Published In British Space Review, 2208
With the benefit of hindsight, it is alarmingly clear that the Indians manipulated events on Vesy from the start.
They could not, of course, have known that HMS Warspite (and a handful of Russian deserters) would stumble across a planet of primitive aliens. Despite the presence of tramlines within the system that lead to Indian-controlled systems, they were certainly unaware of Vesy, if only because they could have laid claim to the system themselves long before Warspite arrived. However, the speed of their reaction – and their capture of Pegasus — suggests they had a plan drawn up for military operations long before the start of the crisis, which was hastily updated when Vesy was discovered. Vesy, therefore, merely provided an excuse.
I have to admit that they played their role masterfully. While we – and the other Great Powers – attempted to deal carefully with the Vesy, the Indians met them as equals, dealt with them openly and offered unlimited supplies of weapons and ammunition. Covertly, it is now clear that the Indians also encouraged their Vesy allies to wage war on our Vesy allies. The combination of weapons, technical advice, protection from orbital bombardment and the promise of much – much – more was decisive. Our base on Vesy, Fort Knight, was effectively smashed and our position destroyed. Captain Naiser’s decision to withdraw from the system cannot be faulted, at least on a tactical level. However, it left the Indians in possession of the system and in a position to rapidly expand their grip on the sector.
Politically, their objective appears to be two-fold. One: to secure acknowledgement of themselves as a Great Power, with all the rights and responsibilities claimed by the Big Five. Two: to secure control over Vesy, Pegasus and Cromwell, thus allowing them to claim ownership of both their tramlines and the star systems beyond. If left unchecked, the Indians will be in a position to dictate settlement of twelve known Earth-like worlds and untold numbers of stars and planets beyond. Their grip on the chokepoints represented by the tramlines will be unshakable.
It goes without saying that we cannot allow this land grab on an interstellar scale to succeed, regardless of the cost. The various treaties governing interstellar settlement are at risk. We claimed Pegasus, in line with the treaties; we cannot allow the Indians to invade and occupy the system permanently, if only to prevent other powers from trying to lay claim to Britannia, Nova Scotia and our other settled worlds. This precedent, if allowed to stand, will undermine the basis of interstellar settlement for hundreds of years to come.
Furthermore, the Indians have committed acts of war. They have killed – directly or indirectly – dozens of British personnel and civilians, as well as personnel from several different nations. We cannot allow them to get away with their crimes. It will make us look weak, unwilling to stand up for our interests – and, if we learned nothing else from the Age of Unrest, it was that weakness invites attack. Indeed, the Indians would not have dared pick a fight with us before the First Interstellar War gravely weakened the Royal Navy. With several other interstellar powers – if second-rank powers – girding their loins to overthrow the pre-war order, we cannot let this challenge go unanswered.
There is no room for a diplomatic solution. This is not a dispute over just which party discovered a new system first, nor is it a skirmish over mining rights between a pair of asteroid miners. The Indian occupation of Pegasus and de facto claim to Vesy is a naked act of aggression, cloaked in a tissue-thin set of justifications that have no millage outside India itself. Anything short of the recovery of Pegasus and the reopening of Vesy would be indistinguishable from allowing the Indians to get away with their actions.
The future of Britain as an independent spacefaring power is in doubt. I look to the men and women of the Royal Navy to take the offensive and show the galaxy, once again, the fighting spirit that saved Britain from collapse and took our nation to heights undreamt of by our ancestors.
Admiral Sir Joseph Porter (Ret.)
Government Bunker, New Delhi, India
“You do realise this is a gamble?”
Prime Minister Mohandas Singh nodded, not bothering to turn away from the starchart to acknowledge the presence of Chaudhuri Bose, his Foreign Minister. Bose had been a mistake in his opinion, a man forced on him by political realities. He simply lacked the nerve to do what had to be done, while Mohandas – in his own opinion – knew all too well that there were times when one needed to gamble. The future of India as an independent spacefaring power hung in the balance.
“I have sent the ultimatum to the British,” Bose said, when Mohandas made no response. “It will not be long before they respond.”
He paused, significantly. “Do you expect them to surrender without a fight?”
“They will be alone,” Mohandas said. “The Americans are having their election, the French are too concerned about their internal politics to care about either Vesy or Clarke and the other Great Powers are neutral. They will have to face us on their own.”
“They have more ships than us,” Bose pointed out.
