The Long-Range War (A Learning Experience V)–Snippet

13 Jun

I’m not sure when this will be finished, let alone edited and released, as my health has been awful, but it is on the way …

The Long Distance War Edit 3

Prologue

“Signal the fleet,” Empress Neola ordered. “The first divisions are to begin the attack.”

She ignored her flunkies as they scurried to do her bidding, instead lifting her eyes to the massive display. Hundreds of thousands of starships, from five-mile-long superdreadnaughts and battleships to tiny destroyers and frigates, the latter crewed by client races, were floating near the gravity point, slowly readying themselves to jump the hundreds of light years to Hudson in a single second. As she watched, the first flotillas moved forward and into the gravity point, flickering out of existence and vanishing. Neola tensed, despite herself. She was all too aware, despite the optimistic reports from her scouts, that the advance elements might well meet a hostile reception. There had been human ships based at Hudson until recently.

But it doesn’t matter, she told herself. The humans had superior firepower, but she had superior numbers. Vastly superior numbers. That’s why I sent the potentially disloyal elements into the fire first.

She kept her face completely expressionless as the second and third divisions rumbled towards the gravity point. It had taken years, far longer than she would have liked, to start reactivating the reserve. The gentocrats who’d ruled the Tokomak for thousands of years couldn’t react quickly to anything, even a threat to their existence. They’d refused to believe that a race as young as humanity could threaten their enforcers, let alone themselves; they’d found it easier to blame Neola for incompetence than stretch their minds to encompass a younger race that posed a real threat. She supposed she should be grateful. They hadn’t had the imagination to comprehend that she might pose a threat too. They’d expected her to sit tight and wait, for years if necessary, until they decided how they were going to slap her wrist. She was only a handful of centuries old, after all. There was no need for any real punishment.

And now they’re safely restrained, she thought, feeling a flicker of glee. They really hadn’t thought she could launch a coup. The idea was unthinkable until she’d actually done it. They can’t stand in the way any longer.

Neola sobered as the third division of starships blinked and vanished. The gentocrats hadn’t bothered to keep the reserve up to date. It hadn’t mattered, not when the pace of innovation had slowed down to a trickle. A starship built a thousand years ago was no better than one that had been completed only last week. But things were different now. The humans had proved themselves to be revoltingly ingenious and some of the other younger races were starting to follow in their footsteps. It was vitally important, if Tokomak supremacy was to be maintained, that the humans be enslaved or exterminated as quickly as possible. They were giving the other races ideas.

Her eyes found a cluster of icons moving into attack position and narrowed, sharply. The squadron commanders were young, only a few hundred years old. They’d had nothing to look forward to, but a long slow climb up the ladder … until now. She’d shown them that someone could overthrow the established order and take power for themselves, she’d shown them – inadvertently – how she herself could be overthrown. She wondered, grimly, which one would have the imagination to make a bid for power. The gentocrats would take years to plan a coup, more than long enough for her to nip it in the bud, but someone from her own generation might move faster. No, would move faster. Neola knew she wasn’t the only one to been impatient, over the last few centuries. The people she’d promoted – for having a certain level of imagination, for being able to think outside the rules and regulations they’d enforced on the known galaxy – were the ones most likely to be dangerous to her. Their ambitions would not be satisfied with anything less than absolute power.

It was, she acknowledged privately, a deadly balancing act. She needed people who could think outside the box … and there were very few of them, even amongst the young. Fleet operations had been so bound by formality over the last thousand years or so that too many officers simply didn’t know how to cope, when presented with an emergency. Their fleet exercises had been carefully scripted, with the winners and losers known in advance. But she couldn’t expect the humans to be conventional. Unconventional tactics were their only hope of surviving long enough to win the day.

She watched another set of icons vanish and smiled to herself. The humans were good, but they weren’t gods. They’d be crushed by overwhelming firepower, even if her trap failed completely. If she had to fly her fleet all the way to Earth and turn the planet into a radioactive wasteland, she could do it. She would do it. If worse came to worst, she told herself time and time again, the Tokomak could trade hundreds of starships for a single human ship. She would still come out ahead.

