Archive | May, 2018

Retro Review Space Cadet

4 May

It is not enough that you be skilful, clever, brave— The trustees of this awful power must each possess a meticulous sense of honour, self-discipline beyond all ambition, conceit, or avarice, respect for the liberties and dignity of all creatures, and an unyielding will to do justice and give mercy. He must be a true and gentle knight.

Space Cadet

It’s interesting to realise that Robert Heinlein was himself a naval man who attended the US Naval College, as it is genuinely striking just how much of his experiences were incorporated into Space Cadet. Indeed, rereading this book after reading biographies of Heinlein is something of an eye-opener. Heinlein may have gotten a lot wrong about the way politics and technology would develop, but he does manage to get across both the life of a student at a naval academy and the early years of an officer of a naval force. And it’s in space!

The plot is relatively simple. Matt Dodson, an American teenager, applies to join the Space Patrol (a combination of the USN and the Coast Guard). Going through a series of tests, some with hidden tricks to catch cheaters, he is eventually permitted to join as a cadet and go to the academy (actually, a spaceship which has been converted into a school). There, he meets three friends (one of whom, Oscar Jensen, was born on Venus, which is a later plot point) and a semi-rival, Girard Burke. For better or worse, perhaps for the worse, Matt finds himself rooming with Burke.

The cadets are pushed hard, until Burke either resigns or is asked to leave (the text doesn’t make it clear.) Matt and his three friends, however, are allowed to proceed onwards to the next level, actual service on an interstellar ship. After a short adventure where they stumble across the remains of another ship, lost in the asteroid belt, they are called to Venus by reports of a native (i.e. alien) uprising. Matt and co take a smaller ship to the foggy planet, but accidentally crash-land and are captured by the natives. There, they discover that Burke, their former comrade, was engaged in a little gunboat diplomacy that got his entire crew killed and himself captured.

Burke offers them a great deal of money if they keep his secret, summon the marines to put down the ‘uprising’ and parcel out the captured land. Instead, Matt and his friends make friends with the natives, patch up an old ship and head back into space. Burke is placed under arrest and the three patrolmen, now feeling like patrolmen, resume their duties.

Believe it or not, I think Space Cadet is perhaps my favourite of the Heinlein juveniles. It works well as a story for teenage boys while also including a great many bonuses for the more adult readers. It is clean and simple, yet has a number of underlying themes that stick in the mind. Heinlein-as-teacher is very clear in this work, where it isn’t clear in others.

And what makes it work, I think, is that Matt starts out as a recognisable character. He may come from a future world – an early section has him using a mobile phone to call home – but he’s still human. He’s as close to us as he would have been to the kids in Heinlein’s first audience. When he starts, he’s on the cusp of manhood; he’s eager and determined, but also naive and profoundly unsure of his abilities. The story is not so much space adventure as Matt and his friends growing into men.

Matt is contrasted with Burke, who is a cynical bounder of the worst sort. Burke is not a bully, in the sense he picks on Matt or the other cadets; Burke privately questions the purposes of the tests, assuming that everything is a test with a hidden purpose … in short, as a cadet, Burke undermines the other cadets. His view of the universe has no room for honour or even for basic common decency. (He sees a spaceship crash, when the cadets are being tested, and assumes that it’s part of the test.) Later, as the CO of an exploration ship, Burke schemes to deprive the natives of their mineral rights by kidnapping their queen, forcing her to sign a contract and then – presumably – using the contract as a figleaf of justification for a military operation. This was not, of course, uncommon in the days of the Wild West. Here, it has a happier outcome for the natives.

This is, in many ways, the start of a theme that runs through most of Heinlein’s books. Colonisation, in the classic sense, is wrong; exploiters, people who will steal from the natives, are evil. Normally, Heinlein tries to make us like someone before he uses them to make a point; this time, Heinlein goes to some trouble to make us dislike Burke to ensure that we do not side with him. It’s a curious moment when one remembers that the colonisation model that Heinlein condemns is not the European one, but the American one. Heinlein wants us to realise, I think, that the victims of such exploitation are human (or at least intelligent) too. It’s notable that Oscar, who grew up on Venus, actually treats the natives with respect … something that helps the cadets escape certain death.

