Snippet– The Cruel Stars (Ark 11)

9 Oct

Chris_final1 crual stars

Prologue

From: Commodore James Scorpio, Planning Cell Alpha Black

To: Admiral Sir Thomas Hanover, First Space Lord

Sir.

At the risk of sounding somewhat peevish, it must be noted that the sudden appearance of a new threat – an unexpected alien threat – is a tactical and strategic nightmare. Our contingency planning – and long-term construction schedules – were based around a limited war with another human power, rather than a conflict with an alien power of unknown origin, motives and technological base. The data from Vera Cruz, such as it is, tells us little about our opponents. It behoves us, therefore, to prepare for a long war.

This will not be easy. Assuming we cut as many corners as possible – and accept the risk of outright catastrophe – it will still take us six months to complete the fleet carriers under construction and another twelve to fourteen months to construct any new fleet carriers from scratch. (Frankly, the risk of serious system failure at the worst possible time cannot be discounted.) We are therefore faced with the prospect of a ‘come as you are’ war, with the danger – as in 2025 – that our forces and military stockpiles will be insufficient to the task at hand. Fifteen fleet carriers – sixteen, if we count Ark Royal – are a staggering force, yet we know nothing about our enemy. It is quite possible that they have enough fleet carriers at their disposal to outmatch all of humanity’s put together.

While we can look to our allies – and the rest of the spacefaring powers – to assist in filling some of the holes in our order of battle, they will have similar problems of their own. Most notably, they will be reluctant to put their fleet carriers in unnecessary jeopardy as, like us, fleet carriers represent a massive proportion of their military budgets. Even if the various national governments devote a considerably greater percentage of their GNP to their militaries, it will still take time to bring new shipyards online, train new personnel and start churning out new carriers. Our most optimistic projections indicate that we will simply be unable to increase the pace of construction for at least two years. Realistically speaking, that may be too optimistic.

Therefore, I propose that we activate the escort carrier contingency plans at once.

I concede that this will cause us problems. Removing even a relatively small number of Workhorse-class bulk freighters from the shipping lanes will have knock-on effects, most notably disrupting our logistics during our frantic rush to establish forward lines of defence around New Russia. We simply don’t have enough freighters at the best of times, despite nearly fifty years of trying to build up our interstellar shipping capability. (Construction of new freighters is something we can push forward, fortunately.) At the same time, we simply don’t have enough starfighter launching platforms to fight a full-scale war. Losing a single fleet carrier, sir, means losing the personnel as well as the ship itself. The loss of a single carrier would severely dent our ability to meet our commitments to both Britain and the united defence force. From a purely cold-blooded point of view, sir, the destruction of a dozen Workhorses would not impede our ability to make war.

From a technical point of view, the conversion is only a matter of removing the hold facilities and replacing them with starfighter support and maintenance facilities. Given that normal safety procedures are suspended, the first escort carrier could be ready for deployment within a week of going into the yard. However, crewing does represent a problem. While a significant number of freighter captains and crews are Royal Naval Reserve personnel, others are not and may be resistant to serving on the front lines. (If nothing else, the question of nationality comes into play; freighter crews, particularly belters, are notorious for not asking too many questions about a prospective crewer’s past.) And our manpower resources are already stretched to the limit.

With that in mind, sir, I have the following suggestion …

Chapter One

No one, Captain Abigail Harrison had often reflected, would consider HMMS Archibald Haddock’s bridge to be remotely photogenic. It was a cramped mess, with five consoles and chairs jammed so close together that a crewman couldn’t wave a hand without striking one of his fellow crewers. Even the command chair was little more than a slightly elevated console, giving the merchant vessel’s commanding officer a prominence that many military and survey officers would insist she didn’t deserve. But it did have its advantages. She could not only keep a very close eye on her crew, but cut them out of the command network at once if she felt it necessary.

Which might well be necessary, she thought, as she eyed Midshipwoman Podkayne Harrison’s back. Poddy hasn’t handed a proper jump since we left Britannia.

She cleared her throat, loudly. “Poddy?”

“I’m working on it, Captain,” Poddy said. She knew better than to call Abigail anything other than Captain when they were both on duty. “I’ve almost finished.”

“Check and recheck everything,” Abigail ordered, reminding herself to remain calm and composed. Military ships might want to go through the tramline at speed, but there was no need for Haddock to hurry. Her daughter had plenty of time to complete her calculations before making the jump. “One mistake here and you’ll be in trouble.”

“So will the rest of us,” Lieutenant Anson Harrison put in.

