Comments welcome. And The Thin Blue Line is still on pre-order.
London wasn’t what it used to be.
Captain John Naiser stood in Trafalgar Square and looked towards the War Memorial, placed below Nelson’s ever-watchful eye. It was nothing more than a piece of the Ark Royal’s hull, salvaged from the wreckage of the once-mighty ship, but it had a special meaning for the men and women of the Royal Navy. He took a step closer, ignoring the handful of children clustered around the memorials, until he could see the faint edges of the names engraved into the metal. There were far too many names listed of those who had died during the war.
He looked for a specific name, but it wasn’t visible. The Royal Navy had lost over ten thousand officers and men in the war, a loss that had crippled the post-war navy. Each of the names were too small to make out with the naked eye, carved out of the metal by cutting lasers guided by computers carefully programmed to include each and every known casualty of the war. There was no point in looking for the names of those who had served on HMS Canopus, still less his friend and lover. He took one final look, then forced himself to turn away. There was no point in dwelling on the past.
The children headed back towards the teacher standing at the edge of the square, their faces pinched and worn compared to the children he remembered from his own childhood. They knew what it was like to be hungry, he knew, and what it was like to lose everything in one afternoon. God alone knew how many of them were war orphans, fostered out to whoever was willing to take in a child after their parents had been killed, or how many had seen nightmares as they struggled for survival. Three years after the end of the First Interstellar War, large parts of the population were still traumatised.
He drew in a breath, then started to walk down towards the Ministry of Defence. Most of the once-white buildings looked torn and faded, damaged badly by the giant waves and endless rainfall that had swept over London. Even crossing the Thames was an adventure these days, after the waves had knocked down all the bridges. The Royal Marines had established pontoon bridges in the early days of the recovery, and the Royal Engineers had added a handful of more solid structures, but there was nothing as reassuring as the bridges he’d once known. It would be years before the city recovered from the attack on Earth – and decades, perhaps, before the population recovered from the war.
A line of young men, wearing the muddy-brown overalls of the Civil Reconstruction Corps, marched past him, swinging their tools in a manner that reminded him of soldiers carrying rifles. They’d been lucky – or unlucky, depending – to escape military conscription in the years following the war, instead being detailed to work on civil recovery projects. John felt a moment of envy for their simple lives, even though he knew they had little true freedom. But then, everyone in Britain was required to play a role in rebuilding the country. The reserves of manpower represented by the civilian population could not be allowed to go untapped.
He smiled to himself as the workers were followed by a handful of young women, old enough to be out on the streets on their own, but young enough to escape their own conscription into the CRC. Half of them already looked pregnant, having worked out that pregnancy was the one sure way to avoid being subsumed into serving their country. They hadn’t realised, the cynical side of his mind noted, that they were also serving Great Britain by providing children – or, for that matter, that raising a child would take far more than two years of compulsory service in the CRC. But it might not matter. If they were reluctant to raise the children, after giving birth, the children could be passed to foster parents for adoption.
“Hey, spacer,” one of the girls called. “You want to go for a drink?”
John shook his head. Colin and he had often hit the bars of Soho, chatting up young men and trying to take one or more of them home for the night, back when they’d been young and foolish and the very concept of alien life nothing more than a figment of human imagination. And now Colin was dead and there were days when John found it hard to raise his head from the pillow and do his duty.
The thought made him scowl, bitterly. He wasn’t the only one to be badly affected by the war. Two weeks ago, he’d heard that one of his old classmates – it bothered him profusely that he didn’t know the man’s name – had put a gun in his mouth and killed himself, blowing his brains over the compartment. He wasn’t the only ex-military officer to kill himself in the wake of the war, either through survivor’s guilt or the simple realisation that nothing would ever be the same again.
He sighed as he turned the corner and walked up to the line of armed soldiers on duty. The sight of soldiers in the capital, wearing battledress uniforms rather than ceremonial garb, had once been an unpleasant surprise. Now, with Britain practically under martial law, it was depressingly common. The Royal Horse Guards had been a firm and highly-visible presence on the streets since the Battle of Earth. There were days when John wondered if anything would be the same again.
Of course it won’t, he told himself, sharply. We’re no longer alone.
Five years ago, the human race had known it was alone in the universe. A hundred Earth-like planets had been discovered, with none of them possessing any life forms larger or more interesting than a dog. Earth had seemed unique in giving birth to an intelligent race …
… And then humanity had encountered the Tadpoles. And, if a single elderly carrier had been scrapped, the Tadpoles would have won the war. Instead, they’d been held, barely. And then, when the peace talks had finally concluded, the human race had looked out on a universe that was fundamentally different. They were no longer alone in the universe and, perhaps, it was only a matter of time until they encountered a third intelligent race.
