We Lead (Ark 9)–Snippet

7 Dec

Prologue

From: Vice Admiral Joanna Wallenberg, Royal Navy Public Relations Dept

To: Admiral Sir James Montrose Fitzwilliam, First Space Lord

Subject: War Weariness

Classification: Top Secret, UK Eyes-Only

Admiral.

As per your instructions, my department has conducted and completed a survey of both the economic effects of the ongoing war and the public’s attitude to same.

It is, of course, difficult to correctly assess the public’s attitude to anything. However, there is a growing sense of war weariness amongst the working population. There is, if you will pardon the expression, no sense that Britain – and Earth – is under threat, despite the casualties from the Battle of UXS-469. These are not the days of the First Interstellar War, let alone the Troubles or the Second World War. While public respect for the Royal Navy – and the armed forces in general – remains high, there is growing concern that our boys and girls are being sent to fight an unnecessary war hundreds of light years from Earth.

This is not, unfortunately, surprising. The decade since the Battle of Earth has seen a great deal of reconstruction – and a corresponding upswing in patriotism – but it has also seen a vast percentage of our GNP devoted to rebuilding the navy and expanding our colonial holdings outside Sol. While this has obvious benefits, those benefits have largely failed to trickle down to the majority of society. Indeed, a number of MPs were calling for cutting the military budget before the Anglo-Indian War. The fact that those voices have been largely silenced, in the wake of the brief hostilities, should not delude us into thinking that they have gone away.

The economic picture is a little more hazy. On one hand, the vast investment in shipyards, starships and colonial materials has uplifted the remainder of the economy, particularly as many trained workers have gone on to open their own businesses. But on the other hand, the cost of paying for this infrastructure is a major drain on the British taxpayer. Long-term investments outside the space sector have been limited by the endless demands from the treasury for additional taxes. The emergency spending bill, which passed through Parliament last year, has only made matters worse. A little bird tells me that several corporations are seriously considering attempting to shift their headquarters to Luna City or even further afield.

This is not something to take lightly. If a sizable percentage of our population comes to believe that our resources are being squandered, or that our navel personal are dying for nothing, we may expect political unrest in the near future. The post-Troubles taboo on criticizing the police and military has been broken. Sooner or later, someone will give voice to that unrest. Furthermore, if the average citizen decides that the colonists are draining Britain of her wealth, he will come to resent them. That is a recipe for trouble. It would be unwise, indeed, to repeat the mistakes of the past!

From a purely cold-blooded point of view, it is better – far better – to fight the war in Tadpole space, rather than the Human Sphere. Better the Tadpoles get devastated than us. But from a political point of view, the sheer distance between Earth and UXS-469 is dangerous. It makes it hard for our government to convince the population that the war is genuinely necessary. And failing to sell the war to the public will eventually lead to political resistance.

Unfortunately, I have no easy solution to this problem. We are already running the standard ‘Life in the Royal Navy’ documentaries, as well as every other trick developed over the last century to make sure the public does not forget to whom it owes its safety. However, there are grounds for belief that the effects are limited. The public may admire and respect the military, but it is less convinced of the value of fighting so far from our homeworld.

Worse, there is a growing suspicion that other countries are not pulling their weight. The US, France and China have been stanch upholders of the Alien Contact Treaty, along with our Commonwealth allies, but Japan, India, Russia and Brazil have not. Nor, too, have other countries. They have proven unwilling to commit either the required percentage of their GNP or actual naval units. The impression that we are the sole nation pouring out blood and treasure in upholding the treaties, however inaccurate, is not one we can allow to spread. But I see no way to prevent it.

In short, sir, I believe this war must be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible.

Chapter One

Captain Susan Onarina opened her eyes, feeling oddly lazy. She’d served in the navy long enough to feel that she should be jumping out of her bunk and hurrying to the mess before her first shift began, but she wasn’t on her ship. The ever-present background hum was gone. Instead, she was lying in her old bed in her old room, back in London Town. She took a breath and smiled in anticipation as she breathed in the familiar scent. Her father was cooking downstairs.

She glanced at her terminal out of habit, but there were no priority messages demanding her immediate attention. HMS Vanguard was in good hands, apparently. The latest set of refits were going smoothly. Susan wished, despite herself, that she was back on her ship, but she knew she’d had to take some leave or the ship’s doctor would have complained. And besides, she’d had to spend several weeks at the MOD, being debriefed after Operation Unity.

Which makes a pleasant change from waiting to find out if I was going to be shoved in front of a court martial board, she thought, wryly. She was still surprised she’d been promoted after relieving her previous commanding officer of his command. But it’s still a pain when I should be back on the ship.