“I’m relying on you to check your sister’s work,” Abigail said. Her eldest son could be relied upon to point out any flaws, not least because he didn’t want to compete with his sister for postings on the next cruise. “And I’ll be checking it myself too.”

She saw Poddy stiffen and winced, inwardly. It didn’t feel right to put such pressure on her daughter, even though Poddy had grown up amongst the asteroids, where the slightest mistake could spell utter disaster. But there was no choice. Poddy couldn’t be given her spacer badge until she calculated at least three jumps in succession, each one as smooth as possible. Abigail certainly couldn’t afford to develop a reputation for overlooking weaknesses in her children. Nepotism was hardly unknown amongst the RockRats and interstellar shipping communities, where family ties were stronger than anything else, but promoting an incompetent was a good way to lose everything. Poddy would have to start again – from the beginning – if she failed her last jump.

I went through it too, Abigail reminded herself. Poddy can do it.

She watched her daughter’s fingers darting over the console. Poddy was slight, with long brown hair and a pale face that owed more to her father than her mother. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that they were actually related. Abigail’s black hair, tanned skin and oval eyes – to say nothing of her heavyset body – spoke of a more exotic origin than the asteroid belt. But then, Poddy had had the latest set of genetic modifications spliced into her DNA before she’d been born. She wouldn’t suffer from overeating unless she really overdid it.

Poddy’s console chimed. “Done, Captain,” she said. “It’s ready.”

“Anson, check it,” Abigail ordered. She tapped her own console, bringing up Poddy’s calculations on her screen. “You’ll be rewarded for any mistakes you find.”

Poddy tensed, slightly. Abigail felt a flicker of guilt and reminded herself, sharply, that it was for Poddy’s own good. Better she had her mistakes pointed out by her family rather than some unrelated captain, who wouldn’t hesitate to lock her in her cabin and throw her off the ship at the next port if he felt she was dangerously unreliable. Besides, their lives were at stake. A minor mistake in calculating the jump along the tramline might just destroy the entire ship.

Or risk getting our licence pulled, Abigail thought. Her lips twitched. A fate worse than a fate worse than death.

“It appears to be fine,” Anson said, grudgingly. He turned to look at Abigail, his white teeth flashing against his dark skin. “Captain, I believe we can make the jump.”

Abigail nodded, slowly. There wasn’t anything wrong with the calculations, as far as she could tell. She’d checked everything with savage intensity, just to be sure. And that meant …

She leaned back in her chair. “Make the jump,” she ordered. “Now!”

A low whine echoed through the ship as the Puller Drive powered up. Abigail braced herself, feeling her ears starting to hurt. Something was wrong with the drive field, although no one – not even her engineer – had been able to find the cause. Perhaps a handful of components were simply worn down, ahead of time. She’d replace the whole installation, if she could afford it. But she simply didn’t have the money to even begin to replace it.

And there isn’t much hope of getting a loan, she thought, as the whining sound rose to a crescendo. Not unless we really hit it big …

Haddock shook, violently. The displays blanked, just for a second. Abigail gritted her teeth, allowing herself a moment of relief as the displays started to come back online. A civilian would have assumed that Poddy had messed up her calculations, but Abigail knew better. It was a typical jump. She’d heard that the latest versions of the Puller Drive could take a ship through the tramlines without so much as spilling the captain’s coffee, but she didn’t believe it. Besides, even if it was true, there was no way she’d be able to afford a newer drive either.

“Jump complete, Captain,” Anson reported. “We have arrived in the Sol System.”

“Made it,” Poddy crowed.

Abigail allowed herself an indulgent smile. “So you did,” she said, trying to sound proud. “We’ll go out for dinner once we reach Ceres – and you can choose where we go.”

Anson looked up. “All of us?”

“Yes, all of us,” Abigail said, firmly. Anson probably wanted to visit the brothel. She didn’t blame him for that – God knew it had been a long time since she’d had anyone in her bed – but family came first. They’d be at Ceres for at least a week. “Poddy, send a standard message to the shipping coordinator. Inform them that we have returned.”

“Aye, Captain,” Poddy said.

“Anson, set course for Ceres,” Abigail added. “No need to hurry.”

“Aye, Captain,” Anson said.

Abigail smiled as she pulled up the jump records and checked them against Poddy’s calculations. The younger girl had done a good job. The calculations matched the records perfectly. Not that Abigail had expected anything else – a serious mishap would probably have ended poorly – but it was still important to prove that Poddy had earned the right to style herself a navigator. The guilds would check the records themselves, if Poddy decided to leave Haddock. Abigail made a mental note to ensure that the records were copied over as soon as they arrived on Ceres. One of her adult children was probably going to seek a transfer soon, no matter what Abigail did. There was only limited room for advancement on Haddock.

