none of the charm and elegance of his father’s private office, or even the homeliness of Peter’s original office. It’s only role was to impress people and, perhaps, host people Lucas Falcone hadn’t wanted to take into his private office. Peter rather suspected that the two men facing him fell into that category.

    He kept his face carefully blank as he studied the two men. His father had hired them personally, buying out their firm - Masterly and Masterly - to ensure that he had sole call on their services. Peter wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Alexander and Clive Masterly were good and experienced men, accordingly to his father’s private files, but he’d never been able to escape the sense that they were always keeping their eyes open for ways to exploit matters to their own advantage. Peter’s own people hadn't been able to dig up any evidence, one way or the other, yet that was meaningless. The network of complex financial transactions that made up the heart of the Falcone Corporation was so complex that anyone with the right access could hide a money transfer - or something more subtle - and be reasonably sure it wouldn't be noticed.

    And anyone with that sort of access would know if we carried out an audit, he thought. By the time we had proof, they’d be halfway to Marseilles.

    “Very well,” he said, stiffly. “Please, explain it to me.”

    Alexander Masterly leaned forward. He was an dapper man in a neat business suit, but the effect was spoiled by a rather large nose. Peter had no idea why he hadn't gone into a cosmetic clinic and had it altered into something more presentable. Perhaps it was just a sign of defiance. Alexander was established enough not to have to care what he looked like.

    “We have been carrying out a prolonged financial assessment of the corporation and its subunits over the last two months,” Alexander said. He had an aristocratic burr to his voice, although it was strong enough for Peter to be reasonably sure it was an affection. The two men had been born commoners. “Our conclusions have been extensively detailed ...”

    “Summarise them,” Peter snapped. He might be young, compared to his late father, but he was hardly a babe in arms. “What is the problem?”

    Alexander tapped a switch. A giant holographic chart shimmered into existence. It looked like a galaxy, with hundreds of stars orbiting countless planets, but it was far more detailed. Peter sucked in a breath as he studied it, feeling a flicker of the old awe. The hologram in front of him was the Falcone Corporation, from the industries owned directly by the family to the sidelines, from people who worked for the family to a network of clients who didn’t know where their patronage chains actually ended. It was hard, even for someone who’d grown up surrounded by wealth and power, to trace the tangled threads from one end of the display to the other. Peter didn't know how his father had endured his role for so long.

    He liked the idea of being a spider at the centre of the web, Peter thought. And he knew which threads he needed to pull if he wanted something.

    “We have two main problems, at the moment,” Alexander said. He centred the display on a profit-loss statement. “First, in the short run, our military contracts are going to come to an end within the next twelve months. I’ve heard that the military is already trying to figure out ways to get out of the contracts early, as they don’t need the ships, weapons and components any longer. We may be able to rationalise some of the contracts down to a more reasonable level, without losing them altogether, but it seems unlikely that we will have many military contracts by the end of the year. There simply isn’t any need for them.”

    “I see,” Peter said.

    “What makes this worse,” Alexander added, “is that the bulk of the military production line cannot be converted for other markets. A third of the technology we produce is thoroughly embargoed for civilian use, at least not without extensive licensing, while the remainder isn't much use for civilians. They don’t need military-grade sensor suites, particularly when the mil-grade equipment is five or six times as expensive as the civilian models.”

    Peter tensed. “I was under the impression that military gear was highly sought-after.”

    “It is,” Alexander said. “But smaller companies and independent freighter captains also have limited funds. We’ve been looking at ways to reduce prices, in hopes of picking up extra sales, but we’re already running on the margins as it is. The military contracts were relatively steady, sir. They weren't going to make us rich.”

    “We did cream a profit, didn't we?” Peter studied the carts for a long moment. “I believe the money was reinvested.”

    “It was,” Alexander confirmed. “But the vast war machine we built to fight the war is no longer required.”

    And so we have to scale back our operations, Peter told. Which is going to be very bad.

    Clive cleared his throat. “The second problem is that we, and most of the other corporations, are going to have to cut costs sharply. This will necessitate getting rid of a great many subdivisions - and people. A considerable number of employees will have to be downsized and ...”

    “You mean sacked,” Peter said, sharply.

    “Yes, sir,” Clive said. “We may have to lay off up to thirty percent of our workforce.”

    Peter swallowed, hard. The age-old contract between employers and employees was about to be broken. They’d promised the workers that they’d take care of them, hadn't they? A job with a big corporation was a job for life. Peter’s father had aggressively encouraged his subordinates to seek out new talent and promote it, encouraging ambitions youngsters to rise to the limits of their competence. A man could start on the ground floor and climb to the very top. Peter’s former office had had a whole string of success stories that had boosted the corporation’s profits and given hope to the workers that competence would be rewarded.

    But not now, he thought. No one was fired without due cause. God knew the corporation worked hard to put square pegs in square holes. What will happen when we tell thirty percent of our people that they have to go?

    “It may get worse,” Clive added, slowly. “If the rumours about Cavendish are true ...”

    Peter gritted his teeth. There was a yawning financial black hole at the very heart of the Cavendish Corporation. Duke Cavendish was doing everything in his power to patch together the cracks in the edifice, but he might as well be putting a tiny plaster on a broken arm. It wouldn't be long before people - important people - started jumping ship. And once that happened, the Cavendish Corporation was doomed. Millions of people would be thrown out of work.

    “There will be a planetary economic downturn,” Clive said. “If vast numbers of people lose their jobs, they’ll stop buying things; if people stop buying things, more and more sub-businesses will go bust. It will only be a matter of time before we have chaos.”

    “And there’s no way we can save even part of Cavendish,” Peter said. Cavendish was technically a rival, but if one ducal corporation went under the others would tremble. “We can't afford it.”

    “No, sir,” Alexander said. “We could snap up a few of their subdivisions, at bargain basement prices, but the cost of saving even a small percentage of their operations would bankrupt us.”

    Clive nodded. “What makes matters worse, sir, are the subsidies. And the military tax.”

    Peter winced. “How do you imagine they’ll play out?”

    “It depends on the politics.” Alexander looked acutely uncomfortable. “The military tax has not - yet - been repealed. If it isn't repealed, for whatever reason, it will be yet another expenditure we will be hard-pressed to meet. Even if it is repealed, we will still have difficulty meeting our usual obligations. The king needs to be made aware of the dangers of excessive taxation.

    “The subsidies, both to the Commonwealth and the former Theocratic worlds, are a different kettle of fish. In the short run, cancelling them would save money; in the long run, they would cause economic trouble for our allies, which would lead to resentment. I’d honestly advise doing a full audit on the subsidies before we consider cancelling them, but ...”

    He shrugged, expressively. Peter understood. The king considered the subsidies to be a necessary payment, one of his flagship projects to build the Commonwealth into a genuine interstellar power. Peter agreed with his reasoning, but he was concerned about cost of the project. When times were good, people didn’t care where the money went; when times were hard, people got angry when payments - even minor payments - were made to those who didn’t work. People who paid taxes felt they should get something in return and woe betide any government official who tried to tell them otherwise.

    “Right,” he said, firmly. “I assume you have proposals for ... downsizing?”

    “Yes, sir,” Alexander said. He altered the display. “As you can see, sir ...”

    Peter’s terminal bleeped. He held up a hand to stem the tide of words as he keyed the switch. “Yes?”

    “Sir,” Yasmeena Delacroix said. His terrifyingly-efficient secretary sounded perturbed. “His Excellency Israel Harrison, Leader of the Opposition, has just landed on the pad. He’s requesting an immediate meeting.”

    Peter blinked in surprise. He’d heard that Israel Harrison was supposed to be a little eccentric, but this? He couldn't just drop in for a meeting with a duke, certainly not on his home territory. Normally, his people would speak to Peter’s people and a time and place would be organised. There were plenty of places they could talk in reasonable privacy without one of them looking like a supplicant. Dropping in for a chat simply wasn't done.

    He forced himself to think. Agreeing to the meeting would have implications, particularly in the minds of anyone watching from a distance, but so would refusing it. He was a duke, not a member of the House of Commons. There was nothing wrong with meeting the Leader of the Opposition. And yet ...

    “Have him shown up,” Peter said, finally. “And then bring us both some tea.”

    He closed the connection, then looked at the two men. “I’ll speak to you both later, after I’ve had a chance to assess your work,” he said. He had no doubt it would be comprehensively detailed, but he wanted to make sure he understood it before coming to any final decisions. It wouldn't be the first time someone had tried to snowball him into making a fatal mistake. “Until then, please keep your findings to yourself.”

    “Of course, sir,” Alexander said. He deactivated the holographic projector. “Our files are already in your terminal.”

    The two men rose, bowed and made their way out of the giant office. Peter barely noticed them go as he pulled up the files on Israel Harrison and skimmed them, quickly. His father hadn't had much to say about the Leader of the Opposition, beyond the simple fact that he’d started amassing power from a very young age. Not a nobleman, oddly enough. Peter wasn't sure what to make of that. Putting himself on the list of people in line to receive a Patent of Nobility wouldn't be hard. Perhaps the king - or his father - had quietly refused to ennoble the man. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had been denied a title they deserved.

    “Israel Harrison, Your Grace,” Yasmeena said.

    Peter rose. “Mr. Harrison,” he said, as they shook hands. “I must say this meeting is a surprise.”

    “I have often found that being unpredictable has its advantages,” Harrison said. He sounded distinctly plebeian in private conversation. “Is this room secure?”

    Peter sat back at his desk, motioning the older man to a seat. “It has the finest security money can buy,” he said, truthfully. The corporation’s security division swept the entire building daily. Industrial espionage had been alive and well on Tyre since the Ducal Fourteen had turned the world into their base. There were some buildings that were more secure, but only a handful. “You can talk freely.”

    “Let us hope so,” Harrison said. He cocked his head. “I trust you are settling into your new role?”

    Peter snorted as Yasmeena brought them both tea, then retired. He’d been the Duke from the moment the family council had elected him to succeed his father. His confirmation might have had to wait until the official mourning period had come to an end, but he’d been running the corporation for months. The duke was dead, long live the duke. There was no way he could afford to wait for a year before taking the reins. The family council would probably have impeached him on the spot.

    “It could be better,” he said, tightly. He met Harrison’s eyes. “Mr. Harrison, I am a very busy man and you have forced your way into my schedule. Can I ask you to get to the point?”

    Harrison smiled, as if Peter had cracked a joke. “Here’s a question for you,” he said. “Do you believe the king has the best interests of his planet at heart?”

    Peter blinked. “Do you believe otherwise?”

    “I have reason to believe that the king does not intend to ask for the military tax to be repealed,” Harrison said. “Worse, I believe that he has yet to realise that his spending - our spending - is dangerously out of control. My people have been trying to trace the money, Your Grace, and there are considerable sums that remain unaccounted for. We don’t know where the money went.”

    “They were throwing money into hundreds of research programs,” Peter pointed out. “And a lot of black ops stuff.”

    “Billions of crowns,” Harrison said. “A small fraction of our wartime budget, to be fair, but not an insignificant amount. Our desperate rush to gird our loins and defend our worlds made it impossible to exercise any legal discipline.”

    “When you’re in trouble,” Peter quoted one of his father’s speeches, “don’t count the pennies getting legal representation.”

    “Wise words,” Harrison agreed. “I was there when that speech was delivered, Your Grace.”

    “I know,” Peter said.

    “Right now, we have commitments we cannot hope to meet,” Harrison said. “We have committed ourselves to the Commonwealth, the king has committed us to the Theocratic Sector, we have a looming economic crisis ... and the king wants to up our expenditures. I have reason to believe that he intends to ask for extra subsidies when Parliament reopens, at the end of the summer. And he might just be able to drum up enough support from the Commons to get them into the Lords.”

    Peter sucked in his breath. Once the bill was in the House of Lords, it would be harder to engage in backroom dealing to rewrite it to something more satisfactory. “Are you sure?”

    “Yes, Your Grace,” Harrison said. “I have an ... operative ... in the Prime Minister’s office.”

    It could be deliberately designed to mislead you, Peter thought. He’d never liked the cloak-and-dagger shenanigans that his father had so loved, but he knew enough to be careful. A person slipping information to someone else might have their own motives, even if they were telling the truth. The Prime Minister could be trying to lead you into a trap.

    “There are other issues,” Harrison added. “The king has also been pushing his patronage rights about as far as they will go. A number of naval officers who happen to be corporate clients have been sidelined, while others - who happen to be the king’s clients - have been pushed forward. He’s been replacing naval officers with loyalists.”

    Peter felt cold. “Are you sure?”

