Original Work The Long Road Home (A Learning Experience IV)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Feb 13, 2017 at 6:07.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    The Long Road Home is the fourth book in the A Learning Experience universe, following A Learning Experience, Hard Lessons and The Black Sheep. Unlike most sequels, this one starts 50 years after Book I (2 years after Book II and III) and largely follows new characters, although some characters from the first two books will make an appearance.

    You can download a sample of the first two books from my site – www.chrishanger.net – and then purchase a copy from Amazon. Or, if you will comment on this, I will forward you a copy free of charge.

    As always, comments, spelling corrections and suchlike are warmly welcomed.

    Thank you for your time

  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    In the end, the coup had been almost laughably easy.

    The Elders had never considered, not really, that one of their younger subordinates would turn on them. They’d expected Neola to sit in her quarters and wait while they patiently gathered the evidence to convict her of everything from gross incompetence to dereliction of duty and whatever other charges they managed to make stick. They certainly hadn’t expected her to start plotting a coup. Neola had known she wasn't the only youngster to resent the dominance of the Elders, but even she hadn't realised just how much resentment and dislike there actually was. Organising a coup, once she’d accepted that a coup was actually possible, had been straightforward.

    She allowed herself a tight smile as she sat in her office. The Elders had sputtered impotently when she’d marched in and taken over, but they hadn't been able to resist. There had been no need to kill them, so she’d had them all transported to a reasonably comfortable resort on Tokomak itself, well away from any communications networks they could use to rally resistance. Not that she really expected them to try. Half of the Elders had been so shocked she was surprised they hadn’t expired on the spot, while the other half had been so unhinged they’d resorted to begging. Letting them live, she was sure, was more mercy than they’d had any right to anticipate.

    And, she told herself, firmly, it was more than they deserved.

    The Elders were old. Even the youngest was a good thousand years or so older than Neola herself. And they were ossified, utterly unable to conceive that anything might be able to threaten their control over the known universe. But a new threat had arisen, a threat that had started the slow collapse of the empire. No one, not even Neola herself, had been able to comprehend that a race that had barely been out in space for fifty years would be able to threaten the Tokomak. And yet, they had ...

    Neola looked down at the reports, barely seeing the words hovering in front of her. She’d been lucky - very lucky - to survive the Battle of Earth. Her fleet had been shattered, then abandoned by her allies ... it was her fault. She’d underestimated the threat. She’d certainly underestimated humanity’s technological skill. But then, she’d been raised to believe that the Tokomak were the masters of the universe. If they couldn't do it, it couldn't be done. And yet, the humans had proved them wrong. The vast fleets that had dominated the known galaxy for thousands of years were little more than scrap metal.

    And because we have been humiliated in battle, she thought bitterly, our other allies are deserting us too.

    It shouldn't have surprised her, she told herself. The Tokomak Empire was bitterly resented by the other Galactics, despite the good it had done for the universe. The younger races wanted to strike out on their own, to build their own empires ... even though they would plunge the galaxy into war. And the older races remembered the days before the stardrive, the days when they had competed with the Tokomak as equals. They wanted to be equal again, despite the cost. Slowly, piece by piece by piece, the empire was starting to disintegrate.

    And we are not used to reacting quickly, she reminded herself. The humans can advance in leaps and bounds while we are still trying to decide what to do.

    The latest set of intelligence reports terrified her. Humanity on its own wasn't that great a threat. If worst came to worst, she could pour hundreds of thousands of starships into Sol until the human race ran out of weapons. She was sure they’d run out of missiles before they ran out of targets. But it looked as though the humans were expanding their alliance structure, inviting more and more races to join their Grand Alliance. They’d already convinced a number of middle-rank powers to consider joining, as well as fighting a successful war against a genocidal race. Given vast resources as well as their advanced technology, they might be able to put together a significant challenge in less time than she dared to think possible.

    And if we expend millions of starships in crushing Sol, she mused, we will be significantly weakened elsewhere.

    She cursed the Elders, savagely. The Tokomak had always assumed that they could deal with each individual threat at leisure, before it got out of hand. Their control over the gravity points allowed them to move vast fleets from place to place at will. But now ... there were threats popping up everywhere, right across the galaxy. Coping with them all would take more time and resources than even she possessed. There was no way she could expend the resources necessary to crush Sol without crippling and ultimately destroying the empire itself.

    We don’t have time to duplicate the human technology, she thought, sourly. The researchers are still in denial ...

    It was a bitter thought. The researchers had known they were at the panicle of technological achievement. Nothing significantly new had come out of the labs for over five thousand years. They hadn't even made many improvements to old technologies! It would take decades - perhaps longer - for the researchers to comprehend that they didn't know everything. And she didn't think they had the time. They needed to gain access to human technology and they had to do it now.

    She reached for her console and started issuing orders. The oldest patronage networks were still in place, at least. It would take time for them to start coming apart. And then ...

    ... It was a gamble, she had to admit. It was a gamble she could easily lose. But the alternative was worse. She hadn’t launched her coup and made herself Supreme Ruler just to watch the empire collapse into chaos. The Tokomak had to ready themselves for action on an unprecedented scale, if they wanted to continue to dominate the universe. And they had no choice. They had so many enemies that defeat meant extermination. She didn't dare lose.

    And if a few pawns were lost along the way, she told herself, it was a small price to pay for ultimate victory.
    bagpiper likes this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    You ask us why we need a galactic alliance? Do we need the galaxy? Say, rather, the galaxy needs us! As a haven, as a pole star, as an alternate - and better - way to live. Let us hold out a welcoming hand to aliens! Let us show them the promise of a better life. There is no need to fight. There is enough for everyone in the galaxy.
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    “Well,” Admiral Mongo Stuart said. He studied the holographic image with a sceptical eye. “I suppose that’s what you get if you allow a bunch of Star Trek fans to design a starship.”

    Captain Elton Yasser smiled. “The Odyssey’s designers came from Roddenberry Canton,” he agreed, dryly. There was no point in trying to deny it. “But they didn't quite copy one of the original designs.”

    “Only because they couldn't make the Enterprise-D with our current tech,” Admiral Stuart said. “I’m surprised they didn't insist on naming the ship themselves.”

    “There’s already an Enterprise in the fleet,” Elton said, seriously. “And a Defiant. And a Voyager.”

    He shook his head. Odyssey was a flattened cylinder, eight hundred metres from bow to stern. Her prow was an arrowhead; her rear dominated by four massive drive nacelles that glowed against the inky darkness of space. The designers had wanted something that looked like an unconventional design - rather than the blunt cruisers that made up the mainstay of the Solar Navy - but technological reality had defeated their best efforts. Odyssey was cruder, perhaps, than her designers had wanted.

    “She’s a good ship,” he said. “And she bears a honourable name.”

    “I suppose she does,” Admiral Stuart said. “And yet, I cannot help recalling that the original starship was rammed and destroyed.”

    He sat back in his chair and studied Elton for a long chilling moment. Elton knew what he saw. A brown-haired man, seemingly in his early forties; his face warm and friendly rather than blatantly attractive; someone secure enough in himself not to body-sculpt himself into an inhumanly handsome caricature of a man. The message would be clearly visible, to someone who’d been born in the Solar Union. He couldn't help wondering what Admiral Stuart made of it. Physical imperfections had been far more common on pre-space Earth. Elton had had the standard bodymods, of course, but he’d long since grown out of simple vanity. There was no place for it in the Solar Navy.

    Admiral Stuart himself looked little older than Elton. It would have been hard to believe that he was actually in his second century, if Elton hadn't known quite a few others who were actually older. They had always struck him as being oddly disconnected from the world around them, either seeking sensual pleasure or separating themselves from it entirely, but Mongo Stuart didn't look to have fallen prey to either. His eyes were calm, yet tightly focused. The man who had commanded the Solar Navy for the last sixty years - and had served in the wet-navy, before Contact - was still on top of his game.

    The Admiral leaned forward, breaking the silence. “I trust there were no significant problems during the shakedown cruise?”

    “No, sir,” Elton said. He ran a hand through his brown hair. “We spent the first two weeks flying around the Sol System, testing the drives and weapons. There weren't any major problems. A handful of minor ones, all of which were fixed easily. The shipyard crews did a good job. I was expecting many more problems.”

    “The AI simulations were very precise,” Admiral Stuart noted.

    “I didn't place much credence in them,” Elton admitted. “Reality always trumps theory.”

    He shrugged. “We took her out to Varner, then headed downwards to Spiral and Cockatoo before returning to Sol. She handled like a dream. I think we impressed the locals, although there were some questions about our ability to fight. They didn't seem too impressed with the design, at first. We couldn't tell them about the interlocking shield generators or the self-regenerating systems.”

    “No,” Admiral Stuart agreed. “She’s tough, but she’s still not a proper warship.”

    “No, sir,” Elton agreed. Odyssey was armed, of course, but she wasn't a battleship. Her weapons array was lighter than the average warship. “She’s designed for more than just military operations.”

    “A jack-of-all-trades is almost always a master of none,” Admiral Stuart said. He tapped a switch. The holographic image vanished. “I cannot say that I approve of a starship that is designed for multiple roles.”

    “With all due respect, sir,” Elton said, “we’re going to need more than warships as we expand further and further into the galaxy. We’re going to need everything from diplomatic envoys to colony and medical support ships ... hell, sir, Odyssey does have enough firepower to hold the line against anything smaller than a battlecruiser. She could certainly hold out long enough for help to arrive.”

    “Assuming anyone knew you were in trouble,” Admiral Stuart said. “The concept was hotly debated, as you know. There was a strong feeling that we should concentrate on building warships now, while we have the chance. The Tokomak are still out there.”

    “Yes, sir,” Elton said. He’d fought in the Battle of Earth. “Which makes it all the more important that we build up relationships with the other galactic powers. Our technological advantage only goes so far.”

    Admiral Stuart smiled, coldly. “It has been hotly debated,” he agreed. “And, as it happens, it has some bearing on your mission.”

    Elton straightened as a holographic starchart appeared in front of them. “There is a great deal of debate over precisely what will happen, regarding the Grand Alliance,” Admiral Stuart told him. “We don’t know if we’ll end up starting … starting a United Federation of Planets or an alliance structure more comparable with old NATO than anything more integrated. It may be years before we have an answer. But unfortunately the universe is still moving on.”

    He pointed a finger at a star cluster, thousands of light years from Earth. “The Kingdom of Harmonious Order,” he said. “Galactics, of course. One hundred and seven systems under their direct control, three subject races held in servitude. And long-standing allies of the Tokomak Empire. They lost their independence shortly after the stardrive was invented, like everyone else, but they were treated surprisingly well. The Tokomak honoured them with a great deal of local autonomy, trusting them to keep the remainder of the sector in line. They even built up a large fleet to support their allies.”

    His face twisted into a smile. “Until recently, I doubt anyone on Harmony itself knew Earth even existed.”

    “We were nothing more than a microstate by their standards,” Elton agreed. He made a mental note to look up the full details, as soon as he was back on his ship. “Have they decided to change their minds about us?”

    “Apparently, there was a coup on their homeworld last year,” Admiral Stuart said. “A strong party at court, we have been told, resented being dominated by the Tokomak. That party seized power shortly after the Battle of Earth. They haven’t exactly declared independence, but they’re looking to ... redefine ... their relationship with their former masters.”

    Elton studied the starchart for a long moment. “A dangerous game, I would have thought,” he said. “The Tokomak could flood their cluster with warships, couldn’t they?”

    Admiral Stuart sighed. “Yes, they could,” he agreed. “Elton, everything we know is nearly nine months out of date. The Harmonies could have been brutally crushed by now. But, at the same time, it’s possible that they managed to talk fast enough to keep some of their independence. The Tokomak wouldn't want to get involved in a war that would upset their other allies.”

    He smiled, rather thinly. “ONI is divided on the issue,” he added. “One faction thinks that the Tokomak will crush the rebels as soon as possible, just to reverse the decline in their fortunes since the Battle of Earth. They have to make it clear that they haven’t lost the war, even if they have lost a battle. But another faction thinks that the Tokomak will reluctantly accept neutrality, if the Harmonies are prepared to stay out of the fighting.”

    “I would bet on the former,” Elton said. “How many other Galactics will consider bolting if they think they can get away with it?”

    “Good question,” Admiral Stuart said. “And that’s where you and your ship come in.”

    He adjusted the starchart, zeroing in on Harmony itself. “We’ve received a message from the new king,” he said. “He has requested that we send an envoy to discuss opening up lines of communication, perhaps even membership in any future alliance structure. ONI believes that the Harmonies want to keep their options open, just in case their former masters decide to crush them.”

    Elton stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “It seems a little odd,” he mused. “They’re taking one hell of a risk. It might panic the Tokomak into doing something drastic.”

    “It might also convince them to leave the Harmonies alone,” Admiral Stuart said. “The king may hope to use this to get an official recognition of his kingdom’s independence. Or he may believe that working with us is the only way to safeguard the future.”

    He shook his head. “You and your ship will be heading directly to the Kingdom of Harmonious Order,” he explained. “Officially, you’ll be transporting an envoy with authority to open discussions - everything from trade agreements to a formal alliance - and escorting a handful of freighters crammed with trade goods. Odyssey will be flagged as a formal diplomatic ship for the mission, although I don’t know how much protection that will give you in these times. The Tokomak may be fanatical rules lawyers, but they will not want to see us extending our influence in their direction.”

    “Yes, sir,” Elton said. “And unofficially?”

    “Unofficially, you’ll be carrying out a tactical survey of the region,” Admiral Stuart said, curtly. “We know - really know - very little about the sector. Everything we hear is at second or third hand. Much of it is translated repeatedly before it reaches us. In truth, we know very little. The merchants will be making their own inroads, of course, but we need more data.”

    “Just in case we have to fight up there,” Elton said.

    “Exactly,” Admiral Stuart said. “In particular, we want an assessment of the Harmonies themselves. Their fleet is supposed to be large, but outdated. Are they upgrading their fleets? Or are they gambling on numbers? Who crews the ships, how are they trained ... everything we might have to take into consideration, if we have to ally with them or fight them. And if they are upgrading, are they interested in buying weapons and technology from us?

    He looked at the starchart for a long moment. “ONI will give you a full briefing, but realistically ... don’t take anything they tell you for granted.”

    Elton nodded. It wasn't uncommon for translation errors to creep into the files, even though the Tokomak had done everything in their power to make sure that everyone spoke one of nine standard languages. The average alien was no more or less intelligent than the average human, but aliens tended to think differently. ONI might be being misled - accidentally or not - and never know it.

    And the time delay means that everything is out of date, he thought, sourly. The Tokomak might invade the sector tomorrow and we won’t know until we slip through the gravity point and emerge in the middle of a war.

    “We’ll try and fill in the blanks,” he said, slowly. He knew better than to trust ONI completely. Intelligence officers had a tendency to think they were cleverer - or at least more knowledgeable - than they actually were. “I don’t know how long we’ll have to explore the sector, though.”

    “I suggest you consult with the ambassador,” Admiral Stuart said. “Truthfully ... we know so little, Elton, that we have to be very careful. Showing the flag in the wrong place may provoke a war.”

    “The Harmonies have their own subjects,” Elton agreed. He frowned as a thought struck him. “What happens if they choose to rebel?”

    “That would be a sticky problem,” Admiral Stuart said. “Ideally, you wouldn't be involved at all. You don’t want to get us into a shooting war with the Harmonies as well as the Tokomak.”

    “No, sir,” Elton said.

    “The ambassador will have her own briefing,” Admiral Stuart said. “She’ll have wide latitude, within reason. Ideally, we won’t be making anyone any promises until we actually know what’s going on, but ... events may move out of control. Use your own best judgement and be careful.”

    “Yes, sir,” Elton said. “And if the Tokomak themselves show up?”

    “Odyssey on her own is unlikely to make a difference,” Admiral Stuart said. “Retreat at once.”

    Elton nodded. He had every confidence in his ship’s ability to give the Tokomak ships a bloody nose, but sheer numbers could overwhelm them easily. The Solar Navy was all too aware that the Tokomak had literally millions of starships. If they ever managed to concentrate them against Sol, Sol was doomed.

    And the Harmonies are far too close to Tokomak bases, he reminded himself. The Tokomak could muster the force necessary to strike them down at any moment.

    “I understand,” he said. Retreat didn't sit well with him, but preserving his ship and crew was his first priority. “When do you want us to depart?”

    “Two days,” Admiral Stuart said. He grimaced. “You’ll be passing through Hudson Base, at the far end of the Langlock Chain, but after that you’ll be on your own. We won’t expect you to report back for over a year.”

    “Odyssey was designed for five-year missions, sir,” Elton said. “We can reproduce almost anything we might require in the fabricators.”

    “A five-year mission,” Admiral Stuart repeated. He shook his head in amused disbelief. “Do you think, sometimes, that the cantons take their identities a little too far?”

    Elton considered it. “As long as people can move out, if they wish, it doesn't matter,” he said. “A canton that manages to make itself unviable won’t survive. Roddenberry Canton has its quirks, but it isn't a disaster area.”

    He smiled at the thought. Roddenberry Canton claimed to operate on the principles of Star Trek - and, if he were forced to be honest, it did a better job of following its source material than many of the other eccentric cantons. But then, it hadn't needed to adapt itself to changing reality or rapid depopulation when its citizens had discovered that their ideals didn't quite work in the real world. It wasn't for everyone, something that was true of just about every canton in the Solar Union, but it worked for those who lived there.

    “There are worse places to live,” Admiral Stuart agreed.

    Elton nodded. Admiral Stuart was in his second century, easily old enough to remember when humanity was confined to a single planet. His brother might have founded the Solar Union - and then departed for deep space, leaving his creation to flourish on its own - but neither of them had anticipated just how deeply their work would change society. Old constants, things that Steve and Mongo Stuart had taken for granted, had fallen by the wayside. Elton and his fellows had grown up in a very different universe. He wondered, sometimes, just how the oldsters coped. They just weren't used to rapid change.

    And yet, they have seen so much, he thought. He couldn't help feeling an odd flicker of sympathy. Do they yearn for constants once again?

    But there were none, not in the Solar Union. Space was vast, with near-infinite resources just waiting to be exploited. Food and energy were cheap. There were thousands of cantons, each one offering a different lifestyle. Humans - and aliens, and AIs - were free to choose their own lifestyles, as long as they honoured the founding principles. And they had flourished. The wellspring of science, art and entertainment seemed bottomless. No one, not even Steve Stuart, could have envisioned the universe he’d created. The future seemed bright and full of promise.

    But there were threats. And those threats had to be fought.

    Admiral Stuart snapped off the holographic starchart. “I won’t tell you that this will be a simple mission, because it won’t be,” he said. “But I expect you and your ship to handle it.”

    “Yes, sir,” Elton said. He rose. “We won’t let you down.”

    “Good luck,” Admiral Stuart said. His lips quirked. “I’ll see you when you return home.”

    Elton nodded and walked through the hatch, passing through the security fields as he headed down to the teleport station. A handful of messages popped up in front of his eyes as his implants automatically pinged the local processors, ranging from tactical updates to a detailed briefing of everything ONI knew - or believed - about the Harmonies. He reminded himself to study the information later, as he stepped into the teleport station. He’d have to make sure his senior officers went through it too.

    Except everything we know might be out of date, he reminded himself, sternly. Or it might be completely wrong.

    He couldn't help a flicker of excitement. He was going to be taking his ship thousands of light years from Sol, heading further into deep space than any human had gone before. As far as he knew, he and his crew would be the first humans to visit the Harmonies, let alone establish diplomatic and trade links that might reshape the galaxy. It would be one hell of a flight, the kind of exploration he’d signed up to do. He couldn't wait to leave.

    And if we do manage to make new friends and allies, he thought as the teleport field gripped him, so much the better.
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    The Solar Union is for humans. Humans. Not aliens, not beings who are not like us and do not think like us. None of the so-called Galactics had the wit to use their technology to build a perfect society. They could have done, but they chose to stagnate instead. We should not dilute our uniqueness by bringing aliens into an alliance with us.
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    Ambassador Rebecca Motherwell gritted her teeth and closed her eyes as the teleport field shimmered into life around her, feeling an unpleasant itching sensation spreading through her body. The engineers might claim that the feeling was harmless, existing only in her imagination, but Rebecca knew better. There were times when she would sooner have all her teeth removed, without anaesthetic, than willingly step into a teleporter. The timeless sensation of having her entire body broken down into a stream of energy - a sensation that seemed to last forever, as if she were permanently suspended in the matter stream - terrified her.

    She opened her eyes, a moment later. It was always a shock, somehow, to find herself somewhere else, even though she’d been teleported hundreds of times over the last fifty years. The Galactics - and the Solarians - accepted it as normal, but Rebecca and her fellow Earthers found it harder to tolerate. It was easy, all too easy, to believe that she’d been killed and resurrected every time she’d stepped into a teleporter. Hell, there were people who steadfastly refused to teleport even to save their lives. They saw teleporting as a death sentence in itself.

    “Madam Ambassador,” a quiet voice said. “Welcome onboard.”

    Rebecca looked up. A young man was staring at her, his dark eyes clearly worried. Her implants scanned his tanned face and matched it to a file, identifying the speaker as Commander Rupert Biscoe, the starship’s executive officer. A stream of data flowed past her eyes, which she hastily banished with a thought. She’d have plenty of time to get to know the senior officers later, once the starship was underway. If nothing else, she needed to practice her conversational and diplomatic skills before reaching Harmony.

    “Thank you,” she managed.

    Biscoe still looked concerned. “I can take you to sickbay, if you wish,” he said. “I ...”

    “No, thank you,” Rebecca said. She knew from experience that no doctors were able to help, beyond prescribing the occasional sedative. “I just don’t like teleporting, sadly.”

    She caught sight of her own reflection, peering back at her from the wall-mounted display and sighed. No wonder Biscoe was worried. She’d put a great deal of effort into her appearance, trying to strike a balance that made her seem both fair and reasonable. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun, her face more matronly than beautiful ... her robe - modelled on the Tokomak dress for galactic ambassadors - drew the eye. And yet, her dark eyes were wide open, almost terrified. She looked like a woman on the run.

    “Ah,” Biscoe said. “In that case, please would you allow me to escort you to the captain?”

    Rebecca nodded, concentrating on calming herself. She knew she hadn't made a good impression. Biscoe hid it well, but Rebecca could tell he wasn't impressed. Most Solarians would have shared his view. They had grown up with teleporters - and countless other pieces of technology that were almost unknown on Earth. It was just part of their lives, something so mundane they didn't understand when outsiders questioned them.

    She sighed, inwardly, as she stepped off the teleport pad. The chamber was smaller than she’d expected, probably reserved for the ship’s officers and their senior guests. Her staff would already be onboard, waiting for her. No doubt they were unpacking, then preparing themselves for nine months of utter boredom. Rebecca smiled, despite herself, at the thought of wasting so much time. There were files on the Kingdom of Harmonious Order, as well as countless other galactic powers. She intended to spend at least some of the trip reviewing the datafiles and trying to determine just how much could be taken for granted.

    The Tokomak might be bastards, but we can trust them to record everything, she thought, as the hatch hissed open. There’s so much in the files, even the galactic databases we bought our stole, that analysing it all is the work of generations.

    Odyssey hummed around her as she followed Biscoe into the main corridor. The gravity and lighting was Earth-normal, even though a number of cantons quietly raised the gravity to promote muscle development. But then, the Solar Navy wouldn't need such games. Their crews had the best bodymods humanity could produce, ranging from superior eyesight and hearing to increased strength, durability and neural linkage. It made her wonder, sometimes, just how many of them could be considered baseline human any longer. About the only thing that couldn't be improved was intelligence.

    Because the sole attempt to breed a super-intelligent human went badly wrong, she reminded herself. And further such experiments were banned.

    Rebecca frowned as she passed a couple of cyborg crewmembers, their implants clearly visible on their faces. Her blood ran cold, even though she knew they were harmless. There was something wrong about seeing human flesh warped and mutilated by cold metal implants, even though she had the standard neural augmentation and enhancements. At least her implants were concealed under her skin. And yet ... something was nagging at her mind. It took her several minutes to put her finger on it. She should have seen many more crewmen as they walked up to Officer Country. The starship was surprisingly undermanned.

