Cry havoc, and unleash the pens of war.
From: Commodore Timothy O’Neal
To: Admiral Sir Thomas Hanover, First Space Lord
It has been eleven months since the attack on Vera Cruz both introduced the human race to the existence of aliens and started the First Interstellar War. Since then, we have learned a great deal about our enemy and how he responds to our weapons and tactics. In particular, the capture of an alien battlecruiser by Ark Royal was very helpful.
Most of my study group’s recommendations are included in the detailed report, but there are certain issues I wished to bring to your attention personally. In particular, I must caution you against assuming anything about our foe. We are still faced with an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a riddle; we know nothing about his internal command structure, internal politics or – most importantly of all – just why he chose to start the war. Our attempts to crack the captured computer system have yielded no data that might allow us to build up a picture of how our foe thinks. All we have are deductions from his actions.
They clearly took some time to study us and gear their forces to take advantages of our weaknesses. The plasma cannon system alone devastated our formations, allowing them to score a major victory over New Russia that came alarmingly close to shortening the war. If we hadn’t possessed Ark Royal, with armour that made her largely immune to alien weapons, we might well have lost the war within six months. However, we still lack any insights as to why they actually started the war in the first place.
My team has speculated wildly, using human history as a baseline. Their government may well be expansionist, bent on conquering or exterminating all other forms of intelligent life. Or they may view us as a potential threat and see advantages in curbing our own expansion. Or they may believe that we started the war. The discovery of artefacts from the long-lost Heinlein on Alien-1 raises a number of uncomfortable questions. Did the Heinlein Colony mission accidentally start a war with the aliens?
But all of this leads to yet another mystery. Why don’t they talk to us? They have not even attempted to demand unconditional surrender, even though it could shorten the war, let alone open up diplomatic channels. And, so far, every attempt to establish communications with the aliens has ended in failure.
We accept that the aliens have physical problems speaking in human tongues; indeed, that we will have similar problems in trying to pronounce their words. However, given their obvious skill at technology, it is unlikely that they have any real problems producing equipment that will allow them to bridge the gap. For that matter, we have no difficulty in doing the same – and yet the alien POWs steadfastly refuse to talk to us. I have had to dismiss two operatives from the research team for allowing their frustration to impede their professionalism.
In short, we have no way of ending this war, save by outright victory.
Towards that end, sir, I have a few suggestions …
Admiral Sir Theodore Smith jerked awake in his seat. Lieutenant Janelle Lopez, his Flag Lieutenant, was looking down at him, an expression of worry crossing her beautiful dark face. Ted couldn’t tell if she was worried about him or the effects on her career of awakening her Admiral from an unsound sleep, but it hardly mattered. A glance out the porthole showed their destination coming into view.
“I’m awake,” he said, crossly. His mouth felt like sandpaper and he swallowed, hard. There were water supplies on the shuttle, but he hadn’t bothered to take a drink since they’d departed from Nelson Base. “Were there any further updates?”
Janelle shook her head, pushing her hair back into her ponytail. She looked absurdly young for her position, but Ted had insisted on having her assigned to him as a reward for believing in Ark Royal when the Old Lady had been nothing more than a drifting hulk orbiting Earth, nothing more than a reserve for officers and crew the Royal Navy couldn’t be bothered to discharge. Now, with Ark Royal the most important ship in the fleet, the competition for postings to her – and her Admiral’s flag staff – was intense. But Ted was determined that those who had shown faith would have first choice of slots behind her massive sheets of armour.
He smiled at her tiredly, then turned to peer out of the porthole. Ark Royal was lit up from prow to stern, shining out in the inky darkness of space like a beacon of hope. She was ugly – even her fiercest defenders would never call her beautiful – yet there was a quiet elegance to her stubby lines that caught his eye and fired his imagination. As they came closer, he saw the makeshift sensor blisters, point defence cannons and missile tubes mounted on her hull, ready to defend her from all enemies. It was ironic, he knew, that the Old Lady had once been considered obsolete. But with alien starfighters armed with plasma cannons out there, hunting for targets, the only real defence was layers of solid-state armour. The loss of ten modern carriers in the First Battle of New Russia had proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Preparing to land,” the pilot called from the cockpit. “I believe they’re putting together a ceremony for you, sir.”
