The Oncoming Storm

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Sep 10, 2011.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Foreword<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Looking back from our point in time, there is a certain perception of inevitability around historical events. Napoleon’s bid for world dominance was bound to fail; the twin demons of Fascism and Communism were defeated by their inherent shortcomings; the UN’s attempt to exercise effective control over the colonies settled ever since humanity gained access to hyperspace represented a failure to truly grasp the nature of interstellar logistics. Hundreds of smug little treatises have been written on how a given event was inevitable, with the authors citing cases from history; hundreds more have been written which claim to prove that certain political ideas failed because of the personalities involved, rather than because of inherent failings in the specific political concept.

    What the writers of both kinds of documents generally ignore is that the people involved in specific historical events do not have the benefit of hindsight, nor do they have access to the sheer volume of material that modern-day historians generally gather for their research; they certainly do not have the time to deliberate and pontificate before making their decisions. The historical figures, for good or ill, can only make their decisions based upon what they know at the time, which is always far less than any historical researcher. Thus we are left with the perplexing ‘fact’ that historical figures made insane decisions – a fact that ignores the simple point that the decisions seemed logical and reasonable at the time to the person charged with making them. Hitler’s decision to start the Holocaust – a mass slaughter that brought no benefit to Germany, yet drained German resources and ensured that Germany’s defeat would be terrible – can only be understood by comprehending that the elimination of World Jewry was a core aim of the Nazi Regime. It was an aim so central to their purpose that they failed to even delay the slaughter until after the war had been securely won.

    It is tempting to talk in terms of historical inevitability, of immovable technological, physical and economic factors that determine the course of history, but such temptation must be resisted. History is little, but human action; human decisions shape the course of history for good or ill. A person who finds themselves at the eye of the historical storm – the right place at the right time – can change the entire universe.

    When it comes to considering the career of Katherine Falcone, ninth child of Lucas Falcone, we are forced to recognise that her mere presence had a staggering influence on the direction of events as the Commonwealth of Avalon found itself confronted by the Theocracy. Born to wealth and privilege beyond the imagination of most humans, she could have been forgiven for choosing to vanish into obscurity, or for becoming nothing more than a pawn in her family’s political and economic games. Instead, she chose to seek a career in the Royal Avalon Navy, with her early years showing remarkable promise.

    And yet, her father’s influence exerted an uncomfortable effect on her life. His unseen presence ensured that she was promoted rapidly, to the point where she became the youngest (by seven years) RAN officer to command a starship. Historical researchers have been denied access to the Falcone Family’s sealed records that would reveal what was said when Katherine confronted her father, a day after receiving her new command. Nor do we know what she thought when she discovered that she was truly at the eye of the storm. She left no personal logs behind her when she departed this mortal life; her family has been quick to secure other records before they could be dissected by historians. For someone so historically important, we know very little about her.

    All we know is that she changed the fate of the entire Human Sphere.

    Admiral Joseph Marshall
    Director; Piker’s Peak Military History Department

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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    It was a truism of human society that if one had enough money, one could do almost anything without fear of repercussions. Money – or whatever medium of exchange might be developed by a society – could affect a person’s judgment, corrupt the law or even buy the loyalties of armed men. Or, as a cruder mind might have put it; them that has, gets.

    The Majestic Hotel was a testament to that truth, a gaudy building constructed near the centre of Camelot City, only a few hundred meters from Camelot Palace, the residence of His Majesty the King. Charm, good taste and elegance were notable by their absence; the designer had been wealthy enough to purchase the land at vastly inflated prices – and wealthy enough not to have to listen to honest critiques of his work. In the sixty years since the Hotel had opened its doors, a combination of exclusivity and proximity to the centre of government had ensured a roaring trade, even if the corridors seemed overloaded with golden paint and expensive artworks. A prospective guest had to have at least a million pounds in his bank account before the manager would even consider letting them through the front door. The guards had strict orders to keep all members of the media off the premises, giving the hotel a reputation for privacy that was the envy of half the city. Rumour had it that half of the most important decisions in Camelot – or the Commonwealth of Avalon – were taken at the Majestic Hotel.

    Captain Katherine Falcone gritted her teeth as the aircar slowly sank to rest on the hotel’s landing pad. She disliked the hotel intensely, even though she’d only visited twice before, once as a small child. It was a monument to wealth and power; not the kind of wealth and power achieved by the men and women who had settled Avalon and turned it into their private paradise, but inherited wealth and the folly it brought with it. And, she knew, most of her comrades in the Royal Avalon Navy would never be allowed to even look at the front doors. Even an Admiral’s salary wouldn’t be enough to convince the hotel to allow her to visit, even for a brief meal in the hugely-expensive restaurant.

    She stepped out of the aircar and nodded politely to the waitress as she came forward, bowing in greeting. The hotel’s staff had always got on her nerves, although as an adult Kat was more tolerant than she’d been as a small child. They would literally do almost anything for the hotel’s guests – and, in return, some of them had been given enough money to ensure that they would never have to work again. They’d all signed horrendously strict non-disclosure contracts as well, ensuring that nothing they saw within the ugly building was ever broadcast to the media, or transmitted on the planetary datanet. And they would have identified her before her aircar even set down on the pad, or she would have been greeted by armed guards.

    “Welcome to the Majestic Hotel,” the waitress said. She had been perfectly chosen for the job, with a mop of short curly brown hair, an infectious smile and a little black dress that revealed her long perfect legs and shapely breasts. Just looking at her made Kat feel dowdy, but then the waitress hadn't dressed up for her. Kat wasn't paying her salary tonight. “Your father is waiting for you in the Independence Suite.”

    Kat allowed her to lead the way into the elevator and take her down into the building. A quick ping from her implants revealed that there were no localised net processors in the building – or at least none that were willing to respond to her. Even a paying guest was forced to restrict his movements within the hotel, ensuring the privacy of all. Kat supposed that it was worth it, at least to her. She was in enough trouble with her fellow officers without making a public visit to the Majestic Hotel.

    Almost reflexively, she studied her own reflection in the mirror. The black uniform she wore was new; it had been shipped to her two days ago, following her promotion to Captain. A black tunic, a white shirt and a black pair of trousers, marked only with a single golden star on her collar; it was a uniform worn only by a starship commander. Her golden curls had been cut short and hidden under her black cap, her perfect heart-shaped face was unmarked by any form of cosmetic powder or makeup. Before Kat had been born, her mother had engineered her for beauty rather than trust to her natural genetic pattern. She was alarmingly aware that she would look like a teenager, permanently poised on the edge of adulthood, for at least two decades to come.

    The elevator chimed to a stop and the door opened, revealing a single dining room. Unlike the outside of the building, it was surprisingly tasteful and very elegant, with excellent views of the Palace. It should have housed fifty guests – Kat had heard that there was a waiting list for tables longer than the list of officers hoping to be entrusted with a command of their own – but it was almost empty, save for one table. Her father had used his money – and the political clout his family had amassed ever since Avalon had been founded – to book the entire suite. Kat didn’t even want to think about how much that must have cost him, or the fact that even a million pounds or two would have been nothing more than pocket change. Her father’s economic resources were staggering, so enormous that a hundred heirs could not spend them all...

    He rose from his chair to greet her as Kat approached, the waitress stepping back into the elevator and vanishing from sight. Lucas Falcone was tall, but there the resemblance with his ninth daughter ended. He was darkened skin, hair so black that it was darker than outer space and eyes that had been specially wired for direct neural access to the corporation’s computer processors. There were laws governing just how much augmentation any non-military person was allowed to insert into their bodies, but Lucas Falcone was above the law. No policeman would dare issue him a parking ticket when he possessed enough clout to end the career of anyone who got in his way.

    Kat took his hand reluctantly, feeling the unnatural strength hiding behind his grip. He’d never been much of a father either. As the ninth child of his blood, Kat hadn’t been expected to take up a position in the family-owned corporation, or to serve as one of her father’s political placemen in the Assembly. Her upbringing had been supervised by the family’s endless supply of servants, her education had been provided by privately-hired tutors and she saw her father, if she was lucky, once or twice a month. She could have sunk into the social whirlwind that consumed the lives of those born to wealth so immense that they never had to worry about a thing, but instead she’d run off to the Navy. If only she had been able to change her name...

    Her implant pinged, reporting that a local network processor had just downloaded a copy of the hotel’s menu into her secure storage database. She didn't bother to look at it, merely ordering the decidedly-plebeian choice of fish and chips, with an extra helping of chips. It would irritate her father, but it was the kind of irritation he could never hope to scratch. The old man had interfered too much in her life already, as far as she was concerned – and the latest piece of interference had been the worst.

    “You’ll be pleased to hear that Peter is shaping up well,” Lucas said calmly. He smiled one of his trademark smiles, a smile the young Kat had once compared to a shark’s grin as it swam towards a helpless swimmer in the ocean. “I was in two minds about trusting him with the Macron Platform, but the lad managed to turn the effort around and boost profitability by a considerable amount. I am sure that the family will see their way towards electing him my successor when I finally step off this mortal coil.”

    Kat scowled. She’d never had the patience to fake being interested when she couldn’t care less. Peter might have been her brother, but he’d been an adult when Kat had been born and he’d never showed any interest in his baby sister. From what Kat had heard over the years, Peter was constantly overshadowed by his father, to the point where he was slowly developing into a carbon copy of the old man.

    Lucas talked about nothing for several minutes, either trying to put her at her ease or get on her nerves. Kat listened patiently, making the occasional remark, as he told her about her sister’s latest husband – Dolly Falcone went through men as if they were going out of season – and her mother’s latest enthusiasm, a charity for dispossessed orphans on Cadiz. As the reason there were so many orphans on Cadiz had a great deal to do with her father’s predecessor as CEO of Consolidated Industries Incorporated, Kat rather expected that the charity wouldn't fare very well. Her mother hadn’t been that good a mother, either.

    The food arrived and she was treated to a single raised eyebrow from her father as the waiter put down a steaming plate of fish, surrounded by chips. Naval cadets were allowed to spend a couple of hours fishing in the waters surrounding Piker’s Peak, the Royal Avalon Navy’s Officer Training Centre, and those who managed to catch a fish or two were permitted to have them fried in the canteen and served up with golden chips. Kat hadn’t really had the patience to fish – she preferred action to waiting for a fish to bite – but she had developed a taste for the meal. The hotel hadn't lowered itself far enough to produce the mushy peas. There were definitely some limits...

    “I need to as you a question,” Kat said, as her father tucked into his game pie. According to the menu in Kat’s implant, it had seven different kinds of meat and cost enough to feed an average family for just under a month. The animals were hunted in the nearby Royal Reserve, shipped to the hotel and placed in stasis until they were needed. There was a good chance that her father was eating meat from an animal that had been killed by the King himself, or one of his family. Kat rolled her eyes at the thought. Some people would do anything to convince themselves that they were superior to others.

    Her father gave her another of his smiles. “And what might that be?”

    Kat scowled at him, suddenly unsure. Her father hadn't gained the post of CEO just because he’d been born into the Falcone Family; he’d spent years building up the experience and career that had convinced the seniors to permit him to become CEO. He knew – she was certain – why she’d requested this meeting. And if he knew that, what else did he know? What else did he want?

    “I have been appointed to take command of HMS Lightning,” she said. She’d been proud, until she accessed the specs on her new command. Kat was twenty-nine, at least six years too young for the post. It hadn't taken her long to realise that her father’s name – and perhaps his meddling – had seen her promoted over hundreds of officers with longer, and more distinguished, service records. “I am far too young for the position.”

    With her father, attack was always better than defence. “Did you use your...influence to ensure that I won the promotion?”

    Her father smiled at her, dryly. “And do you feel that you are unable to handle the post?”

    Kat scowled at him, a reaction that left him apparently unmoved. Any naval officer who turned down a promotion would be rewarded – by never being offered a promotion again. If she felt that she could not, in good conscience, accept command of Lightning and made that clear to the promotion board, she would never have another chance at command. That fact, and that fact alone, had kept her from trying to decline the command. She did want command – her experience as a destroyer XO had convinced her that she could command – but not yet. How could she jump from XO of a vessel that had only 50 crewmembers to commander of a heavy cruiser that had over 2000?

    “My reputation has been ruined,” Kat said, flatly. “Every officer in the Navy will know that I didn't win the promotion honestly. They won’t place any faith in me, nor should they...”

    Her father tapped the table, impatiently. “I think you’re forgetting something,” he said. His voice was calm, but with a chilly undertone that matched any of her instructors at Piker’s Peak. “The family brings you benefits and expects you to work in its interests, providing you and your siblings with the tools you need to serve the family. This promotion is merely giving you some of the tools...”

    “I wanted to be out of the family,” Kat snapped. “I tried to enlist under a false name...”

    “You should have tried to enlist in a mercenary company,” her father countered. “They wouldn't have bothered to check your DNA against their records. And besides...calling yourself Constance Chance... What were you thinking?”

    Kat flushed. She’d been sixteen years old at the time, the youngest age she could apply to Piker’s Peak, and had been unduly influenced by watching Stellar Star, queen of the stars, a childish entertainment that had charmed her younger self. Her father’s influence had saved her from the consequences of that little untruth on her application form, something she hadn't really understood at the time. But then, she hadn't been a very mature sixteen years old.

    Her father put down his fork and focused on her. “You’re right,” he said. “I did have a few words with the Grand Admiral, and with a handful of men on the Military Oversight Committee, and with the King himself. His Majesty takes a strong interest in the RAN – but you’ll know that for yourself. And yes, they did ensure that you received the promotion.”

    He held up a hand before she could say anything. “I didn't insist that you were promoted merely to show off my influence,” he continued. “I think that I want a pair of trustworthy eyes out near Cadiz. I don’t entirely trust the reports we’ve been receiving from Admiral Williams. My contacts in the Theocracy are turning too damned silent for my tastes.”

    That, Kat knew, was her father all over. Throw in a few names, and a few places, and see if the recipient sank or swam. Her father’s corporation had offices inside and outside the Commonwealth, even in the Theocracy, despite repeated protests from the more militaristic or suspicious members of the Assembly. It provided a window into the theocratic state that offered information that was not always available to the Office of Naval Intelligence.

    Her implant tossed up a star chart, but she’d already committed the map to memory. The Theocracy was a cluster of red stars to the galactic south of the Commonwealth of Avalon, an expanding state seemingly intent on overwhelming all other states in its path. After the previous Caliph – who’d been as bloody-minded and murderous as any tyrant throughout history – had been assassinated, his son had taken the throne – and rapidly turned out to be just as bad as his dad. The RAN had been picking up refugees for years. Everyone knew – at least everyone who didn't have their heads buried firmly in the sand – that war was coming, and the Commonwealth was preparing desperately. The crash program that had produced Lightning was merely one weapons program of many.

    And if the war began, everyone expected that it would begin at Cadiz. The world – and naval base – was in an excellent position for launching strikes into the Theocracy, which naturally made it a target for the Caliph’s warships. And if the base was overrun, it would be damn hard to recover it before the Theocracy stabbed deep into the Commonwealth’s vitals.

    “Admiral Williams has been...rather sedentary of late,” her father said, breaking into her thoughts. “His reports to the Privy Council have all suggested that peace is breaking out all over. The private reports suggest something different. I require someone out there with the...independence of mind to contradict her superior, if necessary. Your reports can be forwarded through the StarCom and addressed to me personally.”

    Kat narrowed her eyes. “And if I refuse the promotion?”

    Lucas snorted. “And lose your chance at command, girl? You were born to command, it runs in the blood. And if you refuse your promotion, they will never give you another one.”

    “True,” Kat agreed. Anger was flaring through her mind, but she kept it under tight control. It was a good servant and a very poor master, or so the drill instructors had told her, while pushing the cadets right to the limits of their abilities. “I will take the command.”

    “That’s my girl,” her father said. He smiled at her, before summoning the waitress to remove the empty dishes. Kat eyed her plate guiltily. It might have been common food, but it had been extremely good. “This could be the most important event in your lifetime.”

    He waited until the waitress had gone before continuing. “The King wants us to mobilise, perhaps even to consider striking first,” he added. “Factions on the Assembly don’t want to go along with that, for all kinds of reasons. Your reports could mean the difference between us striking first, and us waiting helplessly, just like a naked virgin, for them to strike at us. And if they should happen to kill us with the first stroke...”

    “Why do you care?” Kat demanded, suddenly. Her father was a born survivor; it ran in the blood. The Falcone Family had had its origins in Old Europe, back on Old Earth, and had prospered though the bloodshed of the Wreaker War and the Breakaway Wars to establish a permanent home – and power base – on Avalon. “You’ll always come out ahead.”

    “If the Theocracy wins, it will mean the end of our family,” her father reminded her, dryly. “Defeat means the end of everything we have created over the years; defeat means the end of the world.”

    He leaned forward. “I will not let that happen,” he said. There was no mistaking the icy determination in his voice. “Whatever it takes, I will ensure that that will not happen.”
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Two<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />


    Kat looked up from her seat. The shuttle pilot looked anxious – and barely old enough to shave. She’d been rather brusque to him, she recalled with a hint of shame, even though she’d been fuming when she’d boarded the shuttle for the flight to Merlin Base. The young man was probably convinced that his career was already over before it had even begun.

    “Yes, Ensign?” She asked, finally. Her voice was calm, at least. The last thing she wanted to do was panic the young man still further. “What can I do for you?”

    “We are approaching the Merlin Shipyards, Captain,” the Ensign said. “System Command would like to know if you wish to board your ship or proceed to Main Base for briefing.”

    Kat scowled inwardly. In truth, she’d put off boarding her ship formally for too young. The RAN tradition had it that the newly-promoted Captain had to board before the end of the day, or bad luck would surely follow the ship for the first year of service. Kat didn't believe such rubbish, but tradition was impossible to dismiss outright. In any case, an officer who didn't take up command as soon as practicable wouldn't make a good impression on the subordinates.

    “Proceed to the Lightning,” she ordered, finally. “I’ll visit Main Base once I have inspected my ship.”

    Avalon had two moons, Genevieve and Merlin. Genevieve was only slightly smaller than Luna, the legendary moon orbiting Old Earth, but Merlin was tiny, really little more than a massive asteroid. It had served as the base for the first starships that served the Royal Avalon Navy, before having its facilities expanded massively as the Commonwealth grew in size and power. Now, two hundred and thirty-nine years after the Navy had been created, it was a massive complex of free-floating slips for new construction and industrial nodes for producing the components that were worked into the latest starships. Kat had heard that the complex actually produced far more components than the Navy actually required, allowing the base to build up a surplus – and sell certain systems to commercial interests. The Navy made a tidy profit, one that was bitterly begrudged by the smaller industrial concerns in the Commonwealth. Kat didn't have much time for such concerns; after all, the King and Assembly had funded the construction of the base and now they were reaping the rewards.

    Every slip, according to the small display in front of her, was full, with dozens of starships in varying stages of construction. An entire wing of starfighters was on permanent patrol, complementing the weapons platforms scattered around the edge of the free-floating complex, ready to intercept any unwanted guests. The Navy had jurisdiction over the entire region and any civilian pilot who strayed into the area could expect – at the very least – to spend an uncomfortable night in a Navy brig before being fined and possibly stripped of his licence. With the Royal Navy desperately preparing for hostilities, no one wanted to play fast and loose with the base’s security. If there had been anything wrong with the shuttle’s IFF codes, the starfighters would have intercepted them and either forced the shuttle to halt or destroyed it, along with its passengers. No one took chances.

    “We’re cleared to approach Slip #45,” the pilot said. He seemed to have recovered from his earlier panic, although Kat suspected that it was partly relief from knowing that the trip would soon be over. “The Lightning will be coming into view shortly.”

    Kat leaned forward, almost pressing her face against the cockpit, as a mass of lights in the distance slowly resolved themselves into a network covering – and shielding – an angular shape, glowing white under spotlights. The starship seemed solid compared to the slip and construction facilities that had been assembled around it, but Kat wasn't fooled. In space, there was little need for fixed facilities. Zero-gravity had transformed the human race’s industrial base, even after the disasters that had overwhelmed Earth during the Breakaway Wars. It had probably helped that Earth had tried to prevent the colonies from industrialising and accidentally ensured that the colonies would stop at nothing to build up the industry that would allow them to dictate their own terms to Earth.

    Lightning was six hundred metres long from bow to stern, an arrowhead shape flattened down and studded with weapons and sensor blisters. Kat forgot her irritation with her father as she studied the starship, noting the position of the main drives and the nodes that allowed Lightning to generate her own hyperspace vortex rather than rely on the gateways that provided access for most civilian-grade starships. It was hardly an uncommon element of starship design, but it would provide her with a degree of freedom in travelling from star to star. Her hull was painted brilliant white, with the Commonwealth’s flag emblazoned on her underside and her name displayed prominently along her hull. Up close, the sleek perfection of her lines were spoilt by the point defence weapons and heavy missile launchers that provided her offensive punch, but Kat forgave her designers. Lightning was perfect.

    She was the culmination of nearly five hundred years of starship design. Heavy cruisers were designed to serve as the Navy’s workhorses, serving with equal competence as escort vessels for the battleships and individual patrol ships for independent operations. She might have lacked the speed and flexibility of light cruisers and destroyers, or the heavy broadsides of the battleships, but she did have a robust nature and an ability to absorb punishment that would have blown a light cruiser into a ball of expanding plasma. And anything heavy enough to kill her would have to catch her first.

    Kat barely noticed as her pilot took the shuttle in a slow spiral around her ship, as tradition dictated. The Captain of any newly-constructed starship would be the first to command her, yet the Captain would not even set eyes on his ship until she was ready to be launched. Her first inspection would allow her to see the ship in her virgin form, and set the tone for the rest of her career. Lightning would only be young once. She drank in the lines of her ship, almost grateful to her father. The crew might be worried about her age and general lack of experience, but she was confident of her own success. With a ship like Lightning, how could she fail?