    She glanced at Biscoe. “How many crew are there on this ship?”

    “Around five hundred,” Biscoe said. “We’re due to take on a number of researchers in the next couple of days, everything from astronomers who want to take a look at a handful of particularly interesting stars to cultural researchers who want to open up ties with galactic universities. I believe we even have a couple of students who are hoping to join those universities.”

    Rebecca had to smile. “So you’re planning to show the flag everywhere?”

    “Of course,” Biscoe said. He smiled with genuine enthusiasm. “Odyssey was never designed as a warship, Madam Ambassador. She’s intended to be the Solar Union in miniature, a multirole starship that showcases precisely what we can do. We can give foreign guests tours that show off without telling them anything that can be used against us. I’ve even been told that we can recreate our entire society, given time.”

    Rebecca had to smile. “Really?”

    “Of course,” Biscoe assured her. “We can set off tomorrow and fly deep into unexploded space for a couple of years, then get to work. Our fabricators are self-replicating. Given a decade or two, we can build up a strikingly formidable industrial base. And we have a complete gene database, allowing us to clone a vast population. It would take us centuries, of course, but it could be done.”

    “I see,” Rebecca said. She smiled. “It makes one wonder why it hasn't already been done.”

    “It probably has, Madam Ambassador,” Biscoe said.

    Rebecca nodded in agreement. It hadn't been that long since the Battle of Earth. Everyone knew the universe wasn't a safe place. She was sure the government would have sent off a whole string of covert colony missiles, dispatching them well away from the crumbling galactic civilisation. If Earth was destroyed, if the Solar Union was smashed to rubble, humanity would survive. And one day, the colonies would come back for revenge.

    They stopped outside a sealed hatch. “Captain Yasser will see you now,” Biscoe said, as the hatch hissed open. “I’ll show you to your quarters afterwards.”

    “Thank you,” Rebecca said.

    She stepped into the captain’s office and looked around, interested. It was smaller than she’d expected, decorated with a handful of paintings from the pre-steam naval era. The captain himself was sitting behind a desk, studying a holographic starchart. She couldn't help noticing, as he rose to greet her, that the starchart didn't show any cluster she recognised. Her implants switched into primary mode, searching for a match. One blinked up, seconds later.

    The Karana Sector, she noted. Seventy light years from Harmony.

    “Madam Ambassador,” the captain said. He held out a hand. Rebecca shook it, firmly. “Welcome onboard.”

    “Thank you, Captain,” Rebecca said. “It’s a pleasure to be here. Odyssey looks to be a fine ship.”

    The captain smiled. She’d never met a captain who couldn't be flattered by complements to his ship. “Coffee? Or tea?”

    “Coffee would be fine, thank you,” Rebecca said.

    She had to smile as the captain keyed the food processor. There were people who swore blind that food processors couldn't match natural food, but she’d never been able to tell the difference. It hadn't really helped with her teleport phobia. What was to stop someone producing endless duplicates of her, each one convinced - and rightly so - that she was the real Rebecca? She’d been told, time and time again, that it was impossible, but she didn’t really believe it. How could she?

    The captain looked competent - and, perhaps more importantly, self-assured. His face might have been handsome once, when he’d been younger, but right now he looked as if his jowls were sagging slightly and his brown hair was starting to grey. He hadn't chosen to freeze his appearance then, she noted, let alone have himself turned into a Greek God. Indeed, she couldn’t help noticing that he was a little overweight. But it spoke well of him. It spoke of a man who saw no need to flatter himself.

    Maybe not the most imaginative officer in the navy, she thought, recalling the briefing she’d been given along with her credentials. But a solid, reliable man.

    She took the coffee and sipped it, silently glad of the chance to collect her thoughts. The Solar Navy and the Solar Diplomatic Service were meant to work together, but the former suspected the latter of being too willing to make concessions and the latter suspected the former of being too willing to resort to gunboat diplomacy and naked force. Rebecca had no illusions about the Tokomak - or many of the other Galactics - yet she knew that humanity couldn't hope to fight and win a war against the entire known galaxy. Diplomacy might just weaken the Tokomak enough to dissuade them from fighting.

    “Mountain Blend Coffee,” she commented, finally. A neutral subject was always a good place to start. Besides, most of the naval officers she’d met had been fanatics about coffee. “Do you know when the baseline records were scanned?”

    “I’m afraid not,” the captain said. His lips twitched. “I’ve never tasted the real blend.”

    “There’s no real difference,” Rebecca admitted. She took another sip. The coffee was strong. “I assume you’ve read the mission orders?”

    “I have,” the captain confirmed. “I confess, though, that I am curious as to your interpretation of our orders.”

    Rebecca shrugged. Captain Yasser didn't seem interested in small talk.

    “I have orders to try to open diplomatic channels with the Kingdom of Harmonious Order and the other galactic powers in that region of space,” she said. “Ideally, I’m to do it without promising more than the Solar Union can reasonably deliver. In the long term, the Solar Union would like a trade agreement and a military alliance; in the short term, my superiors will settle for opening diplomatic channels and getting some limited trade agreements.”

    She met his eyes. “Does that match your understanding?”

    “More or less,” the captain said. “My superiors want a tactical survey too.”

    Rebecca made a face. “I hope you can do it without making it obvious,” she said. “Would we tolerate a spy ship buzzing around the solar system?”

    “Probably not,” the captain said. His lips twitched. “But we couldn't tell if a visiting starship was using her passive sensors to record data.”

    “True,” Rebecca agreed. She was no military expert, but even she knew that was why most research and development programs were housed in deep space, well away from any prying eyes. “My staff and I will also distribute trade goods to the local merchants in the hopes of making new friends and allies.”

    “That might also cause problems,” the captain pointed out. “Local merchant combines might feel threatened.”

    “It’s a delicate balancing act,” Rebecca said. “But we have to offer them as many incentives as possible to talk to us.”

    The captain nodded. “We intend to depart in four days, barring unexpected delays,” he told her, curtly. “By then, the remainder of the convoy will be assembled and we’ll set off for the first leg of the journey. We’ll be calling in at a couple of bases along the way, dropping off supplies and equipment. You should have plenty of time to prepare for your mission.”

    “I hope so,” Rebecca said. “I assume we’ll also be collecting intelligence updates along the way?”

    “Of course,” the captain said. “Everything we know is, at best, out of date.”

    “A major problem,” Rebecca agreed.

    It had been drummed into her head, time and time again, that she could not ignore the time delay. She could recall a time when a message could cross the entire world in less than a second. Now, with the Solar Union spread out over a hundred light years and humanity’s network of friends and allies spread out further still, the time delay was beginning to bite again. Her orders - and the captain’s orders - were vague purely because their superiors didn't know enough to issue more specific instructions. There was certainly no way she could send a message home asking for advice. By the time she got a reply, the problem would have moved on.

    And that’s why we have been granted such wide latitude, she thought, sourly. And that’s why we’ll get the blame if things go south.

    It was, she conceded, an advantage that they’d been granted so much authority. The Tokomak rarely granted their local commanders anything like as much freedom of action, insisting that all decisions had to be referred to higher authority. But she couldn't help feeling nervous about just how much could go hideously wrong. A mistake could have disastrous consequences when dealing with prickly galactic powers. Even with galactic protocols for diplomatic discussions, laid down by the Tokomak themselves, there was plenty of room for misunderstandings that could lead to catastrophe.

    “My staff and I will try to stay out of your way, during the voyage,” she said, putting the thought aside for later contemplation. It wasn't something she could do anything about, at least not until someone invented an FTL communicator. “I plan to spend the time studying the files.”

    “You may have to drag your staffers out of the entertainment suites,” the captain said. “We have a civilian-grade full-spectrum holographic entertainment complex.”

    Rebecca blinked, then nodded. “For the civilian crews?”

    “Among others,” the captain said. “Odyssey is designed for very long-duration missions.”

    “I’ll make sure they keep their noses to the grindstone,” Rebecca said. She understood the need to relax and blow off steam, but she also understood the need to do background research before reaching their destination. Even a minor diplomatic mistake - serving meat to a race composed of vegetarians - could cause embarrassment, if not disaster. “They can have some fun after they’re done.”

    She smiled, then sobered. “I meant to ask,” she added. “I checked the supply manifest for the freighters. Apart from the trade goods - and the gifts - you’re taking a significant quantity of weapons and other military supplies. Can I ask why?”

    The captain looked surprised, just for a second. Rebecca wondered why. Had he not expected her to check the manifests? She’d known ambassadors who wouldn't have bothered, although she had just considered it another piece of background research before setting off on her mission. It was important, vitally so, to make certain that none of the vessels were carrying anything that might cause offense. The last thing humanity needed was more enemies.

    “Better safe than sorry,” the captain said, finally. “We’re going to be a very long way from the nearest base, Madam Ambassador. In theory, we can fabricate anything we reasonably need; in practice, I’d prefer to have it on hand when we need it.”

    “As long as the locals don’t think we’re planning to arm their sworn enemies,” Rebecca said, dryly. “That’s happened, you know.”

    “I would be gratified if we went out there, made all the contacts we could possibly want and then headed home, our holds crammed with trade goods,” the captain said. “And I would be delighted if we didn’t have to fire a single shot. But it is better to be safe than sorry.”

    “Of course,” Rebecca agreed. She finished her coffee and placed the mug on the desk. “And please call me Rebecca. We’re going to be working together quite closely over the next few months.”

    “Elton,” the captain said. He looked vaguely embarrassed. “My mother was a huge fan of Elton John.”

    Rebecca had to smile. “Compared to some of the more absurd names going in and out of fashion,” she said, “I think you got off lightly.”

    “That’s probably true,” the captain agreed.

    It was, Rebecca knew. A sprinkling of alien names - and fictional alien names - had made their way into society, even though they guaranteed that the poor children bearing them had uncomfortable childhoods. Elton Yasser was surprisingly normal, compared to some of the truly absurd names out there. There were some people, she felt, who really shouldn't be parents.

    She rose. “Thank you for your time, Elton,” she said. “I hope to see more of you after we enter FTL.”

    “I’m sure you will,” the captain said. He rose, too. “And I wish you luck with the files.”

    “We’ll need more than luck,” Rebecca said. “We’ll need a miracle.”
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  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    We are not unique. Let us not believe that there is anything truly special about humanity. We are smart, but so too are many other intelligent races; we are cunning, but so too are many others. Our sole advantage is a questioning mindset that we have managed to keep, despite the best efforts of our pre-space governments. That is not an advantage we can prevent others from copying. It will not last.
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    “I just had word from Lady Dean,” Biscoe said. “Her captain apologises for the delay, but insists that his engineering crew has finally tracked down the rogue harmonic in her drive systems. Lady Dean should be ready to depart on schedule.”

    “Let us hope so,” Elton said. “And Kenny Rogers?”

    Biscoe looked irked. As XO, it was his job to keep the merchant starships in line. “Her CO told us that he probably won’t make the rendezvous,” he said. “She’s been delayed at Haverford. Thankfully, she was just begging an escort rather than transporting anything vital.”

    Elton nodded. “We can't delay departure any longer,” he said, shortly. “Drop her from the list.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said. He glanced down at the datapad in his hand. “Those two are our only problem children. The remaining freighters are all ready to depart on your command.”

    “Good,” Elton said.

    He sat back in his command chair and surveyed the bridge. Odyssey hadn't been designed as a warship and it showed. Her bridge was warmer and friendlier than any standard warship’s command deck, built more to show off the Solar Union’s technological prowess than anything else. He’d honestly wondered if someone had copied the design from a luxury liner when he’d first seen the plans. And yet, he had to admit there was something charming about the design. Humanity’s starships were finally developing a distinctive style of their own.

    The main display hovered in front of him, showing Odyssey, the seventeen freighters holding position near the massive starship and the giant cluster of industrial nodes and fabricators that made up the shipyard. Dozens of other starships and hundreds of floating weapons platforms hovered nearby, constantly sweeping space for signs of trouble. The Solar Union’s immense building program was solidly underway, new starships coming off the slips each month. It seemed impossible that anyone could match humanity’s output, but he knew better than to take that for granted. If the Tokomak ever took the limiters off their fabricators, they would start out-producing humanity immediately.

    But that would mean giving up too much control, he thought, grimly. They’d upend their entire economic system just to get at us.

    He shook his head in amused disbelief. Humanity hadn't been able to understand the galactic economy, back when they'd first encountered it. The structure just hadn't made sense. It had been years before anyone had realised that the economy had been deliberately hampered, just to keep the younger races from challenging the established order. The Tokomak fabricators were designed to be very limited, ensuring that the Galactics couldn’t move to a post-scarcity society. But now ...

    More and more races know how to hack the systems now, he reminded himself. He hadn't been a fan of Hoshiko Sashimi Stuart’s campaign against the Druavroks - it struck him as something that could have easily gone wrong - but he had to admit that it had boosted humanity’s credibility right across the galaxy. The Tokomak won’t be able to stuff the genie back in the bottle.

    He shook his head, dismissing the thought. “I assume that all crew have returned to the ship?”

    “Yes, Captain,” Biscoe said. “And the newcomers are settling in well, I believe.”

    Elton nodded. Odyssey was comfortable. Maybe she wasn't a luxury liner, but she was far more comfortable, certainly, than a regular warship. The short-term crews might be separated from their families, yet they had everything they needed during their off-duty hours. Even the regular crew had large quarters. They’d have real problems adapting if they were ever transferred back to the warships.

    “Then inform fleet command that we will be departing on schedule,” he said, finally. He looked at his tactical officer. “Do we have a security update?”

    “Nothing particularly new, Captain,” Lieutenant-Commander Steve Callaway said. “There are vague reports of a couple of brushfire wars breaking out, but both of them are at least forty light years off our planned course.”

    “Still, better to be careful,” Elton said. The steady collapse of the established order was unleashing all sorts of demons. Countless grudges had been held in stasis under the Tokomak. Now, their holders were making up for lost time. “They may try to seize one of the gravity points along the way.”

    He forced himself to relax as time ticked by, a steady stream of updates popping up in front of his eyes. His ship was ready and raring to go, her crew already starting the endless cycle of training simulations to ensure they were ready to cope with any problems. Elton and his senior officers had devised tactical scenarios covering everything from pirate attack to all-out war, although - if they did get caught up in a war - he knew their only realistic option was immediate retreat. Odyssey was tougher than she looked, but she wasn't a real warship. It was something he had to bear in mind.

    “Captain,” Lieutenant Jonathan Williams said. “Fleet HQ has cleared us and the convoy for departure.”

    Elton smiled. It wasn't the first time he’d taken his ship out into deep space, but it felt special. This time, they were heading well away from Sol. Maybe it wasn't unexplored space - the Tokomak and their allies had charted the entire region thoroughly - but they would still be the first humans to visit. There were certainly no records, as far as he could tell, that suggested otherwise.

    “Then power up the drive,” he ordered. The dull throbbing echoing through the ship started to grow louder. “Helm, take us out of here.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Marie Howells said. She worked her console for a long moment, her purple fingers dancing over the keys. “Sublight drive engaged; moving out.”

    “Ready the stardrive,” Elton ordered. “Prepare to take us into FTL as soon as we have cleared the outer defence zone.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Marie said.

    Elton smiled at her back. He hadn't missed the excitement in her voice. The entire crew was looking forward to leaving Sol. They’d have some real stories to tell when they finally made it home.

    “The convoy is falling into position,” Biscoe said. “They’re ready to enter FTL.”

    “Good,” Elton said.

    He took one last look at the main display, his eyes moving over the solar system. Earth itself might be a backwater, the civil war draining the planet’s resources faster than they could be replenished, but the remainder of the system was studded with icons. Hundreds of settlements on Luna, Mars and Venus; thousands of settled asteroids, each one a canton; hundreds of thousands of spacecraft and starships moving from world to world or heading out into deep space. Humanity had come a very long way in a very short space of time.

    No wonder the Galactics are so scared of us, he thought.

    It was a strange thought. The Galactics were not stupid. As far as anyone could tell, most races shared the same basic level of intelligence. And yet, they’d managed to hamper themselves. No, more accurately, the Tokomak had hampered themselves ... and everyone else, to boot. Some races had been held back by force, others had never been taught just how their technology worked ... it was magic, as far as they were concerned. But humanity had not only unlocked the secrets of alien technology, humanity had figured out ways to improve it too. Who knew what the next thousand years would look like?

    “Captain,” Marie said. “We are ready to enter FTL.”

    Elton smiled. “Engage.”

    He braced himself, instinctively, as the stardrive came online. But there was nothing, beyond a vague sense of discontent that faded with astonishing speed. He’d been on ships where entering FTL had been a profoundly discomforting experience, but the latest drive modifications had solved that problem. He couldn't help wondering if it was truly a good idea. Humanity needed to remember that the universe outside the starship’s hull was cold and harsh. Odyssey, for all of her comfort, was not a civilian ship.

    “All systems check out, captain,” Marie said. “We are on a direct course for Varner.”

    “The freighters have followed us into FTL,” Biscoe added. “They’re holding course.”

    “Keep an eye on them,” Elton ordered. “I want to know if any of them show signs of drive trouble.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said.

    Rebecca had made a point of carefully not following Odyssey’s departure through the vessel’s sensors, let alone making her way to an observation blister to watch the stars blink out of existence as the starship entered FTL. She wasn't one of the rare handful of people who had to be sedated for FTL travel, but she didn't like being aware - all too aware - that there was nothing outside the giant starship. It was easier to pretend that she was still on an asteroid than try to convince herself that there was nothing unnatural about being in FTL.

    And yet, she was surprised when the standard alert popped up in front of her eyes, informing her Odyssey was now in FTL. She hadn't felt much, if anything. Was the ship really travelling away from Sol at an unimaginable speed? She queried the local processor, just to be sure. It confirmed that Odyssey was indeed in FTL.

    “Impressive,” she muttered.

    “Yes, Madam Ambassador,” Mickey Tyler said. Her aide grinned at her. “Odyssey has the latest drive modifications designed to modulate the gravity flux, ensuring a smooth transit in and out of FTL. I read the file and it was very interesting ...”

    “All right, all right,” Rebecca said, tiredly. “Please, spare me the details.”

    She kept her expression under tight control as her aide looked back at his file, torn between amusement and annoyance. Tyler was good at his job, but he was also an unashamed starship enthusiast, someone capable of rattling off facts, figures and pieces of thoroughly useless information at a moment’s notice. She had no idea why he hadn't applied to join the navy, although she imagined that his constant questioning of everything would eventually grate on naval crewmen. She'd had to speak to him quite soundly after he’d begged a visit to the bridge, two days ago. Captain Yasser had not been pleased.

    “I wonder why they haven't put the baffles on civilian liners,” Rose Smith said. Her other aide was a little older than Mickey, with a rather more cynical view of the universe. “The ship I took from Mars to Tychy groaned every time it dropped in and out of FTL.”

    “It’s a new technology,” Tyler said. “I don’t think it’s available for civilian use yet.”

    Rebecca cleared her throat. “And seeing that the pair of you are on duty,” she added dryly, “have you found anything useful in the files?”

    Rose flushed, casting a dark look at Tyler. “I’ve been going through the diplomatic protocols,” she said, carefully. “I’m not sure which ones apply in this situation.”

    “I see,” Rebecca said. She wasn't surprised. She’d expected that to be a problem the moment she read the mission briefing. Thankfully, they had nine months to work out the details before reaching Harmony. “And which ones do you think apply here?”

    “I’m not sure,” Rose admitted. “On one hand, we are not going as supplicants - as a lower-class race. We shouldn't have to bow and scrape in front of them. But on the other hand, they’re not used to dealing with independent races.”

    “They invited us,” Tyler pointed out. “I don’t think they’d expect us to kowtow.”

    Rebecca wasn't so sure. Like so much else, the principles of galactic diplomacy had been laid down by the Tokomak. There was no pretence of equality, merely the submission of the weaker party and the gracious acceptance of the stronger party. The Harmonies, if the files could be trusted, were used to bowing the knee to the Tokomak and accepting tribute from everyone else. There were few other races on their level and almost all of them were hundreds of light years away.

    And they might be seen as weak, if we didn't bend the knee to them, she mused. But, at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to be seen as weak either.

    She glanced at Rose. “Is there any precedent for meetings between equals?”

    “Yes, but we’d have to convince them that we were equals first,” Rose said.

    “We bested the Tokomak,” Tyler pointed out. “Surely that counts for something.”

    Rebecca sighed, keeping her thoughts to herself. Diplomatic analysts and intelligence officers had studied the text of the original message over and over again, but they hadn't been able to determine if human representatives had been invited to attend a meeting or pre-emptively summoned, as if they were subjects of a vassal power. She’d read dozens of reports, yet none of them had been truly convincing. It was possible the Harmonies themselves didn't know. They might be trying to tread a fine line between humanity and their former masters.

    She allowed herself a moment of annoyance. It was possible, one of the more careful analysts had pointed out, that the Harmonies were aiming for plausible deniability. The Tokomak - theoretically - would not be concerned if the Harmonies spoke to humans like masters to slaves. Indeed, they might be delighted if the Harmonies treated humans in a manner calculated to cause offense. The message might have been written very carefully indeed, trying to be diplomatic to human eyes and unpleasantly demanding to outside observers. Or it could be a translation glitch. The language had been so flowery that it was quite likely some of the meaning had been lost.

    Which is what happens, she thought, if a message is repeatedly translated time and time again.

    “Compared to the size of their navy,” Rose countered, “we didn't even take out a percentage point of a percentage point of their true strength. They might not even have noticed.”

    “They would have done,” Tyler insisted. “I ...”

    Rebecca rubbed her forehead. “Leave the debate for the moment,” she said. She had a nasty feeling that the first week at Harmony was going to be spent ironing out the diplomatic groundwork for the talks. Unless, of course, the Harmonies were actually determined to get to the meat of the matter at speed. That would make them unique, amongst the older races. “I want you to put together a plan to meet them as equals.”

    She held up a hand before either of them could object. “It is important that we represent ourselves as a peer power,” she added. “And we cannot be seen to bend the knee.”

    They said nothing, but she knew what they were thinking. Trying to strike a balance between respecting the other power’s feelings and conceding far too much was never easy. At what point did respect become submission? It was easy to say that the human race should present itself as an equal, but the Harmonies might try to argue that humans weren't equal. And they would have a point.

    But they did contact us, she reminded herself. They decided we were worth trying to talk to.

    Her intercom bleeped. She tapped it. “Yes?”

    “Madam Ambassador, this is the captain,” Captain Yasser said. He sounded calm and composed, as always. “We have entered FTL and are on a direct course to Varner.”

    “Understood,” Rebecca said.

    She thought quickly. There was a fairly major human embassy, as well as a naval base, at Varner, if she recalled correctly. She’d have to make sure that they received copies of her game plan, such as it was. And see what, if anything, could be gleaned from the local datafiles. The Varner might know something about the Harmonies they hadn't bothered to share with the human race.

    “My senior officers and I are also going to be meeting for dinner this evening,” the captain added, after a moment. “Would you and some of your staff care to join us?”

    Rebecca had to smile. “It would be an excellent chance for us to practice our diplomacy,” she said. Neither Rose nor Tyler would enjoy it - diplomatic dinners weren't meant to be enjoyable - but it would be an excellent learning experience. “I look forward to it.”

    “Very good,” the captain said. “See you there.”

    “I thought diplomatic dinners were outdated, these days,” Rose said. She was young enough not to remember the days when the Solar Union had established embassies on Earth. “Does anything get decided at the dinner table?”

    Rebecca shrugged. “It helps to build up personal relationships,” she said, sardonically. “And while such relationships can be quite dangerous in places, this isn't one of them.”

    She smiled at their doubtful looks. Ambassadors had been known to lose track of their actual roles, after forging personal relationships with their opposite numbers. Most people liked doing favours for friends, allowing hostile powers to slowly turn the friendship into something exploitive. It was something she’d been cautioned to watch for as she’d worked her way up the ranks. But it wasn't something she expected from a starship’s crew. Indeed, a close working relationship between her staff and the captain’s officers could only be beneficial.

