“I refuse to believe,” Lord Cleric Eliseus snarled, “that we are losing the war.”
Speaker Nehemiah kept his face carefully blank as the Lord Cleric ranted in front of the entire Speakers Council, accusing the unfortunate intelligence officer of everything from making up his figures to outright heresy and unbelief. He didn’t want to believe what he was being told, none of them did. The thought of losing the war, the war which had begun with such promise eighteen months ago, was unthinkable. But it had to be faced.
“Enough,” he said, sharply.
Eliseus spun around to face him. “Speaker, do you believe that we are losing the war?”
Nehemiah looked back at him, evenly. Eliseus was a fanatic. There was no one more determined to uphold the Theocracy – and the True Faith – than himself. And Nehemiah would be the first to admit that fanatics had their uses. But when it came to contemplating the cold hard numbers – and the possibility of losing the war – fanatics were nothing more than dangerous liabilities.
He ignored the question. “Continue,” he ordered the intelligence officer. “Summarise the data for us.”
“Yes, Your Holiness,” Commodore Ruthven said.
He swallowed hard, then continued. “Over the last eighteen months, the Commonwealth has switched its economy onto a war footing and commenced mass production of warships, gunboats, freighters and everything else necessary to sustain a war. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to impede their production to any significant extent. In addition, they have recruited vast numbers of starship crew and soldiers from their subject worlds, ensuring that their manpower shortage is a thing of the past. We had hoped that integrating so many personnel from so many worlds would cause them problems, but they appear to have coped with them admirably.”
Nehemiah kept his face still, even as he felt a flicker of discontent. The Commonwealth had been having problems as it struggled to integrate so many worlds into its political and economic union, but the war had pushed those problems aside. In hindsight, it had been a mistake to move to convert the occupied worlds as soon as possible. There might be strife between the Tyre-born and the colonials, but both sides knew that they had to work together or be destroyed. The Theocracy wouldn’t give them a peace they could live with and they knew it.
“Our own economy is on the verge of imploding,” Ruthven continued. He carefully did not look at the Speakers charged with overseeing the economy. “Our war production has shrunk remarkably in the last six months; production of everything from starships to missile warheads has declined sharply. Indeed, we only managed to launch four superdreadnaughts since the start of the war; the enemy, damn them to hell, has launched twenty. And, thanks to enemy raiding parties operating behind our lines, we have problems getting supplies to the war front. We simply cannot afford to keep losing freighters at this rate.”
“The crews are treacherous,” Speaker Adam snapped. “They cannot be trusted!”
“They’re unbelievers,” Nehemiah said. “What do you expect?”
He rubbed his eyes tiredly. The Theocracy had poured resources into its battle fleet, building up the largest military machine it could … but it had neglected the sinews of war. Supporting the vast fleet hadn’t been easy before the war; now, it was almost impossible. The Commonwealth’s tactic of raiding transport convoys was paying off for them. Either the Theocracy recalled ships from the front to escort convoys, thus weakening the defence lines, or the freighters were blown out of space. The Commonwealth won either way.
And hiring outsiders to transport our supplies has backfired, he thought. They start planning to leave as soon as they get a good look at us.
Ruthven kept talking. “Our sources within the Commonwealth agree that the enemy intends to begin a major offensive within the next three months,” he said. “They will start by evicting us from the occupied worlds, followed by a thrust through the Gap and into Theocratic Space. I do not believe that they have grasped our current weakness, or just how far ahead of us they are, but they will find out when they begin their offensive. We are in no state to keep them from achieving their goals and stabbing deeper into our space.”
He paused. “The war will soon come to an end.”
“No,” Eliseus snapped. “Our men will fight …”
“And they will lose,” Ruthven said.
Nehemiah held up a hand before Eliseus could say a word. “Explain.”
Ruthven bowed his head. “Our forces are weakening fast,” he said. “We have significant shortages of everything from spare parts to missiles and other weapons systems. Worse, we have been unable to run basic maintenance cycles. As a result, too many of our remaining superdreadnaughts are not at full combat efficiency – and won’t be without a long stay in the yards. There have been accidents – long strings of accidents – that have cost lives and destroyed morale. Our forces are brittle, Your Holiness. When the enemy attacks – and they will – our forces will break.”
“Impossible,” Eliseus snarled.