    “Damn it!”

    Commander Jeremy Damiani squeezed the datapad in his hand in the hopes that it would burst, scattering its solid-state components over the deck. It didn't, of course; he placed his thumb against the biometric reader and allowed it to read his thumbprint, granting the Ensign with the datapad temporary authority to requisition supplies from Main Base. The Captain would have had the authority to claim everything allocated to her ship, but of course she wasn't onboard yet. Rumour had it that she’d spent the days since she’d been allocated command of the heavy cruiser partying down on Avalon with he – a man nearly twice the age of his CO – was left doing all the work. And without the authority to actually do it either! If he hadn't had some clandestine support from an old friend in Admiral Bainbridge’s office, Lightning would have missed her completion date and would have been forced to wait in free orbit around Merlin until she had finished fitting out.

    He passed the datapad back to the Ensign and stalked off down the corridor. A hundred days, his mind told him; a hundred days since he’d been appointed as XO. Lightning had a good crew, but she was a new ship and all new ships had their problems. He’d dealt with them, calling on his fifty years of experience to smooth out problems, requisition supplies not normally included on the manifest – and kicking ass and taking names where necessary. He should have been Captain, not some slip of a girl barely old enough to go to the toilet without being escorted by her mommy. Had his fifty years in the service weighed less against a healthy campaign contribution to some political asshole on the planet below?

    The thought galled him, even as he strode into the shuttlebay and barked orders to the officers gathering at the hatch. By custom, a new Captain had to be greeted by her senior officers – and that included little girls who should still be playing with dolls, not assuming command of a ship with enough firepower to wreak planets. The other officers kept well-schooled blank faces as they formed a line, but Jeremy knew how to read faces and knew that at least two of them were just as affronted as he was, although neither of them would ever say it out loud. The Lightning was a King’s ship, by all that was holy, and none of them would ever have dared break that sacred trust. They’d serve their girlish Captain and pray that she had at least a vague idea of what she was doing. Or, if not, she would have the sense to let him take the lead. The horror stories about other high-born brats who assumed positions of power had never seemed more real to him.

    He came to a rigid posture of attention as the shuttle slowly lowered itself onto the deck. The heat stung at his face as it radiated away from the shuttle, but he refused to allow it to alter his position one iota. His Captain would see them all at the hatch, as tradition demanded; the first notes of the whistle were already echoing through the air. The hatch opened and his Captain stepped into view. It took all of his fifty years of service to keep his face calm and composed.

    She was beautiful. Her blonde curls leaking out from under her cap, the subtle hints that she had a body that lived up to her face’s promise; if he'd seen her without the uniform, he might have tried to pick her up. The young Ensigns and Lieutenants wouldn't have hesitated before trying to climb into her panties. And by all the gods, she was a girl! She barely looked old enough to wear any uniform, let alone the black design that belonged solely to Captains. How could she hope to command men and women who had served the Navy from before she was even a glint in her father’s eye?

    The Captain stepped forward, eyes fixed on the flag painted against one bulkhead. She stood to attention and snapped a perfect salute, so perfect that the cynical part of Jeremy’s mind wondered if she’d been practicing in front of a mirror. Or maybe not; as a mustang, he’d never been to Piker’s Peak, but he’d heard that the instructors were very keen on decorum. It was a pity that so many of the Lieutenants they produced were often unsuited for their positions and had to learn on the job. Not all of them survived long enough to learn from their mistakes.

    Lightning, arriving,” the Senior Chief snapped. His voice echoed out in the massive shuttlebay. Senior Chief Alex Houghton might have been just as shocked at the youth of their commander as Jeremy, but he wouldn't let it affect his professionalism. He was surrogate father to the young crewmen and, technically against regulations, the advisor and mentor to many junior officers who were on their own for the first time. “!”

    Jeremy snapped to attention as the Captain pivoted until she was facing him. Her eyes were green, sparkling with life...he had to force himself not to let his eyes drop from her face. Slowly, he brought his hand up to salute, knowing that the other officers would be following him. There was a long pause as they saluted, followed by the Captain returning their salute.

    Her voice was calm, and very precise. “Permission to come aboard, Mr. XO?”

    “Permission granted,” Jeremy said. Until the Captain formally assumed command, he was still in command of the ship. It was another tradition, one that planet-bound bureaucrats rarely understood. A ship always had to have a commander – and that commander had to be known to the crew at all times. “Welcome onboard, Captain.”

    The Captain’s lips twitched. Perhaps she was aware of just how much he resented her – or perhaps she believed that the traditional welcome to a Captain was overblown. There was no way to know. Jeremy had served under Captains who had been his friends, despite regulations, and Captains who had been rule-bound martinets. Who knew what this new Captain would be? If she was still a young officer, like the baby-faced Lieutenants who’d come aboard earlier, she might well be unformed...

    “Thank you, Mr. XO,” she said.

    Jeremy nodded. “Please allow me to introduce you to your crew,” he said. He wanted – needed – the ceremony to be finished as soon as possible. Lightning wasn't entirely ready for deployment and he’d pulled the various section heads off their stations to welcome the new commanding officer. God alone knew how many potential disasters were on the verge of exploding. “Lieutenant-Commander Christopher John Roach, Tactical Officer; Lieutenant Samuel Weiberg, Helmsman; Lieutenant Nicola Robertson, Navigator; Chief Engineer Zack Lynn; Doctor Katy Braham; Senior Chief Alex Houghton and Cap...ah, Major Gregory Bone of the Marines...”

    Kat fought to keep the surprise off her face. The perfunctory introductions had been made as tradition demanded, but she’d read their files and she knew that she would have time to meet them all a little more intimately later, yet the files hadn't told her who would be commanding the company of Marines attached to her ship. Major – he would have been granted a courtesy promotion, in line with the regulations that specified that there could only be one Captain on a starship - Gregory Bone was hardly a stranger. They’d been lovers on the Amelia Pond, where she’d served as an XO; they’d parted on fairly good terms. He’d been due for a promotion, according to her previous Captain; it struck her that her father might have warped her former lover’s career just to ensure that she had at least one ally on the Lightning. And if he resented her for that...

    Like all Marines, he was bald, having long since used tailored nanites to destroy his follicles and inhibit growth. Short and stocky, he was a great deal stronger than he looked, even without the combat training that all Marines endured before they were permitted to seek specialist positions. His face had been badly scarred during a close-quarters fight on a pirate ship and, despite her occasional teasing, he’d never bothered to have it repaired. It was useful, he’d claimed, for intimidating the young recruits.

    She pushed the thought out of her mind and considered the XO. He appeared older than she’d expected, as if he’d been reluctant to use any of the cosmetic regeneration treatments that were made available to starship officers as a matter of course. His white hair was slowly fading away, leaving him bald on top, but his eyes were clear and fixed on her. She’d read his file and wondered why he hadn't been offered his own command. He had more experience than anyone else Kat had met in her career.

    “Thank you,” she said, once the XO had finished introducing the senior crew. The Senior Chief looked as calm and composed as any other, reminding her of the jokes back at Piker’s Peak, where they’d claimed that all NCOs were secretly cloned and mass-produced by the Navy. The Helmsman and Navigator were both young, but highly-qualified; the Tactical Officer seemed older, yet focused on his job. His file suggested that he’d been marked down for early promotion if his service on her ship lived up to his promise. She wondered absently if he knew that, or if it would have mattered if he had.

    “This is a new ship,” she continued, “but the name Lightning has endured in the Navy for seventy years. Our launch date is identical to that of the light cruiser HMS Lightning, which served for twenty years before retirement, and that of her successor, which was destroyed in the border confrontation five years ago. Both of those ships had long and eventful careers and many of the officers we are taught to emulate served on them. I trust that this crew will more than live up to the torch that has been passed down to us.”

    She allowed her gaze to sweep over them once more, desperately wondering if her words had been the right words – and knowing that she could never ask. “Dismissed,” she said, calmly. “Mr. XO; please walk with me.”

    The XO nodded and led her towards the bridge. His face didn't betray anything of his inner thoughts, but his stance suggested that Jeremy Damiani was a man who kept himself under careful control. He might have approved of her little speech, or he might have thought that she’d overdone it. The thought was worrying. On the Amelia Pond, she’d tried to be her Captain’s strong right arm, but he’d been so experienced that he hadn't needed her. She, on the other hand, desperately needed her XO. How could she break through to him and gain his trust?

    She found herself smiling as the bridge hatch – guarded by a pair of unsmiling Marines, requiring implant verification to confirm that they were permitted entry – opened with a hiss, revealing the nerve centre of her ship. Her legs moved forward as if she were in a dream, taking in the consoles, the massive holographic display at the centre of the bridge – and the single command chair, right behind the display. Calmly, still half-dazed, she sat down and keyed the intercom. There was no need to check her implant for the words. Anyone with any ambitions to rise to command learned them by heart.

    “From Grand Admiral Constance Cinnabar, Peer of the Realm, to Captain Katherine Falcone, on this date of 2500AD; three hundred and thirty-nine years after the formation of the Royal Avalon Navy. Captain; you are hereby directed to proceed aboard His Majesty’s Starship Lightning, there to take upon yourself the duties and responsibilities of commanding officer in the service of the Commonwealth. By order of His Most Imperial Majesty Thomas V, King of Avalon, Prince-Elect of the Commonwealth, Lord of Cadiz and Defender of the Realm.”

    There was a long pause, pregnant with possibility.

    She turned to her new XO. “Mr. XO,” she said, “I assume command.”

    “I stand relieved,” Damiani said, formally. “A note will be entered in the ship’s log.”

    Kat nodded. It was official now. She was in command.

    “I’ll see you in my office,” she said, with equal formality. “We have a great deal of work to do.”
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments? Nits?

    Chapter Three<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Paperwork,” Kat said, in an tone of deep disgust.

    “Paperwork,” Damiani agreed. “The entire Navy runs on paperwork.”

    Kat scowled, looking down at the list of documents she was required to read and then thumbprint. She’d been an XO and she’d handled a great deal of the paperwork for her commander, but the Captain had still had to spend several hours a week working on his paperwork. There were times when she thought that if the Theocracy ever invaded, they could be buried in the vast amount of paperwork generated by the Navy alone. The bureaucracy that ran the Navy didn't seem to think that the officers needed to spend time eating, sleeping and actually fighting to defend the Commonwealth.

    The designers, in their wisdom, had given her an office larger than her entire cabin on her last posting. It was even decorated in a surprisingly tasteful manner, with a painting of Lightning on one bulkhead, a drinks producer on another and a comfortable sofa if she needed to sleep next to the bridge. There were people in her family who would have regarded it with horror, but it was more than suitable for her, once she’d personalised it for herself. She had a small number of decorations she wanted to hang on the wall.

    The datapad glowed, politely insisting that she start signing off on the documents before they could be uploaded into the Navy’s command network. She sighed, unwilling to meet Damiani’s eyes, and started to read. Each document requisitioned a set of supplies or components for the starship, all supplies they should have had automatic access to, but with so many starships being fitted out at Merlin the supplies were being stretched to the limit. She wanted to explore her new command, to inspect Engineering and the tactical sections – even the Sickbay – but the paperwork had to be completed. Kat cursed all bureaucrats under her breath and started to skim through the documents. Nothing struck her as unusual, apart from a request for additional hyperdrive generator components. The beancounters had queried that request and insisted that the Captain sign off on it before they uploaded it into the network.

    “The hyperdrives have a habit of failing on new starships,” Damiani said. “We can’t actually test them without actually running them and if something goes wrong...”

    He didn't have to spell it out. Kat had heard the horror stories of starships that remained trapped in hyperspace forever, or had had the hyperspace gateway collapsing around them as they tried to enter and leave hyperspace. The results had not been pretty. Indeed, only five years ago a RAN starship had encountered a derelict exploration starship from the first era of expansion, drifting in hyperspace. The crew had long since run out of supplies and died of starvation. It had been the sensation of the week, at least until one of the more famous celebrities had given birth to a new child.

    Kat wasn't an expert in hyperdrive mechanics – that field was a lifetime’s study – but she did know that huge amounts of energy were required to open a gateway into hyperspace. A single failure in the wrong place could be disastrous. The ship’s engineer could replace damaged components if there were spare parts onboard, but they couldn't be replaced if there were no spare parts. She signed off on the request with a single thumbprint, knowing that she’d probably be asked to confirm it before the spare parts were shipped to her crew. Some people didn’t seem to know that they were desperately preparing for war.

    “Thank you, Captain,” Damiani said, once she’d finished skimming through the paperwork. It occurred to her that she would have to start trusting Damiani to handle at least some of the paperwork, if only because handling it would leave her with no time for anything else. And then she realised that she’d kept him in her office for over an hour, without thinking. God alone knew what might have gone wrong without his supervision. “Would you like a tour of your command once I upload these documents?”

    There was something in his tone Kat didn't like, but she knew that she needed a guided tour. The XO would be familiar with all the quirks on a new-built ship, where components so fresh that they’d only been fabricated a few weeks ago were still being tested. She knew of ships that had left the shipyard, only to suffer embarrassing failures that left them limping back to Merlin with their tails between their legs. A handful of Captains had been replaced when the Board of Inquiry decided that they’d been negligent in their duties.

    “Yes, Mr. XO,” she said. “I would like that very much.”

    Lightning might have been crewed for over three months, once the shipyard’s inspectors had signed off on her hull, power plants and life support systems, but she still had the indefinable smell of a new-built ship. Jeremy had served on starships that had smelled peculiar, before he’d gotten so used to the smell that it no longer registered. It wouldn't be long before the starship smelled normal, but for the moment his ship was definitely new. And any new-built ship tended to have surprises for her first crew.

    The Captain had definitely studied the ship’s plans, he noted with some relief. Anyone could have a detailed plan downloaded into their implants, but it took actual study to be familiar with it and the Captain showed no sign of hesitation in following him. She received a handful of salutes from crewmen as they passed, keeping out of the way of men and women shepherding trolleys through the starship and working on open bulkheads. A civilian would have wondered if the ship wouldn't be ready to launch for another year, but Jeremy knew that most of the remaining work was hardly urgent. If the war had begun, they would have carried out the work while travelling to their first deployment. They took a wide berth around a compartment that the engineers were using to run power tests and reached Main Engineering without incident. The entire compartment was buzzing with life.

    Main Engineering dominated an entire third of the starship’s hull. Four powerful fusion reactions, each one capable of providing enough power to open a hyperspace gateway or keep Lightning flying for years, nestled within heavy shielding and armour. Lightning was designed with multiple redundancies to allow her to take damage and keep fighting, but Jeremy knew that if they suffered a direct hit to Main Engineering they were likely to have serious problems. Simulations were all very well, but no one had any direct experience of what would happen if a Fireball-class heavy cruiser found itself losing two or more of its fusion plants, let alone the network of conduits that channelled power through the vast ship and fed the weapons, sensors and helm. The power cells that provided emergency power wouldn't last long if they had to keep operating at full military power.

    “Captain,” Chief Engineer Zack Lynn said. He was a short man with a perpetually harassed expression, one of the officers who doubted the competence of their new Captain. Lynn was an excellent engineer – he wouldn't have been assigned to a new-built starship if there had been any doubts about his abilities – but he wasn’t known for social graces. “Welcome to engineering.”

    “Thank you, Mr. Lynn,” the Captain said, returning his salute. “Do you have time to brief me on the ship’s status?”

    Jeremy had to admit that it was a point in her favour. He’d served under Captains who had insisted on being briefed immediately, even though his officers were desperately scrambling to deal with a problem before it got out of hand. Lynn seemed to respect it as well; he passed a datapad to one of his subordinates and invited the Captain over to the engineering display, which was glowing with red, yellow and green lights. Even with additional technicians from Merlin Base, there was still far too much work to do.

    “We’ve completed power tests on all four reactors,” Lynn said. Jeremy listened, hoping that the Captain would understand. “Three of them check out perfectly; Fusion Two required some parts switched around before it operated at full military power. Merlin Base was careful enough to allow us to run the tests before the reactors were sealed, which ensured that we could test and replace without cutting through the armour plate. The power distribution network is fully operational; we’re just running tests now to ensure that if we lose part of the network we can switch around and continue operations.”

    He grinned, clearly delighted that he had a Captain who was prepared to listen. “Overall, the ship is in excellent state,” he continued. “A handful of components have been replaced to ensure overall functioning; we have ordered enough spare parts to allow us to repair the ship away from Merlin Base. Once we do full-power trials outside the Base, we should be able to sign off on everything.”

    The Captain nodded. “And do you foresee any problems with meeting our departure date?”

    Lynn considered. “I do not expect major problems when we start carrying out our full-power tests,” he said, finally. “On the other hand, neither did the crew of the Swan when she was launched.”

    Jeremy had to smile. The Swan had been a new-built battlecruiser, constructed and launched two years ago. When she’d brought her drives to full power, she’d suffered a massive and catastrophic power failure that had left her dead in space. It had taken weeks of investigation before they discovered that the failure had been caused by a rat gnawing through the wrong component. The only bright side to the disaster was that it had revealed a point failure source that had been corrected before the RAN had to go into battle.

    There were smaller problems. One technician from Merlin Base had started to use a ship’s computer to store his collection of pornographic material. It wouldn't have been a problem – although it was strictly against regulations – if he hadn't placed it in the wrong section and overwritten some of the starship’s guidance coding. At least that had been detected before the ship had been launched. Tools left in the wrong place could cause damage when the ship went to full military power...the list went on and on. There were times when Jeremy wondered that humanity had ever managed to get into space at all.

    “One week to launch,” the Captain said, finally. “I would like to hold a dinner for my senior staff tomorrow, if that is convenient...?”

    Jeremy had to smile. It would be a rare officer who found it inconvenient.

    Two hours later, Kat stood in the observation blister and stared out at Merlin Base. The activity around her starship – and the other ships in their slips – hadn't slowed at all, but then Merlin Base never slept. Her technicians worked for six hours and then spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating, refreshing themselves for the next shift while their replacements ensured that the level of activity remained consistent. Kat had been offered a post at the base, but she’d declined it, knowing that it would mean the end of any chance of command. The RAN rarely allowed an officer who had proven herself at Merlin Base to risk her life in combat.


    Kat turned, and broke into a smile when she saw Major Bone standing there. She hadn't been to visit Marine Country while touring the ship, even though the Marines were under her personal command. By long tradition, the Marine CO enjoyed autonomy within Marine Country, one of the many compromises that allowed the different services to at least tolerate one another’s existence. Besides, the Marines might disparage the ship’s crew as pansies too frail to fight and the ship’s crew might consider the Marines to be dumb jarheads too stupid to tie their bootlaces together, but they had to depend upon each other to survive. There were a surprising number of cross-service friendships, and even relationships.

    She felt an odd stab of guilt. Marines were not in the ship’s standard chain of command. On her last ship, where she’d served as XO, she could not legally give orders to the Marines. They weren't in her chain of command, which meant that she could have a relationship with then-Lieutenant Bone without bending regulations that forbade her from having sexual relationships with anyone above or below her in the chain of command. And they might have parted on good terms, but what if her father’s influence had cost him his chance at promotion?

    “Greg,” she said. She wanted to hold out her arms and welcome him, but she was a Captain now – and he was her subordinate. “I’m sorry we didn't have a chance to chat either.”

    Marines tended to be blunter than starship crewmen. “You cost me a promotion to Major and a position at Carmichael Island,” he said. Kay lowered her eyes, feeling the guilt growing worse. Her father’s influence had ruined his career, just as she had feared. “I came to thank you.”

    Kat looked up, sharply. Bone was grinning at her – and she realised that she’d been a fool. No one joined the Marines, let alone served in them for years, without a taste for excitement and a burning hatred of boredom – and paperwork. Bone had complained often enough about the requirement for senior Marines to spend a year or two at one of the training and operations centres, a requirement that officers who’d actually served on active duty handled the paperwork and passed on their experience to new recruits, a requirement that Kat thought the Navy should adopt. Anyone who had served successfully on active duty would know what was actually important.

    “You’re welcome,” she said, with an overpowering sense of relief. At least she’d have one friend on the ship. “I didn’t expect it to happen.”

    Bone stepped forward and joined her, staring out of the blister towards the massive shipyards in the distance. A shuttle flew by, carrying – she hoped – some of the spare parts she’d ordered for her ship. Others serviced the other slips, while a flight of starfighters flashed past, clearly showing off. Kat rolled her eyes. Anyone who thought the Marines were full of their own importance had never met a starfighter pilot.

    “Report; all one hundred Marines are boarded and ready for active duty,” Bone informed her, in a rather droll tone. “Combat armour, weapons and medical supplies have been loaded onboard and stowed in Marine Country. Standard ration packs have been placed into storage for unexpected requirements. All Marines are in good health and ready for deployment. We hope that you will find us something interesting to do.”

    Kat snorted. “I’ll do my best,” she promised. She looked up at him. “Have I blown it?”

    Bone shrugged. “That isn't my place to say,” he said, “but I can give you the same piece of advice I got at OCS if you want.” Kat nodded. “The Captain has to know what he’s doing at all times, or at least fake it – because the people under him have to have confidence in him.”

    “That isn't much help,” Kat commented, sourly. “I’m here, giving orders to people with more years of experience than I’ve been alive...”

    “You’re the Captain,” Bone said, curtly. “That makes you the people ultimately responsible for this ship, her crew, and the Marines. If you have doubts about what you are doing, I suggest that you keep them to yourself.”

    “And shut up and soldier?” Kat asked. He nodded. “I just feel inadequate.”

    “Everyone feels that way,” Bone told her. “The day I was promoted to Lieutenant and put in command of my own platoon, I felt as if I couldn't do anything right. The week I spent in command of the entire company while the CO was in sickbay was dreadful. I was so sure that the universe was going to explode while I was in command. The CO had always known what to do; I was a cocksure boy who knew nothing.”