Indeed, Space Cadet also includes an antiracist message that seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Heinlein was less subtle at this point, it should be noted; the characters make a point of saying that a senior officer’s skin colour (black) doesn’t matter to them, although they’re comparing him to the aliens. And yet, it is clear that the Patrol is a multiracial as well as multinational organisation. (That said, it is also men-only. Women are barely mentioned within the text.)

Heinlein touches on many other issues of importance to young men. The importance of honour, for example, is contrasted with shameless money-grubbing. Matt is told that you can’t buy men of honour, just as Matt himself refuses Burke’s massive bribe. The patrol is held together by honour. It can’t function any other way. There are also moments drawn directly from Heinlein’s own experience as a naval cadet, including a sad moment when Matt goes home … only to discover that he no longer fits into his hometown. The gulf between him and his family (and former friends) is simply too large.

The recent biography of Heinlein suggests that Space Cadet was originally conceived as a sequel, of sorts, to Solution Unsatisfactory, which was written before nuclear bombs were recognised as a threat. Instead, the Patrol of that story deployed radioactive dust against its enemies; later, it launched a de facto coup against the world governments on the grounds that it was the only way to keep a greater threat from devastating the planet. (Panshin has some interesting commentary on that story which is well worth a read.) Matt – originally – would have ended up bombing his hometown. There are moments of acknowledgement to the original plot, if indeed that was the original plot, in the story, but overall the second version works far better. It certainly lacks the grimness that would have weakened the original version.

In some ways, Space Cadet can be seen as a precursor to Starship Troopers. They both cover the transition of a callow youth to a mature officer, but Space Cadet is relatively simplistic while Starship Troopers is as much or more a philosophical work as it is an adventure novel. Space Cadet barely touches on politics, for better or worse. Keeping one’s officer corps out of politics would, of course, be highly desirable.

Overall, I stand by my original judgement. Space Cadet may be outdated – the tech is a mixture of surprisingly accurate and laughably wrong, while the solar system is a far more exciting and inhabited place than reality – but the underlying themes of the story are still relevant today …

… And besides, it’s a fun little read.

Snippet – The Embers of War (Angel in the Whirlwind 6)

2 May

Hi, Everyone

The Embers of War (the title will probably be changed at some point) is technically book 6 in the Angel in the Whirlwind (Kat Falcone) series. I say technically because The Hyperspace Trap (nee Becalmed) is numbered as book five, but I deliberately wrote it as a side story. You can skip it if you wish. <grin>

If you haven’t read the books, all you really need to know is that the Commonwealth has won its war with the Theocracy and Theocratic Space is now under occupation. But the war has left the Commonwealth exhausted and discontent is spreading rapidly …

… And Kat Falcone, who fought and won the war at huge personal cost, is now caught in the middle.

As always, everything from spelling corrections to continuity errors and other screw-ups will be more than warmly welcomed.

Unfortunately, there will be some delays in production owing to my health and family commitments. But I’ll try to keep it flowing as much as possible.



“That’s all you could find?”

The two officers winced in unison, as if they expected to be marched to the airlock and unceremoniously thrown into space for failing to accomplish the impossible. Once, Admiral Zaskar acknowledged ruefully, they might have been right. Failure was a sign of God’s displeasure, a proof that the failure – the failed – deserved to be punished. But if that was true, and he no longer believed it was so, what did that say about the Theocracy?

He studied the manifest on the datapad for a long moment, trying to hold back a tidal wave of depression. A few crates of starship components, some so old they probably dated all the way back to the early days of spaceflight; some old boxes of ration bars that were older than most of the men who were going to eat them … it was a far cry from the supplies they needed to keep the fleet alive. The fleet – the squadron, really – was on the verge of breaking down completely. In truth, he’d started to lose faith in his ability to keep his ships and men together long enough for the enemy to give up the pursuit.

“And the asteroid base?” He looked up at the officers. “Were there any people who might be interested in joining us?”

“No, Admiral,” the older officer said. “They refused our offers.”

And we can’t make them a little more compulsory, Zaskar told himself. We’d be betrayed within the week.