And Anson wants to captain his own ship, Abigail thought. Her eldest son was twenty, more than old enough to strike out on his own. He’ll probably be looking for postings when we reach Ceres.

Poddy’s console bleeped. “Captain, I am receiving a priority message from the Merchant Shipping Guild,” she said. “It’s tagged as urgent.”

Abigail frowned. The message couldn’t have been sent from Ceres. It would take hours for the message she’d sent to reach the asteroid, let alone for any reply to be sent back. The light-speed delay would see to that. And yet … she keyed her console, bringing up the message. The header insisted that it had been sent from a monitoring station much closer to the designated emergence point. She felt a flicker of concern as she ran the message through the computers. The emergency codes all checked out.

ALERT. ALERT. STUFT EMERGENCY. YOU ARE ORDERED TO PROCEED IMMEDIATELY TO RNRB TALLYMAN. ACKNOWLEDGE, THEN RADIO SILENCE. MESSAGE REPEATS. ALERT …

“What?”

Anson glanced at Poddy’s console. “A STUFT Emergency?”

“Ships Taken Up From Trade,” Abigail translated, absently. “They expect us to head straight for Tallyman.”

She sucked in her breath, thinking hard. She was, technically, a Royal Navy Reservist. It was the price she’d paid for the loan that had allowed her to purchase her ship. But she’d never expected to be actually called upon to serve. She’d never seen any of the authorisation codes attached to the message, outside a handful of update messages. Her ship had certainly never been summoned at short notice. They hadn’t even been dragged into any drills.

“They’re out of their minds,” Anson said. “Mum … do you know what will happen if we don’t meet the deadline …”

Abigail nodded, grimly. Interstellar shipping was never as predictable as travel on Earth – no one would risk setting their clocks by a starship’s arrival – but they were expected to arrive at Ceres within a certain timeframe. Being late would cost them badly, particularly if the penalty clauses loaded into their contract went into effect. And besides, their cargo was perishable. They might wind up being sued if they failed to deliver it on time.

The Navy is supposed to indemnify us, she thought. But we might lose everything by the time the bureaucrats actually get around to paying out.

She shook her head. “Anson, set course for Tallyman,” she ordered. “Poddy …”

Mum,” Anson protested. “If we don’t get there …”

“I know,” Abigail snapped. She made a mental note to chew him out later. Other captains wouldn’t be quite so forgiving of outbursts on the bridge. “But what would you have us do?”

She watched Anson trying to think of a solution and coming up with nothing. There wasn’t one, as far as Abigail could tell. Haddock could reverse course and go … go where? The Royal Navy would eventually realise that the freighter wasn’t going to show up at Tallyman and file charges, at which point the ship and her crew would grow too hot to handle. Even the independent asteroid settlements would refuse to have anything to do with them, if they were lucky. They’d be far more likely to be arrested and be shipped straight to the nearest penal world. And the thought of being locked out of space was terrifying.

“… Fuck,” Anson said.

“Don’t worry,” Poddy said. “I’m sure this will be nothing.”

“Hah,” Anson muttered. His fingers touched his console. “Course laid in, Captain. We should be there in seven hours.”

“Very good,” Abigail said. “Poddy, send an acknowledgement and then go silent. No one is to send a message without my direct authorisation.”

“Understood,” Poddy said.

Abigail rose. “Take the bridge, Anson,” she ordered. “I’ll be in my cabin, catching up with my sleep.”

“I’ll wake you if anything happens,” Anson assured her.

“See that you do,” Abigail said.

She stepped through the hatch and walked down to her cabin. It was a tiny compartment, barely large enough for a bed, a small desk and a private washroom, the only real luxury afforded to the freighter’s commanding officer. Abigail had heard that military officers had real cabins, but there was no way anyone could fit anything bigger into Haddock. The freighter was huge, yet the crew spaces were small. She loved her ship, but she’d be glad to move into a hotel for a few days when they completed their voyage. A proper bath alone would work wonders. She was ruefully aware that she – and the rest of her crew – stank.

A good thing no one notices the smell after the first few hours, she thought, as she climbed into bed. But they’ll probably force us to go through decontamination when we reach Tallyman.