    And besides, it isn't as though we’ll be sitting down to eat dinner with the Galactics, she thought, as she reached for the next set of files. The Tokomak had banned diplomatic dinners. For once, she saw their point. One race’s idea of good food was another race’s idea of deadly poison. That would probably start a war all on its own.
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  6. bagpiper

    bagpiper Heretic

    chap 2
    There’s so much in the files, even the galactic databases we bought our stole, that analysing it all is the work of generations.


    “Of course,” Biscoe assured her. “We can set off tomorrow and fly deep into unexploded space for a couple of years, then get to work.

  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    There is a fine line between providing support and being overbearing, a balancing act that - let us be honest - most of us tend to fall off very quickly. Indeed, I am old enough to remember the days when ‘I’m from the government - I’m here to help’ was one of the most terrifying things one could hear. It isn’t our job to fix the galaxy’s problems, any more than it is our job to fix the problems on Earth.
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    Boredom, in all honesty, was the one thing Elton had never expected when he’d first received his orders. He’d served in the military long enough to know that boredom was something to be cherished. And yet, as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, boredom started wearing down his mind. There was nothing to do while the ship was in FTL, save for endless drills, simulations and reading files. The droll awareness that he should be glad to be bored didn't help.

    He haunted the decks, checking and rechecking every system until he knew the ship like the back of his hand. He ran emergency drill after emergency drill, putting the crew through their paces until he reached a point of diminishing returns. And he read his way through everything ONI had been able to scrape up about the Kingdom of Harmonious Order, even though some of it was contradictory. Even eating regular dinners with the ambassador didn't help. By the time the small convoy dropped out of FTL near a dull red star to update their navigational readings, he was starting to turn a blind eye to crewmen overusing the entertainment suites. He was running out of things to keep them occupied.

    And we haven’t even reached Hudson Base, he thought, morbidly. They must be going stir crazy, so far from Earth.

    “Captain,” Marie said, breaking into his thoughts. “The navigational database is updating now. I believe the original files were somewhat lacking.”

    “That’s odd,” Elton said, walking over to her console. “How so?”

    “The gravitational fluctuations in this sector don’t match the files,” Marie said. “I’m starting to think we got an out of date copy.”

    “It might date all the way back to the Hordesmen,” Biscoe suggested. “We haven’t done any proper surveys this far from Earth.”

    “You’d think the locals would,” Elton said. The Solar Navy had surveyed the Sol Sector thoroughly, tracking each and every last gravitational flux in the region. “I assume this doesn't pose any threat to us?”

    “I don’t believe so, Captain,” Marie said. “Our navigational readings are just ever so slightly skewed. We would probably find ourselves a little off-course if we didn't update the database.”

    She frowned. “I do wonder why the Hudson Fleet never sent back an update.”

    Elton shared a look with Biscoe. “They would have, wouldn't they?”

    “Yes, sir,” Biscoe said. “But they might not have bothered to drop out of FTL here.”

    Elton nodded. Odyssey could, in theory, remain in FTL until she reached the next set of gravity points. She’d already passed through a dozen to reach her current location. But the freighters were another story. Their drives needed to be checked and rechecked, while their crews needed a chance to take some R&R on Odyssey. It was possible that the Hudson Fleet hadn't bothered to drop out long enough to update their files. He made a mental note to check, once the convoy reached Hudson, then turned to Marie.

    “Keep updating the files,” he ordered. “And ...”

    An alarm sounded. “Captain,” Callaway snapped. “I’m picking up three starships on attack vector!”

    “Red alert,” Elton snapped. He spun around and strode back to the command chair. Three red icons were already clearly visible, bearing down on his ship. “Can you get an ID?”

    “Nothing solid,” Callaway reported. “I think one of them is a heavy cruiser, but the other two can’t be anything larger than light cruisers ... they’re using some complicated ECM to scatter our sensor probes.”

    “Send a challenge,” Elton ordered.

    “Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Jonathan Williams said. The communications officer hurried to work. “No response.”

    Elton winced. By galactic law, any challenge - particularly in neutral space - had to be answered immediately. The only people who wouldn't answer a challenge were people who had bad intentions, either rebels or pirates. It was possible, he supposed, that a legitimate government might want to harass human shipping, but they’d have to be out of their minds to try. The Solar Union and its allies were firmly committed to free trade.

    But then, we are over a thousand light years from Earth, he thought, sourly. These guys might not even have heard of us.

    “Target One is heading directly towards us,” Callaway reported. “Targets Two and Three are angling towards the freighters.”

    “Sweep all three of them with tactical sensors,” Elton ordered. It was the clearest warning he could give, the interstellar equivalent of a warning shot. “Helm, bring us around.”

    He thought rapidly, assessing the tactical situation. The heavy cruiser was probably outdated, but there was no way to be sure. The Tokomak hadn't designed their ships to make it easy for the crews to modify their systems, yet a decent engineering team could probably upgrade the drives, sensors and weapons without too many problems. And while Odyssey outmassed her opponent, it was quite possible their weapons might be evenly matched. The standard heavy cruiser hull could be crammed with firepower ...

    “They’re still coming, Captain,” Callaway said.

    “Lock weapons on their hull,” Elton ordered. He had permission to open fire without warning if he believed his ship and her charges were under threat. “Prepare to engage ...”

    “Energy spike,” Callaway snapped. “They’re firing!”

    The display blazed with red icons. “Standard missile load,” Biscoe said. He sounded relieved. “Nothing new, Captain.”

    “Return fire,” Elton snapped. The enemy ships were launching a second barrage, trying to overwhelm his defences. They were in for a surprise. “Point defence, engage!”

    He allowed himself a cold smile as his ship opened fire, phaser bursts lashing out towards the incoming targets with a rapidly that had to horrify her opponents. They didn't even have the latest Tokomak missiles, let alone some of humanity’s more interesting designs. Elton doubted that even one of their missiles would get close to his shields. They had to be pirates, then. No respectable government would risk an engagement when they were so badly outmatched.

    Odyssey quivered as the two smaller enemy ships altered course, swooping in to engage her with energy weapons. Callaway fired back, blasting one of the enemy ships to dust and damaging the other one. Elton was morbidly impressed that the pirates managed to keep their ship intact, even though they were bleeding plasma into interplanetary space. But they didn't have a hope of escape, unless their bigger brother managed to evade Odyssey or overwhelm her ...

    “The enemy ship is altering course,” Callaway reported. “Captain, she’s trying to escape.”

    Elton didn't blame the enemy CO. He’d thought he was picking on a sheep, but instead he’d caught hold of a lion. Odyssey’s missiles were fast, fast enough to make interception almost impossible. The enemy ship’s shields were already failing. Clearly, the enemy hadn't bothered to power up their stardrive. They’d have escaped already if they’d bothered to take that simple precaution.

    Idiots, Elton thought, darkly.

    “Take out her drives,” he ordered. “I want her intact.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Callaway said.

    Odyssey quivered as she unleashed another spread of missiles. The enemy ship fought back desperately, but simply lacked the point defence to stop them. Elton watched, feeling cold, as the missiles slammed into the rear of the enemy ship, destroying her drive section. The heavy cruiser went dark a second later, venting atmosphere and plasma as she spun out of control ...

    “Captain,” Callaway said. “The enemy ship has been disabled.”

    Elton nodded. He’d half-expected the alien ship to explode. “Dispatch a boarding party,” he ordered, curtly. “And ready quarters for any prisoners, if we find them.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Callaway said.

    Biscoe spoke, very quietly. “Captain, they could be waiting for us to send over the marines before hitting the self-destruct.”

    Elton nodded, grimly. Sending the marines was a calculated risk. On one hand, he could ill afford to lose them; on the other, he needed to know who had attacked them and why. Piracy was a growing problem as the Tokomak retreated from the sector, abandoning control to those with the will and power to take it, but the pirates might have been encouraged to attack the convoy. The Tokomak had every reason to want to challenge his ship, if they caught wind of the deployment. Hell, the only reason to doubt their involvement was that they would have had to move quickly and they weren't good at moving quickly.

    “I know the dangers,” he said. “But we don’t have a choice.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said.

    Lieutenant Levi Dennis closed her eyes and accessed the neural link as the marines were launched out of the assault shuttle and blasted directly towards the giant alien ship. It was small, she supposed, compared to some of the other starships she’d seen, but she was smaller than an ant on such a scale. Her combat suit orientated itself automatically as it closed in on the ship, spinning around to present a slightly harder target. If the aliens had chosen to open fire ...

    Nothing happened. She landed on the alien hull, glancing from side to side as the remainder of the platoon landed on either side of her. Their formation was ragged - she’d seen more ordered formation from kids just entering Boot Camp - but the marines had learnt from bitter experience that a ragged formation was far harder to counter. Her sensors swept the hull quickly, picking up traces of energy from where missiles and phaser fire had bitten into the metal. There were no signs that the enemy crewmen were just biding their time before opening fire.

    Which proves nothing, Levi thought, as she started to hurry towards the nearest gash in the hull. They might know how to hide.

    “Deploy stealth nanoprobes,” she ordered. “Platoon One, with me; Platoon Two, go through the upper airlock.”

    She reached the gasp and jumped inside, hastily searching for targets. Nothing moved. The ship looked like a honeycomb, a melted and twisted structure trapped in hard vacuum. Her suit picked up traces of atmosphere - the crew, whoever they were, had breathed something akin to humanity’s ideal oxygen mix - but nowhere near enough to support anyone without heavy cybernetic enhancement. She had the full spectrum of marine augmentation and even she would have hesitated to try breathing vacuum unless the alternative was certain death.

    “The probes are building up a picture of the interior,” Sergeant Kath reported. “Intel matches the design ...”

    Levi nodded as the plans popped up in her HUD. “We’ll go straight for the bridge,” she said, picking her way down towards the right deck. “Keep spreading the probes through the ship.”

    She tensed as she pushed her way down the corridor, but nothing jumped out at her. The gravity was completely gone, leaving pieces of debris floating in the air. She kept glancing into side compartments as she moved, more troubled than she cared to admit by the lack of bodies. A standard heavy cruiser, if she recalled correctly, had over a thousand crewmen. She wasn't sure if that was true for alien-designed ships too, but she couldn't imagine the ship being completely unmanned.

    An AI could operate a ship, she mused, as she forced her way through a jammed hatch. But the Tokomak refused to create true AIs ...

    She stopped, dead, as she saw the bodies. Her mind rebelled, just for a second. It didn't want to believe what it was seeing. Dozens of bodies, utterly inhuman ... their mangled remains strikingly unfamiliar. They looked like giant grasshoppers. She shivered as she pushed her way through the bodies, probing on towards the bridge. The aliens were dead, but her imagination kept insisting that they were moving, their giant insectoid eyes following her every move.

    “I have a match,” Major Rhodan said. “They’re Skirats.”

    “Never heard of them, sir,” Kath said.

    Levi nodded, curtly. There were more bodies now, drifting helplessly in the vacuum. Some of the aliens had clearly been armed, others seemed unarmed ... she wondered, as she forced her way down to the bridge, if they had been slaves or if she was misunderstanding what she was seeing. Aliens weren't human, whatever the cultural relativists insisted. The Skirats might just be utterly beyond human comprehension.

    “They’re native to this sector,” Lieutenant Alleyway said. The intelligence officer sounded fascinated. “They actually have five genders and ...”

    Rhodan snorted. “Is this actually important? Or relevant?”

    “Sir, I’ve found the bridge hatch,” Levi said, quickly. “It looks as though the safety measures failed. The bridge is open to the vacuum. Nanoprobes report no trace of survivors.”

    She reached out with her armoured hands and pulled the hatch open. It came off, allowing her to glide into the giant compartment. A dozen aliens were seated at consoles, all dead; three more drifted in the air, one carrying something her suit insisted was a heavily-modified plasma rifle. She checked it automatically as she swept the chamber, but found nothing threatening. The entire ship was dead.

    “Weird,” Kath observed, as he followed her into the bridge. “The safety systems are usually the last things to go.”

    “Perhaps they skipped basic maintenance,” Levi said. She pulled a standard remote access processor from her belt and placed it by the nearest console. It was unlikely the techs would be able to pull anything from the starship’s computers without removing the datacores and powering them up somewhere safe, but it was worth a try. “Or perhaps someone sabotaged the ship.”

    She was more perplexed than she cared to admit, she decided, as they checked the nearest sections. The entire ship was open to vacuum. None of the nanoprobes reported anything beyond faint traces of atmosphere. The aliens would have found it impossible to wear human or Tokomak spacesuits, she thought, but they should have been able to design something that matched their physiology. It wouldn't have been that difficult.

    “This place reminds me of a horror movie,” Rifleman Jones said, over the communications link. “Everyone is dead ...”

    “And not going to come to life,” Levi said, crossly. She’d seen those movies too. She had never really been able to decide if they were meant to be comedies or bloodstained gore-flicks. The marines in those movies had acted more like trigger-happy punks than professional warriors. “Just in case, don’t push down on your trigger and lock it in place.”

    “No, LT,” Jones said.

    “Got something for you,” Corporal Rollins put in, from the bridge. He sounded deeply shocked. “Someone deliberately fucked the emergency lockdown system.”

    Rhodan coughed. “Are you sure?”

    “Yes, sir,” Rollins said. “I'm looking at the hatch. Someone deliberately undermined the safety functions - it snapped closed, but it didn't lock. They’re normally designed to be hard to open and remain airtight even if unlocked ... here, someone buggered the system so it actually started to open again while the ship was venting. I haven’t seen anything like this outside very bad movies. They meant to literally kill the entire crew while leaving the ship relatively intact.”

    “Fucking A,” Jones muttered.

    Levi sucked in her breath. Sabotage on this sort of scale ... it was unthinkable, outside bad movies. She would sooner believe incompetent maintenance work than ... she shook her head, dismissing the thought. There would be time to consider it later, back when they were safely back on their mothership.

    “Major, the computer cores are completely depowered,” she said, curtly. “If there are any surprises left onboard this hulk, we’re not going to find them short of a full sweep. There’s certainly no reason to believe that anyone is still alive. I would like to remove the cores, then abandon the ship.”

    There was a long pause. She had a feeling she knew what was going through her superior’s head. The heavy cruiser was a valuable prize, even if she was literally decades out of date. The Solar Navy would pay a bounty for her. Perhaps not as much as they would pay for a top-of-the-line Tokomak battleship or a ship from a completely unknown alien race, but enough to buy each member of the squad a luxury holiday somewhere hot and sunny. Or a few thousand beers, if they wished. But, on the other hand, the ship was potentially dangerous. Without shields, without any internal force fields, a mere nuke would be enough to shatter the hull and kill the boarding party.

    “Do so,” Rhodan ordered. “Recover two of the bodies as well.”

    Levi allowed herself a moment of relief. “Aye, sir,” she said. She switched back to the local channel. “Back to work, all of you.”

    “I’d like to sweep the cabins too,” Sergeant Kath said. “One of the crew might have recorded something useful, if they’re anything like us.”

    “True,” Levi agreed. The marines had been cautioned, time and time again, against keeping personal records in places where they could be stolen by enemy forces. But there had been incidents where marines had been reprimanded - or worse - for doing it anyway. It was possible, vaguely possible, that the aliens had done the same thing. “But don’t take too long.”

    “I won’t,” Kath said. “I feel naked in here.”

    “You are naked in your suit, Sergeant,” Rollins put in.

    “Just for that, you can help me,” Kath said. “The sooner it’s done, the sooner we can get out of here.”

    And hope that we can recover something that tells us what’s actually going on, Levi thought, wryly. No one wants to come back here.
    techsar, rle737ng and bagpiper like this.
  8. bagpiper

    bagpiper Heretic

    She reached the gasp and jumped inside, hastily searching for targets.

  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    Ideally, no one would require a helping hand - from anyone. And yes, there is something to be said for solving your own problems. But let’s face it - not everyone can solve their own problems. Do we not have the moral responsibility to provide help? Indeed, do we not already help those who are oppressed by fallen cantons?
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    Rebecca had never been a racist. Classical racism was almost unknown in the Solar Union, while anti-alien sentiment was very limited. And yet, looking down at the two dead aliens, she couldn't help feeling that they were just too alien. Merely looking at their insectoid bodies sent shivers down her spine. She couldn't escape the sense that they were looking back at her, even though they were very definitely dead. The bodies were completely inert.

    “Death by vacuum,” Doctor Rhonda Carr said, as she studied the live feed from the nanoprobes she’d injected into the first corpse. “There’s no trace of any other factor, as far as I can tell.”

    Captain Yasser looked displeased. “No Trojan Horses? No enemy nanotech?”

    “Not unless they’ve stumbled on something completely new,” Rhonda said. She tapped the computer display. “There’s no trace of any augmentation or genetic enhancement. I didn't even find any standard nanities in their bloodstreams.”

    “Odd,” the captain mused.

    “Maybe not,” Rebecca said. “There are quite a few people who dislike the idea of tiny machines in their blood.”

    “It’s a very unusual attitude for a spacer,” the captain pointed out. “They’d need nanities for protection.”

    He glanced at Chief Engineer Daniel Wolf. “Did your team pull anything out of the marine records?”

    “I can confirm that the ship’s life support and safety systems were deliberately buggered,” Wolf said. His voice was very grim. Rebecca knew how he felt. Tampering with the life support systems was an automatic death sentence in the Solar Union. “If the ship took a crippling level of damage, the hatches would spring open and the internal force fields collapse. The entire ship would be vented at terrifying speed. I suspect the crew were deliberately encouraged not to use spacesuits to ensure a clean sweep.”

    Rebecca shook her head in disbelief. “If they can do that,” she asked, “why not just blow up the entire ship?”

    “They might have hoped to recover the hulk at a later date,” Wolf said. He snorted in droll amusement. “Frankly, it would be cheaper to build a whole new ship than repair her.”

    “Probably,” the captain agreed. “Did you pull anything from the datacores?”

    “Very little,” Wolf admitted. “The AIs are trying to dissect the cores now, but it looks as though the crew were careful not to write anything down. The automated systems did keep updating the logs, which will let us trace the ship’s movements back in time ...”

    He shrugged. “From an engineering standpoint, I’d say they were pirates,” he added. “They didn't have the experience or knowledge to check their ship for unpleasant surprises.”

    “Keep me updated,” the captain ordered. “Madam Ambassador?”

    Rebecca looked up. “There’s no one to talk to here, is there?”

    “I don’t think so,” the captain said. “The enemy crews are dead.”

    “True,” Rebecca agreed. “How do you intend to proceed?”

    “We’ll set out again once we’ve finished scouring their datacores for anything useful,” the captain told her. “I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by trying to hunt their base down, unless we get a solid lead. We’ll pass what we’ve learned on to the local authorities and let them worry about the pirates.”

    “If they are pirates,” Rebecca said. “They might have been something akin to the Hordesmen instead.”

    “Perhaps,” the captain agreed. “They certainly didn't know how to handle their ships.”

    Rebecca nodded. The Hordesmen hadn't known how to handle their ships either. They hadn't even developed the wheel when they’d been forcibly introduced to galactic society and put to work as mercenaries. They’d obtained starships, eventually, but they’d never understood how their technology actually worked. Their sheer lack of awareness had eventually cost the group that had stumbled across Earth a starship ...

    ... And unleashed humanity upon the universe.

    “I’m sure we’ll find out,” she said, looking back at the unmoving alien form. “What will you do with the bodies?”

    “Store them in stasis, for the moment,” the captain told her. “I’ll have them transferred to Hudson Base when we arrive. At that point ...”

    He shrugged. “We’ll probably launch them into the sun, unless there is some reason to keep them,” he added. “That’s what most of the Galactics do with their bodies.”

    Rebecca raised her eyebrows. “You don’t want to send the bodies home?”

    “It depends,” the captain said. “Would they want the bodies sent back?”

    “I don’t know,” Rebecca said. “We’ll have to check before we do anything.”

    She smiled, tiredly. Dealing with so many different races was a headache. There were alien civilisations that would demand the bodies returned, if they knew they’d been recovered intact. And there were others that would throw their hands up in horror if the suggestion was made. She made a mental note to research this particular race, just in case they were one of the former. There was nothing to be gained by giving them unintended offense. For all she knew, they might make powerful allies.

    “We’re going to destroy the hulks,” the captain said. “There’s no point in trying to salvage them. Right now, they’re nothing more than a navigational hazard.”

    Rebecca wasn't surprised. The engineer had practically called the hulks worthless. She doubted there would be much, if any, prize money if the alien ships were somehow transported home. And yet, it still struck her as wasteful. Surely, the hulls could be broken down and recycled into something useful.

    We’d still have to ship them home, she told herself. And that would be a waste of time.

    She met his eyes. “Who do you think they were?”

    “So far, all the evidence insists that they were pirates,” the captain said. “Luckily, they ran into us instead of someone defenceless.”

    Rebecca nodded. Years ago, she’d thought it was odd that a towering galactic civilisation still had criminals and pirates. Now, she knew it was yet another factor ripping the multiracial civilisation apart. The Battle of Earth had unleashed shockwaves that had created a growing power vacuum, clearing the way for pirates, rebels and terrorists. Civil wars were already springing up as the Tokomak retreated from power.

    And if we don’t get the Grand Alliance up and running, she thought morbidly, no one else will be interested in policing space.

    “Rebels, then,” Elton mused.

    “We finally cracked the datacores, sir,” Lieutenant Jayne Fisher said. She was a cyborg, her left eye replaced with a series of cybernetic implants. “They’re definitely rebels, part of a faction that launched a military coup in the wake of the Battle of Earth. It’s hard to be entirely sure - the translations aren’t perfect - but it seems that they lost and had to scatter into deep space. Right now, they’re raiding shipping in preparation for a return to their homeworld.”

    Elton stroked his chin. “So they became pirates,” he mused. “Do they have a hope of returning home?”

    “I don’t know, sir,” Jayne said. “Their files suggest that their commanders were optimistic, but they would have claimed to be optimistic ... wouldn't they?”

    “Probably,” Elton said. He considered the problem for a long moment. “Their homeworld is ... where?”

    “Five hundred light years from our current location,” Jayne said. “According to our files, sir, we have no direct contact with their rulers. They’re a fairly small power that has never impinged on us or vice versa.”

    “And they don’t pose a threat,” Elton noted. “They’re certainly not trying to block our way to Hudson and the Harmonies.”

    “No, sir,” Jayne said. “Everything we found indicates that they were picking on shipping at random. They must have found the convoy a tempting target.”

    Elton smiled, rather coldly. If he were a pirate, he would have hesitated to pick a fight with a starship like Odyssey. Maybe she wasn't a true warship, but she was still armed. Had the pirates mistaken her for a liner? It wasn't entirely impossible, he had to admit, yet it still required a great deal of incompetence. Or had they merely assumed they could blow Odyssey out of space and then snap up the freighters at leisure?

    “They won’t be troubling anyone any longer,” he said.

    He shook his head, slowly. It was tempting, very tempting, to alter course and find out exactly what was going on, but it would take Odyssey at least a week to reach the alien homeworld. But it would delay their arrival at Harmony. Besides, whatever was going on, it wasn't his concern. He’d pass the whole affair over to Captain-Commodore Jenny Longlegs when they reached Hudson Base. If pirates and rebels were threatening the shipping lanes between Sol and Hudson, she’d have to know about it.

    And she wouldn't if we ran into trouble and got blown out of space, he mused. The Solar Navy would never know what had happened to us.

    He cleared his throat. “Do you think there’s anything left in the datacores we can use?”

    “The AIs are cracking the remaining files now, but their last update suggested that it was nothing of great interest,” Jayne said. Her face, what little was visible, reddened. “There’s a considerable number of entertainment files, including something we think is alien porn ...”

    “I don’t think that’s of great interest,” Elton said. He didn't want to know what an insectoid race might consider pornographic. “If there’s nothing else we can use ...”

    He paused. “Is there anything on the Harmonies?”

    “Nothing apart from the standard navigational and background files,” Jayne said. “I think someone must have purged the core when the starship was sold - probably several times, judging by the degradation. They didn't even bother to download the last set of updates from the galactic libraries.”

    Elton shrugged. Whatever else one could say about the Tokomak, they built their starships to last ... and to endure a degree of mistreatment that would have horrified any reasonably competent starship engineer. The ships he’d captured or destroyed had been in space before humanity had mastered steam power, passed down from owner to owner until they’d eventually ended up in rebel hands. There was a story there, he was sure, but it wasn't one he had time to pursue. His mission to the Kingdom of Harmonious Order came first.