A blue icon appeared, near the gravity point. Neola allowed her smile to widen. Local space on the other side was clear, then. Very few races would challenge a Tokomak ship, even one that was completely alone, but it was well to be sure. Her intelligence staff had reported all sorts of rumours making their way through the empire, from vast defeats that had never happened to talk of mutiny and revolution. She was all too aware that the staff might not be picking up everything, no matter what they claimed. The underground knew how to hide itself. It would have been exterminated by now otherwise.

“Hudson has been secured, Your Excellency,” the communications officer reported. “There was little resistance.”

“Very good,” Neola said. She hadn’t expected resistance, but who knew? The humans had been making inroads on Hudson – and hundreds of other worlds – for years. “Take the remainder of the fleet through the gravity point.”

“As you command, Your Excellency.”

***

“It’s like a bloody nightmare.”

“Keep your eyes on your console,” Captain-Commodore Jenny Longlegs advised, dryly. Lieutenant Fraser had served long enough to remain calm, even if hell itself was pouring out of the gravity point. “Do we have an accurate ship count yet?”

“No, Captain,” Lieutenant Fraser said. “But definitely upwards of five thousand starships.”

Jenny sucked in her breath as more and more icons appeared on the display. The gravity point was disgorging a veritable river of starships. SUS Schlieffen, her cruiser, was more advanced than any of the superdreadnaughts and battleships forming into rows and advancing towards the planet, but Jenny doubted they’d survive long against such firepower. She prayed, silently, that the cloaking device held. The Tokomak weren’t trying to hide. Their sensors were sweeping space so thoroughly that they’d probably know the exact location of every speck of dust by the time they headed to the next gravity point. She might have to order her ship to back off before the Tokomak had a chance to spot her. They’d risked everything to grab SUS Odyssey. She was fairly sure they’d be just as interested in grabbing Schlieffen.

“They’re forming up,” Fraser reported. “One flotilla is headed directly for the planet, another is heading for Point Four.”

The shortest route to Earth, Jenny thought. It would still take months for the enemy fleet to reach the planet, and she had her doubts about their logistics, but there was no doubting the Tokomak’s willingness to expend starships to crush their enemies. Half the ships on the display would be crewed by client races, utterly expendable as far as their masters were concerned. They’re on their way.

She studied the display for a long moment, noting just how many ships had started to blur together into a haze of sensor distortion. Tokomak ECM was inferior to its human counterpart – the Tokomak hadn’t faced any pressure to improve or die for thousands of years – but quantity had a quality all of its own. Her passive sensors were having fits trying to keep track of each and every enemy starship. She had the nasty feeling that there were more enemy ships in the system than her sensors could detect. They might well be using their own ECM – and cloaking devices – to hide part of their fleet.

Although they’d be taking a risk, she thought. With so many ships in such a confined region of space, the odds of a collision are non-zero.

She dismissed the thought with a flicker of irritation. The Tokomak probably wouldn’t care if two of their ships collided, even if they were battleships. They had thousands of active starships and tens of thousands of starships in the reserves. Schlieffen could expend all her missiles, with each hit a guaranteed kill, and still lose. Quantity definitely had a quality all of its own.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Hammond said. “I have a direct link to Sweden. She’s requesting instructions.”

Jenny nodded, slowly. “Copy our sensor records to her,” she said. Sweden had held her position close to Point Four, ready to nip through before the Tokomak arrived and sealed the gravity point. Schlieffen would continue to monitor the enemy fleet from a safe distance, if indeed there was such a thing. “And then inform her CO that he is to run straight to Earth. Tell him …”

She sucked in her breath as she looked back at the display. The torrent of starships hadn’t stopped. Hundreds of superdreadnaughts were gliding through the gravity point, their weapons charged and their sensors searching for trouble. Whoever was in charge over there was no slouch. Normally, the Tokomak were careful not to put too much strain on their sensor systems. But then, who would dare to attack them? Their defeat in the Battle of Earth, seven years ago, had been their first defeat for nearly a thousand years.

