In the end, the coup had been almost laughably easy.
The Elders had never considered, not really, that one of their younger subordinates would turn on them. They’d expected Neola to sit in her quarters and wait while they patiently gathered the evidence to convict her of everything from gross incompetence to dereliction of duty and whatever other charges they managed to make stick. They certainly hadn’t expected her to start plotting a coup. Neola had known she wasn’t the only youngster to resent the dominance of the Elders, but even she hadn’t realised just how much resentment and dislike there actually was. Organising a coup, once she’d accepted that a coup was actually possible, had been straightforward.
She allowed herself a tight smile as she sat in her office. The Elders had sputtered impotently when she’d marched in and taken over, but they hadn’t been able to resist. There had been no need to kill them, so she’d had them all transported to a reasonably comfortable resort on Tokomak itself, well away from any communications networks they could use to rally resistance. Not that she really expected them to try. Half of the Elders had been so shocked she was surprised they hadn’t expired on the spot, while the other half had been so unhinged they’d resorted to begging. Letting them live, she was sure, was more mercy than they’d had any right to anticipate.
And, she told herself, firmly, it was more than they deserved.
The Elders were old. Even the youngest was a good thousand years or so older than Neola herself. And they were ossified, utterly unable to conceive that anything might be able to threaten their control over the known universe. But a new threat had arisen, a threat that had started the slow collapse of the empire. No one, not even Neola herself, had been able to comprehend that a race that had barely been out in space for fifty years would be able to threaten the Tokomak. And yet, they had …
Neola looked down at the reports, barely seeing the words hovering in front of her. She’d been lucky – very lucky – to survive the Battle of Earth. Her fleet had been shattered, then abandoned by her allies … it was her fault. She’d underestimated the threat. She’d certainly underestimated humanity’s technological skill. But then, she’d been raised to believe that the Tokomak were the masters of the universe. If they couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done. And yet, the humans had proved them wrong. The vast fleets that had dominated the known galaxy for thousands of years were little more than scrap metal.
And because we have been humiliated in battle, she thought bitterly, our other allies are deserting us too.
It shouldn’t have surprised her, she told herself. The Tokomak Empire was bitterly resented by the other Galactics, despite the good it had done for the universe. The younger races wanted to strike out on their own, to build their own empires … even though they would plunge the galaxy into war. And the older races remembered the days before the stardrive, the days when they had competed with the Tokomak as equals. They wanted to be equal again, despite the cost. Slowly, piece by piece by piece, the empire was starting to disintegrate.
And we are not used to reacting quickly, she reminded herself. The humans can advance in leaps and bounds while we are still trying to decide what to do.
The latest set of intelligence reports terrified her. Humanity on its own wasn’t that great a threat. If worst came to worst, she could pour hundreds of thousands of starships into Sol until the human race ran out of weapons. She was sure they’d run out of missiles before they ran out of targets. But it looked as though the humans were expanding their alliance structure, inviting more and more races to join their Grand Alliance. They’d already convinced a number of middle-rank powers to consider joining, as well as fighting a successful war against a genocidal race. Given vast resources as well as their advanced technology, they might be able to put together a significant challenge in less time than she dared to think possible.
And if we expend millions of starships in crushing Sol, she mused, we will be significantly weakened elsewhere.
She cursed the Elders, savagely. The Tokomak had always assumed that they could deal with each individual threat at leisure, before it got out of hand. Their control over the gravity points allowed them to move vast fleets from place to place at will. But now … there were threats popping up everywhere, right across the galaxy. Coping with them all would take more time and resources than even she possessed. There was no way she could expend the resources necessary to crush Sol without crippling and ultimately destroying the empire itself.
We don’t have time to duplicate the human technology, she thought, sourly. The researchers are still in denial …
It was a bitter thought. The researchers had known they were at the panicle of technological achievement. Nothing significantly new had come out of the labs for over five thousand years. They hadn’t even made many improvements to old technologies! It would take decades – perhaps longer – for the researchers to comprehend that they didn’t know everything. And she didn’t think they had the time. They needed to gain access to human technology and they had to do it now.
