Original Work The Trafalgar Gambit (Ark Royal III)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, May 18, 2014.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, Everyone
    The Trafalgar Gambit is Book III of the Ark Royal series, following Ark Royal and The Nelson Touch. I intend it to be the last book in the trilogy, but I do have ideas for another series following it (and a stand-alone spin-off covering the Battle of Earth). As always, comments are very welcome; spelling corrections and nitpicking even more so.
    You can download samples of previous books from Kindle Books
    A word of warning. May and June are going to be tricky months for me, so there will be days between updates. (There will definitely be a break on Tuesday.) I’ll do my best to keep this under control, but as we will be moving house it won’t be easy. Please bear with me a little.
    Most characters in the series have been named, but if you want a cameo let me know.
    In other news, Lessons in Etiquette is now available - Amazon.com: Lessons in Etiquette (Schooled in Magic) eBook: Christopher G. Nuttall: Kindle Store
    Chris
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 25, 2015
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue
    (Heinlein Colony; Two Years Before Vera Cruz.)
    “Well,” Ira said. “Aren’t you glad you came all this way?”
    Jill Pearlman hesitated, then glanced out over the water. The sun had set hours ago, but the moonlight illuminated a warm lagoon, with water lapping gently against the sandy shore. It was completely isolated from the colony five miles to the south, largely unseen by human eyes. Ira had boasted he was the first person to set eyes on the lagoon.
    “Yes,” she said, shaking her head. “But did we have to come all this way?”
    Ira grinned at her, his teeth gleaming white against his dark skin. “Yup,” he said. He turned, then moved towards the beach. “Come on!”
    Jill watched him run, shedding clothes as he moved, then blinked in surprise as she realised he’d stripped himself completely bare. His ass winked at her as he paused on the very edge of the shore, then splashed into the water. She hesitated, unsure if she wanted to skinny-dip, then ran after him, almost tripping over his trousers and the gun he’d left on the beach.
    “It’s warm,” he called. “Come on in!”
    “Coming,” Jill said.
    She removed her shirt and trousers, then hesitated before adding her bra and panties to the pile of clothing. Ira was fun, and she knew her parents approved of him, but she wasn't sure she wanted to allow their relationship to get so intense so quickly. And yet ... she pushed her doubts to one side and splashed into the water. It was warmer than she’d expected, now the sun had gone down. But it was definitely lovely.
    “I told you so,” Ira said, as she swam out to meet him. His eyes flickered to her breasts, then looked back at her face and remained fixed there. “It’s lovely out here.”
    Jill let out a sigh as she flipped over and stared up at the rising moon. She'd pitched all sorts of fits when her parents had announced that the Heinlein Society was setting up its own colony world – and that they would be among the first colonists. They’d wanted to leave overpopulated and overregulated Earth, but all Jill had been able to think about was leaving her friends behind. And Earth’s facilities. She’d fought, for nothing.
    And I’m glad I lost, she admitted, in the privacy of her own mind. This isn't Earth.
    The colony was only three years old, but the settlers had already created a number of farming settlements, including the homestead Jill and her family worked. Life was slower than it was on Earth, without entertainment movies or VR downloads, yet there was something about it that made her feel content, something she’d never truly felt on humanity’s homeworld. And her relationship with Ira felt better, more wholesome, than anything she’d had on Earth. She didn't feel any pressure to move faster or to have loveless sex with him ...
    She turned and smiled at Ira, then dived under the water and swam away from him, daring the young man to follow. Heinlein had few higher forms of life; the settlers had introduced various breeds of fish as well as cows, sheep and pigs, monitoring their progress as they swarmed and multiplied in the endless oceans. Jill had been told that, one day, they would be able to fish as much as they liked, but for the moment they were restricted in what they could take from the waters. Not that she really cared, she had to admit. She preferred lamb or beef to fish.
    Ira caught up with her as she stopped and rested her feet on the sandy seabed. Jill turned to reach for him ... and froze as the moonlight revealed something in the water. For a moment, she was convinced she was seeing things. Heinlein had no sharks or dolphins, nothing that might be dangerous to human swimmers. And yet ... the water ripped where the shape had been, just under the surface. Something was definitely there.
    “What?” Ira asked. He was more sensitive than any of the boys she’d known on Earth, more able to read her moods. “Jill ...”
    “Look,” Jill stammered. The shape seemed to be growing larger. “What is that?”
    Ira turned, just in time to see the shape burst through the surface and out into the open air. It looked humanoid, but it clearly wasn't human. Jill screamed in shock as it faced them, one long leathery hand reaching out towards the humans. Water dripped from its skin as it stared at then, as shocked to see the humans as the humans were to see them. Jill shivered, feeling suddenly cold, then started to back off towards the shore. Heinlein had no higher life forms, she knew. And yet she was staring at evidence of ... what?
    “Get back to shore,” Ira said, through clenched teeth. “Hurry!”
    They’d been stupid, Jill realised, as she splashed through the water. It suddenly seemed very difficult to move. They were so far from the colony homesteads that they couldn't help to attract attention, no matter how loudly they shouted. Behind her, she heard Ira calling out to the creature, trying to speak to it. Jill reached the shore and turned, just in time to see the creature advancing towards Ira. Panic overcame her and she ran for his clothes, then scooped up the gun in one hand. Her parents had drilled her again and again until she was an excellent shot, cautioning her that she might need to be able to defend herself one day. But they’d never envisaged this ...
    Ira started to back off ... and the creature followed him, its leathery hands waving frantically, as if it were trying to say something. But Jill couldn't hear a sound, apart from a very faint rasp that echoed unpleasantly on the air. She couldn't understand what she was seeing. Was the creature actually intelligent? Or was it a previously undiscovered form of life? The planet was big, after all. There might be anything outside the colony’s walls.
    “Get back to the farm,” Ira ordered. “Tell them about ...”
    He stumbled and fell backwards into the water. The creature kept advancing towards him, its hands reaching out as if it intended to pick him up and carry him into the deep waters. Jill shouted, but the creature showed no reaction. Desperately, she lifted the gun, snapped off the safety and fired, just once. The creature stumbled as her bullet struck its head ...
    ... And collapsed back into the water.
     
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One
    The devastation stretched as far as the eye could see.
    Admiral Sir Theodore Smith stared down as the shuttle made its way towards London, struggling to keep his face and emotions under control. Like all of the officers and crew in the Royal Navy, he had sworn an oath to put himself and his body between his country and war’s desolation. But the scene below the shuttle was proof that he and his fellows had failed to keep Britain safe. The country had been devastated.
    He sucked in his breath as he looked down at what had once been towns and cities, fertile countryside and harbours. The aliens hadn’t targeted British soil directly, but it had hardly mattered. They’d landed a massive warhead in the Atlantic Ocean, which had triggered tidal waves that had washed over Britain and Ireland, Spain and Portugal. No one had anticipated an attack on such a scale, not even after Vera Cruz. Uncounted millions were dead, millions more were unaccounted for. The country hadn't suffered devastation on such a scale in all of living memory, if ever. Not even World War II had come close to slaughtering so many British citizens.
    A feeling of horror, mixed with despondency, grew in his breast as he tracked the passage of the tidal waves eastward. Penzance and Cardiff, Bristol and Bournemouth, had been drowned beneath the massive tidal waves. The Brecon Beacon National Park, where the British Army had put its recruits through hell for hundreds of years, had been washed away into nothingness. Only the presence of Ireland, he knew, had kept more of the western coastline from being drowned under the waves. And yet the devastation had still not come to an end. So much water had been vaporised and thrust into the upper atmosphere that it had yet to stop raining over parts of the country. Floods were an ever-present threat.
    He’d seen pictures, of course, broadcast over the datanet by reporters eager to claim the first scoops from the devastated zone. There were images of horror, of dead bodies piled up as the tidal waves receded or looters making their way into the devastated areas to loot, yet those images hadn't seemed quite real. Devastation on such a scale was far beyond his imagination, even though he’d been a serving naval officer for what felt like an eternity. And yet, now, he knew he wasn't even looking at the worst of it. Far too many countries had lost millions of lives in the wake of the alien attack on Earth. And entire complexes in space had been destroyed with all hands.
    Down below, he knew, there were thousands of refugee camps for survivors, policed by the military. There had been nothing like it in Britain since the Troubles – and even the Troubles, at their worst, had been on a much smaller scale. The social fabric that made up the British nation had been badly damaged, perhaps shattered. He’d accessed news sites as the shuttle made its way towards Earth, only to discover a non-stop liturgy of horror. Food riots, protests against refugees ... outright defiance of the government’s authority. No matter how he tried to be optimistic, part of him couldn't help wondering if he was looking at the final days of mankind.
    The devastation faded slightly as the shuttle picked up speed, heading towards London, but it wasn't normal. Floods covered large tracts of land, a small army convoy made its way through devastated fields and a large refugee camp covered what had once been a farm. If the Troubles hadn't taught the government the wisdom of making sure Britain could feed itself, Ted knew, it would have been a great deal worse. But it was already bad enough ...
    He sighed as London came into view, then winced in horror as he saw the flooding. London had always been vulnerable to floods, but the safety precautions seemed to have failed in the wake of the alien attack. Or perhaps it was the rain, part of his mind noted. London was on the wrong side of the country to have a tidal wave marching up the river, smashing everything in its past. One of the datanet interviews had been with a scientist who had claimed the aliens had deliberately set out to melt the icecaps. Ted couldn't help wondering why the aliens would have bothered.
    But they live below the waves, he thought, as the shuttle slowed to a hover over London, then dropped down towards Heathrow Spaceport. They might see advantage in drowning the human race, then taking our world.
    Raindrops splashed off the shuttle’s portholes as it touched down, sending shivers running down Ted’s spine. He’d travelled in space, even flying cloudscoop missiles through Jupiter’s atmosphere as a young man, but he’d never been comfortable flying through the rain. He knew it was safe, yet part of him had always been scared. It was funny how he’d never had any problems in space ...
    He rose, then looked towards his travelling companion. “Lieutenant?”
    Lieutenants Janelle Lopez looked up at him, her eyes dead and cold. Ted felt a flicker of pity, despite the certain knowledge there were people outside the shuttle who were far worse off. Janelle had blighted her career through pressing for assignment to Ark Royal, the Royal Navy’s outdated space carrier, when assignment to Ark Royal was normally reserved for officers and crew the Royal Navy couldn’t be bothered to discharge. She might not even have been promoted if Ark Royal hadn't proved to be the only ship capable of standing up to the aliens in open battle. And yet she’d proved herself under fire ...
    But it isn't her service that brings her to London now, Ted thought, as he helped her to her feet. The fire had gone out of her when she’d discovered her lover was dead – and who he’d really been. And I wouldn't have brought her here at all, if it had been up to me.
    “Come on,” he said, gently. “It’s time to face the music.”
    The hatch opened, revealing puddles of water gathering around the shuttle. Ted hesitated, then let out a sigh of relief as a pair of armed soldiers appeared, one of them carrying a spare umbrella. Ted took it, then used it to cover both himself and Janelle. The soldiers looked thoroughly wet and miserable as they beckoned Ted to follow them towards the terminal buildings. He couldn’t help noticing that the spaceport was largely disused, despite the urgent need to bring supplies into the city. Two of the terminals seemed to have been converted into makeshift refugee camps.
    “There’s a VIP transport for you, sir,” one of the soldiers said, once they’d checked IDs against a central database. He pointed to a large black car, waiting just outside the terminal, with an armed escort on either side. “You’ll be taken directly to Downing Street.”
    Ted swallowed as he saw the soldiers. “Is it really that bad out there?”
    “It’s worse,” the soldier said. His voice was dead, as if he had been pushed to the limits of his endurance and there was nothing left, but duty. “If the flood levels keep rising, we’re going to have to move millions more people out of London to higher ground. Damned if we know how we’re going to do that, sir. We had a riot in Soho yesterday that saw several thousand people dead. We had to stick the stiffs in a pile and use lasers to burn the bodies to ash.”
    Ted nodded, unsurprised. There was no way that millions of dead bodies could be stored for later identification, not now. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people would never be accounted for, their fates utterly unknown. The prospect of never knowing what had happened to his family gnawed at him, yet he knew there was no choice. Thousands of decomposing bodies would spread disease at horrifying speed.
    He climbed into the rear of the car, then settled down and watched as the driver started the engine and followed the soldiers out into the streets. London was awash with water, even on streets he would have thought immune to flooding. It had been years since he’d driven in London, but he was fairly sure the driver was taking the long way round. But then, if some streets were impassable he would have no choice.
    “My God,” Janelle said. It was the first thing she’d said since boarding the shuttle. “Look at it!”
    Ted followed her gaze. It had once been a park, he was sure, a place for young children to play while their parents watched. Now, it was a muddy refugee camp, with prefabricated buildings providing limited shelter against the rain. The refugees themselves were largely older citizens, young women or children. The young men, Ted knew, would have been drafted to help with the floods. Many of the refugees had torn clothing, nothing more than whatever they’d been wearing when the attack began.
    “We’ve been having some problems feeding them all,” the driver said, as he drove past the camp and down towards Downing Street. “I believe there are plans to move them all to Scotland, but no one really knows if it will ever happen.”
    Ted shuddered, remembering some of the disaster management plans he’d seen during his stint at the Admiralty, after his promotion. None of them had made encouraging reading – and, judging from the scene before him, they’d simply been swept away by the pressure of events. Some of the plans had even talked about triage, about allowing the elderly to die while lavishing what resources were left on the young men and women who would be required to rebuild the world. He couldn't help wondering if the system was no longer capable of even separating out the younger men and women and sending them out of danger.
    But there is nowhere safe these days, he thought, morbidly. The aliens could return at any moment to finish the job.
    The thought was a knife in his heart. Operation Nelson had been a success, tactically speaking. Ark Royal and her multinational task force had hammered the aliens, smashing dozens of alien starships and occupying – for a few long days – an alien world. It had been a tactical masterpiece. But they had returned home to discover that Earth had been attacked, millions of humans were dead and that the war might be on the verge of being lost. A second attack on Earth might prove disastrous.
    He frowned as the car turned into Downing Street, catching sight of the protestors at the far end of the road. Some of them waved banners demanding more food or supplies for the refugees, others preached genocide and demanded attacks on alien worlds. Ted understood what they were feeling; he had to admit, in the privacy of his own thoughts, that he shared the desire for revenge. But he also knew that mutual destruction would be pointless.
    But how can we come to terms, he asked himself, when they don’t even talk to us?
    The car came to a halt outside Ten Downing Street. Armed policemen, their faces grim and pale, checked their IDs again before allowing them to exit the car and run up the steps into the very heart of British Government. Inside, it felt curiously musty and abandoned, as if the vast army of civil servants who made the government work had been withdrawn. It was quite possible they had, Ted knew. The contingency plans had insisted on establishing a command and control centre some distance from the disaster zone, even if the Prime Minister and the Monarch remained in London, symbolically sharing the plight of their people. But it wasn't quite the same.
    “Admiral Smith,” a voice said. Ted looked up to see a man in an elegant black suit. “I’m Giles Footswitch. The Prime Minister is waiting for you.”
    Ted placed the name as they passed their coats to the equerry, then followed Giles Footswitch through a solid metal door and down a long flight of stairs into the secured bunker that served as the Prime Minister’s command and control centre. Cold air struck him as they reached the bottom of the stairs and passed another pair of armed guards. Inside, the conference room was nearly empty. The Prime Minister sat at one end of the table, staring down at the latest set of reports. His face was so pale that Ted couldn't help wondering just how long he’d been hiding out in the bunker.
    “Prime Minister,” he said, carefully.
    “Admiral Smith,” the Prime Minister said. He rose, then stepped slowly towards Ted. “I must apologise for the welcome or lack thereof.”
    “I understand,” Ted said. The normal ceremonies when an Admiral visited Downing Street had to be put to one side, under the circumstances. “I ...”
    “Take a seat,” the Prime Minister interrupted. He turned, then returned to his seat. “The others will be here soon, I think.”
    Ted obeyed, motioning for Janelle to take the seat next to him. The Prime Minister’s eyes rested on her for a long moment, then he looked away with a very visible shrug. Ted understood. Normally, the lover of Prince Henry would be a subject of considerable political importance, but now it hardly mattered. Millions were dead, millions more were missing ... there was no time to worry about the Prince’s former girlfriend. And the Prince himself was dead.
    “I wanted to thank you for your service,” the Prime Minister said, quietly. “It may have been overshadowed, but I still want to thank you.”
    “Thank you, Prime Minister,” Ted said. “We did our duty.”
    “Others will disagree,” the Prime Minister said. His voice betrayed no trace of emotion, beyond a deadness that was more worrying than outright hatred. “You should be ready for it. Love can turn so quickly to hate.”
    Ted nodded. He’d been a complete unknown before the war. After the first battles, he’d become a household name all over Earth. His fame had been great enough for there to be no other prospective commanding officer for Operation Nelson, despite having a reputation as a drunkard. Indeed, he’d beaten alcohol’s grip on his mind. But now ... there was no hiding the fact he’d been hundreds of light years from Earth when the planet was attacked. It was quite possible that the men and women who had loved him before the start of Operation Nelson now hated him for not being there.
    He looked at the Prime Minister and sighed, inwardly. The man was utterly exhausted, sitting in a bunker, cut off from half of his staff and struggling to cope with a crisis that could bring Britain to her knees. That had already, in many ways, crippled the entire country. Ted was tempted to suggest that the Prime Minister took a nap, perhaps with a sedative pill, but he knew the Prime Minister wouldn't want to do anything of the sort. He was just far too aware of his role as elected leader of the country.
    “The bunker network was badly damaged by the flooding,” the Prime Minister said. It was such a total departure from the previous line of conversation that it made no sense. “We worried that the entire network would be flooded before realising that it was largely safe.”
    “Yes, Prime Minister,” Ted said.
    “I stay here because of the danger,” the Prime Minister added. He sounded almost as if he were pleading for understanding, or forgiveness. “No one has ever presided over such a disaster, not ever.”
    Ted shared a long look with Janelle. The Prime Minister sounded as if he were losing the ability to think clearly under the pressure. It would be hard to blame him, Ted knew, but right now the country needed clear-sighted thinkers, not tired politicians. But there was no way he could say that out loud, not to the Prime Minister.
    “Prime Minister, the latest figures are in,” Giles Footswitch said. “I ...”
    “Leave them,” the Prime Minister ordered, quietly. There was no room for dispute in his tone. “We can go over them later.”
    Ted felt the silence grow until it felt truly awkward, but held his peace. The Prime Minister clearly agonised over each and every death, asking himself if there was something he could have done to prevent the slaughter. Even now, more men and women – British citizens – were dying, some though starvation, some through being caught looting. By contrast, Giles Footswitch didn't seem to understand that each of the figures had a name and story behind it, or maybe he’d just chosen not to think about it. At some point, the numbers became so high that they were just ... statistics. It was impossible to truly comprehend the sheer weight of the losses the country had suffered overnight. To try to understand was to court madness.
    He looked up as the door opened, revealing the First Space Lord and a man wearing a General’s uniform. Ted didn't recognise him. Both of the newcomers looked tired; the First Space Lord, in particular, wore an expression of numb shock. Ted couldn't help fearing for his life, once the immediate crisis had come to an end. It was the Royal Navy that was responsible for protecting Britain from attack and it had failed.
    “Gentlemen,” the Prime Minister said. “Please, be seated.”
    He sounded more in control of himself now, Ted noted, as a handful of other men and women entered the bunker. The Leader of the Opposition – Deputy Prime Minister, for as long as the War Cabinet remained in session – sat facing the Prime Minister, the others took whatever chairs were available. Janelle shifted uncomfortably beside him, clearly unhappy at being at the same table as so many high-ranking politicians and military officers. But there was no time to move her out of the room.
    “General Steward,” the Prime Minister said. “You may begin.”
     
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  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two
    “I’ve been in worse places,” Wing Commander Kurt Schneider said, just loudly enough to be heard. “Haven’t I?”
    “It sure isn't the Academy,” Rose pointed out. His lover looked visibly ill-at-ease, something she’d never shown before. “This is a foretaste of hell.”
    Rain crashed over the ATV as it crunched its way towards the refugee camp. The camp itself looked alarmingly like a POW camp, perhaps one of the detention centres that had been set up during the height of the troubles and used to house everyone the government of the time hadn’t liked. It was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers, none of whom looked very pleased to be standing in the mud, rain dripping off their uniforms. And, behind the wire, there were a dozen prefabricated colonial buildings, providing emergency shelter for thousands of refugees.
    The ATV screeched to a halt, allowing Kurt to see the inside of the camp clearly. Hundreds of refugees milled around, almost all of them women, their faces bleak and hopeless. The only men in the camp, he saw, were very old men or very young boys. A news report they’d picked up on the way in had stated that men from twelve to fifty had been conscripted into the armies of labourers trying to help keep back the floodwaters. He said a silent prayer for his son as he stood up and made his way towards the hatch. Percy might have been doing well in the CCF, but he hadn't been remotely prepared for the greatest disaster to hit Britain in centuries.
    But then, none of them had been prepared for the alien attack.
    Outside, rain lashed down from high overhead, turning the ground into a sea of mud. Tiny rivers of water run downhill, adding their weight to the floods growing in the valley, drowning human homes and farmland under an endless tide. He shuddered, recalling the farms that had once supplied his country with food. No one had been short of food since the troubles, since the British Government had worked hard to ensure the island could feed itself, once again. But now there were food shortages everywhere. The emergency food supply had never been designed for a crisis of this magnitude.
    Rose scrambled out behind him, struggling to unfurl her umbrella as the rain intensified, drenching her uniform jacket. Kurt allowed her to cover him as they walked towards the gate, where four soldiers stood with loaded weapons. The reports had also warned that two refugee camps had been overwhelmed by looters, who’d killed and kidnapped girls as well as stealing food supplies and vanishing into the countryside. Kurt swallowed inwardly as the soldiers raised their weapons, clearly ready to shoot. The entire country was under martial law.
    “Identify yourself,” one of the soldiers snapped.
    “Wing Commander Kurt Schneider,” Kurt said. He held up his palm, allowing them to scan the implant inserted into his right hand. It contained both his naval ID and his travel authorisation, something that bothered him more than he cared to admit. He’d never needed authorisation to travel anywhere within Britain before the war. “I have an appointment.”
    The soldier relaxed, slightly. Kurt had never been a groundpounder, but he’d worked closely enough with both the army and the Royal Marines to recognise a soldier from the Territorial Army, probably someone – like Kurt himself – who had done his time and not expected to return to the uniform. But everyone with military experience had been called back to the colours after Vera Cruz, after humanity had realised it had a new and deadly enemy on its hands.
    “There are rules,” the soldier said. He waved a hand towards a tiny building just inside the gate. It was no larger than a heavy-lift shuttle. “You may go no further into the camp than there, sir. Your family will be brought to you.”
    Kurt stared at him, puzzled and alarmed. “Why?”
    “We’ve had too many people trying to sneak in and abuse the refugees,” the soldier said, as he motioned for his mates to open the gates. “There were some quite nasty incidents until we sorted out the problem cases from the ones who could actually follow orders. Things will get worse before they get better.”
    He snorted, rudely. “And we had some MP come around a day or so ago to make a speech to the refugees,” he added. “Fucked if I know what he had in mind, sir. But the refugees almost lynched him after the third condescending promise to address their concerns as soon as possible.”
    Kurt swallowed. The thought of his daughter in a place like this was almost more than he could bear. Penny was sweet and young and innocent and ... trapped. Their home was gone, washed under by the tidal waves or floods. Kurt himself would be expected to return to Ark Royal within the day, where he would resume his duties. It all seemed so pointless if he couldn't look after his children. And his wife was gone.
    The thought gave him a pang as he stepped through the gates and looked around, taking in the handful of refugees who sat in the mud with listless expressions. It was painful to admit that Molly and he had been growing apart for years, even before he’d been recalled to duty, but it was something he had to face. Their last face-to-face meeting had been far from pleasant: Molly had once held social ambitions and she’d thought the award for Kurt’s role in capturing an alien starship would help her to achieve them. But the money had been running out long before the aliens had attacked Earth ...
    And he had no idea what had happened to his wife. There were countless millions missing, utterly unaccounted for; Molly could be dead in a ditch, her body buried under piles of mud, or she could be in one of the refugee camps, so completely out of it that she hadn't even been able to give her name. And why hadn't she been with the children when the shit had hit the fan? Where had she been when the first missile struck the water and sent tidal waves washing out in all directions.
    “Kurt,” Rose said softly, “do you want me to wait outside?”
    Kurt hesitated. He had no idea how he would introduce Rose to his daughter, let along what the two women would make of one another. To Penny, Rose would be the Other Woman, the person who had broken up her parents relationship. It wouldn't be true – not entirely true, he had to admit – but he doubted they would get along. And yet, he needed her support more than he cared to admit.
    “I think you’d better come in,” he said, as they reached the solid metal door. “But let me do the talking.”
    He hadn't been sure what to expect in the visiting chamber, but inside it was nothing more than a damp room with muddy trails on the floor. There were no chairs or tables, merely a sodden rug that someone had put on the floor and then used to try to wipe up the mud. Kurt looked around, hoping to see something that would make it look less like a prison cell, but saw nothing. In the end, he leaned against the metal wall – it felt like a starship’s bulkhead – and tried to relax. But it didn't take. He’d faced the aliens in combat without flinching, he’d chewed out the Heir to the Throne himself, yet part of him just wanted to run now. He didn't want to see what living in a refugee camp had done to his daughter.
    The door opened again, revealing two girls. Kurt started, then remembered that the babysitter – practically a live-in maid – had been trapped in the refugee camp too. Molly should have taken care of her children, the nasty part of his mind noted, before it was washed away by a sudden surge of love and pity. Penny looked ... old, as if she’d grown up way before her time. Beside her, Gayle Parkinson didn't look much better.
    Kurt was across the room and wrapping his arms around his daughter before his mind had quite realised what he was doing. Penny smelt ... unpleasant, as if she hadn't been able to wash for several days. The trousers and shirt she was wearing were two sizes too large for her, while her long blonde hair lay in unwashed strands. Her face was tired and worn, just like Gayle’s. And she clung to him as if he was her only hope.
    “Dad,” she said, finally. Tears were streaming down her face. “I ... I thought you would never come.”
    “I’m sorry,” Kurt whispered, cursing himself. He should have refused the call to return to duty, or simply deserted after it had become clear that Molly was neglecting the children. It might have been possible to transfer to one of the squadrons defending Earth, if he couldn't leave the military altogether. “I’m so sorry.”
    He should have been with his children, he told himself. He should have been with them as they struggled to escape the tidal waves and find safety elsewhere. He should have escorted them deeper inland, perhaps to their grandparents home in the Scottish Highlands, well away from the floods. Or perhaps they should have moved to one of the asteroid settlements that were heading out of the system at STL speeds.
    Penny shuddered against him, then started to cry, a sound that tore at his heartstrings. She hadn't cried like that since the day she’d managed to get lost in the countryside, when she’d been a little girl. Beside her, Gayle flopped down and sat on the muddy floor, her torn shirt showing far too much of her breasts. Rose knelt down next to her, then started to chat to her gently. Kurt ignored them as best as he could. Penny was trying to speak.
    “The ground shook,” she said. “The water came so quickly we didn't have time to run. All we could do was get upstairs and pray. The house is ruined.”
    “It doesn't matter,” Kurt said. He smirked, suddenly. The emergency legislation rushed through Parliament would make sure they wouldn't have to continue paying the mortgage now the house was effectively destroyed. “All that matters is that you’re safe.”
    “We ran as soon as the waters fell away,” Penny said. “We didn't know where to go, so we tried to head uphill. The rain came soon afterwards, catching us in the open. There were men all around us and ...”
    She shuddered again. Kurt stared, wondering just what had happened – and wondering if he dared ask. The news from Britain alone was a non-stop liturgy of horror. Law and order had broken down completely in vast swathes of the country, despite martial law and the deployment of armed soldiers. Refugees had been beaten, raped, shot or simply driven away by locals who considered them nothing more than plagues of locusts. Had his daughter been threatened ... or raped? He didn't want to know.
    He shuddered, too. Normally, there would be therapists to help children overcome the horrors of their past. He’d never thought too highly of them even before he'd joined the military, where there was often no time to reflect on previous battles. But now, he would have happily taken Penny to see a psychologist, except there weren't any. The millions of refugees would have to come to terms with their experiences on their own.
    “We ended up here, eventually,” she concluded. “The army took Percy at once, told him that he had to help build dykes. I haven’t seen him since. Gayle ... stayed here with me, but we were told she might have to go to another camp when they move us away from here.”
    “I’ll do something about that,” Kurt promised, although he wasn't sure what he could do. The emergency services were utterly overwhelmed dealing with the crisis. “What happened to your mother?”
    “I don't know,” Penny said. “She wasn't in the house when we had to flee.”
    Kurt cursed Molly under his breath. Where the hell had she been? Why hadn't she been with her children? There should have been enough warning for her to get back home before the missiles started to strike the planet itself. But then, the road, rail and air transport networks would have been shut down as soon as the aliens entered the system. It was possible that she’d tried to make it home and failed.
    And she’d left her children in the hands of a babysitter not much older than themselves.
    “I wish I’d been there,” he said, truthfully. But what could he have done? Beaten his wife to force her to do as he wanted? “What do you do here?”
    “Nothing,” Penny said. She waved a hand listlessly in the air. “There's nothing to do here, apart from sit in the mud. No games, no toys ... I saw a mother slap her daughter when she kept complaining about not having her VR headset. Others kept offering to go build dykes themselves, just to get out of the camp, but the soldiers refused. They said we have to stay here.”
    Kurt understood. The population of Britain had been sharply reduced by the aliens. Young women who could bear children had to be protected at all costs, while men – inherently less vital – could be sent out to labour on the front lines. But it was still unpleasant to think of his daughter being kept in the camp, earmarked to serve as a brood mare if the population didn't recover naturally. He couldn't help wondering if female naval personnel would also be required to serve as mothers, even if they wanted to put their careers first ...
    You’re exaggerating, he told himself. It isn't that bad.
    But it could be, he knew. The population of Britain before the attack had been seventy million, thanks to a steady rate of emigration to Britannia and the other British possessions outside the Solar System. Now ... the most optimistic estimate suggested that ten million civilians had died in the attack, with millions more likely to die in the coming months as sanitation broke down and disease spread widely. Or food supplies ran out, or were murdered by their neighbours, or shot under martial law ... his imagination provided too many possibilities, none of them good. It was his duty to protect his children and he’d failed, miserably.
    There was a sharp knock on the door. “Visiting hours are over,” a harsh voice snapped. “Get your arse in gear and get out of here.”
    “I wish I could take you with me,” Kurt said. A mad scheme crossed his mind – take his daughter back to the spaceport, then ship her to Ark Royal – but he knew it would never work. And it would probably get himself put in front of a court martial board and shot. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise.”
    “I understand,” Penny said. She was trying to be brave, but he could see just how scared she was underneath. “And please give Percy my love.”
    “I will,” Kurt said. He’d sent Percy a message, but there was no way to know if he’d read it, not now. “But if you see him first, give him my love.”
    He winced at the thought. The planetary datanet had been sharply reduced ever since the attack, something he had thought to be impossible. Once upon a time, there had been nowhere on the planet where someone couldn't log into the datanet and do everything from send v-mails to download VR simulations for their headsets. Now ... Penny’s world had been sharply reduced, until all she knew was inside the wire. She couldn't send a message to her brother, let alone her friends ... if any of them were still alive. He didn't want to know.
    Penny held him for a long moment, then started to cry again. Kurt kissed her forehead, then gently disengaged her from his body and half-carried her towards the door. Outside, the rain was falling harder. The predictions he'd seen, he recalled as he put Penny down, had suggested that it would be weeks before all the vaporised water in the upper atmosphere finally washed its way to the ground. He watched the two girls as they hurried back towards one of the shelters, then turned and walked back through the gates to the ATV. The soldiers saluted as they climbed into the vehicle and left.
    “She offered herself to some thugs,” Rose said. There was a sombre tone in her voice, very unlike her normal demeanour. “They would have raped them both otherwise.”
    It took Kurt a moment to realise she was speaking of Gayle. “I didn't know,” he said, wondering why Penny hadn't told him. But she wouldn't have wanted to talk about it, would she? “I ...”
    He shook his head. “I’m going to request reassignment,” he said, shortly. “I don’t want to go back into interstellar space, not now.”
    Rose frowned. “You may not have a choice,” she said. She sounded understanding, but also concerned. “Kurt ...”
    “I don’t care,” Kurt said. He’d practically deserted his family when the call-up came. Now, there was no one left to look after his children. “My family ... I can't leave my daughter here, not now. I’m damned if I’m going back into space when I can take her somewhere else.”
    He turned and looked out the window as the ATV drove down a road that had once been considered a safe place to learn to drive. Now, it was awash with water, just like the refugee camp. He shook his head, then nodded in grim resolution. Penny was not going to stay there, no matter what he had to do. She was his daughter ...
    ... And he’d failed her enough already.
     