    “I imagine your clients have had the same problem,” Harrison said. “We were at war for four years, Your Grace. That’s more than long enough for the king to put his people in the right places to take full control of the navy.”

    “And then what?” Peter looked down at his hands. “We still control the orbital defences, don’t we?”

    “Yes,” Harrison said. “But even they are under threat.”

    He took a long breath. “The king may simply be building up his power base,” he said. “Or he might have something more sinister in mind. Either way, it poses a threat.”

    “Perhaps,” Peter said. “It may also be nothing more than paranoia. How many of us would put people who weren't our clients in positions of power?”

    “We understand where the lines are drawn,” Harrison countered. “Does the king?”

    He glanced at his wristcom. “They’ll have noticed I came here,” he said, shortly. “If you want to ... ah ... discuss matters further, I suggest we do it over a secure communications line.”

    Peter’s eyes narrowed. “Do you think the king will intercept our communications?”

    “I think the king has a black ops division of his own,” Harrison said. His tone was light, but his words betrayed just how seriously he took his concerns. “And I also think he’s too young to understand the dangers of playing with fire. His father understood the rules of the game.”

    “I see your point,” Peter said. The king had always been the most powerful of the noblemen, yet there were limits on his power. Or there were supposed to be limits. War had given the king an opportunity to expand his power in ways his father could never have considered, even for a moment. “But I hope you’re wrong.”

    “So do I,” Harrison said. “So do I.”
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Eight

    Captain Amy Layman was deeply immersed in a VR sim when the attack began.

    It wasn’t something she would have allowed herself during the war. HMS Gibraltar had seen action in nearly a hundred engagements, from raids into enemy territory to convoy escort missions and, finally, the first and second Battles of Ahura Mazda. Her commanding officer knew, deep within her bones, that the alert could come at any time. And yet, as days had turned into weeks and months of boredom, she’d allowed herself to slip. She’d never really considered that anyone would attack Judd.

    She tore off the VR jack as the alarm howled through the light cruiser, swallowing hard to keep from throwing up as the world spun around her. It couldn't be a drill, she told herself sharply. God knew she'd slacked off on combat drills as well as everything else. Nausea assailed her as she jumped up from the bed, one hand grabbing her jacket while the other found the emergency hypospray. She blessed her forethought - what little of it she’d had - as she pressed the device to her arm and pulled the trigger. The drugs would make her sweat buckets, later, but they’d clear her head. She breathed out a sigh of relief as the nausea started to fade, then headed for the hatch. The sound of her crew running to battlestations echoed through the hull as she hurried to the bridge.

    “Report,” she snapped.

    “Captain,” Commander Isobel said. “We have multiple enemy contacts on attack vector!”

    “Bring up the drives and weapons,” Amy snapped, as she threw herself into her command chair. “And prepare to leave orbit.”

    “Aye, Captain!”

    She studied the display, cursing her own stupidity as her starship powered up. The display was practically glowing with red icons, row upon row of superdreadnaughts ... Theocratic superdreadnaughts. Panic yammered at the back of her mind, threatening to overwhelm her before she told herself, firmly, that the contacts couldn't be real. If the Theocracy had had so many superdreadnaughts - over a hundred, according to her sensors - the war would have gone the other way. No, most of those starships had to be nothing more than fake sensor images, with no more substance than a soap bubble. But her sensors couldn't tell the real starships from the fakes. They’d need to get a great deal closer ...

    “Launch a probe,” she ordered. If even one of those superdreadnaughts was real, she didn't dare risk taking her ship any closer. The massed volleys of a single superdreadnaught would be more than enough to reduce Gibraltar to atoms. “And alert the planetary authorities.”

    A low hum echoed through her ship as the drives were brought online. Amy silently kicked herself for allowing matters to get so far out of hand. She could have kept the drives powered up without putting significant wear and tear on the engines, couldn’t she? But she’d heard too many stories of supply officers snatching back their authority, now the war was effectively over. They’d give her hell if they knew she’d burned out her drive components for no good reason.

    I fucked up, she thought, stiffly. It had been sheer luck the enemy had come out of hyperspace so far from the planet. If they’d risked opening a gateway closer to Judd, they would have been on top of her before she’d had a chance to respond. And everyone is going to pay for it.

    “Edinburgh and Aberdeen are standing by,” the communications officer reported. “They’re ready to engage the enemy.”

    Amy fought to keep her face expressionless. Three light cruisers were no match for the immense firepower bearing down on them. She was morbidly certain that at least one of the superdreadnaughts had to be real, perhaps more than one. But she wouldn’t know until the probe started to pick out the real ships from the fakes, or the real ships opened fire. The sensor ghosts wouldn't be able to fire missiles ...

    Certainly not real missiles, she thought. And we’d be able to pick out fake missiles from the real ones.

    Her mind raced, searching for options. There weren't many. She could open gateways and run, but that would mean abandoning Judd to its fate. If those were Theocratic ships ... she wouldn't give two crowns for Judd’s continued survival. The Theocrats would probably smash the planet flat from orbit, then piss on the rubble. There was no one around to stop them, either. It would take at least four days for reinforcements to reach the doomed world, assuming they were dispatched at once. And no one knew reinforcements were needed.

    We should have extended the StarCom network out here, she told herself, savagely. Perhaps if I’d argued for it ...

    “Communications, contact Aberdeen,” Amy ordered. “They are to disengage and fly directly to Ahura Mazda. Once there, they are to inform Admiral Falcone of the situation and request immediate reinforcements.”

    “Aye, Captain,” the communications officer said. There was a pause as he worked his console. “Captain, Aberdeen’s skipper is protesting ...”

    “Tell him that that is an order, which he may have in writing if he wishes,” Amy said. She didn't quite recognise her voice. It was so cold. She understood the man’s desire to stay, even though it was certain death, but she couldn't allow it. Someone had to warn Admiral Falcone that the war wasn't quite over. “He is to leave, now.”

    She turned back to the display. Her ship didn't have a superdreadnaught-sized tactical deck, but her crew were doing the best they could. A handful of enemy superdreadnaughts had already been flagged as prospective sensor ghosts, while a dozen more had been marked as potentially suspect. A couple had even been positively identified as real ... not, she supposed, that it mattered that much. A single superdreadnaught had more missile tubes than two entire squadrons of light cruisers.

    Their ECM is good, she thought. Better than it should be.

    “Deploy ECM drones, then stealth platforms,” she ordered, dismissing the thought. There would be time to worry over who was supplying the enemy later. If there was a later. “And then angle five of the probes to record what happens here. I want to leave a message ...”

    The display sparkled with red lights. “The enemy have opened fire,” the tactical officer said, sharply. “Captain, their missiles are roughly comparable to our Mark-XVs!”

    Someone’s been giving them help, Amy reminded herself. She’d thought she’d had more time before the enemy opened fire. Evidently, she’d been wrong. What sort of idiot sells them advanced missiles?

    “Stand by point defence,” she ordered, although she knew it would be futile. “And engage as soon as they enter weapons range.”

    She glanced at the planet on the display, feeling a stab of guilt. The enemy superdreadnaughts - and only three of them were real, judging by which ships had opened fire - were going to take the high orbitals. There was nothing she could do to stop them, no matter what she did. She had no doubt they’d blow her two remaining ships out of space and then wreck devastation on the world below. And there was nothing the planet’s inhabitants could do to stop them either.

    They don’t deserve it, she thought, as the enemy missiles roared into engagement range. They were free.

    But she knew, as her ship started to fight for her life, that what the planet deserved didn’t matter.

    “You fired off a great many missiles,” Askew commented, as the second enemy cruiser vanished from the display. “Overkill, hey?”

    Admiral Zaskar ignored him. Firing the missiles had been immensely satisfying, even though he knew he’d be cursing himself later. Askew was right. It was overkill. But he’d wanted to eliminate all chances of enemy resistance and he’d succeeded. Watching the two enemy cruisers die had merely been the icing on the cake.

    “Launch probes,” he ordered, instead. “Tactical, isolate potential targets on the planet’s surface.”

    “Aye, sir!”

    “And find those camps,” he added, after a moment. “I want the troops ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.”

    “Aye, sir!”

    Askew coughed. “Our intelligence suggests that there are no enemy ships within a day of Judd.”

    “We can't take that for granted,” Admiral Zaskar pointed out, as the first set of targets appeared on the main display. “If an enemy superdreadnaught shows up at the worst possible time ...”

    “God is with us,” Moses assured him. “He will not let us die so easily.”

    God helps those who help themselves, Admiral Zaskar thought. It had once been the Theocracy’s motto. Somewhere along the way, it had become verboten. And if we neglect basic precautions, we’re finished.

    “Admiral,” the tactical officer said. “I have a list of targets.”

    Admiral Zaskar studied them for a long moment. The enemy had been building rapidly over the last year. Judd no longer had any space-based industry, beyond a cloudscoop he intended to destroy on his way out of the system, but they’d repaired and expanded their cities and ground-based industrial estates. A handful of military bases and spaceports were clearly visible, along with several fusion plants. One of them, judging from the electronic signature, had been taken directly from a mid-sized starship. The engineer in him wondered how they’d managed to get the ship down without crashing it into the surface.

    No matter, he told himself.

    “Open fire,” he ordered, shortly. “And then order the troops to hit the camps.”

    A rumble echoed through the mighty ship as it launched the first volley of KEWs. There was a limitless supply of kinetic energy projectiles - they were really nothing more than rocks dropped from high orbit - and while their targeting left something to be desired, he had no compunctions about dropping several more projectiles if the first missed. He had no particular qualms about destroying large chunks of the city too, if necessary. The locals had sworn to follow the True Faith, but they’d lied. They’d stopped following as soon as their world had been liberated.

    Of course they stopped, he thought, darkly. How could they follow a religion imposed upon them at gunpoint?

    He shied away from that thought as enemy targets started to vanish. It was hard to remember, as whoops of joy and shouted prayers echoed around the compartment, that the lights on the display represented real people. There were people - unbelievers, to be sure, but people - under those flashing lights, people who were dying as the KEWs hit their targets and destroyed them. He wondered, morbidly, just how many people would die in the months and years to come. The targeting matrix included just about every government building that had been in use during the occupation.

    And many of the survivors headed into the hills, he thought. Judd was a heavily-populated world, but the hills had never really been developed. The files had stated that the mountain men had never really embraced the True Faith. Even now, we cannot find many of their hiding places.

    He shook his head. It would be nice to lay claim to Judd once again, to land in force and punish the unbelievers with whip and flail, but he knew better. They couldn't allow themselves to be pinned down. It wouldn't be long before the Commonwealth responded in strength to their move. If they were still at Judd when the enemy fleet arrived, they’d be wiped out within hours. He couldn't take the risk.

    “The troops are on the way,” the tactical officer reported. “They’ll hit the camps in twenty minutes.”

    “Remind their commanders that they don’t have much time,” Admiral Zaskar said. He’d refrained from softening up the defences around the camps, insofar as there were any fixed defences. He didn't want to kill his own people. “We have to be back in hyperspace as quickly as possible.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    “Run,” a voice shouted. “Get up and run!”

    Millicent Barbara grabbed her coat and ran for her life, unsure of where she was going. The Commonwealth Refugee Commission HQ was supposed to be safe, certainly when compared to the bases on Ahura Mazda or a couple of other worlds that had been under Theocratic control long enough for the True Faith to sink deep roots into the population’s minds. She’d been reluctant to work on Judd, at first, but she’d come to believe that the locals were genuinely decent people, although they wanted to be rid of anyone who followed the True Faith or had collaborated with the occupation. It wasn't something Millicent particularly understood.

    She ran out into the cold morning air, just in time to hear explosions echoing over the distant city. There hadn't been any real trouble since the Theocrats had been rounded up, something Millicent found deplorable even though her superiors had told her not to make a fuss. The locals had endured a decade of oppression; a decade of watching their men be brainwashed, their women be brutalised and their children raised in the True Faith. She supposed she should be grateful that the vast majority of the converted hadn't been killed out of hand. The blood had flowed for weeks on a dozen worlds.

    An aircraft flew overhead, heading north. She looked up to follow it and saw a streak of light dropping down from low orbit to strike a target in the distance. There was a blinding flash when it touched the ground, followed by a billowing fireball and a rumble of thunder. She stopped and stared, her mind finally realising what she was seeing. Judd was under attack, heavy attack. More projectiles followed, some falling within the city. She turned, just in time to see a distant skyscraper topple and fall. She thought she heard people screaming as the remains hit the ground.

    “Millie,” a voice called. She turned to see one of the military liaison officers. Dave or Charlie or ... she couldn’t remember his name. They were all interchangeable, all in firm agreement that the refugees had to be relocated somewhere else as quickly as possible. “We have to move!”

