Original Work The Long-Range War (A Learning Experience V)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jun 6, 2018.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    The Long-Range War is the fifth book in the A Learning Experience series. This time, the book does not really stand alone. You’ll probably have had to have read 1-4 to know the characters. (And I will supply copies if requested.) I’ve attached a small ‘what has gone before’ below this post.

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


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

    The Chrishanger

    A Very Brief Recap

    In the very near future, a handful of military veterans in the USA were abducted by an alien starship. Unluckily for their would-be captors - the Horde, a race of interstellar scavengers - the humans rapidly managed to break free and gain control of the starship. Steve Stuart, a rancher who had been growing more and more disillusioned with the government, saw opportunity - the starship could serve as the base for a new civilisation, the Solar Union.

    Despite some small problems with planet-bound governments, the Solarians - as they would eventually be called - started to both recruit settlers for the new state and distribute alien-grade technology on Earth. After defeating a series of Horde ships that attempted to recapture their starship and attack Earth, the Solar Union was firmly in place.

    This was, of course, unknown to the rest of the galaxy. To them, Earth wasn't even a microstate. This suited the Solarians just fine. Humans could and did travel beyond the solar system - as traders, mercenaries or even simple explorers - but no one wanted to attract the Galactics to Earth. The Solarians were already making improvements to GalTech that could not fail to alarm the major alien powers, particularly the Tokomak.

    Fifty years after Contact, the veil of secrecy fell. Humanity’s involvement in a series of brushfire wars at the edge of known space could no longer be hidden, nor could elements of advanced technology. In response, the Tokomak dispatched a massive fleet to Sol with the intention of blasting Earth to cinders. Unknown to the Tokomak, the Solar Navy had just enough advanced technology to stand off the alien fleet and smash it. The follow-up attacks shattered the Tokomak grip on the nearby sectors, freeing hundreds of planets from their influence. Humanity had suddenly become a major regional power. A number of naval bases were rapidly established, both to extend human influence and protect human trade.

    This had unfortunate effects on Earth. The expansion of the Solar Union - and its willingness to insist that anyone who wanted to emigrate could emigrate - accidentally accelerated the social decline pervading civilisation. Europe, America and many other countries fell into civil war, something that caused considerable concern in orbit. One faction within the Solar Union wanted to intervene, others - feeling no loyalty to Earth - believed it was better to let Earthers handle their own affairs.

    Captain-Commodore Hoshiko Sashimi Stuart - the granddaughter of Steve Stuart - accidentally stepped into a political minefield when she insisted that Earth should be left alone. Her family’s political enemies were quick to use it against them. Accordingly, she was placed in command of a cruiser squadron and dispatched to the Martina Sector, where she would be well out of the public eye. However, she rapidly discovered that the Druavroks - a powerful alien race - were bent on a campaign of genocide against their neighbours, including a number of human settlers. Allying herself with other threatened races, Hoshiko led a campaign that broke the Druavroks and laid the groundwork for a human-led federation - a Grand Alliance.

    Unfortunately for humanity - and everyone else - the Tokomak had other ideas. Neola, the Tokomak who had commanded the fleet that died at Earth, managed to take control of the Tokomak Empire and prepare her people for a far more serious war. Her first step, after ensuring that the immense fleets were being brought back online, was to attempt to lure a human starship - Odyssey - into a trap. Although humanity fell for what was presented, to them, as an olive branch from one of the oldest known races, the crew of Odyssey were able to escape the trap and find their way back to the nearest safe port. In their wake, however, an ultimatum was sent. Humanity could surrender ...

    ... Or be mercilessly hunted down and exterminated.
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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    “Signal the fleet,” Empress Neola ordered. “The first divisions are to begin the attack.”

    She ignored her flunkies as they scurried to do her bidding, instead lifting her eyes to the massive display. Hundreds of thousands of starships, from five-mile-long superdreadnaughts and battleships to tiny destroyers and frigates, the latter crewed by client races, were floating near the gravity point, slowly readying themselves to jump the hundreds of light years to Hudson in a single second. As she watched, the first flotillas moved forward and into the gravity point, flickering out of existence and vanishing. Neola tensed, despite herself. She was all too aware, despite the optimistic reports from her scouts, that the advance elements might well meet a hostile reception. There had been human ships based at Hudson until recently.

    But it doesn't matter, she told herself. The humans had superior firepower, but she had superior numbers. Vastly superior numbers. That’s why I sent the potentially disloyal elements into the fire first.

    She kept her face completely expressionless as the second and third divisions rumbled towards the gravity point. It had taken years, far longer than she would have liked, to start reactivating the reserve. The gentocrats who’d ruled the Tokomak for thousands of years couldn’t react quickly to anything, even a threat to their existence. They’d refused to believe that a race as young as humanity could threaten their enforcers, let alone themselves; they’d found it easier to blame Neola for incompetence than stretch their minds to encompass a younger race that posed a real threat. She supposed she should be grateful. They hadn't had the imagination to comprehend that she might pose a threat too. They’d expected her to sit tight and wait, for years if necessary, until they decided how they were going to slap her wrist. She was only a handful of centuries old, after all. There was no need for any real punishment.

    And now they’re safely restrained, she thought, feeling a flicker of glee. They really hadn't thought she could launch a coup. The idea was unthinkable until she’d actually done it. They can't stand in the way any longer.

    Neola sobered as the third division of starships blinked and vanished. The gentocrats hadn't bothered to keep the reserve up to date. It hadn't mattered, not when the pace of innovation had slowed down to a trickle. A starship built a thousand years ago was no better than one that had been completed only last week. But things were different now. The humans had proved themselves to be revoltingly ingenious and some of the other younger races were starting to follow in their footsteps. It was vitally important, if Tokomak supremacy was to be maintained, that the humans be enslaved or exterminated as quickly as possible. They were giving the other races ideas.

    Her eyes found a cluster of icons moving into attack position and narrowed, sharply. The squadron commanders were young, only a few hundred years old. They’d had nothing to look forward to, but a long slow climb up the ladder ... until now. She’d shown them that someone could overthrow the established order and take power for themselves, she’d shown them - inadvertently - how she herself could be overthrown. She wondered, grimly, which one would have the imagination to make a bid for power. The gentocrats would take years to plan a coup, more than long enough for her to nip it in the bud, but someone from her own generation might move faster. No, would move faster. Neola knew she wasn't the only one to been impatient, over the last few centuries. The people she’d promoted - for having a certain level of imagination, for being able to think outside the rules and regulations they’d enforced on the known galaxy - were the ones most likely to be dangerous to her. Their ambitions would not be satisfied with anything less than absolute power.

    It was, she acknowledged privately, a deadly balancing act. She needed people who could think outside the box ... and there were very few of them, even amongst the young. Fleet operations had been so bound by formality over the last thousand years or so that too many officers simply didn't know how to cope, when presented with an emergency. Their fleet exercises had been carefully scripted, with the winners and losers known in advance. But she couldn't expect the humans to be conventional. Unconventional tactics were their only hope of surviving long enough to win the day.

    She watched another set of icons vanish and smiled to herself. The humans were good, but they weren’t gods. They’d be crushed by overwhelming firepower, even if her trap failed completely. If she had to fly her fleet all the way to Earth and turn the planet into a radioactive wasteland, she could do it. She would do it. If worse came to worst, she told herself time and time again, the Tokomak could trade hundreds of starships for a single human ship. She would still come out ahead.

    A blue icon appeared, near the gravity point. Neola allowed her smile to widen. Local space on the other side was clear, then. Very few races would challenge a Tokomak ship, even one that was completely alone, but it was well to be sure. Her intelligence staff had reported all sorts of rumours making their way through the empire, from vast defeats that had never happened to talk of mutiny and revolution. She was all too aware that the staff might not be picking up everything, no matter what they claimed. The underground knew how to hide itself. It would have been exterminated by now otherwise.

    “Hudson has been secured, Your Excellency,” the communications officer reported. “There was little resistance.”

    “Very good,” Neola said. She hadn't expected resistance, but who knew? The humans had been making inroads on Hudson - and hundreds of other worlds - for years. “Take the remainder of the fleet through the gravity point.”

    “As you command, Your Excellency.”

    “It’s like a bloody nightmare.”

    “Keep your eyes on your console,” Captain-Commodore Jenny Longlegs advised, dryly. Lieutenant Fraser had served long enough to remain calm, even if hell itself was pouring out of the gravity point. “Do we have an accurate ship count yet?”

    “No, Captain,” Lieutenant Fraser said. “But definitely upwards of five thousand starships.”

    Jenny sucked in her breath as more and more icons appeared on the display. The gravity point was disgorging a veritable river of starships. SUS Schlieffen, her cruiser, was more advanced than any of the superdreadnaughts and battleships forming into rows and advancing towards the planet, but Jenny doubted they’d survive long against such firepower. She prayed, silently, that the cloaking device held. The Tokomak weren’t trying to hide. Their sensors were sweeping space so thoroughly that they’d probably know the exact location of every speck of dust by the time they headed to the next gravity point. She might have to order her ship to back off before the Tokomak had a chance to spot her. They’d risked everything to grab SUS Odyssey. She was fairly sure they’d be just as interested in grabbing Schlieffen.

    “They’re forming up,” Fraser reported. “One flotilla is headed directly for the planet, another is heading for Point Four.”

    The shortest route to Earth, Jenny thought. It would still take months for the enemy fleet to reach the planet, and she had her doubts about their logistics, but there was no doubting the Tokomak’s willingness to expend starships to crush their enemies. Half the ships on the display would be crewed by client races, utterly expendable as far as their masters were concerned. They’re on their way.

    She studied the display for a long moment, noting just how many ships had started to blur together into a haze of sensor distortion. Tokomak ECM was inferior to its human counterpart - the Tokomak hadn’t faced any pressure to improve or die for thousands of years - but quantity had a quality all of its own. Her passive sensors were having fits trying to keep track of each and every enemy starship. She had the nasty feeling that there were more enemy ships in the system than her sensors could detect. They might well be using their own ECM - and cloaking devices - to hide part of their fleet.

    Although they’d be taking a risk, she thought. With so many ships in such a confined region of space, the odds of a collision are non-zero.

    She dismissed the thought with a flicker of irritation. The Tokomak probably wouldn’t care if two of their ships collided, even if they were battleships. They had thousands of active starships and tens of thousands of starships in the reserves. Schlieffen could expend all her missiles, with each hit a guaranteed kill, and still lose. Quantity definitely had a quality all of its own.

    “Captain,” Lieutenant Hammond said. “I have a direct link to Sweden. She’s requesting instructions.”

    Jenny nodded, slowly. “Copy our sensor records to her,” she said. Sweden had held her position close to Point Four, ready to nip through before the Tokomak arrived and sealed the gravity point. Schlieffen would continue to monitor the enemy fleet from a safe distance, if indeed there was such a thing. “And then inform her CO that he is to run straight to Earth. Tell him ...”

    She sucked in her breath as she looked back at the display. The torrent of starships hadn't stopped. Hundreds of superdreadnaughts were gliding through the gravity point, their weapons charged and their sensors searching for trouble. Whoever was in charge over there was no slouch. Normally, the Tokomak were careful not to put too much strain on their sensor systems. But then, who would dare to attack them? Their defeat in the Battle of Earth, seven years ago, had been their first defeat for nearly a thousand years.

    And every ship they lost represented less than a percentage point of a percentage point of their overall numbers, she reminded herself. They could lose a thousand starships and never notice the loss.

    “Tell him to warn everyone,” she finished. “The Tokomak are coming.”
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    Hameeda walked down the long corridor, alone.

    It felt as if she was walking for miles, even though she knew the corridor was only a few short metres from one airlock to the other. She couldn't help feeling nervous as she made her slow way towards the second airlock, despite all her preparations. It felt as if she was on the cusp of apotheosis or nemesis, the crowning height of her career or a disaster that would ensure she never served in space again. Her heart thumped so loudly in her chest that she was glad she was alone. Anyone escorting her wouldn’t need enhanced hearing to pick out her heartbeat.

    She stopped outside the second airlock and took a long breath. Her CO had told her, an hour ago, that it wasn’t too late to back out. She didn’t have to go through with the bonding. No one would fault her for changing her mind, even now. The vast resources that had been expended on preparing her for the process would be better wasted, then expended on someone who didn’t want to go through with it. Hameeda understood their concerns - and her mother’s fears, during their last call - but she had no intention of backing out. The old fogies, the ones so old they remembered living on Earth, simply didn’t have the imagination of the spaceborn. They feared technology even as it had given them a chance to reshape both their former homeworld and the galaxy itself. Hameeda and her generation embraced the promise of technology, without fear. The future was within their grasp.

    And we must make sure we have a future, she thought. Because there are always those ready to take it from us.

    It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Her mother had been a refugee from Afghanistan, from a life so alien that Hameeda had problems grasping that it had ever existed. The mere concept of being forced into eternal servitude, simply for being born female, was difficult to grasp. How could someone be so uncivilised? And yet, after her mother had told her yet another horror story, Hameeda had looked it up. If anything, her mother had understated the case. Earth was an uncivilised world. They fought over nothing, even when they could reach out and claim the stars themselves. Their mere existence was a reminder that the human race could sink back into the mud.

    Her reflection looked back at her. Hameeda had kept her mother’s dark hair, darker eyes and tinted skin, even as she’d spliced more and more enhancements into her genome. She was stronger, faster and fitter than any groundpounder, more than capable of holding her own in a fight. But she felt hesitant now. If something went wrong, if one of the doubters had been right all along ... she’d be dead before she knew it. But life was risk. Safety was an illusion. And she knew better than to feel otherwise.

    Hameeda took another breath, then pressed her hand against the sensor. There was a long moment as the security systems checked and rechecked her identity, then the airlock hissed open, revealing a vast hanger. Hameeda suddenly felt very small indeed. The LinkShip floated in the centre of the chamber, dwarfing her. It was tiny, compared to a regular starship; it was barely sixty metres from bow to stern. And yet, it was also the most advanced starship in the galaxy. Her FTL and realspace drives were the fastest known to exist, faster even than a courier belt. It had taken years to turn the concept into reality. Hameeda had spent almost as long training to serve as its - her - commanding officer.

    She drank in the sight for a long moment, her eyes wandering over the dark hull. The LinkShip looked like a giant almond, its weapons and defences carefully worked into the material so they didn’t spoil the ship’s lines. Hameeda wasn't sure how she felt about that, even though she admired the elegance. An observer would not have to look inside the ship to know she was a distinctly non-standard vessel. And yet, it was a step towards a human aesthetic that was obviously different from the galactic standard. Too many races, even the ones that had been walking the stars when humanity had been crawling in the mud, used modified Tokomak designs. Humanity had to be different.

    Bracing herself, she activated her command implants and sent a command into the computer network. The world seemed to shimmer around her. Hameeda closed her eyes for a long moment as the teleport field made her entire body tingle, then opened them again. She was standing in the LinkShip’s command centre, alone. Her lips curved into a smile. The old fogies distrusted teleporters, asking all sorts of questions about souls and other unquantifiable issues none of the spaceborn understood. To them, teleporting was normal. Hameeda had been having her molecules broken down into energy and put back together again since she was a child. It was normally very safe.

    Unless there’s a jamming field, she reminded herself, as she rested her hands on her hips. Or a delay that causes the energy pattern to start to degrade.

    She pushed the thought out of her head as she surveyed the command centre. It looked bland and boring, compared to a starship’s bridge, but it was hers. A single chair, sited in the exact centre of the chamber; a helmet, primed to make the first connection between Hameeda and the ship’s datanet. There were no consoles, no display ... there were emergency control systems, in another compartment, but very little effort had been wasted on them. Anything that broke through the LinkShip’s defences would almost certainly be enough to destroy the ship, or - at the very least - be completely beyond repair. Hameeda had been told, time and time again, that there would be very little hope of long-term survival. Once the Tokomak realised what the LinkShips were, they would do everything in their power to destroy them. Their mere existence was an affront to the laws the Tokomak had written for the entire galaxy.

    And they may have had good reason to ban direct organic-computer interaction, Hameeda thought, as she sat down on the chair. We simply don’t know their reasoning.

    She shook her head. The Tokomak had banned a lot of things, without bothering to explain their reasoning. Some of them made sense, she supposed; others appeared to have been banned without a valid reason. And still others appeared thoroughly pointless. She had no idea why they’d put a ban on interspecies relationships. It wasn’t as if they’d had to bother.

    The air suddenly felt tense as she reached for the helmet. If she put it on, if she allowed her implants to make contact with the datanet, she would be bound to the LinkShip for the rest of her life. She wouldn't be able to leave, not without breaking the connection. The scientists had sworn blind that there would be a way, eventually, to freeze the ship’s mentality to give her some downtime, but for the moment she was committing herself to remain on the ship permanently. Hameeda had no qualms about living on a starship - and she had no particular interest in returning to the carefree days of her youth - yet she knew it was one hell of a commitment. She would practically be a prisoner ...

    A prisoner with a starship and freedom to fly, she thought. She’d be a naval officer for decades, of course, but afterwards ... she’d be free. I wonder where I’ll go.

    She took a long breath, then pulled the helmet over her head. Her implants activated a second later, providing the datacores with a string of coded identifications that even she found hard to follow. She was dimly aware of classified systems steadily coming online, each one checking and rechecking the codes before slotting itself into the datanet. The sheer immensity of the LinkShip scared her, despite all her preparation. She’d put herself en rapport with an AI two weeks ago, but that had been different. She hadn't been trying to bond with that AI.

    The datanet came to life. “Are you ready to proceed?”

    Hameeda blinked, surprised despite herself. It was talking ... of course it was talking. Even a very basic system, a restricted intelligence, had simple conversational overlays, linked to a self-learning system that allowed it to evolve as it went along. She’d heard of RIs that had somehow managed to bootstrap themselves into true AIs, despite their programming. The old fogies had found that more than a little alarming, but Hameeda and her generation rather approved. Their creations had started to evolve.

    “Yes,” she said. She made it as clear as she could. “Proceed.”

    For a heartbeat, nothing happened. She had a moment to wonder if something had gone wrong, either with the technology or the command codes, before her mind was suddenly linked to something much greater. Her thoughts expanded with terrifying speed, reaching out to merge with the LinkShip’s datanet. She was suddenly very aware of everything from the drives, slowly readying themselves to push the LinkShip out of the hangar and into open space, to the weapons systems, currently powered down but ready for immediate activation if she had to go to war. She was linked to the ship ... no, she was the ship. It was practically her body.

    Wow, she thought, as a torrent of data poured into her brain. The ship’s sensors were sucking in data from all over the station. She could see everything. They were so sharp that she could even see a handful of starships holding position outside the station, watching and waiting. She felt a stab of bitter annoyance as she remembered why those starships were there. The naysayers had insisted, pointing out that the LinkShip might go insane. And they were wrong.

    She powered up the drives slowly, watching as power ran through the tiny starship. It really was a miracle of science. She’d known that all along, of course, but she hadn't really understood it until she’d actually touched the datanet. They’d miniaturised all sorts of systems in order to cram them into her hull, despite the risk. Warning icons flashed up in her mind as she checked the self-repair functions, pointing out their limitations. The naysayers had had a point about them, she reflected ruefully. A single hit might well be enough to cripple the LinkShip beyond repair.

    Then we will have to be sure not to be hit, she thought, as she accessed the hangar datanet and opened the hatch. Luckily, we’re the fastest thing in space.

    The LinkShip practically lunged forward as she gunned the drive, throwing itself into the inky darkness of space. Hameeda felt her mind split in two, one half thinking it was still human while the other half thought it was a starship. Space was both incredibly dangerous, lethal even to an enhanced human, and her natural habitat. Her mind expanded, once again: the station, the starships, a handful of test beacons ... she was suddenly very aware of their exact locations. Subroutines within her mind assessed their positions, calculated their trajectories and analysed their threat potential. She would be safe enough, her mentality concluded, as long as she kept her distance.

    But they would also be safe from me, she thought, as she circled the station. She felt like a child purchasing her first in-orbit buggy. No, like a child who had moved from a buggy to a marine assault shuttle with nothing in-between. The sheer potency of the LinkShip frightened her as much as it thrilled her. I’d have to close the range if I wanted to fight them.

    A voice popped into her awareness. “LinkShip Alpha, please engage the first set of beacons.”

    Hameeda smiled to herself as she swung the LinkShip around, bringing the weapons online. LinkShip Alpha. She was going to have to think of a better name. Perhaps something defiant, something that fitted humanity ... or perhaps something that would make children smile, when they read her name in their history books. A subroutine went to work, considering possible names, even as she refocused her mind on her targets. The first ser of beacons were not designed to be hard to hit.

    Baby steps, she told herself, as she started her attack run. Her phasers jabbed out, time and time again. The beacons vanished with terrifying speed. She reminded herself, sharply, that the beacons were practically begging to be killed. The next set of targets would be a great deal harder. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

    But she wanted to run. Her mind had blurred so much into the ship that she was no longer truly certain where she ended and the ship began. Indeed, her mentality had imprinted itself upon the datanet. Her lips twitched in annoyance. The Solar Union might have been reluctant to build a ship that was commanded by an AI, but it had no qualms - or at least fewer qualms - about designing a ship to draw from a human mind. There was a part of her that simply wanted to throw caution to the winds and run as fast as she could, crossing the entire solar system in a split second. But her duty held her firmly in place.

    Hameeda put the thought aside for later consideration as she put the LinkShip through its paces, systematically taking out target after target. The tests grew more complicated as she progressed, from targets that were hidden behind stealth coatings and cloaking devices to targets that actually shot back. She discovered that the LinkShip was perfectly capable of engaging targets while dodging incoming fire, although it lacked slammers and other heavy missiles. But with a little twiddling, she could turn the drive into a makeshift slammer. Who knew what would happen then?

    I might get caught in the blast, she told herself. It was the sort of trick that worked in bad movies, but was completely useless in the real world. I’d have to be well away before the explosion hit.

    Another voice entered her awareness as she completed the final set of tests. “Permission to come aboard?”

    It took her a moment to draw her mind back to the here and now. Admiral Keith Glass wanted to board. She accessed the teleport system, synchronised with the station and yanked him onto the LinkShip, deliberately materialising him in the command centre. The process was easy, with the ship’s datanet handling the transfer, but a chill ran down her spine as she realised just how many buffers Glass’s pattern has passed through. Perhaps the old fogies were right to be concerned about teleporting. He appeared in front of her, his face darkening as he looked at her. It was harder than Hameeda had expected to disengage herself from the helmet and stand. Her legs felt wobbly. Her uniform was damp with sweat.

    The datalink is still engaged, she thought. She might have disengaged from the helmet, but she was still linked to the ship. I can never leave again.

    “An interesting set of tests,” Glass observed. He was studying her, his eyes - older than the rest of him - clearly concerned. “How are you feeling?”

    “Different,” Hameeda admitted. Her throat felt parched, despite her enhancements. She was going to have to work on taking care of her body while she was directly connected to the ship. It would probably require a whole new set of subroutines. “It’s nothing like flying a regular starship.”

    “One would hope so,” Glass agreed. He was old enough to remember when the most advanced spacecraft on Earth were rockets. “How well does it - does she - stack up against enemy systems?”

    “She’s very agile,” Hameeda said. “And she combines speed and hitting power with stealth. I think they’ll have some problems hitting me.”

    “So the simulations say,” Glass said. “And yourself? How are you feeling?”

    Hameeda took a moment to allow her intellect to roam over the entire ship before she answered. “It will be different,” she said. The LinkShip was large enough to accommodate her and a few guests - indeed, her quarters were larger than the average admiral’s quarters - but she had a feeling it wouldn't be long before the crew compartments started to feel small. “I will cope.”

    Glass smiled, humourlessly. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “And so will the beancounters.”

    “Until you tell them you intend to produce ten more,” Hameeda said, wryly. “They’ll throw a fit.”

    She had to smile at the thought. The Solar Union could have produced ten cruisers for the cost of a single LinkShip, although she suspected that costs would be going down now the design was finalized. It wasn’t a small amount. The Solar Union was immensely rich, compared to many of the other younger races, but the cost was notable. If the first LinkShip didn’t pay off, in everything from tactical advantages to new technology, it was unlikely a second would be built. Her ship had to be a success if she didn't want to remain unique.

    “Let me worry about that,” Glass said. “Are you ready for deployment?”