And every ship they lost represented less than a percentage point of a percentage point of their overall numbers, she reminded herself. They could lose a thousand starships and never notice the loss.

“Tell him to warn everyone,” she finished. “The Tokomak are coming.”

Chapter One

Hameeda walked down the long corridor, alone.

It felt as if she was walking for miles, even though she knew the corridor was only a few short metres from one airlock to the other. She couldn’t help feeling nervous as she made her slow way towards the second airlock, despite all her preparations. It felt as if she was on the cusp of apotheosis or nemesis, the crowning height of her career or a disaster that would ensure she never served in space again. Her heart thumped so loudly in her chest that she was glad she was alone. Anyone escorting her wouldn’t need enhanced hearing to pick out her heartbeat.

She stopped outside the second airlock and took a long breath. Her CO had told her, an hour ago, that it wasn’t too late to back out. She didn’t have to go through with the bonding. No one would fault her for changing her mind, even now. The vast resources that had been expended on preparing her for the process would be better wasted, then expended on someone who didn’t want to go through with it. Hameeda understood their concerns – and her mother’s fears, during their last call – but she had no intention of backing out. The old fogies, the ones so old they remembered living on Earth, simply didn’t have the imagination of the spaceborn. They feared technology even as it had given them a chance to reshape both their former homeworld and the galaxy itself. Hameeda and her generation embraced the promise of technology, without fear. The future was within their grasp.

And we must make sure we have a future, she thought. Because there are always those ready to take it from us.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Her mother had been a refugee from Afghanistan, from a life so alien that Hameeda had problems grasping that it had ever existed. The mere concept of being forced into eternal servitude, simply for being born female, was difficult to grasp. How could someone be so uncivilised? And yet, after her mother had told her yet another horror story, Hameeda had looked it up. If anything, her mother had understated the case. Earth was an uncivilised world. They fought over nothing, even when they could reach out and claim the stars themselves. Their mere existence was a reminder that the human race could sink back into the mud.

Her reflection looked back at her. Hameeda had kept her mother’s dark hair, darker eyes and tinted skin, even as she’d spliced more and more enhancements into her genome. She was stronger, faster and fitter than any groundpounder, more than capable of holding her own in a fight. But she felt hesitant now. If something went wrong, if one of the doubters had been right all along … she’d be dead before she knew it. But life was risk. Safety was an illusion. And she knew better than to feel otherwise.

Hameeda took another breath, then pressed her hand against the sensor. There was a long moment as the security systems checked and rechecked her identity, then the airlock hissed open, revealing a vast hanger. Hameeda suddenly felt very small indeed. The LinkShip floated in the centre of the chamber, dwarfing her. It was tiny, compared to a regular starship; it was barely sixty metres from bow to stern. And yet, it was also the most advanced starship in the galaxy. Her FTL and realspace drives were the fastest known to exist, faster even than a courier belt. It had taken years to turn the concept into reality. Hameeda had spent almost as long training to serve as its – her – commanding officer.

She drank in the sight for a long moment, her eyes wandering over the dark hull. The LinkShip looked like a giant almond, its weapons and defences carefully worked into the material so they didn’t spoil the ship’s lines. Hameeda wasn’t sure how she felt about that, even though she admired the elegance. An observer would not have to look inside the ship to know she was a distinctly non-standard vessel. And yet, it was a step towards a human aesthetic that was obviously different from the galactic standard. Too many races, even the ones that had been walking the stars when humanity had been crawling in the mud, used modified Tokomak designs. Humanity had to be different.

Bracing herself, she activated her command implants and sent a command into the computer network. The world seemed to shimmer around her. Hameeda closed her eyes for a long moment as the teleport field made her entire body tingle, then opened them again. She was standing in the LinkShip’s command centre, alone. Her lips curved into a smile. The old fogies distrusted teleporters, asking all sorts of questions about souls and other unquantifiable issues none of the spaceborn understood. To them, teleporting was normal. Hameeda had been having her molecules broken down into energy and put back together again since she was a child. It was normally very safe.

Unless there’s a jamming field, she reminded herself, as she rested her hands on her hips. Or a delay that causes the energy pattern to start to degrade.