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  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three
    “The situation is grim,” General Stewart said. His voice was almost emotionless, but there was a strong hint of Lancashire in how he spoke. “We are facing the greatest crisis in British history.”
    Ted listened carefully as the General outlined the situation. The western part of the country had been badly hit by tidal waves, apart from the parts shielded by Ireland, and millions of people had been displaced. It was worse in Ireland, the General noted, but that was no consolation. Food supplies were stretched to the limit, law and order were breaking down and entire regions had slipped out of governmental control. Several cities had been effectively smashed flat.
    “Gloucester and Winchester have been effectively annihilated,” the General droned. He nodded to the map, showing the path the waves had taken as they slammed into Britain. “A number of rivers broken their banks and may even have changed course permanently, ensuring we can no longer even rely on our maps. Farmland has been ruined, farmers have been displaced and the rain is making it hard to coordinate relief efforts.”
    “We cannot expect any help, either,” the Prime Minister said. “The Americans have lost most of their ports along the eastern seaboard, making it harder for them to send emergency food supplies to us. France and Germany escaped the worst of the blows, but have their own problems with the rain.”
    Ted nodded, unsurprised. Any government that prioritised assisting another country’s population over its own would be in deep trouble with the electorate, if it lasted long enough to face a general election. It was quite likely that Britain would be unable to hold an election for several years, at best. The entire country had been thoroughly shaken up and there was no census, no idea how many voters had survived or where they were living. It was a nightmare.
    “The situation isn't much better in space,” the First Space Lord said. “The aliens hit the cloudscoops orbiting Jupiter as well as a number of asteroid-mining and shipbuilding facilities. We’re facing a shortage of HE3 at the very moment we need it desperately to power our fusion reactors. Given enough time, we could rebuild and draw on cloudscoops in the settled star systems, but I don’t think the aliens will give us time.”
    “I can't disagree,” Ted said. The aliens had pounded Earth’s orbital installations badly, crippling the human race’s ability to produce new starships and weapons of war. There were other shipyards outside Sol, he knew, but the aliens might go after them next. “But they didn't follow through their offensive to actually take Earth.”
    He looked down at his hands, thinking hard. In hindsight, Operation Nelson had been easy – too easy. It was clear, now, that a sizable portion of the alien fleet had been tasked with attacking Earth, perhaps even seizing the planet if the defenders had been overwhelmed. He ran through the possible course vectors in his head, trying to decide if Nelson had forced the aliens to attack ahead of time or if it had distracted them from taking Earth. But there was no way to know.
    “The bottom line,” the Prime Minister said, “is that the war is on the verge of being lost.”
    Ted sensed Janelle tensing beside him. He knew how she felt. Defeatism wasn't something the Royal Navy tolerated, not since the dark days before the Troubles. But cold logic suggested the human race was in deep trouble. The aliens had crippled humanity’s ability to make war, while their own industrial base was undamaged. Combined with their frighteningly advanced technology, they had a very definite advantage that would only grow more pronounced as the war raged on.
    Japan, he thought, recalling history lessons. Japan had launched a war – two wars – against the United States, but in neither case had the Japanese been able to prevent the American industrial base from making good America’s losses and then burying the Japanese under a tidal wave of mass production the Japanese had simply been unable to match. Midway wasn't the battle that had doomed Japan for the very simple reason Japan had been doomed by the decision to go to war. And yet ... the Japanese had believed they had no choice.
    And the aliens have more settled worlds than us, he thought, morbidly. Does that give them a larger industrial base?
    “The tactical analysts were very interested in your reports from Target One,” the First Space Lord said. “In particular, they were interested in the suggestion the aliens have more than one political faction.”
    Ted straightened in his chair. “Yes, sir,” he said. “The data does seem to support that conclusion.”
    “They even attempted to open communications with us,” the First Space Lord added. “Do you believe they are potential allies?”
    “Unknown, sir,” Ted said. “We simply don’t have enough data to speculate. They may be a national grouping in their own right or they may be an oppressed minority, hoping we will save them from their enemies. They may be able to assist us or they may be unable to do more than provide us with limited intelligence.”
    “Intelligence is something we need,” the First Space Lord mused. “We have been unable to get anything out of the prisoners, Ted, and our work on their computer systems have produced more questions than answers.”
    Ted nodded. They’d pulled a starchart out of the alien computers that had led Ark Royal and her task force to Target One, but they hadn’t learned anything about alien political factions ... assuming, of course, it wasn't an elaborate trick. Most of the data they’d accessed was meaningless gibberish, he’d been told, something utterly useless without the key to read it.
    The Prime Minister cleared his throat. “It has been decided, however, that opening communications with Alien Faction Two may well be our best chance for survival,” he said, shortly. “Admiral Smith; you and a small task force will be charged with travelling to alien space and attempting to open communications with the aliens.”
    “Yes, Prime Minister,” Ted said.
    He had no illusions. There was no easy way to tell the difference between Faction One and Faction Two, save by watching and waiting to see if the alien ships opened fire. They’d be poking their way through alien space once again, utterly unaware of where they were going or what was waiting for them, hoping and praying to get lucky. It didn't strike him as a suitable military strategy at all.
    But it was also the only one they had.
    He took a breath. “Will we be travelling alone?”
    “Politically, the world is divided,” the Prime Minister said. “It is unlikely anyone will commit any major starships to the new task force. No one has broken ranks openly, at least not yet, but there have been dark rumblings that some nations are considering trying to broker private deals with the aliens. They might prefer to be Churchill rather than Petain ...”
    He shrugged, expressively. Ted had no difficulty understanding his meaning. It was better to resist than to be a collaborator, but if resistance was truly futile why not be a collaborator and hope for a chance to regain independence in the future? He wondered, absently, which nation would be the first to jump ship and sell out to the aliens. Japan? The Japanese had been hit by worse tidal waves than the UK. Russia? They’d been tapped out by the war. Or France?
    But the French fought well in both Operation Nelson and the Battle of Earth, he thought, crossly. They’re not going to betray us now.
    “I believe they may assign diplomats to the mission,” the Prime Minister said. “But I don’t expect them to make a full commitment.”
    “They’ll put home defence first,” the First Space Lord rumbled. “It will be hard enough avoiding panic when people realise we sent Ark Royal away again.”
    “Yes, sir,” Ted said.
    “There is a second aspect to your mission,” the Prime Minister said. He nodded towards one of the men Ted didn't recognise. “Doctor Russell?”
    Ted studied the man thoughtfully. He didn't look like a doctor – and, if he was a doctor, why wasn't he out on the streets, helping the wounded? Doctor Russell wore a black suit, somehow managing to look elegant even in the bunker, and had shaved his hair close to his scalp. His eyes were hard and cold.
    “I trust that everyone here is cleared for this information,” Doctor Russell said. His voice was as cold as his eyes. “I shouldn't have to remind you that certain matters are classified well above most security clearances ...”
    “Everyone here is cleared,” the Prime Minister snapped. “And besides, it may not be long before the truth comes out.”
    “Yes, Prime Minister,” Russell said. He nodded to Ted. “As you know, one of the great successes of the Ark Royal’s first long-range mission was to recover a number of samples of alien life from their colony world, both living and dead. The living aliens were transported to a secure facility on Luna where they were examined, while we attempted to communicate with them. In the meantime, the dead aliens were transported to another facility on the edge of the Solar System.”
    Ted felt a chill creeping down his spine. Whatever Doctor Russell was about to say, he suspected, he wasn't going to like it.
    “Our principle purpose was to crack the alien genetic code and untangle the mysteries of their biology,” Doctor Russell continued. “Our secondary purpose was to develop a biological weapon that could be used against them, if necessary.”
    Janelle gasped. She wasn't the only one. It was clear, Ted realised, that several of the people at the table, the men and women trying to steer Britain through the greatest crisis in British history, hadn't heard anything about the project until now. The Leader of the Opposition looked particularly shocked. Even the First Space Lord looked disgusted.
    “This was not an easy task,” Doctor Russell continued. If their reaction surprised or annoyed him he showed no sign of it. “The alien biology is completely different from anything native to Earth. We might have prayed for a War of the Worlds scenario, where our diseases bring them down, but it is flatly impossible. Our diseases will not infect them under any circumstances. However, we did find something new.”
    The Leader of the Opposition looked revolted. “Are you saying you developed something that will kill them all?”
    “We believe so,” Doctor Russell said, flatly. “I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that we uncovered alien germs and viruses within the alien bodies and cultivated them ourselves, then modified their genetic codes to make them more dangerous. The aliens should have no natural resistance to the newly-created disease.”
    Ted shuddered. Humanity had managed – barely – to prevent the genetically-engineered disease genie from getting out of its bottle. God knew there had been several terrorist plans to build tailored diseases to wipe out everyone they didn't like, with the diseases targeting physical features like black skin. But there was so much intermingling these days that such a disease would almost certainly spread out of control.
    On one hand, he had to admit, a virus targeted on the aliens would be unlikely to infect humans. But, on the other hand, the aliens would definitely retaliate in kind.
    “This is madness,” the Leader of the Opposition snapped. “You’re talking genocide.”
    “I’m talking survival,” Doctor Russell said. “The aliens started this damn war. They haven’t told us what they want; hell, we can't even surrender to the bastards. If it’s a choice between them or us, who do you want to survive?”
    General Stewart looked grim. “Can you guarantee the aliens will be affected by your disease?”
    “I believe it will work,” Doctor Russell said. “But ...”
    The General held up a hand. “I am not qualified to discuss the morality of using biological weapons tailored to exterminate an entire race,” he said. “Perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury would be better placed to give us a ruling. However, there are a number of practical problems. For a start, we give our military personnel tailored boosters to make it harder for them to get ill. How do we know the aliens don’t do the same?”
    He went onwards before Doctor Russell could interrupt. “And then we would have to infect one of their settled worlds,” he added. “How do we do that, practically?”
    Doctor Russell glared. “I was planning to infect one of the POWs and return him to an alien world ...”
    “Hell, no,” Ted said. “You’re talking about abusing a prisoner in our custody ...”
    “I’m talking about survival,” Doctor Russell snapped. “What do our moralities matter when we’re staring at the end of the line?”
    Ted met his eyes. “The situation isn't disastrous,” he said. “Not yet.”
    “It will be,” Doctor Russell predicted.
    The Prime Minister cleared his throat, loudly. “The deployment of biological weapons – and strikes against the alien civilian populations – will be held as an absolute last resort,” he said, firmly. “However, we will need to continue to research such weapons, just in case.”
    He turned to face Ted. “Admiral, you will be assigned a new task force and a diplomatic mission,” he said. “I expect you to depart within the week.”
    Ark Royal requires at least a month of heavy repair work,” Ted said, evenly. The aliens had proved disconcertingly adaptable. Having discovered their weapons didn't damage the Old Lady’s hull they’d copied a human weapon that did and deployed it with great effect. “And her crew will need time to rest, recuperate and come to terms with everything that’s happened since their return to Earth.”
    “Time is not exactly on our side,” the First Space Lord said. “I suggest you expedite matters as much as possible.”
    Ted sighed. Ark Royal was heavily armoured, her saving grace when the aliens had attacked her with plasma weapons that had ripped modern carriers to shreds. They could blow weapons and sensor blisters off her hull, but not harm her innards. And yet, the heavy armour that had protected the carrier was also a weakness when it came to repairing the ship after the battle. The armour had to be cut off and then replaced piece by piece.
    “We’ll do our best, sir,” he said.
    “You can have first call on yard services and engineering crewmen,” the First Space Lord promised. “And whatever else you need.”
    A few hundred more carriers just like her, Ted thought. It was clear the aliens had chosen their weapons carefully, intending to slice through human naval fleets like a knife through butter. And it would have worked, too, if Ark Royal hadn't remained in service. The aliens had evidently missed her when they'd done their survey of human space. But it would be years before another heavy carrier joined the fleet.
    “Doctor Russell and his team will accompany you,” the Prime Minister said. “If negotiations fail, or simply don’t get off the ground, you may need them.”
    Ted felt sick. The whole concept of biological weapons was obscene. It was the sort of nightmare the Royal Navy was meant to stop, not seriously consider deploying. And yet, even putting morality aside, was there any guarantee the weapons would spread to the entire alien population? Ted rather doubted it. Humanity had dozens of settled worlds; the aliens, if their records were to be believed, had more. They’d slaughter one planet’s population, but the remainder of the alien race would survive ... and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that humanity had tried to exterminate them.
    “Yes, Prime Minister,” he said. If nothing else, he could make sure that Russell and his team didn't do anything stupid – or anything likely to make the war worse than it already was. “I won’t let you down.”
    The Prime Minister nodded. “You have another appointment, Admiral,” he said. He rose to his feet, signalling the end of the meeting. “The King wishes to speak with you – both of you.”
    Ted winced, feeling Janelle’s sudden apprehension. Some bastard in the crew – and Ted intended to keelhaul the blighter when he figured out who – had leaked the news of her relationship with Prince Henry to the media. And some other bastard in the media had spread it far and wide, perhaps calculating the British public needed a diversion after the alien attack had devastated large parts of the country. It was thoroughly absurd, all the more so with millions dead and millions more lost without trace, but the media had still tried to lay siege to Ark Royal anyway. The only explanation that made at least some sense was that the reporters were trying to pretend that everything was normal.
    Idiots, he thought, as the room rapidly emptied. Nothing will ever be normal again.
    “Yes, Prime Minister,” he said. It wasn't as if they could decline an invitation from the King, no matter how much his young aide would have preferred to avoid it. “It will be our pleasure.”
    The Prime Minister smiled tiredly, perhaps recognising the lie. “Good luck, Admiral,” he said. His voice was utterly tired, tired and depressed. He’d been in charge during the greatest disaster to hit Britain, ever. No matter how many decisions he made, the ultimate resolution wouldn't come from his office. “We need to end this, as quickly as possible. Whatever we have to do ...”
    Ted nodded, understanding the Prime Minister’s dilemma. Peace with the aliens would come at a price, of that he was sure. And the aliens – or Faction One, at least – had never shown any interest in talking. Biological warheads might be the only way to force the aliens to the peace table ... or at least ensure that humanity remained alive to mourn the genocide that had been wrought in its name. He knew that to be true ...
    But he didn't like it. And he hoped he never would.
     
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four
    One of the curses of being born into the Royal Family, Prince Henry had decided long ago, was that one was expected to visit other countries and pretend to like them. It wasn't so bad when visiting a modern country like America or France, but a less-developed or traditionalist country could be an uncomfortable place to visit. He still had nightmares about the water houses in Malaysia, where there had been no air conditioning, or the tents in Southern Arabia where his staff had been strictly segregated by sex. And complaining hadn't been allowed, no matter how uncomfortable or unpleasant it became. It had been one of the many things he’d hated about his life.
    But he had to admit it was also good practice for being an alien prisoner.
    He lay naked on the uncomfortable bed, staring up at the transparent canopy. Outside, thousands of brightly-coloured fish swam through the water, showing no fear of the aliens or – for that matter – the human in the cell. And it was a cell, he knew, even if there were no locked doors or handcuffs. The only exit involved swimming through murky water and somehow getting up to the surface before he drowned. Henry knew he was a good swimmer, but he would never be as good as the aliens. They drew oxygen directly from the water through their gills.
    The cell wasn't exactly uncomfortable, although the aliens didn't seem to understand what humans needed to survive and prosper. They hadn't provided him with any clothes, either out of a misplaced paranoia over what he would do with them or through a simple lack of awareness that humans needed clothes. The aliens never wore clothes, as far as he could tell, at least outside combat situations. Given their biology, it was quite likely they had never developed any form of nudity taboo. Henry had rapidly grown used to being naked in front of his visitors. It helped that they were very definitely not human.
    He sat up as water splashed around the entrance, then swung his legs over the side of the bed as an alien clambered up into the compartment. As always, the alien seemed largely uncomfortable in the cell, even though the atmosphere was warm and moist enough to pass for Malaysia. He couldn't help comparing it’s movements to a strange mixture of wet dog and wetter seal, before it turned to peer at him with bulging, utterly inhuman eyes. Henry had the feeling that bright light would disorientate the alien – it’s eyes were designed to see underwater – but there was no way to be sure. He didn’t have anything, apart from his wits.
    “Greetings,” the alien said.
    Henry rose to his feet and affected a bow. “Greetings,” he replied. “Have we seen each other before?”
    “Yes,” the alien said.
    There were humans, Henry knew, who would have been offended by the suggestion that every member of a particular ethnic group looked alike. And it was stupid; it was quite easy to tell the difference between two different humans. The only exception to that rule, at least in Henry’s experience, was an asteroid where every single person was a clone of the asteroid’s founder or his wife. But the aliens didn't seem to care. They all looked alike to him and, no matter what he did, he had never been able to even tell the difference between male and female aliens.
    They might have the same problems with us, he told himself.
    The alien seemed to flow into a sitting position. “Sit,” it ordered. “Please sit.”
    Henry nodded, wondering just where the aliens had learned their English. His best guess was that they had recovered a tutoring console, perhaps from Vera Cruz or one of the other smaller colonies out along the rim of known space. They seemed to have a good grasp on the basic structure of the language, but they had real problems with understanding the differences between requests, commands and warnings. And that, he suspected, was just scratching the surface. It was possible that humans and aliens would never come to understand one another.
    He sat cross-legged and faced the alien, wondering just what the alien saw when it looked at a human. A faceless monster, an animal ... or another intelligent being? Humans saw monsters when they looked at aliens, Henry knew, although he wasn't sure how much of that sensation had been dictated by experience. He was looking at a representative of a race that had devastated several worlds, occupied more and taken countless humans as prisoners.
    “You will explain your government, please,” the alien said. “How do they come into power?”
    Henry hesitated. It was hard enough explaining democracy, let alone the strange combination of meritocracy and aristocracy that made up the British Government. He rather doubted he could make it comprehensible to the aliens. But he had to try.
    “When we want to select new leaders,” he said, “we ask people to support them. The person with the most votes wins the election and becomes the leader for the next few years.”
    There was a long pause. He wondered, suddenly, how the aliens handled their government.
    “Explain your government,” he ordered. It had taken him some time to realise that the aliens responded better to bluntness than politeness. He wasn't sure if they didn’t need the social lubricant politeness provided for humanity or if words like ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ confused them. They’d certainly never punished him for asking questions or being rude. “How does it work?”
    “All talk,” the alien said. “All decide. All do.”
    Henry frowned, puzzled. Was the alien being deliberately evasive or was it unable to express its true meaning in English? Or was he simply not understanding what he was being told?
    He took a breath. Weeks – he thought it was weeks, although it was hard to be sure – of captivity had left him uncertain of anything. It was growing harder to recall that there had ever been a world outside the cell, where he’d struggled to be a starfighter pilot and achieved his dream, only to be captured by the aliens. And the aliens didn't have the slightest idea who they’d caught. He’d been careful not to say anything that might suggest his true identity to them.
    “I understand,” he said. If the alien was feeling talkative, he could at least try to learn something from it. “Why did you decide on war?”
    The alien moved, oddly. Henry wished, not for the first time, that he knew how to read their body language. A human might have been laughing at him or preparing to throw a punch, but the aliens were completely inscrutable. He braced himself and pressed onwards.
    “Your people attacked us,” he said. “Why?”
    “Attacked. Us,” the alien said. As always, the computer-generated voice was completely atonal. “You. Attacked. Us. Faction for war won.”
    Henry felt his eyes narrow. There was certainly evidence the aliens had more than one faction; he’d been at Target One when the aliens had fired on one of their own ships. But what had the War Faction won? And why did they think humanity had attacked them first?
    “We didn't even know you existed until you attacked us,” he said. “Why didn't you talk to us?”
    “Faction for war won,” the alien repeated.
    It – or he – spoke as though it explained everything. And perhaps it did, Henry realised. It was far from uncommon for humans to be rushed into war against another group of humans without sober reflection. If the aliens had some reason to think that humanity had started the war, it might explain their reluctance to actually talk to human representatives. They’d see the human race as aggressive, as needing to be pruned back before opening discussions. But how had the aliens come to that conclusion in the first place?
    “We don’t have to fight,” Henry pointed out. “We could have the land; you could have the sea. There’d be nothing to fight over.”
    “Faction for peace ... uncertain,” the alien stated. “Aliens. Started. War.”
    Aliens, Henry thought. They must mean us.
    “But what happened?” He asked. “And why?”
    The alien said nothing. It rose to its feet, inched back towards the entrance and dropped into the hole. There was a splash as it hit the water and then vanished, somewhere within the murky depths. Henry stared after it, wondering just what had happened, then stood and walked back to the bed. There was little else to do, but sleep and dream of Janelle. He couldn't help wondering just what had happened to her ...
    And Ark Royal, he thought, numbly. Did she make it back to Earth or did the aliens kill her?
    His thoughts were interrupted by splashing from the entrance. One alien – a new one, if he were any judge – clambered into the room, then knelt down and held out a leathery hand. It was so odd that Henry stared in disbelief. He’d never seen the aliens needing assistance to climb out of the water and into the room. But, as the next person came out of the water and removed the mask covering her face, he understood. The newcomer was human. And female.
    He looked at her, then flushed and looked away as he realised she was naked. She was probably a handful of years younger than him, he decided, probably just pushing eighteen rather than twenty-two. Her long brown hair clung to her body as she wiped her skin, trying to get the water off her flesh. Henry understood the feeling all too well. The faint smell from the ocean water suggested it was far from clean.
    “There's a shower over there,” he said, pointing to the corner of the room. “It's clean water.”
    “They never supply towels,” the girl said. She sounded rather amused. “I should complain to the management.”
    Henry snorted, then looked back at the alien. It looked back at him, then stepped into the water and vanished from sight. Henry shook his head in disbelief, then tried not to look at the girl as she washed the ocean water from her body and hair. His body was insisting on reminding him just how long it had been since he’d slept with anyone.
    And are you going to betray Janelle so quickly? His thoughts mocked him. Or are you going to try to excuse your behaviour?
    Shut up, he thought. He knew his father and grandfather had both had their affairs – being in the Royal Family made it impossible to keep anything quiet for long – but he was damned if he were going the same way. Honour wasn't just the name of a famous American movie heroine, after all. I’m not going to cheat on her.
    “My name is Jill, Jill Pearlman,” the girl said. Her accent was definitely American, Henry decided, although it was thicker than the last American accent he’d heard. Was she from one of the colonies? The Americans had been enthusiastic colonisers after the discovery that Terra Nova wasn't the only Earth-like world out there. “Who are you?”
    Henry hesitated. Everyone knew him as Charles Augustus. It might not have been the brightest name to pick for himself, but it had worked. And yet, here and now, he didn't really want to hide behind a mask. It wasn't as if Henry was an uncommon name.
    “Henry,” he said, simply. He studied her, trying hard to keep his eyes on her face. It was possible she was an American starfighter pilot, but he rather doubted it. She just looked too young. “Where did you come from?”
    “Heinlein,” the girl said, bitterly. “I started the war.”
    Henry stared at her. There had been a flurry of interest in the Heinlein Colony on the datanets after the discovery of artefacts from the colony on Alien-1, but he’d been struggling to get through the Academy and he hadn't been paying much attention. From what he recalled, the colonists had wanted to set up a homeworld far from the United States and its colonies, claiming they were tainted with a political disease. They’d boarded a ship, jumped through the tramlines and vanished. No one had seen anything of them until Alien-1.
    “I see,” he said. “What happened?”
    Jill looked down at the floor, then sat next to him on the bed. “We were swimming,” she said, slowly. “Ira and I ... we want to have some fun away from the adults. Ira spent all of his free time exploring, so he knew where we could go. There was this lagoon.”
    She broke off, bitterly. “We went skinny-dipping,” she admitted. “It was Ira’s idea.”
    “I’m sure it was,” Henry said. “And then?”
    “We saw this creature rise out of the water,” Jill said. “It was one of them” – she waved a hand to indicate the aliens – “but we didn't know it at the time. We thought it might be a dangerous creature. I ran to get the gun and shot it. It fell back into the water and vanished.”
    She rubbed her eyes with her bare hands. “They didn't believe us in the colony,” she said. “There hadn't been any traces of higher life forms on Heinlein, none at all. They didn't believe us until the aliens arrived and attacked in force.”
    Henry cursed under his breath. The aliens settled the seabed first and then moved onto the surface, if all the projections and observations were correct. Humans, meanwhile, settled the land and rarely paid any attention to what was lurking under the waves. It was quite possible, he decided, for two separate colony missions to occupy the same world, without ever realising the other one was there. If they’d both checked for other life forms and found nothing, would they even bother to check again?
    “And it started there,” he mused. “They must have been as astonished as you.”
    “I don’t know,” Jill said. “I hid when they attacked; my father fought desperately to protect the colony. But they overwhelmed the defences and took the survivors prisoner. They just ... took me away from the other captives one day and sent me here. I haven't seen any other humans since then.”
    Henry considered it. “What do they want from you?”
    “They just ask questions and try to master English,” Jill said. She made a face. “I was not a very good teacher.”
    “I don’t think English is an easy language for them to learn,” Henry said. How many of humanity’s words were bound up in unspoken assumptions that simply didn't apply to the aliens? “But you did very well.”
    He looked down at his hands, thinking hard. The war was an accident. The whole war, which had killed hundreds of thousands of people and presumably aliens, was an accident, the result of a disastrous First Contact. And yet ... how could he get back to Earth to report to his superiors? And even if he did ...
    They could have talked with us at any moment, he thought, bitterly. God knows Earth would have happily disowned the colonists if it would have prevented a war. Instead, they started to plan for a war that would have crushed us within months, if the Old Lady hadn't remained intact. They took a minor incident and turned it into a pretext for all-out war.
    “The war hasn't been going well,” he said, slowly. “How long have you been here?”
    “I don’t know,” Jill said. “I used to count my ... well, you know – but the aliens accidentally destroyed my markers and I lost count. Several months, at least.”
    Years, Henry thought. They would have needed time to prepare their weapons and tactics to launch the invasion.
    He looked up at the greenish light filtering down from the ceiling. It was the same as it was yesterday and the day before yesterday. The food was the same, the water was always bland and completely tasteless, there was next to nothing to do ... it was easy to lose track of just how long he’d stayed in the cell. His hair might not have grown out long enough to suggest he’d been imprisoned for months, but it was still longer than it had been.
    Jill caught his arm. “There’s a war on?”
    “They attacked Vera Cruz nearly a year ago,” Henry said. he wasn't sure of the precise timing. “Then they stabbed inwards and advanced on Earth, taking New Russia and several smaller colonies at the same time. We stopped them, then launched a deep-strike raid on the alien colonies. I was on that raid ...”
    He shrugged. “I don’t know what happened next,” he said, “but I do know some aliens tried to communicate with the fleet.”
    Jill stared. “They did?”
    Henry nodded, sourly. Humanity’s First Contact protocols had obviously failed, although if the aliens were in a warlike mood they might not have paid attention. But building up a common language was obviously going to take time, time they didn’t have.
    “it failed,” he said. “Other aliens stopped them.”
    He looked up at her. “Did they try asking you questions about Earth? Anything tactical?”
    “Of course not,” Jill said. “I don’t know anything about Earth.”
    “But it suggests they want to learn from you, rather than just suck you dry,” Henry said. The aliens had kept Jill for at least a year, perhaps longer. They could have killed her by now if they’d not thought they had a use for her. “And we have to try to convince them to talk to the rest of humanity. Get some proper diplomats and language experts here, talking to them. We might be able to come to an agreement.”
    Jill frowned. “And what if they don’t want to come to an agreement?”
    “I don’t know,” Henry said. He thought, briefly, about how the aliens had treated occupied worlds. New Russia had been occupied, but the aliens had largely left the human population alone. But it could have just been a tactical decision to avoid starting the genocide until after the humans were thoroughly defeated. “I just don’t know.”
     
