This character isn’t meant to be sympathetic, at least not at first.
It started with a girl. But then, everything important in my life started with a girl.
A week after I was promoted to Captain, before I took command of my first starship, I was fool enough to accept an invite to Lady Rockton’s ball. The Rockton Family was junior to the Knights – of which I am the youngest scion – and my presence at the ball would be a great honour to them. Or so I was assured, when she called me to issue the invite personally. It would be a great chance to meet and network – and besides, like all those who want to impress, the Rockton Family would lay out a great spread for their guests. And I was getting sick of eating alone.
So I went.
I should have known better. The Lady of the Family was intent on social climbing and, naturally, she had invited everyone who thought they were anyone, or anyone who she thought was anyone, which wasn’t entirely the same thing. One hour of being walked around the ball room, being introduced to deeply boring people I already knew and I was ready to commit murder. Every single conversation went along the same lines;
“Captain Knight; congratulations on your new command,” he or she said.
“Thank you,” I said, already deeply bored. “I look forward to deep space.”
“My son, nephew, niece or whatever is graduating from the Academy in June,” he or she said. “I was wondering if you would consider taking them onboard …”
It went on and on like that until I could have crewed a superdreadnaught with scions of the aristocracy, had I commanded a superdreadnaught. Not that it should have been surprising, to be fair; everyone wanted to ensure that their little brats (and their friend’s little brats) got the best possible start to their formal careers. A posting under a sympathetic commanding officer would go a long way towards establishing themselves in the Britannic Navy. I nodded and made vague promises and made my escape as quickly as I could. Crewing is the XO’s responsibility and I wasn’t going to nag her too much. It wouldn’t have been fair.
I escaped from the latest granny who wanted to ensure that her grandson received a particular post – I don’t know why she asked me; I couldn’t have ensured a position on the fleet flagship, no matter my family connections – and fled towards the buffet tables. Lady Rockton had laid on a colossal spread, I had to admit; the tables were absolutely covered in meat, salad and bread. Standing on the other side of the table was a young woman wearing a black uniform and no rank insignia. I saw her and my heart started to beat faster. She was spectacular.
Judging from her appearance, she was an immigrant or a recent descent of immigrants from Hindustan or Delhi. Long black hair framed a heart-shaped face, with soft dark eyes and lips the colour of cherries. I stared at her, drinking in her appearance, and then asked her to dance. She gave me a long considering look – unlike her, I had worn my ranking stars to show off my promotion – and then accepted. I took her onto the dance floor and led her through a series of very basic steps. She didn’t quite seem to know what she was doing, but I didn’t mind. It was a different sort of dancing I had in mind.
After the third or fourth dance, I invited her to come into the next room with me. Lady Rockton, like all good socialites, had provided rooms for intimate relations between guests. Quite a few marriages had been contracted at balls, after all, and besides it was good politics. Not that I much cared. A few dances with the young woman and I just wanted to find a place to kiss her before I had to go back to the dance hall. Lady Rockton would be quite offended if I didn’t listen to the long wittering speech her fool of a husband was bound to make.
The girl hesitated as soon as we entered a private room. I was too excited to care about her sudden reluctance; she had danced without any hesitation, so why shouldn’t she do much more with me? It was easy to pull her to me and kiss her, even though she didn’t respond. The lack of response angered me and I pulled her harder, tugging her towards the bed.
“No,” she said, clearly. “I don’t want to make love on the first date.”
My anger snapped. “You little bitch,” I said, angrily. “You led me on and now …”
I yanked her forward and thrust her over the bed. It isn’t my preferred position, by any means, but any port in a storm. I heard her yelp in surprise as she landed face down on the blankets, then kicked out at me as I started to stroke her bottom. She twisted, rolled over and sat upright, one hand holding a stubby-nosed weapon. I stared in disbelief; where the hell had she gotten a stunner? It was the last thing I remember from that night. A moment later … well, she must have pulled the trigger. I found myself lying in a different bed.
Stunners are far from perfect, no matter what the designers say. I felt sick the moment I opened my eyes, so I sat upright and looked around for a basin. The room was almost completely barren, apart from a toilet in the far corner. I stumbled upright, staggered over to the toilet and threw up, before looking around in some confusion. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have said that I was in a prison cell.
Coming to think of it, I asked myself, how did I know better? I was in a prison cell.
I was still mulling over this disaster, trying to remember just what had happened last night, when the door opened, revealing two guards. Both of them, I couldn’t help noticing, had removed their rank badges and nametags, a fairly common precaution when dealing with aristocratic prisoners. One of them caught me, made a face at the smell, and dragged me out of the cell into the next room. The other followed behind, making snide comments I choose not to recall. I said nothing as I was thrust into a shower, unceremoniously washed and then given a uniform to wear. It didn’t seem to include rank badges either.
