Snippet–Becalmed (Angel Spin-Off)

9 May

Prologue

It was hard, so hard, to think.

The drain was all-consuming, tearing at his mind as if they wanted to pluck his thoughts from his brain-sac. Tash could barely extend his eyes, let alone rise and crawl forward on his tentacles. The deck felt odd beneath him, as if it was on the verge of coming apart. His eyesight was flickering and flaring, fading in and out of existence. He had to focus on each motion just to move … his body was betraying him. They were draining him too.

Focus, he told himself. His tentacles lashed the deck, frantically. It should have hurt, but it didn’t. His tentacles were numb. Get to engineering.

His mind blurred, just for a second. Or was it longer? He didn’t know. Perhaps he was dead and in the seven hells, perhaps he’d died … perhaps they’d all died. Maybe the others had suffered enough to be released from their sins, to go onwards … he wanted to believe it, even though he knew it was nonsense. He was a rationalist. The seven hells didn’t exist. They existed, he knew they existed, but they were not demons. They were …

He stumbled over a body and nearly fell. For a moment, he thought the body had reached out to grab him before realising that his tentacles were spasming. Shame gripped him as he stumbled backwards, an embarrassment that tore at his soul. He hadn’t lost control of himself like that since he’d been a child, dozens of solar cycles ago. Oddly, the shame gave him an opportunity to focus his mind. He had to go on.

The body lay there, mocking him. An egg-layer, drained of life. Her tentacles were sprayed out, suggesting utter hopelessness. Tash forced himself to look away and crawl onwards, despite the looming sense that it was futile. The ship been trapped long enough for him to lose all hope that they would escape. They were watching. He could hear them mocking him as he crawled …

… Or was it his imagination? It was hard to be sure.

Time seemed to blur as he moved down the long corridor. The ship was silent, the emergency alarms silenced. He’d walked the corridors until he’d known them as well as he knew his own nest, but now they’d taken on a nightmarish aspect, as if he was walking through a dream. The lights rose to blinding levels, then faded until they were so dim he could barely see. And there were bodies everywhere, lying where they’d fallen. It was easy to believe that the entire crew was dead.

It felt like years before he finally made it to the engineering compartment, decades before he forced the hatch open and crawled inside. Other bodies lay on the deck, utterly unmoving. Tash flinched, despite himself, as his eyes found the engineer. The egg-bearer had been strong in life, respected and feared by the crew. Now, his body seemed shrunken, his tentacles spread out in silent supplication. It hadn’t saved him from them.

His mind ached – he thought he heard someone howling. The sound tore at him as he moved over to the nearest console and pressed his tentacles against the reader. There was a long pause, just long enough for him to start fearing that the power was too far gone for the neural link to engage, then the system opened up to him. A status report blinked into his mind, confirming his worst fears. There were no other survivors. He was alone.

The howling grew louder, mocking him. His thoughts threatened to fragment, either into their domain or utter madness. Or both … he couldn’t tell if they were real or nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Others had heard them, hadn’t they? He couldn’t swear to it. The madness that had gripped the crew, as soon as they found themselves in this cursed place, made it impossible to trust his own mind. He had no idea why he’d survived when everyone else was dead.

He forced his mind into the computers. They opened, recognising his authority as the last surviving crewman. It would have been a heady thought – command at his age – if the situation hadn’t been so serious. The egg-shaper who’d been in command was dead, as were all of his subordinates. And Tash knew it would not be long before he too was dead.

The computers felt sluggish, the neural link popping up constant warnings. A power glitch while his mind was within the computers might kill him, or worse. Tash ignored his fears as he surveyed the command network, tracking the power drain. It was growing worse. The computers, thrown back on their own resources, were trying to compensate, but it wasn’t helping. They were draining the ship dry.

That’s what they wanted, he told himself. His thoughts were starting to fade. He blanked out, then awoke. They wanted the power.

He probed the network, locating the antimatter storage pods. They glimmered in his mind like poisonous jewels, a harsh reminder that their power came with a price. If the containment fields failed, the entire ship would be vaporised. They would be pleased. He forced his mind onwards, isolating the storage pods from the rest of the power grid. It might just be enough to safeguard their cargo from them. There was certainly no evidence that they could just reach out and take the antimatter.