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  7. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    Oof. You gots a lot of 'splainin' to do, LeRoy.
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five
    Ted had known, intellectually, that London had more than its fair share of underground tunnels and bunkers. Ever since the invention of flight, it had been necessary to hide large parts of the government underground, just to ensure some continuity after the country came under attack. Nothing, not even the Troubles or the development of orbital bombardment weaponry had deterred the government from protecting itself.
    But he couldn't help wondering just how safe and secure the network was, after the tidal waves and floods. Parts of the power grid seemed to have failed completely, leaving some of the tunnel sections dark and gloomy, while he could hear the sound of water dripping in the distance. No one had anticipated London being flooded, not since the tidal barriers had been put into service. And no one had anticipated alien bombardment. It was all too easy to imagine a crack in the rock and concrete above their heads widening enough to allow a flood of water into the underground network. They’d be washed away by the water before they realised what was happening or wind up trapped in a subsection of the complex, waiting helplessly for the water to run out.
    He shook his head, angrily dismissing the thought, as they passed through a series of secure airlocks and emerged in the basement of Buckingham Palace. It was a secure complex too, he knew, although it had been centuries since the affairs of the nation were directed from any of the Royal Residencies. And now most of the Royal Family had been moved into the countryside, with only the King and Crown Princess remaining in London to share the sufferings of their population. They thought it made good press.
    Ted snorted, cynically. The Royal Family would never starve; Buckingham Palace was safe, secure and warm. There would be emergency transport out of London if the aliens returned or rioters threatened the palace itself. Somehow, he doubted that many of their subjects would be impressed.
    He looked around, interested, as the equerry led them up a flight of steps and down a long corridor, the walls lined with portraits of monarchs from a bygone age. There were countless display cases everywhere, showing off the presents given to the monarchs by foreign visitors; several of them, he couldn’t help noticing, had been stripped bare, their contents shipped to bunkers well away from the coast. The contents of the palace were a vital part of Britain’s heritage, he knew, something that had to be preserved. But it was hard to take such concerns seriously when he knew millions of people were starving.
    Janelle caught his arm as they approached a large pair of wooden doors. “Admiral,” she said, very softly, “I don't know what to say.”
    Ted nodded in agreement. There was a formal protocol for meeting the monarch, but most of it had already been put aside for the private meeting. The last time he’d met the King, it had been when he’d been awarded a whole series of medals for Ark Royal’s victories against the alien foe. Everyone who had been anyone in British society had been there. Now, they were having a private meeting ... he shook his head, gently. Under the circumstances, it seemed absurd to think of protocol.
    “Be polite,” he advised. Offhand, he knew of no naval officers who had regular private meetings with the monarch, even though they technically worked for him. “And try not to stare too much.”
    The doors swung open and the equerry stepped through. “Admiral Sir Theodore Smith,” he announced grandly, leaving out the list of letters Ted was entitled to have after his name, “and Lieutenant Janelle Lopez.”
    Ted smiled and stepped through the door. Inside, it resembled a comfortable sitting room rather than the heart of a monarch’s kingdom. There were several chairs and a sofa, drawn up around a blazing fire, and a drinks dispenser in one corner. It was, he realised with a flicker of insight, a place for the royals to be people, rather than figurehead rulers for their nation. And the man ahead of him, wearing a simple tunic and shirt, was King Charles IV of Great Britain, Emperor of Britannia and Prince of Nova Scotia.
    He had looked more impressive the first time Ted had met him, Ted mentally conceded, but he’d also looked stressed, knowing that he was permanently on camera. Even Ted, who had tried to spend the last two decades on Ark Royal shutting out the rest of the universe, had known just how intrusive the media were around the Royal Family. The King and his family had never been able to relax, never been able to do anything for fear it would reflect badly on them – and there was nothing that could not be made to look bad, given time and carefully handling by an unscrupulous reporter and team of editors. But there were no cameras here, not at the heart of Buckingham Palace. The King could be himself.
    It would have been impossible to tell he was the King, Ted decided, if he hadn't known ahead of time. He looked middle-aged, the very picture of a mature adult, but lacking the dignity offered by his formal robes and the crown he’d worn during the award ceremony. His hair was grey, slowly shading to white. He’d never bothered to have his face rejuvenated, Ted noted. Was it because he wasn't vain enough to have cosmetic surgery or was it because his protocol officers insisted it was beneath the King’s dignity to have himself redesigned to look younger? There was no way to know.
    “Admiral,” the King said. His voice was very calm, very controlled. “Please don’t stand on formality, not here.”
    He motioned Ted to a seat, then bowed to Janelle as she hastily curtseyed. “Please, relax,” he insisted. “Elizabeth and I have been waiting for you.”
    He motioned for Janelle to sit on the sofa, next to his daughter, then sat back in his chair.
    “I appreciate you coming to see us,” he continued. “We weren't sure if you’d be able to make it.”
    We weren't given a choice, Ted thought. But he understood. The political issues surrounding Prince Henry were a minefield, even if the disasters that had struck the country had pushed the Prince’s life and untimely death onto the backburner. It wasn't the King who would make the decisions, despite being the boy’s father. The Prime Minister was the one who would have to decide how best to present Prince Henry’s death to the world. Or maybe it had been some bureaucrat in the Civil Service who had made the final call.
    He looked at the two girls and felt a stab of pity. They made an odd study in contrasts; Janelle was dark-skinned, with dark hair cropped close to her scalp in accordance with naval regulations, while Elizabeth was blonde, her hair hanging all the way down to the small of her back. The Princess was several years older than her brother, he recalled, but it had been an open question which one of them would actually succeed their father. He couldn't help wondering, from the way the Princess held herself, if she’d been in two minds about taking the throne. But Henry had very definitely not wanted to become King.
    “I would like to hear about my son’s final moments,” the King said. “And about his life on your ship.”
    Ted hesitated then recollected what he could and launched into the tale. Henry had been a starfighter pilot, with all the strengths and weaknesses of men and women who had known their next mission could be their last. He’d lacked the discipline of the Royal Marines or the engineering crews, but he’d been a skilled pilot and Ark Royal had been happy to have him as part of the crew. And it wasn't a lie, he knew. Prince Henry would have gone far if he hadn’t been killed by the aliens.
    “He was a good pilot,” he concluded. It was unusual for pilots to serve more than three years in the cockpit, but Henry could have gone on to become a CAG – Commander Air Group – or aspired to frigate command, if he’d wanted to stay in the navy. “And he is deeply missed.”
    “And you were fucking him,” Elizabeth said. Her voice was icy cold. “Did you know who he was?”
    Elizabeth,” her father snapped.
    His daughter stared at him with bright blue eyes. “It has to be asked,” she said. “You know how many ...”
    Elizabeth,” her father repeated.
    “I didn't know who he was,” Janelle said, quietly. “As far as I knew, he was just ... Charles Augustus, a starfighter pilot.”
    The King shook his head. “Charles Augustus,” he muttered. “In hindsight, the media will make it out to be blindingly obvious.”
    “But you were screwing him,” Elizabeth insisted. “Did he never tell you the truth?”
    “No,” Janelle said. Her fists bunched for a long moment, then she forced herself to relax. “I never knew.”
    Ted eyed the girls with some concern. Janelle had been upset – more than upset – after Henry had died, even before he’d told her who her lover had been. He’d actually broken his own rule and given her compassionate leave, even though all it had meant in practice was that she got to stay in her cabin rather than carry out her duties. In hindsight, perhaps he should have kept her busy, with tasks that would keep her mind off her woes.
    There’s a reason married couples aren't allowed to serve together, he thought, morbidly. If one of them dies, the other becomes useless – even dangerous.
    Prince Elizabeth, on the other hand, sounded bitchy – and yet he knew she had good reason to worry. Her brother would have had no shortage of suitors, Ted suspected, and most of them would have been more interested in claiming a royal title than in Henry himself. Elizabeth herself would have the same problem, perhaps made worse by the uncertainty over which of the royal children would inherit the throne. She would never know if anyone who showed interest in her cared more for her – or for the title. Ted felt a flicker of sympathy for the girl, despite her rudeness. It was very hard to blame her.
    “The Prince never revealed his true identity to anyone,” he said, as reassuringly as he could. Princess Elizabeth was young enough to be his daughter, but he knew next to nothing about being a father. “No one knew until they caught up with the news broadcasts from Earth,”
    The King cleared his throat. “Be that as it may,” he said, “it still raises uncomfortable questions.”
    He looked at Janelle. “Did either of you discuss the future?”
    Janelle shook her head, staring down at the floor. “No,” she said, quietly. “We knew we could die at any moment.”
    Ted winced, inwardly. Shipboard romances were hardly uncommon – and far from forbidden, as long as regulations were honoured – but they rarely lasted long. The sheer intensity of a sexual affair between two young people under constant threat of death didn't always survive when they returned to Earth or resigned from the military. Ironically, he knew, if they’d met before the war, their romance might have survived. Ark Royal had been held in a stable orbit near Earth. The crew had never expected to do more than maintain the ship. They’d certainly never expected to go to war.
    The Princess snorted. “You just made love to him without considering the future?”
    “I’m not trapped in a goldfish bowl,” Janelle snapped, showing a flash of fire. “I didn't even know it might be a concern.”
    Ted winced. That had been a low blow. The Princess couldn't have an affair with anyone, male or female, without the media turning it into a circus. Her lover’s life would be dissected ruthlessly, anything he had said or done in the past would be used against her ... and the relationship would probably shatter under the pressure. The Princess could never afford to relax, let alone have a relationship that she knew might never go anywhere. It would wind up becoming a nightmare, even if her partner had been everything she wanted in a man.
    “But it has become a concern,” the Princess snapped back. She glowered at Janelle. “Are you pregnant?”
    Janelle spluttered. “What?”
    “All naval personnel have contraceptive implants,” Ted said, quickly. “No one can get pregnant on a naval starship.”
    “But there are already speculations that you are carrying Henry’s child,” the Princess insisted. “Your life will never be the same.”
    “Then they will have to swallow their words when they see I am very clearly not pregnant,” Janelle pointed out.
    “Then they will start claiming that you have had an illicit abortion,” Princess Elizabeth said, darkly. “They have already claimed that I have had five different abortions in the past.”
    Janelle recoiled, shocked. “Seriously?”
    “Yes,” Princess Elizabeth said. “And apparently I’ve had twelve different lovers.”
    She snorted, rudely. “I must have been asleep,” she added, “because I can't remember any of them.”
    The King cleared his throat, loudly. “I would have liked to welcome you to the family formally,” he said, addressing Janelle. “I believe you would have added something we desperately need. But it would probably be best for you if the whole ... affair was forgotten as quickly as possible.”
    But it wouldn't be forgotten, Ted knew. Janelle had become a Public Interest celebrity the moment someone had revealed her relationship with Prince Henry to the media. Short of changing her name, or at least shipping back out as quickly as possible, there was no way the media would ever let her rest. At least Ted had managed to bar reporters from Ark Royal, despite objections from the Public Relations Department. No one wanted them to tell the universe just how badly the Old Lady had been damaged by the aliens.
    “I agree,” Janelle said.
    Princess Elizabeth leaned forward. “Did you love my brother?”
    “I ... I don’t know,” Janelle confessed. “We were happy together, but ...”
    Oddly, Ted noted, the Princess seemed happy with the answer. Or perhaps it wasn't odd at all. There were no shortage of social climbers who would happily claim to love the target of their affections, even when it was blatantly clear they had no interest in anything beyond the title and the prestige that came with it. But the media would tear their lives apart anyway, looking for something they could use to shock and beguile the British public. Janelle might have had a very lucky escape.
    But that shouldn't be a problem now, he thought. The country has far more serious matters to worry about.
    “I have reviewed the files,” the King said. He looked directly at Ted. “I do not believe that you – or any of your crew – can reasonably be held responsible for my son’s death. He wanted to live the life of a starfighter pilot, without using his rank to his advantage, knowing the risks that he would face. His death ...”
    He broke off, clearly upset. Ted remembered the files and understood. The King had opposed his son going into the military – and then into the line of fire. It would have been relatively simple to assign Prince Henry to one of the squadrons defending Earth ... although that might have been a mistake. Those squadrons had taken more than 80% casualties when the aliens had attacked. Henry had followed the path he’d chosen, the path that had allowed him to earn rewards – and punishments – without his rank being taken into consideration and, in the end, it had killed him. But he’d died bravely and well.
    And they will use it to bolster the position of the Royal Family, he thought, cynically. Buckingham Palace employed a small army of PR experts, hoping to shape the narrative before hostile editors – or merely ones looking for a scoop – started to try to shape it for themselves. Henry’s death will make it seem as though they are sharing the same risks and burdens as everyone else.
    “There will be no Board of Inquiry,” the King continued. “I believe, in any case, that you will be leaving Earth again, far too quickly.”
    “Yes, Your Majesty,” Ted said.
    He sighed, knowing the King wasn't speaking his own words. It was quite possible the King felt otherwise, that he wanted his son’s death investigated carefully before passing any kind of judgement. But the decision would have been taken by the War Cabinet and the King would have had to follow orders, particularly now. The country couldn't afford an open squabble between the King and Parliament.
    “I wish you the very best of luck in talking with the aliens,” the King continued. “It may be our only hope of a lasting peace.”
    He looked at Janelle. “I am truly sorry for pulling you into our lives,” he said. “I have no doubt that, if my son had survived, he would have taken steps to ensure you were protected or simply never identified. Henry, whatever his faults, was a decent person.”
    “That is beyond doubt,” Elizabeth said, frostily.
    “You are free to call us at any time, should you wish to chat,” the King continued. “And please know that we do not blame you for anything.”
    “Thank you,” Janelle said.
    “But it won’t be an easy few months for you,” the King warned. “It has always been so for those who come too close to the Royal Family.”
    He rose to his feet. “You would be well-advised to remain on the carrier for the next few months, if possible,” he added. “There are few other places the media won’t go – and they’re searching for a distraction. If they think your life will make a good distraction ...”
    “They already have,” Janelle said, bitterly.
    “She will be safe on Ark Royal,” Ted said. He stood, then saluted the King. “Thank you for your time, Your Majesty.”
    The King snorted. “Good luck, Admiral,” he said. “Make peace with the aliens, if you can; if not, make them pay for everything they’ve done to us.”
     
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six
    “We have two new squadrons of pilots joining us this afternoon,” Rose said, as the shuttle landed neatly in the shuttlebay. “They’ll need to be brought up to speed on carrier procedures as quickly as possible.”
    Kurt barely heard her. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the refugee camp and the refugees, trapped behind the wire like prisoners. The reports they’d picked up as they made their way back to the spaceport had been far from reassuring. At least one camp had collapsed under the rain, drowning hundreds of refugees, while the supervisors of another camp had been arrested for abusing their charges. The sooner he got his children – and Gayle – out of the camps, the better.
    Rose elbowed him. “You’re not listening to me!”
    “I was,” Kurt protested.
    “I just told you I was planning to hold an orgy in the briefing room with all the new pilots and you agreed,” Rose said. “Or should I let you explain it to the Captain afterwards?”
    Kurt sighed, rubbing his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. He’d zoned out completely. “I’ll try to pay attention in future.”
    Rose eyed him for a long moment. “There are two new squadrons of pilots joining us this afternoon,” she said. “Did you hear that part?”
    “Yes,” Kurt said. “I ...”
    “Then you know we also have to work them into the ship’s training cycles,” Rose said. “All of which have to be worked in around the repair work. And then they have to be checked out on the simulators ...”
    Kurt rose to his feet as the hatch opened. “Deal with it,” he ordered. “I hereby appoint you CAG, to hold the position until relieved or confirmed by the Captain.”
    Rose stared at him. “Kurt ...”
    “I need to speak to the Captain,” Kurt said. He walked through the hatch and stepped down onto the solid deck. “You can handle the new pilots, can't you?”
    “Kurt,” Rose said, “I can handle it, but it’s your job.”
    Kurt understood. Rose loved flying. She was in line for a post as CAG, but it would have taken her off the flight roster permanently, at least unless the carrier needed an extra pilot more than it needed a flight supervisor. Few pilots considered seeking promotion until their reflexes started to dull, while they came up with inventive excuses to avoid promotion as long as possible. It never failed to confuse anyone working their way towards starship command.
    “I need to speak to the Captain,” he said. He wanted to take her in his arms, but he knew he didn't dare, not when the shuttlebay was full of spacers and yard dogs from the nearby shipyard. There were just too many witnesses. “You can handle it, can’t you?”
    “I can,” Rose said. “But you’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”
    “I’m a CAG,” Kurt pointed out. “Stupidity is abolished when one is promoted out of a cockpit.”
    Rose rolled her eyes, then strode past him and through the hatch that led down towards Pilot Country. Kurt smiled at her retreating back – starfighter pilots tended to act like overgrown children until they were on the verge of burning out – and then turned and made his way towards the hatch leading up to Officer Country. The starship’s metal corridors were jam-packed with spacers and pallets holding dozens of spare parts, several brought out of long-term storage for the Old Lady. Others, he knew, had to be specifically reengineered for the ancient carrier.
    He nodded to a pair of Marines as he strode past, who nodded back. Most of the Marines assigned to the Royal Navy had been redeployed down to the ground, reinforcing the military units struggling to cope with the sheer scale of the crisis, but Ark Royal’s Marines had remained onboard as part of the ship’s damage control teams. Part of the reason the Old Lady had such a large crew was to keep up with repairs, if necessary. The modern carriers had indulged in more automaton than some officers suspected was healthy.
    It took longer than he'd expected to reach Officer Country. The laser warheads the aliens had used – they’d stolen the idea from humanity, something that bothered him more than he cared to admit – had done considerable damage to the interior of the starship and several sections had been closed down entirely while the repair crews worked their magic. Kurt wondered, absently, what they’d do about the armour plating, before dismissing it as something outside his remit. The Captain and the XO had to worry about repairing their ship. Kurt only had to worry about his pilots.
    He felt a flicker of guilt as he passed through the hatch and into Officer Country, making his way up to the Captain’s cabin. Rose was perhaps the most experienced officer, save himself, left on the ship. Once Kurt left, it was quite likely she would be pushed into taking on the CAG job, no matter her personal preferences. He knew she’d hate it – and hate him for leaving her. But his family came first ... he gritted his teeth, silently promising to explain everything to Rose after he’d spoken to the Captain. He owed her an explanation.
    The hatch opened when he pressed his hand against the sensor, revealing the Captain and the Chief Engineer standing in front of a holographic display. Kurt shook his head as he stepped into the cabin and realised that the display showed just how badly Ark Royal had been damaged. Most of the internal damage could be repaired fairly quickly, he was sure, but it was the armour that posed a real problem. It was just unlike anything the Royal Navy had produced for over fifty years.
    “We’re going to have to slim down armour from these sections,” Chief Engineer Anderson said. He sounded pleased, despite the situation. His expertise with one particular starship, and none whatsoever with the more modern starships, had ensured his career had stalled until Ark Royal had been called into battle. “We can use the armour plating to patch the hulls in the hull here, here and here.”
    He jabbed at the display as he spoke. “I’m hoping for some additional armour plates from Mars, but they’re stalling on delivery,” he added. “And we might have to reshape them ourselves when we get them anyway.”
    Captain James Montrose Fitzwilliam nodded, thoughtfully. “Draw down the armour,” he ordered. “The Admiralty wants us gone in a fortnight at best.”
    “They’ll be lucky,” Anderson predicted, dourly. “I’d honestly prefer to replace at least half of the ship’s systems with completely new gear.”
    “And we don’t have the time,” Captain Fitzwilliam said. “Do your best, please.”
    He looked up at Kurt. “One moment, Commander,” he said. “We’re just finishing here.”
    Kurt nodded. Captain James Montrose Fitzwilliam had, according to scuttlebutt, tried to use his connections to edge Captain – now Admiral – Smith out of command when the war had begun. The Admiralty, in an unusual display of perceptiveness, had left Smith in command, but assigned Fitzwilliam to him as his XO. Somehow, the two men had learned to work together and Fitzwilliam had replaced Smith as Captain of the Old Lady when Smith had been promoted to Admiral and put in overall command of Operation Nelson. The doubts some of the crew had once had – Fitzwilliam was young, handsome, rich and aristocratic – had faded when they’d seen him in action. He was a competent commanding officer.
    “We’re getting emergency supplies rushed to us from Britannia, but we really need some of the older Chinese shit,” Anderson continued. “Half of our modern systems don’t talk to the older stuff we use as the backbone for our systems; hell, we really should modernise the whole ship, but we just don’t have time.”
    “I’ll speak to the Admiralty,” the Captain said. “They can trade with the Chinese.”
    Anderson smiled, then switched off the display. “I’ll keep you informed, Captain,” he said. “But I honestly doubt we will be ready to meet our scheduled departure date without slimming the repairs down to the bare minimum.”
    Kurt swallowed. Ark Royal’s one great strength was her solid-state armour, the walls of metal that had protected her when more modern carriers had simply been ripped apart within seconds by alien weapons. If that armour was weakened ... but the aliens, he knew, had already found a way to break through the armour. They’d be building more such warheads even now, he was sure, and arming their ships in readiness for the final thrust towards Earth.
    “Thank you,” the Captain said. He watched the Engineer stride out of the cabin, then turned to Kurt. “What can I do for you?”
    And it had better be important, hung in his voice.
    “Captain,” Kurt said. For a moment, his nerve almost failed him – and then he remembered the refugee camp and gritted his teeth. “I would like to submit my resignation.”
    The Captain studied him for a long moment. “Denied,” he said, finally. “You can take it to the Admiralty if you like, but I don’t believe that any resignations are being accepted at the moment.”
    Kurt felt cold despair – and rage – boiling up inside of him. “Captain,” he said, “I would ask you to reconsider.”
    “And I would tell you the same thing,” the Captain said, evenly. He pointed Kurt to the sofa, then turned and walked to the drinks dispenser. “Do you take milk in your tea?”
    Kurt blinked. “Captain?”
    “I want to know if you take milk in your tea,” the Captain said. He poured a mug of tea for himself, then turned to look at Kurt. “Do you?”
    “Yes, thank you,” Kurt said. The Captain serving him tea? It was unprecedented in his career. Had he entered the twilight zone? “Sir ...”
    The Captain passed him a mug. Kurt studied it, trying to keep his eyes away from the Captain’s calm gaze. It was branded with Ark Royal’s pennant and, below, the ship’s motto. Zeal does not Rest. At one point, it would have seemed an absurd motto for te ship, but now it fitted perfectly. Ark Royal had carried almost the entire weight of humanity’s war effort within her solid-state hull.
    “I do not believe you would seek to resign without cause,” the Captain said, as he sat down facing Kurt. “Why do you want to leave the service?”
    “My children are in a refugee camp,” Kurt said, slowly. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to tell the Captain anything, but if he was refused permission to resign his only choice would be desertion. In times of war, it carried the death penalty. “They’re ... not in a good state.”
    “Few people are, these days,” the Captain said. “Do you think you can take care of them on the ground?”
    “With all due respect, sir,” Kurt said, “you don’t have children.”
    “I do understand the impulse,” the Captain said. “And I understand your desire to protect your children at all costs.”
    “My wife is dead and my children are in a fucking prison camp,” Kurt snapped, before he could stop himself. The tidal wave of bitterness threatened to overcome him. “I can't leave them there!”
    The Captain leaned forward. “Do you think you’re the only naval officer with family in refugee camps?”
    “They should be doing something about them,” Kurt said. “I ... I can't think for worrying about my family. They’re all I have left.”
    “It has only been two weeks since the battle,” the Captain said. “I believe they’re planning to separate confirmed family and friends of military personnel, but right now the system is utterly overloaded. People are dying because we can't get medical supplies from one place to another ...”
    “Which is why I have to take care of them,” Kurt insisted. “Who else is going to do it?”
    The Captain met his eyes. “If you are discharged from the Royal Navy, you will promptly be conscripted into one of the semi-volunteer units fighting to keep as much of the country intact as possible,” he said. “You may wind up operating a refugee camp. Or you may be ordered to help dig ditches or fill sandbags or something else that will take you away from your family once again. I hear that even prisoners have been forced into helping with relief efforts.”
    And if I desert, I might wind up helping anyway, Kurt thought, recognising the unspoken warning.
    “And you cannot really be spared,” the Captain added. “You are one of the most experienced CAGs in the navy, certainly the most experienced officer on Ark Royal. I cannot replace you before we depart for ...”
    Kurt stared. “We’re leaving? Again?”
    “Yes,” the Captain said, flatly. “Do you make a habit of interrupting your commanding officers?”
    “No, sir,” Kurt said. He’d known Captains who would have blown a fuse at the mere thought of being interrupted by one of their subordinates. “I ...”
    “Quite understandable,” the Captain said, blandly. He took another sip of his tea, then looked up at Kurt. “I can arrange for your children – and anyone else you wish to name – to be moved to a better location, if you like. They will be cared for. But I cannot accept your resignation right now. The country needs you.”
    “The country needs to take care of my children,” Kurt muttered, sourly. “I was promised ...”
    “I don’t think anyone anticipated such a staggering attack,” the Captain said. “Everyone assumed we would have to deal with a few thousand wives and children who had lost their husbands and fathers. We could have handled that, if necessary.”
    Kurt couldn't disagree. One of the few advantages to being part of the Naval Reserve was having a guaranteed pension for his wife and family, if he died while serving in the navy. It was a far from perfect arrangement, but it would have helped Molly avoid an immediate financial crisis while she looked around for work for herself. But the system had been crushed below the tidal waves that had ravaged the coasts of Britain and Ireland. It was unlikely his pension would ever be paid now, if he died on active service.
    “I will have your family moved, if you send me the details,” the Captain said. “I’m due to visit Earth in a couple of days anyway, so I’ll have it done then. In exchange, I want you to get back to your duties and carry them out in a professional manner.”
    “Yes, sir,” Kurt said. He felt a little reassured. “Are we actually planning to depart in a fortnight?”
    “The Admiralty’s orders admit of no flexibility,” the Captain said, flatly. “I expect we will be carrying repair technicians and shipyard drones with us when we finally slip anchor and make our way towards the tramline. It will be a far from easy voyage.”
    Kurt nodded and finished his tea, then put the mug to one side. The Captain’s steward would pick it up for washing, if he hadn't already been assigned to repair work. Maybe that was why the Captain had produced the tea himself, unless the Captain had wanted time to think and gather himself. Kurt’s request to resign had to have surprised him.
    “Get your flight crews ready as quickly as possible,” the Captain ordered. He tapped a switch, activating the holographic starchart. Far too many stars gleamed red, signifying alien occupation. “You never know when the aliens might put in an appearance.”
    “Yes, sir,” Kurt said. The aliens hadn't bothered to try to hold the Terra Nova system, but they still had a strong presence at New Russia. They might be planning another attack at any moment. He rose to his feet, then strode over to the hatch. “And thank you.”
    He stepped through the hatch and made his way slowly back to Pilot Country. Several new pilots had been assigned to Ark Royal since their return from alien-controlled space, although they’d simply been slotted into pre-existing squadrons rather than used to build up entirely new formations. Adding two new squadrons ... he’d been too distracted to pay much attention to the paperwork, but he had the very definite impression that most of them were new pilots, just recently graduated from the Academy.
    Wonderful, he thought, as he reached his office. Just like Prince Henry.
    “Kurt,” Rose said, as the hatch closed behind him. “What did the Captain say?”
    “Get back to work, you slacker,” Kurt said. He smiled, despite feeling no sense of humour at all. “Or words to that effect.”
    Rose’s eyes narrowed. She was far from stupid and knew when someone was trying to distract her. “And what did you say to him?”
    “I told him I wanted to resign,” Kurt said. He felt another stab of guilt at the brief flicker of pain that crossed her face. “He told me I couldn't – but that he’d help with the children.”
    “I’m sorry,” Rose said. Her voice was curiously flat. “But at least the children will be safe.”
    She looked ... torn. Their affair, which had been born out of the certain knowledge neither of them would see Earth again, hadn't faded away when they’d returned to their homeworld. She’d come to have feelings for him, Kurt knew, and he’d come to have feelings for her too. And yet, it was something they could never admit, not openly. Their affair was still in direct breach of regulations.
    “I hope so,” Kurt muttered. The Captain was well-connected. But even the aristocracy had taken a beating when the tidal waves had washed over Britain. It was quite possible the Captain wouldn't be able to do anything to help his children. “But we have work to do.”
    Rose stood, walked behind him and pushed him down onto the deck. “First, you need to relax,” she said, firmly. Her hands started to massage his back, kneading out the aches and pains that had been tormenting him since he’d learned what had happened to his family. “And then you can get back to work.”
     