He cursed his former masters under his breath. His crew was composed of ignorants and fanatics, neither of whom could do maintenance work worth a damn. The only thing they could do was remove a broken component and slot in a replacement, which had worked fine until their supply lines were destroyed once and for all. Even the finest engineers on the fleet couldn’t repair everything, let alone build new components from scratch. He’d had to cannibalise and abandon a dozen ships just to keep the rest of the squadron going. And he was all too aware that their time was running out.

“Go see the Cleric for ritual cleansing,” he ordered, shortly. “And then return to your duties.”

The two officers bowed, then retreated. Zaskar watched them go, then tapped a command into his terminal. A holographic image snapped into existence, flickering slightly. Zaskar’s eyes narrowed as he studied his fleet. The flicker was tiny, but it shouldn’t have been there at all. It was a grim reminder of their predicament. The onboard datanet was glitched and no one, not even their sole computer expert, had been able to fix it. His entire ship was breaking down.

He wanted to believe that the handful of light codes in the display represented a powerful force. Four superdreadnaughts, nine cruisers, twelve destroyers and a pair of courier boats … on paper, it was a powerful force. But one superdreadnaught could neither fire missiles nor energise a beam – and ammunition was in short supply in any case – and five of the smaller ships were on their last legs. Each failure, small in itself, led to a cascading series of failures that simply could not be fixed. Zaskar rather suspected that the Commonwealth wouldn’t need an entire superdreadnaught squadron to wipe out his fleet in a stand-up battle. A single superdreadnaught would be more than enough.

Which is why we are here, he thought, switching to the near-space display. They won’t come looking for us here, not until we are betrayed.

He gritted his teeth in bitter rage. The asteroid settlement was the sort of place he would have destroyed, if he’d stumbled across it before the war. Smugglers weren’t allowed to operate within the Theocracy, which hadn’t stopped a number of high-ranking personal from trading safety and political cover for items that they simply couldn’t obtain anywhere else. And now … he swore, angrily. The smugglers might be their only hope, if they could find something to trade. But the squadron had very little to offer the scum of the galaxy.

Except ships, he reminded himself. And we’re not that desperate, are we?

Zaskar tapped the console, shutting off the display. He didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, but perhaps they were that desperate. His fleet was dying. And its crew was dying too. Discipline was steadily breaking down – internal security had logged everything from fights to a handful of unpopular officers being murdered in their bunks – and he didn’t dare try to crack down. His crewmen were too ignorant to realise just how bad things really were – yet – but he knew it was only a matter of time. The squadron was well on its way to collapsing into irrelevance. The Commonwealth wouldn’t have to lift a finger to destroy them. They’d do that for themselves.

He took a breath, tasting something faintly unpleasant in the air. The air circulation system was starting to break down too. He’d had men cleaning the vents and checking – and rechecking – the recycling plants, but if their air suddenly turned poisonous … that would be the end. It wouldn’t even have to be that poisonous. An atmospheric imbalance – perhaps an excess of oxygen – would be just as bad. A spark would cause an explosion. Hell, merely breathing in excessive oxygen would cause problems too.

The hatch hissed open. Zaskar looked up, already knowing who he’d see. There was only one person who would come into his ready room without ringing the buzzer and waiting for permission to enter. Lord Cleric Moses stood there, his beard as unkempt as ever. Zaskar couldn’t help thinking there were more flecks of grey in his hair than there had been yesterday. Moses was nearly two decades older than Zaskar himself and hadn’t had the benefit of a military career.

And he isn’t even the Lord Cleric, Zaskar reminded himself, dryly. He just assumed the title on the assumption that he was the senior surviving cleric.

The thought brought another wave of depression. Ahura Mazda had fallen. The Tabernacle had been destroyed and the planet had been occupied … if the wretched smugglers were to be believed. Zaskar wanted to believe that the smugglers had lied, but … he’d been there, during the final battle. He was all too aware that the Royal Tyre Navy had won. And his fleet, the one that should have fought to the bitter end, had been all that remained of the Theocratic Navy. He sometimes wondered, in the dead of night, if it would have been better to stay and die in defence of his homeworld and his religion. At least he wouldn’t have lived to see his fleet slowly starting to die.