    Millicent found her voice. “What’s happening?”

    “The planet is under attack,” Dave said. She was almost sure he was Dave. “The high orbitals have fallen and the enemy is bombarding the surface.”

    Another projectile landed within the city. Millicent looked away as she saw a towering fireball rising up and over the land. It was ... Judd City wasn't the largest city in the explored universe, not by a long chalk, but there were hundreds of thousands of people living in the skyscrapers or occupying the slums on the riverbank. They were being slaughtered, brutally slaughtered. She couldn't imagine what sort of mindset would do such a thing. It wasn't even as if they were firing at military targets. One of the projectiles looked to have come down in the slums.

    Dave caught her arm. “We have to move!”

    Millicent stared at him. “And go where?”

    “We can’t stay here,” Dave said. “You know how close we are to the spaceport?”

    Millicent nodded, curtly. The spaceport had been taken over by the provisional government almost as soon as the planet had been liberated, then made over to the Commonwealth as a base of operations. Her superiors had insisted on placing the HQ right next to the spaceport, so refugees could be moved through the scanners - once transport was actually arranged - and then shipped straight to orbit. Now ... now, she had the nasty feeling their location might have turned into a liability.

    “The spaceport will either be turned into a bridgehead or bombed,” Dave said, flatly. He pulled her away from the HQ. “Come on!”

    Millicent hesitated, then followed him. Military or not, he was the only friendly face in the area. The spaceport was largely isolated from the nearby city, but it wouldn't be long before people started flocking to the compound. She’d studied refugee flows enough to know that some people would try to take the shortest route to the spaceport, convinced that it would somehow magically allow them to escape the entire planet. Others, meanwhile, would head to the hills. They’d very rapidly turn desperate, then feral. Offworlders - and both of them were offworlders - would be attacked on sight.

    “What do we do?” Panic yammered at the back of her mind. She’d never envisaged being caught in the middle of a war. “Where do we go?”

    “There’s a few places we can hide until the navy shows up,” Dave said. Another round of explosions underlined his words. “I don’t think there will be much of a provisional government by this time tomorrow.”

    Millicent didn't want to agree with him, but there was no way to avoid conceding that he might be right. Judd’s provisional government had been held together by spit, baling wire and a great deal of luck. And subsidies from the Commonwealth, she admitted in the privacy of her own mind. There was a good chance the planetary president was dead, along with the leaders of most of the factions. The remainder would probably start blaming each other for the disaster or simply go their own way. Civil war was a very real possibility.

    “I thought there was a bunch of marines by the embassy,” she called. Thunder echoed in the sky. “Why can’t we go there?”

    “I’ll be surprised if the embassy still exists,” Dave said. “And even if it doesn’t, I don’t fancy our chances of getting there. All hell is breaking out on the streets and I’ve only got a pistol. Do you have a gun?”

    “No,” Millicent said. She’d done the basic firearms certification course, as it was a requirement for her position, but she’d never bothered to keep up with it. “I don’t need one.”

    “You need one now,” Dave told her. “This world is collapsing into chaos.”

    Millicent didn’t want to admit it, but she had a nasty feeling that he was right.
  13. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member


    "complex" is redundant. Recommend deleting the first.

    I see what you did there. The Peter Principal arises. :lol:
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    “Dig that fucking hole,” Sergeant Lewis shouted. “Dig, dig, dig!”

    Private Alicia Callahan felt sweat dripping from her brow as she struggled to dig the trench in the unyielding soil. Guard duty had been supposed to be easy, damn it. A company of provisional government militia, assigned to guarding the wretched refugee camps ... she’d thought it would make a pleasant break from sniping at the occupiers before the sudden liberation. It had been positively cathartic to watch the Theocrats be on the wrong side of history for a change. The bastards had squirmed whenever they’d seen her jacket, just a little tighter than it needed to be, and the gun in her hands. A woman with a gun was their worst nightmare.

    She shivered at the thought, despite the heat. She’d been captured, once. She knew she was lucky to be alive, but ... part of her wished she’d had the time to commit suicide before they’d started in on her. The piece of battered meat the resistance had rescued had needed years to recover, years she hadn't had. Going back to the war, going back to killing the bastards, had been better therapy than anything else, but ... she’d been looking forward to the peace, damn it. Once their homeworld was cleansed of the infection, once the devotees of the True Faith had been banished, she could finally feel safe.

    It isn't fair, she told herself. They’d won - or, rather, they’d been liberated. Judd had been looking forward to a time of peace and prosperity. Instead, they’d been attacked. Enemy shuttles were inbound and Alicia knew, all too well, that the only reason the camp hadn't been bombed from orbit was that the Theocrats wanted to rescue their allies. It just isn't fair!

    “They’ll be here in five minutes,” Lewis bellowed, as streaks of light fell from the sky. “Get your weapons ready!”

    Alicia gritted her teeth, cursing the loud thunder echoing over the hills. It wasn't real thunder. The KEWs were landing in the nearby city, she thought. Garston had been a hive of resistance, back during the war; the Theocrats had done their best, but they hadn't been able to keep the city under tight control. Now, they were simply flattening the city from orbit, slaughtering the population before they could flee. She muttered a silent prayer for her friends and relatives in the region, then ducked into a trench as shuttles flew overhead. A single HVM rose up to blast a shuttle out of the air, the wreckage falling to the ground, but the remainder kept flying on. They seemed determined to land just outside engagement range.

    At least they’re not dropping in on us, Alicia thought, grimly. She checked her ammunition pouch, wishing she’d thought to carry more. During the war, she’d loaded her belt and pockets with so much ammunition that she’d practically clinked when she’d walked. Now, she’d picked up bad habits. If we survive the day, we must never become complacent again.

    A low rumble echoed through the air. She leaned forward, spotting the first tank as it advanced up the road, its turrets swinging from side to side as it searched for targets. The Theocrats might not be able to build a decent sensor suite or vortex generator without help, but she knew from grim experience that their assault weapons and support vehicles were first-rate. They’d built them to be as simple as possible, she’d heard. She’d certainly never had any trouble using captured weapons against their makers.

    “Stay low,” Lewis shouted, as a second tank came into view. “Wait for my signal!”

    Alicia nodded, curtly. The Theocratic tanks were not heavily armoured - they’d found that out, during the war - but the defenders didn't have many antitank weapons. It was sheer luck they had any. The POW camp wasn’t meant to be heavily defended. The guards had been more concerned about the prisoners breaking out than defending the camp against an outside enemy. Most of them would probably have looked the other way if a lynch mob had arrived to slaughter the prisoners.

    Her eyes narrowed as she saw the enemy soldiers, using the tanks for cover as they advanced with the squeamish determination of untried men. Whoever was in command over there had a working brain, she decided. That wasn't good news. The Theocrats had often turned victories into defeats through pressing their advantage until it was too late, or launching human wave attacks, but this CO seemed to be smart enough to avoid heavy losses. But then, the Theocrats had presumably lost a once-infinitive source of manpower. They had to conserve their forces or risk losing everything.

    “Fire,” Lewis snapped.

    Two antitank rockets flared towards their targets, punching through the heavy armour and detonating inside the tanks. Alicia felt no sympathy for the tankers, cooked before they had a chance to realise they were under attack; instead, she aimed at the nearest enemy soldier and shot him down. The other enemy troops dropped to the ground, but kept advancing forward with grim resolution. Clearly, the enemy hadn't learnt too many lessons from the war. They would have been better advised to fall back and call in an airstrike.

    She cursed as a volley of machine gun fire cracked over her head. A third tank had come into view, firing with gay abandon towards the trenches. Alicia ducked as low as she could, swearing out loud as she saw the bullets digging into the ground and tearing the trench into a muddy nightmare. She saw a man stand up to hurl a grenade, only to be disintegrated by the enemy machine guns. Sweat ran down her back as she tried to spot a target without exposing herself. It was only a matter of time. The defence wasn’t anything like strong enough to stand up to a sustained assault. They simply hadn't had the time to dig proper trenches, establish pillboxes or anything else that might do anything more than slow the enemy down for a few moments.

    “Fall back,” Lewis shouted. “Fall ...”

    Alicia saw him fall, half of his head missing. She swallowed, hard, as she crawled back towards the camp. Lewis had led a charmed life, until now. He’d never even been scratched by the enemy fire ... but now he was dead. She found a vantage point and fired a handful of shots towards the advancing enemy troops, seeing two of them fall before the remainder ducked for cover and returned fire. There was no hope of getting out alive. Perhaps they should have abandoned the POW camp as soon as the enemy starships had entered orbit. Or killed the prisoners. She didn't want to think about what they’d do to the local population.

    The tank kept inching forward, crushing the remainder of the trenches beneath its treads. Alicia reached for a grenade, took careful aim and hurled it towards the tank, trying to get it underneath the vehicle before it exploded. The resistance had learnt, the hard way, that the tanks weren't as solidly protected underneath. A minefield would probably have stopped the invasion force in its tracks.

    Until they started using prisoners to clear the minefield, she thought, as the grenade exploded. The tank shuddered to a halt. I think ...

    Something struck her, hard. She was on her back, her thoughts blurring in and out of existence, before she quite knew what had hit her. Someone had shot her. And she could hear someone running towards her. She tried to reach for her other grenade, but her fingers felt as if they were no longer listening to her. A man was looking down at her, a gun pointed directly at her face ...

    It barked, once. Silence fell.

    “The camps have been liberated, sir,” the tactical officer reported. “We’re sorting out the prisoners now.”

    Admiral Zaskar barely looked away from the display. “Casualties?”

    “Forty-seven men dead in total, along with five tanks,” the tactical officer said, after a moment. “Nineteen others injured.”

    “Have the wounded men returned to the shuttles,” Admiral Zaskar ordered, curtly. They could no longer afford to spend men like water. Besides, being seen to care for his men would do wonders for morale. He could no longer hammer men for dissent either. “And execute any surviving enemy personnel.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    There was a pause. “I’m picking up a radio transmitter, five kilometres from the capital,” another officer said. “Should I send them a bomb?”

    “Yes,” Admiral Zaskar said. The enemy needed radios to coordinate military operations, now their ground-based telecommunications system had been destroyed. He had no intention of allowing them to muster resistance. It didn't look as though there was anything they could do that would pose a threat to his ships, but he didn’t want to discover that he was wrong the hard way. “Take them out.”

    He leaned back in his chair, studying the display. They’d rained death on the planet, hitting every military and governmental facility ... and then striking everything that even looked as though it might help the planet rebuild. Hundreds of thousands of unbelievers would have died already, he was sure, and hundreds of thousands more would die in the next few weeks and months. Judd simply didn't have the food to feed its population, nor the vehicles or transport network it needed to move what food it did have from the warehouses to where it was needed. The Commonwealth could fill the gap, if the Commonwealth was prepared to make a major commitment, but the Commonwealth would have too many other things to worry about. He’d see to that personally.

    As long as we withdraw without being caught by enemy ships, he thought. It had been nearly two hours since they’d dropped out of hyperspace and engaged the enemy ships. He wanted to be gone in less than five hours. They didn't dare risk being intercepted so quickly. We really don’t want to lose our second chance before we make a real impression on the enemy.

    “Admiral, we’ve finished assessing the prisoners,” the tactical officer reported. “Fifty-seven of them may be useful, for the fleet; ninety-two are women. The remainder are of little use.”

    “Have the useful ones - and the women - loaded onto the transports,” Admiral Zaskar ordered, shortly. “The remainder are to be given weapons and told to give the enemy a hard time.”

    He smiled, rather grimly. There was no way the remainder of the prisoners would be able to recapture the planet, not with the handful of weapons he could give them, but they’d give the planetary defenders a headache or two. They’d have to waste time tracking down the escaped prisoners, instead of repairing the damage to their infrastructure. Who knew? Enough armed prisoners might be able to spearhead an insurgency of their own. Judd had been a Theocratic world long enough for the True Faith to grow roots. And a long, drawn-out insurgency might lead to a political solution ...

    It isn't likely to happen, he told himself. But God may have other ideas.

    He dismissed the thought. “Are our long-range sensors still clear?”

    “Yes, sir,” the sensor officer said. “The system is empty.”

    Or anyone within sensor range has shut down their drives and active sensors, Admiral Zaskar reminded himself. Judd had once had a small space-based industry of its own. It had been destroyed during the invasion, but the provisional government would have every reason to want to restart it as soon as possible. We could be being watched by unseen eyes.

    He looked at Askew. “I trust this is suitable?”

