Published In British Space Review, 2216
In their recent letters, the Honourable Gordon Cameron and General Sir David Brown (ret) both asserted that Britain – and humanity – has no legal obligation to go to the aid of the Tadpoles, even though human ships were attacked and destroyed during the Battle of UXS-469. They claim that we can pull back and allow the Tadpoles to face the newcomers on their own.
I could not disagree more.
The blunt truth is that the newcomers attacked a joint task force composed of ships belonging to both ourselves and the Tadpoles. They made no attempt to open communications; they merely opened fire (which is, in itself, a form of communication). Their attack came alarmingly close to capturing or destroying over thirty warships from five different nations, including the Tadpoles. They followed up by invading a number of Tadpole-held star systems, culminating with a thrust at a major colony that would, if captured, have opened up access to tramlines leading towards Tadpole Prime. Those are not the actions of the innocent victims of unthinking aggression. They are the actions of an aggressor.
We do not know – we have no way to know – what our new opponents are thinking. They may be so xenophobic that an immediate offensive is their only possible response to any alien contact, although the proof that we are in fact facing two unknown races seems to render this unlikely. Or they may merely be an aggressive, expansionist race taking advantage of the contact to snatch as much territory as possible. Given their technical advantages, we dare not assume that the whole affair is a simple misunderstanding. Nor do we dare assume that communications have merely been poorly handled and the matter will be solved through simple negotiation. We are at war.
From a cold-blooded perspective, fighting the war well away from the Human Sphere has a great deal to recommend it. Human colonies and populations will not be at risk. We can and we will trade space for time, if necessary; there will certainly be no messy political repercussions from military missteps so far from Earth. Keeping the war as far from our major worlds as possible cannot do anything, but work in our favour.
But there is another point – one of honour. We gave our word to the Tadpoles that we would uphold the Alien Contact Treaty. Are we now to welsh on the treaty we proposed and drafted? Are we now to confirm to the Tadpole Factions that humans are truly untrustworthy? And should we write off the deaths of over thirty thousand human spacers we can ill afford to lose? Their deaths cry out to be avenged.
No one would be more relieved than I, should we find a way to communicate with our unknown foes. But I have seen nothing that suggests that communication – meaningful communication – is possible. We may be dealing with a mentality that will refuse to negotiate until they are given a convincing reason to negotiate or we may be dealing with a race that we cannot talk to, whatever we do. The only way to guarantee the safety and security of the Human Sphere is to assist our allies and make it clear, to our new foes, that human lives don’t come cheap. And if we are unable to convince them to talk to us, then we must carry the offensive forward and strike deep into their territory.
The galaxy is a big place. But it may not be big enough for both of us.
Admiral Sir Tristan Bellwether, Second Space Lord (ret).
“Henry,” the First Space Lord said. He rose to his feet as Henry was shown into his office and held out a hand in greeting. “It’s been a long time.”
“Longer for you than for me,” Ambassador Henry Windsor said. He hadn’t visited Nelson Base since the endless series of debriefings, after he returned from Tadpole space. “It’s been quite some time since we served together on Ark Royal.”
“True,” the First Space Lord agreed. He shook Henry’s hand, then motioned him to take a comfortable chair. “I remember when you were just a fledging fighter pilot.”
“And I remember when you were a mere captain,” Henry said. He smiled, rather tiredly, as he took his seat. “It’s definitely been a very long time.”
He studied his former commanding officer thoughtfully as the First Space Lord ordered tea and biscuits. Admiral Sir James Montrose Fitzwilliam had been a dark-haired young man – some would say an overambitious young man – when he’d talked his way into the XO slot on HMS Ark Royal. His dark hair had shaded to grey and there were new lines on his face, but Henry still had no trouble seeing the face of the man he’d liked and respected, even when he’d been called out on the carpet for hiding his true identity from his lover. And yet, there was a strain there that Henry found somewhat disconcerting. Admiral Fitzwilliam had commanded the task force that had recovered the Pegasus System and defeated the Indians seven years ago, but it had been too long since he’d stood on a command deck.
“You’ve been back on Earth for a month,” the First Space Lord said. “How are the kids?”
“Safe on my estate,” Henry said, bluntly. “They’re complaining about being prisoners, but at least they’re safe from the parasites outside the walls.”
