Commodore Sir Theodore Smith opened his eyes and glared at his wristcom, lying where he’d left it on his bedside table. His mouth tasted foul, reminding him that he’d drunk several pints of ship-brewed rotgut before staggering into his bunk and going to bed. The ship’s doctor would probably want a few words with him later; regulations might not frown on officers and crewmen drinking when they weren’t on duty, but ship-brewed alcohol wasn’t always healthy.
“Yes,” he growled, pushing the thought aside. God, he needed a drink. “What is it?”
“There’s a priority-one message from the Admiralty,” Midshipwoman Lopez said. There were times when Ted wondered just who the young woman had pissed off Portsmouth Naval Training Base. Ark Royal was no posting for an ambitious and capable young officer. “They request your immediate presence at Nelson Base.”
Ted blinked in surprise. He’d always had the impression that Nelson Base preferred to forget that Ark Royal – and her drunkard of a commander – existed. They were an embarrassment, a relic of Britain’s first step into interstellar power. If Ark Royal hadn’t been famous, she would probably have been broken up for scrap or sold to a third-rate power by now. And if Ted hadn’t been a drunkard, he might have been promoted to Admiral.
“I’m on my way,” he said, finally. Urgent summons from the Admiralty were almost never good news. “Have my shuttle prepared.”
He stumbled out of bed, then reached into his drawer and removed a stimulant tab, which he pressed against his forearm. Once, it had seemed a wise precaution; now, he honestly didn’t know why he bothered. But it had paid off for him, he had to admit, as he felt the drug working its way through his body. He wouldn’t go into the meeting, whatever it was, suffering from the aftermath of too much drinking.
Biting down a series of curses, he stepped into the washroom and glared at his face in the mirror. His hair had gone white years ago; his face was marred with stubble. He rapidly ran a shaver over his cheekbones and jaw, then stepped into the shower and washed himself rapidly. Outside, he pulled on the dark blue dress uniform favoured by Her Majesty’s Navy, then checked his appearance in the mirror. He might not look as perfect as the men and women on the recruiting posters, he knew, but at least he looked presentable.
He left his cabin and strode through the ship towards the shuttlebay. By now, he could have found his way around his ship blindfold. Ted had spent fifty years in the British Navy and most of them had been spent on Ark Royal, a position that had been intended as a punishment for carelessness as a young Lieutenant. Somehow, he’d been promoted upwards until he reached Captain and then Commodore, although the ranks were partly worthless. Ark Royal wouldn’t see action unless the Navy was desperate.
She was seventy years old, the first true interstellar carrier put into space by the British Navy – and a piece of living history. Civilians found her box-like shape ugly as hell, but Ted loved her for what she was. Over the years, keeping Ark Royal in something resembling fighting trim had become an obsession, one that had consumed his life. He sometimes wondered if the Navy had known what it was doing by assigning him to the carrier, or if it had been sheer luck. He pushed the thought aside as he scrambled into his shuttle and nodded to the pilot to take them to Nelson Base. No doubt the Navy had its reasons for the urgent summons.
Space was filled with activity, he realised, as the shuttle headed towards Nelson Base. There were military starships everywhere; American, Russian, Chinese, European, Japanese and several smaller nations, all frantically preparing for operations. Ted eyed them in surprise, then activated the shuttle’s datanet and scanned for answers. There was nothing, beyond a general alert from the Admiralty. Ted felt his eyes narrow. The First Space Lord might have decided to call an unscheduled exercise, but that wouldn’t have affected the other interstellar powers. Something was definitely up.
Nelson Base was a giant station, hanging in geostationary orbit over Britain. It was actually older than Ark Royal, although it had been extensively modified in the ninety years since it had been constructed and then activated. Ted frowned as there was a series of security checks, all of which had to be cleared before the shuttle was allowed to dock. Inside, a pair of armed Royal Marines escorted him to the First Space Lord’s office. But what was going on?
“Commodore Smith,” the First Space Lord said, as Ted was escorted through the hatch and into the office. “Please, have a seat.”
Ted nodded. The First Space Lord had once been a classmate of his, years ago. They’d gone through Portsmouth together. Now, one of them was the most powerful uniformed officer in the service and the other … was a drunkard in command of a carrier most officers regarded as a national embarrassment. The First Space Lord had put on a little weight, he noted, but his hair was still as red as ever. Ted wondered, in a moment of insight, if his old friend dyed his hair. He’d certainly been vain when they’d been younger.
The hatch opened again, revealing a thin-faced young man wearing a Captain’s uniform, but without a ship name on the jacket. Ted scowled, not liking the implications. By long tradition, the only people allowed to claim the rank of Captain were actual starship commanders. In some ways, it was possible to be both a Commodore and a Captain, although Ted himself was a special case. It didn’t mean he drew two salaries.
“Captain Fitzwilliam,” the First Space Lord said. The newcomer managed a perfect salute; Ted found himself disliking him on sight. “Be seated.”