Sleep didn’t come easy. Indeed, by the time Anson paged her, she didn’t feel as though she’d slept at all. She sat upright and keyed her terminal, linking to the external sensors. RNRB Tallyman was a fairly standard asteroid base – one designed for mining and zero-g construction work rather than habitation – but it was surrounded by a dozen Workhorse-class freighters and a pair of naval destroyers. Abigail shivered as she checked the freighter ID codes, recognising a couple of names. Whatever was going on was serious. The Royal Navy wouldn’t yank so many freighters off the shipping lanes without a very good excuse.

“They want you to shuttle over to the base,” Anson said, over the intercom. “Now, apparently. The shuttle is already on its way.”

“Joy,” Abigail muttered. “Open the lower hatch for them. Just let me slip into something a little less comfortable and I’ll be down.”

She stripped off her shipsuit, sponged herself down and rapidly donned a fresh outfit. It wasn’t a dress uniform, but it would have to do. She literally had nothing else to wear. The stuffed shirts who ran the navy might be outraged if they saw her, but it didn’t matter. They should know they hadn’t called her after she’d arrived at Ceres. She’d have hired something more suitable if they’d arranged a meeting on the asteroid. God knew she didn’t meet potential clients in smelly shipsuits.

Pinning her hair back into place, she hurried down to the hatch, checking the telltales before she opened it. The shuttle was fairly standard, the interior surprisingly comfortable for a military craft. A Royal Marine checked her fingerprints and DNA code, then directed her to a comfortable seat. Abigail wondered, helplessly, if she was in trouble. And yet, she knew it was absurd. The Royal Navy wouldn’t have bothered to summon her to Tallyman if it wanted to arrest her. Ceres had an internal police force that would have happily taken Abigail and her crew into custody until matters were sorted out.

She forced herself to relax as the shuttle undocked and headed back to the asteroid. The pilot kept up a steady stream of chatter, speaking to his controller … Abigail had to fight to keep the contempt off her face. Didn’t the navy trust its pilots? The endless checklists bred sloth and apathy, not efficiency. God knew she trusted Anson to handle her ship in her absence … she wouldn’t insult his intelligence by forcing him to run through a checklist for something as simple as a docking manoeuvre. Maybe the pilot was new. But in that case, he shouldn’t be flying the shuttle …

A low clunk echoed through the craft as it docked with the asteroid. Abigail rolled her eyes in annoyance – Anson wouldn’t have banged a shuttle against the airlock – and then rose as the hatch opened. There was gravity inside, surprisingly. She’d half-expected the entire complex to be in zero-g. But then, the military could afford far more powerful and selective gravity generators than any civilian freighter crew. No doubt half their crew was composed of groundpounders. She could move easily from gravity to zero-g and back again, but groundpounders could not. Half of them couldn’t even fly to orbit without throwing up.

Sad, she thought, as she stepped through the hatch. Who’d want to live on the ground?

A young man wearing a midshipman’s uniform met her on the far side. “Captain Harrison?”

“That’s me,” Abigail said. She resisted the urge to point out that her identity had already been checked. The midshipman looked so young that she was tempted to check if he was still in nappies. Poddy looked older – and more responsible – and Poddy was fifteen! “What can I do for you?”

“Please, come with me,” the midshipman said. His voice was very quiet. He turned, motioning for her to follow him. “There’s a briefing in the … ah … briefing room.”

“And where else would we hold a briefing?” Abigail asked, rhetorically. “Lead on, young man.”

The back of the young man’s neck went red, Abigail noted. She smiled to herself, then followed him through a series of drab – and unmarked – corridors. There was no personality to the complex at all, no decorations … there weren’t even any paintings or drawings produced by the local children. But then, there were probably no children on the base. The RNBR complex might just have been reactivated at very short notice. She mulled it over as she followed him into the briefing room, where four other merchant skippers were waiting for her.

“Abigail,” Captain Philip Chester said. He was a colossal man, with a beard that reached down to his chest. His shipsuit was carefully tailored to show off his muscles. “It’s good to see you again.”

“You too,” Abigail said, warmly. They’d shared a bed a few times, back when they’d been younger. It hadn’t meant much to either of them, she knew, but it had been fun. “What’s an ugly bastard like you doing in a place like this?”

“Waiting for you, it would seem,” Chester said. He waved a hand around the room. “We were all summoned here …”

“I’m sorry about the delay,” a new voice said. A young man strode into the room, closing the hatch behind him. “We were hoping to get started earlier, but something came up.”

“That’s quite all right,” Captain Dawes said, sarcastically. “We’re just sitting here, twiddling our thumbs.”