    “It is more than suitable,” Askew said. The man hadn't shown any reaction whatsoever to the carnage the fleet had unleashed on Judd. He seemed to view it as perfectly normal. “The Commonwealth will be kept very busy indeed.”

    “And they’ll have to waste their resources rebuilding the system,” Admiral Zaskar added. He had no idea if the Commonwealth would make a major commitment to Judd or not, but they’d have to pay a price no matter what they chose. “It will be very difficult for them.”

    He shrugged. “Order the transports to expedite the loading,” he added. “We need to be moving soon.”

    “Damn those bastards,” Rupert Flinty swore. “Damn them to hell!”

    “Watch your mouth,” Simon Laager snapped. “We don’t want to be seen up here.”

    He kept his own feelings to himself as they lay on the ledge, peering down at the POW camp in the valley below. It had been sheer dumb luck that they hadn't been with the rest of the company, when it had made its last stand. They’d been sent out to hunt for deer and they’d been too far away from the camp to rejoin their comrades before it had been too late. Now, all they could do was watch.

    It wasn’t a pleasant sight. The defenders, all too aware of the fate that awaited anyone who surrendered, had fought to the death. A handful of men who’d been too wounded to fight had simply been shot down like wild animals. Now, the invaders were going through the prisoners, dispatching half of them to the shuttles and pointing the other half towards the road leading down to civilisation. It looked as if they were having everything their own way. A couple of prisoners who objected, from what little they could see, had simply been shot, their bodies left to rot where they’d fallen.

    “They’re taking all the women with them,” Flinty commented. “Good.”

    “Not for them,” Simon said. He had no sympathy for the male prisoners, be they faithful or simple collaborators, but the women had been treated like dirt. It was hard to understand why any of them had refused the offer of a better life somewhere else. “They’re going straight to hell.”

    He ducked down as the first shuttle started to rise into the air. If they’d had an HVM ... he shook his head. It wasn't as if they’d needed antiaircraft missiles to go hunting. In hindsight, the camp should have expected an attack from the air - or space - but no one had even considered the possibility. They’d believed the Theocracy was dead. The shuttles - and two more were rising even now - proved that they were wrong. He didn't want to think what the plumes of smoke, rising from the direction of the nearest city, meant. The Theocrats might have flattened every building they could see.

    And they certainly tried to crush the caves from orbit, he thought, remembering the nightmarish days when the Theocrats had realised that the resistance was using the caves to hide. They’d bombed the entire region from orbit, crushing hundreds of fighters below fallen rock. They’ll probably try to do it again.

    He scrambled to his feet as the fourth and last shuttle clawed for space. The pilot didn't seem inclined to go looking for trouble - his human cargo was presumably vital - but there was no point in staying anywhere near the camp. If he was any judge, the Theocrats would probably destroy it from orbit once the former prisoners had scattered. Even if they didn’t, he didn’t want to stick around anyway. The former prisoners would be hunting for any survivors from the garrison.

    Flinty caught his eyes as they scrambled down the ravine. “So ... where do we go?”

    Simon had to think about it. “Allenstown,” he said, finally. It had been a resistance stronghold, once upon a time. And it was only a few short hours away. “It’ll do for starters.”

    And if we can't make contact there, we’ll have to find somewhere else to go, he added, privately. That won’t be easy.

    But, if he were honest, he couldn’t think of anything else to do.

    “The shuttles have returned to the ships, Admiral.”

    Admiral Zaskar nodded, curtly. “Is local space still clear?”

    “Yes, Admiral.”

    “Then take us out of orbit,” he ordered. “Detach a cruiser to take out the cloudscoop, then rejoin us at the first waypoint. We’ll head straight back to base from there.”

    “Yes, Admiral.”

    Moses nudged him. “The women will have to be purified.”

    “And treated well,” Admiral Zaskar added. He knew exactly how his all-male crew would react once they heard there were women onboard ship. There would be riots and mutinies if he wasn't careful. “Make sure they are well protected.”

    He settled back in his command chair as the superdreadnaught slowly rose out of orbit and headed away from the planet. It was a tiny victory, compared to some of the titanic clashes between starships during the war, but it was a victory nonetheless. The enemy would hear about it soon, of course, yet ... what would they do? They couldn't afford to cover every possible target, unless they wanted to spread their forces so thin he could score a series of easy victories ... and they couldn’t find his base, unless they stumbled across it by sheer luck.

    They did it to us, he thought, wryly. Admiral Junayd, one of the most able commanders the Theocracy had produced, had been unable to prevent the Commonwealth from raiding behind the lines. It had cost him everything. His successors hadn't been able to do any better. And now we will do it to them.

    He smiled, rather coldly. Perhaps they couldn't win, in the long run. Perhaps they couldn't re-establish the Theocracy, not in any shape they’d recognise. But they’d make the enemy pay a high price, in blood and treasure, for its victory. And, when he was done, the victory would turn to ashes in their mouth.

    “Admiral, the fleet is ready to enter hyperspace,” the communications officer reported.

    “Then open a gateway,” Admiral Zaskar ordered. The enemy were going to be raging when they discovered he’d entered the system, smashed it flat and then retreated, without taking any damage. The defenders hadn’t even managed to scratch his paint! “It’s time to take our leave.”
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    “So, as you can see, we need more supplies,” Director Fiona Ferguson said. “We’re quite short on everything we need.”

    Kat nodded as she survived the refugee centre. It was nearly fifty miles from the nearest population centre, but it was still heavily defended. The refugees were almost all women, fleeing abusive husbands or fathers or even sons. She found it hard to believe that so few women had fled to the centre, even though she’d pledged that none of them would ever have to go home, but the reports had made it clear that most of the refugees were suffering from deeply embedded trauma. They found it difficult, perhaps impossible, to stand up for themselves. The mere thought of wielding a weapon was beyond most of them.

    They think I’m an alien, she thought, grimly. Princess Drusilla had been able to face her as an equal, of sorts, but the remainder of the Theocracy, male and female alike, seemed to think she was a man in a woman’s body. They simply couldn't wrap their heads around a woman who was something other than a daughter, a wife, or a mother. And they don’t see that they too can reach for the stars.

    “I’ll do my best,” she promised, quietly. “But is there any hope of them becoming ...”

    Her voice trailed off. She simply didn’t know how to put it into words. Ahura Mazda had been an intensely stratified society, with women right on the bottom. A man might be dumped on by his boss, then go home and take it out on his wife or daughters. And far too many women believed that it was perfectly normal. Some of them had even argued that men who didn't hit them didn’t love them. It was an attitude that Kat found utterly incomprehensible. A man wouldn’t have to break his wife’s bones to go to jail on Tyre. But then, women weren't property on Tyre.

    Fiona sighed. “Perhaps not here, Admiral,” she said. “But we are teaching them new skills and ... and showing their sons a better way to live. It is a gradual process, but it will eventually succeed.”

    “Let us hope so,” Kat said. Ahura Mazda had been a pressure cooker too. No wonder there had been an explosion of violence when the Theocracy had finally been destroyed. Too many people had been repressed for too long. “And ...”

    Her wristcom bleeped. “Admiral, this is Winters,” a voice said. “Please can you return to Commonwealth House.”

    Kat’s eyes narrowed. She’d been scheduled to visit two more refugee camps, then a training centre for policemen ... although the latter might have been cancelled anyway. The police cadets were being vetted - again - after the last shooting in a police station. Captain Rosslyn had practically threatened to sit on her if she wanted to go before the vetting was completed, pointing out that she was the number one terrorist target. Even the king came a distant second to the woman who’d ripped the Theocracy apart.

    “Understood,” she said. If Winters was reluctant to discuss the matter over a secure comlink, it had to be important. “I’ll be on my way in a moment.”

    She signalled Captain Rosslyn, then turned to Fiona. “I have to go,” she said. “But I will do what I can.”

    “Please,” Fiona said. She walked Kat out of the building and down to where the armoured aircar was waiting. A pair of attack helicopters sat next to it, bristling with weapons. Their crews seemed to regard escort duty as a chance for target practice. “And thank you for coming.”

    Kat nodded and clambered into the aircar, leaning back into the comfortable seat as the craft hummed to life. She was wasting her time on Ahura Mazda. There was nothing that she could do that couldn't be done better by a dedicated staff. All she was really doing was making it look as though the government had the situation under control, while they systematically starved the occupation forces of the resources they desperately needed. She hadn't forgotten the attempt to draw down her destroyer squadrons, or how much political capital she’d had to spend to get the Admiralty to reverse its decision.

    “We’ll be back at Commonwealth House in ten minutes,” the pilot said. “Our flight path is already being cleared.”

    Kat sat upright and peered out of the window as the aircar picked up speed, heading directly towards the city. It was illuminated by bright sunlight, but the glowing buildings that had featured in enemy propaganda were long gone. They’d been replaced by tawdry constructions that fell down if someone coughed, barracks put together from prefabricated components and layer after layer of makeshift slums. She didn't envy the marines who had to patrol the district. Their technological advantages shrank rapidly in such an environment. Nor did she envy the people who had to live there. She’d been on stage-one planets with better accommodations for the poor and dispossessed.

    But most stage-one planets have no trouble finding work for their people, she reminded herself, as the aircar banked over the city and settled down on the landing pad. Here, there's no work for anyone.

    Kat shook her head, despondently. The facts and figures she’d seem simply couldn’t convey the sheer level of hopelessness gripping Ahura Mazda. The vast majority of the population had no work and no prospect of getting any work, save perhaps for the lowliest of jobs. She’d seriously considered forcing people to work or starve - street-cleaning and rubbish collection was terminally undermanned - but the Refugee Commission had convinced her superiors to overrule her. It didn't look as though most of the locals wanted to go back to work. The few who did were often attacked by their former fellows ...

    She stood, clambered out of the aircar and made her way to the briefing room. A handful of armed marines were on guard, suggesting the situation was serious. Kat wouldn't have expected any enemy attack to make it so far inside Commonwealth House, although she rather suspected that she’d have other problems if the enemy did. They’d probably bring a bomb along and blow themselves - and the building - to hell, rather than trying to capture hostages. They knew better, these days, than to think they’d be allowed to take the hostages out of the building.

    And none of us would want to be their hostages anyway, she thought, as she strode into the briefing room. General Winters, Commodore Fran Higgins and Captain Janice Wilson rose to greet her. We’d sooner die.

    “Be seated,” she said, tersely. There was no time for formal protocol. “What’s happened?”

    “Aberdeen just dropped out of hyperspace,” Fran said. The Commodore looked deeply worried. “She’s reporting a major enemy attack on Judd.”

    Kat felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. “The missing enemy ships?”

    “We haven’t completed the analysis of the records yet,” Fran said, “but we believe so. The enemy fleet was definitely operating Theocratic superdreadnaughts.”

    “Most of them have to be sensor ghosts,” Winters said. “They are not flying hundreds of superdreadnaughts.”

    “Show me the records,” Kat ordered, sharply.

    She forced herself to calm down as the recording started to play. Hundreds of enemy ships ... Winters was right. Most of them had to be sensor ghosts. She wasn't quite sure what to make of it. ONI had never been entirely sure how many enemy starships had escaped destruction - the Theocracy had managed to destroy far too many of its records before the hammer came down - but she was fairly sure there couldn't be more than ten superdreadnaughts unaccounted for. A hundred? No, they couldn't exist. The war would have been lost within the first year if the Theocracy had had an extra hundred superdreadnaughts.

    Curious, she thought, as the recording started to repeat itself. They showed us enough ships to make sure we knew most of them were fakes.

    She looked up at Fran. “What about the other cruisers?”

    “We’re unsure as yet,” Fran said. “Captain Layman should have been able to disengage.”

    “She had her drives and weapons stepped down,” Winters growled. “Admiral, that was fucking careless handling. Aberdeen had to flash-wake her vortex generator to get out.”

    Kat winced, inwardly. A general, even a marine general, criticising a commanding officer from another service was a severe breach of etiquette. Captain Layman would have to be judged by a board of her peers, not by someone who wasn't versed in the finer points of starship operations. But she couldn't disagree. Captain Layman had kept her drives and weapons offline and paid a steep price for it. Perhaps she had managed to disengage in time to escape. Or ... perhaps she was already dead.

    We’ll find out, she promised herself.

    She looked at Janice. “Does ONI have anything to add?”

    Janice looked uncomfortable, but held her ground. “My office hasn’t a chance to really come to grips with the recordings,” she said. “However, our preliminary assessment is that only three or four of those superdreadnaughts are actually real. Furthermore, they clearly have access to some advanced technology. I’d go so far as to suggest they might have opened up communications with another interstellar power.”