    Hameeda blinked. “Sir ...?”

    “The war may be about to resume,” Glass said. He looked faintly meditative for a second. “I believe that an ultimatum has already been received. So far, it’s been hushed up, but that won’t last.”

    “No, sir,” Hameeda said, doubtfully. On one hand, she understood the principles of operational security; on the other, she - like most of her generation - believed that governments should not be allowed to classify anything. Secrecy always led to tyranny. It was a contradiction she’d never been able to resolve. “When do you expect me to be deployed?”

    “Not long,” Glass said. He clapped her on the shoulder. “You’d better start planning to be gone within a week.”

    Hameeda stared. “A week?”

    “It’s nowhere near long enough for a proper shakedown,” Glass said. “But tell me ... are there any problems?”

    “No, sir,” Hameeda said, after a moment. “But if something makes itself apparent during the deployment ...”

    “You’ll cope with it,” Glass told her. “Word is, Captain, that this time it’s serious. And we have to be ready.”

    “Yes, sir,” Hameeda said. “We will be ready.”
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  4. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    Admiral Hoshiko Sashimi Stuart forced herself to look confident as she strode into the small briefing room, her aide - Captain Yolanda Miguel - dogging her heels. Only a handful of people were waiting for her, but they were amongst the most powerful and influential people in the Solar Union. President Allen Ross, Admiral Mongo Stuart, Director Kevin Stuart and, perhaps most influential of all, Steven Stuart himself. Hoshiko’s grandfather held no formal title, not since he’d purchased a starship and set out to explore the universe, but there were millions of people who practically worshipped him. He could be President - again - if he wished, whatever the law said. Hoshiko would have been surprised if Ross hadn't been more than a little discomforted by the Founding Father’s presence.

    It wasn’t a thought she liked. She’d gone to some lengths to get away from her heritage as one of the Stuarts, to the point where she’d played up the Japanese side of her ancestry as much as possible. Indeed, to be fair to the old men, they hadn’t given her or any of her relatives an unfair advantage as they climbed the ladder to command rank. Hoshiko knew better than to expect her elderly relatives to save her from the consequences of her own decisions. But, at the same time, others had given her an advantage. She’d welcomed the mission to the Martina Sector simply because it separated her from her relatives. The crews who’d been sent with her didn't care about her family or anything else, save for her competence.

    And at least I proved my competence, she thought, as her implants reported a number of privacy fields coming to life. They cannot doubt me now.

    “Admiral Stuart,” President Ross said. “Please, be seated. We’re quite informal here.”

    “Thank you, Mr. President,” Hoshiko said.

    She nodded for Yolanda to take a seat beside her, then sat herself. She’d always felt an odd kinship to the other woman, even though they had little in common. Yolanda had been born on Earth and escaped to the Solar Union in her late teens, while Hoshiko was a third-generation Solarian. And yet, they both had Japanese ancestry. It mattered very little in the Solar Union, but it meant something to Hoshiko. She’d studied her family’s past purely because it was different. No one wrote detailed biographical studies of the Sashimi Family, even though Mariko Sashimi had been the original First Lady. Hoshiko had always wondered if there was a reason her grandmother had been practically written out of the history books.

    The President smiled at her, although it didn’t quite touch his eyes. “Kevin?”

    Kevin Stuart leaned forward. Hoshiko studied her great-uncle with interest. Like most of his generation, he’d frozen his aging at a point that made him look around forty, but his eyes looked old. He was in his second century and everyone knew it.

    “We finally received the official ultimatum,” he said. “It was surprisingly short and concise for something from the Tokomak, a mere ten thousand words. Boiled down to the bare essentials, it basically tells us to surrender unconditionally or die.”

    “How surprisingly practical of them,” Mongo growled.

    Hoshiko nodded, shortly. It was a mystery to her how such an ossified government could survive for thousands of years without being overthrown, but the Tokomak had somehow managed to make it work. It helped, she supposed, that they had the respect of most of the other Galactics. The elder races simply didn't want to rock the boat.

    “We also received an update from the Hudson picket, shortly afterwards,” Kevin added, tapping the console. A starchart appeared, hovering over the table. “The Tokomak are coming. Our most pessimistic estimate says their fleet will arrive at Sol within nine months.”

    “If they keep coming, without bothering to stop,” Hoshiko said. She’d been in the navy long enough to know that deploying thousands of ships over thousands of light years required bases and service facilities. She suspected it would take the juggernaut over a year to reach its target, particularly if the Tokomak smashed the remainder of the Galactic Alliance on the way. But that wouldn’t stop their fleet from being effective when it arrived. “Do we not think they’ll take bases along the way?”

    “We assume so,” Kevin said. “But we don’t know.”

    “There have already been leaks,” Ross said. The President’s voice was tightly composed, but Hoshiko could hear annoyance under his words. “We need to present a plan before the debate really gets going.”

    “Quite,” Steven said. “Hoshiko, I believe you have a plan?”

    “Yes, sir,” Hoshiko said. She took a datachip from her pocket and slotted it into the terminal, then entered her security code. “We spent the last six months drawing up a basic contingency plan. It will not take long to update it for the current situation.”

    Although we thought we’d have more time, she added silently. Whoever was running the Tokomak these days clearly didn't believe in letting the grass grow under his feet. She felt a flicker of admiration, mingled with concern. Anyone who could push the Tokomak bureaucracy into acting quickly, by their standards, was clearly a formidable opponent. The enemy is already breathing down our necks.

    A new starchart, covered with tactical icons, appeared in front of them. “There are three gravity point chains that can be used to deploy a fleet from Tokomak itself to Sol,” she said, without preamble. “Based on the report from Hudson, I’d say they were planning to use the Apsidal Chain, a string of nine gravity points that literally cut years off the transit time. This gives us an opportunity to take the fight to them.”

    “They might be using the other two chains as well,” Ross pointed out.

    “They might,” Hoshiko agreed, “but they would be very aware of the dangers of trying to make such a plan work, to say nothing of the damage to their economy if they block transit through all three chains. I’d be very surprised if they weren’t sealing off the Apsidal Chain as they move down it. They have to be aware that we had ships at Hudson.”

    She took a long breath. The plan had been drawn up by a planning cell, under her direct command. It hadn't been shared with the Admiralty, let alone the Senate or the Special Security Council. She’d watched it take shape and form, even though she’d been aware that the enemy might do something - anything - to turn the plan into so much wasted effort. War was a democracy, she reminded herself. The enemy got a vote.

    “They will have to funnel ships through the gravity points, which will create a series of bottlenecks,” she said. “That will give us an opportunity to bring our concentred strength to bear against isolated enemy detachments. A full-scale gravity point assault, sir, is hugely costly to the attackers. I believe the attackers would require a ten-to-one advantage to break through the defences and secure the system.”

    Which is why it took so long for a galactic hegemony to arise, she thought, remembering her history lessons. The Tokomak didn't take control until they found a way to bypass the gravity points.

    “The plan is basically simple,” she continued. “The Offensive Fleet will depart, within the week, and secure control of Apsidal itself. We should be able to beat the enemy fleet to the nexus if we move now. We take control of the system, land troops on the planet and prepare to bleed the enemy white when they start moving through the gravity point. They’ll have some real problems if they want to take the system without suffering immense casualties.”

    “And if you’re wrong?” Mongo asked. “What happens if they get there first?”

    “We harry them as best as we can, while setting up ambushes further down the chain,” Hoshiko said, bluntly. The Tokomak would have more options for outflanking her if they reached Apsidal first. If she were in command of the enemy fleet, she would have put securing Apsidal right on the top of the list. “We don’t want to waste ships and men trying to mount a gravity point assault ourselves.”

    She contemplated the possibilities for a long moment. The planners had made it clear that Apsidal had to be taken and held. Giving the Tokomak a chance to flood the sector with warships would be disastrous in so many different ways. They’d have the opportunity to batter their way to Earth, but also the chance to intimidate wavering members of the Galactic Alliance into returning to their side. Hoshiko wouldn't blame the younger races for rethinking their positions, if the Tokomak put a gun to their heads. They resented the dominance of the elder races, but they also knew they couldn’t stand up to their elders in an even fight. Their technology, even with human assistance, wasn't enough to turn any engagement into an even fight.

    “Apsidal itself may be wavering,” she added. “If we arrived in sufficient force, we might be able to convince the planet to switch sides.”

    “And it wouldn’t matter if it remained loyal,” Kevin pointed out. “They wouldn't be able to interfere once you controlled the outer system.”

    “Yes, sir,” Hoshiko said. Apsidal was heavily defended - the Tokomak had invested in securing all of the known gravity point nexuses - but the planetary defences couldn’t hit anything beyond the high orbitals. She could lay siege to the planet, if she wished, or simply ignore it. “There is good reason, however, to think that most of the population will switch sides.”

    Mongo coughed. “We will see what happens when we arrive,” he said, gruffly. “They told us the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators too.”

    “We can promise the locals a better deal,” Kevin countered.

    “Which we may not be in a position to enforce,” Mongo warned. “If the locals switch sides - and then we lose control of the system - Apsidal is doomed. The Tokomak will probably bombard the planet into submission, then take direct control of whatever is left.

    “Yes, sir,” Hoshiko said. She’d read the reports from Hudson and the Harmonies. The Tokomak had been securing the gravity points for the last few years. They’d been quite relaxed about them, in the past, but clearly that had changed too. They might just have realised that they were in a fight for their very existence. “We have no reason to doubt it.”

    “And nor do they,” Mongo said. “It might be better to give the locals plausible deniability.”

    “If we can,” Kevin said. “Do you know how many underground groups have requested our support over the last six months?”

    “Yeah,” Mongo said. “And do you know how many of those groups will survive if the Tokomak take the gloves off?”

    Steven cleared his throat, loudly. “I believe we’re getting off-topic,” he said. “Admiral” - his eyes rested on Hoshiko - “do you believe the plan is workable?”

    “I believe it offers us our best chance to survive,” Hoshiko said. “If we allow them to bring their fleet to Sol, sir, we will be unable to keep them from devastating the entire system. They won’t remain focused on Earth, not this time. They’ll concentrate on wrecking the solar system from one end to the other. We’ll hurt them badly, sir, but they can afford to take it. They can trade a thousand ships for every one of ours and still come out ahead.”

    She nodded at the starchart. “We can bleed them badly at Apsidal, without exposing too many of our ships to their fire. And we can keep hurting them, keep their fleet off-balance, until we bleed them dry. It may be our only chance for survival. The Tokomak are out for blood.”

    “Yes,” Kevin agreed. “We have good reason to believe that surrenders are not being accepted, at least in our case. The Tokomak want us exterminated. We’re simply too disruptive, too bad an example to the younger races. We cannot hope that they will allow some of us to live.”

    “There is the long-range colonisation project,” Steven said.

    “We assume they will have the time they need to settle an isolated system and rebuild,” Mongo said. “But how many things could go wrong?”

    Hoshiko nodded. The idea of sending a colony ship a very long way from Sol - and the Tokomak - was a good one, but Mongo was right. Too many things could go wrong. The ship could run into a powerful and hostile alien race, or have technical problems that would wreck the ship thousands of light years from any help, or have problems finding a suitable star system to settle. And if the Tokomak suspected that a colony ship had been dispatched into the unexplored regions, they’d spare no effort to find it. If humanity had shaken their empire to the core in less than sixty years, what might happen if an isolated colony had a couple of hundred years to rebuild? Hoshiko had been told, once, that humanity would be able to stomp the Tokomak flat if they’d been allowed a hundred years or so for research and development. She wasn’t sure if that was true, but it didn’t matter. The Tokomak might believe it.

    Ross frowned. “How many ships do you intend to assign to the operation?”

    “As many as possible,” Hoshiko said. “I’d like to have the first, second and third fleets, for starters. And then reserve ships too. I’d also like to take the prefabricated fortresses from Varner, if they can be collected in time. We need to mass as much firepower as possible on the gravity points.”

    “You’re talking about stripping the Solar Union of two-thirds of its mobile firepower,” Ross pointed out. “That won’t go down well in the Senate. There’s always some hysterical personage who’ll start insisting that we’ll all be murdered in our beds.”

    “The more things change,” Steven commented, “the more they stay the same.”

    “Human nature doesn’t change.” Ross sounded amused. “And no one has any doubt that we’ll be slaughtered if the Tokomak invade the system.”

    “Then it would be better to keep the Tokomak away from the system,” Mongo said, dryly. “I think we should be able to guarantee Sol’s security against any real threat, at least until the Tokomak arrive. The real problem will be escorting convoys to the Grand Alliance. We might have to call on our allies to provide protection.”

    “They should be able to handle it,” Ross said. “But they’re scared too.”

    “If we can block the Tokomak at Apsidal, their worlds should be safe,” Hoshiko said. Her lips twisted into something a charitable man might call a smile. “And if we fail, their worlds are doomed anyway.”

    “I think we’ll be a little more diplomatic when we discuss the matter with them,” Ross said, dryly. “Gentlemen? Do you have any thoughts?”

    “Boldness is our only hope,” Steven said. “If we sit here and wait to be hit, we’ll lose. We cannot hope to survive the first blow, just to make a crystal-clear case that we were attacked.”

    “And we don’t have to make such a case,” Mongo teased him. “Everyone knows the Tokomak are out to destroy us. We all knew that it was only a matter of time before they dispatched another fleet to Sol. Show the records from Hudson to the people, Mr. President, and you’ll have all the support you could possibly need.”

    “Let us hope so,” Ross said. “Admiral, when would you intend to depart?”

    “As soon as possible,” Hoshiko said. She hastily assessed the situation. “Realistically, we’d be looking at a week to two weeks. The fleet is maintained in a constant state of readiness, but we’d have to load up the fleet train and, if necessary, recall and requisition freighters from their other duties.”

    “The merchant spacers will love that,” Kevin muttered.

    “They’ll understand the urgent need for transport,” Steven said, briskly. “My ship can be amongst those requisitioned. The real problem lies in the damage this will do to our economy.”

    “Better to be poorer for a while than dead,” Mongo said. “We can rebuild afterwards, if there is an afterwards.”

    “Yes, sir,” Hoshiko said. “We can still support the fleet and, right now, that’s all that matters.”

    “True,” Kevin agreed.

    Rose tapped the table for attention. “I’ll make a formal request for war powers this afternoon, then,” he said. “The Senate will be meeting in emergency session, where they’ll see the recordings from Hudson for the first time. Admiral, start preparing to mobilise as soon as you return to your ship. I have no doubt the Senate will agree to grant war powers.”

    “Yes, Mr. President,” Hoshiko said. She kept her doubts to herself. “I have to say, though, that we have to keep our intentions secret. The Tokomak must not be ... ah, encouraged - to speed up their plans. We must assume that they’re keeping a close eye on us.”

    “Insofar as they can,” Kevin said. “We did manage to turn a couple of alien spies into assets.”

    “We can’t assume they’re the only ones,” Hoshiko reminded him, dryly. She couldn’t understand why some humans might betray their own race, but she couldn’t deny that it had happened. There were enough humans amongst the stars, descendents of men and women taken from Earth centuries ago, for her to believe that the Tokomak might be able to turn them into spies. “It’s important that we don’t give them any hint of our plans.”

    “I’ll see to that,” Ross said. “Only the Oversight Committee will know the full plan.”

    “Thank you, Mr. President,” Hoshiko said. There would be no way to conceal the mobilisation, but no one outside a handful of people would know the fleet’s intended destination. “As long as we have the advantage of surprise, we should be able to take Apsidal before they realise what we’re planning.”

    Steven met her eyes. “And if they get there first?”

    “We’ll have to improvise,” Hoshiko told him. “We have to bleed their fleet white before it reaches Earth.
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    Captain Martin Luther Douglas couldn't help swaggering a little as he strode into the briefing room, followed by two of his subordinates. Special Forces Recon were the best of the best, heirs to traditions that stretched all the way back to the Navy SEALS, the Special Air Service and a dozen other special forces outfits from Old Earth. Martin knew, without false modesty, that he and his men were perhaps the finest fighting force in the galaxy, capable of everything from stealthy insertions into enemy territory to training and supporting insurgent forces on alien worlds. Indeed, their last deployment had been to a world - Earth itself - that was both familiar and disconcertingly alien. It had been shitty when Martin had left, six years ago, but it had somehow managed to grow worse. He hadn’t enjoyed the deployment.

    He took a seat at the front of the room, crossed his legs and settled down to wait. No one stood on formality in Special Forces Recon, not when they’d all seen the elephant time and time again. Senior officers had nothing to prove to their juniors. Anyone who made it through Selection - and survived his first deployment - was an outstanding soldier. Martin had been told that he’d be jumped up two ranks if he went back to the regular forces. It hadn't interested him.

    Major Griffin entered the room and strode to the podium. He was a tall man, his brown hair cut close to his scalp. Griffin wasn't as heavily muscled as some of the men in the room, but it didn’t matter. Martin had been on deployments under Griffin’s command. He knew from experience that Griffin was a good leader as well as a soldier. Martin envied the man’s children, even though there was a risk their father would never come home. What would he have become, he’d wondered more than once, if he’d had a real father in his life? But a boy who grew up in the ghetto would be lucky if he had any positive role model to emulate.

    “Gentlemen and ladies,” Major Griffin said. “We’re going into lockdown after this briefing, so remember the rules. Anything you write, and I mean anything, will be scrutinised before it reaches its destination.”

    Martin nodded, although it was irritating. There was only one person outside the Special Forces Recon he wanted to contact and she had a security clearance that left his in the dust. But he understood the precautions. Special Forces Recon couldn't do half of its work if everyone knew what they were doing. He’d just have to be careful what he put in the letter, when he wrote to Yolanda. The lockdown wouldn’t let them actually speak face-to-face.

    And we can’t even mention going into lockdown, he thought, crossly. That’ll get scrubbed by the censors too.

    “We will be deploying in less than a week,” Major Griffin informed them. “Ideally, we’ll be transferred to an MEU in a day or two, where we will wait for everyone else to catch up with us. I trust this won’t be a problem?”

    Martin shook his head. Special Forces Recon was designed for immediate deployment, if necessary. They were supposed to be able to reach any point within the Solar System in less than a day. Having a couple of days to make preparations was unusual. It suggested a long-term deployment rather than an emergency that had popped up out of nowhere. But it felt a little odd. He wondered, idly, what had happened. The Solar Marines normally handled long-term deployments.

    “Our destination is a system called Apsidal,” Major Griffin said. The name meant nothing to Martin. “Apsidal is a gravity point nexus, with no less than five known gravity points within the system. Our interest lies in Apsidal-VI, the centre of civilisation for the sector. All you need to know, right now, is that it’s ruled by a planetary oligarchy that spends most of its time sucking up to our enemies.”

    His lips quirked. “Believe me, you will have plenty of time to read the background files during the voyage.”

    If you give us time, Martin thought. They’d be spending most of the voyage training, of that he was sure. Downtime was relatively rare, even during leave. He’d been unable to go on a long vacation for fear he might be recalled at any moment. You’ll be pitting us against the marines to test their skills, will you not?

    “Ideally, we will be able to secure the system - and the planet - without difficulty,” Major Griffin added. “If not, depending on the exact situation, our task will be to either take the planet itself, neutralising its defences along the way, or provide support to local insurgents. I don’t think I need to remind you, particularly after the incident in San Francisco, that the latter will be extremely difficult. There are no hints, in any of the briefing notes, that there are any alternate power structures on the planet.”

    Which means the different insurgent groups may hate each other as much as they hate the oligarchy, Martin thought. He hadn’t been in San Francisco when the shit hit the fan, but he’d heard the stories. One group of insurgents had been more interested in slaughtering its rivals than actually rebuilding the country. We may find ourselves caught in the middle.

    “A further complication is that the enemy may attempt to kick us out of the system, once we secure it,” Major Griffin warned. “I’m sure you can tell what that may mean for our deployment. We might find ourselves trapped on the planet, with no way out.”

    Martin nodded, curtly. It wasn't a pleasant thought. On Earth, they’d been able to teleport out if things really went wrong. On Apsidal, that wouldn't be an option if there were no ships in teleport range. The Tokomak knew how to jam teleport signals, too. It wasn't that hard with the right equipment. They’d have no trouble trapping the troops on Apsidal until they were ready to deal with them.

    “If that happens, our objective will be to harass the enemy as much as possible, ideally with help from the locals,” Major Griffin warned. “But the odds of survival will be very low.”

    “Never tell me the odds,” someone said from the rear.

    Sergeant Pickering cleared his throat. “How much will we stand out on Apsidal?”

    “The planet does have a number of humans, according to the last census,” Major Griffin said. “But we must assume that we have all been targeted for extermination.”

    Martin winced. He’d met enough aliens to know that they came in all shapes and sizes, but it would be a rare alien who mistook a human for a member of another race. It was vaguely possible, he supposed, that an alien might not know what a human looked like ... he shook his head. It wasn't something they dared count upon, when the shit hit the fan. The Tokomak probably would make sure that everyone knew what a human looked like. All humans probably looked alike to the aliens, but they still looked human.

    “Maybe we should disguise ourselves as Klingons,” he offered. “It wouldn’t be as if anyone would be sure the Klingons don’t exist.”

    “It might come to that,” Major Griffin said. “For the moment, we’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst. I trust you have all brushed up on your Galactic Standard?”

    Martin nodded. Languages had never been his talent, even though he’d grown up in a place where people spoke a mishmash of three different languages, but he’d learned hard lessons since joining the Solar Marines. Nearly everyone who wanted to work with aliens, or travel outside the Solar Union, spoke Galactic Standard. The Tokomak-created language was staggeringly inflexible - it didn’t allow its speakers to make up new words, let alone borrow them from other languages - but it was practically universal. Aliens who couldn't pronounce the words could still understand it.

    “Very good,” Major Griffin said. He raised his voice, slightly. “Senior officers, report back here at 1800. Everyone else, prepare for transfer to the MEU. Bear in mind that we might be leaving in a hurry. Dismissed.”

    Martin stood and hurried for the door. He was a senior officer, at least as Special Forces Recon reckoned it. He’d have to be back in an hour, when the clock reached 1800. He stepped through the hatch and walked down the corridor to the barracks, exchanging salutes with the guards as they passed. There was no reason to fear attack, not in the very heart of the Solar Union, but they’d been taught to be careful anyway. Martin had slept in places where there had been a very good chance he wouldn’t wake up, if his men hadn’t been on guard. He stepped through the hatch and nodded to the officer on watch. The remainder of the squad were catching up on their sleep.

    “When they awake, tell them to prepare for deployment,” he ordered the officer. It would be cruel to wake his men now. They’d just completed an extensive series of exercises. “We may be leaving as soon as this evening.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Martin nodded, then walked to his bunk. Rank didn't have many privileges, not in Special Forces Recon. The bunk was identical to the other bunks, right down to the bland sheet and blankets. He opened the drawer under the bunk and frowned, just for a second, as he realised just how little he really owned. A handful of datachips and a reader - he spent most of his off-duty time reading when he wasn't with Yolanda - and very little else. He’d been taught to travel light, but ... he reached for his carryall, placed the reader and the chips at the bottom and then started to find his clothes. He would be expected to carry at least two complete sets of everything with him, but experience had taught him that he needed to take more. It was astonishing how easily something could get messed up.

    I’ll have to write to Yolanda, he told himself, as he finished packing. It had only taken a few minutes. Tell her I won’t be able to meet her this weekend.

    The thought cost him a pang, even though he was used to it by now. Their relationship was a long-distance relationship - it could hardly be anything else - but there were times when he wished he could be closer to her. He was old enough to father children and responsible enough to bring them up ... wasn’t he? The Solar Union wasn't the ghetto. No one here would abandon a child they’d sired, not unless they gave the baby up for adoption. Martin had no idea who’d fathered him, so many years ago, but he was sure he’d do a better job at raising his children. He could hardly do a worse one ...

    We have time, he told himself, firmly. We could have children a hundred years from now, if we wished.

    He sighed. In truth, he didn't want to give up his career ... he didn't even want to take a break long enough to raise the children. And yet, Yolanda didn't want to give up her career either. She might reach flag rank, if she was offered a command of her own ... Martin didn't blame her for wanting to stick with it. He could take a break, if he wished, and then return to the military, but Yolanda would find it harder. Starship technology and tactics would advance in her absence, leaving her hopelessly out of date.

