Archive | August, 2018

Snippet–Para Bellum

20 Aug

Prologue I

From: Admiral Kathy Lauder, UK BIOPREP

To: Admiral Sir John Naiser, First Space Lord

Classification: Top Secret, Eyes-Only FSL


My official conclusions are in the report forwarded to your office, which you can read at your leisure. My unofficial conclusion is that I’m bloody terrified. Bioweapons have been a constant threat since every kid with a modified chemistry set could start brewing up something nasty in his parents basement, and we saw a whole string of nasty outbreaks during the Age of Unrest, but this is an order of magnitude more dangerous than anything we’ve seen. The concept of a virus that could pass from one species to another was the stuff of low-budget fiction, until now. A sentient alien virus, capable of infecting humans as easily as the common cold, must be reckoned a serious threat. We may find it very difficult to defend ourselves.

We can and we will take precautions. The virus does not appear to cope well with ultraviolet light, allowing us to ensure it doesn’t spread through the air. We have had some success with experimental counter-viral treatments, when those treatments are carried out within a few short hours of infection. We can be fairly sure of catching an infected person within a few hours, through the use of a simple blood test. However, once the virus starts to infect the body’s organs and build control structures, we have been unable to do more than slow it down. Enthasusia may be the only logical response, particularly once the virus reaches the brain. It isn’t clear – yet – if the virus is capable of masquerading as the infected person, but I think we have to assume that it can and it will. Our people may be subverted and turned against us. It is vitally important that we perform regular blood tests within all sensitive installations.

Worse, there is no reason to assume that the infections will be limited only to humanity – and our alien allies. We believe the virus can spread into animals too, presenting us with a unique threat. The prospect of dogs – or smaller animals, like rats – being used to carry the virus into human settlements cannot be overlooked. In the event of a major outbreak on Earth, Admiral, we must assume our own ecosystem will be turned against us. The absolute worst case scenario suggests that the virus can even infect our entire ecology. It is vitally important that we don’t let the virus gain a foothold on Earth. If necessary, we will need to destroy any infection with nuclear weapons.

My team has not, as yet, been able to put together a coherent scenario for the virus’s evolution. However, given its aggressive nature and ability to cross the species barrier, it seems likely that the virus is not remotely natural. Someone designed it, Admiral; someone designed it as a weapon. I don’t know if the creators unleashed it as a final shot at enemies they couldn’t defeat by any normal means, or if it broke loose and destroyed its own creators before starting to ravage the rest of the galaxy, but I don’t believe its natural. It’s just too effective a killing machine. If we can find its creators, we may be able to convince them to stop their virus before it destroys us and every other known sentient race. If not …

Of course, some people might consider that whistling in the dark.

Prologue II

It was very quiet in the underground chamber.

President Aleksandr Sergeyevich Nekrasov lifted his head from the report and looked at the other two men – and one woman – sitting at the table. Their faces were carefully blank, the result of a lifetime spent struggling for power and security. None of them dared betray their thoughts too openly. The slightest hint of weakness might prove disastrous. It might cost them their lives. And yet, Aleksandr could tell they were scared. They were the most powerful people in Russia, but were they powerful enough to stand against the latest interstellar menace? He had a feeling that they were about to find out?

He spoke, with heavy irony. “Your comments, gentlemen?”

Admiral Svetlana Zadornov smiled, humourlessly. “We made a serious mistake, Mr. President.”

Aleksandr studied her for a long moment, knowing that she was almost certainly the most ambitious – and dangerous – person in the room. Women in Russia were expected to marry and have at least four children by the time they reached their mid-twenties, not go into the navy and fight their way up the ladder to flag rank. Svetlana had faced a whole string of challenges, from lecherous instructors to alien battleships, and she’d overcome them all. She was good. She had to be good. The only thing keeping her from being an even greater threat was her sex … and that might not matter, if she laid the groundwork properly. She was a national hero as well as a naval star.

He cocked his eyebrow. “How so?”

Svetlana had no patience for political bullshit. “We assumed that we were dealing with another alien race, one akin to the Tadpoles or the Foxes. We believed that we could make contact – covert contact – and manipulate events to our advantage. Instead, we have betrayed the human race to an … to an alien virus. We must assume that Dezhnev was taken and her crew … assimilated. The Great Powers will be furious.”

“If they find out,” Director Igor Ivanovich Zaitsev said, smoothly. The FSB Director leaned forward, his cold eyes moving from face to face. “The ship’s captain had orders to destroy his vessel rather than let her fall into enemy hands, did he not?”

