From: The Day After: The Post-Empire Universe and its Wars. Professor Leo Caesius. Avalon University Press. 46PE.
Materially speaking, the Battle of Corinthian – technically, the Corinthian Campaign – was not a decisive encounter. Wolfbane did not lose enough men and material to ensure its defeat, nor did the Commonwealth gain enough of an advantage to reasonably claim to have the upper hand. The loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, spacers and civilians did not affect the balance of power. In many ways, the battle was as meaningless as the skirmishes over Cantor, a stage-one colony that swapped hands a dozen times during the course of the war.
But, politically, the Commonwealth won the Battle of Corinthian.
For the first time, the Commonwealth lured the Wolves into fighting on terrain of its own choosing, using its technological advantages to offset the enemy advantages in men, machinery and firepower. Admiral Singh, now unquestioned ruler of the Wolfbane Consortium, bore the sole blame for a campaign that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed many of Wolfbane’s most powerful military formations. And while her position was – on the surface – secure – she knew as well as anyone else that her defeat might lead to her fall from grace. Resuming the offensive, therefore, was simply impossible.
It must have been frustrating to Singh to know – as she did – that the Wolves still held a considerable advantage in military tonnage. A direct strike at Avalon itself might have ended the war in their favour, despite the growing array of firepower the Commonwealth had assembled to defend its capital. An noted military theorist like her – like most admirals, Singh’s experience in extensive naval combat was purely theoretical – could hardly have failed to note the possibilities, all the more so as uncovering Wolfbane would not have weakened her position notably. And yet, launching such an offensive was politically impossible.
And so the war paused, while the universe held its breath.
The Commonwealth, too, was aware of the weakness of its position. Technologically, it held a considerable advantage; materially, it was outnumbered and outmatched. The Wolves could afford to lose more than the Commonwealth in any major battle – indeed, the loss ratio in almost all major encounters was two-to-one in the Commonwealth’s favour – and production of the new weapons and technology was hardly keeping up with demand. Given time, Singh and her allies would rebalance themselves, purge the naysayers and resume the offensive.
Worse, there were rumours that the Wolves were developing their own advanced weapons and technologies. While Singh had been badly worried by her first – and bruising – encounters with Commonwealth weapons, she was too experienced a naval officer to allow herself to panic. The Commonwealth had surprised her, true, but it had not produced a single workable silver bullet, a weapon that would render the entire pre-collapse Imperial Navy obsolete at a stroke. Given time, she told her allies, the Commonwealth’s advantages could be negated and their weapons duplicated. And she was right. It was ruefully acknowledged by the Commonwealth – during and after the war – that the new weapons were never as advantageous in the field as their designers proclaimed.
The window of opportunity for taking the offensive, for knocking the Wolves back on their heels, was therefore closing rapidly. For all its advantages, the Commonwealth might still lose the war – and with it, all hopes of replacing the fallen Empire with something better, something that would weather any future collapses with ease. The fate of the war – and humanity itself – hung in the balance.
Fortunately, Edward Stalker had a plan.
Admiral Rani Singh had never been one to despair. She’d worked her way up the ranks through ability alone, even though jealous and amorous superiors had done their best to put her down. She still smiled whenever she remembered Admiral Bainbridge, the randy old goat who’d done his level best to destroy her career after she’d declined his advances. The old man had transferred her to System Command, never realising the power he’d put into her hands until it was far too late. She’d never given up, even when she’d lost Corinthian to the Commonwealth and had to flee to Wolfbane. She was mistress of a hundred stars, unchallenged ruler of a small empire of her own … and weaker, perhaps, than she dared admit, even to herself.
She stood at the window, staring out over the city. Tryon blazed with light, towering skyscrapers reaching up to touch the very edge of the atmosphere. Governor Brown, whatever one could say about him, had done an excellent job of putting Wolfbane’s economy back on a sound footing. The corporations were happy, the network of industrial nodes were humming along, producing an endless supply of everything she needed to extend her empire still further. And if someone didn’t want to acknowledge Wolfbane as the new mistress of the universe, she had more than enough firepower to crack any defences. Opening up hundreds of colonies for her corporations had been easy.
And yet, the war with the Commonwealth had taken a dark turn.
She gritted her teeth in frustration. She’d talked Governor Brown into starting the war, pointing out that the Commonwealth’s growing technical superiority would eventually turn it into a major competitor, perhaps even a threat. And she’d been right. If anything, she’d underestimated the Commonwealth’s advantages. But Governor Brown had been assassinated, she’d taken command … and made a serious mistake.
