Snippet – Their Last Full Measure (A Learning Experience VI)

4 Nov

Prologue

The irony would have made Empress Neola laugh, if it wasn’t so … ironic.

She had rebelled, the first junior officer – by the standards of her people – to rebel in thousands of years.  She had led an almost effortless coup against the old ones, the ancients too doddering and old to realise that someone could overthrow them … only to discover, after the twin disasters of Apsidal and N-Gann, that someone had overthrown her in turn.  They hadn’t stripped her of her power, they hadn’t banished her to a retirement world nicely out of the way, but they had limited her power.  The omnipotence she’d claimed for herself was gone.

Although I was never quite omnipotent, she reflected, sourly.  Sure, she’d been the absolute ruler of the Tokomak Empire, but … there had been limits.  The humans and their pathetic Galactic Alliance hadn’t surrendered, when faced with the prospect of clashing with the greatest military machine in the known galaxy.  The universe didn’t bend to my will.

She studied the handful of faces around the table, knowing her position was weaker than ever before.  Once, she could have snapped her long fingers and everyone would have leapt to obey.  Now … it was a popularity contest, where the soldiers and spacers decided for themselves who they’d follow, who they’d obey.  Neola shuddered at the thought.  She understood the importance of ensuring competence at the top – it was why she’d launched her coup – but soldiers and spacers couldn’t decide for themselves which orders they’d follow.  At best, there would be long delays as they tried to argue out the pros and cons of each set of orders: at worst, there would be absolute anarchy.  It was no way to run a government, let alone a war.  And she knew they simply didn’t have time to iron out the kinks before the humans set Tokomak Prime itself on fire.

And they know I lost the last campaign, she thought.  They’re not inclined to listen to me.

A human would have gritted her teeth.  Neola was too practiced to reveal her emotions that openly, but anger and despair gnawed at her gut.  It wasn’t a complete disaster – she’d argued, time and time again – but hardly anyone believed her.  Cold logic was no substitute for the shock of hundreds of thousands of lives, important lives, being expended on a gravity point assault.  No one in the room cared one whit for the lesser races who served the Tokomak as sepoys, expendable cannon fodder, but the Tokomak spacers themselves?  They were important.  The Tokomak hadn’t suffered such losses in living memory.  And, given there were Tokomak who were literally thousands of years old, that was a very long time indeed.

“We expect you to behave yourself, Empress,” Coordinator Hakav said.  “And to listen to our advice.”

You could just have taken power for yourself, Neola thought, coldly.  It spoke of either rectitude or moral cowardice.  She didn’t care which.  And instead you content yourself with giving advice.

She wanted to laugh.  Or cry.  The youngsters often affected the manner of the old … but they didn’t need to, not any longer.  They were calling the shots.  Now.  And yet, they didn’t have the courage to overthrow her completely.  They had to know she was dangerous.  Neola had overthrown ancients who’d held their posts for longer than most of them had been alive, sheer longevity giving them a legitimacy the youngsters lacked.  She’d kill them all if she got a chance and they had to know it.  But they’d merely hampered her.  That was a mistake.

Unless they don’t want to risk another round of infighting, she reminded herself.  We could lose the war with the humans while scrabbling amongst ourselves.

She nodded, curtly, and directed their attention to the holographic display.  “There is no point in lying to ourselves,” she said.  Let them think of her as fettered, for the moment.  She’d regain what she’d lost in time.  “We are not our servants, who need reassurance.  We can accept that the situation is grim.  The humans have scored a major victory.”

“We have never lost a fleet base before,” Admiral Kyan said.

“No.”  Neola conceded the point without rancour.  “But we have many – many – fleet bases.”

She spoke calmly, hiding her irritation as much as she could.  “The humans have successfully prevented us from launching a major invasion of their sector.  Right now, our fleets would have to proceed through FTL, a journey that would take decades.  The human outposts blocking the gravity point chains have to be dislodged before we could mount an invasion in a reasonable space of time.  We will be required to launch a series of gravity point assaults before we could even think about bringing our muscle to bear on Earth.