    “Finish scanning the cores, then put them in stasis,” he ordered. “We’ll hand them over to Hudson Base when we arrive. They may have a use for them.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Jayne said. She paused. “Do you think we’ll be sending a mission there?”

    “That’s a decision for higher authority,” Elton said, reprovingly. Jayne was young, too young. It wasn't a question she could reasonably ask. “I’m sure they’ll decide how best to handle the situation.”

    Jayne nodded, embarrassed. “Thank you, sir.”

    Elton dismissed her, then turned his attention to the starchart. The alien rebels - whatever the true story actually was - didn't pose an immediate threat. They were quite some distance from Sol, after all. And besides, unless they had gravity-well technology, they were unlikely to be able to intercept other starships moving between Sol and Hudson Base.

    And there aren't that many unescorted starships making the run, he mused. We normally convoy ships this far from Sol.

    His intercom bleeped. “Captain,” Biscoe said. “The freighters report that they are ready to depart.”

    “Very good,” Elton said. “Inform them that we will be departing in ten minutes.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said.

    “And confirm that their navigational computers have been updated with the next planned waypoint,” Elton added. “I don’t want to lose them somewhere in interstellar space.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said.

    He sounded irked, Elton noted. He didn't really blame the younger man. Biscoe had served on Jackie Fisher, under Captain-Commodore Hoshiko Sashimi Stuart. He’d done well there, Elton knew, but Odyssey was a very different ship. And Elton, in truth, was a very different captain. He was, he knew all too well, far fussier than Hoshiko Stuart.

    And I’m not going to hare off in search of adventure, he told himself, firmly.

    He rose, feeling a flicker of annoyed frustration as he headed for the hatch. He’d hoped to give the merchant crews more time on Odyssey, but there was no way to know if the alien rebels had friends lurking somewhere within the barren system. His sensors should pick up approaching starships in FTL, yet ... there were ways to spoof the system. Did the rebels know they’d lost three ships? They shouldn't, unless they’d had a fourth ship watching the battle from a safe distance ...

    We’ll be gone before they can muster a response, he thought, stepping onto the bridge. They may never know who took out their ships.

    “Captain,” Biscoe said. He rose, offering Elton the command chair. “The convoy is ready to depart.”

    “Very good,” Elton said. He sat, studying the display for a long moment. There was no sign of enemy ships, save for the two derelicts. The system was apparently empty. Even the sensors watching for starships in FTL were blank. “Tactical?”

    Steve Callaway looked up. “Yes, sir?”

    “Target the enemy ships,” Elton ordered. “Prepare to fire.”

    “Aye, sir,” Callaway said. “Phasers only?”

    “Yes,” Elton said. There was no point in wasting missiles on defenceless hulks. “Fire on my command.”

    “Aye, sir,” Callaway said.

    Elton sighed inwardly. Fleet HQ wouldn’t be too happy with him for destroying the hulks, although they’d understand that Odyssey couldn't tow the alien ships to Hudson Base. There was nothing to recover, as far as he knew; there was certainly nothing to gain by leaving the ships intact for later recovery. Besides, it would be months - at best - before human ships could arrive to collect the hulks. Who knew what would happen in that time? The rebels might be so desperately short of ships that they’d try to recover and repair the hulks themselves ...

    They might not have the funding to buy new ships, he mused. And even if they do, who’ll sell them?

    It wasn't a pleasant thought. The last set of intelligence reports he’d read had insisted that every known galactic power were building up their navies as quickly as possible. They’d be putting starships that dated back centuries into service, arming them with modern weapons in a desperate bid to deter attack. Or, perhaps, to take advantage of the current power vacuum to start attacking their navies. The hulks floating near Odyssey might have value, even though they’d need to be almost completely repaired ...

    He shook his head. “Fire.”

    Odyssey hummed as her phasers lashed out, digging into the enemy hulls. The smaller ship disintegrated rapidly, practically melting under the onslaught; the cruiser held out, as if the dead hulk was struggling for survival. But it was futile. The hulk started to come apart, shattering into a cloud of debris. It was completely beyond recovery.

    “Cease fire,” Elton ordered. There was no point in hammering the last few pieces of wreckage. “Helm?”

    “Yes, sir?”

    “Take us into FTL,” Elton said.

    He leaned back in his command chair as the main displays went blank. If there was anyone watching the system, they’d know that Odyssey and her consorts had vanished. Maybe they wouldn't have realised that the hulks had been destroyed. He doubted it - they’d made no attempt to hide the phaser fire - but it was possible. The rebels might just waste time trying to recover the ruined ships.

    Or they might not have noticed at all, he mused. Who knows when they’ll realise that three of their ships are overdue?

    He shook his head, dismissing the thought. There was no point in feeling sorry for the aliens, even though he could understand why exiled outcasts might want to go home. Humanity had no interest in the alien civil war, as far as he could tell. The aliens certainly hadn't made any attempt to muster support. Instead ... instead, they’d just attacked the convoy. It didn't matter if they were fighting for a just cause or not, not after they’d engaged his ship. They’d picked a fight and lost.

    “We are underway, Captain,” Marie said. “We will reach the next waypoint in two months, five days.”

    “Enough time for dinner, then,” Elton said, wryly. He rose, nodding to his XO. “Mr. Biscoe, you have the bridge. I’ll be in my office.”

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

    Elton stepped into the office and sat down at his desk, hearing the hatch hiss closed behind him. A string of reports from the tactical and engineering departments were already waiting for him. He skimmed the first two, noting that Odyssey had performed well in her first true engagement. The aliens clearly hadn't expected a real fight, but still ...

    That should do wonders for morale, he thought, as he opened the ship’s log. He’d have to write an account of the engagement - and of his thinking - while the whole incident was still fresh in his mind. We encountered a trio of enemy ships and beat them.

    He shook his head, feeling tired. The voyage had barely lasted two months, so far, but the crew were already feeling the strain. Morale would improve, true, yet he knew that wouldn't last. They’d need a week or two of shore leave on Hudson Base - if it could be arranged - before passing through the next set of gravity points to their final destination. And he wasn't sure if he could arrange it.

    I better had arrange it, he thought, morbidly. We’re not going to be in any state to impress anyone if we don’t get a chance to blow off steam before we reach Harmony.
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  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    How many problems have been caused by people claiming they had a moral responsibility to help the less fortunate? Colonialism and imperialism were justified by claims that they helped the natives - so, too, were everything from government handouts to social justice bullies demanding that the majority change to suit the minority. I say no - we do not have an obligation to help the less fortunate!
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    Rebecca hadn't wanted to spend her time in a VR sim. She’d never really appreciated why people would want to plunge themselves into a virtual reality that was played directly into their heads, rather than a holographic simulation or a physical game. But, as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, she’d found herself spending more and more time lying in a VR tube, her mind inserted into a fantastically-detailed fantasy world based on a wizard school series she vaguely recalled reading in her youth. It was relaxing, she had to admit, yet ...

    The scene froze, just as the evil wizard prepared to cast a spell. He’d lost in the original series, if she recalled correctly, but the simulation changed and updated as Rebecca - and the other characters - made different moves. She felt an odd moment of disconnect, as if she wasn't quite sure which world was real, then her eyes opened. She was lying in a tube, staring up at a white ceiling. Her body felt odd. It wasn't quite hers.

    It is, she reminded herself, sharply. The player character was a teenage girl, fifty years younger than Rebecca herself. You’re not her.

    She rubbed her forehead as she sat up. There were people who spent all their lives immersed in simulated worlds, as if they couldn’t get what they wanted in reality. She’d thought of those people as pathetic, but she thought she understood them now. The fantasy world was far more magical than the real world. They didn't have to work to be great, they didn't have to compete against others who might be better ... they could just withdraw into fantasy and enjoy themselves.

    Her throat felt dry. She coughed.

    “Drink this,” Tyler said. He held out a glass. Rebecca took it and sipped gratefully. The high-energy drink tasted odd, but she knew it would replenish what she’d lost. “You asked to be alerted when we reached Hudson Base.”

    Rebecca frowned. They’d reached Hudson Base? “How long was I in the tube?”

    “Three days,” Tyler said. “I think you lost track of time.”

    “Oh,” Rebecca said.

    She checked her implants. Tyler was right. She’d definitely lost track of time. The VR sim had taken place over a day ... her head spun as she tried to make sense of the differential between the illusion and reality. Had she really been in the tube for three days? She looked down at herself and sighed. Her body felt grimy. The tube had taken care of her physical needs, but she still needed a shower and a change of clothes.

    “We’ll be entering orbit in two hours,” Tyler said, as he helped her to climb out of the tube and stand on wobbly legs. “The captain has requested that you accompany him to the naval base.”

    “Nice of him,” Rebecca said. She kicked herself, mentally. If she’d realised she’d remain immersed in the simulation for so long she would have set a timer. “Did you bring my robes?”

    “And a change of clothes,” Tyler said. “I wasn't sure what you’d want to wear.”

    Rebecca considered it, even though her head still felt hazy. “Diplomatic robes,” she said, finally. “We might be meeting non-human representatives.”

    “As you wish,” Tyler said. He gave her a concerned look. “Can you use the facilities without assistance? I can call a nurse ...”

    “I'm not that old,” Rebecca said. The nasty part of her mind was tempted to insist that he helped her to undress, just to see the look on his face, but she knew she shouldn't torment her aides. Tyler and his fellows had done a very good job, coming up with hundreds of possible scenarios for the coming discussions. “I’ll meet the captain in the teleport bay.”

    “I asked him to arrange a shuttle instead,” Tyler said. “I told him that you wanted to see the base from the outside.”

    “Thank you,” Rebecca said, gratefully.

    She headed for the washroom and stepped through the door. Her head spun again as she caught sight of her reflection, her face oddly unfamiliar ... she groaned in annoyance as she ran her hand through her hair. She’d seen her face - no, not her face; the character’s face - in the VR sim. She reminded herself, firmly, that she wasn't a teenage sorceress-in-training, but a sixty-year-old ambassador to an alien superpower. It wasn't quite the same, somehow.

    Despite the odd sense of unreality - the feeling stubbornly refusing to fade - she forced herself to undress and shower, allowing the warm water to run over her body. Her arm throbbed with sympathetic pain where she’d been grabbed, during a fight ... she caught herself rubbing it, even as the sensation faded away into nothingness. The dragons, the magic ... it hadn't been real. None of it had been real. The knife she’d taken through the chest - she glanced down at her pale skin just to be sure - hadn't been real either.

    There should be laws against using VR sims too frequently, she thought, as she turned off the water. Warm air billowed down around her, drying her bare skin. They’re dangerously addictive.

    She pushed the thought aside as she pulled on her robe, tied her hair back into a long ponytail and stepped out of the washroom. The Solar Union hesitated to ban anything, particularly something that posed no threat to anyone else. She could go to her canton’s council and demand a ban, but she doubted she’d succeed. Too many of the youngsters saw the VR sims as normal ... or, for that matter, regarded addiction as a sign of weakness. Those who fell into the VR sims and refused to come out should be left to it, away from everyone else.

    A message blinked up in her implant, inviting her to the main shuttlebay at 1524. She sent back a quick reply, then headed out of the VR chamber and back to her quarters. She’d reviewed the files on Hudson Base, of course, but there was just time for a quick refresher and a large cup of coffee. She was going to need it.

    And we’re not that far from our destination now, she thought, ruefully. I won’t have time to fall back into the VR world.

    An hour later, feeling moderately refreshed, she hurried down to the shuttlebay. Captain Yasser was already there, his face unreadable. Rebecca felt a flicker of guilt, mixed with a grim awareness that she needed to avoid the teleporter. She clambered into the shuttle and sat next to him as he ran through the pre-flight checks, then powered up the craft and guided it out into open space. He didn't seem to need a pilot.

    She glanced at him. “I didn't know you knew how to fly, Elton.”

    He snorted. “We’re taught how to fly shuttles during basic training,” he pointed out. “It’s one of the standard requirements before you’re allowed to graduate and get unleashed on the universe.”

    Rebecca flushed. “Should I be trying to learn?”

    “It’s a useful skill to have,” the captain said. “There are training courses on the computer, if you’re interested. You never know when you might need it.”

    He moved them forward as Hudson - an Earth-like world, floating against the inky darkness of space - came into view. Rebecca watched, silently noting the sheer number of starships - almost all of them alien - coming and going, dozens blinking in and out of FTL every minute ... she shook her head in awe. Hudson was a neutral system, home to billions of aliens from hundreds of different races, yet it throbbed with more activity than Sol. It brought home to her, in a manner she couldn't ignore, just how far humanity had to go.

    And how badly we’ll be in trouble, she thought, if the Tokomak ever get their act together to crush us.

    Hudson - the name was a translation - was surrounded by thousands of orbital stations, ranging from giant industrial nodes to floating space habitats and asteroid settlements. She could see hundreds of warships from nearly every major interstellar power, brought together to guarantee the system’s safety and protect the thousands of starships that moved in and out of the system every day. It had been a major coup for humanity, she recalled, when the Solar Union had been asked to contribute a battle squadron to the local patrol. The nine cruisers holding position in high orbit, watching over the system, were proof that humanity had definitely arrived on the galactic scene.

    “That’s Hudson Base,” Captain Yasser said. Rebecca peered forward, finally spotting a large structure in high orbit. “They put her together out of prefabricated materials, rather than take the time to convert an asteroid or purchase a base from one of the other naval powers. Put a few noses out of joint, I believe.”

    Rebecca nodded. The files had said as much. Hudson was neutral, but the local shipping and engineering combines handled much of the construction work. They’d expected the human newcomers to pay for their services, rather than dragging prefabricated components all the way from Earth. But there hadn't been a choice. Too many Galactics were too keen on spying on humanity, hoping to steal some human technology for themselves. She still smiled whenever she recalled the story of the embassy humanity had opened on an unpronounceable world. The first security sweep, carried out after the building had been completed, had uncovered hundreds of bugs. It had been so overdone that some counterintelligence officers speculated that there had been at least three different galactic powers trying to spy on the embassy and its staff.

    She peered out of the porthole as the shuttle flew closer to the giant structure. It looked like a wheel floating in space, although it wasn't spinning. Two giant freighters were docked to the outer edge, while three cruisers held position nearby, constantly sweeping space for potential threats. Indeed, there was a crudeness about the design that surprised her. She couldn't help thinking of something theoretical from the pre-contact era, when space stations had been little more than pathetic clusters of modules held together by spit and baling wire. It was easy to see why some of the Galactics looked down on humanity, despite the scale of humanity’s achievements. They’d all sprung from a single Horde starship that had been captured by sheer luck.

    Most of the other stations looked bigger, she noted. The Galactics had always thought big, even though their technology had remained stagnant for years. Their habitats were huge, bigger than the average canton back home; their industrial nodes were bigger still, turning out a constant stream of everything from starship components to colony settlement tools ... everything an interstellar civilisation might need. She wondered, as the giant base overshadowed the tiny shuttlecraft, if the locals were trying to unlock their fabricators. The Tokomak would object, of course, but even they might think twice about attacking Hudson.

    It’s a very useful world, she thought, as the shuttle docked. They’d be declaring war on the entire galaxy.

    “Welcome to Hudson Base,” Captain Yasser said. He rose and strode over to the hatch, opening it. “It’s been a long trip.”

    “Next time, I think I’ll just climb into a stasis tube,” Rebecca said.

    She looked out of the porthole as she stood, trying to pick out Odyssey among the other points of light in high orbit. It was impossible. For all she knew, she was looking at a star - or an alien starship. Odyssey was huge, with plenty of room for her crew and passengers, but ... she shook her head, telling herself that she should be grateful. Spending nine months on Odyssey had been heaven, compared to nine months - or even three months - on a cramped freighter or courier boat. She rather suspected she would have gone mad after spending even a week on a courier boat. No wonder their crews were regarded as weird by the rest of the navy.

    Two young women were waiting for them on the far side of the hatch, both wearing blue naval uniforms without rank insignia. Rebecca frowned as they saluted Captain Yasser, trying to remember what that meant. They looked young ... no, they were young. It was hard to tell, physically - there were too many middle-aged men and women who looked no older than twenty - but there was something about their attitude that told her they were genuinely young. They didn't have the odd maturity trapped behind a young face that she’d come to expect from her fellows.

    “Welcome to Hudson Base,” the leader said. “Please will you accompany us?”

    “Of course,” Captain Yasser said, calmly.

    Rebecca walked next to him as they made their way through a twisting series of corridors. Hudson Base was immense, yet almost completely empty. Vast chambers were barren, as if the base had been stripped of everything useful; she saw no one as they walked, not even a single crewman. Her implants pinged the local network, picking up the presence of an AI in the system, but it didn't seem disposed to talk to her. It was almost a relief when they walked through a set of interlocking doors and into a much more homely section. Here, she could believe that the base was actually manned.

    “Commodore,” Captain Yasser said.

    “Captain,” Captain-Commodore Jenny Longlegs said. She was tall and thin, with long dark hair that fell down her back. She had a friendly smile, but Rebecca couldn't help noticing that it didn't quite touch her eyes. “Welcome to Hudson Base. I apologise for the long walk, but we’re not normally set up for guests here.”

    Because most people beam straight into the command section, Rebecca finished.

    “You are a long way from Sol,” Captain Yasser said. “Do you see many other humans?”

    “Only traders, save for the occasional convoy escort,” Jenny said. “Normally, I spend most of my time on my ship. The base has yet to be expanded into something more long-term.”

    She waved a hand at the table. “Please, join us for dinner. I’ve taken the liberty of having food prepared for you.”

    “Thank you,” Rebecca said.

    “Victoria and Cathy will bring it in,” Jenny said. She nodded to the two girls, who hurried out of the compartment. “They’re technically ensigns, but they’re unlikely to see service off this base until we can get them to the academy.”

    Captain Yasser leaned forward. “Local recruits?”

    Jenny nodded. “Their father was a trader - apparently, he was born into slavery but somehow managed to work his way up to command of a starship,” he said. “One of his distant ancestors was taken from Earth a couple of hundred years or so ago. They inherited his ship after her died, but ... it was seized shortly afterwards by the local authorities. I offered them posts on the base, as we were very short of crew.”

    “Decent of you,” Rebecca commented.

    “I prefer to think of it as practical,” Jenny told her. There was a faint hint of annoyance in her voice. “Besides, I do have orders to protect humans where possible. Giving them a chance to prove themselves is just an extension of that.”

    She looked up as the hatch opened, again. “The locals do use food processors, just as we do, but there’s a roaring trade in vat-grown meats,” she explained. “I’ve discovered that some of the local animals are quite tasty, if cooked properly. We’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with different spices and cooking methods.”

    Rebecca sniffed the air as the girls brought a large stew pot over and placed it on the table, removing the lid to reveal a reddish-brown mixture. She felt her mouth watering - the smell was heavenly - and took the bowl she was offered eagerly. Captain Yasser seemed less interested - she wondered, suddenly, if he had something against vat-grown meats - but he took a careful bite of his stew. Rebecca tasted hers, than started to wolf it down with bread and sour cream. The meat tasted like beef, but different. She couldn't put her finger on it.

    “You should sell this back home,” she said, when she’d satisfied her first hunger pangs. “It’s brilliant.”

    Jenny smiled. “It took months of work to get a tasty recipe,” she said. “I knew it wouldn't be poisonous, but ...”

    Her smile grew wider. “Taste isn’t something you can test for,” she admitted. “We’ve all had experiences where something that smelled good turned out to be inedible. My crews have a contest to craft newer and better recipes using local ingredients.”

    Rebecca raised her eyebrows. “Your crews cook?”

    “It's something to do,” Jenny said. She seemed amused by Rebecca’s surprise. “Hudson is an odd posting, Madam Ambassador. We are really doing nothing more than showing the flag. The most excitement we get here are the occasional convoy escort missions, none of which are particularly interesting. There really aren't enough traders out here to make it worthwhile.”

    “But showing the flag is important,” Captain Yasser said.

    “True,” Jenny agreed. “The Galactics don’t take us seriously. We’re still a very small power by their standards. We have to make it clear that we can and we will defend ourselves.”

    She shrugged. “But we’ll talk about that after dinner,” she added. “Now tell me ... what’s been happening on Earth?”

    Rebecca glanced at Captain Yasser, then sighed. “Civil war,” she said. “And no end in sight.”
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    I quite agree that we do not have an obligation to do everything for those less fortunate than ourselves, particularly those who have access to the same opportunities as us. But what about those who don’t? Can we justify doing nothing, for example, if a woman is held down by a patriarchal family? She has no hope of escape without outside assistance. Should we not offer that assistance?
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    “I read your mission brief,” Jenny said, once the dinner was over. “I wish I was able to offer more help.”

    Elton raised his eyebrows. “You don’t know anything about the Harmonies?”

    “Very little,” Jenny admitted. “Something has happened in their general direction, but what? We don’t know. I’ve made a habit of collecting rumours passing through the system, yet ... we don’t have any solid answers. I’m honestly unsure why they bothered to send a message requesting an envoy. They certainly haven't tried to contact me.”

    “They might not have seen you as a senior representative,” Rebecca pointed out.

    “I am the local human representative,” Jenny said.

    Elton nodded in agreement. The senior officer on the spot, assuming there wasn't a dedicated diplomatic representative, had wide-ranging powers to talk to the locals on humanity’s behalf. Jenny couldn't have made any binding agreements, naturally, but she could certainly have sounded out any visitors and forwarded their concerns to Earth. And she could have opened up communications channels too, if necessary. The Galactics would have understood that, surely. They’d designed the interstellar diplomatic protocols.

    “I mean ... they’d expect an envoy of high status,” Rebecca explained. “Someone directly empowered by the Solar Union.”

    Jenny shrugged. “Realistically, we know very little about the Harmonies,” she said. “I have checked with a couple of my contacts, but they all agree that the Harmonies are a riddle wrapped in an enigma. They control much of the interstellar shipping market in their sector, freezing out just about everyone else. I’ve heard that their control has gotten tighter over the last few years. They’re risking the anger of the Tokomak if they keep going.”

    “They may already be risking their anger,” Rebecca observed. “If they threw out a collaborationist regime ...”

    “Their borders are closed,” Jenny said, flatly. “I can’t tell you anything about their inner politics, Madam Ambassador. There’s certainly nothing I can vouch for.”

    She shook her head. “I’ve established friendly relationships with the planetary council and most of the other powers interested in safeguarding this system,” she added, “but the Harmonies won’t talk to me. We can't push it, either. This system isn’t under our direct control.”

    Elton frowned. “What is the political situation here?”

    “Calm before the storm, I would have said,” Jenny commented. She shook her head. “There are five gravity points in the system, each one allowing interstellar freighters to take hundreds of light years off their journeys. The Tokomak ensured that the system would remain neutral, allowing everyone to use the gravity points, but that may have changed now. I think it’s only a matter of time before one of the galactic superpowers makes a bid for the system. At that point ...”

    Her lips thinned. “We may have to retreat at once, without a fight,” she added. “My squadron cannot make a difference alone, while we don’t have the contacts necessary to convince the other powers to fight beside us. The local government doesn't have the firepower to control the gravity points as well as the high orbitals. Getting back home won’t be easy.”

    “They all signed the local agreements,” Rebecca protested.

    “Ink on paper,” Jenny countered. “Well, electronic signatures in a data matrix, but you get the idea. The only thing keeping the superpowers from breaking them is the threat of force. Those gravity points are a licence to print money. And now the Tokomak are in retreat, no longer able to threaten a thumping to anyone who breaks the rules, you can bet your pension that someone is going to try to grab them. They’d be able to charge through the nose if they manage to fortify the gravity points.”

    Elton nodded. The Solar Union had never carried out a gravity point assault, but he’d seen the simulations and watched records from the pre-stardrive days. Gravity point assaults had been hellishly costly, draining the resources of anyone foolhardy or desperate enough to launch them. Traditionally, the attacker needed an advantage of three to one to guarantee success; in space, attacking through a gravity point, it was more like ten to one. The Solar Navy had done what it could to prepare, but everyone agreed it was unlikely to be anything more than a bloody slaughter.

    “I assume you have contingency plans,” he mused. “Don’t the others?”