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  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven
    “I say, my boy,” Uncle Graham said. “You look like a drowned rat. And smell like one too.”
    Captain James Montrose Fitzwilliam sighed as he stepped into the library. There was at least one over-bred idiot in every aristocratic family, the result of too much inbreeding or a complete lack of discipline when they were children. Uncle Graham had been an idiot when James had been born and he hadn't really improved since. But then, he’d never been forced to actually work for a living.
    “It happens to be raining out there,” James said, with as much patience as he could muster. It wasn't much. Winchester Hall had escaped the tidal waves, but the never-ending rain had ruined the gardens and turned the grassy into a muddy ocean. The refugee camp established on the fields outside the walls only made matters worse. “And I didn't have an umbrella.”
    “I know, lady,” Uncle Graham said. “We haven’t been able to play cricket for weeks.”
    James sighed, again. There were times when he understood just why the republicans wanted to get rid of the aristocracy. If people like himself genuinely earned their places – and he recalled how he’d tried to gain command of Ark Royal and shuddered – there were quite a few aristocrats who did nothing to make themselves worthy of the rights they claimed from the British State. Uncle Graham should have been sterilised as soon as it became clear that he wasn't going to improve. Fortunately, no one had expressed interest in marrying him.
    He strode past his uncle and into the next room. Uncle Winchester was seated at his desk, going through a large stack of paperwork. Beside him, his secretary took notes, her face illuminated oddly by the firelight. The flames burning in the fireplace, James decided, were almost hypnotic. It was enough to make him want to forget the disaster that had struck the country outside the walls.
    “James,” Uncle Winchester said. He nodded to his secretary, who stood and walked out the door, closing it firmly behind her. “You’re late.”
    “The roads were completely flooded,” James said, shortly. He’d been in combat. He wasn't going to be intimidated by Uncle Winchester. “I had to divert quite some way before I got to the estate.”
    “You should have taken a shuttle,” Uncle Winchester said. He looked James up and down, then nodded shortly. “Take a seat, please.”
    James sat. “The shuttles were required for distributing emergency supplies,” he said, curtly. “I was damned if I was going to take one away from its duties just to get here on time.”
    Uncle Winchester didn't bother to argue. “I got your request,” he said. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
    “Yes, Uncle,” James said, firmly.
    He sighed. The CAG wasn't the only officer or crewman with family in refugee camps. A quick check had revealed over three hundred registered dependents in various camps, along with several thousand deaths. He’d asked Uncle Winchester to take the Kurt Schneider’s family into his home, but also to ensure the remaining family members were protected. It was his duty as a commanding officer to take care of his men.
    “It has been done,” Uncle Winchester said. “The young girls have been given rooms in the Hall; the young man has insisted on remaining with the volunteers. And everyone else has been placed on the priority list for transport elsewhere.”
    James nodded. Thankfully, large parts of the country remained untouched by the tidal waves, allowing the government to start setting up proper holding facilities for the refugees. It would be a long time before they had anywhere decent to live – abandoned and second homes were already being tapped under the Disaster Relief Act – but they would be safe, at least.
    “Thank you,” he said.
    “This leads to another question,” Uncle Winchester said. “Do you want them to be added to the Emergency Evacuation List?”
    What Emergency Evacuation List?” James asked. “If this building comes under attack ...?”
    “No,” Uncle Winchester said. “The list of people we plan to take away from Earth if the war is not concluded soon.”
    James stared at him. “Uncle ...?”
    Formidable was just commissioned at the Britannic Yards,” Uncle Winchester said, slowly. “She was originally intended to be named Prince of Wales, but the Admiralty wanted a replacement for the carrier they lost at New Russia. Unfortunately, she isn't any better armoured then her namesake. Putting her in the line of battle, here and now, will simply give the aliens more targets to engage. We have other plans for her.”
    “Other plans,” James repeated, feeling a sinking sensation in his chest. “Do I want to know?”
    “We also rushed two large colonist-carriers through their trials,” Uncle Winchester continued smoothly. “They were intended for the Boer Republic, but we seized them for ourselves. They’re both designed to set up a separate colony without the need for supplies from Earth ... I believe the Boers intended to pull a Heinlein and just vanish from the rest of human space.”
    James put two and two together. “And that’s what you intend to do too, isn't it?”
    “Correct,” Uncle Winchester said. “Formidable will escort both ships, crammed with our best and brightest, through the tramlines and as far away from the aliens as possible. All three ships are designed for several years of independent operations, so they should be able to get quite some distance before they start looking for a new world to settle. Once they do, of course, they will start building up a force that can retake human space.”
    “Or simply avoid the aliens indefinitely,” James observed.
    “In the long run, that is unlikely to be possible,” Uncle Winchester said. “We have no idea how fast the aliens intend to continue their expansion, but eventually they will discover the colony. There are plans to build a colony without any form of high technology, yet even that would eventually be detectable. Ideally, the colony will develop new weapons and technologies that can be used to take the war back to the aliens.”
    James swallowed. The aliens had shown themselves to be innovative, first in creating weapons intended to scythe through humanity’s most modern starships and then, when confronted with Ark Royal, building weapons that had blasted their way through the Old Lady’s armour. Somehow, he doubted humanity’s enigmatic opponents would sit on their hands and stagnate while the refugees rebuilt a technological base and advanced well ahead of them. They’d certainly have far more resources than a single planet settled by a few hundred thousand humans.
    “Chancy,” he said, finally. “And what happens if they do stumble across the colony?”
    “The colonists die,” Uncle Winchester said. He sighed, loudly. “Given five or ten years, James, we’d kick their assess. The boffins are going nuts over all the discoveries from the alien battlecruiser you captured. Genuine original science is being performed. Some of them are even talking about ways to duplicate the tramline effect or use gravity-based drives to power missiles and starships. But we won’t have time to put more than a handful of new weapons into production before we get crushed by the aliens.”
    He sighed, again. “Right now, humanity’s entire fleet is down to twelve carriers, not counting Ark Royal or the modified freighters. We’re making some progress on protective armour that will stand up to alien weapons, but it will still take months to get it into production and use it to coat the remaining ships. We have more frigates and destroyers, yet they’re not enough to make a difference. The bottom line, James, is that we are on the verge of losing this war.”
    James leaned forward. “We don’t know how badly the aliens have been hurt,” he said, slowly. Ark Royal’s various missions had taken out at least twenty alien carriers, although post-battle analysis had suggested some of them might be repairable. “For all we know, we might have seen the worst they can throw at us.”
    “But we don’t know,” Uncle Winchester said. “Have we taken out their entire fleet – or have we only scratched the surface?”
    “I don’t know,” James said.
    He recalled the projections the analysts had devised when they’d discovered and attacked Target One. They’d pointed out that Target One couldn't have produced carriers for itself, suggesting there were other shipyards located somewhere deeper in alien space. But where were the shipyards? If they could be destroyed, the war might come to an end.
    “We do have the vague hope of contacting another alien faction,” Uncle Winchester said. “But if it fails, we have to plan for the worst.”
    “Yes, Uncle,” James said.
    “This plan must remain a secret,” Uncle Winchester warned. “There will be panic if any word gets out.”
    “That’s why the media has been discussing Prince Henry, despite the floods,” James said, in sudden understanding. “You’re using it as a distraction.”
    “Essentially,” Uncle Winchester said. “The floods themselves are one hell of a distraction, of course, but the media is helping by trying to” – he smirked – “distract people.”
    James snorted. He’d reviewed the datanet channels while the car had made its slow way to the house and most of them had been broadcasting entertainment programs from a bygone age. Soap operas had always disgusted him, but maybe he just wasn’t the viewer demographic they were made for. But if they showed mundane lives ... their viewers, surely, would have mundane lives.
    Or maybe he was just missing the point.
    “Most people just want to relax and forget their woes, or wallow in woes belonging to other people,” Uncle Winchester added. “Or some of them want to feel reassured that life will return to normal.”
    “But it won't,” James said. Even if the war ended tomorrow, even if humanity came to a peace agreement with the aliens, it would be decades before life returned to anything like normal. Humanity would have to rebuild from the war, then come to terms with the fact that they were no longer alone in the universe – and that some of their new friends wanted to pick a fight rather than talk. “Surely they know better than that.”
    “Most people are idiots,” Uncle Winchester said. He paused. “James, there was a reason I asked you here, today.”
    James lifted his eyebrows. He’d suspected as much. Strings had been pulled to arrange for him to visit Winchester Hall, strings that had been in motion long before he’d approached his Uncle to ask for a favour. Those strings wouldn't have been pulled if they hadn't wanted something from him that went above and beyond the call of duty.
    He settled back, cursing inwardly. There were days when he understood precisely why Prince Henry had sought to join the Royal Navy under an assumed name.
    Formidable – and the entire colony mission - will need a commander,” Uncle Winchester said. “I’d like you to take command.”
    “I should have expected that,” James said, slowly. “You do realise my carrier expertise is limited to Ark Royal? Formidable is a very different kettle of fish.”
    “You won’t be expected to take the ship into battle,” Uncle Winchester assured him. “All we want you to do is find a new world and set up a colony there.”
    “Except you have no more idea than I do of what might be lurking at the far end of the tramlines,” James pointed out. “We might discover a second alien race, far more hostile than the first. Or we might discover the aliens themselves, trying to block our escape. You need a commander who knows more about modern carriers.”
    “We need one who understands the urgency of the situation,” Uncle Winchester grated. “I would hesitate to nominate someone else ...”
    “But you should,” James said. “I had to learn the limits of my capabilities the hard way.”
    “So you did,” Uncle Winchester said. “And there were other reasons to put you on Ark Royal. But those reasons are gone now, if you are to be believed, and it is time for you to move onwards.”
    James took a breath. “Uncle,” he said. “I won’t desert Ark Royal or Admiral Smith, not now.”
    His Uncle studied him coldly. “It is your duty to go where you are sent,” he said, after a tense moment. “I will not accept you trying to escape your duty for sentimental reasons.”
    “I’m the commander of Ark Royal,” James said. “She’s due to depart in twelve days – and isn't that going to be a right headache? There is no time to prepare another officer, even Commander Williams, to take my place.”
    He stood and walked to the windows. Outside, rain pelted the glass sheets and ran down towards the flowerbeds below, but he could still see the refugee camp outside the walls. A few hundred people resided there – even he hadn't been able to pull an exact number from the datanet – after losing their homes and everything they owned to the tidal waves. Three weeks ago, they had been civilians, the people he was pledged to defend. Now, they were nothing but helpless refugees. How many of them, he wondered, had donated money to charities intent on helping people from Africa or the Middle East? Had they ever thought they would end up like the victims of endless civil wars and religious conflicts?
    “And I owe it to the people down there not to run,” he added. “There are no guarantees of survival, Uncle, but I am damned if I will run.”
    “The issue here is not bravery or cowardice,” Uncle Winchester said. He tapped the table to underline his words. “The issue here is the survival of the human race itself.”
    “Or the British part of it,” James pointed out. No one would repeat the mistakes of Terra Nova in a hurry. He smiled at the thought, then sobered. “Do other countries have their own plans?”
    “We assume so,” Uncle Winchester said. “The Americans had a colonist fleet that was due to depart just before Vera Cruz. It was placed on hold and nothing has been seen or said about it since. There are some indications that France and Brazil are planning their own departures, but we don’t know for sure. They may just be considering moving additional settlers to their colonies in the wake of the Battle of Earth.”
    James nodded. Moving to Britannia – on the other side of Earth from the aliens – would seem very attractive right now. They’d been lucky, he knew; the aliens had deliberately avoided firing on the orbital towers, even though they were easy targets. If the towers had fallen, the death toll would have been far higher. It suggested the aliens were far more than just mindless killers. Perhaps there was a way to coexist with them after all.
    But if Earth fell, Britannia wouldn't last much longer.
    He took a breath. “Uncle,” he said, as he turned to face the older man, “I respectfully refuse to take command of Formidable.”
    Uncle Winchester slowly rose to his feet. “Are you refusing the promotion?”
    “My duty is with Ark Royal,” James said. He fought hard to control his growing anger. “I have no intention of fleeing Earth ...”
    “You have a duty to ensure the human race survives,” Uncle Winchester snapped. “You will be in command of a carrier, with a full complement of fighter pilots and starfighters, protecting two colonist-carriers and a genetic databank. The human race will live on where you choose to settle. It’s your damn duty to take command of the fleet.”
    “There are others who are better equipped to take command,” James said. Understanding clicked in his mind. “And most of them have ties to the aristocracy. Offer to take their families along and they will probably be happy to take command of the fleet. You will get to maintain your social structure indefinitely, provided you don’t forget the lessons of the Troubles. And the very best of British luck.”
    He turned and started to make his way towards the door. “I won’t mention this to anyone, Uncle, but I won’t be involved. I can't.”
    “Very well,” Uncle Winchester said. “Go back to Ark Royal. Resume command. Prepare for your deployment ... which may very well be your last. And do everything in your power to establish a peaceful outcome to the war.”
    “Yes, sir,” James said.
    “You’ll need these files,” Uncle Winchester added. He picked a datachip off the desk and tossed it to James. “I was going to ask you to pass them to Admiral Smith, but seeing you’re still in command ...”
    “Thank you,” James said. “Do you know who will be appointed the Ambassador?”
    “That’s still being haggled over by the Foreign Office,” Uncle Winchester said. He snorted in a remarkably child-like manner. “Some of the mandarins want an experience diplomat, preferably someone who cut his teeth making deals with the Americans or the other spacefaring powers. Others want someone more used to handling African or Middle Eastern powers ...”
    “That would be disastrous,” James said, quietly. “They’re too used to negotiating from a position of strength.”
    He sighed. After the economic storms of the mid-21st Century, large parts of Africa and the Middle East had become backwaters. The old nation-states were long gone, replaced by states built on religious, racial or ethnic lines. None of them were any match for a spacefaring power; if they caused trouble, the standard response was to send in Special Forces or call down strikes from orbit. No one, these days, wasted time trying to rebuild entire nations. If their people wanted better nations or rulers, the thinking ran, they could do it for themselves.
    It was heartless, some said. But all previous nation-building attempts had failed.
    “Deals are being struck,” Uncle Winchester said. “I believe there will be an answer soon enough, James. Until then ...”
    He shrugged expressively. “Get your ship ready for combat, Captain,” he added. “I have a feeling that these negotiations will be far from easy.”
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight
    As always, it was hard to tell how long it had been from the moment the aliens had left him alone with Jill to when they returned to his compartment. Henry knew he’d fallen asleep twice – being a starfighter pilot had taught him to sleep just about anywhere – but he honestly wasn't sure how long he’d slept. But it had given him time to think and bounce ideas off Jill, once he’d told her what the researchers had established about the aliens. She’d picked up a great deal herself, merely from watching them closely.
    “I don’t think they want us to mate,” she said. “I’ve never seen them show anything resembling sexual interest in anyone.”
    “The researchers say they mate like fish,” Henry agreed. “The women eject eggs into the water; the men eject sperm and the two match up away from their parents, like tadpoles.”
    Jill considered it as she lay back on the bed. “I wonder what that does to their society,” she mused. “Ira and I spent all the time we had together kissing and stuff. They won’t do anything of the sort.”
    Henry couldn't disagree. His sex life had always been more circumscribed than anyone born outside the Royal Family, but that hadn’t stopped him spending most of his waking hours plotting how to have sex. But so much of humanity’s culture, morality and society was built around sex, one way or the other. How would an alien race that didn't have the same built-in urges as the human race grow and develop?
    “They won’t have any concept of bastardry,” he said, finally. “The children might be brought up by dedicated teachers, rather than their natural parents. Hell, they may not even have husbands and wives, as we understand the term.”
    He scowled, remembering his history. One of the most promising royal marriages had shattered after one of the participants revealed that he’d sired a bastard child. Another prince had been tormented by suggestions his father wasn't his father, although Henry had sometimes wished his father hadn't been his father. He could have left the Royal Family with a clear conscience and gone elsewhere.
    Jill sighed, her breasts rising and falling as she breathed. “How strange,” she said. “And yet ... why should we expect them to be like humans?”
    Henry looked away from her. It was unlikely the aliens had realised just how many problems they were causing him by putting a naked and beautiful girl into his cell. There was little difference between alien males and females, as far as anyone could tell; they certainly didn't mate like humans. But part of his body kept reminding him just how long it had been since he’d lain with Janelle. And he had a sneaking suspicion she felt the same way.
    He shook his head, firmly, then strode over to the entrance and peered down into the murky water. It smelt funny, as always, but he’d grown used to it by now. There was nothing underneath the cell, as far as he could tell, apart from a source of light. The eerie green glow pervaded the water, marking the cell’s location. And yet, he had no idea why it was there. It wasn't as if the aliens needed light to see underwater.
    “We shouldn't,” he said. There were hundreds of human cultures and societies, even though all humans shared the same biology. It was unlikely the aliens would have a culture humans would understand completely. They were probably equally perplexed over some of the materials they’d pulled from their conquests. “They’re nothing like humans.”
    Something moved, deep below the waters. Henry stepped back, just in time to avoid an alien coming up and out of the water like a performing seal. It should have been an absurd scene, a literal fish out of water, and yet the alien moved with an eerie grace that belied its odd appearance above the water. They would make poor soldiers, Henry considered, particularly away from the sea. But they wouldn't have to fight on the land to win the war.
    The alien shivered, spraying water droplets everywhere, then turned to face him. Great yellow eyes met his, almost glowing in the dim light. Henry resisted the urge to take a step backwards as the alien squelched its way around the entrance and up towards the bed. Jill sat upright, her eyes flaring with alarm, just before the alien stopped and lowered itself to the floor. Henry hesitated, then walked back to the bed and sat next to Jill. She looked calm, calmer than he would have expected. But then, she’d been an alien captive for years.
    “We must talk,” the alien said. As always, it used an electronic speaker. “We must understand you.”
    It sounded more comprehensible, Henry noted. He’d always assumed the aliens had been studying human technology, including the teaching machines that could be found on almost any asteroid colony or small colonial homestead. Given time, they could have used the teachers to learn English and a great deal else about humanity, even though the machines contained nothing of tactical value. But the machines had also been designed for humans. It seemed equally possible that the aliens might have been unable to use them properly.
    “We must talk too,” Henry said. He took a long breath. “This war started by accident.”
    The alien seemed to recoil, slightly. It took Henry a moment to realise that it was connected – somehow – to its fellow aliens. Telepathy? There had been no sign the aliens were able to read minds. Or perhaps he was just over-thinking the issue and the alien was using communications implants. It made sense, Henry knew. The aliens might know the humans were trapped, unable to leave without drowning, but they’d want to supervise anyone who went into the cell. Henry might try to take the alien hostage.
    “The War Faction states otherwise,” the alien informed him. “State your case.”
    Jill crossed her arms under her breasts. Henry wanted to tell her to remain still. It was unlikely the aliens could read human body language, although they had definitely had a chance to download medical or psych textbooks from the colonies they’d overrun, but there was no point in taking chances. One of the most common human tactics in sensitive negotiations was to have one of the ambassadors an expert in reading people. A good one could tell a practiced liar from a honest man.
    “We settled the same world as your people,” Jill said, carefully. “It never crossed our minds that someone else might be living under the waters.”
    That was true, Henry knew. The Survey Protocols the various interstellar powers had formulated had never been intended to look for a race that lived underwater. No one had seriously believed that intelligent life could develop underwater, let alone develop technology and everything else that a spacefaring race would need. Survey ships looked for radio signals, glowing lights at night time and all the other signs that matched humanity’s own pattern. They’d never thought to look under the waves.
    And that raises another question, Henry told himself, sourly. What if there are other colonies shared with the aliens – and we don’t know about them?
    It seemed unlikely, he knew. Very few human colonies had one ship dropping off the colonists and no further contact with the rest of humanity. Most colonies were founded by nation-states, after all. But the aliens ... who knew how they thought? Once they had ensured enough food in the oceans, they could settle a world and develop a colony without further contact from the homeworld. Maybe they believed in allowing a colony world to build up its population before they started to turn it into an industrial powerhouse.
    “We believe that all races start in the waters,” the alien said. It definitely seemed to have mastered English. “Did yours not?”
    “No,” Henry said. Technically speaking, humanity’s very distant ancestors had crawled out of the waters, but he had a feeling it would only confuse the aliens if he brought that up. “We started on the land.”
    “But you killed one of our people,” the alien said. It was impossible to tell if it was speaking of Jill personally or humanity in general. “That is not the sign of a peaceful race.”
    Henry shuddered. The alien had died ... and its compatriots had mounted an immediate counterattack against what they’d assumed to be a hostile raiding party. A tragic mistake had rapidly turned into a nightmare, with tempers running high on both sides. And yet ...
    “You didn't attack us at once,” he said. It was impossible to be sure, but he suspected that Jill had been a prisoner for over a year. But no one was quite sure when Heinlein had been destroyed. “Why not?”
    There was a long pause, as if the alien was mentally debating what it should say. “War Faction stated that war was inevitable,” the alien said, slowly. “Peace Faction outvoted.”
    Henry’s eyes narrowed. There had been no shortage of human political factions that had turned a minor incident into a major crisis just to secure their own power, but he had the odd feeling he was missing something. The aliens couldn't be that close to humanity, could they?
    Jill uncrossed her arms. “Which faction are you?”
    “Peace Faction,” the alien said. “Further attacks did not come. Suggested shortage of hostile intent. War Faction unimpressed. Found your worlds. Attacked them.”
    Henry considered it, slowly. “The War Faction believed we were hostile,” he said. “And so they planned a war against us?”
    “Yes,” the alien said.
    “And the Peace Faction did ... what?” Henry asked. “Why didn't you try to talk to us?”
    “Consensus for war,” the alien said. “No talks until threat removed. Threat proved harder to defeat than War Faction believed. Attempted to convince War Faction to talk. War Faction refused. Attempted to talk to you directly. War Faction intervened.”
    Henry remembered the alien cruiser, killed by another alien ship, and shivered.
    “War Faction is locked on war,” the alien stated. “We must talk.”
    Henry looked down at his hands. He might have been intended to serve as nothing more than a figurehead, but he did have a working knowledge of politics and diplomacy. It was impossible to be sure, once again, yet he thought he understood. The War Faction had believed humanity to be a threat and convinced the rest of its race to support preparations for a short victorious war. And the other alien factions, assuming there were more than two, had gone along with it. They might not have viewed humanity as a lethal threat, but they might have wanted to negotiate from a position of strength or even support the war in exchange for other compromises. Henry had seen enough backroom dealing in Buckingham Palace to know that votes could be bought, often for the most surprising prices.
    And then the war had gone badly and some of the aliens had started having second thoughts.
    Jill frowned. “How was the decision made?” She asked. “Who voted?”
    Henry looked at the alien, interested.
    “All voted,” the alien said. “But voting blocs split.”
    Henry puzzled over the statement, then pushed it to one side until he had more data. The alien clearly thought he understood the underlying assumptions, that he possessed knowledge of a culture he lacked. Perhaps he, too, would have the same problems explaining human culture and society to the aliens. They'd put a naked man in the same cell as a naked woman without ever understanding why that might be a problem.
    We need more data, he thought, recalling all the briefings they’d been given. The researchers had come up with hundreds of theories, but none of them had actually been proven. He was looking right at a source of data and he couldn't even think what to ask. How do these bastards think?
    “My people want peace,” he said. The human race had nothing to gain from a war with an alien race, particularly if they could agree on a border instead. Hell, they could share the border worlds without bumping into one another. “You need to talk to us.”
    “We have tried,” the alien stated. “It failed.”
    “It failed because your War Faction stopped it,” Henry said. “You could try again.”
    The alien eyed him unblinkingly. “And your people would listen to us?”
    “Yes,” Henry said. “They will listen.”
    “Take us with you,” Jill said. “We can tell them you want peace.”
    “The War Faction does not want peace,” the alien said. “That is why it is called the War Faction.”
    Henry blinked. Had that been a joke? Or was the alien making a simple statement of fact? It might mean something more to the aliens, to their way of thinking, than it did to the humans listening to it.
    He took a breath. “Space is immense,” he said. “There is room for both of our races to grow and thrive. You would gain more by working with us and trading with us than you would gain from fighting with us. Take us with you, let us talk to our people, and we can convince them to talk properly.”
    The alien shivered, very slightly. “It will be considered,” it said. “They will debate it.”
    Jill smiled. “How does your government work?”
    “All talk,” the alien said. “All decide.”
    “You said that before,” Henry said. He rose to his feet and started to pace the cell. “But how does it work?”
    “All talk,” the alien repeated. “All decide.”
    Henry scowled, then peered into the murky water, catching sight of a handful of strange-looking fish as they swam past. The sight reminded him of fishing in the Scottish Highlands, one of the few memories he had that weren't tainted by the media or gold-diggers. Fish had swum in schools, if he recalled correctly, making their way through the water until they were caught by humans ...
    He stopped dead. Did the aliens swim in schools?
    Communism had never worked – for humans. There was plenty of evidence that proved communism was nothing more than a repulsive historical nightmare – for humans. The communists eventually needed to create tools of coercion to make people behave, which in turn eventually created a dictator or a dictatorship of the party, of those judged ideologically sound enough to hold power. Or it simply fell apart, if done on anything above a very small scale. There had been a handful of asteroids ruled by communist regimes. None of them had lasted very long.
    But would it work for the aliens?
    The briefings had speculated on just how living under the water might have shaped the alien character. They’d have access to an infinite supply of food, ensuring there was no need for distribution networks or mediums of exchange like money, and they could simply swim off and find another school if they found the current one distasteful. Could they actually make a government for the people, of the people, work? Humans had real problems with unfettered democracy. The aliens might have managed to make it work.
    And then ...
    Ethnic streaming, he thought. After Terra Nova, the human race had quietly resolved to separate planets by ethnic and national groups. Too many ethnic groups in close proximity led to war, ethnic cleansing and eventually genocide, particularly if they were historical enemies and had leaders keeping the old hatreds alive. What would that do to the aliens?
    “The War Faction,” he said, slowly. “It controls entire planets, doesn't it?”
    “Yes,” the alien said.
    Henry swallowed as everything fell into place. The aliens had social groups, but they were united by shared politics and ambitions, not survival. Minor disputes could be tolerated, he suspected, but larger disputes would end with the disgruntled minorities heading off to join other schools of thought. Given enough time, the schools would become echo chambers, with members repeating the same beliefs and perceptions over and over again. The War Faction presumably believed that humans were a colossal threat. They weren't paying any attention to any evidence that might suggest otherwise ...
    Because it would be forbidden, he thought.
    The aliens had spread out through the tramlines, just like humanity. They’d used their own form of ethnic streaming to settle other worlds, just like humanity. And, in doing so, they’d made it harder for the schools of thought to even hear about other ideas, let alone adapt and adjust their own in light of new evidence. The War Faction had presumably been warlike long before they’d discovered the human race, just like the humans who had believed in building up the various interstellar navies. And then they’d stumbled across proof they were right all along.
    “We have to talk to our people,” he said. “Can you arrange a meeting?”
    “We would have to pass through space controlled by the War Faction,” the alien said. It had clearly been in silent contact with its supervisors. “It will not be safe.”
    Henry smiled. “We don’t mind danger ...”
    “Speak for yourself,” Jill muttered.
    “... And we will take the risk, in hopes of forging a peace,” Henry said. “But can you convince the War Faction to see reason?”
    “They will talk,” the alien stated. “Other factions will also talk. A decision will be reached.”
    Henry glanced at Jill and winced. If he was right, the War Faction would be reluctant to listen to reason. They’d think they had good reason to continue the war.
    “We will depart soon,” the alien said. “You will be transferred to a ship.”
    “Thank you,” Henry said. “Can we discuss other matters too?”
    The alien looked at him. “We can,” it said, finally. “But we will have to leave soon.”
    Henry nodded, then sat down facing the alien. If he was right ... he thought he knew what questions to ask now. And if he was wrong ...
    He shook his head. At least the aliens were mounting a peace mission now. And maybe the other factions could convince the War Faction to stop the war.
    Sure, he thought. And maybe pigs will fly.
     