“They found nothing, it seems,” Moses said, taking a seat. “They didn’t even find any worthy women.”

Zaskar snorted. Moses had suggested, quite seriously, that they leave Theocratic Space entirely and set out to find a new home somewhere far from explored space. But his fleet’s crew consisted solely of men. Kidnapping women was about the only real solution to their problem, but where could they hope to find nearly a hundred thousand women? Raiding a mid-sized planet might work – and he’d seriously considered it – yet he doubted they could take the women and withdraw before the occupiers responded. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure he could punch through the planet’s defences. His fleet was in a terrible state.

“No,” he said.

“And they heard more rumours,” Moses added. “More worlds have slipped from our control.”

“Yes,” Zaskar said. “Are you surprised?”

The Cleric gave him a sharp look. Zaskar looked back, evenly. The days when a cleric could have a captain, or even an admiral, hauled off his command deck and scourged were long gone. Moses had little real power and they both knew it. Speaking truth to power was no longer a dangerous game. And the blunt truth was that the Theocracy had alienated so many locals on every world they’d occupied that the locals had revolted almost as soon as the orbital bombardment systems were destroyed.

Moses looked down. “God will provide.”

Hah, Zaskar thought. God had turned His back. We need a miracle.

His console bleeped. “Admiral?”

Zaskar stabbed his finger at the button. “Yes?”

“Admiral, we just picked up a small scoutship dropping out of hyperspace,” Captain Geris said. “They’re broadcasting an old code, sir, and requesting permission to come aboard.”

“An old code?” Zaskar leaned forward. “How old?”

“It’s a priority-one code from four years ago,” Captain Geris informed him. “I’m surprised it’s still in our database.”

Moses met Zaskar’s eyes. “A trick?”

Zaskar shrugged. “Captain, are we picking up any other ships?”

“Negative, sir.”

“Then invite the scout to dock at our forward airlock,” Zaskar ordered. “And have its occupant brought to my ready room.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Zaskar leaned back in his chair as the connection broke. A priority-one code from four years ago? It could be a trap, but outdated codes were generally rejected once everyone had been notified that they were outdated. The Theocracy had been – was, he told himself – so large that it had been incredibly difficult to keep everyone current. And yet, four years was too long. It made little sense. The code dated all the way back to the Battle of Cadiz.

“They wouldn’t need to play games if they’d found us,” he said, more to himself than to Moses. The scout could be crammed to the gunnels with antimatter, but the worst they could do was take out the Righteous Revenge. “They’d bring in a superdreadnaught squadron and finish us off.”

“Unless they want to be sure they’ve caught all of us,” Moses said. “The Inquisition often watched heretics for weeks, just to be certain that all of their friends and fellow unbelievers were identified.”

Zaskar smiled. “We’ll see.”

He couldn’t help feeling a flicker of shame as the guest – the sole person on the scout, according to the search party – was shown into his ready room. Once, it would have taken a mere five minutes to bring someone aboard; now, it had taken twenty. He dreaded to think of what would happen they had to go into battle. A delay in raising their shields and activating their point defence would prove fatal.

Their guest didn’t seem perturbed by the delay, or by the armed Janissaries following his every move, or even by the obvious fact that Righteous Revenge was on her last legs. He merely looked around with polite interest. Zaskar studied him back, noting the hawk-nosed face, tinted skin and neatly-trimmed beard. The man had gone to some lengths to present himself as a citizen of Ahura Mazda. Even his brown tunic suggested he’d grown up on Zaskar’s homeworld..

And he has a dozen implants, Zaskar thought, studying the report from the security scan. The visitor was practically a cyborg. And that means he’s from …?

“Please, be seated,” Zaskar said. He kept his voice polite. Advanced implants meant that their guest was from one of the major powers. The Commonwealth was right out, of course, but there were others. Some of them might even see advantage in backing his fleet. “I’m Admiral Zaskar, commander of this fleet.”

“A pleasure,” the man said. He inclined his head in a formal bow. “I’m Simon Askew.”

“A pleasure,” Zaskar echoed. The name meant nothing to him, but he rather suspected it wasn’t the man’s real name. “You seem to have come looking for us.”

