Original Work The Lion and the Unicorn (Ark Royal)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jul 10, 2020.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    The Lion and the Unicorn is the start of a new Ark Royal trilogy. In a sense, it’s stand-alone; in another, it follows more or less directly from the previous Invincible trilogy. It also features a character introduced in The Dogs of God. All you really need to know is that Earth is at war with a sentient and utterly alien virus - I had this planned in 2017, honest! - and things are not going well.

    The Dogs of God - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B085G3KDMX/?tag=survivalmonke-20

    Ark Royal (KU) - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HVKCMQC/?tag=survivalmonke-20

    Overall series, with free samples - The Chrishanger

    As always, comments, spelling corrections, etc are warmly welcomed.

    The lockdown is screwing everything up, and my kids are trapped inside (and I have orders to stay inside all the time), so there may be delays.

    Now read on ...

    Thank you


    PS - a couple of people were asking how to follow me. Just watch my blog <grin>.

    The Chrishanger

    PS - Fantastic Schools is up for purchase now - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08BTJ6Z8Q/?tag=survivalmonke-20
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Admiral Susan Onarina knew, without false modesty, that she’d been in some pretty uncomfortable - even hellish - places in her long career, from middy country to jail and even boarding school. And yet, the Alpha Black facility - located on the very edge of the solar system, within an asteroid that wasn’t listed in any charts - was the worst place she’d ever been. She tried to avoid it, as did all sensible officers. The asteroid’s inhabitants were either servicemen on short-term deployments, medical scientists too intent on their work to notice their surroundings or infected humans who were no longer in command of themselves. The asteroid was far worse than jail.

    She squeezed her eyes shut as she stumbled through the chemical shower, feeling the acidic liquid stinging her skin. Rays of ultraviolet light poured down on her from high above, followed by lasers that were designed to sweep her body clear of the slightest trace of bacteria. She forced herself to keep moving, as robotic arms pressed against her arm to collect skin and blood samples. The lights seemed to grow brighter as she passed through another series of airlocks, wondering - not for the first time - if the precautions were more than a little excessive. Blood samples, urine samples, stool samples ... she shuddered as she made her way onwards, trying to ignore her awareness that she was being probed on a molecular level. She’d seen the virus - the virus - at work. If anything, the facility director wasn’t being paranoid enough.

    And I suppose it makes sure I don’t come out here more than once or twice a year, she mused, as she stepped through the final airlock. Warm water - clean water - cascaded down on her, washing away the traces of chemicals that had survived the earlier showers. The director doesn’t want anyone looking over his shoulder.

    Susan breathed a sigh of relief as she dried herself, then walked into the locker room. Her clothes were already waiting for her. They felt like paper against her skin. She found it hard to feel like a serious person in the outfit, even though she knew her dignity was not the important issue on the asteroid. The garments were designed to be torn away, if the medics needed to tend to a patient. She understood the logic. She just didn’t like it.

    She took a long breath, then opened the door to the antechamber. Admiral Paul Mason, Director of Alpha Black, jumped to his feet and snapped off a salute as she entered, then held out a mug of tea. Susan took the mug and sipped it gratefully. It was navy tea, strong and sour, but it washed the taste away perfectly well.

    “You’d think we could spring for better tea,” she said, as she poured herself another mug. “Or even proper milk.”

    “You know what it’s like,” Mason said, dryly. “Billions for untested research equipment that never does what it says on the tin, not one penny for better food and drink for the workers.”

    Susan nodded, brushing her dark hair back over her shoulder. “It’s good to see you again,” she said. They’d been lovers, once upon a time. “I take it you haven’t gone mad yet, trapped out here.”

    “Not yet, but I’m still trying.” Mason winked, then sobered. “We may have had a breakthrough.”

    “The beancounters will be pleased,” Susan said. “They’re still talking about defunding this facility and spending more on warship production instead.”

    “That would be a mistake,” Mason said, urgently. “We’re not going to outproduce the virus.”

    Susan nodded, curtly. “I agree,” she said. “The key to victory - or even simple survival - lies in pushing technological and biological research as far as possible.”

    She stared into her empty mug, remembering hours after hours of endless arguments with the bureaucrats and politicians. They felt the money would be better spent on tried and tested technology, on warships and starfighters rather than potential war-winning weapons. Susan understood their concerns - she’d read Superiority, they’d all read Superiority - but she also understood the virus didn’t need to concern itself with economic issues. It’s society, insofar as it even existed, was communistic to a degree no human society could match. It didn’t have to worry about keeping the population alive and reasonably contented. It could simply churn out an endless series of warships and point them at its foes. And there was no way the alliance could match the virus ship for ship.

    And we have to worry about zombies within the ranks, she reminded herself. One moment, someone is perfectly loyal and trustworthy; the next, they’re agents of an alien power.

    “Like I said, we’ve made something of a breakthrough.” Mason took her mug and put it in the sink. “If you’ll come with me.”

    Susan nodded and followed him through a maze of corridors. The facility was almost completely barren, save for a handful of childish paintings pinned to the wall that somehow made the corridors look worse. One of the researchers had kids, she supposed. The poor children were probably back on Earth, perhaps in a naval boarding school. She winced in sympathy. It was never easy to be separated from one’s parents, even if there was no actual danger. The parents felt the same way too.

    She frowned as they stepped into a large compartment. The rear bulkhead was transparent, allowing the guests to peer into the environmental compartment. A handful of naked people - men and women - wandered aimlessly around the chamber, their bare skin marred with unsightly growths and protrusions. Susan had seen horror - she’d seen people injured or killed in active service - but there was something about the scene in front of her that chilled her to the bone. The infected were no longer wholly human. Their will was no longer their own. The virus had them in its thrall. An alien intelligence seemed to beat on the air, pressing against her thoughts ... she told herself, savagely, that she was imagining it. And then the infected turned to face her.

    Susan glanced at Mason. “Can they see us?”

    “They shouldn’t be able to see us.” Mason sounded worried, a far cry from the cocky midshipman she’d known years ago. “The bulkhead is opaque, on their side. But they seem to know when someone is looking at them. We don’t understand it.”

    “I see.” Susan calmed herself with an effort. She’d faced all sorts of challenges in the past, from incompetent commanding officers to naked racism. She’d face this one too. “Are they secure?”

    “We think so,” Mason said. He ignored the sharp look she sent him with the ease of long practice. “That said, they’ve been quite good at testing our defences. A couple of bioresearchers got infected, we’re not sure how. Thankfully, we caught it in time to flush the virus from their systems. Others ... the Russians had a breakout at their facility, one that forced them to trigger the nuke and vaporise everyone. Apparently, one of the guards got seduced. We don’t know how that happened either.”

    Susan shuddered. Bioweapons research was the big taboo. The tailored biological weapons that had gotten loose during the Age of Unrest had killed hundreds of thousands before they’d been stopped. No one, even the really weird independent asteroid colonies, cared to push the limits any further. And yet, governments had continued research into bioweapons on the grounds it was the only way to develop defences against biological warfare. They were right, she acknowledged sourly, but it didn’t sit well with her. It was only a short step from defence to attack.

    She turned her gaze back to the infected prisoners. “Is there nothing that can be done for them?”

    “The infection’s too far advanced,” Mason said. “Their brains have been literally riddled with the virus’s command and control structures. One of the zombies” - he indicated a middle-aged man - “actually has a bullet hole through his brain. It hasn’t slowed him down any. Sure, we could purge the infection, but we’d kill them in the process. Once the infection reaches a certain point, it’s unstoppable and euthanasia is the only solution.”

    He stepped forward until he was almost touching the bulkhead. “We’ve had some success in slowing the infection, or even purging it, but not after the tipping point is reached. It seems to laugh at our genetically-engineered immune systems. We’re working on nanotech solutions, but so far we haven’t come up with anything practical.”

    Susan turned as an older woman bustled into the room. “Admiral? I’m sorry I wasn’t at the airlock to meet you?”

    “It’s quite all right,” Susan assured her. “Doctor Velda Womack, I presume?”

    “Just call me Velda,” Velda said. “I’m the director of research in this facility.”

    Susan smiled at Mason, who shrugged expressively. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, deciding not to point out that Mason was in formal command of the facility. Velda wasn’t the first civilian she’d met with an inflated idea of her own importance. “I understand you have a briefing for me?”

    “Yes, Admiral.” Velda walked over to the wall and tapped a console. The bulkhead turned opaque. A holographic image appeared in front of them. “The face of the enemy.”

    “Living cells,” Susan said. She still found it hard to wrap her head around the idea of a sentient virus. The alien enemies she’d faced had been humanoid, for a given value of humanoid. “It’s almost beautiful.”

    “It’s also almost certainly artificial,” Velda said. “There’s remarkably little junk DNA in its structure. Even the most enhanced human has a lot of junk in his generic code. The virus was created by someone, we’re sure, and got out of control.”

    “And they might be still out there,” Susan said.

    “It’s possible,” Velda agreed. “It’s also possible they were simply the first victims. We may never know.”

    She indicated the display with a single finger. “We’ve been looking for ways to fight the virus on its own level. It isn’t easy. It’s capable of overwhelming most immune systems fairly quickly, unless the victim receives medical attention within the first few hours. We think it’s actually adapted to face humans, as the time between infection and mental collapse has grown shorter. It may not be intelligent as we understand the term, but it’s clearly very smart. Once the air is infected with viral base cells, total infection is just a matter of time.”

    “I am aware of this,” Susan said, stiffly. “We lost a handful of colonies to biological attack.”

    Velda adjusted the display. “We’ve been experimenting with manipulating the base cells ourselves. They’re really quite remarkable, in so many ways. We came up with a way to use modified base cells to break down the viral ... biological computer network, for want of a better term. It would be a terminal blow to their cohesion. We think it would shatter the infected hive mind into a collection of individuals.”

    “We think,” Mason put in. “We don’t know for sure.”

    “No one ever does,” Susan said. She looked at Velda. “Are you sure they can’t adapt?”

    “We believe they wouldn’t have time to react before the base cells die,” Velda said. “The virus requires a high concentration of base cells within the atmosphere to maintain the hive mind. We’d be smashing it like ... like building blocks, in a manner that should make it impossible for the network to be rebuilt. The rate of infection would be reduced sharply, if not curtailed completely. Or so we believe.”

    “It can’t be that simple,” Susan said. “What’s the catch?”

    “We can hit a planet, easily enough,” Mason said. “Taking out a ship would be a great deal harder.”

    Susan’s lips twitched. “And they can deploy counter-infection protocols of their own,” she said. “They may slow the spread of our infection ...”

    “Our BioBomb,” Velda said. “We’d be fighting fire with fire.”

    “Clever.” Susan studied the hologram for a long moment. “How do you know the BioBomb won’t turn into a worse threat?”

    “It relies upon viral base cells,” Velda said. “If we released it here” - she waved a hand in the air - “it would die swiftly. It isn’t capable of infecting us, or adapting to its surroundings. One might as well transport a human to the bottom of the sea and expect him to survive long enough to learn how to breathe water. In a sense, we’ve actually created a predator. It’s designed to prey on the virus.”

    “I hope you’re not going to suggest we infect ourselves with a downgraded virus,” Susan said, dryly.

    “That is how the first vaccines were created.” Velda shrugged. “No, we’re still working on medical defences. It might be possible to turn our blood into viral poison, but doing that and keeping the infected person alive has so far proven beyond us.”

    Susan nodded, curtly. “I read the reports,” she said. “They didn’t make comforting reading.”

    “No,” Velda agreed.

    “In theory, we should be able to disrupt their networks if we unleash the BioBombs,” Mason said. “At the very least, we should be able to give them a nasty fright.”

    “I’m not convinced the virus has emotions, as we understand the term,” Velda said. “All of our attempts to communicate have failed.”

    “This is a war of extermination,” Susan agreed. She glanced at Mason. “I’ll discuss it with the First Space Lord and COBRA, then take it to GATO if they agree. Until then ... start producing the BioBombs. I want them ready for deployment as soon as possible.”

    Mason looked disturbed. “What has this war done to us?”

    Susan nodded to the opaque bulkhead. “We either fight, using every weapon at our disposal, or wind up like them,” she said. She understood his fears, but ... she knew she couldn’t afford to let sentiment blind her. “There’s no other way.”
    techsar, Srchdawg-again and rle737ng like this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    “Welcome to Nelson Base,” Midshipwoman Nancy Ryland said. “Admiral Onarina is waiting for you.”

    Captain the Hon Lord Thomas Hammond nodded as he stepped through the airlock. The summons to Nelson Base had caught him by surprise, forcing him to make his excuses to his wife and board a shuttle at very short notice. His wife hadn’t been pleased - she’d been hosting a garden party at the time - but she’d understood. Duty came first, even if her husband had only just returned from Luna for a month of shore leave. Thomas felt a twinge of bemusement as the midshipwoman turned and led him down the corridor. He’d spent the last year at the academy, helping to impart lessons from previous engagements to officer cadets. He would have preferred another ship, but the navy hadn’t bothered to take his preferences into account before assigning him.

    “Please take me to a washroom first,” he said. “I need to freshen up.”

    “Yes, sir,” Nancy said. “There’s one just outside the admiral’s office.”

    Thomas sighed inwardly as he followed her, feeling old. Nancy looked to be the same age as his daughters, give or take a year or two. He wondered, idly, if she viewed the assignment to the admiral’s office as a reward or a punishment. There was something to be said for endearing oneself to one’s superiors, by serving as their aides, but it wasn’t active duty. The navy wouldn’t promote someone past a certain point unless they’d served at least a year on active duty. Nancy would probably be assigned to a ship in a year or two, unless she had no ambitions to rise higher. Thomas found that incomprehensible, although he supposed it was possible she was biding her time until a good match came along. Or that she just wanted to do her bit for her country.

    He put the thought out of his mind as they passed a giant viewport. Earth floated in front of him, a blue and green marble in an endless sea of stars. It took his breath away, even though he knew the planet was far from peaceful. The virus had infected large swathes of the population, unleashing a nightmare that might never end. The BBC maintained a positive outlook, as did most of the other national and international news channels, but he’d read the reports from more pessimistic analysts. The virus was steadily grinding the human race down. It was only a matter of time, some feared, before it broke through the defences and infected the entire planet. There were even people talking about a mass evacuation of Earth.

    Which is logistically impossible, he thought, as they stopped outside a washroom. We’ve been shipping people off-world for the last century and we’ve barely made a dent in the global population.

    Thomas took a breath and stepped into the washroom. The summons really had caught him by surprise. Admiral Onarina wasn’t known for being a martinet - she didn’t have a reputation for reprimanding officers who didn’t wear dress uniforms - but he simply hadn’t had time to find anything more than his academy tunic. He splashed water on his face, then stared at himself in the mirror. He’d had a lifetime of genetic tweaks - it was one advantage of being born into the aristocracy, then going into naval service - but he still looked old. His brown hair was starting to turn gray, his skin looked as if it was starting to develop wrinkles. He was almost tempted to visit a cosmetic surgeon and have everything tightened up, but he wasn’t that vain. He’d certainly never thought well of men - and women - who made themselves look like teenagers, even though they were parents and grandparents. They’d always seemed like people who’d never really grown up.

    He dismissed the thought with an irritated shrug as he brushed down his uniform, then headed for the hatch. Nancy looked as if she’d been waiting patiently, when he stepped into the corridor. Thomas was mildly impressed. It was unlikely she’d been remotely patient - he certainly hadn’t been, when he’d been at the beck and call of everyone who outranked him - but she hadn’t had a choice. He wondered, idly, if she had orders not to leave him alone for very long. It was unlikely - Nelson Base wasn’t a top-secret facility - but he had to admit it was possible. These days, friend could turn to foe very quickly. Who knew who might have been infected, without even known it?

    “This way, sir,” Nancy said. “Admiral Onarina is waiting.”

    Thomas felt a little fresher as Nancy pressed her fingers against a keypad, then opened the hatch. Admiral Onarina’s office was surprisingly small, although still much larger than the ready room on his last command. A simple desk, a set of chairs, a comfortable sofa, a small cluster of pictures on one of the bulkheads ... Admiral Onarina, it seemed, didn’t believe in luxury. Thomas approved. He’d met too many officers who seemed intent on turning their quarters into apartments that wouldn’t have shamed the Ritz.

    Admiral Onarina rose as he entered. “Thank you, Nancy,” she said. “Please bring us tea, then leave us.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Nancy said.

    “Please, take a seat,” Admiral Onarina said, as Nancy left the compartment. “We have much to discuss.”

    Thomas sat, studying Admiral Onarina with interest. She was taller than him, with dark brown skin, long dark hair and darker eyes. The Order of the Garter was clearly emblazoned on her chest, a vote of confidence from the highest in the land. It was unlikely she’d reach First Space Lord - she didn’t have the family connections to climb to the very top - but no one doubted her competence. He wondered, idly, what she’d been doing since she’d reached flag rank. He’d heard rumours, but none of them had been substantiated.

    Nancy returned, with a tray of tea and biscuits. Thomas allowed himself a flicker of relief as the midshipwoman placed the tray on the desk, then retreated. He wasn’t in trouble. The admiral wouldn’t have offered him a drink if she intended to rake him over the coals. He’d been fairly sure of it - he’d have known if he’d done something worth a bollocking from an admiral - but it was nice to have confirmation. And yet, why had he been summoned? He couldn’t think of a good reason. A promotion? It was unlikely Admiral Onarina had called to promote him personally.

    “I’m sorry for cutting your leave short,” Admiral Onarina said. She actually managed to sound regretful. “You’re being reassigned.”

    Thomas raised his eyebrows. He’d assumed he’d be spending at least another six months at the academy, if not remaining there for the rest of his career. It was quite possible, he’d thought, that the navy had seen the academy as the last stage of his career. He’d probably missed the change to jump up to commodore, if not admiral. Family connections or not, there were limits. A stalled career might never be restarted.

    Admiral Onarina leaned forward. “The war is going poorly,” she said. “The blunt truth is that the enemy outnumbers us. In the last two major engagements, they brought enough ships to outnumber the defenders two-to-one. Intelligence believes they’re planning to continue thrusting towards us through at least two tramline chains, simultaneously. If they do, we will be unable to stop one thrust without giving the other thrust a chance to break through and wreck havoc.”

    Thomas sucked in his breath. He’d seen the reports - and he was a past master at reading between the lines, particularly when the news broadcasts were so vague it was brutally obvious they were concealing something - but he hadn’t realised it was so bad. The naval reports hadn’t been anything like so grim. And yet ... he took a sip of his tea, trying to remain calm. Admiral Onarina wouldn’t have summoned him, a lowly captain, to discuss the war. She had something else in mind.

    “We cannot hope to outproduce the virus,” Admiral Onarina continued. “We’re pushing our industrial nodes to the limit, despite the risk of a general collapse, but it isn’t enough to keep the virus from crushing us through sheer numbers. Our only edge is that our technology is slightly - slightly - more advanced. We at Special Projects have been working hard to develop newer and better weapons systems that will give us a chance to turn the tide. We’ve had some successes, but - so far - we haven’t developed a silver bullet.”

    “I see,” Thomas said. “We may come up with something revolutionary ...”

    “We may,” Admiral Onarina agreed, grimly. “There are problems, of course. The naval commanders don’t want to risk betting everything on an untried weapons system. They’re concerned about discovering, the hard way, that a brand new invention works perfectly in the lab, but fails spectacularly in the real world. Quite a few of the concepts that have come out of Special Projects - and the Next Generation Weapons program - have proven unworkable, at least until the kinks are worked out. However, we have made a number of advances and improvements to weapons tech.”

    She tapped her terminal. A holographic starship materialised above the deck. Thomas leaned forward, drinking in the details. She was oddly designed, a cross between a giant battleship and a light cruiser. Thomas frowned as his eyes traced the flattened cylinder, bristling with weapons pods and missile tubes. The drive section looked unusually large, for a ship of her size. He didn’t like the look of it. The section struck him as a huge target. They’d be drive nodes embedded into the hull itself, but if the drive section were shot off the ship would be effectively dead in space. His eyes narrowed as he spotted the tiny gunboats clinging to the hull. Had the designers tried to combine a carrier with a battleship and a cruiser?

    “HMS Lion,” Admiral Onarina said, when he looked at her. “Our first battlecruiser.”

    Thomas blinked. The Americans had experimented with a battlecruiser design, if he recalled correctly, but their prototype hadn’t worked out. She hadn’t had the acceleration of a cruiser, nor the armour to fight beside the battleships. Most navies preferred to deploy destroyers, cruisers, carriers and battleships. Hybrid designs tended to have all the weaknesses and few of the strengths. And ...

    “She carries missiles,” he said, bemused. It made no sense. “They’d be blown out of space before they reach their target.”

    “We’ve been improving missile design and technology ever since we realised they might still have a use in modern war,” Admiral Onarina explained. “These missiles are designed for long-range engagements, their seeker heads crammed with ECM generators and suchlike to make targeting them difficult ... although, sadly, not impossible. They carry improved warheads too, far more deadly than starfighter torpedoes or kinetic projectiles. A battleship that took a direct hit would be seriously damaged. A cruiser would be blown to atoms.”

    Thomas sucked in his breath. “But enemy point defence would still pick them off ...?”

    “Perhaps,” Admiral Onarina said. “The missiles are designed for multiple roles, as you can imagine. They are capable of going ballistic for a time, relying on the gunboats to provide guidance, or simply travelling at speeds that make them difficult to hit. They’re even capable of travelling in evasive patterns, just like starfighters ... expensive as hell, I have to admit, but right now expense isn’t an issue. We’re gearing up to churn out hundreds of the missiles.”

    She altered the display. A smaller ship appeared beside the battlecruiser. “HMS Unicorn. Officially, she’s a corvette, although she’s actually bigger than a standard design. She’s a combination of recon ship, sniper spotter and a few other roles. Ideally, she’ll be providing targeting data to Lion’s missiles, allowing Lion a chance to open fire from a distance and then vanish back into stealth before the enemy can react. She’s also capable of operating independently, if necessary. She has shorter legs than the average destroyer, and she’s not designed to stand in the line of battle, but she does have enough point defence to provide cover for her mothership.”

    Thomas nodded, slowly. “The concept sounds good.”

    “On paper,” Admiral Onarina agreed. “Practically, we want - we need - to make sure the prototypes are tested to the limit before we commit to building more. It took months of arguing to convince the Admiralty to assign funding and resources to construct even one, then the project was delayed twice as shipyard workers had to be assigned to other projects and then reassigned back to Lion. Ideally, she would have left her slip six months ago.”

    She met his eyes, evenly. “I would like you to take command of HMS Lion.”

    Thomas felt a thrill of excitement. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, like starship command. He wasn’t blind to the politics - or to the danger of being made the scapegoat for the project’s failure, if it failed - but he couldn’t resist. If he declined the command, the navy would never offer him another. And besides ... he lifted his eyes to the hologram. He was a conservative when it came to naval technology - most serving officers were all too aware of the risks of taking untested weapons into combat - but he had to admit the concept sounded good. It remained to be seen just how well it would work in the real world.

    “It will be my pleasure,” he said. An untested ship, fresh off the slips ... there’d be challenges galore. It wasn’t uncommon for ships to develop problems as they were put through their paces - it was why the navy insisted on shakedown cruises before putting a ship in the line of battle - but many of those problems could be anticipated and corrected. Lion was a new design. It remained to be seen what would go wrong when she powered up her drives for the first time. “Do we have a mission?”

    “Not yet.” Admiral Onarina grimaced. “There are a handful of possibilities, and I want you ready for deployment as quickly as possible, but nothing is set in stone. There’s some ... disagreement ... amongst various senior officers about just how Lion should be employed in combat. Some of us believe she should be held in reserve until we have enough additional units to prove decisive, others feel she and her classmates will not be enough to turn the tide on their own. Your first priority is to get Lion ready for combat. We’ll have orders for you then, never fear.”

    “Yes, Admiral.” Thomas found himself smiling. “It will be one hell of a challenge.”

    “Quite.” Admiral Onarina’s lips thinned, just slightly. “You’ll be partnered with Captain Mitch Campbell, who’ll have command of Unicorn. You may have seen him in the news reports. He’s going to be promoted when I meet him, but you’ll have command of the two-ship flotilla and you’ll be breveted commodore for official correspondence. I’m afraid this doesn’t come with a pay rise.”

    Thomas had to laugh. “Why am I not surprised?”