    Shaking his head, he put the carryall on top of the bunk and reached for the military-issue reader. A warning about the lockdown blinked up, the moment he touched the screen. Martin rolled his eyes - there wasn't a man or woman on the base who’d risk the lives of his or her fellows by talking out of turn - and then accessed the files. Unsurprisingly, a detailed briefing on Apsidal was at the top. It didn't take long to realise that it had been drafted by a Tokomak. The writer never used one word when he could use a hundred. Martin smiled - he knew exactly what sort of reaction he’d get if he wrote his reports in such a verbose manner - and settled down to read. Apsidal sounded fascinating, despite the writer’s best efforts. He was almost looking forward to the deployment when the bleeper rang. It was time to go back to the briefing room.

    He caught Sergeant Howe’s attention as he sat upright. “Get everyone packed and ready, once they awake,” he ordered. “And make sure they know about the lockdown.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Martin felt his cheeks heat as he headed out the door, silently grateful that his dark skin concealed his embarrassment. Sergeant Howe had been in the military longer than Martin had been alive, first on Earth and then in the Solar Union. He’d outrank Martin if he’d decided to move to officer track, rather than stay as a sergeant. He knew what he was doing, but Martin had nagged him ... he sighed, again, as he walked down the corridor. There were times when he felt very young and very inexperienced, despite having been in the military for years. The old men had been serving for decades. Some had even been serving for centuries.

    And would I want to stay in the military for centuries, he asked himself, or would I go looking for something else?

    He pushed the thought aside as he walked into the briefing room. Major Griffin was at the front, talking to a portly officer in naval uniform. Martin didn’t recognise him. The other officers assembled quickly, chatting quietly amongst themselves. Martin joined in, sharing his impressions of Apsidal. Their destination might be a nice place to visit, but it was going to be utter hell if they had to fight. The megacities alone would be nightmares if they had to be stormed block by block.

    We won’t have to do it, he told himself. Much of Apsidal, just like much of every other planet, was largely irrelevant to a spacefaring race. There was no need to fight their way across the entire surface, not when mere control of the high orbitals would be enough to keep Apsidal under firm control. All we have to do is capture the planetary defences - or destroy them.

    “We’ll be transferring to the MEU tonight, at 2100,” Major Griffin said. “I trust your squads are ready?”

    There was a brief mummer of assent. It would be a rush, particularly for the delta squads, but they’d cope. They’d been trained to expect the deployment order to arrive at any time. There would be some grumbling, of course, but nothing he couldn’t handle. Anyone who couldn't take the pace had transferred back to the regular forces long ago.

    “Very good,” Major Griffin said. “Are there any questions before we proceed?”

    “Just one,” Captain Hawke said. “Are we going to war against Apsidal - or the Tokomak. I heard a rumour ...”

    “The rumour is true,” Major Griffin said, flatly. “The Tokomak are coming.”

    Martin swallowed. He’d been a newly-minted Solar Marine when the Tokomak had attacked the Solar System for the first time. They’d won, but at a staggering cost. It was chilling to realise that the Tokomak had barely noticed the losses. It reminded Martin of a brief deployment to some hellhole on Earth, where the locals had used human wave attacks in a desperate bid to shut down the spaceport. The marines had gunned them down in their thousands, but they’d just kept coming. Martin had had nightmares about that for months afterwards. How could anyone put so little value on their own lives that they’d charge gun emplacements with nothing, but raw courage? And why would they keep following the leaders who hurled them into the fire?

    I should have been paying more attention to rumours, he thought, grimly. I might have realised that we’d be deployed ...

    “Our job is to stop them in their tracks,” Major Griffin added. “And we will be playing an important role in the operation.”

    He paused for a moment, then started the briefing in earnest. Martin listened carefully, recording the discussion for future reference. Major Griffin was remarkably concise, but he had a lot of subjects to cover. Martin suspected that most of them were above his pay grade, yet it was hard to be sure. If he was unlucky, he might wind up in command of the forces deployed to Apsidal. It wouldn't be the first time a junior officer had found himself suddenly thrown into command when his superiors had been killed.

    And the Tokomak have even less regard for the lives of their client races than ourselves, he reminded himself. They’ll throw millions of their slaves into the fire just to get at us.

    “I expect each and every one of you to comport yourself in a manner befitting Special Forces Recon,” Major Griffin finished. “If we are lucky, we won’t have to fight ... but if we do have to fight, we’ll give them hell.”

    “And try not to damage too much of the planet’s infrastructure while you’re at it,” the unnamed naval officer said. “Apsidal might be very useful in the right hands.”

    “But very dangerous in the wrong hands,” Major Griffin said. “We have to prepare for the worst.”

    Martin nodded to himself, feeling the same mixture of anticipation and trepidation before going on deployment. They were going to war, they were going to fight the enemy ... he knew better, these days, to think that war was glorious, but he still felt a thrill when he considered the challenge. Going up against the Tokomak on their own ground ...

    Not quite their own ground, he reminded himself, firmly. But close enough for the moment.

    “Have your men ready for transfer at 2100,” Major Griffins said. “Dismissed.”
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    “Welcome onboard, Admiral,” Captain Robin Lifar said. “Defiant is at your service.”

    “Thank you,” Hoshiko said. “It's a pleasure to finally come onboard.”

    She smiled as they shook hands. There was little ceremony for an admiral boarding her flagship, not in the Solar Navy. The officers who’d written the regulations had always been a little suspicious of superior officers, even though they’d become superior officers. Hoshiko understood their reasoning better than she cared to admit. The old wet-navies had had quite a problem with senior officers lacking practical experience of military affairs. That wasn't a problem in the Solar Navy. One simply couldn't progress past a certain level without genuine experience.

    “Your staff have already arrived and are setting up in the CIC suite,” Lifar said, as he led Hoshiko down the corridor. “They’ve been preparing on the assumption that the people will vote for war.”

    “They don’t have a choice,” Hoshiko said. Life amongst the asteroids had bred a hard degree of common sense into the population. They knew, at a very basic level, that even the most advanced technology in the galaxy couldn’t keep them safe forever. “The vote will take place soon.”

    “Yes, Admiral,” Lifar said. “But what if they vote against war?”

    Hoshiko considered it for a moment. The constitution was clear. War - active war - could only be declared with the consent of the people. She understood the logic, given how governments on Earth had used war-making powers to expand their post-war powers. But the constitution was not a suicide pact. If the people voted against war ...

    They’ll get war anyway, when the enemy fleet enters the system, she thought, morbidly. But by then it might be too late.

    She followed him into the CIC and looked up at the display. Defiant was surrounded by nearly five hundred starships, nearly all of them new-build warships. The remainder were heavily-modified Galactic starships or freighters, the latter crammed with supplies and prefabricated components. Logistics was going to be a nightmare, even with the AIs to help keep the situation under control. And yet ... she felt a thrill as she surveyed the fleet. It was already the most powerful fleet humanity had ever assembled, save for Home Fleet itself, and it was still growing.

    And it’s mine, she thought. Command of an entire fleet was the very peak of her career. She might be promoted still further, but she’d never have so much direct authority again. Even Mongo Stuart himself, her great-uncle, didn't have so much power at his fingertips. This is all mine.

    She sat down and nodded to Yolanda. “Status report?”

    “A third of our strength has already arrived, Admiral, and the last update from Sparta claimed that the reminder will arrive within the next two days.” Yolanda spoke from memory, rather than checking a datapad. “I’ve had the command staff running tactical simulations, but I have to report that managing so many ships will not be easy. We don’t have time for proper exercises.”

    “We’ll have to work our way through hundreds of simulations,” Hoshiko said. It was annoying. The simulations were good, but she knew that they couldn’t match real live-fire exercises. No matter how much care and attention the programmers invested in their creatures, they always left out something. “And we will have time to carry out some exercises if we get to Apsidal first.”

    She considered it for a moment, cursing the enemy under her breath. There should have been more time, damn it! They should have had years to prepare, instead of a desperate rush to get forces to Apsidal before it was too late. She was uncomfortably aware that it might already be too late. If she was in command of the enemy fleet, she would have seized Apsidal by now and turned it into a fortress. Who knew what the enemy commander would do?

    “Once the remainder of the fleet arrives, assign fleet control groups to the flagships and then run intensive datanet exercises,” she added. “We might as well do what we can to prevent disaster.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said.

    Hoshiko stood and started to pace. “Is there any other news?”

    “Locally, the first LinkShip has been assigned to the fleet,” Yolanda said. “There’s a classified briefing waiting in your private datanode. The security level is too high for me to access. There have also been a number of freighter captains offering their services, above and beyond the requisitions. I’ve asked them to report to Sparta.”

    “Good thinking,” Hoshiko said. “And internationally?”

    “We don’t have any updates from the Tokomak fleet,” Yolanda told her. “The ambassadors from the Galactic Alliance have volunteered to provide ships, but so far none of those ships have actually materialised. Their homeworlds might have other ideas.”

    “Unsurprising,” Hoshiko said. She’d helped create the Galactic Alliance, but she was all too aware of its weaknesses. The Tokomak could simply intimidate most of the members into sullen submission. “We’ll plan on the assumption that they’re not going to send help.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “And if they do send help?”

    “We’ll slot them into our command network somewhere,” Hoshiko told her. Practically, it would be a headache, but diplomatically there was little choice. The Solar Union was first amongst equals, as far as the Galactic Alliance was concerned; it wasn’t in a position to simply order its alien allies to do as they were told. “We’ll deal with that when - if - it happens.”

    She turned to look at the display, silently assessing the fleet as it took shape. The most powerful fleet humanity had ever assembled, yet tiny compared to the juggernaut bearing down on Sol. Would it be enough to win? Or would humanity be finally doomed? Some remnants would survive, she knew, but nothing would ever be the same again. The Tokomak certainly wouldn’t let down their guard in a hurry.

    And they’re more patient than us, she told herself. It might be centuries before they relax.

    “Keep an eye on the vote,” she ordered, finally. “I want to know when the results are called.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said.

    “If there are any other issues, alert me at once,” Hoshiko said. “I’ll be in my cabin.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Hoshiko nodded, then stepped through the hatch into her cabin. It felt uncomfortably large, even though it was tiny compared to her suite on the family asteroid. She could hold a private meeting in her sitting room, if she wished, or share her bed and bathroom with someone ... she shook her head in annoyance, dismissing the thought. There wasn't time for a romantic partner, not even a quick roll in the hay. She wouldn’t have time until the war was finally over.

    She snorted, rudely. Her mother had asked her, point-blank, when she intended to do her duty to the family and have kids. Hoshiko had pointed out, in response, that she had plenty of time to have children before it was too late - and besides, she had a career. And she’d made sure to have some of her eggs stored, just in case. Her mother could find a suitable sperm donor, if Hoshiko died in the line of duty. Something of her daughter would survive.

    Her bags were already resting on the deck. Hoshiko checked them quickly, then sat down at the desk. The terminal lit up at once, informing her that there were hundreds of messages in her inbox. Hoshiko glanced at the headers, decided that most of them were pointless and sighed, again. Too many people thought she had nothing better to do than answer their queries immediately.

    Shaking her head, she brought up the classified report on the LinkShip project and began to read it carefully. Very carefully. She didn't have the groundpounder fear of linking herself to a computer, even an AI, but she had to admit that the scientists really had pushed the limits about as far as they would go. A human-machine interface was one thing, yet this ... the pilot and the ship were practically one entity. Hoshiko had no idea how the concept would work in practice. Ideally, she would have preferred to test the LinkShip thoroughly before sending it into a war zone.

    We have no choice, she told herself, firmly. We are at war. And we are massively outnumbered. If we don't come up with some advanced weapons, something to even the odds, we’re screwed.

    She took a moment to reflect on what the Tokomak would do to the Solar Union. They’d smash every asteroid, bombard every world ... they’d bombard Earth, even though it was a blatantly uncivilised hellhole these days. Even letting them anywhere near the sector would be a grave mistake. They’d lay waste to the Galactic Alliance even if they couldn't touch Sol herself. The war had barely begun and humanity had its back pressed firmly against the wall.

    We need every weapon we can muster, she thought, coldly. And if that means taking risks ... well, we’ll have to take them.

    Hameeda sucked in her breath as the fleet came into view. It was massively impressive, even to her; hundreds of warships and freighters, assembled in something that might - charitably - be called a formation. A Tokomak fleet commander would have had a heart attack if his fleet had been assembled so poorly - the Tokomak insisted that fleets had to fly in precise formation at all times - but it was unlikely that any such commander had ever seen real combat. A loose formation would be far more agile if the shit hit the fan.

    She slowed the LinkShip, falling neatly into position behind the cruisers. They were powerful ships, perhaps the most powerful ships of their size in the entire galaxy, but they would have great difficulty hitting her. Simulations ran through her mind, suggesting that she could carry out a whole series of attack manoeuvres against the cruisers without running a serious risk, although she knew better than to take that for granted. The cruisers were linked together into a formidable fighting force. They’d be able to fill space with energy blasts and missiles if they wished.

    I really do have to think of a name for the ship, she thought, as she sent her IFF to the flagship. Calling the ship by my own name does seem rather pretentious.

    She leaned back in her chair, waiting for a response. Admiral Stuart would have been briefed on the LinkShip now, she thought. The Admiral’s file popped up in front of her, confirming that Hoshiko Stuart was one of those Stuarts ... and, more importantly, that she was spaceborn. She wouldn't have any qualms about the LinkShips. Hameeda read the file carefully, then disconnected from the helmet and stood. Her body felt weak, even though she’d only been in direct rapport for ... she frowned as she checked her implants. They insisted she’d been in rapport for hours, but it felt like only a few minutes. She summoned an energy drink from the nearest dispenser and took a long swallow. It tasted foul, but it helped snap her awake.

    An alert popped up in front of her. Admiral Stuart was trying to contact her.

    “Put her through,” she said. Or thought. She wasn't sure herself. “I’ll speak to her in here.”

    Admiral Stuart’s image materialised in front of her. Hameeda studied her with ill-concealed interest. She looked young, surprisingly slight for a spaceborn; her face was pale, with almond eyes that reflected her family’s genetic heritage. Hameeda felt an odd flicker of kinship, remembering just how much of her mother’s looks she’d kept when she reached adulthood. She’d been mature enough to realise that endlessly reshaping her body to fit the latest fashions was stupid by the time she’d reached adulthood. Some of her childhood friends had never quite realised it.

    “Admiral,” she said. “I’m sorry I can't visit you in person.”

    “I quite understand,” Admiral Stuart said. She had a Solarian accent, without any hints of Old Earth. “I read the briefing notes very carefully, Captain. Do you have anything to add to them?”

    “Not yet,” Hameeda said. “If I discover any limitations, or inaccuracies written into the paperwork, you’ll be the first to know.”

    Admiral Stuart’s eyes narrowed. “And do you believe there are ... limitations or inaccuracies?”

    Hameeda took a breath. “With all due respect, Admiral, we’re breaking new ground here. The neural link itself is remarkable, but it isn’t the only thing. There are dozens of pieces of technology worked into the LinkShip which are either completely new or extensive revamps of last-generation tech. We will not know quite what is wrong, if anything, until we test the ship extensively.”

    “Very good,” Admiral Stuart said, finally. “Now, the paperwork said nothing about how you should be deployed. What do you recommend?”

    “The simplest mission is scouting,” Hameeda said, after a moment. “My stealth systems are remarkably good. I can pass through a typical gravity point, I believe, without being detected. They’d have to sweep the area thoroughly to catch me.”

    “I believe they’ve already started securing the gravity points closer to Tokomak itself,” Admiral Stuart said. “Could you get through one of those?”

    “Perhaps,” Hameeda said. “The real problem would be the gravity fluctuation caused by the transit. I would find it a great deal easier to sneak into a planet’s high orbitals.”

    “You might have your chance,” Admiral Stuart told her. “Anything else?”

    “I can handle hit-and-run attacks,” Hameeda said. “However, I should warn you that this ship does not have the killing power of a cruiser.”

    “So the reports said,” Admiral Stuart said. “We will, of course, discuss it at a later date.”

    “Of course, Admiral.”

    “We should be departing in a week, two weeks at most,” Admiral Stuart added. “I’ll make sure to visit you before we go.”

    Her image vanished. Hameeda frowned, sitting back on her chair. Admiral Stuart sounded doubtful ... not, she supposed, that she could really blame the older woman. Everyone had read Superiority, after all. A star empire had become so intent on developing and deploying the latest advanced weapons - all of which had really been quite advanced - that they’d overlooked their glaring weaknesses until it was too late. The Solar Union was in the same boat, with the added disadvantage that victory with conventional weapons was extremely unlikely. They were so badly outnumbered that they had to push for the most advanced weapons possible.

    And we have imaginations, she thought, remembering Admiral Webster’s briefings. The Tokomak forgot how to imagine a long time ago.

    A servitor drone appeared, carrying a bowl of soup and a mug of coffee. Hameeda felt a flicker of annoyance, just for a second. She’d programmed the datanet’s subroutines to look after her, with a level of intrusion that would be unthinkable outside a prison, and it was quite insistent. She didn't feel like eating, but ... she took the bowl and spoon anyway. The subroutine would keep nagging her until she gave in.

    Which is why no one wanted to buy a House RI, she thought, wryly. Being nagged by your parents or your partner is one thing, but being nagged by a machine is far worse.

    She sipped the soup carefully, forcing her body to relax. It was hard to realise, sometimes, that she’d had a life before bonding herself to the ship, even though it had only been two days. She’d grown so used to it that her former life felt more like a recorded memory than anything else. And yet, and yet ...

    I have to take care of myself, she told herself. She could get some rest, now, while the remainder of the fleet assembled. She’d be fresh when the time came to jump into FTL and head to their destination. The ship is useless without me.

    Hoshiko broke the connection with a strong sense of unease. She hadn’t been quite sure what to expect from a person who’d linked themselves - permanently - to a starship computer, even though the briefing notes had insisted that the process wasn’t fatal. Hameeda - there was no surname listed in the files, suggesting she was a second-gen who wanted to cut all ties to Old Earth - had come across as a strange mixture of arrogant and scatter-brained. Hoshiko had met more than her fair share of aliens, entities who weren't human and didn't think as humans did, but Hameeda had still struck her as odd. But then, anyone who wanted to accept a life sentence to a starship had to be a little bit odd. Hoshiko had loved her first command, but she hadn't wanted to stay on the ship for the rest of her life.

    But it might be better than the alternative, she thought, making a mental note to obtain the remaining files. She was Hameeda’s commanding officer. She had every right to demand the files. And a LinkShip is surprisingly comfortable for its size.

    Her intercom bleeped. “Admiral?”

    “Yes, Yolanda?” Hoshiko glanced towards the closed hatch. It wouldn't have been hard for Yolanda to walk into her cabin? Bad news? Or just another case of the younger woman’s shyness. She’d never be a commanding officer unless she overcame it. “Go ahead.”

    “The vote was just taken,” Yolanda said. “Nine-tenths of the electorate voted in favour of war. The Senate has authorised us to depart on our planned date.”

    Hoshiko frowned. She’d expected all, but a few crackpots to support the war. Very few of them would want the war, yet ... they’d understand it had to be fought. But then, few forces in the universe were as powerful as self-delusion. Hoshiko had seen vast fleets, in the course of her career, and even she had difficulty grasping the size of the juggernaut bearing down on Earth.

    “Very good,” she said, banishing the thought. They had a chance to turn back the tide and that was all that mattered. “Signal the fleet. We’re going to war.”
  8. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member


    The comma needs deleted.
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    I’m sorry about the delay on this. My health decided to collapse on Friday and I spent the weekend in misery. I’ll try to keep going from today.


    Chapter Five

    Hurry up and wait, Martin thought, as he tossed his carryall into the locker. Hurry up and wait and be told that your destination has changed four times before you even reach the fleet.

    He told himself, firmly, that he shouldn’t be so annoyed. The Solar Union had never deployed over a thousand warships outside the Sol System in its entire history. Millions of men and women were being deployed, from starship crews to groundpounders and maintenance staff. They should be grateful there hadn’t been more confusion. But it was still a little irritating.

    “The lads are finding their bunks now,” Sergeant Howe said. The flagship, in common with all capital ships, seemed to begrudge setting any space aside for the marines. Marine Country was a tiny set of compartments, barely large enough for a couple of SF units. “You’ll be delighted to know you have an office.”

    Martin snorted. “If I ever have a chance to use it,” he said. He’d never actually had an office before, although he’d sometimes had to make use of secure briefing rooms. Special Forces units were not encouraged to grow attached to any particular base. They had to be ready to pack up and leave on a moment’s notice. “Leave it empty, for the moment.”

    “Yes, sir,” Howe said. He sounded vastly amused. “And you have a visitor. She’s waiting at the hatch.”

    “I have a visitor?” Martin frowned. He had very few friends outside the marines. Had one of them been assigned to Defiant? “Who?”

    “Go see, sir,” Howe said. “You won’t regret it.”

    Martin eyed him warningly, then shrugged and strode up towards the hatch at the end of the compartment. By tradition, Marine Country was practically a foreign embassy. Spacers were not allowed to enter, not without permission. The ship’s captain could enter, of course - the captain had boundless authority over his ship - but even he would hesitate to enter unless it was urgent. Marines and spacers simply didn’t mix. Countless bar fights during shore leave proved it.

    The hatch hissed open at his approach, revealing a pale dark-haired girl. Martin felt his mouth drop open in surprise, then ran forward and gave Yolanda a tight hug. She’d said she had a new assignment, when she’d written to him, but it had never occurred to him that she might be on Defiant. They hadn’t served together - or at least on the same ship - since their first deployment.

    She kissed him quickly, then stepped back, her eyes flickering around nervously. They weren't in the same chain of command, which would have made their relationship illegal, but people would still talk. Martin wondered, idly, what they’d make of it. Would they tease Yolanda for dating a marine? Or him, for dating a spacer? Or would they suggest that Yolanda had somehow gotten his unit assigned to Defiant so she could be with her lover?

    “It’s good to see you again,” she said. “I thought ... I thought you’d be on Chesty.”

    “They reassigned us here, eventually,” Martin said, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. He was tempted to suggest they sought privacy, although he knew he had to go back to his berth fairly quickly. “What happened?”

    “A handful of units were added to our order of battle,” Yolanda told him. “And they had to remain concentrated. We couldn't split them up and scatter them over the warships.”

    “Ah, newer units,” Martin said. “Are they fit to fight?”

    “So we have been told,” Yolanda said. Her almond eyes crinkled with amusement. “I thought you were the ground-combat expert.”

    Martin shook his head. “Talk to the oldsters,” he said. “The really old guys. They’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know.”

    “You’ll be old too, one day,” Yolanda said. “And then you’ll look back on this day and laugh.”

    “Maybe,” Martin said. He’d never sought higher rank - Special Forces was simply more challenging than flying a desk - but there were times when he wondered. If the senior officers were constantly rejuvenated, to the point where old age wouldn't force them to retire, would they retire at all? And what would that mean for younger officers who wanted to rise to the very top? “Or maybe I’ll die on the mission.”

    Yolanda looked reproving. “Don’t even joke about it.”

    Martin shook his head. Yolanda had a million-ton starship wrapped around her. Defiant could shrug off nuclear and antimatter blasts that would devastate entire planets. But a marine on the ground, even one wearing a battlesuit, was fragile in a way no spacer could understand. Martin had seen too many people die on combat deployments. There were limits to how far his life could be protected and he knew it. A single superheated plasma burst would be enough to burn through his suit and kill him.

    And if we go without the suits, we’ll be even more fragile, he reminded himself. We’re not invincible ...

    “We’ll see what happens,” he said, neutrally. “I ... I didn’t realise you’d been assigned to Defiant.”

    “Admiral Stuart has been assigned to Defiant,” Yolanda said. “And where she goes, I go.”

    “Ouch,” Martin said. Following a senior officer around, acting as a combination of secretary, tactical officer and sounding board, was pretty close to his idea of hell. He’d enjoyed shadowing Major Tracy, back before he’d transferred to Special Forces, but it wasn’t something he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Or even for a year. “Is she a good boss?”

    “She could be worse,” Yolanda said. “And I only have six months left before I get reassigned.”

