Snippet – Cast Adrift

16 Mar

Hi, everyone

Cast Adrift is, in one sense, a new universe.  In another, it’s a reprise of a far earlier trilogy I wrote – When The Empire Falls – which I thought wasn’t worth the effort of rewriting when I started to break into writing.  The basic idea is that, 500 years or so ago, Earth was conquered by an alien empire and forcibly integrated into the galactic mainstream … an occupation that is now coming to an end, as the overlords simply can’t afford it.  (Think Roman Britain or British India rather than Vichy France or Vietnam.)  Earth is given its independence and cast out to do whatever it likes, unaware that there are predators waiting in the shadows …

You can find the original (very different plot) here –

Prologue I

Washington was burning.

The President of the United States gritted his teeth in helpless humiliation as Marine One skirted the edge of the disaster zone, heading remorselessly towards what remained of Andrews Air Force Base.  Giant pillars of eerie yellowish smoke rose from the ruined city, casting a sinister light over the countryside.  The haze was so thick he couldn’t see the heart of the city, although he knew it was nothing more than a blackened ruin.  The White House was gone.  The Pentagon was gone.  Congress and the Senate and everything else within five miles of the White House … all gone.

His stomach churned.  A day ago, he’d been the most powerful man in the world.  His country had been the most powerful country in the world.  He’d looked to a future of boundless optimism, a chance to make his legacy as one of the great presidents of his century … he’d even regretted, deep inside, that he wouldn’t face a crisis that would ensure his name was forever praised or damned.  The world had seemed safe and predicable …

… Until the aliens arrived.

The President still couldn’t believe it.  He’d been lucky – or unlucky – enough to be out of the city when the aliens had announced their presence, when they’d systematically wiped out the satellite network, dropped kinetic projectiles on most of the navy and, just to make it clear the planet had new masters, nuked Washington DC.  International communications had been shattered, practically effortlessly, but intelligence reports suggested the aliens had also nuked London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing and five or six other cities.  Not knowing burned at him as much as anything else.  He’d grown far too used to having information permanently at his fingertips to make it easy to handle the fog of war.

And the nukes are gone, he thought.  It was brutally clear that the US nuclear deterrent was no more.  The ground-based missiles had been hammered from orbit, the nuclear-capable aircraft had been wiped out and the submarines were out of contact, presumed sunk.  What few missiles they’d been able to fire at the orbiting spacecraft had been swatted down so casually that it was clear the aliens were used to much faster missiles.  There’s no way we can hit back.

Marine One shuddered, again, as it started to descend.  The aliens hadn’t landed everywhere, if the reports were to be believed, but they’d dropped troops around Andrews AFB and set up defences.  The hastily-organised counterattack, drawing on a combination of soldiers, marines and national guardsmen, had been effortlessly smashed.  The President wanted to believe that armed civilians and the remnants of the military would be able to wear the aliens down, but the surviving joint chiefs had made it brutally clear that further resistance would be utterly futile.  The aliens controlled the high ground.  They could bombard humanity into submission, while remaining outside the range of humanity’s remaining weapons.  They’d shown a frightening – utterly terrifying – lack of concern for human casualties.  Millions of people had already died, all over the globe.  They could simply keep dropping nukes until the human race surrendered.

The President stared, feeling too numb to care as he saw the alien shapes orbiting over the airfield.  Alien fighters … he’d seen the reports.  The USAF had sent F-22s and F-35s against the alien craft, only to watch the jets casually blasted out of the sky.  There had been no survivors.  His eyes narrowed as he saw armoured shapes – armoured combat suits and small hovertanks – moving around the edge of the base.  The nearby civilian housing had been turned into rubble.  He thought he saw refugees heading south, trying to reach a safety that no longer existed.  The country was steadily sinking into chaos.  It had only been a day – a day, his mind screamed – and America was already damaged beyond repair.  He shuddered to think how long it would take to restore some semblance of normality …

His skin crawled as he saw the figures gathered by the runway.  No, things would never be normal again.  It wasn’t just a crisis, not any longer.  It was the new reality.  The human race had believed, truly believed, that it was alone in the universe.  The President had read the reports dismissing the very concept of alien life, insisting that even if aliens existed they’d never be able to reach Earth.  There had been no truth, he’d been told, in any of the UFO reports.  Grey-skinned aliens did not abduct humans for anal probing.  The witnesses were hoaxers, or drunk, or simply misunderstood what they saw.  Aliens simply did not exist.

