“Captain,” Commander Katy Shaw said. “We are ready to go where no man has gone before.”
Captain Francis Preston snorted, rudely. HMS Magellan and HMS Livingston had been probing the tramlines before Tadpole space for the last six months, only to find nothing beyond a pair of uninhabited worlds that would probably be turned into joint colonies. Nothing to sniff at, to be fair – the crew would be able to claim a bonus from the Survey Service – but nothing to shake the universe either.
“Raise Captain Archer,” he said, sitting upright in his command chair. “Inform him that we will jump through the tramline in” – he glanced at his console – “ten minutes.”
“Aye, sir,” Katy said.
Francis nodded, then looked around the bridge. The younger members of the crew, their enthusiasm undiminished by six months of nothingness, looked excited, while the older crewmen were checking and rechecking their consoles as they prepared for the jump. It was rare for a previously undiscovered tramline to throw up any surprises, but several survey ships had set out on exploration missions and vanished, somewhere in the trackless wastes of interstellar space. Who knew? The tramline could lead to anything.
“Captain Archer acknowledges, sir,” the communications officer said. “He says he still thinks you cheated at cards.”
“Sore loser,” Francis commented. Captain Archer and himself had played cards for the right to take point as the survey ships moved onwards and he’d won. “Tell him to hold position and wait for our return.”
“Aye, sir,” the communications officer said.
Francis learned forward. “Take us into stealth,” he ordered. “And then set course for the tramline.”
He let out a breath as the display dimmed, slightly. There was no way to know what was at the other end of a tramline without jumping through, which was why survey ships tended to operate in pairs. If Magellan failed to return, Livingston would head back to the nearest military base at once, rather than try to follow her sister ship. It would be tough on Magellan if she needed assistance, but standing orders admitted of no ambiguity. Maybe she’d fallen right into a black hole – it was theoretically possible – or maybe she’d run into a hostile alien race. It was the latter thought that kept the Admiralty’s planners up at night. Humanity’s first encounter with an alien race had almost been its last.
But the odds against meeting another spacefaring race are considerable, he reminded himself, firmly. It was sheer luck that we ran into the Tadpoles when they were at relatively the same stage of development.
He pushed the thought aside as the display flickered, warning him that they had entered the tramline. “Drive online, sir,” the helmsman reported. “Gravity flux nominal. I don’t think there are any surprises waiting for us in this tramline.”
“Good,” Francis grunted. He glanced at the green-lit status display, then up at his XO, who nodded. “Jump!”
The starship shivered, slightly, as she jumped down the tramline and into the unexplored system. Francis let out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding as the display flickered and then rebooted, displaying a standard G2 yellow star. Most transits were routine, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, but an unexplored tramline might have an unexpected gravimetric flux that could cripple or destroy a ship. The odds were staggeringly against it, yet there was one tramline, right on the other side of explored space, that had eaten every starship that jumped down it. No one had returned to tell the tale.
“Jump complete, sir,” the helmsman said. “There were no problems.”
“Good,” Francis said. “I …”
“Captain,” the tactical officer interrupted. “I think you should take a look at this!”
Francis rose from his command chair and hurried over to the tactical console. There were at least two planets within the system’s life-bearing zone, both surrounded by the yellow icons of unidentified ships, space stations and radio sources. Hundreds of icons were swarming through the system, some clearly heading to an asteroid field and others making their steady way towards a gas giant. He felt his heart start to pound in his chest as the computers struggled to match the unknowns to something in its memory … and failed. They were staring at a whole new spacefaring race.
“Cloak us,” he snapped. Stealth mode rendered the ship almost undetectable, but there was no point in taking chances. Standing orders were very clear. No alien race, particularly one that could pose a genuine threat to humanity, was to know the survey ship was present until the various human governments could decide what to do about it. “Tactical analysis?”
“Impossible to be sure at this distance, sir, but I’d say their tech base is on a par with ours,” the tactical officer said. “I’m definitely picking up drive fields … they’ve got bases scattered right across the system.”
Katy leaned forward. “Are they using the tramlines?”
