Snippet – The Black Sheep (A Learning Experience III)

19 Oct

Prologue

Datanet Discussion Forums are buzzing after Captain Hoshiko Stuart stated, publicly, that the Solar Union should not consider intervening in the ongoing civil war on Earth. Her comments have been repeated by a number of other ‘Solarians’ who feel that the affairs of our former homeworld are none of our concern …

-Solar News Network, Year 54

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Marie Campbell said, over the communications network, “Captain Hoshiko Stuart has arrived.”

Admiral Mongo Stuart, Commander-in-Chief of the Solar Navy, looked up from his desk, keeping his face impassive despite his inner dismay. He knew how to reward good performance and he was an expert at chewing out the incompetent or criminally stupid, but dealing with something who had crossed the line without quite doing anything against the Solar Navy’s regulations was a little harder. The whole affair left a sour taste in his mouth. He’d seen enough good men and women railroaded by the former United States Navy on Earth, all for political reasons, to hate the thought of doing it himself. But there was little choice.

“Send her in,” he ordered. “And then hold all my calls unless they’re urgent.”

“Yes, sir,” Marie said.

Mongo sat upright as the hatch hissed open, revealing Captain Hoshiko Stuart. She was third-gen, the granddaughter of Steve Stuart – Mongo’s brother – himself, the closest thing to outright royalty in the Solar Union. Not that she or anyone else in the Stuart family had been allowed to think of themselves as royalty. Hoshiko had earned her stripes, as surely as any of her peers in the Solar Navy; no one, not even the handful of politicians who argued the Stuart family exercised undue influence within the Solar Union, questioned her competence. But that hadn’t stopped them from using her words as a talking point.

“Admiral,” Hoshiko said.

Mongo studied her for a long moment, allowing the silence to lengthen. She was tall, her features a mixture of Caucasian and Japanese, her skin tinted and her almond eyes dark and expressive. Like all third-gen children, she had the genetic modifications that ensured both a natural lifespan of over two hundred years and a immunity to disease, most poisons and even tooth decay. She could have turned herself into a goddess, if she’d wished – most teenagers went through a stage of changing their looks on a daily basis – but she’d stayed with the appearance her parents and grandparents had gifted to her. At thirty-five, she looked twenty-one. And she held herself with the poise of a seasoned veteran, waiting for him to speak.

Her file flashed up in front of his eyes, prompted by a mental query to his implants. Born in Year 19, entered the Solar Navy in Year 35 – the youngest possible age – and graduated from Sparta Military College in Year 39. Assigned to a destroyer, then to a light cruiser; assigned to command an alien-designed battlecruiser during the Battle of Earth, where she acquitted herself well. No black marks in her file until two weeks ago, when she’d made a number of statements to the Solar News Network that had ignited a political firestorm.

And she’s certainly bright enough to understand what she’s done, Mongo thought, as he directed his attention back towards Hoshiko. The only question is why?

“Captain,” he said, coolly. He might be her Great-Uncle, but he wasn’t going to do her any favours and she had to know it. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“Yes, sir,” Hoshiko said.

“Explain,” Mongo ordered.

“I gave an interview to the Solar News Network,” Hoshiko said. Her voice was very flat, suggesting she was either keeping it under tight control or using her implants to ensure she betrayed none of her internal feelings. “I expressed my feelings on the planned intervention on Old Earth. The interview went viral and spread through the datanet.”

“Correct,” Mongo said. He cocked his head to one side. “Why did you give that interview, Captain?”

Hoshiko, for the first time, showed a flicker of animation. “I was asked for my opinion, sir,” she said, “and I gave it.”

Mongo lifted his eyebrow, inviting her to explain further.

“I am a Solarian,” Hoshiko said. “My parents may have been born on Old Earth, but I was not. I grew up on an asteroid colony, sir, with all the boundless wealth of space all around me. My fellows and I enjoy a freedom that none on Earth can even comprehend. The problems of Old Earth do not concern us. They are free to move to the Solar Union, if they wish, or continue to live amongst the dirt. The social and political breakdown on the planet is none of our concern. We certainly do not wish to spend blood and treasure trying to save the Earthers from themselves.”