    “Captain Campbell is a hard-charging young man,” Admiral Onarina said. “He’s very good with small ships, but - so far - hasn’t served on anything larger than a destroyer. He was also injured during the last set of engagements and spent several weeks in hospital. I expect you to keep him under control.”


    “He’s very hard-charging,” Admiral Onarina said, again. “Aggressiveness is a useful trait, as you are aware, but there’s more at stake here than a lone corvette. No one doubts his bravery, and his crew loves him, but - frankly - I’d be concerned about giving him anything bigger than Unicorn. He really needs more seasoning before taking command of a cruiser, let alone a battleship or carrier.”

    “And the media might make that difficult,” Thomas said. He vaguely recalled watching broadcasts about Commander Campbell. “They’ve been promoting him as a major hero.”

    “He is a hero,” Admiral Onarina said, bluntly. “He deserves the medal and promotion. But he also needs more time to mature. The media may have made that impossible.”

    Thomas nodded, curtly. Naval heroes were heroes, a tradition that stretched all the way back to Lord Nelson and Francis Drake. The time when movie stars and football players had been regarded as heroes and role models were long gone, so far removed from the modern world that it was impossible to understand why anyone had ever taken it seriously. Who cared when someone who’s only skill was kicking a football around a field had to say about anything? Naval heroes - and army heroes - were far more significant. And yet, it was easy to start turning them into icons ... icons that inevitably had feet of clay. Everyone knew Theodore Smith had been a drunkard. It hadn’t kept him from saving the entire human race.

    And it’s also very easy to get a swelled head, he thought. This might not end well.

    “I’ll keep him pointed in the right direction,” he promised. “And we’ll be a long way from the media.”

    “Always a good idea,” Admiral Onarina agreed. She stood, signalling the interview was over. “Nancy will escort you to your shuttle.”

    “I’ll have to call my wife first,” Thomas said. He stood, brushing down his uniform. “She needs to know I’m going back on active service.”

    “Nancy can arrange a private call,” Admiral Onarina said. “You can leave immediately afterwards.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Thomas said. It was inconvenient, to say the least, and his wife would not be pleased. But he’d signed away his freedom when he’d joined the navy. “And thank you.”

    “Thank me when you come back,” Admiral Onarina said. “A great deal is riding on this project, Captain.”

    “I understand,” Thomas said. “I won’t let you down.”
  4. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    The hospital room felt like a prison.

    Commander Mitch Campbell sat in the armchair, trying to read the latest reports. The medics seemed determined to keep him in the ward, even though he knew himself fit for duty. He’d only been slightly injured in the engagement. There’d been others who’d been far less lucky when HMS Pelican had come under enemy fire. Mitch knew, without false modesty, that he’d done well. Even the BBC said so. He’d been brave and lucky enough to emerge a hero, when the country desperately needed heroes. But it wasn’t enough to get him back into space.

    He glowered at the datapad. He’d fired off requests for reassignment to everyone he’d thought would listen, trying to call in favours from old friends and commanding officers in a desperate bid to escape the hospital. He would have been happy to serve as an XO, even if it meant taking a technical demotion; he would have been happy to be assigned to an orbital patrol vessel or solar guardship, if it meant getting out. And yet, no one had seemed inclined to help. The datapad was crammed with everything from military reports to email spam offering him services he neither wanted nor needed, but nothing that so much as hinted he might be getting a new assignment.

    The war isn’t over yet, he thought, as he stood and paced the room. He was self-aware enough to know he wouldn’t be welcome, or advanced, in a peacetime navy, but there was a war on. They’ll reassign me soon enough.

    The hatch bleeped, then hissed open. Mitch rolled his eyes without bothering to turn and look at the intruder. The nurses were nice - he’d flirted with them outrageously - but they couldn’t give him what he wanted. They couldn’t give him a ship. He was tempted to cut the monitor from his wrist and leave the sickbay, even though it would have landed him in real trouble. The doctors and nurses would probably be glad to be rid of him. Mitch had read his own medical reports. He knew he was no longer in any real danger. The best thing he could do, both for himself and the country he served, was go back on the front lines.

    “Commander Campbell?”

    Mitch turned, raising his eyebrows as he saw the newcomer for the first time. She was young and attractive, wearing a midshipwoman’s uniform that suggested she was permanently assigned to Nelson Base. He felt a flicker of sympathy, mingled with contempt. People who wanted to be uniformed bureaucrats tended to lack vision, in his experience; they rarely grasped the potentials and limitations of the personal under his command. He hoped, for the midshipwoman’s sake, she didn’t stay on the base. In wartime, her career would stall and promotion would become a thing of the past.

    “That’s me,” Mitch said. He outranked her and technically she should have saluted, but he was on medical leave. He didn’t really care. One advantage of serving on corvettes like Pelican was a degree of informality that could never be permitted on a fleet carrier. It was astonishing how many people blossomed when they felt free to speak their minds. “What can I do for you?”

    “Admiral Onarina requests your presence,” the midshipwoman said. “I’ve been sent to escort you.”

    Mitch raised his eyebrows, even as his heart leapt for joy. The admiral wanted to see him? It had to be good news. If he was in trouble ... he frowned inwardly as he grabbed his jacket, silently relieved he’d dressed after his morning shower. He’d hoped a show of personal grooming would convince the headshrinkers there was nothing particularly wrong with his mind. Pelican might have been shot up so badly she’d been sent to the breaker’s yard, but her commander was alive and well. And so were most of her crew.

    “You’ll probably have to sneak me past the guards outside,” he joked, at least partly to see how she’d respond. He’d paced up and down onside the room before the nurses had told him to get back inside and stay there. “Did you bring a disguise?”

    The midshipwoman looked unamused. “The doctors have cleared you to leave.”

    Mitch nodded. The midshipwoman was definitely young, then. Too young and inexperienced to know when someone was teasing her. The doctors wouldn’t have let her take him out unless he’d been cleared first. He checked his appearance in the mirror, put a hand through his brown hair to smooth it as best as possible, then followed the midshipwoman through the hatch. A pair of nurses at their workstation nodded as they walked past. Mitch smiled cheerfully at them. They might have been his wardens as much as his caretakers, but they could hardly be blamed for following orders. The doctors had seemed convinced the damage had been worse than he’d thought.

    He put the thought out of his mind as they walked through a series of airlocks that separated the hospital wing from the rest of the orbiting structure. Ultraviolet light beamed down on them, making his skin prickle uncomfortably; tiny sensors checked their blood for the slightest hint of the virus. He was tempted to point out that he’d been in a facility designed to prevent infection from spreading, but there was no point. The guards had strict orders. They couldn’t let anyone through unless they submitted to the bioscreening. The odds of infection might be low, but the virus had managed to slip zombies through the defences before. Better to be paranoid now, he told himself, than sorry later.

    The midshipwoman stopped in front of a large hatch and keyed it open. Mitch stepped forward, coming to attention as he entered Admiral Onarina’s office. He couldn’t help a thrill of fellow-feeling. She was a commoner, just like him, but she’d reached the very highest levels through guts, determination and an unflinching refusal to be deterred from doing the right thing. The Order of the Garter, clearly delineated on her uniform, was proof of just how far she’d come. She had the right to take a salute from just about everyone.

    Mitch saluted, perfectly. “Commander Mitch Campbell, reporting as ordered.”

    “Welcome.” Admiral Onarina’s accent suggested she’d been born and raised in London. “Please, take a seat. Tea or coffee?”

    Mitch nodded and sat, studying the admiral with interest. She was a striking woman - he acknowledged that, in the privacy of his own mind - but it wasn’t her looks that caught his attention. It was her air of calm competence, of grim certainty she knew what she was doing ... he understood, now, why so many of her former subordinates spoke so highly of her. He would have followed her anywhere too. She had the indefinable air of command that called to him. He hoped he’d be as impressive when he reached flag rank.

    And the fact she reached flag rank is proof I can do it too, he thought, as he accepted a mug of tea. She’s even more of a commoner than I am.

    Admiral Onarina studied him for a long moment. Mitch wondered, silently, what she saw in him. A brave and bold commanding officer who’d saved a entire convoy from certain destruction? Or a fool who’d made a terrible mistake and lost his ship? A nervy man or a reckless idiot or both? Mitch had read the after-action reports. Some had praised him, some had cursed him ... he kept his face under tight control. It was easy for an armchair admiral to carp and criticize the men on the front lines, secure in their hindsight ... and the knowledge they’d never have to make life or death decisions themselves. Admiral Onarina had been on the front lines herself. She’d know how hard it could be to determine the right thing to do.

    If you can keep your head when everyone else is panicking, he reminded himself dryly, you’re halfway there already.

    “I read the reports from your last engagement,” Admiral Onarina said, finally. “But I’d like you to tell me, in your own words, what actually happened.”

    You probably read my report as well as all the others, Mitch thought, feeling a flicker of resentment. He’d been trapped in a bed long enough to write a detailed report. And there’s nothing I can add to it.

    He put the feeling out of his mind as he leaned forward. “Pelly - ah, Pelican - was assigned to escort an evacuation convoy from Manticore to Erie,” he said. “Admiral Yu believed it was only a matter of time before Manticore came under heavy attack, so he wanted to evacuate the trained workers before it was too late to do it in an orderly fashion. I agreed with his logic, particularly as my crew were overdue for shore leave anyway. We’d been on deployment for nearly a year.

    “We left with seven other escorts and nineteen freighters, doing our level best to remain stealthy as we jumped from system to system. Everything went well until we ran into an enemy patrol in Dorcas. They altered course to engage us. It was only a matter of time, I thought, until they ran us down. The freighters couldn’t hope to outrun the enemy warships.”

    Admiral Onarina nodded, curtly. Mitch felt relieved. It was hard to explain to civilians, somehow, that starships that could travel at unimaginable speeds sometimes couldn’t travel fast enough. A freighter might move like greased lightning, compared to a hypersonic transport or maglev train, but she might as well be crawling compared to an enemy warship bent on chasing her down. The freighters couldn’t even scatter if there was more than one enemy warship in the vicinity. They simply didn’t have the legs to break contact long enough to go doggo and hide.

    “I deployed ECM drones and altered course,” Mitch recalled. “Pelican went at the enemy ships, all guns blazing. We tore through their formation, firing like madmen. The enemy ships were distracted long enough for the convoy to slip away into interplanetary space, the freighters pretending to be black holes while the warships pretended they were running for their lives. It worked. We bought the convoy enough time to save thousands of lives.”

    “At the cost of losing Pelican,” Admiral Onarina pointed out. “And you getting severely wounded.”

    “It was an exploding console,” Mitch said. He snorted. He was going to be a laughing stock when that became public knowledge. Exploding consoles were common in movies and viewscreen programs, but rare - almost unknown - in real life. “Pelican was hit so badly there were power surges through the command datanet. Ironically, it’s probably what saved us. We were so badly hit they thought we were dead.”

    He took a breath. “One of the freighters risked everything to send shuttles to take us off the wreck,” he said. “I remained in command until my surviving crew was evacuated, then handed command over to the freighter’s captain.”

    Admiral Onarina smiled. “An interesting take on nearly fainting as soon as you were brought onboard.”

    “Fainting is perhaps too strong a word,” Mitch countered. He’d been in terrible pain. His memories were broken and scattered. “But I was in no state to assume command.”

    He winced, inwardly. Technically, any warship commander outranked a freighter commander. Technically, Mitch should have taken command of the freighter as soon as he stepped onboard. Technically ... he shook his head. He really hadn’t been in any state to assume command. And he knew what he’d have said to any jumped-up officer who thought superior rank was enough to take command of his ship. He wouldn’t have blamed the freighter’s CO for finding a way to ignore regulations.

    “Quite.” Admiral Onarina studied him for a long moment. “Did you do the right thing?”

    “If I hadn’t charged the enemy fleet,” Mitch pointed out,” they would have blown the convoy to atoms. There were over a hundred thousand civilians on those ships, Admiral, ranging from experienced workers to their wives and children. Losing Pelican was painful” - in more ways than one, his thoughts added - “but losing the rest of the squadron would have been worse.”

    He kept his face under tight control, unsure what Admiral Onarina would say. She was experienced enough to know he was right, but she might have come under heavy pressure from her superiors. The Royal Navy had held an inquest into the loss of HMS Pelican, but the board hadn’t bothered to contact him after demanding and receiving his report. He wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. They hadn’t so much as asked him for clarification, let alone put him in the hot seat and shouted questions at him. He would almost have preferred to face a hostile audience than stay in the hospital room.

    “I agree,” Admiral Onarina said. “The board agreed as well. In an ideal world” - her lips twisted - “we would not have to worry about losing ships and crew. In the real world, we can only ensure our ships and crews are not risked and lost for nothing. The board found you personally blameless. Indeed, it agreed you were to be promoted to captain - effective immediately - and assigned to a new command.”

    Mitch sucked in his breath. He’d wanted to be a starship captain for as long as he could remember. He’d grown up on stories of Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson and Theodore Smith ... although only Smith, he recalled dryly, had commanded an actual starship. If they promoted him to captain ... they could never take it from him. He’d have the right to call himself captain for the rest of his life, even if he never commanded another starship. He tried not to grin like an idiot. He’d made it! He’d never be stricken from the rolls and forgotten ...

    “You’ll be taking command of HMS Unicorn, a specialised corvette,” Admiral Onarina informed him. “We believe you have the right combination of skills and experiences to handle her ... semi-unique role. Ideally, she and her partner will be the first of a new breed of warships. We think she’ll give us the edge in future engagements with the virus. I shouldn’t have to tell you, Captain, just how important it is that we maintain and widen that edge as much as possible.”

    Mitch nodded, grimly. He’d seen the virus at work. It was simply unpredictable. There were times when it would attack like a madman - like him - and times when it would ignore the most flagrant provocations. He had the feeling the intelligence directing its combat operations was prepared to soak up a certain level of casualties, rather than change the plan and risk matters getting out of control. It made no sense, from his point of view, but if one regarded one’s ships and crews as expendable assets, of no more importance than a fingernail, he supposed it made a certain kind of sense. Perhaps the virus had enough ships to allow it to spend them carelessly.

    We still don’t know how much space it really controls, he reminded himself. A handful of infected worlds had been nuked, weapons of mass destruction unleashed for the first time since the Age of Unrest, but the virus didn’t seem to have been slowed down. For all we know, we’re battling a tiny fraction of its overall fleet.

    “I understand,” he said. “What about my crew?”

    “Fifteen of your surviving crew from Pelican have accepted transfer to Unicorn,” Admiral Onarina informed him. “The remaining ten have been reassigned.”

    And fifteen are dead, Mitch thought. He’d had fifty personnel under his command. Fifteen had died ... he’d known them all, personally. They hadn’t been names and faces in a file, they hadn’t been statistics ... they’d been real people. I couldn’t even visit their families.

    He felt his heart twist. He had no fear of death - he couldn’t have done all the madcap stunt he’d done in his career if he’d been worried about dying - but he hated the thought of others dying for him. They’d known the risks, he kept telling himself, yet ... he shook his head. It didn’t make things any better. He hadn’t wanted them - any of them - to die.

    “I’m glad to hear it,” he said, truthfully. “I assume there’ll be new crewers too?”

    “Yes.” Admiral Onarina frowned. “There’s another concern. You’ll be serving under Captain Hammond. He’ll be breveted commodore for the duration.”

    Mitch said nothing for a long moment. Captain Hammond? The name was unfamiliar ... Hammond was hardly an unusual surname. Certainly, nothing had happened to bring the name to his attention. That could be good or bad. Captain Hammond might be a competent commanding officer, well aware of the importance of being good as opposed to looking good, or he might be a reactionary stick in the mud. The war had killed a number of officers who’d been promoted for reasons other than competence, but Mitch was painfully aware they hadn’t all been killed. He shook his head. He’d find out soon enough. A breveted commodore would hopefully know the difference between good leadership and bad.

    “I understand,” he said. “When do I take up my post?”

    “Now, if you’re ready.” Admiral Onarina smiled. “Technically, you’re entitled to a few days of shore leave, but ...”

    “I spent too long in a hospital bed,” Mitch assured her. He wouldn’t have minded a day or two spent visiting Sin City, or haunting a spaceport strip down on Earth, but he knew the right answer. Besides, he wanted to take command of his new ship before the Admiralty had a change of heart. “I don’t need any shore leave.”

    “Very good,” Admiral Onarina said. She picked a datachip off her desk and held it out to him. “Your orders, Captain, and details on your new command. And good luck.”

    “Thank you, Admiral,” Mitch said. “I won’t let you down.”
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three


    Thomas looked up. The shuttle was so cramped - he wasn’t the only person travelling to the Hamilton Yards - that he’d been invited to sit in the cockpit, even though he had a feeling the pilot would have preferred him at the rear. He’d spent most of the trip studying the files on the datachip, trying to get the measure of his new command and her crew. It hadn’t been easy. Too many details were left out of the files, either because they were unimportant or simply unknown. It was worse, he reflected, when dealing with a new design. The weaknesses might not become apparent until the ship was taken into combat.


    “We’re approaching Lion now,” the pilot said. “Would you like to come forward?”

    Thomas stood and peered into space as a cluster of lights slowly came into view. The Hamilton Yards were immense, hundreds of slips, industrial nodes, defence stations and personal hubs floating near the asteroid belt. His eyes dropped to the console, picking out the IFF beacons that marked the location of dozens of starships preparing for their first deployments. HMS Lion floated near the edge of the facility, half-hidden behind a haze of ECM generators. Thomas suspected it was pointless - the naked eye and passive sensors could pick out quite a few details - but there was no point in questioning it. The security precautions might make it harder for a spy drone to get close to the ship without revealing its presence, or convince its controller that it had spotted something useful. The real secrets were inside the hull.

    And I could give someone a tour without ever revealing anything important, he thought, dryly. They’d never know they were being snowballed.

    He put the thought to one side as Lion took on shape and form. She was longer than he’d realised, her flattened hull suggesting she was designed to fire missiles rather than plasma bolts. It took him a moment to mentally link what he was seeing with the starship plans he’d studied, to realise that Lion was bigger than she looked. The missiles were huge, by human standards, but still tiny compared to the battlecruiser. Her drive section was heavily armoured ... he frowned, unsure he liked the look of it. Lion would definitely be in serious trouble if she took a hit to the drives. Two or three would probably be enough to leave her dead in space.

    We’ll just have to stay out of point-blank range, he told himself. We don’t want an enemy battleship blowing us to atoms.

    He frowned as the shuttle glided closer. He’d read the reports - he’d studied them carefully - but training and experience told him missiles were largely useless in combat. A ballistic missile was easy to avoid, a powered missile was easy to destroy. It was possible to overwhelm a starship’s defences, but anyone who wanted to try would have to fire so many missiles that the whole exercise would rapidly become cost-prohibitive. A chill ran down his spine as he remembered the virus deploying thousands of missiles in single engagements. The virus didn’t have to care about economics, or living wages, or anything else that might detract from producing as many missiles as possible. It just didn’t seem far.

    “Captain, we’ll be docking at the forward hatch,” the pilot said. “Do you want to surprise your crew?”

    “No, thank you,” Thomas said. It was unlikely he could surprise his crew, unless his XO was incredibly careless. Nelson Base would have sent Lion a copy of the shuttle’s passenger manifest. A smart officer would at least glance at the list, before forwarding it to whoever was in charge of personnel assignments. “There’s no point in trying.”

    He smiled as the battlecruiser grew larger and larger until she was practically dominating the cockpit. Up close, he could pick out point defence weapons and sensor nodes, constantly sweeping the surrounding area for threats. Men in suits and worker bees hummed around the giant ship, carrying out the final tasks before clearing Lion for deployment. Thomas felt a thrill of anticipation as the shuttle altered course, heading straight for the forward hatch. A low thump echoed through the hull as she locked on, the gravity field flickering slightly as it meshed with the battlecruiser’s field. Thomas let out a breath as he turned and headed for the hatch. Hopefully, his new XO - Commander Shane Donker - hadn’t arranged a meet-and-greet. Thomas knew he’d have to meet his new officers, sooner rather than later, but he’d prefer not to do it in the middle of a crowded airlock.

    The outer airlock opened in front of him. Thomas felt his ears twinge as the pressure equalised, the inner airlock flowing open to allow him to board his ship. The atmosphere smelt new, as if the ship was too new to have a scent of her own. It wouldn’t be long, he told himself, as he looked around. The remainder of the crew were already on their way, along with the marines and assessment officers. The ship would start to smell normal soon enough.

    Commander Shane Donker stepped forward and saluted. “Captain. Welcome onboard.”

    Thomas returned the salute. “Thank you, Commander,” he said. Donker’s file had made it clear he was an engineering officer who’d switched to command track, rather than someone who’d spent his entire career climbing up the latter to the captain’s chair. A good choice, he thought, for XO of an experimental design. “It’s good to be here.”

    “Good to have you too,” Donker said. He sounded as though he actually meant it. “We’ve been looking forward to taking her out and seeing what she can really do.”

    “I’ve read a lot of good things in the reports,” Thomas said. “How well does she handle in the real world?”

    Donker turned and led Thomas towards the bridge. “We’ve powered up her drives and taken her for a spin around the shipyard,” he said. “There were no major problems. A couple of components had to be replaced, when they failed upon being powered up. There was a minor hiccup in Fusion Three that turned out to be caused by a component being inserted wrongly, but the monitoring software caught the glitch before it could cause any major problems. And we’ve fired dummy missiles through each of the tubes.”

    He paused. “Naturally, we haven’t taken her into real combat. We don’t know how well she’ll handle an unstructured engagement.”

    “We’ll find out,” Thomas said. He’d be discomforted to discover that Lion could only handle a specific form of engagement, although he’d prefer to know about it before he took his ship into combat. “And the crews? How are they?”

    “Around ninety percent of our assigned manpower is onboard,” Donker assured him. “The remainder - the gunboat pilots and the marines - will be joining us shortly. We’ve been running endless drills, trying to figure out what we can and cannot do before we face a real crisis. The reports are on your desk, but overall I’m pleased with progress.”

    Thomas nodded, feeling uncomfortably unsure of himself. The crew wouldn’t know him. It shouldn’t matter, but he knew from experience that it would. He promised himself he’d spend the next few days touring his ship, getting to know his officers and men before leading them into battle. He’d have to spend time in the simulators himself too, practicing everything from simple engagements to complex multi-sided battles where the line between enemy and ally was thinner than one might suppose. There was no choice.

    Easy training, hard mission, he reminded himself. Hard training, slightly easier mission.

    He dismissed the thought as the bridge hatch hissed open, revealing the nerve centre of the entire vessel. The chamber had been designed more for looks than practicality, he thought, although he had to admit it probably didn’t matter. If Lion was hit so badly her bridge was exposed, he reflected, she and her crew were dead. He made a mental note to check the damage control simulations, to try and determine how close they were to reality. The navy believed in hard training, but there were limits. They wouldn’t fire a laser warhead or heavy plasma cannon at a starship just to test the armour.

    His eyes wandered the compartment. A dozen consoles - half manned - surrounded a set of command chairs and holoprojectors. Lion was too small to have a secondary bridge, he noted; Donker would be sitting beside him when Lion went into battle. Experience insisted that was a bad idea. The bridge was heavily armoured, but a lucky shot or an unexpected enemy weapon might be enough to render it non-functional. It might be better to put the XO in Engineering, when they finally engaged the enemy. The ship could be controlled from there if the bridge was taken out.

    Assuming we survive whatever takes out the bridge, Thomas thought. And that doesn’t seem likely.

    He smiled to himself as he sat on the command chair. It felt new, as new as the rest of the ship. He wondered, idly, if Donker had been using it. The officer of the watch had every right to sit in the command chair, although not all of them did. Thomas himself had felt a little odd about sitting in the chair, when he’d been a junior officer. He’d lost the feeling when he’d taken command of his first ship.

    “Mr XO, I assume command,” he said, formally. “Make a note in the log.”

    “Aye, sir,” Donker said, with equal formality.

    Thomas keyed the console, bringing up the near-space display. The yards were buzzing with activity, a grim reminder that the country was at war. There’d been rumours of slowdowns and strikes for years, ever since the pace of construction had been upped and upped again. He grimaced at the thought. He understood, all too well, just what happened if men were pushed to breaking point ... but he also understood the threat. The virus would destroy everything, if it won the war. Freedom, independence, individuality ... everything that made human what they were would be erased so completely no one would ever remember what they’d been. The virus wasn’t a normal foe. It would crush the human race so completely humanity would cease to exist.