    He smiled. “And I bet anything you care to put forward that your father felt the same way when he was pushed into the CEO slot,” he added. “Captain...”

    “Call me Kat, please,” Kat said. “We’re alone.”

    “...Kat, only a complete idiot would feel absolutely confident when placed in command,” he continued, “and some doubting of your own abilities would make perfect sense. But you're the one in command and you have to appear confident. Learn to trust your officers – listen to them – but make your own decisions. The buck stops with you.”

    Kat nodded, slowly. “Thank you, Greg,” she said. “I think I needed that advice.”

    “Everyone does,” Bone said. He drew himself up into a salute and saluted her, firmly. “ long until we can expect action?”

    Kat had to laugh. “We’re being deployed out to Cadiz,” she said. “There may be some action there, or we may encounter pirates, or...”

    She turned back to look at the stars. Above the atmosphere, they burned steadily, each one a tiny white light that was, in truth, a massive star dozens of light years away. They seemed to safe and tranquil, as if they could never harm the puny human race that dared to consider itself a master of space. And yet, some of the stars harboured civilisations that were implacably hostile to the Commonwealth and all it stood for. War was coming.

    “One week to get ready for departure,” she said, more to herself than to Major Bone. The last thing she wanted to do was take the ship into hostilities without being ready, even though she knew that emergency procedures would allow her to depart without checking and rechecking everything. “Will that be enough time?”

    “I have faith in you,” Bone assured her. “You’ll be ready on time.”
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Four<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Disconnect completed, Captain,” Lieutenant Samuel Weiberg reported. For the first time in her existence, Lightning was completely disconnected from the small complex of industrial modules and power cells that had birthed her. “System Command has authorised us to begin power-up tests.”

    Kat braced herself. The entire ship had never been tested, even though they’d tested everything that could be tested prior to departure. If some unforeseen combination of circumstances was going to cause a disaster, it would happen now.

    She keyed the intercom and linked to Engineering. “This is the Captain,” she said, banishing her doubts. “You are cleared to begin power-up sequence; I say again, you are cleared to begin power-up sequence.”

    “Understood, Captain,” Lynn said. “Power-up sequence”

    A dull thrumming sound began to echo through the ship as the four fusion reactors came online. Civilians would have found the noise maddening, but to any born spacer it was a sign that the starship was in good health. A ship without the omnipresent thrumming was either linked to an outside umbilical cord or derelict. Kat watched the system displays through narrowed eyes, trying to maintain a veneer of confidence. If something was about to go wrong...

    “Fusion One online; no faults,” Lynn reported. “Fusion Two online; no faults. Fusion Three online; no faults. Fusion Four online; no faults. Power cycles are nominal.”

    Kat nodded, carefully keeping her relief from her face. “Begin drive power-up sequence,” she ordered. “Navigation; recalibrate the helm computers, calculate a course to the testing area and upload it to the helm.”

    The dull thrumming grew louder, and then faded away as the starship came to life around her. Each of the displays came online, showing her the ship’s status and – more importantly – what was going on around her. The tactical display flashed red as it detected the presence of unknown starships and starfighters, only to start tagging them as friendly when the sensors started picking up IFF signals and updates from the command datanet. System Command acknowledged Lightning’s berth and assigned her to one of the reserve squadrons of starships, positioned to respond to any emergency within the Avalon System itself. No one had ever dared attack Avalon, and the system had never even been threatened during the Breakaway Wars, but the Commonwealth was alive to the danger. The destruction of the shipyards, industrial stations and space habitations would be catastrophic, even if Home Fleet chased the attackers back into deep space.

    “Course calculated,” Lieutenant Nicola Robertson reported. She would be unlikely to ever see command, unless she managed to gain command of one of the survey vessels that constantly probed and monitored hyperspace. Navigation in normal space was simple – the human race had known how to do it long before launching its first starship – but navigating in hyperspace was just as much an art as a science. Nicola’s talent ensured that she would never have a chance to cross-train, or see service on the fixed installations that guarded the habitable worlds of the Commonwealth.

    “Good,” Kat said. Out of habit, she checked it briefly and found it to be good. Her old CO had insisted on checking everything, even in normal space. It was a habit Kat intended to develop herself, at least until she was confident in her new crew. Nicola’s service record had warned that Lightning was her first posting as Senior Navigator. “Engineering?”

    “Drive power-up sequence complete,” Lynn’s voice said. “Drive at quarter-power; no detected problems.”

    Kat settled back in her command chair. “Helm,” she ordered, feeling a thrill of excitement as she gave her first proper command, “take us out.”

    Scientists swore blind that spacers were imagining the lurch that shook every starship as it slipped into motion for the first time. If the compensators failed that badly, they said, the entire crew would be smashed to paste against the bulkheads. And yet...Kat felt the ship shiver as her drive came online and she glided out of the slip for the first time. A flight of starfighters zoomed past in salute, close enough to almost reach out and touch the hull. Kat rolled her eyes inwardly and ignored them. The tactical computer projected an automatic tracking run, allowing the tactical staff to check and recheck the tracking algorithms. If the targeting systems went offline or developed glitches at the wrong moment, Lightning would be crippled and effectively helpless. Everything had to be tested before the ship sailed into interstellar space alone.

    Slowly, Lightning headed out of the Merlin complex, aiming for interplanetary space. Her officers were busy now, checking and rechecking everything from power curves to the ship’s emergency sensors. The bridge lights blinked as control passed briefly to the secondary bridge, before being returned to her command. Kat privately suspected that the secondary bridge was a waste of government resources – a direct hit that took out the main bridge was likely to vaporise the entire ship – but at least it would ensure that the crew would remain in control if something went badly wrong. The big holographic display continued to update itself, tracking every starship within sensor range. Kat reminded herself firmly that sensors in normal space were restricted, with data on anything more than a few light-minutes away already out of date. The display showed projected courses for asteroid miners and patrol ships, watching for any pirate ships that dared to sneak into the system – at least officially. Unofficially, the Theocracy might well be keeping the Avalon System under covert observation. A surprising amount of data could be collected by a passive sensor array mounted on a supposedly civilian craft.

    “Bring the drive up to full power,” she ordered, once they passed the automated weapons platforms that guarded the edge of the shipyards. “Now!”

    Lightning shivered again as the drive powered up, sending the ship leaping forwards at a speed that would have been unimaginable to pre-spaceflight humanity. Kat felt acceleration pressing her back into her chair, even though she knew that it was purely psychometric. The sense of space flowing around her ship, as if they were riding a boat on the ocean, couldn’t be denied. Ahead of them, there was nothing, but deep space. She could go anywhere she willed – her lips curved in amusement – as long as her will coincided with her orders from the Grand Admiral. Onboard, she might have been the supreme commander, but she still answered to her superiors at Naval HQ.

    An hour passed like the blink of an eye as everything was checked and rechecked, followed by weapons tests. A handful of harmless asteroids marked with targeting beacons were blown to rocky dust by Lightning’s missiles and energy weapons, followed by more precise drills against starfighters and incoming missiles. Everyone knew that a single starfighter was nothing more than a gnat compared to a starship, but a horde of starfighters could overwhelm almost any defence grid and slam missiles into the ship’s hull. And enough hits could disable or destroy even a battleship. Lightning died twice in simulations before the tactical section pronounced themselves satisfied. If she operated with a task force, all point defence systems would be linked together to turn the squadron into a single entity, but her first mission would be independent. Kat still felt a thrill when she thought that word – independent command – even though she knew the truth. If she failed, it would be her failure alone.

    “All systems check out, Captain,” Lynn finally reported. Damiani’s report, a moment later, concurred. Their careful work prior to launch had been reported; only a handful of components had failed when the ship powered up and they’d all been quickly replaced. She had a very good crew. “I recommend that we test the hyperspace gateway drive, and then continue drilling.”

    Kat nodded. “Prepare to test the drive,” she ordered. They’d have to continue out further from Avalon – the automated defences would engage anything emerging from a gateway too close to the planet – but that wouldn't be a problem. Besides, she wanted to test the drive herself. “Helm, take us out.”

    “I must say that I’m very pleased,” Admiral Steven Willis said, once Kat had been ushered into his office and they exchanged salutes. The CO of Merlin Base had given up his office for the meeting, something that rather puzzled and alarmed Kat. Normally, a new commanding officer would get her orders from Naval HQ through the datanet, not be summoned to meet her superiors in person. Any break with tradition was worrying these days. “Lightning has performed to expectations and then some.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Kat said, carefully. She still didn't understand why the Admiral had chosen to speak with her in person. Her father’s influence...or something else? There were days, back before she’d left High Society, that she’d felt that she’d needed a scorecard to track who was on what side, knowing that it would be out of date before it was completed. “I am very proud of my ship.”

    The Admiral nodded. “As you are no doubt aware, you and your command are being posted to Cadiz,” he said. “You were originally expected to travel alone, but there is an urgent requirement for additional trained staff and technicians at Cadiz and several thousand have been ordered to prepare for redeployment.”

    Kat considered it, quickly. A posting to Avalon’s orbital industries – or to any of the other twenty-four worlds that had willingly joined the Commonwealth – was very far from a hardship post. Free shuttle flights down to the planet, generous pay and bonuses and a handful of other benefits ensured that there was no shortage of applicants for almost any post, even with the potential dangers of work in the most unforgiving environment known to exist. Her father’s corporation could pick and choose from the applicants, as could the other corporations – and the Navy. The constant expansion ensured that there would always be a demand for more and more manpower.

    But Cadiz was very different. The Commonwealth had annexed the world for strategic reasons, rather than any economic benefits it might bring – and the locals had never formed a pro-annexation party that might have smoothed the transition between independence and Commonwealth membership. They’d resented losing their independence and revolted, several times – and there was still an increasingly determined insurrectionary war being fought down on the surface of the planet. The results had been inevitable; the big corporations, even her father’s, had been reluctant to invest and the system continued to lag behind the rest of the Commonwealth. Hell, most of the space-based industries that had been constructed in the Cadiz System were owned and operated by out-system personnel, brought in because local manpower was unreliable.

    All of which meant, Kat reflected, that most of the technicians who were about to be deployed to Cadiz were going to resent it. Cadiz was hardly a safe place for unwary visitors – off-worlders had been robbed, kidnapped or killed by insurgents or criminal gangs – and there would be little for even the braver visitors to do outside the strictly-controlled safe zones on the planet’s surface. And that didn't include the possibility of finding themselves on the front lines if the Theocracy did intend to invade. Cadiz, as her father had said, would almost certainly be the first target. It was why the world had been annexed in the first place.

    “You will be escorting a convoy of ten freighters,” the Admiral continued. “Five of them will be personal transports, carrying the technicians and their families – or at least those that have volunteered to join their husbands. The remaining five will be transporting certain components that cannot be produced in the Cadiz System” – he meant military supplies, Kat knew – “and have been urgently requested by the local naval base. I shouldn't have to remind you that losing them would be mark on your record.”

    Kat scowled inwardly, accepting the warning. He was right, of course; the supplies would be hugely expensive, which would make them very welcome on the black market networks that slipped in and out of the borders declared by the multi-system political units that had replaced Earth’s hegemony after the Breakaway Wars. No one in their right minds would build a factory capable of producing them at Cadiz, which meant that all supplies had to be transported in from the Commonwealth. It would be a serious problem if any supplies were to be lost to pirates...but then, no pirates in their right mind would tangle with a heavy cruiser, not when the Royal Avalon Navy had permission to shoot all captured pirates on sight.

    Or would they? She hadn't had much time to read anything that wasn't connected to her new command, but she had heard that there’d been an upswing in piracy along the border over the past two years. Pirates...or disguised agents of the Theocracy? Anything that allowed them to wear out the RAN, or to allow them to gain information on how and when the Commonwealth reacted to certain kinds of provocation...if she was in command of the Theocracy’s military, it was what she would have done. Standard procedure was to convoy all civilian ships, but not all civilian craft were willing to wait for an escort, not when time was money. The larger shipping combines armed their ships and dared pirates to do their worst, yet the smaller operators simply couldn't afford the cost.

    “Yes, sir,” she said, finally. At least she had orders – and, as tradition dictated, a free hand in carrying them out. The UN had lost the Breakaway Wars because it had dictated impossible orders to its commanders, rather than allowing them to use their own judgement, even though the situation would change and change again before new orders arrived from Earth. Any navy with any plans to remain in being trusted its commanding officers, even though the StarCom network allowed headquarters to issue new orders almost instantly. Besides, if something happened to the StarCom network, entire star systems would drop out and find themselves facing the same problems as had bedevilled the UN.

    “Once you have seen the convoy to Cadiz, you will place yourself under the command of Admiral Williams,” the Admiral continued. “Your ship will not be attached formally to any squadron, but I dare say that the Admiral may choose to assign you to replace a ship that requires servicing – at least on a temporary basis.”

    Kat nodded, unsurprised. The orders were vague, but Admiral Williams would have a great deal of latitude in deciding how to handle the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet. It was the most powerful naval force that the Commonwealth had ever assembled, one capable of defeating all the fleets that had fought in the Breakaway Wars without even having a single hull scratched – and yet it was held at Cadiz. If the Theocracy refused to be intimidated – and it was very hard to intimidate a person who believed that God was on his side – they’d know just where to find the fleet.

    A handful of ships would be deployed on patrol and antipiracy missions. Judging from what her father had said, the Admiral would be strongly encouraged to deploy Lightning on such missions, although the final decision would rest with him. Naval HQ would not override him without a very good reason, at least not without relieving him of command. Kat had never met Admiral Williams and she made a mental note to download his service record – at least the sections available to a Captain – and study it before they arrived at Cadiz. How would he react to her?

    “On an entirely different note, I was asked to give you this,” the Admiral added. He reached into his jacket and produced an encryption chip. “The codes included in this chip will give any message you choose to send priority – and no one at Cadiz will be granted access. I advise you to keep it to yourself and only use it if you feel that the situation warrants it.”

    Kat took the chip, feeling oddly surreal. Encryption and decryption procedures had continued to evolve from the day a caveman had used codewords to hide a secret from another caveman. The StarCom network was hardly secure and everyone from the Theocracy’s agents to her father’s commercial competitors and the media would be trying to access, download and decrypt every message that passed through the network. By law, no civilian or military officer was permitted to possess coding algorithms that couldn't be decrypted by the intelligence services, at least without permission from ONI. Her father, of course, was an exception to the laws – which didn't mean that his codes were secure. Every intelligence service in the galaxy tried to crack the codes, and often succeeded. There were times when it was suggested, quite seriously, that the great powers should make an agreement to send messages in the clear and have done with it.

    And possessing the chip would place her in a very difficult position if Admiral Williams happened to find out about it.

    The Admiral stood up and held out a hand. “Good luck, Captain,” he said, as Kat took his hand and shook it firmly. “I’ll have your official orders uploaded within the hour.”

    Kat allowed the hatch to the Admiral’s office to hiss closed behind her before she took the chip out of her pocket and stared at it. Her father’s influence, of course...he’d said that he wanted an independent pair of eyes out at Cadiz. And if the Admiral was involved – she didn't think that he was one of her father’s clients – who else was involved? Only one name suggested itself, but that was impossible...wasn’t it? She considered, quite seriously, dropping the chip in the trash compactor before returning to her ship, but she knew that she would need it. If something was badly wrong at Cadiz...

    ...But Admiral Williams would not take it kindly if he thought that she had been sent to spy on him.

    Cursing her father under her breath, Kat headed back to her shuttle. Departure was only twelve hours away, and the work was never ending. She would worry about her father later.
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Tradition insisted that just prior to the convoy’s departure the skippers of the freighters would come aboard the escort’s flagship for drinks and the final briefing. It was a tradition bitterly resented by merchant commanders, who felt – not entirely unreasonably – that they were losing time and money while they waited for the Navy to get off its collective butt and assign a ship or two to escort them. Jeremy had seen them move from grumbling at the spit-and-polish naval types to shouting their outrage at the delays caused to their schedules. There were insurance policies that should have covered them for their losses, but the smaller companies and single-ship outfits couldn't afford the premiums.

    That wouldn’t be a problem on this cruise, he assured himself, as he escorted the skippers into the ship’s lounge. The Navy had commandeered their ships – something else that they bitterly resented – but they would be paid well and insurance had been organised by the Navy’s legal department. That wouldn't stop them complaining about how they’d been hijacked by the Navy, of course; the rivalries between merchant spacers and military officers probably dated all the way back to Old Earth.

    He examined the freighter skippers thoughtfully, remembering the days when he’d thought that a life as a free trader was the freest life in the Commonwealth. They wore a disparate collection of outfits – he would not go so far as to call them uniforms – that ranged from a snappy uniform with more gilt than a Navy Admiral to a tight body-hugging uniform that showed off an alarming amount of cleavage. No matter what they looked like, they would be smart and tough if they’d made it to an independent command. The smaller outfits and single-ship owners competed against the massive shipping lines, which detested them because they kept the shipping rates low. They retaliated by trying to create monopolies that locked the smaller outfits out, forcing many of them to turn to smuggling in order to keep themselves in the black. There was a good chance that at least two of the freighter skippers had bootleg copies of the latest Alex Midgard album which they intended to sell to a distributor at <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>. The thought made him smile. Anyone on <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> who listened to Avalon music – if one could call it music – was likely to be strung up from the nearest lamppost by his outraged neighbours.

    The lounge had been carefully prepared for the merchant skippers, with a small tray of drinks set up by the Captain’s Steward, Lucy Yangtze. If the Captain looked as if she was barely out of school, Lucy looked as if she had barely entered it, the result of expensive genetic modification that pushed the limits of what was legal at the time. Her almond eyes, porcelain features and slim, almost boyish body had attracted a great deal of attention from the younger males on the crew – and probably some of the females as well. Jeremy suspected that there would be trouble, soon enough. Crewmen knew little of restraint or common sense, even with the Senior Chief breathing down their necks. He invited the merchants to take a drink, knowing that they’d complain no matter what they were served, and then keyed his wristcom.

    “Captain on deck,” he said, as the Captain entered the compartment. God, she still looked so young! At least she’d had the sense not to wear her dress uniform, as some of the more stuffy officers had been known to wear while briefing the merchant skippers. Her record said that she’d served on a destroyer, so the chances were that she’d done escort work herself, even though she’d been the XO rather than the Captain.

    “Gentlemen, please be seated,” the Captain said. Jeremy kept his amusement at their reactions to himself. The Navy tended not to leave physical scars on younger crewmen and most commercial officers looked older than their naval counterparts. Captain Falcone looked like a child to their gaze, and she was their commanding officer. The Navy always had precedence when they were escorting a convoy. “I won’t keep you from your ships for long.”

    She nodded to Jeremy as she took her place at the head of the table. “As you will all know, we are departing for <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> within two hours,” she continued. She betrayed no hint of the exasperation most naval officers would have felt at escorting slower freighters, even though it was all too likely that the commercial ships would cause further delays. Centuries of interstellar travel had taught the human race the folly of fixed schedules, yet a sufficiently irate Admiral could reprimand a Captain for unnecessary delay. “There may be a further escort for the Nicotine and the Jon Manhattan, but that will depend on local conditions at <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>.”

    There were some nods. The Deep Space Shipping Combine actually traded with the Theocracy and their two freighters would be heading into Theocratic-dominated space. They probably wouldn't be harassed by the Theocracy’s border patrol ships, but there had been a whole string of unexplained accidents in the region over the last two years and no one would have disputed the need for a military escort. But that, of course, would draw protests from the Theocracy that the Commonwealth was carefully moving its military into position to strike…

    Jeremy shrugged as the Captain continued, covering the basic details for convoy procedure. The merchant skippers probably knew it as well as she did, but the details had to be repeated time and time again, just to satisfy regulations. They already knew to keep to their positions in the formation, to scatter on command from the flagship and a hundred other details that anyone with experience travelling in space should know. The two Deep Space Shipping starships were going to be searched as well, although that might be deferred until they reached <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>. There were no formal embargos on the Theocracy, but the Navy objected strongly to anyone selling the religious fundamentalists any technology with possible military applications. That, unfortunately for the smaller operations, was almost anything worth shipping across interstellar distances. The larger corporations, such as the one operated by the Captain’s father, could simply pay the fines out of pocket change.

    Not that any of the smaller operators would want to go near the Theocracy, Jeremy knew. The Theocracy’s leadership might understand the benefits of trading with the rest of the Human Sphere – it would allow them to gain access to technology and military concepts that they couldn’t develop on their own – but their enforcers were more concerned with preventing the spread of any dangerous ideas into their territory. They harassed the independent starships, levelling fines and punishments as they saw fit; indeed, one horror story had seen the entire crew of a commercial starship publicly whipped before they were allowed to leave the Theocracy, purely for possessing a private collection of pornography. Ironically, any smuggler brave enough to smuggle in porn was assured of a good price, although cynics pointed out that their clients could hardly afford to have their kinks exposed to the scrutiny of the religious police.

    “Thank you for your time,” the Captain finished. It was a carefully-measured gesture of politeness, a more respectful tone than they would expect from the Navy. “Are there any questions?”

    “Only two,” one of the older Captains said. He was a grizzled veteran at least a decade older than Jeremy himself, who showed the unmistakable signs of having been born in space, probably to one of the trader families that moved from world to world as permanent nomads. “The first question is simple; who felt that only one heavy cruiser was sufficient escort for nine ships?”

    The honest answer to that was Admiral Willis, but the Captain probably wouldn't want to call the Admiral’s name into the discussion. It would lead to official complaints and the Admiral would have a great many angry things to say about it. Jeremy wondered absently what she was going to say, even as he felt for her. Leave it to someone from the civilian side to come up with the most embarrassing question possible. Of course one ship, no matter how powerful, was insufficient to guard nine commercial ships.