“And that was what you told the reporters,” Mongo said.

“Yes, sir.”

Mongo had to admit, if only in the privacy of his own thoughts, that she had a point. The Solar Union’s invitation to everyone on Earth remained open – and would remain open for as long as the Solar Union itself endured. Leave the gravity well and live in space, where even a low-paying job could ensure a decent lifestyle. Hoshiko, like so many of her peers, couldn’t comprehend just why so many Earthers were scared of implanting technology, let alone genetic splices and fixes, into their bodies. Hell, Mongo found the concept scary at times … and, without the nanotech and automated doctors they’d captured from the Horde, he knew he’d be dead by now. But there were other concerns.

“Many of us have ties to Earth,” he pointed out. “Don’t you feel we might have legitimate concerns?”

“No, sir,” Hoshiko said. “The Solar Union was founded on the concept of escaping Earth, of escaping governments that were too limited to allow true freedom. I see no value in looking back to our roots.”

“You have relatives down there,” Mongo pointed out.

“I don’t know them,” Hoshiko countered. “Surely they could come up here, if they wished?”

Mongo gave her a long considering look. Hoshiko had never seen the Stuart Ranch, where Mongo and his brothers had been born and raised. She was used to controlled environments, not the beauty of Earth. But, at the same time, he knew she had a point. The American melting pot had only started to come apart at the seams when it had become easy, too easy, to remain in touch with the Old Country, for old grudges to cross the oceans and infect the United States. Mongo still mourned the country he’d served, even though it had left him behind a long time before the Solar Union had been formed. It was hard for him to say goodbye.

“Military officers are not supposed to talk to the press,” he said, instead. “You should not have given that interview.”

“Military officers are supposed to speak their minds, as long as they can back up their statements,” Hoshiko countered. “Can I speak freely, Admiral?”

“You may,” Mongo said.

“Am I in trouble because I’m a military officer who spoke to the press,” Hoshiko asked, “or because I’m a Stuart who disagreed with the family line?”

“The family does have an interest in its property on Earth,” Mongo said.

“Which it shouldn’t have,” Hoshiko said. “It provides a tie to the planet we sought to escape, sir. The older generation may want to keep it, but the younger generation sees no value in it.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Mongo agreed.

He cleared his throat. “Yes, you are in trouble because the family can no longer present a united front,” he admitted. “Our opponents in the Senate have not hesitated to capitalise on your remarks.”

“The united front did not exist,” Hoshiko pointed out, coolly. She waved a hand at the walls, where a number of images from the Battle of Earth were prominently displayed. “You may want to try to recover territory on a single world; we want to get out there and build empires, carry the human race to heights unmatched even by the Tokomak! There is nothing to be gained by becoming involved with scrabbles on Earth when there’s an entire universe out here, just waiting to be seized. Our manifest destiny is out there, Admiral!”

“We are one small system, with a handful of allies,” Mongo said. “There is no way we can hope to conquer the entire galaxy, let alone the universe.”

“Not now, no,” Hoshiko said. “But we seem to have a choice between building an empire – call it what you like, Admiral – of our own or taking the risk that someone else will build an empire. The Tokomak still have millions of starships under their command, sir, and we’re not the only ones who can innovate. Even if the Tokomak Empire falls apart, sir, one of the successor states may pose a greater threat. We don’t have time for narrow-minded people who look at the prospects before us and flinch away.”

Mongo took a second to place firm controls on his temper before speaking. “You present us with an unusual challenge,” he said. “If you were to be court-martialled for your actions, it would require open discussion of the issue, which would not rebound to anyone’s credit. But if you are not punished, it will look as though the family name has protected you from the consequences. I’ve decided to take a third option.”

He waited for a long moment. Hoshiko said nothing.

“We have been asked to establish a military and trader base in the Martina Sector,” he explained. Hoshiko closed her eyes for a moment, clearly consulting her implants. “This base will have a battle squadron of heavy cruisers attached to it, as well as a handful of support ships and intelligence personnel. You will be reassigned to Jackie Fisher as her commanding officer, but you will also be in overall command of the detachment and roving ambassador to any local alien powers. I’ll assign a steady hand to serve as your XO. You’re going to be very busy.”