    “You’d better give me a tour of the ship,” he said, standing. “And then we can start some real work.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Donker said. “If you don’t mind, we’ll start with the living quarters.”

    Thomas nodded, keeping his thoughts to himself. Donker’s voice showed no hint of irritation at being displaced, even though it had to be annoying. Donker had been the de facto captain for the last three months, once Lion had been moved out of the slip. He would have been more than human if he hadn’t hoped, against all logic and reason, that he would be offered the command chair. Lion was a new ship of a new design. Donker would have less to unlearn than a man who’d commanded destroyers and carriers. He might even have been more willing to push the limits as far as they’d go.

    He listened carefully, asking questions from time to time, as they made their way through the ship. Lion felt undermanned, even though the reports had claimed she was so heavily automated she could be commanded and operated by a tiny handful of crewmen. Thomas had his doubts about that. The automated systems might work in theory, but - in his experience - they’d start to fail the moment enemy fire started pounding the hull. It might be better to bring additional damage control crewmen onto the ship, even if they had no other use. He made a mental note to see if he could convince the Admiralty to assign more. The manpower shortage was apparently permanent, no matter how many people were conscripted into the military.

    Or we should see who we can hire from the asteroids, he mused. It isn’t as if we’re not facing a common foe.

    “The original design called for the gunboats to be treated as starfighters,” Donker explained, as they reached the gunboat hatches. “They’d be held internally and launched from a flight deck. Simulated versions of the design, however, suggested that it would render the entire ship useless. A jack of all traces and master of none, as they say. It would have been worse, in fact, because the flight deck would have drawn fire, allowing the enemy to shoot into the ship.”

    Thomas nodded. He’d studied some of the early designs for ships that were both fleet carriers and battleships. Ark Royal had served in both roles, but every successive design had proven to be unable to duplicate the feat. Lion would have it even worse, he thought; a direct hit to the flight deck, a nuke detonating inside the tube, would have broken the battlecruiser’s back even if it hadn’t blown her to atoms. The gunboats would be hellishly vulnerable, if a missile hit their berths, but it would be better to lose all the gunboats than the entire battlecruiser.

    Which probably won’t endear us to the pilots, he thought, as they peered into empty berths and briefing compartments. No one likes to be reminded their expendable.

    He glanced at Donker. “Do the gunboats live up to the hype?”

    “It’s hard to say,” Donker said. There was something in his voice that suggested he had opinions on the subject. “The simulations suggest the concept is workable. Their one actual engagement, against an enemy raiding party, was a great success. We don’t know, of course, if the virus had anyone watching the engagement from a distance. They may be in blissful ignorance of what’s coming their way, sir, or they may be working desperately to devise countermeasures. We simply don’t know.”

    He paused. “I’ve met a couple of gunboat crews,” he added. “They come across as lacking polish - most of them were recruited in a non-standard manner, from what I heard - and they didn’t act like naval officers, but ... they were fairly sure they could do their jobs. I think time will tell if this is a good idea or not.”

    Thomas nodded. It wasn’t a ringing endorsement, but ... it would have to do. They were charged with striking a balance between naval conservatives and progressives, between officers who saw new weapons as worse than useless and officers who were so entranced with the promise of newer and better weapons that they overlooked the downsides. They’d have to test the concepts thoroughly, before they were put into mass production. He remembered the admiral’s words and shuddered. The human race was thoroughly outnumbered. It couldn’t hope to win a war of attrition. Their only hope was designing weapons that might give them an edge.

    Or even a vaccine that might let us co-exist with the virus, he thought. Most anti-viral research was highly classified, but the rumours he’d heard suggested the researchers were no closer to a breakthrough than they’d been in the last five years. We’d settle for something that poisoned the host, if we had no other choice.

    “We’ll find out,” he said. “And if it works, we’ll just have to come up with something new.”

    “Coming up with something new isn’t the problem, sir,” Donker said. “There are more ideas for silver bullets than there are stars in the sky. Turning a concept into workable hardware ... that’s the problem. There’s a whole bunch of ideas that are close enough to tantalise us ...”

    He shook his head. “And none of them are remotely practical, not yet.”

    “I know,” Thomas said. “I’ve read the reports.”

    He frowned, inwardly, as the tour continued. The designers had done good work. They’d practically overdesigned the ship. Lion had enough drive nodes to give it the acceleration curve of a destroyer, something that would give the enemy a nasty fright the first time they saw her in action. They’d probably start building their own, as soon as they realised it was possible. And then ... Thomas gritted his teeth. Lion might be able to outrun anything big enough to kill her, but she couldn’t outrun missions. The enemy would probably try to overwhelm her defences, simply by hurling hundreds of missiles at her. Lion’s point defence might not be enough to stop them.

    But the gunboats will add to our point defence fire, he told himself. They’ll provide mobile firing platforms as well as targeting data.

    Or so the simulations tell us, his thoughts countered. We won’t know how well it’ll really work until we actually face the enemy.

    “I’m going to have to spend the next week getting to know the ship,” he said, as they headed back to the ready room. “And meeting the crew.”

    He took a breath. “Please inform the senior officers that they’re invited to a brief gathering this evening, at 2000,” he added. “I’ll meet them formally then.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Donker said. It was rare, almost unknown, for an officer to decline an invitation from the captain. It was effectively compulsory, whatever the captain might say. “I’ll let them know at once.”

    Thomas nodded. His terminal was blinking yellow, warning him there was a small pile of messages in his inbox demanding his attention. The XO was supposed to handle most of the paperwork and suchlike, but there were matters that could only be handled by the captain, even though the captain had only been assigned to the ship a few short hours ago. He’d have to review Donker’s decisions too, he reminded himself. The XO had been the man on the spot, but it was the captain who’d pay the price if they went badly wrong ...

    “Hopefully, we’ll meet our planned departure date,” he said, as he took his chair. “I’ll speak to you later.”

    “Yes, sir,” Donker said. “I’ll see you tonight.”
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    “You don’t have to escort me to school,” Elizabeth Gurnard whined. “You really don’t.”

    Tobias Gurnard smirked at his younger sister. He’d sworn, six months ago, that it would be a cold day in hell before he went anywhere near his former school. It had been ten years of absolute hell, from sadistic PE teachers and a headmaster who was almost brutally incompetent to louts whose only entertainment was beating him up on a regular basis. And, despite his hard work, he’d failed to make it into university and leave the assholes behind. If the navy hadn’t recruited him, he thought, he’d still be with the assholes. As it was, he couldn’t help feeling a flicker of the old terror as he approached the school.

    And yet ... he smiled, despite himself, as they passed groups of boys only a year or two younger than himself. His uniform felt uncomfortable, but it was safety. Anyone who attacked a serviceman on the streets faced a life sentence in an arctic work camp, if they weren’t simply put in front of a wall and shot. That lesson had been learnt the hard way, during the Troubles. Tobias didn’t want to be beaten up in front of his sister - again - but he’d take the beating gratefully if it meant one of his former tormentors being taken off the streets. He’d never liked the idea of a military career - and he’d never expected to be recruited into the navy - yet it had its advantages. People who’d shunned him now had to salute him.

    He shuddered, again, as the school came into view. It was a soulless mass of brick and concrete, more like a prison than a fitting home for young minds. A pair of teachers, both very familiar, stood outside the doors, counting heads as their students headed into school. Tobias waved goodbye as his sister hurried to the female entrance, becoming one with the crowd as she passed through the door and vanished from sight. He caught the eye of one of the teachers and winked, enjoying the surprise on the man’s face. The wanker had often told Tobias he was useless, just because he couldn’t kick a football. Tobias wondered, idly, which of them was laughing now.

    The fates, he thought, as he turned and walked away. They’re laughing to see me in uniform.

    He felt his heart clench. It was harder to be frightened of the bullying louts now, after spending the last six months in the navy. They’d been trained endlessly, then flung into battle against a very real threat. The medal he wore was real. He could still be beaten up - he’d met men so strong and fit they made the louts look like .... well, him - but he was no longer so scared. The risk of being blown to atoms by enemy fire rather put the louts in perspective.

    The streets emptied slowly as he made his way through the centre of town. Liverpool had been a dull gray city, even when he’d been a child. The houses might have been repaired or rebuilt, after the city had been flooded during the war, but there was little individuality to the buildings. He shuddered as he passed a half-empty cafe, the handful of patrons too absorbed in their coffees to pay any attention to him. Liverpool might have been where he’d lived, but it had never been home. He wasn’t sure he’d ever find a place to call home. The navy was infinitively superior to the city, but it wasn’t really home either. He would sooner have gone to university - and he’d been promised a chance to go, when he served his term - yet ... would he find a home there? He’d be two years older, with a naval term under his belt. Would it be home or would he be rejected?

    Perhaps, he thought, sourly.

    He kicked a stone as he walked past the library, one of his favourite haunts when he’d been a child. He’d always held the military in contempt. Too many of the jerks and bullies he’d known had bragged openly about how they were going to join the military, get a licence to kill and then kill him. It had taken him too long to realise they were bullshitting, to realise that many of the assholes he’d known would never make it in the military. They’d do their National Service and get out, perhaps taking a ticket to Britannia or another colony world where they could build a better life for themselves. It was the exodus, more than anything else, that was draining Liverpool. The young left and never came back.

    The thought mocked him. He’d come back, but only for a week. His orders had made it clear he wasn’t to go too far from the spaceport. His mother and sister had been pleased to see him, but no one else had given much of a shit. He’d never had any real friends until he’d been recruited into the navy. Of course not. Anyone who might have befriended him had been scared off by the louts, damn them. There were times when he fantasised about taking a gunboat, flying over Liverpool and laying waste to the town. He wasn’t fool enough to say that out loud. There were horror stories about what happened to boys who did.

    It’s hard to feel any empathy if no one shows you any empathy, he thought, morbidly. He knew, intellectually, that the vast majority of the city’s population didn’t hate him. They simply didn’t know he existed. But it was hard to believe, sometimes. They’d done nothing to help him and ... and that hurt. Why should I care about them?

    His heart sank as he heard music and happy laughter coming from a pub. It was barely half past nine and ... and they were already drinking and laughing. He felt a pang of envy, even though he’d been warned - in no uncertain terms - not to even think about drinking, first by his mother and then by the navy. He would have liked to be popular, he would have liked to have a circle of friends who sought his company and went on wacky adventures ... he would have settled for a trip to the beach or the highlands or somewhere, anywhere, other than the drab city. He could go into the pub, wearing his uniform, and someone would buy him a drink ... he shook his head. He couldn’t face the thought of being rejected, once again. The whole idea of just going into a pub was impossible. It was no place for him.

    He turned and walked away. A pair of youths ran past him, heading to the school. They’d be for the high jump when the Beast - his old headmaster - caught them. It wasn’t easy to evade the network of surveillance systems around the school. And the Beast ... Tobias snickered, even though there was little funny about the wretched man. The headmaster had bragged endlessly of his days in the military, but Tobias hadn’t been able to find a single record of him on MILNET. There would be a reference, he’d been told, even if his precise history was classified. If there was no reference, there was no career history. Tobias felt his smirk grow wider. The Beast had never been in the military at all.

    Which should have been obvious, the moment I met a real military officer, he thought, as he hurried home. He was nothing like the Beast.

    His heart sank as he turned onto the street and headed down to his house ... his mother’s house now, he supposed. He was no longer a registered resident. The houses were practically identical, save for the handful of decorations and flags in the windows. A couple of families had lost fathers and sons to the war. He wasn’t too impressed. His father had died on active service. The war had to be fought - Tobias knew enough to understand the truth - but it wasn’t easy to lose a father. If the old man had lived ... who knew what Tobias would have become?

    “Tobias.” His mother greeted him as he stepped into the house. “Did you have a nice walk?”

    Tobias said nothing, unsure what to say. He’d hoped ... in truth, he wasn’t sure what he’d hoped for. Validation, perhaps? Respect? Or just an acknowledgement that the school was little more than a breeding ground for thugs, a place where the intellectual were bullied until their souls were crushed and they became consumed with hatred for a world that treated them like dirt and denied them their chance to shine ... he shook his head, sourly. There was no point. He’d been young and now he felt old without ever having been ... been what? He wasn’t sure.

    “It was fine,” he said. Their relationship had changed, in the past week. He’d been away for too long. She seemed torn between showing off her navy son and fear she might lose him, as she’d lost her husband. “Elizabeth got to school on time.”

    “Good,” his mother said. “Are you still leaving this evening?”

    “Yes.” Tobias knew there was no more time. He had orders to report to the spaceport the following day. After that ... if rumour was to be believed, the gunboats were being assigned to a carrier. “I’ll be catching the last train to London and sleeping in the barracks.”

    “I’ll cook you a nice tea,” his mother said. “And pack you a lunch.”

    “Thanks.” Tobias headed for the stairs. His room wasn’t really his room any more either. He was mildly surprised his mother hadn’t cleared his stuff out, then rented it to someone in desperate need of a cheap place to live. Perhaps she just hadn’t found any takers. He found it hard to believe anyone would willingly live in Liverpool. “Did anyone ...?”

    He shook his head and walked upstairs, leaving the question unfinished. No one was going to call for him, no one real. He could be someone else on the datanets, if he wished; he could claim to be anything and anyone and it wouldn’t matter. But here ... he sighed as he entered the room and closed the door. No one from his unit had contacted him. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. They’d practically been living in each other’s pockets over the last few months. They all needed a break.

    We’ll be on our first deployment soon, he thought, as he sprawled on the bed. And some of us might not be coming back.

    “So tell me,” Patrick Miller. “Is it true the ladies really love a marine?”

    Corporal Colin Lancaster allowed himself a grin as he drank his beer. He’d only been able to wrangle a couple of days of leave from his unit, before they left the base for their first real deployment, and he was determined not to waste it. The sergeant wouldn’t be remotely happy if he saw Colin drinking himself senseless, but the sergeant was somewhere down south and Colin ... was in Liverpool. He was disappointed that most of his old friends were scattered around the country, but ... Patrick was here and a couple more had promised to meet him for a kebab and more boozing later, before he headed back to base. He’d probably regret it in the morning, yet ... he snorted, rudely. There’d be no alcohol onboard ship.

    “It’s very true,” he said. “The girls in Portsmouth? You have to beat them off with a stick.”

    He smiled in happy memory. The training had been intense - for the first time in his life, he’d put his head down and really worked at something - but it had been worthwhile. The older cadets had taken him and the others to a bar, their first day of leave, and introduced them to the girls. Dozens of girls. Some of them had been prostitutes, willing to do absolutely anything for money, but others had just wanted to spend time with a man in uniform. Colin felt his smile grow wider as he remembered one particular girl ...

    “Perhaps I should have tried for the marines,” Patrick said. “But I thought the army would be good for me.”

    “It’s probably a good thing you didn’t try for the Paras,” Colin said. “We have a sacred obligation to fight them, whenever we meet them.”

    “Really?” Patrick didn’t sound convinced. “Even during wartime?”

    Colin shrugged. Truthfully, he’d never done it himself. The old sweats had explained the rivalry was more a matter of form than anything else, a test of their skills rather than a fight to the finish. Jokes about Moe the Marine and Peter the Para battering themselves senseless over nothing were just jokes. They weren’t very funny jokes either. The Royal Marines might wind up depending on the Parachute Regiment to pull them out of a jam - or vice versa - if things really went wrong. They couldn’t start to think of the others as anything more than rivals.

    “I don’t know,” he said. He took another swig of his beer. “Is Annie still around?”

    “I think she’s getting married next month,” Patrick said. “She and Ham were pretty damn close. Rumour has it she’s been knocked up.”

    “Ham had better be sure the kid is his,” Colin said. Annie had been a very popular girl - in all senses of the word - before they’d left school. Her father had been very controlling and she’d responded by sleeping around. “What about Joelle?”

    “Moved out, no forwarding address,” Patrick told him. He snapped his fingers at the waitress, ordering more beer. “She did take one of the entrance exams to university, so she might have gotten in.”

    “Who knows?” Colin tried to remember the other girls. There’d been so many, once upon a time. “Who’s left?”

    “Hannah, but you know what her dad is like,” Patrick said. “You even take one look at his daughter and he’ll pound on you.”

    Colin laughed. “I remember,” he said. The waitress returned, placing two more beers in front of him. “I guess I’m not that desperate.”

    He watched the waitress stroll away, his eyes lingering on her sinfully short skirt. There was one definite advantage to wearing a uniform and that was that, no matter how young you looked, the police wouldn’t chase you out of the pup. He’d completed the Golden Mile wearing his uniform and no one had even thought to question his age. Not, he supposed, that anyone would mistake him for a kid. He’d been big for his age well before he’d joined the Royal Marines. And they - somehow - had forced him to grow extra muscles.

    Patrick nudged him. “They say she’s putty in the hands of anyone who gives her money.”

    Colin snorted as he drank his next beer. He wasn’t sure how much he’d had to drink, but no one was counting. If he’d been alone, perhaps he would have hit on the waitress. What was the worst that could happen? A slap? He’d had worse in training. He snickered at the thought of the sergeant slapping his recruits, as a woman might slap a man who’d gone too far, the snickers becoming chuckles as he imagined the man’s reaction to a suggestion he should. He’d be doing push-ups forever.

    “What’s so funny?” Patrick sounded more perplexed than annoyed. “You know her?”

    “No.” Colin stared down at his drink. “I’m giggling at a stupid thought. How much have we had to drink?”

    “Well ...” Patrick made a show of pretending to count. “One ... two ... three ... lots?”

    “Don’t try to count past twenty without taking off your pants,” Colin said. He put the beer aside. He didn’t want to get that drunk, at least not until he met up with the rest of the old gang. “Is it just me, or ... have things gotten quiet recently?”

    “It’s probably just you,” Patrick said. “If you don’t want that beer, pass it over here.”

    “That’s a terrible rhyme,” Colin said, pushing the glass to his friend. “Don’t give up the day job.”

    Patrick snorted. “I’ll have you know my rendition of We’ll Keep A Welcome provoked strong feelings in the audience.”

    “Shock, terror, rage ...” Colin laughed. “I heard a rumour someone wanted to use your soundtrack to force terrorists to talk. Unfortunately, it was deemed too cruel.”

    “Rats.” Patrick finished the beer and belched loudly. “You’d think I’d get some money out of my singing.”

    “I think you have to be good at it first,” Colin pointed out. “Bringing the house down isn’t always a good thing.”

    “I should just have stuck with screaming swearwords at the top of my voice while banging on the drums,” Patrick said. “No one would have noticed.”

    Colin shrugged and stood. “Let’s go,” he said, as he paid for the drinks with his credit chip. “There must be something to do around here.”

    He sighed as they nodded to the waitress and left the pub. What had he done all day? He’d gone to school, he’d played football, he’d been in the CCF, he’d chased girls, he’d roamed the streets ... he hadn’t done much, had he? His world had been so small. He could have done more, if he’d known it was out there to do. And now ... he shook his head as they started to walk. Liverpool was just too small for him now. He knew he wouldn’t be coming back.

    And Patrick ... Patrick hadn’t grown up at all. He was still the prat Colin remembered, the immature prat ... it was funny how Colin hadn’t seen it before. But then, Colin had been pretty damn immature himself.

    “I’ve changed my mind,” he said, as they headed down the streets. “Let’s go to the maglev station. I have to get back to base.”

    “You’re going?” Patrick belched, again. “Why?”

    “It’s time to go,” Colin said. “Now.”
  8. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer



    Delete for the sake of PC. (puke)


    peashooters? Yeah, sometimes I'm strange ---



    Tough night?
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    “Welcome back, sir,” Commander Staci Templeton said. “It’s like we never left.”

    Mitch smiled as he boarded HMS Unicorn for the first time. He’d spent the shuttle flight reading the files, which were as detailed as one could wish, but there was nothing like actually boarding the ship to determine how closely the reports matched reality. It was always hard to tell from the outside. Every ship had quirks of her own, issues that were never truly solved. Unicorn wasn’t a completely non-standard design, but there were enough variances between her and a standard corvette for him to be concerned. He’d need to take her out on a shakedown cruise before he knew what his ship could really do.

    “I have escaped from prison,” he said, grandly. “The wardens kept me chained to the bed, locked in the room ...”

    “You were pretty badly injured,” Staci pointed out. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose you.”

    “Yes, but ...” Mitch shrugged. “I see you got a promotion too.”

    Staci tapped the stripe on her shoulder. “Vague promises were made about me getting the next corvette when she comes out of the yard,” she said. “I’m supposed to learn everything I can from you in the next six months.”

    “Oh dear,” Mitch said. “Did they even realise you’d been my XO for the past year or so?”

    “Probably not,” Staci said. She grinned. “But then, you were in a ward for the last few months. You weren’t in command of a ship.”

    “Don’t remind me.” Mitch glanced around the compartment. “Do you want to give me the tour?”

    “Of course,” Staci said. “If you’ll follow me ...”

    Mitch slung his knapsack over his shoulder and followed her down the corridor. Unicorn followed the same basic design as Pelican, but there were a handful of tiny differences he made a mental note to check before he took the ship into action. He’d been so used to his previous command that he’d known her like the back of his hand. Unicorn was just different enough that he might injure himself, if he ran through the ship without looking where he was going. It might seem the height of humour if he ran into a conduct and knocked himself out, but it would be utterly disastrous if he did it in the middle of a fight. He kept his eyes open as Staci showed him his cabin - small and cramped, but private - and then led him onto the bridge. Everything was fresh and new.

    He glanced at Staci. “How’s the crew?”

    “A couple jumped ship, sad to say, and took transfers elsewhere,” Staci said. “The remainder are in place, old and new alike. No real problems so far, save for a couple of crewmen who aren’t used to life on a corvette. I’ve been running them through endless drills, all of which I’ve noted in the log. They’ve been getting better.”

    “Glad to hear it,” Mitch said. A fleet carrier could afford to tolerate crewmen who slacked off, every once in a while. A corvette could not. She simply didn’t have the manpower. “Anything I ought to know about?”

    “Nothing too major,” Staci said. “A handful of crewmen completed their additional training while you were in hospital. I’ve had crewmen practicing their shooting in their copious spare time. We should be ready to handle boarders if they risk invading the hull.”

    Mitch nodded, shortly. “Let’s just hope we don’t have to deploy boarding parties,” he said. It had been dangerous enough before the war, according to the old sweats, but now it was impossible. Even hardened marines had trouble boarding infected starships. It was much safer to blow them away from a safe distance. “I assume you’ve been running counter-boarding drills too?”

    “Yes, sir,” Staci assured him. “We just don’t have room to manoeuvre.”

    “But we do have a more coherent crew,” Mitch countered. “They know what they’re doing.”

    He sighed as he keyed his console, bringing up the system display. Unicorn was tiny, compared to a fleet carrier or battleship. A direct hit that wouldn’t so much as scratch a battleship’s paint would blow a corvette into atoms. His crew were experienced - he promised himself he’d spent time getting to know the newcomers, as well as reconnecting with the old hands - but there were limits. It was all too easy to get overwhelmed, if they had to do too many things at once. He switched to the near-space display and frowned as he saw Lion, holding station close to Unicorn. The missile-heavy battlecruiser looked as if someone had taken a corvette and scaled her up, past the boundaries of reason and sanity. Lion looked cool - the child in him thrilled to the sight of a ship that was neither crude nor hulking - but how well would she handle herself in combat?

    I guess we’ll find out, he thought. The concept seemed sound, and the scenarios he’d studied looked good, but he’d been in the navy long enough to know that nothing worked as well as the boffins claimed. The whole idea might prove worse than useless. She does look ready for action.

    His lips quirked. Looks weren’t everything, not in naval combat. Military warships simply couldn’t afford the elegance of civilian designs. No one would ever call a fleet carrier pretty, even though they did have a certain charm. Unicorn was brutally functional, her hull designed for efficiency rather than looks. He smiled as he surveyed his ship’s power curves, silently assessing her promise. She might be ugly, but there was a decent chance she was the fastest ship in space. Only a starfighter could outrun her, once she got her drives up, and a starfighter would run out of juice very quickly.

    Staci kept talking, outlining everything she’d done since the transfer to Unicorn. Mitch listened carefully, trusting her to know what she was talking about. He was mildly surprised she’d been left under his command, particularly since Pelican had been scuttled. She should have been in line for promotion, if only because she was an experienced officer with no apparent ambition to move to larger ships. She deserved a corvette of her own.