    “That would mean war,” Fran said. “They’d have to be insane.”

    “They’d just have to be very careful to ensure they had plausible deniability,” Janice corrected. “They won’t have given anything that can be traced straight back to them, just stuff that could be purchased on the black market. There’ll be a line of cut-outs between them and the actual source of supplies.”

    She shrugged. “That said, they may be using some advanced tech from the war that we never knew existed. There’s a lot we don’t know about enemy R&D.”

    Because they didn’t know it themselves, Kat thought, remembering the battleship they’d faced in the Jorlem Sector. They might have designed something game-changing and never realised it.

    She cleared her throat. “Best case, Captain Layman managed to land a couple of hits before being blown away,” she said. “Does anyone dispute it?”

    Her eyes swept the room. No one answered. Kat nodded to herself. Even one enemy superdreadnaught would be more than enough to take the high orbitals and lay waste to the planet below. A handful of antimatter bombs would exterminate the entire population ... she shuddered at the thought. If the remnants of the Theocracy had embraced the nihilism that had been part of their faith from the beginning, they were likely to inflict horrendous damage before they were wiped out. She dreaded to think just how many worlds might be condemned to eternal winter, if they weren’t rendered completely uninhabitable. It was going to be a nightmare.

    “Very well,” Kat said. She came to a grim resolution. “Commodore, prepare Beta Squadron for departure within one hour. I’ll be taking command personally.”

    “Admiral,” Fran said. “I ...”

    “Your place is here,” Winters said, at the same time. “Admiral ...”

    “It’s not up for dispute,” Kat said, firmly. “I have to see it for myself.”

    She kept her feelings hidden behind an expressionless mask. Winters was right, technically. Her place was on Ahura Mazda. But there was nothing she could do on the Theocratic homeworld that Winters - and her staff - couldn’t do without her. Taking the superdreadnaught squadron and rushing to Judd might be a little unprofessional, perhaps even reckless, but it would break her out of her funk. Besides, she hadn't lied. She needed to see what the enemy had done, if only so she’d be able to grasp it.

    “Admiral,” Janice said carefully, “it’s highly unlikely the enemy ships will have remained at Judd.”

    Kat nodded, shortly. “I know,” she said. “But we have to make a show of responding to the threat.”

    She tapped the terminal, bringing up the starchart. The vast majority of the liberated worlds were completely defenceless, save for the handful who’d managed to capture Theocratic starships or buy, beg or borrow starships from the Commonwealth. And there was no way she could afford to position starships at each and every potential target. She simply didn't have the numbers. The only good news, as far as she could tell, was that the enemy probably weren't strong enough to run the Gap. They’d have to punch through the fleet covering Cadiz before they could slide into the Commonwealth itself.

    “As long as they are careful, they can avoid contact with superior forces indefinitely,” she said, slowly. She’d done it herself, although she had to admit that the enemy had baited a trap for her. It was a shame Admiral Junayd was dead. He might have had some useful insights for her. “But we’re going to have to find a way to track them back to their base.”

    “Unless they’ve set up a fleet train in deep space,” Janice said.

    “I doubt it,” Fran said. “Even we had problems transhipping supplies and making repairs in interstellar space. I wouldn't bet a single rusty crown on them being able to do it without risking a major disaster. No, they’ll have a base somewhere in unexplored space.”

    Kat nodded, stiffly. Fran was right. But finding the base was going to be an absolute nightmare. Even something as large as the giant fleet bases that had supported the Royal Navy was little more than a speck of dust against the immensity of interstellar space. There was no way she could search all of the prospective star systems thoroughly enough to be certain there was no base there. Even trying would force her to pull ships off guard duty and convoy escort, leaving her weak elsewhere.

    “I want to detach destroyers and place one or two in each possible system,” she said, after a moment. “Their orders are not to engage, but to attempt to shadow the enemy fleet as it returns to its base. Once they get a solid lock on its position, they can report back here and we’ll send a squadron of superdreadnaughts to smash the base into atoms.”

    “It really needs to be taken intact,” Janice said. “We have to find out who’s supplying them.”

    “If, indeed, someone is supplying them,” Fran pointed out. “You could be wrong.”

    Kat rose. “I’ll discuss the matter with the king,” she added. She’d been due for a holoconference with King Hadrian anyway. It would just have to be brought forward. “And then I’ll move my flag to Squadron Beta.”

    She looked at Winters. “You’ll assume command here, upon my departure. Dismissed.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Kat strode out of the conference room and down to her office. Kitty must have heard that Kat had returned early, because there was a mug of steaming coffee and a plate of sandwiches sitting on the desk. Kat sat down, keyed the terminal to open a StarCom link to Tyre and started to eat. It was nearly twenty minutes before the communications link solidified and the king’s face materialised in front of her. Kat allowed herself a tired smile as she pushed the remains of her snack to one side. She liked the king. He’d always struck her as someone willing to go the extra mile for his people.

    “Your Majesty,” she said. Technically, as a privy councillor, she could call the king by his first name, but she’d always felt weird doing it. They weren't social equals and never would be. “Thank you for taking my call.”

    “You said it was urgent,” the king said. His voice was very calm. “And it got me out of a boring meeting.”

    Kat frowned. “I’m afraid things are about to become a great deal less boring,” she said, and outlined what had happened at Judd. “The Theocracy may not be dead after all.”

    The king’s eyes narrowed. “I warned them,” he snapped. “Just because we won the battles doesn't mean we’d won the war.”

    “No, Your Majesty,” Kat said. “We need more ships out here, as quickly as possible.”

    “Parliament isn't going to like that,” the king told her. He sounded bitterly amused. “They’re already talking about drawing the military down still further.”

    “Then millions of people are going to die,” Kat said. She made a mental note to write a letter to her brother, although she suspected it would be useless. Peter had been a stiff-necked colourless man practically from birth, if the nurses were to be believed. He’d certainly never had time to play with the young Kat. But then, Peter had practically been an adult when Kat had been a little girl. “You have to make that clear to them.”

    “I will,” the king said. “But politics ...”

    Father would never have allowed matters to get so far out of hand, Kat thought. Her father had been a great man, even if he too hadn't had much time for her as a child. But Peter doesn't have the experience to lead the family.

    She told herself, firmly, that she was being unfair. There was no way to get such experience, save by doing it. And Peter couldn’t have taken over the role until their father’s death. Any plans for a smooth transition of power had been wrecked when their father had been assassinated. The Theocracy had probably never known it, but they’d done a great deal of damage to the Commonwealth. She dreaded to think where it might end.

    “I’ll push the matter as hard as I can,” the king said. “I take the matter seriously.”

    “I’ll make sure you have plenty of footage from Judd,” Kat said. She allowed herself a moment of warmth towards him. The king was trying to do something. It was more than could be said for the bottom-warmers in Parliament. “And from the next attacks.”

    “Please,” the king said. He raised one hand in salute. “Take care of yourself, Kat.”

    “And you, Your Majesty,” Kat told him. The king was young, barely two years older than her, but he was carrying the weight of an entire sector on his shoulders. “Take care of yourself too.”
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    “That was a boring flight,” Patti complained crossly, as Dandelion entered the Asher Dales System. “We didn't encounter a single pirate.”

    “They probably saw us coming and ran the other way,” William said, dryly. It would be a rare pirate who decided to pick a fight with two destroyers, particularly when they weren't escorting any freighters. They might decide that the destroyers had to be transporting something small yet valuable, like datachips, but the odds were against it. “There’ll be plenty of pirates in our future.”

    He raised his voice. “Helm, take us out of hyperspace near the planet.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Tim Arthur said. “Vortex opening in twenty seconds.”

    William smiled to himself, doing his best to project calm across the bridge. Asher Dales hadn't been surveyed very thoroughly, neither by the original settlers or the Theocracy, and there was always a chance - a very slight chance - of running into a gravity shear and being blown out of hyperspace. Thankfully, despite their proximity to the Gap, Asher Dales didn't seem to attract many energy storms. He still wanted to survey the system himself as quickly as possible.

    He tensed as the vortex opened, allowing the two destroyers to slip back into normal space. There was no way to be sure what they would encounter at their destination, despite Tanya’s assurances. The latest news from the Theocratic Sector had not been encouraging. Too many provisional governments were proving unstable, now the common foe had been removed. Tanya’s father and his government might already have been kicked out of power.

    “Local space is clear, sir,” the sensor officer reported. “I’m picking up one artificial construction in orbit. Warbook calls it a Class-III Orbit Station.”

    “Transmit our IFFs,” William ordered. The orbiting station had once belonged to the Theocracy, but the resistance had captured it when the Commonwealth had liberated the system. It had been an impressive feat, even though the locals hadn’t said much about how it had actually been done. “And then take us into high orbit.”

    He settled back in his command chair as the holographic display began to fill with icons. Asher Dales had almost no spacefaring presence, save for the orbiting station, but that didn’t mean that the system was useless. Four gas giants, two rocky worlds and a giant asteroid field ... Asher Dales was poised to become an industrial powerhouse, if it ever had the chance to develop properly. William rather suspected that it would take decades. The Theocracy hadn't even bothered to set up a cloudscoop!

    But they do have a chance, he thought. Assuming, of course, they manage to lure more outside investment.

    “Captain,” the communications officer said. “We’ve been formally welcomed to their system, sir, and you have an invitation to dinner.”

    He paused. “They also want to speak directly to Miss Barrington.”

    “Then patch a link through to her cabin,” William ordered. It had been easy to tell that Tanya hadn't enjoyed the trip, but she hadn't complained. “And then inform them that I will be happy to accept the invitation.”

    He kept a wary eye on the sensors as they approached the planet and entered orbit, but nothing materialised to trouble him. They’d have to inspect the orbiting station with a fine-toothed comb, he told himself firmly; the design was relatively common, dating all the way back to the UN, but the Theocracy had been the ones to turn the design into reality. It didn't look as though they’d made a mess of it ... he shook his head. He’d seen enough of what passed for engineering in the Theocracy to not take anything for granted.

    “Prepare a shuttle,” he ordered, once they were safely in orbit. “Miss Barrington and I will head down to the surface.”

    Tanya met him outside her cabin, looking more cheerful than she’d looked for the last two weeks. William understood how she felt, even though it wasn't something he shared. There was never any shortage of tasks on a starship, from the lowliest midshipman to the commanding officer himself. Boredom was rarely a problem. Tanya, on the other hand, had been confined to a tiny hull. She hadn't even been able to see the stars outside.

    “We made it,” she said, as they entered the shuttle. “Thank you.”

    William lifted his eyebrows. “Did you doubt it?”

    Tanya said nothing. William smiled to himself as he motioned for her to strap herself in, then took the pilot’s chair for himself. It had been a long time since he’d flown such a shuttle, but he’d managed to keep up with his flying certifications over the last year. Besides, it wasn't easy to forget how to fly a shuttle. They were designed to be easy to fly.

    I’d have a lot more trouble with an assault shuttle, he reminded himself, keying the console to bring the craft’s systems online. They’re harder to fly without proper training.

    He disengaged the shuttle from the destroyer, then steered her down towards the planet below. Asher Dales looked like any other blue-and-green world, although he thought there was more green than blue. A glance at the shuttle computers told him that there was definitely more land surface, relative to water, than the average human-compatible world. It was unlikely that Asher Dales would have a problem with living space anytime soon.

    “I’ve locked onto the beacon,” he said, as the shuttle flew into the atmosphere and headed north. “Is that the capital city?”

    “Yep,” Tanya said. “We don’t have a particularly big spaceport. The original one was smashed during the occupation and the bastards weren't interested in repairing or replacing it.”

    “We’ll manage,” William assured her.

    He had to smile as Landing City came into view. It was relatively small, for its importance; it was centred around a single colony ship and a handful of orbital dumpsters that had been dropped to the surface. The spaceport itself was nothing more than a large field, covered in concrete. William thought he would have missed it if there hadn't been a couple of other shuttles sitting in the open. There was only one hanger and it didn't look to be large enough to take more than one full-sized shuttle.

    “Most of the population lives outside the city,” Tanya commented, as William carefully landed the shuttle on the concrete pad. “That made resistance easier, apparently. The Theocrats couldn’t pen most of the inhabitants into the cities.”

    William glanced at her. “How many people live on Asher Dales?”

    Tanya bit her lip. “The last census claimed three million,” she said. “But that was before the war.”

    And it might have dropped since then, William thought. Barely a tenth of Hebrides’s population remained alive, thanks to the war. Asher Dales had been luckier, in some respects, but unluckier in others. It will be a long time before any of the inhabitants will trust the skies again.