“That’s six months away,” Hoshiko said, shocked.

“Yes,” Mongo said. He hid an amused smile. The rest of the assignment clearly hadn’t sunk in, yet. “You and your squadron will be on a five-year deployment. During that time, you will have considerable autonomy, as long as you stay within the standing orders. Assuming all goes well, you will be relieved by another squadron at the end of your time on station. By that point, one would hope the political crisis here will be resolved, one way or the other.”

It was, he thought, a neat solution. Hoshiko couldn’t remain in touch with anyone in the Solar Union, not when it would take at least a year for her to send a message and receive a reply. If anyone questioned her deployment, he could point to it and say it was a punishment, but if she did well, her career could resume it’s more normal course after her deployment came to an end. A court-martial, on the other hand, would terminate her career even if she was found innocent.

“You’ll receive a full intelligence brief, what little we know about the sector, once you reach your new command,” he told her. “Martina itself is a shared world, thanks to the Tokomak, but there are several alien races nearby that may pose a threat. There’s also a large number of humans, descendents of alien slaves, living within the sector. We’d like you to try to build ties with them, as well as protect shipping and generally represent the Solar Union to the locals.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoshiko said. She snapped off a tight salute. “I will make you proud.”

“See that you do,” Mongo warned. “You’re going to be on your own out there. Good luck.”

Chapter One

Fighting broke out again in California as the Mexican Independence Front, with armoured support from Mexican tanks, attempted to push north against the United Farmers Alliance, who have been receiving support from Texas. The Governor of Texas stated that she would not hesitate to support her fellow Americans in their struggle against the Mexican threat.

-Solar News Network, Year 54

Hoshiko didn’t want to admit it, not even to herself, but she was bored.

She was the kind of person who always wanted to be doing something. She’d always been a very active person, even as a young girl growing up on Stuart Asteroid. Hoshiko had been first to take a spacewalk, first to explore the nooks and crannies of the asteroid without parental supervision, first to use a neural interface and plunge into a virtual world, first to lose her virginity and first to apply successfully to the Naval Academy. The thought of just sitting in orbit around Martina was horrifying, yet she’d been stuck there for over six months. There were only so many tasks for the squadron and she was privately surprised that morale had held up as well as it had.

Because we’re pretty much isolated out here, she thought, as she paced her cabin and scowled at the near-orbit display. And there’s very little to do.

She glowered at the blue-green planet at the centre of the display, surrounded by hundreds of starships, orbital habitats and industrial nodes. Martina was a shared world – there were over twenty different races living in near-harmony on the surface – and there was almost nothing in the way of planetary authority. No one had been able to muster the authority to tell her she couldn’t establish a naval base in the system, but no one had been able to meet her for more substantive discussions either. She hoped, for their sake, that no one ever decided to view the system as a target – there was no unified defence force – but she knew the peace surrounding the planet wouldn’t last. Martina had no less than nine gravity points orbiting the local star, each one a money-making bonanza for a military power strong enough to demand passage fees.

And they’ll get them too, she reminded herself. Interstellar shippers will pay whatever it takes to get through a gravity point, cutting hundreds or thousands of light years off their trips.

She picked up the datapad containing the latest set of readiness reports, then put it down again unread. There was no point. The squadron had exercised regularly, both to ensure their skills were kept up to par and show off humanity’s military might to potential threats, but they hadn’t fired their weapons in anger since a brief encounter with a pirate ship two months ago. Her real problem was keeping her crews busy and entertained, ensuring they didn’t slip into VR worlds or sneak down to the planet and desert. There was a small human community on Martina after all, descended from men and women who’d been taken from Earth centuries ago. An enterprising crewman could probably make a few local contacts and vanish if he wished. Somehow, Hoshiko doubted the local authority would help to search for a missing crewman.

“And if Uncle Mongo wanted to punish me,” she muttered to herself, “he couldn’t have found a better way.”

She glowered at the display, again. The squadron was so far from Earth that everything they heard was second or third-hand, passed on by a handful of supply ships and freighters that had made their way to Martina, hoping to open up new trade routes into the sector. Hoshiko didn’t blame them for trying – having dinner with the trader captains was one of the few highlights of her position – but so far their results had been very poor. The sector didn’t have anything unique or interesting … and it was very far from Earth. She was surprised the freighters kept coming.