“Correct,” Askew said. He leaned forward. “My … superiors would like to offer you a certain degree of support in your operations.”

“Indeed?” Zaskar wasn’t sure he believed it or not. Keeping his fleet going would require an immense investment. “And the price would be?”

“We want you to keep the Commonwealth busy,” Askew said. “It is in our interests to see them get bogged down.”

“Is it now?” Zaskar frowned. “And who would be interested in seeing them bogged down?”

“My superiors wish to remain unnamed,” Askew informed him. He reached into his pocket and removed a datapad. “But they are prepared to be quite generous.”

He held the datapad out. Zaskar took it and scanned the open document rapidly. It was a list of everything the fleet needed to keep functioning, everything from starship components to missiles and ration bars. It was … it was unbelievable. It had to be a trap. And yet … and yet, he wanted to believe. If the offer was genuine, they could keep wearing away at the Commonwealth until it withdrew from Theocratic Space. They could win!

Moses took the datapad. Zaskar barely noticed.

“You want us to keep the Commonwealth busy,” he said. It was suddenly very hard to speak clearly. “It seems a reasonable price.”

His mind raced. No smuggler could tranship so much war material into a war zone, not without running unacceptable risks. And no smuggler would have access to cyborg technology. Only a great power could supply the weapons and equipment … and only a great power would benefit from keeping the Commonwealth tied down. The list of suspects was relatively short.

And it doesn’t matter, he told himself. They’d have to be alert for the prospect of betrayal, but that was a given anyway. The Theocracy had been the least popular galactic government for decades, even before the war. We could win!

“Very well,” he said. “Let’s talk.”

Chapter One

The sound of a distant explosion, muffled by the forcefield surrounding Commonwealth House, woke Kat Falcone as she lay in her bed. Others followed, flickers of multicoloured light dancing through the window as homemade rockets or mortar shells crashed into the forcefield and exploded harmlessly. She rolled over and sat upright, blinking as the lights automatically brightened. Her bedside terminal was blinking green. Pointless attacks had been so common, over the last year, that hardly anyone bothered to sound the alert any longer. The insurgents had yet to realise that no amount of makeshift rocketry would pose a threat to the Commonwealth HQ. Even without the forcefield, Commonwealth House could take the blow and shrug it off. The blasts wouldn’t even scratch the paint.

Not that we’re going to turn off the forcefield to let them try, she thought morbidly, as she sat upright and crossed her arms under her bare breasts. That would be pushing fate too far.

She snorted at the thought as she forced herself to key her terminal to bring up the latest set of reports. There was no change, she noted wryly; an endless liturgy of shootings, bombings, gang rapes, robberies and other horrors undreamt of on Tyre. But Ahura Mazda’s population had been kept under tight control for decades, centuries even. The sudden collapse of everything they’d once taken for granted had unleashed years of pent-up frustrations. She sometimes thought that the insurgency was really a civil war, with Commonwealth troops only being engaged when they got in the way. Ahura Mazda seemed to have gone completely mad.

Damn them, she thought. A final spread of makeshift rockets struck the forcefield outside, then faded away. And damn their dead leaders too.

She looked down at her hands, feeling as if she simply wanted to stay in bed. She’d had plans for the future, once. She was going to get married and see the universe, perhaps by purchasing a freighter and travelling from system to system, doing a little trading along the way. Instead, her fiancé was dead and she was still in the navy – technically. She hadn’t stood on a command deck for nearly a year. Instead, she was chained to a desk on an occupied world, trying to govern a sector of forty inhabited star systems that had just been liberated from one of the worst tyrannies humanity had had the misfortune to invent. The chaos was beyond belief. Ahura Mazda wasn’t the only world going through a nervous breakdown. She’d read reports of everything from mass slaughter to forced deportation of everyone who’d converted to the True Faith.

Years of pent-up hatreds, she reminded herself. She’d been lucky. She hadn’t grown up in a world where saying the wrong thing could get her beheaded. And they have all been released at once.