“Yes,” Svetlana said. “But we have no guarantee he was able to carry out those orders. He might have been lured into talks, while the virus steadily overcame his crew. There’s no sense, from the British reports, that our vaccinations will be enough to stop the virus in its tracks. The ship might well have been taken with datacores intact.”

“And if the virus can take control of the crew, they’ll happily unlock the datacores for their new masters,” General Stepan Viktorovich Dyakov rumbled. “They’ll be turned into willing traitors.”

“Yes, General,” Svetlana said. “Dezhnev did not carry a full database, a sensible precaution when the ship intended to make contact with an unknown alien race, but she still carried enough information to make life very difficult. The virus, assuming it took the ship intact, now knows the layout of human space.”

Aleksandr kept his face impassive, somehow. The Solar Treaty – rewritten after the Tadpoles had taught humanity that it wasn’t alone in the universe – had made it clear that no new alien races were to learn anything of the human sphere’s inner workings until contact had been established and humanity was sure it wasn’t about to be attacked again. A hostile alien race would have to spend a great deal of time surveying the tramlines before they found the ones that led to the more densely-populated worlds – and Earth itself. Humanity could use that time to set up defensive lines and prepare for war. But if the virus had captured an intact navigational datacore, the virus would already know where to attack. His bid to break Russia free of its shackles might have led to disaster for the entire human race.

He wanted to shout his fury and frustration to the stars. The other Great Powers had never forgiven, let alone forgotten, how Aleksandr’s predecessor had tried to use bioweapons on the Tadpoles during peace negotiations. Russia had seen no choice – it was the only way to recover their principle colony and its population – but it had been a disastrous failure. Nothing had been said publicly, there had been no angry denunciations of Russia … yet, trade and investment had almost dried up. The country had been badly weakened. It had practically had to mortgage its future to remain a Great Power. Aleksandr was all too aware that keeping up with the latest military technology was costing his country dearly. And yet, they had to keep up. The rising powers would not hesitate to displace Russia if they thought they could get away with it.

The Indians already tried to displace the British, Aleksandr thought. And the British were in a far stronger position than ourselves.

He looked down at the report for a long moment, trying not to think about the people on the streets outside. They’d made huge sacrifices, they’d allowed the state to dictate to them … and yet, they were trapped in an austere nightmare. Mother Russia could feed her children – that was no longer a problem, thanks to modern technology – but they had little in the way of luxury or hope. Aleksandr knew there were grumblers, people complaining that their lives were drab and empty. The FSB had it under control, he’d been assured, but he knew better than to take that for granted. Life in Russia was steadily becoming worse. How long would it be until Moscow exploded into revolution, once again.

Svetlana cleared her throat. “There is nothing to be gained from recriminations,” she said, dryly. “We have to decide how to proceed.”

How generous, Aleksandr thought. Svetlana was sneakily making it clear that she wasn’t going to call their attention to the fact that she was the one who’d argued against sending a covert contact team – and, in doing so, was quietly rubbing their noses in it. And how do you intend to use this to unseat me?

“We have to assume the worst,” Svetlana continued. “The virus knows that we intended to betray our fellow humans. It may seek to use that against us. If it truly understands human psychology, it will see it as a gamble worth taking. It can certainly present enough proof to overcome doubt and suspicion from the other Great Powers.”

“Great,” Zaitsev said, sarcastically.

“Therefore, we need to take action,” Svetlana said. “We have to act before it can take advantage of its newfound knowledge. And I know how we should proceed.”

Chapter One

The chamber, Captain Sir Stephen Shields thought as he faced his judges, had cost the Royal Navy a great deal of money. No expense had been spared in a bid to make it clear that justice would be done, from the magnificent wooden boxes for the judges to the smaller chair and table for himself and his lawyer. He couldn’t help thinking that the giant painting of the king hanging from the far wall was worth a few million pounds. The entire courtroom had probably cost as much as a cruiser. He wondered, rather sardonically, how they intended to explain the expense during the next audit. The Royal Navy had been having problems funding the latest generation of ships even before Invincible had stumbled across a whole new threat.

He kept his face as impassive as possible, despite a growing headache, as his judges hurled question after question at him. It was hard, so hard, to keep from snapping at them as they asked the same question time and time again, sometimes rephrasing the words in a bid to catch him out. They weren’t interested in the truth, he felt. The five flag officers facing him were more interested in politics than the threat facing the entire human race. He wondered, sourly, just who’d smoothed their path through the navy. His family had enemies. They’d have worked overtime to make sure that their people were in place to push for a court-martial.

“No, sir,” he said, in response to a particularly irritating question. “I feel that my ship and crew performed adequately.”