And yet, they did.  The figures weren’t human.  They were … just wrong.

The helicopter touched down with a bump.  The President watched the crew spin down the rotors before they opened the hatch.  He wanted to draw a gun and open fire, he wanted to carry a nuke into the very heart of alien power … he knew, all too well, that it was impossible.  The aliens would shoot him down in seconds and go on to make their demands to his successor.  He wasn’t even sure who that was.  The Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives had both died in Washington.  There had been no reason to think the United States needed a designated survivor.  The Secret Service was working frantically to discover who was alive, let alone where they stood in the line of succession.  Too many government officials had been in Washington when the bomb fell.  They were missing, presumed dead.  The President had a nasty suspicion the aliens had planned it that way.

He stood, feeling his legs shake.  He’d made innumerable diplomatic visits, during the course of a long career, but this was different.  This was surrender.  The President’s heart wanted to fight to the last; the President’s head knew a prolonged conflict would end in the destruction of the human race.  He felt a wave of heat brush across his face as he clambered out of the helicopter.  The aliens watched him, silently.  He stared at them.  All, but one were concealed behind powered armour.

The unarmoured alien was … alien.  The President shivered.  The alien was slightly taller than himself, with reddish-orange skin, bulbous eyes and a mouth that was curved in something that looked like a faint sneer.  He – the President assumed the alien was a he – had no hair, no ears.  He wore a blank tunic that seemed completely unmarked.  He …

“Mr President,” the alien said.  His English was oddly-accented.  “Have you accepted our terms?”

At least they’re not making me wait, the President thought, savagely.  Damn them.

“Yes,” he said.  The shame of surrender washed down on him as the words hung in the air.  “We do.”

“Then we bid you welcome to the galactic community,” the alien said.  “Come.  We have much work to do.”

 Prologue II

No human had ever set foot within the council chambers.  No human ever would.  They were reserved for the Alphans and the Alphans alone, for the very highest of their species.  Even the servants were Alphans, a sign of wealth and power on a scale most sentient beings would have found unimaginable.  No aliens – not even the few races the Alphans considered their equals, or their servants – were ever invited into the chamber.  It was the very core of Alphan power.

Yasuke, Viceroy of Earth, took a deep breath as he stepped into the chamber.  The invitation would normally have been the very pinnacle of his career, a promise – in so many words – that the ruling elite respected and trusted him.  He had never had any doubt they cared for him – the core council cared for everyone – but respect and trust?  That had been denied, until his invitation to visit the elite in the seat of his power.  There was no greater honour for someone who hadn’t climbed to the very top of the ladder. 

There was no formal protocol for greeting the core councillors.  He bowed once, in salute, then looked around the chambers as the councillors studied him thoughtfully.  Massive holodisplays dominated the room, showing a mixture of views from the tower to live feeds from right across the empire.  A newscaster was babbling about something in tones of great excitement, as if the broadcast was live.  Yasuke knew better.  The news broadcasts would have been cleared through a dozen different committees before going live.  Events had probably already moved on.  He made a mental note to check the government network before he boarded his ship.  He’d need to know if something – anything – had happened that might change the core council’s policies before he could put them into practice.

He kept his face impassive as the live feed panned across a gleaming white tower.  The city was dominated by white towers, each one housing hundreds and thousands of Alphans from birth to death.  Their every need met by the government, they lived and died without ever making an impression on the universe.  Even now, even after the empire had come closer to defeat than ever before, the population seemed unmoved.  They didn’t realise – not yet – that they’d built their towers on sand.  They didn’t realise that the servile population was no longer content to be servile.  None of them even understood how close they stood to total disaster.