“However, we have other problems.  The loss of a major fleet base” – she nodded to the admiral – “has … unsettled our allies.  Many of them are rethinking their stance in the light of new developments.  Others are looking back to the days of their independence and wondering what, if anything, they can do while we’re distracted.  And while we are still strong enough to take out our allies if there is no other choice, they could produce a distraction at the worst possible time.  Right now, there is a human fleet within striking distance of the inner worlds.  It may only be a matter of time before that fleet starts an advance to the core.”

She allowed her words to hang in the air.  “To Tokomak Prime itself.”

There was a long chilling pause.  She smiled inwardly, despite the seriousness of the situation.  They’d never really considered just how easily a strength could become a weakness, if the balance of power shifted even slightly.  The Tokomak had banned their servants from fortifying the gravity points, both to ensure free navigation and to make it difficult for anyone to stop their fleets from teaching any rebellious systems a lesson.  Now, with a major enemy fleet pressing against the inner worlds themselves, the gravity points were terrifyingly undefended.  Neola had started a fortification program, hastily repurposing planetary defence platforms and constructing floating fortresses from scratch, but she was uncomfortably aware that the program would take time.  Time she didn’t have.  The humans moved so quickly that they’d often managed to surprise even her.

And they’ve also managed to improve upon the technology they stole, she mused, sourly.  The Tokomak had thought they’d taken technology as far as it could go.  The humans had proved them wrong.  In hindsight, it had been a convenient lie … a lie that been believed, eventually even by the people who’d propagated it in the first place.  Neola knew she’d pulled off some tactical innovations – she’d caught the humans by surprise, once or twice – but her people were ill-prepared to engage in a technological arms race.  Sooner or later, they’ll come up with something that renders our giant reserve fleet nothing more than scrap metal.

She shuddered at the thought.  The Tokomak had built literally millions of warships over thousands of years.  They’d built so many ships they couldn’t hope to man them, even if they gave every last one of their race a uniform and assigned him to a ship.  The fleet had been held in reserve, the largest hammer in the known galaxy.  But now, the fleet was only of limited value.  The programs to bring the ships out of mothballs, crew them and deploy them to the front might not be completed in time to keep the humans from developing a whole new weapons system.  And then the reserve fleet might become worse than useless.

“Time is not on our side,” she said, calmly.  She altered the display.  “This is what I intend to do.”

She outlined her plan, grimly aware that it was really nothing more than a more urgent version of her previous plan.  She’d assumed she could secure Apsidal and open the way to Earth without much ado, forcing the humans to stand in defence of their homeworld rather than raiding the inner worlds themselves.  She’d assumed … those assumptions had died in fire, along with hundreds of thousands of Tokomak spacers.  She hadn’t bothered to calculate how many of their subjects had died too – no one had cared enough to ask – but she knew their deaths were in the millions.  And yet, she needed to demand more and more from their client races.  They’d all have to stand in defence of civilisation itself.

And yet, they’re starting to wonder if we can be beaten, Neola thought.  And that makes them unreliable.

She cursed the gentocrats under her breath, savagely.  The humans had an expression – Old Farts – that fitted them perfectly.  They’d been so keen to make it clear that the Tokomak had never suffered even the slightest loss – not in recorded history, anyway – that losing even a single ship was a major disaster.  And she’d lost thousands of ships.  It was a black eye – she had hundreds of thousands of ships coming online – but it looked bad.  The public perception was that the Tokomak were losing.  And the mere fact they had to consider public perception was itself a sign that things were going wrong …

“Time is not on our side,” she repeated.  “The humans are at our gates.  But we do have a preponderance of firepower and mobile units.  If we can find the time to bring the rest of the fleet online – if – we can end this threat once and for all.”

If,” Coordinator Hakav repeated.

“If,” Neola agreed.  “The galaxy has changed beyond measure in the last few years.  We can no longer allow ourselves the delusion that we are unbeatable.  We cannot afford to keep believing our own lies.  We must adapt or die when change sweeps over us.”

