SNIPPET–They Shall Not Pass

16 Feb

Prologue (I)

From: The Day After: The Post-Empire Universe and its Wars. Professor Leo Caesius. Avalon University Press. 46PE.

Brigadier Jasmine Yamane’s escape for Meridian – and her attack on Wolfbane itself – was a significant tactical and strategic victory for the Commonwealth, in that it both boosted morale and crippled Wolfbane’s ability to regenerate its naval forces and out-produce the Commonwealth. Certainly, the Commonwealth was quick to point to the daring prison escape and subsequent raid of enemy territory as a sign the tide was turning against Wolfbane. However, that was not entirely true.

It was true enough, to be fair, that Wolfbane would have difficulty keeping its fleet supplied with everything from replacement components to reinforcements. But it was also true that Wolfbane significantly outnumbered the Commonwealth in almost every category of starship. Indeed, if the Commonwealth had not enjoyed a significant technological advantage, Wolfbane would probably have crushed the Commonwealth in the first year of open warfare. The shortages would slow Wolfbane’s ability to regenerate its forces, true, but would the crunch come in time to save the Commonwealth?

There was also a further problem that needed to be taken into account. No one, absolutely no one, had any real experience with a long-duration interstellar war. Interstellar conflict was almost unknown during the final years of the Empire, no matter how many planets fell to insurgents or declared independence as the Empire’s grip started to weaken. Even Admiral Singh, one of the most capable officers in the Empire’s final years, didn’t appreciate what it meant to be fighting a long-term war. Why should she? She had no experience in handling anything more complex than brief and violent encounters between the Imperial Navy and a bewildering array of rebel and pirate forces.

It was inevitable, therefore, that both sides would make mistakes. The decision to send the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force to Thule, for example, was one such mistake, even though the logic made sense at the time. But the decision to attempt an over-clever envelopment of the Commonwealth Navy in the opening moves of the war was also a mistake, one less justified by then-current political concerns. In war, as has been noted for centuries, the simplest thing is difficult. Both sides failed to grasp the sheer complexity of what they were attempting to do.

But, despite its recent success, the Commonwealth knew itself to be in trouble. Wolfbane could bring attacks to bear along multiple axis of attack, while the Commonwealth – with far more limited resources – was forced to switch its forces from place to place rapidly, enduring the wear and tear on both equipment and personnel. (If Wolfbane had had access to any form of interstellar FTL communications, the Commonwealth would have lost fairly quickly; as it was, only the inability to coordinate offenses on an interstellar scale saved the Commonwealth from defeat.) The situation did not look good.

It was at that moment that Colonel Edward Stalker decided to gamble.

Prologue II

Admiral Rani Singh, Governor-Admiral of Wolfbane, stood in her private observation blister, staring down at the blue and green planet below. It was hers, thanks to the death of Governor Brown, but she knew it seethed with resentment at how she’d claimed her role. She knew, from her network of spies, that far too many powerful people believed that she had killed the Governor, even though she’d merely managed to take advantage of his death. And some of them were only waiting for her to slip up before trying to take advantage of her weakness.

But they can’t blame the destruction of the shipyards on me, she thought, darkly. No one in their right mind would allow an entire shipyard complex to be destroyed, even if it did propel her into the Governor’s office. But that won’t stop them from trying, if I show weakness.

Rani clenched her fists in irritation as she turned her gaze away from the world and up towards the endless darkness of interstellar space. She was a naval brat, pure and simple; she’d understood the military long before she’d formally signed up for a tour of duty. The navy was organised, people knew their place and did what they were told … not something that was common on Wolfbane. Governor Brown had ruled over a shifting morass of competing interests and power bases, allowing them to bicker amongst themselves while directing their energies towards the ultimate goal of galactic power. She knew how to win a battle or give orders, but managing so many different factions was far harder. And if she slipped, the knives would come out, aimed at her back …

The doorbell chimed. “Come.”

She turned as the hatch opened, watching as Paula Bartholomew stepped into the chamber, the hatch hissing closed behind her. Paula was loyal, she had to be; her betrayal of her former superior would not be forgiven by anyone else. Using her was a risk – a person who betrayed once might betray again – but it had to be endured. Governor Brown had had years to put together his patronage network, the men and women who owed and served him; she’d barely had two weeks since the attack on Wolfbane. There were times when she wondered if it wouldn’t be wiser to loot Wolfbane, then vanish as the world collapsed into chaos …

… But it wasn’t in her to give up.