There was a sharp knock at the door. Kat glared at it, resisting the urge to order the visitor to go away. There was only one person who could come through that door. It opened a moment later, allowing Lucy Yangtze to step into the bedroom. The middle-aged woman studied Kat with a surprisingly maternal eye as she carried the breakfast tray over to the bedside table. Kat had to fight to keep from snapping at her to get out. Lucy was a steward. Looking after Kat was her job.

“Good morning, Admiral,” Lucy said. She managed to sound disapproving without making it obvious. “How are you today?”

Kat swallowed a number of remarks she knew would be petty and childish. “I didn’t sleep well,” she said, as Lucy uncovered the tray. “And then they woke me up.”

“You need to go to bed earlier,” Lucy said, dryly.

“Hah,” Kat muttered. She forced herself to stand, heedless of her nakedness. “There are too many things to do here.”

“Then delegate some of them,” Lucy suggested, gently. “You have an entire staff under you, do you not?”

Pat would have cracked a rude joke, Kat thought. It felt like a stab to the heart. And I would have elbowed him

She pushed the thought aside with an effort. “We’ll see,” she said, vaguely. In truth, she didn’t want to delegate anything. Too much was riding on the occupation’s success for her to casually push authority down the chain. And yet, Lucy was right. Ahura Mazda wasn’t a starship. A single mind couldn’t hope to keep abreast of all the details, let alone make sure the planet ran smoothly. If that was her goal, she’d already failed. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“I’ll have lunch ready for 1300,” Lucy said. “You can make it a working dinner if you like.”

Kat had to smile, although she knew it wasn’t really funny. All of her dinners were working dinners, these days. She rarely got to eat in private with anyone. Even cramming a ration bar into her mouth between meetings wasn’t an option. She couldn’t help feeling, as she tucked into her scrambled eggs, that she was merely spinning her wheels in mud. She went to countless meetings, she made decisions – often again and again and again – and yet … was she actually doing anything. She kicked herself, again, for allowing them to promote her off the command deck. The Admiralty would probably have let her take command of a heavy cruiser on deep-space patrol if she’d made enough of a fuss.

It has to be done, she thought, as she tapped her console to bring up the latest news reports from home. And I’m the one the king tapped for the post.

“Naval spokespeople today confirmed that the search for MV Supreme has been finally called off,” the talking head said. He was a man so grave that Kat rather suspected he was nothing more than a computer-generated image. “The cruise liner, which went missing in hyperspace six months ago, has been declared lost with all hands. Duke Cavendish issued a statement reassuring investors that the Cavendish Corporation will meet its commitments, but independent analysts are questioning their finances …”

Kat sighed. Trust the media to put a lost cruise liner ahead of anything important. “Next.”

“Infighting amongst refugees on Tarsus has led to a declaration of martial law,” the talking head told her. “President Theca has taken personal control of the situation and informed the refugees that any further misbehaviour, regardless of the cause, will result in immediate arrest and deportation. The Commonwealth Refugee Commission has blamed the disorder on poor supply lines and has called on Tarsus to make more supplies available to the refugees. However, local protests against refugees have grown …”

“And it could be worse, like it is here,” Kat muttered. “Next!”

“Sharon Mackintosh has become the latest starlet to join the Aaron Group Marriage,” the talking head said. “She will join fifty-seven other starlets in matrimonial bliss …”

“Off,” Kat snapped.

She shook her head in annoyance. The occupied zone was turning into a nightmare, no matter how many meetings she attended, and the news back home was largely trivial. The end of the war had brought confusion in its wake – she knew that better than anyone – but there were times when she thought that the king was the only one trying to hold everything together. The Commonwealth hadn’t been designed for a war and everyone knew it. And all the tensions that had been put on the backburner, while the Commonwealth fought for its very survival, were starting to tear the Commonwealth apart.

Standing, she walked over to the window and peered out. Tabernacle City had been a ramshackle mess even before the occupation, but now it was a nightmare. Smoke was rising from a dozen places, marking the latest bombings; below, she could see marines and soldiers heading out on patrol. The civilians seemed to trust the occupiers more than they trusted the warring factions, but they were scared to come into the open and say so. They were afraid, deep inside, that the occupation wouldn’t last. Her eyes picked out Government House, standing a short distance from Commonwealth House. Admiral Junayd and his people were trying to put together a provisional government, but it was a slow job. Their authority was weaker than most of the insurgent factions. She didn’t envy them.