“We have more modern ships,” Mohandas countered. He swung round to scowl at the Foreign Minister. Bose had simply never impressed him. Like all diplomats, he was far too prepared to compromise with his fellows, making concessions just to get them to sign on the dotted line. Hell, he even wore a western suit and shaved his beard. “And they cannot afford to weaken themselves any further.”
He smiled at the thought. It wasn’t pleasant to admit that India owed her present position – a fair match for a Great Power for the first time in a century – to the first human-alien war, but it was true. The Tadpoles had weakened all of the Great Powers, leaving them unable – and perhaps unwilling – to fight to maintain their supremacy. If the British swallowed their pride and conceded the Indian demands, they would be weakened … but if they fought, they would weaken themselves still further. A victorious war would cost them badly at a time when neither they nor any of the other Great Powers could afford to be weakened.
“They may feel they will be challenged again, if they concede our demands,” Bose offered.
That, Mohandas had to admit, was true. If there was one lesson Britain – and the other Great Powers – had drawn from the Age of Unrest, it was that showing weakness was fatal. They’d put that lesson to good use too, taking control of space and hammering any rogue state that showed itself inclined to cause trouble beyond its own borders. Until the Tadpoles had shown themselves, the British military had been primarily involved in punitive strikes.
And we wouldn’t have risked taking the offensive before the war, he thought, privately. We would have lost the shooting match.
It was a galling thought. India had worked itself into a position of power after the British had withdrawn from India, only to lose it during the Age of Unrest. The social unrest, the riots, the final war with Pakistan … they had all cost India dearly. They’d been slow to take advantage of new developments in drive technology and slower too to establish extra-solar colonies. By the time India could reasonably call itself an interstellar power, the Great Powers were way ahead of it. They’d flatly refused to grant India the honour of considering it another Great Power.
And it was something Mohandas wanted for India, wanted very much.
“We have a window of opportunity,” he said, flatly. “Five years, perhaps ten … the window will be closed. Or we may have a second war with the Tadpoles. We have to move now.”
He looked up at the starchart, thinking hard. The original plan had been to take control of Clarke – before the British could turn it into a major colony – and demand Great Power status in recognition of the fact they could not be dislodged without a major war. Mohandas would have happily returned Clarke to the British in exchange for that single concession, for the acknowledgement that India was completely independent of the rest of the human race. But Vesy … the discovery of Vesy had been a stroke of luck. Now, India would not only control access to two whole sectors, but an entire alien race. And who knew what the Vesy would become, given time?
But it also meant that British personnel were killed when we moved to secure Vesy, he thought, grimly. They may find it harder to back down.
Bose cleared his throat. “And if they do go to war?”
“Then they will have to rely on their navy against ours,” Mohandas said. He studied the starchart for a long moment, silently calculating vectors. It would take the British several months to put together a task force, if nothing else. His men would have time to dig in … if, of course, the British didn’t concede defeat without a fight. “And we will have more modern ships and the advantage of the interior defence.”
“I hope you’re right,” Bose said. He made no attempt to hide the doubt in his voice. “This could cost us everything.”
Mohandas nodded, curtly. Bose was right. It could cost India everything, although the Solar Treaty would ensure that losses were limited. India would be humiliated, her extra-solar interests would be claimed by the British and her navy would be crippled. They’d be the laughing stocks of the planet. Even the Tadpoles would be sniggering …
But the prospect of victory was worth the risk.
“Keep talking to the other powers,” he ordered. He rather doubted it would make much difference – the British were a Great Power, after all – but it was worth trying. “Convince them, if you can, to put pressure on the British.”
And stay out of military affairs, he added, silently. This is no place for milksops.
Bose bowed. “Of course, Prime Minister,” he said. “I shall pray for us all.”
Clarke III, Pegasus System
“The tin-cans are retreating, Governor.”
“Understood,” Governor Harry Brown said. “Did they inflict any damage?”
“I don’t believe so,” Lillian Turner said. She’d never expected to be manning a tactical console, but she was the closest thing to a tactical officer on the colony. “They merely exchanged long-range fire with the Indian ships and then bugged out.”
She sucked in her breath, feeling fear pulsing through her chest. She’d grown used to the thought of spending the rest of her days on Clarke; it might not be Earth, or even Luna City, but the rapidly-growing colony did have a sort of charm. The colonists had eyed her doubtfully for a few months, then decided her obvious willingness to work – and make up for the sins of the past – was a point in her favour. She’d even made a handful of friends. But now …
I may be sent back to Earth, she thought, morbidly. And who knows what will happen to me there?