“Admiral,” Paula said. “I have the final report for you.”

Rani nodded as she turned back to the window. “And it says?”

“In the short run, we can continue to maintain the current operational tempo for the next six months to a year,” Paula said, shortly. “But after that we will run into increasing difficulties in resupplying our forces. We’ll have to slow the operational tempo quite significantly.”

“So I feared,” Rani said.

She shook her head slowly. No one had fought a war on such a scale in living memory; indeed, there had been no large-scale interstellar war for centuries. It was small wonder, she considered, that there had been more than a few hitches along the way. She and her personnel were learning as they went along. The only consolation was that the Commonwealth had the same problem.

“The industrialists did suggest suing for peace,” Paula added, when Rani said nothing. “They argue that we could use a couple of years of peacetime to put the new weapons into production.”

Rani shook her head, again. There were advantages to peace – particularly if she could keep everything she had captured over the last year of hard fighting – but peace would significantly undermine her position. The factions knew there was no other candidate to lead the military, no other candidate who could command the respect of the officers and crewmen. Removing her from power in the middle of a war would be disastrous. But in peacetime, anything could happen.

“The Commonwealth would grow stronger as they put their new weapons into production,” she said, curtly. It was true enough. The Commonwealth had shown a truly distressing ability to innovate, something Wolfbane couldn’t even begin to match. “Give them long enough and they’ll find a silver bullet.”

“There’s no guarantee they will,” Paula reminded her.

“There’s no guarantee they won’t,” Rani snapped. Everyone had known that the Imperial Navy’s technology was the peak of military potential, right up until the moment the Commonwealth had introduced shield generators. Who knew what certainty would be the next to fall? “What happens if they invent a weapon that can wipe out our entire fleet overnight?”

“That’s absurd,” Paula insisted. “Surely …”

Rani snorted, rudely. She would have thought the same, once upon a time. She’d clawed her way to office rank without selling herself to her superiors, even if said superiors had tried to punish her by exiling her to Trafalgar Naval Base. And she’d had the very last laugh when Admiral Bainbridge had been shot trying to escape. But now, the government and naval bureaucracy that had stifled innovation was no longer in existence. Who knew what would become possible in the future?

“We know very little for sure,” Rani said. She turned to face the other woman. “Inform my senior officers that we will be proceeding with Operation Slam.”

Paula bowed, then withdrew. Rani sighed as she turned back to the window. It was a gamble – life itself was a gamble – but there was no choice. Time was not on her side. The dice had to be rolled once again. If she won, she’d have the power and prestige to bring the industrialists and all the other factions to heel. And if she lost … she shook her head. She wasn’t going to lose. Her life had been built on refusing to surrender when the odds seemed massively stacked against her …

And this time the odds are on my side, she thought. Supreme power will finally be mine.

She smirked. Empress Rani. She liked the sound of it.

Chapter One

The real world is a messy place.

– Professor Leo Caesius. The Role of Randomness In War.

Jasmine Yamane gritted her teeth as the wind picked up strength, fighting to hold on to the sheer cliff face. The temperature plummeted rapidly, snowflakes drifting through the air, as she carefully let go with one hand and searched for the next handhold, an inch or two higher up the cliff. Grabbing hold, she tested it carefully before inching upwards, refusing to let the climb beat her. Maybe it had been a mistake, part of her mind noted, to attempt the climb without support, but she’d gone through worse on the Slaughterhouse. She firmly refused to allow something lesser to defeat her.

She inched her way up the cliff as the snow fell faster, cold flakes of ice brushing against her suit. The Mystic Mountains were known for sudden changes in the weather, just like the badlands to the south. She’d checked the forecast before setting out from the hut, but even the military-grade system assigned to monitor the planet’s weather patterns hadn’t been able to offer a reasonable prediction of what she might encounter. A civilian might have turned back, yet Jasmine had no intention of surrendering. Marines on deployment didn’t have the luxury of abandoning a mission when they ran into a little snag.

But this weather might not be a little snag, she thought, as she finally reached the top of the cliff and pulled herself onto the ledge. The wind was growing stronger, so she secured herself to a rock before sitting down and staring at the view before her. How many missions have run into trouble because of bad weather?