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  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine
    “Admiral on Deck!”
    “As you were,” Ted ordered, as he strode into the briefing room. The entire senior crew of Ark Royal had gathered to meet him, as per his orders. “We don’t have much time, so take your seats and we’ll catch up on the formalities later.”
    He took his seat at one end of the table, then tapped a switch, activating the holographic display. A starchart appeared in front of them, human-held stars in green, alien-held stars glowing blood-red. The tramlines were also marked; standard tramlines in gold, alien tramlines in silver. He took a long moment to study the display, then turned his attention to his subordinates.
    “Operation Trafalgar, Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, without preamble. “The overall objective is to make contact with Faction Two and attempt to enlist their aid against Faction One. In the event of the first objective failing or Faction Two being unable or unwilling to assist us, our secondary objective will be to attack the centre of alien space here.”
    He tapped a switch. Their target, a star further into unexplored space than any human starship had ever ventured, glowed brightly on the display.
    “The analysts, using the same algorithms that located Target One, believe that this star has an excellent chance of being the alien homeworld,” he continued. “In any case, the alien homeworld is almost certainly in the general area. Our orders, in the event of us failing to make peace, is to carry the war right into the heart of alien territory. This will not be easy.”
    That, he knew, was an understatement – and he could tell from the hastily-guarded faces that his subordinates knew it too. Any heavily-developed world would have fixed defences, but it would also presumably have a number of heavily-armed starships defending it. No one knew just how many ships the aliens possessed, yet it was unlikely they would leave their homeworld undefended. The analysts had hinted the aliens might have drawn their forces down to attack Earth.
    Wishful thinking, Ted thought, sourly. It sounded good, all right; it sounded too good to the true. He would have liked to believe the alien homeworld was practically undefended – fixed defences wouldn't prove that much of a problem – but he knew better than to plan on such an optimistic assumption. The fact that several analysts were trying to do just that worried him more than he cared to admit.
    “I won’t lie to you,” he said. “The situation is dire. We are staring total defeat in the face – not just us, but the entire human race. Our deep-strike into alien territory may mean the difference between survival and total defeat. Ark Royal is the only carrier who could hope to pull the mission off against determined alien opposition.”
    He took a breath. “We should all pray that we can make contact with Faction Two and convince them to help us,” he added. “But if not ... you’ve all seen the records from Earth. The aliens have devastated humanity’s homeworld. We ... are charged with doing the same thing to them if we fail to make peace.”
    Once, he knew, the concept would have horrified him. He’d resisted the urge to bombard alien settlements during their earlier missions. Now ... now, he couldn't help feeling curiously unconcerned about alien casualties. It bothered him, too, that he wasn't more bothered by the prospect of committing genocide.
    And there were the bioweapons, of course. But those would be held in reserve for the final days.
    “We will be departing in eight days,” he said. “By then, I want the flotilla ready for anything from peace to war.”
    He sighed. The last two days had been an endless series of briefings with the Admiralty, the Foreign Office and various diplomats from the spacefaring nations, all trying to argue over what peace terms the human race should consider acceptable. Ted had pointed out that humanity wasn't in a good state to demand peace terms; they’d be lucky, he’d argued, to agree to a return to the pre-war status quo. The diplomats had not been amused, but the Prime Minister had backed him. He’d promised that the Ambassador would have been carefully warned to make the beast deal he could, not hold out for an ideal deal the aliens would certainly reject.
    “Ambassador Horace Melbourne will be joining us as the designated Ambassador-In-Chief for the mission,” he continued. “He will be accompanied by two other diplomats from other spacefaring powers. I trust you will all make him and his staff welcome.”
    No one groaned out loud, but he sensed their irritation and dismay. Ark Royal’s sleeping quarters would have to be altered to make room for the Ambassador and his staff, all of whom would probably demand quarters in Officer Country. The crew would be trading bunkrooms and cabins for the next few days, with the humble midshipmen and junior officers getting the worst of it. Ted knew precisely how he would feel if someone kicked him out of his cabin and felt a flicker of sympathy. But it couldn't be helped.
    “I’ll reassign cabins later today,” the XO said, briskly. She'd been in line for her own command after the end of Operation Nelson, but there was no time to train up a new XO for Ark Royal. “We should be able to handle it professionally.”
    “He’ll want your cabin,” Fitzwilliam said, dryly. “Admiral, I should lodge an official protest.”
    “They wanted to take the White Elephant,” Ted said. “I think they’d be better off on Ark Royal.”
    He had to smile at Fitzwilliam’s expression. The White Elephant – she was actually called the White Star – had been an attempt to build a five-star passenger liner for interstellar tourists. But the market hadn't been ready for her and she’d been placed in storage, then reactivated as a possible troopship for the war. Rumour had it that she was staggeringly luxurious, which would have suited the ambassadors perfectly, yet she was hardly a warship capable of standing in the line of battle. It was far more likely that the aliens would just blow her away without even noticing.
    “They have to be out of their minds,” Fitzwilliam muttered.
    “In the event of us having to go to war, we will tell them to remain in their cabins,” Ted said, bluntly. “I’d prefer not to have to send a ship back to Earth with them if it can be avoided.”
    He took a breath. “And, with that in mind, are we ready for war?”
    Fitzwilliam looked at Anderson, who shrugged.
    “Most of the internal damage has been repaired, now we were able to call on spare parts from China and several other nations,” Anderson said. “There’s enough redundancy built into the systems to allow us to operate without the remaining subcomponents. However, the main sticking point remains the armour. We will simply not be able to get new solid-state armour in time for departure.”
    He sighed. “With your permission, Captain, I’ll strip it from several inner hull locations and use it to patch the holes,” he added. “But our hull will still be weak in those points.”
    Ted considered it. “Will it be a major problem against alien weapons?”
    “Laser warheads burn through our full armour anyway,” Anderson said. “The real problem is the plasma cannons some of their warships carry. They may be able to make a dent in the weakened armour ... and, of course, they can sweep the hull clear of sensors and weapons.”
    “By now, they’ll know about our weaknesses,” Fitzwilliam commented, bitterly. “Admiral, I think we have no choice, but to run the risk of using reduced armour.”
    “See to it,” Ted ordered. It was risky, he knew, but the alternative was worse. “And weapons?”
    “We’ve updated the mass drivers and railguns,” Anderson said. “I’m actually working on ways to use railguns as small mass drivers, but I think they’d be better reserved for close-in point defence. The last thing we want are aliens firing more laser warheads at us.”
    “No agreements there,” Ted said. “What other problems are there?”
    There was a pause.
    “Crew morale is in the pits,” Commander Williams said. She looked irked at having to discuss it in public, but she didn't have a choice. “Not to put too fine a point on it, morale was sky-high until we returned to Earth, whereupon it crashed badly. At least thirty percent of the crew had family or friends caught up in the tidal waves and either killed or rendered homeless. Or missing. Morale has improved since the Captain made arrangements for his crew, but it’s still pretty low.”
    She frowned. “And there are a great many angry crewmen out there,” she warned. “If we do happen to host a bunch of alien diplomats ...”
    “There might be incidents,” Ted finished. He had no idea if the aliens would consent to sending diplomats onboard Ark Royal. Even if they did, he wasn't sure if he would trust them not to bring any unpleasant surprises with them ... there, he had to admit, White Elephant would have come in handy. “If we do wind up playing host to alien diplomats, have the Marines guard them at all times. The last thing we need is a major diplomatic incident.”
    He looked down at the CAG, “Kurt?”
    “We are seriously below complement for starfighter pilotss,” Schneider said, flatly. His voice was grim, yet curiously dispassionate. “Right now, we have three and a half squadrons, two of which are made up of pilots who have never flown outside simulations and training exercises. We were better prepared for war when we sailed off to attack New Russia. And I have been unable to convince the remaining home defence squadrons to cut loose any pilots. In short, we don’t even have starfighters for the escort carriers.”
    Ted winced. After the first attack on Earth, it had been hard enough to convince the Admiralty that Ark Royal needed a handful of frigates and escort carriers as part of the flotilla. If the escort carriers hadn't been so useless in the line of battle, he suspected he would never have received approval. But then, without starfighters, they were damn near useless anyway.
    Commander Williams frowned. “What’s the bottleneck?”
    “Pilots,” Schneider said. He looked down at the table, almost guiltily. “Admiral, right now, we have starfighters without pilots.”
    “I know,” Ted said. The Royal Navy had produced Spitfires and Hurricanes in vast numbers, perhaps intending to sell some of their production line to other interstellar powers. But it was pilots that was the true bottleneck. A starfighter was useless without a pilot. “Do you have a solution?”
    “Only one,” Schneider said. “I’d like to draw from the lead class at the Academy.”
    “They’re kids,” Fitzwilliam protested. “They won't even have completed the goddamned accelerated training course, let alone the full training period.”
    “Yes, sir,” Schneider agreed. “But we don’t have anywhere else to look.”
    He met Ted’s eyes. “There’s a big difference between flying a shuttlecraft and a starfighter,” he warned. “If the pilots are too used to one craft, they won’t be prepared for the other. I don’t think we dare use shuttle pilots until they’ve been retrained and we simply don’t have the time. And every other experienced pilot is tapped already.”
    Ted nodded, slowly. The Admiralty was unlikely to agree to assign three new front-line squadrons to Ark Royal, let alone the escort carriers. Using student pilots was one hell of a risk – they might wind up shooting each other instead of the aliens – but he saw no other option either. There was no way they could recruit pilots from other nations. They’d have the same problem as shuttle pilots, with the added disadvantage of believing they were prepared for war.
    “Go to the Academy and ask for volunteers among the top-scoring pilots,” Ted ordered, finally. “Make sure they understand this is a voluntary mission ...”
    He broke off. Starfighter pilots were always supremely convinced of their own skill, even when they’d managed to land so badly they’d broken the landing struts. It was unlikely that the best student pilots would refuse the mission, no matter how often they were told that refusing would not reflect badly on their careers. There were times, he thought, when starfighter pilots were allowed too much latitude. But now, with death increasingly likely for each pilot, they could be tolerated.
    But if they prank my crew, he thought, remembering one incident on Formidable before her destruction, I’ll bring back the lash.
    “Aye, sir,” Schneider said. “I don’t think we will have any trouble finding volunteers.”
    “I think so too,” Ted said, dryly. He looked around the compartment. “Are there any other issues we need to resolve?”
    “The crew could do with a day or two of leave,” Commander Williams said. “Right now, far too many of them are approaching burn-out.”
    “Sin City is gone,” Schneider pointed out. “I thought we were going to have riots when that hit the datanets.”
    Ted nodded. The aliens, for reasons known only to themselves, had targeted Sin City with a long-range missile. There was no military reason for the attack; Sin City might have been a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but it had no military significance. And half of the servicemen who might have been visiting had been on active duty instead. All the aliens had done was kill a few thousand prostitutes, visiting civilians and force an emergency evacuation of the rest of the complex. It didn't seem like an effective use of a missile.
    Unless they wanted to target our morale, he thought. Every enlisted crewman – and not a few officers – in every interstellar navy was intimately familiar with Sin City. One had been able get anything there for a price, from straight sex to VR simulations that covered the deepest darkest fantasies of the most depraved human mind. Do they know us well enough for that?
    He shrugged. It didn't seem relevant.
    “Assign them passes to Luna if they have places to go,” he said, finally. Sin City wasn't the only den of ill repute, merely the best-known one. “But we can't tie up shuttles to Earth, not now. They’ll be needed for recovery work.”
    “Aye, Admiral,” Commander Williams said.
    Ted nodded. “Are there any more issues?”
    There were none.
    “We will greet the ambassadors in several days, I assume,” Ted said. “As I said, we have to put up with their presence, so ... try to be polite, even if they are taking your cabin.”
    He stood. “Dismissed,” he said. “Captain Fitzwilliam – a word?”
    Fitzwilliam nodded, then waited until the compartment was empty, save for Ted, Fitzwilliam and Janelle. Ted gave her a look and she nodded, then headed through the hatch, which closed behind her. He felt a moment of concern – the bright and lively girl who had requested assignment to Ark Royal was gone, replaced by a stranger – but knew she had to work through her problems on her own. Perhaps it would have been kinder to urge her to change her name and emigrate to Britannia.
    “Admiral,” Fitzwilliam said. “Do you believe this mission can succeed?”
    “I hope so,” Ted said. “But we won't know until we try.”
    “We could have completely misinterpreted the data,” Fitzwilliam added. “Or the aliens could be trying an elaborate trick.”
    “It's possible,” Ted said. It was the Flag Captain’s job to play devil’s advocate. “But do we have many other options?”
    He looked up at the display, charting the route to the alien homeworld – if it was the alien homeworld. The researchers had written hundreds of papers, each one arguing for or against the conclusion. But the only way to know for sure was to go and see. Ted was confident his command could slip through the alien rear, remaining undetected until they launched the attack, yet he knew there were too many things that could go wrong. Murphy would make an appearance at the worst possible moment.
    “You’ll get a confidential briefing soon,” he warned. “If we make peace, well and good; if not, there are options.”
    “Yes, sir,” Fitzwilliam said.
    Ted was reminded, suddenly, of just how young his Flag Captain actually was. He’d used his family connections to try to take command of Ark Royal, yet – when spited – he’d shown the sense to actually learn from Ted, rather than doing his best to undermine Ted’s command. And, when he’d been handed the opportunity to relieve Ted and take command for himself, he’d rejected it.
    If he was my son, Ted thought, I couldn't be prouder.
    “Many of those options are not good,” he added. “They could make the war worse.”
    He had a sudden vision of humanity’s worlds burning, one by one, as the aliens wrecked a terrible revenge. And of alien worlds burning too. The limits humans had imposed on international and interstellar conflicts meant nothing to them – and why should they? They weren't human.
    Fitzwilliam snorted. “It can get worse?”
    “It can,” Ted said, firmly. He paused. “What arrangements did you make for the crew’s families?”
    Fitzwilliam flushed. “I had them moved to the estate,” he said. “They’ll be as safe as possible, even if we won’t be.”
    “Good thinking,” Ted said. He normally disliked any form of string-pulling – although he was honest enough to admit that might be because he’d never been able to do it for himself – but he had to admit that Fitzwilliam had done well. “Will they have time to send letters to their families?”
    “I believe so,” Fitzwilliam said. “But Admiral ... the camps were shockingly disorganised.”
    “Yes,” Ted agreed. Someone should have supplied footballs or board games or even tried to take additional volunteers out to work. “The emergency protocols were completely overwhelmed. No one expected a disaster on such a scale. Even a terrorist nuke would have been easier to handle.”
    “It would have been worse if they’d gone after the towers,” Fitzwilliam said. “Do you think that’s a good sign?”
    Ted sighed. “I hope so.”
     
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  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten
    The Academy felt ... different to Kurt as he walked through the long corridors, cut into the lunar rock, and made his way to the conference room. Once, it had been a place of fun as well as a place of serious training. The pilots he’d trained beside had worked hard and played harder. Weekends had been spent at Sin City, if they won passes in shooting competitions , where alcohol, gambling and girls had been available in large numbers. It had been hard, but it had also been fun.
    Now, fear ran through the air and the students looked harried. Their training courses had already been cut down to the bare minimum, concentrating on flying skills to the exclusion of all else. Kurt knew – he’d been involved with designing the Accelerated Training Courses – just how dangerous it was to allow the students loose after a handful of months of training, yet it seemed worse now. The students looked as though they expected monsters to chase them down the corridor if they stepped on a crack in the floor.
    He sighed, inwardly, as he stepped into the compartment. Perhaps it was the sense that it could have been the Academy, rather than Sin City, that had been destroyed. The Royal Navy had other training facilities, but none so extensive and capable. Or perhaps it was the grim awareness that starfighter pilots and carrier crews had borne the brunt of the war so far and couldn't expect to live long. Kurt and Rose were two of the longest-surviving pilots and they'd only been at war for a year.
    “Attention,” the Proctor snapped. The trainees in the room rose to their feet and saluted, poorly. Clearly, training had slipped even further than it had before he’d departed for Operation Nelson. “Commander?”
    Kurt took the stand and studied the trainees carefully. They looked so young; the boys looked barely old enough to shave, while the girls barely seemed to be growing into their adult forms. It was his cynicism, he told himself bitterly, but it looked to him as though they were younger than Percy and Penny. Perhaps it wouldn’t be long before Penny was offered a chance to go to the Academy, now the war had reached Earth. Percy’s name was already down for the next intake.
    And they were scared. It was clear from the way they held themselves, from the way their eyes twitched and hands clenched when they thought he wasn't looking. He could hardly blame them for being scared, he knew; he still feared, if only for his family rather than himself. But there was no time to allow fear to master them. They were needed.
    “Take your seats and relax,” he ordered, deliberately informal. The trainees obeyed, sinking into their seats with every appearance of relief. “Officially, I am not here.”
    He watched as some of the students exchanged glances, then looked back at him. The last time he’d spoken to a batch of recruits, they’d included Prince Henry ... not that he’d known it at the time. Was there someone else, equally secretive, in the bunch before him or was he simply being silly. The media had made such a song and dance about Prince Henry’s brave attempt to be a normal person that it was unlikely anyone else could hide for long.
    “And I will be blunt,” he continued. He caught the eye of a girl young enough to be his daughter and looked away, keeping his reactions under tight control. “I don’t know what you will have seen or heard on the datanets, or the official news bulletins. The truth is that the war situation has developed not necessarily to our advantage.”
    A couple of them recognised the quote, he saw. The others probably thought he was indulging in deliberate understatement. Once, the students would have read histories of war and learned about their chosen field. Now, they had no time for anything, but starfighter training and endless simulations. They no longer had time to study history.
    “My ship needs starfighter pilots urgently,” he added. “You are the top-scoring pilots in your grades. If you are interested in joining my ship and entering active service as quickly as possible, you will have the chance to do so now. You will skip the final tests and examinations and go straight to the front lines.”
    He took a breath. “This is deadly serious,” he warned. “I won’t tolerate any form of misbehaviour onboard the ship. You’ll be training endlessly with more experienced pilots, both in simulators and out of it, until you are flung into actual combat. And there is a very strong chance you could die within the first few seconds of fighting. You simply don't have the experience to know what you’re doing.
    “Normally, we would never consider this, any more than a father would consider giving his son the keys to the car without making sure he passed the driving test,” he concluded. “If you choose to stay here and complete the training course, you may do so. It will not be counted against you – and it may well be the wise choice. But if you feel that you can handle it, that you’re willing to risk everything to serve your nation now, report to the shuttlebay at 1900hrs. You’ll be picked up there.”
    He nodded to the Proctor, who stepped forward. “Dismissed!”
    The trainees rose to their feet and headed out of the door, some moving as fast as they could without running, others dragging their feet as if they wanted to stay and speak privately to Kurt. But that wasn't an option. He strode out of the room and headed to the transit tubes, where he knew he could catch a train to Luna City. Commander Williams had ordered him to take a few hours off, even if he had to wander the city rather than visit a brothel or a gambling hall. He’d spent several minutes devising ways for Rose to accompany him before reluctantly conceding she couldn't be spared from her duties.
    It had been a long time since he’d visited Luna City, the first of the major settlements built on Luna and a politically independent entity. The Moon itself was a patchwork of cities, corporate installations and mining stations, some as independent as Luna City, others belonging to a nation back on Earth. It had often puzzled Kurt why the Royal Navy hadn't put its training centre closer to Clarke Colony, but there was probably some reason for it that only made sense to bureaucrats. Perhaps they’d wanted the trainees to experience Luna City rather than Clarke or Armstrong.
    Or perhaps they weren't thinking at all, he thought, as he stepped out of the train and though the airlock into the first dome. Someone had scrawled This Place Has No Atmosphere on top of the airlock, he noted with some amusement. It was a droll reminder of just what would happen if the giant dome broke. Bureaucrats rarely bother to consider what they’re doing before it is too late.
    Inside, Luna City looked like any small town in Britain or America, save for the giant dome overhead that kept the atmosphere within the settlement. Unlike many of the other installations, most of the city was on the surface, despite the risks. After what had happened to Sin City, he couldn't help seeing, half of the population seemed intent on moving elsewhere. A number of shops were closed, the digital library was only open for half hours and the bars were the only places that seemed to be operating 24/7. Shaking his head, he stepped into one of them, only to discover it was almost deserted. The only occupants were a number of children in a booth in the far corner, snickering to themselves.
    I feel old, Kurt thought, in a moment of self-pity. How long had it been since he’d felt so untouched by the outside universe? And they’re young enough to be my grandkids.
    He looked up, sharply, as a man sat down facing him. “Commander Schneider,” he said, simply. “Welcome to Luna City.”
    Kurt blinked in surprise. The newcomer had a face so bland it was instantly forgettable, with short brown hair and a wide innocent smile. He wore a simple black tunic, just like almost all of the other adult residents of Luna City, complete with a gangling oxygen mask and emergency air supply. Kurt didn't recognise him at all.
    “Thank you,” he said. He didn't have it in him to be polite, not now. “Who are you?”
    “My name doesn't matter,” the man said. He waved to the waiter, who walked over to the table. “What can I get you?”
    Kurt frowned. He was tempted to order one of the most expensive alcoholic drinks on Luna, but alarm bells were ringing at the back of his mind. Combat instincts were warning him to prepare to fight or flee for his life.
    “English Breakfast Tea,” he ordered, instead. “Why are you buying me drinks?”
    “Have patience,” the man said. He looked at the waiter. “I’ll have a hot chocolate with vanilla essence and whipped cream on top.”
    The waiter nodded and retreated.
    “We’ve followed your career with some interest, Commander,” the man said. “You’re quite the hero.”
    “You’re a reporter,” Kurt guessed. “I don’t have anything to tell you.”
    The man smiled, as if Kurt had said something genuinely funny. “I’m afraid not, Commander,” he said. “But you might be happier with the reporter.”
    He leaned back in his chair until the waiter returned, carrying a large mug of hot chocolate and a steaming teapot. Kurt watched the waiter go, then reached for the teapot.
    “I’d give it time to settle,” the man advised. “This isn't Navy-Issue Tea, you know.”
    “I’ll call you Fred,” Kurt decided. “You look a Fred.”
    The man snorted, then removed something from his uniform belt and placed it on the table. Kurt’s eyes narrowed. A static generator was largely unknown outside the military or intelligence services, at least in Britain. He had no idea if Luna City had any import/export restrictions that covered counter-surveillance technology, but it wasn't something he would expect the average person to possess.
    “You may be interested to know,” ‘Fred’ said, “that we can no longer be overhead or recorded. We exist in a bubble of static.”
    Kurt stared at him. “Who the fuck are you?”
    Fred shrugged, then reached into his belt again and produced a small terminal. “You may find this recording of some interest,” he said. “Watch.”
    Kurt took the terminal and pressed play. A moment later, a pornographic scene appeared in front of him, showing a woman straddling a man and riding him for all she was worth. For a moment, he was puzzled ... and then he recognised the woman. It was Rose. And the man underneath her was him.
    He half-rose to his feet. “How the hell did you get this?”
    “That would be telling,” Fred said. He smiled as Kurt loomed over him. “I would advise you to sit down and pour yourself some tea. Or order something stronger if you wish.”
    “Go to hell,” Kurt snapped.
    “Sit down,” Fred repeated. He watched as Kurt slowly sank back into his chair. “I trust you recognise the participants in our little version of Starfighter Pilots Gone Wild?”
    “Fuck you,” Kurt snarled.
    “It seems more like you’ve been fucking her,” Fred pointed out, mildly. He took a sip of his hot chocolate. “Let’s be blunt, shall we? You’ve been having an affair with one of your subordinates – one of your direct subordinates. That will earn you, at the very least, a dishonourable discharge from the Royal Navy. Pretty awful, wouldn't you say?”
    “Get to the point,” Kurt said.
    “Pour yourself some tea,” Fred urged.
    He smirked, unpleasantly. “That piece of footage is the icing on the cake,” he said. “We have enough evidence of your affair to utterly ruin you. You’d be dishonourably discharged at the very least; Rosy-Posy would also be discharged. And what would that do, I wonder, to your family? Right now, thanks to your wife, you have fuck-all in the way of savings. Your only source of income is your salary from the Royal Navy.”
    Kurt glared at him, helplessly. He was right.
    “A dishonourable discharge means you wouldn't be able to claim a pension,” Fred pointed out, clearly enjoying himself. “You might even do prison time, which would probably mean a spell in the most dangerous part of the country right now, picking up debris from the tidal waves. And then ... what would happen to your handsome son and pretty daughter?”
    “I ... I don't know,” Kurt confessed. He wanted to believe the Captain would continue to protect them, but would that be possible if their father was dishonourably discharged from the Royal Navy? If not ... he recalled some of the horror stories and shuddered. He was damned if he was allowing Penny to slip into prostitution, even to feed herself. And Percy ... would he be able to follow his dream if his father was booted out of the Navy? “I ...”
    Fred leaned forward. “Do you understand the position you’re in?”
    “Yes,” Kurt grated.
    He forced himself to pour a cup of tea, add milk and then take a sip. It tasted fetid. Fred watched him with some amusement, then leaned forward and recovered the terminal. Kurt cursed himself for not pocketing it, even though he rather doubted it was the only copy in their hands ... whoever they were. Reporters wouldn’t use blackmail as a source, would they?
    “Excellent,” Fred said. He made a show of rubbing his hands together with glee. “You have a choice. You can follow our orders or your little porno show becomes the subject of the nightly news. I imagine that millions of people will download the videos in the first few minutes. Your partner has been quite honoured since Ark Royal’s first return to Earth and ... well, do you know how much Playboy offered her for a nude photo-shoot?”
    “You’d be sued,” Kurt pointed out, weakly.
    “Ah, but you would have to find us first,” Fred countered. “And who are we?”
    Kurt said nothing.
    “You will be departing on Ark Royal within the week, we believe,” Fred said. “One of us will be accompanying the fleet. You will be given orders and expected to carry them out, whatever the risk. Once you have returned to Earth, all copies of the recordings will be turned over to you and you will be free.”
    Kurt gritted his teeth. He wanted to punch Fred, to knock that smug smile off his face, but he knew it would be pointless. Fred could destroy him and his family, just by uploading the footage to the datanet. By the time it was removed, if it ever was, his life would have been ripped apart. He’d be lucky if he was merely kicked out of the Navy ...
    And there was Rose too. She’d admitted she wanted to stay in the Navy for life, even though she only had a few years of starfighter piloting left. She could become a CAG in her own right or switch to command track and aim for carrier command. An experienced starfighter pilot would make a good carrier commander. But it wouldn't happen if the recordings were released. She’d lose her career, at the very least. At worst, she’d join him in a detention cell and then a clean-up crew.
    He took a breath. “How do I know you’ll keep your word?”
    “You don’t,” Fred said. “But what I will say is this; you can refuse now and have your career ruined, or you can do one simple job for us and then you will be free, You will have literally nothing else to offer us.”
    “I don’t trust you,” Kurt admitted.
    “Of course you shouldn't,” Fred said. He reached into his belt, then produced a card, which he passed to Kurt. “You will receive a message from this account, every so often. When you get it, go straight to the observation blister and wait. You’ll get your orders there.”
    He picked up the static generator and dropped it back in his belt, then finished the mug of hot chocolate in one swallow. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Commander,” he concluded. “And I hope your career continues to rise.”
    Kurt watched, helplessly, as Fred rose to his feet and walked off, leaving a handful of coins on the table. They were Luna Currency, Kurt saw; usable everywhere and damn-near untraceable. Fred couldn't have made the point more blatantly if he’d tried. There was no way Kurt could find him and his associates for himself – and, without any way to get at them, he had to do as they said or accept losing everything.
    He cursed himself as he finished his tea. If he hadn't been so convinced they were going to die, he told himself, he would have refused Rose’s advances. He hadn't been on the outs with Molly at the time ... hadn't he? But he’d survived the battle and he’d kept the affair going, despite the ever-increasing risk of being found out. And now disaster had finally fallen.
    If he made a full confession, the blackmailers would be caught. Fred had told him that at least one of them would be on the starship. They could set a trap and catch him. But it wouldn't be enough to save his career, even if Rose was spared. And he wouldn't be able to support and protect his family if he was discharged from the Navy.
    He didn't have a choice, he knew. He had to do as they ordered.
    His terminal bleeped. It was a message from the Commandant, informing him that fifty-two trainee pilots had accepted the offer of an early start to their duties, despite the risk. All of a sudden, it seemed utterly unimportant.
    You fucking idiot, he told himself, savagely. What the fuck were you thinking?
     
