Snippet – Fighting for the Crown (Ark Royal)

10 Nov


From: Admiral Paul Mason, Director of Alpha Black, Special Projects

To: Admiral Susan Onarina, CO Operation Lightning Strike


As per your request, my department has spent the last two weeks conducting an extensive post-battle analysis of Operation Thunderchild.  This has not been an easy task.  The much-touted bioscanners were nowhere near as efficient as we were assured – surprise, surprise – and the urgent need for a retreat from the targeted system ensured a significant lack of late-stage data.  In short, there is a sizable question mark over both the data we collected and our conclusions and I would be remiss in my duties if I did not bring that to your attention.

However, a number of things can be said with a fair degree of certainty.

The BioBombs were less effective than we had hoped.  They certainly lacked the punch of an enhanced radiation weapon.  However, once the biological agent had established itself on the planetary surface it spread rapidly.  We believe it achieved effective continental saturation within two or three days of its deployment, destroying the virus’s chain of communication as it spread.  It took longer for the viral package within the infected hosts to break down, but it is clear that the biobombs took their toll.  The infection was uncontainable without extreme measures.  We assume the virus was as reluctant to cut off a limb to save the body – if I may use a crude metaphor – as ourselves.

It cannot be denied, as some officers pointed out, that the biobombs are weapons of genocide.  The counter-viral package is far more effective, and dangerous, than the tailored viruses released on Earth during the Age of Unrest.  It is also clear that the virus is unable to counter the infection without doing immense damage to its organisation and communication.  In short, unless the virus finds a way to counter the threat, we can expect to eliminate the infection from our worlds in very short order.  This will, however, condemn the virus’s hosts to death.  Our attempts to save hosts under laboratory conditions have had mixed results.  We cannot offer any sort of guarantee the host will survive, even in ideal circumstances.  The infected hosts on occupied worlds are certain to die, if we release the biobombs.  Frankly, if our backs were not already pressed firmly against the wall, I would urge the PM and the other world leaders not to deploy the biobombs.  We will be killing millions so billions might live. 

That said, I am not sanguine about the virus’s inability to devise a response.  Biological weapons do not survive, obviously, in the vacuum of space.  The virus can rearrange its ships along more human lines, relying on communications networks and datanodes to handle matters rather than blending viral matter into the control systems.  We expect some degree of early awkwardness, if the virus tries, but it does have access to experts!  If nothing else, it can simply copy our designs and integrate human systems – and our electronic servants – into its fleet.  I don’t know if there would be some improvement in efficiency – the virus does not appear to have problems handling its fleets, despite relying on biological networks – but it would certainly make it harder to get the biobombs onboard.  The marines might have to storm the entire ship to wipe out the enemy presence.  It would be considerably easier to simply insert nuclear bombs, then detonate them as soon as the marines withdraw.

A more serious possibility is the virus copying the biobombs and deploying biological weapons of its own.  It has, so far, been reluctant to commit population-destroying atrocities – although it has shown a frightening lack of concern for civilian casualties – but that may change if it feels truly threatened.  As strange as it may seem, the virus may well regard its losses so far as effectively immaterial; a real threat to its very survival may provoke a nastier response.  We simply don’t know.  But, as I said, our backs are against the wall.  We have no choice.  We must use every weapon at our command to win before we lose everything.

It is my very strong feeling, Susan, that we should launch Operation Lightning Strike as quickly as possible.



Chapter One

“Do you hear that?”

Richard Tobias Gurnard turned over, momentarily unsure of where he was.  In bed, with Marigold … they were in London, he recalled suddenly, visiting the capital city before they reported back to HMS Lion.  He sat upright, blinking in confusion as the emergency lighting came on.  The hotel room, a grotty singleton that was all they could afford in London, had an air of unreality, as if he was still asleep.  He glanced at his wristcom and frowned.  It was the middle of the night and yet …

He felt a frisson of fear as he heard the scraping sound in the corridor outside.  The hotel was relatively quiet, he’d been assured; the manager had made a point of assuring his guests that the walls were completely soundproofed.  It wasn’t the sort of place that served breakfast in bed, or did anything beyond the bare minimum.  The peeling paint on the walls, and the scent in the toilet, suggested the owner simply didn’t give a damn.  And yet …

“I can hear an alarm,” Marigold said.  She sat up next to him, arms crossed over her breasts.  “Can’t you?”