    “Only to evacuate every human on Hudson and beat a hasty retreat,” Jenny admitted. Her lips twisted in disgust “Like I said, we can't hold the system.”

    She met Elton’s eyes. “I wish I had something more to offer you,” she added. “Are you going to be staying?”

    “If you can arrange shore leave, I’d like to rotate my crew through the facilities,” Elton said, slowly. “Is that possible?”

    “I should be able to book a beachside resort for your personnel,” Jenny said. “It won’t be ideal, but ... Hudson is fairly used to providing entertainment for people from all over the galaxy. I was thinking more about looking up a few smugglers and seeing what they had to say. Even the Harmonies will have cracks in their defences.”

    “Good thinking,” Elton said. He cocked his head. “Will they tell you anything useful?”

    “Nothing of great value, I suspect,” Jenny said. “But they might be able to tell you what’s going on behind the scenes.”

    She shrugged. “I’ll see what I can dig up,” she added. “There’s no guarantee ...”

    “We can offer payment,” Rebecca said. “Or future favours.”

    “There’s a risk in dealing with smugglers,” Jenny noted. “And I’d prefer not to owe them any favours.”

    She closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them and looked at Elton. “I read your report,” she said. “Pirates and rebels ... right now, their civil war isn't a matter of great concern to anyone on Hudson. It’s too far away to be important.”

    “I thought as much,” Elton said. “In the long term, though ...”

    “There are a dozen other such wars underway,” Jenny told him. “I’ll pass on the warning about raiders, but ... most of the galactic races already know about the dangers. We may wind up organising more convoy escorts over the next few months.”

    Rebecca leaned forward. “Has there been any interest in the Grand Alliance out here?”

    “Nothing, save for a few snide remarks about minor powers,” Jenny said. She smiled, rather humourlessly. “Smashing a Tokomak fleet is impressive, but the vast majority of the civilians don’t really believe it happened. Even if it did, they think, it was a very long way away. A flea bite compared to the towering empire that has dominated known space since time out of mind.”

    She shrugged, expressively. “I’ve made the sensor records open to all,” she added, “but I don’t think they’re really convincing. There’s even a whole string of sites on the datanet dedicated to debunking them. Some of the details we left out for security reasons have been taken to mean that the whole set of records were faked. Others ... well, let’s just say that we have been accused of having an overactive imagination. I never knew I could imagine fighting in such a battle.”

    Elton nodded. Jenny had commanded a destroyer during the engagement, if he recalled correctly. She’d won a medal for taking out an enemy heavy cruiser in a point-blank engagement. It wasn't the sort of thing someone could fake easily, although he had to admit that - with enough computer power - anything could be faked. The VR sims that had lured a third of the crew into a fantasy world were proof of that.

    Rebecca coughed. “They accuse you of lying?”

    “Not directly,” Jenny said. “But they do come up with some fairly detailed analysis reports that prove the battle never happened.”

    Elton met her eyes. “How many of the local governments believe it was faked?”

    “I don’t think the governments do believe it was faked,” Jenny said. She smiled. “For a piece of fakery, there is some fairly impressive supporting evidence. But Elton ... many of the local powers are not inclined to annoy the Tokomak, if it can be avoided. Even if they don’t care about possible retaliation from the Tokomak, they don’t want to lower themselves to joining us. We’re tiny by their standards. Any contacts between us and them will be quite under the radar until we prove ourselves.”

    “Again,” Elton said.

    Jenny nodded. “I’ll ask around,” she added. “See if they know anything about the Harmonies and their coup. But I’d be surprised if there was anyone willing to talk to us, even unofficially.”

    “Of course,” Elton agreed. “They might not know anything either.”

    The beach, Elton decided two days after dinner with Jenny Longlegs, would have been heavenly, if there wasn’t something subtly wrong with the sunlight. It was just a shade too bright ... no, it was something his mind refused to grasp. His skin had already darkened automatically to cope with the sunlight, but his eyes couldn't adapt so easily. And yet, it was a chance to relax and pretend, just for a day or two, that he wasn't the commanding officer of a starship. He could tolerate an alien sun.

    A number of his crew were swimming in the green sea or running up and down on the sandy beach, wearing skimpy bathing suits or going completely nude. His eyes followed a topless young officer, tracking her progress as she played nude volleyball with a number of other officers ... he told himself, firmly, that he shouldn't be looking at someone who was indisputably junior to him. Others, not hampered by higher rank, were flirting outrageously or heading off into the bulrushes to have some run. He couldn't help feeling a flicker of amusement, remembering the last time he’d made love on the beach. He'd wound up with sand in delicate places.

    He looked up as a shadow fell over him. An alien was standing there, wrapped in a purple cloak that concealed everything but a pair of terrifyingly dark eyes. Elton sat up slowly, holding his hands out and careful not to make any sudden moves. There was no way to know what he was facing, let alone how the alien would react to anything that seemed hostile. It - he - might be nervous around so many humans.

    “Greetings,” the alien said. The voice was so flat that it had to come through a voder. “You are the human commander of Odyssey, are you not?”

    “Yes,” Elton said. The alien was speaking English? That was a surprise. Surely, speaking one of the galactic tongues would help them to understand each other. “I am.”

    “I am a broker in information,” the alien whispered. It still spoke in English. “I have been informed that you are interested in the Harmonies. Is that correct?”

    “It is,” Elton said. One of Jenny’s agents must have passed the word to the alien. “Do you have information to sell?”

    “Yes,” the alien whispered. “Much information has been denied to us. We know, though, that the Harmonies are quite disharmonious. Many factions are competing over which one will drive their future. Do you wish more precise information?”

    “Yes,” Elton said.

    The alien held out a credit chip. Elton blinked in surprise. He hadn't thought to bring a galactic credit chip, not even everything on the beach had been paid for in advance. He’d certainly had no reason to expect an information broker to seek him out, although he had a feeling it had been done to establish the broker’s credentials. Finding Elton amidst his crew was not a small achievement when, to aliens, all humans looked somewhat alike.

    And speaking in English is a way of showing just how much they know about us, he thought, reluctantly. And, perhaps, to put us at our ease.

    “I haven't brought my credit chip,” he said, after a moment. “But we will pay a reasonable amount for your data.”

    “Ten thousand local credits,” the alien stated. It’s voice seemed louder, somehow. “I have a complete file, including everything I know and can source. It includes political outlines, astrographic data and other such materials.”

    “Give me a summery,” Elton challenged.

    “Payment,” the alien insisted. “I can provide account details instead, at cost.”

    Elton sighed. Ten thousand credits wasn't much, in the grand scheme of things, but he had no idea just how far the information broker could be trusted. ONI had openly admitted that it had no sources within the Kingdom of Harmonious Order. There was certainly no way to verify what they were being told. They might discover, after popping through the first pair of gravity points, that they’d been cheated.

    And making us pay the transfer fee will add an extra hundred credits to the bill, he thought, sourly. The local authorities took their cut, naturally. But we can afford it.

    “Give me the details,” he said, finally.

    The alien rattled off a string of numbers. Elton activated his implants, contacted the ship and ordered the transfer. There was a long pause as the alien waited, utterly motionless, until it received a confirmation that the transfer had gone through. And then a purple hand emerged from its robe, holding a single galactic-issue datachip. Elton took the datachip, trying to match what little he had seen of the information broker to any known race. His implants threw up too many possibilities for him to be sure.

    “We wish you a long and happy life,” the alien stated. It shuffled backwards. Elton wondered, suddenly, if the alien even had legs. “And you may contact us if you require more information.”

    Elton’s implants flashed up an alert, a second before a teleport field enveloped the alien and carried it away. His implants tried to track the beam, but the best they could do was locate the orbital platform that had scooped the alien up. No doubt it would materialise there and then be beamed somewhere else. Trying to relay a teleport beam through multiple stations was asking for signal degradation and certain death.

    He rose, placed the chip in his pocket and took one last look at the volleyball game. It wasn't much, not compared to a VR simulation, but it was real. His crew had needed, desperately, time away from their ship, even if it was just a few hours on an alien world. They were looking better already. Their captain probably looked better too.

    Shaking his head, he triggered his implants. A moment later, Odyssey’s teleporter scooped him up and deposited him on the teleport pad.

    “Inform Lieutenant Fisher that I have something for her,” he ordered, as he strode back to his cabin to change. It was hard to command respect in a pair of swimming trunks. “I’ll meet her in her office.”

    He changed into his uniform, then hurried down to the tactical compartment. Lieutenant Jayne Fisher had been in the first group to go down to the planet, if he recalled correctly. Her visible skin had darkened like his, while she looked happier than the crewmen who hadn’t let had a chance to go down to the planet. He passed her the datachip, then sat down on a stool.

    “See what you make of this,” he said, as she examined the chip. “And make sure there aren't any unpleasant surprises.”

    “A fairly standard datachip,” Jayne mused. She ran it through a set of scans. “No hidden nanotech, as far as I can tell. Room for a few yottabytes of data ... not used, it seems. I don’t think there’s more than a few terabytes on the chip.”

    Elton shrugged. A lone human could spend his entire life reading eBooks or watching movies on a yottabyte-sized chip, if he wished. He doubted anyone could see everything on the chip before death came for them. The chip was staggeringly overdesigned, but that was practically a feature of Tokomak engineering. They’d wanted to make sure that everyone had a copy of everything they might possibly need.

    “I think we can insert it into a secured reader,” Jayne added, thoughtfully. “I’ll keep it isolated, of course.”

    “Please,” Elton said. Trying to sneak malware onto someone’s computer had been a danger even before First Contact, when humanity had discovered a whole string of nastier technological tricks. “Make sure you scan everything.”

    Jayne nodded and slotted the chip into a reader, then attached it to a remote AI system. The files would be suspended, then dissected and analysed, section by section. If there was any danger, it would be discovered before it could pose a threat. Unless it was something completely new ...

    “Files scanned,” Jayne said, finally. She cocked her head as she read the results, her implants blinking furiously. “Three hundred terabytes of data. No self-adjusting or autonomous programs detected. It’s raw data, sir; text, imagery and video files. It appears to be harmless.”

    “Directly harmless,” Elton corrected her, absently. “It proves nothing.”

    He closed his eyes for a long moment. They were three weeks from Harmony, although they would enter the Kingdom of Harmonious Order much sooner. Time enough, perhaps, to analyse the files ... if, of course, they could be trusted. He’d have to ask Jenny about the information broker too. An information broker needed a reputation for honesty, but a desperate one might gamble that humanity wouldn't be in any position to take revenge.

    And a piece of false information might just get us killed, he thought. But we don’t have anything else to go on.

    “Have the files copied, then studied,” he ordered. “I want the ambassador and her staff to study them too.”

    “Yes, sir,” Jayne said.
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  12. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    Consistent in use in this book, but "nanites" is quite common use.

    Yes, it seems to me that leaving them intact would make sense. Large pieces of space junk are easier to detect and avoid than minuscule debris.

  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    So tell me ... when do we stop?

    Yes, we can offer assistance. Perhaps even we should offer assistance. But when do we stop? Do we help someone who is unwilling to take the opportunities, when offered, or unwilling to summon the nerve to make a clean break from their past? We do not rule their lives, do we? At what point do we say ‘enough’?
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    “I cannot vouch for the broker,” Jenny said. Her holographic image looked pensive. “I believe him to be honest, but I cannot guarantee it.”

    Elton nodded. “The data we can match up does,” he agreed. “But that’s only the astrographic data. We cannot verify any of the political data.”

    He sat back in his chair. Two days of careful analysis, while the crew enjoyed their shore leave, had given them new insight into the Kingdom of Harmonious Order ... if, of course, it could be trusted. The data packet made it clear that the Harmonies were a very ordered society, more caste-ridden than pre-space India, something that made him wonder how they’d ever managed to have a coup in the first place. But then, divine right hadn't stopped countless European kings from being overthrown, murdered or simply rendered powerless by their political opponents. The Harmonies might be more human than they cared to admit.

    “I’ll be keeping an eye on the situation,” Jenny informed him. “My squadron will be at your disposal if you need it.”

    “If you can afford to leave Hudson,” Elton mused. “Can you?”

    Jenny shrugged. “Hudson isn't a human world,” she said. “Realistically, we’re just a large picket out to show the flag. I’m not saying there won’t be a price to pay if we go haring off into the unknown, but ... better to come to your assistance than leave you to die.”

    Elton had to smile. The Solar Navy had determined, long ago, that no one would be left behind, even if it meant prolonging the war. Jenny would come to his assistance if he ran into trouble, he was sure. But the difficulty would be informing her that he was in trouble. The Harmonies - and four other races - controlled the shipping lines between Harmony and Hudson Base. He’d have problems hiring a courier boat if the local powers didn't want to get involved.

    Which is why we need to work on those FTL drones, he thought. But so far the techs haven’t produced a viable model.

    He pushed the thought aside. There was no point in wishing for something he didn't have.

    “I’ll send messages up the chain as long as I can,” he said, instead. “Send them back to me, if you can.”

    “Of course,” Jenny said.

    She smiled, rather wanly. “I hope you and your crew enjoyed your shore leave here,” she said. “The facilities aren't much.”

    “I think it will have done wonders for morale,” Elton said, truthfully. “Thank you for everything, Jenny.”

    Jenny raised one hand in salute. “Good luck to you,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll see you when you come back.”

    Her image vanished. Elton leaned back, taking a moment to centre himself. He hadn't had much shore leave, beyond a few hours lying on a beach. Nor had his analysis staff. There’d been too much to do. He made a mental note to approve their use of a VR chamber later, if they wanted it. There was no way it could match genuine shore leave, no matter what program they ran, but it was better than nothing.

    The door chime bleeped. “Captain,” Biscoe said, as he entered. “The last stragglers have returned to the ship.”

    “Very good,” Elton said. He nodded to the nearest chair, inviting his XO to sit. “Any issues I should know about?”

    “Something pinged the teleport biological hazard filters,” Biscoe informed him. “Thankfully, further checks revealed that Ensign Khan had purchased an alien artefact that triggered a couple of alarms. We checked it repeatedly, then bunged it into stasis. It should be harmless, but the import board may want to have a look at it.”

    Elton frowned. “What was it?”

    “Local artwork, apparently,” Biscoe said. “An insect-like creature, posed and frozen in synthetic plastic. A fly caught in amber, to all intents and purposes. I’ve had a long chat with Ensign Khan about purchasing alien artefacts without prior approval. It could have been dangerous.”

    “True,” Elton agreed. Cross-species infections were vanishingly rare, but almost always lethal when they did occur. The Tokomak had handled two disease outbreaks, according to the files, that had spread over a dozen races, killing millions in their wake. It was why the teleporters were programmed to scan - automatically - for potential dangers. “Did the check reveal anything interesting?”

    “Nothing,” Biscoe said. “It should be harmless.”

    “Leave it in stasis, for now,” Elton said. “He can have it back when we get home.”

    He shook his head in why amusement. This was the first time - probably - that Ensign Khan and his fellows had ever set foot on an alien world. He didn't blame the ensign for wanting to take home a souvenir, something his family would never have seen before. Hell, they were a very long way from Sol. No one was going to be visiting Hudson for a family vacation when it took eight months just to get there. The artefact would be worth more - much more - back in the Solar Union.

    If they ever agreed to sell it, he mused. They’d find it more interesting to keep it.

    He shrugged. “Any other issues?”

    “A dozen or so new relationships that I know about, probably a few more that I don't,” Biscoe said. “I don't think any of them will cause problems, but ...”

    Elton nodded. grimly. The Solar Union took a relaxed attitude to sex - anything that happened between consenting adults in private was fine - but there were limits. Naval regulations strictly forbade relationships between officers and crew of different ranks, even when people were confined to their ships for months or years. He might turn a blind eye to slips during shore leave - it wasn't as if there was a large human population on Hudson - but not to anything that caused disciplinary problems while the ship was underway.

    “Keep an eye on it,” he said. “I assume we can depart on schedule?”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said. “We’ve handed a couple of freighters over to Hudson Base - they’ll be escorted to their final destination. The others will be staying with us.”

    Elton glanced at his terminal, then rose. “We’ll leave as planned,” he said, as he lead the way to the hatch. “It won’t be long now.”

    “And then we can do some real work,” Biscoe said. He shook his head. “This wasn't what I expected after getting the transfer.”

    “You knew it would be a long and boring voyage when you read the mission orders,” Elton reminded him. “Would you prefer boredom intermingled with moments of screaming terror?”

    “It does have its moments, Captain,” Biscoe said. He chuckled. “Mainly moments of screaming terror, but ...”

    Elton laughed. “You could be on one of the first starships,” he said, as he took the command chair. “They weren't even designed for human occupation.”

    He felt his smile grow wider as he keyed his console, bringing up the ship’s status report. Humanity’s first interstellar starships - begged, borrowed or stolen - had never been designed for humans, even when the original designers had shared humanity’s life support requirements. The lighting had been wrong, the gravity had been weird ... even the corridors had been warped and twisted to human eyes, oddly out of proportion. He still shivered when he remembered the days he’d spent on an alien-designed starship, back during officer training. The designers had been humanoid, they’d evolved on a planet very similar to Earth ... and yet, there had been something subtly wrong about the whole ship.

    “Yes, Captain,” Biscoe said. He took his own seat. “The ship is ready to depart.”

    Elton nodded as he worked his way through the reports, then switched his attention to the near-space orbital display. It was hard to be sure, but it looked as though the number of starships moving in and out of the system had actually increased. Hudson’s gravity points accounted for a lot of it, he suspected, yet ... he checked the records, looking back over the last few days. It did look as though the numbers had gone up in the last few days.

    It could be a random surge, he thought, slowly. Or it could be caused by problems further towards the core.

    He pushed the thought aside. His intelligence staff had done their best to draw information out of the alien systems, but - apart from a couple of intelligence brokers - they hadn't been able to make many contacts. ONI’s office on Hudson was small, too small. Elton understood the reasoning - Hudson was thousands of light years from Earth - but it was still annoying. He’d have preferred something that told him what he should expect, over the next few weeks.

    But they’re aliens, he reminded himself. Predicting their next moves might be impossible.

    “Lieutenant Williams,” he said. “Inform the local authorities that we are ready to depart.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Williams said.

    Elton forced himself to relax, even though he couldn't help feeling a tremor of excitement. They’d been in transit for months, but now the real mission was about to begin. He hoped the ambassador and her staff hadn't wasted the last few months. They were about to discover, too, just how good their preparation work had been.

    “The freighters have checked in,” Biscoe reported. “They’re ready to depart too.”

    “Good,” Elton said. He would have had sharp words for any merchant skipper who hadn't been ready to depart. “Remind them to stay in formation.”

    “Captain,” Williams said. “We have been cleared to depart orbit and proceed through the gravity point. They’ve sent us a transfer schedule.”

    “Very good,” Elton said. He took a breath, taking one last look at the crowded high orbitals. It was an impressive sight, staggering even to one who’d seen the Solar Union. “Helm, take us out of here.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Marie said.

    A low rumble echoed through Odyssey as she slowly powered her way out of orbit, followed by the freighters. Elton had to admit, reluctantly, that the merchant starships were doing a good job of remaining in formation, insofar as they had a formation. The Tokomak had laid down rules for formation flying too, but humanity - and nearly every other race - had a habit of ignoring them. Whatever the original reason for the rules, and he couldn’t imagine a largely unimaginative race coming up with them, they’d long since turned into bureaucratic excess. The odds of accidentally ramming another starship were low, very low. But then, he had to admit that a single accident, no matter how unlikely, would be disastrous.

    And hundreds of starships pass through this system every day, he mused. The odds of a collision might be low at any given point, but they probably mount up over the years ...

    “Signal from the locals, sir,” Williams said. “They’re asking us to step down a couple of places in the line. Apparently, there’s a priority ship going through.”

    Elton exchanged a glance with Biscoe. It wouldn't have been a problem, normally, but Odyssey was an acknowledged diplomatic ship. Was it a coincidence or a probe to see how they’d react? The bigger powers of the galaxy were used to pushing the smaller powers around ... and humanity, despite the Battle of Earth, was still a very small power indeed.

    And there might be a reason for a priority ship needing to take the slot ahead of us, he thought. They may even be hoping we will object so they can claim the moral high ground.

    He shrugged. “Tell them we don’t mind,” he said. If it was a genuine emergency, there was nothing to be gained by blocking the priority ship. If it was a probe ... it wasn't worth wasting energy and diplomatic capital to repel. “But inform them that we have to go through the gravity point in formation.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Williams said.

    The gravity point was invisible, at least to the naked eye. Elton had flown through several, during a brief stint on a courier boat. He knew there was nothing to see. And yet, Odyssey’s gravimetric sensors could easily pick out the tight knot of twisted space directly ahead of them. Starship after starship moved up to the gravity point and vanished, others flickering into existence on the far side of the knot. The locals were timing it well, Elton noted. No starship remained within the point long enough to risk a collision.

    “It must have been very different, back before the stardrive,” Biscoe said, softly. “Spacers would have been dependent on the gravity points.”

    Elton nodded. Humanity hadn’t dug up many records from that time - the Tokomak had destroyed or classified most of them - but ONI had uncovered enough to confirm that interstellar travel and war had been very different. The Tokomak and the other older races had expanded along chains of gravity points, often balked by local powers that dug in and held their gravity point against all comers. Engagements had often boiled down to the attacker trying to shove enough firepower through the gravity point to overcome the defenders before they were wiped out. The sheer slaughter had to have made World War One look tame. No one, not even the Tokomak, had been able to establish a real empire until the stardrive had been invented, allowing the gravity points to be bypassed. It had been the end of an era and the dawn of a whole new universe.

    And we should be grateful, he thought, as the gravity point came closer and closer. Sol doesn't have a gravity point, as far as we know.

    “We’re in the line, Captain,” Marie reported. “I’m powering up the gravity pulse generator now.”

    “Take us through as soon as you can,” Elton ordered. Ahead of them, two alien freighters blinked out of existence in quick succession. “Mr. XO?”

    “The freighters are ready,” Biscoe said.

    “Taking us in now,” Marie said. “Jumping ... now!”

    Elton braced himself as the universe went dark, just for a second. The scientists swore blind that there was no sensation, that there shouldn't be any sensation ... but everyone, human and alien, reported feeling something similar when they jumped through a gravity point. He looked up at the display as it blanked, then hastily rebooted, picking out a small cluster of space stations and industrial nodes a safe distance from the gravity point. There were starships heading in all directions, some dropping into FTL as they set course for their next destination. Others were heading straight for the next gravity point.

    He studied the display as Odyssey pulled away from the gravity point, the first freighter materialising directly behind her. The system was useless, on the face of it. There were two rocky planets orbiting a dull red star, both too cold to be successfully terraformed. He was surprised that one or both of them hadn't been blown up to provide raw materials. But the system’s true value lay in the gravity points. There were three of them, each one allowing starships to take weeks or months off their journeys. The Tokomak had considered the system important ...

    And they were right, Elton told himself. The system might be useless in and of itself, but it does allow them to move their forces from place to place with terrifying speed.

    “Helm, set course for the next gravity point,” he ordered. “Mr. XO, make sure the freighters stay with us.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Marie said.

    “Local command wishes us to remain sublight, Captain,” Williams added. “No stardrive between gravity points.”

    “Bureaucratic excess,” Elton said. “Humour them.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Marie said. “ETA Gravity Point Two five hours from now.”

    Elton rose. “Mr. XO, you have the bridge,” he said. “Alert me if there anything changes.”

    He returned to his cabin for a quick nap, knowing that it was unlikely there would be any problems for the next few hours. The Harmonies Chain - the line of gravity points leading all the way to Harmony - was supposed to be relatively safe. There were no pirates, if the information broker was to be believed. The local powers ran patrols through the chain regularly, escorting clusters of freighters whenever they had the opportunity. Odyssey was unlikely to be molested in transit.

    We really need to survey the Sol Sector for more gravity points, he mused, as he took off his boots and lay down on the bed. The Tokomak had surveyed the sector, centuries before humans had mastered fire, but there were officers in the Solar Navy who believed they hadn't done a thorough job. It would be nice to have gravity points we could use ...