Her wristcom bleeped from the table. She stalked back to the bed and picked it up. “Go ahead.”

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Kitty Patterson’s voice said. “You have a meeting in thirty minutes.”

“Understood,” Kat said. She allowed herself a moment of gratitude. Thirty minutes was more than long enough to shower and get dressed. “I’ll be there.”

She turned and walked into the shower, silently grateful that Commonwealth House had its own water supply. The local water distribution network had been on the verge of failing even before the occupation; now, with pipes smashed by the insurgents and entire pumping stations looted and destroyed, there were entire districts that barely had enough water to keep the population from dying of thirst. Kat didn’t understand how anyone could live in such an environment. She thought she would sooner have risked her life in revolt than waste away and die.

But it was never that easy, she thought. This is how too many people here believe it should be.

She washed and dressed quickly, inspecting her appearance in the reflector field before she left the suite. Her white uniform was neatly pressed, her medals and her golden hair shone in the light … but there was a lost look in her eyes she knew she should lose. She was depressed and she knew it and she really should talk to the shrinks, but training and experience told her that the psychologists were not to be trusted. None of them had commanded ships in battle, or made life-or-death decisions, or done anything that might qualify them to pass judgement on a spacer’s life. She took a long breath, gathering herself as she strapped a pistol to her belt, then walked through the door and down the corridor. The two marine guards at the far end of the corridor saluted her. She returned it as the hatch opened in front of her.

They built the place to resemble a starship, she thought, dourly. It had been amusing, once, to contemplate the mindset of whoever had thought it was a good idea. Were they trying to remind everyone that, one day, the Commonwealth would leave Ahura Mazda? Or did they just want to pretend, for a few hours, that they were designing starships? But they forgot to include a command deck.

She drew herself up as she stepped through the next hatch, into the meeting room. It was large and ornate, although she’d managed to clear out the worst of the luxury. She didn’t want people to get too comfortable in meeting rooms. Thankfully, most of her senior staff had genuine experience, ether in combat or repairing and rejuvenating shattered planetary infrastructures. The war had created far too many of them.

And I don’t have many chair-warmers, she reminded herself, as her staff stood to welcome her. It could be worse.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, once she’d taken her chair. “Be seated.”

She cast her eye around the table as her staffers sat down. General Timothy Winters, Commonwealth Marines; Colonel Christopher Whitehall, Royal Engineering Corps; Major Shawna Callable, Commonwealth Refugee Commission; Captain Janice Wilson, Office of Naval Intelligence; Lieutenant Kitty Patterson, Kat’s personal aide. It was a diverse group, she told herself firmly. And the absence of wallflowers – junior staffers to senior staffers – allowed everyone to talk freely.

“I was woken this morning by a rocket attack,” she said, as a server poured tea and coffee. “I assume there was no reason to be alarmed?”

“No, Admiral,” Winters said. He was a big beefy man, with a bald head and scarred cheekbones “It was merely another random attack. The people behind it scarpered before we could catch them.”

Because we can’t fire shells back into the city, Kat reminded herself, sharply. The insurgents would claim we’d killed civilians, even if we hadn’t.

She felt a flash of hatred deeper than anything she’d ever felt for enemy spacers. She’d never seen her opponents in space, not face-to-face. It had been easy to believe that they weren’t that different from her, that they weren’t monsters. But here, on the ground, she couldn’t avoid the simple fact that the insurgents were monsters. They killed anyone who supported the provisional government, raped and mutilated women they caught out of doors, placed heavy weapons emplacements in inhabited homes, used children to carry bombs towards the enemy … Kat wanted them all dead. Ahura Mazda would have no hope of becoming a decent place to live as long as those monsters stalked the streets. But tracking them all down was a long and difficult talk.

“At least no one was killed,” Major Shawna Callable said. “Admiral, we need more resources for the women’s shelters. We’re running short of just about everything.”

“And they also need more guards,” Winters told her. “The last attack nearly broke the perimeter before it was beaten off.”

