“Yes, sir,” Crewwoman Julia Transom said. She smiled, rather coldly. “Captain Abraham is dead.”
Senior Chief Joel Gibson smiled back. It hadn’t been hard to arrange for Captain Abraham’s death, even though it was a near-certainty that the JAG would go through the entire series of events with a fine-toothed comb. Captain Abraham wasn’t – hadn’t been – aristocracy, but he’d had connections at a very high level. And yet, there had been no choice. Captain Abraham had also been far too effective. Given time, he might have turned Uncanny into a real warship – and that, Joel could not allow.
He leaned forward, warningly. “And the evidence?”
“Gone,” Julia assured him. He didn’t miss the flicker of fear, swiftly hidden, in her eyes. “If they manage to recover the black box, it’ll look like a random fluctuation in the shuttle’s drive field. They can take however long they want to sift through the debris. They won’t find anything incriminating.”
“Good,” Joel said. “And so we are without a commanding officer. Again.”
Julia nodded, hastily. “You’d think they’d grow tired of losing officers to this ship.”
Joel shrugged. Uncanny had been in active service – technically – for three years. The first of her class, she’d been intended to serve as both a squadron command vessel and an independent command for a fire-eating captain. But she’d had a run of bad luck that had left her relegated to lunar orbit, well away from anywhere important. Spacers believed – or chose to believe – that she was cursed. And, given just how many accidents had befallen her crew, they were right to be reluctant to serve on her. Joel and his allies hadn’t been responsible for all of the accidents.
“They’ll want us heading out to the war, sooner or later,” he said, reluctantly. It was classified information, but he’d long-since spliced a hack into the command network. Given how much time the XO spent in the lunar fleshpots, Joel could honestly say that he read his superior’s mail long before it reached its actual destination. “And that gives us our opportunity.”
He smirked as he turned away from her. He’d honestly never expected to stay in the navy, not since a judge had given him a choice between taking the oath and serving his planet or going straight to a penal world. Joel had expected to put in his ten years as an ordinary crewman and then leave Tyre for good, but it hadn’t taken him long to see the possibilities inherent in his new position. There was something to be said for being the only effective man in a crew of drunkards, morons, near-criminals and people the navy bureaucracy couldn’t be bothered to discharge. And there were all sorts of other possibilities for a man with imagination and guts.
Julia coughed. “Our opportunity?”
“Why, to take our fate into our own hands, of course,” Joel said.
Julia’s eyes went wide, but she said nothing. Joel nodded in approval. He trusted Julia about as much as he trusted anyone, which wasn’t very far. Julia would sing like a bird if the JAG found proof she’d assassinated her commanding officer. The less she knew the better. He’d considered disposing of her in another accident – and he would have done, if he hadn’t needed her. Quite how such a remarkable talent for hacking computer networks had escaped being put to better use was beyond him, but he had no doubt of her. She’d done enough to more than prove her credentials to him.
He turned back to face her. She was pretty enough, he supposed; her red hair, cut close to her scalp, shimmered under the bright lights. Her uniform was a size too tight, showing every last curve of her body. But there was a hardness in her face that warned that anyone who tried to take advantage of her was going to regret it, if he survived. Joel had taught her more than enough dirty tricks to give Julia an unfair advantage over anyone who thought that mere strength and brute force would be enough to bring her down.
“Keep a sharp eye on the XO’s personal channel,” he ordered. “If the Admiralty wants to send in another CO, they’ll notify him first.”
“Unless they know what he’s doing with his time,” Julia reminded him.
Joel shrugged. The XO wasn’t very smart – there was only so far that aristocratic ranks and titles could take a person – but he’d shown a certain low cunning in assembling his protective shroud. Unless the Admiralty decided to make a surprise inspection, they shouldn’t have any idea that the XO was enjoying himself rather than doing his duty. And if they did … Joel found it hard to care. The XO would take the blame for everything and the plotters would pass unnoticed.