“Keep monitoring them,” Brown ordered. The Governor hadn’t been one of her biggest supporters at first, but he’d given her a fair chance. “Let me know if they attempt to communicate with us.”
“Yes, sir,” Lillian said.
She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the viewscreen and sighed. Her dark eyes looked tired and worn, her dark hair was hanging down around her face; her pale skin looked too pale after months on Clarke, where the sun barely shined. She hadn’t had much sleep since the first warning message from Vesy … and none, since the Indian ships had jumped into the system and commenced a leisurely flight towards Clarke. They could have been at Clarke within hours, if they’d pushed their drives hard. Instead, they’d taken over a day to make a slow stately progress to the gas giant’s moon.
Probably wanted to make us sweat, she thought, darkly. They know damn well no one’s coming to help us.
Her eyes sharpened as new icons appeared on the display. “Governor,” she said. “They’re launching assault shuttles.”
The Governor rose to his feet and paced over to stand behind her. “ETA?”
“Thirty minutes,” Lillian said. He didn’t ask where they were going, but then there was no real need. There wasn’t anywhere else on Clarke III worth visiting, save for the colony and it’s two thousand colonists. “They’re not even trying to hide their presence.”
“They may be a little bit nervous about flying through the snowstorms,” the Governor said, curtly. “We’re nervous and we’ve been on this planet for a year.”
Lillian rather doubted it – the Royal Marines she’d met had been gung ho about diving into hurricanes and she had a feeling the Indian marines were very similar – but she kept that thought to herself. Instead, she tracked the Indian shuttles as they entered the atmosphere, monitoring them through the handful of stealthed satellites in orbit. The Indians would find them eventually and shut them down, she was sure, if they bothered to make the effort. Both sides knew the colony couldn’t hold out for long.
“My best guess is that they’re going to come down near Davis Mountain,” she said, as the shuttles dove further into the planet’s atmosphere. “That would put them within easy walking distance of the colony.”
“Looks like it,” the Governor agreed.
He stepped back and keyed his wristcom, then started to mutter orders to the scratch defence force. A handful of soldiers – mainly reservists – and a couple of colonial policemen … it wasn’t enough to do more than slow the Indians down for a few minutes. Lillian and the other colonists had been digging trenches and improvising traps ever since they’d gotten the word, but they simply didn’t have the men to hold for long.
And if the Indians get tired of our defiance, they can simply drop rocks on us from high overhead, Lillian thought, grimly. They can smash us flat if they don’t mind losing the colony.
It was a chilling thought. There had been an agreement – ever since the human race had started expanding through the tramlines – that colonies weren’t to be bombarded indiscriminately. Whatever the cause of the disagreement – or war – it didn’t excuse destroying the only thing keeping humans alive in the unforgiving vastness of interstellar space. But if the Indians had been prepared to allow countless people to die on Vesy, they might well be prepared to bombard Clarke into submission from orbit. They wouldn’t be able to use the colony for themselves …
They’ll want the colony, she told herself, hoping desperately that she was right. It would take them too long to duplicate our work.
Her console beeped, once. “Sir,” she said. “The Indians have landed.”
“Try and get a drone over there,” the Governor ordered. “I’ll have the defenders stand ready.”
Lillian nodded, clicking through the options on her screen until she located the drones and launched one into the air. She’d flown drones before, on Earth, but it was nowhere near so easy to fly them on Clarke. The snowstorms would happily knock a drone out of the air if she made a single mistake, leaving the colony without any eyes in the sky. Indeed, the Governor had banned flying drones in anything other than the direst emergencies. The beancounters on Earth would complain – loudly – if Clarke expended them all within the first month.
We should have flown anyway, she thought, as the drone made its way towards Davis Mountain. Davis had been a colonist who’d gone climbing in a protective suit, only to be caught in an avalanche and buried somewhere below the half-frozen ocean. We might have been able to improve the drone guidance systems before now.
She gritted her teeth as a particularly nasty gust of wind slapped the drone, sending it cart-wheeling across the sky before she managed to regain control. The RPV had a computer core that was meant to handle the basics of flying, but it hadn’t developed its own understanding of the environment yet. In theory, a drone that crashed could have the core salvaged and loaded into another drone – thus allowing the second drone to learn from the mistakes of the first – but in practice they simply hadn’t wanted to waste the tiny vehicles. That, she suspected, might have been a mistake.
“Contact,” she said. “Three shuttles; seventy armoured men.”