    An officer who stays with the corvettes might wind up in command well before his peers, he reminded himself. He’d once admitted, openly, that he’d gone into smaller ships because promotion tended to come quickly. There was far less competition amongst junior officers for coveted slots. And Staci definitely deserves a command of her own.

    “And Captain Hammond has taken command of Lion,” Staci finished. “I think he’d like you to call him as soon as reasonably possible.”

    “As soon as reasonably possible,” Mitch repeated. “Do you think I could define reasonably possible as next year?”

    Staci managed to look incredibly disapproving without quite crossing the line into open insubordination. “Are you sure it was a prison you escaped from?”

    “I’m sure of it.” Mitch grinned as he stood. “I’ll make the call in my cabin, then ... then we can explore the rest of the ship.”

    “Aye, sir,” Staci said. “Good luck.”

    Mitch snorted and headed for the hatch. It rankled, more than he cared to admit, to be subordinate to another captain. One of the other reasons he’d gone into small ships was to be the sole commander, captain of his ship and master of his soul ... he shook his head, telling himself not to be silly. Captain Hammond was senior to him. Protocol dictated he’d be in command of the small squadron, unless the Admiralty saw fit to put Mitch in command. It wasn’t likely. Mitch didn’t have the experience that would convince his superiors to put him ahead of an aristocratic officer with nearly ten years of seniority.

    He scowled as he opened the hatch and stepped into his cabin. He’d spent his entire adult life in the navy, and he was proud to say his career was unblemished, but he wasn’t part of the Old Boys Network and never would be. He’d had to fight for every last promotion, while watching helplessly as classmates with strong family connections were promoted over his head. It wasn’t easy, sometimes, to watch ... he knew it would have been a great deal harder, for him, if he’d stayed with the bigger ships. He shook his head, telling himself - again - that he loved corvettes. It was true, and he wouldn’t trade Unicorn for Lion, but it was still frustrating. Too many talented officers were left behind, languishing in the ranks, because they lacked patrons in high places.

    This isn’t the time, he reminded himself as he sat at his desk. It was strikingly small, so tiny it felt as if it had been designed for a child. Mitch wasn’t that big, but he was very definitely an adult. There are more important things to worry about.

    He keyed his terminal, pressing his hand against the scanner to bring up his inbox. A hundred messages waited for him, ranging from follow-up medical appointments to missives from his last girlfriends. Mitch shook his head impatiently as he deleted them. He just wasn’t ready to settle down, even though - as a naval officer - he was supposed to set a good example for the men. There might be strong social pressure to marry and have kids, but ... he snorted, rudely. His career came first. Besides, he’d never met anyone he actually wanted to marry. He couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his life with any of the girls he knew.

    Putting the thought aside - and mentally noting a couple of messages that were actually important - he tapped a command into the console, opening a secure link to Lion. Captain Hammond would be notified at once, of course, but it might take some time for him to return to his ready room. Mitch would have been more concerned, he admitted privately, if Captain Hammond had answered immediately. A captain who spent all his time in his ready room was a man who wasn’t on top of things. Or so he’d been told. A battleship was just too large for her commander to know everything.

    Which is probably why battleships have the worst disciplinary issues in the fleet, he thought, with a hint of amusement. He knew everything about his ship ... his former ship, at least. He’d been able to keep his finger on the crew’s collective pulse, he’d been able to have a few words with officers and crew who were starting to slide off the straight and narrow ... no battleship commander could hope to do it himself. Their crews are divided into small tribes and ...

    The terminal cleared. Mitch found himself looking at Captain Hammond. He looked older than Mitch had expected, his hair starting to shade to grey. His face was all natural, without any hints of genetic engineering or cosmetic surgery. Mitch silently gave Hammond points for being comfortable in his own skin. He’d met too many aristos who had themselves shaped into living gods and goddesses, their bodies carved so perfectly they were almost parodies of themselves. Mitch had always figured it was a sign of deep-seated insecurity. It wasn’t as if the aristos needed to be inhumanly beautiful.

    “Captain Campbell,” Captain Hammond said. His voice was classically aristocratic, with a hint of Sussex rather than London. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

    “And on your new command,” Mitch said. He wondered, idly, what Captain Hammond made of him. A competent naval officer with a decent combat record or a jumped-up commoner with delusions of grandeur? Or something else? “I look forward to seeing what our ships can really do.”

    “As do I,” Captain Hammond said. He sounded stilted, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of Mitch and his ship. Mitch rather suspected Hammond looked down on smaller ships. Corvettes couldn’t stand in the line of battle, but that didn’t mean they were useless. “We’ll start running drills as soon as our crews are up to speed.”

    Mitch nodded, feeling a flash of amusement mingled with pity. Captain Hammond had only just taken command of his ship. His record indicated he’d spent the last six months at the academy, trying to ensure the officer cadets learnt from his experiences. The poor man didn’t know his ship or his crew, the chances were good he didn’t know any of his subordinates personally. And he had to whip his ship into shape before the Admiralty started breathing down his neck and demanding results. It wasn’t going to be easy.

    He leaned forward. “I understand that you’re in command of our joint squadron,” he said, calmly. It was hard not to show a little resentment at the thought. “We’re going to have to work hard to figure out how to operate as a team, depending on how thing go.”

    “We’ll be running simulations once Lion is ready to depart,” Captain Hammond said. “I trust you can handle your own ship?”

    “I know most of my crew,” Mitch assured him. He was careful not to show his relief on his face. Some senior officers were so insecure they had no qualms about undermining the captain’s authority on his own ship. It was never easy for a captain to handle an overbearing admiral. He had the legal authority to tell an admiral to mind his own business, but doing so would probably mean the end of his career. “The ones I don’t know will fit in or be reassigned in the next couple of weeks.”

    Captain Hammond looked irked. “We have rough orders to be ready to depart in a month,” he said. “But nothing too specific.”

    “Naturally,” Mitch said. It was never easy to coordinate schedules, particularly when dealing with ships that had barely started their shakedown cruises. It was quite possible that something would go badly wrong, sending one or both of the ships back to the yard. “They don’t know when we’ll be truly ready to leave.”

    He leaned forward. “With your permission, I’ll get my ship ready for operational deployment as quickly as possible,” he said. “I’d like to make sure I know what she can do before I take her into combat.”

    “We may not have the time,” Captain Hammond warned. “I read a report suggesting the enemy will be making another thrust towards Earth in the next few months.”

    Mitch grimaced. Civilians talked of blocking the tramlines, of preventing enemy ships from jumping from one system to the next, but naval officers knew it was impossible. Mining the tramlines or establishing battlestations to monitor transits was a pipe dream. There was no reason the virus couldn’t launch a major assault on Earth tomorrow, sneaking through the tramlines and remaining in stealth until they were within firing range. He felt his heart sink at the thought. The virus didn’t seem quite so concerned about its rear areas, save for a handful of production nodes. It was quite possible the analysts were correct.

    “Then we’d better be ready to meet them,” he said. Earth was ringed by layer upon layer of orbital firepower - and the planet’s surface was studded with ground-based defence systems - but he was all too aware it would be easy to sneak a handful of kinetic projectiles through the defences. “Or to give them a kick in the pants.”

    “Let us hope we can.” Captain Hammond shrugged. “I’d appreciate it if you joined me for dinner in the next few days, once we know what we have to do to get our ships ready for combat.”

    “Of course,” Mitch said. He kept his displeasure off his face. “It would be my pleasure.”

    Captain Hammond smiled. “We’ll arrange it nearer the time,” he said. There was a bland note to his voice that suggested he didn’t really mean it. “We both have a lot of work to do.”

    And you probably don’t want to host the dinner, any more than I want to attend, Mitch thought. He needed to develop a working relationship with his superior, but - in his experience - formal dinner parties were never a good place to actually get to know someone properly. They tended to be tedious, with everyone pretending to be polite. We should do something else if we want to get to know each other.

    “Until then,” he said. “I’ll keep you appraised.”

    “Likewise,” Captain Hammond said. He raised a hand in dismissal. “Goodbye.”

    His image vanished. Mitch stared at the blank terminal for a long moment, trying to gather his thoughts. Captain Hammond didn’t sound so bad, compared to some of the officers who’d developed bad habits in peacetime, but ... it would take time for them to build a rapport. They were very different people, from very different backgrounds ... it didn’t help that they were on separate ships. Mitch considered it for a moment, then shook his head thoughtfully. It could have been worse. He’d met too many officers who didn’t understand where the lines were drawn.

    He stood, closing the terminal and heading for the hatch. There was no time to worry about it, not now. Reading between the lines, it sounded as if Lion had a long way to go before she was ready for deployment, but he knew better than to take that for granted. He wanted - he needed - Unicorn to be ready to go first. It would look good on his record, particularly if he had a head start. He’d look worse if he didn’t have his ship ready to go when time finally ran out. The Admiralty would not be amused.

    Hopefully, this will all work out, he thought, as he walked down the corridor. A pair of engineering techs stepped to one side to let him pass. One of them was an old hand, someone who’d transferred from Pelican; the other was a stranger. And if it doesn’t, it won’t be through my lack of effort.
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    “So,” Gunboat Pilot Marigold Harkness said. “How was your vacation?”

    “I think it’s called shore leave,” Tobias said, tiredly. He hadn’t slept well. The barracks had been uncomfortable and the shuttle flight to Pitt Base had been worse. “We’re in the navy now.”

    Marigold snorted. She’d been mildly chubby when they’d first met, back when they’d been recruited to fly gunboats, but six months of naval food and exercise had slimmed her and the other pilots down. Tobias felt a little ashamed of himself for noticing. He wasn’t the sort of person who stared at girls, he wasn’t the sort of person who hoped for a flash of bare skin or ... he wasn’t! And they’d spent the last six months in a place where privacy was a word no one seemed to understand. It hadn’t been easy. He’d had issues about getting undressed in front of men, let alone women. It had to have been harder for her.

    “My parents are still in denial,” Marigold said. “How about yours?”

    She’s trying to be friendly, Tobias told himself, sharply. The gunboats were bigger than starfighters - they could hardly be smaller - but they weren’t anything like big enough for him not to feel cramped. Their cabin was so small he felt as if he was in a large car, rather than a naval shuttle. And you should be friendly too.

    “It felt as if I didn’t belong there any longer,” Tobias told her. “As if ... it just wasn’t my home.”

    “You’ve outgrown it,” Marigold said. “I’ve been told it happens.”

    Tobias shrugged and peered out of the viewport. They were flying in convoy, the gunboats escorting the marine shuttles, but all he could see with the naked eye were unblinking stars burning in the darkness of space. He smiled at the thought, remembering ultra-dramatic movies and programs he’d watched as a young man. They’d had as little to do with reality as possible. The shuttles were out there - he could see them on his sensor display - but he couldn’t see them with the naked eye. And the stars were barely moving, if indeed they were moving at all. The gunboat was rocketing through space at unimaginable speed, but by interplanetary standards she was barely crawling.

    “It just felt weird,” he admitted. “How about you?”

    “My parents didn’t have any real ambitions for me,” Marigold said. “Or so they told me, right up until I joined the navy. And then they started saying I should get married and have kids like a good little girl.”

    “Ouch,” Tobias said. He knew a little about what society expected - and how cruel society could be, to those who wanted to do something else with their lives. It was hard to believe Marigold had had it worse than him, but ... he shook his head. It was cruel ... it was always cruel, no matter who it happened to. “I’m sure you’d make some kid an excellent mother, but ...”

    Marigold gave him the finger. “Remove that foot from your mouth before we get to the ship,” she said. She cleared her throat, loudly. “Did you read the mission briefing?”

    “... Maybe.” Tobias shrugged. “We’re going on deployment ...”

    His heart clenched. He knew himself to be a coward. He’d been beaten up so often that it was hard to believe he could defend himself, that he could fight back, that ... he swallowed, hard, as he looked at the weapons console. He’d fought, he’d killed ... and yet, there was a strange disassociation between the icons on the display, the icons that vanished when he fired at them, and living people. It was hard to believe that the icons represented people with lives of their own. He’d killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of infected people and yet he didn’t believe it. Not really. It was hard to believe that he’d killed.

    And yet, the prospect of his own death hurt. He stared down at the console without actually seeing it. He’d never done more than basic exercises, the kind of training his superiors had forced on him ... he’d never so much as touched a pistol. The thought of slogging through the mud, of matching himself against the very best the enemy could provide, was alien to him. He’d done everything in his power to get out of PE. The idea of willingly exposing himself to more suffering ... he shook his head. It wouldn’t happen, not to him. Not to them. They were a good team. They wouldn’t die.

    “We’ll be fine,” he said, although he didn’t believe it. “And we’ll come back heroes.”

    “It could be worse,” Marigold said. “We could be starfighter pilots.”

    “Yeah.” Tobias had met a handful of starfighter pilots, back during basic training. He’d hated the cocky bastards with a passion until he’d looked at the statistics and realised that half the pilots he knew would probably die on their first engagement. Starfighter pilots knew, at a very basic level, that their lives could be cut short in an instant. “At least we have don’t have any blind spots ...”

    He let his voice trail off. The gunboats could and did shoot in all directions. Their automated targeting systems could acquire a target and blow it to atoms quicker than any human could hope to react. And yet, it could not be denied that a gunboat was a bigger target than any starfighter, or that - when weighed against a capital ship - the gunboat was expendable. He’d spent weeks in the simulators. He knew the score. And yet, it was so much easier to sacrifice himself - to calmly accept he might be sacrificed - when there was nothing truly at risk. He wondered how Marigold took it so calmly. She had to know she might die at any second too.

    “We’ll be fine,” Marigold said. “We go out there, we serve our term, then we go back to the academy and try to teach someone who looks just like us how not to get killed.”

    “I suppose,” Tobias said. The console bleeped, warningly. They were approaching the outer edge of the yards. “You got the IFF code?”

    “We’d be in deep shit if I didn’t,” Marigold pointed out. “Step down the sensors on my command.”

    Tobias nodded, feeling uncomfortably naked. The briefing officers had pointed out that the virus didn’t play fair. It was quite possible for the virus to gain control of a ship and turn it against her former masters, using IFF codes - perfectly legitimate IFF codes - to get past the defences before opening fire. The ship would be targeted at once, of course, but she’d have a chance to do a great deal of damage before she was blown away. There’d be no hesitation, the officers had warned, if the gunboats so much as looked suspicious. The shipyard defences would blow them away before they had a chance to explain themselves.

    “Ready,” he said. He peered into the inky darkness. Was there something moving out there? A light that wasn’t a star? It was hard to be sure. “I’m ready.”

    He felt his heart clench, again, as the console lit up with red icons. They were being scanned - and targeted. There were all sorts of horror stories about blue-on-blue incidents, where someone was hurt or killed by friendly fire ... there was no such thing, the instructors had said, as friendly fire. A plasma bolt had no IFF, they’d warned, so watch where you fired it. Only the sheer immensity of space, even in a relatively small engagement zone, limited the risks of friendly fire.

    And plasma bolts are never that accurate, he reminded himself. Someone might not mean to fire on us, but that won’t keep them from hitting us.

    The display turned green. “We’re clear,” he said. “Set course for Lion.”

    He leaned forward, watching intently as the battlecruiser finally came into view. He’d never really wanted to join the military. Survey Command had been the only section that had really interested him and Survey had been folded into the regular military for the duration. And besides ... what could he have done? In hindsight, there were a lot of things he could have done to prepare for a career, but he hadn’t known what he needed at the time. He’d pinned his hopes on going to university and it hadn’t really materialised.

    Adventure is someone else in deep shit far away, he recalled. One of his tutors had said as much, when he’d been asked about his military service. All the books and films and whatever completely fail to convey the truth of the military life.

    “Impressive,” Marigold breathed. “Isn’t she?”

    Tobias nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Lion was ... striking, definitely. The console bleeped as the shuttles peeled off, heading for the lower hatches while the gunboats flew towards the gunboat ring. Tobias had his doubts about the design - the simulations had suggested the gunboat ring could be easily crippled, if the enemy realised what it was - but there was no helping it. The gunboats couldn’t use a standard flight deck. Besides, they could dock the gunboats with the regular airlocks if necessary. He keyed the console, bracing himself as they glided closer. The instructors had been very patient with simulated mistakes, but he doubted Captain Hammond or Colonel Richard Bagehot - the Gunboat CAG - would be anything like so tolerant. Banging a gunboat into a starship’s hull was probably not going to please her commander.

    “Airlock online,” he said. “Datalink established ... docking in five ...”

    “Linking now,” Marigold said. She’d argued they could automate the whole process, but the more experienced officers had overruled her. “Linking ...”

    A low thud echoed through the gunboat. The gravity field seemed to grow stronger, just for a second. Tobias felt his head spin. It was hard, sometimes, to comprehend how gravity fields curved in space. It might have been easier to operate in zero-g, but the health risks made it prohibitive. He’d seen some of the asteroid-born. They looked so thin and willowy that it was hard to believe they could survive in a low-g field, let alone on Earth. The hatch hissed open, but he ignored it. They had to power down the gunboat before they boarded the battlecruiser.

    “All systems check out,” he said, running his hand down the console. “Main power going offline, secondary power drawing from mothership.”

    “Confirmed,” Marigold said. “Datalink established, all A-OK.”

    Tobias stood, picked up his knapsack and headed for the hatch. The gravity field seemed to shimmer, very slightly, as he stepped into the battleship. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or not. His stomach felt light, almost uneasy. It was hard not to feel as though he was completely and totally out of place. Lion wasn’t the first starship he’d visited, but she was the first true warship. The low thrumming echoing through the hull was a grim reminder they were on the verge of going into war. He felt queasy. He didn’t want to go.

    You made your choice, he told himself, as Marigold joined him outside. It’s too late to back out now.

    They walked down the corridor and stopped in front of an airlock. The hatch hissed open, revealing a second hatch and a bioscanner. Tobias winced as he put his hand against the scanner, feeling a pinch as the sampler tested his blood. He’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that the slightest hint of infection would result in the outside compartments being depressurised until medics could arrive to collect him for inspection and treatment. Cold logic told him there was no choice, but he couldn’t help feeling as though it was terrifyingly unfair. No one asked to get infected. No one willingly exposed themselves to the virus.

    There’s umpteen billion people in the human sphere, he thought, sourly. And some of them are crazy enough to want anything.

    The inner hatch hissed open as soon as Marigold’s blood was checked and confirmed free of infection. Tobias breathed a sigh of relief, then led the way into the inner compartment. It felt shiny and new, yet utterly soulless. Gunboat Country was bigger than the barracks at the academy, but ... he caught himself before he started moaning. There were limits to how much space could be assigned to him and his comrades. Even the colonel had to bed down with his men.

    “The washrooms are in there, if you want to freshen up,” Bagehot called. He was standing by the briefing compartment, reading a datapad. “Choose your bunks or have them chosen for you.”

    Tobias nodded and hurried into the sleeping compartments. It was definitely larger than the barracks on the moon, but still ... he shook his head and picked a bunk, dropping his knapsack on the blankets. It would be safe there, he knew. One definite advantage the navy had over school was that the rules were very definitely enforced. Someone who stole from another officer or crewman would be in very deep shit indeed. Marigold claimed the bunk next to him, then headed for the washroom. Tobias sighed and followed him.

    The compartment started to fill up as he splashed water on his face, checked his appearance in the mirror and headed for the briefing compartment. He’d never really cared about his looks - or so he’d told himself - but the navy had insisted on personal grooming. So had the Beast, he supposed, but the Beast had been a ... beast. Tobias had a private suspicion the key to looking good was to note what the headmaster did, then do the opposite. It made as much sense as anything else in the school.

    You’re out of it now, he told himself, sharply. The Beast was in the past. He needed to look to the future. You don’t need to keep dwelling on it.

    “Welcome,” Bagehot said, once the entire squadron was assembled. Twenty-four young men and women, assigned to twelve gunboats. “This is, to all intents and purposes, your first cruise. Unfortunately, it is also very experimental.”

    Tobias nodded. The entire gunboat concept was experimental. It was why the navy had recruited him and his fellows as ... he wasn’t quite sure what they were. They were naval personnel and yet they weren’t quite naval personnel. Tobias figured the navy wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to do with them, not yet. The gunboat squadrons had been allowed a quite astonishing amount of latitude, compared to the regular navy, but that would probably change once they worked out some answers. He wondered, idly, if it would matter that much to him. Perhaps if he stayed in the navy ...

    “We’ll be spending the next month drilling,” Bagehot continued. “Your time will be divided between the simulators, live-fire exercises and your bunks. You might just have time to cram a ration bar or two down your throats, when you have a free moment. Hopefully, we’ll work out the kinks before we have to actually take the gunboats into battle.”

    Tobias smiled as a handful of chuckles echoed around the chamber. Navy food wasn’t bad. He didn’t understand why the more experienced personnel kept complaining about it. He’d had worse at school. Sure, the food was a little bland, but there was plenty of it. Maybe he was missing something.

    “Things will be different,” Bagehot warned. “You’re on a warship now. I strongly advise you to stay in Gunboat Country, unless you’re on the gunboats or invited out of the compartment. If someone invites you, that’s fine; if not, stay here. You don’t want to get in someone’s way. The crew outside” - he waved a hand at the bulkhead - “are working their asses off to get Lion ready for deployment. They don’t need you running around, gawking at them.”

    “So I can’t take a selfie of myself in the command chair?” Tammy Hedge had acquired a reputation as a joker from the moment he’d joined the squadron. His jokes were often silly, but bearable. “I promised my father I’d send him a picture ...”

    “No,” Bagehot said, sharply. He didn’t like repeating himself. “Stay in the compartment, unless you’re invited out. You do not want to run afoul of the captain.”

    Tobias nodded. He was no expert on naval regulations or interstellar law, but he’d been forced to sit through a couple of classes on the basics. The captain had immense authority over his crew, with only a handful of limits on his behaviour. In theory, the crew could refuse certain orders, but in practice it wasn’t clear how far that right actually went. The precedents were a little confusing. It was possible that officers who refused an illegal order would be commended, condemned or some combination of the two. The legalities baffled him. The classes had certainly discouraged him from going into law.

    “You need to be aware that this is a full-fledged capital ship,” Bagehot continued. His eyes swept the compartment. “The captain will have far less patience with you - and tolerance for you - than any of your instructors back home. The ship itself is divided into tribes - command crew, engineering, medics, marines - and while they’re all meant to be pulling in the same direction, it cannot be denied that rivalry is rife. I want you to stay out of it as much as possible. The gunboat squadron is new and untested. I do not want you to ruin it by picking fights with anyone else.”

    “As if we would,” Tobias muttered to Marigold.

    Bagehot had very sharp hearing. “Glad to hear it,” he said. He made a show of consulting his watch as the squadron tittered. “Now, we’re heading for the simulators. Remember, you have to treat them as though they are real. Next time, it might well be.”

    Tobias felt sick. “Yes, sir.”
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    “Wake up!”

    Colin jerked awake, suddenly unsure where he was. Five months of training, then a month on deployment had taught him to catch up on his sleep whenever he could, but ... he forced himself to stand as his memory caught up with him. He was on a shuttle, heading to Lion ... no, the shuttle had reached the battlecruiser. The old sweats wouldn’t have woken him if there was nothing to do.

    He glanced from side to side, noting the remainder of his fire team. Their hands reached for their weapons before they stopped themselves, a grim reminder of patrols of the wrong side of the Security Zone. Colin had no idea who’d come up with the expression ‘no peace beyond the line’ but it suited the Security Zone perfectly. The old sweats said it had been a nightmare before the virus established itself, a haven for religious fanatics, terrorists and criminal rings that had been almost completely lawless. The handful of refugee camps had had to be heavily guarded, just to keep one or more of the factions from gaining control or targeting them for destruction. Now ... the virus had turned vast swathes of the population into deadly threats, sending them crashing against the defence lines in a bid to break into the civilised zones. It had been such a hellish nightmare.

    A low thump echoed through the shuttle. He stumbled to his feet, feeling as though he hadn’t slept at all. The last night on Earth had been pathetic. He wasn’t sure why - he’d had no trouble finding a bedmate for the night - but he couldn’t deny it. The woman had screamed at him when he’d paid her for her time ... he shook his head in irritation. He wasn’t sure what he’d really wanted, let alone what she’d wanted. Perhaps he’d simply drunk too much. His throat felt parched and dry, suggesting he hadn’t drunk enough. He made a mental note to drink more water as soon as they were in Marine Country.

    “Form up.” Sergeant Ron Bowman’s voice echoed through the air. “Prepare to disembark.”