“Good,” the naval officer said, as he motioned for Abigail to take a seat. He didn’t seem to have any sense of irony. “My name is Sidney Jameson, Commodore Jameson. I’m sorry that you were all summoned here at short notice. Please rest assured that we wouldn’t have called you if the situation wasn’t truly urgent.”

“I’d prefer to rest assured that you were going to compensate us for our losses,” Captain Dawes told him.

“We will,” Jameson said. He took a breath. “We are at war.”

Abigail felt ice trickling down her spine. “At war? With whom?”

Jameson looked at her. “Aliens.”

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9 Responses to “Snippet– The Cruel Stars (Ark 11)”

  1. Anarchymedes October 9, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    ‘While a significant number of freighter captains and crews are Royal Naval Reserve personnel, others are not and may be resistant to serving on the front lines. (If nothing else, the question of nationality comes into play; freighter crews, particularly belters, are notorious for not asking too many questions about a prospective crewer’s past.)’

    Really?

    The lefties and the righties; the conservative and the preservatives; the black and the white; the green, the red, the blue, checkered, striped, and even the dotted: all of the humanity is fighting for our survival as a species. So, if any of you believe that you, your family, your property, your trade, or indeed your bloody opinion on anything matter more than that, then you’re no longer considered human, and you can consider your human rights revoked, effective immediately. Yes, Ladies & Gentlemen, the choice you’re now required to make is that simple: are you with the humanity (and therefore, human), or are you on your own – meaning, against it? If the former, then we’ll welcome you sacrificing everything you have – your money, your ships, yourselves, and your loved ones – in this fight. If our species survive, our descendants will be grateful to us forevermore. But if the latter, then you become the first goddamned aliens to be crushed in the name of the human race, and all that will be left after you becomes the spoils of war. Decide now!

    How’s that for a ‘pep talk?!’ To everyone who seriously believe the human race ought to ‘compensate us for our losses’ at times like those outlined in the fragment?
    Chris, I vaguely recall you floating an idea of a ‘Genghis Khan in Space’ saga on this blog once; this is how it might begin. A freebie. 🙂

    • Stuart the Viking October 11, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

      So, does this mean that you are all FOR totalitarian fascism… as long as the emergency is big enough?

      I mean, I understand the sentiment. Every single human SHOULD be all-in, after all, it is all of humanity that is in jeopardy. And yes, reservists shouldn’t be given any choice what-so-ever. They signed the papers and accepted the benefits (I knew some reservists who cried about being activated and sent to Iraq/Afghanistan and tried to do anything they could to get out of it. I lost a LOT of respect for them). However, shouldn’t the others (non-reservists) be given more of a choice than what boils down to “join the effort or face the gallows”? If we stand by and allow our government to go that far, perhaps we no longer qualify as Human.

      • Anarchymedes October 12, 2017 at 10:47 am #

        We’re talking about a cosmic war against an alien race. Under these circumstances – yes, no more goody-goody, no more nice guys, no more games; every human has only two choices: humanity or death.
        Under any other, real-life circumstances, where two or more human factions decide to duke it out, it’s a matter of individual conscience which side to choose, and whether to choose any side at all. I thought it should go without saying.

      • Stuart the Viking October 12, 2017 at 2:21 pm #

        Hmmm… what about old people? Too old to fight. Too old to bear children. Guess they aren’t any good for the war effort, and taking care of them would only use up human resources better used against the aliens! Guess grandma and grandpa gotta die.

        Speaking of bearing children, women can’t be fighting, they are the key to the next generation! They’ll have to be kept in baby mills, pumping out baby after baby. Gotta keep that human race going!

        Teachers? Can’t spare the manpower! Why teach those kids stuff they can’t use to destroy the enemy anyway! Better to raise those kids in indoctrination camps where they will learn to serve! None of that pesky individuality bullshit, it gets in the way of killing the alien menace!

        Just how far DOES this rabbit hole go?

    • chrishanger October 11, 2017 at 4:45 pm #

      This is the start of the war . They don’t have any idea just how bad it’s going to become.

      Chris

  2. David October 10, 2017 at 3:10 pm #

    Hey Chris, where is the audiobook for Ark10? BTW love Ralph Lister. He is so excellent reading your books.

  3. georgephillies October 12, 2017 at 3:44 am #

    Evidence as to the nature of the war at this point is close to nonexistent. And one-worlder as a response is probably a losing idea.

    • Anarchymedes October 12, 2017 at 10:52 am #

      It’s already clear that it’s humans vs non-humans. Surely that should be enough to put any dithering – and all our intra-species problems – aside?

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