Tobias listened, carefully.  The alarm was very faint, if indeed it was an alarm.  He wished, suddenly, that he’d paid more attention to the emergency procedures displayed on the wall.  His CO would have a lot of sharp things to say, if he knew; he’d insisted the gunboat pilots had to learn as much as possible, even if – technically- they didn’t have to know anything outside the scope of their duties.  Tobias felt his ears prickle as the scraping sound grew louder, wondering – suddenly – if the manager was trying to sneak into the room.  It was possible.  He’d certainly heard a lot of rumours about cheap hotels in London.  And yet …

The wristcom bleeped an alert.  Tobias glanced at it and froze.  BIOLOGICAL CONTAMINATION DETECTED, LONDON.  Sheer horror held him paralysed for a long chilling moment.  Biological contamination meant that someone had deployed a biological weapon … no, that the virus had gotten loose in London.  He remembered the sensor recordings from the previous mission and shuddered, helplessly.  If the entire city had been infected, they were screwed.  They had no weapons, nothing beyond their masks.  He hadn’t thought to bring an emergency kit.  It had honestly never crossed his mind he’d need it.

Marigold swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, hastily donning her clothes.  Tobias followed suit, eying the wristcom as if it were a poisonous snake.  He wanted to believe it was a false alarm, but … his mind raced, trying to determine what they should do.  The room wasn’t airtight.  It certainly wasn’t isolated from the remainder of the hotel.  A viral outbreak in the right place – or, rather, the wrong place – would spread through the hotel very quickly.  The scraping sound grew louder.  Tobias cursed under his breath, wishing – for the first time – that Colin had accompanied them.  His former bully turned marine would have been very helpful in a tight spot.  But Tobias had never even thought of inviting him.

“Someone is right outside,” Marigold said, so quietly she was almost subvocalising.  “That lock isn’t going to hold up for long.”

Tobias nodded, curtly.  He was brave, as brave as brave could be, behind a computer terminal … or, he admitted to himself, when he put his hands on his gunboat’s controls.  It was easy, somehow, to pretend he was still playing a game even when he flew the gunboat into combat with a fleet of enemy ships.  But in the real world, he knew he was a coward.  He’d put on some muscle since joining the navy – Marigold and his CO had convinced him to spent more time in the gym – but he was all too aware he couldn’t push anyone around.  Sweat trickled down his back as he donned his mask.  No one, absolutely no one, had a legitimate reason to break into their room in the middle of the night.  The manager – or the police – would bang on the door, then wait for the occupants to open it.  Whoever was on the far side, they weren’t friendly. 

The lights went out.  Darkness, warm darkness, enveloped them.  Tobias sucked in a breath as Marigold activated her wristcom, using it as a makeshift torch.  They hadn’t thought to bring flashlights either.  Tobias hesitated, then picked up a chair as he heard the lock starting to give way.  It wasn’t an electronic lock.  The lock and key were something out of a period drama.  Tobias suspected, in hindsight, that it wasn’t as charming as he’d thought.  The lock could be opened by anyone who had the key, a copy of the key or the tools and skill to simply pick the lock.

He took his mask and pressed it against his face, then picked up a chair and waited.  In hindsight, he should have brought his pistol.  Military personnel were required to be armed at all times, in a world that could shift from peaceful harmony to screaming chaos in the brink of an eye.  His CO would probably scold him for not being armed … Tobias prayed, as the lock clicked, that the CO would have the chance.  The door opened, so violently Tobias almost dropped the chair.  A shadowy figure rushed into the room, running towards Marigold.  No, towards the light.  Tobias panicked, bringing the chair down on top of the figure’s head.  It crashed to the ground, then kept crawling forward like a giant crab.  Tobias stared in disbelief – blood was leaking from a nasty wound to the head – and then brought the chair down again.  The figure – the zombie – didn’t seem to notice.

Tobias realised his mistake, a second too late.  The zombie infection was in complete control of the host’s body.  Crushing the zombie’s head wouldn’t kill the host.  The host had died when the infection had taken root, then built control structures within the body.  He felt a stab of pity as the zombie reared up, hands lashing out towards him.  He kicked the zombie as hard as he could – not hard – and then brought the chair down again and again, breaking the zombie’s legs.  It wasn’t enough to do more than slow it down.

“That was the manager,” Marigold said.  The man had once been jovial – and sleazy enough to make Tobias want to take a shower after shaking his hand.  Now, his body was a mangled pulp that was somehow, absurdly, still trying to advance on them.  “We have to get out of here.”

“Got it,” Tobias agreed.  He checked his wallet was still in his pocket – he had a feeling he’d need ID, when they ran into the police or the military – then keyed his wristcom.  There was no update, nothing to indicate the authorities were already moving to contain the threat.  He hoped – prayed – they were.  They should be.  The military had plenty of experience deploying troops to counter everything from riots and terrorism to outright viral infections.   “Where do we go?