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven
    “Admiral,” Janelle said, “Ambassador Melbourne and his staff just signalled us. They’ll be landing within thirty minutes.”
    “Finally,” Ted muttered. He’d hoped to have the ship ready to go before the planned deadline. Instead, the Ambassador and his staff had cut matters very fine indeed. “I’ll be down in the shuttlebay to greet them.”
    He had no doubt, as he pulled on his dress uniform, that the Ambassadors would expect a full greeting party. But they were going to be disappointed. Ted couldn't justify pulling a honour guard of Royal Marines out of Marine Country, let alone divert his senior officers from their duties to greet the Ambassadors. Instead, it would be just him. If nothing else, it would give him a chance to see how the Ambassadors reacted to what they would probably consider disrespect.
    “Don’t forget your cap and sidearm,” Janelle warned, as Ted inspected himself in the mirror and reluctantly concluded he looked presentable. “And you should wear your medals, sir.”
    “No, thank you,” Ted said. He’d been given several medals by Britain and dozens more from all around the world. There was no way he could wear all of them on his chest, certainly not in a public gathering. Protocol officers were still having fits over precisely how many medals he should wear at any one time. “There’s no point in trying to impress them.”
    He sighed. Janelle had been moved into his cabin, her own having been assigned to one of the Ambassadors and his aides. The first person who joked about it, he had promised himself, would be spending the rest of the cruise cleaning toilets with a toothbrush. But it did have the advantage of allowing him to keep an eye on Janelle. She was still doing her duties, but it was clear her mind was elsewhere. Perhaps leaving the solar system entirely would be better for her.
    “They’re almost here,” Janelle said. “The shuttlebay is preparing to receive them.”
    Ted nodded, then walked through the hatch and down towards the shuttlebay. Janelle followed, dogging his heels like an overeager puppy. Several crewmen saluted him as he passed; others, carrying large boxes of spare parts and other components, merely nodded. Ted smiled, remembering the days when he had been a junior officer. They’d competed to carry the larger boxes, knowing it spared them from having to salute every superior they met along the way. It was astonishing how many junior officers thought they were the first ones to invent that dodge.
    And it keeps them busy too, he thought, wryly.
    He stepped through the airlock into the shuttlebay, just in time to watch as the shuttle nosed its way through the hatch and settled to the deck, the giant shuttlebay doors closing behind it so the compartment could be pressurised. The shuttle looked older and more battered than he would have expected from a diplomatic shuttle, but all forms of aerospace transport were in short supply right now. Chances were the original craft had been detailed to recovery work and hadn't been returned to their owners yet.
    “The shuttlebay is pressurised,” Janelle said. “Admiral?”
    Ted sighed. Having reporters onboard his ship had been bad enough, but he knew from scuttlebutt that ambassadors could be worse. They combined the very worst of politicians and reporters, wanting to have things all their own way while being too ignorant to understand just what they were giving away. Or maybe he was just being paranoid. He knew the British Government wouldn't have selected an idiot or a team of idiots to handle delicate negotiations with the aliens. The files had certainly suggested otherwise.
    He led the way into the shuttlebay and stood to attention as the shuttle’s hatch cracked open, revealing a pair of grim-faced aides. They blinked at Ted, clearly having expected something more formal, then stepped down and onto the deck. Behind them, the Ambassadors and their staffs followed, their faces schooled to reveal nothing of their thoughts. Ted saluted them, then relaxed. It was important that none of the Ambassadors thought they could walk all over him.
    “Admiral Smith,” Ambassador Melbourne said.
    “Ambassador,” Ted replied. “Welcome onboard Ark Royal.”
    Ambassador Horace Melbourne didn't seem put out at the lack of a formal greeting party. He was a short man, older and fatter than Ted would have expected wearing a simple shipsuit with a Union Jack mounted prominently on his right shoulder. Behind him, the American, Chinese and French diplomats wore similar clothes, although with their own flags. It had been decided, apparently, that there was no point in wearing any form of formal dress. The aliens would be unlikely to understand the importance of a suit and tie.
    “It’s a pleasure to be here,” Melbourne assured him. “We’re quite enthused about the chance to handle the diplomatic negotiations.”
    He smiled, then turned to indicate his companions. “Let me introduce Ambassador Lawrence Tennant, of the United States of America, Ambassador Luo Wenkang of China and Ambassador Pierre Gasconne of France. Between us, we represent the major powers of Earth.”
    “That’s good to hear,” Ted said. The aliens might have nation-states of their own, but there was no doubt that humanity definitely had different nations and nationalities. An agreement that suited Britain might not be accepted by the other spacefaring powers. But with four ambassadors involved, it was likely they could come up with a compromise the entire human race could accept. “With your permission, we will show you to your quarters and get you settled in for the voyage.”
    He felt his eyes narrow as others came out of the shuttle. One of them, a young girl who couldn't have been much older than Janelle, didn't ring any alarm bells, but the presence of Doctor Russell definitely did. The bioweapons project was an international research effort, Ted knew; it was the only way to avoid accusations that Britain was covertly breaking the ban on genetically-engineered biological weapons. And he had the feeling that having the Doctor assigned to his ship meant that someone anticipated having to use the bioweapon against alien-settled worlds.
    “This is Doctor Polly MacDonald,” Ambassador Melbourne said, introducing the girl. “She is currently one of the senior researchers at Selene.”
    Where they keep the alien captives, Ted thought. He made a mental note to read the girl’s file as quickly as possible. Had she figured out a way to understand the aliens or was she as blind as the rest of them? He’d need to talk to her – or have Janelle talk to her – as soon as possible, without the Ambassadors listening in.
    “Welcome onboard,” he said. “I look forward to hearing about your work.”
    Polly MacDonald smiled. She was pretty, with curly red hair and a freckled face, but it was clear she was also very smart. Ted had a cynical view of most Earth-side universities – they tended to specialise in turning intelligent young people into fools and ideologues – yet he knew that Selene wouldn't have tolerated an idiot becoming a senior researcher. Selene was focused around results, rather than academic ideals. It had produced some of the best inventors of the last fifty years.
    “Thank you, Admiral,” she said. Her voice had a Scottish lilt, although it was almost buried under a more cosmopolitan accent. “It’s always a pleasure to talk about it to someone interested.”
    Ted nodded, then frowned inwardly as more aides and assistants flowed out of the shuttle. Each of the Ambassadors, it seemed, had at least five or six people assigned to them by their government, several with redundant job portfolios. That, at least for the Chinese Ambassador, probably meant that some of the aides were actually meant to keep an eye on their nominal superiors. The Frenchman might have the same problem.
    “If you’ll come with us,” Ted said, “we will escort you to your cabins, then you can join me and my senior officers for dinner later.”
    “Ah,” Ambassador Melbourne said. “The very best of naval cuisine.”
    “Of course,” Ted agreed, dryly. He barely managed to keep himself from smirking openly. If they were expecting a nine-course banquet with all the trimmings they were going to be very disappointed. There was no way he was going to host such a gathering when there were millions of people starving down on Earth. “Please. Come this way.”
    ***
    Kurt stood on the balcony and silently watched as the Ambassadors and their staffs made their way towards the airlock. The Ambassadors seemed to take it in their stride, but some of their staff were clearly ill-at-ease onboard the giant carrier. Kurt had never felt it himself, yet he did understand the feeling. The carrier could be disconcerting to a new starfighter pilot, let alone civilians who might not even have flown in space before. Faint quivers ran through the deck as the engineers tested the drives, while there was a constant thrumming in the background. Kurt had to concentrate to hear it now – he was so used to it – but it would be a while before the newcomers were able to tune it out automatically.
    And one of them was ... what? A spy? A reporter?
    He’d barely slept since returning to the carrier as he worked the problem time and time again, trying to think of a way out. But everything seemed to be sewn up neatly. If he admitted the truth to his superiors, he would have to admit he had no idea who his contact was supposed to be – and he’d still be in deep shit for breaking regulations so blatantly. They might have escaped more than a sharp reprimand, he knew, if they’d broken off the relationship after escaping the alien trap. But instead they’d kept it going ...
    Kurt gritted his teeth. Honour demanded one thing, duty demanded another ... and his crippling fear for the safety of his family demanded a third. He didn't dare risk losing his post, not now. Percy and Penny – and Gayle, he supposed – needed him. And it wasn't just his family, he knew. Rose would lose her career too. What would happen to her if she was kicked out of the Navy in disgrace?
    The thought kept tormenting him as he watched the remaining aides making their way through the airlock. Which one of them was the spy? And what did he or she want?
    I won’t do anything that threatens the ship, he told himself, firmly. But he already knew he’d crossed that line when he didn't laugh in Fred’s face. His weakness alone was a threat. But what else can I do?
    He stepped backwards as the last of the aides vanished from sight, then turned and walked through the hatch. A handful of crewmen waved cheerfully at him as they passed, but he ignored them, his thoughts elsewhere. He was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he barely noticed when he reached Pilot Country. Someone – probably one of the more experienced pilots – had scrawled Welcome To The Nursery on the hatch. Kurt hadn't had the heart to hunt down the culprit and force him to spend several hours removing the mark. He tended to agree with the mysterious vandal.
    The simulators were occupied, he noted, as he glanced into the exercise room. Rose, to give her full credit, had taken over much of the work of preparing the maggots for flight duties, which meant putting them through so many simulated exercises that they spend their nights dreaming of flying through space in a starfighter. Kurt glanced at the statistics, noted there had been a slight improvement over the last few days, then sighed. It was too likely they’d overwork some of the newcomers and be forced to let them rest.
    “Things aren't what they used to be,” a voice said.
    Kurt jumped, then spun around. Jake MacFarlane stood there, looking surprised at Kurt’s reaction. The pilot hadn't been on Ark Royal for the first desperate battles against the aliens, but he’d joined the ship in time for Operation Nelson and the attack on Target One. He’d been a young puppy back then, someone who had trained alongside Prince Henry. Now, he was effectively a veteran pilot.
    “They never were,” Kurt pointed out. He’d had the full training course. MacFarlane had had the Accelerated Training Course. The maggots in the simulators hadn't even had that. But then, MacFarlane had clearly learned something. Or he would have died. “How are you enjoying your promotion?”
    MacFarlane sighed. He’d been assigned to serve as a Squadron Commander, but it was very much a poisoned chalice. Almost all of his pilots were rank newcomers.
    “I feel I should be sending them to their beds without supper,” MacFarlane said. “They’re kids.”
    Kurt nodded. He’d had the same reaction.
    And he knew that far too many of those kids were going to die.
    ***
    “I was surprised, Admiral, at your reluctance to serve alcohol,” Ambassador Gasconne said. “It does tend to make diplomatic dinners go smoothly.”
    “Unless someone gets drunk and forgets diplomacy,” Ambassador Tennant pointed out. “I was there when the Ambassador from Argentina got drunk and practically challenged the Ambassador from Brazil to a duel. Smoothing that over took a great deal of work.”
    Ted shrugged. It had been nearly a year since he’d touched a drop of alcohol, but there were times when he felt the urge to take a drink howling at the back of his mind. Alcohol had comforted him when his ship had been nothing more than a floating museum piece, yet when he’d actually had to go on active service he’d forced himself to stop drinking. It hadn't been easy.
    And if Fitzwilliam hadn't been there, he thought, I would have fallen back into a bottle and stayed there.
    He looked around the table, smiling inwardly. The Ambassadors hadn't seemed too put out by the food, but some of their aides were clearly doubtful. Ted had read their files, though; the Ambassadors were veterans of secret diplomacy, men who made deals well away from the media or the general public. They’d understand that it wasn't all fine wines, fancy dinners and public relations. But they wouldn't normally take their staff with them on such missions.
    “The Navy is officially dry,” he said, simply. It wasn't entirely true, yet he’d banned alcohol from the flotilla and made it stick. Someone probably had an illicit still somewhere – it was practically tradition - but as long as they were careful, Ted wouldn't be forced to take notice of it. “We have to set a good example.”
    “It could be worse,” Ambassador Melbourne said. He nodded towards the dishes on the table. “I had to attend a meeting in Arabia once, years ago. They tried to feed me something made of greasy fat with a tiny piece of meat and piles of steaming rice. I later discovered it was goat.”
    Ted had to smile. The ship’s cooks had done their best, but there was a shortage of fresh food from Earth these days. Most of the meal had come from processed biomass grown in the ship’s hydroponic farms or recycled from the waste disposal systems. There were civilians who refused to eat anything recycled, all too aware of what it had been recycled from.
    “We don’t have goat on the menu,” he said. “But we had to produce the meat in a vat.”
    “Understandable,” Tennant said. “We can't afford to eat now when people are desperately looking for food down below.”
    Ted nodded. America had been badly hit by the tidal waves, but America simply had much more room to grow food and house refugees. Even so, it would be years before the country recovered, if it ever did. The latest reports suggested that applications for emigration, just like Britain, had skyrocketed over the last few days. Earth no longer felt safe and tranquil.
    “But I should ask,” Fitzwilliam said. “What do you plan to offer the aliens?”
    “It depends,” Melbourne said. The Ambassador shared glances with his compatriots. “Ideally, we want a return to the pre-war status quo, with a border demarcation and embassies that will prevent another war. Unfortunately, as we have no idea why they started the war, we may have to adapt to circumstances. At worst, we will have to cede the occupied worlds to them permanently in exchange for peace.”
    “The Russians will love that,” Fitzwilliam pointed out. “Don't you have a Russian representative on your staff?”
    “Yes, Peter Golovanov,” Melbourne said. “But the Russians declined to send a formal Ambassador. Peter is ... just an observer.”
    Ted frowned. International diplomacy wasn't something he had much experience with, apart from commanding a multinational fleet during Operation Nelson, but it seemed odd for the Russians to refuse to take part in any negotiations. Or had they assumed that the diplomats would be forced to cede the occupied worlds, including New Russia, and refused to take part on the theory that agreements wouldn't be binding if Russia didn't sign them? It wasn't a question he could ask at such a gathering.
    I’ll talk to the Ambassador privately, later, he thought.
    Fitzwilliam changed the subject, hastily. “Doctor,” he said, “do you think we can actually communicate with the aliens?”
    “We have devised ways to convert our voices into something they can hear,” Doctor Polly McDonald said. “But we have problems actually communicating with them. Some of the prisoners are more cooperative than others, yet we haven’t been able to get them to talk properly. I think their society is so different from ours that some of our concepts don’t make sense to them.”
    She smiled, charmingly. “I have been able to discuss mathematical concepts with them,” she added. “They can do their sums, so we’re not dealing with a race of drones, but we just can't get some of our ideas across to them. We may never be able to understand them completely.”
    “Wonderful,” Melbourne said. “And to think I thought negotiating with religious fanatics was bad.”
     
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve
    “I suppose it could be worse,” Fitzwilliam said.
    Ted nodded in agreement as he sipped his tea. The flotilla was due to depart in two hours, but the final preparations had yet to be made. Between the diplomats, their aides and the researchers, Ted had had very little time to pay attention to the repair work. Fortunately, the Old Lady had a good commander and a brilliant engineer.
    “Yeah,” Ted agreed. “But we’re still going to be in trouble if the aliens target the weakened parts of our hull.”
    He shrugged. “Apart from that,” he said, “how do we stand?”
    “We’ve kidnapped a few dozen yard dogs,” Fitzwilliam said. “I think one of them is planning to file charges when we return to the solar system.”
    “I don’t blame him,” Ted said. Technically, the Royal Navy had the legal authority to pressgang whoever it needed to keep the ships running, but it had never been asserted before the war. The yard dogs would share the same fate as the naval officers, without any of the legal guarantees of protections and pensions for their families. “But as long as he does his duty here, we won’t worry about it.”
    “The XO had a few words with them all,” Fitzwilliam said. “And I’ve made arrangements for their families too.”
    He shrugged. “Most of them have families on the asteroids,” he added. “The remainder are being offered safer places to live.”
    “Good thinking,” Ted said. “And the crew?”
    “The old sweats are doing fine,” Fitzwilliam said. “But I do worry about the starfighter pilots, sir. They’re nowhere near as trained as the last batch – and they took terrifying losses.”
    “I know,” Ted said. He shook his head, bitterly. “But what else can we do?”
    “I also think the CAG is on the verge of burning out,” Fitzwilliam added. “I had a briefing with him two hours ago and ... he seemed monumentally distracted. He’s seen far too many pilots die under his command.”
    Ted couldn't disagree. Fifty years of relative peace had ensured that the Royal Navy’s greatest losses came from accidents, not enemy action. A single death would have been cause for a full-scale enquiry into everyone involved, with careers suspended until the truth had been wrung out of them and new procedures had been put into place to prevent a repeat. But now ... two carriers had been lost in the opening months of the war and it had only grown worse from then onwards. The Royal Navy alone had lost over thirty thousand personnel in just under a year.
    He sighed. There had never been any shortage of volunteers for naval service, quite the opposite. Even a junior crewman could jump ahead of a civilian spacer if he did his ten years and then went into the private sector. But the Royal Navy had always been picky about who it selected to train as starfighter pilots, until now. The floodgates were opening, yet pilot training facilities had not been prepared for the sudden influx. It would be years before the situation changed.
    “Keep an eye on him,” he ordered, finally. “And the rest of the crew?”
    “Stressed, but determined,” Fitzwilliam said. “Moving their families helped, sir.”
    “Good thinking on your part,” Ted reminded him. “And so we’re ready to leave.”
    He keyed a switch, activating the starchart. Their planned route was far too close to the previous route they'd used to get into alien-held space, but there was no choice. The analysts had argued – and, for once, Ted agreed with them – that there was nowhere else they might have a reasonable hope of encountering Faction Two. Given the ambush the aliens had tried to spring, they’d concluded that Faction Two lay down one of the unexplored tramlines. Ted had privately noted that it was equally possible that Faction Two didn't have the firepower to keep Faction One out of its space ... if, of course, they weren’t misreading the data completely.
    “We think there’s a life-bearing world here,” he said, pointing to one of the stars two jumps from Target One. “It’s as good a place as any to start.”
    Fitzwilliam frowned. “It’s still chancy as hell,” he said, doubtfully. “But it has to be done.”
    Ted understood his feelings. The alien navigational data might be completely unsecured, for all the humans knew, yet it was hard to pull any sense out of it. Certain points – the tramlines in particular – were easy to verify, others were much harder to comprehend. Did the aliens really mean life-bearing world by that particular icon or was it a warning to stay the hell away from that particular star system? The only way to find out was to go look.
    “Yes,” he agreed. “It has to be done.”
    He tapped a switch, altering the display to show the flotilla. Six warships – two escort carriers, four frigates – kept station with Ark Royal, while a colossal Fleet Auxiliary hung behind them, crammed with everything from missile warheads to boxed starfighters. The transport would remain under cloak at all times, Ted knew. They couldn't risk losing her to alien fire, not when it would cost them far too much.
    “They’re ready to go too,” he said. “We can leave on schedule.”
    “And just keep the repairs going while we’re underway,” Fitzwilliam said. He rose. “With your permission, Admiral, I will prepare my ship for departure.”
    “Please do,” Ted said. The words caused him a pang. He would never be commander of the Old Lady – or any other starship – again, no matter how long his career lasted. An Admiral had no business occupying a command deck. “I’ll be on the CIC in twenty minutes.”
    He watched Fitzwilliam leave, then sighed. What would he do after the war? He wouldn’t be allowed to stay on Ark Royal, that was for sure; the carrier would still be a vital part of the Royal Navy. It was possible he could parley his military record into a high rank at the Admiralty, maybe even First Space Lord, although the thought of kissing political buttocks was repulsive to him. Or he could resign and write his memoirs.
    It wouldn't happen, he knew. Nothing would ever be the same again.
    Shaking his head sadly, he finished his tea, rose to his feet and walked through the hatch.
    ***
    There had been a time, James Fitzwilliam conceded, when he’d thought of Ark Royal’s bridge as crude, a memento of a bygone age. The Old Lady simply lacked the elegance of modern carriers, let alone the sheer consideration that had gone into designing her to look smart as well as efficient. But he'd come to love it over the months since he’d assumed, to feel that there could be no other command deck for him. It had a reassuring solidity that more modern carriers lacked.
    But that could be because modern carriers can't stand up to the aliens, he thought. They looked good, alright, but the aliens could blow them into flaming debris within seconds. We won’t be building carriers like that again.
    He sighed inwardly as he took his seat and surveyed the main display. There were plans to build a whole new generation of armoured carriers and battleships, but it would still be years before the first ship left the shipyard and went to the front lines. Until then, Ark Royal was unique, utterly irreplaceable. And, if the Admiralty hadn't been willing to gamble, she would probably have remained tied to Earth, defending humanity’s homeworld against the scum of the universe.
    And would it have made a difference, he asked himself, if we had stayed in orbit around Earth?
    He’d reviewed the records of the Battle of Earth. The main thrust of the alien attack had fallen on the planet’s fixed defences, but they’d managed to find time to devastate the unified carrier fleet in passing. Ark Royal might have made a difference – or she might just have been blown apart by alien laser warheads too. There was no way to know what would have happened if she’d been there. But he knew he would always ask himself if they’d made a mistake in haring off to attack Target One.
    Angrily, he pushed the thought aside. Endlessly dwelling on the past was pointless. What was done was done. It could not be changed. All that mattered was adapting to the world as it was and then moving forward. There was no point in thinking otherwise.
    “Commander Lightbridge,” he said. “Are we ready to depart?”
    “Yes, Captain,” Lightbridge said. As always, he seemed remarkably cheerful. “Drives are online; all systems read nominal. We can depart on your command.”
    Anderson needs a reward, James thought. And so do the people who designed the ship before she was built. All that damage and she’s still operational.
    He looked down at the status display, then up at Lieutenant Annie Davidson. “Signal the Admiralty,” he ordered the communications officer. “Inform them that we are departing on schedule.”
    “Aye, sir, Davidson said.
    “And then signal the remainder of the flotilla,” James added. “Give them a countdown to our departure.”
    He settled back in his chair, feeling the starship quivering around him. Anderson had tested and retested everything, but he’d expressed private concerns over some of the components they’d had to hastily repair or replace. The Old Lady was built for constant modification – her designers had assumed naval technology would continue to advance indefinitely – yet some of her older systems were completely incompatible with newer systems. Anderson had said it time and time again, hammering the point home. There had been no attempt to modify and modernise Ark Royal while she’d been floating in the Naval Reserve and they were paying for it now.
    The ship quivered again, a feeling that echoed through his bones and then faded away into nothingness. He couldn't help feeling a quiver himself, recalling just how blithely he’d turned down Uncle Winchester’s offer of a way out of the nightmare. He’d meant every word he’d said to the older man – he was damned if he was deserting Admiral Smith now – and yet part of him wondered if he’d made a mistake. But there was no going back now.
    Maybe they’ll send the fleet out anyway, he thought, sourly. Whatever else happens, things are going to change for humanity.
    He took a breath. “Bring the drives up to full power,” he ordered as the countdown reached zero. “And then take us towards the tramline.”
    “Aye, Captain,” Lightbridge said. A low hum echoed through the ship, growing in power as the drives started to propel the Old Lady forward. “We are underway.”
    “Prepare to launch the drones as soon as we cross the tramline,” James ordered the tactical officer. “Do it just like we practiced.”
    “Aye, Captain,” Commander Keith Farley said. “The drones are ready for immediate launch.”
    James nodded, feeling sweat trickling down his back. The aliens hadn't tried to occupy Terra Nova, but they might well have pickets in the system, watching humanity’s starships as they moved towards the front lines. Ideally, the drones would pose as Ark Royal and her flotilla long enough for the fleet to slip away under cloak and then make its way towards the very edge of the Terra Nova system. Once there, away from any alien pickets, they would start advancing towards Target One.
    Again, he thought, wryly. But will they have bothered to repair the defences and station war fleets in the system to meet us?
    It was the old question, he knew. Just how many ships did the aliens have? There was no way to know, yet he suspected that if the ships Ark Royal had encountered during Operation Nelson had been assigned to the attack on Earth, Earth would have fallen. It suggested that the aliens either had publics that refused to allow home defence to be minimised or internal security problems of their own. Perhaps there were several alien groups and the one fighting humanity had to watch its back at the same time.
    Are they watching the back doors into their space, he asked himself, or are they gathering their forces for one last try at Earth?
    James had never considered himself a strategist. Uncle Winchester was the long-term thinker in the family. But he thought he understood the alien tactics. They’d devised a weapons mix they’d thought would be sufficient to overwhelm humanity – and they would have been right, if Ark Royal had been scrapped. Their advance through humanity’s star systems had been smooth, clearly intended to mop up resistance as they went along, rather than a blitzkrieg towards Earth. And then they’d been slapped back by Ark Royal and had been forced to reconsider their options.
    And the bastards are alarmingly innovative, he thought, remembering the nightmarish moment when laser warheads had burned into his ship’s hull. Just like us.
    “Captain,” Lightbridge said, breaking into his thoughts. “We are approaching the tramline.”
    James nodded, feeling his gut twist uncomfortably. He would have preferred to sneak through the tramline to Terra Nova, but it had been unlikely that the aliens wouldn't be watching the Old Lady and her fleet ... if, of course, they had pickets in the Sol System. It was what James would have done, if he’d had the ships to spare – and as long as they remained stealthy, there was little fear of detection.
    War Hog is to jump,” he ordered. The frigate already had her orders. “And the remainder of the fleet is to go to tactical alert.”
    Alarms howled through the giant carrier as, on the display, the icon representing the frigate crawled towards the tramline and vanished. It was unlikely, James knew, that the aliens were preparing an ambush. They probably didn't have an entire fleet under cloak in the next system. But he knew better than to take anything for granted, not now. He silently counted down the seconds in his head until the icon snapped back into existence, seemingly untouched.
    “Captain,” Davidson said, “local space is clear.”
    James nodded, relieved. “Take us through,” he ordered. “And then launch the drones.”
    He hated the moments when he couldn't do anything, when all the orders were issued and all he could do was wait for them to be carried out, but there was nothing he could do about them. The carrier shivered as she passed through the tramline, then the lights automatically dimmed slightly as the cloaking device activated. As long as the aliens didn't have a picket alarmingly close to the tramline, they shouldn't have noticed the carrier cloaking. Her signature had been replaced by a drone.
    “Drones are deployed, sir,” Farley reported. “Everything looks nominal.”
    Unless the aliens attack the drones, James thought. They’d learn very quickly that nothing was remotely nominal about them.
    “Send the drones off on their cruise,” he ordered. “And keep monitoring them for glitches.”
    He rose to his feet and walked over to Farley’s console as the drones moved further and further away from the ship. Terra Nova hadn't even tried to hail the fleet, even though the planet was within a few light minutes of the tramline. According to the last report, Terra Nova had gone underground, with all radio transmitters confiscated by the various governments. James rather doubted the governments had managed to secure all the transmitters, but it hardly mattered. The aliens knew perfectly well where Terra Nova was, if they wanted it. And the planet was effectively defenceless.
    “The drones appear to be working perfectly,” Farley said, after ten minutes had passed. The display updated as the drones curved away from their mothership. “They’re starting their loop around the system now. They’ll return to the tramline in three days and go silent. It’ll look like they jumped out of the system.”
    “Good,” James said. He returned to his command chair and sat. “Helm, take us towards the transfer point, under cloak. Be sure to keep a distance from any contact, no matter how weak.”
    “Aye, sir,” Lightbridge said.
    James settled back into his chair. It would take hours to reach the planned transfer point, then days to cross the alien-held system to the next tramline. Normally, starships sought out the least-time courses, but they were the easiest ones to predict and picket. The aliens would have their work cut out for them if they tried to picket all possible courses. They’d need thousands of ships or sensor platforms to make it workable.
    Which won’t stop them leaving listening posts in a few sensible locations, James thought. That’s what we do, after all.
    He keyed a switch. “All hands, this is the Captain,” he said. “We will remain under cloak, as planned, for the foreseeable future. I expect all of you to remember the silent running protocols.”
    Closing the channel, he thought rapidly. The crew would be tense, he knew, but there was nothing he could do about that. There was something about being under cloak that made it harder for people to concentrate and left them whispering to one another, even though everyone knew sound didn't travel through space. The XO would do her best to arrange activities for the crewmen, once they ran out of repair work to do; he hoped it would keep everyone distracted.
    And stop our guests from complaining, he thought. The Ambassadors had taken their quarters in stride, but their aides had complained loudly. Perhaps they just hated the thought of having to share a cabin with their superiors. James, who had to share a cabin with his XO, found it hard to be sympathetic. And he was quite prepared to murder Uncle Winchester if he suggested that something untoward had developed between him and Commander Williams.
    “Keep us on course,” he ordered, pulling up a tactical exercise. At least they had even more data on just what the aliens could do. But who knew what they’d kept hidden from humanity until it was too late? There was too much speculation and not enough hard facts. “Inform me the moment anything changes.”
    Shaking his head, he activated the exercise and went to work.
     