She dug a ration bar out of her pocket and chewed it slowly as she took in the view. Giant mountains, rising up to vanish somewhere within the darkening clouds; great waves of snow hiding the rock beneath a layer of whiteness. The air was cold, but fresh and sharp. And nothing within view, save for Jasmine herself, to suggest that there was any human settlement nearby. Avalon really was a beautiful planet, at least in the regions untouched by human settlement. She hardly recognised Camelot these days, let alone some of the cities that had been towns when she’d first arrived on Avalon. The planet’s population had almost quadrupled in the seven years since the marines had arrived, since the Empire had abandoned them, since Avalon had become the hub of a new interstellar civilisation …

And now we are at war again, she reminded herself. The sight before her could be destroyed, easily, if Wolfbane bombarded the planet. No one had deliberately targeted planetary populations from orbit for centuries, but that might change. All the old certainties had died with the Empire. Who knows what will happen in the future?

She looked down at her gloved hands, feeling a twinge of … uncertainty. The Colonel could say what he liked, but Jasmine blamed herself for the surrender on Thule. Even in the clear light of hindsight, it was hard to see what she’d done wrong, yet she was sure she had done something wrong. An entire military unit had surrendered in the opening hours of the war and she had been the one to issue the order. And even successfully escaping a POW camp and wrecking havoc in the enemy rear wasn’t enough to wipe the slate clean. How could it be?

The Colonel said that everyone has a crisis of confidence eventually, she thought. But how did he overcome his?

It was a bitter thought. She’d gone through Boot Camp with flying colours, then survived the Slaughterhouse … only to discover, when she’d been assigned to her first company, just how much she still had to learn. And she’d survived that, only to discover that there was still much more to learn. By the time she’d been tortured on Corinthian, she’d been pushed right to the limits. And yet …

I never gave up, she told herself, firmly. Too many lives were depending on me.

She wished, as she carefully returned the remainder of the ration bar to her pocket, that she’d had a chance to go to OCS. Perhaps it would have made life easier for her, to learn the trade of an officer before taking marines into battle. But she was hardly the only person forced to learn on the job, after Avalon had lost contact with the remains of the Empire. Rumour had it that the Slaughterhouse had been destroyed, along with the infamous Death Zone. Even if she did manage to make it back to the Core Worlds, she would never be able to return to the Slaughterhouse.

You can’t go home again, she thought. And that was literally true, for her. There was no way she could return to her homeworld, even if it had still been a matter of booking a ticket on the next ship. She knew there was no way she would have fitted in. And you can’t just stop either.

She rose to her feet, testing the rope carefully, then took one last look at the white-covered mountains. Part of her was tempted to stay, to carry on exploring. She’d never really been tempted by the Survey Service, long before the Survey Service had been eviscerated by a dozen nasty budget cuts, but she could understand – now – the desire to see what lay on the other side of the hill. There were parts of the Mystic Mountains that had never been explored, even by the Mountain Men. It wasn’t as if anyone wanted to settle in the mountains when there was good farmland to the south or west …

Unless they wanted to be alone, she thought, as she carefully tested the rope before starting to abseil down the cliff. Going down was always harder, she’d found; she preferred to abseil rather than attempt to climb down without precautions. If she injured herself so badly she couldn’t trigger the emergency beacon, she would die up amidst the mountains, her body never to be found unless someone stumbled over her by sheer luck. Being up here would be very far from everyone.

Her lips quirked as she reached the bottom, then jerked the rope free. There had been a settlement on the Slaughterhouse, home to retired marines and their families. She’d often wondered if she’d wind up there, if she survived long enough to retire; now, she knew she would never see it again. But perhaps the handful of survivors might set up a new home in the mountains, miles from anywhere civilian. Merely getting there would provide the kind of challenge retired marines approved of.

Shaking her head, she turned and peered into the distance. A faint plume of smoke could be seen, rising up into the sky, as the snowfall trickled to a halt. She smiled – clearly, she was more resistant to the cold than her boyfriend – and started to walk, allowing the smoke to guide her back to the hut. It was the sort of thing, she noted as the hut came into view, that would never have been allowed on the Slaughterhouse. What sort of idiot expected a holiday hut in the middle of the Crucible?

The same sort of idiot who thinks he can pass the Crucible without a year of intensive training, she thought, wryly. And the same sort of idiot who drinks himself into a stupor the night before entering Boot Camp.

She pushed the thought to one side as she tramped up to the hut, opening the door and stumbling into the antechamber. The heat greeted her at once, sending sweat trickling down her back as she hurried to take off her shoes and remove her outer layer of clothing. She dumped the shoes by the door, then pushed open the inner door and stepped into the hut. A faint smell – she had never been able to identify it – greeted her as Emmanuel Alves rose to his feet, leaving a datapad on the table beside him. Jasmine gave her boyfriend a tight hug, then kissed him lightly on the lips.