    The intercom chimed, waking him. His implants insisted he’d slept for five hours, but he didn't believe them. It felt as though he’d barely closed his eyes. He rubbed his forehead, ordering his implants to flush his system. He’d pay for the fake alertness later, he knew from grim experience, but he had no choice.

    “Report,” he ordered.

    “Captain, we just passed through the second gravity point,” Biscoe said. He sounded worried. “I think you should see this.”

    Elton swore, silently, as he sat up and grabbed for his boots. Biscoe had more tactical experience than anyone else on Odyssey. He wouldn't be concerned unless there was a very good reason to be concerned. The ship wasn't taking incoming fire - thankfully - but there were plenty of other possibilities ...

    “I’m on my way,” he said. “Hold the fort until I arrive.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said.
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    We stop when they don’t need us any longer.

    Yes, there is the prospect of winding up running a person’s life for them. Of wiping their nose and cleaning their arse and generally saving them from the consequences of their own stupidity. And yes, history is replete with idiots who have done just that - to their ultimate cost. But does past foolishness insist that we do nothing? Just because something ended badly, in the past, doesn't mean that history will repeat itself.
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    Rebecca hated to admit ignorance.

    It was dangerous, if one was a diplomat. She knew from bitter experience that an opponent who believed she was ignorant was an opponent who might try to take advantage of her. At best, he might assume that he could convince her to believe his version of events. But she knew it was better, most of the time, not to try to negotiate without knowing what was actually going on. It almost always led to embarrassing mistakes, if not outright career suicide and diplomatic disaster.

    She studied the display for a long moment, wishing she actually understood it, then looked up at the captain. “What am I looking at?”

    Captain Yasser frowned. “We popped through the gravity point thirty minutes ago,” he said, pointing to an icon on the display. “What we saw” - his finger moved to another point - “was a small collection of fortresses, being assembled near the gravity point.”

    Rebecca blinked. “They’re fortifying the gravity point?”

    “It looks that way, Madam Ambassador,” Captain Yasser said. “Five Class-VI heavy orbital weapons platforms, each one as heavily armed as a battleship. That’s enough firepower to hold the gravity point against anything smaller than the First Fleet.”

    “I ...” Rebecca shook her head in disbelief. “Captain, that’s against galactic custom and law!”

    The captain smiled, rather sardonically. “Tell them that,” he said. “It was the Tokomak that enforced the laws, Madam Ambassador. Now ... the Harmonies seem to believe that they have a right to start fortifying the gravity points in their sector.”

    Rebecca forced herself to think. “It’s the Harmonies who are doing it?” She asked. “I mean ... they’re definitely the ones building the fortresses?”

    “They’re broadcasting the right ID,” Captain Yasser said. “And realistically, we are within space they control. I imagine there would have been some reaction if their presence hadn't been approved.”

    “Probably,” Rebecca agreed. The Harmonies were proud, according to the files. They wouldn't allow just anyone to move into their sector. “Do they pose a threat to us?”

    Captain Yasser glanced at his tactical officer, who looked worried. “They made no attempt to impede our transit, Madam Ambassador,” he said. “Technologically, they may not be any more advanced than the ships we thrashed during the Battle of Earth. But if they’d wanted to prevent us from passing through the gravity point, they could have done so. It won’t take them long to move into position to blast anyone using the point. Even now ...”

    He keyed a command into the console. “As you can see,” he said, indicating a red sphere surrounding the five icons, “they have the ability to fire missiles into the gravity point from their current position. Even one of our ships would have trouble realising that they were under attack, let alone raising shields and activating point defence, before it was too late. If they moved closer, nothing would survive. A stream of unwary ships might be destroyed, one by one, until the defenders ran out of missiles.”

    Rebecca frowned. “So they could stop us from getting through the gravity point.”

    “Yes, Madam Ambassador,” the tactical officer said. “And we believe that there are other such constructions under way at the other gravity points within the system.”

    “I see,” Rebecca said, slowly. “Did they say anything to us?”

    “Nothing,” the captain said. “We’re not even sure if the fortresses are online yet or not.”

    Rebecca looked back at the display. “There’s no way to be sure?”

    “They’re not broadcasting active sensor scans,” the captain said. “But that doesn't prove anything, not really. They could have their missiles and energy weapons locked on us using passive sensors alone. There’s no way to tell if they’re armed and ready to fire or not.”

    He dismissed the tactical officer with a nod, relaxing slightly as the younger man left the compartment. “Madam Ambassador ... Rebecca ... this isn't a good thing.”

    “I know,” Rebecca said. “If they’re willing to break galactic law, captain, what else are they prepared to break?”

    “Good question,” the captain said.

    He tapped a switch. The starchart zeroed out, showing a cluster of stars surrounding Harmony itself. It looked odd, somehow, as if the kingdom had grown out in random directions. But it had, she recalled. The Harmonies had been spacefaring well before Persia had invaded Greece, intent on bringing the Greek cities to heel. They’d built their kingdom by moving through the gravity points, not by using the stardrive. It hadn't been until they’d copied the stardrive - at a price - that they’d started to occupy the stars closer to their homeworld. They’d been inaccessible without a working FTL drive.

    “If they wanted to block an immediate thrust from the Tokomak, they’d need to fortify the gravity points here, here and here,” he said, tapping three stars near Harmony. “They have alienated their former masters, even without fortifying the gravity points; they may not have a choice, given the firepower disparity. But fortifying the points in our direction, at best, will start an arms race amongst the major powers, as well as pushing the others to start fortifying their own gravity points. I don’t like it.”

    Rebecca cocked her head. “You don’t know they’re planning hostilities against anyone.”

    “No,” the captain agreed. “But if I happened to have physical control of a cluster of gravity points - economically important gravity points - I’d start thinking about charging tolls too. I could probably even use my economic stranglehold to force the other galactic powers to support me. There’s no logical reason to have the gravity points out here fortified unless they did intend to exploit them.”

    “I see, I think,” Rebecca mused. “Might they not be worried about the Tokomak trying to bypass the first set of fortifications?”

    “They’d still need to concentrate on defending the shortest route to their homeworld,” the captain said. He shook his head. “I don’t like this, Rebecca. I have the uneasy feeling we’re caught in a trap.”

    “But you don’t need the gravity points to escape,” Rebecca pointed out. “Odyssey does have a stardrive, doesn’t she?”

    The captain looked irked. “Of course,” he said. “But how long do you think it would take us to get home if we couldn’t use the gravity points?”

    “Years,” Rebecca said.

    “Assuming a straight-line course, without being intercepted, we’d need at least seventy-one years to get home,” the captain said. “It would take us at least twenty years to reach Hudson Base.”

    Rebecca considered it for a long moment. “Do you have any proof we’re in a trap?”

    “No,” the captain admitted. “But my gut is telling me that something isn’t right.”

    “Galactic order is breaking down,” Rebecca agreed. “That makes our mission all the more important, Elton. If we can meditate between the different Galactics in this sector ...”

    “If,” the captain said.

    Rebecca met his eyes. “If we had to force our way back through the gravity point,” she said, “could we do it?”

    “No,” the captain said, bluntly. “Odyssey doesn’t have the firepower to take on five fortresses, even with the advantage of surprise. Those things are built to soak up a great deal of damage. We’d need more starships to assist us, at the very least.”

    He looked back at her, evenly. “And if we had to pop through a gravity point and discover ourselves under attack ... well, it would be disastrous. We won’t have time to raise shields before we were overwhelmed.”

    Rebecca leaned back in her chair. “But you don't know we’ll be attacked,” she protested. “Do you?”

    “No,” the captain agreed. “I have no reason to believe that the Harmonies are doing anything apart from securing their borders. But as the starship commander, it is my duty to make you aware of the military realities. And those realities say that the Harmonies have gathered the firepower to make transit through the gravity points a very uncomfortable experience.”

    A very suicidal experience, Rebecca translated, silently.

    She studied the display for a long moment, feeling cold. She’d never felt truly vulnerable, even when she’d negotiated with rogue governments on Earth. The Solar Union had been watching her, maintaining a teleport lock at all times. Hell, even the maddest government had known better than to alienate the Solar Union. Fanatics grew a great deal less fanatical when their leaders discovered they could be targeted and killed - ruthlessly - if they threatened the Solar Unions. But here ... she was on a lone starship - she didn't count the freighters - in the midst of a giant alien realm. It was quite possible that no one would ever know what had happened to them, if they ran into trouble. She couldn't help feeling naked.

    And yet, there was no real reason to panic.

    The Harmonies, one of the major galactic powers, had contacted humanity, asking for diplomatic discussions. Turning back now, when they were so close to Harmony itself, would be a major insult. At the very least, it would be harder to request another meeting when the first one had never even taken place. She knew the risks, she thought, but she also knew the potential advantages. Even opening up a singular line of communication - with the prospect of an upgrade later on - was worth the risks. And, she had to admit, it wouldn't do her career any harm either. No one else had negotiated with the major galactic powers as an equal.

    “They asked us to send an envoy,” she said. She looked up at him. “We have to carry on, I think.”

    The captain looked displeased. She understood, better than she cared to admit. She was the ambassador, but the buck stopped with him. Captain Yasser was solely responsible for the lives of a thousand officers and crew, ambassadorial staffers and merchant spacers. He could lose everything, if he made a single mistake. And yet, his superiors wouldn't be pleased if he turned tail and ran. She didn't blame him for his concerns, but they had to press on.

    “They could have agreed to meet us somewhere neutral,” the captain said, finally. “Why did they ask us to their homeworld?”

    “Galactic custom,” Rebecca said. “They’re the ones who issued the invitation, so they’re the ones who have to host the talks. And besides ... we want to see their homeworld.”

    “True,” the captain agreed. He strode over to the food processor. “Coffee?”

    “Please,” Rebecca said. She took the mug he offered her gratefully. “Captain, we cannot allow this opportunity to slip by.”

    “I hope you’re right,” the captain said. He sat, facing her. She couldn't help thinking that he looked older, somehow. His face hadn't changed, as far as he could tell. It was something in the way he held himself. “But things are changing, Rebecca.”

    “That’s been true ever since the Battle of Earth,” Rebecca said.

    She took another sip of her coffee. “We upset the entire galaxy when we crushed a Tokomak fleet,” she added, quietly. “We showed them that the Tokomak can be beaten. Captain ... this is an opportunity for us to take a place amongst the oldest and most powerful races known to exist. No, it’s more than that. This is a chance to take a hand in reshaping the galaxy itself.”

    “At a price,” the captain said.

    “We cannot stand alone, Elton” Rebecca reminded him. “Not against the Galactics. I saw the same simulations you did. We could destroy a thousand starships for every one of ours and still lose. We need allies. We need people who can help us break up and destroy any countermeasures before Sol is crushed. And if that means taking a risk ...”

    She sighed. “I understand your concerns, Elton,” she added. “And I appreciate the risk we’re running. But I don’t see any other choice.”

    “Neither do I,” the captain said. “It just makes me wonder ...”

    His eyes slid back to the starchart. “It just makes me wonder, Rebecca, just what they’re thinking,” he mused. “Surely they have to know they’re provoking their fellows.”

    “They may think that they have to block all the paths to their homeworld,” Rebecca offered, after a moment. “They have enemies. What if one of those enemies decides to side with the Tokomak against them? The Tokomak could offer the galaxy, literally, to anyone who sided with them.”

    “At the cost of remaining in eternal submission,” the captain pointed out. “But yes, you’re right. The Harmonies might not be attacked by the Tokomak alone.”

    He traced out a chain of gravity points on the chart. “I’d prefer to send one of the freighters back to Hudson Base,” he said. “Captain-Commodore Longlegs needs to know about this ... I’m surprised she didn’t already know. The entire galaxy would be talking about someone fortifying a chain of gravity points. But we need all of the freighters with us.”

    “You could hire a courier boat,” Rebecca offered.

    “I’d be concerned about the crew trying to unlock the diplomatic cache,” the captain said. “I would happily bet you a thousand credits that the Tokomak designed the system to be unlocked, with the right codes. Even if we give them an encrypted datachip ... I wouldn’t care to gamble on it being impossible to crack.”

    “And to think that all the files swear blind that courier boats are never molested,” Rebecca said, dryly. “I feel so betrayed.”

    The captain smiled for the first time in far too long. “Everything is changing, just as you said,” he reminded her. “And old certainties are falling everywhere.”

    Rebecca nodded as she looked back at the fortress icons. The Tokomak had insisted on keeping the gravity points completely demilitarised, a measure that came with a nasty sting in the tail. They were the ones moving forces around, weren’t they? They didn’t want anyone trying to impede their fleets as they tightened their grip on their empire. Free trade was the excuse, but the underlying motive was far more sinister ...

    “I wonder,” she mused. “Is this the first sign of a general revolt against the Tokomak?”

    “It could be,” the captain agreed. “But they’re right next door, as far as the Tokomak are concerned. They’ll be rushing to get their defences into place before they get hit.”

    Rebecca frowned. “How would you do it? I mean, if you were in their place?”

    “I’d try to build up my fleets as quickly as possible,” the captain said. “If I could, without being detected. Maybe start converting civilian starships to warships. It would be an uphill slog, though. Rebecca ... the Tokomak are supposed to be able to fight and win wars against all of the other major powers at once.”

    “Supposed to,” Rebecca said. “Is that true?”

    The captain shrugged. “It depends on the assumptions you feed into the simulations,” he said, quietly. “The Tokomak have the raw numbers, in theory. They have a vast stockpile of warships, missiles and other supplies ... they also have a cluster of naval bases in position to squash any uprising fairly quickly. They also have interior lines, allowing them to shift forces from place to place faster than any of their enemies. But, at the same time ...

    “We know their officers are old, that none of them have seen a real war ... well, save for whoever survived the Battle of Earth. We also know that their weapons are outdated, although their first set of opponents may be no more advanced. Really, we don’t know how many of their reserve warships are functional. Do they even have the crews to refurbish and operate them? And now ... some of the Galactics are fortifying their gravity points. The Tokomak might lose the early engagements, dispelling their aura of invincibility. Who knows what will happen then?”

    Rebecca tried to imagine such carnage, but drew a blank. It was just numbers, billions upon billions of lives that were truly nothing more than just statistics. They would have had lives of their own, reasons to live, but she couldn't grasp them. It was far beyond her comprehension. She would like to think that the elder races would have enough wisdom to refrain from pointless slaughter, yet nothing she’d seen in her career had convinced her that the older galactic powers were particularly wise. Their unchanging universe was changing ...

    ... And their grip on power was beginning to snap. Human powers had rarely reacted well to the loss of power, when they'd been aware that their rivals were slowly catching up. War had never been uncommon, wars aimed at preventing disaster ... they’d rarely succeeded, even when they’d been superficially victorious. The cost of war had been catastrophic, bringing down the victors along with the vanquished.

    The captain shrugged. “It’s possible they’ll accept whatever losses they have to accept, just to punch through the gravity points and take the high orbitals,” he added. “They do have the resources to swallow those losses, if they wish. Like you said, they can trade a thousand for one and still come out ahead. It’s also possible that they’ll swallow their pride and come to an agreement with their former subordinates. We just don’t know.”

    “That’s another reason to be out here,” Rebecca said. “We need to fill in some of those blanks.”

    “True,” the captain agreed. “I just hope they’re not planning to bar our escape.”

    “Me too,” Rebecca said. “Me too.”
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    People who do not learn from history always repeat it. And people who do learn from history have to watch, helplessly, as others repeat it. There’s no way to avoid making a greater and greater commitment to ‘help’ without being accused of being heartless, if not worse. In the end, we wind up helping so many people that we beggar ourselves.

    I am not heartless. But I believe we should put ourselves first.
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    “There’s another five fortresses holding position near the gravity point,” Lieutenant-Commander Steve Callaway reported. “And I’m picking up hints of cloaked ships nearby.”

    Elton scowled. They’d passed two more gravity points, since stumbling across the first set of fortresses, one of which had been heavily defended. The other hadn't been defended, as far as his sensors had been able to tell, but there had been hints that dozens of starships had made their way through the system ... going where? He’d expected to encounter more freighters, yet there had been almost none. He hated to admit it, but his instincts were telling him that something was deeply wrong.

    “Keep us on course,” he ordered, coolly. “Tactical assessment?”

    “I’m picking up low-level sensor scans and shield generator pulses,” Callaway said, after a moment. “I’d say these fortresses were active, if stepped down.”

    “They could be brought up to full readiness in seconds, Captain,” Biscoe commented. “And they’ll already have a passive lock on our hull.”

    Elton nodded, curtly. “Communications, send a standard greeting,” he said. “And inform them that we intend to transit the gravity point.”

    He scowled as time ticked by, slowly. There didn't seem to be anyone in charge of controlling passage through the gravity point, but the fortresses were in perfect position to interdict Odyssey. He was all too aware that trying to double back would merely bring them up against another set of fortresses. Unless, of course, they headed out into interstellar space and dropped into FTL. He didn't want to take his ship close to that much firepower without permission to proceed.

    “Picking up a response,” Williams informed him. “Captain, they have cleared us to pass through the gravity point.”

    Elton knew he should be reassured. Free passage through gravity points was a hallmark of interstellar civilisation. It was a relief that that hadn't changed. And yet ... and yet ... the mere presence of the fortresses was ominous. It suggested that the Kingdom of Harmonious Order expected trouble. They might expect to be going to war with their neighbours.

    Or they might already be at war with their neighbours, he thought, sourly. It isn't as if we’d know anything about it until we saw the fighting.

    “Gravity point transit in seventeen minutes,” Marie reported. “Gravity jump generator powering up now.”

    Elton scowled, feeling cold ice congealing in his chest. He’d never seen a gravity point so ... so inactive. The fortresses were maintaining their silent watch, but nothing was coming in or going out of the gravity point. Perhaps it made sense, hundreds of thousands of light years from galactic civilisation, yet here ... there should have been dozens, if not hundreds, of freighters transiting the gravity point. It looked, very much, as though their way had been deliberately cleared.

    He watched the fortresses, half-expecting them to bring up their weapons as soon as Odyssey was within effective range. His ship was already too close, although he could swing around and avoid their fire long enough to escape. But the fortresses did nothing, even when the starship entered sprint-mode range. They seemed sullen, yet silent. He would almost sooner have been fired upon.

    “Transit in one minute,” Marie said. “Captain ...?”

    “Take us through,” Elton said. He forced his voice to stay calm. The crew were well-trained, but they’d be shaken - badly shaken - if their commander sounded nervous. “Mr. XO, order the frieghters to follow us one by one.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said.

    Elton forced himself to relax as the last few seconds ticked away. He’d considered trying to take two or more of the freighters through the gravity point in the first jump, but that would have been unacceptably risky. In theory, the odds of interpenetration were low if the ships jumped together; in practice, there was just too great a risk of being slammed together and destroyed. The Harmonies would probably see it as an assault, too. They’d certainly be concerned about three starships exploding as they crossed the gravity point ...”

    “Jumping ... now,” Marie said.

    The universe sneezed. Everything went grey, just for an instant ...

    ... And then the tactical console started to chime an alert.

    “Targeting sensors,” Callaway snapped. “They’ve locked on to us!”

    Elton tensed. “Raise shields,” he snapped. The display was covered in washes of red light, focusing on his ship. They didn’t even have a solid lock on whoever was targeting them. “Stand by point defence!”

    There was a long chilling pause. “No incoming missiles,” Callaway said. Seven new icons - all fortresses - blinked up on the display. “I say again, no incoming missiles!”

    “Move us forward,” Elton ordered, sharply. The first freighter would be jumping through the gravity point at any moment. “Communications, send a greeting and ask for permission to fly to Harmony.”

    There was a long pause. “They’re hailing us, Captain,” Williams said. “Standard galactic communications protocol, galactic two.”

    Elton nodded, slowly. “Put them through.”

    He leaned forward, feeling a shiver of excitement, as the Harmony appeared in the display. He - or she - was humanoid, with green skin ... what little he could see of it. The alien wore a silver robe that concealed everything, apart from his face. Even his hands were covered by silver gloves. The eyes were dark pools that were utterly inhuman ...

    “Greetings,” the alien said. His voice was surprisingly human. Elton couldn't help wondering if he was using a voder, although most Galactics would rarely deign to use one in front of someone they considered an inferior. “I welcome you to our system.”

    “I thank you,” Elton replied, in the same language. The Solar Union insisted that all naval officers had to have a working knowledge of at least two different galactic tongues, even though there had been complaints that it was a form of subtle imperialism. “We are pleased to finally lay eyes on your world.”

    He kept his amusement to himself. He’d been carefully briefed on what to say - and what not to say - over the last few weeks. The Galactics had a protocol, after all, and woe betide the person who didn't follow it. They might not be able to actually see Harmony - the world was well out of sensor range - but it didn't matter. All that mattered was ensuring that the first contact went smoothly.

    “We are pleased,” the alien said. “My speaker must now speak to your speaker.”

    The ambassador, Elton thought. The Harmonies, if the files were accurate, insisted on talks being conducted between people of equal rank. His counterpart, he assumed, would be a starship commander. In some ways, it was a concession; in others, it was annoying. And she’s been waiting for this for months.

    “My speaker will speak to yours,” he said. He keyed his console, allowing Rebecca to join the conversation. “She will open communications.”

    The alien bowed and vanished. Elton frowned at the empty space where his image had been for a long moment, then moved his eyes to the tactical display. The Harmonies were still targeting his ship, even though they’d opened communications; the remainder of the freighters were spreading out, unsure what to do. Elton nodded to Biscoe - he’d have to comfort the merchant skippers - and then returned his attention to the display. The Harmonies might not be shooting, but it didn't make him feel any better. They were pointing enough firepower at him to vaporise Odyssey within seconds ...

    He looked at Callaway. “Tactical analysis?”

    “Most of their tech is Tokomak-level, as we expected,” Callaway said. “But some of their ECM generators are stronger than anything we’ve seen from the Tokomak. They’ve actually wrapped their fortresses in enough ECM to make targeting difficult.”

    Elton frowned. “You can compensate for it?”

    “Yes, at close range,” Callaway said. “At longer range, the fortress’s exact location will be a little fuzzy. I wouldn’t expect Tokomak-grade missiles to be able to lock onto the fortress without a direct link to a sensor probe.”

    “Noted,” Elton said. He studied the blurred icons on the display, thoughtfully. “And beyond?”

    “I think there are some cloaked ships nearby, but it’s impossible to be sure,” Callaway admitted. “Captain, they’re jamming our sensors alarmingly well. I honestly can’t swear to anything outside close-in sensor range.”

    “And we’re really far too close to their missile batteries,” Biscoe added.

    Elton nodded. There were three fortresses within sprint-mode missile range, all capable of overwhelming Odyssey’s defences and blowing her away if they fired in unison. He didn't think they had a hope of escape, unless they managed to jump back through the gravity point ... where there were five more fortresses waiting for them.

    He looked down at the timer, feeling cold. The Galactics, he’d been told, could take years arguing over the shape of the conference table before discussing the agenda. He wasn't sure he believed it, but as the minutes went on and on ... he forced himself to relax, hoping that Rebecca wasn't about to start a diplomatic incident. He’d told her, often enough, just how dangerous it was to jump through a fortified gravity point ...

    “Tactical,” he said. “Can you see the other gravity points? Are they fortified?”

    “No, sir,” Callaway said. “I can pick up the points themselves, but I can't detect any fortresses or minefields at this distance.”

    Elton’s console bleeped. “Captain,” Rebecca said. “I need to talk to you. Please can we meet in your office.”

    “Ah,” Elton said. Technically, a captain wasn't meant to leave the bridge in a dangerous situation. It wouldn't look good on the post-mission report. But then, on the other hand, he couldn't recall any starship that had jumped right into such a dangerous spot before. “I’ll meet you in my office in two minutes.”

    He rose. “Commander Biscoe, you have the bridge,” he said. “Alert me the moment anything changes.”

    “Aye, sir,” Biscoe said.

    Elton took one last look at the display. The sensors were finally starting to compensate for the cloud of ECM, telling him things he hadn't wanted to know about their potential opponents. If their tactical sensors were a mark of their firepower, the Harmonies had crammed more missile tubes into their fortresses than the Tokomak had ever done. And, beyond them, there were very definite hints of minefields and cloaked starships. There was no way to avoid the simple fact that they were in deep trouble.