    “Unless it gets extended,” Martin pointed out. There hadn't been any discussions about how long the deployment would actually last, but he’d be surprised if it was less than a year or two. Yolanda might find herself stuck until the fleet returned to Earth. “You might have to roll with it.”

    “Probably,” Yolanda said. She sounded as if she didn’t particularly care. Martin admired her ability to make the best of a maddening assignment. She didn't have the opportunity to go to the shooting range and burn off her frustrations on a handful of holographic targets. “Needs must, when the devil vomits on your toenails.”

    Martin laughed, remembering the days they’d watched the entire series of movies, one after the other. They’d been hellishly unrealistic - he dreaded to think what his CO would say if he proposed arming marines with swords on a modern battlefield - but funny. And gruesome. It was almost a shame that the real universe was not quite as fantastic.

    But it does have thousands of aliens who want to kill us, he thought. So it isn't really that different after all.

    Yolanda’s wristcom bleeped. “I have to get back to the CIC,” she said, glancing at it. “I should be free tonight, if you want to sneak through the tubes to my cabin.”

    “As long as the admiral doesn’t want you,” Martin said. He considered it, briefly. The marines were meant to settle in, before they started training the following morning. It wasn't as if he had to babysit, but still ... sneaking off to spend the night with his girlfriend would set a bad example. “I’ll let you know. I have to put everyone to bed first.”

    “I understand,” Yolanda said. She leaned forward and kissed him again. “See you soon.”

    She turned and walked away. Martin watched her go, feeling a surge of pure affection. They were so different, in so many ways, and yet they clicked. She wasn’t the sort of girl he would have been encouraged to like, let alone love, on Earth ... no, he wouldn't have been encouraged to love anyone on Earth. Love was a weakness ...

    Back to work, he told himself, firmly. You can meet up with her later.


    Hoshiko looked up from the latest report. “Yes, Yolanda?”

    “The final fleet units have arrived,” Yolanda told her. She stood at the hatch, as if she were reluctant to enter the office. “The datanet has been updated. All ships are signalling that they are ready to depart.”

    “Very good,” Hoshiko said. She deactivated the terminal, banishing the report and its contents to the back of her mind. There were too many bureaucrats who’d fallen into the habit of assuming that their work was so important that it had to be sent straight to the fleet commander. It was probably time for a cull. “Are there any other updates?”

    “The reporters have been embarked on Daredevil,” Yolanda said. “Half of them have filed requests to be transferred to Defiant.”

    “Stall them,” Hoshiko ordered. The Solar Union’s newshounds weren’t as bad as the media groupies from the bad old days on Earth - she’d heard the old sweats calling the reporters everything from liars to traitors - but they were still annoying. “They can find what they need from the unclassified sections of the datanet.”

    She rolled her eyes at the thought. There was very little in her life that was interesting, although that hadn’t stopped the newshounds from digging into her past and interviewing her childhood friends for signs of future greatness. Who’d have thought that building a treehouse on the family asteroid was a sign of leadership ability? Her siblings had taken a gleeful delight in forwarding copies of that article to her.

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. She cleared her throat nervously, a sure sign she was about to disagree with the boss. “They do have clearance to attend intership conferences.”

    “Which they can do holographically,” Hoshiko said, shortly. The Admiralty might have pressed her to remember that the newshounds had to be kept onside, but that didn't mean she had to give them everything they wanted. Besides, it wasn't as if they’d get very far by pressing an antiwar narrative. They’d be more likely to lose followers so rapidly that their reliability ratings dropped to nothing. “And if they request any private interviews, tell them I’ll be busy for the next few months.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. She glanced at the datapad in her hand. “The logistics and support units are in place, ready to follow the fleet. They assure me that they have everything they need.”

    “It won’t be enough,” Hoshiko predicted, grimly. Consumption rates were always higher than predicted. Thankfully, between the generally-sensible officers in command and the mobile factory ships, it shouldn’t be a problem. “Were there any troubles getting the final tranche of industrial workers assigned to the fleet?”

    “No, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “There may be some long-term problems back home, but ... they’re here.”

    “I imagine enemy missile strikes will cause some long-term problems too,” Hoshiko said, dryly. The Solar Union simply didn't have enough industrial workers. She’d heard that more and more were being trained up, but it would be a while before the first newcomers entered service. “Are there any other issues that should be brought to my attention?”

    “No, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “The fleet is ready to depart.”

    Hoshiko stood and walked around the desk. Yolanda stepped to one side to allow Hoshiko to proceed her out of the office and into the CIC. The display was glowing with thousands of icons, ranging from powerful warships to escorts and support vessels. She couldn't help feeling awed, even though she’d seen it time and time again. It was the largest fleet humanity had ever assembled, perhaps the most powerful fleet in the history of the entire galaxy, and it was hers. No naval officer in human history, save perhaps Admiral Jellico, had ever had so much weight on their shoulders. She was truly the only officer who could lose the war in a single day.

    And Jellico wasn't staring down the barrels of racial extinction, Hoshiko thought. The Druavroks had wanted to kill all humans, but the Tokomak were worse. She had no doubt that the human race was fighting for its very survival. The worst that could have happened to Jellico was watching his beloved country being occupied by the Kaiser. I might have to watch as the Solar Union is wiped from existence.

    She shook her head. No, she’d be dead by then. The Tokomak would hardly let her live long enough to see her solar system being destroyed. She wondered, morbidly, if they knew the fleet was on its way. All traffic in and out of the Sol System had been halted once the vote had taken place, but she was all too aware that someone might have sneaked out of the system to alert the enemy. The Tokomak had allies, lots of them. She wouldn't be too surprised to hear that some of the Galactic Alliance races were preparing fallback plans.

    Her eyes found the LinkShip, holding station next to Defiant. She wished she’d had enough time to visit the ship, both to satisfy her curiosity and to keep an eye on the pilot. Hameeda - Captain Hameeda, Hoshiko supposed - had very strong reliability ratings, but no one had permanently linked themselves to a datanet before. There was simply no way to tell what the long-term effects might be. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been wiser to assign someone to the LinkShip, even over Hameeda’s protests. But Hameeda had seemed to think she’d be better on her own.

    That will have to change, Hoshiko thought. A human connection might be good for her.

    She cursed the scientists under her breath as she took her chair. They’d insisted that Hameeda had to make her own choices, at least until the fleet went into battle. But Hoshiko couldn't help thinking that it was a mistake. There had been people who’d sunk into VR fantasies to the point where they thought the fantasy was real. Hoshiko could understand the urge to pretend that one was more important than one was, or lived a more exciting life, but she distrusted it. A person born in the Solar Union could go far, if he or she was prepared to make the sacrifice. Their lives were what they made of them.

    And Hameeda could sink so far into the datanet that she might never come out, she told herself. Who knows what will happen then?

    “Admiral,” Yolanda said. “System Command has sent us a message, wishing us good luck.”

    “In other words, they expect us to get moving,” Hoshiko said, wryly. It was the sort of departure that should be feted with flags flying and bands playing, but they were on the very edge of the system, as far as they could go without leaving the system limits completely. “Contact the fleet. Inform them that we will depart in” - she made a show of looking at the chronometer - “ten minutes.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Hoshiko felt the ship’s drives change, just slightly, as the FTL nodes came online. Defiant was the latest generation of cruiser technology, designed to be able to slip in and out of FTL with over two-thirds of her FTL nodes non-functional. It made her feel slightly different from Jackie Fisher, Hoshiko’s old command, but it gave her a tactical flexibility that more than made up for the additional expense. And when - not if - the Tokomak designed gravity traps of their own, Defiant would have a good chance of remaining in FTL long enough to get out of the trap and make her escape.

    Although it will cost us nearly every node we have, Hoshiko said. Crashing into a gravity shadow was every spacer’s nightmare. The scientists hadn’t been clear on what would happen if Defiant hit a natural gravity well, like a planet, but Hoshiko doubted it was anything good. The odds of survival would be very low. It might be better to let them yank us out of FTL and punch our way out.

    “The fleet’s responded, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “They’re ready to go.”

    “Copy our final records to System Command,” Hoshiko ordered, “and empty the message buffers.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. Her hands danced across her console. “Done.”

    Hoshiko concealed a smile. The censors were going to have an tedious time, digging through the datapackets to make sure that someone on the ship hadn't told his family anything that the enemy could use against them. Hoshiko doubted the Tokomak could or would spy on private communications, but it was well to be careful. Someone in the media might pick up on something important and relay it to his followers, unaware that the Tokomak were listening too. There were too many people who believed that information wanted to be free - and rebelled against any form of government censorship - for her to expect common sense to prevail.

    And it will be a long time before anyone on the fleet sees their family again, she thought, morbidly. Yolanda was really quite lucky to have her boyfriend on the ship. We won’t be back for a year or so.

    She took one final look at the in-system display, her eyes seeking out the cluster of asteroids that compromised the core of the Solar Union, then took a long breath. “Order the fleet to enter FTL,” she said. “Now.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “FTL in five ...”

    Hoshiko braced herself as the display went blank, half-expecting to feel her stomach twisting out of shape. But there was almost nothing, beyond a slight queasy sensation that vanished almost as soon as she noticed it. Her lips curved into a smile. The Tokomak had never bothered to make the transition into FTL easier on the ship’s passengers. She rather suspected they didn't feel it themselves. But humanity had found a way ...

    “The fleet has entered FTL,” Yolanda informed her. “The gravity-pulse network has been established. Datalinks are being established now.”

    “Very good,” Hoshiko said. She stood. “Once the network is up and running, prime the ships for an exercise. We have two months to go and I want to be ready.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”
    techsar and rle737ng like this.
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Six

    If Martin had been forced to be honest, as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, there were some advantages to being stationed on Defiant. Quite apart from being able to see Yolanda, whenever they could find a mutually-convenient time to meet, it allowed them to practice everything from boarding and counter-boarding actions to infiltration, subversion and sabotage. His squad racked up thousands of kills in the simulators, constantly pushing the limits as far as they would go, while testing their skills against a series of elaborate traps. The ship’s engineers seemed delighted to have the chance to design death traps for the marines, even if they did seem more like something from a TV show than anything they might expect to encounter in real life.

    The Tokomak simply want us dead, he thought. They don’t want us to suffer.

    He paused, considering. No, he added, grimly. They don’t care if we suffer.

    It wasn’t a pleasant thought. He’d met too many humans who were sadists, who got off on hurting people. The gangbangers who ruled the streets where he was born had never been content with merely killing their enemies, not when they could make them suffer first; later, as his career expanded, he’d met people who killed women for being raped or brutally beat little girls into a pulp for daring to seek an education. It was shameful, somehow, to thinking that aliens might be more human than some humans. The human capacity for torturing its own kind was unmatched throughout the galaxy.

    The Tokomak have a superiority complex large enough to blot out the galaxy, he thought, and they’ll do whatever it takes to stay on top, but they’re not monsters.

    He pushed the thought aside, forcing himself to start working through yet another after-action report. One disadvantage of being on Defiant was that he had to write the wretched things himself. Technically, he then had to read them to himself - as a couple of jokers in the squad had gleefully pointed out - but he’d decided that there was no point in following regulations too closely. They’d been written on the assumption that the writer and the reader would be two different people.

    We’ve tested ourselves inside and outside the starship, he told himself, and worked our way through all kinds of simulated environments. What else do we have to do?

    He sighed as he finished the report. The squad was at risk of losing its edge, if it didn’t get to see real action soon. Space was dangerous - and going outside in FTL could be literally maddening - but people weren't really shooting at them. Even highly-experienced men could start treating simulations with contempt, when they knew there was no real danger beyond being chewed out by the CO. There wasn’t even the risk of being mocked by the rest of the ground forces for losing.

    “We might have a moment to go to one of the MEUs,” he muttered, crossly. “A chance to drill with some of the others would let us burn off a lot of steam.”

    Shaking his head, he turned to the next set of briefing notes. Apsidal had been settled long enough to have a sizable tourist industry, putting out everything from travel brochures and guides to detailed maps that were strikingly informative. Clearly, no one on Apsidal had ever thought twice about the wisdom of putting so much information on the planetary datanet. A handful of notes from Solar Intelligence confirmed that much of the data had been verified, right down to the locations of the planet’s military bases. It looked as if no one on Apsidal had considered the possibility of being attacked either.

    He smiled, sardonically. The Tokomak Empire was older, far older, than all of humanity’s recorded history. And, in all of that time, it had never encountered a serious challenge. From the discovery of FTL to First Contact, the Tokomak and their allies - their subordinates - had been effectively unchallengeable. No wonder they’d let everything from research and development to basic defences slide. There was no point in pushing the limits when one was quite happy where one was. They wouldn't want to accidentally develop something that might invalidate their entire economic base.

    A shame we don’t know where we’ll be landing, he thought, as he surveyed the detailed maps and their accompanying notes. General Edward Romford and his staff had been tight-lipped about the landing zones, suggesting they hadn’t made any concrete plans. There was no way to be entirely sure what they’d encounter when they landed on Apsidal. It could be anywhere.

    He sucked in his breath. There were, if the notes were to be believed, over fifty billion intelligent life forms on Apsidal. Solar Intelligence had added a suggestion that the official figures, pushed by the planetary government, were actually too low. Martin could believe it. The Galactics liked to think their societies ran like clockwork, but there were entire sections that existed outside official notice. Every major Galactic world had an underclass made up of immigrants from junior and servile races that existed off the books. Apsidal was no different, according to the notes. There was a good chance that the underclass would welcome the invasion. They might see it as a chance to improve their lot.

    Poor bastards, Martin thought. His ancestors had had a hard time, first at the hands of slaveowners and then at the hands of well-meaning do-gooders, but both they and their oppressors had been human. It was far worse for the junior races. They would never be allowed to rise to power, not when it was clear they weren't senior. Perhaps we can give them a chance to be better.

    He sighed, inwardly. It was going to be utter hell. Apsidal was covered in cities - the planet itself was practically one whole city - and surrounded by a ring. Martin felt his stomach twist as he considered the possibilities. It was the sort of environment that limited their advantages, while minimising enemy disadvantages. And the places they’d have to take were places the enemy would know to defend.

    And they’ll have plenty of warning, Martin thought. Operations on Earth had spoilt him. The opposition, as brutal as it had been, had been primitive. The marines had got the drop on them, time and time again. But the Galactics had advanced technology and knew how to use it. They’ll see us coming from light-years away.

    His wristcom bleeped. “Hi,” Yolanda said. “Are you going to be free in an hour?”

    “Well, technically I’m supposed to be napping,” Martin said, although he doubted that his squad were in their bunks. He’d discovered, to his private amusement, that most of the squad had found partners amongst the spacers. He wouldn’t make an issue of it, as long as it didn’t interfere with their work. “But I suppose I could be, if you asked nicely.”

    Yolanda snorted. “Get up here,” she said. “I’ve only got a few hours before I’m due back on duty.”

    Martin nodded, sympathetically. Admiral Stuart was working Yolanda to the bone, although - as Yolanda had assured him - she was pushing herself hard too. Martin understood, better than he cared to admit. Commanding thousands of soldiers was hard enough, but Admiral Stuart was commanding the largest fleet in human history. Merely getting so many warships going in the same direction was a challenge. They were learning by doing, with a powerful enemy waiting at the far end. Soon, they’d find out how well they’d done.

    Particularly if we get there first, Martin thought. Space combat wasn’t his forte, but he’d discussed it with Yolanda often enough. If the fleet got to Apsidal first, they could hold the gravity points against all comers. The Tokomak would have to decide between expending enough warships to make even them blanch or finding another way to Sol. Either way, the Solar Union would have more time to prepare. We could turn the system into a bastion of humanist thought - and a new world for the Galactic Alliance - if we get there first.

    “I’m on my way,” he said. “See you in a moment.”

    Hameeda resisted - barely - the urge to swear at the cooker as she carefully worked her way through the recipe. It wasn't as if she needed to cook for herself, was it? The LinkShip had everything from food processors to servos and gravity manipulation. She could assign a subroutine to cook dinner, if she didn’t content herself with eating something from the processor. The processed food actually tasted good. She’d met a few perfectionists who insisted that food processors simply couldn't substitute for real food, but Hameeda had never been able to tell the difference. Her mother had taught be to be glad that she had enough to eat every day.

    This is supposed to be good for you, she told herself firmly, as she dumped the cooked chicken into a bowl and followed up with mayonnaise, lemon juice, chopped celery and spring onions. The ship’s stores were crammed with good food, almost all of it natural. She was meant to be comfortable, apparently. It’s just a shame you’re eating alone.

    She sighed, hearing her mother’s voice in her thoughts. Her mother had never quite adapted to processed food, although she’d eaten it without qualms. She’d believed that good cooking was meant to be shared with one’s family, an attitude that Hameeda had absorbed without quite meaning to. She didn't have a husband, let alone children. And now, it was unlikely she’d ever have either. She could never leave the LinkShip. The ship was a constant presence in her head.

    Hameeda poured the mixture into a cooking tray, sprinkled crushed crisps on top and then placed it in the cooker, setting an automatic timer as soon as she closed the hatch. The recipe was yet another fusion, a mixture of foods from a dozen different traditions that had been blended together in the Solar Union, but that didn’t stop it being tasty. She rather suspected she was going to get sick of her limited collection of recipes, sooner or later; her mother had attempted to teach her how to cook, torturing both of them until they mutually decided it was pointless. Hameeda could follow a recipe, but she lacked the talent to determine how the ingredients could be changed to enhance the taste.

    The datanet broadened around her, alerting her to an incoming hologram. Hameeda sighed again - there was only one person who’d be contacting her - and allowed it into the kitchen as the timer rang. Admiral Stuart’s image materialised behind her, her expression - seen through the ship’s sensors - mildly surprised. No doubt she hadn't realised Hameeda was cooking.

    But she’s getting an excellent look at my ass, Hameeda thought. The joke was pathetic, but she had to fight to keep from giggling anyway. Maybe she had been alone for too long. The datanet was an extension of her, not a separate person in its own right. It’s lucky I remembered to dress today.

    It was hard, so hard, to keep from giggling. Mooning one’s commanding officer was probably on the list of court-martial offences, but she doubted it would be written up like that. Conduct unbecoming an officer, probably. The thought nearly set her off again. Once, as a teenager, she’d absent-mindedly invited her mother to enter the room where she and her boyfriend were making out. Her mother’s reaction had been memorable. Admiral Stuart’s reaction would be worse.

    She sobered as she pulled the hot tray out of the cooker and placed it neatly on the cooling rack. The recipe was a particularly unforgiving one, she recalled. Letting it cook for too long was guaranteed to result in an inedible mess. It wouldn’t be a waste - she could simply pour the horrid stuff into the recycler - but it would be frustrating to have gone to so much effort for nothing.

    “Admiral,” she said, turning. Her shipsuit was relatively modest. “I’d offer to share, but ...”

    “I quite understand,” Admiral Stuart said. Holographic etiquette mandated a certain level of pretence that the image was real, but there were limits. “You may eat while we talk.”

    I could put the food in stasis, Hameeda thought, crossly. Why have you contacted me, again?

    “Thank you,” she said, instead. She helped herself to a generous portion, then sat down at the table. “What can I do for you?”

    “I wanted to assess how you’re coping with your isolation,” Admiral Stuart said. “It’s been six weeks.”

    Hameeda nodded, tersely. Her mind seemed to have split into two tracks. One track was perfectly aware of just how long they’d spent in FTL, right down to the nanosecond; the other track seemed to have long-since lost track of time. She’d been so closely linked to the datanet that hours had felt like minutes. And, when she hadn’t been using the neural link - or sleeping - she’d been immersing herself in entertainment files. They’d been quite a few television series that she’d wanted to binge-watch, but she hadn’t had the time.

    “I have learned how to cope,” she said, stiffly. She wasn’t about to admit that she’d also accessed a number of pornographic files. “The secret, it would seem, is to keep myself occupied.”

    She took a bite of her food, savouring the taste. It was a little sharper than she remembered - she made a mental note to use less lemon juice next time - but edible. Definitely edible. It was almost a shame there was no one to share it with. Perhaps she’d invite the admiral to dinner, when they were out of FTL. Or someone else ... there were millions of people in the fleet. She had to know one of them from her previous career. She’d almost welcome Girard Burke if he showed up in the fleet lists. He might have been an asshole, back at the academy, but he’d probably grown up since ...

    Unless his father really did give him a post in his shipping company, Hameeda thought. Matt Burke wasn’t super-rich, not like some of the Stuarts and the others who’d gotten in on the ground floor, but he was well on his way. He was looking for experienced officers, wasn't he?

    “A good answer,” Admiral Stuart said. Hameeda dragged her mind back to the matter at hand. “And are you coping well with your isolation?”

    “I’m never truly alone in the datanet,” Hameeda assured her. “And I look forward to showing you exactly what I can do.”

    “Good,” Admiral Stuart said. Her lips curved into a predatory expression. “Because I have a job for you.”

    “FTL drives deactivating ... now,” Yolanda said. A dull shudder ran through the ship. The display filled up with red icons, tactical alerts flashing brightly before the icons slowly turned green. “Local space is clear, Admiral. No encroachments.”

    “Good,” Hoshiko said. She’d selected their destination at random, keeping it to herself until the fleet was well away from Earth. A Tokomak spy would have been hard pressed to beat them to Garza, let alone to Apsidal, but there was no point in taking chances. The enemy had already proven that they were willing to move fast when necessary. “FTL sensors?”

    “Just routine traffic, heading in and out of the gravity point,” Yolanda said. The display updated rapidly, showing a number of starships in FTL. Infoboxes beside the icons insisted that they were freighters. “There’s no sign we’ve been detected.”

    Hoshiko nodded, although she wasn't convinced. Garza was a barren little system, without even a single asteroid as far as the Galactics could tell, but it did have a gravity point that connected directly to Apsidal. She’d brought the fleet out of FTL well clear of any sensors that might be mounted near the gravity point, yet there was always the possibility of the Tokomak expanding their sensor network. If they were careful, they could shoot an alert up the chain without tipping her off. A lone starship in the right place might force her to throw all her plans out the airlock.

    A good thing my plans aren’t too solid, she told herself. She’d drawn up a wide range of contingency plans, but she hadn't allowed herself to get too attached to any of them. It was an easy way to get blindsided by something she hadn't seen coming. We can adapt to what we find at our destination.

    She cleared her throat. “Contact the LinkShip,” she said. “Inform Captain Hameeda that she is cleared to begin Operation Snoop.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said.

    Hoshiko sat back in her chair. It had been easier, a great deal easier, when she hadn’t been responsible for quite so many ships and spacers. If the Druavrok War had gone badly wrong, if her entire force had been annihilated, it wouldn't have been disastrous. The Solar Union would barely have noticed the loss of nine cruisers. But here ... she’d been trusted with nearly two-thirds of humanity’s entire deployable force. If something went wrong ...

    And I don’t know if I can trust the LinkShip either, she thought. Hameeda was ... odd, in ways that were hard to put into words. There were times when she was strictly professional and times when she seemed to forget who and what she was. If her mind wanders at the wrong time, if she doesn't come back ...

    She pasted a calm expression on her face and watched, grimly, as the LinkShip vanished from the display. At least the stealth functions were working. The Tokomak - or whoever was waiting at the far end - should have no clue the LinkShip was there. But if Hameeda did something erratic, in the middle of enemy territory, who knew what would happen next?

    Wait, she told herself, firmly. There’s nothing else to do.
  11. rle737ng

    rle737ng Monkey++

  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    The trouble with analysing the Tokomak, Hameeda had once been told, was that so little of their society made sense. On one hand, they’d taken control of much of the known galaxy through a technological breakthrough that had given them a decisive advantage; on the other, they showed little interest in pursuing technological research and development past a certain point, even though there was considerable room for improvement. The scientists had insisted, for example, that faster stardrives were theoretically possible, but the Tokomak - who’d had a thousand-year head start - hadn’t spent much time and energy improving their drives. They hadn't even found ways to baffle the gravimetric emissions that betrayed a starship’s course and speed to long-range sensors.

    They’re alien, she reminded herself, thoughtfully. They don’t have to think like us.

    The scientists had split into two camps, both firmly convinced that they were right. One group held that the Tokomak were simply too satisfied with what they had to change, a problem made worse by their gerontocratic society. Who knew what new inventions would rock the boat until it capsized? But the other group argued that the Tokomak had secretly continued to develop new technologies, technologies they hadn’t shared with the rest of the galaxy. They’d want an ace in the hole for the time their power was seriously challenged ...