“The media,” the First Space Lord agreed. “And to think I thought the King intended to welcome them at court.”
Henry shook his head. “Over my dead body,” he said. “None of the girls are going to grow up in a goldfish bowl, certainly not without any real reward at the far end.”
“A commendable attitude,” the First Space Lord said. “But what are you going to do about their education?”
“I’ll hire tutors,” Henry said. He looked up as the aide reappeared, carrying a tray laden with tea and biscuits. “They’re certainly not going to boarding school.”
He sighed inwardly as the aide poured them both a cup of tea then retreated, as silently as she had come. Paeans had been written to the British Boarding School – he had a sneaky feeling that the people who’d written them had never actually been there – but his three daughters were not going to attend. He didn’t remember his school years very fondly and he’d had the advantage of being a strong boy, with unarmed combat training from a couple of his bodyguards. Being sent away from home had left scars that had never truly healed.
And it was worse for my sister, he thought. No wonder she clings so hard to the throne.
He took a sip of his tea – it was excellent, of course – and then leaned forward, resting the cup on the armrest.
“I assume you know why I’m here,” he said. “It certainly took a while to secure an appointment.”
The First Space Lord didn’t bother to dissemble. “Susan Onarina.”
“Correct,” Henry said. He met the older man’s eyes, reminding himself – sharply – that they were no longer senior officer and junior officer. “My contacts inform me that no final decision has been reached on her case.”
“That is correct,” the First Space Lord said. He shifted, uncomfortably. “There have been issues …”
“It’s been a month,” Henry interrupted.
“Collecting evidence for the Board of Inquiry can sometimes take much longer, as you well know,” the First Space Lord said. “This is a question of mutiny in the face of the enemy.”
“Bullshit,” Henry said.
The First Space Lord lifted his eyebrows. “I beg your pardon?”
Henry stared back, evenly. “Should I have said bovine faecal matter?”
He plunged on before the First Space Lord could say a word. “Let us be blunt, Admiral,” he insisted. “Susan Onarina assumed command of HMS Vanguard in the middle of a battle. I do not believe that fact is in dispute. But it is also clear that the battleship’s former commander, Captain Sir Thomas Blake, froze up in the middle of two consecutive combat operations. If she had not taken command, in the manner she did, we would be mourning an additional fifteen thousand spacers.”
“That’s one interpretation of the data,” the First Space Lord said, icily.
“It isn’t just my interpretation of the data,” Henry noted. “The Yanks have … requested … permission to award her the Navy Cross for her actions, which saved the lives of several thousand American spacers too. Captain Owen Harper – they’ve bumped him up to Commodore now – has considerable reason to be annoyed at her, but his report – which accidentally found its way across my desk – praises her to the skies. You know how touchy the Americans are about placing their ships under outside command.”
He took a breath. “I believe the only other naval officer with that honour, in recent memory, was Theodore Smith.”
Something flickered in the First Space Lord’s eyes. “The Americans do not dictate what we do – or don’t do – with our personnel.”
“No, they don’t,” Henry agreed. “But sooner or later, they’re going to actually want to award her that medal – and it will be pretty fucking embarrassing if we have to explain to the media cockroaches that she’s in Colchester awaiting court martial.”
He picked up one of his biscuits and dunked it in his tea as he spoke. “And, by law, formal court martial proceedings have to be public,” he added. “It will set the government up for an disastrous political catfight at the worst possible time.”
“She does have the option of retiring quietly,” the First Space Lord pointed out.
“Which is as good as an admission that there’s no real case against her,” Henry snapped. “I have the recordings, sir; I have the data records. Blake was a crawling sycophant who should never have been promoted above Midshipman, let alone put in command of our largest and most powerful battleship! He was damn lucky that Admiral Boskone didn’t realise just how badly he screwed up during the war games or he would probably have been brutally strangled on his own command deck.”
“Blake was a good officer, once,” the First Space Lord said, quietly.
“He wasn’t when he assumed command of Vanguard,” Henry said. He made an effort to moderate his tone. “I’m not going to second-guess the officers who put him in charge, sir, but my reading of the situation is that his former XO was covering for him. It would have taken a toll on anyone. I’m not surprised that he deserted.
“And if that gets out,” he added, “all hell is going to break loose.”
“It may still break loose,” the First Space Lord admitted. “Blake … had a number of friends in high places.”