She reached for her console and started issuing orders. The oldest patronage networks were still in place, at least. It would take time for them to start coming apart. And then …
… It was a gamble, she had to admit. It was a gamble she could easily lose. But the alternative was worse. She hadn’t launched her coup and made herself Supreme Ruler just to watch the empire collapse into chaos. The Tokomak had to ready themselves for action on an unprecedented scale, if they wanted to continue to dominate the universe. And they had no choice. They had so many enemies that defeat meant extermination. She didn’t dare lose.
And if a few pawns were lost along the way, she told herself, it was a small price to pay for ultimate victory.
You ask us why we need a galactic alliance? Do we need the galaxy? Say, rather, the galaxy needs us! As a haven, as a pole star, as an alternate – and better – way to live. Let us hold out a welcoming hand to aliens! Let us show them the promise of a better life. There is no need to fight. There is enough for everyone in the galaxy.
-Solar Datanet, Political Forum (Grand Alliance Thoughts).
“Well,” Admiral Mongo Stuart said. He studied the holographic image with a sceptical eye. “I suppose that’s what you get if you allow a bunch of Star Trek fans to design a starship.”
Captain Elton Yasser smiled. “The Odyssey’s designers came from Roddenberry Canton,” he agreed, dryly. There was no point in trying to deny it. “But they didn’t quite copy one of the original designs.”
“Only because they couldn’t make the Enterprise-D with our current tech,” Admiral Stuart said. “I’m surprised they didn’t insist on naming the ship themselves.”
“There’s already an Enterprise in the fleet,” Elton said, seriously. “And a Defiant. And a Voyager.”
He shook his head. Odyssey was a flattened cylinder, eight hundred metres from bow to stern. Her prow was an arrowhead; her rear dominated by four massive drive nacelles that glowed against the inky darkness of space. The designers had wanted something that looked like an unconventional design – rather than the blunt cruisers that made up the mainstay of the Solar Navy – but technological reality had defeated their best efforts. Odyssey was cruder, perhaps, than her designers had wanted.
“She’s a good ship,” he said. “And she bears a honourable name.”
“I suppose she does,” Admiral Stuart said. “And yet, I cannot help recalling that the original starship was rammed and destroyed.”
He sat back in his chair and studied Elton for a long chilling moment. Elton knew what he saw. A brown-haired man, seemingly in his early forties; his face warm and friendly rather than blatantly attractive; someone secure enough in himself not to body-sculpt himself into an inhumanly handsome caricature of a man. The message would be clearly visible, to someone who’d been born in the Solar Union. He couldn’t help wondering what Admiral Stuart made of it. Physical imperfections had been far more common on pre-space Earth. Elton had had the standard bodymods, of course, but he’d long since grown out of simple vanity. There was no place for it in the Solar Navy.
Admiral Stuart himself looked little older than Elton. It would have been hard to believe that he was actually in his second century, if Elton hadn’t known quite a few others who were actually older. They had always struck him as being oddly disconnected from the world around them, either seeking sensual pleasure or separating themselves from it entirely, but Mongo Stuart didn’t look to have fallen prey to either. His eyes were calm, yet tightly focused. The man who had commanded the Solar Navy for the last sixty years – and had served in the wet-navy, before Contact – was still on top of his game.
The Admiral leaned forward, breaking the silence. “I trust there were no significant problems during the shakedown cruise?”
“No, sir,” Elton said. He ran a hand through his brown hair. “We spent the first two weeks flying around the Sol System, testing the drives and weapons. There weren’t any major problems. A handful of minor ones, all of which were fixed easily. The shipyard crews did a good job. I was expecting many more problems.”
“The AI simulations were very precise,” Admiral Stuart noted.
“I didn’t place much credence in them,” Elton admitted. “Reality always trumps theory.”