“Out of here,” Marigold said.  “Quickly.”

Tobias nodded as he made his way to the door and peered outside.  The corridor was dark and silent.  His imagination insisted it was as dark and silent as the grave.  He told that part of him to shut the fuck up, then forced himself to think.  The hotel wasn’t that big.  If the manager had been infected … it was possible the other guests had also been infected.  If there were other guests … it was that sort of hotel.  Tobias cursed under his breath.  He didn’t have any night-vision gear, no way to see in the dark.  And even if he could, the viral particles were too small to see with the naked eye.  He touched his mask, checking – again and again – that it was firmly in place.  Breathing deeply might be enough to get him infected.  He wouldn’t even know until it was far too late.

And the moment they see our lights, they’ll know we’re there, he thought.  The virus didn’t even need to do that.  If there was a sufficient concentration of viral matter in the air, the virus would be aware of their presence even if it couldn’t infect them.  He wanted to go back to the room, barricade the door and wait for the police, but he knew that might just get them killed – or worse.  The zombie behind them was – somehow – still alive.  We have to move fast.

He glanced at Marigold, her face pale and worried, then told himself to be brave as he inched down the corridor.  The carpet felt soft under his feet, their passage making no sound at all.  He thought, just for a moment, that he could hear men and machines in the distance – helicopter blades clattering against the humid summer air – but the sound didn’t seem to be coming any closer.  Ice washed down his spine as he remembered the reports from the last mission.  The infected world had been hot, very hot.  The virus had been able to survive in the open air, to the point that opening one’s mask was effectively committing suicide.  He found it impossible to believe the virus could last indefinitely in the British weather – it would rain sooner rather than later, if he was any judge – but it could do a lot of damage before it died.  Someone who got infected, without ever knowing they were infected, could do one hell of a lot of damage before they were tracked down.

The air grew warmer as they reached the stairwell and looked up and down.  Tobias tried to think what to do.  In a video game, they would head upwards and find their way to the roof and then jump from rooftop to rooftop until they reached safety.  The real world was much less obliging.  Colin and his comrades might be able to get out of the trap that way, but Tobias had no illusions about his lack of physical prowess.  He’d always been picked last for games … he put the memory out of his mind as he started to make his way down to the ground floor.  The stairwell was cramped, narrow enough to make him feel almost claustrophobic.  The darkness seemed to reach out and touch him, as if monsters were lurking within the shadows.  He shuddered, helplessly, promising himself he’d move to a lunar city or an asteroid settlement as soon as his enlistment was up.  His country hadn’t treated him very kindly.

Lights flared, outside.  Tobias flinched, hefting the chair as if he expected someone to come crashing through the windows.  He’d known the windows were there, but … he stared into the darkness.  The lights just added to the air of unreality.  He forced himself to move faster, reaching the bottom of the stairs as the sound of helicopters grew louder.  The building rattled as the aircraft flew over the hotel.  It felt as if they were only an inch or two above the rooftops. 

Marigold shined the makeshift torch ahead of them, then froze.  A body was lying on the ground, a child … Tobias stumbled backwards, swallowing desperately to keep from throwing up inside the mask.  The body was a shifting mass of … he recoiled, unwilling to look at the figure.  It had to have been a child, but the body was so badly warped that he couldn’t tell if it had been male or female.  The darkness swallowed the body as they picked up speed, hurrying towards the door.  It was closed and locked.  Tobias gritted his teeth, suddenly very sure there was something nasty right behind them, and hit the door as hard as he could.  The lock shattered.  Tobias blinked, then stumbled outsight.  Blinding lights struck them a second later, so bright his eyes hurt even after he squeezed them tightly shut.  Marigold whimpered.

“DO NOT MOVE,” a voice bellowed.  “DO NOT MOVE!”

Tobias froze.  His eyes were still closed, but he could hear men running towards them.  The light dimmed suddenly.  He risked opening his eyes and saw three men in heavy-duty HAZMAT suits.   Their eyes were hidden behind their masks.  He shuddered, suddenly all too aware that the troops could be infected themselves.  And yet … he couldn’t move.  He could see more troops on the other side of the road, guns pointed directly at Tobias and Marigold.  He wanted to scream at them, to insist they were pointing their guns at friends, but he couldn’t say a word.  The troops didn’t know any better.  Tobias himself didn’t know any better.  The virus might have already gotten its hooks in them.