Unless they break up the crew, he thought.
He shook his head. Uncanny had served as the Royal Navy’s dumping ground for the last two years. Even her couple of combat operations in the war hadn’t changed that, particularly not after the … incident … at Donne’s Reach. Breaking up the crew would force the Admiralty to distribute over a thousand unwanted crewmembers all over the navy, while facing stiff resistance from everyone else. No captain in his right mind wanted a crewman – or an officer – who had served on Uncanny. The ship wasn’t known as Unlucky for nothing.
Julia cleared her throat. “Sir?”
“Keep an eye on his channel,” Joel ordered, again. “And alert me if anything changes.”
Julia nodded, then turned and hurried out of the compartment. Joel watched her go, thinking dark thoughts. They were committed now, no matter how much he might wish to believe otherwise. Whatever he’d said to her, he knew that the JAG would not take the death of a commanding officers lightly. And if they started digging through Uncanny, they’d uncover far too many oddities to look away …
But by then we should be ready to move, he told himself, firmly. They won’t have time to stop us before it’s too late.
HMS Uncanny looked … faded.
Captain William McElney wasn’t sure just what had prompted that observation, but he couldn’t escape his first impression of his new command. HMS Uncanny was a blunt white arrowhead, like HMS Lightning, yet there was something about her that bothered him. Her hull was painted the same pure white as the remainder of the fleet, but it was obvious that no one had bothered to – that no one had needed to – repaint the hull. The network of sensor blisters dotted over her hull looked new, too new. And her point defence weapons, which should have tracked his shuttle as it approached her hull, were still, utterly immobile.
“She doesn’t seem to know we’re here, sir,” the pilot said.
William sucked in his breath sharply, feeling a yawning chasm opening in his chest. A command, his first command … he’d served the Royal Navy faithfully for years, hoping for a command of his own. And yet, the more he looked at the heavy cruiser, the more he wondered if he’d been wise to want a command. On paper, Uncanny was a dream; in practice, the First Space Lord had made it clear that the heavy cruiser was trouble.
“Send a standard greeting, then request permission to dock,” William ordered, finally.
He cursed under his breath. The Theocracy had shown itself more than willing to use suicide missions to target the Commonwealth, even before the tide of the war had started to turn against them. A shuttle crammed with antimatter, exploding within an unsuspecting starship’s shuttlebay, would be more than enough to vaporise the entire ship. Even a standard nuke would be enough to do real damage, if it detonated inside the hull. These days, no one was allowed to dock without an elaborate security screening to make sure they were who they claimed to be. Even the civilians were included, despite endless protests. He couldn’t help wondering if the Theocracy had deliberately set out to ensure that the precautions caused more economic damage than their attacks.
Careless, he thought, grimly. And dangerous, in these times.
“No response,” the pilot said.
“Send it again,” William said. He didn’t want to try to force a docking, certainly not on the day he boarded his first command. But if there was no choice, he’d have to try. “And then find us a docking hatch.”
“Aye, sir,” the pilot said.
William nodded, then glanced down at the shuttle’s tactical display. Uncanny should have been running a low-level sensor scan at all times, but it was all too clear that she wasn’t doing anything of the sort. It was technically within regulations, given how close they were to the network of fortresses that guarded Tyre, yet it was careless. Really careless. If the ship had had to bring up her sensors in a hurry, it was going to take far longer than it should have done …
… And he’d seen enough combat to know that bare minutes could mean the difference between life and death.
“Your commanding officer has written a glowing recommendation, Sir William,” the First Space Lord had said. “And so has Rose MacDonald. I’m afraid the combination of recommendations has quite upset the bureaucracy,”
William had kept his face impassive. He’d been promoted to captain, he’d been promised a command … yet he’d forced himself to keep his expectations low. He was too senior to command a gunboat, he thought; too junior to be offered a cruiser or carrier command. He’d expected a destroyer, perhaps a frigate. And yet, with so many conflicting recommendations, it was hard to know what he’d get. There were hundreds of officers with better connections than himself and only a handful of commands.