“Come,” the first guard ordered, once I was dressed. “Follow me.”
“You know, I’d really like to thank you for your care,” I said, artlessly. “Why don’t you give me your name, so I can see to it that you are rewarded properly.”
The guard gave me a sardonic expression. “I’m sure that would be a good idea, sir,” he said, “but we’re not allowed to give out our names to prisoners.”
I scowled. I was a prisoner? Just what had happened last night?”
They shoved me into an elevator and took me up, and up, and up … until I was fairly sure that I knew where I was. Naval HQ is part of Orbital Tower One, a massive construction that reaches up from the planet’s surface to orbit. If I was in HQ … well, at least I wasn’t in prison, at least not permanently. But God alone knew what was going to happen to me next.
I was still mulling it over when the elevator came to a halt and I was thrust out into a brightly-lit lobby. There was no one else around, thankfully, to witness my humiliation as I was pushed down a corridor and into a familiar antechamber. I couldn’t help feeling a little relief as I recognised Uncle Rolf’s secretary seated at her desk. Uncle Rolf, the Chief of Naval Operations, would sort it all out for me. After all, he’d given me my ship.
“Be seated,” the secretary said. I blinked in surprise; she’d always had a warm word and a warmer smile for me, the last few times I had visited Uncle Rolf’s office. “You will be called.”
I would have asked questions, but the presence of the two gorillas, one on either side of me, kept me from saying a word. Instead, I waited, silently counting the seconds. The longer I had to wait, I knew from protocol lessons, the less important I was in the eyes of the host. It was nearly thirty minutes before Uncle Rolf’s door opened and I was thrust inside. He couldn’t have been very pleased with me.
“Jackson Algernon Knight,” he snapped, as the door hissed closed behind me. “What the hell do you think you were doing last night?”
I cringed. Uncle Rolf had always been a powerfully-built man and I’d always been a little afraid of him, even when he’d helped me get my first command. One look into his eyes and all excuses or evasions melted away like snow. He must have noticed my sudden silence, because he pointed to a space in front of his desk – I couldn’t help noticing that there was no chair for me, suggesting that I was in real trouble – and glared at me.
“What’s the matter?” He demanded. “Cat got your tongue?”
He pressed his fingertips together in a manner I had often tried to emulate, but failed miserably to master without looking a fool. “Let me outline it for you,” he said, coldly. “Last night, you attempted to rape Commander Song Mekong.”
I hesitated. “It wasn’t rape, sir,” I said. “It was …”
“You dragged her into a side room, thrust her onto the bed … I don’t like to think about what you would have done if she hadn’t managed to stun you,” Uncle Rolf snapped. I’d heard him angry before, but it had never been directed at me. I felt like I was about to face the firing squad, which was a very real possibility. Sweat ran down my back as I realised that rape was a capital offense – and the little bitch had gotten her side of the story in first. “Did you even realise who she was?”
I shook my head, mutely.
“Commander Mekong is a client of Admiral Bainbridge,” Uncle Rolf said. “You may know the Bainbridge Family; very long line, dating all the way back to First Settlement. And I can assure you, Jack, that they are not taking this matter lightly. You know the duties of a patron to his clients. Protection is the very least of it!”
I suppose I should explain a little here. The first settlers of Britannia became the aristocracy, who own about seventy percent of the empire between them and dominate the political process. In order to ensure that they remain dominate, aristocratic patrons take on commoner clients – and bring the most promising of them into their families through marriage. A young man may not dream of being the monarch, but if he does well his descendents may have a chance to park their butt on the throne.
The duties of a patron to his client are simple; political support, protection and promotion. In exchange, the client is supposed to be completely loyal to his or her patron. It doesn’t always work out, but most of the time it works smoothly. Except, of course, when someone like me manages to call the entire system into question.
“Our system works,” Uncle Rolf snapped, “because the commoners know that we can be counted upon to keep our side of the patron-client bargain. Did you even bother to ask who the girl was before you tried to take her into the bedroom for a quick and unwelcome fuck?”
I blinked in surprise, too shocked by his sudden drop into crudeness to deny it.
“No, it seems,” Uncle Rolf said. He scowled at me so fiercely that I took a step backwards. “You have managed to disgrace the Knight Family and done considerable harm to our entire society. We are not amused. I spent the last four hours negotiating with various interested parties, boy, and let me tell you that I have too much else on my table right now to be pleased about talking to outsiders who want to tell me how to run my navy!