    And this was meant to be a diplomatic mission, he thought, as he headed for the hatch. I don’t want to have to tangle with those defences in wartime.

    “Absolutely out of the question!”

    Rebecca sighed, inwardly. She'd expected the response. It didn't make it any easier to bear.

    “It’s a reasonable request,” she said, calmly. She’d talked to rouge warlords and alien governors. She could talk to a single starship commander. “They want you to deactivate and dismantle your weapons array while you’re in their system.”

    The captain took a long breath. “There is no way that I will render this ship defenceless,” he said, curtly. “Quite apart from the simple fact that regulations forbid it, I have no way to know what will happen in the future. We don't know what’s actually going on in this system.”

    Rebecca rubbed her forehead. Talking to the alien had given her a throbbing headache. He hadn't used one word when twenty would do and he’d seemed to take a perverse delight in alternatively being accommodating and demanding. One of her staffers had wondered, on their private channel, if he was being pushed and pulled by two competing factions on Harmony, but there had been no way to know for sure. The Harmonies themselves seemed to be of two minds about the whole affair.

    “It’s a reasonably request,” she repeated. “Would you want an armed alien starship orbiting Stuart Asteroid?”

    “I would be happy to hold diplomatic discussions well away from anywhere vital,” the captain countered. “I certainly wouldn't invite a starship to come all this way and then demand that it disarm itself.”

    He took a breath. “And I would also understand why some people would be concerned about the galactic situation,” he added. “We don’t know what’s going on! Or did they tell you what’s going on?”

    “Nothing,” Rebecca said. She looked down at the deck, wishing her implants would hurry up and fix the headache. “They just talked about security considerations. But we wouldn't be having any substantive discussions here anyway.”

    “Security considerations,” the captain repeated.

    “Yes,” Rebecca said. She wished she’d been able to learn more, but the alien diplomat had spoken hundreds of words and said nothing. “They have to be a little worried about having an armed starship orbiting their homeworld.”

    “If their homeworld is as heavily defended as this gravity point,” the captain said, “they’ll have enough firepower to reduce us to atoms.”

    He calmed himself with a visible effort. “I can safeguard the weapons, of course,” he added. “I can certainly make sure that they’re not fired without authorisation. However, I cannot deactivate them, let alone dismantle them. It would render us vulnerable when we don’t know what’s really going on.”

    “Captain ...”

    “That’s not something I can compromise on,” the captain said, firmly.

    “This might be a precondition for the talks,” Rebecca said. She fought down the urge to yawn. She understood his point, but she understood theirs too. Seeing things from both sides of the table was the mark of a good ambassador. “Captain ...”

    The captain scowled. “And how many concessions are you prepared to make?” He asked, bluntly. “For all you know, this is a test to see how far you’ll go to talk with them. This might be the first set of unreasonable demands. What next? Will they want to search the ship?”

    “They do want to inspect it ...”

    “No,” the captain said, flatly.

    Rebecca pulled herself upright and glared at him. “It is a principle of galactic law that ships can be searched, when docked at a foreign port,” she pointed out. Technically, the Solar Union had never signed the interstellar treaties, but it had usually honoured them. “And not one we can avoid.”

    “That only applies if the ship is a freighter and suspected of smuggling,” the captain countered, stiffly. “As a diplomatic ship, which we are, we should be immune to search.”

    He looked back at her, evenly. “We have technological secrets,” he reminded her. “The Galactics will want to know how we beat the Tokomak, if they have any sense at all. They need to copy our weapons, sooner rather than later. There is no way we can allow them to search this ship.”

    Rebecca scowled. He was right. They’d both be in deep shit when - if - they got home.

    She rubbed her head, again. She had a nasty feeling he was right about the test, too. The Harmonies had good reason to believe - correctly - that humanity was eager to come to terms with them. And yet, they wouldn't see humanity as a peer power. Pushing and prodding at her, testing her willingness to make concessions ... it might well be intended to weaken her bargaining position.

    But if there is a war going on, she thought grimly, they might have reason to be worried about us too.

    “Offer a compromise,” the captain said. He leaned forward. “We’ll give them a tour.”

    Rebecca blinked. “A tour?”

    “A sanitised tour,” the captain said. He sounded oddly amused. “We can show them around the ship, but never show them anything truly sensitive. They'd know they were being snowballed, yet they wouldn't be able to complain.”

    “You gave me a tour, as I recall,” Rebecca said. Her eyes narrowed. She was in no mood for jokes. “How much did you hide from me?”

    “Almost everything, the captain said. “We certainly didn't open compartments for you to take a look inside.”

    Rebecca made a mental note to discuss that later, although - she had to admit - there was no reason why they should have shown her everything. She held a high security clearance, but she doubted she had any reason to look at the starship’s innermost workings. There was no need for her to know.

    “I’ll discuss it with them,” she said, tiredly. Her headache was still pounding inside her skull. “And I hope you’re right.”

    “I hope you’re right too,” the captain said. He sounded pensive. “I’m feeling rather naked out here.”

    “Captain,” Williams said, an hour later. “They’ve sent us permission to cross the defences and enter the system. And they’ve given us a preset flight path.”

    “Forward it to the helm,” Elton ordered. He glanced at the console. The ambassador had obviously managed to convince the Harmonies to drop at least one of their demands. That was a relief. He knew he couldn't disarm the ship, but he also knew he was in no state to press matters. “Marie?”

    “It’s a straight-line course to Harmony, Captain,” Marie reported. “They’re not trying to be fancy.”

    “Good,” Elton said. The fortresses were still targeting Odyssey. A reminder of their power or something more sinister? He couldn't escape the feeling they’d flown into a war zone, if it wasn’t a trap. Just what was going on? Hopefully, they’d be able to get some answers soon. “Take us out, standard cruising speed.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Marie said.

    Elton keyed his console. “Major Rhodan, report to the bridge immediately,” he ordered. “We have a tour to plan.”
    bagpiper, techsar and rle737ng like this.
  16. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member


    (The delights of spelchek.)
  17. bagpiper

    bagpiper Heretic

    It’s a reasonable request,” she said, calmly. She’d talked to rouge warlords


    “It’s a reasonably request,” she repeated. “Would you want an armed alien starship orbiting Stuart Asteroid?”

  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    That is something of my point. We are putting ourselves first. We cannot hope to defeat a towering galactic civilisation without help. Heart - or heartlessness - does not come into the equation. The cold equations of military reality demand that we find allies who can help us defeat our enemies. Even if they do nothing more than soak up enemy missiles, they will be helping us.

    We are putting ourselves first.
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    Harmony was an old system. It teemed with life.

    Elton was torn between awe and an odd kind of concern as Odyssey glided further into the alien system. All seven rocky planets seemed to be heavily populated, while giant structures hung over the three gas giants and thousands of starships and interplanetary spacecraft made their way from world to world. The asteroid belt buzzed with life, so densely populated that he couldn't help thinking that the Harmonies were literally running out of living space. There were even a handful of habitats orbiting the sun, so close to the photosphere that he wondered just how they managed to remain intact. They had to have some pretty intensive shielding just to make themselves liveable.

    The systems was pulsing with energy signatures, each one marking the presence of a mining station or an industrial node. It was impossible to be sure, of course, but even the most conservative estimates from the analysis deck suggested an industrial potential that matched or even exceeded the combined industrial base of every star for a hundred light years around Sol. The sheer potential of the system was enough to strike him dumb, even if their fabricators hadn't been unlocked. He couldn't help thinking that it was no wonder that the Harmonies had convinced the Tokomak to allow them some degree of autonomy. They had enough industrial potential to give even the masters of the universe a run for their money.

    His sense of trouble grew worse as more and more details flowed into the master display. It looked as through all of the gravity points were heavily defended, while the planets themselves were armed to the teeth. Harmony itself was surrounded by over forty orbital fortresses, bristling with weapons. And yet, there were some odd gaps in the defences ... he puzzled over it for a long moment before realising that the fortresses had been towed to the gravity points and emplaced there.

    A neat way of circumventing the ban on fortifying the gravity points, he thought, mentally saluting the Harmonies. It showed a degree of imagination he’d thought the older races had long since lost. And they have enough firepower surrounding their homeworld, even without the missing fortresses, to give any attacker a very hard time indeed.

    “They must have felt threatened by someone, sir,” Biscoe pointed out. “They’ve got enough firepower in orbit to ward off the entire navy.”

    “It looks that way,” Elton agreed. The analysts had yet to calculate how much the defences had actually cost, but he doubted they’d been cheap. Even Sol didn't have such a powerful network of fixed defences. The Solar Union was more interested in funding starships than fortresses. “A bargaining chip against the Tokomak?”

    “Or a make-work program for their industrial base,” Callaway offered. “They might have needed to kept the system in shape.”

    Elton was inclined to agree. The Harmonies had a vast population - and a captive market - but there had to be limits. Their industrial base looked larger than they needed. And yet, he doubted that anyone was actually complaining. The industrial nodes seemed to be working at full capacity, churning out everything from fixed defences and mines to freighters and warships. Given just how badly the Tokomak grip on power had been weakened, the Harmonies might be trying to break free ... or to engage in a little imperialism of their own.

    They have quite a few potential targets within range, he thought, grimly. And all of those targets are probably arming to the teeth too.

    Williams looked up. “Captain, they’ve selected an orbital slot for us,” he said. “And they want to send an inspection party as soon as we enter orbit.”

    Elton kept his face expressionless. They’d made preparations, ensuring that most of the advanced technology would be permanently out of sight, but it still galled him to allow the locals to inspect his ship. Maybe it was a tour, yet still ... he shook his head in cold annoyance. Rebecca was right - he would have wanted to inspect any starship taking up position near Stuart Asteroid - but if he’d been organising a diplomatic meeting, he would have arranged to hold it somewhere neutral. It wasn't as if there weren't plenty of potential meeting places in the interstellar void between Earth and AlphaCent!

    “Send back a confirmation,” he ordered, finally. “Helm?”

    “I have the slot,” Marie said. An icon appeared on the display, marking out a position in low orbit. “Captain?”

    “Mr. Williams,” Elton said. “Order the freighters to follow us in.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Williams said.

    Elton took a long breath. “Helm,” he said. “Take us in.”

    He forced himself to relax as Harmony appeared in the display, a blue-green sphere dotted with grey marks. They were cities, apparently. Cities so large that they could be picked out with the naked eye. Even the smallest within view had to be utterly immense. It made him wonder just how the Harmonies managed to live in ... in harmony. Humans would go insane if they were forced to live in such close confines. The murder rate in Earth’s giant cities had been going through the roof even before the civil war had broken out.

    Harmony’s orbital space was crammed with giant structures, ranging from immense industrial nodes to immense orbital habitat complexes. None of them appeared to be converted asteroids, as far as he could tell. They’d all been built from scratch. Countless starships and shuttlecraft moved in and out of orbit, the former remaining sublight until they were a long way from the planet. It didn't look as though starships were allowed to drop into FTL until they were well clear of Harmony, although it struck him as pointless. Maybe it was a security measure ...

    A new icon blinked into life as the sensor readings were matched against the files from the information broker. “That’s one of the Imperial Palaces,” Callaway said. “It’s currently the sole domicile of the Crown Princess. No one else is listed as living there.”

    “Noted,” Elton said, dryly. “Keep us on course.”

    He shook his head in disbelief. The Imperial Palace was immense, a giant structure easily two hundred miles from one end to the other. He'd known there were some immensely rich men in the Solar Union who owned their own asteroids - one man had claimed his own moon - but none of them were quite so determined to show off their wealth. It wasn't considered polite, in the Solar Union. And yet, no one doubted that they’d earned their money. A Crown Princess, the heir to a ruling family that had controlled an entire cluster for longer than humans had known how to make fire ... how could she have earned her place? She would never have competed for it ...

    “Entering orbital slot,” Marie reported. “Taking up position, now.”

    Elton rose. “Invite our guests to join us,” he said, heavily. “Mr. XO, you have the bridge.”

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

    It was generally believed, not least by the marines themselves, that the Solar Union Marine Corps had hired the most sadistic tailors in the galaxy to produce their dress uniforms. They might be stunning, at least to human eyes, but they pinched the wearer in a number of uncomfortable places. Lieutenant Levi Dennis had even heard, back when she’d been fitted for her first dress uniform, that the sadists hadn't bothered to make allowances for either breasts or penises. Given how badly her uniform pinched her, she had no trouble in believing that it was equally unpleasant for her male counterparts.

    But she did have to admit that the dress uniform did help to keep her awake. She only ever wore it during formal ceremonies, where the vast majority of the marines either stood in line or marched under the podium. Nodding off wouldn't be disastrous - unlike falling asleep when she was meant to be on guard - but it would be embarrassing and probably ruin her career beyond repair. Now ...

    She stood to attention as the teleport field shimmered to life. The pad glowed with light for a long moment, then faded, revealing a trio of aliens. All three of them wore silver outfits that hid everything, save for their faces. A chill ran down her spine as she realised she knew nothing about them, not even their gender. They looked to be completely asexual, as far as she could tell. But then, she knew that meant nothing. As humanoid as the Harmonies appeared to be, there was no guarantee that they mated in any manner a human would recognise. There were races that laid eggs, races that pollinated like flowers and races dependent on cloning technology to keep up the numbers.

    The Captain stepped forward. “Welcome onboard,” he said, in perfect Galactic Two. “My crew and I welcome you.”

    “We thank you,” the alien said. His Galactic Two was perfect too. “We welcome you to our homeworld.”

    Levi listened, keeping her face impassive, as the captain and the alien exchanged a whole series of meaningless compliments. She understood the value of diplomacy, but did they really have to use such flowery terms? She was almost sure that neither of them really meant a word they said. She tensed, inwardly, as the three aliens stepped off the pad - they walked stiffly, as if their legs were shorter than they seemed - and strode past the marines. They paid no attention to the marines or their dress uniforms. She almost smiled at the thought. She’d bet ten credits that no one below the captain would be acknowledged by the aliens and won.

    A series of alerts blinked up in front of her eyes as she turned to follow the party. The ship’s sensors had detected a number of portable scanners, ranging from fairly standard galactic-level tech to a couple of devices that hadn't been seen before. All concealed under the alien clothing, she noted. Nothing dangerous, as far as the sensors could tell, but she knew that meant nothing too. Her dress uniform included a number of badges that could be fitted together into a makeshift weapon, if necessary. Human - and alien - ingenuity could outwit any sensor, given time.

    She’d half-expected the aliens to object to the marines shadowing the group, but they showed no sign of concern. It was fairly standard to have guests escorted onboard warships, at least under galactic law, yet the Harmonies might have protested on the grounds that they outranked humanity. She wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not. The alien scanners kept pulsing, sweeping the ship for useful data; the ship’s counter-surveillance technology kept spoofing their readings, making it impossible for them to learn anything. Their naked eyes shouldn't see anything useful, she’d been assured. But she suspected that meant nothing too.

    You have to be careful what you show a potential enemy, her Drill Instructor had warned, back when she’d gone through OCS. You might see it as something meaningless, but they might draw meaning from it.

    Levi kept that thought to herself as they moved through the ship, starting with the secondary bridge and heading through sickbay before finally reaching the engineering compartment and pausing long enough for the aliens to ask a number of questions. She wasn't surprised when the level of pinging from the alien sensors increased tenfold, or when emergency sensors picked up the presence of alien nanoprobes. They’d started launching bugs into the ship’s interior ... Hopefully, the onboard security systems would be capable of neutralising them before they could send anything useful back to their masters. God knew that searching the entire ship for devices so tiny they couldn't be seen with the naked eye would be nightmarish.

    She triggered her implant. “Better make sure we keep the communications system on lockdown, sir,” she subvocalised. The aliens hadn't paid any attention to her or the other two marines, but there was no point in taking chances. “The nanoprobes might try to get into the system and subvert it.”

    “Understood, LT,” Major Rhoden said. He was monitoring the situation through the ship’s sensors, while a rapid reaction force was shadowing the alien party as it moved through the ship. “I’ll be deploying countermeasures as soon as they leave the compartment.”

    Levi nodded, feeling another shiver running down her spine. She knew, logically, that the alien nanoprobes weren't crawling over and through her skin, let alone preparing to dissolve the entire ship like a sugar cube. But it was hard to escape the sensation of danger, of violation, that the mere existence of alien nanoprobes caused. She knew, better than most civilians, just how badly galactic technology could be abused, if it fell into the wrong hands. And trying to introduce them into a starship without permission was, technically, a hostile act.

    The aliens showed no sign of awareness that their move had been detected. Instead, after studying the engineering compartment for a long moment, they insisted on returning to the teleport bay. Levi followed them, silently wondering how the captain managed to keep control of herself. No one, not even her very first Drill Instructor, had ever talked to her in a manner that suggested she was nothing to him. The Harmonies clearly regarded humanity as a very young race. Humans were children, as far as they were concerned.

    Her lips quirked at the thought. Young or not, humanity had beaten the Tokomak themselves in open battle. Even the oldest Galactics couldn't ignore that.

    And our technology isn't stagnant, unlike theirs, she thought. Give us a hundred years and we’ll have enough firepower to vaporise their entire navy overnight.

    She didn't relax as the aliens took their places on the teleport pad, ready to be beamed back down to the planet. If they wanted to introduce any more uninvited guests, they’d never have a better chance. And yet ... and yet ... she tensed, despite herself, as the aliens shimmered and vanished, fading out of existence. The scans were clear, but she wasn't reassured. It was possible - all too possible - that they might have missed something.

    “Teleport complete, sir,” the operator said.

    “Very good,” the captain said.

    Levi resisted the urge to sag, somehow. Sweat was prickling down her back. She’d been in more engagements than she cared to think about, but none of them had felt quiet so dangerous. The Galactics had plenty of rules for smoothing out disagreements between alien races - particularly as one race’s smile could be another race’s scowl - yet the Harmonies might well have been looking for an excuse to cause trouble. She’d seen enough dangerous places, back on Earth, to understand how bullies thought. They might pretend to be civilised, but only as long as it suited them.

    “I’ve got teams already in engineering,” Major Rhodan said, “but start running a security sweep anyway. I want every last atom of this ship searched.”

    “Yes, sir,” Levi said.

    She shook herself, then led the way to the hatch. The aliens were gone, but duty called. She had been the one who’d followed them ... it was possible, just possible, that she would have a better idea where to look for any microscopic surprises. Unless, of course, the aliens had managed to sneak something in that the scanners had missed. A cloud of subversion nanities could do a lot of damage if they had time to start reproducing themselves.

    We’d notice them before they became a threat, she told herself. Wouldn't we?

    “They introduced two hundred tiny little spies,” Major Rhodan said. The Marine CO was also the starship’s security chief. “We think we caught them all.”

    Elton studied the datapad for a long moment, glancing at Rebecca before turning his attention back to Rhodan. “You think you caught them all?”

    “The nanoprobes we discovered were all standard GalTech, sir,” Major Rhodan said. “They were little more advanced than the nanoprobes we used ourselves in Afghanistan and the Middle East, back when we were fighting Islamists. If they were all on the same technological level, sir, we caught them all. But if some of them were more advanced ...”

    “They might have escaped detection,” Elton finished. A powered-down nanoprobe would be very hard to spot. One programmed to remain hidden for hours - or days - might remain unnoticed until it was too late. “What were they designed to do?”

    “Spy,” Major Rhodan said. “They weren't dissemblers, sir; they were just programmed to spy and broadcast data. I don’t see how they expected them to remain undetected indefinitely. Even if we missed them being released, we'd have picked up the signals when they started to phone home.”

    “It could have been a test,” Rebecca said. “They might have wanted to see if we detected them.”

    “Putting spies on the ship is not a friendly act,” Elton said, bluntly.

    “I can lodge an official protest,” Rebecca said. She leaned forward. “And, as you know, I have to go down to the planet. I can raise the issue with the locals.”

    “That would also tell them that we found the bugs,” Rhodan pointed out. “And we’d lose any advantage that knowledge gave us.”

    “I think they’d assume the worst,” Rebecca said. “We do have equal or superior technology to them.”

    “It makes no sense,” Elton said. “But then, nothing about this makes sense.”

    He shook his head. “Be careful,” he warned. “We still don’t know what’s really going on here.”
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  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    Except this comes with a price. Alliance with a single alien race - just one - brings with it obligations. We might be dragged into a war we didn't want, a war fought on terms we didn't choose. How many of our ancestors were killed in wars that didn't concern their homelands, but had to be fought because of alliances.

    I understand the value of having allies. But I also understand the dangers of having them too.
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    Rebecca wasn't sure, as the shuttle flew through the forcefield and out into open space, if she should be relieved or concerned that she was being escorted by a platoon of marines. They didn't wear powered combat armour, they didn't carry weapons so heavy she couldn't lift them without enhancement of her own, but they still looked terrifyingly intimidating. And yet, she knew the marines couldn't guarantee her safety if all hell broke loose. The Harmonies had Odyssey and her crew massively outgunned.

    Except there is no reason to fear trouble, she told herself, firmly. They’re merely following conventional galactic protocol.

    She forced herself to relax, somehow. She’d studied galactic protocol extensively, but this was the first time she’d actually had to follow it. Humanity’s other allies were all younger races, young enough to overlook just how new humanity was on the galactic scene. Most of them had begged, borrowed or stolen their technology from their elders and betters too. But now ... now she was talking to a race so old that they predated human civilisation by thousands of years. It was too much to ask, perhaps, that they treated humanity as equals.

    The Chinese refused to deal with the Westerners as equals too, she recalled. The contacts between Imperial China and the West had been studied extensively, as part of her training, but Imperial China - at its mandarin-run worst - had been far less stiff-necked than many of the Galactics. And eventually the Chinese broke under the strain of discovering they weren't the masters of the known world.

    She pushed the thought aside as the shuttle dropped through the planet’s atmosphere, jerking gently as it struck patches of turbulence. Harmony was an old world, old and rich. The giant orbital towers - reaching up into low orbit - were an engineering feat beyond anything humanity had attempted, although the Solar Union had no need of orbital towers. And yet, Harmony was also incredibly overpopulated. It was impossible to be sure, of course, but the analysts on Odyssey believed that there were at least twenty billion inhabitants from a number of different races on the surface. Twenty billion! Earth, at its height, had never had more than eight billion souls ... and that had been before Contact. Now, the Solar Union’s population was expanding rapidly, but it had an entire universe to fill.

    They could be moving thousands of people off-world every day, she thought, grimly. They certainly have the tech for it.

    The shuttle rocked again, heading down towards Harmony City. The city slowly came into view, glittering under the sunlight. Rebecca had studied the orbital imagery on Odyssey, but they hadn't done the city justice. Giant floating buildings, held in the air by powerrful antigravity fields; immense skyscrapers, each one over two kilometres high; dozens of smaller conical buildings, resting within green parks and forests. And yet, as she used her implants to peer through the shuttle’s sensor array, it was clear that the wealthy parts of the city were surrounded by a sea of poverty. She’d seen poverty on Earth, but this was far - far - worse. Most of the immense city was strikingly poor.

    “They’re warning us to give the Imperial Palace a wide berth,” the pilot said. “I’m swinging around to avoid it.”

    Rebecca nodded, not trusting herself to speak. The Imperial Palace was huge, far larger than any palace she’d seen on Earth. It looked as though someone had merged the White House with Buckingham Palace and Edinburgh Castle, then covered the resulting monstrosity in statues of famous heroes from the past. Even if the building was an administrative complex as well as the monarch’s residence, she thought, it was still far too large. She would have been hopelessly embarrassed if she’d had to live there.

    “The building is surrounded with a military-grade forcefield,” one of the marines commented, grimly. “There's enough firepower surrounding it to deter a starship.”

    Rebecca frowned as she studied the complex and the surrounding buildings. It did look like a fortress, hidden away behind layer and layer of defences. There was no attempt to hide the defences either, no attempt to convince the local population that their masters felt secure in their power. She felt her eyes narrow as the shuttle dropped lower, heading directly for the embassy building. Imperial City didn't feel very safe.

    “I’ve located the landing pad,” the pilot said. “They’ve mustered a welcoming committee.”

    “Understood,” Rebecca said. She glanced at Tyler. “Are you ready?”

    “Yes, Madam Ambassador,” Tyler said.