“Draw them from the reserves,” Kat ordered. She didn’t like deploying her reserves, not when she was all too aware of how badly her forces were overstretched, but she had no choice. The women in the shelters would be raped and murdered if one of their shelters was overrun. “And see what we can find in the way of additional supplies.”

If we can find anything, her thoughts added. Ahura Mazda produced nothing these days, as far as she could tell. The infrastructure had been literally torn to shreds. Putting the farms back into production was turning into a long hard slog. We’re running short on just about everything these days.

She looked at Winters. “Is there anything we can do to make it harder for the insurgents to get to them?”

“Only moving the refugees a long way away,” Winters said. “Personally, I’d recommend one of the islands. We could set up a proper security net there and vaporise anything heading in without the right security codes.”

“We barely have the resources to keep the cities alive,” Colonel Christopher Whitehall said, curtly. He was short, with black skin and dark penetrating eyes. His record stated that he’d been a marine before he’d been wounded and transferred to the Royal Engineers. “Right now, Admiral, I’m honestly expecting a disaster at any moment.”

“So train up some locals and put them to work,” Winters snapped. He thumped the table to underline the suggestion. “It’s their bloody city. And their people who will die of thirst if we lose the pumping stations completely.”

“The training programs are going slowly,” Whitehall snapped back. The frustration in his voice was all too clear. “Half the idiots on this wretched ball of mud think that trying to fix a broken piece of machinery is sinful, while the other half can’t count to twenty-one without taking off their trousers. We’ve got a few women who might be good at it, if they were given a chance, but we can’t send them out on repair jobs.”

“It’s their schooling,” Shawna told them. “They weren’t encouraged to actually learn.”

Kat nodded in grim understanding. The Theocracy’s educational system had been a joke. No, that wasn’t entirely true. It had done its job, after all. It had churned out millions of young men who knew nothing, least of all how to think. But rote recitals were useless when it came to repairing even a relatively simple machine. It was a mystery to her how the Theocratic Navy had managed to keep its fleet going long enough to actually start the war. Their shortage of trained engineers had to have been an utter nightmare.

They never picked on anyone their own size, she told herself. The Theocracy’s first targets had all been stage-one or stage-two worlds. Very few of them had had any space-based defences, let alone the ability to take the fight to the enemy. And they certainly weren’t prepared for a long war.

Whitehall met her eyes. “We need more engineers, Admiral, and more protective troops. If we lose a couple more pumping stations …”

“I know,” Kat said. They’d come to the same conclusion time and time again, in pointless meeting after pointless meeting. “Right now, Tyre doesn’t seem to be interested in sending either.”

“We could try to hire civilian engineers,” Kitty suggested. She was the lowest-ranking person at the table, but that didn’t stop her from offering her opinions. “They could take up some of the slack.”

Whitehall snorted. “I doubt it,” he said. “There’s work in the Commonwealth for engineers, Lieutenant, and safer too. They won’t be in any danger on Tarsus or … well, anywhere. I don’t think we could get them out here.”

Kitty reddened. “I … sorry, Admiral.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Kat said, briskly. She looked around the table. “Are there any other solutions?”

“Not in the short run,” Whitehall said. “We have water and power, Admiral. It’s getting them both to their destination that is the real problem. We’ve tried setting up purification centres near the sewers and…”

The building shook, gently. Kat tensed, one hand dropping to the pistol at her belt. That hadn’t been a homemade rocket. A nuke? The Theocracy had supposedly thrown its entire nuclear arsenal at the navy, when it had arrived, but she’d never been entirely sure they’d used all their nukes. Hell, the Theocrats themselves hadn’t been sure. Their recordkeeping had been appalling. A nuke wouldn’t break the forcefield, but it would do immense damage to the city.

Winters checked his wristcom, then swore. “Admiral,” he said. “There’s been an explosion.”

“Where?” Kat stood. The blast had been very close. If the insurgents had managed to open a pathway into Commonwealth House, the defenders might be in some trouble. “And what happened?”

“Government House.” Winters sounded stunned. “The building is in ruins. Admiral Junayd is dead.”

“… Shit,” Kat said.