“I’m not sure,” the tactical officer admitted. “There’s three more in the system itself …”
Francis closed his eyes as he thought, rapidly. A race on the same level as mankind – and the Tadpoles – should certainly know about the tramlines that allowed starships to jump from system to system without having to cross the gulf of interstellar space. Mastering drive fields should certainly give them the technology to locate the tramlines and jump through them … unless, of course, they’d somehow managed to miss one or more applications of the technology. Humanity had certainly missed at least one before the First Interstellar War.
“We didn’t see any sign of them in the previous system,” he mused. “Did we?”
“No, sir,” Katy said. “We’ll go through the data again, but we were thorough. I don’t think we missed anything.”
“And if they don’t have access to the tramlines, they won’t be able to reach the system,” Francis said. He opened his eyes and studied the display. “They won’t be able to reach us.”
“Or they may have decided the system was useless,” Katy pointed out. “There was only one planet, sir, and it made Pluto look big.”
Francis shrugged. There were quite a few human groups that would have considered the system a perfect place for a settlement, one nicely isolated from the temptations of the modern world. But then, maybe they didn’t have access to the tramlines …or, perhaps, to the weaker tramlines the Tadpoles had learned to access. They might not have been able to progress much further even after they left their system.
Or they might have been able to access other systems through the other tramlines, he mused, and merely decided to leave a seemingly-useless system alone.
He glanced at the communications officer. “Have you been able to pull anything useful from their radio chatter?”
“Not as yet, sir,” the communications officer said. “I was expecting something visual, but everything we’ve picked up appears to be encrypted.”
“Or they’re so alien that we can’t understand their chatter,” Katy offered. “It took us months to glean anything from captured Tadpole databases.”
Francis nodded, slowly.
“Tactical,” he said, “do you believe we are in any danger of being discovered?”
“No, sir,” the tactical officer said. “Unless they have some detection system I’ve never heard of, Captain, we should be safe.”
Francis felt a stab of disappointment. Standing orders strictly forbade making any attempt at First Contact without heavy reinforcements on call, just in case the encounter turned violent, unless there was no other choice. If the aliens had discovered Magellan, he could have attempted to communicate with them and ensured his place in the history books …
“Then we will reverse course and jump back out of the system,” he said. “Once we link up with Livingston, we’ll make our way back to the nearest naval base. The Admiralty will put together a contact mission and, hopefully, we’ll be on it.”
“Aye, sir,” the helmsman said.
Katy frowned. “The nearest large-scale base is a Tadpole base, sir.”
Francis nodded. The Tadpoles had shown no real interest in the pre-space Vesy, but he was sure they’d be more than interested in a spacefaring race. And he was fairly sure they wouldn’t try to keep the information for themselves. They just didn’t seem to have the same capability for deception as humans.
He took one last look at the display, watching the alien ships, then nodded to himself.
“We’ll be back,” he said, as Magellan approached the tramline. “And we’ll have a great many friends with us.”
“Welcome back, Susan,” Mrs Blackthorn said. “Or should I call you Commander?”
“Susan is fine,” Commander Susan Onarina said, as she clambered out of the car. “It would feel strange to have you address me by rank.”
“Hanover Towers is diminished by your absence,” Mrs Blackthorn assured her. “But we are proud of your success.”
Susan kept the doubt off her face with the ease of long practice. She would have been surprised if Mrs Blackthorn remembered her as anything more than a trouble-maker, one of the girls who had been sent to her for disciplinary action. Her father had been an immigrant, her mother a shop-girl with few prospects … Susan had been a commoner in a school where a good third of the students had aristocratic, government or military connections. She had a feeling the headmistress had probably downloaded and read her school reports just so she could pretend to remember Susan.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she lied, smoothly. School hadn’t been that bad, all things considered, but she’d never really seen it as a gateway to wealth, power and success. That had come at the Luna Academy. “And I’m glad to be back.”
She sighed inwardly as she looked up at the towering school. It had struck her as a castle, when she’d first arrived as a twelve-year-old, but to her older eyes it looked as if its builders had been trying too hard. Four towers, two for boys and two for girls, surrounding a mansion, set within the Scottish Highlands. She winced in remembered pain at memories of long hikes over the mountains, although she had to admit that some of them had been almost enjoyable. There was definitely something to be said for a long walk followed by fish and chips in a cafe near St. Andrews.
And I never tried to skive off, she thought, ruefully. Father would have been disappointed in me.