She let out a long breath.  She was young, although by human standards she would be on the verge of death.  And yet, even she had trouble grasping what might lie ahead.  She’d been so used to the limits of everything from technological to politics, and to the concept of those limits being inflexible, that she had trouble imagining what might happen if they changed.  The Tokomak saw themselves as the undisputed and unchallengeable masters of the known universe.  It rarely occurred to them – it had rarely occurred to them – that their dominance was not a natural law.  The universe didn’t guarantee them anything.

But it doesn’t guarantee the humans anything either, she reminded herself, firmly.  They’re strong, but they’re not unbeatable.  We can still reclaim the galaxy for ourselves.

Sure, her thoughts answered, as the discussion continued to rage.  And what sort of galaxy will we pass down to our children?

Chapter One

Hameeda’s eyes snapped open.

For a moment, wrapped in the darkness, she was honestly unsure of where she was or what she was doing.  She’d been dreaming … she wasn’t sure what she’d been dreaming, but it had troubled her on a level she couldn’t express.  There’d been shadows in her dreams … she shook her head as the cabin lights came on, illuminating a chamber that was surprisingly large and luxurious for such a small warship.  But then, she was trapped in the LinkShip until the day she died.  The designers had known they’d better make it comfortable for her.

She rubbed her forehead and sat upright, trying to recover the dream.  It bugged her, more than she cared to admit.  She’d rarely dreamed since joining the navy … but then, she supposed, she’d often been too tired to do anything more than throw herself on her bunk at the end of her shift and sleep until the next shift began.  Even now, with a small army of automatic helpers at her beck and call, she still got tired.  Her body was in the peak of health, and would remain that way until she died, but she could still get mentally tired.  And there was no one who could take her place.

Hameeda sighed, then reached out through her implants to touch the local processor.  The LinkShip was surrounded by the featureless darkness of FTL, effectively alone within the folded universe.  Her long-range sensors had picked up the occasional hint of other starships passing through FTL, but none of them had come close enough to exchange greetings.  They might have been hundreds of light years away, given how gravity waves propagated within FTL.  There was no way to be entirely certain of anything unless they came a great deal closer.  A status display appeared in front of her and she studied it carefully.  She was definitely alone on the ship.

Perhaps I should have asked for a companion, she thought, ruefully.  Or a sexbot.

She snorted at the thought – she’d tried a sexbot when she’d reached her majority, only to discover that even the most humanoid robot wasn’t human – and swung her legs over the side of the bed.  The floor grew warm under her naked feet.  Hameeda didn’t bother to check her appearance in the mirror, let alone don her uniform, as she paced down the corridor and onto the bridge.  She felt a twinge of the old disappointment as she stepped through the airlock – the chamber was really nothing more than a single command chair, surrounded by holographic displays she rarely used – and then pushed it aside.  One day, all starships would be controlled by direct neural links and complex command bridges would be a thing of the past.  She rather suspected that would be a long time in the future.  A normal bridge might be less efficient, but it looked better.

Her lips quirked as she sat down, the neural links activating automatically.  Her awareness expanded, twinning itself time and time again with the starship’s processor nodes.  She took a long breath as a string of status reports fell into her head, each one assessed by her intellectual-shadow and classed as non-urgent.  There was no reason to be concerned about anything, the network said.  She checked them anyway, just to be sure.  The LinkShip was in perfect shape.  It was more than ready to carry out the mission.

Hameeda nodded to herself, then checked the FTL drive.  The LinkShip was rocketing towards Yunnan, a major Tokomak fleet base a few hundred light years from N-Gann.  If Solar Intelligence was correct – and Hameeda took everything the spooks said with a grain of salt – the Tokomak were massing ships there, preparing for … something.  Hameeda’s tactical computers offered a number of possibilities, listed in order of probability.  They could launch a counterstroke at N-Gann, despite the presence of two-thirds of the Solar Navy; they could withdraw the ships to block a thrust towards Tokomak Prime; they might even be bracing themselves for a revolution, for a whole string of revolutions.  Hameeda had read the reports from the inner worlds.  There were literally hundreds of alien races that hated the Tokomak, but were too scared to rebel.  That might have changed, now the Tokomak had taken a black eye.  Their servants might be wondering if they could launch a successful revolt against their masters …

And they’d better pray they could get away with it, if they did, Hameeda told herself.  The Tokomak won’t hesitate to burn entire planets to ash if that’s what they have to do to stop the rebels.