She sat upright and looked around. Her room had always been small, but it felt smaller now she was a grown woman. The bed was barely large enough for her, even though she was used to bunking in Middy Country. Her father hadn’t changed anything since Susan had taken the shuttle to the academy to start her training. The posters of Stellar Star – and two pop singers who’d gone out of fashion a decade ago – were still hanging from the walls. Her chest of drawers, on the far side of the room, remained untouched. She couldn’t help feeling, as she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up, that her old clothes and possessions remained untouched too.

Better to donate them to the nearest charity shop, she thought, as she walked into the shower and turned on the water, allowing it to splash over her body. It isn’t as if I need them any longer.

She allowed herself a tight smile as she washed herself clean, then stepped back into the bedroom and reached for her underwear. As a mixed-race child in London – and a poor one at that – her early life had never been easy, even though her father had taught her how to fight. Her first set of schoolmates had been poor too, all things considered; her second set of schoolmates had been wealthy enough to buy and sell a thousand of her, if they’d wanted to convert their trust funds to cash. They’d mocked and belittled the scholarship girl who’d never quite fitted in …

… But she’d proved herself. And that was all that mattered.

She finished dressing, then opened the top drawer and studied the photographs. The young girl she’d been – with a brilliant smile – had been replaced by a gawky adolescent, then by a newly-minted naval officer in a midshipwoman’s dress uniform. She held the latter up for a long moment, realising just how far she’d come. That young woman hadn’t known she’d have to relieve a commanding officer, let alone run the risk of being hung. Shaking her head, she put the photograph back in the drawer and removed another one. Her parents smiled out at her on their wedding day. They hadn’t known, either, that death would separate them in a few short years.

And being motherless didn’t help either, Susan thought, sourly. Everyone thought it was only a matter of time until my father remarried or got deported.

She studied the photograph for a long moment, wishing she had more memories of her mother. A white woman with long blonde hair and a brilliant smile … Susan looked in the mirror, silently comparing herself to her mother. Her skin was dark brown, her hair was black, but her cheekbones were identical. She had her father’s dark eyes in her mother’s face. And maybe …

“Susan,” her father called from downstairs. “Food!”

“Coming,” Susan shouted.

She hastily returned the photographs and shut the drawer, silently promising herself that she’d come back after breakfast and clear them out. Too many of her old possessions were useless now, even though her father had preserved them. The clothes, the shoes, the handful of books and trinkets … she hoped, suddenly, that her father hadn’t found some of her more embarrassing possessions. Grown adult or not, knowing that her father knew about them would be awkward as hell.

The stairs creaked uncomfortably as she made her way down and into the kitchen. Her father’s restaurant – and the apartment above it – was solid, but parts of it looked shabby as hell. The handful of photographs nesting on the walls only made it look worse. She’d always been embarrassed to bring her friends home, fearing their reaction. And yet, the ancient building had survived the bombardment when so many others had fallen down, when the ground shook. Her father had had the last laugh.

She fell back into old habits as she entered, laying the table while Romeo Onarina – her father – stirred the pot over the stove. Susan never been allowed to laze around as a child, unlike far too many of her schoolmates. She felt a flicker of embarrassment, mixed with shame, at just how badly she’d resented her chores as a child. And yet, they’d helped prepare her for boarding school and a naval career. Her father, bless him, had known what he’d been doing. She sat down and waited, smiling, as her father picked up the pot and carried it over to the table. The smell was heavenly.

“Best compo,” her father said, cheerfully. “You’ll love it.”

Susan had to smile. Her father had been a soldier – and an acknowledged expert in turning inedible rations into something people could eat. He might not serve compo to his customers – she hoped he didn’t serve compo to his customers – but she’d eaten quite a few makeshift dinners when she’d been growing up. Some of them had been surprisingly tasty, given what had gone into them; others, less pleasantly, had tasted of cardboard or worse. But he hadn’t made her compo for breakfast, thankfully. Instead, the scent of brown stew chicken rose to her nostrils.

She leaned back and studied her father as he started to ladle stew into her bowl. He was black, his dark hair trimmed close to his scalp in a distinctly military manner. His dark eyes sparkled with amusement, even though he rarely smiled with his lips. It still felt odd to be taller than him, even though she’d matched and exceeded his height back when she’d turned eighteen. Part of her still felt like a child in front of her father.

Her father sat down facing her, then motioned for her to tuck in. Susan did, savouring the taste of chicken and spices. Her father ground his own, she knew, following a recipe that had been handled down from his grandmother. Susan had only met the formidable woman once, during a brief visit to Jamaica, but she believed it. Her great-grandmother had been a remarkable cook.

No wonder the restaurant is so successful, she thought, wryly. There aren’t many places like it in London now.

“Sandy was asking about you,” her father said. “I believe he’s still unmarried.”