    He shut down the shuttle, then stood. The local gravity felt a little stronger than the gravity on Tyre - he made a mental note to adjust the gravity on the destroyers to match - but it wasn't enough to slow him down. Tanya seemed to be having more trouble, for all that she’d been born on Asher Dales ... William puzzled over that for a moment, then reminded himself that she’d left her homeworld when she’d been a child. She probably remembered almost nothing. He wondered, as he opened the hatch and stepped outside, if that was a good thing or not. He’d take the memories of Hebrides - as it had been, before the war - to his grave.

    A small welcoming committee was waiting at the edge of the field. Three men, two of them carrying rifles slung over their shoulders. William waited for Tanya to step out of the shuttle, then allowed her to lead the way towards the committee. Up close, it was clear that their clothes were homemade. William guessed they’d been made on Asher Dales itself.

    “Captain McElney,” the first man said. He held out a hand. “Richard Barrington, Planetary President.”

    William studied him for a long moment. Richard Barrington reminded William of his brother, something that was not entirely a good thing. They had the same roguish scoundrel look, the same devil-may-care attitude to life, the same smile ... he reminded himself, sharply, that Richard Barrington had done a lot more for his homeworld than Scott McElney had ever done for his. Richard Barrington had worked tirelessly to free Asher Dales from foreign occupation. He deserved credit for that, if nothing else.

    “Pleased to meet you,” he said, shaking Barrington’s hand. “And your friends?”

    “Andrew Gellman and Jackson Ford, both members of my cabinet,” Barrington said, with a hint of a smile. “Their roles keep changing, for better or worse. Things are still a little unsettled here.”

    “I see,” William said.

    “If you’ll come with us, we have a meal prepared,” Barrington said, after a moment. “And we have much to discuss.”

    William wasn’t sure if he should be charmed by what he saw as he walked through the streets, such as they were, or deeply worried. Asher Dales looked more like a new colony than one with a population of three million people, although he had to admit that spreading three million people over an entire planet would leave them pretty scattered. Barrington and his subordinates kept up a constant running chatter, telling William about their small industrial base and their long-term plans for the future. They had big plans.

    “We always intended to move into space,” Barrington told him, as they reached a small cottage. It took William a moment to realise that it was Barrington’s home. “The Theocracy got there first.”

    William smiled. “And now you plan to make sure you can never be conquered again?”

    “Essentially,” Barrington said. “As I believe Tanya told you, our long-term goal is to develop our own space-based industry.”

    “That will take some time,” William said.

    “There are shortcuts,” Barrington said. He jabbed a finger upwards. “The real problem is getting to orbit. Once we’re there, we’re halfway to anywhere.”

    That wasn’t particularly accurate, William thought as they sat down at table, but he understood the man’s point. Getting heavy payloads out of a planet’s atmosphere had been a problem that had bedevilled mankind until antigravity drive fields had been invented. Asher Dales could put together the technology to build a lunar base without many problems and, once they solved the problem of getting the base to the moon, they’d have no trouble turning it into a mining centre. William had no idea if they really could build something to rival Tyre, one day, but he admired them for trying.

    “You’ll notice that much of our food is very simple,” Barrington told him. “But feel free to eat as much as you like.”

    William felt an odd burst of nostalgia. He’d taken part in enough barn-raisings, as a young man, to remember how the men would do the work while the women would lay out a fantastic spread. The meal in front of him was very similar. There was bread and cheese, cold meats and eggs and salad ... the men tucked in without hesitation. Tanya seemed a little more reluctant to eat. William rather suspected she’d forgotten what people ate on Asher Dales.

    “So far, things have been relatively safe out here,” Barrington said, once he’d satisfied his hunger. “But we’re expecting that to change. The Commonwealth is doing what it can, but there simply aren’t enough ships on patrol to make a difference. We’ve already heard of a couple of worlds that were forced to supply food and drink” - he nodded at the jugs of water and juice - “to pirate ships. It won’t be long before more pirates start making their way into the sector.”

    “Assuming you have anything they want to take,” William pointed out.

    “Our industrial base is small, but quite flexible,” Barrington told him. “We could supply a pirate with quite a few components, if he demanded our compliance at gunpoint.”

    William lifted his eyebrows. “And the Theocracy didn’t?”

    Gellman smirked. “Most of our engineers went underground as soon as we realised what was coming our way,” he said. “And they took quite a few things with them.”

    Barrington dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief. “Your role Captain, as Tanya told you, is three-fold. First, we want you to protect this system against pirates and ... die-hard fanatics. Second, to eventually link up with other worlds in the sector and provide protection for convoys and suchlike. And third, to create a training school for our young men and women. Do you foresee any difficulties?”

    William took a moment to consider his answer. “A great deal, Mr. President, depends on factors beyond our control ...”

    “Please call me Richard,” Barrington said. “I’ve been assured that my head is already too swollen for my own good.”

    “Yes ... Richard,” William said. He couldn't recall ever having such an informal dinner with a planetary president. He’d joined Kat and her late father for dinner, once, but even that had been absurdly formal. “There are several issues that need to be addressed. The first, put simply, is that we only have four destroyers. We can be reasonably sure of handling any pirate ship, should it decide to press the issue, but die-hards might be harder to handle. And if we lose one of the destroyers, our ability to meet our commitments will be greatly reduced.”

    “We understand the limitations,” Barrington said.

    He used to be a smuggler, William reminded himself. He probably understands the limitations of our technology better than the groundpounders.

    “Second, we cannot send away a destroyer, even for a short period of time, without being unable to recall her if there are ... developments back here,” he added. “We don’t have a StarCom node here, let alone access to the interstellar communications network. A destroyer on escort duties will be out of reach until she returns. Nor will we know what happened to her if she just ... vanishes.

    “Third, training crewmen to operate the destroyers will take time. We did purchase simulators and suchlike, and they’re on their way, but there are things that can only be learnt by doing. The newbie crew may take years to learn their role, particularly if you want them to be more than ... well, more than Theocratic crewmen. Training them to repair damaged components in the machine shop is not something that can be done quickly.”

    “But it can be done,” Gellman said, quietly.

    “Yes,” William said. “However, there’s also a problem with employing the trainees, once they have gained their certifications. There may be no positions for them to use their newfound skills.”

    “I plan to bring my remaining freighters here,” Barrington said. “Given time, we may be able to turn this system into an interstellar shipping hub. There will be no shortage of work for the graduates.”

    William frowned. “What do you intend to ship?”

    “There’s quite a growing market for all sorts of mass-produced items,” Barrington assured him. “And we can get in on the ground floor.”

    “I have a different question,” Ford said, suddenly. “We were promised that the Commonwealth would provide support to rebuild our economy, but the funds have ... unaccountably failed to materialise. Do you believe the Commonwealth will keep their promise?”

    William hesitated. “I am not in a position to speak for anyone on Tyre,” he said, after a moment. “But my impression is that the king overpromised. The Commonwealth was having problems even before the war, problems it was ill-equipped to handle. I think that Parliament put the brakes on the first payments before they could be made.”

    “Bah,” Ford said. “And so we are on our own.”

    “You are not badly off, compared to some of the other planets in this sector,” William pointed out.

    “What do you think of him?” Gellman leaned forward. “The king, I mean?”

    “I only met him once,” William temporised. He would have shared his opinions with someone he knew well, but not a man he’d only just met. “I wasn't privy to any of his innermost thoughts.”

    Barrington cleared his throat. “We’d be happy to give you accommodation on the surface for the night,” he said. “Or you can go back to your ship ...?”

    “I’ll go back,” William said, glancing at his wristcom. “I have a lot of work to do.”

    “Your crews are more than welcome to visit the surface,” Barrington said. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

    “I’ll show you back to the shuttle,” Tanya said.

    She didn't say anything else until they were back on the streets. “It feels strange to be back,” she said, quietly. “This is my home, yet I barely remember it.”

    “That will change,” William told her. “I was a grown adult when I left my homeworld.”

    He looked up at the darkening sky. “You won’t ever feel like you fit in here,” he added, recalling his one visit to Hebrides during the war. “But you may carve out a role for yourself anyway.”

    Tanya shrugged. “Part of me wants to go back home,” she said. She let out an odd little chuckle. “Tyre feels like home.”

    “Choose, but choose wisely,” William said. “You can't live in two places at once.”

    “Are you talking about me,” Tanya asked, “or yourself?”

    William shrugged. He could see her point. Tanya was a trained and certified lawyer, but her degree was worthless on Asher Dales. Her father might find a role for her or he might not. It would look bad to put his daughter in a position of undeserved power, even if she was the best-qualified person he had. Perhaps Tanya would be happier going back to Tyre.

    “I don’t know,” he said. He’d come to realise, long ago, that there was nothing to be gained by living in the past. “I used to tell myself that I would go home, one day. And I kept telling myself that until I couldn’t go home. But living her doesn't look too bad.”

    “Maybe not for you,” Tanya said. “But for me ...?”
    Sapper John, squiddley and rle737ng like this.
  17. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

  18. rle737ng

    rle737ng Monkey++

  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    “We will enter realspace in five minutes, Admiral,” Commander Chanson Barrie reported, grimly. “We have not yet picked up any traces of enemy vessels.”

    Kat nodded, unsurprised. HMS Violence and her sisters had pushed their drives to the limits, cutting down the transit time between Ahura Mazda and Judd to three days, but she was fairly certain the enemy would have departed long ago. She’d had plenty of time to second-guess herself as she’d sat in her cabin, reading and rereading the tactical staff’s assessments of the recordings from Judd. She had to see what had happened but, at the same time, she’d arguably abandoned her post.

    “Bring the squadron to battlestations,” she ordered. The superdreadnaught commanders had allowed their training to slip. A mere year after the war and they’d have a very hard time coping with a Theocratic squadron. She silently kicked herself for not keeping their noses to the grindstone. “And prepare to engage the enemy.”

    She settled back in her command chair as the timer counted down the last few seconds. She’d be astonished if they actually did encounter the enemy - anyone with half a brain would have fled the system before reinforcements could arrive - but it was well to be careful. Whoever was in command of the remnants of the Theocracy’s fleet could have decided to stake everything on one roll of the dice ... or been replaced by someone with more fanaticism than common sense. ONI’s estimates for how long the Theocrats could keep their fleet operating had clearly been badly wrong. Kat wondered, sourly, if they’d missed a major enemy base somewhere. The Theocracy’s record keeping had been poor even before they’d started to deliberately destroy their files. It was easy to imagine an enemy fleet base just vanishing from the paperwork.

    They wouldn’t have been able to afford it, Kat thought. The more she looked at the figures, the more she wondered how the Theocracy had managed to survive for so long. But then, they’d never faced a peer before. The single greatest challenge they’d faced before Cadiz had been a lone system with a tiny defensive fleet. They’d smashed them flat in an afternoon. They simply weren't prepared for modern war.

    The superdreadnaught shuddered as she sliced her way back into realspace. Kat leaned forward, bracing herself. The odds of being ambushed were very low, but that didn't mean she could afford to ignore them. War was a democracy, after all. The enemy got a vote. Her lips twitched at the thought - the Theocrats had forgotten that when they’d started the war - then thinned as the display began to fill with data. There were no enemy starships within sensor range, while the planet itself was as cold and silent as the grave.

    They didn't drop an antimatter bomb, she told herself. Judd’s population had been dispersed, first by the settlement planners and then by the war. The Theocrats would have to render the entire planet uninhabitable if they wanted to slaughter everyone. There’s that, at least.

    “Raise the planet,” she ordered, trying to suppress her doubts. The Theocrats could have nuked everything bigger than a village and her ships wouldn't know about it until they got much closer. “Inform them ... inform them that we are entering orbit.”

    Her eyes narrowed as she studied the display. There was no sign of HMS Gibraltar or Edinburgh, not even cooling wreckage slowly falling into the planet’s atmosphere. Kat wasn't entirely surprised, although she was pissed. Captain Layman had clearly been asleep at the switch. Kat promised herself that she’d make damn sure that everyone knew that they had to remain on alert, at least until the enemy force was hunted down and destroyed. She suspected she knew what Captain Layman had been thinking, but she didn’t care. Captain Layman should have been in a position to break contact and escape.

    “Admiral, I have been unable to establish contact with the planet,” the communications officer said. “However, I am picking up a stealthed recon drone. It responded to our sweep.”

    “Download it’s memory core,” Kat ordered, as an icon flickered into existence on the display. Hopefully, the drone had recorded enough of the battle to be useful. “And put the recordings on the main display.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    “And keep trying to raise the planet,” Kat added. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if they couldn't contact anyone on the surface. Land shuttles at random in hopes of finding someone in authority? Was there even any authority left on the surface? The Theocrats had clearly bombarded the planet heavily. Judd’s unity might have been shattered beyond repair. “Let me know the moment you make contact.”