We built our empire on alien labour, Yasuke thought.  And now those aliens want a piece of the pie for themselves.

He turned his attention back to the councillors as the chairman called for attention.  There were nine in all, nine people who controlled the destiny of the entire empire.  They were wealthy and powerful beyond compare, yet – now – there were limits to their power.  It had always been true, he admitted in the privacy of his own mind, but the vast majority of the population preferred to believe in the council’s omnipotence.   There were very few races that would have stood in the way, if the council decided it wanted something.  But now, the empire was tottering and the scavengers were gathering.  The war had smashed forever the perception of invincibility.  It had been won, but the cost had been far too high.

The chairman’s voice echoed in the silence.  “Viceroy.  You wished to speak to us about the humans.”

“Yes,” Yasuke said, flatly.  “The human problem is growing out of hand.”

He waited for the nod, then proceeded.  “Five hundred years ago, we invaded and occupied Earth.  We assimilated the humans into our empire.  Humans worked for us – work for us – on almost all of our worlds.  We trained them to fight for us, we taught them to use modern technology, we encouraged them to build up a sizable industrial base of their own.  They are no longer a first-stage race, if indeed they ever were.  There is a strong case to be made that, five hundred years ago, they were actually a second-stage race.”

“Absurd,” a councillor snapped.  “They had barely even reached their moon!”

Yasuke frowned, inwardly.  He’d spent much of his adult life on Earth, climbing until his word was law right across the Sol System, but he couldn’t say he truly understood his human subjects.  It baffled him that the humans, given rockets and surprisingly advanced computer technology, hadn’t settled their star system by the time the first explorer vessel popped out of the crossroads and advanced on Earth.  If they had, they would have qualified for a certain degree of respect.  They certainly wouldn’t have been summarily crushed and assimilated, weather they liked it or not.  Instead, they had been too primitive to offer meaningful resistance when the invasion force arrived.  Galactic Law was clear.  Primitives had no rights.

And yet, they’d been strikingly advanced in other ways.  Their computer technology had been second-stage, at the very least.  They’d envisaged uses for GalTech long before they’d realised they weren’t alone in the universe.  Their political systems and philosophical background had been astonishingly advanced, in some respects.  It was almost as if they’d started advancing to a post-scarcity level without truly being a post-scarcity society.  And then their development had come to a screeching halt.  The invasion had ensured they no longer controlled their world.

“The fact remains, honoured councillor, that the situation is getting out of hand,” Yasuke said, coolly.  “If you’ll permit me to elaborate …

“The humans have been growing restless over the last hundred years.  They increasingly see themselves as our partners, not our subjects.  They have been offended, massively, when we have moved to put them back in their box.  The rise of human political parties demanding equality, or even independence, is a direct result of our meddling.  And now, without them, we would have lost the war … and they know it.  Their demands for greater autonomy can no longer be denied.”

“Of course they can,” the councillor insisted.

“My staff believe the Humanity League will win a majority in the Sol Assembly, displaying the Empire Loyalists,” Yasuke stated.  “The Empire Loyalists themselves are demanding some form of reward for their loyalty.  If we fail to come through, their assemblymen may defect to the Humanity League.  That might well trigger an early election or a series of by-elections that will put power in the wrong hands.  And if that happens, honoured councillor, we will have the flat choice between agreeing to concede independence and risking a war that will rip the empire apart.”

A ripple of disbelief ran around the chamber.  Yasuke understood, better than he cared to admit.  The councillors might never have laid eyes on a human, even one of the uncounted millions who lived and worked on Capital itself.  They’d certainly never studied the human race.  Why should they?  There was no one on Capital who cared about human history, beyond a handful of dusty academics?  But Yasuke couldn’t allow himself the luxury of ignorance.  Human history was astonishingly violent.  The longer they managed to keep the lid on, the greater the explosion when they finally – inevitably – lost control.