“The Bainbridge Family wants you dishonourably discharged,” he continued, after a long icy moment. “Luckily, your own family was unprepared to countenance such a drastic punishment” – I relaxed in relief- “but other families insisted on having their own say. You will no longer be commander of Lighting.”
I stared at him in horror. Lightning was mine, a heavy cruiser fresh out of the shipyards … I had been looking forward to taking command of her ever since I had been told that my name was being considered for command. I had even called in every favour I was owed to ensure that my name was the only one taken seriously by the Admiralty. And now she was being taken away from me?
“Yes,” Uncle Rolf said, sharply. “You are not fit to command one of our finest ships.”
His eyes glittered with sudden malice. “I thought about giving you a garbage scow, but that would raise too many questions in the media,” he continued. “Instead, I’m doing something worse. I’m giving you Uncanny.”
I blanched. “Uncle Rolf …”
“Don’t Uncle Rolf me, you fucking asshole,” Uncle Rolf snapped. “At the very least, you have shown consistently poor judgement over the last few hours. You attempted to rape a girl when there is no shortage of bright young things willing to put out for a starship commander or a junior aristocrat! If you were so desperate to have sex, why didn’t you just find one or even just go to a brothel? It wouldn’t have been that difficult to find one.”
His gaze sharpened. “I’m giving you Uncanny,” he said, coldly. “And may God have mercy on your soul.”
I tried to glare back at him, but it didn’t work. Uncanny was a legend in the navy for all the wrong reasons. She was a heavy cruiser, not too different from Lightning, yet she seemed to be cursed. Over forty officers and crewmen had died on her over the past two years, from all sorts of glitches in her systems rather than enemy action. She’d even killed her last commanding officer when the oxygen supplies in his cabin became contaminated. I’d heard rumours that other officers had resigned rather than stay on a starship that had become a killer.
Oh, they’d done everything to try to figure out what was wrong. The crew had been switched out and replaced by newcomers, the main computer core had been replaced twice, all of the network subordinate nodes had been replaced … and yet bad luck kept plaguing the ship. And, as spacers are very superstitious, it wasn’t too likely that good crewmen would apply to transfer to the ship, no matter what rewards they were offered. Uncanny – they called her Unlucky – would have a crew composed of the dregs of the service.
Uncle Rolf must have been following my thoughts – I’d always suspected that he could read minds – because he smiled unpleasantly. “Yes,” he said. He reached into a drawer and produced a folder. “These are your mission orders.”
“Mission orders?” I repeated. “Sir?”
“You will not be staying here, of course,” Uncle Rolf said. “Unlucky – I beg your pardon; Uncanny – is going to be dispatched to patrol the Typhoon Sector. As you are no doubt aware” – I was, but only vaguely – “the sector has only recently been admitted to the empire and the locals are not fully reconciled to their role in the greater scheme of things. You will be there to show the flag, provide support to the authorities and generally ensure that everything runs smoothly. Quite a few eyes will be watching you.”
I shuddered. It sounded like real work.
“Uncle Rolf,” I said, carefully, “I’m sorry about the mistake …”
His eyebrows arched upwards. “You’re telling me that attempted rape was a mistake?”
“Yes,” I said. “I was getting mixed signals from her and I …”
He slapped his desk. “I am sick and tired of hearing excuses from your damned generation,” he thundered. “Was there something in the water? Or did we just fail to beat you enough when you were kids? It seems that there is a constant parade of young idiots coming before me and telling me that they made a mistake, that they’re very sorry and that they won’t do it again and I am sick of it!
“You have a choice,” he added, in a voice as cold as ice. “You can accept command of Uncanny and go out into the galaxy to make your fortune – or, at the very least, go somewhere well away from me. Or you can resign from the navy, which will allow Commander Mekong to bring a civil suit against you – assuming, of course, that the Bainbridge Family doesn’t manage to convince the Court to prosecute you. I dare say your family will be unhappy about the possibility of you facing justice …”
I nodded, bitterly. My family has vast influence, but it was a great deal harder to derail a civil suit … and it would make us laughing stocks. I had a feeling that my father would have been more likely to order me to take a long holiday – to the Typhoon Sector, perhaps – than pay for my defence in court. And then I would be away from Britannia without a powerful starship to back me up.
“I will take command,” I said.
“Glad to hear it,” Uncle Rolf said. “My secretary has the documents for your new command, son. I want you out of here in a week.”
His face twitched into a leering smile. “And the best of luck to you.”
Somehow, I was sure I could hear him sniggering as I walked out of his office.