Rani admitted that, in the privacy of her own mind. She’d allowed herself to be duped, believe – because she’d wanted to believe – what her intelligence agents were saying. And, perhaps, because she wanted to return to Corinthian, to recover the world she’d lost so many years ago. But it had been a mistake. Hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost, dozens of formations had been smashed …
She lifted her head, staring at the towers. They seemed to look back at her, mockingly. She had no illusions about the industrialists who ruled the planet, who bowed to her only because they feared her. Governor Brown had known how to talk to them, how to balance the dozens of competing factions in order to keep them happy and himself on top, but Rani didn’t have that advantage. Diplomacy had never been her strong suit. The industrialists respected her military might, appreciated her willingness to use force in defence of their interests, but they didn’t like her. And now they thought she was weak, she knew all too well, they would be plotting against her.
And I can’t strike first without losing the war, she thought, grimly. She drew herself upright, centring herself. They’ll rip the industrial base to shreds if I try to purge them.
She lowered her gaze, peering down into the darkness below the glowing towers. Wolfbane had a large and growing population, a population that was only kept in line through liberal applications of the carrot and the stick. Governor Brown hadn’t helped by conscripting every technical expert for a hundred light years and transporting them to Wolfbane, forcing them to work to maintain and expand the planet’s industrial base. There had been a shortage of trained technicians, Rani recalled, but in the long run it had been a mistake. Countless workers now had good reason to be angry at the regime, the skills to turn their anger into action …
… And they were too valuable for her to purge. She’d started training programs, of course, handing out rewards like candy to anyone who passed, but the demand for trained manpower was endless. Rani couldn’t afford a crackdown, even on men and women her security officers knew to be subversives. She could only hope that she could keep the lid on long enough to win the war, which would allow her more freedom of movement. And yet, she knew that wasn’t going to be easy. Resuming the offensive, after Corinthian, would probably provoke open rebellion.
She looked up, her eyes seeking out the starships and orbital battlestations protecting the planet. The corporations had demanded that she protect their homeworld – despite the risk of a major attack being almost nil – and she hadn’t been able to refuse them. But it tied down hundreds of starships she could have taken to Avalon, if she’d had a completely free hand. It wasn’t as if the orbital stations couldn’t protect the planet …
And I’m down here in the fortress, she thought. I can’t even go back to orbit without looking weak.
Her lips twitched in amusement. Governor Brown – or one of his predecessors – had created the fortress, apparently under the delusion that it represented an effective defence. Rani supposed it would be, against unarmed civilian rioters or even enemy soldiers, but it would be worse than useless against an enemy who gained control of the high orbitals. Hell, it was just a big target, one that would attract KEWs like flies to rotting meat. Unless, of course, Wolfbane managed to duplicate the Commonwealth’s force field generator. Now that would give whoever had ordered the fortress the last laugh …
… And Governor Brown hadn’t even been in the fortress when he’d been assassinated.
She turned, composing herself, as she heard the door open behind her. Only a handful of people had access to her private apartments, although she was honest enough with herself to admit that even the most extreme precautions wouldn’t keep out a truly determined assassin or stop someone transporting a nuke into firing position. The fortress was designed to take a nuclear strike – the designer had layered the building with starship-grade hullmetal – but she had her doubts. Civilians, in her experience, rarely understood the realities of combat.
“Admiral,” Paula Bartholomew said. “I have an intelligence update.”
Rani nodded, tiredly. Paula was loyal, she had to be loyal. She’d betrayed General James Stubbins, then the Commonwealth … there was a good chance that, if someone found out the truth, that they’d charge Paula with betraying Governor Brown too. Rani disliked using someone with such flexible loyalties, someone who might desert her at once if she were offered something better, but she had no choice. Besides, Paula was smart enough to understand the weakness of her own position. No one would defend her if Rani decided to have her killed.
They made an odd couple, Rani had to admit. She was tall, dark-skinned and dark-eyed; she held herself with a military bearing that was an unspoken challenge to every man in the room. She’d learnt, back at the Naval Academy, that the key to earning respect was to do nothing that might dampen that respect. Admiral Bainbridge’s promised rewards would have been worthless, if her subordinates had believed – correctly – that she’d prostituted herself to earn them. And Paula was short, blonde and pretty in a way that owed everything to the body-shops. Her shirt was unbuttoned just enough to reveal a hint of cleavage, drawing the male gaze and short-circuiting the male mind. Rani was less impressed with that than Paula might have hoped – power was more interesting than sex, in her opinion – but she had to admit that it worked. Anyone who underestimated Paula would regret it.