Ted groaned, so quietly that only Janelle heard him. Ceremonies were a very important part of the Royal Navy’s traditions, but they hadn’t featured in his life until Ark Royal had received a new lease on life. Since his promotion to Admiral, he’d been forced to endure more ceremonies, speeches and formal dinners than he’d had to attend in his entire life, prior to the war. The thought of returning to the Old Lady with such elaborate formality seemed absurd. And yet he knew there was no choice. Ark Royal was no longer his command, even though he was her Admiral. He would be a guest on the ship he still considered to be his own.
He leaned back in his seat as the shuttle entered the landing bay and settled down on the deck. A faint queasiness ran through his body as the shuttle’s gravity field faded away, only to be replaced by the carrier’s own gravity field. Bracing himself, he stood and started to walk towards the hatch. Outside, he knew, the landing bay would already be closed, with a breathable atmosphere being pumped into the massive compartment. It was a necessity for the Royal Navy’s ceremonies.
Wouldn’t do to have the admiralty step out into cold vacuum, he thought, snidely. And until someone invents a forcefield to keep the atmosphere inside the ship, that’s precisely what they would do.
He sucked in a breath as he caught sight of his own reflection. Somewhere along the way, he’d picked up more than a few white hairs, although his body was as healthy as years of naval food and a forced program of exercise could make it. The perfectly-tailored Admiral’s uniform still seemed odd on him, after being a starship commander for so long. His blue eyes looked tired, but bright. The thought of returning to action was galvanising in a way endless meetings could never be.
There was a faint ding from the airlock controller as it registered the presence of a breathable atmosphere outside, but there was a long pause before it opened. Ted had to fight down the urge to open the airlock himself and step out into the starship, even though he knew it would ruin the ceremony. It would be petty and childish, but part of him just wanted to set foot on Ark Royal again, even though she was no longer his command.
The airlock clicked, then hissed open. Ted took a breath, tasting the indefinable mixture of elements that made up the old carrier’s atmosphere, then stepped out onto the deck. Outside, the landing bay looked shiner than he remembered, suggesting that Captain Fitzwilliam had made good use of the legions of technicians assigned to Ark Royal in the wake of their return to Earth. He paused, long enough to salute the Union Jack painted on the far bulkhead, then turned to meet his former XO and current Flag Captain, Captain James Fitzwilliam.
“Admiral Smith,” Captain Fitzwilliam said, as they exchanged salutes. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you, James,” Ted said, and meant it. The first time they’d met, Captain Fitzwilliam – a young aristocratic officer – had tried to take command of the carrier out from under Ted’s nose. Instead, he’d wound up serving as Ted’s XO as Ark Royal went to war. After a somewhat bumpy start, they’d wound up trusting one another … and Fitzwilliam had saved both Ted’s life and career. “It’s good to be back.”
“This is my XO, Commander Amelia Williams,” Fitzwilliam said, nodding to a tall redheaded woman with a stern, almost patrician face. “She joined us from Victorious.”
Ted nodded, keeping his expression blank. He’d argued that his former tactical officer should be moved up into the XO slot, but the Admiralty had disagreed. With the new push to construct armoured carriers and battleships that might be able to stand up to the aliens in combat, they wanted as many officers as possible to develop experience with the old-new starships. He had nothing personal against Commander Williams, but seeing her in place was a reminder that he hadn’t won all of the political battles.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “You have some big shoes to fill.”
He pasted a smile on his face. Whatever else could be said about her, Commander Williams was definitely one of the Royal Navy’s rising stars. Her career path would probably have led her to carrier command within a couple of years anyway, although command of any other carrier was something of a poisoned chalice under the circumstances. During the Battle of New Russia, the aliens had gone through modern carriers like knives through butter.
“Thank you, sir,” Fitzwilliam said. “I believe you know my senior crew?”
Ted smiled, more openly this time, as he nodded to his old subordinates. Most of them had been dedicated lifers, spending their time in an endless struggle to keep the old carrier up and running when the Admiralty didn’t give a damn what happened to her. They’d learnt more about splicing together components and systems from a dozen separate interstellar powers than anyone else, which had helped when the time came to capture an alien starship and press it into service. A quarter of his former engineering crew, he knew, had been reassigned to either work on the captured ship or assist the joint defence effort. It would have been more if he hadn’t put his foot down on the matter. The Old Lady needed her unique engineering crew to remain functional.
“It’s a pleasure to see you all again,” he said. “And I hope that fame hasn’t gone entirely to your heads.”