    Her console bleeped. The data download was ready to view. Kat keyed the display and watched the whole engagement from beginning to end. Captain Layman had definitely been caught with her pants down - her mind provided a whole string of cruder metaphors - and two cruisers had been blown out of existence without even managing to scratch the enemy’s paint! Kat felt a sinking feeling as she reran the record, watching the engagement for a second time. The enemy missiles seemed to have extended range, more than she would have thought possible. Captain Layman might well have been caught by surprise ... no, she had been caught by surprise. There had been no reason to think that the missiles might have been improved until it was too late.

    Someone definitely helped them, Kat thought. The Theocrats could barely keep their starships running. Anyone competent enough to modify missiles on the fly wouldn't have been assigned to the fleet. They’d have stayed in the Ahura Mazda shipyards and probably been killed when the Commonwealth invaded. But who?

    She keyed her console. “Tactical, I want a full analysis of the engagement by the end of the day,” she said. “And I particularly want to know how many of those superdreadnaughts are real.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Kat forced herself to think as she replayed the recording, once again. Only three enemy superdreadnaughts had opened fire, which suggested they were the only real ships in the phantom fleet. Three superdreadnaughts were nothing to laugh at, and they could wreck havoc until the Commonwealth finally hunted the ships down and destroyed them, but they weren't an unmanageable threat. And yet ... she knew that there was no way she could be sure. There might have been five superdreadnaughts, with two of them holding their fire. It wasn't as if they’d needed more than one superdreadnaught to take out two cruisers.

    They’re lucky they didn’t hit the planet, Kat thought. She didn’t like the implications of the Theocrats firing off so many missiles in a single engagement, not against a vastly inferior force. They clearly thought there was no chance of running out of missiles. Who the hell is helping them?

    “Admiral,” the communications officer said. “I’ve managed to establish a communications link with a General Fox. He claims to be the current chief executive, as everyone above him in the line of succession is either dead or out of communication.”

    Kat tapped her console, bringing up the files on Judd. There was no reference to a General Fox ... or anyone, really, below the planetary president and his cabinet. The Commonwealth hadn't bothered to collect any information on the planet ... in hindsight, she told herself, that might have been a mistake. On one hand, Judd was independent; the locals could sort out their problems for themselves. But, on the other, she had no way of knowing who was the legitimate head of state. General Fox apparently didn't know either.

    They didn't really have time to set up a proper government since they were liberated, she reminded herself, numbly. And now they’ve been bombed back into the stone age again.

    “Put him through,” she ordered.

    “Admiral Falcone,” a voice said. There was no image. It took Kat a moment to realise that General Fox, wherever he was, didn't have access to a camera. She couldn't believe it. Just how badly had the planet been hit? “I’d like to welcome you to Judd, but as you can see we’re in no state to receive visitors.”

    “I understand,” Kat said, quickly. The general’s accent was thick. She thought she heard resentment underlying his words, but it was hard to be sure. “Can you give me a sitrep?”

    General Fox laughed, rather humourlessly. “They hammered us,” he said. “Every governmental building and military base has been destroyed, along with dozens of bridges, warehouses and buildings I think were targeted at random. Oh, and they landed at the POW camps and armed the prisoners. The bastards are now causing havoc wherever they go.”

    Kat frowned. There was something about the attack pattern that didn't quite make sense. The Theocrats hadn't nuked Judd, but they’d hit the planet hard enough to destroy the government and trigger a refugee crisis. It wouldn't be as bad as they’d probably hoped, she thought, yet ... they could have simply nuked the planet. Or dropped bigger KEWs. Had they wanted to set off a crisis?

    Perhaps they did, she thought, numbly. We’d have to help them, which means draining our resources still further.

    She glanced at the out-system display. The cloudscoop was gone. She guessed that the HE3 stockpiles on the planet’s surface had also been destroyed. Judd was going to have a power shortage along with everything else, although ... she shook her head. There was no point in looking for small mercies. Thousands of people were going to die in the next few weeks and there was nothing she could do about it. Even if she put in an immediate request for assistance, it would take too long for it to arrive.

    “I see,” she said, wracking her brains. There had to be something they could do. “How may we assist you?”

    General Fox laughed. “If you have shuttles or aircraft, it might be useful,” he said. “But unless you have your ships crammed with ration bars, I’m not sure what else you can do.”

    “We’ll do our best,” Kat promised. Her marines had plenty of experience working with desperate refugees. Here, thankfully, there was little chance of being caught up in an insurgent attack. “I’ll start shipping supplies down to you at once.”

    “Thank you,” General Fox said. “Admiral ... how long can your ships remain in orbit?”

    Kat grimaced. “I don’t know,” she said, slowly. She’d have to dispatch the courier boats to alert the other systems within the sector, but ... but it wasn't as if there was anything most of the liberated worlds could do to defend themselves. “We’ll stay as long as we can.”

    “Which won’t be long enough,” General Fox told her. “What happens when they come back?”

    They won’t, Kat wanted to say. But she knew there was no way she could guarantee it. The Theocrats might return, sooner rather than later, and smash Judd flat once again. And she couldn't keep her fleet on guard permanently. She’d have to go haring off to the next enemy target. There’s no way we can stay here.

    “I don’t know,” she said, honestly. “But, for the moment, you’re safe.”

    “Hah,” General Fox said.

    He closed the channel. Kat took a long breath. She didn't blame General Fox for being angry, both at the Theocrats and the Commonwealth. He - and his former superiors - had believed that the navy would protect them. But no one had anticipated a massive enemy force dropping out of hyperspace and blowing two cruisers to atoms. She considered, briefly, splitting up her superdreadnaught squadrons and dispatching one or two of them to every threatened world. It was workable, in theory, but it ran the risk of a lone ship being attacked by superior force.

    We’d take a bite out of them, she thought. She was fairly sure that one of her superdreadnaughts could take on two enemy ships at once. But we might well lose the ship that hurt them.

    She dismissed the thought with an angry grunt as she keyed her console. “Major Harris, you are authorised to land,” she said. “Coordinate your relief efforts with the planetary government” - such as it is, her mind added silently - “and ... and do everything you can for them.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Major Harris said. “Do you have a timescale?”

    “Not as yet,” Kat admitted. She gritted her teeth in annoyance. There was no way she could give them a definite leaving time. “But we’ll be here for at least two days.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Kat sighed as she closed the connection. It wasn't enough to help the planet. It wasn't anything like enough. They’d barely scratch the surface of what needed to be done. But she couldn’t do anything else. They had to try.

    Unless we pull the marines out in a couple of days, because we have to go elsewhere, she thought, as she brought up a starchart. The enemy could be hitting another world right now.

    She considered the problem for a long moment, silently reflecting on the irony. It was what she’d done, three years ago. And now she was on the receiving end.

    Too many possible targets, she told herself. And yet, too many of them are effectively worthless.

    Her thoughts ran in circles. But the conclusion was inescapable. There was no way she’d be able to catch the enemy, save by sheer luck. Trying to shadow them back to their base might work, given time, but she knew it was a long shot. Unless, of course, she managed to bait a trap. A couple of ideas had already occurred to her.

    “Detail one of the courier boats to take a copy of the engagement records back to Ahura Mazda,” she ordered. “And then detail three of the remaining boats to alert everyone within fifty light years. I want every liberated world to be taking precautions.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” the communications officer said.

    Kat sighed. It wasn't enough and she knew it. But it was all she could do until she got reinforcements.

    And if the last report from home is any indication, she thought, I’ll be lucky if I don’t get half my ships taken away.

    Millicent Barbara had always admired the sheer resilience of the planet’s population, Judd hadn't been an easy world to tame, back when the colony ship had first landed, and then they’d spent a decade under the Theocracy’s iron heel. They’d bounced back after the liberation; they’d repaired their cities, settled new farms and even started a long-term plan to develop the remainder of their star system. She’d thought that nothing could keep them down.

    But now, looking at the men and women in the makeshift refugee camp, she wondered if the Theocracy had finally broken the planet’s population. A handful of refugees had volunteered to assist the militia and aid workers, but the reminder were just sitting there as if they expected to be fed and watered like animals. They didn't even have the entitlement she’d come to hate on Ahura Mazda, the belief that they had a right to be given food and drink without payment. She shuddered as she saw the listless eyes and unmoving bodies. They didn't even have the drive to pick up the pieces and start again.

    She shook her head, morbidly, as she saw a pair of shuttles come in to land. The Royal Marines had been helpful, but there was little they could do. There just weren't enough supplies to feed the refugees. And even if they had enough, now, it wouldn't be long before they ran out completely. She had no idea what would happen then, but she didn't think it would be pretty. The local farmers were already grumbling about supplying food to the refugee camps. It wouldn't be long before they either ran out or refused to supply any more.

    And it’s only been seven days, she thought. What will happen when winter comes?

    “Millie,” Dave called. “There’s someone here you need to see.”

    Millicent followed his gaze - and froze. The young woman walking towards her, surrounded by a trio of marines, was one of the most famous people in the Commonwealth. Kat Falcone looked even younger than Millicent had realised, going by the newscasts; she would have taken the younger woman for someone in her early twenties if she hadn't known that Kat Falcone was a decade older. Blonde hair, cropped closer to her scalp; a dazzling white uniform ... she looked good, but there was something haunted in her eyes. Millicent understood, better than she cared to admit. The Commonwealth had failed Judd.

    “Admiral Falcone,” she said, suddenly unsure how to address their visitor. “Welcome to the camp.”

    “Thank you,” Kat Falcone said. “What’s the situation?”

    “Grim,” Millicent said, as they walked around the edge of the camp. “Most of the refugees have lost the will to do anything, even to live. They’re just sitting around and waiting to die.”

    Kat shot her a sharp look. “You can’t find them work? Something to do with their time?”

    Millicent snorted. “There’s no shortage of work,” she assured her. “But the will to actually do it is lacking.”

    She waved a hand towards the nearest tent. “Everyone here went to the city to build new lives for themselves, lives that were just snatched away a week ago. They’ve lost partners and children, friends and co-workers ... they’ve simply given up. They might go back to work if they were starved, which is what may happen in the next week or so, or they might simply sit down and wait to die. They’ve been broken.”

    “Shit,” Kat Falcone said.

    “This world needs help, Admiral,” Millicent told her. She waved towards the marines, who were digging a well. “We need help, not ... not penny-pinching.”

    “That may be difficult,” Kat Falcone told her. Her voice was flat, utterly emotionless. “This may just be the beginning.”
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen

    “The station isn’t on the verge of falling apart,” Commander Patti Ludwig commented, after the engineering crews had spent two days inspecting every last inch of the orbiting station. “I don’t believe it.”

    William nodded in agreement. The station was clearly marked by signs of slapdash construction and maintenance - there was no point in trying to pretend that someone other than the Theocracy had built it - but it was surprisingly intact. Whoever had been in command must have been smarter or simply more knowledgeable than the average Theocratic commander. Maybe they’d been exiled for daring to know more than they should about engineering, he speculated silently. Or perhaps they’d simply forced themselves to learn when they realised that their life depended on everything working right.

    “I checked the computer core,” Lieutenant Jennifer Flowers said. “It’s primitive, by our standards, but it can handle everything. We probably don’t even have to replace it.”

    “Not at once, anyway,” William said. “But we will have to replace it eventually.”

    “Agreed,” Patti said. “Who knows what they might have done to it.”

    William nodded, shortly. There were literally billions of lines of code inside a modern computer core. It wouldn’t be hard for the Theocrats to put a backdoor into the system that would allow them to take over - or simply turn off the life support - at a moment’s notice. He doubted that any of the crewmen would be able to remove it, even if they’d realised that it was there. The Theocrats probably believed computers to be magic. And even if there wasn't a backdoor or hidden virus planted within the system, there was a good chance the system would fail anyway, sooner or later. He didn't think they’d have bothered to keep up with the latest system patches.

    He scowled as he surveyed the command centre. The station was large, but most of it consisted of storage compartments and a lone fusion core that was nearly thirty years out of date. There wasn't much room left for everything else. He was used to living on starships and space stations, but he couldn't help thinking that the crew would have been on the verge of going insane before they’d been killed. Tiny compartments were one thing; a complete lack of entertainment was quite another. They’d worked, prayed and slept ... without even a hint of anything else. It made him wonder precisely how the locals had managed to take the station. Getting up to orbit alone should be impossible without clearance.