She met Paula’s eyes. “Spit it out.”
Paula looked back at her, evenly. “Mouganthu and Hernandez had a meeting this afternoon,” she said. “We couldn’t get a bug into the meeting chamber itself, but we do know it lasted for at least three hours before Hernandez returned to his aircar and flew home.”
Rani lifted her eyebrows. “And you’re only telling me about this now?”
“Mouganthu had his security staff put the tower in lockdown,” Paula replied. “Our agent didn’t have a chance to send a message until 1900.”
“I see,” Rani said. “Were they alone?”
“Apparently,” Paula said. “Our agent wasn’t in a good position to be certain.”
Rani nodded, turning back to the window. Mouganthu Tower was clearly visible in the distance, glowing with light against the dark sky. Hernandez Tower was on the other side of the fortress, out of sight. Mouganthu and Hernandez … two of the most powerful men on the planet, perhaps in the sector. Their meeting – and a secret meeting, one without aides or secretaries – boded ill for her. And yet, she could do nothing. She couldn’t insist they opened their doors to her spies, could she?
She looked back at Paula. “And the others?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary, as far as we can tell,” Paula said. “Tallyman may have been invited to the meeting – there was some encrypted traffic between the towers – but we don’t know for sure.”
“Of course not,” Rani said.
She shook her head in annoyance. The Wolfbane Consortium was built on genteel – and sometimes not so genteel – competition between corporations. Governor Brown had encouraged it, insisting that it kept them sharp and himself on top. But he’d created one hell of a problem for his successor. She knew her intelligence staff would decrypt the messages eventually – she was sure of it – but by then it might be too late.
Or the messages will look innocuous, on the surface, she thought. We won’t understand the hidden meanings.
“Keep an eye on the three of them,” she ordered. “And see if you can find an incentive for Straphang or Wu to cooperate with us.”
“Wu is bidding to get the next set of naval contracts,” Paula said. “Straphang is facing financial troubles and probably trying to reduce her exposure. We could probably make them both decent offers.”
She hesitated. “But none of them would be completely convincing.”
Rani nodded, irked. The corporate leaderships were practically an aristocracy in their own right, just like the never-to-be-sufficiently damned Grand Senate. She was surprised Governor Brown hadn’t created a peerage system for them. But, whatever their titles, the leaderships kept one eye on the future at all times. They’d make preparations for all eventualities, including one where she fell from power or was brutally overthrown. And they certainly wouldn’t commit themselves to her …
“Do it,” she ordered. Keeping as many directors as possible on her side was important, at least until the war was won. “And then …”
Her wristcom bleeped. “Admiral, this is Tobias,” a voice said. “I have an update for you. I think you’ll like it.”
“I hope you’re right,” Rani said. She glanced at Paula, who shrugged. “I’ll meet you in my office, half an hour from now.”
Professor Tobias Jameson was a young man who looked older, thanks to the abuse he’d suffered during his short career at Mouganthu Industries and then at the University of Wolfbane. He’d been very lucky, according to his file, to even get a place in the university, after he’d upset his corporate sponsors. Insisting that there was a better way to do things – that modern tech hadn’t reached its limits – had won him no friends. Ironically, it had also won him a job after Governor Brown had realised that the Empire was gone.
“Professor,” Rani said. She liked and trusted him, insofar as she liked and trusted anyone these days. It hadn’t saved Jameson from an extensive security check before he was allowed into her office. “I trust that you have good news for me?”
“I do,” Jameson said.
He took control of the projector and displayed a set of holographic images. “As you know, we have concentrated a great deal of effort on finding ways to either counter or duplicate the Commonwealth’s force field generator,” he said. “This has not proven easy, Admiral. Some of our researchers are still in deep denial about the whole thing.”
Rani snorted, rudely. She’d been in denial too, but it hadn’t lasted. Theory might insist that force field generators were as plausible as alien invaders bent on fighting their way to Earth and crushing humanity; practice told her that force field generators were a reality. Her sensors hadn’t had flights of fancy when they’d reported missiles striking the force fields and detonating harmlessly. If the Commonwealth ever ironed out the bugs – if they ever managed to produce a force field that wrapped the entire starship in a bubble – the war would come to a very quick and unpleasant end.