They smiled back at him, a little ruefully. No one had paid attention to them when they’d been drifting in orbit, part of the naval reserve no one ever expected to be called into action. Now, they were not only famous, but rich. The combined world governments had poured out reward money for the captured alien ship, enough to give even the lowliest crew a sizable bonus. And the fame had made them heroes. Not all of them had handled it very well.
He paused long enough to exchange a few words with men who were friends, even if he outranked them, then Fitzwilliam dismissed the greeting party and escorted Ted up through the starship’s long passageways towards the bridge. As before, Ted couldn’t help noticing that the decks looked cleaner than ever before, although the telltale signs of constant maintenance were everywhere. A number of panels were open, with crewmen working on the starship’s innards or carefully replacing worn components. Every day, Ted knew, a handful of older components failed. The Royal Navy’s response to the problem, back in the days Ark Royal had been a frontline carrier, had been to build a massive amount of redundancy into the system. Modern carriers had fewer maintenance problems …
His lips twitched, humourlessly. Modern carriers were also strikingly vulnerable to alien attack.
“We’ve effectively completed the refit,” Fitzwilliam said, as they stepped through the armoured hatch and into the bridge. Buried towards the prow of the vessel, it was almost impossible to disable without blowing the entire starship apart. “I think I can honestly say that the Old Lady has never been in a better state.”
Ted nodded as he surveyed the bridge. The old consoles had been replaced with gleaming new systems, although they too were already showing signs of wear. He’d kept up with the readiness reports from the carrier and he’d been pleased to note that Fitzwilliam – and Commander Williams – had maintained his draconian training regime, even while the ship was at rest. There was no way of knowing, after all, when the much-dreaded attack on the Sol System would materialise. The Old Lady might have to move from her anchorage and go to war without any real warning.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. The bridge seemed to have something missing. It took him a long moment before he realised that he was missing the bridge. The compartment wasn’t his any longer. He looked towards the massive command chair, then kicked himself mentally. It was Fitzwilliam’s command chair now. “You didn’t change the chair?”
“I thought it was part of history,” Fitzwilliam said. “And I didn’t want to change it.”
Ted nodded, feeling an odd lump in his throat. The command chair hadn’t been replaced since the carrier had last been on active duty. He’d never felt the urge to replace it – and now, it was part of history. One way or another, the Old Lady had definitely earned her place in the history books. But would their writers be humans … or aliens? The war was far from over, even if the aliens had been suspiciously quiet for the last three months. Ted knew the planning staff suspected the aliens were preparing a final offensive. He tended to agree with them.
He followed Fitzwilliam into the ready room – it had once been Ted’s ready room – and sat down on the sofa. Once, he’d slept in the room more than once, catching up on his sleep while remaining close to the bridge. Now, he would have to sleep in the Admiral’s quarters near the CIC … and he would never command the ship in combat again. Indeed, even issuing commands to the crew could be construed as infringing on Fitzwilliam’s authority. His lips twitched, remembering command exercises at the Academy. They’d been warned, more than once, to try to avoid stepping on one another’s toes.
Fitzwilliam poured tea from a china teapot, then passed the cup over to Ted, who examined it with some interest. The fine china was probably expensive enough to swallow half of his paycheck for the month, he decided, if it could be replaced at all. It felt more like an antique than anything mundane – or Royal Navy issue.
“My … one of my ancestors commanded a ship during the Second World War,” Fitzwilliam explained. “His wife, who didn’t have a very practical turn of mind, sent him this as a present, apparently in the expectation that he would find a use for it. After he returned home, it was placed into storage. My uncle thought I might find it useful.”
Ted had to smile. “And what if it was destroyed?”
“I would presumably have other things to worry about,” Fitzwilliam said. The younger – much younger – man leaned forward. “How was Earth?”
“Mostly discussions about the aliens and their technology,” Ted said. It had rapidly turned into a waste of time, at least for him. He might have seen the technology in action, he might have a good idea of just how the aliens used it, but he knew nothing about how it actually worked. The engineers could crack the secrets of the alien battlecruiser, given time, yet Ted himself couldn’t help them. “And speeches to every last part of the world.”
He made a face as he took another sip of tea. The human race had been on an emotional rollercoaster since the dawn of the war – the First Interstellar War, as some wags were already calling it. There had been the shock of first contact, the horror and terror after the Battle of New Russia, the delight when Ark Royal had won the first of her victories against the aliens … the entire population seemed torn between hope and dread. The future no longer seemed quite so full of promise.