An admiral leaned forward. “Captain, some of our analysts believe that you didn’t make enough of an attempt at opening communications,” he said. “What do you say to that?”

Some of our analysts, Stephen thought. The ones who give the answers they know their masters want?

He braced himself. “As you can see from my records, Admiral, we did attempt to open communications. However, we came under enemy fire. Further attempts at opening communications were unsuccessful – and, when we realised what we were facing, we understood why. There is little hope of opening a dialogue when someone simply won’t talk to you.”

“But you should have tried,” the Admiral said.

Stephen felt his temper start to snap. He ignored the warning nudge from his lawyer. “With all due respect, Admiral, firing on someone is also a form of communication. The aliens – the virus – wanted us dead.”

Another admiral chuckled. “He’s got you there, Fred.”

The first admiral glowered. “Captain Shields, you used classified technology to make your escape. In doing so, you revealed its existence to the enemy. How do you justify that?”

Stephen felt a hot flash of anger. They’d been over that three times already. He was tempted to suggest they simply refer to the written record, but he knew they wouldn’t listen. They wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Again.

Invincible needed to return home safely, carrying her cargo of precious knowledge,” Stephen said, flatly. “We had lost contact with the Russians and we had no way to be sure that any previous messages would reach Falkirk, let alone Earth. Accordingly, I saw no option but to deploy every weapon in our arsenal to ensure that my ship made it safely through the tramline and escaped.”

He allowed his voice to harden. “I understand the importance of keeping secret weapons secret until they are actually used, Admiral, but we had no choice. I had to do everything in my power to maximise our chances of escape. Deploying classified technology was, in my judgement, the only thing to do. What would you do in my place?”

There was a long silence. Stephen waited, wondering what the admiral would say? He’d bet half his salary that his questioners had never commanded starships, even during peacetime. No, they’d stayed home and nitpicked from the comfort of their armchairs … he shook his head in exasperation. He knew that, sometimes, officers made mistakes. But they rarely had anything like enough time to think of the perfect solution.

The chairman cleared his throat. “I believe we’ve gone as far as we can for the day,” he said, making a show of checking his watch. “Captain Shields, thank you for your time. You’ll have our decision by the end of the week.”

Unless you want to call me back for some worthless questioning, Stephen thought. You’ve heard everything I can tell you – twice, perhaps – and you still want to waste my time.

He kept that thought off his face. “Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” he said. It was hard not to allow sarcasm to slip into his voice. “I am at your disposal.”

His lawyer walked next to him as they headed for the hatch. “They’re unsure how to proceed,” he muttered. “As long as they’re asking questions, they don’t have to take any decisions.”

“No wonder they’re not on command decks,” Stephen muttered back. A starship captain had to make a decision and stick to it, even if that mean putting his neck on the line, not waffle endlessly until his ship was blown into dust and plasma. “Seriously, what’s our chances.”

The lawyer said nothing until they walked through the hatch and into the corridor. “I’d say sixty-forty they recommend that all charges be dropped,” he said. “There’s no moment of egregious misconduct from you, Captain, and without that they’ll have some problems justifying putting you in front of a court-martial board. I think they’ll be happier not trying to try a national hero.”

Stephen shrugged. One half of the country had considered him a hero when he and his ship had returned, bringing warning of a new interstellar war; the other half had seen him as a villain, the bearer of bad news. That half would believe – they’d want to believe – that Stephen had fucked up First Contact so badly that a multispecies alien confederation had declared war on Earth. And, because of his family connections, his fate wouldn’t be decided by the navy. Parliament would become involved. The final decision wouldn’t be based on anything he’d actually done, but on what was politically acceptable.

And my superiors will throw me under the shuttlecraft, he thought, sourly. The First Space Load had signalled his support, but Stephen had no illusions. If the politicians wanted him punished, he’d be punished. Perhaps I should have gone into law instead, or sought an easy seat in Parliament.

He shook his head. He loved the navy. He loved command. And the situation was not hopeless. His family’s enemies would have to find a figleaf of justification before they could hang him – perhaps literally – and, so far, no such justification had materialised. He had to keep fighting if he wanted to return to his ship. Invincible was currently being repaired, under his XO’s command. He was damned if he was just letting go of command after how hard he’d had to work to get it.

A young midshipwoman ran up and saluted. “Captain Shields?”

Stephen returned her salute. “Yes?”

“Sir, a car has arrived for you,” the midshipwoman said. “Its waiting at the main gate.”

Stephen dismissed his lawyer and hurried down the stairs to the main gate. A large black limousine, with tinted windows, was waiting for him. A uniformed chauffeur stepped out of the front door as Stephen approached, saluted him, and opened the rear door. Stephen was not remotely surprised to see his brother sitting in the vehicle. It was the sort of thing his brother would do.