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  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen
    “That was a major balls-up,” Kurt said, glowering at the assembled newcomers. Half of them looked as though they were going to start crying. “If the aliens had attacked us like that, you would all be dead. And so would the crew of this ship.”
    He sighed, inwardly. Why was it a surprise, he asked himself sarcastically, that the trainee pilots had bigger egos than piloting skills? There was an old joke, after all, that if a pilot didn't know who was the best pilot in the sky it sure as hell wasn't him. But it couldn’t be tolerated, not now.
    This was a bloody stupid decision, he thought, morbidly. But he still couldn't see any workable alternative, save drafting pilots from the remaining home defence squadrons. And most of these pilots are going to end up dead when we first face the aliens.
    “Get some rest,” he ordered, “then we will have a proper debriefing session and go through each and every one of your mistakes. In particular, you might want to think about the simple fact that there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ You are part of a team and if you can't act as part of a team, you’ll be put on the benches and flogged. Dismissed!”
    He watched them sidle out the room and sighed, bitterly.
    “I don’t think you’re allowed to flog pilots,” Rose said, as soon as the compartment was empty. “There are regulations against making yourself or someone else unfit for military service.”
    “It’s amazing what regulations permit, if you look at them in the right way,” Kurt said, shortly. Rose was the last person he wanted to speak to at the moment. “It’s semi-legal to put someone in an airlock and threaten to decompress it to teach them a lesson.”
    Rose snorted, then strode over to the hatch and locked it. “We need to talk,” she said, turning to face him. She rested her hands on her hips as she glared. “What is wrong with you?”
    Kurt started. “Wrong with me?”
    “You’ve been moping around like a depressed donkey for the last week,” Rose snapped. “I think I’ve been doing a shitload of your work in getting those incompetents ready for battle and cleaning up their messes. You’ve barely been present at training sessions that don’t involve you personally and ...”
    She took a breath. “And you declined my advances over several days,” she added, her voice softening. “Kurt ... what is wrong with you?”
    Kurt stared down at his hands. He wanted to tell her ... and yet he didn't dare. But that, his conscience prodded, was a cowardly attitude. Her career was at stake too. Hell, for all he knew, the people who were blackmailing him had also made advances to her, although that would have been harder. He’d been the only one to leave the ship and go to Luna City. In hindsight ...
    His blood ran cold. In hindsight, how had the blackmailers known he was going to go to Luna City?
    Rose took his hands and guided him towards a chair, then pushed him into it. His mind blurred, part of him remembering him kneeling before her and taking him in her mouth, part of him recognising her concern as friendly, rather than sexual. He wanted to cry, to lose control completely and start screaming at the bulkheads, but somehow he held himself under control. She didn't deserve to watch him come apart at the seams.
    “Kurt,” Rose said, quietly. “What happened on Luna?”
    Kurt swallowed, then decided to be honest. “I was ambushed,” he said. “And blackmailed.”
    Rose’s eyes suddenly went very hard. “Blackmailed with what?”
    “Us,” Kurt said. “Our relationship. They said they’d tell the entire universe if I didn't do as they said.”
    Rose stood upright, letting go of his hands. “Shit,” she said, as she started to pace the compartment. “What else did they say?”
    Kurt ran through the whole story from start to finish, then put his head in his hands. It was over. He’d ruined her life as well as his own. God knew it would have been smarter to desert and take her with him. Or perhaps ...
    “They say they have proof,” Rose said, slowly. “What proof do they have?”
    “Footage of us ... making love,” Kurt said. “They must have been spying on us for quite some time.”
    “Or maybe they got lucky,” Rose said. “Where was the footage taken?”
    Kurt hesitated, trying to place it. He should have studied it more carefully when Fred had waved it under his nose, instead of trying to recoil in horror and denial. If he’d taken the terminal and its compromising recording for himself ... he thought hard, trying to recall the details. It had looked like a hotel room ...
    “The hotel we went to in Sin City,” he said, finally. “I think ...”
    Rose snorted. “Such footage can be faked,” she said, snidely. “How many times did you go to Sin City as a young man and fuck the latest entertainment star in a VR environment? I believe that fucking Princess Elizabeth is quite common among some of the younger generation of pilots. They just plug in the right simulation and fuck away.”
    “The footage would be perfect,” Kurt reminded her. “They’d have everything just right, from your breast size to my hairy chest.”
    “My breasts are a matter of public record,” Rose sneered. “I had to be measured for the flight suit, remember? Given sufficient access, it would be easy to come up with footage that would be practically perfect in every way.”
    She walked back over to him and patted his shoulder. “It might seem bad,” she said, “but it isn't a total disaster.”
    “It is,” Kurt said. “The allegations will trigger another investigation, just like the one into Prince Henry’s death. They will uncover time we spent together, more than could reasonably be justified. And then they will put us on the stand and ask us if we were in a relationship ...”
    “We’re also heroes,” Rose said. She snorted. “Ok; they find out proof we’ve been fucking during our off-duty hours. They try to charge us with breaking regulations. The public crucify them. They’d be much smarter to ask us both to resign with honour and bury the entire scandal under the rug.”
    “I wish I shared your optimism,” Kurt said. “The evidence could also make it suggest the regulations were bent for us. That would also be a political headache.”
    He sighed. The British Aristocracy had learned, the hard way, just how dangerous nepotism – or even the appearance of nepotism – could be. Kurt and Rose might not be aristocrats, but they were heroes – and the appearance of letting them off lightly because of their heroism could cause the government a whole series of problems. It was a toss-up if the government would let them resign gracefully, throw them out on their ears or send them to a work crew in the worst-hit parts of the country.
    “Let’s go through this,” Rose said. “Someone is trying to blackmail you. What do they want?”
    She went on before he could say a word. “They don’t want money,” she continued, “or they would have demanded it before you left Earth.”
    “I don't have much,” Kurt said. “And money is practically worthless right now.”
    “So whatever they want,” Rose said, “is more likely to be a major headache. Did they give you any specific orders?”
    “Merely that I would receive a message,” Kurt said. “And that when I received the message, I was to go to the observation blister and ... see who met me there.”
    “That means they have someone on the ship,” Rose said, slowly. “Did they realise we were fucking during Operation Nelson – or earlier?”
    “Or the newcomer is part of the ambassadorial party,” Kurt said. It hadn't occurred to him that someone on Ark Royal had betrayed them. It should have done, he knew. Someone had ratted out Prince Henry and Janelle Lopez, after all. “And whoever it is has a great deal of access in places that are meant to be secure.”
    Rose sat down next to him. “So we have ... three options,” she said, after a moment. “They’re reporters, they’re someone involved with the government or they’re interstellar spies.”
    She frowned. “Reporters aren't big on delayed gratification,” she added. “And besides, blackmail could open them up to all manner of interesting criminal charges. You and they might end up sharing the same cell. That leaves a government conspiracy or international spies. I’d lean towards the latter.”
    “But if they were in the government,” Kurt objected, “they could make sure we were both jailed ...”
    “They also wouldn't need to resort to blackmail to force you to do what they wanted,” Rose countered. “If they’re the government, why bother with blackmail when they could just issue orders? You’re not the Admiral. I don’t think they’d need something out of a Z-List Evil Government Conspiracy Theory Movie to get you to do whatever they wanted.”
    She paused. “And that suggests international involvement. But for what?”
    “They knew I was going to Luna City,” Kurt said. “How would they know that without having access to the naval datanet?”
    “There’s no shortage of international officers at the Academy,” Rose reminded him. “And where else could you go for a short leave?”
    Kurt frowned. She was right. There had been no shuttles to Earth, Sin City was closed and anywhere else would have consumed half of his leave time just getting there and back. Luna City was the only logical destination. And, given access to the city’s public access datanet, the blackmailers could probably have tracked him right up to the moment he entered the cafe and sat down. Fred might even have been hard on his heels.
    “And there was a possibility you’d be summoned elsewhere too,” Rose added. “Weren’t you on the list of people to attend a conference on countering alien starfighter tactics.”
    “I was uninvited,” Kurt said. “Too much work to do here.”
    Rose wrapped her arm around his shoulder. “You have to go to the Admiral,” she said. “We have to go to the Admiral.”
    Kurt stared at her. “But ...”
    “This is an international spy mission being carried out under his nose,” Rose said, flatly. “If you keep quiet about it, you’ll probably wind up carrying the blame for the whole affair – assuming, of course, that we survive. And if that happens, you and I will be lucky not to be put up against a bulkhead and shot. But if we help the Admiral catch the spies, we will be able to request a honourable discharge as a reward.”
    “Your career will be destroyed,” Kurt said. He cursed himself under his breath. “Rose ...”
    “Shut up,” Rose said. “I’m a big girl. I made the decision to fuck you because I believed we would die soon and I didn't want to die without feeling some human contact. If we’d stopped it then, it would probably have been fine. You could have gone back to your wife and I could have found someone nearer my own age. Instead ... we developed feelings for each other.”
    She poked him with her finger, making him wince. “You’re not a rapist,” she said, “and I am not a helpless victim. We got ourselves into this mess and we’re damn well going to do whatever it takes to get out of it with our skins and reputations intact. And if that means baring everything for the Admiral ... well, we can do it. We don’t have a choice.”
    Kurt shook his head, slowly. She was right, he knew, and if it had been just him at risk, he would have done so without a second thought. But his children were also at risk.
    “And what will happen to them,” Rose asked when he said that out loud, “if they discover their father is branded a traitor? Because that’s what will happen if you surrender to blackmail and do as they tell you.”
    She stood up, then pulled him to his feet. “Kurt, I know how you feel,” she said. “But you can't let fear blind you, even if it’s for your children.”
    Kurt sighed and leaned into her embrace. “How can you be so cold about this?”
    “One of us has to be,” Rose said. She sighed. “You’re the one who taught me to consider a situation and evaluate it thoroughly if there’s no need to act immediately. And this situation needs to be considered carefully. They think they have you by the balls – and they’re right. That's what’s stopping you from thinking properly.”
    She gently pushed him away from her, then straightened. “Get yourself cleaned up in the head,” she ordered. “And then we will go see the Admiral.”
    Kurt nodded, cursing himself once again. Perhaps they could have escaped notice completely if they’d broken off the affair after their first return to Earth. He was fairly sure there were at least three other couples who’d had an affair, then been separated by being assigned to different ships. But he had been stupid. No matter the problem with Molly, no matter the growing awareness that he and his wife were slipping and sliding towards divorce, he could have prevented himself from having an affair with a subordinate. There was always Sin City and its endless chains of brothels.
    He stepped into the washroom and studied himself in the mirror. His face looked pale and wan, reminding him that he'd slept poorly for the last few days. He turned on the tap, poured water into the bowl, then washed his face thoroughly. It didn't make him feel any better. His life was about to change, which was bad enough, but he'd also damaged his children’s lives ...
    “Come on,” Rose ordered. She looked presentable, surprisingly so. “There isn't time for you to do your makeup.”
    “Oh, be quiet,” Kurt grumbled. “Rose ...”
    Rose stopped and looked at him. “Yes?”
    “I’m sorry,” Kurt said. “I ...”
    “I think we have already established it wasn't entirely your fault,” Rose snapped. “It was me who made the first move, not you. Yes, you fucked up; I fucked up too. And now all we can do is make a full confession and take the consequences.”
    ***
    “I can't say I’m too happy with the stress tests,” Anderson said. “The modified Puller Drive is developing power fluctuations at odd moments.”
    Ted studied the display, wishing he knew more about how the system actually worked. The math, he’d been told, was too complex for the average spacer. Even engineers only mastered the bare bones, although they knew the hardware inside out. Or maybe the boffins were just keeping it to themselves to ensure they weren't subverted by someone from outside the system.
    “I see,” he said. “What will this mean for us?”
    “At best, we may have to replace the whole system when we get back home,” Anderson said. “At worst, we may lose the modified drive in the heart of alien territory.”
    Ted swore. Humanity’s Puller Drive had been heavily limited, compared to the alien drive system. The ships had been modified after an alien system had been captured intact, but Ark Royal had never been designed to have her drive modified. If they lost the alien drive system, they would have to pick their way home – if possible – along a course that would be easily predicable. The aliens would have no trouble intercepting them before they could make it back to human space.
    “That could be bad,” he said. If they had time, he would have ordered an immediate return to Earth. But that would have delayed the mission for weeks, perhaps months, and crippled the ship as they tore the drive housing apart to replace the drive. “Can you keep it in check?”
    “I think so, but if we take another pounding the drive might come apart completely,” Anderson said. “It won't be good, sir.”
    “No,” Ted agreed. “It won’t.”
    He looked at the starchart, thinking hard. The tramlines they needed to use to reach Target One were alien; they couldn't be accessed without an alien-designed drive. But if they didn't use them, they’d have no hope of reaching Target One without travelling through too many unexplored and potentially occupied star systems. They had to rely on a drive system that was on the verge of breaking down.
    “Keep me informed,” he ordered, finally. “What about the other matters?”
    “The sealed compartments have been assigned to the research teams,” Anderson assured him. “But we don’t have any idea what the aliens would consider acceptable quarters.”
    “We know they like it hot and moist,” Ted said. The alien captives had been given temperature controls and shown how to use them. They’d been happiest, it seemed, in temperatures that made Australia seem cool. “Make sure you separate their system completely from our own.”
    “Aye, Captain,” Anderson said. He reached out and rubbed the bulkhead. “The Old Lady will do her duty.”
    Ted had to smile. He’d been assigned to Ark Royal because the Royal Navy hadn't wanted the embarrassment of sacking a knighted hero. Anderson, on the other hand, had been assigned to Ark Royal simply because there was nowhere else for him. His skill with the outdated systems – to say nothing of jury-rigged spare parts from every interstellar power – wouldn't fit in on any of the modern carriers.
    “I know she will,” he said. So far, there had been no sign of the aliens, but he was sure that would change. In their place, he’d picket the systems between Terra Nova and Target One, if only with a couple of starships. “I have faith in her.”
    The hatch bleeped, then opened. Ted lifted his eyebrows when he saw both the CAG and one of his squadron commanders, looking like naughty children. He half-expected to see a Marine escorting them into the office. But they were alone.
    “Admiral,” Schneider said. “We need to talk with you.”
    Ted had a sudden sense of doom. “Very well,” he said. He nodded to Anderson, who picked up his terminal and left the compartment. “Talk.”
     
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  17. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    I wonder who the blackmailer is.
     
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fourteen
    “Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” Ted said, once the halting explanation had come to an end. “You’ve been having an illicit relationship since Alien-1, you’ve continued with the relationship ever since returning to Earth ... and you are now being blackmailed. Correct?”
    “Yes, sir,” Schneider said.
    “You absolute idiot,” Ted said.
    He shook his head in disbelief. Everyone knew that the regulations on sexual relations onboard ship were skirted more than anyone cared to admit, but there were limits. A relation between two people of different ranks would always suffer from a power imbalance, raising the prospect of coercion and naked force being used to push someone into bed. How could a relationship develop properly when one party could punish the other at will? And that, he knew, didn't even take into consideration the damage it would do to morale.
    Everyone would be looking at Schneider’s past decisions now, hunting for any signs of favouritism he might have shown towards his lover. She’d survived when so many others had died, Ted knew. Had she been deliberately kept out of the line of battle? And how many others had died when she should have died? He might have done nothing to help or hinder her career and it would still be disastrous to both of them. They should both be thrown into the brig, pending an investigation and court martial, followed by dishonourable discharge.
    “It’s at times like this,” Ted continued, “that I wish we’d kept the lash, rather than rum and sodomy. What the hell were you two thinking?”
    Rose Labara met his eyes evenly. “We were thinking we were about to die,” she said, simply. “We did not believe there would be any future for either of us.”
    Ted understood. He’d almost crawled into a bottle when it seemed the aliens had them trapped in a dead end. Schneider and Rose had found what solace they could in each other’s arms – and if it had stopped there, it would probably have gone completely unnoticed. But instead, they’d kept up the affair and finally run into real trouble. Someone was using their affair as a weapon against Ark Royal and her crew.
    “There may not be,” he said, bluntly. He silently awarded them both points for coming forward, even at the cost of their careers. “I doubt either of you can look forward to a comfortable life in future.”
    “Yes, sir,” Schneider said. Oddly, he sounded a little relieved. “We will face whatever judgement you choose to mete out.”
    “I’m glad to hear it,” Ted said, dryly. “I’m going to call the Captain and Major Parnell. The latter, in particular, has some counter-intelligence experience. You are going to sit down with him and go through everything that happened, right from the start, in the hopes of locating whoever is trying to blackmail him. Once this affair is finished ...”
    He paused, meeting their eyes. “Once this matter is finished, I will make my decision concerning your future,” he warned. “I suggest you don’t try to hold anything back.”
    “Yes, sir,” they said, together.
    “I can’t afford to take either of you off active duty and toss you into the brig, no matter how much you deserve it,” Ted added. “However, I will expect you to remember just how much trouble you’re in and refrain from doing anything that might arouse suspicion. You will not meet in private for any reason. Do you understand me?”
    The two lovers exchanged glances, then nodded reluctantly. Ted was old enough to be Schneider’s father – barely – but he wasn't so old he’d forgotten what it was like to be in love. They had to have developed feelings for one another or they wouldn't have stayed together after their first return to Earth. Being told they could not see one another would hurt.
    But they could have done a great deal of damage if they’d been caught earlier, he thought, crossly. He had never been one to care about what his crew did on their time off – he knew standards had slipped a great deal while Ark Royal had floated uselessly in the Naval Reserve – but this was different. This could have seriously damaged his ship’s reputation.
    He considered his options, briefly. It was the Captain who would have the final responsibility for deciding their fate – or it would have been, if the two pilots hadn't been mixed up in blackmail and espionage. Fitzwilliam could have punished them how he saw fit and the Admiralty would not have objected, not when they were reluctant to cast doubt on a Captain’s role as master of his ship. But with intelligence staffers mixed up in the whole affair ... Ted knew they might be offered amnesty in exchange for cooperation. Or they might be put in front of a court martial board afterwards anyway, no matter what they did.
    “Dismissed,” he said, quietly. “I expect you to inform me the moment they get in touch with you. And don’t fuck up.”
    He watched them leave, then tapped his console and called both Fitzwilliam and Major Parnell to his office. The Marine had a nasty scar running down the side of his face that hadn't been there before, Ted noted, but he didn't ask any questions. Everyone, even the Marines, had been suffering badly from emotional whiplash since the return to Earth. They’d probably resorted to boxing matches to keep their skills up.
    “We have a problem,” he said, bluntly. He recorded all conversations in his office, thankfully. “You need to listen to this.”
    Captain Fitzwilliam said nothing until the recording came to an end, then swore. “Someone is trying to blackmail one of my crewmen?”
    “Yes,” Ted said, shortly. It was a particularly nasty case, he had to admit. Schneider wasn't the only one at risk. His family – and his lover – would also be imperilled if the recordings were released. “And they may have more complex motives than money.”
    “It is a pity we don’t have the original recording,” Parnell observed. “It would be informative to have some idea of just where they were filmed.”
    “That raises another set of questions,” Ted agreed. “What are we dealing with here?”
    Parnell considered it slowly. “I think they’re right and its someone international,” he said. “A spy – probably more than one – is on the ship.”
    “Wonderful,” Ted said. “We have three foreign ambassadors, thirty-two foreign support staff of various ranks and a handful of others.”
    “But the spy might be a British crewman,” Parnell said. “Although in that case approaching Schneider and applying blackmail might be unnecessary.”
    He shook his shaved head. “They will need something they believe Schneider can get for them,” he added. “Otherwise there would be no point in playing the blackmail card too soon.”
    “Those stupid idiots,” Fitzwilliam said. “What the hell were they thinking?”
    “That they didn't have long to live,” Parnell said, quietly.
    He looked down at the deck, thinking hard. “With your permission, Captain, I would like to bring a couple of other Marines into the loop and start working on ways to catch the spy,” he said. “He’ll have to make contact with Schneider at some point or the whole affair will be worse than useless. When he does, we’ll have an opportunity to catch him and cart him off for interrogation.”
    “Which will open a whole new can of worms if the spy is on an ambassador’s staff,” Fitzwilliam pointed out. “They have diplomatic immunity.”
    “Diplomatic immunity is not a licence to spy,” Parnell countered. “We might not be able to try the spy and throw him out the airlock, but we could put him in the brig until we returned to Earth.”
    Ted nodded. “We need to know why they’re doing this,” he said, softly. “What do they have in mind?”
    “Sabotage the ship?” Parnell suggested. “Or perhaps make it impossible to come to terms with the aliens?”
    “They’re have to be out of their minds,” Fitzwilliam said. “The war is on the verge of being lost!”
    “Some people rarely believe that disaster, even a lost war with an alien race, can touch them,” Parnell said. “That’s why the Barbary States sometimes send raiders over to Europe, even though they can expect massive retaliation from orbit. Their leaders are so secure in their own power they think nothing and no one can touch them.”
    “... Idiots,” Fitzwilliam said. He smiled, suddenly. “Although I know a number of aristocrats who act like that, I suppose.”
    He met Ted’s eyes. “What do we do with them?”
    “I’d suggest offering a honourable discharge in exchange for cooperation,” Parnell said. He held up a hand before Fitzwilliam could say a word. “I know you will want to throw the book at them, Captain, but we don’t want to discourage others from coming forward.”
    “I see,” Fitzwilliam said. “But if we’re not going to tell anyone about this ... affair, Major, how will they know we were merciful?”
    “Some details may be released later, once everyone is safety dispersed,” Parnell said. “And I would caution you against believing that something will remain secret indefinitely. This affair certainly did not.”
    “True,” Ted said. He looked at Fitzwilliam. “A honourable discharge?”
    Fitzwilliam nodded, once.
    ***
    As a child – back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, according to Percy – Kurt had stolen some money from his mother. He’d had a good reason at the time, he'd thought, but guilt had overwhelmed him almost at once. Eventually, he’d returned the money and made a full confession. His mother had been furious and confined him to the house for the next month, but he’d felt better after admitting his guilt. He’d done something wrong and knew it, no matter how he tried to convince himself otherwise.
    He felt much the same, now, as they made their way to the gallery. It was far from private, he knew, but it was rare for pilots to eat outside Pilot Country. He knew his life had been irreparably damaged, that he might have dragged down Rose and his children too, yet he felt better for having confessed. The die had been cast and now he could think clearly again. He led the way into the compartment, took a large cup of coffee from the dispenser and sat down at a table on the far side of the room. Rose sat, facing him, a second later.
    “That was very brave,” she said.
    Kurt snorted. Bravery was one of the defining traits of starfighter pilots, along with a reckless disregard for danger or official flying regulations. Most of them were written by deck jockeys and pasty-faced bureaucrats, none of whom had any real experience flying starfighters. Flying a starfighter into the teeth of alien fire took real nerve. But he’d never really done anything that risked his family before.
    “I suppose,” he said, finally. He wanted to hug her, to tell her that it would be all right, but he knew he could do neither. “And I'm sorry.”
    Rose pointed a finger at him, like the barrel of a gun. “Stop apologising for everything,” she said, tartly. “I made my own decisions.”
    Kurt took a sip of his coffee, grimaced at the taste and then took another sip. “Yes, but I’m the one being blackmailed,” he said. “That makes it my fault.”
    “I think you’re the most vulnerable,” Rose pointed out. “You have a family – and the higher rank. I could just have told them to piss off.”
    She was right, Kurt knew. If she’d been willing to throw him under a bus, she could have claimed he’d pushed her into sex, promising promotion as a reward. It was quite likely it would have worked too. Senior officers were expected to handle themselves better than their juniors.
    He jumped as a hand fell on his shoulder. When he looked up, he found himself staring into the eyes of Major Parnell. The Marine looked ... emotionless, no pity or anger in his eyes.
    “You’re nicked, my lad,” the Marine said. “We need to talk.”
    “Yes, sir,” Kurt said. He looked at Rose. “Go put them through another training simulation.”
    He allowed the Marine to lead him through the ship’s corridors and into Marine Country, where he was unceremoniously pushed into a small room. There was nothing inside, but a metal desk, a pair of chairs and a water cooler. The table was completely bare.
    “Sit,” Parnell ordered. He strode around the desk and sat facing Kurt. “I said sit.”
    Kurt sat. The chair was thoroughly uncomfortable.
    “You're in a right spot of bother,” Parnell said, bluntly. “The good news is that the Admiral and the Captain have agreed that you and your ... lover will be offered a honourable discharge at the end of the deployment. Once discharged, any footage your friends might have of the pair of you will become about as worthless as a standard piece of voyeuristic crap.”
    “Oh,” Kurt said. Having footage of a civilian caught in sexual acts on the datanet would be embarrassing for the victim, but hardly newsworthy. It was more than he'd dared hope for, which probably meant it came with a price. “And what is the catch?”
    Parnell smiled. It didn't touch his eyes. “The bad news is that you’ll be expected to do everything in your power to help us identify the people trying to blackmail you,” he said. “And I mean everything.”
    He tapped the table. “I wish you’d brought this to us before we left Earth,” he added. “We could have followed up leads right there and then. Instead ... we will only be able to focus on this ship and crew. Tracking down the people behind your friends will be tricky.”
    “Yes, sir,” Kurt said.
    “I know you probably weren't thinking too clearly,” Parnell added. He jabbed a finger at Kurt to make his point. “You’d just been shocked badly. However, this is the time to think clearly. We are going to go over everything.”
    He settled back in his chair. “You’re not under arrest,” he warned. “However, I am obliged to warn you of several things. This conversation will be recorded and it will be entered into the official investigative log. Should you be caught in a lie, it will be held against you when the Admiralty and MI5 consider your position. My very strong advice would be to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing, but the truth.”
    He paused. “I suggest you pour yourself a glass of water,” he added. “This could take quite some time.”
    Kurt nodded and obeyed. When he returned to his chair, Parnell had a datapad open in front of him and was skimming the pagers, clearly looking for questions to ask. Or was he just pretending to be distracted? It was impossible to tell.
    “First question, then,” Parnell said. “Precisely what happened on the day you were told that someone else had footage of your sex life?”
    Kurt braced himself, then went through the entire story. Parnell was a good interrogator, he rapidly discovered; every time he was unsure about a detail, he asked questions until it was clarified to the best of Kurt’s ability. Kurt hadn't realised how much he’d seen or heard until Parnell teased it out of him, although much of what he hadn't realised he’d forgotten was largely useless. Fred’s identity was still a complete mystery.
    “It sounds like a professional,” Parnell said. “Did you hear an accent?”
    “No, sir,” Kurt said.
    “Definitely a professional,” Parnell said. “You probably wouldn't have noticed an accent if he worked his tones to sound like you. Chances are his face was the result of some cosmetic surgery too. He’d change again as soon as he left Luna City, making it impossible to track him down.”
    Kurt swore. “Is it hopeless then?”
    “I wouldn't say that,” Parnell said. “Where was the footage taken?”
    “I think it was in Sin City,” Kurt said.
    Parnell lifted his eyebrows. “And what were you doing in Sin City?”
    Kurt glared at him. “What do people normally do in Sin City?”
    “They don’t normally bring their partners,” Parnell pointed out.
    “We wanted to share a hotel room without having to be discreet,” Kurt said. It had been a fine weekend, marred only by the fact they’d had to split up to return to the Academy. And by the fact the hotel manager kept offering to send a girl – or a boy – up to their room. “You know their reputation for secrecy.”
    Parnell snorted. “That is a joke, right?”
    “... Yes,” Kurt said.
    “Tell me,” Parnell ordered. “How do you know the footage was shot in Sin City?”
    Kurt took a breath. “It was the hotel room,” he said, firmly. “It wasn’t my office or quarters at Luna Academy.”
    “There are – there were – no shortage of intelligence officers prowling through Sin City,” Parnell muttered. He glared down at the desk, then looked up. “How long did you spend there?”
    “A weekend,” Kurt said. “We booked in Friday evening and left Sunday, mid-afternoon.”
    “And where else did you go?” Parnell asked. “Or did you just stay there?”
    “Yes,” Kurt said. They’d been reluctant to go anywhere else, knowing they might be seen by someone else from the Academy. “We ordered room service and stayed together.”
    “She must really like you,” Parnell said. “Of course, losing Sin City means following up that angle of investigation won’t be easy.”
    Kurt cursed. The aliens, deliberately or otherwise, had destroyed Sin City. Anyone who might have been involved in planting cameras in hotel rooms was probably dead.
    “Maybe they did it deliberately,” he mused. “What if the blackmailers are working for the aliens?”
    Parnell shrugged. “It seems unlikely,” he said. “They wouldn't need to blow up Sin City to cover their tracks. All it would take is a knife in the back.”
    He stood. “We’ll be doing this again tomorrow,” he added. “I suggest you make sure you free up some time on your schedule. We will be going over this time and time again until they actually get in touch.”
    Kurt nodded, reluctantly. “Yes, sir,” he said.
     