    We might be about to find out, Hameeda thought. Will they see me coming?

    She could feel the gravity pulses fluctuating around the ship, only to be fed back into the FTL field rather than being allowed to break free. The technology was expensive and incredibly complex, and she’d been warned not to depend on it too much, but it seemed to be working perfectly. A sense of satisfaction, even anticipation, ran through the datanet. Everyone knew that sneaking up on a settled star system was impossible. Everyone knew ...

    They’ll be suspicious of incoming freighters, now they’ve seen us use them to tow warships through FTL, Hameeda reminded herself. But they won’t see even a hint of my presence.

    She tensed as the FTL field slowly unravelled, sending her slipping back into realspace. Her awareness filled with contacts, all potentially unfriendly. Garza was surprisingly useful, for such a barren system. The Galactics didn't need inhabited planets to use the system as a way to cut weeks or months off travel times. Hell, the sheer emptiness of the system was a plus in their eyes. There were no pesky locals to charge transit fees.

    Her awareness expanded, confirming that a single station held position on the near side of the gravity point. It was a very basic design, surprisingly primitive for such an important transit point. A handful of interlocking rings linked together by spokes radiating out of a central nexus, a couple of industrial nodes hovering below the station; docking ports crammed with dozens of freighters. She wondered, as she noted the presence of a handful of automated weapons platforms, just who’d built the station. It looked to be the work of a servile race, rather than one of the Galactics.

    No one realised just how important this chain was going to become, she told herself. The Galactics still had problems wrapping their heads around the concept of humanity posing a threat. They probably assigned the task to a slave race and didn't bother to set up defences when they realised they might have to defend the system.

    She turned her attention away from the station and studied the gravity point. It was invisible to the naked eye, although she had no trouble tracking the stream of starships flickering in and out of existence and using them to pinpoint the gravity point’s exact location. Her gravimetric sensors picked up a twist in the local space-time fabric ... she wondered, suddenly, how the first spacefarers had stumbled across the very first gravity point. They’d had to be quite close to detect the point, even with modern sensors. Every tactician feared the discovery of a previously-unknown gravity point in their backyard. Sol had been surveyed thoroughly over the past fifty years, with sensors of increasing range and power, and nothing had been found ... but there was still that quiet nagging doubt. Space could be full of undetected gravity points, just waiting for someone to find and exploit them.

    But most of the models suggest that gravity points are quite rare, she reminded herself, as she patiently tracked starships using the gravity point. If there was one closer to Sol than Varner, we would have found it by now.

    She dismissed the thought and bent her mind towards getting through the gravity point without being detected. The transits appeared to be under tight control, with a five-minute gap between one starship jumping to Apsidal and another appearing in Garza. Hameeda guessed, based on past experience, that the locals were staggering the transits to minimise the risk of a collision. The odds of two starships actually colliding were higher near the gravity points than anywhere else. She directed the LinkShip forward as another freighter headed towards the gravity point, silently assessing the timing. She’d have to be very careful. If she interpenetrated with the freighter, both ships would be utterly destroyed.

    They’re moving fast, she told herself, firmly. A shiver ran down her spine anyway. The slightest error in timing would be disastrous. Admiral Stuart would never know what had killed her scout. I have to follow at just the right speed.

    Her awareness focused on the freighter as it reached the gravity point, paused ... and vanished. Hameeda followed, triggering the jump pulse as soon as she was on the gravity point. The universe seemed to blink, just for a second - there was a sense that she existed and yet she didn’t, followed by a falling sensation that made her stomach churn - and then reformed. The freighter was already moving away from the gravity point, exchanging IFF signals with a pair of battlestations. Another freighter was heading towards the gravity point, blithely unaware of the cloaked LinkShip. Hameeda hastily triggered her drives, slipping after the freighter. The battlestations didn't seem to have realised that someone else had slipped through the gravity point.

    Hameeda cursed under her breath as more and more data flowed into her sensors. The battlestations were new - at least, they hadn’t been there when Odyssey had passed through the system - and they weren’t alone. Three squadrons of warships, Tokomak warships, were keeping station near the stations, their weapons at the ready. Hameeda had no idea if they knew the fleet was on the way or not, but it didn’t matter. They were ready to mount a conventional gravity point defence at any moment.

    Taking them by surprise will be difficult, Hameeda thought. They’ll have plenty of time to go on the alert before we can move through the gravity point and attack.

    She considered their options for a long moment. The LinkShip could get through the gravity point without being detected, but the remainder of Admiral Stuart’s fleet didn't have that advantage. Hameeda could give the enemy a nasty surprise, if she attacked their rear, yet it wouldn’t be enough to take them all out. She put a handful of subroutines to work, considering the possibilities, then glided smoothly away from the gravity point. Admiral Stuart wanted her to survey the entire system.

    Apsidal was, she conceded ruefully, an impressive system. It had been settled for thousands of years, more than long enough for every world and most of the asteroids to be settled or exploited. Thousands of freighters moved through the system, making their way towards the gravity points or Apsidal itself; dozens of warships patrolled the system, as if they were expecting trouble at any moment. She wasn’t surprised to discover that there were four battlestations guarding the gravity point to Mokpo. The Tokomak would almost certainly be funnelling ships through the naval base at N-Gann, three transits up the chain. They wouldn’t want anyone interfering with that.

    They haven't managed to get the majority of their fleet here, she noted, as she steered around the gravity point. There were another five squadrons of starships on guard duty, but they were a mere handful compared to the enemy fleet. She guessed they’d been hastily rushed to Apsidal from N-Gann once the enemy had started putting their plan together. But they’re doing everything in their power to make it work.

    A chill ran down her spine. Her subroutines were silently calculating the possibilities, throwing up a dozen different simulations. None of them were very cheerful. She’d been told, time and time again, that the enemy could trade a hundred starships for every human ship and come out ahead, but she hadn’t really believed it. Now ... now she believed it. The Tokomak ruled a massive empire, with the resources to match, while humanity had a pitiful handful of colonies and a tiny number of allies. How could they hope to prevail?

    Advanced technology and better tactics, she told herself, setting her course towards the planet itself. We can make them bleed until they think better of it.

    She allowed herself a moment of frustration. She’d seen the projections. If they’d had fifty more years to prepare, fifty years to build up the fleet, the Tokomak wouldn’t have stood a chance. Advanced weapons, advanced drives ... perhaps even an FTL communications system ... humanity’s tech advantage would have been too great for them to overcome. They would have been tribal warriors, blissfully unaware of machine guns until they charged their enemies and were mown down in their thousands. But instead, the Tokomak had started the war too soon. She couldn’t help wondering if that was deliberate.

    Apsidal slowly grew in her awareness until it dominated her mind. The world was nothing, but city. It was surrounded by a giant ring - she thought it looked like a donut - that was connected to the surface by six orbital towers. She wasn't sure if she should be impressed by the sheer size of the construction or horrified by the risk. If the ring shattered and fell out of orbit, the entire planet would be rendered uninhabitable. Billions of lives would be lost, billions more would be forced to flee. Her awareness passed over the multitude of orbital defence platforms, industrial nodes and fabricators. Apsidal was an industrial powerhouse and it showed. She suspected the entire system was slowly being turned into a support base for the Tokomak war machine.

    Good thing we’re about to come take the system away, she thought, as more and more data flowed into her sensors for later analysis. There were surprisingly few radio transmissions. Apsidal seemed to be less chatty than Earth, even though the entire population of Sol would have vanished without trace on the ancient world. Perhaps they used lasers, or hardwired connectors, or ... perhaps they weren't allowed to talk. Restrictive societies did everything in their power to keep their people from talking freely. They wouldn't want someone to start plotting a revolt.

    She watched Apsidal for nearly an hour, studying the planetary defences carefully, then started to inspect the remainder of the system. A couple of other worlds - they looked to have been very similar to Mars, once upon a time - had high populations too, although they didn’t seem to be particularly industrialised. The gas giants were surrounded by so many cloudscoops that it looked as if they were on the verge of being drained dry. Her lips twitched in amusement. Gas giants were so incredibly vast that it would take thousands of years to literally siphon away every last bit of gas. She’d once read a proposal to put FTL drives on a planet and turn it into a giant starship, but the drives would have to be gigantic and the power requirements incomprehensibly high. She doubted it would ever be anything other than a theory.

    Although it would have its amusing side, she thought, wryly. What would the Tokomak think if we start hurling planets at them?

    She dismissed the thought as she turned back towards the gravity point. There was no clue that anyone had seen her, but it looked as though the pace of starships through the gravity point was starting to pick up. The gap between starship transits had narrowed to three minutes. Hameeda paused, well clear of the gravity point, and watched the battlestations suspiciously. Were they trying to make life difficult for her? Or were they merely trying to get more starships through the gravity point? There was no way to be sure.

    Not that it matters, she told herself. Whatever they have in mind, it has been quite effective in slowing me down.

    She waited as long as she dared - nearly an hour - but the transit pace didn’t change. Her sensors picked up a handful of transmissions between the battlestations and transiting freighters, yet none of them seemed particularly suspicious. She considered waiting longer, but she knew the admiral was depending on her. Gritting her teeth, she followed the next freighter towards the gravity point and transited back to Garza. Her awareness filled with new freighters. An entire convoy of ships was waiting to make the jump.

    Crap, she thought, as she hastily moved out of the way. What are they doing here?

    More data flowed into her sensors. Analysis subroutines scanned the data and offered tentative conclusions. It looked as though one of the really big interstellar corporations had dispatched a convoy to Garza. No wonder the battlestations had allowed the transit rate to speed up. The Galactic corporations were even less understanding of interstellar realities than their human counterparts. They’d be more annoyed about bureaucratic regulations slowing down the convoy, even if the regulations were - for once - quite sensible - than the risk of losing a handful of ships. She was surprised they hadn't demanded that their ships were allowed to jump through in pairs.

    Perhaps the crews refused, she thought. A human-run corporation would know better than to issue orders that would be disobeyed, but would the Galactics? They seemed to believe they could bend the universe to their will. Any trained spacer would know that the odds of surviving a multiple jump are poor. Who’d sign up for the chance to commit suicide?

    She slipped back into FTL and headed away from the gravity point, heading back to the fleet. The mission had been a success by any reasonable definition, although she was sure the admiral wouldn't be pleased. She’d have to decide between forcing the system, which would give the Tokomak a chance to bleed her before their main fleet even arrived, or pulling back and picketing Garza instead. That would be a serious problem. The Tokomak could simply bypass the system and, by using one of the other gravity points, head straight for Earth.

    Mission elapsed time, thirty-two hours, she thought, as she removed her helmet and forced herself to stand. Her body was covered in sweat. It didn’t feel anything like so long.

    She staggered into the shower, signalling the automated systems to turn on the water, and sighed in relief as warm water cascaded down. It was all she could do to slowly undress and dump her shipsuit in the basket for cleaning. Her fingers felt brittle, as if she’d forgotten how to use them. She could direct the ship’s waldos to do anything - or use precisely-modulated gravity fields to do more delicate work - but it was all she could do force her fingers to work properly. Perhaps she was just too tired.

    Maybe I should put myself in a sensory tank, she considered, as she used a ship’s field to dry herself. A new shipsuit floated into the compartment and hovered in the air, waiting for her to put it on. My body would be held in suspension while I controlled the ship.

    Hameeda sighed. She doubted she’d be allowed to do anything of the sort. The scientists had considered it important that she remembered she was human, even though she’d bonded herself to a datanet. No partner, male or female, would ever be so intimate with her. They would never share her thoughts. And they would go, in time, while the datanet would remain.

    A chime ran through the ship. They were dropping out of FTL. Hameeda hastily grabbed the clean shipsuit and put it on, then ordered the datanet to transmit everything they’d detected to the flagship. Admiral Stuart’s intelligence staff would want to go through everything, even though the analysis subroutines had already drawn a number of conclusions. Hameeda wondered, idly, if they were testing her and her ship as much as they were planning an assault on the enemy position. The Solar Union wouldn't commit to building a whole fleet of LinkShips unless they were certain the concept was workable.

    Admiral Stuart’s hologram requested permission to enter the ship. Hameeda granted it with a sigh. She wasn’t in the mood for talking. Her body felt drained, even though her implants had taken care of her while she’d been en rapport with the datanet. She needed a solid eight hours sleep before she could consider herself fit for duty. But she was starting to think she wasn't going to get it.

    “Captain,” Admiral Stuart said. “Good work.”

    “Thank you,” Hameeda said. A cruiser or destroyer could have scouted the system, but not sneaked through the gravity point. The admiral would have had to send a modified freighter if she hadn't had the LinkShip, raising the spectre of the ship being inspected before it was allowed to proceed into the system. “I trust the data is useful.”

    “It has some worrying implications,” Admiral Stuart said. “But yes, it has helped us plan our assault.”

    Hameeda nodded. “When are we going to move?”

    “As soon as the towlines are connected,” Admiral Stuart said. “Are you up for a return visit?”

    “I need some sleep,” Hameeda admitted. “But I will be ready soon.”

    “Then get some rest now,” Admiral Stuart ordered. “You need it. And Captain ...”

    “Yes, Admiral?”

    “Well done.”
    techsar, squiddley and rle737ng like this.
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Eight

    “Admiral,” Yolanda said. “The towlines are connected. We are ready to depart on your command.”

    Hoshiko nodded. If there was one thing she’d learnt in her career, particularly during her assignment to the Martina Sector, it was that it was better to move as fast as possible once one had decided to use force. The Galactics tended to be slower than humanity at reacting to bad news - although that was starting to change - but it was dangerous to give them time to go on alert and rally their forces. Better to hit them as hard as possible, then press the advantage before they had a chance to get back on their feet.

    And most of my officers agreed, she thought, crossly. She wasn’t used to being diplomatic when it came to issuing orders, let alone debating tactics, and she was still annoyed that some of her subordinates seemed to expect her to consult them before she made up her mind. But then, they had been independent commanders before their squadrons had been folded into her fleet. She wouldn't have been too happy if someone had done that to her ships. We have to take the offensive.

    “Remind the officers that it is important that we secure the gravity point as quickly as possible,” Hoshiko said. “The enemy freighters aren’t important as long as we block their path to the gravity point.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Hoshiko took a breath. “Pass fleet command to Commodore Harding, then order the freighters to take us into FTL,” she added. “It’s time.”

    A jerk ran through the starship, followed by a queasy sensation that refused to fade. Hoshiko gritted her teeth, telling herself - firmly - that the sensation would be gone in less than twenty minutes, when they dropped out of FTL. The freighter towing Defiant through FTL didn’t have a modern drive. Her designers had copied the Tokomak design, ensuring that no watching sensors noted anything odd about her. She certainly didn't look like a human-designed ship, not from a distance. Hoshiko could put up with her inefficiencies for that.

    They also designed their ships for easy conversion, she reminded herself. A ship designed for humans would be incomparably vast for some races and incredibly cramped for others.

    She put the thought aside as the timer started to count down the seconds to emergence. The watching sensors would see them coming, of course, but all they would see were a handful of freighters. They wouldn’t see the warships behind them until it was far too late. And yet, if the station reacted quickly, they could get a drone through the gravity point before Hoshiko could move to stop them. Too many things could go wrong.

    Stop doubting, she thought. You’re committed now.

    She leaned back in her chair and concentrated on projecting an impression of being calm and composed. Her staff were moving with cool professionalism, but there was a sharp edge in the air that she knew all too well. It was the first time they were going into battle against a real enemy, rather than computer-generated simulations; it was the first time they were at real risk of dying, if something went badly wrong. Hoshiko had come to terms with her own mortality long ago, back when she’d gone to the academy, but she knew that others refused to believe they could die until it was too late. She wondered, suddenly, how many of her staff had uploaded brainprints into computer matrixes, trying to ensure that something of themselves would live on. It struck Hoshiko as silly, but the younger generation saw no difference between a biological person and a brainprint. There were even people who claimed that, one day, everyone would live in computers.

    “Two minutes to emergence, Admiral,” Yolanda said.

    “Prepare to engage,” Hoshiko ordered. “Stand by to engage.”

    She braced herself. Commodore Harding would be following their progress. He’d take the remainder of the fleet into FTL the moment he saw them vanish from his sensors. Her reinforcements would arrive within twenty minutes. And yet, she was worried. She knew, all too well, just how many things could go wrong. There was too much complexity worked into her battle plan for her to have much faith in it.

    A shudder ran through the ship. The display blanked, then filled with fearsome speed. A station, hundreds of freighters and a gravity point ... just as the LinkShip had reported. The station’s automated defences started to come online, only to be blown away as Hoshiko’s ships opened fire. A freighter that had been inching towards the gravity point veered away, snapping into FTL with commendable speed. Hoshiko made a silent bet with herself, as other freighters vanished too, that their commanders were from the younger races. They tended to react quicker.

    “Seize the gravity point,” she snapped. “And signal the remaining freighters to stand down or be destroyed.”

    The squadron lunged forward, just as a freighter appeared in the gravity point. It had no time to react before a missile struck her amidships and blew her into an expanding ball of superheated plasma. Hoshiko felt a flicker of pity, combined with a grim awareness that they couldn’t risk letting the defences on the far side be alerted. And yet, the sudden pause in transits from Garza would alarm them. Someone would poke their head through soon enough to see what had happened. And when they didn’t return.

    “Admiral, the station is surrendering,” Yolanda said. “The remainder of the freighters are running.”

    “Noted,” Hoshiko said. The station was a fourth-order concern at the moment. It had no defences, nothing to keep her from blowing it to dust if the whim struck her. “Is the squadron ready to deploy assault pods?”

    “Yes, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “The squadron is standing by.”

    Hoshiko sucked in her breath. Admiral Webster and his team, most of whom had been science-fiction writers before science-fiction had been outdated by real-life alien contact and space war, had devised a relatively simple approach to assaulting gravity points. Indeed, it was so simple that she was surprised the Tokomak or one of their rivals hadn't invented it themselves, although their technology had been rather more primitive in those days. The assault pods were really nothing more than missile pods with a single-use jump drive attached, allowing them to make transit through a gravity point. A number would interpenetrate and be destroyed, of course, but they were expendable. Hoshiko had no qualms about using them to save lives.

    “Signal all ships,” she ordered. “Launch the assault pods.”

    Defiant shuddered as she emptied her external racks. The other ships followed suit, hurling the assault pods towards the gravity point. Hoshiko leaned forward, watching avidly, as the assault pods reached the gravity point and started to vanish. There was no attempt at stealth - the scientists had warned that there was no way to keep the enemy from detecting them - but it might take the Tokomak several minutes to react. They simply wouldn't know what the pods were until they released their deadly contents.

    And there will be hundreds of missiles suddenly bearing down on their targets, Hoshiko thought. That will make their lives more interesting.

    She glanced at the timer, then nodded. “Order the squadron to advance, as planned,” she said. The long-range sensors were showing the remainder of the fleet, ten minutes away. “Take us through the gravity point in quick succession.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Hoshiko smiled, grimly, as Defiant transited into Apsidal. The display blurred, then cleared, revealing that the assault pods had done better than expected. Two of the enemy battlestations were gone, while the third was badly damaged. The enemy fleet had taken a beating, although - as it had been further from the gravity point - it had had more time to bring up its point defence. She was mildly surprised the ships hadn't simply dropped into FTL and put an impossible distance between themselves and the missiles. Perhaps they simply hadn't been keeping their drives at the ready.

    “Station Three is disabled, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “However, she is still capable of engaging targets.”

    “Deploy two hammers to take her out,” Hoshiko ordered. The black hole-tipped missiles could be countered, or simply avoided, but the station was too badly damaged to do either. “And then prepare for engagement.”

    The enemy fleet was reforming rapidly. Hoshiko frowned as she watched. The Tokomak had always been good at looking good, but now they were being good. Whoever was in command on Tokomak itself - now - had forced her spacers to forget scripted exercises and work their way through problems that included a number of nasty surprises. The survivors would be just as good as their human counterparts, if they’d been cured of their superiority complex. Merely being Tokomak wasn't enough to win anymore.

    “They’re preparing to engage, Admiral,” Yolanda warned. “I suspect they’re planning a missile duel.”

    “Perhaps,” Hoshiko said. The Tokomak outnumbered her - twenty-five starships to eighteen - but they had to be aware that her ships outgunned them. Unless they hadn’t been warned about the hammers, or the other advanced weapons at her command. “Or they may be trying to lure us away from the gravity point.”

    She nodded to herself as the enemy starships suddenly sparkled with red icons. They’d opened fire, with conventional missiles. That made sense, she supposed. As long as she was sitting on top of the gravity point, she couldn't take her ships into FTL and simply outrun the missiles. And they knew it. They could be trying to keep her pinned down while they summoned reinforcements. Recapturing the gravity point was their first priority, now. She’d read their tactical manuals.

    Not that it matters, she thought. Commodore Harding has more than enough assault pods to force his way through the gravity point if they manage to recapture it.

    “Contact the squadron,” she ordered, as the red icons drew closer. “The battle line will advance and engage the enemy.”

    She smiled, coldly. The enemy wanted a missile duel? She saw no reason to indulge them, not when it would give them an advantage. They could simply flee at any moment, if there was a risk of her actually winning. This way, she could not only test their weapons and defences, but force them to flee or fight on her terms. She wondered, as her ships started to move, which choice they’d make. There was no way even the Tokomak could keep word of the battle from getting out. A defeat now might undermine their prestige to the point that their slave races started to rebel. Hell, some of the older races might start looking for a way to switch sides.

    The Tokomak didn't show any visible reaction as her ships inched away from the gravity point, heading straight towards the wall of incoming missiles. Hoshiko’s ships deployed deception drones and ECM, but they were largely ineffective. She frowned, noting just how few missiles had been diverted from their targets. Had the Tokomak improved their systems to the point where her deception was simply laughable? Or had they merely gotten hard locks on her ships, allowing them to ignore the sensor ghosts and engage the real targets.

    “Point defence is engaging now,” Yolanda said. “Captains Young and Harrington are requesting permission to return fire.”

    “Let us close the range first,” Hoshiko ordered. The Tokomak still had the option of running, although she suspected they’d trade blows with their human counterparts first. They really didn’t want to be seen as cowards. “We’ll open fire when we’re within sprint-mode range.”

    The Tokomak fired again. There were fewer missiles this time, Hoshiko noted. Their ships must have been equipped with external racks. That was odd. The Tokomak hadn't had the concept, as far as Solar Intelligence had been able to determine. Their ships certainly hadn't been designed to carry external racks. But there was nothing particularly difficult about the concept. A Tokomak agent must have seen a human ship with external racks, perhaps during one of the post-Battle of Earth skirmishes, and sent a warning up the chain. She wondered, wryly, if some Tokomak engineer had claimed credit for the idea. They wouldn’t want to admit that they’d stolen the concept off the despised human race.

    “Entering sprint-mode range,” Yolanda said, tersely. “Admiral.”

    Hoshiko nodded. “Signal the squadron,” she said. “Fire at will.”

    Defiant shuddered as she unleashed her first barrage. Hoshiko leaned forward, watching the display as the missiles raced towards their targets. The Tokomak might just have enough time to spin up their drives and jump into FTL if they moved now ... her lips curved into a smile as she realised they’d reacted too late. Their point defence went to life, blowing hundreds of missiles out of space, but hundreds more made it through the defences and slammed home. One by one, the enemy ships died.

    “Their point defence has improved,” Hoshiko commented. “I wonder how much further they can go.”

    Her lips twitched. She wondered how many of the reporters, particularly the ones who’d never been stationed on a warship before, would realise that the enemy point defence had improved. Hoshiko’s ships had given the Tokomak one hell of a beating. A couple of enemy ships had managed to survive long enough to slip into FTL, but the remainder had been blown away with almost contemptuous ease. There would be no stopping the Galactics from telling and retelling the story of how an outnumbered squadron of primitive aliens from the edge of explored space slaughtered a Tokomak fleet.

    And yet, if we hadn’t fired so many missiles, we wouldn't have been able to smoother their defences, she thought. Something would have to be done about the improved enemy point defence. They might even have held us off long enough to get more ships out of the caldron.

    “Admiral, the remainder of the fleet is making transit,” Yolanda said. “Commodore Harding is asking for orders.”