“The Earth Defence Force is more powerful, I think, than you realise,” he said.  “The humans control most of the military installations within their system.  Titan Base is the only real exception and even that installation has a major human presence.  They might be able to liberate themselves, if they wished.  That’s not the real problem.  There are millions of humans scattered across our worlds.  What will they do when they see us move to crush their dreams of equality or independence?  We will find ourselves fighting a war on our homeworlds!”

“We have them under tight control,” another councillor said.  His skin was blotchy, suggesting he was starting the transition from male to female.  “Rig the election.”

“That’s no longer possible,” Yasuke said.  “They use exit polls to gauge the electorate’s views – and votes.  They’ve been strikingly accurate, over the last two decades.  They’d have good reason to think we rigged the election if there was a sizable discrepancy between their results and ours.  And that might trigger off the insurrection we hoped to avoid.”

“You paint a grim picture,” the chairman said.  “How do you propose we proceed?”

Yasuke took a breath.  They weren’t going to like what he had to say.  He didn’t like it himself.  But there was no choice.  The empire itself was at stake.  They had to make concessions now or risk an explosion that would destroy everything they’d built over the last ten thousand years.  And yet … they wouldn’t want to believe him.  They had good reasons not to want to believe him.

“I propose we start granting Earth, and the other human worlds, an increased level of autonomy,” he said.  “There will be a steady transfer of powers, and an acknowledgement of human equality on their homeworld, over the next two decades.  This will, hopefully, satisfy them without risking total collapse …”

“Out of the question,” the first councillor snapped.  “They’ll be passing judgement on us!”

Yasuke kept his face impassive, somehow.  The councillor’s corporation had run into trouble, forty years ago, when a human judge had ruled against them.  They’d honestly never realised that – technically – a human judge did have authority, if only because he’d studied and qualified on Capitol itself.  And they’d used their immense clout to not only override the judge’s decision, but insist that human judges were to have no authority over Alphans.  And that had turned the most intelligent and capable human lawyers into independence and equality activists.

“On their homeworld, quite probably,” Yasuke said.  “But if you treat them as Alphans, you should be fine.”

“And how do you know it will be fine?”  The councillor glared at Yasuke.  “What if this is just the beginning of a human takeover?  Or …”

The chairman held up a hand.  “I think we must consider the issue carefully,” he said.  “You ask us to fly in the face of all precedent.”

“Yes,” another councillor said.  “A committee must be appointed to consider all the ramifications!”

“With all due respect,” Yasuke said, “we don’t have time for a committee.”

“Really?”  The chairman didn’t sound convinced.  “How long do we have?”

“The elections are due in thirteen months,” Yasuke said.  The humans had a superstition about the number thirteen.  He didn’t believe it himself, naturally, but he had to admit it was an disquieting omen.  Thirteen months … the committee probably couldn’t come to any conclusions in less than thirteen years.  “That’s our deadline.  If the Humanity League wins, they will start pressuring us for immediate independence.  And then we will have to decide how far we’re willing to go to keep them in the fold.”

“We could lose the war,” the chairman said.

“Or weaken ourselves to the point one of the other third-stage races can overwhelm us,” Yasuke said.  “The Pashtali, for example.  They’ve already been fishing in troubled waters with the Vulteks.  It’s only a matter of time before they start supporting human rebels.  They could win the galaxy without firing a shot.”

The chairman silently canvassed his fellows.  “I believe we have no choice, but to proceed with your plan,” he said.  “If nothing else, it will allow us to limit the pace of change.”

“Unless something unpredicted happens,” Yasuke warned, tightly.  He knew better than to think they all supported the plan.  “Here, things change very slowly.  On Earth, the pace of change is a great deal quicker.”

But he knew, as he bowed his way to the exit, that they didn’t really believe him.

Chapter One

James Bond, Gammon System

Captain Thomas Anderson tried not to grimace as James Bond shuddered and groaned her way through the crossroads and back into realspace.  The modified freighter had passed through so many refits that hardly anything, save perhaps for the hull and some of her bulkheads, could be said to be truly original.  Her engineers had spliced components from a dozen different races into the ship, turning her into a patchwork mess that defied the best efforts of the certification board.  It was a minor miracle, outsiders had noted, that James Bond was even allowed to exist.  She should have been scrapped hundreds of years ago.