“I’m sure you remember the way,” Mrs Blackthorn said, breaking into her thoughts. “But I’d be happy to escort you, if you wish.”
“Please,” Susan said. She rather doubted she’d be allowed to wander the school alone, even if she had been invited. Hanover Towers took its security seriously. The guards at the gates had checked her paperwork twice and then searched the car before allowing her to enter the complex. “It’s probably changed since I was last here.”
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” Mrs Blackthorn said, primly. “Follow me.”
Susan nodded, curtly, as she caught sight of their reflection in the mirrored door. They made an odd couple; Mrs Blackthorn prim and proper, her entire bearing projecting the image of aristocracy boiled down to its essence, Susan herself tall and dark, wearing her naval dress uniform and her dark hair tied into a long braid that fell over her shoulder and down past her breasts. It hadn’t been easy to blend it, not when she was the daughter of an immigrant; she’d been sent to the form mistress twice for fighting before she’d found a group of friends of her own. The Troubles had ensured that the ugly curse of racism still bubbled, just under the surface …
She sucked in her breath as they entered the Welcome Hall, where a large portrait of Sir Charles Hanover hung in a place of honour, flanked by portraits of King Charles IV and Princess Elizabeth, the heir presumptive to the throne. Susan had met the princess, during a formal visit to the Luna Academy, but she couldn’t say she knew the lady, while too many of her schoolmates could. She sighed, remembering old pains, and then pushed them away firmly. Far too many of her former schoolmates had died in the war.
“I’ve arranged for the entire school to be present during your speech,” Mrs Blackthorn prattled, distracting Susan from her thoughts. “And then I thought you might want to have a more informal chat with some of the older students, the ones contemplating a naval career in the next couple of years. You can have that in one of the meeting rooms, Susan, and I will have tea and cakes sent in.”
“Thank you,” Susan said, tightly. It hadn’t been her idea to attend. Someone at the Admiralty had noted that she was not only a former student, but on leave and … requested … that she give up a day to visit her alma mater and address the students on the wonders of a naval career. “I’ll do my best to answer their questions.”
Mrs Blackthorn nodded and led her though another wooden door and down a long corridor towards the Great Hall. Unless something had changed since her time, Susan recalled, students weren’t permitted in the staff corridor unless they were escorted by a tutor or given a disciplinary slip. Being caught in the corridor – or in the wrong tower – would get a student in hot water, but that hadn’t stopped the more daring students trying to run through the corridor without being caught. She’d done it herself a few times before she’d found more interesting ways to get in trouble.
And there would have been no thrill if it wasn’t forbidden, she thought, ruefully. Did I really believe that it was daring to run down a corridor?
Susan smiled at the thought, then pasted a fixed smile on her face as Mrs Blackthorn led her through the doors and into a sideroom. She checked her appearance in the mirror as the headmistress hastily consulted with two of her tutors, then sat down to wait. It was nearly twenty minutes before she heard Mrs Blackthorn introducing her to the students, detailing her career in glowing terms. She made it sound as if naval commander meant Susan was in charge of the entire navy!
At least she didn’t have the students waiting all morning, she told herself. It had happened, more than once, when she’d been a student. The early relief at skipping classes had rapidly been replaced by boredom. She’d managed to land herself in hot water, the second time, by smuggling a book into the room. I guess I’m not that important.
She braced herself as Mrs Blackthorn’s speech came to an end, waited for her cue and then strode up onto the stage. A ripple of applause greeted her as she took the podium and peered down at the students. They all looked so young, wearing the red blazers, white shirts and black skirts or trousers that she recalled from her own schooling. Boys and girls were firmly segregated, even outside the Great Hall; they attended different classes, ate at different times and slept in separate towers. Finding a few minutes alone with a potential boyfriend had always been a challenge.
But it was worth it, she thought, as her gaze swept the room. It was definitely worth it.
“Good morning,” she said. She was tempted to make a comment about never giving a speech to an unwilling audience in her life – and then asking if anyone wanted to leave – but she knew it would only get back to the Admiralty. Mrs Blackthorn would bitch to one of the Old Boys and her career would go into the flusher. “I am Commander Susan Onarina, former tactical officer on HMS Cornwall and currently in line for Executive Officer of HMS Edinburgh. Mrs Blackthorn” – she nodded towards the headmistress – “has asked me to tell you about a naval career.”