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  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fifteen
    “Wake,” an atonal voice said.
    Henry jerked awake, his eyes snapping open. Four aliens stood in the prison cell, their massive eyes watching him warily. Three of them, he noted with some surprise, wore clothes that resembled wetsuits, while the fourth was as naked as always. Jill started – she’d cuddled up to him as they slept – and sat upright, no longer bothering to try to cover her breasts. It was all Henry could do to keep his body from betraying his awareness of her nakedness ...
    But then, being stared at by alien perverts would cool anyone’s lust, he thought, as he stood. The aliens had never entered the compartment while the humans were sleeping before, as far as he knew. I couldn't perform under their gaze.
    “Put. On,” one of the aliens said. It pointed to a large bag on the floor. “Now.”
    Henry picked up the bag and opened it. Inside, there were a pair of masks attached to a set of canisters. It reminded him of the scuba gear he'd used as a child, before he realised that that was precisely what they were. If the aliens wanted him to swim outside the prison cell, they’d have to give him a source of breathable air as well as a mask. But ... he looked up, through the transparent ceiling. Just how deep below the water were they? It was far too easy to imagine them being struck by the bends as soon as they reached the surface ... and he had no idea how to explain the prospective danger to the aliens. All they could do was endure.
    “Pass me one of them,” Jill said. She took it from him and pulled it over her face with casual ease. She’d used the masks before, Henry recalled, although the aliens had never let her keep them. “You put it on like this.”
    Henry followed her lead, wondering just where the aliens had found the gear. Had they taken it from Heinlein, one of the other colonies or had they simply produced it for themselves. He pushed the questions aside seconds later as he felt the mask seal itself around his face, then heard a hiss as he started to draw air from the canisters. The air smelt slightly moist, but it was breathable. Or so he hoped. It would be the height of irony if the alien attempt to keep him alive ended up killing him.
    One of the aliens splashed down into the water and vanished in the murky water. The others beckoned for Henry to move forward and enter the water himself. Henry hesitated, but – knowing there was no choice – he made his way forward and jumped down. The water was warmer than he’d expected, like dropping into a warm bath, but it felt faintly slimy against his skin. Perhaps it was just his imagination, he told himself firmly, as Jill jumped down beside him. He certainly wanted to believe it was his imagination.
    Jill glanced at him, her face unreadable behind the mask, then lowered her head until she was under the water completely. Henry followed, cursing mentally as his vision blurred and then cleared as the mask started to compensate. It was hard to see much in the gloom, apart from lights in the distance, but he could at least keep sight of Jill. Something about the water bothered him, although he couldn't place it. Moments later, the aliens swam past and motioned for the humans to follow. Henry braced himself – it had been years since he’d swum outside a swimming pool – and forced himself to swim after them. It rapidly became clear that the aliens were far better swimmers than humanity. They clearly needed to hold back just to keep the humans with them.
    The alien city slowly came into view as they swam overhead. It reminded him of images of sunken towns and cities on Earth, except it was clearly a thriving metropolis. Aliens were everywhere, swimming in groups of three or more, surrounded by fish that hovered near them as though they were daring the aliens to try to catch and eat them. From time to time, an alien did just that, snapping a fish out of the water as easily as a shark would catch a minnow. Other aliens would roll over in the water and stare at the humans, their enormous eyes tracking their alien guests with ease. Several actually swam alongside the humans until they lost interest and turned away.
    We’re being paraded, Henry realised. He’d been in enough parades to know they weren't always about the person in the lead car. But why?
    He pushed the thought aside and started to studythe alien buildings, trying to see how they worked. Some of them were made from stone, carefully assembled below the waves; others were made of something that looked like emerald, although he suspected it wasn't real emerald. It could easily have been a trick of the light. He thought he saw hundreds of tiny crab-like creatures scuttling along the seabed, moving in and out of the houses as if they owned the place. The sheer diversity of life below the seabed was remarkable.
    A hand caught hold of his and pulled him forward. He looked up into the eyes of an alien, who seemed more annoyed at the delay than anything else. There were no threats, at least as far as Henry could tell, but he got the message anyway and forced himself forward. Jill and her escort had almost vanished in the gloomy distance.
    It felt like hours, his arms and legs aching in a way they hadn't since Basic Training, before they finally reached their destination, a tiny craft sitting on the seabed. It looked like a weird shuttle, one of the lunar buses that could only operate in low gravity, or perhaps a minisub. Henry felt himself yawn, despite the mask, as the aliens pushed him towards the hatch and forced him into the ship. Jill was already there, her mask discarded and lying at her feet. Her hair was so damp that it clung to her shoulders and breasts. But Henry was too tired to stare.
    There were no aliens in the compartment, Henry realised, as the hatch slid closed beneath them. It was a prison, just as much as the prison cell they’d been forced to leave. A dull whining echoed through the craft as it came to life – for a moment, Henry was convinced his first impressions had been right and it was a shuttlecraft – and then started to move. It shivered from side to side as it passed through the water, his ears popping within seconds. They were clearly rising up towards the surface ...
    “The bends,” he said, cursing his own ignorance. He wasn't even sure what the bends were, let alone how to cope with them without a pressure chamber. “If you feel pain ...”
    Jill looked bleakly at him. “What can we do about it?”
    Henry swallowed. “Suffer,” he said.
    His ears popped again as the craft shook violently, then started to rock steadily. He couldn't help being reminded of a motorboat on the ocean ... had the alien craft already reached the surface? If so, maybe they’d only been a few hundred metres below the waves, not deep enough to make the bends a serious danger. But would the aliens have known to show their captives so much consideration? God knew a couple of aliens humanity had taken captive had died soon afterwards, their captives utterly unable to treat them properly.
    The craft rocked one final time, then bumped against something and came to a halt. A hatch in the side of the compartment cracked open – Henry swore inwardly; he hadn't even noticed it was there – allowing bright sunlight to stream into the craft. Henry cringed back, covering his eyes. It had been so long since he’d seen anything, but the dim greenish light of his prison cell. A shadow moved in front of the hatch and he froze. Outside, the aliens were gathering.
    “Come on,” he said, trying to put a brave face on things. He’d never wanted to be a groundpounder. “Let’s go meet our adoring public.”
    Jill took his hand and they stepped through the hatch together. The bright sunlight revealed a tropical lagoon, not unlike the seas of Target One, but surrounded by strange white alien buildings. Water sprayed everywhere, as if it were the midst of a swimming pool, leaving the air hot and moist, just the way the aliens liked it. They needed it, Henry realised, as he looked at the jungle in the distance. The sunlight suggested the world was hot enough to please the aliens, but maybe not moist. High overhead, the sky was so brilliantly blue that he felt an ache in his heart. Would he ever see Earth again?
    The entire city was covered in aliens, each one lying on the rooftops like dozing seals, staring at the humans as they were gently escorted through the alien city. Water lay everywhere, running down the floors and back into the seas ... as a child, part of his mind noted, he would probably have regarded the alien city as a giant adventure playground. Not that he’d ever been allowed to play in any such playgrounds, of course. The Heir to the Throne – if they ever sorted out the issue of which of his father’s children should succeed the Throne – could not be allowed to risk himself on roller coasters or theme park VR rides. They’d been reluctant to allow him to attend the Academy as a grown man!
    He was tempted to wave at the spectators as they reached the edge of the city and walked towards a shuttlecraft, sitting on a launching pad. It was little different to a human design, he noted, although it looked to be a heavy-lifter. The escort paused outside the hatch, as if the aliens were consulting with their fellows, then opened the hatch. Inside, there was yet another tiny compartment suitable for human prisoners.
    “They must prefer to live in the water,” Jill said, as they were pushed inside. The hatch closed firmly behind them. “Do you think their starships are full of water?”
    Henry considered the possibility. It was true that post-battle assessment teams had found a considerable amount of water vapour in the ruins of alien starships, but cold logic suggested the aliens couldn't use water throughout their ships. They’d run the risk of shorting out entire compartments if their innards were exposed, even minutely. He tried to imagine the response of the Royal Navy’s engineers to deliberately flooding the fleet’s starships and decided they’d probably want to strangle the idiot who suggested it with their bare hands.
    But the aliens might not have a choice, any more than the Royal Navy had a choice about supplying its crewmen with oxygen.
    “It’s a possibility,” Henry said. The shuttle seemed to quiver, then launched itself into the air. “But it would be dangerous.”
    He shook his head. He’d been told, more than once, that dolphins were smarter than they seemed, but dolphins had never attempted to grow hands and leave their marine environment for dry land. It didn't seem possible for them to even make a start on developing their own technology. Their environmental niche was a prison as much as anything else, with the added disadvantage they’d never know what they were missing. Unless the Uplift Project actually received the go-ahead ...
    But then we wouldn't be able to deploy cybernetic dolphins, he told himself. There would be objections from vested interests.
    The gravity faded away to nothingness, leaving them drifting up into the air. Henry blinked in surprise – the aliens definitely had the technology to produce artificial gravity – and then resolved to ignore it. Jill looked green, though, just like some of the early starfighter trainees who had never developed their space legs. Eventually, they’d been sent back to Earth and told to apply somewhere that didn't involve regular space travel. The aliens might have been trying to use it to disconcert them.
    “They probably don’t have any problems with zero-gravity,” he said, trying to distract Jill from her feelings. “If they’re born under the water, they probably take to it like ...”
    “A fish to water?” Jill asked, weakly. She swallowed, hard. “I was asleep for the trip to Heinlein, Henry. I never went into zero-gee properly.”
    “It’s not quite what it’s made out to be,” Henry said. There had been one zero-G parlour in Sin City where visitors were encouraged to enjoy making love in reduced or no gravity, but it wasn't as popular as he'd thought. “It can be fun, but ...”
    “You’d get sick at a delicate moment,” Jill guessed. She floated up to the ceiling, then pushed herself back to the ground. “It would probably be rather unromantic.”
    “It was,” Henry said. The whole experience had been a lesson in orbital mechanics, rather than something sexual. “But there are plenty of ways to have fun in zero-gravity.”
    The shuttle shuddered, then quivered gently. Henry felt the bulkhead carefully, remembering how Ark Royal had quivered against his fingertips when the main drive had been active. Unless he was very wrong, they’d just docked with a much larger starship. But it was clear the starship didn't have a gravity field of its own. They’d have fallen down towards the floor if the bigger ship had one.
    If there is a bigger ship, he thought. Running two gravity fields together was asking for trouble, unless there was enough power to manipulate both fields to prevent problems. The Royal Navy tended to forbid it unless there was no alternative. I could be wrong ...
    The hatch clicked open. A wave of moist air, smelling of something fishy, rolled into the shuttle. Outside, he saw a pair of aliens, floating in the air as if they belonged there. Henry sighed, then pulled himself through the hatch, carefully only to use tiny motions. Jill, less practiced in zero-gravity, accidentally pushed herself right out of the shuttle and headed for the far bulkhead. Henry winced, remembering the first few days of his own zero-gravity training, as she hit the bulkhead and bounced off. One of the aliens caught her and half-carried her towards the hatch, using tiny handles built into the bulkheads to propel itself forward. Henry followed, realising that he'd been right. The aliens definitely preferred low-gravity environments.
    He frowned as the first hatch led to a second hatch, which opened up into a larger compartment. A bed was pressed against the wall, while two computers – civilian teaching machines, he realised – had been left against the spare bulkhead. They’d probably still be working, despite the moisture in the air. Teaching machines were designed to survive small and resentful children. Henry had heard that one of them had been dropped from a helicopter and survived the fall.
    “You will rest,” the alien said. “We will leave now.”
    Henry turned, fighting to control his movements. “Where are we going?”
    “Your people,” the alien said. It pointed one leathery hand towards the bed. “We will talk. You will prepare to speak to them.”
    Henry nodded. After Target One, the human race would be suspicious of any alien ship attempting to make open contact. But they’d find it a great deal harder to ignore a human voice, broadcasting openly. And then ... Henry smiled at the thought of the aliens meeting a proper set of human researchers, complete with computers and the ability to consider how best to speak at leisure. The communications barrier would be broken soon enough.
    “We’ll sleep,” he promised.
    “I’m not sure how,” Jill muttered. She still looked green. “How do we stay on the bed?”
    “... Bugger,” Henry said. The aliens had dragged a bed into the chamber, but it was largely useless without a gravity field. He looked around for something they could use to tie themselves down, only to discover there was nothing. “I’m not sure.”
    Jill laughed, weakly. “Do we just sleep floating in the air?”
    “It looks that way,” Henry said. There was a second problem. As far as he could tell, there were no streams of air moving through the compartment. Carbon dioxide, exhaled from their mouths, would gather around them, eventually making it impossible to breath. Or so he thought. It had been a very long time since he’d studied survival in zero-gravity environments. “I think one of us will have to sleep while the other fans them.”
    “See if there are any atmospheric controls first,” Jill said, once he’d explained. “They gave me some controls back when I ...”
    She broke off, shuddering. Henry wanted to put his arms around her and give her what reassurance he could. He could go back to Earth and be reunited with his family, his friends and his lover. But Jill would never see her friends and family again. The aliens, either through a mistake or cold-blooded malice, had slaughtered almost all of the Heinlein settlers.
    “You have a nap,” he said. He hated himself for saying something so useless, but what else could he do? “I’ll look for controls and then fan you.”
    “Thanks,” Jill said, weakly. She paused. “Do you think we’re being watched here?”
    “Probably,” Henry said. “We’re aliens, remember. They’ll want to keep an eye on us.”
    But that was normal for him. He’d been watched almost his entire life, with his family and the media ready to pounce on any form of misbehaviour ... even if it was something that would pass without comment for anyone born outside the Royal Family. Regular beatings would have been kinder, he’d often thought. At least he could have told someone about an abusive parent and been understood. But what did one do when the entire system was abusive?
    Janelle and I can just run, he decided, finally. We can go somewhere else and change our names. No one would know who we’d once been.
     
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  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Sixteen
    War Hog has transited back, Captain,” Farley reported. “Local space seems clear. Long-range sensors reveal no sign of alien activity.”
    James nodded, studying the report. There was little of value in the first alien-ruled system they’d invaded during Operation Nelson, save for a handful of asteroids and a tramline that led deeper into alien space. It would have been completely useless, he knew, if they hadn't had the alien-designed drive. He didn't find it a reassuring thought.
    “Take us through the tramline,” he ordered. “Full tactical alert.”
    He looked at the status display and shuddered. His starfighter crews were in their craft, ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Gunnery crews and damage repair teams were on the alert, braced for anything from an alien attack to total drive failure. Everything looked perfect ... and yet he knew it was nothing of the sort. The only crews at full capacity were the damage control teams. They’d had a lot of practice.
    They vanished from the Terra Nova system as they crossed the tramline and reappeared in an alien system no one, not even the aliens, had bothered to name. He watched the display as passive sensors listened, watching for signs of alien activity, but picked up nothing. The system was as dark and cold as the grave. But that didn't prove the aliens weren't there, he reminded himself, sharply. They could easily have their drives and weapons deactivated, leaving them pretending to be holes in space.
    “Local space seems clear,” Farley said, again. “No alien contacts, sir. Not even a stray signal.”
    “Take us on our assigned course,” James ordered. At least there was no need to play games with drones right now, thankfully. The aliens had either lost them completely or had a solid lock on their position a multitude of drones wouldn't be able to shake. “And continue to monitor for signs of alien activity.”
    The silence was baffling – and worrying. He’d known the aliens had never had much of anything in the system prior to the war, but he would have expected a picket ship at the very least. Unless there was one and they’d simply missed it ... there was just too much space for a single enemy ship to hide in, given time. All he could do was make his way to the next tramline and pray they remained undiscovered. Target One was still ten days away on their course.
    And if we take the least-time course we risk being detected for sure, he thought. They might have wrecked most of the Target One system, but the aliens would probably still picket it, knowing that its tramlines led deeper into alien space. No, we have to remain stealthy and pray the cloaking device works as advertised.
    His console bleeped. “Captain, the drive fluctuations actually reduced this time,” Anderson reported. “Everything was largely nominal.”
    “Thank God,” James said. The frigates and escort carriers would be able to escape, he was sure, but not the giant carrier. Stranding her in a useless star system would suit the aliens very well. “Continue to monitor the situation.”
    “Aye, Captain,” Anderson said.
    And hope we don’t have any more soap opera business, James thought, as he closed the connection. There were times when he didn't know how Captain Smith – Admiral Smith – had survived remaining on Ark Royal while she’d been stuck in the naval reserve. Some of his crew had been dedicated, others had been disciplinary problems who’d needed to be discharged as soon as possible. Most of the problems had faded away when the aliens attacked Vera Cruz, but a handful had remained festering. And now there was a spy on the ship.
    He leaned back into his chair, thinking hard. Ten days to Target One. Ten days before they encountered the aliens ... if they didn’t encounter them beforehand. And then ... who knew what would happen when they tried to communicate?
    ***
    “This,” Doctor Russell explained, “is an all-spectrum disease carrier.”
    Ted eyed the sealed test tube with a jaundiced eye. It didn't look very safe to him.
    “I was under the impression,” he said, “that all such research was banned.”
    “That’s true,” Doctor Russell agreed, as he put the test tube down on the desk. “However, we are allowed to conduct research into cures for genetically-modified diseases – and the only way to do that is to study techniques for modifying the diseases ourselves. Normally, such research takes place in sealed facilities without any hope of the disease escaping into the general population.”
    Ted scowled. He hated to admit it, but Doctor Russell had a point. It was easy to find sophisticated medical equipment these days and, despite international treaties, terrorists would be very tempted to create viruses that would slaughter everyone who hadn't been immunised ahead of time. There were no shortages of rumours about terrorist groups – and nations – that had tried to do just that, despite the risks. No matter how much care the experts took, diseases could mutate at a terrifying speed.
    “In this case,” Doctor Russell continued, “the alien biology is so different from our own that there is literally no danger of the disease spreading to humanity. That allows us to widen the scope of the disease considerably, to the point where it can infect creatures from the same genetic heritage as the aliens themselves. This will serve as an infection vector that will slash straight through the alien civilisation.”
    “You’ve invented a form of Bird Flu that infects everything,” he said. He honestly couldn't understand why the Doctor was so pleased with his accomplishments. “All we'd have to do is bio-bomb an alien planet and wait for them all to die.”
    “Precisely,” Doctor Russell said. “And the standard treaties have been set aside, owing to the war.”
    Ted made a face. If it had been just Britain researching the concept, it might have been possible to keep a lid on it. But the Government had insisted on sharing the research project – and the guilt – with the rest of the spacefaring powers. Now, it almost seemed as though they were competing to build the most horrendous biological weapon possible. The aliens would be in deep shit if the weapon was introduced to any world they occupied.
    He shook his head in dismay. Delivering the weapon would be easy enough, with a little work. A missile warhead could be reconfigured to serve as a bioweapon delivery system, plunging through a planet’s atmosphere and releasing its cargo before it hit the ground. Or a stealth missile could be used to sneak through planetary defences, posing as nothing more than a tiny meteor. The aliens wouldn't stand a chance.
    But it won’t get them all, he thought. Those left behind will want a little revenge.
    “This might work if the aliens were intent on genocide,” he said, “but so far we don’t have any evidence the aliens are interested in outright extermination of humanity.”
    “They might be saving the extermination until after they’ve won the war,” Doctor Russell pointed out. “If Hitler had saved the Holocaust until after his victory, I suspect a great many people would view him more favourably, even though he would still be the same complete manic he always was.”
    “True,” Ted agreed. The weapon on the desk could exterminate the aliens – or serve as an incentive to make peace. “A stay-behind team could deploy the weapon if Earth and the rest of the settled worlds were to be destroyed.”
    “Indeed they could,” Doctor Russell said. He smiled, clearly proud of himself. “We believe the weapon will spread rapidly, but it won’t become lethal for several months. There will be enough time for it to spread through alien-held space.”
    Ted snorted. The problem with any form of biological warfare was that the weapons tended to mutate when released into the natural world. And the researchers were dealing with a completely alien biology, no matter how much they claimed to understand what they were doing. It was quite possible the disease would be instantly lethal, fail completely or be defeated by something the aliens had invented for their own medical care. If there were humans trying to improve the basic human form, why wouldn’t there be aliens trying to do the same?
    And if the disease acted so rapidly it slaughtered an entire planet without going any further, it would be blindingly obvious to the aliens that it had been an attempt at genocide.
    “I want you to keep all your research carefully sealed, Doctor,” Ted ordered. The researchers were already largely isolated, but they were allowed to talk to the ambassadors and their aides. As if the thought had worked a magic spell, he saw one of the aides appear at the hatch and start walking purposefully towards him. “And do not talk about it outside the cleared circle.”
    “I have every confidence in my security precautions,” Doctor Russell protested. “I am no stranger to classified work ...”
    “Then do as I tell you,” Ted ordered, shortly. He turned to face Ambassador Melbourne’s aide. “I suggest we take this conversation outside.”
    The young man - Antony DuBois, if Ted recalled correctly – looked irked, but obeyed. Ted wasn't too surprised. He hadn’t met many such aides during his time on Ark Royal, something that hadn't prepared him for meeting them after his promotion. The aides all seemed to think they had the clearances enjoyed by their political masters and that they had a right to know everything. In some cases, they might have had a point. This, Ted decided as he walked the younger man outside, wasn't one of them.
    DuBois turned to face him as soon as the hatch was closed. He was a short man, wearing a formal suit despite special permission to wear shipsuits or modified uniforms. His hair was perfectly coiffed, which suggested a streak of vanity or insecurity. Ted had no time to wonder which, not when he had a flotilla to command and a security crisis on his hands.
    “The Ambassador’s cabin, Admiral, is much too small,” DuBois said. “We need to move him to a bigger one.”
    Ted kept his expression blank with an effort. Aides derived their status from their superiors. A slight, however unintentional, to one of the ambassadors was a slight to their aides. But under the circumstances, the Ambassador himself had not complained. Had he wanted his aide to do the complaining for him or was his aide trying to do what he thought was best?
    “The Ambassador has one of the largest sets of quarters on the ship,” Ted said. It was true; there were only two bigger suites on the ship and both of them were occupied. “He also only has to bunk down with his aides.”
    “It isn't suitable,” DuBois insisted. “He needs to make a show to the aliens.”
    “I don't think the aliens will notice if he shares a cabin or has a palace to himself,” Ted snapped, too tired to deal with the situation any further. “I suggest, Mr. DuBois, that you resign yourself to sharing those quarters until we make contact with the aliens.”
    He turned and strode down the corridor, into the next section. Inside, the air was warm and moist, the temperature a reminder of the alien holding facility on the other side of the moon. Ted had visited, twice, since they’d brought the alien captives back to Earth, but they’d been as uncommunicative as ever. He pushed the thought to one side as he stepped through the second hatch and into Doctor McDonald’s working space.
    “Doctor McDonald,” he said, feeling sweat trickling down the back of his uniform jacket. It was too hot to wear a formal uniform. “I was hoping you’d have time for a proper chat.”
    Polly McDonald looked up at him. She was wearing a halter top and a pair of shorts that were so tight Ted couldn't help wondering if they were painted onto her skin. He had to remind himself, sharply, that she was young enough to be his daughter as she waved him to a chair and reached for a bottle of water. Ted took it gratefully.
    “I’m sorry about the weather, Admiral,” she said. “If I am to meet the aliens in their natural habitat, or at least on the shores of their worlds, I need to stay used to their preferred conditions.”
    Ted hesitated, then removed his jacket and folded it over his lap. “Talking to the aliens is of prime importance, Doctor,” he said. “Can you talk to them?”
    “Please, call me Polly,” Doctor McDonald said. She smiled. “I think talking to them without a voder is going to be damn near impossible; they might be able to hear us, but we can't hear them speaking. Still, we have recordings from the alien cities your people observed and I’m fairly certain we can produce something the aliens can hear.”
    Ted nodded. “Didn't you try it on the alien captives?”
    “Most of them were non-committal,” Polly admitted. “Their behaviour is odd, Admiral, at least by our standards. Sometimes they’re willing to try to communicate, at other times they seem to be sulking like children, even amongst themselves. We’ve tried to record their conversations, but we got nothing useful.”
    “Nothing at all?” Ted asked. “Are we missing something?”
    “It’s possible,” Polly agreed. “The aliens might combine sign language with their high-pitched voices, but I don’t see how they developed without some form of non-visual communication. All we hear from them is that they’re repeating the same sounds over and over again.”
    “They could be saying something we can't hear,” Ted mused.
    “We might not be able to hear it,” Polly said. “But the monitors should be able to pick out pitches and changes in tone ... even if we can't hear it with our merely human ears. There doesn't seem to be enough shift to suggest they’re actually talking. It’s more like they’re rehashing the same statements over and over again.”
    She frowned. “I keep thinking of some of the weirder proposals on the fringes of science,” she added. “The aliens might have been deliberately modified to have a considerable level of intelligence, but a very limited amount of free will.”
    Ted blinked. “Is that even possible?”
    “In theory,” Polly said. “You could program limiters into the brain, perhaps ones making it impossible to tell the difference between someone’s own desires and orders from someone else. Or you could undermine their sense of self until it simply doesn't exist. In practice ... it has never been tried, officially. It would break the conventions on designing a humanoid slave race.”
    “And unofficially?” Ted asked. “Weren't there people who wanted to try?”
    “It got shut down before it ever got off the ground floor,” Polly said. “Too many people reacted to the concept with absolute revulsion. But I’m starting to think the aliens need to work in groups to reach their full potential.”
    “They also fly starfighters,” Ted pointed out. “I don’t care how advanced their technology is, Doctor, but they couldn't fit more than two or three aliens into those cockpits.”
    Polly smirked. “Even if they were prepared to be very friendly?”
    Ted flushed, remembering a rite of passage for junior lieutenants. He’d been told to find out how many lieutenants he could fit into a standard shuttle. Unfortunately, there simply hadn't been enough lieutenants on the ship to fill the shuttlecraft. It had turned out, afterwards, that he’d been meant to fill in the spaces with locals, prostitutes from the nearest brothel. They’d called it an exercise in thinking outside the box. Ted considered it an exercise in pointless hazing.
    “I don't think they'd actually get any flying done,” he said. “I don't think they need to be in groups to think.”
    “Maybe they can't react to situations outside their orders,” Polly said. “I’ve seen academics, really clever men and women, have problems thinking when they’re forced to focus on something outside their subject. They have panic attacks and start trying to escape ...”
    “I’ve had officers who had the same problem,” Ted said. “They just can’t think when something happens outside their orders.”
    He took a breath. “Do you think we can actually ... make contact with the aliens?”
    “I think we can build up a communications algorithm,” Polly said. “They may well have done their own research into communicating with us. In that case, we will have to match our efforts with theirs and see what happens. But if we can't establish any meaningful dialogue ...”
    Ted nodded. If the aliens couldn't be talked out of fighting, there would be no choice, but to fight the war to the bitter end. He thought of the test tube Doctor Russell had showed him and went cold. Were the aliens building their own biological weapons program? There were thousands of people with enhanced immune systems these days, mainly in the military, but would they survive whatever the aliens might use to exterminate the human race?
    “Do the best you can,” he said, standing. His shirt was soaked with sweat. He'd need to shower and change before he went on duty in the CIC. “And let me know if you have any brainwaves that will make contacting them easier.”
    “Of course, Admiral,” Polly said. She looked down at the table for a long moment, then looked up and met his eyes. “I don’t think they’re an evil race.”
    “I agree,” Ted said. The aliens had passed up countless opportunities for brute slaughter until they’d attacked Earth. Had they actually meant to devastate humanity’s homeworld? “But they’ve done a lot of damage, Doctor. Even if we do manage to talk to them, coming to a peace agreement isn't going to be easy.”
    He nodded to her, then strode out of the hatch and walked back to his office. Even now, crawling through a potentially hostile star system, there was no shortage of work to do.
    And besides, it distracted him from his growing concerns.
     
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