    “There are no scheduled departures for <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> for another two weeks,” the Captain said, calmly. If the question bothered her, it didn’t appear on her face. “If you wish to be escorted by additional ships, you may wait for the next departure – which may be cancelled or rescheduled depending upon events.”

    Jeremy nodded. It was as good an answer as anyone could give, although there was a chance that the rescheduled departure would be moved forward instead of backwards. But every day they spent in orbit around Avalon meant lost profits, and too many lost profits would mean the banks taking their starships off them when their debts were finally called in. For anyone born in space, loving the free life of a trader, it would be a fate worse than death. It was why so many ships risked travelling alone, even though there was a danger of pirate activity.

    “Second question,” the merchant skipper said. “Are we going to stop anywhere along the way?”

    Now that was a loaded question, Jeremy knew. As innocent as it sounded, a trip by way of another star system would allow them the chance to recoup some of their losses. The Captain seemed unaware of the implications, merely concentrating on what had been said openly.

    “We will not be stopping,” she said, flatly. “Our estimated time of transit is fifty-one days. Please inform me if your drives develop problems…”

    The remaining part of the briefing went surprisingly well. Jeremy listened as the Captain answered two more questions, and then escorted the merchant skippers back to their shuttles, which had landed neatly in the main shuttlebay. The Captain could talk the talk; she hadn’t come across as weak-willed or unduly officious, both traits that merchant officers learned to detest very quickly. All she’d have to do now was escort them safely to <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> and they would be very happy, except perhaps for the two skippers who were going to have their ships searched. They’d be lodging complaints as soon as they reached <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>.

    He smiled to himself as the last shuttle departed from the bay, before turning to walk back to the bridge. Departure time was in two hours and there was still much work to be done.

    Kat felt Lightning thrumming around her as the drives powered up, as if the starship was delighted at the chance to finally slip away from Avalon and into deep space. A flicker of excitement ran through her as she settled back into her command chair, feeling the joy of independent command even as the responsibility settled on her shoulders. She was the mistress of her ship now that they had separated completely from Merlin Base; she had the sole right of command – and complete responsibility for her crew. The thought almost held her spellbound as the crew prepared for departure, Kat watching calmly as they went through the familiar proceedings. A week of heavy drilling, and constant tactical exercises, had started the work of welding her crew together into a single unit.

    She smiled to herself as two of her officers worked at a console, remembering her own days as a young officer. Some of her superiors had micromanaged their subordinates, yet she remembered just how irritating and distracting that had been from her duty – and she had resolved not to micromanage herself. And yet, with the weight of responsibility pressing down on her, the temptation to micromanage was almost overpowering. If something went wrong, it would be her responsibility. Captains had been cashiered and dismissed for mistakes made by their subordinates before, a lesson forgotten by no one who aspired to command.

    “Captain,” Lieutenant-Commander Christopher John Roach said, “all of the freighters have signalled that they’re ready to enter hyperspace on our command.”

    Kat nodded. She hadn’t had enough time to spend more than a few moments with Lieutenant-Commander Roach, but he had an air of brisk confidence and a solid record of achievement that reassured her. Major Bone spoke well of him, citing a brief period when they’d served together on a Marine Transport Ship. As Tactical Officer, Roach handled communications as well as weapons and internal security, something that bothered Kat from her own stint as a Tactical Officer. The bigger ships had a dedicated Communications Officer, but heavy cruisers were just too small to warrant one.

    “Inform them that we will be entering hyperspace in” – she glanced at her display – “ten minutes and counting,” she ordered. The display updated rapidly as every department checked in and reported that they were ready for departure. As always, at least according to her XO, the last hours before departure had been frantic, with last-minute changes and requests making it difficult to depart on schedule. She keyed her console and opened a private link. “Engineering?”

    “Aye, Captain,” <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Lynn</st1:place></st1:City> said. He sounded pleased; his engines had performed almost flawlessly in the tests and drills, and all of the exercises they’d run had demonstrated that he’d built a good team out of the mixture of raw recruits newly graduated and older veterans who’d served for years. “All systems are ready for departure.”

    Kat couldn’t help a grin forming on her face. “All hands,” she sad, keying the console again and opening a channel to the entire ship, “prepare for hyperspace entry; I say again, prepare for hyperspace entry.”

    She closed the channel and looked up at the timer. The remaining seconds were ticking away – had it really been ten minutes since she’d given the order to the merchant freighters? It felt as if it had gone by in a flash. A new tension started to gnaw inside her, mocking her; if something went wrong now, it would blight her service record forever. She’d checked everything, and she had competent officers to man and operate her ship’s various departments, yet the responsibility was hers. Just for a moment, she understood her father a little better. He too was a commander, charged with maintaining the family’s position…

    “Lieutenant Weiberg,” she said, formally. “You may open the gateway at your leisure.”

    Lieutenant Weiberg keyed a command into his console and the humming pervading the entire starship grew louder. Power flashed from the four fusion reactors into the jump nodes built throughout the entire ship, channelling a stream of power out into the vacuum, warping the very fabric of space itself. A spilling vortex of power appeared in front of their position, rapidly swelling until it was large enough to swallow an entire fleet. Kat had seen gateways before, including one from a position on her last ship’s hull during a daring rescue mission, but they were always spectacular. It was a testament to humanity’s mastery of space that most starships, even the smallest destroyers, could generate a hyperspace gateway at will.

    The vortex grew stronger, and then stabilised. “Commander Roach, you may give the order for the freighters to advance,” Kat ordered. One by one, the freighters soared forward and entered the vortex, vanishing in a flash of bright light and reappearing in hyperspace. Lightning had to go last; the hyperspace gateway would close behind them, sealing the tear in time and space. “Helm; take us forward and into the vortex.”

    There were some humans, civilians mostly, who couldn’t face a vortex. Kat had never suffered from their phobia, but even she would admit to a slight sense of apprehension as the vortex grew closer, a spinning mass of colour and light that threatened to devour the entire ship. Her chest heaved as they entered the vortex – the same psychometric feeling that affected her when the main drives were initiated – and she swallowed hard. There was a brief sensation of falling, as if they were plunging down into an endless abyss, followed by a queasy feeling. It reminded her of bobbling about on a boat, a vague sense that something was not quite right. Humans weren't meant to live in hyperspace. Its very existence was an affront to the very concept of a solid universe.

    “Transit complete, Captain,” Weiberg reported. “The gateway has closed behind us.”

    Kat nodded. If they lost their hyperdrive now, and failed to find a fixed gateway, they’d be doomed to wander in hyperspace forever. “Link up with the freighters,” she ordered, calmly. Hyperspace’s unusual energy fields would disrupt communications over relatively short distances, ensuring that if they lost one of the freighters they might never see her again. “And then set course for <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>.”

    “Course prepared, Captain,” Lieutenant Nicola Robertson reported. Hyperspace’s energy storms and sudden waves of distortion meant that it was tricky to navigate in hyperspace. The general theory suggested that gravity distortions in hyperspace corresponded to stars and planets in normal space and that theory generally held true, but sometimes spacers reported seeing gravity shadows in hyperspace that didn’t seem to correspond to anything known to mankind. There were even stories of alien life forms and strange dark bat-like ships sighted in hyperspace, although few believed them. Hyperspace was simply too unwelcoming to unprotected life forms.

    “Confirmed,” Weiberg reported. “Freighter navigational computers have been slaved to our main system.”

    They won’t be happy about that, Kat thought, grimly. No Captain would be happy about having his ship slaved to another, even if it was the only way to ensure that the convoy stayed together. A simple navigational error could leave the small formation scattered over a dozen light years. She pushed the thought aside. There was no point in worrying about it.

    “Take us out,” she ordered, calmly.

    The unpleasant sensations in her stomach started to recede as the ship’s drives started to build up power. In hyperspace, they could reach speeds that would be flatly impossible in normal space, exceeding the speed of light. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>, over a hundred light years from Avalon, would only take fifty days to reach, unless one of hyperspace’s weirder storms forced them to alter course to avoid destruction…

    She couldn’t help smiling. They were on their way, at last!
    Sapper John, ssonb, flyaway and 2 others like this.
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Kat feinted left, and then right, before coming forward. The female Marine stepped backwards, and then came up fighting. Kat saw the threat, too late to react and grunted as a solid fist slammed into her mouth-guard. The referee blew a whistle, acknowledging the hit, as she tried to push the Marine back. She realised her mistake a second later; she might have exercised according to Navy regulations, but all of the Marines were tested in a much harsher crucible. Kat felt her arms being caught and then she was pushed back, hard. She stumbled over the yellow line and the referee blew the whistle again. The match was over and she had lost.

    “Been neglecting your exercise a bit?” Major Bone commented, as she pulled off her mask and rubbed her jaw. Without it, she would probably have had a broken jaw, if she hadn’t been knocked out. “I’m sure you did better the last time you entered the circle.”

    Kat scowled. In truth, she’d never taken the physical combat training the Navy insisted on giving all of its recruits very seriously. She had only scraped through the unarmed combat tests at Piker’s Peak, while she had only found time to exercise properly before she’d been promoted to commander. Tactical exercises were more her field; place either of the Marines in command of another starship and see how well they fared against her. Of course, as Bone had pointed out on several occasions, naval officers sometimes did have to face an enemy without a million tons of starship wrapped around them. And besides, unarmed combat skills were a hell of a confidence booster.

    “Probably,” she said, finally. The dull ache receded slowly; she declined the offer of a quick-acting painkiller. The pain, she told herself firmly, would remind her of her failure. “How many falls is that now?”

    “Seven to two,” Bone reminded her, as if he truly believed that she had forgotten. Part of Kat wanted to rail against the unfairness of facing a fully-trained and experienced Marine, but the universe was never fair. It was her job to make sure that it was unfair in her favour. “I think you can safely say that you lost.”

    Kat nodded as the female Marine – whose name she had deliberately avoided learning – tossed her a towel, which she used to wipe the sweat off her face as she disrobed. Circle, oddly enough, had been invented by starfighter pilots as a training exercise, although they would have been horrified by the level of violence the Marines and Army soldiers brought to the game. It involved a circle, two meters in diameter, drawn on the deck. Two contestants entered; the loser was the one who crossed out of the circle first. It taught awareness of one’s location as well as unarmed combat skills; the contestant who jumped back and accidentally crossed the line would lose as surely as the contestant who was picked up and thrown bodily across the line. Quite a few promising matches had been cut short by one contestant forgetting where he was standing.

    “Yeah,” she said. She shook her head and ran her hands through her curly hair. It was growing longer again, reminding her that she would have to cut it before too long. The Marines shaved their heads right to the skin and there had been times when she had been tempted to follow their example, but she rather liked having curly hair instead of the long flowing locks her mother had bequeathed to her. “It does look that way.”

    She allowed Bone to point her into the showers, pinging the local processor to check that there were no alarms that required her immediate attention. Marine Country was not, technically, off-limits to crewmen and junior officers, but it was unusual for any of them to enter without permission, even on orders from superior officers. It was the only place on the ship, except perhaps in her cabin, where she could let her hair down a little. The Marines were a separate little subculture on her ship.

    The water washed down from high overhead and she closed her eyes gratefully as it sluiced her body clean of sweat. Showering with men – baths would have been considered dreadfully decadent at Piker’s Peak – had taken her some time to grow used to, and she still had nightmares where she was the only naked person in the shower. Now, male nudity didn't interest her at all, at least not in the semi-public Marine showers. She caught sight of her opponent’s muscles rippling under her arms and legs and decided, reluctantly, that she’d been allowed to win twice. Not that Marines were known for ass-kissing and brown-nosing. The usual form of recreation in a Marine combat unit was composing rude and often unprintable songs about the commanding officers, a ritual they’d stolen from the Roman Legions. It didn't seem to do anything bad to their discipline and most superior officers ignored it.

    She saw Bone entering the shower from the other end and looked away quickly. It didn’t seem fair that she couldn’t touch him, let alone take him to her bed as she’d done back on her last posting. Her body flushed as it remembered his touch, his hands and his tongue exploring her most secret of places, before she forced herself to complete her shower and step out into the changing area. She was the Captain and he was her direct subordinate, the only one of the Marines under her direct command. It might have been her father’s little joke, or he might have known about the regulations and assumed that his daughter would ignore any regulation she found inconvenient. He’d sent her to spy on a superior officer, after all, and that was a grave breach of military etiquette.

    Once she’d pulled on her uniform and checked her wristcom for non-urgent messages – there were four, each claiming to require her immediate attention – she headed out of Marine Country and down to the observation blister. Her XO had the bridge for another forty minutes before she was due to relieve him and there was little point in going early. Besides, apart from the sensors and navigation crews, they were running a skeleton watch. Hyperspace’s strange currents would make it difficult for another ship to approach without being detected.

    The observation blister had a young pair of Ensigns in, who blushed bright red as the Captain entered and somehow managed to salute despite their unkempt uniforms and obvious embarrassment. Kat did them the favour of pretending to ignore them until they’d fled the blister, clearly cursing their decision not to use one of the privacy tubes in the starship’s lower regions. They were of the same rank and clearly not under any higher responsibilities, so they could enjoy themselves as much as they liked. Kat fought down a grin, suddenly realising how she had to appear to her senior crew. Had she been as careless a youth as those two Ensigns?

    She shrugged and stared out into hyperspace. It was an eerie mass of red, purple and green light, with flickering bursts of blue-white light in the distance. Just looking upon it made a small percentage of the human race queasy, as if the strange nature of hyperspace was affecting them directly. A number of civilians had to be placed in stasis while travelling through hyperspace, although none of her officers and crew would be affected. Those who were rarely sought out naval careers.

    Down below Lightning, as if the term had any meaning in hyperspace, she could see one of the freighters. It would have looked alarmingly close to a civilian eye, but Kat knew that its helm was slaved to her ship. There was no chance of it altering course and trying to ram Lightning, or so she hoped. She’d had a chance to read some of the intelligence updates from the border region since they’d entered hyperspace and some of them made alarming reading. So far, no warship had been reported lost, but a number of civilian craft had been reported overdue. There was always a delay in receiving reports – the StarCom network had its limitations – yet it was starting to look as if some very well armed pirates were operating in the region. Suspiciously well-armed pirates. There might be any number of ships and millions of tons of war material left over after the Breakaway Wars, but most of it was badly outdated. And she could only think of one logical suspect for arming pirate ships.

    She was still staring out into hyperspace, alone with her thoughts, when her wristcom buzzed. “Captain to the bridge,” her XO said. “I say again; Captain to the bridge.”

    Kat was on her way before he managed to repeat the summons. She’d had two weeks to explore her ship from top to bottom and now she knew all of the shortcuts, including ones that were not included on the official diagrams. The bridge was never more than a few minutes away from anywhere on the ship and she made it through the hatch in less than five minutes. Her XO saluted as she entered, acknowledging the arrival of a senior officer.

    “Captain on the bridge,” he said, transferring command – and responsibility - to her. “We picked up something unusual on the sensors.”

    “At first I thought it was a sensor ghost,” Roach said. The Tactical Officer sounded troubled, peering down at his sensors as if he expected them to resolve the faint returns by force of will alone. “It was just following us, keeping its distance...and then it started to inch closer.”

    Kat nodded, studying the display. “Do you think that it’s a ship?”

    “I can't see how it can be anything else,” Roach admitted, reluctantly. Hyperspace played merry hell with sensor readings, sometimes throwing up alarmingly realistic ghosts that were little more than shadows of a starship. And, sometimes, hyperspace made objects hundreds of thousands of kilometres away look much closer than they were. The destroyer Hanson had been forced to make an emergency return to normal space when their sensors started insisting that they were about to ram a battleship amidships. “It isn't behaving like a sensor ghost or a mirage. It is definitely altering course without any movement on our part.”

    Kat frowned. If she was reading the display correctly – and always assuming that hyperspace didn’t throw up one of its manifold surprises – the unknown ship was slowly scuttling into position to attack the rear of the convoy. She ran through their formation in her head, considering possible options; the unknown ship might not know that it had been detected, but if she had been in command, she would at least have allowed for the possibility. Which meant...?

    She thought rapidly. If they didn't know that they’d been detected, she would be able to get in the first blow before they could react – always assuming that they weren’t a Commonwealth starship trying to make contact. She dismissed that possibility a second later; any friendly starship would have signalled the Lightning with a signal laser before entering weapons range, just to be sure of a friendly reception. They’d have to know that they could be taken for pirates...

    And if they did assume that they’d been detected, any hint on her part that she was laying a trap would blow up in her face.

    “Launch a decoy drone ahead of us, but do not bring it online,” she ordered, thinking as she spoke. A plan was slowly coming together in her head. Decoy drones were expensive and the beancounters were always complaining about the cost every time one was deployed, but she doubted they’d give her much grief over this one. A destroyed convoy – or even a single destroyed ship – could much more than a recoverable drone. “Program it to pretend to be us; slave it’s course to the freighters and keep updating it with our IFF.”

    She looked over at the XO. His scarred face was as inscrutable as ever. No matter, she told herself; she would settle for obedience now and he could tell her how she’d coped afterwards, if there was an afterwards. She told that part of her mind to shut up, firmly. One pirate ship was unlikely to be a match for a heavy cruiser.

    “Prepare to mask our emissions,” she ordered. It was impossible to cloak in hyperspace, at least without a betraying silence that would be just as indicative as turbulence in normal space, but a masking field would allow them to pretend to be a freighter. Unless the enemy ship – and she was already thinking of it as the enemy, she noted – had sensors significantly better than the Commonwealth’s systems, they’d be having problems separating the nine freighters into individual readings. “Bring up the drone’s ECM on my mark, and then allow us to glide backwards, through the convoy.”

    “Aye, Captain,” the Helmsman said. “You want us to appear like a harmless merchantman who’s falling behind?”

    “Precisely,” Kat said. Moving too blatantly might alert their unknown foe, but she didn't have to be blatant to get into attack position. The convoy’s motion would carry it past her position soon enough, as if her ship had simply lost one or more of its drive nodes. That wasn't too unusual – merchant ships tended to run their units right to the limit – although the timing would look suspicious. As much as Kat would have liked to rid the universe of a few dozen pirates, she would settle for scaring one off. “On my mark...”

    “Captain,” Roach said, quickly. “There’s a second ship out there.”

    Kat bit down a curse that would have shocked her mother. She was the Captain; she couldn't allow herself a loss of composure, not when everyone was depending on her. Besides, two pirate ships were still no match for her ship...but if one of them got past her, it might be able to take out one or more of the freighters before she caught up with it. Or maybe not; pirates didn't like wanton destruction, if only because they couldn't sell the ship’s cargo on the black market and the crew into slavery. Rumour, she remembered suddenly, claimed that the Theocracy bought slaves from pirates, with beautiful girls and experienced spacers bringing the highest price. The thought made her feel sick and she swore to herself that she would bring both pirates down and execute them personally.

    “Track it,” she ordered. The course appeared on the display. It looked to her as if the pirates had formed a wolf pack formation, with one ship vectoring the others onto the convoy. That was surprisingly sophisticated for the pirates, but if they’d picked up some heavy-duty backing from the Theocracy – or one of the other powers – they might be feeling particularly greedy. “Are there any others out there?”

    “Unknown,” Roach admitted. It wasn't a fair question, Kat knew, and she reproached herself for it. “There is a major energy storm around nine hundred thousand kilometres from our position. They may be attempting to use it to shield themselves.”

    Kat nodded. Two ships, on the same vector...her plan could still work. At the very least, they’d blow one of the pirate ships completely out of space; if the second had time to escape, they wouldn't have the nerve to risk approaching another convoy for a few months, whatever their backers claimed.

    “Prepare to activate the drone,” she ordered. “And mask!”

    The lights dimmed, a reminder that the ship was now operating under masking protocols. Masking rarely worked in normal space, where its only real use was to conceal a ship’s status from active and passive sensors, if only because observers tended to notice an entire starship going dead. In hyperspace, however, it should be much harder to pick the heavy cruiser out from among the behemoth freighters – and the drone, faithfully impersonating the heavy cruiser, should ensure that her trick wasn't noticed. Her tactical instructors had told her that a smart commander turned the terrain to her advantage. That was tricky in normal space, but in hyperspace...

    She settled down into her command chair as the freighters slowly lumbered past Lightning and continued onwards through hyperspace. Their commanders would be worrying now, testing weapons systems and praying that their escort dealt with the pirates before they got into range. It was impossible to transform the average civilian ship into a warship and even the largest of freighters could only soak up a handful of hits before coming apart. Even if the pirates had the earliest interstellar warship under their command, a modern freighter would still find itself in trouble.

    “I’m picking up a message from Captain Pickering,” Roach informed her. “He’s demanding to know if the convoy should scatter.”

    “Tell him no,” Kat ordered, sharply. If the situation turned sharply against her, she would order them to scatter, but that would reveal her ship’s true position – and true nature. It might be worth considering later, if there were other pirate ships, yet it would be dangerous. She would lose track of her charges and the pirates would have a clear shot at them. “All ships are to remain in position.”

    There was a pause. “He’s threatening to file a complaint against you,” Roach said, with an expression of studied innocence. Captain Pickering worked, through a number of subordinate levels, for her father. Kat fought down an urge to giggle, silently thanking God that Captain Pickering wasn't heading into the Theocracy. That would have been embarrassing. “His superiors, he says, will take a dim view of your actions.”

    Kat scowled. “Inform him that if he attempts to break formation without my permission, I will put a team of armed Marines on his ship to enforce compliance,” she said, sharply. She didn't have time to handle him gently – and besides, his threat was worse than worthless. There hadn't been such a bloody-minded merchantman in any convoy she’d escorted in the past, back when she’d been the XO. “And then break contact.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Roach said.

    Kat looked up at the display. The two ships were closing in rapidly, clearly angling their course towards Lightning...and, just as clearly, unaware of her true nature.