“The figures speak for themselves,” Ruthven said. He spoke like a man who had nothing left to lose. “We cannot counter hard numbers with faith.”
He leaned back, slightly. “We could kill ten of theirs for every one of ours,” he added. “And we would still lose.”
“The Commonwealth is weak,” Eliseus said. He turned to Nehemiah. “They could not endure such losses.”
“Assuming we could inflict them,” Nehemiah said.
“We can,” Eliseus insisted.
Nehemiah ignored him. The war had been intended to be short and victorious. Instead, it was turning into a long war of attrition … a war they couldn’t hope to win. Already, rumours were spreading through the Theocracy, rumours that couldn’t be stopped no matter how many unbelievers were purged. The population outside was starting to doubt their leaders … and resent the demands placed on them by the war effort. And there were rumours of resistance cells on planets that had been quiet, only two years ago.
And we can’t even move additional troops to reinforce the occupying forces, he thought. We don’t have the shipping any longer.
He closed his eyes for a long moment as the table started to babble. The fanatics, like Eliseus, would demand that the war be continued, despite the cost. Their faith in ultimate victory was unshakable. But others would be considering their own futures. They’d profited hugely through their positions and they wouldn’t want to lose them.
Speaker Adam leaned forward. “Perhaps we should sue for peace.”
“Impossible,” Eliseus roared.
Nehemiah allowed the table to finish shouting its outrage, then looked at Ruthven. “Can we sue for peace?”
Ruthven grew even paler. “Your Holiness, they will not accept peace on any terms we would consider acceptable,” he warned. “They want to ensure that we will no longer be a threat to them.”
And we don’t have any leverage to convince them otherwise, Nehemiah thought. Or do we?
He thought rapidly as the table erupted once again. Now the suggestion had been made … it could not be withdrawn. The thought of ending the war on any terms other than total victory was unthinkable – no, it had been unthinkable. Now … Nehemiah would be happy to end the wretched war on the basis of a return to the status quo ante bellum, but the Commonwealth would not. And why should it? The Commonwealth was on the verge of winning the war.
Unless we can force them to pay a high price for victory, he told himself. The idea was gelling in his mind. It was a gamble, but they had nothing to lose. Besides, God was on their side. And if the price is too high, they might accept a compromise peace.
He cleared his throat, bringing the argument to an end. “We have to convince them to agree to a truce,” he said. They would listen to him, in the end, because they were desperate. The war had to be ended on acceptable terms. “This is what we’re going to do.”
“Transit complete, Captain,” Lieutenant Matthew Gross said. “We have entered the system.”
“No enemy contacts detected,” Lieutenant-Commander Cecelia Parkinson added, studying her console carefully. “I’m not detecting any starships within sensor range.”
Captain Sir William McElney sucked in his breath. HMS Thunderchild had slipped out of hyperspace on the very edge of the system, where there was no reason to expect to encounter enemy warships on patrol, but it was just possible that the Theocrats might have installed extensive deep space monitoring arrays. They were immensely expensive, even by the Commonwealth’s standards, yet the Theocracy needed them. Hebrides was right in the middle of the war front.
“Take us into cloak,” he ordered, quietly. The tactical display updated, again. A handful of freighters were making their way to and from the system’s largest gas giant, but otherwise the system appeared to be empty. He knew it was an illusion. “And then set course for Hebrides.”
“Aye, Captain,” Gross said. “Course laid in.”
“Take us there,” William ordered.
He leaned back in his command chair as the starship picked up speed. Hebrides had never had the industrial base of Tyre – his homeworld had been a stage-two colony before the Breakaway Wars – but his people were industrious. The loans and equipment the Commonwealth had offered them, during the first few years of Commonwealth membership, had been used to establish a whole network of mining stations and industrial nodes. They’d even produced a second cloudscoop to match the one the Commonwealth had installed, years ago. But now the system was as cold and still as the grave. The installations his people had produced were gone.
They wouldn’t have let them fall into enemy hands, he thought. The battle for Hebrides had been savage, but the outcome had been foreordained from the start. They’d have destroyed everything that couldn’t be removed before it was too late.
He couldn’t help feeling a wave of nostalgia, mixed with an odd sense that he no longer fitted in on his homeworld. It had been decades since he’d left, decades since he’d joined the Royal Navy … he’d thought about retiring and going home, but never very seriously. Only a handful of his family remained alive on the barren rock – his only surviving brother had left too – and he hadn’t been very close to any of them. He’d hated the planet’s leaders with a passion …
… But they didn’t deserve to be occupied by the Theocracy.