And we should probably work on that, Thomas thought.  The display blinked, then started to fill with a handful of icons.  Sooner or later, someone’s going to start wondering where we got the money to bribe the inspectors.

“I’m picking up a dozen contacts, Dad,” Lieutenant Wesley Anderson said.  Thomas’s son never looked up from his console.  “They’re heading in all directions!”

“I’m sure they are,” Thomas said, dryly.  There was much to be said for raising a family on the tramp freighter, rather than trusting them to the schools, but there were downsides too.  The crew knew what they were doing, but none of them were particularly professional.  “Are any of them close enough to prove a problem?”

“I don’t think so,” Wesley said.  “None of them are within weapons range.”

“Good,” Thomas said.  “Sarah, set course for the planet.  Best possible speed.”

Commander Sarah Anderson, his wife as well as his first officer, nodded curtly.  “Yes, sir,” she said.  A low shiver ran through the tramp freighter as her drives came online.  “We’ll be entering orbit in roughly eight hours.”

Thomas nodded.  “No hurry,” he said.  “We’ll be there when we’ll be there.”

He leaned back in his chair and brought up the live feed from the sensor suite.  The inspectors – if there had been any inspectors – would have raised their eyebrows if they’d seen the military-grade sensors concealed within a civilian chassis.  Anyone on the far side of the border would have been seriously concerned, assuming – correctly – that James Bond was a spy ship.  It would be more accurate, Thomas considered privately, to class his ship as an intelligence-gathering ship, but it would make no difference to anyone who caught them.  The ship and crew would never be seen again.

The system sat on the border between the Alphan Empire and the Vultek Hegemony, itself a semi-client state of the Pashtali Consortium.  Thomas didn’t pretend to understand the alien politics.  The Pashtali didn’t precisely rule the Vultek Hegemony, but – if the intelligence reports were accurate – they had enough influence to steer the Vulteks in whatever direction they preferred.  Thomas suspected that was bad news for the Alphans – and Earth.  The Second Lupine War had been incredibly costly.  The Alphans were in no state to fight another war with two interstellar powers.

He frowned as he watched the ships heading in and out of the system.  Gammon was technically independent, if only because the system was of limited value.  Too many crossroads to be easily secured, a barely-habitable planet without a single gas giant for HE3 … there was little in the system to interest any of the interstellar powers.  There were no intelligent inhabitants, nothing that might convince someone to take the system and keep everyone else out.  It was lawless, to all intents and purposes.  No one, not even the Vulteks, had bothered to stake a claim to the system.

And yet, there were more ships moving in and out of the system than he’d expected.  The dregs of the galaxy might have made the system their home, but … he shook his head as more and more data flowed into the datacores.  It was quite possible that the planet was seeing an influx of newcomers.  Refugees from the wars, religious migrants hoping to find a homeworld well away from any of the interstellar powers, mercenaries and smugglers conducting their business … it was someone else’s problem.  As far as anyone outside the crew, and the EDF were concerned, James Bond was a tramp freighter moving from one isolated system to another.  His superiors would assess the data he brought them and decide what, if anything, should be done about it.

He unbuckled himself and stood.  “Sarah, you have the bridge,” he said, calmly.  “I’m going to check on our supplies.”

His wife nodded, tightly.  “Have fun.”

Thomas concealed his amusement as he turned and stepped through the hatch.  James Bond was surprisingly large, for a tramp freighter, but most of her bulk was devoted to cargo.  The family itself lived in cramped accommodation, so cramped that he was uneasily aware that any dispute could blossom out of control very quickly.  It was only a matter of time before Wesley and his siblings decided they wanted to transfer to a different ship … something that might get awkward, if they joined the wrong crew.  He reminded himself, sharply, that Wesley was a grown man.  He was old enough to make his own mistakes.