Susan snorted. Sandy had been her best friend back when she’d been a child, before she’d won the scholarship to boarding school. They’d stayed in touch for a while – and even dated twice – before she’d gone into the navy and he’d been called up for National Service. But they’d gradually lost touch with after the war. She had no idea what had happened to him.

“I haven’t heard anything from him,” she said, finally. “Is he the only person to come calling?”

“A bunch of reporters turned up,” her father said. “They were very interested in hearing stories of your childhood, so I told them about the quarry …”

“I hope not,” Susan said. She’d been nine when she and a few friends had broken into the quarry and gone climbing. It had been a dare, but it had also been incredibly stupid. They’d been lucky not to be marched home by the police. “You didn’t, did you?”

“I could have done,” her father teased. “And I could also have told them about Aunt Dahlia’s flowers …”

Susan groaned. “You didn’t.”

“Of course not,” her father said. “I did tell them about your academic achievements, but they weren’t so interested in those.”

“Probably not,” Susan agreed. She’d done well at Hanover Towers, but she’d lacked the connections necessary to really benefit from a boarding school for aristocrats. “Do you think they interviewed everyone?”

“I guess so,” her father said. “There’s quite a few older folk around here who’ll remember you. To say nothing of your old school chums …”

Susan sighed. Mixed-race kids were unusual, particularly ones with immigrant parents. The Troubles had left scars in their wake, bad scars. She’d probably be remembered by people who’d never done more than pass her in the streets, just because her skin colour made her stand out. If her father hadn’t been a soldier, if there hadn’t been dozens of other former soldiers in the community, life would have been a great deal harder. And now … she was probably the most famous person to emerge from the community. She couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if she’d faced a court martial instead.

Dad would have been in trouble, she thought, bitterly. Everyone here is patriotic as hell.

“I don’t think you’ll have to bribe anyone to keep your secrets,” her father added. “Unless you’ve done something I don’t know about …”

“I haven’t,” Susan protested. Even if she had, the community would probably close ranks against anyone who betrayed her to the media. “I was a good girl.”

“Glad to hear it,” her father said, dryly.

He leaned forward, meeting her eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me what was wrong?”

Susan didn’t have to ask what he meant. She’d sent him a brief message, when Vanguard returned to Earth after the Battle of UXS-469, but she hadn’t given him many details. And she’d gone into custody on Titan shortly afterwards. Her father had contacted lawyers and generally made a fuss, but he’d gotten nowhere. Too many people in high places had warned him to keep his mouth closed until a decision – any decision – was reached.

“It was my problem,” she said, finally. “You couldn’t do anything to help.”

“I thought fathers existed to fix their daughters mistakes,” her father said, dryly.

“I don’t think you could fix this mistake,” Susan said.

She shook her head. Her father wasn’t the only father she knew who’d taken good care of his daughter. She knew a father who’d beaten up his daughter’s boyfriend after he’d turned abusive – and a father who’d shelled out hundreds of pounds after his daughter had vandalised a war memorial – but her mistake had been on a very different scale. If, of course, it had been a mistake. Vanguard had come alarmingly close to being blown out of space when the Contact Fleet had been jumped. The medals she’d been given after she’d been officially cleared suggested that she had some new friends in high places.

“I would have tried,” her father said.

“You can’t fix everything,” Susan pointed out. “I plotted and carried out a mutiny, technically speaking. They could have hung me.”

She sighed. Relieving a superior officer of his post – particularly under fire – was not encouraged. In truth, she was surprised she hadn’t been told to quietly resign, thus balancing the need for reward and punishment. She hadn’t dared to hope that she’d be left in command of Vanguard. It had simply never occurred to her that her actions would have created a political headache for the government, a headache that could only be resolved by confirming her as Vanguard’s new CO.

And I’ll probably be kicked out once the war ends, she thought, cynically. If the war ever does end …

“I would have tried,” her father said, stubbornly.

He met her eyes. “You’re not the only person to consider taking such steps.”

Susan blinked. “You did?”

“Yes,” her father said.

He looked down at the table for a long moment. “I didn’t have a hope in hell of going to Sandhurst,” he said. “When I joined the army, I was sent to Catterick for basic training and then assigned to the Yorkshire Regiment.”

Susan nodded, impatiently. A penniless nobody from Jamaica, without connections … he’d have to do very well to win one of the coveted spots at Sandhurst. And he hadn’t. Instead, he’d been trained and then slotted into a regiment. Jamaica had a long history with the British Army, but there was no specifically Jamaican regiment. Only the Ghurkhas and the Sikhs had that honour, for better or worse. It was still a matter of hot dispute.

“I did well, the first couple of years,” her father added. “We were on patrol, operating from forward bases in Africa and the Middle East. Mainly pirate-hunting, though we got in a little barbarian-chasing too. I was fortunate enough to be promoted to corporal with a promise of a prospective promotion to sergeant, if I chose to throw my hat into the ring for NCO training.”