    The hatch hissed open. Colin watched the sergeant lead the way into the battlecruiser, then followed him. The air smelt funny, reminding him of the first and only time he’d sat in a new car. A handful of his friends could drive, but the combination of heavy taxes and rationing ensured they couldn’t afford new vehicles. The tanks, lorries and jeeps he’d encountered during basic training had been worse, many so badly outdated they were older than him. The military got the good stuff, he’d been told, but most of the good stuff went to the front lines.

    He felt his heart start to pound as they marched down the corridor and into Marine Country. The naval crewmen stepped aside to let them pass, studying them with a combination of interest, dispassion and scorn. Colin nodded to himself, remembering what the older and more experienced men had said. The marines weren’t always welcome on ships, at least until they proved themselves useful. They were regarded about as kindly as the marines regarded the redcaps. The thought made him want to roll his eyes - he didn’t want to be a policeman, perish the thought - but he supposed it made a certain kind of sense. They were the shipboard police. If the crew got out of hand, it was the marines who’d have to deal with it.

    And then the captain and senior staff will be in hot water, he thought. He couldn’t recall if they’d ever been a mutiny on a naval vessel, at least since the Troubles, but he doubted a captain who’d lost control to the point the marines had to be called in would be trusted with another command. They’d probably bend over backwards to avoid things getting so badly out of hand.

    He put the thought aside as they swept into Marine Country and split up to drop their rucksacks in the barracks. The bunks were about as much as he’d expected, although better - infinitively better - than sleeping in the great outdoors or standing on guard outside a military base in the middle of nowhere. The virus had a habit of infecting large dogs and sending them against the defences, just - he thought - to be unpleasant. Thankfully, it didn’t seem to be capable of mimicking canine behaviour. The troops had orders to shoot any animals that seemed to be acting suspiciously. Better to shoot first and ask questions later than risk being bitten and infected instead.

    The fire team followed him, three men ... all as green as himself. Colin wasn’t sure if his promotion was a compliment or a test to see how well he handled command under fire. The Royal Marines were short on experienced manpower - the draft hadn’t yielded as many willing recruits as the higher-ups had hoped - but they weren’t that short. He’d been warned he could be busted back to private at a moment’s notice, if he screwed up too badly. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. He would almost have preferred not to be promoted.

    Of course, if you refuse promotion you’ll never be offered another promotion, he thought, as he hurried into the briefing room. The entire company was assembling, senior officers speaking quietly amongst themselves as their subordinates took their seats. There was less room for formality onboard ship, he’d been told. He had a feeling that had its limits. Woe to the marine who forgets to salute an officer.

    He allowed his eyes to roam the compartment. It was bare, the bulkhead unmarred by maps or charts or anything else he’d seen on Earth. A single holographic projector sat in front of the podium, deactivated. He guessed they didn’t have a specific mission yet, for better or worse. The briefing notes hadn’t been clear, and there were a lot of details that were very definitely above his pay-grade, but Lion was an experimental design. Assignment to her was something that would make or break his career ... probably. He snorted at himself a moment later. He was a corporal, only a step or two above private. He couldn’t be blamed for anything unless he screwed up spectacularly.

    Major Chuck Craig stepped up to the podium. The marines straightened to attention. Craig had been in a dozen major engagements over the past five years, from boarding enemy starships to establishing evacuation camps and holding the line long enough for the navy to pull the evacuees - and the marines - out of the fire. He was a short wiry man with curly dark hair and an air of calm confidence that put Colin at ease. The Major knew what he was doing. It was more than could be said for many of the pen-pushers he’d met over the years.

    And the Beast, Colin thought. He’d liked the headmaster, but ... he’d spent enough time in the military to question the man’s credentials. It wasn’t something he could put his finger on, yet ... the headmaster just hadn’t had the right vibe. He’d never been understanding, never compassionate, never ... willing to let someone go, if they weren’t up to it. Did he really know what he was doing?

    “At ease.” The Major’s eyes swept the room. “This regiment was thrown together at very short notice. As is always the case, there was a sudden requirement for troops and the units intended to serve on Lion were assigned elsewhere. This unit, therefore, was put together from a number of other units that have never served together before. You may have noticed.”

    Colin nodded, wincing inwardly. Ideally, he would have been the sole FNG in a platoon or even a company. The old hands could have ridden him hard, testing his mettle until they knew what he was made of. Instead ... he tried to look from side to side without making it obvious. There were a dozen unfamiliar faces within view, marines drawn from other units or released from hospital or ... or something. He didn’t know, but he was starting to feel he was looking at the start of a major headache. The recruiting sergeant had claimed that bootnecks were interchangeable, that a marine could move from unit to unit without any problem at all; Colin knew, from grim experience, that was nonsense. If nothing else, it would take time for the newcomer to fit in. No one would trust a newcomer unless they had no other choice.

    “We will therefore be drilling extensively,” Craig continued. “I know some of you are new and inexperienced, while others have only just returned to the military. I don’t care. I expect you to learn to work together before the enemy starts shooting at us. We’re going to be working endlessly, until we know what we’re doing. And then we’re going to make the country proud.”

    He paused. “First assignments are as follows ...”

    Colin nodded to himself. It wasn’t going to be fun, except ... it might be, once they worked out the early headaches. And then, who knew?

    Time to get started, he thought, as they were dismissed. Better to get the mistakes out of the way before someone actually starts trying to kill us.

    Thomas stood by the hatch and waited, trying not to feel impatient, as the shuttle docked on the far side. Royal Navy protocol insisted that a captain greet an equal or superior officer in person, but that a junior officer should be met by the XO and escorted to the captain’s office in recognition of his junior rank. Thomas had been unsure precisely how to meet Captain Campbell, as they shared the same rank even though Thomas had seniority. He’d decided, finally, to meet the younger man in person. It wasn’t as if he commanded an entire fleet as well as his starship.

    The hatch hissed open. Thomas straightened as Captain Campbell disembarked, saluting the flag before saluting Thomas himself. Thomas returned the salute, then held out a hand as he studied the other man. Mitch Campbell was not classically handsome, he decided, but he had a certain charm that suggested he’d have no problem finding female company. He was tall and gangly, with floppy brown hair and brown eyes that looked as if they could turn from charm to ice within seconds. Campbell was one of the younger commanding officers in the navy, Thomas recalled, although he hadn’t beaten the record. That had been set by someone with more patronage than common sense.

    “Captain Hammond,” Campbell said. If he was surprised Thomas had met him in person, he didn’t show it. “Thank you for inviting me.”

    “Welcome onboard,” Thomas said. “It’s good to meet you at last.”

    “Likewise,” Campbell said. His voice was calm, but there was an edge to it that suggested he wasn’t being entirely honest. “I read your file with some interest.”

    Thomas nodded. “And yours,” he said. It was easy to see why the admiral regarded Campbell as a fire-eater. He was brave and bold and lucky, dashing enough to be a movie star ... but, sooner or later, luck ran out. “I wouldn’t have risked charging into the teeth of enemy fire.”

    “That’s why it worked,” Campbell said. “The virus didn’t expect it either.”

    “I never thought it cared that much about tactics,” Thomas said. He turned and led the way up to his Ready Room. “Do you think it does?”

    “It’s hard to say.” Campbell sounded thoughtfully as he considered the question. “It’s true enough, I think, that it prefers to study logistics over tactics. It doesn’t seem to show the same flair that many human and alien naval tacticians do. And it’s thinking is completely alien, to the point it might be using tactics we simply don’t recognise as tactics. And it’s so powerful ...”

    He coughed. “It’s so powerful, and numerous, that it might not think it needs tactics,” he added. “It’s a single entity, in a sense. It doesn’t need to be clever. It just needs to bring overwhelming force to bear on us.”

    “It’s facing us and our allies,” Thomas pointed out. He opened the hatch and led the way into the Ready Room. “We might be the single greatest threat it has ever faced.”

    “There’s no way to know,” Campbell countered. “We just don’t know.”

    Thomas motioned for Campbell to take a seat at the table. He would have preferred a proper dining compartment, but Lion was too small and new to have one. It was something he’d consider later, he told himself firmly. The ship wasn’t designed as an admiral’s flagship, charged with hosting conferences and diplomatic dinners as well as a tactical staff. That might have to change, if the navy decided to build an entire squadron of battlecruisers ... he shook his head as he picked up the bottle of chilled wine. The first step was proving the concept actually worked. After that, they could worry about everything else.

    “We should be ready to depart as planned,” he said. “Unless we run into something that throws us back a few days.”

    “Unicorn is in excellent condition,” Campbell said. “I intend to ramp up the drive tomorrow and cruise around the shipyards, before I start testing everything and running live-fire drills.”

    “That’s good to hear,” Thomas said. It was, but it was also a little irritating. “Lion needs more time to check and recheck everything before we’re ready to start proper drills.”

    “It’s always the case.” Campbell took the glass of wine and sniffed it thoughtfully. “Every year, things cost more and take longer.”

    He put the glass to one side and leaned forward. “Have you given any thought to tactics yet?”

    “Not enough,” Thomas said. “I’ve studied the simulated engagements, naturally, but a lot of the tactics might not work anything like so well in real life. I think there’d be all sorts of issues. The missiles, for example, might not be as clever as the designers claim. Our drives and stealth units might not be as capable ...”

    “We ran basic power curve tests on our drives,” Campbell said. “They should live up to the claims.”

    Thomas felt a flicker of irritation. “We need to test everything,” he said. “And then we can go out looking for trouble.”

    “If we have time to test everything,” Campbell said. “Reading between the lines, the war isn’t going well.”

    “It looks that way,” Thomas agreed. He took a sip of his wine. Expensive, but good. “We won’t win the war single-handedly. We have to get used to what we’ve got and figure out how to use it before we go into battle.”

    “If we have time,” Campbell repeated. “We cannot let the virus push any closer to Earth.”

    “And if we show the virus what we’re planning, it will have time to develop countermeasures,” Thomas pointed out, sharply. “We have to surprise it, once.”

    “And make sure we take out it’s flicker network,” Campbell said. “Does it even have a flicker network?”

    “It knows to take ours out, so I dare say it does,” Thomas said. “I suppose an entity that depended on remaining in close communication with itself would know the importance of hindering the enemy’s command and control systems, if not taking them out completely.”

    “It doesn’t try to jam our communications as much as you might expect,” Campbell said. He shrugged, expressively. “There are limits to how far you can jam signals, particularly when we’re using lasers to bind the datanet together, but it could do a great deal more if it wanted. Even a little signals distortion would be enough to really confuse us.”

    “Not for long,” Thomas countered. “Bare seconds, if that.”

    “Long enough to let the virus slip a missile through our defences,” Campbell said. “We have to assume the worst.”

    “Yes,” Thomas agreed. “But we have to give the virus a surprise and we have to make it count.”

    “And quickly,” Campbell said. “Or it will be completely meaningless.”

    Thomas couldn’t disagree. The admiral’s words hung in his ears. Humanity and her allies were steadily losing the war. The virus was soaking up losses as it ground ever closer to Earth, sending a seemingly-endless stream of brainships, battleships, carriers and starfighters against the defences. It was only a matter of time before it punched into Sol and forced the human navies to make a grim choice between retreating to save the remainder of the human sphere - for a few short months, perhaps - or dying in defence of the homeworld. He’d heard rumours about plans to flee into unexplored space, to set up hidden colonies on the far side of distant tramlines, to work in secret until the boffins came up with a wonder weapon that would take the virus out in a single shot. He doubted the rumours were anything more than wishful thinking. The Royal Navy - and all the other navies - had to devote every last scrap of resources to keeping the virus away. There was little left for setting up a hidden colony that might - that might - last long enough to rebuild and take the fight back to the virus.

    “We can do it,” Thomas said. It was important to project confidence, even if one didn’t feel it. “And once we work the kinks out of the system.”

    He keyed his wristcom, summoning the steward to bring the meal. “And now we have to talk about something else,” he said. He didn’t have much time to get to know his new subordinate. He was damned if he was spending the entire meal talking shop. “Who do you think will win the World Cup?”

    Campbell laughed. “I honestly have no idea,” he said, as the steward entered. “Does it matter right now?”

    “Probably not,” Thomas said. They shared a smile. “Perhaps I should talk about the weather instead.”
    techsar, Srchdawg-again and rle737ng like this.
  12. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer



    he (was)

  13. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Marigold claimed the bunk next to him, then headed for the washroom. Tobias sighed and followed him.

    HER isn’t Marigold a girl?

    also a guy named Tammy? How about Tommy or Timmy? Or stick with Tammy and change pronouns to female.
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    “It’s been three weeks,” Lady Charlotte Hammond said. “Can’t you get even a day of leave?”

    Thomas winced, inwardly. He’d had no trouble getting leave when he’d been at the academy, although there had been times when he’d claimed pressing business to keep from taking leave. He loved his wife, as much as a person of his class could love the woman who’d been steered towards him by both sets of parents, but he found her focus on social events more than a little tiresome. The aristocracy might claim that a constant round of garden parties, fancy balls and glittering weddings helped to boost public morale, yet Thomas considered it nothing more than a sick joke. The general public had far more pressing concerns than watching as the Lord of Somewhere married the Lady of Somewhere Else in a ceremony that cost as much as a small starship.

    He studied his wife, tiredly. Lady Charlotte was still lovely, despite two teenage daughters. Her curly dark hair framed a round face with an elegant smile, the result of good breeding rather than generic or cosmetic manipulation. She was very far from stupid - she managed the estates while he served his country - but they had less in common than he might have hoped. He couldn’t talk to her about naval matters, any more than she could talk to him about High Society. Thankfully, they’d both been adults who’d known the score. They’d worked out how to live together long ago.

    “I’m afraid leave is out of the question,” he said, bluntly. There was no point in raising her hopes, only to dash them in the next few days. The deadline for departure was drawing ever closer. The Admiralty would ask questions if Lion wasn’t ready to depart as planned. They might understand delays caused by a sudden glitch in the datanet, or a flaw in the design that wasn’t apparent until the ship was powered up, but they’d be merciless if they thought he was neglecting his duty. “I have too much work to do.”

    “I can speak to my uncle, have him send you to Earth for a couple of days,” Lady Charlotte insisted. “It’s quite important you attend the party. Elizabeth is meeting her future husband and ...”

    Thomas held up a hand. “Elizabeth hasn’t agreed to marry him,” he pointed out. “And you really shouldn’t push her into anything.”

    “He’s a good catch,” Lady Charlotte insisted. “And it’s only a matter of time until someone else snaps him up.”

    “Elizabeth is old enough to have opinions on the subject,” Thomas said. “And the more you promote him, the more she’ll resist the thought of marrying him.”

    He rubbed his forehead in irritation. Lady Charlotte had turned her attention to matchmaking as her daughters reached their majorities, arranging dances for them and their peers so they could meet suitable young men under controlled circumstances. Thomas rather suspected she’d forgotten what it was like to be a young woman. The idea of marrying someone your parents liked ... he shook his head. It had taken him years to get used to the concept of marrying for the family, rather than marrying for himself. His daughter was old enough to resent the system, without understanding why it was necessary. She didn’t have to get married in the next year or so. Lady Charlotte just wanted to be mother of the bride for a day.

    “The fact remains, there is a shortage of candidates,” Lady Charlotte said. “Thomas, I understand your concern, but ...”

    “There is nothing more likely to sour your relationship with your daughter than throwing her at a young man she doesn’t want,” Thomas said. They’d had the argument before, time and time again. He agreed it was important for his daughters to marry well, but they had different ideas of what sort of men they should marry. Titles weren’t everything. For every aristocrat who served his country bravely, there were a dozen fools gracing the tabloid websites. “Let her grow up a little before you start suggesting she gets married.”

    “Hah.” Lady Charlotte didn’t sound convinced. “And how old was I when I got married?”

    “Twenty-five,” Thomas said. “Elizabeth has time. Plenty of time.”

    “Not enough,” Lady Charlotte said. “What happens if her young man dies in combat?”

    Thomas sighed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “She needs time to grow and develop before she takes her next step into adulthood.”

    “We’ll see,” Lady Charlotte said, in a tone that indicated the matter was far from settled. “On a different note, I hope you’ll be attending the Christmas Ball ...”

    “I honestly don’t know,” Thomas said. It was his duty to host a ball, in the run-up to Christmas, but the navy came first. “It depends on where the navy sends me.”

    “You could always resign,” Lady Charlotte pointed out. “There’s a seat up for grabs in parliament. You could run for it as a bona fide war hero and patriot ...”

    “And drive you mad, moping around the hall all the time.” Thomas grinned. He’d heard enough horror stories about men who’d resigned their commissions, then discovered - too late - that remaining at home wasn’t always a good thing. Besides, if he ran for parliament, someone would notice he’d resigned and make an issue of it. “Charlie, I have my duty. I cannot leave at a whim.”

    “I know.” Lady Charlotte softened, slightly. “Thomas, I don’t ask for much ...”

    “I know,” Thomas echoed. “But I can’t come home whenever the fancy takes me.”

    “I’ll give the families your regards,” Lady Charlotte said. “And let them know we’ll be hosting a party at short notice when you do come home.”

    Thomas winced. The aristocracy’s private schedule of social events was painstakingly worked out months or years in advance. Someone hosting a party at short notice would throw the entire season out of alignment. There would be arguments and fights and petty feuds over balls being rearranged, or cancelled, or having their guests sucked away by another party ... he felt a twinge of sympathy for anyone who lost out because their social superior had ruined their plans. The aristocracy was practically dominated by feuds that had lasted so long everyone had forgotten the original cause, if only because everyone involved was dead. He had no intention of playing the game himself. It was petty, pointless and ultimately self-destructive.

    Which is something you can only say because you’re so high up the tree you don’t need to worry about it, he thought. Your daughter could marry a talented commoner and no one would say boo to you.

    “It depends,” he said. “I honestly don’t know what’ll happen.”

    His terminal bleeped, reminding him he had a meeting. “Charlie, I’ll talk to you later,” he said. “Pray for me.”

    Lady Charlotte looked thoroughly displeased, but nodded. “Good luck,” she said, curtly. “I’ll see you when you get home.”

    Thomas let out a breath as his wife’s image vanished. He loved his wife, really he did, but she could be a little overbearing at times. He knew she was trying to help, yet ... he shook his head in frustration. He’d tried to explain to her, time and time again, that she wasn’t really helping, but she was too full of herself to care. If she’d directed her energy towards a naval career, or politics, she’d be commanding a fleet or running the country by now. Thomas’s lips quirked at the thought. Lady Charlotte had always been more interested in subtle power, in building up a network of influence and patronage, than formal power. It was safer to be the power behind the throne than the person sitting on it.

    The buzzer sounded. Thomas tapped his terminal, opening the hatch. Commander Donker and Major Chuck Craig stepped into the compartment, the hatch hissing closed behind them. They looked as tired as Thomas felt, after three weeks of intensive preparation. Thomas wasn’t sure when either of them had last got more than a few hours of sleep, although logic told him they must have done. Stimulants were banned outside emergencies and, even then, regarded as the final resort. The steward entered, bringing a tray of strong coffee. Thomas motioned for his subordinates to sit down, closing the terminal to make it clear they had his full attention. They wouldn’t be disturbed, unless it was a real emergency. Or a priority-one message from the Admiralty.

    And that would mean the home system has come under attack, Thomas thought. Lion had her missiles now, as well as her gunboats; in theory, she could join the defenders and fight to protect the system. In practice, he wasn’t so sure. They hadn’t had time to carry out any live-fire tests. We might not be able to take part in the fighting. Not yet.

    “Captain,” Commander Donker said. “We just completed the formal survey of the entire starship. I am pleased and relieved to report that all stations and systems are functioning as intended. We still need to smooth off some of the rougher edges, but we can only do that when we leave the shipyard and set out on our first cruise.”

    Thomas nodded, feeling a flicker of relief. “Do we have any major issues of concern?”

    “Not any longer,” Donker assured him. “We powered up everything, from the drive nodes and fusion cores to tactical sensors and missile tubes. Our only real point of concern is maintaining the tactical net when warheads start popping and enemy ECN starts trying to wear us down, but simulations suggest we can handle it. We won’t know for sure until we face the enemy ourselves.”

    “Unfortunately.” Thomas had studied the reports very carefully. “We won’t know how capable the system really is until we have to use it.”

    He let out a breath. The datanet was supposed to bind the battlecruiser to her gunboats, no matter how much the enemy tried to jam the system and isolate the smaller ships. In theory, the network was impossible to take down unless Lion herself was taken out. In practice ... no one was really sure. It was dangerous to rely on communications lasers linking a battlecruiser to a handful of small and very fast moving gunboats, particularly when the smaller craft would be manoeuvring randomly. A gunboat that flew in a straight line, on a predictable course, was just asking to be blown out of space.

    “We’ll test the system as much as possible, once we’re underway,” he said. They might have time for war games, to pit themselves against real starships and real sensor crews, but there had been a note of urgency in the last missives from Earth. It was starting to look as though they’d be going into combat sooner rather than later. “How about the crew?”

    “The good news is that morale is relatively high,” Donker said. “The departmental heads all agree that their departments are ready for action, thanks to the constant drills. Lion is no longer an unknown factor to them, which helps. They know her from bow to stern now, sir, and feel confident they understand their role within the crew.”

    Thomas nodded. He’d spent two of the last three weeks crawling over his ship, catching up with the departmental heads and exploring every last inch of the maintenance tubes. It had been an interesting, informative and sometimes amusing experience, particularly when the engineers had discovered a stash of chocolate bars left behind by one of the yarddogs. They hadn’t been expensive, but - thanks to rationing - they’d been rare. The poor owner had probably left his entire allotment in the niche and forgotten to reclaim it before being reassigned. Thomas was silently relieved it hadn’t been porn. That would have been a great deal worse for all concerned.

    “The bad news is that the constant drills are starting to wear down readiness,” Donker added. “Frankly, sir, we’ve probably pushed too hard in the last few days. The emergency drills constantly leave out the emergency itself, which means we’re starting to amble through them when we should be taking them seriously.”

    “Which isn’t easy when you know there’s no real emergency,” Thomas said. “Major?”

    Major Craig nodded. “The problem with crying wolf, sir, is that people eventually stop paying attention. Sure, we can vary the drills - boarders one day, missile strikes the next - but there are limits. My men have the same problem, even though we have the advantage of VR sims and suchlike. It helps we’re playing against each other.”

    “Which isn’t really possible for the tactical staff,” Donker put in. “The best we’ve been able to do is pit ourselves against Unicorn’s tactical staff, or run tracking and targeting exercises on the gunboats, but neither are particularly useful past a certain point. They’re just too different from us.”

    “You’d think we could arrange a simulated exercise with another ship and crew,” Thomas said, tiredly. “There has to be someone who’ll play with us.”

    “The other ships in the yard aren’t ready to carry out tactical exercises with anyone,” Donker said. “Half of them don’t even have tactical crews, not yet.”

    “Perhaps we can set up a direct link to the tactical staff on Nelson Base or Luna,” Thomas said. “It won’t be perfect, but we can work with it.”

    He took a sip of his coffee. The simulations served a purpose, but they tended to become predictable after a while. The computer-generated enemies simply didn’t have the spontaneity of human opponents. It was easy enough to scale up the enemy rate of fire, or their acceleration curves, or everything else to make the training as hard as possible, but a great deal harder to account for the unpredictability of combat. An intelligent opponent might do something crazy, or something that seemed crazy. It was impossible to be sure what’d look reasonable to someone on the other side of the battlefield.

    “Yes, sir,” Donker said. “I’ll try to arrange it, but right now I think we should be scaling back on the exercises. We’re starting to pick up bad habits.”

    “Perhaps it’s time to bring back pain suits,” Major Craig joked. “If they get hurt for each and every mistake, sir, they’d be less likely to repeat them.”

    “The idea is to learn from their mistakes,” Donker pointed out. “They have to be willing to discuss them openly, if any learning is to be done.”

    Thomas shrugged. “We’re learning as we go along,” he said. He’d already written several reports based on his observations, suggesting everything from slight changes to the starship’s design to prospective tactical doctrines for her deployment. “What about the gunboat crews?”

    “We’ve been treating them as starfighter pilots,” Donker said. “That might have been a mistake. Given the way they were recruited ... well, they have less polish, even now, than a cadet who’s had a week or two of training. They’re pretty damned sloppy, sir; they barely know how to salute, let alone how to take care of themselves in space. And there are limits to how far we can correct them.”