The Governor bent over her shoulder – so close she could smell the odour of tobacco on his breath – as the Indians came into view. The assault shuttles didn’t look that different to British designs – the war had forced the various Great Powers to standardise as much as they could – but the armoured combat suits looked more primitive than the suits she’d seen on Warspite. Their wearers were already starting the short march towards the colony. Behind them, a handful of light tanks rolled off the shuttles, one of them rotating a gun to point towards the drone. Moments later, the screen went blank.
“Contact lost,” she said, formally. “They’re on their way, Governor.”
“Noted,” the Governor said.
The minutes ticked by with agonising slowness. Lillian knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the defenders couldn’t hope to win, yet she also knew the Governor couldn’t simply order a surrender. Whatever happened afterwards, the colony could not be said to have surrendered without a fight. But as the monitors started to pick up the advancing forces, she found herself wishing the Governor would change his mind. She knew some of the men out there, girding themselves for a brief struggle. Some of them had disliked her – the policemen had kept a sharp eye on her for the first two months – but none of them deserved to die for nothing.
She winced as the radio buzzed. “I have nine armoured men in my sights,” Sergeant Harkin said. He was actually a retired soldier, someone who’d been demobbed two years after the war and secured a posting to Clarke for reasons that he’d never really shared with anyone else. Lillian liked him more than she cared to admit. “They’re advancing towards the first trench.”
“Engage at will,” the Governor ordered.
Lillian closed her eyes for a long moment as the first set of combat reports came in. The defenders fired a handful of shots, then fell back to the next line of defences, forcing the Indians to waste time clearing trenches that were already abandoned. A handful of Indian soldiers were caught in improvised traps – she felt a moment of vindictive glee as it became clear that a handful of intruders would never see India again – but it wasn’t enough to do more than annoy the advancing soldiers. They knew as well as she did that they had all the time in the world to clear the trenches.
“Nine intruders down,” Sergeant Harkin reported. “I …”
His message cut off. Lillian glanced at the sensors and cursed under her breath as she realised the enemy had hit his position with a missile. The remaining defenders were pulling back, but they were rapidly running out of space. It wouldn’t be long before the Indians were in a position to either storm the colony doors or merely blast their way through the prefabricated walls. Either way, the colony couldn’t hold out any longer.
The Governor evidently agreed. “Contact the Indians,” he ordered. “Now.”
Lillian swallowed as she tapped commands into her console. The Indians hadn’t even tried to open communications. She couldn’t help wondering if that meant the Indians had no interest in demanding and accepting surrender. The remaining defenders were still trying, but their position had been hopeless from the start …
“I have a link,” she reported. The screen blinked to life, showing a dark-skinned man with a neatly-trimmed beard. “Governor?”
The Governor cleared his throat. “I am Governor Harry Brown, Governor of the Pegasus System.”
“I am General Anjeet Patel,” the Indian said. He didn’t seem inclined to beat around the bush. “Your position is hopeless.”
“I understand,” the Governor said. His voice was tightly-controlled, but Lillian could hear the hint of anger underlying his words. “I wish to open talks …”
“My terms are quite simple,” Patel said, cutting him off. “You will order your remaining defenders to surrender and open the doors, allowing my men to occupy the colony. You will make no attempt to destroy your computers, your life support infrastructure or anything else that may be required. You may destroy classified files, but not anything relating to the colony and its personnel.”
He paused for a long moment. “For the duration of the present emergency, Clarke III will be governed under Indian military law. Your people – military and civilian – will have nothing to fear as long as they obey orders. Prisoners will be treated in line with the standard Luna Conventions.”
Lillian nodded to herself, unable to keep herself from feeling relieved. The Great Powers showed no mercy to insurgents, revolutionaries and terrorists, but the Luna Conventions applied to national troops who hadn’t been caught breaking the laws of war. It would have been insane for the Indians to act otherwise, yet the mere act of starting a war was insane when it would only weaken humanity. Who knew what the Tadpoles would do?
“I understand,” the Governor said, stiffly. “However, I am quite unable to acknowledge the permanent surrender of either the colony or the system itself.”
“That is understood,” Patel said. “My men will advance to secure the colony.”
His image vanished from the display. Lillian heard the Governor mutter a curse under his breath before keying his wristcom and issuing the surrender order. She felt an unpleasant knot in her stomach as she watched through the cameras as the Indians closed in on the defenders, who had dropped their weapons and were standing with their hands in the air. The Indians seemed to be trying to be reasonably civilised, but they were still careful to escort the prisoners – at gunpoint – into a tracked vehicle before opening the doors and entering the colony.
“Purge the classified files,” the Governor ordered, quietly.