“Which you had,” Susan said.

“This was before my promotion to sergeant,” her father said. He shrugged. “We get a new chap straight out of Sandhurst – a thick-headed second lieutenant with a chin so weak you’d think he’d go have it fixed. Talks like a cup of weak tea passing its way through my digestive system, acts like he wasn’t even there a week before getting kicked out. Oh, and did I mention he was the third son of the Duke of Somewhere?”

“No,” Susan said. She had a nasty feeling she knew where the story was going. Someone with such strong family connections would be virtually guaranteed a place at Sandhurst, regardless of his qualifications. “What happened?”

“Officers like that … everyone prefers they just stay in the tents, get drunk and claim the credit,” her father told her. “It would have rankled, of course, but it would have been preferable. This one was too dumb to realise that he really should listen to his NCOs, if he insisted on exercising direct command. He changes everything because he thinks it should be different …”

Susan nodded. She’d met quite a few officers who’d insisted on stamping their authority on their ship as quickly as possible, even if their changes were largely cosmetic. It had been annoying, back when she’d been a junior officer. Now, she rather understood how those officers had felt. They’d needed to make it clear that they were in charge.

“And then we get into a firefight,” her father added. “I’m meant to be leading the patrol, but thickhead decides to take command himself. Not his job, but … hey, he’s the superior officer, so I swallow it. And then he leads us straight into an ambush, which gets us pinned down in a defile. The bastards can’t get to us, but we can’t get out either. Bullets are pinging everywhere and it looks bad.

“Thickhead decides to organise a mass charge, right up the side and into the teeth of enemy fire. Brave, I suppose, but fucking stupid. It’s the sort of thing that only works if you have a patriotic scriptwriter on your side. Our body armour is good, but it’s not that good. I put my foot down and he starts screaming at me, threatening everything from a whipping to being fired out of a cannon. And I start seriously thinking about putting a bullet in his brain.”

Susan swallowed. “But you didn’t?”

“The Household Cavalry showed up and drove the insurgents away before we could mount the charge or I could kill him,” her father said. “Someone with more rank than I must have … discussed … the whole affair with him, because he was surprisingly quiet for the rest of the deployment. I think he took early requirement and left a few years later. He was certainly never put in command of deployed troops again.”

“Good,” Susan said.

Her father leaned forward. “You did the right thing in relieving your commanding officer of his post,” he said. “But you did the wrong thing in not telling me.”

Susan shrugged. “Would you have told your father, if you had shot the idiot?”

“I would have had to tell him something,” her father said. He conceded the point with a sly nod. “But he wouldn’t have been in any position to help.”

“Neither were you,” Susan said.

Her father sighed. “At least you survived,” he said. His eyes twinkled. “And you’re getting older. Any chance of a husband or children yet? I could do with grandchildren.”

Susan shook her head. “I haven’t met anyone, father,” she said. “My career makes it harder to meet men.”

“I met your mother while I was a serving soldier,” her father pointed out.

“That’s different,” Susan said. “I’m a commanding officer on a battleship. The men I meet are either my superior officers or my subordinates.”

“Then spend more time meeting civilians,” her father said. “Should I ask Sandy if he wants a date?”

Susan would have blushed, if her skin allowed it. “No,” she said, horrified. “Father …”

Her father’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “Your mother would have approved of him,” he said. “And he’d understand the demands of your career.”

“I’m not interested at the moment,” Susan said. “And I don’t know if I’ll ever be.”

“There’s more to life than serving in the military,” her father said. He waved a hand around the kitchen. “I can swear to that, Susan.”

Susan shrugged. She liked the restaurant – she’d spent most of her holidays waiting at tables and cleaning after the doors were closed – but she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life there. Too many of her friends were trapped in the community, even after the war; unable to leave, unable to build lives away from their childhood homes.

“Perhaps,” she said. “But, for the moment, the navy is my life.”

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8 Responses to “We Lead (Ark 9)–Snippet”

  1. k Findlay December 8, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    Good read looking forward to it. One minor spell check problem you have early requirement instead of retirement

  2. W Lansdale December 13, 2016 at 3:57 am #

    Have been waiting for this last installment Chris – when will it be done? Almost can’t wait any longer! Excellent story telling!

    • chrishanger December 25, 2016 at 9:02 am #

      Hopefully, I’ll have it out on the 1st.

      Chris

  3. Michael Dawson December 13, 2016 at 8:47 am #

    I just love these books. I can’t wait for the rest!!!! Have a great Christmas Chris!!!

  4. Kornel December 30, 2016 at 8:56 pm #

    Great reading… as always. Can’t wait for more.

  5. James January 17, 2017 at 5:19 pm #

    So many Americanisms, again. 😦

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