    Hoshiko smiled. “We proceed as planned,” she said. “Detail two squadrons to watch the Garza Point, then assemble the remainder of the fleet for the advance on Mokpo Point.”

    She took a breath. “Launch long-range probes towards the planet,” she added. “By the time we turn our attention to Apsidal, I want to know precisely how they’re planning to welcome us.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “Do you want to demand surrender?”

    “Not yet,” Hoshiko said. There was no way to know if the enemy - either the forces defending the Mokpo Point or Apsidal itself - had any idea what had happened to the Garza Point, although they had to know that something had happened. It wouldn’t last. The escaped ships had raced straight to the Mokpo Point. “We need to be a little bit more intimidating first.”

    She studied the display for a long moment, watching as starship after starship transited through the gravity point in a never-ending stream. Her forces were building up rapidly, yet there were far more starships waiting on the far side of the gravity point. She smiled, coldly, as she realised just how many problems the Tokomak would have getting through the gravity point, once she was sitting on top of it. They might outnumber her fifty-to-one - a conservative estimate - but their numbers would mean nothing if they could only come at her one by one.

    They’ll have sent a warning up the chain by the time I get to the gravity point, she told herself. There was no way to avoid it, unless she got very lucky. The enemy CO might want to avoid blame for the disaster - the Tokomak appeared to see failure as a sign of inferior breeding, if the xenospecialists could be trusted - but surely he’d put his duty ahead of his personal future. Not that he has a future.

    “Hundreds of freighters are leaving the system,” Yolanda commented. The long-range sensors were picking up thousands of starships in transit. “Hundreds more are still coming this way.”

    “They don’t know what’s happened here,” Hoshiko said. She had a feeling that they were going to be seeing that a lot, at least until word spread. Starships in transit wouldn't know that anything had happened until they dropped out of FTL. Hopefully, the civil affairs teams would be able to take advantage of their surprise to establish a few new trading links. “We’ll see less traffic once they know the truth.”

    She shrugged. “Damage reports?”

    “None, Admiral,” Yolanda said. Data flowed up in front of her. “The point defence datanet worked as predicted. No enemy missile made it through to strike our shields. However, we have expended our external racks.”

    “Have them reloaded, once the ammunition ships come through the gravity point,” Hoshiko ordered. She wanted at least a third of her fleet on hand when she advanced on the Mokpo Point. The LinkShip would have to take a look at Mokpo once Apsidal was secure. Solar Intelligence hadn't reported any fortifications in Mokpo, but their data was months - if not years - out of date. “And then prepare the fleet to advance.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Hoshiko leaned back in her chair, studying the system display. Apsidal was an impressive system, far more industrialised than anything she’d seen in the Martina Sector. And yet, she could see weaknesses too. The industry was concentrated around the planet itself, rather than scattered across the system. Anyone who took the planet - and she intended to take the planet - would take the industry too. Once the governors on the planet’s fabricators were removed, Apsidal would be more than capable of supporting her fleet indefinitely.

    Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, she reminded herself. Her grandmother had used to say that, citing the days when she’d lived on a ranch. Something could still go around.

    “Admiral,” Yolanda said. She turned to face her commanding officer. “The fleet is ready to advance.”

    “Then set course for the Mokpo Point,” Hoshiko added. “It’s time to finish this.”
  14. DarkLight

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

  15. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++


    Glad to see a continuation of this tale...and glad to hear that you're doing better.
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    Admiral Yosho was not having a very good day.

    He’d seen the assignment to Apsidal as a blessing, at first. He was only a few hundred years old, too young for any serious posting, but the Empress had had faith in him. She’d directed him to take command of the system and its defences, then prepare it to support her fleet as it advanced towards Earth. Yosho had had some difficulty coming to accept that such an insignificant world could pose a major threat, but he knew better than to argue. Empress Neola was dangerously unpredictable.

    And everything had been going well, until the humans had arrived.

    They’d timed it well, he conceded ruefully. He’d assumed he’d have plenty of time to reinforce the Garza Point if a threat happened to materialise - assuming, of course, that the humans didn’t simply stare helplessly at the juggernaut bearing down on them until it was too late - but the invaders had overrun the point before he’d even known the system was under attack. Worse, if his long-range sensors were to be believed, the humans had arrived in considerable force. Retaking the Garza Point was likely to be impossible until the main fleet arrived, which wasn't going to happen for weeks. Even holding the Mokpo Point was going to be difficult.

    This is going to destroy my career, he thought, morbidly. The irony would have made him laugh, if it had happened to anyone else. Under the old system, even a tactical ignoramus was assured of promotion ... eventually. But now, with merit being considered instead of age, he’d be lucky if he wasn’t summarily sacked. His family would disown him rather than admit they had a failure in their midst. What do I do?

    “Admiral,” his tactical officer said. “The human fleet will enter engagement range in fifty minutes.”

    “Send an alert up the chain, then move as many freighters through the gravity point as possible before the humans arrive,” Yosho ordered, curtly. There was no point in leaving more ships to be captured or destroyed. The freighters waiting on the far side would have to be told to flee. “And then put our defences on full alert.”

    He scowled. The human commander was being kind enough to give him time to concentrate his forces, but it didn’t matter. His fleet simply wasn't strong enough to do more than bleed the enemy before it was pushed aside. He briefly considered ordering his warships through the gravity point and making a stand on the far side, before dismissing the idea. The battlestations couldn’t make the jump and he couldn't abandon them, not without being branded a coward as well as a failure. His only hope of saving his reputation - and his family’s reputation - lay in making a stand and dying bravely.

    And they can't replace their losses anything like as fast as we can, he thought. The Empress was bringing more and more ships out of storage and preparing them for war. There was no way the humans could hope to produce enough ships to match the sheer size of the Tokomak fleet. Every ship I kill now will weaken them for the later battle.

    He allowed himself a flicker of dull admiration for the humans, although it wasn't something he would ever admit aloud. They hadn’t been in space for a century and yet they’d already developed more advanced weapons than anyone else, although they’d had help. If they’d had to invent everything from scratch, the Empress had pointed out more than once, they’d have taken far longer. And yet ... the fleet advancing steadily towards him was impressive. The humans seemed to have solved the command and control problems that plagued any fleet larger than a few hundred ships. He wondered, vaguely, how they did it.

    They probably gave their commanders more authority, he thought. He’d served long enough under the gentocrats to know that questioning orders was a career-ending blunder. The senior officer gave the orders and everyone else did what they were told. But if they subdivided their fleet into smaller sections, they might ...

    “Admiral, the fleet is ready to engage the enemy,” the tactical officer said. “All weapons and defences are online.”

    “Good,” Yosho said. The distraction was almost a relief. “Order all stations to open fire the moment the enemy comes within range.”

    “The situation on the planet itself is confused,” Yolanda said, “but a number of asteroids are signalling us. They’re asking if they can join the Galactic Alliance.”

    Hoshiko frowned. The intelligence staff had tracked everything from riots to outright revolutions, spreading across the system in the wake of their arrival, but there was no way to be entirely sure what was going on. She’d known that Apsidal was unstable - a relatively small ruling class lording it over a giant underclass - yet the revolutions might be put down before she could take control of the high orbitals. Or, if they succeeded, destroy installations and industries she needed to preserve.

    “We have to secure the system first,” she said, studying the display. The Mokpo Point was growing larger on the display, surrounded by a small galaxy of red icons. It looked as though the Tokomak were preparing to make a stand. And, on the other side ... who knew what was on the other side? The Tokomak could funnel an endless stream of reinforcements into the system if their main fleet had arrived in Mokpo. “Tell them ... tell them to wait.”

    She sighed, inwardly. She didn't blame the locals for wanting to revolt, or taking advantage of the fleet’s arrival to rise up, but it was a nuisance. If they slaughtered their overlords, the Tokomak would turn it into propaganda; if they were slaughtered themselves, the Tokomak would probably also turn it into propaganda. They’d want to make it clear to their allies that they were fighting for their lives, while suggesting to their enemies that the human race couldn't protect them. The fact that the human race hadn't encouraged the uprisings would be left unmentioned.

    And they’re not even tactically advantageous, unless they manage to capture the high orbitals for us, she thought. But the Tokomak would be fools to allow a sizable number of potential rebels onto their battlestations.

    “Admiral, the enemy are locking weapons on us,” Yolanda said. “They’re preparing to fire.”

    “Target the battlestations with hammers, then target the starships with conventional missiles,” Hoshiko ordered. The Tokomak had clearly learnt something from the previous engagements. Their starships were altering position constantly, seemingly at random. There was little hope of hitting one of them with a hammer missile. “And deploy enhanced countermeasures.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. “Should we deploy the Storm Shadows?”

    Hoshiko hesitated. The new weapons would help her win the engagement, quickly and decisively. It was a tempting thought. She didn’t have time for a long engagement. But the Tokomak would have observers watching the battle, lurking near the gravity point. Anything she deployed now would be carefully noted and reported up the chain for analysis. The advantage might be lost by the time she encountered the main fleet.

    “No,” she said. “We’ll hold them in reserve.”

    Her heart jumped as the display suddenly blossomed into red light. The Tokomak weren't holding anything back. Hundreds of thousands of missiles were rocketing through space, heading directly towards her fleet. Combat instincts urged her to jump into FTL and flee, even though they were just a little too close to the gravity point. She watched, grimly, as the enemy attack took shape and form. It looked like an uncontrolled and uncontrollable swarm, but she knew better. They’d enhanced their coordination over the last few years. They might well have duplicated Admiral Webster’s command missiles too.

    We gave them the idea, she thought. What other tricks have they managed to copy?

    “Fire,” she ordered, putting the thought aside. The Tokomak were already firing a second barrage. “And deploy additional ECM.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    The wave of human missiles passed through the wave of alien missiles and continued towards its targets. Hoshiko watched them hungrily, trusting her subordinates to handle the point defence. They didn’t need micromanagement. They’d drilled so extensively that they could handle it in their sleep. The Tokomak had drilled too, she realised. Their point defence looked to have significantly improved in the last few years.

    We probably removed some of their more thick-headed officers for them, she thought. The irony of actually doing the Tokomak a favour by kicking their ass irritated her more than she cared to admit. She had no idea what had happened on the alien homeworld, but it was clear that the new regime was going to be far more dangerous in the long run. The survivors learnt from the shock of defeat.

    “Admiral, they’re launching a new type of missile,” Yolanda said. “They’re ... they’re aimed at the hammers.”

    Hoshiko blinked. The hammers didn't mount conventional drives. Instead, they carried a powerful gravity well generator that produced a small black hole, which dragged the generator after it on an endless charge through space until the hammer hit something hard enough to destroy it. There was no point in trying to engage them with countermissiles or point defence because the black hole would swallow anything aimed at the missile. No force shield could stop them. The only real defence was to get out of the way.

    “Redirect the recon drones to watch the results,” she ordered, curtly. The Tokomak had seen hammers in action. If they’d come up with a countermeasure ... it didn’t bode well for the future. “And direct what they see to the analysis deck.”

    Her eyes narrowed. The countermissiles looked more like conventional antiship missiles than standard antimissile missiles. Her mind raced. It was rare for anyone to use antimissile missiles. Energy weapons were generally far more efficient. But the Tokomak had something in mind ...

    The first countermissile approached the hammer ... and exploded. Hoshiko blinked as the live feed from a handful of seeker heads and recon drones cut off abruptly. The hammer was gone, the remnants of the black hole already fading out of existence. Space didn’t like being twisted into a pretzel. Hoshiko had heard people speculate that twisting the fabric of space-time would eventually start tearing holes in it, although most scientists were dismissive of the concept. Black holes were not gateways to other dimensions. They were merely massive gravity wells that sucked in and compressed everything, even light.

    “Antimatter,” Yolanda said. She sounded shaken. “Those missiles are crammed with antimatter!”

    Hoshiko swallowed a thoroughly undignified curse. She’d never consider the Tokomak unimaginative again. They’d come up with a neat countermeasure, one that was already proving all too effective. The antimatter blast had been large enough to destroy the gravity generator and take out the hammer. It had its downside - the blast had probably also damaged their sensors - but they’d had no choice. The hammers would have smashed their battlestations if they’d been allowed to plunge into their targets.

    “Clever,” she said. Only a handful of her missiles had survived long enough to reach their targets and strike home. “Fire the second salvo.”

    Yolanda looked up. “Including the hammers?”

    Hoshiko considered it for a moment. She had, for once, an abundance of hammers. And yet, she couldn't afford to waste them. How many antimatter missiles did the enemy have? The Tokomak didn’t normally store large quantities of antimatter on their battlestations, fearing a containment breach, but times were far from normal. The facilities at Apsidal could certainly produce vast quantities of antimatter at a moment’s notice.

    “No,” she said, reluctantly. “Conventional missiles.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. Her hands danced across her console. “Missiles firing ... now.”

    Hoshiko nodded, then turned her attention to the display. The human datanet had updated rapidly as the sensors picked apart the alien point defence network, locating weak points and directing missiles to take advantage of them. It looked as though the Tokomak were still using a strictly-hierarchical system, with orders coming down from a handful of flagships, rather than a more decentralised system. The datanet took full advantage, pointing the first clusters of missiles straight towards the flagships. Hoshiko smiled, grimly, as the enemy command network began to fall apart. The system simply wasn't designed to designate another flagship in a hurry.

    They haven’t changed that much, then, she thought. Cut off from the network, each enemy ship was effectively fighting alone. They don’t give their junior officers much independence.

    She pushed the thought aside for later consideration, then looked at Yolanda. “It’s time to finish this,” she said. “Order the fleet to advance.”

    At least we proved we could stop their gravity-well missiles, Yosho thought. It was a satisfying thought, even though damage was mounting rapidly. The humans were knocking down his point defence networks almost as fast as he could put them together. His station was tough, designed to soak up blows that would destroy a starship, but its shields were already fluctuating rapidly under the constant bombardment. They know their weapons are not invincible any more.

    He smiled, holding onto his chair as another impact ran through the giant fortress. The damage control teams were working hard - he’d drilled them extensively, just to make it clear that nothing could be taken for granted any longer - but it was only a matter of time. His fleet was being systematically smashed to rubble. The only consolation was that he’d hurt the humans too.

    “Order the remainder of the fleet to escape through the gravity point,” he said. There was no point in letting them be destroyed, now the point defence network had been knocked offline completely. “And then divert all power to weapons and shields.”

    Another impact ran through the station. He muttered an ancient curse under his breath, knowing that he was about to die. The humans had been hurt, but ... but not enough. And yet, he’d achieved one objective. He’d warned them that the Tokomak were no longer limited to technology that had been old when they had been crawling in the mud. They would be just a little bit unsure, now, of what to expect. And it would make them hesitant to advance further up the chain.

    And the main fleet is at N-Gann, he thought. The Empress is closer than the barbarians think.

    Leaning back in his chair, he watched the missiles fly ... and waited patiently for the end.

    “The enemy fleet is retreating,” Yolanda said. “They’re heading through the gravity point.”

    “And waiting for us on the far side, no doubt,” Hoshiko said. She was surprised the Tokomak hadn’t attempted to retreat earlier. There was no saving the fortresses, but the starships could live to fight another day. “Redirect as many missiles as possible to take them out before they can escape.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”
    Hoshiko nodded, then directed her attention back to the battlestations. One of them had been battered into uselessness, but the other four were still firing. The Tokomak had designed them to take a beating. Their shields were failing badly, allowing her missiles to slam into their hulls, but they were surviving. She allowed herself a moment of droll admiration. The Tokomak designers had done a very good job.

    And they’re buying time, she thought. Who knew how close the enemy fleet truly was? And we don’t have time to waste.

    “Target the remaining fortresses with hammers,” she said, shortly. The fortresses had been battered so badly that it was unlikely they could see the hammers coming, let alone launch countermissiles in time to save themselves. Even if they could, she doubted they would prove effective. “Fire.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said. She keyed her console. “Firing ... now.”

    Hoshiko leaned forward, watching as the four streaks of light sliced through space and slammed into the giant fortresses, crashing through their shields and armour as if they were nothing more than paper. They were so massive that even the hammers couldn't destroy them with a single blow, but their fire slacked rapidly and died. One fortress vanished in a fireball - Hoshiko guessed an antimatter chamber must have lost containment - while the remaining three crumpled. There was no hope of further resistance.

    She sucked in a breath. “Deploy Task Force 3.4 and 3.5 to hold the gravity point,” she ordered. “Inform Commodore Yu that the lockdown contingency is now in effect. He is to hold the gravity point unless confronted by superior force.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Hoshiko nodded. Commodore Yu would do what he could, but if the Tokomak arrived in force in the next couple of days her fleet would have have extreme difficulty holding the system. She keyed her console, ordering the steady stream of reinforcements from the Garza Point to make their way directly to the Mokpo Point. Yu would need the reinforcements.

    She took a breath. “Damage report?”

    “We lost five cruisers and one destroyer,” Yolanda said. “Seven other ships took varying degrees of damage: Houston is probably beyond immediate repair, but the others claim they can be brought back to full readiness in less than a day.”

    Hoshiko allowed herself a moment of relief. She’d expected worse, far worse. The enemy had pulled off a couple of surprises of their own, both unanticipated. She didn’t like the degree of imagination they were showing. It wasn’t much, by human standards, but it was more than she’d expected from them. The Tokomak had spent the last thousand years trying to keep the galaxy from changing. They hadn't encouraged their people to be imaginative.

    “Direct Houston to return to the Garza Point and link up with the mobile repair ships,” Hoshiko ordered. If Houston could be repaired, she would be. If not ... she’d have to be abandoned and her crew placed in the personnel pool for redeployment. “And then contact the remainder of the fleet. It’s time to hit the planet.”
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    “Now, that is impressive,” Trooper Rowe breathed.

    “Quiet,” Martin snapped. They were in open space, with nothing but their battlesuits for protection. If they were detected, they’d be killed. “Maintain radio silence.”

    It was an impressive sight, he had to admit. The Apsidal Ring was immense, wrapped around the entire planet like a giant donut. His mind refused to grasp the sheer size of the ring. It was so big that he could see it with the naked eye, even though they were thousands of miles away. There were countries on Earth that were smaller than the Apsidal Ring. It grew bigger and bigger as they approached, practically blocking out the planet below. He wondered, grimly, just how the locals coped with a permanent shadow. The ring was large enough to block out the sun.

    The Solar Union never built anything so large, he thought. There had been plans for starships large enough to pass for cities, but none of them had ever made it off the drawing board. The Solar Union had no interest in building planetary rings, let alone Ringworlds or Dyson Spheres. And how are we meant to capture it?

    Alerts flashed up in front of his eyes as they fell towards their target. The planet was at war with itself, the underclass rising up to wage war on their betters. Some of them were screaming for human help, others were trying to surrender in exchange for protection ... the briefing had made it clear that nothing could be trusted. Martin understood, all too well. The locals would have countless grudges to pay off, which would make peacekeeping difficult, while their former masters would expect humanity to put them back on top. And even if they didn't, the locals would fear betrayal. They might fret that humanity would become nothing more than a new set of masters.

    He gritted his teeth as his suit reported plasma bursts in space. The planetary defences were engaging the fleet, despite the war on the ground. Perhaps there wasn't a war on the ground, perhaps ... it didn't seem likely, but it wouldn't be the first time someone had tried to lure the marines into a trap. He checked the live feed from the fleet and frowned. The planetary defence centres - and smaller bases mounted on the ring - were firing on the fleet. It wouldn’t be long before the fleet would have to engage with heavy weapons.

    Unless the rebels can take the PDCs, he thought. He doubted it was possible, unless the defenders were mind-numbingly incompetent. Perhaps they’ll smuggle nukes under the PDCs and blow them to hell.

    He pushed the thought out of his mind as his suit twisted. His perspective twisted too - he was rising up towards the ring, he was falling down towards the ring - making his head spin for a long chilling moment. And then the ring grew larger and larger, tiny blisters on its surface becoming skyscraper-sized constructions that looked strikingly unfriendly. The ring had looked pretty, from thousands of miles away, but up close it was ugly as hell. There was something about it that looked unfinished, as if construction had stopped halfway. The reports had suggested that large chunks of its interior had never really been used.

    They have more land surface than they know what to do with, he thought, as the marines landed neatly on the metal surface. It was just like standing on a planetary surface, right down to the gravity. He could delude himself that he wasn't in space, if he wished. I wonder why they didn't turn it into living space.

    He checked the latest updates, then led the way towards the nearest airlock. If intelligence was right, there was a control centre only a few miles into the ring. If not ... they’d still be in an excellent position to block the orbital towers and open the path to the planet below. The Tokomak wouldn't take the risk of firing on the ring itself, even if the humans took complete control. They’d have to come up and fight to recapture it.

    A sense of unreality settled over him as they jogged across the ring. He felt like an ant crawling across something incomprehensibly vast. Giant structures poked out of the ring and reached up towards the sky, their purpose a complete unknown; freighters and interplanetary transports hung in the sky, so close he could make them out with the naked eye. He’d been in alien environments before, real and simulated, and he could honestly say that this was the strangest environment he’d ever seen. He felt tiny. It defied belief that a relative handful of marines - or even the entire division - could capture the ring.

    We never realise just how big space truly is until we see it, he thought, recalling basic training. The Drill Instructors had taken pains to point out that something that looked easy on paper might be very difficult in real life. Marines had often found themselves fighting bitterly to take and retake a relatively small patch of ground. REMFs might wonder why it took so long to travel a single mile, but the truth was that the plans never accounted for the enemy. And the only territory we control is the territory under our guns.

    A flash of light caught his attention as they reached the hatch. He glanced up, noting a pair of freighters slowly slipping away from the ring, then opened the hatch. The airlock inside was huge, as if the inhabitants were giants. It wasn't uncommon on multiracial structures, he knew from experience, but it still made him feel uneasy. He couldn't help feeling relieved when they made it through the inner airlock and into the ring itself. It was still vast, still incomprehensibly alien, but at least it wasn't discomforting.

    “Deploy snoops,” he ordered, as his suit checked their position against the map. “And follow me.”

    The interior of the ring was oddly unfinished too, as if the Galactics had decided there was no point in trying to make it look habitable. It reminded him of a warehouse he’d once worked, before the gangbangers had forced the owners to close down and move away. Perhaps it was a warehouse. The spacers would want places to store their goods while waiting for a starship or transhipment down to the planet. There might be other, more developed, sections of the ring a few thousand miles away.

    They flew on, using the suit’s antigravity field to fly through the corridors at breakneck speed. Everything seemed to be larger, even the elevator shafts. They passed through giant compartments that might have been warehouses - or football fields - without seeing a single inhabitant. Even the snoops had found nothing. It made him wonder if the Tokomak had had time to evacuate the entire section. He was almost relieved when they approached the command centre and ran into resistance.

    They don’t look prepared for us, he thought, as plasma bolts sizzled through the air. They were handheld burners, not heavy weapons. His suit could take a number of hits without losing integrity. What happened to their heavy weapons?

    He assessed the situation quickly. The enemy commander didn’t strike him as a professional soldier, but he hadn’t done a bad job. He’d put his forces, such as they were, in a bottleneck, forcing Martin to come to him if he wanted to break through to the command centre. There was no way to know, either, what might be holding back, waiting for Martin to commit himself. The snoops were encountering jamming fields and counter-drones as they tried to probe their way towards the command centre. For all he knew, the enemy commander could have put his expendable forces on the front line while conserving his real forces for the counterattack.

    Not that it matters, he thought. We could take out the entire ring if we wanted.

    “We’ll clear the way with plasma grenades,” he said. “Sergeant ...”

    His suit flashed up an alert. Someone was trying to call him.

    Martin blinked. “A Galactic?”

    He hesitated, suddenly unsure of himself. The message was coming from the command centre, although it wasn’t coming over the ring’s communications network. And that meant ... what? A rebel? A spy? Or someone who wanted to make contact without having it recorded? He wondered, briefly, if he should relay the message to Major Griffin, but the major was on the other side of the planet. Martin was the man on the spot.

    “Put it through,” he ordered.

    A sibilant voice, like a child with a lisp, echoed over the communications network. “Is this the human commander?”

    Martin shivered. The voice was indisputably alien. “Yes.”

    “We will surrender, in exchange for protection,” the voice said. “The” - the next word was unfamiliar to Martin - “are at the airlocks.”