And it isn’t as if you haven’t made your own mistakes, his thoughts mocked him.  You fucked up your life good and proper, when you were his age

He put the thought out of his head as he opened the hatch into the cargo hold and walked past the heavily-secured pallets.  The weapons were primitive, by Galactic standards, but they were very useful.  No one ever asked questions of gunrunners, in his experience; no one wanted to deter them from bringing more guns.  And while there were people who would look askance at a gunrunner, they might not realise there was something more to Thomas than a man who profited from war and someone else’s misery.  Better to have them look down on you for something, Thomas had always thought, than have them trying to get too close to you.

The intercom bleeped.  “Captain to the bridge!  Captain to the bridge!”

Thomas blinked as he hurried back through the hatch, slamming it firmly shut behind him.  Sarah – like the rest of the family – enjoyed command.  She wouldn’t call him to the bridge unless it was urgent.  His mind raced, trying to determine what had happened.  A distress call?  A systems failure?  James Bond was in better condition than she looked – and she looked alarmingly like a derelict from a bad horror flick – but something could easily have gone wrong.  And yet … he dismissed the thought.  The alarms would have sounded if something had failed spectacularly.

And if it failed so spectacularly that the alarms failed to sound, he told himself, we’d all be dead.

He stepped onto the bridge and retook the command chair.  “Report!”

“Unknown warship on approach vector,” Sarah said.  Her voice was very cold.  She’d never been comfortable with their work for the EDF, even though she’d grown up on a freighter herself.  The risk of death might have been a constant companion, but there were limits now she was a mother herself.  “She’ll be within weapons range in twenty minutes.”

Thomas nodded as he pulled up the sensor report.  The warship was a light cruiser, origin unknown.  That meant nothing, he reminded himself.  James Bond wasn’t the only ship that had passed through dozens of hands since she’d come off the slipway.  The Galactics had no qualms about selling their older and outdated ships to the younger races, who would do their level best to refit them with newer technology.  The ship angling towards them might have been refitted so extensively her original builders had been lost in the mists of time.  Or … she could just be a pirate ship.  Gammon played host to pirates and their fences too.

And if she was on a legitimate mission, she would have hailed us by now, he thought.  A chill ran down his spine.  We might be in some trouble.

“Send a standard greeting,” he ordered.  “If they don’t respond, send a wide-band distress call.”

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said.

Thomas forced himself to consider their options.  There weren’t many.  James Bond carried two plasma cannons … they might as well be peashooters, for all the damage they’d do to the enemy hull.  She could alter course and try to evade, perhaps even double back and retreat to the crossroads … no, that wasn’t going to work.  The warship would have no trouble running them down before they could jump into multispace.  They could prolong the chase, perhaps long enough to convince the enemy ship to go looking for easier prey, but it wouldn’t last very long.

“No response,” Sarah said.  “And they’re picking up speed.”

“Transmit the distress signal,” Thomas said.  “And then alter course to evade.”

He gritted his teeth.  Pirates … they had to be pirates.  And that meant … he hoped, grimly, they weren’t human pirates.  The crew might survive long enough to be ransomed if they were captured by non-humans.  Humans, on the other hand … Sarah and his daughters would be brutally raped to death.  Pirates were pathologically insane.  They’d kill the males, then torture the females to death.  Thomas thought cold thoughts about the ship’s self-destruct system.  It would be relatively simple to lure the pirate ship into point-blank range and deactivate the antimatter containment chambers.  The resulting explosion would destroy both ships.  It wasn’t ideal, but what was?

“They’re angling to remain on intercept course,” Sarah said.  “They’ll be within weapons range in ten minutes.”

“And no response to our distress call,” Thomas said, sourly.  He wasn’t surprised.  Gammon had no navy.  The Galactics didn’t bother to patrol the system.  And it was unlikely the mercenaries would drop everything to come to their aid.  Who cared about a tramp freighter in the middle of nowhere?  “Divert emergency power to the drives.”

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said, in a tone that told him she knew it was futile.  He knew it too.  There was no way they could do more than delay matters.  “I …”

She broke off as her console chimed.  “They’re hailing us.”

“Put it through,” Thomas ordered.