Probably trying to buy more starships, she thought, crossly. We can never have enough.

Her intercom buzzed. “Captain, this is Ensign Howard on the bridge,” a voice said, nervously. He clearly hadn’t managed to overcome his fear of interrupting his commanding officer, who would doubtless be doing important work in her cabin. “We have five ships inbound to Martina at FTL speeds.”

Hoshiko frowned. Ensign Howard was so young she was marginally surprised he wasn’t still in diapers. Jackie Fisher was his first assignment, right out of the Academy; he was simply too inexperienced to realise that few captains would be angry if they were disturbed, not even if it turned out to be nothing. Better safe than sorry was a lesson the Solar Union had drummed into its citizens from a very early age. Asteroids, even with modern technology, were hardly safe.

“Five ships,” she repeated. Every day, there were hundreds of starships passing through the system. She tried to keep her voice calm. “Why do you think this is important?”

There was a pause. “Captain, two of them read out as Livingston-class freighters,” Howard said, finally. “The other three seem to be warships – and they’re in hot pursuit. They’re practically right on top of the freighters.”

Hoshiko’s eyes narrowed. Livingston-class freighters were unique to humanity, as far as she knew; there were only a handful in the sector, all of which were registered with the Solar Union. Two of them flying in unison almost certainly meant a trade mission … and, if that was the case, the pursuing warships were an ominous development. She sent a command through her implants into the cabin’s processors, getting them to display the live feed from the gravimetric sensors. Howard was right. Five ships would not be flying so close together if three of them weren’t trying to run the other two down.

“I’m on my way,” she said. Assuming the freighters were heading for the base she and her crews had painstakingly established, they’d drop out of FTL within two hours. “Sound yellow alert, then inform the squadron to prepare for combat manoeuvres.”

“Aye, Captain,” Howard said.

It was probably nothing more than pirates, Hoshiko told herself as she checked her uniform in the mirror before striding out of her office and down towards the bridge. But she couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement anyway. The pirates wouldn’t be expecting to run into nine heavy cruisers, not at Martina. There wasn’t even a formalised out-system patrol force to fend off pirates who might come calling. Even the ground-based defences weren’t as formidable as they could have been.

She stepped through the hatch and walked to her command chair. No one saluted – yellow alert protocols insisted that crewmen had to watch their consoles at all times – but she saw a number of backs stiffen as Ensign Howard practically leapt out of the command chair and snapped to attention. Hoshiko gave him an approving smile, then nodded towards the tactical console.

“I have the bridge,” she said, firmly.

“You have the bridge, Captain,” Ensign Howard said. “Intruder ETA is now 97 minutes …”

“Assuming they drop out at your predicted endpoint,” Hoshiko said, cutting him off. She didn’t blame the ensign for assuming the unknown ships were heading for the base, but there was no way to be sure. “Squadron status?”

“Yellow alert,” Ensign Howard reported. “Combat datanet is standing by, ready to activate; tactical communications net is up and running. No signals from the planet as yet.”

“Unsurprising,” Hoshiko said. She took her seat and studied the tactical display for a long moment. “Take your console, Ensign. Let’s see what’s coming our way.”

She heard the hatch opening again behind her, but said nothing as her XO, Commander Griffin Wilde, stepped into view and took the seat next to her. Wilde wasn’t a bad man, she had to admit, yet he was easily twice her age – he remembered living on Earth before his parents had emigrated to the Solar Union – and he had almost no imagination at all. Hoshiko had a feeling that Wilde had actually been assigned to the squadron to keep an eye on her, or at least try to dampen her more ambitious schemes. But if that were the case, it was hardly necessary. The opportunities she’d hoped would appear, when she’d led the squadron through the gravity point for the first time, had never materialised.

“Captain,” Wilde said.

Hoshiko turned and gave him a tight smile. He even looked old, with grey hair, although she’d seen his medical report and knew he was physically fit. Choosing not to make himself look like a young man was a statement, just as much as her refusal to alter her looks was a statement, although she didn’t understand it. Some men, she’d been told, were just born old, without the mindset that would allow them to have fun. She didn’t understand that either.