    Martin hesitated, taking a moment to run the message through the suit’s translator. There was no exact translation, but it came across roughly as shit-scum. Martin cursed under his breath, realising just what sort of headache they’d stumbled into. The Tokomak had to have cleared the entire sector when they’d realised the system was under attack, only to discover that their panic had inspired the underclass to rise up against them. They no longer looked invincible ...

    “Order your defenders to stand down,” he said, finally. He had orders to accept surrenders if they were offered. “Turn over all command keys to us, open your datanets and give us full cooperation in taking control. And, in exchange for that, we will grant you protection.”

    There was a long pause. Martin forced himself to wait, despite a grim awareness that they might be running out of time. The Tokomak might just be stalling, hoping to find some way to retake the advantage. And yet ... the enemy fire slacked and died. An uneasy silence fell over the chamber.

    “We accept your terms,” the sibilant voice said.

    Martin exchanged glances with Sergeant Howe, then slowly walked down the corridor. A small collection of aliens stood at the far end, their weapons lying in a heap on the ground. It was a multiracial group, with at least five different alien races represented. Martin was surprised to see that not all of them were Galactics, although he supposed he should have expected it. There were always members of the junior races who were willing to collaborate with their masters, even at the expense of their own kind. Humans had collaborated too.

    He detailed two of his men to watch the prisoners, then stepped into the command centre itself. It looked weirdly like a circular throne room, with the commander - a Tokomak - seated in the exact centre, allowing him to look down on everyone else. Most of the senior officers were Tokomak, save for a couple of Harmonies. Martin eyed the latter two suspiciously. The Harmonies had a reputation for backstabbing since they’d lured Odyssey to their system and tried to capture her.

    The commander stood and held out a set of code-keys. Martin took them, realising that it was a gesture of surrender as much as anything else, then nodded to his men to take control of the system. The Galactics had locked their computers, but the code-keys unlocked them instantly. Martin allowed his suit to access the network and scan for potential trouble while the prisoners were removed to somewhere a little safer. It wasn’t particularly surprising to discover that their captives hadn't had control of the entire ring. That rested in the planetary governor’s hands.

    “Shit,” Sergeant Howe muttered. “Look at that.”

    Martin looked at the monitor. A swarm of aliens were pressing against a set of heavy airlocks while, behind them, a handful of more organised rebels were approaching with cutting tools. There were thousands of rebels in that one sector alone. No wonder the Tokomak had surrendered so quickly. They’d known there was no hope of saving themselves if the rebels overwhelmed the defences. Their plasma burners wouldn’t last forever.

    He forced himself to think. The snoops were still reporting no contacts, outside the command centre itself, which meant ... he poked the system until it threw up a location. He’d half-hoped the rebels might be hundreds of miles away, but they were on the other side of the main airlock, far too close for comfort. And he couldn't think of any way to stop them without deadly force. A stun bolt that would put a member of one race out of commission would either kill - or merely irritate - another.

    “Close the hatches between the main airlock and here,” he ordered. It wouldn’t slow the rebels down for long, but it would buy him some time. “And then deploy half the troop to ... to here.”

    He tapped a location on the map, cursing under his breath. Mobs simply didn’t listen to reason. Human mobs didn't, in any case, and he doubted it would be different for the aliens. And that meant ... he was going to have to use force, if reason wasn’t enough. There was no way he could get the prisoners out of the ring before it was too late ... and besides, even if he could, he couldn't allow the rebels to tear the command centre to bits. They needed that orbital tower to get troops down to the surface.

    “Request additional troops from the fleet,” he said, although he doubted that reinforcements would get to the ring in time to be useful. There was so much electromagnetic disruption in the high orbitals that no one would risk teleporting. “And then take command here. I’ll be at the front.”

    He ignored the sergeant’s protest and headed down towards the blockade, trying desperately to think of a peaceful solution. But he’d seen enough riots - at refugee camps, at detention centres - to know that there probably wasn't one. Their suits carried non-lethal weapons, but with aliens involved ... it was hard to be sure what was truly non-lethal. His mind ran around and around in circles. They might have to hurt the people they’d come to help.

    The hatch burst open. A torrent of aliens poured in. Martin felt a flicker of pity for the ones at the front, the ones who were being pushed forward and would be trampled if they fell. One of his brothers had died in a protest march, years ago. He’d fallen, according to the official report, and been crushed to death. Martin hadn’t believed the report, not then. It had been easier to blame everything on everyone but his brother. And yet, Charlie had always been talking about violence ...

    “ATTENTION,” he said, using the suit’s speakers to amplify his voice. The aliens recoiled as the sound blasted into their ears. It would be acutely painful for a human. He tried not to think about what it might do to them. “THIS SECTOR HAS BEEN SECURED BY THE GALACTIC ALLIANCE. IT IS NOW UNDER OUR PROTECTION. YOU NEED TO RETURN TO YOUR QUARTERS AND WAIT.”

    The alien mass seemed to waver. Martin noted over a dozen different alien races in the mix, all of them from servile races. He thought some of his ancestors would approve of them trying to free themselves, even though their revolution would have ended very badly if the human ships had been driven out of the system. But he couldn't allow the aliens to ransack the sector. The engineers were already reporting that the orbital elevators could be put back into service, with a little work, or the tubes opened up to allow a rapid and sheltered descent to the planet. His reinforcements would probably pause long enough to say hello and then hurry down to the surface. He wanted - he needed - to go with them.


    “Send out the childless ones,” a voice called. The speaker looked rather like an oversized chicken, although the nasty-looking beak and unpleasant glint in his eye robbed his appearance of any humour. “Let us peck them to death!”

    The mob roared with agreement, although they didn't try to move forward. Martin didn’t know why. They might not trust the humans to deal with the prisoners properly ... or they might think that nothing short of pecking them to death themselves would satisfy their lust for revenge. Martin didn’t really blame them. Slaves sometimes needed to watch their former masters burn. But he had his orders.


    There was a long, chilling pause. Martin braced himself, trying to guess what the mob would do. It seemed to be a universal law that a mob’s intelligence was inversely proportional to the number of people in it. And all it would take to start a riot - and a slaughter - would be one idiot saying the wrong thing. He looked at the mass of aliens, silently urging them to go home and wait ...

    And then, slowly, they turned away.

    Martin let out a sigh of relief. There hadn't been any real danger to him, as far as he could tell, but he hadn't wanted to kill thousands of aliens. He’d wanted ...

    “Let them go,” he ordered, quietly. They’d have to set up forcefields, just in case the mob decided it had been given a raw deal and returned. “Sergeant, do we have any update on those reinforcements?”

    “They’re coming down the pipeline now,” Howe said. “They’ll be here in a couple of minutes. But they’re going on to the planetary surface.”

    “Lucky bastards,” Martin said. He ignored the sergeant’s snort. “I wish I was going down too.”

    “Cheer up, sir,” Howe said. “There will be plenty of other tempting opportunities to commit suicide in the future.”
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    “PDC Four is still holding out,” Yolanda reported. “But the majority of the planet is quiet.”

    “For a given value of quiet,” Hoshiko said.

    She shook her head in disbelief. The planetary government had surrendered, once the Apsidal Ring had been captured, but there were countless riots and purges breaking out on the planet’s surface. Hoshiko hadn’t seen anything like it, even during aftermath of the Druavrok War. The former slaves were turning on their masters with a brutality unmatched since the collapse of the United States. Appeals from orbit for patience and restraint had simply been ignored. The slaves wanted their pound of flesh and no one, even humanity, could deny them.

    “How’s the refugee situation coming along?”

    “We have most of the former masters and their dependents on their way to the orbital towers and the ring now,” Yolanda said, checking her records. “Civil Affairs thinks we will be dealing with millions of refugees, eventually. The slaves aren’t being very discriminating, Admiral. They’re attacking every Galactic on the surface.”

    “We’ll save as many as we can,” Hoshiko said. Providing protection was part of the terms of surrender, but there were limits. She wasn't going to risk an open confrontation with the rebels, not when she might need them later. “Getting them further away is going to be a major headache.”

    “The logistics will be impossible, despite the ships we’ve seized,” Yolanda said. “It would take every ship in the fleet years to move the refugees to the next star system. And there are no facilities at Mokpo to house them.”

    Hoshiko nodded, curtly. Something would have to be done, but what? She couldn't afford to leave the refugees on the ring indefinitely. If nothing else, their mere presence posed a security threat. The Galactics weren't very good at acting on their own initiative, without orders from higher up the food chain, but it would only take one of them to start real trouble at the worst possible time. The marines were already badly overstretched.

    And that PDC is still holding out, she thought, sourly. The planetary government had ordered the PDC to surrender, but the CO had refused. And his forcefield was strong enough to keep her from simply dropping rocks on his head. The force she’d need to crack the field would do unacceptable damage to the surrounding area. We might be able to starve them out, but it would take years.

    Yolanda looked up. “Major Singh had an idea, Admiral.”

    Hoshiko lifted her eyebrows. Major Singh was an engineering officer, not someone in the chain of command. She’d assigned him to inspect the orbital towers and the ring itself, both to see if it was still stable after the battle and to decide if it was worth duplicating. She had no idea if the Solar Union would be genuinely interested in building rings of its own, but she could see the advantages. Apsidal moved millions of tons of freight - and millions of people - between the surface and the ring every day. There was no way teleporting could move so much material without unacceptable energy costs.


    “He thought we could disconnect the ring from the orbital towers, then push it away from the planet and turn it into a giant space station,” Yolanda said. “The refugees would then be safe, without interfering with anyone else.”

    Hoshiko had to fight to keep from giggling. Major Singh didn't think small. It made her wonder if he’d join the Extreme Construction Society, once he served his time in the navy and returned to civilian life. She’d seen some of their plans. They made Dyson Spheres look small. She couldn't imagine any responsible government agreeing to waste resources on what was effectively a giant vanity project for the entire human race.

    “I think it would be too risky,” she said, finally. “And it would piss off the provisional government. Speaking of which ...?”

    Yolanda picked up the unspoken question. “The various rebel groups are pulling together now,” she said. “They’re promised they’ll appoint a representative soon.”

    “We’ll see,” Hoshiko said. In her experience, provisional governments took years to form and rarely wielded much authority, at least at first. “They might not hold together for long.”

    She sighed. The rebels had been held together by an overpowering threat. They’d known, after centuries of having their cells broken open and countless members dispatched to penal colonies that were effectively death sentences, that they had to remain united against the planetary government. But now they’d won - or at least they’d been liberated - and all the issues that had been buried under the urgent need to fight would come bubbling to the surface. Who would rule Apsidal? And how would it be ruled? Would the different races manage to live together? Or would they break up into different factions and start fighting?

    Her lips twitched. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People's Front.

    She smiled, remembering Movie Night when she’d been a child and her parents had been introducing her to the classics, then pushed the thought aside as she turned her attention to the reports. The Mokpo Point was now heavily guarded, with a number of prefabricated fortresses being hastily assembled and manned to provide additional cover. Hoshiko would have preferred to rely on a mobile defence, but she had to admit the fortresses could soak up a hell of a lot of incoming fire. The Tokomak fortresses had proved that during the first engagement. It wouldn't be too long before the Tokomak copied the assault pods and put them into production.

    They have an industrial base at N-Gann, devoted to supporting their fleet, she thought, grimly. They can just start churning out assault pods there and funnelling them up the chain towards us.

    It was a worrying thought. The one thing the planetary government had been unable or unwilling to do was tell her when the main enemy fleet was supposed to arrive. They knew it was coming - they’d said as much, when she’d asked - but they didn’t know when. Hoshiko had no idea if they were telling the truth or not, although she suspected they were genuinely ignorant. The Tokomak CO wouldn't have given them a precise time. There was a good chance the fleet would be delayed, simply by having to funnel thousands of starships through the gravity points one by one. It was something she hadn't really appreciated until she’d had to take her own fleet through the gravity points.

    She shook her head, again. So far, everything had gone according to plan. She’d secured the system, landed troops on the planet’s surface and begun the immense task of turning the planet’s industries into a support base for her fleet. Given a few weeks, they’d start churning out vast quantities of everything from missiles to mines. Minefields were normally useless in interstellar war, but not when the enemy had to come through the gravity points. It was clear why it had taken so long for a genuine interstellar hegemony to arise. Waging interstellar war through the gravity points alone was immensely costly for the attacker, while giving the defender nearly every possible advantage. It made her wonder why anyone had bothered.

    “Admiral, we just received a message from the surface,” Yolanda said. “The provisional government has finally appointed a speaker. He’s requesting a meeting with you at your earliest convenience.”

    Hoshiko glanced at the status board, already knowing what she’d see. There was nothing that required her attention. Her subordinates were handling everything. They didn't need her peering over their shoulders and making unhelpful remarks. She sighed, then stood. She’d have to wear her dress uniform for the diplomatic meeting. It would probably be lost on the aliens - they paid as little attention to human dress codes as humans paid to theirs - but not on the folks back home. Someone would probably make a terrible fuss if she wasn’t dressed to the nines.

    Stupid, she thought. The aliens wouldn’t care if I was stark naked.

    “Arrange to have him teleported up in thirty minutes and escorted to the briefing room,” she said, as she turned to the hatch. “The marines are to keep a sharp eye on him.”

    “Aye, Admiral.”

    Hoshiko changed rapidly, inspected her appearance in the reflector field and walked back into the briefing room. The Galactics were stiffly formal in all diplomatic discussions - although even they had to make allowances for different races having different ideas - but she had no idea how the rebels would act. Did they have anyone trained in diplomacy? If they did, did they trust that person? Or would they be rough and crude and desperately posturing to hide their essential weakness? Hoshiko wished, suddenly, that the fleet had brought someone from the Diplomatic Corps. But the planners had insisted on having a ready-made excuse to disown any agreements she made, if they considered it necessary.

    Weasels, she thought, with a twinge of disgust. As if I’d give away Sol during the opening talks.

    The hatch opened, revealing a giant alien. Hoshiko held up one hand in the approved greeting, then nodded her head. The alien looked like a giant chicken, but somehow there was nothing amusing about its appearance. She’d met members of the avian race before, during the Druavrok War. They were a servile race, as far as the Galactics were concerned; they tended to be used as low-level bureaucrats to keep the system operating smoothly. And yet, she’d met enough of them to know they hated their masters as thoroughly as most of the other servile races. She wasn't surprised to know that one of them had been leading a rebel cell. They were very good organisers.

    And genderless, she reminded herself. They can both lay eggs and fertilise them.

    “I greet you,” she said, in careful Galactic. The hatch hissed closed as the alien advanced forward. “And I welcome you to my ship.”

    The alien’s beak opened. “I greet you,” it said. Up close, it smelt faintly rank. There was something sinister about its voice. “We thank you for your assistance in freeing our world.”

    Hoshiko nodded, but the alien wasn’t finished. “We also demand that you hand over the” - Hoshiko didn’t know the next word, but it didn’t sound pleasant - “for judgement, particularly those who are also us.”

    The ones who stayed loyal, Hoshiko thought. There had been members of the speaker’s race who’d been taken into custody, simply for staying with their masters. She wondered, idly, why they’d stayed loyal. Did they think their masters would be back on top soon? Or were they too frightened to move against them? But we gave them our protection.

    “We gave them our protection, in exchange for their surrender,” she said, putting the thought into words. “If we hadn't done that, speaker, it would have been far harder to liberate the planet.”

    The speaker’s beady eyes seemed to spin in their sockets. “They are ours to judge, particularly the traitors,” it said. “We must pass sentence on them.”

    “We have to honour the terms of surrender,” Hoshiko told him, flatly. “Now, can we discuss ...?”

    “We also demand that you evacuate them from the ring,” the speaker said, as if she hadn’t spoken. “That ring is ours.”

    “We will remove them when we can figure out a way to do it,” Hoshiko said. “Would you be willing to grant them safety on the planet’s surface?”

    “It is our world,” the speaker said. He made a loud whistling sound. “We do not want it ... contaminated.”

    Hoshiko cleared her throat. “The matter is now closed,” she said, firmly. “Are you willing to assist us in our war?”

    The alien eyed her, then twitched its beak. “Yes,” it said. “It will be a war of revenge. We will assist you in burning the monsters from the skies.”

    It looked at her, sharply. “And we demand that you turn the industries over to us at once,” it added. “They are ours.”

    “We will discuss that once you have a provisional government,” Hoshiko said. Technically, she was the legal ruler of the system. It was her fleet that controlled the high orbitals and asserted authority. But the Solar Union had no real interest in annexing Apsidal. There was nothing to be gained by trying. “You also need to think about who runs those industries and why.”

    “They are ours,” the alien repeated. “And we will fight for them.”

    “You will have to,” Hoshiko said. “The Tokomak have already dispatched a fleet to recapture Apsidal. Will you work with us to keep the system?”

    The speaker twitched, again. “Do we have a choice?”

    “No,” Hoshiko said. The provisional government might be able to declare neutrality, but she doubted it would stick. Even if its own people didn't demand that they fought, the Tokomak would be unlikely to let the murder of so many Galactics go unpunished. The best Apsidal could hope for would be orbital bombardment and they knew it. “You have to fight with us or fight alone.”

    The discussion raged backwards and forwards for nearly an hour before she could pronounce herself satisfied. It hadn't been a pleasant discussion, even though both sides had been in conceptual agreement. The speaker seemed unsure if his system had merely traded hands or if it had been truly liberated. Hoshiko didn't really blame him for being confused. Apsidal - or, rather, the warp points - were important enough that no one would simply give them up without a fight. He’d come to the meeting expecting Hoshiko to dictate terms to him. He certainly hadn't expected her to promise to hand the gravity points over as soon as the enemy fleet was defeated.

    She watched the alien go, with the first draft of a treaty, then sat down and forced herself to relax. Matters could have gone a great deal worse. Hell, there’d been times when she had been tempted to dictate terms. But they’d found some kind of resolution ... she hoped. It helped that they had a common enemy. Afterwards ... who knew what was going to happen?

    Her wristcom bleeped. “Admiral, Commodore Yu has signalled that the first level of defences are now in place,” Yolanda said. “His crews need their rest.”

    Hoshiko laughed. The prefabricated fortresses had been designed to be put together in a hurry - and her crews had practiced, time and time again, before they left Sol - but she was still impressed they’d been put together so quickly. Commodore Yu’s men, knowing what was at stake, had worked double and even triple shifts to get it done. They would definitely need a rest.

    “Very good,” she said. The construction crews would have to be put down for medals. She’d see to it personally. “Has anything poked through from the other side?”

    “No, Admiral,” Hoshiko said. “Traffic appears to have dried up completely.”

    That will cause some problems, Hoshiko thought, wryly. The Galactic economy wasn't dependent on the Apsidal Chain, but losing control of the gravity point nexus would have to hurt. Freighters that didn’t reach their destinations on time would cause all sorts of knock-on effects. Her intelligence staff had attempted to model the likely outcome, but they’d eventually been forced to admit that there were too many variables to make any projections that were any better than guesswork. And if it does hurt the bastards, it will make them all the more determined to recover this system.

    She stood, brushing down her uniform. A faint smell hung in the air, fading slowly. She took a breath, then headed for the hatch. The recyclers would purify the air. She smiled, humourlessly, at the thought. There was a reason why multiracial starships were rare. Issues that were meaningless on planetary surfaces became deadly serious in confined spaces. Even the Galactics were reluctant to have members of two different races serving together.

    “Contact the LinkShip,” she ordered, as she walked back to her cabin. “I want a direct link to her captain.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Yolanda said.

    Hoshiko wished for a shower, but she didn't have time. Instead, she sat down at her desk as soon as she entered her cabin and activated the holographic implant. The world went dark, just for a second. And then she was standing in the LinkShip. It felt almost as if she had teleported, although she was only a holographic projection. She had no more substance than a ghost.

    And walking around like this can be dangerous, she reminded herself. The holographic implant was designed to read her intentions and feed them to the hologram, but there had been times - when she’d started using the system - that she’d walked into walls because her mind had been hundreds of miles away. Her image had been walking, but so had her body. I have to be careful.

    She turned, slowly. Hameeda was sitting in a chair, reading a physical book. A Heinlein, Hoshiko noted. Starship Troopers. There were a dozen cantons that took the book as gospel and based themselves on its teachings. She hadn't thought Hameeda came from one of them.

    “Admiral,” Hameeda said. She was wearing a black shirt and slacks, rather than her uniform. It made her look unprofessional, but at least she didn't look as if she was steadily wasting away. “Congratulations on your victory.”

    “It wouldn't have been possible without you,” Hoshiko told her. It was true. “And I have another job for you.”

    Hameeda stood. “Probing Mokpo?”

    “Yes,” Hoshiko said. “This time, though, the enemy will be on the alert. They’ll be watching for someone coming through the gravity point.”

    “I understand,” Hameeda said. She ran her hands through her uncombed hair. “But even their best sensors won’t spot me.”

    “I hope you’re right,” Hoshiko said. She’d served long enough to know that overconfidence could be disastrous. Hameeda had done well, but the defenders had had no reason to expect attack. This time, it would be different. “Good luck.”
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    Hameeda was not about to admit it, certainly not to Admiral Stuart, but she couldn’t help feeling a flicker of trepidation as the LinkShip slowly approached the Mokpo Point. The admiral had been right about one thing, at least: this time, the Tokomak would be expecting trouble. They might not have realised quite how Apsidal had been surveyed, before the fleet burst in through the gravity point, but they’d probably know that it had been surveyed. It was very likely that they would be watching the gravity point like hawks.

    And there’s a second problem, she thought, as she opened her awareness to peer through the ship’s sensors. I might be fired upon by my own side.

    The gravity point was surrounded with automated weapons platforms, prefabricated fortresses and - keeping a slight distance back - hundreds of starships. Minefields lurked on the edge of the gravity point, waiting for someone to poke their head into the occupied system; gunboats; single-shot energy and missile platforms watched for a clear shot at their enemies. The classic gravity point defence doctrine had been modified, in light of the assault pods. It was only a matter of time until the Tokomak developed assault pods and put them into mass production.

    A shiver ran down her spine. It was all too likely that one of those platforms would see her coming through the gravity point and open fire on her, before she had a chance to identify herself. And if that happened ... she shuddered at the thought. The LinkShip was tough, with far stronger shields than any regular ship her size, but it couldn't take so many hits indefinitely. If she was mistaken for an enemy ship ... she pushed the thought aside. She had to take the risk. She owed it to the men and women who’d died taking Apsidal.

    “Send the last copy of our records to Defiant,” she ordered, verbalising the command. “And then, take us forward.”

    She allowed her mind to blur into the datanet as they made their way through the minefield. This time, at least, she could use an IFF code without being immediately located and blown out of space, although she wasn't entirely confident it would work. The mines were mass-produced pieces of crap, little more than nuclear warheads with basic sensors attached. There was no guarantee that they wouldn't go after her, IFF or no IFF. She rather suspected that the minefields would be removed quickly, when the main offensive began, but it didn't matter. Their true function was to buy time for the real defenders to come to life. No military force could remain alert indefinitely, even with automated systems and AIs.

    The gravity point loomed up in front of her, barely visible even to gravimetric sensors. Her records noted that the Tokomak had been lucky. They’d found the Mokpo System first and stumbled through into Apsidal, rather than the other way round. The gravity point was too weak to be detected at a distance. They’d have to stumble across it if they hadn't found the other side first. She’d heard that the Galactics insisted that all starships had to keep their gravimetric sensors active at all times. Now, she thought she understood why.

    Here we go, Hameeda thought.

    She triggered the jump drive. The universe blinked, just long enough for her to be aware of it before the stars - different stars - snapped back into existence. Alerts flashed up in front of her, pointing to a dozen starships sitting some distance from the gravity point. They seemed to be watchful, but not at battlestations. She puzzled over their stance for a moment, then decided they were trying not to place unnecessary wear and tear on their systems. Losing Apsidal had had to have been a shock, particularly as the nearest naval base was two weeks away. It was almost certain that N-Gann still didn't know what had happened.

    It’s certain, unless they invented an FTL communicator, Hameeda reminded herself. Even a fast courier boat won’t have reached N-Gann by now.