He waited for the newcomer to seat himself, then continued. “There has been an incident,” he said. “The Vera Cruz colony has been attacked.”
Ted frowned. War seemed the only reasonable explanation for so much military activity in Earth orbit, but Vera Cruz? If he recalled correctly, the world was on the edge of the expanding sphere of human settlement – and not really considered worth fighting over. The Mexicans had won the settlement rights and started to settle the planet. But who would have attacked the planet? There wasn’t anything worth taking.
“To be precise, the attack was carried out by aliens,” the First Space Lord continued. “There have been three more attacks since then, although we only found out about them seven hours ago. News moves slowly along the edge of the sphere.”
“Aliens?” Ted repeated. He would have sooner believed in pirates than aliens. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” the First Space Lord said. “We recovered little useful data from Vera Cruz, but both the Chinese mining colony orbiting IAS-73782 and the independent settlement on Maxwell’s World had small starships that managed to escape the attackers. The starships that attacked the planets were completely unknown. This is the dawn of an interstellar war.”
Ted swallowed. In three hundred years of expansion, ever since the Puller Drive had been invented, humanity hadn’t encountered another intelligent race. The highest form of life outside Earth had been a whale-like creature on an oceanic world. Humanity, once convinced that aliens were everywhere, had slowly come to believe that they were alone in the universe.
“We do not know why the aliens attacked the colonies,” the First Space Lord said. “So far, all attempts to communicate have simply been ignored. We do know that humanity is at war. The Vulcan Protocols have been activated.”
“… Shit,” Ted said.
The Vulcan Protocols had been a theoretical study, nothing more. They harked back to a time when alien contact and interstellar war was seen as a very real possibility. In theory, the human race – or at least the major spacefaring powers – was obliged to unite in defence of humanity, putting all grudges aside. Ted rather suspected that it wouldn’t be that easy to actually make it happen in practice.
“We will, of course, hope for a diplomatic solution,” the First Space Lord said. “However, we are currently preparing for the worst. How long will it take before Ark Royal is ready for deployment, assuming an unlimited budget and workforce?”
That was something Ted had worked on ever since he’d been promoted into the command chair, no matter how meaningless it had seemed. “Two weeks if we cut corners, four if we take it slowly,” he said. “But the crew would have to be experienced.”
Captain Fitzwilliam gaped at him. “Four weeks?”
Ted laughed. “Do you think that I spend my days engaging in rum, sodomy and the lash?”
The First Space Lord nodded. “I am pleased to hear that your time on the vessel has not been wasted,” he said. “However, it is felt that someone new should take command of Ark Royal.”
Ted felt cold ice trickling down his spine as he realised where this was leading. “Captain Fitzwilliam will assume command of Ark Royal,” the First Space Lord informed him. “You will supervise the refitting and then …”
The ice flashed into anger. Ted had served on Ark Royal for forty-four years. He was familiar with every last inch of her decks – and with every new component his skeleton crew had installed over the years. Their surprise at the short time it would need to have the ship prepped for service was quite understandable … but they didn’t realise that he hadn’t spent his time drunk out of his mind. No, he’d been keeping the old girl as close to readiness as possible. They hadn’t even been paying attention to the supplies he’d requisitioned over the years!
“No,” he said, simply.
The First Space Lord lifted his eyebrows. It was a breach of military formality to interrupt one’s superior, unless it was a matter of life and death.
Ted turned to face Captain Fitzwilliam, fighting to keep his voice even. “Are you familiar with the modifications we have made to our Mark-IV normal space drive? Are you aware of the problems in flying Buccaneer bombers off the flight decks? Do you understand the outdated computer cores we have not been able to replace? Do you realise that half our small craft component is actually outdated? Do you understand the limitations of our onboard weapons systems?”
He looked back at the First Space Lord. “I’m sure that Captain Fitzwilliam is a fine officer,” he said, knowing that he would either secure his career or destroy it. “But he hasn’t trained on anything remotely comparable to Ark Royal. There is very little standard about her, sir; her internal systems are a mixture of modern technology and outdated technology that cannot be replaced without tearing up the hull. Are you aware, for example, that we cannot mount a modern sensor node on the hull? When switched to active mode, they will blind her inner systems. We actually have to use sensor probes and outriders to expand our sensor range.”
“That’s absurd,” Captain Fitzwilliam protested. “What sort of system would be designed to blind its carrier?”
“It isn’t,” Ted assured him. “A modern carrier wouldn’t have a problem. Ark Royal, however, was designed as a solid-state entity. She was built to survive. We cannot replace the older systems without tearing the hull wide open, which would take far longer than four weeks. We’d be looking at nine months, at best.”
He smiled at the younger man. “Still feel like you can take command of my ship?”