He shrugged. “We took her out to Varner, then headed downwards to Spiral and Cockatoo before returning to Sol. She handled like a dream. I think we impressed the locals, although there were some questions about our ability to fight. They didn’t seem too impressed with the design, at first. We couldn’t tell them about the interlocking shield generators or the self-regenerating systems.”
“No,” Admiral Stuart agreed. “She’s tough, but she’s still not a proper warship.”
“No, sir,” Elton agreed. Odyssey was armed, of course, but she wasn’t a battleship. Her weapons array was lighter than the average warship. “She’s designed for more than just military operations.”
“A jack-of-all-trades is almost always a master of none,” Admiral Stuart said. He tapped a switch. The holographic image vanished. “I cannot say that I approve of a starship that is designed for multiple roles.”
“With all due respect, sir,” Elton said, “we’re going to need more than warships as we expand further and further into the galaxy. We’re going to need everything from diplomatic envoys to colony and medical support ships … hell, sir, Odyssey does have enough firepower to hold the line against anything smaller than a battlecruiser. She could certainly hold out long enough for help to arrive.”
“Assuming anyone knew you were in trouble,” Admiral Stuart said. “The concept was hotly debated, as you know. There was a strong feeling that we should concentrate on building warships now, while we have the chance. The Tokomak are still out there.”
“Yes, sir,” Elton said. He’d fought in the Battle of Earth. “Which makes it all the more important that we build up relationships with the other galactic powers. Our technological advantage only goes so far.”
Admiral Stuart smiled, coldly. “It has been hotly debated,” he agreed. “And, as it happens, it has some bearing on your mission.”
Elton straightened as a holographic starchart appeared in front of them. “There is a great deal of debate over precisely what will happen, regarding the Grand Alliance,” Admiral Stuart told him. “We don’t know if we’ll end up starting … starting a United Federation of Planets or an alliance structure more comparable with old NATO than anything more integrated. It may be years before we have an answer. But unfortunately the universe is still moving on.”
He pointed a finger at a star cluster, thousands of light years from Earth. “The Kingdom of Harmonious Order,” he said. “Galactics, of course. One hundred and seven systems under their direct control, three subject races held in servitude. And long-standing allies of the Tokomak Empire. They lost their independence shortly after the stardrive was invented, like everyone else, but they were treated surprisingly well. The Tokomak honoured them with a great deal of local autonomy, trusting them to keep the remainder of the sector in line. They even built up a large fleet to support their allies.”
His face twisted into a smile. “Until recently, I doubt anyone on Harmony itself knew Earth even existed.”
“We were nothing more than a microstate by their standards,” Elton agreed. He made a mental note to look up the full details, as soon as he was back on his ship. “Have they decided to change their minds about us?”
“Apparently, there was a coup on their homeworld last year,” Admiral Stuart said. “A strong party at court, we have been told, resented being dominated by the Tokomak. That party seized power shortly after the Battle of Earth. They haven’t exactly declared independence, but they’re looking to … redefine … their relationship with their former masters.”
Elton studied the starchart for a long moment. “A dangerous game, I would have thought,” he said. “The Tokomak could flood their cluster with warships, couldn’t they?”
Admiral Stuart sighed. “Yes, they could,” he agreed. “Elton, everything we know is nearly nine months out of date. The Harmonies could have been brutally crushed by now. But, at the same time, it’s possible that they managed to talk fast enough to keep some of their independence. The Tokomak wouldn’t want to get involved in a war that would upset their other allies.”
He smiled, rather thinly. “ONI is divided on the issue,” he added. “One faction thinks that the Tokomak will crush the rebels as soon as possible, just to reverse the decline in their fortunes since the Battle of Earth. They have to make it clear that they haven’t lost the war, even if they have lost a battle. But another faction thinks that the Tokomak will reluctantly accept neutrality, if the Harmonies are prepared to stay out of the fighting.”