She paused, studying the room. Most of the faces looking back at her, scrubbed clean of make-up or anything that might give their faces a little individuality, were unquestionably white, but here and there were a handful of darker faces, girls and boys descended from immigrants like her father. The Troubles had a great deal to answer for, she knew; being a young woman without connections at the naval academy would have been quite hard enough without her fellow cadets eying her suspiciously. Her father had worked hard to be more British than the British and even he had never quite been accepted. She had never known true acceptance until she’d passed the Middy Test.
“Apparently, there’s a great deal of wondrous things I am meant to tell you about the navy,” she continued, “and some of them are even true. You will see sights that no ground-pounder will ever see, if you join the navy, and you will get the chance to be part of something far greater than yourself. I have never regretted joining the navy and I never will. But I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you. The navy can also be the hardest, the most dangerous, career in the galaxy.
“Space is unforgiving. One single mistake, just one, born of tiredness or ignorance, can get you killed. Two of my fellow cadets, in the first year at the academy, were killed, one through carelessness, one through a mistake on the part of another cadet. Space doesn’t care about the colour of your skin” – she held her dark palm up for them to see – “or about your connections. The cold equations rule. If you miss with space, space will kill you.
“If you wish to become an officer, you have to endure four years in the academy, in sleeping compartments which make sixth-year bedrooms look tiny. And then you will have two to three years as a midshipman, sleeping in even smaller compartments. You will spend half your time as grimy and smelly, if not worse, as you were after completing a ten-mile hike around the countryside. And then, after you hopefully learn the right lessons, you will be promoted to lieutenant and your career will begin in earnest.
“If you wish to become a starfighter pilot, you will only have a single year of training before you get your fancy uniform and an assignment to a fleet carrier. But you’ll also have a far greater chance of being killed, if we have to go back to war. A starfighter pilot has a one in three chance of dying during his first skirmish with the enemy. And very few starfighter pilots, even if they survive, can build a career in the navy. My first commanding officer was one of the few – the very few – who did.
“If you wish to become a crewman …”
Susan paused. “I doubt that most of you do want to become a crewman, but they are the mainstay of the fleet. It is the crew who keep the ship going, not the officers, no matter how much gold braid they have on their uniforms. And a crewman is often in the best position to make a spacefaring career after they leave the navy. They’re the ones who master the technical skills merchant ships need.
“Life in the navy isn’t all fun and games. Forget the movies, particularly the trio starring Stellar Star; life in the navy is hard, dirty and the penalties for mistakes terrifyingly high. But it’s worth it. You may be among the first to meet a brand new alien race or you may fight to defend Earth or Britannia if another war breaks out. Thank you for your time.”
She saluted the students, then turned and marched off the stage as they began to clap, much louder this time. Mrs Blackthorn shot her a dirty look as she walked back into the sideroom, either out of irritation at how Susan had told the truth or simple annoyance that Susan hadn’t blathered on and on for at least an hour, like most of the other guests she’d been forced to listen to as a student. Now the students would have to be given a free period or sent back to class …
Mrs Blackthorn entered the sideroom and closed the door, firmly. “A bit blunt, weren’t you?”
“They can download all the sweet-talking recruitment blather from the datanet, if they wish,” Susan said, reminding herself that she was no longer a student and Mrs Blackthorn couldn’t give her detention any longer. “I told them the truth.”
“Some of them will give up on the thought of a naval career,” Mrs Blackthorn said, sharply.
“Good,” Susan said. “A naval life is not for everyone, Headmistress. We simply don’t have the time, at the academy, to root out those who simply do not belong before they make a mistake and kill themselves. The natural arrogance of the aristocracy has no place in space.”
She remembered the young girls and boys looking up at her and shuddered, inwardly. The school’s uniform policy ensured that there were no differences, on the surface, but the rich and well-connected kids had always had an advantage. Students like Susan had worked hard, knowing that some of their fellow students would always be elevated above their heads, even if their grades were pathetic. She knew she was lucky not to give in to bitterness … and that others hadn’t been so lucky. One of her fellow students had deserted his country in the years following the war.
“Be that as it may,” Mrs Blackthorn said, “you are still required to talk to students who are interested in a naval career. If you will follow me …?”