Henry groaned. “And they’re the ones pressing for court martial,” he guessed. “Because heaven forbid that such illustrious personages ever make a fucking mistake!”
“You’re an illustrious personage,” the First Space Lord snapped. “You are still first or second in line to the throne …”
“I took myself out of the line of succession,” Henry said. “And I have never knowingly promoted someone above his level of competence.”
“Neither did they,” the First Space Lord countered. “This was a terrible surprise to them too.”
“So they’re going to destroy an innocent woman, a woman we should be hailing as a hero, to cover their arses,” Henry snarled. “And you are going to let them get away with it.”
He felt anger rising and choked it down, savagely. It was the arrogance of the aristocracy that had driven him away from it, the arrogance of people who knew they held very real power and the will to use it. And he, the Crown Prince of Great Britain and her Colonies, would have inherited nothing, if he’d taken the throne. His role had been to be nothing more than a figurehead. He honestly didn’t know why his father had chosen to stay on the throne for over thirty years. Henry knew he would have gone stir-crazy within the month.
“I have very little choice,” the First Space Lord said. “I …”
“Bullshit,” Henry said, again. “What happened to you?”
It was a struggle to keep his voice even, but he managed it. “What happened to the commander who saw fit to ignore his instructions and save his superior’s career? What happened to the captain who stood up to his admiral and told him to keep his nose out of command business? What happened to the admiral who plotted the defeat of the Indian Navy and then carried it out?”
The First Space Lord slapped his desk, making the teacups rattle. “I will not be spoken to like this.”
“Then it’s high time you remembered your duty,” Henry said, sharply. “Your duty is to the men and women under your command, the men and women wearing naval uniform and risking their lives in combat. Or have you been behind a desk long enough to forget what is really important?”
He leaned back in his chair, deliberately presenting a relaxed demeanour. “The facts of the whole affair will get out, sir,” he warned. “And when they do, the government will wind up with a shitload of rotten egg on its collective face.”
“I see,” the First Space Lord said. “Is that a threat?”
“Merely a statement,” Henry said. “There isn’t a naval force in the Human Sphere that doesn’t have copies of the combat records. I’m surprised they haven’t leaked already. And those combat records include statements from Captain Harper and myself. Once they leak …”
He leaned forward. “Once they leak, everyone will see the government covering its arse at the expense of a genuine naval heroine’s career,” he added. “God damn it, sir; you know how fragile the government’s position is right now. The Opposition will not hesitate to take the whole affair and use it as a stick to beat the government to death. And then we will run the risk of losing the right to promote our own officers without obtaining governmental permission, in triplicate.
“And you, the person who should be defending her, is sitting on the sidelines muttering about politics!”
“I cannot afford to risk my position, not now,” the First Space Lord snapped. “If I …”
“And what,” Henry asked, “would Theodore Smith think of that?”
The First Space Lord glared at him, his jaw working incoherently. Henry watched him, wondering absently if he was about to be kicked out of the older man’s office. The First Space Lord was no coward, whatever Henry might have implied. His pride might lead him into a damaging political fight with no clear winner – with no possible winner – if he listened to it, rather than Henry.
“I suspect he might have changed, if he’d had to do battle with this job and it’s excessive paperwork,” the First Space Lord said, rather coldly. He picked up his cup and took a long sip, clearly calming himself. “What do you propose?”
Henry carefully hid his smile. He’d won.
“I assume you know who backed Blake for command of Vanguard,” he said. “Get them up here and explain, as thoroughly as you can, that Blake screwed up twice – and, the second time, he got a great many people killed. There’s no way they can pin it on poor Susan Onarina. They may destroy her career, if they try, but the facts will come out and Blake will be turned into a scapegoat for the entire battle.”
“They may not go for that,” the First Space Lord said.
“A handful of them will be former naval personages themselves,” Henry said. It was traditional for the aristocracy to send at least one or two of their children into the military, normally the Royal Navy. “They’ll understand. And the ones who aren’t will have someone to explain it to them, even if they have to use words of one syllable. They may not grasp the complexities of a naval engagement, but they will understand looming political disaster.”
“I confess I don’t share your faith in their rationality,” the First Space Lord mused.