She shuddered.  She’d grown up in the Solar Union – she’d never set foot on Earth – but she’d heard the tales.  Her grandmother had been born in the most barbaric region of the planet, a place that was up against some pretty stiff competition.  She’d been aware, from birth until she’d escaped to space, that the strong did what they liked and the weak suffered what they must.  Hameeda had found it hard to believe, when she’d listened to her grandmother’s stories of near-permanent starvation, warlords, religious fanatics and raving misogynists who hated and feared women.  She believed it now.  The Tokomak would do whatever it took to keep themselves in power, fearful of what would happen if – when – they lost it.  They and their human enemies weren’t that different.

A timer appeared in her vision, counting down the final seconds.  Hameeda checked her weapons and shields again, bracing herself for the worst.  The FTL baffles were supposed to keep the enemy from detecting a ship in FTL, but the Tokomak might be wise to that trick by now.  They were unimaginative, not stupid.  And they were the ones who’d developed FTL travel.  The Solar Navy’s officers had spent years wondering just what, if anything, the Tokomak might have kept back for themselves.  They didn’t have to share everything with their allies.  Why should they?

There might be an ambush lying in wait for me, she mused.  Or they might be preparing to yank me out of FTL early and pound hell out of me.

The timer reached zero.  The LinkShip hummed out of FTL.  Hameeda allowed herself a sigh of relief as the near-space sensors drew a blank, then started to deploy a handful of passive sensor platforms.  A torrent of information rushed into her sensor processors as the LinkShip coasted towards the planet, daring the local sensors to detect her.  Hameeda snorted to herself, half-wishing she could kick whoever had issued her orders.  She could have gotten a lot closer without any real risk of detection, if she’d remained hidden under cloak, but the analysts wanted to know when – if – the locals spotted her when she wasn’t trying to hide.  It wouldn’t be long.  They might not have seen her coming – the lack of a welcoming committee suggested the locals hadn’t worked out how to track her yet – but they’d detect her drive emissions soon enough.  She rather suspected it was too much to hope that some artificial stupid would decide she couldn’t be there and dismiss her as nothing more than a sensor glitch.  There was a war on.  The Tokomak would probably investigate any sensor contacts that appeared on their screens.

We could use that against them, she thought, wryly.  A few hundred fake contacts and they’d be ready to ignore an entire battle fleet bearing down on them.

She put the thought to one side as more and more data flowed into the sensors.  Yunnan had been populated by spacefaring races for thousands of years and it showed.  Four rocky worlds, three of them heavily developed; two gas giants, both surrounded by cloudscoops and hundreds of industrial nodes.  Her eyes narrowed as she recalled the history datafiles, the ones that stated the Tokomak had raised the natives from the mud and given them the keys to the stars.  Reading between the lines of flattery so cloying that even the most narcissistic human in existence would vomit in disgust, it was clear the Tokomak had enslaved the natives after discovering their world and its three gravity points.  They might have the stars, but only as passengers on someone else’s ships.  Their worlds were no longer theirs.  And they might – just – want to rebel.

Her lips tightened as her sensors picked out the signs of new construction around the gravity points.  The Tokomak were hastily fortifying them, although she wasn’t sure who they thought they were fortifying them against.  Admiral Stuart could take her fleet from N-Gann to Yunnan if she wished, but she’d prefer to take the long way through FTL rather than bleed her fleet white punching through the gravity points.  The fortresses would be expensive white elephants if Yunnan itself was attacked.  They’d be unable to cover the planet and the gravity points.  She shook her head, mentally.  There might be other problems.  The Harmonies were only three jumps away and they had a powerful fleet.  They might be allies, as far as the Tokomak were concerned, but … given a chance, who knew what they’d do?