She pushed the thought out of her head as she surveyed the command centre. It looked bland and boring, compared to a starship’s bridge, but it was hers. A single chair, sited in the exact centre of the chamber; a helmet, primed to make the first connection between Hameeda and the ship’s datanet. There were no consoles, no display … there were emergency control systems, in another compartment, but very little effort had been wasted on them. Anything that broke through the LinkShip’s defences would almost certainly be enough to destroy the ship, or – at the very least – be completely beyond repair. Hameeda had been told, time and time again, that there would be very little hope of long-term survival. Once the Tokomak realised what the LinkShips were, they would do everything in their power to destroy them. Their mere existence was an affront to the laws the Tokomak had written for the entire galaxy.

And they may have had good reason to ban direct organic-computer interaction, Hameeda thought, as she sat down on the chair. We simply don’t know their reasoning.

She shook her head. The Tokomak had banned a lot of things, without bothering to explain their reasoning. Some of them made sense, she supposed; others appeared to have been banned without a valid reason. And still others appeared thoroughly pointless. She had no idea why they’d put a ban on interspecies relationships. It wasn’t as if they’d had to bother.

The air suddenly felt tense as she reached for the helmet. If she put it on, if she allowed her implants to make contact with the datanet, she would be bound to the LinkShip for the rest of her life. She wouldn’t be able to leave, not without breaking the connection. The scientists had sworn blind that there would be a way, eventually, to freeze the ship’s mentality to give her some downtime, but for the moment she was committing herself to remain on the ship permanently. Hameeda had no qualms about living on a starship – and she had no particular interest in returning to the carefree days of her youth – yet she knew it was one hell of a commitment. She would practically be a prisoner …

A prisoner with a starship and freedom to fly, she thought. She’d be a naval officer for decades, of course, but afterwards … she’d be free. I wonder where I’ll go.

She took a long breath, then pulled the helmet over her head. Her implants activated a second later, providing the datacores with a string of coded identifications that even she found hard to follow. She was dimly aware of classified systems steadily coming online, each one checking and rechecking the codes before slotting itself into the datanet. The sheer immensity of the LinkShip scared her, despite all her preparation. She’d put herself en rapport with an AI two weeks ago, but that had been different. She hadn’t been trying to bond with that AI.

The datanet came to life. “Are you ready to proceed?”

Hameeda blinked, surprised despite herself. It was talking … of course it was talking. Even a very basic system, a restricted intelligence, had simple conversational overlays, linked to a self-learning system that allowed it to evolve as it went along. She’d heard of RIs that had somehow managed to bootstrap themselves into true AIs, despite their programming. The old fogies had found that more than a little alarming, but Hameeda and her generation rather approved. Their creations had started to evolve.

“Yes,” she said. She made it as clear as she could. “Proceed.”

For a heartbeat, nothing happened. She had a moment to wonder if something had gone wrong, either with the technology or the command codes, before her mind was suddenly linked to something much greater. Her thoughts expanded with terrifying speed, reaching out to merge with the LinkShip’s datanet. She was suddenly very aware of everything from the drives, slowly readying themselves to push the LinkShip out of the hangar and into open space, to the weapons systems, currently powered down but ready for immediate activation if she had to go to war. She was linked to the ship … no, she was the ship. It was practically her body.

Wow, she thought, as a torrent of data poured into her brain. The ship’s sensors were sucking in data from all over the station. She could see everything. They were so sharp that she could even see a handful of starships holding position outside the station, watching and waiting. She felt a stab of bitter annoyance as she remembered why those starships were there. The naysayers had insisted, pointing out that the LinkShip might go insane. And they were wrong.

She powered up the drives slowly, watching as power ran through the tiny starship. It really was a miracle of science. She’d known that all along, of course, but she hadn’t really understood it until she’d actually touched the datanet. They’d miniaturised all sorts of systems in order to cram them into her hull, despite the risk. Warning icons flashed up in her mind as she checked the self-repair functions, pointing out their limitations. The naysayers had had a point about them, she reflected ruefully. A single hit might well be enough to cripple the LinkShip beyond repair.