No one does, he thought. The bastards couldn’t even bother to wait for the end of the war before they started converting the population.
He shuddered at the thought. He’d seen the recordings from Hebrides, from Cadiz, from a dozen other unfortunate worlds that had been occupied by the Theocracy. And he’d listened as countless refugees told their stories, warning the Commonwealth’s population of the fate that was in store for them if they lost the war. The entire planetary government would be slaughtered, along with all military and religious personnel; men would be expected to learn to pray, women would be forced to remain in their homes, children would be educated in Theocratic schools … even if Hebrides was liberated tomorrow, William thought, the damage to her society would take generations to fix.
But my people are tough, he thought. They will resist.
ONI insisted that Hebrides was still resisting the Theocracy. And, while William had learned to take ONI’s pronouncements with a grain of salt, he had to admit that Hebrides was definitely well-prepared for a long-term insurrection. The population was composed of stubborn men and women, most of whom had weapons and knew how to use them. And while other planets might be cowed by the threat of orbital bombardment, Hebrides had few population centres that could be threatened. There would be a planet-wide resistance, William was sure. But it couldn’t hope to do more than sting the Theocracy without outside help.
Which is why we’re here, he reminded himself. It’s time to drive the bastards out of the system, once and for all.
He couldn’t help feeling a surge of very mixed feelings. He knew the Commonwealth had needed time to build up its navy, he knew the Commonwealth needed to protect the stage-four and stage-five worlds ahead of the others … but he still couldn’t help feeling as though the Commonwealth had left Hebrides to suffer. Hebrides had nothing, save for location – and, realistically, it didn’t have enough of a location to make up for its other defects. Liberating his homeworld had always been a very low priority.
But we’re coming now, he thought.
The hours ticked by, slowly, as Thunderchild slipped towards the planet. William cursed under his breath as new icons flickered to life on the display; two enemy superdreadnaught squadrons, holding station in high orbit. They didn’t seem to have many flankers, he noted; there were only five destroyers and two ships that resembled converted freighters. But then, the Theocracy was running short of escorts. They probably hoped the superdreadnaughts could take care of themselves.
Which is careless, William thought. Every missile taken out by a flanker is one that won’t threaten the superdreadnaught itself.
He rose and paced over to the tactical console. “Analysis?”
“They’re not in good shape, Captain,” Cecelia said. She tapped an enemy icon on the display. “They’re running constant near-orbit scans, but their sensor emissions look a little ragged; I’d say they’re trying to keep their system constantly ramped up and some of their components are burning out. And this ship” – she pointed to a second icon – “has some very odd fluctuations in her drive fields. I’d bet good money that she’s lost at least one, perhaps two, of her nodes.”
“No bet,” William said. “And the freighters?”
“They’ve got mil-grade drives,” Cecelia said. She sniffed, rudely. “It’s impossible to be sure, Captain, but I think there’s a very real risk they’d rip themselves apart if they brought their drives up to full power.”
William wasn’t so sure. The Theocracy’s starship designers were inferior to the Commonwealth’s, but they weren’t stupid. They wouldn’t have put such a drive in a freighter unless they were sure she could handle it. And that meant …
He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “What do you think they are?”
“I’d guess they were Q-Ships,” Cecelia said, after a moment. She looked up at him, thoughtfully. “But they’re a bit obvious for Q-Ships. They might be gunboat carriers.”
“Perhaps,” William said. He’d bet on the latter, personally. Unless the Theocracy was trying to intimidate potential raiders … but really, the raiding parties that had been sent into enemy space wouldn’t be particularly intimidated. Capturing enemy freighters was all very well and good, yet the Commonwealth’s objectives would be served just as well by blowing the suspect vessel out of space from a safe distance. “Keep a sharp eye on them.”
“Aye, Captain,” Cecelia said.
She smiled, thinly. “My overall analysis is that both squadrons are in trouble,” she added. “I think they really need a few months in the yard.”
William nodded. It was a general rule of thumb that a starship, particularly anything as big as a superdreadnaught, required at least three months in the yard per year. Even in the Commonwealth, where engineering crews knew what they were doing and why they were doing it, the ships needed to spend some time in the yards. But the Theocracy was running its fleet ragged. William had a feeling that his opposite numbers aboard the enemy ships were just waiting, biting their nails, to see what failed next.