    “Prepare to fire,” she ordered.
  8. Witch Doctor 01

    Witch Doctor 01 Mojo Maker

    Well done... you are off to another great start...
  9. squiddley

    squiddley Monkey+++

    Love the space stories,thanks Chris.
  10. Opinionated

    Opinionated Monkey+

    More more!! [bow]
  11. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    whut he Said ^^^ :)
  12. polarbarez

    polarbarez Monkey+

    I have enjoyed all of your favourite was
    The Living Will Envy the Dead and Alone. I would like to see more in that vein but again I enjoy it all. Thank you for all your effort.
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Prepare to fire a warning shot,” Captain Jafspear ordered.

    His crew, knowing what was good for them, hastened to obey. They’d been recruited in drips and drabs, from the illegal settlements along the borders to a handful recruited from various navies, but they all followed him now, as long as he was successful. A successful pirate commander could treat his crew like the feral dogs they were and they’d love him for it; an unsuccessful pirate commander was liable to be killed by his own men. They knew nothing of loyalty, or the self-respect and honour that bound a military force together. And besides, every interstellar power executed pirates on sight. The Theocracy had plenty of ways to turn a pirate’s death into an example for their own people, worthless religious nuts that they were.

    He spat and watched as the display updated. The Commonwealth convoy appeared to have missed their approach, which wasn't too surprising. Sensor crews tended to be more focused on what was ahead of them and his two ships had been building up speed from the rear. Indeed, they’d had some help in locating the convoy in the first place; their noble benefactors had been kind enough to forward them details of starships leaving the Avalon System. And if they succeeded in taking out at least two of the ships, they would be rewarded beyond the dreams of the crew and their families.

    The thought was a bitter one. A destroyed ship was no use to anyone, not when its cargo could be sold and the crew could be used for his amusement before being escorted out an airlock or passed on for sale into slavery. The pirate crew had been muttering resentfully when they thought he couldn't hear, grumbling about the shortage of female company on the two ships; a few captured women would keep them quiet, at least until they got back to base. His benefactors might have wanted the ships destroyed, but he was the one whose ass was on the line and he wasn't going to risk a mutiny. A few more successful missions and he would be able to afford a body-change operation and retire to enjoy his ill-gotten gains.

    “Fire,” he ordered. The ship jerked as a single missile leapt from the prow tube and raced through hyperspace towards its target. They’d been careful to strip down the warhead first, just in case hyperspace was playing tricks on their sensors and the missile actually managed to strike the targeted ship. It should have been impossible – and it would have been in normal space – but hyperspace had its own rules. The missile lanced cleanly past its target and vanished into hyperspace, leaving behind a very clear message. It was time to reinforce it. “Open a channel.”

    “Channel open, sir,” one of the officers said. He was a newcomer, a man selected by their noble benefactors, and therefore untrustworthy by definition. Or, in another sense, he was probably the most trustworthy man on the ship. His masters would be less than happy with him if the raiders failed to return…

    “This is the Bloodstained Knife,” Captain Jafspear said. The convoy would scatter, of course; they’d know that they couldn’t escape unless they ran fast and found cover in hyperspace. But they’d catch at least two ships before they could escape – and more, if they were lucky. “Cut your drives and prepare to be boarded. Your crew will not be hurt and will be ransomed if you surrender now.”

    That was a lie, of course. Ransoming crewmen back to the big corporations on Avalon worked, sometimes, but it also opened up opportunities for corporate-hired mercenaries to extract a little revenge. The big corporations didn’t really care how much they had to spend to ensure that any would-be kidnappers ended up dead, a ruthlessness that he tended to admire, even though it spited his hopes of collecting a big ransom. Besides, the chances were that the ship they were targeting, which was already slipping out of formation, was a family-owned vessel…and that meant women. The thought of a ship they'd captured during his first raid made him smile, hungrily. Perhaps he would claim Captain’s rights and go first.

    “No response, sir,” the communications officer said. “They are not responding to our hail.”

    Captain Jafspear snorted. Just like a civilian, he told himself; they were closing their eyes and pretending that they couldn’t be seen. They’d regret that soon enough; he’d tell them that the suffering they were about to undergo was punishment for not obeying quickly enough. And if their cargo wasn’t worth at least a few million pounds, he’d see to it that they paid in blood. How dare they present such a tempting target without anything for him to sell?

    “Prepare to launch a second missile,” he ordered. “I want this one to detonate right on top of their hull.”

    One of the crew laughed horribly. The civilian ship might not be harmed, but the shockwaves would propagate through hyperspace and make their ship ring like a bell. It was a terrifying experience, akin to depth charges from an earlier era, one that would convince them of the error of their ways. And they’d been foolish enough to leave without an escort too! Didn’t they think that there was a remote chance that the Avalon System was under observation?

    “Fire,” he ordered.

    Kat watched dispassionately as the second missile launched from the pirate ship and headed towards Lightning. It didn’t look as if they intended to actually hit her ship, but they might get very unlucky. The pirate demand for their immediate surrender had made her smile; they clearly didn’t have the slightest idea that they were bearing down on a heavy cruiser. Indeed, despite the drone she’d launched, she was starting to wonder if they thought the convoy was unescorted. Their tactics only made sense if they believed themselves to be wolves among a herd of helpless sheep.

    “The second ship is holding back,” Roach reported. “Their sensors are sweeping the rest of the convoy.”

    “Choosing its target,” Kat said. She’d kept the convoy from scattering – would that alert the pirates that they were flying into a trap? It hardly mattered anyway; the second pirate ship wouldn't have a chance to attack a freighter before she killed or captured it and its crew. “Lock weapons on Target One and prepare to fire.”

    “Weapons locked, Captain,” Roach said. Hyperspace made targeting tricky, but at such close range it would be fairly simple to compensate for the distortions. “Ready to fire.”

    The communications channels crackled again. “This is your final warning,” an imperious voice said, sharply. “Cut your drives now or be destroyed.”

    “Cut the masking,” Kat ordered. “Mr Roach; you may fire at will.”

    Lightning shuddered as she unleashed her first barrage in anger. It was a remarkably restrained barrage – she could have fired a full salvo of missiles and obliterated the pirate ship – but it hardly mattered. At such close range, no known ECM or countermeasures could shield the pirate ship from her weapons – and their point defence was puny, almost completely ineffectual. They did manage to pop off a salvo of missiles themselves, but the weapons were outdated and easy for her systems to target and destroy. Lightning’s point defence wiped the missiles out before they got within range of her hull.

    “Three direct hits,” Roach said. The pirate ship was bleeding now, streams of plasma flaring away from the hull as it rolled over, out of control. “Target disabled; crew status unknown.”

    Probably dead, Kat thought, coldly. She keyed her console anyway. “Pirate ship, you are under the guns of a warship and escape is impossible,” she said. “Any resistance will result in the immediate destruction of both of your vessels. Surrender now or die.”

    She released the console and tapped the link to the Marine shuttles. “Go,” she ordered. Major Bone and his Marines had manned two shuttles, ready for immediate launch. The display updated rapidly as the shuttles zoomed away from her ship, heading directly towards the stricken ship. If they had any weapons left, they might try to pick off the shuttles as they approached, even though it would be suicide. Or perhaps they would attempt to trigger the self-destruct, knowing that they were very likely to be thrown out of the nearest airlock once they were interrogated. “Good luck.”

    Kat pushed her concerns about Bone aside and focused on Pirate Two. The ship was working desperately to break off and escape, but they hadn’t bothered to give any thought to escape when they were closing in on the convoy. They didn’t even have time to open a hyperspace gateway and escape, although it wouldn't have saved them. In the time it would take them to open the gateway, Kat would have blown their ship to bits. They weren't even trying to fire on the heavy cruiser, knowing that it would have been futile. Kat was risking enough lives trying to take prisoners from Pirate One. Pirate Two could surrender or be blown into atoms and left scattered through hyperspace.

    “Pirate ship, you are ordered to surrender,” she said, in the coldest tone she could muster. They had to know that there was no way out of the trap. And many of them would be wondering what they could offer to share with their captors in exchange for their lives. A life in a penal colony was no bed of roses, but it was better than being executed on the spot. “Failure to surrender now will result in your immediate destruction.”

    The harmless freighter had become a warship too swiftly for anyone to react. Captain Jafspear had had no time to order evasive manoeuvres or even a hasty salvo before the heavy cruiser opened fire – and seconds later, his ship was smashed by the hand of God. He was vaguely aware of his ship tumbling through space, the screaming their panic into the air as the gravity failed, knowing that if the compensators failed the entire crew would be dead before they knew what had hit them. The ship had been originally designed as a warship, but over the years the pirates had stripped out some of the more expensive safety equipment and transferred it to other starships, or tried to make jury-rigged repairs without the right components from a proper shipyard. The lights failed and the bridge was plunged into near darkness, illuminated only by the glow of several consoles, before the emergency power came on and restored the light. He took one look at his ship’s status displays and wished he hadn’t. Almost everything had been knocked out by the savage blow.

    Alarms shrilled as emergency systems struggled to cope with the chaos. Every deck was reporting massive casualties, even with the enhanced crew he’d been forced to recruit to help crew both ships. His crew was dead or dying. And if that was a warship out there – and it had to be, unless one of the big corporations was playing games with a Q-Ship – the rest of them would soon follow. A quick check revealed that the communications systems were down, leaving them blind and defenceless. All it would take would be a single hit and his ship would be destroyed. Even the self-destruct had been knocked off-line. They were effectively dead in space, doomed to wander forever through hyperspace until the life support failed… It was every spacer’s nightmare.

    The thought made him smile, bitterly. They wouldn't live long enough to be lost.

    He rounded on the communications officer, the emissary from the benefactors who had told them that the convoy was unescorted. The young man was looking back at him, pointing one long finger directly at his head. There was a moment of realisation, a sudden awareness that they’d been deliberately set up for failure, and then there was a burst of pain…and then nothing, nothing at all.

    “Pirate Two is not responding,” Roach said. Kat nodded. The second pirate ship was still trying to escape. “They’re locking weapons on us.”

    Kat blinked in surprise. Unless the pirates had developed some kind of super-weapon, they couldn’t possibly harm her starship unless she chose to allow them to hit the hull. It was suicide to fire on Lightning, and yet her console confirmed it. The pirate ship locked on and started to spit missiles towards her ship. Enough was enough.

    “Fire,” she ordered, quietly.

    The pirate ship was an elderly warship, one dating back to the chaos that had followed the Breakaway Wars. It would have been formidable back in its day, but that was long ago and its missiles were fired too slowly to overwhelm Kat’s defences. The pirate point defence struggled valiantly, yet it had been designed for commercial-grade weapons, not modern missiles. Her missiles slipped through the hapless defences and slammed into the pirate hull, blowing the entire vessel apart into a colossal fireball that rapidly faded into hyperspace.

    “No lifepods detected,” Roach reported. He sounded just as puzzled as Kat. The pirates could have bargained for their lives, instead of committing suicide. It didn’t make sense, unless they’d had captives they knew they didn’t dare allow to report to Kat and her superiors. A handful of pirate vessels had been captured with prisoners onboard – and none of their crews had ever seen a penal world. “They’re gone, Captain.”

    Kat nodded, wishing that she had someone to advise her. There was no one.

    “Order the convoy to hold position,” she ordered. The merchant skippers would have bitched about that before, but after the pirates they might be almost reasonable about it. The thought almost made her smile, before she remembered the Marines. Greg Bone might be going into horrific danger and there was nothing she could do to help him. “And prepare a second Marine assault team for launch.”

    Major – now Captain, as they were no longer on the Lightning - Gregory Bone watched as the pirate ship came into view. It hadn’t been particularly well-maintained before Kat had slammed a handful of missiles into it, almost blowing it into two separate pieces. He called up internal diagrams from his combat suit’s database and chose a point of entry, just below where the pirate bridge ought to be. It was quite possible that someone had reconfigured the ship – it was over a hundred years old, after all – but pirates tended to be lazy. And they rarely picked on anyone who could fight back.

    He smiled as the Marine shuttles opened their hatches and the Marines launched themselves into space. Unlike the luxurious shuttles enjoyed by Navy crewmen, the Marine shuttles had no atmosphere, allowing the Marines to wear their combat armour and hit their targets without bothering to go through an airlock. The pirate ship swelled up in front of him, his armour automatically compensating for the sudden shifts in perspective as he clamped onto the hull and then dived through a nearby hull breach, launching a spread of miniature sensor drones ahead of him. His combat suit’s internal computer network linked into the other combat suits and started to integrate the data from the drones, building up a picture of the ship’s internal conditions. It wasn't a pretty sight. At least half of the hull was decompressed, with the crew either hiding in life support bubbles or dead.

    There was no time to hesitate. The pirates might be preparing to blow up their ship, taking him and his Marines with them. He led the way towards a sealed hatch and blew it open with a burst of concentrated fire from the suit’s heavy plasma cannon, a weapon so heavy that it couldn’t be carried without a combat suit. The hatchway blew open and air rushed out, spilling a handful of pirates into space. They’d either been waiting in ambush or had simply been very unlucky, Greg decided. It hardly mattered in any case. If he could take them alive, he would, but he wasn't going to risk lives to capture pirate scrum.

    Two of the Marines remained behind to seal the compartment, allowing the rest of the platoon to make their way towards the bridge. A handful of pirates saw them and stared, two drawing personal weapons…only to be shot down before they could fire a single shot. The rest surrendered at once and were herded into an isolated cabin to wait until they could be dealt with properly. Greg put them out of his mind as he targeted the bridge with his plasma cannon and opened fire. The hatchway was stronger than the previous hatch, an element that almost all warship designs had in common, but it couldn’t stand up to his fire for long. It exploded inwards and he started forward, into a slaughterhouse. A handful of bodies were floating in the air, all dead. Several more live ones were cowering at the other side of the bridge, clearly traumatised. Greg didn’t waste time with sympathy. They would have happily looted the convoy, raped the crews and then expelled the survivors into space, if they’d won. A little trauma was the least they deserved.

    And yet…what had happened on the bridge?

    “They’re all dead?”

    “Yes, Captain,” Bone said. He was all business over the communications link. “The ship’s commander and two others were apparently killed by one of their other officers, before he was gunned down himself. And then his body exploded.”

    Kat frowned. What the hell did that mean? A desperate attempt to take down someone else with him, or a desperate attempt to hide his identity, or…what?

    “Bring the prisoners back onboard,” she ordered. “We’ll see if any of them have anything to say to buy their worthless lives.”

    She closed the communications channel and, just for a moment, met her XO’s eyes before he looked away. It might have been her imagination, but was there a flash of…approval in his eyes? Oddly cheered, she keyed her console and updated the merchant skippers. Once they’d examined the pirate ship and brought the prisoners onboard, they could be on their way again. <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> was still two weeks away and they were anxious to arrive…and so was she. If nothing else, she wanted to know just what was going on in the sector and if the Theocracy was involved…

    Because if it was, she knew, it meant war.
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The pirates were a sorry bedraggled lot.

    Commander Jeremy Damiani stood in the shuttlebay and watched as the Marines shepherded them out of the shuttle and into the ship. They’d thought of themselves as the ruthless wolves of space, but now there was no fight left in them. Just in case, the Marines had stripped them of everything they'd been wearing and secured their hands with plastic ties. Any resistance would be ended quickly, brutally and decisively.

    He doubted that any of the pirates would offer any resistance. From the brief reports the Marines had filed as they searched the Bloodstained Knife – a typical pirate name – the pirates had originally had a crew of over four hundred, mostly wannabe soldier types with a handful of enhancements and augmentations that they thought made them the toughest thugs in space. And now they had suddenly and violently been taught the error of their ways. They’d all be looking desperately for the one thing they might know that would convince their captors to spare their lives.

    “We separated the two surviving members of their senior crew,” Bone informed him, as the captives were escorted down to the holding cell. They’d be held there until the Captain decided their fate. “Both of them were very willing to cooperate – they were loudly declaring their willingness to help us in any way they could.”

    His mouth curved in disgust, a sentiment Jeremy fully shared. If the pirates had had the slightest shred of honour and decency, they would have joined the Navy or worked to make their backwater colonies a success, rather than praying on helpless commercial starships. The liberals back home might talk of sensitivity and understanding for those who had lost their way, but Jeremy had no truck with their agreements – or with the economists who believed that the pirates had no other choice, but to raid starships to survive. If they’d walked through what the pirates left behind, or spoke to one of their victims, they might have a better understanding of what drove them. They were scrum, pure and simple, and Jeremy wouldn't object in the slightest if they were all executed by the Navy. The decent souls among them would have been weeded out long ago.

    “Put them in the interrogation cubes,” he ordered. It was a nasty job, but it was one he intended to spare the Captain, while she was busy reassuring the merchant skippers that they hadn't been in any real danger. Jeremy felt his lips twitch into a smile. The Captain was clearly unsure of herself, but she’d shown tactical flair and a certain level of nerve. He’d known starship commanders who would have ordered a charge, which would probably have scared off the pirates, yet it wouldn't have allowed them a chance to take prisoners. Who knew? They might get the coordinates of a pirate base and then the Navy could send a squadron to blow it to hell. “I’ll see them in...twenty minutes.”

    The Marine nodded and walked off, competence and determination radiating from his form. Jeremy concealed an amused smile behind his hand. The Captain and the Marine tried to be professional, but it was clear that they’d once been very close, probably lovers. They were actually doing a reasonable job of concealing it, yet he could tell – and he was sure that others had formed the same opinion. He shook his head and dismissed the thought. The regulations were winked at more than they should have been and besides, they were being professional. All it meant was that the Marine would have to serve under his former lover – and in any case, the Marines were something of a special case.

    Twenty minutes later, he strode into the interrogation cube and studied the prisoner with a calculated lack of interest. The Marines had secured him to a chair and, clearly anticipated any number of tortures, the prisoner had already soiled himself. Jeremy wrinkled his nose at the stench, reminding himself that many pirate ships stank because the crews had a nasty habit of pissing where they pleased. It was beyond him how anyone could live in such conditions, but the psychologists claimed that it was something to do with their withdrawal from human decency and – for once – Jeremy was inclined to agree. He would have had any crewman caught soiling his ship forced to clean every inch of it with a toothbrush, and that would only have been the beginning.

    The prisoner shrank away from his gaze. Like the junior pirates, the gangsters who thought that they were tough, his nerve had been broken by the sudden and shattering defeat. And he knew that he was about to die, unless he found something he could offer in trade for his life. Jeremy met his eyes and allowed his gaze to penetrate the man’s soul. Pirates had no rights. Everyone knew that, not least the pirates themselves.

    “You were captured in the act of privacy,” Jeremy said. He’d taken the time to read the forensic report from the Marine team that had searched the drifting hulk and he’d been appalled. A number of women had been executed by the pirates before the Marines had arrived, the wounds on their bodies consistent with repeated rape and sexual abuse. The Theocracy had odd and barbaric views on the correct position of women – in subordination to men – but even they wouldn't go so far. Not that they needed to break their women in such brutal ways. Some of the reports leaking out of the Theocracy suggested that disobedient women were given a series of drug treatments that made further disobedience impossible. “My Captain has already signed your death warrants.”

    The prisoner shuddered, trying to scramble backwards. It was impossible, of course; the Marines had secured him to the chair before they’d left him alone. They’d also scanned his body and reported a complete lack of augmentation and symptoms that suggested that the prisoner was about to feel the pangs of withdrawal from whatever drug he was addicted to taking. The chances were good that it was one of the handful banned even in the most liberal parts of the Commonwealth, guaranteeing him an unpleasant few months on a penal world – if he survived that long, of course.

    Jeremy didn't allow himself any guilt. The pirate deserved far worse.

    “You know something you can tell us,” he said, allowing his eyes to narrow. It was an expression that had unnerved uppity junior lieutenants, and they had more sense of self-respect than the pirate. “If you tell us everything you know, we will spare your life...”

    He waited. It wasn't long in coming. “They’ll kill me,” the pirate protested, desperately. Sweat was running down his brow, suggesting that the first pangs of withdrawal had already begun to hit. “Don’t you understand? They’ll kill me!”

    “Your...boss is dead,” Jeremy told him. “What happened on the bridge of your ship?”

    The pirate looked pleadingly at him, and then lowered his eyes. “They told us that your ship was unarmed,” he said, finally. “They told us that the convoy was unescorted, that it would be easy pickings. And they gave us money and equipment and sent us out to destroy your ships.”

    Jeremy frowned. A pirate wouldn't want to destroy ships, but a commerce raider would...and if someone was using the pirates to attack the Commonwealth, he had a good idea who might be behind it. He leaned forwards, his eyes glaring down into the cowering pirate’s helpless cringe.

    “Someone told you to attack us,” he said, slowly. “Who told you to attack us?”

    The pirate looked terrified. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “The Captain made the deal; he was their only contact. We didn't ask questions. He brought us the money and told us that our benefactors would reward us, even compensate us for the lost ships, the ones we couldn't sell. And then the new boy killed the Captain!”

    Jeremy nodded slowly. The pirate ship’s communications officer had clearly been a newcomer to the crew, and augmented, given how his body had exploded. And that suggested that his orders had been to make sure that the pirate commander never got a chance to trade knowledge for his life. And that meant...what? He had an idea and he knew that the Captain shared it, but it wasn’t proof. He’d be surprised if they actually found proof if they continued combing through the pirate ship. The proof had died with the two officers.

    “They lied to us,” the pirate said, in a desperate attempt at self-justification. Of course he hadn't meant to take part in an attack on a heavy cruiser; no pirate wanted to tangle with a warship, even if they outmassed it. There was no profit and a great deal of risk in it. “They told us that you were unarmed.”

    “Little ****,” Jeremy swore at him. The temptation to take a swing at him was almost overpowering, but he held himself in check. “A pair of my officers will ask you more questions and you will answer them, understand? And if you answer them to their satisfaction, we will consider sparing your miserable life.”