Then we will have to be sure not to be hit, she thought, as she accessed the hangar datanet and opened the hatch. Luckily, we’re the fastest thing in space.

The LinkShip practically lunged forward as she gunned the drive, throwing itself into the inky darkness of space. Hameeda felt her mind split in two, one half thinking it was still human while the other half thought it was a starship. Space was both incredibly dangerous, lethal even to an enhanced human, and her natural habitat. Her mind expanded, once again: the station, the starships, a handful of test beacons … she was suddenly very aware of their exact locations. Subroutines within her mind assessed their positions, calculated their trajectories and analysed their threat potential. She would be safe enough, her mentality concluded, as long as she kept her distance.

But they would also be safe from me, she thought, as she circled the station. She felt like a child purchasing her first in-orbit buggy. No, like a child who had moved from a buggy to a marine assault shuttle with nothing in-between. The sheer potency of the LinkShip frightened her as much as it thrilled her. I’d have to close the range if I wanted to fight them.

A voice popped into her awareness. “LinkShip Alpha, please engage the first set of beacons.”

Hameeda smiled to herself as she swung the LinkShip around, bringing the weapons online. LinkShip Alpha. She was going to have to think of a better name. Perhaps something defiant, something that fitted humanity … or perhaps something that would make children smile, when they read her name in their history books. A subroutine went to work, considering possible names, even as she refocused her mind on her targets. The first ser of beacons were not designed to be hard to hit.

Baby steps, she told herself, as she started her attack run. Her phasers jabbed out, time and time again. The beacons vanished with terrifying speed. She reminded herself, sharply, that the beacons were practically begging to be killed. The next set of targets would be a great deal harder. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

But she wanted to run. Her mind had blurred so much into the ship that she was no longer truly certain where she ended and the ship began. Indeed, her mentality had imprinted itself upon the datanet. Her lips twitched in annoyance. The Solar Union might have been reluctant to build a ship that was commanded by an AI, but it had no qualms – or at least fewer qualms – about designing a ship to draw from a human mind. There was a part of her that simply wanted to throw caution to the winds and run as fast as she could, crossing the entire solar system in a split second. But her duty held her firmly in place.

Hameeda put the thought aside for later consideration as she put the LinkShip through its paces, systematically taking out target after target. The tests grew more complicated as she progressed, from targets that were hidden behind stealth coatings and cloaking devices to targets that actually shot back. She discovered that the LinkShip was perfectly capable of engaging targets while dodging incoming fire, although it lacked slammers and other heavy missiles. But with a little twiddling, she could turn the drive into a makeshift slammer. Who knew what would happen then?

I might get caught in the blast, she told herself. It was the sort of trick that worked in bad movies, but was completely useless in the real world. I’d have to be well away before the explosion hit.

Another voice entered her awareness as she completed the final set of tests. “Permission to come aboard?”

It took her a moment to draw her mind back to the here and now. Admiral Keith Glass wanted to board. She accessed the teleport system, synchronised with the station and yanked him onto the LinkShip, deliberately materialising him in the command centre. The process was easy, with the ship’s datanet handling the transfer, but a chill ran down her spine as she realised just how many buffers Glass’s pattern has passed through. Perhaps the old fogies were right to be concerned about teleporting. He appeared in front of her, his face darkening as he looked at her. It was harder than Hameeda had expected to disengage herself from the helmet and stand. Her legs felt wobbly. Her uniform was damp with sweat.

The datalink is still engaged, she thought. She might have disengaged from the helmet, but she was still linked to the ship. I can never leave again.

“An interesting set of tests,” Glass observed. He was studying her, his eyes – older than the rest of him – clearly concerned. “How are you feeling?”

“Different,” Hameeda admitted. Her throat felt parched, despite her enhancements. She was going to have to work on taking care of her body while she was directly connected to the ship. It would probably require a whole new set of subroutines. “It’s nothing like flying a regular starship.”

“One would hope so,” Glass agreed. He was old enough to remember when the most advanced spacecraft on Earth were rockets. “How well does it – does she – stack up against enemy systems?”