And to think I thought Uncanny was bad, he thought. These ships are in worse condition.
“See if you can pick out any specific weaknesses,” he ordered. “If you can, add them to the tactical matrix.”
“Aye, Captain,” Cecelia said.
William felt a flicker of pride as he turned and walked back to his chair. He’d never been a father, but he couldn’t help feeling a certain paternalistic pride in the officer Cecelia had become. The young midshipwoman he’d met on Lightning had turned into a confident capable officer who would probably be on the shortlist for a command of her own, after she served a term as XO. And she’d probably do a good job of that too.
He sat down and studied the report from the analysis department. They largely agreed with Cecelia’s conclusions, although there were a few refinements. The enemy ships seemed to be permanently on combat alert, even though the Commonwealth hadn’t raided the system in months. William had no idea if the enemy was being paranoid or merely trying to make a good show, but he knew it couldn’t be good for their equipment … or their crew. No crew could remain on alert indefinitely. By now, the poor bastards would be worn down so badly they’d probably be falling asleep at their stations.
And getting flogged when they’re caught, he thought. He’d heard enough about what passed for discipline in the Theocratic Navy to be very glad he didn’t serve in it. The poor bastards are treated like shit by absolutely everyone.
“Captain,” Cecelia said. “I have an update on the planet itself.”
“Show me,” William said.
He felt an odd pang as a holographic image of the planet appeared in front of him. Hebrides was a greenish orb. Unusually for a life-bearing world, most of her surface area was land rather than sea, patches of greenery broken by towering mountains that reached up towards the skies. He remembered climbing some of them as a child, back before the pirates had started to raid his homeworld. Even now, there were mountains that had never been climbed, by anyone. But they’d claimed dozens of lives …
“A number of settlements have been destroyed,” Cecelia said. “And the enemy appears to have installed a couple of PDCs near Lothian.”
“That’s bad,” William said. Two PDCs couldn’t hope to defend the planet alone, not without the fleet, but they could make life difficult for the landing force. “Can you determine their current status?”
“No, Captain,” Cecelia said. “They’re not emitting any sensor radiation.”
William shook his head. Task Force Hebrides had more than enough firepower – and marines – to deal with two PDCs, even if they did put up a fight. The real danger lay in the enemy superdreadnaughts, but they would still be massively outgunned. In their place, William would have retreated the moment Task Force Hebrides showed itself. There was nothing to be gained by sacrificing two squadrons of superdreadnaughts in a futile attempt to keep a useless world. Hell, he wasn’t sure why the Theocracy hadn’t cut its losses years ago. It wasn’t as if Hebrides was going to pose a threat to their rear.
He leaned back in his chair. If there were any other enemy ships – or installations – within the system, they were very well hidden. But they were also irrelevant. Hebrides was the sole prize … and besides, the opportunity to crush two squadrons of superdreadnaughts was not one to miss. Task Force Hebrides had more than enough firepower to smash them.
“Helm, take us to the first waypoint,” he ordered. “Tactical, start preparing to deploy the first set of sensor platforms.”
“Aye, Captain,” Gross said. A low quiver ran through the light cruiser as she altered course. “ETA seven minutes.”
William kept a sharp eye on the display. The recon platforms were heavily stealthed – he knew from experience that they were almost impossible to detect, even at point-blank range – but Thunderchild would never be more vulnerable than when she was deploying the platforms. A alert sensor officer might just pick up something that would alert him to Thunderchild’s presence – and, if his commanding officer took him seriously, he might dispatch a couple of destroyers to sweep local space. William had no doubt he could avoid contact long enough to make a clean getaway, but the enemy would be alerted. They’d know the Commonwealth was planning an offensive.
And they might have a chance to capture one of the platforms too, he thought, sourly. That would get us all in deep shit.
His face darkened at the thought. The Theocracy was unlikely to be able to reverse-engineer anything they captured, at least quickly enough to matter, but there were other multistar political entities out there. ONI had warned, in considerable detail, that certain powers were negotiating with the Theocracy, trading weapons and supplies for samples of Commonwealth technology. William wasn’t sure just how seriously to take it, but he had to admit it was a valid concern. The Commonwealth-Theocracy War was the first true interstellar war fought between peer powers. Every naval force worthy of the name would be frantically studying the war and trying to determine what lessons could be learned from it before they too had to go to war.