“You’re being given a heavy cruiser,” the First Space Lord had added, pausing just long enough for his words to sink in. “You’re being given Uncanny.”
“Thank you, sir,” William had stammered. He’d expected a sting in the tail and he hadn’t been disappointed. He had no reason to be given a heavy cruiser, not when he’d just been made a captain, save for the simple fact that no one wanted to serve on Uncanny. The ship was notoriously unlucky. “Unlucky?”
“That’s what they call it,” the First Space Lord said, grimly.
He’d said a great deal more, William remembered. Uncanny had lost two previous commanding officers to accidents, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. The ship had been deployed to a cloaked fleet lying in wait for a Theocratic vanguard, only to have her cloaking system go offline at the worst possible moment. And if that hadn’t been bad enough, there had been a whole string of incidents, culminating in the starship launching a missile barrage towards a friendly ship. It had all been put down to a glitch, but it had cost her commanding officer his career.
And matters weren’t helped by the missiles being unarmed, William had thought, when he’d reviewed the file. If she’d been shooting at an enemy ship, she’d have inflicted no damage at all.
“We need to get Uncanny into service as quickly as possible,” the First Space Lord had concluded. “And if you succeed in sorting out the mess, you’ll remain as her commanding officer permanently.”
It wasn’t much of a bribe, William thought. There was no shortage of captains willing to compete for a post on Lightning – the heavy cruiser was famous – but Uncanny? He’d be surprised if there was any competition for her command chair. And yet, he had to admit it was a hell of a challenge. A heavy cruiser command was nothing to sneer at, even if she did have a reputation for being unlucky. He’d be on the path to flag rank …
Assuming I survive, he told himself. Those accidents may not have been accidents at all …
“Captain,” the pilot said. His voice shocked William out of his memories. “We have received permission to dock at Hatch One.”
William felt his eyes narrow as the shuttle altered course and sped towards the hatch. Hatch One was located near the bridge – it was the closest shuttle hatch to the bridge – but it wasn’t where a new captain would board his command for the first time. Normally, a captain would be met by his XO in the shuttlebay, allowing him time to meet his senior officers before formally assuming command. And the XO was supposed to be on the vessel … he’d checked, just before he’d departed Tyre. Commander Stewart Greenhill was currently in command of HMS Uncanny.
“Dock us,” he ordered, wondering just what sort of hellhole he was about to enter. “And remain docked until I give you leave to depart.”
“Aye, Captain,” the pilot said.
The shuttle hatch looked normal enough, William noted, yet he couldn’t help tensing as the shuttle mated with Uncanny. Captain Abraham had died in a shuttle accident – the JAG had found nothing suspicious in two weeks of careful investigation – but Captain Jove had died in a freak airlock accident. A component had decayed, according to the engineers; the airlock had registered a safe atmosphere beyond when it had actually been open to vacuum. William had been in the navy long enough to know that accidents happened, but he’d also learnt that accidents could be made to happen. Losing two commanding officers to accidents was more than a little suspicious.
He covertly tested his shipsuit – and the mask, hidden in his shoulder pockets – as the hatch hissed open. Everything looked normal, but it took just long enough for the inner hatch to open for him to start feeling nervous. The hatch should have opened at once, unless the sensors registered vacuum or biological contamination. He took a long breath as he stepped into his ship and had to fight to keep from recoiling in horror. Uncanny stank like a pirate ship after a successful mission of looting, raping and burning.
Fuck, he thought.
He felt a sudden surge of anger as he looked up and down the corridor. No one had come to greet him, neither the XO nor his senior officers. What were they playing at? Even a very busy XO should have come to meet his CO for the first time, if only to explain any problems that caught the captain’s eye. And to explain why his ship smelt worse than an unwashed outdoor toilet. It wasn’t as if replacing the air filters required a goddamned shipyard! He took another breath and tasted faint hints of ionisation in the air, warning him that dozens – perhaps hundreds – of components had not been replaced for far too long. Every trained spacer knew that that smell meant trouble.