“They gave you one of every medal in the world,” Fitzwilliam said. “They must like you.”
Ted snorted. It was an exaggeration, but not by much. Every spacefaring power on Earth had given him a medal, including several that had never been awarded to foreigners beforehand. Each award ceremony had forced him to make another speech, followed by answering questions about the Old Lady and the alien battlecruiser, half of which he couldn’t answer. It had almost been enough to drive him back to drink.
No, he told himself, firmly. Fitzwilliam had risked his career to save Ted from the consequences of his drinking. Ted would not let that go to waste. I will not go back to the bottle.
“I think they just wanted someone to show off,” he said. He placed the cup down on the table, then leaned forward. “I got the basic engineering reports, of course, but I’d like to hear from you. Are we ready to return to war?”
Fitzwilliam paused, contemplating his answer. “I believe so,” he said. “We have repaired the damaged armour, replaced the destroyed weapons and improved our defences. We’ve mounted enemy-level plasma cannons on our hull, loaded new bomb-pumped laser missiles into the tubes … in short, we’re as ready to go as possible. All we really need are replacement flight crews.”
Ted nodded. Half of Ark Royal’s surviving pilots had been reassigned, either to the Academy or other carriers that might soon be going into action. They would be recalled, of course, or replaced, but until they arrived Ark Royal’s striking power would be very limited. But then, compared to the rest of the fleet, she was practically an armoured colossus. Her missiles and mass drivers gave her a striking power no modern carrier could match.
“I believe they will be reassigned here in a week or two,” Ted said. He smiled, rather dryly. “The Admiralty has been holding high-level discussions with the rest of the interstellar powers, considering our best course of action now the aliens seem to have been knocked back and taught to fear human weapons. We may well be going on the offensive.”
Fitzwilliam smiled. “That would be good,” he said. “Better to wage war in their systems than ours.”
Ted nodded in agreement. The aliens had occupied twelve human systems, three of them with large human populations. Reports from the planetary surface suggested that the aliens were largely ignoring the humans, which was interesting. They didn’t seem inclined to either enslave the humans or exterminate them. But they had wiped out the population of smaller mining colonies …
He shrugged. It was tempting to believe that the aliens were merely biding their time … or, perhaps, that they’d realised they might not win the war after all and they’d decided not to commit any atrocities. Or, perhaps, they had their own codes for treating prisoners of war, codes not too different from those followed by humanity. After all, some human enemies had been downright barbaric to their prisoners. It made the aliens look surprisingly civilised.
“There will be a ceremony in one week,” he said, changing the subject slightly. “I believe we will be playing host to the Prime Minister himself, as well as a handful of foreign dignities.”
Fitzwilliam looked worried. Ted didn’t blame him. A serving naval officer would understand that perfection was a hopeless pipe dream, but a politician without any military experience might question an unwashed deck or something else that looked slapdash. It could ruin an officer’s career, no matter how promising it had seemed before the politicians boarded the ship. But it couldn’t be helped. If nothing else, they would finally be briefed on whatever operation the joint command had had in mind since Ark Royal returned to the solar system.
“I’d better get on with preparing for their arrival,” Fitzwilliam said. Politicians couldn’t be fed naval rations, even though the crew had to make do with them. They’d need to get some prepared food from Earth and perhaps hire an extra cook or two. “Wonderful.”
“It could be worse,” Ted reminded him. “We went from a laughing stock to the flagship of the fleet. It’s worth having a dinner with politicians to remind us that we’re no longer a joke.”
Fitzwilliam hesitated, then nodded in agreement.
Ted smiled. “And how is Commander Williams shaping up?”
“I think I understand how you must have felt,” Fitzwilliam confessed. “She’s brilliant, very capable … and ambitious as hell.”
“A common failing,” Ted observed, dryly. “But can she handle the job?”
“I believe so,” Fitzwilliam said. “She isn’t another Farley.”
“Good,” Ted said. Abraham Farley had somehow managed to become XO of a carrier without revealing the soft panicky centre at his core. But when there had been a nasty accident and he’d inherited command, he’d panicked and almost lost the entire starship. “I think you should be fine. But keep an eye on her anyway. No one reveals what they truly are until they are truly tested.”