Starting with not allowing a complete idiot to take command of a major fleet base, William thought, feeling a flicker of cold amusement. If Admiral Morrison had done his fucking job …
“Captain,” Gross said. “We have reached the first waypoint.”
“Very good,” William said. The enemy squadrons didn’t look to be any more alert, but it was impossible to be sure. He couldn’t help wondering if the enemy ships would decay into complete uselessness if left alone. “Deploy the recon platform.”
“Aye, Captain,” Cecelia said.
William tensed. He would have preferred to deploy the platform much further away from the planet, but his briefing had made it clear that they needed the platform as close to the planet as possible. It wasn’t just a recon platform, not really. Many of the details were classified well above his pay grade, but he’d picked up enough hints to know that it was connected to a whole new weapons system. And if it worked …
Another good reason to test the system here, he thought. No one will notice if the system fails.
“Platform deployed,” Cecelia said. “No sign of enemy reaction.”
William wasn’t reassured. In his experience, it could take time to convince a commanding officer to investigate a potential disturbance … longer if the commanding officer needed to speak to his commanding officers. And if the enemy commander decided to play it smart, he might be careful not to do anything to warn William while the enemy ships readied themselves for action. But there was no time to wait and see what the enemy did.
“Establish the laser link, then move us to the second waypoint,” he ordered. “Do not lose contact with the platform.”
“Aye, Captain,” Gross said.
William had to smile at the flicker of indignation in Gross’s voice. He was a very good helmsman. But then, stealthed platforms had been lost before and, while there was an omnidirectional radio beacon mounted on the platform, triggering it would alert the enemy to their presence. The platform would have to be destroyed instead of recovered.
“Laser link firmly in place, Captain,” Cecelia reported.
“Reaching second waypoint,” Gross added.
“Deploy the second platform,” William ordered.
He kept a wary eye on the enemy ships as Thunderchild deployed the remaining platforms, one by one, but the enemy showed no hint that they were aware of his ship’s presence. They didn’t even seem to be exercising, although that proved nothing. The vast majority of shipboard functions could be practiced through simulations, even though there was no true substitute for a live-fire exercise. But if half of his suspicions were accurate, the Theocratic ships were in no state for anything. A live-fire exercise might end in tragedy.
Just like it nearly did for Uncanny, he mused. The thought of his first command cost him a pang, even though the heavy cruiser had died well. And they don’t have the ships or men to spare.
“Captain,” Cecelia snapped. “One of the superdreadnaughts just fired on the planet.”
William swung around to stare at her. “At what?”
“A town, five hundred kilometres from Lothian,” Cecelia said. Her voice was tightly controlled. “They dropped at least seven KEWs, mid-sized weapons.”
Bastards, William thought. Seven KEWs would be more than enough to utterly devastate the town. If anything, it was massive overkill. What are they doing down there?
He had a feeling he knew the answer. The Theocracy’s theology insisted that anyone who resisted, anyone who did not cheerfully accept the True Faith as soon as they heard it, was nothing more than a devil-spawned heretic. They weren’t just wrong, they were wilfully wrong. William didn’t care to follow the logic – or the complete lack of it – but he didn’t need to follow it to know where it led. Anyone the Theocracy classed as a heretic could be enslaved or killed at will.
And there will be an awful lot of heretics on my homeworld, he thought. We don’t give in that easily.
It looked bloodless on the display, falling icons touching the planet and flickering out of existence. But he knew what it was like to be under the enemy weapons when they struck the surface. The entire town would have been smashed flat, anyone unlucky enough to be inside killed before they realised that they were under attack. And enemy kill-teams would follow up, sweeping the surrounding area to catch anyone who might have managed to escape. He knew, all too well, what they would do to anyone unlucky enough to be caught. Or, for that matter, anyone unlucky enough to live too close to the blast zone.
We’re coming, he promised the planet silently. You will be free soon.
“Take us back into deep space,” he ordered. There was nothing they could do now, but once they linked up with the remainder of the task force … the Theocracy was in for a nasty shock. “We’ll slip back into hyperspace once we’ve crossed the system limits.”
“Aye, Captain,” Gross said.
Ten hours later, HMS Thunderchild departed the system as stealthily as she’d arrived.