“She’s very agile,” Hameeda said. “And she combines speed and hitting power with stealth. I think they’ll have some problems hitting me.”

“So the simulations say,” Glass said. “And yourself? How are you feeling?”

Hameeda took a moment to allow her intellect to roam over the entire ship before she answered. “It will be different,” she said. The LinkShip was large enough to accommodate her and a few guests – indeed, her quarters were larger than the average admiral’s quarters – but she had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before the crew compartments started to feel small. “I will cope.”

Glass smiled, humourlessly. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “And so will the beancounters.”

“Until you tell them you intend to produce ten more,” Hameeda said, wryly. “They’ll throw a fit.”

She had to smile at the thought. The Solar Union could have produced ten cruisers for the cost of a single LinkShip, although she suspected that costs would be going down now the design was finalized. It wasn’t a small amount. The Solar Union was immensely rich, compared to many of the other younger races, but the cost was notable. If the first LinkShip didn’t pay off, in everything from tactical advantages to new technology, it was unlikely a second would be built. Her ship had to be a success if she didn’t want to remain unique.

“Let me worry about that,” Glass said. “Are you ready for deployment?”

Hameeda blinked. “Sir …?”

“The war may be about to resume,” Glass said. He looked faintly meditative for a second. “I believe that an ultimatum has already been received. So far, it’s been hushed up, but that won’t last.”

“No, sir,” Hameeda said, doubtfully. On one hand, she understood the principles of operational security; on the other, she – like most of her generation – believed that governments should not be allowed to classify anything. Secrecy always led to tyranny. It was a contradiction she’d never been able to resolve. “When do you expect me to be deployed?”

“Not long,” Glass said. He clapped her on the shoulder. “You’d better start planning to be gone within a week.”

Hameeda stared. “A week?”

“It’s nowhere near long enough for a proper shakedown,” Glass said. “But tell me … are there any problems?”

“No, sir,” Hameeda said, after a moment. “But if something makes itself apparent during the deployment …”

“You’ll cope with it,” Glass told her. “Word is, Captain, that this time it’s serious. And we have to be ready.”

“Yes, sir,” Hameeda said. “We will be ready.”

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10 Responses to “The Long-Range War (A Learning Experience V)–Snippet”

  1. Jared June 13, 2018 at 5:36 pm #

    Oooo, I’m so dang excited!! I can’t wait for more!!

  2. utabintarbo June 13, 2018 at 5:38 pm #

    Gentocrats == gerentocrats?

  3. David Graf June 13, 2018 at 11:08 pm #

    This snippet is like a free sample at a supermarket. I WANT MORE! 🙂

  4. Anarchymedes June 14, 2018 at 11:46 am #

    Neola knew she wasn’t the only one to been impatient…
    … the only one to have been impatient, surely?
    And overall, an amazingly anti-concervative piece, what with all the praising of being unconventional and thinking outside of the box. But I don’t think I’ll read it: yet another bunch of aliens thinking like the 20th-century polititians? I don’t think so. The Hyperspace Trap: those were the real, alien aliens.

  5. Bob June 14, 2018 at 10:32 pm #

    Wow… and not being able to read more??? UGH !!!
    The only negative comment would be that it seems slightly… uh, is disjointed the right word?? Not sure why I feel this way… I love the Learning Experience series…
    Maybe I’m just tired…

  6. sam57l0 June 15, 2018 at 1:09 am #

    Heckuva start! More, please, and SOON.

  7. Wazman June 15, 2018 at 3:40 am #

    Please take some time for yourself and get better.

  8. Ron June 15, 2018 at 11:07 am #

    Get better first ! And/or take some vacation.

    ( I’m still a dozen books behind anyway. )

  9. Joseph Costa June 17, 2018 at 9:28 pm #

    Wow, great start. Ivan barely wait to read more about more of Hameeda’s first voyage and engagement. For me a totally different concept.
    For goodness sake, get some rest and get well. Pay attention to your health and get well. Us readers will survive although we are all impatient to read more of your books. Waiting will not kill us.
    It seems that your writing is actually getting better

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