He tried not to show any reaction as a bird-like alien face materialised in front of him.  It wasn’t the first Vultek he’d seen, and he’d spent most of his life around non-humans, but the aliens always left him feeling a little uneasy.  It was the way they looked at him, he thought; it was the way they always looked as if they were considering when and where to pounce.

“This is Captain Anderson,” he said.  “I …”

“The Vultek Hegemony has assumed control over this system,” the alien said.  It spoke Galactic with a faint whistling accent.  “You have intruded upon our territory without permission.”

Thomas blinked.  The Vulteks hadn’t occupied Gammon … not as far as he knew.  Why would they bother?  And … they were risking a confrontation with the Alphans and at least two other powerful races.  And humanity, of course.  There were three human-dominated worlds bare days from Gammon, linked by the tangled thread of safe routes through multispace.  Interstellar powers that had been content to leave Gammon independent would be concerned, very concerned, if one power took control and drove everyone else out.  The Vulteks were risking a major conflict …

Unless they’ve decided the Alphans are too weak to push the issue, Thomas thought, coldly.  It was possible.  Everyone knew the Alphans had lost hundreds of their prized warcruisers during the war.  They could trash the Vulteks in a few days, if they massed their surviving ships, but at what cost?  They might just get away with it.

“We were unaware of any change in power,” he said, carefully.  “In any case, under the Convocations …”

The Vultek cut him off.  “You will power down your drives and prepare to be boarded,” he said.  “Resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

Thomas forced himself to think.  The Vulteks were signatories to the standard interstellar conventions.  In theory, there shouldn’t be any trouble.  The ship would be searched, then returned to the crossroads or simply interned.  In practice … who knew?  The courts might take years to decide if James Bond was trespassing or not, particularly if one or more interstellar powers decided to dispute the Vultek claim to the system.  He shuddered as a deeper implication struck him.  If the Vulteks discovered the sensor suite, they’d realise the ship’s true nature.  And who knew what they’d do then?

Make us vanish, Thomas thought.  We dare not let them board us.

He glanced at the display, already knowing they were trapped.  They could neither outrun nor defeat their enemy.  And triggering the self-destruct might start a war.  The EDF – and the Alphans – wouldn’t know what had happened, but that wouldn’t stop the Vulteks from using the incident as an excuse for war.  And yet … he couldn’t let his ship fall into their hands either.

“In line with the Convocations, I cannot allow you to search my ship,” he said.  “However, as a gesture of good faith, we will return to the crossroads and …”

The display bleeped an alert.  “Missile separation,” Sarah said, quietly.  “They’re aiming to miss, but not by much.”

“You will power down your drives and prepare to be boarded without further delay,” the Vultek said, coldly.  “Resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

So you said, Thomas thought.  His thoughts ran in circles.  Earth couldn’t push the issue.  It wasn’t clear if the Alphans would push the issue.  And there’s no way out.

He keyed his console, bringing up the limited destruct program.  The sensor suite could be reduced to dust with the push of a button, once he inserted his command codes.  In theory, there would be no proof that James Bond had ever been anything other than a simple tramp freighter.  In practice, he simply didn’t know.  The Vulteks might search the ship so thoroughly they turned up proof … if, of course, they didn’t simply destroy the ship in a bid to secure their new holdings.  And if they swept the datacore …

“We understand,” he said.  “We’ll deactivate our drives as ordered.”

“Good,” the alien said.  “And …”

Thomas glanced up as the proximity display flashed another alert.  A gravimetric distortion had appeared out of nowhere, a bare three kilometres from their position.  He let out a sigh of relief as the distortion became a crossroads, which opened to reveal a warcruiser.  The giant warship glided into realspace, its sensors already searching for targets.  The Vultek ship didn’t move, but Thomas liked to think he saw it jump.  Warcruisers were the most powerful warships in the known galaxy.  The Alphans would have no trouble blowing the Vultek ship out of space if they so much as looked at them funny.

“They’re ordering the Vulteks to leave,” Sarah said.  She let out a sound that was half-giggle, half-sob.  “That was really too close.”