    He stalked out of the interrogation cube and nodded to two of the Marines, who would see to the pirate’s next interrogation. They wouldn't take chances. The pirate would be hooked up to a lie detector and forced to answer, and then drugged if it seemed that he had forgotten important details. Not that Jeremy believed that they’d learn much more, sadly. The smarter pirate commanders kept details of their contacts – the fences who farmed out their ill-gotten gains to anyone who would pay for them – to themselves. If it was the Theocracy, they’d covered their tracks well.

    And yet...there was something very odd about the whole affair.

    He wanted a shower to wash the stain of sharing a room with the pirate off his skin, but instead he headed up to the bridge to report to the Captain. She would be the one making the final decision about their fates. For once, it wasn't a decision that Jeremy envied her. Whatever call she made, someone would be upset.

    Kat closed the communications link and, as soon as it was closed, allowed herself a grimace. She was sure that when she’d been the XO, none of the merchant skippers she'd sailed with had been quite so irritating. But then, she’d only been the XO and the Captain had probably received a great deal of the heat, without passing it down to her. Or maybe it was her youth. They probably resented taking orders from someone who looked as if she should be tucked up in bed with a teddy bear. She sipped the coffee Lucy had provided her gratefully, knowing that what she really needed was sleep. And that would probably come in a week or so.

    “Come,” she said, as the office hatch chimed. It hissed open, revealing a slightly-bedraggled Damiani. The XO looked tired, but still extruded the same sense of rock-steady competence that she’d come to know over the last two weeks. “I take it the interrogations went well?”

    “As well as could be expected,” the XO said, and outlined briefly what had happened. Kat was silently grateful that he’d taken that chore on himself, even though it was really her duty. Interrogating pirates wasn't a pleasant task and besides, it was hard for her to intimidate them when she looked so young. “Someone deliberately pointed them at us.”

    “The Theocracy,” Kat said.

    “Perhaps,” Damiani agreed. He shook his head. “The Theocrats are certainly ruthless enough, but even they tend to suppress piracy whenever they can. I wonder if it could be the Confederacy. The Frogs have sometimes shown an interest in palming some of their problems off on us.”

    Kat considered it, briefly. The Marseilles Confederacy occupied a handful of stars towards Earth from the Commonwealth – indeed, in some respects it was more of an economic giant than the Commonwealth, much to her father’s irritation – but the Confederacy had never sought to build up a powerful military force. They’d been on the sidelines during the Breakaway Wars, playing both sides of the field, and since then had preferred to invest in their economy. It was just possible that they were bribing pirates to head into the Commonwealth instead of raiding the Marseilles Confederacy, but it would mean a direct confrontation with the Royal Avalon Navy if they were caught in the act. And that would be suicide. Besides, the Marseilles Confederacy was probably very relieved that the Commonwealth existed between it and the Theocracy.

    And yet...the Confederacy was hemmed in, by the Commonwealth and three of the other galactic powers. Their expansion had limits, unlike the powers along the edge of the Human Sphere. Might they be considering a scheme to weaken the, that was too complicated, and too dangerous. Occam’s Razor suggested the Theocracy, or one of the handful of independent colonies along the Rim.

    “Maybe they wanted us to know that we were being raided,” she said, slowly. Logically, the Theocracy – assuming it was the Theocracy – had set their pirate allies up for a nasty surprise. It would alert the Commonwealth...and force the RAN to start running heavier convoy escorts, drawing lighter units away from the border. The idea made a certain kind of sense, although Piker’s Peak had often reminded cadets that over-complicated plans had a tendency to go badly wrong. And yet, how could this one go wrong? The Theocracy could simply deny everything.

    She shook her head. She’d make her report to Admiral Williams, and pass along an update to Naval HQ, and leave it to her superiors to decide what to do about it.

    “The Marines finished with the pirate ship,” she said, thoughtfully. “I don’t see any particular value in keeping it.”

    Damiani nodded in agreement. “It’s utterly out of date,” he said, dryly. “Anyone who saw it would know that it had been in a fight. I think that we’d better destroy it and leave the debris in hyperspace.”

    Kat nodded. The pirates had bungled the self-destruct – or their mysterious masters had carefully rigged it so it wouldn't explode – but their remaining security measures had worked perfectly. Small charges had atomised their computer cores, destroying every trace of information ONI could use to track down their base, while all the pirates who had access to actual navigational data were dead. It was an admirably through piece of work. She knew naval officers who would be less through in destroying their records.

    The remainder of the ship wasn't much better. Her Marines had catalogued an long series of atrocities the prisoners had been subjected to, before they’d finally been killed before they could be rescued. Kat felt a trace of guilt at how they’d died, but she told herself firmly that at least their suffering was at an end. It didn't help. The pirates had had an impressive stash of porn, seventy different kinds of illegal drug and a treasure trove of currency from across the galaxy. She guessed that they’d been gambling with it while waiting for their targets to appear. And there had been rats, cockroaches and lice, breeding in the squalid conditions. It was a poor way for a ship to suffer before she died.

    She keyed her wristcom and connected with the bridge. “Commander Roach, this is the Captain,” she said. “You are cleared to recall the Marines from the pirate ship.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Roach said. He would pass on the message; Bone and his Marines would do the rest. “The merchantmen are demanding to know when we will resume our course.”

    Kat and Damiani exchanged glances, and then chuckled, sharing the same thought. Merchantmen! She was tempted to ask him how she’d done, compared to others in similar circumstances, but it was the one thing she couldn't ask. The Captain would always be in sole charge of the ship – and the one shouldering the responsibility.

    And there was another responsibility, one she couldn't shirk.

    “The pirate officers are to be kept alive,” she said. She’d killed before, when she’d fired the weapons at her Captain’s command, but never so directly. It was her responsibility to give the order. She felt sick and she swallowed hard, disgusted at her own weakness. “The remainder are to be taken to the airlock and shoved out into space.”

    Damiani nodded, his eyes – just for a moment – sympathetic and understanding. Hyperspace and normal space were equally intolerant of human life. The pirates would die, slowly and quite painfully, and their bodies would be torn apart by the energy storms. And they would all die at her command.

    “Aye, Captain,” he said. “I will see to it personally.”

    Twenty minutes later, Kat watched as the pirate ship disintegrated into a ball of flame, and then sat down in her command chair. “Contact the convoy,” she ordered. “We will resume course for Cadiz at once.”

    She settled back as the drive hummed to life. It would be just over another two weeks before they reached Cadiz, long enough to make her consider diverting the convoy to reach the nearest StarCom. But they’d wasted enough time already. For all she knew, other pirate ships were being vectored towards them, or perhaps even a raiding squadron of Theocracy battlecruisers. In hyperspace, no one would ever find a trace of Lightning and her crew if they were intercepted by a superior force.

    “Aye, Captain,” the Helmsman said. “Course underway.”

    Kat smiled to herself. They’d won their first engagement, even if it was against pitiful opposition. It would help to bring her crew together into a single unit and do wonders for their moral. And who knew? There might even be some prize money if the pirates had had a bounty on their heads. The big corporations had long memories and a surprising amount of reach. But she'd known that ever since she was a child. It was why she had abandoned her family and run away into space.

    “We did good today,” she told them. And now she had to write her report for the Admiral. Even in hyperspace, the paperwork never ended. “Mr. XO; you have the bridge.”
    POP-NC, Sapper John, ssonb and 5 others like this.
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Space; the final frontier.

    Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Cindy Rollins rolled her eyes. The recruiters had been fond of that hackneyed – it dated all the way back to pre-space Old Earth – phase. They’d told her that she would find excitement and adventure in space, serving the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeType w:st="on">Commonwealth</st1:placeType> of <st1:placeName w:st="on">Avalon</st1:placeName></st1:place>. And then she’d shown a remarkable gift for sensor systems and traffic manipulation and she’d found herself posted to Avalon Fortress Command, in the Cadiz System. Someone in the upper echelons of the military hated her, she was sure. A hundred requests for a posting to a survey ship and they’d sent her to the planet of the hotheads.

    She ran her hand through her short black hair – her ex-boyfriend had called her elfin – and turned her attention back to her display, shaking her head to conceal her irritation. The Admiral was due to inspect Fortress Command’s network of orbital defences in four days and her superiors – of course – had ordered a massive series of preparations to be made for his visit. They’d ordered the decks washed, the painting touched up and every piece of balky equipment to be replaced, before running through protocol drills. They didn’t seem to be so concerned about System Command’s main responsibility – supervising shipping within the inner system – but <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> had no representation in the Assembly to demand reform. The planet of the hotheads had never managed to put forward a single elected representative.

    The memory of one of her two field trips down to the planet reminded her of why they’d never been able to claim the representation they should have been entitled to claim. A sullen and bitterly divided population, fighting and loathing each other as much as the occupation force and an economy that seemed designed to turn silk purses into sow’s ears. They spent most of their time grumbling, or doing nothing, rather than taking advantage of the opportunities the Commonwealth offered them. There were uninhabited mining systems that had more space-based industry and activity than <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>!

    Not that the system was entirely deserted, of course. The ships of the 6<SUP>th</SUP> fleet orbited the planet, or patrolled the outer edges of the star system. A handful of freighters worked the asteroids, serving the network of colonies that the various corporations had funded that would – if they ever got the chance – kick-stark Cadiz into a new age of economic growth and prosperity. Or, as scuttlebutt claimed, they might end up declaring their independence from <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> and leaving the planet of the hotheads to stew in its own juice…

    She glanced up as the sensors started to sound an alert. A hyperspace gateway was forming, only forty thousand kilometres from the edge of the defence grid. She allowed herself a moment to relax before keying the commands into the consoles that would focus sensors on the vortex; it was unlikely that the new arrivals posed any threat. It was, in theory, possible to form a hyperspace vortex within the atmosphere of a planet, but so far no one who had tried it had survived the experience. Besides, the automated defences would open fire on anyone who opened a gateway within the defence grid. Anyone who came out that close to the planet’s orbital stations almost certainly had bad intentions.

    The gateway took on shape and form rapidly, and then the first starship emerged from hyperspace. There was a long moment of tension – it could have been anyone – before the <st1:stockticker w:st="on">IFF</st1:stockticker> transmissions were detected and matched against the updated database on the fortress’s main computer. The new arrival was a freighter, followed rapidly by eight more and a heavy cruiser, which had remained behind to hold the vortex open for the smaller craft. Someone was wasting energy, Cindy noted; there was no reason why the freighters couldn’t have come out of hyperspace through the fixed gate. Or maybe they were just glad to be out of hyperspace. She knew that piracy levels had been soaring recently and shipping insurance was at an all-time high.

    “<st1:stockticker w:st="on">IFF</st1:stockticker> confirmed,” she said, as her superior ambled over to see what was going on. He’d been worrying about the Admiral’s visit with the best of them, ordering her and the other operations to make sure that their consoles were clean and polished. Cindy didn’t see the point of a ‘surprise’ inspection which had been announced two weeks beforehand, unless the Admiral intended to make his subordinates clean up their act. She shook her head, dismissing the thought. The Admiral wasn't known for being clever, or devious – or sadistic. “One heavy cruiser; Fireball-class, reading out as Lightning. Database says she’s new-build from Merlin, Captain Falcone in command.”

    She didn’t relax completely, even though the <st1:stockticker w:st="on">IFF</st1:stockticker> matched the download from Avalon. Anyone could transmit an <st1:stockticker w:st="on">IFF</st1:stockticker> with the correct information and until Fortress Command eyeballed the cruiser there would be no way to know for sure that it actually was the Lightning. On the other hand, the freighters were already requesting instructions for slots on the orbital receiving facilities and – for two of them – an escort to the Theocracy. Cindy had heard enough stories from the refugees who had arrived on <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> to wonder why anyone would want to go to the Theocracy, but money – as a pre-space wag had once remarked – had no smell.

    “Update the Admiral’s office,” her superior ordered. “And then run a tracking exercise. We have to look good for the inspection.”

    Cindy didn’t – quite – roll her eyes. Looking good was one thing; being good was quite another – and she was uncomfortably aware that <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>’s defenders were growing fat and lazy. They didn’t seem to know that there was a potentially-hostile empire only a few light years away from their position, or that pirate ships were clearly keeping <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> under observation. And they didn’t seem to care either.

    “Aye, sir,” she said. One day, she would have his job…unless she managed to wangle a transfer to the survey service. Now that would be real work. “Signal sent.”

    Kat watched as the freighters split up, receiving their new vectors from System Command and heading down towards low orbit. Some of them would unload at <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>, and then head out to the asteroids to pick up what little local produce was carried back to the Commonwealth; the remainder would wait until they received a new escort. Lightning herself was slotted into an orbital slot by System Command and linked into the System’s defence grid. If the balloon went up while they were orbiting <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>, Lightning would serve as part of the defence force trying to hold the system. She looked up at the display, slowly plotting out the starships orbiting the blue-green world below, and smiled. It seemed impossible that anyone would dare to challenge such might.

    The 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet was the largest formation assembled in the Commonwealth, a force powerful enough to conquer some of the lesser interstellar political units without reinforcements or resupply. Three squadrons of battleships, each one powerful enough to blow Lightning to atoms with a single broadside, were massed in high orbit, dominating the system. Nine fleet carriers, each one carrying over five hundred starfighters, orbited below them, the tiny starfighters flying patrols and recon missions through near-orbital space, watching for intruders and – more importantly – keeping the starfighter pilots sharp. A hundred smaller ships, from heavy cruisers to destroyers, were scattered in orbit around the planet, keeping a watchful eye on civilian traffic. Kat frowned, stroking her chin in puzzlement. She had no experience in manoeuvring an entire fleet – at least not outside simulations – but it struck her that assembling the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet’s smaller units would take time, and doing it under fire would be tricky. And below the starships, there was an entire network of orbital fortresses and automated weapons platforms, providing fixed defences to back up the mobile elements. It was nowhere near as powerful as the defences around Avalon, but it should give any would-be attacker pause.

    “We have received an update from System Command,” Roach reported. The Tactical Officer sounded perplexed, and not a little worried. For the last two days before they reached <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>, he’d been tracking a contact in hyperspace that he’d sworn was another starship. Kat had tried a handful of tricks to lure the unknown ship – if it was a ship – into coming close enough for a proper scan, but it had refused the bait. It was easy to believe that it was a false contact, or a reflection of Lightning herself, yet after the pirate attack Kat didn’t feel like taking chances. “The Admiral presents his compliments and invites you down to the planet to consult with him at your earliest convenience.”

    Which means right now, Kat thought, with droll amusement. There were times when she envied the bluntness of the Marine Corps. A RAN officer who read the Admiral’s command literally would rapidly find herself in very hot water. Besides, she was growing increasingly uneasy about the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet. They were right on the border with the Theocracy, a force that the Theocracy would have to destroy before they advanced into the Commonwealth, and yet they didn’t look to be very alert. The fleet could deter pirates and raiders, but an entire battle fleet from the Theocracy? No one knew for sure just how advanced the Theocracy’s sensors and weapons were, or what other surprises they had up their sleeves. It had been too long since the human race had fought a major interstellar war. The Breakaway Wars offered few lessons for military planners.

    “Please acknowledge the signal and inform the Admiral that I will be with him as soon as possible,” Kat said. She keyed her console. “Shuttlebay One, this is the Captain. Prepare a shuttle for immediate launch.”

    “Aye, Captain,” the shuttlebay officer said.

    She considered – briefly – flying the shuttle herself, rather than having a pilot take her across to the Admiral’s command station. It would have been a fun diversion from the worries that were beginning to gnaw at her, but not one she could allow herself. Besides, it would give her time to think – and prepare for the Admiral – if someone else flew the shuttle. The Captain had to make a good impression…

    “They’re ordering you to land at <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Landing</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">City</st1:placeType></st1:place>,” Roach said, in some surprise. It broke through his veneer of calm detachment. “The Admiral is based down on the surface of the planet?”

    “As you were,” the XO growled.

    Kat was equally surprised. Regulations clearly stated that the Port Admiral in command of the orbital defences had to be based in orbit, if only to deter any potential enemy from bombarding the planet below and slaughtering large chunks of the population. She’d certainly been intending to take the shuttle to the station – and it wouldn’t have made a good impression on the Admiral if she arrived late because she went to the wrong place. If the Admiral was spending his time on the surface of the planet…it wasn't a good sign at all.

    “You have the bridge,” she told the XO. “I’ll contact you from the surface and let you know when I will be returning.”

    The XO nodded. “Aye, Captain,” he said. “Good luck.”

    Kat was still mulling over his final words as the shuttle flew out of the shuttlebay and headed down towards the brave new world. From high above, <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> didn’t look very different from any other world, with three green continents set in seas of deepest blue. There was no hint of the endless struggle marring the surface of the beautiful world, at least none visible from the shuttle. Only the string of security updates transmitted from the planet’s surface – warning of brief encounters with rebels and insurgents – broke through the appearance of tranquillity. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>’s inhabitants had been fighting each other since before the Commonwealth arrived and, even with a powerful common foe, hadn’t even united against the Commonwealth. They were still fighting each other, with the Commonwealth caught in the middle and despised by all.

    Cadiz was a world that should have worked – and indeed its early origins, while not as encouraging as Avalon, had not been any harder than what other worlds had overcome to return to space as masters of their own destiny. The original settlers had hailed from a region of <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Spain</st1:place></st1:country-region>, a nation-state on Old Earth, during the height of the ethnic, religious and racial strife that had bedevilled the UN during its rise to supreme power. They’d made such a nuisance of themselves that when a handful of them had applied to found a colony, the UN and their neighbours had been quite happy to transport the most irritating ones to <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>, where they could turn their unrest against the planet itself. Reading between the lines on the briefing notes, Kat had the impression that their neighbours had been glad to see the back of them, so much so that the traditional methods of deporting anyone even remotely suspected of social deviancy – the UN’s term for anyone who wanted to live their own lives the way they wanted to live – and making the lives of those who stayed at home so miserable that they clamoured to be allowed to emigrate. And it still should have worked.

    Disaster had struck a few years later, when an enterprising UN bureaucrat had noted that there were hundreds of thousands of other ‘social deviants’ in <st1:country-region w:st="on">Spain</st1:country-region> – to say nothing of Spanish-speaking nation-states in Latin America – and <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> would serve as a convenient place to expel them, where they wouldn't be able to cause any more trouble on Earth. The original colonists had protested, only to discover that the small print of their settlement contract allowed the UN to take over if they hadn’t paid back the original loan – and they hadn’t even been able to begin to pay. Hundreds of thousands of unwilling immigrants had been dumped on <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>, ranging from Spaniards who might have been able to fit in to Mexicans and other Latin Americans who couldn’t. Social unrest began almost at once – <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>’s fragile government lacked the resources to take care of the immigrants – and turned to outright civil war within five years. And the UN kept dumping new immigrants into the caldron, blithely ignoring the civil war. Kat couldn’t decide if that had been genuine malice, or the signal lack of concern for reality shown by the UN’s planners in the years before the Breakaway Wars. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> had become independent, but no one had noticed. The civil war was still raging on…

    And it had kept raging on until King Thomas IV of Avalon had realised that <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> was likely to be annexed by the Theocracy within five years. The Theocracy hadn’t been powerful enough at the time to send in a battle squadron and bombard the planet into submission, but they had been working with some of the insurgency forces down on the planet’s surface, arming them to the point where they would be able to take over and appeal to the Theocracy for help. The King had pushed the Commonwealth into annexing <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> first, knowing that its position made it a priceless strategic location for any future war with the Theocracy. And the big corporations had supported the move, believing that they would be able to rebuild <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> and profit heavily from their anticipated economic boom. Instead, the locals had continued their civil war, while attacking the Commonwealth’s ground forces whenever they showed themselves. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> should have had its own space-based industry by now and an independent gas giant mining program that would have attracted further investment to the developing world. Instead, all of what little industry and mining programs there were was owned by off-world corporations – and mostly run by expatriates. The locals seemed unwilling to try to better themselves.

    The shuttle dropped through the planet’s atmosphere, heading down over the ocean and towards land. Kat leaned forward as the continent slowly came into view, and then started as two jet fighters soared past her. The Commonwealth had provided a large garrison for <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> in the hopes of keeping the peace, yet even with nearly a million soldiers and Marines on the surface the civil war kept raging. She glanced down at the update and winced. Orbital weapons had been ordered to fire down on the planet’s surface nearly once every day for the past two years. How could the locals live like this?

    She frowned as the city came into view. It should have been almost completely rebuilt from the prefabricated housing units the UN’s first colonisation teams had dropped from orbit. Instead, parts of the city seemed to be made up entirely of such estates, while the remainder looked rather unsteady – and blackened by war. Her implant’s library informed her that there were almost ten million humans crammed into New Barcelona; ten million when the city barely looked large enough for one! They would be practically living in one another’s pockets; hell, breeding had to be one of the main occupations down on the surface.

    “They picked up a report of some nut with a hypersonic SAM,” the pilot said. He didn’t seem too worried, but then he’d served with the Marines before transferring to the Navy to fly shuttles. His service record had placed him in the pilot’s chair during several daring Marine operations against ground targets. “I’m just spinning around the spaceport and we’ll approach from the other side.”

    Kat nodded, keeping the tension off her face by force of will. She no longer had an entire heavy cruiser wrapped around her, just a very fragile shuttle. A direct hit from a hypersonic SAM would blow the shuttle into a fireball before they had any time to eject. The spaceport was coming into view, a handful of prefabricated buildings and a landing field…surrounded by ground-based weapons and defence systems. She guessed that the reports of <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> she’d read had been very optimistic, and most of them had concluded that the only thing that might save the planet from itself was to separate all the warring factions by force and let them mature on different continents.

    The ground came up rapidly and she braced herself, just before the shuttle touched down surprisingly gently. She caught sight of a flash of light as a laser defence system engaged an incoming mortar shell, followed by a rotating gun firing a pair of shells back towards the insurgent mortar. No, she told herself. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> was very far from secure.