And our researchers refuse to believe that it is even real, she thought, tiredly. They don’t have the right mindset to keep pushing the limits of the possible.
“Thankfully, we do have some researchers who dug deep into the theory behind starship drives and suchlike,” Jameson continued. “Their conclusion, after working through a number of computer models, was that the force field is actually a manipulation of the starship’s drive field. In a sense, they have converted the standard drive field into a rocket – and diverted the rest of the output into a forward-facing force shield.”
Paula leaned forward. “Wouldn’t that slow the ship? I mean … the drive is pointing forwards. Right?”
“According to our computer models, probably not,” Jameson said. “The missile – or whatever hits the force field – does not hit a solid barrier. Instead, it is torn apart by a series of tiny, but intense gravimetric fluctuations. The same is largely true of energy weapons, we think. An energy beam would be scattered long before it reached the hull.”
He paused. “This wouldn’t necessarily be true of the large-scale force shield they used on Corinthian,” he added. “They’d have fewer concerns about shooting back in that case.”
Rani nodded in irritation. “However it works,” she asked, “can you duplicate the system?”
Jameson hesitated. “Yes and no,” he admitted. “We … we don’t have the technical skill yet to … to make the system actually work.”
“But you know how it works,” Paula protested.
“The Commonwealth Navy has effectively designed its own realspace drive,” Jameson said, flatly. “Their drive units are considerably more flexible – more innovative – than anything the Imperial Navy ever designed, let alone put into production. I do not believe that we can rebuild a standard drive unit to project a force field, not without tearing the whole thing apart and rebuilding it from scratch. We are working on designing our own drive system, but it will take months to work out the bugs and put it into production.”
Rani ground her teeth, but she couldn’t say she was surprised. The Imperial Navy had simplified everything over the last three hundred years, ever since technological advancement had come to a halt. Most starship engineers really did nothing more than removing a broken component and replacing it with something new, if – of course – there happened to be one in stock. And God help the crew if the automated diagnostic system happened to fail. The components were over-engineered – they had to be – but they couldn’t be repaired. A starship that ran out of spare parts was doomed.
And training up better engineers would take more time than we have, she thought. They’d have to be taught how to think first.
She pushed her frustration aside. Taking it out on Jameson would feel good, but it would be cruel and ultimately worthless. It certainly wouldn’t get her anywhere. She’d learnt – the hard way – just how much damage a single yes-man could do. If the Grand Senators had learned that lesson, she suspected, the Empire might not have collapsed.
“However, we did come up with something else,” Jameson added. “Actually, two other technological surprises. Both of them are built on missile drive systems.”
He altered the display, showing a pair of modified missiles. “It’s actually easier to fiddle with a missile drive unit,” he explained. “The drives are cruder and considerably overpowered, if only because they’re not expected to last very long. Their additional power reserves gives them a chance to reformat their drive fields before burn-out.”
Rani nodded, impatiently. “And you believe we can use this?”
“We can,” Jameson confirmed. He held out a datapad. “They may not be enough to give us a decisive advantage, Admiral, but they will give the Commonwealth a fright.”
“I hope so,” Rani said.
She sighed, inwardly, as she scanned the datapad. Technological development proceed in fits and starts, it seemed. There was nothing to be gained by threatening the researchers with dire punishments if they failed to produce. Hell, they couldn’t be blamed for their problems. The Empire had abandoned research and development centuries ago. Rediscovering the scientific method alone had taken longer than she cared to think about.
And each research project costs, even if it fails, she thought, sourly. They’re drains we cannot afford.
She looked up at him, feeling a flicker of hope. If he was right, if the technology actually worked, she might just have a chance.
“These weapons,” she said. It was hard to keep the excitement out of her voice. “How quickly can they be produced?”
“We can modify existing stockpiles of missiles within a couple of weeks,” Jameson said. “I believe the finalised version, once we start churning them out of the industrial nodes, will be a great deal neater, but …”
Rani forced herself to calm down. They hadn’t discovered a silver bullet, even if the missiles worked as advertised. And they might not. She had to keep that in mind, no matter how excited she was. But …
“Start adapting a number of missiles,” she ordered, shortly. She didn’t have time to be too careful. “And then prepare briefing notes for my officers.”
“Of course, Admiral,” Jameson said.
And if these weapons do turn the tide, Rani thought, I can deal with my enemies here at leisure.