The howling grew even louder. Tash flicked his tentacles in satisfaction, disengaging his mind from the computers and slumping to the deck. They were angry. His vision was starting to blur again, the world fading to darkness … his time, he doubted he’d recover. His entire body felt sluggish, utterly unable to move. He would join the rest of his comrades in death, but … but at least he’d spited them. His mind remained his own. They couldn’t touch him. Whatever they were, they couldn’t touch him …

… And then the darkness reached out and swallowed him.

Chapter One

“Well,” Captain Paul VanGundy. “That was a good dinner.”

“The cooks are practicing,” Commander Jeanette Haverford said. “They’ll be passing anything that’s less than perfect to us, once we get underway.”

“Compared to marine rations,” Security Chief Raymond Slater offered dryly, “this is heaven.”

Paul smiled in genuine amusement. The three of them sat together in his stateroom, finishing a dinner that had been put together by Supreme’s cooks. Paul couldn’t have named half of the dishes before he’d left the Royal Tyre Navy and signed up with the Cavendish Corporation, but he had to admit they were very good. The dinner hadn’t been something he could have afforded, off-duty. Going to a ten-star restaurant cost as much as he made in a month.

They made an odd trio, he thought as he surveyed his two subordinates. Jeanette’s face radiated calm authority, her short brown hair framing a dark face that betrayed no hint of vulnerability. Her clothes seemed to diminish her femininity, hiding the shape of her body behind a nicely-tailored blue uniform. Beside her, Raymond Slater looked very much like the sparkplug he’d been before leaving the Marine Corps. His dark face had a certain kind of rugged charm – he’d been ordered to have his scars removed when he’d signed up with the corporation – but he’d never win any beauty awards. Instead, he looked like a man no one would want to mess with. That, Paul knew, was a very good thing.

Paul himself looked older than his sixty years. It wasn’t uncommon for older men to have themselves rejuvenated until they looked to be in their mid-twenties, but the corporation’s image experts had insisted that Paul had to look old, wise and dignified. They’d designed him a look – greying hair, grey beard, blue eyes, strong jaw – and convinced his superiors that he should wear it. Paul had a feeling he’d been lucky to keep his muscle tone. The captain of a cruise liner couldn’t go around looking like a bodybuilder, let alone someone who had their muscles touched up every month in a bodyshop.

Blasted image experts, he thought, sourly. It wasn’t something he’d had to endure in the military. They’d been far more concerned with beating back the Theocracy, then carrying the war to Ahura Mazda. They’ll put style over substance any day.

He cleared his throat. “We’ll probably be glad to get ration bars when we’re underway,” he said. “Right now, we have different problems.”

“Yes, sir,” Jeanette said.

Paul tapped a switch. A holographic image of Supreme materialised in front of them, hovering over the table. As always, the giant cruise liner – a kilometre from prow to stern – took his breath away. There was none of the crude bluntness that characterised military starships, none of the brutal efficiency he recalled from the navy. Instead, there was an understated elegance that made him smile. Supreme was no warship. She was practically a work of art.

He leaned forward, drinking in her lines. The starship was a flattened cylinder, studded with giant portholes … practically windows. Two green blisters – each one easily larger than a naval destroyer – marked the upper gardens; a third blister, blue instead of green, marked the swimming pool. The bridge, a blister on top of the massive starship, made him smile. It looked good, but it was horrendously vulnerable. A military starship could not have such a vital installation in an exposed position.

“We’ve all written our final reports,” he said, slowly. He felt nervous, even though he was damned if he’d admit it to anyone. “Is there anything you didn’t bother to mention?”

“I believe I listed all of my concerns,” Jeanette said. “The crew is well-trained, but far too many of them are inexperienced. I’d prefer to swap some of them out with more experienced crewers.”

“HQ says there aren’t many experienced personnel to spare,” Paul said. He ground his teeth in frustration. The military drawdown was well underway, despite the chaos pervading the Ahura Mazda Sector. It wasn’t as if the corporation couldn’t hire a few hundred experienced spacers. “We’re getting some newcomers, but …”

He shrugged, expressively. A cruise liner was not a military starship. He had to keep reminding himself of that. There were just too many differences in everything from purpose to training for him to rest comfortably. The months he’d spent learning the ropes had convinced him that all newcomers required training before they could take up posts on a cruise liner. Perversely, someone who hadn’t been in the military had less to unlearn.