The Tokomak probably don’t know, she thought.  And that might be why they’re building the fortresses.

A flash of red light flared across her vision.  The enemy had pinged her, active sensors sweeping her hull.  She watched, feeling a twinge of amusement, as their entire defence network flash-woke.  Her sensors drank it all in, nothing the position of everything from active sensor platforms to orbital fortresses guarding the planets and their industrial nodes from enemy attack.  The Tokomak hadn’t skimped on the defences, she noted, as a handful of enemy cruisers left orbit and barrelled straight for her.  They’d clearly had some reason to fear attack.

And they might have been right, she thought.  They just didn’t expect it to come from us.

She watched the cruisers draw near, then kicked her drives into high gear.  The cruisers swept their sensors across her time and time again, the universal signal ordering the unlucky recipient to stop or be fired upon.  Hameeda wondered if they actually expected her to stop or if they were mindlessly following orders that had been written thousands of years before humans had discovered fire.  She swept closer, bracing herself for the moment they took the gloves off and opened fire.  They’d have a solid lock on her hull, with or without active sensors.  They might not give her any warning before they opened fire …

There!  She sensed the flicker and threw the LinkShip into an evasive pattern, sweeping through a set of manoeuvres that would have been impossible for anything larger than a gunboat ten years ago.  A handful of shots rocketed through where she’d been, missing her cleanly.  She smirked as she darted near a cruiser, trying to dare the ship to fire … knowing that if she missed, she might just hit one of her fellows.  The Tokomak ships could take a few hits, but would they take the chance?  She snorted as the enemy held their fire, then altered course and headed directly towards Yunnan itself.  The enemy ships were left eating her dust.  They changed their own course, following her, but it was too late.  The only way they’d ever get back into weapons range was if she let them.

The planet grew larger as she zoomed towards it.  The enemy were starting to panic, hundreds of freighters leaving orbit and dropping into FTL without even bothering to boost themselves into high orbit first.  There’d be some trouble over that when the unlucky crews returned, she was sure.  Human bureaucrats were mindless fools – she’d met too many, even in the Solar Union – but Tokomak bureaucrats were worse.  The freighter crews would probably be stripped of their licences when the dust settled, if they were lucky.  Who knew?  Perhaps they’d make their way to N-Gann and join the Galactic Alliance instead.  They would be welcome.

She watched, grimly, the planetary defences brought more and more weapons on line.  The orbital battlestations would be a major threat if she got too close, while – oddly – the giant ring surrounding the planet was studded with tactical sensors too.  She frowned, wondering if the ring had weapons mounted too.  That was odd – the Galactics were normally careful not to do anything that might make the rings targets – but there was a war on.  Perhaps they’d decided to gamble their human opponents wouldn’t risk an accidental genocide by destroying the ring and bombarding the planet below with debris.  Or maybe they simply didn’t care.

They have to care, Hameeda thought.  The alternative was unthinkable.  The population below isn’t expendable.

She accessed her communications array and uploaded a handful of commands into the system as she swept into firing range.  The enemy CO was an idiot, as he opened fire the moment she flew into range … extreme range.  A full-sized battleship could have evaded his missiles, let alone the nimble LinkShip.  Hameeda was tempted to hold her position and let him empty his magazines, if he was stupid enough to oblige her.  But the risks were too great.  A lucky hit – or an antimatter warhead – might do real damage.  She had no illusions.  The LinkShip was too small to soak up damage and keep going.  If she lost her shields, she was doomed.