    “Captain Falcone?” A voice called. Kat turned to see an incredibly beautiful woman, wearing an army uniform that had been tailed specially for her. It had to have been, for it hugged her contours remarkably well – and in a manner Kat knew to be against regulations. “I’m Commander Jade. Welcome to <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>.”

    Kat almost laughed as another mortar shell exploded in midair. “Thank you,” she said. The smell of burning flesh started to drift across the field as the wind changed. “Is it always this welcoming?”
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “They call this place the Planet of the Hotheads,” Commander Jade explained, as they walked towards one of the spaceport buildings. She giggled, in a manner that would have been charming in a child, but very annoying in a grown woman. “The factions keep fighting each other and us. Buck says that they will learn their lesson soon enough, but I think they’ll just keep fighting. They’re too stupid, you see.”

    Kat felt a growing sense of dismay. ‘Buck’ had to be Admiral Buck Williams, the CO of the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet and effective Governor of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>. And Jade, who had introduced herself as the Admiral’s personal aide…Kat had no doubt in what capacity she served the Admiral. It made a mockery of her personal determination not to allow her feelings for Major Bone to get in the way of her professionalism – and even for an Admiral, it was completely against regulations. Either the Admiral had deviously managed to twist regulations to the point where Jade was not technically under his command – which would at least have suggested a devious mind – or he simply didn’t care. Kat would have preferred the former, but feared the latter.

    It was obvious that Jade was no soldier. Her body had been sculptured into one that would draw the attention of every man and woman in the room, regardless of their sexual orientation. Long auburn hair reached down towards her rear, braided into a single long pony tail that swung in the air, drawing attention to her perfect ass. Kat felt a hint of jealousy, before she reminded herself that her father’s money could have turned her into a goddess, if she had been so insecure in herself to have her features tailored to design. But then her mother had tailored her features, and Kat had little to complain about in her mother’s choice. If only she hadn’t looked so young!

    The Admiral’s transport said more about the true conditions on <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> than any of his reports. It was a massive black vehicle, studded with armour that would have stood up to a heavy plasma cannon long enough for the occupants to bail out and run for their lives. An escort of armed soldiers, checking and rechecking their weapons as they prepared for the ride through New Barcelona to the Admiral’s residence, completed the picture. It was a surprising amount of firepower to escort one lowly Captain and the Admiral’s personal assistant. Kat saw the glances some of the soldiers gave Jade and winced inwardly. They knew that she wasn't one of them, all right.

    Jade helped her up into the passenger compartment and went forward to speak to the driver, motioning for Kat to help herself to the onboard bar. Instead, Kat found a seat at the window and peered out as the vehicle lurched into life and started to head through a set of increasingly tough security checkpoints. There were hundreds of soldiers dedicated to keeping the spaceport safe, she realised in numb disbelief; what moron had designed it so close to the city, anyway? Or had the UN’s original settlers built the spaceport at a safe distance from the city and the city simply grown out to meet it? She pushed the thought out of her mind as Jade returned and refused a selection of expensive alcohol, all imported from Avalon. The vehicle was turning into the city streets.

    It was a nightmare. Many of the buildings were damaged, or were boarded up to protect them against attack. Massive piles of litter dominated the pavements, creating a public heath hazard worse than anything Kat had ever seen, even in the reports from the Theocracy. Hell, the religious policemen who kept the population in line would never have tolerated such squalor. There were rats and feral dogs feeding in the piles, for god’s sake!

    The population didn’t look much better. A handful of them, mainly young men, watched the convoy with defiant eyes. Women scurried along the streets, often escorted by other men carrying weapons, daring anyone to pick a fight with them. There were children and older women, Kat realised, but there seemed to be no women between thirteen and thirty. Jade told her, when she asked, that their mothers kept the girls locked up when they started their menses, knowing that a bride who wasn't a virgin wouldn't command a huge dowry. It shocked Kat when she realised that a handful of prostitutes had probably been respectable girls before they’d been seduced into losing their virginity – or raped – and had then been tossed out onto the streets by their families. And it was clear where the social lines diverged. Kat saw several different groups of young men staring at each other, neither willing to back down and lose face in front of their peers.

    “I don’t believe it,” she said. All of a sudden, the reports that expatriates were needed to run the orbital facilities seemed believable. The liberals back home claimed that the big corporations were deliberately stunting the planet’s economic growth, but it didn’t look to her as if they needed to bother. Besides, a well-trained local workforce would be worth its weight in gold. “How can they bear to live like this?”

    “Buck used to fund projects to improve the area,” Jade said. It didn’t look to Kat as if he’d tried very hard. “Every time one group of locals got on the bandwagon, the others would oppose it tooth and nail. They were more interested in blocking advancement than advancing themselves. And they don’t help.”

    Kat followed her pointing finger. A man wearing a priest’s vestments was walking down the street, shadowed by a group of ancient women wearing black robes. “The old religious order,” Jade explained. “The women will support the priest in everything he does, and make sure the hatred stays alive in the younger ones. If anyone tries to change the world, those old crones will drown them out and see that they’re excluded from their family. And without family they are nothing here.”

    She giggled. “Blood is much thicker than water here…”

    The attack came out of nowhere. A single missile slammed against the armoured vehicle and detonated harmlessly against the black armour. The soldiers opened fire at once, pouring a volley of bullets into the tenement building that shielded the attackers, while the Admiral’s transport picked up speed and headed out of the ambush zone. An explosion ahead of them marked an IED detonating under the influence of a command signal from the vehicle’s ECM, preventing it from detonating too close to them. A shudder that ran through the vehicle suggested that not all the IEDs had been forced to detonate earlier.

    It was over before Kat had fully registered that it had begun. The soldiers on the outside stayed alert as the vehicle turned the corner and headed down towards a large prefabricated wall, blocking the roadway. Kat realised that the building beyond the wall was the Governor’s Mansion, which had been built before <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> had become a dumping ground for human refuse. The contrast between the mansion and the squalor outside was unbelievable. For the first time, she understood the insurgents; if she'd lived in such conditions, she would be angry too.

    The vehicle drove through the barricade and stopped. “I’m sorry about this bit,” Jade said, as the hatch opened and they were escorted down by armed soldiers. “We can’t take precautions with Buck’s life, not after they tried to sneak an entire team of terrorists into the mansion.”

    Thirty minutes later, Kat ached from every orifice. The female security officers had been polite, but very firm; they’d carried out a full strip-search and checked everywhere that she might have hidden a weapon, before scanning her body with a sensor that picked up her naval implant and a handful of augmented surprises from her father’s security staff. There had been a long delay while she’d waited, naked, until they could confirm that she had the proper permits to have such augmentation. Kat had been fuming at the end of the search – not even the intrusive medical and physical checks she'd undergone when she’d enlisted at Piker’s Peak had been so unpleasant – but orders were apparently orders. Jade admitted, once they’d been allowed into the compound itself, that the insurgents had managed to bribe or suborn expatriates from time to time, forcing the security staff to search everyone who entered or returned to the compound. Strict, tight security was the order of the day.

    Or at least it was on the walls. Inside, it was another world. Kat looked around, ruefully aware that she had to be gaping like a schoolgirl. Uniformed officers rubbed shoulders with officials sent out by the Commonwealth to govern the ungovernable planet, chatting away happily about nothing while the Theocracy gathered on the borders and rebellion brewed outside the walls. She saw a line of ladies wearing dresses that would have shamed even her mother, being escorted into one of the mansion’s wings by a number of men wearing formal evening wear. It struck her that the Admiral and his allies had transplanted a slice of courtly life from Camelot City to Cadiz, seemingly unaware that outside humans lived in squalor that would have been unimaginable anywhere else in the Commonwealth. She couldn't believe her eyes.

    Commander Jade grabbed her arm, with as little respect for Kat’s rank as she had shown to anything else. “Come on,” she said. “The good food will be gone before we get there.”

    Kat stared at her. “I thought I was supposed to report to the Admiral,” she said, too stunned to really care that she was revealing her surprise to the Admiral’s aide. “I didn't come here to attend a party.”

    “But the Admiral did,” Jade said, with a brilliant smile. “He’ll see you somewhere inside the building, you may be sure. Come along, my dear.”

    She led Kat towards one of the massive doors leading into the mansion and past a bored-looking waiter wearing a uniform that make him appear impossibly stiff and formal. Inside, the music struck her at once, the tune of one of the courtly dances that had somehow refused to go out of fashion for nearly a hundred years. Kat looked around in disbelief. The hall was ornate, decorated with enough rare paintings and artworks to pay for a entire squadron of battleships, artworks she had the sickening feeling had been looted from Cadiz during the early years of the occupation. One of the waitresses, wearing a shirt so short that the merest hint of a bow would show off everything she had, offered Kat a glass of wine. She sniffed it and realised that it cost more than her annual salary for a single bottle. Her father could hardly have put on a better show for his guests, although most of them would have come because of who and what he was.

    “If you just want to wait here,” Jade said, “I’ll find the Admiral.”

    Kat opened her mouth to object, but it was already too late. Jade’s shapely rear was heading away from her, into the crowd. Kat stared after her, realised that she was gaping and pulled her public persona around her. She’d endured enough worthless parties before she’d worked up the nerve to abandon her family and enlist at Piker’s Peak. A few moments watching the crowd, she told herself firmly, wouldn't kill her.

    It took nearly thirty minutes for Jade to return. In that time, Kat turned down four invitations to dance from three young men and one woman, realised that there was enough food on the buffet tables to feed some of the starving masses outside and overhead a handful of conversations between a number of serving officers. There were at least nineteen Captains and seven Commodores at the feast, yet none of them were talking about their ships, or even the need to prepare for war.

    “I’ll let you have Crewman Briggs,” one said. “He’s a great striker...”

    “Excellent,” a second said. “You won’t regret it. We’ll take the Cadiz Cup for sure if we get a good striker and some luck. Bandar’s team are lacking in defence and...”

    “I had to discipline one of my tactical officers,” a third said, in tones of regret, even of shame. “He overshot our training missile allotment by forty percent. I don't know what I’ll do when the inspectorate comes calling and discovers that my training magazines are empty...”

    Jade returned before Kat could find the words to express her horror. “The Admiral will see you now,” she said. “I managed to convince him that you’d come all the way from Avalon and he agreed to meet with you before the party really started.”

    Fighting down the urge to ask what was going to happen if the party hadn’t really started, Kat followed her through a mass of pressed bodies and into a smaller set of chambers. A group of young men stared at the two women greedily, their eyes leaving trails of slime over Kat’s breasts. Jade ignored them and Kat followed her lead, fighting down the urge to activate one of her augmentations and ensure that at least one of them never felt any interest in women again. Who were the lads, she wondered, and what were they doing in the heart of government on Cadiz?

    “The Admiral’s family,” Jade explained, when Kat asked. “I’m afraid that Buck had to bring them with him. There was something about a scandal at Court, but you’ll know all about that, I’m sure.”

    Kat thought about pointing out that she’d spent as little time as possible at Court since she’d enlisted, but Jade probably wouldn't care. She pressed one delicate hand against a scanner, which opened a hidden doorway in the wall, revealing an office that was twice as impressive – and gaudy – as her father’s office on Avalon. Or maybe not; her father, whatever else could be said about him, had been secure in his position. Admiral Williams, it seemed, wanted to show off desperately, as if he feared losing everything. A single visit from a competent inspectorate team would have seen him heading home, facing court-martial for gross incompetence and misuse of naval funds.

    She took one look at Admiral Buck Williams and knew that he was a disaster in the making. The Admiral was stunningly handsome, the very picture of a Navy Admiral, with a tailored uniform that showed off his expensive body-sculpting to best advantage. Like his aide, who gave the Admiral a simpering smile that made Kat feel sick, he had spared no expense on his own appearance. He looked calm, confident and utterly reliable. His handshake was perfect. And he was clearly far too good to be true.

    “Captain Falcone,” the Admiral said. His voice was a rich baritone. If Kat hadn’t been able to see him, and the luxury surrounding him, she might have felt weak at the knees. Even his voice was perfect. “Welcome to Cadiz.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Kat said. She pulled her folder from under her arm – convincing the security officers to allow her to take it into the secure zone had been difficult – and presented it to the Admiral. He would have received a download of her report from when Lightning entered the system, but tradition dictated she presented him with a paper copy. “My report of the trip.”

    “Thank you,” the Admiral said. He should have opened the folder and at least skimmed through the first page. Instead, he put it on a table and looked up at her. “I'm sure it’s fine.”

    Kat was stung, despite herself. Every other report she’d made in her short career had been scrutinised by her superiors, who hadn't hesitated to rake her over the coals for any mistakes. She knew she’d done well with the pirates, but there were issues that any senior officer could have raised, if only to make sure she didn't get overconfident. And the Admiral hadn't even bothered to read either copy of her report!

    “I’m looking forward to what you can tell us about Court,” the Admiral continued. “My wife and I have been on this world for the last four years and we’ve quite lost touch with the fashions back home. I’m sure you can tell us all the latest fads and fashions and is it true that the King intends to marry Lady Buckingham...?”

    Kat stared at him, and then composed herself quickly. It wasn't easy. “I’m afraid that I haven’t had time to keep up with the latest fashions,” she said, truthfully. “I had to fit out my ship for operations and then...”

    “Oh, come now,” the Admiral said. “I'm sure your XO handled most of the work. Why, your mother is a known butterfly at Court and your father...”

    “My father and I don’t speak,” Kat said, more sharply than she intended. And it was almost true. All she wanted to do now was take her leave and return to her ship, back to a world that made sense. “And my mother barely remembers that I exist.”

    “I’m sure you know more than you think,” the Admiral said. She was surprised that she hadn't been rebuked for being impolite to a senior officer – and then everything clicked. The Admiral was trying to kiss up to her! No, not her; he was trying to kiss up to the daughter of Lucas Falcone. “And I hope that you enjoy your time on Cadiz Station. Why, we have some great parties here, the very life of the system. And I am always willing to allow young officers to hunt in the nearby forests, or enjoy themselves at the resorts...”

    Part of Kat wanted to argue, to ask why the Admiral wasn't preparing for war. The rest of her realised that it would be useless. And yet she had to try.

    “Admiral,” she said, carefully, “while we were in transit, we were attacked by pirate ships backed by a foreign power, almost certainly the Theocracy. Someone has been raiding our shipping, weakening our hold on this sector – and preparing a war.”

    “Nonsense,” the Admiral said, jovially. “I have it on excellent authority that the Theocrats have no designs on our space.” He clapped Kat on the shoulder and it took all of her willpower not to shrink away from his touch. “A well-bred girl like yourself shouldn't be worrying about such issues. Or non-issues, as I like to call them.”

    He smiled. “Go forth and enjoy the party,” he added. Kat would have sworn if she dared. The Admiral wasn't making preparations for war because he didn't take the threat seriously, damn him. They could probably take the system from under his nose while he was gorging himself at a feast. The Theocracy probably hadn't tried to assassinate him because his replacement could hardly be less competent. “Your XO will have everything in hand. Eat, drink and be merry!”

    Sure, Kat thought, as Jade escorted her from the room. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.
  17. Opinionated

    Opinionated Monkey+

    I'm really enjoying this story. Thank you very much! [beer][woot]
  18. flyaway

    flyaway Monkey+

    Cool, will the Moors win, or the Theocrats? Cadiz no less!
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The party proved to be as bad as Kat had feared.

    She’d hoped that there would be a quiet place to escape, or a way to get an escort back to the spaceport and a shuttle back to Lightning, but Jade clearly had orders to ensure that Kat made her social rounds. Her escort paraded her from room to room, introducing her to what she called the ‘movers and shakers’ of the Cadiz Government. Kat wasn't impressed with any of them, particularly after the word of whose daughter she was ran through the mansion. They seemed more intent on either kissing up for her or being publicly disdainful of her father, probably in an attempt to win political prestige. After the first few minutes, Kat found herself entertaining fantasies of donning a Marine combat suit and shooting her way out of the mansion, leaving thousands of dead political parasites behind. It could only have improved the government.

    Jade had explained, when Kat asked, that there were few local politicians and none of them had been invited to the ball. They weren’t regarded as part of the government by most of the expatriates from the Commonwealth, particularly not those who appealed to the people of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>. It seemed that few politicians who were prepared to work openly with the Commonwealth lasted long before being assassinated – and those who were prepared to work with the Commonwealth with the ultimate goal of achieving the internal autonomy enjoyed by all other Commonwealth worlds found themselves rejected by the Governor. If nothing else, the ball was an eye-opening experience, allowing her to learn the difference between the rosy picture painted by the official reports and reality. <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> was in a state of near-permanent insurrection against the Commonwealth – and almost certainly had agents from the Theocracy pouring gasoline on the fire.

    The other starship commanders might have offered her a chance to talk shop, rather than hours of icily polite socialising or favour-trading that marked the civilian expatriates, but few of them showed any interest in actually preparing for war. They spent most of their time polishing the decks than running exercises, while enjoying the relaxed life down on the surface. Kat didn’t need to visit their ships to guess that morale was way down, apart from those crewmen lucky enough to play football, basketball or any of the other games the Navy used to build teamwork and crew unity. The ships fielded their own teams, which competed against other teams and teams raised from the expatriates on the surface of the planet. She didn’t need to ask to know that there were no teams formed from the locals. They were barely considered civilised enough to play rugby, a game that the Navy had banned on the grounds of intense brutality.

    And all of it bored her to tears. Her mother would have been right at home, her father would have taken a handful of other businessmen and political figures into a private room for plotting and favour-trading; Kat was simply bored, and not a little depressed. How could the Admiral have allowed things to slide so badly? Even the most optimistic reports had claimed that <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> would need at least thirty years of peace before it could be considered for self-government, but it was a national disgrace. Listening to some of the conversations without making her interest apparent, a skill she’d learned at her mother’s incessant balls and parties, she started to realise that many of the expatriates had managed to turn their posts into opportunities to profit, opportunities that would be lost if Cadiz claimed autonomy. They might have claimed to be helping the locals, but the truth was that they were retarding the planet’s political development, just to keep profiting. It sickened her.

    For a long moment, she remembered the chip she’d been given, the direct line to her father. His influence hadn’t worked in her favour before, but she could push him into using his influence against the Admiral. She could have him relieved of command and a competent officer sent out to clean house and bring the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet into something reassembling battle-readiness. And yet the thought sickened her. It would be an abuse of power, precisely the kind of abuse she was supposed to have condoned to gain command of Lightning. The Admiral’s supporters would know what she’d done and it would be an end to her career in the Navy. No one would ever trust her again.

    She shook her head, considering other options. The Inspectorate General on <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> was clearly implicated in the Admiral’s abuses of power, or the Admiral would have been relieved and sent back home to face a Captain’s Board at Navy HQ. No one would have stood for his conduct; he’d be lucky merely to be dishonourably discharged and sentenced to remain on Avalon for the rest of his life. She could pass on a tip to Navy HQ, except they would only pay attention to it if she told them her name, and then her involvement would come out at the court-martial. Assuming the Admiral’s friends in high places didn’t block it…

    The thought struck her like a hammer. The only people who really benefited from the Admiral’s actions – or inactions – were the Theocrats. They were just across the border, only four days from <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>…and the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet was hardly ready to withstand a heavy offensive that caught it by surprise. Could the Admiral have made a deal with the Theocrats? Kat couldn’t imagine why anyone with the Admiral’s connections would have needed to form a relationship with the Commonwealth’s enemies, but it would have explained a great deal. With <st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City> permanently on the verge of an explosion and the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet ill-prepared to fight when the enemy fleet stormed over the borders, they wouldn't have too much trouble in securing <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place> before they carried on into the Commonwealth. For all she knew, the Theocrats had already secured many of their objectives on the planet and were preparing their final offensive.

    She looked over at Jade, who was chatting away about nothing. The Admiral’s aide and obvious sexual partner…could she know anything about his plans? And was she really as dumb as she seemed? Kat had met hundreds of empty-headed socialites in her life, and Jade seemed to be just another socialite in a Navy uniform, but there had been moments when something more complex seemed to be going on in her head. It was the one question she could never ask.

    “Ah, there you are,” an imperious female voice announced. It was strident, reminding her alarmingly of her mother’s booming voice when she wanted to honour a new friend or cut someone dead, leaving them to wither away in social obscurity. “I thought that you had left us.”

    Kat swallowed the response that came to mind as a tall and remarkably handsome woman of a certain age marched towards her. She was old enough that even the most expensive rejuvenation treatments couldn’t restore her lost youth, but her face had been sculptured until her every inch suggested character, refinement and a certain confidence that everything would go her way. Kat had met enough society dames to know how they thought, a multitude of mothers, grandmothers and aunts who watched over the younger socialites and steered them in amusing directions. They allowed themselves a certain cruelty that would have shamed younger women; having lost their youth and beauty, they chose to express their disdain for those who still looked young by manipulating them. A single poisonous word from one of them in the right ears, under a vow of confidence that everyone knew would be broken a second later, could destroy a life. Kat’s instincts recognised a genuine threat when she saw one, even though it was pathetic. A single blow to the woman’s throat would have snapped it and killed her, even with the best medical treatment.

    “You mustn’t leave without meeting my sons,” she said, taking Kat’s arm without permission. The urge to break free and run was overpowering. “They are very interested to meet you, a girl so young and glamorous and attractive…”

    And very well-connected, Kat said. She had finally placed the overbearing lady as Annette Williams, the wife of the Admiral. Her mother would have been able to recite everything about Annette Williams, although she would have definitely have been in the lower half of High Society on Avalon. That might have explained the Admiral’s willingness to exile himself to <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:City></st1:place>, where his wife could be a social queen.