A hatch hissed open in the distance. William braced himself, unsure what to expect as someone hurried down the corridor towards him. He rested his hands on his hips – it was hard to resist the temptation to draw his sidearm – as the welcome party came into view. It was a very small welcome party. A young woman, wearing a steward’s uniform; young enough to be his daughter, yet with a hardness in her eyes that shocked him. Whatever military bearing she’d had, since she’d left Piker’s Peak, was long gone. Her salute, when she finally gave it, was so sloppy that her instructors would have cried themselves senseless, if they’d seen it.
“Stand at ease,” William ordered, curtly. He took a moment to match the face to the files he’d studied during the flight from Tyre. Janet Richmond, Captain Abraham’s personal steward. Blonde enough to remind him of Kat Falcone, but lacking Kat’s poise and grim determination to prove herself. “Where is the XO?”
Janet quailed. It struck William, suddenly, that he might have been too harsh. “I …”
William took a breath. Janet was a steward. She wasn’t in the chain of command. Hell, he doubted she had any authority outside her CO’s suite. What the hell was she doing?
“Calm down,” he ordered, forcing his own voice to calm. “Where is the XO?”
“He’s not on the ship, sir,” Janet said, carefully. She cringed back, as if she expected to be slapped. “Commander Greenhill hasn’t been on the ship for the last ten days.”
William felt his mouth drop open. “What?”
“He left the ship ten days ago,” Janet said. She sounded as if she were pleading with him for … what? Understanding? “He ordered the communications staff to keep up the pretence that he was onboard.”
“I see,” William said.
He had to fight – hard – to keep his anger under control. He hadn’t thought much of Commander Greenhill, after he’d read the man’s file, but he’d promised himself that he’d keep an open mind. Now … Commander Greenhill would be lucky if he was merely kicked out of the navy. Going on unauthorised leave when he was meant to be in command of his ship? Dereliction of duty was a shooting offence in wartime.
“Please don’t tell him I told you,” Janet pleaded. “He’ll go spare.”
“He’ll go dead,” William snapped. Shooting was too good for Commander Greenhill. It was far too good for him. William had been raised to do his duty or die trying, no matter what curves life threw him. Commander Greenhill didn’t even have the decency to resign his commission and totter off to spend the rest of his life in the nearest bar. “Who is on this fucking ship?”
Janet cringed, again.
“The chief engineer is in command,” she said, finally. “But he’s in his cabin … the bridge crew are scattered … the crew …”
“Let me guess,” William said. He hated himself for taking his anger out on her, but it was so hard to remain focused. “They’re currently too drunk to notice that they’re steadily poisoning their own fucking atmosphere?”
He saw a dozen answers cross Janet’s face before she nodded, once.
William shook his head, feeling an odd flicker of sympathy for Commander Greenhill. He might have had a good reason to throw in the towel, after all. Offhand, William couldn’t remember a ship and crew falling so far, certainly not in the Commonwealth’s history. A handful of UN ships had turned pirate, he recalled, after the Breakaway Wars. It hadn’t taken long for them to fall into very bad habits.
And most of them were small ships, he thought, numbly. This is a heavy cruiser.
“Take me to the bridge,” he ordered, meeting her eyes. “And don’t call ahead to say I’m coming.”
“Yes, sir,” Janet said.
She turned and hurried down the corridor, moving so quickly that she was practically running … as if, William reflected grimly, she wanted to get away from him. He hadn’t paid much attention to her file, he recalled; in hindsight, that might have been a mistake. A captain had considerable authority over who served as his steward, after all. Had Captain Abraham been motivated by something other than efficiency?