“Duncan,” he said, stiffly. “What are you doing here?”

“Get in,” Duncan said. “We don’t have much time.”

Stephen hesitated, then climbed into the limousine. The chauffeur closed the door behind him. Silence fell, abruptly. Duncan gestured to a seat; Stephen looked around, noting the silent maid sitting at the back of the vehicle, then sat down. The vehicle hummed into life a moment later. There was barely any sense of motion.

“Our latest car,” Duncan said. He sounded as if he’d built the limo himself. “What do you think?”

Stephen snorted. “How much of the family fortune did you waste on this … this white elephant?”

“I assure you that this vehicle isn’t useless,” Duncan said. “We have a minibar, a small portable cooker, desks and chairs and, of course, secure links to the datanet. I can conduct my business while travelling around the country.”

“You could also get from one end of the country to the other in less than an hour,” Stephen pointed out, although he knew it was a waste of time. Duncan had always believed an aristocrat had to look wealthy as well as be wealthy. The family name demanded a show of conspicuous consumption. Stephen had never believed that, but then he’d gone into the navy, where efficiency was prized over everything else. “I assume you have a reason for meeting me?”

Duncan smiled. “Do I need a reason to speak to my little brother?”

“You never said a word to me at school,” Stephen said. “Ever.”

“You know as well as I do that older kids are not supposed to talk to the younger kids,” Duncan said. That was unfortunately true. “I’m sure I said a word or two to you during the holidays. And did I not speak to you after we both left school?”

Stephen shrugged. “And now?”

Duncan met his eyes. “The Leader of the Opposition has been trying to figure out a way to use your court martial to bring down the government,” he said. “However, it doesn’t look as though you gave them enough rope to hang the Prime Minister. I doubt a vote of no confidence could be passed right now.”

“That’s something,” Stephen said. He’d always disliked politics, even though he’d been brought up in an aristocratic family. The navy life was far simpler. “What now?”

“They’ll try and find some kind of face-saving solution, I suppose,” Duncan said. “They staked too much on you. Now, they need to find a way to let you go without making it look as though they were tormenting you for fun and games. I imagine they’d redefine the whole courtroom session as a fact-finding mission.”

“They certainly found a great many facts,” Stephen said, dryly. “When can I go back to my ship?”

“When they figure out a way to save face.” Duncan shrugged. “We’re not going to hammer them too hard over the issue – the government’s majority is too thin – but they won’t take that for granted. They’ll assume we’ll take full advantage of their mistake.”

“Perhaps you should,” Stephen said. “Really try and put the boot in.”

“We wouldn’t be able to do enough damage to matter,” Duncan said. “And we don’t want a political catfight right now. The country is unsettled enough.”

He tapped a switch. The tinted windows became transparent. Stephen frowned as he realised where they were. The limo was crossing Admiralty Bridge, heading towards Whitehall, driving past a steady stream of protesters. Many of them were carrying signs, protesting against the new war. He sucked in his breath, sharply. They were walking so closely together that the virus would have a field day, if one of the protesters was infected. They’d all be infected soon enough.

“I thought large gatherings were going to be banned,” he said, as he spotted a handful of policemen. They were watching the crowd, but making no attempt to break it up. “What happened?”

Duncan gave him a sharp look. “Political realities,” he said, curtly. He tapped the switch again. The windows darkened. “Shutting down the schools is one thing, but shutting down everything else is quite another. And there’s no reason to believe the virus has reached Earth.”

Stephen gritted his teeth. There had been a number of starships at Wensleydale that hadn’t known to take extensive precautions against biological contamination, even though they were dealing with a previously-unknown alien race. And some of those ships had disappeared. It was tempting to believe that their crews had managed to hit the self-destruct before they’d been overwhelmed, but he didn’t dare believe it. Planetary defence networks had orders to destroy the ships on sight, yet … it would be easy to sneak a shuttle down to the surface and begin the infection. Earth might already have been infected.

“Those idiots are going to get themselves killed,” he snarled. “And they’ll get a lot of innocent people killed with them.”

“Perhaps,” Duncan said. “But they also don’t want war.”

Stephen laughed, harshly. “Do you suppose the universe cares what they want?”

“No,” Duncan said. He sounded as though he understood. “But they do have good reasons for wanting it.”

“I know,” Stephen said.