And most of the hosting staff don’t need military experience, he thought. They’re civilians through and through.

Jeanette pointed at the hologram. “I’ve got the crew working their way through a series of drills with all the usual actors, sir,” she said. “However … there’s a difference between training and reality. Most of our junior crewers will still be on probation until the end of the voyage.”

“Some of them didn’t quite take the training seriously,” Slater rumbled. “It wasn’t real.”

Paul nodded. He’d graduated from the Naval Academy at Piker’s Peak – and Slater had passed through Boot Camp – but Jeanette and the other crewmen had gone through their own intensive training course. The operations crew were as well-trained as many of their naval counterparts, while the host crews had gone through a whole series of simulations and training exercises. Indeed, there had been a surprising amount of cross-training. He could put half the host crew to work on operations if necessary.

He’d been astonished, when he’d been given access to the corporation’s files, to discover just how much trouble civilian crews had to handle. Passengers – some of whom were very wealthy and powerful – just didn’t know how to behave. The host crew had to cope with everything from drunken fights to outright misbehaviour, behaviour that would have earned a military officer a spell in the brig followed by a dishonourable discharge. He’d watched some of the exercises and come away with a new sense of appreciation for his crewers. It took a strong man to remain calm in the face of massive provocation.

“They’ll lose that attitude soon enough,” Paul predicted. The trainers might not be able to chew out recruits – he’d never met anyone who could outshout a Drill Instructor – but they had other ways to deal with wayward students. “Real life will see to that.”

“Yes, sir,” Jeanette said. She held out a datachip. “Overall, our reaction times to everything from medical emergency to shipboard crisis are well within acceptable parameters. I’ve ensured that all cross-trained personnel are ready to switch jobs at a moment’s notice, just in case we need them. I’d like to think we won’t, but it’s better to be sure.”

“Quite right,” Paul said. The Royal Navy had taught him that disaster could strike at any moment. Supreme might not have to worry about going into battle, but she did have her own challenges. “Are there any staffing problems I should keep in mind?”

“I don’t believe there’s anything significant,” Jeanette said. Her lips twisted. “Some of our guests will be bringing their own bodyguards and servants, of course. They may need some additional training of their own.”

Paul kept his face expressionless. “Make sure they get it,” he said. “And make sure we have a record of their training. We may need to put them to use somewhere else.”

Slater snorted. “Their employers will hate that, sir.”

“If we need to borrow their servants, we’ll be past caring,” Paul countered. Supreme had over two hundred crewmen with medical training. A crisis they couldn’t handle would pose a severe threat to the entire ship. “Check their firearms licences too, just in case.”

“Yes, sir,” Slater said.

Paul looked up at the display for a long moment. “Do you see any security threats?”

Slater took a moment to gather his thoughts. “Internally, no. The basic vetting process didn’t turn up any red flags. A handful of yellow flags – a handful of our passengers were marked down for bad behaviour on earlier cruises – but nothing else. I don’t see any reason to worry about our passengers.”

“One of them could be an imposter,” Jeanette commented.

“Perhaps.” Slater snorted, again. “We’ll be running basic security checks, of course.”

“Of course,” Paul agreed.

He smiled, inwardly. The corporation ran security checks on everyone, from its senior officers and starship crews to third-class passengers. He’d glimpsed enough of the vetting process, when he was being hired, to know that it was almost as comprehensive as anything demanded by the government’s intelligence services. A passenger who might be a problem would be required to spend the trip in a stasis pod, if they were allowed to board at all. It was far more likely that they would simply be denied passage. There were lower-grade passenger starships plying the spacelanes, after all.

“I’ve also run my security teams through a series of exercises,” Slater continued. “If necessary, we can isolate compartments or entire decks and then clear them by force. We’ll be as gentle as possible, of course, but by that point we might be far beyond any gentle solution. At worst, we can dump sleepy gas into any compartment and then pick up the sleeping beauties.”

“Which will probably get us all fired,” Jeanette said. “Out the nearest airlock …”

“Probably,” Slater said. “I should remind you, at this point, that we do not have comprehensive surveillance of the entire ship.”

“The passengers would pitch a fit,” Jeanette commented.