“I would bet on the former,” Elton said. “How many other Galactics will consider bolting if they think they can get away with it?”
“Good question,” Admiral Stuart said. “And that’s where you and your ship come in.”
He adjusted the starchart, zeroing in on Harmony itself. “We’ve received a message from the new king,” he said. “He has requested that we send an envoy to discuss opening up lines of communication, perhaps even membership in any future alliance structure. ONI believes that the Harmonies want to keep their options open, just in case their former masters decide to crush them.”
Elton stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “It seems a little odd,” he mused. “They’re taking one hell of a risk. It might panic the Tokomak into doing something drastic.”
“It might also convince them to leave the Harmonies alone,” Admiral Stuart said. “The king may hope to use this to get an official recognition of his kingdom’s independence. Or he may believe that working with us is the only way to safeguard the future.”
He shook his head. “You and your ship will be heading directly to the Kingdom of Harmonious Order,” he explained. “Officially, you’ll be transporting an envoy with authority to open discussions – everything from trade agreements to a formal alliance – and escorting a handful of freighters crammed with trade goods. Odyssey will be flagged as a formal diplomatic ship for the mission, although I don’t know how much protection that will give you in these times. The Tokomak may be fanatical rules lawyers, but they will not want to see us extending our influence in their direction.”
“Yes, sir,” Elton said. “And unofficially?”
“Unofficially, you’ll be carrying out a tactical survey of the region,” Admiral Stuart said, curtly. “We know – really know – very little about the sector. Everything we hear is at second or third hand. Much of it is translated repeatedly before it reaches us. In truth, we know very little. The merchants will be making their own inroads, of course, but we need more data.”
“Just in case we have to fight up there,” Elton said.
“Exactly,” Admiral Stuart said. “In particular, we want an assessment of the Harmonies themselves. Their fleet is supposed to be large, but outdated. Are they upgrading their fleets? Or are they gambling on numbers? Who crews the ships, how are they trained … everything we might have to take into consideration, if we have to ally with them or fight them. And if they are upgrading, are they interested in buying weapons and technology from us?
He looked at the starchart for a long moment. “ONI will give you a full briefing, but realistically … don’t take anything they tell you for granted.”
Elton nodded. It wasn’t uncommon for translation errors to creep into the files, even though the Tokomak had done everything in their power to make sure that everyone spoke one of nine standard languages. The average alien was no more or less intelligent than the average human, but aliens tended to think differently. ONI might be being misled – accidentally or not – and never know it.
And the time delay means that everything is out of date, he thought, sourly. The Tokomak might invade the sector tomorrow and we won’t know until we slip through the gravity point and emerge in the middle of a war.
“We’ll try and fill in the blanks,” he said, slowly. He knew better than to trust ONI completely. Intelligence officers had a tendency to think they were cleverer – or at least more knowledgeable – than they actually were. “I don’t know how long we’ll have to explore the sector, though.”
“I suggest you consult with the ambassador,” Admiral Stuart said. “Truthfully … we know so little, Elton, that we have to be very careful. Showing the flag in the wrong place may provoke a war.”
“The Harmonies have their own subjects,” Elton agreed. He frowned as a thought struck him. “What happens if they choose to rebel?”
“That would be a sticky problem,” Admiral Stuart said. “Ideally, you wouldn’t be involved at all. You don’t want to get us into a shooting war with the Harmonies as well as the Tokomak.”
“No, sir,” Elton said.
“The ambassador will have her own briefing,” Admiral Stuart said. “She’ll have wide latitude, within reason. Ideally, we won’t be making anyone any promises until we actually know what’s going on, but … events may move out of control. Use your own best judgement and be careful.”
“Yes, sir,” Elton said. “And if the Tokomak themselves show up?”
“Odyssey on her own is unlikely to make a difference,” Admiral Stuart said. “Retreat at once.”