    Maybe the enemy sensor network failed at a crucial moment, he thought. Or maybe they were distracted.

    “We can proceed, I believe,” he said. “We’ll leave a small crew on the station, for the moment, but we can’t go any further until the freighter arrives.”

    He nodded to his subordinates, then strode off the command deck and down the corridor to the airlock. The station was easily large enough to allow the destroyers to dock comfortably - it had been designed to handle much larger freighters - but he hadn't been inclined to take the risk until the station had been checked thoroughly. Even though it was safe, or as a safe as a piece of Theocratic technology ever got, he wasn’t keen on docking his ships anyway. The station was a sitting duck. A single nuclear missile would take it out, along with any ships that happened to be docked at the time. Losing a sizeable chunk of his squadron like that would be extremely embarrassing.

    Tanya was waiting for him when he returned to Dandelion, looking edgy. She’d been in charge of giving his crewmen a couple of days of shore leave, something he’d thought she’d enjoy, but it didn't look like she was enjoying her homecoming. It made William wonder if she’d try to book a flight back to Tyre, the next time a freighter passed through the system. It would take months, he thought - there were no regular services flying through the Gap yet - but she could do it. Hell, she could probably trade free legal advice for passage. Freighter captains were permanently fretting about winding up on the wrong side of the law.

    “William,” she said. “Is the station usable?”

    “For the moment,” William told her. “That was a bit of a surprise.”

    Tanya had to smile as they headed down the corridor to his office. “They told me that the station was in good condition,” she said. “And besides, beggars can’t be choosers.”

    “True,” William agreed. Richard Barrington was a rich man, richer than William had appreciated at first, but there were limits. He certainly wasn't anything like as rich as Kat’s family. “I’m sure the station will survive long enough for us to replace it with a modern installation.”

    “Or even one that works perfectly,” Tanya said. The hatch hissed open as they approached, allowing them to walk into the office. “Father wanted to know when you’d be ready to start exercises.”

    “Today, I think,” William said, as he sat down. He keyed his console, bringing up the in-system display. The system looked empty, although he knew that could be completely meaningless. The entire Royal Navy could be hidden within the system and he’d be none the wiser, as long as the starships kept their drives and sensors stepped down. “I’ve sent Primrose to survey the outer edge of the system, but she should be back today.”

    Tanya lifted her eyebrows. “You think it needs to be done?”

    “Our navigation charts are badly out of date,” William said. “And if we fly into a gravitational eddy we didn't know was there, we’ll be lucky if we only get kicked back into realspace.”

    He shrugged. It wasn't too likely to happen, but an inch of prevention was better than a pound of cure. Besides, Barrington presumably didn't want to make life difficult for anyone visiting his system. An independent freighter captain might think twice about flying to Asher Dales if there was even the slightest prospect of running into trouble. It was dangerous enough flying through the liberated sector without making it worse.

    “We’ll start once Primrose returns,” he added. “And once the rest of the ships arrive, we can ...”

    He stopped as the alert bleeped. “Captain,” Lieutenant Yang said. “A courier boat has just dropped out of hyperspace. She’s transmitting a priority-one signal to us and the planet.”

    William sucked in his breath. A priority-one signal meant ... what? An imminent threat to the planet? They’d only just got to Asher Dales! He forced himself to think, fast. Who’d be attacking them? There was nothing that might draw an interstellar power to attack Asher Dales ... was there?

    “Have the signal copied to my terminal,” he said. “And then request the courier boat to hold position.”

    “Aye, sir,” Yang said.

    Tanya cleared her throat. “What is it?”

    “Bad news,” William guessed. The message blinked up on his terminal. “You may have to call your father.”

    He read the message with a growing sense of disbelief. An enemy force - a Theocratic force - had attacked Judd, leaving the planet in ruins. The recording made disturbing viewing, even though the analysts had noted that most of the enemy superdreadnaughts were no more than sensor ghosts. A lone superdreadnaught would have no difficulty in turning his squadron into atoms, then trashing the orbiting space station and the planet below. Three - or four, or five - were overkill. But the enemy had already shown a disturbing fondness for overkill.

    “... Shit,” he said, slowly. He swung the terminal round so she could see the message. “You definitely have to call your father.”

    “I will,” Tanya said. “But it may take some time for everyone on the surface to stop panicking.”

    They’ll have a point, William thought. He had no idea how Barrington had financed the purchase of four destroyers, but he had to have pushed his resources to the limit. Losing them would be utterly disastrous. Asher Dales is practically defenceless against anything larger than a light cruiser.

    He forced himself to think as Tanya watched the message again and again. The enemy ships would have reached Asher Dales by now, if they’d flown directly from Judd. Looking at the time stamps on the reports, it was clear that the attack had actually taken place seven days before the alert had been dispatched. There was no reason to assume, he told himself firmly, that Asher Dales was about to be attacked. But that might change. Anyone intent on causing problems, both for the Commonwealth and the liberated worlds, would want to destroy Barrington’s investment in nuclear fire.

    And smash the planetside industries too, William thought. He’d been brought up to think that industrial nodes should be in space, where there was limitless energy and no need to worry about pollution, but he could see why Asher Dales hadn't had any choice. They could bomb Asher Dales back to bedrock in an afternoon.

    “I have to call my father,” Tanya said. “Do you mind if I use your terminal?”

    “Not at all,” William said. Denying her the right to use it would be churlish. Besides, he had some thinking to do. “Do you want me to stay?”

    “He’ll probably want to speak to you,” Tanya said. She smiled, weakly. “I’ll call him now.”

    William brought up the starchart and studied it, quickly. The worst-case assumption, according to ONI, was that the enemy had five superdreadnaughts. William privately doubted that figure - he doubted the rogue Theocrats could keep five superdreadnaughts operational without shipyards and supplies - but it had to be taken seriously. The enemy could ravage the sector and ... and there was very little the Commonwealth could do to stop them.

    Too few potential targets, too, William thought. Ahura Mazda and Maxwell’s Haven were probably the bigger ones, the targets the enemy would love to hit, but they were both heavily defended. The Theocrats would be blown to atoms if they faced the Royal Navy in open battle. We might be quite high up their list of realistic targets.

    “That’s the long and short of it, Father,” Tanya said. She raised her voice, drawing William’s attention. “We may be attacked at any moment.”

    “I see,” Barrington said. “William? Do you concur with this assessment?”

    “I don’t see any reason to panic,” William said, after a moment. “The situation is grim - let us not think otherwise - but it is not a complete disaster. There is a good chance we will be targeted ...”

    “As I said,” Tanya commented.

    “... But we have no way to know when - or even if - we will be hit,” William finished. “I don’t think that anyone knows that you’ve assembled a small fleet, at least not yet. They might not consider Asher Dales to be a particularly important target.”

    “And if you’re wrong?” Barrington’s voice was very cold. “What happens then?”

    “We lose,” William said, flatly. “There is no way that four destroyers can stand off five superdreadnaughts. But there are ways we can make them pay ...”

    Or possibly even deter them from attacking, he thought, slowly. It wouldn’t be that hard to rig up a pair of drones to pose as superdreadnaughts. The illusion wouldn't last for long, but it might just convince the enemy that Asher Dales was too big a target to be hit safely. They wouldn't want to tangle with superdreadnaughts even if they had numerical superiority. As long as we don’t have to open fire, we should be able to fool them.

    “There is no way they can be made to pay enough,” Barrington said, savagely. “What are they thinking?”

    William shrugged. It was possible the rogue ships were reaching the end of their lifespan. It wouldn't surprise him. A superdreadnaught needed one day in a shipyard for every ten days on active duty and the Theocrats had lost all their shipyards. Their commanders might have decided to go out in a blaze of glory. Or, perhaps worse, they might think they could wear the defenders down with atrocity after atrocity until the Commonwealth withdrew from the sector, leaving them to pick up the pieces and rebuild the Theocracy. They might manage it, too. They had more firepower than most of the liberated worlds put together.

    We need support from the Royal Navy, he thought grimly. But the navy can't hope to cover every potential target.

    “Right,” Barrington said. “Captain, you are to do everything within your power to prepare to defend our world. And ... if they do attack in force, I expect you to make them pay as high a price as possible before you withdraw.”

    Tanya gasped. “Withdraw?”

    “A pair of light cruisers were destroyed at Judd,” Barrington said, sharply. “And what do we have? Two destroyers.”

    William scowled. He didn't like the thought of abandoning Asher Dales to the Theocrats, not when it was all too clear that everything Barrington and his people had built would be destroyed from orbit. Asher Dales didn’t have a refugee problem, thankfully. There were no POW camps for the enemy to raid. But Barrington was right. The two destroyers - four, if the remainder of the squadron arrived before the enemy - wouldn't stand a chance if the enemy attacked. They might be able to land a blow or two - William was already starting to turn his vague ideas into something usable - but the outcome was inevitable.

    “We will do what we can,” he promised. “And I’ve already had a couple of ideas.”

    Assuming we get the chance to put them into practice, his thoughts added, silently. The bastards might not let us have the time.

    “Good luck,” Barrington said. “I’ll be dispersing the population down here. Hopefully, they’ll blast empty cities rather than crowded farms.”

    William winced. Hebrides had followed a similar strategy, back when the pirate attacks had begun. It had worked, to some extent, but it hadn't kept the pirates from extorting food, drink and women from the planetary population. And Asher Dales was facing the Theocracy. A pirate ship might give up and go away. The Theocracy wouldn't leave unless they encountered superior force.

    They’d be fools to allow themselves to be pinned down so easily, he told himself. They might just make one pass through the system, blast anything that looks important, then retreat at once.

    “Perhaps we should set up decoys on the surface,” he said. “A handful of ECM pods, perhaps. If we configure them to look like they’re industrial nodes, they might bomb them and miss the real targets.”

    Barrington smiled, wanly. “And rig explosives underneath them to make it look like they went up with a bang,” he added. “Let them think they hurt us.”

    William’s lips twitched humourlessly as he recalled an old joke. One side of a war had set up a dummy airfield, complete with dummy hangers and dummy aircraft. The enemy had promptly bombed it, with dummy bombs. It might work, he told himself. If the explosions were spectacular enough, the Theocrats wouldn't want to look any closer. They wouldn't want to think that they’d been tricked.

    Except this lot seem alarmingly smart, he thought. They might be more careful.

    “It should work,” he said. They had nothing to lose by trying. His ideas weren't the ones he would have tried if he had a choice, but he was starting to suspect he didn't. “If nothing else, we might just manage to give them a bloody nose.”

    “Then get right on it,” Barrington ordered. “I’ll talk to you two later.”

    His image vanished. William looked at Tanya. “He’s taking it remarkably well.”

    “Father has always been ... somewhat phlegmatic,” Tanya said. “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are a part of his life, he says.”

    William nodded in wry approval. “Primrose will be back soon,” he said. “Once she’s in position, we can start our planning.”

    Tanya met his eyes. “Can you really hurt them?”

    “We will try,” William said. The firepower disparity was really going to hurt them. In hindsight, perhaps Asher Dales should have tried to purchase a battlecruiser after all. “Like I said, we should be able to give them a bloody nose. A little deception and they might not even push us to the wall.”

    And if someone proposed this as a solution to a naval problem, he added in the privacy of his own thoughts, they’d be lucky not to be hauled in front of a court martial and charged with gross stupidity.

    She rose. “I’ll leave you to get on with it,” she said. “Dinner tonight, at the usual time?”

    “Perhaps not,” William said. “I’ll have to meet Captain Descartes for dinner. We’ll have to do some advanced planning.”

    He looked down at the desk. “Perhaps we should have escorted the freighter directly here after all.”

    “We’d still be in transit,” Tanya said. “Wouldn’t we?”

    She walked through the hatch, which hissed closed behind her. William smiled ruefully, then keyed his terminal. They’d crammed the destroyers with supplies, but the shortage of internal volume had really limited what they could bring. The local industry could make up some of the shortfall, but other items would need to wait until the other ships arrived. Unless, of course, he requested help from the Royal Navy. Kat would understand the need, he was sure.

    But not everyone will, he thought. There had always been a pervasive anticolonial sentiment in the upper ranks, something that had only been made worse by the mutiny on Uncanny. It was funny how colonial officers and men seemed to be the first selected for involuntary discharges. Some of them will decide we can look after ourselves.

    He shook his head as he keyed his terminal. “Communications, ask the courier boat to wait for five more minutes,” he said. It wasn’t something he could demand, not now. “I have a message I need them to take to Ahura Mazda.”

    “Aye, sir.”
survivalmonkey SSL seal        survivalmonkey.com warrant canary