He sounded defeated. Lillian felt a chill running down her spine as she keyed the command into the system, starting off a process that would wipe, reformat and finally destroy the classified datacore. The Governor hadn’t had many secrets, she was sure, but destroying his codes and ciphers was a tacit admission that all was lost. She nodded to herself as the destruction was confirmed, then verified; she glanced at the Governor, who was watching as the Indians slowly advanced though his colony. Civilians who stumbled into their path were told to return to their quarters and wait for orders.
“At least they’re not brutalising the civilians,” the Governor mused. He sounded as though he were speaking to himself, rather than to her. “But they’ll need them, won’t they?”
Lillian nodded. Clarke wasn’t a habitable world. It had taken two months of intensive effort to build up a life support infrastructure, let alone establish a geothermal power source and start mining for raw materials. The Indians would need to secure the colony, but they’d also need the men and women who made the colony work, at least until they brought in their own people and learned the ropes. They’d have to be insane to mistreat the civilians.
But the sick feeling in her chest wouldn’t go away. It felt like hours before the Indians finally stepped into the control centre and looked around, holding their weapons at the ready. Lillian hadn’t been so scared since the day she’d been arrested on Warspite. The Indian soldiers looked tough, determined and utterly ruthless. She’d been taught the basics of shooting – several ships had been boarded during the war – but she knew she was no match for them.
“Step away from the console,” one of the Indians ordered. “Now.”
Lillian obeyed, careful to keep her hands visible at all times. She had only been a lowly engineering officer, but she’d had the same training program as every other junior officer; she knew, all too well, that the first hours of an invasion and occupation were always the worst. The invaders would be jumpy, unsure of their ground, while the locals would be unwilling to tamely accept occupation. Accidents happened … and it was unlikely that anyone would care if the Indians shot her. The years when lawyers paralysed trigger fingers were long over.
Another Indian strode into the control centre, wearing a dress uniform. Lillian had to admit he looked handsome, but there was a coldness in his eyes she didn’t like. The men following him took the consoles and went to work, pulling up the operating subroutines and examining them quickly, looking for backdoors, viruses and other hidden surprises. Lillian knew they wouldn’t find anything more significant than a handful of porn catches the Governor wasn’t supposed to know about. Clarke’s system just wasn’t large enough to hide much more.
And we didn’t exactly expect occupation, she thought, sourly. We would have rigged the system thoroughly if we had.
“Governor,” the Indian said. “I am Colonel Vasanta Darzi, Governor of Clarke.”
Lillian saw the Governor tense, but he kept his voice under tight control. “Harry Brown,” he said, shortly. “Governor of Clarke.”
The Indian shrugged. “My men have occupied the colony,” he said. “From this moment onwards, Clarke will be governed under my law. I expect your people to assist in maintaining the colony for the foreseeable future, until the current … unpleasantness is cleared up. Under the circumstances, this may cause some awkwardness with your government; in the event of your people being threatened with charges of treason or collaboration, we will be happy to testify that you were forced to work under duress.”
And the Government might not buy it, Lillian thought. There was a fine line between working under duress – real or implied – and outright collaboration. And the people on the spot might not be able to see that line. They would be judged harshly by outsiders who had never been within a hundred light years of Clarke. If they feel otherwise, we may wind up going home to our deaths.
“My personnel should not be forced to work on defences or military-related projects,” the Governor said. “I believe my government would understand the need to keep working on life support.”
“That is understood,” Darzi said. “In the long term, your personnel will be free to relocate themselves to British territory or apply for Indian citizenship. If they choose the former, the Indian Government has already agreed to pay for their relocation and compensate them for their efforts on Clarke.
“However” – he held up a hand warningly – “I am also obliged to warn you that any resistance, active or passive, will be treated as a hostile act. Any attacks on my personnel or attempts to sabotage the defences will be severely punished, in line with the Luna Conventions. Insurgents and those who support them will face the death penalty. I advise you to make that very clear to your personnel.”
“I understand,” the Governor said, tartly.
Lillian cringed, inwardly. British territory hadn’t been occupied since the Second World War, unless one counted the social unrest of the Troubles. No one knew how to behave under enemy occupation …
“I do not, however, believe that my government will simply concede Clarke to you without a fight,” the Governor added. “In that case, I expect you to do everything you can to protect the civilian population.”
“In that case, we will certainly try,” Darzi said. Oddly, Lillian had the feeling he meant every word. India wouldn’t look very good if innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire. “But by the time your military can respond, if your government is intent on a fight, we will be ready.”