And who knows, he asked himself, what will happen then?
The guard stepped forward as John reached the security fence. He didn’t quite point his rifle at John’s chest, but the threat was clearly there. London had learned hard lessons about security in the days following the attack on Earth. The food riots and outright panic had made the task of recovery far harder.
“Papers, please,” the guard said.
John reached into his uniform jacket and produced his ID card, then the printed letter inviting him to the Ministry of Defence. The letter had been short and to the point, but he had been unable to avoid a thrill of excitement after two weeks on Earth. Paper letters were rarely sent unless he was being summoned for promotion, a new command – or disciplinary action. And he knew he’d done nothing to warrant being hauled up in front of the First Space Lord for a bollocking. That would be the task of his immediate superior.
“You’ll be met inside the building by a guide,” the guard said, after scrutinising the papers and checking with the building’s datanet. “Remember not to stray from the path.”
“I know,” John said. Being arrested by the military police and spending the night in the guardhouse wouldn’t be fun. “Are there any problems I should know about?”
“Couple of reports of bandits in the Restricted Zones, but nothing too serious,” the guard said. He stepped backwards and waved John into the building. “Good luck, sir.”
John smiled, then stepped though the gate into the Ministry of Defence. It was the largest military building in London, apart from the barracks serving the army regiments based in the capital, now that command and control facilities had been moved to secret locations or Nelson Base, hanging in high orbit over the city. Inside, it was decorated with giant paintings showing scenes from British military history, culminating in a painting entitled The last Flight of Ark Royal. It was surprisingly good, compared to some of the others.
“Captain Naiser,” a female voice said. “I’m Commander Juliet Underwood. If you will come with me …?”
John nodded, then allowed the young woman to lead him through a network of corridors. Outside the entry lobby, it was surprisingly bare, as if the walls had been stripped of paintings and all other forms of decoration. It was political, he guessed, as Commander Underwood paused in front of a large pair of doors. The Ministry of Defence couldn’t afford to be living it up when a fifth of the British population was still living in shoddy prefabricated accommodation scattered around the countryside.
“The First Space Lord,” Commander Underwood said.
“Sir,” John said, stepping into the office. It was as barren as the rest of the building, save for a large holographic display floating over the Admiral’s desk. “Reporting as ordered.”
“Take a seat, Captain,” Admiral Percy Finnegan said. He returned John’s salute with one of his own. “It’s been a while.”
John sat, resting his hands in his lap. Finnegan had commanded HMS Victorious during the war, where he’d had the dubious pleasure of saving John’s life when his carrier had responded to the report of an attack on Bluebell. John had met him twice, once for a debriefing and once for a transfer from starfighter piloting to mainline command track. Both meetings had been short, formal and largely unemotional.
“I was reading through your file,” Finnegan said, as he sat down and placed his elbows on his desk. The show of informality didn’t help John to relax. “It’s quite an interesting read.”
“Thank you, sir,” John said.
“Born twenty-three years ago, in London,” Finnegan continued. “Parents largely absentee; you were practically brought up in boarding school. Joined the Cadet Corps at fourteen, then switched to the Space Cadets at fifteen. Your instructor spoke highly of you and cleared the way for you to enter the Starfighter Training Centre at eighteen. You were involved in an … incident the week before graduation and were accordingly assigned to HMS Canopus, rather than a posting on a fleet carrier.”
John stiffened. The … incident … had seemed a good idea at the time.
“You served on Canopus for five months before the Battle of Bluebell, where you were the sole survivor. Your heroics during the battle won you the Victoria Cross. You were asked to return to the Training Centre to share your experience, but instead you requested a switch to command track. May I ask why?”
There was no point, John knew, in pretending to be mystified by the question.
“Colin and I were … close,” he said. “We were wingmates, sir. When he died, I decided not to fly starfighters anymore.”
“Indeed,” Finnegan said. He took a long breath. “You were appointed First Lieutenant on HMS Rosemount, as she required a CAG at short notice. I might add that you weren’t expected to keep that position indefinitely. Captain Preston, however, chose you to succeed Commander Beasley when he was promoted to take command of HMS Jackson. You served as his XO until you were transferred to HMS Spartan. Again, you were quite young for the post.”
“Yes, sir,” John said.
“But you would be far from the only officer to be promoted rapidly,” Finnegan concluded, shortly. He met John’s eyes. “Your failure to follow a conventional career path would, under other circumstances, limit your chances of advancement. As it happens, however, we have a posting for you.”