“Commander,” she said. “We may be in for some excitement.”

She leaned back in her command chair, watching the reports flowing in from the remainder of the squadron, as the unknown ships came close. Tracking did their best, but apart from estimates regarding the size and power of the warships they weren’t able to add much else, certainly nothing solid. Hoshiko rehearsed the engagement in her mind, contemplating the different weapons mixes they might face and waited. At least, now there was a prospect of action, she could wait patiently.

“Captain, they’re altering course slightly,” Ensign Howard said. “They’re now angling directly towards the station.”

“Understood,” Hoshiko said. She contemplated, briefly, detaching two of her ships to take up a different position, but decided it would probably be futile. A few seconds in FTL would put the incoming ships millions of kilometres from the waiting ships. “Hold position and wait, but prepare to move us when they arrive.”

“Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Sandy Browne said. The helmsman had been running tactical simulations of his own. “Drives are ready and free; I say again, drives are ready and free.”

Hoshiko nodded, then waited as the last minutes counted down to zero, knowing that there were too many uncertainties. There was no way to know the ships were heading for the base, for her squadron; they could easily be planning to skim around the planet’s gravity well and try to lose their pursuers. Or they could be planning to plunge into a gravity point at speed, hoping to escape through sheer nerve. They’d be vomiting on the decks, if they survived, but it might be their only hope. Did they even know there was a human squadron at Martina?

“Contact,” Ensign Howard said. “They just dropped out of FTL. Two freighters, Livingston-class; I say again, two freighters, Livingston-class.”

“Raise them,” Hoshiko ordered.

She took a long breath, knowing they had bare seconds before the warships arrived and announced themselves. Thankfully, there shouldn’t be any problems establishing communications with human ships … unless, of course, something had wrecked their communications systems. The Tokomak had done their best to ensure that everyone spoke the same language, at least during interspecies communications, but even they had never succeeded in making the handful of artificial languages universal.

And a good thing too, she thought, remembering her lessons at the Academy. Those languages were carefully designed to dampen individual thought.

Three red icons popped into life on the display. “Contact,” Ensign Howard said, again. This time, he sounded almost panicky. “Three warships, unknown class. Database comparison suggests they’re light cruisers.”

“Sound Red Alert,” Hoshiko ordered. “Raise shields. Charge weapons.”

She frowned as more data flowed onto the display. Most alien races used starships based on Tokomak designs, knowing them to be reliable even though they were hard to modify or rebuild. They were, quite simply, the most prevalent ship designs in the galaxy. Even the Solar Union, which was ramping up its own design and building process as fast as it could, still used thousands of Tokomak-designed ships. But facing a whole new design … there was no way to know what she might be about to encounter. If humanity could invent a weapons system that smashed battleships as if they were made of paper, who knew what another race could design and put into operation?

“Unknown ships are scanning us,” Ensign Howard reported.

“No word from the freighters,” Lieutenant Yeller added. The communications officer was working his console frantically. “The unknown ships are attempting to hail us.”

“Put them through,” Hoshiko ordered.

There was a long pause, then a dull atonal voice – the product of a translator – echoed through the bridge. “We are in pursuit of criminals,” it said. “Allow us to capture the criminals or you will be fired on.”

Hoshiko blinked in surprise. The unknown ships had defied communications protocols that had been in existence long before humanity started building anything more complex than stone axes and rowing boats. Every spacer in the known universe used the protocols, save – perhaps – for the race in front of her. Could they be completely new? Her heartbeat raced at the thought, although she knew it was unlikely. The Tokomak had held the sector in their grip for thousands of years. They’d know every power in the sector intimately.

“Those ships are human ships,” she said. She had strict orders to defend human shipping, if nothing else. Besides, she had no idea just what was going on. “Allow us to take them into custody and investigate. If they are criminals, they will be dealt with.”

“Enemy ships are charging weapons,” Lieutenant-Commander Rupert Biscoe snapped. “They’re locking targeting sensors on our hulls.”

“Return the favour,” Hoshiko ordered. No one, unless they had almost no understanding of the ships they controlled, allowed anyone to see their weapons being charged unless it was a deliberate threat. Just what was going on? “Try and raise the freighters again …”

“Incoming message,” the communications officer said.