Captain Fitzwilliam’s face darkened, but he held his temper. Ted was privately impressed. He had no illusions about what navy scuttlebutt said about him; it was unlikely in the extreme that any young officer would look up to him as someone to be emulated. It was rather more likely that they considered his career to be a nightmare. Someone edging towards squadron or fleet command would be horrified at the idea of spending forty-four years on the same ship. It wasn’t the mark of a promising officer.
“You’ve made your point,” the First Space Lord said. “But four weeks is a rather short time for a complete refit.”
“I should have sent you flypaper reports,” Ted said, remembering one of the classes they’d shared at Portsmouth. The whole episode had been used as a warning of the dangers of too much bureaucracy. “Didn’t anyone ever read my reports?”
He shook his head a moment later. The only ship considered less likely to go into battle was Lord Nelson’s Victory, which was – technically – the First Space Lord’s flagship. But as Victory was a sailing ship, it was unlikely the First Space Lord had spent any time on her since the commission. She normally served as a tourist attraction.
“I will take your word for it,” the First Space Lord said. His tone suggested that if it took longer than four weeks to get Ark Royal ready for deployment, Ted could start looking for a new job. “Captain Fitzwilliam will serve as your XO.”
Ted swallowed a curse – and, beside him, Captain Fitzwilliam didn’t look any happier. For one of them, there would be an XO looking for a place to plant the knife; for the other, there was an effective demotion. There was only one Captain on a starship and it wouldn’t be Fitzwilliam. Unless, of course, Ted failed to make good on his boast. Silently, he promised himself that he would read through Captain Fitzwilliam’s file as soon as possible. He didn’t even know the man’s first name!
“Thank you, sir,” he said, finally. “Might I enquire as to deployment plans?”
“The UN Security Council is meeting in emergency session,” the First Space Lord said. he jerked a finger towards the deck – and Earth, far below. “For the moment, the Admiralty is concentrating on protecting Britannia and contributing to the defence of Earth. We assume that we will be making future deployments once the Vulcan Protocols are fully activated, but as yet we don’t have any details.”
Ted nodded. Britannia was Britain’s largest possession, a colony world with over a billion settlers from Earth. The British Commonwealth had worked hard to both settle the planet and build up local industry, taking advantage of the latest UN environmental regulations to encourage corporations and private individuals to move to Britannia. There was no way the Government would leave the planet uncovered, even if it meant drawing ships away from Earth. Indeed, Ted had been surprised that Ark Royal hadn’t been moved to Britannia long ago.
There were other colonies, including a handful of mining settlements and a stake on an Earth-like world that might become a second colony soon enough, but Britannia was too important to lose. The Royal Navy stationed seven of its twelve modern carriers in the system permanently, while the other five were never far away. It seemed unlikely that anyone could break through the defences and take the planet.
He scowled. Humanity hadn’t really fought an interstellar war. Sure, there had been the skirmishes between Edo and Ghandi, or the confrontation between Washington and Confucius over a third system, but nothing that had broken out into general war. Hell, there were even agreements that Earth and the Sol System would remain neutral if war actually did break out. No one really knew how the latest military technology would work in open warfare. There were simulations and exercises, but they were never as useful as the real thing.
And now there was an alien threat. What sort of technology would they have?
“So far, the media has not caught wind of the threat,” the First Space Lord informed him, shortly. “The Prime Minister and other world leaders has ordered a total blackout. However, I do not expect that to last long. Rumours are already flying around the datanet and it won’t be long before someone breaks the blackout. It will certainly be broken when we start calling up reserves and conscripting civilians.
“Go back to your ship, taking your new XO with you,” he continued. “Requisition whatever you need; I’ll do my best to make sure you have it. If we’re lucky, this will all blow over, but I rather doubt it.”
Ted nodded in agreement. The aliens had just attacked. Unprovoked, as far as anyone knew, they’d just attacked – and not one colony, but three. It suggested either unhealthy confidence or careful observation of humanity before opening fire. Ted wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the aliens had surveyed the entire human sphere. There was enough civilian traffic moving through interstellar space to conceal a handful of alien spy ships, if the aliens showed up on sensors at all. Whatever the civilians might think, there was plenty of space between the planets to hide the entire human fleet.
They think they can win, Ted thought. He shivered at the thought. Only a fool would start a war they didn’t think they could win. What do they want?
“Yes, sir,” he said, pushing his thoughts aside. The prospect of actually taking his ship into harm’s way galvanised him. “I won’t let you down.”
He rose to his feet and saluted, as smartly as he could. Captain Fitzwilliam – no, he’d be a Commander now – followed, his face blank and unreadable. Ted sighed, inwardly. Fitzwilliam would have a major chip on his shoulder after being told he would be given command – and then watching as it was snatched away from him. Ted wouldn’t really blame him for being irked, but he couldn’t afford the distraction of a sulking XO. They would have to talk and hash it out, perhaps over a drink …
No, Ted told himself, firmly. A drunkard could not take command of a ship that was going into action. That was plain common sense. You are not going to drink until the war is over.