John kept his face expressionless with an effort. The Royal Navy needed all the trained manpower it could get, after so many officers and men had been killed in the war. In truth, he’d expected to be assigned to the Luna Academy or the Starfighter Training Centre years ago. He would have hated it, but it might be the best place for him to go. The recruits needed someone with genuine experience to ensure they knew what they needed to know.
“This isn’t an easy time for the Navy,” Finnegan continued. “We no longer have enough hulls to meet our commitments, even without having to refit a number of pre-war designs with alien-derived technology. Worse, several second-rank human powers are now in a position to challenge us, because they didn’t take such a beating in the war – and then there[‘s the threat of renewed conflict with the Tadpoles. Accordingly, we’re having to rush a stopgap design of starship into service.”
John felt a sudden burst of hope as the First Space Lord tapped his console and a holographic image of a starship appeared in front of him. She was larger than a frigate, he noted, although she would still be dwarfed by a fleet carrier. Oddly, she looked smoother and sleeker than the more mundane craft the Royal Navy deployed. He couldn’t help being reminded of some of the alien ships he’d seen during the war.
“The Warspite class is a hodgepodge of human and alien technology,” Finnegan informed him. “They’re armed with a mixture of weaponry, carry alien-grade jump drives and are generally faster and more manoeuvrable than any previous design. On the other hand, the mixture of technology has already lead to teething troubles and kinks in the design, which we don’t have time to work out before pressing the ships into deployment. We’re that short of hulls. Unfortunately, they also require non-standard commanders.”
That made sense, John was sure. The starship’s combination of human and alien technology might daunt a commander with more experience of human starships. He’d have less to unlearn than someone who followed the standard command track to high rank. And besides, if the data at the bottom of the display was accurate, the starship would handle more like a starfighter than any pre-war starship. He was sure, now, that he would assume command of one of the new ships. The thought of the challenge made him smile.
Finnegan shrugged. “They have considerably more range than a frigate,” he explained, as the holographic display twisted to show the starship’s interior. “Thanks to some of the alien technology, she can even draw fuel from a gas giant if necessary, although she lacks the machine shops and other onboard replenishment systems of a carrier. In short, she should be ideal for both escort missions, showing the flag and coping with limited problems without needing a major fleet deployment.
“You will assume command of HMS Warspite,” he concluded. “We already have a task for her, Captain. You will not have a proper period to settle in to your new command.”
John nodded, unsurprised. The meeting wouldn’t have been organised so rapidly if the Royal Navy hadn’t needed to get Warspite into operational service as quickly as possible. It was likely to be a major headache if the ship was as untested as the First Space Lord was suggesting, if only because of the risk of failing components. There had to be a reason for the haste.
But he would assume command! It didn’t matter what Finnegan wanted him to do. All that mattered was that he would be commander of a starship, master under God. It would be the peak of his post-war career.
“We’ve been probing through the new tramlines,” the First Space Lord said, unaware of John’s inner thoughts. “We’ve had some successes in locating newer ways to travel through human space which will, I suspect, cause a major economic boom once the technology is commonly available. Two months ago, however, a survey ship located a star system on the edge of explored space that possesses no less than seven tramlines, three of them alien-grade. One of them is directly linked to the Cromwell Colony.”
“Founded just before the war, if I remember correctly,” John said, slowly. There had been a political argument over the British claim to the world, with several second-rank powers asserting that it should be theirs, damn it! Britain already had one major star system and several minor ones. “They were untouched by the fighting, I take it.”
“They weren’t touched directly,” the First Space Lord said, “but there were delays in getting supplies and new colonists out to them. They’re not our concern, though. You will take your ship and a small flotilla of starships to Pegasus, the newly-discovered system, and lay claim to it in the name of the British Crown. Someone else might try to get there first.”
“Possession being nine-tenths of the law,” John commented. There were endless arguments over who should claim systems with life-bearing worlds, but systems with several tramlines could be equally important. Control over shipping lanes would give the system’s owner a fair source of revenue in its own right – assuming, of course, they could make their will felt. “I assume the system hasn’t been formally claimed?”
“It won’t be, until we have an established presence there,” the First Space Lord warned. “I would prefer to avoid a challenge from one of the other powers over ownership.”
He stood up. “Your formal orders are here,” he said, holding out a datachip. “You will travel to Warspite and assume command at once. I expect you and the flotilla to be ready to leave within the week, barring accidents. You will not find it an easy task.”
“I will not let you down,” John assured him, as he took the datachip. There would be more than just his formal orders on the chip, he was sure. He could expect details of everything from his new command to her crew roster. “Thank you, sir.”
“Thank me when you come back,” Finnegan said. His voice hardened as he rose to his feet and held out his hand. “Not before.”