    She flinched as she sensed a handful of enemy ships heading towards her. Shuttles ... no, gunboats. They were patrolling the gravity point, their sensors sweeping constantly for trouble. Hameeda moved away, as stealthily as she could. The gunboats weren’t designed for anything more complex than patrol duties, and she knew she could wipe them out in seconds, but their big sisters would have plenty of time to power up their weapons and come after the intruder. It was an unusual tactic for the Tokomak ...

    No, it isn’t, she thought, as the pieces fell into place. That’s a deployment designed to counter assault pods.

    She felt a flicker of uneasy admiration for whoever had thought of the tactic. A cluster of assault pods, transiting the gravity point, would need a handful of seconds to reorientate themselves, pick their targets and launch their missiles. The gunboats would have time - a few seconds, but time enough for automated systems - to open fire on the pods before they could fire themselves. It was clever, for the Tokomak. They’d certainly never faced pods until two days ago and they’d already devised a countermeasure.

    Crafty bastards, she thought. That’s going to hurt us if we need to mount another gravity point assault.

    The LinkShip slipped steadily away from the gravity point, its sensors draining in information from all over the system. Mokpo itself was a planet that would have been an industrial powerhouse, if it hadn't been unlucky enough to be right next door to Apsidal. The planet’s energy emissions were strong, suggesting a vibrant industrial base, but nowhere near as strong as she would have expected. The remainder of the system didn't appear to have been developed at all. Apsidal appeared to have claimed all of the investment for the sector - and then, probably, used political pressure to keep other worlds from rising up to challenge its dominance. It struck her as quite likely. Perhaps, just perhaps, humanity would find allies on Mokpo.

    If we win the war, she reminded herself. No one likes a loser.

    There were only two gravity points within the system, one leading to Apsidal and the other to GS-3532. The latter was so useless that neither the Tokomak nor anyone else had bothered to give the system a name. It would have been completely ignored if it hadn't had a second gravity point of its own, leading further up the chain towards N-Gann. The last set of reports insisted that the gravity hadn't had any defences and it looked as if that hadn't changed. She couldn’t detect any fortresses - and only a pair of starships - keeping an eye on the gravity point.

    They must be assuming that we won’t be mounting any offenses up the chain, Hameeda thought, wryly. The Tokomak were probably right, although it was also possible that they simply hadn't realised they needed to fortify the system. They’d been so insistent on leaving the gravity points undefended - to keep anyone else from turning the defences against them - that they were being forced to rush to fortify the chokepoints. We might be able to take advantage of that, if we wanted to push up the chain.

    She directed a pair of subroutines to consider the possibilities as she directed the LinkShip to move away from the gravity point. It was tempting, very tempting, to poke her head into GS-3532 and see what was waiting for her there, but she knew better. Admiral Stuart was relying on her to remain alive - or, at least, to report back before she put her life on the line again. Instead, she set course towards the planet and settled down to wait. There was no point in pushing the limits just yet.

    A stream of possible scenarios flowed through her mind. One subroutine insisted that there was a good chance of bleeding the Tokomak, if they made a stand in Mokpo or even GS-3532. Another pointed out that neither system was as central as Apsidal and trying to defend them might force Admiral Stuart to spread her fleet out too much. The enemy would certainly be trying to bring their main body to bear against the human ships. Giving them a free shot at a small deployment seemed a bad idea.

    She dismissed the subroutines - deciding what to do next was not her responsibility - and waited as the planet slowly came into range. Mokpo had a ring of its own, although it was nowhere near as big as the Apsidal Ring. Hameeda studied it for a long moment, noting that despite its smaller size it still had plenty of accommodation, then turned her attention to the planet itself. Mokpo looked nicer than Hameeda, even though it was nowhere near as wealthy. For one thing, the land surface actually looked green.

    Not that it matters, she told herself, as her sensors made a careful note of where the planetary defences were located. I won’t ever be able to take shore leave again.

    The thought stabbed into her mind, shaking her concentration. She’d known that she was confining herself to the LinkShip for the rest of her life, she’d known she going to be trapped, she’d known ... but she hadn’t really believed it. She hadn't really grasped what her commitment entailed, not at an emotional level. And now ... she could be surrounded by holograms of everything from Norwegian mountains to the Arizonian Grand Canyon, but she’d never see them with her own eyes. She could send drones, or surveillance devices, or anything ... anything, save for going down herself and taking a look. And ...

    Hameeda drew a shaky breath, ordering the ship to move away from the planet as fast as possible. She was going to be alone, in a very real sense, until the day she died. She was surrounded by entertainment - there were enough eBooks and movies and VR simulations in the library to keep a small army entertained for thousands of years - but she was going to be alone. No lover would stay on the ship for the rest of her life. No ...

    She disconnected from the datanet, trusting in the automated systems to keep them undetected. Even then, even without the helmet, there was still a steady trickle of data at the back of her mind. She didn't even have to ask to be bombarded with information, everything from the local situation - a flight of enemy gunboats two million miles away - to power curves and other engineering details that were better left in automated hands. The LinkShip would be at the back of her mind for the rest of her life.

    Damn it, she thought, as she walked through the ship on shaky legs. She loved it. The LinkShip was pretty much the single most advanced piece of technology in the entire known universe. And yet, it was also a prison. Her prison. What now?

    The datanet offered a series of suggestions, everything from getting a few hours of sleep to inviting someone she knew over for a few hours of guilt-free fun. She glared at the bulkheads, dismissing the list with a wave of her hand. The datanet was trying to help, she knew, but it couldn't help with the real problem. She was part of the ship, to all intents and purposes, and the link couldn't be cut. It couldn't even be placed in stasis ...

    Alerts flashed through her mind. She’d been detected! How? She swung around and ran towards the chair, cursing as more information came through the neural link. A flight of enemy gunboats had appeared from nowhere ... had they been under stealth themselves? Gunboats were even smaller than the LinkShip, barely larger than cargo shuttles. They couldn’t mount cloaking devices, not unless the Tokomak had had a major breakthrough. Given everything else that had happened in the last few days, she wouldn't necessarily dismiss the idea out of hand.

    There must have been a stealthed platform nearby, she thought, as she threw herself into the chair and jammed the helmet onto her head. The datalink sharpened rapidly, allowing her to see the gunboats as they swept into attack formation. And the platform directed them onto me.

    She felt her teeth draw back into a snarl as she dropped the cloaking device and brought her weapons online. There was no point in trying to hide now - and besides, she wanted to take her ship into battle. She’d run thousands of simulations, pitting the LinkShip against foes both real and fictional - she’d particularly enjoyed doing the Trench Run and blowing the Death Star out of space time and time again - but this was real. She spun around, ignoring harshly worded commands to stand down and surrender at once. This was very real.

    The gunboats opened fire with plasma guns and phasers. They were no threat to the LinkShip’s shields - her forcefields were tougher than anything smaller than a heavy cruiser - but she evaded them anyway. The datalink hummed in her mind, pushing her into more and more complex evasive patterns that left the enemy unable to score a single hit. They bunched up, seemingly very aware that they’d bitten off more than they could chew. Hameeda opened fire a second later. All nine phaser bursts struck their targets and vaporised them.

    Warning, the datanet stated. Enemy cruiser inbound.

    Hameeda nodded. The light cruiser was a more significant threat than the gunboats, if she let the ship get into range. She could turn and flee, leaving the cruiser eating her dust; she could even play chicken, charging at the enemy ship and veering away at the last possible moment before collision. That would give the enemy a fright. Or she could press her advantage and take the cruiser out. It was a potential threat to the human fleet, when - if - it entered the system.

    But that would give them too much information about me, she thought, soberly. She didn't want to think about it. She wanted to go on the offensive. The next set of starships I encounter will be prepared for me.

    She opened her awareness, scanning the entire system. Four starships were rocketing towards her in FTL, but the remainder of the system was quiet. Someone must have sent an alert back to the planet, one that hadn’t reached the gravity point yet. Those ships hadn't moved, as far as she could tell. They certainly hadn't dropped into FTL. Her lips curved into something that could charitably be called a smile. In theory, there was no way she could take five cruisers in a straight-up engagement; in practice, she had advantages they’d never heard of. And yet ...

    The simulations tempted her. Their missiles weren't going to be able to score a hit. Her ECM would keep their energy weapons from hitting her too. She could get in close and land a series of blows, then retreat before they managed to break through the jamming and target her. And she could keep doing it until they broke off or died. As long as she was careful, she’d have nothing to fear.

    No, she told herself, firmly. Simulations were far from perfect. A single hit would be enough to take her out of the game permanently. She couldn’t afford the risk. It’s time to go.

    The LinkShip rotated, then rocketed away from the cruiser. Hameeda activated the cloaking device as soon as she was outside active sensor range, allowing the cruiser to get just a hint of her course before she vanished completely. They’d expect her to change course, she knew, but it hardly mattered. She slipped into FTL and headed straight to the gravity point, returning to normal space as she approached. The guardships hadn't heard a peep from the planet. She moved past their defences, sneaked past the gunboats and slipped into the gravity point. A moment later, she was back in Apsidal.

    Success, she thought, as she started transmitting her IFF code. There was a nasty moment when she was sure she was about to be blasted by her own side, then the automated defences stood down without firing a single shot. I made it.

    She chuckled, despite herself, as she glided away from the gravity point, her sensors seeking out Defiant. Admiral Stuart’s flagship was amongst the rest of the fleet, preparing to either repel a gravity point assault or launch one of her own. Hameeda smiled, again. The fleet could take Mokpo any time it liked, clearing out the Tokomak before they could muster any real resistance. But keeping it was quite another thing.

    “Transmit the full report to the flagship,” she ordered, as she disconnected the helmet once again. Oddly, despite her earlier fears, she felt happy. She’d enjoyed destroying the gunboats and taunting the other ships, even though she knew she was going to be chewed out for it. The Tokomak hadn't seen everything she could do, but they’d seen enough. “And then run me a bath.”

    She headed down to the ship’s bathroom, feeling tired and sweaty and yet - somehow - invigorated. She’d done something worthwhile, hadn't she? The information she’d gathered would help Admiral Stuart plan her offensive, if she decided to push into Mokpo; Hameeda had no doubt that it wouldn't be long before the LinkShip was sent to GS-3532 and even Winglet. It was unlikely she’d be allowed to cross the gulf between Winglet and N-Gann, but it hardly mattered. She’d have plenty of opportunity to hurt the enemy.

    And do it in luxury too, she thought, as she undressed and climbed into the bath. She was mildly surprised the admiral hadn’t called, but she was a very busy woman. There are midshipwomen who’d kill for a proper bathroom in their ships.

    Smiling, she leaned back into the water and closed her eyes.
    rle737ng, techsar, DarkLight and 2 others like this.
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen

    “It looks like the Dark Lord Shadye’s fortress,” Trooper Rowe breathed, as the PDC came into view. “You know, from the movies. All it needs is a giant glowing eye on top of it.”

    “We could take out the Dark Lord’s fortress with a single KEW,” Trooper Cuthbert pointed out, sardonically. “This place is a little tougher.”

    Martin kept his face expressionless as he surveyed the PDC. It did look like a fortress from a movie, although he wasn’t sure if it was from a fantasy movie or one of those grimdark universes that had been all the rage for a few short years. It was a towering construction, bristling with plasma weapons so large they dwarfed an assault shuttle, glowing with eerie light as the forcefield protecting the PDC from a KEW strike interacted with the alien atmosphere. Lightning crackled around the upper reaches of the structure, as if an evil magician was indeed practicing his spells.

    “It is impressive,” he said, finally. The PDC was still refusing to surrender, despite the remainder of the planetary government having given up the ghost. He’d heard rumours that the enemy fleet was only a few days away and that was why the PDC had refused to surrender. “But we have work to do.”

    He looked around as he led the way towards the command post. The alien environment was weird, simply because it was in permanent semi-darkness. It was meant to be morning, but to felt more like twilight. The Apsidal Ring hung high overhead, a dark line blotting out the sun and throwing the world into shadow. It wasn't as dark as he’d thought, when he’d first seen the briefing notes, but it was weird. The alien constructions nearby - he thought they were homes and offices - only made it worse. There was something about them that was subtly wrong. The absence of any visible inhabitants was the icing on the cake.

    But then, anyone with any sense will have vacated the area long ago, even though we ordered them to stay put, he thought, morbidly. They know this place is going to become a battleground soon enough.

    Major Griffin had set up his headquarters in what Martin thought might have been an alien house, once upon a time. The furniture had been pushed to one side and a handful of portable chairs and tables had been brought into the room, while a small collection of terminals had been pressed against the wall. He hoped there were no prying alien sensors looking for hints of human presence anywhere nearby. The terminals were shielded, ensuring they couldn't be detected from a distance, but the radio microbursts were all too easy to detect. They might be shelled at any moment if the aliens realised where they were.

    “Captain Douglas,” Major Griffin said. “Congratulations on your victory.”

    “It was a small one,” Martin said, modestly. “They surrendered when they saw the mob coming.”

    “But still a victory,” Major Griffin assured him. He tapped the map on the desk. “Right now, we have an uneasy stalemate with that thing” - he jerked a finger in the direction of the PDC - “and that isn’t going to change in a hurry. We can’t get to them and they can't break out.”

    “So we put a nuke under the PDC and blow them to hell,” Martin said.

    “So far, we haven’t been able to get under the complex,” Major Griffin said. “And, judging by the ones that did surrender, it might be hard to actually destroy it. The lower levels are quite heavily armoured too.”

    He shrugged. “Hopefully, they’ll surrender once they see the main fleet being smashed,” he added. “However, for the moment, I have another role for you. I want you and your men to patrol the area and become accustomed to it.”

    Martin nodded in understanding. They were an elite unit, but they’d never served on Apsidal before. It was better to learn the lie of the land now, before they had to fight to defend it. A sense of precisely how Apsidal worked would be very useful when the Tokomak arrived. He hoped the fleet would smash them, as planned, but he knew better than to assume the good guys would always win. God was on the side of the big battalions and the Tokomak had some very big battalions indeed.

    “Very good, sir,” he said.

    “You may be going back to the ring soon,” Major Griffin added. “This might be your only chance to explore Apsidal itself.”

    “Yes, sir,” Martin said. Apsidal was no bigger than Earth, although the orbital towers and the ring gave it a staggering amount of living space. There was no way he could see the entire planet, even if he devoted his entire life to the task. The space-born might think that planets were small, but the groundpounders knew better. “Do you have a local sitrep?”

    “In the datanet, but it changes frequently,” Major Griffin said. “Take nothing for granted.”

    “Yes, sir,” Martin said.

    He went outside, conferred briefly with Sergeant Howe, then downloaded the sitrep from the datanet. It was strikingly familiar, reminding him of operations on Earth. The former authority had collapsed, the new authority had very little actual authority and entire districts were being taken over by gangs and small groups of rebels who were practically identical to criminals. So far, no one had actually shot at the human troops, but Martin was grimly aware that it was just a matter of time. Their presence was welcome now, yet it wouldn’t be long before the locals started to resent it. They hadn't freed themselves, after all.

    We should have kept the battlesuits, he thought, as the squad formed up for the patrol. But some dickhead thought we’d look more friendly if we wore BDUs.

    The temperature began to rise, despite the semi-darkness, as they made their way away from the base. His eyes adapted rapidly, thanks to his enhancements, but there were still pools of shadow that worried him. Anything could be lurking in there. The squad started off laughing and joking, but silence gradually fell as the alienness of their surroundings penetrated their good humour. Martin had to keep himself from resting his finger on the trigger, even though it was bad weapons discipline and against regulations to boot. There was something about the environment that nagged at his mind.

    There were no lights in the alien buildings, no suggestion of inhabitation. And yet, the sitrep insisted that the area was inhabited. It had been an upscale housing estate, if the reports were to be trusted; a gated community, insofar as the aliens had such things. The lords and masters of the planet - rather, the subordinates of their subordinates - had lived here, while using everyone below them as slaves. It reminded him of Chicago, before the collapse had finally begun. The people who lived in the fancy homes had claimed they wanted to help the poor, but instead they’d only made matters worse.

    The Tokomak weren’t lying about their intentions, at least, Martin thought. They didn’t claim they were helping when they took over the entire known galaxy.

    Here and there, he started to see signs of movement. Faces at windows, brief glimpses of alien life before they vanished again; brief flickers of light from inside houses, drawing his attention before they were turned off. His sensors reported a faint increase in communications traffic, although it was all very low-level. He didn’t find it reassuring. There were plenty of things he could do with low-level communications that would really fuck up someone’s day.

    “All the houses look the same,” Sergeant Howe said. His voice were quiet, but Martin tensed anyway. “Look at them. They’re practically identical.”

    Martin nodded. The alien houses looked odd, just different enough to be uncanny, but the sergeant was right. They had started out exactly the same and they hadn't really changed, even as their inhabitants moved in. There didn't seem to be any customisation, none of the individuality he’d seen in the Solar Union. Perhaps the aliens didn't see any value in customising their houses. Or perhaps their housing association didn't let them. He’d heard enough grumbles from people who didn't know how lucky they were to know that housing associations could turn dictatorial very quickly.

    A flicker of light danced through the sky, high above him. He looked up in time to see it strike the distant orbital tower and vanish into the tower’s forcefields. Lightning, he realised dumbly. The orbital tower seemed to be surrounded by dark clouds, as if they and their lightning were drawn to the massive structure. He wondered, morbidly, if the tower was truly safe. The Tokomak were safety freaks, determined to remove as much risk as possible, but there were limits. Even a hundred miles from the tower, it was still an awe-inspiring construction. It would have been a marvel even without the ring blocking out the sun.

    He looked back down as his head started to spin. The tower was just too large. And the ring was unimaginable. It was easy to believe that the sky was falling, that the tower was on the verge of collapse ... he pushed the thought aside angrily, reminding himself that he’d fought battles on the hulls of giant space stations. But none of them had been so large. He looked ahead and saw a fence, blocking the road. On the other side, there was a horde of silent aliens, all from the servile races. They were staring into the gated community ... and waiting.

    They could take down the fence at any moment, Martin thought, as the squad slowly altered course to follow the fence around the compound. It wouldn't be that hard to simply push it down.

    He tensed as he felt the watching eyes following him. Crowds were always dangerously unpredictable. It would only take one person throwing a rock to start a riot - or worse - and they weren't wearing their battlesuits. He cursed the idiot who’d insisted on going in BDUs - they might as well have gone naked - and keyed his communicator, reporting back to Major Griffin. The QRF on standby near the Command Post would have battlesuits. They could tear their way through a thousand unarmoured aliens without having to worry about their safety.

    The crowd made no move, but it was still a relief when the patrol route turned away from the fence and back into the estate. Here, the houses were smaller and darker, although with more signs of life. Servant homes? Or ... or what? He couldn’t imagine the Tokomak - or any of the Galactics - choosing to live in such tiny homes. There were some Galactics who would have seen them as cruel and unusual punishment. And yet ... he’d known people who’d been prepared to live in shoeboxes, as long as it put them in the right catchment area or simply kept them away from the ghettos. He hadn't understood what had driven them until it was too late.

    A scream split the air. He hit the communicator, tapping out an emergency signal, then led his men around the corner. A young alien - a child, he thought - was running from a mob of older aliens. It was hard to be sure, but he thought the child was a Galactic ... and the others were from the servile races. They were carrying knives and a handful of other makeshift weapons, waving them around threateningly. And they didn't stop when they saw the marines.

    Martin levelled his rifle. “Stop,” he snapped. “Stop or I shoot!”

    The child kept running, right into the marines, but the others skidded to a halt. They were aliens, their faces weird and wonderful, yet Martin could read them. They were torn between charging the marines, trying to drag them down before they could be shot, or turning and running for their lives. If they’d been human, Martin would have said they’d been hyped up on something. He’d seen enough human insurgents using drugs to boost their stamina - and reduce their intelligence - to know it made it impossible to reason with them.

    He cursed under his breath. The last thing he wanted - that his superiors wanted - was an incident. He didn’t blame the servile races for wanting to kill their masters, and it was clear they weren't drawing lines between adults and children, but he couldn't allow them to run wild. The gated community was under human protection. And yet, he didn't want to kill the rioters. There had to be another way to stop them.

    “Return to your homes,” he ordered. “Or I will be forced to use deadly force.”

    The aliens stood there for a moment, glaring at him. They were a mixed group, with no less than four different races represented. Unless they were from a race with profound sexual dimorphism ... He’d heard there were Galactics who thought that all humans looked alike and couldn't even tell the difference between male and female, simply because their males looked very different from their females. But he didn't recall meeting any of these aliens before. They’d been left out of the briefing notes.

    A flicker of motion caught his attention, a half-second before the alien threw an chopping knife at him. Martin cursed as it stabbed into his shoulder, the pain unbearable for an endless moment in time before the nerve-blockers went to work. His left arm was no longer working; cursing, he dropped the rifle and scrabbled for the pistol on his belt. His men were already firing, putting the remaining aliens down. They were dead before Martin had managed to draw his pistol.

    “Fuck,” he muttered. He’d been hurt before, and it wouldn't take the medics long to fix him up, but being hit with a chopping knife was a new low. “Ouch. Damn it!”

    A crashing sound echoed from behind him. The fence had been taken down. Martin exchanged looks with Sergeant Howe, then snapped out a command to run. They were far too exposed in the open air. The alien child was right behind them, his eyes fearful. Martin put his gun back in the holster, scooped the alien up and followed his men. Behind him, he heard the sound of aliens shouting for blood.

    His communicator bleeped. “Help is on the way,” Major Griffin said. “Hold on.”

    Martin nodded, although the sound of pursuit was growing louder. He glanced back and saw flames rising in the distance. It looked as though the houses were getting torched, one by one. He hoped their inhabitants had the sense to flee. They wouldn't have a hope of escape if they stayed in their homes. The flames were already spreading. Someone had probably splashed inflammatory liquid on the buildings before they lit the match or threw the makeshift bomb or whatever. The rebels had had plenty of time to plan their uprising before the human fleet had arrived and thrown all their plans out of alignment.

    The child tightened his grip on Martin’s shoulder, a surprisingly tight grip for a child so young. Martin eyed him for a moment, wondering what species he was and what his parents had been doing on Apsidal. There were some aliens who had a very careless attitude to children and barely mourned their deaths, while others wrapped their children in cotton wool and treated them like little dolls. Martin snorted at the thought - it would have been nice to be pampered, but it wouldn’t have prepared him for adulthood - and then glanced behind him as he heard the roar growing louder. The mob had seen them.

    “Run,” he snapped.

    They picked up speed, hightailing it back to the edge of the estate. A pair of skimmers swept overhead, plasma bolts already raining down. Someone had clearly decided to take the gloves off and give the rioters a thumping, even though it wouldn’t do wonders for relationships with the provisional government. Martin didn’t blame whoever had made that call. The provisional government seemed to have very little real power. Hell, the only thing that seemed to bind it together was Admiral Stuart pretending to take them seriously.

    He handed the child over to the Civil Affairs specialists at the Command Post, once they passed through the defence lines, then sat down beside an alien building and took off his helmet. He could hear shooting in the distance, although it sounded as though things were quietening down a little. That wouldn't last for long. Aliens might not be humans, but there were times when he couldn't tell the difference. Certain things were universal and one of them was that certain communities reacted badly to outsiders coming in and poking around.

    A hand fell on his shoulder. “Long day?”

    He looked up at Major Griffin. “Yes, sir.”

    “Things will get easier,” Major Griffin assured him. “And then we’ll be moved to somewhere harder.”

    Martin shrugged. He wouldn't mind a battlefield with clear lines between friends and enemies, even if they were outnumbered ten to one. There was a certain simplicity about battlefields he’d always appreciated, despite the risk of dying horribly. The fighters didn't have to worry about figuring out who was on your side, who could be convinced to be on your side, who wanted to stay out of the fighting and who simply wanted to kill you. An insurgency was always a nightmare because someone could move from category to category at will.

    “Yes, sir,” he said, finally.

    “Good man,” Major Griffin said. His voice hardened, just slightly. “Now, you appear to be wearing an axe in your shoulder. As interesting as this fashion statement is, might I suggest you get it removed?”

    Martin glanced at the knife. “Yes, sir,” he said, unwilling to admit that he’d forgotten it was there. Between the drugs and his enhancements, he’d been almost normal. “And the child? The alien I brought in?”

    “You’ll have to check with the CA lot,” Major Griffin said. “But get that knife out first.”

    “Yes, sir,” Martin said.
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