He shook his head. He understood too. Of course he understood. Twenty years ago, the First Interstellar War had brought the human race to the brink of defeat. The Tadpoles had bombarded Earth, killing millions of humans and destroying the work of hundreds of years. And then Britain had skirmished with India, shortly before the Second Interstellar War had pitted humanity and its enemies-turned-allies against a pair of alien races that had made common cause and set out to conquer the galaxy together. The human race had seen too much change in the past few years, too many reminders that the universe was red in tooth and claw. He was uneasily aware that Britain – and the remainder of the Great Powers – had lost so much that something was going to break. And now …

And now, we have a whole new war, against an extremely dangerous and deadly race, he thought. I’d vote against it too if I thought it would make a difference.

“We’re switching to a full war footing now, aren’t we?” Stephen met his brother’s eyes, hoping to see confirmation. “Aren’t we?”

“We are,” Stephen confirmed. “The Opposition’s grown-ups realise that the threat exists, even though their backbenchers want to use the crisis to demand concessions. We’re preparing for war at breakneck speed.”

Stephen nodded, relieved. The Royal Navy had been taken unawares by the new threat, but a great many lessons had been learnt during the First Interstellar War. This time, procedures were in place to call up the reserves, draw weapons and spare parts from stockpiles that had been extensively built up during peacetime and prepare to go on the offensive. Starships were probably already being dispatched to Falkirk, the point of contact, in hopes of blunting an alien offensive before it could reach the more populated parts of the human sphere. He was fairly sure the Admiralty was already considering ways to go on the offensive. No one ever won a war by sitting still and waiting to be hit.

But we have no idea of just how much territory they control, he reminded himself. They might be expecting us to launch an offensive; hell, they may intend to destroy the invasion fleet and then follow up with a full-scale offensive of their own.

“There is a cost, of course,” Duncan added. “Do you know how many people are reservists?”

“No,” Stephen said.

“There’s always been a push to favour reservists when it comes to selecting candidates for a job,” Duncan said. “The family industries have done their part. But if the reservists are called up to go to war, there’s going to be a problem replacing them. Losing one reservist isn’t a bad thing, but losing all of them at once … there is no way replacements for everyone can be invited to apply, be interviewed and accepted before the losses start to bite.”

He shook his head. “And that problem is affecting the entire country,” he said. “I dare say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Probably,” Stephen said. “But think how much worse it will be if we lose.”

“I know that,” Duncan snapped. “But how many people don’t grasp the sheer scale of the threat? There were all sorts of problems during the Second Interstellar War. They’ll be worse here.”

“Probably,” Stephen said, again. Civilians didn’t understand the realities of interstellar warfare. A threat might be a few hundred light-years away, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t touch Earth. “I can’t wait to go back to space.”

“I don’t blame you,” Duncan told him. There was an oddly wistful tone in his voice. “I wish I could go to space too.”

The limo came to a halt. Stephen looked up as the door opened, revealing the chauffeur and a darkening sky. He glanced at his watch as Duncan rose and climbed out of the vehicle. It was seven o’clock. And yet, it was strikingly quiet. He frowned as he followed his brother onto the streets. London was a city that never slept. Normally, the streets would be filled with tourists making their way to the theatres or the city’s diverse selection of cafes and restaurants. There was nowhere else in the entire world that had so many diversions for the educated palate. And yet, the city was quiet. Even the hum of traffic was dulled.

“The club’s still open,” Duncan said. “I thought I’d treat you to dinner.”

Stephen glowered at his retreating back. “And the rest of the city?”

“Martial law has been declared,” Duncan reminded him. “The city is shutting down for the night.”

Good, Stephen thought. He snorted, rudely, as they walked past the bowing doorman and headed up the stairs. Naturally, the aristocracy had ensured that their spaces were spared the attention of the law. But the population will not be pleased.

He shook his head as they passed a cluster of UV lights. The public would not be pleased, if they realised what was happening. There was nothing to be gained by shutting down the city’s nightlife if a handful of select clubs were allowed to remain open. And yet, it would help keep them alive, if the virus reached Earth …

… And that, as far as he was concerned, was all that mattered.

Quick Update

17 Aug

It’s not been a good week.

The good news is that I finished the first draft of The Broken Throne on Saturday 11th. The bad news is that my health went downhill spectacularly on Sunday 12th, not helped by extremely unpleasant medical tests on Tuesday and Thursday. We’ve been promised a proper dioganis in a week or so, until then …

Things have been a bit stalled, as you might have realised. I’d hoped to complete the edits for Debt of Honour/The Embers of War, but I’ve bogged down somewhere around chapter 14. Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of task that can be passed on to someone else. I seem to have one good week followed by one bad week, so hopefully I’ll be able to finish that next week and then make a start on Para Bellum. But we have too many other things to do over the next two weeks …

Thoughts and prayers would be appreciated, if you have time.