He offered no resistance as they were shackled, then pushed towards a large open-topped lorry.  The troops pressed samplers against their necks, testing their blood for any traces of infection.  They relaxed, slightly, when the tests came back negative.  Tobias wanted to suggest they be unshackled, but the words caught in his mouth.  A handful of other people were already in the lorry, their arms and legs shackled to metal railings.  They looked as shell-shocked as Tobias himself.  The troops half-pushed, half-lifted him into the lorry and shackled him beside the others.  Marigold followed a second later.  Tobias gritted his teeth as the UV lights grew stronger.  In theory, if one of them were infected, the infection wouldn’t spread to the rest.  In theory …

The virus managed to get a foothold in the city, he thought, numbly.  A pair of helicopters flew overhead, spotlights stabbing down at the ground.  What else has it done?

The lorry lurched into life.  Tobias gritted his teeth as the vehicle rumbled down the eerie street.  The sky was still dark, but the spotlights lit up the community with a blinding light that cast out the shadows.  There were hundreds – perhaps thousands – of troops on the streets, all wearing masks if they weren’t wearing HAZMAT gear.  A row of AFVs sat beside a barricade, one clearly thrown up in a hurry.  Tobias shivered.  He’d walked past the barricade only a few short hours ago, back when the world had made sense.  The barricade hadn’t even been there.  London had shifted from an old city, repaired and rebuilt after the Troubles and the Bombardment, into a Lovecraftian nightmare, a horror from the days biological weapons had been deployed by terrorists and rogue states alike.  He’d heard the stories – he’d studied the official version in history class and the unofficial version on the dark web – but he’d never really understood the reality.  It had been nothing more than history to him, until now.  He shuddered, again and again, as they drove past more troops,  They looked ready for anything.  Tobias devoutly hoped that was true.

“STAY IN YOUR HOMES.”  A police car drove past, blue lights flashing as the message was repeated time and time again.  The racket was so loud Tobias was morbidly certainly no one, absolutely no one, was still asleep.  They’d be having nightmares long after the night was over.  “STAY IN YOUR HOMES.  STAY OFF THE STREETS.  IF YOU FEEL UNWELL, CALL US IMMEDIATELY …”

“No one will listen,” an older man predicted.  He looked to be the sort of person Tobias had disliked once upon a time, a schoolyard bully grown up into a manager bully.  His walrus moustache wriggled as he spoke.  “They’ll all be trying to get out before the infection gets them.”

Tobias said nothing, but he feared the older man was right.  The infection had clearly gotten its hooks into the district.  He’d heard rumours about emergency plans, from the careful evacuation and sterilization of the infected area to its complete destruction by nuclear weapons.  Tobias doubted that any British Government would authorise the use of nuclear weapons on British cities, but the government might be desperate.  The Prime Minister was in a precarious position.  Tobias didn’t follow politics and even he knew that.  Decisive action against the virus, at the cost of hundreds of innocent lives, would either boost the man’s career into the stratosphere or utterly destroy it.  In this day and age, it was hard to tell which.

The vehicle rattled to a halt.  Tobias watched, grimly, as the soldiers unhooked the rear of the lorry and started dragging the prisoners out.  He’d been through mil-grade decontamination procedures before, when there hadn’t been any real threat.  The process had been strict, but not that strict.  This time, they could take nothing for granted.  Tobias doubted they’d see their clothes again, after they went through decontamination.  It was rather more likely that everything they wore – and carried – would be incinerated.  The military wouldn’t take chances, not now.

“I’m not infected,” the older man protested, as he was half-carried out of the lorry.  “I’m not infected!”

“Be quiet,” a soldier growled.

“Do you know who I am?”  The older man glared at the soldier, trying to stand upright in shackles.  It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so serious.  “I’m the managing director of Drills Incorporated and …”

“I said, be quiet,” the soldier repeated.  He hefted his shockrod menacingly.  “You’ll be checked as quickly as possible and released as soon as we’re sure you’re uninfected.”

Tobias kept his thoughts to himself as the older man quietened.  He wanted to protest, but he understood.    The soldiers really couldn’t take anything for granted.  For all they knew, the entire lorry-load of prisoners was infected.  They had to be careful, very careful.  And if that meant treating civilians – as well as Tobias and Marigold – like dangerous terrorists …

They don’t have a choice, Tobias thought, glumly.  They don’t have any way to be sure we’re not infected.  And nor do we.

2 Responses to “Snippet – Fighting for the Crown (Ark Royal)”

  1. Tim Canning November 10, 2020 at 3:08 pm #

    Please say this is coming soon 🙂 !!

  2. Clark Lind November 10, 2020 at 5:55 pm #

    ACK!! I’m still in the middle of LION & UNICORN– I can’t read this yet. 😉

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