“I heated up some soup,” Emmanuel said, as she let him go. “Do you want some now?”

“Yes, please,” Jasmine said. She’d spent the last week pushing her limits by climbing up and down the nearby mountains, but Emmanuel didn’t have anything like the training he needed to accompany her. She didn’t really begrudge it, even though it would have been nice to have the company. “It looks like it’s going to snow again, later in the day.”

“Joy,” Emmanuel said. He walked over to the wood-burning stove and checked the heavy pan on top. “Should we be worried?”

Jasmine shrugged. Truthfully, the prospect of being trapped in the hut, buried under tons of snow, didn’t bother her as much as it should have done. Years of training and experience had removed any tendency she might have had towards claustrophobia, months spent on various starships in cramped sleeping compartments had taught her how to endure even unendurable people. They could dig themselves out, if they wished, or signal for help. But she knew he might feel differently about it.

“Probably not,” she said, finally. The hut’s owners had sited it carefully, according to their brochure. Their guests could enjoy being in the midst of the mountains with minimal risk, although there was no way the risk could be eliminated entirely. “But it’s worth keeping an eye on things if the snow starts to fall faster.”

Emmanuel nodded as he ladled the soup into two bowls, then carried them over to the wooden table. Jasmine followed her, glancing around the hut and silently admiring the effort the original builder had put into his work. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t handmade, even the knives and forks. Even the water came from a stream and had to be heated on the stove, rather than warmed in a boiler. And it was more comfortable than anywhere she’d slept on the Slaughterhouse.

“Thank you,” she said, as she sat down and started to sip the soup. “It’s very good.”

“All my own work,” Emmanuel preened. “I opened those packets and mixed them myself.”

Jasmine laughed. Trying to make military rations taste better had excited the imagination of countless soldiers, but there were limits to how much the addition of hot sauce or other flavours could improve the taste of recycled cardboard. She’d disliked marine ration packs until she’d tasted army ration packs, which were worse, and Civil Guard packs, which were unspeakably vile. It explained a great deal about the Civil Guard, she felt, that their officers couldn’t be bothered attempting to source food from their postings, although they might well have a point. The Civil Guard was so loathed that it was quite possible that anyone selling them food would poison it first.

“You could probably get away with adding more sauce,” she said, as she opened the breadbin. “It would add a little more kick.”

Emmanuel rolled his eyes. “This isn’t a Tabasco-swigging contest.”

“A good thing too,” Jasmine agreed. “I lost the last one.”

She shook her head, feeling a strange mixture of price and grief. Blake Coleman had challenged a trio of Imperial Navy crewmen to see who could eat the most hot sauce, just after the deployment to Han. She had no idea how he’d managed to swallow an entire bottle of Extra-Strong Chilli sauce, but he’d won the contest handily. She’d had to give up after trying to swallow something made of green chillies. And then Blake had died … she missed him, more than she cared to admit. It wasn’t right that he’d died on a shitty little world, ruled by shitty little people who lorded over peasants who were just waiting for a chance to take power for themselves. No doubt the peasants had purged the aristocracy and then started fighting over the scraps of remaining power.

Emmanuel met her eyes. “Are you all right?”

Jasmine shrugged. Death was a fact of life. Blake Coleman had died well, unlike so many others she could mention. She knew he wouldn’t want his friends to mourn him indefinitely, although he would have taken a perverse pride in the number of women who’d appeared, afterwards, to claim they’d been his soulmate. And yet, she missed him …

Maybe I shouldn’t have let the Colonel promote me, she thought. He wouldn’t have counted it against me later on, would he?

She snorted and pushed the thought aside as she finished her soup. Blake wouldn’t have wanted her to be morbid either, she knew; he’d have teased her, endlessly, about taking a reporter to bed. But Emmanuel wasn’t one of the paid shrills who’d blighted military operations from Earth to Han, getting soldiers killed by revealing classified information ahead of time. Indeed, Jasmine had to admit that Emmanuel was a genuine reporter, more interested in ferreting out the truth than spreading lies to push a political agenda. He always put his news in context.

“I think so,” she answered, finally. She made a show of glancing at her watch. “Are you ready to go out this afternoon?”