    “Ouch,” Thomas said. Civilians got a great deal of leeway, if only because they simply didn’t understand their environment, but the gunboat pilots were military personnel. In theory. He wasn’t entirely convinced he liked the idea of recruiting expendable pilots, but ... he shook his head. The pilots knew the risks. “How are their piloting skills?”

    “Good, in simulators,” Donker said. “To be fair, they did have one engagement four months ago. They performed well. But they caught the enemy by surprise. Next time, it might not be so easy. We’ve run simulations where the enemy doesn’t know what’s coming and simulations where they do. In the latter, the gunboats take heavy losses for relatively little gain.”

    “We can work on their deportment later, then,” Thomas said. “God knows, we’ve been making allowances for starfighter pilots for decades.”

    “It will cause some resentment, sir,” Craig warned. “The gunboat pilots have even less seasoning than a maggot.”

    “The crew will just have to live with it,” Thomas said. “How about your department?”

    “Like everyone else, we’ve been running endless drills and exercises,” Craig said. “There have been more problems than usual, sir, as the company was thrown together at very short notice.”

    “Just like everyone else,” Donker said.

    “Yes.” Craig frowned, heavily. “We’ve been smoothing out the rough edges through drilling, and simulating every possible environment, but it will take time for the entire company to learn to trust each other. Thankfully, we all share a common understanding from basic training, yet” - he shrugged - “there are officers and bootnecks who simply don’t know each other very well. It’ll take time.”

    “Keep on it,” Thomas ordered. “And let me know if you need anything else.”

    “Six months on Salisbury Plain, where I can operate the entire unit against an opposing force,” Craig said. “Right now, we’re playing our own enemies. It works fine, for platoons against platoons, but we can’t take the entire company into battle. We simply don’t have anyone to fight.”

    “How terrible,” Donker said, dryly.

    Thomas’s wristcom bleeped. He tapped it. “Go ahead.”

    “Captain, this is Lieutenant Cook,” a voice said. “The Admiralty just sent a formal priority-one message, your eyes only.”

    “Forward it to my terminal,” Thomas ordered. He opened the terminal and pressed his hand against the scanner. A priority-one message was almost certainly bad news. “And then signal Unicorn and inform Captain Campbell that I need to speak to him.”

    The message opened in front of him. He scanned it quickly, feeling his heart sink. “The Admiral is coming here, personally,” he said. “And we have formal movement orders. We’ll be departing in a week.”

    Donker sucked in his breath. “A week? Sir, we’re not ready.”

    “Then we have to be ready,” Thomas said. He looked from one to the other. “Make sure the department heads and everyone understands that we have to be ready. We’re going to war.”
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    “You’ve done well, Captain,” Admiral Susan Onarina said. “Unicorn appears ready to go into battle.”

    “Indeed, Admiral,” Mitch said, feeling a flicker of pleasure. The crew had spent the last month working hard to prepare for departure, ready to leave on their own if Lion failed to meet the deadline. He wasn’t too displeased with their departure date. The crew had done well - and the newcomers had meshed smoothly with the old hands - but they wouldn’t be a single unit until they’d faced the enemy. “We’re ready to depart on your command.”

    He smiled as he sat back in his chair. They were in the mess, the largest compartment on the ship save for the bridge and the engineering section. It was awkward, to say the least, but Admiral Onarina didn’t seem to mind. It spoke well of her, Mitch thought. Unicorn was too small to have a separate mess for officers, let alone a private dining room for her commander, but he’d known captains and admirals who’d have flatly refused to eat with the men. The thought never creased to irritate him, whenever he thought about it. He might be a captain, master of his ship, but he still went to the toilet and put his trousers on one leg at a time, just like everyone else. Anyone who tried to pretend the commander was something other than a mortal man was asking for trouble.

    “Lion is also ready, more or less,” Admiral Onarina said. She took a sip of her tea. “Can you open the conference?”

    Mitch tapped his wristcom. It felt odd to be holding a command conference in the mess, but Admiral Onarina had insisted. He wasn’t sure if she’d reasoned it would take longer to inspect Lion than Unicorn, and therefore inspected the bigger ship first, or if she was sending a subtle message to her superiors. Or if it was just something she had to do. If there was one thing he’d learnt in his career, it was that there was no point in searching for a complicated motive for anything when the answers were relatively simple.

    Captain Hammond’s hologram materialised in the centre of the compartment, bisecting a table that was solidly fixed to the deck. It looked faintly odd, but Mitch didn’t smile. A holographic conference was vastly superior to a face-to-face conference, if only because it ensured everyone would be on their ships, ready to act if the shit hit the fan. And because it imposed some distance between the participants. It was a great deal easier to respectfully disagree with one’s superior if one wasn’t on the same ship.

    “Admiral,” Captain Hammond said. If he was irked at the conference being effectively held on Unicorn, rather than the much larger battlecruiser, he didn’t show it. “Captain Campbell.”

    “Welcome,” Mitch said. Captain Hammond hadn’t inspected Unicorn personally, something a hostile Board of Inquiry could turn into a dereliction of duty. Mitch had no intention of making a fuss about it. Hammond had too many problems of his own. “Admiral? The deck is yours.”

    Admiral Onarina smiled. “Not since I was promoted, alas,” she said. “I’m just a passenger on your ship.”

    Mitch felt a flicker of sympathy. Admiral Onarina had been promoted to flag rank shortly after the Second Interstellar War - the Order of the Garter was a clear sign she was destined for great things - but, as far as he could recall, she’d never actually commanded a fleet in combat. She might never command a fleet again, let alone a starship. He wondered, idly, if she regretted it. High-ranking officer or not, she was still assigned to Nelson Base instead of an independent command. It was strange to think that a captain might be more trusted than an admiral, but it was true.

    And admirals have to play the political game, he reminded himself. Captains have a degree of freedom from politics.

    Captain Hammond leaned forward. “You will be accompanying us?”

    “I’m afraid not,” Admiral Onarina said. “My services are required on Earth.”

    She took a datachip out of her pocket and inserted it into the projector. A holographic starchart appeared in front of them, a multitude of human, alien and infected star systems linked together by tramlines. Mitch’s eyes narrowed. The number of infected systems seemed to have grown larger, in the last few days. The naval updates had been bland. In hindsight, they’d been almost disturbingly bland.

    “We’ve been putting together a picture of enemy movements over the last twelve months,” Admiral Onarina informed them. “The virus does not appear to be very rational or sane by our standards, unlike our alien allies, but we think there is a logic to its actions. A number of starships have been travelling through these systems” - her finger traced a line on the display, moving from star to star - “in preparation for an attack on New Washington. We think the virus intends to launch a two-prong offensive into the system.”

    Mitch frowned. He was no stranger to bold and daring stunts, and he liked the idea of doing something so crazy the enemy literally couldn’t imagine it, but ... it was the sort of idea that made perfect sense on paper and failed spectacularly when it was actually tried. Even with the flicker network, coordinating an assault across interstellar distances was almost impossible. There was a very real chance the two prongs would be unable to coordinate their attacks, giving the enemy an opportunity to destroy one assault force before turning its attention to the other. Was the enemy fleet so numerous the virus felt it could take the risk?

    “It seems odd,” Captain Hammond said. His thoughts had clearly been moving in the same direction. “Why not focus on a single prong?”

    “We think - we think - the enemy intends to harass shipping rather than targeting the orbital defences directly,” Admiral Onarina said. “Assuming they manage to take control of the outer system, they’d be able to isolate two entire sectors while opening up tramlines to five more ... including a direct chain to Terra Nova and Earth. They’d also be able to rain kinetic projectiles on the planet’s defences, in the certain knowledge that - sooner or later - they’d hit something important. That would give them the chance to weaken our industrial base, perhaps even opening up the orbital nodes to infection. We’d have to retake the system, whatever the cost.”

    “Shit,” Mitch said. “How long do we have?”

    “We don’t know,” Admiral Onarina admitted. “The last probe into the occupied system told us that the virus was setting up what looks like a forward logistics base. Given how screwed up their logistics actually are, we simply don’t know how long it will take them to get ready and then mount the offensive. Our worst-case scenario is two months. Of course” - her lips twisted, as if she’d bitten into something sour - “that might not be pessimistic enough.”

    “They might attack tomorrow,” Captain Hammond noted.

    “Quite,” Admiral Onarina agreed. “They may want to hold New Washington permanently. Or they might simply want to punch their way into the system and do as much damage as possible before we drive them out again. If the former, they’ll need the logistics base to resupply their ships in a hurry; if the latter, it probably won’t matter that much, Like you said, they might attack tomorrow.”

    “So we put the virus off balance,” Mitch said. “We launch a spoiling attack first.”

    “That’s the plan,” Admiral Onarina said. “Right now, there’s no political will for launching a major offensive from New Washington. The Americans are understandably reluctant to risk drawing down their mobile units, even though the system has heavy fixed defences. GATO agrees. Lion and Unicorn, however, represent another option. Your weapons might be enough to seriously weaken the enemy fleet.”

    Captain Hammond looked stunned. “Admiral, with all due respect, we cannot wipe out an entire fleet on our own.”

    “We don’t have to.” Mitch’s mind raced, considering the possibilities. “Their fleet will include a bunch of brainships, the masterminds of the operation. We just have to take them out, forcing the remainder of their fleet to stand on the defensive until replacements arrive.”

    “Replacements could arrive tomorrow,” Captain Hammond pointed out, tartly. “And the virus doesn’t need the brainships to fight.”

    “No, but without the brainships it fights ... robotically,” Mitch countered. “We’d have the edge. The Yanks would have the edge, if the virus came knocking. An easy victory would do wonders for political will.”

    “It might not be easy,” Admiral Onarina cautioned. “But yes, that’s the general idea.”

    Mitch smiled, broadly. The plan was risky, but ... it wasn’t that risky. If it worked, the Royal Navy would throw the enemy onto the defensive and win the human race - and their allies - much needed time to rebuild its defences and develop new weapons and tactics. If it failed, if both Lion and Unicorn were blown out of space, the navy wouldn’t lose much. Both ships were expendable, considering what was at stake. Mitch didn’t like the thought of throwing his life away, but he understood the logic. Better to risk two experimental ships than an entire fleet.

    “So we sneak into the system, snipe at them from a safe distance and run for our lives,” he said. It wasn’t a particularly honourable plan, but the virus knew nothing of honour. It had to be destroyed or it would be the end of everything. “And if it comes chasing us, we can lead its headless ships into the American defences.”

    “If the brainships are taken out,” Admiral Onarina said. “If not, take an alternate route as you try to break contact.”

    “We could always lure them onto a minefield,” Mitch said. “Didn’t that tactic work before?”

    “Yes, once,” Admiral Onarina said. “After that, the virus started being a little more careful.”

    “We should be able to carry out the mission,” Captain Hammond said. “The only real problem is getting the missiles through the enemy point defence. We might be effectively throwing snowballs into the fire.”

    “The missiles are designed to be hard to hit,” Mitch said. “And they’re tougher than the average missile ...”

    “I wouldn’t care to bet on a missile surviving a direct hit,” Captain Hammond pointed out. There was a hint of irritation in his tone. “And it will only take one hit, if the boffins are wrong, to take out a missile.”

    “We won’t know until we actually take them into combat,” Mitch said. “Admiral, how many other ships will be assigned to the squadron?”

    “None.” Admiral Onarina looked grim. “You’ll be travelling with a convoy until you reach New Washington, then you’re on your own. We’ve been trying to scrape up some more ships from somewhere, but the blunt truth is that no one has any to spare. Everyone who has some firepower doesn’t want to let go of it.”

    “And as long as the virus is pushing at us along multiple angles of advance,” Captain Hammond said, “there’s a chance that strengthening the defences in one place will weaken the defences somewhere else.”

    “Yes,” Admiral Onarina said. “There’s a handful of possibilities for improving our defences and freeing up more ships for aggressive operations, but none of them show more than a hint or two of promise. The formations assigned to Home Fleet are our only real strategic reserve and ... well, there’s hardly any political will to draw them down any further. In theory, we could cut them loose and go on the offensive; practically speaking, it would be too great a risk.”

    “I understand,” Captain Hammond said. “We dare not lose the core worlds.”

    Mitch wasn’t so sure. The human navies were losing the war. The virus was maintaining a steady pressure on the defences, wearing them down to a nub. It was only a matter of time until something broke, until the defenders had to fall back to the homeworld and abandon all hope of taking the war to the enemy. They were desperate, perhaps desperate enough to stake everything on a gamble. If he had command of the space navies, he’d certainly consider launching an all-out assault on enemy space. It might just turn the tide.

    But he knew, all too well, what his superiors would say if he proposed it. Lightning strikes into the heart of enemy power worked perfectly in books and movies, but rarely in the real world. They’d risk heavy losses, both to the fleet and to the industrial nodes they’d be leaving undefended. They might score a tactical victory, but lose the war. His superiors would reject the idea out of hand, even though held out the tantalising promise of total victory. They’d think they had no choice.

    We can’t stand on the defensive forever, he told himself. We have to take the fight to the enemy.

    “You have orders to join the convoy in two days,” Admiral Onarina said, dragging his attention back to her. “Can you make it?”

    “Yes, Admiral,” Mitch said. He was sure of it. His ship was ready and raring to go. “We can be on our way now, if you like.”

    “Lion should be ready to depart,” Captain Hammond said. “We’ve already started drawing up plans to continue our training and exercise schedule while under way.”

    “Good,” Admiral Onarina said. If she had any doubts about their ability to keep their promises, she kept them to herself. “I’m sorry your crew won’t have any chance for shore leave, before you depart. We’ll see what we can do when you get home.”

    “My crew will understand,” Mitch assured her. “We know what’s at stake.”

    Captain Hammond looked displeased, just for a second. Mitch felt a twinge of sympathy for the older man. His crew had been far more fragmented when he’d taken command, forcing him to wield them into a unit while coming to grips with a new and revolutionary starship. It couldn’t have been easy ... Mitch smiled, relieved he hadn’t been given a larger ship. He’d seen once-promising commanders struggle with bigger ships, micromanaging their subordinates over tiny issues because they couldn’t come to grips with the bigger ones. And Captain Hammond simply hadn’t had the time for a proper shakedown cruise. The days when it could take a year for a ship to become combat-ready were a thing of the past.

    “I believe my crew will have no trouble,” Captain Hammond said, finally. “I’ll keep them busy.”

    “Just make sure you keep them too busy to grumble,” Admiral Onarina advised. “Speak to the Americans, after you return from the mission. They’d probably let you have a few days on New Washington.”

    Mitch nodded. New Washington had been a colony for over a hundred years. The United States had invested billions of dollars in colony infrastructure, handing out land grants like water to ensure millions of colonists moved to the distant world. They’d done well, Mitch knew. He’d visited the system years ago, back when he’d been a lieutenant. There were parts of the planet that could almost have passed for Earth.

    “We can worry about shore leave later,” he said. “Right now, the mission comes first.”

    “Yes.” Captain Hammond nodded. “We will handle it, Admiral. I’ll review the files and then determine a plan of attack.”

    “As will I,” Mitch said. He had no intention of letting Captain Hammond devise a plan without at least some input from him. The operation would only work if they used the capabilities of both ships to the full. “We’ll be ready by the time we reach New Washington.”

    “Very good.” Admiral Onarina looked from one to the other, then nodded to herself. It was hard to guess what she was thinking. Regret, perhaps? Or a grim understanding she had to send them out to face the enemy? “I’ll see you when you return. Dismissed.”

    Mitch took a sip of his tea as Captain Hammond’s hologram flickered and vanished. Admiral Onarina seemed older for a moment, staring down at her mug without drinking. Mitch nodded to himself. The admiral had to be under a great deal of stress, all too aware that her concepts for technical superiority might not survive their first encounter with the enemy. It was never easy to predict how the opposing force might react, or just how well the weapons would perform. The missiles might blow the entire enemy fleet into atoms or they might be effortlessly picked off by point defence.

    And we’re about to find out the hard way, he mused. He’d run simulations that suggested there’d be a string of easy victories and simulations that suggested they’d lose the very first engagement. There’s no other choice.

    “We need to buy time,” Admiral Onarina said, “but not at the cost of ultimate victory.”

    “Yes, Admiral,” Mitch said. He was vaguely disappointed, even though he understood the logic. The admiral and her staff had to balance requirements he preferred not to consider. “Perhaps our next target should be the alien homeworld.”

    Admiral Onarina raised her eyebrows. “Does the virus even have a homeworld?”

    Mitch started to answer, then stopped himself. Cold logic insisted the virus had to have a homeworld, even if it was a biological weapon that had gotten out of control rather than a the product of a very strange evolutionary cycle. But ... did it matter? Did the virus have a homeworld it regarded with any degree of sentiment? Or had it spread so far that it no longer remembered - or cared - where it had been born? He considered the question for a moment, before putting it out of his mind. The boffins could worry about it, if they wished. He was more interested in buying them the time and safety they’d need to ask and answer their questions.

    And we’ll crease to exist if the virus wins the war, he told himself, as Admiral Onarina rose. We have no choice but to fight to the last.
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    “All stations and departments report ready, sir,” Commander Donker said. “We are ready to power up on your command.”

    Thomas settled back in his command chair, feeling a low thrumming echoing through his ship. The last two days had been nightmarish, to the point he’d privately determined his crew would get a rest once they were through the tramline and on their way to New Washington. They’d loaded their last supplies, checked and rechecked everything and gone through an entire list of urgent things that needed to be done before a starship left the shipyard for the first time. And, somehow, he’d found time to review the data and plan his operation. The only upside was that the admiral was smart and experienced enough to understand that the operational plan was little more than a vague set of ideas. They wouldn’t be able to come up with anything solid until they actually probed the system itself.

    He took a long breath. They’d checked everything, or so he thought, but something could still go wrong. A power distribution node might overload and explode, a datacore might glitch, a sensor head might go blind ... he knew they’d gone through everything with a fine-toothed comb, yet he wasn’t reassured. His crew were exhausted. Exhausted people made mistakes. And even if they didn’t, they’d never powered the ship up completely. They might discover a problem they’d honestly had no idea was even possible before they ran into it.

    “Begin full power-up sequence,” Thomas ordered. His mouth was dry. It had been so much easier when he’d last assumed command. “And be ready to power down if there are any problems.”

    A low hum ran through the ship as her systems came online. Thomas kept a wary eye on the display, wondering what would be the first thing to go wrong. There was always something, from a misplaced sensor node that was being jammed by a drive node to something more serious. He’d served on ships where the sensor nodes were actually too sensitive, to the point they’d been triggered by the drive field and reported hundreds of enemy ships impossibly close to the hull. The sensor display lit up with icons, each one representing part of the giant shipyard. A faint lattice of sensor webbing gleamed in front of him. In theory, nothing - not even the stealthiest ship in the known universe - could slip into the shipyard without being detected and engaged. In practice, no one was entirely sure.

    “Captain,” Donker said. “All systems are powered up.”

    Thomas nodded, allowing himself a moment of relief. He’d dreaded having to explain to the admiral that Lion couldn’t leave the shipyard. It would have been difficult, even if they hadn’t been under orders to depart as quickly as possible. The admiral might have been understanding or ... she might have relieved him of command for incompetence. He’d assured her they’d depart on schedule, after all. It was never easy to predict how an admiral might react to something, particularly one who’d spent the last few years flying a desk. They didn’t think like shipboard officers.

    She came up through the ranks herself, he thought. She knows how easily things can go wrong.

    He sighed, inwardly, as his crew completed their checks. It wasn’t uncommon for something to go wrong, something the media could blow into a total disaster. He’d read horror stories about HMS Invincible springing a leak, which - the reporters had suggested - had led rapidly to complete depressurisation and the death of her entire crew. It had triggered his bullshit detectors at once, if only because it was a little unlikely. Starships were designed to cope with hull breaches. The truth - the carrier had had an airlock malfunction, which had killed absolutely no one - had been a little more prosaic.

    But the truth was a lot less dramatic, he thought, wryly. And probably didn’t sell any subscriptions.

    “Communications, inform Shipyard Command that we’re moving out on our assigned vector,” Thomas ordered. Unicorn had already left, lingering outside the defences like an over-eager puppy. “Helm, prepare to take us out.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Cook said. “Shipyard Command has cleared us to depart.”

    Thomas braced himself. “Helm, take us out.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Michael Fitzgerald said. Another quiver ran through the ship. “Taking us out ... now.”

    The gravity field seemed to flicker, just slightly, as the ship started to move. Thomas was fairly sure he was imagining it, although no amount of logic and reason from the physicists and psychologists had been able to convince him it was just his imagination. The compensators were working perfectly - they had to be, or the entire crew would be dead - yet he felt as if they were moving. They were moving. He watched the power curves, silently counting down the seconds as more and more drive nodes came online. Lion was over-engineered for her size, as if the designers had more faith in her external and internal armour than they should. A direct hit was likely to take out more than one drive node, even if the ship survived the impact. He had a feeling they’d added extra drive nodes because they could.

    “Captain,” Fitzgerald said, formally. “We’re on our way.”

    Thomas nodded. Lion was gliding through the defence network, passing battlestations and automated weapons platforms that wouldn’t hesitate to turn her into plasma if they thought she was a threat. The virus cheated, he reflected sourly. The days when they could safely assume an enemy power couldn’t operate a human starship, let alone copy and mimic human IFF codes, were long gone. The virus could turn a loyalist into a traitor very quickly, if it was allowed to infect its target unimpeded. No, worse than a traitor. A traitor had to make the decision to become a traitor. The virus didn’t need their consent to extract their knowledge and turn them against their former friends and allies.

    “Contact Unicorn,” he said. “Order her to hold position near us.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Cook said.

    Thomas leaned back in his chair as the display continued to fill with icons. Home Fleet held position near Earth, dozens of smaller squadrons and individual ships guarding the cloudscoops or the asteroid mining facilities. It awed him to see so many ships, from so many different nations, standing ready to defend the homeworld against the enemy; it chilled him to realise they might not be enough to save the planet if the virus gathered its power and hurled its entire fleet against Earth. He’d seen the figures and projections, both the sets that were made available to the public and the ones restricted to those who had a need to know. They didn’t make comforting reading. Thomas had a nasty feeling that more people understood the truth than the government was prepared to admit.

    He scowled as he spotted the line of giant colonist-carriers, heading away from Earth. He’d read detailed opinion pieces proclaiming the off-world colonist program a waste of time, perhaps even a lethal diversion of resources. He could see their point, even though the colonist-carriers were cheap and nasty compared to a full-fledged warship. And yet, Earth herself was threatened. The human race would need to carry on somewhere ... he winced as he turned his attention back to the shipyard. There might be plans to evacuate its facilities elsewhere, to give a hidden colony a chance to rebuild. But they’d be mass panic if anyone even tried.

    “All systems remain nominal,” Donker reported. He grinned, suddenly. “We are free and clear!”

    Thomas had to smile. “Let’s hope it stays that way,” he said. “How long until we link up with the convoy and cross the tramline?”

    “Two hours to the convoy, another hour to the tramline,” Donker said. “And two weeks to reach New Washington.”

    “Good,” Thomas said. “Order the beta, delta and gamma crews to stand down and get some rest. We’ll start exercising again once we leave the system.”

    He checked the display, again. Civilians couldn’t understand the sheer immensity of interstellar space. Starships travelled at unimaginable speeds, yet it still took weeks or months to reach the edge of explored space. It was hard to believe, even for him, that Lion wouldn’t reach New Washington in a hurry. Who knew how the situation would change over the next few days? They might arrive at New Washington only to discover that it had been taken by the enemy. It was quite possible.

    His heart clenched. He was leaving Charlotte behind. He was leaving her, all too aware he might never come back. Lion was a powerful ship, but she wasn’t indestructible. It would only take one moment of bad luck to cut his life short, to kill him so quickly that he didn’t have any time to realise he was dead before it was too late. He was too old to believe himself immortal, even if he hadn’t watched too many of his friends go out and never come back. Charlotte ... would she miss him, if he died ? He liked to think so, even though they’d both been raised to put the family first. They might not be as close as he might have wished, but they were hardly enemies either. She would miss him.

    The seconds ticked by, each one feeling like an hour. He’d ordered the crew to make sure they recorded their final messages and checked their wills, rewriting them if necessary to take account of any changes in their circumstances. No one really wanted to do it, perhaps out of fear of admitting they might die, but ... he scowled to himself. It had to be done. Half the problems facing the families of dead military personnel, killed in the line of duty, stemmed from the spacer failing to fill out a proper will. The military would back a military spouse to the hilt, but it wasn’t easy if they didn’t know what the dead man had actually wanted ...