“This matter is none of your concern,” the atonal voice said. “Stand down or be fired upon.”

Hoshiko took a long breath. “We will take the ships into custody and investigate the crews,” she said, tartly. “Should they be confirmed as criminals, they will be returned to you. We …”

Jackie Fisher rocked, violently.

“Enemy ships have opened fire,” Biscoe said. “Standard directed-energy weapons. Shields held. No damage”

A warning shot, Hoshiko thought. She fought down the urge to simply return fire, even though she was sure she held a considerable advantage. Are they mad?

“Picking up a message from the lead freighter,” Yeller reported. “It’s very weak.”

“Put it through,” Hoshiko ordered.

“This is Captain Ryman of SUS Speaker to Seafood,” a voice said. Hoshiko hastily launched a query into the datanet, trying to confirm Ryman’s identity. Moments later, a voiceprint match popped up in front of her. “We have a cargo of refugees from Amstar. We need help …”

“Enemy ships are locking weapons on the freighters,” Biscoe reported.

“Move us forward to shield them,” Hoshiko ordered. Refugees from Amstar? Her implants told her it was a star system thirty light years from Martina, but there was little else current in the datafiles. Like Martina, Amstar was a shared world, peaceful and boring. Why would refugees be fleeing to Martina, on human ships? “Tactical …”

“Enemy ships are opening fire,” Biscoe reported. “Freighter Two is taking heavy damage.”

“Open fire,” Hoshiko snapped. Human-designed freighters carried better shields than the average Tokomak-designed freighter, but they weren’t strong enough to stand up to a full barrage from the light cruisers for long. “I say again, all ships open fire.”

She expected the enemy vessels to turn and run, but instead they accelerated towards the human ships, one of them firing a final spread of missiles in passing at Freighter Two and blowing her into an expanding cloud of plasma. It didn’t look as though anyone had managed to get to the escape pods, Hoshiko noted; the ship had been lost with all hands. She swore under her breath as one of the alien ships exploded, followed rapidly by another; the third kept on towards Jackie Fisher, firing every weapon she had, until her shields were finally overloaded and a handful of missiles slammed into her hull, disabling her drives.

“Prepare a marine boarding party,” Hoshiko ordered. If the third ship had lost power completely, they should be able to teleport an assault force over to the enemy ship rather than dispatch a shuttle. “Get them suited up and …”

The third icon vanished from the display. “Enemy ship destroyed,” Biscoe reported. “That wasn’t our fire, Captain. They self-destructed.”

“Belay that order,” Hoshiko said. Judging from the blast, it was unlikely there would be anything worth recovering. The enemy ship had been completely atomised. “Ready a marine party to examine the freighter instead.”

She sucked in her breath, thinking hard. Who the hell were they facing? The Horde might have launched a suicide attack, but the Horde rarely dared face anyone who actually knew how to use their ships. God knew the Horde had been so criminally ignorant that a bunch of humans, from a low-tech world, had taken their ship out from under them. Anyone else … surely, they would have assessed the balance of power and backed off. If the freighters had been carrying criminals, she would have had no choice but to hand them over.

“Order the freighter to be ready to receive borders,” she said, grimly. At least she wasn’t bored any longer. “All ships are to remain on yellow alert until we get some answers.”

She glanced at Commander Wilde. “Accompany the marines,” she ordered. “I want to speak to Captain Ryman as soon as he’s cleared to board Fisher.”

“Aye, Captain,” Wilde said. He rose. “Ensign Howard, with me.”

Hoshiko felt a flicker of envy, which she rapidly suppressed. She was the Captain-Commodore of the squadron, as well as Jackie Fisher’s CO. There was no way she could leave the bridge, not when they might be at war. All she could do was wait and see what her crew found …

… And pray, silently, that she wouldn’t wind up wishing she was bored again.

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One Response to “Snippet – The Black Sheep (A Learning Experience III)”

  1. Dennis the Menace October 20, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

    Ah, society that has a recurring — but not usually originally explored — problem in SF: “The Bosses Never Die”

    This could be something worth exploring in a future Learning Experience novel.

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