“I suppose we might just find a decent restaurant somewhere up here,” Emmanuel said, deadpan. “Snow for starter, rocks and ice for the main course, iced snow for pudding …”

“I meant going for a long walk,” Jasmine said. Emmanuel was surprisingly fit, for a civilian, but he couldn’t keep up with her. And yet he was light years ahead of the reporters on Han, who’d eyed her as if she was a dangerous animal permanently on the verge of breaking her leash. “A very long walk.”

Emmanuel groaned, theatrically. “Must we?”

“There’s a big reward on the far side,” Jasmine said. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

“I’d be happy to chase you over the mountains,” Emmanuel said. “But catching you might be tricky.”

Jasmine smiled. Her mother had once told her that the secret to catching the right sort of man was to run away, yet not to run very fast. She’d never been quite convinced of the logic, personally, but she’d been a tough little scrapper even before she’d joined the marines. And her homeworld had a thoroughly practical attitude towards both firearms and personal defence. If she was caught by the wrong man, she could castrate him before she shot him …

Her wristcom bleeped, once. Jasmine frowned, then keyed the switch.

“Yamane,” she said. “Go ahead.”

“Brigadier,” a calm female voice said. Jasmine straightened automatically. Technically, she outranked Command Sergeant Gwendolyn Patterson now, but she wouldn’t dare to take liberties with the older woman. “I trust you had a pleasant vacation?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Jasmine said. She had the feeling her vacation had just come to a sudden halt. “The mountains are quite challenging, even in summer.”

“Good, good,” Gwendolyn said. “I’ve dispatched a Hummer to pick you and your boyfriend up for immediate transfer to Castle Rock. The colonel wants you back here ASAP.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said. She felt a flicker of the old excitement, despite her concerns about the past and her fears for the future. This was another deployment, she was sure. It couldn’t be anything else. “ETA?”

“The Hummer should be with you in thirty minutes,” Gwendolyn said. “Be ready to depart when it arrives.”

The connection broke. Jasmine stared at the wristcom for a long moment, then looked up at Emmanuel. “We’re being recalled,” she said. “Both of us.”

“It sounds that way,” Emmanuel agreed. He didn’t sound angry, but she knew he understood the realities of the job. Both of their jobs. “We’d better pack.”

Jasmine nodded and hurried into the bedroom, picking her rucksack off the floor and dumping clothes and equipment into it willy-nilly. A lifetime in military service had taught her to travel light, thankfully. Emmanuel didn’t have the same experience, but he’d learned rapidly. There were strong weight restrictions on what could be counted as personal baggage, at least on Commonwealth Navy starships. The Imperial Navy had been so keen to please the reporters that officers had often classed overweight reporter baggage as essential requirement, even though it was nothing of the sort. A reporter who tried that on the Commonwealth Navy would be lucky if his baggage was shipped home from the terminal, instead of merely being dumped.

“I don’t suppose we have time for anything special,” Emmanuel said, as he finished stuffing items into his bag. “Do we?”

“Not when we have to shut the hut down,” Jasmine said. She’d had the same thought, but duty came first. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Emmanuel said. “You come far too close to breaking my bones.”

Jasmine gave him a one-fingered gesture, then hurried back into the living room and turned off the water pipe, then glanced around to make sure they’d left nothing lying around. It was unlikely they’d have time to return to pick up anything, once the Hummer collected them.

“I thought we had another two days,” Emmanuel added. “What do you think this is about?”

“The colonel said that his staff were working on a plan,” Jasmine said. She’d been surprised when the colonel had agreed to her taking a week’s leave, even if it did suggest he had a mission in mind for her. “It might be something very interesting.”

Emmanuel leaned forward. “And decisive?”

Jasmine frowned. She’d hurt the Wolves badly, she knew, even if it had come at a terrible cost. She still had no idea what had happened to either Carl Watson or Paula Bartholomew – and killing Governor Brown had only elevated Admiral Singh to power. Jasmine had no illusions about the future. They might have won a battle, and embarrassed the Wolves, but the war was far from over.

“We will see,” she said, as she heard the sound of the approaching aircraft. New-build Hummers weren’t quite as fast as Raptors, but they’d be back at Castle Rock in less than thirty minutes. “We will see.”

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2 Responses to “SNIPPET–They Shall Not Pass”

  1. Bill Fuller March 2, 2016 at 6:53 pm #

    When will this one be released? Hope it is soon. I really enjoy your “empire corps” series. Need to write more of them!

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