“Yes,” Paul said.

He shook his head in wry amusement. Supreme wasn’t just a passenger ship. Travel on her was an experience. She had everything from a casino to a brothel, just to make sure that her passengers travelled in luxury. Even the third-class passengers, the ones who’d be crammed into tiny cabins on the lower decks, would have access to the entertainments. The thought of being recorded, even for security purposes, would horrify them. They’d be worried about blackmail or worse.

“I am aware of the issues,” Slater said, stiffly. “It is also my duty to make you aware of the implications. We may not be able to react to a crisis until it is already out of hand.”

“I know,” Paul said.

Slater didn’t look mollified. “A number of our passengers are also prime targets for kidnap,” he added. “While I have no reason to suspect internal trouble, I have to warn you that there is a prospect of being intercepted. I’d be much happier if we had an escort.”

“So would I,” Paul admitted. Supreme wasn’t defenceless, but she was no warship. A destroyer could take her out, if her captain had the nerve to close with his target. “I believe that Corporate is still trying to organise one.”

“There have been no reports of pirate activity,” Jeanette added. “We’re not going to fly through the Ahura Mazda Sector.”

“A good thing too,” Slater said. He looked at Paul. “Captain, I strongly advise you to ensure that we stay well away from any hyperspace storms. Who knows what they’re hiding?”

“We will,” Paul said. Piracy was a threat. The Royal Navy had driven them out of Commonwealth space before the war, but they’d been on the rise when the navy’s attention had been diverted. It might take some time for the navy to resume its patrol routes and drive the pirates back out. “If nothing else, we can probably outrun any pirate ship.”

“I wouldn’t take that for granted,” Slater said. “Robert Cavendish alone is worth a stupid amount of money.”

Paul fought hard to keep his face expressionless. Robert Cavendish was one of the richest men on Tyre, perhaps the richest. Only the king and a handful of other aristocrats came close. He should have been a Duke – and would have been, if he hadn’t been more interested in building his empire. And he was Paul’s ultimate boss. It was a recipe for trouble.

“True,” Jeanette agreed. She shot Paul a sympathetic look. “Doesn’t he have his own personal yacht?”

“I imagine so,” Paul said. Robert Cavendish was rich enough to own and operate a starship the size of a superdreadnaught. Hell, he didn’t really need one. A smaller ship could offer as much comfort as he needed, without having to employ over a thousand crewmen. “But there’s nothing to be gained by debating it.”

“No, sir,” Slater agreed. “I suspect there is more to this cruise than simply travelling from place to place.”

Jeanette gave him an odd look. “What makes you say that?”

“I read the passenger manifest,” Slater said. “It isn’t just Robert Cavendish. It’s his inner family and a number of cronies and hangers-on. And a number of smaller businessmen and nobility, enough to occupy an entire deck. I suspect they’re planning a private planning session in-between spending most of their time in the casino.”

“Joy,” Paul said. He rubbed his forehead. Slater was right. Supreme would be a magnet for pirates, insurgents and everyone else with an axe to grind. He’d even raised the issue with Corporate, only to be told to shut up and soldier. Reading between the lines, he’d come to the conclusion that Corporate wasn’t happy either. “Keep a close eye on the situation.”

“Yes, sir,” Slater said.

He took control of the display, adjusting the hologram to show off the weapons emplacements. Paul couldn’t help feeling that Supreme, for all of her elegance, looked faintly ridiculous. Her design was just too inefficient. But then, a full-sized superdreadnaught wouldn’t win any beauty awards. All that mattered was smashing her enemies as quickly as possible, before they smashed her.

“The weaponry crews are still drilling on the latest tactical simulations,” Slater said. “I believe we could hold our own long enough to escape a pirate ship. A regular military ship, however, would eat us for breakfast. It would be far better to avoid contact.”

“And we will,” Paul said. “They’ll have some problems intercepting us.”

“Unless they’re trailing us at a safe distance,” Slater said. He flipped the display to show a starchart. “And they do know where we’re going.”

Paul exchanged glances with Jeanette. He had some leeway – he could alter course, once they were in hyperspace – but he had to take Supreme to her listed destinations. There was no way he could refuse to go to a particular world unless he had a very good reason. Corporate would be very annoyed with him, even if he could prove the world was under siege. If there was one thing corporations and the military had in common, it was that there was always someone flying a desk who thought he knew better than the man on the spot.