Henry shrugged. There was no shortage of inbred idiots amongst the British Aristocracy – in his nastier moments, he wondered if his sister had only one or two working brain cells – but the ones who managed to reach high rank tended to be very competent indeed. And they would be ruthless enough to drop Blake like a hot rock, if patronising him raised the spectre of watching helplessly as their own positions were undermined.
“We will see,” he said.
He took a breath. “At that point, you will inform them that the Board of Inquiry has decided that Captain Susan Onarina acted in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, etcetera, etcetera and that it has recommended that she be confirmed as Vanguard’s commanding officer. You will, of course, accept this recommendation. And when they protest, as they will, you will also tell them that the Board of Inquiry has recommended that Captain Blake be given a medical discharge from the Royal Navy. They will, I am sure, regard it as a way out of the mess they’ve managed to get themselves into.”
“And grab it with both hands,” the First Space Lord observed. “Do you think the Board of Inquiry will cooperate?”
“A fair-minded Board of Inquiry will definitely produce a report that backs my conclusions,” Henry pointed out. “Right now, I suspect they’re worried about the effects on their careers if they produce the wrong report, without actually knowing which one is the wrong report. And if they seem reluctant, you can merely order them to come to the right conclusions.”
“Boards of Inquiry hate being leant on,” the First Space Lord said.
“But it is a defensiable position,” Henry said. “And if it blows up, it will blow up in your face, not theirs.”
“I’m starting to think you don’t like me anymore,” the First Space Lord commented. He smiled, rather thinly. “You’ve changed, Henry.”
“I was an ambassador for over a decade,” Henry said. He bit down the urge to ask just how much respect an admiral who was prepared to throw one of his subordinates under the shuttlecraft deserved. His former commander was caught between two fires. “I still am, technically. And I have learned a great deal about how the universe works in that time.”
The First Space Lord smiled, again. “And what about Blake himself?”
“My impression of him, towards the end of the voyage home, was one of relief,” Henry said, honestly. “I think he will accept his pension and fade into obscurity.”
He sighed, inwardly. Captain Blake hadn’t impressed him, but the First Space Lord was right. Blake had been a good officer once, before he’d lost his nerve. Henry would have been sorry for him if he’d been smart enough to request relief before the shit hit the fan, but he understood. No officer would request relief if there was any way it could be avoided, knowing that it meant the near-certainty of never seeing command again.
You wouldn’t have done it either, he told himself, dryly. Would you?
He shook his head, dismissing the thought. He’d been a starfighter pilot. Even towards the end of the war, he’d never progressed beyond Squadron Commander … and only then because everyone above him had been killed. The Admiralty had promoted him to captain when he’d retired, but he’d never commanded a warship and probably never would.
“I will trust that you are right,” the First Space Lord said. He cocked his head. “Might I ask why you chose to beard me in my den?”
“The new aliens attacked us,” Henry said. “They made no attempt to contact us; they made no attempt, either, to sound us out before opening fire. Even the Tadpoles watched us from stealth before the war began. But these new aliens? Their behaviour is insane, which worries me. Either they were waiting for us to enter their system before attacking or they merely attacked us on sight …”
“That’s nothing new,” the First Space Lord said, sharply.
“No, it isn’t,” Henry agreed. He’d spent most of the last month closeted with the xenospecialists as they struggled to make sense of what few scraps had been recovered from damaged or destroyed alien ships. If politics – damnable politics hadn’t drawn him away, he would be there still. “But we are at war, sir. We need every capable officer we have …”
He leaned forward. “And destroying a young officer’s career for saving her ship – and a dozen others – is a dangerous mistake,” he added. “What sort of message does that send to the navy? Or have you been off the command deck for too long?”
“Touché,” the First Space Lord said. He nodded, slowly. “It will be done as you suggest, Henry. And I suggest” – his voice hardened – “that you don’t speak to me that again.”
“Of course, sir,” Henry said. Why would he? He’d won the argument. “It was a pleasure meeting you again.”
“I’m sure it was,” the First Space Lord said. He rose, terminating the meeting. “My aide will show you back to your shuttle, Henry.”
“Thank you,” Henry said. He rose, too. “And you will tell Susan – Captain Onarina – the good news in person?”
“I suppose I should,” the First Space Lord said. The hatch opened; his aide hurried into the chamber. “Be seeing you, Henry.”
“I’m sure you will,” Henry said. He shook his former commander’s hand, then turned to the hatch. “But right now you have a war to fight.”