    Rebecca nodded. As the Solar Union’s designated representative, she couldn't talk to anyone below the king or his designated representative. Tyler, her aide, would have to handle the discussions with the welcoming committee, making sure the embassy met their requirements while parrying any attempts to speak directly to Rebecca. It would be a loss of face for her if she did speak to someone below her, even if it was about a minor matter. There were times when she thought that the Tokomak had devised interstellar codes of diplomatic conduct to provide a substitute for war. Certainly, a single mistake could have dire consequences.

    “Take us down,” she told the pilot.

    The embassy came into view. It was small, compared to the palace, but easily large enough for a small army of humans. Rebecca wondered, dryly, just how many aides they thought she’d brought. Her entire staff - all thirty of them - would rattle around the immense building like peas in a pod. She made a mental note to remind them, when they arrived, to be careful what they said and did. If the Harmonies were willing to try to plant nanotech spies on Odyssey, they wouldn't hesitate to bug the embassy itself. The staff were probably spies too.

    “The welcoming committee is waiting,” the pilot said. The shuttle dropped down and landed neatly on the pad. “Good luck, Madam Ambassador.”

    “Thanks,” Rebecca said. “We're going to need it.”

    Harmony smelled, Levi decided, as she and the rest of the marines formed a honour guard for the ambassador’s staff. There was no stench of burning hydrocarbons in the air - she remembered that all too well from Earth - but there was the indefinable stench of too many unwashed bodies in too close proximity. Judging by what she’d seen as the shuttle passed over the city, they were right on the edge of the security zone. To the north, wealth beyond her ability to comprehend; to the south, poverty on a scale she understood all too well. It was very human.

    Without even the chance to head to orbit to start a new life, she thought. She’d served in one of the migrant camps, protecting refugees from their former countrymen while the civil war raged around them. A number had joined the Solar Union, she recalled; some had made new lives for themselves, others had run afoul of the law and ended their days in a penal colony. The people here are trapped.

    It made no sense to her. The Harmonies were wealthy enough to give everyone a decent lifestyle, weren't they? The Solar Union certainly ensured that everyone was fed, housed and dressed, despite a few old-timers muttering dark things about welfare queens. Hell, they could have shipped vast numbers of people to new colony worlds on the edge of explored space. But instead, they preferred to keep their people trapped in poverty. Was it really so important, she asked herself, that they stayed in power?

    The wind shifted, blowing the stench over the walls. She hastily triggered her implants, dampening her olfactory senses. It probably was that important, if their rulers thought like humans. She'd seen too many tiny states, run by warlords, where keeping the population under control was more important than making their lives better. At least the warlords had known better than to mess with the Solar Union. Here ... there was no one, not even the Tokomak, trying to give the poor a shot at a better life.

    She forced herself to listen as the embassy staff abased themselves in front of the ambassador’s aide. Levi had never heard such grovelling in her life. The leader was literally kissing the ground in front of the aide, while his staff were prostrating themselves as if they didn't dare look at their new masters. She supposed she should be glad they weren’t human, if their promises of eternal service and servitude were even remotely accurate. The ambassador’s staff would probably wind up taking advantage of them. She didn't want to think that some of the marines would do the same.

    “Remember to be careful what you say,” she subvocalised, as the greeting ceremony finally came to an end. “The embassy is probably bugged thoroughly.”

    She triggered her sensors as she walked through the door, sweeping the entrance hall for unwanted surprises. The hall was huge, large enough to take the entire company of marines and still have room for another platoon or two. It was decorated in a style that reminded her of Ancient Rome, complete with wall carvings of scenes from the past. And yet ... her sensors picked up a dozen bugs, all tied into the building’s datanet. It was possible - more than possible - that the computers and video systems were also designed to pick up and record conversations. Safeguarding the entire building was going to be a pain in the ass.

    And probably impossible, she thought, as she led the way down a corridor. The proportions were all wrong, as if the building had been designed for someone taller and thinner. There’s no way we can rip out the entire datanet.

    “See what the techs make of the system,” she ordered, shortly. “But warn them to be careful what they say.”

    The irony, she discovered as they moved from room to room, was that the Harmonies had made an effort to be welcoming. Each bedroom was perfectly designed for humans, while the food processors were loaded with thousands of different recipes for human-specific foodstuffs. That was more consideration than she’d been led to expect. She’d served in places where the marines had had to eat alien rations or rely on their nanities to turn alien food into something edible. She still smiled at the memory of trying to coax a fifth-hand food processor into churning out something she could actually eat without fighting her gag reflex.

    And yet, the building was seeded with so many bugs that privacy was going to be practically non-existent.

    “They’re not insisting on anal probes, sir,” she said, after completing the sweep. “But I seriously doubt we can secure even one or two rooms in this shithole without tearing up and replacing the walls.”

    “And half the datanet,” Lieutenant Roaches added. “Sir, I haven’t seen a less secure datanet since I was on Earth. The whole system is designed to record and monitor everything the users do on it. It’s hardwired.”

    “I see,” Rhodan said. “The Ambassador is going to love that.”

    Levi nodded. She’d grown used to a complete lack of privacy at Boot Camp - the marines had practically lived in each other’s pockets - but the ambassador and her staff had presumably grown used to private cabins. Maybe they knew better than to open their mouths when they didn't know the room was secure, yet ... she doubted they’d be comfortable stripping down when they knew they were under surveillance.

    But then, the Harmonies are unlikely to be interested in human bodies, she mused. They’ll be more interested in what we’re actually doing here.

    The thought made her smile, rather coldly. Interracial relationships - relationships between members of different alien races - were one of the few universal taboos, harshly punished when they were discovered. The Solar Union had never banned them, but most people believed there was no need to bother. Genuine interracial relationship were astonishingly rare. The Harmonies were unlikely to take any prurient interest in human bodies.

    She put the thought aside for later consideration. “I don’t think this building can be held for very long either,” she added. “A single platoon of marines, without armour, couldn't hold the walls if they were attacked. I can and I will devise contingency plans, but ...”

    “Do the best you can,” Rhodan said. She could sense his frustration. He should have been down on the ground with her, but he was also needed on Odyssey. “And make sure the ambassador is aware of the problem.”

    “Aye, sir,” Levi said.

    She smiled. “I’ll also alert her staff,” she added. “But I’m fairly sure they have nothing to fear.”

    “Unless they say the wrong thing at the wrong time,” Rhodan said. “Make sure they know to use their implants to talk, if they want to discuss sensitive matters. The encryption codes should be impossible to crack.”

    Levi nodded. “Yes, sir.”

    It was a truism, Rebecca knew, that each world had its own smell. She’d certainly learned that over her career, although she'd also learned that the smell tended to vary from place to place. Planets might be tiny on an interstellar scale, but they were utterly immense on a human scale. And yet, the stench in the air on Harmony was truly revolting. She had the feeling she’d want to throw up, if her implants weren't working to dampen her reaction to the stench. The stench was so strong that it was almost a tangible presence, hanging on the air.

    She didn't want to look south, but she forced herself to stand on the balcony and look over the wall. The buildings looked broken down, more by lack of maintenance - she thought - than open war. Stagnant puddles of water lay everywhere, some glittering oddly under the fading light. Hundreds of aliens from a dozen different moved listlessly around, some sitting down as if they no longer had the urge to carry on. Rebecca couldn't help thinking that they looked pathetic, when judged against the planet’s achievements. She only had to turn her head a little to see one of the immense floating structures ...

    It said much about the Harmonies, she thought, that they tolerated so much poverty. Earth, for all of its flaws, was a more civilised place. The Harmonies were a wealthy society - a strikingly wealthy society. She'd seen the towering civilisation they’d built. And yet, it was rooted in poverty on a truly horrific scale. She had no way to be sure just how many people lived in the city, but ... surely, something could be done. Her heart bled for the children growing up in poverty, trying to find enough food to last them a day ... surely, something could be done.

    They’re aliens, she reminded herself. They don’t think like us.

    She turned and walked inside, uneasily aware of the hundreds of bugs watching her. The marines had warned her that there was no way most of the bugs could be removed, not given the way they'd been installed. It was odd, frighteningly odd. Surely, the Harmonies didn't spy on everyone who visited their world. Or perhaps they did ... GalTech could be abused easily, as she knew all too well. Given a couple of AIs and a complete absence of scruples, the Harmonies could spy on their entire population.

    The doors closed behind her. It was a relief to take a breath and taste clean air.

    It was a good embassy, she had to admit. She’d been in worse. The Harmonies we at least trying to make them comfortable. But the level of surveillance was far beyond a joke. She needed to lodge an official complaint, even though she knew it might make it harder to discuss any matters of substance. And yet, she was starting to doubt that they would be discussing anything important. The Harmonies seemed to be of two minds about everything.

    She stepped into her office and nodded to Tyler. “Implants only,” she subvocalised, using her implants to open up a channel. She’d had a lot of practice over the last few hours. “I assume they didn't get back to us?”

    “They did,” Tyler said. “We’re to be given tours of the city over the next two days, while the Imperial Court considers our gifts and composes a response. So far, there has been no request for any high-level discussions.”

    Rebecca nodded, impatiently. On one hand, it was in line with galactic protocol. On the other, she rather thought the Harmonies couldn't afford to take it slowly. But if they were having faction trouble ...

    “I’m sure we’ll enjoy the tours,” she subvocalised. She would have, if she hadn't had the feeling that someone was playing games. “If nothing else, it’ll give us a chance to get a feel for the city.”

    “And a chance to prepare an elaborate speech for the king,” Tyler added. “You’ll be officially presenting him with his gifts in a few days.”

    “Joy,” Rebecca said. She understood why the king’s staff wanted to inspect the gifts first, but she still found it annoying. “Did they have any response to the manifest?”

    “No,” Tyler said. He cocked his head. “They may find our eagerness a sign of weakness.”

    “And not lodging protests about the bugs is also a sign of weakness,” Rebecca said, crossly. “What are they playing at?”

    She sighed. “Better get a good night’s sleep,” she said. She couldn't keep the sarcasm from her voice. “Tomorrow will be a very busy day.”
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  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen

    These alien races would also have obligations to us. They would be committing themselves to standing beside us and fighting to defend the Grand Alliance from its enemies. The blunt truth is that we need them and they need us. I understand the concern about diluting what we are - about warping our system to meet their demands - but we are locked in a war for survival. The Tokomak and their allies will not see us as anything other than deadly threats.

    Our mere existence is a spanner in their works ...
    -Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).

    “Captain,” Major Rhodan said. “You’re not going to like this.”

    Elton scowled. “I haven't liked anything since the day we popped through the gravity point,” he said, darkly. They’d been in orbit for a week, during which time the discussions on the planet’s surface had gone nowhere. Rebecca and her staff had been given the tour, but it hadn't escaped her notice that they hadn't even started talking about the shape of the conference table yet. “Hit me.”

    The marine grinned, then sobered. “This society is a panopticon society,” he said. “The locals are always under surveillance. Big Brother has nothing on it.”

    Elton leaned forward. “Are you sure?”

    “We’ve been picking up billions - literally - of datastreams from within Imperial City alone,” Rhodan said. “I don’t think that there’s a single adult who hasn't been tagged with a nanotech spy, if they don’t have a tracking implant. Everyone is monitored, sir. A couple of AIs would be more than capable of watching everyone on the surface, all the fucking time.”

    “... Shit,” Elton said.

    “It’s like jail, only worse,” Rhodan said. “This level of surveillance is staggering, sir. I don’t think anyone dares ask questions, let alone step out of line. Anyone who does is probably snatched up before they can cause trouble and shipped off somewhere. I think the government is in complete control.”

    Elton swallowed, hard. He’d always been aware of just how easily technology could be perverted. The implants he used in his daily work could be adapted to enslave him, the starship’s internal monitoring system could be ordered to spy on the crew ... he’d watched the records from the Taliban’s last stand. They’d been so utterly outmatched that none of the fundamentalist assholes had even managed to get a shot off before they’d been wiped out to the last man. He wouldn't waste time feeling sorry for them ...

    ... But he knew, all too well, that such technology could easily be turned against its users.

    He looked up. “If this is a high-surveillance state,” he mused, “how did they manage to have a coup?”

    “Good question,” Rhodan said. “If the watchers were mere humans, I would have said that they simply got unlucky. God knows that monitoring umpteen billion humans would be beyond any purely human agency. But with a few AIs scanning every word for possible threats ... I don’t know how a coup could be organised. Perhaps it was just an act of desperation.”

    “Perhaps,” Elton said. He was no expert, but he was fairly sure that coup plotters had to do some pretty intense plotting to make sure the coup wasn't followed by an immediate civil war. Getting everyone to go along with the plotters wouldn't be easy, particularly not if the military wasn't secured in a hurry. “Are they still trying to slip bugs onto the ships?”

    “All of the freighters were given their own collection of bugs,” Rhodan confirmed. “I think we can be fairly sure that this is a fairly regular thing.”

    “And no one has the nerve to complain,” Elton finished. “They are a powerful race, aren't they?”

    He leaned back in his chair. “What do you make of it?”

    Rhodan looked back at him, evenly. “My honest opinion is that this society is going to explode, sooner rather than later,” he said. “We may be wrong - so far, we have very little access to their datanet - but it looks as though the planet is rigidly stratified. The poor have nothing, not even the vaguest prospect of rising out of their poverty. There’s no escape hatch, as far as we can tell; no political parties promising to make everything better. I think there will be riots on the streets soon enough.”

    Elton rubbed his forehead. “But you don’t know.”

    “No, sir,” Rhodan said. “If this was a human world, I’d be telling you to pull the ambassador and her staff out before the shit hits the fan. But this isn't a human world. There’s no way to know what will set them off.”

    “I know,” Elton said. “Let’s hope they’re less sensitive than the Tosh.”

    He scowled at the memory of a lesson, back in the academy. The Tosh had seen nothing wrong with having sex, whenever and wherever they wanted. They had none of humanity’s elaborate taboos against public sex, none of humanity’s concerns about monogamy and adultery ... it wasn't uncommon for visitors to their homeworld to be startled by the sight of two or more Tosh fucking like scaly rabbits. But, for them, eating in public was utterly forbidden. A human visitor had nearly set off a riot by opening a Twinkie and eating it in plain view.

    “Let us hope so,” Rhodan agreed. “Right now, the embassy is almost impossible to defend, with or without live weapons.”

    Elton made a face. Firing on someone - anyone - who tried to get over the wall was the sort of thing that would trigger a diplomatic incident, regardless of the provocation. And yet, the alternative was leaving his personnel to be lynched. Rebecca was the ambassador, but he was the one in charge. He would have to decide between opening fire, and accepting the prospect of a major crisis, or leaving his people to die. The buck stopped with him.

    And we can't even guarantee teleporting them out, he thought, grimly. There are so many force fields around the complex that getting them up might be impossible.

    “I know,” he said, finally. “Tell the guards to watch themselves.”

    Rhodan met his eyes. “They’d prefer clear guidance on what to do, sir.”

    Elton looked back at him, silently acknowledging the point. It was tempting to use weasel words, to do everything in his power to ensure that the blame landed on the marines - not on the man who was supposed to be in charge. His career would be destroyed if a major crisis occurred on his watch, whatever else happened. And not giving the marines precise instructions would only make matters worse.

    “They are to use lethal force if the wall is breached,” he said. “And take whatever steps they believe to be necessary to protect the ambassadorial staff for as long as possible.”

    “Yes, sir,” Rhodan said.

    “I don’t like this, sir,” Biscoe said, an hour later. “This system is mobilising for war.”

    Elton nodded, studying the live feed from a dozen stealthed drones. Deploying them within the system was an unfriendly act, but after the Harmonies had attempted to bug his ship he wasn't feeling particularly concerned about appearing unfriendly. All three of the gravity points were already heavily fortified, yet the Harmonies were doubling or tripling the defences. He wouldn't have wanted to try to punch through with the entire Solar Navy behind him. The planets weren't much better. There was so much firepower gathered to protect them that even the Tokomak would pause before challenging them.

    “We’ve been tracking hundreds of warships moving in and out of the system,” Biscoe added, grimly. “All from the Harmonies, as far as we can tell. They’re actually cloaking and decloaking, seemingly at random. I’d say they were trying to confuse any onlookers.”

    “They’ve certainly confused us,” Callaway added. “Captain, we’ve picked up enough starships to suggest that they’ve massed their entire fleet here.”

    “That’s not too likely,” Biscoe said. “They’d be leaving the rest of their space undefended.”

    “But we don’t know which of our sensor contacts are real ships and which are nothing more than ECM drones,” Callaway said. “They’re definitely preparing for war. There’s a lot of encrypted communications being sent, communications we haven’t yet managed to crack. I think trouble is brewing.”

    “It certainly looks that way,” Elton agreed, dryly. “Do you have an updated tactical survey?”

    “They’re a formidable naval power,” Biscoe said. He adjusted the display. Each of the rocky worlds were surrounded by a large halo of tactical icons. “I’d go so far as to say they were fortifying their planets to allow their fleet to be deployed elsewhere.”

    “On conquest missions,” Elton said.

    “Probably,” Biscoe agreed. He activated the starchart. “We don’t know what they’re thinking, but if they strike this way” - his finger traced out a pair of gravity point chains - “they could probably safeguard their positions against the Tokomak. It would be an effective declaration of war, I suspect, yet it would give them some defence in depth. Given enough time to fortify the new gravity points, they could bleed the Tokomak white.”

    He adjusted the starchart, pointing to a handful of other worlds. “Alternatively, they could secure these systems instead. That would allow them to block seven more gravity points, letting them counter any Tokomak move to outflank their defences by using alternate routes to get a fleet into striking distance. It would also let them levy a shipping charge on every freighter passing through the sector.”

    “The other powers would object,” Elton pointed out.

    “They’d also have problems trying to muster the force to retake the systems,” Callaway said, enthusiastically. “Captain, I modelled out the entire war. It depends on the underlying assumptions, but if the Harmonies manage to fortify the gravity points ... well, I’d say they had an excellent chance of hanging on to their gains. The only wild card would be Tokomak intervention.”

    “They’re already running that risk,” Elton said. That was well understood. The Harmonies had broken so many laws that, ten years ago, Tokomak intervention would have been a certainty. “It’s quite awkward.”

    “They’ll also lose if they sit back and wait for the Tokomak to drop a hammer on them,” Biscoe said. “Going on the offensive is their only real hope for success.”

    “Maybe,” Elton said. He couldn't fault their logic - it made perfect sense - but he felt that something was missing. “Are they launching invasion fleets now?”

    “We haven’t tracked any large fleets leaving the system,” Callaway said. “But if they wanted to hit here and here” - he tapped a couple of stars on the chart - “they’d be hurrying their fleets through the gravity points, not sending them out in FTL.”

    Elton nodded, slowly. The Harmonies were doing everything in their power to conceal the full scale of their mobilisation, yet ... something just kept nagging at his mind. It hovered, taunting him. He knew he was missing something, but what? Callaway might well be right, he admitted. The kingdom’s entire fleet could be jumping through the nearest gravity point, one by one ... and his ship wouldn't have a hope of tracking them. They were too far to monitor ships moving at sublight speeds. And yet ...

    “Try and slip a drone or two closer to each of the gravity points,” he said. That wasn't the answer. He was sure it wasn't the answer. “See if you can track the forces coming in and out of the system.”

    “Aye, sir,” Callaway said.

    He hesitated. “It won’t be easy, sir,” he warned. “They have a lot of active sensors scanning space near the gravity point, including some we’ve never seen before. I don’t think we can get a drone too close without being detected.”

    And they won’t find it hard to guess who launched it, Elton thought, grimly. It isn't as if there will be a long line of suspects.

    “Do the best you can,” he said. “But try to avoid detection if possible.”

    Elton looked back at the main display. Odyssey had a solid lock on everything orbiting Harmony itself, as far as he could tell. It was unusual for cloaked ships to lurk so close to a planet, although he had to admit it was possible. And yet, beyond the high orbitals ... the enemy ships were cloaking and uncloaking, seemingly at random. What on Earth were they doing?

    They want to keep any watchers in doubt as to where their ships actually are, he mused, thoughtfully. But they’re doing it in a manner that cannot fail to convince any watchers that they’re trying to hide something. Why?

    “Commander,” he said, slowly. “Why would you want your opponent to know you’re trying to fool him?”

    Biscoe considered it. “To force him to watch you carefully,” he said, after a moment. “Or to convince him that you’re doing something when you’re not. He might waste a lot of time because you jerked his chain. And if he comes up with an answer, he’ll be too pleased to question it.”

    That, Elton conceded, was a good answer. But he didn't think it was the right one.

    He shook his head in annoyance. Nothing about the entire situation made sense. The Harmonies had invited humanity to send a diplomatic mission, yet they were now dragging their feet on opening discussions. The Harmonies were fortifying every gravity point in their sector, something they knew would worry the other Galactics, yet they weren't even trying to defuse the tensions it would cause. The Harmonies had enough wealth and power to create a paradise, yet they seemed to prefer to keep their people in bondage ...

    It made no sense. It just made no sense. Nothing about it made sense.

    He looked up at Biscoe. “Is there no civilian chatter we can intercept? No live-streaming? No television or radio?”

    “Not as far as we can tell,” Biscoe said. “The entire system is silent.”

    “We haven’t even seen any independent freighters entering or leaving the system,” Callaway added. “Not one, unless you count our hulls. I suspect the locals have a cartel system in place. Cargos fly through this system in their ships or they don’t fly at all.”

    Elton nodded. It was technically illegal, at least under galactic law, but who was going to argue with the Harmonies? No one, with the possible exception of the Tokomak, had enough firepower to bring them to heel. They could make whatever demands they wanted, now they controlled the gravity points, and the other powers would have to listen to them - or find a way to force them to comply. There was no hope of comparing notes with an independent freighter. Or, for that matter, of a bidding war that might knock shipping prices down.

    And it is frustrating too, he thought, sarcastically. The more he looked at the Harmony System, the less he liked it. A surveillance state that would make Big Brother wet his pants, a complete lack of free chatter on the datanet ... a probable lack of free enterprise too ... This system is starting to look better and better every day.

    He looked back at the near-space display. It was impossible to avoid noticing the giant fortresses, well within missile range of their position. Odyssey would be in deep trouble if the fortresses opened fire, although only a complete lunatic would fire antimatter warheads anywhere near a populated planet. Not that they were the sole concerns, either. There were a whole string of heavily-armed planetary defence centres on the surface, their heavy weapons no doubt zeroed in on his ship. The tactical scans had told him things he didn't want to know about their weapons and defences.

    Wonderful, he thought, as he rose. This system is definitely starting to look like a trap.

    “Mr. XO, return to the bridge,” he ordered, shortly. “Inform me if anything changes.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Biscoe said.

    “Mr. Callaway, simulate options for leaving orbit without their permission,” Elton added, as his XO left. “See if you can find a way to get us and the freighters out of here.”

    “Aye, sir,” Callaway said. He looked concerned. “Captain, do you think we’ll have to blast our way out of here?”

    “I hope not,” Elton said.

    He watched the younger man leave the compartment, then poured himself a mug of coffee and drank it, knowing it wouldn't be enough to stave off the tiredness. He wanted - he needed - something to happen, yet ... yet he knew, all too well, that he’d regret it when it did. Perhaps the Galactics were merely trying to take it slowly, as their own protocols insisted. They’d devised the rules after hundreds of years of experience in interstellar diplomacy. But he couldn't help feeling as though something was about to go spectacularly wrong.

    And to think we’re too far from Hudson Base, let alone Earth, he reminded himself. We’re alone out here.

    It wasn't a pleasant thought. He’d thought he'd known what it meant, back when the mission had been planned, but now ... now he was alone, thousands of light years from any potential backup. The buck had always stopped with him, yet now ... there was no one he could ask for orders, no one who could take the burden off his shoulders. His instincts were telling him to withdraw the embassy and set off home, even though his career would be ripped apart when he returned home. And yet ...

    We can't leave orbit without their permission, he thought. And will they give it to us?

    He cursed, wishing he could somehow lose the unease that pervaded his soul. There were too many things about the whole situation that didn't quite make sense, even for aliens. And yet, he couldn't leave. It would be a major diplomatic incident, at the very least. All he could do was wait and see what happened ...

    ... And try, somehow, to escape the sense that the hammer was ready to fall.
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