Thomas nodded, watching as the Vulteks reversed course and headed straight for the nearest crossroads.  They didn’t have the technology to create their own, not yet.  The Alphans were the only race known to possess such technology, although Thomas wouldn’t have cared to bet the other Galactics didn’t have it.  The technology offered too many advantages to whoever held it. 

“Reverse course,” he ordered, firmly.  “We’ll pass through Gammon, then head home.”

Sarah gave him a sharp look.  “And you don’t think we should head home now?”

“I think we have weapons to sell,” Thomas said.  “And we need to know what’s happening on the surface.”

And see who’s really in control of the system, he thought, grimly.  He understood his wife’s point.  They’d pushed their luck dangerously close to the limits.  But they also needed to find out what was actually going on.  If the Vulteks landed a major ground force, digging them out might take a full-scale war.

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said.  They were going to have a screaming match as soon as they were alone.  Thomas was sure of it.  “We’ll enter orbit in five hours.”

“Keep monitoring local space,” Thomas ordered.  He didn’t relax  He wouldn’t until they had completed their mission and left the system safely behind.  “I want to know the moment the Vulteks show up again.”

He sucked in his breath.  The Vulteks weren’t stupid enough to pit an outdated light cruiser against a warcruiser, but they wouldn’t like being told to leave at gunpoint.  They might assemble their fleet, if they had a fleet within the system, and gamble the Alphans wouldn’t want to start another war.  Or try something, hoping their patrons would come to their aid if things got out of hand.  The crisis might have only just begun.

His eyes slipped to the display.  The warcruiser was moving ahead of then, gracefully displaying her power – and her masters’ resolve – to the entire system.  He felt a sudden stab of envy that surprised him with its intensity.  Humanity had advanced far in the last five hundred years, learning from its masters and even improving – in some respects – on their technology.  But they didn’t have anything to match the warcruiser.  The ship was so advanced that it she been designed for aesthetics, not practicality.  There was no way anyone could mistake her for a human ship.

Wesley had the same thought.  “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” Thomas agreed.  He’d seen the recordings.  And read the secret files, the ones that officially didn’t exist.  The fact the EDF kept a wary eye on humanity’s masters, as well as its enemies, was a closely-guarded secret.  “But she also took five years from her builders laying down her spine to her crew activating the ship’s drives and deploying her for the first time.”

And if the Alphans hadn’t had us fighting by their side, he added silently, they might just have lost the last war.

7 Responses to “Snippet – Cast Adrift”

  1. Hugh Blair March 16, 2020 at 12:15 pm #

    Cast Adrift looks to be a fantastic series. When do you plan to have it out?

  2. AshleyRPollard March 16, 2020 at 12:23 pm #

    Typo: “They certainly wouldn’t have been summarily crushed and assimilated, weather they liked it or not.”

    Should be whether.

    Nice read.

  3. Mark Canty March 16, 2020 at 1:31 pm #

    When do we get the rest? 😉

  4. Jensebaum March 16, 2020 at 4:48 pm #

    Looks interesting!

    One thing I noticed: In the first prologue, everything the aliens do is “casually”, that word gets repeated a lot.

  5. Dani March 16, 2020 at 7:09 pm #

    I’ve started all your series, and I’ll get this one when it appears, but the ones I have stuck with have tended to be the fantasy novels. Modern military space opera is very hard to do because of the constraints of the genre: The good guys have to triumph despite being desperately outmatched, and this usually comes down to a mix of a protagonist who doesn’t make mistakes and antagonists who do. The genre also has more of an uphill battle making the characters interesting, because much less of the page count is usually available to them.

  6. James Jeffery March 17, 2020 at 11:53 am #

    I’m hooked already. You write it, I’ll read it.

  7. Guy Marc GAGNÉ March 24, 2020 at 7:02 pm #

    Well this has enough competing 3rd stage (advanced) forces at play to make things quite interesting/challenging. Potentially an open ended power grab/struggle in the offing.
    With asymmetric resources/forces at their disposal – matters could spiral in any direction ”Willy Nilly”!?

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