He followed Janet, feeling his anger simmering as he took in the condition of his starship. A dozen maintenance hatches had been undone, their contents left scattered over the deck; a handful of overhead lockers had been torn open; the strange smell only grew more unpleasant the further they moved into the ship … he winced, inwardly, as he smelled the telltale presence of rats and cockroaches. He’d been wrong, he reflected, as they passed through a pair of solid hatches and entered Officer Country. There were pirate ships from the edge of explored space that were in better condition than Uncanny.
Janet stopped and turned to face him. “It wasn’t their fault,” she said. “Sir …”
William scowled at her. “What wasn’t their fault?”
“Everything,” Janet said. She turned back and opened the hatch to the bridge. “You’ll see in a minute …”
William followed her onto the bridge … and stopped, dead. A single officer sat in front of the tactical console, smoking something that smelt of burning grass; William stared at him, then realised – to his shock – that there was no one else on the bridge. Regulations insisted on at least three officers on duty at all times, even when the starship was in orbit around the safest world in the Commonwealth. Where were the other two? It struck him, a moment later, that Janet might be one of the other officers. And was she even qualified to stand watch?
He pushed the thought aside as he surveyed the compartment. The holographic display that should have showed the system was gone; five consoles were dead, with four more dismantled for parts. He’d never seen anything like it, not outside a shipyard putting the finishing touches on a brand new starship. Creeping horror threatened to overcome him as he keyed the nearest console, demanding a status update. The internal sensor net was down, completely. He’d never seen that outside starships that had been battered into uselessness by enemy fire.
“It’s non-functional,” Janet said.
“I can see that,” William snarled. He strode over to the smoking officer and tore the cigarette out of his mouth, dropping it on the deck and grinding it under his heel. “What happened to the bridge?”
The officer stared at him. “Who are you?”
“I’m your new commanding officer,” William snapped. Up close, the man’s breath made him want to reel. He had no idea what the man had been smoking, but it couldn’t be good for him. Or anyone. “Who are you?”
The officer’s mouth opened and shut for a long moment. “Lieutenant Rodney Graham, sir,” he managed, finally. “I’m officer of the watch.”
“Glad to hear it,” William said. “What happened to my bridge?”
“The engineers cannibalised it to keep other starships running,” Janet said, quietly. “They were practically stripping out the entire hull …”
William understood, just for a moment, why one of his uncles had drunk himself to death after his farm had failed. It hadn’t been the old man’s fault, not really. He’d just seen his investments fail, one after the other, even before the pirates had arrived to threaten his homeworld. Maybe the remainder of the ship’s crew – his crew – felt the same way.
The First Space Lord couldn’t have known, he thought, grimly. Even if they didn’t start stripping out essential components, they’ve been vandalising their own ship and rendering it unserviceable.
He cursed under his breath, savagely. It was difficult, sometimes, to get spare parts from the bureaucracy. Even during wartime, the bureaucrats insisted on having the forms filled out before they released the components, despite the best efforts of supply officers. Having a source of supply they could tap without having to fill in the paperwork would be wonderful, as far as the supply officers were concerned. God knew he’d rewarded a couple of officers for being excellent scroungers …
It may not be as bad as it seems, he told himself. Or that could be just wishful thinking.
“Right,” he said, pushing the thought aside. “I want you” – he glared at Graham – “to recall each and every officer and crewman who is currently not on the ship. If they are back before the end of the shift” – he made a show of glancing at his wristcom – “nothing further will be said about their absence. This time.”
Graham looked as if he wanted to object, but didn’t quite dare. “Yes, sir.”
“Good,” William said. “And I suggest” – he hardened his tone to make it very clear that it wasn’t a suggestion – “that you get rid of any drugs and anything else that could get you in hot water before I hold a search. This is your one chance to clean up your act.”
He turned and met Janet’s eyes. “And you are to take me to the Chief Engineer.”
Janet paled. “Yes, sir.”
“Good,” William said. He wondered, suddenly, what Kat Falcone would make of a ruined starship and a wrecked crew. “Let’s go.”