“If we can get an escort, we’ll be safe,” he said, firmly. “And if we can’t, we’ll fly an evasive course. No one is expecting us to arrive on a precise date.”

Jeanette smiled. “How lucky for us.”

“Quite,” Paul agreed.

He glanced from Jeanette to Slater. “Are there any other matters that need to be addressed?”

Jeanette smiled, mischievously. “Mr. Cavendish and his family will be expecting a formal welcome, sir,” she said. “You’ll have to dress up for it.”

Paul groaned, inwardly. The regular uniform was bad enough – whoever had designed their uniforms clearly didn’t have to wear them – but the dress uniforms were worse. His uniform was covered in so much gold braid that he looked like an admiral from a comic opera navy, while the midshipmen and stewards looked like military captains and commanders. He’d never been able to shake the feeling that people were laughing at him behind his back whenever he wore the dress uniform. The idea of commanding a starship while wearing such an outfit was absurd.

“Select a handful of junior officers and stewards to join the reception,” he ordered. It was mean of him, but he might as well spread the misery around. Besides, he’d never met Robert Cavendish. The man might take offence if only a couple of people greeted him. “How many others do I have to meet and greet?”

Jeanette made a show of consulting her terminal, as if she didn’t already have the information locked away in her mind. “There are three other passengers of sufficient status to warrant a personal greeting from you,” she said. “It would also build goodwill if you were to spend some time in each of the lounges.”

“I’m sure it would,” Paul said. He told himself not to take it too personally. Kissing hands – and buttocks, hopefully metaphorically – was part of his job now. Besides, he did have a good crew. Jeanette could handle anything that might reasonably be expected to happen while they were in orbit. “Is there anything else?”

“Mr. Cavendish might demand your personal attention, sir,” Slater said. “We had a number of high-ranking guests on Capricorn. They seemed to believe that Captain Hammond was their personal attendant.”

“And he does pay the bills,” Paul said. “Do we have anything on his previous conduct?”

“No,” Jeanette said. She met his eyes. “In his case, sir, that might be meaningless.”

Paul nodded, stiffly. The host crews kept files on their guests, files that were shared with other host crews. He’d heard they were even shared between corporations, although it was technically against corporate guidelines. An unpleasant passenger would discover that his reputation had preceded him.

And a good passenger would have the same experience, he mused. It wasn’t something he wanted to discourage. But in a better way.

“They might,” he agreed.

He sighed, inwardly. It was probably a good sign. He’d seen some of the files. A number of men – powerful men – had been marked as everything from being lousy tippers to having wandering hands. Robert Cavendish wouldn’t have been spared.

“I think we can hope for the best,” he said. “Are there any other matters?”

“We may run out of special ultra-expensive Scotch,” Jeanette said. Logistics was her responsibility. “The shipment from Nova Scotia was delayed, apparently.”

Paul smiled. “Let’s hope that’s the worst problem we face,” he said. Someone might just have outbid the corporation. Nova Scotia Scotch fetched a high price on Tyre. “They’ll have to drink expensive Scotch instead.”

“Disaster,” Slater said, deadpan. “The end of the world.”

“I’m sure some of them will feel that way,” Jeanette agreed.

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4 Responses to “Snippet–Becalmed (Angel Spin-Off)”

  1. Anarchymedes May 10, 2017 at 1:11 pm #

    ‘The weaponry crews’ on a cruise ship? I don’t know about the distant future, but I doubt that an armed cruise ship would attract many passengers today – especially the VIPs.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 10, 2017 at 1:32 pm #

      Pirates are a known danger in Chris’ universe(s).

      Of course, “rich and influential” people would be concerned about a ship they are on being attacked by pirates.

      In addition, cruise ships in our day aren’t likely to go through areas where the threat of piracy is well-known.

      In this universe, pirates are more able (than on Earth) to lurk where any ship might pass.

      Governments do seriously patrol areas under their control but any space ship likely will travel though areas not under the control of any governments.

      • chrishanger May 10, 2017 at 6:36 pm #

        Yep

        Had a headache this morning. Will pick up tomorrow.

        Chris

  2. Stafford1069 May 11, 2017 at 7:14 am #

    please take care

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