The barrage of missiles grew stronger as she darted closer to the planet, evading them with almost effortless ease.  She wondered, idly, if someone was screaming at the CO to stop wasting missiles, to stop throwing warheads around too close to the ring for comfort.  A single nuclear warhead might not do much damage to a structure that literally surrounded an entire planet, but why take chances?  She evaded another spread of missiles, then dropped below the ring.  Thankfully, if there were any weapons on the ring they held their fire.  Either they didn’t exist or whoever was in charge was smarter …

They could hardly be stupider, she thought.  She opened the communications array, searching for enemy nodes.  Here, so close to the planet, they couldn’t keep her from hacking the system without shutting down the entire network.  The Tokomak system wasn’t badly designed, but it had its flaws.  And humanity had had plenty of time to learn to take advantage of each and every one of them.  And now …

She uploaded the hacking package, sending it into every communications node within reach.  The message would spread rapidly, using codes they’d hacked from other Tokomak systems to stay ahead of any mass-wiping programs.  It wouldn’t last forever, she’d been warned, but it would take them weeks to get rid of it … weeks when the message, the call to war and revolution, would be seen by millions of people.  If only a tiny percentage of them rose up against their masters, the Tokomak would have a real fight on their hands.  Who knew how much of their productive capability would be lost if they had to suppress a hundred revolts?

And how many of their servants and slaves will be butchered to keep the revolt from spreading, she thought, sourly.  The Tokomak had always reacted badly to any challenge, particularly from the younger races.  We could be doing the wrong thing here.

She put the thought away as new alerts flashed up in front of her.  The enemy were launching gunboats, hoping they could chase her out of low orbit and back into missile range.  She smiled, resisting the temptation to force them to play cat and mouse for the next few hours.  It would be entertaining, but she couldn’t risk being hit.  Not here.  She’d completed her mission and now it was time to run.  She altered course and dove towards the ring, flying into a giant starship repair yard.  A transport ship, large enough to carry a hundred LinkShips within its hull, was drifting within the yard, open to space. Hameeda flew right through it, resisting the urge to fire off a handful of missiles at the repair facilities.  It would hamper them – slightly – if they lost the yard, but the risk was unthinkable.  She wasn’t prepared to risk genocide.  Not now.  Not ever.

The enemy commander opened fire as she climbed into high orbit, his missiles sprinting towards her.  She cancelled her drives, coming to an abrupt stop, then dropped a handful of decoys before vanishing into FTL.  The combination of sensor static and gravity baffles should keep them from realising what she’d done … she shook her head as she rocketed away from the system, all too aware that she’d never know.  They might think they’d destroyed her.  They might tell everyone they’d destroyed her.  They might not even know they were lying.  They might genuinely believe they’d destroyed her.

But no one will believe them, she thought.  They’ve lied so often that they won’t be believed even if they honestly think they’re telling the truth.

She put the thought aside as she waited long enough to be sure she was clear, then slipped her mind out of the network and fell back into her own body.  The experience wasn’t so disorientating now, thankfully … she wiped sweat from her brow, her stomach grumbling angrily as it reminded her she hadn’t eaten anything for hours.  She disconnected herself from the chair and stood, feeling her legs wobbling threateningly.  She’d have to force herself to exercise, during the flight to her next target.  There were limits to what a combination of genetic modification and nanotech helpers could do.

Not that it matters, she thought, as she headed to the galley.   She couldn’t be bothered to cook, but there were plenty of food patterns stored within the processor.  If we lose this war, there won’t be anything of us left.  And our opponents won’t hesitate to commit genocide. 

6 Responses to “Snippet – Their Last Full Measure (A Learning Experience VI)”

  1. Bob November 4, 2019 at 11:52 am #

    Oh man…I can’t wait for release day !!!

  2. Darren Cobb November 4, 2019 at 1:17 pm #

    yes! ALE is back!!!

  3. michael November 4, 2019 at 2:56 pm #

    thanks!

    • Alan Taylor November 5, 2019 at 7:04 pm #

      Really looking forward to the release.

      • michael November 6, 2019 at 5:36 pm #

        So do I.
        Any books you know similar to first ALE?
        If only Glass wasn’t an author on someone else pages.

  4. ranga November 7, 2019 at 4:35 pm #

    Don’t human Upload exist in the learning experience , it would seem to me that it would be easier than the link ship

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