Susan shrugged and followed the older woman through another maze of corridors and into a comfortable sitting room. There were seventeen students waiting for her, all in their final two years if the markings on their blazers were accurate. She would have been surprised to encounter any younger pupils, even though they might well be interested. The upper years guarded career meetings with as much determination as aristocrats defended their clubs from the hoi polloi. Any younger student would probably be given a clip around his ear and told to piss off.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, as she took a seat. “If you have any questions, I am at your disposal for the rest of the morning.”
She waited, patiently, as a grim-faced teenage girl wearing a maid’s uniform served tea and cakes, passing out scones and jam with an unmistakable lack of enthusiasm. She was probably on detention, Susan guessed; Mrs Blackthorn had a nasty sense of humour when it came to handing out detentions and making an aristocratic brat serve the tea was precisely what she’d do. Luckily for her, the headmistress’s looming presence kept the students from mocking her or creating a mess for the poor girl to clean up.
“My father is the captain of a starship,” one pimple-faced youth said. Judging by his posh accent, he’d been born or raised in London. “He says he can get me onto his ship, if I do well at the academy.”
“That is … unlikely,” Susan told him, bluntly. The Old Boys Network pervaded the navy, much to her frustration, but it had its limits. “You’ll almost certainly never be under your father’s command.”
“But he’s a captain,” the youth whined. “Surely he can get whoever he wants …”
Susan smirked, inwardly. “First, you have to graduate from the academy,” she said. The movies, particularly the one featuring a midshipman with even more pimples than the boy facing her, had a great deal to answer for. “An acting midshipman who doesn’t have an academy record, no matter how clever he is, will not be promoted above that spot – technically, he shouldn’t have it in the first place. Then you are assigned to the ship that needs you, not the ship that wants you. You will only be sent to your father’s ship if he has a valid need that can only be filled by you.”
She shrugged and took a sip of her tea. “But really, would you want to serve on your father’s ship?”
“I have a different question,” one of the girls said. “How do you cope sleeping with the men?”
Susan bit off the comment that came to mind as two of the boys snickered and Mrs Blackthorn’s face narrowed in disapproval. “I assume you mean sharing quarters, instead of sharing bodily fluids,” she said. “You get used to it, really. Frankly, in the academy, you are normally too tired to do anything beyond hitting your bunk and going to sleep. Happiness, as they say, consists of getting enough sleep.”
She smiled, rather coolly. “Trust me on this,” she added. “You’ll have worse problems than spotting a naked man – or being seen naked yourself.”
“But it’s indecent,” the girl protested. “I can’t share a room with boys!”
“Then don’t join the navy,” Susan snapped. She rather doubted the girl really wanted a naval career, but it was quite possible that her family wanted her to serve. “The navy doesn’t change its requirements based on your preferences, I’m afraid. It only changes when there is a solid reason to change.”
Like the Battle of New Russia, she added, silently. She’d been in the academy at the time, but the she’d been just as scared as her tutors when the news sank in. We didn’t just get beaten, we got exterminated.
“I believe that naval officers sometimes write letters of recommendation for prospective cadets,” another boy asked. “How do I get one?”
“You don’t,” Susan said, flatly. “Letters of recommendation can only be written after the officer in question knows you in a professional capacity. You won’t get one unless you are a crewman who wants to become an officer. If your father” – she nodded to the first boy – “wrote one for you, it would get him in deep shit.”
“That isn’t fair,” the boy objected. “They’ll have an advantage …”
“Life isn’t fair,” Susan said. “And really, don’t you think a crewman with ten years of experience will look better to the admissions board than an untrained boy?”
She looked up, surprised, as Mrs Blackthorn left the room, then returned, moments later, carrying a datapad, which she held out to Susan. Susan took it and blinked in surprise. It was a recall order, summoning her back to London as soon as possible. Someone had even arranged for her to fly via military jet from the nearest RAF base.
“It seems I have to leave,” she said, rising. Had Mrs Blackthorn already filed a complaint? It was possible, but unlikely. “I’ll hopefully get another chance to speak with you later in the year.”
“Thank you for coming,” Mrs Blackthorn said, once they were outside the building. “But really … did you have to be so blunt?”
“It’s tough out there,” Susan said, as she climbed into her car. “And in space, worse things can happen than writing lines until your hand drops off.”