Elton nodded. He had every confidence in his ship’s ability to give the Tokomak ships a bloody nose, but sheer numbers could overwhelm them easily. The Solar Navy was all too aware that the Tokomak had literally millions of starships. If they ever managed to concentrate them against Sol, Sol was doomed.
And the Harmonies are far too close to Tokomak bases, he reminded himself. The Tokomak could muster the force necessary to strike them down at any moment.
“I understand,” he said. Retreat didn’t sit well with him, but preserving his ship and crew was his first priority. “When do you want us to depart?”
“Two days,” Admiral Stuart said. He grimaced. “You’ll be passing through Hudson Base, at the far end of the Langlock Chain, but after that you’ll be on your own. We won’t expect you to report back for over a year.”
“Odyssey was designed for five-year missions, sir,” Elton said. “We can reproduce almost anything we might require in the fabricators.”
“A five-year mission,” Admiral Stuart repeated. He shook his head in amused disbelief. “Do you think, sometimes, that the cantons take their identities a little too far?”
Elton considered it. “As long as people can move out, if they wish, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “A canton that manages to make itself unviable won’t survive. Roddenberry Canton has its quirks, but it isn’t a disaster area.”
He smiled at the thought. Roddenberry Canton claimed to operate on the principles of Star Trek – and, if he were forced to be honest, it did a better job of following its source material than many of the other eccentric cantons. But then, it hadn’t needed to adapt itself to changing reality or rapid depopulation when its citizens had discovered that their ideals didn’t quite work in the real world. It wasn’t for everyone, something that was true of just about every canton in the Solar Union, but it worked for those who lived there.
“There are worse places to live,” Admiral Stuart agreed.
Elton nodded. Admiral Stuart was in his second century, easily old enough to remember when humanity was confined to a single planet. His brother might have founded the Solar Union – and then departed for deep space, leaving his creation to flourish on its own – but neither of them had anticipated just how deeply their work would change society. Old constants, things that Steve and Mongo Stuart had taken for granted, had fallen by the wayside. Elton and his fellows had grown up in a very different universe. He wondered, sometimes, just how the oldsters coped. They just weren’t used to rapid change.
And yet, they have seen so much, he thought. He couldn’t help feeling an odd flicker of sympathy. Do they yearn for constants once again?
But there were none, not in the Solar Union. Space was vast, with near-infinite resources just waiting to be exploited. Food and energy were cheap. There were thousands of cantons, each one offering a different lifestyle. Humans – and aliens, and AIs – were free to choose their own lifestyles, as long as they honoured the founding principles. And they had flourished. The wellspring of science, art and entertainment seemed bottomless. No one, not even Steve Stuart, could have envisioned the universe he’d created. The future seemed bright and full of promise.
But there were threats. And those threats had to be fought.
Admiral Stuart snapped off the holographic starchart. “I won’t tell you that this will be a simple mission, because it won’t be,” he said. “But I expect you and your ship to handle it.”
“Yes, sir,” Elton said. He rose. “We won’t let you down.”
“Good luck,” Admiral Stuart said. His lips quirked. “I’ll see you when you return home.”
Elton nodded and walked through the hatch, passing through the security fields as he headed down to the teleport station. A handful of messages popped up in front of his eyes as his implants automatically pinged the local processors, ranging from tactical updates to a detailed briefing of everything ONI knew – or believed – about the Harmonies. He reminded himself to study the information later, as he stepped into the teleport station. He’d have to make sure his senior officers went through it too.
Except everything we know might be out of date, he reminded himself, sternly. Or it might be completely wrong.
He couldn’t help a flicker of excitement. He was going to be taking his ship thousands of light years from Sol, heading further into deep space than any human had gone before. As far as he knew, he and his crew would be the first humans to visit the Harmonies, let alone establish diplomatic and trade links that might reshape the galaxy. It would be one hell of a flight, the kind of exploration he’d signed up to do. He couldn’t wait to leave.
And if we do manage to make new friends and allies, he thought as the teleport field gripped him, so much the better.