    Not that I had much for myself, he thought, ruefully. Three quarters of what I own is entailed.

    He put the thought aside, firmly. There was no point in worrying about it now. He’d written his will years ago, after his first child had been born. After that ... he shook his head. He had too many other things to concern him. His fingers touched the console, bringing up the latest reports. Everything was going remarkably well, for a ship that had only left the slip a month or so ago. He’d expected something to go wrong.

    It’s probably biding its time, he thought. Every captain in the fleet knew the story of HMS Warspite, which had suffered a total power failure after she’d made her first jump through the tramline. Hopefully, whatever is going to happen will happen before we run into the enemy.

    It felt weird, Tobias decided, to sit in a gunboat while the tiny craft was effectively powered down. The gunboats were designed to serve as their own simulators - he wasn’t sure if that was a good idea or not - but they’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that they weren’t to power up the craft any further until Lion was well underway. Tobias was fairly sure the starship’s crew were worrying over nothing - the gunboats were designed to be stealthy, even when their drives were powered up - yet there was no point in arguing. Captain Hammond would probably have him flogged - or hurled out of the nearest airlock - if Tobias disobeyed.

    He studied the display, watching the live feed from the starship’s sensors. It was hard to believe that the convoy - and the hundreds of other icons within sensor range - weren’t so close together he could practically reach out and touch them. It was hard to comprehend that there were literally hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of miles between him and the shipyard, a gulf that was growing wider with every passing second. And Earth ... he felt an odd little pang as he contemplated the homeworld, falling further and further behind. He’d never really considered leaving Earth ...

    That’s not true, he told himself. You just didn’t want to go on their terms.

    The hatch rattled, then started to open. Tobias jumped, even though he was on a starship rather than school. Old habits - the fear of being caught alone, the fear of being beaten again and again - died hard. The naval personnel he’d met had all been decent, more or less. The worst of them had grumbled about the gunboat pilots being fast-tracked, which was unarguably true. The downside was that their odds of survival weren’t high. Tobias had flown through simulations that had insisted the entire squadron would be wiped out in seconds. They’d been very depressing simulations.

    Marigold stepped through the airlock. “I thought I’d find you here.”

    “There aren’t many places to go,” Tobias said. He’d once poured scorn on the idea of house arrest. Now, after being effectively confined to Pilot Country for a month, he was starting to understand. Being trapped in a big house - as if he’d ever owned a big house - would start to grate, sooner rather than later. “Where else would I be?”

    “A couple of the others have been sneaking up to the observation blister,” Marigold said. She pushed the hatch shut behind her, then took her seat. “I figured you might have gone exploring too.”

    “I wish.” Tobias felt a surge of sudden resentment. There’d been a lot of places he would have wanted to explore, if he hadn’t known it would mean a beating - or worse - if he were caught. It wasn’t a danger on the ship, he supposed, but - again - old habits died hard. He’d tried to tell himself he didn’t want it. It wasn’t sure. “I was just trying to be alone for a bit.”

    “It’s not easy,” Marigold agreed. “You do know there are privacy tubes?”

    Tobias felt himself redden. “I don’t want to think about them,” he mumbled. “Really.”

    Marigold blushed, too. “Yeah ...”

    She changed the subject, quickly enough to tell him she was embarrassed too. “Did you call your mother?”

    “I spoke to my sister,” Tobias said. It had been a very quick call. His mother hadn’t been at home, which meant ... what? She’d been offered extra hours at the laundry, but she hadn’t been keen on taking them. Too much harassment, she’d said. The manager hadn’t given much of a damn. “My mother ... I didn’t have a chance to speak to her.”

    “I had to write a will,” Marigold said. She shook her head. “Can you imagine? I had to write a will!”

    Tobias nodded. “I don’t have much of anything,” he said. His computer terminal, his clothes, a handful of other crap ... most of it would probably be sold to a second-hand shop, if they agreed to take it. The clothes weren’t fashionable, but anyone buying clothes from a second hand shop probably wasn’t in any position to complain. “My sister gets what little I have, if she wants it. God alone knows what’ll happen to my pension.”

    He winced. He’d been given a bunch of documents to read about the Military Convent, about how the navy would make provision for his dependents if he died in the line of duty ... but he hadn’t really been able to follow the legalise. The cynic in him suspected the navy wanted to make sure it could grant or revoke provision as it saw fit. Did he even have any dependents? He had no wife, no children ... his sister was hardly dependent on him. He had no one who had a solid legal right to a pension, if he died.

    “I looked it up,” Marigold said. “Your family might be able to claim it.”

    “Might,” Tobias said. He shook his head. “We’ll see.”

    He winced. He wasn’t so sure. The navy bureaucracy was just like school ... and the benefits office. His mother had grumbled about it often enough. The people who were kind and reasonable and wanted to help were not the ones in charge, not the ones who could actually make decisions. The people who were in charge were the kind of people who resented handing out food bank vouchers, let alone actual money. They thought ill people were maligning, disabled people were fit to work ... a person who had a perfect legal right to some benefits might be denied it on a technicality. The system had been breaking down even before the war had started and rationing had been introduced.

    Marigold reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure it’ll all work out,” she said. “But you know what? We’re not going to die.”

    “I hope you’re right,” Tobias said. If the gunboat was hit, they’d both be killed instantly. A starfighter pilot might be able to survive, if he ejected in time to escape the explosion, but it was rare. Only a handful of pilots had survived ejection in the last two decades. The odds for gunboat pilots were even worse. “The simulations ...”

    “They do keep piling them on,” Marigold said. She struck a mock contemplative pose. “I’m fairly sure they keep ramping up the speed and missile fire too.”

    Tobias had to laugh. “Yeah, but we have to take it seriously. Every time.”

    “It could be worse,” Marigold said. She tapped the console. “We’ll be jumping into the next system in an hour. And then we’ll be going back to work.”

    “And everyone bad in my life will be on the other side of the tramline,” Tobias agreed. He’d miss his mother and sister, but it didn’t matter. The navy didn’t care what he thought. They’d be millions of miles away even if he never left the Sol System. “Wonderful, don’t you think?”

    “Quite,” Marigold agreed.
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    Whoever designed our personal protective gear, Colin thought as the fire team carefully opened an airlock and hurled an antiviral grenade into the next compartment, was a sadistic bastard.

    Sweat trickled down his back as the flare of blue-white light dimmed. The suit was supposed to be comfortable, without hampering his movement in any way. Colin had long since decided the designer was either an idiot or simply ignorant. The suit was fine, if one walked slowly and calmly from place to place. Anyone who actually tried to run made themselves overheat very quickly. He wasn’t entirely sure the suit was completely airtight too. The boffins claimed the virus couldn’t get through the filters, but they’d been wrong before. It would only take one accident for an entire platoon to be turned into zombies.

    He plunged into the next compartment, rifle sweeping the section for targets. It was empty, seemingly unmarked by the antiviral grenade. The boffins claimed the flashes of light would stun the virus, weakening the biological network that united the zombies into a single hive. Colin wasn’t sure of that either. The old sweats reported some pretty mixed results. Colin shivered, reminding himself that he should be grateful for the suit. They couldn’t take the risk of being infected. There were enough horror stories of zombies remaining undetected long enough to do real damage to ensure he’d keep the suit on, at least for the duration of the exercise. They really couldn’t take the risk of being infected.

    Colin tongued his throatmike as the remainder of the fire team flowed into the chamber. “Section 77-G is clear, sir; I say again, Section 77-G is clear.”

    “Noted,” Major Craig said. “Advanced to Section 77-H.”

    “Aye, sir,” Colin said. His team moved to the airlock. “We’re going in ... now.”

    He tensed as they tested the airlock. It was locked. Colin swore under his breath, bracing himself as his team started to open the airlock manually. It was possible the system had been locked down, to the point the automated systems were no longer active; it was also possible the enemy were on the far side, waiting for them. The biosensors should have sounded the alert ... he cursed under his breath, wishing the exercise planners hadn’t done such a good job. It was all very well and good to insist that hard training meant for easier missions, but he was fairly sure most of the network would remain intact. They should have been able to track any boarding party as it made its way into the hull.

    At least they try to board our ships, instead of simply taking a nuke into the hull and detonating, Colin thought. The Royal Marines were trained for such missions, but rarely ordered into them. They were effectively suicide, only to be considered as a very last resort. It gives us a chance to drive them back into space.

    The airlock opened, revealing a misty atmosphere. The bioscanner started screaming a warning. Colin hurled a grenade into the mist, hoping and praying it was the virus. Some cunning wanker had filled the air with faux-explosive gas during a training mission, then gleefully pointed out that the marines had managed to blow themselves to hell. The virus might do the same, although it struck him as unlikely. Both extreme heat and vacuum would be more dangerous to its biological network than guns, at least in the short term. He swallowed as another pulse of blue-white light flashed in front of him. The virus simply didn’t play fair. He’d watched recordings of zombies taking shots to the head, then continuing their advance until their bodies were blown to bloody chunks. It was all too easy to believe the virus was unstoppable.

    He plunged forward, keeping low as he looked around. They’d plunged into a storage compartment, crammed with heavy boxes ... he ducked down as flickering laser light shot over his head. A marine swore behind him as he was hit, his suit locking down automatically. It might not be fatal, in a real fight, but exercise rules were absolute. Anyone who got hit was out of the fight, at least until the exercise was over. Colin knew better than to bend the rules. Devising a brilliant new tactic was one thing, flagrantly breaking the rules was quite another.

    “We have contact,” he reported, as he unhooked another grenade from his belt. “Two - possibly three - enemy combatants ...”

    He tossed the grenade. There was yet another flare of blue-white light. The zombies kept firing, popping up long enough to fire a burst of laser light before ducking back down again. Colin cursed under his breath, then signalled for the remainder of the fire team to keep the enemy pinned down while he crawled forward. There was no point in trying the antiviral grenades again, not now. The virus was safely inside the infected bodies, untouchable by UV light. Instead, he hurled a HE grenade over the boxes and ducked down. Colin thought he heard a scream as a flash of red light cast an eerie shade over the entire compartment. He snorted as he crawled around the boxes. The virus never screamed, even when the host bodies had taken enough punishment to kill a normal man. It was one of the traits he detested about it.

    Two men lay on the ground, pretending to be dead. Colin rolled his eyes as he checked their weapons, then walked past them. They hadn’t done badly, for matelots. They’d picked a good defensive position, then held their own instead of charging forward into the teeth of enemy fire. It was a shame they couldn’t run a perfect simulation, with trained and experienced soldiers on the other side, but ... he shook his head as he surveyed the compartment. The rest of the fire team was advancing ...

    Something slammed into his back. For a horrible moment, as the force of the impact bowled him over, he thought he’d been shot by one of his team. That would be embarrassing, perhaps costing him his stripe if the sergeant thought it was his fault. A weight landed on top of him, two fists beating at his helmet. He’d been ambushed ... he gritted his teeth, cursing the enemy under his breath. The bastard’s hands were already scrabbling at his fastenings, trying to expose him to the poisoned air. It would cost him the exercise, probably cost him his chance to make his promotion permanent. He reached back, drew a shockrod from his belt and shoved it into the figure’s leg. The man convulsed, just enough to let Colin throw him off and rolled over, drawing his pistol and shooting the figure repeatedly. Under normal circumstances, it would be overkill. Against the virus, it might not be enough kill.

    “I think you got him,” Private Scott Davies said, as he came around the crate. “Really.”

    “I think you should have got here quicker,” Colin groused. He and Davies had trained together, before Colin had earned his first stripe. It was hard to treat him as a subordinate when they’d been equals ... and might be equals again, if one of them was promoted or demoted. “He nearly got me.”

    Major Craig’s voice echoed over the communications net. “ENDEX,” he said. “I say again, ENDEX. This exercise is now terminated.”

    Colin breathed a sigh of relief as he undid his helmet and pulled it free. The air smelled of fear and sweat, but it was cool. Blessedly cool. He helped the crewman he’d zapped to his feet, trying not to show his irritation. The cunning bastard must have hidden in one of the crates, sheltered from the grenades. Colin wondered why he hadn’t simply been shot in the back. It really would have taken him out of the exercise. The sergeant would have been very sarcastic. Running past a potential hiding place for a potential ambush had been careless, to say the least. Good men had died that way.

    “Sorry for shocking you,” he said, rubbing sweat from his eyes. His hair felt uncomfortably wet. Perhaps it was time to shave it completely, like some of the more experienced marines. “You caught me by surprise.”

    “My job, son,” the spacer said. “See you next time.”

    Colin nodded as he surveyed the remainder of the compartment. There hadn’t been any real damage, this time. It wasn’t entirely realising - it wasn’t remotely realistic - but they couldn’t shoot live weapons onboard ship. He turned and strode back to the airlock. Private Henry Willis was lying on the deck, pretending to be dead. Colin rolled his eyes. The man wasn’t lazy - no one could get through commando training by being lazy - but Willis looked as if he were taking a nap.

    “Get up,” Colin ordered. “The exercise is over.”

    “I’m dead, sir,” Willis insisted. “You have to carry me back to barracks. It’s realistic.”

    “Realistic would be putting your body out the nearest airlock, as you know perfectly well,” Davies pointed out, snidely. “Or sticking an incendiary grenade up your arse to make sure you’re actually dead.”

    Willis sat up. “When I’m dead, I’m donating my body for medical research,” he said. “I want them to confirm I’m actually dead before they take me apart for science.”

    “I think we have discovered the limits of what anal probing can teach us,” Davis said. “Unless we want to know what crawled up your arse and died.”

    “I think it was a ration bar,” Willis said. “I thought I’d save time and ...”

    Colin snorted rudely as they headed back to barracks, passing a handful of crewmen on the way. The marines had been told, in no uncertain terms, that they weren’t to try to tidy up after the exercise. It didn’t sit well with him - they’d been taught to clean up after themselves, if only to keep the enemy from learning useful things from their rubbish - but there was no point in arguing. He understood logistics well enough to know it was important that everything went back where it belonged. The navy wouldn’t thank the marines if they lost something in the supplies. Or in the files. It was where inconvenient facts went to die.

    He glanced at the timer as they entered Marine Country, wondering if he had time for a shower before the briefing. He stunk. They all stunk. The suit felt increasingly uncomfortable. He tried to tell himself he’d been in worse places, but it wasn’t particularly convincing. Even the worst of the worst felt like nothing more than a vague memory.

    “Be seated,” Sergeant Ron Bowman said, as he took the podium. There was no sign of Major Craig. “We did well, all things considered.”

    “It wasn’t real, sergeant,” Lieutenant Francis Coxcomb said. “We weren’t firing real weapons.”

    Bowman shrugged. “I’m sure that would make for an interesting court martial,” he said, sardonically. “Do you want to explain how we blew away a bunch of spacer volunteers ... and how they blew us away?”

    Colin kept his thoughts to himself. It was true the combination of fake grenades and laser guns, instead of real weapons, leant the exercise an air of unreality. The fakes just didn’t have the impact, literally, of their real counterparts. The marines trained with live weapons where possible. And yet ... he snorted to himself. There was nothing to be gained by using live weapons onboard ship, unless the shit really hit the fan. The captain would certainly not grant permission ...

    “We cleared the infected compartments very quickly,” Bowman said. “We also stepped down the effects of the grenades, giving the enemy a potential advantage. Don’t get complacent. We assume they’re working on ways to overcome the grenades too.”

    Colin nodded as the sergeant talked them through a holographic recreation of the exercise. It was hard to believe the fire team had been one of many, even though he knew it to be true. They’d felt alone, isolated in a sea of troubles. Their back-up had been too far back to be anything but helpless witnesses, if things spiralled too far out of control. He frowned as he realised one fire team had been wiped out, just before the exercise had been terminated. The corporal had made a mistake and his team had paid for it.

    “We need to speed up our passage through the ship,” Bowman finished. “We’re just not getting to the beachheads quickly enough.”

    “I don’t see how we can move any faster, sergeant,” Lieutenant Dalton said. “We might have to rely on the navy pukes slowing them down for us.”

    “They can’t slow them down for long, even if they survive the hull breach,” Bowman pointed out, dryly. “We need to move faster.”

    Colin winced, inwardly. He knew, without false modesty, that he was a champion runner. He’d been quick on his feet even before he’d gone to commando training. In theory, they should be able to get from bow to stern very quickly. In practice, just getting through the airlocks - which automatically sealed themselves if the ship came under heavy attack - took time, time they didn’t have. The enemy boarders could make use of the time to start burning their way towards the bridge.

    Or even taking a nuke as far into the hull as possible, he thought, as the discussion grew more heated. It’s only a matter of time before they do.

    “Enemy missiles at twelve o’clock,” Marigold said.

    “Roger,” Tobias said. “What should I do until then?”

    He ignored Marigold’s snort as his hands danced over the console. The joke dated all the way back to the very first days of aerial combat, when magnificent men in magnificent flying machines had duelled like knights of old, with honour and glory and no ill feelings. Tobias doubted it had ever been like that - he found it hard to believe that knights in shining armour had been paragons of anything, except lust and cruelty - but it didn’t matter. He’d be in real trouble if they failed to stop the missiles. The virus was already fond of hurling impossible salvos towards their targets. It would only take one or two hits to really ruin Lion’s day.

    The enemy missiles lanced closer, somehow accelerating even as they evaded his sensor locks. They were moving at impossible speeds, travelling faster than any missile known to exist ... Tobias shivered, silently grateful for the gunboat’s tactical sensors as the missiles entered their engagement envelope. They couldn’t hope to take them out manually. They might as well start firing at random. Tobias cursed under his breath as a dozen missiles flashed past the gunboat, already heading out of engagement range. They’d shot forty missiles out of space, but it hadn’t been enough.

    “How long will it be,” he asked, “before we face missiles that really do move so quickly?”

    Marigold didn’t look up from her console. “Hopefully, never,” she said. “There are limits to how fast missiles can go, right?”

    Tobias shrugged. “A hundred years ago, there was no such thing as artificial gravity,” he said. He’d seen the first purpose-built space warships. They’d been weird gangly designs, compared to modern-day ships. “Weapons and computers and tactical sensors were useless. Now ... we have better weapons and sensors and ... everything else. We might wind up facing missiles that travel just below the speed of light.”

    “And defences will probably improve too,” Marigold countered. She paused as the console bleeped. “The exercise is terminated. We lost.”

    “Fuck.” Tobias sat back, his eyes drifting over the preliminary report without quite seeing it. “They just overwhelmed us.”

    “Yeah,” Marigold agreed. She altered course, taking the gunboat back to the mothership. “But the real enemy won’t be that bad.”

    Tobias let out a breath as the last of the exercise vanished from the display. The horde of enemy warships blinked out of existence, replaced by a handful of asteroid miners and freighters moving from tramline to tramline. The Terra Nova system had been calming down, before the Third Interstellar War began. Or so he’d been told. The reports had claimed that most of the interplanetary population had either left the system or gone underground, trying to hide from both the planet’s new rulers and the virus. He wondered, idly, if they had any hope of remaining hidden indefinitely. A single transmission would be enough to betray them, if someone cared enough to listen.

    “I hope so,” he said. He grinned at her. “Next time, I fly the ship.”

    “I’m not the one who rammed an asteroid,” Marigold teased. “What were you thinking?”

    “I was desperate,” Tobias said. He’d been quite disappointed to discover that one could fly an entire navy through an asteroid field without any serious risk of hitting an asteroid. Real-life asteroid fields were nowhere near as exciting as the movies made them seem. And yet, their training had included a bunch of faked asteroid fields that really were dangerously dense. He wasn’t sure if it was a real test or someone’s idea of a joke. “And you need practice with the guns.”

    “You mean, practice with programming the computers that control the guns,” Marigold corrected. “We’ll discuss it later.”

    Tobias laughed. They were meant to rotate slots, if only to ensure they could serve in either role. Their instructors had claimed it was to give them a chance to reshuffle the squadrons, if necessary, but Tobias didn’t believe it. Anything that killed Marigold in interplanetary combat was likely to kill him as well. There was no point in arguing. The navy was still feeling its way towards viable gunboat tactics. It would probably be several years before doctine was finalised and set in stone.

    “We could have done worse,” Marigold pointed out. “Statistically, the odds of them hitting Lion are quite low.”

    “It only takes one hit,” Tobias countered. “And then we’ll be stuck out here to die.”
    Srchdawg-again, techsar and rle737ng like this.
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    Mitch allowed himself a tight smile as he lay on his bunk, holding the terminal up so he could see the screen. It wasn’t the most professional of appearances, and he supposed it would be slightly off-putting to a superior officer who put more credence in appearances than reality, but he found it hard to care. Unicorn simply didn’t have a proper office for her commanding officer. He supposed he should be grateful she also produced less paperwork than a capital ship. He’d never liked paperwork, even though he understood the importance of keeping everything in line. He couldn’t order replacement supplies if he didn’t know what needed replaced.

    “I must say, we’re as close to combat-ready as we’re likely to be come,” he said. “We won’t know for sure until we face real danger, of course.”

    “Of course,” Captain Hammond echoed. He looked displeased, somewhat to Mitch’s irritation. His ship was probably having problems adjusting to the new reality. “Can your crew handle it?”

    “Yes, sir.” Mitch smiled. “Most of my officers and crew are experienced, even if they haven’t served under me. The remainder are surrounded by experienced officers. They can handle anything.”

    And if they can’t, he added silently, we can remove them before it’s too late.

    He scowled at the thought. It was never easy to tell how someone would react to real combat. Simulations were all very well and good, but they weren’t real. It was difficult to trick someone into believing a simulation was real, isolating them so completely from reality that they honestly wouldn’t know the difference. A person who performed well - brilliantly, even - in the simulators might freeze up when faced with actual combat. Mitch understood, but he had no time for sympathy. A person who froze might get himself and others killed before he recovered himself. Better to have that person sent to the rear, where he might make himself useful without putting the rest of the crew in danger.

    “My crew is learning the ropes, now we’re under way,” Captain Hammond said. “We’re working the kinks out, one by one.”

    Mitch nodded. “Are you ready for bigger and better things?”

    “We’re about to find out,” Captain Hammond said. “And you?”

    “Yes.” Mitch leaned forward. “I have some ideas about how we should proceed.”

    He sat upright, tapping his terminal to bring up the starchart and share his view with his superior. “There’s very little on Farnham worth considering,” he said. “Our only real concern is the enemy fleet. Right?”

    “Right,” Captain Hammond said. “And, at last report, it consisted of over seventy ships.”

    “Of which the brainships are the important targets,” Mitch agreed. “There are four brainships, all of which need to be taken out quickly. I propose that we enter the system on a least-time course to Farnham itself, with Unicorn taking up position here” - he tapped a point on the display - “and Lion holding station here, just outside enemy detection range. You then fire missiles on ballistic trajectories, which go live here” - he tapped another point - “giving the enemy a very limited chance to detect them before they slam home.”

    “But too great a chance of running down Lion before she can escape,” Captain Hammond pointed out. “Brainships or no brainships, they won’t fail to react to an obvious threat.”

    “Unless they’ve massively improved their drives in the last few months, their capital ships won’t be able to catch Lion,” Mitch said. “And the smaller ships will be vulnerable to your fire.”

    He shook his head. It was the age-old equation, older than the space navies themselves. Lion could outrun anything powerful enough to blow her to atoms. The cold equations of naval combat admitted of little ambiguity. Given a head start, the battlecruiser might be able to reach the tramline and jump out before her enemies caught up or overwhelmed her defences with long-range missile fire. Hell, the combination of gunboats, ECM drones and point defence might be enough to render Lion invulnerable until the enemy closed the range. They couldn’t hope to hit her with ballistic missiles.

    “It’s still too risky,” Captain Hammond said. “We have to be more careful.”

    Mitch kept his face under tight control. He understood the risks - he’d been injured, nearly killed, on active service - but they were losing the war. They had to take some risks. Taking out two or three of the brainships wouldn’t be enough, certainly not enough to give the Americans a decent chance to take out the remainder of the fleet. They had to kill the brainships before it was too late. And that meant taking some risks. Mitch hated to admit it, but Lion and Unicorn were expendable. The Royal Navy would happily sacrifice both ships if it meant buying time to build up the fleet and mount a massive counterattack.

    “We need to hit them hard, catch them by surprise,” he said. “If we give them a chance to see what we can do, if they have a moment to send a message further up the chain, we might run into a much heavier ambush next time.”