    “I fear that Valentine and Claude have been unsuccessful in their search for wives,” the Admiral’s wife continued. Kat saw a flicker of sympathy in Jade’s eyes as she was escorted through two rooms, each filled with socialites eating and drinking their fill, before the door closed between them. “They are really quite picky, my boys. They want to be sure that they have the right person before they commit themselves.”

    Kat had no difficulty in reading between the lines. As little more than a contemptible social climber, the Admiral’s wife would have vetoed any potential daughter-in-law who didn’t meet her requirements, which included opening doors to the upper levels of High Society. Kat’s mother had married very well, as had two of her sisters. And Annette Williams was very low on the social ladder compared to them. If Kat were to marry one of her sons, the Admiral’s wife would be the true beneficiary.

    The private room was guarded by an armed guard wearing a uniform that made him look alarmingly conspicuous. Kat couldn’t tell if he was there to keep uninvited guests out or to keep the Admiral’s sons inside the room. Annette marched her through with a nod to the guard – a lack of security that puzzled Kat, given what she’d had to go through to enter the secure zone – and into the room. Two indolent boys, one a year older than Kat, according to the Admiral’s file, looked up at her. One had used cosmetic surgery to transform his face and physique into that of a Greek God; the other had a flabby lazy face, with eyes that seemed to suggest infinitive malice. He reminded Kat of a snake hiding in the grass, waiting to strike at an unwary victim.

    “My sons, Valentine and Claude,” Annette announced. Valentine, the handsome boy, gave her a smile that would have charmed her, if they’d met unannounced. The other boy gave her a long slow look, and then dismissed her as unworthy of his attention. Kat wasn't sure if it was an act, or if he’d been taking something that was mildly frowned upon back on Avalon. “They really are such good boys.”

    “Pleased to meet you,” Valentine said. He had the grace to look mildly embarrassed by his mother’s praise, suggesting that he knew precisely what was going on. “Do you enjoy hunting?”

    Kat scowled. The truth was that she’d never hunted, even when the pastime had come into fashion again back on Avalon. Hunting defenceless animals had never been her idea of fun, although there were a few animals native to Avalon that were far from defenceless. The hunters who set off after the wild Spinet often came back with savage injuries, or never came back at all. A few wags had joked that the animals had sent messengers to Court, asking the King to send them more hunters. Kat hadn’t thought the joke very funny. Besides, she’d hunted pirates while serving on the Pond.

    “She’s hunted humans,” Claude said. His voice was dry, almost emotionless. “That isn’t a fake uniform she’s wearing.”

    Valentine gave his younger brother a look that warned him to keep his mouth shut. “You should come hunting tomorrow,” he said, with a wink that suggested that he knew where she could spend the night. “We fly to the resort, away from the spics on the surface, and ride out after the lions and tigers in the safari park. And if we have time after that we will go to the beach and party as the sun goes down.”

    Kat shook her head, firmly. “I have to return to my ship,” she said. She was damned if she was going to stay much longer at the party. Right now, she would have been grateful for an insurgent attack…although if the Theocracy chose this moment to attack <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>, the 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet would have most of its commanding officers down on the surface. If the ones she’d overhead were typical, the unit efficiency would probably double without them. The confusion alone would allow the Theocracy ships to get within firing range before anyone reacted. “I won’t have any time for hunting.”

    “My father will be happy to grant you all the time in the world to hunt,” Valentine said, with another wink. He didn’t mind abusing his father’s position, clearly. “You have staff that can take care of the ship, don’t you? I’m sure they won’t notice that you’ve gone…”

    Somehow, Kat held the red rage in check. One good punch in the right place and, for all his oversized physique, Valentine would fall like a house of cards. He didn’t know anything of responsibility, let alone the concept that power brought responsibility. Her father had raised Peter, her elder brother, far better than that, but then all it would really take was one bad or incompetent CEO and Consolidated Industries Incorporated would collapse and take most of the Commonwealth’s economy with it. And the Admiral’s wife believed that she would happily marry such an indolent child…! Kat would have gleefully thrown him onto the streets of <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> and see how well he survived without his father’s money and protection.

    “I have my duty,” she said, icily. Annette looked as if she was going to say something, but Kat cut her off with a glare. If she really wanted Kat’s presence at any of her future parties, she wouldn't be able to give Kat a sharp lecture on behaving herself. Besides, Kat doubted that even the reigning social queen would be able to muster the kind of lethal verbal blast so beloved of her instructors at the Academy. Some of them had been able to make cadets shiver with a single gimlet eye. “And I have left my ship for quite long enough.”

    She turned and strode up to the door, daring Annette to stop her. The Admiral’s wife did nothing as Kat opened the door and walked past the guard, who nodded politely to her retreating back. Behind her, there was the sound of a slap. Kat’s lips twitched as she shook her head at one of the more enthusiastic young men and headed out into the gardens. The Admiral’s wife was clearly already expecting to feel the wrath of Kat’s mother…and, scenting weakness, all the other ladies of High Society would join in. Not that Kat had any intentions of mentioning her troubles to her mother. She preferred to talk to her mother as little as possible.

    It was dark outside, with the bright lights of the city in the distance and the stars high overhead, twinkling down at her. They were joined by other lights, space installations orbiting the planet, protecting a world that didn’t want to be protected. Kat suspected that even the Theocracy would have problems imposing its will on <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City>, although it wouldn't be long before they achieved an uneasy peace, even if they did have to kill half of the population to pacify the rest. They’d done worse, according to the refugees, but few of the reports had ever been verified.

    The garden was lit up by little balls of light, revealing a layout that contrasted sharply with the interior of the mansion. There were patches of grass and plants, laid out in a pattern that allowed the guests to wander through them and down towards the lake – and into coppices that would provide cover for young lovers, if they wanted some privacy. Kat felt oddly calm as she strode down towards the dim lake, noticing the presence of ducks in the water, calling to their mates as they headed towards their nest. It all seemed so safe and tranquil.

    In the distance, she could hear the sound of gunfire, echoing out from the city. New <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Barcelona</st1:place></st1:City> was dim, unlike Camelot or almost any other city in the rest of the Commonwealth. There were few lights brightening the sky and hiding the stars in their glow, just a handful of lights and a pair of fires. A helicopter swooped overhead, hunting for insurgents. God alone knew what they thought they would find.

    “Hey,” a voice said. “You don’t have to walk away from me.”

    Kat turned around to see Valentine running towards her. His face was flushed, but unmarked, suggesting that it had been Claude who’d been slapped. That was odd, unless Annette doted on her eldest son and used the younger one as a whipping boy. She’d seen worse from the parents of society children in the past.

    “I could show you around,” Valentine continued, as he stopped in front of her. “I’ve been slipping outside and meeting people, real people. I could show you wonders and glories, or introduce you to new pleasures…”

    “I’m not interested,” Kat said, sharply. And to think she’d been worrying about her former relationship with Bone! Did Valentine think that she was her sister Candy, who’d been known to have no less than four boyfriends at any one time, or Rosemary, who had a habit of getting engaged and then breaking the engagement before tying the knot? “I don’t have the time…”

    “You don’t walk away from me,” Valentine said. He reached out to grab her arm. “I am trying to talk to you…”

    That did it. Kat knocked his hand away and rammed her fist into his stomach. He folded over and staggered to the side, slipping and falling into the lake. There was a splash as he hit the water, and then a series of undignified struggles that suggested that the lake wasn't deep enough to drown him. Kat watched long enough to ensure that he wasn't going to drown and then walked away, back towards the guardpost. They could get her an escort back to the shuttle.

    She didn’t look back.
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “It’s been quite a while, Jeremy,” Fran said. “I was thinking that you’d forgotten me.”

    Commander Jeremy Damiani smiled, uncomfortably. Commander Fran Higgins had been a Lieutenant on the battleship Pegasus, serving under then-Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Damiani as part of the tactical staff. They’d stayed in touch over the years, exchanging letters through the StarCom network, but they’d never served together again. Jeremy had intended to ask for her as his XO when he gained his first command. He thought highly of her; in some ways, the young Lieutenant she’d been reminded him of Captain Falcone.

    “Life’s been busy,” he said. Fran had been a good friend, but one of the prices paid for naval service was rarely seeing friends, no matter how close they were. “I was pleased to hear about your promotion. You deserved it.”

    Fran ran her hand through her brown hair. As a lieutenant, she’d cut it short, but she’d allowed it to grow out since her promotion. Her elegant face was solely her own, without cosmetic sculpting; part of his mind noted that she’d grown up a great deal from the young woman who’d served under him.

    “Matter of opinion,” she said, finally. Jeremy frowned. He’d yet to meet any newly-promoted officer who questioned their fitness for promotion, although many of them had worried that they wouldn't be able to carry out their new duties. “I think I’d have preferred to serve with you, or even Captain Christian.”

    “You’re an XO,” he said. Captain Christian had been a martinet, a commanding officer who ran a very tight ship and God help the officer who screwed up while on duty. His crews had respected him, but none of them had loved him. “It’s not exactly a dishonourable position.”

    “I’m Captain in all, but name,” Fran said. She took a sip of her glass and checked the privacy shield. It had taken hours of careful planning before they’d been able to meet, because they were both very busy on their ships. Captain Falcone had returned from the surface looking angry enough to wilt young officers with her glare and immediately ordered a series of drills and exercises to keep the crew on their toes. “I do pretty much all of the work on the Defiant.”

    She spoke sharply, in short choppy sentences, and Jeremy listened carefully. The Defiant was one of the older battleships, a vessel that had been heavily refitted over the years to allow it to keep up with the latest construction. There were enough problems in operating a refitted starship to merit additional engineering and tactical staff, if only because the ship required constant maintenance. And yet, with the Cadiz Naval Base only a few dozen kilometres away, keeping the ship operational should have been easy. The crew would probably get afflicted with the creeping crud that drove bored young men and women to act up, but a stiff program of drills – and leave on the nearby planet – should have helped with that problem.

    But the ship’s commander was one of the Admiral’s confidents and spent most of his time down on the planet’s surface, enjoying himself, while his crew slowly went to pieces. Fran was tougher than she looked, and she had the support of four companies of Marines, but it was growing increasingly hard to maintain discipline. It didn’t help that shore leave on <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Cadiz</st1:place></st1:City> was officially forbidden after a number of junior officers had been kidnapped and ransomed back to the RAN by one set of insurgents or another. The only recreational facilities that were deemed safe were on one of the lunar bases, but they were run by a consortium more interested in skimming every last penny from the crewmen rather than ensuring a relaxing shore leave for the young officers and crew. Besides, a number of prostitutes imported from the planet below had turned out to be carrying diseases that had been unaccountably missed during their recruitment. The Navy had been forced to divert medics from the starships to cope with a sudden epidemic that had crippled hundreds of crewmen.

    “Give us a few more months and we won’t be even remotely fit for duty,” Fran concluded. “Right now, I have written orders not to run any live-fire exercises since the Captain discovered that I had requisitioned expensive drones to use as targets, and you know there’s only so far you can go with simulations. I’ve had to brig a couple of dozen men for building illicit stills or importing drugs from the planet – God alone knows how they slipped them through the Shore Patrol and up into the ship. Hell, I’m not even sure how they got the drugs in the first place!”

    Jeremy could guess. There was no reason why one of the officers who went down to the surface couldn’t serve as a witting or unwitting drugs mule for the conspirators. He could pick up the drugs, transport them to one of the orbital stations and then tranship them to the battleship, despite regulations that ordered dire penalties for any form of drug use onboard ship. The RAN didn’t really worry about what its personnel did while on shore leave, as long as they were still fit for duty when they returned, but drug and alcohol abuse onboard ship was a different matter. It could have the most unpleasant consequences.

    “The Captain needs to deal with them personally, but he won’t come up from the surface to pass judgement and he won’t devolve the authority on me,” Fran added. It wasn't likely that the Captain would devolve his authority to judge his crew, not when it was tied into the Captain’s immense authority on his own ship. Regulations might actively forbid it, even if he tried. “The longer I keep them there, the longer the whole problem is going to fester.”

    She shook her head. “I’m sorry for unloading all this on you,” she admitted. The XO wasn't quite as isolated as the Captain, but it seemed as though Fran was taking all the work on her shoulders. “I don’t know what’s been happening here.”

    “It’s all right,” Jeremy said, awkwardly. He’d never been good with people who unloaded their problems on his shoulders - particularly ones that they believed couldn’t be solved. Technically, Fran’s duty was probably to inform the Inspectorate General that her Captain was unsuitable for command, but that was something that would be frowned upon in the Navy. And besides, given a rather incompetent IG, there was a good chance that it could be considered mutiny, a capital offence. “Is your ship the only one to have problems?”

    “No,” Fran admitted. “I think that most of the battleships have similar problems; I heard a rumour that the Hood suffered an actual mutiny which had to be quashed by the ship’s Marines. The smaller units are in better shape because they actually do patrols and escort duties, but even they are being slowly ground down by this place. We need a new broom to sweep the entire naval base clean, and we’re not going to get it. Morale is rock-bottom, Jeremy. If the Theocracy decides to attack…”

    Jeremy nodded. He knew exactly what she meant.

    Kat had spent the first day after the disastrous party expecting a summons to attend her own court-martial. The Admiral would be hardly likely to overlook his own son being knocked into a lake and almost drowned, even if his son was a boor who was probably far too used to getting his own way. She’d actually spent part of her time fretting over which piece of the Navy’s extensive regulations would be used to court-martial her; striking a superior officer was a very grave offense, but she couldn't remember if striking a superior officer’s son was covered by the regulations. If nothing else, the Admiral could probably charge her with disrespecting a superior officer’s authority, convene a Captain’s Board composed of his tame Captains and throw the book at her. The board members were supposed to be chosen randomly, but the Admiral had most of the Captains stationed at Cadiz eating out of the palm of his hand. They’d be bound to convict her.

    She’d ordered new drills and exercises for the crew, ignored the handful of department heads who wanted to raise the issue of shore leave and gone to bed in her cabin expecting that it would be the last night she spent in command of a ship. In the morning, she checked her console and discovered to her surprise that no thunderbolt had materialised. Indeed, the list of spare parts requisitioned by her subordinates had been approved by the Admiral’s office and were already being shipped out to Lightning. Puzzled, she’d mulled it over while eating a hasty breakfast and finally realised the truth. The Admiral was still determined to use her father’s name to his advantage – and if that meant overlooking his son taking an unexpected swim, then that was what he was going to do. Kat could almost imagine the scene as the son had stormed to his father, demanding retribution, only to be overridden by his father and mother. God knew she’d heard enough such scenes between her mother and her older sisters. Kat almost smiled as she pulled on her uniform, before realising that it was yet another sign that all was not well on Cadiz Station. The Admiral hadn't even bothered to call her with the express intention of tearing her a new asshole.

    There was no need to maintain a standing watch on the bridge while station-keeping, but Kat – following the example of her previous commander – had insisted that the senior crew continue to stand regular watches. When she went onto the bridge herself, she ordered the three officers with her to continue running drills – apart from the secondary tactical officer, who was charged with keeping an eye on near-orbit space – and started to read the downloads from Cadiz Station. She didn’t have the access to request copies of the reports the various ship commanders should have filed, but she’d been an XO and she knew how to read between the lines. The 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet was nowhere near ready for a battle.

    “We’ve completed the installation of the new components,” Lynn informed her, two hours after she started reading the downloads. The Engineer had been working to replace one of the drive nodes, which had blown only two days from Cadiz. It wasn't a serious problem in itself, but losing more than three or four nodes would have forced them to use the fixed gateway to leave hyperspace, rather than opening the gateway themselves. “Everything is up and running again.”

    “Good,” Kat said, absently. “My compliments to your crew.”

    “Thank you, Captain,” Lynn said. There was a slight pause, just long enough to tell her that he was going to raise an awkward subject. “Captain, about shore leave...”

    Kat scowled. Traditionally, if a starship spent more than a week in hyperspace, the crew were entitled to at least a few days shore leave when they arrived on station. She couldn't blame any of her crew for wanting to rest – and indulge themselves with the pleasures of Cadiz, such as they were – but she wasn't sure that she dared let any of them go. There were few pleasures on the surface of the planet for junior officers and crew, while any attempt to leave the secure zones meant that they ran a risk of being kidnapped, or simply assassinated by one or more of the factions. Her instincts said to refuse any request for shore leave, yet that would damage the morale of the crew.

    “I’ll discuss the matter with the XO and then post a shore leave schedule,” Kat said, finally. The XO should be on his way back to Lightning by now; he’d requested permission to meet a friend on the nearby space station and Kat had authorised it with only a momentary pang of concern. “Is there any other business?”

    Lynn disconnected, leaving Kat to keep scrolling through the reports, reading between the lines as best as she could. It was beyond her how the IG had missed the effective collapse of an entire fleet, let alone the almost regal court the Admiral had created down on the surface. Had they been bribed, or were they merely incompetent – or was there treason at work? The impulse to use the encryption chip and send a message to her father was almost overwhelming. Didn’t she owe it to the RAN to bring the situation to the attention of superior authority?

    She was still mulling it over – procrastinating, she recognised – when the tactical officer coughed for her attention. “Captain, we have a shuttle on approach vector,” he reported. “It’s pilot claims that he’s carrying a personal message from the Admiral to you.”

    Kat frowned. “Allow him to dock,” she said. Why would the Admiral send her a personal message? Perhaps she’d been wrong and he was merely awaiting the right moment to come down on her like a ton of reinforced concrete. She decided, after a moment’s thought, that she would meet the messenger in her cabin. “You have the bridge.”

    The messenger turned out to be a very young Ensign, so young that he barely looked old enough to enlist. Kat had heard that some promising officers were offered positions working as gofers for various senior officers, but none had ever offered to employ her in any capacity. He bowed, rather than saluted, presented her with a creamy white envelope sealed with the Admiral’s signature and snapped to attention, waiting for her reply. Kat, perplexed, opened the envelope and read the message quickly, ignoring the fine penmanship the writer had shown to the world. It was a set of operational orders for her ship.

    To Captain Falcone, HMS Lightning. You are ordered to attach your ship to Convoy Theta-36253 and provide escort to UNAS-3523, where you will hand over escort duties to starships of the Theocratic Navy and receive into your care seven freighters which you will escort to Cadiz, at which point you will make yourself available for further orders. God save the King. Signed; Admiral Williams, 6<SUP>th</SUP> Fleet, Cadiz Station.

    The Ensign leaned forward. “Will there be any reply, Captain?”

    Kat almost giggled. This was the Admiral’s revenge?

    “No, thank you,” she said, already considering the possibilities. The Admiral probably thought that he was punishing her by sending her away from Cadiz and its endless round of parties, at least for senior officers. Kat couldn't hide her amusement, not completely. Independent command was every competent officer’s dream and he thought he was punishing her? “Please inform the Admiral that his orders have been acknowledged and I will comply.”

    She half-expected to be told that she had to write out a reply, but the young puppy – and he was young, even compared to her – merely saluted, braced himself and marched out of the cabin, every inch a young officer charged with an important mission. Kat lost control and collapsed into giggles as soon as the hatch had hissed closed behind him, feeling the first burst of real amusement since she’d assumed command shaking her body helplessly. The Admiral’s punishment...and she got to keep her crew away from Cadiz! He couldn't have rewarded her any better than this so-called punishment.

    Still smiling, she keyed her wristcom. “Mr. XO, please report to my cabin,” she ordered. “We have a mission to plan.”

    Jeremy hadn't realised just how much he intended to tell the Captain until he entered her cabin and started outlining everything Fran had told him. Over the last month, after the pirate attack, he’d started to feel more than a little competence in his commanding officer. She was still young, and more than a little naive in some respects, yet there was definite promise there. Jeremy had been turning young officers into competent personnel ever since he’d been promoted to Commander and, in some ways, the Captain was no different. Not that he ever intended to tell her that, of course. Hell hath no fury like a newly-promoted officer who thought that his subordinates were undermining his authority.

    “My God,” the Captain said, when he’d finished. Her own story wasn't much better than Fran’s, although thankfully Fran had never been invited down to the surface. “What kind of madhouse have they sent us to?”

    “There’s no such thing as bad personal,” Jeremy quoted, “merely bad commanding officers. The Admiral doesn't care and his attitude has slipped down to the lower ranks as surely as **** rolls downhill. They stopped caring because their superiors didn't keep their noses to the grindstone...”

    He recalled Captain Christian, the tyrant. Whatever else could be said about him, he’d run a tight ship and he was always the first one into danger. And if he’d seen Cadiz Station, he’d have had a heart attack on the spot. He’d been promoted to Commodore, if Jeremy recalled correctly, but he had no idea where the Navy had seen fit to send him afterwards.

    “Never mind that for the moment,” the Captain said, finally. “The Admiral has given us our marching orders.” She passed him a datapad and allowed him to view the convoy schedule. “We leave in two days, barely long enough to get ready to depart. And then there’s the issue of shore leave...”

    Jeremy nodded. “The crew can rotate through the lunar facilities,” he said. “A chance to blow their pay on some fresh food, wine, women and song – mainly the women, I think – will do most of them some good. They’ll accept that you had no choice, but to cut their leave short.” He shrugged. “Although you may want to think hard before allowing anyone to go down to the planet’s surface. Something tells me that the military on the ground won’t be very good at recovering kidnapped spacers.”

    The Captain stared at him. “But they’ve had plenty of experience...”

    “They only control the planet because we hold the high orbitals,” Jeremy pointed out. Major Bone could have made the same point, but he was working with his Marines and hadn’t been invited to the cabin. “They can't hold the entire planetary surface with only a million soldiers – and I’d bet you anything you care to put forward that there are entire regions that are completely out of control. There are five billion locals down there and all of them hate us.”

    He allowed his voice to darken. “And just think what could happen if the Theocracy took out the fleet and the orbital stations,” he added. “There would be a very bloody slaughter and that would be the end of the Commonwealth’s rule over Cadiz.”

    The Captain didn't disagree.
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