    Or worse, he thought, sourly. No one really understood how the virus thought - it was just too alien - but they did have a fairly good model of how it communicated. If a single brainship survived long enough to analyse what happened, the rest of the enemy fleet would know in short order. Next time, they’ll know what to expect.

    “We also don’t know how well our ships will perform in combat,” Captain Hammond said, coldly. “The risk is too great.”

    “That’s what we’re here to find out,” Mitch insisted. “We have to push the limits as far as they will go.”

    “The risk is too great,” Captain Hammond repeated. “We’ll engage from a distance.”

    Mitch leaned forward. “What do you have in mind?”

    “We engage from a middling point,” Captain Hammond said. “Unicorn goes ahead to survey the system, so we have both a decent headcount of enemy ships and a shot at locating the flicker station. Assuming, of course, they have one.”

    “They should certainly have set one up,” Mitch agreed. “Even if they didn’t have flicker technology before the war, they’ll have learnt about it from us.”

    He made a face. The navy took endless precautions to prevent intact datacores from falling into enemy hands, but most of those precautions could be circumvented with a zombie’s willing help. It was impossible to determine what the virus did and didn’t know, particularly since it had started infecting and overwhelming humanity’s colony worlds. He’d read a dozen books that mentioned the flicker network, in greater or lesser detail. And knowing something was possible was half the battle.

    “If we take out the station, they’ll know for sure we’re there,” he warned. “And if we don’t find the station ... we won’t know for sure it doesn’t exist.”

    “We can, but try.” Captain Hammond shrugged. “I take it you have no objection to going in first, alone?”

    “No, sir.” Mitch had to smile. As if he would! “We’ll just have to set up the details and plan the offensive.”

    “Quite.” Captain Hammond looked distracted, just for a moment. “I’d like to keep running drills until we reach New Washington, then we can finalise our plans. My crew are still not at their best.”

    “There’s nothing like battle for smoothing out the rough edges,” Mitch assured him. “I’ll keep working on operational plans too.”

    “Good.” Captain Hammond nodded, curtly. “We’ll speak again before too long.”

    Mitch nodded, stiffly, as his superior’s face vanished. He’d expected better, somehow. He understood Captain Hammond’s concerns - they were flying untested ships, with largely untested crews - but he didn’t share them. The admiral had made it clear, time and time again, that humanity was losing the war. They had to buy time, whatever the cost. It might have been better, he reflected sourly, to assign a more experienced captain and command crew to Lion. Her captain had spent the last six months at the academy, not on a command deck. Mitch understood the importance of having experienced officers assigned to the academy - too many instructors were too inexperienced to know they were teaching the wrong lessons - but ... he shook his head. There was no point in worrying about something he couldn’t change. Instead, he keyed his console, bringing up the latest reports. The simulated engagements had gone better than he’d expected.

    Which means we’re either smoothing off the rough edges faster than I thought possible, he mused, or we’re setting ourselves up for a fall.

    He dismissed the thought as he brought up the latest reports from the survey missions. Farnham had never been considered very important, even by the Americans who’d laid claim the system. The colonists were considered harmless cranks, not the nucleus of a new civilisation. Reading between the lines, Mitch had the impression the United States thought it was just a matter of time before they took formal control of the surface. Or had, once upon a time. There was nothing left of the colony now, but zombies.

    Unless they did manage to go underground, he thought, as he checked the remainder of the system. Slipping in and out without being detected shouldn’t be a problem. They might be still in hiding, afraid to come out.

    He shuddered. Who could blame them? A small colony - only a few thousand settlers, if the records were accurate - couldn’t hope to do more than slow the virus down for a few minutes. There’d been no orbital defences, nothing capable of so much as spitting at the enemy ships. He hoped the colonists had managed to hide. And that they had a way to signal the USN when it retook the system.

    And they might suspect a ruse, if the navy tries to raise them, he thought. The virus can duplicate our signals, damn it.

    The intercom bleeped. “Captain,” Staci said. “We’ve just completed the gunnery cycle drills and passed all the markers. We’re ready for action.”

    “Good,” Mitch said. He had no illusions. Unicorn was not going to win the war single-handedly. Ark Royal was the only ship that had come close to winning alone and she’d had help. But he knew they could hold their own. “We’ll just have to hope Hammond lets us off the leash.”

    “Yes, sir,” Staci said.

    “And meet me in my quarters at 1700,” Mitch added. “We have an operation to plan.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    Thomas kept his face carefully impassive as he broke the connection, then scowled as he sat back in his chair. He understood the urge to fight, to march to the sound of the guns and open fire on the enemy ships and positions, but he also understood that his ship was nowhere near ready for combat. The design was untested, the crew were untried ... sure, the various departments had been showing a marked degree of improvement since they’d left Sol, but they still had a long way to go. Thomas rubbed his eyes, wishing he had time for a proper rest. He doubted he’d feel any better until they’d faced their first real improvement.

    He allowed his frown to deepen as he studied Captain Campbell’s plan of attack. It was straightforward, almost brutally so. Get into position, hit the enemy and run. There was little more to it, suggesting that Campbell understood the importance of the KISS principle. And yet, Thomas had his doubts. The plan relied on everything going right. If it didn’t, if Lion was overhauled by the enemy ships, they’d be shot to pieces. He really couldn’t take the risk.

    Particularly when we don’t have to, he mused. They could launch the missiles - on ballistic trajectories - from a safe distance. The virus would have no trouble tracking the missiles back to their point of origin, but Lion would have plenty of time to put entire light-years between itself and the enemy fleet. They’ll have no time to track us down if we retreat at once.

    He shook his head. The hell of it was that they really didn’t know how well their missiles would perform in combat. He’d watched simulations that suggested they’d smash the enemy fleet effortlessly and simulations that insisted the entire salvo would be wiped out by enemy point defence before it entered attack range. They’d been over it again and again, before finally conceding they simply didn’t know. The gunboats might make the difference between success and failure, but even they hadn’t been tested in a real engagement. Their lone skirmish with the enemy had been marked by surprise on both sides. Neither one had known what they were facing.

    “And we still don’t know if they’re watching us or not,” he muttered. Basic military doctrine insisted that intelligence was the second most deadly weapon in the known universe - the first being surprise - but it was impossible to determine if the virus had spy ships lurking at the edge of the Sol System. As long as they kept their drives and active sensors shut down, they might as well be invisible. “They might know we’re coming.”

    The buzzer rang. Thomas looked up. “Come.”

    Commander Donker stepped through the hatch. “Captain,” he said. “I have the latest set of reports from the gunboat simulations.”

    Thomas smiled, although it wasn’t really amusing. “Should I be worried Colonel Bagehot hasn’t come in person?”

    “He’s still working with his crews,” Donker said. He held out a datachip. “The simulations, as always, were based on vastly more capable enemy starships and missiles. They still took out half of the incoming missiles, despite superior drives and ECM. We can reasonably assume the gunboats will provide a shield for us, particularly if they keep pace with the enemy missiles.”

    “Which they can’t, in anything other than a very short engagement,” Thomas pointed out, coldly. “Can we rely on their drive fields remaining stable?”

    “No, sir,” Donker said. His expression twisted. “We’ve gone through simulations, dozens of simulations. The worst case, sir, is that we lose a third of the gunboats to drive failure.”

    Thomas nodded. Gunboats sat oddly between missiles, starfighters and capital ships. Their drives were powerful enough to accelerate them at a clip only missiles could match, without the torrent of radiation and guaranteed compensator failure that would doom any starfighter that tried. And yet, the odds of catastrophic drive failure skyrocketed every time the drives were ramped up to full power. The gunboats might be able to keep pace with incoming missiles long enough to take them all out, at the risk of losing power and being overwhelmed by the enemy fleet. Thomas had no confidence they could mount a SAR operation before it was too late.

    They’re expendable, the cold part of his mind pointed out. We’re all expendable.

    He cursed himself for the thought. He’d met the gunboat pilots, once. They didn’t have the polish of real naval personnel - it was hard to believe they were naval personnel - yet they were ready to put their lives at risk for their country. They’d been like starfighter pilots, but without the arrogance and complete lack of concern for rules that came with the grim knowledge they might die at any moment. Even in peacetime, the death toll amongst starfighter pilots was uncomfortably high. And it was only a matter of time until the gunboats went the same way.

    We’ll probably start training proper pilots, once we have the doctrine worked out, Thomas thought. He’d read the proposals Colonel Richard Bagehot and his team had drawn out, five months ago. It remained to be seen how well the doctrine would cope in the real world. And then the gunboat pilots will turn into starfighter pilots.

    He put the thought out of his mind. “We’ll do everything in our power to avoid losing them,” he said, although he knew it was a promise they’d be unable to keep. A single enemy missile would be enough to wipe a gunboat out of the skies. The virus might start turning shipkillers into anti-gunboat weapons, clearing the way for the remainder of the missiles to reach the fleet. “And to rescue them, if they lose power.”

    “If it can be done,” Donker pointed out. He didn’t sound convinced. “The virus may fire on our shuttles.”

    Thomas nodded. Humanity’s first two alien enemies - the Tadpoles and the Foxes, both now allies - hadn’t gone out of their way to commit atrocities, even though it had taken a while to establish communications. The Anglo-Indian War had been remarkably civilised, with both powers doing their level best to play by the rules. Accidents happened, everyone knew, but they could be minimised. The virus, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care. It wasn’t, he admitted sourly, that it shot up SAR shuttles for the sheer hell of it. It was that it didn’t know the difference between a SAR shuttle and something more hostile.

    Can we really call it monstrous, he asked himself, if it doesn’t have the option of not being monstrous?

    “We’ll do what we can,” he said. It was his duty. Cold logic told him the pilots were expendable, his heart told him something else. “At the very least, we have to avoid losing pilots for nothing.”

    “Yes, sir,” Donker said. “Speaking of which, Major Craig wanted to borrow the pilots.”

    Thomas blinked. “What for?”

    “The marines need hostages to rescue,” Donker said. “And a bunch of other missions they need to practice, like escorting the pilots through hostile territory. It will be a nice chance for them.”

    “I’m sure the pilots will appreciate a change,” Thomas agreed. He’d enjoyed exercising with the marines, although that had been back during the last interstellar war. Things had probably changed a bit since he’d been a junior midshipman. “Clear it with Colonel Bagehot before proceeding, though. He’s got his own problems too.”

    “Yes, sir,” Donker said.
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen

    “Who was it,” Private Scott Davies asked, “who said he had that Déjà Vu feeling all over again?”

    “You, just now,” Private Henry Willis said, as he followed his friend down the poorly-lit corridor. “A truly original expression, eminently quotable.”

    Colin scowled at their backs as he brought up the rear, feeling sweat pickling against his skin and drenching his uniform. The mask and suit hadn’t grown any more bearable, in the last week of endless drills. He was tempted to accidentally lose it somewhere, despite the risk of breathing in something that would turn him into a zombie. He wanted to believe the vaccinations and booster shots they’d been given would be enough to protect him, particularly if he wore a mask. He wanted to believe ...

    “Get the hatch,” he ordered, curtly. He unhooked a grenade from his belt, holding it at the ready. “Now.”

    “Aye, sir,” Davies said, all business now. He knelt beside the hatch and started to work, bypassing the automated system to open the airlock manually. “Ready ... now.”

    The hatch hissed open. Colin peered into the next compartment, silently relieved there was no place to hide. Anyone within the section would be in plain view ... he inched forward, sweeping his rifle from side to side. The corridor felt cramped, even though it was wide enough for the marines to walk three abreast. The air felt uncomfortably hot as he hurried towards, reaching the second airlock before it could be opened from the other side. He had the feeling he was being watched.

    We are being watched, he reminded himself, dryly. Their superiors would be watching through the sensors, no doubt coming up with a list of problems they’d have to fix during the after-action discussion. But are we being watched by the enemy.

    Davies tapped the hatch. “The air should be clean, on the other side,” he said. “Keep your mask on, though.”

    “Got it.” Colin might joke about losing his mask, but he understood how important it was to wear it. “Open the hatch.”

    He glanced at the other three, then tensed as the hatch slowly opened. The mission was supposed to be simple, but he had a feeling the exercise planners had thrown a few wrinkles into the mix. Escorting gunboat pilots from one compartment to another was the sort of mission that looked good on paper, yet tended to come with a sting in the tail. The OPFOR would be on the prowl, waiting for a chance to jump the marines and embarrass them in front of their commanding officers. And the pilots themselves were probably under orders to make life difficult for the marines too. Colin wondered, as the hatch revealed another empty compartment, if they could get away with pointing guns at the pilots. It wasn’t as though they were real guns.

    But the CO will blow a fuse anyway, he thought, dryly. We’re meant to treat exercises as reality.

    The thought made him smile as they inched forward, heading towards the next hatch. The pilots were supposed to be on the other side, trapped and helpless. Colin gritted his teeth, silently impressed by how well the SAS coped with escort and hostage rescue missions. He’d taken part in a handful of hostage rescue exercises, with all the advantages offered to his side, and they’d still lost a bunch of hostages. The SAS officer who’d coordinated the operation had detailed their mistakes in great detail, then admitted that something was always left to chance. The terrorists might manage to kill their hostages before the poor buggers could be rescued.

    And here, it might be a great deal worse, he told himself. The pilots might already have been infected.

    He gritted his teeth as they reached the hatch. The briefing hadn’t been clear on just what the pilots had been doing, before they’d been trapped. Colin wasn’t sure if that was deliberate or not. The CO had spoken endlessly of the fog of war, leaving Colin and his men unsure if they were saving friends and allies or clutching vipers to their bosoms. The pilots would have to be tested, as soon as they reached the safe zone. The hell of it was that the safe zones might be moved at any moment. Colin remembered earlier exercises and cursed himself for wanting something more complex. Complexity was bad. He should have remembered that before it had been too late.

    The hatch felt cool to his touch. He rapped on it twice, as agreed. The hatch shuddered, then opened slowly. A handful of people sat inside the chamber, looking remarkably unworried even though they were in the middle of an exercise. Colin rather suspected they thought they would never be in any real trouble, whatever happened. They were pilots, not marines. Colin would be the one in deep shit if something went badly wrong.

    He allowed his gaze to sweep the room. Seven people; four men, three women. They were all around the same age as himself, if he was any judge, although there was something faintly odd about their appearance. He tensed, gripping his rifle instinctively before realising it had nothing to do with the virus. The gunboat pilots looked like people who’d only just started intensive exercise, like people who’d been chubby and unhealthy before the navy got its hands on them. Colin felt a flicker of sympathy, mingled with contempt. Staying healthy wasn’t hard. They could have dealt with most of their body issues in PE.

    “On your feet,” he snapped. He saw flashes of resentment in their eyes as they hurried to obey. “Do as you’re told and we might just get out of this alive.”

    He checked his HUD as the pilots lined up by the door. The safe route was still safe, but ... he shook his head. He doubted he could take that for granted. The enemy might be sneaking through the tubes or settling up an ambush or even plotting an assault on the safe zone itself. It wasn’t technically on the list of things that would be considered cheating. And if he’d spotted the loophole, he was sure a more experienced officer would spot it too.

    “Let us take point,” he added. The gunboat pilots were practically civilians. They’d blunder around like ... like civilians. He couldn’t trust them with weapons. “Keep your heads down and your masks on. Don’t even think about taking them off.”

    He gritted his teeth as he checked the rest of the room, then turned back to the hatch. The pilots should be fine, as long as they kept their masks on. Their shipsuits should provide enough protection to survive a minor hull breach, if they were lucky. Besides, it wasn’t as if they had anything else. There were no EVA suits in the chamber. Even if there were, Colin would have been reluctant to use them. A lone zombie inside a suit might manage to slip through the defence lines and do a lot of damage.

    “Follow me,” he ordered. “And keep your fucking heads down.”

    Tobias could barely look at the marines - armoured and masked figures that looked like creatures out of nightmares - as they chivvied him and the other volunteers towards the airlock. He’d been told he was going to volunteer ... he cursed under his breath as he forced himself to move. The marines were blunt, crude, rude ... he thought he heard a hint of Liverpool in the leader’s voice, but it was hard to be sure. The mask muffled everything. It was hard to believe the figures were even human.

    They are human, he told himself. The light flickered and flared, brightening and darkening seemingly at random. That makes it worse.

    He managed to keep moving, shuffling out the hatch. The air was hot, swelteringly hot. It was difficult to accept that he knew the corridors, that they were as familiar to him as the palm of his hand. The ever-changing lights, the faint flickers in the gravity field, the clouds of mist hanging in the air ... the scene had an air of unreality that tore at his mind. He kept walking, silently relieved that Marigold had managed to escape being volunteered. It was like being forced to play team sports, only worse. His lips quirked at the thought. Here, at least, no one would give him a hard time for playing badly.

    His legs wobbled. The briefing officer had told them to dawdle as much as possible, to do everything short of actual violence to slow the march down, but he didn’t dare. The marines were supposed to have orders not to hurt the pilots ... Tobias didn’t believe it. They’d do whatever it took to keep the pilots alive, even if it included pushing them alone or knocking them out and carrying them. The deck seemed to shift under his feet as they stepped through a second airlock. It was a drill - he knew it was a drill - and yet part of him refused to believe it. It felt very real.

    And what were you expecting? He remembered fire drills at school and snorted. Rows of bored children heading for the exits? Teachers trying desperately to maintain order as their students enjoy the chance to escape classes? The headmaster waving his cane in the air as he bawls for order?

    He didn’t smile as the gravity shifted again. His world had shrunk. He was aware of the pilot in front of him, and the pilot behind him, and the marines ... but very little else. He kept his eyes on Jeanette’s back, trying not to distract himself by looking around. Cold air blew over him, chilling him to the bone. The lights flickered and died. He heard someone cry out behind him as he stumbled to a halt, the pilot behind him crashing into his back a second later. It was easy to panic ...

    “Remain calm,” the marine ordered, sharply. A slap echoed through the dark air. “We’ll guide you. Keep inching forward.”

    Tobias forced himself to keep moving, somehow. The marines could see in the dark, either though night-vision gear or genetically-enhanced eyeballs, but for him ... it was nothing but utter darkness. A chill ran down his spine. There’d been wankers in school who’d turned out the lights, forcing him to grope his way to the exit ... the memory taunted him; mocking him, shaming him. He’d been a useless wimp. All the old doubts and fears rose to the surface. He’d been useless; a poor son, a poor student, a waste of time and space and ...

    Keep moving, he told himself. Don’t stop for anything ...

    The deck lurched. The gravity field suddenly grew stronger. Tobias lost his balance and fell, hitting the deck hard enough to hurt. Someone - it sounded like one of the women - yelped in pain. He tried to move, but the gravity kept tugging at him. Panic yammered at the back of his mind, trying to slow him down. It was all he could do to keep crawling until the gravity field snapped back to normal.

    “Get up,” the marine ordered. “Hurry!”

    Easy for you to say, Tobias thought. It was the sort of thing he’d never dare say. Witty remarks delivered to arseholes who couldn’t count past ten without taking off their socks always ended poorly, at least for him. He didn’t have a friendly scriptwriter putting one-liners in his mouth. You can see in the dark.

    The light flared. Tobias stumbled, nearly falling again. They were in the corridor ... he blinked, looking down as the lights grew brighter before dimming again. He’d lost track of where he was, as if he no longer knew anything ... the marines shoved him forward as they opened the next airlock. He wanted to push back, or to lie down and play dead, but he couldn’t. It was impossible. Instead, he just kept moving ...

    And then the shooting started.

    Colin swore as he saw muzzle flashes from further down the corridor. “Hit the deck,” he shouted. Laser pulses - invisible laser pulses - would be already coming at them. “Get down!”

    He shoved the nearest pilot down, heedless of her cry of pain. The enemy had a good position, he noted sourly. They’d taken advantage of the dim light and mist to set up a barricade, studded with murder holes. He unhooked a grenade and hurled it down the corridor, more in hope than anything else. The enemy position was too good. A real HE grenade would probably make some room, but the dummies weren’t good enough. The umpires would rule against him.

    “Move the pilots back,” he shouted. They couldn’t go through the trap. They’d have to go around it. “We’ll go down the next corridor.”

    He hurled another grenade as the rearguard started inching backwards. They were too far from the safe zone - and any hope of reinforcements - for his peace of mind, although he called the contact in anyway. The enemy were remaining behind their barricade ... Colin half-wished they’d come out and fight. They could be cut down in short order if they exposed themselves. He snapped orders to Davies and Willis, ordering them to keep the enemy pinned down. It wasn’t much, but it was all they had.

    “We need a fucking antitank missile, boss,” Davies shouted. “That barricade is too bloody strong!”

    “Keep them pinned,” Colin said. He considered using their remaining grenades, but there was no guarantee they’d work. “Get to the rear when the pilots are gone.”

    He glared at the pilots, who were hugging the decks like men who’d just survived their very first parachute drops. They looked terrified, even though the bullets weren’t real. The bangs and flashes were nothing more than firecrackers ... hell, firecrackers would be a lot more dangerous. But they were panicking ... Colin wondered, suddenly who’d had the bright idea of sending the pilots into the fray. They weren’t marines, or territorial soldiers, or even reservists seeing out their time in the Home Guard. They were ... he shook his head. They’d be time to worry about it later.

    “Move,” he shouted. It was hard to make himself heard, over the racket. “Move!”

    Tobias clung to the deck, unwilling to risk so much as raising his head,

    He’d heard all the stories about combat, from teachers who’d actually served to army officers on recruitment drives. They’d talked about the military life, about testing one’s self against the enemy, about the sheer joy that came with emerging victorious from yet another battle against the enemies of civilisation. They hadn’t talked about the noise, or the fear, or ... his thoughts ran in circles. He could barely think. He wanted to lie on the deck until it was all over.

    “Move,” someone shouted. “Damn it, move!”

    A hand slapped his back. Tobias forced himself to move, somehow. The noise was getting louder, as impossible as it seemed. The racket was deafening. He could feel his ears starting to ache as he kept moving, flashes of light following them down the corridor. Were they still on the ship? He couldn’t believe it. They’d been teleported somewhere else, perhaps into hell itself. Perhaps they were dead. It felt ... it felt very much like hell.

    “Move!” The marine was screaming as they turned into another corridor. “Move, you ...”

    The world seemed to explode. Tobias felt something pass over his head, so close he thought it passed through his hair. Panic overwhelmed him, just as silence fell so sharply he was half-convinced he’d gone deaf. He raised his head as far as he dared - not very far at all, really - and peered around. Everyone - pilots, marines - were lying on the deck. Were they dead?

    “Well,” a calm voice said. “That could have gone better.”

    Tobias managed to sit up. His uniform was drenched in sweat. He felt himself shaking ... he hoped he hadn’t pissed himself. No one would ever let him forget it, just as they’d made fun of Brian for puking up meals his mother had eaten during the nastier parts of endurance training. They’d called him the Vomit King. In hindsight, that had been more than a little unfair. They’d all thrown up, their first time.

    “Yes, sir,” the lead marine said. “We got ambushed.”

    Tobias barely listened as he stumbled to his feet, then helped Jeanette to hers. She looked badly shaken, her eyes wide with fear. He wanted to go to whoever had had the bright idea of volunteering the pilots for the exercise and shake him, to demand to know what the fuck he’d been thinking. They were gunboat pilots, half-trained gunboat pilots. They’d be screwed beyond all hope of recovery if they were given rifles and told to go on the front lines.

    “Go back to your bunks,” the newcomer ordered. He spoke with the calm assurance Tobias had come to hate in his teenage years. “You’ll be debriefed later.”

    Tobias nodded, not trusting himself to speak as the rest of the pilots stood. They looked as though they’d gone through hell. The marines looked more irritated than anything else. They’d all been killed ... not in reality, but their superiors would give them a stern lecture anyway. Tobias had had the same treatment, once he’d mastered the gunboat. They had to treat the exercise as real.

    He watched as one of the marines removed his helmet. Tobias felt his stomach clench. The marine looked thoroughly unpleasant, just the type who’d made his life miserable when he’d been a child. The wanker didn’t even seen to notice him. The leader, the one with the accent, started to remove his helmet. Tobias walked away, then stopped - dead - as he heard a very familiar voice behind him, no longer muffled by the mask.

    “We let ourselves be pinned down, sir,” the voice said.

    Tobias froze. Colin?
  20. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer


    How might one pronounce that? My boot camp commander would have had some fun with it.
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